Moulds

I once met an extremely calm, settled, and wise man. It sounds like something out of a story book, but it’s the truth. I met him. He exists. In fact, I have him on Facebook.

He grew up in a certain environment, as we all do, and somehow, miraculously, managed to see beyond his own experience. He found a path that he had never been exposed to, that he never knew existed. Maybe it didn’t. Maybe he forged it.

And he gave up a life of ease, a life that he had been raised to expect and that had been expected of him, in order to devote himself to his newfound ideas.

It was incomprehensible. What led him to leave the life he knew, to pursue something of which he had no personal connection, no vested interest?

When he was young, he had been injured. There had been an accident, and he was bed bound for an extended period of time.

In that time, all he did, all he was able to do, was think. To think and dream.

And he did. He thought so much, and in so many different ways, that he claims to have earned a new understanding of the people and the world around him, all from his bedroom.

When this man told me that, I smiled. I smiled because I was in awe of him, and amazed at the life he was living. I smiled because I respected him, but I did not smile because I believed him.

It seemed ridiculous, the thought of learning about external life through isolation. And having an epiphany – while that made a nice, romantic story, it sounded a little far fetched to me.

I do not know much about that man. I only met him for a short time.

But his story has been playing in my head quite a bit recently.

Right now, the majority of my peers, of my friends, are facing some kind of decision.

As they finish their various degrees, they are confronted by the question of which path they want to pursue. Is more education the answer? Perhaps getting some work experience? What kind of work experience? And where do they want to live?

I have the same questions, running constantly through my head.

Essentially, we are trying to decide what kind of a life we wish to live. And once we figure that out, what we need to do to get there.

For every idea that is put forward, innumerable steps are immediately attached. Steps that will lead us to our goal. A path.

And that’s great. It really is. It’s reassuring to know what is necessary to achieve a goal, reassuring to have a plan.

And if you have to do something that you may not want to, that you may not choose to do, that’s okay. Sometimes, you have to just make it through the hard parts. There is always an element of give and take in achieving one’s goals.

And if you don’t have time to develop other interests or skills, because you are busy following a full time path, then that’s normal. It’s too bad, but clearly those interests and skills are not relevant to your goal, and would only serve as a waste of time. Maybe if you win the lottery, you’ll be able to indulge that kind of frivolity.

Because the path is important. The path is what you need to follow, to have the right items on your resume, to get hired, to do what you have chosen to do, what you want to do.

So many of my peers are experiencing this realization. Some are panicked. Others determined.

But my experience has been a little different.

I was on a path. I had chosen my path in high school. Probably earlier. Perhaps it was chosen the minute I first asked my mother for voice lessons after seeing a magical production of Beauty and the Beast at age 3.

And I was doing everything right. I had to sacrifice for my chosen life, no doubt about it. From missing potential family vacations in order to partake in a competition, to avoiding any semblance of a social life in favour of practice and rehearsal, I gave up so much for the sake of the steps. As time went on I dropped sports and volunteering from my after-school activities, adding piano and theory lessons instead.

Even within music, I had to let go of certain things. I stopped singing musical theatre as I was told that it would only distract me and take away from the time I should be spending perfecting my classical technique.

And I was completely okay with all of that, because I wanted to be an opera singer. I wanted to become an opera singer. And I would do whatever I had to in order to get there.

I also had a plan for after I became a singer. I always wanted to create some sort of program that involved accessibility and music. That had been my long term plan for years.

But the first step was to become an opera singer. And to get there, I had to get a degree, and practice, and audition, and devote myself entirely to the craft.

Then, of course, everything changed. Then, I could no longer sing. Then, being an opera singer was no longer an option.

And I spent years floundering, unsure of what everything meant, unable to comprehend that there was a crater in the middle of my perfect path. Not knowing whether to turn right or left, or just sit down and cry.

And slowly, as my body started to gain bits of strength, I searched for projects to occupy my time.

And I did things that I enjoyed. I listened to music, I watched movies. I began to write. I dreamt.

As time has gone on, I have expanded upon those activities. From cooking a nice meal, to volunteering, to teaching, to singing – whatever strikes my fancy.

And in pursuing my interests, the arts have risen to the forefront. Not just singing, but music in general. Classical, yes, but also musical theatre, jazz, rock, indie, and so many other styles. Beyond music, I am developing an interest in crafts. In visual arts of all kinds, from stationary to knitting. And I have discovered a fascination for words. I love writing. I love reading. I love thinking.

I have also become increasingly devoted to social issues. This interest has crossed over into many of my activities, from sketching plans for a fully accessible café, to volunteering with existing non profits and researching composers with various medical ailments.

And I am slowly discovering what it is I want to pursue. What kind of a life I want to lead, what it is that I truly care about.

Amazingly enough, it’s the same thing I aspired to, years ago, arrived at in an entirely different approach.

By investigating what interests me, I have re-found my way to a passion. The very same passion which I had sacrificed for, attempting to sculpt myself into the perfect candidate, I have now arrived at through a practice of positivity and curiosity.

I still have worries. I don’t know if I will be physically capable of accomplishing my dreams.

But I feel confident. I feel excited. I feel good.

And I will continue to develop myself as a person. I will pursue all those things that look interesting, I will keep myself as open as possible and I will see where that leads me.

Following a path is reassuring. And often, it is necessary. Having a goal in mind can be extremely motivating, and for many professions there are certain qualifications that are mandatory.

But maybe there should be a bit of space within those moulds. Maybe there is, and we just aren’t seeing it.

Because it’s completely possible to squish yourself into a certain shape, if you’re willing to work really hard and make a few sacrifices.

But in the end, by fitting yourself to a mould, you are essentially trying to become someone else, someone who has already existed.

And why on earth would you want to live another person’s life?

Carving your own route is scary. There is no map, no light shining ahead to see you through.

It involves trial and error.

It takes time.

And in the midst of this busy world, it is so difficult to stop, to take a minute to see what it is you actually care about. What it is you actually want.

It is so difficult to allow yourself the time to try something new. To fail. To lie on the floor for a while. To pick yourself back up. To have an adventure.

But maybe it’s important. Maybe it’s important to step away from the path for a minute, and to see whether or not it is truly your path.

You can force yourself into whatever mould you choose.

But it sounds awfully limiting and uncomfortable.

The man that I knew briefly and am friends with on Facebook was not uncomfortable. He was at peace, with his decisions, with his beliefs, and with his life.

And maybe his time alone in his youth led him there. Maybe it really was all down to being given the chance to think, uninterrupted.

I’m not sure.

But I think it’s worth a shot.

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Shoes and an Identity Crisis

I sat, staring at the two pairs of shoes, one black, one brown.

The shoes fit perfectly. I loved the style. But I had to choose which colour I wanted to take home with me. And it was proving to be a difficult choice.

The wonderful salesperson who had been patiently putting up with my pickiness and lack of focus for the past hour tried to help. She said that really, it depended on what kind of things I did. What kind of person I was.

She asked me if I went out a lot, to events, restaurants, to social gatherings. If that was the case, she would recommend the black pair. If, however, I was more casual, spending my time in laid back settings, then the brown pair would better suit my lifestyle.

And then she laughed, commenting that one must decide who they want to be simply to buy a pair of shoes.

I laughed too. It was silly. But a part of me felt a little panicked.

I don’t know which type of person I am. I certainly enjoy going out, I love concerts and sitting around a beautifully laid table with friends. But I spend much more time in, lying on couches, watching movies, going for the occasional stroll outside and running errands.

I didn’t know which pair of shoes to go for, which person to decide to be. They both had a great appeal, and I value both glamour and comfort.

When the salesperson asked which kind of person I was, I doubt she thought that it was an alarming question. After all, we are constantly labelling ourselves in some way, deciding who we are.

Just this week I filled out an application online, and checked through the boxes. I said that I am female, single, Canadian, in the 20-30 age bracket, English speaking, have an A range academic standing and identify as having a disability.

Even something as simple as preference, I define. I like strawberries and chocolate. I dislike peppermint and parsley. I like Beethoven. I dislike rap music.

And often, that categorization is important. It is important, when filling out an application, to give an idea of yourself, even in the sparsest possible form. Otherwise, these strangers assessing you, or in this case computer program, have nothing to assess.

And it is important to know what you like and dislike. To be able to look at a menu and have an idea of what you will enjoy. To choose which music to play.

But it is one thing to have superficial labels for the sake of ease. It is another to internalize these labels, to let them conduct how you see yourself.

Because those labels tend to be quite hard to remove, once they’ve been fully absorbed.

And you might change. Your life might change.

I used to see myself as a singer. It was a huge part of my identity. As my body began to fail, I clung to the title, pushing my body to its limits and even going so far as to claim that physical harm was acceptable, as long as I could finish the performance. As long as I could sing.

I was desperate.

And then, finally, I drove myself into the ground. Quite literally, in fact, receiving a concussion from a bad fall on stage. I reached a point where the performance couldn’t even begin. The song could not be started, let alone completed. Not by me, anyways.

I had no idea who I was anymore. Is there such a thing as a singer who cannot sing? But how could I be a singer one day, and not the next? And if I wasn’t a singer anymore, who was I?

These are questions that I have been grappling with for over a year. When someone asks if I’m the opera singer that they heard about, I laugh uncomfortably and change the subject. It’s not that I am ashamed. It’s that I just don’t know.

But maybe I don’t have to know.

I’m simply a human being, just like everyone else. I have interests and talents, and quirks and flaws, and I do certain things on certain days and that’s fine.

And sometimes, something that I usually enjoy frustrates me. Sometimes, something I generally dislike captures my interest.

Sometimes, I sing. Sometimes, I write. Sometimes, I exercise. Sometimes, I cook. Sometimes, I sleep. And sometimes I am quite good at those things. Sometimes, I am not.

It is important to know yourself. And it is essential to have the ability to identify certain aspects of yourself. After all, why would a law firm hire someone if they are not a lawyer? Would it be acceptable to let someone who wasn’t a doctor prescribe medication? And how can one expect accommodation if they don’t identify as needing it?

But maybe it ought to stop there. Maybe we ought to recognize certain aspects of ourselves, of our experience, without extending the term to our entire being.

Maybe that flexibility, that space, would offer new opportunities.

Opportunities to try new things, to experiment. To change our minds.

I ended up choosing the black pair of shoes. Not because they better suited my personality. Not because they projected an image that I aspired to.

They might embody a certain personality. They might project a certain image.

That might be what drew me towards them.

But that’s not why I picked them.

I picked the black pair, because, in that moment, I liked them.

Thanksgiving

Every cloud has a silver lining.

That’s what people say. That’s what I say. What I’ve always said. What I’ve always believed.

I believe that everything has good and bad. And I have always chosen to focus on the good.

I have always considered myself to be positive in the face of undesirable circumstances.

And yet, I’ve always seen those circumstances as undesirable.

While I choose to focus on the good, it’s not because I view the situation as positive. I see it as something to make the best of.

And I thought that was the only option. A choice on how to deal with a bad situation.

But it turns out I was wrong.

Because today, I am grateful.

Today, on Canadian Thanksgiving, I have a very special thank you to give.

Today, I want to thank my body for failing. For forcing me away from the life I thrived on, for giving me uncertainty and limitations.

I want to thank the illness that took root and refused to leave.

Because today, I see it as a gift.

Don’t get me wrong, I do not wish illness on anyone. It is scary and painful and, if I had the choice, even feeling the way I do today, I would not choose this path.

But I did not have that choice. I do not have that choice.

And while I may not choose this life, I can’t say that I’m sorry for it.

In the past, I thought that the only gift this struggle has given me is strength. The ability to survive. It is a double edged sword, because it is both forged by and used against adversity. But it served as something for me to latch on to, something positive, a skill, a power that I may not have otherwise gained.

And I still believe that. I still hold on to that. But I have found other things to hold on to as well.

The time I have spent, unable to do anything but lie still, has provided me with time to think. To think about life, to think about myself, my hopes, my dreams, my fears. To contemplate ideas that fascinate me. To make plans.

The years I have spent, living in uncertainty, failing at various attempts to move too quickly, have allowed me to release some of my previous definitions for ‘success’ and ‘achievement’, letting me feel proud over what is relevant to me, and not over what may impress others.

The people who have stuck by me even at my worst, along with the people who have reached out after reading this blog or hearing second hand news, have given me a reason to trust. To be open and honest, and to know that there are those who will not turn away.

And my limited resources have given me the opportunity to identify and focus on what I truly care about.

The choices that I must make on a daily basis due to my decreased energy and concentration have given me the greatest gift of all. They have forced me to look directly within myself, and recognize what I truly care about. What I truly want.

I have a limited amount of energy per day. And I never know when it will run out. So everything I do in a day has to matter. I cannot afford to waste resources on something that doesn’t.

It’s hard. Sometimes I collapse, exhausted, after simply getting out of bed, making and eating breakfast, and getting dressed.

But often, I can do more. And I have the privilege of looking at all of my options, from basic household chores, to visiting with family and friends, and learning something new, along with numerous other activities – and I get to choose which are most important to me.

I have to, because I may only be capable of accomplishing one on any given day. But it is also a gift.

By being forced to prioritize, I am essentially getting to know myself.

So many people struggle with knowing what they truly want. They struggle for purpose, for an identity, for fulfillment.

I have too. I still do.

But each day, I narrow the field. Each day, I examine what matters to me, what makes me happy, and I am slowly beginning to see myself, not through the vision or expectations of others, but through my own choices.

I am slowly beginning to understand myself.

And I do not know that I would have taken the time, or had the patience, without the intervention of chronic illness.

I doubt it.

So I am grateful. I am grateful for the beautiful things I have gained over the past couple of years, because of, not in spite of, my body.

Today, I say thank you to my unpredictable medical state. I give thanks for the opportunities it has given me, for the guidance it has offered, and the space it has afforded.

Today, I feel blessed.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Impressions

Appearance.

It’s amazing how much power it holds. How much of our lives we spend catering to it.

As a young girl I was very particular about my clothing. I didn’t care if it was pretty. I didn’t rhapsodize over fabrics or colours. I simply didn’t want to appear too ‘girly’. As a result, I vetoed many outfits that my mother presented to me.

I did not care about the clothes themselves. I simply did not want them to get in the way. I had an image that I wanted to project, or at least an image that I didn’t want to project, and even at a young age I relied on my clothing to communicate that message.

I knew about the power of first impressions. Of impressions in general. Of appearance.

And that’s incredibly superficial. Aren’t we taught that you can’t judge a book by its cover? That it’s what’s inside that counts?

Of course, those lessons still ring true. If I had worn frills and ribbons, it would not have altered who I was. It would not have eliminated the possibility for me to play football on lunch breaks, or read quietly in the corner.

But it would have changed something.

It would have changed the way I was perceived when someone first met me. My frills and ribbons would be evaluated, and they would send a message to everyone that saw them.

I knew that. So I didn’t wear them. I didn’t like them.

I wish that I could claim to have grown out of that stage. I wish that I could say I only choose my clothes based on my personal taste, but that isn’t true. My taste is informed by the opinions of others, by the impression that I want to leave. I wear a pencil skirt when I want to appear professional. I wear jeans when I want to appear casual. I don’t consciously consider the message I want to send with my appearance, but it is there, sneaking its way into my most basic decisions.

And it doesn’t stop there.

This past weekend, I worked in an echoey room crowded with children, babysitters, and occasionally their family. I was in charge of this room, of making sure that everything ran smoothly and everyone was accounted for.

And my head was pounding. At times, I desperately needed to sit down.

During one of those moments, I was talking with the grandmother of one of the children. She knew of my health condition, and asked how I was feeling right then and there.

It would have been so easy to tell her that I was actually having a bit of a rough time, and needed to sit down on the chair I had positioned just for that purpose. It would have made sense to be honest. She was asking out of understanding and concern, with no judgement.

But I didn’t.

I told her that I was feeling quite well. That it was a little noisy, but that I was completely fine. And I remained standing, even forcing out a passable smile.

There was no reason for me not to tell her. No reason, except the most superficial.

I didn’t want her to think that I wasn’t capable of doing my job. I didn’t want her to think that her grandchild was in an unsafe environment.

Of course, it is unlikely that she would have thought those things. She was simply being kind.

But I didn’t want to appear weak.

And that’s alarming. Because I wasn’t struggling with the work. I was fully in control. I simply needed to sit down, perhaps drink some water, take a breath.

Yet, a part of me believed that even admitting to that, even the most basic acknowledgment of my poor health, would devalue me. Would make me appear inept.

And that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Many of my greatest strengths have been forged through my experience with chronic illness. I am more capable of handling chaos, more capable of pushing through difficult situations, because of my condition, not in spite of it.

A headache doesn’t make me less capable.

It does quite the opposite.

My ability to function despite the pain makes me strong.

Makes me capable.

And instead of worrying about the message I am projecting, maybe I should be fighting it.

Maybe I should be honest.

Maybe I should just be me.