2017: The Year of Loving-Kindness

This post is a bit late, as I wanted to write it as a New Years 2017 post, but I feel like with the current political climate in the US and the tensions being created, this post might be appropriate on the day of Donald Trump’s Inauguration.

To follow up my intentions and past year of work being more authentic and vulnerable, I want to make 2017 my year of Loving-Kindness. What is Loving-Kindness and how did I get to this point of inviting it into my life? During my two months of time off for self-care and self-reflection before my Australian Adventure, I began to look into Buddhist practices and beliefs. Prior to this time, I had basic knowledge about Buddhism and what I did know, made sense to me in the broader context of the world. As I explored more into Buddhist practices and beliefs, I stumbled upon Metta meditations, otherwise known as Loving-Kindness meditations.

Loving-Kindness meditations are meant to free us from suffering, by dispelling previously held beliefs that we are all separated, and acknowledging that indeed we, all living beings, are connected in this universe, and that there is potential for love in all of us. For someone who had been closed off to real love, love from within and love from my friends and family, this concept of Loving-Kindness spoke to me as something I needed to continue to cultivate, because for so long, I’ve felt separated, alone, unlovable and unable to love.

Luck came my way when I found a great book on understanding and cultivating Loving-Kindness through meditation and I decided to give it a try. The first phase of Metta focuses on generating loving-kindness from within. In order to be able to transmit Loving-Kindness outwardly, it first must be generated from within, towards yourself, otherwise if you can’t be kind to yourself, you will never authentically be kind to others. The literal translation of Metta means “to be gentle” or “friend”, therefore it is my responsibility to be my own gentle friend.

When thinking about a good friend, they aren’t only there to help you celebrate the good times, they are the shoulder to cry on during the bad. They are constant, through the happy and the sad.This right here, being my own friend, through the thick and thin, is what I was lacking. I was a terrible friend to myself, especially when things would go wrong. When shit hit the fan, I would blame, ridicule, guilt and put myself down. Reflecting now, I truly did not like who I was. The first phase of Loving-Kindness is to be a gentle friend to my own soul. I yearn to be my own constant peace and love, no matter what the outside circumstances.

Part two of Loving-Kindness is to show it to friends and family. Over the holidays, this is what I practiced the most. I made sure to get back in touch with friends who I rarely see or speak to, I continued to show my love and support for friends in my immediate circle of daily life, and I made an effort to show my love and appreciation through gifts, small gestures and cards. These small offerings were gestures of my love  and appreciation for my friends and family, and it allowed me to feel more connected to these people in my life. I was able to quell the fear of loneliness and separation by making an effort to stay connected, and be grateful for all who was in my life. This is a continuous process, being self-aware and acknowledging when I am thinking about someone, BUT ALSO making an effort to show them I am thinking about them.

Part three, the part that is most difficult, is to offer Loving-Kindness to others, especially the ones who I may feel don’t deserve it. The challenge is offer Loving-Kindness to those who have hurt me, those who will try to hurt me, those  who are hurting, those who have so much hate in their hearts that they project it outwardly. In order to do this, I need to remember that they too were once born with Loving-Kindness in their heart, and the circumstances in their life changed them to be negative, feel bitter, hold hate, project hate, be fearful. They were all victims once, and their actions now reflect their experiences that they are still holding and have yet to let go. For me, this phase of Loving-Kindness  will not be easy. It has taken lots of changes in my thoughts and actions to try and give Loving-Kindness to these people , but I’ve found that it is worth my hard work. Not only do I sometimes come out of stressful situations feeling more confident, more at ease, but sometimes the people with heaviness in their hearts come out feeling lighter too.

I am extremely grateful to have found Loving-Kindness and to be practicing it every day. There are lots of people in this world who project hate, fear, and negativity and it is inevitable that I will have to interact with them. Being in control of the way I act, I can project Loving-Kindness no matter the difficulty of circumstances, and in the end I believe that I will be better for it. For me, it is comforting to know when you meet the Donald Trumps of the world, the people who spout hate, and try to divide when you know that we are all spiritually connected, I can be my own anchor of peace and love, and project that outward. Who knows, maybe it might be contagious.

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Taking Life By the Balls

Today is the day that I take life by the balls. It’s been a year in a half in the making, two months in the planning and a whole lot of emotional and spiritual growth to get here. Before today, I was a scared, anxious girl who went through life playing the victim. I watched my life pass me by as if it was playing on the big screen and I was a paying customer. Yes, I made decisions and yes, I was going through the motions of life, but I did not feel like an active and willing participant. Things happened to me and I passively reacted. I had goals and dreams but they seemed far off in the distance, impossible to achieve. Today is the day that changes. Today is the day I head out on my Australian adventure.

A year in a half ago, I had the idea to try an Australian working holiday when I was out visiting my friend Brendan in Minnesota. As he was telling me about his experience in Australia, I started to wonder if I was capable of trying this once in a lifetime experience. Fear had prevented me from not going into the Peace Corps directly after college and fear had prevented me from not teaching English abroad after grad school, two experiences I regret not doing. This working holiday in Australia seemed like the perfect way to get a similar experience living abroad and it couldn’t have come at a better time.

Over the past year, I had become overwhelmingly disappointed living and working in Philadelphia and I felt the need to start looking for a new place to call home. Since I can remember, I’ve always dreamed of moving to Colorado because of the landscape and the lifestyle it affords. This has been my dream that alluded me since I was sixteen. This is what I once thought was impossible, but now I know it’s within reach. My Australian adventure will be my last hoorah before my relocation to Colorado, as a way to reignite my passion for life.

It hasn’t been an easy road, planning and prepping this Australian adventure. There have been multiple setbacks, including the expiration of my original visa. I’ve struggled with the decision to go, leaving my dog, my comfort zone and all of the friends and family that I love. I’ve anxiously debated if I could manage to work and live in another country successfully. I’ve struggled to hide my doubts with a fake smile and laugh as other friends and family members have expressed their excitement, their joy, their support for my trip. As my departure date has drawn closer, I’ve become more comfortable with my decision, more confident that this will be an amazing experience. But I guarantee the meltdowns will come. I guarantee things might not work out as planned. And I guarantee there will be times when I question myself as to what I’m doing.  But ultimately, I truly believe that this adventure is just what is needed for me to move on to the next chapter of my life.

I have specific intentions for my Australian adventure, which I will be writing about in later posts. But today, I’m making the conscious decision to change my life’s trajectory instead of maintaining the status quo, despite all of the anxiousness, insecurities, and doubt that come with it. So today, this girl is taking life by the balls and being that badass I always knew I could be.

And So It Begins

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Once, I was asked to write the most beautiful 4 word story and my response was

“And so it begins…”

To me, those four words symbolize optimism, hope, joy,  a sense of adventure and even a sense of mystery, the very things that are the most beautiful in life. But each new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end. Therefor let’s go back to the very start of the beginning.

And so it ended.

Today, my life as usual ended. After months of crying, deliberating, weighing my options, talking with my therapist, and listening to my intuition, I’ve decided I’m ready to be on a different path.

Today is the day I resigned from my job. I finally saw the forest through the trees. I had been unhappy for months. I was questioning why each day I made a conscious decision to go to a place I throughly despised. It was like being in an unhealthy relationship with an emotionally abusive boyfriend. Each day I would feel like I was required to do more and more to earn admiration and respect, yet the worse I felt the more I wanted to earn respect. But as I continued to look around at the teachers that I considered to be “respectable”, their faces gave away their feelings of exhaustion and frustration. Was this what I really wanted?

Today is the day, I realized I don’t want to live in Philadelphia any longer. Deep down I knew that I wanted to leave, but what I grappled with was the idea of leaving what I’ve known, what I’ve built, and the people I’ve loved for the past 11 years.

I first remember when I started exploring the city, as a suburban kid, thinking that Philadelphia was huge and magnificent with all of its wonders. I was enticed by its niche neighborhoods, unique local spots, and great opportunities for arts and culture, sometimes in the most unexpected places. The grittiness of the city was apparent in the attitude of its residents,  especially its sports fans and that was something I took pride in. But today, Philadelphia has lost that splendor. I desire a new destination, a place I have been longing to be ever since I was 16.

Today is the day I took control of my life, I chose to be the adventurer and not the victim. For as I long as I can remember, I’ve been making excuses for why I’m not living the life that I truly desire. Today, I’m done making excuses. What I want is to live in a place where I am truly happy, can be my best self, with all of the things I need in order to sustain my happiness. I am ready to make sacrifices, to work hard, in order to achieve my goals. And I’m finally able to say with certainty what my goals are in my next phase in my life.

And so it begins.

A new chapter of my life begins with starting with an adventure of my lifetime. Piggybacking off of my Year of No Fear, I am about to do something that I have dreamt of doing since college, but never had the balls to do. I will be living and working in another country,  Australia, for six to eight months on a work holiday visa.

When my friends and family have asked me about my plan for Australia, I simply state, “My plan is not to have a plan.” I have ruminated about this for the past year, and I have decided that Australia is a chance for me to listen to my inner voice, my intuition and learn to trust and follow it with devotion. Over the course of my lifetime, I’ve struggled to find and stand by my convictions. I’ve lacked confidence in my abilities and dreams and have been easily influenced and distracted by others. The past two years of my life, I’ve been on a soul searching mission, desperately trying to find my path and make the right choices to get there. Therefore, by going to Australia without a plan, I can engage in one of my deepest passions in life, traveling. I will be able to travel at my pace, on my time, without any external influences. A flexible itinerary will afford me the opportunity to be present in each moment and decide what is best in that moment. It will allow me to better understand the Soul of the World, be open to signs from the Universe directing me to my righteous path.  I have found, the more open I am to opportunity, the more a plan unfolds before me without stress or effort.

And what happens after Australia? Well, that is also up in the air. I have ideas of moving out west, to Colorado, Arizona or Utah. Will I go back to teaching? I’m not sure. My career path, ultimately, is uncertain. I may also want to start settling down, thinking about a family, a house, building a more permanent life. Or my time in Australia might have the opposite effect and show me a path to build a life of traveling.What ever life has in store, I know that I want to embrace what comes next, the good, the bad, the emotionally crippling or the genuine bliss.

To go back those four beautiful words, invoking passion, inspiration, a sense of adventure, optimism, they maintain ambiguity but identify that something new is about to begin. I hope my trip to Australia does the same.

And so, it begins.

 

Embrace the Swim

 

IMG_0257To swim in the world of white water kayaking means to exit the boat and literally swim through the rapid. Depending on the rapid it can be quite scary and depending on the circumstances it can be quite defeating. Swimming can take an amazing weekend of paddling and turn it into a weekend of self-doubt, regret and anger instantaneously.  One weekend kayaking on the Lower Youghiogheny River in Ohiopyle, PA, helped me to learn to embrace the swim. Some names have been changed to respect friends’ anonymity.

This is happiness. I professed this to myself as I was having an epiphany in the back of a Chevrolet Astro. I had just taken off the river on the Lower Yough with a victory beer in hand, sitting on the floor of my Uncle Sammy’s van.  Sammy and Gary, two of my paddling buddies, were in the front seat and  I was sitting on the floor in the back, all of us jamming out to a classic rock cassette tape as the van carting our kayaks hustled up the hill. The van swayed back and fourth, mimicking the rocking of the waves on the river as it hit every bump on the gravel road.

We were stoked. We had a stellar day on the river surfing waves, successfully hitting combat rolls, punching through rapids and cherished camaraderie with friends. My Uncle Sammy and I needed to have a successful day on the river. We had both walked off the river after taking some gnarly swims the day prior.

The Lower Youghiogheny’s water level had been extremely high that week leading up to our paddling adventure. Our first day on the river the water level was at 3.58, more than double the level on a typical release weekend. I had no business being on the river at that level. I was paddling a Dagger Agent 6.0, my little red play boat that I had bought the previous season. I had only paddled the Yough when the water level was at 1.5 the summer prior, and had barely made it down successfully. With only one year of paddling experience under my belt, deep down I knew paddling the river at this level was going to be quite a challenge, but I wanted to prove I could do it.

As I was unloading my gear from my car, I was listening intently to my friends Craig, Lori and Katie, all experienced paddlers, commenting on how the increased level was going to change the river.

It’ll be pushier. 

There will be bigger wave trains.

The higher level will wash out the small waves and yet significantly increase others.

I was nervous as I took in the beta, but continued readying my gear, determined to test my skill on the river.

When I put on the water, I was uneasy to say the least. My nerves took hold of me as I decided to practiced my roll, asking my friends to hang out for a bow rescue if needed. Although I was able to roll back up each time, I could feel that my roll was inconsistent. The lack of practice during the off season was definitely to blame. I could also tell that I had lost my repose with being upside down under water, a comfortability that is definitely worth having in white water kayaking.

Bound and determined to paddle the river and prove myself as a kayaker, I decided to press on anyways. The first of the big rapids was Entrance, a long stretch of rocks that creates holes, pour overs and surfing waves as far as the eye can see. I decided to catch the first surfing wave at Entrance in order to get comfortable in my boat. After catching the first eddy (still water behind a rock), I paddled as hard as I could past the eddy line and ferried over to catch the wave. My boat caught the pillow as I surfed for a couple of seconds. As I surfed from side to side, my nerves subsided as I continued to feel more relaxed in the boat. I ferried across the river to catch the next eddy, where all of my friends were waiting. I observed  my Uncle Sammy paddle out to catch the second wave, and as he went to turn in the wave, the water caught his tail and flipped him immediately. I watched in disbelief as Sammy tried to roll, but for whatever reason he missed the roll, popped out of his boat as the current carried him and his boat down stream. The look on his face was one of confusion, disappointment and concern. Watching Sammy swim, was alarming and rocked me to my core, compounding my anxiety.

To understand the reasons why Sammy’s swim affected me so greatly, one must understand how I came to know Uncle Sammy. I met him during my first trip on the Lower Youghiogheny River. I was invited out by members of the Philadelphia Canoe Club to stay on his plot of land in Ohiopyle, known as “The Ranch”. My first time being on that river in a hard boat, he took my under his wing and guided me down the easy lines, describing in detail each rapid and how I was to approach them. He was well acquainted with the river, its features and you could tell by his strokes, he was very comfortable on the water. His first words of advice to me besides spending more time in the boat, was to allow myself to feel the rhythm of the river, as he explained paddling was “all a dance”. His strokes were fluid, relaxed, a zen-like motion, slicing through the water. His personality just was just as laid back and we bonded over our similar life philosophies and our love of whiskey. After that weekend, I started calling him Uncle Sammy.

My eyes were fixed on Sammy’s swim and rescue as I thought, if he can swim through Entrance, then I, being the novice, am screwed! As I realized that all of the experienced paddlers in my group, all of the people I could follow through Entrance, were down river,  my heart began to beat rapidly. I now had to rely on my own skill as a paddler, reading the river features, to get me through the rapids safely. Before heading out, I remembered the line I had taken through Entrance the few times I’ve paddled on the Lower Yough before. Stay to the left. That was my instinct as I peeled out of the eddy and started heading down river. I tried to scout and find the safe, “V” shaped tongues through the rock garden of Entrance. But as hurriedly as the river was pushing me, I had no time to scout my line properly. My boat was fixed to hit a pour over with a sticky hole at the bottom. As instantaneous as I saw it,  my boat slid over the pour over, pushed forward and was pulled back, catching my stern and flipping me upside down. I tried to punch my paddle to the surface in an attempt to roll but the current was strong and I panicked. I pulled my skirt and popped to the surface, struggling to see the quarter mile rock garden that made up Entrance, all of the consequences I needed to avoid. Frantically, I tried to keep my head afloat and swim to the side of the river, but the current was strong. I was about 200 yards down from where I had exited the boat and my boat was another 50 yards down river.

On the banks of the river I tried to stand up and take a deep breath, but I was exhausted, coughing up water and shaking in shock. I took a few minutes to gather myself and then floated safely down the banks of river to get my boat. I spoke to my friends Craig, Lori and Katie to calm myself down. I asked about Sammy’s rescue. During his rescue, his boat took on so much water that it was difficult to take to shore. His boat ended up below Cucumber and he was more than 500 feet above the rapid. Realizing he had no choice but to walk out of the gorge to catch a trail down to the eddy below Cucumber, he motioned to us that he was walking off.

With his swim, my swim and now Sammy walking off the river, the circumstances injected doubt over my ability to continue on, especially with the biggest vertical drop on the river directly in front of me. Cucumber had always invoked some fear and self-doubt, even at a normal release level. With the higher level of water, the pushiness of the river and now having missed my roll and swimming 200 feet through Entrance, my anxiety was so high that I could barely keep myself together. Craig, Lori and Katie discussed the line to take through Cucumber while I tried to appear calm. When all was decided, we pressed on. I was to follow behind Katie and Craig and then Lori followed me. Katie and Craig, in their large river runner boats, were so fast they left me behind unintentionally. I was so distracted by fear that I hit a small rock above Cucumber and flipped immediately. Without hesitation I pulled my skirt, exited my boat, and again tried to keep my feet pointed down steam and my head above the water. A paralyzing panic ran through my body as I realized I’d be swimming through Cucumber. The last time I swam through Cucumber I cracked my helmet on the large submerged rock, therefore I knew the potential consequences in front of  me. I saw the enormous waves in my view and took a deep breath while my body flailed vertically,the momentum of the wave tumbling me ass over elbow. I washed out of the wave and my friends rushed to save me.

In the eddy below Cucumber, I sat there for a few minutes while  I collected my gear as well as my emotions. The combination of overwhelming fear and adrenaline put me on the verge of tears as I tried to contain them while describing my swim to my friends. In an effort to distract myself and others from my swim, I asked about Sammy, and what the plan was to reunite him with his boat. We decided to take his boat and gear and stash it near the photographer’s perch on the boulder next to Cucumber. Sammy could walk the steep trail down from the road to Cucumber and hopefully rejoin us on the river. We weighed the option of waiting for him, but decided that for sake of time, he would want us to continue our run without him. At this point, our group started considering the possibility of taking out at the Loop, cutting our run short due to the number of swims and the overall demeanor of our group.

When we decided to continue on, Katie came to me and told me to stay on her stern, to drive hard with each paddle stroke, as she was determined that I wasn’t going to swim anymore that day. I was appreciative of her taking initiative which gave me added confidence, a fire, that propelled my determination to continue paddling.

I followed her down Camel Walrus, slotting the Camel rock jutting out to my right and the Walrus rock laying to the left. I leaned forward and drove my paddle into the water in order to brace, while plunging into the sticky hole. Drive, drive, drive. I told myself this as I punched the hole and landed safely in the still water below. Staying upright in the kayak through the rapid was a small victory, providing some added confidence which I desperately needed.

Flying by Eddy Turn, a bunch of rocks and eddies, avoiding it altogether by going river left,  we approached Dartmouth. Katie prepared me for the huge hole by reiterating the need to lean forward and drive. Despite my best effort to follow Katie’s advice, I flipped when I hit the hole, panicked and again swam. My third swim on the river solidified my intent to take off at the Loop and head into town to grab a drink.  Lori, Katie and Craig agreed to the plan.

Paddling up to the Loop take out, we spotted Sammy, waiting for us to get word on the location of his boat. He seemed cool and collected when we told him we had stashed it at Cucumber, meaning he would have to hike back up to the parking lot from the Loop take out, walk through town and then descend the steep trail down to Cucumber, a solid hour and a half adventure that lay ahead of him. Sammy departed on his quest to find his boat as Katie, Craig, Lori and I got out of ours. Getting out  at the Loop Take out was bittersweet. I watched as other boaters I knew continued on, and I couldn’t help but to feel defeated.

The agony of defeat was reiterated by every strained step carrying my boat and gear up the steep trail from the Loop takeout. After all of the boats and gear were situated, our group decided we deserved a beer and a much needed venting session so we headed to the Falls City Pub. The beer and whiskey helped numb my bruised ego, while we recounted the days events. It was particularly frustrating to hear Craig tell me that he believed that with my paddling ability and skill, I was perfectly capable of successfully kayaking the Lower Yough at that level. He suspected I had already defeated myself before putting on the river that day.

Although it was tough to admit, I knew he was correct. This wasn’t the first time I had sabotaged myself with a defeatist attitude, giving up out of fear before I even tried. I wanted to ensure that I killed my fear right then and there, that I wouldn’t allow it to affect my paddling the following day. I started to reflect on how I could change my perspective in order to have a better day on the river as I recognized that I let my fear of the unknown affect my paddling. Instead of being proactive, paddling aggressively, I was reactive and even passive. The two times I flipped was when I had the “deer in headlights” look as I held my paddle parallel to the water instead of having one blade in the foam. Additionally, my best paddling experiences have been when I was jovial, joking around, being a straight up goofball on the water. The fear of paddling in such big water flooded my brain with negative thoughts, leaving little room for my positive, daffy demeanor.

Later at the Ranch, I caught up with Uncle Sammy, and we shared our recounts of the day’s events over shots of whiskey. He told me about his “walk of shame” through town, laughing as he described the amount of people willing to point out that he was walking with only one shoe, (the other he had lost during his swim) as if he had no idea. When we last left him on the river, he was walking to Cucumber to get his boat, but another mutual friend had tackled the task of towing his boat down river to the Loop takeout, thinking he was there waiting for it. The miscommunication of the location of his boat prolonged his misadventure so much so that he even stopped in town to help his wife shop at the local market, still with one shoe, before enlisting her to help drive him back to the Loop to get his boat.

Despite his bad luck that day, and his inevitable frustrations, Sammy was all smiles. He sipped his whiskey, enjoyed the company of his fellow paddlers and retold his story around the campfire at the Ranch and wore it like a badge of honor. His temperament inspired me to remain enthusiastic. Sammy and I swore that night over whiskey shots that we would not walk off the river the next day.

The next day came and Sammy and I were ready for our mulligan, our much needed redemption on the river. We made sure to practice our rolls at the put in and feel confident in our ability to execute. As Sammy stated, “one should always have a roll in the back pocket, just in case you need it.”

We dove head first into the demon that destroyed us the day prior. Entrance. I watched as Uncle Sammy attacked the wave that wiped him out, surfing confidently, settling him in to the day of paddling that awaited. Past the play wave, I followed Craig river right thru Entrance, missing the pour over that shook me and my confidence the previous morning. When our group made it through Entrance, Uncle Sammy and I exchanged glances and head nods, acknowledging our accomplishment, providing a small bit of confidence going into the next rapid.

My next hurdle was to get through Cucumber, that menacing white pillow of water that always cultivated doubt and fear within me. Following Lori and Craig, I took a deep breath and repeated my mantra: drive, drive, drive. Although I paddled with force and aggressively leaned forward, my tiny play boat was spun by the rushing water converging at Cucumber. When I ended up facing upstream, all kayaking knowledge left my brain, and in slow motion I plopped over in the swirling suds. Again I swam at Cucumber, but I was satisfied that I had made it nine tenths of the way down before swimming.

Standing up to get in my boat, I was laughing and joking about how I was literally tossed around in the wave, my boat spinning 180° and how I was so brazen to paddle through Cucumber backwards. Although I swam at Cucumber, my attitude flipped 180° from the previous day. As fate would have it, that was my last swim that day. Both Uncle Sammy and I kept our promise and finished the Lower Yough without walking off. On the shuttle back to the cars, Uncle Sammy and I reveled in our performance as the rickety bus full of kayakers advanced up the hill. At the cars, Sammy and Garry handed me a beer and we toasted to our accomplishment.

As I sat in the back of the Chevy Astro van, reveling in my happiness, I reflected on my swims and knew there were lessons I needed to understand. I realized if I was to continue to be successful in this sport I had to, as my friend Lori stated,”Embrace the swim.”

As I continue tackling challenging rivers and bigger water, inevitably there will be more swims. One of the friendly reminders that my PCC friends often tell me is that if I’m not swimming, then I’m not trying hard enough. Some of the best kayakers I know swim, even on rivers they have paddled numerous times before. Unfortunately the act of swimming can bring self-doubt over one’s ability, one’s worth and even one’s passion for the sport. But the attitude during the swim and the action following the swim are crucial. Embracing the swim means laughing at the mistake you made, or being able to shake it off  and not letting it affect your paddling the rest of the run. After the swim, you have two options, to give up, letting the swim get the best of you, or to get back in the boat, letting your determination drown the fear and instead enjoy the river’s many gifts. Although it was in my best interest to hike off the river the first day, I knew I had to get back in my boat the second day and conquer my fear. If I hadn’t, I might have never gone back to the Lower Yough, and for me that wasn’t an option. Conquering my fear, enjoying the gifts of the river, along with some inspiring and helpful friends was enough to make me declare: This is happiness. And it made the victory beer taste that much sweeter.

 

Disobey Your Mother: Talk to Strangers!

photo 5I had just landed at the Salt Lake City Airport, traveling alone for the night. It was 10pm, frigid cold, and snow was in the forecast. As I waited for the shuttle bus to take me to my rental car, a suave, well-dressed, man approached me asking me where I was headed. This scenario sounds like a mother’s worst nightmare, a scene that could be set in a Hollywood horror movie. “Don’t talk to strangers!” my overprotective mother’s voice popped into my head. If I were to take my mother’s advice, I would have shied away at his first attempt at conversing. But if I did take my mother’s advice, I would have missed out on one amazing opportunity.

This wasn’t the first time I had disobeyed mom’s advice and talked to strangers. By the age of 5, I proved I was audacious enough to accept hotdogs from a stranger at a neighborhood park after running away from a family picnic. While studying abroad for four months at Chelsea College of Art and Design in London, I was the one known for conversing with everyone at the local pub or becoming fast friends with strangers while traveling across Europe. I was couch surfing before the trusted guidance and reliability of the social media site, randomly finding strangers to bunk with for a night.

 

Some, like my mom, have called me crazy, brazen, or naïve.  “You never know their true intentions. You’re my only daughter and I’d like to keep you around!” my mother screamed at me as she shook her head in disapproval, when she learned about my impromptu adventure in Utah. Although I understand her concern, I won’t let those phobias hold me back from some unique opportunities. On my travels I have realized some of the benefits I take away from my interactions with strangers.

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Make an Unusual Connection

When I travel I find that the encounters I have had with strangers always become the highlight of my trip. Nothing feels better to me than knowing that two or more people from different backgrounds are able to make connections, even if just for a few hours. For the past two Christmas’ I have had the pleasure of celebrating at hostels. Usually, Christmas is a time of celebrating the holiday with family. Despite not being in the presence of blood relatives and close friends, the guests at the hostels were able to come together, cook and eat a family dinner, jovially celebrating the holiday. At the dinner table, and even in smaller side conversations we shared what we were thankful for, we shared memories from the past year, we shared jokes, laughs, struggles and sometimes, even tears. It made my heart happy to be around a group of people, that despite not having known one another, were able to share some uniquely intimate moments.

 

Learn Unexpected Lessons

Every time I have struck up a conversation with a stranger, I have found a lesson to take away. Once while staying at a shelter on the Long Trail in Vermont, I met a man named Justin. As we sat by the fire and stared into its embers, he described in detail about how he pursued a relationship with his wife. It took him months to even have a face-to-face encounter with her, patiently waiting for the most opportune time to ask her on a date. Even after being rejected, he still pursued her until she eventually gave him a chance. His story of patience and perseverance made me realize that I want someone to take the time and pursue me. Now, finally, I feel I am worth a man’s time to pursue. Plus having heard his story, I feel that a man’s perseverance proves he has the desire and passion to ensure that a relationship will work. If I never met Justin, I would have never tweaked my own expectations.

 

Enjoy Local Hospitality

While I was on a college trip to Istanbul, Turkey a few of us decided to venture out on our own to explore the city one night. During our exploration, we saw one of our guides, who toured with us earlier that day. She was on her way home and invited us in for a drink. As we drank coffee, we were able to get a small glimpse into her life as a young professional living in Istanbul. This opportunity to drink coffee in her home provided me with a better understanding of Istanbul culture and I learned more in that one hour of intimate conversation than I did in a day on her tour.

 

Create Some Amazing Memories

Going back to my encounter with the stranger at the Utah Airport, slowly, as the guy opened up to me about his predicament, I could see that he was in a jam and clearly wanting someone to help him out. Coincidently, we had both been on the same flight from Chicago out to Salt Lake City. Avishay, the man’s name, had taken a flight out of Chicago in order to meet up with his friends at Snowbird Mountain Resort to spend a long weekend snowboarding in the fresh powder that had blessed the region that week. With no rental car and denied by Uber and cab drivers because of the weather and road conditions on the mountain, Avishay was stranded from his friends and out of options. Upon listening to his story, I felt compelled to help him. Driving to the mountain, we shared our plans for the weekend. When he found out I was planning to go snowboarding the following morning, he asked me to stay at the resort and go snowboarding with him and his friends. His misfortune turned into an opportunity for both of us. I was able to give him a lift and save his trip, and he provided me a place to stay and some new friends to board with on the mountain. If I had obeyed my mother’s advice and ignored the man at the airport, I would have spent the night alone, in a hotel and spent the day snowboarding by myself.

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Reaching out to strangers isn’t easy, nor is it for everyone, but these are simple steps you can take to get out of your comfort zone and start making genuine connections with strangers.

 

1)Take off your earphones

Nothing is more isolating than sitting in a corner in a coffee shop or on an airplane wearing headphones. Once you take them off, you will be surprised at the amount of people willing to strike up a conversation.

 

2) Talk to your neighbor on the airplane, subway or bus.

Just a quick comment about the weather or the book they are reading can be enough to spark a conversation.

 

3) Open your mind and body

To get the most out of your interactions, it helps to be open and willing to meet new people. It is easy for strangers to pick up on your positive and negative energies, and people will be attracted to you if you are radiating good vibes and will shy away if you are permeating with negativity. Your body posture typically follows your mindset. If you sit there with folded hands and legs, bundled up in a hoodie and wearing headphones someone will assume you don’t want to be bothered.

 

4)Trust your gut

Talking to strangers is the easiest thing to start adding to your travel itinerary. If and when you want to start traveling and staying with strangers on a whim, I advise you to do so consciously. When I first met Avishay at the airport car rental terminal, I had to use logic and consulted my conscience as to whether or not I should transport him to Snowbird Resort. Initially I was hesitant, but when I realized he was on my flight from Chicago to Salt Lake, I felt more comfortable knowing that he was legitimately stranded and just needed some help. There have been a few times where I had to abort an adventure because I just had a bad feeling in the pit of my gut. I trust that feeling, whether it is good or bad, because it has never steered me wrong.

Reflecting on my Year of No Fear

As 2015 winds down, it is only natural for people to reflect on the year that has been and gear up for the year that will be. Many of my friends who have been following my adventures have seen my Year of No Fear hash tag. What most people don’t realized that what started out as a simple hash tag, was actually first a mantra/promise I made to myself in early 2015.

During the Winter of 2014/2015, I was going through a depression that crippled me both mentally and physically. Although I was able to keep up an act at work, on the weekends my act crumbled around me, as I succumbed to the pain, sadness and emptiness that permeated through me. I secluded myself from friends and family who were worried about my wellbeing. My once adventurous and out-going attitude faded behind my ever-growing self-doubt. One day, at my worst, doing everything in my power to overcome a vicious urge to take my own life, I made a promise to myself. “Stop living a life of fear,” I told myself. Fighting back tears, I wrote those words on my mirror with crimson red lipstick. I strategically placed that mantra in a place where I could see it from my bed. I repeated it over and over, growing louder until I was screaming it at the top of my lungs, as if trying to expel the pain and sadness from my bones. It was in that moment that I promised myself that I would live without fear, or “Live Fearlessly”, my final edit to the mantra on my mirror.

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My first snow bike ride. #yearofnofear

It wasn’t until February 16th, 2015 that my #yearofnofear made it onto my social media page. I had used the hash tag as motivation to help me get over my fear of biking to work. Although I became a bike commuter in the winter out of necessity, not choice, I knew that this first triumph over one of my fears was just the beginning. While biking home that night I contemplated how my life would change if I forced myself to do everything that scared me.

Looking back, I can say that my life as I knew it changed that day. I made a conscious effort to change my attitude, which in turn changed the way I decided to live my life.

One thing that changed during my #yearofnofear was the amount of things I was able to accomplish. Whitewater kayaking. Sailing. Rock Climbing. Biking. Backpacking. Making new friends. Traveling with strangers. Traveling to Iceland. A month long road trip. Visiting Texas, Vermont, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana, Virginia and Utah. Visiting Shenandoah, Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. Reestablishing a relationship with my father. Online Dating. But the biggest reward wasn’t the amount of things I was able to check off on a list, it was the amount of confidence I gained while doing things I had otherwise thought was impossible.

Learning to roll my kayak. Punching through Cucumber Rapid on the Youghiogheny River. Ascending a 5.9 route with an overhang. Solo backpacking for a week. Traveling without plans in an unknown city. Traveling alone. Being homeless for a month. Living on a boat for a weekend. Biking to work for 4 months. Having a one night stand with no guilt. Making peace with my father. Solo Snowboarding. Applying for a new job. These were all examples of things that I considered impossible for me to accomplish. Yet, as I was able to overcome each one, an overwhelming feeling of confidence would come over me. Slowly, as my accomplishments added up, I began to own that confidence. Soon I felt more comfortable in social situations. I was able to hold more meaningful conversations and I noticed the type of person I was able to attract into my life. These were people who also had some ambitious plans, goals, or were just down for more spontaneous adventures. They were more genuine, wore their emotions on their sleeves, more willing to help you out with little to no expectation of having the favor returned. I was becoming the person I had always imagined, and that was the biggest accomplishment of all.

Along with the accomplishments and the confidence, #yearofnofear allowed my friends to follow my adventures, and to even keep me motivated. I had a lot of fun talking with you, answering questions, hearing your admiration, and even being heckled for some of my decisions. “Come on, Bigs, it’s your Year of No Fear,” as I was being called out by my roommate for not confessing my crush on a male friend, was one of the best heckles of the year!

Even though 2015 is coming to an end, my Years of No Fears just began. I’ve decided to continue conquering my fears as it’s become my way of life. My list of things to accomplish has grown. Singing in front of a crowd. Skydiving. Hang gliding. Ice climbing. Exploring my sexuality. Posing for pin-up photos. Dating. More sailing, backpacking, rock climbing and kayaking adventures. Hosting house parties. Connecting with friends on a more personal level. Allowing myself to become vulnerable. Overcoming my emotional ties to my parents’ divorce and my father’s abandonment. Living in a foreign country. Finding my sense of home. These are the things I hope to experience in 2016, and you will see it posted with #yearsofnofears.

So what’s next? In addition to #yearsofnofears, I have decided that this will be the Year of the Empress (#yearoftheempress). It’s not as catchy as Year of No Fear, but it has a deeper meaning. The Empress refers to a chakra archetype, one that relates to pleasure, well-being, abundance, sexuality and a strong emotional sense of life. These are concepts that, for the longest time, I felt unworthy of knowing or experiencing. With my increased self-confidence, I now feel that I can and should experience abundance, well-being and pleasure, and have it come easily.

What will the Year of the Empress look like? It will be deeper connections with friends and strangers. I will allow myself to enjoy life, unrestricted and uninhibited. It will be opening myself up to opportunities to experience abundance in material, financial and emotional forms. It will also be a time where I will focus on what I need most, quiet the distractions, refine my character and hone in on what I am meant to do in this life.

This is also the year where I will be telling my story. I will be divulging the unknown chapters of my Year of No Fear, I will be compiling my stories of the road and of my adventures both from 2015 and years previous. I think I have some interesting things to say, and I’m hoping that my friends, family and visitors to my page will concur.

As I begin to prepare for the new year and new adventures, I will leave you with this lesson that I have learned from my Year of No Fear in hopes that it would inspire you:

Fear is but a mindset. Fear is singlehandedly the thing that will hinder you the most in your lifetime. In trying to overcome it, you’ll  learn so much about yourself, and when you do conquer it, it’ll lead to a feeling of ecstasy and self-confidence. Anything is possible, especially when you change your mindset. That is exactly what I did that day, in January 2015. When I wrote those words, “Stop living life out of fear,” I made a decision to change my mindset. And in changing my mindset, I changed the entire way in which I continue to live my life.

Happy trails and adventures to you, where ever they may lead you in 2016!

To Hell and Back

Hiking Hekla Volcano, Iceland June 2015

“Shit” I exclaimed, shivering in the whipping wind. I was on the verge of tears, but I couldn’t let him see me cry. “I guess we are in for a long night.”

It was at that point that I realized I might have been in over my head. Unprepared. Naive.  An over inflated ego. What ever you call it, I was feeling it as we both came to the same conclusion.

We had been hiking for over five hours now on Hekla, one of Iceland’s still active volcanoes, once thought to be the gateway to hell. Two days before the hike I had decided to hike Hekla by myself. After traveling in Iceland for 11 days with a friend, my last two days I was alone. This was the perfect time to try something new, adventurous, a bit crazy. I wanted to push myself and prove I could do it. Year of no fear, right?

The day before, without an exact location for the trail head, I decided to go and search out the volcano. From the main road it was a visible giant looming over life below. I thought I’d keep it in my sights while driving, and eventually with enough searching on dirt and gravel roads I’d find a sign that might point me in the right direction. Unfortunately, time and fuel passed by as I continued perseverating about hiking Hekla. By 3am I was still without a destination and running on fumes. About to give up and head back towards Reykjavik, out of the corner of my eye I saw a sign that said The Hekla Center. I quickly swerved into the driveway and realized it was an information center. An immediate feeling of relief came over me as I realized I could sleep in the car for the night and ask for directions to the trail head in the morning. I took one last look at Hekla’s summit as I curled up, exhausted, in back seat of the car.

The next morning, I inquired at the front desk at the information center as to the location of the trail head.

“Are you all by yourself?” the hostess questioned cautiously. “Will you be hiking by yourself?” again questioning with a nervous gaze.

“YEP!” I said with an overwhelming amount of confidence.

“Do you have the Iceland Emergency App?” she replied. I could tell she was trying to balance the fine line of being helpful while not deflating my enthusiasm.

This was not the first time someone had suggested this app. The day prior I was telling a gas station attendant my plans and he had asked the same question. I figured if the universe was telling me twice, then it was something to pay attention to. I asked about the app and she helped me download it to my phone.

“There have been a lot of people who go out on a hike and end up needing an emergency evacuation. Tourists keep emergency personnel busy this time of year,” she mentioned with a scornful grin.  Her words immediately reminded me of my mother, who told me not to die on my 21st birthday. I didn’t die but I was damn near close after getting my stomach pumped. She was putting negative thoughts out into the universe, and I didn’t want it to come back to haunt me. I thanked her for the app, got information about the trail head and headed to the car. Before I could leave the building a colorful poster caught my eye.

Copyright of this image belongs to Icelandic Civil Authorities (Almannavarnir).

Keeping the advice and warnings in mind, I made my way to the trail head. After turning off the main road, driving the single lane, winding and rugged dirt road through the ominously barren landscape was almost enough to make me turn around. Year of no fear, year of no fear, I kept thinking to myself. Finally, after a half hour of driving while debating if I should continue, I reached the starting point. Luckily, I wasn’t alone.

 

I pulled up to find one other brave soul parked next to the trail. We caught each others gaze for a split second, nodded and proceeded with our preparations. After peering at his gear, goggles, gloves, backpack, hiking boots, I felt a bit unprepared and nervous. I started to second guess my decision for wearing my Nikes and wool socks. Maybe I wasn’t ready for this?

When he started to hike, I decided to get rolling and stay near him. If anything happened, he would be close in proximity to help if needed. Upon further inspection the whole trail seemed to be covered in snow. I was regretting my decision to not buy hiking boots, but that thought wasn’t going to help me now.  I trudged on.

The trail itself was narrow, steep, and slippery, iced-over from the repeated thawing and refreezing. My Nikes weren’t cutting it, I was slipping and having to catch myself every other step. My goal was to keep the other hiker in my vision, he was my carrot, my motivation. If he could do it, so could I. Hiking boots be damned.

There came a point when the trail plateaued, and the hiker stopped to catch a drink. I hurried my pace to catch up with him and I did. We introduced ourselves briefly and went on our way again. At first it seemed as if he had no interest in hiking together as he hurried along ahead of me. But to my surprise he turned to me and asked if I would mind trekking together. I was relieved, but kept it hidden and responded with a simple, “Sure.”

His name was Peter, a forestry service worker in Germany, located in small town outside of Berlin. He told me of the occupational hazards and moving up through the ranks. Once he almost cut off his foot with a chainsaw, but all he could think about was how expensive his boots were to replace. He has since become a driver, a far less dangerous position. Peter was also traveling around Iceland on his 4×4 vehicle. He had it shipped over from Germany for the trip so that he could get through all of the F roads (interior, gravel roads that are usually impassable by regular cars especially in the Winter and early Spring). We bonded over our adventures and love of the outdoors. He told me of his adventures in Norway and the Swiss Alps, and I shared with him my solo backpacking hike with my dog along the AT in Shenandoah. We also talked about the possible eruption, and the 30-80 minutes window to get off the mountain. We joked that if we experienced seismic activity, we’d be rolling down the mountain to escape.

 

As we got closer to the top, our conversation was interjected with breaks to catch our breath, drink some water, take in the view and scout out the best route. By this time the trail was covered under feet of snow and we were improvising our way to the top. We were now looking out for signs of loose snow, hidden fissure and unstable footing. In order to get any kind of footing, we were both digging our shoes into the snow and using all four of our extremities to get to the next spot.

After about an hour of digging and climbing, we reached the summit! It was exhilarating to catch a peek at the surrounding landscape through the fog, knowing what it took to get here. Peter knelt down to touch the ground. It was warm. We took some summit selfies and bragged about how fast we got to the top. It only took us about 2 hours to reach the summit when the guidebooks said it would take about 3-4. The hard part was over. Or so we thought.

Orienting ourselves on Peter’s map proved more difficult to do. The fog was pretty thick, and it was hard to identify the surrounding features below us. He had a GPS, but it wasn’t working. We looked around for our tracks leading back down the mountain. A snow covered trail meant we had to rely on keeping our original footprints in sight to get back to the cars. We decided on the direction and picked points on the slope as our guide. Quickly, I realized this was going to be the most challenging part of the trek.

Even though we could see footprints, we were second guessing if they were ours. At one point, Peter and I were torn on whether to head the left around some crags or stay right down the slope. I had this gut feeling to stay left, but I trusted his judgement so we went right. About an hour on this path and we realized right wasn’t right at all. We took out his map, tried to orient ourselves again, picked a point to the left and trudged on. A half hour later we came to red markers and we followed them down the mountain. I was comforted to be back on a marked trail. But Peter wasn’t convinced this was the way back to the cars. He convinced me that it was a trail to the main road and that we should head to the right, up over some hills and we would catch the trail to the cars there. Against my better judgement, I followed.

In the distance, we could see a trail marker, a long white stick protruding out of the snow. Despite being exhausted and cold, this marker gave me added energy knowing that once we reached that marker it was an easy path down. By this time, Peter and I were silent. I was trying to calm my breathing and keep my thoughts positive. We stopped about 100 yards from the supposed “trail marker” only to find that the reflection and shadows at a far enough distance deceived us. I started to think about that lady at the information center and the Iceland emergency app. Goddamn foreshadowing or law of attraction, which ever it was didn’t matter and wasn’t going to help me now. I debated whether to send out an emergency signal with the app. My stubbornness prevented me. I didn’t want to become one of “those tourists” the woman had talked about with disdain. That was going to be my last resort.

Now, the sky was indistinct due to the heavy fog setting in and the wind was picking up. A light rain started to fall and panic set in. The wind penetrated my layers and my toes were starting to go numb. Peter took out the map one last time in hopes of orienting ourselves with some possibility of recovering the trail. After about fives minutes of deliberation, he suggested we start hiking towards the main road. It was the safest bet, instead of wasting more energy to find the trail. We could see the main road far off in the distance. At this point I knew that this day hike was going to turn into an overnight “adventure.”

“Shit” I exclaimed, shivering in the whipping wind. I was on the verge of tears, but I couldn’t let him see me cry. “I guess we are in for a long night.” It was at that point that I realized I might have been in over my head. Unprepared. Naive.  An over inflated ego. What ever you call it, I was feeling it as we both came to the same conclusion. We had been hiking for over fives hours now. I was mentally and physically exhausted but I knew I had to prepare myself and accept my fate for the evening.

We lumbered on silently. In my head I let out a little prayer to get us back safely and efficiently. We had now been hiking Hekla for six hours. As we stumbled up over a little hill, I saw the red trail markers. We agreed to follow it down, as we had originally thought it would lead us to the main road. Now the road was our new destination. We walked down around the hill and to our amazement we could see a car. My heart fluttered a bit. The car didn’t belong to either of us, but it gave us hope. We pushed further around another hill and there in front of us were our cars.

I jumped for joy while letting out a sigh of relief. We were both so excited that we hugged each other. It didn’t matter how cramped, or achy or cold my body was, I could see the end of this hike in sight and I was oh so relieved to see it. Peter and I looked like little kids skipping down the mountain. A few times we almost rolled down as we forgot, nor didn’t care about the icy trail. Within 30 minutes of finding the red trail markers we were back at the car. In total, we were on Hekla for 6.5 hours.

Peter and I said our goodbyes and wished each other safe travels. I was extremely glad I found him on the trail, as I could have experienced the possibility of being lost and alone on the volcano. I had planned this hike with the expectation of adventure for my last day in Iceland. Man, did I get it and more.