2014: Let’s Make it the Year of “It Isn’t All About Me” (In memory of Anita Mac, Travel Destinations Bucket List)

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On the morning of New Year’s Eve, I opened my email to find notification of a new blog post at “Travel Destinations Bucket List”. When I entered the blogosphere, TDBL was one of the first blogs I followed. Back then, I eagerly read of Anita’s solo transCanadian bike ride, reveling in the idea that here was a woman who had the courage to take on a truly daunting adventure – and speak honestly about the fearful as well as serendipitous moments. I was also newly in love with biking, and remember telling my friends, breathlessly, about TDBL and how much I admired Anita. Anyway, the last time she had posted was months ago, and it had been a sad post wondering how to heal from a broken heart. So I was thrilled that there was finally something new from TDBL and I clicked on the email link immediately to find out about Anita’s latest exploits.

Sadly, what I learned was that Anita took her own life in 2013. The post was a tribute in which other bloggers were sharing “bucket list” items they intend to complete in 2014 in honor of Anita. Their tribute ends: “We encourage you to join us in this quest and take on at least one bucket list item in 2014, but more importantly, we also hope you take the opportunity to (re)connect with friends and loved ones during this holiday season…Our friend and fellow traveler, Anita took her life because she didn’t see any other options. We don’t want anyone else to feel that way. Please share the momentum.” (You can read the entire post, here.)

I don’t mind saying that reading the TDBL post rocked me. I didn’t know Anita, except through her blog, so I have given a lot of thought to the reasons learning about her death affected me so deeply. My immediate thought was that her blog presented a woman who loved life – through travel (to far away lands and to destinations closer to home) Anita explored cultures, foods, experiences that she wrote of as joyful, difficult, instructive, and fun. The cognitive dissonance between what I knew through her blog and the reality of this particular woman losing hope and happiness so completely is difficult to reconcile – and so sad to contemplate.

There’s more, though. Anita wrote, excitedly, about transitioning in her life from her full-time corporate job to creating a life more in keeping with her passions. She travelled to Croatia, then walked the Camino de Santiago in Spain, writing of this journey as an opportunity for discernment about her future. She was hopeful and excited about creating a new vision for her life. As a reader, I followed every step. As a fellow journeyer seeking a way to change my own life, I took courage from her bold choice to move forward – even without a completely clear picture of what came next.

And so I arrived at the crux of my emotional response. Selfishly, perhaps, I couldn’t help but draw parallels between Anita’s life and mine. We both set out to make significant changes in our personal lives, to take leaps of faith. The jump into the unknown is joyful and adventurous, and we have faith – in ourselves, in the world, in the “rightness” of this step. But what we don’t have is control. Over circumstances, others, the future. In Anita’s case, her beloved father’s terminal illness and the desertion of her significant other (which she wrote of in her final post) were among the things she could not have controlled for when making her decision to leap forward. I’m still learning – but I do know that the reality of major transitions is that they are harder than we anticipate, but in ways we didn’t (perhaps couldn’t) necessarily account for. Maintaining a positive outlook and/or a centered vision of your life in these times is very hard.

Suddenly the chasm between the woman who wrote with joy and the woman who took her own life seems shallower and easier to cross. What was unthinkable becomes understandable.

Isn’t this what often lies at the heart of our response to tragedy? The sense that it could have been us – that we are not as inviolable as we seem? Once our compassion is activated, we see our own humanity more clearly, are forced to take a more realistic look at our own lives.

To my friends and family, to those of you reading this post: these musings are not cause for concern about me. Taking stock these past few days has been a very good thing for me. I have ample evidence of the love and support of incredible people in my life (and a holiday season mostly separated from you only served to remind me of your generosity and love). Even when I struggle with fear, uncertainty, homesickness – I am concurrently in love with my precarious new life in this frozen city of the north. Even when I catastrophize in my thinking, I know my personal “rock bottom” will suck if I hit it – but I have alternative places to land if necessary. I am lucky.

In the end, though, I think about Anita Mac and the many others whose “taking stock” results in taking their own lives and I feel a deep sadness. We are all so occupied with our own issues and days and choices, so engrossed in our culture of self-fulfillment, that often we don’t think about others. We don’t notice that people we love are engrossed in a deep struggle to hold on to life and hope (granted, they often work hard at hiding that from us). So I echo the writers who paid tribute to Anita on TDBL – I don’t want anyone else to feel that way. It isn’t a bucket-list item, but it is a resolution: to take my eyes off myself often enough to pay attention to others. 2014 isn’t all about me – its about us, and how we all move forward into the future with adventure and joy.

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Will There Be Starlight?

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“Shake to hear hopes, dreams and wishes. Or just to remember close friends and family. Inside are the stars of your little angels.”
                                          Love, The Dennis Girls
 

When things go unexpectedly or spectacularly awry in life, people often say, “Be careful what you wish for…”, as if the wisher could possibly have foreseen what would come to pass. I find myself thinking the line as I sit in my living room on a camp chair, next to a camp cot, and surrounded by a bunch of stuff I will be packing in my car for the long road trip ahead.

The long road trip that begins today.

Be careful what you wish for…

… I wished to move, and here I am – Moving. If I didn’t know before, this round of farewell gatherings and coffee dates has taught me what I am leaving: a home and a life among incredibly loving friends. (Katie Dennis, one of my little angels, made the origami box and tiny stars, above, as a going away gift – making it oh so hard to actually go away.)

…I wished for change, and a powerful wind of change has blown through my life and swept everything into new configurations. My belongings are divided and being stored. My house is nearly empty. I don’t even recognize my own heart, as it appears to be responding to change in ways I never expected. For example, the going away party Sunday evening that I expected to be bittersweet felt only sweet. Walking away from my job was accomplished without a single faltering step. (Unless you count the fact I accidentally deleted my annual report and had to recreate it one hour before I left for good.)

…I wished for the courage to take a leap of faith. And here I am, finally in the air with no real certainty where my feet will land.

Be careful what you wish for, because wishful thinking is powerful stuff! I got these things I wished for, and now I’m wondering what comes next. Will the second half of my wishes also come true with such sweet ease? What will my life and livelihood look like a month or a year from now? Sunshine or storms or (most likely) a combination?

On my last day at work, I drew a final angel card and the word written bold across it read: Adventure! I don’t even have to wish for it, the adventure has already begun!

Will There Be Starlight by Michael Burch
Will there be starlight
tonight
while she gathers
damask
and lilac
and sweet-scented heathers?
And will she find flowers,
or will she find thorns
guarding the petals
of roses unborn?Will there be starlight
tonight
while she gathers
seashells
and mussels
and albatross feathers?And will she find treasure
or will she find pain
at the end of this rainbow
of moonlight on rain?
 

What Do Adventurous Women Know…and how do I learn it?

I am a devourer of true life adventure stories by the women who lived them. It started casually, with travel anthologies. Then I discovered Tales of a Female Nomad by Rita Golden Gelman and I had a new hero and a new secret passion. Of course Eat.Pray.Love.  More recently, Wild.  And it hasn’t just been books. My friend Wendy and I obsessively watched the movie “Under the Tuscan Sun” the summer it came out on DVD (based, if loosely, on a true life adventure story). I’m a sucker for blogs by women on adventures – Travel Destination Bucket List, for example. I began following this blog while its author, Anita Mac, was chronicling her solo trans-Canadian bike journey and have since travelled to Croatia and on pilgrimage to Santiago de Campostella with her. My latest avidly followed blog is My Meandering Trail, where I am following Jordana on her solo through-hike of the Appalachian Trail.

Each of these women have great stories to tell, and they tell them well. And while each gives space in her storytelling to moments of fear or self-doubt, by and large the overriding impression I come away with is of admirable courage, self-efficacy, and joie de vivre. They have moxie, pluck…and whatever other old-fashioned words are reserved for women who have a little something out of the ordinary in their make-up. With my life in transition, my jumping-off point only three weeks away and no firm plan in place yet, I find myself looking to these women and wondering if it might be possible to channel the skills and qualities they embody and which I so desperately need. With that in mind, I’ve identified some things adventurous women seem to know that I’d like to get more conversant with:

Adventurous women know how to manage their stuff

I’m mostly talking actual, as opposed to figurative or emotional, stuff here. These women know how to organize, manage and corral the daily items that fill our lives: furniture, linens, shoes, and tchotchkes. They ruthlessly purge, pack, or otherwise pare down much of what they own in order to begin their adventures unencumbered. So far, I have managed to recycle three small cardboard boxes and shred a pile of old credit card bills. To say “I haven’t hit my stride yet” is to make a prize-winning understatement. Here’s an example: I have a decorative item which was given to me as a gift. It isn’t the kind of thing I’d look at, much less choose to purchase, in a gift-shop. But the person who gave it to me is beloved, and it was given to commemorate a special occasion in my life. In an effort to decide if it is worth packing and hauling to storage, I’ve carted the darn thing into every room multiple times this week. It has surely travelled more miles within my house than the paltry few between here and my storage unit. (Which, by the way, I haven’t actually reserved yet.) And I still can’t decide whether to keep it or put it in the “donate” or “regift” pile. Thankfully, my adventurous friend, Sue, came to visit one evening this week. She walked me through the best ways (and which containers to use) to pack my house. Her advice about what to keep and what to divest myself of: “Be ruthless”. Ruthlessness in the management of stuff – the first thing I need to learn to become an adventurous woman!

Adventurous women don’t hesitate to ask

In the past nineteen years, I’ve lost count of the number of people who have said to me, “I could NEVER do what you do!” Often they follow this comment with something about how they hate conflict. And it’s true – my career has been full of high-conflict, high-stress moments when the issues at hand have been incredibly difficult to navigate. And I am proud of how I’ve handled these difficult situations. But I have a secret to share. In spite of a reputation for direct and honest communication, I cannot make a cold-call to a business to ask questions. Additionally, I am terrible at asking people for help if what I need help with carries an emotional component. Adventurous women are curious, and ask questions because it is part of their nature. Part of how they successfully navigate their courageous lives is their willingness to ask for what they need. How can I plan a whole new more adventurous life when it takes me three days to work myself up to contact storage companies? I think of Jordana, contacting companies to ask for sponsorship of her trip – and getting some awesome support and swag as a result. I definitely need to get me some of those questioning cajones! (Hey, has anyone heard of companies willing to sponsor a middle-aged woman’s career/life change?)

Adventurous women have a specific plan

Well, I’m just plain screwed on this one. I can’t seem to think past vacation, which is the first step of my journey to a new life. I have a vague plan. No specific dates, no specific locations. Just a gut sense that I have to take most of the summer to feel my way – unless right livelihood presents itself. In which case, I’ll know it and change my trajectory.

At this point, my parents and many of my friends are reading this post and beginning to hyperventilate. Please don’t. I am holding enough fear, panic, and fear- and panic-induced motivation at bay to satisfy all of us. But it is back there, behind the voice telling me to take my time. Cheryl Strayed had never tried to lift her backpack until the morning she planned to set off hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. Foolhardy? Probably. But did she survive? Hell, yes – even thrived. Sometimes, adventurous women know what they need, and they move toward it even if they haven’t got all the answers in advance. My whole life, I’ve been an answers (and fool-proof assurances) in advance girl. This feels like my opportunity to step forward with trust instead of surety. Eek!

Adventurous women don’t sweat the “solo” part

When I’ve lamented being alone in life, my friend Layne has tried to comfort me by asserting that everyone is just as alone. Her approach is unique; most of my friends try to convince me that I’m not alone because of the large number of people who love me. The truth is, when it comes to making decisions and living the consequences of those decisions, I’m on my own. I have no idea whether it would be easier if I was part of a couple, or if it would be harder. I look at the women whose adventures have inspired me, and I see that they have struggled with the same things – and yet, they’ve found ways to be empowered by the solo nature of their adventures. Empowered because they’ve remained open to meeting new people, to having new experiences, to learning about themselves and the world around them. I’ve lived “smaller” out of fear in the past. One of the things I want to learn from adventurous women is how to live “larger” in spite of the fear. As one blogger says, “I will never be fearless, but I can choose to fear less.”

Adventurous women dare to go “all in”

In every one of the true-life adventure stories I’ve come across, women have let go and jumped in with both feet. For some, this has meant the start of a completely new life. For others, it has been a shining experience which stands out from the ordinary life lived both before and after the adventure. Perhaps my coming adventures are on a smaller scale than selling my home and all my belongings and living the rest of my days as a world-travelling nomad – but they are still a stunning departure from my previous life-choices. My friend, Sara, put it this way for me, “You’re not really the ‘leap of faith’ type, are you? But you’ve been risk-averse for so long, you’ve probably stored up some really good risk karma, so why not use it now?” Not exactly an “all in” mentality – but close enough to get me started!

So, I have my work cut out for me – both with the actual activities associated with leaving my job and my house and with the mental and emotional preparedness for leaving. I’ll figure out the stuff, develop the plan as I go, and remind myself to cultivate curiosity so that asking for things (even if it is only information) gets easier. I’ll continue to be inspired by other women who’ve taken courageous and adventurous paths, hoping that the reality of living with less fear of the “what ifs” will translate into living more completely, more fully. Maybe someday other women will be reading my “true life adventure story” and deciding they can choose differently too. That would be an amazing end to this story, wouldn’t it?! I guess we’ll all have to wait and see what happens with each turn of the page.