It’s OK to Not Be OK

There. Be with that for a moment. I read that line in an insightful post from Marita Fridjhon, the CEO and Co-Founder of CRR Global. She wrote an eloquent piece called “The Case for Taking Space: A Bigger Picture Approach.” I am writing this article in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. I’ve found myself on auto-pilot when friends and co-workers ask, “How are you?” and I, on auto-response, say: “Good. And you?” No. Actually, I’m not good. I’m not ok. I’m getting by. I’m coping. I’m trying to find some semblance of control. I so appreciate when there is permission to not be ok, whether I give that permission to myself or it’s offered by someone else.

Here are some thoughts on being not ok:

Don’t rush.  Marita writes: “Let’s not rush through to the ‘everything is okay’ stage. Otherwise, the steam is going to continue to build and reactivity is going to direct our choices. Instead, we could take some time to be with this. To process what we’re going through and to grieve what is lost.” This resonates for me. I want to push through to get on to the next step. I don’t want to scrap a trip to visit my mother in her new home on the west coast. I want to wave a magic wand and make this all go away so I can get on an airplane (again) and just go. My absolute fatal flaw is impatience (inherited, ironically, from my mother). I want to skip all the chapters and get to the end of the book and see how this all ends. This is like pushing a rope, it’s frustrating and gets me nowhere closer. Don’t rush.

Feel the feelsThis is not the time for a stiff upper lip. I think of Marita’s analogy of continuing to build up steam. Over the last few weeks, I’ve seen a lot of steam billowing out of people. The steam shows up as anger, frustration, tears, shutting down and stonewalling. Co-workers crying at work (virtually), managers popping off in knee jerk reactions, and directors passive aggressively ignoring urgent requests. Some of us are releasing the pressure while the rest try to keep it bottled up. Let the pressure go. It doesn’t need to be public but don’t be surprised if it is. I was taking a walk two days ago listening to a podcast and suddenly, there were tears streaming down my face. Marita wrote, “Take the pressure off yourself to be super positive and cheery so that you don’t end up feeling stressed about being stressed or sad about being sad. These emotions are understandable and taking space to honor them will help you to eventually shift them into something else.” Let go of the pressure and feel the feels.

You have permission to just process.  You have a hall pass on your exercise regime, starting your book, clearing out your closet, learning guitar, planting a garden, reading War and Peace, or painting. It’s fine if you do and it’s fine if you don’t. Take time to reflect on this experience and see what is present for you. It’s great to invite others to process as well. Marita suggests asking: “What’s been the most challenging thing for you about working from home?” I’ve tried this out and it can have humorous results from, “I’ll be a big fat drunk by the end of this” to “I had no idea my dog was so neurotic” to interesting insights like, “I like these four walls, I just want four different walls.” I need to give myself permission to be lazy. To process. To let go of expectations and be safe.

A step back.  Marita posited, “Before we innovate and create, we need to take space. If we create space to process reactivity, we can choose to respond differently. Instead of letting fear and worry drive the show, we can step in with the response pattern that will best serve us, and others, in the situation.” For me, this is about slowing down and letting things be. It’s allowing what will happen unfold and to be an observer. I let go of my inclination to be the fixer and to have the broom out in front of the mess before it happens. Taking the space to be curious instead of consumed by anxiety and dread. I wonder what career my daughter will pivot too.  I’m curious if my son will be able to compete in Korea in October. I’m curious if world travel will be as accessible going forward and how will my life change if does. It’s about stepping back and responding with an open mind and heart.

Annie Grace wrote an interesting quote, “I’m Okay, You’re Okay, We’re All Not Okay.” There is that comparative suffering where we feel guilt for not being in worse shape. Not exactly survivor’s remorse but close. It’s ok for me to suffer even as there are those who are suffering as well. Process this time in our lives and try not to skim through as fast as possible. Be present. Be safe. Be here right now.

The Best Way Out is Always Through

This is a repost from a year ago. Enjoy!

“The best way out is always through.” – Robert Frost.

This seems counter intuitive. Why go through if there is a faster, seemingly easier way around? Why not just avoid the gnarly, ugly problem, conflict, or ordeal? How about just escape? Perhaps just numb out? I am an expert at all of these attempts at avoidance and procrastination.  I have tried them all with little success. Like right now, I do not want to write. I’m forcing myself to “go through” as I want to get this written and…”it’s not going to write itself.” It is not that the writing is painful. It is the reliving of the grief, betrayal and suffering I’ve experienced that feels like picking at a scab. I reflect back on the last four years and it’s amazing how far I have come, but it was not easy and I can assure you that I “went through.” The hurricane, the end of a marriage, the decline and death of my beloved father, and the endless, costly fight over property with my ex. At every milestone, there always seems like there was one more hurdle.

The best way out is always through.

I am not a professional at grief and betrayal, but I have learned a few things along the way. I am resilient and much more aware of what is important to me than I was a decade ago. Here are few things I have learned about getting out by going through:

Feel the feels

If I have learned anything, it is to feel the feels. I stuffed, drowned, ignored, and glossed over my feelings for most of my adult life. I was a temper tantrum adolescent. I can remember vividly stomping up the stairs in my childhood house and slamming the door when my parents either grounded or forbade me from some (at the time) life-altering excursion (say roller skating or going to an R-rated movie). I was, to say the least, a bit melodramatic. At some point, most likely in college, I found other ways to disregard my discontent. I numbed it instead of feeling it. Got dumped? Pour a glass of wine. Failed an exam? Bloody Mary’s with Julie. Parking ticket? Pitchers with the gang. To feel the feels is to acknowledge the feeling and pay attention. Accept the onset of what is going on in your body and feel it. Seems strange that I needed to learn this. As an infant, I’m sure if I was hungry, lonely or wet, I cried. I spent the next twenty years trying to ignore or avoid whatever ailed me. I let the heat rise in my neck, my stomach turn, the tension mount in my shoulders, I let it in. To go through, you must feel it.

Label it

This has been the most important learning for me. It is to not only feel the discomfort but to label it. It is the same as labeling thoughts while trying to meditate. By acknowledging and labeling the thought, it is easier to let it go. Name it and let it rise. I remember vividly being angry at my ex’s betrayal. I labeled it “betrayal”. So, this is what betrayal feels like: tight stomach, clenched shoulders, tears running down my face. It helped me be with the feeling but announcing it to myself as “betrayal” somehow let me observe myself.  So allow the pain and it will dissipate. The loss of my father and labeling it “grief” as I felt the heat on my face, the tears streaming and the shuddering of sobs. This is what “grief” feels like. It turns me into the omniscient observer as I watch the feelings rise and lift away once labeled. Going through you must label the path.

No judgement

This is the heart of it all to me. If I feel it, I will judge it and then hold on tight. The key is to not allow judgment in. People grieve. People get angry. People cry. All of us, if we let it, experience feelings. I can think, why is a 50 something grown ass woman crying for her Daddy or I can think, it’s completely natural to grieve. I have found that when I allow the feelings to rise and don’t try to hid it from the daylight, it passes more easily. It’s when I try to bury it, blink away the tears and stuff the feeling down so that I won’t be judged a cry baby that it lingers, sometimes for years or decades. August Gold wrote, “To enter the conversation with Life we only have to change one key word: We have to stop asking, ‘Why is this happening to me?’ and start asking, ‘Why is this happening for me?’ When we can do this, we’re free.” Going through is accepting each twist in the path and seeing the gift in it.

Getting sober over three years ago was a game changer. Everything is available with clean edges. No longer muted by Chardonnay or Gin. Somehow numbing out only increased and prolonged the suffering. I feel an empty vessel that permits it in, acknowledge it and then softly, setting it free. The best way out is always through.

Memories of My Lake House

It’s the one year anniversary of leaving my lake house and here is the blog post I wrote:

This house has been home for over 17 years. My children grew up here. My parents built onto the house. My dog has fought tirelessly against squirrels and honed her fly catching skills (yes…she can catch a fly) in this house. My friends have visited to stand on the deck and take a selfie with the lake as a backdrop. My boyfriend has observed all manner of wildlife with his morning coffee while perched on a deck chair. I have documented and marveled at countless sunrises. It’s been home and the center of my life for seventeen years.

My last sunrise picture from the lake house

My son came home this past weekend to say goodbye to the house. We moved here when he was eight and his sister Natalie when she was ten. Their heights and weights are marked on a closet door. The slow evolution of my son’s height lagging his sister until a growth spurt propelled him ahead. It’s all there. Each penciled line and scrawled date. Years in the making. Time marches on and, so do my children. He is in Miami and she is in Seattle. My father passed away, my mother is on the West Coast. The boyfriend Roy is in Carteret County or as he refers to it: “God’s Country.” All that is left is me and my dog and the move to an apartment about 8 miles away.

Memories of our lake house:

Remodeling

The house was built in 1975 and for almost every minute I have lived here, it’s been in a perpetual state of remodel. When we first moved in the kitchen was completely gutted and I remember trying to feed a family of four with a microwave in the family room, a refrigerator in the dining room and washing dishes in the bathroom sink. I think back now, why the heck didn’t we just eat at McDonald’s every day? There was the porch and carport that eventually became a sunroom and garage. There was the three weeks of summer camp when we decided to surprise the kids by completely remodeling the second-floor bedrooms, bath and all (and yes, I actually painted). The dining room and living room remodel where my dog would not walk across the new floor for weeks (yes…she’s that neurotic). And the addition of the in-law unit and a front porch; my parents moved in six years ago. Finally, the reflooring of the first floor and a brand-new deck across the back of the house. The paint colors have changed, the seventies wood paneling is gone, and popcorn ceilings were scraped off, but the bones are still there. It’s the same steps my kids came down each Christmas morning to see what Santa left.

Games

My fondest memories are of playing games around the kitchen table. My son remembers Tripoly, using macaroni to ante up and dreaming of ending up with a huge pile of macaroni by the end of the evening. I remember playing Uno and prefacing each +2 draw card (a really bad card) with “I love you!” to try and soften the blow. I remember always wanting my Dad on my team for Trivial Pursuit, especially for the history questions and my Mom for all the science questions (Medical Technologists know a bunch of medical and scientific terms). I looked forward to every Christmas break when my college-bound children would come home and play Super Mario Brothers on the Wii. I can hear Natalie laughing and screaming at her brother as he always seemed to be charging ahead and taking advantage of his sister’s good graces. There was also the brief stint of playing with the Wii and having endless sword fights. There is a ton of laughter in these walls.

Boats

I remember when we bought this house and the original owner pointed to the boat slip and said, “You’ll need to get a boat.” Well, sure enough we did. This led to knee boards, beginner skis, wake boards, single skis, and a tube. You name it, we tried it. Benson was amazingly tenacious on an innertube as we tried in vain (most of the time) to kick him off banking the boat on a tight corner. I remember the one and only time I got onto an innertube behind the boat and I could not stop laughing from fear and exhilaration. My poor kids stared from the back of the boat forlorn yelling, “Mommy, are you OK?” I survived. Later there were kayaks and paddle boats. I have truly learned this lake from stem to stern. It’s an amazing eco system that changes from cormorants to martins to mallards in an endless cycle with the ospreys and herons being the only apparent constant. There are a multitude of memories in that lake.

Neighbors

For almost seventeen years we have had the same neighbors. I can remember the original owner, Pat Jones, pointing to the houses and saying, “Well, there’s Fred and Pete across the street and the Nuns next door.” I was a recent transplant from California and I remember thinking: “Wow, a gay couple across the street and catholic nuns next door…pretty progressive.” Of course, this was incorrect, “Pete” was Marilyn’s nick name and the catholic nuns were actually “The Nunns.” Terrific neighbors all. We didn’t need neighborhood watch because I’d get a text or call if anything out of the norm was happening in my yard while I was away at work. The best story that Natalie remembers is that the original owners let us drop the kids off at the top of the driveway to be picked up by the bus at the beginning of the school year (before we moved in). We had instructed the kids not to bother the owners and that we would swing by to pick them up. One time, Natalie desperately had to use the bathroom and she ran across the street to Miss Pete’s house. Natalie asked to use the bathroom and, of course, Miss Pete obliged. This started a family friendship that led to many shared gatherings and Thanksgivings together.

This week has been a week of lasts. The last loaf of bread baked in the oven. The last sunrise photo posted on Facebook. The last evening watching a lone Great Blue Heron pacing the lake bank searching for a fish. The last cup of coffee. The last shower. The last walk through the neighborhood. The last post written from my chair looking out at the lake. As Dr. Suess said, “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.” Goodbye, Sweet House – thank you for the memories.

Finding Magic in Maine

I’ve just finished five days in Abbot Maine in a cabin by Whetstone Pond with my boyfriend, Roy. It’s been a terrific visit.  I had initially tried to plan this in October of 2020.  The pandemic, at that time, had so many unknowns, that a trip to anywhere beyond my home state of North Carolina seemed foolhardy. I’m glad, in retrospect, it took a year to get here.  I feel like I appreciate it more because I anticipated it for over a year. The waiting made it that much better;  that, and a good deal of luck with weather and health made it a magical trip.

A lone loon on Whetstone Pond in Abbot Maine

Here is where I found magic in central Maine:

Loons

My summers as a child were spent in New Hampshire.  There must have been loons at some point.  I don’t remember them.  But the minute we arrived at our cabin by the lake, I went out on the deck that sat precariously close to the clear, lapping water of the pond (which would in any other state be called a lake).  I heard this echoing, mournful sound reverberating across the pond. It touched me so deeply.  It was sad, and mesmerizing, and resolute. Throughout the five days, there were pairs and solo loons swimming on various parts of the pond and their calls and yodels could be heard at all hours of the day or night.  There was no pattern. No way to predict when the next cry for attention would come but it was such a magical soundtrack that it punctuated the experience.

Leaves

There was no way to know eight months ago when I made the reservation what the state of the trees in central Maine was going to be during the first week of October.  As we drove to Abbot from North Carolina, the trees started to faintly change as we drove through Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. Upon arriving in Abbot, they were just coming into the burnt orange, buttery yellows and crimson reds.  As we looked out over the lake and drove north towards Moosehead Lake, the colors became vivid and vibrant. It was like turning up a dimmer switch with the peak of the color coming the day before we planned to leave; the afternoon sun sinking and becoming a spotlight to enhance the colors as if on cue.  The mountain tops and lakeside trees stood in line to take a bow in full fanfare. The tree right next to the deck of the cabin lets its leaves loose to float down like snowflakes onto the water below. The leaves had shown up magically and brightly.

Pond

The water on the pond was in a constant state of change.  I was excited to wake up at dawn to see what present awaited me as the sun started to illuminate the landscape.  One morning the pond was still, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. There was just a sliver of a sunrise bolstered by a dark blue sky and waters.  The next day, a misty fog swept up the water and created a lavender smoke floating across the water in wafting billows. The third day, we kayaked across the water and saw the willows and lily pads and an otter swimming across the pond. Water can be still, or glistening in the sun, or creating white caps from the wind. It’s never the same experience from moment to moment. It’s hypnotizing with its magic.

Quiet

There was a stillness there.  A quiet that enveloped everything.  No trains, no cars, no airplanes or trucks.  The lapping of water at the pond’s edge, the tick of a clock, the footfall on crushing leaves on the deck, the heater turning on or the pump for the water; those were the only disturbances to the silence. It was a quiet that brings you into the present moment. It brought me back to the time of my childhood, sleeping on a cot in the cabin I lived in with my parents at Camp DeWitt, where moments seemed long and hung in the air with the lack of distraction.  The quiet was magical.

It was a sensory experience in Maine.  The smell of pine while hiking a trail, the visual kaleidoscope of autumnal color, the echoes of loons across the pond, the need for a sweatshirt to stay warm in a cabin and the unadulterated view of the milky way on a moonless night.  It was magic and I wish I could have bottled it up and taken it home.

Going to the Sun Road

Glacier National Park is referred to as the “Crown of the Continent” because of its spectacular peaks and glacier sculpted bowls. It’s one of those places, like the Ocracoke Island, where you can’t there from here. It looks close on a map but there isn’t an interstate taking you quickly and efficiently to the destination. It sits astride the border between Canada and the United States with the U.S.’s Glacier National Park on one side and Canada’s Waterton Lakes National Park on the other.  As my boyfriend, Roy and I were journeying across the country, we arrived at the park from the east side having traveled through the grasslands and wind turbines of Montana.  This ended up being fortuitous as most visitors arrive from Kalispel on the west side of the park.

Here are some highlights from the journey:

Lake McDonald, the largest lake along the Going to the Sun Road

Shelby

We found a hotel in Shelby, MT to stay the night before heading to the park.  Shelby is mostly a railway center.  It was established in 1892 as a junction between the Great Northern Railway and the Great Falls & Canada Railway.  Besides miles of railroad tracks and a Main Street that has seen better days, there is not much to do for the 3,000 some inhabitants.  Our hotel was right next to the railroad tracks, and I was amazed that I never woke up to the sound of a train or even a whistle during the night.  I was really astounded when, in the middle of a pandemic, a passenger train arrived in town. Apparently, Amtrak has service between Chicago and Seattle.  I can imagine that it must be a spectacular train ride as the only way to Seattle is through Glacier National Park.  It’s off the beaten path, which practically everything east of the park is, but it was a nice spot to launch our travels into the park the next day.

Sun Road

In July of 2021, we had to have a reserved ticket to drive on the Going to the Sun Road that I had reserved 60 days in advance.  If you don’t have a reservation, you must arrive early to get a same day pass.  This two-dollar ticket saved us an immense amount of time, so make sure you “splurge” and get a ticket if you plan on taking the drive.  I had a colleague who was in Glacier in early July and he was unable to go on the road because the spring…er summer plowing had not been complete.  The road officially opens on July 8th in 2021 after the herculean task of plowing the 50 miles the road traverses. This has to be one of the most scenic roads in the world between the pristine lakes, shear granite cliffs and glacier laden mountain peaks.  We traveled east to west which is by far the direction less traveled and was by far the best way to travel based on my acrophobia. When you head east to west, most of the ride is on the inside of the road but there are plenty of pull offs to enjoy the astounding views.

Saint Mary Lake

We entered the park and the Sun Road by Saint Mary Lake.  This is the second largest lake in the park and sits at 4,484 ft of elevation. It is a stunning lake as the Sun Road rises parallel to the length of the lake with the Rocky Mountains on the opposite side.  After a several days of riding through the grasslands of the mid-west, this was a stark contrast with Little Chief Mountain looming high above the lake. As we stopped at Rising Sun boat dock, dark ominous clouds rolled in and it started to rain.  As suddenly as they rolled in, they almost immediately rolled out. There are boats that tour the lake and drop hikers off at trailheads.  Because it is near the end of the Sun Road if you are traveling eastbound, there are very few cars and tourists.  Just the drive along this 10-mile-long pristine lake was worth the price of admission.

Grizzly Bears

Glacier has about 300 grizzly bears living inside the park boundaries.  When we arrived in late July, it was prime berry season.  Bears depend on berries to store up for hibernation.  We pulled off at Sunrift Gorge to take a trail down to a waterfall.  It was only about a mile down but Roy and I had left our bear spray in the car.  As we headed down the trail, it seemed to close in with vegetation covered in berries.  There were no other folks on the trail at the time.  After about a half a mile I chickened out and Roy and I headed back to the car.  There are so many warnings about grizzly bears in the park and at every trailhead, I felt like it would be impossible to not see a bear and we had no way to defend ourselves.  At a pull out close to Logan Pass (the highest point on the road at 6,647 ft), a ranger had a skull of a grizzly and was showing it to onlookers and warned that bears were loading up on berries.  Between the bear spray videos Roy and I watched on YouTube, the ranger and all the warnings in the park, I was too spooked to really enjoy a hike.  No, I didn’t see a bear in the park.

Lake McDonald

Towards the end of the Sun Road are the clear waters of Lake McDonald. This is the largest lake in the park and it is the big draw for all photographers.  Since most folks enter the road from this end, it was little bit more congested but it is a must stop.  We stopped near Lake McDonald Lodge and walked along the stony beach. The water is crystal clear and the colorful stones carpet the bottom of the lake as it sits beneath a crown of glaciered peaks. As we walked long the shore a family of three deer came sauntering by.  It was one of those moments in nature I will not soon forget.

As we left the park headed to Kalispel, we headed out the West Glacier entrance. The western end of the park has by far the most services both in and outside the park.  It was about 4 PM and we passed a line of cars waiting to get in and on the Going to the Sun Road as least 5 miles long sitting at a standstill. We had such good fortune to be heading east to west, terrific weather, and no bear encounters. The Going to the Sun Road was worth being on my bucket list and I’m happy I was able to check it off.

The Magic Pill for Learning

I’ve been reading Dr. Matthew Walker’s book, Why We Sleep. It was recommended by a client of mine and the book has some terrific insights and revelations related to sleep.  The most profound for me is the affect of sleep on my ability to learn. Sleep is the magic pill for learning.  The problem with this finding is that it’s so hard for me to set up my day to make sure I get enough sleep to create the environment that will let me do my best thinking and learning.  It would be so much easier to just take a “learning” pill.  In today’s world of constant distraction, twenty-four-hour connectivity and incessant demands on time, sleep seems to be on the short end of the stick. 

Here are the reasons to make sleep a priority for learning:

Preparation

Sleep prepares your brain for encoding memories and learning. As quoted on News In Health, “We’ve learned that sleep before learning helps prepare your brain for initial formation of memories,” says Dr. Matthew Walker, a sleep scientist at the University of California, Berkeley.” So, getting at least 7 hours of sleep before preparing to learn something is important to set up your brain for success.  A good night’s sleep before your guitar lesson, before your Spanish class, before your study session with your classmates may be as important as the sleep before the exam or recital.

Storage

Your capacity to store information is linked to the amount of sleep you have received. As written on Found my Fitness, “Sleep also facilitates the more permanent storage of new information that has been stored in the hippocampus – the region of the brain responsible for the formation and consolidation of short-term memories. Sleep that occurs after exposure to new information fulfills the role of the brain’s “save button.” I think back to my undergraduate days at Cornell.  I always crammed for several hours right before I went to sleep.  I rarely looked at notes on the day of the test.  In retrospect, I was storing the information the night before.  I don’t remember if I was getting a good night’s sleep but I was definitely putting my sleep between me and the exam. Sleep creates a space for better storage.

Transfer

Sleep is the mechanism by which your new learning is transferred into long term memories. As posited by Found my Fitness, “The intake and storage of mere short-term information are insufficient for optimal learning, however. The final, and perhaps most critical, way in which sleep aids in learning is that it provides a mechanism by which new information can be permanently stored – the formation of long-term memories via transfer to the brain’s cortex, where they can be retained and then retrieved for future use. Without this transfer phase, we run the risk of hippocampal-associated memory impairment.” I rarely, if ever, did an all-nighter while in college. Perhaps I realized that it was futile.  Like when I reread a sentence or bullet over and over again and couldn’t remember what I’d just read, I realize I’m too tired and go to sleep. The transfer of information won’t happen without a good night’s sleep.

Replay

There are studies where they were able to cue up study participants to remember certain aspects of learning.  As written by Dr. Walker, “When we sleep, memories and their associated events acquired during periods of wakefulness are reactivated. Essentially, the brain “replays” the events that occurred prior to sleeping, a process that stabilizes memories by serving as a pruning mechanism, selectively strengthening strongly associated memories and weakening weakly associated ones. A surprising fact is that this process can be amplified by “cueing” the reactivation during sleep with sub-awakening threshold sounds, odors, or other sensory cues – based on the context of the learning received the previous day.” Unfortunately, they haven’t figured out how to do this outside of the laboratory, but I think of cramming for an exam and how I would prime myself to remember certain aspects and try and disregard the periphery. Of course, there were the uncomfortable moments on an exam when the one section I didn’t study showed up and caught me up.  It was not “cued” up in my memory regardless of my sleep the night before.

I teach an evening online Human Resource Certification class at Duke University.  I polled the students the other night and almost all were tired and exhausted from the three-hour fire hose of information. Now I realize that they need to make sure they get a good night’s sleep the night before and, a good night’s sleep after to make sure the information gets solidified in memories. I had no idea that sleep was the magic pill for learning.  Are you getting enough sleep around your learning?

Stark and Serene Little Big Horn

On our summer coast to coast trip, my boyfriend Roy and I had the opportunity to visit the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument.  In talking with my brother Rick later, I believe that I had been there as an eight-year-old with my family on a cross country trailer trip.  It would make sense since my dad was a history buff and what is known as “Custer’s Last Stand” would have been a place he would have wanted to visit. So, in driving from Devil’s Tower in Wyoming to Billings Montana, there appeared on the map Little Big Horn.  We decided to venture into the park.

On June 25 and 26th of 1876, “Custer’s Last Stand” took place with the U.S. Army losing 268 and 55 severely wounded; 31 Native American warriors and 10 bystanders lost their lives.  It was a great victory for Lakota leaders, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. Among the Lakota people it is referred to as the Battle of Greasy Grass. It is a place for reverence for all who lost their lives.

Here are my highlights from the battlefield:

Stark

This place is in the middle of vast rolling grasslands.  We arrived on an unusually hot, windy day.  It was 113 degrees and it was very gusty. I almost felt transported back to the dust bowl.  Dry, hot and windy.  Amid this starkness and undulating grass are headstones, a single lane road and several monuments.  It is barren.  As you drive from one vantage point to the next or walk from one monument to another, there is nothing but wind and infinite space.  Among that space are headstones dotted in hilltops, gullies, and plains. This place is stark and austere.

Horses

We spotted several groups of wild horse roaming free on the grasslands. There was a mix of graceful chestnut, palomino and pinto horses communing close to the banks of the Little Big Horn River. It’s fascinating to me that these beautiful beasts are roaming free in the Montana grasslands.

Crow

As we traveled across the west, many of the national parks have a good bit of their land that is Native American property. Depending on the tribe, that portion of the park can be closed.  At Little Big Horn, we were able to travel through the whole park. I felt fortunate that we were able to see the whole park. I was really touched to see that the Crow people had donated a good portion of the land on which the national monument sits “in hopes that people of all races could enjoy this place of beauty together.” I felt honored to be able to enjoy it.

Two fallen Native American warriors

Serene

I felt as if the place was utterly serene.  Roy described it as spiritual.  There is reverence here.  In the quiet beauty of the swaying grass, the roaming horses and the headstones dotting the hills where warriors fell. I was most struck by the headstones that were side by side.  Two by two randomly across the countryside. There is the main graveyard where most of the U.S. Calvary and Lt. Col. Custer lost their lives but beyond that, scattered on the hillsides there are pairs of head stones. The white stones were of the fallen army soldiers and the red stones were of the fallen Native Americans.   Somehow, I found it comforting to know that perhaps when they fell, they were not alone.

In 1992, this hollowed place was renamed Little Big Horn Battlefield (from Custer’s Battlefield) to recognize the Native Americans on both sides of the conflict, Custer had Crow and Arika scouts working for him while there were over one thousand Lakota and Northern Cheyenne warriors on the other side of the fight. There is a beautiful sculpture called “Peace through Unity” to create understanding between all races.  It’s a place of serenity, reverence and stark beauty, I highly recommend taking it in.

Return to the Badlands

Merriam-Webster

noun:

badlands: a region marked by intricate erosional sculpturing, scanty vegetation, and fantastically formed hills —usually used in plural.

It’s been fifty-plus years since I stood looking out over the masterful beauty of the Badlands National Park in South Dakota. The first time was on a coast-to-coast trip with my family at the age of eight in a roll down the window station wagon and trailer; no AC. In my faded memory, I remember driving through the park at sunset and being overwhelmed by the pastel glow of the Badlands as the sun drifted into the horizon. At that point in my life, the stark barren beauty of the Badlands was completely foreign to me.  It’s a visceral memory for me. All I remember is what I felt. Awed and part of something much bigger than myself. So, when my boyfriend, Roy, and I set out on a coast-to-coast trip this summer, the badlands were a must revisit destination.

Roy and I at the end of Door Trail in the Badlands.

Here are the highlights from my return to the Badlands:

The Door Trail

I think part of the reason I remember this park is that it is so easily experienced. While I might get frustrated standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon looking down at an ice-encrusted impassable trail, the Badlands begs to be experienced. The Door Trail does not disappoint. After walking down a boardwalk for about 2/10’s of a mile, you go off into the badlands and follow numbered yellow markers until you get to a poignant sign marked “End of the Trail”. It requires mental and physical agility to make your way through the trail (or lack of a trail). I was completely engaged on a way forward by climbing, stepping and hiking within and around hills, mounds, steps and gullies. It was hot and windy and many folks were out there climbing around. There was camaraderie with the other hikers as I watched how others traversed the obstacles. Experience the Door Trail.

The Prairie

Unlike the southwestern portion of the United States (i.e., Grand Canyon, Arches, etc.), the Badlands of South Dakota are interspersed among vast swaths of prairie. I was taken aback by how, after countless hours of driving on I-90 and miles and miles of prairie, there were these barren formations of the badlands. When driving through the park, I kept miscalculating where we were because we were suddenly surrounded by prairie again so I thought, well, I guess we’re almost done; and then we would take another corner and the prairie receded and there were more stark colorful formations taking over the horizon. The prairie, on the other hand, was flat and covered in grass or small mounds. It’s quite the juxtaposition.

The Animals

Even though it’s called Badlands, there is an abundance of wildlife. I saw two animals I had never seen in the wild before on this trip. One was pronghorn antelope. There was a small herd grazing in the prairie very close to the road. Next was prairie dogs. There were hundreds of prairie dogs in mounds across the prairie. I was surprised and intrigued by their little chirps to each other. There was a private business outside the park that advertised feeding prairie dogs. There is no need, there were plenty to behold, video and gawk at from the drive through the park. The last animal I had seen before hiking at Canyonlands in Utah were bighorn sheep. I was surprised that bighorn sheep could be found in the middle of the prairie instead of stalking the barren rocks. In about 2 hours we ended up spotting pronghorn antelope, prairie dogs, bighorn sheep and longhorn cattle. Amazing.

When I reminisced with my brother Rick about returning to the Badlands, his memory is that we had just pulled off the side of the road in the park and camped there that night in the trailer. Perhaps that’s why I remember sunset and the glow of the Badlands. What’s remarkable is how little it has changed yet my experience was so different as I have a new appreciation for the size and diversity of the park. I’m glad I had the chance to return.

The Cruel and Stunning Death Valley

I’ve crossed the Mojave Desert several times in my life. I used to live in Northern California and either driving along I-15 to Las Vegas or I-40 to Albuquerque or Phoenix, took me through the Mojave at least ten times. I always longed to take the detour to Death Valley. It was just never practical to drive the extra 3-4 hours round trip until August of this year. My boyfriend Roy and I were on a coast-to-coast-to-coast trip visiting National Parks and family when we planned to head back to the East Coast. There it was. Looming in the middle of the map. A gigantic chunk in Eastern California: Death Valley. Sure…it’s August. Yeah…it’s hot. OK…it’s a long drive with very few services. But why not? When was this opportunity going to land in my lap again while I live in North Carolina? Likely never. So, Roy (having already driven some 5,000 miles) was game and off to Death Valley we went.

Roy and I at Zabriskie Point in Death Valley

Here are some of the highlights:

Shoshone – We set off from my brother and sister-in-law’s home in Palo Alto. As we made plans the day of our travels, I searched for places to stay as we drove down I-5 on our way to Bakersfield. I found a motel that was in the town of Shoshone about 45 minutes from one of the park entrances. Shoshone was just a little dot on the map. By the time we passed through the dilapidated town of Baker, I had no cell coverage. I had no idea if the motel had even 2 stars on their reviews. I was starting to get nervous because, arriving in Shoshone after driving 500 miles into the middle of nowhere, we had no other air-conditioned options. Thankfully the Shoshone Inn was a completely renovated delightful motel. We almost opted to buy a few gallons of gas but at $5.49 per gallon, we figured that a half tank would get us to Las Vegas. If you go to Death Valley, the Shoshone Inn is a must-stay although make sure you go with a full tank of gas.

Sweet little Shoshone Inn outside Death Valley

Jubilee Pass Road

We left for the park from the motel around 6 PM. We had no idea how long it would take to visit the park but we knew we at least wanted to go to Badwater Basin, so we headed out, according to the map, by the most direct route. We had no GPS as we headed on Jubilee Pass Road. It was 115 degrees, a blazing sun, a desolate road, and absolutely no other living things as we drove on a road with no signs except to instruct to stay on the road (no problem there). I was nervous. We had a few bottles of water but you start thinking about “what if’s” as you drive in such inhospitable territory. If we break down, if we get a flat tire, if the engine overheats….you get the picture. This was obviously not the main road in the park, the terrain was other worldly with its orange, yellow and white rock without vegetation or signs of life. I know what you’re thinking…. it’s not call Death Valley for its abundance in flora and fauna but the reality of driving through it is breathtaking. Scary, cruel but breathtaking.

Badwater Basin

From the motel, it took 90 minutes to arrive at Badwater Basin. 90 long, dry, hot minutes to arrive at what is the money-shot of Death Valley. This is the lowest point in North America at 282 feet below sea level.  When we arrived, it was 120 degrees. It was remarkable how the temperature climbed as we started going below sea level.  We parked and walked out on the salt flats of the evaporated “badwater”. It was oppressively hot and the wind was relentless. Buffeting winds whipped across stark salt flats and the Panamint Mountain range 10 to 11 thousand feet (obscured by smoke) loomed as a silhouette. There were two cars in the parking lot, so it was comforting to know that we were no longer alone in such an inhospitable place. High up on the valley wall was a sign that said “SEA LEVEL” which really makes you grasp how truly isolated we were.

Badwater Basin at 282 feet below sea level in Death Valley

Zabriskie Point

We decided to go back on a more heavily traveled road and stumbled on Zabriskie Point. By this time there were three cars in the parking lot (a CROWD!). A winding paved path goes up the Zabriskie Point which is named after Christian Brevoort Zabriskie, general manager of the Pacific Coast Borax Company (the company used twenty mule teams to transport borax mining operations in Death Valley). This vantage point is stunning. Again, there is no vegetation, or birds, or bugs. Just rock formations some of which look like jello molds or waves of soft ice cream. It felt like I was standing on the precipice of a cataclysmic change that had occurred many thousands of years ago and that I could have traveled by rocket ship to have witnessed it.

We only visited about a quarter of the National Park. I feel like it was just a taste. Perhaps a nibble of the entirety of the park. If you can make the trip, in a sturdy, gas-filled car with plenty of water, I would highly recommend it. I know I will be going back. The best of course is that I remembered as we arrived back at the motel that I wanted to make sure I went outside to look at the stars. Roy and I walked outside and looked up at the milky blanket of stars above. If you go, don’t forget to look up at the stunning beauty above.

What Story Are You Telling?

You walk into the room and everyone snickers. They must hate the new shoes I am wearing. Your assistant forgets to copy you on an email. She must have it out for me. Your boss doesn’t return your text for at least 2 hours. She must not think I am important enough.

These are all stories we tell ourselves. We take a few floating facts and put them into a story that sets us up for disappointment. We feel marginalized and often shut down. The thing is that everyone tells Their Story in their own head. But how often do we test our assumptions? How often do we verify that we have The Story right? This whole concept was illuminated in Brene Brown’s powerful book, Rising Strong.

Here is how to unravel your story:

  • Curious.  As Brene wrote, “Choosing to be curious is choosing to be vulnerable because it requires us to surrender to uncertainty.” It is so much easier to live in our self-deprecating assumptions that everyone is out to get us. When we open ourselves to curiosity, we open to possibility. This helps reframe or re-write the story. So how does this play out? Hmmm. Maybe my boss is in an important meeting. Maybe my assistant didn’t forget to copy me intentionally. Maybe I should ask my friend why everyone was snickering. Remain curious.
  • Wabi-Sabi.  Wabi-Sabi is accepting imperfection and uncertainty. As Brene wrote, “It’s always helpful to remember that when perfectionism is driving, shame is riding shotgun.” Striving for perfection is exhausting. You will never be ________ (fill in the blank: good, smart, thin, funny) enough. Seeking perfection is inviting shame. The shoes will never be right. The report not all encompassing enough. Shame will not help the story in your head. Embrace the wabi-sabi in your life.
  • Enough.  This is one of the best quotes from the book: “Many of us will spend our entire lives trying to slog through the shame swampland to get to a place where we can give ourselves permission to both be imperfect and to believe we are enough.” It’s so important to tell yourself that you are enough. Try this: Shoulder’s back, stride into the room, smile and make eye contact. The next time you are walking into a room of new people, try it. It makes a remarkable difference in how you show up and how you feel. You are enough.
  • Own it.  Brene wrote, “Owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing we’ll ever do.” I’ve done this a few times with my son over the last few weeks. When I started believing that he was mad at me or was upset about something, I would start by saying, “So I have two stories that I’m telling myself. One is that you have a lot of irons in the fire and can’t respond to my text. The other is that you are distancing yourself from me.” Guess which story was true. Now I can own the real story.
  • Discomfort. This can be uncomfortable. It takes bravery. As Brene posits, “People who wade into discomfort and vulnerability and tell the truth about their stories are the real bad-asses.” Think of yourself as a New York Times reporter fact-checking your story. It’s definitely uncomfortable to step into the vulnerability of uncertainty. If it’s too comfortable, are you really challenging the facts of the story. Engage in discomfort.
  • Ditch comparison. Comparing yourself to other’s is another way of writing the wrong story. As Brene wrote, “Stay in your own lane. Comparison kills creativity and joy.” Comparison is a limiting belief. In addition, it invites in perfectionism. My neighbor has a nicer car. My boss has a bigger office. I don’t make as much money as my colleague. Not very inspiring. Nothing to compel you onward and upward! We are all on our own path. As Brene says, “Stay in your own lane.”

I have slowly tried to incorporate this into my life. I take a step back when I am angry or resentful over something and try to reframe my story. It’s not easy but I do feel more present and I am able to re-write the story. What story do you need to reframe?