Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Beautiful and True

In Blue Like Jazz, Don Miller writes the phrase "beautiful and true" a lot. I've always loved that. I think the truth is always, in some form, beautiful, and I love the idea that there are life moments that teach us what those beautiful and true things are.

My friend and I sat on my couch in my Ottawa apartment as the clock struck midnight on 1 January 2015. My friend and I toasted, as I had every year before, to "hoping this is the best year yet!"

If you read my last blog post, you know that 2015 was not the Best Year Yet. We could, if we're speaking in superlatives anyway, say it was probably one of the worst. At 12:01am on 1 January, I received a really crappy email from a boy I wanted to be dating, and everything kind of went off the rails from there (I won't rehash it all here, but you can see my last post for the nitty gritty, where I laid out my woes in great detail).

About two months ago, everything in my life almost instantaneously reversed. I have a nice new apartment and a comfy grey couch, a job that actually lets me pay bills and use some of my skills, and I've been able to go on dates with actual straight men without wanting to cry and/or vomit.

In these past few weeks of upswing, I've been able to really process the past year. Some friends have noted, and I've felt it, too, that I am a different person than I was 12 months ago. I think you probably grow the most when things are difficult ("if you're not laughing, you're learning," as they say), and there are some lessons I've learned that I'd like to say are also beautiful and true.

Grief is not linear

I was listening to an episode of Rob Bell's podcast the other day where he featured an interview with David Kessler, a grief specialist. Kessler said that a common misunderstanding about the five stages of grief - Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance - is that we experience them in that order. Instead, we actually might rally back and forth between two or three of the stages; we may spend a lot of time being angry, we may skip over bargaining entirely, and we may never reach acceptance. He also said that when we mourn, we don't just grieve the loss of what was, but the loss of what could have been.

I spent a lot of time grieving this year. I grieved the end of a long, intense, and unhealthy friendship; I grieved a love that never had the chance to flourish; I grieved for the life I was supposed to have at 28. I spent a lot of time being angry at the beginning ("I can't pay my bills, and it's [insert anyone's name here] fault"), and then long stretches of being depressed ("I am repulsive and forever unlucky and everything I touch I ultimately destroy"), peppered with moments of bargaining ("What if he misses me as much as I miss him, and he's just waiting for me to send the first email?").

I remember talking with my best friend in June, and I had felt a resurgence of anger about something I thought I had forgotten months ago. "I just hope they are as miserable as I am!" I sobbed. "Why am I still so mad about this? I've already been through the bargaining stage! Why am I back here?" I felt so guilty about backtracking my feelings, and I felt weak and lonely and helpless that I hadn't been able to reach a stage of acceptance.

But I've since gotten there, and I've realised that you cannot make yourself feel something if you're not ready. Our self-help culture tells us that we have to rebound immediately, and not once we've actually processed and healed. I've learned that in order to feel better, we have to give ourselves time. And sometimes that means feeling awful for a really, really long time. But grief ends, or at least changes shape, if we let ourselves take the time to experience it in whatever way we need to.

You are not weak for wanting love

In 2015, I said something out loud that I had never dared say before: "I want to be in love with someone."

I have never felt so exposed and vulnerable in my life.

One of the things I like a lot about myself is my independence. I've always felt very determined to achieve goals on my own and be able to take care of myself. It makes me feel confident and brave that I can make big life decisions on my own.

When I was younger, I had a lot of friends who were constantly in and out of relationships. No sooner would one relationship end than another would be blossoming. And it often seemed like their happiness (and their sanity) rested on having a boyfriend. 

I rejected this behaviour. In fact, I feared becoming That Girl so much that I slowly started viewing relationships as an impediment to life, rather than an enhancement.

For so long, I thought if I admitted that I wanted a real, meaningful relationship, I was admitting defeat. I was not the strong, independent, confident woman I had tried to hard to appear to be. I was so afraid of sounding like a girl. I would open myself up to ridicule and judgement: I'm too fat, too outspoken, too weird, too [whatever] to find love. I would just be another boring, weak-willed woman, swept up in the falseness of love that movies tell us is real.

In February, I read Don Miller's newest book, Scary Close. It's about intimacy in relationships, and about connecting to other people in profoundly meaningful ways. It's truly a fantastic book, and it made me think about how much bravery and independence it takes to be committed to someone else. I've realised that simply having a significant other doesn't bring you joy, but building a community with someone else is intensely fulfilling. It is good hard work.

This year, I realised that wanting to be in love does make me sound like a little girl playing dressup. But it also makes me sound like a 30 year old football player, and a 70 year old woman in a nursing home. Because wanting love and wanting connection with others is the most universal desire, and wanting to build community is the noblest of all goals. And wanting love does not make me weak; it makes me spectacularly human.

We are not alone

I was scared to write my last blog post. I don't know what I was more worried about - that no one would read it, or that everyone would. I felt vulnerable and I was afraid that people would think I was whiny and weak, or worse - they'd pity me. But I posted it anyway, because sometimes we have to do things that scare us. 

I have been blogging for 5 years, and I've never had such a strong response to anything I've written. I received emails and Facebook comments and private messages from people I hadn't spoken to in a long while; I had texts and phone calls from friends and family; friends of friends tweeted links and shared my blog around the internet. And the overwhelming refrain from every single person was: Me too.

It occurred to me in November, after two dear friends gave up 10 hours of their day to help me move and in the following days as other friends stopped in to help me put together furniture and organize my new apartment, that I have never really felt alone. Throughout this entire year, I have been sad and sick and frustrated; I've been angry and downright miserable. But I never once felt like I was alone. For all the suffering I went through, my friends suffered right along with me - maybe not by choice, but always graciously. I made countless phone calls to moan and complain about the same things over and over, and people kept listening. I cancelled plans because I was sick for the 10th week in a row, and they still invited me the next time. Friends sat in coffee shops with me in total silence as they sipped their coffee and I brooded. I quit my job with no money and no plan, and my family just packed me up and brought me home, no questions asked.

I have struggled often this year to be able to adequately express my gratitude to the people who, sometimes inexplicably it seems, love me. It is humbling in the extreme and comforting in the deepest way to know that even at my worst, people still care. "Thank you" doesn't seem to cut it.

But I also felt so connected to and surrounded by support when I laid my dishevelled self out on the internet for all to see, and people just said "Yeah, I get it." People told me that they'd been there, too, and that it would get better. That sometimes they felt like they had their lives together, and other times it was a disaster. Some people thanked me for just being honest, because it made them feel like they could be honest too. Because we all think that we are the only ones who feel unsure of ourselves, and it's good to know that everyone else is right there alongside of us, just making it through the day, too.

And I think this is the most beautiful and the most true: we are not alone.

Here's to 2016. May it be the best year yet.

Monday, September 21, 2015

What You're Worth: Why Everything is the Absolute Worst Right Now, But I'm Still Trying

I have been having violent and terrifying nightmares lately. These dreams cause me to wake up covered in tears and sweat, and look around my room to make sure men with knives and guns aren't standing over my bed, waiting for me. It's made me dread sleep, which has made me a daytime zombie.

I've talked to a few people about these terrifying dreams, including my doctor, and the general consensus is that I am unsettled in my waking life. And that's not surprising: to be honest, everything is the worst right now. I'm unemployed, and have been underemployed ever since 2012. In a few weeks I will be homeless in Ottawa. My beautiful pink couch has gone to a new home. I have no money and few job prospects. I've never had a successful relationship, and I've actively avoided speaking to single straight men for approximately 9 months. I've fallen so far behind on my training schedule for a 10k race in October that yesterday my running app asked me if I was still alive. The only successes I've had lately is making it to level 21 in Paradise Bay, and figuring out how to stream The Great British Bakeoff from the BBC website.

In the midst of this persistent and baseline of terror that my life is a complete and total waste at the age of 28, my sister called me. "I have a request," she said.

"...okay. You may proceed," I said.

"I want you to write a blog post about worth."

I stopped swatching eye shadows and stared at the phone. "Like, monetary worth? You know I don't understand the economy. I just hear the word 'taxes' and I start to hyperventilate."

"No, obviously not," she sighed. "I mean people's worth. What it is that makes people valuable."

What prompted this request was a post she had seen on Facebook. A friend had wished a happy birthday to their daughter, adding that she had a nice house, a good job, and a husband. What bothered my sister about this was that it seemed like such an obvious statement: what made her daughter worthy was a trio of surface successes.

Even though I want to believe I'm strong enough and smart enough to know that marriage and money isn't what makes a person valuable, hearing of another engagement or someone getting the very job I had also applied for causes me to crawl into bed and watch Community for the 13th time. It isn't that other people are experiencing cool and exciting things in their lives; it's that I feel like I'm reminded that I have nothing to show for myself, and therefore I do not matter; I am worthless.

Rationally, I know this isn't true. Of course I matter; all lives matter. But the doubt and fear and pressure of the media and Facebook and social circles remind me that some matter more than others. If you can tick the boxes of success - love, employment, purchasing power - then you have hit the jackpot! You win! Your life is more valuable because we can quantify it.

And I think it boils down to ease. It's easier to congratulate someone on a new job or gush over a cruise to Mexico, than it is to remark someone's ability to contemplate important social issues. It's easier to see a wedding as mark of success, rather than the ability to be vulnerable over and over again, risking heartbreak every time, as a mark of strength. It's easier to congratulate someone on buying a house than it is to congratulate them for waking up to another day of unknowns and simply trying.

I've been lucky, in that I have parents and a sister and friends who have reminded me consistently over the past few months why I matter to them - I'm funny; I'm smart; I have thoughtful insights to their problems; I can cook; I am passionate about stuff, which in turn makes them passionate too. These tidbits have shone like lanterns in the window while a blizzard rages all around me. And these people have also reminded me that they were once where I am, or their future is uncertain too, and that this isn't it, and there's so much to be excited about. That I am not alone.

I guess what I really want, with this entire rambling post full of feelings, is to be able to celebrate the little successes. To post on Facebook "I got out of bed today, and I applied for a job, and then I paid my internet bill on time" and have a surge of "likes" and comments: congratulations! well done! good luck!

Because I think what makes us worthy not our successes; it is simply that we are trying.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Fifteen of my Favourite Feelings

A little while ago, Hank Green posted a video called 15 of My Favourite Feelings. In the description of the video, he says:
When we're confronted with negative experiences, we want to analyze them and think about them and remember them for future use. But with positive emotions, we often just feel them and enjoy them, which is wonderful, but also leads to us putting less weight on them and it seems like they take up less space in our minds. [...] Recognizing and harping on the positive experiences we have is a great way, I think, to both have a better outlook on life, and have more positive experiences.
I think he's right. I could use a little boost right now, so I decided to spend some time thinking about fifteen of my favourite feelings.

  1. When someone I really respect tells me, unprompted, that they really respect me
  2. When someone tells me that something I said to them a long time ago, and I've long since forgotten having said it in the first place, has stuck with them, and has shaped their choices and decisions.
  3. Reading a book I didn't expect to love, but quickly becoming so immersed in the story that I have to stay up reading until my eyes hurt from fighting to keep them open.
  4. Meeting someone for the first time and instantly knowing you're going to really like them.
  5. Having a vision of an exact shade of lipstick I want, and magically finding it.
  6. Getting messages from people I haven't spoken to in a while, telling me that something I've written has resonated with them personally.
  7. Remembering old jokes and stories with long-time friends and laughing as much as we did the first time.
  8. Seeing people I deeply care about find a person or a place or a job that makes them happier than anything else. 
  9. Talking about makeup with other people who also really love talking about makeup.
  10. The first moment of realizing that the wound left by people and situations that have hurt me is completely healed, and I don't have to ever think about it or them again.
  11. The relief that comes with finally making a hard decision.
  12. Spending a whole recovery day in bed, binging on a new season of TV.
  13. Walking out of a hot yoga studio and being hit with a wave of air conditioning.
  14. The easy and honest conversations that come at the end of a long, good day over a cup of tea.
  15. A text from a friend of family out of the blue, just saying hi, and reminding me that good relationships are not conditional on constant contact.
This was really nice, and almost cathartic. It's good to remind ourselves of the things that make us feel good.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Supine Butterfly

Sometime mid-June, my friend convinced me to sign up for a month of yoga. This was a huge deal. I had spent a very long time scoffing at women in yoga pants at the grocery store. I was pretty sure it was just a hipster fad, which meant it was 100% not for me.

But I had been running for six months, and I was becoming a bit disenchanted with it. I had pain in my hips and shins, and I started to feel like I needed something to supplement running, if for no other reason than to give my pedicures a fighting chance. I had some friends who were not hipsters but also really loved yoga, and invited me to come along for one Saturday morning class, just to see how I felt. With a promise of brunch to follow, I tagged along.

The class - hot yoga vinyasa flow - was a bit strange (who actually thinks that much about their breathing?!). The poses were foreign to my body and so much more difficult than I had anticipated. I spent a lot of time in child's pose, recuperating. Most significantly, I had never sweat so much in my life! But I left feeling challenged and energized.

I took the plunge and paid for a month of unlimited classes.

Just over a week later, I was I was five minutes in to a Yin class (Yin yoga is slow, deep stretching that lets you hold positions for much longer than you would in a flow class). My friend couldn't come with me, so I was going it alone for the first time.

I chose a spot in the corner of the room, and I was lying in supine butterfly. The room was almost entirely silent except for the unmistakeable sound of purposeful breathing you can only hear in a yoga class. The instructor swept in and asked that we remain in supine butterfly for a little while. "As you're breathing, let the floor take the entire weight of your body," he said. "Just completely release. Take stock of how your body is feeling. Take a minute to notice how this day has imprinted itself onto your legs and arms and feet. Let yourself be completely aware of your body."

It was that last sentence that triggered something in me. As my feet pressed gently together and my arms hung loosely by my sides, it occurred to me that this was the first time I had ever been completely aware of my body.

As a woman, and especially as a fat woman, I have spent my entire life trying to make myself smaller. I have crossed my legs and squeezed myself as close to the corners of sofas as possible. I have worn undergarments that pull and suck and reduce. I have turned my breathing to shallow gulps; I have pressed myself against walls and chairs, I have interlocked and interlaced my limbs. I have tried to reduce myself. I have tried to make my body as close to invisible as possible.

All of this adjusting and compacting has left me grossly unaware of what space my body actually occupies. I know how I've tried to make it fit, but I have denied myself the freedom of simply being.

And lying on a rented mat in a hot room full of strangers, I was being invited to be aware of my body. Not so that I could reduce the amount of space I took up, but so that I could truly occupy the space my body needed. Just so I knew. Just so I understood my body better. Just so I was comfortable.

I had never been invited to be comfortable before.

I felt my body unclench. It was a tightness I'd become so familiar with that its release felt unfamiliar. My stomach grew to it's full size and my legs relaxed and my arms touched a lot of floor. Because they needed to. And I had the thought that this tension I'd been wrapping my body in was my apology. "Sorry, World. Sorry I am fat and female. I'm sorry I need so much space to live in. I will do my best to eliminate my hugeness. I will be uncomfortable so you don't have to."

That class was extraordinary, and I felt different as I left. I felt a renewed connection with the fat body that I had been at war with for 20 years. I felt challenged to awareness. I felt excited to start occupying the physical space I needed and not feel guilty.

I felt comfortable.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

What a Long Way You've Come

I was 2.1k into my run this morning, and I was really struggling. I had more than half of my distance left to go, and I just couldn't do it. My legs hurt, it was humid, my face and hands felt bloated. I hadn't slept well, I didn't stretch properly, and I hadn't eaten anything before setting out.

Everything about this morning was hard, and I was discouraged. I was furious at myself for not having prepped better. I was discouraged that I wasn't able to run faster and for longer intervals. I considered unplugging my headphones, stopping my run app, and slowly dragging my feet home in time to shower and eat before going to work. As I was walking begrudgingly home, sluggish and stewing in my cloud of frustration, I could just feel it in my body that if I made it home in this mood, I would feel defeated for the rest of the day.

I sat down on a bench, turned off my music, and took long, deep breaths. I reminded myself that a year ago, I couldn't run for 100m, let alone 5k. Six months ago, I wouldn't have woken up at 5:50am to run before work. One month ago, I wouldn't have gone to yoga to learn the stretching and breathing techniques that make running easier.

I am a goal-oriented person. I thrive when I am working towards accomplishments, whether as trivial as wearing heels around my house for a full week, or as grandiose as working as a writer for the BBC in the next 5 years. But when you spend so much time looking ahead, it's easy to feel like you still have miles to go.

I have this picture as the lock screen on my phone to remind myself not to forget where I've been. My friend Karen used to say "Honour where you are today." I like that too, because it keeps you in the present. It reminds me to stop thinking about what came before and what will come after, and to just be conscious of where I am right now.

I needed that moment to reflect this morning - not just on my running, but on other parts of my life. To honour that things are hard right now, but I've come so far, even from a few months ago. In January, I didn't really believe I'd be able to do a 5k race. I could barely believe I'd get out of bed on some days. But I have a theory that if you do the things you hate often enough, eventually you won't hate them anymore. And so even though every half hour on the treadmill sucked, and every morning layering up for to face the winter morning made me want to cry, and knowing that I had to do it again the next day, I kept doing it. Because we need to take steps forward to put the distance behind us.

I still have a long way to go. There are goals yet to be accomplished. But it was good to remind myself of what a long way I've come.


Monday, June 15, 2015

Lead with Good

I suspect most people reach a point in their lives where they need to step back and assess why they are attracted to certain types of people. I have long known that the sort of people I seek out and intentionally befriend are people who are very smart and very funny. As early as elementary school, I can remember strategically placing myself on choir risers next to girls who made me laugh so loud I got in trouble. In every class I took in my undergrad, I would sit back for the first few weeks while, in answering profs' questions, the critical thinkers separated themselves from the blowhards before deciding who I wanted to hang out with after class. 

I have never taken a psychology course, but I don't think I'd be too off base in surmising that my attraction to funny, smart people stems from my desire to be like them. I think we're all copy cats, in that we reflect the qualities we most want from the people we most want to be like. And my whole life, I've desperately wanted to be smart and funny.

More importantly, I wanted people to think I was smart and funny.

And sure, I wanted to be kind and thoughtful and sensitive, too. But only as tertiary qualities to cleverness and humour.

Last year, I was venting at length to a colleague about how the "real world" doesn't appreciate the work it takes to get a Masters degree, and how I was smarter than a lot of people who are doing the work I want to be doing. And he looked at me without any hint of irony and asked, quite honestly, "But who cares if you're smart?"

We all have those moments where you finally get a glimpse of the image you've crafted of yourself, and you don't like what you see. Because I had spent all these years desperately cultivating an identity that had no greater purpose beyond itself. Because intelligence doesn't matter if no one understands you or cares enough to listen to what you have to say. And no one laughs at your jokes if they don't sense community, because half of the job of successful comedy is making the audience feel like they're in on the joke.

And I realized that my obsession with being funny and smart was actually an obsession with being liked and respected. And you don't earn either of those by being narcissistic.

I was listening to the Harmontown podcast a few weeks ago, and they were talking about their friend Spencer, who was in absentia that particular episode. They took his absence as a moment to talk about what it is that makes him such an attractive person:

Spencer is one of the most charming, genuine, moral people I think I've ever met and that's just part of the allure [...] 
We all have our qualities, that are sort of our "lead qualities" - and also I think that we're all good people, but Spencer is one of the few that the first quality I'd say about him is good. Spencer is a good person. And not that we're not good people, but he leads with good. 
[...] He wants to do the right thing and he thinks about that a lot. He doesn't want to do the popular thing [...] he thinks about being a good person.

I've long believed that it's easy to be nice, but it's hard to be good. And when these people - people with money and fame and dedicated fans, talked about their friend and his goodness, their tone was almost reverent. In that moment, the normally raunchy and chaotic podcast turned gentle and respectful. Because goodness is difficult. It is pure and it is noble and it is holy, and it is for and about other people.

I've noticed a change in the past 6 months or so of the sorts of people I gravitate towards. My old friends - the ones who've stuck around, and new people I've come to like and respect: they are all good.

They are also funny and smart, as well as thoughtful, creative, feisty, attentive, caring, encouraging. But they lead with good. And it's so easy to not be good. It's so easy to not think about others at all, and to just do and say what is easy and expected. It's easy to be polite.

But what I've noticed about good people is that, because goodness requires effort and hard work, that it is not only easy to like them, it is easy to love them, too. When you radiate goodness, you can't help but bring a little bit of love out, too. And that's the kind of person I want to be.

And even though I value my skills as a critical thinker, and I still think I'm the funniest person on the internet (just kidding, that title goes to Katie Heaney), I hope someday, when I'm not around and my friends are talking about me on a podcast, they'll say that I lead with good.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Love Stories

In March, a YouTuber I follow announced on her blog that she and her husband were separated. I was devastated.

I’ll be honest: my reaction surprised even me. 

I’ve followed Louise’s blog and YouTube channel for over 5 years. When I first found her videos, they were 10 minute unedited sprawling streams of consciousness. She was a new mom with a complicated past and a passion for both lipstick and stationary in equal measure. Compared to most of the beauty vloggers I had in my queue, each poised and posed and prepared, Louise was a mess. But she was real. She loved her little family, and she loved making videos, regardless of how blurry her closeups were. Her unapologetic rawness drew me in, and I knew that if I met her someday, we’d be good friends. 

But what particularly warmed me was Louise and her husband’s love story. It was the sort of narrative I’ve dreamed for myself a thousand times - they met at university and were friends for a while, until one day, in the middle of writing an exam, she decided enough was enough. She left campus, her exam unfinished, and made a beeline to tell him that she wanted to be his girlfriend - stopping just long enough to buy herself a pair of earrings. Fast forward 5 years, and they’ve had a wedding, a house, and a baby: all the makings of the perfect love story.

Her post about their separation was beautiful. It was thoughtful and sad and kind. It was obvious that ending their marriage was the best decision for their family, and that she and her now ex-husband still cared about each other and their daughter very deeply. I admired her bravery and honesty. 

But I was so sad. How can she be so calm about this?! I thought. It’s the end!! Finished! Her love story is over!!

I’ve posted before about how I’m not very good at endings. I wear a necklace that reads “we part to meet again,” because I can’t bear to believe that some people leave your life and never come back into it. I am in a perpetual state of To Be Continued. Because somehow along the way, even though it defies all logic and all my sensibilities, I believe you get one grand love story, that begins at “I do” and ends with a eulogy. 

I was talking to a woman at work about a month ago, and she said she was in Canada visiting her children before returning home to England. She was a charming woman in a big hat and brightly painted lips, and we got to chatting. She told me she had moved to Canada several decades ago because the man she was in love with didn’t want to commit. So she packed her bags and moved across the Commonwealth, where she met the man who would become her husband and the father of her four children. After thirty years and resettling in several provinces, her marriage ended; she moved back home to England, where, wouldn’t you know it, she’d made a new life for herself with the same man she’d loved and left all those years before.

And maybe it was her gentle voice, or her generous openness, or maybe it was just the perfect timing, but that story touched me profoundly. It was hers that made me realise that we each get more than one love story.

I’ve often felt that I’ve spent most of my life waiting for my love story. I’m sitting in a parking lot, eating popcorn and waiting desperately for a redhead to stroll over in a pleather jacket. He’ll be sporting a feminist sensibility, an iPhone in his pocket, a K1S postal code, and Bible strapped to one hip and Doctor Who season 4 on the other. He’ll offer me a slice of McCain Deep ’n’ Delicious cake, and I’ll offer him some David’s Tea, to which he’ll reply “Mint to Be is my favourite flavour too.” We’ll be married and quoting from Harry Potter on our way to Happily Ever After within the week. 

But when I thought about it, I realized that while nothing even resembling that scenario has (or probably ever will) happen, I’ve lived through a few love stories of my own. Some were relationships of great misunderstanding; some were grandiose dream worlds I’d tried to transplant from my imagination into reality; some were wonderful glimpses of human magic that were over before they even really began. But each were their own little worlds, people and relationships that mattered greatly then, that made me, at times, so simultaneously happy and nervous that I felt like throwing up. All ended: in explosions of violent words; in the quiet whisper of “okay, bye” on the phone; in waves of tears that left me immobile. All ended, and for good reason.

And it would be unfair to future me to say that a relationship that ends in a marriage is the only love story that I get to tell. Because marriages are not the periods that end a person’s narrative. They are maybe an exclamation point, or a question mark, or a series of semi-colons - never a full stop. And I take great comfort in this: that we are beings designed to love, over and over again. 

So while some love stories may indeed begin in diapers and end with engravings on a headstone, may we also learn to call those romances that have shorter shelf lives “great.” And when grand love stories end - and oh how many of them do -  may we be so brave to pick up our pens and create new adventures with someone else. 

Write on.