True Responsibility

 

True freedom requires true responsibility. This sounds simple and even doable, but it is not easy. If you think it is, you only understand it in your head. I know this because that is terrain I have travelled extensively.

 

True responsibility, I’ve discovered, is where the rubber hits the road in this whole realm of spiritual awakening. It means that we have a choice — in every single moment — to do what’s in the best interests of our spiritual unfolding. Or, we can do the lazy, comfortable and ultimately unsatisfying thing we know will not feed our hearts or bring us closer to Truth.

 

It’s a no-brainer, right? See for yourself. I am struggling with this, sometimes even rebelling against the nerve of Life to make me responsible for my own inner state! The one in control of if and when I claim my destiny!? I am not worthy.

 

This is at the heart of my struggle. That core belief of not being worthy dogs me, it nips at my heels at every turn, even though I know it is not true because it comes from ego. It is a thought; I know I am not my thoughts but they are still hooking me. Many are not, but the stickier ones, the insidious ones with very deep roots and very wily tactics, are. 

 

This worthiness one is a frequent visitor, and thanks to some excellent teachings I was able to meet it in the dark alley just yesterday. I inquired into this belief and discovered that I have always felt that something was wrong with me, I didn’t fit in, wasn’t normal, wasn’t understood, would never be understood. And I could see that I’ve created that reality in my life, finding a way to remain on the periphery of so many aspects of my life, never getting my hands too dirty.

 

When I really dove into this, the inquiry led to a surprising place. I realized that deep down I believe something IS wrong but perhaps not with me, but with how the world works. I have always felt this deep down but it’s hard to comprehend or admit, so instead I believed I was ultimately flawed (who am I to say there’s something wrong with the world?).

 

But it feels true for me, and I certainly see how damaging my lack of self worth has been. And what I am learning is that when something feels bad, this is Life’s way of telling us we’re not operating in Truth, or as one of my teachers said, we’re not asking the question, What Would Love Do? It doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with us.

 

In the end, I found myself circling back to True Responsibility, which invites us to ask this question in every moment. And when we inquire silently for the answer we are not listening for any moral code or rules. Rather, listen for what Life or Love wants to tell us. In every moment of our lives, it has an answer to this question if we are patient and sincere enough to listen.

 

Sometimes I am; mostly I am not.

 

This is my work.

 

 

It’s not fair. Who wants to wake up only to find themselves sleepwalking?

It is not supposed to be like this — and even as I utter this clichéd phrase in my head I am at the same time shaking it in dismay that I cannot muster a more evocative description for the state I am in. I’m supposed to be a writer!

But it’s how I feel, dismayed and disembodied, knowing my whole life has changed but trapped in such a surreal headspace that I don’t care. Bring it on. It can’t be worse than this limbo land, stuck between two worlds and belonging in neither.

I have not always been a sad sap — usually I can figure things out, get things done, stay (relatively) calm in the chaos. But I’ve been undone, and the irony is that when I signed up for a seven-day Enlightenment Intensive in Hawaii in January of this year, I was warned: It will undo you. 

It did.

Not right away, of course. I sailed through the seven days of silence. Other than dyads — 40-minute periods of sitting across from a partner and asking, ‘Who am I?’ for five minutes each, 11 times a day — we didn’t speak. The EI was very structured, half-hour sit, hour-long nap, 45-minute lunch contemplation, hour-long work practice, hit repeat.

Such military structure might sound suffocating, or at the very least annoying, but when it’s ensconced in a dream-like organic farm that abuts an active volcano on the Big Island, it’s much less jarring. 

I arrived here with my cousin, we are the only two at this 12-participant EI who are first-timers. The leader, a Brit who calls Vancouver Island home, greets us warmly upon arriving. Simon Thompson has traversed this territory and seems an imminently capable and trustworthy guide. It helps that his assistant, Enneagram guru Kira MacDuffee, has been my spiritual counsellor via Skype for a few months now (she is the one who issued the warning — and encouraged me to do the EI, convinced I was ready.)

Hawaii is incredible, but this was no beach holiday. The farm was located in the rainforest in the middle of the Big Island, near Hilo, and it was rainy season. We lucked out with sunny days but there was no mid-aft margaritas. Wake-up was before 6am and our last dyad ended around 10 pm. It was intense.

I felt overwhelming tiredness and confusion the first day, but because we were in silence I didn’t really engage these feelings, so they slipped away.

I paid close attention when Thompson explained the actual dyad technique, being a newbie. When my partner gave me my instruction — tell me who you are — I was supposed to receive it and then go inside, opening to the suggestion, experiencing what that brought up for me in this moment. Then, we had to communicate the experience to our partner, who listened intently but did not respond.

The first time I heard the instruction I felt myself walking through a door. Because how do you answer that? Am I a daughter? A sister? A cousin or friend? Am I a writer? A seeker? An anomaly?

I don’t know much about enlightenment, but I knew enough to know I am none of those things. If any of those roles had ever fit, I’d have made a life out of it (indeed I tried many times.) But I am not my ego, I am not my thoughts, I am not my body, I am not my emotions. So I walked through the door.

I am the deep unwavering Truth beneath all of those things. And so is everything else, which is why we are all connected. During the dyads, I experienced this awareness as a vastness — first a beautiful dessert, then a black endless spaciousness, then a deep ocean. I experienced  being the awareness in each of these realities, able to move freely like light or air, a fish or a bird or a being that could see in the dark. I had no boundaries, I was everything, but everything was actually very wispy, like a ghost, not really there.

This was unbelievably freeing! Validation for what I’d always felt at some level was true. The only constriction or challenge I felt during the EI was my inability to find the words to explain to my partner what I was experiencing. The right words had not been invented yet, they were out of my grasp. 

I ended the EI in a wonderful state, feeling deeply changed. That euphoria lasted for a week or so and then I crashed and burned… ouch.

It still stings, three months later. I feel okay momentarily if I can force myself to do normal things like work and exercise and socialize and act ‘normal’. But my success in this endeavor is getting worse by the week. 

What’s the problem? Much of it is fear, on both ends of the spectrum: First, that my life as I know it is over (though it’s not like I have ever been on the traditional path), that I can’t go back to my old goals and inspirations because the beliefs that fed them are bullshit. Second, and more devastating, that I won’t have the sincerity, honesty and courage needed for the kind of awakening that I ultimately desire, more than anything in this world.

Plus, my old reality — ie, my entire life! — has been revealed as a dream, it doesn’t feel real anymore. My beliefs about my life, other people, me, the world — none of them are true.

So what is true? Good question. This is where I find myself now and it feels like a No Man’s Land. It doesn’t feel good. But when you can’t go back the only option is to go forward. The only thing I believe is true right now is Truth — God, Life, Spirit. And I know I am some manifestation of that. This is the only thing right now that gives me hope or makes me feel in any way like it will all be okay.

Stay tuned. 

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“We have met the enemy and he is us.”

— Walt Kelley

In our most honest moments, we’ll admit this is true.

But this was not the enemy I had in mind when I ventured into Winnipeg’s Pan Am Boxing Club. I wanted to learn to defend myself, to throw a punch in the event I was backed into a corner. I wanted to toughen up.

Fresh out of my membership at perky GoodLife Fitness, I found walking into Pan Am for the first time to be intense and intimidating. Pan Am, housed in the basement of a historic landmark building in the Exchange District, is a real boxing club — with an actual ring in the centre and framed pictures of Muhammad Ali on the walls. The leaders yell out commands at a breathless pace throughout hour-long classes that begin and end with military precision. Regardless of skill level, everyone in the class is pushed to their limits. You quickly learn those limits are moving targets.

 

If boxing at this club isn’t challenging enough for you — or if, like me, you have no idea what you’re getting into — you might find yourself signing up for a unique six-week training program here called Fight Club. While it is not about violence or beating anyone up, there is an enemy: you — in particular, your laziness and any lack of faith you have in your own courage, inner strength and physical power.

First, Fight Club is not some underground cultish brawl club, and you can talk about it all you want (if you sign up, you may talk about little else). What you can’t do is give up — that is the first, second and only rule and it is there for you.

Like many contenders, I signed up to improve my boxing skills and shock my body to a higher level of fitness, within my own genetic constraints. I have always longed for one of those lithe yoga bodies and long, silky straight hair. But my hair is naturally curly and mostly unruly, and my body type is what I describe as the “farmer’s daughter” — built for hard work, with a natural inclination to store calories for those long, cold winters. (Of course, I’m not homesteading like my great grandmother did, so those calories just hunker down and overstay their welcome.)

I’d been a member at Pan Am for about four months and had the toughest workouts I’d ever done, but somehow Fight Club was tougher. This program is intense; contenders bond as they sweat and curse and support each other through what many describe as the physical challenge of their lives.

But if you’re going to pick the fight of your life, Fight Club is a fine battle to choose.

 

— — —

 

“Let us show you how strong you can be.”

This Pan Am slogan ultimately snagged me. I would like to say the club did show me how strong I can be, but it’s a work in progress. I’m so much stronger than the first day I walked into the club, but now I’ve had a glimpse at how strong I could be. Harry Black, Pan Am’s ripped head coach and president, reminds us: The bar is always moving. Work hard, get better and then push harder.

Fight Club Six, which ran last fall, included 42 contenders, about half of whom had participated in previous Fight Clubs. At the beginning of each week, we’d learn about that week’s theme (cardio, weights, core, heavy bag, etc.) and receive some instruction on eating, sleeping and hydration to support our training.

The brainchild behind Fight Club, recruiter and human-resources consultant Susan Scott, says she started the program four years ago as a way to help members achieve results.

“I recall very clearly a discussion I had with a longtime member who said they worked out all the time, and worked hard, but no matter what they did, nothing was changing,” says Scott, who is a trainer and the club’s marketing director.

The workout requirements are challenging, but because they gradually increase the number of required classes each week, it is somehow doable. We started Week One with seven hour-long classes, plus two 20-minute weight training sessions; by Week Four that had climbed to 10 classes, one session on the weights and one hour-long spin class.

Scott and Black match all contenders with a mentor/coach who worked out with us, answered questions and kept us on track.

Liz Pham, my coach and two-time Fight Club veteran, says the best part about mentoring is watching your contender transform.

“Fight Club is a difficult program designed to put you through a simulation of how a fighter trains and prepares leading up to a fight,” says Pham, who has been boxing for three years. “It’s inspiring as a coach to watch your contenders give it their all and be part of the journey of their transformation.”

Pham kept me going through long stretches of planks and push-ups, running countless stairs carrying a 15-pound medicine ball, endless skipping, wind sprints, technical sparring, bag work and much more.

Fight Club requires a serious time commitment — occasionally we were doing three classes a day. Some contenders took time off work; all made adjustments.

And in the end, there are winners — but no losers. Fight Club is a competition based on solid fitness metrics. The male and female winners achieved the greatest improvement in several weighted categories, including body-fat percentage, weight, hip/waist measurement and body mass index (BMI).

“Our metrics are based on best overall health, and not about appearance,” says Scott,” noting BMI is weighted higher than weight, which is ranked lowest at five per cent. Hip/waist measurement is weighted high because scientific research indicates it’s a direct warning sign of heart attack, stroke and other serious health conditions. Body-fat percentage is also given a strong ranking in the overall equation. “It’s commonly understood in health and fitness circles that a lower body fat will result in a healthier, fitter person,” she notes.

The male and female contenders who improve the most are deemed winners, but if you finish Fight Club, many would say you have achieved greatness. Consider these stats: The 42 contenders in Fight Club Six lost a total of 550 pounds and 186 inches over six weeks. It’s shocking, especially when you consider how much time many people can spend working out without achieving measurable results.

“It may not be about inches lost or pounds dropped, but someone may now be able to do 10 push-ups when before they could do one. Some women achieve their first pull-up,” says Scott. “The experience has been described to us as life-changing, which is not something I take lightly.”

Boxing is hard. I’ve been at it for almost a year and I still have a very low comfort level with hitting people and getting hit during light sparring. But surprisingly, this seems fine. I’m making beginner mistakes and following a typical learning curve. If I stick with it, I believe I’ll conquer these and graduate to a fresh set of challenges.

The body is adaptable. I didn’t think a person could sweat as much as I did during Fight Club. I also laughed, cried (twice, due to fear of quitting, then a basic emotional meltdown) and hit so many walls that I stopped noticing.

The support, empathy and encouragement from our mentors, fellow contenders and club leaders kept us going. I grew to love it when the instructors yelled at me; it meant they believed I could push harder, do better. And I did.

You can, too.

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My friend, Ruth Bonneville, and I share a common trait — we rarely choose the easy path. Some call it a character flaw, but I prefer Ray Myers’s description, “a bit ambitious.” The soft-spoken, engaging owner of Heartland Archery, a Winnipeg hunting and canoe-rental outfitter, probably thought we were in over our heads when we sauntered into his shop one Saturday afternoon in early July to pick up the canoe we planned to take down 70 kilometres of the Manigotagan River. We were.

Don’t let this river’s nickname as “the mighty Bloodvein’s little sister” fool you. It is no sissy. But like all good sisters, it can deliver blunt but necessary advice when needed, impart powerful wisdom with grace and love, and be a faithful wingman on one of life’s great journeys.

Ruth and I had both done our share of canoeing in the past but not in whitewater. We wanted to learn, we wanted to be alone in nature for several days and we wanted to be challenged. The Manigotagan, located in Nopiming Provincial Park, delivered.

We rented a canoe from Heartland. The staff was excellent and the gear solid and reliable. Myers is the guy you want to see at Heartland. He’s an expert paddler, knows the local rivers and has the necessary patience and experience to size up novice paddlers and impart the exact nuggets of wisdom they’ll need to bring themselves, and his gear, back in one piece.

The canoe we initially rented was far too heavy. We wanted a sturdy boat but we could never have managed the 28 portages that lay ahead. Myers put us in a lighter canoe and then taught us some basic portage and lifting moves in the parking lot. Compared with the first canoe we tried to manoeuvre over our heads, it felt great. (‘This is like a heavy purse,’ I said, feeling cocky — a comment Ruth enjoyed flipping back as I cursed through our sixth portage a few days later.)

The next morning, gear packed and amped with excitement, we set out for Pine Falls, the last place to gas up and buy last-minute food supplies (we got wine, bacon and licorice) before Manigotagan. About two hours after leaving the city, we pulled into Charles and Marilyn Simard’s yard. Charles is a ‘river steward’ and the Simards have a nice little business hopping in with people to go upriver to start their trip (we started at Quesnel Lake; Long Lake is 96 kilometres from Manigotagan and will add another two days to your trip). After the canoe party unloads, Marilyn or Charles will drive your vehicle back to Manigotagan where it will remain safely parked in the Simard’s yard, a short distance from the river where your journey will end.

On this day, Marilyn rode in the back and the three of us chatted about the river, her family and life in general. If she had her doubts about our ability to manage this river, she was too polite to voice them. When we arrived at Quesnel Lake and put our canoe in the water, I stared out in the distance in awe. “Wow, we’re heading out there?” No, she said softly, pointing in the opposite direction. “You need to go that way.” Great.

We set out, a bit nervous but telling ourselves it was just excitement. Two women of the wild, running a river! In fact, our first portage would have made a good YouTube video on how not to portage. All good adventures have one good screw-up, and I made mine before we even hit the Perimeter Highway. When we were organizing our gear in Winnipeg, I left my sturdy water sandals on the roof of Ruth’s van. When we unpacked at Quesnel Lake, I had my heavy leather hiking boots and what I’d slipped on leaving the house, a pair of blingy platform Skechers flip-flops. Not wanting to risk soaking my boots on the first day, I attempted the first portage in these. Add to that, our gear was not very well organized. (We had too many small bags, which we eventually compiled into two larger packs). Hiking up the steep hill on our first portage, with my silly footwear and 19 little bags hanging off me, all that was missing was a Starbucks coffee balanced in my free hand.

We got better — we had to. There were 27 rapids ahead of us, and while we planned to try running the easier ones, we knew we’d spend a lot of time lugging gear. But each day, our portages were smoother and more efficient. We got into a routine.

A river is a path, and like any of life’s paths it is easier when you stop resisting what may not be comfortable and get into the flow of your surroundings. Maybe it’s a girl thing, but the approach Ruth and I took was more “the gracious guest” than, “Let’s conquer this river, show it who’s boss!” For us, this was a spiritual journey, too. We knew we’d have to let go, roll with whatever came up, stay aware and stay grounded if we were going to stay safe. This approach translated into little rituals — we’d say a blessing before tackling each rapid and at the beginning and end of each day. Did it make a difference? I think that’s the wrong question. It made us feel better. It acknowledged the reverence we felt being so far in the woods, vulnerable yet cradled.

During the next five days, we shot seven rapids, did 21 portages, saw five moose, six bald eagles and countless beavers. (Ruth called it our Canadian safari — the perfect way to celebrate Canada Day.) We did not see another soul. Our greatest challenges were portage fatigue, which hit hardest on the last two days, and the bugs, which didn’t bother us on the water but some of the campsites were quite boggy and therefore buggy. The mosquitoes could get bad after dusk, so we made sure to be zipped up in the tent by 9:45 pm., the ‘witching hour.’ During the day, we encountered black flies and horse flies that seemed unfazed by bug spray, but we noticed them less each day.

Ruth was very diligent on the bear front. She had a bear bell, whistles for both of us and bear spray. When we were in the bush, she’d frequently check in to make sure we were armed — she had the spray strapped to her belt and I had my compact, rather dull hunting knife, which I finally convinced her should be a last resort. “Um, Ruth, I don’t think we want to get into a knife fight with a bear.”

The rapids we encountered on our first few days were more like waterfalls, so we honed our portage skills. By the time we approached Kettle Rapids (which we later unofficially renamed Ass Over Tea Kettle Rapids), we were eager to give it a shot. The experiment was a success — in that we survived and the canoe was intact — but it was not pretty. These rapids were beyond our pay grade, but the problem with a true novice is they don’t know when to be afraid. We hiked our gear to the end point, donned our life-jackets and helmets (mine an equestrian helmet, Ruth’s was for biking), said a prayer and pushed off.

The rapid began with a daunting ledge; if we made it over that we’d have to navigate around a few boulders before being swished out the end. We did not. Water swirled ferociously at the bottom of the ledge and immediately jack-knifed our canoe. I spilled out first, yelled to Ruth I was OK and we both bounced down the rapid, canoe off in one direction, paddles in the other.

We were fine. I got the canoe, Ruth swam for the paddles and we met at our bags, where we hugged, jumped up and down and screamed like giddy schoolgirls. (Coming down off that adrenaline high was not nearly as fun.) We felt an odd relief, knowing we dumped and were fine. The worst had happened. We played it safe with the next two rapids, but the following day successfully shot four.

Between the rapids, the river was calm and we lucked out with blue skies and warm weather throughout the trip. The river is stunning, surrounded by changing landscape that alternated between boreal forest and Canadian shield. Soon we came to learn that when we saw several granite rock formations, a rapid was just around the corner. They were well marked on the map, but even without you couldn’t miss the low rumble of moving water, which meant it was time to start watching for the portage take-out sign, a yellow cross nailed to a tree marking the path, which would range from 50 to about 450 metres.

One day, after eight hours in the canoe, we started to wonder about a mysterious cabin Charles and Marilyn told us about. The amiable, soft-spoken Charles built this hunting cabin to use during the winter. His cabin is rustic and welcoming, with a note inviting guests to use what they need and leave things as they found them. We perched on the granite rocks and watched the sun set, sipping from a wineskin and munching on crackers and warm cheddar cheese, laughing over the day’s events.

By the end of our six-day journey, we were already planning our next canoe trip. The experience was harder than we expected (no leisurely hours spent reading and journalling) but we both dug deep and found the energy not just to keep going, but to stay focused on safety, encouraging each other every step of the way, finishing with a huge sense of accomplishment.

Lakes are fun and laid-back, a great place to relax or holiday. But rivers bear an unmistakable parallel to life. They are constantly changing, often in quiet, subtle ways you may not notice. They can be fierce one minute, gentle and forgiving the next. At times, your instinct will tell you to avoid the choppy waters just ahead — instead, take a wide berth and carry on. Other times, you will know the only way is straight through the middle. You may get banged up a little, but you’ll come out the other end stronger and better for embracing the challenge.

Rivers inspire awe and gratitude, and they make us want to carry on to see what’s around the next bend. Ultimately, as the famous American author Norman Maclean put it, “Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.”

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Career Transitions

I’m stuck in afternoon rush-hour traffic in Lower Manhattan. Having just said goodbye to my cosy Brooklyn Heights bachelor pad, I climbed behind the wheel of a moving truck with the goal of inching my way to the Lincoln Tunnel and onto the New Jersey Turnpike without hitting another vehicle or taking out any pedestrians.

This is the beginning of my journey back to Winnipeg, and my slow start is intentional. The guy at the rental office in Queens, upon hearing that I planned to drive this truck and all my belongings through one of the densest urban centres on the planet, strongly suggested I leave at the peak of rush hour — less potential to do any real damage. I have no idea how he knew, but it’s true: I am not one of those people with a natural sense of direction and confident driving skills. I get lost when I walk out of the women’s washroom in a restaurant I’ve been to several times.

I’ve never been a financial whiz, either, or even had a head for numbers, but that didn’t stop me from accepting a job at a respected financial magazine in New York. Now, I’m saying goodbye to an impressive career trajectory and some good friends in one of the most thrilling cities in the world to move into the basement of my mother’s house in Winnipeg — by choice.

Maybe it’s true that you can’t take the farm out of the girl. In New York, I sat at a table next to New Yorker superstar David Remnick at a journalism awards dinner, lost entire weekends in the museums, danced to live jazz on Bleecker Street at night and then again the next morning at a rollicking Baptist church service in Harlem where I was the only white face in view. I meditated for a week at a Zen Buddhist monastery in the Catskills and wrote a cover story on an emerging markets hedge fund manager who lost $1 billion in one day — twice. I had a shrink, I got mugged, I bumped into Ed Norton at the Waldorf. I saw the pride in the smiles and tears of New Yorkers when Americans elected their first black President, and I had a front-row seat during the worst global financial crisis since the Great Depression. I learned from some of the smartest editors on the planet and pushed myself in ways I could not have imagined. I had higher highs and lower lows in those three years than at any other time in my life. I wouldn’t trade a minute of it.

But it became hard for me to breathe, and here’s the thing about breathing room: it’s like money in a savings account or that last piece of birthday cake sitting on the counter. You skim off the edges long enough until suddenly there’s hardly any left. I couldn’t see how New York was literally sucking the air out of me until I was back under open skies.

The decision to take the job was a no-brainer. I was the editor of a business magazine in Vancouver and had just bought an adorable condo in North Van, but it’s New York!! Journalism and financial capital of the world!! Life doesn’t offer up many of these gems and I was going to grab it.

I had no illusions. I knew it would be very hard, professionally and personally. I didn’t know I would be sleeping with my Blackberry under my pillow, literally. I knew finding a good apartment would be tough; I did not know I’d be paying thousands of dollars to live in a glorified doghouse with a stranger I found on Craigslist who was willing to share his illegal sublet. Two million people live on the island of Manhattan and the population balloons to seven million when commuters descend during the workweek. Many days I felt like there just wasn’t room for one more. This bar was over its max.

During my first few months, I tried to learn enough about finance to at least understand the stories I was supposed to be editing. And stay out of the crossfire. Some of the screaming matches that would erupt around me would get a person fired in Canada on the spot. But in New York people say exactly what they think and they don’t coat the edges — it’s the shit sandwich without the bread. I fit the polite Canadian stereotype perfectly, too afraid to open my mouth in meetings for the first six months and then when I’d say something in my polite, diplomatic style, people would often look at me with a confused scowl and walk away. There’s nothing subtle about NY, aggression is currency. I’m not wired this way so it was a tough environment for me but I figured it out, and then I was promoted — even after the financial crisis forced two rounds of layoffs in my office.

The decision to leave wasn’t hard or easy it just emerged as what I needed to do. I’ve moved around alot in my career thanks to this annoying two-year itch that makes me re-evaluate my current job (and entire life), and usually opt to move on to a new challenge, thus preventing me from ever developing a stable, reliable circle of support or feel like I belong anywhere. New York was an amazing opportunity and I was so grateful for the experience, but I knew it would change me if I stayed, and not in a good way.

I may sound grounded about this decision now, but at the time my ego did not take it well. Seriously? You’re going to throw a perfectly good New York journalism career off a cliff and go hide out in your mom’s basement…in Winnipeg? I have this notion, and I assume others share it, that when a farm girl from rural Manitoba decides on a whim (okay, influenced by that ‘80’s movie Broadcast News with Holly Hunter and William Hurt) to go into journalism and then actually makes it all the way from her first job at a newspaper in Flin Flon, Manitoba — where my duties included shoveling snow from the front door of our office every morning — to New York City as one of the top editors on a financial magazine with global circulation, she ought not flake out at the top of her game.

Colleagues assumed I’d had a lucrative offer at a competing publication. My family assumed I’d had a New York-style meltdown. I just knew it was time to go. What I’ve come to realize since is that we all have to figure out how to live our own lives — not someone else’s and not one that looks good on paper.

Back on the open road, barreling down the Interstate, the sky is transforming itself as day becomes dusk. Looking back, it foreshadowed my own tranformation set in motion the day I gave my notice at work. My head was full of panic and second guessing, but below that there was a calm knowing that I was exactly where I should be. This feeling expanded as I passed through Pennsylvania and Ohio and Indiana and Wisconsin and Minneapolis, where it became flatter and there were more fields and the horizon was endless. Once I hit the Dakotas my only thought was: Ahh, there is space for me here. I can stretch out my arms, I can breathe.

Aside from some eating and sleeping, breathing is about all I did for the first few weeks I was home. I didn’t want to socialize, watch TV or be around anything noisy or go anywhere busy. I avoided newspapers and magazines but read 36 books in six months, and not just little paperbacks, we’re talking East of Eden. It was economical for me to seek out really fat books.

During this time, my 96-year-old grandmother was in the final stages of her life. She was so humble and she kept us humble. She loved me but I don’t know if she understood me exactly. I was so all over the map, literally, traveling and moving and hardly ever a boyfriend to show for myself let alone a husband. I’d come back from NYC to visit and she’d say well, how is it? Are you taking the city by storm? We’d talk about the old days and the options she had when she was my age, and I had this feeling we were both silently pondering the same question: is it really so good to have this endless list of choices that young people have now? Of course, just because we have so many options doesn’t mean we have to do them all…

I swam for an hour or two a day (this is a nice hobby to have during a Winnipeg winter). It turns out that you can swim your way out of a burnout, probably because swimming forces you to pay attention to your breathing. The other true elixir: solo encounters in nature. Lacking the budget for Italy, India and Indonesia, I opted for New Mexico, Sedona and the shockingly beautiful Haida Gwaii (B.C.‘s Queen Charlotte Islands) about 30 kilometres south of the Alaska panhandle.

About a month after I left New York, I went on a guided vision quest in New Mexico. Taking part in this intense spiritual Native American rite of passage was challenging and thrilling and at times really frightening. I was in good company, though. Along with 10 strangers from around the world, and under the guidance of an incredible teacher, we embarked on one of the oldest rituals that offers the opportunity to connect to a greater wisdom. One of the central teachings (of the vision quest, but also most other spiritual traditions) is that of interconnectedness — of all of us, and of nature and this planet — and in the quiet stillness of nature, this becomes clear. Sometimes we must be truly alone to realize we are never alone.

We spent the first few days together at a simple campsite about two hours from where our solo journey would take place. The guide told us what to expect, offered brief tips on handling encounters with scorpions, snakes and bobcats, gave us each a blessing and sent us on our way. The solo quest was five days and nights alone in the wilderness without food, a tent, communication devices or even books. We could bring a journal, sleeping bag, some clothes and water purification tablets.

There is nothing subtle or nuanced about adopting this strategy as a way to reconnect to your inner wisdom. I vacillated between feeling relaxed, splashing and swimming naked in a nearby stream, to crouching huddled on my sleeping bag staring at the sky, fearing nightfall, scanning the bush for bobcats, trying to talk down the rising panic at being totally alone in the desert. I was way too busy being neurotic to feel hungry.

After working through some of that fear, I started to enjoy the silence and began listening to the more subtle sounds in my surroundings. It was beautiful. Inwardly, I tried to unwind some of that NY stress ball that was heavy in my gut, and soon became overwhelmed with a sense of peace and interconnectedness — to myself, nature and the whole world. I found myself speaking to what the vision quest leader called Mother Earth and Father Sky, and these felt like some of the sanest conversations I’d had in years. I went from total fear on the first night alone to feeling safer than I ever remember by the last night. It was not all pretty in between, but I was so grateful that I had listened to the internal nudge that had led me there.

About three months later, amid the rude awakening of the minus-30-degree Winnipeg winter, I left for Sedona, Arizona. This quaint town is tucked into the surrounding red rock canyons that graciously “hold the space” for whatever their visitors need. Though more gentle than my vision quest, Sedona has its own unique healing quality. I spent my days doing solo hikes through the canyons and the evenings soaking in the motel’s hot tub under the stars.

My next date with Mother Nature took place at the exclusive fishing oasis, Queen Charlotte Lodge. Reeling in a 25-pound Chinook is absolutely intoxicating, especially when a pod of humpbacks are breaching right alongside the boat as an eagle soars overhead. This experience felt to me like being in the presence of true grace — and grace transforms.

Back in Winnipeg, I was ready to emerge from the basement and figure out my next step. I bought a car, rented an apartment and got a personal trainer at the local gym. (You will hear more about the formidable and adorable Shannon in future posts.) Then I landed a great work opportunity. My mother took me to a talk about climate change and I was utterly inspired. I Googled the speaker, one of Canada’s top climate change scientists, and emailed to offer my writing and/or editing services on a volunteer basis. He asked me to edit his book.

I’d never done a book edit and was no expert in science, but then I knew almost nothing about finance when I took the job in NY. If you think finance is full of jargon, science is worse. But it’s solid and fascinating and real (as aspects of the financial world clearly are not) and was a chance for me to use my skills as a writer and editor to communicate something that was meaningful to me.

This rapid melting in the Arctic is very real and it’s changing every aspect of life up there, from the tiny phytoplankton and ice algae that are growing at much higher rates given the additional penetration of solar energy, to the beluga whales who now have to migrate so much further to the ice edge to feed on the Arctic cod — and one day won’t be able to make it back to their protected breeding ground to reproduce. And this is not just a concern at the poles. Arctic climate change is already having a dramatic impact on weather systems around the globe (no surprise, when you consider that ocean currents act like a thermostat for the planet and the deep, cold Arctic waters are the cooling system).

I quickly realized there is a huge gap between the important science explaining climate change in the Arctic, and the public/polician’s understanding of this issue. It’s a gaping hole as wide as Lake Superior — some 70,000 square kilometres — which also happens to be how much sea ice has been disappearing from the Arctic Ocean every year for the past 30 years.

Journalists are quick studies, and I learned a lot about climate change science in a short period of time. The same happened in NY, sped up by the fact that six months after I started the job, Lehman Brothers collapsed, the entire global financial system went into a tailspin and history was being made on Wall Street. This is the best thing about journalism: you’re constantly in the middle of an industry or topic that you know nothing about, but you learn fast. (Remember, Holly Hunter’s character was lightning fast. Quick on her feet, making split second decisions up in the station’s control booth, she was like a vibrating workaholic hummingbird. (Of course in the end she ends up alone, with neither guy, in a new job and with a really bad haircut.)

I like fast — sometimes. But after New York I became a bigger fan of slow. In his wonderful book In Praise of Slow, Canadian author and journalist Carl Honoré explains how the slow movement is not necessarily about slowing down all the time, but rather getting a handle on the pacing of our lives. Be fast when you need to be or want to be, but have the ability and awareness to know when to slow down, to breathe, to listen to someone who’s having a hard time, or to just be present but sit quietly, as my grandmother asked me to do one day by her bedside when I was chattering on about nothing.

So much of talking (and thinking) is just a way of distracting ourselves from something we don’t want to see. One of the insights I had on my vision quest was the shocking realization of how often we talk when we have nothing to say, eat when we are not hungry, shop for things we don’t need or want, sleep when we are not tired and refuse to rest when we are.

On that vision quest, I was introduced to the brilliant poet, Mary Oliver. Her poem, Wild Geese, broke my heart and made it sing at the same time. It has stayed with me, remained close by side — maybe because I’m from Manitoba where we share our streets and yards and parks with all these crazy geese who think it’s their city, not ours.

Or maybe because the poem speaks to the deep, inner quest for truth, for freedom, for the courage to uncover your true purpose and strive for authenticity, integrity and love. For me, this poem is a call to action — to find your voice and figure out who you are so you can live your life.

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

are moving across the landscapes,

over the prairies and the deep trees,

the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.

Mary Oliver

Hi! Thanks for visiting my blog. I’ve been thinking about doing this for awhile now — time to take the leap! What’s the worse that can happen? Public humiliation. I can handle it.

I’m a writer/editor/journalist, I’ve worked in magazines and newspapers, most recently covering business, finance, agriculture. What I don’t get to write about is spiritual growth, the seeker’s curse, why some people are dogged by questions about why we’re here, what we’re doing, who we are, what’s the point — and why no one talks about it.

By way of introduction, I’d like to post a story I wrote about a recent transition in my life, one that set a new course in my life that remains a work in progress, and one that inspired me to start this blog. This story is my second blog, “Career Transitions.”

My goal with this blog is to inspire readers to think about what their real job might be. We spend so much time fussing about what we think of as our job, the one that pays the bills and stresses us out. But what if it’s just a distraction?

I hope this resonates with you, if so let me know. And good luck in your journey!

Tracy