Day 108 Mt. Vesuvius, Naples Ciao from a volcanic rock on the crater rim of Mount Vesuvius. In front of me is a mystical horizon overlooking islands, mountains and city lines. It feels just yesterday, it was June and I was … Continue reading
I didn’t come here looking for God, and these cathedrals at times felt like both a haven and an inferno. I was once scolded by a priest for taking communion, given the firm instruction that I was not welcome to … Continue reading
“So how far are you going?” a common question pilgrims ask one another on the Camino de Santiago. “Well, I was planning on just hiking 10 days and then continuing on my journey of five months of world travel,” I’d … Continue reading
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).
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.
“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
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.
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
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:
“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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.