One Good Push

pushThe enemy of any good writer is the blank page. Yes, it holds within it the possibility for greatness—the blog post that could be shared by millions, the research paper that could change the world, the bestselling novel that could redefine a generation. But what glares at you from the empty void is not any of those things. What a writer sees first is the possibility of failure.

Maybe I’m wrong, but that feeling is easily identifiable for all people, across the board. You don’t have to be a writer to recognize that there are situations in your life when you are afraid to begin, afraid to choose, because your choice might be wrong. So you don’t start. You find other things to pass the time. You sharpen pencils. You clean out the cupboard beneath your bathroom sink. You alphabetize your recipe cards. Without someone or something to push you, it’s easy to not try. It’s safe.

But not choosing is also a choice. Like someone said to me this morning, At 10:02 you have decided not to take the ten o’clock train. Regardless of whether you see it as active or not, indecision is a decision.

Sometimes all you need is a prompt.

Last weekend, I packed a modest rolling suitcase, grabbed some sunglasses and a homemade lemon meringue pie—which was now sweating profusely beneath the hastily applied plastic wrap—and headed east.

photo 3 (1)

My uncle has a farm out in Prince Edward County, and we had made plans to stay in the guesthouse—a cozy little dwelling in the front of the property, overlooking swaying natural grasses and the woodlands beyond.

I was both excited and nervous at the prospect of getting away to focus on writing. Excited because the weather was supposed to be beautiful and the place we had landed in was the ideal setting for a focus on words, away from the noise and hustle of a busy city filled with summer construction. Also, my uncle is famous for couture cooking, my aunt for her delicious desserts and both for their warm hospitality (all of which were checked off over the course of the weekend—spoiler).

The nerves came from being in a place of in between writing projects. My second novel completed, there were only vague ideas racing around in my head of what to do next (I’m never without some notion of an unfolding story bouncing around my brain). I knew I would be facing that blank page, its starched white demanding, its blinking cursor lulling me into a trance of doubt at my abilities.

After waking up the first morning and enjoying a breakfast in The Big House of homemade granola and bagels, we returned to The Little House and set up separate writing stations. I wrote a blog post (cop out) and Zara worked on her novel. We read our musings out loud to one another and gave feedback. My nerves were down, my excitement building. This was just my slow beginning.

photo 1 (1)Knowing part of this weekend was also a shot at relaxation, we spent the rest of the day exploring, first in the little town nearby where we traipsed through local shops, looking at old-fashioned, floor-length night gowns and buying ridiculously expensive maple water (supposedly made from tree sap—don’t let the marketing fool you: it may be cholesterol, trans-fat and gluten-free, but it pretty much tastes like water). Then, we hit the beach. To say it was windy is to undermine how cold we got, wrapped in blankets up to our necks and eating maple-smoked cheddar, maple-bacon-flavoured chips and drinking our maple water (when in Ontario…). But we were determined to get some beach time in.

That night, we dined on seared tuna, local asparagus, fresh carrots and summer zinfandel. The wine flowed with the smooth conversation, as we chatted about past family memories and our hopes for the future. Good food and good company sucked out the complexities of life, for a moment, and smacked me with an easy revelation: it’s all very simple.

While the first day was rife with giddy excitement, I was determined that the next day be packed with writing accomplishments.

Anticipating the difficulty in beginning something new, we had come prepared. For Christmas, my editorial intern Naomi Leanage gifted me with a book called 642 Things to Write About, full of prompts to get your writing engine revved. The one I had chosen for the day was “Write a story that begins with the line, It was the first time I killed a man.”

Dana, you’re dark, Zara remarked. Yep. Accept and embrace my twisted ways, I responded with a laugh.

The point was to be put in an uncomfortable place as a writer. To be forced to craft words around a situation you have never been in and probably never will (hopefully), in order to grow. We all learn the most from the difficult moments.

We set the timer for 20 minutes and began typing. When the buzzer went off, we took turns reading what we had.

photo 2 (1)The unfinished segments of stories that will probably never be full were graphic and fragmented and awkward and eerily beautiful in potential. They were also quite creepy, and mine involved some squirrel violence, which I don’t really want to get into.

But, the point is this: they were created in an atmosphere that was removed of the possibility to fail. I mean, as long as there were words on the page, you couldn’t take a wrong direction with a writing experiment. What came out in those 20 minutes just was. Not right. Not wrong. A way to start walking, before the run.

It was the right kind of prompt for me, to see how I could work with words in a new way, moving them around to create a quick snapshot of something larger. The next time we sat down to write, I began with the blank page, but this time I was not afraid. The nerves were fully gone and the excitement had taken over.

Was there still the possibility of failure? Yes. Did I know that the new novel I was starting could go nowhere and any hard work I put in could seem all for nothing? Absolutely. But moving past the misery of the wondering what if from the standpoint of fear, pushes you into the magic of wondering what if from the perspective of infinite possibilities.

Overcoming the fear of falling, of failing, isn’t as hard as we think. Stand on the edge, you let the emotion fill you to the brim and you look down at the world revealed below. If you can’t bring yourself to jump on your own, then set it up to be nudged out. You’ll never fly if you stay rooted to the ground.

I’d like to say that the best moments of my life have come from times when I’ve had the courage to jump. But realistically, that’s not true. What the weekend taught me, among other things, was that I need that push. And that’s okay. Life is the mother bird that will continually present you with situations to kick you out of the comfortable nest. I no longer resent what I know is necessary.

Indeed, it’s all very simple. Push. Fall. Crash. Repeat until the last one changes to fly.


The Beat Goes On

photo 1There are moments when the main action of your life, your situation, whatever, pauses for a beat. One thing has ended. Another has yet to begin. The proverbial fork in the road is laid out. Some people live in this moment, setting up whole rooms with plush, velvet couches for which to pass the time, either studying both routes carefully or ignoring them entirely. Reveling, they are completely comfortable with the breath of inaction. A time-out.

Personally, I hate these moments. I run from them—or, rather, run out of them—with the fervor of a sprinter on Starbucks espresso (the kind that tastes awful but jolts your body into movement with an unnatural force). I am an all-or-nothing type of person. Standing still is not something that comes easily to me. I would rather be going somewhere, anywhere, than stuck nowhere.

It’s a quality I have usually worn like a badge of honour. I make a decision, choose a path and deal with whatever consequences come along.

But lately, I’ve been wondering if I’m missing something, dodging this beat. What is flashing past me when I fail to hit pause?

On our way up to a writing retreat in Prince Edward County, my friend Zara and I stopped for coffee along the way. Because I have recently been on a quest to seek healthier food options—for general well-being, not weight loss—I stared at the baked goods forlornly, commenting on my longing for a ginger molasses cookie. But, having cut out refined sugar, flour and dairy (and meat—but I ASSUME there was none of that in such a dessert item), I was looking at an off-limits menu.

starbucksI did agree to a respite from my extreme food experiment over the weekend, but I was still determined to actually make it to our destination before indulging. Zara, of course, had other plans.

“I’m going to order a ginger molasses cookie,” she said.

“You are mean,” I replied.

“Well, you’re going to have some,” she said.

“No, I can’t,” I said.

“Come on,” she said, textbook peer pressure pouring off of her. “Just a bite.”

“I can’t do just a bite,” I explained. “I am all-or-nothing type of person.”

I was resigned. So was Zara. She bought the cookie.

I had one bite. Then another. On our trip back out to the car, the cookie fell on the pavement. We ate it anyway (although, to be fair, Zara ate the outer edge of the road cookie and gifted me the inner bit, which had stayed mostly in the bag during its stint on the well-trodden ground).

A house of one's own--the writer's retreat
A house of one’s own–the writer’s retreat

We continued driving, eventually arriving at our destination nestled against a picturesque country backdrop. But that cookie moment stuck with me. Okay, I get it. It’s just a cookie, Dana. A sweet and delicious food substance that most people just stuff in their mouths and say yum. Move along now.

But, in my world, a cookie is never just a cookie. The metaphors for life are unceremoniously hidden in the mundane. And so, I asked myself as I lay in bed that night trying not to dwell on unfamiliar sounds of a potentially haunted house: What is it that causes me to be unable to exist in between two states? Why can I not take a moment to be undefined?

My epiphany came in the early morning hours, just after the sun crept into my room and lit up the walls with the promise of a new day. We had only gone to bed three hours ago, too hopped up on excitement and Prosecco to tuck in any earlier. I was tired. But my mind whirred with energy.

When you are living through a time defined only by its lack of classification, you will most likely grasp at any opportunity to draw that line in the sand. I am here, as a way to say I am not there.

My life is something of a No Man’s Land right now. And no, I don’t mean it in the sense of being without male company. Although… (let’s skip this digression). Rather, I mean it as a type of purgatory or limbo. An in between zone, no longer tied to the romantic relationships or work affiliations or even writing projects that have seemingly given my life purpose in the past. I am in that uncomfortable moment of pause, the moment that I hate. The beat.

It’s not an area that brings clarity for me, typically. It brings confusion. I cannot question one aspect of my life, the one that has come to a halt. I question everything: my beliefs, my decisions, my victories, my failures, my strengths, my weaknesses, my general course in life. Which is why, on the occasions that are made available to me, I choose to dart in a particular direction and stake a claim, waiting for the meaning to follow after. I eat the entire cookie. Or none of it.

In the end, it’s all about having a corner of control. Or at least feeling like you do. But does that control mean anything if you aren’t taking the time to think about what you’re doing with it? Or even why you need it?

My life is at a standstill. Forcibly so. When I really think about it, let the sediment of chaos settle so I can see the sharpness of the rocks beneath the clear water, I am struck by panic. What will happen? Which path should I take? How will the story end?

I have a very hard time seeing the freedom that inevitably comes with a crossroad. The plush velvet couch looks more like a mass of quicksand through my eyes. But following my instincts to rush through this time would be, I think, a mistake. In the future, I would look back at this period and shake my head, wishing I had taken more of a pause.

And so, I want to learn what it means to stay in this beat, to study its uncomfortable silence and reflect on what exists intrinsically in my life, when most of what I have known has been stripped away. I want to ignore the noise of multiple pathways that seem far off in the distance, and focus instead on the naked image in the mirror. Not with judgment. Just an insatiable need to know and accept. What was. What is. What could be.

Like the steady rhythm of a heart. Lub-dub. Lub-dub. Lub-dub.

Beat. Beat. Beat…

That’s As Far As It Goes

Today I got a text from one of my best friends.

“Are you doing more for others than for yourself? According to the planets you are, so let those who are taking advantage of your generous nature know that’s as far as it goes. And mean it.”

horoscopeIt was my horoscope for the day. She read it and thought it fit my situation like a perfect pair of new jeans. You know, when try on the way-too-expensive pants because, you think, they are never going to fit, so it doesn’t matter that you can’t ever afford them. Your VISA is already maxed. It’s just for fun. Something to pass the time. And then they slip on all buttery and perfect and make your butt look good and don’t pinch around the waist or bunch up at the ankles and they stretch in all the right places and make you feel like you could dance the ballet, even though you’ve had two left feet since you were six, but you pose in the mirror like you were performing at the barre and then give a little shake to the booty to add some pizazz and they even look good with the extra pizazz and they make you feel like the million dollar price tag attached to them…

And then you hold that tag in your hand. That stupid rectangle of reality that brings your heels back down to the ground. Your pointed toes are now flat as it sinks in. All the daydreaming of what you could do with those pants, what your life would be like with this prize lifting you through the streets, it drifts off in a cloud of smoke. All that’s left is the mirror. And that tag. You know it. You just know it.

You cannot afford these pants.

I cannot afford these pants.

I wrote this article the other week, which included quotations from Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist and university professor who wrote the book Give and Take. He talks about how the world is divided up into three types of people: Givers, Takers and Matchers.

Givers give without thought to their own gain. Takers take without thought to those from whom they glean their rewards. We all know people on both ends of this spectrum.

But most people are Matchers. They give to others what they think they can reasonably expect to get back. We like to think we’re givers, but even Grant learned the hard way: that isn’t a title anyone can claim for themselves. It has to be—wait for it—given. And given freely.

Grant’s hypothesis, which is backed up by a ridiculous amount of studies, is that those who have the greatest amount of success (we’re not just talking smiles and rainbows here, but actual, measurable success by all three metrics—money, power and well-being/wisdom) are those who place an importance on giving.

But, there are some catches. Like you should be wary of giving to Takers. Proceed with caution.


Like Grant, I aspire to be a giver. I hold the values of one. I want to see those around me succeed and be happy. I want to give selflessly of my time in order to help them do so. But I can’t slap the HELLO MY NAME IS GIVER name tag on my own jacket. I’ll have to earn it. A worthwhile life goal.

However, there are times when you have to recognize that certain people in your life are Takers. Even though you wish that they were more than that. Even though you know they could be more than that.

It’s not always obvious. In fact, most of the time it’s hidden deep below the surface. Why? Because the majority of the population sees themselves as Givers. No one is the villain in their own story. That’s why we keep rewriting fairy tales, telling the other side, like Sleeping Beauty transformed into the film Maleficent.

But Takers aren’t pretend. They aren’t imaginary creatures, or even from an era of Once Upon a Time. They are real. And everywhere. Giving to Takers removes your potential of giving to those who will do more, spread the love/wealth/learning/wisdom to others who need it. And, these Takers will continue to pull from you until you realize, often too late, that there’s nothing left. Break down. Burn out.

Then, stand up.

How do you do this? First by letting them know “that’s as far as it goes,” as today’s horoscope suggested for me. And you have to mean it. Then you start to give again, but somewhere else.

I know. I’m being vague. These pages are supposed to be a place to tell real stories that others can relate to. But very often, I cannot tell a story until I know its part in the bigger picture. The purpose. The lesson—for me and for those who can benefit from whatever wisdom manifests out of my mistakes. Life isn’t random to me.

So, this isn’t a story I can tell just yet. I don’t know how it ends.

I do know that it can be a hard pill to swallow, facing the reality of a Taker. One of those big, fat ones, with the shifting powder insider that always reminds me of “sands through the hourglass.” The medicine may take time. But, in the end, it’s the only cure.

Sometimes, you just have to walk away. Close the chapter.

This time, trust me. I mean it.