How Several Months of Travel Has Changed Me…and I Haven’t Even Left Yet

Photo: MO 2015

Susan B. Anthony once said about the bicycle, “I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance.” I wonder what she’d say about my new 46 liter backpack. Because I have never felt so free, about to travel the world for months living out of this tool.

Let’s start by recognizing that travel is a form of privilege, though you don’t need as many resources to do so as some purport. 

I am in a situation in which I have a particular privilege: I end a one year fellowship with a final retreat in Rwanda which includes a stipend to get home, whenever I decide that will be. A natural employment break, no quitting of job necessary, and landing on a different continent with a way to get home. I am humbled for this opportunity and all that’s led up to this. I hope to be a good steward of the resources I’ve been given.
I always knew I’d travel when this fellowship ended, but only recently did “a couple months” turn into a potentially five month plan. If all goes to plan-which I can tell you it already that it won’t be smooth like it is on paper now- I will be doing everything from assisting sport for development organizations, writing in monasteries, summiting a volcano, walking on an ancient path from France into Spain, and set foot on five continents. But even if none of that happens, I have already learned so much.

Because I am doing things I never thought I’d do because of fear or anxiety.

I’m trusting I will find a job when I return.

I’m learning to spend money I’ve saved and not feel guilty about it.

I am visiting embassies. And not because my passport was stolen.

I feel more independent than ever before and that we can truly get anywhere we want with a little research.

My geography has expanded ten fold. I can now tell you where all the major cities in France, Turkey, Nigeria, India, and Italy are located on the map.

I am learning how to be present and take things one leg of the journey, country, month, day, moment at a time. Because it’s only when I think about the entire five months that things start to feel overwhelming.

I am learning French. The metric system. The Schengen Ageement. Currency exchange rates. The history of pilgrimage. What day is cheapest to fly (when in doubt, it’s Tuesday).

Photo: MO 2015

Photo: MO 2015

I am learning what I need to do to calm down on those 1 AM restless nights, in which it is one as I type this (solution: Bon Iver, a light snack, lighting a candle, journaling and sitting Indian style with my eyes closed and palms open).

 I am learning just how massive of a behemoth colonialism was…or still is.
I  am learning that travel is not as expensive as I thought and having a spiritual awakening through SkyScanner.com.
I am learning how strong my non-anxious muscles are.

I am learning that if shit hits the fan and I need to come home earlier, that’s ok and I haven’t failed anyone- not even myself.

I am learning that wrestling with change’s shadows at 2 AM will be a part of my evolution, and though we will step on each others’ toes, we will dance.

I am learning that 99.9 percent of the world will treat you with an immense kindness and goodness, like when I had my first Skype call with a sport for development organization in Togo, where I’ll be headed in August. He spoke to me with the bit of English he knew. I spoke to him in fractured Frenglish, and he helped me with my accent. We used the instant message feature a lot and he wrote, “Do not be afraid. My family and my children will be yours and we will teach you French.” Tears welled in my eyes.

Because I was afraid. Looking at my flight options, I had two choices. Overnight layovers in countries where I was nervous for my safety. Or take a 2:30 AM flight.

2:30 in the morning? 2:30 in the morning!!! My anxious bells whistled. How will I sleep? It’s not safe to be out at that hour! How am I even getting to the airport!? The cacophony in my head snowballed. What if the pilot falls asleep while flying? What if we crash? 

You’re in an airport, a voice of reason chimed in. Where other people are there for the same exact reason you are. Plus, when’s the last time a plane crashed because the pilot was tired?

Nerves eased slightly.

The next day, I had another restless night and finally got out of bed to journal. I never look at the clock when this happens but I grabbed my cell phone to serve as light, and noticed it was 2:15 A.M. A quiet laugh came over me, then an unfettered loud one. You are alone. In the dark. In a city you know. With every comfort you’d ever need. Yet you’re wide awake. And you’re worried about how you will sleep on some flight? It was comical to me. That forsaken scary hour did not appear the least bit scary anymore. I booked my ticket as soon when I woke up seven hours later.

In addition to all I’ve learned and the kindness bestowed to me, I am hearing stories of people’s dreams, fears, and personal travels. Because when people learn of my upcoming plans, they often then divulge one of those three scenarios. How humanizing it is to share fears. How mobilizing it is to learn from others. How exciting it is to share dreams until the we’re lying on our backs staring up at the stars saying, “God, I can’t believe we get to live this life.”

As I go through waves of anxiety and excitement, my soul tries to speak beyond all the emotions. I feel my soul extending palms open, longing to stop spinning in the midst of my fears over the changes ahead. To accept uncertainty and even befriend it. There’s this inner space that speaks more gently than before, whispering a cathartic, “Just be.” And on days in which I feel as though I cannot muster up enough energy to get out one more word, a simple, “Just.”

The calendar of time left before I leave is thinning. And so are my cabinet shelves as I slowly begin to move out.This global house I’ve lived in with roommates from India and Canada is coming to a close. We’re throwing dance parties and cocking our heads on each others’ shoulders when we need to lament the passage of time. But inside, something is both stirring and simmering, heart hearkened to dismantling personal barriers. If these plans should suddenly foil, I will already have learned so much.

dream big

Photo: bit.ly/1JcMsEG

“Leave. 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

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 the imploring hugger 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