I want to introduce you to my friend, Emma Brett. She is a tower of strength, and her story can help many, many women. For years she struggled with two main addictions: food (most particularly sugar) and alcohol. The issues associated with her food/sugar addiction were compounded by the fact that she spent most of her life with undiagnosed celiac disease.
“Throughout my childhood, I’d eat and I’d be ill,” Emma said. “But instead of caring about it and trying to help, my parents made fun of it. My whole life I was called Lulu because after every meal, I’d run to the loo.” (That’s bathroom, if you’re unfamiliar with the British slang…)
Her parents’ teasing led to an eating disorder, struggles with weight, and all the emotional baggage that comes with them. Four years ago, she tried to take back control by training for the Spartan Race in Ottawa near her hometown of Fitzroy Harbour, Ontario.
“I lost a hundred pounds training for the Spartan race. But after the race, the training stopped and I gained back 80 pounds,” she said.
Emma didn’t give up. She stopped drinking on January 19, 2019 and hasn’t had a drop of alcohol since. But she inadvertently replaced one habit with another. “The one or two bottles of wine a night became one or two bags of Fuzzy Peach a night.” So, a year later she gave up sugar on January 25, 2020. After “three hellish weeks” of sugar withdrawals, the mental healing started.
Something Magical Happens When You Begin to Walk…
And, she began walking. Emma is lucky enough to live by Morris Island Conservation Area, a gorgeous slice of Mother Nature with eight walking trails, miles of forest, and sprawling wetland habitat eddied along the southern bank of the Ottawa River.
“I’d put my headphones in and I walked. It started with only one kilometre. And that was big. At the time, I weighed 280 pounds, so it was a long distance.”
Soon though, she broke through the worst of the physical struggle and began enjoying her treks to the trees.
“The forest is my therapist,” Emma said, laughing. “That forest on Morris Island knows every single deep dark secret of mine. There is a grove of five birches where I go and I talk and I yell. I give everything to the trees. Because I know that I’m alone. Things you can’t say to a human, you can say to a tree.”
Oh, I love that! So true! I was getting more and more excited at this point in our conversation. That moment she began unloading her thoughts and feeling on the trees was the beginning the mental healing for Emma – something she felt had to happen before the physical healing. It gave her new perspectives on her childhood and her life. What she calls the “veil of trauma” began to drop for her, revealing the mistreatments she endured.
“You are blind to how you were mistreated because you actually think you deserved it. You think you’re a piece of crap.”
“That’s what I began to do: breathe. When you are living your whole life in fight or flight, you are always holding your breath. Until you are allowed to breathe out.” Emma found that chance to exhale in those trees on Morris Island. Emma found it in Mother Nature. “She – always upper-case She – She is who I talk to now.”
The Important Lessons I Learned from Emma
Gosh. I don’t know where to start. Emma’s story – all that she’s been through – really resonates with me. Forests have been safe places for me, too, but I didn’t really understand how deeply I felt that until I heard Emma talk about her own connections to the forest. When I’m walking through my special forest, nobody is judging me. Nobody is tugging at my arm. I can be alone in my thoughts to work my shit out. I feel instantly better.
“Forest therapy – it’s real!” Emma said.
And I agree. All these places in the world close to forests have people who are happier and healthier – and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. Even just the decision to go for a walk injects us with energy, joy, and hope. Emma talked about one time when she went for a walk in her neighbourhood, except her way was blocked by, coincidentally, downed trees. Or maybe it wasn’t a coincidence. The trees of Morris Island up the road called to her, as far away as they were. She ended up walking 12 kilometres that day – far further than any day before. Emma walked so far and for so long that she had to call her husband Owen to let him know she’d be home late, just so he wouldn’t get worried. Mostly by accident, Emma pushed past what she thought her limits were. She hasn’t limited herself since.
Emma’s story also underlines the power of the human body and the human soul. We make assumptions that we can’t do things. Walking long distances can be one of those things. But walking is innate in us – our bodies were designed to walk. I’m beginning to wonder if our souls were designed to walk, too.
“It’s how we became humans,” Emma said. “We literally walked into humanhood.”
Exactly! Yes, it can take some time to whip that body back into shape. But not as much time as you may think. For your body, walking is like riding a bike – it never forgets. We just need to get on with it sometimes.
Walk With Us
Emma and I, along with two other University friends, will be walking the West Highland Way in Scotland later this year, informally as part of the She Walks the Walk Global Walking Adventures (G’WAs). We are giddy to come together after thirty years of friendship.
“I’m so excited! I’m going to break open. I’m going to break into a million pieces, and then I’m going to put myself back together. With your love, with my love, with the love of everyone on that trail. When I think about this trek, it is daunting, yes. But I know, we can do anything.”
Amen to that.
I’m so proud of Emma – and so inspired by her story. I’m also deeply honoured to be part of her journey as she puts herself back together. This change in her life is such a display of strength! Because change is hard – even when we know it’s what’s best for us. As Emma has shown, walking isn’t just a weight-loss strategy. It’s a guilt-loss strategy, a limitations-loss strategy, a grief-loss strategy. Walking is healing in any form we need it to be because that physical activity breaks down barriers in our mental psyche as well. It’s a place to push our limits and work our shit out. It’s a place to get us closer to Mother Nature.
And I can’t wait either.
If you’d like the chance to crack yourself open — just like Emma — why don’t you join us on one of our Global Walking Adventures? We’re working on three new itineraries to help you work out your shit with a group of women who long to do the same. We’ll be announcing our Fall 2023 dates for Morocco and Jordan this March.
Exploring new roads is always more fun when you’re exploring with new friends!
Could it be as simple as changing our mindset? Does that baloney even work? Can we afford to relax a little, maybe take ourselves less seriously? Don’t we deserve to really THRIVE here?
I’ve been reflecting on my workaholic tendencies, along with my own ambition. When I get laser-focussed, everything else falls away in the pursuit of my goals. (Facts: I’m not that much fun to be around and I look like a grease monkey with my unwashed hair!) I could probably work myself into the grave and even then I’d continue picking up things that need attention.
That’s all fine and dandy, because I get to call my own shots, and everything I do is a labour of love. But if I’m not careful, it too can become a toiling hot mess.
But why not aim higher?
My dad used to quote from Robert Browning a lot, and one that has always stuck with me is this:
“A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”
I love this quote, and my ambitions are evidence of my own belief in it. Of course I believe in striving for more than we need or desire. If we only strive for what’s in our immediate grasp, guess what we’ll end up with?
And I know not everyone has their basic needs even met, so let’s get that out of the way before I yak any further.
But, what if mankind didn’t strive for what lies beyond?
Surely we would not have landed on the moon, written symphonies while blind and deaf, or simulated an actual wormhole! (Note: the latter is astonishing and I encourage you do go down that rabbit hole to see where science has just taken us.)
My point here is I’m doubtful the most accomplished humans in history set out to simply “survive.”
The doomed houseplant.
I recently accepted the planter of a work colleague who was moving back to Italy. The plant itself is on death row, but I didn’t have the heart to tell my friend I’ve a history of manslaughter with these things. He was desperate to have it go to a good home and had hours to get it out of his apartment.
The reality is, I’ll try to keep up with that plant’s basic needs as best I can. I’ll water it (when I remember) and maybe, the little guy will have a shot.
But what if I actually re-potted him? Spent time and energy infusing his soil with fertilizer… Investigated the best possible light for my new friend to really bloom?
I’m sure if I did this, he’d not only survive, but he’d thrive!
The truth is, I care, but there are far too many tasks more pressing than making it my mission to become some Goddess of Greenery here at home. I accept this, because we can’t be all guns-ablazing with everything in our life. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day.
The cost of our ambition.
Burnout, resentment, failed relationships, weight gain, weight loss, headaches… these are just some of the things I’ve experienced personally in the chasing of my very lofty dreams. I see some head-nodding in the Over-Achievers crowd! Capricorns, you feeling any of this?
The world is full of ambitious people, and thank goodness, because they appear to have the stamina to go the distance. But sometimes we can lose sight of what really matters when all is said and done.
I will fully admit I’ve lost years as a mom, my head shoved so far up my ambitious ass: I blinked and my baby girl is almost fifteen. I’m not saying I haven’t been a decent mom, but for sure I’ve not properly listened when she’s talked to me, I’ve shushed her away when in the middle of “something important” and I’ve missed loads of events knowing her dad would represent.
This is all time I will never get back.
Just the other day, I found a video of myself… Ugg, it was painful to watch. I was bawling into the camera, lamenting about my fear of the future, blah blah, boo-hoo. And my then twelve-year-old came bounding down the stairs wanting to show me her latest art. I watched my annoyance on the screen and heard myself say, “Saffy, I’m in the middle of something,” to which her wounded eyes clouded over.
I will never get a do-over of those moments. So. I’m asking myself if I shouldn’t be dulling down my ambition.
Let’s just move to an island and sell piña coladas on the beach.
Hands up if you’ve said this!
We say it in the comfortable knowledge that it seems like less hassle. The exact opposite of some hectic ambition over here in the “real world.” (Note to anyone who has plans to do this… It’s obviously not this simple, so forgive the overused metaphor.)
I’ve no interest in getting to the end of my life having alienated myself from the people who matter to me. Or having recklessly focussed on what could end up being a pipe dream. (I will never believe this, so I’ll also ask you to forgive my hypocrisy!)
At the same time, I think our quest to pursue that which is beyond our grasp is healthy. What is life, if not made up of dreams? Why not try? If we can develop healthy parameters that will ensure we continue nurturing the people we love, then why not?
The joy in it has to matter, or ambition can just fuck right off.
Today I had a conversation with a fellow entrepreneur who reminded me that finding and feeling the joy in our work is not some fluffy fantasy reserved for Instagram. It’s incumbent on all of us to seek it out, because the alternative is a whole pile of years where we wither.
Our chat reminded me that I need to dust off my feminine energy, and just sit in the silence of being. That we’re SUPPOSED to enjoy the process, otherwise, what’s the point? Do we want our ambition to morph into withering?!
I sure don’t. So, where to go, what to do?
I say we should always aim higher. But not at the expense of our health, our love for family, or our values. We should reframe our ambition as a human right to thrive on this planet. And we should find ways to make all that hard work feel fun.
That, to me, is thriving. Now excuse me while I water my new friend. He’s looking a little thirsty these days…
I held the earrings in my hand and turned them over and over. They were only $25, but I’d no intention of buying anything and was just there to keep my mom company. We’ve been trying to fill her interminably long days. It’s still hard without my dad. But maybe a local craft show would pick her up.
The TEA TIME MOSAICS table oozed delight. And that’s not a word I throw around casually! It took a beat, but soon I understood this artist’s modus operandi: handcrafted jewellery from broken dishes. Now this is something I could really get behind! (And God knows my clumsy self could donate to her cause: ask me about my infamous ‘Breakage List’ from my early serving days…)
I studied the pair in my hands; it’s rare to find china with ivy. You see lots of pine combs and twirly flourishes, but these little chunks were special. A finely-woven gold hoop offset the dangly earrings. “But will I actually wear them?” I thought to myself.
For some reason, I then asked the woman if this was her full-time gig. She replied, “it is, and it isn’t.” She’s hoping to get back into the world of mental health and addictions counselling, something for which she went to school and spent years doing.
My curiosity unravelled further and I asked her how she got started:
“I loved collecting old teacups, and one day, I broke my favourite. I couldn’t bear to throw out any of the pieces, so I kept them.”
“Well, I saw something new in the shattered bits. I thought I could smooth out the rough edges and maybe create a pendent or some earrings.”
“So you did?”
“I’m here, now, aren’t I!”
Her table of offerings glittered under the massive chandeliers of the ballroom. Quirky and fun, all original work. No two pieces ever the same.
I realized my jaw was wide open while she continued to pour out her inspiring story. It reminded me of someone but I wasn’t sure who, until fuzzy dots began to slowly connect in my brain. Here I am, trying to make something from nothing (the short version of my She Walks the Walk story!). And here I am, picking up the pieces of my shattered heart.
I hate admitting this, but when my dad died, I lost a pile of confidence. He was my number one cheerleader, my go-to for advice and he understood my blindspots intuitively. On the inside, we were almost the same person.
I bought the damn earrings. They will never go with my mostly-hiking-attire wardrobe. But they’ll remind me that we all have choices when our worlds come crashing down. We can pick up the pieces and try again. We can find something new. We can use our creative energy to begin again. We can make something beautiful out of our frustration.
I hope to make 2023 just that. And, I’m inviting you to join me!
One of the Most Frequently Asked Questions I get is this: “Is it hard to leave your family behind and/or walk the G’WA treks on your website?” Women love the idea of dropping everything and jetting to the other side of the world to climb Moroccan mountains or watch a Guatemalan volcano explode in the early dawn sky. They’ll watch the videos and revel in the romance of it all. But they’re hesitant to buy the ticket and take the ride themselves.
And I don’t blame them one bit.
Challenging yourself by stepping out of your comfort zone is, by definition, uncomfortable. That’s the whole point – otherwise, we wouldn’t undergo any change. I’ll let you in on a little secret about why it’s so hard in a minute that might put things in perspective.
I’ll share a story from my own life that may sound familiar.
You’re Doing What Now?
Most of my friends and family literally laughed when I told them back in 2009 that I was going to climb mountains in Bolivia. The laughter wasn’t hurtful – they thought I was joking. After all, at the time I was so not that girl. No, I was the girl with no clue how to inflate my self-inflating Thermarest. And those crampons that I bought for mountaineering? Even the Amazon bots suspected they’d never see the light of day outside the box they shipped in.
But I knew I needed something totally outside of my normal everyday drudgery. Hiking up a 6,500-metre mountain on the other side of the equator seemed as good a “something” as anything. (And the fact that everyone laughed at the thought was a good sign I was on the right track!) I was a young mom who was quickly getting disillusioned with the whole rat race and the pace of life it demanded.
I was looking for a way to regain my sanity before it was lost forever.
Discovering Mount Sammy-Jammy
So, I set my sights on Bolivia and Mount Sajama (pretty close to one of my nicknames, Sammy-Jammy, don’t you think?). I’m sure I looked like an alpine tourist with my newly minted ice axe blinding in the sun and those infamous crampons, which were as surprised as anyone at the prospect of actually tasting glaciers. Booking the trip, getting on the plane, and getting shipped off to some of the “baby” mountains was terrifying enough for a newbie like me.
But I think the moment I really started to question my choices was when we had to fling ourselves at an ice wall with only an ice axe to catch the fall. Yes, this was training for the very real possibility that we could go sliding down a glacier and tumbling into an abyss, in which case our ice axe skills were the only thing between us and oblivion. I can tell you, I tasted ice a few times myself!
Other training included walking the knife-edge precipice on Pequeño Alpamayo and perching on an ice ledge, while my guide Osvaldo left to rescue another climber. It didn’t help that, of course, Type-A Sam had watched hours of YouTube climbing videos and documentaries before the expedition including several about the deadly 1996 Everest Disaster in which knife edges and ice ledges figured prominently. My own rookie climbing was punctuated with both adrenaline and anxiety. This wasn’t just getting outside of my comfort zone! In fact, you could say the needle pointed closer to “Holy-Shit-I’m-Not-Doing-This!”
But when I summitted Pequeño Alpamayo with my fellow – and much more experienced – climbers, I cried like a five-year-old who had finally learned how to ride a bike.
We’re Not Done Yet!
Was it hard???? Fucking right it was hard.
But I was buoyed by the encouragement of my climbing group. Spurred by my curiosity of “what if I COULD actually do this?” Along with the reality that we’d passed the point of no return. After all, this wasn’t the end of the trek. I still had the main objective: Mount Sajama. Despite the missteps and panic attacks, I felt ready and was determined to push on – for myself as well as for the rest of the group.
If this was a Hallmark movie, it would end with me atop Mount Sammy-Jammy with my arms outstretched in the morning light, maybe a flag in hand, and a look of pure joy beaming from my frozen face. However, as often happens, real life doesn’t go to script. My quest to reach the top of Sajama ended short of the summit. After all I’d been through, my body was spent, and the last 500 metres – the hardest 500 metres – simply wasn’t physically possible for me to finish no matter how determined I was.
I didn’t care.
I’d battled altitude sickness. Overcame my fear of heights. Learned to trust in others and felt more fully alive than I’d ever felt in my whole little life. I pushed past the limits I had put on myself, doing something that no one ever thought I could or would do (including me).
Since then I’ve attempted and “failed” to summit dozens of other mountains. I didn’t care then, either. Okay, a couple of them stung in the moment. But ultimately, it was never about the summit. Along the way I’ve grown as a woman, I’ve seen stars beyond comparison, tasted adventure (and glaciers), seen sunrises and sunsets impossible to describe, and worked through physical suffering that has made me the tough cookie I am today.
All because I took that first step outside my comfort zone.
No Ice Axes Needed for Your Trek…!
I can assure you, none of the SWTW treks I have planned for you will have you hanging off of ice ledges or relying upon axes and crampons to save you from oblivion. I have searched out treks that anyone in moderate-to-good shape can accomplish without any special equipment except a good pair of hikers and a sturdy set of walking sticks.
But the experience will be similar. The inner journey is always as important as the outer one, and perhaps more so. It’s difficult to describe the elation you’ll feel as you climb over mountain trails and get up close to Volcan Acatenango as it erupts. You’ll end up seeing things and doing things that you’ll see and do perhaps once in a lifetime – if ever.
Most importantly, you’ll grow in ways that you never thought possible. Every woman I’ve travelled with has had some sort of life epiphany or solved some conundrum in her life along the way. They don’t always tell me the details – and that’s okay. As long as they know the details, that’s all that matters.
Of course, you have to decide to do it. Often, it’s our own fears that are stopping us.
The Only Thing to Fear is Fear Itself – Your Fear
Here’s that little secret I teased earlier: the hardest part of the whole thing is getting past your own fears and anxieties and what-ifs. The external barriers are easy to get around, as we’ll see in a moment. It’s your own internally created barriers that are much harder to overcome.
And that’s true of any limitations we put on ourselves. Until we stop believing in those artificial barriers and start believing in ourselves, we’ll never take that first step.
What road blocks do you see in your way?
Work? Chances are, you can book the time off if you ask – especially in this post-COVID world when many companies and organizations are much more understanding of mental health.
Family? I’ve learned that families are much more resilient than we give them credit for. They are quite capable of surviving two weeks without me. Besides, there is often a bevy of family and friends who would be more than glad to help out if needed.
Pets? Ditto the above.
Your own guilt? This one is something you will battle. But you’ll have to trust me on this, you are worth the fight.
Again, that secret: the biggest road block to your own happiness is usually you. If you’re anxious about stepping outside of your comfort zone, you’ll find a million reasons not to do it. But if it’s something you desperately want, you can always find that one way to make it happen.
So what’s your Mount Sammy-Jammy? What mountain do you need to climb or trail you need to trek or volcano you need to witness to get yourself closer to you?
Guatemala would be a great starting place. Read all about the Guatemala G’WA here to get all the fine details of what, where, and when. You can also send me a quick message detailing what your questions and concerns are. Then, we can set up a time to talk either via Zoom or phone (or email if you like, but I find that’s less effective to have a full and nuanced conversation…)
So. Is it hard? Yes – maybe one of the hardest things you’ll ever do.
We got the memo: this is no joke. We’ve donned our masks. We’ve pushed through our weariness. We’ve limped along and accepted what is. But could we be seeing signs of progress on the horizon? The world’s most brilliant minds have done the near impossible, pulling together several vaccine candidates that could knee-cap this relentless battle. Whether you take an eligible vaccine or not isn’t my point. Humanity is persevering.
Humanity, is looking for a way out of this mess.
Straight up, this gives me hope. And when in darkness, I will seek out any shred of hope I can find.
Wherever you are in the world, Covid has impacted you. Most of us spent months in lockdown, forced into disconnection while we worked to ‘flatten the curve’ — an expression I never imagined I’d hear, understand or be so sick of all at once. But it became a rallying cry for all of us. We did not want our health care systems in chaos. We did not want our loved ones dying. We did not want to be reckless in the face of so much bloody uncertainty. We believed in the idea that although we were apart, we were still together, just, in new ways.
As it turns out, we need each other. Just typing these words fogs up my glasses.
How beautiful to now know that perhaps we took each other for granted? How profound to now grasp that our whole, wide world is really so small? How vital has it been to finally fathom the sorry state of our Long Term Care system?
I know this is getting old. And we’re heading into winter amid soaring new numbers. Enthusiasm for supporting the cause is waning, to say the least. But let’s hold onto what we’ve discovered. Our yearning for human contact says so much about us as a people.
It says that we all matter.
Sometimes I reflect on pre-Covid times, and what I’ve come up with is that things were a train wreck then, too. Just a different one. Everyone running in fifty different directions… Every man out for himself. I get that I’m generalizing, but I’m beginning to wonder if this could be true: is all great change really preceded by chaos? (Thank you, Deepak.) Are we not on the brink of taking the lessons we’ve learned and making the world better?
This is how I choose to see it, because it gives me something to believe in. Something that fuels my hope during this freaking misery marathon we’re all running.
Yes, we are tired. But look how we’ve adapted! Look at how options to connect have skyrocketed! (And admittedly, we have a ways to go to bridge the digital divide.) Look at how we’ve all sought options to take our friendships, families and social groups online to stay in touch. Because we just aren’t meant to exist on our own. Another realization that fuels me.
I’ve seen such kindness over these last few months.
Busy people putting down their agendas to make life a little easier for our vulnerable loved ones. Picking up medication and groceries. Med students mobilized to babysit the children of frontline workers. Programs created to call isolated seniors so they might enjoy a weekly phone call from a volunteer, keeping them company a few hours each week. People have stepped up and are filling in the gaps. It makes my heart soar to see this level of human compassion.
I’m not denying the vast amount of suffering that’s gone on. I just can’t, however, go there right now. I must focus on the good. The world will open back up again and as it does, maybe we can take these collective learnings and shift our consciousness to a more global perspective. I personally believe that our spirit of human cooperation has the potential to move this and future generations into a society that cares even more for others. And wouldn’t that be something?
We are, after all, a universe of people. Bonds are forming across barriers we didn’t used to pay attention to. And while things are far from perfect, we can all agree that we’re a species longing for … well, belonging. That revelation has the power to change our whole world.
I’m not talking about the ‘girl has exited the tv and is puking goo while crab-walking backward down the stairs’ kind of haunted. And I doubt there’s a monster lurking in the darkness with a machete (although tomorrow is Halloween and the universe may still surprise us).
What I find genuinely haunting is the past — and all the painful, upsetting memories that help piece together our understanding of the world. Personal demons, foot-in-mouth moments, ghosts of humiliation; whatever you call them, each of us carries our own baggage lodged deep within our souls. These ghosts alter our perception of the world and often fill us with a super delightful array of emotions: dread. Anxiety. Regret. Shame. And, most often, fear.
Fear has a purpose. It longs to keep us safe, regardless of the cost. It’s main job is to remind us of our vulnerabilities and the need to protect ourselves. What a nifty warning mechanism!
But being safe and feeling safe are two separate things, and sometimes we develop a fear with no discernible difference.
Have you ever been alone at home and unable to sleep, because despite double-checking the locked doors and windows, you were still convinced a stranger could break in? Welcome to my occasional paranoia and our house, just five driveways down from the neighbourhood graveyard!
In moments where we’re actually safe but still feel fear, our fear becomes less helpful and more paralyzing. Irrational, even. (Although we can easily find ways to rationalize why the fear is legit. Like, would Hitchcock really make a movie about birds if he didn’t somewhat believe they were more sentient and potentially murderous than we currently give them credit for?!)
Often, in our quest to feel safe from those less helpful fear responses, we start to avoid anything that may trigger the fear. We miss out on potential opportunities, experiences, and enjoyment to avoid reawakening our ghosts.
I’ve got that t-shirt! My poor daughters… all those years of bouncy castles and carnival rides, and I never went in one. They’d grab me by their eager hands, urging I partake in all the frolic, only to be met with an emphatic, hard pass. See, once upon a time, I was locked in an attic above a garage by some asshole boys. I couldn’t have been more than five or six years old? Left alone in that tight, dark space for more than an hour morphed into a classic case of Claustrophobia. Cue the years of avoiding anything I believed I could become trapped in — elevators, roller coasters, caves, and, bouncy castles! To this day, my husband has been dubbed the ‘fun parent’ (since I was too chickenshit to engage in half the things), and I? Well, I’m just the ‘hard worker.’
Skirting past all the uncomfortable feelings that come with being scared can evolve into a fully-bloomed avoidance of living the life you imagine. I think it’s important to know the difference between the healthy fears and those less helpful. It’s good to be frightened of the bear you stumble across on that hike, but you’ll limit your growth if you turn down the chance to give a speech at your best friend’s wedding. The truth is, both situations may be terrifying. But one has the potential to tear you to shreds (unlikely, but possible) while the other is not going to kill you, even though you may feel like you’ll die over the matter!
So how do we go from living in fear to living with or despite the less helpful fear?
Sometimes befriending your ghost is a good option; leaning into the fear and exploring its roots can help you to pursue healing and develop safety. It’s a journey that can be done on your own, with friends, or with a therapist (therapy can be life-changing, I’ve been in and out of it my whole life!). And never forget that you have a choice. Whether you avoid the fear or lean into it, you get to decide how you respond.
Trying to manage your fear doesn’t mean it will completely evaporate — there’s a chance you’ll be somewhat haunted for a long time, and that’s okay. But it may mean that you can co-exist peacefully with your pal Casper instead of constantly waiting for him to pop out and scare you senseless.
We all deserve a life that is the fullest expression of ourselves — unhampered, and free. Not one governed by the things that haunt us. If you find you’re limiting your life to avoid fear, you aren’t alone. Be patient. Be strategic. And most importantly, be kind to yourself. You developed these fears because something scared you enough to feel unsafe; even if it’s worth facing your fears and moving forward, it’s still damn hard. Give yourself space to feel that.
Here’s hoping we’re haunted only by actual ghosts and goblins this Halloween instead of the ones we carry with us! (Just jokes… remember, I live by a graveyard?!)
PS: if you’re a trauma survivor and are able to access resources, please engage with a therapist or professional before you work on any trauma-related fear you have. The Canadian Association for Mental Health has put together an excellent list of resources we’re attaching below. Re-exposure can be triggering and having appropriate support available is important.
A collaboration between Sam Plavins & Melissa Dafoe, BSW
Brea Griffith’s knew how to win. From the classroom to the soccer field, most everything she pursued was met with gold stars. She was continually rewarded for her efforts. Full-ride scholarship to an Ivy-League university in the States? Check. Twice-named Captain of her NCAA women’s soccer team at Princeton? Yup. Boston Marathoner? Indeed.
You get the picture. She was the kind of girl we all admire, but also resent, just a teeny tiny bit. Crazy intelligence. A natural beauty. Also, an all-round kind human being.
It goes on from here. Brea married her college sweetheart, became a mother and even spent a year living on a sustainability farm in Venezuela. Eventually, she added to her Degree in Evolutionary Biology & Ecology with a Masters in Forestry from Yale.
I know, right? Dang.
But nobody knocks it out of the park forever.
Brea’s story would soon evolve into a tale of homelessness. Into months of surviving alone in the desert as a single woman… sleeping outside and trying not to let the howling of nearby coyotes thwart her resolve. She’d face physical pain beyond any capacity to describe. Frustration and depression. And fear, real fear. (Imagine yourself backed into a corner while an unsavoury looking man approaches you with a very large and very pointy hunting knife.) At some point, Brea contemplated her best option to end this suffering.
She didn’t want to live. Not this way.
So, how did Brea fall so far from all that success? And why did she go from seeming to have it all, to condensing her world down to a literal trash bag and committing to living alone in the desert for six months? Away from her children, as one last-ditch effort to try and heal from crushing pain? How can this be?
The answer starts with how Brea’s doing now: she’s thriving.
Today, Brea is an entirely different woman. Her smile is radiant. Her confidence, contagious. She no longer derives her worth from any accomplishments. She’s learned that she is already deserving of love and acceptance. Just as she is, full stop. Her physical limitations and all that misery, gone. She’s back with her children and living a new, God-filled life.
Yes, I did just bring up the good man Himself. God. Which raises another curious question: how does a science-trained, atheist come to a place of faith? (Note: this is not a piece about religious doctrine. It’s about conquering fear with faith. And it’s also about surrender, leading to ultimate transformation.)
Brea vividly remembers that moment her world imploded.
She’d just completed the Boston Marathon in 3 hours, 35 minutes, but following what seemed an impossibly long period of recovery, found she couldn’t run a single 400M lap around the track in her neighbourhood.
She became — at times — bedridden, struggling to care for herself and her children. Nevertheless, Brea soldiered along, drawing on her training as an elite athlete. But she did everything she could to avoid turning inward, and instead sought her answers from all sorts of external sources. Anyone plugged into the medical community. Anyone who could resolve her slew of debilitating symptoms… Headaches. Chronic pain. Face swelling. Muscle weakness. You name it, she had it. She plunged deep into an unending rabbit hole, searching for the elusive diagnosis and what would hopefully be a corresponding treatment. Her life had shifted from an idyllic dream to a living nightmare.
“Still, I just kept pushing, because nobody could figure out what was wrong with me. I couldn’t understand how I’d gone from being so carefree and successful — being able to do anything I put my mind to — to this person who couldn’t even get out of bed.”
Eventually, Brea was diagnosed with Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS), a serious, long-term illness that affects multiple body systems. She describes how it manifested in an interview with Princeton University.
“It’s like living with severe, severe flu 24/7,” she says. “You have vertigo, weakness, pain. You can’t eat. It’s like a five-alarm fire that’s going off in your body at all times. Then you push yourself because you want to do something, you want to live, and you pay the price. You crash. It’s debilitating. I got to points where I didn’t even have the strength to speak.”
As Brea will attest, when you’re facing these kinds of challenges, you become your own worst enemy, and the drama tends to intensify. Cue the next bullet to try and dodge. Following the birth of her third child, daughter Lynleigh, thousands of gallons of water flooded into her basement, morphing into a severe mold situation. You can imagine how this disaster exacerbated her existing symptoms. Among all the other physical challenges, Brea temporarily lost hearing in her right ear and began to contend with extreme nausea.
She sought relief from Western to Alternative treatments, from Functional medicine to experimenting with a graveyard of supplements. In fact, Brea Griffiths spent a small fortune on treatments! Her journey ultimately led to working with a mold specialist, who informed her that exposure to the dangerous toxins in her basement had switched on a particular mold gene in her body. And once switched on, it could not be switched off. This was not good.
She was angry. So very angry. And refused to buy into that belief system.
But in 2017, a defeated and disillusioned Brea was forced to move out of her house due to the intensity of her illness. Even her possessions had begun to make her sick. She began protocols to help her body detox the dangerous biological pathogens replicating inside her. And while she saw some improvement, she found herself on a teeter-totter. There was never any lasting relief. Her body and brain only become more sensitive. At one point, she was experiencing over 82 different symptoms.
Brea’s journey would eventually lead to a strategy she read about online. It offered her renewed hope. It was also… the last straw.
Extreme Mold Avoidance Journey
Brea had learned that some people with similar conditions had seen tremendous impact by living outside in the pristine desert air. As unorthodox as this sounded, she saw no other choice in the matter and decided to give it a go. She committed to a trial of three months and, miraculously, saw some real changes from being out in the wild.
But when she returned home, all her progress unravelled. What’s more, her husband had had enough and decided to end their marriage. It was all too painful. Brea tried to rebuild and moved into a brand new townhouse; only to plummet once again into a battery of discouraging symptoms. Even when placed on a strict liver detox protocol, she found herself dysfunctional. Her face was on fire — puffed up and burning. Her headaches — splitting. She wound up losing ten pounds that week.
So Brea moved out onto the balcony of her home and saw some gradual improvement. As a Canadian girl, however, she knew this would not be a permanent strategy. It was getting colder and winter loomed near. How would she hang onto her tenuous functionality, when going back inside only triggered her physical symptoms again?
Family and friends came to the house to clean with antimicrobial products. “Sam, they scrubbed every square inch with that stuff!” Unfortunately, it didn’t help. She felt herself sinking into deep despair, as she faced the dreaded likelihood of having to go back out to the desert. She simply had to get well. For her children. For herself. For life. She didn’t have any other cards to play.
“You’re only working six inches in front of you. Just trying to survive this moment. I thought it was my best chance to try and calm my immune system down.”
Wearing her crocks and with just one set of clothes shoved into a plastic garbage bag, Brea set out for Death Valley in California. She recalls feeling ashamed of her “freakish” appearance; but it didn’t matter, because she believed it would work, if only she could stick it out long enough.
“I was in five states,” she says. “I spent a lot of time in Death Valley in California. I was in New Mexico, Utah, Nevada and Arizona. It was pretty heinous. I couldn’t be in a campground, because I couldn’t be around people. I had no cell phone service because I was far away from any towers. I was stuck alone, living outside. The chemicals in a tent or a rental car were too much. I had to sleep outside on a cot under the stars in the middle of nowhere, through the winter. I froze my butt off. I had multiple sleeping bags and winter coats. If it rained or snowed, I had to find someplace else to go. I couldn’t tolerate anything by that point. I’m talking about having significant reactions. You start to feel like you’re being attacked from all sides. You’re in complete survival mode from moment to moment.”
But something extraordinary would soon happen.
It was January, 2019, when Brea was living in the desert for the second time. She had befriended a man who was on his own healing journey in the wilderness, and could not get over the strength of his faith. She became curious about his relationship with God, and how leaning on him seemed to bring him so much peace. Brea would listen to the courage of his convictions and found herself craving that kind of impassioned knowing. So, despite the continued madness of living alone in the desert, she made a conscious choice not to feel alone anymore. She wanted to believe someone could love her enough to care about the mess she was in, and before long, Brea became drawn into a spiritual relationship that knocked her atheist views upside down.
Her friend introduced her to a few sections in the Bible, and while she felt some initial resistance, she once again decided it couldn’t hurt to try something new. The stories would wash over her and fuel a growing appetite to understand more. This led to her first efforts at praying. Brea admits it felt completely foreign at first, lying on her cot under the stars, asking for a sign from someone she couldn’t see. She’d simply ask, “God, if you’re here for me, please just let me know.” Almost immediately, she’d felt something change. A light and warmth filled her entire body.
She began to ask questions everyday, like, why she was created? What did He have in store for her? And what should she do to really get better? She started looking for signs of what steps to take next. Inexplicably, Brea felt herself being pulled onto a new path. Admittedly, she labels this a “legit 180.”
“Growing up I had zero interest [nor belief] in the spiritual realm. But all of a sudden, I felt I was being led. I began to believe that I could actually heal. That I’d been through enough, and living in this extreme way of isolation and avoidance was not serving me.”
Her budding faith led her to discover an innovative program called the Dynamic Neural Retraining System — where she’d learn to retrain her brain and ultimately reclaim her life. (This, of course, is a massive over-simplification.) She began to learn she’d been seeking her sense of worthiness from the value society placed on all her accomplishments. She realized she’d been constantly trying to earn people’s love, the effects of which had depleted her completely. She also recognized she’d taken no responsibility for any part of her body breaking down.
Through the neural plasticity brain retraining, and her faith in God, Brea woke up to the realization that she no longer needed to push so hard. She surrendered into a new way of being. She also stopped comparing herself to others, and worrying if they liked her or not. Her mission became, “What am I meant to be doing? How can I serve in the world?” And with each new epiphany, she felt her body and mind growing stronger.
She began to function again. This was a complete transformation. A miracle.
Today, Brea is certain that if she’d not endured such a physically painful journey — one fraught with isolation and fear — she’d not have tapped into the thing she claims is the greatest gift available to us all: faith. With unwavering confidence, Brea will tell anyone willing to listen that having a little faith does not make you weak. That you are not meant to go it alone in this world. That your pride should not keep you from surrendering to that which we can’t explain.
I asked Brea to comment on the fear that keeps so many of us stuck in limiting beliefs, unable to move courageously through change. Her response was so… so Brea.
“There is always this resistance to change. I don’t know what this is going to look like. Is this right? Is this really what I need to do? But I find the more I practise faith, the easier it is to do. Why would I just stay where I am right now? Because that’s not serving anybody. I’m not going to live in fear anymore.”
Brea has discovered that every obstacle we face comes down to fear. In tandem with this is a whole pile of stress we bring on ourselves — the root of which? You’ve got it: fear. She’ll tell you that trying to do things all on your own may net you the same old results.
“I say, step back, get out of your own way and allow yourself to be led. Take just one step of faith. For me, that means God. He shows me which way to go. I don’t want to go back. Why would I ever live any other way? The world tells us to be strong and independent. But I rely on my faith and that has transformed me.”
Today, Brea is focussed on helping people reclaim their lives through her robust coaching/brain retraining practise. Coming from a place of love, she uses the principles of things we already know — like mindfulness, gratitude — and amplifies them in a way that brings about real change. Many of her clients are very sick. Some, even bedbound (like she was). They struggle with anxiety and depression, both of which she can relate to. She works with believers and non-believers alike.
And her candle does not burn down by being there for others. As a mother. A daughter. A coach. Her days of just trying to survive… a distant memory in her rearview mirror. For Brea, this is thriving.
On your life’s report card, are you seeking all A’s? Do you spiral downwards when you run into a C? Or worse, a failing grade? Are you after the highest praise for the efforts you put in?
If so, pull up a chair.
I’ve been that girl. It’s got to be all A’s or nothing. Up until now, that is. Because I’ve finally decided that mediocrity is not the end of the world. (Quite frankly, neither is outright total suckage.)
Case in point: I had the opportunity to better understand how my brain works when I attended an experiential leadership program in Wales this past March. I was thrown into five days of crazy-intense projects, each one becoming increasingly more complex than the last. It became clear mid-week that when under stress, Sam was incapable of digesting large volumes of technical information. Nope. Gross. In the words of Alexis Rose, “Ewwww, David!”
So, I melted into a puddle of tears when my desire to perform was met with my inability to function under those conditions. I also knew my performance hurt the team; talk about a humbling moment for the ego!
Despite the epic failure that was the task I led, understanding my weaknesses, and my zero interest in trying to learn how to be more technically savvy was a victory. I finally got it! Light-bulb moment… Sam Plavins’ brain is not optimally wired for this kind of thinking! Nor does she need it to be!
As long as we’re human, we’re going to suck at many things.
Some of them will be due to the effort we put in; maybe we underestimate what’s involved. (Low effort usually yields a low result, unless you’re exceptionally skilled in that area and can execute a win when seemingly asleep at the wheel!) While some paltry grades stem from a complete lack of interest. I mean, if you asked me to spend an afternoon in your basement putting together Ikea furniture, there’d have to be some killer prize at the end of that madness for me to say yes. Because nuts, bolts, screws, diagrams — not my thing! (Note: I really enjoy Salt & Vinegar Pringles paired with a nice Cabarnet and will feel your Ikea pain right alongside you if these snacks are are involved.)
But like my belly-flop at the Leadership Trust, we also net poor results when we’re put into a situation to perform and we just don’t have the skills to pull the thing off. Period.
So the question becomes: does it matter? Do we care? We don’t need to be good at everything. I’ve given up in the culinary department… myself, my family, friends — we all just accept that Sam’s idea of an appetizer is to crack open a bag of Tostitos, dump it in a chip bowl, pour some salsa on the side and voilà. Hospitality at its finest! There’s no point in me boo-hooing about this, because it’s just not in my wheelhouse as a skill, nor do I need to be tearing my hair out to whip up something more impressive. (Agreed. That is a very low bar I’ve set there.)
I could try harder. Yup. And I have. But I will always be that girl who shows up to the party with a store-bought container of mini cupcakes. Why fight it? Now, if you need someone to write and perform a Sam-style rap à-la Will Smith’s Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It? THAT I can do. And you’ll probably love it.
I’m learning that my efforts can also exist without fear of analysis. Without concern for the toughest critics. Even without achieving the highest possible outcome. I’m finally understanding that sometimes mediocrity is the best you’re going to get when simultaneously meeting the needs of the people who rely on you. And sometimes, you’re knowingly limping along. (Hello, Covid-19 fatigue anyone?)
Human beings are born with free will and this means we can choose. How much meaning we assign to something is fully up to us. We need to work on giving up this idea of a constant stellar performance. It’s far too much pressure, and we do it to ourselves.
So I’m gonna take my half-baked, half-assed efforts, marry them with my best foot forward and let the chips fall where they may. I already know I’m worthy. Someone once told me that God doesn’t make mistakes. We are all here for a reason.
Let’s ditch the A-only mentality. It’s killing us! It’s not sustainable. It’s not real. What matters most is our truth and the pursuit of it. If that truth equals a weekend of chocolate binging and general lying around, then let it. If it equals a weekend of hustling and getting your shit done, then so be it.
Some recent goings on have sent me spiralling down my own reflective Rabbit Hole. (Holy crap, it’s dark down here! I need a flashlight and a thermos of Lipton Chicken Soup.) Nothing is off limits: my life, my opinions, a few of my recent decisions, and the state of the world.
I’ve become super mindful of judgement, and it all started when I found myself on the receiving end of the stick.
The provoking incident in question was a newly discovered troll on my youTube channel. Now, the optimistic, ‘Susie Sunshine’ part of me just assumed that nobody would ever come out and say mean things about me or my channel. I mean, I’m a harmless, middle-aged Canadian gal who had a one-time moment on the Camino de Santiago. It doesn’t get any more freaking benign than that.
Moreover, the kind of people who go searching for info/inspo on the Camino tend to be either a kindred spirit, or the ‘Practical Joe’ wanting to know about backpacks and toe socks. Both ‘types’ of these people have been inherently kind towards me.
I was wrong, however. To believe that I would be immune to the kind of nonsense that entered my orbit the other night? Ha!I’m definitely not! There is good news, though. This dude is forcing me to think about the future and the inevitability of what happens when we put ourselves out there. In cyberspace.
Guys, we will be judged.
Let me use some other words just to ensure I’m clear: if you choose to put your ideas out into the wacky, world wide web, you’d best have a thick skin, and a strategy for moving past what I’m politely defining as ‘assholery.’
So, the troll.
Do I know he’s a troll? Well, maybe that’s an unfair characterization. To me, a troll is a person (debatable, really) who spends all his/her time looking for opportunities to tear into egregious arguments online. I’ve always thought a troll’s goal is to steal the spotlight and wreak havoc on humans who want to have a balanced discourse about something.
Now, this fellow? He made the effort to pepper my Camino videos with what started out as innocent, unfettered burns. (For anyone unfamiliar with the urban use of the word ‘burn’: it’s what the teenage folk do on a regular basis to their parents. Try to find ways to sass-talk/disrespect them without crossing into the ‘that was unacceptable and now you’re going to be punished’ territory.)
Anyhoosie, his burns quickly morphed into beastly rudeness.
So what’s the biggie, you ask? I’ve been on this earth for 46 years and have already dealt with my fair share of shade. I also know the rule of thumb is “don’t engage.” (Haven’t we all been taught to ignore someone who is bothering us?!) But for some reason, I took his bait and that has ultimately led to my taking up residence in this dank and cavernous Rabbit Hole. Is my soup coming? Anyone? Hello? Bueller?
Buddy’s main beef with me was that I basically create videos that say “fucking nothing.”
Sub-beefs include me being sexist (ROFL), my walk into Santiago as “barf” and “fuck Deepak Chopra.”
In the midst of digesting all this hoo-haw, he also sent me a private Messenger request, entitled “My Dear Sister Samantha”, the crux of his note being his telephone number, a request for me to call and a final greeting of “Love, Hope and Joy!”
What. The. Actual.
After I took a few minutes to try and understand what circumstances would make a person be such a dick online, I learned that he is potentially very lonely and seems to be unwell. It didn’t take much detective work to draw these conclusions, either. (Thank you, open Facebook accounts!) My research pointed to a man with a pituitary tumour, for which I have an immense amount of compassion. But I did find it funny that his Facebook likes include a one… wait for it… Deepak Chopra! I tried to imagine what heinous crime Mr. Chopra must have committed to isolate a former fan who now insists “F*** him.”
I decided to make a conscious effort to just move on, but by then, the damage had already been done.
See, our minds are like fertile garden soil. We must be judicious with the thoughts we plant, otherwise we could have invasive, quick-growing weeds suck out all the moisture and nutrients, leaving us stripped bare. Overrun, even. It sounds dramatic, but you know it’s true.
If you’ve ever had a negative thought, or been at the other end of someone’s obnoxiousness, you know that your mind can take over rational thought and spiral into a yucky place where you cannot shirk the damn thing away. Like a stubborn, prickly weed, you can’t just pull it out and toss it down the hill, either. It’s right in there, super deep. You may wind up grabbing a fistful of something if you yank with all your might, but the roots of the thing still linger, which means before long, there will be another, stronger weed occupying that much-coveted real estate in your brain.
Truth time: my deepest, current insecurity is that I’m making something from nothing. And that it won’t matter. It won’t be relevant. And that nobody will care. And that I’m completely full of shit.
Omigosh, I said it. That’s what keeps me up at night! For us sensitive types, we rely on others to care about what we offer to the world. But I’m smart enough to know that even with all my experience, my comfort level with risk and the bold vision I have, everything could still bellyflop with one robust splash.
So this dude did a number on me. He re-ignited all the fear I thought I had control over. Thanks, asshole!
Mercifully, I also view his “fucking nothing” comment as a gift. Because I’m not going through all this soul-searching and work and pain for nothing. It’s very purpose-driven. If anything, though, he’s reminding me that whatever I put out into the big wide world, it must be in service of others.
It will be. And I’ll still be judged. ?
To lighten this moment, please enjoy an old photo of my daughter Piper, about to jump into the coldest pool in Ecuador. You see that smiling face? She doesn’t care. She’s just going for it! And that’s where I wanna be. This picture is an #accuratedepiction of my feelings right now. So I think I’ll hashtag some more feelings below, just because it’s fun to invent painfully-long words!
Yesterday, I left the house at 2:30 p.m. in my pajama bottoms, making a beeline to the nearest Tim Horton’s drive-thru. This was an act of sheer, unadulterated laziness: a woman in desperate need of a coffee with zero desire to clean out the machine from the morning’s earlier fix. My youngest had also not eaten lunch, and a house full of fruits and veggies just wasn’t cutting it. (50% of the inhabitants here are watching what they eat. I’m not one of them, neither is the kid.)
As I approached the order window, I found myself confronted with the icky stench of discomfort. An unkempt-looking Indigenous man sat on the concrete block adjacent to my car, holding a tattered cardboard sign that read: HOMELESS. ANYTHING HELPS. Doing my best to avoid eye contact, I unconsciously scanned the situation from 10,000 feet above. Here I was, milking the convenience (and dare I say luxury) of takeout while this human’s reality painted an entirely different picture. In that moment, I scoured the car for evidence of anything I could donate. But it’s COVID, so I haven’t used real money in awhile. And by the time I thought to order him something to eat, I was already up at the window paying.
I drove home. This doesn’t affect me, so I’m just gonna move on with my day…
It’s now Saturday, and I find myself in an all-out tizzy. Like most, I’ve been taking in the week’s appalling news and riding a rollercoaster of WTF-ness. The two most disturbing bits to me have been what I’m calling ‘The Cooper Showdown’ and ‘George Floyd’. I’ve been sponging up all the abhorrent details GOOGLE will provide in a desperate search for some kind of answer. Of course we know I haven’t found any, because what I’m looking for doesn’t yet exist. My brain longs to make sense of it. It’s denied over and over, and yet I continue to follow these stories with interest, disgust, shame, and sadness. In the words of The Black-Eyed Peas, “I think I’m all distracted by the drama and attracted to the trauma.”
Throughout my life, I’ve been confronted with a number of pivotal moments where I learned something catastrophic has happened in the world, I’ve felt a sense of fleeting impact and then quietly gone about the business of getting on with life. There are three core examples I want to speak about, highlighting some important things I learned at the time and some personal reflections I’m experiencing right now.
September 11th, 2001
I was 27 years-old and had just finished an early morning meeting at the mansion of a prominent, local businessman. I walked back to my office at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, and recall feeling so lucky; the sun was out, birds chirped their sing-songy best… I just knew it was going to be the kind of day where everything you touch falls into place. Except that it didn’t.
As I sat down to turn on my computer, one of our long-time volunteers walked by my office. She seemed flustered and struck up a conversation that went like this:
“Samantha, dahling, have you heard the news?” “News? What news?” “New York is burning. It’s just awful!” “What do you mean?” “Wall Street! The World Trade Centre, you don’t know?” “No, I don’t know anything.”
There isn’t a need to fill in any other blanks, because everyone knows what happened that day. As the situation evolved, it crept rapidly into the orbit of all Foundation staff, and soon we found ourselves huddled around one of the two TVs on our floor. How could this be? What did it mean? When the second plane hit, it became obvious the crash wasn’t an accident. Our fixation continued, and as the towers burned people began hurling themselves out the windows.
And then the first building collapsed. Just like that. Melting into a pile of dust and rubble and bodies.
I could no longer watch. I grabbed my bestie, Sara, and headed over to the Rideau Centre for some mall walking and the kind of coffee a shell-shocked person seeks out. On the way over, the only thing we could talk about was the horror of what we had just seen. Neither of us could process it, but something Sara said to me has stood out to this day. This is a paraphrased, recollection of how our conversation went:
“OMG Sara. I can’t believe this. Those poor people. Thousands have just died.” “I know, Sammy. It is terrible.” “You seem relatively calm about this.” “Oh, I’m not. I’m deeply disturbed. I’m just not as shocked as you. Mass killings have been going on in the world for years. We’re just sheltered, or we don’t pay that much attention to it because it isn’t happening in our own backyard.”
As a Jewish woman of just 24, Sara was far wiser and worldlier than I, referring not just to any number of atrocities against the Jews, but any other oppressed and terrorized group of people around the globe. Of course I knew some of what she was implying, but because these things had occurred ‘over there’, or before my time, they weren’t in my immediate consciousness. This doesn’t affect me, so…
January 20th, 2020
My little one and I hopped on a plane for OperationBringHomePiperFromItaly. She had just spent the first semester of her Grade 11 year living in a small town, 30 minutes outside of Milan. As a former exchange student myself, I couldn’t wait to meet the generous family who welcomed her into their home, and thank them in person for taking on the added responsibility of a third teenage ‘daughter’: my quirky, slightly-dramatic-but-also-lovely 16-year old.
Our plan entailed spending a few days getting to know the characters and scenery of Piper’s new world, then hitting the open road for a week of Mom/Daughter bonding. Basically? Going wherever the Plavins whirlwind blew us. To make a very long story short, we spent ten incredible days soaking up the iconic landmarks of Milan and Venice, then headed north to Austria to get our Sound of Music on. The usual travel mishaps of spontaneity did not bring us down, but one of us faced some challenging moments on crowded trains. Saffy — my 12-year old — had been tracking the story of this virus thing happening over in China.
I’m sure you know where this is going.
Looking back, it’s so easy to connect the dots. The virus wasn’t even on my radar screen and then suddenly, news of China locking down an entire city found its way into our conversation. I recall thinking specifically that the media LOVES to overhype and spread fear. These became my lines of defense against Saffy’s increasing anxiety throughout our trip.
On January 30th, we were to meet back up with Piper’s family for one last hurrah: a celebration meal together at my request. This was the same day the WHO declared a world-health ‘Public Emergency’. Also the same day, our Italian family reluctantly and politely declined to see us, given our vagabonding all over (in and out of hostels, train stations, buses, and airports; as I told you, it was a whirlwind). Laura, Piper’s host mom, felt terrible and wondered if her husband wasn’t taking things just a bit too far. He had been encouraging me to get the kids face masks and himself brought home something that looked akin to a literal gas mask. We were disappointed but respected and understood their concerns. I just assumed they had fallen into the trap of the aforementioned ‘Media Vortex of Fear’. Grant you, on the 31st of January, Italy became the first country to suspend all flights to China and even declared a National Emergency after only 2 cases had been found in Rome. I personally thought this to be excessive and dramatic. Little did I know.
So we made a plan B for the next few days and flew back to Canada as scheduled on the 1st of Feb.
Again, there isn’t a need to rehash all the details of Italy becoming the new epicentre, or the irony in my judgemental and very naive thoughts. Those are all givens thanks to the convenience of hindsight. Our family would hear over and over You’re so lucky you got her out of there just in time! Who knew! We watched in disbelief as Covid shut down the very area Piper had lived in, and hundreds of deaths began to pile up.
Still, we pressed on with our lives, and, in fact, counted down the days until we could board the next plane for a long-awaited family reunion trip to a beach in El Salvador. This doesn’t affect us, so…
Quick background for context. My parents have owned a home in Antigua, Guatemala for the last ten years. They fell in love with the country, the culture and the people on a Habitat for Humanity build in neighbouring Honduras many moons ago. My younger brother, Jonathan, accompanied them on this same volunteer stint, and yadda yadda yadda, he moved there, fell in love, and married the most wonderful Honduran woman I know: my sister-in-law, Shalem. After dealing with years of Canadian Government shenanigans (read: proving their love was ‘legit’), they eventually settled back in Canada and started their family last year. My little niece Mila was born while I walked the Camino last year. In fact, she is one year old today.
Our reunion was slated from March 17th to the 30th — ten days of reconnecting with the most special people in the world to me. My kids were finally going to meet their new baby cousin. My parents would have all five of their grandkids together for some typical ‘Wrenshall Family Hoo-Haw’. It would be a grand adventure, of epic proportions. And in light of some recent health challenges in the family, the trip served as a beacon of hope, togetherness and love. Even up until March 10th I had the suitcases packed and all my going-away checklists fulfilled.
It was also on this day that it became clear we might have a situation on our hands.
Certain countries around the world had begun to restrict the entry of anyone who had been to China (didn’t affect us) or specific European countries within the last 30 days (Uh-oh. This affects us). And now it looked like neither my sister nor I would be allowed to enter El Salvador, as we had both been over to Europe within the last 30 days (her for a wedding; me for a course in the UK).
So we began to research a plan B. OperationGetOurMoneyBack from the resort in El Salvador, and find a lovely Airbnb to stage our family reunion in Antigua, Guatemala. That seemed like a safe bet and so far they had no travel restrictions to speak of. It’s crucial to know this was all happening the week before we were due to travel.
As luck would have it, my little family happened to be flying into Guatemala in the first place, since we were going to join my parents who were already down there and ride to El Salvador by bus. Thus from a flight point of view, we were all good. We scored ourselves a lovely Antiguan place, smacked down the full payment and began to settle into the new idea of being together in Guatemala, instead of El Salvador.
But the perfect storm was a-brewing. On the 13th of March, the Canadian Government announced all non-essential travel should be avoided. With my bottom lip sticking out like a sore thumb, I bitterly hit the cancel button on our new Airbnb find and proceeded to contact Delta to deal with our flights. I couldn’t believe that this thing called COVID would have the audacity to ruin our family’s plans. This affects me now, so I’m pissed…
Meanwhile, my brother and sister-in-law who had arrived a few weeks earlier to introduce their new little Mila to her extended Honduran family, found themselves locked inside the country of Honduras. Unable to leave or move through any other Central American country. Likewise, a similar fate was in store for my folks, who wound up stuck in Guatemala. This affects me BIG TIME now, so I’m calling CBC News and my MPP.
Some Date in May, 2020 (Actual dates fuzzy due to repetitiveness, insanity and uncertainty.)
Fast forward to learning about Ms Amy Cooper. Cockily ignoring the dog-leashing requirement of the Ramble at Central Park, Amy felt indignant when she was called out and asked to respect the rules by bird-watcher Christian. When he made repeated polite attempts to insist she comply, Amy became even angrier. So she reached into that unconscious filing cabinet in her brain to pull out the only retaliation her pissed-off self could muster. I’m surmising this is what went on her head:
You have no business calling me out. My dog and I have every right to be here. I’m alone in a wooded area and you’re a black man. If I appear threatened in any way, it’s YOU who will be punished. I know this, because our society seems to favour white women in distress. Will serve you right for raining on my parade.
Amy’s act of knowingly pulling out this decades-old weapon — the white privilege card — is what sends me into a tailspin. Because, I keep hoping that with every passing news story of a gunned-down, unarmed African American man/boy/woman… with every radically different and unjust judicial scorecard… that… that… something will change. That people will snap out of their hatred — both conscious and unconscious. That we will come to a place of abolishing oppression and racism. That we will wake up.
Then, I wondered if I’m really awake? Why did this story bother me so much? I’m not like Amy Cooper. So… what, then?
I realized it today. It’s bothering me because it’s a pattern of watching something vile, unjust, unacceptable take place and then moving on with my cushy little life. It doesn’t affect me, sooo…
I’m calling bullshit on myself. All these terrible things… all the atrocities… they DO affect me. I’m a human being. I live in the world. And if the world that I live in turns a blind eye to all the shit it needs to deal with, that shit is NEVER GOING AWAY.
In a sense, I wonder if it’s easier for me to ignore these things because I feel powerless. What could I possibly do to change anything? It’s also just way more comfortable to keep all of these sad things at arms length… a news story that rivets, but one that fades away over time, like popping an Advil, you just know there’s eventual relief coming. The Amy Cooper story should serve as a mirror to all of us. While 99% of the people I know personally wouldn’t dream of pulling that kind of racist stunt on anyone, we have to ask ourselves if we’re any better because we wouldn’t, or if maybe, we are decidedly the same for tolerating it.
I’ve been born into a bubble of privilege. And I’m just waking up to the realization of what that all means. There is an unconscious, different set of rules for people of privilege… life is just easier if you happen to:
Be white Be Canadian Be Christian Be straight Be middle-class Be able-bodied Speak English
The thing of it is, awareness is power. If I can call out myself and my own complacent bullshit, then that’s a start. Maybe this self-awareness can begin to make a difference. Maybe writing this long-ass piece while half-drunk on wine is a start. Maybe someone else will ask themselves, if they don’t have just a little bit of that This doesn’t affect me, soooo… happening.
If you haven’t had a chance to hear these words, take a moment. It’s a remixed version of the original Black-Eyed Peas song, ‘Where is the Love?’. Love it, hate it or leave it, the message is clear.
In the wake of taking up this midlife reinvention, I’ve been facing a challenging narrative that I’d like to rewrite. You know, for my eventual taking over the world, and all. As has been the case since I was a young girl, the act of declaring an issue out loud is one specific way of purging it. But to banish it for good? It’s been often more effective to write it down, and then send it out into the universe. So I trust you’ll forgive me for what is about to be a boatload of purging, as I begin the process of making peace with something that’s bothered me for decades.
Officially, I’m laying to rest ‘Rich Bitch.’ May she rest easy.
If you’re confused at all, well, thank you for feeling this way. Generally, I pride myself on most decidedly NOT being too much of a ‘bitch’, and I’d hardly call myself ‘rich’. Although the latter depends only on the metrics you’re using or whatever perspective you choose to take, as it’s all relative. But let’s just assume, for the sake of argument, I’m talking rich rich. (Interestingly, it’s been widely reported that Canadians snatched the distinction of the ‘Richest Middle Class’ in the world from America as of 2015, though for certain this virus crisis will shatter all global data in a downward trajectory.) By Scrooge McDuck standards? I don’t measure on the scale. I will, however, say that I’m aware of my privilege and blessings, and these make me feel a gamut of emotion, from gratitude to humility to utter discomfort.
Who is she… this ‘Rich Bitch’ you speak of?
Allow me to introduce you: her name is Samantha Leigh.
She’s such a nice, young girl. Now 13 years-old and most definitely a ‘pleaser’, she’s desperate for the approval of others. She longs to be a professional ballet dancer one day and flits about anything with a flat surface. Currently, she’s in the throes of that awkward stage… a mouth full of braces, overly-permed/hair-sprayed hair and regrettably, zero curves (for which she prayed daily would one day appear, and then when they did, she cursed them all to hell!). She lives on a beautiful, quiet cul-de-sac with her brother and sister, mom and dad, and an extra adorable sheepdog. Samantha is mostly happy — at least, this is what she projects.
But she also hurts.
There have been whisperings going on during recess for about a year now, and whether or not she was intended to hear these things, she heard them. ‘She’s such a rich bitch!’ … this coming from a couple of the neighbourhood boys who attended school with her. Certainly, she was conscious of her family’s abundance during this time, but her awareness morphed into a cavernous shame that would swallow her for years, and ultimately come to shape her view of money (and, sadly, people).
A belief system is born.
As she enters her last year of elementary school, she’s optimistic these whispers will simply fade away. They do not. In fact, they seem to ramp up, seeping deeper into the dermis of her skin, where they take hold of her value system and then spread like cancer, creating a number of other beliefs she would subscribe to for years.
Having money is a threat. Having money makes people jealous. Having money makes people hate you. Having money makes people think that you think you’re better than everyone else. Having money is therefore the devil.
It sounds outrageous, dramatic, perhaps even a bit silly. But this is her truth. My truth. These were my core beliefs as they related to finance and I grew up to eventually become … wait for it… a Financial Advisor… someone literally committed to helping people build and accumulate their wealth. You can see one reason why I needed to leave my career. Not exactly the healthiest relationship on earth with money!
An uncomfortable display of ‘rich’.
But how did these idiotic boys come to this conclusion? And more importantly, why did I let their taunting hurt me?
The answer is complex. Honestly? I had one of those classically, ‘great’ childhoods and would not trade my parents for the world. Let me be crystal clear about that. We all know, however, there are always problems lurking behind the scenes. And we will do whatever it takes to hide these from others. Welcome to Facades 101 — a course that teaches you to unconsciously craft a kind of storefront you may not even realize you’re building.
What affected me so intensely was the obviousness or at least the overt appearance of having money, especially when I knew there were others who didn’t. This gaping, socioeconomic inequality struck me. One particular boy — who shall remain nameless — appeared to grow up with considerably less. He had a distinct edginess about him, always milling about in his shredded jeans, his house perched close to the neighbouring shunt yard. I never judged him for this, I’m simply painting a picture. But he was a ringleader in goading others; before long, he had many of the boys calling me ‘Rich Bitch’.
So what did I do? I dated him, of course. (If you can call it dating when you’re barely 14!) Shocked the teachers and kids on the playgrounds alike… what was Samantha — this goody-two-shoes — doing dating the rebel who smoked and ditched school?
I had hoped this strategy of mine would alter his opinion of me, once he got to know me. Ha! We lasted barely a month and it wasn’t long until the whispers graduated to other audible blasphemy. (Sidebar: this boy grew up to be a social worker and is a fantastic human, I hold no grudge for his hurtful egging on. For he was in pain, too.)
And what of that uncomfortable display of wealth I alluded to?
Well, at one point in time, we were the only ones in the neighbourhood with an inground pool, which in those days was the kind of backyard recreation reserved only for people with deep pockets. There were also multiple luxury cars in the driveway, and every designer name brand a kid could wear hung in our closets. ALL the expensive, usual suspects were there… Nautica, Tommy Hilfiger, Ralph Lauren. (#Facts: as I’ve become more self aware, I have a visceral, gross response to visible designer labels on clothing. These labels created a divide that I can only now recognize, one that became more painfully obvious in high school. Understand, though, I acknowledge my own hypocrisy. Not only did I wear these ridiculously priced clothes, but I eventually sought out work at a store that allowed me to purchase even more, but at a discount price. The payoff being my own eventual delusion that I’d be more popular and ‘legit’ if I had the ‘right’ clothes on my back!)
Today, I can look back and objectively see that we weren’t rich, and in fact this has been validated by my parents directly. Upper middle-class? Yeah, that seems reasonable. But the story goes that we were also stretched quite thin… dangerously so at times. It was a precipice that seemed worth the risk of living on, for it fed the hungry, bossy ego and plugged the gap of limited self esteem.
Let me give you some concrete examples.
My mom used to always say, “I grew up on the wrong side of the tracks, and no child of mine is…” insert whatever you’d like here. Do I fault her for this? Absolutely not. She was simply doing what we all do: wanting to give her children more opportunity and privilege than she had growing up. She was also incessantly teased as a child for having less than others… you can see how the circle goes.
My dad? He suffered terrifying abuse as a little boy, resulting in very deep, very painful trauma that caused him to believe he also wasn’t good enough. As a married couple, this combined shame resulted in an insidious need to acquire enough status symbols that others would see their obvious success, put two and two together and assume they must be decent people. Ergo, worthy. Maturity, healing and wisdom, for all of us.
We are all older and wiser now, and know this not to be the way the soul works. Decades have past, people have changed, attitudes have shifted and healing has occurred. Our possessions do not define us. Standing in complete dichotomy to the past, my father is more comfortable living with less in a third-world country than he is showing any outward sign of relative privilege. He’d tell you he just flat-out doesn’t care about that stuff and would rather give away any excess that he has.
And my own thinking has evolved, too. Heck, I’ve been lobbying for years to sell everything and live out of a backpack, or at the least a Tiny Home. My time on the Camino solidified my thoughts on material possessions and the emptiness that comes from attaching to them.
I’ve also spent years viewing money as this necessary-but-undesirable ‘thing’, and yet I worked in this competitive industry where ego is most often splashed in front of anyone who didn’t care to look. Case in point, I once was at conference for rookie advisors, and the keynote speaker — a successful, seasoned advisor — took a full five minutes to show slides of his ‘compound’. I kid you not, he literally referred to his house this way; at that time I had no choice but to swallow down the barf in my mouth.
So what have I learned?
I am not this girl called ‘Rich Bitch’. And, it’s ok to have money, because I now believe that money is simply energy. We can hoard that energy, hold it close to our chest and maybe, find ourselves in a restrictive, lonely existence. Or we can put that money out into the world… in whatever form we think is best representative of our hopes and dreams. Note: I’m aware that even talking like this comes from a place of extreme advantage. There are billions in the world who require money just to stay alive. They’re often not even taught to dream, for what’s the point when survival is really the ideal outcome?
In terms of my own allocation of money, one thing I’ve prioritized is investing in my kids memory banks, possibly even to the detriment of their education savings. This has come in the form of some epic travel, partially driven by a desire to expand their own perspectives, but also by the idea that actually experiencing things you might otherwise only come to understand in a textbook, is worth something. At least, I believe it is, and it costs money. So, I send that energy out into the world in exchange for the unlimited potential growth that comes from discovering another culture. At the end of the day, I’ve also learned that what we do, how we act, or what we purchase simply proves what we believe.
It’s time for me to make peace with money. It’s been a festering block and I’m finally ready to banish it! In the process of creating my new business, I’ve discovered that although it’s specifically purpose that drives me, if I attach any shame to potential financial success I won’t be as strongly positioned to serve than if I happen to be so fortunate to smash it out of the park.
Likewise, I’ve had to face my own ugly judgement towards others. Just because someone is successful, or has money — lots of it, ALL the stuffs — doesn’t mean they don’t also uphold the virtue of wanting to make a difference, or caring about others. If a person chooses to spend their dough on a limited edition car, who am I to judge? Or a ‘compound’? That’s their prerogative. Besides, we all have different drivers for how we view money and I’m the last person that should be pretending I’m judge and jury of what’s ‘right’. I’m not.
So, my dear Samantha Leigh, I shall miss you, but I’m letting ‘Rich Bitch’ go. No tears, no regrets. Peace be with you, girl!
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