Reinventing Myself in Richmond, Virginia

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Richmond – Week Three Report

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In this posting I do not mean that staying in one place and building your life where you are is unimportant. It is key to a meaningful life. I am simply describing the experience I am currently engaged in as how it relates to my own journey. Eventually I’ll tie all these writing together in to a book and will be able to expand and clarify in many directions then. For now, just little pieces of the pie at a time. Thanks for reading!

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In his book, The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell writes, “Most of us seem to have a consistent character because most of us are really good at controlling our environments most of the time.” And not just controlling our environments but also keeping our environments familiar. It’s perhaps part of the reason people like hotel chains, they are predictable, we know what to expect. He goes on to explain how we tend to put ourselves in repeated social situations where we shine and where people know us mostly from those situations. Put us somewhere very different, and we will probably seem like different people. Think about it. If you corner a very friendly dog, they might bite. Even if they’ve never bitten before. New scenarios call forth new behaviours.

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He explains a study where divinity students are put in situations to test their characters. It would seem, from some specific study he reviewed, that someone who has dedicated their life to helping others, someone who would usually be described as being especially compassionate can be reduced to indifference to the suffering of others even with three very uncharged words. “You’re running late.” That was enough for the candidates to have no time to help others, to step over and possibly even see someone in distress as an annoyance impeding their way. How important was what they were late for? Only typically important, someone was waiting for their late arrival. Not life or death. For more specific info., read the tipping point. Gladwell is one of my favourite authors and I will probably often quote him in my blog. As I have mentioned before, he is a fellow Canadian outsider.

The point is, the person who we see ourselves as being, that person is not fixed in all environments. We like to think that our character is fixed, but the truth is not that simple. We act and react differently in different environments, to different and unique situations, in the presence of different people. Adapting to our surroundings is part of survival, it’s natural. If this trait had not evolved I doubt I’d be sitting in my temporary apartment in Richmond, Virginia writing this now. And you wouldn’t be reading this either.

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I have always noted that personal growth spurts often come from transition, from change. When I moved from Fredericton, New Brunswick, to London, England I wrote home to my family that I felt, “Like a plant that’s been repotted in new soil.” (Or did I write, “flower”, I’m not sure.) My entirely new environment promoted growth; I was more easily able to change as a person. Without the familiar around me I was better able to move towards becoming who I wanted to become, without the expectations of anyone around me of who I already was. People come to know us as a certain way, and their expectation of who we are has a tendency to keep us there too. It’s like we have agreements together and it’s really hard to break those agreements.

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I think there is a certain core of your person that family and certain friends who come to feel like family can grasp, and that changes in who you are can flex around that. Most of us have had the experience of outgrowing someone, either we changed and they didn’t or we both changed in different ways or they wanted you to stay the same and stagnate when you needed to embrace growth. “You’ve changed.” Of course I have. We are always changing. The people we meet and the experiences we have shape our ever-changing lives. Even beyond movement within personality types, which tend to have one set of characteristics when someone is emotionally healthy and quite a different set when emotionally unwell. Even without great change, one’s state of mind can alter who one seems to be considerably. I am quite a different person when I am feeling loving than I am when I am feeling anxious. I am still the same person, but I don’t seem like the same person. Not even to myself. I think I’ve only lost friends during the latter state although I’ve chosen to weed some people out of my life during the former state too. In respect for myself. I’ve made some mistakes when feeling anxious, and probably some good choices when feeling loving.

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In my third week in Virginia that is what I have most to report. This trip, it’s not mostly about the travel. It’s not mostly about writing. It’s about growing as a person. I am going out-of-my-way to put myself into unfamiliar environments. My writing this month might be completely useless in the long term, but the experiences I am having will have an imprint on my writing for the rest of my life as I continue to grow into the person I am destined to become. As we all continually change throughout our lives. I feel incredibly grateful for the opportunities to experience hurt and pain, love and joy, as I find my way through the world.

During week three I went to a social event where, for the first time in Richmond, I was in a diverse crowd. Richmond has it’s diversity, there are black people and white people, gay people and straight people. But until Wednesday evening of week three, I had only conversed with one person outside of these confines of diversity. A nice gentleman from Libya, a really interesting entrepreneur. Wednesday I attended a wine-tasting event and met people from India, China, Vietnam, Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands. I also met people from several different states as well as locals as this was a mingler for people who are new in town.

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I felt connection with people when they said they were from Bombay, and I could relate with my three weeks in Mumbai. I could picture the life they came from before finding themselves working in America’s IT industry. I’ve not been to Chennai, but when someone said they were from that city I at least had notions as to what that meant too. Of course you can feel connection with others without having visited their homeland, but I think it is like a boost. It’s like dog owners befriending other dog owners at the dog park. It is still possible to make friends with a dog owner even if you’re not one yourself, but it is undeniable that for most people having that little commonness provides an opening. As a writer, I will be better able to connect with readers the more I understand about them. I am sure that my current readers know that I have a great desire to reach out and connect. And that my writing has evolved in a short time from being mostly about sight-seeing to being mostly about life. Real life was always my main interest, and meeting people always the priority over seeing things. Incorporating real-life into my travels is something I am learning how to do. Often clumsily. And often with failure. (And here I mean that it doesn’t always go as planned, not true failure. To me, true failure only comes from not trying.)

My experience in Richmond has been enriching. As an outsider, I have witnessed a separation here. I have been kept at arms-length by some, embraced by others. I have heard stories of success and of progress and of change. I have come to understand that my own culture, that of inner-Toronto which is different than Greater Toronto, is probably more similar to that of Manhattan than most anywhere. I think that most people don’t see that connection at all.

Many American cities seem to be moving in a very positive direction. City centres have changed a lot in the past decade, they are moving towards having thriving city centres and away from having ghettos and dead zones. “You should have seen it ten years ago, it wasn’t safe,” is something I have heard now in LA, parts of NYC, Baltimore, Philadelphia, even Richmond. The era when everyone who could afford to moved to the suburbs is definitely over. I never understood that myself, why would anyone want to live on a street that only has a bunch of houses and where you always need to use your car to get food? How could that ever be someone’s preference? When I can’t walk out my door and already be somewhere, I feel cut-off.

I know it is lots of people’s preference, we all have our own ideas as to what an ideal life looks like. How I and my siblings grew-up in suburban New Brunswick and all developed urban preferences is perhaps unusual. I do think that high-density living is more sustainable and I would argue that it is probably better for most people’s mental health. At least in neighbourhoods where neighbours embrace each other. I found that in London the opposite was true, people kept to themselves and protected their space more, seemingly due to the density. But, I am a different person than I was when I lived in London more than fifteen years ago! Where did the time go! I think I am well-overdue spending some serious time in England’s capital. Again.

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So I am seeing my time in Richmond very differently than I did at the start. It’s like I’m discovering more about myself, at age forty. Who am I in Richmond? And I see it more as contributing to the development of my understanding of the diversity of American culture outside of world-class urban centres. This is a great city and I think I could happily live here. I think it is probably a place where I meet more everyday Americans than I do in places such as NYC and LA and New Orleans which have very unique local cultural environments. I don’t mean this as being good or bad, it’s just that some places are more typical of a general population and others less so.

People may not see me as such, but I am an invisible foreigner here. The influences that contributed to my world view and my place in it are not the same as an Americans. They are perhaps not the same as most Canadians either, but they are more similar.

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Some pretty homes-made-businesses in Uptown Richmond, the area around VCU. (Virginia Commonwealth University)

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Stay tuned for my Final Richmond Report as well as postings from NYC, Philadelphia, Fredericksburg, DC, and more! Thanks for reading and if you enjoy my blog, PLEASE, share it with your friends! Cheers! Darren

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Me showing-off my Canadian hair. When I get another American haircut tomorrow, will I still have Canadian hair, even if most of it grew-in while in the US?

Breaking Life Boundaries – Living a Bigger Life

I did not write a travel story to share this week. I did, however, make quite a few notes for when I do stand-up comedy in NYC next month, so it’s been productive. It’s going to be my first time although I do have performing experience from high school and university (where I studied Business but nearly had credits of a minor in Drama.) As far as I can tell it is going to be recorded, so expect to see my performance link on a posting sometime after Dec 9th! (2013)

I’d like to give a shout-out to fellow blogger, Cupitonians, who decided to push herself by writing 30 postings in 30 days and is doing a great job keeping it interesting! Well done! You can visit her here: http://cupitonians.wordpress.com/

An Update of my Life in Transition – Breaking Life Boundaries

If you are reading this you probably know that over a year ago I dumped my life in Winnipeg. The whole thing. Soon after, I decided to pursue my passions of travel and writing which began in NYC in November, 2012. Toronto became my home base between travels because the most important people in my life are here, my brother and sister. I am very fortunate that my brother and his partner have completely welcomed me into their home as part of the family, and my sister considers me the same.

I have spent more time in Toronto this visit than I originally planned. Because my current mission is to travel and write about it, I figured on having perhaps 10 weeks away, followed by a few weeks in TO and then away again. Instead, by the time I leave for NYC I will have been mostly in TO for four months!

It’s a bit harder concocting new travel stories when not travelling, although I have been writing some stories from earlier travels, such as the Turks & Caicos stories which are among my favourites. Re-writes can be endless, and I need some new material to add to the mix to keep it interesting for me. But, the past few months in Toronto have been fantastic – I’ve been moving forward on a personal level in ways I would not have expected.

In my “about” section I write about being an outgoing introvert. I am also highly sensitive, so if you meet me in a hectic street in Bangkok there is a good chance I will be wearing earplugs to quiet the noise and tinted glasses even inside to soften the light. Someone who is overwhelmed by strong stimuli, I am perhaps a surprising candidate to stumble around the back streets of our planet and write about it. But exploring is when I feel most alive.

Most people seem to misunderstand the introvert/extravert difference so here is a very brief summation. With a group of casual friends, at a party, in a pleasant social situation – an extravert is slowly (or quickly) recharging. In the same situation an introvert is slowly (or quickly) using-up their battery. A weekend-in for an extravert might feel punishing, for an introvert it might feel like a welcome reward. There are extreme extraverts and extreme introverts but most people fall somewhere in the continuum between the two.

I used to be shy but shyness became not a part of my self-concept many years ago. I still recharge by being alone (or with certain close people), but I am not shy. Introversion tends to cause one to be shy, but it is not the same trait. And I am convinced that unlike introversion, shyness is not a fixed trait.

My introversion – my need to recharge at home – caused me to become quite a homebody in recent years. An introvert trying to socialise after a busy social day can cause great anxiety. There is a threshold reached at a different place for everyone, but once that threshold is crossed – the party is over. For me, panic ensues. Fight or flight kicks-in. I need to escape. It is a horrible, isolating feeling. You look around seeing others still having fun and feel absolutely beside yourself, hardly able to breathe. It doesn’t come on all at once for me, I can feel myself approaching overload, I generally know when it’s time to make my exit.

During uni I would come to this point at a bar or club and I would need to escape immediately. If I stayed too long, the entire night would be coloured with regret. Even the parts when I had been having fun would become part of the experience that caused me overload, suddenly tainted in my memory. So that’s what I would do, I would disappear. Because my extraverted friends didn’t understand, “Don’t go, it’s early, come on!” Nope, not dealing with that anymore. Now if I go to a loud party or a bar I will tell people at the beginning. If you see me waving goodbye even before you consider the night to be over, do not challenge me on it. Many people will never understand my experience. Many people are unable to comprehend that others experience the world differently than they do. It is a narrowness of mind that I find pitiable.

If I have had a quiet day I may be able to enjoy a party or stay at a nightclub right to the end. I have learned to balance my days so that this is the case, and I have been very fortunate to be able to do this. If I was still a teacher, I would need most every evening to be quiet retreat. Likewise when I’ve had to work in a busy store all day. When I was able to limit my mall-time to three or four hours on only occasional days I was fine but by then I had an established routine of solitude that was hard to break.

We tend to establish boundaries as to how we live our days. Our boundaries hold our life together, contain it to a comfortable proportion with some safety of predictability. Some of us have flexible boundaries and others more fixed. I tend to go to bed around ten and to sleep around twelve or one lately. Sometimes I go to bed at midnight. It is a flexible boundary for me, more a preference as I know I take a long time to unwind reading, listening to audio books – “going to bed” for me more means going for quiet time before bed in my room.

We have boundaries of distance. How far do you tend to go away from home? Every day, on weekends, on holiday. I prefer to take my coffee within walking distance of home, which means I prefer to live within walking distance of a coffee shop. I have a strong urban preference. I generally don’t go across town for a restaurant unless meeting someone or for a special occasion. I prefer to choose something nearer. Going for dinner, the company is more important to me than the food. As for travel, clearly I have almost no boundary limitations. Some people only go to beach resorts, which to me isn’t travel it’s just a kind of rest that I don’t like so much myself. Some people only stay in chain hotels, I prefer a variety of hotels big and small, even apartment lets and homestays. (Although doing homestays is for me, pushing my boundaries. I definitely feel uncomfortable organising them and worry that I’ll be crowded (personally) or uncomfortable (again, personally).

We have boundaries of what kinds of things we do. Routines. These activities for most people are not a random assortment, they fit neatly into a box. The “Things That I Do” box. Make a list and you’ll see what I mean. (ex. Things I do: work, go to movies, have Sunday brunch, go to gym, watch tv, drive children to activities, go out for dinners, shop at farmers market . . . . ) How often do we push-back the boundaries of what we do, going outside our box to try something new? For me, it was very seldom. Except when travelling.

When outside of my usual surrounds I am far more likely to try something new. This is true for most people. If you decided to go for a helicopter ride it was probably when you visited the Grand Canyon, not on a random Saturday when you thought, “Why don’t I take a helicopter ride over my own city.” Would that be exciting and interesting, show you a new perspective of your own town? I think it would. Did you have more money when you were travelling? Not unless your income spikes when you are on holiday, lucky you if that’s the way your life works. No, you had the same money. But when travelling our priorities change – we give more priority to spending money on having new and unique experiences. At home we spend more money on buying “things” and home improvements and clothes and everyday bills.

“I feel so alive when I travel,” I remember saying a few months ago, “is it possible to feel so alive right at home?” Well, home is not going to have the excitement of EVERYTHING being new, but I have discovered that by pushing-wider my boundaries of what I do at home, I can make my experience of life much richer. Right here. In Toronto.

Toronto is a large city with loads of opportunities so it may be easier to push one’s boundaries than in a small town, but no matter where you are there are possibilities to try things that you have not tried before. If you’re bored of your gym routine, maybe there is a fitness class you could sign-up for. Afraid to try? So are most people the first time. Take a deep breath and walk in.

I’ve started to push myself to sign-up and go to activities that honour my self. I would never sign-up to join a basketball league because I hate basketball. But I enjoyed acting when I was younger so I went to an Improv workshop last weekend. I was a bit nervous but I went anyway. It was fantastic. Two weeks ago I went to a comedy workshop. I had little idea what it was so I felt a bit nervous about that too, but I knew I wasn’t going to die and I just showed-up. Loved it. Now I’ve signed-up to do stand-up at an open mic for 6 minutes in NYC. I think I’m going to love it and sign-up for more. Am I nervous about it? Of course I am, I’ve never done it before. Even if I had, it’s probably one of those nerve-stimulating experiences every time, I don’t know yet.

Until very recently I felt anxious to have time commitments. Having plans made me feel “trapped”. I had to push though that anxiety just to plan anything at all. Meeting someone for dinner any time apart from right now made me feel uncomfortable. What if the time comes and I am not up for it, then what? I mostly started breaking this terrible boundary during travels when I either made plans to meet people to do things, or I didn’t meet people. The discomfort of being completely alone pushed me to break my boundary. I find most change comes from discomfort.

If you’re looking to add some new zest to your life I have found fantastic opportunities through the website http://www.meetup.com . There are countless groups and activities you can join, perhaps not in very rural areas but it’s worth a check wherever you are. Like to sing? Want to meet other introverts or extraverts or other single Dads with teens or other survivors of cancer? Want to meet people for coffee, or for brunches, to go bowling or to try salsa dancing? Love the opera but don’t really go because your friends don’t? (Here I say, go anyway. I’ve been three times in the past month, by myself. So glad I did too!) The internet has pushed us away from each other on a face-to-face connection level as we text and Facebook and play games remotely rather than actually sit across from each other. But now websites such as meet-up are bringing us together again.

We evolved to connect with others. It used to take a village to raise a child, now we mostly operate very independently. Many of us don’t even know our neighbours. This is not the way we evolved, through thousands of years we relied on those around us with a much stronger sense of community. Together we survived, alone we perished.

As a sensitive introvert there is a balancing act which I have often failed. I have failed many friendships. I have pulled-back in to my comfort zone of independence. The familiar role of being an outsider (when appearing to be an insider) growing-up is one that I am now trying to break. It’s not easy. But I’m working on it.

Work on making your life whatever you want it to be. Don’t stop yourself from trying new things due to fear or inertia. Somewhere inside you know what is working for you and what isn’t. There are probably things you need to change and putting them off doesn’t make them go away. Delay won’t make it easier, the opposite is usually true. Whatever change you are resisting, consider ripping the band-aid off. Excuses won’t help you either. “It’s easy for you, you don’t have to worry about . . . . ” Maybe I don’t, but that has nothing to do with you. Don’t compare your life to someone else’s and remain stuck because of that, what good does that bring you. “I don’t have time to . . . ” Maybe you don’t, just be wary that most people fear change and most of us come up with myriad excuses why change is not possible. Most of us will not change until we reach our breaking-point. Suddenly the excuses are no longer concrete road blocks when we can’t stand it anymore. I could not take my life in Winnipeg for another moment, I felt like I was dying and I was. I was eating too much, drinking too much, not exercising at all and my will to live was actually waining. I know that I am in a fortunate situation now, I’m not deluded to think that everyone has the options I have. However, I still had to dump my entire life to start-over and I could still be sitting at home not trying new things. I had to push myself. I continually have to push myself but the more I do it the more rewards I find and the less I have to push. Trying new things and meeting new people is getting easier and easier. I’m not saying I will keep-up the pace or that we should lead even more hectic lives than we already do, but we should attempt to pursue passions.

Work on things in your life FOR YOURSELF. We are all human and I think that anyone who has it ALL figured out – is probably mistaken. If they really have, they are incredibly rare. If you’re not moving forward, then you are probably slipping backwards because life tends to go uphill. I slipped backwards for quite a few years and now I’m learning to hike again. I have a lot to fix in my own life; I have a lot to fix in my own head. I just wanted to share that I’m having fun trying new things in this growth phase of my life and I encourage everyone to try something new.

Write down something you want to try right now so you don’t forget. And make it happen.

On this topic I’d also like to recommend a book called “Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway”. I read this book some years ago, but I wasn’t ready to actually act on it at the time. If you want to expand your life I would recommend this book, whether you get advantage from it now or in the future it’s all about moving forward.

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