Fire and Ice: Why You Shouldn’t Let Other People Tell You Who You Are

matchesSo, I posted this photo on Instagram not too long ago. Most people were baffled. And rightly so. Very few know the significance behind a box of matches from a restaurant I have only entered once before and barely stayed long enough for the overpriced cocktail to make its way into my bloodstream.

For me, it represents the turning point in a traumatic evening that ended with not a single match lit—neither literally nor metaphorically. But I’m not really into telling intimate details of recent dating escapades, partly because I feel like it’s no one’s business, but also because it’s still too close to spread the table with, so to speak. That carnage I reserve for myself, for now.

However, the story I want to tell is one of larger implications, of which the matchbox is a factor. Let me show you why.

A boy once told me, before we parted, that I spend way too much time thinking of myself as damaged. “You are not the dark and twisty person you imagine,” he said. His wish was for me was to be bright and shiny all the time, a desire that he seems to have since fulfilled in the form of a new and bubbly paramour, who writes every post with a plethora of exclamation points, to which I can only reply with violent air vomit. I mean, totally happy for him. Cough.

Over the next few months, I marinated in the headspace of 24/7 smiles, attempting to project an aura of optimism, regardless of what I was feeling inside. There is one particular image that I held in my mind whenever sadness seemed to overcome me, and I would use that to drown out the real emotions to keep from breaking down—sometimes more successfully than others. I dated beautiful men who, on the inside, were either empty, rotten or unable to choose between Jekyll and Hyde—surface romantic relationships that allowed me to keep people out. I avoided rocking the boat that desperately needed to be capsized at my job. I pretended that everything was fine. (Side note: is there not a more fake and pretentious word out there than “fine”? Does anyone actually mean this when they say it and not have some sort of passive aggressive or completely neurotic message behind it?? Doubtful.)

Spoiler: I was not fine. Between losing someone I loved, my mom’s battle with cancer and my career taking an unexpected dive off a Mario Kart ramp (will she make it into the cave of short cuts or just crash into the boulder on the side?), my insides were being burned to the ground. And it hurt, worse than any hell I can fathom. It was constant and awful and oh so necessary. Change is often like this. We carry the scars and scorch marks as a reminder of the refining process.

Here’s the self-realization moment of this piece: the boy was wrong. I am damaged. Perhaps even MORE than I imagined. But here’s the twist: that’s the way I like it. Because, you see, damaged to me means that I’ve taken chances and been thrown tomatoes and pushed down the hill and into in the valley where you find a taller mountain to climb and I’ve raced out in the world and been affected by it’s elements, the sleet and the rain and the pomegranate-sized hail. I’ve also basked in the warmth of its rays. Never do I want to be seamless and smooth and boring and flat. It’s the bumps in the road that make you soar higher. I am, and want to be, constantly being ripped apart, only to be sewn back together in a patchwork quilt that is more colourful and interesting and dynamic than the original creator ever imagined. I am human. To pretend otherwise isn’t just stupid. It’s sad.

We spend way too much time absorbing what other people tell us and thinking that it’s fact, or should be fact, when really, a lot of what gets spewed in our direction is some sort of self-analysis gone wrong. Others project their own insecurities and misgivings onto us and call it “perspective.” We need to stop listening when other people tell us who we are or what we should do. We need to start trusting our own instincts.

And so, to the people in your life who ask you to be fake or phony or something other than the deep, rich, maybe even damaged individual you are, you need to close your ears to them. Or, at the very least, turn the volume down. Replace their damning words that worm their way into your subconscious and make you doubt yourself and your journey, replace them with music that speaks the truth: I cannot fill the empty core inside of you, nor fix the broken bits, nor fight against your true nature. And I never asked you to do that for me. So let me be.

As a reminder, I have matches. For the night that it burned down again. For the moment I realized my opinion mattered more than his. For the proverbial match I have not found yet. For the time in the future when it will strike and set my world ablaze. And then, wild horses.

Why You Shouldn’t Get Off Your High Horse

1435760_99720660As a young child, I was riding a horse at my uncle’s hobby farm when the animal, out of nowhere, went a bit crazy. It bolted, starting running up the lane where my aunt had been gently leading it by a tether, back from a guided jaunt that was slow and, well, boring.

At the time, I don’t think I wished for not-boring, but the change of pace was at first exhilarating and then all at once terrifying. On the back of the horse, I hung on with white knuckles as we raced through the family members that waited near the house, horrified looks on all of their faces. While trying desperately to keep on the saddle with one hand, I tried to use the other to pull back on the reins and get him to stop. He was not having it. Whether he had spooked somehow or just decided he had enough of farm life and was running away to a life of crime in Chicago, I will never know.

The horse galloped along the side of the farmhouse, past some apple trees that decorated the property. Here’s some education for those who don’t know: apple trees have very low-lying branches. I smashed my helmetless head on one. Two. Three.

It was at this point when I started to care a little less about the journey. Deliria crept in and I thought I would loosen my grip a bit. As I slid sideways on the saddle, then dropped off completely, I landed in an alfalfa field and thought, Hmm…maybe I’ll just take a short nap.

I only have snapshots of the events that transpired immediately after. Like blinking intermittently as someone hits fast-forward, I remember registering people running at me, then an image of riding in the car, then being asked questions by the doctor at the hospital, then waking up every hour to my mother inquiring if I knew my own name and where I was.

My first, and only, concussion. That I can remember (ba-dum-tish).

A week later, I was cleared to go to camp, my favourite week of the summer, where we got to do gymnastics for eight hours a day and giggle in bunks that smelled slightly of musk and urine.

Want to know what I did while I was there that summer?

I went horseback riding.

Because, well, metaphors.

It’s my very literal version of the cliché phrase everyone hauls out when you fail to land that new job, or when you didn’t beat your personal best for that race or—especially, especially—when someone breaks your heart. Get back on the horse, they say, while you stifle the urge to punch them in the face.

I’ve had that urge, trust me. But then I find myself giving it a week for healing broken bones and battered egos, then I pick my leg up to set it firmly in the stirrup once again. Call me crazy, because I keep (metaphorically) getting tossed off, but I think I learn something every time. Even though it’s hard and bloody painful, it’s beyond worth it when the wind whips through your hair and you feel like flying. It’s freedom.

It’s not that I don’t understand people who choose the opposite—to shy away and run away and look for reasons not to trust, not to try. I do understand the temptation. I just don’t respect it. It’s the easy route. It will keep you safe. It will keep you from being painted with the bruises of life. But, if fear is the greatest motivator in your life, your world is going to spiral smaller and smaller, until the things you allow yourself to do can fit into a neat 10×10 box.

Want to live in a box? Great. Good for you. Just please, please, stay away from me. Find someone else who wants to play house, play games. I’ll be busy galloping off into the sunset. Life is too short and too long and too effing interesting to live anywhere but on the edge.

My bruises will fade. Cowardice? That will stay with you forever.

The Value of Regret


“You will regret this.”

I’ve been told this twice in my life, on very separate occasions. Each time, it stuck with me. Not because those are the moments I look back on and wish I had chosen a different path; completely the opposite.

The first time it happened, I was in the sixth grade. After spending a year in an enrichment program, I made the decisions to go back to my regular school. The teacher saw it as me taking the easy way out. “You’ll regret this,” she growled angrily after calling me to her desk in the middle of class, wanting to “talk” about my choice.

I was twelve. And depressed. The competition in the class was intense. In a game of “Around the World,” one boy got so upset at the other for beating him, he held a mechanical pencil, tip up, on the chair beside him. When the victor sat down, the pencil went through his pants and got lodged in the flesh of his bottom. Like I said, intense.

On top of that craziness, the workload was unbearable, in part because I had become friends with the teacher’s daughter who was in the class. She always seemed to be my partner for assignments and would say things like, “Okay, you write the paper. I’ll type it up.” Her version of contributing to the work was ordering pizza and adding her name in the digital version of my handwritten words.

I started eating less and moving slowly. I got yelled at in gym class for trudging along while the others sprinted across the floor. When my mother found me hidden at the back of her walk-in closet, in tears and terrified of facing the outside world, she gave me an out. Go back to the school you were comfortable in, to the friends you loved. No academic advantage is worth you being this unhappy.

When I heard the bitter “You’ll regret this” grate across my ears, I didn’t feel the shame it was intended to cause me, nor the indecision. It brought me peace. Clarity.

Looking back, I think she was scared she had failed as a teacher, which could not possibly be a good feeling. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. However, projecting that onto a child in the form of forced guilt? Perhaps she’s found a more suitable profession by now.

The next time I heard that phrase was ten years later, during a breakup. It was a long time coming, but I still felt torn in some ways. I cared for this person, didn’t want to see him hurt. However, our lives were going in very opposite directions. “You’ll regret this,” he said tearfully. The same calm came over me as before. If I had been unsure before, his words pulled all doubt away.

The idea of regret has been on my mind a lot lately. I’ve reflected back on these two moments, when someone else’s notion of the word brought confidence. While I do think both situations were spots where I was making the right decision, I also think a great deal of that confidence came because the words were from an outside source. When they are internal, the effects are quite different.

In doing some reading on the subject, I came across an article in Psychology Today by Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D. that first defines regret (“a negative cognitive/emotional state that involves blaming ourselves for a bad outcome, feeling a sense of loss or sorrow at what might have been or wishing we could undo a previous choice that we made”).

Then, it looks at research about regret in different genders, cultures and time periods. Women tend to have more romantic regrets than men; in a study, 44% of women revealed they had relationship regrets versus 19% of men (which, the article suggests, might be due to the fact that men more quickly replace their lost mate, no longer looking back and reflecting on their past actions).

Also, because our North American culture presents a world of endless choice, there are more opportunities for which to feel regret, when we know there were other possible paths we could have taken. Regret is less rampant in cultures where arranged marriages are common and the family/society has more influence over the direction of someone’s life. The article says that in “collectivist cultures, which deemphasize individual choice, [people] have less of a basis for blaming themselves for negative outcomes. They had no other choice, so they may as well accept the situation and make the best of it.”

Even within our own culture, there seems to be two different types of regret. Over short periods of time, people regret small mistakes, things they’ve done. Over longer periods of time, people regret not taking chances, things they didn’t do.

I find all of this quite fascinating, but none so much as the talk about the value of regret. There are signs you can post and even buy spouting bold phrases like “NO REGRETS.” It’s seen as a negative thing, something we are better off living without. Just google “no regrets” and you will come up with page upon page of celebrity quotes about how they live a regret-less existence. Do they never make mistakes? Never wish the beautifully composed response that only now came into their heads was there when confronted with false accusations or ridiculous arguments? Must be nice.

Or, maybe not. Without regret, do we miss out on major life lessons? About ourselves, about the world, about our place in the world?

It’s a fickle emotion, but regret is also necessary, in my opinion. It teaches us to reflect, to take stalk of a wrong choice, assess the current damage and then learn how to make healthier decisions in the future. It’s only a negative emotion when we hold onto it, continually creating alternate versions of reality in our heads. “If only I’d done this; If only I hadn’t done that…” Then, Greenberg says, it just becomes “fruitless rumination and self-blame that keeps people from re-engaging with life.”

What Teach and BF forgot, or didn’t know, was that both the value and the detriment of regret come from within. It is self-blame. It cannot be forced upon you by someone else.

regret2Though they have nothing to do with the stories mentioned here, I do have regrets. Some major, some minor. But I have made every effort to find meaning in each one. To rustle up the courage to face the regret, study it, even marinate in its swamps of self-pity for awhile, then climb out, wash off and know that my future path will be just a little more mapped out because I know this terrain of pitfalls.

Perhaps my ex-teacher and ex-boyfriend wanted that “fruitless rumination” for me as a form of punishment for their perceived hurt. Or maybe they thought I would look back and learn something from the situation. If it was the latter, it sort of came true. Not a lesson from self-blame, but from self-trust. They taught me, quite accidentally, that my instincts are sometimes so bang-on, it’s scary. They taught me that stepping away from something that isn’t good anymore isn’t the same as running away. They taught me that in the face of someone telling me I’m wrong, I am capable of finding the voice to say, “I’ve never been more right.”

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.

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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.

The Importance of Being Earnest Planners

“Life’s what happens when you’re busy making plans.”

I think the above qualifies as my least favourite quote of all time. Seriously. All time. I’ve said it before and I can say it again: I am a planner. When people spout useless phrases like this, it makes me think only one thing: what are you doing while you wait for life to “happen”? It makes me anxious just to think about it. All of the to-do lists you could’ve made in that time…

photo (15)

One of the manifestations of this planning personality is that, as an adult, I now belong to several clubs or groups. There’s Writing Group, which meets once a month to critique each other’s work as we muddle through novel creation; Nike Running Club happens every Wednesday with media-minded industry folk, even in the ridiculous cold/rain/sleet of this “spring” weather; newly-christened (Mostly) Board Game Night has claimed Friday nights as it’s proud podium of fun with a new patchwork of peeps; and, perhaps mostly famous, Wine Club, with my Ride or Die gals, which also meets once a month.

Wine Club night is special. Most of the guys in our life laugh at this, saying it’s our excuse to get together and get messy. Five girls. Five bottles of wine. You do the math. But there is way more to it than that.

For each Wine Club night, we pick a country or region and everyone is assigned a course. The host does the main, then there is an appetizer, two sides and a dessert. Each course must come paired with a wine. Members are expected to present (yep, formal presentation, because we’re grown-up nerds) their wine selection, as it applies to the food they have prepared. And…maybe there are also some inbetweenie bottles that get consumed as well (apparently we’re lushes as well).

All very classy. And structured. Right?

photo (17)Well…

The inside jokes we share (and the Instagram videos we post) tell a story that’s less classy and structured than the concept suggests.

But Wine Club is about more than just amazing food, good wine and general tipsy behaviour. It is our solution to the problem of life. Gone are the days when we will spontaneously be all without plans and in the same city, in order to just randomly end up hanging out, like was normal in high school and university summers. My friends have blossomed into successful lawyers, doctors, teachers and financial professionals. And in that growth, they have all gathered together elements that make up their own gardens, creating more and more flora and fauna (I won’t call them weeds, because…eek, that’s not what I mean) that prevent us from basking in the sun and weathering the rains together.

Ugh, can I abandon the flower metaphor now? Must be the spring-time fever.

Short version: we have trouble getting everyone together in one room. And since they are the ingredients that make up my better half, when I don’t get to see them for months on end, it’s a real thorn in my side (sorry, had to).
photo (16)But, to ensure there are five in attendance, things must be carefully planned far in advance. So, we decided to start Wine Club.

(Of course, I’m not always the greatest planner. Case in point: when organizing my calendar for the weekend, I inadvertently said yes to having wine club on the night before my very first 10k race, which is, well, stupid. But, that experience is a story for another post.)

Because of my impending race the next day, at this latest Wine Club night, where our country of choice was Chile, I wasn’t able to drink (heavily). So, I took the time I would normally use exercising my bicep with wine glass lifting and instead captured all of the delicious food and wine that was spread out all around me.

I also promised to blog about it (ta da!).

But the extra time also allowed me to do some serious thinking on the topic of planning. Some see it as the death of spontaneity. But is it really?

I see carefully laid plans as the perfect way of communicating, through action, how much you care about someone, something, that you’re willing to carve out a considerable chunk, forsaking all other priorities, in order to make it happen. We live incredibly busy lives. All of us. So it means a lot.

Wine Club lasts at least five or six hours. But each of us spends a good amount of time researching, shopping, cooking, baking, putting extra thought into the ingredients that will ensure a fun night. And no, not because every minute of our time together is planned out. But the planning ensures we have a time and a space for the magic of those moments we will never forget.

Do I remember each dish that I agonized over choosing and then following the recipe, sometimes taking all day to prepare it? Hell yes. But I remember more the fits of laughter we shared over a bad tasting inbetweenie bottle; the endless jokes we made about Ali typing that she’d be bringing “warm crap dip” instead of “crab”; the time one of us passed out early and we made a game of “Spike Shazia” with leftover birthday balloons; the tearful conversations over stolen, late-night Nutella gelato.

Without planning, that spontaneity would have never happened.

And the nights we spend together, reunited as a fearless group of five (yes, Zubin, we’re not as tough as we imagine sometimes), they aren’t just about mindless fun. There is an ever-present process happening between the downing of fine wine and finer food. Friendship is a living, breathing entity that needs to grow. That wants to grow. Though we’ve been friends for at least a decade and a half (some of us more), we’re still getting to know each other, because that process is never-ending. And thankfully so.

Wine Club is our chance to catch up. To connect. To relay all the details of our lives–the good, the bad, the really ugly–and try to make sense of this crazy ride called life. It takes a village, you know.

Here are the players.

Tush brings heart to any matter, usually asking me to look deeper and figure out what I really want–which is useful advice, except perhaps too much thought when I’m just deciding what topping to add to my froyo.

APPETIZER: Beef Tostadas


(For the sauce):

Modifications: I made the beef with ingredients from the first recipe above, but added brown sugar, and garlic powder to the actual spice rub. I also used a sirloin tip roast for the beef, and beef stock as the liquid, in addition to lime juice. 

I roasted it for 4 hours at 275 degrees, then shredded it after letting it rest for 15 minutes. Then I made the sauce from the second recipe above.

Paired with: Valle Secreto First Edition Carmenere

Ali will usually bring up the closest Disney movie that matches my current life crisis. Kidding. Really. I’m actually surprised she’s never done that, since she’s been to Disney World more times than I’ve been to the dentist… Anyway, in reality, Ali often presents me with two clear-cut options: the polite route and the take-no-prisoners route, then plays Switzerland. I’m sure she secretly roots for one option, but she never tells me which.

SIDE: Avocado Quinoa Salad



Modifications: None

Paired with: Qu Chardonnay

I guess it’s my turn here. How can I evaluate the way I give myself life advice? I’m sure I do. It’s the internal battle that keeps raging on in my head every day, as I shuffle my steps between boringly normal and absurdly crazy. But I’m going to take a pass on the self analysis. For now.

SECOND SIDE: Tomates Rellenos (Stuffed Tomatoes)



Modifications: I substituted brown rice because I like it better (and it’s healthier), then garnished with fresh basil, to give it some colour.

Paired with: Chilcas Single Vineyard Pinot Noir

Becca is the rational one, walking me through the pros and the cons of a situation until the solution is so clear I want to jump in it like a kiddie pool.

MAIN: Chilean Sea Bass



Modifications: I doubled the amount of everything in the sauce, and reduced it for almost 20 minutes to get all the onions really caramelized and the sauce nice and thick.  I used a little less lime than called for and then served the fish with a slice of fresh lime so people could add more citrus to their taste.  I used a good Chilean white wine (I think the one Ali brought–I’ll be honest, I tossed a bunch in from my glass) in the sauce in place of white wine vinegar (because real wine is always better right?!)  I used much more garlic than called for in both the sauce and marinade, because garlic = yum in my opinion.

Paired with: Max Reserva Sauvignon Blanc

Shaz will give it to me straight, her advice coming out in a blunt way that usually gives me a good chuckle, no matter how dark my mood. Most likely she’ll just tell me to sue (which sometimes she’s serious about).

DESSERT: Creme Caramel



Modifications: You can use any can of sweetened condensed milk–it doesn’t have to be Eagle Brand. Watch the sugar carefully as it can burn very quickly.

Paired with: Tabalí Reserva Sauvignon Blanc

I might be biased, but I believe my village is the very best. Because the quote should really read, “Friendship is what happens when you’re not too busy to make plans.”

Or something to do with flowers…

Just Keep Breathing

dana and mom-editMy mother’s hand felt smaller than I remembered. As I grasped it in my own, memories floated back to the front of my mind, times when I was the one who needed the comfort of her touch to chase away the monsters. I have very vivid recollections of padding into her room at night, the door right next to mine, completely convinced that my carpet floor was covered in frogs and toads. I would not be able to go back unless she guided me safely into bed. I needed to draw strength from her hand in mine. Maybe that’s what it still was today.

We waited, parked in the hallway outside the second-floor operating rooms. As is my habit of late, I perched myself on the narrow bed, my seat snuggled in close to her toes. Doctors bustled in and out around us, shuffling with important tasks and slippered feet. When they called her name, tiny panic set in. The moment of truth. No more waiting.

We have spent a lot of time watching the clock lately, passing the time. In hallways, like today, or hospital rooms, or doctor’s offices or chemo centres. It’s like a game. Or that annoying Lamb Chops song that never ends, which my little brother unfortunately loved for way too many years. It’s bearable, for awhile, but the longer it goes on, the more you are convinced that you are going insane from something that appears fairly easy to manage.

Without going into too much detail, the surgery was happening because of a complication from her shrinking tumour. Good news, bad news. After being in and out of the oncology wing, my mom was settled in for a week-long stay amongst other surgery patients–a kind of all-inclusive resort, except one where you can’t eat or drink or do much of anything.

But finally the wait was over. The doctors visited us in that hallway, one by one, to explain what they would be doing. Her grip on my hand got tighter.

No more waiting was a good thing. And yet, it always hurts a little to let go. To put your trust in someone else, in a procedure you don’t fully understand. Waiting is the breath you hold before making a choice, deciding on one path or the other. You fear making the wrong one. Holding still at least means you still have the possibility of choosing correctly, of getting it right.

But what can be accomplished by standing still? Being frozen in a fear of failure is a self-fulfilling prophecy. We become what we put our mind, our energy, behind. Ruminate on the positives, the surgeon told us. My mother smiled nervously at him. Yet his words had pull with me.

I’ve been working on my second book for eight months now. Last night, I typed out the last chapter. I felt like I had been holding my breath for all of those months, working away, spending hours staring at the screen and mulling over the same words, the same plot outline again and again. As I hammered out those final letters, I expected to feel a relief that it was over. To have the words of a story turning over in your mind constantly–scenes playing out in both waking and sleeping hours, characters slashing at you with dialogue, plot lines shifting and evolving like a living being–it’s enough to drive you a little nuts. So, once it was all out there, on the page, I expected something monumentally peaceful to descend upon me. Choirs of angels, and all that. But the emotions that built up inside and caused me toss and turn in the absence of sleep that night, were anything but respite.

The idea behind the novel, I felt, was great. Powerful. But what if the execution, my decisions, were off the mark? What if it was the right story, but I got the storytelling wrong?

Like my comprehension of what happens in an operating room, I do not fully understand the process that occurs when crafting a work of fiction. They both seem like a sort of magic. Both can produce miracles or travesties.

With my writing, I chose to dive straight in, not just praying for a miracle, but keeping my sights locked on the certainty of one.

I set a goal of finishing that seemed somewhat unrealistic and would hear nothing of other’s assurances that I could have more time, if I needed it. No, I thought. I will trust that this is the time I need. No excuses. No allowancesEnd of April, I would have my second book finished. I trusted that what seemed impossible meant only that the goal was just enough out of reach to make the reaching worthwhile.

With my mother’s operation, I chose to be certain that she would not just emerge, but do so with good results. Out in that hallway, they told us to say a goodbye, that it was time. We shared a quiet moment, hands still clenched together. I leaned over to kiss her, whispered my affirmation in her ear–words that are private, for now, but may reveal themselves when the time is right–and told her she was loved. She was wheeled into the OR. I was escorted to the waiting room (apparently my waiting had only just begun).

After two hours, the doctor arrived with good news. After five hours, we were allowed to see her. She was groggy, but awake and okay. Her shoulders shuddered with sobs that bubbled up from a tension she wasn’t entirely aware she had carried around. It wasn’t sadness that filled her face with tears. Her emotions were spiralling. The feeling of relief is never quite what we imagine.

When that breath that you’ve been holding is finally released, the pressure in your chest subsides, your tense muscles relax their grip on your bones and you feel light again. For a moment.

But then, of course, you are poised to fill your lungs again. The next challenge, or time of waiting, comes right away, it seems.

Is it possible, I wonder, to breathe evenly through it all? To avoid the peaks and valleys of our anxious lives, letting it in–the worry, the fear, the tension–just a little, then pushing it out again, to accept the warmth of a smile, the carefree nature of a laugh, the kindness of others.

Perhaps that is the challenge of life, to go from gasping and sputtering for air to a calm inhale and exhale. We master it gradually, taking years to learn that the first step in every hardship is to just keep breathing.

Back in her hospital room, my mother is poised to wait again. This time for recovery. I watch her struggle with knowing that one huge hurdle is over, but there is still far to go. I wish I could chase away her monsters. All I can offer her is a hand to hold and the sum of what my less-than-straight-and-narrow life path has taught me thus far.

Just. Keep. Breathing.

The Heavy Backpack of New Beginnings

Melting Snow FlakeYesterday was the beginning of spring. The first day of the spring equinox, when the sun crosses over Earth’s equator and the northern parts of the world dream of warmer weather.

So, I’ll be the first to say it. Yesterday was bloody cold. When I stepped outside to head to my 8am NTC workout at Academy of Lions, still wrapped up tightly in my winter parka, the wind whipped around me, stinging my face and making me cringe. I refused to pull out my mittens and hat, on principle, but shoved my hands deep into my pockets and flipped my hood up for protection. Safely at my desk after the class, I turned up the heat so I could work and snuggled into a long-sleeved shirt. And a sweater. And some wool slippers. When I went out later in the evening for an event, I again fought  the wind, who had this time brought his friend snow along for the ride, trying my hardest not to be blown over.

Can I pretend that the seemingly here-to-stay winter wind was instead the first glimpse of a spring breeze, still cool but holding the promise of better days to come?


But I’m a bad liar.

Beginnings are hard. Even with the seasons, the first days of something new aren’t easy. In fact, they can seem downright impossible.

I’ve been focusing on the idea of beginnings for the past few months, as I start this next chapter of my life at the corner of the streets aptly named Shaw and Shank (redemption, anyone?). A lot of false starts, a lot of missteps, a lot of finding my footing (and, funny enough, trying to find a place for all of my shoes despite the plethora of closets–I may have a problem).

With writing, that ominous blank page is a beginning I know all too well. The cursor blinks mockingly at you, daring you to type something but all the while shouting at you that what you’re thinking about writing isn’t good enough. You aren’t good enough. There’s so much pressure to get it right, to find your stride, right from word/ground zero that those first few moments before your hands hit the keys contain enough nervous tension to kickstart a meltdown of nuclear proportions.

Is it just me?

I think not.

Margaret Atwood wrote, in her novel Blind Assassin, that “Beginnings are sudden, but also insidious. They creep up on you sideways, they keep to the shadows, they lurk unrecognized. Then, later, they spring.”

Now, the vernal equinox (i.e. spring) is something we all see coming. If you have a calendar, you are aware–at least you should be–that March brings a new season to our hemisphere.

But there are certain beginnings we don’t get any warning about, like the ones Ms. Atwood so astutely describes. The sudden loss of a job means you must start the search all over again. A betrayal brings heartbreak and pain into your relationship, forcing you to part ways and go it solo. An unexpected illness strikes hard and fast, making you change gears and lock into survival mode.

All of the above didn’t really come from nowhere. Their point of origin may not have been recognized and labelled as such, but the true beginning was probably slow and subtle. You didn’t notice. That paycheque was a day late. A strange photo appeared on his desktop. One cell deep inside your body mutated ever so slightly.

These small changes signified the end of one thing–normal life as you knew it–but also the beginning of something else. The job hunt. The single life. The battle with cancer. Each one comes with its own hiker’s backpack of new expectations, realities and hardships. It’s heavy and hard to carry. At first.

So, here we go from vague ideas to personal stories. Let’s call it “Get Real Time.”

My mom was diagnosed with lymphoma, a type of blood cancer, back in February, not too long after my return from Peru. I was just getting settled into my new life as she was being told of her new beginning: chemotherapy. Six sessions, once every three weeks, along with countless doctor’s appointments, blood tests and bone marrow samplings. The path was laid out clearly for her by a team of medical professionals who seem to have thought of everything. But that didn’t make it easy.

Like me, my mom is a planner. If there’s a problem, fine, as long as we can be pointed in the direction of a solution–however long term–just let us know which way to go and we’ll start walking.

I’m not a huge believer in the Zodiac signs (mostly because Mom told me stay away from horoscopes as a child), but I’ve been intrigued lately to find that the stars have some interesting insight. Capricorns, my sign, are the work horses. “Life is one big project for these folks, and they adapt to this by adopting a businesslike approach to most everything they do,” according to Yep, that’s me.

My mom is a Sagittarius, which I find closely related to the Capricorn in the sense that both are focused on the end goal. “Sagittarians are truth-seekers, and the best way for them to do this is to hit the road, talk to others and get some answers,” says the same website.

She’s currently rolling her eyes as she’s reading this post, I know it. Possibly clucking her tongue in disapproval at my dalliance with what’s written in the stars. Mom, I promise you I’m going somewhere with this.

The problem with being a ferocious planner is that, especially in the beginning, you’ve barely got your feet on the ground, let alone able to discern what direction to head. You simply cannot plan. Like trying to find North when you’re being spun in circles. Pin the tail on the where-did-the-donkey-go-I-want-off-this-ride-now. You can do all the research in the world, but these beginnings are impossible to predict. Not knowing what to expect, that’s the most frustrating thing in the world to a born-planner. It’s like being forced to hold your breath. And hold. And hold…

Five days following my mom’s first chemo treatment, she got sick. Like, really sick. The hospital asked her to come in after finding two bacterial infections during one of her routine blood tests. They put her in isolation, fearing that she could come in contact with something worse and her compromised immune system would not be able to fight it.

I packed up my work and headed back to Waterloo, setting up shop there for a few days to be close to her. We put on creamy yellow gowns and uncomfortably tight latex gloves just to go into the room. Touching was not allowed.

She was there for almost a week. I watched her struggle with medications, meals and multiple IV fluids. But it was her spirit, torn down by not knowing what to expect each day, that worried me the most.

I read to her from the first few chapters of my new book, hoping to get her mind focused on something else. Fiction has always been my escape. But it was not hers. Though she seemed to enjoy my written words sounded aloud, she mostly wanted to talk. So, we did. Nothing earth-shattering, but it was a human connection that broke up the hours of solitude in a single hospital room where it’s hard not to dwell on the scary reason for being there. And I like to think that it made the beginning of her journey a little bit easier (though I can ramble quite a bit, so, my apologies, dear Mother).

When she was discharged, she return home in better health. And better spirits. But the battle is far from won.

The next few months will be tough. Yet perhaps not as tough as the start, when we were all trying to grasp at expectations that remained scattered and undefined.

Beginnings are hard. But they also hold promise. It’s a promise though, that requires change, which is something most of us welcome the way we would a porcupine hug. If we can get past that initial starting gate, stay open to what’s coming and connected to the ones who can help us through it, then maybe we can reach out, climb from the trenches, and grasp the greatest gift: hope.

Hold it close.

And let me carry the backpack once and a while.

I love you, Mom.

Lines in the Sand: Brought to You By YOLO

lines in the sandAs I sit alone in the Newark airport, halfway through my three hour layover before I fly directly to Peru, I have a lot of time to think (and one of those thoughts is that I could have just come here to learn Spanish from the plethora of its speakers who are currently having lunch all around me).

But, more strongly than that, I think about the lines of safety we draw for ourselves. They are different for everyone—some willingly jump out of planes so long as they have a working parachute, while others enjoy shopping at big box stores so long as they don’t have to drive over county lines.

Wherever you scrape them out in the sand, the existence of those imaginary boundaries helps you to feel safe, while you take whatever small or large risks you think you need for a robust life.

I have never been particular attached to the phrase “YOLO” (You Only Live Once), perhaps because it typically comes attached to drunken wuhoos and other general thoughtlessness, but most people use it frequently these days. It’s an excuse to take big-time gambles. You only live once, so why not, right?

But the concept of YOLO could just as easily serve as a caution against such risk.  You only live once, so why wouldn’t you protect that fragile opportunity, since you don’t get a do-over? (Well, as far as we know, anyway)

When I tell people that I am heading to Lima, Peru to study Spanish for two weeks people usually respond in one of two ways. “Wow, that’s amazing!” and “Please be careful.” Usually, they say both.

It’s then that I can almost see the internal struggle going on in their heads. It sounds like the path to an adventure of a lifetime—one that could be filled with so many potholes to disaster. Especially when they hear that I am going alone.

But that wasn’t the original plan. Actually, scratch that. It was the original plan. I have long been dreaming of solidifying my university Spanish by submerging myself into a country steeped in the language and culture I fell in love with in my early twenties. There is something about the rhythm and flow of Spanish words that just connected to the erratic beating of my own heart and made smooth waves out of the erratic waters. I have never been particularly good at speaking it, but I always believed in the possibility of reversing the language’s unrequited love for my tongue. Translation: I want to be fluent.

I came up with the Peru Plan almost two years ago and was planning on escaping down there in May of 2012. But then it happened. “It” being love. Puke. I changed my plans to include a later date, when we could go together.

We wove our stories together for a while, before tearing the threads apart. At this point, the plane tickets were already booked. He cancelled his without hesitation and encouraged me to do the same, citing worry for my safety.

I suppose it did cross my mind that I could postpone, find another time to go with a friend, which would make everything so much easier. To have a travel companion, someone who could get excited with me about heading into an unknown land; someone who could help navigate the foreign roads and collaborate on sign translations; someone who, years later, could laugh with me as we remember that time when our words weren’t quite right and landed us with barbequed guinea pig instead of chicken. Someone to share in the risk and add to the safety.

But, I thought, to hell with it (sorry, Mom).  YOLO, and all that. If I didn’t go through with the trip as planned (with of course, modifications for my now party of one), who knows when I would get the opportunity to go again. Not only was it something I made a New Years resolution about, but it was on my freaking bucket list. And no failed relationship was going to set-up a roadblock to reaching my goals.

So, I made all the final arrangements—airport transfers, additional flight to Cusco, hotel in the mountains, excursion to Machu Picchu—and set my sights on the original dream.

My parents expressed concern. My friends spurred me on. And though my resolve never really waivered, my brain did let in moments of doubt. Yet, I couldn’t help but recall the words of a famous poem that have been stuck in my head for the past few months: “What are you going to do with this one wild and precious life?”

I have asked myself that one question repeatedly, trying to encourage the constant reminder that 1) it is my decision (how freaking great is that?!), and 2) life holds within it the dichotomy of being both wild and precious—worth living to the height of our ability and protecting to the best of it. One ought to, in fact, observe both meanings of YOLO. The why and the why not.

Perhaps Peru is not the safest destination on the planet (although it is certainly not the most dangerous). But I will be safe. Toronto is different, yes, but from living there for many years, I have learned to carefully traverse a large urban landscape. And our mayor does crack in his drunken stupors, so I at least have some bad-ass points, right?

But I will also be bold. I will seek out new experiences, friends and, of course, food (they do actually serve guinea pig there).

I will draw my lines in the sand, weigh adventure against common sense and find my balance between heart and head.

If you want to read about my Peru adventures, I plan on including some highlights here.


Thanks for reading. Pura vida.