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Sunday, 11 June 2017

An Ode to the Cabin in the Woods

It's been a couple of months since I wrote a blog. I feel like my inspiration gets suppressed when I've been in the city too long, such as was the case the first half of this year. I also reverted to old behavioral patterns, as I returned to familiar surroundings in the Toronto area. It was great reconnecting with family, but now it's time for me to get out there and have new experiences again.

So where am I now?

From now through to October, I will be living in a cabin in the woods! It is located just north of Toronto by about 2 hours. And it's not just a dinky little room with a bed. There's an attached outdoor kitchen, protected by mosquito netting. And just steps away from my door, in a clearing in the forest, is a cute little pond.



Nothing beats breakfast by the pond

And the best part of this idyllic setting? No Wifi! That means I get to disconnect from society, and connect to nature, and with myself. I've been here two weeks, and I already feel my apathy giving way to creativity and inspiration, as I distance myself from some old patterns (screen watching, lying around indoors), and reengage in some healthy, energizing patterns (sleeping more, consistent dental hygiene, mindful practices).

Despite having no Wifi, I have some very ambitious plans out in my little slice of the woods. Firstly, I want to read through my pile of books. Then I plan on learning guitar, slacklining, poi, and potentially try my hand at producing music.




So why am I here?

I've found a part job, part homestay, where I am helping the landowner to build his off grid timber frame house. Off grid means that the house will be completely self sufficient, deriving its electricity from solar, sourcing water from the local well, and treatment of rain water, grey water, and waste water on-site through various synthetic and natural filters, ready to infiltrate back into the ground.

And timber frame is a more traditional way of building a house, out of larger structural members, enabling them to last a lot longer. By contrast, most houses today are constructed out of stick framing, which only uses smaller pieces of wood, such as two by fours. Stick frames are cheaper and easier to build, but don't last as long.

The walls will also be constructed out of straw bale, a sustainable resource which is also very effective at heat rentention, and moisture wicking.

So far, so good on the job. My bosses Simon and Talia have been great and we have natural chemistry. Actually, they approach our arrangement as more of a partnership than a hierarchy of boss and worker. And my engineering education has been handy in helping me pick up timber framing techniques. Considering I have zero building experience, I am very grateful for this opportunity to learn while on the job. And the cabin is a great perk!

I connected with Simon through www.goodwork.ca. For Canadians out there looking for genuine work, I highly recommend it. There's a variety of postings, ranging from PhD jobs, all the way down to farming homestays, offering rewarding work that has genuine social and environmental impacts.
Our workshop is actually a plastic roofed greenhouse. Lots of natural lighting, and big roll up windows for ventilation
Timber frames must fit together snug like puzzle pieces. Here we are testing one section of the frame

So why did I take on this job?

The bigger picture of the past three years of my life has been to have new experiences, learn and build on my skills, and find new ways to make a living in line with my life goals and passions. I feel like I have a lot to offer the world, and am not meant to be pigeon holed and slotted in a cubicle. I think the skills I will learn on this project will come in handy in the future, as I foresee a not-so-smooth transition into leaner times ahead.

I have many ideas in my head and passions in my heart, that I want to put into action, but in reality, I'm a bit scared, and I still don't truly know what one thing I want to do with my life, and the only way to figure that out is to try them out. Thus, I'm very thankful to have been given this opportunity to try out carpentry. And not just carpentry but, specifically, timber framing, a fading but unique and challenging way of building. I'm sure these skills will come in handy in the future, no matter if it becomes a career or not.

You can follow Simon's Instagram for updates on the house construction, at:
https://www.instagram.com/preservingearth/

Finally, if you're in my neck of the woods, please feel free to contact me! Come join me in my quaint little cabin, or we can go for a hike at the local waterfall.

Happy summer,
~Andrew

Friday, 12 May 2017

Running to Glory

I completed a half marathon in Quebec City (or just Quebec to Quebecers) on the glorious morning of May 9 - glorious just in the fact it defied a very gloomy forecast, and didn't rain.

The course ran along a scenic coastal trail towards the mouth of the St. Lawrence River where it meets the Atlantic Ocean, and where Old Quebec looks down from the top of a towering hill, overseeing the water's transition from river to ocean. There are far worse places to do a half marathon.
A view of Quebec City during my half marathon

However, the accomplishment of running 21 km was so much bigger than just the physical act itself. As anyone who delves deep into a craft knows, when you start going deeper, you develop a relationship with that craft, or go on a journey with it. Running is no exception.

I've been running on and off for at least 6 years. This was my third half marathon and my relationship with running changed over the course of training for this event, and my reasons for taking it on were much different this time around as well.

I ran the first two half marathons to achieve new milestones in my life, and simply as an excuse to get some exercise. Since then I have been through a lot of ups and downs in my life, and am currently in a period of big transition. Demons and doubts, both in my head and in my physical reality, have cast doubt as to whether I can succeed.

And so I took on this third half marathon to reaffirm to myself that I was a capable person, who could accomplish anything that I put my mind to.

I also took it as an opportunity to visit Quebec City and take a little road trip. However, it seemed like continued heavy rain and flooding across eastern Canada was going to rain on my parade. It felt like a miracle when there was no rain at all that morning, making for a dry run!
I also stopped by Montreal too.
All the tension I had about the rain faded away the morning of the race, and gave way to my previous relaxed approach, since I knew my body had what it took to finish it, nor did I train with a time goal.

~*~*~

I came out of the starting gate on cruise control, remaining present. I soaked in the energy of the cheering volunteers and supporters lining the streets along our course. I let my mind wander, allowing random thoughts to arise out of my subconscious and float away. I ran past my friend, who was hosting me and volunteering on the route, cheering me along, feeling thankful to have her there to support me.

Just over halfway through the course, we reached the coastline where Atlantic Ocean meets St. Lawrence River, and turned onto a lovely trail that wound along the coastline. The landscape gave me gratitude to be able to participate in an amazing event in such a beautiful place.

By kilometre 14 I hit my second wind, and I entered a tunnel vision, where my mind drowned out all of the stimulus around me, focusing only on my own mind, body, and every stride. I found new energy in this state of focus. I wouldn't say I lost awareness of my surroundings, but that I transcended my own body and felt a surreal oneness and connectedness with everything around me. I was in the zone.

By kilometre 18 I started feeling the finish line, and a reassuring voice came from inside me that said, "I can do this. I can do anything I want - anything in life." And a swelling of emotion rose in my throat, filled with all of those doubts in my mind, all the ups and downs from the past year - I let it all go - and I found myself choking back tears. I got a big spiritual lift and found new energy as a result of this emotional upwelling.

Finally, by kilometre 19 the cathartic emotion of kilometre 18 leveled off, and the fatigue and pain hit. The final two kilometres was the hardest part, just willing myself to the finish line on pure desperation.
A wet camera lens blotted out the satisfaction on my face as I hold my medal of completion.

But I did it! And aided by the course's one way trajectory, which was mostly downhill, and a generous tailwind, I managed to set a personal record, which was not at all a goal since when I started training.

~*~*~

For some runners I know, running is their medicine, or their meditation. The act of running takes a lot of mental toughness, or develops it as time goes on. The mental toughness I've built up to overcome fatigue and pain has transcended my running to help me overcome other struggles in my life.

And it hasn't just helped me handle adversity, it has healed existing traumas. Running loosens the purse strings around my brain, allowing for the negative, annoying and pesky thoughts that build up in my head over time, to be released and unburdened from my consciousness.

This half marathon was a big dose of medicine for me, restoring confidence in myself, and providing affirmation that I'm on the right path.

And the road trip was lots of fun too, once the rain stopped. A big thank you to all of those I met along the way on my road trip!

Beautiful Old Quebec

A large mural in Old Quebec


Street art in Montreal

Sunday, 16 April 2017

There Is No Light Without Darkness

Several weeks ago I wrote a blog about the Beauty of Things, where I shared my perspective of where beauty can be seen in this world. A friend of mine commented on the blog, saying I have a great outlook on life, and that she enjoys the things I write about.

This was, of course, a very flattering compliment. But, knowing me better than she did, I had to think and reflect long and hard about how true this statement really was. Especially in a social media society where everybody only sees the best of everyone else, and none of the demons which even the best of us, including myself, have.

Truth be told, I had a pretty difficult winter, where I nearly fell into depression. And as much as I wanted to reach out to the FB world for support, it wasn't quite the right avenue for me (though I have seen other friends do this well with humility and vulnerability).

We all know the classic dualities in our universe - there is no light without dark, love without hate, good without evil, beauty without revulsion. I guess I see the beauty of this world because I am aware of the revulsion and ugliness that simultaneously exists.
Beauty in the dark. Fire spinning - Cherry picking, BC 2014

I grew up listening to emo rock music, and today most of the music I listen to is pretty dark in flavor. The way I describe my favorite song, a horrific mass of eerie sound effects, screeches, bangs, gurgles and bangs, goes like this: "All the chaos in this world, all that's wrong with humanity, which I can't explain, and which makes me want to cry - this song is that chaos put into sound, but in such a way that it is beautiful and makes sense of all the chaos. This song speaks to me, soothes me, tells me everything will be okay."

And indeed, I am painfully aware of all the hate and injustice that exists; the darkness that plagues this world. Anyone who would meet me in person during a discussion about global issues, would have a mightily different impression of me than if they simply read my blog, or scanned my FB page. I remember once getting to know someone while volunteering at a vipassana meditation course, and he stopped me, saying I was getting into very negative territory.

But if I weren't aware of that darkness, I wouldn't be able to see the light. Or if I just lived in a comfortable bubble, ignoring the darkness, I would also deny myself access to the light. Instead, I invite the dark stuff in, and deal with it. The process is similar to the five stages of grief and loss: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance (I think).
Eagerly awaiting the sunrise - Singalila trek, Nepal/India border, 2014

So I have come to acknowledge that there is darkness in my life, I process it, accept it, and swim through it, toward the light on the other side. And in the right situation, I am willing to share my darkness with others to create a sense of solidarity.

But I am also aware that there is a distinct difference between darkness and light, and negativity and positivity. Negativity is borne out of darkness. But while in some cases it is good to share your darkness with others, there is no good rationale for spreading negativity to others. Spreading negativity only creates a vicious circle that will spiral out of control, and there's already too much of that going around - social media is a big vicious circle of negative news.

Positivity, on the other hand, creates a virtuous circle which can start a chain reaction of positive energy.

So I invite you everyone to start their own virtuous circles, create positive energy for those around them. But all the while maintaining the awareness that no matter how positive we seem to others, and how positive others seem to us, that we all harbor a little darkness on the inside. We couldn't see the light without it. And that darkness will be shared when the time is right.
A little fun with friends - Vancouver, 2015
If you feel ready to share with me or the world, then I ask you, "What is the darkness in your life?"

Saturday, 1 April 2017

The Beauty of Things

*** A Perspective of the World Seen Through the Lens of Beauty ***
(5 min read)

(To the Canadians, sorry for my title`s parody on David Suzuki.)

"Sometimes there is so much beauty in the world... I feel can't take it... and my heart is just going to cave in." - quote from American Beauty

As far as my life experiences have taught me, there is infinite beauty all around us. One of our grand purposes in life is to explore it to the fullest.

I see two kinds of beauty in the world. Natural beauty. And human beauty.

Natural beauty essentially comprises of everything created by the earth and not by humans, such as mountains and oceans, living creatures and plants. The beauty of nature can be experienced mainly through the five senses.

Human beauty comes in many forms. Beyond the simplicity of our naked bodies, the clothes and jewellery we adorn; humans create things. Individually, we create art and music. Collectively, we build skyscrapers and monuments.

But I think we all experience human beauty with a sixth sense, something unexplainable at the level of spirituality or consciousness (we do this with nature too, but to a far less extent).
My nature playground - the Rocky Mountains


Cities - the critical mass of human beauty

This is because there is beauty in the unknown.

And while science has explained most of nature, it has yet to have an answer for human consciousness and spirituality - that non-physical part of each of us that makes us uniquely us - what makes you uniquely you. When I listen to a song, I am witnessing the beauty expressed by an individual. And then I make a connection with that individual on a spiritual level, to say, "I recognize that beauty within you. I understand you."

If none of this were true, then we would all compose the same song, or draw the same art, look the same, and walk the same way.

And so it goes, on our individual journeys as physical human beings. We are born innocent, empty vessels ready to be filled up by the beauty (or the darkness) around us. Growing up, we as children take for granted human beauty, as we are surrounded by humans who nurture us in a closely guarded bubble.

As we grow older, we explore human beauty through friends and relationships, and find niches of beauty, specific types of music or art that speaks to us, that reflects the beauty inside of us. Then we burst forth out of our bubbles into the world, exploring human beauty through exotic cultures and big cities, and natural beauty through hiking mountains and relaxing on tropical beaches.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~

While a lot of people tend to hate big cities, I realized that I can't live without them. I love big cities, and not only that but I love the biggest cities, because that's where the arts and culture come together. The biggest cities is where you have the critical mass of humanity needed to make possible the ultimate creations of human beauty.

So I understand why people love big cities. But what I fear is that many city people become too urban centric, and forget that our species' roots are in nature. I used to love the skyscrapers of Toronto and New York, but studying and working in urban planning taught me they're not very practical on the human scale, but that many skyscrapers are actually built simply to look impressive from afar. Then my forays into nature taught me the humility of worshiping nature's monuments - its jaw dropping mountains and untouchable oceans.
Taipei 101 - a monument to human progress and technology
Vancouver Island cedar - a monument of nature, a reminder to be humble
Because while city skylines are a beautiful thing, they're also monuments to human glory. The biggest cities and its iconic structures serve as symbols of our dominance of earth, which feed our egos as a species and justifies our behaviour of devouring earth's resources. If an alien looked down at Earth and saw the Burj Dubai, I'm sure it would think humans are a pretty glorious but stupid race for building cities in the desert which suck up and desiccate the lands around it.

This is why we need a balance of city and nature worship. Because with an urban centric approach to living, humans forget to take care of the earth. We stay indoors and consume excessively. By exploring nature's monuments we learn that there are places on Earth that humans cannot and never will conquer. And that humility for nature transforms into stewardship.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~

In essence, every human is beautiful in their own unique way, but many individuals, especially in cities, can get caught up in superficial standards of what beauty is, forgetting that you can't express your unique beauty by trying to be like everyone else. Getting in touch with nature brings humility, brings us back to our roots, where we can get in touch with our own unique beauty. Then we can learn to express it, and learn to create instead of just consume.

So get out and explore nature. Go to festivals! Because festivals bring the critical mass of human beauty seen in cities, into the natural beauty of the forests and mountains (or the desert - Burning Man is the pinnacle of human creation and beauty).
Shambhala, 2016 - near Nelson, BC

Tribe Fest, 2016 - near Canmore, Alberta

Soo River Festival, 2016 - near Whistler, BC

So go find yourself, find the beauty inside you. Then express it by creating more, and consuming less.

There is beauty in you, and it is reflected in everything you create, whether it's growing your own garden, knitting a sweater, or making music.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Our Culture of (a lack of) Critical Thinking

The world seems to be in flux a lot these days.

It needs its people to be active and engaged in critical thinking. Because without critical thinking, there can be no action. But it seems to me that there is not enough critical thinking in our society, at least here in Canada compared to certain other parts of the world.

Many months ago in Vancouver, I sat down for drinks with a couple of roommates from France, and our conversation took off weaving through deeply philosophical topics, as is my tendency to do. After the conversation the French natives told me that they never once had such a deep conversation with any other Canadian since arriving.

They told me that in France, people have a very deep rooted culture of critical thinking and holding their governments accountable, born out of the French Revolution several centuries ago. When they go to the bar to drink, they typically talk about their country, how it's running, and what its governments needs to do differently. Here in Canada, they observed, people don't talk about anything with substance.

They told me that there are protests in France virtually everyday, and that they are commonplace enough events that they don't make the news. Conversely, it seems, in Canada when it happens, it's a big deal that's all over the news. Barely anyone protests, and when they do, they're seen as crazy.

I reminded them that an ex-roommate of ours, also from France, easily went off on passionate rants about global issues, making even me uncomfortable at times, something pretty hard to do. They told me that his behaviour was very typical of their fellow countrymen.

Only about a few weeks ago, I had coffee with a German friend and we talked about the same thing. She told me that in Germany, after high school, all young people must attend a course that teaches critical thinking, in order to qualify for post secondary (I believe a French friend also told me this). For me, this verifies my experience meeting German travellers, for I have met many who express strong critical thinking ability, coupled with fluent English, making them very fun (fun for me anyway) to converse with. I also sense that a residual guilt from WWII that's still drilled into the young people in grade school, gives them extra motivation to change the world.

My German friend also shared similar experiences to my French friends, about not being able to connect with their Canadian coworkers during social gatherings for the same reasons.

Looking back on these conversations, it seems obvious to me that there is quite a difference in our cultural attitudes towards critical thinking reflected not only in the bars and in the public squares, but in how we educate our youth. Our education is a very monotonous and rote experience, preparing us to be obedient workers.

If we want our country to move forward into the future, we need to learn from France and Germany among other European countries. We must learn to hold our governments accountable, but in order to do that, we must engage and stimulate our youth through encouraging critical thinking.

Saturday, 25 February 2017

In a Twistedly Good Way Trump Has Ignited the Opposition

I have always taken Naomi Klein's lessons heart. Klein is a Canadian activist and author of several game changing bestsellers.

In her famous book The Shock Doctrine, she describes how society is very reluctant or slow to change in response to minor changes in the environment. Society only begins to respond when it experiences major shocks to the system.

She describes how global warming (or climate change) has no shock value because the change in the environment is barely perceptible at an individual level. We only begin to respond when we experience major shocks to our system, such as devastating hurricanes or floods. These shocks are starting to come but I fear they are too little too late, as tends to be the case with stable systems eroded by decades of neglect.

In the case of global politics, it's fair to say that there has been a slow eroding of the political system or some time to the point where something had to give. A shock to the system was inevitable... and that shock came in the form of Donald Trump.

This is far from an endorsement of the man. But America is the centre stage of global politics, and Trump has inadvertently been the catalyst for an activist movement that's reached far beyond its borders and risen to a fever pitch. If he were not elected, disaster and deception politics would have continued under the radar. Instead people are taking notice, and are taking to the streets to protest, to social media to express their fury, and even to the late night talk shows to make fun of Trump.

My sympathy goes out to my American friends, but I have strong hope that your country's next 5 years of suffering will not be in vain. Trump has and will continue to deliver major shocks to the system. He will in turn galvanize an opposing leftist movement that will reverse the political tide with far reaching consequences, perhaps outlasting Trump's legacy. Years from now, looking back, Trump's presidential nomination will be seen as a turning point towards better times ahead.

But for now Trump is pissing everyone off from Mexicans to Muslims to women to, god forbid, even Canadians. Well, I say get pissed, and do something about it.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

So Long Facebook World

Now that I've returned to Ontario to reset and reevaluate my life, it's time for a break from Facebook.

While Facebook has been an indispensable tool for human connection and travel, it sure does come with a lot of baggage, not unlike a new computer with too much pre-installed software.

Baggage aside, it's still nice to disconnect now and then. A few years ago, I deactivated Facebook for 6 months. I also went without a home internet connection and TV. It was a glorious period of my life where I lived completely in the present. I diverted my time to simple activities such as cooking, reading and yoga.

This time around, I have similar focuses. I'd like to read, learn guitar, poi, and the French language, and spend time with my family.

In the end, it's all about being present with myself and those around me.

I feel like we've forgotten this feeling. Social media has subjected us to information overload, and bred a starving need for attention and to compare ourselves with our online peers. Our identities have been uploaded to the virtual world, so much so that we've forgotten how to interact with eachother in the real world. How is it that despite being more and more connected, we are becoming lonelier than ever?

So with this I disembark from the Facebook ship. And possibly never to come back. When I'm ready to return to the social networking world I will be giving the FB alternative Minds.com a try, an open source social network that promises true internet freedom.

If you're looking for an alternative, come join me here!