Life-Shaping Experiences

Life-Shaping Experiences

I’m relatively young. I’m not sure if I’ll say the same in a few years, when I turn thirty, but at the moment I don’t feel old. I’m probably too young to write blogs including life-changing advice, but I’m going to attempt it anyway. Because I can. And because, though I’m still fairly young, a few events have drastically altered my life, bringing me to the place I am now. And I’m pretty happy with where I am at the moment.

Immigrating to Another Country
When I was eighteen, I married the love of my life. Three months later, I packed up everything I owned and moved across the border from the US to Canada. It doesn’t seem like that big a deal. Canada isn’t that different from the US.

But it is different.

The little things, like two dollar coins and milk in a bag, aren’t that big a deal. We have Tim Hortons instead of Dunkin’ Donuts. Our Mcdonalds tend to be better while our Burger Kings tend to be worse. There are the strange things, like curling (which I’d never seen until I moved here). There’s remembering to put a bunch of superfluous u’s into words you’re suddenly spelling wrong. Then there are the big things, like the the government functioning under a completely different set of rules. There’s public health care. And, somehow, so many of the issues Americans talk about during elections just aren’t issues here at all.

But I digress. Moving to Canada changed my life in two ways.

First, I had to go through the process of immigrating to another country. It was hard. And Americans have it easy moving to Canada. I can’t imagine doing it in reverse. I can’t imagine doing it from another country. A friend of mine tried to immigrate from India; she was denied and had to go back.

It was frustrating; I couldn’t work for most of the process. It was frightening; they denied renewal of my visitor visa once and I worried they were going to kick me out of the country. It was time consuming; wading through all the government gibber jabber on those forms made my brain shut down. And I was still a teenager, so of course the process took twice as long because it was easier to ignore it than it was to deal with it.

So we come to the first major lesson I learned from moving to Canada; your problems are never just going to go away. You can’t ignore them, you have to turn and face them.

I’ve always been a high-stress person. It’s easy to get overwhelmed; the stress starts to feel unbearable. You tell yourself you just need some room to breathe and you’ll deal with it tomorrow. But tomorrow becomes next week and next week becomes next month. And this thing you have to do grows larger, looming over your shoulders like a fantastic monster, until you’re afraid to deal with it. But if you steel yourself from the start, and throw yourself in headfirst, you can defeat the monster before it has a chance to grow. I swore to myself I’d never again put off such a major undertaking (immigrating took three years when it should have only taken one or two), and I feel I’m much the better for it.

The second thing Canada taught me is how narrow minded I used to be. No offense to the Americans reading this, but in the US, we are raised a certain way. We’re raised to believe certain things about our country, and we’re raised to believe certain things about other countries. Leaving showed me many of those lessons are biased and untrue. America is a great place, it is. But I’ve had more opportunities in Canada than I ever would have if I’d stayed in the US. I had the ability to go to any walk-in-clinic to be seen by a doctor essentially for free when I was a resident, before I ever became a citizen, which allowed me to seek help when I couldn’t have afforded it otherwise. In Ontario, as a resident, before I ever became a citizen, I qualified for the OSAP student loan which allowed me to put myself through college when I wouldn’t have been able to afford to go otherwise.

After awhile, you start to realize it’s a different way of thinking. Canada has a deep sense of social responsibility; the idea that every person deserves certain services and there are people tasked with ensuring that happens. (In America, we call it something else and it isn’t very highly regarded.) But it goes deeper even than that; in Canada, if it doesn’t hurt you, if it doesn’t affect you, you ignore it. Gay Marriage, for instance, is a dead issue here. It’s been legal for years and there’s no anarchy in the streets. I guess people here just figure we all have to live together, so we might as well be civil about it.

That shift in attitude has helped me grow into a vastly more open-minded person. Which is not to say that such open-minded thinking doesn’t exist in the US; it does. I just don’t know if my personal thought processes would have shifted as drastically if I’d stayed there.

Moving to a City
I’m a country girl. I grew up in a small town in central Pennsylvania. It’s grown a bit since I left, but it’s still essentially the same. It wasn’t the kind of small town where you had to wait for the train to come in to buy nails (my husband lived in a place like that). We could get everything we needed within about fifteen minutes drive of our house. But the main industry of the area was always retail, which meant there were limited opportunities. And while I couldn’t wait to get out of there as a kid, I have to admit I’m still a country girl at heart.

I hate cities. They’re too big, too loud and too dirty. You can’t see enough of the sky. You never see any stars. People tend to be ruder and everyone’s always in a hurry. After our marriage, my husband and I moved to Toronto out of necessity. He was accepted to a university there and I didn’t have any plans for my life at the time, so we followed his.

I hated it. I spent most of the first year huddling in our apartment, going out as little as possible. The subway scared the crap out of me and it was really the only way to get from place to place in the city (owning a car in Toronto is ridiculously expensive and we were poor students at the time). But one day, when I learned the lesson about facing my problems, I came out of our little basement apartment and started venturing into the city. I started working at a Starbucks down the street and my co-workers got me to come out of my shell. I started going to school at Seneca, attached to the York campus where my husband went to school. I started riding the bus every day, and later taking the subway every day. I figured out burying my head in a book or headphones allowed me to ignore the fact that, for about an hour every day, I became a sardine until I reached my bus stop.

While neither me, nor my husband, particularly enjoyed Toronto, we both agree it afforded us opportunities we never would have had elsewhere. We were able to attend two different schools for two vastly different fields without having to move. I was afforded job opportunities in my chosen field, which allowed me to support us while my husband went to Teacher’s College, again without having to move. Perhaps most importantly, it got me out of my shell. I stopped being shy and started interacting with confidence. I started grasping opportunities that waltzed into my path instead of hesitating because they seemed too hard, or too scary, to reach for.

My husband and I agree that neither of us want to live IN a city forever (we don’t anymore), but living in one for awhile opened my eyes to the bigger world and all the opportunities in it; something I wouldn’t have realized if I’d lived in a small town forever (and friends I grew up with have expressed similar sentiment after leaving). It’s safe and easy to live inside the same comfort zone forever, but stepping outside it is the only way to fully explore the available opportunities, a lesson I hope to impart to my children someday.

Attending Funerals
This may seem a morbid topic to raise in the middle of what is, essentially, a life-affirming post. Morbid as it is though, attending funerals has changed my entire outlook on life. Death can do that to you, I’m afraid.

My husband has a huge family. There are so many of them that, I’ll be honest, I can’t keep track of them all. They’re all spread out too, so we don’t see most of them on a regular basis. Shortly after we got married, his family hit on a string of unfortunate events which resulted in the attending of several funerals. It was incredibly awkward for me because I didn’t know the people who had passed very well. It was even more awkward to interact with grieving people I barely knew. At the time, I stood by my husband and nodded, said I was sorry and listened while others caught up since I rarely felt I had anything pertinent to add to the conversation (though ironically it got me better acquainted with much of my husband’s family). But I learned a lot from observing those interactions.

The most important thing I learned is life is short. We always think there will be time to make up with so-and-so, or to see such-and-such one more time. We always think there’s a reason to make this person seek forgiveness from us first, and cut that person out because they upset us. The list goes on. But the truth is; life’s too short for all that bullshit. You never know when tomorrow is going to be too late.

I won’t say I used to be in the habit of holding grudges, I didn’t think of it that way. But I used to be uncompromising when I felt someone had wronged me. If someone upset me, I didn’t go out of my way to make contact or to reconcile. Sometimes, if I was angry enough, I’d even ignore others’ attempts to mend the gap. But hearing so much regret over things left undone, having so many people walk up to me and apologize for not attending my wedding, or apologize because they met me at a funeral, really opened my eyes.

I’ve adopted a sort of open-door policy with my life. Whatever bad stuff happened between me and someone else, I’m willing to overlook it when they reach out to me. That’s not to say I let people run rough-shod over me. If more bad stuff happens, I walk away (life’s also too short for that bullshit). But I’m always open to reconcile. I’m always open to trying again. Because I’d rather try than wake up one morning and realize I lost my chance. This has led to reconciling with a few old friends I’d fallen out with. It’s also allowed me to reconnect with my adoptive father, with whom I refused to associate for about five years (something my husband is very proud of me for). In all cases, the resulting experience has been positive, reinforcing my opinion it’s the right thing to do.

Buying a House
Buying a house is a big deal. It’s the moment you stop investing in someone else’s lifestyle by paying rent and start investing in yourself (or so my husband likes to say). In this case, it wasn’t the purchase of the house that granted us the greatest life lesson. It the basement flooding with sewage a mere month after we bought the house.

I’ve mentioned this several times before. It was a nightmare on the highest scale. When I tell people, they always tell me they’d have been a sobbing mess. I wonder why they think I wasn’t? Oh I held together that first night (thanks to a friend on Facebook giving me moral support). I spent hours downstairs sucking sewage out of my ruined carpets, took the hottest hot shower ever, then collapsed into bed only to meet the inability to sleep. But there were days when I curled up into the fetal position in bed and bawled and wondered what the hell we’d done to our lives.

And then I got up and started dealing with contractors and lawyers and insurance companies. Because I’d already learned when life throws lemons at your head, you have to try to catch them, or at least try to dodge them, and not wait until you’re buried neck deep and unable to move. There were bad days. Lord, there were horrible days. But after more than a year of fighting and tooth gnashing and sleepless nights, our basement is rebuilt, better than it started. I can go downstairs to do laundry now, admire the freshly painted walls and imagine what it’s going to look like when we get furniture back down there.

Struggle is a regular part of life. Every time we think we’re on even ground, something happens to shake our perches. And if we can’t deal with those quakes, we might just tumble over the edge. There were days I certainly felt that way while dealing with our disaster. But you dig in tooth and nail, and claw your way back up. If anything, this disaster taught us both what we could do, showed us both what we were strong enough to overcome.

More than that, it taught me to adapt. While the contractors were in and out of my house, demolishing and later re-building, I was trying to write and publish a novel. At first it was impossible to get any work done (try concentrating on an epic space battle while someone’s knocking an entire wall out of your house. It isn’t easy). I’ve mentioned before about how every interruption felt like the end of my productivity. But eventually, I learned to adapt. I shifted my writing hours to after the contractors left for the day. I found ways to muffle the noise enough to concentrate. Eventually, I even learned to ignore it enough to work through it.

Flexibility is what allows us to survive in a world of crazy stress. The faster you adapt to an interruption, the easier it is to keep meeting your goals and the less stressful you find everyday life. It’s almost as if I’ll turn myself a low-stress person someday (imagine)!

Trying to Publish a Novel
I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I want to give shape to the ideas drifting through my head. I want people to smile and laugh and cry when they read my stories. I want to share my incredible passion for the written word with other people.

In my youth, I thought it would be easy. The first time I tried to get published, I thought it would be impossible.

Being an aspiring writer, trying to break into the world of publication, feels like worst thing in the world. Some days, reading rejections makes you feel as though the world is crashing down around you. Dreams feel like stars, hopelessly out of reach. I hit a dark period of depression last year during which I spent a month struggling with myself. Could I ever make it? Was it worth all the effort? Should I just give up and do something else, something normal? Being unemployed, trying to make writing your full time job, there’s a lot of pressure from the people around you to get a real job. People don’t always understand how time- and energy-consuming the creative process is. Nor is the publication process as simple as writing something and putting it out into the world (not even if you decide to go the route of self-publication). Even agents and editors seem unsympathetic to writers wanting to create full time; I can’t count the number of tweets I’ve read mercilessly mocking writers inquiring about the same.

I remembered reading The Alchemist. In the book, the main character is told that all the universe conspires to help us achieve our ultimate goal, the one thing in life we are meant to do. But, they caution, the closer we get to that precious thing, the more the universe tests us. Often, we hit the lowest of the low before we start to rise.

I tried to apply those lessons to myself. I thought about the reasons why I write. I thought about who I’m writing for. I thought about the place where I am and the place where I want to be. I realized I was constricting myself, putting pressures on myself that prevented me from enjoying the thing I love most. I had sucked all the joy out of writing both by making unreasonable demands of myself and by allowing rejection letters to convince me I wasn’t good enough.

I altered my attitude. I accepted options I had previously rejected. I reminded myself that my goal isn’t fame (I won’t be the next J.K. Rowling and I don’t need to be). My goal is to share my stories; with a small group or a large group. All I want is to comfortably support my family doing what I love best. I think that goal is achievable.

Trying to get published has taught me to dig deep, how to organize information, how to keep searching for new options. It’s taught me more about myself than I can put into words. And the further I walk down this path, the better person I become and the better writer I become. I’m happier in the pursuit of this than I’ve ever been, even though there are still days it feels impossible.

Looking back over my life so far, it’s easy to see the forks in the road. I like writing posts like this because it helps me keep those lessons close. I don’t know where the next branch of my path will carry me, but I know I’m ready to meet the challenge. Every day I’m a little bit closer to where I’m going. Someday, I’m going to get there.

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