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.


Wednesday, August 02, 2017

The Awesome Stuff I've Done So Far in 2017: Part 1

Since January, my life has pretty much been doing somersaults all the way through the calendar. (How is it August already?) It's been the rockiest year of my life, but in amongst my marriage ending, my job role change and the transition into single motherhood, I've also done a couple of pretty awesome things. I just never got around to blogging about them. So tonight, I bring you The Awesome Stuff I've Done So Far in 2017: Part 1. In the next couple of days I'll bring you Part 2.

Part 1: The Little Rock Half Marathon
Many years ago while working at the High School of Glasgow, I decided I was going to start running, because why not? My coworker Carol and I started running during our lunch breaks. We'd change into workout clothes and run a few miles around the block - or rather, Carol ran a few miles, I ran a few feet, panted heavily, walked a few miles, then ran a few feet again. (Once, we somehow managed to get lost running around the block and were almost an hour late getting back to work. To this day, I'm not sure how that happened.) That eventually tapered off though, perhaps when I got pregnant with Fifi. I can't remember exactly. I only know that it was many years later before I got the notion to run again. This time Jen from church and I decided we were going to train for a 10k. We started out strong, running around Battery Park a couple nights a week. Until the first night it was cold and rainy. And here I'm going to go ahead and make the assumption that this means we only actually ran around Battery Park two or three times tops before encountering a cold and rainy night ... because Scotland.

That was the extent of my running career.

Then last year, my dad, whose enthusiasm for running and cycling is somehow oddly contagious, persuaded me to sign up to run the Little Rock half marathon with him. In fact, it was about this time last year. I figured I had more than enough time to train, so sure, why not? I mentioned it to another friend of mine, and she agreed to register too. Feeling motivated, Elizabeth and I started running together. But not for long. Winter came, and I didn't want to run outside. I ran on the treadmill at the gym, but I didn't do much else in the way of training.

Then Scott and I split up, and training for a half marathon was the furthest thing from my mind.

I had gotten to the point where I could just about do 5 miles before wiping out, so when March came along, I had thoroughly decided against running the race. Elizabeth's training hadn't come along much better; I think she could manage about 6 miles. So the week the runners were supposed to pick up their race packets, Elizabeth and I decided we weren't going to run after all. But since we'd already paid for the t-shirt ... well, we could at least go pick up the packets.

On Thursday, Elizabeth texted me to say she was going to go ahead and do the half marathon after all. She used some fancy mathematics to show that we could totally complete the race within the 4 hour time frame, and, well, math not being my strong suit, she convinced me to go for it too. So on Friday we picked up our packets and on Sunday, having not run in months, I found myself at the starting line of a 13.1 mile race. In the rain.

We started off great. The excitement and the adrenaline kept us going for the first few miles with no worries at all. We paced ourselves well. We cheered when we passed mile markers. We walked some and ran some. (We made sure we were running every time we passed a race photographer.) The rain wasn't going to spoil this for us.

5 miles in, I felt great. 8 miles in we were still going strong. 10 miles in we were still in this thing, though getting tired. Then suddenly ... I felt it. The next 2 miles were tough. My feet were soaked and blisters were forming. I was getting exhausted, but mostly it was my feet. Then that last mile was torture. My feet were killing me. We were really watching our time by then, coming close to the 4 hour cut off. We knew we could make it if we could just keep up the pace, but my feet!

We turned the last corner and could see the finish line about 4 blocks away. Elizabeth and I looked at each other. We had time. We could do this. Let's do this! Determined to run, not walk, across the finish line, we picked up our pace about 2 blocks away and just went for it. We weaved in and out through the walkers in front of us, like we'd been running all along, and with 15 minutes to spare*, we crossed the finish line.

During mile 13, we walked with a man who had been doing the LR half marathon for something like 15 years with his friends. He said the feeling of crossing the finish line is like no other and don't be surprised if you cry.

Yeah, right, why would I cry? But sure enough, as I crossed that finish line, the emotions welled up in me, and my eyes started to tear up. The past three months had been worst of my life. My marriage was a failure, I was barely holding it together as a single mother, and most days the best I could do was pull myself out of bed to show up for work on time. I was so depressed, and all I wanted to do was drive my car off the side of bridge and put an end to it all.

Yet there I was, finishing a half marathon. I have never in my life felt stronger. There is no describing the feeling. It was one of the most empowering moments I've ever experienced.

I'm tearing up right now just remembering it.

Aaaaand then the adrenaline wore off and OH MY GOD, MY FEET.

Elizabeth and I limped to the runners' area where I scarfed down a banana, an applesauce and the best tasting pasta of my entire life. The thought of walking back to the car was unbearable, and the walk actually was unbearable. I drove home, took a hot bath, and napped for several hours, waking up stiff as a board and unable to move from the neck down.

But it was so unbelievably worth it.

So worth it, that I'm signing up again for next year. This time though, I think I'll train first.

*For those who may wonder: The timer in the first picture makes it look like we came in only 6 minutes under time. That was the official clock. I was 20,000-odd people behind the first runners, so my time didn't start until I crossed the starting line.  

Monday, July 31, 2017

The Power of (the Unbeliever's) Prayer

Prayer used to be as natural to me as breathing. My inner monologue often included Jesus in its conversations. I prayed about everything. Prayers were not mere request forms for things I needed or hoped for. Sure, I asked for health when loved ones were ill, I asked for safety when I was scared, I asked for help when I was in need. I certainly prayed most fervently for salvation of those who were lost. But it was so much more than that. I had long conversations with God, sharing my thoughts, my dreams, my sorrows, my desires. I thanked him for beautiful sunsets and small victories. I analyzed questions and dilemmas with him. I included him in my mental decision-making process. I walked and talked with him on a regular basis.

I never felt I was a good "prayer warrior," but prayer was a normal, natural part of my daily life.

And I believed in the power of prayer. I believed that my prayers were heard and that God would answer them each, though not always in the way I wished. I believed that there was a genuine power in prayer, and that they could move mountains. Without getting too theological, I believed my prayers could make things happen (if they were in line with the preordained ... another topic for another time.)

Losing that belief in prayer, and the belief in a god to address them to, left a hole in my heart. In the early days of my newfound faithlessness, I often felt empty. I had no one to talk to. No one but myself to address in my inner dialogue. No one to call on for help. I was lonely without prayer.

I recalled a conversation I'd had with some friends in a school cafeteria while living in Scotland. It was a charity bake sale at my children's school, and we mothers were sitting around a tiny table with tiny chairs talking about the supernatural - ghosts and what not. I was still a Christian at the time but very ardently a searching one. One of the mothers referred to herself as "spiritual but not religious" and mentioned that she often prayed to the universe.

At the time, that seemed ludicrous. Why would anyone pray to the universe? What can the universe do to answer your prayers? For I believed that the power that lay in prayer was actually the power that lay in God to do something about those prayers.

Now I began to imagine that power differently. What if the power is actually in the prayer itself? What if the power is in ourselves and in the act of praying?

In those lonely days after losing my faith, I recalled the idea of praying to the universe. It still felt wickedly sacrilegious, as I was still adjusting from a lifetime of believing in a God who would strike me from the Book of Life for committing the unforgivable sin of blasphemy. But since I no longer believed in gods, I tried it one day. I had the familiar urge to address God about something, so I went ahead and did it - but I addressed the Universe instead.

I wasn't struck by lightening. But I felt oddly comforted.

A few days later I had a dream. In the dream, I'd been in a terrible car accident with my children. In the dream I found myself starting to cry out to God to save my children, then at the last second, I cried out to the Universe instead. I partly feared this blasphemy would mean death to my kids but even in the dream, I realized that the prayer itself was not going to save them, it was only going to comfort me through the terror of the situation.

I woke up from that dream shaking yet amazed by the epiphany.

I've been praying to the Universe ever since.

Yes, to faithful ears it sounds either despicable or foolish. It's not without pause that I share this. To those who find praying to anyone other than God sheer sacrilege, I understand. To those who believe that my need to pray is a hidden desire placed in my heart by God, I understand. I used to think those things too.

But really, it's just this. Prayer was always my way of sorting through my thoughts. Rather than simply monologuing with myself, I had someone to address those thoughts to. That made it like a real conversation, one that required an aspect of reason, introspection, story arc and conflict resolution. It was an audience for my innermost thoughts. Prayer also gave me a way to thank someone for the good things in my life, the things for which no one on earth could be responsible for. Prayer was my way of figuring things out, working through issues and finding comfort in pain.

Prayer was a powerful tool for me. But the power was in the act of praying itself, not in the one to whom I prayed.

Prayer is still as natural to me as breathing. I don't pray as often as I once did, but perhaps my life is noisier now, with three growing kids, a demanding job, and very little time to reflect in silence. But I still pray often. When I hike, I find myself praying in glowing rapture to the Universe (who now gets a capital letter too) over the beauty of nature. When I am lonely or depressed, I share my painful feelings with the Universe. When I have a tough decision to make, I include the Universe in my inner monologue.

It's not because I believe some nebulous concept of a omnipotent "universe" has replaced a concrete concept of an omnipotent God, but because the act of praying itself is so powerful to me, no matter who it's addressed to, that I feel disoriented without it.

So there you have it. I am an atheist who prays. Fervently even, sometimes. Just another way I'm rationally irrational, I guess. Maybe just way I'm a little "spiritual but not religious" too.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

One of Those Overly Self-Indulgent Posts For Which I Apologize

Love leads me on, let's me say what I think. - Quiet Company

I've been asking myself lately if I should keep this blog online. I started this blog a few months before meeting my soon-to-be-ex husband about fourteen years ago, and this blog was our blog for most of its existence. 

I ask myself if blogging is something I can realistically even do anymore. Can I find time to write with my busy work/life balancing act?

Is it something that's even a good idea for me anymore? Now that I have a job that is somewhat in the spotlight, do I really want to share intimate details of my life with the internet like I used to when I was nobody to anybody?

Why do I blog at all, I've been asking myself? I've always had pretty much the same motivations since the day I started: to be a voice for those who don't have one (or haven't found it yet) and to be known.

To be known.

I wonder how many people have this insatiable desire to be known.

I know for a fact I care too much about what people think of me. I love to be loved - I just do. But if anyone is going to hate me, I want them to know me first.

I want to be known. Then love or hate as you will. But love or hate me, not a false impression of me.

I wrote my book, I write my blog, so people can judge me for who I am, not who they imagine I am. I must take some of the fun out of getting to know me personally, when all it takes is a Google search, but I need this. Some weird, messed up, narcissistic part of me needs this venue to share myself. Sometimes it's because I know sharing myself is also sharing others' selves and taking the heat for it in the public eye while quietly comforting someone I will never know. This is a trade off that has always been acceptable to me. And then sometimes I need this just because I need to be acutely known. It's sometimes almost too self-indulgent, almost selfish, how deep my desire to be known is.

I have another reason for blogging. Writing is inside of me. If it doesn't get outside, I feel stale and suffocated. I could write privately to get this out of me, and often I do. I don't publish every thought and feeling I commit to paper. But put it to paper I must. Or I dry up. Or I rot. Sometimes not getting these intense emotions out of me feels like rain seeping in through a damaged roof tile. The water collects and stagnates, the ceiling bulges, the mold sets in. I either whither or wrinkle. I need a rain gutter.

Blogging is my rain gutter.

I considered shutting down my blog momentarily this past week. Maybe I don't want people knowing so much about me. Maybe it's foolish. Maybe it will be my demise - if I want to get dramatic about it. And at that moment last week, getting dramatic about it seemed logical.

But I don't think shutting down my blog is the right answer. I don't think hiding the real me is the way I want to live my life. I don't think muting my voice and thus silencing the not-aloneness that I know speaks to people I both know and will never know is something I could or should do.

As for being known... Being known is both frightening and freeing. Dare I let the fear shut out the freedom?

I've asked myself if I should keep my blog online, even though my writing time is limited and my online presence is more prominent.

I may be making entirely the wrong choice, but my gut says stay with it. So I'm going to stay with it.

"Love leads me on, let's me say what I think ... 
You say the truth sets you free, well, it calls to me."

Thursday, May 18, 2017

I Am An Empath; And No, I Don't Believe In That

I'm not a spiritual person. I don't believe in the supernatural, the paranormal, the other-worldly. I don't believe in auras or Karma or energies. I don't believe in angels or spirits or demons. I believe in a tangible world with a earthbound history and cosmic origins. I believe we came from stardust and to stardust we'll return.


I like to wonder. I like to imagine. I enjoy being swept up in fantasy and being whisked away by magical moments. So when I talk about star signs, I don't believe that when the Sun reaches the northern vernal equinox, the babies born are all frank, fierce and fiery. But I enjoy reveling in being an Aries and fitting that description. I enjoy finding out what others' star signs are and seeing how they fit with their own astrological characteristics.

I don't believe (in a religious sense) in astrology, but I believe (in a fantastical sense) in astrology.

Similarly, I don't believe that any of us are actually connected spiritually by energies or in some spiritual realm. But I do believe (in the Disney magic sort of way) that we are somehow connected. It's a contradiction that makes no sense, but it makes sense to me.

A year or so ago, I came across the concept of an "empath". I love the dictionary definition of an empath:

(chiefly in science fiction) a person with the paranormal ability to apprehend the mental or emotional state of another individual

I've already stated I don't believe in the paranormal. We evolved from who knows what and somewhere along the way developed sentience. Very cool. But not other-worldly.


In this magical mystical mind of mine, I can't help but be drawn to this concept. I have and give no evidence that a person can be an empath, but I can float away outside my skeptic's brain and call myself an empath with only a smidgen of sarcasm.

I feel things so deeply. I sense the feelings of those around me, and their feelings impact my feelings. No, more than impact. They intrude. I'd even go so far as to say the feelings of those not near me, but somehow connected to me, intrude upon my own feelings. The emotions of others influence me so greatly that often I have no room for my own feelings. And this leads to a constant state of emotion overload.

I have to state this again. Fellow skeptics, I know. It's irrational. It's unprovable. It is not based on scientific fact. But I'm living in my version of a spiritual world, so give me my mystical moment.

I have always felt this intensity of emotion. I have been told since I was a child "You're soooo sensitive." Everything in my life causes immense pleasure or pain. I don't live anywhere in the middle. To the point I've wondered if I have a psychiatric illness.

I'd rather believe I'm an empath.

I can tell when someone is hiding something, no matter how well they hide it. I can sense an unease in a room just by walking in, even if there is no obvious tension. Without even trying, I find myself leveling with others emotionally to get on their wavelength and understand what they are feeling. 

(And the Aries in me? Makes me want to drive in like a bull - or perhaps a ram? - and call it out for what it is. And the empath in me reminds me that no one wants me to do that, and I need to be sensitive to the feelings of others. And then my impulsiveness usually ends up calling the shots.)

I'd be a terrible judge, because I can understand just about any misdeed of any miscreant, if I just get a moment to spend with them. I am too empathetic sometimes, to the point that I let people abuse me, because I'm too busy thinking about what it feels like to be in their shoes. I forget that I'm actually currently in my own shoes and have my own feelings as well. Then when my own feelings bubble to the surface after having experienced the feelings of someone else for so long, I look at myself and wonder how I can be so stupid, so spineless, so infantile, as to be caught in a situation where I let myself be treated that way. I think how naive I am, how weak and pathetic.

Or conversely, I'll realize that I am a GREAT person, a BEAUTIFUL person, a HAPPY person, and I'll wonder why I ever let myself ever be dragged down by the negativity of another! I prefer when that happens. I also prefer when those around me influence me positively and give my feelings a shot of espresso, boosting me to the sky. That's when I experience such intense love and pleasure that I feel like a hot air balloon floating among the clouds.

I wish I could turn this emotional susceptibility off like a spigot or turn down the volume of all the emotions around me and just tune into my own for a while. Every now and then I can, but never for long. I am constantly overwhelmed by the three varying emotional landscapes of my children, those of my coworkers, those of my friends and even sometimes those of acquaintances or strangers who come into my "force field". (I'm using science fiction terms now, because yes, I know.

So okay. There is likely a scientific, rational reason for why I am influenced by others so easily. I'm just more situationally aware? Empathy is a real thing, sure. I'm just overly empathetic. Whatever.

What it doesn't change is how overwhelming and exhausting it is to be in my body.

These past few months have been the most emotionally intense months of my life, short of my deconversion. Two new jobs in seven months, both with a humanitarian organization that responds daily to human suffering, and a divorce ending my 12-year marriage in the midst of it. My ups have been UP and my downs have been DOWN. Those are just my own feelings by themselves, let alone the impact, influence, intrusion of all the others around me. My body is physically worn out by the barrage of feelings during this past half-a-year.

I'm sure that's scientific too. Body and mind are daily being proven to be significantly linked, right?

But for the empath (or highly sensitive person or intuitive or whatever quirky woo name you want to give us), there is no mere link. Every bit of mind and body are inextricably the same thing. They're called feelings, because of how much we feel them.

Why am I writing this? 

1) Writing (and talking) it out is the only way I know how to rid my body of this intensity of feelings.
2) I revel in the contradiction of what I believe and what I believe.

Why do I hesitate to write this? 

1) I know other skeptics will scoff at me and tell me this is stupid, and everyone feels this way. (But do they? Do they?)
2) Because it's stupid and self-absorbed and utter nonsense.

But you know what? I feel lighter now, the things that have been weighing me down don't feel so heavy after writing about how overwhelming it's been. You know what writing feels like to me?

What praying used to feel like.

And my penchant for praying to the Universe as an atheist like I used to pray to God as a Christian will be the topic of a future post involving my rational vs. irrational mind.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Northeast Arkansas Mega Blitz Home Fire Campaign

On Day 1 of my job with the American Red Cross, back on October 10th, 2016, I listened in on a call with a bunch of people I didn't know regarding a topic I knew nothing about. I was jotting notes furiously in my brand new work journal, not sure if what I was writing down was relevant information or not.

That call was the first discussion Pam Knapp-Carver, the Executive Director of the American Red Cross serving Northeast Arkansas, had with the region regarding her idea for a "Mega Blitz" Home Fire Campaign, a campaign created by the Red Cross to reduce the number of home fire fatalities and injuries by 25% in 5 years. The Mega Blitz Pam envisioned was inspired by a similar event done previously in Cincinnati. Her idea was to install 1000 smoke alarms in northeast Arkansas, and she needed all the support she could get from the region to make this a reality. As the new Regional Communications Director, she needed my help to take care of the publicity.

On Day 1 as Regional Communications Director, I was working on this project. Soon I was meeting with Pam regularly, through phone calls and visits to Jonesboro, meeting with representatives from the A-State Red Wolves to get them on board as partners, planning and brainstorming all kinds of tiny details, working with our disaster team, working with my communications volunteer Pat up in Mississippi County for media releases, visiting with KAIT8 for interviews and media coverage, coordinating with external partners, begging at times for things we wanted, commiserating with Pam on numerous occasions - you name it. We worked on this for months.

(And while I helped a lot, Pam and Dean and Kandy and all of the northeast Arkansas volunteers and staff deserve WAY more credit for all the work they put into this event!)

Then, after all this work, just a week before the event took place, I accepted a new job within the Red Cross - as Executive Director for the Greater Arkansas chapter. But I had one last communications job to complete: Pam's Mega Blitz.

My first project to my last project - this event brought my whole (short) time as RCD full circle.

And what a great event it was!

I took part in one "mini blitz" earlier in the year, installing smoke alarms in a small town called Brookland, then today went from team to team in Jonesboro taking photos and posting on social media.

We had a goal of installing 1000 smoke alarms, and at last count, we were over 1100. I could not be more proud of Pam and her team for how amazingly they pulled this thing off! There were a few hiccups here and there, but the key thing is that service delivery was not inhibited. We have made northeast Arkansas 1100x safer over the past few months. What an accomplishment!

We are now planning to do this same thing in Little Rock in October - a year after we started planning for this one in April. If we could pull off this one in six months, I think we can pull it off again in the next six months. With Pam helping me this time!

To view the tally and the hundreds of pictures posted of the mini blitzes and today's Mega Blitz, check out the website.

And for one last little "full circle" piece of the puzzle - early in the planning stages, I called Skip Tate, the Regional Communications Director in Cincinnati, to ask for advice. He sent me tons of great documents and resources they had created for the event. Several months later, I got to meet Skip at the Advanced Public Affairs Team (APAT) training conference in Washington, DC. Since joining the Red Cross, I have met so many amazing people, Skip and Pam and so many others, who have all become part of my ever-expanding Red Cross family. And when you work or volunteer in disaster and spend hours and days and weeks together, tirelessly working in trying conditions, you really do become family!

I don't believe in luck or fate or everything-happening-for-a-reason, but becoming a part of the Red Cross is one of the best things that's ever happened to me. It's the most taxing, exhausting job I've ever done (daresay more exhausting than even parenting), but like parenting, the rewards make every second worth it. I love the Red Cross and its mission more than I could possibly express.

To watch a few moments of us live in action, view this clip from KAIT Region 8 News.

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Know My Own Strength

"You're a strong woman. Act like it."

These are the words I said to my reflection in the bathroom mirror a couple of days ago. Staring back at myself, I looked into my own eyes, pointed my finger at my reverse image and told myself it's time.

There have been days lately where I've felt like an Elizabethan criminal, being torn apart in four different directions by four horses. There have been days I've felt literally unable to go on, that my life had fallen apart so irreparably that my heart was simply going to stop beating. There have been days where the biggest struggle of my life were getting out of bed, putting on clean clothes and eating a Pop Tart, much less go to work and perform at my best. There have been days where I've actually considered Googling "Can you go blind from crying too much?"  (I haven't Googled it yet. I'm just hoping no.)

But it's time for all of that to stop. I'm a strong woman. It's time to act like it.

I'm not saying the grieving period has to be over. Grieving does its own thing and operates in its own time. There is no rushing the grieving process and no reason to try to do so. But wallowing has a shelf life, and that shelf life has expired.

I have learned a lot about myself in the past several months. I've learned that I can be arrogant and smug. I've learned that I can be horribly selfish. I've learned that I make mistakes and am no better than anyone else. (In truth, none of these things were truly new insights; I've always been my own harshest critic and have always seen myself as so far from perfect that it's plunged me into despair. But I have learned these things about myself in new ways recently.)  I've also learned that I haven't always been as independent as I thought myself. I've learned I am uncomfortable in my own skin. I've learned that I have an anxiety about solitude that is unhealthy. And I've learned that sometimes the people you thought were your closest friends are not, and ones you never thought would come through, do.

But I've also learned that I am strong and have more strength than I realize. I just have to believe it.

For the past four or five Octobers, having done the October Dress Project, I've emerged with a "theme" for the upcoming year - a word or phrase that sums up what I want to work on for the next 365 days. I didn't do ODP last year and never developed a theme for 2017. But I'm seeing a few themes emerge organically - healing and self-love.

This year, that's my goal. I have a lot of things from my life I need to heal from, and I need to grow to love myself by myself. I need to learn that from here on out, there is no one looking out for me except myself and therefore, I've got to be my own biggest fan and supporter.

A co-worker who has been divorced herself told me that after her divorce she committed to a year of loving herself. She didn't date anyone - didn't even entertain the thought - and just grew to know and love herself. She said it was the best thing she'd ever done, and now in her relationships she'll never be as vulnerable as she'd been in her first.

I've decided to do this as well, including making a commitment this year of getting out of my comfort zone, discovering who I am and what I like, and developing a genuine strength that goes deeper than just a thick outer shell. I have decided not to date or even think about dating for the rest of the year, so that I can focus on getting to know myself and my own needs. As I've grown older, I've become like an egg - hard on the outside but easily broken. I want to be more like a tree. Steadfast even at its core, but living, growing and changing, accepting the seasons of life with dignity and grace. Whether flowering or barren, it is unwavering.

I'm overcoming my fear of planning and doing things alone. I am taking back the power to decide how I feel rather than let others control that. I am giving myself space to make mistakes and be imperfect. I am learning to celebrate my wins instead of obsess over my losses. I am protecting my heart and identifying who I can truly trust and who it's okay to just be ordinary friends with (and who needs to go completely). 

This is going to be a long hike. It's going to take more than just one year; it will likely be a recurring, lifelong series of steps forwards and backwards. But the journey starts here, and it starts with these specific landmarks:

- I ran/walked (mostly walked) a half marathon, and I wasn't even the last person to cross the finish line! Thanks to the support and shared agony (the following evening was brutal) of my friend Elizabeth, I was able to cross this item off my bucket list. Crossing that finish line was a huge personal accomplishment for me, but more about the half marathon to come in another post.

- I am going to start camping again. Both with others but more importantly alone. I've always loved camping with friends, but I've never gone alone. Under the tutelage of my friend Chris (one of those unforeseen friends who has emerged as genuinely there for me no matter what) and his gorgeous wife Stacy, I'm going to learn how to camp alone (safely) and find peace within myself and in nature.

- I'm buying single tickets to events I really want to go to. I bought one ticket to see Quiet Company in Dallas the same weekend I'll be in Dallas to see Tripping Daisy. I have a spare Tripping Daisy ticket, but if I don't find anyone to go with me, I'll go alone to that too. 

(I almost bought a ticket to see David Sedaris in Little Rock next month, but upon checkout the $25 ticket turned into a $40 ticket after all the service fees. I haven't decided yet if David Sedaris - as much as I like his books - is worth $40 of my precious now-single income...)

- I bought a day planner, and I'm committing to things for myself and not just for other people. Someone else said recently that if something goes in his day planner, he's committed to it and does it. I didn't agree at first, but now that I have a day planner myself, I get it. I've set aside days to go hiking  or out of town and days to treat myself. And I'm sticking to them, because I'm worth my own time and commitment as much as anyone is worth it. I don't make a habit of cancelling on other people, so why would I cancel on myself?

I'm excited about my year of self-love and healing. I'm excited to nurture good friendships and make new ones. I'm looking forward to spending some time on my own, learning to love myself and care for myself. I'm throwing out my shame boomerang - the inclination to constantly replay and remind myself of my mistakes and my shortfalls and my errors over and over and over, no matter how many times I try to move past them. I'm going to try new things and find peace and contentment in my own company.

This is going to be a good year for me, in spite of all the sadness. I'm going to come out of this thing stronger and whole. I am a strong woman, and I'm going to act like it.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Blue Skies and Gray Skies

In my line of work, we operate in both "blue sky" and "gray sky" environments.  Gray skies typically get the most coverage - tornadoes, floods, earthquakes.  It's always a challenge to get the blue sky activities noticed in the public - our preparedness programs, our services to the armed forces. Gray skies make better stories, and they dominate our attention, but as the communications director, it's my job to market both.

Often times my blog is dominated by gray skies, because it's in the gray skies that I feel the need to explore and purge my negative feelings. This leads to the impression that I'm living my whole life under gray skies, when the reality is I'm happy most of the time.

Getting divorced is the grayest my skies have ever been. Scott and I would both agree though that at the bottom of this, we feel we are doing the right thing for us. On the worst days, when my thoughts are their darkest, I want to write, I need to cry. Yet on my best days, and even my normal days, I'm too busy enjoying my kids, enjoying my friends, enjoying my job, enjoying life to make time to write. The need to write isn't so great on those days; and those days are the norm.

So today, I want to write about my blue skies.

The kids and I had a good day yesterday. Sure they were kind of awful in the morning when I told they had one hour to get their rooms clean or I was coming in with a garbage bag and throwing away anything left on the floor. But I spent that hour getting the rest of the house clean and then helped all the kids finish up their rooms before the hour was out. We watched a movie together on the couch then ran errands. (Haircuts and new shoes!) We had beans and toast for dinner - easy and certain to please! We put on our jammies and watched Harry Potter. Jaguar fell asleep curled up in my lap; it was sweet. The girls went to bed with no complaining. I then stayed up until 2am watching Switched At Birth on Netflix while finishing up all the laundry. I had a great day!

Last weekend was my first weekend away from the kids. I spent the first night - Friday - in Oklahoma City, eating pizza from Sauced on Paseo and watching hours of CNN. I spent Saturday with my high school bff Devon and one of her friends, grilling out, drinking gin and gossiping around a campfire until all hours of the night. I went to a play the following day with another friend. I had a great weekend! There were sad moments as we three newly single women talked about the disappointments, the regrets and the losses that come with divorce, but we had a lot of laughs and a lot of perfectly bad ideas regarding how to keep the campfire going in our somewhat inebriated state.

I talked a few days ago about my fear of being alone and the negativity that I can heap on myself while alone. I honestly feel that way some days. What I don't get around to saying though is on other days, I look forward to getting to know myself, spending some alone time learning to appreciate the quiet solitude. Last weekend after spending all that time with friends, I took myself to a movie I've been dying to see and loved going by myself. It was a movie based on a book that dramatically impacted my life and was a movie I didn't want to see with anyone else. Watching it in the cinema alone is exactly how I wanted to see it. This morning, I've even gone so far as to allow my kids to go to church with my mom (shock! horror!), so that I could revel in the silence of an empty, clean house, writing this blog and appreciating the me-time.

I recognize that I've never been very good at being alone and I've never really been good at knowing what *I* want. Before Scott, I had a very serious boyfriend that I spent way too much time trying to please, trying to be what he wanted me to be. Before him, I had a boyfriend that liked me so much just as I was, but I felt the relationship wasn't what God wanted me to be in so I ended it. Scott always allowed me to be me - he's incredible that way and this point needs to be reiterated loud and clear because he NEVER asked me to be anything other than who I am - but the moment after we married, I moved to another country and became "Scott's wife" to everyone else, and a few short years later, Fifi's mum. I did everything for the kids, was everything they needed me to be, and I don't regret that for one single second. But they are older now and don't need me like that so much, and Scott and I are splitting up, and I am back in America where people remember me as just Lori Arnold, the girl who had an obsession with mooning everyone and an equal obsession with Tripping Daisy, and you know what? I look forward to just remembering what I like and who I am all on my own.

A few weeks ago I had a night all to myself. I almost felt afraid to leave the house and go out on my own, because I had no idea what I wanted to do. I had a few options, but all the options included me going alone. I was supposed to be meeting friends, but they all canceled for one reason or another. I drove around aimlessly for a while realizing I don't know what I even want for myself, what I even like to do, what choices I should make for myself. I'm generally happy to go with whatever everyone else wants to do; I'm not picky, I just like to hang out. Left with making decisions for myself, though, I was at a loss. I picked a restaurant I wasn't terribly excited about and ate dinner by myself with a book. I texted my friend. She encouraged me to just "do me" that night, whatever the hell that might look like. And you know what? I decided to follow my gut and do exactly what I really wanted to do, even if it meant doing it alone, and I did. And I had a fantastic time! I realized I AM capable of going places alone and having fun and making friends wherever I go, and that excites me.

Scott and I as a broken couple also have our mix of gray and blue skies. But it's the blue skies we're focusing on. It's the days when we can just talk about what we're going through and what we want for the future and how we can best love and care for our kids and still be a family. It's the days we can hug each other and know that deep down, we will always want the best for each other and root for each other's happiness. It's the times we can still laugh about things and roll our eyes at the things that annoy us both and quote Scrubs and know that the other person knows we're quoting Scrubs. We will always be in each other's lives no matter what, so why dwell on the gray skies when there are blue ones to smile through?

I have a lot of blue sky days. A LOT. I have gray ones too. The gray ones get the limelight, but as a blogger, I'm making it my job to share about both. I may not love being alone, but I know I am strong enough to make it work. I'm an extrovert. I need people. That won't change. But I don't need to be codependent. I want to learn the difference between needing to do things with people and being able to do things alongside people. I can face the fact that I'll never be the kind of person who chooses to hike the Pacific Crest Trail to find herself, but I can and will be the kind of person who will travel to another city by myself and hang out in bars and meet the locals and see the sights and take photos to post on Instagram and text with friends while I'm off doing my own thing. I can't do complete solitude, but I can just "do me". I'm going to be okay. I'm going to be happy. :)