Less is so much more

My husband and I are not minimalists by any means. Personally, my version of hell is a white room that has a white rug, three pieces of white or clear furniture, a lamp, and one or two succulents in it, but nothing else.   I’m not bashing anyone who loves this particular style and who can live happily in it – all I’m saying is that I don’t and I can’t. I can appreciate how clean and bright it looks but what I can’t wrap my head around is living in a space that brings to mind that white room in The Matrix.

Together, my husband and I didn’t exactly do the entire KonMari method, but we did keep things that we love and that make us feel cosy and happy in our home. And while we aren’t minimalists by any means, we are happy that paring down our possessions has allowed us to style our home in a way that truly reflects who we are. In the great purge we discovered old treasures that had been hidden away for years and made rom for them out in the open so that we can enjoy them every day and share them with our guests.

But getting to this point has been pretty much as long as our entire marriage.

By the time my husband and I were married and living together, we had been living on our own or with college roommates for about ten years each. Our households collided in the most spectacular domestic train wreck imaginable. When we were finally able to start sorting through everything after all my belongings were moved in, we discovered that we had way too much mismatched flatware, four hair dryers (two of which my husband didn’t even realize he still had), two toasters, two fondue sets (still in the box), six incomplete or mismatched sets of measuring cups and spoons, and more chairs than the maximum number of people we could ever have over at one time.

Fast forward about a year later to us sitting together in our tiny bathroom – me on the toilet, him on the edge of the tub, our cat on his lap and our dog at my feet – as we stared at a positive pregnancy test and realized: there’s no way we can have a baby here. Not only was our third-floor row house walk-up not really the greatest in terms of construction and size, we just had too many things and hadn’t had enough time or space since I’d moved in to really get rid of what really had to go.

A few months later, we were packing up again to move to a new apartment that was a little bit bigger and a lot better for our changing needs – and doing the biggest purge either of us have ever done of our belongings so that we could fit into a new apartment. Even an upgrade up to 900 square feet of indoor space with bigger balconies and more storage space (fun fact: we had only two cramped closets in the old place) we knew we had to be merciless in getting rid of belongings. In July 2018 we moved everything that made it past the first cut into our new place, and promptly realized we still had a lot to get rid of before we would be able to actually feel like we had a proper home.

When I went on maternity leave in October 2018, we were able to fully repaint and furnish the baby’s room, get rid of a few more boxes, and do two or three more trips to the donation center. Then our son arrived, and we were swept up into the sleep-deprived whirlwind of being first-time parents.

The last leg of our tidying up journey lasted from March of this year to just a few weeks ago. I still had boxes and bins staring at me from our shared home office, as well as one last huge box of clothes. I set myself a deadline: celebrating my husband’s 30th birthday (also my son’s 5th month milestone) in April. I strung up a motivational carrot: having my mother, sister, and brother-in-law over for coffee and cake. I motivated myself: watching some organization and cleaning routine videos on YouTube, and pep talking myself into a good headspace for getting work done.

Then I stared down my foes, and like Teddy Roosevelt I charged up the hill.

Sitting now in my clean, fresh home three weeks after that last push towards domestic tidiness, I am quite happy with the progress we’ve made and what we’ve accomplished in our home. I’m also particularly proud of myself for getting rid of so many things, including things that I’ve been lugging around since 2008 (or longer!) that I really didn’t need anymore – including journals that only seemed to have anger and sadness recorded in hem, textbooks that I barely used after I had finished the courses for which I’d bought them, and clothes that had never fit me at any stage of physical fitness.

Saying goodbye to things that were souvenirs of who I was during chameleonic and moody phases has actually helped me appreciate the experiences that formed me into the woman I am now, and realize that I didn’t need to hold on to every last artifact of my existence to feel whole anymore.  I just need the ones that continue to teach me, help me grow, and be happy where I am now.

The female roots of my family tree

This morning, I woke up at my mom’s house. She and I spent an evening out together yesterday — dinner, coffee, a short lecture about the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, and then the BNC’s ballet performance of Don Quixote at Place-des-Arts. It was our way of celebrating Mother’s Day (which is actually today here in Canada). With the memories of the previous evening’s performance running through my head, the first thing I experienced this morning as I reflected was a sense of pride.

We’re not Cuban or any other kind of Latin American by any means, but we share the same Iberian passion, heart, and exuberance that the dancers of the BNC displayed last night, and that honestly all Hispanic people display on a daily basis. But seeing it on stage in all the sumptuous finery of classical ballet was a pivotal moment for me, I think. From the music featuring tambourines and castanets and the distinct rhythms of Spanish dances right up to the sheer joy and love of life expressed in the movements of the dancers, Don Quixote put me in touch with a side of my heritage that I’ve never really felt connected to before.

My Spanish heritage is something I don’t often consider — I have always been first and foremost a Canadian, even before I became a citizen, and of course Filipino culture reigned supreme at home — but lately it’s been creeping to the foreground of my thoughts. I’ve been thinking a lot more about my identity, which is probably why I’ve finally started poking into the Spanish and Spanish-influenced chapters of my family history. And, as it turns out, much of what links me to these roots comes from the women of my family.

Although the hot Iberian blood runs on both sides, I know more about my mother’s side of the family than my father’s. The primary factor playing into this imbalance of knowledge is that my mother’s family were all in Canada when I was growing up, including my maternal grandmother who was full to bursting of family history. By marriage she was a Gomez but by birth she was a Garcia, a direct descendant of the Mercado-Alonso union that would become known as the Rizal family, and so the family history is extremely well documented and archived. They were blessed with an abundance of daughters but only two sons, though they’re more well-known of course for the legacy of José Rizal than they are for anything their daughters did.

But that doesn’t mean any of them, or any of the ladies to follow, led boring and insignificant lives. Thanks to my maternal grandmother, whom we referred to as “Lola” in our family, my earliest recollections include stories of the great-grand-women of the family: women whose most formative and defining moments were in harrowing experiences such as world wars and civil uproar; women who, for their time, experienced the privileges of education, personal wealth, and careers — things that we today believe are normal components of the everyday life of a modern woman, but back then were considered to be firmly in the domain of menfolk; women who, in short, have created for my sisters and me an unbroken legacy of strength, grit, and resilience tempered by love, kindness, and faith.

Sometimes it’s hard to live up to that kind of family history. Here I am at twenty-six and I feel like I’m in a pretty good place in my life; at any rate, I’m more comfortable with myself and more loving and accepting of who I am now than I ever have been. But although I’ve been down the foundations of my adult life for the last few years when I compare myself to the women of my family tree when they were my age, I always feel like I’m found left for wanting in their presence. But then I remember that you can’t compare your chapter one to someone else’s chapter twenty — and the fact of the matter is, my world is very different from the worlds of these ladies, so of course it makes sense that my story is being written at a markedly different pace.

I often wonder (and honestly, worry) if I’ll ever be able to be as strong, poised, gracious, confident, and beautiful as the women of my family before me. Even when I compare myself to my sisters I find myself in a brief panic over the thought that I’ll never be anything remotely like them.

There’s a quote that I’ve seen everywhere on social media today and I’ve been pondering on it while I’ve been preparing to write this, and by putting those thoughts alongside my insecurities in the face of my feminine legacy, I’ve realized something important: it doesn’t matter if my experiences at age twenty-six aren’t quite as earth-shattering and life-changing as those of the women before me, or that I’m nowhere near as well-established in my life and my career as they were at this age.

What truly matters is that the iron-clad strength of their souls that allowed them stand upright in their convictions and the passion that burned in their hearts to fuel their lives was passed on to me, along with many examples of what one may accomplish if one looks life straight in the the eye and never backs down. It doesn’t matter how I do it myself, just that I harness that strength and passion in my own bones and heart, and live life to the fullest as they did…in the best way I know how. That is how I might live up this legacy and embrace this heritage of mine.

And so:

“Here’s to strong women: may we know them, may we be them, may we raise them.” 

When a knife in my back starts to twinge and turn

It’s been a month since I actually posted anything, which doesn’t really seem to fit the definition of “being back.” Mea culpa. Life has been pretty crazy in the last little while – when it rains in my life, it really does pour – and I’ve been fighting to keep my head up above the rising flood. But now spring has actually arrived, my life is calming down enough for me to write in earnest again, and I’m finding footing on dry land once more. And I’m more in love with life now than I ever have been.

One of the bigger things I’ve wrestled with in the last year-and-a-bit of my life was learning how to let go – of things, of people, of what never was meant to be. I was holding on to far too much of what lay behind me that I had no way to grasp the things I needed for the journey ahead.

And yes, I was holding on to a lot of pain. Far too much pain, really, but I held on to it because I was utterly terrified – of what, I’m not sure.

Was I terrified of not feeling anything at all? Was I terrified of what I might feel instead? Was I terrified of forgetting the hard lessons I had learned?

I don’t know. I was being pretty irrational about holding on to the hurt, to the point where I still can’t explain why I did…or why I kept it all hidden away and bottled up inside.

Then before Christmas last year, some of it bubbled over. Before I even fully realized what I was doing or saying, I blurted out to an old friend that I felt as though there was something wrong with me.

No, he assured me – there wasn’t, and there never had been.

And when I bubbled and blurted a little more about why I felt all wrong, he said, “Knives in the back are there for a reason. For us to learn and move on… It’s life.”

I chewed on that thought for a while after, and the next time I felt one of those knives in my back twinging and turning, I took a deep breath and pulled it out. It was the knife of a toxic connection that was starting to affect a couple of the longer, more meaningful relationships in my life. It was doing nothing to improve my life and instead making everything so much harder with all the negativity and anger it was attracting.

What filled the wound left behind was a better kind of love from others who mattered more and meant more than that one connection. I found myself standing a little straighter in my emotional state, and feeling stronger than before. I’d done it: I’d felt a knife in my back, I’d learned what it was trying to teach me, and I’d pulled it out and let go.

And it felt so good.

I’ve gone and pulled a few more out since then and done the necessary emotional first aid to patch myself up and get on with the business of life. Sometimes the process has involved letting go of something physically, such as a trinket or memento from some long-ago friendship or relationship; sometimes it’s involved taking a constant source of pain and turning it into fuel for a particularly grueling workout. But no matter what the extraction looks like, it’s as though I’m being given another chance to stand up for myself. Each new decision to pull out another knife turns the wound from a source of pain into a channel by which something better can flow into me.

I do see now why we need knives in our backs, but they don’t have to stay there. They’re more use to us in our hands than buried hilt-deep in our backs. Once we’ve pulled one out, it we can use it to cut loose something else that’s holding us down or holding us back. And while we’re doing that for ourselves, we’re reminded too that we shouldn’t be doing any more of our own back-stabbing.

Breaking Free

Winter came late to Montreal, but it’s felt like it’s lasted forever just as it does every year. Having finally hit my stride with regular outdoor running last fall, it’s been torturous these last few weeks to wait for winter to blow past my city entirely. Much like Hobbits take second breakfast, some areas of Canada get second winter and I happen to live in one of them.

Easter Sunday was bright and beautiful, and though it started off with a bit of a nippy breeze by the time I got home from my mother’s nest it was a lovely 13 Celsius and I couldn’t help myself. I had to run. After all, as I had said to my longtime Swedish friend just a few days before —

 

And it’s true. For me running is about the sun and the air and the wind; for him it’s the smell of fresh damp earth. But whatever gets us going when our respective frozen northland homes finally begin to thaw out, I know for me there’s something else that pulls me out of my apartment and towards those paths and trails I’ve come to know so well. It’s the fact that whenever I run outside, for however long I’m out there I’m free. There’s nothing but myself and the hybrid environment of urban and natural surroundings; nothing to stop me from stretching my legs out as far as they can stride; nothing to make me forget I’m alive.

In fact, running makes me remember I’m alive. It’s funny – depending on how far and how fast I go, I end up feeling like I might die! But there’s something about a racing heart and quickened breath and sore limbs at the end of the run that gives me a sense of strength and self-assuredness that I haven’t felt for a long time.

But this yearning, this longing to stretch and grow — it’s more than just wanting to break out of the indoors and be outside again after a long winter.  I was born a free spirit; my heart is wild and my soul has wings. But through a series of various events, when I turned twenty-five I looked at my life with fresh eyes and unexpectedly found myself in a cage of expectations, responsibilities, obligations, and limitations.

And I don’t like that one bit.

I know that growing up and “adulting” involves buckling down and taking on things that make you a contributing and productive member of society. But is the conventional way of becoming a contributing and productive adult really the way we all have to do it? It takes all kinds of people to make the world go round, after all, so what are the free spirits of the world supposed to do about growing up?

Something that doesn’t sit well with me is the fact that somewhere along the way somebody – I can’t remember who exactly, or maybe the reality is that it was actually several individuals – told me that the free-spirited, wild-hearted creativity I possessed would not serve me in good stead when it came to “real life” – that these traits were better left for hobbies and personal pleasures, and that my best chance at being a success in life was to go to university, get a degree, find a job in some big corporation, and work hard. And that while all this was going on, I’d be an even bigger success at life if I found a nice man, married him, procreated with him, and raised my offspring to be educated, hardworking specimens who would also perpetuate our race. Oh, and I can’t forget to use everything I’ve been given in the service of others and for the glory of God because that’s the bottom line of human existence.

Well, I’ve completed part one of that plan, and I came pretty close to having the second part as well. But it didn’t work out with that guy, and that made me re-evaluate a lot of things in my life that I had grown up thinking were “what I’m supposed to do.” And then I look at what I do on a daily basis and then at the talents with which I was blessed, and I get really uncomfortable because it’s revealed to me that part three is barely present at all. I don’t see how I’m serving man or God to the best of my potential – because the things I’m really good at are, apparently, only good enough for hobbies and personal pleasures.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m grateful to be employed twice over at two amazing companies; I’m blessed and I’m fortunate in these circumstances to have a means of supporting myself. I was raised on many principles including the one that states than any decent, honest job is worthy of respect, and I believe that whole-heartedly.

And that might be why it’s never sat well with me, this idea society seems to have that if you’re a non-celebrity pursuing a career of creativity and expression there might be something wrong with you, and the ensuing pressure that gets put on us to live conventional lives.

It still takes a hell of a lot of hard, honest work and blood, sweat, and tears to make natural creativity and curiosity into something useful for humanity. You still need to be responsible and make sure you have a means of supporting yourself and of getting back on your own two feet whenever you fall. You don’t have to be famous to be a successful creative person, but we seem to make fame and celebrity our benchmark for success in creativity and so we’re told to leave the creative pursuits to people who are already famous for them.

Which baffles me because if fame and celebrity is how we measure success in unconventional careers, can you tell me what’s so creatively meaningful and hugely important about certain celebrities that society worships – or, as my mother put it, “Who are the Kardashians and why do I need to keep up with them?”

Now can you tell me the name of the designer who brought us the POÄNG chair or the BILLY bookcase?

And now, who has a more direct impact on your comfort and quality of life?

If presented with two career options that require me to put in the same amount of effort, willpower, and time to serve humanity, I would much rather choose the one that gives more than ten percent of that back to society and the one that gives me more joy and more pleasure in putting in that kind of work in the first place. I don’t have to end up being famous for it. If the work I could do to turn creative vision and free-spirited dreams into something useful and improve somebody else’s quality of life, that’s enough and that should be our benchmark for what makes the pursuit of a creative career successful. I’m not saying I want an unconventional and creative career for the sake of being famous: I want it for the sake of improving the human condition by contributing my vision to those of others who break the mold for this same purpose.

So, what are you supposed to do when you realize that you’re an ill-fitting cog in a vast machine that takes all the work you put into its running and gives only ten percent of it to the people you’re apparently meant to be helping? What are you supposed to do when you wake up every morning feeling like there’s something else you could be doing with the time you’ve been given on this Earth to make it a better place for humanity? What are you supposed to do when you realize that people were wrong about you and about your talents being good enough only for yourself and for your nearest and dearest?

What do you do when you realize you’re in a cage when you’re really meant to fly beyond the horizon – to leap across the gaps between people – to run like hell on wild ground?

You can either stay where you are, which is the safe option.

Or you can be the daring, brave, and free spirit you were always meant to be, and just do it. Because you’ll never be able to help others and improve the human condition if you can’t even do that for yourself.

In Pursuit of Happiness, #9: Long Coffees, Small Worlds, and Snowboarding

I’m late again, but at least this time it’s just a day late instead of half a week.  To make things more exciting this week I’m going to ask you, dear readers, to do something for me:  if you decide to hit “Like” on this one on FB and/or share this post on your social media, pretty-please-with-a-cherry-on-top share three things that have made you happy when you do so.  It’s just another way we can make the world a brighter place!

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Long Coffees: I don’t have a whole lot of free time, and even a rare weekday off both jobs doesn’t necessarily mean I have much more of it. Such was the case yesterday: a somewhat pressing need to catch up on appointments with the various health professionals in my life meant that a day off wasn’t spent lounging around my apartment in comfy pants and no bra.

However, in between those appointments I had a couple of hours to spare, and I spent them at a great café on the downtown campus of my alma mater in the company of a beautiful, creative soul and wonderful new friend. We met at Job2 and the original purpose of this java jive was to hash out the details of a collaborative project we’re embarking upon.

It was the first time we’d hung out together outside of work, and even at work we don’t get many chances to really talk – but coffee time with her wasn’t awkward at all. We sat down, sipped our coffee, and just talked – about our project, our shared love of animals, our experiences as awkward teenagers evolving into young women in the city, and our individual attempts to make meaningful art.

 

In one of the many BBC historical documentaries for which I have previously professed great affection an observation was made about the impact of coffee and the age of exploration on the intellectual state of Western Europe. Basically, once coffee replaced ale and beer as the daily drink of choice, coffeehouses replaced pubs as the gathering places of academics, philosophers, and dreamers. And because entire cities were no longer inebriated by midday, the literal clarity of the collective mind led to unexpected leaps and bounds in the technological advancements of the western world that had been lost with the fall of the Roman Empire.

 

Sitting in that cozy university coffee shop with my friend I couldn’t help but marvel at the fact that the modern café still upholds this rich and meaningful heritage. The Swedish language has a great word for long coffees and great conversations with good friends – Fika – and I felt that this is exactly what I shared with my friend yesterday.

I walked out of that café feeling like not only had I finally started making some real progress in re-harnessing my creativity, but also like I had truly gained a new friend for life.

Small Worlds: I discovered that one of the recipients of a letter from my letter writing campaign – a resident of Belgium, nonetheless – knows my Big Sister’s best friend. I happened to meet him randomly on Instagram when he came across the original post where I proclaimed that I would send a letter to anyone in the world who wanted one, regardless of where they were.

 

I’m not going to deny that the world is a pretty big place when you look at it from certain perspectives, but the world can also be a very small place – especially when physical, emotional, spiritual, and ideological divides are bridged by building connections with other people.

Having been an outcast musician-nerd in my adolescence during the early days of internet discussion forums, I’ve made a lot of friends from all over the world in the last decade or so. From Scandinavia to the United Kingdom and Ireland to just a few stops down the line on the Montreal Metro, talking about common interests online have brought some wonderful people into my life and I’m incredibly happy that it continues to do so.

The world can be a big scary place, but that’s just perspective. If you choose to see instead that this big world can be full of adventure and mystery and wonder, you can start making it a smaller place by figuring out where you belong in it and meeting the people with whom you’re meant to see the world. Right now I’m still working on getting myself into a position where it’s financially intelligent and viable for me to travel, but in the meantime I am very happy and very grateful to be blessed with so many friends around the world who will make these future adventures even more precious and priceless.

Snowboarding: A few years ago, one of my best friends helped me fulfil a dream by teaching me how to snowboard. This weekend, we took a road trip two hours up to Val St-Come, where we spent a day and a half on the slopes in the fresh, crisp air of the northern Quebec. I’ve lost count by now of how many times we’ve gone down mountains together (and how many times I’ve gone down mountains with other snow-junkie friends), but every time we hit the slopes together I’m always reminded of how lucky and blessed I am to have a friend who’s patient and caring enough to slow down, keep an eye out for me on the mountainside, and tell me how I can improve my limited skills on my board.

 

I had the best time ever during this weekend trip to Val St-Come. Having booked an entire weekend off Job2 to do this trip, I am beyond utterly happy that it went so well. Swimming during alone-time on Saturday evening after snowboarding at night helped me relax and get into a fresh state of mind for the fresh powder, bright blue sky, and perfect sense of fearlessness and adventure that Sunday brought.

 

This weekend’s trip to Val St-Come really put into perspective all of the changes and transformations that I’ve experienced – physically, mentally, and emotionally – over the last year. Exactly one year ago on my last snowboarding trip of 2015, I came home feeling lonely, abandoned, and forgotten because it was another life experience I had to go through without the boyfriend I had at the time.

A year ago, I didn’t know how to live for myself because I was so wrapped up in living for another person who, in the end, made me feel like I wasn’t worth keeping promises for and made me feel taken for granted every time I talked to him.

Coming home this year from this weekend away and comparing this year to the last, I couldn’t recognize myself.  It wasn’t just the fact that I’ll definitely need new snowboarding pants next year because these ones are too big (as is the belt I’ve used to keep them up), or that for the first time in my adult life I wore a sporty two-piece swimsuit with utter confidence in a public place. It was the fact that I was truly joyful for a whole weekend – joyful at being able to take an entire weekend off work, joyful at being able to spend such wonderful quality time with my best friend, and joyful at finally being good enough at snowboarding to really enjoy the rush it actually is.

 

Ask me to close my eyes and picture freedom, and this is what I see: above me, nothing but a bright blue sky with a few wisps of white cloud and before me, a seemingly endless slope of fresh powder. It’s below zero, there’s a brisk wind working its way between the woolen strands of the scarf I’ve pulled over my face, and for once my body is about to move in exactly the way I want it to despite being swaddled in layers of warm clothes and being strapped to a board. After a lifetime of being told I was too big to move, let alone be good at any sport, and after strapping myself down to relationships that go nowhere, there is nothing else for me that can describe the feeling of being free better than the pure joy I feel when I’m flying down a mountainside on my snowboard.

Holding on to what I’ve got

At various points in my life, I’ve felt like certain songs defined exactly what I was going through at that exact phase of my life. We’ve all experienced this phenomenon before and we all have a mixtape of songs that for one reason or another we felt were all about ourselves.  Now, I’m not entirely sure what song defined my life at the end of 2015, but I can tell you what happened and how I emerged in 2016 to be howling “Livin’ on a Prayer” into my hairbrush while powerstancing on my bed.

In the last few months of 2015, I actually went through a crisis of faith. Having already gone through similar experiences twice before, you’d think I would have figured out how to prevent them from happening again – especially with all the tools and formation I received from growing up in a devout Catholic household steeped long in theology, philosophy, and Catechism. Having faith was just as normal to us as breathing and the reminder to “just keep praying” was heard as often as “clean your room.”

But I was and still sometimes am a spoiled and rebellious child, and when things don’t go my way I get upset with God. And, depending on what didn’t turn out the way I wanted and how it didn’t turn out, I can get pretty temperamental and stubborn. Yes – right up to the point of throwing in the towel on my faith and going off to a dark corner to sulk and ignore God. “You gave me free will,” I once said in a Parthian shot to Him, “so I’m going to use it the way I want to.”

This last year in particular, on the two bookending occasions of 2015 that broke my heart, the pain I really encountered after abandoning my post at the Foot of the Cross was far greater than the pain I thought I’d had while abandoning myself to the Lord. During Advent, a season in the Liturgical year during which the rest of the Christian world is preparing to greet the Holy Child at Christmas, the hours I once spent on prayer were given over to weeping and gnashing of teeth.  (No, really — I think I cried more in 2015 than I ever have in all the other years of my life put together.) For the first time in many years I didn’t receive Communion at Christmas Mass or on New Year’s Day, and for the first time ever I found myself really considering just breaking off from Catholicism altogether and giving up entirely on religion.

But I couldn’t jump off that side of the ledge upon which I teetered for many weeks, because if there was one thing I learned from my human father it was that even if your faith is in shreds, if you can find a piece of it that’s still big enough to hold on to you really should. And if there was one thing I learned how to do in 2015, it was how to look at something for what it really was and discern if it really ought to be in my life – to use logic and rationale instead of just blind faith to figure stuff out.

I’m definitely no expert at it because hey, I kind of just started doing it, but I’m beginning to at least get enough of a handle on it to start using this skill more often in my life. And when I took that long, hard look at myself on Epiphany Sunday, I realized I was a little too good at letting go: too good, because up until now the rejection, betrayal, or pain from one person was enough to make me let go of everyone in my life – including God.

After all, pure logic would dictate that if I believed God put people into my life for some unknown but good reason, then I should believe He took some of them out of my life for an equally unknown but supposedly still good reason. Along that same line of thought, twisted logic would say that if I wasn’t happy with anything, including God, I should just chuck it all overboard. But that didn’t make sense to me when I thought about it, because in a way that was saying I believed in free will but only when it was convenient – in other words, only when good things happened – and that whenever one of my choices, even a good one, cut me to the core it wasn’t on my hands but on God’s.

Once I figured that out, I spent most of Epiphany Sunday this year in dialogue with myself about all of this. I moved through the day talking myself through all the reasons why I kept abandoning my Catholicism when relationships didn’t work out, when I lost meaningful and formative friendships, or when I didn’t succeed at something I set out to do. I tried to determine why failed relationships and soured friendships had the effect of pulling me away from God so much to the point where the inevitable crash-and-burn in these instances unfailingly results in me uprooting myself from my Catholicism and putting my relationship with God on hold while I try to deal on my own.

The answer, in a nutshell, was that my efforts for others were often fuelled by fear – of being left behind, inadequate, forgotten, or expendable; of being seen as imperfect or ordinary; of being perceived as too outspoken and needy. I bent over backwards for many people who, in retrospect, I can now see as people who took me for granted, overlooked me anyway, or didn’t appreciate my acts of love beyond seeing them as things that got done for them.

Now, this is not to say that every past experience was wholly negative. In every relationship and friendship I’ve had that’s now just a memory, there really are good times. But the pain of the bad times and my own selfishness prevented me from keeping what was good and finding solace in the blessings I had received in being with those people. And because I couldn’t see the blessings I’d been given, I could not see God’s goodness – and so I abandoned Him, too, when I abandoned those relationships.

Before evening Mass on Epiphany Sunday, I went to Confession for the first time in many months and, perhaps for the first time in many years, I made it a good and thorough one. (I apologise profusely to the rest of the line – but if they haven’t experienced this kind of Reconciliation before I hope one day they will, because such a Confession can be one of the most beautiful and liberating experiences in life.) After I did my Penance I remained in prayer, taking the time to be in conversation with the Father I had ignored for so long to ask him for the grace I needed to do three important things.

One To rebuild and strengthen the good relationships that had been damaged by conflict with and fallout from others, because these were the people who stuck by me when I was too selfish and too wrapped up in my own pain to see the gifts of comfort they were trying to give me.

Two To see which connections in my life were damaging and toxic to the good relationships I was trying to heal and repair, and to eliminate them from my immediate sphere of concern – but without malice and without anger.

Three: To learn how to recognize good people when they came into my life as people intended to enrich my experiences and bring out the best in me – people who would inspire me through their own ways of giving to give of my time, talent, and treasure to others not for my own security and assurance, but for the greater good and well-being of others.

My father taught me to believe and to have faith, but my life experiences have taught me to question and discern, and writing has taught me that the simplest questions lead you to the most complete answers. So if I still believe in God and still have faith, then what I have to do with it is ask myself: what has God given me, who has God given me, why these blessings have been put into my life, where I can use them to fix my life, and how I can use them to bring joy into the lives of others?

All three things have been going rather well since Epiphany Sunday, and I’m glad to say that the third in particular has already brought blessings into my life in the form of new friends who encourage me to bring forward what’s best about myself and inspire me to share my authentic self with them and the rest of the world. I’m really looking forward to connecting more often with them and to building up strong friendships with these incredible individuals. I truly do believe their paths crossed mine at this moment in time for good reasons, and I know that it’s up to me to make something good come out of these encounters and connections. Some of them believe in the same things I do and others believe in very different things, but I appreciate them and love them all the same because they each bring out the same good qualities and talents in me I’ve ignored or kept hidden until now.

So how does this all lead to me singing Bon Jovi into a hairbrush while standing in a powerstance on my bed, and why is “Livin’ on a Prayer” the song that defines my life of renewed faith, hope, and love?

Well, even though Bon Jovi didn’t mean it as a song of praise, it rather succinctly sums up how I’m moving forward with my life: holding on to what I’ve got, understanding that what I do have really is quite a lot, and remembering that inasmuch as I can and should take agency of my own life I do need my faith and keep praying. I can’t live on just a prayer indefinitely, but when everything else disappears there’s always a way to find it all again through keeping my faith.

In Pursuit of Happiness, #6: Appointment Television, Healthy Living, and Writing Letters

Appointment Television: At a certain point in my early adolescence, my parents cut the cable to our family room TV. Given that the overall cable viewing schedule of the household was limited to news, educational programs, and family-friendly TV shows, I didn’t really miss it. My classmates would fill me in on what was currently happening on TV anyway when we should have been conjugating irregular French verbs or solving for X, so I never really felt like I was missing out to the point of being culturally irrelevant.

I really got into British programming during university thanks to my parents finally re-entering the current century by installing a dish as well as online streaming services like Netflix, but as a working full-time double major undergrad I didn’t have much time to really expand my TV schedule beyond the few tried and tested classics of my youth and the new shows I really got into in between semesters.

And even now, as a two-job working stiff of a gymrat, I don’t have a whole lot more free time for TV – which is more problematic now than it used to be because missing out on all the new shows and not having a regular time slot for friends to catch me up means I actually do run the risk of being culturally irrelevant insofar as television is concerned.

Praise the Lord, then, for Appointment Television. It’s a podcast all about the TV you should be making time for, and because it’s produced by a trio of hardcore television watchers (my lovely friend Margaret H. Willison and her co-hosts, Katherine van Arendonk and Andrew Cunningham) it means that it’s a trustworthy source of a variety of recommendations, information about TV I really should know more about, and explanations as to why some shows really are as important for society as their fandoms say they are.

Take the segment “TV vs TV” for example, in which two shows of similar premise, style, and production are put head-to-head on trial to determine which is the better production. In fact, the first episode of Appointment Television included this segment and put Star Trek: The Next Generation against Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Now, I would have kept listening simply because Margaret is on this podcast but the fact that Andrew and Katherine were able to succinctly explain the differences between two separate series of a complex universe with a hot-blooded fandom in a way that I, a staunch non-Trekkie, was able to kind of get why any iteration of Star Trek has cultural relevance is what really got me hooked from the get-go.

The other segment I really love is “TV Book Club,” which has broadened my viewing scope because I just don’t want to be left out of anything these guys think is cool to watch. After experiencing Terriers and Black Mirror because of Appointment TV (in retro-listen, as I jumped on the bandwagon after the podcast was already well on its way) I’m now current with the podcast itself as well as with the current TV Book Club series, Bunheads.

Go check out Appointment Television now. Seriously. You’ll thank me later.

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Healthy Living: After the holidays it’s always tough to get back into the routines of everyday life, but I’m so glad that I’m finally resettled into my usual rhythm of working out, eating clean, and giving it all 100% to continue my transformation.

I’ve written at length about why this new lifestyle is so important to me and if you follow me on Instagram you’ll know that I’m one of “those” people who post workout selfies, food photos, and hashtag the holy crap out of words and phrases like transformation, girlsworkouttoo, legday, cardio, workout, girlswholift, gettingfit, eatclean, homemade…and so on and so forth.

After years of constantly making unhealthy choices (physically and nutritionally as well as emotionally and spiritually), I stand here in 2016 as somebody who is done with toxic living on all those levels. I’m so much happier, stronger, and wiser now than I ever have been before – and especially than I was this time last year.

My daily hour at the gym is one of the few I have on any given day that’s entirely all to myself that doesn’t involve sleeping, so I tend to try and make the most out of it.  I’m actually getting to a point in my journey where I can legitimately start pointing out all my “gains” – namely those “booty gains” (I’m telling you now, women who look good in yoga pants do more lifting than yoga) – and where people I’ve known for a while  are pointing them out to me.

2016 is already shaping up to be full of new fitness challenges and goals, and new milestones to work towards every day.  I’m so grateful that I had the opportunity and the means to take control of my health and wellness when I did because now I can’t imagine having ever made it through the last year with the self-empowerment I’ve gained and all the support my gym family gave me.

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Writing Letters: Those of you who drop by on a regular basis will know that another part of my 2016 Resolutions involved writing letters to anyone and everyone who would ask me for one. The first person to officially take me up on this offer was one of my friends from Job2, Frederique. She and I were hired at Job2 in the same group back in 2011, and she’s never been anything but an awesome friend. I’m so glad that the first piece of mail in my letter campaign was for her; she was my first real friend at the store when we got hired and she is such a joy to know.

I’ve got a few more letters on the way to other people who have given me their addresses and I hope each envelope contains in it as much joy for those recipients as the one I sent to Frederique. Handwritten letters are one of the greatest little pleasures of my life. Whether it’s writing them or receiving them, I love how letters are tangible evidence of the connections between two people and two places. I write these letters in the hope that something I have to say could touch a life, and therefore make two lives all the more better for the sharing of one talent.

My offers to send you handwritten letters still stands and will continue to stand into the foreseeable future, so please don’t be shy to let me know if you’d like one!

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That’s all for this week’s instalment of “In Pursuit of Happiness.”  Keep on finding the happiness in the little things around you, and I’ll be back soon with a proper post – I promise!