Hurry Up and Don’t Die: Life, Death and Lessons on Self Compassion & Forgiveness

MO 2005

MO 2005

I fell asleep at the wheel when I was 18 years old, shortly after graduating high school. Friends and I woke up at the wee hours of dawn to go to the Live 8 concert in Philadelphia. After an energetic 95 degree day focused on music and ending poverty, I drove friends home tired and dehydrated from the summer sun. After dropping off my last friend, I woke up at 12:15 AM with the caustic blast of an airbag flying into my face, quickly discovering that I ran into a telephone pole, splitting it in half, the upper portion now dangling from the telephone wire. I immediately called 911. Police came and asked if I had been drinking. “No. You can breathalyze me!” I called out, “I fell asleep!” “It’s just that this is a lot of damage for just having fallen asleep,” the officer retorted. As the ambulance came, I glanced heavenward in prayer, my soul in chaotic communion with God, and made a promise that I would live it right. Not take a breath for granted. I took my heart by the hand in firm grip. “You’re going to be passionate. Keep your complaints to a minimum. And above all, you’re going to take this life, love it, and love others,” I declared to myself, releasing my flexed, pointed finger and gritted teeth. I then proceed to cry, turning my fuming fingers into open palms, and slowly rested my tear-drenched face into them, learning a lesson on self-compassion and how absolutely compulsory it is.

MO 2005

MO 2005

I arrived at the hospital, where my dad met me bedside in an exam room. “I am so sooo sorry,” I apologized, leaning in for a hug. He reached back immediately. “I’m just glad you’re ok; I’m glad you’re ok.” The x-rays showed no broken bones, so with gauze and a pain prescription, I was sent on my way. “I’m sorry to wake you up, Dad. I’m really sorry for doing something so stupid.” “It’s ok; I’m glad you’re ok,” he persisted.
I fell asleep (in my bed this time) and woke up to a raw, scraped chin, fresh tender skin scattered among hardened scab. In the days to follow, I had loving support from friends and family. Two ten-year old girls that I coached came to my house with handmade cards that still hang in my room today. I remember telling them that I was afraid parents wouldn’t trust me driving their kids anymore as a babysitter. “Don’t worry, they’ll still trust you,” their little selves promised me. They gave me hugs and walked back to play at the neighborhood pool. A few days later, my name appeared in our local newspaper under police reports. Ashamed and embarrassed that the whole community could see my recklessness, I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of love I received. Family gingerly encouraged me to slow down. To stop doing so much; to simply do what I’m doing, confident that it’s more than enough. I listened. For a little while at least. But over the past 10 years, this experience developed an impulse to “hurry up” and “do more” because I learned that we aren’t guaranteed tomorrow, tonight, or the next hour. I didn’t realize the promise I vowed to myself—to never to live out of step with my values, to always live with passion and bring life into the world—would be a tall order, an impossibly high standard that turned into “I need to do and experience everything as quickly as possible so that I don’t waste time.” 

I overextended myself in too many activities the next few years, developed an anxiety and depression disorder, and shamed myself for living in this anxious state when I “should” be living it joyfully to the full. Through therapy and medication, I got much better, but was still lusting after experiencing everything.

This turned into cutting corners trying to breeze through seasons of pain, confusion, and suffering because hey, we could all die tomorrow, right? And if I might die tomorrow, I certainly don’t want to waste today in sadness. So rather than allowing myself to fully experience difficult “wilderness” seasons, I tried to skip that part altogether. But that’s not how growth works, turns out, and no one is exempt from sadness, anger, and pain just because they might die tomorrow. 

Sometimes I rushed through conversations so that I could talk to that person, only to rush through that conversation to talk to this person, in hopes of developing rich, meaningful relationships as quickly as possible, wanting to meet everyone on this planet that I possibly could, forgetting that people aren’t penciled in items on a to-do list; we’re chock full of emotions, stories, things to learn and teach each other, and these deep connections take time. And time never seems to be on your side when you’re living like you might die tomorrow. Life never seems long enough when you act like it stops the same minute as your heart, forgetting about all I’ve been taught about life after death. I guess I’m a little scared of it turning out to be fallacy, but I know in my darkest moments that I need this hope of heaven. 

The “do more, quicker” mentality caused me to live erratically rather than learning something about patience, about seasons, about the beauty that comes from living the questions, the uncertainties. It caused me to search for answers now, which has some perks to it, but often has downfalls of arriving at wrong conclusions in a harried attempt to maximize time. We can’t know how things will turn out. We don’t need to, either. As Rainer Maria Rilke once said,

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

I guess that’s it- that’s where I want to be right now. I want to live the questions, live the uncertainties, live the risks and searchings and yearnings. Live that now. The answers will come in their own timing. We have 24 hours a day and I can loathe that they aren’t enough or I can assert the fact that this is all we have, so enjoy them and be fully present.

The accident that I thought was supposed to teach me about “living life to the full,” I realize 10 years later was actually a lesson about grace, forgiveness, self compassion, to be gentle to myself and others. To learn that “living life to the full” is a fluid experience— sometimes it means pondering the Pleiades, tracing its outlines with your finger toward the sky, feeling the edges of each star from 50 million miles away. Other times it means identifying the thing you’re actually afraid of and conquering it. For me, that fear was wasting time. It meant reminding myself when I felt stuck as though getting nowhere, that I was indeed not wasting my life. It meant giving myself grace when I felt like a let-down, when I was working in a job I hated, stuck in a cycle of anxiety. And other times, living life to the full meant looking up at the sunset no matter the latitude or longitude, and finding it beautiful.

I’m also learning that although we’re not guaranteed tomorrow, there is such a thing as adulthood, and older adulthood, and retirement… so if my things aren’t crossed off my bucketlist by the time I’m 30, that’s ok; in fact that’s great-each of us might have a lifetime of adventures to look forward to, maybe, just maybe…

So may we live today like it could be our last and may we remember that we have a God who has a home for us even when that last day comes.

May we savor sweet conversation, taking our time through each word, hug, tender kiss.

May we realize that we will always want more time in the day, but even on our death bed, our time really hasn’t run out.

“I’ve told my children that when I die, to release balloons in the sky to celebrate that I graduated. For me, death is a graduation.” -Dr. Elisabeth Kubler Ross
One of the girls I coached, who gave me the angel figurine featured in this picture shortly after the accident.

One of the girls I coached, who gave me the angel figurine featured in this picture shortly after the accident. It still hangs in my room today. July 2005

On the 20-something Prescribed Narrative, Change, and Freedom

I arrived slightly disheveled, sweaty from an 8 hour bus ride from Philadelphia, feeling like I could cry at any moment, when I received one of the warmest welcomes in my entire life. One of those welcomes in which the person drops what’s in his/her hands, looks you straight in the eye, and says sincerely, “First, welcome. Welcome,” pausing in between the two “welcomes” to invite you to breathe a full inhale and exhale.

An hour ago, I was at Union Station in New Haven crying on the toilet, grateful for the journey ahead while already missing the wonderful community that took a while to find. Now that I had it- after many lonely nights in which I wanted to move away- I didn’t want to let it go. I spent four years in Baltimore: 1 awful, 1 better and two amazing, going from a place I once near hated to a place I loved with a maternal nothing-is-going-to-stop-me-from-loving-you kind of love.

But now, I was moving to DC after a two week training at Yale to become a Program Manager at a small nonprofit that trains college athletes to become sports-based HIV educators in DC middle schools. This was a dream come true, as I spent many a torturous night writing sport for development papers longing to get into this field, but had no idea how to get there. It was going to be a great year. Though I was moving a mere 45 minutes south, it was still a big change for me. The words of a pastor I respected were helping me come to terms with this change:

Photo: MO 2015

Photo: MO 2015

“All change, even good change, must be grieved because change is a form of loss.”

I was likely never going to live in that same house with the front porch that invited you to take in the stars before coming inside each night. I was losing a spiritual community that took me a while to find- one in which we talked about social justice and spirituality over wine and genuine, vulnerable conversation. And all of this reminded me of the passage of time, which produces an almost sick sense in my stomach knowing that all of those memories will never again be in actual real time.

But now, here, one year later, I’m finishing my fellowship. Around February, I began having those nights in which you’re up until 2 AM trying to fruitlessly figure out your life. I’d light a candle by 2:15, sit Indian style with my palms facing upward, and simply connect with God. Not wanting answers. Not asking for anything but to simply be, and be open. After 5 minutes of stillness, I’d hop back into bed and laugh at myself for demanding answers to life that cannot be told ahead of their time. That is, until a week later, when I’d repeat the whole process. And the week after that. Until it’s late May and it’s hitting you that there’s two months left and you’ve done nothing to prepare for your next transition.

But then I had a moment on my bike. Friends and I were biking on our way from DC to Pittsburgh, and I could only see ten feet ahead of me, peddling in the dark with my headlamp. It occurred to me how many times I’ve tried tracing shapes out of the shadows, trying to figure out the contours of the future, when all I really needed- –and all that was beneficial— was right before me- those precious 10 feet of light wrapped in the ambiance of quiet, cool fresh evening air. In 2010, I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, a future focused orientation that detracts from the present. Since then, every change, every decision was often met with a system of checks and balances, wanting assurance from a world that cannot promise that. But here, on these quiet bike trails, this stream of light pouring from my bike reminded me of a new way in which I wanted to orient myself: I would figure out my next life steps through travel, one destination at a time.

It’s now a matter of weeks until my fellowship ends and instead of my usual M.O. of anxiety, I’m actually at peace. At peace with traveling the world for a few months without a job lined up. At peace with spending time with sport for development organizations in countries where I’m grateful to simply be able to say two sentences in another language. I’ve thought about traveling the world extensively for a while now, thinking that was the ultimate activity you were supposed to do as a twenty-something. I felt shame at 25, 26 when I wasn’t doing that, still living in a city near where I went to college. But I have hindsight now to see that any earlier was not the right time for me. I had growing pains to work through that could only be worked through if I stayed where I was until I could learn how to be present, how to use my own voice, how to create community, how to stop holding myself back from the life of freedom I was trapping myself from.

Perhaps the best way we can measure how well we lived as twenty-somethings, or thirty-somethings, or seventy-somethings for that matter, is not by the number of miles traveled, or the archetypal narrative you think you’re supposed to be living, but instead, measure it by the moments in which you did something you never thought you’d have the courage to do. Measure it by the growth you see: in yourself, in the plants and trees around you. Measure it by the number of days in which you have no journal pages, because the days were simply too filled with beauty to be penned. Measure it by the numbers of conversations you had in which you walked away challenged, questioning the framework with which you always viewed the world.

That’s how I’ll measure these next several months after my fellowship. I know I’ll have anxious nights along the way, but maybe, just maybe, I will recall those words from that pastor that subconsciously gave me permission to grieve—and celebrate— change in whatever way I need to- be it in tears at unexpected places, or at 2 AM alone in my room, unsure of where I’m going. I’m learning that dances in the dark with Change’s shadows at God foresaken hours will be a part of my evolution. I’m learning to let go of the death grip I wrapped around the false security of detailed next steps that leave no room for mystery, wonder, surprises, hard challenges that are only there to show you how strong you really are. I’m learning how to ask, “What’s life trying to teach me?” instead of “Why the hell is this happening?” Learning that there are many narratives we can choose for ourselves, and that timeframes are truly a custom-fit, not one-size-fits-all.

It would make sense, then, to share with you that I’m writing this on one of my wandering mind til 2 AM nights- because I still wrestle and fight and muse in the midst of every change, even good change. I’m almost ready for the go-back-to-bed-and-laugh-at yourself part. Maybe tomorrow, if you see me, we can laugh in person, or in spirit, and we can unclench each other’s hands if they drift away from open palms, together living these changes, free, free…free.

.

Photo: MO 2015

Photo: MO 2015

In Which There’s More Work to do But I Still Need to Dance

Photo: MO 2015

“Excuse me, do you know what this line is for?” I asked the last person standing in a line outside the Supreme Court on Friday.

“Oh, I think it’s just to get into the Supreme Court to walk around as a visitor,” he responded.

“Today’s a good day for that!” I smiled as I joined him in line.

We made small talk and noticed the guy behind us wearing a cool shirt with a rainbow akin to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon album. We lamented that we both weren’t wearing clothes more celebratory, having just come from work. He handed us rainbow bead necklaces and put on a sparkly green hat. We became friends, walked inside, and started decorating statues of old men with our beads, taking pictures every time, having only gotten yelled at by a security guard once. We took pictures in front of the Supreme Court sign and selfies on the steps outside, thrilled just to be here.

Photo: MO 2015

The energy was electrifying. We walked through the crowds of people who were celebrating- and a few warning angrily of God’s wrath- and began listening to people’s stories. There was the woman who let us pose with her peace statue, a staple she’s carried to the first and second Gulf War protests, HIV/AIDS marches and here to the Supreme Court two years ago to the date to celebrate the end of DOMA. There was the woman next to her who showed us three signs she made. “This one was going to be for if they voted against marriage equality,” she showed us, pointing to a sign that read, “Unite the States of America” in big rainbow colored letters. “This one for if they decided to keep it to the states,” she explained, referencing the sign that read, “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” “But instead, I get to hold this!” She exclaimed, bearing a sign that read, “Not just gay, ecstatic!”

There was a man wearing all black with red bike lights tied around his waist, shouting that men who have sex with feces are going to hell, and so are men who have sex with men. “Come on, let’s hug it out!” A guy implored. “This is not a time for hugging,” The man replied back flatly, going back to calling out his warnings against “homosexual acts.”  “I’ll give you a hug!” I called out and we embraced tightly, while enthusiastic passengers in cars continued to drive past waving, cheering, honking in conviviality.

Tears warmed my eyes thinking about how far we’ve come since 2004, when Massachusetts lead the way by becoming the first state to recognize same sex marriage. My own journey in becoming an ally to the LGBTQAI community began with actual action in 2012, after a dear one shared that growing up they considered committing suicide because of the bitter retaliation they received simply for their sexual orientation. I’d always wanted to become a better ally, and this person’s experience reminded me just how urgently all of our voices are needed for equality. I joined a church with a focus on LGBTQ inclusion, led by a pastor who was a married lesbian. I got involved with Believers for Marriage Equality, a series of videos from people in the faith based community voicing support for marriage equality as we neared election time, in which we Marylanders would vote on marriage equality since protesters garnered twice the amount of signatures needed to place a referendum on the ballot.  On March 1, 2012, same sex marriage was passed by Maryland’s General Assembly, and now on election day, ran the risk of being taken away through Question 6.  I wrote blog posts supporting Question 6 and advocated for it on social media. I went to the Marylanders for Marriage Equality election night watch party and celebrated with newfound friends as Maryland became the first of three states that night to vote in equality. My friendships became more diverse. I went to lectures on marriage equality from a public health perspective (Access to health insurance? Right to visit a sick loved one? Yes, this is why I love public health). I brushed up on the history of marriage equality, got pissed off, and joined organizations that were moving equality forward. I say all this not to call attention to myself, but to hopefully paint a picture of why I will forever remember June 26, 2015, honoring the blood, sweat, and tears of activists who’ve done much more than me to collectively bring us here.

This is a victory.
We made history.
And I am celebrating.

But it didn’t take long for me to see all sorts of social media posts about other injustices going on in our world. Violence in Burundi. Burnings of multiple predominately black Churches. Terrorism in Tunisia. Human trafficking. More details on the Emmanuel AME Shooting. Baltimore County officers shoot and kill unarmed man. The intersectionality of all of these issues- and the actual lives affected by such broad sweeping experiences- demands more action, voices, and public outrage. Even the SCOTUS ruling doesn’t mean everything will be ALL rainbows, as we consider that people who identify as LGBTQ still experience higher rates of poverty, worse health outcomes, bullying and job discrimination compared to those who identify as straight or heterosexual Societal attitudes also aren’t different overnight just because of the SCOTUS ruling, but as we consider the changing public opinion of gay marriage, going up in public approval rating from 67% to 73% in just this past year alone, I am hopeful that we are indeed “bending toward justice,” to quote Dr. King.

We still have a ways to go in achieving social justice in gender equality, immigration, racial unity, ending war and violence and so many more areas.

But just for right now, I am taking a sabbath to rejuvenate my soul by relishing in what can happen when we collectively organize ourselves into activism. I am listening to others’ stories of what this ruling means to them. I am taking full advantage of every free hug I can get. I am pausing to witness every single rainbow flag I have seen lining the streets of my home city. I am smiling at the increase I’ve seen in the number of hands held by people of the same gender—just in one weekend alone— perhaps because some people who once may have felt unsafe are just beginning to feel as though they can truly be themselves and be respected. I am feeding off this energy I feel as I see people talking to one another, feeling less like strangers and more like the brothers and sisters we truly are. I see an influx of connecting, as perhaps we can ever so slightly stop having to fight for equal marriage and simply get on with the loving and enjoy our cake while we’re at it, too.

I know that even after a wedding, there are still challenges that come, conflicts that arise, differing opinions about important and not-so-important things that must be worked through with grace. And we, too, as a society will have to come back down from the apex high of Friday’s decision. But I know I will be able to return to the peaceful fight for justice with more tenacity, vigor, and passion if you can just let me soak in this sabbath in which I am still celebrating. I may need to take a longer sabbath than some, and some may need more time than me. But come together again we will with just a little more space to tackle these other social justice issues as I slowly loosen my grip from the battle for marriage equality, more room in my hands for activism, strength, a patient heart that understands we are daily writing our histories and though some pages are long and others thin, together, I believe, we are still writing something beautiful.

Now, please, pass the funfetti.

Photo: MO 2015

10 Things I Was Told That Turned me into a Feminist

Photo: SO 2013

Photo: SO 2013

It all started with #10: “When I saw you wearing a tank top, you caused me to stumble. Will you please stop wearing tank tops? [ignores my response.] Will you please stop wearing tank tops?” I was a college sophomore moving into my apartment one sticky August day. I worked up a sweat and headed across campus to pick up a refreshing smoothie when I ran into a guy I knew from a campus ministry I was then a part of. We said “hi” briefly and went our own ways. Little did I know he would soon ask to meet to admonish me for wearing a tank top on a breezeless humid day, because it “caused him to stumble.” It took me a minute to realize this meant “getting a boner,” a completely natural body reaction that can happen from many kinds of stimuli; such a reaction, I believe, that shouldn’t cause shame— and DEFINITELY not blame of another human being for the experience. After three attempts of requesting that I not wear tank tops and me explaining that I’d rather not walk around with sweat stains all day, he gave up.

This was my first of many experiences in which I was told what I should, shouldn’t, can or can’t do as a female. Here are 9 others:

9. “This would be so much easier if I were a girl,” he snubbed, clearly frustrated with himself for missing the district cutoff in the 50 freestyle. I was a high school senior, competing in my favorite sport, and couldn’t help but feel the sting of my teammate’s words. We were a co-ed team in which girls and boys completed the same practice, in the same lanes, sorted by speed. In that moment, the respect we built for each other faded into the background, as the words I really heard him say were, “You’re not strong enough. Your bodies are weak. Men’s are so much stronger. Don’t ever forget that.”
8. “You should always say ‘yes’ to a guy who asks you on a date because it took him courage to do so.” Many of these words are from people I met during my Evangelical-ish days (another post entirely…). Though I never agreed with them, I’m ashamed to say I didn’t speak up then. The message that came through was, “Don’t listen to your own voice and feelings- deny them. Show deference to a man’s wishes and requests, even when they go against your own needs or desires.”
7. “You shouldn’t trust anything that bleeds for 5 days.” In full transparency, a man didn’t actually tell me this, but it was on my newsfeed a couple years ago, leaving an awful taste in my mouth that I never addressed. The message I heard was not, “I think this bodily process is gross,” but “YOU are gross. You do something that is grotesque,” as if women willingly choose this for ourselves.
6. “You’re pretty good, I mean for a girl,” he told me after hearing my best swimming times. The message I heard was, “You’re good, but you’re not great.” Good thing I didn’t believe him.
5. “Go ahead, ladies first,” a gentleman said as he held the door open, “Even though Adam was created first.” I debated going into a litany of all that was said to have been created before Adam: light, sky, dry ground, vegetation, plants, trees, moon, sun, bird and sea creatures, land animals, Eve, and all this happened before Jesus, who said, “The first shall be last and the last shall be first,” clearly showing that hierarchy as usual simply doesn’t exist in the Commonwealth (gender neutral for ‘Kingdom’) of God. The message this man promoted was one of hierarchy, in which men are at the top, and women on the bottom. Instead, his words encouraged my own critical thinking enough to see that if you’re going to use God to promote hierarchy, the argument is null.
4. “I couldn’t let myself get beat by a girl,” a male runner told me after the finish line of a 5k race last year. He beat me by a whopping 45 seconds. The message being sent was that women are less than, infantile, someone who should be easy to win against in a physical challenge due to our smaller body composition, and a man should have enough pride in himself to see that this ‘less-than’ doesn’t out-perform him. Thanks, male allies in my life, for dismantling this message, too.
3. “Girls don’t fart,” He told me. “Oh but I just did,” I responded. Granted, he was “just kidding,” but the message that comes across when you say “girls don’t fart,” is that women can’t be human- and do the bodily things that are an essential part of our human existence.
2. “You should find a guy you love so much that you would want to change your last name.” This is a tough one because it came from a woman I respect. In full disclosure, it wasn’t about the last name: she was pointing out that I wasn’t fully in love with a former partner (which was true at the time). But she knew where I stood with my adamant desire to keep my last name, and the message that was seeping in was, “If you were only more in love, you might be interested in doing something that doesn’t ring true to you.” (Side note: still dissecting this topic from a historical, social, cultural and personal choice perspective. I do not believe there is one “right” or “wrong” way to handle surnames in marriage when mutually discussed and both partners are happy with their decision)
1. “Women are like fine china and men are like sturdy pots,” a male Bible study leader explained. I know, I know— I told you these were my Evangelical-ish days, hence all the Church stories. Sitting in his apartment living room with a wine glass glaring me in the face, being told that’s what my gender is: essentially, fragile, I felt an aloneness and righteous anger that I will never forget. When this Bible study night of oppression was over, I walked out of his apartment, tears warming my eyes, imbued to work twice as hard the next day at swim practice, with each kick of my leg in the pool shouting, “I AM NOT FINE CHINA!”
In the spirit of allyship, this guy came back to me years later to apologize when I wrote a post about how this experience felt. Because I think we all can look back on our actions towards a person of another gender at sometime in our lives and see how we could have been a better ally, understanding how our words impacted another. 

Since the tank top escapade in 2006, I have grown a lot and my voice is stronger, no longer quelled with fear. I’m proud of the freedom I’ve found in a spiritual expression that I can’t codify, the circles I left, the new hands of vibrant shades and hues that my hands have held. The other side of this coin that I’ve found myself on is allyship. Allyship is what happened when a male friend called me out on saying “sorry” too much. Allyship was when I told a male companion why I desired to keep my last name, and he putting himself in my shoes, began to understand a different perspective. Allyship was my male swim coach telling our women’s team, “If you want to go on a date with a guy, ask him for his phone number. Make things happen with your life and don’t wait for them to come to you.” Allyship was male friends sitting down to talk with me about damaging messages they’ve received about manhood, together discussing ways in which we can address the disempowering messages we received as men and women- because once you see how men and women both hurt from societal mores, you almost can’t change one without ripple effecting the other. 

This other side of the coin is beautiful, and it’s taken me a long journey through fear, anger, indignation, and shame to get to this more peaceful, whole place. I’m not done yet. But I’m so grateful to have female and male allies like you by my side lighting this path toward light. Together, we’ll walk, run, bike, dance and high five each other toward mutuality. We can even wear tank tops. 

Photo Credit: http://bit.ly/1NiWRTc

Photo Credit: http://bit.ly/1NiWRTc

330 Miles of Freedom: On Bike Camping and The Paths That Teach You

Photo: MO

Photo: MO

Sometimes the path to freedom is clumsy, achieved only by trial and error. That was the case for me one rainy 60 degree Thursday in May. A few friends and I were going on a four day bike camping trip from DC to Pittsburgh, that is, if I could figure out how to bike with all this stuff without tipping over. I never made it to REI to buy a sleeping pad, so I experimented with different angles in which to slide the cot poles into my makeshift milk crate bike rack.

I first slid them sideways, like a mini jetliner, silver poles akin to three feet long airplane wings. Tipping over, neighbors waiting at the bus stop peered over with a look of confusion. I then tried length wise, airplane wings traded for airplane streaks hanging off the back. I tipped over again, this time neighbors lightly chuckling through their perplexed grins.
I rested my heavy bike against the porch, while all five tent poles slid through one of the crate holes. “Damn it!” I shouted, chucking bagels and bananas from the crate to the porch. I leave the groceries I bought at home, taking just enough food to get through the next 24 hours, grabbed my sleeping bag and a blanket, and left the house.
Stepping onto my bike, the first few pedal stroke felt liberating. My sole task these next four days was to simply bike on wooded trails with apertures to mountains, gurgling streams swimming with us, with nothing but my backpack and crate, plus the camaraderie of a few friends until we reached Pittsburgh 330 miles later.
This is freedom, at least, one form of it: to have all you need to get you until just beyond the next day, so that you might truly take your days one at a time. Freedom to feel movement, momentum, the wind on your face, sun to your skin. To bear witness to light and water and air, fresh air. To hear the owls, lay beneath stars, and simply be. It’s not always easy to reach this place, and many thoughts of my unknown future would try to bite at the outskirts of this space. But my feet are pedaling, I was in motion, the thoughts and fears of the future trying to lurk in the shadows of mile markers simply couldn’t keep up. Because I was moving forward into sunshine lit gravel paths, not turning back.
                                                                   . . . .

Thump, thud, thump. “What was that?” I asked, hissing from my back tire answering back. I took out my headlamp and began to fix my flat. “I believe you forgot this,” David motioned, holding up my can of dented vegetarian chili, one of the few food items I brought that also took a beating from the pothole. We burst out laughing and pitch our tent in the dark, trying to make sense of terse instructions with inadequate pictures, poles poking out of corners, until we reached sleep.

. . . .

The next day brought more flats, fixes, and an unsuccessful stop at a meager bike shop, followed by a successful one. “That’s a lotta gear you got,” the owner greeted us, welcoming us into his small town shop. I bought two tires, having been the only one to not consider beforehand just how worn mine were. The owner invited us back to his work area to tackle the tires. Sensing our slow progress, the owner bent down, “I usually go like this, ” he said, trading levers for bare hands. He told us about his nine year old daughter and all of the bike maintenance skills she could already do, while the other shop owner told stories of when he made this exact trip. “But you all are crazy camping. We did bed and breakfasts.” We laughed and soon were on our way, saying goodbye, warmed by small town kindness.

“Listen, baby, ain’t no mountain high,” Devan sang.  “Ain’t no valley low,” I responded, until the three of us sang away on fresh tires. Devan would be a source of optimism, joy, a beacon of unflappable positivity throughout this journey. She’s that kind of friend, both on and off the bike. The one who gets you outside of your head, until you’re singing or dancing, whatever the moment calls for. She takes both the ordinary and extraordinary experiences, and gives them just a little kick, by befriending strangers, by whooping and hollering on bikes riding through the city streets at night. I’m not sure where I will end up when my fellowship ends in a month and a half, but I can’t imagine doing life without this friend, and vow to keep in touch no matter where we both end up.

. . . .

We pitched our tents in the dark again, only slightly faster than the night before and fall asleep exhausted and content.  We churned out sixty miles in the daylight and at dusk, we took turns leading our pace line. The sun set into a dim light until headlamps and bike lights were necessary. I turned mine on and picked up speed a bit, glued to mile 114, our resting point for the night. We were quiet except for the occasional “woah!” exclamation that happened when an owl swooped down beside us to pause on a branch and each time we reached an aperture from the woods into grassy openings that gave way to the stars and heavens above. Away from the illumination of the city, our lights and headlamps shed the way 10 feet at a time. It dawned on me, as I continued to ride steady, that I didn’t even want to try and look more than 10 feet ahead. I couldn’t see beyond there no matter how hard I tried, and might miss something important if I attempted– like the unexpected tree root or rock or quiet fox that brushed against the space between trail and grass. It occurred to me how many times I’ve tried tracing shapes out of the shadows, trying to figure out the shapes and contours of the future, when all I really needed- and all that was really beneficial- was what was right before me- those precious 10 feet of light wrapped in the ambiance of quiet, cool fresh evening air. In 2010, I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, a future focused orientation to life that detracts from the present. Since then, every change, every decision was often met with a system of checks and balances, wanting to ensure security and assurance in a world that cannot promise that. But here, on these quiet bike trails, this stream of light pouring from my bike reminded me of the new way in which I wanted to orient myself with the world. I end a year long fellowship in two months and feel convinced that this is the time to travel for a few months and figure out the whole career thing when I return. It doesn’t feel natural to not know what’s next, and I somehow feel irresponsible for taking a timeout to learn from the world. But here, the only thing that feels more irresponsible is to not take advantage of this natural break to taste more of this world and the people in it. These trails speak of a freedom, an unconventional way of life that’s countercultural to societal norms of work, marriage, home ownership, and family in a linear fashion, as though that molded timeframe is supposed to fit everyone. If these paths could speak, I’m sure they would whisper just one word, “Freedom… freedom…” gently but firmly, over and over again until the word and all its possibilities hug me on the shoulders like a wise parent who guides and then sets free. 

We reach the end of the canal and find our way uphill to a YMCA campground consisting of an open soccer field, port-a-potty, and a nails-on-chalkboard loud train on a small hill above us about 20 yards away. We fell asleep and woke up several times to that stupid train, until it was morning and Devan greeted me with a cheery, “Good morning!”

“Uhhh,” I groaned back, cursing the morning light, clamoring for sleep instead of embracing our third day of adventure. A few caffeinated gels later, I perked up enough to speak in respectful sentences and we began our second leg of the journey into the Allegheny. Our 80 miles take us uphill, downhill, and back up again; exhausting, but hope filled. If I ever need to have my faith restored in humanity, I will remember the rural Pennsylvanians who shared free water and a place to rest along the trail, the many people who offered us food and even rides to our campsites “in case you don’t make it before dark,” and these friends who shared chamois creme when my butt was on fire. We reached our campsite in the dark, where another friend met us for the final leg.

MO 2015

MO 2015

Our last morning began with sliding down a natural waterslide in 55 degree water. Invigorated, we pedaled onward. We reached mile 270 by afternoon, and I was already grieving the journey’s end. The circus I performed for my neighbors trying to balance a cot on an old crate I found in the basement. The night we showed each other planets and other parts of the sky that we didn’t pay attention to back in the city, until we’re laughing on our backs about things that really wouldn’t have been so funny if we had not been biking 80 miles into the 10 PM night sky. Funny how you can want it all back- the saddlesoreness, the rough starts, the bugs that hit our jackets like raindrops. The down trees that force you stop until you decide to take a much needed beans-from-a-can dinner break. The flat tires that get changed much faster when its you and three friends, each teaching one another a pointer we learned along the way from some other cyclist, until by the time our fifth flat arrived, we had an assembly line of sorts down pat.

MO 2015

MO 2015

Evening sun illuminated bridges and tall buildings off in the distance. Pittsburgh. I thought about others’ journeys to freedom, like those souls that constructed the highest point of the bridge, then walked across for the first time, and what sense of freedom that must have felt like. And for how many, now well over a century later, find leaving across this bridge to be a form of freedom from a quotidian routine, and for how many, entering this city is a different kind of freedom, one of return, arrival, a sense of home and hope. There are so many kinds of freedom out there. We raised our bikes above our heads from the bridges into the sunset. I did not think of the future, and I was free.

Photo: MO

Photo: MO

Thunderstorms & Victories

IMG_3868

MO 2015

I’m learning so much and some days it feels as though it’s too much goodness to take in. Days go by like minutes and all I can see when I close my eyes are still shot memories playing like a slideshow to echo how much goodness there is in the world when you have found your people, your own voice, your own spiritual expression. I see friends with whom I danced upon hilltops and city lots, celebrating art and culture and community. I see the many cities of the past that made me and the upcoming travels peeking up over the horizon that will soon make me. I see so much to celebrate and yet my mind is restless. I’m in a season of great excitement, but also unknown change after I end my fellowship in two months. In preparation, my to-do list expands ever long and a hundred possibilities of next steps to take keep my tired mind active until it’s 3 AM and I’m typing incoherent musings onto a blog.

But tonight feels a little different. Strong rain beats against the house and I open my bedroom window-fairly confident a cool front is coming through-to give some refreshing air to my muggy room. I turn off all the lights until I am laying in bed listening to the night sky speak in splendor through flashing lightning, rustling trees, and steady rain hitting pavement. My mind is tempted to sort through how I’m going to be able to fit in all the things I need to- or “should” do-this week in light of a couple weeks’ worth of upcoming travel.

But I lay here, the night storm reminding me of pleasant memories, like camping in Puerto Rico last summer. There was that night when I woke up at 4 AM muttering expletives over the tent window I left unzipped that resulted in wet pajamas and a soggy sleeping bag. It didn’t take long for cursing to turn to laughter as I thought about the joy it actually was to be woken up by both the insomniac bulls groaning in the distance and by a rain that smelled of intoxicating fresh raw Earth. I laugh at the memory, grateful that I’m enjoying tonight’s storm with the sound clarity as though I am out there in my tent, but with the luxury of a warm, dry body.

The storm has captured my heart into an entranced calm, the Earthen sounds, smells and sights a natural spring aphrodisiac of sorts. Lying there, listening, I feel as though the storm is speaking to my soul. You’ve forgotten what the point is, it calls out. You’ve forgotten the point is to daily lie in awe of a world filled with people and places and processes that you can’t explain but can only appreciate. The lightning grows brighter and I feel the rise and fall of my chest. You have a heart that beats over 100,000 times a day. Oxygen and lungs to breathe some 12-20 times a minute. Stars and sun that hang above you, grass and barefoot feet below you. All around us are people on the sidewalk, people in the grocery store, friends, family or maybe even a lover whose bodies do these processes too and have that light above and ground below.

So maybe the biggest victory I can have today is being able to stand in the midst of all the work and email and pending decisions and ringing phones to remember that life is for awe and wonder. Maybe my real achievement is not the next speaking engagement or conference invite, but is being able to close my eyes before slumber and hear the own pulse of my heart, pondering the human body and all of its unconscious processes that will go on whether we pay attention or not, like respiration and growing new skin. Maybe it’s in these achievements, these victories of mindfulness, that true life lies- a real place in which hope and peace dance in symbiotic heartbeats that draw creation to Creator. And maybe tomorrow, I’ll return to this space after another full but good day, and feel this gratitude perhaps unprecipitated by storms, in communion with Creator, in awe of a life I can’t explain. 

MO 2015

MO 2015

The Night Gunshots Interrupted the Birds’ Song

 

MO 2015

MO 2015

It’s my favorite space in the house- the top story bathroom which has a small, rectangular window perfect for catching evening sunsets or for smiling at the moon while brushing your teeth. During the fall, I’ve spent hours taking sunset pictures, all the while my soul coming closer and closer to the present moment until I am in an entranced, gentle place filled with color, wonder, and no words.

Tonight I was having one of those yearnings as I looked outside the window. I opened it wide, feeling slightly warm March air press lightly against my face. I scanned the trees to find the birds, whose brown feathers matched the still bare trees, blending in, yet standing out because of that infectious song. Their lively chatters echoed my souls’ celebrations of this last week of winter, knowing not just by the dates on the calendar, but by their choirs that spring is indeed coming.

I grabbed my camera and began snapping some sunset shots. There were two birds singing shoulder to shoulder, true love birds perhaps. I wanted them to move just one branch over to get that perfect shot of the birds’ silhouettes against the backdrop of a cascading orange and red sky. Just move over. I begged internally. Come on, move a little to the left. Slightly annoyed at a missed opportunity for a “perfect” shot, a still small voice whispered in. “Just watch. Just enjoy this as it is. Stop trying to make everything so perfect. Embrace this as it is, not how you wish it would be.” With that I closed my eyes, to solely focus on the delight of the birds’ song. I lingered in this space for a good 20 minutes before wandering back to my room that connects to this bathroom. I left the window open to keep enjoying the birds while I worked out. The night darkness came over, chirps turning from a mellifluous sonnet to an evening lullaby.

And then I heard three loud bangs, a pause, and a few more bangs. Could that have been…? No. It wasn’t, I reasoned. I lived in an under-resourced area of Baltimore for a year, in which there were a couple shootings around the block that I was fortunate enough not to have been home for. All the bangs I did hear in that neighborhood ended up being kids playing with firecrackers, something that’s fun to do, apparently, even when it’s not July 4th. But there are few kids in my current neighborhood, and the ones I have seen are toddlers, plus the seldom one or two six-year-olds.

A swarm of police and an online crime alert confirmed my fear. Helicopters circled overhead. My roommates and I looked out the window to find several police cars a block and half up the street, in clear view from this top story window. We gave each other tight hugs, talked about our own privilege, talked about longings for peace and justice, talked about the neighborhood in which we live, met with its quirks and joys, marked by outsiders and many insiders as “up and coming,” a seemingly trite phrase that has some grain of truth if one considers “coming” to mean gentrification.

Within the next hour, the police cars became fewer in number. I can still hear the “bang, bang, bang,” noise sharply in my head. I look out the window one last time, wondering at what point the birds had stopped singing. I supposed they could have gone to sleep before the gun shots could disrupt their song. But even now as I type this, I can still hear an insomniac bird making noise, as if to have some company in his or her sleeplessness.

All of this feels so disparate. How did the view from the window go from lingering in the beauty to facing the reality of violence? It’s so hard to acknowledge that this same experience happened in one night. They seem so incongruous, the latter incident being one of disbelief- did all of that really just happen?

Yes, it did. We live in a world in which it is possible to hear the song of birds and cacophony of gun shots in a single night. We live in a world with incredible shades of red and pink and purple nearly every evening. And we live in a world in which damaging floods and hurricanes can come from that same sky. I live in a body with hands that long to hold another’s, limbs that long to wrap themselves around someone, a smile with an upper lip that shows a lot of gumline. And I live in a body that yelled, “Are you fucking kidding me?” to a driver yesterday who got too close to me while I was biking. A body with a brain that thought demeaning, judgmental thoughts towards someone today. A body that once accidentally drove through a red light and hit another human being, the “How could you!?” narrative reverberating not from outside sources, but internally.

So much darkness.
So much light.
So much life.
And so much of this life is that space between the darkness and light. Finding hope in despair, beauty in the presence of pain, something sacred in the midst of the banality. So much of life is seeing it and feeling it all, and still gazing your head upwards, feeling love for your Maker in the midst of walking away from a particular way of practicing this love. 

Tonight as I lay my head, I’m grateful for this Maker that I’ve come to know as God. Grateful for the light, room in my hands to accept both of these incongruous experiences. Grateful that there is something beyond the darkness, a story whose ending pages read of love over hate, joy beyond suffering, of discovering there is room for all of us in this story, that no one is or will be left out or left behind.

And for now, I’m in that space between. The one that has the synonyms and antonyms in the same sentences, and tonight, even the same breaths, encouraged to “just hold on to the way it is tonight and learn to love through the darkness and the light.”

The Space Between Rootedness and Exploration

“Roll the word around on your tongue for a bit. It is a beautiful word, isn’t it? So strong and forceful, the way you have always wanted to be. And you will not be alone. You have never been alone. Don’t worry. Everything will still be here when you get back. It is you who will have changed.” -Donald Miller, Through Painted Deserts

Photo: Firlefanz, Pinterest

Photo: Firlefanz, Pinterest

I never thought I would come to love this city so much. In fact, when I moved back here after backing out of my Peace Corps assignment, I felt ashamed. For four years, I lived In the Baltimore surburbs as an undergraduate. The world felt big and wondrous. I planned to spend two years in Africa with the Peace Corps and then two years in Colorado for grad school. Never was it in my plans to live near here again. But in 2010, after my mental health tanked and I needed to say “no” to my Peace Corps dream, I received a job at Johns Hopkins, living in Towson for another year before spending another three in different neighborhoods of Baltimore. In 2011, I moved to an underserved neighborhood with a friend and while I could never bring myself to say hate- I detested Baltimore. This neighborhood. My job. Didn’t see what this city had to offer, where its life was.

But then I moved to a quirky neighborhood, that, while not particularly racially diverse, is an eclectic source of artists, hipsters, cyclists, social advocates, a few old white men who never seem to leave the bar, and, of course, your standard Bawlmer Hon. I began going to a liberal Church that particularly focused on LGBT inclusion, learning much from my pastor who is a married lesbian. One meaningful connection led to another, as so often does, and pretty soon I began meeting these funky people in my neighborhood. We made videos on being people of faith who support marriage equality, paraded monthly through diverse neighborhoods of the city on bikes, gathered together for Tuesday night discussions on spirituality and social justice. I biked with triathletes through beautiful farmlands and open spaces. I became friends with a 60 year old Jewish woman I met in jury duty. I began going to holiday parties, meeting more and more friends who felt like “my” people in which I could both be accepted and challenged to become my best self in the community and the world. Sitting on the ledge of the front porch one night swinging my legs up and down, I looked up at the moon feeling so grateful for people and places of beauty and belonging. I don’t even recognize the me who once felt ashamed of living in this city with amity in my heart.
So in June 2014, when it was time for me to move to Washington DC, a mere 42 miles away, I sat back on the ledge of that front porch, feeling bittersweet about an exciting fellowship I’d soon be starting, and moving away from a city I began to love like a mother-nothing-can-stop-me-from-loving-you-do-you-hear-me kind of love. Sure, it would be easy for me to come back. But I reckoned it wouldn’t be the same.

And same it wasn’t, because life wasn’t created for sameness. But it has been good. And now, with a few months out in the horizon, I will be facing another transition. My fellowship in DC will end and I have no idea where I’ll live or what I’ll do. But in processing decisions I will soon have to make, I am struck by two orientations: rootedness vs exploration. Rootedness is what caused the latter half of my Baltimore experience to be so good. It’s those on-going deep conversations with people that only comes from meeting time and time again. Staying somewhere long enough to be able to laugh about an event with a group of friends that happened ten years ago… 10 years worth of stories, tears, ends and beginnings, a history so rich, you lost track of when you called these people “friends” instead of family.
I stopped looking for ways to leave this place, this “family,” given over instead to a desire to not just stay, but to connect with as many people, places, and activities that moved my heart. Some people call this “settling down,” a term I’m uncomfortable with. A phrase that brings to mind homogeneity- white fences in the suburbs with a spouse, dog and kids. A description that creates a binary- that you are somehow “unsettled” if you don’t take on this narrative; immature, wasting your life on the pleasures of the world instead of doing important adult things. Whatever you call it, though, it’s being able to say, “This is what I want. This is where I want to be. This is who I want to be with. This is what I want to be doing.” 

But what about those parts inside that long for new experiences, to learn as much from the world as possible by setting foot in all of its pockets and contours. That discovers career opportunities in other parts of the world that would be stimulating, yet would require leaving. That longs to say I spent my twenties (thirties, years, decades, whathaveyou) catching sunsets from different latitudes and longitudes- beyond travel? That wants to explore everything? That’s had enough of the fast-paced productivity-driven culture of DC and remembers, well, then you can simply leave?

I know this isn’t black and white, but I somehow feel as though one has to choose between rich relationships spent in community versus discovery and excitement that comes from living in many new places-a year here, a couple there, etc.

But what I’m slowly discovering is that space between. Not a cliche you-can-have-it-all space, but a space that celebrates meaningful relationships while also celebrating freedom and exploration. That’s fearless to leave, not afraid of packing up and charting anew, that won’t stay somewhere because it’s safe and convenient, but because your heart can truly echo, “This is where I want to be right now.” 

Rather than watching friends leave, a voice inside you wondering, “Gee, am I supposed to be leaving too?” Instead, knowing it’s perfectly acceptable to stay too. If I only ever lived within a 3 hour radius of my hometown, what does that say about me? Will I have missed out on some grand experience every young adult is supposed to have before marriage and family (if that’s even in their life plans)? Will it say I haven’t ventured out far enough?

Maybe, maybe not. But I won’t base the quality of these years on where I did or did not live. Maybe I’m never meant to officially move outside this 160 mile radius. Maybe the only time I will have wasted is time spent being somewhere, not fully there. That forgot to recognize this rootedness-exploration pendulum looks different for each person. Perhaps it looks like leaving before you can talk yourself out of it. Perhaps it’s staying engaged in a community and place you love, while feeding your heart’s longing for exploration through travel and diverse friendships, staying far from ritzy hotels and tourists traps and getting lost instead in people’s stories, culture, and off-beaten paths that await. Perhaps it looks like leaving and staying in touch. That setting aside money for a plane ticket back to the city and people you love once or twice a year is a worthy investment. Perhaps it’s simply the orientation that nothing is supposed to stay exactly the same.

I wrestle with this space, this space I know actually exists if your heart really wants to find it. I treasure this space. I celebrate this space.

Where are you going next? Where will your final resting place on Earth be? I can’t tell you that. Where will your friends go, your family, those you met on past travels? Will you ever be able to pinpoint on a map where “home” is anymore? Can’t tell you that either. I can only ask my soul, your soul, to open your hands wide enough to prepare for when that next step comes, that always-hard-at-first moment of transition. To look up at the sunset no matter what latitude or longitude you find yourself gazing from, and find it beautiful. To create community wherever you go, especially by vulnerably speaking your musings and experiences while listening to others as they do the same. Our hearts are big. But they’re also small when you compare it to our limbs and bones. The world is huge. But it’s small enough that there’s room enough in your big heart to hold the people who make it beautiful to you, and as your world expands, the people inside will squeeze in tighter, but in an sacred embrace they wouldn’t experience otherwise. Root. Unroot. Re-root. Transplant. Sprout. Or leave the ground altogether. And treasure that blessed space between.

I’ll see you between the water and the ledge.

mel cliff jump

Photo: MO 2010