The Wander Women – Ashley

“Get this show on the road.”

These were the last words Ashley heard from her dying grandfather before she left him to pursue a college degree, the first one anyone in her family would ever receive. She hadn’t wanted to leave. Her Grandad was the only person she was related to who had ever shown her true, unconditional love amidst a childhood punctuated by drug use, physical violence, and emotional uproar.

His words returned to her like flowers in the wind three days and 33 miles into what was supposed to be a 32 mile trek in the Himalayas. She was utterly defeated and could not remotely begin to gather the strength needed to continue the journey.

“I can’t,” Ashley whispered back to the wind, sticky tears freezing to her cheeks the moment they dropped from her eyes. It felt like she hadn’t stopped crying since the journey began. Her body ached with the cruel thought of hiking yet another day, twelve miles still to cover, and who knows how many feet left to climb and scramble down.

It was nearing mid afternoon while Ashley rested, mentally wrestling with the reality that she did in fact need to continue. Going back the way she came would only be more of the same.

Her pack was off, leaning against the same tree as herself. It was short and gnarled by the Himalayan wind, the graying branches pointing mockingly in the direction Ashley knew she must continue. Small Nepalese prayer flags were adorned to the tree, and despite how shredded they seemed and the fact that the sun had clearly dulled their coloring, they fluttered in earnest.

The tears continued their descent as Ashley closed her eyes in an attempt to gather herself. Slowly she became aware of the beating of her own heart. It seemed to run at a pace appropriate to both the altitude and her exhaustion.

Splatters of purple and green shifted behind her eyelids, changing shape whenever she attempted to focus in on anything in particular. This was a game Ashley had played since childhood, a distraction from the domestic violence shattering the household just outside her bedroom door. If she could just will those colors to take the shape of her favorite animals, a monkey, a cat, a butterfly, or even a combination of all three, maybe she could drown out the horrible sounds.

Instead those colors took a new form as Ashley pulled herself together on a mountain peak in the Everest range. The face of her best friend metamorphosed on her eyelid canvas – Timber. He was a good dog, a good boy who made it to sixteen years old despite a brutal car accident that failed to claim his life, resilient as he was.

“Maybe all those years of insanity are finally taking their toll on me,” Ashley jokingly wondered to herself. She had always prided herself on her ability to thrive from such a horrific upbringing. All things considered, she survived unscathed.

The swarm of eyelid colors currently known as Timber cocked his head like he always had when considering the situation in front of him. It was his way of showing that he was listening, and even though he couldn’t speak, he made for an incredible confidante.

“Get this show on the road,” barked the eternally smiling face of Ashley’s formal travel companion.

Her eyes flew open. The words came to her crisper than the surrounding Himalayan wind. They were uttered with such clarity that the realty of them not being real seemed more insane than accepting them as fact.

Ashley felt that her heart rate had increased, and became suddenly aware of the growing cold. Her hands were still pressed against the chalky dirt below the tree, and the sweat that seemed to never leave her body clung to her body, chilling her to the bone.

She had neither the strength nor desire to continue, but it was clear that she had lingered too long. There was no other choice but to get the show on the road.

The pack slung on like the weight of the world, making Ashley groan with the effort. She couldn’t remotely believe that this is what Sherpas did with ease on a regular basis. She made a mental note to praise the next Sherpa she came across.

Before finishing the day’s three miles, Ashley paused to take in the view. So far it had been nothing but depressing gray, completely obscuring the mountains just beyond the clouds. Somehow, as she rested under that tree, the clouds parted enough to grant her the view that inspired her to travel to the Himalayas in the first place.

It was unlike anything she had ever seen. Those entirely too common tears began flowing at once as the snowy peaks across the valley soaked in the last of the day’s sunlight. They were truly glorious, and in their glory it felt as though the world paused to observe them with Ashley. At that moment she knew, and the universe knew, she could continue on.

The sun was long gone by the time Ashley stumbled in to the Nepalese teahouse three miles and 1000 vertical feet from where she has rested hours earlier. She was utterly broken apart, emotionally, physically, and mentally. The range of emotions she felt were caught in a tumultuous roller coaster, and all she could think to do was seek shelter and the heat it provided. She had to duck her head to enter what was essentially a hut, and felt a tremendous burden lifted once her pack, a literal burden, found its way to the floor.

A fire was lit in the hearth and she gravitated to it by instinct alone, for all her strength had left with her tears. She pushed her frozen hands into its heat, grateful for even the smallest exposure to comfort.

Again her eyes closed, from exhaustion, from gratitude, from having no more moisture left to keep her eyes hydrated. She sat this was for many minutes, feeling her heart rate return to a calm pace.

“Namaste,” creaked a voice behind her. It was paired with a tap on her back by something that felt much harder than a finger.

Ashley swiveled around on the small wooden stool upon which she sat and was greeted by the face of a very old Nepalese woman. Wrinkles upon wrinkles decorated her every expression, bending and moving with the slightest provocation. Her hands were tanned and looked to be the texture of leather, the wisdom of her life etched into her palms. Clasped in those hands was a long walking stick, the end of which was ornamented with small, colorful beads that matched the prayer flags Ashley had seen throughout her journey.

The woman said nothing more, instead gesturing with the walking stick in a way that suggested she wanted Ashley to take it.

“I can’t,” she politely refused, touched by the gesture of this complete and total stranger. Had she seen her walking the trail? Ashley did not have the energy to recall the faces that had crossed her bleary vision that day.

The woman gesticulated more aggressively, insistent that Ashley receive her gift. With a cautious hand she reached out for the stick, and once her hand was upon it the old woman released her grip, bowed lightly, and turned to leave the refuge. She was out the door before Ashley could offer her thanks.

She wasn’t alone in this common area, so she looked around the room to see if anyone else had witnessed what just took place. Most faces were focused deeply on the hot drink or food in front of them, but the woman who ran the refuge made eye contact with Ashley, waving her towards the counter with a quick flick of her wrist.

“Who was that?” Ashley inquired, too curious for formalities as she sat down at the stool in front of this woman.

“She is from here, but exactly where here is no one knows,” the woman responded in a riddling tone.

Ashley, too confused and tired to speak, begged the woman to continue through her eyes alone.

“I have seen her before, though only a handful of times since I was a young girl. My mother would tell me the tales of this shaman woman who appears when she is needed most, like the answer to a prayer. The other people like me who were raised here came to know her as the Wander Woman, forever adrift in the mountains assisting those when they least expect it. It seems today she has chosen you to have your prayer answer,” she added, nodding toward the stick in Ashley’s hand.

She turned the stick over, intimidated by its presence. The tears came again as she felt the significance of what had happened, how much she truly did need help on what was turning out to be one of the most difficult things she has ever attempted in her life. There was still a day left to complete the journey, and for the first time since she started did Ashley understand with total clarity that she had the strength to do so.

The beads adorning the stick were clearly very old, held fast by thin strands of leather, most likely yak. The top was darkened by what looked like fire, and etched into the blackness was a small line of script, reading, ” गेट थिस शोव ओन द रॉद”. Ashley ran her finger over the small divets, almost too tiny to register properly.

“Can you tell me what this says,” Ashley asked the woman at the counter, feeling crashing waves of fear and exhaustion encompassing her at once. The appearance of this Wander Woman haunted her as much as it energized her. She felt that the significance of the meeting would be something she would be unable to process right away.

The woman considered the writing, squinting to see the tiny letters. She too ran her finger over the script to get a better understanding of the message scratched into the wood.

“The road…” she mumbled, her words trailing. “Ah, I see it now. It says, ‘get this show on the road.’” She smiled and handed the stick back to a thoroughly shaken Ashley, who quickly gathered her things and retired to her room for the night.

Only moments after closing the door did she burst into tears yet again, overwhelmed by the magnitude of what she was experiencing.

Everything about this journey challenged her in ways she hadn’t endured since childhood. From brutal thunderstorms to a scorching sun, aching and blistered feet to bearing a backbreaking load, and now this. How could her beloved grandfather’s words be carried to her on the wind, in the memory of her dead best friend, and finally in a supernatural encounter with a Wander Woman of myth?

It was all too much, but it was also exactly what must have been.

Ashley laid there, eyes staring directly up. “The Himalayas have cracked me wide open, in deep and powerful ways,” she thought as tears careened across her cheeks and onto the thin pillow under her head.

Finally her eyelids closed in an attempt to rest, but this time the colors shifted and changed between the faces of her grandfather, timber, and the mysterious Wander Woman who came and left as quickly as the clouds over Mt. Everest.

As Ashley finally drifted into sleep, restoring what energy she could get for the final ascent the following day, she whispered, “namaste, namaste.”

Paradise by the airplane light

This time will be different, I promise myself emphatically, squeezing my fingers around the airplane armrests so my body is as stable as my word. How could it not be? I’ve spent the last three weeks exploring the literal paradise that is Belize, criss crossing every inch of its unique landscape while bonding with locals and like-minded travelers.

I am stoic with the refusal to go home and return to the slavery of my technological devices. I cast out the routine that has recently characterized me, the schedule which includes me never leaving the house and never meeting new people as are the joys of self-employment. I can and will be this wonderful new relaxed Caribbean version of myself (who apparently likes reggae) that I’ve cultivated over the last few days, and this is how things will be from now on.

Okay, great, so it’s settled. Tropical Me is going to stop wearing makeup, quit committing to everyone else’s deadlines just because that’s How Things Are Done where I live, and just generally chill the fuck out. I’ll wander the streets of San Francisco in flip flops quietly cursing the fog I’ve always loved, demanding the world accept my most recent whimsy.

Yeah, right. 

These are similar to promises I’ve made plenty of times before, and never really kept. As a 14-year-old returning from Europe I declared everyone would henceforth be greeted with cheek kisses, and that lasted maybe a week. I couldn’t even keep an Argentinean accent going for long after coming back from a summer in the Córdoban countryside, much to the relief of my Spanish teachers.

However, none of that changes that unique blend of nostalgia, relief, and panic that accompanies many overly self-aware travelers (like me) on the plane back home. You think of the complicated life ahead of you, choosing to ignore that while yes you were in the slower-paced Belize, you were also on vacation, which is inherently less peppered with responsibility. Either way, you keep a cold grip on the new facets of you that have come to light while abroad, hoping that maybe this time you can take a few of the fragments back home with you.

You know from experience that the way these experiences have shaped you have the potential to slip away quickly as you return to the you-shaped rut on your couch.

There’s the lack of time spent online and how much it didn’t matter. The rooster-based early wake ups that allowed you to experience the entire day. The genuine way people treated each other – can you imagine, people actually acknowledging their neighbors, and treating them with respect no matter their vocation? The unprocessed food was pretty good too, even though it gave you giardia.

But you can’t have live poultry in your 400 square foot apartment in the city, you can’t force everyone around you suddenly eager to talk to strangers, and hating on living in a developed nation is beyond cliche. In fact, many of these desires make you border on becoming a Humanitarian of Tinder, and we can’t have that.

Ultimately it’s not so much about the sunshine or the flip flops or the face kissing, it’s about you, and how easily you return to a routine that you don’t find especially fulfilling. Abroad you thrived in discomfort, opened up your heart just enough to fall in love a little bit, and for a brief handful of days escaped the bubble of anxieties and insecurities that everyone back home seems to find completely normal. You haven’t seen this you for a while.

You’re scared you’ve left behind the more authentic version of yourself that you thought was lost years ago, the person eager to explore and adventure, even though you were certain your wanderlust had long since been extinguished.

That’s what all the armrest squeezing on the plane ride back home is about. You earnestly believed that the fire had long since gone out, so every mile home feels like you’re sucking the life out of the ember you’ve only just discovered still exists.

The good news is nothing is ever as dramatic as I make it out to be, even though my goal in life is to live with as much intensity as a Meat Loaf song. Sure, I might go back to walking quickly and wearing makeup as needed, but ultimately my fulfillment is up to me, so if I want to talk to the neighbors, then I should talk to the neighbors, be they in San Francisco or anywhere else. 

And maybe if I squeeze hard enough, I’ll continue being the version of me who takes things a little less seriously.

Or, I can just go back to Belize.

Honeymoon Breakdown

Screen Shot 2016-04-13 at 10.40.30 PM.jpgLast night I had a panic attack. A bad one. It was so bad, I wanted to kill myself.

It’s not the first time this has happened, and while I hope more than anything that it was the last, I know it won’t be. I was diagnosed with panic disorder a few years ago, which fit nicely alongside my PTSD, sleep disorder, depression, and anxiety, all of which I’ve struggled with for years. Basically this most recent diagnosis means that every so often, for reasons known and unknown, I will enter into a state of panic and if it’s intense enough, be unable to calm down without medical intervention. Think trapped mountain lion, but with less claws and more existential crisis.

Even most people close to me don’t know I suffer from these illnesses. I would describe them as “mental illnesses” but that would be like casually referring to a cough as a “lung illness” and nobody does that, so I don’t see why screwed up brains should be an exception. Either way the point is, I’m sick.

And last night, I was really sick. I don’t typically become suicidal when I panic, but for whatever reason, last night was so dark that I ended up reaching out to five people for help. Fortunately one person (who happens to be a mental health professional) responded in time to assist me, and eventually they were able to help me return to a safe mindset.

While calming down, my panic was immediately replaced with guilt. It’s humiliating to be in that situation, to disturb someone’s night because I can’t control my own emotions. I knew instinctually that asking for help was better than the alternative, but that couldn’t soothe the shame of making my problems someone else’s. I feel unimaginably weak being so low, to be unable to do what literally every other human is capable of doing every day – living.

And after all, what do I have to be so upset about? I’ve just married my high school sweetheart, I’m spending three whole weeks vacationing in postcard-perfect Belize on someone else’s dime, and I’ll eventually return home to my life of leisure where I’m free to live out my dream of writing full time. My life, from all objective standpoints, is perfect.

But like that girl who recently shared her before and after photos of having an anxiety attack, what everyone sees of my life on social media is a piss-poor representation of my actual existence. The photos are picked apart, edited, and re-edited to be visually compelling. The stories and captions are selected due to their positivity, and while everything I post is 100% true, most of what goes on in my life is left out, certainly all the negative stuff.

The shaking fear as I sit down to my keyboard, unable to write the novel that I quit my job to pursue. The crushing disappointment in myself as another day goes by without exercising, cleaning my bedroom, or addressing any of the other quickly-fading items on my to do list. The stoic numbness I force myself to inhabit, lest vulnerability lead me down the path of pain. The knee-jerk terror that arises every time I feel the slightest bit of nausea, left over from a teenage misdiagnosis of a gastric disorder as a psychological one.

I know I’m not alone in suffering from panic disorders – I read that 40 million Americans freak out with me, but it’s incredibly lonesome to be trapped inside your own mind when your mind is trying to do you in.

Nobody shares these kinds of things on social media, and this is by no means a suggestion to start doing so. My point in sharing this very personal side of myself is not to garner any sympathy, pity, or attention. I even know that some people will be disappointed in this admission. But this is a way for me to sort through what happened last night, and maybe for someone reading this, a reminder that they’re not alone in fighting an unseen battle.

There’s no revelation here. This is nothing I didn’t know before yesterday, and nothing you haven’t read already. But I felt compelled to share my experience anyway, because it’s mine, and it’s real.

For anyone else struggling, please reach out for help: Suicide prevention lifeline // 1-800-273-8255

Wander Women – Abigail

Abigail had always been as drawn to the forest as she was to the ocean, but it was the sea that beckoned her the day winter came.

She sat in the Seattle-Tacoma airport a good four hours before her scheduled flight to Florida, her left hand resting listlessly upon a piece of well-traveled green luggage. Every few moments her eyes would sporadically flit to that hand, as if a piece of metal was catching her eye, which was ironic. She noted that it looked different without a wedding ring – the line under where it used to be noticeably lighter than the surrounding, darker skin. Her hand felt lighter, too.

“I wonder if Clive will notice,” she mused, quickly turning her attention to her right hand instead, since it was the one holding the watch. She was fully aware that obsessively checking the time was only making it crawl by slower, but in her haste to drive away from Doug her usual high level of self-awareness was being taken over by a mild but noticeable anxiety.

She had known Doug since childhood, and felt drawn to him ever since learning cooties posed no real threat. Their upbringing was marked by the environment in which they were raised. The endless forests of Western Washington were their playground, and together they explored every inch they could access. They chased one another around the bases of ancient redwoods and became experts at figuring out which plants and animals would give them rashes without ever consulting a book. Nature shaped them into self-reliant, conscious adults, so it was a surprise to neither them nor their community when they announced their intentions to get married in their early twenties.  

Despite the length and intimacy of their relationship, the engagement happened very suddenly. Memories of a buck and a doe, and the feeling of impending danger began to swarm Abigail’s mind when she stopped herself from accessing that part of her past.

“No,” she in a firm whisper under her breath. “This doesn’t serve me.”

She checked the watch in her right hand again, her brow furrowing when she saw less than three minutes had passed since she last looked. Her eyes scanned the eggshell white walls of the airport until she found a wall-mounted clock, the hands in sync with what her watch showed. Just making sure.

“Divorced, or taking it in for cleaning?” asked a woman’s voice from the chair opposite Abigail’s. The noise startled her, but once she was pulled from her thoughts about clocks and time she became aware that she was fiddling with the part of her finger where the ring used to be. The woman was young, probably in her early thirties, and looked like how people used to dress for plane rides before air travel became commonplace. She wore a light grey suit that fit her body well, the outfit was clearly tailored. Her blonde hair fell softly on her shoulders, not one hair out of place. She too had a ring of light skin adorning her left ring finger. The only part of her that seemed to not fit were the white and pink Nike sneakers on her feet, which she noticed Abigail noticing.

“Oh these? I can’t stand running around airports in heels. What’s the point? I just change them when I land,” she explained with a wink before Abigail could ask. Not that she would ask a stranger something like that.

To this Abigail said nothing, but only because she wasn’t given enough time to respond. When she had opened her mouth to say something, her new friend was introducing herself.

“I’m Cheryl,” said the woman, thrusting a well-manicured hand in Abigail’s direction, “and I couldn’t help but notice you fiddling with your finger there.” She nodded her head towards Abigail’s hand, a soft red lipsticked smile adorning her face while she raised her own left hand and wiggled her newly un-ringed finger.

“Abigail,” said Abigail, sticking her right hand out to meet Cheryl’s. She glimpsed the watch during this exchange – only two minutes had passed this time. “And neither.”

“Neither? Oh you mean the ring! Of course, I already forgot I asked that. What’s the deal then, if you don’t mind me asking?”

To Abigail’s surprise, she didn’t mind Cheryl asking such a direct, personal question in such an inappropriate setting. It was actually pretty refreshing to interact with someone so plainly rejecting the comfort of etiquette, taking a risk to connect with a stranger. It may have just been the pensive mood of the day taking over, but whatever the case, it was fine by her.

“I left my husband today, to both our surprise. So I guess ‘divorce’ will eventually be my answer.” Abigail mirrored Cheryl’s energy by spelling it out directly, and right away. Abigail could see Cheryl wasn’t the type to be scared away easily by a troublesome topic, which was confirmed when Cheryl eagerly leaned forward in response, her body language almost shouting, “keep talking.”

“We were planning to do what I call a ‘sacred marriage break,’ where we agreed to spend three months apart taking a very intentional break from our relationship. We’ve been planning to do this for a while now, creating agreements with each other and aligning around taking this break. But when I got in the car this morning, our marriage unraveled at that moment. There was something that passed between us that was intense, final and otherworldly. It was beyond our understanding or control. Now I’m on my way to meet another man who I’ve fallen in love with, Clive.”

Abigail paused at the end of this statement, no longer looking at her ringless finger, the watch, or Cheryl. Her eyes were drawn deeply inward, recalling the extremely fresh memory of closing the car door only an hour ago, feeling suddenly and completely severed from her life with Doug. The strength of that moment had shocked her, and she saw in her rearview mirror how it shocked Doug, too. All the planning in the world couldn’t have prepared them to reach the conclusion of their lifelong relationship in that instant.

It was only when Cheryl spoke again that Abigail was pulled from her reverie. “I have someone I think you should meet,” she said without any sorrow in her voice. “And I think you should go meet this someone instead of the man you’re planning to see – Clive, right?” She pulled a black briefcase from the right side of her chair and rifled through it before offering Abigail an equally black business card decorated with small gold foil letters. Abigail inspected the thick card, tracing her finger over the indentations made by the name written there. Therese Wander. A California address was spelled out below, the phone number indicative of either a San Francisco or Marin-based dwelling. .

“Who is she?” Abigail started to ask, before looking up to see that Cheryl had left, possibly to board a plane, or to continue handing out cards to other newly single women in the airport. Maybe both.

Abigail’s attention returned to the card. There was no other information besides how to contact this Therese Wander, no title or business or anything to indicate for what reasons one might meet this woman. Abigail wondered what her vocation might be, and wished that Cheryl had stuck around to explain their relationship, or how she came to be in the business of handing out another woman’s business cards to strangers. Yet something about the lack of clarity intrigued Abigail, and before she knew it she snatched up her luggage and headed towards the ticketing agent. It was only when she got to the counter that she realized an hour had passed since she last checked the time, and she could now board her flight to Florida, where Clive was waiting for her.

“Do you have any flights to San Francisco?” she asked the man behind the ticket counter. And thus, Abigail’s journey took a turn down the West Coast.

Abigail snoozed fitfully on the short flight to San Francisco, her dreams peppered with visions of deer and trees, their story and meaning obscured from the dreamer. She awoke when the plane landed, thoughts of the forest still coursing through her mind. She noted this down in the journal she carried everywhere with her – no dream was too small to include. All dreams lead somewhere, eventually.

She thought of Clive as she took a taxi to San Francisco’s Union Square, where she had traveled with Doug only a few years prior, and was the only place where she could guarantee there would be hotels. She and Clive had been planning their rendez vous for months now, ever since Abigail realized that she must follow her heart to him. This of course was the cataylst to the breakdown of her relationship with Doug, and it was painful to deny herself the chance to finally be with him. Soon she would have to call him to let him know Florida was going to have to wait. She couldn’t explain exactly why she’d flown to San Francisco instead of to see him, but she knew him well enough to know he would understand. Maybe then he could help explain it to her.

It was a small voice that suggested she follow the black card to California instead of rushing from Doug to Clive, a voice she had never heard until she was tracing her finger over the inscribed name. In her final moments with Doug, pulling away from him in the car, all Abigail could consider was the comfort that being in Clive’s arms would bring. She didn’t doubt this would still be true if she turned around and flew to Florida, but there was something about that little voice that she felt she couldn’t ignore.

For the past 10 years Abigail made a living coaching others in reaching their creative potential. She worked with clients in activating creative aspects of themselves that were previously obscured, changing the lives of everyone around her like a superhero. Yet even she could have a hard time identifying the guiding voices within herself. She didn’t know what this voice would bring, but she trusted that it would serve her in some way. Whether it was by introducing her to this person on the card, or simply forcing her to pause between her past love and her new one, she knew the karmic forces of the world had something in store for her.

It was late when she finally arrived at the hotel she stayed at during her last visit, and she was exhausted in every way possible. She got the call with Clive over quickly, promising to explain more when she had properly rested. Yet even flopping down on the bed couldn’t keep her from pulling out that gold lettered card once again. She put it on the pillow next to her so that she could refer to the phone number first thing in the morning. Her eyes closed quickly and she fell into a deep sleep. She dreamed of deer again, but this time they were frolicking on the beach, the strong waves of the Pacific Ocean crashing behind them. They appeared to her more clearly than during her nap on the plane, as if their reason for showing up to her held more importance.

Abigail awoke almost twelve hours later, having never even gotten under the covers. Rested, she moved over to the hotel window and took in the concrete buildings around her. There was no forest, no ocean, just buildings and a lot of people getting ready for the holidays.

Winter had arrived, bringing it with it an entirely new season for Abigail. A sudden fear gripped her as she recognized just how serious her deviation from the path she had planned was. There was no Doug here, no comforts of a childhood best friend turned husband, the protection of someone who knew everything about her. There was no Clive either, carrying with him the promise of a new life, a new adventure. There was only Abigail. There was only her. The fear quickly faded into excitement. There is only me, she thought as a smile crept across her face. This is exactly what she needed.

 

Luggage and loss in Sicily

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Buddha and I take it all in stride during sunset in Siracusa, Sicily.

It’s noon on New Year’s Eve, and I’m washing the only pair of underwear I have in the marble bathroom sink of my hotel room in Sicily. Everything is made of marble here: the floor, the walls, the marbles. I suspect even the genial owner of this charming waterfront hotel might be partly marble, but you can’t just ask someone that.

The excess of marble (or in my interpretation, cold floors) is the reason why I packed the fancy soled slippers that Michael got me for Christmas, a real indulgence that I would not normally bring with me, as I’m a very practical packer. An exception was made in an attempt to treat myself on this eve of the new year – I’ve earned comfy feet, haven’t I? Of course, in the spirit of Murphy’s Law, my luggage never made it to Sicily with me, so here I am with frosty toes, scrubbing soggy underwear in the sink.

It’s a cruel irony, and perhaps an unintentional lesson in materialism, that I broke my own travel rules and packed items that I would rather not live without only to experience my first ever loss of luggage.

Gone are my faithful running shoes and new workout clothes (a gift from my mother), the never-been-worn leather Aquatalia shoes that were a Christmas present from my grandmother (which even she knew was too generous a gift), and the hip black jacket with lace sleeves which I had just lost enough weight to finally wear again. Perhaps the most upsetting loss is the pomade Michael uses to keep his hair coiffed to Italian perfection – how will he fit in with his people now? I haven’t reminded him that his coveted straight razor is in the abyss as well.

Screen Shot 2015-12-31 at 2.12.47 PM.pngGame theory enters the situation – how long do we wait before buying new clothes? I am proudly self-employed as of two weeks ago, and as such I no longer have an income, meaning every penny must be pinched. I’m hesitant to drop money on fine Italian clothing (which is the only kind available here) only to have the luggage suddenly appear in our midst.

The very unhelpful website that is supposedly tracking our goods advises us to indefinitely “check back later,” though this message has yet to change, so  I’m currently cultivating a conspiracy that they are hoarding my underwear for nefarious purposes.

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Despite the inflexibility, and frankly the unsympathetic attitude of Vueling Airlines, who are responsible for our lost luggage, it’s hard to be too upset. Sicily is stunning: its people are abundantly friendly, each of their words spoken as if read from a poem, and the food, in both both quality and price, make one want to gesticulate wildly in affirmation. Not to mention the reason we are here is due to generosity alone, and we can’t let a few lost items of clothing spoil that.

8d39756a-15cc-4627-9b16-c4b80044dd33We are relaxing in this city of antiquity, surrounded by places deeply integral to the course of human history. Tonight we will dine in a restaurant from the 1400s, and later on ring in the new year with a musical celebration in the Piazza Duomo, which is bordered by a church of both Greek and Italian heritage. Over the next few days we will explore the town of Siracusa, namesake of my future husband, and possibly to me should I decide to go that route.

Until then I will be here, practicing detaching myself from material goods while trying to make underwear out of marble.

 

Onwards

“What are the best things and the worst things in your life, and when are you going to get around to whispering or shouting them?”

– Ray Bradbury, from Zen In The Art Of Writing

 

I quit my job so I can write full time.

I’ve had various reactions to this development in my life. My parents and family are understandably concerned, partly because they believe I came to this conclusion too quickly, and partly because the full time work I was doing was in all respects, very practical. I was doing well for a 40-year-old, and even better for a 26-year-old.

A number of friends, especially those my own age who are similarly working to find themselves, have told me that discussing the process I took to reach this decision has caused them to reevaluate their own career decisions, or at least how they choose to live their lives on a day to day basis, which can be good or bad, depending on what they choose to do about it. I’m not trying to make anyone do anything, but it has been validating to learn that my journey is in any way inspiring.

So how did I come to make this decision?

I’ve been writing and rewriting this paragraph, trying to go back to the beginning, only to realize that it’s bullshit. I’m trying to tell a story full of details meant to please, meant to alleviate the worry people have in me making this decision, and that’s not the truth. The truth is, I’m not concerned with concern. The only thing on my mind is living a life that honors my values, that speaks to the truth that sits inside of me, and doing so in alliance with my future husband.

The truth is, for too long I’ve acted in accordance with what I perceived others’ expectations to be, so detached from my own desires that this template was the only one I could follow. So the reason my decision may seem sudden is because it is. I’ve been on the precipice for years, entirely too frightened of failure and judgment to take a risk, scared of what might happen if I become vulnerable, as any creative pursuit demands. It’s only recently that I’ve felt enough clarity to see that the life I was leading was out of line with who I am.

The part that gets my friends thinking is this exact approach. All of us have a limited time on this planet, and it’s just not worth it to spend that life living it for anyone but ourselves.

Make no mistake, the route I’m taking is not a prescription. For some, the ultimate realization of the self is in creating and supporting a family. For some, consistently making enough money to guarantee that they will never again be without a meal is the ultimate in living. There’s a trope in the media that ditching a corporate job to pursue a creative path is the ultimate in living, but this simply isn’t true. It just happens to be the case for me at this point in my life.

You don’t need to know the particular values I live by to understand my decision to honor them, only that a life where said values are prioritized leads to fulfillment, even as those values shift over time.

If you know me, you know I love writing, or any kind of storytelling. I know I’m no Steinbeck, Bradbury, Garcia Marquez, or Stephenson (side note: why are all my favorite authors men?), but I am a Wunderman, and I need to find out what I can show for it.

I also love taking photos of animals, which no one knows. I want to explore this too.

I don’t know where this path will lead me. I could end up back at a desk, on the New York Times Bestseller List, or somewhere I would never conceive of right now. What I do know is that I’m done living my life in the shadows. I’m ready to take a risk.

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También la piscina

Note: I wrote this in June 2015 and never hit publish. It remains unfinished, but I feel the little that is written has importance, at least to me.

I’m not ready to leave. That’s pretty much the singular thought I have with one day left in Iceland. When I visited last year I felt a similar compulsion to stay, but attributed that feeling to typical post-vacation nostalgia. Yet that feeling lingered, giving me the impression that I’d left my heart on these black sandy shores. It’s no surprise that after months of closing my eyes to find Iceland in my imagination I returned here in less than a year’s time.

So here I am, faced with leaving once again. Part of me hoped that by staying for such a long time my Iceland-fix would be satiated, but like any addiction I only want more.IMG_0216

I’m finally ready to admit that my heart is in Iceland, whether it’s practical, convenient, smart or any other adjective that would describe being an accountant.

There are good reasons why I’m so drawn here, and why it’s painful for me to see images of the country when I’m not physically present on this volcanic island. They include the people, who have made me feel beyond welcomed despite my gruff American exterior. Of course a lot of the draw is the landscape, a literal representation of the toughness of Iceland’s inhabitants. I could go on and on.

The other reasons are less tangible. I can only really describe the way it feels when my plane’s wheels touch the ground in Keflavík. It’s a lifting of the spirit, an opening of the heart, and a sudden churning in my brain of creative inspiration. It’s not anything that I can forcefully replicate, nor do I believe I should try.

Despite all this, I am going home. I know I shouldn’t be, but it’s happening. The most I can hope for is to return someday, hopefully soon. After all, I can’t survive separated from my heart too long.

 

 

Nag a ram

While searching for SF Weekly articles written about my dad during his stint in the SF Mayor’s office, I found out that the publication had written something about ME! Well, not about me, but an article that I wrote. Yes, my infamous drunken Lazy Bear review apparently made the rounds, prompting SF Weekly writer Peter Kane to apply Lazy Bear head chef David Barzelay’s anagram approach to other famous SF restaurants. The results are extremely amusing, and as an added bonus, SF Weekly will be running other stories of my intoxicated restaurant visits, as they occur.

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My personal favorite is Gary Danko’s transformation into “Dragon + Yak,” which based on the popularity of restaurants with similar name formatting (Craftsman + Wolves and so forth), I would expect it to do extremely well. And I suppose the whole Gary Danko being the chef part wouldn’t hurt.

You can read the article on SF Weekly.

The case for going off the beaten path

I know I just regaled you with the merits of tourist traps, but going off the beaten path is worth delving more deeply into.

I was first intrigued by the thought of traveling to Iceland because it wasn’t heavily trafficked. Mind you this was 5-6 years ago, and since then it has become quite the popular destination, with upwards of a million tourists a year – quite a lot for a country of 320,000 people. Even so, the attraction never faded for me.

So when I visited in 2014, I stuck to my philosophy of pursuing unique experiences by avoiding typical tourist attractions, and it was unbelievably rewarding. When driving up to the Westfjords, one of the least visited areas in Iceland, I pulled over and saw the Northern Lights above me, while a pod of 20+ whales frolicked in the water beside me. I found the experience to be extremely affirming since it happened by chance. This sort of thing happened repeatedly in the Westfjords, which is why I’m back here for another 3 weeks.

Before coming to the Westfjords this time around, I spent more time in the Southwest region of the country, where most tourists spend their time. After visiting some of the hot spots (literally!) we pursued lesser-known areas, such as the ghost museum in Stokkseyri.

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While this museum isn’t exactly unheard of, it’s a decent drive from Reykjavík and the most popular tours will take you to the famous natural attractions, like Geysir and Gullfoss, rather than spooky ghost museums. But they should take tourists here. I can’t speak more highly of this museum, as a person who seeks authentic experiences and also has a penchant for the supernatural world. Designed somewhat like an American haunted house, this museum puts you on a guided tour of Iceland’s most famous ghost stories, and the way it’s set up makes you feel like you were actually there when they happened. It’s a great way to learn about traditional Icelandic folklore, and to feel genuine terror! All for only $15.

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After being sufficiently spooked out, we headed to a town called Hella, which I wanted to visit since “hella” is a popular colloquialism originating in my home region. What I didn’t know is that Hella is dotted with caves built as late as the 14th century, and formerly used by monks. If I spoke Icelandic, I would know that the root word “hellar” means caves.

Our Icelandic friend Hákon had vacationed here when he was younger and used to explore the caves with his siblings. Now it was our turn to explore. I’ve illustrated one of the entrances to the underground network above, and you can see what one of the cave tunnels looks like in the photo below.

IMG_2266It was genuinely scary exploring those caves, especially after spending the previous hour learning about all the ghosts and spirits that haunt the exact area we were in. I’m fairly sure we were trespassing, but a quick Google search tells me that a cave tour exists, though that same search reveals it is pretty much unknown.

I categorize this experience under Locals Only, and I’m extremely grateful to have had it. These caves make Iceland what it is, and could have only happened under the right mixture of circumstances. It’s something I will never forget, and reminds me why it’s important to go off the beaten path – away from the tourist traps and why sometimes risks should be taken.

In other news, Michael is the proud new owner of a Lopapeysa, the quintessential piece of Icelandic clothing. Made from Icelandic sheep’s wool, it is insulating, hardy, and beautifully designed. I illustrated his purchase below.

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The case for tourist attractions

I’ve always sought authentic travel experiences. The idea of flying halfway across the world just to spend all my time at the most photographed locations on the planet has never made any sense to me, not when unique stories and unexpected turns of events were out there to be discovered.

My earliest travel experiences come from my teenage years, when I attended Adventures Cross Country, a company that organizes groups of teens on adventure-focused trips for weeks at a time. The summer of my 13th year was spent (begrudgingly at first) hiking through the backcountry of British Columbia, and it was there that my travel preferences, and my sense of self, began to develop.

For four weeks I learned to go without the comforts of the modern world, trading them in for the sort of skills that helped build a better me. I learned how to raise a tent in the rain after hiking for 10 hours, and the most efficient ways to pack one month of my life into a backpack. I learned to read the clouds, to recognize how to keep beehives in the ground from exploding, and on one occasion, how to prepare an emergency evacuation when you’re a 3 day hike from civilization. These skills taught me not only how to survive in the wilderness, but how to depend on myself for everyday survival, and the lessons that come when one is humbled by nature.

Point being, in traveling as an adult I’ve looked to replicate those experiences. So when I went to Iceland last year, I avoided most of the well-known tourist hot spots, like the Blue Lagoon and the Golden Circle.

This time around, I decided to see what all the fuss was about, and as you can imagine I ended up having a wildly different experience than I anticipated.

Stepping off the plane and into the warm, healing waters of the Blue Lagoon was an immensely relaxing way to deal with jet lag and the stress of international travel. Though expensive, the spot was in no way overrun with fannypacked tourists. In fact, I would consider my visit there to be a highlight of all my time spent in Iceland.

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Yesterday, our Icelandic friend and host/guide (pictured above on the right) drove us to see the highlights of the Golden Circle, including Iceland’s famous geyser (Geysir)…

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….and one of its biggest waterfalls, Gullfoss.IMG_2217

Both sites were absolutely breathtaking and showed off the majesty of Iceland’s unique landscape. And since the sun doesn’t go down, our late night visit ensured that crowds were nowhere to be found.

While I won’t concede my preference for authentic cultural experiences, I will admit that top tourist attractions have their place in the world of travel.

I chose not to illustrate the fruits of my admission, but a decoration from my current Reykjavík Airbnb instead.

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