Before I left for Spain, I’d written, “I hope I find a reason to not come home…. But I’m also terrified that I’ll find that reason.” It seems I was feeling stagnant, ready for change, wanting something big to show up in my life and blow me away, but also deep down I knew that I wasn’t the type of person to leap into the unknown or to take chances. An interesting dichotomy that I was aware of, and yet unable or unwilling to fully address. Yet.
It’s November 2008, I’m barely a week into my third decade, and I’m alone in a foreign country. More than alone, I’m lonely. Making my way through Spain I’d seen and done some amazing things, but without someone to share those moments and memories with, there was a spark that was lacking and the novelty of travel was wearing off.
I got off the bus in Lisbon, Portugal, too disoriented to be charmed by the cobblestone streets. I didn’t speak a single word of Portuguese, and I didn’t know which direction to head to find my hostel. Also, my last few hostel experiences had been less than ideal – they were cold, both physically and emotionally. I was tired, a little under the weather, and missing human connection. I’d come up with a plan to stay a couple nights at the hostel in Lisbon, then head north to Porto where I was looking forward to staying in a home with a local CouchSurfing host.
I arrived at the hostel, thanks to a kind man who saw I was lost and walked me all the way to the door, and quickly realized that things were going to be different. As I entered the lobby there was someone coming down a stairwell, who took one look at me and disappeared back up the stairs. Odd. I checked in and as I turned around the guy from the stairs handed me a drink – my first caipirinha – and said, “Follow me.” He showed me to a room with an open bunk, “Leave your bag here, come on!”
He took me to the common area, and a dozen other travelers all looked our way: “Hey! What’s your name? Where are you from? Come join us!” This. This was what traveling was meant to look like.
I dipped a cup into the communal vat of sangria, joined the massage train, and a couple hours later found myself laughing in the streets as we explored Lisbon’s night life.
A very young backpacker who’d been staying at the hostel for a while was our unofficial guide through the narrow streets. He was impish and impulsive, too much of an open book to be charming, but still intriguing. I quickly learned that he was the type of guy who didn’t think twice before jumping in with both feet. By the end of the night he’d asked me to marry him, and I had no doubt that if I agreed he would have immediately swept me into his joyous whirlwind, which would have blown us to the nearest chaplain’s office, then off onto some wild adventure.
I was awestruck. I’ve always been overly cautious and yet I’d been yearning to break free, do something wild. I didn’t accept his proposal that night, or the next few nights when he continued to ask. I did spend more time with him, more curious than anything, and he truly lived his life immersed in each moment. It was fascinating, and totally foreign. However, I soon realized this usually meant he was doing what felt best for him, regardless of the people around him. He was open and caring, but totally unfazed by most social norms or potential consequences, and that made me uncomfortable.
I realized that I didn’t, in fact, want to live my life like that. I’m rational, and sensitive to people and situations around me, which I (eventually) decided are strengths, not weaknesses. Sure, I still wanted to learn to open up and embrace opportunities, but in hopes that it would bring more connection and intimacy into my life. Despite this guy’s fascination with me, I felt in no way connected to him. Apparently a willingness to make sweeping split second decisions was not synonymous with commitment. I no longer envied his carefree being. It’s funny how much relief you can feel, when you realize that you actually like yourself the way you are.
There were others in our makeshift group of new friends who were just as interesting: a couple of American girls with hippie names, a sweet Australian girl traveling solo, a Portuguese guy and girl who it was unclear whether they worked at the hostel or just enjoyed the atmosphere, a trio of Aussie guys who were traipsing through Europe, and a handful of other fellow nomads.
I never made it to Porto. My couple of nights in Lisbon stretched to over a week, and I didn’t leave until I was in danger of missing my flight from Barcelona back to Calgary. Even then I didn’t want to go – by that point there was a very specific reason why.by McKinnley
Ease. It’s a major 2017 focus for me. How can I make my life run more smoothly? Freedom from stress and anxiety. A lessening of effort, concern, and annoyance. Increasing tranquility, comfort, and bliss.
I feel like “ease” may have some negative connotations, that it may be lumped in with laziness or luck. But to me it means knowing what I really want, so I can ensure all my decisions point towards that. It also means really knowing myself, and what I need to get to those places.
Learning what you need – what your body needs, what your mind needs, what your soul needs – can be a lifelong pursuit, but it’s so important to be in tune with all three of those aspects. Knowing what it is that energizes, refreshes, and inspires you will make your life infinitely easier.
So how do you differentiate between what you need to do, what you should do, and what you want to do? Often, when I’m really in the zone and on the right path, those all align. Sometimes, however, the choice isn’t particularly clear.
Need is pretty easy, since when we need to do something, it’s generally a requirement or an obligation, and things simply won’t progress if we don’t do them. We must do it, so do it we shall.
What about the things we should do versus the things we want to do? That is when I ask myself, “How do I want to feel? Where do I want to get to?”
Years ago I read a story about a young girl who was a competitive swimmer. She had to get up every morning before school to practice, which she did without fail. One day her grandmother was talking to her about swimming and commented that it must be so fun. “Oh, no,” the girl replied, “I love swimming, but it’s not fun.” She was referring to the early mornings, the long, tedious hours of practice, the frustrations that inevitably accompany progress. Yet even at her young age she understood the pay off, how her commitment did in the end bring her joy and satisfaction.
That story stuck with me. Often, the most worthwhile things in life are the ones we pour the most effort into.
Back to my year of ease, and how am I going to decide between should and want? Does ease always equate to doing and getting what I want? Ah ha! Doing what I want and getting what I want are two entirely different questions!
This year I also want to be productive. And I want to have fun. I want to be really supportive and connected. I want to be successful, energetic, and really really healthy.
Those words, those ideas, they paint a pretty clear picture of how I want to feel. So when I have to decide what to do with my day, I can ask myself, “How do I want to feel?”
January 1. The perfect day to start with a clean slate and get the year off to a roaring start. I could be productive, oh yes I could! And I potentially should have used the free day to start checking things off my life list, however I had been so busy over the holidays and working so hard, what I was desperately craving was relaxation (ease) and connection with my hot man. The entire day was spent wrapped in my robe, the majority while propped opposite Marcus on the couch, books open and beverages at hand. I tackled no chores, no duties, no organization, and I didn’t have one iota of regret about it.
Fast forward through another long, busy week, and I have committed to attending a seminar all weekend. I do not want to go. I absolutely do not want to spend my precious free time waking up early, sitting in a conference room, being surrounded by strangers, listening to a lecture. I agreed to this for a reason though, and I should go. It will be good for me to focus on myself for a few days. It will be an enforced opportunity to set this year off on the right foot. I know that I will either learn something new and valuable, or be reminded of something important.
When the seminar begins our educator for the weekend asks everyone who is excited to be there to stand. I do not stand. Then she asks who has shown up but is wondering why they signed up when they have so many other places to be and things to do. I stand up. Honesty is always key.
I attend. I learn. And I’m glad for the experience, as I knew I would be.
Despite this being a “should” decision and not so much of a “want,” I know myself well enough to know that I need to put myself in a position to succeed, if I’m to receive any benefit. Before the seminar begins for the weekend, I make a grocery list, go to the store, and organize meals for my next three days. I know that I am more alert and focused if I eat properly. It is important. I cancel all my social engagements for the weekend, knowing I will need time to decompress from all the enforced interaction with strangers, and will also need time to quietly process what I’m learning. I show up to the space with hot tea, an extra sweater, and a giant scarf to wrap around my shoulders – knowing that the rooms are often cold. And when our lunch break arrives, I’ve been struggling with a nasty headache, and the thought of dealing with bright lights and crowds of people for any excess time fills me with anxiety, so I choose to drive all the way home, where I can nap and decompress for a few short minutes, even though it logically doesn’t make much sense to do so.
These things are what I needed to do in order to show up and succeed at this seminar. And so I did them. I could easily have canceled, but I would not have felt as productive, fulfilled, or as if I was setting myself up to progress.
Know yourself. Weigh out your “shoulds” versus your “wants.” Only you know which is the best choice for you. And most importantly, pinpoint how you want to feel, this more than anything will be able to guide the decisions you are faced with making.by McKinnley
February 14, a day we all hate to love… or something. I’ve been in the restaurant industry for most of my adult life, so things like “long weekends” generally mean the opposite of what the status quo are getting excited about – they get a weekend that is extended, extra days to relax and binge watch The Walking Dead. Nice. Us poor chumps in the service industry cringe when those civic holidays or special days pop up, because for us they mean loooooooong weekends, extra shifts, and extra long days.
Valentine’s Day. Lucky us, it fell on a Sunday this year, my favourite day of rest – in my dreams! An already busy day in the brunch world, made busier by all you lovebirds wanting to do something “special.” (I think having someone cook me dinner at home is waaaaay more special, but I do spend most of my waking hours in restaurants..)
SO, it’s Sunday, it’s Cupid’s day, we don’t have heart-shaped pancakes or anything but we’ve still got a lineup out the door. Managing a restaurant is a bit like herding cats sometimes – no matter how hard you focus or how great of a cat herder you are, getting all those little furballs moving in the same direction at the same time is damn near impossible. While families and couples gaze adoringly into each other’s eyes over their eggs benny, I spend nine and a half hours madly directing staff, directing customers, washing dishes, running food, clearing tables, blending smoothies, washing more dishes, and organizing paperwork. Good times.
Finally I’m home. I sprawl on the couch with my feet draped over the back, staring into space. My lovely man friend makes me a cup of tea and attempts to get me to play Scrabble with him, or have a conversation, or even just make out…. Eventually he decides that cleaning the storage closet is a more entertaining prospect, so that’s what he does while I continue to stare at the ceiling.
About an hour before bed my arm starts to hurt. It’s kind of numb and slightly uncomfortable, but I figure it won’t kill me and decide to ignore it. Around 1:00 am I wake up. I need to pee, and my arm still hurts – I’m not sure which sensation woke me. I use the bathroom, rub my arm, and fall back to sleep. 3:30 am I wake again, this time I’m certain it’s my arm that woke me, because the numbness has turned into full-fledged pain, radiating from my shoulder all the way to my fingertips.
I’m no longer certain it’s not going to kill me.
I lay awake for the next hour, getting increasingly panicky: “It’s my left arm, my LEFT arm, doesn’t your left arm hurt when you have a heart attack? Isn’t there some statistic about women dying from heart attacks because they don’t acknowledge the symptoms for what they are?? I’ve been pretty stressed lately I guess, am I having a heart attack???”
*pause while I put my hand on my heart and pay attention to it beating for awhile*
“Hmmm, my heartbeat seems to be pretty regular, and this pain has been happening for hours now, I guess that would be an awfully long heart attack. So, I’m pretty sort of sure I’m not having a heart attack. ….. BUT WHAT THE CRAP IS GOING ON??? Stress? Am I that stressed out? Is it some sort of physiological reaction to all the work cray cray I’ve been dealing with? Or maybe I’m out of alignment. That’s it. I haven’t been to the chiropractor in ages, I must’ve done some weird movement and I just wacked out my alignment. Dr. Mike will fix me right up, I’ll call first thing in the morning… Actually it’s extra special Valentine’s AND Family Day long weekend so tomorrow is going to be bonkers at work as well, weeeeeeeeeeee!!”
*not panicking, totally not panicking, I just can’t get comfortable, why can’t I fall back to sleep, WHY DOES MY FREAKING ARM HURT SO FREAKING MUCH?!?!*
Lovely man friend wakes up. I think I’m playing it cool, but he can’t get back to sleep either and asks me if I need to go to the 24 hour clinic. *do I need to go to emergency at 4:30am?! What does this mean???* I dig my fingers into the nerve at the top of my shoulder. The sensation sizzles down my arm, but somehow also relieves the pain just enough for me to stay clear-headed: I obstinately refuse to go to the clinic. I’m still on the fence about whether or not this is going to kill me, and until I’m firmly on the side of “Medical Attention Absolutely And Obviously Required” I’m holding out here at home.
More long, dark, uncomfortable, wide awake minutes pass. I ask Lovely Man to get me an Advil. In my head this is only a fingers breadth away from medical intervention – the scale is teetering towards death. I start to wonder how Lovely Man will react when he wakes in the morning and finds me cold and lifeless beside him. I start to feel bad for him, he didn’t ask for this, nobody should have to wake up beside their lover’s dead body. At least I get to die in my bed, that’s pretty alright.
About half an hour later the Advil kicks in (which is a bloody miracle, those stupid drugs never work for me) and I stop caring about dying as I finally drift back to sleep.
February 15. I’m even less impressed with my alarm than usual. My cat is also cranky – I must’ve kept her awake as well. But hey! I’m alive!!!!
My arm still hurts. I think it’s bearable? It’s only been a few hours since the Advil, guess I’ll wait and see what happens when it wears off. Back to work for the final installment of the February long weekend.
More managing, more directing, a few less cats to herd, but still more plates full of food, and more empty plates to clean… I duck into the dish pit to tackle a stack of dirty plates. I pick up the top one in my left hand, chisel off the eggy smears with the scrub brush, then slot it into the rack on my left. Next plate, same drill, into the rack… hey, my arm still hurts. Another plate. The plates are pretty big, and pretty heavy. Another plate gets hauled out of the sludgy sink by my left hand and I realize that this is actively hurting my arm, all the way up to my shoulder……. OHHHHHHHHHHHHH.
It’s a good thing I didn’t go to the stupid clinic in the middle of the night: “We’re sorry to inform you that you’ve done way too many dishes, and not nearly enough push ups. Go home, put some ice on it, stop being a baby, and do some more push ups.” See, I TOLD you it wasn’t a heart attack.
And for those who are wondering, or pitying, I got not one but TWO bouquets of flowers on Valentine’s Day, so it wouldn’t have been such a bad day to make my exit after all.by McKinnley
I was at work during the afternoon of New Years Eve, and one of my regulars asked me what I was going to do that night.. But before I could reply he continued, “If you said you’re going to jump on a plane and fly to Bora Bora to watch the sun set, I wouldn’t be surprised.” I, however, was both surprised and amused by his comment.
In reality my plans were far less exotic. Does this mean I need to get cracking at planning my next adventure so that my life can keep up with the expectations? Or does it mean that my life thus far has been so filled with awesomeness that it doesn’t matter what I do, perceptions about me and my life now automatically default to thrilling?
Methinks it’s a bit of both: My life is super rad, but it’s definitely time to get adventuring!!by McKinnley
And thankfully the next day is better. One of the girls I’m with volunteers at an organization in Calgary, which runs a school in Delhi. They’ve asked that she check on the school while she’s here. The four of us are supposed to go visit together, but the other two girls decide they should go to the train station to buy tickets they’ll need in a few days. So it’s just she and I. I actually have no idea what we’re going to see and I’m vaguely annoyed to be running an errand instead of exploring, but there’s no way I’m going out into the streets alone again.
We spend an hour in traffic, then get into a second car with the school director, who drives us to the outskirts of Delhi, past sprawling farm estates that no longer farm, and into one of Delhi’s infamous slums. My interest is definitely piqued.
The director tells us how the slum kids have some opportunity for education, but not enough to make a difference. He also explains that public schools, even outside the slum, are often taught by teachers who can’t actually pass the exams themselves. The quality of education is appalling low, plus girls rarely stay past primary school, with boys generally dropping out around middle school. This organization runs a school in each of Delhi’s eight slums. They are free, but attendance is limited to those who’ve signed up, since space is minimal. The school we visit has three rooms, each about 7 feet square. They have thirty students, age 6-14 officially, but there are a few tiny kids that can’t be more than four. The kids seem shy, but when we pull out our cameras they perk up, and it’s not long before they’re all demanding we take their photo, and then wanting to see the shot from the back of the camera. They are beautiful.
We take a walk through the slum, us two white girls with the school director and another man to lead us. It is what I expected, but it’s still shocking to see it in person: as far as the eye can see is a “tent village” created from scraps of metal, wood, cloth and plastic. Shelters really give the barest hint of actual shelter, and privacy is practically non existent. It is dirty, and barely contains the most basic of human needs. There is a truck that comes by daily with drinking water, that the residents must line up with their own containers to fill, and hope they have enough to get by until the next truck arrives.
And yet as we walk by most people grin and wave at us. In fact, we come upon a group of women who are shaping flour dough into circles, which the men are frying into chapatti (a type of bread), and they wave us over to join their circle for a photo opportunity. There are so many things I want to photograph in the slum, but I feel intrusive snapping pictures of their life, a white girl behind a lens who is excited by the novelty but will sleep soundly in her pristine hotel that night.
The women then indicate “food” and our guide translates that they’re asking us if we want to eat. I don’t hesitate to accept. Apparently they are having a celebration because a home has been built, a more permanent structure of concrete, and it’s ready for people to move into. About 35 people are having lunch and everyone seems excited. They take us inside the house and seat us on a small couch. We four are the only ones inside, everyone else is sitting in the courtyard on the ground. I understand that they are honouring us with the couch, but I’d rather be with the rest of the group in the courtyard. They fill our dishes with a vegetable curry, fresh chapatti, and a rich rice pudding with chunks of fresh coconut. It’s delicious. I clean my plate and when the girl I’m with only has one bite, I finish hers as well. It will turn out to be one of the best meals I have in India. And it was offered to me, a stranger, free of charge, from a bunch of people who will live out their entire life in a slum. It was humbling. And my first experience with the incredible hospitality of Indian people.
As we walk back to the school, I see a bunch of kids playing in the dirt road. One little boy is rolling a scooter tire down the road with a stick, and I try really hard to get a picture of him because the only time I’ve seen such a thing is in old-timey photos from the early 1900’s! He seemed to be thoroughly enjoying himself, and I can’t help but reflect on all the kids I see in Canada who are surrounded by piles of toys, games, books and electronics, yet they’re still whiney, demanding, bored and unhappy. How easily we become spoiled and complacent by the bounty, the excess, we Westerners are surrounded with. He’s also wearing a pair of filthy grey sweatpants, clearly his only pair of pants because the seat is completely worn out and I can see his little brown bum peeking through.
It’s so unfair, this world, this life. And I’m so, so grateful that I was born into a happy, healthy family, raised with a roof overhead and more than my base needs being met, in a country where freedom is the norm and opportunity abounds for anyone willing to step up and take it.
This is one of the reasons I love to travel. The perspective it gives. Somehow seeing a photo of a slum in India just isn’t the same as walking through one, and being greeted by the smiling children there.by McKinnley