Connection In the Midst of Political Insanity

This trip has surprised me.

I guess a little bit of me was assuming that I would feel isolated. I mean, traveling alone, being on the move, and stopping in cities where I know very few people sounds like a recipe for loneliness right?

While there have been long stretches of alone time, this adventure around America has so clearly been about connection.

There’s been many people who’ve struck up conversations with me. Like the fruit stand guy at Pike’s Place in Seattle. A weathered face and slate grey eyes lighting up as he asked if I want to try a pear. He shared about his motorcycle trip he took from Florida up to Washington back in his day as he nonchalantly slips me slices from cameo apples and persimmons.

pouring-coffeeI’ve surprised myself with my growing boldness at interacting with strangers as well. Like the time I went to a restaurant that had been recommended to me, and after ordering a drink at the bar, I couldn’t find a place to sit. There was an empty seat next to three friendly looking guys, so before I could talk myself out of it, I asked if I could join. They ended up being three cousins from Ethiopia. I had a lovely evening, hearing about their family dynamics and laughing at the stories of shenanigans.

And don’t get me started on the overwhelming hospitality I’ve received in the places I’ve stayed. Time and again, I’ve shown up to different homes of people hosting me, unsure of what I’d find. Most of the people I’ve stayed with were complete strangers, or connections through a few degrees of separation. Without fail, these people have opened up their homes, invited me to their dinner table for a feast, and delighted in showing me their town.

These strangers-turned-friends have been a diverse bunch. Differing backgrounds and world views, various ethnicities and perspectives, and people who’ve had vastly different experiences than this sheltered girl from Iowa have come alongside me and made me feel at home.

I am not sure what I was expecting, but I think maybe this is what I was hoping for. It is so good for me to put myself in places where I am out of my element and surrounded by people who are different than me. It is an opportunity to confront my hidden assumptions and see the similar humanity in everyone.

the-adventure-beginsIt has been uncomfortable and stretching at times, but so beautiful. What is so fascinating is to see the contrast between my experience and what’s happening in American politics right now. Juxtaposed against this connection and unity I’m experiencing is this daily news about hate-charged rhetoric, increasing evidence of dividing lines, and a candidate who spews out horrifying statements like it’s his job. So much of this election season has left me waffling between bewilderment, embarrassment, and dismay.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, but I am. It makes sense that people are suspicious of what is different than them. That fear can be a powerful driving force, manifesting as anger and extremism. When this is insulated in an environment where only people you encounter look the same, think the same, vote the same way, this fear can go undetected. The other becomes a caricature of assumptions and stereotypes to fear, make fun of, and defend against.

I get it. Fear of that which is different can be so subtle and so deeply ingrained into our humanity. It’s a natural defense mechanism and I am not immune to it. The problem is when you think the only people who are people are the people who look and act like you. But if you walk the footsteps of a stranger, you’ll learn things you never knew you never knew. (If you just got that last sentence, you are a child of the nineties…If it made you laugh, then we are kindred spirits.)

“Grace dies when it becomes ‘us versus them.’” — Philip Yancy

While there is a gravitational pull towards that mentality, I’m finding that it doesn’t have to have the last say. In the moments where I choose curiosity over fear, I discover so much about myself and others. In encounters where I’ve released assumptions, I find myself surprised by compassion. Exercising the muscle of empathy and choosing to believe that everyone is doing the best they can has only brought more life and freedom into my world.

 This reminded me of a video I saw a few months back. In response to the controversy of the millions of refugees that were entering Europe, Amnesty International conducted a simple experiment, based on psychologist Arthur Aron’s findings that 4 minutes of looking into someone’s eyes is one of the most powerful ways to break down barriers. What would happen if these strangers, Syrian refugees and Europeans, sat across from each other in the historically divided city of Berlin and really tried to see the other person?

screen-shot-2016-10-29-at-11-29-16-amscreen-shot-2016-10-29-at-11-29-49-amscreen-shot-2016-10-29-at-11-31-08-amNervous laughter and eyes darting away in discomfort dissipate in the first minute. Walls come down and simple human connection is formed. The conversation is stilted with language barriers, but that doesn’t diminish the profound bond that forms. If you haven’t seen it, please watch it right now. (Fair warning, I cry every time I watch it.)

This beautiful video belies our human need to be seen. We are built for connection. When we isolate ourselves into places of familiarity, we lose our ability to see. Being in the presence of “the other” humanizes them. Assumptions and judgment fall away as the familiar humanity in their face become evident.

I don’t claim to have any or all of the answers. This is not a how-to blog, where I claim a 5 step process to eradicating all of the dividing lines that riddle our nation. I’m not proposing that we all hold hands and gaze at each other with 5 minutes of uninterrupted eye contact on the other side of the voting booth next week.

portraitaamanrainbowwomanportraitelderlywomanportraitmuslimwomanportraitelderlymangirl hands to heartBut I am making a case for why we should seek to put ourselves around people that are different than us. I am asking us to practice choosing curiosity over fear. I’m asking for us to endeavor to really see the people around us.

**All photos in this post are from unsplash.com

Is Life an Adventure…Or a Quest?

I’ve just spent the last two weeks exploring the Pacific Northwest. I had been in California for most of September and early October.
This morning, I will cross the border into Canada. The plan is to housesit for the next month, exploring Vancouver and building my new career as a freelance writer.

Sometimes the surreality of my current situation hits me. This wasn’t “The Plan.” The original plan I’d made.

The Plan was to be an elementary teacher in the Midwest.
The Plan was I was supposed to be married by now.
The Plan was to eventually be a stay at home mom, in a cutely decorated home in a hip neighborhood somewhere in the Midwest.
The Plan was to be living the story that was expected of me.

img_0255Truth is, I could be living that life right now. I could have gotten married to the man who cared for me and would have provided a stable life. I could still be a teacher, making a difference in the lives of eight-year-olds. I could have a house and all the things I dreamed about when I was a little girl.

And that would have been a good story. It just wasn’t my story.

Believe me, I wanted that to be my story for a long time. Even after I made choices to step away from those things, I had to grieve the loss of this expected narrative of my life. It would have been so much safer, so much more predictable and comfortable. It was definitely what was expected of me, and for someone who has often found her security in meeting others’ expectations, it was devastating when that didn’t happen.

I think I used to want my life to be more like one of those Choose-Your-Own-Adventure stories, where you get to decide how it will all turn out. I wanted some thrills and adventures here and there, but I wanted the risks to be within my (perceived) control. I wanted the end goal to be clearly stated and the road to that “happily-ever-after” to be well planned out.

90b6eb0f-93fe-4295-a17f-bdb0a5086014Things have not turned out to be that neat and tidy. While my story has certainly been adventurous, it has become more and more evident that the adventure is not the end point, but the means to an end that extends beyond me. I found a spark of clarity in a conversation with my friend Karen when she explained the difference between an adventure and a quest.

“See, an adventure is a there-and-back-again tale. It’s like The Hobbit. The character goes out for the thrill and excitement, with some treasure in mind. There’s danger along the way, but the ending is a homecoming, the hero happy and unchanged. A quest, on the other hand, is a journey that a character takes, leaving him so changed, he can’t ever return to life as normal. It’s like Lord of the Rings. It’s about a purpose bigger than the character even realizes…

…Allie, I think you’re going on a quest.”

I loved this analogy. It’s why I love Travel—the way the experiences and encounters change me and shape my perspective. But while the idea of a quest is romantic and makes for a good movie, but can I be real honest? It’s a bit more challenging to be in the midst of a real life story that is full of plot twists and so much uncertainty. There is no treasure map to follow. And the plans I had made in the first few chapters have not at all come to pass.

img_6714I can make peace with the ambivalence of my traveling adventures. I have my arms wide open to being changed by this trip. But when it comes to the greater narrative of my story, I want a little more control than I’d like to admit. I’d prefer calculated risks with predictable outcomes over jumping into risky unknowns.

I’ve been thinking and writing about uncertainty and the landscape of change for awhile now. But I’m no longer in the foothills of transition. I’m on the cliffside of a quest. And I can look back on the valley that I’ve been climbing up. I can look back on the safety that I thought I wanted and see that my life has been far more adventurous than I ever would have planned for myself. And I can say beyond any doubt that I wouldn’t have it any other way.

“If we are to be aware of life while we are living it, we must have the courage to relinquish our hard-earned control of ourselves.”

fullsizerender-jpg-1If life is a quest, this opens me up to the freedom to enter into the mystery of the messy middle chapters. To trust that the story is a good one, even if I can’t skip to the end to see how it all turns out. Madeleine L’Engle, the beautiful author of the quote above also said that the basis of all story is the question “What if?” “All of life is story, story unraveling, and revealing meaning. Despite our inability to control circumstances, we are given the gift of being free to respond to them in our own ways.”

Fort Bragg and the Art of Reinvention

This past week, I’ve been exploring the town of Fort Bragg, California. This sleepy blue-collar town on the Mendocino coast is a hipster’s paradise. Right along Highway One, Fort Bragg is bordered by Pacific coastlines to the west and lush Redwood Forests to the east. Secluded as it is, the town is populated by funky local shops and surprisingly excellent breweries. And don’t get me started on the locals. The quirky, lovable characters that live there only add to the charm that feels more like the set of some indie film than real life.

rough-barAnd do you want to know how I ended up here? (I have had to ask myself that question every day this week.) On a whim, I called up the innkeeper of the Grey Whale Inn and asked if I could help him update his website in exchange for free accommodations. And he went for it! This historic redwood building used to be the town hospital, but is now a quirky 13 room hotel, complete with wallpapered rooms, sweeping views of the coastline, and a dying cat named Sweet Pea. A plucky moment of asking for what I wanted led to this whimsical week of exploring a coastal town and listening to the story of this off-the-beaten-path town.

img_2120Fort Bragg is a city in the process of reinventing themselves. See, for decades, a huge corporate lumber mill generated the economy and culture of this blue collar town. When the mill closed down in 2002, they had an identity crisis of sorts, trying to figure out a post-industrial life in a changing world. It was like the townspeople looked up for the first time and saw the beauty of the coastline that the mill had been blocking. They saw the elegance of the Redwood forests they had been cutting down for decades. They saw the potential for what their city could be, surrounded by so much beauty. They started asking the questions and thinking about what the next chapter in their story could be.

A little over a decade later, the conversation is still going on, and change is gradual, but as a visitor passing through this town, the metaphor of redemption is so rich. All around me, I saw the potential of this sleepy town that’s starting to wake up.

trestle-bridgeAnd what a beautiful place to find myself, in the midst of my own reinvention. I can resonate with some of the locals, fearful of the changes and wanting life to be the stable comfortability of its former industrial days. With the new artists and small businesses coming to town, anxieties over the creative risks make sense to me.

But I love the glimmer of hope that many Fort Bragg residents seem to have. They see the possibilities and have a dogged loyalty to the place that is endearing. They have a Stars Hallow level pride for their community, enduring the necessary growing pains for a small town longing to thrive in a new way.

pudding-creekMaybe this is narcissistic to say, but I can see myself in this town. I see the scrappy attempts at new businesses around the downtown, even as I sit at my computer, pitching myself as a freelance writer. I resonate with the cycles of self-doubt and brave dreaming that Michael the innkeeper shares as he talks about plans for the Grey Whale Inn. I see evidence of the grieving of seasons past and anticipation for what lies ahead because that’s exactly what I’m doing in my own story right now.

As I wander around the streets of Fort Bragg, listening to the stories of anyone that will talk to me, I am reminded of the beauty of the process of reinvention. I see the blossoming potential of this best-kept-secret of a town, and it is whispering hope right back to me.

img_2156“The journey of reinvention is one of raw emotions
Emerging from dormancy
Surprising as a paper cut
Overwhelming as a hailstorm
One part vulnerability
One part rage
One part surrender
Uncomfortable
Unfamiliar
Unsure
Fearful
Alone
Damaged
Broken
And finding a new Self
Slowly
Different
Healing
Humble
Present
Open
Longing
Free”
Dave Rudbarg

3 Ways To Escape A Tourist Mindset

Just north of Malibu, there’s a quintessential Pacific Coast beach. El Matador State Beach. All the locals like to keep it a secret, but I have Friends who Know Things.

Around the golden hour right before sunset, I parked along the side of Highway One and made my way towards the cobalt ocean horizon. Stairs were cut into the bluffs cutting down to a rocky beach. Windswept waves crashed into steeples in the water as the golden edges of late afternoon sun cast long shadows. Pretty much everything a beach should be.

As I made my way down the bluff, it was apparent someone had let the cat out of the bag about this place. The beach was teeming with people. A myriad of tourists holding their selfie sticks and couples holding the hands of their lovers were joined by some students making an independent film, several fashion photo shoots, and two different newlywed couples, the brides in their wedding dresses playing in the surf. There was even a drone with a Go-Pro getting the bird’s eye view.

img_2516Yup, this was a well-documented beach.

Everyone was following the impulse to capture this photogenic beach. Alain de Botton, in his eloquent book The Art of Travel, articulates what often goes on at these destinations of recognized beauty. 

“A dominant impulse on encountering beauty is to wish to hold on to it, to possess it and give it weight in one’s life. There is an urge to say, ‘I was here, I saw this and it mattered to me.’”

Registering their heart’s stirring at the view, they mistook the need to be captivated by the beauty and settled for capturing it with a picture. See, the thing about snapping a picture is it tricks us into thinking that we’ve got all there is to get from the place. We substitute actually noticing a landscape for the assurance that we can look back at it in our photo albums at any time.

I’ll admit, I was snapping pictures like the rest of them. And I was also writing this article in my head. Maybe in doing so, I too missed the opportunity to become immersed. I don’t know what the balance is here. Seems like the very thinking about wanting to be in the moment keeps me from doing just that. I second guess myself and start navel-gazing rather than Nature-gazing, if you catch my drift. 

I don’t think I’m alone here. Why is it that we cringe when we are in tourist places, everyone snapping pictures like we’re trying out a career in paparazzi? Why did I laugh at the video I saw the other day of a guy running around and cutting people’s selfie-stick poles with hedge trimmers?

There’s something about tourists that rub us the wrong way, even when we are one. It’s because the tourist has the reputation of wanting the bragging rights of having visited a place, but without the inconvenience of really seeing. Hurried, uncurious, and therefore blind, they content themselves with the satisfaction of checking off items on an itinerary and pass through woefully unchanged.

So how do we break out of this default setting as we visit new places? How can we step out of the mindset of a tourist and immerse ourselves into the places our adventures take us? There are a few things I’ve read, heard, or discovered along the way that have helped me.

img_2525Slow Down

Our internal lives mirror our external circumstances. The times when I have a jam-packed schedule with an unrealistic itinerary, I struggle to remain fully present. I know this, but I still need to be reminded. In the midst of so many recommendations and places on the list, I subtly took on the mindset that I had to do it all. Accepting my human limits allows for a richer experience. Choosing Quality Time in a few places rather than taking on an Amazing Race pace on my trip has not been a choice I’ve ever regretted.

img_2083-jpgLook Like an Artist

How do you train your eyes to really see something? Bring a sketch book. This was the suggestion of John Ruskin, a 19th century English artist and writer insisted that “in the process of re-creating with our own hands what lies before our eyes, we seem naturally to evolve from observing beauty in a loose way to possessing a deep understanding.” (Alain de Botton)

And before you claim your lack of artistic talent, Ruskin would tell you that’s not the point. It’s not about the finished product, but the invitation to really see the contours of the land or the way the sunlight hits that particular palm tree. The capturing of moments, through the eyes of an artist, develop like a polaroid picture. Slowly, like magic, the composition you immerse yourself in takes shape and the vibrancy appears with patience and a keen eye.

img_2531

Follow Your Curiosity

A tourist observes from a distance. A traveler merely passes through. An adventurer engages.

Beyond the slowing down and taking the perspective of an artist, we must let ourselves be changed by the places we visit. Our intentional noticing naturally leads to questions. And then we follow that curiosity! We ask the question. We say yes to the detours. We listen intently, and then we respond. We open ourselves up to encountering all sorts of newness, responding to what is called for in the moment.

img_2518Part of traveling like an adventurer is letting go of the need to “do it right.” To take pictures or not isn’t the point. But, for a moment, let your curiosity extend to your own motivations. Why is it that I’m wanting to take this picture right now? Is it about giving attention to where I am in this moment? Or is it about getting attention in some future moment when I share this?

Ponder this, make the best choice you can, and then get back in there, you daring adventurer you! 

Happy Accidents in Travel: A Case for Spontaneity

I squinted at the roadmap. Turns out cell reception isn’t the greatest in western Colorado. Good thing I tucked a good old fashioned atlas into the pocket of my passenger seat as a last minute thing.

I was making my way across Highway 70. Arches National Park was only 45 minutes off my intended route. I considered the detour. The home of The Arch. The one that’s on the freaking front of my atlas! And the Utah license plate. And in every montage of America the Beautiful…

I figured I could spend an hour or so at the park and still get to my campsite by nightfall.

That’s the thing about road trips. There is a destination to get to, but there’s also all this liminal space–the in between filled with possibility and beauty. The challenge for the traveler is to steward your time well between arriving at your intended destination and allowing space to travel through with eyes wide open.

img_2176I drove into the entrance of the park, into the view of these flaming cathedral towers coming out of the ground. Ribbons of various reds and oranges cut through the rocks, throwing the contrast of a cloudless sky into unspeakable vibrancy. The splendor contained in this park left me dumbfounded, so I reverted to uttering intelligent things like “Are you kidding me? Are you freaking kidding me? Stop it. Holy cow! Stop it! No, don’t stop it!”

img_2174The road kept winding this way and that around the various crests and stacks of rock. Signs pointing me in the direction of the “Delicate Arch.”

Several miles in, a trailhead sign pointed me in the direction of the infamous arch. It said it was a 1.5-mile hike to the arch. I looked at my watch. I’d already spent 45 minutes of the hour I’d allotted driving and gawking at the different plateaus.

But I was here. And it was so pretty! I figured if I could keep up a good clip, I’d make it to the arch and back and still be ok. I could set up my tent in the dark if I needed to.

As I got on the trail a literal tumbleweed blew past me. A tumbleweed! The reality of the desert came in the form of an oppressive sun, but that didn’t deter my steady pace. I passed the ambling tourists, on a mission to see this Natural Wonder of the World.

I made my way up a hill and around a cluster of rocks. Occasionally there were signs pointing the way, but there were stretches of desert where the trail was unclear. Which I kind of loved. It made me feel less Pedestrian, more Pioneer. At one point the trail opened out into a plain, with no discernable path. I chose to go left, my gut sensing that the arch was just over that crest. I hiked around a few more juniper and blackbrush covered boulders and there it was.

Across on the other side of a canyon.

img_2205Oh, I trail blazed alright. Just not to my intended destination. A wide and uncrossable cavern yawned in front of me, the arch just on the other edge. I sat down on a rock, catching my breath and shaking my head. I didn’t have time to retrace my steps. I could make out the other hikers who had taken the correct path. They were now milling around, taking their obligatory selfies and future profile updates.

img_2212I’ll admit, I’m not the best when it comes to pre-trip research. I’ll go off of my adventuring friends’ suggestions. Or I’ll ask locals where they’d suggest I go for dinner or the best beach in town. And if that isn’t accessible, I’ll rely on an app once I’ve arrived in the area to find a well-rated place to explore. If you can call this “research,” it’s in-the-moment research. It’s investigating with a heavy dose of spontaneity. Which means that it’s always somewhat of a gamble.

img_2207Sometimes I end up in the Best-Kept-Secret places, my eyes taking in a location that came highly recommended. Or I stumble into an Off-The-Beaten-Path place that no one’s heard of, a gem in its own sense. And sometimes I end up on the other side of the canyon, close to where I meant to be, but tucked away in obscurity.

How easy it is to get caught up in the destination. The next hip place that is currently all over Instagram. The Must-See stops along the road. I’m not discounting them, or pulling a hipster card, being a snob just because they’re popular. But I am saying that the places I didn’t intend to end up were just as beautiful as the places that were on the list.

img_2213And there, on the “wrong side” of the canyon, looking around at the 360-degree view of the Utah desert I made peace with where my detour had taken me. Sunlight glinted off the sloping orange stone. A welcome breeze whistled through the shrubs. This is where I ended up.

Not where I expected, just as magnificent as the icon across the canyon.