Saturday, 29 January 2011

Notes on being creative

“Our creative dreams and yearnings come from a divine source. As we move toward our dreams, we move toward our divinity.” – Julia Cameron

Artist Unknown

What does it mean to be creative?

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary describes creativity as:
The power to create by bringing something into existence; to produce through imaginative skill; to make or bring into existence something new.
Young children are perhaps the best examples of this. The first years of their small lives are composed of one creative expression after another. They are natural innovators – everything is new and unexplored.

As a little girl, I had a deep desire to be creative. I was bursting with creative energy and excitement and wanted to share my ideas with the world. I wrote short stories at the back of my Hilroy notebook during math class; I’d break into improvisational dance during choir practice; I filled several notebooks with my fashion designs; I drew vivid pictures that required loud, dramatic pencil strokes – which got me kicked out of class; and for many years, I wrote a daily journal – which I imagined would be read by my grandchildren after I died.

But through junior high and high school, there was no way for me to foster or nurture my gifts and I became acutely aware of my limitations and insecure about what I had to offer. On the inside, my desire was still the same, but I lost the ability to express it. The spontaneous, free-spirited side of me was replaced with self-criticism and fear. I was afraid of doing something wrong, looking stupid, being humiliated, and of being rejected. I began to hide the things I once loved.

Years later, I’m learning to open up that side of myself once again. It first started a few years back, during a difficult time getting out of an unhealthy relationship. When I couldn’t find my way through it, I returned to an old friend – my writing. Everyday, I picked up my pen and wrote down all of my sadness, anger and frustration. I wrote down the truth that I was too afraid to say out loud – that I didn’t love him. A few months later, I was able to muster the courage to leave the relationship. Although the whole experience was painful and isolating, the writing process – which has continued since then – helped me find my way back to myself. Ultimately, what it took for me to return to writing was trust in myself.

In an article in today’s Globe and Mail, entitled: Neuroscientists try to unlock the origins of creativity, the author describes recent research findings that affirm my own experience:
Researchers…have debunked the myth that creativity is seated in the right side of the brain and begun to explore the intriguing possibility that it is related to the ability to silence our inner critic.
What all of this means for me is that living a creative life is about allowing myself to lose control, open up to my true gifts, trust that what I have to say has value, and to be okay with putting my fears, vulnerabilities and dreams out there, no matter what others think of me. Through this process, I’m also noticing a deeper connection to my own spirituality.

In a powerful and inspiring TED Talk, Elizabeth Gilbert describes that in Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome, creativity was thought to be the result of a “divine attendant spirit that came to human beings from some distant and unknowable source, for distant and unknowable reasons.” She explains that this “magical divine entity” lived outside the artist, and would assist the artist in their endeavors. Art and creativity were considered to be the result of an interaction between an individual and the divine, and that art came through that individual, not from that individual.

To me, this means that I don’t have to be a professional “artist” to experience and live creativity. It also means that creativity and art are available to all of us, if and when we are open to them.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

Memento mori

My Dad’s heart is in his stamps.

He’s been collecting since he was five years old. I remember boxes in our attic stacked three and four feet high – all filled with various types and amounts of postage.

His main profession was teaching, but stamp dealing was his weekend gig, and seemed to bring him the most pleasure. He sold his miniature treasures in Moncton, Halifax and parts of Maine, and people drove from miles around to claim them for their own collection.

Since his retirement from teaching just over 10 years ago, he’s been able to devote more time and energy to his business. His shows now take him to Halifax, Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto, so I get to see him every few months when he’s in town. My husband and I attend the show on Sundays, helping him behind the booth until closing.

I’m not a stamp fan myself. I’ve never really understood the beauty or value of them, but there’s something about watching my Dad in this role that I cherish. It tells me more about who he really is by seeing him at what he does best.

People from all nationalities flock to his booth in search of small reminders of home. Although my Dad has never travelled outside North America, his collection spans the world. He has a special way with his customers and knows how to find that particular stamp that someone is searching for. People often leave his booth a little happier than when they arrived.

Although I’m no expert, I can see that it’s not about selling a piece of postage for the mail. He’s in the business of peddling memories - miniature mementos of art, culture, politics, and history that are snapshots in time.

The sad reality, though, is that stamp dealing is a dying business. Both the dealers and collectors are aging, and the next generations are largely indifferent to a world that is becoming more of an eccentric hobby than a niche business market. But even though this community is shrinking, you can see how people look out for each other and care about each other.

A few years ago, my Dad had a triple bypass and missed about six months of stamp shows. When he returned, dealers and collectors alike flocked to his booth to inquire about his health and what they could do to help. Many are the same age or older, and I wondered if it reminded them of how fragile life really is.

My Dad was in Toronto for a show last weekend, and as usual, my husband and I arrived on Sunday afternoon with tea and snacks in hand. Not long into our visit, we noticed a peculiar vacancy over at “Nunes’ Nook”, which is the business of Dr. John Nunes. His sign was there, but gone were the hundreds of long rectangular red boxes, usually stacked high on his tables and shelves, individually labeled with the names of countries representing the origin of the stamps within.

My Dad leaned over my shoulder and whispered, “Nunes had a heart attack and died this morning.” As I stared at his empty booth in shock, my Dad explained that he was at the show on Friday and Saturday, and then didn’t arrive on Sunday morning as usual. One of his staff eventually came around and broke the news.

I felt sad for this man who I never even formally met, and for the family and community he’s leaving behind.

As we left the building that night, I was reminded of something I had forgotten until then. My husband is a photographer and while helping my Dad at a show about a year ago, he was inspired to take a picture of Dr. Nunes with his vintage Yashica Mat camera. I thought his interest in Dr. Nunes was a bit strange at the time, but now it somehow makes sense. We’ll be submitting the photo to the Canadian Stamp Dealers’ Association and sending a copy to his family.

His spirit was captured in that moment in time, doing what he loved most.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Pictures from the past

“As you understand your true nature and your true purpose, your life will be permanently transformed, and then you can begin to transform the world.”      –Brian Weiss
“I think you have an old soul,” said the beautiful Bermudan man who lived down the hall from me when I was 21 years old. I lived in a fantastic apartment overlooking Dows Lake with my friend and roommate Sarah during our final year of school together in Ottawa, back when rent was much lower than it is now.

Reuben became a good friend of ours. He baked a mean cornbread, introduced us to sushi, was into martial arts, was a very kind and gentle person, and was also very spiritual. The three of us talked into the wee hours about things I never really thought about before, including the notion of reincarnation.

Sarah later became an expert on the subject in her own rite, producing a mini-series on past lives, which drew international attention. She gave me a copy of the book Many Lives, Many Masters, which I read while on my honeymoon in Southeast Asia.

In the book, Brian Weiss talks about how he unintentionally stumbled on past life regression while treating a patient through hypnosis in 1980. That event changed his life forever and as a result, he has spent the last 30 years helping others let go of their deepest fears and discover their greatest life lessons through past-life therapy.

When an opportunity came up to participate in a full-day workshop with him, I jumped at the opportunity.

In a conference room of 400 people, I heard inspiring stories from Brian’s amazing spiritual journey. He spoke of his belief that our bodies are a vehicle for continuous learning and growth; that our learning coincides with others, who may appear in our different lives again and again; and that our achievement of the ultimate life lessons of compassion, love, non-violence, non-judgment, non-prejudice, and patience facilitate our continual re-birth.

He then led the group through a series of exercises to experience various states of consciousness – most notably, a past-life regression. Brian guided us into a hypnotic state by asking us to visualize ourselves descending a long staircase, which eventually led into a garden. Through his instruction, we were led through a doorway, which provided access to our past life memories. He told us to note any images, colours, smells, or feelings we had, to determine the story, geography and time in history. As I slipped deeper into the regression, I could feel myself letting go of my logical mind and allowing my senses to take over.

During our debrief, some people described their experience as incredibly visual, like watching a movie. My experience wasn’t that fluid – more like a series of photographs flashing before my eyes. Some of the images I saw included: a woman by the water in an African village with large rings around her neck that stretched from her chin to her collarbone; Egyptian symbols and statues; animals in a jungle, including tigers and monkeys; Hindu statues; and a bald, barefoot Indian man wearing the gold cloth of a Buddhist monk.

I wasn’t sure what to make of these images, but it was a powerful experience that has deepened my interest in the topic ever since.

As I left the workshop, I thought about all the choices I’ve made, the people in my life, and the lessons I’ve learned so far in this lifetime. I realized that if all the events of my life are leading me to one ultimate lesson, then everything is an extension of that, and everything is a gift. I find that idea very humbling. It allows me to understand that we are all on our own path, each learning what we need to, in our own time.

What lessons have you learned?

Sunday, 9 January 2011


Bodhichitta: Chita means ‘mind’ and also ‘heart’ or ‘attitude.’ Bodhi means ‘awake,’ ‘enlightened,’ or ‘completely open.’ -- Pema Chodron

Oya, Warrior Goddess - Artwork by Francisco Santos 
I met a friend of mine for drinks the other night to catch up and share about the holidays. We went to a lively pub just down the street from where I live. It’s a favourite spot of mine: there’s always a good crowd, and the cozy atmosphere makes me feel like I’m sitting in my living room – albeit much louder. As we sat and talked, our voices became part of the growing chorus of Friday night post-holiday gatherers coming together to set the tone for the New Year.

Reflecting on our different holiday experiences, I realized that I had some sadness related to my family. Even though I love going home and being with my siblings, parents, nieces and nephews, I often leave feeling a bit disconnected from them.

Living in a different province from where I grew up makes me notice how quickly life changes. The short time together after months apart really highlights how my choices and values differ from those of my family. Living a life outside of where I grew up makes me feel worlds apart from the people I felt so connected to as a child. And sometimes I feel like they just don’t agree with my choices and lifestyle. I find myself hiding who I really am or editing out certain parts of my life.

As a result, I come away from the holidays feeling happy from the comforts of home, while at the same time, frustrated by certain conversations, upset by disagreements, and deep down, feeling like I don’t belong.

I also noticed how difficult it was to maintain my regular meditation practice. I came up with lots of excuses to not practice, such as: I “deserve” the break, it’s too difficult to meditate outside of my usual space, and I should be spending more time with family rather than myself.

When I did practice, I found myself distracted, agitated, and counting the seconds until the time was up. This "resistance" feeling led me to recall my early weeks of meditation.

It was October and my third week of my meditation course when I began experiencing an incredible amount of anxiety during seated meditation. It started in my belly, and as it grew, my whole body would heat up like a furnace. It took all of my energy, focus and concentration just to sit through it.

When I talked with my meditation instructor about it, she said that I was practicing “Warrior Meditation”. At first I thought she was patronizing me, but then she explained that maintaining your practice through emotions, sensations and physical symptoms enables us to “ride the waves” and be okay with whatever is going on. Once we can do this in meditation, we can begin doing this in our lives.

In her book The Places That Scare You, Pema Chodron, describes:
“Those who train wholeheartedly in awakening bodhichitta are called bodhisattvas or warriors… These are men and women who are willing to train in the middle of the fire. Training in the middle of the fire can mean that warrior-bodhisattvas enter challenging situations in order to alleviate suffering. It also refers to their willingness to cut through personal reactivity and self-deception, to their dedication to uncovering the basic undistorted energy of bodhichitta.”
When I think about my family, maybe being a Warrior means learning to accept them for who they are, acknowledging what I find difficult to live with, and then just accepting that too. Some of the most painful moments with my family also remind me of how precious they really are to me and that even when I feel separate, alone, or judged, there is a lesson. And I’ll learn that lesson if I’m willing to be open and vulnerable with whatever comes my way.

I’m learning that it’s okay to show them how different I am and to be with whatever reaction they have. Maybe they’ll love me anyway, despite my differences.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Meeting my angels

"Millions of spiritual creatures walk the earth unseen, both when we wake and when we sleep". --John Milton

“Do you believe in angels?”

A presenter asked this question to a group of 60 students during a weekend introduction to astrology course that I attended a few months ago. I looked around the room. A handful of people hesitantly raised their hands. Frankly, I didn’t know how to respond since I wasn’t sure myself.

I remember a story my friend’s dad told me when I was about 12 years old. He knew a man who was a window washer, and while cleaning the windows of an office building one day, his harness gave out on him. He fell several stories through the air, and just as he was about to hit the pavement, he experienced landing on a soft bed of feathers – as though a pair of angel wings reached out and broke his fall.

That man never should have survived that fall at all, but miraculously, he didn’t have a scratch. My friend’s dad believed it was the work of God.

That story amazed me. At the same time, I dismissed it because I felt it was grounded in religion – something I turned away from as a young girl. Now, finding my way back to spirituality on my own terms, the idea of someone or something watching over me doesn’t seem so far fetched.

While on vacation in Halifax this summer, I went to see a woman named Kelliena, who is a psychic. There was a very positive review about her in a local online journal, describing her gifts and her ability to “communicate with angels”. I wasn’t really sure about this, but it definitely piqued my interest.

She reads out of a store called Little Mysteries that focuses on spirituality, holistic healing and personal growth. When I arrived for my 11:00 am appointment, the clerk took me to the back of the store, behind a curtain, where she was sitting at a small round table. I was surprised to see we were about the same age. She had a warm, calming presence and seemed very down-to-earth.

She said she would be giving me messages from my angels and I nodded my approval. She spent most of the session looking over my left shoulder, translating their messages for me. I was in awe of what she told me, and I barely said a word until the end of the session. Here are just a few of the main messages:

She said that I was in a period of renewal, trying to get my energy back after what seemed like one health issue after another; she talked about how hard I am on myself, and that I give my energy to others first and leave little for myself, which has a negative impact on my health; she told me that I’ve been laying low, trying to protect myself so I could heal, but that as a fire sign I needed to ignite my fire – even by lighting candles and meditating; she also said that I’m a writer, that I needed to continue writing even when my energy is low, and that although my condo has wonderful energy, I need a space of my own in the country, so I can truly get in touch with my gift without the distractions of the city.

Before I left she told me that my angels are always with me, and that I can see and feel them through meditation, in my dreams, and when I call on them for help.

I left the store shaking, feeling slightly overwhelmed, yet spellbound by her words. It was like she saw right through me, right into my soul, speaking out loud the things I’d been thinking about for weeks or even months.

Over lunch with my husband at a little restaurant up the road, I asked the waitress for a pen and used the back of my datebook to write down everything I could remember from the session.

For days afterward, I kept thinking about what she said. I was both amazed and inspired. This experience somehow allowed me to believe a bit more in what, deep down, I think I already knew – that maybe we’re not alone after all.

Monday, 3 January 2011

Becoming wholehearted

For as long as I can remember, I’ve felt pressured to have a memorable experience on New Year’s Eve. Over the years, I’ve found myself attending all manner of parties and celebrations that never quite felt right.

But having put a lot of time and energy in 2010 into what was most important to me, and being honest about what wasn’t, my New Year’s experience this year was different. I had two objectives: to spend time with the people I love and to finish my Vision Board.

On New Year’s Eve, my husband and I decided on a quiet night with three of our favourite people in the world: my best friend, her husband, and their 2 ½ year-old son. We dined over arugula salad and home-made Asian noodle soup, shared desserts that we bought at our favourite vegetarian gluten-free restaurant, and rang in the New Year with a bottle of Veuve Clicquot champagne.

We also spent part of the evening recording our answers to a set of questions that would help us reflect on 2010 and create our goals for 2011. The final question stuck with me the most:
What one word would you like to have as your theme in 2011?
Choosing a word for the year has been a tradition of mine for a while and has proved to be a very powerful exercise. During the year of “Change”, I travelled to Kenya and moved to Toronto; for the year of “Abundance” I got a significant pay increase and got to travel across the country for work; during the year of “Love”, I met the love of my life and got engaged.

Although I’ve been thinking about it for weeks, the answer still didn’t come to me while we were going through the questions. The word has to come from somewhere deep inside me. I have to take it on, love it, own it, and make it my mission statement for a full year. So I don’t take choosing this word lightly.

On New Year's Day, I thought about it as I finished my Vision Board, which represents everything I want to bring into my life for the year. For 2011, I have three main goals:
  1. Cultivate an honest, vulnerable writing practice
  2. Deepen my spirituality and spiritual practices
  3. Connect more with nature and create a space for regular nature retreats  
    My Vision Board for 2011
Coincidentally, a good friend of mine asked a similar question as her New Year’s Day Facebook status. Looking at all the beautiful words and images displayed on my Vision Board, which I finished only moments before, a response finally came to me: My word for 2011 is Wholehearted.

The dictionary defines wholehearted as “unconditional and enthusiastic devotion; enthusiasm originally meant for divine creative inspiration or by the presence of a god.” Brene Brown, a social researcher who just spent the last 10 years researching the notion of being wholehearted, ads another beautiful layer to the term:
Wholehearted living is about engaging in our lives from a place of worthiness. It means cultivating the courage, compassion, and connection to wake up in the morning and think, No matter what gets done and how much is left undone; I am enough. 
It’s going to bed at night thinking, Yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t change the truth that I am also brave and worthy of love and belonging. 
As I think of my three goals for the year, I can see how being wholehearted is truly the foundation of it all, as well as the way forward.

I now feel ready for the year ahead, I’m grateful for all the wonderful people I have around me, and I’m inspired and excited to see where my journey will take me next.