Consent

consent pic

I have been complacent. It might even be more accurate to say I have the benefit of being complacent, but it is starting to feel like downright negligence.

I don’t want to speak for other people or share others’ stories because they are not mine. What I want to do is be a witness and share my own stories I have seen and heard. My silence feels like consent, and the stories I am about to share I most certainly do not agree with which is why it is time they are shared. I can’t ignore or deny they have happened.

I was told from the time I was old enough to like boys and have crushes that I would not be allowed to bring a black man home.  If I dated a black man, I would be disowned. I never gave it much thought because when I was in junior high, my school didn’t have any black students, and there were zero black families in my section of the city even though I lived less than 20 minutes from Chicago. Once I reached high school, which I attended in a small Southern Tennessee town, I thought all high school boys were beneath me, I knew there was more to life than immature high school boys, and so I really didn’t date as much.

When I started 9th grade at South Junior High School in Cowan, TN, I was met by the white unwelcoming committee. Within the first week of school, I had a band of five white male classmates inform me they were staging a walk-out because our school was not segregated, and they didn’t want black students there. (I would love to say that I was in junior high 50 years ago but unfortunately this incident happened in 1993). They wanted to know if I was in. I declined.

Less than a few weeks later, I found myself cornered in the girls’ locker room by Jill, Carrie and Mandy. This white girl trio decided they wanted to gang up on me and pick a fight. I did nothing to instigate this, yet I was forced to deal with it. Before things fully escalated, two other girls, Jessica and Tasha, came over and intercepted the unwelcoming committee.

Jessica calmly exclaimed, “Leave her alone! She didn’t do shit to you!” as Tasha silently stood next to her in support.

The three girls just wandered off back to their gym lockers throwing glances at me over their shoulders.

Jessica and Tasha just happened to be black. After that moment, Jessica also invited me to eat lunch at her table. I happily sat at the “black” table because the races did eat at separate tables for the most part. It felt nice to be accepted and not be on guard every moment of the day. I spent my lunch times laughing and joking, talking about our similar tastes in music, and also answering a lot of questions about where I came from. However, this kind gesture by Jessica brought more scrutiny upon me. There were whispers around school that I was a “N” lover. I became labeled and branded. What pissed me off the most wasn’t even being labeled, it was that the same white people who discarded me and threatened me felt like they had the right to judge who I associated with.

High school showed me how much racism and judgment was still alive. It was hot and rampant like a fire through a dry thicket. I even had a friend in high school whose dad was in prison for murdering a black man because he happened to be black in the wrong place.

My ignorance and refusal to fully see this entire picture hit an apex my senior year of high school. Even reflecting on this event affects me on a deeper level today. I had three friends: Eric, Jonathan and Jonathon. Jonathan with an “a” was black, and the rest of us were white. Eric worked at a pizza joint up on the “mountain” in Monteagle. After school one day, the “Jons” and I were riding around town together listening to music and hanging out. I had the great idea to go visit Eric at work. In the past, I had surprised and harassed him at his work and also enjoyed his cheesy craft. I started to convince the “Jons” of my great idea. Jonathan with no hesitation refused to go. I had no idea why. (I only lived in this area for a few years, so I wasn’t as aware of the unwritten rules and threats that were a part of the town history). I continued to try to convince him unaware of the reason why.

Finally Jonathan said, “Black people aren’t allowed in Monteagle.”

This response made zero sense to me.

I replied, “What? What do you mean black people aren’t allowed in Monteagle?”

He repeated, “Black people aren’t allowed in Monteagle. We know not to go up there. We will be killed.”

I really could not understand this. Surely that could not happen. That wasn’t legal!

I found myself getting riled up, “Fuck those redneck assholes! You will be with me. I don’t give a shit what they think.”

I suppose my outrage and dismissal of the unwritten rules seemed valiant at the time, but in reflection, what Jonathan was saying was something I could not fully understand. Monteagle was the city where my friend’s father murdered a black man. No black people lived in Monteagle, but more accurately, no black people were allowed to live up there. There were city lines that were not allowed to be crossed. While I was unafraid to confront this hatred head on, I had nothing to lose, and I was quite naive; it wasn’t my life on the line or my life to lose. While my 17-year-old intentions were good, to think I could stop hundreds of years of racism by dragging my black friend to a pizza place was misguided and dangerous.

The most difficult examples for me to write about are the familial ones. Before I have even committed these words to paper, I feel shame pulsing through my body. But if I can’t admit these were things I was told, then there is no way to absolve them. White people claim racism is dead, and black people can’t let go of the past, but it is hard to let go of a past that is still our present and our future.

I was often told black people were lazy, black people were taking jobs from white people, and not only were black people taking jobs from white people but they didn’t deserve these jobs. My family referred to black people as animals and more specifically monkeys. They laughed at the cartoons drawn of Michelle Obama being portrayed as a monkey. When politics came up in our family, I was always chastised. I never hesitated voting for Barack Obama; he was the best candidate who represented my beliefs. Several of my family members whose political beliefs were middle of the road, but leaned more towards the Democratic side, refused to vote for a black man even though in the previous elections these family members had voted for Bill Clinton, Al Gore and John Kerry. I suppose it was easier to be a Democrat when older white men were the face of the party.

At family gatherings, which usually only happened a few times a year, I found myself constantly being defensive and appalled. We never had one family gathering where other races were not brought up. Like most other families on Thanksgiving, we watched all three NFL football games, and our days were filled with food, football, and family. Like clockwork, my family began talking in their idea of a stereotypical black voice when a black player scored a touchdown, and they strutted around the coffee table mocking the black players. They made fun of the way the black players looked focusing on their noses, gums, teeth and skin color. If any white player made a catch or had a tackle, it had to be noted that the player was white. This always devolved into how there aren’t enough white players in the NFL.

For years, I just quietly sat listening to this around me. Never agreeing and never participating, but privately seething and disgusted. As I became older and found my voice, I began to ask my family to not talk this way around me. I told them I was offended, and I told them it bothered me. I knew I couldn’t change their way of thinking, but I hoped they could respect me enough to not do it in front of me especially since we only saw each other two times a year. My family decided to not respect me or my beliefs, and they most certainly didn’t respect black people.

I had a choice at this point. I tried to be silent, but it made me feel compliant. I tried to speak my truth over and over again, and I was dismissed. The only thing I had left was to boycott Thanksgiving, and I did. I decided to go to another friend’s house and celebrate Thanksgiving with her, her family and her in-laws. My family was outraged, but I felt I was left no choice.

It would make this all a lot easier if my family was an outlier. I wish I could say my family was the only racist family, but I know it’s not true. That’s what makes this issue so prevalent. What is even sadder and maybe the biggest problem of all is my family didn’t think they were being racist.

Racism and the killing of black people at the hands of white people is a real problem. White ego and fear is still taking precedence over black injustices and murder. It has not only been this hellish week, but for as long as I have noticed that racism was still a problem in our “free and equal” country of the United States, and I can’t be quiet. I can’t idly sit waiting for old systems to change.

One way I have tried to make change is through teaching. I have taught at the college and high school levels for over 11 years. It has always been a part of my teaching curriculum to introduce multi-cultural literature. It is not right for me to speak on another race’s or another ethnicity’s behalf, but I can use literature to help facilitate discussions. In my classes, I have relied on many different short stories, essays, and novels. The ones that seem to stir up the most discussions, feelings, and outrage are Brent Staples’ essay, “Black Men and Public Space,” Peggy McIntosh’s essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” and the novel “A Lesson Before Dying” by Ernest Gaines.

I want to talk about these pieces of literature in my classroom and the discussions they provoke because I continue to see the resistance of recognizing the injustices black people face. I will say more than 75% of the students are open to reading these pieces of literature. They are thoughtful, concerned, and open-minded; however, that doesn’t represent the other 25% of the students. The other 25% of students bubble up with anger.

They make exclamations of, “Racism is dead,” “I am tired of hearing about this,” and “Black people need to get over it.”

I watch students shut down as soon as the word race is mentioned, putting up walls and defenses. I have watched students try to dismantle the words on the pages I make them read. I have had students lash out in essays I made them write. I hear stories of how they too have encountered hardships, but they have overcome them; all it takes is hard work. As if all black people need to do is stop complaining and work harder. There is no recognition of deep, systematic problems in our education, healthcare, law enforcement and prison system, nutrition, housing, and many more. It goes beyond not wanting to recognize it; it is the refusal of wanting to learn about it and becoming educated on how our country is set up. Systems are in place to keep the white status quo.

I bring this point up because I see the same issues of racism still being bred in our youth. I see this problem; I hear this problem. I can’t pretend racism doesn’t exist because I hear white students still perpetuating it and supporting it even if it is unknowingly. However, not knowing is not an excuse and doesn’t mean racism just disappears because of the refusal to see it.

With every unjustified black person’s death that happens, I feel more helpless. Knowing that I feel helpless to change rigged systems that keep black people from achieving the same things that I can more easily as a white woman is overwhelming. But that’s exactly it; I get that luxury to hide away. I can tune out the world and forget for a time that racism is happening because I don’t have to deal with it personally. It is not that I don’t care because I do, but it feels daunting.

Black people keep speaking about their injustices, yet some white people still want to deny it. I think it is important to support others who face injustices that are talking to deaf ears especially when they are right. That is what I am trying to do: listen and support. I have been thoughtfully thinking about how I want to personally address this issue of racism and police brutality that plagues America. I feel I have the most power with my written words.

I have begun writing to my state’s representatives. I don’t feel I can make changes without the people who represent my county and state. I want my representatives to know the issues that matter to me. I want my representatives to know that real change needs to happen. I want my representatives to know that black lives matter to me.

I have wanted to write this blog as well, but I have been avoiding it. It hurts me and makes me feel shame to admit that white people behave like this. But my hurt and shame is nothing in comparison to the senseless loss of black lives of my fellow Americans who have the right to same things I do. My whole purpose in writing this blog is recognition: recognition that racism is not dead. Equality and equity are catchphrases with no real substance. I wanted to share these stories that make me feel shame because I disagree with the white people who want to pretend that racism doesn’t exist. I disagree with the white people who promote, share, and teach racism. I just want the white people who refuse to acknowledge racism and the systems in place to keep the white status quo to know that I don’t agree with them; I do not consent. I also wanted to encourage others who do want and wish for change to find their own ways of doing so.

This shouldn’t just be a “black problem;” this is an “American problem.”

The Gentoos

The zodiac boat pushed through thick slush and ice chunks as we made our way through the Antarctic Ocean. The air was crisp and silent except for the ice crackling and snapping against the rubber boat as we got closer to the shore. The landscape was covered in white with gray rocks peeking out from under the innocent blanket of snow. The only footprints seen were the “penguin highways.” These were trails penguins made from walking them so much. They essentially create their own highways to totter in single file lines on.

The black tuxedos of the Gentoo penguins stood out against the white snowy backdrop. Some penguins appeared dead; they were draped across the snow on their bellies unmoving. They were actually molting, and during that time, they fast and conserve all their energy. Some groomed themselves with their bills in the shallow waters and on the shore. Others were slowly meandering about with their flippers pulled back behind them and their chests puffed out.  The quickest moving penguins were in the water looking like miniature porpoises as they dove under water and broke the surface in rhythmic arches.

I sat on the edge of the boat barely blinking. The cold air made my eyes water making it seem even more dream-like and mystical. When we arrived to shore, the handful of people I rode on the zodiac with decided to hike to the highest peak on land. I stayed behind wanting to experience the penguins by myself. I didn’t want to intrude, so I found a comfy rock at a safe distance away from the colony of penguins. I was close enough to see the water shimmering off their feathers, but far enough away to not let my presence impact them.

I watched this penguin playground for almost 20 minutes when one penguin walked over to me and stopped five feet away. I froze paralyzed with joy. My mouth fell open slightly like an ajar door, as a smile cracked through on my lips. The only other time I caught a glimpse of a penguin was when I was kayaking in New Zealand, and the Korora penguin zipped through the Marlborough Sound waters past my boat.  Now, I was face to face with a wild penguin as I sat on the shores of Antarctica. I took in every detail of this Gentoo as he invited me into his world.

I always imagined penguins to be smooth like black onyx, but I was wrong. This Gentoo was fluffy. I watched him run his bright orange bill, outlined in black, all across the damp feathers on his body. He stood just over two feet tall balanced on two orange webbed feet with black claws. His ankles were wrinkled liked sagged, aging skin. The white feathers above his eyes looked like a maniacal unibrow, and he had a tuft of longer black feathers sprouting out for a tail.

I took a few pictures and made a quick video, and then I sat with the penguin one on one. I wanted to be fully present in this moment with nothing between us but a few feet of distance and air. I became absorbed in the moment. I felt the air surrounding me like a cool cocoon; my arm hair rose with excitement; a smile etched on my face. I felt a surge of gratitude hit like a rogue wave. I couldn’t believe I was being allowed to have this experience. My eyes reacted to this rush of emotion, and I felt tears dripping like salt water off the penguin’s back.

Every second was a revelation, and in that moment I felt what mattered.

Finding Home (Part Four)

Astoria(Home: Astoria, Oregon)

It hasn’t been uncommon throughout my life for me to doubt myself. My insides will be screaming with wants and needs, pulling on the shirttails of my heart. Yet I ignore the inner pangs and internal beggings wanting me to listen. Listen to what I really want, to what my soul wants, and to listen to my own destiny. For so long, I stuffed down those longings like cramming clothes in a dirty hamper. And old habits tend to cling; they burrow their claws deep, grasping to keep hold.

Even after procuring my apartment in Oregon, I still knew I could withdraw my offer and not move. I don’t think I really thought of that as an option, but I also couldn’t believe I was going to pack up my life, leave my boyfriend, and drive almost 1,400 miles to Oregon with just me, my dog, my Subaru and a small U-Haul in tow. I now had two weeks to follow through on one of the biggest decisions of my life.

I had decided not to tell my boyfriend of my plans. He later would call me a coward, but at the time I saw it more as protection. A person can only share so much of herself, and not be received, understood or loved, before she closes off. I was officially closed like a door tucked tightly in its frame. I didn’t want to have any more discussions. I didn’t want to share my plans, my dreams, or the next stage of my life. I felt like a mother protecting her young.

I secured a U-Haul for 10 am on October 19th. I spent the next two weeks going through “our” stuff, “my” stuff, just accumulations of stuff. I decided to leave almost everything behind. Most things felt tainted or infected. So I took time to organize those items I did want. I met with the two friends I had made while living in Colorado, one was a previous student and one was a fellow teacher, and I told them of my plans and said my good-byes.

The doubts that had been lingering like storm clouds continued to drift away. My boyfriend had progressively grown reticent. He continued to lie and hide truths from me. He continued to spend his time wrapped in his own personal world. Even if I didn’t have every inch of my body and soul telling me Oregon was where I needed to be on my own, our relationship had run its course regardless. So I kept my focus on what I knew was right for me.

October 19th arrived, and my boyfriend left for work. It was strange saying good-bye to someone I had spent almost two years with knowing I would never see him again. But I was saying good-bye to my whole past, to an outdated way of being. I had found the perfect spot in Astoria, Oregon surrounded by forests, trails, rivers, the Pacific Ocean, artists, community, and a sense of belonging. It was the place I needed to develop my relationship with self.

As soon as my boyfriend left, I went to pick up my 4×8 U-Haul trailer.  I arrived back home and nervously loaded my Subaru. The passenger seat was flooded with my loose clothes on hangers. The backseat was set up for the dog: a pillow, a blanket, and toys; I also had my peace lily plant named Baps. I was given this peace lily at my mom’s memorial service. I named her Baps after my mom’s initials (Beverly Ann Passero). Baps had moved from Tennessee to Colorado with me, and she was now about to join me on the next journey of my life. Boxes of my books and shoes filled the rest of the car. My kayak was loaded on top of my car. The U-Haul had my bike, more clothes and shoes, artwork, more boxes of books, outdoor gear, and a few memories from the past.

Before I drove away, I sat in my car. I looked in my rearview mirror as the U-Haul tagged along. My heart palpitated like rocks skipping over a lake’s surface. I felt the ripples through my body as I drove away.

I have been in Oregon for almost 4 years now. I am still in Astoria in my same purple Victorian home. I continue to gaze at the beauty of the Columbia River. The tree-lined shore of Washington State greets me every morning as I pull the shades up. As I get into my car, I gaze at my license plate and see “Oregon” on the front plate with the row of Douglas-firs. I am still filled with awe and elation to realize I am here. That license plate is a symbol of answered dreams and a followed destiny. I waited 37 years to feel at home within myself and within a place. Any concerns I may have had about never being able to feel content or whole have subsided.

The daily gratitude I feel to be where I belong has not faded but grown with time.

me hiking

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(Garden of the Gods, Colorado Springs, CO)

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.

Fear. Sea. Surf. (Part I).

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I didn’t learn to swim until I was 12 years old. My mom never learned to swim, and I could even go as far as to say she was traumatized from her water experiences. It was so bad that my mom even wore a life jacket in a pool that was 4 feet deep; she was 5’ 4”. Since my mom was so afraid, she never let me near the water because she knew she wouldn’t be able to save me or help me if something happened. So the easiest thing for her was avoidance which unwillingly trickled down to me.

So finally when I was 12 years old, I was able to take swimming lessons at the YMCA for a few months. I made it as far as becoming a “guppy” according to the YMCA standards. According to my standards, I was skilled enough to not drown. Since I had such a late start learning to swim, the water felt as familiar to me as walking on the moon would. Mixed with that, my parents didn’t take me to the pool, the lake, or the ocean to swim. The only time I was ever close to the water was when I was fishing with my dad.

I mentioned in a previous blog post that I have always been obsessed with bears, sharks, and moose. Ever since I was a little kid, I loved reading about the ocean and sharks. I think a lot of people have similar stories, but I remember seeing the movie Jaws when I was 9 years old, and I was making Easter eggs with my dad. For one, I was way too young to see the movie, and two I don’t think turning a majestic animal into a horror movie was the best idea. That movie changed the view of sharks for decades. The ripple effect of fear and distaste for sharks is still felt today. I was one of the many people who feared sharks, but I also knew sharks weren’t “killing” machines.

As I said, I was obsessed with sharks. When I was a child and my mom and I went to the Brookfield Zoo, I would always get something from the gift shop. I remember when I bought this set of ocean animal information cards. Each card had a picture of an ocean animal with detailed facts about the animal on it. I loved looking over and rereading the cards. It had everything from Great White Sharks to Hammerhead Sharks to Moray Eels to Polka Dot Groupers.

My parents also bought the full set of Encyclopedia Britannica which I read all the time. My favorite subject was the ocean and sharks; it was a whole other world. I would stare at pictures of the Anglerfish and the Viperfish and just be in awe that these creatures existed in the deep depths of the ocean. I also read every shark entry I could find. Even though I was informed about sharks, I still feared them. However, I feared them because they were so large and graceful and moved through the water with ease. They had perfected their craft of hunting marine mammals and fish, then mix in their blade like teeth that cut with surgeon precision; I respected them immensely. Sharks were all the things I wish I was. They just existed with ease, grace, beauty and this absolute comfortableness in the water. I feared their power; I feared the respect they commanded.

Then there is the ocean itself. I recognized the specialness of the ocean from the first time she spoke to me, and I laid eyes on her when I was 16 years old. The power and the vastness of the ocean is breathtaking. It is hard to not be hypnotized by the waves as they start to develop then casually, yet forcefully, roll towards the beach. The sound of a wave breaking makes me take a deep breath and inhale the salty air.

I really do have this entangled mix of fear, awe and respect for the ocean. Just as the waves well up, my emotions always do too when I am in the presence of the ocean. However, I always enjoyed the ocean from the safety of the beach. When I would venture in, I would linger around the water that was waist-deep. Friends would try to lure me out further, but I always stayed where I was comfortable. Now pair my swimming experience with my fear, but fear based solely on respect of the ocean and its inhabitants, and this made for a strained relationship

Throughout the years I tried to push my comfortability level though because I don’t like to have my life dictated by fear. So in 2004, I went on a cruise to Mexico with my mom, and I did go snorkeling in the ocean, even if I stuck close to shore and other humans (more potential choices for the sharks).

In 2008, I went to the south island of New Zealand for 2 weeks. Once again, I went snorkeling, but this time with seals. I may have clung to a lifebuoy for 90 minutes straight that floated on the ocean surface and frantically jerked my head in all different directions, praying that the 90 minutes of snorkeling would hurry up and end, but I did get in the ocean, with the sharks favorite meal, in about 30 feet of water.

In 2012, I decided to challenge myself in a new way. I had been a runner for 4 years at that point, and I cycled once a week for cross-training. I thought, “Why not do a triathlon?” I was very selective on which triathlon I was going to do. I picked a sprint triathlon that was 8 months away. The sprint triathlon was the shortest triathlon distance I could do. I also made sure the swim portion was in a pool because I wasn’t quite ready to venture into a longer lake swim (at this point I lived in Middle Tennessee so the only options for the swimming portion were a pool or a lake). The swimming portion was 200 yards, the cycling portion was 14 miles, and the running portion was a 5K (3.11 miles). The format worked to my strengths as well. I was a weaker swimmer, so it was nice to get that out of the way first. I knew I was a strong runner, and I had no problem running exhausted and tired, so having the triathlon end with the 5K run was a confidence booster for me.

Training and participating in this triathlon was a huge feat for me. I didn’t even enjoy swimming in pools in the summer time. I would always quickly dip in then just cozy up in the chaise lounge and read a book. Now I was spending two days a week building up my swimming strength in a local indoor pool.

When race day came, I was super nervous about the swimming portion. At this point, I still wasn’t overly confident in the water. I ended up lining up towards the end of the swim line because my time didn’t officially start until I jumped in the water. When I hit the water, I started off as I had practiced so many times. I freestyle swam with my face in the water, and every other stroke I tilted my head to take a breath. However, this only lasted for one length of the pool. My semi-formal swimming form quickly melded into something that resembled a lame otter. My head stayed poked above the water line, my feet flutter kicked, and my arms most closely resembled the breaststroke: a very loose interpretation of the breaststroke. I remember my dad walking the lengths of the pool yelling encouragement as I attempted to swim. (Later he told me I looked so awkward and slow and he felt bad for me, but he was proud of me for even doing it).

Honestly, I was proud of myself. There were only two other people who had a slower swim time than me, but I did it. Every time I swam in the pool I was uncomfortable, but I continued to push myself. I successfully completed a triathlon that I never imagined I would have even attempted.

In 2016, I went to Hawaii, more specifically Maui, which is where Tiger Sharks love to hang out because it has a protected ocean shelf. I have to say it is pretty hard to go to Maui and not get in the ocean though because it was like a warm, inviting hug. I did find myself in the water up to my shoulders as I playfully ducked in and out of the waves. Swimming in the ocean and turning back towards the shore to see the mountain peaks wearing the clouds like a halo was a treat. Once again, I even went snorkeling. This time I spent more time engaging with the fish and turtles instead of panicking about the possibility of a shark encounter. Now, I wasn’t totally reformed because I did still have a few moments of fear, but I was able to smile and take in the underwater scenes.

In 2011, I made a promise to myself that if I ever moved to Oregon, I would learn to surf on the Oregon Coast. At that time, Oregon felt so far from my grasp that it felt like an easy, empty promise to make, and considering it took over 5 years for my move to Oregon to happen that promise drifted from my mind like a rogue cloud.

That is until July 8th of this year.

The Last Frontier

PinkHueMy flight landed at 11:24 p.m. on Thursday (June 15th) in Anchorage. The sun was setting, yet it was still daylight, or otherwise known as civil twilight, and the snow-peaked mountains glowed with a pink hue. I had arrived to run my 25th half-marathon in my 19th state.

I was tired after my flight, but the moment I was driving in my rental car, in the daylight, I re-awoke. I felt like I could have went out for a night on the town. When I arrived at the hotel close to 1 a.m., it seemed the other guests in the hotel lobby felt the same way. Alaska was like the casino that pumps oxygen in to keep the gamblers lively and awake unaware of the hours that have passed them by, except Alaska was pumping its visitors full of light essentially creating the same effect.

That night, well early that morning, I finally lay down at 1:30 a.m. I saw the light nosily pushing its way in on the sides of the metal blinds. But I was able to roll over and ignore the intrusion…for 4 ½ hours.

Then, I found myself wide awake at 6 a.m. I continued to turn back and forth in the queen-size bed forcing my eyes shut because I was tired, but the light did not relent. In fact, it was encouraged, so I conceded.

My three main goals for this new day, that never really ended or started but just sort of continued, were try this vegan, but still served meat, restaurant named Middle Way Café, get my race packet at the Alaska Airlines Center and go on an epic run.

I am happy to say I loved Middle Way Café. In fact, I have eaten breakfast there three times now. I am already a vegetarian, who still eats eggs and fish, but my doctor informed me I had a milk intolerance. So now I am essentially a vegan, who still eats eggs and fish. While there is no “category” for me, I guess if I haveNe to classify myself I would say I am a disgruntled milk intolerant, no meat eatin’ gal who loves farm fresh eggs and fresh fish. So my vegan breakfast burrito, with an egg added, was actually amazing, even though it was cheese free.

Next, I headed to the AAC (Alaska Airlines Center) to go to the race expo and pick up my race packet. Outside the AAC was a very large green blow-up seawolf head, which is the mascot for the University of Alaska Anchorage. In case you are wondering if you missed some new hybrid species of animal, you did not. The seawolf is a mythical creature that is part of the Alaskan culture. It is strong, generous and humble. I thought this seawolf was the perfect creature to embody for my race on Saturday. After watching a large group of exuberant runners take their picture with the large green blow-up seawolf head, I walked inside and briefly perused the expo and received my race bib as well.

The day was shaping up to be beautiful and productive. It was right at 60 degrees with clear skies and sunshine. I ended up asking a local runner, and worker, at Skinny Raven Sports where there were some non-road running paths. She was awesome, and told me 3 different areas to run, but she also warned me about black bears. Apparently they were quite active this time of year and of course Alaska was bear country. I heeded her warning and decided to run on a popular bike trail that followed the coast named Tony Knowles Coastal Trail.

There were many places to pick up this trail, and I decided to begin my run at Point Woronzof Park and run towards Kincaid Park. Before I headed out on my run, I decided to Google what I should do if I should happen to encounter a black bear, and a moose for that matter. I have been obsessed with bears since I was a young child, so I already knew black bears were more shy and timid, but they are wild creatures and deserve respect as all animals do. In case I did encounter a bear, I was supposed to walk away from the bear without turning my back, make my presence known by calmly speaking to the bear and slowly wave my arms in the air. The one cardinal rule was never run from a black bear because it may trigger the bear’s chase instinct. This all seemed simple enough. Basically if I encountered a moose, I should give it space, and if it decided to charge I should try to get behind a tree. If I didn’t make it to a tree and it decided to stomp me, then I should curl up into a ball and protect my neck.

So after reading what I should do in case I encountered the different Alaskan wildlife, I took a brief walk down the road and picked up the trail. The weather was warm, the trail was inviting and the trees felt like old friends. I instantly felt comfortable and my legs were energized. If running through the woods wasn’t an enough of a reward, the view of the coast would periodically show itself through a break in the trees.

I was the only runner on the trail, but there were a lot of cyclists and people leisurely strolling along with cameras and binoculars hanging from their necks. There were enough breaks in people though to where I was able to enjoy one-on-one time with the trail and the surroundings. I was only going to do a 3-mile run, but I didn’t want my run to end, so I thought a 4.50 mile run sounded better. I ran farther out, so I could also enjoy a nice walk back to my car to stop and sightsee a little more intently.

So when I was about 3.25 miles into my run I realized I hadn’t seen any other people in about 5 minutes. I was coming around a bend in the trail, and there ambling down the trail in front of me with his head down was a black bear. I instantly stopped running because I remembered the one cardinal rule of encountering a black bear: don’t run. I couldn’t believe this was happening.

I had so many emotions running through me. As I mentioned earlier, I have been obsessed with bears since I was a child. My parents had bought me an encyclopedia set (yes, pre-internet) when I was around 9 years old. I read and reread about all the different bears, moose and sharks and fish of the ocean. My mom and I would also go to the Brookfield Zoo in Illinois every weekend. I spent hours watching the bears sleep, feed, fight, and roughhouse. So needless to say, the first emotion I felt was awe. I thought, “Holy shit!” I started smiling in disbelieve, but it also started to register that a bear was walking towards me because my thoughts went from “Holy shit” to “Oh shit!”

I started to walk backwards slowly, but I realized the bear still had not seen me. He was walking towards me faster than I could walk backwards. I know black bears don’t like to be surprised and that is what can cause them to react to a human. So I thought I better let the bear know I was there, but let me tell you it goes against your instincts. So when I first tried to alert the bear of my presence, I apparently wasn’t speaking loud enough, and I may have been using my library voice, because he never looked up. I realized I was going to have to be louder, so I started my one-sided dialogue again while I slowly waved my arms in the air, “Mister Bear?!” I called out. (The bear continued to follow the trail towards me with his head down). Shit, he still didn’t hear me. I cleared my throat, “Mister Bear?!” (Damn, I hoped this wasn’t a female bear, and now I offended her because I confused her gender). The bear finally looked up and made eye contact with me as his ears pointed upwards. Great, I finally got his attention…now what. As I continued to wave my arms slowly I calmly said, “Mister Bear. Hey, um, I need you to get off the trail please. Okay?” He stopped walking and looked at me just for a second more, and then he veered off the trail into the woods.

It was at that point I realized my heart was pounding like a war drum. My palms were damp, and my jaw had dropped open. I stood astonished for a few moments feeling my blood surging through me. I thought I better wait a few moments before I started running again, so I turned around and started to walk back in the direction of my car. It was then I started smiling again. I just had a beautiful and safe interaction with an animal I had loved and respected my whole life. It was just him and me there on that trail. I felt so thankful. I could not believe Mother Nature gifted me this present.

It took about 5 minutes before I started running again, but my smile never left my face.