A Weekend in Washington, Part One

This time last week, I was walking down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., a scarf tucked into my jacket to make the chilly wind bearable. The sky was a bright blue that I’ve rarely seen since winter started, but I was still cold. I didn’t mind, though—I was so excited to be there. My family and I spent two days—bookended by two days of road trips—in Washington. I have so many photos and experiences to share that I decided to split my trip up into two posts. Here’s the first instalment.

We were about a week early for the full cherry blossoms, but we still saw a few!

We left on Thursday night, staying in Buffalo overnight to beat what we assumed would be crazy lines at the border as March Break drew closer. We woke up early and started the eight hour drive. Along the way, my sister and I watched Netflix, slept and each tried to make a list of all the states (we both did pretty well, although she beat me by a few states).

The route was scenic, despite the bare tree branches and the fact that you could almost feel the chill outside just from looking at it. We passed snowy mountains and blue lakes turned silver by the sun’s reflection. The eight hours passed quickly, save for the heavy traffic going into Washington itself. We found our hotel (a struggle, as our GPS took us in circles) and ate dinner. Then, as the day faded into night, we walked to the White House.

A Shakespeare quote outside the National Archives Building.

The white buildings and monuments stood out in the darkness; American flags hanging from the sides, swaying ever so slightly. It’s been a while since I’ve been to Washington, and I continually mistook several grand-looking white buildings for the White House. When we arrived at the actual White House, I realized my mistake.

The real White House.

We walked around for a bit longer. To distract myself from the wind, I started humming Hamilton, changing the song when I saw something that inspired a new lyric (the Treasury Building, for example, reminded me of the part of What Did I Miss where Thomas Jefferson sings, “Treasury secretary, Washington’s the president/Every American experiment sets a precedent”). By the end of the trip, I think my whole family had Hamilton stuck in their heads thanks to my incessant singing.

When we reached our hotel, we warmed up with hot chocolate; although my dad got a milkshake, which should tell you a lot about his priorities. That night, we slept soundly, knowing we had a full day ahead of us.

American flags on the Trump Hotel in Washington, D.C.

I was smiling the moment I woke up on Saturday morning. The first item on our itinerary was something I’ve been looking forward to visiting ever since the day I found out it existed: the Newseum, an interactive news museum. We arrived right when it opened and, after watching a video about the museum, took the huge glass elevator to the top floor. There, we were met by an amazing view of Congress—and a gallery of that day’s front pages from around the world, one of my favourite features of the museum.

The Newseum.

As you can probably guess, I loved the Newseum. One room contained historic front pages, showing headlines about events like the Titanic sinking and the 1961 Freedom Rides. I think it’s remarkable to look back at the front pages and read about these now well-documented events as they were first told. All of the news artifacts and exhibits reminded me of this quote by Philip Graham, former publisher of the Washington Post, which is displayed on one of the walls of the Newseum: “Journalism is the first rough draft of history.”

Some of the day’s front pages from around the world.

I left the Newseum feeling not only incredibly proud to be a journalist, but also excited about what the future of journalism holds. After visiting a museum that was so up my alley, it was time to go to one focusing on one of my sister’s favourite things: space. I’ve been to The National Air and Space Museum when I was younger, so I had some strange moments of déjà vu as I walked through it. My sister, wearing a NASA t-shirt, was totally in her element; she explained some of the exhibits to me, and was super excited to see one of Amelia Earhart’s red planes on display.

The National Air and Space Museum.

We stopped at a street vendor for lunch, and then carried on to the Capitol building. Since it was Saturday, the House and Senate weren’t in session, but we toured the Rotunda and National Statuary Hall. It was really cool to see parts of U.S. history displayed through paintings and sculptures. We also passed the offices of Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and House of Representatives Majority Whip Steve Scalise. Although we didn’t see any politicians, it was exciting to be in the place where so many important political decisions happen (“the room where it happens,” for my fellow Hamilton fans).

A painting by John Trumbull in the Capitol Rotunda.

We also passed through the tunnel to the U.S. Library of Congress, which is a beautiful building with high ceilings and colourful, ornate art.

The Library of Congress.

That night we saw the comedy group The Capitol Steps, who were like a real-life Saturday Night Live, but with more singing. It featured songs like “Wake me up in Mar-a-Lago” and Democrats singing “All about that ‘base.’” It was a great show, and cool to experience so close to the actual institutions housing the subjects they were satirizing.

The U.S. Capitol Building.

With that, our first full day in Washington came to an end. I fell asleep thinking about everything I’d seen and learned, and feeling excited to see what tomorrow would bring. That will be a separate post, though—otherwise I’ll be writing for ages! In the meantime, you can find a full gallery of photos from the first part of my trip on my Flickr.

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A Year in the Life of a Blogger

A few weeks ago, I told one of my best friends that I published 60 blog posts in 2017. Her eyes bulged out of her head. I thought her reaction was comical because, while 60 is certainly a large number (especially considering my posts fall in the range of 500-1,000 words and take a while to write, edit and promote) I don’t think of it as a huge number. Last year, blogging once a week felt very natural to me.

At the end of the year, I wrote about my favourite posts of the year. I had lots to write about, from posts about my life to posts about political news. Thinking back to my winter semester at school, I realized I had a pretty regular blogging schedule. I don’t know how I kept up such a consistent routine of posting but, like I said, blogging became a pretty natural part of my routine.

Towards the end of April, I had a sherinaspeaks first—a photography post! This was really exciting for me because I had a lot of fun taking photos. I continued the trend of photography posts throughout the year. I remember thinking it was really cool that, although I had been blogging for almost four years, I was still finding new aspects of blogging.

In June, I had another exciting blogging moment. A post I wrote largely on a whim was selected for WordPress’s Discover page, resulting in lots of new followers and comments. This traffic continued into July. It was really nice to know that other people connected with my writing and wanted to read more of it!

Since last year was my first year studying journalism at university, I wrote a lot about journalism and what I was learning at school. These are some of my favourite posts because I had the opportunity to connect with other young journalists. I think writing about journalism also helped me learn that I’m really passionate about the inner workings of the field. I’ve continued analyzing journalism through my writing, so I’m glad I developed this interest last year through my blog.

I also really liked the post I wrote for my 19th birthday. Instead of writing hundreds of words about my life so far, I challenged myself to write 19 things I’ve learned. This is probably the blog post that I find myself re-reading the most. As strange as it may sound, I love reading the advice from my past self.

In 2017, my follower count surpassed 1,000. And then it kept growing. Numbers are not the most important part of blogging, but I was (and am) still very proud of, and humbled by, the growing number of people who follow my blog. I still remember the dance I did when I got my first follower, back when I started this blog for a school project. 2017 felt like an amazing year to look back and see how far I’ve come.

I also had two really cool experiences relating to my blog in the fall of 2017. In two separate cases, students reached out to me to ask if they could interview me for a school assignment. I had the chance to speak with a fellow journalism student about my thoughts on journalism and blogging, and I also spoke to a high school class about my journey as a blogger. These experiences felt surreal to me, because I remember being a student in high school and listening to journalists come in to share their experiences. I’m so happy that I can share my knowledge and passion for blogging and journalism with other students.

You may think it’s strange to reflect on 2017 two months into 2018. But as I read back this post, and scroll through my blog’s homepage, I’m incredibly proud of—and inspired by — the growth of my writing in the last year. Reflecting on that growth makes me even more excited for the year ahead. I truly can’t wait to see what comes next.

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My 2018 Resolution: To Focus Less on Resolutions

At the beginning of 2017, I made a very ambitious list of New Year’s Resolutions—to be exact, I wrote a list of 30 resolutions. Some resolutions were daily habits; to journal every day, for example. Some were spread over a longer period of time, but were still specific; I wanted to maintain a certain GPA, read a certain amount of books and make a certain amount of progress on various projects.

Other resolutions were more thematic (and therefore inadvertently ambiguous). One simply read “Read the news more.” Resolutions like this one didn’t have tangible outcomes attached to them, making it challenging to objectively say whether or not I achieved them. For the most part, I achieved my resolutions. One that I didn’t meet was my reading challenge; I wanted to read 52 books this year. I had every intention of following through with that resolution, but school overtook my reading time and I ended the year having read 43 books.

In addition to loving to plan things, I’m also big on reflecting. As I reflected on the fact that I didn’t meet my reading goal, a strange thought occurred to me: I didn’t really care that I hadn’t met it. Fifty-two books seemed like a significant number, since it averaged out to one book per week. But it didn’t mean much to me; I didn’t have a significant motivation for wanting to complete the challenge. This thought made me wonder if my list of 30 resolutions was a list that, while looking great on paper, didn’t have a lot of relevance to my everyday life.

So in 2018, I’m trying something different. I have a few specific goals and a few more ambiguous plans for the year. But, by and large, I don’t have a concrete list of New Year’s Resolutions. I know my list of goals are technically New Year’s Resolutions. But I wonder if, by calling them “goals” and not “resolutions” I might feel more positively about the notion of trying to achieve a goal, and feel less pressure about fulfilling a resolution.

As I mentioned earlier, I love to reflect. I used the last pages of my 2017 journal to reflect on the year. Did I achieve my resolutions? What were the best moments? The worst? What did I learn? Thinking about all of my memories from the year, I concluded what I already knew to be true—that 2017 was an amazing year for me. On New Year’s Eve, writing in my leather bound notebook, I felt so fortunate to be entering 2018 surrounded by great friends and family, with lots of exciting opportunities and experiences on the horizon.

At some point during my time reflecting, it occurred to me that, if I really was starting off the new year in such a good place in my life, I shouldn’t really need to make a drastic list of resolutions, anyways. Why, I wondered, should I make another list of 30 things to do to improve my life, when my life is already pretty great?

Of course, you can be in a good place in life and still seek to improve—continual self-improvement and lifelong learning are important. But clearly, from my list of 30 resolutions last year, I tend to view New Year’s Resolutions as a way to make big, sweeping changes. (And judging by all of the gym advertisements that are suddenly popping up, so do a lot of other people.)

I don’t think we should use the new year as a reason to suddenly improve our lives—if we’re unhappy with something in our life, we should resolve to change it, whether it’s June or January. And if we’re happy with our lives, then we shouldn’t worry about completely reinventing ourselves for the upcoming year. If we’re not truly invested in our resolutions, then they really are just words on paper (which may cause us more stress if we’re not achieving them, even if they’re not really important in our lives).

My 2018 resolution is, in effect, to focus less on making big changes, and more on the things that already make me happy with my life. I have a suspicion that I’m going to like this a lot better than my list of 30 resolutions—but only time will tell. One thing, though, is for certain: I’ll be back here next January, writing about the effectiveness of my “no resolutions in 2018” resolution. Stay tuned!

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When Social Media Stops Being Fun

My name is Sherina Harris, and I love Twitter. I first downloaded the app in 2015 as a way to promote my blog. Since then, I’ve changed the purpose of my account; I follow friends and use Twitter socially, but I also follow journalists and news organizations, using it in a more professional sense. I’d venture as far as to say that Twitter is my favourite social media app.

Last week, as you may have seen, I got my news exclusively from email newsletters. Typically, I get a lot of my news from Twitter—so for my experiment to work, I decided to delete the app for the week. In my post about the experiment, I focused more on the newsletters than on the fact that I deleted Twitter. I wanted to write about that today because, surprisingly, I didn’t miss Twitter nearly as much as I thought I would.

I realized during the week that one of the reasons I check Twitter so often is because I’m afraid I’m missing out on big news stories. But when I knew that I would find out about those stories through breaking news emails, I didn’t have the urge to check Twitter to see what the big news stories were. Now that my experiment is over, I’ve turned on my breaking news alerts from news apps, too—so I know that if something important happens, I’ll get those notifications, plus email alerts sent to my phone. This means I don’t feel like I have to constantly see what people on Twitter are talking about.  

As a journalist and blogger who writes about current events, going on Twitter feels less like a casual activity (like responding to Snapchats, for example) and more like “work.” On Twitter, I follow a lot of journalists and news organizations, so when I scroll through my feed I am constantly on the lookout for trending stories and new perspectives on old stories.

Almost subconsciously, I am taking note of how journalists are asking questions about the day’s news, and even things like the structure of people’s Twitter threads. I also do this when I read articles that people post—my brain is constantly analyzing the structure, use of quotes and everything else I’ve learned in journalism school. In this way, Twitter is a valuable learning tool for me as a young journalist. But it also means that scrolling through my Twitter feed is not exactly a relaxing experience.

During my week without the app, I realized that Twitter isn’t as great as I thought it was. I mean, I did call it my favourite app; but it was something that I often clicked on, almost without thinking, and scrolled through, getting caught up in everything and feeling like I needed to get to work on new articles and blog posts and ideas.

It took a week without Twitter to help me realize that it’s not necessarily as “fun” as I had thought—and that life can go on if I step away from it for a while. Although Twitter was the only app I deleted for my experiment, I think the same can be said of most other social networking apps.

Instagram, for example, can be a fun place to share photos—but it’s also a “highlight reel” where most people share the best moments of their lives. This can lead to a distorted view of people’s realities and might make you feel worse about your own life. Similarly, a 2013 study from the University of Michigan suggests that using Facebook made people feel sad and less satisfied with their lives. We think we’re having fun on social media, but this might not always be the case.

The thing about social media is that it can be almost addictive. You want to keep refreshing your feed—whether to avoid missing the next breaking news story (as is the case for me) or to make sure you’re caught up on your friend’s lives. But if you force yourself to take a break from social media, even just from one app, you might be surprised to realize that you weren’t enjoying it as much as you thought you were. And that’s a thought worth tweeting about. (Kidding.)

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I Got My News Exclusively From Email Newsletters for a Week

As a journalism student, I’ve always been fascinated by the different ways that people consume news. I love talking to people about not only what sources they derive their news from, but also how they get that news. Is it from a print newspaper, or from a Facebook feed? Do they make a daily effort to actively seek out the news, or do they just see it at random intervals? With these considerations in mind, I decided to stage an experiment for myself—I wanted to see what would happen if I changed the way I consumed news for a week. So last Sunday, I logged out the place I most often go to see the news—Twitter—and asked my family to hide the morning newspaper and turn off the news when I walked by the room. Then I made a new Gmail account and signed up for 34 email newsletters.

I ended up with a pretty good variety of newsletters. Although I had a lot of general news updates and politically-focused sources, I also subscribed to newsletters focusing on entertainment, opinion, women’s rights and sports. Mysteriously, the sports newsletter never arrived. (I realized today that I may have forgotten to confirm my subscription. Oops.) 

The main purpose of my week of relying on newsletters for news was really to see if email newsletters are a viable substitute for conventional news, or if they’re more of a supplement to other sources of news. I was curious about the benefits and challenges of relying on email newsletters as a sole source of news. What stories did they prioritize? Did I feel like I was missing out on the news? How much international content was I exposed to? Were breaking news email alerts effective?

A sampling of my inbox from Monday morning.

On Monday morning, the official beginning of my experiment, I woke up to a deluge of emails. From 6:20 a.m. until around 9:00, my inbox steadily filled with morning updates. I read each newsletter in its entirety. My first impression of the newsletters altogether was that it was really nice to read slightly more in-depth explanations of the news, as opposed to shorter tweets. I liked the simplicity of scrolling through a newsletter and having all of the main stories presented to me, instead of searching for them on my busy Twitter feed (which, thanks to Twitter’s algorithm, often doesn’t actually present tweets in a timely, or “newsworthy”, order).

However, in reading about the stories in newsletters, I was only reading the facts. Sure, I could click on the linked articles to read the full story, but I still wasn’t being exposed to the variety of voices and perspectives that I would see on Twitter. This was one of the main pitfalls of relying on email newsletters for my news; I was only seeing what the people writing those newsletters wanted me to see. I was missing out on the conversations surrounding the stories.

Screen Shot 2017-12-17 at 4.45.10 PM.png
A screenshot of a Fox News email alert from Monday morning.

This was especially apparent on Monday when I received an email from Fox News telling me that, according to a poll they had conducted, Doug Jones had a 10 point lead over Roy Moore in the Alabama Senate election. It seemed like a strange reversal from the general consensus of what other newsletters had said that morning. But without being able to rely on social media to show me the conversation around this poll, I had to wait until that evening’s newsletters arrived to hear other perspectives. The Vox Sentences newsletter cleared things up for me—it mentioned Fox’s poll, but also mentioned other polls that had Jones up by nine points. I probably would have seen this “counter point” of sorts earlier, had I been seeking out news on social media.  

On Monday morning, I also received two breaking news alerts (one from CNN and one from Fox News) about the bombing in New York City. The breaking news alerts continued sporadically throughout the day—with less frequency than I expected, in all honesty. I used to subscribe to several breaking news app alerts, and I felt like my phone was always buzzing with these notifications. The email alerts seemed less frequent, but I still felt like I was “in the know,” so to speak.

Monday ended with a false sense of security—I thought I was in a good place heading into Tuesday, AKA the day of the Alabama Senate election. But after Tuesday morning’s newsletters, I waited the entire afternoon for an update on the election. I knew that, had I been on Twitter, I’d be bombarded with poll numbers and statistics and commentary and opinion. Because I’m so interested in politics, I wanted to have lots of information and alerts in the run-up to the results. But at 6:30 on Tuesday night, my dad was telling me he knew the results of the exit polls and I was refreshing my email inbox to no avail.

While I was waiting for an update on the election, I realized that newsletter authors must assume that readers are also getting news from other sources. Newsletters don’t necessary bill themselves as a complete substitute for typical news sources. In my mind, newsletters are designed for people who are too busy to spend a lot of time searching for the news; so maybe for this reason, it makes sense that they would only send alerts when the results were announced, and not in the run-up. They probably didn’t want to send too many alerts, I thought.

But I was desperate to know what was happening. My family was watching the news, seeing live updates, and I was sitting on my bed, a forgotten novel on my lap as I continued to refresh my email inbox. At 10:07 p.m., Fox News sent an alert about the Mueller investigation. Jones must be up in the polls, I joked to myself. At 10:25 p.m., I was scolding myself for not subscribing to more breaking news alerts. Finally, at 10:33 p.m., a TIME breaking news alert (which I didn’t even know I was subscribed to) told me that Doug Jones won. Finally able to stop refreshing my email inbox (although a few more alerts followed the first one), I wrote a note to myself: “I really wish I had Twitter to see everyone’s opinions on this unexpected and big moment. People will still be talking about this next Sunday… right?”

Doug Jones and his wife, Louise, at Jones’s election party. (Photo: John Bazemore/AP via Las Vegas Review-Journal)

The Wednesday morning newsletters were filled with coverage of the election. I especially liked Politico’s Playbook newsletter—their analysis of Jones’s win looked more at the bigger picture, which was the kind of content I wanted to see. I wasn’t surprised that almost every newsletter made Jones’s win the lead story that morning, although from a journalistic perspective I was interested in their editorial decisions on this. Some newsletters framed it as a victory for the Democrats, especially moving into the 2018 midterm elections, while others focused on the loss for Republicans, and particularly the impact for Donald Trump and Steve Bannon.

I was also curious to see which newsletters mentioned net neutrality this morning, seeing as the vote was to be on Thursday. In my mind, it was a big story, and I thought the format of most newsletters would allow them to explain the topic in a way that might make it more accessible to readers who may not otherwise understand it. Not many newsletters mentioned it until the vote actually happened, though, which surprised me.

Throughout the rest of the week, I became more accustomed to relying on newsletters. I came to expect a full inbox in the morning and at night, and random updates throughout the day. A lot of the time, I felt like I was missing out on the news because I couldn’t just get an update anytime I wanted it—I had to wait until the next newsletter appeared, and even then there wasn’t a guarantee that the topic I was interested in would be mentioned (as was the case for net neutrality). Still, I felt generally well-informed, and I was able to have conversations with friends and family about the news without feeling like I was missing out on anything major that was happening.

By this point in the week, I was well-accustomed to relying on email newsletters. (Photo: G. Crescoli/Unsplash)

Before the week really started out, I wrote down some predictions, including that “I’m probably going to miss a lot of local, and even national, news.” I was 100 per cent correct about this one. It was partly my fault, having only subscribed to one Canadian-based newsletter; but it made me wonder about the market for hyper-local, community-based newsletters, especially in an age where local print newspapers are fast dying out. I really only saw Canadian stories in The Globe and Mail’s newsletter—and even in that, I would say the majority of the stories were about provinces other than my own. Again, I could have subscribed to newsletter updates from the major city newspapers; but in terms of my local city and surrounding communities, I certainly lost out on coverage of those stories.

As of today, I have officially been relying on email newsletters as my sole source of news for a week. Overall, I feel pretty well-informed. I’d say that newsletters are a great supplement to my typical news consumption—they’re an especially fitting addition to getting news from social media and digital news apps, and they’re a refreshing break from print newspapers. But my week was not without its challenges, like waiting for an update on the Alabama Senate election results.

Now that my experiment is over, I actually want to subscribe to more newsletters to try to cross those gaps of more Canadian or local stories. I’m not going to continue to read every single email that pops up in my inbox, though. I’ll continue to subscribe to all of the newsletters, but I’ll be a bit more selective in what I read—some newsletters that stood out to me this week were Vox Sentences and Politico Playbook, so I will definitely keep reading those.

If there’s one thing I learned this week, it’s that there’s not one “best” way to consume news. You can get morning updates, evening updates, national updates, sports updates, political updates—you name it, there’s a newsletter for it. I’m glad I took this chance to change up my news consumption; but now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go log back onto Twitter.

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Giving Myself the Freedom to Fail

A few weeks ago, I woke up in the middle of the night, clicked my phone on and downloaded a piano app before going back to sleep. More on that later, but let me backtrack a bit first: I started taking piano lessons when I was around four years old. I continued with lessons until I was probably around 13, and then I began teaching myself. The highlights of my time playing the piano were playing in recitals, learning copious amounts of Taylor Swift songs and having fun practicing every night. The lowlights (is that a word? It is now), on the other hand, involved musical theory, examinations and scales. I put up with those things, though, because I really enjoyed playing the piano.

At some point throughout high school, I fell out of the rhythm (pun intended) of practicing every night. I always wanted to keep practicing, but once I had stopped I was nervous to jump back into it. Piano remained a hobby in the back of my mind—hence why I woke up one night recently and made the immediate decision to begin playing again. I was worried I’d forget the notes; the treble clef I knew, since I played flute throughout high school. The bass clef was another story, however. I remembered the acronyms I had learned as a child to remember the notes—but ledger lines scared me.

As I finished up my semester at school, I occasionally played around on the app, quizzing myself with the flashcards. I remembered more than I thought I would. When I came home for my holiday break, reconnecting with my old hobby of playing the piano was at the top of my to do list (because, if you know me, you’ll know that I actually have several lists of things to do during my break). I don’t remember exactly how I started—maybe I warmed up with a few scales or my old remix of “Chopsticks.”

What I do remember, though, was that once I started playing, my muscle memory immediately kicked in. I sight-read old Taylor Swift songs, using Instagram’s “hands free” filming option to send videos to my friends. My sister was nice enough to give me a version of one of my favourite songs on piano, “River Flows In You” by Yiruma, and I quickly set to work on learning it.

Since then, I’ve been practicing almost daily. I’ve been really surprised at my recognition of notes—although I’ve noticed that I have a funny habit of assuming all Fs are sharp, or all Bs are flat. Even in the key of C Major, which has no sharps or flats, I add them in all over the place. I always laugh at myself when I hear a chord, wince and realize I’m just assuming a note is flat or sharp. It’s not even because I’m so eager to keep going with the song that I forget to check the key signature; my fingers just instinctively land on the flats and sharps, without my mind even realizing it.

I think one of the reasons why it took me so long to get back into piano is that it’s not really a hobby that you can pick up quietly, if that makes sense. I knew my family wouldn’t judge me for any mistakes I made, but it was still scary to think about trying to play again when I knew the sounds of my efforts would carry loudly through my entire house. When I am writing, if I type a sentence I don’t like, no one knows; I can highlight it, delete it and it’s like it was never there. But while playing piano, if I play a wrong chord, even when I take my fingers off the keys the sound still rings out. I often expect to begin playing a song and have it turn out beautifully from start to finish. Obviously, this isn’t always the case—and when it’s not, it can be annoying to start over when I can hear where the song was headed.

Picking up piano again has reminded me of a valuable lesson. It is important, especially with regards to hobbies, to give yourself the freedom to fail. I’ve learned to accept that when I sit down at my piano bench, not every note I play is going to be perfect. I’m going to fumble some chords by adding flats and sharps where they’re not supposed to be. I’m going to mix up some notes or lose my place in the song or somehow forget the melody of a Taylor Swift song I’ve known for years. But by making the decision to play anyways, I am giving myself the freedom to make those mistakes and keep going despite them. Because if you give yourself the opportunity to “fail” then you also give yourself the chance to succeed.

When I woke up in the middle of the night and downloaded the music app, determined to play piano again, I wasn’t concerned with the notions of failing or succeeding. I just wanted to read music again and play new songs. And I am happy to say now I am doing just that—and learning some valuable lessons along the way.

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How Volunteering Changed My Life

“What’s your star sign, dear?” the woman asked, leaning forward in her chair.

“Cancer,” I told her, smiling as she began to tell me my horoscope.

My weekly volunteer shifts at a local retirement centre were full of moments like this one; moments where I was lucky enough to witness a small aspect of a resident’s life. When I visited residents, I got to listen to stories about the island where they had a family cottage, or hear the pride in their voices as they talked about what their kids are doing now. “Every day is like a lemon,” one woman used to tell me. “You have to squeeze all the juice you can out of it.”

I started volunteering at the retirement centre when I was 11 years old. Looking back, it seems like a surprisingly early age to want to volunteer—but then again, I organized a fundraiser for a local hospital when I was in junior kindergarten. I’ve always loved helping people. When my grandmother moved into the retirement centre it seemed like the perfect thing to do: sign up to be a volunteer so I could spend more time with her. Two of my best friends were already volunteering there, and they encouraged me to apply.

During my shifts, I would bring residents to events, hand out food during the event and sit with residents afterwards. I would bring my grandma to some events, and usually start and end my shifts by visiting her. Eventually, as my schedule changed, I began taking on other responsibilities. I had some shifts where I visited residents one on one, and others where I watered plants in the greenhouse and helped out with events or activities.

I continued volunteering up until I graduated from high school. In my final year there, I had two weekly shifts—one, a weekly visit with a resident, and, the other, a shift where one of my best friends and I would play music for a group of residents (with my friend playing the piano and me playing the flute). A few years into my time volunteering, my grandmother passed away. At first, it was hard to keep going back to the place where I used to visit her; but her ever-present kindness was one of the reasons why I’ve always been so passionate about helping others. My continual volunteering felt, in part, like I was fulfilling a lesson my grandmother taught me: to always be kind to others, no matter your circumstances.

The seven and a half years I spent volunteering at that retirement centre had an incredibly positive impact on me. Throughout those years, I attended three different schools, made new friends and had evolving goals for my life. But volunteering was one of the things that remained the same—a constant in the seemingly ever-changing life of a young student. It was comforting to go to the same place every week and visit with residents who didn’t care if my hair was the latest style or what mark I got on my math test.

This was especially true in my last year of high school, when my school hallways were abuzz with talk of university, prom and graduation. Every Friday after school, I would drop off my bag at home and then drive to the retirement centre. I would sit in a quiet room with the woman who I visited with every week (the one who told me the lemon quote). We’d talk for an hour, about her life or my life, and then I’d bring her to the dining room for dinner. As I left, I’d wave through the window. She told me to come back again soon, and I always did. Sometimes we’d go on walks; I’d push her wheelchair to the end of the hall to look at the trees out the window, or we’d go downstairs to the greenhouse and breathe in that gloriously fresh scent of plants and flowers. I always felt calmer and happier after those visits.

My continual volunteering felt, in part, like I was fulfilling a lesson my grandmother taught me: to always be kind to others, no matter your circumstances.

I learned a lot from my time volunteering, especially about the value in something as simple as a short conversation. Some of the residents who I visited with didn’t get many other visitors. Their appreciation for our conversations made me feel like what I was doing was worthwhile and important. Seeing a resident’s face light up when they got a visitor was a simple reminder that sometimes the kindest thing you can do is be present, listen and empathize. In my life now, I try to remember this lesson.

Today is International Volunteer Day. Through my experiences, I have seen first hand not only the impact that volunteers can have on an organization, but the impact that volunteering can have on an individual. I know that I would not be the person I am now had I not made the decision to begin volunteering all those years ago. Volunteering changed my life for the better. I am grateful for the experiences I had, the people I met and the things I learned along the way — including, thanks to one resident, my future according to my star sign.

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If My Past Self Could See Me Now

“What would our first-year selves think if they saw us right now?” my friend asked as we set up a camera and tripod to film an interview.

“They’d be amazed at our confidence,” she said, answering her own question.

“I would definitely be amazed,” I echoed.

It was a short conversation, lost in the bustle of the interview, but this moment stood out in my mind because it is something I’ve been thinking about lately—what my past self would think of my current self. I know for a fact that my friend was right: my first-year self would think it’s crazy that I am so much more confident in all aspects of journalism.

I wrote last year about the fact that studying journalism forced me to jump out of my comfort zone; and as the year went on, I became comfortable with being outside of my comfort zone. I know that if I feel nervous about an assignment or task, that’s a good thing—because it means I am going to learn from it. This is a mindset that I didn’t always have during my first year, but it is something that I think my first-year self would really admire now.

But let’s take it back further than my first year of university. My high school self might be surprised that I’m still blogging. She’d also be surprised, I think, at all of the amazing friendships and opportunities that have come out of my experiences at university. I have an incredible group of friends who encourage me to be a better journalist and a better person. They help me expand my comfort zone both in writing and in other things, like trying new foods. I tried octopus the other week (OK, one bite, but still). Trying new foods at new restaurants in the city with friends is something my high school self would think was super cool.

I also think my high-school self would also be surprised at how hard her work paid off. At the end of my grade 12 year, I found out that I received a major scholarship to university because of my academic, extracurricular and creative achievements throughout high school. If my past self could see me now, continuing to work hard to maintain my scholarship and achieve new things, I bet she’d be proud.

And my elementary school self? Well, sixth-grade Sherina would be pretty amazed that the article I had published in the local newspaper as a result of joining my school’s writing club had resulted in a desire to pursue journalism as a career. She’d also probably think it’s pretty cool that her future self is writing for thousands of people on the Internet to read. Back then I could only dream of sharing my thoughts with the whole world—so I’m pretty lucky that I get to do that now, through this blog.

So, to answer my friend’s question: What would my first-year self think if she saw me right now? I dare say that she’d be happy and proud—and, strangely enough, that makes my current self feel the exact same way.

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It Started With a Sunrise

My day yesterday was bookended by pink skies. I woke up early to do some work before class and saw, through my blinds, colourful clouds. I haven’t seen many sunrises recently, so I eagerly opened my blinds and soaked in the sky as I worked on my assignments. It was a lovely beginning to my day.

I met up with a few of my friends for breakfast. I ate what were quite possibly the best pancakes I’ve ever had in my life. We all laughed when our one friend learned that orange pekoe is not a tea flavour, it simply makes the tea orangeshe discovered this after sticking her nose in her mug, trying to sniff the flavour.

Then we went to our journalism lecture and to our lab afterwards. I spent my afternoon editing a video with my partner for an assignmentit was time-consuming, but I learned a lot about the video editing process, and we had a lot of fun while doing this. I didn’t expect that we would finish the video today, but we didand crossing it off my assignment planner felt amazing.

After exporting the video, I went shopping with one of my friends and then had dinner while watching this week’s episode of Riverdale on Netflix (if you haven’t watched Riverdale, I would highly recommend it). Then I did some more work planning an essay and brainstorming topics for a journalism assignment.

As night fell, I looked down the street and noticed a pink huejust like I had seen in the morning. With a darkening sky, bright headlights from passing cars and a colourful background behind tall buildings, it was a gorgeous scene. Watching the sky, I thought about how lucky I was that I got to see a beautiful sky not just once, but twice over the course of a day.

I saw a quote recently that has stuck in my mind: “Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans.” Being a student, my days tend to be filled with classes, assignments and writing (I am studying journalism, after all). And in between these things are co-curriculars, going to the gym, hanging out with friends and, of course, relaxing. In the midst of all of these things, my life happens.

Sometimes I feel like life is moving too quicklynot necessarily that it is passing me by, but just that it is speeding along while I am busy with school and other things. But that quote reminds me that those things are my life. The essay and article writing, the laughing with friends over delicious pancakes, the learning how to edit videos and watching Netflix in bedmy life is made up of these moments. If I acknowledge them, then I feel less like life is moving too quickly and more like I have a solid grasp on it.

Seeing a beautiful skyeither a sunrise, or a sunsetalways grounds me in a moment of reflection and awareness. Yesterday, seeing both helped make me mindful of all of the moments in this life that I am so grateful to be living. Life may be what happens while you are busy with other things, but you can be fully present in your life if you embrace the moments that make every day special.

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The Path Less Travelled

There’s a certainty to nature, I think to myself as I walk along a trail with my family on Thanksgiving weekend. So many aspects of the outdoors are unpredictable—grey skies can brighten in seconds and, similarly, a sunny day can turn stormy before you even have a chance to produce an umbrella—and yet, something about nature does seem so inevitably grounded in an unchanging reality. Maybe it’s the way that, year after year in the fall, the leaves turn crimson and flutter to the ground; maybe it’s the way I watch the fiery leaves every year at this time with the same awe.

Roots cross the path I walk, creating a kind of haphazard staircase covered in pine needles, fallen leaves and the occasional fern. Massive, mossy rocks line one side of the trail; the sparkling shoreline on the other side is framed by red and orange leaves. It is beautiful, and fleeting, because while the forest hasn’t completely turned to fall—many of the tall trees are still green—in the grand scheme of time I’ll blink and the trees will be skeletons sitting in pools of coloured leaves. But it is in that certainty, that time will pass and the trees will do what they do every autumn, that I find solace as I walk.

Somehow on our afternoon hike, my family and I have traversed off the trail we meant to walk. We planned to take the short route, soak up the scenic sights before heading into town for a bit. But we’re on the longer route now—something we discovered only when we realized that the walk was taking a lot longer than we had thought it would. We laugh about this as we continue walking, past a little waterfall trickling into a stream, past fallen birch trees with white bark.

Nature might be sure of itself, certain that the sun will rise in the morning and set in the evening and life will carry on—but as humans, we aren’t always as certain about our own lives. Sometimes we end up on the wrong path (both literally and figuratively). When this happens, we have to look at where we came from, figure out how we got to where we are and decide where to go next. Because sometimes, we’re actually on the right path—we just, for whatever reason, doubt that it is truly what is right for us.

We’ve all had those moments in life where we feel as if we are standing at a crossroads, looking at two paths, imploring one of them to show itself to us as the correct one to travel down. There is no way to be certain in life that we are going in the right direction—we have to trust ourselves and the decisions we make, and be brave enough to turn back when we’re wrong or forge ahead when we’re right. As poet Robert Frost wrote, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less travelled by, and that has made all the difference.”

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