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.
“I’ll never know, and neither will you, of the life you don’t choose. We’ll only know that whatever that sister life was, it was important and beautiful and not ours. It was the ghost ship that didn’t carry us. There’s nothing to do but salute it from the shore.”
-Cheryl Strayed, Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar
In the final scene of La La Land, Sebastian (played by Ryan Gosling), plays a heartbreaking salute on the piano to the ghost ship of his life. The life he didn’t choose flashes before his eyes. It’s an idyllic life, the one where he achieves his dreams AND ends up with his great love.
Sebastian will never know the magic that could have been his other life. None of us can. When we go in one direction, we are also choosing NOT to go in another. Our lives are defined as much by the choices that we make as the ones we don’t.
All choices have consequences, even the ones we don’t make.
In North American consumer culture, we seem to have forgotten that our choices have consequences. We are constantly surrounded by an abundance of options: not only can we buy barbecue chips, we can also buy ruffled, wavy, baked, or kettle-cooked; and in spicy, hot, chipotle, tangy, mesquite, hickory smoked, and sweet flavours (to name a few). We are non-committal, sampling the various flavours without making a real decision to go one way or another.
If you are lonely on a Friday night, all it takes is a couple of swipes on Tinder to find a range of prospective dates. Then we break up with each other by ‘ghosting’ and move onto the replacement as quickly as we left, or often it seems, before we even left at all.
As the world becomes more and more globalized, it is becoming easier for many of us (especially if we have Western white privilege) to travel and work abroad. This results in an endless list of possible career paths and destinations to add to our bucket lists.
Instead of being liberated by the many options available to us, many of us become paralyzed by choice. As Barry Schwartz, the author of The Paradox of Choice emphasizes, this culture of “over-choice” has detrimental outcomes as it prevents us from contributing to society in a meaningful way. We fail to choose because we don’t want to feel the pain or regret that’s associated with making the wrong choice. But we aren’t helping society or ourselves by doing nothing.
We only need to look at the recent US election, where nearly half of all registered voters didn’t vote, to see the consequences of the choices that people don’t make (read: Trump).
It’s important to “own” our choices.
Instead of being non-committal, we need to own the choices that we make. This allows us to continue making subsequent choices: either to correct mistakes that we made or continue in a similar direction. By making a decision, even if its the wrong decision, we put ourselves in a position to do something about the consequences if necessary.
In the last decade, I’ve worked as a teacher in three different countries and five different cities. Now that I’m back home, I’m feeling envious of friends who chose to stay in one place. As Facebook and Instagram constantly remind me, they now have stable careers, happy families, and financial security.
This has left me wondering: should I have stayed home too?
Maybe then, I too, would be where they are. Maybe I would have the job I’m seeking now. Maybe I’d have savings instead of debt. Maybe a man I loved wouldn’t have chosen someone else. Maybe I’d be happier. Maybe none of these things would have happened. Maybe all of them would have.
Importantly, though, the choices I have made have led me to who I am now.
I’ve trekked through expeditions in the Andes, Alaska, and the Arctic. I can speak English, French, and Spanish and a few phrases in Inuktitut. I’ve learned to understand and forgive myself more. I’ve met incredible friends all over the world. I can reconcile with the fact that I lived authentically, and made the decisions that I thought were right at the time with the information I had. So any thoughts of regret or feelings of envy are connected to a sense of entitlement over the path I didn’t choose.
By “owning” my choices, I’m better able to appreciate that I chose a different path, the one that was more authentically me. Just because my life looks different than some of my friends’ right now, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have its own unique value.
Fear and unworthiness lead us astray.
There have definitely been a few occasions in my life where I’ve made decisions knowing that they were wrong for me. While I have tried to be self-compassionate (I’m human and make mistakes), I’ve realized that in these situations, my inability to make the right decision was blocked by one of two elements:fear or unworthiness.
Here’s one example:
When I was in university I didn’t try out for the basketball team. I went to the training camp, saw how competitive the tryouts were going to be, and decided that I probably wasn’t good enough to make the team. I spoke to the basketball coach after the training camp and he told me that he wasn’t sure if I would make it. He couldn’t say yes or no. He would decide at tryouts.
But I never went to the try-outs. I was afraid of getting cut, so I didn’t go.
I chose to play rugby instead, which ended up being a great experience overall and connected me with an incredible group of lifelong friends who I still hang out with regularly. So everything worked out and in many ways I feel grateful for the choice that I made. But there was always this nagging desire to play basketball. I even spent the whole summer after first year training to tryout for the basketball team the next year. (I didn’t.)
In hindsight, it would have been much better for me if I would have tried out for the basketball team and let the coach decide whether or not I was good enough. At the end of the day, the person who put a value on my worth, the person who decided that I wasn’t good enough, was me.
My fear of getting cut had two negative consequences.
The first is that it prevented me from succeeding. I didn’t try so I didn’t make it.
The second is that it held me back from embracing the path that I’d chosen: rugby, whole-heartedly. I could have spent my summer after first year devoting myself to becoming a better rugby player, which would have been a more valuable contribution to the rugby team. But I didn’t. This taught me that when we fail to choose authentically, we don’t only hurt ourselves; we hurt the people around us as well.
Similar scenarios unfold all of the time in relationships.
Someone I loved very much told me that we couldn’t be together because he “wasn’t good enough for me.” This made me very sad because he was the person who decided he was not worthy of the relationship, not me.
It was very difficult for me to accept when I learned that he had chosen to be with someone else, because it made me wonder: Is he settling for less because he doesn’t feel like he is worthy of what he actually wants?
In the end, I realized that I can only control the choices that I make, and with time and tears (lots and lots of tears!), I worked on letting go, even though it was not what I wanted. While I chose him, I had to learn to accept that he didn’t choose me, whether or not I agreed with his justifications for not doing so.
Back to Sebastian and La La Land.
When the life Sebastian didn’t choose flashes before his eyes, he doesn’t try to fight it or change it. He doesn’t act entitled to it. He accepts it with tragic grace.
Sebastian made a choice to follow his dreams and he pursued that path with everything he had. He made a commitment to live authentically, and didn’t hold himself back due to fear of failure or regret or a sense of unworthiness. He went all in, and embraced his choice wholeheartedly.
The choices we make will define our lives, as well as the many versions of the lives we don’t have. So when we make choices, we need to be prepared to salute those ghost ships from the shore as they pass us by.
This means being able to ask ourselves two important questions:
Can I accept the choices I’ve made?
Am I living the life I imagined?
Since we can’t predict the future, we will never know the outcomes of our choices before we make them. Being able to answer “yes” to these two questions is the best that any of us can hope for.
The only life to which we are entitled is the one we are living right now, so we owe it to ourselves to choose the life we want to be living.
As a part-time fitness instructor, it’s my job to motivate participants to become stronger. Don’t give up. Keep going, stay strong. I cheer them on with cheezy one-liners and upbeat music, and I try to inspire them to challenge themselves physically by lifting heavy weights and pushing my body to the limit.
Physical strength has always been important to me. It’s enabled me to take on physical challenges, like a 24-day backpacking expedition in the Alaskan wilderness and cycling in Italy and Spain which have taught me discipline, resilience, and the power of positivity.
But lately, especially as I’m trying to figure out how to balance pursuing my passions and paying the bills, I’ve been wondering what I really mean when I’m encouraging people (and myself!) to be strong?
In North America, we tend to glorify independence, invincibility, fearlessness, and perfectionism. So in the past, I believed that “strong” people were fiercely independent, and void of vulnerability or imperfection. This definition of strength guided the way I lived, worked, and loved.
I rarely asked for help. I didn’t take care of myself enough. I prioritized my independence and career over some of the the relationships I valued most. I strived for perfectionism, and was overly hard on myself and the people I loved when I/they didn’t meet my unrealistically high expectations. When I played rugby, I taped up a sprained ankle to play in a championship game while my teammate played with a hairline fracture in her elbow, even though these choices put our bodies at risk for long-term chronic injuries.
Through some recent experiences teaching, writing & traveling, I’ve learned that being strong means something quite different than I had originally believed it to be. Here’s what “being strong” involves for me now.
The work of Dr. Brené Brown has also really challenged my perception of strength. As a self-professed “recovering perfectionist,” Brown’s research reveals that instead of being a sign of strength, that perfectionism is rooted in fear. Fear of not being enough. Fear of unworthiness. Fear of disconnection.
Her books, particularly Daring Greatly, have made me realize that vulnerability is not weakness. Rather, strength lies in embracing our vulnerabilities and having the courage to be imperfect. If you aren’t familiar with her work, I encourage you to check out this TED Talk.
Learning to embrace vulnerability has helped me to gain a better sense of self-worth and self-acceptance. It has made me a better teacher because when I allow myself to take risks and make mistakes, it gives my students permission to do the same, providing them with greater learning opportunities both in and out of the classroom.
In addition, it’s allowed me to develop deeper, more meaningful relationships. When I’m able to find the courage to speak and act from the heart, my friends and family members are more likely to engage in the relationship honestly themselves.
After living and working as a teacher in the Arctic, where society is centred around the community and not the individual, I learned that being strong doesn’t necessarily mean being able to do everything on your own. Instead, it’s having the humility to accept our limitations as individuals and ask for help and/or support from others when needed.
In the Arctic, the communities are small and isolated (in Pond Inlet, where I lived, there were only 1500 people) and resources are scarce, so people depend on each other for survival. Instead of admiring my independence, many of the local people felt like it was really sad that I would want to live so far away from my family. I couldn’t do many of the things, like running and cross-country skiing on my own because of safety concerns with extreme cold and polar bears, so I had to ask people to help me do these things. I depended on co-workers to help me understand the local culture and way of life and build relationships so that I could be accepted by community members.
Even though it’s still really hard for me to ask for help, I no longer see it as weakness. Living in the north taught me that relationships can make us stronger and that we gain strength through connection.
In addition to accepting help and embracing vulnerability, for me, strength also involves faith: faith in myself, faith in others, faith in the universe. It’s about trusting my intuition, letting go of the need to control everything all of the time, or having all of the answers right away. Connected to faith is resilience: getting back up when I’ve been knocked down, despite the obstacles that get in the way.
While writing my first novel, I struggled daily with self-doubt. Who am I to think I can write a novel? Will I even finish it? Will my book ever get published? Will anyone read it? Is it terrible?
There were days when the doubt was so crippling that I couldn’t even type a word. I’d go for a walk, clear my head, meet a friend, go get groceries, work at the gym, do ANYTHING else to avoid writing…because if I AVOIDED writing and never actually wrote the book, then I would never have to confront the fact that it might not get published, might be terrible, might humiliate me. But then the desire to write the book would eventually outweigh the doubt and I’d give myself a little pep-talk and continue writing.
I finished writing the book. It isn’t published…not yet anyways. But through the process, I learned how much I love the act of writing itself. Regardless of whether or not this particular book gets published, I have faith that one day, I will write a book that will.
In August 2015, I traveled to South Africa for my friends’ wedding and did a day trip to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was a prisoner for 18 of his 27 years in prison.
The experience was incredibly powerful, as tours were led by a former inmate who spoke about his time in prison and the oppressive system of apartheid that he had been fighting against. The guide spoke a lot about forgiveness and reconciliation, and how he had chosen to forgive his oppressors for the harm they had caused him and his country.
After apartheid was abolished in 1994, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established as a method of restorative justice where both victims and perpetrators of violence could give statements about their experience, and perpetrators could request amnesty from both civil and criminal prosecution. The guide emphasized how the path of forgiveness as opposed to punishment or revenge, was necessary for his country to heal and move forward.
At the time, I was grappling with how to forgive a friend who I felt betrayed by. This small personal conflict was so insignificant compared to what the prisoners at Robben Island had suffered, so I felt inspired to take the path of forgiveness in my personal life. Yet it wasn’t easy at all and I couldn’t even begin to imagine the strength it took South Africans to choose to forgive on the political scale.
I went back and forth about whether forgiveness was strength or weakness. Was I letting my friend off the hook by forgiving? Did forgiveness mean I would be risking more pain in the future? How would I benefit from forgiving?
After reading Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu’s, The Book of Forgiving (a life-changing read), I realized that true healing requires forgiveness. It takes a lot of strength to let go of the desire for revenge and retribution, but forgiving provides an opportunity for growth for all parties involved.
Now when I say, “stay strong” in my fitness classes, I’m trying to send a message (at least as a reminder to myself!) that strength is grounded in self-care, love and compassion. This means being okay with taking “off days” and allowing injuries time to heal. It means I’m not obsessing about numbers on the scale or my body fat percentage, but rather am learning to be vulnerable and accept my body’s imperfections.
Being strong doesn’t mean being invincible and independent and macho and fearless and perfect. It’s about looking inside ourselves and opening ourselves up so that we can grow, follow our hearts, connect with each other, and heal.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“You are perfect candidate.” Dr. Echeverri smiles. “We can schedule the surgery for two weeks.”
“Ella necesita usar las gafas durante las próximas dos semanas. Voy a examinar sus ojos el miércoles y ella puede tener la cirugía el viernes …”
The doctor starts speaking in Spanish to my school’s nurse, Maria Teresa, who has accompanied me to the appointment.
“You need to wear your glasses for two weeks. No contact lenses. Then you will need to see the doctor on Wednesday for an eye examination and your surgery will be on Friday,” she tells me.
Dr. Echeverri looks at me. “¿Tienes preguntas?”
“Any questions?” Maria Teresa translates.
“¿Cuánto tiempo…uh…no trabajo?…uh…no ejercicio?” I put my hands into fists do the running man action.
Again Dr. Echeverri smiles warmly, appreciating my efforts to speak in Spanish.
“Ummm…Friday, surgery, no trabajo. No work.” He replies. Yes, he can speak some English!
“One week, no exercise. One month, no swimming. Two months, no…ummm…deportes de contacto…” He looks at Maria Teresa for help.
“No contact sports for two months,” she tells me firmly.
I’ve always been curious about the possibility of getting LASIK eye surgery, but as a young Canadian struggling to build my career, pay off student loans, and scrape together the funds for world travel, it’s never been a budget priority.
“Maybe I’ll get LASIK when I’m a 30-year old professional and actually have savings,” I told my 25 year-old self. (LOL! #stillbroke)
But shortly after I moved to Colombia to teach at an international school, I learned that several of my American and Canadian co-workers had LASIK–IN COLOMBIA–and all had positive results. PLUS, at about 1, 700, 000.00 Colombian pesos (a little less than $750 CAD), it was much, much cheaper to have the surgery here as compared to in Canada or the US.
Two months later***, I’m at an ophthalmology office where a nurse is putting drops in my eyes to dilate my pupils for a pre-operative eye exam. This is an appointment that is usually scheduled a few days before the surgery so that the doctor can measure the refractive error, curvature of the eye, and thickness of the corneas, in order to create a map of the eye(s) prior to LASIK surgery.
My friend, Katie, is filling out some paperwork in Spanish for me, and answering the nurse’s questions about my demographic information for me, as at the time, my Spanish wasn’t good enough for me to answer myself. (Thanks Katie!)
After the drops set for about half an hour, an optometrist gestures me to put my chin and forehead against a metal device and look through a set of lenses. It takes him about five minutes to take the necessary photos of my eyes and measurements of my corneas in order for the doctor to get the final clearance for the surgery.
***(Unfortunately, I had to push back the appointment because I was attacked by a dog, and had to have two surgeries on my leg to debride the infection. Due to the potential risk of further infection, the doctor advised against putting my eyes in a vulnerable position and recommended waiting until the dog bite wound healed. This meant wearing my old, scratched glasses for two months instead of two weeks. While I could have gone back to wearing contacts for the time up until two weeks before the surgery, I decided to stick to the glasses to be safe. Contact lenses can distort the shape of your cornea, which could lead to inaccurate measurements and a poor surgical outcome.)
“Your vision will be perfect.”
Dr. Echeverri examines the results of the pre-operative exam. Using the measurement photos of my eye, he explains to me that the surgery will involve using a laser to create a flap in my cornea. He will then fold back the flap, remove a pre-determined amount of corneal tissue, and then lay the flap back in place. The whole procedure will take less than 15 minutes.
“No pain,” he reminds me.
At 9:30am on Friday, two days later, I meet my friend, Chrissie, in front of the building where the surgery is scheduled. Thankfully, she offered to go with me to the surgery, as I’m required to have a friend or family member take me home afterwards. Since my family is all back in Canada, so I am very grateful that Chrissie gave up her time to take care of me. She also had the surgery before with the same doctor, so understands my current state of anxiety.
“I guess,” I say honestly. “I was getting a little panicked at the gym this morning. I kinda just decided that I wanted the surgery and hadn’t let myself think about what it would be like until now. I’m freaking out a bit.”
“It’s better than you think,” she tells me.
We go upstairs to the Ophthamology Office and are greeted by a friendly receptionist who asks me to sign some release forms (in Spanish) and pay the money I owe for the surgery. I give her about 800 000.00 pesos in cash and then take out my credit card to pay for the remainder (I had been told I could put half on card).
The receptionist shakes her head and tells me that the debit machine isn’t working. She says I could come back Monday to pay if I had to, but it would be better if I could go to a debit machine at the mall next door. Fortunately, I had been paid a few days earlier so have enough money in my account.
Fifteen minutes later, Chrissie and I return to the office with the cash in hand. Almost immediately, a nurse asks me to follow her into another room, helps me put my purse and shoes in a locker, and hands me a blue hospital gown. I wait awkwardly for a few minutes for her to leave.
Maybe Canadians are a little more modest when it comes to undressing in front of people.
I start taking off my clothes and the nurse immediately waves her hands no-no-no then helps me put the robe overtop of my clothes.
Next, I’m led to a room where two other patients are lying on reclined leather chairs. There’s relaxing music playing and if one of the patients hadn’t been wearing little white plastic cones over his eyes, I would have guessed they were at a spa awaiting a pedicure.
I watch another nurse put drops into the other patient’s eyes. Then she gestures to me to sit in the vacant chair. I sit in the chair and join the “eye surgery assembly line.”
After I recline and try my best to relax, the nurse puts drops in my eyes as well.
“¿Alguien lavar los ojos?” I hear a nurse nearby say.
“¿SHANNON?” ¿Alguien lavar los ojos?”
“No entiendo.” I don’t understand. I don’t understand. I don’t understand.
I freak out a bit, realizing that much of my Spanish comprehension comes from being able to read facial expressions and body language.
“Umm…she wants….uh…to know if someone has washed your eyes yet,” the guy sitting beside me with the cones on his eyes translates for me.
“Oh, no. No one has washed my eyes.”
I’m wheeled into a surgical room on a stretcher and put underneath a machine with a bright light that makes me feel like I’m at the dentist.
Dr. Echeverri greets me and then tapes my left eye shut.
“Now look at the red light….uh..very important,” he says as he positions my right eye under the laser.
He puts some more drops in my eyes which I presume is the anaesthetic. Then he uses a device to clamp my eyelid open. I’m still starting at the red light, which is hard to avoid looking at now that I can’t blink. I can’t feel anything as Dr. Echeverri uses a tool to mark the spot where the flap will be created on the cornea.
“A little…pressure,” he warns and as he places a suction ring on top of my eye to prevent eye movements.
“Now very important. Look at the red light. There will be…uh…twenty seconds of laser. The light will be a little…uh…blurry.”
I can feel someone–one of the nurses?–hold my hand, which makes me feel more at ease. I keep staring at the red light. It’s okay, be calm, Shan. I give myself a pep-talk and try to think of my family at the cottage and of my upcoming summer travels to help me relax. You wanted to do this, it’s okay. You won’t have to wear glasses and that’s so awesome.
CLICK-CLICK-CLICK-CLICK-CLICK. The red light becomes black and blurry, the way things would look after staring directly at the sun for too long. I can smell a slight burning smell. Then the red light looks more clear then it did before.
“Perfect. Keep staring at the red light.”
I can see a tool scraping my eye and my vision becomes a bit blurry, like someone has applied Polysporin directly to my eyeball.
He tells me to open and close my eye several times. Every time I open my eye the red light seems more clear than before.
“Everything was perfect.” I can hear Dr. Echeverri’s calm, soothing voice.
Then he tapes my right eye shut.
I’m back in the assembly line (that feels like a spa waiting room), sitting on a reclined leather chair. Now I’m the one with the plastic cones on my eyes, while two others are being prepped for surgery.
My eyes are tearing up a lot, partly because of all the drops that the nurses are putting into my eyes, and partly in reaction to having been recently “lasered.”But I feel no pain. I’m surprised that I can see.
Before the surgery, I had imagined having a day or two of total darkness, where I’d be in a state of uncertainty of whether the surgery worked, and whether I’d ever be able to see again. But this is not the case. I know my vision is perfect. I feel so lucky. No more glasses for me!
Less than an hour after the surgery, the nurse takes me into a room where Dr. Echeverri examines my eyes. I’m surprised when he asks me to open my eyes and look through a similar apparatus that had been used to examine my eyes in the pre-operative exam.
“I thought that I wasn’t allowed to open my eyes.”
“You are allowed to open your eyes to go to the bathroom and eat.” I hear Chrissie’s voice. So the next few days will not be lived in total darkness as I’d imagined.
“Ok, everything is perfect.” Dr. Echeverri reassures me with his soothing, caring voice.
Tears are running down my face from all of the drops that the nurses have put in, so I wipe them off my right cheek and then go to wipe my eye. Then I freeze, realizing that I’m about to rub an eye that had undergone a major surgery less than an hour earlier.
Dr. Echeverri looks at me in disbelief.
“That is forbidden,” he says calmly, yet sternly. “Your cornea might detach. Very dangerous.”
I feel so stupid.
He gives Chrissie instructions in Spanish which she writes down for my friends, Katie and Jill, who will be taking care of me on the weekend (thanks ladies!!). I have to put drops in my eyes every hour for the next few days, and then use them as needed for the next year (which, six weeks after the surgery, has been a couple times a day).
I’m not allowed to look at screens or read all weekend, so no cell phone, computer, or book, for the next three days, and am not allowed to exercise for one week. I have to wear sunglasses inside for a little over a week and can’t go swimming for at least a month. I’m allowed to shower but have to keep my eyes closed.
And no rubbing my eyes. EVER.
I will have to go back to see Dr. Echeverri in two days and then a couple more times in the next few weeks to make sure my recovery is advancing as expected. But I can go to work on Monday for my students’ graduation, and other than some slight discomfort, I should feel no pain.
Medicine is amazing.
One of the gifts of travel is that it broadens your perspective and helps you see the world through a clearer lens.
Well, living in Colombia has given me better than 20/20 vision.
“I’m just one person trying to leave the world a little better than I found it.”
The seventh episode of the Inspiring Women Seriesis my conversation with Megan Valois, a high school teacher in the Ottawa Catholic School Board and a longtime friend of mine.
Since she is one of the hardest working, most caring, and most positive women that I know, I feel fortunate that Megan was willing to share her story, insights, and passions with me.
Megan grew up in Ottawa, Ontario, where she currently lives and works. As a young girl, she was inspired by her father’s commitment to volunteerism, and became dedicated to community service herself.
“His name on a bulletin board wouldn’t mean anything to a lot of people…but the people who did know him were greatly impacted by him, and that’s the type of person that I want to be.”
During high school, she volunteered at her church, was involved in her school’s Youth Ministry and Peer Helping programs, and spearheaded the Student Ambassador Program for Kids Help Phone in Ottawa. In 2002, she received the Governor General’s Caring Canadian Award for her contributions to the greater community.
“It’s just the little things that, cumulatively, create a person’s legacy.”
After “fast-tracking” from high-school, Megan completed a Bachelor of Arts degree at Acadia University in Nova Scotia. Following her graduation, Megan moved back home and earned her Bachelor of Education degree at the University of Ottawa with teachables in English and History at the Intermediate and Secondary Levels. She also has additional qualifications in Special Education, Primary/Junior Education, and French as a Second Language.
Megan has been working as a high school teacher for 10 years and is currently teaching Grade 11 English and Grade 10 history, including a “sheltered class” which consists of only ESL students. As a teacher, Megan is passionate about differentiated instruction, Assessment for Learning, 21st Century Learning, and the use of technology in the classrooms. Megan moderates Canadian Ed Chat and has completed her Google Apps for Education training. In 2012-2013, Megan received the honour of being one of five teachers recognized by Queen’s University as “Associate Teacher of the Year.”
“I would love to do something that has a big impact on education.”
As she is very invested in ongoing professional learning, Megan uses much of her spare time networking with other educators online, preparing for conference presentations, and attending professional development workshops. However, since giving birth to her son, Ethan, just under two years ago, Megan has learned to balance her passion for teaching with her family responsibilities.
In this episode of the Inspiring Women Series, Megan discusses her passion for education, the unique challenges of being an “army wife” (her husband, Travis, serves in the Canadian Armed Forces), her desire to make a difference in the world, and the importance of surrounding herself with positive people.
“I thrive on positive energy because when you are around like-minded people who really want to make a positive impact, it really causes you to look inward as well and ask yourself: ‘Where is my passion? What is my fire? Where do I want to go? What do I want to do? What kind of impact do I want to have?'”
The Inspiring Women Seriesis a podcast dedicated to sharing the many stories of women who have inspired me in my life, or who have inspired others. Please contact me if you would like to nominate someone for me to interview.
“I think sometimes you just have to let some things go so that you can find better things.”
For the fourth episode of the Inspiring Women Series, I had a lovely conversation with Josefina Bittar, a Paraguayan woman who currently holds a Fulbright Scholarship to study a Master’s Degree in Linguistics at the University of New Mexico in the United States.
After graduating from high school in Paraguay, Josefina studied Language Arts at the University of Asuncion. During her undergrad, at the age of 19, Josefina became pregnant and got married. Unfortunately, her marriage didn’t work out and she got divorced shortly after.
Instead of dropping out of school to deal with the emotional pain of her divorce and the challenges of raising her son as a single mother and full-time student, Josefina found the strength to continue her studies.
“School made me happy. If I didn’t have school, it would have been much more difficult.”
Her close-knit extended family was an amazing support for her during this difficult time. In addition, Josefina found hope through learning the stories of other women who had also gone through a similar experience. Josefina feels that her divorce has taught her important lessons that can be applied to both her personal and professional lives.
“You can try to convince yourself that this is the person or this is the place or this is the job and you don’t realize that you might be missing out…that there might be something better for you out there.”
Following university, Josefina worked for two years as a school teacher at the American School of Paraguay in Asuncion. While she excelled as a teacher, she felt pulled to continue her education. When she was awarded the prestigious Fulbright Scholarship, she moved to the United States with her 6-year-old son and her new husband.
In the future, Josefina hopes to work as a linguist in Paraguay, and possibly pursue a PhD so she can research the country’s use of Spanish and Guaraní, an indigenous language spoken by 90% of the population.
There has been very little research done in linguistics in Paraguay, so Josefina hopes to advance knowledge in this field. (Guaraní is the only indigenous language of the Americas whose speakers include a large proportion of non-indigenous people. Elsewhere, the indigenous languages have been largely replaced by European colonial languages such as Spanish, French or English).
In this episode of the Inspiring Women Series, Josefina talks about her research goals, love, self-acceptance, and the many different roles that women can have in society.
“I’ve learned that I can be the way I want to be, and as long as I’m a good person…that’s okay…”
The Inspiring Women Series is a podcast dedicated to sharing the many stories of women who have inspired me in my life, or who have inspired others.
In light of it being Valentine’s Day in North America (in Colombia El Dia del Amor y La Amistadis celebrated in September), I thought I’d write about self-love. (After all, the longest relationship any of us will ever have is with ourselves!)
Sadly, though, we live in a world that makes it difficult to love ourselves. From a young age, we are taught that we are never enough. Beauty is purchased. Happiness is pursued. Bodies are shaped. There’s always someone smarter, fitter, faster, stronger, more beautiful than us. In my grade five class, I’ve been alarmed by the number of uber-thin girls who have told me how fat they are, and the boys who have broken down in tears after receiving 9/10 on their Math quizzes. As high-achieving ten-year-olds, they are already striving for perfection in every aspect of their lives.
But I did the same when I was their age. I was constantly complaining about how fat I was compared to the other girls in my ballet class and would wear baggy sweatshirts to hide my curvy figure. While I never developed an eating disorder, like many other dancers and female athletes, I struggled with exercise addiction until my mid-twenties (and arguably still do). I’d push my body to the point of injury and would beat myself up if I missed a day at the gym.
I’ll admit, there was a day during my undergrad when I taught three fitness classes and then played 80 minutes of rugby. I’d always opt for a Sunday morning run over Sunday morning cuddles with my boyfriend. In addition, I over-scheduled my life with clubs, activities, and leadership roles to fulfill a compulsive need to be the best at everything I did. But it wasn’t entirely my fault: “busy-ness,” over-achievement and perfectionism were glorified in the culture of my university. I even won an award at my graduation for outstanding contribution to athletics and student government. I’m sure my Dean’s List average, long list of extra-curriculars, and high-achieving résumé helped me land a grad school scholarship.
However, my extensive involvement and over-scheduled life came at a cost: time for myself. I went years without going to the doctor, was often running on little sleep, experienced several chronic injuries from over-exercise, and took some of the relationships I valued most in my life for granted. I missed a few of my good friends’ weddings. I had to skip out on Thanksgiving at the cottage (my favourite family time of the year), and wasn’t able to be there for friends who were going through hard times. Also, I never made time for creative pursuits, like writing and photography, which add joy and meaning to my life.
It took a tough and painful breakup alongside the professional heartbreak of not receiving funding for my PhD research for me to realize that the compulsive need to be busy all of the time, as well as perfectionism, come from a place of fear of not being enough as I am. I was forced to confront the fact that I’m human like everyone else, and this means accepting that I’m deeply flawed and ultimately, imperfect. But, as a good friend wisely told me, my beauty lies in my imperfection: my inability to close cupboards or doors, my awkwardness in big groups, my terrible sense of direction.
One of the hard lessons that I’ve learned from being a teacher is to practise self-love in both my personal and professional lives. This means, putting myself first and being okay with saying “no” to people who need my help.
Most of my teaching experiences have been in low-income, “at-risk” communities, like inner-city Toronto and London, and on First Nations reserves. So I’ve worked really hard in my role as a “helper”: helping students believe in themselves, helping them overcome adversity, helping them reach their potential when the odds are stacked against them. However, the amount of energy I spent in investing in others came at the expense of helping myself. Since I was on the road most weekends coaching basketball or rugby, I struggled to make time for the people and passions that I loved. This led to frustration and burn-out. It’s no wonder that nearly half of teachers leave the profession within their first five years of teaching.
I love teaching, but I’ve learned that to thrive in the profession, as well as maintain my health and sanity, that I have to constantly practise self-love. I have to put myself before my students. As my amazing and inspiring friend and fellow teacher said, “It’s like being on an airplane. You have to put on your own oxygen mask before you put on someone else’s.” This means making time every day to exercise, prepare healthy meals, and get to bed early, no matter how much grading I have. I give myself permission to have shitty lessons every now and then. I give less assignments that I have to grade myself and have more peer and self-evaluated assessments. I continue to be involved in extra-curriculars but I don’t coach EVERY sports team or run EVERY club.
Prioritizing self-love in my professional life has also helped me in my personal life. I say “no” to social events I don’t want to go to and have stopped trying to please other people. I make time to pursue my passions like writing and travel. I’ve stopped investing in friendships that don’t make me better or add substance to my life and instead, spend the bulk of my time with the people I really care about. While I still exercise most days, I schedule time for my body to rest and recover, and I don’t beat myself up when I skip my workouts.
While I spent the bulk of this Valentine’s Day alone, I didn’t feel sad or lonely. I went for a beautiful run in the morning and shared a traditional Colombian lunch with my friend. I spent the afternoon writing in a café, practiced photography with my new camera, and then enjoyed una cerveza y solwith another friend. I felt free to do what I wanted with who I wanted because I didn’t feel the need to achieve, or please, or meet any sort of social expectations.
This Valentine’s Day, I feel lucky to have spent the day loving the person who matters most in my life: me.