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!

On Writing: Faith & Sweat

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Bestselling author Glennon Doyle Melton gets up at 4:30am to write.

This morning I was going to get up early and go to the gym. I didn’t.

After the gym I was going to go to my fave café and get my marking out of the way so that I could spend the afternoon writing. I didn’t.

What did I do this morning?

I slept in until after 10am (which rarely happens) & I lay in bed scrolling through Instagram on my phone.

Truth is that this is what my body & mind needed this morning. Rest and recovery. So I’m not going to beat myself up over skipping the gym and letting my marking sit in my backpack for a little longer.

But while scrolling through Instragram I came across the above post by Glennon Doyle Melton (@glennondoylemelton), founder of Momastery and author of #1 New York Times Bestseller LOVE WARRIOR, a memoir of her journey of self-discover following the implosion of her marriage. It’s an honest & inspirational account of confronting pain and claiming love. I highly recommend it. (So does Oprah!)

Faith & Sweat

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Glennon’s post struck me this morning because it reveals how important it is to MAKE TIME to pursue our passions. Even bestselling authors like Glennon struggle to prioritize their writing.  As a mother of three children, Glennon struggled to find time to write amidst her family responsibilities. So she gets up before her family is awake to make it happen. Even if this means dragging herself out of bed when she wants the extra sleep. Her memoir, Love Warrior, is the product of her getting up at 4:30am so that she could MAKE TIME for writing.

As an aspiring writer myself, I’ve been finding myself resenting the various responsibilities that encroach on my time to write.

I’m a full-time teacher during the week, so in order to meet professional standards, as well as my own personal standards for myself (which are arguably too high sometimes), I need to spend time in the evening and weekends to get marking done, and prepare my lessons. It is not fair of me to resent my job or even my students because these tasks take time away from writing.

Teaching also allows me to pay the bills and contribute to society in a meaningful way. As of now, writing is not paying the bills. So as much as writing fuels my heart, it is not fuelling my very hearty appetite. It is not paying my rent. It is not paying utilities. It is not paying for the splurge on the blue cowboy boots I bought in Arizona.

Still, writing fuels my soul and makes me feel happy in a way that nothing else can. Not a person. Not an adventure. Not an experience. It is really hard to explain what writing does for me. I guess it is when I feel most like myself.

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I love this interview with Joan Didion on CBC’s Writer’s & Company.

Before I wrote my first novel, See What Flowers, (which is yet to be published and maybe never will), I had the same attitude as “S”, the aspiring writer Glennon refers to in her Instagram post. I thought “One day when I have enough money, I will write. One day, when I have enough time, I will write. One day, when I am good enough to do it, I will write. One day, when I have a good enough idea, I will write.” But somehow the desire to write overcame the excuses not to and I made the time.

Having saved up a lot of money from living in the Arctic and having the privilege to live with family and not pay rent, I took 10 months off of teaching to write.

The process of writing a novel that hasn’t been published taught me how important it is for me to make time for writing in my life. Regardless of whether my novel gets published, or regardless of whether or not anyone else thinks my writing is any good…writing adds meaning and value to my life in a way that nothing else can.

I likely will never be a bestselling writer like Glennon Doyle Melton. But I certainly won’t if I don’t “SWEAT”: if I don’t make time to work on the craft. I can’t get the beach body by skipping the gym every morning…

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I also won’t make time for writing if I don’t have FAITH. I need to believe that I am deserving of making time to devote to my craft.

Maybe this novel won’t be published. Maybe the next one that is yet to be started won’t be either. But for me, the process of writing is enough to justify making the time to do it, even if this means early mornings, Saturday nights in, and allowing my marking to pile up every now and then.

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The next book won’t be written “one day.” The next article won’t be written “one day.” The dream won’t happen “one day.”

But it doesn’t have to happen all at once either. It will happen bit by bit, by carving out some time each day, and with a lot of faith & sweat.

This means setting boundaries on other responsibilities, setting limits on how much I do for other people, and putting myself and my own dreams & desires first sometimes.

Time to hit the gym.

 

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.

What does it means to be “strong”?

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Eva & I team teaching Body Pump 99!

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.

Vulnerability

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.

Humility

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.

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I was a ‘teacher’ on this school land trip, BUT students were definitely teaching me!

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.

Faith

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.

Forgiveness

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Mandela’s cell on Robben Island

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.

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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.

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: