“Try to swing your arms more vigorously when you walk,” says my husband.
I scowl, and curb a desire to inflict violence on him. I hate when he tries to optimize me.
He’s read an article that says you can trick your mind into feeling happier by moving your body in happy ways. Like swinging your arms when you walk, adding a bounce to your step or smiling broadly. Perversely, this makes my mood even darker.
“How about this?” he asks later, pointing to the local community centre’s workout schedule. I follow his finger to its inevitable conclusion: get up uncomfortably early and drag my pillow-tattooed face to the gym three mornings a week.
“Think about it before we sign up,” he says. Because we both know it’s going to hurt.
But at the first 5:30 a.m. start—as I tiptoe into my gym gear and out of the house—I am awestruck by the night sky, dripping with stars. Fifteen minutes later, I’m climbing onto a stationary bike, one of a dozen people who waded through the pitch dark to get here, and I surrender my mood into Lindsay May’s hands.
May, a 37-year-old personal fitness trainer in Pemberton, British Columbia, started offering early riser workout classes over a decade ago, when she returned to her hometown after a brutal breakup and had to reconfigure her entire life.
Even at this hour, she has enough positive energy to carry us all until our own dopamine and endorphins kick in 60 sweaty minutes later, and we all bounce out into the brightening day, transformed, not even needing a coffee.
September 12, 2001, two planes have flown into the World Trade Center, and May’s boyfriend has suddenly vanished. They were supposed to be en route to Europe, but she still hadn’t seen the tickets he’d promised—apparently a gift from his mother in Spain. And now all planes were grounded. Her global adventure was off. Then when May tried to use her bank card at the grocery store, it was declined for lack of funds.
The 20-year-old University of British Columbia (UBC) grad had fallen for a charming co-worker at Monk McQueen’s, a swanky bar in Vancouver. Brilliant and beautiful, he was a quadrilingual PhD biochemistry student who, May says, “made me believe he was the most amazing human in the whole world.” She’d amassed $15,000 in savings for a big European jaunt, a chance to see the world before returning to wrap up her final year.
It was all gone.
“Your account has been drained,” the bank clerk advised. When her boyfriend finally answered his phone a day later, he explained that he had been investigating terror cells as an undercover agent for Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency. Now that his cover was blown, he’d borrowed her money to get to safety.
May was a small-town kid with big ambitions. She’d headed off to university with dreams of buying a Porsche, wearing pantsuits and becoming a forensic anthropologist like Kay Scarpetta, the protagonist in a series of crime novels by Patricia Cornwall, and her favourite fictional character.
An avid crime fiction habit and small-town sweetness do not prepare a girl for the reality of falling in love with a grifter. It took May four more months of lies, her life savings, a dose of heartbreak and a diligent police officer’s research to realize that her charming boyfriend was wanted for fraud in several jurisdictions, and she just happened to be his latest mark.
By the time she extricated herself from the relationship, she was a shadow of her former self. “I’d lost a ton of weight. I didn’t trust myself. How could I have had feelings for a person who had manipulated me? What was wrong with me?”
A few months after she retreated to Pemberton to get her feet back under her, her mother gave her the “get it together” talk.
“In those first few months, I was stuck being a victim. I was really hard on myself. And then I made a choice. I can’t control anything apart from the energy I put out into the world. How do I spin this into a positive?”
On re-entry to civilization, May reconnected with a cute guy from high school who she’d always nursed a crush on. Her friends warned her it was the ultimate rebound, but she decided to trust her gut. Instead of, “why me?” she started to ask herself, “what can I do that will fulfill me and make a difference in people’s lives?”
She started a small personal training gym.
Twelve years, a wedding to that cute guy from high school and two healthy babies later, May has grown her little business into Kufuka Fitness, a gym with two locations, a packed schedule and a client list in the hundreds.
Her work has meant getting an honest glimpse into people’s lives. Human bodies hold stories. “There’s an emotional release that happens when you exercise,” says May. “You don’t just teach someone how to do a bicep curl. You don’t just help someone lose ten pounds. You’re a sounding board for their life. And the things that surface when people are exercising and when they feel safe are deep.” Every day, she is privy to the struggles people in her community are facing, and she sees that, for all the motivational phrases stickered to the window of her gym, a workout is the least of things people have to sweat. The workout is the release from the rest of the day’s 23-hour battle dealing with a heroin-addicted daughter, a one-year-old with leukemia or the deep, unmet desire to matter to someone.
People open up to May and those revelations remind her every day how much she has to be grateful for. She’s living a life that would not have happened if she had not been lied to, betrayed, almost destroyed. If she hadn’t walked through her own dark time and out the other side of disillusionment, she wouldn’t be in Pemberton, with her husband and two girls. The pain was the portal. That keeps May grateful and upbeat, even when you think she should be kicking doors in, stomping her feet or falling down in despair.
In early July 2017, May and her husband, Shayne, bought their dream cabin at Loon Lake in the South Cariboo, three hours from Pemberton. They spent one weekend there, raking, cleaning, tidying up, fishing, playing with their daughters. They returned the following weekend to hang a new wooden sign they had made that would announce to the world that this little cabin was now the lakeside retreat of the Mays.
A few hours after they arrived, peach-sized ashes began falling from the sky. The Elephant Hill wildfire, which would eventually engulf over 192,000 hectares (474,440 acres), temporarily displace more than 50,000 people and rate as the most devastating fire of the province’s record-breaking 2017 fire season, was starting to stoke up. The Mays hustled their sleeping daughters into the boat, across the lake, into the car, then drove the long way home back to Pemberton, twelve hours through the night, as roads closed and hillsides raged.
After the fire passed through, nothing remained of their new cabin.
It had burned to the ground.
“It sucked,” laughs May. They’d owned it for seventeen days. “But you only get so many miracles in life. I wasn’t going to waste one on the cabin. I’d rather save it for something really important.”
Less than three months later, Shayne and Lindsay took their first vacation as a couple since having kids. They went to the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas where, after two days of dancing, sleeping in, soaking up the sun and discovering new music, a man opened fire on them, shooting 1,100 rounds into the crowd of 22,000, killing 58 people and injuring 546 in the space of ten minutes.
When they finally got home, their four-year-old daughter, who had just spent a carefree few days with her grandma, leapt into Lindsay’s arms and wrapped her octopus limbs so tightly around her that Lindsay could hardly breathe. It was as if Delilah was trying to somehow merge back into one body, as if she knew that they were down one miracle this lifetime, but they’d used it up on exactly the right thing.
“Our culture tries to make happiness a goal,”says Dr. Shahar Rabi, a clinical counsellor, addiction treatment expert and professor in counselling psychology at Vancouver’s Adler University. Rabi sees that as a symptom of a world stuck in perpetual adolescence.
“It’s normal and healthy to chase after happiness. But at some point we have to understand the futility of that and actually grow up.”
Mission happiness, suggests Rabi, is an elaborate and all-consuming distraction to keep us from addressing our childhood baggage, unresolved issues, trauma, dopamine fatigue, fear of mortality, remorse, the pressure to achieve, to be significant and to measure up to everyone else’s highlight reel: “the fundamental discomfort of being alive.”
Rabi has struggled with a deep existential angst since he was a child. When he got out of the army, he went looking for answers. “I spent 10 years being a really spiritual person. I did all the meditations, all the courses, all the blah blah blah, and I was still suicidal. I read the right books, went to the right teachers and I still couldn’t get rid of the profound loneliness, the profound disconnect.”
It was the failure of his personal happiness project that allowed him to move on. “When the happiness project hits futility, then the more mature part of us starts to come through.” The part that is more interested in making real connections and stewarding community, rather than just feeling good all the time, finally gets its prime time. “It’s a deeper journey of healing. For me, healing is the place where you start to feel good enough.” Free of the illusions of a shiny happy life, post-happy-humans are more grounded in reality; they have more capacity to accept themselves, the good, the beautiful and the ugly bits, and other people. “That is a much more mature definition of what happiness could look like.”
While on a daily basis, it’s good to ground yourself in yoga, meditation, two lattes, tidying your sock drawer, a gratitude journal, an evening run, whatever practices help you shake off the stress of the daily grind of work, of parenthood, of life under late capitalism, do them knowing that their power is limited. They’re not going to live up to the headlines. They’re not going to change your life.
Unshakeable presence only comes when you stop chasing eternal sunshine and turn and face the shadows.
In a hotel shower one day in June, on her way to shoot a wedding in Arizona, Anastasia Chomlack found a lump that had not been there the day before.
A master of shadow and light, she’d built up her photography business over the past 13 years to have enviable momentum: she had 30 weddings booked, several in exotic destinations, she had launched a unique agency in the Whistler Wedding Collective and was mentoring and booking out up-and-coming photographers under her umbrella, and she’d opened a co-working space called Gather Atelier. She had a million ideas coming to fruition, a million more on the brew. And a huge lump in her breast.
The 39-year-old mother of two googled, “do I have cancer?” and was assured that it was nothing.
“I don’t smoke. I don’t have any family history. I didn’t answer any of the questions as yes. It was 100% definitive—no, you don’t have cancer. Not very smart to trust my life to Google, but it was two in the morning, and I was in a hotel room by myself about to fly out to work.”
Ten days later, back home in Whistler, she saw three doctors within three days. They all reassured her “there’s no way this is cancer, don’t even worry about it.”
Two weeks later, a mammogram. Two weeks after that, a biopsy.
“The guy doing the biopsy said, ‘Oh I totally get why they sent you here, but I see this all the time, this isn’t cancer.’
And I said, ‘That’s awesome. I’m a wedding photographer and my brides are going to be pretty happy to hear that.’”
There’s an edge to her voice as she recounts the day.
“And he laughed. And the nurse laughed. And he said, ‘Oh, your brides are going to be just fine.’ And I walked out into the waiting room, high-fived my best friend and carried on with my summer.”
When they called the results through to her a few days later, everything spun upside down.
It was cancer.
An incredibly aggressive cancer.
“My husband walked in while I was on the phone. I looked at him and nodded and he fell to the ground, and our kids were running around and playing tag and I was trying to write down all these notes of what she was saying. It was the most surreal thing in the world.”
Eighteen months after her diagnosis, three months on the other side of treatment, Chomlack is healthy. In December, her one-year PET scan, blood test and chest X-rays all came back clear.
She’s relieved. Grateful. And fierce that cancer is not something you “win” at. It is something you accept.
There’s no magical pink light. There’s no green smoothie cure. There’s no reason for it.
Happiness isn’t your reward. Cancer isn’t your punishment. Dying isn’t a failure.
“I do not want to die of cancer. I hope that is not my story. But we were never promised 90 years. We live in a broken world and we are not promised a life of happiness or forever-ness. You have to come to that.”
But it didn’t come to her straight away.
“I walked into chemo thinking, I’m going to do yoga, I’m going to get a meditation coach, I’m just going to become a better person. But cancer isn’t going to make me a better person! Where do we get that idea that we have to be better? Or that who we are actually just isn’t enough?
“I did drink green juice. I also ate a bag of Halloween candy, even though I know sugar feeds cancer and I wanted to live for my kids so desperately. But we are not in control—I could drink all the green juice and eat all the healthy things and still I could die.”
And it wouldn’t be her fault.
It wouldn’t be because she ate the wrong thing or watched Netflix and cuddled with her kids instead of going to a sweat lodge, or because she was too driven or never dealt with anger.
“I went through that feeling that I was to blame. And it fucks with you. You’re already fucked up because you have cancer, and you’re listening to all these doctors with different medical opinions and trying to figure out what treatment options to pursue.” And there’s a tsunami of unsolicited advice coming your way about positive thinking your way through it, when what you really need is stillness, people who are not afraid to sit with you through your suffering, to acknowledge the fundamentally complicated discomfiting reality of being human. The goddamned uncertainty of it all.
“If I had the opportunity to go back in time and do this again, I wouldn’t change anything. I wouldn’t. I do not want to die of cancer. But I learned that I am enough. I am not taking blame for this. The things that make you happy are not the things that are sold to us. We have a culture that tells us we want a big house, a successful career, two kids and no matter what, to stay away from pain, when it’s the reverse.”
There is no texture in the light. There is no richness.
There are just unicorns and glitter wands and a hollow promise of happily ever after that will fall over if it’s knocked too hard.
It doesn’t take being a photographer with a cancer diagnosis to know that. It just takes a willingness to grow up and see life for what it is: a constant rippling dance of living, of dying, of being.
A year after her treatment ended, Chomlack enlisted a friend to tattoo three words along her lower arm. It all belongs.
The ink curling down her arm is her nod to facing the darkness, to the great mystery, to a blessing that was bundled as a curse, and it testifies to her surrender to light and shadow, to the dappled interplay of a rich full life.