on uncertainty

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Oh poor little neglected blog, I’m sorry for not knowing what to do with you.

In truth, I have no idea why I haven’t turned to you – you who help me clarify my thoughts and make sense of mental chaos.  There’s been a lot going on (a lot, and nothing), and I haven’t known what to make of any of it.  I tried this new thing, where I turn to close friends and family for advice.  It worked surprisingly well (do you know about this?).  For someone who has spent so long thinking that independence means going it alone, and that asking for help is a sign of weakness or inability, this newfound realization that others can provide helpful perspectives and insight – without there being any sense that needing those is a sign of personal failure – is at once illuminating, freeing, and deeply enriching.  It saddens me that it took so long for me to learn this.

Still, here I am, turning to you once again.  This time not for assistance so much as for the sake of archiving.  I’d like to document this long absence and mark it as a sign of a desire for change.  I’d like to return to writing, to return to ruminating over next steps and to recording my thoughts for the sake of some future me who may like to revisit these wonderings, down the road, or for whom they may serve as a faint whisper to which I should be held accountable.  That was the impetus all along, really – to challenge and motivate myself to be accountable to my future self, and to use that to spur me into doing things in the present.

I am deeply, deeply uncertain about the future, which feels so large, looming, and vast.
My solution? Break it down into smaller, manageable pieces.

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One summer. This summer.  This summer that connects to so many more – through autumns, winters and springs – yet which is, for all intents and purposes, arbitrarily yet meaningfully distinct and individual.  For the sake of my sanity, perhaps. Or for my temporal (and temporary) existence, which feels simultaneously much too small and way too big.

With that in mind, and with no time to spare, here goes a long-delayed and much needed jump into the abyss: my summer list for 2014.

La Liste (2014)

  1. make puff pastry from scratch (I’m nervous already)
  2. go on a kickass road trip
  3. go sailing
  4. engage in more random acts of kindness (one project per week, perhaps?)
  5. make myself into a cloud
  6. sew something
  7. read 5 books (much more realistic than last summer) – and no more than 3 at a time (it’s all about challenging oneself, right?)
  8. see a film in an unconventional setting (outdoor screening, drive-in, etc.)
  9. host a picnic
  10. build a budget (the eternal struggle)
  11. repaint and reclaim my apartment
  12. prep for PhD application season

They’re still more or less abstract, but we’re getting there!  Baby steps.

Suddenly the summer feels a whole lot more like an adventure… Just the way I like it.

What’s on your list, internet pals?

on being affiliated and taking credit

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I’m having a really tough time with boundaries.

Let’s start a little further back.  Have you ever read the book Stargirl?  The main character is a high school-aged boy named Leo, who finds himself attracted to the quirky new girl, Stargirl Carraway, who is caring, thoughtful, unconventional, selfless, and nonconformist in a way that inspires a great deal of ambivalence from her peers – first intrigue, then admiration, then hate, then… well, I’ll let you read the book.  Stargirl is a complex character, and deciphering a core message or moral from the book is less straightforward than it seems, in my experience.  Stargirl devotes herself with reckless abandon to projects that she hopes will make people happy, often while intentionally disassociating herself from the projects so that they can be anonymous gifts that imply no desire for recognition.  She was a huge inspiration to me when I first read the book, in high school, because of her courageous blend of humility and generosity.

Now, though, I’m finding it hard to figure out how to follow her lead – and to what extent I should, or want to.  I deeply admire her character’s generosity and thoughtfulness, and long to emulate these qualities in my own life.  I also share her indifference to the spotlight (in fact, I may be more allergic to it than she is; she seems perfectly at ease being the centre of attention, because, at bottom, she just doesn’t recognize the weight of others’ gazes).  Lately, though, I am feeling the push to own my acts and projects in a way that I’m not entirely sure how to handle, and in ways that I’m not sure her character offers me insight in terms of how to mediate.

I love the community projects I’ve undertaken this year (and previously, more silently).  They make me feel connected to this city that I love so much, and it really warms my heart when people engage with my installations and report that it made their day.  Finding a way to spread that feeling of being connected to others was part of the idea behind including hashtags on the posters; it was all about giving people a way to see that this was bigger than each individual experience – that my good day is in kinship with her good day, and so on, and to allow everyone to see just how far the impact from a small box of felt flowers could extend.

So why blog about it?  Do I feel a desire/need/impetus to link myself personally to these projects?
And if so, why?

That’s the question with which I’ve been wrestling for months.  On the one hand, blogging serves as a helpful archive, and reinforces the aforementioned sense of connectedness by linking present projects to a whole past history of similar undertakings, and to additional photos for those who maybe only caught the end of an installation but would like to see more.  Blogging also offers not-insignificant practical benefits; it’s expensive to undertake these projects, and, as an underemployed philosopher, funding is a source of constant constraint when it comes to bringing ideas to fruition.  Publicizing these projects gives them greater attention, and also lends them (and me!) credibility in case, down the road, I need or decide to ask for support.  In those ways, I think that writing about my work is beneficial to my overall project.

On the other hand, it’s hard to balance desire for promotion with desire for self-promotion, and I find myself, increasingly frequently, coming up against that problematic relationship.  I’ve recently been in discussion with an organization about the idea of hosting a small installation on their front lawn, and the whole experience has brought a few things into sharp relief – namely, the extent to which I want to be affiliated with them, and them with me.  My intention was to set up a project that would be largely self-regulating (as all my projects, so far, have been), but through our discussions I feel as though I have been increasingly wrapped up in the execution as an active director of the experience – a position with which I am largely uncomfortable.  Fundamentally, I want these projects to be about people interacting with something (art/installation/random act of cheer/whatever you call it) – with me as the occassion, not the mediator, of the experience.  Ideally, I’d like to remain the anonymous author, but that seems largely impossible now, in part because doing so is it odds with at least one of the aforementioned practical considerations.  Remaining anonymous is also impossible when an installation requires a person’s direction in order for it to be executed (which is the case for a mission currently in-the-works).

How do I keep it “all about the art”?  How do I continue to promote the work without promoting myself?  Perhaps the answer lies in Stargirl, after all – specifically in her complete indifference – not distaste – for the spotlight.  Maybe the thing I need to do is not avoid the spotlight, but care less about it – care less about its meaning.

Maybe I need to stop overthinking this, and just keep doing things.  Stop asking for permission and just build.  I’m curious about your thoughts, though.  How do you see/experience/balance the relationship between act and affiliation, between project and producer?  (What would Stargirl do?)

on #100happydays

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In case you haven’t heard about it, there’s a lovely project making waves around the internet lately.  It’s called #100HAPPYDAYS.  The premise is simple: every day, for 100 days, you take and post a picture of something that makes you happy.  It can be anything at all – a funny mispelled sign, a comforting bowl of soup, a stray balloon in the sky, a small flower poking its head up optimistically (perhaps too optimistically) through the snow… anything that makes you happy!  I have been participating since Feb. 1st., and I love that it’s such a lovely and relatively easy way to chronicle the small things that make for happy days.

however…

There is something significant that #100HAPPYDAYS misses, at least in my experience, and something at least as significant that it obscures and confuses.  Sure, I really was happy about the comforting and delicious meal I ate the other night, and the picture I snapped of Carlos, last week, as he put away his school books and binder really did mark the happiness I feel when we tackle his course work together, during our weekly tutoring sessions.  They’re all stand-ins, though, and the pictures I take often feel like staged momentos of the object of experience, and not as accurate expressions of what it meant to feel happy in that moment.  Those may be practical issues (perhaps I’m just a bad photographer, for example), but I have deeper concerns: first, I’m seriously starting to question the value of this project of daily chronicling; and second, I think that the underlying implication that we ought to be happy is at least potentially dangerous.

Let me explain.

Last year, around this time, I was still working on getting over a serious romantic breakup.  Losing that relationship (and all of the ones that went with it) had shaken me to my core, and left me scambling to find some sense of stability and personal peace.  For months I tried with all my might to feel happy again.  I willed myself to be happy.  I put on a smiling face and hoped that the matching feelings would follow.  Sometimes they did, but when they didn’t – when the sadness seeped through the cracks in the facade – the result was that I not only felt sad, but I also felt defeated because I hadn’t been strong or resolute enough to keep those feelings at bay.  Know what’s worse than feeling terrible?  Feeling like it’s your own fault, your own personal weakness, that is the cause of your continued sadness.  Taking yourself to be the root cause of your inability to be happy (“everyone else is happy – why can’t I be?”) is a surefire way to feel stuck and helpless, and it makes getting out of that sinkhole a heck of a lot more difficult.

In the most difficult part of my struggling, someone very wise asked me why I was in such a hurry to feel better.  The answer seemed obvious; who wants to feel sad?  It took me a while to fully understand her point, and even longer to appreciate its wisdom; often it’s important to allow ourselves to feel bad simply because that’s the way we feel.  Life sucks sometimes, and while I grant that there are people out there who can face the greatest struggles with patience and inner peace, the reality is that, at times, many of us will struggle, and cry, and hurt, and be truly deeply sad.  It’s important to acknowledge and legitimize those feelings when we have them, and to not simply brush them off.  This doesn’t mean that we always have to dwell on them, or even indulge them, but sometimes, when we feel unhappy, I think we should allow ourselves the time and space to be unhappy for a while until the feeling passes.  We shouldn’t feel a duty to be happy all of the time, as if it’s an obligation we have to those around us, and we should appreciate the cathartic, healing power of a good cry.

I worry that #100HAPPYDAYS may give people the impression that they ought (ethical imperative) to feel happy at least once a day.  I think that that’s a great idea, and I would love to think that we can each find at least one thing to be happy about every day.  But when the website asks, as if in dare, “Can you be happy for 100 days in a row?” I wonder if it isn’t prioritizing the wrong approach to happiness.  I think that the project is wonderful for its goal of reminding us to be mindful of the little things that happen every day that make us happy.  That having been said, I feel as though the project may be more personally fulfilling if the focus was on just being mindful, or appreciative.  I worry that some people may feel crestfallen or defeated if they have a particularly bad day, because the bad gets exacerbated by the frustration of feeling obligated to find a silver lining.  Even if there is a sliver of happiness on those days, archiving that picture as the picture of the day seems so insincere.  I think there’s something fundamentally different about focusing on feeling grateful or appreciative, though, since those are feelings that emphasize that the way we feel is intimately connected to our circumstances and our attitude, and not just the latter.  It’s possible to feel deeply unhappy about one’s current situation but still feel grateful for what one has, for example, and an approach that embraces that kind of reminder seems much more authentic and meaningful than one that makes anyone feel a need to be happy when they aren’t.  (And it seems that Martha Beck agrees!)

Furthermore, I take issue with the way that the project frames the whole undertaking in the cadre of a challenge – especially this sentence:  “71% of people tried to complete this challenge, but failed quoting lack of time as the main reason.  These people simpy did not have time to be happy.”  Seriously?  Could it not be, maybe, that they had time to feel happy but just not to grab a camera, snap a picture, and upload it to social media/email?  The other day, a girl walked into my workplace (a coffee shop) with a jacket that had heart-shaped elbow patches.  I smiled, and then I complimented her on them, because I thought that they were super cute.  They made me happy, but I didn’t take a picture of them because it was not practical or appropriate for me to do so.  I had time to feel happy about them, but that didn’t translate into a photo.  I had several similar encounters and experiences that day, including one that I actually did photograph for the project.  The irony, though, was that by taking out my camera to photograph (awkwardly) the amazing skype conversation that some friends and I were having (as though it were even possible to photograph that intangible experience) I completely detracted from the immersive joy of the conversation.  Suddenly it wasn’t just a great philosophical disucssion – it became a situation I had to interrupt and manipulate (by standing up, moving less-photogenic tabletop items, etc.) in order to take an attractive picture.  I ceased to be a participant engaged in the moment, and became a witness observing it from the outside.  As I write this, one of my kittens is walking back and forth across the keyboard of my computer, and demanding the attention of my hands and arms for petting-purposes (for the record, I am indulging him; these lines took ages to type…).  This moment makes me very happy.  Which is why I’m specifically not reaching for my camera.

I still think that there’s value in the undertaking, which is why I will continue to document my 100 days using the assigned hashtag.  I just think that it’s worth bearing in mind the reasons why such an initiative seems worthwhile, and worth letting them – rather than the challenge itself, or its inherent imperative – dictate our continued involvement.  If my goal in engaging in this project is to remind myself to take time, every day, to look for and to relish small bits of happiness, then my attitude towards the whole project will be importantly different than if my goal is simply to complete it according to the established rules.  The former allows the space for me to forget to post a picture, once in a while, without thereby implying that I’ve failed (since I could still have enjoyed happy moments that day, but just not bothered to document them).  If being happy is about being self-aware and attentive, as well as grateful for the blessings we notice, then I think this is a compromise worth embracing.

What do you think?

on expressing love

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I had a conversation with someone, very recently, about the different ways in which people express affection and love.  We talked about how things like gifts and cards matter more or less to some people, and about how feelings can get hurt if people are unused to the idiosyncratic ways in which their partner or friends express their feelings.  Cards, for example, matter little in my family.  I think we regard them more as a necessary accompaniment to a gift (a label – so that you know who the giver is), rather than an integral expression of our feelings (a chance to tell the other person how much you value them).  A former friend of mine, however, regarded cards almost as more important than the gift itself – and since this is the kind of thing that often goes unsaid in a relationship (because it’s tacit knowledge that you gain only from being around someone, and because this kind of thing doesn’t come up often in conversation), feelings can get hurt if the expectation is unmet, even though the neglect may be entirely unintentional.

I’ve been dwelling with this thought over the last few days.  Though I can be quite outspoken about many things, and though I make every effort to make sure that my loved ones know that I care about them, I know that it is often a struggle for me to talk about my feelings – especially when it involves being vulnerable.  There have been a number of times over the past few weeks when I have wanted to say something to recognize someone special to me, and to thank them for being part of my life – but have been unable to get the words past my lips.  I’m working on it, but it’s surprisingly difficult, at times.

That having been said, I’d like to think that I’m pretty good at picking up on the things that people do or say that mean ‘I love you,’ even if the words are not explicitly muttered.  Perhaps this is the silver lining of a life spent saying ‘I love you’ in less explicit ways; you get to be good at recognizing when other people are being likewise implicit.  With that in mind, I’ve started working on a list of the ways in which my loved ones non-verbally communicate that they love me (this list is quite long, but by no means exhaustive).  If you see something on the list that you do, know that the feeling is mutual :)

When you… I know that you are saying that you love me.

  • When you were teaching me to read, and you told me to read instead of guessing the words… I know that you meant that you love me
  • When you call to ask how I am feeling, because you know that I am going through a rough patch…
  • When you tell me that CBC mentioned philosophy in a recent discussion/podcast…
  • When you stood in front of the world’s largest canoe paddle, ever so reluctantly, because I wanted to take cheesy tourist photos…
  • When you joined me on one of my crazy-ridiculous adventures (black tie beach party, running barefoot in the rain, driving through the Rockies, scaling the Samphire Hoe, etc.)…
  • When you bring me coffee from one of my favourite coffee bars, because you know that I am having a rough day…
  • When you do the dishes for me, because you know that I’m tired…
  • When you send me a note to say hi, because you know that I’m terrible at keeping in touch (even though I want to)…
  • When you offer to give me a ride (even when my destination is 18hrs away, and you’ll have to drive home alone)…
  • When you offer to go out of your way because it will make something easier for me…
  • When you take an interest in my projects, and actively help me succeed…
  • When you scold me for not prioritizing my work obligations, or for procrastinating…
  • When you scold me for thinking less of my own priorities than those of others…
  • When I’m being childish, and you tell me to grow up…
  • When you remember something that I mentioned months ago, and bring it up in the context of a present conversation…
  • When your friends and colleagues know more about me and what I’m doing than some of my friends, I know that it’s because you brag about me to them, and because you’re proud (even though you may not always tell me explicitly)
  • When you teased me for writing “I heart uh,” I know that you knew it read “I love you,” and that you meant it back.
  • When you got upset because I missed curfew, or didn’t call to tell you where I was, I know that you weren’t trying to limit my freedom; you were just worried about me, and wanted to make sure that you knew I was safe before you went to bed.
  • When you told me how proud you are of my sister, I know that you mean it to imply that you’re very proud of me too.

What are some of the ways that you express or recognize love?

on community

I got a call from my mom, last night, just a few minutes after she left from a nice long visit:

“C, there are pumpkins all along Harboard Street.  Hundreds of pumpkins.  You have to come see this!”

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She was right!  All along the road, tables had been set up by the Harbord Village Residents’ Association, and pumpkins upon pumpkins were on display all along Harbord, from Bathurst to Spadina.  Every year, the HVRA collects jack-o-lanterns from residents, on the day after Halloween, and rounds them all up for display as part of a pop-up exhibition of local gourd-carving talent.

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Despite the damp and slightly chilly weather, I was completely warmed by the sense of community that I felt while walking around, with my roommate T.  Neighbours were out mingling and admiring each other’s work, kids were frolicking – some in costume – and enjoying a second late-night-out in a row, and volunteers were serving hot apple cider and spreading the word about opportunities to get involved in local projects like litter collecting, flower planting, and community-building events.  It was like being in a small town in the middle of Canada’s largest city.

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There were some really neat pumpkins, too!

Some philosophical ones, like this obvious reference to Nietzsche’s will to power:

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(please know that I’m kidding)

One that reminded me of awkward high school days:

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Some clever reminders that jack-o-lanterns are meant to be terrifying:

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And some veritable squash-masterpieces:

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What a terrific way to bring people together (and to give pumpkins an extra night to shine!)

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I couldn’t have asked for a more enjoyable autumn evening.

#8 – canoe/camp/portage in Algonquin Park, and important reflections

I’ve been hearing a lot, over the past few months, about the experiences of close friends who met and bonded at summer camp.  When I was younger, I spent a few summers at YMCA Camp Wanakita, conveniently located on the lake of my family’s cottage.  I remember anxiously looking forward to the day when I would be old enough to be a counselor there, but for some reason when that summer finally came, other things (saving up for university, for example) seemed more important, and so I spent the summer cleaning hotel rooms instead.  True story.  At the time, I was pleased with my decision.  I felt as though I was ready to move on to more adult things, and that summer camp was something I had outgrown.  Today, thinking back on that decision gives me pangs of regret.

I have had a decent amount of camping experience, and my share of weeks away at day camp, but still I feel jealous of the kind of bonds that are built over long, repeated summers with the same people – spending months at a time doing everything together, and then parting in August only to see each other again the following June.

In part, it was desire for that kind of bonding experience that motivated my desire to go camping in Algonquin this summer; though I couldn’t replicate the duration and repetition of those earlier experiences, at least I could hope to recreate the immersive aspect over the short-term.  Furthermore, though I’ve been camping many times, I’ve never been to Algonquin, and that seemed like a huge oversight.  After all, it seems like the kind of place that every legitimate camper should have visited at least once.  A group of my close friends and I tried to organize a big 6-person trip, but it became a big logistically problematic, especially given that many of them are very busy with comprehensive exams and other graduate school requirements, so the end of the summer was drawing near and it looked as though it wasn’t going to happen.

Realizing how disappointed I was, and sharing in my desire to go camping this summer, a close friend suggested we make the trek – just the two of us – to canoe and portage in Algonquin.  We planned a route, booked sites, and assembled our gear, before taking off for 4 days alone together in the wilderness.

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What follows will seem like a digression, but in fact touches upon the very heart of the purpose of this summer list – namely, personal growth.  I’ve drafted this post several times, and each time changed my mind about how to write it.  At first, it was going to be a description of our trip, complete with pictures, a GIF of the tent-building, our pack list & menu, etc.  Then it was going to be an explanation.

In the end, I’ve decided that it needs to be an apology.  I’ll explain.

Though I hate to admit it, I am still very much a child.  On better days, this childishness manifests itself in the form of emphatic wonder, profound awe, and carefree abandon.  On bad days, it bursts forth as obstinacy and cold, hard selfishness.  There are times when I’m upset (not angry – upset) when I can’t seem to will myself to feel better, to feel good, even if I know that the way I’m feeling is completely unreasonable and even hurtful to others.  At the worst times, this feeling of upset transforms into resentment – a deep-wounding, insidious feeling that tarnishes everything it touches, and that lingers far longer than any negative feeling should.

I was recently presented with an opportunity that called upon me to be caring, compassionate, and supportive.  Something unexpected arose on the first day of our camping trip, that required that we turn back and make big modifications to our plan (namely, that we abandon it).  Instead of being compassionate and understanding, my selfish-childishness took over and I said things that I didn’t mean, and announced plans I had no intention of completing.  I was reluctant to adapt, and I stubbornly and selfishly held fast to my desire to get my fill of camping, to experience the kind of summer trip of which I had heard so many wonderful anecdotes.  Instead of being warm and supportive, I was bitter, cold and closed-off.  As a result, I deeply hurt one of the people closest to me, who deserved nothing short of wholehearted love, compassion, and understanding.

I am writing this not with the intention of self-flagellation,  but rather in the hopes that confronting the thing that I’ve done, and trying to work through and understand my lived-experience of it will help me learn how to avoid repeating such unjustifiable behavior.  Vague though it is, the above is intended as one more incarnation of the apology that I continue to repeat – and endeavor to prevent having to make again – to the person I so terribly abandoned.

I would like to say that this was a singular event in an otherwise virtuous life, but that would obviously be a lie.  I’ve hurt people before, and I’m sure I’ll hurt people again.  Recognition of that sad fact does nothing to alter my genuine desire to live compassionately and generously; on the contrary, it reminds me of the pressing and perpetual need to be vigilant to ward off negative childish feelings and reactions before they take expressive root.  I need to remember to be humble, to be fair, to be just, to be caring, and to be considerate.

On that note, I would like to share two pieces that emphasize similar reminders.  The first is the convocation speech given by George Saunders at Syracuse University for the class of 2013 (with thanks to my friend H, from whom I first learned of it), and the second is a compassionate response to an angry letter that has recently been all over social media.  Both emphasize the need for reflection and compassion in all of our interpersonal relations.

I would also like to add, as a final thought, that the positive moments of that camping trip – which easily form the majority, for me – easily rank as my favourite camping memories ever; in the span of less than 24hrs, we canoed over 12km of distance, and carried gear over 2.25km of portage distance.  Brief though it may have been, we packed a lot into that trip, and easily carpe‘d the heck out of that diem.