Life Lessons Learned: What I Know so Far (an essay)

So I have arrived home after spending a blissful two days with a friend I have not seen in TWO YEARS. It still blows my mind. It was a wonderful weekend. We rented a cottage through Airbnb in Portland, Ontario, and shared a wonderful little bunkie near the water.

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This morning, as my friend studied, I pulled out an old writing prompt book I bought in Toronto on a whim in the winter. The entry I found said to “write a letter to a stranger detailing what you have learned so far in life.” I started writing, and didn’t stop… at the behest of my dear friend, I finished it, and decided to put it up here.

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Dear stranger,

You will never know me, never see my face in a crowd, or shake my hand, but through these words, you are seeing inside me, unmasking me in a way that few will ever be able. Who I am and where I come from do not matter. If I tell you my age, my career, the very colour of my hair, you will begin to judge me, and these words will take a different shape. Take my words as they are. Instead, let me share with you what I believe I have learned so far about life.

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Firstly, to describe Life is like trying to catch a shadow. It is a caterpillar in metamorphosis, the transitions never ending. What it is to me tomorrow will not be what it was to me yesterday, or last year, or even three hours ago. Life is an education. It is a beautiful struggle to find purpose and meaning – to MAKE purpose and meaning, whatever that may be. Life is individual. It is your own journey through a series of planned and unexpected choices. Life is Togetherness. It is the culmination of relationships and encounters you cultivate or tear asunder…. The connections that either bless or bludgeon your heart to its breaking point. What you define as living will be your own choice, and whether living and being alive are the same thing….I’ll let you decide.

What have I learned…?  Some things I claim to know get defeated and re-evaluated by these choices and relationships. However, I do know that we need people. They enter your life for a reason, a season, or a lifetime, and you need to decide what to do with them. Quality over quantity, my friend. Learn when to hold on and when to let go. If they hurt you, let them go. If they accept you as you are, hold on. Keep an open heart. Love, love, then love some more. Write letters. I cannot say enough how much getting mail can warm a heart. Simple gestures like this show a person you think of them, care for them. Make phone calls – don’t text all the time. I would much rather hear the voice of my old friend then a 100-character message any day. I know we are all busy, all doing our 9-to-5s, all capable of making excuses and putting things off. Don’t put things off. Try to make fewer excuses, and make more time instead. You’re not getting any younger. Enjoy your friends and family. You truly never know what will happen. Life can be unforgiving, and death makes no apologies.

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We are all tired of the YOLO’s and the Carpe Diems, but let’s face it- they’re onto something. You only have this moment. Be fully present, be thankful, feel blessed. Enjoy your people. They are the ones who will support you on your darker days, who will bring you into the light. If you nurture them, they will fill your days with laughter and sunshine, celebrate your achievements, and love you as you are. You will find your life is greatly defined by the relationships you have forged. Be kind. Give compliments. Have you ever noticed how someone smiles when you share a kind word? Have you noticed that you, as well, feel a spark of positivity by having shown this kindness? It only takes a few moments to spread a little sweetness in the world. Treat others as you would like to be treated. People will forget what you said, what you did, but they will remember how you made them feel. I don’t know about you, but if I leave any legacy at all, I hope I live on in the hearts of those around me. I hope they say that I lived, and loved, well. Love. Forget the small squabbles, don’t go to bed mad, don’t hold an angry heart. You WILL regret it later.

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On that note, don’t take life too seriously. No one gets out alive anyway. Anthony Bourdain has a point – he says “Your body is not a temple. It is an amusement park. Enjoy the ride.” I love this. I am not saying you should delve into hard drugs and have many questionable nights in Tijuana  (although, if this is your choice, fine. Your life. There may be repercussions – you’ve been warned). You should eat healthy – move often, laugh more, do yoga, drink green tea. If your body quits before your dreams do, that is disappointing. What I mean is you need to take chances. You will not remember the nights you got extra sleep, or stayed in binging on Netflix. You will remember the night you braved the rain to see a local band, planning last minute road trips, buying something you really wanted. Take some risks. Get messy. As the Spice Girls would say – Spice up your life!

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I have learned that I am a people pleaser. This is not always the best thing. Part of living is learning your flaws, and seeking self-improvement. Face the things you love and don’t love about yourself, then accept it all as a whole. Being a pleaser, I have always sought to be liked by others, to do what is expected, what is right. Watch out for this. The way in which our society is structured is meant to assimilate and streamline you into the folds of a well-oiled machine. Imagine yourself as a bird. You – you beautiful gem, have wings. You have to learn when to nest and when to fly away. Don’t listen to others. By this I mean, if you do seek advice, listen and be thankful for the care of your people. Do not let them decide the course of your life. Our hearts speak to us all the time, and yet we find it so hard to truly listen. Take small steps. Make decisions to guide your own happiness. Take bigger leaps, ones that your people may tell you is unwise or ill-advised. Was your heart telling you Yes? Tell me if it didn’t fill you with the greatest joy when all is said and done. You, at the core of your own existence, are your greatest enemy and best friend. Every decision is ultimately yours. Do not let people take that away from you.

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Travel. Again, you are probably thinking this is taking a mawkish turn, but I mean it. Travel as far and as wide and as long as you can. Real education is not learned in school. It is learned by exploring the world, the landscapes and cultures that exist beyond the scope of your own reality. Share. Learn from those you meet long the way, and show them the passion of your own heart. Try not to let the media define your beliefs of a country and its people. This is hard, I know. I have been guilty of this too. Try to break away from your own pre-conceived notions, built in stereotypes, hard-wired beliefs. Adapt. Re-evaluate. Remember, I told you to keep an open heart? Keep an open mind too. I am still new to traveling, but I can tell you – my fondest memories aren’t of tourist attractions and predictably expensive meals. They are of meeting foreign strangers, of last minute adventures, breath-taking views, and meaningful conversations with beautiful hearts I would have never met in my own backyard. How interesting that we are all 99.9% the same genetically, and yet we manufacture so many divides – religion, race, sexuality, gender, the list goes on. There will always be strife: warms, famine, political unrest. Try to make the world just a little better…Travel with a loving heart, and share the stories of your life. There are a million friendships waiting to be made if you can be brave enough to live fully and love humanity in all its forms. Continents may divide you, but love can bridge any gap.

Never heard of CS? Try it!
Never heard of CS? Try it!

Perhaps I talk too much of travel, but travel is a passion after my own heart. People must wonder why I speak of Australia so much. Australia is where I lived for a year. It was the first thing I did for myself, my first big adventure. There were hard times, and it was not perfect, but I did it. Me. I met many people, but I was half a world away from my people, my home,  my comfort zone. It opened up doors, my eyes, parts of myself and dreams within me that lay dormant, until such point unknown. Travel does change you. You come home and everything is the same, but you have changed. Your perspective, your appreciation, perhaps even your goals will be affected by your travels. What a beautiful thing. So what are you waiting for?

Going back to people, you might notice a recurring theme of love. Love is undeniably important. I do not know your age. Perhaps you are full and rich in the memories of your family life, spouse, kids, family pet, white picket fence. I am not. I am still on the uncertain road of dating and hoping to find the right one. Firstly, most relationships start as friendships. Friendship is wonderful to have in a companion. Communication is key. You need to be able to talk things through, to work through things as a team without fear of insult or judgment. Passion. You need to love the person for their personality, but some of the best moments are due to the catalyst of passion. If you don’t want to undress them, don’t think of them when they’re away, don’t feel the need to share your thoughts and dreams, something isn’t right. I can think of few things as perfect as two naked bodies fit together like puzzle pieces. Of cuddling in the late hours of a Sunday morning. Holding hands, an arm around a waist. Intimacy glues you together, lets you feel the love of your partner down to your very bones. All forms of affection are good, needed, and necessary. Hug more.

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If you are single, don’t settle. Don’t hide either. You need to put yourself out there. I can tell you first-hand that every good or bad date allows you to better learn what you want and don’t want in a partner. As I said, don’t settle! You may feel lonely at times. This is normal. I know people who have jumped from relationship to relationship their whole life with no pause in between. This may be enviable at times, but there is a point that having always been with someone, they have never known what it truly means to have a relationship with yourself. Being single is a good time to explore, to invest in You. Try new hobbies, new classes, learn something. Build you… and when the right person comes along, you will have that much more to offer. Your relationship with yourself will last your whole life, after all. You might as well learn to enjoy your own company.

Take pleasure in the small things. So many things in this life come at a cost, so why not be a person who derives joy from the smallest, simplest things? This comes in handy with your loved ones too. A cup of coffee in the morning, a short love note on the fridge, an impromptu picnic – little gestures add up and hold more shine than any extravagant gift. You really should stop and smell the roses. Warm laundry on a cold day, traffic lights turning green, a phone call from a good friend. If we remind ourselves to be thankful and appreciate the small blessings, happiness doesn’t seem like such an unachievable thing.

Get outside. Hike. Walk. Get on the water. Religious or not, I find being in nature is one of the times I believe most in something greater than myself. Thoreau had it right:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life . . . and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”6979239-beautiful-mountain-landscape

Nature refreshes the soul. It offers endless beauty and the possibility of quiet introspection. I recently sat in the middle of a lake with an old friend, our canoe buoyed gently by waves. In the fading sun, birds aflight and voices carrying gently over the water, I felt something I do not often feel. Peace. A deep, pure, easy happiness. Nature seems to make this feeling easier to come by. Explore the natural world. Respect and take care of it. Appreciate. Stay up late and stargaze. This is another way to tap into the wonder of our world. Watch the sunset. Every sunset, no matter where you are, will never be exactly the same. It is a natural reminder of time fading, slowly trickling away, and the need to make the most of the days laid out before you.

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As I grow, I am evidently learning. For me, one of the hardest things to learn is how little I truly know. Having been a planner, I like to have some idea what my future brings. A recent conversation had me describing how I had envisioned a timeline, not unlike others – a relationship, marriage, children, stable career by 30. I can tell you now this will most likely not happen for me. It is a hard pill to swallow when your life takes a path that you did not choose. Some choices are yours to make, but for better or worse, some of the biggest things are out of your control. The serenity poem is fitting here:

“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

I have made choices in my life, which in turn will affect other choices, and possible outcomes in my future. As you grow older, some choices become harder than others, and there is often no way to know which is right. Sometimes, the best thing you can do for yourself is just to let go. To believe in the sturdiness of your own heart and hope that, truly, everything will work itself out. Every beginning comes from some other beginning’s end. Good things fall apart so better things can come together. These quotes exist for a reason. I may not meet my soulmate until I am 35, I may never have kids and adopt, I may change careers or move to a place I never imagined. I want certain secrets of my future to be unraveled, but this is not in my power. I control today. I control my happiness. I have to believe that no matter what happens, I will be alright, and if I am not happy, I will learn to make a change. Tomorrow is not mine to know, and that is okay. A little surprise is always fun.

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Well, dear stranger, I imagine you are at the end of your cuppa Joe, or fading slightly from the majesty of my powerful words… (I jest). I will leave you with this message, which is mine, and may not fall in line with your own beliefs. This is okay. It is our differences that make us who we are. If I can tell you anything, remember that you are always learning. Be kind to others. Never think you know everything. Life will surprise you. Keep an open heart, an open mind, a willingness to explore, and a thirst to experience as much as you can in this lifetime.

Good luck, dear stranger,

Xx Ohshetravels.

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