What a million paper monsters taught me about things going up in smoke

Fortunately, peeing my pants during art class in kindergarten didn’t squash my creative interests entirely. Unfortunately, my mom seemed intent on finishing the job a couple years later.

For whatever reason, I got in the habit of creating paper monsters with my younger brother, Nicholas. For weeks, we invested countless hours sketching, colouring and cutting out all manner of goofy and ghastly characters. Our bottomless enthusiasm meant the collection quickly outgrew the two cardboard boxes we were storing our creations in. Soon, eight-eyed trolls, fire-breathing sharks and spiky-haired werewolves were strewn everywhere. 

It was as if our imaginations had barfed all over our bedroom floor.

However, not everyone appreciated our artful expulsions. And by “not everyone,” I mean our mother. One day, while Nicholas and I were at school dreaming up our next batch of paper monsters, Mom made her way upstairs and into our room. 

Mistaking the piles of paper for trash — or more likely just fed up with telling us to clean up our messes — Mom scooped up our masterpieces and shoved them into a garbage bag. 

When we got off the school bus that afternoon, we could see wisps of smoke coming from the still-smoldering burn barrel at the end of the laneway, unaware of its recent role as the crematorium for our childhood innocence. 

That is, of course, until we walked into our room to find it spotless. It was the only time I had hoped to find a monster under my bed. Alas, our mother had left no papery beast unburned. 

The Martin Monster Massacre introduced me to the harsh reality that things can go up in smoke in an instant. One moment we were ankle-deep in the fruits of our hard work and creativity. The next we were staring at an empty floor and choking back tears.

Two decades later, I was choking back tears for a very different reason, as I rode the bus home after learning I had cancer. In a few words, my doctor had burned the world as I knew it to ash. 

But like my seven-year-old self, I had a choice to make. I could stomp my feet and wallow in what I had lost. Or I could pull out a new sheet of paper and get back to work.

After all, I couldn’t afford to waste time pining for the life I was leaving behind. I was now on a monster-slaying mission of my own that demanded my full attention. And I knew the beast lurking inside me wasn’t going down without a fight.

Becoming pals with impermanence

Impermanence is a core principle in traditions like Buddhism, reminding us that change is constant and all things eventually come to an end. Their teachings on attachment are directly connected, arguing that suffering results from clinging to things that are inherently transient. For example, the deep pain I felt from losing those paper monsters corresponded to my deep attachment to them. 

In many ways, the idea of impermanence is an uncomfortable one. Nobody likes thinking about losing the things — or people — they love. But just because it’s uncomfortable doesn’t mean it’s not a reality we all have to face. Because the harsh truth is that cherished family heirlooms break. Careers end. Hair turns grey.

And far from being depressing, learning to accept and even embrace the temporary nature of life can produce a lot of positive effects. Here are a few benefits from becoming pals with impermanence:

Understand that this too shall pass — If all good things come to an end, then the opposite is also true. When you’re going through a tough time — whether you’re fighting the flu or feeling heartbroken — telling yourself that the discomfort and pain will eventually fade often makes it easier to cope with difficult experiences.

Remember your mortality Memento mori: “remember you will die.” This Latin expression may sound morbid. But I see it as a powerful reminder to make the most of the time we’ve got, recognizing that we all have an expiration date. I remember a professor talking about how ancient philosophers would keep a human skull on their desks and place two fingers in the eye sockets while they wrote as a reminder of their mortality. Understandably, your office mates might balk at you lugging a human skull with you to work. So another similar idea is to take regular walks through a cemetery as an opportunity to reflect on your finite existence and how you want to spend it.

Nurture an attitude of gratitude — Similar to the previous point, appreciating impermanence fosters gratitude for the things you do have. Strawberries in Ontario taste all the sweeter knowing they’re only in season for a few weeks. A run after your broken ankle heals feels amazing knowing what it was like to be on crutches. 

Let go to grow — A painful breakup becomes more painful if you refuse to accept it’s over. Meanwhile, staying angry at your mom for weeks on end for incinerating your paper dolls is energy better spent starting a new project. Accepting impermanence helps by facilitating detachment, making it easier to move forward after you’ve lost something. Just remember, detachment isn’t about not caring. It’s simply a willingness to let go — to stop clinging to the things that cause us pain.


Next: Chapter 4 — The crayon candle: What the lamest science project ever taught me about putting in the extra effort

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Did you know? This resource is also available as a print book called “Simply Blunderful: A cancer survivor’s illustrated guide to flaming tennis balls, camping catastrophes and the many obstacles life throws our way.” Click here to learn more and order your copy.

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Chapter 1 — The coin flip: What a cancer diagnosis taught me about life exploding into a bazillion pieces

Chapter 2 — The slip-up: What a puddle of puke taught me about asking for help

Chapter 3 — The Great Burning: What a million paper monsters taught me about things going up in smoke

Chapter 4 — The crayon candle: What the lamest science project ever taught me about putting in the extra effort

Chapter 5 — The Christmas concert: What starring as a tree taught me about finding my voice

Chapter 6 — The “Super Something:” What blood and glue fumes taught me about vulnerability

Chapter 7 — The dare: What wearing a clay helmet taught me about bad habits

Chapter 8 — The cannonball: What Meghan in the mud taught me about letting go

Chapter 9 — The fireball: What a flaming tennis ball taught me about nurturing imagination

Chapter 10 — The frying pan: What towel-snapping taboos taught me about pushing your luck

Chapter 11 — The haybale: What a tough day in the barn taught me about having someone to watch your back

Chapter 12 — The babysitting gig: What banshee babies and buttered butts taught me about failing forward

Chapter 13 — The sledgehammer: What a construction job taught me about using the right tools

Chapter 14 — The cement truck: What a misguided act of heroism taught me about good intentions

Chapter 15 — The valet: What a parking disaster taught me about overconfidence

Chapter 16 — The growl: What a wolf in the woods taught me about knowledge and responsibility

Chapter 17 — The shortcut: What a hike through stinging nettles taught me about cutting corners

Chapter 18 — The backpack: What a giant duffel bag taught me about band-aid solutions

Chapter 19 — The big freeze: What camping in a snowstorm taught me about knowing when to quit

Chapter 20 — The snowy gauntlet: What an idiotic bet taught me about redefining success

Chapter 21 — The Christmas tree: What a holiday hunt taught me about overkill

Chapter 22 — The BB gun: What my dad getting shot in the eye taught me about owning up to our mistakes

Chapter 23 — The toboggan hill: What sledding battles taught me about approaching problems from different angles

Chapter 24 — The train: What a trip to the big city taught me about self-sabotage

Chapter 25 — The mushy cauliflower: What dinner in France taught me about the power of words

Chapter 26 — The shopping cart: What an unusual ride to the bar taught me about control

Chapter 27 — The butt clay: What a muddy gully battle taught me about karma

Chapter 28 — The president: What Bill Clinton getting in my way taught me about adaptability

Chapter 29 — The Taipei middle way: What a hostile hostel taught me about moderation

Chapter 30 — The refugee camp: What volunteering in Ghana taught me about digging deeper

Chapter 31 — The bus ride: What a long drive through the mountains taught me about patience

Chapter 32 — The barn: What a Christmas sleepover taught me about keeping your fires stoked

Chapter 33 — The list: What farts and sandwiches taught me about gratitude

Chapter 34 — The birthday: What a surprise celebration in the hospital taught me about self-care

Chapter 35 — The goodbye: What a man named Frank taught me about luck

Chapter 36 — The bloody transformation: What going from negative to positive taught me about change

Chapter 37 — The school of hard knocks: What life’s misadventures taught me about blunderful resilience