Hindsight Revelations at the End of a Journey

It was 2015, and I was in the Chicago airport. On my way to Northern Ireland, the thrilling hum of upcoming adventure hovered just below the surface. It spilled over into conversations with strangers, impatient for them to ask me where I was headed.

Allie Illuminated | airport

A middle-aged lady sat next to me at the charging station, and a question about whether she could plug in her phone led to an easy dialog of conversation. When I mentioned my upcoming international adventure, she lit up, recognizing a kindred spirit. Over the shuffle of passengers and flight announcements, she shared stories of her international travels. Of how she’d spent a majority of her twenties traversing the globe, working odd jobs to fund her wanderlust along the way.

“I think everyone should take some time to travel!” she said, eyes fervent. “I’m so glad I did. It made me who I am today. It made me a better wife, a better mother, a more happy person.”

Her reasons resonated, but I was intrigued. “Tell me more about that. What do you mean?”

She considered for a second, then said “I mean that it shaped the way I see the world in only a way that immersing yourself in somewhere completely different than everything familiar can. I had a longing for adventure, to see the world, and it was important enough to me to honor that longing. So when I did meet my now husband, I was ready to start the adventure of being married to him. I’ve never had to live with the regret of wondering ‘what if’ as I raised my children. The way I live in the world, the way I engage in my community, the choices I make are deeply shaped by that time I took to travel.”

This is why I love talking to strangers. I soaked her words up in that airport terminal, reveling in her story. Acknowledging that her story won’t be mine, but noticing the way my heart was resonating, connecting with the desires she was articulating. 

I thought about her words as I laid in my tent last week, on the last night of my solo trip. Listening to the night sounds of this small town in central Colorado, her words echoed with the hindsight revelation of foreshadowing. My heart felt the truth of her observations as I tried to wrap my mind around the west-coast solo-adventure that was now coming to a close.

Allie Illuminated | tent

I don’t quite know in what ways, but I know I’m returning changed. I’m braver—more comfortable in my own skin. From near constant necessity, I’m more able to step out into the unknown. More willing to be surprised. I have felt an expanding, a blossoming of my soul in openness to others and a gentleness towards myself. I the outer edges of my solitude, I became more fully me.

I could measure it by the 241 days I was gone or the 13,471 miles I drove. But quantifying these last 8 months feels inadequate. Even after a week of being back at my parent’s house, around the now novel familiarity, I get the sense I haven’t even scratched the surface of processing the impacts of this journey. I will be marveling at the weight of this thing that just happened to me for awhile.

Allie Illuminated | Zion

In my tent, alone for one more night, I clicked on my headlamp and looked back at the journal I’d been writing in throughout this trip. I smiled and shook my head at my raw unfiltered thoughts scrawled out in early mornings with a cup of coffee. The scrappy plans and lists of places to see.

A single tear slid down my temple as I reread the mini-epiphanies and articulated tensions, remembering the mystery and the ache and the contented joy that blossomed out there on the Pacific coast.

Sometimes Life Really Is Kitties and Rainbows

I knew traveling solo would have an expiration date. Knew there’d come a moment when the glamor of this trip would be overshadowed by the uncomfortable reality of vagabondery.

But knowing a season will eventually come to an end is no reason to not embark in the first place. So I left all familiarity and set out. Just me and the open road.

Turns out, my expiration date was seven months, five days, 31 cities, and 38 different beds after the trip began. Approximately.

The expiration started when I was making my way back down Highway 1 a few weekends ago. I stopped in the in a valley to explore a black sand beach with Pacific waves crashing and driftwood scattered. Felt the sun cut through the sharp breezes coming in.

As I walked, barefoot back to my car, a pair of beach-goers smiled at me. A retired couple, leather-skinned and Hawaiian-shirted. Noticing my license plate, they commented, voices raised over the waves, “From Missouri, hey? You’ve come a long way.”

Exchanging small talk has been a skill set I’ve honed to an art form, and I gladly engaged. I take conversation where I can get it these days.

A few pleasantries in, the husband nonsequitured, “So, how come you’re alone?” His wife batted him on the arm, feigning embarrassment, but she cocked her head, curious.

The conversation skipped a beat. “Oh, because I want to be.” My voice came out as a chirp, a bit higher, tinny through the smile I had plastered on my face.

How come you’re alone?

The question echoed after I got back in my car and wound around another bend. A question sounding an awful lot like “What’s wrong with you?”

“Why am I alone?! None of your damn business, that’s why! And wipe that smug smile off your face, mister!” I muttered to my empty car, revising my too-polite answer.

I’d said I wanted to be alone. Was that accurate? Did I want to be traveling alone down Highway 1? What had left me giddy and overwhelmed when I started my trip now seemed lackluster this time around. I kept having the unwanted but persistent hunch that these sweeping views of the California coastline, these quirky towns, and opportunities for adventure would’ve been so much richer if I’d had a friend with me.

How come you’re alone?

“Good question. I’ve been asking myself the same thing.”

I chose this lifestyle. I decided to go on this adventure in pursuit of what makes me feel most alive. But also, this whole thing has been a search for belonging. I know the long stretches of solitude have been an integral part of finding belonging.

So it’s not being alone making me feel lonely. Loneliness is a function of not feeling known, and I’d just spent three weeks jumping from one hostel to another AirBnB, coexisting with strangers in the cheapest accommodations I could scrounge up. Trying to remain present with hostile hosts and awkward hostel dwellers.

After those three weeks, and a few days after the conversation with Hawaiian-Shirt Couple, I arrived with my diminished bravery to the small coastal town I’d be housesitting in for 18 days. In a home tucked in the woods, completely by myself. What would’ve felt like an introvert’s dream come true now felt like solitary confinement.

I contemplated just driving right through the town and turning east. Making a beeline back to my familiar Midwest. But I didn’t. I found the house and brought my suitcases in. My host drove away, entrusting her beloved kitty, Miss Fitty to me. 

I laid in bed that night, and reread the email my friend Kamina had sent the day before. In response to my bleak descriptions of my lonely existence, she had this to say:

“You know what? I’m only a little bit sad that you’re tiring of travelling alone, and mostly glad.  What I mean is, I really feel for you in your current isolation, and it’s unfortunate that you have several more weeks to get through – but how sweet to have sucked everything you can out of the experience of solo travel, and to have a new season coming just when you’ve exhausted this one.”

I supposed she was right. I tried to trust the ironic timing of things. But the next day brought kind of wet coldness that seeps into your bones, mirroring and amplifying my mood. So much for The Sunshine State. I spent the day trying to chase the gloomy mood away, staying close to the space heater and making feeble attempts to be productive.

After dinner, I sat down to my nightly ritual of Netflix and water coloring. Glancing out the window, I happened to see the indigo color of the sky through the trees. While it was still drizzling, the droplets came down as golden beads.

Sunshine and rain. My favorite weather combination. I dropped my paintbrush, threw on my raincoat, and hopped in the car. At a break in the trees, I glimpsed what I’d been hoping for. A big double rainbow, bridging over half of the sky. More vibrant than I’d ever seen.

The road led down to the ocean and the sky was a gallery of glory. Billowing cumulonimbus clouds still releasing precipitation to the north, clear skies revealing a sunset over the ocean. And all of nature had that bright, saturated hue that comes right after the rain.

With the fervor of a storm chaser, I drove, trying to glimpse the best views of ocean and rainbow, sunset and storm. I found a park, and sat on top of a picnic table, trying to soak in as much as I could. I laughed out loud as my reality hit me.

My life quite literally is kitties and rainbows right now.

This paradox of storm and sunshine mirrored my life. I remembered what I’ll probably need to be reminded of for the rest of my life. All of this is part of it! The bad day, the tears, the coming to the end of myself. This is what I signed up for when I decided to live a vibrant life! This too is part of being fully alive! I don’t want to shy away from the hard parts. I want to receive it all.

So, how come I’m alone?

Because this is my story. And it’s a good one.

When Bravery Runs Dry On The Oregon Trail

I woke up to a rooster crowing. An actual rooster, announcing the rising sun greeted me in the sloped roof upstairs bedroom of a geodesic home on the same property as a winery I’d booked on AirBnB.

I’ve been zig-zagging my way through the Pacific Northwest these last few weeks—my own version of the Oregon trail.

The vistas of wide open oceans and curving highways canopied by old-growth forests continued to take my breath away. And the combination of couch surfing, hostel-dwelling, and how-cheap-can-I-go accommodations I’d been subjecting myself to had been full of colorful characters. But it had also left me feeling raw. Exposed. Aching to feel known.

Staring out at the grey light making silhouettes of the Oregon Hills, I thought through my day. My original plans for winery tours and breezy conversations with the winemakers had been stunted by polite aloofness of my host I’d received the night before. With each interaction giving the vague impression that I was unwanted company, I was awkwardly hiding up in my room.

Rather than walking on her free-range organic eggshells, I decided to spend the day in the quirky Shakespeare-loving town of Ashland. A forty-five minute drive, according to my GPS. I plugged in the address for a coffee shop and hopped in my car. When the blue line of Google Maps led me onto a gravel road, I didn’t think much of it. But as the road kept winding up an increasingly steep hill, concern settled in right behind my solar plexus. I came to a three-pronged fork in the road, and the GPS gave no indication as to which way was right.

I picked the road winding east-ish. Iowa roots going deep, I wasn’t deterred by a few potholes. But this level of washout, wheels practically tightrope walking on the sections of road least eroded had me white-knuckled.

Also—in Iowa, the roads are flat. These sharp drop-offs were menacing, inches away from my passenger side tires. Multiple times when I had to stop to heave large rocks and branches out of the way so my little Ford Focus could get through.

I was muttering a constant string of encouragement to my car—willing her to at least make it to a place where there was cell service if she decided to finally give up the ghost.

I latched onto optimism like a life vest, buckling on buoyant thoughts and breathing prayers like incantations. The path towards metaphor as grooved and well worn as the rutted road I was on, my mind started turning this into a blog post, composing my lostness on the Oregon hills into a great story I’d tell people.

As if on cue, just as I made my way around another hairpin turn switchback, my the fuel meter dipped below an eighth of a tank, a rock scraped the underbelly of my car with a sickening scratch and the sun slid behind a grey cloud and my cell phone flashed “no signal.”

My car hit another pothole and I shouted into the empty car “I don’t want this to be a fucking metaphor! Just get me off this road! Give me pavement!”

(This statement is funny…now. But at the time, my sense of humor had dissipated with my bravery…) Out of the corner of my eye, I’d see wide vistas of the Cascade mountains, magnificently blanketed in pine trees. But their beauty registered as an empirical fact. A fleeting distraction from the not-so-slowly rising panic.

The winding roads left any sense of direction far behind. I could see plumes of dust from the gravel roads from other sides of a valley I assume I’d just crossed. Uphill then down, then up again—my route seemed intentionally illogical. After what was probably only 45 minutes, but what felt like a lifetime, I rediscovered familiar landscapes.

With a half-crazed guffaw of relief, I realized I had effectively circled the mountain, and come nowhere closer to my intended destination. It didn’t matter. I was back on solid and relatively flat ground. Roads that Google Maps at least recognized as being in the road system.

I parked my car back in the driveway of my host. I opened my trunk and pulled out an envelope, tucked inside a box I’d been carrying since September. On the outside of the letter I’d written “To Allie: On the day when you need to be reminded why”

A letter I’d written back in July, for the inevitable hard day when my bravery had run dry and I needed encouragement. There, in my familiar cursive, I wrote kind words, befriending my future self with understanding and gentle reminders of why I decided to take this trip. Why this adventure, in all of its glorious struggle and hard beauty, mattered deeply.

I wrote, “This is a process. This process necessitates pain. Choosing to be fully human is a daily, heart-wrenching, beautiful creative act. Keep choosing it, Allie girl.”

In this letter, Optimistic July Allie reminded me to make peace with uncertainty. To focus only on the very next step. To speak up for what I need and to continue to befriend myself in this process. 

I knew that traveling solo would have an expiration date. And that I might hit that longing to be done before my trip was finished. And almost seven months to the date, I finally came to my end. Finally needed to pull that letter out.

I still have a month to go. 32 days before I’ll be back in Iowa, able to hug my family members and be embraced by familiarity. And in these next 32 days, I will continue to choose vibrant living.

I will keep practicing being fully myself in every conversation with the strangers I meet. I’ll keep waking up at sunrise to walk by the ocean and saying yes to whatever adventures come my way. Will keep my eyes open for the metaphors. I want to keep living life as art.  

I may steer clear of gravel roads for awhile though.   

The Necessity of Tides

I’m drawn to the coast.

Seduced by the subtleties of sand meeting water. Captivated by the currents and briny air ushered in from the water’s edge. The sounds of seagulls and waves always arrive as good news to me.    

And I don’t consider myself a poet, but when I’m near any sort of shore, poetry spills out. My mind grasping for words worthy of capturing the beauty—word pictures snapped as impulsively as the pictures on my phone.

Allie Illuminated | Low Tide

In February, I stayed in this sleepy coastal town just across the Canadian border. What I imagine to be hopping in the summer, all fish & chips shops and ice cream parlors bustling with friendly Canadians now remained mostly dormant in the grey-skied winter months—the boardwalks had more strolling seagulls than tourists.

I was housesitting in this Colonial style home, just a fifteen-minute walk from Crescent Beach. I would take Maddi, the 12-year-old shepherd mix down the 101 rickety stairs cutting into the bluffs down to the stony beach. On clear days, you could make out the Vancouver skyline off in the distance, the North Shore Mountains etched behind.

As a land-locked Iowa native, the tides are a fascinating mystery to me. Our first few visits to the beach must’ve been at high tide the water, a little ledge made a sidewalk out of the beach. Other times, the beach revealed an expanse of rocky coastline. The shallow slope of the land makes the tides dramatic, exposing glassy bars of soft sand stretching out hundreds of feet.

As part of the Straight of Georgia, we were protected from the wildness of open sea. No crashing waves. The ebb and flow of the tide the only sign this water belonged to the ocean. I relished the long beach walks, Maddi dutifully sniffing every third rock.

Allie Illuminated | Low TideWhen I decided to travel solo, I intentionally, willingly carved this wide margin in my life. The rhythm slows down a lot when you spend six weeks alone in a place where you don’t know anyone. I welcomed the spaciousness like a low tide. I explored the exposed tidal pools on my own and admired the rivulets of water etching lines in the salty sand as often as I could those solitary weeks in Canada.

To the untrained eye, the bareness of low tide could easily be mistaken for a drought. A depleted water source pointing to scarcity. Likewise, the barren quietness of my solitude could’ve easily been seen as an emptiness. My poverty of activity and company a glaring sign of all that was lacking in my life.

While isolation isn’t a state I’d like to live in indefinitely, allowing the busyness to seep away and releasing my need for constant companionship was a freeing revelation.

Allie Illuminated | Low Tide

That’s the beauty of low tides. Being stripped bare from the blanketing waves, the secrets of the shore are revealed. Low tide is an invitation to rest. Boats nestled into their docks, lowering closer to the foundations. It’s also a time to explore, to gather and collect hidden treasures unveiled in glistening sand.

Seasons of quiet—margin to simply Be—can make me feel exposed at first. Panicky, I used to reach for some sort of activity to crash over me like the incessant waves I was used to. But this time, on the Canadian shorelines, I leaned into the quiet.

Don’t get me wrong. I love high tides, both the reality and the metaphor. A week after leaving Canada, I picked up my dear friends from the airport. The wave of familiarity reached my delighted heart like the gift it was. I could hardly contain my giddiness as we made our way to the Oregon coast. Waves crashing, sand between my barefooted toes. The rush of conversations and laughter and companionship—familiarity that had almost become foreign to me swept right back in, and I welcomed it.

Allie Illuminated | Low Tide

I need both. The rising tide of action, engagement, moving in the world is directly linked to our purpose in this world. But I’m beginning to suspect our highest contributions can’t happen unless we also receive the moments of low tide.

It feels like the placid waters of my low tide are starting to rise. My shorelines aren’t crashing with waves just yet, but I wonder if high tide is coming. Rising or receding, I want to remain open to the tides.

Allie Illuminated | Low Tide

Cultivating Quiet: A Guide to Solitude (Free Resource Included!)

Solitude isn’t sexy. We may crave alone time in chaotic moments, but the intentional habit of carving out long stretches of time by yourself is a bit foreign in our world of constant stimulation and busyness. Most of us leave the practice to monks and poets. An indulgence we tell ourselves we don’t need.

But disliking solitude is kind of like being afraid of the dark. We won’t admit it, but in the same way run up the last few stairs of the basement, a lot of us casually craft our lives to avoid aloneness at all costs.

Solitude

Maybe now more than ever, we need people who are willing to cultivate silence in their lives. I think most people have little to no experience with the practice, which makes the idea of practicing it daunting to say the least! Which is why I’ve created a guidebook to help demystify it and share tangible, realistic ways to cultivate more quiet in your life.

Included in this guide:

  • What solitude is (and what it isn’t)
  • What we gain when we cultivate more solitude in our lives
  • Practical ways to create more margin in daily life
  • A complete guide to a weekend solitude retreat

My intention in writing this is to provide tangible ways to implement this practice. I’ve tried to make this really practical, but please know this isn’t prescriptive. I’m writing from the experiences I’ve had and insights I’ve gleaned. But like most practices, solitude is a deeply personal and unique experience for everyone.

I find solitude to be helpful when I feel directionless. When I’m creatively blocked. After a heartbreak or when I have a big decision to make. Solitude is for anyone interested in pursuing wholeheartedness in any capacity. But I specifically wanted to address three people before I begin:

For those reeling in the wake of the political climate,

I think a lot of us have been feeling a variety of bewilderment, deep concern, rage, and hopelessness, especially in the last few months. We need people to respond to injustice. But activism that springs out of reactionary anger is not sustainable. Activist and pastor Anthony Smith said, “before we can meaningfully play some part in addressing the violence my our own community, I must first seriously address the violence within my own soul.”  

If we don’t do this internal work, our best efforts only end up reflecting the very thing you’re trying to fight.

For the frazzled,

I know, I know. You’re probably muttering “must be nice…” when someone suggests that you make solitude a part of your rhythm. I get it. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like you’ve got a choice in certain seasons of life.

I want you to know this invitation is extended to you, even now. If you’re a mom of young ones, or work just got crazy busy, you probably need solitude more than anyone. You may have to get creative about the how and the when, but what feels like a luxury is actually a necessity. Leaving things undone for a little while to tend to your soul is so good for you.

For the extroverts,

I’m beginning to suspect that we hide behind the labels we give ourselves. Maybe “I don’t do alone time well because I’m an extrovert” is code for “I avoid being alone because I don’t want to face the demons that await me in silence.” (Equally, I suspect us introverts claim of social exhaustion has more to do with our dysfunctional mask wearing than personality traits) It may not be your natural tendency, but I dare you to give solitude a try. I promise, there are beautiful things waiting on the other side of the silence.

Solitude

In the midst of a world of incessant noise, we intuitively know we need to cultivate quiet in our lives. The gifts waiting inside quiet moments carved out are many.

To reclaim our humanity.

In a culture that worships at the altar of productivity and surrounded by people who wear exhaustion as a badge of honor, choosing solitude is an act of rebellion. It’s reclaiming the territory of what it means to be human. It’s owning up to our frailty and making peace with our limits. Solitude ushers us into the process of unlearning the self-protective “adult” habits that aren’t actually serving us. It’s trading in the forceful hustling, and constant pushing for a gentle wayfinding and sustainable rhythm.

To encounter unprocessed emotions.

Perhaps the main reason we avoid solitude is that we fear what awaits us. The grief we’ve been dismissing. The anger we’ve been stuffing down. The disillusioned doubts and undignified disappointment that we hope will just go away if we ignore it long enough. Uncomfortable though it is, the best way to move through complex emotions is through them. Not acknowledging undesirable emotions actually enslaves us. Pushing into the discomfort can lead to healing, clarity, and true healing. It IS worth it.

To be more fully present.

The true intention of solitude is not selfish isolation from the world. Richard Foster says “the fruit of solitude is increased sensitivity and compassion for others. There comes a new freedom to be with people. There is new attentiveness to their needs, new responsiveness to their hurts.” And Thomas Merton observed that “it is in deep solitude that I find the gentleness with which I can truly love my brothers. The more solitary I am the more affection I have for them… Solitude and silence teach me to love my brothers for what they are, not for what they say.”

If this is something you’re curious about, please download my free Cultivating Quiet Solitude Guide. 

 

Thoughts on Becoming a Hopeful Pessimist

Housesitting in Canada. Traveling solo around the west coast. Freelance writing. How did this become the new normal?

I have zero regrets about making this choice. I feel more myself than ever and deep gratitude most of the time. Sometimes, I imagine my life in montage—a series of snapshot moments of what my life looks like right now. I think there could be two possible montage sequences for the trailer of my story.

Montage Sequence #1: A shot of me strolling on the beach at sunset. Driving on a road ribboning through forests and breathtaking shots of the Pacific Northwest. Another shot of me sitting at my computer, fingers flying as I chase down the words for another writing project. Laughing on the phone as I connect with a friend from back home. Another of me deep in conversation with some random friend I’ve met in a coffee shop.

All of these are all regular occurrences. This is real life, and sometimes it floors me.

But here’s another, also very real montage happening simultaneously:

Montage Sequence #2: Me, sitting on the couch alone on a Friday night, when the “Are you still watching?” pop up comes on Netflix. Sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic on my way home from a downtown coffee shop. Bloodshot eyes staring at a screen, deleting the sentence I’ve been trying to write for the last hour. Sitting in my car, trying to work up the nerve to walk into a meet up where, once again, I don’t know anyone.

It seems glamorous from the outside. People often admit envy when I share what I’m doing. But there are terms and conditions to this life. Things I agreed to sign up for when traveling solo and choosing a career that requires large chunks of time alone with my thoughts.

Just like we don’t read the fine print on the websites we join or the products we buy, it seems we spend a lot of our lives carefully avoiding the reality of our own disappointments and frustrations, the inevitability of ache in the paths we choose.

We pine after constant bliss, thinking it exists just within of our reach. We pursue the promise of an ideal existence, convinced if we can just be productive enough, clever enough, fill-in-the-blank enough, the best versions of our lives can finally start.

I’m living a life I love, and I’m not happy all the time. Montage Sequence #1 comes in a package with Montage Sequence #2. That’s the way it is.

Work life will never be pain-free. Conflict-free relationships where the other person totally gets me and loves me perfectly don’t exist. I’ll never be this elusive perfect version of myself.

These pessimistic revelations aren’t leading to a defeated despair. Ironically, coming to terms with these “terms and conditions” is a huge sigh of relief. A hopeful embracing of what is possible.

It seems all of us are trying to find the best ways to be fully alive. And the motivational slogans encouraging us to “Make Every Day Great!” and “Choose Happiness” seem like a logical strategy.

But how much deep joy have I forfeited in my demand for constant happiness?

What if my crusade for positivity was actually robbing me of the nuanced beauty of the current messy splendor?

What if admitting my limits and being hospitable towards my mundane moments actually freed me?

I’m testing out this hopeful pessimism, and it feels like a sigh of relief. In a nonsensical way, not needing to be happy all the time is making me a happier person.

Please don’t confuse what I’m saying with existential cynicism or an apathy towards growth.

It’s just that sometimes optimism requires a blindness towards the less desirable emotions. And I’m not willing to submit to that anymore. I’m tired of the hustling to diminish my weaknesses. I’m not attracted to the kind of busyness aimed at distracting me from the presence of heartache.

And I’m seeing a tyranny in the Either-Or. The All-Or-Nothing. There are actually more opportunities for joy when there’s more margin for accepting the not so amazing moments.

The upside of pessimism is how it helps me say “no” to things cluttering my life. Admitting the finite-ness helps me steward the time, energy, and resources I have in a more effective way. It provides a lens that reveals the ways the grass may not actually be greener when I start to compare or assume.

Maybe this is just an optimist’s step into deeper joy. Nuanced, messy, and full of splendor.

Allie Cats: The Whimsy of a Creative Life

Creativity has always been a common thread running through my story. From the imaginary worlds woven into the landscapes of our unfinished basement growing up to the desk piled high with art supplies and magazine clippings in my last apartment, I need creativity to feel whole.

I’ve cycled through various mediums and outlets of creativity. Throughout various times, creativity has manifest itself through dance, acting, sketching, photography, collage art, upcycled furniture, oil pastels, pottery, book rebinding, acrylics, and poetry writing.

Allie Illuminated Creativity

Art was just a way of being for me. But it’s also often been an avenue of freedom.

Acting in high school helped me break out of my painfully shy shell. Journaling through mixed media in college gave voice to an ongoing struggle with depression. Writing on this blog was a lifeline that brought me to a career that feels much more in line with who I am.

This ongoing conversation with creativity has been deeply personal, but mostly a private affair. I filled dozens of journals with writing before attempting to share my thoughts online. I made a few attempts to sell my art, but there was a scant number of interested buyers. When my tentative hopes were met with relative silence, I slipped away from the limelight, tail tucked between my legs. Clearly, I didn’t possess whatever elusive quality the “real” artists had to be successful.

But the success of selling art and the need to create are two very different things. So I kept creating. I made agreements with myself that, for awhile anyways, my art was just for me. It didn’t have to be good. I just had to keep creating. When the bruising of my ego had faded a bit, I kept the possibility of selling art again in my Someday Pile.

Allie Illuminated WatercolorWatercolors have been the focus of my creativity in the past two years. I love the collaboration of pigments and water spilling out on the page. Varied by brush size and the timing, the art is a conversation. Learning the language of watercolor was playful, therapeutic. Just me and the paint and the water.

Right now, traveling around the west coast and house sitting along the way, painting has become a part of my rhythm. Several nights a week, in the quiet spaces of my evenings alone, I paint.

Most of these unfamiliar places I’ve been calling home for a few weeks at a time are housesitting jobs. Strangers welcome me into their homes to care for their pets while they are away. This level of hospitality is rare today, but it has been an unspeakable gift.

So when I was welcomed into the home of a Canadian family this October, I wanted to find a way to thank them. When I first arrived in their home and getting familiar with things, they introduced their two cats.

“Harley is 19 1/2 years old. He’s starting to get frail, but he’s really friendly. We kind of think of him as an old gay art dealer. Very posh and snooty to some, (mainly the other cat) but he’s got a heart of gold.”

Just then, the other cat Oskar came skirting around from behind the couch. “And that’s Oskar. I suppose he would be like a reclusive man living in the woods that believes in conspiracy theories. Not that bright, and really skittish, but sweet once he warms up to you.”

So, naturally, my gift to them was a whimsical watercolored rendition of Oskar and Harley.

Allie Cats Oskar

Allie Cats Harley

I didn’t realize that I had unwittingly stumbled onto potential greatness. Why?

Because people love their pets.

And because we all see the animals we love as having human traits.

And to see these pets as the people we know them to be is delightful.

And because the world needs more whimsy and delight.

Allie Cats | Duke

Allie Cats | Butler Dog

Allie Cats | Smalls | Sailor Dog

Allie Cats | Hawaiian Hikers

And now, I’m finding myself painting portraits of other people’s pets several nights a week! Unexpectedly, I stumbled into this niche market. And it’s working. (It may have everything to do with obsessive love of animals and not as much to do with my artistic genius.) But that’s not the point.

The point is that this is the unexpected and funny way that creativity, inspiration, and opportunity interweave. The success was in the declaration to myself that “the act of creating stirs an undeniable, soul-satisfying need, and that alone justifies worth.”

These are the implications of living a creative life. We vision cast and we strategize and we align our lives with where we want to go. And then we find ourselves delightfully caught off guard by new possibilities we couldn’t have imagined.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

The Importance of Being Earnestly Receptive (A Productivity Hack)

It’s a quiet morning. Grey Vancouver light pours into the windows as I sit down on the couch next to the dog I’m housesitting for, Maddi. She snores gently as I open up my computer, the blank computer screen illuminating my face.

I think through the to-do list, trying to prioritize. I have a client call in an hour and I’d like to finish revising the article I wrote yesterday. But I didn’t write a blog post last week, and there’s an email that I still need to respond to. A dozen other tasks filter through my mind, vying for importance.

I take the last sip of my french pressed coffee; gritty silt clinging to the rim. That familiar tightening in my chest clenches—the nagging reminder that I don’t have time to waste.

Productivity.

This is one of my biggest triggers for anxiety and shame. The daily evaluation of whether I was Productive Enough. The chase for Utmost Efficiency in accomplishing the tasks on my list. The meticulous analysis of whether or not I’m Wasting Time. 

productivity vs. receptivity 

(And inevitably, ironically wasting time reading productivity hack articles online… Am I the only one who does this?)

This near idolization of productivity has been engrained in me. Raised in the hardworking Midwest, bootstrap-pulling was brought to an Olympic-level. The demonization of laziness was a part of the ethos. Then I chose a profession that glorified those who made work an all-consuming lifestyle. The five years that I was an elementary teacher were accompanied by a constant buzz of guilt over not doing enough.

Without explicitly announcing it, my worth sidled up to my ability to Get Things Done. How I felt about myself when my head hit the pillow at night was directly related to how productive I felt that day. We get a release of dopamine when we accomplish tasks, but I’d become addicted to the hit, needing it to feel secure.

I left the relentless pace of the teaching world with the hope to live a life that felt more…human. But old habits die-hard. A few months into freelance writing, I’m still struggling with the same battles.

The problem with obsessing over productivity is the collateral side effects. It requires that I act like a martyr, isolating myself to avoid all distraction or any threat to my efficiency. And beating myself up at any sign of weakness or failure. I stake my happiness on an impossible standard of perfection. When I dig down, demanding productivity is really an attempt to create and maintain and image of worthiness.

It’s true—I’m still facing the same old lies. (To be honest, I wouldn’t trust a quick-fix solution anyway.) But the bravery that has been showing up and whispering new possibilities is giving me hope that this isn’t the way that it has to be.

creativity and being receptive

What if I actually believed that my worth wasn’t dependent on what I do or how much I get done?

What if my primary responsibility wasn’t to muster up the effort to Accomplish Everything, but to remain receptive to what is needed only for this moment?

See there’s a big difference between valuing productivity and honoring receptivity:

Productivity requires a constant hustle. Receptivity means submitting to a rhythm.

Productivity demands specifics outcomes to feel ok. Being receptive chooses to gently trust the process.

Productivity is fueled by an anxious suspicion of scarcity. Receptivity invites a hearty hope in a generous world.

Choosing a posture of receptivity means remaining open to possibility. When inspiration flows through, I roll up my sleeves, but I don’t force it to perform on my own terms or timeline. It means being hospitable towards ideas and projects along with the uncertainty and risk that come with them.

If I’m going to be a receptive human, that means that things like getting good rest and taking breaks are not wasted time. It means showing up consistently, expectant to be surprised in the best way. Because being receptive acknowledges that things aren’t only up to me. I’m invited into collaboration—with others, with Inspiration, and The Creative One.

Being receptive requires paying attention to the present moment with open hands. It means letting go of expectations and accepting my limits. (The paradox is that I am often able to accomplish far more when I’m not obsessing over productivity, however.)

receptivityThis morning, I choose to close my computer screen, choosing to put the to-do list on hold for a second. There’s still a gap between what I’m learning and processing about receptivity, and the evidence of freedom in my reality.

I am slowly learning to retrain my thought patterns–because a receptive heart has to believe in its enoughness. And freedom happens in a collection of small moments.

The dog looks over at my big sigh as I set my computer on the coffee table. “What do you think Maddi, want to go for a walk?”

The Art of Not Having Things Figured Out

I have this friend who is a counselor. She works with a lot of women in their mid-twenties to mid-thirties. I asked her, over coffee one day, for her thoughts on our sub-species— the young woman of the 21st century. What themes did she see on the other side of the counseling couch?

“I see a lot of young women who have so much anxiety over not having their lives figured out. Some feel this sense of panic, that things aren’t turning out the way they thought. They are frustrated with themselves that they can’t be this idealized version of themselves that they’ve created in their heads.

Others have gotten to their mid-twenties and have checked off a lot of the things on their lists. They’ve started their careers. They’re married, maybe even have children. And yet they have this sense of loss. Like what do I do now? Is this it??

What I want these women to know is that, developmentally, they’re not done yet. All of these regrets and existential crises are actually premature and unnecessary. They see their stories as already written. And that just isn’t true.”

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I set my coffee cup down with an emphatic nod of my head. I felt like I was just like those women she was talking about. I have felt those panic attacks. That feeling of claustrophobia—is this all there is?! I’ve felt stuck, frustrated that the narrative I’d planned out wasn’t unfolding according to plan. I’ve been on the counseling couch, grieving over the story I was supposed to be living, but wasn’t.

And that grieving was important. I had to mourn and die to the version of myself I thought I was supposed to be. I had to come to grips that the “American Dream” wasn’t going unfold like the predictable path of a Life board game.

But just like my counselor friend pointed out, for a lot of my twenties, I assumed that my story was already written. In recent years, I’ve been surprised, daunted, encouraged, and terrified at the news that I actually had more freedom than I thought.

girl-in-the-lightFinding myself in the midst of a story unfolding feels equally risky and hopeful. Especially this past year, it seems I’ve chosen the even more reckless option to “Choose Your Own Adventure.” I’ve become untethered to any sense of long-term plans or clear ideas for where I’ll be in five years, let alone three months. As I have the typical conversations with family members over the holidays (the well-intentioned questions about my Plans) the words “I don’t know” have become very familiar on my lips.

I don’t know where I’ll travel to next.

I don’t know how much longer I’ll keep traveling.

I don’t know if my freelance writing will support me.

I don’t know what’s going to happen next.

I don’t know the long-term plan yet.

But I do know the very next step, and I sometimes have a hazy idea of what might come after that.

So that is where I start. I’m practicing the Art of Not Having It Figured Out. I’m trying to let go of my demand to be this ideal Allie that always has the answer and never messes up. (To tell the truth, I don’t even think I’d like that girl.)

girl on top of carI’m finding myself replaying that conversation with my counselor friend that I had all those months ago.

It’s relieving to remember that I’m not alone in wrestling with this anxiety. That might not be what we’re presenting to each other on our filtered social media feeds. But when we encounter the gift of brave honesty, we discover we’re all wrestling self-doubt and fear.

But my friend’s observations are also a call to change the script. To insist that it is a good thing that I’m still in progress. To expose the disillusioned lie that we’re stuck and things aren’t going to get better. A whispered invitation to let go of the martyr’s crusade towards some fantasy version of perfect.

As I set my sights on a brand new year, I don’t have a twelve-step action plan to help achieve all of my goals. I’m not clinging to a specific outcome anymore. But I have a pretty clear idea of what I want.

img_2636I want a vibrant wholeness, not a hollow holiness.

I desire authenticity, not a counterfeit conformity.

I want to become deeply human, not sporadically spiritual.

I don’t want to confuse the process of true transformation

with my ego-inflated attempts at self-improvement.

I want to keep entering into the process of becoming

who I already am.

Reflect & Envision: An Illuminated New Year’s Guide

The week in between Christmas and the New Year has always been a hushed margin of possibility for me. The presents are all unwrapped and all the chocolates in the Advent calendar have been eaten. But the decorations are still up, and the days are still infused with the holiday rhythm. There’s less of a push to be productive, and as the year comes to a close, it’s okay to just revel in the snow-globed magic of the season.

img_3372At some point in this transition week, I always try to steal away for a couple of hours. I find a quiet corner in my favorite coffee shop, drink my coffee slow as I think back over the last year and dream about the year to come.

This tradition of reflecting and envisioning has been a practice that I look forward to almost as much as Christmas morning.

It’s surreal to think about where I was at a year ago. I was halfway through my last year as an elementary teacher, living in Kansas City with five roommates. I had recently gone through a breakup and was making my first attempts at delving into the bizarre world of online dating. I knew that 2016 would hold a lot of change, but I didn’t know how it would manifest.

I wanted to be living a life that felt congruent with who I was–I longed to feel deep joy in what I was doing. My time in Kansas City had been filled with beautiful growth and I loved it in a lot of ways. But my sense of belonging and purpose had been slowly diminishing, to a degree that was now painfully evident. I was starting to feel this invitation to step out of this predictable narrative. 

The thought of so much change terrified me, but the only thought more terrifying was the prospect of everything remaining exactly the same. It felt like there was so much at stake, and the possibility of failure felt inevitable. Even so, I decided that risking disappointment was better than living disappointed.

So, as I left 2015 and all of its disillusioning heartache, I dared to write out some of my hopes for the brand new year. Not so much a New Year’s Resolution self-improvement campaign, but a ritual of remembering who I am and dreaming about how to live in line with that identity. A brave declaration of hopes, held with an open hand.

I’ve now arrived at the other bookend of this year. I’ve almost made my way through all 365 days of 2016. And guess what? Those whispers of hopes that I wrote down? Those dreams scribbled into my journal last January? Many of them actually happened. Beyond what I had the audacity to expect! I am living out of a rhythm that fosters my wholehearted flourishing! Unexpected and unconventional though it may be, I love the season I find myself in.

img_7468If this is the part where you’re expecting to hear me say that I’ve now arrived at some continual state of self-actualized contentment, you’ll be disappointed.

2017 is coming with just as much uncertainty and me not having it “figured out.” The highs may be higher, but the lows feel lower. That makes sense–I chose a posture of vulnerability when I left comfort and predictability. 

But I can say that 2016 was a year of me stepping into More (life, freedom, joy, moments of beauty). It was a year of me entering further into the endless process of becoming. There were moments of bravery and moments of failure. Moments of sheer terror juxtaposed against moments of sheer delight. I felt the depths of isolation and tasted the sweetness of true connection.

In other words, it was a year of vibrant humanity, splendid and imperfect. And I wouldn’t trade any of it.

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So I find myself this week, back at another little coffee shop, thinking back on the whirlwind that was this past year. On the borderline between one year and the next, I want to remember where I’ve been as I remain as open as possible to what lies ahead.

The ritual of looking back–of naming what has happened and feeling the weight of its impact has brought me freedom. Starting a new season with intentionality, taking time to quiet myself long enough to listen to my desires shapes my coming months in ways that I didn’t know were possible.

I don’t know what 2016 was like for you. If you are longing to escape a year that left you battered and bruised, or if you’re ending it with a sense of deep gladness. I wonder how you are feeling about 2017. Is it a year full of possibility and hope for you? Or do you feel daunted by the mountains looming ahead for you to climb? Perhaps you feel stuck, disillusioned by the suspicion that nothing will change. That next December will find you stuck in the exact same spot.

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I wanted to share the framework that I use to help me look back and look ahead. It’s not really a formula for a New Year’s Resolution, but some open-ended questions to get you thinking. I hope it is a catalyst to help you claim more abundance in your life.

Maybe you can find a time in this week of margin to get away for just a bit. I’m getting so giddy excited for you–maybe sitting down with a big mug of hot chocolate and your favorite pen; cozily wrapped up in a big blanket and envisioning what 2017 could be like. 

Click on the picture to download this free workbook!

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