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)
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.
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.
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.
Since 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.
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?”
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.
See What Flowers is available as an eBook and paperback on Amazon. Thank you everyone for all of your support.
During my Spring Break from teaching, I was lucky to have had the chance to visit the Grand Canyon, Arizona, one of the seven “Natural Wonders of the World.”
It is stunning. Beautiful. Inspiring. Terrifying.
Nature has the power to stretch the limits of the imagination. When we witness the unimaginable, we are able to dream bigger and see the world through a new lens of possibility.
Bearing witness to one of the World’s Natural Wonders left me with a new perspective of how small and insignificant I am and how silly my “issues” are.
Meaning only exists inside of my own mind–what I believe to be true, real, possible. I’m only one small, speck on this Earth so I may as well create meaning that actually matters and let go of the shit that doesn’t.
“Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.”
“Nature always wears the colors of the spirit.”
-Ralph Waldo Emerson
“In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.”
“Curiosity is the one thing invincible in Nature.”
“If we admit that human life can be ruled by reason, then all possibility of life is destroyed.”
“In the long run, we only hit what we aim at.”
-Henry David Thoreau
“It’s not always necessary to be strong, but to feel strong.”
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.”
– Aldous Huxley
After spending 9 months living and working in Manizales, Colombia, as a teacher at a private bilingual school, I took advantage of my summer holiday to explore the country for five weeks before returning to Canada.
While I’ve traveled solo before, I felt incredibly grateful to have company this time. My parents, my brother Brian, and my friend, Ashley (who I travelled with for 3.5 weeks), joined for various segments of the trip.
Although traveling with someone else requires some negotiation and compromise (Mom slept in a yurt!), a travel companion, especially someone you love, allows for deepening of relationships, shared memories, and opportunities to explore places you wouldn’t venture to on your own.
At first, when Ashley and I decided to embark on a South American adventure together, we planned to cover a typical tourist route: meet in Cartagena. Fly to Bogotá. Fly to Lima. Hike Machu Picchu. Visit Lake Titicaca. Bus to La Paz. Tour the Salt Flats in Bolivia. AMAZING. However, once we began our research, we felt like we were designing a trip for the sake of checking items off a bucket list. Too much time on overnight busses and racing from one place to the next. Not the adventure either of us had in mind.
We wanted to travel more slowly, allowing ourselves to stumble upon hidden gems. So we decided to spend the time we had together exclusively in Colombia. For me, this was a special chance to really get to know the country I’d been living in, before returning back home to Canada.
One of the gifts of travel is that it opens your eyes to many new possibilities for adventure and discovery. Travel also teaches you many lessons and I wrote about what I learned from teaching and traveling in Colombia here. My summer in Colombia certainly left me with a yearning to come back and explore more!
Check out this map of my five-week adventure, beginning in Bogotá. If you’re visiting Colombia for the first time, I’d recommend adding a few days in Medellin. (With it’s trendy cafés, progressive transit system, and eclectic arts scene, it was one of my favourite places in Colombia.)
A picture says a thousand words...
Here’s a taste of my five-week adventure in Colombia in photos!
Tayrona National Natural Park
These are the places that we visited on a 3-day tour of La Guajira. We joined the tour in Riohacha and traveled northeast to Faro, Punta Gallinas, the northernmost tip of South America.
Stage 2 of our trip was the transition from the coast back to the mountains. We flew with Avianca from Riohacha to Bucaramanga (via Bogotá). I don’t have any pictures of our time in Bucaramanga…we spent most of it at the mall!
San Gil & Barichara
Thank you to Mom, Dad, Brian, and, of course, Ashley, for joining me on this amazing adventure!
We all learned that Colombia is an extremely diverse country with a warm & vibrant culture…no longer the Colombia of Narcos (drugs, violence & Pablo Escobar). I feel so lucky to have been able to discover this beautiful country con mi familia y una amiga increíble.
“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.