How to Survive the Toddler Years – A Mini-Survival Guide for Parents

Today is my daughter’s third birthday. As I was listening to her dad put her to bed tonight I overheard her say “But I don’t want to be three Daddy. I want to be two again. Next year I will be three okay?” I have noticed that lately she has wanted to play “baby” quite a bit. She will lie down on the floor with her feet and hands in the air making cooing sounds. Then she will show off for me how well she can crawl. After a minute she will announce that she just learned to walk. It drives her dad a bit crazy, but, having worked as a counsellor for several years, I know all too well what is fueling this “regression”. The simple truth is this: change is scary.

We, as adults, might think of all of the changes she is facing as progress, and rather exciting progress at that. We applaud each time she masters a new task and tell her what a big girl she is. But toddlers are no different than we are as adults. Change makes us all a bit nervous. Adults, as a general rule, do not do change well. Think back to the last time you decided to lose weight, or quit your job, or eat healthier, or quit smoking. If you are like most people, before you actually attempted any of those things, you likely spent a good chunk of time in ambivalence; that lovely place where part of you wants to change and the other part is decidedly not as excited by the whole prospect. So instead of changing, we hem, we haw, and we list three good reasons not to change. Then after months or even years of this hemming and hawing, we decide we’re really going to do it this time. And we do it!  We’re off and running for a few months until we mess up or drift back into old habits.

When I think of how many changes my daughter has experienced in the last few months, it’s no wonder she wants to re-visit being a baby. In the last month alone we weaned her, as gently as possible (it did not turn out to be very gentle), from nursing and her bottles. A few short months ago she started big girl swimming lessons where mommy doesn’t go into the pool with her, but instead watches from the sidelines. We’ve been talking to her about getting her a big girl bed; which will mean that instead of sitting quietly in her room with her until she falls asleep, she will go to sleep on her own. Then we told her that she would be going to a big girl pre-school in the fall, which will mean that daddy won’t be there with her. When I think about it, being a big girl doesn’t sound exciting at all! All of it seems to involve letting go of something that makes her feel secure. Of course it’s scary. Of course she wants to regress back to being a baby where mommy and daddy were always there with her.

But there is also that part of her that wants to take the risk of growing. It is that part that I see at her swimming lessons: once her little hand leaves mine and she takes those first few steps into the water towards her teacher, I no longer exist. I see her joyous smile after she emerges from dunking under the water after slipping. I hear her tell this story with pride over and over, “At swimming lessons I dunked my whole body in the water when I slipped!” It is that part of her that I see at the playground when she climbs up a tricky ladder, slips, and then catches herself. “I’m okay mommy. I caught myself!”

It is a delicate balance, as a parent, to honour both of these parts. Our own fears can invite us to pay too much attention to her fears and insecurities and stifle the part that wants to take a risk. On the flip side our own impatience can invite us to stifle those valid fears and push the change before the child is ready. What has helped to remind me to be more compassionate to her ambivalence, is to draw on my own experiences of ambivalence and the process I went through to overcome my own fears.  I try to live the mantra “Be what you say.” If I want my daughter to have the courage to take risks and overcome her own fears and ambivalence, well then I better darn well be able to do it myself. Hence my other motto, “Do something that scares the shit out of you on a fairly regular basis”.

My favourite example was a 20-day canoe trip on the Clearwater River in Northern Saskatchewan as part of a guiding course. River canoeing was thrilling, but very dangerous. People die canoeing rivers all the time. To paddle a river safely takes skill, skill I did not have confidence that I even possessed. On this trip we were learning to be guides. The river we were paddling was a class two river, while we would only be certified to lead a class one, which was much less dangerous.

It was near the middle of our trip that it was my turn to be the guide. I had been dreading it. My experiences of guiding our hiking trips thus far had not gone smoothly, apart from the meals I prepared. That morning, as got everyone up, I tried to portray an air of confidence.  But in reality I was filled with anxiety.  I felt completely incompetent. This trip was supposed to be as traditional as possible, no fancy stoves or freeze-dried food. That day, of course, it snowed. Starting a fire to cook breakfast for our group of 20 was a nightmare. It was not a good start to the day.

My co-guide for our paddle that day was my friend Vicki. She took the stern of the canoe, and I was in the bow. The role of the person in the bow was to follow the orders of the person in the stern. When we came upon a set of rapids, we instructed the group to paddle to the shore so that we could plan our line down the rapids. The goal was to avoid tipping at all costs. The water was very cold and there was a real risk of hypothermia. To paddle the rapids safely we needed to plan how to paddle the rapids, what strokes to use and when to use them. Vicki and I made the plan and instructed the group on how to navigate the rapids. Each canoe made it through following our directions. I felt a small burst of pride – our plan worked! Finally, it was our turn. Everything was going well until Vicki misunderstood the signals from our instructors. Instead of slowly paddling backwards, which everyone had done successfully, she changed her instructions and yelled at me to paddle forwards at full speed. I could hear the panic in her voice. I knew it was not the right call, not what we had planned, but my job was to obey. “Paddle harder!” I heard her yell. I felt helpless to do anything but obey her. We struck a rock and the canoe slowly overturned. I felt the icy October water hit my body. Then I did what I was trained to do. I rescued the canoe and started swimming to shore with it. My instructor had to yell at me three times to let go of it and just get to shore. Once there everything went into full alert. I had to get out of my wet clothes to prevent hypothermia. Someone had to find me dry clothes as my pack was in the water. Someone else had to start a fire. I could tell that Julian, one of the instructors, was worried. I felt like a complete idiot.

That night I made dinner for the group. Dinner was usually my strong point. That night, however, I ran out of food before everyone had eaten. I scrambled to make another meal, knowing that people were cold and hungry. Once I had served everyone, Julian noticed that I wasn’t eating. I told him that I wasn’t hungry. He asked me if I was the type of person who didn’t eat when I got stressed out. I said yes. He gently told me to eat. I listened. Later that night I walked as far away from everyone as I could. I cried and cried. The day I was supposed to prove myself was a disaster. Everything had gone wrong. At least, I thought to myself, the next day I would go back to being a follower and not a leader. Tomorrow would be better.

When I woke up the next morning I was told that we were staying there for the whole day. When I asked why I was told that we were staying because they recognized that I was scared shitless. We were going to spend the day going down the same rapids over and over again until I regained my confidence. My heart sank. If there was one thing I did not want to do, it was go down those rapids again. I heard later that when I got into the canoe with Pat, our other instructor, my face was white with fear. What I remember most about that day was Pat’s determined gentleness. He knew I was scared to death, but he also knew that I could do this. He never sounded discouraged, or impatient, or frustrated. He showed me that even paddling in the bow, I had more control than I thought I had had. We paddled down those rapids together over a dozen times. The last time we went down we did it with me in the stern, barreling right down the middle at full speed through the waves and filling the canoe with water. I was calm and breathless from joyous laughter.

Later that evening, I found myself bawling again. But this time I wasn’t alone, and it wasn’t from despair. I was surrounded by people and felt a strange mixture of joy, sorrow, love, relief and gratitude. They had seen me. They had really seen me. They saw my fear and my courage and they had honoured both. They didn’t berate me for being afraid, but didn’t support me in that fear either. They supported me through my fear with compassion and a belief in my abilities. I will never, ever forget that.

That is the memory that I hold on to when I see my daughter struggle with her own ambivalence. I see my daughter. I see her fear and her courage and I honour both. I have compassion for her fear. I honour it by comforting her and holding her close to me. I tell her that I know that feeling discouraged and disappointed and sad feels yucky. I tell her that I am here for her. I tell her that she’s my little baby. But I also honour her courage and her desire to grow. I gently push her towards her goals and clap with pride when she tells me “I did it mommy! I did it all by myself!” I say “Of course you are!” when she reminds me that she is not a baby or a little girl, but a big girl now. I want her to feel seen. I want her to know that I love and accept and honour all of who she is, her fears and her insecurities as well as her courage and abilities and strength. I want to see her barreling down her own rapids, breathless with joyous laughter.

 

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Confessions of a Wannabe Writer

I have been meandering through my life reminiscing about dreams I had realized in my recent posts, which had started out as a public acknowledgment of my most sacred of dreams, to be a writer. Being a writer is by far the scariest of all of my dreams, as it is the most dear to my heart. I had felt, for the longest time, that I had the most to lose if that particular dream did not materialize. So precious was it, that I hid it deep down in my soul. I refused to acknowledge it, let alone take steps towards it. I actively resisted, like a toddler who refuses to put her shoes on so that you can actually get out the door and get to work on time. She senses your desperation to leave and squirms and wriggles and pushes until you are on the verge of a tantrum yourself.

There was no desperation in this dream of writing, however. It was not pinning me down, forcing me to put my damn shoes on. It was simply out there, in the universe, waiting patiently for my acknowledgment. Every now and then there would be a gentle nudge, a word of encouragement, like a hand reaching out, waiting for me to take hold. But, like a stubborn child, I would not.

The first gentle nudge of encouragement came in my first year of university. I hadn’t wanted to go. I was, to put it bluntly, a mess. Unbeknownst to my parents, who meant well when they pressured me to attend, I was in a very dark and terrible place. My unsophisticated attempts to get out of the deep pit I found myself in, by choosing the most self-destructive means possible, merely served to push me down further. I was too oppressed by this darkness to protest my parents’ wishes, and so I signed up for classes. In the bizarreness that was my mind at that time, I reasoned that my parents could force me to go to university, but could not force me to actually attend classes or learn anything. In high school I had managed to keep up my grades while writing out Pink Floyd lyrics in my classes, but this strategy proved to be not at all effective in university. I was flailing. I went to one exam having been to only one class. I wrote the exam in 15 minutes and left. I heard later that people had determined that I was either a genius, or had no clue what was going on. It was the latter; my first failing grade.

In one of my English exams I wrote a poem. This would not have been a problem had the exam not required me to compare and contrast two plays, only one of which I had actually read. Defeated and not even able to bullshit, I decided to perfect a poem I had been working on. My goal for this particular poem, and every poem I had written since I was 14 years old, was to make it as depressing as possible. I wanted the reader to feel every ounce of pain and hopelessness I felt.

It must have worked. My English professor called me into his office and requested that I see a counsellor. He was concerned about me. I’m not sure why this surprised me. Of course he would have thought the poem was a call for help. The last line, if I recall, said something like “she landed in death’s sweet arms”. Consciously, it was not; the poem was simply me not knowing how else to fill up the empty pages of my exam booklet. But I agreed to go to a counsellor nonetheless. As I left he told me that the writing was very good. He said that I should consider taking creative writing. I thanked him. I was secretly quite pleased, but of course, nothing more came of it. I didn’t sign up for creative writing. I could have. I had two years of general studies to complete before I was required to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, but writing was not even considered.

The counsellor was decidedly unhelpful, likely because I was a very unhelpful patient. She asked me all kinds of questions like “How can I help you?” which was met by my bewildered silence. Aren’t you supposed to know that? Isn’t that why I am here? I went once and didn’t return. I dropped out of university the following year.

To ensure that I was never in a situation again where someone would actually encourage my dream to be a writer, I decided never to show anyone my writing again. My writing was reserved for my private journals. In my recovery I felt compelled to write. It was as necessary as breathing. But when my first husband read my journal, I stopped writing all together.

There had been a few times where I had tried to write something, a story, the start of a novel. After one page I would tear it up and that would be that. Reading the words on the page was humiliating. They were absolutely terrible. Who did I think I was? It was pathetic. It was so devastating that I would it would be years before the next attempt.  It was “The Artist’s Way” by Julia Cameron that invited me to start writing for myself again. But even though the entire book is devoted to people taming their creative demons, it wasn’t enough to coach my dream of being a writer to the surface. It stayed well hidden in the crevices of my heart, waiting.

I have come to believe that things happen when they should. If I did not feel compelled to honour this dream, then there was a reason. I have decided to trust that there is a wisdom that is guiding me. My job, simply, is to do my best to listen, to see and to feel the universe communicating its purpose for me. It is not always easy. There have been many a time I have requested a big booming voice telling me what I should do, what path I should take. Alas, I have never had the booming voice. My messages have been much more subtle, which can be crazy making at times.

But, at long last, the dream to write has come out of hiding and has risen to the surface to take her first breath. There are several people who were instrumental in coaxing her out of hiding: my mother, Dave (my partner in life) and Jeremy (my old soul).  With their encouragement, I have decided to write this blog; my tentative first steps. I know that there are likely thousands upon thousands of people who have written blogs that think nothing of it. Their decision was likely not momentous, nor profound. But for me, it was. Writing this blog is honouring my most precious of dreams for myself.

Once surfaced, what has allowed this dream to truly take hold was the most sacred gift of my life, the gift of my daughter. She was the only thing I had ever truly prayed for. When I was told that she would never come, that my body would not allow it, I fell into despair. Why? Why? I asked the universe this over and over. And then, at the most unlikeliest of times, a shaman whispered to me in a vision that she was there, a little bean in my womb. Her birth reminded me, with such force it left me breathless, that life is both sacred and temporary. In the first weeks after her birth, the thought that something might happen to her left me with a dread that sent a slow wave of dark sludge through my body. This terrible dread was a constant companion. A car would drive towards us as I walked on the sidewalk and I would imagine that it veered off the road and hit us. I heard a noise at might and imagined that someone was breaking in and wondered how I would protect her. I was convinced that if she died, I would not survive it.

The waves of dread have faded, but the awareness of our mortality has not. I had her when I was almost 41. There is a very real possibility that when she is my age, I may no longer walk this earth. My blog started out as a way to keep our family who live far away from us connected to us. I would write about the cute things our daughter does and says. But it has turned into something else. It is a chronicle of my life, my hero’s (heroine’s) journey. It is the most sacred gift that I can give to my daughter. No matter what, she will have these stories to help guide her in her life.

So I would like to thank all of you who read these words and are sharing this journey with me. I am deeply grateful for your support, your encouragement, your letters, and your comments. It has had a profound impact on me.

Connecting with the Mystery

My theory of the mystery of life has developed from a myriad of sources, which I have pieced together like a mosaic; my version of spirituality I suppose. I read recently that people who define themselves as “spiritual” rather than “religious” are more prone to depression and anxiety. That makes sense to me. Religion, from what I have observed, provides many people with comfort. If nothing else, religion gives people answers to tough questions. For the really tough questions, the answer is simple; don’t question, have faith.

But for people who have abandoned organized religion, they must answer those questions themselves, create their own meaning of life and death. The really tough questions may remain unanswered, which can be quite disconcerting. The search for those answers can lead to a deep sense of isolation and despair. I remember one moment of despair as I realized how truly alone I was in the world. No one except me would ever really know me; it was impossible.

For those who have the courage to persist through that darkness, however, and discover their own answers, are rewarded with a deep and unshakable sense of connectedness and unity with the world that is beyond description. As I contemplated my loneliness and wept with despair, a simple truth came to me. I am both alone and not alone. It is true that no other human will ever really know me, but I chose to believe that the mystery of this world did, knew everything and accepted me anyway, and this belief was comforting.

I suppose I could have simply accepted religion into my life, as I seem to have come to similar conclusions. There are those who don’t need to take that difficult path to discover their own answers, who are content to simply receive the teachings that that have been passed down for thousands of years. I, unfortunately, am not one of those people. I have to do things the hard way. I must find my own answers.

My conclusions about the mystery and magic of life are not well defined, but they all come from trying to understand and make sense of my own life, and my own experiences with that mystery. I have concluded that there are questions that cannot be answered. They are too complex to understand (for my little brain anyway). They require faith.

I decided to take that leap of faith when I was 21 when I determined that my life was intolerable. I allowed myself to believe that this mystery was wiser and more powerful than me, but also, that whatever it was, it was also loving. I felt its compassion and its love for lowly little me, and I surrendered to it. I allowed it to direct my life. I am convinced that it was that experience that was crucial to the transformation I experienced. Through that surrender, the person that I am now was created. I remember telling my friend Pat that when I was a teen I was certain that I would die when I was 21. I had had a dream about it and it was so vivid that I was convinced that my death was imminent. I was positive of it. Knowing my history he looked at me and said “But Julie you did experience a kind of death at 21. You completely transformed.” He was right.

Although I surrendered my life to whatever this mystery is, it doesn’t mean that I don’t, on a regular basis, try to re-assert my will. I think of it as allowing someone else to drive. I have been driving since I was 14 years old, which means that I am a terrible passenger. When I look down the road that we are driving towards I have a tendency to panic and try to take the wheel. “What are you thinking going down THAT path??? We are certainly NOT going down that one!”

This is the panic I feel whenever I get close to my dreams. It is a peculiar type of fear that makes me feel like a small child. When I was young I was quite shy (no one believes this but it is true!). There was a period of time where I hated trying anything new. The thought of walking into a strange room, full of strange people and not knowing what was going on filled me with dread. My parents, being good parents, signed me up for all kinds of classes. At one point it was too much. They had signed me up for a diving class. I refused to go. I couldn’t bear the thought of it. Then my Dad did something I will never forget. He offered to take the diving class with me. All my fear drained away. I was in awe of him. My dad would be there. It would be okay.

I had that same feeling when I decided that I was really going to pursue my crazy dream of being a singer. There was a tiny part of me that desperately wanted to do it, but the greater part was completely terrified. I was sure that I had a terrible voice, that I would humiliate myself if I tried. My Dad wasn’t there anymore to hold my hand. It was up to me to face these fears, all by myself.

The pivotal moment was when I went to visit my friend Jeremy, one of my favourite people in the whole world. He is a musician and I often went to his house and listened to him play guitar. I could listen to him play for hours. I had felt for a long time that he and I shared a unique connection, one I had never felt with anyone else. It was like our souls were connected. I decided that I would sing in front of him. I swallowed my terror, grabbed the microphone, and allowed my voice to be heard. I closed my eyes and concentrated on the sound, trying to stay in key and infuse the words with emotion. When I was done Jeremy said, “That was great Julie. You have a great voice.” It was the moment of truth. I could believe him or not. I was the type of person that had a difficult time accepting a compliment, distrusting people’s assessment of my skill or their motives. I decided to trust him; trust that he would not lie to me, would not say this simply to be polite. I believed him.

This simple act had unexpected consequences and led to moments of synchronicity that Julia Cameron described in “The Artist’s Way”. I was working as a social worker for the government at that time. My office was a bizarre mix of personalities. On my first day of work no one knew I was arriving. My new supervisor was away. One of the women helped me find a desk and took me out for coffee, where she explained that the office was full of crazy people, so I was either with her and the sane ones, or with the crazy ones and I had better choose. Pronto. Later that afternoon I was told the same thing by one of the crazy ones. I became friends with one of the few sane people I found, Wendy. She was my refuge and I adored her. That office was the last place I would ever expect an opportunity to sing. But one day Wendy, out of the blue, asked me if I would be interested in singing backup vocals in her band. I am sure my mouth dropped open in shock. But I accepted immediately.

I went to audition not long after, and was completely nervous. Here I would discover if Jeremy really had lied to me. I started to sing and quickly looked for any signs of a wince or a cringe on any of their faces. I saw none and started to relax. After the audition they welcomed me to the band. I was ecstatic. We practiced every week and played three shows together. It was the most fun I had ever had. I felt like a little puppy dog who had just been let off the leash; I wanted to sing more and more and more. I was in love with the experience.

But, as has happened before in my life, other things called to me. I had worked as a social worker for two years. It was stressful and often heartbreaking.  A career in child protection social work had an average shelf life of two years. I had just barely passed that mark. My dream career was to be a therapist. I saw myself having my own office,  with beautiful art on the walls, and helping people like I was at 21, helping them as my counsellor had helped me. The problems I would deal with would be manageable. That was the idea anyway.

There was only one program in Canada that offered the kind of graduate degree I was interested in. It was very competitive and only allowed 6 people per year. I applied and was accepted for a series of interviews. I flew to Guelph, Ontario for the interview. They offered me a spot a few months later. I accepted.

Although I was happy about the opportunity to further my career, I was not excited about the move. I had dreamed my whole life of living in Vancouver. After 8 years I still pinched myself, not quite believing I was really living there. I had never even wanted to visit Ontario. As I drove across the country to start a new life in Guelph, I was acutely aware of what I was leaving behind in Vancouver; friends, family, opportunities to sing and to act, and a city I was in love with. All I could do was have faith that I was on the path I was supposed to be on, and if I wasn’t, that I would be able to receive that message. It was a familiar anxiety, wondering if I was on the right path, whether I was listening to the mystery of the world or the sound of my own anxieties. Whatever it was, I was driving towards a new part of my life, having no idea where it would lead, but knowing that it would likely change everything.

Dream a little dream … Mid Life Crisis Part II

Life without dreams, I discovered at a young age, is a particular kind of hell. It is the kind of hell where all meaning is lost. Whether it is day or night has no significance, because they are both intolerable. There is nothing to look forward to, no point to existence. I had lived in that kind of hell in my early adulthood. I had dropped out of university after two tortuous years to work in the “real world” as a restaurant manager.  It didn’t take too many long nights of washing dishes to realize that my life pretty much sucked. I had no idea who I was. No clue what I wanted from life, or significantly, that you could want something out of life. More importantly, however, I didn’t know what life wanted from me. If this was all that life was, working at a moderately crappy job, going from terrible relationship to terrible relationship, than what was the point exactly? Before I would go to sleep I would quietly ask God to please take me back and let me start all over again. Hopefully the next time I wouldn’t be a massive disappointment.

The darkness and despair I felt was a signal, the discomfort meant to propel me to make drastic changes in my life. But change is, frankly, terrifying and I was having none of it. Instead I muddled around in the world, buying all of the self-help books I could find. I was searching for answers, but not too hard, because I was certain that the answers I found would be too difficult to bear. I had no doubt that if I were faced with the truth of myself, who I really was, it would suffocate me with its awfulness. It would choke me with shame.

I stayed in this uncomfortable ambivalence for many years. I was 21 years old, and miserable. Yet another boyfriend I had been madly in love was distancing himself from me. I could feel the desperation growing in me like a wild fire, needing to call him, needing to talk to him, needing him to know how I felt, needing to understand why. I knew that need would drive him away further, but it was fierce. I picked up a book instead, trying to make sense of this pattern of failed relationships. It was called “Leaving the Enchanted Forest” by Stephanie Covington. The only thing I remember is reading one line, and it almost knocking the breath out of me. I don’t remember it word for word, but the message was this: You cannot depend on others for your happiness. Your happiness is yours alone to create.

I had heard this probably millions of time before, but the words had always floated by and never really taken hold. This time, however, it shocked me with its truth. I realized that that was what I had been doing my entire life. I was only really happy if others (specifically a man) loved me. If he didn’t, I was deflated, absent, like all of who I was could escape with a simple exhale. With this appalling truth staring at me in the face, I decided that I would not be this woman any longer. I went to my room and looked at my phone. I knew that I needed help. I picked up the phone and put it down. I was crying with fear. I hung it up a second time. The third, however, was a success. The person who answered calmed me down, and I made an appointment. I was going to change my life.

I threw myself into recovery, determined to be honest above all else. I held nothing back. All of my shame came to the fore, and I realized, with relief, that it wasn’t powerful enough to kill me. With the help of others who witnessed all of it and accepted me anyway, I learned to accept myself. What I noticed, however, in this culture of recovery, is that many people who had been in recovery for years, were not really living. They were stuck in fear, always recovering. In recovery, their dreams came with a disclaimer.

“Please dream with caution as you are powerless and your dreams might be dangerous for your recovery. Don’t get too confident or sure of yourself. Remember. You are powerless over your (name addiction/weakness here).”

I noticed that recovery and survival were enough for many people. But it was not enough for me. I wanted to more. I didn’t want to just survive, I wanted to thrive. I had recovered my spirit and was eager to re-claim and discover who I was as a woman. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in recovery, attending meetings that reminded me of how powerless I was. I felt powerful. I wanted to taste life, to dive into its waters and learn its mysteries. I wanted to dream. I wanted adventure.

I decided to go on a vacation. It was my first real vacation while working as a restaurant manager. I was really excited because I had decided to go to Club Med for one simple reason, I had always wanted to learn to water ski. Growing up in land locked Calgary, Alberta had meant that things like water skiing had been out of my reach. It was a crazy dream I had had since I was little, and I was going to honour it. I picked a Club that had an abundance of water sports: scuba diving, sailing, water skiing. My mother, who has supported me throughout my life, and does still, gave me enough so that I could stay for two weeks. I was so excited.

I arrived in Mexico and threw myself into every activity. I water-skied every single day. I learned to sail. I took tennis lessons. I learned to scuba dive. I danced all night long. I met loads of people. The people who worked there were the friendliest people I had ever met and they came from all over the world. At the end of my first week it dawned on me. These people actually work in this place! This is their JOB. Every morning they wake up to go to work and this is what they see. This is what they do. This is AMAZING.

I realized something. I wanted this life. Just the thought of it felt delicious and dangerous.

When I came home I told my parents that I had made a major life decision. I am positive that they were hoping that I had learned that the “real world” wasn’t so great and I would go back to university where I belonged. When I had dropped out of university a few years before, it was with the promise that I would return. They had informed me, very seriously, that when people drop out of university they never go back. Dropping out of university, would, therefore, be the worst decision I could ever make. It would negatively impact the rest of my life. All of that potential from the brains in my head would be wasted. I dropped out anyway and promised that I would be the exception.

When I told them, instead, that I was going to be a scuba diving instructor and work for Club Med, I was prepared for my dad, especially, to lose it. I wasn’t disappointed. But strangely enough, when the shock wore off, they both supported me. Coincidentally the very first instructor’s course was just starting up in Alberta. If there hadn’t been one, I doubt I would ever have followed through. My parents paid for me to complete my training, which took about 9 months.

In my instructor’s class I found others, like me, who had become disillusioned with life. A few were lawyers.  What we all shared was the desire for something more from life than what we woke up to, day after day. We were all searching for what that something more might be. We all dreamed of waking up to beautiful sunshine and sandy beaches every morning. In the meantime, however, the actual training was brutal. My first open water dive was in a glacier lake outside of Banff, Alberta. The water was so cold we had to keep surfacing to warm up the regulators so they would work properly.

I dove in water that was in the process of freezing while I was in it. It was one of our last dives in Alberta, before we did our exam dives in British Columbia. It was about minus 30 degrees Celsius outside, even colder with the wind chill. We were all moving quite slowly, not really believing that our instructor, Don, would actually make us dive in water this freezing. After watching us dawdle for a period of time, Don called us together. Instead of a pep talk, he let us have it. “You people are the biggest whiny children I have ever seen! This is the easiest fucking dive you are ever going to do! Now get off your fucking ass and get in the fucking water!” We all stood frozen in shocked silence. We had never seen him lose control before. He had always been so happy and cheerful, in a used-car dealer kind of way.

I got dressed more quickly, but his reproach did not change the fact that I dreaded getting into that water. The air was so cold that steam was coming off of the water, even though it was at the point of freezing. As grumpy as I was, there was a sliver of hope. I had noticed that Don was almost a bigger wimp than me when it came to the cold.

As soon as I got to the bottom I started inhaling as deeply as I could, practically hyperventilating, so that I could use all of my air quickly and be forced to return to the surface. I didn’t need to. My hunch about Don’s ability to adapt to the cold was correct. He signaled to us to go up to the surface within ten minutes. We crammed into the back of someone’s van, trying to remove frozen solid gloves from fingers that could barely move. I would have glared at Don had I not been so grateful to be out of that water. 

After I passed my exams, and was certified as an instructor, I applied to work at Club Med. They called me within a few weeks. I flew to New York for an interview. A few weeks after that I was on a plane, leaving my life behind and flying to Sonora, Mexico, to work as a scuba diving instructor in Club Med.

I had dreamed a dream that was totally and completely mine. It was not my parent’s dream, not the women’s programmed “get married and have children” dream. This dream was utterly and entirely mine. And I had made it come true, with help of course. For the first time, I was excited by what life held in store for me. I had crawled out of the darkness that was my life for 21 years and emerged transformed by that experience. It was surrendering and connecting to something greater than me that allowed it to happen. I hadn’t defined what that was, hadn’t named it, and had no desire to. I simply felt a loving and compassionate presence in my life. That presence helped me to heal and encouraged me to have the courage to stand up for my life, for my dreams. It helped me believe that anything really was possible. I felt certain that whatever that presence was, it was partly responsible for me being there, on that plane, flying into the unknown possibilities of my life. I was incredibly grateful and excited.

Almost a decade later, at 30, I faced another existential crisis as I faced my own mortality. What helped me through it was recovering my dreams, dreams that were precious to me. One was acting, and the other, singing. I knew, from experience, that the key to recovering meaning in my life was to reach out for my dreams, to start a new adventure. I reached out to the universe to ask for help. Help this crazy rock star dream come true. And just like Julia Cameron warned in her book “The Artist’s Way”, there is a reason that people say “Be careful what you wish/pray for, it might come true.”

Stay tuned for the next installment

Mid life crisis Part I

It was when I turned 30 that it hit me: I actually had dreams. If I didn’t get off my ass and do something about them they would die with me, unrealized. It’s not like my dreams had any semblance of reality; rock star and famous actress were the two most prominent, but to my surprise, I discovered that they were very important to me. The time for protecting them was over. It was time to do something.  With my impending old age came a sense of urgency. I had to do something about them NOW. But what exactly?

I knew that the likelihood of becoming a rock star or famous actress was slight. Okay impossible. But the impossibility of the fantasy didn’t mean that I couldn’t honour the spirit of those dreams: I dreamt of performing. When I had been in high school I hadn’t taken drama, hadn’t joined the choir. Instead I took a full load of academic subjects and learned to play the flute. By the time I had enough spares to actually take drama my interest in school was replaced with an all-consuming awareness of boys, parties and music. I quit taking piano and flute lessons. I spent hours in my room listening to music with my mother occasionally entering my domain to tell me to turn it down.

I dyed my hair black, wore black makeup and black clothes. School bored me to tears. My grades started to slip. I spent most of my classes writing out Pink Floyd lyrics and writing poetry filled with angst. My teachers became concerned that I had mental health problems. They were probably right.

Now that I was turning 30, those dreams from my youth came rushing back, demanding to be heard. “How does one go about doing these things as an adult?” I wondered. I looked through the adult education pamphlets for the local college but there was nary a class entitled “How to be a Rock Star”. It was at that time that I first picked up Julia Cameron’s book “The Artist’s Way.” The book has twelve chapters; each with a weekly theme and exercises designed to help unleash one’s creativity and deal with the demons that can get in the way.

A repeated message in the book is the proverb “Leap, and the net will appear.” The readings, daily writing and weekly exercises taught me to trust that if I took a step towards my dreams the “how” would work itself out like magic. Jung called it synchronicity – the magic that happens when you reach out to the universe with your dreams and the universe responds with a series of coincidences that help you on your path. I decided to take the risk and reach out to the universe with my dreams of acting and singing. This is how the universe responded.

My friend Julie was doing her master’s degree in social work. She asked for my help with one of her school projects. She needed to film a session with a client where she would showcase her skills doing a particular type of therapy. I was to be the client.  I read from the script and tried to make it look as authentic as possible. The next week she told me that her classmates had raved about my performance; that I made it seem like a real session. She then pulled out a newspaper with an advertisement circled. A community theatre company in the North Shore had put out a call for auditions for the play “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” I could feel my heart skip with excitement. I had read the book and seen the movie. It would be too amazing for words to get a part. I looked more closely at the ad. It said that the audition would be “improv”. I had no idea what that meant. Julie, worldlier than I, explained that improv would mean that I would not read from a script. I would have to improvise. She insisted that I go to the audition. Synchronicity.

Julia Cameron talked about this exact situation in her book. She warned the reader that these experiences of synchronicity could be incredibly disarming. We don’t expect the universe to respond to our tiny little dreams knocking on the door. We expect to be rejected, to be ignored. When we aren’t, when the universe opens the door and hands us exactly what we have asked, most of us will run screaming. Knowing that fear was an expected response, I remembered my own mantra: there is no courage without fear. I wasn’t just scared. I was terrified to go to this audition. Who did I think I was? I had never acted in a play in my life, never taken a drama class. I had no idea what I was doing. But I was determined that fear would not take these dreams away from me.

With Julie’s encouragement, I decided to go to the audition. It was at a college in the North Shore. I had never been there. I had always been strangely petrified of getting lost at a big school. When I went to University the first time I would drop a class if it was in a building I wasn’t familiar with, rather than risk getting lost. After twenty minutes of driving up the wrong street, I realized that I was completely lost. I started to talk to myself; a sure sign I was in full-blown panic. “This is a sign that you shouldn’t be doing this! You are going to be late. This is terrible. Oh my God you are a complete idiot. Watch where you’re going!” The part of my brain that preferred not to die in a car accident tried to calm me down. I told myself that if I just made it to the parking lot, then I could turn around and go back home. I would be proud of myself just for getting to the parking lot. I finally found the parking lot and parked the car. I wasn’t even late. I sat in the car, trying to decide whether to turn around and go home or get out of the car. I could hear my heart racing. My hands shook. Every thought that raced through my brain told me to go the fuck home already.

Instead, I took the keys out of the ignition and opened the door. I immediately saw some young men walking towards the college. I was so panicked that I was sure they could tell, just by looking at me, that I had no idea what I was doing and should not, under any circumstances, be there. I was a fraud of the biggest order. They could probably smell my fear. I tried to shrink so that they wouldn’t notice me. Of course they came right up and started talking to me. “Do you have any idea how to get to the audition?” My mother’s training, so engrained it was instinctual, took over (thank God). I politely said, “I have absolutely no idea actually. I’m lost too.” I smiled. They started walking with me. “We’ll all find it together!” They were friendly and charming. I started to relax.

We found our way inside and were given cards that told us what we would have to do in our improv. My card said that I was in labour with my first child but had not yet told my husband that the real father was not him, but a black man. My goal for the improv was to leave wherever we were and fly home. Good God. Normally, panic would have been delighted at yet another chance to make an appearance, but it was no match for the charm and friendliness of the men I was now talking and laughing with. By the time it was my turn for the audition I had never felt so at ease. I walked into the room and tried to remember everything I had ever seen about women in labour from television. When I was preparing, I had tried to picture how the scenario would unfold, with the little information I had. What I had pictured happening in my mind, however, was not at all how it unravelled with all of the characters together.  There was a point where my “husband” and the “nurse” were almost coming to blows, one trying to get me admitted and the other turning us away, saying the hospital was closed. I interrupted their argument with a contraction. Then I turned to my “husband” and begged him to take me home. I told him that I was so grateful for everything he was doing, but that all I wanted was to go home. I looked him in the eyes imploringly. I was tender. I think I even touched his cheek. Inside I was thinking, “He has no idea that he is about to be betrayed. Poor guy!” He stared at me for a minute and agreed. I will always remember his eyes in that moment. And then it was over. I never saw either of them again.

I don’t even remember the rest of the day. I was high from the adrenaline of that experience. I felt like I was floating. I found out later that one of the keys to improv is to say yes to whatever happens. Always say yes. The hospital is closed when you need to be admitted? Yes it is! Well can’t we take that helicopter right behind you? Of course we can! I thought that that was pretty good advice for real life too. Say yes to what life throws at you. At least at the end you’ll have a lot of good stories.   

The next day I got the call. They offered me a part. I was dumbfounded and thanked them profusely. It took me a few minutes to realize that the part I was going to play was Candy, the prostitute. My very first part, and I would play a lady of the night. What could be more perfect than that?

Stay tuned for the next installment!

My Quest – Part II of Taking a Leap of Faith

Julian looked me in the eyes but we did not speak. I knew he had no doubts that I would be able to do this. Another member of our group, a young man, had been talking for days about how he didn’t think he could handle three days in the wilderness. He was certain that he would panic and have to return to camp. I was shocked by his fear. He had always seemed overly confident in his abilities and slightly disdainful when people couldn’t keep up. I had never considered that I might give up and return back to camp. But I, unlike him, had learned how to appreciate my own company. It wasn’t the loneliness that worried me.

I met Julian’s stare and smiled. I didn’t say good-bye and I didn’t look back. I walked up the mountain feeling a mixture of calm and nerves. In my backpack was a small fleece blanket, a pair of rain pants and jacket, a small piece of rope, a carabiner, a journal, some incense and a lighter. That was it. No food, no water, no tent, no sleeping bag. My first task was to find a suitable location to spend three days in the mountains with no shelter.

Julian had told us how he had done his quest, years ago. The purpose was to rid one’s self of all distractions. No food, no water, little movement, little clothing, and no sleep. I wasn’t at all confident in my ability to purge myself of all of these comforts. The two I was certain I would need help with was staying awake and staying warm. As I walked up the hill I whispered “Please help me stay warm. Please help me stay awake.”

About halfway up the slope of the mountain I found a spot. It was fairly flat and sunny, but with some shade from the trees. I found some rocks and made my circle. One rock facing east, one south, one west, and one north. The circle was large enough to lie down in if I curled up in the fetal position. Once I stepped into the circle, I would not leave until Julian called for us all three days later. I would spend two nights on that mountain, sitting in that circle. I stepped in, sat down, and looked out over the prairies, my view for the next three days. I tried to prepare for the battles that lay ahead: the battle with my stomach who would want food; the battle with my throat that would want water; the battle with my body that would want sleep; and the battle with my mind that would want to give up.

I watched the sun move across the sky. It started in the east. I lit incense when it moved to the south and when it set in the west. When I tired of sitting, I stood up and sang the songs that Julian had taught us. My favourite was the warrior woman song. I sang it over and over. One of the elders had told us that this solo was a sacred rite of passage. When we returned from the mountain a part of us would be left behind to allow a new part to emerge. Traditionally it had been a child that would go alone into the wilderness, and return to the community as an adult. We had talked about what rites of passage we celebrate, officially or not, in our culture. Many of them were not terribly sacred; getting drunk, losing one’s virginity, getting a driver’s license, graduating from high school. For me this rite of passage was sacred. It was time for the part of me who was childlike and lived in fear to be replaced by the wise warrior woman. It was time for me to grow up.

When I stopped singing I sat down. I remembered what Julian had told us about how he handled the boredom; he sent a message of gratitude to every person he had ever met in his life. I started by thanking the mystery that is this universe, what they called Great Spirit or Creator. I thanked the people that were closest to me for all that they had done for me. As I did, tears streamed down my face. I felt so much love and appreciation. I sent messages of love to my grandmother who had died when I was a young woman and completely messed up. She had never seen me come out the other side, but I felt her presence at that moment. I thanked people who I had not seen in years. I thanked the people that had hurt me, for the truth was that I wouldn’t be the person I was without that suffering, and I was proud of who I was, who I was becoming.

Right before night fell I started to hear rustling in the trees and bushes around me. Julian had told me about pack rats in the mountains but I had never seen one until that night. They peered at me from behind the trees. They had a rat’s face, but a squirrel’s tail. They did not fear me at all. One of them ate the rope that was holding my backpack to a tree and stole my carabiner. I took a step outside of my circle to rescue my pack.

I had been wondering how the mystery of this world would help me to stay awake. Now I knew. Pack rats. As it got darker, they started to come towards me. I couldn’t believe it. They were trying to climb right up on me! I thought animals were supposed to be afraid of humans! I spent the next several hours on guard, waiting for them to come into my circle and then shooing them away. Bernard, a member of our group, had found a spot within hearing distance. Just as the pack rats started invading him space he heard me yelling frantically, “Shoo!!! Get away from me! Shoo!!!” He thought that was quite hilarious.

As the pack rats finally left me alone I looked up at the sky. There were millions of stars. They covered the sky with their brilliance. I was completely in awe and watched the moon and the stars slowly move across the sky for hours. I had never spent a night awake under the sky. It was magnificent.  As I watched I marveled at the fact that the moon, what the elders called “Grandmother”, had a direct influence on the rhythm of my body; my moon cycle. I had never really thought about that before, the impact something so far away had on the part of my body responsible for conception, for creating new life. I had never felt so connected to something in my life as I did to the moon that night. She was my grandmother. She was watching over me, protecting me. Even though it was the middle of the night, and I had only my small fleece blanket wrapped around my shoulders, I felt cozy under her gaze. I had heard later that they had been cold in the camp below, but I felt warm.

I lit my incense as the sun rose in the east. My body was taking notice of the lack of food and water. Their absence impacted me in subtle ways. At times I felt a strange kind of peace that I imagined one might feel when death was very near. I lay down with my knees bent. I smelt the leaves from the wild strawberry plants. It gave me comfort. What I felt most profoundly, though, was how the earth supported the weight of my body. Julian had talked to us about the Gaia principle, that the earth is an actual organism; mother earth. I felt that, the earth was cradling me. She was there fore me, nurturing me, there was nothing to fear. I realized that even though people may have let me down, abandoned me, hurt me, the earth would always be there. If I felt alone I could always seek connection and comfort the soil, the trees, the moon and the stars, the living world around me I had always taken for granted.

That night as I was fighting off the pack rats who were determined to eat the very clothes I was wearing, I heard something crashing through the bush towards me. I froze. I was sure it was a bear. Traditionally part of the purpose of the vision quest was to meet one’s spirit guide, an animal. I had hoped that mine would not be a pack rat. Although I thought that having a bear for a spirit guide would be incredibly cool, I prayed that it was not a bear running straight for me. I looked up and out of the trees came a gigantic buck. He stopped only a few feet away. I held my breath. He lifted his head and antlers and I could see his breath. He was majestic. Right at that very moment a packrat, sensing my sudden lack of vigilance, took the opportunity to jump and landed right on top of my head. I fought a scream but it was too late. The buck leaped back into the forest and was gone. I savoured that moment when it felt like the buck and I were the only two beings in the entire world. It felt important somehow, and I wanted it to sink into my bones, my blood, become a part of me.

The next morning I lit my incense as the sun rose in the east. I was impatient for Julian’s call. The second I heard him I packed up my things and walked back to camp, where a feast awaited us. The young man who was sure that he would not make it, had returned to camp the first night and kept watch over the fire that they kept burning the whole time we were in the wild. I returned from the mountain a woman. I may not have rid myself of all of my fears, but I had a powerful ally. My warrior woman had awakened. She is the one who helps me to fight for my dreams. Over the next years of my life I needed her fierce encouragement, for reaching out for my dreams has been both the scariest and the most rewarding thing I have ever experienced.

Stay tuned for the next installment!

Aside: The solo is offered as part of the adult programming at ghostriverrediscovery.com out of Calgary, Alberta.

Taking a Leap of Faith – Part I

Maya and Dave

Maya and Dave

I am sitting in my living room on a Saturday morning in my bathrobe, with freshly dyed hair (good-bye for a month terrible grey roots!) and an empty house. A house that looks like a cyclone went through it mind you, but empty nonetheless. I dropped Dave and Maya at the airport a few short hours ago so that they could visit his family in Ontario. It’s been almost a year since we moved from Ontario to B.C., which is hard to believe.

As I’m sitting here, listening to loud music (Metric of course), their absence is sinking in. Since I had Maya I have only been away from her twice, and only for a few days. I was dreading saying good-bye. I was anticipating sobs and wailing “Mommy come with us!!” Of course she dealt with it must better than I did. “Bye-bye Mommy! I love you!” And off she went, holding Daddy’s hand. She didn’t even look back.

Ten days. Ten days without them. In that time I need to fit in all of the things I want/need to do. The thing most pressing is, depressingly, cleaning this apartment. Moving from a house to an apartment has been an adjustment. Keeping a small place clean, when a toddler is one of the three people living there, is more challenging than I had imagined. And to top it all off I detest cleaning. I become a vile creature when I clean, particularly if I must do it in silence. Music is the only companion I want around me when I clean.

The other task I want to accomplish while they are away is to write. I have had a strange relationship with writing. It has been a dream of mine since I can remember, to write. Not to be a writer, mind you; oddly that was never the goal. Over the years, however, every time I attempted to write something intended for public consumption, the words that came out on the page were so embarrassing that I would hide the dreadful things away, along with the dream, until the next time I became desperate enough to put pen to page.  And so the dream was put off. I wrote in my journals, wrote paper after paper for school, wrote reports for work, but never dared to write. It was too scary. The fantasy was ephemeral, living at the edges of my consciousness, making the odd, limping, appearance in my longing, but without enough force to get me to really pay attention.

I had heard someone say that you should never attempt to actually do what you fantasize about. Once the fantasy was realized, he argued, you have nothing left; emptiness where once lived longing and desire. On first hearing this I agreed, but what is assumed in this theory is that the soil of that emptiness would be so barren that no seed could possibly take root to create a new and possibly more wonderful fantasy.

I had many fantasies that I had kept hidden away; to be a rock star, or a famous movie actress. My dream of writing had been so daunting, however, that it never contemplated actually being a writer. That would be too audacious. To even fantasize about it would invite retribution. It would tempt fate. My belief in the world was something like this: every moment of joy would be responded to by three times that of disaster. I’m not sure where this distrust of the world came from, but it made me very protective of my dreams. I kept them locked away, as one would lock away their most precious possessions to safeguard them from invaders during a war. That is what I did with my dreams. My life was the war. I hid my dreams so well that I forgot that they existed.

My belief about the world was forever changed as a result of participating in a unique program called “Guiding Spirit.” I’ve described it in my birth story blog, but, in short, it changed my life. I learned profound things about myself. The most important realization was how little I actually trusted the world. I expected to be betrayed, disappointed, abandoned, hurt.

This immense distrust first hit me when we did a “high ropes” course. It was like a giant playground for adults, but suspended about 40 feet off the ground. I am scared of heights. It was my turn to do the log crossing. I put on my harness and climbed up the forty feet to the log. It was a thick and suspended in mid air. I had walked, even run, on many logs this size with no fear. But those were on the ground.

I took my first step and my whole body started to shake uncontrollably. I stopped. I couldn’t even trust my body to work properly. The people below, holding on to ropes that would hold me if I fell, were starting to get bored. One of the men started to yell encouraging words. I think it was something to the effect of “For fuck’s sake will you GO already!”

I stood there shaking. I was too scared to walk. My legs were shaking so badly I knew I would fall. I started to examine the Fear that had invaded my body. What was I really afraid of? I was harnessed in. If I fell the people below would hold on to the ropes and would stop my fall. That is when it hit me. I didn’t trust that they would hang on when I needed them. Fear whispered to me “They are bored, they’re not really paying attention, they don’t know you or care about you. They will let you fall.”

I listened, then looked Fear in the eye. “No. I do not believe you.” It was true that these people did not know or care about me, but I decided to trust them anyway. The second I made the decision to trust, Fear slithered quickly out of body. My legs stopped shaking. I felt calm. I walked across the log with the same confidence I would have had it been on the ground.

After two months of adventures designed to test our limits, dissolve our defenses and make us more aware and connected human beings, it was time for the grand finale, the solo; the right of passage to transition us to the next part of the program. Our solo would involve three days of venturing into the Canadian Rockies. Alone.

I had accepted one of our guides, Julian’s, challenge. It was like he was speaking directly to me when he told our group that the only way we would learn the profound lessons about ourselves we had said we wanted to learn would be to give up the things that make us feel secure. I knew he was right. I had not taken the solo seriously.

I started to consider what deep truths I wanted to discover from this experience. What came to me was slightly shocking. I wanted to learn that I could trust the world; that if I went out into the world alone and vulnerable, that I would be cared for. Being alone didn’t make me insecure, but being cold did. I determined that in order to truly test this theory I had to severely limit what I could bring. I decided I would bring next to nothing; no sleeping bag, no tent. Immediately after that decision, Fear crept into my body with a vengeance. I knew I was on the right path.

To assuage my fears, I went to speak to Pat, our other guide. He asked me to think of the worst possible place I could imagine being. It was in the middle of the Arctic, surrounded by snow, cold and alone. I told him my plan, to bring nothing with me except a small fleece blanket. He immediately looked concerned. “Julie you need to bring a sleeping bag.” I had expected him to support my crazy plan. Fear was positively gleeful. “I told you! Your plan is TERRIBLE. You are going to freeze to death in the mountains. I told you!!”

It was a pivotal moment. I knew that this act of faith on my part was crucial. Bringing a sleeping bag would signify that I did not truly trust the world with my life. “Sure I trust you! But just in case you let me down I have this handy sleeping bag. Just in case. But I trust you! I swear.” Perhaps that was Pat’s point; that I shouldn’t trust the world in this way. It was foolish. We were in the mountains for god’s sake, where snowstorms in the summer are not uncommon. It was the perfect moment to back down. Pat, someone whose knowledge and wisdom I counted on was telling me I was being foolish. I should listen to him. A part of me I had forgotten spoke up forcefully. “No. You need to trust yourself.” I listened and stood my ground. I explained my rationale to Pat, my need to commit to my plan, to trust that I would be cared for. I must have sounded persuasive. He told me to jump up and down if I got cold.

The morning we were to leave we went into the sweat lodge. When it came to the round where we were to pray for ourselves, I called out silently to the mystery of the universe, what they called Great Spirit and the Creator. I asked for help. Please help me stay awake. Please help me stay warm. I left the sweat lodge, said good-bye to the others, and walked towards the mountains. I did not look back.

I brought very little with me: no food, no water, and no shelter. My plan was to fast and stay awake for the full three days. I felt both terrified and confident. I walked up the mountainside and into the wilderness, not knowing that this experience would change me forever.

Stay tuned for Part II