It was midnight. Airin Stephens had a plane to catch at 6 AM. And she still wasn’t packed.
“I was completely sabotaging myself,” recalls the Thunder Bay, Ontario, mom of two young daughters. She’d been waiting to take this trip — a 10-day, mindfulness-based kayaking tour on the Pacific coast — since she’d won it in a contest four years earlier. But things kept getting in the way: her mom was diagnosed with breast cancer and went through intensive treatment, and Airin needed to be close to home to support her. The next summer, her sister went through a tough separation — and ditto. The following summer was taken up with moving the family from Toronto to Thunder Bay, where her husband, Charles, had taken a job at Lakehead University.
By 2018, says Airin, the trip organizers issued her an ultimatum: “They told me I couldn’t postpone it any longer and I needed to go that summer or forfeit.”
Which is how Airin, who had worked as a high school teacher and administrator in Toronto and was now a community-based educator in Thunder Bay, found herself reluctantly packing on the night before of a trip that should have been the adventure of a lifetime.
“When I first won the contest, I was so excited at the thought of being able to get away on my own, not having to pack for anyone else, not thinking about anyone else’s needs for a week. And then, about a month before I was finally supposed to go, that excitement turned into complete fear.”
Airin had always focused, “to a fault,” on putting other people’s needs before her own, an impulse that only intensified once Tsiporah, now 11, and Ashira, 8, were born. (The girl’s names are the Hebrew words for “bird” and “song,” respectively, reflecting the family’s Jewish heritage and Airin’s lifelong love of birds; she has an undergraduate degree in environmental studies and previously worked as an ornithologist.) “I kept wondering if I should go,” she says. I think what really came down to was, what if I went away and was stuck with myself for the first time in more than a decade and found out I didn’t like who I was?”
Still, she managed to make her flight. She spent the next 10 days kayaking the waters off Tofino, British Columbia, surrounded by ancient western red cedars, against the backdrop of the Catface mountain range. The Outward Bound trip integrated mindfulness into every aspect of the journey, from meals to paddling to breathwork and traditional Chinese medicine. Each participant had 24 hours of solo time, alone on a beach on Meares Island with a tarp, some rope, matches, and a small bag of food.
“I loved every minute of it,” says Airin, of her 24 hours in solitude. “I wish that the whole trip could have been solo. I made mandalas in the sand and let them wash away. I napped. I explored the area. I made a beaded piece. When I woke in the morning, there were sea-wolf tracks all around my tent.”
The trip was also emotionally volatile. “I’d think, ‘It’s so beautiful that I’m taking time to myself,’ and then I’d think, ‘I’m so privileged to be able to take this time for myself.’” Surrounded on all sides by the stunning beauty of the Pacific Coast, Airin was also reminded of its fragility. Garbage from Japan washed up on the coastline. In the months preceding her trip, four First Nations elders — people known as “Salmon Keepers” because of their traditional knowledge of the Pacific salmon — had disappeared, and nobody knew why or how. She joined the parties of people walking the coast, looking for the most recent elder, a man named Raymond Amos.
And it was a time to reflect, to get in touch with herself after more than a decade of focusing on her family and her students, who included new teachers and the at-risk young adults she works with at Roots to Harvest, a community-based organization that teaches organic farming and life skills.
“I realized that yes, I did like myself,” says Airin, 43. “But I did find that I needed to be a bit gentler on myself and on the people around me. In my work and in my life, in general, I have always tried to work from the principle that people do the best they can with what they have at the moment. But I realized that in the last few years I hadn’t really been living fully. I was losing my patience all the time with my family. I’d become depleted.”
Since returning home, Airin is more aware than ever of the beauty and the fragility of the natural environment, whether the ancient spawning grounds of the Pacific Coast Salmon or the boreal forest that surrounds her in Thunder Bay. She and her family are committed to living simply and trying to lower their impact on the environment by buying used or local wherever they can, composting, and repurposing — Tsipi and Ashira, like their mom, are huge crafters and love to sew. Airin still feels that she could do more — “I drive to and from work every day,” she says — but she’s remembering to be gentle with herself.
And she has continued to integrate mindfulness and gentleness into her daily routines, at home and at work. “It’s funny because I used to teach mindfulness to my students, but never really did it for myself,” she says. Now, she’s taking her own advice, incorporating body scans, deep breathing, and meditation sessions into her daily routines. “When things are spinning out of control, whether that’s at home or work, it’s about finding ways to calm my mind so that I can calm down the situation,” she says.