Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Candidly Compassionate

Every day is an adventure with the diagnoses that I drag around. More accurately, every day is an adventure with me, regardless. Sometimes I am a thousand percent over it and want to pretty much throat-punch everybody. Sometimes I vibe hard and fall in love with life's beauty and perfect little connections. Sometimes I am so full of joy that I could burst; sometimes I am full to the brim with grief. And sometimes I get very, very scared. 

I shotgun my handful of pills around noon and laugh it off in a singsong voice as "the perks of being craaaaaazyyyyyy" because nothing in my life has ever been a secret. But it is a perk. Not in the conventional sense, but for me, it is a perk not to want to die every second. It's a perk to recognize a potential psychotic break coming on, and not have it ruin everything or kill me but rather be able to manage and breathe my way through it and keep breathing, survive. 

For perhaps the first time in the latter half of my life, I am truly in a safe enough space such that some bits of energy can begin to move; the deeper pockets that have been dormant for a while, waiting until it's okay to emerge. They tap me on the shoulder while I'm walking home in the evening and remind me that, wow, there are times during which I have been really, truly hurt. And sometimes I stop in the middle of the sidewalk because it's really less of a tap on the shoulder and more of an invisible brick wall I've hit.

But what happens next is interesting, and I think some of it comes from being 26 and owning it, and being in a comparatively peaceful environment, and understanding what I must do about these memories coming around to play.

I've realized that it's compassion.

A deep, raw compassion. A compassion that I draw up from the deepest well, a gravitational well, an almost black hole. A compassion that transcends space and time, appropriately enough, and travels backward and forward to the places where I've needed it, will need it, the most. 

You guys, this is really important; I've realized that this compassion is mandatory. Because if I'm in this phase during which I'm subject to transient flashbacks every so often, then I have to choose how I'm going to respond to them. Memories come back for a reason, consciously or subconsciously, and I figure that usually it's because I haven't dealt with something or because some part of me is still waiting, very patiently, to be taken care of.

And I have grown up. I've grown into a person who can provide such care to the person I was, when I needed it. And if I have the ability to provide this care, then it's my responsibility to find the compassion to do it.

Obviously, I can't go back in time and advocate for my younger self. That isn't what this is about. It's not about literally, physically forcing my way into the past and tinkering with memories and tearing down the brick walls that I had built and building them differently because I'm older now and wiser now and I can do it better. That isn't even necessarily true; in fact, it probably isn't true at all. This isn't about changing events long past. I had built the walls that I built because I needed them, exactly as they were, exactly when I built them. 

This is about understanding why I am who I am. It's about respecting who I was. It's about reminding myself that I have grown, and taking ownership of that growth. It's about intentionally confronting myself and accepting the mirror's reflection exactly as it is. The point is not to reason my way around things that are painful or difficult, but rather to tell myself that I deserve advocacy no matter what; no matter how I had behaved or how somebody else behaved towards me, I deserve to be taken care of. Always. It's about replacing my shame with compassion. It's about replacing my shame with compassion. It's about replacing my shame with compassion. 

A profoundly necessary dose of compassion. I've been told to be more gentle; I think that I'm finally learning how to take that advice.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

That Iceland FAQ You've Probably Been Waiting For

Hi, internet! I thought I'd post a preliminary Iceland FAQ as a little thank you present for those of you who have been following my life's little journey lately. Especially since, ya know, it's been nearly two months so I'm a total expert now and I'm definitely fluent in Icelandic and I know everything. And I'm hoping that you've detected the sarcasm, because I'm laying it on pretty thick. Although, for the record, ég tala ekki íslensku but also ég þekkja...some words. I really put the "enska" in "íslenska" and if you get that, then you're probably just about as familiar (or way more familiar) with Icelandic as I am so far. We'll make it through. Solidarity.

Speaking of Icelandic, our first question is...

1. Are you learning the language? It seems IMPOSSIBLE!

Jæja, já. I'm trying, at least! Luckily, the courses I've selected are taught in English, but Icelandic is spoken frequently in the field and (obviously) it's spoken everywhere else around here. There are a few Icelandic courses offered through the university, but I've opted to self-educate, at least this semester. There are some great modules available online but I've mostly been using my favorite language-learning app: Memrise. Shoutout to my fellow expat Shannon for sharing this tip with me last year in Belgium! I've been chugging away at German for the past year via Memrise, and now I've added Icelandic to the list. I go slowly; I do a few words each day and eventually, I can start understanding grammar and sentence structure. Turns out,  Icelandic, English, and German (duh) are all Germanic languages so it's interesting to see where they converge and diverge. Also, all three of these languages are frequently spoken in my life right now, so it's been really helpful to slowly learn but then have the opportunity to actively listen to and engage with my peers. They're great help!

2. Can I come visit?!!!??!?!????

Uh, YES. Bring ranch.

3. No really; I know that you're busy with school, but I've been thinking about Iceland for a while and I wondered if I could come visit?

Uh, YES. Bring ranch. Although...Margy has already been by and brought cans of pumpkin and a bunch of ranch, so I'm set! Right now, I'm missing bigger things like the Appalachian mountains and my car, so if you could bring those, that would be rad.

In all seriousness, you're always welcome. I'm happy to provide airfare tips if necessary, as "getting there" has never been easier! As per my landlord, I can host you free of charge for up to five nights in Reykjavík. I live in a downtown flat just up Njarðargata from Hallgrímskirkja with two Germans, two Frenchies, one Brit, one Fin, and a Spanish guy. We also have two Icelanders in a separate basement flat. However, you're going to want to get out of town and go on some adventures. As beautiful as RKV can be, it's not the only thing you'll want to see! I can come on adventures with you if you want and as my schedule allows, but it's all up to you. And speaking of my schedule, it's surprisingly flexible! Turns out, taking a few days (read: weeks) off of work is completely normal, and sometimes even encouraged as a valuable act of self-care. Let's hear it for Scandinavia! 

Depending on how you plan your trip, you can either use RKV as a home base and do trips from there and come back, or you can move every few nights. It's really up to you, and I'd be happy to help you plan your stay and provide some tips based on what I've seen. Keep in mind; I've been in Iceland a total of 9 weeks over my life, and I haven't been on holiday that whole time so I certainly haven't seen everything; not even close! But hopefully, some of you will be able to come around and we can take some of those adventures together!

4. Your pictures are amazing; are you really traveling that much, or are you just posting a few pictures every day?

Hah, you got me. I try to get out of town as much as possible, but of course, I have to do things like go to school and do my research...and laundry! Some of my research and coursework requires that I leave town because I've picked a field that is so hands-on. This is really new for me (because, ya know, astrophysics) and I've really liked this so far!

But, most days are spent in sunny (hahahahahaha) Reykjavík. I've joined some student groups that allow me to get out and hike in other places, and I have an amazing grad school adviser that has driven me around south Iceland and shown me some cool things, but I spend most of my time in RKV. While I'm out of town, though, it's impossible to just take one or two photos. I usually come home with hundreds, and spend the next couple of weeks posting favorites. I'm not much of a photo album gal anymore; I've tended to gravitate towards posting one or two per day and I let Instagram organize them into an album for me. It's a little showy of me, I know, but it also allows me to give proper attention to some of the amazing things I've been fortunate enough to see, and it gives you all a glimpse into my life, one snapshot at a time! Although, it is annoying having to manage my Instagram schedule to accommodate the fact that most of you are four to seven hours behind me so...speed it up, North America. #firstworldproblems

5. Your pictures look a little too good...I'm skeptical.

Well...you should be. Instagram has some built-in magic that helps me get the lighting and color just right...duh! But out of another vein, there's no way that even my spruced-up Insta photos can even compare to some of the scenery around here. It's a stunning combination of light, color, fire, ice, sunlight, steam, and sheep. Also, norðurljós! The northern lights here are actually ridiculous. So ridiculous that even long exposure photographs don't do them justice, which is a new concept for me. When we'd photograph northern lights in the Badlands, for example, they were always far more structured and colorful than what we were able to see in real life. But, that's about 20 degrees of latitude south of where I am now, and up here in the auroral oval, northern lights are no joke. You can actually see the red line emission, you can see structure, and you can see motion. It's incredible, and I have to stop talking about it now so that I don't get overly emotional and keep this run-on sentence going for several more lines and then probably start crying and laughing at the same time and then have to take a nap. Yeah, they're that good.

6. What do you eat? Is food really that expensive?

It depends! In short, we don't eat out. Or rather, we eat out on very special occasions like birthdays or the end of exams or during a festival. To be fair, restaurant costs can vary from what our "normal" is in the US, to high-end prices for a mid-range restaurant experience. It just depends. Also, are you in RKV or outside of RKV, what is the tourism industry doing to the economy, etc. etc. etc. 

Grocery stores here close pretty early (like 6:30 PM) but those are the ones that don't really have extortionate prices. There are a few stores that close later at 9 PM, 11:30 PM, or are open 24 hours, and they tend to jack up some of the prices. But if you're early with your shopping, you can find prices that are basically normal. UNLESS...

...unless you want chicken or beef or shampoo or vegetables that aren't grown in Iceland. You will not catch me buying a tray of chicken breasts, for example, because that will put me out $20. Generally, bell peppers run just under $4, and a fresh head of broccoli is just about the same. But, Icelanders grow carrots, tomatoes, mushrooms, cucumbers, potatoes, even bananas...etc. so a slightly modified diet that includes these local foods is necessary in order to save. But of course, this isn't a big deal. And frozen veggies are also a thing, so calm down, you can still get broccoli for a reasonable price in Iceland. Discount brands are just as common here as they are in the US; EuroShopper is basically the GreatValue of Europe, and it has become my best friend. 

Additionally, my flatmates and I have embraced that Street Rat™ culture and I've learned that if we're just resourceful enough, we don't have to buy bread. And by resourceful, I mean learning the locations of the bakery dumpsters and going on nighttime raids. These have proven to be fruitful and frugal, and I absolutely love it.

Finally, RKV has a running indoor flea market every weekend, which doubles as a fish market. So, I get some gorgeous, fresh, fairly priced fish from the weekend market, and that lasts for the week at least. So basically, just like anywhere, one has to learn the local eating culture and embrace it!

And finally...

7. Are you happy? Do you think you'll ever come back to the US?

I am happy. I am purely off-the-charts happy with my life here in Iceland. And of course I'll come back home, but now "home" has a broader, more global meaning. Frankly, I think that it always has for me. And since you know that I'm all flight, it may not come as a terrible surprise to hear that I have no immediate plans to return to the states permanently, but it just depends on my educational and professional pursuits. For now though, we are all aware that the US has had a rough year, and Lansing has had a rough year, so for my own mental health and healing, I think that it's perfectly fine for me to stay abroad for a little while. There is a societal calm and emphasis on life balance here that I haven't seen before on such a broad scale, and anyway, it's my privilege under the US constitution to have this freedom to move around. It's a privilege for which I'm very thankful, and my life here is possible because of a foundation of grace and generosity from my friends and family. With that, I'm happy to be doing well, to be making friends, to be climbing again, to be hiking whenever I can, to be exploring new corners of nature, and to be learning new things about the Earth. And of course, I'm happy to welcome you any time. Seriously, come on over any time!

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Pills and Rage and Perspective

Sometimes, as some of you know, the pills I take with my lunch screw with me a little bit. They are so, so good at helping me not want to die every second, and preventing me from convulsing all over the place, and smoothing me enough to function...but they are very sensitive to changes in my physiological landscape. Especially impulse stresses, but also periodic hormonal influxes. 

So, I am a giant stereotypical cliché every month whenever my body realizes that it isn't pregnant yet. Even so, I'm convinced that it'll take me at least a full calendar year to realize and quantify the patterns that emerge from this interface between my meds and my hormones, especially since I can't ever stay put, but it seems to me that around this time I at least feel something too much. Sometimes it's sadness, in the sense that I pick some random colloquially sad thing and grieve over it for an entire day, regardless of its impact on my actual present day life. Or my life at all. 

This time, though, it's rage. And rage that I know has a very real foundation even if it may be enhanced by my neurochemistry. Bubbling, boiling, face-reddening rage and frustration with the fact that I can't put things into a perspective that fits anymore. Rage that comes from a source ingrained so deep that I didn't even recognize it as an anomaly until now. Because where I come from, it isn't an anomaly. It's normal.

But it's not normal, here. The only things that come close to mirroring this rage are the things that occur naturally here; specifically, the intense sources of powerful geothermal energy. It's almost like the land is so restless that it balances everything; there is so little social unrest here because the land has taken care of it. Laying in a thermal river, there are hot and cold currents that run down your body, one after another, the perfect grounding body scan. Everything that churns and burns is underground. It doesn't have to be inside of anybody's heart. 

I love living in Iceland. I love it fiercely. I am happy here; I don't think that I've ever been so consistently happy across the board. But, it is weird living here.

It's weird living in a peaceful country. It's weird when the expectation is that you will be just fine walking around town at night, that people generally mind their own business and respect your personal space. It's weird that Icelanders usually don't expect catcalls or street harassment. There is no police violence; in fact, there is very little systematic violence at all. Of course there are episodes of violence in any society and Iceland's history is incredibly violent, but it's just not the case today. It's not this constant thing. And I didn't realize that American violence is absolutely a constant continuum until I moved to a place where it is not.

I should be thankful. I am, so thankful. But I have spent the past month trying to reconcile this newfound peace with a hurricane I apparently have inside; the kind of hurricane that astronomers find on planets much bigger than ours. The kind of hurricane that lasts for decades, centuries. You can't just introduce a restoring force and expect the storm to quiet itself just like that. These storms have to run their courses.

They have to. They have to move, somehow. This energy has to be conserved, but here, there are few people with whom to share this rage; there is no reason to be so angry in the first place. So as my hometown and my home country continue to infuriate me with a constant stream of senseless violence and abuse that has has been so normalized that it all but runs through my American veins, there is nowhere to reasonably bleed it out. Honesty almost feels like an aggressive act here, but I know that it isn't; for example if I share some of my life's experiences or provide a glimpse into some of the stories that grew me and strengthened me, it almost sounds as if I came from a much tougher neighborhood than the suburban farm town from whence I actually came. Comparatively, I mean. Icelanders think we're crazy, and we are.

I didn't realize, until now, how violent America is. 

That lack of realization comes from the fact that we normalize this violence, but of course, it also comes in part from my privilege. I was spending time with friends this weekend and telling stories, funny stories about traveling and getting into shenanigans and narrowly escaping tickets from police officers and I laughed about it, never really having thought about the fact that I could have been narrowly escaping bullets instead. My adviser actually asked me about this; she asked me if it was really very scary being pulled over because "they will shoot you." I hadn't considered this, because they probably won't shoot me. I'm white. I'm a woman. The worst form of police violence available to me is likely to be gender-based, and the majority of the gender-based violence that has touched my life has not come from the police. But then again, I caught myself; I just said "the majority." It still exists. It's real, and even if I haven't witnessed police violence first-hand, there is only one tiny degree of separation between myself the next person who has experienced brutal police violence. And to be fair, there are no degrees of separation between myself and violence itself, but I write it off and I minimize it because I'm from the US and it's normal. Nothing separates me from violence except, so far, living in Iceland. And it's weird.

I was talking with Laura about this because I needed to find a fellow American with whom to rage. She suggested that it would probably take me about six months to calm myself down and get used to the absolute chill that is Iceland, but then I'll come home to be "enraged once more." This is absolutely true, and it's culture shock met with reverse culture shock. So for now, I'm approaching Iceland's chill with skepticism until I find out about some horrifying, deeply-rooted Icelandic social problem akin to those in the US, or until I give up and accept the fact that there are actually safe spaces in the world, peaceful pockets for such a time as this.

Make no mistake, I'm over-the-moon happy here. I'm more productive and more calm and more safe and more active than I've been able to be in a while. And however I end up channeling this rage, I am growing. 

Growth in any direction is growth nonetheless, and there is certainly enough grace for that.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Latitudes and Other Strong Metaphors

A year ago, I was south. I was in SoCal, soaking up some sunshine with a few of my dearest loves.

Okay, that's absolutely true, but more accurately I was paralyzed and drowning in those anxiety tidal waves. But whatever.

A year ago tonight, I fell asleep in a bed and tried not to think about the fact that I wasn't going to have a bed the next day. Or the next. Or the next. Or the next...

"Wait, so...were you homeless by choice?"

I never know how to answer this question. It's a valid question, I suppose, and one that people seem compelled to ask me for whatever reason. I mean, it makes sense, or rather it doesn't; what is this privileged middle-class woman doing, living in her car that she can't afford to fill with gas, in a strange town where she knows absolutely nobody? Why doesn't she just go home? 

Truth being told, I didn't think that I could go home. And according to the aforementioned empty fuel tank, I was correct in that assumption. I figured that I had made it all the way to the west coast, and even though the midwest coast is the best coast, I was out of resources and completely stuck. In a sense, my situation was a result of choices that I had made; I was there for a job that I had pursued and that had been promised to me. I was there holding up my end of a bargain that turned out to be less of a bargain and more of a dangerous, unsustainable game. But nevertheless, if I had the resources to rent a room, I would have. Although I had always wondered what it would be like to live out of my car, it was a hundred degrees outside. A hundred degrees with no privacy. Nobody chooses that. Nobody.

But I'm not here to talk about the past. Most of you know the rest of this story and how it's full of miracles and tears and growth, and probably all of you know how much I like to reflect, but that I reflect for a reason. And at the minute, the reason is this: I wanted to tell you that today, I am north.

Turns out, a lot of stuff can happen in a year, especially when you're 25. I turned 25 on my terms, which is a sentiment that is so important to me; I turned 25 by some miracle, I thought, and charged myself with the task to turn 26 someday. It's a little early, but I'm just shy of that goal and I think that I'll make it. And it's monumental, considering.

During the weeks surrounding my 25th birthday, I began setting some goals and working toward them. I wanted to be back in school, but I wasn't convinced that I was far enough along in my recovery to go. To be honest, I'm still not convinced that the butterflies or the fear of failure or the impostor syndrome, or even the PTSD, ever go away; but these are things of which to have a healthy awareness and they can be managed. For everything else, though, I needed help. I wasn't sure what more I could do, but I knew that it involved more doctors than the ones I had visited before. 

So, I visited them and moved forward. Even in my uncertainty, I filled out applications for school and wrote passionate, albeit verbose, personal statements and requested recommendation letters. I ordered my transcripts and revisited old physics problems and filled my time with all of the good things on this Earth, and one of the worst: waiting.

I traveled while I waited, and I waited while I worked. And eventually, the Earth turned and the Sun rose and there was a new opportunity. I took it.

Right now, after smoothing over months of immigration and logistical kerfuffles, I live in one of the most magical cities on this planet. I took a risk and modified my academic career and fell backwards, trusting I'd be caught, into Iceland.

I've been caught. In fact, I'm all caught up.

Tonight, underneath the strongest northern lights I've ever seen, I thought about where I have been and where I am now. Back then, I had fallen asleep afraid, but not anymore. Tonight, I'll snuggle deep into my covers and hold myself there, letting my body rest, happy and secure and ready. Terrified to be back in school, yes, but excited and ready. Doe-eyed in the face of a new city and a new country, but safe. Safe in a city that lights its own way in the darkness.

And that light, like a curtain fluttering in the ionic wind, sends powerful remedies to all of my residual insecurities; undulating down like everything good, and wonderful, and sagely. The power behind these particle storms is extraordinary, but the reason we see them at all is a testament to Earth's perfect ability to protect us from too much of a good thing. It's a gift; it's always a gift. Every time.

So here I am, a year later, as far north as I've ever been. Falling in love with Reykjavík, falling deeper in love with the northern lights, falling in love with my life's chaos and beauty and direction, finally direction. Falling in love with my north.

I'm telling you; wherever is your north, go there.

Y'all know that I don't have a fancy camera. Image source: http://www.northernlightscruise.is/ 

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

(A Formal Request For) Sanctuary

"Violet, do you know snakes are more afraid of you than you are of them? Few people do. When threatened, a snake will retreat to a place that is quiet, safe, remote. A sanctuary, where it can feel out of danger. That's why Peru." 

-Uncle Monty, A Series of Unfortunate Events, Lemony Snicket


I'm not alone in feeling overwhelmed in the world, but the feeling has recently come as a surprise to me. I feel like a different person than the one I thought I was, the one I thought I'd become.

I was an ENFP. But suddenly, I can't handle being an ENFP anymore. Maybe the ENFP has been medicated out of me, or I've grown in a completely unanticipated direction, or it's been medicated out of me, and that's what I was paralyzingly afraid of in the first place.

I need my space. My own physical space, as well as a large amount of mountainous, nebulous real estate inside of my own head. I can still teach and talk and hug and hang, but I'm feeling myself backing up far more often than usual. Backing away, shrinking, cornering, covering. Sheltering.

Looking for sanctuary.

If all goes well, I have five more weeks in the USA. I used to be a fighter...maybe. Maybe that's just what people thought, and what people told me. Maybe my fighting style has evolved into something else that resembles retreat, or maybe it is just retreat. I don't know whether or not I am brave; I kind of wonder if I'm not.

I'm not the person you fell in love with. I'm not particularly sure if I recognize myself.

Or, I'm just exceedingly overtired from waking up before dawn, deep in the Black Hills of South Dakota; fast forward and now it's sunset and I'm home. So my brain can't do this right now, but it wants to. It wants my fingers to write. It sends instructions to my muscles and tendons and joints and demands a narrative; it demands a reflection, but the reflection is scattered among pieces of a broken mirror, at best.

All is well. We all know this about me: I am all flight. I am all flight. I am all flight. Regardless of what is happening, I will try to fly away. Regardless of the fact that I am not in any danger, I will try to fly away. Fly away to a place with less chaos this time, pretending and assuming that this retreat will smooth me out with the lack of insanity surrounding me. Fly away to a place where I can feel out of danger. 

That's why Iceland.

Monday, June 20, 2016

The One About the Foothills Trail

Let's just say that the Foothills Trail is an obstacle course. A 77-mile obstacle course...made of cobwebs. 

Cobwebs. Cobwebs as far as the eye can't see. And I don't think that it's an exaggeration to estimate that I ran my face into at least one thousand cobwebs, but I only (knowingly) swallowed one single spider. A considerable chunk of my time on the trail was spent attempting to release myself from cobwebs, the stickiest substance in the known universe; but hey, it's nothing that a dip in the Chattooga couldn't fix!

This is a story about 8 days and 7 nights and 77 miles. It's a story about my very first solo backpacking trip. It's a story about quads and calves, wildlife, water sources, thru-hiker magic, Facebook, slug hair, and emergency blankets. It's a story about a change of heart and an attitude adjustment. But most importantly, it's a story about cobwebs.

I couldn't really sleep the night before. I had spent the entire previous week in a stressful miasma of immigration paperwork in order to prepare for my big move at the end of the summer, and I was ready to get away. I had just driven 800 miles and landed at my best friend's house just south of Keowee-Toxaway State Park, snuggled up close with her and her three littles. Hungry, wired, and anxious, I wanted the ground below me and the stars above me and nothing else in the whole world. So when she dropped me off at the Oconee State Park trailhead, I took off like a bottle rocket, pressure finally being released. It was relatively easy, those first ten miles and some change. I wasn't alone; I came across some hikers and a little baby turtle (tortoise?) as well as hundreds of cobwebs. 

I did, however, run out of water that first day. This took me by surprise, because a month before in Alaska, my water bladder had lasted for a couple days worth of hiking; and these were Alaska, next-level types of hikes. For me, anyway. It became pretty obvious, though, that I was sweating a whole lot more in a Carolina June than I had in an Alaska May, and really needed to suck it down to prevent any inevitable spells of dehydration. I panicked a little bit and stopped just a fraction of a mile short of the day's goal in order to take some time to relax in the Chattooga and water up. 

That night, I fell asleep around hiker's midnight (7PM) and woke up several times to stars rising and falling around me. Being familiar with the night sky helped, as I kept time using the stars and rested easily underneath Mars and Saturn, who were resting easily in Scorpius. My easy resting, however, was cut short by the realization that bringing an emergency blanket instead of a sleeping bag was a terrible idea.

Just...a really terrible idea.

I thought I'd save space and weight, and I did, but...at what cost? Turns out, emergency blankets do exactly what they're supposed to do. But when it's humid, and you're sitting pretty on the beach border between South Carolina and Georgia in the soggy Southern summertime, your blanket becomes a mylar rainforest. Having captured my considerable body heat and condensed it into tiny raindrops on the surface of the blanket, I tossed and turned in a sticky, shivery hell until first light. 

It was the worst.

But, I moved on. And several miles later, giggling because I had just pulled a giant slug out of my hair, I was getting the hang of this whole backpacking thing. For reference, here's a list of the stuff that I brought with me. Being my first time, I didn't bother with cookware because I thought I'd try to ask around on the trail and get some good ideas (mission accomplished) so instead, I brought bars and bags of soup/lentils contained within my super heavy duty Bear Vault 500. It worked, but it was heavy.

The pack: Ascend MSX4400 Mountain Series

The contents: 

  • Bear Vault 500
  • ~18 Clif Bars
  • ~9 Clif Builders
  • 6 pre-packaged Campbell's Soups
  • 3 pre-packaged Tasty Bite Madras Lentils
  • Personal First Aid
  • GoPro Hero
  • Phone, Cords & Batteries
  • Solar Charger (It sucks a little bit, but it worked for a couple days. I might just need to get the hang of it)
  • US Army Camp Towel
  • 7x7 Ozark Trail tent (Okay, I know. Way too big. But, it's the one I had!)
  • 7x7 tarp
  • Eagle Creek packing cube with 2 pants, 3 tanks, 1 sports bra, 5 panties, 9 socks, 1 Buff
  • Super fun lady stuff
  • Wipes and Hand Sani
  • Trowel and TP to-go
  • Sawyer Mini Water Filtration System
  • Coleman water bladder
  • FTC Guidebook and pen
  • Toothpaste, toothbrush, essential oils
  • Bug repellent
  • Sunscreen
  • Climbing shoes (didn't need 'em)
  • Emergency blanket (aka Death)
  • Light My Fire Titanium Spork
  • Combination compass/thermometer keychain
  • Survival Bracelet (combination paracord, flint, knife, compass, whistle)
  • Bear bell
  • and obviously, Hiking shoes, steel-toed
The weight: I didn't weight my pack because I didn't want to know. But for reference, my pack turned out to be just about the same weight as my best friend's solidly adorable and adorably solid seven-year old.

Within the next few days, I made some trail buddies and learned how to keep up to date with my hydration. I revised my sleeping situation and ended up using my tent's rain fly as a secondary blanket, which made my sleeping situation slightly less sticky. I learned that thru-hiker etiquette dictates that I ask about health status and destinations first, water sources second, names later, maybe never. I stumbled upon my first "thru-hiker magic," a cooler full of Cherry Cola and ice donated by "Taz." Rest assured, Taz, that this offering was deeply, widely appreciated! I was thoroughly unfazed by the two Black Bears that I saw, the first a little more "derp" than I had expected, though he caught me by surprise. He had been eating a snack right next to the trail, but didn't want to stick around to tell me about it. I found his scat about half a mile later, so he had been coming towards me the whole time! The second bear came as no surprise at all, as we heard each other coming. We kept our eyes on each other and kept going our separate ways, no drama, and thankfulness on my end that Black Bears are generally flight bears. 

In addition to the bears, I also saw loads of bees. Rather, the bees saw loads of me! Since the spring blooms had greened out, the bees turned to me as a possible source of nectar. Silly, really, but if they would take sweat instead, then they ended up with the better half of the deal! I was licked up and down by sweet little honey and bumble bees for nearly the entire hike. That, and pecked at by fish, who would eat the dead skin off of my feet as I stood in streams at the end of the day. I loved it; it was just like a spa day!

Throughout the trip, I camped on the bank of the Chattooga, then somewhere about 3 miles west of Sloane Bridge, then in the Nantahala National Forest, Bearcamp Creek Campsite, Toxaway Creek Campsite, the top of Laurel Fork Falls, and finally somewhere about 1.3 miles from Hwy 178. I didn't have trouble with any of these sites, and all came with a proper water source and, sometimes, friends! I met Bill and Gary while camping at Bearcamp Creek, and we ended up as neighbors at Toxaway Creek as well. I learned loads of valuable information from them, as they're a bit more experienced than I am. They helped me determine the sorts of cookware I might want to buy for next time, and we swapped stories from other trails we had conquered. 

The last night, with about 13 miles more to go the next day, I had dehydrated and heat-exhausted and it was my own dumb fault. I was stubborn and I just wanted to get to camp before what I thought might be a rainstorm, but it thankfully never came. I was down to reserves when I found a small spring as well as a water cistern, gratefully filled up, and pitched my tent expecting to cry myself to sleep, exhausted, scrolling through Facebook and missing my friends and family. But then, two hikers around my age came up to my tent, asking to share my space. Just seeing them lifted my spirits, and we spent the next several hours talking about the universe (as suggested by our bag of dehydrated Thai Curry) and sharing the first hot food I'd had in a week. With the sounds of cicadas and owls surrounding me most nights, I had very little reason to feel frightened of anything. However, having Charlie and Desiree sleeping soundly next to my tent, I felt an extra sense of security and camaraderie. The next morning, I set off at 8AM carrying leftover lasagna and a re-energized sense of determination, refreshed by my new friends.

I made excellent time to Sassafras Mountain, and continued on, pushing myself to beast those last four miles into Table Rock State Park where I met up with my best friend. Hot, tired, thirsty, and proud, I finally had the chance to take a proper shower. A storm came just one hour after I got off the trail, and if that isn't grace, then I don't know what is.

Returning to the "real world" is an odd concept, because I am always so much more in tune with the Earth on the trail than I am off. And if the worst part about the trail was the cobwebs, well then, that's a pretty good hike right there. I remember wondering what this week's Cincinnati Zoo Gorilla story would be, what would be the Facebook sensation of the day that I had happily missed, and I was deeply saddened to learn that it was a massacre in Orlando. So while I was running into literal cobwebs on the trail, blissfully unaware of the world's disintegration, loads of hostages were ensnared in a web of their own. And really, we all are. 

Maybe I needed a change of heart, certainly I needed an attitude adjustment. I needed to chill out and remember to give as much grace as I frequently receive. But I know that no matter how much I hike and how forward I keep moving, I've spun my own webs in this life. And one of the things that I wanted to do was to refocus, regroup, and maybe work backwards just a little bit. I've been in transition for the past couple of years, and it often makes me very ornery. Those that know me know that uncertainty can be like a drug for me; getting high off of the unknown keeps me going on some days. But, it also gets very old very fast. I become restless and pushy and irritable. And when I'm feeling these things, sometimes the only solution is to walk it out. Travel, but travel by foot. Walk until I can't walk anymore, or until I've seen the things I needed to see, or until my heart switches its perspective and its priorities. Walk until I've spun myself a web that I can work with, that I can work out of if I need to. Walk until I've spun a safety net. Walk until I figure it out.

Walk until the trail ends. Walk until I make it.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The World's Worst in America's Best

I'd like to preface this rant by noting that I'm a typical American millennial. In general, I prefer to eat avocado toast and meds for breakfast, and the term #expat2016 pretty much floats through my mind at least twenty times per day. In reality, though, I know that we've got loads of things to be proud of here in the USofA; plenty of opportunities for a gal like me, and plenty more privilege than many parts of the globe. I am thankful for that.

But with that privilege has evolved an unrealistic sense of entitlement. And I don't know if that entitlement is actually getting worse, or if we're just more aware of it due to the social media boom of the past decade. Probably a little bit of both.

One result of this ridiculously self-righteous entitlement really has my blood boiling (okay, more than one, but let's focus) and it's evident in the (mis)treatment of our public lands. It seems that over the past couple years alone, humankind has displayed its incompetency particularly well while visiting our national parks and federal lands, including but not limited to:
  • approaching bison for a selfie, getting gored
  • attempting to embark on hikes without proper hydration, dying
  • leaving bear vaults unlocked, losing food and endangering everybody including the bear
  • speeding, hitting and killing wildlife
  • referring to our first nations peoples as "Indians," asking where they can "see the Indians"
  • stopping in the middle of the road, the middle of an active roadway, to view wildlife
  • watching Wild and thinking that they're all set for a trek down the PCT, they're not
  • leaving trash everywhere (???) because, whatever
  • thinking that Mt. Rushmore is awesome (okay, I'm a little biased. There's no inherent evil in appreciating Mt. Rushmore or its phenomenal interpretive ranger programs, but Gutzon Borglum was a real piece of work; we can probably all agree on that)
  • assuming that there will be shade, wildlife in plain sight, clear skies, favorable temperatures, amenities that cater to their comfort; because the wilderness is basically the same thing as a five-star hotel
  • begging for more signage, not reading signs that already exist
  • displaying a surprisingly terrible sense of direction and no navigational competency whatsoever, depending on park rangers to help them figure out "where did we come from" as if they had blacked out at the wheel and somehow magically ended up at the park
And, most recently:
  • attempting to "save" a "cold" baby bison by trapping it in their personal vehicle, effectively writing the calf's death certificate
  • wandering off of the boardwalks onto sensitive geothermal habitats, damaging extremophile ecosystems and severely endangering themselves
This is why. This is why we cannot have nice things, America.

Now, I realize that the culprits of these misdemeanors and felonies are not always US citizens; the NPS entertains and appreciates millions of visitors from around the world. But no matter who you are or where you come from, there is such a thing as a basic threshold of common sense, and some of you don't have it. You're dumb. You're just so dumb and I can't put it any more eloquently than that. In fact, before my evening programs I'd be blunt enough to say so: "Wearing Teva sandals on Notch Trail? Guys. Don't do that. You'll break your ankle. That's dumb. That is so dumb." I'd always get a chuckle from the crowd, and I was pleased because generally if people think something is funny, they'll have a better chance of remembering it. So hopefully, the next day while they're getting ready to hit the trails, they'd lace up their hiking boots instead of slipping into their Tevas. They'd bring a 3-liter bladder full of water instead of a plastic bottle of Dasani that they end up throwing into the prairie somewhere. They'd wear hats and sunglasses and sunscreen to protect them from the Sun that creates an oven in those buttes. They'd promptly GTFO if they see lightning. They'd keep their pups on paved areas so that they aren't exposed to the plague-carrying fleas that have decimated the prairie dog populations. They'd use the proper pull-offs on the roadway that were strategically placed for their viewing enjoyment. They'd use their damn brains.

I don't understand the mindset that is so blasé about following simple protocol in federal lands, that attitude that screams, "this rule doesn't apply to me." The DOI is not the most heavily funded department of the US government and parks depend on visitation to ensure funding for the next fiscal year, so we need visitors; but if the visitors are actively unraveling the conservation work we are attempting to do, then what's the point of having protected lands in the first place? 

Having access to protected lands is a privilege, not a right. And some people are seriously taking that privilege for granted.

The NPS turns 100 this August, and I am thrilled. I've been so honored to be a small part of this saga; America's Best Idea, preserving our beautiful lands such that a balance of wilderness and development can be possible in our nation. Industry and conservation and science and education working hand in hand; it's a beautiful collaboration. 

So stop treating our public lands like a testing ground for your own personal idiocy. 


Thursday, May 12, 2016

Love Yourself Anyway

He's still in my head. In my head, in my head, zombie zombie zombie. I could pretend that he's a zombie, and that I'm Michonne from The Walking Dead. Or, I could take some sagely wisdom from my favorite human and pretend it was only an evil sea witch who stole my voice. 

Or, more likely, I'll just have to face this like a grown-ass adult.

I skimmed an article today about a Dutch girl with PTSD that was so bad that she chose, her doctors thought it best, to be euthanized. That's horrifying to me, but mostly because I can pinpoint moments in my life during which I was almost, almost in that same place. Thankfully I'm not there now, but good God. It's the worst. It's constant. It doesn't go away. He's in my head.

Listen, I know that you are all probably pretty sick of me eventually coming around to how much PTSD sucks in every single post for the past several years. But let this be a testament to its resilience and its choke hold on my fragile existence: this does not go away. Left untreated, or maybe even after years of trying everything, I could die with it.

But all things considered, I'm kind of okay. My psychiatrist kept asking me about revenge; like whether or not I wanted revenge or if revenge was on my mind...it isn't. To be honest, I'm not sure exactly what she was asking me; perhaps it was to establish that I am in fact not homicidal, or rather to help me make a list of things that, in a perfect world, would make me feel better. Either way, I'm not at all concerned with revenge. I think that at the end of the day, there is probably enough poetic justice in the universe for things to smooth themselves out naturally. And even so, because the phrase "statute of limitations" is so real, revenge is especially not on my mind. And furthermore, I'd like to momentarily get a little preachy and note that forgiveness is even more real and more freeing. But, even with all of that soul-searching and self-soothing and spiritual revelation, I'm still flighty. Might as well say it; after all, my doctor has been trying to figure out what I'm running from: I'm trying to get away from him. Permanently. For real, this time.

I'm a giant cliche and I know it. I thought I'd go off to Alaska and figure out my life (insert peace sign emoji here) and in some aspects, I have. I've learned a few things about myself, mostly an awareness that I have been holding this sickly feeling in my tummy that stems from feeling like I've betrayed myself in some awful manner. I am endlessly conflicted about my (in)ability to find a meaningful romantic relationship without feeling like I'm, well, somehow raping myself. I am scared. And my heart is torn in two.

Yours probably is, too, so don't pretend like I'm all alone in this.

I feel like I've missed so many opportunities, but I'm smack-dab in the middle of one. My head and heart are always two steps apart, and I wonder if I've become, actually become, as flighty as I seem. Things are actually coming together in my life, for the record, but I'm still afraid that I haven't grown enough; meanwhile, I've done more in the past year than most people squeeze into a lifetime. I've been killing it with the resources that I have, and I'm thankful for that. Proud, even.

But the fact remains: I can't have it all. I haven't figured out how to be un-damaged. I most likely won't; not today, anyway. And even if I find somebody who loves the survivor in me, loves the gypsy in me, loves all of me...will I be able to choose him over this fortress I've built for myself? Rather, will I be able to partner my queendom with his kingdom and do a full renovation, love it or list it, of our castle? 

Part of me is afraid that I'll be running for the rest of my life, for adventure or from trauma. But another very small, hopeful seedling inside of me expects to be reflecting in ten years time, thirty-five and a different person, gently laughing at this prose. Maybe totally in love with somebody, hopefully totally in love with myself.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Dots All Over, Pt. 2

I've been good, I've kept my head down, my eyes low. I've stuck around. I've only been way out of town for 29 days so far this year, and there have been more than 100 days. 

On the bright side, some wishes are coming true: I was 5, and I wanted to be a garbage man when I grew up.

This is pretty much the same deal.

I hardly recognize myself, going through the motions, spending my free time stalking error airfares and standing, open armed, in the crossfires of airline fare wars, waiting for the opportune moment to strike. I am closed for business and looking to downsize. Pieces of my brain fall apart. 

I'm 25, so biologically I'm dying now. My broken brain has done its developing, and it is now free to finish its disintegration. 

I've disbanded all attempts to calm myself down; I'm in my hometown, I know where my perpetrator is. He might know where I am, might remember who I am, I do not know, I will not attempt to find out. I saw him twice this week, twice, for the first time in years, years, years, years. Yesterday I learned that he works at the place where I get my medicine; medicine that is required, in part, because of him. And now I am backwards. All of my attempts to work, run, claw my way out of here have imploded and brought me back, straight to him. It is true that we are never safe, this is never over.

My visceral reactions are standard and they are not getting better, but at least I'm thankful that they are invisible. The invisibility is two-fold. On one hand, folks on the outside usually won't see me panicking on the inside, for which I'm thankful. On the other hand, my visibility is low, literally, because I dissolve into a dizzy cloud of black dots and things are swirly and hallways expand and contract and solid things start to wave at me like the ocean. I am all flight. I am the pilot of this flight, low visibility, I take off anyway.

I'll see my psychiatrist on Tuesday. I'll likely tell her that the medicine I've been taking is fine yet insufficient; okay for everyday bipolar, but not okay for this. The impulse is too much. My brain is broken; not fundamentally, but irreparably. And I am turning out less, disappointingly less, than the sum of my parts.

Average Speed = 15 mph
Change in Time = 11.5 yrs = 100740 hrs

Distance = Speed * Time = (15 mph)*(100740 hrs) = 1.5 million miles

But inside, I am back to square one. And I feel as sick as I am.

Displacement = 0.


Thursday, February 18, 2016

Laughing and Listening and Not Being a Dick

Turns out, I can't laugh about Bob Jones University anymore.

They were cute at the Meeting of Astronomers in South Carolina that we all attended at USC that year. I looked at them like I look at...middle school students from a wealthy community. How adorable, in their little suits. How neat their little presentations were, even though it was clear that their advisers neither taught them how to make a presentation, nor taught them about the subject matter or its beautiful intricacies; complexities that mirror the brilliance of the Creator they so admire. 

Since their fundamentalist beliefs prevent them from accepting that the universe is larger than our own galaxy group, they are constrained to studying eclipsing binary star systems. Brilliant research projects, but absolutely no potential from where they sit. No room for growth. No ability to answer even the simplest questions on extrapolating their studies for application. These young men do exactly what they're told, and they're told to talk about light curves and then to glare at us when we make the blasphemous suggestion that the universe is probably close to celebrating its fourteen billionth birthday. 

But while coming dangerously close to being scientifically useless, there is no inherent evil in studying eclipsing binaries and eclipsing binaries alone. Reason says, in fact, that they should be the leading experts on eclipsing binaries, but I don't have any data to either confirm or deny that, and it's neither here nor there. The point is, if your beliefs are hinged on a speculation so obviously false that the mere suggestion that it may be false results in a total shutdown of coherent thought or collaborative energy, that's okay with me. In theory, BJU is filled with (more or less) grown-ass adults, and they are entitled to their grown-ass beliefs without any friction from my end. It's fine that a subset of the well-groomed young Southern Christian population can't conceive of a Universe as large as ours (which, to me, tells me that they can't conceive of a God as large as ours, but I'll shut up) and it has no bearing on my research, or my life. It's fine. I'll respect your presentation, ask relevant questions, act satisfied with your unsatisfactory responses, and giggle like a schoolgirl with my colleagues later over beers. It really is that simple.

Or, it was.

Up until now, I've done a pretty good job of laughing things off. Not really, but we can pretend. I don't devote my energy to convincing people that one theory is probably more likely or more supported than another. If you can't see the evidence yourself, then you can't be convinced. My most heated arguments mostly consist of me passionately explaining my side of things, listening to the other side, and generally, deciding that neither of us is wrong. I pay very little attention to groups that are radically ridiculous, even if I am a member of their targeted community. Traumatic stress is fun in the way that I feel unsafe in normal situations, and completely safe in perilous ones. It's my joy to carry it around with me, my greatest fucking joy.

But if there's one thing that I really can't handle right now, it's Bob Jones University. Not because of its unscientific scientific process, but because it's currently the cherry on top of the way I've felt this week. Just...like...a bad PTSD week, really. And then BJU comes out with some bullshit and I just can't deal with the fact that people like this still exist, people who believe that they are champions of love but are really poisonous harbingers of actual evil.

A lot of schools, my alma mater included, have been under investigation for the ways by which they (don't) handle sexual assault cases. Progress, y'all. But this one just pretty much makes me want to join in chorus with the rest of the survivors at BJU, throw in the towel, throw my hands up, and set everything on fire because this is hopeless. Instead of taking a more Christ-like approach to life, they seem to be taking a holier-than-though, wrath-of-God approach to handling struggles of, I don't know, the typical student that attends BJU. If you really want to, you can read more about this here, but I'll sum up.

Instead of hiring licensed trauma therapists to take care of the survivors' needs, they seem to be using any literate higher-up who can take the bible and twist its words and its spirit into sessions full of victim-blaming blasphemy. Instead of focusing on protecting students, they're expelling and shaming students who come forward with symptoms of trauma. Instead of focusing on sins against their sanctified bodies, they're focusing on sins committed (?????) by their "impure" bodies. 

And, just like that, and just like BJU as a whole, I'm thrown back a decade (at least) into the past. Because I resonate with this so strongly. The fault must lie with me. God is punishing me for my sins. I deserved this. This was meant to be a wake up call for my life. I must've been too stubborn. If I don't listen, God will use his wrath to make me listen. These are the things that are being told to survivors by the counselors at BJU. And they are being told as gospel truths, grace and healing be damned. 

Thankfully, I've grown into a human with a brain that is slightly less self-deprecating. But at the time, these were some very real thoughts and enormous fears floating around in my adolescent mind. Any rational beating heart can recognize the faults in these ridiculous accusations, but when a survivor already feels violated and already feels disgusting and already feels guilty, these are easy lies to believe. And to have your university refuse to advocate for you, and even worse, to have your university tell you that you are not welcome in an environment that is supposed to foster learning and growth...well, it's a little too much. 

At some point, it would be pretty rad if these things stopped happening. But as per my reflections this past week, they won't. Even if they did, it changes nothing in my past or ours. The brilliant Cheryl Strayed spoke about how the things I resolve in my twenties will have to be resolved again, and again, and again, in my thirties and forties and fifties and until-I'm-dead-ties. It's not a joyful life sentence (that was indeed sarcasm above) but it is not a doomed life. As far as I know, there is not a man, woman, or child alive who has not been impacted by violence in some capacity. Instead of overwhelming me, I'm learning to humanize my trauma. Not normalize it or make it okay or acceptable or deserving, but simply humanize it. It is part of the human experience. It has made me stronger. It has made me better. It has made all of us better, despite the woefully blind "leaders" at BJU and the toxic environment there.

Toxic not just for scientific stagnation, but for crimes against the human spirit. At best, it's additional unacceptable behavior aimed at individuals who have already survived violent instances of unacceptable behavior. In simplest terms: not cool. 

So, BJU, you are not a laughing matter. I get it, and I take you very seriously. But remember: as you short-change your Creator during your scientific presentations, you are also breaking His heart when you disregard, dismiss, and publicly shame His children. That isn't something about which I can laugh over beers with colleagues. Perhaps it's time to realize that the entity you worship has not abandoned these survivors, and despite your blatant terribleness, He hasn't abandoned you, either.

In my experience, God is pretty good at helping people not be dicks, if only we listen. 

Listen, and don't be a dick, BJU. Don't be a dick.