New York, New York

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Chilly strolls through Central Park

I wasn’t in Times Square when the ball dropped, but arrived a few days later to kick off 2017 in what’s arguably the world’s greatest city.

Other than a quick jaunt into the city during a 12 hour layover to Toronto from Ecuador, this was my first time in NYC. All I can say after my short visit: 4 days, 3 nights, is that I want to go back. Many, many times.

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Times Square
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Grand Central Station (photo taken in August, 2016)

From 2009-2010, I lived in London, UK, another one of the world’s great cities. Even though I lived and worked there, met some lifelong friends, connected with locals, and even played on a rugby team, I still don’t feel like I really KNOW London. I’ll never be able to go to all of the pubs, cute little cafés, bookstores, or visit all of the unique neighbourhoods. No matter how many times I go back, I’ll never really know London. New York felt the same: every trip will be filled with new discoveries, new adventures, new possibilities, new mistakes, new lessons.

Maybe this is what makes a city great: a combination of sameness and newness, predictability and adventure, traditional and modern, stale and fresh. It’s nodding to the past while looking to the future.

There’s the awe and nostalgia of walking in the theatre district and imagining all of the stars who performed there. Or spending nights in gritty comedy clubs, wondering which celebrities once got their big break in the same run-down bars, likely hovering over the toilet seat because it was too disgusting to sit on, just like you did. There’s the fascination of staring at fancy cars with tinted windows, imagining that they might be escorting A-Listers, or picturing the cute barista who served your Grande Bold at Starbucks as the new McHottie in the next season of Grey’s Anatomy. It’s where dreams are made but also interrupted.

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Chelsea Market

 

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West End Graffiti

 

While in New York, I was reminded that everyone starts somewhere, and that what we are doing right now doesn’t make us who we are. It was also a refreshing lesson that life is full of surprises, from stumbling upon inspiring street art on the High Line, to discovering the most delicious pizza I’ve ever tasted in Midtown, to practising my Spanish at 2am in Greenwich Village, to reconnecting with friends in Hells Kitchen.

New York helped me realize that greatness doesn’t come without struggle, and that the struggle always takes us somewhere, even if it wasn’t where we thought we’d be going. So I guess there’s no other option than to accept the struggle, to stick with it, and not to beat myself up if I ate too much pizza or drank too much beer along the way, as tomorrow will always be a new adventure and New York will always be there.

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My 1.5 sec of fame on the Jan. 4th episode of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert (second row on right, second from right)

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.

 

Inspiring Women Series: A Conversation with Heather Cheeseman

Sarah & Robert - June 19, 2010

“It is only YOU who gets to make the choices about your own time and what you do…and you need to make the time for what DOES matter. It’s okay that that may not be what everyone else says matters…”

After growing up in Burlington, Ontario, Heather Cheeseman completed a Bachelor of Commerce degree at Queen’s University. In the fall of her fourth year, she was recruited by the international tax, audit, and advisory services firm, KPMG, and became a Partner in KPMG’s Canadian Mining practice by the age of 32.

Over the course of her career, Heather has visited over fifteen mine sites on six continents, and has significant experience providing internal and external assurance and other services to companies at all stages in the mining life cycle. Although she’s experienced tremendous career success, Heather still struggles with a sense of “impostor syndrome” in the workplace.

“No matter what success you reach or no matter what you do, you always think that someone else is going to figure out that you’re really not that good at what you’re doing.” 

During her undergrad, Heather also met her husband, Dave, while they were both working in their hometown of Burlington for the summer. As Dave attended Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, Heather and Dave maintained a long-distance relationship for a few years before eventually moving to Toronto where they both currently live and work.

“I think the thing with love…a big part of it is seeing beyond all the good stuff and seeing them for who they really are and accepting that…and knowing you’re not perfect and they’re probably not perfect, but accepting that about them… and being there through it…

…The good stuff’s easy.”

Despite her busy schedule as Partner for KPMG, Heather has learned to balance her personal and professional lives and make room for other things that are important to her, like spending time with her family and friends, traveling, drinking wine, and going to the gym.

“There’s always more work to do if you want to do it….so it can be A LOT if you forget about what else is going on in your life.”

It has taken her several years to establish boundaries at work but Heather believes that letting go of “work that doesn’t actually need to get done” so that she can put herself first has actually helped her to perform better at work. It has also improved her relationships, as she has learned to invest her time and energy into the people who matter the most to her.

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 Heather 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.

LASIK Eye Surgery in Colombia

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“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.

So I did a bit of research. Instead of being risky and “third-world” as I’d imagined, nearly everything I read, and people I talked to, convinced me that LASIK in Colombia consisted of high-quality doctors, cutting edge technology, and excellent patient care and treatment.Turns out, a Colombian doctor, Jose Barraquer, actually pioneered the earliest forms of the surgery in Bogota in the 1960s.

*

eyes

 

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.

“Ready?”

“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.

She doesn’t.

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.

Oops.

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?”

¿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. 

“Abierto. Abierto.”

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.

Literally.

 

 

 

 

 

Inspiring Women Series: A Conversation with Megan Valois

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“I’m just one person trying to leave the world a little better than I found it.”

The seventh episode of the Inspiring Women Series is 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 Series is 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.

You can subscribe to the podcast series in the iTunes store or listen to Megan’s interview here:

 

 

Inspiring Women Series: A Conversation with Louise Johnson

 

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“You have to stay authentic to what you really love, like when you were a kid, when you didn’t care what people thought…those weird quirky things…I think you should always hold onto those.”

For the sixth episode of the Inspiring Women Series, I had an insightful conversation with Louise Johnson, a Toronto-based writer and blogger.  I’ve known Louise since we were kids, as both of our families spend the summers in the beautiful cottage region of Norway Bay, Quebec. I’ve always been inspired by Louise’s love for her family, her way with words, her creativity, and her courage to put her thoughts into cyberspace.

Louise grew up in Oakville, Ontario, a suburb outside of Toronto. As a young girl, her  parents encouraged her to become  involved numerous activities, like dance and soccer. Louise believes her incredibly busy upbringing has helped her to learn how to balance her day job with her dreams of being a writer.

As a business student at the Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario, Louise spent her summers interning for Elizabeth Arden in New York. After graduating, she was offered a full-time job to work on the new Taylor Swift fragrance and starting making plans to relocate to New York City. However, two months before she was set to move, she was offered a position at Elizabeth Arden’s Geneva office and ended up moving to Switzerland for two years.

When she first moved to New York as an intern, Louise started the blog, Manhattan Maven, as a way of sharing her adventures abroad with her friends and family. She quickly realized her passion for writing and documenting, and the desire to pursue writing more seriously began to gnaw at her.

“It’s this invisible drive or voice inside of my head that I feel like I’ve always had. Sometimes it’s quieter than others, but it’s always there…and I just have to get it out.”

So, when she returned to New York after living in Switzerland, she assembled her writing portfolio and applied to grad school. Louise ended up getting into Harvard University’s Master’s of Journalism program and moved to Boston, where she fully committed herself  to the craft of writing.

Currently, Louise is living in Toronto and working full-time as an in-house writer for an advertising agency. This allows her to pay the bills, write creatively on the side, and live closer to her tight-knit family after six years of living abroad.

“I value my family so much…I am just in a constant state of ignorant bliss when I’m with them.”

On top of her day job, Louise is freelancing for several websites such as Normale MagazineGlamping Hub, and the Boston Day Book. Although she currently loves Toronto’s energy and social scene, she dreams of one day moving to a little cabin in the woods to write a novel.

In this episode of the Inspiring Women Series, Louise discusses why she left her incredible life in New York to pursue her dreams of becoming a writer, her obsession with her family, and the importance of living authentically.

“It’s hard to put yourself out there and take judgement, but when you do, it’s so freeing. You just stop caring what other people think and you just do things that make you happy… It’s the best feeling.”

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.

You can subscribe to the podcast series in the iTunes store or listen to Louise’s interview here: