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.

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.