The Familiar Feeling Of Leaving

I’m bad at goodbyes.

I’ve had to say a lot of them this week, and it’s not the first time. It was two years ago to the day that I left for Nepal on a one-way ticket. Two years later, a lot has changed. But one thing remains the same: the presence of fear, anxiousness, and excitement.

I recently re-read the blog post I wrote right before going to Nepal. At that time I was struggling with mental health challenges as a result of being burnt out from working with CBC and because I had associated my entire identity and feeling of self-worth with that job.

At the end of this summer I left another full-time job for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was to build my capacity to work in a hybrid international development and journalism field. For me, these are not lessons that can be learned sitting behind a desk at a 9 to 5 job.

So come September I was once again going to be unemployed. But this time around I knew what to expect: uncertainty matched with freedom, anxiety balanced by excitement.

I picked up freelance jobs all over the place – in Ottawa and with new clients across North America. Still, when people asked what I had been up to, I found myself deferring to the usual “traditional” work: filling in at CBC Ottawa, freelancing for a local magazine, etc. I still felt the need to associate myself with jobs linked to a tangible level of success and value.

I’m too hard on myself, but consider the social pressures that mount around many of us everyday. Our society values worth in very specific ways: employment, economics, education. I was raised among these traditional concepts of success, and thought for a long time that my life trajectory would be one where I went to university, did well, got a job, and bought a house.

If there is one thing I have been grateful to realize early on, it’s that there is no black and white when it comes to living your life. What’s right and healthy for one person may not jive with another. Or that person may not have the opportunity to do what makes them happy. None of these factors discount the path someone has chosen. They’re just different.

I remind myself of this daily, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t scared of this coming turn in the road. I fear uncertainty, I fear missing out on major events with family and friends, I fear never having a long-term relationship. I’m scared of having no money (and worry about putting too much emphasis on this).

When I feel insecurities creeping in, I reflect on a single metaphor.

I picture my life as a pile of blocks. Each block represents some aspect of my life: my personal and professional experiences, my personality traits, my goals, my values, and my relationships. They’re stacked on one another and form the structure of who I am. By making the choice to disrupt the traditional trajectory – to quit my job and move overseas, I’m knocking over that tower of blocks.

But looking at the pile around me, those blocks are all still there. No matter where I go or how many times that pile of blocks is knocked over, every block can still be accounted for. Taking a chance is not a removal of what makes me who I am. It’s a slight disruption, and an opportunity to reflect on how I want to rebuild my life. That new structure of blocks will likely look a bit different, but what matters in the end is that I recognize I am an ever-shifting person with more to offer than any one thing.

I want my life to be a constant disassembling and reassembling of those blocks. With any luck I’ll be able to add a few new ones with each experience.


My parents have long known that I ask for their support and not for their permission.

This fall I was at a fork in the road. Do I return to Nepal as a freelance journalist or do I go to Tanzania and work with a Canadian NGO?

Neither option was particularly appealing for my family. One night when I was home, my mom came into my bedroom. “Where did your interest to go overseas come from?” she asked. “You were never interested in this before. How will you be sure you’re not doing more damage than good?”

I got defensive, as I too often do with my family (#25goingon16). But my mom’s question struck a cord. The same thoughts concerned me.

I’m not one of those kids who grew up wanting to be any one thing, and that’s still what I’m like as an adult. Ask me where I see myself in three years and I have no idea what answer to give. That makes me insecure. Don’t passionate people always know what their passions are?

But then I realized I’m asking myself the wrong question. As a wise friend recently told me, it’s not the what that matters, but the how. It’s a mindset shift that focuses more on your values than the title on your business card.

That mindset shift made my mom’s question and my subsequent concerns null.

It doesn’t matter that I didn’t grow up reading National Geographic or having a deep understanding of social justice issues. I am who I am now, and that’s because of the experiences I have opened myself to, and the opportunities I have been privileged to have and worked hard to achieve. I don’t want the person I am to remain static.

For me the “how” is this: I want to approach life with an open-mind and a desire to learn more about the world’s diverse cultures and communities. I want to gain a greater respect for what makes all of us tick, and I hope my work can help other people gain that respect, too, and debunk some of the fears and misconceptions they have about the world. I believe it’s a basic matter of human dignity for all.

And so, just as I finished my 2013 blog post in a darkened airport terminal in Doha, Qatar, I finish this one at the airport in Istanbul. In two hours my flight leaves for Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. For the next eight months I will be working as the communications advisor with a Canadian NGO called EQWIP HUBs where I’ll be supporting the team to develop locally-relevant communications and recruitment strategies for their entrepreneurship and employment programs.

After that – who knows. East Africa is a diverse place and I’ve always wanted to explore the Great Lakes region. I’ve got my recorder, my camera, and my notebook, and I’ll hopefully get to share some stories.

And when I find myself dwelling on the uncertainty of what comes next, I will remind myself of this: there is no such thing as a right or wrong life path, the important thing is that you make a decision and own it – fear or not. This is who and how – I want to be when I grow up.

Just as at the end of my Nepal blog post from 2013, there are many more photos and words to come. I’m excited to share more with you.


7 thoughts on “The Familiar Feeling Of Leaving

  1. Hilary, you are fabulous. No one who thinks deeply about their effects in the world can ever do more damage than good. The world needs people like you — people who have so much to offer — to be in places where there’s a greater need and where you can be of more help.
    As you know, I’m a person who used to so strongly identify myself by my so-called important job, who struggled with a burnout, and then went back to that job again … I can say that now that I’m a freelancer I am so much happier and healthier than I ever was before. And I have a much better understanding of the things that are important to me, and that’s where I put my time and effort. I don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything, and wished I had done this when I was younger and hadn’t wasted so much of life on less important things.
    You inspire me and I’m proud to know you.
    I’m looking forward to hearing all about your adventures in Tanzania … I just hope you have time to tell us the stories!
    Hope to meet up with you somewhere in Africa

  2. Great to read post one. Looking forward to more.
    Glad to see you are discovering the ‘how’. Don’t forget the ‘why’; understand your passion in life (at this moment, at least).

  3. It’s so fantastic to see someone with the same concerns that I have following their heart to do something they’re unsure of. And you know what? I think passionate people don’t always know what their passions are. I think what makes them passionate is the bravery to pursue whatever interests them at any cost and with tenacity. So you keep being passionate. Keep fighting to experience whatever you want to experience in life! Great post!

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