Finding Home (Part Three)

BeachIt was time to see if Oregon was my answer: to truly belonging somewhere and to finding “home.” I needed that place that knew me and accepted me. I wanted to fit neatly and perfectly in the curvature of a place like a jigsaw puzzle piece. I needed to know if Oregon was the home my soul had been longing for. I had not been to Oregon in five years; her beauty, comfort and peace could have all been an illusion. A faux answer for a life I was no longer enjoying in Tennessee or Colorado. I wasn’t sure if I was I on the run. Running away from the skulking shadows, or if I had issues with monotony and routine which wouldn’t allow me to be happy or content anywhere. I needed to know the truth.

I left for a quick five-day trip to Oregon. As the plane landed in Portland, I felt the freedom greet me as the plane wheels met the runway like a firm handshake. I wasn’t sure what my agenda was now that I actually landed in the place whose memory I tucked away like a delicate keepsake.

My mind kept wondering what I was really doing there. I had an apartment in Colorado with a balcony that overlooked Pikes Peak and Garden of the Gods, and I had just signed a new one-year lease with my boyfriend. I had a job, and I was teaching English at the local community college. My mind started to second-guess the feelings of my heart. It questioned my undeniable connection I had to Oregon. It tried to talk louder and tried to use its reasoning for me to accept its logic.

But as soon as I was driving on the roads of Oregon again seeing the Douglas Firs for miles, the eagles soaring overhead, and the elk gangs wandering in fields I knew all reasoning was lost. No amount of yelling my mind was doing could outdo what my heart knew. I was home. I was breathing deeper into my belly. My lungs filled with fresh air. I had my driver side window down letting the cool wind whip my ponytailed hair in circles.

I still didn’t know if I was going to go through with my plan. It felt like being in a trance. It was me who was driving, but when I looked at my hands on the steering wheel they felt like they belonged to someone else. This moment had built up in my mind for so long that it felt like a foggy dream. I had two sides to myself. One side was pushing and making all the arrangements for me to get to Oregon, and the other side was trying to hold back being timid and fearful. Was I going to take my dog, pack up what I could fit in my car, and leave everything else behind in Colorado? Was I going to leave my unsatisfying relationship and my boyfriend? Was I really in Oregon right now to decide on which city I wanted to live in and find an apartment to live in?

I had three cities in mind: Portland, Seaside and Astoria. Even though I had Portland as an option, I found myself driving to the coast as my internal compass directed me. The closest I had ever lived to the ocean was 8 hours, and the closest beach was the west coast of Florida. Portland was an amazing city, but it had expanded so much and was like a saturated sponge drowning in water. It was also 90 minutes from the ocean. Seaside was a town of 7,000 people, and Astoria was a town of 10,000 people. The small town feelings seemed like a reprieve for me emotionally and spiritually. I sensed my soul needed the healing energy of the water. It needed the quiet comfort of a small town. I still was nowhere near done processing the death of both my parents, and the last year I spent with my boyfriend unsettled me.

I ended up staying in a hotel in Seaside; it was beautiful to be so close to the ocean, but the town wasn’t fully resonating with me as a place to settle. I really struggled finding any apartments. I found myself driving to Astoria every day to enjoy breakfast, the Columbia River, and the freeing, artsy nature of the town. One morning, I sat at the Blue Scorcher Bakery at the long bar table on a stool staring out the large picture window as I journaled during breakfast. I knew I belonged there. Not only in that moment but in the future.

I started to realize what I was going to have to do. While I felt the tingle of excitement pinging in my stomach, I felt like I was going through the motions of looking for a place to live. Even though I knew this was right, my mind was dreading what it was going to take to get me to Oregon permanently. Old wounds and fears opened as I knew I had to shed what was no longer good for me, what was never good for me. Stepping into who I was and who I had discovered was scary. Announcing to the world, “Here I am!” for the first time ever. That time was quickly approaching, and it began with this choice.

I only had three days to apartment hunt because I arrived in Oregon later on my first day there, and I was leaving in the morning on my last day there. It seemed my apartment hunt was fruitless, demoralizing, and not very synchronous. My mind began to wonder if this was a sign that I needed to accept my life in Colorado, that this was the wrong path for me.

On the second day of hunting, I decided to look at Zillow, and there was a description of an apartment that seemed unique and fitting for me. When I called to inquire about seeing the house, I found out I was in luck. That was the one day they were showing the apartment to prospective tenants.

I arrived to my scheduled appointment time to be met by an old Victorian House built in 1900. The house was divided into a top and bottom. The top half was used for an Airbnb, and the bottom half would be the apartment. The apartment had two bedrooms and one bathroom. It had large picture windows throughout the house, and it overlooked the Columbia River. It had stained glass windows in the doorway of one bedroom, green carpet throughout the house, and gold wallpaper in the living room, and it fit me perfectly. I always wanted to live in a unique house that inspired creativity and wonder. I felt a sense of calm as I walked through each room, and I couldn’t stop smiling.

I didn’t have time to think anymore. It was time to act or neglect my true path. I wasn’t planning on moving until November, if I had the guts to move at all, and it was early October. Part of me just came on the trip to see if Oregon was the same to me as it was 5 years earlier. I half thought it would be a mirage, but it felt like home again.

I thought the process of attaining an apartment would take longer. So I put in my application and expressed my interest in the apartment. The next morning I had a response already. The landlords wanted me to move in, and they wanted the move in date to be 4 days later. They were ready to accept the first month’s rent as well as the security deposit.

And I did it. I still had this battle going on inside, but the momentum was too strong. I signed my lease, I mailed my rent and deposit check to them, and I had the option to move in 4 days.

I started to feel freedom. Through my entire life, I lived for other people. I started living for my parents as a child. Then it transitioned to living for the men I was in relationships with. Once my parents passed away, I didn’t feel like I had to answer to anyone, until I met my boyfriend. I let him dictate a lot of our relationship, and I tried to deny my own feelings out of habit. But as I lived in Colorado, as I continued with therapy and learned to connect with my true self, I started to live and answer to myself.

And now, I only had one option.

Finding Home (Part Two)

gardenofthegods

By the middle of 2011, my job had become a barred cage. A narcissistic, child-like woman was promoted and had been my boss for about a year. She led people by fear and on the waves of her ever-changing emotions. It was similar to being supervised by a 3-year-old child who needed a nap. If she was having a bad day, then she made sure her employees were having a bad day. If she was in a great mood, then she invited her employees to laugh and joke with her. At one point, we lost close to 20 employees in a month because working for this boss was like being in an abusive relationship. Employees had to walk on tip toes hoping not to step the wrong way in fear of sending the boss into a spiral of anger and abuse. At least half of the employees spent their work days looking for other jobs in hopes of escaping.

It was during this time I planned a week-long birthday vacation. I decided to go to Oregon. I stayed in Portland, and I was going to run a 4th of July half-marathon at Sauvie Island. ( I am in the process of running a half-marathon in every state, and I randomly decided Oregon should be next). When July rolled around, I needed a break from my work, from Tennessee, and the everyday monotony of my life.

While in Oregon, I went to a Blues festival and watched fireworks over the river, I went to local bars and restaurants, I ran my race at Sauvie Island, I went to the coast and played on the beach, I went on hikes and runs, and I did anything else that caught my attention like visiting the vibrant Rose Garden. The summer weather was perfect. It lacked the suffocating heat and humidity of Tennessee. The sun shined every day and the sunlight didn’t fade from the sky until after 10 p.m.

I loved how open Portland and the people were and how beautiful and natural everything was. People were allowed to be exactly who they were. I breathed in the authenticity in the air. I began to shed my own deceitful layers. I rediscovered myself in this city. I had come home to myself. It was as if I had been planted among the rose bushes and stumbled upon myself blooming.

When I went to the coast, Oregon officially had me in her grasp. I love the water, and I especially love the ocean. The closest I had ever lived to the ocean was 8 hours, but I was always drawn to go back to the ocean every year; it was one place I had to go. So to be on the coast, frolicking in frigid waves with rocky shorelines made me realize I didn’t just need to visit the ocean every year, I needed to live close to it. The waves whispered to me, and other times they were screaming, rushing faster towards the shore yelling for me to no longer ignore them and stay. Stay in this magical place. I listened intently. The language they spoke was inviting, it made sense to my confused mind, and it felt right. While I was enjoying the beach, I found my first sand dollar. It was an offering from the ocean herself. An invitation to stay and enjoy all the gifts she had to offer.

On the last day of my trip, I sat high on a hill overlooking Portland. I felt an ache inside. I didn’t want to leave. It wasn’t a typical “oh my vacation is over, and it is time to go back to reality” feeling. It was a deep pain, and I cried. I felt like I was being torn away from the one thing that ever understood me.

While it was still another 5 years before I moved to Oregon, I now had focus. I knew where I was going. I just had no idea the path I was going to be led down to get there.

Over the next 3 years, I did leave my abusive job and embarked on a new career. I lost both of my parents to cancer, and I also fell in love. When my parents passed away, there was nothing tethering me to Tennessee anymore. I had no responsibilities, I was financially secure, and all I saw was the open road. I even told the man I was dating that I was leaving Tennessee as soon as my parents’ house and my house sold. Both of the houses sold within a month of being on the market. I told the man I was with that I was getting out of Tennessee; he was welcome to come with me or stay behind, but I thought he should know because that may affect our relationship. He decided he wanted to move as well.

When the time came to discuss where it was we were moving to, there wasn’t much agreement. I automatically vetoed living in the South. He vetoed the North and the New England area. So we were left with the West. He absolutely refused Oregon. I was disappointed, but I was in love with him and I was just so happy to be getting out of Tennessee. I told him I enjoyed Utah as well, but he seemed to have his mind set on Colorado. Colorado seemed like a pretty amazing place, but I didn’t realize at the time that another “home” was being chosen for me.

Once we settled on moving to Colorado, we had to choose a city. I really was wanting to move to Boulder because I thought the vibe of the city would fit me, but I let my significant other choose Colorado Springs, and so it had been decided.

I moved out to Colorado first, a month before my boyfriend, and got everything set up and settled. I started to feel relief, and I was able to take deeper breaths. I felt the shackles Tennessee had me bound in fall away. Our apartment had views of Pikes Peak and Garden of the Gods. The mountains rose up towards the sky; their peaks reaching their jagged fingertips towards the sun. Nature and the outdoors were all around and so easy to access. I had whole trails to myself to run and hike on. There was a great running community and many races to run throughout the state. The weather was my favorite because there were four clear and separate seasons, and I loved being back around snow again. I found a beautiful yoga community, and I started to discover the things I really loved.

But even after being grateful for leaving Tennessee and loving the beauty of Colorado, within 6 months I felt a pang. Oregon was still calling out to me. Her voice was quiet and low, but her whisper spoke to the ears of my heart. I was committed though. I was committed to my boyfriend and to the move I decided to make to Colorado.

As months passed, I was my boyfriend’s insignificant other. He made decisions that suited his needs, we were more like roommates than loving, intimate partners, and I felt awkward and strange in my own home. I was in constant discomfort and neglect. There is nothing lonelier than being alone in a relationship. I could no longer stay where I never belonged in the first place.

Without a fulfilling relationship with my boyfriend or Colorado, I had a decision to make.

Finding Home (Part One)

illinois house  (The house on Clarence Avenue in Berwyn, Illinois)

I didn’t find it until I was 32 years old, but I was 37 years old before I could officially call it my own.

I used to underestimate the idea of home, and never understood its true power.  When I was younger, I didn’t have a choice in where I called home. It was chosen for me by my parents. After my four sets of great-grandparents left Europe, they all eventually settled right outside of Chicago, Illinois, except for one set, my dad’s mother’s parents, who decided on Southern Tennessee. Eventually my dad’s mom met my grandpa, and they moved to Illinois as well, and my grandma left her parents behind in Southern Tennessee. At that point, all my relatives were gathered around Chicago like a winter fire.

The first place I remember as home was an apartment in Berwyn, Illinois. When I was 5 years old, my parents bought our first house on Clarence Avenue in Berwyn. This was the house I grew up in until my parents decided to move when I was 14.

Illinois was the place where I learned about independence. When I was 9 years old, at the start of 4th grade, I no longer had to go to daycare after school or my Grandma Busha’s house for the summer. My parents decided I could start staying home by myself. My school was only two blocks from my house, so it was a quick 5 minute walk. After school I always had some sporting practice or game. I played softball, basketball, and was a cheerleader.

My parents were normally gone for 12 hours a day leaving for work at 6:30 a.m. and returning home again at 6 p.m. I had time to have adventures, play sports, read and write. One of my favorite pastimes was creating song lyrics about my cat Rocky and my dog Lady, singing them into a microphone and recording them on a cassette tape. It was these moments of getting myself to school and home from school, and having free reign to do whatever I wanted when my parents weren’t around that gave me the confidence as an adult to go out on my own. I was also an only child who had a lot of time to myself, so I always enjoyed my own company and doing things on my own.

In the summers, as soon as my parents left for work, I did my chores around the house and ate breakfast, which was normally something along the lines of Cocoa Pebbles, then I would ride my bike to the baseball field at St. Mary of Celle. The kids from the neighborhood and my Little League team would meet and play baseball. We would also meet at Lincoln Junior High School and play basketball on the outdoor courts and 16 inch softball in the open lot next to the school. Some days we mixed it up and went to the Maple Pool to go swimming. Other days we just rode our bikes all over the town.

At that point when I was younger, Illinois fit me perfectly. It was all I had ever known.

The summer before I was starting high school my parents informed me we were moving to Tennessee. Both of my parents wanted a change of pace from the hectic city life of living right outside Chicago. Two years earlier my dad’s parents permanently moved to Tennessee. They had a summer house there, but decided to move full-time once they both retired. My dad thought it sounded like a great idea as well. He would have access to fishing full-time, the drive home from work would be 20 minutes not hours, and nature would be more abundant and accessible.

I see the appeal of the slower-paced life now that I am not 14 years old. Even so, in the 22 years I lived there, Tennessee never felt like home. My parents moved to a small town in Southern Tennessee. The high school started in 10th grade, and there were two junior highs that housed the 7th, 8th and 9th graders. I was greeted at my new junior high school with white students who wanted to stage a walk-out because there were black students at the school. I was also greeted by “mean girls” who hung out in packs, and they seemed to hunt that way.

I will say I learned the most important lesson of my life in Tennessee. When I was 14 years old, I was jolted out of being self-absorbed. I guess I was like a typical wounded teenage girl. I sauntered around like I was special, I caused drama, and I didn’t necessarily care if I hurt people. When I moved to Tennessee and I was the new girl, there was no room for this attitude. I went from being a popular girl and a great athlete to being nothing. Mixed with the un-hospitality I received from the mean girl welcoming committee, I crumbled. But from this crumbling, it triggered empathy. I started to see people outside of myself and how they were affected by me and their surroundings. I realized that everyone wanted to be loved and accepted, and everyone wanted to feel special. It was the single most important lesson I have learned to date.

When I did get to high school, it was better, but I still couldn’t wait to get out of the small town. In Illinois, I had the option of being able to ride my bike, take the bus or walk to wherever I wanted to. I had easy access to friends and physical and mental stimulation. In Tennessee, everything and everyone was so far apart it made it impossible to do anything productive. The kids who had cars sat in parking lots and just drove around on rural roads listening to music.

Maybe my issue with high school had more to do with the fact that it was high school than the town it was in, but high school was my least favorite time of life. One positive was I knew there was more to life than what was in the walls of the school. I couldn’t wait to get to college. I knew I could find like-minded people, and break free from the oppressive town I was living in. Even dating wasn’t fun. I had nothing in common with the high school boys, especially high school boys who never saw a life past the boundaries of the county.

Of course I made friends in high school. But it is a strange to not feel like you ever belong. To feel alone even when you are surrounded by people. To feel even more alone because you are surrounded by people who just don’t understand you.

During senior year, I started requesting information from colleges in Louisiana, Maine, Florida, and North Carolina. When the pamphlets arrived, my dad guilted me into staying in Tennessee for school. He wasn’t ready for me to leave the state and he employed every tactic he could to keep me within the Tennessee borders. This may be the worst reason to ever attend a school, but I chose my university based on the fact that no one from my graduating class was going there, and it was 2 hours from where my parents lived. I figured it was far enough away to be able to breathe, but close enough to go home if I wanted to.

College was everything I had hoped and wanted it to be. The professors expanded my mind, the students were diverse, the freedom was palpable, and I was revived. To this day, some of my best memories happened while I was in college. But college still was just a distraction from the bigger issue: I didn’t belong in Tennessee. Yet, I still tried to force it to be my forever home. After I graduated college with my Master’s degree, I started living and working in Nashville, TN. I saved money, and I was able to start traveling more frequently.

One of my first joint trips with my mom was to Charleston, SC, and it was eye opening. I loved the vibe of Charleston. I loved that it was on the coast as well. One thing I discovered about myself was I loved the ocean. My mom actually talked to locals with me, and I was heavily leaning towards getting out of Tennessee. But, I got an interview for my first “adult” career as soon as we returned from our trip, and I ended up getting the job. Within the few first months of working, I decided to buy a house. In 2006, I moved to Springfield, TN in a corner lot house. Looking back, I think I felt Tennessee could feel like home if I had an actual home to call my own.

Over the next 5 years, I fell into a routine. I went to work, and I did my job to the best of my ability. I would go out with friends, and I had a few boyfriends and dated some. I played sports in an adult sports league, and I ran and traveled to other states to run races. I had my house: my supposed home.

But in 2011, I could no longer forget that I never belonged in Tennessee.

Fear. Sea. Surf. (Part II continued from 8/2/17).

girlssurf2It was July 8th, 2017. We walked down the long, gently sloping path. The trees were decorated with moss ornaments that hung like flowing hair. As the trail dipped through the shade of the trees, the path eventually spat us out into an open area on a short cliff that overlooked the beach. The blue of the sky met the blue of the ocean in an embrace. I watched the waves curl over like a baby’s hand griping his mom’s finger.

The ocean always soothed my senses like the briny air, the tumbling waves, the water reflecting the sun’s light but that day was a little different. I was taking my first surfing lesson and fear played through me like a needle stuck on a record.

I was with a group of all women and three women instructors. The day began with getting our surfboards for the weekend. These surfboards were like foam icebergs; they were huge, thick and unsinkable. My board was 9’2”, and it was 4 inches thick and 2 feet wide. It was just as much of a workout to carry the board to the beach as it was to surf. We also learned about the intricacies of the beach like rip currents, and the best conditions to surf in like wind direction, tide times, swell intervals, and wave heights.

The lesson then continued on the sand. The next challenge was getting into our 5mm wetsuit. The ocean on the Oregon Coast hangs out at about 58 degrees and wearing a full wetsuit is pretty much a requirement. Everyone always wore boots, but the gloves and hood were optional, which I did opt out of. The suits were skin tight, and it was like trying to put on and wear one big suction cup. Once we were suited up, we practiced sand surfing.

We worked on our form for paddling out to the waves; we balanced in the center of our boards scooping the sand back with cupped hands. We pushed into plank pose when imaginary waves were coming while we were paddling out. We churned our legs like a hand mixer practicing turning the board around in the water while sitting on it and waiting for the right wave. When we saw the imaginary wave we wanted, we slipped onto our stomachs and slid back on the board until our toes touched the edge of the board, and we started paddling hard to catch the wave. The final step was pushing up into an almost upward facing dog or a push-up with the knees down, then “popping up” to standing to surf the wave. I was considered a regular which means my left foot was out in front and my right foot was in back. It is called goofy if a surfer puts her right foot out in front and the left foot is behind. My body pointed towards the right side of the board. My shoulder was supposed to point in the direction I wanted to go and both feet were parallel on the board just a little more than hip distance apart. On the sand, this seemed logical and simple enough. Until it was time to apply the lessons in the water.

I remember walking towards the water as the panic began to ring louder, yet I just kept walking. The waves began to move higher up my legs slowly reaching towards my chest. The power of the ocean shoved me back as I continued to push forward.

I practiced sliding up on my board and paddling and pushing up on my board through the waves. Prior to this moment, I normally hung out in waist deep water. Now I was in a full 5 mm wetsuit, on a surfboard, paddling farther and farther from shore as the waves continually crashed into me and my board.

I have to admit my first day surfing I was not really brave. I had never participated in any water sports before. In fact, I had never participated in any snow sports either like snowboarding or skiing. This really was a brand new experience, and I had nothing to reference. To begin, we rode on the white water. After a green wave breaks it turns into white rolling water that pushes towards the shore. That is what we began learning on. There were three other women in my group and one instructor. Our instructor stood in the water and gave tips and advice. She took turns helping each of us pick waves and telling us when we should paddle.

I will admit as I sat on my board my fears tried to creep in like a wild cat stalking its prey. I was concerned about my lack of experience in the water.  I was nervous about being in the wide-open ocean; there were rip currents, not to mention the waves. I also kept waiting for a fin to break the surface at any moment. But I didn’t budge. I didn’t let my fears chase me from this experience.

The first wave I caught I didn’t even try to stand up. The wave felt like it was moving so fast; it took me by surprise. It was like being on a roller coaster that was rushing down the tracks, and all I had to cling to was my board. Even though I didn’t even attempt to stand up, the thrill was just as strong. I felt my lips turning into a smile. A laugh escaped from my mouth. My heart was fluttering. I may even have squealed as the board started to reach the shore. When my surfboard stopped, I couldn’t wait to get back out to the instructor and try again.

As I was waited for my second turn, I was sitting on my board facing the shore. The waves moved under me as I stared at the tree-covered, rocky cliffs, the chunks of driftwood, and the seagulls floating and riding on the wind. The beauty of the landscape was powerful, and it began to ease my fears. A calm settled over me; I had inhaled the peace of nature.

I am not sure what I thought about surfing prior to this day. I knew surfers were toned, skilled and seemingly fearless, but I had no idea how tough and tiring surfing really was. On my first day of surfing, and I don’t even know if I can call what I did surfing, I rode the surfboard in on my stomach and sometimes on all fours, and I never stood up. I made it one hour, and I rode in about 8 waves before my body felt drained.

My initial feeling was disappointment, but I was overwhelmingly proud as well. I never thought I would push my limits like that. I realized how much fear and anxiety tried to live my life for me at times. The more I caved in to the fear, the louder it got. I realized I didn’t want to hear the voice of fear anymore. I didn’t want to hold myself back.

As I was driving home, I began to cry. It was like a pop-up rain shower that took me by surprise. I cried because I felt free. I cried because I didn’t let fear win. I cried because I unlocked a hidden treasure within myself. I honestly felt like I could face anything. My tears were symbolic of an awakening.

The next morning was the second and final day of our lesson. I wasn’t sure what I would be capable of because I was sore; my hands were like 50 pound kettlebells weighing my arms down. However, today I was determined. As I drove to the beach, I vowed to turn my disappointment from the previous day into satisfaction. I told myself I was going to stand up or at least attempt to stand up on the surfboard.

That morning we changed instructors as well, so we could learn from someone different. My new instructor, Dani, and I had a great connection. The first question she asked me was, “What would you like to accomplish today?” Instantly I replied, “To stand up.” She smiled and nodded.

As we were waiting for a wave, Dani was pumping me up. She told me to repeat this mantra in my head, “I will stand up. I will stand up.” I had that in my mind as I caught my first wave, but I made it to my knees and rode the wave like I was a dog. When I paddled back out, Dani assured me it was okay. She encouraged me and told me to repeat my mantra again and just commit to standing up.

Dani and I picked out another wave together. She said, “That wave is yours!” as she pointed to a wave forming in the near distance. I quickly went from sitting on my board feet dangling in the water to slipping onto my stomach. I scooted back until my feet were at the edge of my board. Dani shouted, “Paddle!” I started digging my hands into the ocean pushing the cold water back as I repeated in my head, “I will stand up. I will stand up. I will stand up.” I felt the wave lift the back of my board up which was the sign it was time to stand up. I began to push up on the board with my arms, and I slowly popped up and brought my left foot forward on the board. I couldn’t believe it. My body finally followed suit on what my mind had been telling it to do. I only made it a few seconds standing up on the board before I “starfished” off. But for that fleeting moment, I was in sync and in perfect harmony with Mother Nature. It opened my eyes to a new level of being alive.

Natural Selection

picTrue intimacy requires vulnerability. It requires standing in your truth. It requires you to accept and reveal yourself as you truly are. This can’t be one-sided either; both sides must be willing to be open. Sometimes I have failed at this; other times I have been the one who was let down. I often feel misunderstood as I grasp at vulnerability with slippery fingers. But one relationship that has grown deep like roots has been my intimate relationship with nature.

My earliest recollection of connecting with nature, in a conscious way, was when I was 12 years old. I lived in Berwyn, Illinois and it was summertime. After my parents left for work, I rode my silver and orange Dyno bike to the local baseball field where I played Little League. I stopped my bike at the edge of the chain linked fence and walked onto the field. I slipped my shoes off and walked through the slightly overgrown grass as the blades tickled my ankles. It was warm, and my sweat beaded on my forehead below my baseball cap. The sky was as blue as the petals of a gentian. Butterflies dipped up and down like they were on an invisible roller coaster and crows cawed from the top of the metal fence. I decided to lay down right in the middle of center field, and I tucked my hands behind my head to make a pillow. I just stared up at the sky and the white cotton clouds; I let the sun take my face in her hands. I am unsure of how long I stared at the clouds, but I watched them gently move across the sky changing shapes.

When I was younger, I didn’t really seek out nature. I knew it was all around me, but we were more like acquaintances. Then my dad and I started to fish together when I was in high school, until he passed away in June 2014. My dad had a bass boat and had been a fisherman most of his life. We would wake up when the morning skies were dark. As we got to the boat ramp, the sun started to peer above the water line. My dad always found solace at the lake. He wasn’t a church going man, but he said his church was the lake. Those were the times he felt closest to God.

It was on the lake when nature started to come alive for me. I would watch herons stand stiff like stones waiting for unsuspecting fish to swim by. I saw ducks paddling by with their newly hatched ducklings trailing behind in a line. I saw the array of personalities the lake had as well. Some days the lake was smooth and green like a glass bottle. Other days the lake swelled creating whitecaps that violently rocked the boat. I also was able to watch the day unfold before me. In the springtime, my dad and I could easily fish for 12 hours. I watched the sun make its full rotation through the sky. Every second the sunlight changed the landscape around me. I began to long for the early morning fishing expeditions. I needed the wind to rip by as we sped across the lake to each of our secret fishing spots. I needed the sunshine on my skin as much as I needed the rainstorms. I needed that feeling of peace as my dad and I silently sat on opposite ends of the boat continuously casting waiting for a bite.

It was after my fishing experiences that I started to become an outdoors woman. It was then I started my relationship with nature. My time off of work was filled with hiking. I discovered my love of kayaking, running, and the ocean. I took my first big trip out of the country in 2008, and I spent 2 weeks in the south island of New Zealand. I did daily hikes, I snorkeled, I kayaked across the Marlborough Sound, and as I stood upon a mountain top I heard a thunderous avalanche on a neighboring mountain. I remember when I told people about my trip they said, “That isn’t a vacation!” No, I didn’t relax in the normal sense of the word; however, I was energized and reignited by nature. She lit my internal fire like I was a wood burning stove.

I remember one particularly harder hike I did. My leg muscles were tired, and I was clawing at rocks to pull myself up to the summit. When I made it to the top, I found myself alone up there gazing out over Mueller Glacier. I felt overwhelmed with joy, awe and gratefulness. My eyes teared up, and it was as if nature was standing in front of me naked, raw, and powerful. It was that trip that forever secured my love for nature and traveling.

Later that year I became a runner. That is when my relationship with nature grew even deeper. Running in nature makes me feel wild; I am one of the dandelions that grows freely. I feel like with each stride I step more into myself. Nature sees me for who I am, and there is no judgment. When I am on a run, there are no pretenses. I am in my purest, most honest form. Nature reciprocates that. Nature never pretends to be something she isn’t; she is unapologetically herself. Within nature’s vulnerability, I am able to be vulnerable. Nature is a safe place to be exactly who I am.

Committed

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(October 4th, 2008 before my first 5K race)

I was reminded on New Year’s Eve what it was like to be a new runner again. I was huddled around the Running Room store in Victoria, B.C. with fellow runners, and one dog, waiting for the fun run to begin. I was gently stretching my legs when a woman appeared next to me. She smiled and said, “You look like a runner who has been doing this awhile.” I took this as a compliment, and I smiled back. I told her I had been running for years. She said, “So can I ask you a question?” I nodded. She said, “This is my first run ever, and I don’t know how to put this bib on.” She had a nice Arc’teryx jacket, and she didn’t want to put safety pins through it. I gave her the rundown of other places to pin her bib. Also, since this was a fun run, and no timing chips were involved, the bib wasn’t really of importance. After talking about bib placement for a few minutes, she elaborated on one of her previous statements. “This is my first 5K. It is actually my first time running ever.” She paused. “I have a friend who has been a runner her whole life, and she is the one who talked me into running. She says she loves it.”

It was this statement that made me want to write this blog. I am not sure what it is about us runners where we try to share the joy of running with others. It is like we discovered this treasure buried in the backyard and we are holding it between our cupped hands, wide-eyed showing anyone who will look. But I think sometimes we don’t give enough disclaimers.

I told this woman who was about to embark on her first running journey that when I started running 9 years ago, I actually did not enjoy it; I didn’t love it. The only reason I stuck with it in the first several months was because I was stubborn and goal-oriented. I wanted her to know that she may not enjoy this run and that was okay.

It also started to make me think about other comments people have said to me. Countless numbers of people have told me, “I just can’t do what you do. I am not a runner.” I am not sure what non-running people think. Do they think I just woke up one day and had the ability to go for a 13-mile jaunt?  The way I become a runner was to just start and go for a run. It wasn’t a secret society I was initiated into. The only requirements were to step out the front door and go.

My whole life I was not a runner either. I had always been athletic. I grew up playing softball, baseball, and basketball. I even used to race my dad in the 100 meter dash in the street in front of our house, but I never ran over a ½ mile just for the sake of running. I even remember the first time I ran a mile, which was in college for my softball team, and I walked more than half of it. Needless to say, I was acquainted with the “I am not a runner” mindset.

In July 2008, I decided I was going to be a runner. Several things played into this decision. First, I had quit smoking on September 11th, 2007, and once I knew I had that addiction under control, I wanted to continue to make better choices. Second, I was nearing my 30th birthday. While I was in good shape, I never really worked out. I realized I wanted my body conditioned and healthy for years to come, so I needed to decide how I was going to do this. I love being outdoors, so I knew I didn’t want to work out in a gym. I thought running was the right way for me to exercise my body. Once that decision was made, I picked out my first race, which was a 5K for the Susan G. Komen Foundation in Nashville, TN. I knew if I had a race set and a goal in mind that would push me to train and stick with running.

I trained for 3 months for my 5K. There was no other way to describe it except horribly satisfying. Once again, I found myself not being able to run a ½ mile. It hurt. My legs, my lungs, and my body revolted against my grand idea of being a runner. They made their objections known through pain. But as I mentioned, I am stubborn and goal-oriented. I made a commitment to complete a 5K and that was it.

So every time I ran, I continued to push myself. Even if I could only go one step farther than the previous run, that was one step farther. It took almost a month before I could run my first mile without stopping to walk. I already mentioned I was stubborn and goal-oriented, but I also didn’t like taking the easy route. On my runs, I found the hardest routes possible.

By my house was a massive hill, and I incorporated it into my running route. I hated that fucking hill, and I hated myself for choosing to make it part of my running route. But one day, as my muscles burned and sweat sat at my hairline and fell like rain droplets, I crested the hill. I actually cried. It took me weeks to conquer this hill; it took me weeks to conquer running a mile. It took pain and uncomfortableness. It took perseverance and appreciating a small accomplishment. And I kept building on it.

After that first month, I improved quickly. It was like I broke through a self-imposed barrier. As the saying goes, “It doesn’t get easier, you just get stronger.” I was nervous as my race day approached. I didn’t know what I would be capable of in the race. In my training, I made it to 3 miles of running, and I continued to run hills. So I knew I prepared myself as much as I could, but still there was the unknown.

On the day of the race, I had no idea what to expect. I had no idea what my pace would be, if I would be able to run the whole 5K (which is 3.11 miles), and I didn’t know if I would be able to handle the hills and the bridge crossing. But I was all in. I was committed to this endeavor like a nun to God. I put my faith in my training and prayed for the best.

I was so worried about not being able to complete the race that I ran conservatively. At this point, I didn’t own a GPS watch, I never bothered to check the race map, and I never saw any mile markers on the course. While I felt strong through the whole race, I just kept waiting for the moment where my body wouldn’t want to continue. So I put one foot in front of the other just cautiously waiting.

I also found out how energizing a race could be. Up until this point, I always ran alone. This was the first time my running intersected with other people. There was camaraderie among the runners, and cheering and cowbell ringing from the onlookers. The hills I was concerned about were welcomed reprieves from the straightaway streets. I was also able to see downtown Nashville from a new perspective.

I still remember this so clearly, but I turned right onto Broadway Street, which was one of the main streets of downtown that was lined with Honky Tonks and restaurants, and I saw the finish line a few blocks ahead. I was in shock. When I could see how close I was to being finished, I realized I had energy reserves. I broke out in a quick sprint for the finish. (That first race was the first and only time I had any energy left to spare at the end).

I am not sure what made me stick with running in those first few months because I ran off sheer will. I suppose I secretly loved the screaming of aching muscles. I loved every new accomplishment. I loved being outside in nature. Then, I had my first runner’s high. It took 4 months and I was in the middle of training for a 10K (6.22 miles) race. I was struggling along on my longest run yet, 5 miles, and then I felt it. It was just this sense of joy that pulsated from every cell through my skin. Every strike of my foot on the greenway made me smile. My senses intensified. The birds chirped in a deep conversation. The sun seemed to grow brighter. I could hear the small river loudly coursing over rocks and pebbles. I shut my eyes for a few seconds just to absorb all the sensations. Then moments later, it dropped away like the sun setting behind the horizon. But, the feeling could not be forgotten.

In that brief moment, I went from just running because I made a commitment to do so to running because I enjoyed it.

Thrill

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While I am friendly, outgoing and boisterous at times, I would definitely fall into the category of an introvert. I recharge by spending time alone and spending time in nature, but I also feel this deep connection to humanity. One of the reasons I love traveling is because I get to talk to all different types of people. Whether I am on an airplane, sitting at a bar, or running a race, I always connect with strangers.

Maybe this is the thrill people get from having a one-night stand. I have had people recommend one night stands to me as if they were casually suggesting their favorite Starbuck’s drink. “You should just totally pick the cute guy at the end of the bar and go home with him; he keeps smiling at you. Oh and by the way have you tried the new Starbuck’s Blonde Espresso?” The idea absolutely frightens me, and I never could understand the joy of having sex with someone I didn’t know. Yet, no one could ever explain the “thrilling” feeling to me either.

However, I think I understand. I think I might understand what people were trying to express. But instead of sexually connecting with a complete stranger for one evening, I enjoy intellectually and emotionally connecting with a complete stranger.

I just finished reading Brene Brown’s newest book “Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone,” and I just returned from a recent trip to Victoria, B.C., Canada; the combination of these two things got me to think about how divisive our world has become, but how much I enjoyed connecting and sharing with people. How in fleeting moments, I just see another human for who they are, and they see me for who I am. This has really helped to shape me and my beliefs. I give most people the benefit of the doubt because I know we all have a story because I have heard those stories, and I have shared my stories.

One evening while I was in Canada, I was walking back the 1.3 km (.80 miles) to my hotel from a lounge, and I saw a homeless man in a wheelchair who appeared to have had suffered a stroke. He was in his 60’s, he was covered in a blanket, and he was slowly pushing his wheelchair backwards with his right leg: his only fully functioning leg. The streets were scattered with people. Several people passed this man in his wheelchair, and I was about to be one of those people as well until I heard him say, “Excuse me.” His speech still reflected the effects of his stroke. I stopped walking and answered him. He said, “Would you push me?”

I was surprised by his request, and it really affected me. It affected me because I thought this man has a lot of courage. See, that is one of my weaknesses: asking for help and relying on others. I saw his vulnerability as beautiful. Not vulnerable as in weak or needy, but vulnerable as in open and admitting that he could use some help to get to where he was going. That concept really is foreign to me.

So I answered, “Yes.” After pushing him for several blocks, he reached into his pocket for his cigarettes. He pulled out two and offered me one. I declined, but I thought it was a kind gesture considering this gentleman didn’t have a lot to offer, but what he did have he was willing to share.

As we continued this walk together, I became emotional. Just sharing in a vulnerable moment with a complete stranger was powerful. When we were close to my hotel, I bid the gentleman farewell. He asked if I had any money to spare, and I gladly shared the 5 Canadian dollars I had with him, and I wished him a good evening.

Time and time again I have these moments with complete strangers that make me feel like I truly understand life and human connection. It is seeing soul to soul. It makes me want to know, to learn and to see more people; it makes me want to be seen.

In 2015 right before Christmas, a year after I lost both of my parents to cancer, I decided to take a trip to the Ashram in the Bahamas. On the flight back home, I was seated next to a young Jamaican man. When he sat down, he smiled at me and I mirrored his infectious smile. As the flight was taking off, he began to make small talk with me. Within 15 minutes of the flight taking off, we had delved into deep, heart connecting conversations.

I found out he was on his way to Atlanta to move in with sister and begin college. He was 22 years old and had lived in the Bahamas his whole life. He said living in the Bahamas did not offer him a lot of opportunities. Two of his siblings had moved to Atlanta already, so he wanted to better himself as well and venture out. He admitted he was torn though because he was leaving behind two younger siblings. His mother had just passed away from breast cancer. She was the glue of the family. She was the nurturer and comforter. His father was tougher and rougher around the edges. While his mom was open and loving, his dad was rigid and closed off. He said he never ever really connected with his father, and they fought often. He admitted he really missed his mother, and he didn’t want to leave his siblings behind in the Bahamas; however, he really needed this new opportunity to better himself and his life, and he needed space from his father.

Because of his vulnerability and open heart, I found myself sharing my story as well. I began to tell him about losing both of my parents to cancer within 6 months of each other. I opened up about my relationship with both of my parents as well. I shared the stories of love between my parents and I, but also the triangle of dysfunction that bonded us. I told him about the journey I was on to travel and see the world, and how I had started to call myself an adventurer-explorer.

I had felt so alone that year. The people I was closest to tried to be there for me, but unless someone has experienced a big loss, empathy can only go so far. Most of the time it wasn’t even empathy that people were offering, it was sympathy. Other people can’t live in the day to day pain, the hour to hour pain, or even the minute to minute pain that someone else experiences from a death of a loved one. Unfortunately there is no “break” from the pain of losing a loved one, especially when it is fresh. While everyone else returned to their lives, I was left holding the pain and loss in my cupped hands as it continued to overflow the rim of my fingers. I was left to process it on my own. Then to meet a young man who was a different race, a different gender, and from different country and background, and have him understand me like no one had in a year was a gift. He was a beautiful, youthful, sweet gift. I can only hope I offered him the same peace and comfort.

We shared in one another’s pain, in one another’s journey, and we saw each other for who we were in that moment. There were no barriers, no masks, no bullshit. There were two human beings opening their hearts to one another. The conversation flowed and moved with ease like a sweet lullaby sung to a baby. For 2 hours and 15 minutes, it felt like we were the only two people on the plane. When we landed, we wished each other luck, encouragement and condolences. I felt my heart welling up with good will for a human I had only known for 135 minutes.

All I wished for this young man was peace, hope, and a bright future.