Embarking on a European Adventure

When I joined the social service agency I currently work for, I never could have imagined just a couple of short years later I would be preparing to head to Europe on what they call a pilgrimage. I’m not a religious person, so I struggle a bit with calling it a pilgrimage –  I prefer to think of it as connecting to the roots of the agency, roots that lie at least as much in feminism as they do in Catholicism.

Motherhouse1-1024x768Tomorrow I leave for 3 weeks, first spending 11 days in France learning about the history of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd and the story of the fiery young woman in the 1800s who started it all. I’ll meet people from across the world who are all part of the global network of Good Shepherd agencies working to help vulnerable people in their own ways. I’m hoping for a lot of cool history, personal connection and reflection, and minimal God talk (fingers crossed). As an introvert, I’m a bit nervous about all the ‘people time’ on top of the exhaustion of jetlag, but I’m counting on my ipod and running shoes (and wine!) to help me get through it.

battloAfter France, I head off on a whirlwind solo adventure through Spain, Andorra, and Portugal. I’m excited to check off three new countries on my bucket list, marvel at Gaudi’s Seuss-meets-Tim-Burton architecture, hike in the Pyrenees, and sip port in Porto. I can’t wait to taste real European pastries again – it has been too long! – and have fresh baguettes and cheese in France (apparently a daily menu offering where we’re staying).

My ipod has been updated to include new-to-IMG_0136me music by Morrissey and Mindless Self Indulgence which are sure to provide an interesting soundtrack to my travels. I carry with me a new travel angel to keep me safe in light of the sporadic attacks in Europe, letters from coworkers to be opened when I need a hug from home, and a promise to send awkward photos taken with handsome locals at the special request of one of my staff. (I love how we all embrace and celebrate each others’ weirdness!)

Today, as always before leaving on a trip, I’m so anxious I have to keep reminding myself to breathe. But I think this trip is going to be full of awesome, potentially life-shifting moments that I will do my best to document on the go. I invite you to join me on my European adventure. Allons-y!

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2016: Year in Review

To be honest, I feel a bit shell shocked by this year. Nevertheless, growth and progress come in many forms and now this year too has passed so, without further ado, here are my highlights (or perhaps more aptly named, key themes) of 2016:

1) Exploring the West: In the summer I took a 2-week solo trip to the Western US and Canada, starting with a 10k race in Oregon, moving on to rainforest hikes and ocean beach walks in Washington, mountain hiking in British Columbia, and horseback riding in the Alberta Rockies. Mid-trip I took a break in Nelson BC, staying with a friend for a few days, cementing what is becoming a soulful lifelong friendship. On this trip I discovered my strength and visceral need for connection with body and nature. Coming back from this trip, I started biking to work instead of driving and making day trips to Algonquin Park on long weekends for hiking with a view. I was embarking on an important and much-needed lifestyle shift.

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2) Exploring Love: After two years of purposeful singledom, I started dating again in the Spring, learning a little bit more about myself from each brief relationship. From a nice guy with no sexual chemistry, to an annoying guy with abundant sexual chemistry, to a wealthy guy with no self-reflection, to an unconventional guy with little empathy, I am gradually learning more about what I need, and refining and solidifying my dealbreakers. Whether or not I’ll ever meet a guy who will someday become my best friend is anyone’s guess, but I think there’s value and personal growth in the search.

img_20140419_1421443) Exploring Loss: On December 1, a dear friend of mine died suddenly and unexpectedly from a heart attack at age 63. I’ve never lost anyone close to me before, I had no idea how to even begin to process that she’s no longer in this world. I don’t think I’ve quite wrapped my head around it yet. And then on December 25, my childhood idol whose music I’d hung on to through my worst years of loneliness growing up, passed away suddenly at age 53. I’m surprised at how complicated my grief over George Michael’s passing has been. These two sudden losses at vastly different levels and degrees of proximity to my life have left me feeling very melancholic, and focused on the importance of living fully and immediately rather than perfectly.

img_20160810_1131544) Exploring Change: On my Western adventure, I came to realize that I experience myself and the world differently when I’m around mountains. In the mountains I feel like there is room for me in the world, and I feel like I can breathe in a way that eludes me in this flat congested landscape that I currently call home. I realized that I have unconsciously been travelling to mountains every chance I’ve gotten over the last few years since I started travelling alone, and I think I’m starting to understand why. I’ve now begun to lay the groundwork to make a big move in my life within the next couple of years which feels a bit scary but also exciting and very life-living.

So, those are the biggest themes/highlights of 2016. The only thing left to do now is choose the song of the year!

Song of the Year: 2016

It’s hard to choose this year’s song since 2016 has been so emotionally dichotomous for me. At various points I would have thought my selection would be one of my most-played Awolnation songs of the year – either “MF” or “Windows” – but I’ve decided it’s going to be an old Cage the Elephant song from 2013 that I just discovered a few months ago. As much as I love their newer release “Trouble”, this older song “Telescope” really represents my state of mind this year, ending with the important reminder: Time is like a leaf in the wind / Either it’s time worth spent or time I’ve wasted / Don’t waste it.

With that, I thank you for reading and wish you a happy, healthy 2017 full of love, peace and joy.

2015: Year in Review

Heading into 2015, I had a feeling it was going to be a great year and it was! Since turning 40 last year felt like a rebirth, this first year in my ‘new life’ was unsurprisingly a year of great growth. Here are my highlights of 2015:

1) Universal connection. In the Spring I took my second solo trip, this time to Iceland where I was humbled by spectacular glaciers, terrifying winter driving, and an unexpected spiritual expansion that kept sparking my soul on every day of the trip. I learned on this trip that I’m tough, and vulnerable, and connected to the universe in deeper ways than I’d ever known before.

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2) I found my place. Mid-year, I left the women’s agency where I’d worked since my move out of the corporate world three years ago, and joined a different women’s agency. It was an emotional move that was made primarily for financial reasons, not because I’d wanted to leave. I feared I would regret leaving a place I love, but with four months under my belt now I know that I am where I’m meant to be. This takes me to #3…

3) I found my voice. For reasons unknown to me, at this new agency, I speak my mind, I go against the grain, I’m referred to as someone who is ‘shaking things up’, all of which are tremendously out of character for me. I have always been afraid of rocking the boat and saying something people disagree with, but now it just flows out of me whether I like it or not. For the first month or two of speaking my mind, it was actually incredibly unsettling. I would go home and question over and over why I had said whatever I’d said and what the potential ramifications might be; yet, the very next day, I would go in and rock the boat again. Now I don’t worry about it anymore, I love that I’ve found my voice and my team is so relieved to finally have someone providing real leadership. I have no doubt that I’m where I’m meant to be, becoming the person I’m meant to be.

B612-2015-09-13-20-41-524) |-/. This is the symbol for Twenty One Pilots, a band that sings about the struggle of fighting depression and anxiety; a band that urges their listeners to stay alive; a band whose fans continuously say “thank you for saving my life”. I discovered TOP last year, but 2015 was the year I really became a die-hard fan. I got to know what the boys were all about, I went to my first TOP concert with my little sister this Fall (our first concert together), and next year I’ll be going to see them again with my son and his friend. Twenty One Pilots does more than get me through the hard days, they have become a bonding agent between me and the twenty-somethings in my family. I love this band!

chicago first class5) A first class year. Thanks to a generous offer from my sister and an Aeroplan glitch that prompted even more generosity, I got to fly business class for my brief trip to Chicago this summer. It was an incredibly fun experience – smoked salmon, white wine, glassware instead of plastic, and all the leg room a girl could ever want on a plane. I loved every second of it! Then, for my birthday last week, my son treated me to a VIP movie experience that reminded me of those first class flights – cushy big seats, good food and wine brought to our seats, and again, all the leg room! What a wonderfully luxurious cap to a great year.

One final thing before I go…

Last year I ended Year in Review with an Imagine Dragons video. The video I’ve selected for this year is Ode to Sleep by Twenty One Pilots (of course) – not just because it’s a great song and a heartwarming video concept that fits beautifully with this year’s theme of growth, but because today is the one year anniversary of this video being posted which I think makes it the perfect fit!

On that note, happy new year blogging friends! I wish you all a happy, healthy 2016 full of love, peace and joy.

Atheistic Conversations with God

I am an atheist. I was born and raised Catholic (mostly in paperwork only), but turned away from religion in high school and never turned back. Eventually I decided that the form of spirituality I believe in is universal energy – energy that swirls all around us, to which we contribute either positively or negatively with the energy we exude.

And then last week I had conversations with God.

I was driving on a snow-covered road in Iceland, absolutely terrified I was going to die. I was sleep deprived, the weather was terrible, the rental car was tiny, the landscape was unidentifiable, the winds were bullying and the road was almost impassable. I had been gripping the wheel so tightly for hours that my wrist was seizing up. And that’s when I started talking to God.

I didn’t try bargaining for my safety – I wasn’t going to be one of those people. I was very open and upfront. I told him (“him” because for me, God is a male energy) that I wasn’t even sure I believed he existed, but I could acknowledge that I didn’t actually know. (I suppose that makes me more agnostic than atheist.)

I told him I didn’t want to die in Iceland because I didn’t feel like I was done with my life yet. I’ve been learning and growing so much, I feel like there’s more left for me to do and I’d like the chance to do it.

I told him if I did get to live, I still wouldn’t be going to church or praying because those things just don’t fit into my belief system. But I would keep trying to be a good person who does good in the world because that does fit with who I am and who I try to be and, at the end of the day, I believe being a good person is what really matters.

I talked to him until eventually the road cleared up and, after a 6.5 hour drive, I finally arrived safely at my destination – shaken, exhausted, and a little bit changed on the inside.

IMG_6083On the last night of my trip, I arrived at my final guesthouse which happened to be across the street from the famous landmark Lutheran church, Hallgrimskirkja, in Reykjavik. Since ascending the church tower was on my list of things to do, I went straight over and checked it out. It really was a lovely view! I decided to check out the inside of the church as well and, before I knew it, I was sitting in a pew head down in another conversation with God, crying. That was unexpected!

I shook it off, pulled myself together and hit the town for a nice stroll, crisp glass of Sauvignon Blanc and the best catfish I’ve ever had. As I wound my way through the streets back to my apartment, I thought about what an emotional roller coaster this trip had been. I passed the church and noticed it was still open. I puzzled again about my breakdown earlier that day. Before I knew it, I had passed my apartment, circled the block and was sitting in the church again, crying again.

I remember in that conversation asking God to have my back. I told him I wasn’t asking for help and that I was fine with doing all the hard work to get through my life, I just wanted to feel like he was looking out for me. There was no answer. I wondered what I was doing there. I wondered why I didn’t want to leave.

I wasn’t having any great religious revelations, but it was starting to feel comfortable to be in church. There were no priests or pastors, no benches for kneeling, not even a Jesus on a cross to remind us of our evil ways. This church didn’t feel full of punishment and judgement; it felt like a gentle space to be in, a safe place to be vulnerable.

IMG_6102The next day, first thing in the morning, I strolled down to the waterfront to see the famous sculpture, Solfas. Throughout almost the entire duration of my trip to Iceland, it had been cloudy and/or rainy. As I arrived at Solfas, the sun broke through the clouds and lit up the sculpture in the most beautiful way. Nobody else was in sight, I had this perfect beauty all to myself.

As I started walking away, still revelling in the gift of that precious moment of sun at such a perfect time, a light rain began to drizzle. I turned back for one last look at Solfas – a beautiful rainbow segment had appeared in the sky behind it. It lasted maybe a minute, each colour band in the arc so clearly defined like I’d never seen before. The world felt so perfect, my soul felt so still.

At that moment, I felt the universe – “God” perhaps – was answering back, a quiet acknowledgement letting me know he was there with me. No big promises, no great revelations, no demands – just a peaceful presence, like two old friends sitting side by side on the sofa in silence. I smiled and said thank you.

Best conversation I’ve had in a long time.

2014: Year in Review

As I happily leap into 2015, I’d like to take a moment to look back on the last year, because what a year it was! This year has been pretty incredible and, because of some big steps taken, I am so looking forward to the adventure that lies ahead in the coming year. I already have some exciting things in store, but I’ll introduce those as the times draw nearer. For now, here are my highlights of 2014:

1) I finally took out the trash! After years of gingerly trying to make everyone around me happy, I finally decided it was time to make me happy and the first step was to stop tolerating toxic relationships. So, I started this year by dumping a soulless manipulative abuser who had been wreaking havoc in my life for years, and slowly re-evaluated and rme and sandraefined my social circle to include only those who truly have my best interests at heart, who nourish my soul and who value me as I am (like my bestie in the photo). The result is that my life is now filled with people I respect and admire, and my days are filled with peace. Three cheers for decluttering!

2) Climbing the career ladder. In the Spring, I was offered a promotion to Business Manager. I turned it down. I wasn’t 100% sure that was the best decision because promotions are hard to come by at my work, but it just didn’t feel like the right direction for me. Not long after, the management team approached me with a promotion tailor-made for me and I became a member of the management team on my own terms. I got to keep doing what I love with a title that will help me transition to even greater opportunities in the future. It never ceases to amaze me how life works out when you trust your gut!

me in utah3) I got giddy in Utah. Truth be told, at first I felt a bit nauseous at the thought of going on a trip alone, but taking a solo trip was on my bucket list so I figured I may as well muster up my courage and get to it. I’m so glad I did! The excitement started to hit me at the airport, and I don’t think it ever went away. I spent every day feeling absolutely giddy, hiking beautiful trails breathing in clean crisp air, looking out over unbelievably breathtaking landscapes, and meeting people from all walks of life. I discovered that I really enjoy my own company, and I never tired of that moment when someone learned that I was a girl travelling alone and said, “Wow, you’re amazing, I could never do that.”  I used to be the person who said that to others, but I like it much better being the person it’s said about! Utah will always have a special place in my heart because Utah is where I finally fell in love with myself.

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4) 21.1 km of WOW. Another bucket list item checked off, this year I ran my first half marathon, something I never would have imagined I’d be able to do when I first started running two years ago. moab raceThe secret for me was choosing a beautiful destination that would inspire me to want to run for two hours, and I sure did choose well! Moab, Utah had me running with a big grin on my face which, I must admit, became tear-soaked a couple of times when I was overcome by the sheer beauty and privilege of it all. In fact, it was such an amazing experience, I’m going to do it again. Next destination has already been chosen – stay tuned!

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first 40 years5) Welcome 40! I am THRILLED to have turned 40 last week. My thirties were a difficult decade – a really really really long emotional growth spurt – but I feel this year I’ve finally started coming into my own; I have a way better sense of who I am, and I really like me! It feels like a graduation of sorts, and a fun girls’ trip to Cuba with my best friends was my graduation party. Now I get to embark on my future knowing that I have a solid foundation within me, and I can hardly wait to see what every new day has in store and what exciting adventures I will dream up for myself! What better way to start not just a new year, but a new decade? I’m on top of the world. 🙂

2013: Year in Review

As I sit here looking ahead to what 2014 may (or may not) bring, I thought I’d take a moment to appreciate 2013 and reflect on the things I value most about the year:

1) Rediscovering My Roots – Visiting Prague with family was something I had somewhat dreaded, but it ended up being a wonderful experience. I fell in love with the city again, reconnected with family, and rediscovered how much I value having European roots. Even though I don’t actually have that many ties to the Czech Republic, I love knowing that who I am is bigger than this life I lead in Canada.

2) Monkey Business – Mid-year, I got it into my head that I had to go to Costa Rica and I had to see monkeys in the wild. It took many months of deliberation and negotiation, but in December I finally made it to Liberia and was greeted by a troop of angry, territorial white-faced capuchins. These were not the Marcels and Curious Georges of my fantasies! Luckily, a day before departure, fate had me walk below a tree full of howler monkeys feasting on tree buds. These adorable black monkeys grabbed branches with their hands, swung by their tails, and looked expressively just as I’d always wanted to see monkeys do in the wild. Thanks to a chance encounter on Coco Beach, my Costa Rican monkey business was complete!IMG_3573

3) The Year of Running – I can’t believe in 2013 I went from being able to run 5k to running a 10k and then a 15k. I’m super proud of myself! Not only did I learn to challenge my own beliefs about what I’m capable of, but I learned how to cope with setbacks. Between my pre-10k foot injury and my post-15k knee injury, there were many days when I thought ‘well that’s it, my running days are over.’ However, inevitably, with time and patience and discipline, eventually I was lacing up my shoes again and, even though I felt like I was starting over at square one, I always felt pure giddiness at being back out there pounding the pavement.

4) Stepping Up in Social Services – When I had the opportunity to write my own job description and create a new position for myself in my organization, it seemed too good to be true. But here I am, 6 months later, still saying “I LOVE my job.” After 15 years in a career I never liked, words can’t express how grateful I am to have an amazing job that I’m proud of, that was tailor made for me, and that is exactly what I want to be doing.

5) Personal Growth – I started the year with a couple of revelations: that I can trust myself and my feelings, and that my inner critic is actually working against me. Over the course of the year, I made some good progress on boundaries and self-acceptance and I love that, these days, I am much kinder to myself. I know I still have a long way to go, but at least I’m heading in the right direction and it feels great! Perhaps 2014 will be the year I finally find some courage to start tackling my conflict avoidance issues, but if I don’t then that’s ok too. 🙂

So, not too shabby for a year in the life! I’m excited to see what I have to say at the end of 2014. Let the adventure begin!

Home to Home

The Czech Republic was never my home. It was where both of my parents were born and where they grew up; where they developed their rigid value systems; where they internalized an unwavering belief that all good things are inevitably followed by bad things; and where they learned through hardship and misfortune that life is neither fair nor kind.

When I landed in Prague, I didn’t really know what to expect. I had been there over 20 years ago, but I was just a teenager then and Prague had not yet been touched by Western influence. This time, I would be with family who were generously sponsoring my trip which meant the agenda would be all theirs. I thought I’d admire the beautifully-coloured buildings, revel in narrow streets of cobblestone, and drink beer — lots of beer. (How else would I get through a family trip, after all?)

The first few days didn’t disappoint. I quickly discovered that it’s cheaper to drink beer than water (!), that the food is absolutely as delicious as my mom’s home cooking, and that beautiful buildings are found everywhere, despite the tremendous amount of irreverent graffiti. And I discovered traces of my family’s history around every corner.

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In the company of my father, I found myself on the little street in Malá Strana where, in the 1960s, my mother was almost crushed by a Russian tank as it rolled up the hill towards Prague castle. She had been waiting in the car for my father who was in the Italian embassy trying to get visas for the two of them so they could escape.

In a tram, we passed by Staropramen brewery where long ago my father had worked for a month.

“What did you do there, Dad?”

“Oh, I just carried things back and forth between places. They were happy with me because I didn’t drink too much beer while I was working.”

The Vltava river was a popular canoeing route for both of my parents. My father once played daredevil with his friends as they attempted to ride the mini-rapids in the river, visible from the Charles Bridge. His friends made it but he capsized, his overturned canoe hitting him on the head as he was pulled underwater. Luckily, a stranger on the shore saw what had happened, jumped into his boat, rowed up and rescued him. “If it weren’t for the stranger, I’m sure I would have died that day and you wouldn’t be on this earth.” My dad is a pretty melodramatic guy but, on that one, I believe him.

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And then there is the small, charming town of Kutná Hora where my father married his first wife at the town hall, not knowing that marriage would last just a few short years, only to be followed by a much longer, much unhappier marriage to my mother.

As we walked our way through the city, I realized the fabric of my family’s quilt was woven with the threads of this country’s red roofs, winding rivers and dark, wooden taverns.

I started to feel as though I belonged here. I became braver and dusted off my broken Czech with its limited vocabulary. To my delight, everybody I spoke with understood me and before long I was having full conversations with locals. All those years of torturous “Mluv česky!” (“Speak Czech!”) commands hurled at me throughout my childhood had finally paid off!

Slowly, unexpectedly, this beautiful country and especially Prague started to feel like home, but a different kind of home than I was used to. A home that included more than just my immediate family, and spanned so much further than just the years I had been alive on this planet. A home that welcomed me without judgement and understood me without explanation.

As I sit now in my everyday home, I can’t help but feel that I have a new home in Prague, maybe even a new life, awaiting my return someday in the future. Na shledanou, Prague. See you again.

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