Under the Big Sky

I think I am happiest when I am loping through the mountains of the American West.

This is the thought that pops into my brain as I bound down Entertainment Trail in Helena, Montana.

After a month in Europe [I’ve been terrible at updating my blog. Life update: My boyfriend finished his dissertation! I finished the school year! Then we lived in a camper van in Europe for a month! Then I came to Helena to write while he surfs! Then we go to the PNW and then home to Hawaii!], I have made my way back to Helena, Montana, and got myself to the nearest trailhead as soon as possible.

As I bound and push my way up Mt. Ascension, I finally come to a stretch of beautiful, single track trail around the mountain and through a meadow. It’s here that this thought pops into my head.

I leave the meadow, and go through a few minutes of forest before turning a corner and stumbling onto a beautiful field of wildflowers.

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It stops me in my tracks. I take a breath, and in awe at how truly beautiful it all is, and how blessed I am to be in this space.


When describing my summer plans to people, one of the first questions I inevitably got was, “Why Helena?” I admit, in a whirlwind of Europe, Colorado, and the Pacific North West, Montana is not normally perceived as “exciting” as the other places on my itinerary.

And, in some ways, that’s fair. Helena still has a small-town feel (Population: 31,179). It has an ice cream shop, a few coffee shops, and some local boutiques. It does have some excellent breweries and a wine bar, and it’s also a place where the drivers are so polite to pedestrians that it can sometimes cause a traffic jam. I wouldn’t describe it as a “party” city.

Which, to be fair, isn’t what I wanted. So, after falling in love with this place last year, Helena popped into my mind when I first realized I had the time to give to it. Still, I wasn’t sure how it would be to come back. I didn’t know if the small-town feel would make me as happy as it did last year.

Then, on my first morning, I ran these mountains, and my heart has been floating there ever since.

On my second morning, I ran a different set of trails. The trails here aren’t overcrowded (like they are at home), but you’ll pass by a handful of folks out there– which is nice since there is quite a bit of wildlife in Montana. People are generally very friendly when they’re hiking and this time proved no exception.

I was running around Mt. Helena when I stumbled on an older woman and her three adorable (and very big) dogs. As soon as they saw me, they immediately began bounding over to me, which stopped me dead in my tracks. I love dogs, but I also know they can have different reactions to a new human than you plan.

“Don’t worry,” the woman called as she ran over. “They’re friendly! They just love to be pet.”

I started scratching their heads and ears and laughed, “Don’t we all?!”

She took a second, then laughed– a sparkling sound that made her throw her head back a little. Then, she reached over and patted my shoulder. I love touch, but I rarely receive it from strangers (something I often consider a blessing). I was gross and sweaty from running. I had only been back in Helena for 36 hours.

Still, this woman, who did not know me, took the time to laugh, show me some love, and wish me a safe run. The familiarity of the gesture, the willingness treat me as a friend even in my very not-cute state, is something that stayed with me the rest of the day.

And it was another reminder of why I love this place.

I wrote, last year, that I was admittedly very nervous coming here as a woman of color. Both times I have arrived at Helena Regional Airport, I’m the only person of color there.

I also shared that I had found nothing but kindness and warmth once I was here. That remains true (and I’m seeing more diversity!). I still get some looks, but I am still consistently shown a sense of friendliness that, honestly, I have rarely found anywhere else.

And that has been very, very relieving. My newsfeed is pretty consistently filled with videos and stories of people from oppressed groups having their humanity stripped in public, or being attacked and assaulted outright. It is easy to feel on edge and have very valid concerns about one’s safety just existing in public spaces.

Still, it is nice to know that there are still parts of our country where people are just treated as… people. While I’m sure Helena is not perfect, there is still an overall culture of care that flows through its streets and in its citizens. It is an important reminder that, in a world that consistently feels more hostile, there are places where people coexist with care for the humanity of those around them.

Why is that? Where does that come from?

I was pondering that as I walked home the other day. The streets are tree-lined and quiet– just a few folks walking their dogs or in their gardens once the heat had finally settled down. I passed a woman on her porch, who greeted me, then looked over my shoulder.

I turned and was treated to another beautiful Montana sunset. Gold and orange streaks filled the sky, while the clouds were painted brilliant shades red and purple, adorning the sun as it went behind Mt. Helena.

I once had a professor who noted that “the way you treat land reflects how you treat  people.” There is something about people who grow up or spend time in nature that embodies this truth. Within them is a willingness to connect with things around them and a deeper understanding of their place in a larger world. It comes from knowing the people around you are tied to the same earth that you are and, just by existing there and holding that land in reverence, you create kinship. It goes deeper than culture– it goes to the very place of you that connects with time and physical space itself.  Perhaps the kindness and warmth I have found in Helena comes, in part, from that place.

The woman and I took a moment together to watch the sunset. We did not know each other, yet under Big Sky, we were both children from the same creator, in awe of the beautiful place we were in.

Thank God for the Stoplight

I’ve never been good at slowing down.

Well, scratch that. As an adult, I’ve never been good at slowing down. Like most people, I was a happier, more carefree, and likely a better human when I was a kid. I would have been content to spend hours sitting, reading books, watching TV and just enjoying the world.

Now, though, like most adults, I live in a world of Google Calendar notifications and Doodle polls to try and find time to do everything from attending meetings and grading to seeing my girlfriends (sometimes needing to plan weeks in advance– we’re busy! And I’m an introvert who needs emotional time to prepare to see people!).

This especially includes fitness. A colleague of mine yesterday spotted me going out on my second run yesterday. No, I’m no superhuman– I just knew that my day was going to be crazy, so instead of being able to do a regular run, I’d need to break it up into two short ones– one at lunch, and one after school but before my meeting.

“I feel like it must be something you schedule,” she said, thinking about how to get into the habit herself.

I thought about it and realized she was right– like anything else, I normally assess my calendar that morning to figure out just how I will be able to manage the many plates of teaching, part-time jobs, writing, trying to see friends and fitness. There are plenty of days where I don’t want to– I’d rather take the hour to veg out in front of my laptop and play on Facebook.

But since my running shoes are there, I compel myself to go out, often as fast as I can. The faster you go, the more miles you can run, I think to myself, using it to push my pace.

Because I feel like I’m always racing the clock and squeezing in miles when I can, I am normally annoyed when I have to stop running. I’ve crafted routes that avoid the particularly slow and long stoplights in my area so I’m not wasting precious minutes of running just, well, standing around “doing nothing.”

Yesterday, though, I went out for my second run and hit nearly every stoplight. I was perturbed at first– how was I going to hit my mileage and make my meeting like this?!

At the third stoplight, though, I noticed the light rain falling over Honolulu. In a place that is typically warm and a little humid, the rain felt wonderful– cool and inviting– it’s understandable why Hawaiian culture views the gentle soothing plop of each drop hitting your skin as a blessing.

By the fifth stoplight, I realized how grateful I was to be forced to stop. I was pretty achey (I haven’t done two-a-days in a bit), and I’m actually recovering from a nasty bout of gastritis from last week. I realized that, at each red light, there was a little bit of grace. I was being given permission to stop, to breathe, to let my body heal and to appreciate the world around me.

So often, we’re trying to fill in every second of our day being as productive as possible– how long can I go as fast as I can so that I achieve as much as I’m capable of? That can be good, but it’s important to seek out and feel grateful for the pauses where the universe forces us to stop, let ourselves recover, and appreciate the moment we are in. As much as we want to hustle, we all deserve a second to breathe too.

So, by the last few stoplights, I made it a point to look around. Towards the end of my run, there’s this beautiful chapel surrounded by a row of trees on the street. Green and luscious, their rich, shiny leaves are each a reminder of how beautiful even small things are.

I waited there, marveling at the trees, appreciating them and the rain and the bright, afternoon light. For the first time in a while, I willed the red light to stay just a moment longer, if only so I could take in the true beauty of this moment and feel grateful for the deep, peaceful pause in my heart.

 

A Shatter, A Death Knell, A Wail, A Rallying Cry

I’ve been writing a lot about mental health recently. At least, it seems that way— for Teaching Tolerance, thinking about it as a runner and educator. I’ve been talking about “fighting monsters” for years now, mining stories of the times I “got off the mat,” or “made the choice to stand up.”

Those stories feel good and victorious, don’t get me wrong. I’m happy I’ve written them. Those days do feel good— the days where I am able to look my monsters in the eye, to get up, to not let them control me. Those are stories that feel good to share too— reading how other people cope with mental health has also been an inspiration for me to move forward too.

There are days when the monsters win, though.

These are the days that are hard to write about.

They start slowly. Lots of times, a panic attack will hit me out of the blue– a blind-turning-truck-into-a-deer-in-headlights hit. The tsunami wave you were so sure would never come. I don’t expect, and the ferocity of it flashing through me is enough to knock me on my ass. It hits. I cry. It passes. Panic.

Some days, though, my body has been a battlefield for weeks. I start noticing little things– I’ll stutter when I talk, I’m tired all the time. I start struggling with my spatial awareness and running into desks and doors, bruises blooming on my arms and thighs.

Still, even now, I try and see if I can outrun and out work Panic. Two-a-days and yoga in between. An extra beer at dinner. Nights laying in bed, hand on my heart, repeating, I am fine, I am fine I am fine Iamfineiamfineiamfine, like a talisman to protect me. If I run my tongue enough over the words, maybe I will conjure some sort of magic that will make the statement true.

You can’t ask the external to protect you from what’s already inside you, though.

And so, over the course of the day, a few hours, it comes. I am lightheaded all afternoon, my heart feeling like it will beat out of my chest. I am so hoping it’s just an upset stomach or tired mind. I try to calm myself, taking my own pulse to prove that I am not having a heart attack or dying. I just feel that way. I hang on, for as long as I can, to the rational part of my brain.

I begin to shiver, and my body becomes the Hoover dam holding back the flood, bursting at the seams. I wrap my arms tightly around to try and hold myself in, as if I could keep my rabbit-heart safe in my embrace so it does not beat right out of my body and lose a bad fight bloody on the floor. I breathe. I tell myself, iamfinefiamfineiamfine,

And then, I call my parents. They immediately hear something in my voice. “Can you stay on the phone with me? I think I’m having a panic attack.”

And then, I break.

They stay with me as the first wave passes. They’ve been here before– comforting and cajoling me to breathe, just breathe. As I alternate between hyperventilating and sobbing, they tell me that it’s okay. They gently remind me that I’m okay, they’re okay, everyone is okay. They sit on the phone and tell me that this, too, will pass. That they are there, and that they love me.

And, in many ways, this is more than enough. The first wave passes, I am able to breathe again. They remind me how much they love me, ask me to get some rest and stay safe and, when I am ready, they hang up the phone.

The fight is not over though.

I roll onto my side and begin to heave, my body furled tightly into the fetal postition like a flag rolled up to try and survive the storm. I cannot stop crying. I openly weep, long unfettered wails pulled out of as I mourn the gentle peace my body had built. I try and let loose everything bursting from me, as if I could scrape the bottom of the well of my sadness as a sign that, just maybe, it’s finally gone

I roll onto my hands and knees on the bed, the blanket draped over my back like a fallen warhorse making its last stand that I saw in a book somewhere. “You need to get up now,” I beg myself aloud, sobbing as I press my forehead to the bed in a desperate prayer. “You have to get up.”

I continue to cry, to wail, to try and somehow call my body back out of the hole we are falling into and try and find my way. I slink and slither to the foot of the bed, trying to breath. One foot touches onto the cold linoleum. Then the other. I come to my knees on the floor, pressing my eyes into the mattress as I finally, finally start to calm down.

I don’t know how long it takes, but by the time I am able to stand, it is dark outside.

I get up, slowly find my footing.

I breathe.

And I begin to rebuild.

These are the days I do not often write about. The shatter, the death knell, the wail, the rallying cry trying to bring me back home to my body. They are the not the Cinderella-story where Panic is the thing I find some magical cure to overcome.

Yet, they are just as much a part of my story as any. At the end of the day, I always come home. After it all, this, too, does pass. And today, raw and wounded as I feel, I have put hand to body, and begin to rebuild.

Pause Before Crossing: A Life Update

I am 30 years old and today I am experiencing my first snow day.

I have to say, my trip to Philadelphia so far has been exactly what I needed it to be. I haven’t written here in a while because, frankly, I had overwhelmed myself past the point of feeling like I could do anything other than breathe and try to exist.

It’s not like I haven’t done that before. I find things I like, get really into them and then overextend myself to the point in which I sit on the couch in a state of stress-induced anxiety, unable to move.

That’s where I’ve been the past month. Don’t get me wrong– the general structure of my life is great– still love my job, still have amazing people in my life– but once I started feeling good, I went too far too fast and put myself in a bad space.

Thankfully, I have a lot of people in my life who love me and help me take care of myself. I made it to Spring Break and got on a few red-eye flights to Philadelphia to see my friends Daria and Chris. I had every intention of doing Crossfit’s 18.4 Workout when I arrived and, fortunately, there is a box a two-minute walk from where Daria lives.

Of course, I was barely able to get two hours of sleep on the flight. I ended up writing and reading, so by the time I made it to Philly, I was pretty zonked.

Still, I planned to get to Fearless Athletics, until I made it to Daria’s apartment. “You know,” I told her, “I kind of wish I could nap instead of doing the workout.”

Daria looked at me for a moment, then said, “Yeah, it definitely sounds like you should do that instead.”

I thought about it. My brain screamed at me that I couldn’t miss a day of working out, that I  needed to push push push. Then, I stopped, and decided that now was the time to take care of myself.

So, instead, I got into bed and slept.

The past few days since have meant some working out, sure, but also just… being happy. I slept a lot, hung out with Daria, Chris, and their adorable dog Max while watching Bar Rescue, met Daria’s grandmother, had some stupid good food (much of it homemade), and just… took a breath.

Recently, I was lucky enough to get interviewed by the 30 by Thirty Photo Project, a photo project by Erika Nizborski. She took some beautiful shots of me, and interviewed me about my experience as a thirty-year-old woman. I told her that, now, at 30, when I turned thirty, I was in the best shape of my life.

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And that may be true–  I certainly put in the work.

But, looking back, I don’t think I was the healthiest I’ve ever been. Health isn’t just the measure of how hard we can push, but our ability to step back and let ourselves heal as well.

So, in the name of healing, I’ve tried to be kinder to myself the past few weeks (hence, skipping 18.3 and 18.4). A few Saturdays ago, I spent the day on my couch, watching Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and, honestly, crying. I realized there were a lot of things I needed to let go of, and some things I needed to forgive myself for.

I also gave up teaching Yoga at Mango Tree. As much as I really do love teaching Yoga, I needed to create space in my life to do some other things I need to focus on like my writing. Funnily enough, the day after I quit, some exciting opportunities started down the pipeline. God is always working.

I feel like there are some things coming, but I know I have to prepare myself for them, if only to appreciate the view.

The morning after I arrived, I woke up and took a very chilly run across the Ben Franklin bridge. It was beautiful, and right before I crossed over the bridge to head back, I took a second to stop, looking around, and just appreciate where I was.

That pause is so essential, such a powerful part of experiencing not just happiness, but understanding joy. Happiness is temporary and situational. Joy is being able to appreciate your life and its bustling craziness and the beauty in the breaths before the grind. Joy involves taking stock because it is the bone-deep belief that there is beauty and magic in your life if only you are willing to wait. 

So, at this pause, before I cross, I am so, so grateful, and excited to see what comes next.

The King’s Speech

“Today, I will talk about
gaslighting,” the boy
started his speech. I
smiled, proud of him
for choosing such an
interesting topic.

As he continued, though,
the parts of his speech
meant to be dry facts,
hit all the soft, wounded
places I am trying to
let recover and heal.

“Gaslighting is a form
of mental and emotional
abuse. Sociopaths [his
word, and yours] will
nurture, then ignore,
then nurture, then
nurture again, causing
the victim to lose the
ability to trust their
own recollection.”

How many swinging
catwalks did I
learn to navigate,
legs aching as they
tried to find safety.

How many times did
I praise the safety
of your hand, tell
you how much I
appreciated the steady
guidance it provided,
not seeing that the
other was the hand
pushing me off balance
the whole time.

“I’m giving this speech
because none of us is
perfect. We all might
be gaslighted or gaslight
someone else. But the more
we know the more likely
it is we can take care
of ourselves,” He finished.

I smiled, nodded, and
in my heart I sighed and
said, “Yes. We can.”

The Prayer

When the unthinkable happens
and we are without words
that could console or heal.

When the tragedy is too senseless,
the wells of our sorrow without
any seeming end to its depths.

When there are no answers–
only questions, anger, the
curled fist, hurling at the sky,

Why
Why
Why

a gaping, sorrowed wail
echoing through the night,
making it darker still.

In those moments, all
we can ask for is grace.
All we can plead for,
when it seems no haven
exists, is some small
spark that, someday
maybe, it will not
be so bad.

May we find that grace
in the hand we squeeze
a little tighter tonight,
the embrace we give without
question, the “I love you”
exchanged with no pause in
our breath because we know
how unruly and unreckonable
the world can be, moving,
it seems without a care
for our wellbeing.

In those moments, let
joy– somehow still
ever-present like
the sun that never
ceases to rise, despite
the death dirge that
rang through the night–
run in the hand, the
hug, the breath we share.

When it seems like
there is no possible
answer, may my soul
find the strength
to hold onto those
things like the last
flickered smile before
the light shuts off
at night.

Let it find some
kind of foundation
in knowing that,
as each day and
its everpresent sun
somehow still rises,
so, too, will we.

And even though
it is not enough,
we pray that somehow
it will be enough.

 

 

Bones

Fuzzy-fingered, she pulls up
old messages— an archeologist
searching for some kind of
hidden meaning or a code
she could not break. Maybe
now— when the dust has
settled and the light is
better— she will be able
to understand what happened.

Instead, flips through the
old notes, trying to figure
where the bones of her
being started to shape, and
whose fingerprints were there
that she might need to erase.

“What is the half-life of love?”
She was sure she’d read that
in a book somewhere— the
words not quite clear, yet
something clearly moving
through her soul already.

She stops, finally, takes
a breath, puts the notes
away and heaves a heavy
sigh, with breath like barley—
ready to be let go, renewed.

She looks deep within and
knows, suddenly, that
the only fingerprints on
her skeleton are hers,
slowly building, patching
healing, every time she
finds herself broken.

There is no erasing to be done.
There is just the smoothing
over of the places once cracked
now stronger than they were before.

Find the Body Home

I wrote but didn’t publish poems the past few days.


Stop. Breathe.
You have time.
You don’t need
to put everything
down all at once.
You don’t need to
live everything
all at once.

Find quiet pleasure
in the feeling of
your breath swelling
then ebbing out of
your chest, knowing
you have your body
to come home to.



burn it all down now
the anchors tied to your feet,
the harbor you made.

 

The Body at Peace Time

She breathes, lays her
back against the couch
as she takes sinks into it.

The cool glass rolling
across her lips. She
closes her eyes and
appreciates the quiet
whirring of the fan,
the blinds rustling.
This, she thinks, is
what peacetime feels like.

For so long her body
has been a battlefield.

It is hard to come to rest
when you have trained
your ears to listen
for signs that the calvary
is coming, waiting for
the bomb to drop— not
just for the aftermath
that will rip through her,
but for the way she
will pay for existing
to be bombed
in the first place.

Now that she has
walked away from
the war, it is strange
to try and live normally
again, sometimes.

What does it mean
when her body’s
ability to feel safe
is novelty and
not the norm?
How long will it
take for her to
stop listening for
the whistle of bombs
every time the wind
rustles the blinds?

She rolls the cool
glass against her
lips, breathes, and
tries to see if she
can learn to train
her body for peacetime
too.