guest post

5 Songs That Changed My Life

Screen Shot 2013-06-25 at 10.08.41 AMToday the lovely Melissa over at Press Play is featuring this post as part of her 5 Songs That Changed My Life feature. Melissa’s life is FULL of music, and she shares the same passion for it I do, except she gets to work in the industry and do things like meeting Ed Sheeran too!!

I had to sign up for it the moment I heard about it. Nothing has had a big an impact on my life as music. I’m a pretty emotional person, and it’s something I’ve struggled with most of my life – I always liked to imagine a sort of emotional spectrum, and where I think it’d probably be easier to lay close to the centre, in the neutral zone far away from the depths of feeling (because things can get pretty dark sometimes), I don’t think I ever could, because you can’t have the soul-igniting, heart-exploding highs in life without also experiencing the lows. And I wouldn’t trade those for anything. I am going somewhere with this – and it really does tie in to music. For every experience I’ve ever had in life, every feeling, every hope or dream or period of exhilaration or loneliness… for every emotion this heart is capable of feeling, there’s a song that can speak straight to it. Music isn’t just the language of love, it’s the language that penetrates your very soul if you let it, and I cannot convey the amount of enthusiasm and respect I have for those who’ve written words and put them to music in such a way that it’s like a direct channel to my soul. (I swear I’m not this weird in real life… just incredibly passionate about the magic of what us humans can create and express in this form of art.)

1. Frank Turner – If Ever I Stray

It was really hard for me to narrow it down to just one Frank Turner song, because he’s one of those modern day songwriters that just gets it. Just gets exactly how it is, exactly what’s wrong with the world, exactly what’s worth singing about, exactly what’s important in life, and there’s no overproduction or forced melodies – it’s a simple English bloke singing songs about what really matters, and he has a way of doing it that just makes me want to ingest every lyric and with them wallpaper the insides of my head. A couple of favourite lines from other Frank songs include “it doesn’t matter where you come from, it matters where you go; no-one gets remembered for the things they didn’t do”, along with “I face the horizon, the horizon is my home”, and “It won’t last, so be bold, choose your path, show soul, live fast and die old,” but I find this track a great reminder for when things may get difficult in life, or you’re feeling low or questioning choices you’ve made… this song always helps me really re-focus on the good things to be thankful for that exist every minute of every day.

“If ever I stray from the path I follow
Take me down to the English Channel
Throw me in where the water is shallow
And then drag me on back to shore!

‘Cos love is free and life is cheap
As long as I’ve got me a place to sleep
Clothes on my back and some food to eat
I can’t ask for anything more”

2. Kate Bush – This Woman’s Work

I knew I’d have to pick a Kate song, and though this isn’t my favourite of all, it is the one that without fail always leaves me absolutely sobbing. As you listen to her remarkable voice sing a chorus that absolutely penetrates your heart, you can’t help but feel a sense of urgency in life, to not let it go to waste… to tell those you love how much they mean to you, to live these moments we’re given and build a life you can look back on without regret… to always express. Always, always express.

“I should be crying, but I just can’t let it show
I should be hoping, but I can’t stop thinking
Of all the things I should’ve said that I never said
All the things we should’ve done that we never did
All the things I should’ve given but I didn’t
Oh, darling, make it go,
Make it go away”

3. The Cinematic Orchestra – To Build a Home

This song just stirs something within me that transcends the lyrics themselves, which I wouldn’t go so far as to say have “changed my life”, but every time I hear this song I feel drenched with a cold awe. Every once in a while a song will come along, stop you in your tracks and burrow its way into your ears, then your heart, then every fibre of your skin, making every hair stand up straight on the end of a thoroughly haunted and mesmerized goosebump. This is raw and beautiful, and something about this voice, and the soaring beauty at the chorus end as it fades into the softest of next few words… it’s beautiful. I don’t think there’s an official video, so I wouldn’t read too much into this one, but just close your eyes and turn this up and lie down somewhere comfortable and enjoy something magical for the next six minutes.

4. Mumford and Sons – Roll Away Your Stone

Again, it was far more difficult than it should be to narrow it down to just ONE Mumford song… this is my all-time favourite band. I remember when I first got Sigh No More… it was  the perfect balance of heart-wrenching, goosebump-inducing, earnest longing with a heavy dose of bluegrass and roots, dominated by thumping kick drums and a killer banjo (yes, really) that had me cranking my speakers and jumping around the living room. It was an extraordinary debut; a stunning combination of the expertly crafted upbeats and raw, emotionally ripping passion, each song fully able to stand alone as a fabulously crafted masterpiece… I went to see them before the first album was released in North America at an intimate little venue in Toronto back in what must have been 2009? It was one of the most magical experiences of my life. I remember writing at the time: There was an excited, energetic buzz filling the room; they commanded the crowd dressed in vintage waistcoats, rotating instruments, and had the crowd jumping up and down pumping fists while on the edge of their seats two tracks later in awe at the raw passion, soul and mastery of lyricism in front of them.  It was nothing short of stunning, and I hope they get the worldwide recognition they deserve. I’m SO glad they exploded.

This song is one of my favourites not just because of the build up that leaves you breathless, but because of the artfully constructed words, the melody, the combination of everything all in one song that hit really close to home. To me, it’s about being afraid… the fear of being isolated with only your own heart for company. In the past, that’s been a daunting, dark, prospect, and I think the verses capture the fear incredibly. And then the song just builds up into a “fuck it, there’s a whole world out there and it’s brilliant and I’m going to fill my soul with that instead” crescendo of awesomeness that just makes you want to shout YES right along with it.

“Stars hide your fires, for these here are my desires
And I won’t give them up to you this time around
And so I’ll be found with my stake stuck in this ground
Marking the territory of this newly impassioned soul
And you, you’ve gone too far this time
You have neither reason nor rhyme
With which to take this soul that is so rightfully mine”

5. The toughest one! There are at least another twenty songs I could probably list; but I’m trying really hard to focus on ones that have had impact rather than ones I’d just love to broadcast to the world because they’re damn good songs. The honour of the last spot I think has to go to Laura Marling, because her words, especially from such a young girl, are so incredibly wise and beautifully poetic. Hope in the Air was a close second, and is a brilliantly written tale that’s a story in itself (and contains one of my favourite lyrics and haunting melodies ever):

“Our hearts are small and ever thinning,
There is no hope ever of winning,
Oh, why fear death, be scared of living”

But I ended up choosing Rambling Man – it speaks to me on so many levels, from the opening verse to the defiant chorus all the way through (excerpts below).

“Oh, naive little me
Asking what things you have seen
You’re vulnerable in your head
Where you’ll scream and you’ll wail till you’re dead”

But give me to a rambling man
Let it always be known that I was who I am

Beaten, battered and cold
My children will live just to grow old
But if I sit here and weep
I’ll be blown over by the slightest of breeze

And the weak need to be led
And the tender I’ll carry to their bed
And it’s a pale and cold affair
I’ll be damned if I’ll be found there

But give me to a rambling man
Let it always be known that I was who I am

It’s funny how the first chords you come to
Are the minor notes that come to serenade you
It’s hard to accept yourself as someone
You don’t desire

As someone you don’t want to be

Transformation is an incredible process, and I adore her determination in this song to become more than those negative voices in our own heads that tell us our limits, not our capacities. To get to the other side, and above all, to be known.

I hope you enjoy these as much as I do!

These Photographs

If you’re anything like me, you’ll have cupboards, boxes and bookshelves full of photo albums, forever immortalising the journey from youth to adulthood in a haphazard mishmash of a life chronicled. The first few will be full of the initial endeavours of a young photographer; snapshots of dandelions, paving stones, clouds and windows, captured on a chunky, green plastic camera that began as rolls of film, sent away in an envelope to arrive weeks later on the mat inside the front door. Grainy shots of this and that, the world through the eyes of a child makes way for those of a teenager. Shots of friends, sights, and streets once played upon start to fill boxes to be looked upon a decade later in a quest for evidence: the validity of memories so vivid inside a mind can come into question when an old haunt is visited again. The reality of what is remembered from childhood can be harsh.

I remember each December, as a child, the thrill of getting the boxes of decorations down from the loft; the past eleven months seeming an eternity since I’d last seen them. My parents used to literally deck the halls, stringing up garlands of greenery around the ceilings, covered in red bows and golden bells. The tree would always be huge – always artificial, so nothing had to be cut down, but bushy, big, and covered in lights and ribbon. The memory of everything was so vibrant that, finding those boxes of decorations years later, and seeing them through the eyes of an adult, was disappointing: those same decorations were, in reality, so small and sparse that I had to wonder how they ever seemed so vibrant and rich so many years ago.

The same thing happened to me recently, when I visited home. The streets I grew up on had in childhood seemed so big and full of adventure; we’d gather up all the kids on the street and use the green as our stage, putting on singing, dancing, gymnastics and talent shows for all the neighbours. One side of the street was on a hill, the houses on a slight incline which, years ago, seemed the most exciting thing in the world – we’d gather up all the kids and take our bikes and rollerskates to the top, climbing on the grass, only to hurl ourselves down the pavement as fast as we possibly could. There were cuts and scrapes and bruises, but they proved no match for the exhilaration of the ride untumbled. Walking those same streets only a few weeks ago, I wondered how I ever thought it was so vast, exciting, or dangerous. The hill wasn’t steep, or long, and the walks from my old house to the town centre which had been an entire day out were over within ten minutes. How did the world ever seem so big?

I look to my photos in their books and boxes, and see the evidence en masse. My mind has been playing tricks on me while I wasn’t looking, taking the reality of memories and enhancing them, like a fine wine, making them better, more full of life and character over time than they ever were in the beginning. But I swear it was all real. It was always that way. But these photographs prove otherwise. Do we see the world differently, as a child? Before the world takes a hold of us, shapes us and gives us rules by which to abide, thrusts responsibilities and life lessons upon us along with bills and a work schedule which leaves little room for exploring and imagination? Or was it always that way… and something happens to the memories the further we get away from them. Fact gets mixed up with nostalgia, history with homesickness, reality with reflection, and memories get manufactured into something far brighter and more wonderful than the reality perhaps ever really was. Or perhaps as children, our minds take note of what was considered important at the time. Not the rubbish lining the streets, the jagged paving stones or the neighbours your parents didn’t get along with, but places begging to be filled with adventure. The way the wind felt in your hair as you pedalled as hard as you possibly could.  Finding what now would look like two ordinary hills a few minutes from home, which at the time were huge forts just that little bit further, and thus hidden from the world, a secret playground you could run to when you didn’t want to be found.

I’m still not quite sure if the streets, the parks, and the boxes of decorations changed over time, or if the memories did. But I know I can’t be the only one who remembers things in a slightly rosier hue than perhaps was real. And though these photographs attempt to prove otherwise, there’s something quite magical about memories kept from childhood. Have you revisited somewhere, or something, that you’d remembered differently, and been surprised by the reality?

You can also find this post at Becky’s blog, Love Everyday Life, where she ever so kindly asked me to step in today. 🙂

The Emotional Spectrum

“Don’t you think it’s better to be extremely happy for a short while,
even if you lose it, than to be just okay for your whole life?”
– Audrey Niffenegger, The Time Traveller’s Wife

I am an emotional creature. Many a tear has been shed in my lifetime, that psychological water that flows in streams down cheeks, physical echoes of the yearnings of the heart inside. They accompany movies, books (tell me I wasn’t the only one who bawled for an hour after reading The Time Traveller’s Wife?), songs, weddings, goodbyes, stress, love and pain, and sometimes, the act of crying can be cathartic. A good sob, we’re told, can allow pent-up feelings of sadness, loss or frustration to be set free, leaving more room inside for more positive, forward-moving feelings. But sometimes, being more emotionally sensitive than The Norm can make you look like a total sap.

The same goes for the other end of the spectrum: joy. During my first Skype conversation, after hearing some good news, I was asked: “…Was that a happy clap?”  Yes, was the answer – when I hear something awesome, or have something to look forward to, I will run shamelessly up and down my stairs, start applauding, or otherwise have one of those Laura Linney moments in Love, Actually where the compulsion to run around the corner, stamping your feet and squealing like a schoolgirl proves impossible to ignore.

The yawning gulf of my emotional spectrum has been the subject of many a debate with friends and loved ones. “If you didn’t get so excited in the first place,” I’d be told, “then you wouldn’t be so disappointed now!”  “Don’t rush into things.” “If you stayed closer to the middle, not too high or too low, you’d be much better off.”  I had to wonder. If I tempered myself a little – refrained from showing too much excitement, would things be less disappointing if they didn’t work out? If I didn’t give my whole heart out so openly, would I have saved it such ache in the past? If I didn’t become too emotionally invested in people so quickly, would it be less painful when they moved away? And if I didn’t allow myself to cry so often, at the mundane and the painful, would life be that much easier?

Perhaps. But a bigger part of me says that these are the things that allow you to experience life to the fullest – drinking in every drop; allowing yourself to feel the heights of pure joy even if that means risking the lowest of the low.  I’ve heard of many people who’ve worked on themselves, making sure what would be their instinctive, automatic reaction is moderated; socially acceptable, not so extreme, guaranteed to save them from disappointment or funny looks. But is being too emotional such a bad thing? Surely, if naturally, you wanted to shut yourself in your bedroom, hide under a blanket, pound your pillow and wail from the bottom of your lungs, allows all that sadness to escape? We’ve all seen what happens when things get pent-up inside; the feelings of sadness give rise to feelings of anger; as they grow stronger and get further pushed inside, they can only be repressed so much until something snaps. And that’s never pretty. On the flipside, why would anyone deprive themselves from living with their heart caged in by self-constructed walls? Because we’ve been hurt before. Because there’s a risk of everything falling apart. Because people might think we’re strange. I get it. But what we devise to protect ourselves can sometimes deprive us of the heights of happiness. The true depths and heights of human emotion can be amplified when exposed to the outside world, but moderating them takes away the potential for greatness. Why not show the world your true colours, even if that does include jumping up and down and shouting from the rooftops every now and again? When we look back on our lives, do we want to say we lived a sheltered life, never too excitable nor too down, or do we want to be able to say we gave it our all, and lived?

After all, as the old saying goes, it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.

Are you, too, an emotional creature? Or do you tend to be more even-keeled? I’m interested to hear your thoughts. 🙂

Aisle 7

Today, I’m really excited to have one of my absolute favourite bloggers helping to hold down the fort while I’m away. Hannah Katy‘s blog is in a word, inspiring. In another, breathtaking. Her posts are always full of incredible thought and insight, and writing so beautiful it makes you want to compile all her posts together into a book you can keep forever. She has a passion for helping others and for making the world better, and is one of the best friends anyone could ask for.  I know you’ll enjoy her writing as much as I do, and please check out her blog – I guarantee it’ll be top of your Reader. 🙂

We were sharing awkward love stories like giddy children trading Silly Bands.

I told him about the time I fell for a boy who liked Dave Matthews Band better than breathing. I gave up sleep to study the lyrics of Mr. Matthews and memorized the backs of every one of his albums just so the boy might talk to me.

He told me about having an entire relationship – start to finish – over the internet.

“How do you feel about dating sites?” I asked. “The world’s favourite statistic these days is that 1 out of every 5 relationships begin online.”

“I don’t like them,” he replies. His words master a tone of nonchalance. “I think it takes an element away from meeting someone for the first time. There is no spontaneity to meeting someone through a dating site.”

My ears perk up. Before I ever wanted a career in New York City or a novel for the LA Times to rave over, using their biggest words and most luscious metaphors, I wanted a spontaneous love story. A “Gather round children, I want to tell you how your grandfather and I met…” kind of story.  A story that breaks boundaries and shatters sensibility.

“I know exactly what you mean!” I say. “I always think about it, like where I might meet him. I could be in aisle 7 of the grocery store and we bump into one another and we both just know!”

My hands are moving furiously. Passionately. Suddenly I am overwhelmed with this keen need to articulate how absolutely breathtaking it is to me that at any moment I could walk outside and meet someone who wants to give me forever. And then some.

“I don’t have anything against dating sites. I just think I might be too nervous to use one myself,” I tell him. My hands have settled. My speech has calmed to more fluent syllables.

Am I alone in finding it nervy to know that someone could be looking up and down a profile page? Judging. I can feel the beads of sweat already forming as I begin to wonder how this 500-word synopsis can even begin to do justice to the Aspirations that Keep Me Up at Night. The Dimples in My Smile. The Stories of Mine that Wait in the Creases of My Eyelids and the Crook of My Collarbone. I wonder how I can even begin to share online the musings of a little girl who used to connect the dots in her freckles and who fell in love for the first time with an archaic typewriter and the tap tapping that taught her heart to sing.

The path towards finding a soul mate in this busy world seems almost unbelievable sometimes.  Who would ever think that one day we could go from being single, one, uno, to the next day meeting the individual  who is about to hold in their arms a giant cluster of our childhood dreams,  pet peeves, embarrassing moments and dark secrets. And yet they still have room enough to hold us too.

I am holding out for something. For Some Random Coffee Shop. The Check Out Line of a Grocery Store. I have to believe that there is a perfect time and place that exists, and it sits and waits for him and I to arrive. He (whomever he is) and I have the same invitation to the exact same moment. We simply have not chosen to RSVP yet.

“Whenever that moment arrives, I will be ready,” I tell him.

Ready for that unexpected bump, the most intentional of unintentional stares, and the extension of my hand in exchange for a name that just might rewrite my storyline for the better.

Our conversation about “first meetings” sticks with me well into the night. As I do the dishes I am recalling the first meetings of my parents, my grandparents, my next door neighbors and my best friends. I am sorting through my collection of first meetings and arranging them alphabetically in my head as I brush my teeth. And I wonder if I am silly to want a first encounter so badly, to want a first meeting of my own to place into this delectable collection.

I climb into bed, doubts sinking deep into the pillow, and go to turn off my phone.

“1 New Inbox” the screen reads. I go to check the text message.

“Hannah, don’t give up on it. You are going to make some guy in aisle 7 of the grocery story feel very lucky one day.”

Libraries vs. Bookstores

For the next week, I’m going to have a handful of lovely people standing in for me while I’m away on holiday, and today I am so happy to have one of my favourite girls guest posting, Stephany. We’re so alike in many ways and she has a determination to get out there, to write, and to achieve her goals that’s nothing short of admirable. She’s a kind spirit and a genuine friend, and I’m happy to have her helping to hold down the fort today!

First of all, let me start off by saying that I’m so excited Emily asked me to guest post for her! I was honored to be asked. She has been such a great friend and close confidant in the past few months and I don’t know what I would do without her! Thanks, Emily!

I want to talk about books today, more specifically borrowing books versus buying books. I like to say that I grew up in libraries. Ever since I was young, the library was a place I coveted and loved. I felt at home in these special places with rows and rows of books. I absolutely adored the special places libraries created for children with our own special books, computers, and places to read. Being a shy child, I didn’t much interact with the kids who were there, and my sole purpose was to find more books to read. The maximum number of books allowed to be checked out from the children’s section was 12. Every Saturday, I would hop in the car with my mom, zip off to the library, and peruse the stacks of books until I had accumulated my 12 books. I would go home, read the first chapter of each book, organize them alphabetically, and begin the process of reading. I would finish all 12 books by my next visit the following Saturday. In short, I was a bookworm.

I had no limit to the books I would read. I was a fan of popular series books, such as The Baby-Sitter’s Club and Sweet Valley Twins. I loved mysteries and books that made me laugh. I loved to read the books on the special Sunshine State booklist that came out once a year, because they always gave me something more than an ordinary series book could give me. Books were my passion, my life’s blood.

As I grew older, I eventually wandered over to the teen section. It felt weird being there, because by the time I hit middle school, it wasn’t cool to love to read. Magazines, yes. Books? Not so much. Every Saturday, I would pray hard that there was nobody lounging on the couches in the teen area so I could browse the rows of books at my leisure, without worrying that someone from my school would find me there. Yes, at age twelve, I was majorly concerned with appearances. I ventured into the more racy books about love and romance, such as Love Stories and Sweet Valley High. I was majorly enthralled with Nancy Drew and all her adventures. And you couldn’t tear me away from the Christian-based series, Christy Miller. I loved books, all books.

I’m not reading 12 books a week any more. Still, I read about 1-2 books a week and there’s never been a time I have not had a book to read on hand. I am always caught up in some sort of adventure in another world. And I still use the library. I don’t browse as much at the library itself anymore, thanks to the wonders of Amazon, author’s websites, and the online library system my county  offers. At my old library, I could even pick up my books and pay fines at a drive-thru window!

This brings me to my debate: bookstores. I’ve never been big on bookstores. Don’t get me wrong, show me a Borders and I’m all over it like white on rice. I love the smell of bookstores, the feel of bookstores, and the atmosphere. I love being in a bookstore, where it’s quiet and calm, and filled with readers just like myself. There are so many options to choose from, so many rows of books to browse. When I was away at college for a year (which I affectionately call The Year From Hell), the college bookstore was my safe zone. I would spend many afternoons and nights, escaping from roommate drama and loneliness, in this place, curled up on a couch, reading anything I could get my hands on.

One of my favourite places in the world, Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland

The problem I have with bookstores is this: why buy when you can borrow? I’ve always been on a very limited budget and I read too much to buy everything I read. The few times I’ve encountered my library not having the books I want, I buy them. But, for the most part, I don’t have a huge collection of books. I’ve been using the library for so long that whenever I need a book, I look there first. There are some authors that I love so dearly that I do buy their books when they come out with new ones, but it doesn’t happen often. The library system I use is so big and vast that I can borrow just about any book and have it at my (library’s) doorstep within the week.

To end this guest blog, I’m a library geek. I’ve been one since I was little and I’ll remain one for life. I just find something special about them. I find something special about opening up a used book, and knowing it has touched someone else’s life right before it will touch mine.

So let me ask you, which do you prefer: libraries or bookstores? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Lean On Me

When Brittney asked me to guest post for her, I was so excited I started clapping right there at my desk (one of many “cool” things I do when I get exciting mail, along with verbal exclamations and actually asking questions out loud) – then she mentioned the topic, and I was totally sold. One of the many reasons I love Britt is her love of animals and her huge heart for their welfare, so when I was asked to write about my own little cat, I was all over it!

This, ladies and gents, is Miss Rose Kitten. She was named Rose after the Doctor Who character (told you I was one of the cool kids!), but answered more readily to “Kitten”, and has since become kind of a hybrid, although she mostly goes by “Kit Kit”.  It’s pretty fitting – though she’s grown from a little puffball who sat in my hands to a sleek, well proportioned lady, she still has a total kitten heart. She’s definitely got her own voice and personality, so much so that I left a “how to” guide for my dad when he was cat-sitting in January – complete with instructions on batting, cat volleyball, and hide and seek.

I have a ridiculous amount of love for this cat. Honestly? I’ve actually had conversations with my boy about what we’re going to do if I end up loving the cat more than my own child!!  I’ve never had a pet I’ve felt such a link with before – as a kitten, she’d hop into the shower with me, get totally soggy and come our wrapped in a clean towel, and get blowdried along with my hair.  She wants to be involved with anything I’m doing – reading the newspaper? She’s ON the paper. Marking papers? On the pile.  Watching TV? She has her own designated Movie Spot on the couch.  And don’t even get me started on unpacking the groceries. When I get home in the evenings from work, it’s Postbox Time. She’ll run over to the front door and wait for me to take of my shoes, open it up, and carry her outside for 30 seconds to get the letters. In summer she’ll come out on a leash.  If she were a person, she’d totally be an athlete. Games are her favourite thing in the world – we have a fluffy ball hanging from a string from our banister, and every night we’ll hear little thuds of cat leaps as we’re watching TV.  Paper balls, tennis balls – anything that rolls, she’ll play football with, batting it along the ground as I tackle her down.  We’ll go to one end of a room together where she’ll flop down on her side, ready for me to scoot her along the carpet as she “paddles” her way forward. It’s PRICELESS. And she even helps with the cooking!

What I love most about my little miss isn’t just her adorable little quirks. Or the fact that she will always be there for a hug after a hard day, or to cuddle under a blanket with while I’m cold. It’s the way she just seems to tune in to what’s going on.  I don’t know how many times I’ve been sad, or ill, or crying, and she’ll just trot on delicately over and rub her head on my shoulder, or lean her forehead on mine. How she’ll flop down and start paddling across the floor by herself to make me laugh when I’m feeling stressed.  How she’ll sacrifice the “fat lap” (she ALWAYS cuddles up with the boy, not me!) if I’m feeling a little low and come over to snuggle with me instead.  Our pets may not be able to speak English (you have no idea how badly I wanted a talking cat as a kid. Salem was my hero!), but I’m certain, especially Miss Rose Kitten, they’re more in tune with our ups and downs than we think.

I was told once that pets’ personalities reflect those of their owners.  And if it’s true, it makes me smile to wonder what this says about me.  I know no matter what, I can count on my little cat.  I don’t know what I’d do without her. And seriously? A default Scrabble partner? I think I’m just about the luckiest girl in the world!

How Do You Define Success?

Today I have the honour of guest posting for ItStartsWith.Us, an incredible project whose goal it is to build a global community of individuals focused on making a positive impact in the lives of the people around them.  You can read the post here, and if you’d like to comment, just click on the link below. 🙂

I first moved to Canada when I was fifteen years old, leaving behind England, the country that had raised me, enveloped me in rich culture, history, and left an insatiable appetite for all things British.  My childhood was filled with visits to old cathedrals, quality time with my grandparents, and spending as much time as I possibly could outside.  When I wasn’t playing football with other kids on the street, we were choreographing dances and orchestrating fundraiser talent shows for the neighbours.  I remember feeling an incredible sense of pride when letters from the British Red Cross and the World Wildlife Fund arrived, thanking us for our donation which, looking back, could only have been miniscule – but we didn’t care.  We were helping, and it made us feel like pretty decent kids.

Soon after I landed in Canada, I turned into a little bit of a recluse.  Overwhelmed by culture shock, I retreated into a shell, worried about being judged, about being different – all the while observing just how different things were here.  I’d come from a school where students were scolded for having their shirts untucked, or for wearing more than one pair of earrings.  Here, kids were in designer hoodies and jeans, with highlights in their hair and fake tans, their faces masked with heaps of lip gloss and eyeliner.  At the time, I remember feeling so different, so out of the social loop.  Everyone was so focused on being popular and liked, and I didn’t know what to do.  Every teenager wants to fit in – but I’d come from leading groups of kids where we’d spend our spare time singing, fundraising, and trying to make a difference in the world – and here I was, surrounded by people spending their parents’ money on fancy clothes and trying to look cool.  Our priorities clashed, and I was overcome with a longing to fit in, but to also stay true to my beliefs. I kept quiet and observed.

I got my first job at sixteen, and like many teenagers, worked my way through a series of corporate, hierarchical retail jobs where emphasis was placed on money, and success was determined by the number of additional things you could sell to people who didn’t want or need them.  It made me uncomfortable, but it paid the rent for years before I landed my first office job.  It was in a little print shop, and I was the graphic designer.  I was told I was to charge customers “by the minute”.  Sweet old ladies would come in asking for Christmas letters to be typed, and I’d do it with a smile – but was punished if I made their couple of word changes without charging them extra.  I stayed there for two years before landing my current job – at my first non-profit organization.

The culture shift was incredible.  There was zero focus on money – this place was simply in existence to help people, to teach them skills they could use to move forward in life.  Success was determined by the number of people who found employment – people whose lives were changed for the better.  I’ve never been happier – in a world which seems so focused on climbing the corporate ladder, on being popular, on making more money – society seems to be dominated by a self-focused mentality.  We have to be more attractive, thinner, live in bigger houses, make more money than everyone else, and then what? We’re “successful”?  As I’ve grown up, especially in the last few years, my definition of success has changed drastically.  Success, to me, is no longer defined in monetary terms or by possessions.  I’ve seen so many people in my work whose lives are affected by bad circumstances, poor choices, peer pressure, domestic abuse… the list goes on.  There are so many people out there who face such hardships behind closed doors, and in this self-serving world in which we live, sometimes a shift in what we deem important can make all the difference on earth.  Your smile may be the only one someone sees all day.  Your small act of kindness or compassion – asking them how they are, holding the door open, carrying their bags – may just be the most touching thing they experience all week.  Taking a few minutes in a day to take the focus off ourselves, and onto making a small difference in someone’s life, can go a long way.  That’s why I was thrilled when I heard about the ItStartsWith.Us project.  The more people making small changes in the world, the better off the planet.  We’re so privileged, sitting in our warm homes, accessing the internet with anything we desire at our fingertips.  There are so many people out there affected by so much adversity, and I think if we could all make a little shift in focus, from ourselves to helping others, the world would be a very different place.

I encourage you to take a moment today to really count your blessings, because despite the curveballs life throws our way, we have so much in our lives for which to be thankful.  Take a moment not to think about what you’re going to have for supper tomorrow, or where you’re going to go out on Friday night – but about what you can do to make someone else’s day that little bit better, no matter how small.  You never know how much of a difference it could make.

If you’d like to comment directly at ItStartsWith.Us, please click here.

Coffee Date

Since I’ll be away in Toronto for a whirlwind 2-day trip, I asked two lovely ladies to step in and share some of their wonderful writing with you all.  Today I bring you the lovely Hannah Katy from  As Simple As That, one of my newer blog friends, but somebody I’m so glad I found.  Hannah’s writing is beautiful, moving and thought-provoking, and she definitely provoked some thought in me with this one! I hope you enjoy her writing as much as I do.  I’ll be back next week post-trip and post-Valentine’s day, and there shall definitely be a debriefing then 🙂

When Miss Emily Jane first asked me to be a guest blogger I was absolutely honored. My mind started spinning with potential posts that would do her blog justice but my mind kept coming back to one recurring thought: Emily and I would undoubtedly have an outstanding time if we ever sat down over a cup of coffee.

I love nothing more than the sharing of stories with a freshly brewed cup of French Vanilla sitting between my hands. Perhaps it’s the steam, or maybe the environment; something about coffee dates has always been magical to me. An enchanted ingredient, outside of the cup, has always propelled me to believe that all of life’s problems can be solved in between a few delicate sips.

Confession time: I am a coffee date addict. My planner is filled with little drawings of coffee mugs with a different name scribbled on the inside of each cup. Each little cup, doodled from Sunday to Saturday, represent a different coffee date I have made with someone. I average a good four or five a week. Sometimes in a newly discovered coffee shop, other times in good ol’ Starbucks. Sometimes with old friends, other times with complete strangers.

I know you are probably asking, why does this girl ask complete strangers to have a cup of coffee with her? Call me crazy, but I believe I am onto something.

Our lives are so busy, sometimes there are days when we swear we never found the chance to look up from that pile of papers on our desk or finish thumbing through those millions of emails sitting restless in our inbox. We can very easily get into a habit of shutting the world out, or potentially worse, shutting out anyone who is not already a supporting actor/actress in the movie that is our own life.

We have our friends, our family and our significant others. We have the coworkers and the fellow bloggers, the professors and the clients. What about the strangers? The people we don’t know yet.

Do we set out a sign outside our hearts that reads “No Vacancy”? Do we turn away people who could potentially fit quite nicely in our heart or leave us wondering what our life would be without them?

Enter my never-ending series of coffee dates. These coffee dates have shifted my perspective on life and have sculpted my purpose here on earth. They have taught me a simple truth that I hold dear to me: Every person we encounter in this life serves a purpose, either as one whom we learn from or one whom we teach. Every individual has a stunning story to tell, a moral for us to hear; I genuinely believe some people come into our lives because we were meant to tell them our story.

We cannot be so sure that that friend who grew up knowing our favorite snack food or that love who knows the way we position our pillow at night will be able to teach us everything we need to know in this lifetime. We might just be destined to learn from a perfect stranger. So that is why I make room in my life for a great hobby called “coffee dating”. Because I am depending on these coffee dates to serve their purpose, to leave me being a different person from when I took that first sip, to drop a pearl of wisdom into my cup as I listen to the story of someone else.

Perhaps one day Emily and I will Skype over a cup of coffee, or maybe you and I can chat over a cappuccino, but I am leaving it up to you now. Is there someone you have come across and you are intrigued to hear his or her story? If so, why haven’t you asked them out for coffee yet?

Blog Travels: The Solitary Panda

Image from Lara Fairie

Today, I’ll be guest-posting over at Solitary Panda – Floreta is a wonderful new blog-friend who, in 2010, is going on a soul-searching journey to the Philip­pines, volunteering in the Indian Himalayas for two weeks, as well as spend­ing a week in New Delhi.  While she’s off travelling the world, she’s hosting a guest blog series on the topic of personal development, identity and finding yourself, and today I’m contributing my story of overcoming what seemed like a lifetime of self-doubt, tackling the discrepancy between where I was and where I wanted to be, and taking steps to get to where I am today.  Head on over – her blog’s definitely going to be an exciting one to read this year.   Tell me some of your stories about person growth and soul searching – it’s a topic very close to my heart!

And I’ll be back this weekend – looking forward to catching up with everybody then 🙂

Holiday Guest Blog 1: It’s La Midge!

Brittney from It’s La Midge is one of my absolute favourite bloggers (and new friends). She’s married, a mother to five pets (please pray she and her hubby find their missing cat – it’s breaking my heart), lives somewhere far warmer than I do, and her wicked sense of humour along with her enormous heart just make me smile and feel very lucky to have her in my life.   She’s helping man the fort while I’m away this week – and you can (and definitely should) read her blog over here.

As long as he has a dog, he has a friend;
and the poorer he gets, the better friend he has.” – Will Rogers

Emily is one those rare “awesomes” in this world. She has a sense of humor, she’s humble and she’s gorgeous – yet still down to earth enough to embrace her inner nerd. From the first time I poked around here, it was obvious she was actually as genuine as her writing portrays; the warmth in her heart pours from every post.

So when she asked if I’d like to guest post on her blog, I was ecstatic. What could be more flattering than someone having faith in your ability to be interesting enough that their readers won’t stab out their eyes from sheer boredom?!? Then I took a look at the other fantastics she asked to guest post — a handful of fabulously eloquent and hilarious bloggers – and it feels like a party where everyone is bringing three-tiered cakes and I’m the awkward kid who showed up with a half-eaten brownie I managed to sit on during my drive over. Chocolate anyone? 😉

After agonizing over what to write about (make it count, Brittney, MAKE IT COUNT!) I gave up on trying to be the most witty or most amazing and decided it might be fun to post the first of something I have been meaning to write about over at my own site.

For those of you who know me, I worked for several years at the Los Angeles SPCA. I had varying roles, from kennel staff to behavior analyst, and each allowed me to experience some of the most heart-warming connections between pet and man around. Too often, shelter animals don’t get their day in the spotlight, so I’ve decided to share some of their stories on their behalf! First up, one of my most fond memories is the Tale of Tater Tot.

It was my first day working the field with an animal control officer. I’d always worked the shelter side of things and was excited to test the waters. I was assigned O.B., a level-headed woman with a tough exterior and a heart of gold. Our first call was to pick up an owner surrender, and shortly after 9 a.m. we pulled up to a small yellow California Bungalow. The owner stepped out to greet us, a tiny woman in a pink sweater who could’ve easily played the role of my grandmother. She explained she was no longer able to properly care for herself, and her children were electing to relocate her to a nursing home where she would not be able to bring her shepherd mix. She was heartbroken, and you could feel her heart crumble with every word.

Before taking us inside, she glanced quickly through the porch screen, and then took O.B.’s hand in hers. In barely a whisper, she looked at us both and said, “I’m not a silly old woman, I know how it works. I know she’s old. I know she isn’t a cute little puppy anymore and she isn’t the sweetest thing on the block, but she’s been a good dog. When you put her—” and she lost her hold on the sentence. A few gulps of air to regain her composure (and a few gulps for us to not break down with her), she finished, “When you put her down, can you tell her I loved her? That she did nothing wrong and none of this was her fault? Now come inside, meet Tater Tot.”

Cue heartache. Doing our best to maintain our composure, we ducked inside to meet Tater Tot – and a Tater Tot she was! A blonde shepherd mix, stout and wide as her namesake, she was graying on her muzzle and sat surveying the situation from a giant chair in the corner of the room. She wasn’t friendly, at all. In fact, getting her to the truck was nothing short of a quick unexpected lesson in how not to get eaten alive. After we locked her compartment, we promised the woman that Tater Tot would be adopted and we’d look after her.

On the drive to back to the shelter, out of earshot of Mrs. Clause, we openly discussed the tough situation Tater Tot faced. She was missing all the most “adoptable” qualities folks melted over at shelters: She was older than 3 years old (she was 8), she wasn’t necessarily gorgeous and, thus far, she wasn’t coming across as the type to win anyone over with her charming personality.

The way our shelter worked, all dogs were given one week to get adopted on Side One. Then, on day 8, whichever dogs were deemed to be super adoptable by upper management were moved over to Side Two for essentially unlimited time to find a new home, so long as they remained mentally stable. We spread Tater Tots mother’s message throughout the staff like wild fire. But a touching story didn’t make for an easily adoptable dog, and Tater Tot was in no mood to assist. We spent the first three days trying to get her to show us her good side; she spent it lunging at the bars anytime someone walked past. She had to be lured to one half of her kennel before the other side could be cleaned without her in it, for safety. On Day Four, she exchanged lunging for sulking in the back of her kennel, but let out a throaty growl at passersby. Team Tater Tot kept up our half of the bargain, pleading with her to just let someone in her kennel. The morning of Day 7, a breakthrough!! I was able to get into her kennel and change her blanket. She made it to Side Two!!

The progress stopped there. Though she no longer growled, she didn’t blossom. She didn’t approach potential adopters who tried to engage her through the bars, and when volunteers took her out to socialize, she sat in the corners of the play yard, seemingly blind to the balls and toys that were rolled past her face. She began lunging when children passed her kennel and we were forced to add, “NO CHILDREN,” to her info card. As she pulled further into her shell, we began to worry she was slipping into the mentality that would require us to issue to her that final message from her beloved owner.

Seven months into joining our shelter family, and without a single potential adopter viewing her, I was walking through the kennels when I noticed a small boy with his hand in her cage. For a moment my heart stopped, until I saw Tater Tot leaning intensely against the bars and into his loving hand. He looked up and grinned. “She’s COOL!” he proclaimed. “She IS cool,” I replied. A few moments later, a big burly man approached us and asked if his son could see her outside the kennel. ARE YOU KIDDING ME BUDDY!? I was doing my best to not get my hopes up and pee my pants.

As we entered the play yard, an amazed crowd of staff formed around us. The little boy noticed a chewed-up tennis ball in the middle that must’ve been left behind by a volunteer. He lit up. Grabbing it, he brought his hand back to throw. Sigh. Would she watch it roll past before sitting in the corner? How heartbroken would this little boy be when he realized Tater Tot had zero interest in something like fetch? The ball shot forward and… OMG!!! SO DID TATER TOT!!! She snatched it, doubled back and dropped it at his feet.

We couldn’t contain ourselves and our cheers were contagious! As the little boy continued to play fetch with an energetic and tail-wagging Tater Tot, we explained her story to the father. He misted up. He couldn’t handle it any more than we could. Tater Tot hadn’t been picked, she’d picked them! I can’t even write this with the gooey goosebump-ness it deserves.

While he finalized their paperwork, O.B. and I smashed into the only office that had speakerphone. We had a very important call to make to a little old lady. When we broke the news that Tater Tot was on her way to her brand new home with her very own little boy, all three of us burst into tears.

Tater Tot went home that afternoon, touting not only a brand new leash but a brand new spirit. The father and son visited the little old woman a handful of times, and the last we heard, the three of them were doing famously.

Tater Tot reminded me that sometimes we all need a little time. That, sometimes, it takes the right people to bring out the best in us. The right people to look past the gray in our muzzles and the sadness in our eyes to see a new best friend.

Sometimes, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks — but they can certainly show you a thing or two!

Guest Post: The Power of Choice

This post is part of the Guest Blog Grand Tour over at Life Without Pants – an epic journey of over 75 guest posts. Want to learn more about Matt Cheuvront & see how far the rabbit hole goes? Subscribe to the Life Without Pants RSS feed & follow him on Twitter to keep in touch!

2009. What a year, huh? As December winds down, Christmas and New Years on the Horizon, we take time to reflect on the year that was. Throughout the year we get so caught up in our fast paced lives that we neglect to see how much has really happened. But as it all draws to a close we reminisce over the good times and the bad, the obstacles we’ve overcome and challenges that have come before us. And then, at least for me, I give myself a pat on the back, because odds are, the year behind me was a lot more productive than I thought.

This year has been especially difficult and also extremely rewarding for yours truly. If I used one word to describe everything that happened, it would be “transition” – changing jobs, changing homes, getting engaged, leaving friends and family and making new ones. There’s been a lot of change – it wasn’t easy – but I can sit where I am today and tell you that I’ve learned more about myself in the past year than I have in the past five.

I’ve reflected on life lessons learned this year over on my blog – but I wanted to take a different approach and share with you one of, if not the single most important and empowering thing I’m taking away from this year: The power of CHOICE.

We talk so much about a belief in fate versus free will. Fate will tell you that when you’re born, your path is pre-determined, that no matter what you do, the man upstairs has his mind made up for you – and you’re simply here to serve in that purpose. Free will takes the opposite stance – encouraging that you have the power to do anything you want in life, that your fate it what you make (Terminator, anyone?)

I believe in neither.

Instead, I believe in choice, the only thing that we CAN control. Let’s face it, we don’t have a say in everything that happens in our life. But it isn’t about fate – I’ll never admit that my path is predetermined. Life is going to throw you a shit storm from time to time, it’s not all slow pitches over the plate, there are going to be curves and sliders – things that will throw you off your game and keep you guessing – sometimes even striking out.

But what we CAN control is the choices we make every single day. Options are put before us and we have the power to make the right (or wrong) decisions – to mess up and learn from our mistakes, to overcome great obstacles through perseverance and persistence. Once you start believing in yourself and the power you have to make those choices, the sky is the limit for what you can achieve.

2009 has been an amazing year – not an easy one – but one I will never forget as a turning point in my life. And I know that I will never regret the choices I’ve made that have gotten me to where I am today.