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  • Writer's pictureAnna Byrne

“Go (semi-)confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you’ve imagined.”

This year, I’ve learned that confidence is less a feeling than a muscle. (Apologies to Thoreau).


January. I’ve appreciated this January more than most. It’s been muffled by snow and fog, the cloak of five o’clock darkness, and the mid-winter drowsiness that settles when the Christmas lights come down. The weeks of January, post-holiday and pre-Spring, can be lean times, scarce of light and greenery, energy and social events. But an abundance of other gifts are offered during this time—quiet, stillness, and solitude. This year, I’ve accepted the invitation, and have been savouring these ideal conditions for writing.


I’m deep into my work each morning, doing long, uninterrupted hours at my desk after meditating. This extended time is a gift, I know, and one not available to everyone. I’m trying to harness it as best I can, and to gently push myself past the limits I’ve assumed my daily focus to have. The book I’m working on is a non-fiction narrative on community-based death care, told through the story of my friend Mary. I’ve finished multiple drafts and am now immersed in the cavernous process of editing. Though it sometimes feels unending, it is a vital part of the process that simply can’t be rushed. I can see the shape of the story now, and can sense how the finer features of it might want to come together. 


The slowness of January has allowed me to be more present to my work, and to my life. Having more presence seems to bring things to the surface, and one of the realizations that has bubbled to my awareness is my difficulty talking about my work as a writer. I can talk about the subject of the book, Mary’s life and death, with ease. But when it comes to the book about Mary—my book about Mary—it’s hard to be articulate. Part of it is because it’s precious, this process and its outcome. It’s a story that I’m a part of, is close to me, and is coming through me. A book changes a lot, too, between the first draft and the final, and giving too much away too soon seems unwise. 


But I also have trouble talking about it because of my fear that the book might not happen—it might not work out, it might never be finished, it might be lousy. That would be terrible enough, but then there would be the added embarrassment of having talked about a book that I couldn’t manifest. These fears are not new or unique to me, or even to the creative path. And they are also why I’ve been drawn to quotes like Thoreau’s since I was a teenager. I’ve always found things like confidence and dreams somewhat slippery. Through my 20s and 30s, I bemoaned the fact that I didn’t feel I had one shining dream to pursue, so how was I to know which direction to go in, let alone confidently?


So I did my best, making decisions as opportunities presented themselves, talking through pros and cons with people I trusted, and generally feeling my way though the seemingly endless choices in life. (For a fascinating dive into the dissatisfaction brewed by endless choice, watch the Ted Talk The Paradox of Choice). Like many people, things that I didn’t choose also influenced my path. Cancer was the big one, disrupting almost the entire decade of my 30s, and not so much throwing obstacles in my path as radically picking up my life and plopping it down in another place entirely. I still thought about dreams then, though they became more about things like seeing the children in my life grow up.


When I left cancer care and started volunteering and working in hospice, it felt like I had more of an idea as to what I could dedicated my life to. While working in hospice, I also wrote my memoir, Seven Year Summer, as a way of processing my own experiences with death. 


Then, in early 2020, my friend Mary asked three people—Jules Adam, Laurie Norman, and I—to help her to remain at home to die. The 16 months leading up to Mary’s death in the midst of the pandemic were difficult and beautiful as the three of us did our best to support Mary to die in comfort and surrounded by beauty. There were many salient aspects of Mary’s story—COVID, tending to her body after she died, building her casket, green burial, assisted dying—that I knew could have incredible applications to how we do death in North America. Mary and I had written about our cancer experiences together, and sharing Mary’s story was something Jules, Laurie, and I talked often about with her. Mary died in community and she wanted others to reclaim this right, too. 


But the year after Mary’s death, I was in the final semesters of my Master of Theological Studies degree. When I graduated, I had completed a final project that served as a template for me to become a consultant for faith-based organizations that were exploring how best to engage with Medical Assistance In Dying (MAID). In the first few months after I graduated, I began building a consultancy practice around this work. But something kept nagging at me: Mary’s book. 


Thankfully, the agitation was enough that I actually paused, and listened. In the Fall of 2022, I entered an extended period of discernment (angst, prayer, dreaming, doubt) about what exactly it was that I was being called to do. I emerged from that time with my answer—I was going to write Mary’s book. It felt like a melding of my experiences with cancer, my work in hospice care, and my time with Mary. So I made what felt like a fairly radical shift and decided to defer paid work and dedicate my time to writing about community-centred death care.


Even though I knew within myself that writing was the right decision, this year has brought a steady tide of doubt. The most pervasive doubts are the ones directly linked to my conditioning about the meaning of success. I’m in my mid-40s, when many of my peers are at the height of their careers and earning potential, things that are rewarded and celebrated in our society. In some ways, it would be easier to go back to full-time teaching or some other endeavour that was more culturally affirmed and financially stable. To make the choice to write, to follow a dream at this point in life (all of the follow-your-dream memes have 20-something-year-olds on mountain tops) feels unconventional and undervalued. It’s hard when people ask me, “When will you start working again?” (Trust me, I’m working, but the pay is different). What they are asking, I think, is when I will earn a regular pay check. Parents who have stayed at home to raise their children have also felt the barbs of the work=money equation.


There are also practical challenges: No one sets my schedule. No one ensures I am at my desk or checks my progress. I will work alone for two years before anyone will even read the book.


It’s all me. That has always frightened me, but it’s also where my confidence has been built.


Working on a project like this has thrown me into liminal space, the discomfort of being in constant process. There are very few external tangibles to grasp onto, something I find very uncomfortable at times. I realized early into last year that I was going to have to develop legs for liminal space, and that the ground to stand on would mostly need to come from within myself (and from all of you amazing people who keep cheering me on). I pulled my energy from worrying about society’s views of my life path (which will fail the vast majority of us) and returned again and again to the moment I knew that I needed to write this book. Remembering that I’ve asked the question and was given an answer has allowed me to go semi-confidently toward my work. Going little by little this year, I’ve grown more in confidence than I ever have. 


This confidence is not confidence that the book will sell, that it will be read, or that it will be liked. The confidence is finally understanding that deep down, I can do this. I have the resources and support and relentless determination to do this. It’s the quiet knowing that I can wake up, day after day, and work and re-work, and that if I do this long enough and hard enough, I will write this book. I can tailor my lifestyle to support this and I can say no to material gains in favour of following the rich reward of knowing what it is to finally have a dream. I can show up for myself, for this book, and for this dream. 


I have the profound privilege to have the stability, health, and support to do this, and for that, I am deeply grateful. I love what I do, and I’m happy.


Here’s what I've learned about confidence this year: 


  • Confidence isn’t knowing it’s all going to work out. That’s certainty. Confidence is not knowing how it’s going to work out and doing it anyway.

  • Confidence doesn’t come as a product of hard work, but from the process of it.

  • Confidence is not always innate. More often than not, it’s built over time.

  • Confidence isn’t always loud and bold (I thought it was). Sometimes, it's the substance that quietly rises to the surface morning after morning when you face your work and begin again.


Sometimes, you don’t need confidence to begin. You just need to take a step and create the path by walking.*




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