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

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Laying Down Superwoman.

Photo: SO 2014

Photo: SO 2014

I am secretly coming to love the late autumn and early winter. It’s in these months that I give myself permission to reduce my triathlon training mileage. To take a break from my intense personality and the regimented core workout–work for 8 hours–timed race pace run–nutrient dense dinner–stretch–ice–foam roll–nine hours of sleep–40 mile ride in the morning– schedule. To tame down the constant part of me that insatiably demands, “More, more, more,” always dreaming of being stronger and faster. To slow down in order to let my creative spirit take precedence over the athlete in me.

This lending over to the artistic spirit allows me to bask in awe of beauty, binging on new musicians via Spotify until 2 in the morning, musing over what experiences and stories led up to these lyrics being sung in this exact manner. I’m Skyping with old souls from all over the world. I’m owning my book project with far less hesitation and it’s leading me to people and organizations I’ve been dying to meet. I’m singing more than ever before with less reservation, in front of more and more people, not just my shower walls. I’m finding my way into local coffee shops, museums, libraries, and concert halls- the most recent being Lincoln Theater to see James Vincent McMorrow thanks to the generosity of a friend who offered me his tickets when he no longer could make it.

Sitting there in the audience Saturday night, I watched, captivated, mesmerized by the budding, expanding, blossoming of the human voice. His voice holding out into time and space, long, lengthened pitches, strong and resounding. Beats and questions and thoughts that float along steady into the atmosphere, a bit like bubbles coasting in the daylight, lingering, hovering a little, and then… a combustible, “Pop.” How vulnerable it must feel to put something out there like that.

What would the world look like, though, if we spoke in those soft, yet loaded, gentle, iridescent bubbles that pop in fits and spurts until something inside of our soul that once was trapped has become freed, so freed, it could just do it again and again and again and again? How empowering would it feel to finally find an expression that elucidates your innermost feelings of an experience? 

I think this gripping beauty mingled with freedom would get us to stop and nestle in deep into the heart of it all, ditching the fluff-and-stuff of life for the yes-and-yearn.

The yes-and-yearn is not easily won. In fact, it can be downright hard, can’t it? To live exposed like that, willingly putting yourself in front of the microphone, or name on the page, speaking those words and asking those questions that it feels like nobody else is asking, just wondering alone to themselves in the dark on some restless, sleepless night?
It can be hard to get in touch with every part of ourselves without sacrificing one part for the other.
But it’s worth it.
So worth it.

Spring will come again, my miles will expand, and I will fall in love with the beauty that ensues when running shoes hit shaded trails.

But today I will fall in love with the beauty that resounds in coffee shops and viewfinder eyepieces. I will fall in love with the full spectrum of the human experience by pondering what’s going inside the soul of a musician as he or she sings his or her truth. I will fall in love with color by popping out the screen window and taking copious amounts of sunset pictures from my third story window, chronicling its evening travels off the edge of the horizon. Maybe, even, one of these mornings, I will wander downstairs to make a warm cup of coffee, only to come back upstairs to take in the sunrise. And together, the light, the people, the connection, this spiritual world will leave us with no other option but to… 

Photo: MO 2014

Photo: MO 2014

“Yes” in Every Season: Thoughts & Longings on the Last Night of Summer

MO 2014

MO 2014

Outside the last night of summer
Sweeps through my open window
A warm breeze
A slow, steady chirp of crickets
Whose bold summer sonnets
now play early autumn decrescendos.

 I close my eyes and lay by candlelight.
All I can see is still shot goodness of the day–
Looking up into my sister’s smile
With deep blue sky all around
A warming sun on our skin
A far out whisper in the wind
Reminding us that shifting change is coming all too soon.

Familiar drives through open spaces and new places
That leave you looking out the corners of your eyes as much as possible
While still keeping your head straight toward the road.
The beloved old
The uncharted new
All of this feels like home.

MO 2012

MO 2012

I’m at the end of a day that’s left me reignited as to how big and beautiful the world is.

And how all I want to do is learn from the stars
by exploring underneath them
or through high powered lens
Gaping mouths gasping soft “woah”s.
Aware of everything
The slow in and our of our breaths
My desire to touch hands in fully alive love

MO 2014

MO 2014

All I want is to throw a few things in a backpack
Drive out somewhere
And wander these trails with no destination
Just grateful for the world outside
And friends like you.

I want songs with sweet, dripping lyrics
and ambient melodies telling us a story
that wouldn’t be heard the same way
if it were dulled with words.

Give me poetry.
And chocolate.
And all those things our hearts beat for,
each syncopation relishing, “yesssss.”

I don’t like when summer wanes
but the longings of my heart
are happy to start this fall
With a new feel in my heart

Filled with wonder
Craving the world
Loving this Earth
And the incredibleness of community
Reminding each other

there is “yes” in every season.

WOOF Puerto Rico June 2014: Farming, Skinnydipping & An Invitation To Get Into Life

“Ok, so I”ll send you my flight information and see you on the 17th!” I replied as I hung up the phone, shocked and excited. I just confirmed a week long stay at Luquillo Sanctuary Farm in Puerto Rico through a program called WWOOF– Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms. In exchange for a half a day’s work on a family’s farm, WWOOFers receive free room and board at one of thousands of farming sites across the world. This farm is a small, developing farm in Puerto Rico along the foothills of the El Yunque Rainforest. The opportunity sounded like Heaven, along with a whole lot of anxiety provoking unknowns. What if the people I stayed with weren’t who they said they were? Was this safe? But the predictable life depleted of risks leaves us believing that strangers are scary, that safety is quintessential as we choke on our own comforts.

So I flew into San Juan on June 17 not knowing why I had come on this journey, but positive that it would help me learn to embrace life in all of its fullness. The host farmer picked me up from the airport, luggageless as my bags had been loaded onto another flight, and brought me to the campground where I’d stay for the week. I was greeted by three other WWOOFers from Texas and Czech Republic. Nothing but the backpack on my back, they showed me a tent I could sleep in temporarily and gave me some sheets. Just go with it, I told myself, and fell asleep in a stranger’s tent, lying beneath cocqui frogs and insomniaic bulls that groaned all night long.

machetteIn conversations over digging farming beds and mowing the lawn with machette knives throughout the week, I learned much about Puerto Rico. The US provides an estimated $6.7 billion in aid to Puerto Rico, mostly in provision of food stamps and subsidized housing, while the US receives almost $58 from Puerto Rico through imports and manufacturing. “Instead of growing our own produce, much of the food is shipped into the island from other countries because it’s cheaper,” my host farmer shared. It was a startling wake up call to the reality of the pitfalls of capitalism and untapped resources. On our daily walks to the beach, we pass mango tree after mango tree and simply reach up to chomp on fresh fruit. Sure enough, when we went to the grocery store, our carrots were from Georgia and fruit from Central America. We could eat local. But there simply lacks farming infrastructure and political will.

That’s where farms like Luqillo are slowly changing this. Part of Luqillo’s mission is to be a non-profit organic educational farm for children, teaching them hands-on skills. On Saturdays, kids from the neighborhood come to work on the farm. That’s when I met Gabriel, a sweet 12 year old, who, when it was time to fill our buckets with the dug up grass from the rows we picked, turned it into a contest raced us up to the top of the hill, winning time afer time again. It’s awesome to think about how these kids might grow up differently from those around them. Grow up different because their hands have touched the grounds of where their food was birthed. They are closer to the Earth and will respect it.  They will be leaders after tasting a bit of what life can be when you live outside the status quo for your town.

After a wonderful week of farming and climbing through the El Yunque Rainforest, we capped off the week of farming with a trip to Culebra, a small island East of mainland Puerto Rico, my eyes meeting vast aqua waters for the first time. Mountainous cliffs lining the countours beckon you to dive in. My friends shared their snorkling masks, which opened up a whole new world of wonder, discovery. A rich reminder that there is EVEN so much more out there than we can fathom.

Traveling opens your eyes to new people, new cultures, new landscapes. And now, it opened me to life beneath the water. The coral reefs right there below. Fish of many hues and sizes darting in and out of caverns. I’ve always known there’s a huge whole world above us- being the night sky filled with billions of stars, most of which are imperceptible to human eyes. And now, to be reminded of entire ecosystems below the surface of the water, I am blown away into wonder and grandeur and mystery. As the sun sank below palm trees, we built a fire on the beach and ran streaking into the water skinny dipping. It was everything I thought it would be, minus my second jellyfish sting of the night.

As we took the ferry back to mainland Puerto Rico, I chatted with Lena, a student in microbiology at the University of Puerto Rico. “It’s amazing because here I am on this one part of the island, in one school, and there’s all this out there,” she shared in awe. I told her that’s how I feel when I look up at the stars.  Together, the stars and waters below sing of a world that feels even bigger.
IMG_1042We are invited into a life that tells us to look up, look around, look below. A life that takes the attention away from worries or our own selfishness because so many beautiful places exist without the contribution of human hands. Rainforests. Coral reefs. They will continue making beautiful and we will be here to awe, wonder, and appreciate hopefully with hearts that treat the Earth with the kindness its placid ways deserve.

I can’t believe I’d ever think to miss out on trips like this because I was afraid. Afraid to stay with people I never met before. Afraid to try something so unknown. But never again.

All of this has left me in love with the world, lusting after all the places that I will never get to taste, see, or touch simply because the world is huge- reminded like they sang in the Lion King that there is “more to be seen than can ever be seen, more to do than can ever be done.”

It pains me because I will always want more. I will always want to see more, to keep needing to press the zoom-out button on my worldview lens because it keeps expanding. But instead of loathing that it’s all too much, I celebrate that tonight. I celebrate the opportunity we have to do some of that seeing and doing while we still have breath in our lungs. Because we have been invited to get into life.

Get into the kind of life that loves this world, all of it, the things you cannot see under ocean waters when you fly over them.
Get into a life that looks up regularly. For inspiration. For perspective. For no other reason than to use the eyes you’ve been given.
Get into a kind of life that loves people– loves to get mouths and hearts talking about the things that really matter to each one.
Get into loving God, your creator, whatever that name is to what/whom you attribute the great celestial connection of earth and land and people and connection. I am finding God is out here everywhere, especially in laughter, showing me the light at the end of the tunnel to all of my unfounded fears. I watch this God and this world take away my fears like carbon dioxide as I release the poisons that trap and breathe in the invitation to this new kind of life.

Because the adventure is calling in whispers and shouts across the sky, “Will you get into life?” 

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Audacious Freedom: Screaming YES ‘Til We’re Breathless

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 stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel…the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.” I get that feeling every morning and afternoon as my feet touch pedals, epitomizing that freedom she talked so wisely about in 1896. And tonight, two days in from the dawning of Daylight Saving Time, I’m delighting in this audacious freedom again and again as fresh air fuses with endorphins. A smile creeps up inside of me that simply cannot be held back.
And so tonight, as I’m about to go into my house and say goodnight to another beautiful day of freedom and bikes, something catches me outside for the umpteeth time. Maybe it’s the clear sky above me. Or the fact that I am out here in a t-shirt for the first night after a long winter that developed its own vocabulary (“polar vortex:” who can forget that, and what it feels like).
But I lay here.
I should be preparing for an interview tomorrow.

But I lay here.
I should probably go inside and get proper rest.

But I lay here.

All I can see above me is the moon, this ever present wonder in the sky that shows up night after night to remind us that life moves on, moves forward. 
Stars scatter the sky daring us to notice them, not to show off, but so that we will show up. To be here now. To stop missing the beauty that’s above you, watching over you day after day, night after night.

So I will lay here.

Freedom and life surge through my veins, a restlessness that can only be quelled by uncharted territories and taking chances and by the story that comes from when you start doing the things you’re scared of. When you stop waiting for feelings of confidence and reassurance and do it anyway, unarmed and unfettered. 

There’s no time to waste when all around you, the stars, the birds, the infantile crocus pecking its way through once snow-covered ground each beg your soul to awaken.

And so just for tonight, I won’t care about what time I go to bed.

I won’t frantic over tomorrow.

All I will care about is filling my heart with this Earth, overjoyed by the ability to walk, skip, and jump on it, along with all these beautiful people that inhabit it.

Copyright MO 2012

Copyright MO 2012

I look up at the moon once more. It’s traversed a part of the sky and moved what looks like just a few feet to the left, but indeed it has moved so many more. I try to picture it in the exact spot where it was an hour ago when I first came out here, but it begs me to let it go and stop trying to rearrange life and all of its pieces the way that I want them all to turn out.

   
I’ll let go.
And stay up too late.

And binge on open sky that opens hearts which open mouths and together, we’ll speak from bodies standing tall, hands outstretched screaming “YESSSS!” until we’re breathless.

Copyright MO 2009

Copyright MO 2009

Ashes of Hope: My Love of Lent but Not of Murder on a Cross (PLUS 40 Days of Sustainability coming soon)

Even the winter won’t last forever. We’ll see the morning, we’ll feel the sun.
We’ll wake up in April, ready and able, Sowing the seeds in the soil.
Even the darkness cannot disarm us. We’ll see the morning, we’ll feel the sun.
-Audrey Assad

Easter is what many would argue to be the quintessential turning point of the Christian faith. The crux. The climax of the story. The thing that you must be able to articulate into carefully formed sentences depicting your belief, as though words and theology solely define your spirituality and very existence. Perhaps from all of this lies the basis for the trite messages that I, along with so many others, have heard about the Christian faith. “Jesus died for your sins.” “Jesus paid the debt.” “Jesus stood in your place and died for you so that you might have life.”

And if those words bear truth and meaning to you, I have not come to take them away, nor discredit them.

It’s just not the Jesus I’ve come to know, face-to-face in my human spiritual struggle. 

The Jesus I’ve come to know didn’t die at the hands of a blood-thirsty, vampire-like God who needs to see someone murdered in order to forgive people. The Jesus I’ve come to know, and the God to whom he points, is a rebel. A revolutionary who challenged the privileged and elevated the marginalized. Who spoke out of turn, unafraid to make people think harder about themselves and the world around them. Who taught us to slow down long enough from our exhausted minds to “look at the birds and flowers,” and to be a visionary in whatever issue your culture is facing.
Direct from the mouth of this revolutionary contains the most gripping parts of the Eastertide story, in my experience. The pieces that I rarely heard pastors and Bible study leaders quote. The part where Jesus, our supposed role model, screams up at God, “My God, My God, Why have you screwed me like this?”  Because that’s life, that’s reality. That’s the affirmation I look for when I’m stuck in the mud and mire and all around me are hope-depleted apertures crying out for just a flick of mercy from a kind and loving God, begging for auspices that come from this Divine Light. And to hear Jesus utter these same words gives me confidence that I am in good company when I am in the thick of the squall and my once blithe heart feels incapable of coming back to me. When I’m a low that low, that’s when I know I’m only a few steps out from mercy. Because we, like Jesus, get to experience the surge of joy that is the resurrection, ashes of hope that sing of redemption.

I think these ashes of hope are what the soul longs for. Beyond a good love story, a good hope story. To know that all of our troubles will not be squandered, but used for fodder to keep these tales of beauty-from-pain alive. To give us the fortitude to know, anchored in our core, that it doesn’t matter what comes our way, for it won’t last forever. But the feelings of hope and the aftermath of beauty will hit us so viscerally that we tear up at the thought, “I didn’t know life could be this good.”

This is why I haven’t given up on Lent or Easter, despite some of my theological wrestlings and frustrations with the traditional teachings of this spiritual season. Lent draws out the heart’s ability to draw nigh to your Creator. A 40 day season containing strong, beautiful symbolism. Death from life. Life from death. The two are inseparable. Hope is reborn, recycled out of crushed pain and heartache. The timing of this season enhances the meaning all the more to me, as we begin Lent in the waning winter, in which it is still snowing as I write this. But we end Lent well into spring. During those 40 days, shoots on trees develop, buds blossom to form magnolia flowers- my absolute favorite tree on this planet that reminds me there is no cold that cannot be endured to eventually give way to life. The sun graces us for 2.5 minutes longer each day, until we’ve accumulated some 177.5 minutes of additional daylight come Easter evening, thanks, largely in part, to Daylight Savings Time. (Can you tell yet that spring is my favorite season and consumes many of my thoughts?)

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Copyright MO 2013

And so I don’t know where your heart is this season. Maybe it’s hiding in guilt and shame, underneath a veil of many coverings, because you feel it has gone so far awry from any sort of “straight and narrow.” Maybe your heart is parched, longing for a bit of this hope story. Or maybe your heart abounds in a joy so full, that it might cry droplets of gratitude onto baby seedlings that will soon lean their faces toward the sun for the first time. But one thing I do know, as we forge into spring, is that all around you, life begs your soul to awaken, and if it cannot awaken on its own, let its colours take you to places unknown until hope uncovers and your soul sees vibrant hues ablaze in beauty.

But there will come a time, you’ll see, with no more tears.
And love will not break your heart, but dismiss your fears.
Get over the hill and see what you find there
With grace in your heart and flowers in your hair.
-Mumford and Sons

    

Coming tomorrow: My 40 Day Sustainability Plan- Come observe Lent through environmental social justice

A Semi-Charmed Kind of Snow

“I guess the winter makes you laugh a little slower,
Makes you talk a little lower.
I can’t remember all the times I tried to tell my myself to
hold on to these moments as they pass…” -Counting Crows

       

Baltimore is a place I hold tight to my heart anytime of year, and this winter is no different. Popularized as “Charm City,” it lives up to this famed moniker if you stick around long enough. Long enough to understand what the “Smalltimore effect” is. Long enough to know the names of each neighborhood (or, that is, most of them; Baltimore has over 225!) and what makes each one unique. Long enough to know what all the cool people do the last Friday night of the month.

I haven’t had a winter with this much happiness in a long time, mostly because I’m usually SAD. (To all my relatives in Florida, it’s not made up; I swear.) I caught a quick reprieve in 2012, (The Winter It Didn’t (Really) Snow) but sure enough, it came back with a vengeance in 2013, though a bit more bearable than I could ever remember before. And fastforward to this year, I’m on my 5th snow day off from work, and perhaps counting. But there’s a neighborly aura this winter that’s intoxicating.

So when I walked in the door to my house Wednesday evening, lighthearted in anticipation of another snow day, I declared to my roommate, “I’m treating tonight like it’s Friday.”

“Me too!” She called out, as we whooped and hollered jovially over the snowy forecast. Weather.com was a hoot this week, claiming everything from “BEWARE: CRIPPLING ICE STORM LIKELY THIS WEEK” —– an alarming adjective that wasn’t even PC twenty years ago—– to “Winter Storm Quintus to Undergo ‘Bombogenesis.'” [Bombogenesis: a mid-latitude cyclone that drops in surface barometric pressure by 24 or more millibars in a 24-hour period. Source: Nerdy meteorological websites]

Eagerly awaiting the snow, I leisurely biked to the gym, greeted by small pecks of icy snow falling from the sky. I stretched out in yoga class undistracted, child’s pose-ing and downward dog-ing to my heart’s content. Then I lifted weights wondering how many of my friends were in walking distance to Wyman Park to be able to go sledding tomorrow night. And finally, when I’d had enough exercise, I sank into the hot tub inside of the women’s locker room with no intent on hurrying home to make my lunch or lay out work clothes. As I biked home, I knew that even if we didn’t have a snow day tomorrow, there was one thing the snow already taught me: to be happy and present, no matter what day of the week it is. Because even if I had to slave away at my desk for a long work day tomorrow, my night was better because of my lack of fixation over it.

And sure enough, before I hit the sack Wednesday night, I celebrated the text message I received stating that work would be closed tomorrow. The 12+ inches that ensued afforded many beautiful moments that wouldn’t have otherwise been possible.

chicken eyes closedI was able to spend a leisurely hour and a half up the street at Baltimore Free Farm feeding and snuggling with chickens.

I packed inside of friends’ living rooms watching the Olympics, then, re-created them at a local park where friends and I sledded, saucer-ed and snowtubed down a staircase-turned-snow ramp. The antics continued as we set out for steeper and steeper slopes, until a few of our crew decided to brave the steepest hill of them all. We chanted friends’ names as they braved a steep incline, a very bumpy bump halfway down the hill, and then finally, a three foot high wall before hitting the snow below with a loud “thud.” And sure enough, a couple not only were courageous enough to go down, but managed to stay affixed to their sled, and we fans gave them an enthusiastic perfect “10”.

I listened to the ambiance of light falling snow from inside an abandoned igloo our group stumbled upon, able to understand why Inuit populations would be satisfied with calling this a home.

I watched people come together when two MTA buses got stuck going uphill. Armed with shovels in hand, the spirited citizens took a pause from their rescue effort long enough to fill in my boyfriend and me, who were passers-by, on the scope. “You see the first bus over there?” one of the women pointed. “It’s inches away from that parked car to the right. But we called a tow truck; I’m hopeful they’ll be able to make it out here.” Snow. Bringing together bus drivers and neighbors, one fishtail collision at a time.

Time away from my usual 9-5 routine gave me time to listen to a podcast in which a friend was interviewed on a local radio station discussing social activism and racism after a flurry of Baltimore blog posts depicting frustrations about the city’s crime were published. The clip was invigorating, reminding me that we are a city of activists, and there’s beautiful people all around who are eagerly moving in their spheres of influence to spread love and kindness all over this diverse city.

The snowstorm allowed me to meet neighbors I wouldn’t have otherwise met, since I never seem to be home anymore. Two of them offered to help push Brian’s car up the hill when his tires were spinning over ice and snow. They cheered along with us when he finally got out of his parking spot. The other neighbor I just met this morning, as she was shoveling out her car. After some brief cordials, I found out she moved here from Illinois.

“So when did you move here to the block?” I asked.
“Oh just a few weeks ago,” she shared.
You’ll love it,” I shared, remembering my move-in day a year and a half ago.

I’ve had a year and a half of beautiful Baltimore memories, and an additional year prior of not-so-good B-more memories, mostly consisting of moving and growing pains before I found friends and freedom, two components, I’d soon learn, that are entirely quintessential to the journey. We learn from the past as pain recycles itself into unspeakable beauty, sewing together memories like powerlines and clothing lines, connecting neighbor to neighbor, neighborhood to neighborhood.

To let you in on a little secret, (since I feel like I’m cheating on my Baltimore love for doing this), I recently applied for a dream job in DC that includes free housing. If I were to get it, I’ll be moving to DC in July. And much like Counting Crows, I’m finding myself in awe of the myriad of treasured memories that I, too, long fervently to hold on to as they pass…

And if I’m lucky, this winter just might churn out one more snowstorm, and I’ll see you at the park, together laughing all the way into the night…

Photo credit: Dave Reichley

Photo credit: Dave Reichley

60 Seconds of Beauty Before Smashing Your Head Into The Keyboard

smash headToday is one of those “smash face into keyboard to continue” days. Smartphoneless, I discovered I missed several important emails, including a few deadlines. I began a grad class this week. Work, often feast-or-famine with the patient population I work with, who experience several barriers to medical care, was definitely a feast this week. A large one. Thanksgiving with all your extended relatives, kind of feast. Add triathlon training, a conviction to be a better friend/family member, and a few other commitments, I noticed the all-too-familiar trap of spreading myself thin in a flurry of perfectionism.

But before I could drag myself into work for one final day this week, I marveled at an urban creek that I pass on my commute to work each day. Sun kissing ice blocks in emerald green water, a gem amongst graffiti and the click-clack of trains off in the distance. “Lord of Lords,” an old hymn, comes to my mind, and I suddenly find my soul in a pining connection to the lyrics, “Keep my eyes fixed upon Jesus’ face. Let not the things of this world ever sway me.” As much as I refuse to go back to my former version of Christianity, there is so much that I want to make sure I don’t let go of. And one of those things is to keep steady resolve on Jesus’ ways, because that way of living feels more fulfilling, more rich. A teacher who catches us in the midst of snowballing worry, and looks us in the eye to say, “Hey! Snap out of it. Can worry add a single minute to your life?” (aka what I hear from Matthew 6:7).

Copyright: MO Baltimore, MD

Copyright: MO
Baltimore, MD

This winter, I’ve been blown away by the beauty of the Falls. Each morning, I give myself permission to temporarily fix my gaze from the road to this scene of peace. Usually frantically running late to work, I often glance only long enough to smile at it. But today I decided to stop long enough to hop off my bike, take a picture, and remember the words of Anna Quindlen: “And realize that life is glorious, and you have no business taking it for granted…” (From “Life’s Little Instruction Book.”)

Biking along the Falls, I feel as though I’m being taken away to Canada. One to share my voice only to the shower vapors, I softly sing aloud, “on the lakes of Canada…” Instead of aimlessly passing up the opportunity to be transported, I intentionally decide to stop whooshing by it and stop for just 60 seconds to soak it all in. 60 seconds to let my eyes dilate, absorb light and movement, to not think about anything in particular, to just be. 60 seconds to create experiences of beauty.

It was the best 60 seconds I’ve spent today. I’m so tired of rushing through life, not pausing to create moments of peace, order, beauty, serenity. Because unless we stop, unless we do something to forge scenes of beauty, unless we sew them together with beautiful seams of peaceful patchwork, we can easily forget. At least, I do. We forget the peace that can be found in this world. Forget how beautiful it is, because in the celerity, in the achievement-oriented rat race, it can seem like peace, beauty and order have left the building.

It’s no coincidence to me that as I hop back on my bike, the next piece of graffiti I find is the wall that over the summer read in big letters,

Go placidly amongst the noise and haste…
                             and know the peace there is in the silence.

go placidly amongst the noise and haste

I’m going to stop more. Because it’s up to us to create scenes of beauty in our lives. It’s up to us; it’s our responsibility because if we can’t find peace and order and beauty, then maybe we aren’t stopping long enough to actually exhale and find it.

Yes, I will take ownership for having peaceful moments in my life. And be gracious to myself when I forget to stop—When I’m at my desk, smashing my head into the keyboard for one more day, kicking myself for not stopping.

Tomorrow, I’ll begin again. The Falls will be there. Birds on Trees will be there.

“Flowers in the garden.
Laughter in the hall.
Children in the park.
I will not take these things for granted…
…Anymore.”

-Toad the Wet Sprocket 

Chickens, Snow Days & Ubuntu: What Clucking Hens Taught me About Love + Attachment

I can’t stop thinking about them; their cuddly little bodies and jovial clucks. While the weekdays can often slip away, one of my favorite ways to mark a no-work weekday snow day is to take a stroll up the street to an urban farm in my neighborhood and play with them. The minutes pass by leisurely, a slow drift from morning snow to calm evening walks under falling flakes, shining like miniature sugar cookies against the street lights. Somewhere in between those morning and evening hours, I take pictures of them like these:

IMG_0150IMG_0169chicken face

They’re chickens. But not just chickens. They’re Barred Rock, Leghorns, Orpingtons, and Black Chochins. They’re not just breeds, but have names, nicknames. Belle. Scratch. Buddy.

I’ve always wanted to go vegetarian and have done so in small bits and spurts. But after reading an article in Christianity Today this past October about Lamppost Farm, which provides chicken killing demonstrations in order to teach people about the sacrifice of Jesus’ death, my decision to go vegetarian was re-affirmed.

“One by one, the birds are hung by their feet on a backboard of metal sheeting with wood bracers, where their throats are cut and bled out. Next, the limp birds are scalded in 150-degree water before visiting the de-featherer, then the stainless-steel cleaning table. There, the feet, head, organs, lungs, and trachea are removed, in that order. The next bird does not die as gracefully. I make the cut more quickly, drawing the knife deeply through the throat in a single back-and-forth, like a violin bow. But when I release her, she flaps wildly for a moment in spasms that don’t seem involuntary. So violent is the reaction that the chicken actually kicks loose one of her legs from the holding prongs, and I must refasten her. Then, she’s still.  ‘It’s disturbing,’ [a participant says]. “It’s supposed to be,” [the farmer says]. “We’re not supposed to take a life and then say, Well, whatever. That’s not how we’re made.”

The fact that this group kills living creatures—creatures God created, mind you— in an attempt to show people that God loves us crushes my heart as I scratch my head, wondering, once again, “Have we missed the point of faith?” That people can disregard life and kill it in the name of God is beyond me. All of this left me feeling that I am no longer detached from the killing process that goes into eating meat. I now know, graphically, what a murderous process it is.

IMG_0135So since reading that article, I’ve been spending some with these chicken lovelies and my life has not been the same. Cuddled in the nook of my arm, this beautiful hen, softly cooing, pulls my heart, ears, and eyes in closer. The chickens taught me that we can choose to keep things close or far away. But if you are brave enough, and willing enough, to get really close instead of passively, comfortably at a distance from the unknown, things will change, will become real. Become visceral. You will be changed and you won’t be able to look at things the same way.

Because you chose to get close.

The closer I am to these creatures, the more I want to love them, hold them, see their inherent worth and dignity as a living creature, and do everything in my power to protect their life and well-being.

And isn’t that the way it goes with everything? The closer we get towards what we don’t understand, the more compassion we feel for others.

The closer we get towards poverty, the more we understand why not everyone can simply “pull themselves up by the bootstraps.”
The closer we get towards people from sexual orientations other than heterosexual, the more we realize how unjust it is that these fellow sisters and brothers are denied 1,138 rights that heterosexual couples are freely granted.
The more we choose to center our lives around loving our neighbors and living sustainably, the more we reject capitalism and living solely for ourselves.
The more we leave our houses and two car garages, the more we interact with the world around us. As Jack Kerouac once said,

“The closer you get to real matter, rock, air, fire, and wood, boy, the more spiritual the world is.”

The more spiritual the world is, the more we are willing to sacrifice a car ride for a bicycle ride, and light switches for natural light. We become close enough to crave the sanctuary that the trees and humming rivers provide and see God far beyond steeples and pews, into everything the daylight and moonlight touches.
The more we get to know the names, life experiences, faces, joys, struggles, and dreams of someone from a religion other than our own, the more we come to recognize that we come from the same God, and we now see no divisions, just a flowing river of love pouring from my heart to your heart and everyone else’s heart in between.

Yes, outside, everyday, are people, places, and animals that invite us into holy, intimate connection. Into what many South Africans, including Nelson Mandela, call “ubuntu-” the concept that we teach each other how to be human. That I cannot become human without your humanness, for we learn how to become moving, walking, talking people from each other. “You can’t be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality — Ubuntu — you are known for your generosity,” Archbishop Desmond Tutu explains. “
We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole world. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.”

The birds of the air, the waters of the sea, and even these adorable warbles of chickens with thick feathers and skinny legs have something to teach us. The invitation is waiting. The world opens up wide as you expand your heart in the spirit of closeness, togetherness, ubuntu, attachment, and learning.

Namaste.

The God in me greets the God in you.