Thursday, December 31, 2009

New Years Present

One year ago I was holed up in a dusty, nowhere town in the middle of Laos, musing about an impending 2-day trek through the Phu Hin Bun NPA. I was worried that if nobody else signed up for the trek I’d be spending the last night of 2009 sitting around a campfire at my guesthouse with a few other disconnected backpackers who also hadn’t planned their agendas quite correctly, feeling awkward. (As it turned out the trek was a go and the evening was spent playing dominoes and drinking with the locals of a tiny, poor village, followed by sleeping on the floor of a simple hut in said village with the only two other travelers who had signed up for the trek: Jane from Australia and Sophie from France. It was purely delightful. If you’d like to read more about it, visit my travel blog . The entry is entitled “Happy New Everything”)

New Years Eve 2008: Me, Aussie Jane and Frenchie Sophie in village in Tha Khaek, Laos

I remember what promise and hope I felt for the year ahead as I lay tucked under my mosquito net in the ink-black night. How could I feel anything but pure optimism? In the space of 12 months I had spun my entire life in a dizzying 180: I’d left a 15-year career plus another job to boot; sold my home, put my stuff in storage and was now four months into the adventure of a lifetime with no end in sight. The world was truly my oyster.

Flash forward one year. My name is on the lease of a cheap, crooked old apartment in a somewhat disadvantaged area of Montreal. I am surrounded by my “things” again – a huge chunk of which I have gladly divested myself of through several more rounds of charitable donations. (You know those teeny, tiny, useless closets those old apartments have? Two of them are actually enough to house the bit of my clothing that’s survived the endless edits. ) Occasionally I get paid to write, which is still incredible to me; but I also work odd jobs to cobble together enough money to cover rent and all the other expenses one doesn’t have to worry about when in a high-end career or on a world tour, like cable and car repairs. I am going through a difficult and bewildering transition where many of my friendships are concerned, and it’s isolating and lonely and tough on the self-esteem. I don’t know what’s happening. My orbit has changed and I wasn’t prepared for that. And to top it all off, I’m still single.

So to sum it up: I have a ramshackle home in the same city I left behind, no career to speak of, no money, no boyfriend and some wonky friendships. Given all of that, it wouldn’t be hard to look upon the last half of 2009 with feelings of disappointment, disillusionment, depression. Of my adventure people seem to like to say, “Play time is over. Back to the real world, now, Cara.”

I say, go tell it to someone else.

Sure there are difficult days (and weeks. Occasionally even months.) How could there not be? No adventure comes without fear, risk, unknowns, and, yes - failures. That’s why so few embark on them.

But as I write this on the last day of 2009, I am at my sister’s home near Calgary, witnessing dawn colour the tips of the Rocky Mountains a pastel pink outside my bedroom window. I spent Christmas week here with my family, playing with my little niece and nephew and visiting with my parents and siblings. I had 2 unexpected and glorious days to reconnect with my soul sister Shauna (whom I first met on my island) at her parents’ home in Edmonton. We spoke of everything. She has gone back out into the world now, where she belongs, and where we will surely meet again; out there, somewhere.

Me, Shauna and a fully Canadian reunion: December 26, 2009

Tomorrow I will head home to Montreal and continue setting up my home office. I will not dread going back to my desk job in the corporate world, because I don’t have one of those anymore. I haven’t had one for almost two years now.

I will find some new odd jobs. Maybe at another garage. Maybe at a cafe. Maybe both.

I will exchange emails with Sam, my dear friend and the caretaker of my perfect plot of land on Gili Air, as he updates me on the progress of the fruit-tree-planting on my island paradise. Soon I will have succulent mangos, papayas, and avocados growing outside the door of my hut that I am going to build there. He will tell me about the rain.

I will continue to dream of future travel destinations - maybe trekking through New Zealand with Shauna?

Listen to me. I’m telling you.

The adventure continues.

Life is not about the knowns. Not for me; not anymore. It’s not about the security of a desk job and a paycheque and a house full of belongings and two weeks at Club Med once a year, as comforting as those things can be and have been. Comforting, but - and I must remind myself of this frequently - not the real world.

The real world is out there. It’s in the leaves of the seedling mango trees growing on my land on Gili Air. It’s in the creases in my worn map of Bangkok. It’s in the dirty hands of the children of the village in Laos who clung to my leg on New Year’s Eve 2008, begging for nothing more than attention. And it is in the faces and hearts of the people that I will meet in the odd jobs that I will do, have to do, to make money to survive.

As it should have always been, it is about the search. It is about the struggle, the desire and indeed the demand to discover and feel life in every moment of every day. To question, to seek, to find and then to seek again. Life is not in the comfort, but most certainly in the discomfort. It is not in the standing. It is in the stumble, the fall, and the getting up again.

So as I trip and stumble my way through the last day of a fantastical, difficult, transformative year, I wish you not comfort and security but life, in all its tangled glory.

Happy life. Happy New Year.

"The object of a new year is not that we should have a new year. It is that we should have a new soul.” G.K. Chesterson

Sunday, December 20, 2009

A Charlie Brown Christmas

Christmas week, 2008: I was navigating my way down the Nam Song River in a sea kayak in Vang Vieng, Laos as the sun beat down on my curls from high above the karst mountains. Later I got lost/trapped while caving with sweet Bretchje from Sweden, who had fallen out of a moving bus onto a highway just weeks before; we then rewarded ourselves for surviving our respective brushes with disaster by rope-swinging over a teal blue lagoon at the cave base. I mountain-biked through rugged and dusty terrain, searching for and finding nothing and everything. I discovered Luang Prabang and reconnected with Charlotte and Erwan from Paris, quickly knitting the warm fabric of a lasting and dear friendship. I swam under the waterfalls with all my newfound friends. I rose before the sun on Christmas Day, shivering as I knelt on the sidewalk, waiting to give alms to the monks.

Christmas week, 2009: Small wonder the season, like so many other things around me, feels so awkward this year.

Once upon a time not very long ago, you would have been hard-pressed to find a bigger die-hard Christmas fan than I. I felt and acted “Christmassy” from the first day in November that it seemed socially acceptable (and admittedly much earlier than that within the privacy of my own home. What’s wrong with playing Bing Crosby’s “The Christmas Song” in October?) Lights were dripping from every window and doorframe of my home; a riot of garland was coiled around the stair rail outside; weeks were spent writing and revising gift lists until I was sure I had the perfect thing in mind for everyone. And of course, cookies, cookies, cookies.

The gift-giving part started its descent down the slippery slope of meaning a few years ago. My grasp began to falter. The commercial nature of it all; people lining up outside Best Buy in the middle of the night to make sure they were the first to get their hands on the door-crasher specials; everyone stressing over what to get for whom and how much to spend on it...I asked myself with greater and greater emphasis each passing year: Why? What does any of it have to do with the meaning of Christmas? Or – a depressing thought - has this become the meaning of Christmas? I felt like Charlie Brown when he went to the tree lot with Linus and was bombarded with all of the fake multicoloured, multi-material, artificial trees: “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?”

Ask any kid in a Spiderman costume what the meaning of Halloween is and you’re likely to garner an incredulous glare as the little one peels off his mask just long enough to shout, “DUH.....CANDY!!!” I’ll venture a guess that nary a one (nor any adults, for that matter) would have a clue that its roots lie in the Christian holiday of All Saints and/or the Celtic festival of Samhain, with the name Halloween deriving from a 16th-century Scottish term.

Has the same thing happened to Christmas? (“DUH....PRESENTS!!!”)

Traditional gifting for me eventually morphed into a combination of making home-made treats (some of you will remember, hopefully fondly, the Irish cream and the chocolate truffles) and donating to worthy causes and organizations on behalf of others. At least these were things that made sense to me.

Last year while backpacking, my material gift-giving amounted to the mailing of five hand-painted Christmas cards made by a Bangkok artist depicting Santa chilling in a hammock in front of a traditional Thai beach bungalow. The cards astonishingly arrived at the homes of my family and friends on none other than Christmas Eve.

“Giving” last Christmas meant something different. Sticky rice to the monks (who don’t celebrate Christmas anyway). Time, sharing and caring to my new travel friends. The journey of a lifetime to myself.

Things are – I am - different now. There are no lights in my windows this year. No garland on the balcony railing. No list of gifts to buy. (There is, however, Bing Crosby still singing “The Christmas Song”, because it will always be pretty and perfect.)

You must understand I’m not being a Scrooge. This is not “bah-humbug”. More like, “bah... huh?”

I’m just quietly watching. I believe if one wants to learn and understand something old in a new light, one should try to do so from a position of neutrality and objectivity. And so I float above the fray of North American holiday madness, observing it like I observed the Muslims celebrating Mawlid in Indonesia: Something foreign, unrelated to me; curious and often confusing in its traditions and customs.

I’m not a particularly religious person, but I am spiritual... yet the spirit of Christmas eludes me. Curious to understand more, I googled “Christmas spirit” and “definition”. Wikipedia offered up this gem: “The Christmas Spirit is a Christmas album and seventeenth album by country singer Johnny Cash, released on Columbia Records in November 1963 (see 1963 in music). It contains four original Christmas songs written by Cash and eight tracks originally penned by other artists, including "Blue Christmas", "Silent Night" and "Little Drummer Boy".


In a few days I’ll be boarding a plane out west to spend the holidays with my whole family. It’s the first time in ten years that we will all be together on Christmas. I will catch up with my sister and my brother; I will play with my niece and nephew and watch the magic of the season fill their eyes and take over their little bodies; I will get up to silliness with my mother, as always.

I think that there, amidst the crumpled paper, commotion and cookies, lies what I might come to understand to be Christmas Spirit. My sister's home is good that way.

Although I am 13,000 km from where I was a year ago geographically and as a person much farther away than that, this Christmas is identical to last year’s in one important way: I will give with my heart.

Wishing you all a Christmas full of spirit and meaning.

“To perceive Christmas through its wrapping becomes more difficult with every year” E.B. White

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Wanderer

I realize now why everything feels so wonky and weird around me - my space, my friends, my skin...

Travel is the answer.

I am not meant to sit still. I am meant to travel.

I am not of this apartment, of this street, of this city. My heart and mind live out in the world now, and there is so much of it yet to discover. I have taken but a tiny bite of a corner of one sliver of a pie of unfathomable proportions, and it has left me famished. I need more.

I think I finally understand that this is why I can't get comfortable with anything since my return. It's like trying to wear someone else's skin.

For now, I will put my head down and work; do what I need to do. Save what money I can.

And then, I will leave again.

“Once you have traveled, the voyage never ends, but is played out over and over again in the quiestest chambers. The mind can never break off from the journey.” Pat Conroy

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Marching Onward.

“Life is a series of experiences, each of which makes us bigger, even though it is hard to realize this. For the world was built to develop character, and we must learn that the setbacks and grieves which we endure help us in our marching onward.”
Henry Ford

Yup, Hank, it’s pretty hard to realize this alright. If your musing has any truth to it, then I’m a giant marchin’ fool right about now. It’s been a character-building few days.

But seriously, now– he’s got a point. Too often our disappointments and feelings of disillusionment stem from our own overblown expectations or egotistical assumptions that when we’re riding a wave, it’s got a responsibility to keep on carrying us right to shore. Here, one of my favourite Isak Dinesen quotes comes to mind: “God made the world round so we would never be able to see too far down the road.” Ride that wave when you can, but never think for a second that it can’t or won’t dump you head-first into the sand whenever it wants. Be happy when you’re happy - but never let yourself get too cocky about it.

No unspeakable tragedy has befallen me. No horrifying setback has occurred. It’s more the re-crystallization of an understanding that had maybe liquefied and slipped away from me a little recently.

I was unexpectedly and unceremoniously released from my car jockeying duties on Sunday, seemingly mere milliseconds after I blogged about how much I love the job. Just not busy enough, plain and simple. Rush is over. We strolled to the accountant’s office, the cash was counted out into my palm, and off I went. No chance to say goodbye, as half the guys don’t work on Sundays. It has happened to countless others on countless occasions before me. There was nothing special or personal about it. But this was me it was happening to. One small world, removed.

Once, not very long ago, I had four jobs. Then it was down to three. Then two. Now I have one. Who am I now, in this new reality? What do I do next? I must strip away the ego and regroup once again.

In this life we are jolted and jostled about like so much space junk; cosmic commuters on a crowded subway platform. There is little control; you go where you are pushed, though it may well not be where you were aiming. The best you can do is hang on, hope to make it through in one piece and reorient yourself when you’re spit out on the other side; a strange new orbit to explore.

And eventually, the universe corrects itself again. I baked up a storm and took the boys in a ton of treats during their break on Tuesday, ensuring we had a proper farewell. My boys; my friends, who quietly and without ceremony took up a collection amongst themselves so that I could join in on the go-karting fun with them last weekend.

Then, shockingly and with uncannily perfect timing, Revenue Canada dropped pennies from heaven into my bank account; the result of an overlooked T4 slip somewhere. Thanks to them I need not worry so much about 3 weeks of lost revenue from the garage. I can rustproof my car so that it might hang on through a few more obnoxious Montreal winters. I can buy my little niece and nephew an activity book for Christmas.

And where a few days ago I was faced with the awkward reality of spending my first Christmas alone in Montreal, my sister and brother have now graciously offered to fly me out to their home in Big Sky Country so that our whole family can be together for the holidays, for the first time in forever.

I am humbled by it all.

Up and down, back and forth. Elastic souls stretched so often to the point of breaking, only to be released with a relieving yet painful snap at the last second. We are astonishingly resilient.

In this life, there is good and bad. Lightness and dark. Yin and Yang. We are foolish to forget, and more foolish to grasp hold too tightly of only one truth or the other, ignoring the inherent grace or furor that will surely be bestowed upon us.

And we must march onward, with characters brimming and hearts anew.

It is written in the stars.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

What I Love About Being a Car Jockey: By Cara Vogl

“People enjoy chopping wood. In this activity one immediately sees results.” Albert Einstein

This isn’t the first time I’m using Al’s wood-whacking musing in my blog. The first time, I had just fired myself and taken off to the deep woods of northern Ottawa to help my then-boyfriend renovate his ramshackle cottage for a few weeks.

I reflected upon that time with simplicity:

“There is nothing like manual labour to tax the body, clear the mind and free the spirit. When I went to bed each night, every part of my physical being was exhausted. I was using my body in the way it was designed to be used. More, after years spent sitting at an office desk spinning my wheels wondering what the point of it all was, to engage myself in something that quickly produced tangible and measurable results was supremely gratifying. It was a glorious experience which I repeated often over the next several weeks. It was my yoga.”

Little has changed since then with regard to my feelings about manual labour, except that I think I feel even more strongly about it now. That, and... I’ve traded my tool belt for tires.

Yup. In addition to being a public relations consultant (currently under contract!) and an unevenly employed freelance copy writer, I, Cara Vogl, am a car jockey. (I took a permanent recess from teaching a few weeks ago. Long story; right decision.)

What’s that you say? You don’t know what a car jockey is?

Well, I’m thinking you know what a car is. So here’s the definition of a jockey:

n., pl., -eys.
1. One who rides horses in races, especially as a profession.
2. Slang. One who operates a specified vehicle, machine, or device: a bus jockey; a computer jockey.

So, in a nutshell: I take these cars over here, and I put ‘em over there. When the mechanics are done fiddling with all the wingdings and slapping new tires on them over there, I take ‘em and I bring ‘em back over here.

I’m fine with having one of my jobs defined by slang. I think I even like it. It’s befitting.

It was all pretty serendipitous how the job came about and it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that here I am, four or five weeks in, and I love it.

It’s possible you might wonder what there is to love (or even what matters) about moving cars around from one place to another for 18 or 20 (lately, 24!) hours a week.

Two of my three jobs are rather isolating, as I work for myself and mostly from home. True, this is one of my dreams realized – but it is not without pockets of loneliness. Jockeying provides me with some important social interaction for a few hours every week....and what an interaction it is: Me and thirty-odd mechanics, tire jockeys, other car jockeys and front-office staff, slinging back as much microwave-reheated Tim’s and canteen crap as our pocket change permits while we think up an endless creative ways to torture, tease and otherwise pull hijinks on each other in between fixing cars and serving customers. It is a true riot, and it is the only time during my week that I don't really have to think. I smile and I laugh; and I smile, and I laugh.

Aside from the owner’s wife and the part-time cleaning lady, I am the only female on staff. The boys have nicknamed me Halfday, in reference to my skidding out of there at noon each day to head off to my contract job. For a while it was Mitsy Halfday, as I’ve taken to wearing mittens in the often cold garage; but that sounded too much like...well, some other kind of profession. They have done a graceful job of striking a balance between ensuring that they treat me with respect and including me in the good-natured fun. Jokes told in my presence never quite cross the line. They call on me specifically when the hot little sport cars need to be moved and then rate how I look in each one as I pull out of the bays (and rib me in equal proportion when I go lurching out in the junkheap jalopies). I bake them chocolate chip cookies to help get them through a busy Saturday. This weekend we’re all going go-carting together. I can’t afford to join in on the actual four-wheeled fun, so I’ve offered to be the pit girl. You know - change a few tires, possibly fix some troublesome mechanical issues....that sort of thing. The point is that I am included. They have accepted me into their close-knit, greased-up world. Or maybe it was just the cookies. No matter. I look forward to every shift.

Car jockeying also provides me with a unique and uncommon viewpoint from which to observe and study intricate aspects of human nature and the human condition. I am dismayed at the level of disregard with which most individuals treat the second-largest purchase of their lives. I take mental note of how few listen to classical music, and how many listen to talk radio. I know which of you eat in your cars (and unfortunately, sometimes, what you eat). I know who pretty much lives on the road and who only ever drives to the corner store and back. I most definitely know if you smoke or have a dog or kids. I sometimes even know if you have a mistress....but I will not tell you how I know.

And I see the way some of you look at me, sizing up what you think my life is about in 15 seconds, based on the job I do. You are the ones I give the biggest smiles to.

But of course, the ones I get to know best aren’t the customers, but my workmates. I am reminded daily that we can become intricately woven into colourful human tapestries we never knew existed, simply by forging connections with individuals that we would never normally have the opportunity to connect with.

There is C, the handsome and hilarious gentleman with Tigger-like energy and optimism who lives in a world that’s a cross between the Dukes of Hazard and a live Elvis concert from the 50s. M, who is heartbroken after his wife of 17 years went back to Mexico with their two children, and who is counting down the days until he too can return to the homeland. As he slings tread-bare tires onto the discarded pile, he proclaims with a crooked half-smile and a heartbreaking measure of sarcasm, “Papa would be so proud.”

R, who at the tender age of 25 already has a wife and three children under the age of 3 at home, and who happily and willingly stays after hours at the end of a long and tiring shift on his own time and on his family’s time, to fix my cranky car at no charge.

Tall and lanky P, who hops into his perfectly polished little red sports car with music blaring full-blast every day at 10:30 to make the run to Tim’s for the mid-morning re-fuel.

There are of course so many more. There is every letter of the alphabet; every colour under the sun. Every personality trait, the good and the not-so-good. There is Greek, Trinidadian, French Canadian, Philipino, Mexican, Italian, and more.

It is a world. And I am all about worlds.

I already miss my new family, though there are still a few weeks left before I’m laid off for the quiet season.

We are all doing what we can to make our own ways. We work hard and we have fun. We smile and we laugh; and we smile, and we laugh. If you can say the same about how you spend your days, then you are as lucky as I am.

“The heights of great men reached and kept/ Were not obtained by sudden flight/ But they, while their companions slept/ Were toiling upward in the night.” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Thursday, October 29, 2009


Tomorrow is the day.

For the first time in 456 days, I will have an address. A place to call home.

I suppose it’s a rather monumental moment and there’s no doubt that I should be blogging about it...I just don’t know what to write. Maybe in part because I‘m not sure how I feel. I suppose some might imagine that there would be nothing but happiness, relief, joy at settling in again and benefiting from some stability after months of adventure and change. And it’s partly true.

I’m absolutely excited about seeing my things again, but not for the reason some might imagine.

Mostly I can’t wait to send another huge honkin’ load of it to the Goodwill.

Over the last year-plus I have edited, and then edited, and then edited my edited edits of belongings. Still, tonight when I stood gaping at the stockpile of cardboard boxes full of perplexing heaps of mostly-unwanted clothing and shoes in my storage space, I kind of wanted to take a flamethrower to it all. I have lived without all of it for more than 10,000 hours and I am absolutely fine. Finer than fine. I partly hate that I have to do anything with it at all. That it even exists. Can I tell the movers to load up the truck and just keep on going?

Yet, I do look forward to sleeping on my space-age Tempur-Pedic mattress (after a year-plus of sleeping on everything from straw mats in Laos to fold-out futons in friends’ basements); I can’t wait to curl up with a glass of wine in my gigantic, squooshy Montauk chair; I visualize what my bookshelf will look like when it is once again populated with my favourite books.

I do miss some of my things, but my wants are diminished now. My needs are few. I have changed my life, and as a result, I have changed. Or perhaps it’s the other way around.

As much as I look forward to getting re-acquainted with an elite selection of my stuff, it brings a certain sense of sadness with it as well. That storage space, the steel box that represented my freedom and my mobility, will be no more. I will once again be the keeper of my keepsakes, paying a monthly fee for essentially just a different kind of storage that has windows and Wi-Fi and cable TV.

The adventure isn’t coming to an end, but it’s definitely about to take a different direction, and change is always scary.

It is said that home is where the heart is, and my heart belongs to the world now.

504 Osborne is just the next stopover.

"I long, as does every human being, to be at home wherever I find myself." Maya Angelou

Monday, October 12, 2009

Give a Little Thanks

Every night when I snuggle down into the bed (I can’t say “my bed”, as I haven’t actually slept on my own in over 14 months), just before dozing off I mentally say a quick little prayer of thanks: Thanks for the purely safe, warm and delightful feeling that that pocket of time between wake and slumber unfailingly brings and for how lucky I am to be able to experience it every night (save for a few nights of dodgy accommodations and situations whilst on my world travels); thanks for making it through another day in one piece and without causing anyone else too much harm, either, hopefully; thanks that I get to close my eyes and check out of the world for a few hours in the form of that most awesome of states, sleep; thanks for the knowledge that I’m most likely going to wake up in the morning with a chance to start over. It’s a simple and innocent little exercise that makes me feel good; like I’ve taken care of business, no matter what shenanigans might have taken place in my day.

What I’m not sure of is why it makes me feel that way.

Where does the power of gratitude come from? Is there one? Does saying “thank you” feel good simply because it forces us to get out of our own way for a minute, to realize that we’re pretty damned lucky just as we are despite our constant soundtrack of self-aggrandized woes?

There are endless writings dedicated to gratitude: the essence and power of it, how to practice it, what can manifest in your life as a result of said practice and so on. I’ve read some on it, listened to one mind-bendingly complicated CD book on it, dabbled around with the concept from time to time. I do believe there’s something to it, but suffice it to say you won’t find any inspirational plaques or posters on my walls attesting to the secrets and miracles I’ve discovered about it.

I’ve never gotten anywhere particularly epiphany-worthy with the concept of gratitude beyond the simplified knowledge that it makes me feel good and present and alive and humble and yes – out of my own way - when I do it. Whether the universal laws of attraction and all that really do come into play, I don’t know. I just know that it feels right.

Interestingly (at least to me), the most powerful moments related to my own personal gratitude occur completely unexpectedly, at random times and places. I think I like these moments even more because they are unscheduled, unforeseen, and thus incredibly powerful – a feeling similar to when you’re in the ocean and a wave sneaks up from behind you and catches you by surprise, taking your breath away. Except the gratitude moments are less salty.

Full moons, out-of-place rainbows, the riotous colours of the leaves on the trees that stand ragged sentinel along my route to Ontario. When I run. When I write. When I work out, when I walk and talk with my best friend, when it rains, when I think about my island paradise. At the risk of getting too wall-plaque-ish-sounding, there really are countless random moments and things that I find myself grateful for.

Naturally, as is also the law of the universe, it’s not always that easy to be grateful. Struggling to find work was a tough one to be thankful for, until my best friend reminded me how lucky I was to have had 18 months off to do essentially whatever I want with. I haven’t dreaded a Monday morning, yearned for 5pm on Friday, sat in a boring meeting or had to wake up with an alarm clock since May 1, 2008. Fantastic, and for the vast majority of people, unattainable.

And now, the pendulum has swung in the complete opposite direction. I’ve bitten off more than I can chew work-wise taking on not two, not three, but count ‘em, FOUR jobs - and am quite frankly terrified to get back to Montreal and try to hit the ground running. I’ve got two months of nonstop madness ahead of me, and I’ve no idea how I’ll get it all done without pissing anyone off or having some type of breakdown myself, or worst of all, getting canned from one of said four jobs. Here too I must constantly remind myself to be thankful instead of freaking out and whining. A little more than a month ago I had no job at all, no money coming in, and no certainty about what I was going to do or where I was going to go next. Now suddenly I’m being paid to write – my dream come true – and with the other three jobs I’ve still somehow managed to avoid the corporate world and its capers (although I’m not allowed to wear jeans when I teach, which I silently but eternally protest).

So far, I’ve done it. So far, so good. I must learn to be thankful for the bags under my eyes that will appear, for the lack of sleep, for the pressure and the stress that are coming. It means I’m working hard. It means I’m working, period. It means I can finally afford get a place to call home (can I? I feel short of breath even writing it); it means I am contributing again.

It is in those moments, more than all others – when I want to quit, give up, cry, hide under the covers – that I - that all of us - must remember to say thank you.

I’m home now, in my old room and my old bed again. It’s my last day of hiding out from the big crazy world, tucked away safe and sound here under mom’s nurturing wing where nobody can get me. In a few hours the smell of roasting turkey and pumpkin pie will fill the air and we will raise a glass of wine and toast each other and this will be all that counts for a brief while.

It’s a nice tradition, having a day set aside to remind us how much we have to be thankful for. But the secret I’ve discovered is, when you remember to show a little gratitude, every day can be Thanksgiving.

Thanks for reading.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Cough. Rumble. Wheeze. Grumble. Protest. Sputter. Quit. Repeat.

It’s woefully evident that I haven’t been inspired to blog much lately: Some re-marketed thoughts on materialism and a half-assed back-to-school update are all I’ve haphazardly chucked on here through most of the summer.

Although, maybe “inspired” isn’t the correct word choice. I’m wondering if I’ve just lost focus of, and faith in, the point of medium.

What is a blog? Why do we keep one? Most importantly...WHO’S READING THIS THING, ANYWAY??

Loads of people say that blogging should be undertaken first and foremost for oneself and not for others. Wikipedia offers this gem: “Personal bloggers usually take pride in their blog posts, even if their blog is never read by anyone but them.”

Eh. I’m not buying it.

The way I see it, if these screenfuls of boundless pontificating, far-flung ruminating and general waffling-on were truly intended for an audience of one, the resulting amalgam would be referred to as a “journal” (one of which I’ve faithfully kept since the age of about 14) and no matter how hard they searched nobody would ever be able to find it (although I’m 100% confident that my mom and my sister found mine on more than one occasion over the years. Completely by accident, of course.)

So the lined paper journal (with its useless little golden lock and key, back in the day), full of our innermost private thoughts, clearly has its place. On the other hand, it seems to me that we blog because we have something to say that for whatever reason, we think or hope others might want to read about. Little doubt that this holds true for a select list of celebrity gossip, tech info and recipe blogs. But what about the billions of us other unknowns who hopefully and often hopelessly hit the upload button every day, week, or in my case, season?

Am I the only one that gets excited when someone comments on my blog post – because it means someone actually read it?

I was coming perilously close to giving up completely on the blogging idea when a lovely meeting with a smart woman in a Parisian-style cafe yesterday changed my mind.

Damn her!

The elegant and charming L wrote a book about women in the corporate world (yes, that’s an intentionally-vague description on my part) that’s being published in a few months and I’m in it. Not only am I in it, turns out I’m the CLOSING STORY in it. And not ONLY am I the closing story in it – but she informed me that she’s also included the link to this blog in it.


To calm me down (and no doubt out of a sense of responsibility to her own readers to some degree) she was kind enough to send me a list of the subjects that readers of her book will want to be updated on when (not if, but when, according to her) they visit my blog. The list includes (but not exhaustively): Did I cave in and go back to my old corporate lifestyle? If not, what am I doing now? How am I coping and what are the challenges I’m facing? What’s the latest on my little island paradise in Indonesia? And of course, the timeless and ever-popular: Do people think I’m crazy?

So. My blog apparently is going to get some visits. As a result I feel a newfound and slightly overwhelming sense of responsibility to try really hard to populate this space with interesting fodder, and certainly on a much more regular basis. How I’m going to accomplish that will be a feat of miracles in and of itself, as I’m quite literally on the cusp of being busier than I’ve probably ever been in my entire life.

They say if you want something done, give it to a busy person. If the adage holds any water, my little space here in the ether is about to spring back into action. Guess we’ll (or I’ll) see. (ARE there any of you out there who are actually reading this? Drop me a comment to let me know. Thanks.)

Time to dust this relic off, turn the crank a few times and see if I can bully it back to life again.

Cough. Rumble. Wheeze. Grumble. Protest. Sputter. Quit. Repeat.

“Vitality shows in not only the ability to persist but in the ability to start over.” F. Scott Fitzgerald

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Ink Wells and Alarm Bells.

The school supply aisle at my local office equipment store is a bewildering place. From what I recall of my own college days (close to 20 years ago, ahem), selection was nowhere near what it is today. Back then you showed up on the first day with more or less the same binders, notebooks and writing utensils as all your mates (and then quickly proceeded to express your individuality through Napoleon-Dynamite-ish pen tattoos, teeth marks and other cool, destructive actions).

Now? Binders: skinny, fat, medium, transparent, zippy-kind, flexible spine, iPod pocket, bullet-proof. The writing utensil aisle (not “section” – a whole aisle!) which one might think would have dwindled down to a couple of pegs of plastic Bics with the proliferation of the computer, instead makes me positively swoon with its riot of colours, ink types, opacities, grips, highlighters and nib sizes. The passing of two decades seems to taunt me at every turn: “Of COURSE you should consider acid-free page protectors! Recycled paper, natch! And don’t forget an external hard drive to back up your homework!”

Or maybe I’m just feeling overly-sensitive.

After all, I’m going back to school.

Getting the correct schedule and course outline, wandering around lost trying to find my classroom, figuring out how I’m going to get everything done that needs to be done under impossible time constraints, a million new faces, all-nighters – there are some things about school that never change.

And I suppose this year, like all the years before, things will eventually fall into a natural rhythm. First-day jitters will fade away; a few faces will begin to look familiar; the cafeteria coffee will start to taste not-half-bad; the work will miraculously get done on time.

The biggest difference this time around is that I’m not a student. I’m the teacher.

“To be a teacher in the right sense is to be a learner. I am not a teacher, only a fellow student.” Soren Kierkegaard

Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Ties That Bind


While in India last year I went to Birla House, the place of Mahatma Gandhi’s 1948 assassination. It was an unexpectedly sombre and moving day; walking in the humble, bare-chested man’s final footsteps, following the last few hours leading up to his demise. What affected me more than anything was the display of Gandhi’s worldly possessions at the time of his death. There behind glass on a wall in his austere room lay a careful arrangement of his belongings: a pair of wire rimmed spectacles, pocket watch, prayer book, sandals, a brass bowl and plate and a couple of other small, modest items.

That was all.

Gandhi led an ascetic life, living well outside the confines of personal possessions; a man of the world and of the people. He left behind nothing material to speak of; only a legacy of nonviolence and moral leadership that will last forever. As he himself said, “My life is my message.”

It begs the question: how much does what we have, have to do with who we are?

I’m ruminating on this as I’m driving over the bridge to the South Shore of Montreal. I snap back to consciousness and look around me: to both sides, cars and trucks headed out of town crammed full to the top with vacation and camping gear, bicycles strapped to the back, Thule storage bins tied to the roof, trailers in tow.

I think more: Wallet, purse, duffle bag, tote bin, shopping cart, backpack, car, truck, trailer, moving van, locker, rented storage space, house, safe, safety deposit box, coffee can buried in the back yard.

We all seem to have a tremendous amount stuff to carry around with us and a bunch more stuff to stash away in various ways and places, for apparent safekeeping. There are entire companies dedicated to our ever-growing storage needs, offering a full range of containers we need to buy in order to stash away all the things we already bought but don’t need at the moment.

What is it all? What are things? What do they mean to us, and why do we feel the overwhelming need to hang on to so many of them, inconveniently hauling them with us wherever we go?

Up until very recently, every time I’d visit my storage space my body would begin a series of subtle, negative reactions. As I approached unit number V2208 with its robin egg blue, corrugated metal door standing quiet sentinel over the lifetime of accumulated belongings inside, I’d get an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach and start to break out in a bit of a sweat. The process was always the same: I’d fumble with the lock, wrestle the door up in a clanging rattle and then stand there for a moment in the jarring aftermath of silence, staring, getting my bearings.

I’d feel a sense of hopelessness and ambivalence as my mind skittered through a barrage of questions with seemingly no answers: What is all this stuff, and does it really all belong to me? When will I ever see these things all unpacked and on display again, and do I even want to? Where? How many more months can I continue to let a fat sum be charged to my credit card for keeping all my belongings safe in this lovely climate- and humidity-controlled environment? And why are there heavy boxes piled on top of my fragile antique table when I specifically told the movers not to put anything on it?

Eventually I’d suppress the feelings and get down to the business at hand, which generally amounted to bullying the boxes around until I found whatever article it was that I felt I needed to retrieve that day. Pull the clattering door back down into place and lock up, leaving my stuff behind, divorced once again.

Perhaps we believe that material things are what connect us to this world we live in. If we own things, we have a semblance of stability; a place where we belong on the planet, where we’ve set down roots. An identity. For certain we are led to believe that things enhance or help define our personality – for example, the kind of car we drive or the clothes we wear. This often then develops into the inexplicable and excessive accumulation of said things.

Is it due to boredom? Do we buy things simply because we have time and money and we can? Do we discover needs that must be filled, needs we somehow never had before, created by clever marketing? Or perhaps it’s the tyranny of choice: We simply have too much of everything to choose from and therefore choose it all (I think there’s definitely something to this last point – alas, for another blog entry). Are we afraid that the trinket we finally decide to surrender to charity is the exact item we’ll have a need for the very next day – even though we haven’t so much as looked at that item for the last 5 years?

Susan Sanders Wansbrough offers this:We overvalue what we have. Whether it is the price we paid for it or the effort it took to obtain it, we find it hard to let something go for less than what it took us to get it in the first place. Even if we no longer need it or like it.”

The last time I paid a visit to my things it was to try to cobble together a suitable job interview outfit. Ever seen what a blazer looks like after it’s been crammed into a cardboard storage box for a year?

This time, my outlook was different. My body wasn’t reacting the same way. As I went through the familiar motions with the lock and the door, I felt a faint flutter in my heart and broke into a smile. These four walls still house far too much stuff. Clearly I haven’t yet been enlightened to the point that I can be content owning nothing more than a pair of reading glasses and a spoon. But in sharp contrast, I gradually came to realize that this also represents my freedom. As hard as it’s been at times to be a vagabond, to continuously search for the next place to sleep, the next friend to take me in, I now understand what a rare and amazing opportunity lies before me.

So what if this overpriced locker has cost me the equivalent of a couple of weeks at Club Med?

It’s the price to pay for having wings.

Never before in my adult life have I been so utterly mobile. I’ve got stuff, and a lot of it – but it ties me to nothing. I can go anywhere, at any time. I can start anew. I can settle or I can roll. I am a drifter, a wanderer, a shape-shifter and a life changer; I am fluid, and I am free.

In choosing a year ago to live without my things, did I change who I am? And if I continue to live without them, does it change who I will become?

If Gandhi were still here, I would find a way to ask him.

As long as you derive inner help and comfort from anything, keep it.” Mahatma Gandhi

Monday, July 6, 2009

Be Still, My Heart

Inspiration and insight can at times come from the most unlikely and unexpected places.

When I met face-to-face a couple of weeks ago with the target of my writing/travel/ lifestyle envy (see second-to-last blog entry if you’re mystified), I wasn’t sure what to expect. My new approach to life dictates that I must no longer have expectations of any one or thing, but I was admittedly curious about the pending encounter. I thought it might end up as a sensible and focused discussion (wedged in between her many important writing assignments) over a cup of coffee, whereby I could quick-pick her brain about writing (not that I had any idea what I would ask her) with the hope of gleaning some information that might project me forward one day into the ethereal world of Becoming a Writer.

But it was so much more.

It turned out to be one of those connections that takes on a life of its own; where no one leads the conversation - it leads itself. Time flowed as easily as the sangria and I walked away feeling energized and a touch sad that it was over so soon. We talked about writing, but it ended up being about other very cool stuff, too. I’m not even sure exactly what, and I’m not about to wreck it with analysis. Suffice it say: Man, I really like this chick.

What’s even more exhilarating is that this was the second such encounter of its kind in less than a week. I made another new friend, ironically via a potential freelance writing gig that never materialized. While I was initially disappointed about my failure to secure the contract (why was I disappointed? I am an unpublished, unproven writer), all associated thoughts quickly faded into the background as I realized that the writing project was nothing more than a vehicle; a door for me to walk through and close behind me, as something so much more valuable and enduring was waiting for me on the other side: a new friend.

Life is fantastic in this way. Where we think we’re headed is so often not where we end up.

I believe that keeping quiet and still (I mean this in many ways) since my return to Canada has played an important role in the amazing experiences and interactions that I’ve been enjoying of late. In a recent blog entry I confessed to feeling as though I had no identity; to feeling lost and out of place. I’m now realizing that my current state - one of serenity and acute awareness - is somehow tied to this previous condition; in a way even dependent on it. The two are inextricably intertwined.

Quietness and stillness are challenging and often dreaded states. As I touched on in a previous entry, many of us make sure to keep very busy with other stuff in order to avoid them. If we focus exclusively on the external, on the needs of others, on work and social demands and finances and trips to Wal-Mart, there’s no time to face the really tough questions - the ones that lie within each of us. It’s avoidance at its peak. Giving oneself permission to get lost for an undetermined amount of time is nothing, if not terrifying.

But by giving in to these conditions, by often rather painfully forcing myself to accept them, something new has opened up in me–a channel of sorts, if you will – through which I am inviting and allowing astonishing things to occur.

Peace is arriving; a state of grace is upon me; the living is now.

I am as light as a feather.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Above the Fray

Montreal: Parc des Rapides, Lachine: St-Jean-Baptiste Day. I am nestled precariously amidst the tumble of rocks beside the rapids; the sound of hurried water against stoic stone filling my ears, lulling me with its unrelenting, aggressive rumble. I want to nap, but not on a rock. I want to string a hammock up between the trees like back in Thailand or Laos, next to the Mekong; or like in Indonesia, next to the ocean. Back then. When time had no meaning; when there was no outside world – only the world I experienced every day.

Happy blue-and-white day.

Blue and white: like the flags and the houses of Greece; like my white skin against the icy turquoise waters of the lagoons in Laos; like the white clouds against the cobalt sky against the white sands of Gili Air.

Blue and white.

I feel little attachment to this place now, this province I called home for so long. Perhaps I do need a fresh start. Maybe Toronto, maybe somewhere else. Choice is mine. I am a child of the world, and it is truly my oyster. I live somewhere just above the fray of daily life, breathing in the realization that material things do not define me, do not affect my state of grace. I need a job, so, I’ll get one. But it has nothing to do with who I am. It’s not my life; it’s only my life situation.

My friends – my dear, loving, generous and caring friends – are here. But that’s just geography. Our love melts miles and banishes borders. Never before have my blessings of friendship been so evident to me. These days I am truly a product of their charity. They open their homes and hearts to me; we sit and talk and share and nobody cares that I, who was once gainfully employed and swathed in material success, am now homeless and jobless and broke. They humble me with their generosity and kindness in uncountable ways.

All I truly need is already upon me. This is astounding and it makes me feel at peace.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Life, 2.0


I admit it. Facebook actually is good for more than just playing Lexulous and making drive-by comments on high-school-era photos posted by long-lost peers. Recently I used it to connect with a friend-of-a-friend acquaintance who had something I wanted - a life as a writer. As fate would have it, through our exchanges I found out we have something unforeseen in common: a love of travel. Mine is relatively newfound; hers is quite established. She travelled around the world all through her twenties and continues to do so today, into her thirties. Except that now I think magazine and newspaper people pay her to do it.

She writes. Extremely well. She travels. A lot. Wait – so aside from loving travel and our mutual friends, what exactly do I have in common with this person? Umm.....we’re both female? We both have two “a”s in our first name? We’re both on Facebook? That’s a lot....right?

I am unspeakably envious of her. If I was very psychotic and had evil superpowers I could suggest a movie remake, starring me as the villain and the Writer-Traveler as the hapless victim, and call it “Invasion of the Lifestyle Snatchers”.

All jealousy aside (ahem), it’s therapeutic and comforting to be in touch with someone who understands what I’m going through. We discussed culture shock and social and professional reintegration. In her truly insightful style, she offered me this sage(and, naturally, well-worded) tidbit: “The biggest challenge of all for people like you and I is not the time that we spent traveling and learning about each other, it's the post-travel world that we now have to navigate. We are changed, but the society we have to fit into is not.

Surprisingly, I’m discovering that this part of my journey is demanding the most courage yet. What compounds the issue and makes it extra-challenging for me is that I am not returning to the same life or lifestyle that I left behind. Many people I met traveling were on a leave-of-absence from work (i.e. a secure job to go back to) and/or had rented out their homes (i.e. a home to go back to) whilst on the road. Post-travel, many of them would return to their former life, or at the very least, to their former address. My old career is gone, and so is my old home. I haven’t had a place to call my own in almost a year now. I haven’t listened to my own music, slept in my own bed, or cooked myself a meal in just as long. And it’s been even longer than that since I last worked and had an income.

Nothing is as it was.

I’m back. I’m still Cara, but I’m Cara 2.0, trying to find my place in the 1.0 version of the world that I left behind so many months ago. I’m a free agent. I don’t know where I belong, or what to do. Frankly, I’m worried. Which is just a less-scary word for “scared”.

Reading through some of my pre-travel blog posts, I came across this from just before I left (chopped up and edited for the purpose of this entry):

When one teeters at the edge of a precipice of change, between old and new, between the known and the unknown, the fear can be paralyzing. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a job, a relationship, a new school, a tattoo, a different colour of paint for your bedroom, or a trip around the world. It’s all relative to one’s experience and they can all be equally terrifying in their own right.

Just today my fear reminded me how much easier it would be to stay here, in my old bed in my old room, in this city where I don’t have to look at the street names to know where I’m going; where everyone you pass in the street says hello. Where I know the score, every day. It’s as safe as a warm blanket.

But that blanket also acts as an insulator. And while that may feel safe and warm, it’s not healthy in a grander sense. I can’t live like this forever; with no job, no home, no responsibility. Mom taking care of me. It’s been a lovely respite, but it’s not the real world. And to face the real world after the havoc I have wreaked on my own life in the last few months, it’s going to take an extra dose of courage.

Time waits for no one. I’m not getting any younger, and my bank account balance certainly isn’t getting any bigger. It’s time to face the big scary monster.

I may as well have written that post today. I’m astonished to find myself grappling with these exact same feelings, so many months and so many adventures and experiences later (except back then it was about travel, and now it’s about going back to work, forging a new life).

I might be Cara 2.0, but some parts of the old operating system are clearly hardwired and extremely resistant to upgrades.

My soul sister Shauna, who has boldly reinvented herself and re-written the rules of her life not once but twice already (and is still traveling the world, currently eating sardines off a fishing dock somewhere in Morocco), knows what she’s talking about: “Recreating yourself is the most painful thing you will ever do. The beauty is that you will come out on the other side better that ever. But it’s frightfully scary, it’s painful, it’s stressful, and you are without an identity for awhile. That’s the worst don’t really know where you fit in, where you’re going, or how to get there. You are without an identity”.

I am without an identity, yet in some strange way, I also feel as though I know myself better than ever.

When I quit my job, I was a Quitter (and a Freedom Fighter, and a Truth Seeker, and a bunch of other cool names that I could capitalize). Then I added to that: a Seller (my home), and eventually, a Traveler. Now I am back and I don’t know what I am. Aside from “Cara 2.0”, there’s no label for this. I don’t know what to ask of myself or to expect of myself. I am disappointed in the “shoulds” that I have allowed to creep back into my daily thoughts and self-talk. There are no “shoulds” when one is re-writing one’s own life rules, but like weeds, they are stubborn buggers. They weave an intricate dance; intertwine themselves with my imagined social pressures – to work, to succeed, to be something great, to not be hiding out at my parents’ place. They threaten to choke out the courage and adventurous spirit that have fueled my actions for more than a year now.

Despite all of this self-piteous waffling, there is hope and there is faith. I still know somewhere way, way down deep inside that this is the right path. I chose this, and while it might not be clear to me right now, I must have chosen it for a very good reason. My best friend B, who’s going through a major life-revamp of his own, reminds me regularly of how fortunate we are to be in positions where we are even able to make such sweeping choices and changes. So very many people are not; or if they are, simply choose instead to keep busied with day to day life so that they are not forced to look inside themselves and face the really tough stuff. Timothy Ferriss, author of the gutsy book “The Four Hour Work Week”, sums this up perfectly: “What on earth do you do when you no longer have work as an excuse to be hyperactive and avoid the big questions? Be terrified and hold on to your ass with both hands, apparently.”

I don’t know where I’m going or how many more times I’m going to stumble and fall along the way,(oh, so very many), but I will keep exploring. I will grasp on to my dreams, like my little patch of island paradise in Southeast Asia, and protect them with might. I will hold close the words of my amazing, brave friends who have been there and done that and survived and thrived. I will remember the words of French writer Andre Gide each night when I go to bed: “One doesn't discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.”

Now I’ll go post this on Facebook.