Sunday, 12 April 2015

[4] The Sunday Collections: The Difference Between "Ideal" and "Right"

First, a quote I saw this week and loved:

I beg you to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don't search for answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without noticing it, live your way into the answer.

-Rainer Maria Rilke

Live your way into the answer.

As good as this past season has been, it hasn't been without it's hard questions and moments of wrestling. I've been trying to understand this nagging restlessness in me. What I'm slowly realizing is that I got caught in a little trap of living to prove or justify myself, rather than living as my best self. 

Expectations are strange. Sometimes my ideals and what is actually right for me aren't the same thing. I waste time chasing wishes and miss the rich substance of right here. This whole season, for me, has been one of forcing myself to stay, to simplify, to slow down and fly under the radar for a bit. It has been humbling on many levels. That isn't a bad thing.

Sometimes I wait for some magic feeling or a direct sign to show me I'm in the right place or doing the right thing. When I get stuck in this place, what I'm really doing is glancing up at all the faces out there to make sure they are all still smiling. I don't even know who those faces are, but they hold powerful sway. I didn't even realize I was living so tethered to approval from these vague mystery people but apparently I was. 

I've asked myself so many times: why isn't this working? I've scattered questions all over this season, trying to find answers, and finally resigning myself to gathering evidence from noticing my habits, my responses, my intuition. What I realized is embarrassingly simple: it isn't working because it isn't right. I was chasing dreams that didn't fit. I was wishing for things that looked very sparkly and fulfilling, but I wanted them for all of the wrong reasons. 

It is kind of like what they tell you about dating: you can't have a strong relationship with another person in that way until you know yourself first. In other words: don't date out of insecurity. It's the same difference between running away and exploring options. With running, you are constantly trying to find that "one thing" to fulfill you, define you, satisfy you. With exploring, you know yourself already and you're trying to find the best fit. One leads to a persistent hollowness and an insatiable appetite. The other one leads to a peaceful sense of knowing this is right.

How do you begin to know yourself? It comes through poking around a bit and finding those things that make you feel alive and passionate and capable and doing more of it. It comes through building a tight circle of people you trust and who will tell you the truth, lovingly, when you start to fall off track. It is learning how to be really honest about what you don't do well and making peace with that. It is noticing your bad habits and figuring out how to overcome them. It is recognizing why you want what you want. These are ways to live into the answer. It is about noticing. It is about paying attention. It is about choosing which voices to listen to in your life and learning how to tune out the other ones. 

Basically, it takes attentive work. Eventually, though, it will shape a new way of thinking and, consequently, a new way of being. Every day we're healing something.

Live your way into the answer.

Happy Sunday.

I hope you find moments of true clarity and peace within this week.

Sunday, 22 March 2015

[3] The Sunday Collections: Middle Space

It has been a centering kind of season, and sometimes centering isn't fun because it makes me pull in the bleeding edges and deal with issues I've been ignoring or justifying for too long. Not everything that is ultimately for the best feels good at the time, though. 

It seems as though I'm always, forever sitting in a middle space. I'm neither here nor there. Always going, never quite arriving. I'm at the point, now, in my middle space where the novelty has worn off a bit, the end is just foggy enough to be out of reach, and I'm feeling the rut beginning to form. I hate that rut. It is the routine, the repetitive work. What I've noticed about myself is that I usually dive into new things with intensity, and then the shine wears off and I'm looking for the next thing. This is a habit that scares me, a bit. I'm trying to train myself out of it. I don't want to spend my life addicted to running over the next hill while never actually leaving behind work of substance. 

We're all building something, I think. We're building careers, families, relationships, our stories. My question to myself is: what grounds me enough to push through that boring, dusty middle space? Personally, I've discovered that I need to be creating things. Rather than always chasing the newness out there, I can create new things here and now to keep the restlessness at bay. When I'm craving a change of scenery and it is not the right place or time to leave, I need to look at where I stand from a different angle. 

The other thing is comparison. It is easy to glance over into the lives of other people and convince myself that they have better problems, more freedom, or a nicer life in general, and maybe, if I tried something new, I'd get there too. See, that type of thinking is dangerous, especially if it propels me to drift around, taking on projects and signing up for things that don't fit who I am because I'm trying to find the magic life. It is especially dangerous if it makes me a chronic "leaver," ever unfinished and never truly satisfied. I know I'll never build anything strong if I keep disappearing before the end.

Part of why I have this urge to leave before the end is because I hate endings. Denouements are painful and final and sometimes I'd rather skip across to new beginnings without the nasty "end" part. There's something healthy about allowing a season to finish, though. Some of us drag out our seasons on purpose so the end will never come. Some of us avoid endings by trying to evade them. Either way, closure sometimes hurts and it is important to acknowledge that. It is good to say good-bye at the right time. Sometimes it might not be our choice to say good-bye, but it is essential to learn how to work through this, even if it might be very painful.

It is Sunday. In a way, this is a day of beginnings and endings. It starts a week and signals the end of last week. It is a day that I use to reflect and it is a day I use to look forward. I think that this practice subtly helps ground me, as well. It shows me that last week had purpose and beauty and lessons, and so will this week. It is the sigh of relief and a spark of possibility wrapped into one day. 

This is the ebb and flow of life's rhythm. 

Sunday, 8 March 2015

[2] The Sunday Collections: Be Gentle With Your Self

This week was one of those crazy ones. The days were full and time was short. It's funny. The week I try to be intentional about simplicity is the week that gets crammed with one more thing to do, one more place to be, etc. None of these things were bad, but sometimes there is just so much

Keeping track of the little things is becoming more important to me now. The snapshots of my week include a quiet morning breakfast, one of my finished pottery projects with the tiniest crack in the bottom (a lovely imperfection, to me), scarves and blankets, early mornings, good books, and writing letters on paper. 

Simplicity. Breathing space. Intentionality. Noticing. Appreciating. It starts with the small things and eventually it becomes a way of seeing and a way of being. 

I tend to get restless easily. I feel like I'm always chasing down a new goal or trying to move in a new direction. I can get addicted to "the next thing" without fully appreciating what I've already accomplished or what already belongs to me. Ambition is good, but I don't want to become a person who is chronically unsatisfied. My way of combatting this, for now, is by documenting the simple moments of my week. I don't want to take anything for granted.

Also, this phrase: be gentle with your self

I'm trying to stay true to my own story and I'm trying to give myself more grace for the times I make mistakes or fail. I'm not lowering standards. I'm trying to stop beating myself up when I feel as though I fall short, or when I feel as though everyone else is better, further, stronger, or has their life more "together" than I do. 

Part of this includes talking more to the people who are my cheerleaders in life. They are the ones who encourage me to be genuine and challenge me in healthy, needed ways. They are affirming and gently nudge me back on track when I fall off a little bit. They tell me the truth. I want to listen to them more.

Part of this includes regularly taking time to do something that fills me. These are things that refresh me, inspire me, and energize me. Personally, this can take many different forms. My pottery class, carving out quiet space to read or write, wandering through Indigo to browse through the books, thrift shopping, talking to a good friend; these things all create "sweet spots" in my day or my week. 

This week, I hope that you find space to do something filling. Look for those sweet spots and savour them. 

Try to slow down and appreciate the simple moments.

Be gentle with your self. 

Have a restful Sunday.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

On the Shelf: Book Recommendations

Since I'm not in school right now, I'm finally reading things again other than poetry written in Middle English or something Shakespearean. Those are not bad things to read at all, but I haven't read anything by choice in way too long. However, the drought is over. I've been reading books like it is my job. This is a random list of some of the best authors and poets that either I've read recently, or that I know I love.

Non Fiction:

I read non-fiction more than any other genre. These books are mostly ones that I've read in the past month.

Blue Nights, Joan Didion

If you've never read Joan Didion, you need to read Joan Didion. Read anything she's written. She's one of my all-time favourites. The other day I was wandering around Chapters and found this book for like $6. You don't leave a book by Joan Didion on the shelf for $6. This is written in a memoir style, but it speaks to themes that we all can relate to. Those kind of books are my favourite. They are the ones you read and discover things about yourself through other people's stories and observations. This book is about themes of change, loss, fear, illness, and growing up and older. It's pithy. It's honest. It's not hard to read.

How to Breathe Underwater, Chris Turner

This is a collection of Chris Turner's best work over the years. He's a long form journalist and this book is so, so interesting. He mostly writes about technology and the environment and all of his works span from about 1999 onward. It gives a very smart, in-depth overview of the changing face of technology and culture over the past decade or so. The way I've been going through this one is by reading one article, putting the book down for a few days or a week to think over what I just read, and then coming back to another one. There is a lot to process in this book but it is good stuff.

The Opposite of Loneliness, Marina Keegan

Marina Keegan was 22 years old, a graduate of Yale, and an accomplished writer for someone so young, when she died suddenly in a car crash. This is a collection of her short fiction and essays. This book is definitely an experience to read. It is a collage of thoughts about life, growing up, relationships, career, etc., mostly from the perspective of a student. The story behind the book and its author adds an extra layer of depth and weight to her words.

Scary Close, Donald Miller

I've always liked Donald Miller's writing style and his books, Blue Like Jazz, and A Million Miles in a Thousand Years are some of my favourites ever. Once again, this book is easy to read and honest. This particular book is more about relationships than his other ones. I read it in one day and I keep going back to re-read my favourite parts. You should read it too.

Still Points North, Leigh Newman

I didn't read this book this past month, but I love this one, so I decided to include it anyway. It is about the author growing up in Alaska with a very broken family. The story goes through her journey of healing and finding herself as she becomes a journalist and travels all over the place. The writing style and the story combine to make this a very worthwhile book if you enjoy memoirs.


I'm always looking for new poets to read and listen to. I like poetry that is accessible and readable, yet deep. I'm not into the sentimental fluffy stuff. These are poets I keep coming back to.

T.S Eliot

Yes, I have a strong devotion to T.S Eliot. The Waste Land is obviously a classic and straight up one of the most amazing works I've ever read. Then there is Rhapsody on a Windy Night, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, Preludes, etc. It's all poetry with substance and depth written by a master poet. He's not for everyone for sure, but if you want to read some good poetry, I'll always recommend T. S. Eliot. I also love his essay, Tradition and the Individual Talent, especially if you are an artist or writer or creative type.

Jamaal May

More of a spoken word poet, but again, lots of depth. He can create the most amazing metaphors and word pictures. I heard him live at a poetry reading a few years ago. Honestly, I had always been skeptical about poetry before I heard him speak. After listening to his poems, I was more willing to explore this genre.

Warsan Shire

Worth it. I love her poetry


I only include Rumi because his poetry intrigues me in general. You have to read it with an open mind, but it is very good.


It has been a while since I've read fiction, so these books are a few years old, but they are still some of the best on my bookshelves.

The Book Thief, Marcus Zusak

I love the style this book is written in. I like this perspective of World War II. This book just made a very deep impression on me in general. It will always be one of my favourites. Also, the movie is fine but you really need to read the book.

Dubliners, James Joyce

This is an older book. It might be hard to find, I'm not really sure. However, it is a collection of short stories and it is incredible. As a disclaimer, though, I also first read it in an English course. We analyzed the whole background of it to death, so I'm not sure if you'd get the full experience if you didn't really take the time to analyze each story. If you ever do read the book, though, it is an amazing work of literature and a very intelligent commentary on the culture of Ireland at the time it was written.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer 

This is a movie, too, but you have to read the book. The way it is written is so creative and unique and memorable. I heard the author speak live in an interview and I really respected his perspective on the creative process and what it means to be a writer. Anyway, this book is well worth the read.

The Wednesday Wars, Gary Schmidt

This is a humorous, yet serious, novel about a boy growing up during the 1960's. He is convinced that his teacher hates him and gets into all kinds of crazy, unfortunate situations. This is NOT Diary of a Wimpy Kid or Timmy Failure stuff (although if we are going to talk about that genre of book, read Timmy Failure. It has an unexpectedly deep message. Also, yes, it is for kids, but one afternoon in university I was really desperate for some light reading. This was the perfect thing). This book is surprisingly astute. I have no idea how many times I've read it, but it is many. Apparently the sequel, Ok for Now, is amazing too.

Hopefully this short list gives you some new inspiration for future reading!

Have a restful weekend.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

[1] The Sunday Collections

I've developed a funny little habit that I do on Sundays. I have a huge collection of pictures on my phone because I'm always taking pictures during the week of things that catch my eye and inspire me. Sometimes it is the mood or colour scheme of the picture that captures my attention, and, sometimes, it is a memory behind it. Either way, every Sunday I listen to an artsy playlist of songs and go through all of these pictures. 

In order to organize these pictures, I've decided to sometimes put them up here as well, mostly so I have a place to put them all. This is obviously not to showcase great photography, since most of these images are just quickly taken with my phone. This is more just a collage of snatches of my week. 

Also: one thing I have been thinking about this week is this word "reclaim." Sometimes, especially during this time of year, I feel kind of weighed down and restless waiting for spring to come. As a result, I tend to get sloppy in my own life. I cut corners and take shortcuts and get stuck in old ruts. I've been trying to reclaim spaces of my life by being alert and trying to see new things. 

One way I do that is by taking these pictures. There's something about noticing and capturing beauty that, to me, is an act of acknowledging these kind of exceptional moments that I could easily skip over. Sometimes they are extremely mundane things, but they can still be beautiful.

Another way: a friend and I agreed to take the month of March to read through the book of Hebrews in the Bible. Sometimes creating a fresh goal, naming it, and doing it with a friend is helpful to break out of that rut.

Lastly, I'm trying to commit to incorporating and increasing simplicity into my life. In my schedule, in what I wear, in my daily expectations of myself, etc., I just want to purge all the excess out of my life and be content with simplicity so I can more easily see and commit to things that matter. 

I'm hoping that, by being intentional with my time, my resources, my choices, and my relationships, I'll be able to reclaim those parts of my life that were starting to become cloudy. 

That's just a little meditation for your Sunday. 

I hope you find simple moments of beauty within your week as well.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

.010 The Question and Space of "Why"

I spend a large portion of my week taking care of children. Just over two months ago I was learning from slideshows and lecture notes, and now I've gone straight back to the basics. These smart, wild, hilarious little humans have a way of opening my perspective through their raw honesty and mistakes. They always surprise me with their perceptive questions and the way I learn about life when I spend time with them.

I'm trying to teach one of these boys that other people can't read his mind. He has a very distinct vision of how he thinks things should go, mostly in the world of his imagination, and if we unintentionally mess with that, the world crumbles. We go from carefree bliss to emergency situation in less than two seconds. It keeps us alert, to say the least. We're working on it.

It reminds me of myself, sometimes. In my head I have all of these dreams and goals and I have a general plan about how to get there. I can get ahead of myself, though. I can write out my future like it is fact, rather than remembering that life is unpredictable and, really, nothing goes exactly according to plan.

It is easy to get upset when your plan changes, though. When you think you are on one track and suddenly it seems to swing completely off course, it is easy to switch into emergency mode. When you are so focused in one direction, it is hard to imagine that another way can possibly exist. When we're stuck in that place, the first question to hit the air is usually "why."

 Why me? Why this? Why now?

Why. Why. Why. It can drive your mind in circles.

The space of "why" is a tough one because there aren't really any rules of how to navigate it. I've been thinking over this one for a long time. The other day (and this is going to completely expose the nerdy, boring things I sometimes do in my spare time) I was reading through one of my English criticism textbooks, and I came across a chapter that talks about how to read intelligently and critically. Suddenly, the dots connected and I realized that what I was reading directly related to working through the space of "why."

So lesson #1: do not discount the wisdom of your textbooks. They have a reputation for being dry and boring but once in a while they contain slices of profound truth.

: :

In English criticism, we talk about three ways that we can interpret meaning from a text. One way is to try to guess what the author is trying to communicate, as if there was another hidden layer to the text. This angle tries to come up with some deeper meaning to the text based on what the author might be indirectly saying.

The second way we can read a text is to create our own meaning. We all have experiences in our lives that sometimes connect to something we are reading and, because of that, the text can mean something very individual to us. The author probably didn't write it thinking of your exact situation, but the way you read it is interpreted through the lens of your circumstances or your life or however you are choosing to personalize it.

The third way is to just look at the text itself. We don't cloud things over with trying to figure out what the author was trying to say and we don't add our own experiences into the text. We take it at face value. The text is the text in its raw form.

What I mean by all the above is that there are three things involved when we encounter a text: the author, the reader, and the text itself. In the same way, when we are analyzing our life circumstances- and I'm going to talk from a Christian perspective, here- there are three things involved: God, you, and the situation. You can take this to three different extremes if you follow one singular approach.

1. God (in place of the author): We can try to understand God too much. We can overanalyze and attempt to tease out a metaphysical reason for what we are going through. We wrestle with pinpointing exactly what God is up to. We sometimes chase "signs" or assign a deeper meaning to mundane instances. In this place, we say things like: "maybe God is doing this because of..." or "if this happens, that must mean...." We don't know God's mind, though. We can only see what we are given in the present circumstance.

2. You (in place of the reader): In this extreme, the focus is all on you. You must have done something to deserve this. You made a mistake. It's all your fault. This circumstance is happening specifically to you because it is a punishment or a consequence. You burden yourself. You turn all the connecting incidents into some kind of link in a chain. It's all on you.

3. The situation (in place of the text): This is where the situation becomes everything. It is all you can think about. It blows up to an overwhelming and disproportionate size. Suddenly everything is affected by what is happening. You can't see God and you can't see yourself or anything else properly beyond what is happening to you in the moment.

So what are you to do? You're hashing through the nasty space of "why." How do you get through it?

Two things. First, I'm a person who values balance and I think that one approach, both in literary criticism and in life, can be restricting. I think that we have to learn to develop a balance of looking at God, you, and the situation as described above. That means building up a layer of prayer and talking to wise people and looking deeper at yourself. It means asking hard questions or maybe allowing yourself to grieve or listen openly. You, God, the situation- you've got to circle the angles to grasp a full picture.

Second. In my textbook, I came across a list of questions to consider when we, as students, approach a reading. Two questions seemed appropriate to ask while working through a tough spot in your life as well. I substituted the word "situation" for "text":

Question #1: Is the piece of the situation you are looking at the whole of the situation?

Often we start to ask "why" while we are in a period of waiting. We don't know the outcome yet, so we frantically try to build up something solid to stand on. We like security. We fear the unknown. We try to create stability through probing for understanding. This is where the "why" question is rooted.

When the boy I'm babysitting has a meltdown, it is often because he only sees a part of the whole. He only sees a slice of the overarching picture, whether that is because of a narrow perspective or intense emotion or whatever. He often gets so wrapped up in a detail that he cannot see beyond the present moment or what he is feeling at that second. If he would quit locking onto the little thing that is frustrating him, he would probably see that we're not all against him, or that the situation is actually fair, or that he's just hungry and that is why he's in a bad mood.

So maybe you are only seeing a part of the whole right now. Yes, that part can be absolutely painful sometimes. You might have to pause and grieve or yell or breathe sometimes. You might feel like you are crawling through. At that moment, someone telling you that "this too shall pass" might not sound helpful. The truth is, though, that you are where you are and you are probably not at the end yet. That end might make sense and reveal a reason for the situation, or you might get to the end and still not really understand why it happened. You might understand more about yourself or about God because of it, though. That doesn't exactly make it better or always worth going through, but it can develop you as a person. There is much of the road to walk, still.

Question #2: Do aspects of the situation have obvious connection? (parallels, contrasts, irony)

This question might not help you find out why, but it might help develop your character through the "why" season. The way this happens for me is that usually when I go through hard situations, it teases out a part of my character that I need to work on. (Examples: assertiveness, leadership, integrity, relationships, self-confidence, trust, etc)

As time goes on, I'll notice that I keep coming up against places where these weaknesses get tested. These are the parallels and contrasts- and I have the choice to figure out how to become better in these places, or to sit back and stay the same.

For example, in grade 12 I knew that I had leadership skills that I was simply allowing to stay dormant. I also knew that I was letting myself be quiet and shy in a very selfish way. Then I was voted to be co-editor of a student literary journal near the end of first term. That prospect absolutely terrified me. It meant speaking up and making decisions and having opinions and managing teams of people. I wanted to stay in the background with all of my heart. I almost laughed when I found out because it was the exact thing that I didn't want to have happen to me (irony). The situation presented itself at the same time as I was wrestling with some of my own (directly related) insecurities and I knew that it couldn't be just a total coincidence.

I could have said no. However, I knew that this was an opportunity to develop my character. I knew there was potential there, as terrifying as it was. I knew there was a high risk of failure. I also knew that, realistically, I'd probably make some mistakes, learn from them, and make it through. So I said yes. That experience changed me in profound ways. It was uncomfortable and stretching and stressful at times, but on the other side I gained confidence, a better sense of how to be a leader, new friends, and so much more.

Of course, I had a choice in that example. Sometimes we find ourselves tossed into places that we never would have signed up for voluntarily and we can't get out of it. But you can find a way to get through it. I refuse to say "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger" but there is a reason that phrase is as cliche as it is. There is a wisp of truth in it.

In some situations, though, that phrase is almost insulting. In the middle of deep grief or a disaster, it doesn't help to think that this is all for a reason. You don't need reasons or rational answers at that point. You need people to surround you and you need space to allow yourself to grieve and heal.

: :

Finally, aside from those questions, a little wisdom for the journey from English criticism, slightly paraphrased by me.

"It is probably best not to interrupt your reading to work more mechanically through a checklist of questions. Better, in such circumstances, to refer to such a list after. At a later stage in your thinking, you may be able to fill out your ideas by comparing the viewpoint you have developed with other perspectives..." (18)

What does this have to do with anything? Well, usually we ask the question "why" when we are right in the middle of a hard place. We stop and want answers. We demand clarity. The problem is that we aren't at the end yet. Usually things make more sense when we look over our shoulders. Sometimes we just can't know why at the time because it would just confuse us or overwhelm us more. We don't often get clarity through banners in the sky, as nice as that would be. Usually "why" gets answered "at a later stage" when our perspective has changed enough to understand it.

To gain understanding, you must move forward. You might be sprinting or limping or even crawling. You might even have to pause and be still or get yourself together, but you must move forward somehow. Clarity will come: although sometimes the clarity we want isn't the "clarity" we get in the end.

"Finally, how can you deal with having no information with which to answer a given question?

First, you should not see this as a permanent setback; a question in need of an answer identifies something specific to look into, and there are many ways of finding things out.

For many questions we ask, no single, definitive answer exists; only a range of answers put forward by other people who have asked and investigated the same questions before. Such answers may be immensely informative and insightful.

Reading for 'meaning' is a matter of interpretation rather than tracking down a single correct answer" (18-19)

Sometimes there is no reason why. Sometimes bad things simply happen. It's not you. It's not God punishing you. It is simply the ugly, broken, unfair world we live in. I mean that with the deepest sympathy.

"There are many ways of finding things out." It might be a phrase you read. It could be a picture or an event or any kind of epiphany. "Why" isn't a bad question to ask. It just isn't the last question you should ask. There are many ways to gain an answer. There are many questions other than "why."

There are older, wiser people who have walked the road before you. Seek out those people, ask honest questions, and value their responses. It might not give you solid answers, but it can give you an idea of how to move forward, or even just the comfort of solidarity. It is community that helps us through these hard spots.

What this all comes down to is that the answers are not always the most important thing. Answers aren't always the comfort we are seeking. The journey is the substance.

Sometimes the answers come quietly, ushered in with the small grace of today.

: :

When you ask "why," what you really want is a road map. You want to see what is next. You want to know you'll be ok. You want to grab onto something solid while the ground is shifting and rocking underneath you.

In a way, we're all like the seven year old having a meltdown when something doesn't go our way because, when we are reminded that security is often an illusion, our lack of control scares us. Instead of dissolving into a panic, though, what is more helpful is learning how to work through the situation. Just like the seven year old who needs space and time and discipline in order to work through the problem, we might need to learn to be flexible, or change an old habit, or simply allow ourselves gentle space to process what is going on and make a new plan.

I've always been taught to take things one day at a time. So today, look at what you have and start there. The "why" will work itself out as the days stack up, and one day in the future you'll look over your shoulder and realize that you made it through.

Sometimes, in that place, "why" doesn't even matter so much anymore.

The textbook:

Montgomery, Martin, et al. Ways of Reading: Advanced Reading Skills for Students of English Literature New York: Routledge, 2013. Print.

Saturday, 17 January 2015

.009 The Slow Lane is Ok Too

I've been taking a pottery class lately, which is the fulfillment of a little dream of mine that has been percolating for a while. I was going to local artisan shows and galleries and the more pottery I saw, the more I wanted to try it myself. I wanted to cut into the clay and feel it spinning on the wheel. I wanted to make something in-your-hands tangible.

I promised myself that I wouldn't write about the pottery class. The potter and the clay is a common metaphor and the English major in me has been trained to avoid cliche at all costs. The first night that I sat behind the pottery wheel, though, a certain space was created. It was one of those unexpectedly holy moments. I stumble upon those kind of spaces when I do artsy things, or when I go to bookstores, or sometimes when I swim, but I'm sure that everyone has a different way of finding those moments. It happens when you slip into your niche or knock against something that absolutely fills your soul. Anyway, I found a new way to worship in the pottery studio.

The very first thing I learned is that when you start out with clay on the wheel, you have to centre it. The centring process is something you have to learn how to feel. I kept messing up at first because I'd try to force it. I didn't know, yet, what I was supposed to be feeling. I spent hours on that wheel, understanding the clay, guiding it, and learning where and how to apply pressure. It's like a rhythm or a dance. You have to feel it in a different part of yourself. You have to be present and in tune with the speed of the wheel and the way the clay is moving. To shape the clay, you have to learn a balance of firmness and gentleness.


I usually aim to swim on a regular basis. I enjoy it, but I'm trying to redeem it into something more filling for me. I associate swimming with a certain amount of competition and intensity. I'm not the most amazing swimmer and the only times I ever swam in a remotely competitive way was long ago in grade school. I have been a lifeguard for a few years, though, and I've taught swimming lessons and, even though I love it, every time I go into the pool, it feels like a job or a training session. I feel like I should be working on some skill and swimming better than I did yesterday. It suddenly dawned on me recently that I can just swim for fun.

Today I went to a lap swim and intentionally went into the slow lane, which is something I've never done before. I had 40 minutes and one rule: just swim for 40 minutes. I wasn't allowed to count my laps or time myself or anything that felt too competitive. I just swam. I didn't think about how fast I was going or how many lengths I had completed. At one point I was swimming parallel to a guy in the fast lane and, I admit, I had to beat him to the end, but that was the only time I let it come to that. Otherwise, it was just me and the water and time fell away. I stayed in the pool because I wanted to. I have no idea how many laps I did. All I know is that I swam for 40 minutes and it was enjoyable in a soul-filling way.

This is something I am training myself to understand: I don't have to be beating someone or constantly pushing myself to the furthest edge of my potential to be my best self. I feel hypocritical even writing those words, in a way. I am always a proponent of change and growth and reaching toward your very best self. However, lately I've been realizing that sometimes I live life as a competition, and it really isn't. We're all at different points in our journeys and our maturity and our faith. This is a really hard lesson for me to learn, admittedly. I fight hard against it. I know there is something deeper going on, though.

The question is: why am I trying to be the best? Is it genuinely making me better in the sense that it is the right path for me to take? Is it genuinely making me a more fulfilled and freer person? If it isn't, I might be doing it just for respect and applause. I'm not saying that respect is bad. This isn't an issue of "good" or "bad," exactly. It's more an issue of the heart and motivation. If I'm constantly trying to be better because I want people to say that I'm a really accomplished person, I'll probably be burned out and always feeling a little bit lost or never really satisfied. That place is never a good one.

I think that someone who is gentle with their self, their person, someone who learns the rhythm of when to apply pressure and when to let go, is a person who is centred, just like the clay on the wheel. I think we're all kind of learning the balance and rhythm of life and sometimes what we need is to challenge ourselves and other times we need to allow ourselves grace. We need to learn that we don't have to do everything that we know we can accomplish; and not accomplishing what we know we can do isn't necessarily failure, either.

The catch is that this whole learning to be centred thing isn't going to turn out perfectly. Just like the clay, we might end up a bit wobbly in some places and maybe have a few nicks or rough edges. The other thing about clay is that once it is off the wheel, that isn't the end. The clay must be prodded and shaved and smoothed by hand as well. It's all a process of gentle shaping and sometimes you keep a bit of the asymmetry because it adds personality and character.

It's ok to be in the slow lane, sometimes, even when you know that you can hold your own in the fast lane. I also think that it is very ok to aim high and test your limits. The trick is understanding why you are there, and where it is leading you. It's the divide between pride and humility, fear and growth, trust and letting go. It ultimately comes down to you and your heart and your story. You'll know. After a while, you'll learn the rhythm and you'll learn where to place pressure and when to be gentle with yourself. You'll feel when things are off centre and how to pinpoint the problem areas. You're being shaped, surrendering to the Potter's hand and, one day, something unexpectedly beautiful may emerge.

*Right after I wrote this, I began reading Donald Miller's newest book, Scary Close, (and if you've never read Donald Miller, you really should) and in chapter 5 he recounts a strikingly similar swimming experience and a strikingly similar epiphany. I don't know, maybe we're onto something.....

Monday, 5 January 2015

.008 "Introvert" Isn't an Excuse

I'm a classic introvert. I'd rather have a small circle of close friends than a crowd of them. I recharge by being alone. I'd rather listen than talk. Small talk isn't my favourite activity.

These things comprise my safe zone and the place where I automatically go, if given the choice. However, lately I've been wondering if the term "introvert"  can become a cop-out. Since withdrawing from university temporarily, I've found myself staring down a long tunnel of relatively empty time. There's a temptation for me to retreat and write and read novels with a large chunk of that time. I'm an introvert, right? I'm captain of my own ship, right? There are no rules about how I must spend this time. It's my prerogative and I can go to coffee shops by myself if I want to, because its comfortable for me. 

What I'm learning, though, is that, for an introvert, there is a certain boundary between recharging and becoming a little bit reclusive. If I spend long stretches of time alone, I can start thinking too much. My world narrows easily and I focus on myself more than I should. The quiet space is healthy and good for a while, but if I spend too long there, it can become toxic. In that place, "introvert" can just become an excuse for being shy or staying protected in my own cozy world.

Instead of allowing myself the luxury of spending four months indulging my introverted tendencies, I've proactively pushed myself into situations where I'll be forced into new places with new people with new challenges and room for small talk. I'm doing this because I know that, as much as I drag my feet beforehand, I like the person I become afterwards. When I step out of the introvert safe zone, I nudge myself into someone braver and more confident and, yes, a little drained, but purposeful. I'd rather avoid small talk, but maybe it is time to learn how to be more comfortable in those situations. Maybe I'd rather be alone with a book, but why not test the waters of my own, real-life story?

The word "introvert" has the potential to become an excuse for some of us, if we aren't careful. It can become a method of avoidance or a prop for fear. Maybe the next time you really, desperately want to be alone, what you actually need to do is go out or invite someone over or call someone up and talk.

Since my future is kind of unstable at the moment, with a lot of foggy spots and shadowy patches, I sometimes begin to slide into a mindset that brushes up against worry. I think about all the possibilities. I think about everything that isn't happening. I think about everything that is happening that I wish wasn't happening. I think about all the things that seem out of place or misaligned. That is the danger zone. When my time spent alone drifts here, I've learned that this is my cue to stop being alone. 

My new rule is that when I go to that spot in my mind of thinking the same thoughts over and over, or clipping new links into my chain of worry, I have to talk to another human being. It doesn't have to be about what is bothering me. In fact, it is sometimes better if we don't always talk about that, depending on the situation. I think that as introverts, we sometimes mistakenly think that a relationship is less meaningful until it goes deep, but you can't be deep all the time. You probably shouldn't be deep all the time. The deep parts come after the shallow areas because that is how it is supposed to be. Sometimes a float in the shallow end can be just as good for us as a deep dive. 

The challenge I'm giving myself is to not allow this space to become too comfortable. There are healthy points and stretches to withdraw, but there are also times, especially if introversion crosses over into shyness, when withdrawing can be a form of evasion, or it might give us too much time to think. In these spaces, it is good to let people in. I know that what I feel like doing isn't always a gauge of what I should be doing, or what is best for me. Sometimes it feels easier to be alone and the prospect of being with people might seem draining in your head, when really it could be the healthiest, most filling thing you can do for yourself.

"Introvert" should not be an excuse. Don't confuse being introverted with being shy and let it stop you from reaching out to people. I honestly think that introversion can be a bit of an illusion. I would label myself as a total introvert, but the more I learn about myself, the more I find that people are what I need. People fill me and encourage me and challenge me. Sometimes I want to just stay home, but when I go, I find myself happier and more grounded. I've come to understand that I love being with people just as much as I love being alone; it is just not a natural default for me. . . yet. If I avoided conversations and relationships because I'm introverted, I'd miss out.  

So my warning and my challenge to us introverts is to use this label as a way to understand ourselves socially, but not as an excuse to pull away. Use your time alone when you need it, but don't be afraid to stretch beyond the label, either. It isn't a bad thing to attempt to grow in this area.

Extroverts have plenty to teach us, too.  

Friday, 12 December 2014

.007 Codes

A lot of life is like trying to break a code. We're all trying to make things fit, trying to make things add up, trying to unhook what works and what doesn't and assemble our own little theories and philosophies according to personal experience. Sometimes we come across people who blast us with pointed opinions, or people who offer deep truths, and you can bet that something in their story taught them that. Something about it fits into their code and offers an explanation or clarity to them.

I'm not good at math, but some days I'd like a solid formula or two for life. Relationships, for instance: they are tricky, sometimes, with few concrete, overarching rules because relationships deal with two different people coming from two different stories with two different codes of life. If there were pre-set formulas to use in particular situations, there would be a lot less music in this world, fewer books, less art in general. Art helps us work through the code. It offers a sense of: "hey- I feel that too!" or "I understand" and it is all a journey of connecting pieces and lessons learned the hard way into a mosaic of healing and direction.

I think that community is sometimes a gathering of people who have certain matching aspects of their life codes. Some people, for example, cook or bake for therapy and this is why we have cooking clubs and cooking blogs and cookbooks and Pinterest boards dedicated to food. It is a way of gathering people who know that this is something that offers meaning and expression and a way to connect. It adds value to their life, and therefore it is part of their personal formula. Their code includes cooking because, for them, it has to. It is an essential, soul-filling practice that colours in one of those empty spots in life. When something fits into your code in that way, it means that it is important on a deep level. It means that this makes you a better person and that this gives you a sense of your purpose. This happens with book clubs and farmers and Engineering professors. We all operate according to our different codes. We're all attempting to understand the world with the interests and talents and spaces and relationships that have been given to us.

This is the best thing that I have learned in University so far: my way is not the only way and that isn't a bad thing. University is a garden of people, a zoo of ideas and opinions and my own have opened and shaken here. University is, in a sense, a really expensive way of becoming yourself through encounters with other people and their codes of life. Sometime you stumble upon a gem in someone else's code and it helps you understand something in your own code that didn't work before. This can happen in a lecture or late-night chats over pizza or overhearing a stranger's conversation. I don't think that University is the only way or the best way to grow into yourself, necessarily, but it is one way and, since I've been here, I appreciate how it has shaped me.

Although I discovered this whole code metaphor in University, I really think that this can be applied anywhere in life. We learn as much as we allow ourselves to learn. Some of us are more diligent or creative in solving our codes than others. I think that ignoring the code, or pieces of it, can lead to dissatisfaction and restlessness. It can happen when you get stuck on a formula that makes sense for other people, but just doesn't work for you. It is easy to feel overwhelmed by all of those blank spaces in your code, and it can seem too hard to draw meaning from it all. Your code can be daunting, possibly because of the potential for you to make a mistake, or maybe you just don't know where to start. Instead of exploring potential answers, we can sometimes latch onto certain things that offer escape or the illusion of meaning for us. These things can eventually look like addiction or chasing approval or constructing a false identity because figuring out the real one is scary.

We assemble our codes through art and community and science and personal experience. Sometimes we have to find it through a risk or a move or just by stopping and noticing. We solve the code by asking questions of ourselves and of others or maybe opening ourselves to new experiences and new ideas. Some mornings we wake up and just know that something is wrong on a fundamental level; something in our code needs to change and that is allowed to happen. You are allowed to make a mistake, to do a little guess and check, to admit that you were wrong about something important. You are allowed to acknowledge that your perspective is shifting or that you are growing up and it is time to change something that used to work but just can't anymore.

To work on the code, you have to take all the aspects of yourself into account: personality, abilities, interests, beliefs, relationships, talents, health, and fill in those blanks with truth and what lines up best with who you are. Solving the code is a journey of discovering what makes you whole and purposeful and then living as close to that version of yourself as you possibly can. The important part is the journey, the growth. The adventure of solving the code is what teaches you. It offers clues and metaphors and stories to collect and examine. Assembling it all is like a scavenger hunt of discovering your potential and purpose and how you aren't the most important thing that ever happened to the world, but maybe you can add a little colour or hope to your corner of it.

Call the code your life philosophy or mission statement or value system, but we all have one. It is the individual vision and unique combination of practices and priorities and principles that construct our "self" and, in turn, how that "self" interacts with others and engages with life. This code is dynamic and flexible through different seasons, but it is grounding and important to think about. I know that part of my code right now includes writing, stretching myself, talking to people even when I don't always feel like it, praying, drawing healthy boundaries, and staying present.

What are the practices, priorities and principles that are important to the code for your season right now? What is on your list of things that you need to remember to focus on, fill with, grow in, or learn from? What is the mantra or theme or pattern growing out of the place that you are living in at this time? What is your personal code?

Sunday, 23 November 2014

.006 Defamiliarization {Or: Why I am Withdrawing from University}

When I dove back into school this September, I was expecting the transition to be smooth and easy. I thought I would pick up where I left off in first year, except this time I'd go to bed earlier and manage my time more effectively and eat more salad. I wanted to have a quiet semester: no spotlight, no major life decisions, no pressure. The healthiest thing, I thought, would be to live at a mature, steady pace for the next few months with intentional focus and direction.

That's what I thought.

In reality, rather than gaining healthy habits, I found myself walking around with a sense of aimlessness and feeling a little bit sick all the time. I played the piano for two hours a day, went on extended walks or runs, took pictures, made abstract sketches, wrote vignettes and bad poetry, and more: all on top of the other work my six courses gave me. It felt wrong, like something was constricted or cramped up and all of those extra things were my attempt at gasping for air or massaging out a tight spot.

Generally not one to make impulsive decisions based on a whim or emotion, I thought it was a phase. It would pass, I told myself. It had to. Despite this attempt at a positive mentality, however, I would still go to class and wonder what on earth I was doing there. I'd try to slide it away, hoping that this season would end quickly and that I'd start feeling fulfilled by my studies. September was almost over when an acquaintance asked me how school was going and I answered with a blunt: "I hate it," which took her slightly aback and surprised me even more.

At some point I started thinking about dropping out. I'd talked about it before, jokingly, but suddenly I began thinking about it seriously. I, the one who competed for grades, the one who followed the rules, was contemplating dropping out. This forced me to look at the situation and ask myself some honest questions: ones that, frankly, I really did not want to ask.

The next week of my life looked mostly like me having extended conversations about life with some very wise people and sketching out some other possible life plans. After much contemplation, I decided not to drop out. It seemed like the logical conclusion and the safest plan. I told those wise people not to let me talk about dropping out anymore. I wanted to stop shifting my allegiance and changing my mind. I wanted to stick to my decisions.

Essentially, this didn't work out for very long.

The reality is that trying to become someone you are not will almost always come up short, somehow. My massage therapist originally went to school to be an Engineer. I asked her how she went through all those years of school to become something she knew she wasn't. She told me that, somehow, you always end up coming back to what you were made to be. It might happen very late in life, the realization, or you might catch it early and turn things around, but eventually you'll explore, whether in thought or in deed, in hobby or in occupation, the person you were created to be. You'll come back to yourself: your story may just unfold in a more unconventional way.

Once I finally made the decision to withdraw, I fully committed. I cut ties, cancelled interviews, officially withdrew, wrote a proposal, and backed out of a contract. It was a huge hassle and it hurt at times, but every step felt closer to freedom and my motivation slowly returned.

My time at this University is coming to an end. My plans (and most of my back-up plans) include returning to school in September, studying the one thing I probably should have been studying this whole time, but I wouldn't allow myself to pursue (which is another discussion entirely). This means, though, that I have a huge empty space between now and September that did not exist before. I have some ideas of how it will be filled, and they mostly include people and writing and art and work. Beyond that, I don't know. It all feels terribly risky and irresponsible, but there's a freedom attached to it and doors continue to open for me, unwarranted.

There's a term we use in English Criticism called "defamiliarization." Essentially it is the idea that one of literature's functions is to show us a truth that exists unseen by revealing it from a different angle. It means that it usually takes something to knock us out of our "familiarized" state, out of our numbness, to shift us into a teachable posture. That's how I'm thinking about this space, this season. I'm in a defamiliarized state and I'm trusting that I'll grow more into the person I actually am as I take a few risks and learn old truths from new places.