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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Why is it so Hard to Speak my Truth Without Disclaimers?

I’ve noticed that I give a lot of disclaimers.

I’ll follow up with something I’ve said by clarifying what I’m *not* saying.

I’ll interrupt myself mid-sentence to qualify a statement, or explain my explanation.

And I make certain that I’m never, at any point,  “throwing any babies out with the bathwater.”

It comes from a deep need to be understood. I attempt to fashion words around the exact nature of how I’m feeling. I want nothing to be lost in translation. I want to protect myself from the distinct ache of isolating loneliness that comes from being the receiving end of assumption, confusion, or dismissal. 

So I choose my words carefully in hopes that I’ll be seen. Or I’ll choose silence if there’s any chance that I’m not being listened to, or the other person isn’t going to receive me well. Shutting down is much safer.

girl-hiding-mittensI see that look on the faces of the people who love me. One of bemused confusion at trying to navigate through my over-explanations to the heart of what I’m trying to say. Most of the time, I receive empathy and understanding when I do finally spit things out. And yet, it’s still so hard for me to speak freely, a lot of the time. Bold statements and half-formed ideas are a challenge to get out.

When I was a senior in college, I sought counseling for the first time. I had been living with a mild depression off and on for most of college, and the weight of the constant heaviness in my chest finally got to be too much. I’d slip up the stairs of the student health center, hoping no one I knew saw me, and I’d sit in a quiet, lamp-lit room, fidgeting with my hands and starting to untangle the inner knots with my counselor, Julie.

After a few weeks, between my stunted attempts at articulating the sources and symptoms of my insecurity, she made an observation. “I’m noticing these long pauses before you answer my questions. It’s like you go inside yourself, and figure out what you want to say, before bringing the words out in the open. While thinking before you speak is sometimes a wise choice Allie, there are spaces where you should be able to be messy in front of other people. Relationships where you can let it all spill out; where you can trust the other person to make space for whatever you’re experiencing.”

This impulse, this thought that I could make myself fully seen and fully known by wrapping my carefully chosen words in explanation and disclaimer was actually hindering intimacy. Needing to be understood was actually keeping me from being known.

I see my friends doing this too. I want to dismiss their disclaimers. I want them to know that I’m in this with them, whatever vulnerable thing they’re trying to grasp for words, or they know what their honesty might sound like, and they’re hesitant. So they hedge their words with buffers and qualifiers, and there are long pauses. I want to tell them to just spit it out! I want them to give me the benefit of the doubt that I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt. I want them to trust that I can understand where their coming from and have probably had the same thoughts as them.

girl-by-riverBecause here’s the thing. Paradox and inconsistency are at the core of what it means to be human. We live in the midst of all sorts of tensions and contradictions. To deny that and insist on clear-cut answers is to forfeit being fully alive.

“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.” (Madeleine L’Engle)

It is possible to uphold two opposing truths. Because truth is often found in the nuance. And maturity looks like stepping into the complexities, making peace with the mystery as you continue to explore and observe. To truly be seen and understood is a miracle, and it doesn’t happen when we’re posturing and presenting neatly articulated packages of ourselves. It happens in the messy art of living out loud.

I’ve got to stop being paralyzed by the fear of being misunderstood. I long to stop wasting all this energy on the defending myself against these imaginary arguments. I need to be willing to be wrong. Need to step out in honesty, spilling open to the people who’ve earned the right to bear witness to my messiness. I want to practice the revolutionary act of not  always having to explain myself.

two girls on a carSo maybe this whole blog post is an ironic disclaimer about how I want to stop giving disclaimers. It’s an invitation to you too. You who chooses silence over the risk of a bold statement or an honest confession. A call to stop worrying so much about how things are going to be received and tell the truth as you’ve experienced it. To get out of your head and live out loud.

(Of course, this is not a call to speak flippantly to whomever, whenever. Of course, we should know when to listen, and not say something that would be hurtful…. but there I go again, giving another disclaimer! I’m going to leave you, dear reader, trusting that you know the heart behind the words I’m attempting to speak.)

When Bravery Means Being Less Agreeable

My default setting is to be agreeable.

I’m really good at nodding my head. My people-pleasing skills are exceptional. My ability to perceive what other people want and try to be accommodating is unparalleled.

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It may look humble and kind to the outside observer. It looks like I’m being a loving and “good” daughter/sister/friend/student/employee. But peel back the layers of this “nice girl” persona, and you’ll see a highly functioning and insidious defense mechanism. An attempt to protect myself from ever being misunderstood, or met with any hint of disapproval or disappointment. A refusal to show my full self to others as an attempt to control their perceptions of me.

If I disagree or have some unpleasant reaction to someone, I’ll do my best to keep it a private matter. Internal stewing and nasty thoughts written out in my journal. But externally, I keep nodding and smiling. I stay silent and small. The thought of saying “I disagree with you” terrifies me. So I just avoid any hint of conflict.

fullsizerender-jpg-5This attempt to be agreeable all the time, this crusade to never disappoint anyone ever? It’s exhausting. I know from experience and research that this leads to exhaustion, isolation, and depression. So I am doing everything I know (talking about it, speaking out the shame, taking small steps of bravery) to unlearn this default setting of people-pleasing.

I write about why we should pursue the things that make us feel most alive. I want and need to be clear that this is not only an external affair. This isn’t just about lifestyle choices and how we spend our time. Being wholehearted and vibrantly alive begins with being bravely honest with all of the parts of you. Not just the presentable, easily likable parts.

My ambition in this blog isn’t for it to be a collection of whimsical thoughts about how to be more free-spirited. This is an urgent cry to embrace wholeness. Most of that process is uncomfortable and hard and messy. But oh, dear reader, it is necessary. And it is Good.

fullsizerender-jpgI used to think that it wasn’t okay to have negative feelings. Anger, sadness, or disgust were emotions to be snuffed out and stuffed down as quickly and quietly as possible. I didn’t think it was possible to be loving and disagree with someone at the same time. That empathy and the word “no” were mutually exclusive.

fullsizerender-jpg-7This week was hard for me. I had to reckon with my patterns of agreeableness coming to a halt. My patterns of privileged complacency and fear-based silence were exposed. I felt the effects of speaking up about my sadness over the election and having people that I love and care about disagree with me. My normal mode of agreeableness crumbled as I felt angry and misunderstood. I didn’t like it one bit.

But rather than my previous attempts to push past those negative feelings, I tried to be hospitable towards that grief and frustration. Rather than jumping to the “right answer” conclusion, I stepped into the uncomfortable space of wrestling with the tension for just a bit.

It was exhausting.

I made a lot of mistakes.

But it felt like a step in the right direction.

See, my old way of being? The needing to be pleasant all the time version of Allie? She thought she was being a peacemaker, but she was actually just being a peace-keeper.

Keeping the peace means making sure that no one is rocking the boat. It means running around trying to manage everyone’s emotional state and making sure that we’re all ok all the time.

But that’s actually not my job.

What a relief—that it’s not my responsibility to keep everyone happy all the time, or to maintain an environment where no one ever feels uncomfortable or is disappointed in any way. Because I’ve been trying to shoulder that responsibility, and it turns out that I’m not that good at controlling circumstances or other people’s responses to life.

To be a peacemaker is to believe that people are doing the best they can. To choose to trust that people act the way they do and believe what they do for a reason. And to lead with empathy and curiosity in interacting with people.

And it also means being willing to disagree with them. To be willing to ask uncomfortable questions and really listen to their answers. It means risking discord as you share your convictions. It means engaging in relationship with people that are different, with intention and humility and honesty. 

It means actually loving people. Which isn’t synonymous with making sure that other people are comfortable all the time.

This week was a reminder that the world doesn’t need an Agreeable Allie. It does need a Wholehearted Allie. My anger, my opposition, and my words of grief need to have a place at the table, alongside understanding and empathy and words of comfort.

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I’m not saying we should all start shaking our fists and raging all over the place. Let’s not throw any babies out with any bathwater here.

But I am inviting you to question your default setting.

If your impulse is to avoid conflict at all costs, maybe you need to lean into uncomfortable conversations with people.

If you’re quick to spout off your opinions or blast your social media feed with inflammatory articles, I invite you to listen. To be willing to be wrong.

What does wholeheartedness look like for you this week?

Facing the Reality of my Smallness

To-do lists and timers. These are the things that fill my days. I have editing work, research for new articles, contacts to pitch to, and online courses. But mostly I write. I’ll set my timer set for 52 minutes (because I read somewhere that 52 minutes is the ideal amount of time to be productive) and I try my best to show up on the page.

Because this is my life now. Part of my reason for traveling was because it makes me feel alive and inspires me and it was an opportunity that I knew I had to take. But the other part of traveling is that it would give me space and a break from “normal routine” to step into the discipline of writing.
And writing.
And writing some more.

bw1I’m writing and writing because I’m hoping that quantity will lead to quality. I’m putting my work out in the best ways I know how because I’m hoping that some of my writing is helpful and life-giving to others. And because this is a lifestyle that makes sense with who I am and how I want to live.

Most days, I feel giddy and grateful that I get to do this. That technology, privilege, and the generosity of others have made space for a season to pursue this. I have moments of sensing purpose and the confidence to keep moving forward.

But every couple of days, (usually on Tuesday afternoons for some reason), storm clouds of doubt roll in. I see the reality of my current situation in a different light, and I start to panic.

“Why the hell did you think this was a good idea? Everything you write is cliche and self-indulgent. I suppose it doesn’t matter because hardly anyone is reading it anyway. Look at the staggering volume of other writers out there, saying basically the same thing as you, only better. It’s silly that you thought you could actually do this. Maybe, just maybe if you try this formula from that famous blogger who made 6 figures in six months, or just try a little harder. You aren’t doing enough, but maybe you can be ok if you just…”

This is the point where I try to walk away from the conversation in my head. I make another cup of tea or call my sister. I try not to take my inner drama queen too seriously. Because I knew when I set out on this creative risk, that these thoughts would come.

I expose my inner monologue to you, dear reader because I think that maybe you have some of the same conversations inside your head. We all have our moments of coming face to face with our smallness. But everything—our happiness, our ability to make good work, our wholeness depends on how we respond to these doubts.

The recognition of being small? The awareness that everything that I produce isn’t immediately good? The wrestling with our desire to be seen and known and loved? This is what it means to be human.

The shaming thoughts of not being enough? Comparing myself with others when I can only see part of the picture? Launching campaigns to validate my worth by sheer effort? These are red flags.

It may look like a strong work ethic or humility, but chasing after an elusive perfection is a lie that will eat away my soul. My wholeness depends on evicting those thought patterns from my mind as often as they show up and try to take residence.

bw5This week in particular, I felt the weight of my smallness. The voices of self-doubt were louder. The second guessing and disillusioned reveries increased. These thoughts aren’t new. But the weary familiarity stung just the same. Traveling has made me feel small. Flinging myself out from under an umbrella of predictability and into a storm of unknowns has made me feel small. Attempting a creative career as a writer has made me feel minuscule.

Small isn’t a bad thing, but coming to grips with it can mean a wrestling match with your ego. I am very much in the middle of this, and I don’t know if that will ever change. I have to convince myself, at least once a day, that this is not only ok but exactly where I’m supposed to be. Not having it figured out. Not knowing how it will all turn out. Not doing it perfectly.

I try to have my eyes wide open to today. I try to focus on just the very next itty-bitty step, the piece that I can see. And I try to do that with excellence. For 52 minutes. This is where I start. 52-minute chunks of smallness that I’m trusting will build to something. What, I don’t know. But that’s not up to me, I suppose.

I think so much depends on how I choose to respond to these mood swings.

bw2My choice to let go of expectations and remain open to possibilities.
My choice to keep showing up, regardless of how I feel.
My choice to shift from needing a certain outcome to trusting the process.

My choice to keep claiming the arrogance of belonging. 

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!