Thursday, 10 May 2018

Creativity, Extended

Recently I've had a strong desire to take my art to the next level. Yet I've had a great hesitation in sharing my art publicly. I contemplate the message I want to portray and the purpose for putting it out there. I've spent the last few days investigating the roots to this reservation.

About a year ago my purpose for painting shifted from something I created for the outside world to something I do as a therapy for myself (you can read more about that in this post). Art has become an expressive outlet and a coping mechanism when I become overwhelmed with the world around me. On my best days, when I get into the creative space I become calm and clear. The demands of the world diminish, the significance of how my work will be evaluated by others lifts, and I simply get immersed in the blissful process of creating.

"Exquisitely Untamed"*
However, I don't think I ever completely let go of what others think. It holds more weight at certain times than others, and considering another's view, if done moderately, can serve me positively. When I start to doubt my own work I will often share with my closest people, who become a vehicle of encouragement. I trust they will be honest with me and deliver their input in a supportive way. I want to see what I make from another's vantage, as I find value in the perspective that I cannot see.

While on vacation in Arizona a couple weeks ago, I found myself invigorated with inspiration as I walked through galleries of the Scottsdale Arts District. For the first time ever, I was able to envision my own art hanging on the future walls of those galleries. This was an encouraging sign of how far in confidence I've come over the last year and a half. I truly felt capable of getting to place where my art would be worthy of such display. I didn't think much about what attracted me to this idea, until just the other day.

In fact, recently I was invited to participate in a collaborative art show. I spent a month working on three pieces for the show. Switching back and forth between creating for the enjoyment and creating for the audience, my creativity and motivation stalled a number of times. I wrestled with the pressures I placed on myself to produce sellable art, which became inhibiting at times. Many times I wanted to give up but I had the lingering expectation of a deadline in play. Finding a balance in my expectations was crucial in order to allowing creativity to flow. In the end it was a good exercise in pushing myself through the doubtful voices and fears of failing and gave me a great sense of accomplishment to call them finished.

In talking to a friend about taking my art more seriously, as a career, I was advised to figure out what it is about doing art that I love the most and decide whether I want to share that with the world. At first I struggled to find an answer for this. Although the desire is there, I've been a little confused about my reasons for sharing or selling my art. I've realized that I had adopted the assumption that the only reason for an artist wanting to show their work publicly is to become known or recognized as an artist. But this doesn't quite resonate with me, nor does it fall in line with my values (in fact, the attention kind of makes me feel uncomfortable). Feeling conflicted by this narrow view has created a procrastination in starting something new. I now understand this hesitation as a result of questioning my intentions behind the desire to take my art to the next level, not wanting to want to do it for the wrong reasons. But deep down I know there is something else, something more driving this desire.

"After the Rain"*
I've recently immersed myself in learning about  the fascinating personality and work of Marina Abramovic, a performing artist who has spent her career expanding the the boundaries of art and the psyche. In a 2013 interview she offers advice to young artists, touching on what makes an artist and what makes a great artist. She says if your goal is to be famous and rich you can forget about being an artist, because success and money is not the aim of a great artist, it is just a side effect. This rang true for me, and again had me thinking about my reasons for envisioning my work on those gallery walls.

So if it is not for the attention or the fame or the money, I ask myself what is driving me to put my art out there, where does the attraction of creating for the public come from? I'm learning, much like in my writing, and many other areas of my life, for me it's all about connection.

Last Friday, I attended the opening reception for the show my art is in. As I observed from the sidelines, I noticed one viewer that seemed more invested in my work than anyone else. She spent a lot of time gazing at, talking about and expressively gesturing towards my work with a friend. When she finally moved away I humbly approached her and commented that I had noticed her looking. She asked if I was the artist and said to me, "I don't want to know your story." I wasn't completely sure what she meant by this, but decided to take it as a compliment and instinctively replied, "I feel things very deeply." She went on to explain that the girl in "Becoming" looked so much like her 12 year old daughter and that she saw herself in it too. It moved her so much it had brought her to tears. Then she told me she was going to buy it. I learnt that she had art on display as well. As hard as it was to see this painting taken off the wall so quickly (at that point it became very apparent how attached I had become) I knew it was going to the right person. I discovered a purpose in the idea that something I created from within was capable of resonating with another so deeply. I didn't know this person, but my artwork created a meaningful connection between us. We found a mutual comprehension of the expression this piece delivered. Through her affection for this painting I felt understood on a creative and emotional level, and it is my suspicion she felt her own version of this from me. And, perhaps the silverest of linings, something I created has something important to offer another, enough that she wanted to hang it in her home.

"Becoming"
So I think I have found my answer. Not unlike the role that my sister's art plays in my life (and many others), my art, in sharing with others, becomes a powerful tool in which the world potentially becomes a little more connected. The impact it has on the viewer, the ability to reach another human at an emotional level, is what motivates me to share what I create with the world.

So it is here that I will share my most recent creations with you, internet world. Whatever it may evoke within your soul, trigger in your emotions, or simply inspire in your creativity, it is my hope that it has something of worth to offer for you. Enjoy.

*Originals available for sale at the And Art Gallery in Davidson, SK




Saturday, 7 April 2018

Authenticity

I dreamt last night that I was in public with no top on. I was at a coffee shop ordering drinks. I have these forget my clothes dreams often, but instead of leaving and finding clothes I continue my way and try my damndest not to care with people think. In some dreams it seems as if no one notices, although I always feel self-conscious and keep thinking I should go find more clothes. In this dream however, I was very aware of the blatant judgement directed my way. I switched between trying to cover my chest with my arm - flooded with embarrassment, and just letting it all hang out as if to say "I don't care what you think, this is me, get used to it."

I've spent a lot of energy during the last couple years paying attention to my authenticity and working on the concept that who I am is enough. Steering away from trying to fit into an image that I think others would prefer and navigating the land of my truth. This is motivated by the understanding that trying to be something I am not sucks away my energy and that leading a more authentic life will set me free.

Since becoming aware of how much of my image is fabricated from what others think of me, I've been exploring the amount of validation I want to accept from others, versus how much I should rely on myself. Depending on my emotional state and confidence, this changes constantly. Sometimes I want to take it to the extreme and not care at all what others think of me, and be totally self-sufficient when it comes to my confidence, but I have to remember that as humans we are co-dependent and we need to rely on a level of validation from others. It is pretty normal to care what someone else thinks. It is when what they think has you hustling for their approval in a way that pulls you so far away from who you really are that it becomes a false expression of our true selves. This is not a clear line, in fact it often confuses me. Especially coming from a place where I thought I didn't care as much as I did. Only recently have I become so aware of how much I fed off the praise of my achievements, as it was through these successes (academics, athletics, creativity) that determined most how I identified myself, growing up.

Authenticity has earned a spot at the top of my core values. However to be authentic is a vulnerable experience. It requires discarding the cover-ups that we use to stay 'safe,' and facing those fears of third party evaluation. At the same time there are other factors that play in when putting your whole self out there, and it is important to consider how it affects other values and other people involved.

One way I like to challenge myself in this light is through my blog. When I write I am exposing a side of myself that I have rarely talked about, even most of my family hasn't been privy to many of my emotional experiences. So I have developed a ritual in deciding whether or not to publish each post. Prior to clicking publish I make sure to ask myself each of the following questions:

"What is my intention behind sharing this?" If my answer is for attention, I won't share it. If it is an honest expression of my thoughts, feelings, experiences or beliefs then I move to the next question.

"What does this post offer to others? Is there a significant message or silver lining?" It is this message that gives me a purpose to put the writing out there for others to see. I have many private posts I've written as a way to sort out my thoughts or to express myself, that I will not share because they were written for myself and I feel they don't serve a purpose for others.

"Will what I've written hurt or offend any of the readers?" Sometimes I write about experiences that involve others in my life. I'd never want to compromise the dignity of another in publishing a blog post. If sharing what I write risks causing hurt to another, it just isn't worth the trade off.

"Is this written from an authentic place? Is it true to me?" The answer to this one is especially important and if the answer is yes, I always find the courage to put it out there, regardless of the judgement that might be out there. Because if it is coming from my truth, and if I deem my voice as worthy as the next guy's then I owe it to myself to allow it to be seen. There is a breath of fresh air in this.

Saying that, putting myself out there is still very hard for me. I'm generally a pretty private person, and quite sensitive to criticism. The minute I press share, although the answers to the questions above satisfy, I feel anxious. This usually lasts through the rest of the day, doubts swimming around in my head - of whether my writing has any value, whether anyone will read it, and if they do, whether they will think it's ridiculous or disagree. But at the same time I know by doing so, by facing my big fear of rejection (judgement and criticism) I am working to give my voice more confidence, and from this comes a a sense of liberation.  I find a freedom in not allowing a need for validation from others to keep me quiet.  Also, this allows the purpose of blogging to take priority. In working to let go of needing any response from my readers I can take comfort in the the mere chance that sharing my journey could help even one person, just as hearing about other's experiences has helped me.

I know it is hard to let go of how you are perceived and judged by the world, and there is probably some sort of survival mechanism embedded deeply in our desire to do so. But I do think our society has carried this to an level of influence where we, more than not, tend to become someone that comes from an image outside of ourselves instead of what we're really made of. As a result we behave in a way that takes us beyond our defence and serves as a detriment to our emotional survival.

I dream of a place where individuality is celebrated over conformity. Where we encourage one another to look deep inside and listen carefully to what their voice is telling them, and to have the courage to follow it. Where we stop judging one another out of fear, insecurity and self-preservation. It's an upstream journey, living in our truth when so much of what we see and hear is telling us to join the rest of the crowd and move downstream. But following the path meant for you will take you to the place that you can call your own, that gives you the breathing room to really discover yourself. There is strength in your raw truth but it takes courage to find it. If you tune inward and are willing to stand on your own you will discover the freedom that takes place away from the crowd.

"You are only free when you realize you belong no place - you belong every place - no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great." ~ Maya Angelou


Sunday, 4 March 2018

The Bear, the Battle and the Gift

We crouched down hushed, sure not to disrupt the peace of our surroundings offered by the forest. The air still, the trees lush. Taking turns the animals graciously presented themselves to our view. As each one appeared we called its name, and it answered by retreating back to the safety of the woods. I got up, took the hand of my two year old son, and strolled away from the crowd to a pocket in the trees. A bear appeared. It approached us grudgingly and we cautiously backed to a corner of the clearing, opposite to the crowd but within line of sight.  The bear lowered its head, shook it threateningly and grunted. I called for help from the crowd (which consisted of a combination of strangers and people I knew well) but they either ignored my pleas or gestured that I was on my own and continued about their leisure. Still holding my son's hand, I positioned him behind me, feeling assured that he would not be hurt under my protection. Each time the bear approached I swung my one free fist with a force just enough to make it back off but only for a moment. Each time I hollered for help, I got no response, and felt frustrated by the lack of attention. Giving in to the notion that I was on my own, I turned my focus inward to an informative voice that affirmed my ability to take on this bear. In that moment I stumbled, falling to one knee and the bear stood on hind legs towering over me, but I swiftly recovered and continued a strong fight in my defence. The bear never bared its teeth, only threatened its dominance to intimidate. Despite the threats, I maintained a sense that I was okay, I was going to be okay, feeling calm and grounded. Persevering, I eventually knocked the bear out, and the large animal visually became smaller as he surrendered to unconsciousness. I thought to myself, "This bear may wake up eventually, but for now I've won this match." Then I woke up.

Last year was an emotionally difficult year for me. In the changes I've taken on and the barriers I've faced I've spent a lot of time navigating unfamiliar places. I don't think I would have gotten through it safely without the surmountable support of my close friends. I was extremely lucky to have the people around me that I did. I relied heavily on their availability particularly in my most anxious moments of uncertainty and doubt. They helped carry my load, and talking it through helped me sort so much of it out. I'll be forever grateful for the love and encouragement from others when I couldn't find it within myself. All along, however, I knew this level of dependency wasn't something that could be maintained forever and at some point I would need to become more self-reliant in my emotional coping. I recognized the unconditional treatment I received as something I wanted to find in myself, for myself, and this love offered by others became a model for my vision - and eventually my practice.

In recent months my support network has shifted its shape and the support I had is not as readily available. I find myself attempting to grip the frayed strings of what's left to find my way back to the security of the place I once knew. But that's not what this transformation is about. Change is hard. Uncertain. As someone who has always struggled to embrace the reality of change, I am coming to realize that most of the struggle comes from resistance. As these changes take form I find myself in a position away from the crowd, where my only option is to become more self-reliant. As a consequence I'm learning how to be a greater source of comfort for myself in the face of my emotional challenges. Albeit difficult (not unlike being cornered by a bear at times) and probably not what I would choose if I still had the security of last year's supports, I'm beginning to see this as a new phase in my journey. Phase two. My energy is divided between life's constant responsibilities (in the dream, protecting Archer) and tending to my mental health (battling the bear). It feels overwhelming, even threatening at times, but I'm able to hold on to this nurtured notion that I am capable, discovering a fresh confidence in my own strength.

As the crowd stood back and watched me sweat through my one-handed battle with this bear I momentarily assumed a victim's role, but just as quickly chose to let it go and focus on my battle. Had I held onto that victim identity I probably wouldn't have had the energy to take out the bear. In reflection, perhaps the crowd's reaction was not an act of neglect, but rather an alternative (more informed) form of support. Perhaps their confidence in me preceded mine. And by waiting on standby, they were gifting me the opportunity to discover my own strength, ready to jump in if the bear were to ever bare its teeth.




Wednesday, 21 February 2018

The Cliff

I'm at the edge of a cliff. The view from here is clear and vast and beautiful. At times it feels as though I am at the top of the world. I have places to go, dreams to fill. At first I walk along with reservation, remembering from my past that the ground could give away at any time. But the longer I move along solid ground, the more confidence I have in it's ability to hold my weight, eventually forgetting how thin the ledge I walk on actually is. The sun beams with promise, warm on my face. I start to skip. I run at times. I walk with a presence. I breath in the view and plan my path ahead. Aspirations, goals, ambitions build up with an affirming clarity and I steadily carry the expectations that they bring, feeling strong, even unstoppable at times.

Abruptly, the ground beneath breaks, the rock crumbles, I stumble. As I fall I grasp for any rocks that make themselves available to me out of the cliff's wall. Afraid of the murky waters that lurk below I desperately cling to whatever grip I can find, but struggle to hold on for any significant length of time. This takes incredible energy, desperate to get back to the place at the top, where my aspirations await. My fear of falling just feeds the force of gravity, moving me in the opposite direction I try to go. I panic. I become frustrated with the wall for being what it is, for not being what it isn't. I become angry with myself for being so foolish to think the ground could hold me and the weight of my ambition, and for not paying attention to my step, for not being strong enough to make my way back to the top. I discount any inevitability of the situation.  The more I fight to climb back up the more tired my grip becomes. I slip again and again and fall, each time, further away from where I started. With each loss of footing I collect more scrapes and bruises. Occasionally I'll take respite on a ledge on the wall just long enough to assess the injuries I have accumulated. The more attention I pay to them the more I realize the significance of the pain they cause. I want to escape this pain so, despite feeling worn out and wounded, I try to climb away from it, no matter how impossible at this point. But the harder I try the more tired and frustrated I grow and the further away I move from the place I want to get to.

Eventually the ground finds me, but I am not at the top. I am at the bottom. And to my surprise it is dry. As my foot touches down I release my tired grip, at last my attempt to climb surrendered. I look up, and touch fingertips to the cold damp wall of my decent. Smoothed by currents from past tides it offers no ledges within reach that would allow me to resume my climb.  I am alone. I stop and listen. I can hear waves crashing in the distance. I stop straining to see the view that was offered at the top of the ledge and take in my immediate surroundings. I notice the quiet stillness of this place, the cool calm. By now the pressure of getting back to the top so quickly, so desperately has lifted off my shoulders and ironically I feel lighter. I could wander, but the still air invites me to settle here. I sit, taking residence in the place I have come to. Although somewhat unfamiliar and a little uncomfortable, it brings a sense of peace, a place that I somehow know is for me. As I sit, the sand below rearranges itself to accommodate whatever shape I need to be. If I am not careful I just might become complacent with this place whose arrival I so vigorously resisted just moments ago. I come to understand that it is my job to sit still, pay attention and tend to my wounds. To wait. For how long? I have no idea. But to find faith in the idea that this is the place I am meant to be right now, and hope in the idea that if I wait here, in time the tide will come, gradually lifting me up high enough to find my sure grip. With the weight lifted and a restored strength I will ease my way back up to the vantage of my desires, and by the time I reach it perhaps things will look a little different than they did before I fell.



"the stillness
you are busy trying
to fill

is the origin
of your authenticity + truth

why then, may I ask
are you so afraid
of what you thirst?"

Sarah Blondin, live awake

Thursday, 8 February 2018

Opening the Mind and Letting Go

A couple months after my sister passed away I received a message from someone that had met her years ago in the hospital, who also happened to be called Niki. She explained how they shared a journey similar in struggles, bonded over a common connection to the spirit world, and found affinity in having the same name. This Niki was at the beginning of her spiritual journey when they first met, and she expressed how my sister was a source of comfort and support at this scary period in her life. She sent me a photo of a painting my sister had given her during their time together. It is a dramatic image of a mermaid embracing a fish, their tails are intertwined. This image had significance to Niki (the friend) as she, un-beknown to my sister, had been using 'just keep swimming' as a mantra to get through her fearful moments. I was grateful that she shared this story with me, as hearing about the impact my sister had on others brought comfort in the midst of my grief.

I thought this would be the last time I would hear from this person. But then, just a few weeks ago she sent another message telling me she had been consulted in regards to the painting she had and it was my sisters wish that I have it.

This triggered a number of emotions and left me with an unsettled feeling, uncertain of how I should feel or respond.

First of all I didn't feel entitled to this painting, it wasn't originally meant for me. It was such an intimate exchange between the two of them and I didn't want to take that away from her. This offer triggered a lot of emotional memories associated with past experiences with my sister and her schizophrenia. Based on the the history of my sister's tendency to discard most of her possessions in the midst of a schizophrenic episode, and in learning the history of how they met, I admit my mind immediately went to the assumption that it was a result of a schizophrenic delusion.

You see early in my sister's diagnosis, anything she did that was out of the 'norm' of my own experiences, I understood as a symptom of her schizophrenia, especially anything that had to do with religion or spirituality. Her experiences were so unfamiliar and scary (to her and to me), so my first defence was  to chalk them all up to her diagnosis. It wasn't until a few years ago, after a conversation with someone for whom I held high respect and revered as very grounded, that I started to shift my perception. I was enlightened to the idea that if this person could be so open to the possibility of a spirit world and a connection between that and the living world, why couldn't I? I began to open my mind to the possibility that maybe my sister was able to somehow tap into the spirit world, as she claimed, and began to question my right to judge what is real and what is not? Or what is real to her? Just because my experiences are different than another's doesn't make that person's experiences wrong or not true.

In practice, this was a sensitive subject. Sometimes the messages she claimed to receive from her spirits were a threat to her well-being and those around her, even dangerous at times. From this new perspective the line that divided the schizophrenia from the spiritual realm became obscure, if there was one. But it was her reality, and knowing from experience any judgement on my part would just cause resistance, and trying to change her perception would not be helpful (or ethical) and only result in conflict. I found the best fit for me in her life was to be a source of unconditional support, and one way I was able to do this was in entertaining her reality (the exception being when it put her in harms way). Although I never fully articulated this to my sister, I found that this attitude shift changed our relationship. Reserving judgement, I became more accepting of her spiritual experiences and I believe she picked up on this. I became a safer person in her life and as a result my presence in her life was more readily received by her. In recent years she became more open to sharing some of her spiritual encounters as I became more open to listening to them.

So you can probably see how this could have initially triggered an immediate defensive and undeserving feeling around attaining this painting, bringing me back to that attitude early in her diagnosis. After sitting on this for a few days, and upon further inquisition I was told that Niki (in spirit) had come through to Niki (on earth) expressing that she felt this was her best painting and it was her wish that I have it...which struck me as a very Niki (sister) thing to say.  The message from Niki (friend) read "While I love it dearly, I love the idea of you having it more." Just as my perception of my sister's spiritual experience changed, my perception on this situation began to shift. Plus, her eager willingness to part with this gift was the confirmation I needed to let go of my reservations around receiving this painting.

At this point in my life I am not sure what I believe about the afterlife or how I would define spirituality. It is a vulnerable subject and from what I know of myself, I am not sure I will ever come to a strong conclusion, I kind of like to sit somewhere in the arena of 'anything is possible.' I have ideas I like more than others, about spirituality and connection and energies beyond scientific proof. I take to heart little coincidences that seemingly take place at the most significant times and in just the right places.  I have a feeling this (spirituality) is something I will always be exploring for myself.  What I know and what I believe will likely be ever-changing based on my experiences and a growing understanding of myself. And, I suppose, the mystery of not knowing for sure combined with the flexibility in choosing what I want to believe are part of the appeal of remaining permeable in my beliefs.

I know that I do believe in allowing each individual the right to a religion or spirituality that serves them best, and I hope that they would do the same for me. In testing this story on a few of my most trusted people I found myself saying, "While I'm not sure I believe in the possibility of my sister channelling through to a living human, I don't not believe in the impossibility of it." Each person I spoke to was affected deeply, in their own way likely influenced by their own belief system. But what I found common among each of them was their validation & acceptance of my experience in this situation, reserving all judgements, sensitive to the emotional hold this event had on me. It has occurred to me, despite any differences in their own spiritual understanding, they each put their beliefs aside to celebrate the significance of this story to me, while empathizing with the way I was affected. They opened their minds and sat with me in my experience, even if just for a second.

 So I sent my address, let the situation settle in my mind, and put it out of focus for a few days.

Then the painting showed up at my door. Opening the package brought much excitement, as I imagine the birthday packages I used to send to my sister would have. The painting was much larger than I had envisioned and more beautiful in real life, matching the colours in my house beautifully. I found myself overcome by a much different feeling in receiving the painting than I had in receiving the initial message. I felt a deserving recipient of this beautiful piece and found some amusement in the idea, or possibility, of this painting being sent to me by my sister from the afterlife. I hung it proudly in my hallway and whenever I notice it I imagine my sister greeting me with a little 'hi,' in that playful manner she so often embodied.

In reflection, a couple important lessons have come from this:

One, I'm learning that some things are not meant to be held onto forever. This painting, once one of (friend) Niki's most prized possessions has now become one of mine. She receives more satisfaction in the thought that it brings me closer to my sister than in keeping it for herself. This is generosity at its purest and makes me rethink my attitude toward my possessions and their fluid purpose in my life. It helps me to better understand the habitual theme in my sisters life of letting go of material things, because she got more fulfillment out of the idea of someone else needing them than in keeping them herself. This thought brings attention to the not so coincidental coincidence that I received this painting through someone, who not only shared my sister's name, but based on this brief encounter, eerily appears similar in character as well.

Two, I am reminded that keeping an open mind is one of the greatest gifts you can offer to another and also to yourself. Opening my mind to possibilities fostered a bond that brought my sister and I closer together, bringing a greater acceptance between us and allowed us to share things that we wouldn't have otherwise. It also created a shift in the way I felt about receiving this painting and enabled an appreciation for this exchange that would not have otherwise occurred. And I'm not sure I would be willing to share this story here had my friends reacted differently to my experience and my perception of the whole situation. Keeping an open mind to another's experiences, putting yourself in their place, and accepting their experiences without judgement is, in my belief, the greatest nourishment for developing the deepest of connections, and the perfect recipe for bringing people closer together.




Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Let's Talk 2018

It's Bell Let's Talk Day, a campaign to open up the conversation about mental health in Canada, one close to my heart - now more than ever. I feel this initiative is important in helping to alleviate the stigma that keeps us quiet and judging. Last year was perhaps the first time I allowed myself to admit that I fall into the category of those that struggle with mental illness. I felt an obligation to participate in the social media campaign, but I was in no shape or form to speak up on that platform. I was extremely lost and vulnerable and wasn't ready to put my story out there. I now realize that that was ok, but at the time I didn't feel so, I just felt pressure to share and a lot of shame in not being able to live up to this expectation.

So instead of sharing with the world I found a safe place to start talking, in a trusted friend. Reaching out for the first time and confronting my depression turned out to be a life changing start to self-improvement. I learnt the value in vulnerability and each time I ventured out of my comfort zone to explore my struggles through conversation, I learnt something new about myself and the ways I've been getting in my own way.  Beginning to understand the value in opening up, I started to confide in a few other trusted friends, signed up for therapy, and took to blogging, finding this new freedom in being able to express the things I'd been holding inside for years out of shame and fear of judgement. The more I opened up to others, the more they opened up to me, the deeper these connections grew. I also started reading about others stories and started to realize that my battle was a lot more common (and justifiable) than I ever allowed myself to see it as. Suddenly I wasn't such an anomaly, I wasn't as alone as I made myself out to be. It turns out my problems were real and the stigma I placed on my own mental health began to lift.

Don't be fooled, these conversations were (and still are) difficult, particularly in the beginning. I find myself cautiously contemplating how much I share and to whom I share with. I've learnt there is a delicate balance in how much I can lean on these supports before its weight becomes too much bear for that particular relationship and that you have to learn ways to take on some of it on your own.

It isn't easy making yourself subject to judgement and rejection with your greatest vulnerabilities, but in my experience the gains far outweigh the risks. The more I face these fears the more comfortable I feel talking about my mental health and the more benefits I see coming from it, not just for myself but for others too.  By openly speaking about these things I give others permission to do the same, just as others have done for me in sharing their stories. I no longer feel shame in talking about my depression and anxiety. I can bring it up in conversations and find a purpose in sharing it through my blog, in the hopes that it may help someone else dealing with their own versions of depression and anxiety. I think it's working. Almost exactly a year after I first reached out, I received an email from one of my blog readers. She recognized some of the challenges wrote about in herself and asked if I would meet with her to talk about it. See what's happening here?

So when you hear this campaign encouraging you to talk, and see these brave people speak publicly about their mental health, the thought of taking part can be intimidating. I give those people a lot of credit and agree that it takes a lot of courage to put your face on a public campaign around mental health. But there is another way to be courageous in the face of mental health. And I bet each of those featured in that campaign started here. The courage it takes to face the discomfort of those fears of rejection, judgment, shame of your mental health struggles. The courage it takes to open up for the first time you decide to talk to someone about things you've harboured for years. The courage it takes to show a side of yourself you've never allowed to be seen, even by those who have known you your whole life.

A public campaign is just one way to reduce the stigma attached to mental illness. Yes, conversations will change how we think about mental illness. But you don't have to shout to be heard. It's amazing how far a whisper can be carried. Who knows how a private conversation might change not only how you think and talk about your own mental health, but also how those on the receiving end think and talk about their own or others they know who struggle? Often it is the most intimate encounters that create the biggest ripple effect.

Mental Health is not something you have or you don't, it is something we all have and everyone has their own trial in maintaining a good balance. Mental illness is more common than we allow ourselves to think it is and for those of us who are directly affected, the idea that we are alone in it is what leads to the belief that there is something wrong with us. As long as we keep it from view, we will never counter this attitude, and continue to nurture the very mindset that keep us down.

Let this be permission for you to talk about you own mental health challenges, whether it be a public expression you know or with just one other person, sharing only where you feel safe doing so. You just might find the more you talk, the more you will want to talk and, as I have, discover a new freedom in allowing your truth to be seen, letting go of the shame that keeps us silently disconnected.

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Raising Girls

When my first was born I was told I had a girl. I remember that intense feeling of joy that you get when you don't know whether to laugh or cry, its just so big you can't really contain it. They handed me the most miraculous thing I had ever created. A real live tiny baby human girl.

These days it's pretty common to feel a bit scared for our children futures, with all the tourmoil that is happening in the world combined with the seemingly inevitable trends that are detrimental to our children's development. But after watching Oprah's empowerment speech from the Golden Globes, I was reminded of all the ways that our children have an advantage, the movement toward greater gender equality - bringing new hope taking place for girls (and boys) today, counteracting the uncertainty for future generations.

For as long as I remember having any opinion, this has been a passionate subject for me. I revelled in the idea of proving my abilities to debunk others attitudes about the limitations that being a girl might bring. I was raised in a family that nurtured all my ambitions and never once received the message that I couldn't do anything I wanted, especially because I was a girl. Sports became my thing and I was given every opportunity that my brothers had (if not more, in lieu of my growing passion) In fact it was encouraged, at age nine, when my mother, with the help of a five dollar bill, encouraged me to join my brother's hockey team, the beginning of a lifelong love affair with the sport. I grew up playing on the boys teams right through midget. At 5'4" & 125 lbs you can imagine the reservations my parents had watching me face off against guys twice my size and weight in a contact sport, but they let me choose and I chose to persevere. Looking back I admit I was in over my head at times, and am quite lucky I never broke a bone, for the amount I got knocked around. My hometown team as supportive, I was treated no differently than the rest of the team. The attitude from other teams was different, but the backlash I received only drove me to work harder.  To this day I still feel I am capable of doing anything I choose to pursue if I want it bad enough, and I can use my strengths as a woman to my advantage in this pursuit.

This is the attitude I want to instil into my girls (as well as my son), especially in a world that is so often sending messages that are contradictory. I take raising my girls especially seriously and am careful about the messages I relay, especially when it comes to my own insecurities. It's a challenge and sometimes I fail. Last week, in a amped up argument with Lucy about what she was wearing to school, I regretfully said something that contradicted the very message I hope to relay to my children. After unsuccessfully trying three pairs of pants on, I claimed they were probably too tight because she eats too much candy. As I heard the words come out of my mouth I felt like they were coming from someone who was not me and instantly regretted what I just said. As a kindergartener the size of her body isn't largely influential on her sense of self (yet), so I feel that this comment didn't have the impact it potentially could have had if she were older or someone else. But as my girls transition through an age where they are becoming more and more influenced by the external world I have more responsibility to teach them to own their own attitudes about their bodies and sense of selfs, and  messages I send to them must be concentrated in positive affluence to counteract the negative influence of the world around us. After this remark, I feel I have some making up to do, and will do my damndest to model this self-love, self-acceptance, self-compassion that I am working so hard to learn at 35 years old to my girls as they grow. To stress that it takes all shapes and sizes and kinds of people to make the world and that we all matter. To love and celebrate myself and my children for who they are at the core, their authenticity, their individuality and the strength of their will, even on days that this very thing makes my job so much harder.

One way I can do this is through the lens. I love the challenge of capturing the true personalities of my kids on camera. They've become accustomed to just continue with what they are doing when I bring out the camera. I want to portray them as their naturally, just doing what they do, doing what they love. I want to show them the value and beauty in who they are. These types of photos, where their personalities really shine, have become my strongest storytelling images.

Yesterday I received a highly anticipated book called Strong is the New Pretty. If you are familiar with this book you can imagine my excitement. It is a collection of photographs of girls doing their thing, showing strength and authenticuty through their passions, each paired with a quote from the girl in the picture. They are captured by Professional Photographer Kate T Parker, also a mother of two young girls. I admire her work greatly, as well as the way she raises her girls and the message she is portraying through her project. It falls perfectly in line with my values and all I discussed above. I wanted this book not only for inspiration as a mother and photographer, but also as inspiration for the rest of my family. However, I didn't anticipate the potential ability it had to strengthen the bond between my girls and I, through a shared experience of becoming inspired, which was realized the moment I sat down with Scarlett and started reading. I got that similar choked up feeling I had received the day she was born, in realizing the opportunity this book was creating in relaying the very messages to my daughters that I wanted to through these photographs and quotes. Scarlett sat attentively and asked about the words she didn't understand. This has become a tool for opening up this discussion of many life topics, including dreams, resilience, perseverance, individuality etc., something I realized I was previously struggling to make time or find moments to do. We read the first five chapters in one sitting. She continued to navigate her way through the book when I got up to resume my many responsibilities that go with being mom. Seeing this left me very happy.

Side Note: Another lesson came out of this moment for me. I often feel guilty for not spending enough time doing things with my children. I will sometimes resent having to do things I do not enjoy or when it is inconvenient to do so. Then I feel guilty about not wanting to spend more quality time with them. Sitting down with this book and reading it with Scarlett brought me a lot of joy. It occurred to me that I have choices in what activities I do with my kids and if I choose things I want to do or that serve a greater purpose for me, I will enjoy them more and we will all get a greater sense of fulfillment through our time spent together.

Since receiving this book I've been inspired to gather my favourite images that show the strength and true nature of my girls into a collection. Here is just a sample...