Cottaging, Camping & Book Promo: My Summer at Home

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Camping on Little Coon Lake in Algonquin Park

 

“It is always quietly thrilling to find yourself looking at a world you know well but have never seen from such an angle before.” 

― Bill Bryson, At Home: A Short History of Private Life

Since I’ve been living and working away from home over the last couple of years, I’ve taken every opportunity to travel during my holidays.

For me, the purpose of travel is to deepen my understanding about people and life. Through exposure to new people, places, and cultures, travel has broadened my perspective about the many different ways that one can live a happy and meaningful life. It has also helped shape my identity by reinforcing which values I held onto and which ones I let go of.

So it may seem strange that I chose to stay home this summer during my holidays from teaching…especially since my bucket list keeps getting longer and longer.

One of the main reasons that I stayed home was to promote my first novel, See What Flowers, which I recently published through Amazon CreateSpace. As I self-published my novel, I’m required to do all of the marketing and promotion myself. While this work has been very fun and interesting, it’s also quite time-consuming. As writing a novel has always been a dream of mine, it was important to me that I invested the time and energy into making this happen.

Another reason that I stayed at home was to spend time with friends and family. Several of my closest friends live abroad and came home for parts of the summer and it was important to me to hang out with them as much as possible while they were here.

By staying at home, I was able to go to the ROM in Toronto for the first time with my friend Meira who lives in Israel. I was able to meet my friends’ Lisa and Jessie’s new babies. I was able to attend my friend Paige’s wedding in Creemore. I was able to have some long chats with my friend, Laura, who lives in New Zealand, and attend a Blue Jays game with my friend Jill who lives in Colombia and her awesome dad. I was able to explore a few of Ontario’s Provincial Parks with friends and family. Oh, let’s not forget that I was also able to spend last Saturday night alone with my parents at the cottage listening to Taylor Swift on repeat.

While I still intend to travel to as many different places as I can, my summer at home has helped me see the value of making time for the people and places that matter most to me. Although travel has been one of the most incredible teachers in my life, some of the most formative experiences for me have resulted from building deeper connections with the people and places I’ve known forever. Turns out that some of my best adventures have happened in my own backyard.

Here are a few photos from ‘local adventures’ that I partook in this summer:

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First annual cousins canoe camping weekend in Algonquin Park!

 

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Pink Hues over Little Salmon Lake in Frontenac Provincial Park
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From South Africa to Collingwood, E-Bay and I make excellent wedding dates! (At our friend, Paige’s wedding in Creemore, ON)
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Kayaking at my cottage in Norway Bay, Quebec
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Canoe camping with friends I met in the Arctic in Kawartha Highlands Provincial Park
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Practising my nature photography skills while canoeing and kayaking
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I spent a lot of time in the kitchen…Cooking fajitas in the backcountry at Frontenac Park!
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Camping with my cousin, Jenn, and her son, Cameron, at Bronté Creek Provincial Park
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Book signing at Café 349 in Shawville, Quebec
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Book Promo! Scruffy says “It’s a page-turner!”
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Teaching fitness classes at Goodlife whipped me in shape for this 1.5 km portage at Kawartha Highlands Provincial Park
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Exploring my neighbourhood of Mount Pleasant Village in Toronto
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Practising my French and Spanish at Mundo Lingo in Toronto
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Checking out the Blue Whale exhibit during my first visit to the ROM (even though I’ve lived in TO for 4 yrs on and off)
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^ My heroes ^ Many evenings at the cottage were spent binging GOT with my parents!
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My first novel, See What Flowers, is on the shelves at Indigo, Canada’s largest bookstore at Yonge & Eglinton in Toronto

^ I started teaching myself how to windsurf at the cottage…this involved at least 20 wipeouts. Thanks to my Aunt Pat for rescuing me from a near storm.

In addition to these things, I also did a lot of NOTHING. (Although I’ll admit that a lot of this nothing was spent watching fan commentary about GOT Season 7 on YouTube!) I’ve learned that doing nothing every once in a while fuels creativity, reduces stress, and makes space for spontaneous surprises. It also makes me excited to get back to work in a couple of weeks once I feel fully rested and recovered (However, I’ll likely be saying something different on Labour Day weekend!)

See What Flowers Book Signing at Café 349

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Thank you to everyone who came out and supported my first novel at Café 349 in Shawville, Québec today! It was so nice for me to chat with some new and familiar faces about books, publishing, and summers in Norway Bay.

One thing I find hard about self-publishing, is that I am required to do all of the book promotion and marketing myself. This means that I have to sell myself and my work. As a shy and humble person, it is quite a challenge for me to ‘knock on doors’ and self-promote. Luckily, I have an enormous support network of friends and family who have helped me along the way. I have been touched and overwhelmed by all of the ongoing support you have provided for me.

Thank you to everyone from Norway Bay, Shawville, and the Pontiac who came to my book signing. Special thank you to Ruth Smiley Hahn at Café 349 for providing me with the opportunity to promote my work.

Paperback copies of See What Flowers are available to purchase in Café 349, or through Amazon.ca, and Chapters/Indigo. See What Flowers is also available as an eBook.

Upcoming Events

Thursday, August 24, 7:30pm-9:00pm

Ottawa Book LaunchTerrace on the Canal, Ottawa, Ontario, featuring acoustic performance by The Bristol Hum

Sunday, October 1, 1pm-4pm

Book Signing at Yonge & Eglinton Indigo, Toronto, Ontario

signing books at cafe 349

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Flowers on shelf 2

Flowers on shelf

 

Ottawa Book Launch: See What Flowers

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Reading from See What Flowers at the Toronto Book Launch

I’m excited to announce that I will be launching See What Flowers in Ottawa!

The event will feature acoustic performance by Ottawa-based band The Bristol Hum, author Q & A with Megan Valois, and book reading and signing.

Event Details:

Thursday, August 24, 7:30-9:00pm

Location: Terrace on the Canal

Cost: Free, no tickets required, first come, first serve

Copies of See What Flowers will be available to purchase for $20, cash only.

Facebook Event: http://bit.ly/2vexe6u

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Signing books that I wrote at the Toronto Book Launch

Additional Information:

Amazon listing for See What Flowers: http://amzn.to/2u0yYQZ

Chapters/Indigo listing for See What Flowers: http://bit.ly/2vjY1Ok

Shannon Mullen’s Author Profile on Goodreads: http://bit.ly/1e6r62f

Louise Johnson’s article on the Toronto Book Launch: http://bit.ly/2f59Cuw

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Upcoming Events:

Saturday, August 12, 11am-2pm

Book Signing at Café 349, Shawville, Quebec

Sunday, October 1, 1pm-4pm

Book Signing at Yonge & Eglinton Indigo, Toronto, Ontario

My novel, See What Flowers, is now available at Chapters/Indigo!

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How exciting that Chapters/Indigo, Canada’s leading bookstore, has made See What Flowers available through the online store! You can find the listing here.

Paperback copies of See What Flowers will also be available in select Indigo locations in both Ottawa and Toronto soon.

See What Flowers: Upcoming Events

Saturday, August 12, 11am-2pm

Book Signing at Café 349, Shawville, Quebec

Thursday, August 24, 7pm-9pm

Book Reading and Author Q & A at Terrace on the Canal, Ottawa, Ontario

Sunday, October 1, 1pm-4pm

Book Signing at Yonge & Eglinton Indigo, Toronto, Ontario

Have you read See What Flowers? Please support me by writing a review!

Screen Shot 2017-07-19 at 11.44.14 AMIf you have read the book, you can support me by writing a short review and providing a star rating via:

Amazon (if purchased through Amazon)

Indigo (if purchased through Indigo)

Goodreads (if purchased directly from me, borrowed from friend, purchased through any platform)

Thank you and happy reading!

Where I Wrote It! The Making of See What Flowers

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My début novel, See What Flowers, is available on Amazon in paperback and eBook

The first draft of my début novel, See What Flowers, was written in Toronto, after I’d returned from just over a year of teaching in Nunavut, Canada. (Check out my interview in Shedoesthecity for details on how living and working in the Canadian Arctic influenced the writing and research for my novel. )

In addition to Vancouver and the Arctic, much of See What Flowers is set in Toronto, particularly on Dufferin Street and Bloordale Village. Landmarks such as Christie Pits Park, the Baldwin Steps (Spadina stairs by Casa Loma), Snakes & Lattes, Toronto Western Hospital, High Park, and the #29 Dufferin bus are described in the novel.

Not only is Toronto featured in See What Flowers, but various locations in the city also inspired the writing of it. Here’s a few Toronto landmarks where See What Flowers was written:

1. Boxcar Social (Summerhill)

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Boxcar Social is my favourite café in Toronto. I love the ambience, the lattés, and the back patio. One Sunday afternoon, I even saw Andrew Coyne, one of my heros in Canadian writing, there. He was writing too. I was writing. He was writing. I thought, maybe one day, we’ll both be Canadian writers. Maybe one day.

Boxcar will always have a special place in my heart because that is where I finished the first draft of See What Flowers.

It was a Saturday night in October 2015, just a few weeks before I left Toronto for a year to teach in Colombia. I arrived at the café at about 7pm intending to stay for a couple of hours. The café turned into a nightclub and I didn’t even notice. At midnight I was still writing. Some guys came over to ask me if I was freezing and if they should close the back door. I didn’t even notice that the back door was open. I didn’t even notice that it was dark out. I didn’t even notice that the café had turned into a bar. It was like I was in the zone on a long run. All I could focus on was what I was doing right then. The writing.

The last thirty or so pages of the book contain the strongest writing. They are also the most autobiographical and get as close to the truth of life as I know it. I’m really proud of them. So thank you, Boxcar Social…maybe it was the music, maybe it was the coffee, maybe it was the beer, maybe it was the crowd, but you certainly inspired something in me the night I finished the first draft of my first novel.

2. Toronto Reference Library

Reference Library

In 2015, I took almost a year off teaching high school to write. But I kept my job as a fitness instructor at Goodlife Fitness Clubs and taught lunch time classes from Monday to Friday at the Yorkville, Manulife Centre, and Bloor Park locations. My days usually involved writing at my aunt and uncle’s Forrest Hill mansion (where I was living) in the morning from about 8:30am-11:30am, then I would go teach my class from 12:15-1;15pm, and in the afternoon, I would go to the nearby Toronto Reference Library from about 2:00-5:00 pm.

Luckily, my good friend, Keira, was writing her Master’s thesis at the time, so we would often meet and write together at the library. This enabled us to take coffee breaks together and support each other in what can be a very isolating process.

One thing I loved about writing at the Toronto Reference Library was that I was surrounded by thousands of books. The books were written by humans. Maybe I could write a book, too. It was also great to have a free space to use for the afternoon during a time when I had very little income.

3. Balzac’s (Toronto Reference Library)

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All of those afternoons spent writing at the Toronto Reference Library made for many, many coffee breaks at Balzac’s. I often brought my laptop with me and stayed there for an hour or two for a change of scene. Balzac’s coffee is some of the best in Toronto. They even have an Atwood Blend, named after Canadian literary icon, Margaret Atwood. So perhaps Balzac’s coffee contains some secret ingredient to inspire great writing.

4. Saving Gigi

Saving Gigi.jpgSince she lived in the west end at the time, often my friend Keira and I would meet at Saving Gigi a hip café on Bloor at Ossington. It serves coffee, beer, brunch, and amazing salads and sandwiches. The part I loved most about writing there is that it attracts the staring artist type. I was always surrounded by others working on screenplays, articles, blog posts, graphic design, and other creative projects. Their work made my own creative venture seem less of a silly fantasy and more of a worthwhile venture.

I was inspired and motivated by others struggling to pursue their dreams at a time when social pressures were encouraging me to develop a sustainable financial plan and settle.

5. Bloomer’s 

Bloomers

Just west of Saving Gigi is Bloomer’s, a homey vegan café which serves coffee, tea, beer, whiskey, salads, sandwiches, and delicious home baked goods. It is an amazing space to write, especially in the summer. It has big booths and tables, a positive vibe, and a garage-style open window which allows you to write while people watching the passerby’s on Bloor Street.

Bloomer’s is the only café in Toronto that I wrote at which is actually featured in the novel, See What Flowers. Adam and Emma’s basement neighbour, Jess, describes a terrible Tinder date experience that she had at “Bloomer’s, you know, that great vegan café at Bloor and Ossington?”

6. TTC

TTC

Most of my writing happens when I’m not writing. I get ideas when I’m walking or running or biking or thinking or staring into space. Or reading. I get inspired by ideas that were written by other authors and incorporate them into my characters and plot.

So when I get an idea in the midst of doing another activity, I often stop and write it in my phone. Then I email it to myself and incorporate it into the draft of my writing.

In March 2015, I marked the OSSLT (Ontario Literacy Test), which is a great opportunity for teachers to gain experience in assessment. But it is also a bit soul crushing. It is like an assembly line for grading essays. I marked the same answer from thousands of students across Ontario for two weeks straight! It took me over an hour to travel to the location of the OSSLT at the Toronto Congress Centre. I had just started writing the first draft of Parts 1 & 2 of See What Flowers, and much of it was written on the 52 Lawrence West bus as I worked a little creativity into an extremely monotonous work day.

Where I Wrote It: Outside of Toronto

While I wrote the first draft of See What Flowers in Toronto, much of the editing happened outside of the city.

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Many of the edits were done at Juan Valdez café in El Cable, Manizales
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I went to Kaffe Florida almost every other day while I was working in Manizales. Much of the second draft was written here.
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The final draft and edits were completed at my cottage in Norway Bay, Québec in August 2016.

See What Flowers is available as an eBook and paperback on Amazon. Thank you everyone for all of your support.

Book Cover for my Début Novel!

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I’m excited to announce that my début novel,  See What Flowers, will be available on Amazon on May 20.

The fantastic cover was designed by Stella_e, a platinum-level Croatian designer who won the contest I ran through 99designs, the world’s largest online graphic design marketplace.

I would HIGHLY recommend using this site for any graphic designs you need ex. posters, merchandise, advertising, packaging, books & magazines, etc.

For more info about the contest click here.

See What Flowers, Toronto Book Launch:

Thursday, June 15, 7:30pm

The Steady Café & Bar

1051 BLOOR ST WTORONTO, ON, M6H 1M4

see what flowers - full page e-book cover

 

I Told a Story at True Stories Told Live Toronto!

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Storytellers Charlotte Blake Alston, Erin Rodgers, me, Karima Armin, and Marsha Shandur

I’ve trekked in the Andes & Alaska and moved to the Arctic by myself. I’ve taken risks for love, even though I wasn’t sure if it would work out.

Telling a story at True Stories Told Live Toronto was probably the scariest thing I’ve ever done.

Why?

I’d been to TSTL several times and the storytellers are always engaging and entertaining.

At school, students fall asleep in my classes all of the time…even during gym…

The last time I tried to tell a story to my friend at the bar, she excused herself after five minutes to go to the “bathroom”…

Plus, my story was scheduled during the Toronto Storytelling Festival so I was in the line-up with Charlotte Blake Alston and Karima Armin, ACTUAL storytellers who’d traveled from out of town for the event.

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My storytelling début at TSTL Toronto!

True Stories Told Live Toronto is a fantastic monthly storytelling event held at The Garrison. It’s organized, curated and hosted by Marsha from YesYesMarsha.com.

Although the bar is packed for shows–I’d estimate 200+ people were in the audience for my story, it feels personal, like your at a family gathering.

It’s a fresh space for connection and intimacy in a city that can sometimes feel cold, lonely, and isolating.

Somehow, I pushed through my fear and sense of impostor syndrome and told my story. It was really fun, and while of course there are things I would change for next time, my first live story definitely went better than expected. I feel proud of myself for standing up and doing something that scared me.

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Stephan wearing his Cavs jersey on the frozen Arctic Ocean

Click here if you want to watch my story, Arctic Basketball Team. Join the Facebook group for info about future TSTL events!

Inspiring Women Series: A Conversation with Sarah Davis

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Sarah (on right) with her three daughters (left to right): Madeleine, Julia, and Christine during a family trip to Africa

“Both personally and professionally you have to learn to accept yourself and forgive yourself. You’re never going to be perfect…”

Sarah Davis was born in Saint John, New Brunswick, and is the youngest of four children. After moving briefly to Chicago while her father completed his PhD, then to Montreal, her family eventually settled in the Greater Toronto Area, where Sarah attended high school in Port Credit.

After completing a Bachelor of Commerce degree at Queen’s University, Sarah worked as a Chartered Accountant at Ernst & Young, and then moved into telecommunications where she held roles for both Bell and Rogers.

In 2007, Sarah left Rogers for a Financial Executive position at Loblaw Companies Limited. From 2010-2014, she served as Chief Financial Officer (CFO) of Loblaw’s, and currently serves as the company’s Chief Administrative Officer (CAO).

As the mother of three daughters, Sarah’s managed to find some balance between her personal and professional roles. However, she emphasizes that it is hard to do everything well, and has learned to accept herself, forgive herself, and recognize when she is doing the best that she can.

“I certainly had some feelings of guilt when I thought that I wasn’t the mother who was going on the field trip or who wasn’t going to the school and volunteering.

Sometimes that made me sad. That I couldn’t be that mother.

But I think you just have to decide how you are going to be and then accept yourself or else you just feel guilty all of the time.”

Particularly while she was going through a divorce at the age of 32, Sarah was motivated to work hard and efficiently in order to support her daughters at home. Throughout her career, she has made it a personal goal to eat dinner with her family as much as possible, and tries to avoid bringing work home. As her two oldest daughters are away at university, Sarah currently lives with her second husband and her youngest daughter (who is in Grade 12).

Despite having reached a high level of career success, Sarah never placed heavy expectations on herself to achieve specific promotions. Instead, Sarah always “thrived on doing a good job” in whatever role she held.

“From a career perspective, you have to recognize that your career is really long. So don’t worry if you don’t achieve everything all at once.”

In this episode, Sarah talks about accepting herself as a mom and a business professional, the challenges and opportunities for women in the business world, and learning not to worry about “things you can’t control.”

The Inspiring Women Series is a podcast dedicated to sharing the stories of the many women who have inspired me in my life or who have inspired the lives of others. You can subscribe to the Inspiring Women Series podcast in the iTunes Store and can listen to my conversation with Sarah below.

 

Why I go back to a place I’ve already been

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During my 9 months in Colombia, I went to Salento four times and each time I “glamped” at La Serrana Eco Hostel  (#happyplace)

When I travel, I often feel overwhelmed by how much of the world I’ve yet to discover.

I meet people along the way who reveal hidden gems they’ve stumbled upon, and think I want to go there too.

My “bucket-list” just keeps getting longer and longer: Hike in Patagonia. Visit friends in Israel, New Zealand, and Australia. Trek in the Himalayas. Walk the Camino de Santiago. Camp in Northern Ontario. Drive across Canada.

But I have no intention of traveling for the sake of checking items off a bucket-list. For me, the wonder of travel lies in opening myself up to new places and cultures so that I can develop a deeper understanding of the world and of myself. Much like Andrew Evans of National Geographic Travel, I cringe at the idea of “DOING” a country.

“Last summer, I DID Colombia. Next vacation, I’m going to DO Morocco.”

Yuck.

Like a one-night stand, doing someone/somewhere implies CONQUEST: traveling to boost your “likes” on Facebook/Instagram (ie. your ego). It misses the true beauty of an intimate moment, the magic of possibility which comes from a deeper and often unexpected connection.

Even though I know that I’ll never have enough time to travel to all of the destinations I want to visit, I’ve found myself GOING BACK to places I’ve ALREADY BEEN.

When I was 16 my family took a ski trip to Banff National Park that changed my life forever. As we drove from Calgary airport to Banff in our jam-packed rental car, I was struck by the danger & beauty of the Rocky Mountains, and said something I will NEVER live down amongst my family:“I’m overwhelmed by the magnitude of the mountains,” as though I was a character in Road to Avonlea (which at the time, I probably wanted to be).

Less than 6 years later, I went back and spent nearly a year working at the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel. My reasons for going back weren’t rational: I went back because something about the energy of the place took my breath away. I went back because I had to. I went back because I knew that the story of “me there” wasn’t over yet.

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Me, the ant, on top of Rundle Mountain in Banff National Park

Since Banff, I’ve gone back to many other places for many different reasons. The land. A person. A challenge that wasn’t complete. A relationship that wasn’t over. A sense of ALIVENESS that I’d never experienced before. Something that made me think: I’m a better person because I’ve been here. 

Five months after my teaching contract ended in the Arctic, I went back to take the junior boys basketball team that I’d coached while I was working in Pond Inlet, Nunavut, to a tournament in Iqaluit. I had applied for a grant from the government to build the program and provide more opportunities for the team of grade 7-9 boys to engage in school & basketball.

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Matthew & I at the Nunavut Territorial Basketball Tournament in Iqaluit

Shortly after I’d returned to Ontario, I found out that I’d received the grant. I’d invested so much of myself in the team, that I couldn’t just decline it because I’d moved back home. Even though my contract at the school had ended, my responsibilities as a coach hadn’t. I needed to go back to finish what I’d started.

Much like life, travel is a journey, not a destination. Sometimes the story isn’t finished in time for the return flight.

Sometimes we stay.

Sometimes we have to go back to read the next chapter.

 

 

Las lecciones: What I learned from teaching & traveling in Colombia

Around this time last year, I accepted a temporary teaching position at a bilingual international school in Colombia. Now I’m back in Toronto, surrounded by familiar faces and the comforts of “home.”

In some ways, it feels like I’m in the same place I was before I left. But travel is an incredible teacher, and my experiences in Colombia have taught me some valuable lessons that I hope will help me live a healthier, happier, more meaningful life in Toronto. Here are some of the lessons that I learned from teaching and traveling in Colombia.

 Lesson 1: We are not our past.

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Colombia went from having one of the world’s most violent countries in the mid-90s to the “Happiest Country in the World”

The class sat around in a circle while ‘José’ told his story.

Everyone was crying including me. José told us that he had been bullied since Grade 2, especially by three other boys in the class. He couldn’t take it anymore. Due to the stress he’d experienced at school, he was acting out at home, being rude to his parents and mean to his sister. He was thinking of switching schools so he could have a fresh start. But he didn’t want to. He liked the school and the teachers and his friends and the extra-curricular clubs he participated in there.

After he spoke, each student told José something they appreciated or admired about him. The bullies apologized. José forgave them. Everyone cried some more. A group hug ensued.

A group of ten year olds had committed to starting over. They rose above their past and the identities of “bully” and “victim” they’d been living in for years.

A similar process has occurred in the political landscape of Colombia, but at a much larger scale.

After nearly four years of peace negotiations, the Colombian government is on the brink of finalizing a deal with the FARC guerrillas it has been fighting since 1964. According to the United Nations, the conflict has left more than 220,000 dead and driven nearly seven million Colombians from their homes.

The peace accord is an opportunity to formally end decades of violence. As the New York Times writes, “Victims of the conflict, many of whom have supported the process fervently, deserve recognition for their willingness to forgive. By facing down an enemy across the negotiating table, they set a laudable example at a time when so many of the world’s armed conflicts appear intractable.”

Thus, an important lesson I took away from living in Colombia is that clinging to past identities does nothing but cause more pain, more suffering, more violence. It is never too late to forgive, accept, more forward, re-build.

Lesson 2: Growth occurs through struggle.

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It wasn’t easy to learn a new language, teach at a different level, or live in the mountains, but overcoming these challenges made me stronger.

I tell ‘Natalia’ to go to the office. She’d just thrown an eraser at ‘Elizabeth’ and I’m on the verge of breakdown. Five other students are already staying in for detention at recess.

I just want them to stop talking and listen.

I want them to learn math. I want them to WANT to learn math. I want to be doing a better job right now. But I’d never taught math before. I’m trying my best. Sometimes my lessons suck but I’m learning.

‘Martin’ walks up to me while I’m in the middle of teaching a strategy for multiplying fractions. He shows me his Hatchet quiz and asks me why I’d taken a mark off for #5. You’re unfair. It’s Friday and we are supposed to be playing. We are just kids.

I know you’re kids but the class’ behaviour was terrible today and you didn’t earn your free time. We didn’t cover what we were supposed to cover in math. 

Fernando’s on the couch! ‘Monika’ yells from the back of the class. He’s not sitting in his seat. You’re unfair. It’s Friday and we are supposed to be playing. I don’t get fractions!!!

I take a deep breath.

I’m about to lose my shit. I knock on the teacher’s door beside me and ask him to watch my class. I walk around campus for two minutes, look at mountains, remind myself that life is beautiful and everything is going to be okay, then I go back to teaching math.

*

I avoid looking to my right at what looks like a 50 foot sheer drop into the dense jungle below. My heavy pack, filled with my tent, camping gear, and remnants of a week’s worth of food, throws me off balance as I carefully place my hands and feet on tree roots to pull myself up a steep, muddy cliff face. My body’s shaking, cold from the rain and terrified by my irrational fear of heights. All I can think is: Get me the fuck out of here.

We’ve been hiking for over 6 hours after a week of camping in Los Nevados National Park, and I just want to get home. But then getting home will involve another 4 hour drive in a jeep in my wet, smelly, camping clothes, and my family’s all back in Canada, enjoying the rest of their Christmas holidays, sitting warm and dry by the fire like normal people while I’m bushwhacking through the high-altitude cloud-forest in the Colombian Andes, so where’s home anyways?

*

It smells like gas. I say. The man looks at me blankly as I wave my hand in front of my nose and point to my gas tank by the washing machine.

He gestures towards the gas tank and asks me an onslaught of questions in Spanish. I don’t understand anything.

This continues for a few minutes. I’m feeling incompetent and incredibly helpless. What am I doing here? 

I type: “There’s a gas smell” into Google Translate and show him on my phone. He reads it and then types something himself.

Carbon Monoxide. I read. Is he telling me that there is a carbon monoxide leak in my apartment? Am I going to die in my sleep?

I call my friend, Jill, and ask her if she can speak to the contractor in Spanish over the phone. I hand the contractor the phone and he explains the situation to Jill. A valve was open. Some gas did leak. I’m not going to die. Keep the windows open. The smell should go away in a couple of hours.

Gracias. Gracias. Gracias. I say because it’s all I CAN say.

*

Colombia’s been ranked as the “Happiest Country in the World” twice in the five years, according to the WIN/Gallup International Association’s annual end of year survey.

So I found myself reflecting a lot about whether or not happiness is something I should be aspiring towards. (I wrote this blog post about this dilemma when I first arrived.)

During the year, locals often asked me if I was happy. Si, si. Estoy muy contenta. I’d say, after I learned enough Spanish to be able to do so. In some ways I was.

But there were definitely many low moments.

Life was really hard for me at times. I cried ALOT (especially at the beginning). During these moments, I’d beat myself up for not being “happy,” as I thought I should be. Look at all these incredible pics my other friends here are posting on Facebook about their amazing adventures. What’s WRONG with me??

Because I stuck it out during hard times, I learned some great teaching strategies that I can apply to future jobs. I can now speak broken Spanish, and decided to register for a course in Toronto so that I can continue to improve. The physical challenges that I undertook in the mountains taught me greater patience, discipline, and the importance of living in the moment.

While I don’t think I should seek out opportunities for sustained unhappiness, living in Colombia taught me the value of struggle. Many aspects of living and working in a foreign country were challenging. I often thought of quitting and coming back to Canada where people spoke my language and life was a little easier. Yet these struggles provided opportunities for incredible growth, which helped me become a stronger, more balanced, and tri-lingual (ish) person.

Lesson 3: Live in COLOUR.

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Chiva party. 8:00 am. Staff Appreciation Day in Salento

In Kanata, a suburb in Ottawa, Canada, just minutes away from where I grew up, there’s a city by-law which regulates the colours of homes and garage doors. Basically, if you paint your exterior doors purple, you will get fined. In contrast, the Colombian towns of Guatapé, Salamina, and Salento, look like a giant package of Skittles exploded and painted the whole town in rainbow. Colour is EVERYWHERE.

I’m not blaming Kanata’s bland garages on my shyness or how I’ve often placed limits on my own potential. But Colombia’s colourfully warm and vibrant culture inspired me to live bigger, brighter, and more passionately. It reminded me to embrace opportunities for love and adventure, even when they seemed like silly fantasies.

So when my friend and teaching partner, Matt, introduced me to the “20% Percent Project” which he had done with his class for the last couple of years, I quickly jumped on board. It’s a project which is inspired by Google’s mandate that its employees spend 20% of their time at Google to work on a passion project, something not covered by their job description.  This allows innovative ideas and projects to flourish and/or fail without the bureaucracy of committees and budgets. As a result of Google’s 20% Project, its employees created Gmail, AdSense, Google News, and the Google Teacher Academy.

Following Matt’s lead, I required that my students devote 20%(ish) of class-time learning about something that they are passionate about, something that adds colour to their lives. For their projects, they needed to choose a topic that they were excited to learn about, where they could apply research to creation and innovation.

They wrote weekly reflections on a blog that they shared with their classmates and presented their projects to their parents and school community in a TED-style 5 minute presentation at the end of the school year. The results of this project were unbelievable. My class of grade five students invented board games, wrote cookbooks, created craft books, created stop animation movies with characters and sets made out of LEGO, and built a model “Future House” using sustainable materials. It was amazing.

This project also inspired me to devote 20% of my own time to exploring my passions. As a result, I started the Inspiring Women Series podcast. I prioritized writing, travel, and living according to a healthy, active lifestyle. I spent five weeks traveling in Colombia with my parents, my brother, Brian, and my friend, Ashley. Then I spent most of August getting my novel ready for publication.

By learning to see the world (and myself!) through a more colourful lens, I was able to see greater possibilities for my life, and inspire my students to do the same.

Lesson 4: It’s okay to take care of yourself.

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My friend, Katie, takes time out to read a book during a long weekend in Salento

A few days ago Hillary Clinton took time off from the campaign trail to recover from pneumonia. She received much criticism for this decision, from people who condemned her for not being able to “power through” her sickness, to others who blamed her for not being more forthcoming initially about her medical condition. This criticism came to no surprise to me, as North Americans perceive taking time off as weakness.

My first couple of years of teaching, I never called in sick out of fear of being judged. When I was in university, I played rugby games with serious injuries because the culture of the sport promotes an invincibility complex. Needless to say, when I was required to take more than two weeks off of teaching after being attacked by a wild dog in Colombia, I felt very stressed out. A committed employee persists despite the pain, right?

Instead of making me feel pressured to come back to work, people from my school community came to visit me at home and in the hospital and even had food delivered to my house daily. They helped me to realize that my health was more important that my job, and that I don’t need permission to put myself first.

In Colombia, the attitudes towards self-care and rest are strikingly different than in North America. Colombia has the second highest number of national holidays in the world (after Argentina), with 18 public holidays and an average of 15 paid vacation days. Comparatively, Canada ranks third last in paid vacations. It’s hard to feel anything but lazy when you take time off in a culture where productivity is valued over health.

Living in Colombia helped me realize that taking care of myself is not a sign of weakness. In fact, it takes a lot of strength to say: I need help. I need time off. I need a break.

Lesson 5: Paths aren’t always linear.

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Maybe life’s a series of switchbacks, taking us up, down and around the mountain, instead of a straight path to the top.

There’s an underlying pressure in North America to follow a linear path. Go to school. Get X degree. Get Y job. Find husband. Buy house. etc. We are uncomfortable with living in the moment, allowing life to unfold organically. It feels stressful/ silly/ irresponsible to even consider opportunities that aren’t a tangible stepping stone to something else (especially if they don’t come with a pension or benefits!).

So when an opportunity for me to teach in Colombia presented itself to me, my immediate reaction was “well, maybe this would have been great a few years ago, but it’s time for me to ‘settle down.'”At the time, I was intending to stay in Toronto, and start building my life there. I wasn’t seeking out positions that would take me away from the city.

Since I’d never been to South America, I decided to apply for the job despite the rational side of my brain telling me not to.

A few days later, I had a great interview with the director of the school.  While I felt positively about the position, I was booked to fly to Johannesburg for a trip to South Africa later that day, and figured that seeing wild beasts on a safari in Kruger National Park would satisfy my thirst for adventure. I told the director thank you for the interview, but it is probably best if you interview other people as I’ll be offline for the next two weeks.

When I returned from South Africa, the director of the school requested a second interview. I panicked and ignored his e-mail for a day. It would have been much easier for me if he’d hired someone else. I could tell myself that going to Colombia to teach was a nice idea. But an unrealistic one.

I went for coffee that day with my cousin, Jenn, who was pregnant with twins at the time. I told her about the job prospect, and about my plan to tell the director that there was no point of going through the interview. I didn’t want the job anyways. She suggested that I go through the interview, and then decide. Keep my options open. Darn hormones!

After the second interview, the director offered me the job. I had the weekend to decide. I made pros and cons lists. Talked to my friends and family. Convinced myself that I would be better off not going. When I sat down to write the director the e-mail, thanking him for the offer, and telling him of my decision not to come, the e-mail somehow transformed into a “thank you for the offer and I’ll accept the position.

A few days later, I was offered a teaching position with the school board in Toronto. Of course. After four years of applying for jobs in Toronto and hearing nothing, I get offered a job NOW. The logical, rational, choice would have been to tell the school in Colombia about this unanticipated change in plans, and continue down the path I had intended for myself.

Teaching in Colombia was something I’d stumbled upon, not something I’d planned. Instead of finding the job, the job kind of “found me.” This experience taught me that sometimes it’s best to accept the gifts that life gives us, even if it takes us in an entirely different direction. I feel so grateful that I did.