Living Through Fear Versus Fearless Living

I recently published my first novel, See What Flowers. But it took me almost 30 years to find the courage to start writing.

“What was stopping me was my assumption that people who pursue their dreams were a different class of human: the fearless.”

For more info about how I learned to accept my fears and pursue my dreams in spite of them, check out my article published on Rebelle Society.

To access the article, click here.

Rebelle Society is a unique, revolutionary online magazine publishing daily acts of Creative Rebellion and celebrating the Art of Being Alive through words and mixed media.

Am I a Bad Mom if I let my Child Fall & get Hurt?

“In our happiness-obsessed culture, we often feel like bad parents, bad teachers, bad friends—bad people—when we allow others or ourselves to fall.”

Shannon Mullen, Elephant Journal

This isn’t an article about parenting.

Not really.

I’m not a mom.

But I know that my amazing mom friends seem to be asking themselves this question a lot.

To access my article in Elephant Journal, an online magazine about mindful living, click here.

The Secret Garden: Magic, Solace & Adventure

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Why stand when you can JUMP in front of Cotopaxi, the world’s highest ACTIVE volcano?!

When I was in Grade 2 a teacher at my school gave me the children’s novel, The Secret Garden, as a gift.

thesecretgardenbookAs I was quite the avid reader, I read it in less than a weekend. It’s a story about an orphan, Mary, who is sent to England to live with a a grieving uncle. At first she feels isolated and neglected, but eventually finds solace in a rose garden she discovers. Being in the secret garden is a magical experience for Mary and transforms her into a healthier, happier version of herself.

Maybe it was my love of nature, the outdoors, and summers at the cottage, but I instantly connected with the story of a girl who is transformed by the power of nature.

I was also enchanted by the idea of secrets; the playful privilege of holding onto information that others would never know about.

So after reading The Secret Garden, I did something that seemed like the obvious next step: I created a fake cover in the book and hid a couple of crisp $2 bills inside (which had recently been discontinued from circulation), thinking that they might be worth something someday. They are still there.

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More than 20 years later, I was reminded of that childhood secret I created–the discontinued 2$ bills hidden in a secret cover inside The Secret Garden, bills which are now valued at more than 20$–when my friend, Michelle, recommended that I visit The Secret Garden Cotopaxi“It’s literally the best hostel I’ve ever stayed at.”

Two months later, The Secret Garden Cotopaxi became my favourite hostel as well.

After spending almost a year living and working as a teacher in Colombia, I took a two week trip to Ecuador before heading back home. The previous five weeks, cinco semanas de viaje en Colombia, had been spent with people I love: my parents, my brother Brian, and my friend, Ashley. So I was craving a bit of time to myself for quiet reflection on Las lecciones: What I learned from teaching & traveling in Colombia.

I took a 2 hour bus ride from The Secret Garden Quito (sister location in Ecuador’s capital) to The Secret Garden Cotopaxi for four days of activity and adventure in the Andes at the base of Cotopaxi, the world’s highest active volcano.

When I arrived it felt like I’d stepped into a fairytale. The landscape: golden grasses of high Andean tundra, rolling green pastures, and clear blue sky contrasted against the snow-capped peaks of Cotopaxi (which means the neck of the moon in Kichwa, one of Ecuador’s Indigenous languages), was enchanting. It was like I’d stepped into Mary’s rose garden, the majestic Eden I’d read about as a child but that I knew didn’t really exist in real life. It was beautiful. Enchanting. Real.

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Cotopaxi clear day

The hostel itself was as magical and special as the surrounding landscape. As soon as I stepped off the bus, I felt like I’d become part of a family. There’s no WIFI, so travellers are forced to talk to each other, share dinners together, play cards, and relax in the hot tub, basically, a kind of summer camp for adults.

During the day, we could opt to go hiking, mountain biking, fishing, horse-back riding, or even summit the volcano (this option was not available to me as Cotopaxi was closed due to recent volcanic activity).

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shan caught a fish

Park entrance

Even though I met many amazing people from all over the world at the hostel, I appreciated being able to take time to myself to write, read, and reflect.

For me, it was a time of transitions.

I was moving back home after living in Colombia for nearly a year, and I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to leave. Part of me wanted to stay. There was so much more of South America that I wanted to discover. I wanted to improve my Spanish. I would be leaving behind a special community of friends that I had made. The story felt, in a way, unfinished, and I wasn’t ready to write the ending just yet.

But I knew I needed to go back to Canada, at least for a little bit, to publish my first novel, to spend time with my family, to gain a little bit of stability before the next adventure (Patagonia: Dec 2017!!!).

I’m thankful that the mountain air of Cotopaxi helped me to find some peace and clarity about moving forward at a time when all I wanted to do was take a u-turn and go back.

The thing I’ve learned about journeys and paths from traveling is that they don’t have to be linear. Mine is winding and twisted, with just as many u-turns as straight stretches. I’ve learned that just because you leave doesn’t mean you can’t, or won’t, ever go back.

Sometimes I do go back.

We hear the expression “going full circle” all of the time. Maybe our paths in life aren’t lines but circles.

When I was in Grade 2, I was enchanted by The Secret Garden. More than 20 years later, I was enchanted again. And the value of my 2$ bills just keeps growing.

Shan Pasochoa hike

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Cotopaxi waterfall

Cotopaxi clear day

Me and Volcano

Cotopaxi hike

 

The Scariest Thing About Sharing Our Story

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“I guess I’d been experiencing it for the 30 years before I actually started writing the book,” I admitted. “I knew that I wanted to write a book ever since I was a kid, but I was too afraid to try.”

It’s true. My fears—of failure, of not being good enough, of what people would think, of not getting published—had held me back from starting at all. So I made a lot of excuses and told myself a narrative of “shoulds.”

I should work toward a more stable career.

I should accept that it’s too hard to “make it” as a writer.

I should appreciate my life as it is.

I should be more realistic.

In my latest piece for Elephant Journal, an online magazine dedicated to mindful living, I write about fear, self-doubt, success, and why it’s not selfish to pursue our dreams.

You can access the entire article here.

Cottaging, Camping & Book Promo: My Summer at Home

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Camping on Little Coon Lake in Algonquin Park

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking for moose
First annual cousins canoe camping weekend in Algonquin Park!

 

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

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

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

Where I Wrote It! The Making of See What Flowers

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

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

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

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

1. Boxcar Social (Summerhill)

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

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

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

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

2. Toronto Reference Library

Reference Library

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

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

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

3. Balzac’s (Toronto Reference Library)

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

4. Saving Gigi

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

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

5. Bloomer’s 

Bloomers

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

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

6. TTC

TTC

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

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

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

Where I Wrote It: Outside of Toronto

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

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

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

I Told a Story at True Stories Told Live Toronto!

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

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

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

Why?

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

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

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

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

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My storytelling début at TSTL Toronto!

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

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

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

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

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Stephan wearing his Cavs jersey on the frozen Arctic Ocean

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

Learn From La La Land And Choose the Life That You Want to Live

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As an avid Thought Catalog reader, I’m honoured that my article, “Learn From La La Land and Choose the Life That You Want to Live” has been published on the site.

“Instead of being liberated by the many options available to us, many of us become paralyzed by choice. We are non-committal, sampling the various flavours without making a real decision to go one way or another.”

Thought Catalog is an online magazine with over 30 million monthly readers. Thought Catalog was founded in 2010 to empower creative people by helping them realize their artistic visions on their own terms.

Click here to read my article.

We’re Not Entitled to the Life We Didn’t Choose

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This article has been published on Rebelle Society.

“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.

Acceptance.

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.