Lucy Lemay Cellucci

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Coming Home

home1 This month, my family and I are celebrating an important anniversary. It is the twelfth year that we have been living in our home. For most people, this would not seem like anything significant enough to warrant a date on the calendar, but seeing as we are the original occupants of the structure we had built to house our dreams and ambitions, we (okay, I) tend to get a little nostalgic at this time of year as I recall how excited my husband and I were to move into our first home. I remember the thrill of visiting the construction site that is now our neighborhood, the anticipation we felt to move in and begin our lives as the family that we would soon start, even the way we romanticized the mundane tasks of home ownership. For us, this wood and concrete structure that was going up bit by bit in front of our eyes was the carrier of our hopes and dreams. It would singlehandedly ferry us into happiness.

IMG_0703[1]TAKE A CLOSER LOOK… During the process of our home’s construction, we did what a lot of people do; we allowed ourselves to get carried away with all the excitement and view the house as something that would bring us happiness. Perhaps that is why so many of us become disillusioned at some point with the place we hang our hats at the end of the day. For us, once the novelty and euphoria had worn off, we began to compare what we had with what others around us possessed. In our neighborhood, there are trendy stacked condos, lovely townhomes, even lovelier single-family homes, and the grandiose, three-car-garage homes with immaculate upgrades. My husband and I both come from modest backgrounds. When we first moved into our present house, it felt palatial. Not one, but two bathrooms! I enjoyed the task of feathering our new nest and the feeling of success — the official arrival into adulthood — that came along with it. But the more familiar we became with our neighborhood, the more our perspective began to change. Suddenly, the idea of being attached at the garage or sharing a driveway with a neighbor felt like an inconvenience. We had been invited to the Jones’s house for an evening of entertainment, and we left feeling the desire to keep up.

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NOW ADJUST YOUR PERSPECTIVE… Just as depression will distort the mind’s filter and cause one to see negativity, being surrounded by lovely, grandiose houses can also distort one’s perception of what is required to live comfortably and contentedly. This was never more poignant than when a longtime friend from my hometown came to visit me a few months ago. It was the first time he had come to my home. I actually had to suppress a chuckle when he complimented its loveliness. My immediate reaction was to dismiss the compliment, because I just lived in a little townhouse. Even as I write this, I want to give myself a good, hard smack in the mouth. Twelve years ago, when I first moved into this “little” house, I thought it was the coziest, most beautiful house I had ever seen. Now, it appeared as if I considered myself a resident of some obscure suburban ghetto. First-world problems. Good thing I’m tough. A few years ago, after we aborted an attempt to move into a larger house in a different neighborhood, I started looking at my house with fresh eyes. Instead of seeing an old, outdated breakfast bar, I saw the multitasking nook that had given me a great place to roll out pastry, an ideal place to change an infant and house baby supplies on the main floor, a sunny, open space to sit with my laptop and gather inspiration for writing or choreography,  and a large, flat area for my children to draw and paint. Instead of being frustrated by my house’s small entrance, I transformed the walk-in hall closet into a mini-mudroom. We renovated the basement. We built a deck in the backyard. (Okay,technically, my sister and her husband built a deck in our backyard, but I watched attentively.) Little by little, we became invested once again in our house, giving it that wonderful feeling that is known as “home”.

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WHAT IS A HOME? While the words house and home are synonymous, for me the word house refers to the actual physical structure of the building, while the word home relates to all the sentimental value that is attached to it. Home is a feeling. It’s the place where you belong and are most at ease. It’s that spot on the couch where you always sit. It’s that favourite teacup that your wife always uses. It’s the pile of pillows on the floor of your daughter’s closet where she sits to read her comic books and write the word poo on the walls when she’s angry with you. It’s the Lego X-Wing on top of your fireplace mantel that doesn’t go with anything, but could not be anywhere else, because it’s a reminder of the Christmas morning that your husband and son spent building it while consuming an entire Terry’s Chocolate Orange. It’s your return from a long day to the smell of something great cooking in the kitchen. It’s the relief you feel as your feet slide into the coolness of your sheets, and you allow yourself to succumb to sleep. Whether you live in a yurt, an apartment, or a mansion, the feeling of being at home is something that has absolutely nothing to do with the size or appearance of your dwelling. It has to do with the emotions you invest into it. When you no longer infuse your living accommodations with the feelings of happiness, you will cease to be happy living there. If you want to feel at home, you must be at home — not daydreaming about how much better your life would be if you could make a different house your home. That is a game that can never be won. For now, we are comfortable and confident that our house is able to give us everything we require. As the weather continues to warm up, I find my thoughts drifting to the backyard and playing in the dirt — preparing the garden, adding some perennial beds — all of these are activities that I associate with one of my favorite places to be in the summer. And when I am out and about with my children, one of the sweetest phrases to hear at the end of our outing is a tired, yet content “Mommy, can we go home now?”

The Lady Who Cleaned Out Her Closet

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Once there was a lady who had a messy closet. The time had come, she’d decided, to finally get her hands dirty, and sort out all of the clutter. So she hauled out all the items that had been accumulating over the years. She reached far back onto those buckling shelves and rummaged deep into those dark corners, until all the items that prevented her from using her closet in a functional manner spilled onto the floor and gathered around her feet like a courtyard of loyal subjects.

As she sifted through the wreckage of her life’s tangible items, she saw the threads of a beautiful story scattered around her bedroom floor.

All around her lay evidence of dreams she once held,  dreams she’d realized, and dreams she had still to fulfill.

Everywhere she turned, she saw that her life was full of love.  She sure was a lucky lady. There were many, many things that reminded her of some of the happiest moments of her life. The lady with the messy closet loved looking at these things because they made her feel that she had made some good choices in life and that she was exactly where she should be.

 

She also came across some other items that she hadn’t seen in a very long time. These things made the lady feel uncomfortable because they brought up memories from a time when she felt sad and broken and was quite certain that anywhere else would have better than where she was.sorrow

Then the lady surveyed everything else that was piled around her. She realized that she was hanging on to an incredible amount of things that she no longer needed. She’d tried, several times in fact, in previous years to discard these items, but for some reason she always felt the need to hang on to them. Perhaps she was afraid that if she didn’t have them, she would suddenly need them around, and the idea of being uncomfortable in that way was too much to bear.

So the lady with the messy closet did what all people with messy closets do: she kept hanging on to the things she didn’t need. Despite the fact that these things made it difficult for her to use her closet functionally, she refused to part with them. She clung desperately to them, as one would to a life raft when adrift at sea. At times, she would become incredibly frustrated with the state of her closet. Her clothes were often wrinkled, matching shoes were scarcely available, and the door would not always close. This posed a grave problem for the lady, as a door that constantly remains open has the unfortunate consequence of letting in the wrong things — like sticky, peanut butter-fingered children, visiting mother-in-laws, and felines with a penchant for pooping in inappropriate places.

But oddly enough, no matter how much stress the lady experienced as a result of these things, she would not part with them. It was as if she did not think she could get by without them. And then, one day, the unthinkable happened…the lady with the messy closet took each and every single item that she owned, considered its existence, and then packed it up to be kept, given away or discarded. As a result, a marvelous thing occurred. She freed herself from years of carrying around unwanted baggage that was weighing her down and making it difficult for her live functionally. Her clothes fit properly on the hangers, shoes were paired (as in matching pairs!), and, best of all, the door would close! The lady could not believe how wonderful it felt to have a tidy, organized closet.

She felt light and unencumbered.

She felt mature and organized.organized closet

She felt happy and at peace.

She wondered why it had taken her so long to clean out her closet. Then she realized that cleaning out a physical closet is much easier after one has cleaned out one’s emotional closet — you know, that invisible place you keep hidden from everyone where you stuff in all the things you’ve experienced? Every now and then, it’s advisable to take inventory and clear out the excess baggage. We all hang on to things we no longer need. We re-digest past regrets, harbor grudges against previous romantic partners, and torment ourselves with guilt over our past mistakes. This results in an overstuffed closet that bursts at its hinges with things like sadness, anger, loneliness and shame. Things of this nature are best packed into a box labeled FEAR and discarded as soon as possible. Try as we might, it is impossible to close the door on such things. This invites the wrong things into our lives. When our closets are full of peanut butter-covered children, cat poop, and mother-in-laws, there just isn’t any room for the good stuff like confidence, gratitude, resilience and contentment. These are the kinds of things that are truly worth hanging onto and should be placed in a box labeled LOVE and given top billing on an easy-to-reach shelf.

What are you hanging on to that you feel unable to part with? Have you formed a cohabitation agreement with your sorrows? Life is never short on negative experiences that leave us wounded.

He never loved you.

She loved someone else.

Dad left.

Mom drank.

Your coworkers spoke ill of you to your employer.

Your parents died when you were a baby, and you were sent to live with your insufferable aunt, uncle and cousin who forced you to sleep in a cupboard under the stairs, and almost prevented you from attending a prestigious school for witchcraft and wizardry. Ouch.

Whatever it is that you are holding on to, it is preventing you from living the kind of life you truly want to be living. There’s only one thing you can do about it, my friends.

Just ask the lady who cleaned out her closet. Life is much better when the doors will close.

The Santa Club

 

Dear clever child,believe

For a while now, you’ve had your suspicions. Like any good scientist, your doubts and curiosities have led you to question the seemingly illogical details of the beliefs with which you’ve been raised.

How can he tell if we’re misbehaving?

How does he get around the whole world in a single night?

Though your head may grasp what’s really been going on all these years, your heart is the organ I am speaking to at the moment, so that it may understand its job is just beginning.  You are about to gain membership into a very special club. Speaking from experience, I can recall feeling at odds about this information when I found out the truth. So please allow me to do what I do best in order to explain this to you.

There once was a young boy named Nicholas who grew up in a small European village.  Nicholas’s family was quite well off. They always had plenty of food to eat, warm beds to sleep in and a solid roof over their heads. Nicholas was the eldest boy in his family, and as such, he would help his father at work. Nicholas’s father ran the village bakery. He was in contact with everyone from the village. During the holy season of Christmas, Nicholas noted that several of the village people would tell his father the most outrageous tales that always involved the mysterious appearance of gifts and food at their doorsteps while they were out at the Christmas Eve mass service. Convinced that someone (or something) was bestowing charity and generosity to those who were in need, many of the villagers began creating hymns in praise of an entity that had become known as “Father Christmas”. Nicholas would always laugh at their foolishness and ask his father why all these silly villagers believed in such nonsense. Nicholas’s family had never returned from Christmas Eve mass to find gifts at their doorstep.

“This is true,” Nicholas’s father replied, “but is it not also true that your Christmas season is always bright and merry? You and your siblings always have food in your bellies, clothing on your backs and warm beds in which to rest. There are others who are deprived of such comforts. Perhaps it is those people whom Father Christmas holds close in his heart during the holy season…the ones who are most in need.”

As the years passed, the bakery that Nicholas’s father ran became more prosperous. Nicholas, now a young man, was running the daily operations of the bakery. Though he was very good at making the delicious pastries and had a knack for running the business at a handsome profit, he had grown into a rather pragmatic young man who had no tolerance for nonsense — especially the kind of nonsense that was related to the tales of Father Christmas. His clandestine Christmas Eve visits had now spread throughout the entire European continent and were rumored to be taking place in North America as well! Some people believed that Father Christmas was some sort of spirit who would herald his visits by ringing a bell. It was rumored that bells could be heard across Europe on Christmas Eve before the gifts and treasures were discoveredfatherchristmas

“What utter nonsense!” Nicholas lamented to his father one evening. “There’s no way that anybody could journey around the world in one single evening to deliver gifts. It’s preposterous the way these fools believe in their own fabrications! I cannot bear another season of these ridiculous stories!”

Soon, life became difficult for Nicholas and his family. Though they were well-off financially, Nicholas’s father had grown into an old man and was in poor health. The village doctor could do nothing more for him than keep the old man comfortable until his time to pass came. The responsibility to care for the family had fallen squarely on Nicholas’s shoulders. That Christmas Eve, Nicholas’s father made an odd request of him. He asked him to stay back from the Christmas Eve mass and keep him company. Nicholas willingly agreed. He never did care for the lengthy sermons given by the village clergyman, who had a tendency to go on at great length. And he felt irritable towards his father, who always had some excuse for not attending the whole service with the rest of the family.

“My cherished son,” Nicholas’s father said, beckoning him to his bedside, “I have one final request to make of you before I pass.”

Nicholas knelt at his father’s bedside and took his hand. “Of course, Father, anything you wish.”

Nicholas’s father handed him a long, thin key on an iron ring. “This key unlocks a small crawl space under the floor in the woodshed of our property,” he told his son. “Inside, you will find a sack made of the finest red velvet. It contains items that will be of great importance to some of the less fortunate families in our village. There is a roll of parchment in the sack that will tell you, specifically, which items are to be delivered to whom. You must do this before the end of Christmas Eve service, before everyone returns home.”

Nicholas stared at his father in disbelief. “Father!” he exclaimed, eyes wide with shock. “It is you? All these years…you have been the mysterious Father Christmas?”

“Yes, Nicholas,” the tired old man replied. “It is I who have left the offerings for those who are most in need in our village.”

“I don’t understand,” said Nicholas. “Why would you put yourself through all that? In what way did this benefit you?”

“Creating feelings of joy through the spirit of giving benefits everyone, my son,” Nicholas’s father patiently explained. “When you can elevate the spirits of those around you through acts of kindness…that is where the real magic can be found.”

“But Father,” Nicholas began to protest, “there is no such thing as real magic. It is all a ruse. Won’t the people of the village be angry with us for deceiving them in this way?”

“There is one crucial difference between benevolence and deception, Nicholas,” the old man said, shakily handing his son a small box tied with a strip of burlap. “And that is intention. When you intend to create joy for others in this life, you are, in effect, making magic. All miracles are born out of hope.”

Nicholas opened the box and found an old, tarnished sleigh bell that had a beautiful red ribbon threaded through the top. The word BELIEVE was engraved onto the bell’s surface.

Nicholas’s father continued to explain that over the years he had shared his secret with a few carefully chosen individuals who had started the tradition in other parts of the country. Some who had immigrated to North America started the tradition out there. Others had so much fun giving to the less fortunate that they started leaving Father Christmas gifts for their own family members. And thus began one of our most ingrained traditions of the season.

So now you know the truth. The big man in the red suit with the white beard has been us all along…now you know why I’ve insisted all these years that we leave Santa a nice glass of Cabernet Sauvignon as a Christmas Eve treat. I was not lying when I said it would be greatly appreciated. And although this specific person may be fictional, the values and the teachings behind the concept of Santa Claus are quite real. Kindness, compassion, giving, joy — these are the wonderful things embodied by Father Christmas, or Santa Claus, as you’ve come to know him. To be a believer of “Santa”, as I am, is to use these things to create Christmas magic for others — passing on this legacy from generation to generation is what keeps the Christmas spirit alive. You can keep this sort of magic going in the world every day through random acts of kindness and showing compassion towards others. Remember those who are less fortunate than you are. Go out of your way to help someone. Tell your younger siblings that Santa is real and that they should believe. Then, while you’re at it, think up something creative to do with that creepy little elf you wanted us to buy.

To believe in Santa is to believe in the best qualities of humanity.

And in that regard, I will always be a true believer.

Now you must choose what you will believe.

My hope is that you will want to make magic come alive for others, too.

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The Five Second Rule of Aging

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Aging, it would appear, is no laughing matter. Despite the fact that there have been numerous comedies based on all stages of its progression – coming of age, middle age, old age – it would seem that, generally speaking, it is perhaps one of the largest anxiety-producing circumstances of the human condition. Many of us are prone to bouts of emotional turbulence as each of these milestones approach. The cosmetics/beauty industry in particular has done a remarkable job of capitalizing on the insecurities of women, selling us products designed to diminish the physical signs of aging. What is it about getting older that many of us find so displeasing? Why do we insist on treating getting older as if it were a chronic health condition that can be overcome if we work hard enough? Though I see this with alarming clarity, I appear unable to completely disentangle myself from this particular train of thought. My inner, authentic grown-up has spent much time analyzing my bizarre behavior, but has not returned with an answer as to why I feel uncomfortable to look my age. (Actually, I’ve just finished sorting out why I don’t act my age. That took a really long time.) I used to comfort myself with the idea of age bringing wisdom. Ironically, however, the older I get, the less I realize I know about anything. But for the purpose of filling my monthly blog quota, I will attempt to assemble what I feel has been the highlight of each of the decades of life that I have, thus far, been blessed with.

CHILDHOOD:childhood

The first decade of life is the most magical of all of life’s stages, if one is fortunate enough to be raised in circumstances that permit such indulgences. Here in Western civilization, if you are raised in a middle-class family or higher, then this decade of life is largely centered around you (the child) and the things that bring you happiness. Children are wide-eyed explorers of the world and are seeing things for the first time on a daily basis. Like tiny, vigilant scientists, they want to know how and why the world works in the way that it does. They pepper their parents with endless questions and shamelessly wear their favourite clothes every day. In this decade of life, we play hard, cry loud and dream big. We beam with pride at our accomplishments. We love letting people see who we are. We are preoccupied with birthday parties and Christmas lists. Our hearts are open. Our minds are malleable. We believe in the people who are raising us. We aren’t afraid to eat food that has fallen on the floor.

ADOLESCENCE:adolescence

For some, the next decade of life brings much turbulence and emotional upheaval. Armed with awkward, growing bodies and veins flooded with hormonal influx, adolescence can be a troubled time filled with angst and insecurity. On the cusp of young adulthood, many teens are learning to navigate situations that require maturity, restraint and forethought. Now that you’ve figured out how the world works, your next task is to decipher how you will work within it. Most of us acquire our sense of identity through a series of good and not-so-good decisions that yield a variety of results. Though we don’t realize it, every choice is an opportunity to learn. Of course, we don’t see it like that in the moment – we already know everything. At this stage, hearts and minds are not the open books they once were. We learn to hide our feelings. We fear letting people see who we really are. We are preoccupied with the concepts of social acceptance and rejection. We strive to look older. We have little to no patience for the people who are raising us. Some of us will still eat food that has fallen on the floor if we think nobody is watching.

TWENTYSOMETHING:twenties

Depending on which era you came of age in, the decade of twentysomething can look very different. At one time, being in your twenties meant that you were holding down a full-time job, paying a mortgage and were most likely married with a family to provide for. Today, being in your twenties usually involves studying for a career or vocation of some sort that has you in the position of still being financially dependent on your parents. Known as “the throwaway decade,” many young adults are slower to launch into this next phase of growth than their predecessors. As a by-product of having parents who have worked so hard to make our lives better, many of us in this stage of life struggle to stand on our own two feet and meet our own needs, allowing a misguided sense of entitlement to stand in the way of reaching our goals.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, we may work tirelessly to push away that nagging sense of insecurity that all those dreams we held for ourselves as children may not come true, after all. What if we aren’t any good at our chosen professions? What if we fail in our education? What if we never find the right relationship? This is a period of pursuit. We chase our dreams and are greatly pre-occupied with finding a partner, establishing a career or finding adventure.  We don’t yet realize that the things we want so desperately for ourselves in this stage of life may not necessarily reflect the desires that our post thirty-five-year-old selves will hold. We have little tolerance for the shortcomings of others. Like our adolescent selves, we still think we know better than most. By now, most of us have a few people in our lives whom we treasure. We have learned the importance of letting some people see who we really are, but the social mask is still at the ready, to be worn when the perceived need arises. It’s considered a personal victory when we are not carded upon purchasing alcoholic beverages. We are glad to finally have some space from the people who raised us, though we are getting better at remembering to call for special occasions. By now, we’ve stopped eating food that has fallen on the floor – unless we’re drunk. Then all bets are off.

 

THIRTY SOMETHING:thirty

For many people, women especially, this is an all-consuming and exhausting decade. By this stage of life, many of us are established in careers or paid work that take up a great deal of our time. The career-minded generation is also hit with a double-whammy, since this is also the decade in which many of us start our families. We dangle precariously on the precipice of work/family obligations, overcommitting and overextending. Many of us try to be too many things to too many people during this phase.

Women strive to be both breadwinners and homemakers. We fear saying “no” to someone. We are pre-occupied with parenting philosophies and developing the talents of our children. We sacrifice weekends to catch up on work or ferry children to hockey tournaments. Each day is a race against the clock to get things done. Many of us will also be vulnerable to experiencing an identity crisis of sorts as we try to tease out who we really are away from our work and families. One of the greatest sources of discord during this stage of life is not being able to answer the question of who we are without having other people to define the answer for us. By this point, many of us are beginning to realize just how clueless we really are.

The realization that there truly are no “grown-ups” in life brings a mixture of resentment and relief. You think about the last decade of your life and wish you could go back and give yourself a good, hard slap across the face. Coffee and wine become the staples of your life. You begin to react to the shortcomings of others with a little more softness than you did ten years ago. You’re too tired to put the social mask on for people – not that it would do you much good –  you can’t even find it anymore. You suspect that it’s buried under all that crap in your garage. You treasure the people who really know you (that means all the folks who don’t judge you because your garage is such a damn mess). You’ve stopped eating food that has fallen on the floor, since you want to set an appropriate example for your children (and husband). You think a lot about the people who raised you. You see them in a new light. You catch yourself saying or doing something that reminds you of your mother. You call her – even though it’s not Christmas, Mother’s Day or her birthday.

 

FORTYSOMETHING:forties

No longer pre-occupied with crafting a social image, finding love, procreating or being at the top of the work totem pole, one of the greatest offerings of this decade, I am thrilled to be learning, is the ability to simply enjoy being alive. By this stage many of us have made peace, in one form or another, with our families of origin. Accepting our own imperfections has made room in our hearts for the imperfections of others. This is a decade for purging –unused housewares, outgrown children’s items, the collection of garden gnomes you never used (Hey, is that the garage floor?!?!) and the negative emotional baggage you’ve been carrying around –all of it is no longer needed and gladly discarded. A newly acquired appreciation for quiet has taken root. I find myself seeking solace on the front porch, back deck, a walk alone … I am learning the value of enjoying my own company.  Accomplishments are lovely but no longer mandatory requirements for contentment.

My social circle has narrowed, yet at the same time, it has grown richer. I look around at all the things that make up the core of my life – marriage, parenting, teaching, writing – and realize that none of these things defines who I am, but rather the people and the things I love. I define who I am with my thoughts, words and actions. One of the most delightful symptoms of growing older, I am coming to realize, is the healthier and richer relationship that I am beginning to form with myself. The best part about it is watching it spill over into my relationships with others. And, most surprising of all, when I find myself inclined to socialize and enjoy an evening of entertainment with others, it is often the company of my siblings that I enjoy the most. There is much to be said for the comfort that is drawn from being in the company of others who share not only your DNA but also the same warped sense of humor. Neurosis is best enjoyed when you don’t have to explain it to others. Realizing that a little dirt won’t kill me, I’ve developed a systematic approach to food drops: the five-second rule may apply only to dried goods such as crackers and unpeeled produce. Foods such as meat, soft cheeses, yogurt and poutine require an immediate “cut my losses” response and get tossed. And it goes without saying that spilled wine gets soaked up with a paper towel and squeezed back into the glass, obviously.

In the end, I suppose I can conclude by saying that although age may not necessarily bring wisdom, it does bring peace. True contentment is not something that is reserved for the very young or the newly retired. It is something that is cultivated gradually, over time, surpassing the milestones and the five seconds that it takes to evaluate food that has fallen on the floor. 

All Hail The Queen

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It’s hard to believe that the queen will be taking leave of her throne in the hallowed halls of Widdifield Secondary, but as of June 2015, that’s exactly what will happen.

Gina Lynn Armstrong Aro first walked through the doors of Widdifield Secondary in 1992. Armed with a quick wit, a great passion for living life to its fullest and an extreme fascination with the royal family, she taught English and Drama. She also started the school’s first dance program with two classes in her first year. Gina introduced the art of dance into Widdifield’s curriculum, paving the way for the thriving dance program that now exists. During her tenure at WSS, Gina was also involved in coaching cheerleading, downhill skiing, La Troupe Dance, Sears Drama Festival, East-West hockey tournament, Armed Forces Day, and served as a parent council representative. In 2006 she shifted her focus from teaching to counseling and moved her talents over to student services in the guidance department, where she has counseled a number of students and their families, helping them to achieve their goals.

Gina took her first steps into the world of dance at the age of five with Barbara Treleavan at the bottom of St. Brice’s Church Hall. Her lofty stature rewarded her with her first solo, which sadly was never performed due to an untimely case of the mumps.ballerina gina

 

At the age of twelve, she started assisting her teachers with the pre-school classes. She started teaching for Mrs. Treleavan in her early teens, and upon completion of her grade thirteen, she was accepted at the University of Toronto for Medical Sciences. Though she would have made an incredible doctor, Gina wisely followed her passion and persued a degree in Dance at Ryerson University’s prestigious dance program. Her commitment and endurance saw her through to her graduation in 1976, when she was one of fourteen students (a group that originally started out at forty-four) who received their degree in Dance Arts. From there, Gina launched her “Canadian Teaching Tour,” which saw her commence her tutelage in Burlington for the School of Dance, entering students for their R.A.D. (Royal Academy of Dance) exams. From there, in 1978 she moved to Winnipeg, where her son, Jonathan, was born. While juggling the responsibilities of new motherhood, she taught for the Royal Dance Academy and Royal Winnipeg Summer School. In 1980 she moved to Leduc, Alberta, welcoming her daughter, Marissa, and opened the Armstrong-Aro School of Dance. In 1985 she moved to Ottawa and taught dance at Carleton University. Always up for adventure and expanding her horizons, Gina moved back to North Bay in 1987 and attended Nipissing University for an English History degree and Bachelor of Education. From there, this well-travelled and seasoned multitasker was hired by the Nipissing Board of Education, where she functioned for the first two years as an itinerant teacher, teaching drama for over 1100 grades. This eventually led to a more permanent teaching position, where hundreds of students, myself included, have benefited from her wisdom, guidance and passion.

            I remember, as a student coming into her class for the first time, how I was struck by her extroverted personality. I was fascinated by this elegant and creative enigma who was always perplexed as to the whereabouts of her keys. Within a short time I realized I was about to become part of something special that would alter the trajectory of my life. There was an energy in that bright, mirrored room that was palpable upon entering. I can vividly recall the determination I felt to work hard as the studio doors clanked shut behind me. The sound of the acoustics, Gina’s flower-patterned teaching skirt, the leathery smell of new ballet slippers, all would become the foundation of the road that I would later travel, cementing my passion for this art form and making dance education my own life’s ambition.

But as much as I will always be indebted to Gina for introducing me to dance, the most memorable parts of her classes were things that had nothing whatsoever to do with dancing. This clever and inspiring teacher not only taught lessons on how to dance, but she also imparted to her students valuable lessons on how to live authentically. She encouraged us to take risks and to speak our minds. She got us excited about pushing our limits. She held us to the standards of respecting ourselves and each other. Her office door was always open to us, whether we wanted to discuss pirouette technique, failing math grades, troubles at home or romantic disappointments. Little by little, perhaps without her even realizing it, her consistent, stabilizing presence in the classroom gradually chipped away at the rough, flinty edges of our adolescent development, smoothing the contours and helping shape us into the adults we are today.  To be a teacher not only puts one in a position of touching lives, but it also results in being touched by many lives in return — something I’ve become keenly aware of in my two decades of teaching.

And while I can hardly imagine our beloved school without her presence, I am excited for this next chapter in her life to unfold and see how she will reinvent herself — florist, jeweller, sommelier — anything is possible! With more time to pursue retreats with her family to the cottage at the French River, time with her grandchildren, downhill skiing and upcoming trips planned to Thailand, Denmark, Sweden, Portugal and Spain, Gina will no doubt continue to broaden her horizons by trying new things, meeting new people and spreading the warmth and magic of the most precious thing she has to offer the world: herself.

Good luck, Your Majesty. It has, and continues to be, an honour. Wishing you all the best in your new life.

gina boys

Euclid’s Elements of Interplanetary Marriage

solar system

My husband and I originate from two different countries. This, I would assume, accounts for many of the differences between us. But sometimes, instead of an ocean dividing us, I feel as though there is an entire solar system. I am convinced that we aren’t even of the same planet.

If you were to ask me to describe the place where I come from, I would talk to you of a magical realm where rainbows and unicorns appear regularly. Imagination is that the forefront of all endeavors, and the door to experiencing emotional vulnerability is usually left wide open. I go about my daily tasks, allowing the creative spirit to guide me on how best to express the idea that settled into my brain somewhere between waking up and trying to get the children to school on time (creation and convenience are not synonymous, by the way). I can watch a dance performance and be moved to tears, hear a piece of music and feel goose bumps on my arms and be tickled by laughter simply by using my ability to see the absurd in the most ordinary of moments. All of these things are available to me because I come from planet called Artist. It is easy to spot my kind. We can frequently be found picking ourselves up and brushing away the dirt from our clothes.Reaching_For_The_Stars_by_kaotickell

 

Artists are notorious for tripping over things because their focus is almost always directed up at the beauty of the stars. Always reaching on the tips of their toes, trying to grasp that little gem of an idea by the tail and bring it to fruition.

 

 

GeekMy husband, in contrast, hails from a place where the inhabitants are greatly pre-occupied with mathematical equations. Instead of fiction on his bedside table, you will find the likes of titles such as CALCULUS – FOUNDATIONS AND APPLICATIONS, DATA STRUCTURES & DIGITAL COMPRESSION, CONCERETE MATHEMATICS, FINITE MATHEMATICS, PATTERN-ORIENTED SOFTWARE ARCHITECHTURE and of course, the riveting second edition of FOUNDATIONS OF ALGORITHMS – EVERYTHING YOU WANTED TO KNOW BUT WERE AFRAID TO ASK. You see, my husband’s place of origin is the planet Math & Science. People from this place are often picking themselves out of the dirt as well, but except instead of gazing to the heavens above, their clumsiness is generally attributed to having their nose stuck in a book or to a screen. Many of these souls shine so brightly with intellectual genius that they appear, at times, to lack basic social and interpersonal skills. A long time ago, people who came from planet Math & Science were labeled “geeks” as a way for the other people who didn’t come from that place to feel more at ease with their differences.

My husband is extremely passionate about math. In fact, he refers to it as an art. It is, without a doubt, his preferred form of expression. And it functions beautifully for him when constructing lines of code in a software program, compressing data, generating digital images and all the other myriad computer programming tasks I won’t even pretend to have a clue about. Sadly, though, it does little to help him communicate with his family — his wife in particular, who has little to no understanding of numbers. Where she comes from, words and music and movement are the languages that she understands.

What’s a guy with a pocket full of algorithms to do?

On occasion, my husband can be a sparkling conversationalist, particularly when it pertains to something he’s keyed up about. Lately, his preferred subject of interest lies in a book he’s begun reading titled Euclid’s Elements. Euclid was a Greek mathematician often referred to as the “father of geometry”. His system of geometry, which was hailed for its use of logic and demand of proof for its theorems, influenced many notable leaders, teachers and philosophers, including the likes of Descartes, Newton and Abraham Lincoln. His body of work is unparalleled in the archives of the scientific/math community and has been referred to as the most influential non-religious book of all time.

Euclid #2

 

 

Way to go, Euclid.

 

 

 

 

One night, I returned home from teaching to find my husband eager to share something with me. He was excited about Euclid’s proposition to construct an equilateral triangle out of one line segment by using circles. Basically, you can show the existence of a perfect triangle at the point where two circles intersect. For many of us, myself included, this is not life-altering news. But for someone like my husband, Euclid’s teachings offer a powerful muse in the ways of abstract logic.

“Do you see it?” my husband asks me excitedly. “Isn’t that cool?”Euclid #3

I peer down at his drawing and assure him that the little triangle between the two circles is indeed cause for celebration. Then I proceed to ask him if he’s eaten today and how much sleep he’s had in the last week. This somehow spirals into a conversation about how math is the abstract expression of conceptual ideas. For example, the number ten doesn’t actually exist. According to my husband, “ten” is just a way to express the quantification of something. Numeric codification is an expression of an idea, much the same way that words are, or dance is, or music … you see where this is going, right? My husband — my math loving, code generating, algorithm-obsessed husband — has just given me proof of his own brand of abstract logic.

It would appear that my Euclidian pupil feels strongly we are not so different. In fact, to quote one of Euclid’s common notions from his first group of postulates: Things that coincide with each other are equal to each other. It is my husband’s opinion that our likeness can found in the place where our differences collide. In other words, he’s constructed a mathematical equation to explain our relationship (geek).

A statement of this nature requires proof, of course, so like any good math student, I set myself to the task of showing my work. Herein lies the overlapping of two circles: one right brain dominant, the other left. The merging of Art, Math, perceptual and conceptual thinking, creates its own little triangle: the union of words and numbers, each struggling to express its own abstract logic to its foreign counterpart. It may not be perfect, but it is interesting, and at the very least, educational and entertaining –that is until someone needs to find a set of car keys. My husband and I bring something completely different to the table (or should I say triangle?). He has shown me the value of using logic over feelings in certain situations. He has shown me that sometimes less is more and that silence can be powerful. He is also the reason that I can now budget and balance a checkbook. For my part, I’d like to think that I’ve shown him the necessity for clear spoken communication with an emphasis on tone. I’ve shown him how sometimes feelings can be more important than logic and absolutely need to be heard. I also feel that it is acceptable to take credit for his ability to clean the kitchen properly and employ different character voices when reading stories to our children.

Lots of things going on in that little triangle.

And so, to conclude this little geometry lesson on marital compatibility, I have to say that in the end, I’m actually kind of happy that my husband and I had our chance collision, me with my head in the clouds, courted by an idea, he with his nose in a book, working out a mathematical equation. Two circles containing two completely different life forms, yet both governed by abstract, expressive thinkers who shared a love/hate relationship with George Lucas films, Thai food and fusion jazz. But perhaps the best thing to result from this little meeting of the minds is the appreciation that each of us has had to adopt for the other person’s thought process, and the way it’s forced us to keep working on our relationship — always trying to solve problems from a different angle.

In other words, we keep calm and triangle on.

The Happy Wankers Club

left-turn-at-albuquerque

I have this friend. For the purpose of this essay, I’ll pick a completely random name for her, like “Yvonne”. Yvonne is a busy lady who manages to juggle a full-time career, five children and various activities for the children. She has a happy marriage, a lovely home, and as if that weren’t enough to deepen the crease between your eyebrows, she also has a thriving and fulfilling social life full of people who love her. And, she’s an accomplished dragon boater – an activity that deeply engages her.

Perhaps you too know an Yvonne. The Yvonnes of the world shine brilliantly, no matter what the weather forecast calls for. They have fulfilling relationships and raise good kids. They use proper manners. They experience “job satisfaction”. They follow through on things (I also suspect they floss and recycle).

In other words, they’ve got their stuff together.

On some days coming face to face with Yvonne’s shiny status updates and social media pictures makes me feel as if I have somehow taken a wrong turn in the game of life.

I am convinced that the nagging voice of discontentment that heckles me from a balcony tucked far back in my brain’s amygdala is a direct result of something that I have either done or failed to do. Once that wretched little wanker (my brain’s amygdala, not Yvonne, who, by the way, loves to use the word wanker) who governs my emotions sees that I’ve bought into this scheme, she promptly leans over to the seat next to her and whispers to her friend, hippocampus, that she’s successfully gotten under my skin. Sadly for me, hippocampus can be just as spiteful and loves to use her connections with her colleague, hypothalamus, to really get the pot stirring. Hypothalamus, not one for wasting time, sends a tweet with lightning speed to the adrenal and pituitary glands, asking them to Fedex a shipment of cortisol along the neural pathway of my body’s stress response, a.k.a “Highway to Hell”.

Inevitably, all of this cortisol-shipping and hippocampus-wanking produces a less than jovial mood. I start to wonder why I haven’t yet “found” happiness. Where on earth could that cheeky little bastard be hiding? What is it that I need to acquire that will finally make me feel as if I have enough? How do I sit comfortably in my own skin, imperfections and all? Sadly, questions such as these rarely lead to an answer. I’ve come to realize that true happiness is just as elusive to define as it is to experience. The good news, however, is that it is available in abundant supply to each of us on any given day. Happiness, from my point of view, is not so much a state of having as it is a state of being. It is a finely developed radar that gently redirects your focus to appreciate the treasures in your chest instead of longing for the ones that are inside of someone else’s (or on their Facebook page).

Some of the happiest people that I’ve met aren’t so much lucky in the way that they’ve managed to find the perfect job, partner, or life circumstance. The people who experience the most contentment seem to be those who work the hardest at cultivating an attitude of gratitude for the things that are already in their lives.

One thing that my wanker-loving friend, Yvonne, did last year that resonated with me was participating in something called #100happydays. This campaign was a call to arms for social media users to challenge themselves to find the little things that surround them every day and bring them joy.When you take the time to stop and pay attention to what’s right in front of your face, you may very well come to realize that being happy isn’t so unattainable after all. You can learn to appreciate the beautiful forest that you’re standing in — one tree at a time.

Sadly, I am no Yvonne. I do not have the stamina to consistently post my discoveries while hauling my children out the door, overseeing homework, fulfilling household responsibilities and managing my workload. But for the sake of practicing the art of counting my own blessings, I will conclude this post with a list of my own happy-inducing discoveries.

WP_20140407_004[1]#1. There’s something about a bouquet of fresh-cut flowers on the dining room table. I started keeping flowers in the house when we tried to sell our home. After the showings ended, I kept putting the flowers out because I just liked the feeling of walking into the room and seeing them. They’re beautiful and calming, and I never tire of seeing them.

 

 

 

 

WP_20150203_001[1] #2. The wall thingy. I’m not sure what to call this, exactly. It’s a decorative wall thingy. We put it up after we painted to spruce things up. Sometimes I forget about the thingy. I believe I suffer from the same short-term memory loss that goldfish are rumored to be afflicted with. Just as they are surprised each and every time by the little plastic castle in their tank, I come upstairs from doing a load of laundry, notice the thingy on the wall in the living room and think to myself, wow, look at the thingy … it’s so nice.

 

 

 

WP_20150203_003[1]#3. A fruit bowl. Sometimes I forget how lucky I am to live in a country where I can just walk down to the grocery store and buy all the food I want. I have never known what it’s like to suffer endless hunger because I have the good fortune to be surrounded by all the tasty produce my heart desires.

 

 

 

 

 

WP_20140625_001[1] #4. My six-year-old’s drawings. When I look at the all the pictures my daughter draws at school, I see a child who feels loved and is happy. This makes me feel tremendously successful as a parent and exponentially revs up the warm and fuzzies.

 

 

 

 

WP_20140811_001[1]                    #5. My nine-year-old’s drawings. When I look at the pictures my son draws, I see a child with a brilliant mind. It makes me appreciate his gifts and reminds me of what an important job it is to be a parent.

 

 

 

 

wine lady#6. The lady at my grocery store’s wine kiosk. I call her the “angel lady”. She always has little samples of different vintages to offer. Like those people who decorate the sidelines of marathons, offering cups of refreshment to the runners who pass by, she is always there to offer me refreshment as I complete the gathering-of-the-nourishments lap in my marathon. Sometimes, just because she’s a super great lady, I’ll visit her refreshment stand twice. She never judges me. I love her. There. I said it.

 

 

 

WP_20140609_012[1]#7. Washers. Okay, so this is a little game that my family plays whenever we get together for holiday functions. Basically, it’s Texas Horseshoes. You have a board with recessed holes that you hope to fill with the little metal rings that you toss from the other board with recessed holes that you happen to be standing on. You rack up points based on what hole your ring falls into, ranging from 1–5 points. When your washer falls into the 5 hole, you feel an immense sense of satisfaction. People stop what they’re doing to high-five you, and you wonder if Olympic athletes ever feel this good about themselves. In my family, we dedicate long weekends and camping trips to organizing “washer tournaments”. Everybody gets pretty worked up over this game in the way they develop camaraderie with their assigned partners and engage in a little “trash talk” with their rivals. It’s all incredibly silly, but every time I play I get so caught up in the nonsense that I don’t think about anything else other than what I’m doing. Which, by the way, is the single most important trait that all those happiness-wankers share: the ability to remain in the present moment.

Yvonne calls herself a veteran of life. I would agree that title suits her. She has learned how to create the life she wants by seeing the value of the things and people that surround her, and wanting what she already has. Well done, Yvonne, you wanker ;) .WP_20140621_016[1]

Journey to Moscias

mountain_background_by_tanithlipsky-d3c40pt Two young men who had recently come of age left their village to participate in a rite of passage. This tradition required the young villagers to leave their families of origin and travel an unknown path for 365 days. During the course of this journey, each traveler would encounter obstacles in his path that would block his way to Moscias, the place of eternal peace and contentment (In my head I picture it looking something like the Mos Eisley canteena from Star Wars, but you are certainly free to utilize your own imagery). All the villagers knew that they could not return to the village and begin their lives feeling content and at peace until they reached Moscias at the end of their Passage Journey. Before the men left, they were each given an urn full of heavy stones by the village elders. The stones symbolized their past. Before he could cross over to Moscias, each man had to place the urn that contained his past behind him.  With me so far? http://www.dreamstime.com/stock-photography-image31019282  The first young man, we’ll call him Gerk, set out in the rain. He detested being uncomfortable, so he fashioned himself a hat and a long cape made out of rubber to repel the water. Although he managed to stay dry, Gerk’s ensemble made it difficult for him to navigate the rocky path on which he traveled. The cape would get snared on sharp rocks and branches, and the hat was so large, due largely to the fact that it was designed to provide such effective protection, that it often fell down over his eyes, making it difficult for him to see things clearly. The other young man, we’ll call him Shlock, also began his quest in the rain. Unlike Gerk, he wasn’t afraid to be uncomfortable and welcomed the downpour. Although he wasn’t a fan of the way mud felt when it squished between his toes, he enjoyed the cleansing feeling of the rain, washing his face and hair of accumulated dirt and grime. As Shlock was less encumbered than Gerk, he found it somewhat easier to negotiate the difficult terrain. caveman1 Many challenges arose for the two young men throughout the course of their journey. Both travelers had to deal with the weight of their past, having little food, the wild animals, and loneliness. Gerk in particular had little tolerance for the pain of loneliness. Sometimes, on nice days, as he’d pass through neighboring villages, some of the people would come out to greet him and inquire about his journey. These situations often irritated him since he was in quite a rush to complete his journey to Moscias. The villagers would often courteously offer Gerk bread and wine. Although he was secretly thrilled to received such hospitality (not to mention downright flattered by the affections of a certain goat-milking maiden who shall remain nameless), he would often shout mean-spirited things and wave his arms aggressively in an attempt to keep the others at a comfortable distance. Not wanting to miss these things and people when they would eventually leave (as things and people have a predictable way of doing), he acted like he didn’t want them around in the first place. That’s how he earned his nickname “Gerk-the-Jerk”. Shlock, by contrast, always welcomed the company of others. He found that he not only enjoyed learning things about other people, but he quite liked the way other people could sometimes teach him things about himself. Not one for being in a rush, he had no problem veering off his path for a few days every now and then to rest, or eat, or pay a visit to the local blacksmith to get his tools sharpened. He was more than happy to share in the offerings of other people — including a memorable night spent in the hut of the Nageena sisters, identical twins who provided sheep-shearing services for their entire village and owned an impressive collection of woolen costumes. But that is another story all together … still with me? Finally, the two men reached the end of their journey. They found themselves within 25 feet of their destination — Moscias! Just as they were about to sprint across the finish line into the revered land of peace and contentment, an enormous mountain of schmitt magically appeared in the middle of both their paths (schmitt is the physical manifestation of unfinished business). mountain2 Both of the men felt exhausted and discouraged. Schmitt mountains are notorious for blocking paths and preventing success. How on earth would they get to the other side? Gerk threw down his rucksack and retrieved his pick-axe and climbing rope. He knew how difficult it would be to tunnel through the mountain. It would be back-breaking work that would throw him into a dark, scary and unfamiliar place. Climbing to the top would be equally difficult since the top of the mountain disappeared into the clouds. Going around the mountain would be his best possible action, he reasoned, as he could get to the other side faster, easier and with far less discomfort. So he dug his pick-axe into the ground and began to hoist himself up over the first few rocks and forged ahead, going around the right side of the incline. Gerk soon noticed how difficult it was to try to walk sideways and tiptoe over the jagged edges of the terrain. When Shlock conveyed his concern over the potential for injury, Gerk told him to shut-up and suggested a rather vulgar use for his dried fig rations. As a result, Gerk twisted his ankle. He refused to let Shlock know of his discomfort. He kept his cries of pain to himself and developed an odd affinity for pulling out his own hair. After a couple of days, Gerk noticed how difficult it was for him to use his pick-axe due to the injury he sustained on his hand while defending himself from a ravenous coyote. Frustrated at his inability to use his tool correctly, he broke the axe in a fit of rage. He then proceeded to take out his rope and lasso a mountain goat. goatGerk used his physical strength and his anger to intimidate the beast into submission. The mountain goat was quite apt at negotiating the uneven terrain, and often helped Gerk get over the more challenging sections. But because he refused to show the goat kindness or tend to its needs, it eventually died. This also made Gerk angry. He kicked the goat’s dead body and yelled at it for being so weak. He then proceeded to lasso himself a new goat, which had to endure Gerk’s constant complaints about the previous goat. Shlock was quite sad to see the predicament of his friend. But he knew that there was nothing he could do to help him. He also knew that going around the mountain was not his best option. He emptied his rucksack, took out his own pick-axe and started to forge a path through the mountain. Within a few days, Shlock found himself right smack dab in the middle. He had done pretty well for himself, but unfortunately his hand, which was also damaged in the coyote attack, had become so infected he could not grasp the axe properly to swing with enough force to break the boulders.  When the last of his lantern’s oil had run out, Shlock’s surroundings quickly turned pitch black. At first he panicked, as was his habit. Shlock was terrified of the dark.eyes bulging cartoon character in the dark After breathing deeply into his rucksack for a few minutes to control his hyperventilation, he came to grips with his situation: he could not go back. Nor could he progress forward until he addressed his wounds. So he sat down and applied the aloe vera leaves that one of the Nageena sisters (the cute one) had given him. He began to question his reasons for fearing the dark and realized that many of them were the result of traumatic experiences from his childhood. After a while Shlock noticed that he felt tired, so he lay down on the floor, closed his eyes and responded to his need for sleep. When he awoke three days later, he noticed that he felt better rested and that his hand had healed. He ate the rest of his dried figs and bread crusts, grabbed the axe and once again returned to the task of tunneling through the mountain. This process took several days. Some days Shlock felt strong and had no problems breaking the boulders in front of him. Other days he felt uncomfortable about being isolated in dark, confining quarters. On these days, Shlock would acknowledge how lousy he was feeling and assure himself that it was perfectly fine to feel that way — nobody ever said the journey to Moscias would be easy. Green-Paradise-place-wallpaper-Picture-hd-wallpaper-1920x1080-6-53fb75b2ec26f-7072Finally, Shlock broke down the last of the boulders. Light spilled into every nook and cranny of his dark tunnel. He stepped out on the other side of the mountain and breathed the fresh air deeply into his lungs. The sunlight felt so good, it was as if he was tasting it through the pores of his skin. Shlock reached into his rucksack and took out the urn that contained his past. He put it behind him and proceeded to enter the gates of Moscias. It was every bit as beautiful as he’d imagined. He could not believe the relief and the happiness he felt as he splashed clean water from a nearby spring onto his face. When Shlock looked up, he saw his friend Gerk sitting against a nearby fig tree. Overjoyed to know Gerk had made it, he ran up to greet his former traveling companion. When he arrived at the fig tree, he noticed how miserable Gerk looked. “Gerk, my friend,” Shlock said. “Why do you look so unhappy? We made it to Moscias!” Gerk turned his sunburnt face to his annoyingly jubilant comrade. “And what of it?” Gerk replied. “It’s not so wonderful here.” Gerk had indeed arrived at Moscias — with greater speed, in fact, than Shlock, since he had chosen the “easier” route of going around the mountain of schmitt. Avoiding the work of going through the mountain proved to be more costly than Gerk had realized. He twisted his ankle so many times that he now walked with a permanent limp. Because he pulled at his hair to distract himself from the pain, he was now bald. Because he had become such a harsh man, he went through several goat companions. Gerk had arrived on the other side of the mountain worn-out, ashamed, lonely and hopeless. He was physically, emotionally and mentally bankrupt. It was just not possible for him to appreciate the beauty that surrounded him and feel peaceful or content. Shlock noticed that Gerk’s urn lay at his feet where he was resting by the tree. “Gerk, why do you still have your past with you? We were supposed to put it behind us before we crossed over!”cartoon “I have tried, Shlock,” Gerk replied with irritation. “But no matter how many times I put it down and walk away, it keeps reappearing wherever I stand.” Shlock shook his head in sadness at his disheveled friend. He had made different choices by choosing to face the difficulties of going through the mountain of schmitt. When circumstances prevented him from carrying on in his journey, he stopped and took the time to acknowledge his fears, heal his wounds and rest his body and spirit. Then he continued on his path, following his instincts. When his fears would pop up, he’d acknowledge them, and then continue anyway. He arrived at Moscias feeling as if he’d won an epic battle and reveled in the spoils of victory when he returned to his village to begin his life as an adult who actually had the capacity to experience real happiness. The moral of the story: Don’t be a Gerk. The only way to truly put the past behind you is to go through your mountain of schmitt and not around it. THE END                

All That And A Bag Of Chips

chips

Today is an emotional day. I have just clicked the ‘send’ button on my laptop. As we speak, my latest novel manuscript, the yet untitled sequel to True Colours, is on its way to my editor who will set the wheels in motion to approach publishers on my behalf. On the one hand, I am elated at finally having finished what seemed an impossible project. I have completed not one, but two whole novels in my forty short years of life. Compared to the accomplishments of some writers, this may hardly seem cause for celebration, but seeing as writing is my fourth gig behind motherhood, teaching dance and running an insane cat asylum, I think completing two books is pretty epic.

The downside of this, of course, is that I have now entered that state of writer’s purgatory where I will wait to see if I will be invited to the dance. On a daily basis, thoughts such as the following will drop by unannounced: What if all the publishers he approaches thinks it sucks? What if it does get published and all the readers think it sucks? Dammit, I wish I had written The Fault In Our Stars. I wonder if we have any chips?

This endless loop of self-reproach that I am currently caught up in seems to be something that many artists are prone to at one time or another. You see, we artistic types are a tortured people. And though many of us make a second career out of suffering, we don’t particularly enjoy it. It’s just that we have a rather fine-tuned ability to take the best parts of ourselves and turn them against us. After all, every weakness is, at its core, an over-used strength. This, I believe, is the reason that many artists are so familiar with the landscapes of depression, anxiety and addiction. They’re kind of like signing bonuses given to those who have been blessed with the gift of creativity. The Comedy Awards 2012 - Arrivals

 

R.I.P Robin Williams. Who knew that a man so full of pain could bring joy and amusement to so many? The world feels your loss.

 

 

The suffering, tortured artist isn’t a novelty, but it would be remiss to ignore the many gifts these individuals have given to the world. One only has to look at the works of Vincent van Gogh and  Virginia Woolf as shining examples of artists who have produced beautiful, profound and poignant work through the darkness that shrouded their lives.

The importance of art, be it visual art, literature, music, dance, etc., lies not so much in the body of the work itself but rather the emotions that it is responsible for evoking in its audience. To be an artist, to create something which is capable of generating a feeling, requires that you be an individual with the capacity to feel deeply about things that may not even register on the emotional Richter scales of others.

There are people like my son who see the world painted across a black and white spectrum. There is right and there is wrong. The space between these two places serves as little more than a conduit to travel to and from. Then there are people like an English teacher I used to have who saw the world in varying shades of gray. These people see the subtle transition from black to white. They recognize that sometimes, for example, good people do bad things. Then we have that peculiar anomaly known as the artist. For each shade of gray on the spectrum, the artist sees an entire canvas of possibilities. Sunrise, sunset, a rainy afternoon, a snowy meadow, a beautiful garden, the face of a mountain, calmness on the surface of water, a couple holding hands, a child viewing a butterfly, an elderly woman sitting alone at a cafe … to the artist, these are not merely the constituent parts of daily life but the subtle whisperings of beauty into their very soul.Vincent V.G

To see beauty in life is to see God. This is why, for many artists, creating is such a divine experience. And in those glorious moments when an artist is being courted by inspiration (often at the expense of convenience), creative energy flows abundantly from its universal source and takes root in its host. Some will be called upon to paint, others to dance. Some may compose music or head to the nearest device that will allow them to hammer out their thoughts. Whatever the medium may be, the artist will be greatly preoccupied with the idea that has gripped them like the plague.

Post-Impressionist painter, Vincent Van Gogh, sold only one painting during his lifetime. He took his own life at age 37.

Creating is torturous and chaotic, but having created is deeply satisfying in the way that an artist can look upon their creation and say “There it is. That is what I saw in my head.” If every artist were to pack it in and call it a day at this stage, things would remain on an even keel (somewhat). But like an impetuous child in pursuit of something forbidden, most of us don’t know when to quit. We have that burning question in the back of our minds: Do you see it too?

                The first time I heard Pachelbel’s Canon, I was twelve years old. The haunting melody filled me with a feeling of nostalgia and I hummed it to my piano teacher so that she could tell me what song it was. I promptly had my mother drive me to the music store so that I could hunt for the sheet music and learn to play it. At age eighteen, I saw the ballet Swan Lake for the first time. I was moved to tears by Prince Siegfried’s impossible longing for the beautiful Swan Queen, Odette. At the time, I ached with every fiber of my 5 foot 9, 160-pound frame to be part of the ballet world. Like Siegfried, I also knew what it was like to want something I could never have. And last summer, when I read The Aviator’s Wife, I could not believe how poignantly the author captured my feelings of motherhood and family life — the overwhelming sense of love, gratitude and sheer desperation — all rolled into one experience! All of these experiences were like a jolt of electricity. They accurately described a feeling I could not articulate and gave me something to channel my newly awakened sense of passion. And this is how great art make us feel: as if a key has been turned in an invisible lock, giving us a glimpse into a room that we always suspected was there but somehow were unable to find on our own.

Living a life of creativity will require a keen ability to grapple with internal struggles. One of the more challenging forces to contend with will be how to define what success means and recognize the many disguises it can take. Success, as I’ve come to realize, can be a subjective and inflammatory goal to pursue. When I first started writing seriously, back in 2009, I felt I’d be successful if I could just complete the novel manuscript I was working on. All I wanted was to say to myself Look, I did it! It’s done! Way to go! Let’s eat some chips! Upon completing my manuscript, I was surprised to discover how short-lived my feelings of satisfaction were. All I could think about was how amazing it would be if I could actually get my novel published. If I could actually become a real, published author then this success thing would feel a lot more real. Then, by the good grace of God, my ability to write snappy dialogue and an editor who is extremely good at what he does, I achieved my next goal and received an offer to publish. I will never forget what an amazing day that was when I found out I was getting published. Let’s just say there were a lot of chips. But soon I started longing for the next platitude of author success, and the words bestseller began taunting me. Sure, I told myself, getting published is great, but truly successful authors are ones who actually make an income from their writing and get to see their names on important, recognizable lists. Then I felt bad, so I ate some chips.

Little by little, my definition of success expanded to encompass a further reaching goal that relied more and more on outside validation. I wrote a story — purely for my own enjoyment because I had an idea in my head. Then I gathered the courage to share my story with a professional editor. From there I shared it with a publishing company, and then the entire literate population of the planet. Each time I climbed another rung on the ladder I’d hold my breath and wonder Will they see it, too?

Creating art from a genuine, authentic place, whether it be writing the kind of stories that landed Judy Blume in hot water with censorship boards, composing music only Lou Reed would have understood, or choreographing dances that would have made Paul Taylor’s work look structured — all of this requires a certain amount of sacrifice on the part of the artist. The biggest sacrifice that an artist must make is to relinquish his or her desire to know if people will “get” or like their work. They must be willing to shift the priority from belonging to being.

When an artist has the ability to create and share his or her work unencumbered by the fear of failure or how others will perceive it, then he or she is free to follow the threads of an idea and weave the tapestries to fruition. Whether she receives a standing ovation, a lukewarm reception, or tomatoes thrown, she has an internal sense of accomplishment because she has learned to put more value in creating art that resonates with her than in receiving acceptance from others. Every artist, no matter the medium, is always primarily motivated by an idea that has incarnated, not seen by the rest of the world. Inviting others to share in our work should not in any way diminish or augment the artist’s sense of accomplishment. Popularity is not an indication that one artist’s work has more merit than another’s. Public opinion will always be subjective — self worth shouldn’t be.

Virginia Woolf was a prolific English author and journalist known for her non-linear prose and dark, brooding mood swings. She took her own life at age 59.

VIRGINIA WOOLF

Sadly, this is not the way our society functions. Many artists experience crippling personal crisis as the hallmarks of artistic meltdown take root, disconnecting many of them from their God-given talents. Believing the images that are reflected back to them, they accept their work’s (and thereby their own) lack of value. They define themselves by their inability to garner universal appeal and acclaim. Paradoxically, achieving great success also presents similar pitfalls. Now the artist has set a precedent. What if future endeavors fail to live up to the defined level of expectation? What does that say about the artist and his inability to fill his own shoes?

 

Part of achieving great success lies in the ability to surrender to failure. When we stop resisting something, it ceases to have power over us. We can familiarize ourselves with its curves and contours, accept it as our own, and move through it rather than waste time and energy trying to get around it. When an artist refuses to sit with failure, he refuses an opportunity for growth. Every failure, when detached from labels of personal identity, holds a valuable tutorial. Why push away the very thing that could bring you closer to your goal? Every climb needs a place of origin, and there’s no better place to begin than rock bottom.

Facing failure means accepting the possibility that you are not enough of something — not good enough, interesting enough, unique enough — yet continuing anyway. It means allowing yourself to be open to the subjective opinions of others, found to be either lacking or incredible, and be able to walk away from either of those experiences without loving yourself any more or less.

The ability to arrive at an experience with an open heart and not refer to the script of the running stories we tell ourselves is an artist’s life raft off of the sinking ship of self-destruction. Only then will an artist (or anyone, for that matter) be capable of achieving genuine success.

And this is what I strive for as I sit and wait for an acceptance letter, polishing off a bag of Old Dutch BBQ chips – not so much the approval of a publisher, but the feelings of surrender and acceptance, so that I can recognize my own progression on the continuum of success, and be ready to learn what this next stage of my writer’s journey will teach me.

Wish me luck.

Vacation Equation

summer2

Hey there! How’s your day going so far? What’s that? You’ve broken up two arguments between the children, Netflix is down, you’re out of milk, the dog peed on the hall carpet and the cat pooped in the bathtub again? Pardon? It’s only nine o’clock in the morning? Wow. That’s impressive! Just think … you’ve got another six weeks of this ahead of you.

I salute you, vacation comrade.

All jokes aside, I really do love the summer. It’s a great time of year to shift gears from doing to being. I spend most of my time in a bathing suit, sundress, straw hat, flip-flops and sunglasses. I relinquish my need to fuss over my appearance and give things like make-up and styling tools a rest. I walk slower, talk slower (even if I’m not drinking mojitos) and am just generally better at enjoying life. The summer has always been a time for me to recharge my batteries and undo the symptoms of stress that have accumulated over the spring and winter months. Speaking of stress, there’s nothing like having a couple of aimless, bored kids around to add to your difficulties. And though I love the fact that the summer months stretch out before me like an endless sea of possibilities, the reality of the fact is that I share my life with two young children, so at this stage of the game if I fail to plan, I plan to fail.

Fortunately for me, I am one of those creative types, and as such love nothing better than to create! So I’ve devised a plan to preserve my sanity over the summer months as I resume my role of stay-at-home mom.

Since you insist, I’ll share it with you.

electronics   Unplug our pluggables: On days when we have nothing planned, it’s tempting to let Winkin and Blinkin sit with TV or an iPad all day and use my unencumbered time to get things done around the house. But, as I’ve learned, this usually results in cranky, cabin-fevered kiddos by three o’clock in the afternoon. So, instead, even if we have nothing planned, the kids know that screen time comes to an end by eleven a.m. They have to get dressed, brush their teeth and head outdoors. We ride our bikes to the park, go on nature walks, play in the backyard, etc. … it’s not  important what they do, so long as it involves physical activity and fresh air.

 

 

WP_20140702_010[1]Plan weekly excursions: Once a week we pack a picnic lunch and eat it at a different location. The parks by our house, the arboretum, Hog’s Back – there’s no shortage of green space in Ottawa. I’m lucky to have all of this at my disposal. Placing your kids in a natural environment not only allows them to see the value of “unplugging” for a while but also provides you with a great opportunity to initiate conversations, teach them about wildlife and allow them to grasp the concept of life stretching out beyond their four walls. Relish in the opportunity to lollygag. When the kids point something out, instead of giving my typical “Yes, yes, now let’s go” response, I actually take the time to stop and look. I smell the roses.

 

WP_20140723_005[1]Rainy-Day Plan B: A wise band of musicians once told us that “the sun can’t shine everyday”. True that. It is for this reason that I have a well-stocked craft cabinet. It contains things like toilet paper rolls, egg cartons, bingo dabbers, construction paper, glue, paint, etc … you’d be surprised how fast a couple of hours will fly by with craft supplies, a package of Trident bubblegum and a rockin’ playlist of tunes (cue “Everything is Awesome” from The Lego Movie). Since I only whip this stuff out on rainy days, the kids haven’t yet grown tired of these activities. Other things that go over well on rainy days are trips to the library, excursions to local museums, and a crowd favourite at home, whipping up a blanket fort, popping some corn and watching a movie from inside (Of course, this means I have to be prepared to bend a little on the no-screen-time-after-11 a.m.-mandate).

WP_20140723_009[1]INTRODUCE THEM TO JOURNALING: You don’t have to be a writer to benefit from a creative activity like journaling. Each kid has his or her own journal that I try to encourage them to use a couple times a week. They have a couple of pages to fill out, tailored to their own interests, but the majority of the pages are blank. On days when we go picnicking, we bring our journals and some crayons. They can make some notes on game or story ideas they’re working on, cities they’re planning, or draw pictures of our cat sitting under a rainbow. Sometimes I’ll ask them to draw a picture or write a couple of sentences about where we are and what they see … anything to get the creative juices flowing in their imaginations.

WP_20140525_004[1]PLANT SOMETHING TOGETHER: One of the best things about having a garden is that the kids always have something of interest to draw them into the backyard. Every day, they run outside and give me a full report on what’s ready to be picked and how much weeding I have to do. Then there’s the added delight of playing with earthworms for an hour. My daughter, in particular, has turned into quite the gardening enthusiast. Every spring she’s right behind Mama, pulling weeds, turning up soil, planting seeds. The kids get up in the morning and take bowls out to collect raspberries from a bush that’s gotten so enormous, it deserves its own name. The month of July brings us treasures like fresh berries on cereal and a surplus of goodies like raspberry muffins and zucchini bread.

WP_20140718_005[1]GET SOME MORE KIDS: This one may sound a little counterproductive, but I always marvel at how much easier my children are to manage when they have “fresh meat” on the home front. Whenever a friend comes over to play, my kiddos are happily distracted. Having another kid or two at your house changes things up and gets the kids involved in kid stuff, like playing – remember when you were a kid and rode your bike to a friend’s house to play for the afternoon? Kids today have few opportunities to just be kids engaged in unstructured play. Play dates typically take weeks to orchestrate in between kids’ scheduled activities and adult commitments. When I was my son’s age, I would ride my bike in the neighborhood with my friends and play hide-and-seek and tag at the park. I would come in for meals and then take off again. In today’s society, very few parents would dare to let their kids out of their sight for that kind of unstructured play. I feel that giving kids a chance to be kids, to play, explore and learn away from the regime of structured activities and the constant, watchful eyes of adults to be something of a lost art of childhood. Our little people benefit from learning how to pass the time with games and activities of their own creation.

One of the best ways to create lasting memories with your children is to make the time to have fun together. It doesn’t have to be fancy – a couple of juice boxes, a bag of fishy crackers, a pair of toilet paper binoculars, and off you go to the park to be birdwatchers! All you need to enjoy the summer days with your children is an open attitude toward the day that is unfolding before you along with a few ideas in your back pocket. And while it’s true that a week of soccer camp doesn’t hurt either, if you approach each day as a chance to enjoy the precious, fleeting moments of our most elusive season, you may find that it makes the difference between wanting to play airplane with your children vs. wanting to be on an airplane without them.

Don’t forget your sunscreen, mamas!

xo