Tuesday, November 07, 2017

What Does Diversity Bring to the Table?

I hate getting into arguments. As a middle child and a people pleaser, I try to steer conversations away from controversial topics if I sense they will get heated. I don't like offending people, and my empathy easily extends to those I both agree and disagree with. I will happily engage in lighthearted debate with friends, and with some people I'll even engage in earnest debates, if I know them well enough to be confident there will be no hard feelings. But with strangers or people who might get easily upset, I avoid hot topics like the plague.

This isn't always a positive thing. Sometimes it means I let things slide that I shouldn't. I often hear mildly racist, sexist or homophobic comments, and to avoid conflict, I perhaps keep my mouth shut too often. Especially in polite company, where I don't want to come off as argumentative. But the other night, after hearing someone (a rich white male) rhetorically and contemptuously ask, "What's the point of diversity? What does it bring to the table?", I couldn't keep my mouth shut. I launched into all the reasons why diversity is necessary, especially in my work with the Red Cross, where it is imperative that all communities are represented and no one is forgotten or overlooked. Surprisingly, but not so surprisingly, the conversation took an ugly turn at that point, and some of the most egregious racist and white privilege rhetoric was spewed, and needless to say the conversation did not end well. No regrets though. Sometimes arguments just can't and shouldn't be avoided.

So why is diversity important? For what I do, diversity is of utmost importance if we want to be sure we are accomplishing our mission to serve all people regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, ability, income or geography.* That point was driven home to me in an illuminating way this morning in a meeting with the Arkansas State Independent Living Council (ARSILC).

The meeting had actually been arranged to discuss diversity and inclusion days before the aforementioned interaction. My goal for this meeting was, in retrospect, very narrow though. I wanted to talk about how to include more people with functional and access needs in workplace employment and volunteerism. But before my volunteer counterpart and I could even start talking about hiring practices, the executive director for ARSILC dove into the importance of creating an emergency preparedness action plan for people with disabilities. She began talking about all kinds of disabilities, from mobility needs to hearing and seeing impairment to developmental delays and autism. As she continued detailing all the ways in which existing disaster preparedness education could be developed to include those with disabilities, I became increasingly aware how narrow my perspective on people with "functional and access needs" really was.

For all my talk about diversity and inclusion - making sure diverse populations are being represented "at the table" so we can better serve all people - the thought of how we are serving those with disabilities never really came to my mind. Sure I'd gone so far as to consider and evaluate our hiring practices, but I hadn't actually thought about the people we serve during times of disaster - the adult with Down Syndrome who lives independently with the assistance of caregivers during a tornado or the children in wheelchairs or with hearing impairment when a smoke alarm goes off in the middle of the night due to a house fire. How are we including those people in our plans and preparedness outreach? Have we brought The Pillowcase Project to the schools for the deaf and blind? What about Pathfinders? We do provide special smoke alarms for the hearing impaired, but have we made a targeted effort to make sure those who are deaf or hearing impaired know of this free service? Should we get hit with a huge disaster of Hurricane Harvey proportions (an earthquake along the New Madrid fault line, for instance), have we considered how people with disabilities fit into our emergency action plans? When food is air dropped into a disaster zone, have we thought about how the elderly or other people with mobility issues are going to get to access that food?

I am ashamed to admit that these thoughts had never crossed my mind. Surely they have crossed the minds of others within the organization, but from our every day practices locally, this has certainly not been a priority as far as I can tell.

And this is just one example of what diversity brings to the table. Having representatives from communities and populations that I and others like me have limited or no access to means we can make sure no one is being forgotten. A few months ago, I had a similar conversation with the owner of Hola! Arkansas on how we can better reach Hispanic and Spanish-speaking populations to make them more aware of our services and provide better disaster preparedness education to them. During my recent deployment in Florida, I worked with Spanish- and Creole-speaking populations where the need for bilingual volunteers became vividly apparent. Without exposure to and representation from people unlike ourselves, we can easily become entrenched in our own perspectives only. And in some industries more than others, that entrenchment can be detrimental and have very real life-altering consequences.

The most shocking thing that was said to me during that argument the other night was "And why do you care?" Being that I'd shaped the context of the argument around the mission of the Red Cross - providing humanitarian services, something surely everyone would agree upon - I was dumbfounded that this was even asked. I could barely conceive of an answer more basic than to reply, "Because they're people!" Diversity and inclusion aren't just trendy buzzwords. In my line of work especially, they don't just refer to hiring x number of black people, LGBT people and people of various religions (which by the way is a faulty understanding of affirmative action, which is not about "quotas", but that's another topic for another day). They refer to making sure all people have the same access to the life-saving preparedness education and disaster response services we provide. It's about caring for all human beings, no matter what they look like, where they come from or how they act. It's about basic humanitarianism, plain and simple.

Placing a focus on diversity and inclusion isn't about checking a politically correct box for us at the Red Cross; it's about literally saving lives. Even if there were nothing else diversity could "bring to the table", that alone would be enough. (Of course, that's not all that it brings - pulling together varied and colorful people from all walks of life and all backgrounds makes every company, organization and individual better and more successful, not to mention how profoundly it can enrich the lives of everyone involved.) I'm thankful that more and more people are starting to understand all the brilliant and illuminating things diversity brings to the table. And with those that don't see that yet, I guess I'll be engaging in more awkward conversations.

*The seven fundamental principles of the American Red Cross (and the International Committee of the Red Cross - ICRC) are perhaps what make me most proud of the organization I work for and how we pursue our mission to prevent and alleviate human suffering in the face of emergencies. As an atheist in the Bible belt, I'm very passionate about impartiality and neutrality in particular! Maybe those are a subject of another blog post. 

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

#ODP17: October Dress Project 2017

Since 2012, I've participated in the October Dress Project, with the exception of last year. (I was starting a new job and didn't think wearing the same day for my first 30 days would make the right impression.)

The October Dress Project (ODP) motto is "anti-consumerism, pro-simplicity, anti-conformity, pro-imagination." For 31 straight days, one wears the same dress (washing it often, yes), using imagination to keep it looking different each day. I've always enjoyed the challenge, but this year it was a lot harder. It was fun, but my heart just wasn't in it, and I don't know if I'll do it again after this. I skipped a few weekend days this month for various reasons, though I diligently wore it to work every day. Still, I want to recap my month of anti-materialism and think on any lessons I learned.

In all the other years, I felt I really learned something new during ODP. I think some of that came out of blogging every day or so; I would post a picture of the outfit then find something to write about to go along with it. I think the regular writing helped develop some lessons throughout the month. This year, however, other than posting daily in the ODP Facebook group, I didn't really want to post selfies every day for a month, so I didn't blog daily either.

Even still, I feel like this year, more than any other year, I really grasped the idea of anti-consumerism with this project. Most years, I've bought a dress specifically for ODP. This year, I realized how much that went against the whole idea of anti-consumerism in the first place, so I went closet shopping instead. I chose a gray dress from the back of my closet that I love but didn't wear often. It's a great dress to make The Dress - it's the right length, it fits nicely. (It's also very thick, I discovered, making it difficult to tuck into trousers and wear as a shirt.) Furthermore, I decided not to spend money on accessories for The Dress. I don't think I bought any all month, except a scarf that was in the $2 bin at Walmart. I just wore what I already had and made the most of it. Wasn't that supposed to be the point all along?

(I did take most of the weekends off. One weekend I was backpacking. Another I was cleaning a lot. I can't really account for every excuse I had over the four weekends of October, but I had them, and they generally weren't that good. But as for work days, I was pretty diligent.)

Besides some small lessons in anti-consumerism, did I learn anything else this time around? In past years, my new "theme" for the upcoming year generally emerged from ODP - simplicity, satisfaction, balance, etc. Did a theme emerge this year?

Maybe not directly due to ODP, I think a theme I've found myself revisiting lately is satisfaction. Being satisfied not so much with what I have which is how I approached it last time, but by what I am. And where I am. Too often I feel unsatisfied with who I am, how I am, what I am, where I am. I'm always striving to be something bigger, something better - to be somewhere bigger and better. And that's not necessarily a bad thing, but when that means I'm never actually satisfied in the moment with myself, then I'm never going to enjoy the journey I'm taking as I move towards achieving those goals.

Live in the moments, I guess. Be satisfied with the now. Love myself for who I am today as well as who I'm hoping to become tomorrow. Love where I'm at today, and stop living only for the future. Perhaps there's even a little lesson in patience waiting there for me.

Satisfaction and patience. I think those sound like themes I could strive to live by for the next 12 months!

And who knows, maybe by the time next October rolls around, I'll be up for doing this project a 6th time. We'll see.

For those of you interested, enjoy the photos below!

Thursday, October 05, 2017

Affecting Eternity: World Teachers' Day

A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops. - Henry Adams

Today is World Teachers' Day, and having had a lot of teachers myself, having teachers teach my kids, and being friends with a number of teachers, I want to give some shout outs to those teachers who have made the biggest impact on my life, my kids' lives and others.

The first teacher who truly made a significant impact on me was my third grade teacher, Mrs Hayden. I *loved* Mrs Hayden. When I entered third grade, I was already starting to enjoy reading, but Mrs Hayden cultivated in me an insatiable appetite for books that has persisted to this day. She would have special reading days planned, where we'd bring in sleeping bags, pillows and our favorite books, and spend half the day just reading on the floor, cozied up in our pallets. She also read to us - books that I've never forgotten like Maniac Magee, Snot Stew, and some book about a boy climbing a mountain and all the horrific things that happened to him and his fellow travelers. (I've got to ask her what the name of that book was.) She would sometimes let us bring in a book for her to read aloud to us, and she graciously tolerated my Babysitters Club books far more than she needed to. With her love of reading, can you see what an impact she made on me?!

Then there was Mrs Davis in 9th grade, affectionately referred to then and forever after as the Divine Mrs Lynn Davis by many of us AP English students. She had a passion for literature that was infectious, and my love of reading expanded to the classics, thanks to her. She made books like Tess of the d'Ubervilles and Jane Eyre come alive. She made grammar a priority and would not let anything slide. She pushed us to write better essays, and instilled in me the importance of a strong opening paragraph and an even stronger conclusion. To this day, I think of Mrs Davis every time I write. That opening line (while I don't always put the effort into it that I should - such as the extremely weak one in this post, "Today is World Teachers' Day") is always something I think about, and I remember her insistence that the opening paragraph capture the reader in a creative and magical way. The Divine Mrs Lynn Davis passed away several years ago, and I can speak for all of us who loved her so much that she will never be forgotten.

The Divine Mrs Lynn Davis

Mrs Balgavy, now known as simply "Jane" to her former students was our GT teacher in junior high and our forensics and debate coach in high school. Mrs Balgavy took public speaking, acting and the theater extremely seriously, teaching us never to break character, never break the fourth wall, and to always be sure we know our shit.  She taught us the proper attire to wear to a theater production. She also had a zero tolerance policy on alcohol, drugs and smoking, putting the fear of God in us if ever we should step out. She taught us to fake-it-til-you-make-it, a skill that I honed and practiced for five years under her guidance. All those skills I learned from her, including how to overcome stage fright, how to speak extemporaneously, and how to convince anyone of anything you are passionate about, are skills I use every single day of my adult life.

Forensics coaches Jane Balgavy and Ashley Wyatt

In college, I had a series of professors who also shaped my writing skills and love of literature and reading. Dr Candido made me fall in love with Shakespeare. The way he read passages aloud to us with such conviction and passion made Shakespeare waltz into the twenty-first century and capture our attention. (Not to mention, Dr Candido was ridiculously sexy to me, with his bowties and bald head, and the way he propped his foot up on a chair as he leaned in on his knee towards us to really emphasize a beautiful line or a significant point... ahhh. I loved him.)  My creative writing professors, Skip Hays, Davis McCombs and Michael Heffernan all taught me to be a better writer in so many ways. While I still think I graduated college with a very pretentious writing style, the lessons they each taught with me have never left, and I continue to learn from them even now. Avoiding cliches, imagining creative metaphors, and incorporating intelligent allusions are things I consider every time I write. Again, I don't always adhere to those standards in blogging, but they are on my mind every single time!

I know I've left out a number of other teachers who impacted me in significant ways. Mrs Hirsch who I had for math at least three times and who tried her damnedest to teach me pre-algebra, algebra and geometry with all her might, Ms Ursery who tried her damnedest to teach me chemistry, Dr MacRae who was a crazy lady with an obsession for all things Scottish and took me to my first Burns Supper, and Dr Cochran who taught the most interesting college class I ever took: Folk & Popular Music Traditions. These are just a few of the teachers I had in my life who have shaped me into who I am today.

Fifi, Mrs McArthur & Lolly
Mrs Campbell & Lolly
My kids now have teachers who are shaping them too. They will learn something from all of them but, like me, will remember some of them more acutely and more fondly than others. For me, I'll never forget Fifi and Lolly's Gaelic teachers at Highlanders Academy and Whinhill Primary, Mrs MacLeod, Mrs Campbell and Mrs McArthur. Mrs MacLeod had my five year old Fifi speaking fluent Gaelic by the end of P1; how amazing is that? She taught with a firm yet motherly approach, and every child in her class adored her. Leaving Scotland and the Gaelic unit was one of the hardest decisions we ever had to make. A part of me will always feel a small pang of regret that our kids didn't get to finish Gaelic medium education. Mrs MacLeod has now retired, and I cannot thank her enough for the amazing start she gave to my daughter's education.

Jaguar & his kindergarten teacher Ms Wilson

Through the years, my kids have already had some awesome teachers, and this year is no different. They are patient, firm, encouraging and challenging to our three children. How can I ever express my deepest gratitude for what they do every single day to educate my kids?

And finally, I can't forget my friends who have chosen education as their careers. It's not the most lucrative career they could've chosen. It can certainly be thankless, and I imagine there are days (weeks? months?) where the pressure and stress is overwhelming. But for whatever their own personal reasons, they keep doing it, they choose year after year to spend their days educating the next generation and future leaders of our society, hoping that something will stick and they will make some kind of impact on some student's life. It's one of the most selfless and most difficult jobs in the world, and probably one of the most underappreciated.

So today, on this 5th of October, World Teachers' Day, I offer my appreciation to my own past teachers, my children's past, present and future teachers, and my friends who have made teaching their chosen professions. You are all amazing and deserve every bit of gratitude, support and appreciation there is to offer. You also all deserve raises. And longer planning periods. And smaller classes. And more resources and materials that don't come out of your own pockets. You deserve pencils, for heaven's sake. And wine. Lots and lots of wine.

(I can't help with most of those things, but can probably help with the pencils and wine. Just let me know what you need, guys.)

So to educators everywhere - Happy World Teachers' Day. You are the best of the best.

Most of us end up with no more than five or six people 
who remember us. Teachers have thousands of people 
who remember them for the rest of their lives. - Andy Rooney

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

What Red Cross Stats Don't Show

"Help is here!"
[Full disclosure: I am employed by the American Red Cross.] 

I’m not a numbers person. Once you get past totals I can visualize – 20 or 50 – I stop comprehending the scope of what large numbers are meant to represent. So when I report that to date the American Red Cross has served over 3.8 million meals and snacks to victims of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria*, all I know is that’s a lot. But I can’t really process what that looks like. I don’t think any of us can.

Last week I spent 9 days in Ft Myers, supporting the Red Cross relief efforts in Southwest Florida after Hurricane Irma made landfall on September 10th. I spent a lot of time tracking down daily stats like “over 1 million overnight stays in shelters” and “provided more than 118,000 mental health and health services”. I knew our 4 large-scale outdoor kitchens that we run in partnership with the Southern Baptist Disaster Relief were turning out “tens of thousands of meals a day”. I could see the enormous ovens cooking giant vats of mashed potatoes and green beans, and I could certainly smell the tantalizing scent of roast beef from the McGregor Baptist Church parking lot, where Kitchen 2 was set up. Kitchen 2 had the capacity to produce 20,000 meals per day. That sounds like a lot! But even seeing the hundreds of red cambros, the insulated boxes that keep the food hot for hours at a time, lined up on pallets in front of multiple emergency response vehicles (ERVs), I still couldn’t visualize what kind of number we were really talking about.

While in Ft Myers, I ran into another volunteer from my home region, Oklahoma-Arkansas. Rick Umstead had deployed to Ft Myers as an ERV driver. His job was to serve lunch and dinner to neighborhoods that were significantly affected by Hurricane Irma. He and his partner Dave from Colorado would arrive at Kitchen 2 around 8am and give ERV 2121 a good clean – mopping, disinfecting, tidying and restocking supplies like plastic cutlery and “clamshells”, the Styrofoam boxes used for handing out meals. Around 10am, the ERV drivers would begin loading their trucks with cambros for lunch, enough food for about 500 meals per ERV. They would then drive off on their respective routes, whether to neighborhoods identified as needing assistance or to one of the many Red Cross shelters being managed in Southwest Florida. Rick and Dave would deliver their 500 meals and would not return to the kitchen until their cambros were empty.

By the time Rick and Dave returned from the lunch run, usually around 3-3:30pm, it was time to unload the empty cambros and reload the truck for dinner. By 4 or so they’d be back on their way again, serving another 500 meals, often not returning until 10 at night. Upon return, they unloaded the empty cambros again, cleared out the ERV, and headed off to bed, knowing the next day they’d be back at the kitchen at 8am, ready to do the same thing all over again. Kitchen 2 had at least 6 or more ERVs in operation every day, with at least two volunteers per vehicle. Rick and Dave, like many other ERV drivers, had committed to spending two weeks in Ft Myers doing this work. Some volunteers committed more.

To me, 500 meals twice a day per ERV sounded like a lot, but how many meals is that really? I got to find out on Thursday, when I asked them if I could join them for their dinner routes. “If you ride with us, we’re putting you to work!” they said. And that’s exactly what I intended to do!

I rode in the back of the ERV in the seat by the serving window. (It has a seatbelt, in case you’re wondering.) We drove about half an hour away into a neighborhood in Lehigh, where we began our slow progression through the neighborhoods, beeping the horn and calling out over the loudspeaker, “Red Cross, food and water! ¡Comida y agua!” I put on a pair of clean plastic food handling gloves to serve the clamshells and bottles of water out the window, while Rick filled each compartment with food and handed the clamshell to me to finish and close. After a short while, we got a system going – he’d spoon out the main meal items, pass the clamshell to me, and I’d add the condiment packets, cutlery packets and dessert, then pass out through the window to families who came out of their homes – most still without power and many damaged by fallen trees and hurricane-force wind – to get a free, hot meal and a cold(ish) bottle of water.

I was struck by the various reactions of the people we served. Some were hesitant to accept a free meal, as if not sure it was really free. A few people shared their stories with me, and a few even cried as they thanked us. Many were modest and only requested meals for their children, not themselves. Some thought they had to pay us. Many families only spoke Spanish in this neighborhood (while in other neighborhoods, there would have been many Creole speakers too), so I learned to say things like “¿Cuรกntos?” (“How many”?), “Es gratis” (“It’s free”) and “Tenemos mucha comida” (“We have lots of food”) to explain that there was plenty for the adults in the household too. I quickly learned to trust my instincts and insist sometimes on handing out the extra meals and waters to those who would rather go without than appear greedy. Some felt they needed to explain why they were needing more meals than it appeared they should. I told them we’d give them whatever they needed. All were grateful.

After handing out what felt like at least a hundred meals, I looked at the clock. We’d only been at it for an hour. There were still five cambros of food left, and we were nowhere near done. We had only hit less than half the neighborhood, and it wasn’t the only neighborhood on our route. I continued to add the condiments, cutlery and desserts to clamshells and hand them out the window for another hour or so. Then we swapped jobs, and I began ladling out the food. Trying to get the proportions right ended up more an art than a science. I wanted to make sure we had enough to complete all 500 meals but not be so conservative that the meals were skimpy and we’d end up with anything left over. I filled clamshell after clamshell, each time trying to get it just right. It was tiring work!

Though it was getting dark, we didn’t want to leave any neighborhood until we were sure everyone had been served. We ended up finishing our routes a little earlier than Dave and Rick had the previous nights; having an extra pair of hands seemed to help move the process along a little faster. We finally returned to Kitchen 2 a little before 9pm to unload the empty cambros, clean the serving utensils, through away the trash and get ERV 2121 ready to do the same thing again the next morning.

500 meals suddenly had real meaning to me. It’s a lot. And that was only dinner; Dave and Rick had already served another 500 lunches only hours before I joined them and had been at this already for seven days straight. Their next day was to be their first day off since arriving in Ft Myers.

Like so much in disaster relief, nothing is as simple as it appears from the outside. “Tens of thousands of meals a day” is a lot, but what gets lost in those grandiose numbers is the individuality of where each of those meals went. Did seven meals go to a family of migrant workers in Bonita Springs who had been without air conditioning or refrigeration for almost two weeks? Did four meals go to a single mother and her three small children sleeping in a shelter in Immokalee after their home flooded? Did one meal go to the lady who was scheduled for a lung bypass surgery just days after the hurricane hit and now had no power in her home? Did three meals go to three children while the parents watched hungrily on, afraid to ask for the extra two meals to avoid taking too much?

And what about the volunteers? When we say there are more than 2,380 volunteers responding right now to Hurricanes Irma and Maria, we lose the individuality of each volunteer and what they gave up to be there. Some are retired and have left their spouses, grandchildren and perhaps ailing parents for two weeks. Some requested PTO from their employers to spend their vacation time volunteering. Some, like me, left small children at home with the other parent or with another caregiver to spend time serving in the disaster zone. One man I met runs his own business and turns down contracts during hurricane season so he can spend most of the late summer and fall months responding to disasters. Each volunteer that deploys to work on a disaster relief operation works late hours for days on end fulfilling their small part of the bigger Red Cross mission to alleviate human suffering in the face of emergencies. Sometimes those jobs are tedious; sometimes they are frustrating; sometimes they don’t go as smoothly as we’d like them to. Sometimes, those jobs are emotionally overwhelming, seeing from the ground level just how enormous the needs are. For me, seeing the flooded and storm damaged homes in person, talking to the mother whose young family has suddenly become homeless, holding the hand of the elderly lady as tears fall down her cheeks, or handing the bottle of cold water to the child whose eyes glitter with gratitude made very real and personal the disaster I’d only experienced through segments and soundbites on the evening news.

Big numbers serve a purpose. They illustrate to donors where their money is being spent. They quantify the work being done on a large scale. But they miss individuality of each person served, each person who received one of those 3.8 million meals or who slept in a cot during one of those 1 million overnight shelter stays. Disaster relief is complex, much more so than I’d ever realized before, and sometimes the response feels like more of an art than a science. Focusing on statistics with big numbers makes it easy to ignore the complexity or forget each individual who receives one of our services. But what I realized during my short time in Ft Myers is that what matters most to the people we serve is that someone showed up during their darkest hour and provided that meal or that shelter to sleep in or a hand to hold, and that is something that the Red Cross can’t measure in numbers.

*All stats referenced are actual Red Cross service delivery stats as of 9/24/17.

This story is cross posted on the Arkansas Red Alert and Oklahoma Red Alert blogs.

Friday, September 08, 2017

Choose Your Own Title

There were numerous things I could've titled this blog post.

The $25k Nose Ring
The Post That Poses the Risk of My Parents Not Talking to Me For the Next Six Months
Nothing Good Happens After Midnight
My Cosmic Boyfriend

I feel like I should take a vote on which title works best.

Twenty-two year old Lori wearing a really expensive nose ring

Tonight, I'd like to start with a little story. Follow me on this journey back to 1997, when I was 15 years old.

I wanted a nose ring so bad, but I was 15 so my parents justifiably said Not A Chance, You Have Enough Holes In Your Head, that sort of thing. So I bought myself a little magnetic nose ring that looked like a stud on the outside and had a magnetic backing that went inside the nostril. I looked hip AF, y'all.

Until that fateful afternoon, while taking a test in Mrs Norman's AP English class, when I sniffed too hard and sucked the magnetic backing all the way up my nostril. I began to snort and sputter in the middle of a silent testing classroom atmosphere and became the sudden object of everyone's delighted interest. It was certainly more interesting to watch me hyperventilate than to answer essay question's about Young Goodman Brown, but I did not look very hip that day.

I still wanted a nose ring though. I went away to college and met the coolest girl ever one Sunday at church. Her name was (and still is, presumably) Kanyon. She was a year or two older than me and had the most adorable silver hoop in her nose. I knew then that it wasn't a stud I wanted in my nose but a hoop like Kanyon's. (I'm willing to bet Kanyon is probably still one of the coolest girls alive, wherever she is.)

But I was 18 or 19, and my parents said No Way, You'll Look Like a Bull, And Besides, If You Pierce Your Nose We'll Stop Paying For Your College, that sort of thing.

But I still wanted that nose ring. One afternoon, my college BFF Amanda and my roommate Jonathan decided they were going to get pierced. Amanda wanted an eyebrow ring and Jonathan wanted a double helix. I accompanied them to get their piercings and was green with envy. I wanted my nose done so badly!

A few days later, just around my 20th birthday, I got to chatting about wanting a nose ring with my friend Amber after our poetry class. (I'll always remember her beautiful poem about artichoke hearts. No seriously, it was beautiful.) She was like, "Let's go do it for your birthday!" and I was like, "Okay let's go do it!" So Amber and I went to get my nose pierced.


Guess who didn't love it though? My parents. They said You Look Like a You Got A Fish Hook Stuck In Your Nose and By the Way We Are Going To Stop Paying For Your College Because We Warned You And Now We Have To Be Consistent Because That's What Good Parents Do.

And y'all, they did.

(Are you starting to catch on to some of my potential titles now? The $25k Nose Ring.)

That was my sophomore year of college. The following two years were suddenly entirely up to me to finance. So I did. I increased my student loans to the max. I got two jobs, one working at JR's Lightbulb Club and Dickson Theater as the door girl and one working for the University of Arkansas Development Office.  (It was while working in development that I had my first experience with the professional implications of having a body piercing. I was originally asked to take it out since I'd be interfacing with major gift donors, but after sharing my story with the Vice Chancellor of Development, she agreed that it was indeed a pricey piece of jewelry and settled with me changing it out for a stud.)

Let's journey through the remainder of my 20s and into my mid 30s, back to the present. I've been paying off these student loans for fifteen years, which by the way, is nothing compared to what students only five or so years after me began looking at. The kids who came up behind me have gotten royally screwed on college tuition. Anyway, here I am, 35 years old, still wearing my nose ring and still paying off my student debt.  But there's a happy ending to this story. I looked up my loan repayment plan a few weeks ago and discovered that I only have THREE months left before my student loan is entirely paid off!

By the end of 2017, I will have officially paid off this nose ring. And you know what? I'm still going to wear it. Because I LOVE it. Even if I do Look Like a Bull or a Hooked Fish or a Jezebel or Oh I Don't Know, Rebekah By the Well?

Thirty-five year old Lori still wearing a really expensive nose ring

Okay now. I'm going to get a little more serious now. In telling that nose ring story I had another purpose. One less jovial.

I'll tell another story briefly. Journey with me back to the end of August 2017. (Yeah, like two weeks ago.) On August 29th, I got in a car accident, a hit and run, and my brand new car, only purchased two weeks prior, got smashed on the driver's side, and though I was mostly uninjured, it has caused me a lot of pain and angst over the past week. Meanwhile, Hurricane Harvey was in the process of devastating Houston, Beaumont and many other parts of Texas. I was in the process of raising money for the Red Cross's response to the hurricane, which was the worst hurricane to hit landfall in over a decade, and the largest natural disaster the Red Cross has ever responded to. The car accident was really bad timing, meaning for the week that followed, I was unable to do my job effectively during an extremely crucial time. Yesterday was the first day I felt fairly normal again, despite the pain.

Today, barely a month later, Hurricane Irma swirls and heads for the continental US (and has already decimated small Caribbean islands in its path), and many of us at the Red Cross are gearing up for more disaster deployments, including myself. I've been doing everything possible to get my pain under control and get my work taken care of so I can be ready to go if or when they give me my 24 hour notice. Being a single mom now, that's no easy uncertainty to plan for. (Giving a shout out to Scott and my mom right now for both being extremely flexible with me right now regarding the children!) Amidst all of this though, and after an extremely draining day of work, I witnessed a car accident on my way home this evening right in front of me on the same freeway my accident occurred on just last week. I was one car behind the accident, and the thought of almost being in a second accident within ten days of each other has left me terrified to get behind the wheel again. What is this, Final Destination? Is death following me now?

That's the joke I made to my mom on the phone tonight. But her response wasn't so flippant. "No, this is God trying to get your attention. He's saying, 'I've been wrapping on your door for a long time, and you haven't been listening!'"

Of course I know where she's coming from, and I know she made this comment with the purest of intentions. I know she's only concerned for my eternal security. (And let me say again, she's being so helpful with childcare! This is The Post That Poses the Risk of My Parents Not Talking to Me For Six Months. I'm treading on thin ice here by posting this. I'm cruisin' for a bruisin', I'm itchin' for a switchin'.) But if she's right, does God really have such terrible timing? I mean, car accidents and deployments and devastating natural disasters, oh my! Is all of this necessary to just get my attention?

I mean, I guess he could he have just revealed himself to me six years ago when I begged and pleaded and cried out to him for faith. But maybe that wasn't part of his divine plan.

It's past 1pm now. Hence Nothing Good Happens After Midnight. I have this theory that nothing good happens after midnight, and that goes for blogging. I tend to lose my filter after midnight, tend to make less than prudent decisions, sometimes say or do things I wouldn't do before midnight. So I need to be careful what I say here. I used to feel more free to talk about my lack of faith in any religion or gods, but that was before I realized just how badly being an atheist can damage my credibility or even my career. (However, I continue to be open about my beliefs, or lack thereof, because I just don't see why anyone should have to hide who they are, particularly because of what religion they are or aren't. If other people are allowed to speak freely about their faith, surely the faithless should have the same opportunity to speak freely? But now I've just chased a squirrel. Coming back now.)

Back to the divine plan. I just don't understand this logic at all, of why God would need to send bad things my way in order to get my attention. I don't think I really understood it as a Christian either. Why would God need to use grandiose overtures to entice me back into the fold? Can't he just do it the normal way? I spent three years begging him to restore my faith. Was there any reason he couldn't have done it back then? Maybe there is some kind of super special glory he'll get from refusing to answer my cries for three years, leave me to become an atheist for three years, then suddenly hit me with a car accident (and the threat of another) in order to bring me back to him. In the midst of hurricanes, no less.

I just don't get it. This accident kept me from being able to really do my job well during the most critical week of my professional career thus far, and more importantly, during a time when thousands of people are hurting and really need as much relief and support as possible and would benefit from me and all the rest of the Red Cross family being at our best for them. Just seems kind of --- mean.

So I'll assume for a moment the existence of God - the Christian God - is a given. And that he is trying to get my attention so he can save my soul. Because he loves me, right?

But wait, did he not love me six years ago? When I was in a place of being open and receptive to his existence and influence? Why wait until now? For whatever reason though, he loves me now and only wants to save my soul from eternal damnation.

Which he designed.

As punishment for not having faith in him.

Faith which he alone gives or withholds.

He wants to put me in dangerous and precarious situations in order to scare me into faith so he can save me from the punishment he designed for me should I not get scared enough to find faith in him that only he can give anyway. I just don't get it.

Let me take you on one last journey. This is into a hypothetical, nonexistent time in my past. Maybe it's an alternate reality. Anyway, in this parallel, not-real universe, I was dating this guy who really, really loved me. But he had this propensity for constantly testing my love for him in return. He would tell me bad things about myself but remind me that he loved me so much, he could fix those bad things and make me better. I knew he was right; I was pretty shitty, but wow, the way he could fix all those shitty things about me was inspiring! He would also sometimes put me in danger - but never real danger, because he was looking after me the whole time - to see if I could really trust him enough to take care of me. And every time he did that, I really did come out safe in the end, and he really did use that to prove how much he loved me and would always save me from harm.  I was so in love with this guy, and he was so in love with me back.

There were some hard times. He often gave me the silent treatment. I was never entirely sure if it was because of something I'd done wrong or if he was just trying to test my love again. Most of the time he'd eventually break the silence, but not until after I'd begged and cried and pleaded with him with all my might. Then he would soften, lift me up off my knees, and hold me. It made everything okay again when he did that. I knew he loved me. This guy, y'all, was the most loving, perfect boyfriend I've ever had. His name was Jesus, and he was My Cosmic Boyfriend.

Oh, did I say this was a nonexistent, hypothetical scenario? I apologize. It wasn't.

My Cosmic Boyfriend ultimately wanted to save me from eternal ruin. He always knew what was best for me, despite my own petty desires. Kind of like when I was 15, and my parents understandably felt that getting a nose ring was not appropriate for me at that time. My Cosmic Boyfriend threatened me with hell if I didn't obey him. My parents threatened me with no more college tuition. My Cosmic Boyfriend needed to be consistent with his word, just like my good old mom and dad. He had threatened me with hell, so he kind of had to go through with it at that point, since he'd already said it and all. Consistency is key.

The story of my nose ring and my parents is kind of funny to me, in a OMG I Still Can't Believe They Actually Went Through With It kind of way. It's funny to me in a This Is A Great Story To Tell At Parties kind of way. And though it had some long-standing, less than humorous ramifications - fifteen years of student loan repayment during the brokest years of this millennial's life - it's really in the grand scheme of things not the worst a child should have to endure. A punishment, yes, but nothing serious.

Not like the eternal punishment of hell for not being able to force myself to believe in something I simply could no longer believe in, no matter how hard I tried. We aren't talking fifteen years of faith repayment, but an eternity. In hell of all places.

For all the joking about my parents and the nose ring, I know how much my parents love me. They have always protected me and wanted what's best for me. They went over and above to make things happen for me all through my childhood that they certainly were not required to do, just because they loved me. They provided for me, they kept me out of danger, they played the tricky tightrope of letting me learn from my own mistakes while always being ready to catch my fall. They never tested my love for them, because that would never have even occurred to them. They loved me unconditionally. They have always loved me without reserve, even now, as the atheist daughter, the One That Turned Away, the one that breaks their hearts daily as they fear for my soul. I don't fault my mom at all for how she perceives the events of the past few weeks; she loves me and wants me to see the God she sees and at the end of the day, she only wants to see me there.

My earthly parents get what love is. My Cosmic Boyfriend, not so much. If My Cosmic Boyfriend was a regular human boyfriend, everyone I know would be begging me to leave him and escape our abusive relationship. But since he's Cosmic, his ways are higher than my ways, and trying to get my attention with car accidents and hurricanes is no different than pulling my ponytail and tying my shoe laces together. Harmless boys-will-be-boys pranks. It's all just meant to show me he likes me after all. And it's all just meant to save me from the eternal ruin he has planned for me if I don't return his phone calls or agree to wear his ring. True love, right? The stuff of Disney princesses.

I just don't think that's the kind of love I deserve. I think I deserve better. If my parents know it would be cruel to orchestrate a car accident or a hurricane in order to get me to answer the door, surely an omnipotent, loving God would see the cruelty in that too. It might have been a cute story if he just made me take out a few loans to pay for the sin of disobedience, but the story becomes not quite so cute when you realize the wages of sin is death and his punishment of choice is eternal damnation.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Self-Esteem: The S Word

I remember hearing once when I was a child - in a sermon or a Sunday school lesson or maybe a home group Bible study - that self-esteem should never be a focus in raising children. Making a point to raise a child's self-esteem was teaching them to look inside themselves for worth instead of finding it the Lord. Teach children to find their worth in Jesus, and they will instead develop a sense of value far greater than any "self-esteem" or "self help" book ever could.

I don't think this a mainstream Christian teaching, but that message stuck with me for a very long time. It's incredible how one little message, as off base as it may be, can shape the way you view yourself. The term "self-esteem" was a bit of a dirty word to me growing up, and I avoided it. In fact, any "self" word, unless it was self-denial or self-control, carried bad connotations for me. In all my formative years, I shunned the concept of self-esteem as New Age hocus pocus. As I grew older, I rarely talked about my self-esteem but couched the concept in euphemisms like "worth" or "significance" found in Christ. Mentioning any problems with my self-esteem felt too focused on me and not focused enough on the Savior in whom my worth was found. If I had a "self-esteem" problem, it was more likely that what I really had was a pride and sin problem.

I think even the healthiest of us struggle with self-esteem. We have all received messages through our lives that have told us we are not good enough at this or not important enough for that. Too fat, too skinny, too stupid, too nerdy, too bossy, too sensitive. How can anyone deflect all the messages that are thrown at us all the time by everyone and everything around us? But even more so, when the very foundation of your belief system is based on the message that you are inherently wicked, how can you possibly develop any kind of self-love? 

For years, I believed my worth was entirely found in Christ. Without Christ, I was worthless and depraved, my good deeds were like filthy rags. These were the more sophisticated messages I absorbed as I grew into an adult. As a child, I just knew I was a sinner that needed to be saved. As I grew in my faith and in my study of Scripture, I internalized these foundational messages about my origins to immunize myself against pride and any truly self-centered esteem I may have for myself. The term "self-esteem" no longer seemed a dirty word, just a very worldly way of trying to fill the hole of depravity in ourselves that only Christ could fill.

My "self" esteem was actually "salvation" esteem. So when I lost my faith, I also lost my source of value. 

When your self-esteem is built upon a strong foundation of self-denial, self-deprecation, or even self-loathing, and is designed by materials that come from a source outside yourself, you are at risk of collapse. If your self-worth is built from someone else's view of you - a significant other, a parent, a deity - and that external source of worth falters or disappears from your life, you will be lost. When I my source of esteem disintegrated, I had no idea who I was or where my value came from. Without Christ, I believed I was nothing! I went through a period of time feeling very lost and purposeless. I had faced the fact that I didn't believe in God anymore, but even though I could see my past worth had been based on something unreal, I was still left with an emptiness I could not fill. It still seemed so self-centered and arrogant to assume I could find worth from within myself, but if it wasn't in God either, could I possibly be worth anything at all?

I no longer found worth in Christ but still saw myself as intensely wicked. I wanted to explore aspects of myself that had always been deemed sinful and displeasing to God, but I couldn't do so without hating myself for having those feelings or questions. Without the Bible telling me these things were wrong, I was able to evaluate so many things through a different, more objective lens, but not without guilt and shame. 

I've talked about it before, because it was such a liberating moment, but things began to change with the simple lyrics to a song* I had been listening to:

But luckily I held out long enough to see
everybody really makes their own destiny.
It's a beautiful thing.
It's just you and me, exactly where we belong,
and there's nothing inherently wrong with us.

Suddenly it all fell into place. Not only could I put away the judgment and guilt I'd heaped upon myself for all those years, but I could put away the very notion that I was born depraved and sinful. I had the capacity to make decisions for myself, good or bad. I had the sense to figure out what made something good or bad. I began to redefine all "good and evil" in very basic terms - is it harmful to others or myself? Are there negative consequences that will outweight the benefits? Realizing that I was capable in and of myself to make good choices and be a good human being were the first seeds of true self-esteem building for me.

I look at my children now. I see myself in them, different parts of me in different ones. I see the lack of self-esteem in one child in particular. How could I look at this little human being that I've brought into a harsh world full of harsh messages that will tear her down and try to destroy her and not put intense focus on building her self-esteem? I see the seeds of self-loathing already sprouting, and there's nothing I want more than to choke those seeds out and plant new seeds of self-love in their place. I want to teach my kids to take care of themselves, something I struggle to do myself. I can't imagine anything more important to focus on than a healthy self-esteem that comes from believing they are inherently good and are the masters of the decisions they make. They may make bad choices and do bad things, but that does not make them bad people. 

Not all people of faith believe themselves to be so inherently wicked, but that is the message of the Bible - that the heart is deceitful and desperately wicked. That's the bad news that has to be accepted before the good news of Jesus on the cross can be needed. Some people are far better at not internalizing that message as deeply as I did, but I can't take that chance with my own kids. I can see which ones would internalize that message and define themselves by it, the way I did. So I must - it's my responsibility as a parent - fight against not only the messages the world will send my children that they are too much of this or not enough of that, but also the message they are not inherently good. I must put positive self-esteem at the top of things to develop in them, so that they can easily tap into the good they recognize in themselves when choosing between right and wrong. And when they inevitably must forgive themselves for taking the wrong path, their genuine sense of self-worth must be intact. 

*The Black Sheep & the Shepherd by Quiet Company

Sunday, August 06, 2017

The Awesome Stuff I've Done So Far in 2017: Part 2

A few months ago, I declared that the theme of this year would be healing. I have a lot of healing to do in my life, from unpacking the damage my brand of the Christian faith did to me to recovering from my upcoming divorce and redefining who I am as a person. This spring, I ran (aka mostly walked) my first half marathon, and this summer I went on my first backpacking trip. Both of these brought with them significant healing effects, like homeopathy, natural and subtle and hard to evidence, but very real to me. (A little crunchy skeptic humor for you.)

The Awesome Stuff I've Done So Far in 2017
Part 2: Backpacking the Shores Lake Loop
My suddenly becoming an outdoorsy person goes back to at least last year, though really when it comes to camping, I've always been a fan. From camping in my backyard and at campsites with my family as a kid to camping off the side of the side of the road in college with friends (Wes, Chris and Andrew - remember that?) to TMI camping on Merritt Island, FL and in Kilmacolm, Scotland, I love sleeping in a tent outside and sitting around a camp fire and bonding with people who smell just as unshowered as me.

I love Stacy and Chris.
But last year, I became reunited with an old friend from college, Chris. I am so thankful we became reunited for many reasons far more important that this, but Chris and his wife Stacy (whom I'm also so thankful to know) are pretty outdoorsy, which reignited my interest in camping. In March, just weeks after Scott moved out and I was facing the reality of how lonely it is to be single, Chris, Stacy and I planned a camping trip in northwest Arkansas. I was in Tulsa, OK, the week before, and oh what a week that was! Wildfires in the panhandle, a DR Level 2, and was that the week we had a tornado in Fayetteville and a train derailment in Oklahoma City? Anyway, a camping weekend was much needed, but as I drove from sunny Tulsa into Fayetteville, AR, the weather was turning colder and greyer. By the time I arrived at Chris and Stacy's house, the rain had started, and it was cold and everything was started to ice over ... and our camping trip got snowed out. 

So I spent the weekend under an electric blanket inside their cozy, beautiful house, watching the snow fall, being mothered by Stacy and having the most relaxing and healing weekend I'd ever had. I get emotional just remembering that weekend and how it was exactly what my soul needed in that indescribably painful point in my life. 

After that, between the busyness of all our lives and the summer heat encroaching upon us, we never managed to schedule another camping trip. I continued to research camping gear online and create lists and wishlists of things I'd need or want for camping, and through that I became interested in backpacking as well. My gear list was getting long - and expensive!

I went out on a date with a really cool guy who was big into backpacking, and we spent nearly the entire date talking about camping, hiking and backpacking. Nothing ever came of that date relationship-wise, but about a month later as he was planning a backpacking trip, he invited me along. The timing could not have been more providential. I was sliding fast into depression at that point; my new job was overwhelming me, my heart had recently been badly broken (yay rebound relationships), and my single parent responsibilities were crashing in on me. I felt like I was drowning fast. A weekend in the mountains sounded like an ice cream sundae smothered in chocolate syrup and rainbow sprinkles. 

But I had yet to actually purchase any gear off my wishlists, and I'd done zero exercise or training in months. I'm an overachiever though, so when David confirmed the trip was on, I said yes.

I had one week to get a backpack, hiking shoes, a sleeping bag, a hammock, trekking poles, a water bladder, a cook stove and all the other tiny essentials necessary for a weekend in the woods. I spent all week texting David and Chris about which brand of this and which style of that was best, and by the weekend, I was extremely broke but had everything I needed to go backpacking.

Just a few of the essentials.
There were two slight concerns though. Not even setbacks, just concerns. One was that everyone David had invited hiking with him had either backed out or were unavailable. It was going to be just me and him - and we'd only ever met that one time. The other was the weather. Forecasts couldn't decide if it was going to be sunny all weekend or stormy. The chances leaned towards sunny, though, so we decided to take a chance and go for it. Early Saturday morning, July 1st, David and I hit the road and drove two hours to the Ozark mountains for our 13 mile backpack around the White Rock Shores Lake Loop Trail. 

Me and my new backpacking buddy David
The hike started out great. I was immediately grateful I'd taken David's advice on bringing hiking poles! The first few miles were pretty easy. We saw a beautiful waterfall and some really cool campsites. I got to test out my Sawyer water filter and was impressed that the filtered creek water actually tasted pretty good. We spent some of the time talking and a lot of the time in silence, me often lagging ten feet or so behind but thoroughly enjoying the scenery, the sweat and my own thoughts. It's funny how you think you're going to have all of these deep revelations while hiking yet I spent half the time singing in my head, "We're going camping now, we're on our way! We're going to climb up a mountain and run and jump and play!" (Psalty the Singing Songbook anybody?)

Our map promised that mile 6 was full of great campsites. We'd already past some pretty nice ones, so the mile 6 campsites were sure to be fantastic. Our plan was to hike 6.5 miles both days, and with the early start, we guessed we'd be able to set up camp around 4 or 5pm at the latest. That would give us plenty of time to hang our hammocks (both of us had new ones we'd never used before), start a fire, get some food in our bellies and relax for several hours before getting a good night's sleep.

We passed mile marker 5. In a mile, we expected to find somewhere to set up camp. But the next mile marker we saw said 7. The trail we were on had merged with the Ozark Highland Trail, but according to the map the two trails should only have been merged together for a short time. We'd been following the blue flashes but by mile 7, the flashes continued to be both blue and white, signifying the two merged trails. By 7 we should've been getting back to blue only. The map showed all the turns we were taking to be part of the Ozark Highland Trail only. We hiked for another mile before being certain we'd missed the turn off to continue the Shores Lake Loop alone.

I was getting tired. Again, I'd done no training prior except a 4 mile walk with a friend two days before. We'd started our downhill hike and now we were going to have to turn around and go back uphill again. But it was better than getting lost, so we turned back around and hiked back up the hill almost another mile before running into only the second person we'd seen on the trail all day. 

He was doing the Shores Lake Loop also and was getting ready to find camp too. He was pretty sure we had been on the right track, so we turned back around, and the three of us continued back downhill in the same direction we'd been going to find the nearest campsite.

Allen and David
David and Allen (our new hiking friend) chatted together several feet ahead of me, while I struggled to keep up. It was starting to get later than we'd planned, and my exhaustion was starting to show. I slipped and fell a couple of times. (Falling and trying to get back up with a 27 lb backpack on your back sucks.) The mile markers had suddenly gone from 7 to something in the 20s, which must've been marking the Ozark Highland Trail. I had no idea how far we'd gone, but with the back-tracking, we were going on 8 or 9 miles. This was much more than I'd anticipated, but I kept up. Barely.

Then we heard the thunder.

We still had an hour before sundown, and Allen, who'd done the trail before, was certain the campsites were just up ahead. We stopped momentarily to put our rain covers over our packs and put on our headlamps just in case though, and we carried on. The rain came on and the trail grew pretty dark pretty fast. The wet dirt and rocks caused me to slip one more time. I was going to have to get control over my exhaustion!

We expected it to get dark around 7:30-8, but the storm brought on the darkness sooner than we expected. We were all getting pretty concerned about the lack of campsites. It wasn't even that we had to have the comfort of a designated campsite; the woods were so thick and overgrown that it would've been entirely unsafe to set up camp anywhere along the trail at that point. With the darkness, the vegetation, the poison ivy covering every inch of ground beyond the trail, we would've easily gotten lost in seconds if we left the trail to set up camp. David and I had already experienced that earlier in the day, when we walked off the trail less than 15 feet to investigate a campsite and were completely unable to find the trail again. Allen decided to run along ahead of us to see if he could find a campsite. He was running out of water, I was running out of steam, and David kept turning around to me and apologizing profusely for how this was turning out. It was okay though. I was just grateful I had two experienced hikers with me!

Thick vegetation and poison ivy

David and I thought we heard a whistle. It was pitch black and the rain was heavy, and we really hoped it was either Allen alerting us he'd found a campsite or our imaginations, because I really had no idea what we'd do if there was a lost or injured hiker out there somewhere! (Though I did have my first aid kit with me because I'm Red Cross Ready!)  A little ways further, we saw Allen's headlamp. He'd found a campsite! According to GPS, we'd walked 10 miles of the 13 mile trail. It was late by then, somewhere around 8pm.

The rain was heavy and there was no chance of getting camp set up. The three of us decided the best bet was to set up an emergency shelter and wait for the rain to stop. With a tarp, guideline and some tent stakes, we set up a triangular shelter between two trees - not really noticing we'd set it up right over a bunch of uncomfortable big rocks. We three of us huddled under the tarp sitting on rocks with our packs and tried to wait out the storm. We shared out snacks - granola bars, beef jerky, water. The storm wasn't letting up though. In fact it was drawing closer. The lightning and thunder indicated the storm was only a few miles away then right on top of us. The creek nearby was rushing and rising. Rain water was running all around us, creating rivulets and large puddles. I'd been sweating out water all day, but now I had to pee like I'd never had to pee before. 

We discussed just finishing the last three miles of the hike in the rain and going home, but I knew I didn't have the energy left in me. We were also worried about the rain and the slick rocks and what would happen if one of us twisted an ankle or become otherwise injured, and it just didn't seem safe. So we devised a plan.

Allen had a two person tent. David and I had only hammocks. Between the three of us though, we had tarps and para-cord and tent stakes, so we decided to set up Allen's tent, create a lean-to over and beyond the tent and build a shelter that would accommodate the three of us and our three backpacks. In the pitch dark and pouring rain, using only the lights from our headlamps, we build the tent and the lean-to and soon had a very wet but sheltered sleeping quarters. After we'd built our shelter, I told the boys to look the other way and tiptoed only a few feet into the poison ivy to finally pee. I didn't want to get lost, or swept away in the currents, and figured I'd rather take my chances with the poison ivy.

Incidentally, peeing in the woods as a female is way suckier than it is for males. 

We were hungry, but none of us had the energy to stay up any later and cook. So the three of us put our packs on the ground tarp outside the tent under the overheard tarp lean-to and crawled into Allen's two person tent. The three of us, all essentially strangers when you think about it, got very well acquainted very quickly in that small tent. The tent was leaking from the heavy rain and from being assembled in the rain. David and I hadn't brought a change of clothes, so we were soaking wet and shivering in the leaky, cold tent under a single unzipped sleeping bag. (His down sleeping bag wasn't waterproof so we were sharing mine.) Our biggest concern was the creek and the potential for flash flooding. None of us slept very well, but under the circumstances, it's amazing we slept at all.

By the next morning, the rain had stopped. We made breakfast on the cook stove, refilled our water bladders with filtered creek water, dismantled our shelter and cleaned up the campsite. We only had three miles left of the trail. The ground was slick and muddy, and I was extremely glad we hadn't tried to finish the trail during the night.

"Cool Tree Cool"
The last three miles seemed much longer than only three miles. But early in the morning, we finished our hike, and I've never been so relieved to see my car sitting in the parking lot, waiting to take me home. Allen and David seemed to feel the night before had made the whole trip a disaster, but I looked at it as quite the adventure! We'd all gotten a chance to test our survival skills, and now had a story to tell for the rest of our lives! We exchanged Facebook details, and Allen went his way while David and I drove back to Little Rock.

Allen, David and me - we made it!
Despite the rain and the cold and the overexertion of the night before, my first backpacking trip was exactly what my soul needed. My body felt strong and durable, my mind felt refreshed and clear, and my heart felt rejuvenated and light. I felt capable, resourceful (though the resourcefulness was 100% Allen and David) and empowered. Though most of my thoughts during the hours of silence trekking through the mountains were simple, shallow and unimportant, I did have several small epiphanies that helped lift me from that sinking slope into depression. I found strength in myself I didn't know I had, and I fell in love with nature and the outdoors again that weekend.

It's been stiflingly hot ever since, so I haven't been backpacking again yet, but my pack is the corner of my bedroom, cleaned, full and ready for our next adventure together in the woods.