Exploring the Kaibab

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Happy hikers! All five of our backpacking group (I’m on the far left) after successfully climbing up to the South Rim on Day 4. 

I know I’m still only 1/3 of the way into telling you guys about my 2015 Camino experience, but I’m still working on it, I promise. In the mean time, I wanted to tell you guys a little about my 2016 birthday trip: going on a rim-to-rim hike of the Grand Canyon. Last November, I took a four-day backpacking tour starting on the North Rim, walking down the North Kaibab Trail to Phantom Ranch, then up the Bright Angel Trail to the South Rim. The tour was through Wildland Trekking, and I enthusiastically recommend it. Here’s a link to the exact tour I took, in case you’re interested.

I loved the experience. Coming off of the Camino, I was looking for a somewhat similar experience, but this time I wanted to camp, carry more weight, and have less amenities at my disposal. I was also really interested in getting to be somewhere secluded, where I’d be able to get away from the Internet and too many people, and hopefully somewhere that I’d get to see the stars at night. All of my wishes came true. The hike was challenging, but doable. My fellow hikers were very respectful of my need to have quiet alone time, but were also friendly and accepting. I was paired up with a family of four, plus our guide, so I was the adopted family member, and we had a great time together. I loved our guide, Dakota – he was extremely knowledgeable about the history, geology, and flora/fauna of the area, as well as a great cook. I was especially appreciative of his patience with me as I asked a billion and one questions about the plants we passed. I normally don’t care too much about plants, but I found myself falling in love with all of the different cactus varieties we passed, and I grew to love others, like the agave, Mormon tea, and yucca plants.

I’m trying to think of my top memories from the trip. My time spent in Flagstaff before and after going into the Canyon were awesome – I really dug the vibe there. I’d like to spend more time in Flagstaff, and I’d be lying if I said that I haven’t strongly considered making it my next port of call. I also met new friends from around the world at the hostel there, and that’s always a plus 🙂

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Having a beer at Phantom Ranch to celebrate turning 35!

As far as the hike, itself, I had a lot of fun exploring just a tiny piece of the Grand Canyon, but it only gave me a taste for a much larger exploration in the future. I’d have to say that having an icy cold birthday beer at Phantom Ranch at the end of the second day’s hike was lovely – maybe even more so because the mess hall reminded me of summer camp when I was a kid, so it gave the entire trip a kind of summer vacation vibe. I also really liked a little side trip we took earlier that morning to visit Ribbon Falls, which took us over one of the scariest sections of hiking (for me, anyway). The path narrowed down so much that you had to lean against the rock and put one foot straight in front of the other. I fell into an agave plant and punctured my arm, which was not fun. After that, three of us ended up dropping our packs before the detour, so we would be a little more steady on our feet to crawl around the rock that we needed to get past to see the falls. I stopped bleeding eventually, and the falls were gorgeous, so it was all worth it.

 

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Mule deer eating.

 

Another great memory is seeing mule deer on our next to last evening, at Indian Gardens. Then of course, there was the hike to and from Plateau Point. Weirdly, though the view out there was by far the most beautiful that we’d seen, the mile and a half walk through flat desert to get out to the point was my most favorite scenery of the entire trip. For that little bit of the hike, we were on Plateau Point Trail, which intersects the Tonto Trail, and I got it into my head that I’d like to hike the Tonto one day. Instead of running from one of the rims, it runs side-to-side for about 70 miles through the Canyon. We walked back from the Plateau after dark, and I felt at home there, walking down that moonlit path, past the cacti. I didn’t want to go home. I didn’t want more lights and phones and talking. I just wanted to keep walking like that forever, nice and quiet, letting the stars do all the talking.

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The view from Plateau Point.

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Walking home down Plateau Point Trail.

Most impactful, but hardest to explain, was the darkness. I really liked that Flagstaff was a Dark Sky Community, meaning they have taken pains to keep their light pollution down. Then, once you’re down in the Canyon, there really are no lights, and the sky is absolutely breathtaking. I was happy to have my sleep mask with me, because the moon would have made it too bright to sleep otherwise! Once I got back into Flagstaff, I went to the Lowell Observatory, which is one of the oldest observatories in the United States, dating back to 1894. Pluto was discovered there in 1930, and when I went, I had the extreme pleasure of getting to look at the moon through one of their giant telescopes. It sounds pretty lame, since we’ve all seen the moon, right? But to see it so clearly made me literally gasp with delight. I wouldn’t mind getting to see it like that a few more times.

I’ve got a ton more photos that I’ll post after I’ve had a chance to go through and choose the best ones, and I’ll break down the trip a little better then. But for now, thought you’d at least like to hear a little bit about the trip!

By Firelight

What is it about firelight that draws us in? Harnessed, it brings life. Left to play off its leash, it is death. One of the first lessons most of us learn as children is to not get too close to the flame – but we never really listen, do we? Many of my earliest memories are of fire – touching it, not touching it, being scolded for thinking of touching it. My left wrist bears a sizable scar from a run-in with a wood heater as a child. I was skittish around open flame for years, but sorely tempted, all the same. Despite the fact that pain is part of its makeup, fire entices us.

It also lulls us, encourages us to show our shadow side. There is nothing like a story told fireside. The tradition may not be in our DNA, but it can’t be too far off. Any child, telling a ghost story, flashlight pressed up to chin, baby fat bathed in shadows, burgeoning adolescent angles glowing eerily, is a faded photocopy of some long-ago bard.

It’s easy for me to get tangled in fire and tales. And heat. And attraction. All of these things fall into the same pot, I think. I can fall in love with a fire, or by a fire, or with a story, or a storyteller, or a person who talks to me beside a fire, or a person who builds fires. Not a book burner, though. At least I know my boundaries, right?

Today I’ve been thinking of several things that have all gotten jumbled in my memory, and should probably be different stories – and one day might be. But today, they’re the story of my day, and of my life when I was younger, and of endings. Let’s keep it short. Four memories that don’t really tell a story that you’ll recognize, unless you know me. And maybe not even then. Maybe it’s not that kind of day. Pretend that we’re sitting in a pub somewhere, nice and cosy, even though it’s freezing out. We’ve got a prime spot, a cosy little booth across from the wide, welcoming fireplace, logs crackling in the blazing fire that burns therein. I don’t know what you’re drinking, but I have a nice glass of scotch. And I’m telling you a story in four parts. Make of them what you will…

I am 14, and it is my birthday weekend. Once again, my family is at Ft. Branch, attending the yearly Civil War reenactment. It’s Saturday night, and the second year that I’m allowed to dance at the barn dance. Last year, I met a cute boy – his name was Matthew – who asked me to dance (later, I found out it was my father’s idea, and I’ve always wondered if he paid the poor sap to ask me). This year, I’m not sure who I’ll dance with, and am feeling awkward. To my surprise, an older boy, almost a man, steps out of the crowd and asks for the honor of a waltz. Larry and I have so much fun that we end up dancing most of the night. A few months later, we meet again, another reenactment, another barn dance, this one held out in a field. The dance floor is a little dim, lit by far-away campfires. A waltz instructor gives us lessons, and together we’re good enough that for the next few years, we’re dance partners at every barn dance we attend together. He is five years older than me. I’ve just started high school – he’s just started college.

I am 15, and it is Christmas. I’m visiting my grandparents, and Larry and I decide to meet near another fort, this one on the seacoast of North Carolina. He gives me two presents – a delicate, stained glass oil lamp, and a Beatles album on CD. We walk on a beach littered with seaweed and dead jellyfish. It is cold, and desolate, and the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.

I am 16, and it is once again my birthday weekend. I’m excited to see Larry, and happy that my parents let me have free reign of the reenactment. I’ve forsaken the petticoats and hoop skirt to costume as a boy, and play at being a nurse in disguise. Larry and his friends are acting as dismounted cavalry, members of the U.S. Army. As soon as everything’s set up at my parents’ campsite, I rush over to hang out with the guys. It’s a crisp fall night, and we sit, basking in the warmth of their campfire. Everything smells of autumn leaves, old leather, tobacco, wood smoke. All around us, campfires and lanterns bathe the little groups of family and friends in sepia circles. Quiet conversations hum beneath the trees. It’s a simple kind of magic. Here I feel grownup, loved. I am Larry’s little sister, and he and his friends are college age, but not neanderthal frat boys – they’re band kids, geeks like me. They watch their language, and don’t drink or smoke while I’m around. Larry has a friend, a boy with a generous smile and sad eyes, James. It’s obvious that Larry’s brought him along to introduce to me, and he was on to something. James and I get to talking about the kinds of things that I love at 16 – Beatles, Chicago, Star Wars, Hitchhiker’s Guide, the Vietnam conflict, airplanes, writing, hats. I am wearing a really great hat this weekend, a straw hat that I’ve folded up into a jaunty tricorn, with a big feather. It’s not accurate, but it suits me, so I don’t particularly care. At the end of the weekend, as the guys are packing up to leave, I hang out with them to say bye. Larry and James joke about the can of Dinty Moore that has been rolling around in the back of Larry’s Suburban since he was in high school. James and I exchange emails, and there’s a little jolt of energy as we hug goodbye. He smiles. I walk away feeling pretty good about myself.

I am 16, and it’s ten days after my birthday. I’m in English class, and the guidance counselor calls me out of class. There’s been a phone call, she explains. Something has happened. Someone has passed away. I am as tall as the guidance counselor. I’ve never liked her, and now I see that I am taller than she is, and for some reason it makes me like her even less. She isn’t being clear, and I am annoyed. What is this about? She takes my hand, and I steel myself for the worst – an ancient great-aunt must have kicked the bucket. There’s nothing else that I can imagine at this point in my life. Grandparents don’t die, and I’m fresh out of great-grandparents, and obviously parents live forever, so what are we talking, here? And why would she call me out of my favorite class? She’s asking me if I understand. Understand what? She hasn’t told me anything yet, just that there’s been a phone call, and that it was my friend Larry, and that James – James with the sad eyes and that stupid, scraggly hair – 19-year-old James, with that deep laugh, and the cigar he was never going to actually smoke – James who was going to ask me out when he got up the nerve – has been murdered. James is gone. James is dead. He won’t be calling me, after all. My legs give out. My spine liquifies. My forehead kisses the cold, filthy tile floor there in the hallway by the freshmen lockers. The guidance counselor, inefficient as always, runs off to find help. I crawl to the bathroom, where I jumble in a corner, sobbing, until my favorite teacher comes to gather me up and piece me back together again.

The stories are over. I’ve finished my scotch. We should say goodnight. The fire burns low. For now, let’s do our best to ignore the thought that the flames live by their own law. Let’s pretend for just one night that we’ve harnessed them, and not they us.

 

Thoughts on 2017 Resolutions

I haven’t thought my resolutions all the way through yet, but didn’t want to not say something on the first of the year. I’m just going to use this blog post to jot down a few things that I know I’m going to focus on doing, and then come back and do a more formal post in a couple of days.

My biggest goal of the year is to be kind to my body. Not indulgent to my body, or easy on my body – to shower it with love, and take care of it in such a way that it will last me for the long haul. I want to spend the year doing what’s best to bring health and wholeness to this bag of skin and bones that carries my brain around. I want to take off the extra weight, make sure my organs are working efficiently, and heal the few reoccurring issues (blemishes, itchy patches, all the little weird tics that that I have, but never pay attention to with diligence).

I want to sleep at least 8 hours a night. I used to think that I was oversleeping, but since I got my Fitbit and started paying attention to my sleep patterns, it turns out that I’ve been drastically overestimating how much I slept each day. On average, I’m getting about 6 hours of sleep a night, when I know that I work best at between 9 and 10 hours of sleep. This has to change.

Working out is a must, and I just joined a new gym about a block from my work, so I can go there after work at least five days a week from now on, starting tomorrow.

I want to read 50+ books this year, and I should be able to do that by cutting back on Facebook and TV, reading before bed, plus bringing my Kindle to work to read during lunch.

I’d also like to find a way to not just survive, but thrive, with only one full time job. I honestly don’t know if that’s a possibility, but it would be great to get to work less. Who knows, I might even get more time to sleep, work out, and read!

That’s all I’ve got for the moment, but I’ll be thinking this over for the next few days, to create something a bit more formal…

 

What I Read in 2016

You might have noticed that I have a tab at the top of the page called “Reading List 2017.” Last year I had “Reading List 2016,” and so forth and so on. What’s weird is that I could swear I used to have an additional link somewhere to all of my old reading lists…need to get that added back on. No use recording what I read if I’m just going to chuck the list at the end of the year.

Anyway, my yearly goal is to read one book a week, and this year was NOT a great success. But I just won a Kindle at my office Christmas party, so maybe I’ll have a good excuse to read some lighter fare off of the 99 cent list on Amazon this year. Plus, for every book that I finished this year, there’s at least one book that I started and have yet to finish, so if I can get my act together, hopefully those will pad my 2017 list. Let’s cross our fingers!

Either way, what is done is done, and what was done in 2016 was a grand total of 15 books read. Holy crap, that’s sad. But let’s turn it into something fun by charting out what types of things I was interested in this year, and comparing it to last year’s numbers! Here’s my blog post recounting what I read in 2015, along with a handy little pie chart of the genres I devoured in 2015. I read 35 books, but for the purpose of this chart, where the genres overlapped, I counted them again:

2015ReadingList

And here’s the list of what I read in 2016:

  1. Birthright, Vol. 1: Homecoming, by Joshua Williamson, Andrei Bressan & Adriano Lucas (1/9/16)
  2. Bitch Planet, Vol. 1: Extraordinary Machine, by Kelly Sue DeConnick & Valentine De Landro (1/9/16)
  3. Pulpatoon Pilgrimage, by Joel Priddy (1/9/16)
  4. Tales of the Cairds, by Anne Cameron (1/12/16)
  5. The Story of My Tits, by Jennifer Hayden (2/14/16)
  6. Mystic, Vol. 1: Rite of Passage, by Ron Marz, Brandon Peterson, John Dell, Andrew Crossley & Dave Lanphear (3/5/16)
  7. Mystic, Vol. 2: The Demon Queen, by Ron Marz, Brandon Peterson, John Dell & Andrew Crossley (3/5/16)
  8. Harbinger, by Joshua Dyshart, Arturo Lozzi, Khari Evans, Lewis LaRosa & Matthew Clark (3/23/16)
  9. Nimona, by Noelle Stevenson (3/29/16)
  10. Doctor Woman of the Cumberlands, by May Cravath Horton (7/6/16)
  11. The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion (7/28/16)
  12. Blue Nights, by Joan Didion (8/14/16)
  13. Jesus, My Father, the CIA, and Me, by Ian Morgan Cron (9/18/16)
  14. Pioneer Doctor: The Story of a Woman’s Work, by Mari Graña (11/12/16)
  15. Heads in Beds: A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles, and So-Called Hospitality, by Jacob Tomsky (11/12/16)

A Poorly Wrapped Parcel

The title might seem compelling, so I’ll go ahead and apologize right now – the substance of this piece is going to be bumpy and unfulfilling, much like a oddly-shaped Christmas gift, wrapped by a middle schooler. Nothing against middle schoolers, of course. Just that for this analogy, the middle schooler I’ve chosen is terrible at creating a beautiful illusion with festive paper and bits of scotch tape. He’s probably not all that great with scissors, either.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes. I’m thinking about something Big, with a capital B. But, as is the way of things like this, it’s too Big to fully comprehend in one sitting, or maybe a few. Maybe a lifetime. It’s honestly one of those conundrums that’s bound to have you mulling for years to come. But don’t worry – there’s a kernel of information at the center that’s small enough to share in a somewhat concise manner. And that thought is: I’ve found religion.

OK, yes, I can already hear you shifting uneasily at your desks as you start to formulate the first questions. This is from out of left field, I know. Believe me, I know. But first, we need some clarification…

I was raised by a lapsed Episcopalian with a deep appreciation of Native American spirituality, and an agnostic with her own share of spiritual baggage, including membership in a couple of Christian sects that many would consider borderline cults. I grew up in a rural community with strong roots in Christian evangelism, and though my parents didn’t enforce weekly church attendance (in fact, my father didn’t attend at all), throughout my life, my mother was very supportive of any choices I made independently. I chose where we’d go to church, so when I was little and the Vacation Bible School at the First Christian Church was particularly fun, that’s where we went on Sundays. In middle school and high school, we attended the same Church of Christ that my childhood best friend’s family attended. I also was a member of a girl’s group at the nearby Southern Baptist Church during middle school, and during grade school I attended a Christian school, where I had Bible class every day.

In the summers in middle school, I attended a Christian Service Camp, where I took classes about Christianity and teen life every day, and where I was eventually baptized in the swimming pool (surfacing with a prime view of my father’s VERY disappointed glare). I didn’t know it at the time, but my strongest brush with Christianity was also the beginning of a hairline fracture that led me to eventually lose faith. One summer, we were given a seminar by a college professor who proudly told our assembly of 100 or so kids that dinosaurs had never existed, and the bones were a hoax planted by the devil. At the time, I wanted to be a paleontologist. I remember looking around out those enraptured faces and realizing that we were being hoodwinked. Of course, there was also a class where we girls learned about the holiness of purity, with the Virgin Mary as our shining example. The teacher went on about how women shouldn’t have sex until marriage, and as an aside, she mentioned that if you remained pure until you were married, you’d never have to worry about getting pregnant. Immediately, I thought about how poor Mary had gotten the short end of the stick, and just like that, I was also terrified of miraculously getting preggers without ever having sex. For years, my two biggest fears were virgin birth and alien abduction/insemination. Same thing, really. *shudder*

I lived religion as a kid, and was incredibly sheltered all the way up until I left for college. I wish I could say that it meant something to me, but it was just what people did, so I did it, too. For me, the real appeal of religion came during my freshman year, when I visited my first Catholic church on a school assignment. From the moment I walked in, I was hooked. The stories, the structure, the meaning plainly laid out for anyone to soak in. No white walls, no plain cross. Color! Ceilings taller than the steeple of my old church! So many pews, and organ music, and the smell of incense and candles! So I spent my first four years of college studying religion, in the guise of Art History and Medieval Studies. I sometimes dreamt of being a nun, or a mystic, or maybe just an everyday religious scholar (news flash: I still do). But the more I learned, the more I despaired, because I was losing touch with religion as I’d been taught it. I could clearly see the hand of man laid across every word in the holy writings, and I could feel that we’d gotten something wrong, but I couldn’t understand that feeling yet.

It all came to a head when I went to an Easter service with a friend in junior year of college, and had to leave because they kept talking about Jesus, and never mentioned God. The pure mental gymnastics of ignoring your primary deity for the entire length of a church service started to tickle me so much that I was starting to giggle, and needed to get out of there before I upset people. After that night, it dawned on me that the first part of the problem for me was that I was surrounded by people telling stories of the human Christ, glorying in his earthly deeds, but treating those stories and a disparate collection of soundbites from the Old Testament as the central talking points of the entire religion. As though God were too large to contemplate, so let’s give up and talk about this guy Jesus for the long haul, and while we’re at it, let’s ignore everything Jesus told us to do for our world and our fellow humans, while congratulating ourselves for being holier than the guy down the block. I lost touch with the concept of the Holy Trinity at that point, and to be honest, logically speaking, it doesn’t make much of a difference whether or not I find a way to re-believe in it. I believe that God is in all of us, the fifth element that binds all things. I don’t need to hold onto a concept of a giant man in the sky, because that was never true. And I don’t need to believe in a simultaneously human and deific son here on earth, because we are all children of God, and Jesus never wanted us to worship him. He wanted us to BE Love. He couldn’t have been any clearer about it, and we’ve been screwing it up for the better part of two thousand years. So, throughout time, many other messengers have been sent here to guide us to be better, do better, love fully, to spark change. Jesus was one of those messengers (and let’s face it, probably not even close to the first dude to realize we were all being a bunch of jerks, and could use some straightening up), as was Mohammed, and my beloved Francis, and Gandhi, and Helen Keller, and…

But none of what I’m saying here is a new thought for me. This is where I’ve been, spiritually speaking, for years. Maybe without a clear concept of everything, but then again my life is nothing if not fuzzy around the edges. What’s different now?

What’s different now is that I feel some sort of call. I can always tell when I’m being presented with a deep spiritual truth, whether it’s someone sharing a message, or coming across a thing of profound meaning and beauty, or, in this case, my thoughts just suddenly connecting, like a circuit, long broken, finally swinging closed again. There’s a deep soul ache, and the feeling of being ready to burst into tears at any moment. I’d imagine that it has some points in common with the tribulations of my favorite medieval mystic Margery Kempe. Though some aspects of my personal life are in absolute turmoil, though I feel alone and adrift, cast away from a family I no longer understand, I know that I’m on the right track. And what’s more, I’m seeing more and more Christians stepping up and breaking free of the establishment. It’s been giving me hope that the things that I loved about my childhood religion can still apply – that somewhere out there, people want to emulate Christ in their daily lives, not as greedy, homophobic, misogynistic, xenophobic prudes, but as flawed individuals embracing humanity in all of its beautiful filth, spreading love and hope to all, sharing positive energy.

I honestly don’t know what this means. I told you at the beginning that this wasn’t going to be a simple thought, nicely presented, and it’s not. I don’t have an answer. I know that I am still highly interested in religious study, because you can’t understand what you are until you understand what you aren’t. I will still practice magick, through prayer, intention, and deep appreciation of all of the natural wonders with which we’ve been blessed. Eventually, I’ll follow in my wild woman cousin’s footsteps and use energy to heal and soothe. And for the moment, I’ve been finding great comfort in a few Facebook groups for progressive Christians and for people who have “consciously uncoupled” from various fundamentalist Christian sects. It’s surprisingly restorative to hear from thousands of people who aren’t the hateful pseudo-Christian bullies I’ve come to know and loathe.

And to tell the truth, I am just starting to understand the extent to which I’ve been gaslit. All this time, somewhere deep down in there, I thought that I was the terrible person for not being able to find it in my heart to hang my hat with the close-minded and sometimes even hateful people I’d come to understand as THE Church. Now I’m finally able to find peace in the fact that I’ve been following my moral compass to my True North, and walking my inner Camino. Subconsciously, I was choosing Love, with the understanding that I’d be going to hell because of it (even though I don’t believe in hell, but let’s just leave that for another day, shall we?). Suddenly, I can see through the BS, and know that it’s OK. So I didn’t follow the crowd; that’s actually a good thing. Now I have some of the tools and insight to help lead the way. I’m really good at putting one foot in front of the other.

And if  you’ve made it this far, you should watch this video. It sums up some of my heartbreak at the moment. It’s not a political statement as much as it is a cry for people to wake up and realize we have the power to let Love win. Think beyond the religion mentioned in the video. Think beyond the politics mentioned. Think about humanity, and our capacity for great good, and YOUR capacity for great good, and if this video has anything to do with your life, in a specific way, think about the people in your life who know and love you, and want nothing more than to know that they love someone with the capacity to love them – and the rest of humanity – back, free of pettiness or malice, open to change and growth.

Update

Sorry I’ve been away. I started my new job at the beginning of November, then took off to the Grand Canyon for a week, and then got back and really dove into the nuts and bolts of the new job again. All this while still working a couple of shifts a week at my old hotel job, plus doing my best to keep up with the existing copyediting workload at my agency job, plus feeling out of sorts, emotionally. There’s just a lot going on that I’m having trouble wrapping my head around, and the easiest thing for me to do is let work consume me, then spend the rest of my time binge watching Elementary.

I am feeling old lately, and fat, and unattractive, and awkward. I am feeling undesirable, undesired, second rate at just about everything, and like I don’t have what it takes to be in any form of relationship with anyone – friend, lover, family. I am utterly terrified of what is happening in my country right now, but also, strangely, resolute. I feel like this is going to get a lot worse before it gets better, and that I will not survive it. But I don’t feel bad about that, and that’s weird, since it may be the only thing in my life that gives me comfort right now. I know what side I’m on. It’s starting to feel like my strange obsession with work camps and gulags and various WWII resistance groups might have been in preparation for what’s to come. That sounds crazy, probably. What’s worse, what’s crazier, is that I was raised by a parent fairly obsessed with the American Civil War, and given our stunningly different beliefs, it might not be long before the lines are drawn and I’m cast out. I wish I could say that I cared enough to fight that particular outcome, but if it comes to it, I know myself too well. I wish I understood what it is that people love about their families, what makes them truly addicted to the people they grew up with. I know so many people who are just in love with their families in a way that makes my emotional range seem stunted in comparison. Sometimes I wonder if my heart broke when my grandfather died, and I made the choice to sever my feelings so I wouldn’t go to pieces again when the next unavoidable death happened. I want to puke just thinking of him holding my hand in the hospital and saying his last word to me: “No.” Don’t go. So yeah, probably.

At any rate, I’m barely holding on in any of my relationships. I am so lonely, but it’s my own fault. I don’t go out, I don’t do anything, I just exist. I am losing my mind. I miss my boyfriend, who works nights. Now that I work days, we haven’t had any quality time together, really. He’s also in a bad place, emotionally, so the time we do spend together isn’t the connection that it used to be. We’re both on edge. We enjoyed something of a symbiosis once, and now we just revolve around each other, never really making contact. We went to his work holiday party the other night, which was mostly fun, but also strenuous. His coworkers were all so young and beautiful and multidimensional, and I felt deflated next to them. The night didn’t end well; I got upset when he had a laugh over my accent while I was trying to talk to him about something that I was really proud of, my feelings were hurt, and I left early, so now we’re not really talking. It’s not a huge deal, but it hurts, maybe more because it’s new to us, but not new in the scheme of things. I feel like I’m always either not talking, or talking constantly without any of the words coming out right. I talk myself in circles trying to explain the littlest detail, but never getting to the exact description I seek. When I edit myself down, I don’t say enough, but if I let myself run with the words, I spin a story cocoon too thick to break free of.

I used to have these dreams when I was little where people were talking to me, and I could see that their faces were calm and they were speaking at a normal level, but the sound I was hearing was some sort of horrendous, nearly deafening animal scream, no words, just guttural, tortured wailing. No one else could hear it but me. I’d wake up crying, and try to explain, but I didn’t have the words as a little one to build a picture that terrifying for the adults who tried to console me. Most of the time now it seems that I’m talking, but whatever I think I’m saying must be coming out as nothing at all to those around me. It shouldn’t be this difficult to connect with people. I find myself mourning my Camino relationships, people who instinctively understood how to hear me. Maybe it’s not that I’m not speaking correctly. Maybe it’s that no one cares to listen. I don’t know.

I’m also feeling beat down because it’s the holidays, and for no real reason, for the last five or six years I have absolutely hated this time of year. I like many of the trappings, but am daunted by the commercialism, and defeated by the Pinterest master decorators who seem to surround me. I don’t even know how to put up a string of lights. It’s been three years, and I’m still deliberating over what wreath hanger to buy so that I can then deliberate over what kind of wreath to get. I simply don’t have the energy required to enjoy this kind of thing. I wish I could celebrate by moving away to the woods and listening to falling snow on a moonlit night, secure in the thought that just inside my cottage, a nice warm fire was glowing in the fireplace, with a glass of whiskey on the mantle, waiting to welcome me home. That’s what I want. Not this cacophony of lights and music and glitter and too many presents to buy for people you barely know.

I’m also overwhelmed by my cats right now. You know that I adopted a third cat a few months back, Charlie, and he’s a teenager now. He’s a lot to handle, and my apartment is too small to afford his hijinks. He runs back and forth over me all night, and I was never that great a sleeper to begin with. Also, add rambunctious young’un with stupid middle child, and there’s a whole other layer of exhaustion. This morning, Munky evidently took a whizz in the litter box, and since, at six years old, he’s still never figured out how to cover his business in the litter box, when he was done there was a puddle. I know this because I woke up to Charlie walking across my stomach (*hurl*) with wet paws that reeked of cat pee. He’d already walked all over the house, so the entire apartment was tracked in peeprints. After I’m done here, I’ll be scrubbing my floors. Sigh.

Anyway, I know I’ve still got a ton of Camino posts to write, and eventually I’ll share photos from my trip to Arizona, but right now I just want to curl up and hide from the world. This post is all I have in me. My biggest victories today were buying a “thank you” gift for a coworker who’s really been helping me at work, and getting my nails done in a lovely dove gray color. If I can manage to clean the floors and kitchen before bed, that will be my third miracle, and I’ll sleep soundly until Charlie jumps on my head a few times.

I’m sorry that I don’t have happy news to report, guys. I wish I had some holiday sparkle in me. Maybe later.

Ctrl+Z

A little over a year ago, I took a break from my increasingly unhappy life and went on a long walk. I didn’t know what I was looking for, exactly, but I had a good idea that I’d know it when I saw it. As I walked across Spain, falling in love with nature again, learning to trust my body, and meeting new friends from all over the world, the depression and anxiety I’d been suffering for years started to lift away.

It wasn’t a gradual change. It was almost immediate. Within a week of being away from the constant stress of my life as a freelance marketer traveling between Chicago and New Orleans, I started to wake up and spend each day feeling happy, relaxed, and renewed. The walks got longer, my body got stronger, and the stories I allowed myself to share with my new friends on the Camino started to get deeper and more painful. But there was a song in my heart, and I knew down at the core of things that everything was going to be OK, if I could just allow the melody to follow me back to my “real” life.

The first few nights off the Camino were especially tough. I had thought it would be nice to get a nice hotel room all to myself. I hated it. It was hard to sleep, knowing that the guys I now considered family weren’t an arm’s reach away, the next bunk over. I took a side trip to Barcelona to see the Sagrada Familia, and though I fell in love with the town, I spent most of my time there sleeping in my room, mourning the loss of my friends, my trekking poles, and the joy of knowing your simple purpose – to walk – and fulfilling that goal every day. A few days later, I flew back to the states, and was hit with a new wave of regret and sadness, and something I’d later realize is called “reverse culture shock.” After weeks of feeling very little fear or unease, the stress of walking down a street in New Orleans, constantly watching my back, was breathtaking. I realized that a generous amount of the general anxiety I’d been dealing with was directly related to living in New Orleans. I didn’t know what to do with that information, and still don’t, but I am on a reduced timeline here. I never intended to live here for the rest of my life, and now I’m coming to terms with the thought of leaving in the next year or two.

Over the past year, I’ve readjusted to living in this city that I’ve called home for the last 17 years, and tried to understand what it is that makes it so difficult to leave. At the same time, I’ve resisted writing about my time on the Camino. I thought that I didn’t have the words for it, but in reality, I didn’t have the strength. The two situations are deeply entwined, whether I want to acknowledge that or not. Because the Camino woke me up (or maybe was a direct result of being awoken, but not consciously able to grasp all that I knew?). I’m not sure when I realized this, but the life that I’ve been living off Camino is not the life I want. It’s not just career stuff, or body stuff, or city stuff. I’ve been expressing bits and pieces of this here and in real life conversation for a long time, but always with this concept that there was something wrong with me for not just being able to suck it up and deal. But that’s not it at all, is it? The real lesson, the thing I’m just now starting to soak in and understand as true, is that I can have any life I want. I am allowed to want more, and I am allowed to ask for more. It is OK to dislike things that other people love, and to confess my frustrations with things that other people enjoy. This is MY walk, and I can shape it however I damn well please.

When I got back to New Orleans from Spain, I was tempted to just sink into myself again. It didn’t get back to pre-Camino levels of self-hatred, but there were plenty of days when I just slept all day since there wasn’t anything worth waking up for. Eventually, my finances became dire, and I needed to find another job to supplement my unpredictable freelance earnings. While sorting through job posts on an online employment site, one ad caught my eye, with the phrase: “Join our crew of misfits.” I read through the requirements, thought it sounded fun, and applied for the job as a front desk person at a local boutique hotel. The manager and I clicked immediately, and the job was mine. It only took a few shifts for me to realize that I was meant for hospitality. I love it. It’s like being back on the Camino again. And a glimmer of hope appeared, because not only did I realize I’d found something that I truly loved doing. I realized that I had already known this about myself YEARS ago, back when I was waiting tables to work my way through college. Back then, I truly adored what I did, but people kept telling me that service wasn’t a “real job.” There was this concept that I needed a 9-to-5 job, with a suit and a desk, to be a successful human being. I wish that someone back then had taken a look at what made me tick and showed me that there were other options to crafting a meaningful career. Oh well. That’s what Ctrl+Z is for. Time to start all over.

I’ve been working as a front desk person/concierge since February, and really enjoy the job. If you’re a service-minded individual, it’s the kind of job that just comes second nature. My main duty is being really nice to people, which can sometimes be difficult if they’ve had a tough day, but I generally win them over. There are other things – logistics, maintenance, reservations, database coordination, and, being me, a ton of free marketing advice. I love my coworkers, and adore the guest house property. Every now and then I meet a guest who’s so awesome, we end up becoming friends (at least on Facebook), and I’ve had some truly lovely experiences. But it doesn’t pay well at all. To be able to “afford” to do a job that makes me happy, I’ve also been doing some freelance marketing, which does pay well and doesn’t make me unhappy, but leaves me feeling like I’m missing something important. I love my coworkers at the agency, and am happy to be able to work on my own schedule, but it’s not my passion, and it’s wearing me thin, especially when I can’t count on a specific amount or timeline for any paycheck. I was reading this article the other day about the high rate of depression and anxiety in millennials, and how it ties in to many of us working 60 to 80-hour weeks just to be able to pay rent and get by, and I was struck with how I’ve just been constantly plugging away for years, with little to show except for a bad back, a nervous eyelid tic, and the magical ability to go into a full-blown panic attack just from hearing my cell phone ring. Which is why, if you’ve ever tried calling me, you know I don’t answer, but will call you back later. I haven’t had the ringer on for years. Too risky.

So why am I writing all of this? Well, I had a Camino moment a couple of weeks ago, and it gave me some new insights that completely changed my course. The owner of my hotel has always confounded me. He’s a lovely man, but I wouldn’t say that we see eye to eye on hotel best practices. A couple of weeks ago, he sent an email to everyone threatening to fire the entire staff if we couldn’t make certain specific property improvements. Improvements that we’d noted long ago, and had been asking for the money to fix for months. The email didn’t mean anything in the whole scheme of things; he didn’t really want to fire anyone, he’s just from the school of thought that you should terrify your employees to get positive results. I knew this, but it had a strong effect on me. The manager and I were sitting together at the time, and I had to excuse myself to go and have a cry in the bathroom. I was so fed up and frustrated with the situation, and felt hobbled by the lack of change, innovation, and structure. A coworker had warned me months ago that there was a high turnover with people who came in and expected anything to change, but I had thought that maybe I could make a difference. This was the first day that I realized I didn’t have what it took to enforce meaningful solutions in an unhealthy environment.

That night, I went home, and started writing down what it was that I liked about my job, what it is that I was searching for in an ideal workplace, and what it is that I’d like my employer and job to do for me. It wasn’t easy, but I started with things that I have consistently disliked, things that always make me anxious and leave me drained. Then I turned those things around and looked for what would fix them. I ended up with what became a mantra in the job search. In the past, I’d always gone into looking for a job with this idea that I needed to prove myself to my employer. But I’m over that. I am a fantastic employee. My bosses have always loved me; I’ve got a full page of folks who will give me glowing referrals. I’m a good person, I’m honest, I’m kind, I see people for who they are (which can be good and bad), I always give my best, and am always looking for ways to improve. I don’t always have to prove my worth. It’s time to start holding employers accountable, asking, “Why should I work for you? How can you help me be a better person?” The things I realized I needed were as follows:

  1. hospitality
  2. an international company that would offer me chances to travel and relocate
  3. structure
  4. accountability between all levels of coworkers/managers
  5. educational opportunities
  6. guaranteed advancement
  7. great workplace culture, with the ability to be radically kind every single day

I realized that it was time to go corporate. Twenty-year-old me was not pleased. Thirty-four-year-old me breathed a sigh of relief. Finally, a plan! Now it was time to make the list mean something.

Two weeks ago, I sat down and applied to about 20 different jobs over the course of two days. This is nothing new; I’ve been sending out resumes to jobs all over the country for so long that it just seemed to be one of those common tasks like washing dishes or sweeping the floor. What was new was that I focused in on making sure that the companies I applied for fit my criteria for what I wanted in a workplace. And of those 20 applications, three called me back. One response was so poorly written that I disregarded it immediately. One response was for a great position with a hotel that I wasn’t sure of. The final response was a phone call from a very friendly-sounding guy from a hotel that I didn’t know much about, but was owned by a company that seemed to fit my criteria: Marriott.

Last Thursday, I went to an interview for a marketing position at a luxury hotel that is technically part of a chain but doesn’t seem to have much of a connection to the rest of the brand. It was a bad interview. I knew right away that it wasn’t for me. The person interviewing me would have been my boss, and she seemed unhappy. As we talked, I checked things off of my mental checklist – will this place allow me the ability to relocate? Doesn’t seem likely. Is there structure? Meh. What about educational opportunities? The interviewer seemed confused about what I was asking. Could I advance within the company from here? There wasn’t anywhere else to go. The interviewer was kind, but at the end of the day, I walked out feeling like I’d dislike working there. It would be one more place without defined needs or goals in place, that would stress me out and make me hate going to work. So no.

On Friday, I suited back up to head to the Marriott interview. The interview the day before had been rather demoralizing, and I had to dig deep to paste on a smile. It didn’t help that this interview was for an entry level position, also not ideal, but sometimes you have to take a step down to get in the door. Once I got into the hotel, I felt right away that this place was different. It was comfy and modern, with a great color scheme. The interviewer was really pleasant, and easy to talk to. The interview was mostly scripted, but the non-scripted parts were entertaining, so I was immediately at ease. One of the first things the interviewer said to me after finding out that I’d walked the Camino was, “We’ve got hotels in Spain, too, if you want to go work there some day.” (Will this place allow me to relocate? Check!) He took his time and answered all of my questions, and every answer reinforced that this was the right choice. Then I headed to my second interview, meeting the woman that I’d be replacing. We had a coffee and a nice, long chat about what we were looking for in life. She explained advancement opportunities (ample), educational opportunities (tons), and the basics of the job (fun). I walked out of there knowing that I REALLY wanted this job…but there were more interviews to go.

On Monday, I met the GM and the sales manager, this time for two very relaxed interviews. I got a little teary-eyed while speaking with the GM; I just dug him as a human being. He was efficient and eagle-eyed, and obviously cares about his employees. That visit ended with a job offer, conditional upon passing a drug test and background check. I’ve spent the last week on pins and needles about the background check, hoping they wouldn’t fault me for my insane student loan debt, or find something in my past that didn’t fit the brand. Of course, this is ridiculous, since I’m a terribly lame human being with minimal adventures or wild stories, and no criminal past. But I do so love to invent things to worry about! My poor boyfriend has spent the last few days reassuring me that I’d probably know if I was a criminal, and I’d definitely be getting the job. Luckily, I was wrong and he was right – this morning I got the call that I passed the final hurdles, and can start next week. I’m going to be working as an Event Specialist, handling the needs of large groups who reserve blocks of hotel rooms in conjunction with an event (weddings, trade shows, reunions, that kind of thing). It’s going to be challenging, but rewarding, and there are multiple route options for advancing to the next rung on the ladder, when the time comes.

So I’m backtracking a little bit, career-wise, but it won’t be for long. I’m still going to have to work some crazy hours, probably at both hotels and the marketing agency, to stay afloat for awhile as I stock up on office apparel, get some medical and dental treatments that I’ve been putting off, and pay off debts that I couldn’t put much of a dent in over the last year. It’s going to be hard for awhile, but much easier in the long run. In a sense, I’m hitting “undo” on a big chunk of my professional life, but I’ve learned a lot of things that will still come in handy. I know what kind of boss I respect, and what I’d never do to a coworker or employee. I know how much I adore being helpful and kind, and that I can enrich my personal life by way of my professional life if I so choose (I do). I know that I am nimble, a problem solver, a fixer, a “can do”-er. I know that I’ve finally started a real career, and that I’m joining a company with which I’ll be able to continue on until I retire, if all works out. And if I play my cards right, at the end of that career I’ll have traveled the world, and be getting ready to start a new adventure with my own B&B somewhere. Who knows? I’ll keep you posted 🙂