I had grand plans for this project.
I was going to practice piano leading up to it. I was going to start playing guitar again. I was going to practice Korean and read in French and it was going to be magnificent. I was going to be good at the things I was learning, even as I began. Honestly, I think I wanted to show off a little, not for accolades, but to prove something to myself.
Then reality hit. The reality that we are (still) in the midst of a pandemic, that this summer was going to be as lonely as last year, that I will not be able to travel until it's cold again (if then). In April, just as I began this project, I began to dip a little and everything became ... really tough. Not the kind that should worry anyone, just the slog where it feels like it takes four times the energy it should to accomplish anything. My plans to do bi-weekly updates, to learn how to edit videos, to share all the fun stuff I was doing... crumbled to dust.
I wanted to be good at all these things, to share the joy in them, but my brain is having trouble processing my first language right now -I keep forgetting basic words, even if I can remember their complicated synonyms- so reading in my second and learning yet another language became impossibly difficult, and picking up two instruments felt equally daunting, even if I've played them before.
We cannot say that the pandemic is to blame for hustle culture, but it sure has made the toxic narrative worse. It is one thing to decide to open a small business, to become an entrepreneur, but with people's incomes disappearing the past year, with the lack of government support for those people, there has been so much pressure the past year to monetize hobbies, to turn everything we do into some sort of side hustle. It all stems from an already pervasive pressure to excel all the things we do. The pressure to be good at everything, the narrative that in order for something to be worth your time you must be inherently good at it (and worthy of selling/making money at it) is, for lack of a politer term, total bullshit.
Most times, when you are new to things, you suck at them. I consider it a deep disadvantage in my childhood that I was naturally talented in a few artistic areas because it honestly prevented me from learning early how to get better at things that *didn't* come naturally to me. I would get discouraged, I would get grumpy, I would want to quit, and my parents let me (except piano, ironically, which I hated The Most but was naturally quite good at). I've spent a long time learning to cultivate the persistence I never learned as a small child.
One of the things I have ALWAYS sucked at is dance.
I did a few months of ballet when I was five years old. I have some memories of being told I was "too energetic" and that my mother would be best to put me in karate. (How someone thought martial arts takes LESS patience and ability to be still than ballet is still beyond me, but I digress... it was mostly a matter of the inherent sexism of the time and how people perceived boys of being ALLOWED to be rambunctious.) In the end, I stopped doing ballet, was later enrolled in Highland dance (which I still sort of sucked at), before quitting dancing entirely for a decade.
In my teens, a classmate convinced me to come out swing dancing one Friday. I have been swing dancing with various degrees of ability ever since. You'd think after so many years, I'd be good. I'm not.
A lot of people in the community ask how long you've been dancing. It's meant to be a safe question but it can be really judgemental too. I hate that question because if I say "since the 90s" they expect me to be AMAZING. I am not. This is not false modesty. I am mediocre, decent on a good day, creative with the right partner. But I'm not a great dancer. I never was and there's a huge chance I never will be.
This is the kicker: I love it anyways. Swing dancing was perhaps the first time where I wasn't self-conscious about being bad at dancing because I wasn't there to be good at it. As a teenager, we went for fun, to go somewhere with music, to be silly, that didn't require spending money on alcohol. Even when we could legally drink, we still went swing dancing instead of to clubs.
In my twenties, I moved and stopped going out dancing, not because I didn't like it but because that group of friends had dispersed to four provinces and three countries to attend university. I missed it.
In my late teens I signed myself up for ballet classes. I still sucked, but I really did love it. I loved the challenge of it, the forced patience, the quiet. Things I am not naturally good at. But I moved again and again and never really found a way to stick with it.
When I moved back to the national capital region in 2012, it was only a few weeks before a friend (a different friend who I didn't know danced) invited me out swing dancing. It had been years since I'd danced, but it was exactly as much fun as I remembered.
One of the things on my bucket list is painfully nebulous: "Become a good dancer." I'm honestly not sure *I* know what this means. I have always been a bit of a jock though, so even when my brain has been having trouble, physical things have been easy. Which is why I signed up for ballet classes (online) last month.
I've had three classes so far. I still suck. I might even suck more now than I did at 19, but I also have been loving it! My instructor is wonderful and the class is really structured and mostly predictable and those things are really calming.
I think it's also really helped me to come to terms with how much I can't handle of other things right now, and the fact that this project is not meant to have Immediate Big Results. The 2557 Project is about longterm changes, about building a new sort of life for myself, and part of that is, by necessity, allowing myself to suck at things as I learn them.
I want to excel at the things I do. I want to one day be a good dancer. I want to be the best possible writer I can be. But being good requires working through the parts of learning where you are not. It requires experimenting. It requires risk. Especially in a world that can be really mean about being mediocre at things.
The media portrayal of dance teachers as being harsh and wanting perfection has never resonated with me. Perhaps this is true at a high level, but I would not know. What I do know is that I had instructors and coaches who played that "this must be the MOST important thing to you!" game which... does not resonate when you're demanding that of a teenager who is late to an unstructured independent practice because she had to stop at the hospital to see her mother.
I don't believe this pressure is healthy or necessary. I had this type of coach and they played an unfortunately pivotal role in my life. I was a competitive rower in high school. Rowing was another thing I did not have a natural gift for. Olympic rowers are almost always tall, very muscular, most of them in their mid-twenties and older. Rowing is one of the few exclusively adult Olympic sports. I was small when I started rowing (5'3" and 102 lbs), I had practically no muscle, and I could not eat enough to gain the weight I needed to get the muscle I wanted. I was the only 15yo girl I knew who wanted to gain 40 pounds. I had to fight for every PR. I ate ravenously just to maintain a caloric surplus. And I quit when I was 16 because of a horrible coach who made it clear that she expected me to maintain a perfect attendance record while my mother was in hospital with cancer. (Seriously. If you are going WTF??? you are not alone.)
I went back to rowing at 19, at 20 at my first university, at 22 at my second university, but right around this time an autoimmune disorder flared up and made it nearly impossible to be out in chilly environments, making rowing pretty challenging unless I bought my own boat. Paying racking fees and buying a boat aren't the most expensive things in the world, but for the rest of my twenties and through my 30s they've been out of reach for me. I often joke that if I won the lottery, my first frivolous expense would be an Empacher single.
To this day, I miss being on the water at dawn.
A few years ago, shortly after I was diagnosed with bipolar, I had a bit of an existential crisis. Which makes sense when someone tells you that an imbalance in you has been causing perhaps 70% of your behaviour for a decade and a half.
I ended up making a list of all the things I loved about myself, all my personality traits, all of my interests and hobbies and passions, to see how many could truly be chocked up to a psychiatric disorder. (None of them that matter most, it turns out.) On this path of self-discovery I also ended up making a list of every activity, hobby, sport, creative outlet I have ever loved and divided them into categories: which ones had been easy for me and which ones had been challenging. What I discovered is that all the things I love most, all the things I keep coming back to are the ones I find most challenging.
Someone had convinced me years ago that I only loved the things I loved because I was naturally good at them and, because there were a number of things I was quite good at that I did love (sewing and pattern drafting, writing, harp) I took this as fact. But I was NOT a naturally good rower, I have always struggled to find the rhythm naturally talented dancers find innately, and I outright LOATHED playing piano as a child, despite being good at it.
I sing a lot to myself, despite wrecking an otherwise good voice as a kid when I could not stop singing through half a dozen throat infections. I go for long walks because my knees refuse to let me run. I am a mediocre gardener who can grow good orchids mostly because I forget about them just enough to let them thrive. I do these things because I cannot help myself, because they bring me joy.
I do difficult things that bring me joy too, because the bottom line is that last part: it's not so much about ever mastering a thing, sometimes that old saying that it's about the journey not the destination rings true. Sometimes you do a hard thing because you love it even when you suck at it.
For me, dance is like rowing. I keep coming back. I don't care how much I have to work at it. The movements themselves are not always pleasant. I have an old shoulder injury that hates second position. I am horribly inflexible. I have miles to go to get to where I'd like to be, to be able to dance the way I hope to one day. But this whole project is about playing a long game. And you don't often win a game on the first few moves.
I know so many people who are fixated on immediate success. I get it. I absolutely APPLAUD our drive and our ambition and I believe we will all make it. But I do think we should take the time to do the things we suck at a little more often, especially the things that make us happy even as we do them imperfectly.
Which is why I need to start taking my own advice, taking the pressure off myself on this project and let it be what it wants to be rather than what I daydreamed it could be. Better to update this blog more sporadically, to be a little unpredictable, than for me to abandon it completely.
I hope to see you all in a few days, because Day 100 is a Big Day!
At about 5 p.m. eastern time today it will be exactly twenty years since my mother, Diana, died.
To be perfectly honest, I had planned to make a video for today, or to prepare some eloquent blog post but, for the past two weeks, I've been dealing with the worst auto-immune flare I've had in years.
I thought I could prepare something in advance because I've done Death Days for my whole adult life. One year. (How has it been a year?) Five years. (Would she be proud of me?) Ten years. (Wait. What?) Eighteen years. (I'd lived without her as long as I'd known her.)
I expected the ten year anniversary to really hurt. I'm not sure why I expected that, but I did. I expected to feel something but all I felt was that it was surreal that she could be gone for a decade and I still felt just as lost at 27 as I had at 17. More lost, even.
Eighteen years felt like it should hurt too. She'd been a ghost in my life as long as she'd been a real person. Instead of feeling surreal, it felt all too real. The year before, we'd bought a house and moved into it on the seventeenth anniversary of her death. We have a huge garden. A month after we moved in we brought home a tiny, witchy void demon kitten, Bast, who just turned three and is an utter agent of chaos and laughter. I like to think she'd love how high a priority having a garden was on our list. I know she would love Bast. If anything, I felt close to her those two anniversaries.
For all those reasons, I expected to feel a bit detached today, to be able to acknowledge that my mother has been gone for two whole decades, but to be buffered by my own perpetual shock.
I'm not detached.
I have felt down for days.
I am just barely keeping from crying as I write this.
I'm not sure why this day hurts so much this year. Or more to the point, I'm not sure why it hurts NOW when it has never really hurt like this before. Twenty is no more significant a number than ten, and yet I feel it all this year, as though all those years of shock protected me from feeling this loss, as though all that numbness was just burying this feeling deeper. Now it's roared to the surface, loud and impossible to ignore.
Grief is a lot of things, but mostly it's personal. I've always had a difficult time with anyone who tries to tell me that grief can be conveniently broken down into tidy steps (grief is never tidy), that it's a problem that can be fixed (it does not need to be fixed), or that it can be sped up with the proper application of God (I won't bother to tell you how hard I laugh at this one). Grief is messy and personal and unique to almost everyone and, while there are some guidelines that can help...
Today has been twenty years since I sat in a hospital with a dozen of my mother's friends who occasionally reminded me to eat and dragged me outside into the first truly gorgeous day of 2001 in Ottawa.
I was outside when she died. I was with one of my aunties wondering how the sky was so blue on such an ominous day. My mother had always told me how blue the sky was, how green the grass was, how colourful the whole world was the day she brought me home from the hospital as a baby. She was a poet; I thought she was taking poetic licence. After all, I was her firstborn child. I'm not sure what meds she'd been given, or how much serotonin was pumping through her out of latent survival instinct. Ottawa on April 29th, 2001, was nearly twenty degrees, the sky was the crystalline blue you see in computer-generated fantasy worlds on sci-fi shows with two moons. Everything was green and painfully alive. Except for Diana.
The most difficult thing to explain is that I wasn't upset, even if I was heartbroken. Diana had been sick with cancer, on and off, for nearly a decade. She had been getting sicker and sicker for the last two years of her life. Her mind was going.
Diana was a poet. She once told my sister and I that if she was in some accident and ended up braindead, to pull the plug and donate all her viable organs. "Without my mind, I won't be myself," she had said. Some part of me remembered that years later as she began to constantly hallucinate from the meds, as she began to forget, as her mind slipped from her, as she was more and more a shell of herself and not the person she had always held herself up to be.
Her death was a relief because she had been in so much pain. That is the socially acceptable thing I am allowed to say, and yet, for the first few years, I rarely admitted this to anyone. I could not help her or fix her and the doctors could not save her, so prolonging her life meant prolonging her agony. I would not wish anyone a longer life if they have to live it in pain with no relief in sight. That's a hard thing for some people to swallow, and perhaps those people have never had to watch someone die slowly. No one I know who has been forced to do so would ever question how conflicting this thought is to have and to have to live with.
I wish there had been a way to save her, but since there wasn't, I wished for her to be at peace. Not in pain. Not suffering. Not upset when she couldn't remember someone's name, let alone her own.
This is all very depressing, for which I feel the need to apologize a little. Not completely, as grief is not something to be ashamed of, but still... The 2557 Project is about living life. That said, it was born out of the fact that too many people I know have died far too young and one of the most important ones is my mother.
Most days, I am all about What Can I Do On My To Do List?, but it's good to let there be days where you just write the day off and admit that nothing productive will get done that day. Today is like that for me, though I didn't expect it to be.
Life can be a glorious riot of fun activities and to do lists but, every once in a while, a day or two will just knock you on your arse. And that's fine. Because life is about the downs as much as the ups. If we didn't have the gloomy days, we wouldn't appreciate the sun so much.
Today, the only things I plan to do are to go for a nice walk under the appropriately gloomy skies and try my best to look forward to the fact that MAYBE, just maybe in 2022, I will get to travel somewhere further than 3 km from my house.
Until next time, stay safe, be kind, and most of all,
CW: mentions of death, grieving, cancer, young death
I had this lovely delusion that I would plan everything out and begin this project with a bang, but life had other plans. So, once again, I find myself feverishly cranking out the words the night before the metaphorical essay is due... (At least I won't lose 5% a day if I hand this in late. One of the very few perks of being your own boss.)
What the heck is The 2557 Project?
What if you only had seven years left to live?
What would you do with them?
Where would you go?
Who would you see?
How would you spend your time?
Who would you be?
And what legacy would you want to leave?
These questions have been on my mind for months and, as I approach the twentieth anniversary of my mother's death, I cannot help thinking that everyone was right to lament that "She was so young!" when my mum died three weeks before her forty-fifth birthday.
When I was eighteen, I understood that forty-four was young to die. At the time, I understood it on an intellectual level, but all these years later, I have begun to understand it on an emotional level. As a teenager, you have no real comprehension of how young you will still feel when teenagers begin to look at you like you're supposed to know how the world works. "She was so young" hits a little harder on the other side of thirty-five when you still get carded (what the... ) and you still feel like you're trying to level yourself up to Full Adult. (I own a house, I have a smol void gremlin, keep a gigantic garden, I've voted in every election I could and have done my taxes mostly on my own since I turned 18 and I still look at others and go "How do you adult so well?!)
This month is the twentieth anniversary of her death. On the one hand, that seems wild, but on the other, all I can think now is that I have seven years until I am the age my mother died.
This probably sounds deeply depressing (be warned, I had a Midlife Crisis themed party for my twenty-second birthday… the gallows humour is my home base) but it’s really NOT depressing to me! It feels more like a call to action, a challenge.
The 2557 Project is just that. It is a challenge to myself to live more intentionally, more fearlessly, to live as though I may die three weeks before my own forty-fifth birthday. To live in a way where I would be proud of who I am if I do happen to die unexpectedly or from a sudden illness. So today, which is three weeks before my own birthday, is Day 1 of The 2557 Project.
You only live once. Long before #YOLO became a thing, I already believed that the only thing we can count on is that we have this one life we know and we ought to make the most of it.
I was not that girl who was timeless and wise. I was too full of ebullient joy and unrestrained excitement to ever be that girl but I did believe that life should be lived to its fullest, so much so that I told this to a wonderful boy I dated when I was fifteen who promptly threw it back in my face when I broke up with him a few weeks later. He accused me of being afraid of being happy.
While there were a lot of reasons I broke up with him -none of which had to do with him, interestingly- I wasn’t comfortable telling him the real reasons. He threw my words back in my face in frustration, but he was still right. I was afraid of telling him what was wrong, of trusting him, of really letting myself rely on him, and, as a result, I have never forgotten his words. I wasn't afraid of happiness, I was afraid to be vulnerable, to show weakness, to not be perfect or in control.
Too often, we chicken out of things in life out of fear or intimidation or because we don’t feel ready. (Fellow perfectionists, I have a special side-eye for you.) I have done this for years, decades now, if I’m brutally honest with myself. There are things on my bucket list that I have wanted to do since I was seven of eight, put off for years now because I will get to them eventually. I think we all sincerely plan to get to those things.
Going to New York City.
Backpacking in New Zealand.
Seeing the Taj Mahal.
Scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef.
Watching the sunset over the Grand Canyon.
I have seven years until I am the same age my mother was when she died. A few months ago that became a thought I could not unthink and so this project was born. Anything meant to span years of a person's life is a massive undertaking, and this is no exception. I expect the scope of this project to change over the course of it, but what I am setting out to do will not change: I want to live the next seven years like they might be my last.
This probably sounds a bit morbid. A bit defeatist. While I am chronically ill with an autoimmune disorder, I have been living with that for seventeen years and, as it stands, it is not anything that will kill me. I’m not expecting to die in seven years but life is short and there is too much I’ve been putting off until it’s more convenient.
My mother never made it to New York City. My sister, who died very suddenly and unexpectedly seven weeks after our mother, never saw her seventeenth birthday. She never made it to New Zealand. Neither of them saw the Taj Mahal.
Thirty years later, I still haven’t seen the Grand Canyon. I have excuses I could give you about why this is, but, at the end of the day, they would all come down to one thing: I haven’t prioritized it.
This project isn’t about travel specifically (though I love to travel and it will play a part in this project). It’s about eliminating the excuses I give myself that have stopped me doing the things I want to do, but often find most frightening.
It’s about becoming the person I keep wishing I was.
It’s about levelling up skills I have wished to have for years.
It’s about writing the books I cannot imagine leaving this world without having written.
It’s about chasing joy and having fun.
It’s about building something that will outlast me.
It’s incredibly selfish, but I don’t want to leave this world without leaving some kind of mark, even if it’s only on a few people and it dies with them.
I'm breaking the project up into seven categories and seven years.
The seven categories are:
- 7 Things to Learn and Master
- 7 New Countries to Visit
- 7 Sights to See
- 7 Books to Write
- 7 Stunning Outfits (I sew, knit and crochet)
- 7 Things To Celebrate
- 7x7 - 7 Smaller Things To Do Each Year to Make Life Fun!
Obviously, I cannot do all these things with perfect regularity, especially the travel. There will be some things that get worked into my everyday life for some or all of the next seven years, and some items that will be highlights.
The years will all begin on April 17th. I realize that's a bit confusing, but the dates are significant. This project will end on April 16th, 2028, exactly three weeks before I turn 45.
I will be posting written updates here (hopefully weekly) as well as doing video updates (the video updates are intimidating as my video editing skills are, at present, non-existent) as I expand on what all of these categories mean and what you can all expect from these updates.
I will do my best to include content warnings on posts because I will discuss mental health, psychiatric issues, chronic illness, cancer, death and grieving among many other heavier topics. I loathe toxic positivity but I really do hope to be able to discuss the reality of outliving my mother and sister in a way that reflects how grateful I am to have the opportunity and the means to make some of my childhood (and slightly more recent) dreams come true over the next seven years!
Until next time, stay safe, be kind, and most of all,