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.

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.”

gutsoverfear

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.

img_2937

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.

IMG_2312.jpg

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!

screen-shot-2016-12-23-at-9-18-30-am

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.

 

Traveling is a bit like falling in love

A few days ago, I got in my car. With a deep breath, I turned the key in the ignition and pulled out of my parents’ driveway.

I had meticulously filled my car with my favorite belongings and necessities for the road.

I had been held in the I-won’t-see-you-for-several months embrace of my parents.

I had double checked for the fourth time that I hadn’t left anything important behind.

img_2437

 

And then I did the thing I had been talking about doing since February.

I started heading west.

Gratitude spilled out in the form of tears as the reality sunk in, driving on Interstate 80.

I had been looking forward to palm trees and beaches and the start of this new season in California. But ahead of me lay thousands of miles of In-Between.

Not that I was dreading this trek across the country. I not-so-secretly love long drives in the car. And while the magnitude of this road trip was unprecedented for me, I had a sense of giddy anticipation for the journey ahead.

As the sun steadily rose in the cloudless sky, the familiar cornfields melted into the open plains that stretch through Nebraska.

img_2438In the late afternoon, my eyes strained to see the faint purple outline of the Rocky Mountains on the western edge of the sky.

The next morning, my car swiveled through the jagged mountain terrain, past cobalt mountain lakes, with placid surfaces mirroring their surroundings. Slanting morning sun cast shadows of evergreen armies, standing salute on the sloping foothills. 

Processed with VSCO with c1 presetMy little Ford Focus sped onward through highways that ribboned around the stony towers, the gray and greens blending into rust-colored plateaus of Utah.

Processed with VSCO with g3 presetMaybe it was the elevation, or maybe it was the beauty that made my chest ache. There were moments that I couldn’t contain my elation. It felt wrong to be zooming past this glory at 80 miles per hour.

As I passed the continental divide and started the downward slope, I entered a part of the country I had never been to before. The beauty of the foothills I was driving through seemed to reflect the foothills of this adventure I was embarking on. This was uncharted territory. Stripped of everything familiar, I felt exposed.

It was as if someone had turned up the saturation and contrast levels of my experience both internally and externally.

Alone with my thoughts, I’d oscillate between giddy excitement for what these next few months would hold and dread at the realization that I am now essentially homeless and unemployed. I’d revel in my solitude one moment, and feel the pang of loneliness around the next bend in the highway. I would feel lulled into a mundane daze at the endless miles ahead of me, only to feel a surging burst of excitement when another beautiful mountain range would emerge on the horizon.

I think anytime I find myself venturing out into the unknown, the vulnerability leads to an intensity of sensation.

Processed with VSCO with c1 presetIt struck me that this trip felt a little bit like falling in love. That feeling when the whole world seems to have a filter of vibrant colors.

Like falling in love, travel is uncomfortable and there’s so much uncertainty about how it will all turn out.

But your heart is ignited and your eyes opened to the possibilities and breath-taking beauty that other people might have passed by.

The beauty felt is almost painful. There’s this urgency to claim it, possess it, to share it.

Both of these experiences leave you forever changed.

Processed with VSCO with c1 presetWith any pursuit of the things the things our hearts long for, there is a rawness that grips us to the core.This vibrancy is not to be feared or shied away from with numbing defense mechanisms. It is to be leaned into.

This is what it means to be fully human.

Why You Should Have Conversations With Yourself

I’ve been staying with my parents, my cozy childhood hometown for the month of August. It’s been a month of family dinners, wedding planning (for my younger sister), reconnecting with high school friends, and preparing for my trip out west.

Being in small town Iowa means running into old acquaintances and family friends wherever I go. So I’ve gotten my one-minute explanation of what I’m doing this fall down to a well-rehearsed elevator pitch.

The thing is, words can get hollow with repetition. The intention can subtly lose its vibrancy as this thing I’ve been planning starts to feel more like an idea than reality. Comfort and familiarity have lulled me into this sneaking suspicion that I won’t actually be getting into my car and driving out to California in just a few short days. The moment of departure is almost here, and I find myself oscillating between moments of Christmas-morning level anticipation and the kind of self-doubt that punches you in the solar plexus.

After spending a night tossing and turning, I woke up to find this letter on my doorstep.

Dear Allie,

I thought I could remain quiet. I mean, you haven’t been really listening to me for awhile. But I must voice my concerns. This was a lovely millennial dream for you to have, but come on. You don’t actually think you can do this, do you? I mean, who do you think you are?! Annie freakin’ Oakley?

Driving out to the west coast, on your own, for four months, with no job to speak of and a pathetic excuse for a plan?! Where do I even begin to point out the risks of this plan?

This is dangerous. What if your car breaks down in the middle of nowhere? Or you come across some creep when you’re hiking? I mean, maybe if you had a husband to go with you, that’d be one thing. But you are practically hurling yourself into harms way.

This is irresponsible. You walked away from a secure, predictable job. Your dream to be a writer is cute, but be real. No one is going to pay you to be an “artist.” You don’t have what it takes. You don’t want to face the heartbreak of discovering that you aren’t good enough. Why not just take an easier job that is less risky? You may not love it, but hey. But at least you’ll save your dignity.

This is selfish. How dare you abandon everything familiar and all the people who care about you to go do what you feel like doing? You’re quitting this very noble profession of teaching elementary to do what!? Travel and do things that are life giving??? People are going to think you are a self-centered hippy.

This is not healthy. You already struggle with loneliness. Now you want to go thousands of miles away from everyone you know, and travel by yourself? That is the definition of isolation. You’re read Into the Wild, right? That guy ended up dead. Just saying.

Change is too risky. Please listen to reason and just accept your ordinariness. Here’s what you should do. Just stay put, get some easy job. It may not be life-giving, but it’ll be good enough. It’s fine if you want to keep writing and making art, but keep it to yourself please! We can’t face the possibility of rejection. Just do the things that are expected of you, will you? 

Just looking out for what’s best,

Fear

IMG_4797I read these words with both a smirk on my face and a heavy heart. I knew this voice well. Fear had been whispering these sentiments for awhile now.

That’s the thing. Fear’s concerns aren’t going to go away. “Trust me, your fear will always show up—-especially when you’re trying to be inventive or innovative. Your fear will always be triggered by your creativity, because creativity asks you to enter into a realm of uncertain outcome, and fear hates uncertain outcomes.” Elizabeth Gilbert’s helpful and enCOURAGE-ing words helped equip me with an ability to respond well to Fear.

Rather than trying to fight fear, or ignore it completely, I can take a different approach. “It seems to me that the less I fight my fear, the less it fights back. If I can relax, fear relaxes too. I cordially invite fear to come along with me everywhere I go.”

IMG_3530.jpgSo I grabbed some morning coffee, headed out to my parent’s front porch, and penned this response.

Dearest Fear,

I appreciate you voicing your concerns. I want you to know that you are heard and that your voice is valid. I can tell that you are trying your best to protect this one wild and precious life that I have, and I sense your urgency to do just that. This is absolutely a scary thing, and there are very real risks in the venture I am about to take.

Yes, I am still going to go. And I know that you will be my companion every step of the way. While you get a say, you do not get the final say.

You asked me who I thought I was. I’m so glad you asked. Let me tell you.

I am Allie.

I am a truth-speaker.

A beauty-bringer,

a gentle brave soul

committed to living

the wholehearted truth of my being.

I am loved,

I am taken care of,

and I am Illuminated

by Love Himself.

Yes, there are risks involved in this trip, but I believe that the bigger risk is to stay in the comfortable known at the cost of being fully alive.

Making security an idol is just as reckless.

While I have not lived the narrative I thought I was going to live, I am stepping into the story I have in front of me. There are no guarantees as I move forward, but trying to stay stagnant isn’t a foolproof way of staying safe either!

I’m not disagreeing with you—it will probably be hard and there will be moments of loneliness. So much bravery will be required. But I promise (as much as possible) to take calculated risks. To not actually put my life in danger or be financially reckless.

You’re right—it feels very vulnerable to pursue a creative passion like writing. There’s no way of controlling the outcome. But I can choose to enter into the craft of it. To daily choose the joy of submitting to the process. What if we made that the measure of my success, rather than how many people like or don’t like what I’m doing? That makes the stakes a lot less high.

You mentioned lots of phrases about this being unwise, unrealistic, and even arrogant. While conventional wisdom might see that, I don’t believe this is reality. I know I am called to live a wholehearted life. These comments, both of being too much and not enough, are the voice of Shame. And that is not welcome here, Fear.

Sometimes getting hung up on “right” and “wrong” ends up being nothing more than a paralyzing comparison game. Sometimes there is a wise and unwise choice, but a lot of times, there’s just choice. Beautiful, messy, complex choice. And I know that terrifies you, Fear. But be honest.

What is is that terrifies you more than the risks ahead? Isn’t it a life not fully lived?

I believe that choosing the things that are life-giving, even if they are risky or hard or require change, will lead to Joy.

So take a deep breath with me, Fear. Relax. I promise it will all be ok. 

Love,

Me

IMG_0107

Embracing Your Own Mystery

“To be totally honest, I don’t know who I am. And I don’t think people ever will know who they are. We have to be humble enough to learn to live with this mysterious question. Who am I? I am a mystery to myself. I am someone who is in this pilgrimage from the moment that I was born to the day to come that I’m going to die… So, what I have to do is to honor this pilgrimage through life. And so I am this pilgrim…who’s constantly amazed by this journey. Who is learning a new thing every single day. But who’s not accumulating knowledge, because then it becomes a very heavy burden in your back. I am this person who is proud to be a pilgrim, and who’s trying to honor his journey.”      Paolo Cuehlo

A lot of the time, I want to have myself “All Figured Out.” I used to think I was one good journal session away from an Ultimate Breakthrough. I’d pour over personality test literature like a gold miner in California. Rather than searching for gold, I was yearning for a mirror to reflect back all the subtleties of my identity. Such relief was felt in articulating just how I was feeling and why, and then what I was going to do with that. Action plans and poetic self-actualization at its finest, folks.

The thing about entering into transitions, planned or not, is that they expose to us our own mysteries. Our predetermined presumptions fall away as new environments or situations bring out inner enigmas and paradoxes.

canoe girlSee, transitions have a way of slowing us down, or at least breaking us out of our normal routines of insulating familiarity. The hidden undercurrents of what we have been taking for granted become exposed. Our habits, our way of interacting with the world, our desires and interests, our very personality are seen in new light.

Inklings come to the surface: I thought this is what I wanted, but now I’m not so sure…I never thought I would’ve even considered that opportunity, but now I find myself intrigued…I used to assume that this was the way it was, but what if it isn’t? Rather than the clear-cut assumptions we’ve been living out of, we find within ourselves a cacophony of opposing desires and driving forces.

What will we do with these new revelations? Change at any level can be scary. When we sense this metamorphosis happening at our core, we are faced with a choice. Do we submit to the process of death (of our old selves, our old way of being) and the painful/awkward process of figuring out a new life? Or do we run to the safety of business-as-usual?

It depends on whether you see the world you inhabit as static or dynamic.

A static view of the world: Things are finished. Already written. I am the way that I am. The world is going to keep going on the trajectory that has been set since the beginning of time.

A dynamic view of the world: The world is unfinished. Things were set in motion, but we have agency, choice, response-ability to interact. I can change things and be changed.

A static viewpoint would dismiss new awakenings as passing fancies.

A dynamic viewpoint would listen attentively, holding back judgment.

A static viewpoint sees life as something that is happening to you.

A dynamic viewpoint sees life as an open invitation to enter into the creative process.

A static viewpoint says “This is the way I am.”

A dynamic viewpoint says, “That was who I was. Who am I now becoming?”

A static viewpoint sticks to the planned narrative.

A dynamic viewpoint is open to plot twists.

dock lake mountainsWe feel frustrated when others tell us about ourselves, announcing with a smug gleam in their eye something to the effect of “Oh, let me tell you who you are. I know what you are thinking. I know what you want. This is the way you always act.”

How dare you? You don’t know the first thing about me! We think daggers at them as we smile tight smiles with our ingrained politeness.

And yet, isn’t this exactly what we do with ourselves all the time? Well, that’s just the way that I am. I always (fill in the blank). I’ll never (fill in the blank). We get stuck in our own ruts of familiarity. We succumb to repeated history, with a shrug. Truth is, we’ve started letting others, our past, and our current circumstances name us a long time ago, and it’s just a lot easier to stay the course.

There’s something comforting in choosing a static view of the world and ourselves. We take solace in thinking that we don’t really change that much over the course of our lives. We like the stories our mothers tell at family gatherings about how we were when we were toddlers, and how our personality traits that we now possess were evident, even then.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I geek out about discussions around personality. I find the dynamics of how we are wired and how that affects us fascinating. But I felt a paradigm shift happening while listening to NPR’s Invisibilia a couple of weeks ago. (If you don’t listen to this podcast, you’re wrong. Start at season 1, and then let me know so we can talk about it!)

There was an episode on the “myth of personality.” What if these assumptions about how our dispositions stay constant throughout our lives were just that, assumptions? Assumptions that we build our lives around. Personality tests are excellent diagnostic tools to discover why we are the way we are currently, but they can be dangerous when they start becoming the definition of who we are, a sentence of who we will remain. Equally dangerous is the act of putting our full identity in our occupation, or a specific relationship, role or tribe.

Even though we hate the idea of labels and bristle at others trying to put us into boxes, why is it that we cling to these self-descriptions? Why do I feel just a little bit lost now that I don’t have a nice and tidy answer to the question “What do you do?” It’s harder than it sounds to make peace with our own mysteries and contradictions. I feel a safe sense of control when I have things “figured out.” When I can pin things down in a static viewpoint, I know how to operate.

It is true that there are patterns, predictable tendencies from the interwoven mystery of our genes and our environment. And our brains need to have categories, which involve labels. Sitting down to wrap my mind around something is a necessary step in moving forward. That’s not the issue. The issue comes when we settle into those categories, becoming rigid in the way we see our own possibilities of who we are.

The question is, how willing are we to be surprised by ourselves?

mountain canoeThe quote at the beginning of this post is from Krista Tippett’s interview with Paulo Coehlo. I am challenged and inspired by what he said. “We have to be humble enough to learn to live with this mysterious question. Who am I?” Author of the book The Alchemist, Coelho was a man who lived his life as one on the journey of pilgrimage. To say, at the age of 66 “I don’t know who I am” is a statement that belies a humble wisdom. I like to think that I’ve got myself figured out at age 28 1/2. But in transition’s stark clarity, I see that I have so much unlearning to do. I want to adopt Paolo’s generous curiosity towards myself.

I want to fully enter into the “endless process of becoming” as Rob Bell calls it. And the older I get, the more I’m realizing that wisdom isn’t in arriving at conclusions and staying there. It’s more a series of funerals and birthdays; letting go of the old and being open to the new. I truly am being transformed by the renewing of my mind. I’m not letting go of who I am, but becoming more deeply myself.

How to be Messy Well

You know that moment when Wile E. Coyote, suspended in mid-air, realized that he’s just run off the cliff?

Processed with VSCO with b1 preset

That’s a little bit of what it feels like to be me right now.

Another school year ended last week. Ceremonies, deadlines, field trips, checklists, picnics, meetings, grading, cleaning, games, packing, and the flurry of activity that marks the end of an elementary year. The rhythm wasn’t a healthy  one and I couldn’t wait for it to end, and yet, now that it’s come, I feel bereft.

Every year, the first week of summer feels somewhat like this. Throughout the school year, I become addicted to the rhythm of structured chaos and productive busyness. When summer comes, it’s always hard at first. Like I’m going through a detox, the painful withdrawal symptoms being a mild existential crisis. I’m feeling this uncomfortable downshift more keenly than other summers, as the end of this school year signified not just saying goodbye to being a teaching to this group of students, but I’m saying goodbye to being a teacher altogether. I’m in this surreal realization that I just walked away from my first career, a steady salary, the solid ground of my expected narrative.

So many things came to an end this week, and the new beginnings aren’t quite clear just yet. Similar to that cartoon Coyote, I’ve been running, and I’ve taken for granted the solid ground that’s always been beneath my feet. There’s always been a logical next step. The comfort of predictability. But now I’m stepping out into a reality where the level of unknowns are unprecedented. And I feel like just like Wile E., coming to grips with my reality, eyes bugging out in the pause before the plunge.

But unlike Coyote, I knew what I was getting into. Sure, I’ve been running full steam ahead, but I had been counting down the days till the end for a long time. I knew the cliff was coming and have been preparing myself to end well. I even sought out counseling months ago, knowing the turbulence of the upcoming transition would be challenging.

My counselor has been asking me a powerful question. “What does it mean to end well?” I wrote about my thoughts a couple of weeks ago. I’ve been trying so hard to lean into being fully present in this transition. Of speaking my truth and staying engaged, rather than withdrawing or jumping into planning for the future. I’ve been creating rituals to name and honor the season that is ending, practicing gratitude for the people and places that have become familiar companions these last few years.

I was so determined to end well, that I ran right into an all-too-familar trap, just like a Looney Toons character. The anvil that landed on my head might have had “Perfectionist-Expectations” written across it.

Which is why I sat down in the chair across from my counselor a few weeks ago, exhausted, bitter, and heart aching over the weight of my own expectations to “do it right.” I felt so tired from trying to muster up the energy to remain fully present to all things. I was expecting myself to remain “all in” until the last moment. I turned the idea of “ending well” into a checklist of rules to perform perfectly, and it wasn’t working.

Throughout the course of that counseling session, we sat with that tension, acknowledging the desire to end well and to fully honor the process as a good thing. But I also needed to realize (or remember) that I can’t and won’t “end perfectly.” I can’t say all the right things and end well with every interaction. Yes, it is good to engage with the process, to try to remain present in the moment. I don’t want to regret leaving things undone or unsaid. But part of ending is acknowledge the inevitable deaths occurring. Submitting to letting go, which doesn’t happen all at once. Gradients of change happen in the dying process. Grief and sadness need space, and that means not doing all of the things all of the time. There are a myriad of emotions, complex and vibrant, emerging throughout endings, and they need to be reckoned with. My heart posture was trying keep pace with the chaos of the end of the school year. I just wanted permission to start letting go. To let go of these expectations to “end well perfectly.”

Ok, so endings are messy. Challenging, laced with uncertainty and the inability to have a gameplan. (And can we just acknowledge for a moment, that “messy” has become glorified in our millennial culture? A lifestyle concept that has the appearance of free-spirited authenticity from the other side of a Instagram, but in the daily grind of messy, it’s not so glamourous. I can attest to that.) But when messiness is my reality, it can just turn into another thing to try to master. I try to be messy perfectly. Ha.

So this time around, I’m trying as much as possible to get out of my own way and to be where I am. To feel all the feels, as my friend Jordan would say. This is what my counselor and I came up with. Not a list of rules, but some thoughts on stepping into messiness in a healthy, holistic sense. Practical ways of giving myself permission to be where I am.

Pay Attention

heart rockSo often, in questions about the pursuit of joy, or finding peace, or living in reality, the answer comes back to the present moment. It’s the magnetic pole that the compass keeps pointing towards. “Pay attention to what you’re feeling, and even where in your body you are feeling it,” my counselor advised. Open your eyes to what’s going on around you and listen to how your spirit is responding internally. So easily, my mind fixates on something that happened last week or gravitates towards neurotically scrolling through my to-do list. Patiently, kindly, I keep leading my wandering self back to this moment. Be here, now. Be awake to this moment. Breathe in, breathe out. Repeat.

Get Curious

Ocean BoulderAs much as possible, I’m trying to not get stuck in the rut of assumptions, even about my own self. I’m practicing a posture of curiosity towards myself and my reactions. This is not an open invitation to indulge in self-analysis or to slip into a downward spiral of introspection. Rather, it is a posture of open-handedness. What am I feeling in this moment? Why did I feel that way? What thought patterns need to be discarded in this new season? With the gentleness that I find easier to extend to others, I’m trying to be kind with myself in sitting with these questions, either through journaling, on a long walk, or in processing with a friend. 

Honor Yourself

flower handoffFor a perfectionist, part of being messy is breaking the rules of expectations that I hold over myself. Asking “what do I need in this moment? What does it look like to honor myself right now?” And then (most of the time) doing just that. I’ve been keeping a big stack of pretend permission slips close by and giving them to myself when the moment calls for it. You need to skip going to the gym today? You got it. You need to not care about state testing anymore? OK. My counselor added that if honoring yourself can lead to connection, great. Practice needing to need, as Brené Brown says. Reaching out and asking to get coffee with a friend. Asking for a hug from my roommate. Sharing my messy processing with someone via text rather than carrying the burden alone. That’s what it has been looking like to honor myself in small ways that add up to mean big things.

Make Peace with the “Negative”

IMG_0108I’ve been noticing, within my own thought patterns, how much I’m believing the story that I’m only worthy, or desirable for connection when I’m bringing positive emotions to the table. When I’m feeling stable, optimistic in the face of frustrating situations. That I often try to do whatever I can to silence the sadness, to numb the funk that just comes with transitions. A big part of “being messy” well means fully accepting all the parts of me. Because when I allow the scared, whiny, self-pitying parts of me to air their grievances, rather than shushing them into a resentful repression, they actually don’t feel as heavy. Ironically, when I give myself permission to be in a weird mood, it doesn’t last as long.

The truth is, I’m walking contradiction these days. So many complex emotions are swimming around. I feel like I’m a pinprick away from a much needed ugly cry, and I’m also resting in a contented excitement over my upcoming adventure. I am delighting in this season, and also glad to be rid of it. If I start to zoom out too far, I get dizzy at the prospect of so many unknowns, but if I take just the next step, I’m fine. More than fine. Exactly where I’m supposed to be.  I’m writing to you from the midst of all of this. And this post reflects the messiness I find myself in. Someone who doesn’t have all the answers, but I’m willing to step into the questions.