How to Survive in an Age of Social Media

Confession: I can't stand social media. And yet, ironically, social media is my job description.

Now, before you berate me for engaging in something I don't necessarily approve of, hear me out: 

My struggle is this: In a world where cultivating a killer social media presence is key to garnishing more double-tapped "approval" and a larger follower base, based on the aesthetic of our lives told in a 1080 x 1080px photo of ourselves at the trendiest spot in town, or our perfectly poised cup of coffee and avocado toast, where do we find true authenticity?

As a content coordinator for several fitness, travel, and lifestyle social media accounts, I am constantly bombarded with visual proof of people who do much cooler things than I do. I mean, I work an 8-to-4 Monday-Friday office job (that's pretty cush, don't get me wrong), but it's not a life of skiing at Crystal Mountain every day (okay, yes, I did have my 103-day ski season of '15-'16), showing the world my yogic flexibility or athletic abilities, or posing in super cute clothes and perfectly made-up face and hair. Because let's be real: half the time I can't even put together an outfit that doesn't include a bulky flannel shirt, yoga pants, minimal (if any) makeup, and a messy bun resembling a rat's abode; and my adventures never result in me looking anything close to cool. I mean, just look at how much of a dork I am in probably one of the coolest photos taken of me, below:

My sister, Rachel, once quipped that I was upping my social media presence with this photo. Mic drop.

My sister, Rachel, once quipped that I was upping my social media presence with this photo. Mic drop.

When I begin to compare myself to the infinite world of Instagram influencers who can rest on getting paid to advertise the cutest watches or newest Patagonia gear, I lose sight of what truly matters to me, and I feel the unnecessary pressure to conform to the world's skewed standards of perfection. Scrolling deeper into the mire of carefully curated posts, I find myself believing that my experience in the world is somehow less valid than those of others whose professionally photographed lives grace the screen of my phone. I mean, my fiancé can barely take a selfie, so of course I can't trust him to take photos of me that meet Instagram standards (...sorry honey).

I have to remind myself that the photographs I see, as beautiful as they are, are staged. As such, they cannot reflect the full spectrum of our complex human experience. They lack the beauty of the broken humanity we are born into; the phases of stagnation; the excitement of newness; the struggles we find ourselves buried in for days, months, years; and the everything in between. They represent a growing, falsified ideal of the perfectly unattainable life that I believe all of us - Instagram influencer or not - cannot achieve, no matter the carefully curated aesthetic of our Instagram feed. And that, at its core, is the definition of inauthenticity.

If there's anything I hate, it's inauthenticity. But how do we create an authentic experience on social media without being that person whose every post morphs into a mini- (or majorly obnoxious) rant?

Stay True to You

We all know that comparison is the thief of joy, and we all know that it can sometimes be near impossible not to compare ourselves to others. But to survive the madness of our hyper-comparative culture, we need to learn the art of embracing who we are to the very core, not worrying about how many likes we won't receive because we're simply putting our unedited foot forward.

Social media in and of itself is not bad; the use of social media to feel better about yourself by posting on trend photos is where we get in trouble. Representing yourself - good days and bad days alike - and using social media as a tool to connect with others in a meaningful way should be the ideal of #socialmediagoals. Otherwise, all we are is a façade that will never be fully satisfied beyond the likes we receive.

Being authentic is not about abusing the platform to gain attention for your deepest, darkest secrets. I recently rediscovered one of those silly Facebook pages I liked when I was 15, merely because the owner of the page had suddenly decided to use it as a stage to floodgate her followers as a means to garnish attention for her struggle with anorexia - which was totally unrelated to the entire purpose of the page. I was deeply sorry for her struggles, but unfollowed the page immediately. I am not saying we can't share about the hard stuff, because there is room for that. We need to establish healthy boundaries around what we share with the public, and there are therapists and (hopefully) amazing, understanding, loving people in your life who can help you through your hardest times. Use those as your resource, not your social media followers.

Let's please also let go of recreating others' "camping" photos of their cute-booted feet hanging out of an old van with an expansive mountainside lake in the background and geometric-print wool blankets on the van's floor because they look cool. I beg of you, please. First, nobody looks that cute when they're camping (unless that's just me?). Plus, that trend (among many others) is getting tired. Show your life through your lens, not the lens of what is currently popular. Today's trends will die, but who you are to the core will never fade. So what if your style isn't trendy? Own it and share it anyway!

It's Okay Not to be Known

I think, perhaps, the piece that social media insecurity taps into most is the notion that you will go unnoticed. If I'm being honest, I go through this destructive thought pattern too many times a week - and even a day - scrolling through all the awesome content and insane number of likes those posts receive that mine will never reach. Especially as a person who hungers for significance and who expresses herself through photography, I struggle with reconciling the reality of my Instagram status with the aspirational content I view across so many of the accounts I follow.

There's also a reason I've chosen to keep my Instagram account private. Though I desire the Internet world's approval and acceptance, I also recognize that I do not need to establish my self-worth on others' approval of my photography, or how incredible I look in photos. What truly matters is being significant in the lives of those most significant to me. Because if my family, fiancé, friends - and self - all love me for who I am at the core with or without my most perfect face on, that's what matters. 

Sometimes I long for the days before advertisers caught on to Instagram's power to market (because it's an amazing effective tool, let's be honest). AKA #TBT to when I first got my Instagram account in 2011, before I even knew what it was for (like, honestly, I didn't even know people could follow you and like your posts! I thought it was just a gallery I could keep for myself, lol naïve little Leigh!) and before it blew up and somehow became the determinant of social status and cool factor. But when your sense of self-worth becomes wrapped up in your social media presence, perhaps that's a clue you need to try out tip no. 3.

Turn it Off

Social media detox can be one of the most freeing experiences in this day and age. This is a great route for those who find themselves getting too wrapped up in the comparison and unhappiness social media can spark. Some of the best times I've had in my entire adult life have come when I've unplugged from social media: retreats, camping, lent, or just choosing not to engage. With the lack of social comparison (and realizing I'm really not as cool as I wish I were), I am more self-loving, I am more of myself, I am less self-judgmental, I am kinder. My entire existence is actually more enjoyable without the classically conditioned response to social media interaction. Your brain might itch for some of those feel-good endorphins stimulated by our ever-increasing visual world for the first week or so, but the experience rewires the way you think about your place, and how you interact with others, in this world.

No matter where you stand on the spectrum of social media users - whether you're an influencer, a daily user, or you've gone rogue, thinking through your relationship with social media is a process that could enrich your experience with the platform. Bottom line is, let's be authentically ourselves as we share our lives with others, and let's redefine what significance and relevance mean to us, because we all know that no matter how many likes you get on a photo, it's never going to be enough. So maybe it's time to change how we think about our social media presence and interact with our social media world.

You might even find yourself deleting your accounts. And there's nothing wrong with that.

Symptoms of Toxic Masculinity

It is not my fault that I was threatened and borderline stalked by a male student in my academic division. I was not asking for it. In fact, I did everything in my power to ward off his aggressive advances. I used the words, "No" and "Stop" too many times to be at fault for leading him on or asking for it.

The recent #MeToo movement on social media, though an incredible tool for displaying the sheer populace of self-disclosing women who have been affected by rape and sexual harassment culture, is incomplete in engaging the entire culture in erasing the rape from rape culture. #MeToo still begs the question:

Why are women to blame for the actions of their male perpetrators? Why are questions always posed to the victim, assuming it was solely her own decisions that led to her rape? How much were you drinking? What were you wearing? Why did you wear that perfume?

As long as women are the ones to answer for the wrongful actions of men, as long as women are perpetually burdened with the onus not only to work through the emotional baggage, but also to solve this problem, fixing our existing rape culture will never truly happen. It will only allow men to slip further into the background, away from the responsibility of the choices they have made to violate a woman (or multiple women's) boundaries and safety in ways that implicate shame, self-devaluation, and many other psychological reactions, rather than to come forward and fess up for their wrongdoings and the consequences of these choices.

Why? Because our experiences are the symptom of a generally male problem.

Why aren't men asked these questions? Why don't we ask men, How much were you drinking? Why did you follow her down a dark alley? Why did you rape her? 

These questions force the subject of active voice, instead of our typically passive approach to rape culture. When we talk about women as the subject of rape, instead of the direct object of the true subject's action, we let men off the hook. In the words of Jackson Katz:

We talk about how many women were raped last year, not about how many men raped women. We talk about how many girls in a school district were harassed last year, not about how many boys harassed girls...So you can see how the use of the passive voice has a political effect. [It] shifts the focus off of men and boys and onto girls and women...Men aren't even a part of it!

Sadly, this is all too true of the language we use to construct rape culture. Too often are women blamed for a male problem. It is the rapist's problem that he felt the need to exercise his power over his victim to rape her and feel more powerful (or whatever his intrinsic motivation might have been for acting out the rape). Similarly, it is not the prostitute's fault that she is enslaved to the system, it is the fault of the men that put her body in demand for their own conquest.

What our rape culture comes down to is the male issue of toxic hyper-masculinity, where power, dominance, competition, the suppression of emotions, ego, and brute strength play a major role in encouraging harmful behavior not only towards women but towards others in general. When there is a perceived threat to the system of masculinity (e.g., insecurity), the fight or flight response pops up and these socially-taught values kick into overdrive. With a lack of emotional intelligence (aka apathy), people are less likely to see the emotional consequences of their actions. My friend, Scott Lahn, wrote this enlightening article from his male perspective on cat-calling women that we could all learn from. The result is a toxic cycle of insecurity-induced harm that leads to ingrained behaviors, all because of the subtle and not-so-subtle messages we receive about what masculinity looks like. But the truth is, masculinity looks like being empathetic, listening, crying...all those things our society classically labels as emasculated.

So. What can we do?

  1. Take Ownership

    Let's please stop blaming the victims and shift the responsibility to those who have made the choices to sexually harass, stalk, abuse, or rape women. If you are a victim, it's not your fault, what you were wearing, or if you were "asking for it" or not. If you have acted against a woman's boundaries, I encourage you to look inside yourself and evaluate what exactly prompted that. Was it fear of not being masculine enough? What happened to you that led you to make the choices you made? (Note: If you answer saying something about what she did or was wearing, you're doing the exercise wrong.) After completing an honest evaluation of what happened, consider telling someone about it. AA isn't wrong when it says that the first step to fixing something is acknowledging the problem. A lot can heal when you take ownership for your actions.
  2. Seek Understanding

    No matter what side you're on, processing these things is extremely helpful. Painful, yes, but vastly helpful to understanding what's at work beneath the surface, to parsing out the lies about who you are from the absolute truth that you are a wonderful, cherished person. You may have made bad decisions, you might have been violated, but you are not bad. (Thinking you're bad is a symptom of shame; see any work by Brené Brown for this.)

    It should also be noted that, despite the oftentimes traumatic effects of rape, abuse, or sexual harassment, your story can be beneficial for helping others heal. Mike Foster says something along the lines of "It's our broken stories that can be redeemed to help others heal along the way" in his workbook Wonderlife. My most shameful stories have actually been the ones to bring the most insight to empathizing with others, to walking alongside them in their times of extreme hurt and self-doubt.
  3. Be an Ally

    This article about sums it up.
  4. Speak Up

    When it comes to rape culture, we (especially women) remain silent in the face of harm. Because there exists a system of slut shaming - and shaming in general - surrounding the misfortunes of rape and assault victims. But we can create a stronger system of support for our fellow women when we speak out and bring injustices to light, for darkness cannot exist when exposed to the light of our truth, spoken in boldness. The more we come together in loving support of those whose boundaries and basic human rights have been violated, the more progress we can make in correcting the billions of wrongs that have insidiously worked their way into the underlying workings of our culture. Let's critique those societal notions and create a culture in which those affected come forward with confidence, rather than remaining silent in shame for fear of their lives or futures.
  5. Pursue Justice

    Let's not let this #MeToo movement slip by as we become distracted by all the noise in the world. Let's always be vigilant, correcting injustices and harmful attitudes where they are seen, providing safe spaces for affected people to open up in confidentiality, coming closer to a world where women don't have to fear for their lives and safety on a daily basis.

I've remained silent on my experience with sexual harassment for nearly four years, and it is time that I take a step forward to speak for the women who feel they have no voice. I believe it is time for all of us to speak up, to put an end to blaming the symptoms and victims of toxic masculinity rather than cultivating dialogue around the true disease of the attitudes and beliefs that lead people to acting with disrespect.


For more, I recommend visiting The Representation Project website for how to take action and watching Miss Representation and The Mask You Live In, documentaries created by TRP on women's and men's gender stereotypes, respectively, available for streaming on Netflix.

Note: I am aware that many men are also survivors of sexual assault, and that needs to be addressed. However, for the purposes of this post, I am focusing on women victims and male perpetrators. I also understand that not all males have violated women; there are a ton of great guys out there!

Me Too

Me Too.

I’d always believed the grounds of my alma mater were safe, that nothing bad could happen at a private Christian university. It wasn’t until I met and encountered this guy in several of my major classes my junior year that I understood the feeling of fear many women experience throughout their lifetimes. Though seemingly innocent at first, this guy began to pursue me. I wasn’t interested, but he persisted beyond the boundaries I put in place to tell him “No” as explicitly as possible. He let it be for the majority of the fall semester, but as we proceeded into spring semester, he restarted his pursuit. Even as I continued to communicate that I was uninterested, he continued to overstep his boundaries, this time aggressively. Though he had no reason to believe I was invested in his pursuit in any way (again, how many times can a woman say “No”???), he began texting me multiple times a day - sometimes even multiple times an hour - demanding to know where I was and what I was doing. I explained for the umpteenth time that I was not interested and asked him to respect my space and stop texting me. When began threatening me, I blocked his number.

Despite my best efforts to diffuse the situation, his behavior escalated to the point of stalking. He would wait outside of the communications building after class and watch me. I felt so threatened that I felt uncomfortable walking back to my apartment alone in broad daylight for fear of him following me or attacking me, although I was convinced he already knew where I lived. Though I was never physically harmed by this guy, and though the situation subsided before he took any more aggressive action, I was emotionally shaken and threatened solely by his presence in my class and on campus multiple times a week. I considered bringing the situation forth to my department or filing a restraining order, but like so many women, I remained silent, except to my best friend and my mentor, and let him get away with his complete disrespect for me as a woman.

I wish I had spoken up. After he finally stopped harassing me and disrespecting my boundaries, I heard word that he had started dating another woman in our major and was verbally and physically abusing her. I hate to think that her pain was caused in part by my fear of the systemic shaming of women who speak up against men who overstep their boundaries.

It can happen to anyone. And it does happen far more often than we even know. Let’s put an end to this.

You (Do Not) Complete Me

There comes a time in every relationship when the blinding effect of the proverbial rose-colored glasses wanes ever so gradually into unfiltered vision. It's in that process when you realize, hey, maybe this love thing isn't always so fun and exciting, because sometimes it's harder than hell. I call this the exiting honeymoon phase.

I've been in the exiting honeymoon phase for a bit of time, and I can attest that it is neither easy nor fun to push yourself into the discomfort of growing and learning about what it truly takes to pursue a life with someone, because life and relationships are guaranteed to be messy and hard. Just think about it: as if figuring out how to live your own individual life wasn't hard enough, let's add another person with his or her own differing perspectives and set of baggage to that process. When you add a second human to the equation of your individual life, you suddenly have to learn how not to be so damn selfish all the time, alongside learning a lot of disciplines and skills that are honestly impossible to enact 100 percent of the time. Where's the fun in that? To call entering the exiting honeymoon phase a learning curve is a gross understatement. Choosing to love someone through the difficult task of accepting them for all they are - and aren't - is at once exciting and deeply vulnerable. The people we choose to love and share our lives with are the people that can simultaneously bring the most joy to our lives and yet hurt us the deepest. When we bring our socially (or personally) constructed expectations into any relationship, we're bound to meet disappointment.

The phrase you complete me runs so rampantly in the structures and language of our culture, whether we believe it or not. Sam Smith's song, Make it to Me encapsulates this idea perfectly:

You're the one designed for me
A distant stranger that I will complete
I know you're out there we're meant to be
So keep your head up and make it to me

You complete me is the idea that we need someone else just as broken and messed up as we are to take our brokenness and fix it completely. But when you think about it in those terms, isn't that brazenly crazy?

Not only is this idea of completion in another unrealistic, it is more importantly unfair. And I'm not just saying this because I believe Jesus is the only one equipped, able, and meant to mend our broken lives, scarred memories, and bruised hearts. But rather because it's simply unethical to burden another human being with our high expectations of complete salvation from our faults, no matter their relationship to us.

And yet we're all guilty of doing this.

Heck, I'm so guilty of this it's embarrassing when I catch myself projecting my skewed and selfish expectations onto my boyfriend. That's a lot of pressure he shouldn't be burdened with to begin with. Pastor Tim Keller addresses this in his book The Meaning of Marriage when he says,

A marriage based not on self-denial but on self-fulfillment will require a low- or no-maintenance partner who meets your needs while making almost no claims on you. Simply put - today people are asking far too much in the marriage partner.... Modern people make the painfulness of marriage even greater than it has to be, because they crush it under the weight of their almost cosmically impossible expectations.... We look to sex and romance to give us what we used to get from God.

Though I should be wholly cognizant of this truth, having worked with a nonprofit focused on providing young adults with the tools and attitudes to form and develop healthy relationships, it's taken getting to a place of wrestling with my socially derived expectations and the contrasting reality of relationships in light of considering a lifetime commitment to someone to land in this place where "you don't complete me" makes perfect sense.

It's amusing how I arrived at this realization (though it has been overwhelmingly frustrating, I won't deny you the truth of the process). While my S.O. provides unwavering doses of stoic rationality to balance my overtly emotional experience of life, I can't imagine it's too hard to see how such contrasting approaches can lead to the frustration of not always feeling emotionally heard when he's in rational land. On the other hand, where Nathan doesn't understand where I'm coming from when I come in full-fledged emotional breakdown mode after some mean-spirited woman yelled at me for riding my bike across a crosswalk, my closest girlfriends have a greater sense of empathy when I'm caught in a war zone of emotions. Over the past couple months, I've caught myself in the dialogue of, "Well, my best friend gets it. Why doesn't he?" to the point of wavering dangerously close to doubting my ability to be in a relationship with someone who handles emotions totally differently than I do, and even fails to understand them at times.

My answer to the question, why doesn't he get it? was finally answered a couple mornings ago in the most underwhelming manner, as if I'd been sleepily reading the same sentence time after time with no idea what I was reading before returning to it the next morning with a more attentive and rested mind. What I finally realized mid-sentence was that my S.O. (or any one of my friends) isn't responsible for completing me by covering all the relational bases I need to feel best supported. In fact, the answer was so obvious that I barely registered I'd had a breakthrough until moments after I'd casually word vomited: "God has been showing me over the past few months that Nathan isn't supposed to be my everything. I guess that's why my best friends are so important: they offer a different kind of support and love than he might ever be able to embody. So I need to change my expectations for how I think Nathan should be supporting me in this relationship." Now that I've answered my own question, I can only wonder, why have I been so frustrated for so long?

It all comes back to this latent expectation I've built up over the 24 years of my life, influenced by the media and assorted messages thrown my way about finding my worth and completion in a man who loves me. Now that I am in a serious relationship, I'm becoming more and more aware of the fact that social notions about love are complete BS. My deep need for acceptance and validation comes not solely from my relationships with other broken people, but from someone wholly perfect, and I will never feel fully satisfied or loved in a life devoid of a relationship with God.

While Nathan gives me the reality checks I so often need and does a great job listening when I'm having one of my intense emotional reactions to something like ridiculously rude women yelling at me for biking in a crosswalk, I know I can also rely on my trusted girlfriends when I'm really needing to sort through my emotional walls. That is not to say that I can't talk to my S.O. about these more emotional matters; my relationship with him is simply different. There's no reason to expect him to be able to wear all the different hats and be everything I might want him to be - to fulfill and completely understand me. He can only be who he is, and I get to make the choice to choose him - as he is and isn't - in all matters.

That's why I have friends of all ages and backgrounds who are able support me in different ways. Together, these diverse people in my life create a greater composite of support and friendship than any single person can - and should - ever provide. And that's why I need to lean more on God to be the One that completes and redeemed me instead of my preconceived notions about love, relationships, and marriage.

Authentic Vulnerability

I struggle with identifying with the bubbly, vivacious, thoughtful, stable woman all the people around me see. Though I may seem it (I'm not entirely sure how), I am not an extrovert. I'm definitely not always cheerful. More often than not, I'm self-seeking because I'm deeply insecure. And let me tell you, my emotions can make me quite the mess (I cried at least 5 different times just yesterday).

On the outside, you'd never be able to tell I struggle with reconciling other's perceptions of my identity with my perceived sense of self, among a cacophony of other issues I couldn't fit into all the cabinets and closets in my apartment. As long as my façade communicates I'm okay, I'm really okay. As long as I look as though I have my life together on the outside, my life is perfect. Right?

We all struggle with something - if not many things - regardless of privilege, relationship status, salary, opportunities, or friend groups (or lack thereof). Beneath the surface of our perfectly filtered and captioned Instagram photos and American lives lie deep rooted insecurities, heartbreaks, disappointments, disconnection, doubts, even self-loathing. We all know this to be true, so why don't we talk about it?

Because the list is too long? Because we're afraid people wouldn't love us if they found out what we truly struggle with? Because we'll be automatically unworthy of connection if people caught a glimpse of the broken appliances behind the perfectly manicured appearances we keep?

Yes, I'm afraid of all these things.

Yes, vulnerability is terrifyingly scary.

Yes, they're all important to talk about and sort through.

No, I won't share an exhaustive list of my insecurities and issues on the Internet, but trust me, I've got struggles and issues a-plenty [insert Little Mermaid song here].

But I will tell you this: it is essential that we share our stories, our struggles, and our real selves with other people. How else can we create the deep, meaningful relationships we all so desperately long for?

One of the highlights of my college career was a life group I got to participate in with a few close friends the spring semester of my senior year. During one of our meetings, one of my fellow members bravely brought up her struggle with body image. At the time I was going to therapy for my own body image issues, disordered eating, and anxiety, which I had kept carefully under wraps so nobody would know the immense internal struggle I was enduring. But something exhilaratingly magical happened for me (and I'm sure all the women in this group) when my friend voiced the shame wrapped around her disorders: every single one of us either had experienced or was going through the same exact struggle. I think we all shared a sigh of relief as we all partook in the knowledge that we were not alone. And we all, through that one act of brave vulnerability, grew closer as a supportive community, as we learned that it was better to share than to keep our struggles packed inside, numb to the touch of kindred spirits and the power of the two simple words, Me too.

You see, people can't support us if they don't know what we're going through. Because SURPRISE!!!!!!! people can't actually read our minds, as much as we wish they could. Shocker, right? #hellasarcasm #whyelsewouldiuse7exclamationpointsinasentence

I know it's hard, trust me. It's terrifying to honestly express the self-doubt, the sense of unworthiness, the desire to withdraw and shut down when I'm at my most vulnerable, knowing that people have the choice to either honor your trust or break it (and how many times have taught us not to share these truths when others have used them against us with - or even without - the intent to hurt?). We take a huge risk when we entrust our unsightly realities with others, even if they are close to us. But more often than not, the resulting connection is worth the risk of baring all in the bloodbath life can be.

My point is not that we go around floodlighting people with all our baggage - that's not fair to anyone involved, especially if you don't know or trust the other person particularly well. Rather, my point is it's essential that we be real about where we are at least with the people closest to us, and that we remember we are all limping through life, broken and in a place of deep need. The antidote? Authentic vulnerability.

Disclaimer and shameless plug: A LOT of what I have learned about shame and vulnerability over the past few years is all thanks to the wonderful shame researcher, Brené Brown. I know, shame is scary and gross sounding, but we all deal with it, and shame resilience is a freakin awesome tool to keep in your tool belt at all times, because tool belts are also freakin awesome. Check her, her books, and her Ted Talks out. Seriously. You won't regret it. 


Hunting the Good

At the start of each year, most of us step into the unknown with the determination that this is going to be the best year yet. I can honestly say I'm not really the type to romanticize the new year, seeing as we never know what each day has in store, but I will admit there is a raw energy in the air as people set out to improve their lives, fitness routines, health, and the like. It catches like the common cold: quickly and certainly. Impervious as my immune system may be, I am not exempt from the hopes that the new year will be better than all the ones in the past.

I'd be lying if I said 2017 has been the best year yet. Because, circumstantially speaking, it hasn't. For a solid two months, I was convinced that 2017 was the worst thing to happen to me as one thing after another broke, from my car (three times within 10 days) to my computer (RIP MacBook Pro) to my external hard drive that contains my entire professional and academic life to my phone - not to mention the stolen license plate and the physical therapy sessions - and many other things that have fallen into the unkempt pile of Things to Fix. Did I mention most of these fell apart on me within the span of two months? I laughed when my friends told me trouble comes in set of threes, and then began breaking down in tears each subsequent time something gave out on me, requiring the majority of the money I have worked to make over the past year. And just when I thought I'd gotten through the breakage and was planning on budgeting so hardcore I'd make all my money back, the next thing would break. You could say it's been the most expensive year of my life, and I'm still slightly devastated each time I check my bank account. 

It seemed as though my life was slowly imploding, as the weight of all I had to fix and pay for settled upon my frame. No matter how heavy I lifted, I wasn't going to be strong enough to shake these burdens off. I was too weak, and my emotional wellbeing was far from okay.

Then there were the emotional breakdowns: the result of piling too much busyness and responsibility onto myself when I wasn't even taking the time to care for myself. I was scheduled from 6am to sometimes 9 or 10 at night, with little time to sit still and give my introvert self the nourishment I so needed. My effectiveness at work decreased, my relationships became unhinged, and cortisol flowed freely through my system every single second of the day. To the point where my kidneys started to shut down and my friends forced me to take an entire day off with no technology and limited human interaction.

You could say it's been a rough year. But you could also say it's been a wonderful year.

While stranded in Salida after car breakdown no. 3, I got to read and bask in the glorious warmth of the sun as I waited for a friend to willingly drive 2 hours to pick me up and drive me back over Monarch Pass (where car breakdown no. 1 happened). I've had many nights of drinking wine and laughing and having deep conversations with my close friends. I've visited Seattle and gotten to spend incredibly awesome weekends mountain biking and hiking and skiing and exploring with my loving, sacrificing boyfriend. I've gotten to hang out with my parents 3 times already this year! I've met with my beautiful friend and mentor almost every week, and gotten to share my life, my struggles, my hopes and dreams with such a wise woman. I've been caught in the rain, overcome with joy, blessed by the Colorado air and sunshine. I've gazed upon my favorite view of Paradise Divide no less than 4 times in the past week and a half. Heck, I've gotten a brand spankin' new computer, my car runs better than before, and I'm no longer worried I'll tear my achilles doing summer activities.

The thing is, we humans are subject to a terrible, misremembering memory. Give me any year and I can tell you why it wasn't the best year. I so often remember the bad things that happen - the instances that mark the greatest struggle or depression in my life - that I oversee all the good that has happened. I forget to "hunt the good." Though trials and grief are real, weighty, and worth acknowledging, I find it's difficult to see the blessings that result from my pain. Because sometimes we don't get to see the blessings. As my mentor, Claire, always advises me, we must sit in the uncomfortable and unknown and take life day by day.

That's why I'm not a huge proponent of New Years' Resolutions: because life happens on a daily basis. We can't look at a year as a single entity, but as a compilation of fluctuating seasons - if not days. Some will be better than others. Some will be devastatingly hard that you won't know what to do in the uncomfortable waiting room as you sit in silence and anticipation for the door to understanding to open. Some will be mundane, even boring. And some will be incredible beyond belief.

In this present moment, there are still bills I have to pay to the Bank of Mom (I'm grateful she looks after me as well as she does, while keeping me financially responsible), and a broken hard drive I'm waiting to receive an estimate (probably far more than I want to pay) to fix. I'm wrapped up in complicated emotions about moving while making the most of my remaining months in Crested Butte. I'm trying not to scratch the mosquito bites from yesterday's dinner in the warm summer air. Yet the sun is shining through the rustling foliage of the aspen grove outside my kitchen window, and I'm at peace, knowing that I can hunt the good in each day, being intentional with reevaluating my perspective on 2017 even halfway through the year.

Paradise Divide, from Lower Loop trail

Paradise Divide, from Lower Loop trail

Proceed with Grace

Decisiveness is not my strong suit. I am so indecisive that I swear I am the muse for all of Justin Bieber's songs on the topic. Whereas many a decisive person can make a choice in less time than it takes my heart to circulate blood to my muscles while doing an insanely demanding workout, the earth might as well have evolved into the next ice age in another 5 million years before I can formulate a confident conclusion. The gray area of pros and cons, divided loyalties, and mixed emotions offer me no aid in escaping the sludge of questioning: What do I do? How do I proceed?

My heart is divided between my life as it is in this moment and a life I am not acquainted with in the future. The past eighteen months have taken me through a whirlwind of transitions, challenges, ups, downs, heartaches, joys, and everything in between. Though a great majority of it was spent trying to create deep and meaningful relationships and struggling through a long bout of loneliness, in the past couple months I have emerged with a greater sense of community and friendship than I had initially expected to find. I have made incredible friends with whom I can share any struggle and whom I can support in return. I've found my squad of adventure seekers that bring me to tear-inducing laughter and who let me stay inside to climb when I'm too much of a pansy to take on the elements (i.e., wind, because wind is the absolute worst). I'm surrounded by people whose example of embracing weirdness has made me more comfortable with my inner nerd that only I and a handful of other people think is knee-slapping hilarious. These people, within this unique valley, are my people, my confidants, my wonderful ragamuffin friends. These people have gotten me through the dread of winter and this year's snowpocalypse solely with their friendship and have given me hope for greater days to come. And every single time I think about leaving them and the awesomeness they bring to my life, I am filled with an ironic sense of foreboding joy.

On the other hand, half of my heart is in the Pacific Northwest, with a man I like so much that I'm willing to move halfway across the country so we can finally reduce our 1,200 mile distance relationship to double digit mileage. He reentered my life at a point where I honestly thought I was going to end up as a crazy dog lady, living vicariously through my friends' relationships and marriages while I focused on achieving my dreams and taking care of my beagles. As my relationships in Crested Butte grew, so did ours, but where I have been able to be fully present with my friends and my job and life in the mountains, I have missed out on a lot of the important aspects of developing a romantic relationship. Like making new friends as a couple and going on double dates (although we have been known to both third wheel on dates at the same time, so we're going on distance triple-dates? If that logic even makes sense) and spending time getting to know each other on a deeper level than a phone or video chat call can warrant. Though I know I can handle the distance and I know it has strengthened our relationship, my heart still aches for the simplicity of his presence, especially when I get to witness my friends visiting their boyfriends at work or getting to spend quality time together with their husbands after church. There are days when I go home from third wheeling totally joyful, but simultaneously overcome with the disappointment that I don't get to live my life with the man I want to share it with. And even though I look forward to the day where I can do all the cute couple-y things like going on dates and holding hands and making friends, I dread the part that means I will be choosing to leave my amazing friends and family behind.

Both lives are equally vulnerable. Sharing hopes, dreams, laughter, and life with any other person is an act of vulnerability. When those people are in different places, it can feel even riskier, because you don't know where to prioritize your time and energy. I don't want to lose out on the richness of each experience with my friends here because I'm caught up in my boyfriend's life, but I don't want to put off the importance of our life together because I'm too absorbed with what is going on in my surroundings.

Being in the position where I am planning to leave within the next 6 months compounds my dilemma of choice: Here or there? Him or them?

A few young women and I began a weekly ladies group a couple months ago so we could build a community of friends in similar life stages that we could go to and feel comfortable with at any time. After my last visit with Nathan in February, I expressed my emotional hesitancy with them: I don't want to invest fully in this group because I know that deepening our friendships is going to make my departure so much more painful than I want it to be. I know that I will be torn between staying and leaving, because while I want to pursue my boyfriend, I have worked so hard to find these friendships here that I don't want to let them go. At the same time, I can't totally check out, because I need to have a supportive group of friends, and can't allow my relationship with my boyfriend to take all precedence over this commitment I have made to be there for my people at all times. Though this was months ago, fresh after my decision to move to Washington upon the end of my contract, the sentiment still stands.

It is the most vulnerable to be fully present with my friends while looking toward moving forward with my boyfriend. Both require me to show up and be bold in expressing my flaws, my heart, my weirdness to the people that have become the backbone of my life, knowing that this season of life will come to pass and I will eventually have to move on. Every single Thursday my friends and I spend sitting on each others' couches and every Friday I spend hanging with my pastor's wife is 1,000 more tears that I am going to cry when I leave this place. And every day I spend away from my boyfriend is another day of deep yearning to experience life with him. If I choose not to move, I lose him. If I choose to move, I lose them. It's a painful space to inhabit, knowing that I selfishly can't have all my people in this place I love and call home forever.

But the beauty of this vulnerability is that I will never lose these friendships, despite the distance. My relationship with Nathan has showed me that already. Though miles may separate us, the bonds I have made with my friends here can withstand the distance and the time spent apart. There will be more summer days spent mountain biking Lupine Trail and winter days bombing down International with these people. I can always come back to this place that's become my home, to the people that have become my family.

My predicament becomes, then, less of a choice, and more of an attitude. What do I do? How do I proceed?

Proceed with grace.

Though I tend to see things this way, life is not a collection of black-and-white situations. Yes, that would make a lot of things simpler. But the gray area allows me space to give myself grace to pursue a relationship with the man I love. That doesn't make me a bad friend. That doesn't mean I'm abandoning my people. Grace is the attitude that acknowledges that this is all hard, no matter what happens, but that every single moment I spent laughing till the tears came or listening to my friends pour out their hearts was worth being present for, because it has made our friendships able to withstand the distance.

Grace says that there will come a time when I will most likely leave this little valley, and that it will be hard regardless of when that time comes, but that doesn't mean I can't enjoy this special pocket of joy while it is here. Grace allows me to think bigger, to know that there are other relationships to create in different places, to know that every relationship allows me a place to visit in the years to come, whether that's Gunnison, Birmingham, Boston, Edinburgh, Memphis, or Madison. Since college, people and relationships have ebbed and flowed in and out of my life, and in all reality, moving is a part of life at this point. That does not lessen the importance of any of these experiences, places, or people, though. If anything, it teaches me to be more appreciative for what I have in the moment, because if we're not present or vulnerable with the people we love, are we really living up to our full potential to love and be loved?

In the midst of this internal emotional chaos, I know that grace, vulnerability, and love are what truly matter. I am who I am because of the people who are - and have been - part of my life. And I will become who I will become because of the people who will be part of my life in the coming seasons of life. Moving on will never become easier, but the amazing memories of laughter and tears and vulnerability and sipping wine on my bed make it easier to appreciate the place I am in today, knowing that I will never lose my wonderful people no matter where I go.

When Distance is Worth the Risk

One year ago I would not have been caught dead even thinking about dating someone from a distance, much less starting a relationship at over 1,500 miles apart. I'd done the whole distance thing before, and my experience was marred by infidelity, distrust, and communication breakdowns. And even though I had found relatively positive results while investigating the relational quality of long-distance dating relationships while at Pepperdine, the thought of living 1,000+ miles away from my significant other posed myriad qualms.

So when my relationship with my current boyfriend began trending towards more serious and committed last fall, I had major reservations. Living in a small Colorado mountain town literally at the very end of the road with limited access to affordable and convenient airfare was just one of my worries. (I'm not kidding. Gunnison airport is closed for a total of 4-5 months each year.) Oh, and did I mention he lived 1,600 miles away, and was planning on moving clear across the country to the Pacific Northwest, only 400 miles closer, in the not-too-distant future? The soonest he could visit was two months into the future, and we had no idea when we would both have the time to travel to see each other with our busy schedules and discrepant weekends (perks of working in a weekends-are-your-work-week setting when your boyfriend only gets weekends off, if that). I was literally stuck in the middle of his Army life, still clinging onto my hopes of living in Colorado for the rest of forever, where I knew he couldn't move for his career. (Are you kidding me? I'd finally moved to this gorgeous state, and I was going to have to consider leaving if things took a turn for the serious???) Let's not forget I'd told myself I would never move for a guy; I'm too strong and independent of a woman to do such a thing, so this whole Army girlfriend thing already wasn't looking too awesome.

Then there was the issue of communication. Contrary to popular belief, a communications degree does not guarantee perfect communication skills. In fact, I'd argue I am somewhere on the lower end of the spectrum when it comes to being able to express myself forthrightly. Running away from conflict is my MO, which is totally easy when you can turn off your phone and don't have to worry about distancing yourself from the other person since you're already so far away. Muahahaha, it's a perfect recipe for conflict avoidance. But in healthy relationships, conflict resolution and honesty is necessary, and ignoring the issue and not communicating that you need space is a reaaaaaaallllly bad call. (Not like I know from experience...) Spending my days far away from my man has made me realize that if I want this to work out, I have to bite the bullet and communicate since that is the glue holding us together in the absence of each other's physical presence.

Perhaps the hardest part of the whole long distance thing is the whole Love Languages thing. As a person who needs physical touch and quality time, long distance is pretty much the antithesis of what I need to function and feel loved in a relationship. (If only I hadn't gotten a 0 on acts of service; that would've been nice.) There are those so-ridiculously-crappy-I-literally-cannot-even days when I just need a hug or the silent, loving presence of Homeboy next to me. So on those crappy days, it's hard to translate his acts of service and words of affirmation into something I understand as love simply because I don't speak those languages (like seriously, acts of service don't even show up anywhere on my radar; what is that, even?) and really only need a hug and his presence to make everything better. And a cup of tea. And an entire bar of chocolate. Or two. Or three. Thankfully Nathan speaks my chocolate love language, even if he eats half the chocolate he buys me for Valentine's Day. Not bitter.

Being in a relationship that lacks a majority of the comforts I thrive on (nearness, the ability to plan trips at least three months in advance, and certainty and control, to name a few) has forced me into a realm far beyond my comfort zone that's more like a million miles away from my safety box. I'm constantly learning how to communicate better, how to make myself open up when I'd rather shut down, how to engage with conflict rather than hang up the phone and hide under my covers with Parks and Rec, how to communicate what I need, how to ask for what he needs, how to read him when there's such an annoying lack of nonverbal communication (thanks horrible wifi connection & relying on computers to connect somewhat face-to-face). But even though it's uncomfortable, challenging, and awkward at times, I know that not being able to hug after a fight means that we can explore different ways to express our appreciation for each other, and that once we're (finally) living closer than 1,200 miles apart, our relationship will already be founded on the principle of clear, intentional communication.

Let me say, though, that distance makes the time we get to spend together so much sweeter. It may be short and chock-full of adventures and cooking and double dates and shredding the gnar and racing each other in the rain to the nearest Starbucks (I won that one), but the normal things many couples get to do on the regular, like holding hands, hugging, and, heck, simply being within two feet of each other, is seriously a million times more enjoyable because of all the time we can't spend doing those things together. Even ridiculously hard workouts are wonderful because we cheer each other on and can experience the same pain (maybe we should put ourselves through the hell that is Fran together, because he'd be there to hold my hair back while I vomit from exertion, and laugh about it afterwards). I laugh louder (because he's somehow funnier in person?), smile wider, feel more at peace with him around. It makes our time apart worth the risk, even if the days apart amount to triple digits and general stress over whether we'll actually be able to spend any time together in the next six months.

Ew, aren't we just so gross? But kinda cute, I guess? ;)

Ew, aren't we just so gross? But kinda cute, I guess? ;)

Though it can be frustrating to coordinate time and efforts to create space for quality time, we've been able to explore creative avenues for spending intentional time together 1,200 miles apart that go beyond a daily phone call. Instead of getting bogged down in the reality that we can't go out on the town together, we've discovered an alternative to the date nights our friends get to have with their significant others: cooking video chat dates! We'll choose a recipe, buy the ingredients, and then cook the same meal from our respective kitchens. Thankfully, the recipes we've chosen have not been simple, 30-minute meals, which means more time to harass Nathan for taking 20 minutes to figure out how to mince garlic, more time to laugh, more time to catch up, and more time to admire his ridiculously cute face. Finding ways to actually date long-distance takes creativity and thinking outside the box, but has changed my way of thinking about what a traditional date - and even a long-distance relationship - looks like. And it's proved that you can date intentionally long distance, despite the lack of obvious resources and opportunities. All it takes is a little commitment and some creativity.

Because we've had to adjust to less-than-ideal circumstances and risked our relationship on the uncertainty of living apart in worlds that seem to only contradict each other, I can say that I honestly believe our relationship would not be as strong if we were in a "normal" relationship unbound by distance, different time zones, and discrepant careers where we both have to acquire approval in one way or another to leave. Though parts of it really suck and though some days leave me feeling utterly depleted and frustrated with our current situation, the distance is teaching us how to fuse our respective independent personalities with the requisite interdependence a relationship needs while we're both pursuing our futures and supporting each other in our career advancements and dreams. I'd definitely love to live in the same state, at the very least. Same city? Yes, please!!! But I'm grateful for this period of getting to know each other in a space that requires uncomfortable growth we would not go through were we conveniently closer. I know that we'll be stronger as a couple for all the days we've spent apart, growing closer together.

Therapeutic Writing

I know I'm at my best when I am writing on the regular. As is fairly evident in the gap between this post and the last time I wrote, I haven't been doing much writing-based processing as of late, for several reasons: First of all, it takes courage to write my thoughts down for others to read. As such, this is an act of vulnerability, putting myself, my words, and my experiences in front of a public eye. Because of the public nature of keeping a blog, my self-doubting thoughts become my closest companions, staring me down at the turn of every sentence and subjecting my work to harsh judgment. Do I really want to disclose this? What if this is totally irrelevant? 

Second, and I know this is no excuse, life has been nothing short of busy since I returned from Chicago in June (okay, what, that was five months ago), and when I manage to fit some down time into my long days, let's be honest, I'm watching Netflx in the comfort of my bed. Or taking a bath. Or cooking. AKA I'm turning my brain off and taking advantage of turning my phone off if even for a brief, twenty minute New Girl episode.

Third, because of keeping my brainpower in high demand with the wheres and whens of life, I simply have not invested in the mental exercises of delving into the meaning and components of living vitally.

In short, I have been mentally exhausted and filled with self-doubt.

And then, two weeks ago, I sat down to do a bible study, got totally inspired by the question of "What is your secret strength?", pulled out my computer, and started typing with fervor what I discovered to be - three hours later - the tale of one of the most debilitating periods of my life. These were the words I had kept stuffed in my head and heart over the course of the past four years and hadn't let myself explore until this point. I'd initially thought of writing this memoir three years ago, but was too stuck in the thick of the accompanying shame and pain and confusion to be able to take an objective point of view to analyze where life had taken a turn southbound.

Out of nowhere, it all came to me: all the tears and fears, the mistakes and victories, the heartaches and joys, and I was able to see, in a new light, the larger narrative of two imperfect intertwining lives. I stopped seeing myself as a victim and acknowledged all the shitty stuff I had done (and had allowed), because I had handled pretty much nothing perfectly. And even though so many different, difficult emotions resurfaced over the course of these three hours (how a person can go from laughing with fondness to wanting to cry all her tears out within a five minute span is beyond me), this was one of the first times I had allowed myself to acknowledge and experience them without judgment or shame. The past was simply the past.

As much as I wished I could change what had happened, my processing session showed me three things: 1. that I would not be where I am today without the plethora of lessons I had gone through, 2. that I would be ill-equipped for the future without acknowledging where I went wrong, and 3. that writing works wonders as a therapeutic tool.

I cannot stress enough the importance of writing as therapy. While, yeah, it sounds pretty cheesy and cliché, writing has the power to relieve us of our unspoken struggles and process without judgment. Free writing (or what I like to call word vomiting) cuts out all the self-restricting processes inherent in an editing approach, and allows us to explore deeper issues without the worry of whether the words splattered on the page make sense or flow cohesively. More than anything, writing gets the words out there in the open, where they can no longer control our minds with fear. When we allow our minds to venture into those initially scary areas and work through the deeper issues, we can learn so much, and eventually set those emotions and experiences free.

At the end of a long night of writing, I was overcome with an overwhelming sense of peace and freedom I had never experienced in respect to my collegiate life. It had been a long time coming, but facing the emotions was completely worth it. My experience revealed the necessity of writing not only to keep myself sane, but also to bring closure to the experiences locked in my memory of the past. Though my fingers were slightly cramped from writing a million words a minute (why couldn't I write my academic papers with such fervor?) and my eyes were glued halfway shut from teary-eyed exhaustion, the release of emotion brought me a relief I had never achieved in any counseling or venting session with my best friend. I'd found my new medium, and I'm sticking to it.

So, dear reader, I do apologize for the aberration from my blogging practice, and for any continued slackening in my writing consistency as I begin to explore an exciting personal writing project in the months to come. In the meantime, I encourage you to give therapeutic writing a shot for yourself and see just how much freedom you can achieve through the free flow of words onto the page (or screen).

Poverty is Not the Problem.

As I sat in the audience at the Justice Conference this weekend, speaker after speaker cited poverty as the source of all the injustice in this world. But the more I listened to these respected experts, the more I felt their diagnosis was wrong.

More often than not, we mistake symptoms for problems. We believe our symptoms to be the end-all-be-all of the disease, when those are merely the outward manifestation of the problem itself. In reality, the true disease lies further up and further into the complex survey of the problem holistically. Though we are unaware, there is something deeper than what we are seeing, and it is at the core that we discover the source of life-threatening disease.

When we delve into the injustices of the world - trafficking, racism, and so on - we can see that poverty is certainly a unifying problem. But poverty is not the problem. If we look even closer, we see that poverty is merely a symptom of the disease of our broken human nature.

Our problem is that we are human beings, and by definition we are imperfect and fully broken. Because of our brokenness, we do not realize our utter devastation and desperate need for a perfect God, but instead break the first commandment by establishing idols in our lives that we believe will dually fulfill our greatest need for love, completion, and belonging. In simple terms, idolatry is the artificial attempt to fill a hole that can only be filled by the love and grace of a relationship with God, our Creator and Lord. It is the cardinal sin, and every human being is guilty of it, non-believers and Christians alike (see Romans 1:18-3:20). It happens when I elevate myself to God. It happens when a man seeks satisfaction in buying sex or watching pornography. In the end, it is like trying to fill a leak in a dam with a sponge. It can easily form to the shape of the aperture and block it momentarily, but soon absorbs the overflow, becoming soaked in the deluge it was intended to fix, which renders it ineffective.

In short, an impoverished heart, fed on temporal things of this world, yields a multitude of injustices: pride, greed, racism, sexism, or seeking power. Every unjust thing we see is a byproduct of spiritual poverty, which is, in turn, a byproduct of a violation of God's primary commandment: Thou shalt not have any other god before me.

Poverty (both physical and spiritual) and every injustice are the diseases that result from our breaking of the first commandment. This is why we turn to food to comfort us, sex to satisfy us, gossip to include us. And this is why we feel just as empty as we did (if not more so) after the fact than we did before. These may be trivial examples, but the injustice of the man who pays for sex is motivated by the same needs and longings as I am when I make harsh snap judgments about others out of pride (albeit they are expressed to differing degrees).

As human beings, we are all culpable, guilty of injustice. How, then, are we to strive toward reconciliation? As with anything else, awareness is key. What topics of injustice speak most to you? Take note of those whisperings in your intuition and follow that trail. Also notice your own thought and behavioral patterns that promote injustice in your own world, and take steps to make reparations.

Second, let us be people of action. Too often we go about our lives passively. However, to be passive is to condone injustice, allowing it to flourish. We must be bold in stepping out and making way for our voices to recalibrate social norms and how the world works.

Just after the Justice Conference ended, I took a walk to Lake Michigan with one of my group members. We'd literally just been discussing what actions we could take to address the injustices we are passionate about. I was explaining how my heart broke in my breakout pre-conference session on human trafficking and how we need to teach our children to respect each other by modeling respectful behavior to women in particular (I could write so much more, but I'll save that for a separate post) when we started approaching two guys. Somehow I had a gut feeling about what was about to happen, and as they passed, the guy closest to me brushed against me and cat-called, "Hey, baby." My stomach lurched and my hands clenched tighter into the fists that had been forming in the coming seconds. But I didn't do anything. Instead of jumping to action, I walked on, in so doing, sending the message that what he did was okay, even though it was a clear violation of respect and boundaries. In fact, it was sexual harassment. The further I walked away from the altercation, the more I regretted my passive endorsement of his repugnant belief about me as a piece of unrespectable ass. Admittedly I lost a lot of sleep over it (despite my ridiculously early flight the next morning), wishing I'd stood up in empowerment to make my case for myself and women everywhere.

Third, we can throw money at the crisis of poverty, but until we reach the hearts of the spiritually impoverished, we will continue to be ineffective. It requires energy and creative thinking, but I wholeheartedly believe that there is nothing like seeing the divine in our enemies and everyone around us to spur us onto connecting to others. Okay, how do I pour into the lives of the people committing these injustices? I was stumped too, and was filled with anger thinking of all the men and women who have contributed to the crisis of sex trafficking (let me point out that the pornography industry is one in the same with sex trafficking). They make me sick, and I wish I could condemn them for all the pain they have caused. But I realized that all I can do to intervene in their lives is to pray for them. It's the single hardest prayer I've ever prayed, but who knows what God will do with my request? I'll never know, but it could be the difference between a repeat offender and a contrite spirit that changes his or her ways forever.

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of bringing about justice is the overwhelming realization that injustice is everywhere. How can I, just one individual out of billions, do anything to help? Think of yourself as a drop of water. You have the choice to pour your energy into the bucket of passive endorsement or active combat. Either way, you choose to either fill the bucket of condoning injustice or of ridding the world of it. Your actions matter. Which bucket will you help fill?

Post-Grad, Unimagined

It is absolutely mind boggling that just 366 days ago I graduated from the life of academia I had known for 16 years. Seeing my Instagram and Facebook feeds filled with posts from my Pepperdine friends' 2016 commencement photos just two days ago really made the craziness sink in (keep in mind, it's been snowing every day for the past three weeks in Crested Butte, so I am thoroughly convinced it is still's May?!). Walking across the stage to receive my diploma seems as though it happened in a dream long ago. Even the blistering sun beating on my black graduation robe doesn't burn quite as much as it did throughout that two-hour ceremony. It has become both a grand moment in my memory and history and a small nugget of la vie quotidienne de Leigh.

Little did I know what post-grad had in store...

Little did I know what post-grad had in store...

Graduation, like many other significant moments and days in our lives, seems like such a momentous event in the preceding days. I remember stressing about not having a job with a $40K salary lined up out of the gate, worrying if my degree were really worth all the money my parents and I poured into Pepperdine's pockets. Would there even be life after Pepperdine? Surely life had to end before May 2, 2015 came - academia was all I knew, after all! Funnily enough, I remember getting sucked into ring-by-spring antics and the brief disappointment I felt when I realized halfway through my senior year that I was as single as a nun when it seemed as through everyone I knew was on track to getting married tomorrow.

366 days ago I was still in my California state of mind, basking in the Malibu sunshine, celebrating graduation with some of my closest friends and family. I had grand plans for my life, and if I knew where I'd be today I would have been confused, wondering how my life got so off track so quickly. In a nutshell, the only facet of my current life congruent with my aspirations and plans drafted around graduation time is that I live in Colorado. Everything else has been completely overwritten by the plans of God. And though my career-driven self occasionally wishes I'd started my career a year ago and worries that I'm screwing myself over by taking yet another internship (perhaps my career will be in professional interning...), life in the Rockies is too good to give up for a 40+ hour workweek in a cubicle somewhere in corporate America.

What I'd never anticipated in my dreams for my future was that God would provide everything I wanted in a place I'd never heard of, or even wanted to be. I never would have thought I'd befriend women more than twice my age, find an incredibly supportive community in a small church, or live in a place so focused on outdoor recreation that I'd actually be surrounded by friends willing not only to take the plunge into extreme fitness conditioning and adventuring, but also to challenge me to push myself further than before. I never thought I'd become a CrossFit junkie determined to go through hardcore performance training or ski over 100 days in a given season.

A year ago, I was content with my idea of starting a corporate career in Denver, doing yoga on the regular, and being a member of a nice church. When I took this internship, I was worried I was settling if a company in California was going to offer me an actual salary and benefits; however, the more time I work and spend time in the company of incredible friends and co-workers in Crested Butte, the more I'm convinced that to move away from the vast expanse of nature, adventure, and deep community would be to sell myself short of the life I've secretly been too ambitious in the conventional sense to pursue.

I visited my parents in Albuquerque this past weekend. During breakfast on my last day in town, we started discussing my choice to stay in Crested Butte for another year and a half rather than pursue a career opportunity in California. My dad (dubbed Weepy Willy) looked at me with tears in his eyes and told me how proud he was of me to opt for the less conventional choice. With very little immunity to others' emotions, my eyes started to trickle a couple tears. In perfect timing, my mother joined in the sobfest and we all took a moment to contemplate the gravity of my decision. Despite all my worries that I would make the wrong choice, it turns out that I had, in fact, chosen the right one for my life at this time.

If you had asked me where I would be in a year on my graduation day, I can assure you my answer would come nowhere close to the reality of my life today. I wouldn't have dare dreamed I'd be adventuring in the mountains with a loving community, pushing myself to try new things and become stronger, or befriending some seriously amazing people of all ages. Even though those dreams were pushed aside by my usual career-minded ambition, I'm beyond grateful they assembled in perfect formation to create the life I'm thriving in today. Life keeps getting better.

Learn to Laugh a Little...

God’s a funny one, let me tell you. Now I don’t necessarily mean funny in the comically laughable sense (though this is true from time to time), but in the sense that he utilizes my human flaws as means to illuminate his all-surpassing power. It’s long been established between us that, for example, if I have a deadline coming up, God will wait until the very last minute to notify me of his preference.

A week and a half ago, God used the opportunity of a closing door to open a new one in Crested Butte. I was so thrilled for answered prayers, and in true Leigh fashion, began envisioning (i.e., writing the owner’s manual for) the next 18 months. You’d better believe I was getting down to precise details and building expectations like crazyyyyyyy. (Need I remind you this was just a little while after I'd written about expectations?)

All was going swimmingly when God made another grand entrance a couple days later, eliminated a huge element in my vision, and exited the scene without another word.

Talk about a drop mic…

I was speechless. Apparently, he didn’t want to play by my rules. And like a mature 23-year-old, I got upset. Much like Gretchen Wieners’ Caesar speech. I should get a nomination for my dramatic performance.

Remember that owner’s manual I briefly mentioned before? Yeah, well God doesn’t just let us go on pretending that we’re him, the supreme ruler of the entire universe. In all reality, we have no power to control what happens to us; rather, we have the power to control how we react to what happens to us. In this particular instance, God intervened to remind me of his sovereignty, and I didn’t do such a great job in my reaction. At all.

I was upset mostly because I felt as though God had lured me into a too-good-to-be-true situation and then dropped a bomb on the dream I’d created, like a mean girl manipulating her victim into the epicenter of a time bomb, just to observe the ensuing explosion of drama (please refer back to the Gretchen Wieners Caesar speech). Not cool, God. The only questions I could muster were of betrayal and confusion. Though I knew God’s loving character deep in my core, I couldn’t help but question his faithfulness and righteousness, and wrongly cast myself as a victim.

After cycling through the stages of grief and spending way too much time in the moping and catastrophizing periods, I reluctantly pulled myself together, and came to the conclusion that it was time to let go of the exhausting ironclad grip of control I was trying to exercise over every single detail of my life and future. If it took this much emotional energy for God to get to me and remind me that I’m not God, clearly my efforts were being wasted in vain. I needed to focus on casting vision for God’s influence through me.

Once I’d relinquished control, a sense of peace washed afresh over me. It was as if God was standing by my side, gently reassuring me: See? You’re still alive. You made it through. I’ve got it all under control, don’t you worry. I trusted that God’s drop mic moment was not out of malevolence, but was a genuinely caring reminder that I need to stop taking myself so seriously, laugh a little. Let go and let God. (Oh, and by the way, you are not God.)

What’s funny in this circumstance is that, just hours after I’d reached the acceptance stage of grief, God cracked open the door he had closed firmly days prior, just enough to let a little light shine through. I literally rolled my eyes at the situation. If all I could say was: Really, God? Too soon! He was laughing, encouraging me to do the same, all while trusting in his promises. So I followed his lead and laughed, knowing that, for good reason, the universe is better off in his hands.

Not-So-Great Expectations

Isn’t it funny how life never seems to go as we expect it?

For people like me, this is no laughing matter. I'll have a plate of great expectations with no disappointment on the side. Since that's rarely the case, I guess I will have to start chiming in with my laughter.

When I first arrived in Crested Butte in mid-November, I paradoxically had no idea what to expect, and yet had great expectations for the five months to come. I was worried my co-interns would be crazy partiers, out every night until the rooster crowed drinking and taking advantage of the five dispensaries located on my street. I pictured myself hanging out exclusively with my coworkers, and perhaps taking a full-time position once my internship ended. These are only but two of my great expectations. And if you know me, I suffer from expectation-itis, commonly known as: “This girl needs to lower her expectations” (not to be confused with standards).

Five months after my move, and it has become apparent that, once again, my expectations have been foiled again! But in retrospect, my life has been shaped over the course of these past few months in ways consistent with my values and ambitions in life.

Instead of meshing seamlessly with my coworkers like I’d imagined, I found myself fully embraced by a tight-knit community at the church I began attending within the first week of my move. Though I was able to create positive (yet surface level) relationships with the people I worked with, I have found myself most at home within my church community. Without exception, the men (and especially) women I have met on account of Sunday morning church services and Thursday bible studies have been such a huge source of joy during the periods of trials and conflicts at my workplace and intern condo. At Oh Be Joyful, I have a profound sense of belonging, because, just like my peers of all ages and walks of life, I am imperfect, but am worth being loved.

Today I celebrated my friend Palmer’s 24th birthday. As I sat down to write her a birthday letter this morning, I had a flashback to my first few weeks in CB. My own birthday was coming up way too soon after my move, and I was dreading it, because I would be utterly alone, isolated, and unable to celebrate with my friends or family. But three days before that fateful day, my pastor introduced me to Palmer. We hit it off immediately, and grabbed dinner together on my birthday. Even my pastor texted me a nice birthday wish! (Still not sure how he found out that nugget of information…) It was nothing too fancy or exciting compared to previous birthdays, but I had gotten the best birthday present I could have asked for: a new friendship and a sense of belonging in a new environment. Had I only known what those seeds would come to bear in four months’ time!

Even my expectations for my living situation were turned upside down. Thankfully I rarely had to deal with drunken roommates coming home and waking me up in the dead of night or the smell of pot emanating from a nearby room. And thankfully the majority of my co-interns had serious relationships, so I never had to wake up to strangers roaming the apartment the morning after. But, as with any living situation, there was plenty of conflict to make me swear I’ll never live with roommates again.

When I first moved into the apartment, there was a note on the refrigerator from the past winter’s interns with tips for how to get through the season, i.e., make sure you take out the garbage every Thursday, never miss a taco Tuesday, etc. The tip that stood out to me most went along the lines of: remember your first impressions of your co-interns, because those will change by the end of the season. Impossible! I thought. Think again, Leigh…Needless to say, expectations I held of one of my roommates in particular was very much turned on its head. What once seemed like a potentially awesome friendship ended up very much the opposite, for reasons I will never know. As an effect, living with the residual conflict both at work and at home (read: literally 24/7) became extremely exhausting from pretty much my second month into the internship, and it only got worse as time progressed, despite my belief that things couldn’t possibly deteriorate any more. Spoiler alert: they always did.

If I could change anything about this internship, living with the people I work with would be the clear winner. However, the restlessness and discomfort I found in my home did yield a greater awareness of not only my desire for a community of like-minded people, but also my deep desire to develop my faith and relationship with God. Had I gotten sucked into a deeper friendship with any of my roommates, I might not have pursued my women’s bible studies as eagerly or have set aside as much time as I did every day to convene with God in quiet solitude. I don’t know what could have happened if a friendship had developed between that one roommate and me, but I am thoroughly convinced that if things went so wrong, it was for my protection that whatever went wrong transpired from pretty much the beginning.

As a result, my life and heart have turned toward living out my faith in a supportive community of Christians. Though this was certainly on my mind when I moved here five months ago, I didn’t quite expect it to take off with such sustained momentum. For this, I am eternally grateful. Because of this, I am learning not only to laugh at failed expectations, but also to dismantle those expectations from the get-go. If expectations are rarely met, why enter any situation with a rigid picture of what needs to happen?

Now, as I look to my very unclear future, I am encouraged to let whatever happens happen. I've come to realize that I cannot control anything that happens to me, much less the future (no matter how hard I try!), but that I can choose how I react in any given situation. I can also choose the route of wonderment as I faithfully trust that I will be taken care of instead of choosing the road to disappointment when my expectations aren't met (if you haven't caught on yet, that disappointment happens quite frequently). And when I take an objective view, all the threads of life are weaving together a perfect tapestry more beautiful and fit to who I am than I ever could have created on my own (obviously, since I am not a weaving whiz).

I think CB’s vibe is getting to me. Maybe I’m finally getting it: just go with the flow, and see where this river you’re floating on takes you before you start making definitive maps of a place you’ve never been. Besides, the places you'll go on this adventure are wilder and more awesome than anything you could have imagined!

Growing Out Of Stagnation

The sky is gray, air cold to my bones, and times a-changin’. When I take a look at the internal workings of my being, I almost have to shield my eyes to the volatile state of restlessness that could very well erupt at any moment. I don’t always want to engage with the harder feelings and beliefs I hold close to my being. Wouldn’t it just be easier if I shoved it all under the rug, let the housekeeper vacuum it while I’m away on vacation?

If there’s anything I’ve learned in the past 23 years, it’s that life does not work that way. Or at least things fall apart from the inside out if left unattended. One of the biggest struggles I’ve been presented with this year are all the whys behind what I do, the fears with which I live in accordance, the habitual responses to life’s circumstances.

It’s humorous how, when we feel as if we have life figured out, life turns around and throws an overwhelming encyclopedia of reasons to the contrary in front of our eyes. We can choose to either take a deep look at the contents and use those suggestions for growth or ignore our potential for transformation and remain in the sludge of stagnant life.

A week ago, I felt on top of the world. I was proud of the growth I’ve encountered, the friends I’d made, the leadership roles I’ve stepped into in the past few months of living in Colorado. Whereas I was feeling like a totally new person just a few days ago, I once again have been confronted with the disheartening truth that there is nothing really new under the sun. I still interact in limiting patterns with old friends and family members, I still struggle with pride and grace, and those old injuries make an appearance at the most inconvenient times.

Will you stop tripping me up?!

While this is my current reaction to the problems that are annoyingly emerging, the irony is that I must really say this to myself. Because we are ultimately the ones who prevent ourselves from moving forward, even when we want to move on from the things that haven’t worked for us in the past. I want to point out that our problems themselves are not what hold us back; for those are the symptoms of our broken humanity, not the cause. We are the cause. Sometimes we try stuffing our feet into shoes we have outgrown, and like the many maidens trying on Cinderella’s glass slipper, its constraining shape is too small for the new form of our lives, and suffocates us from the refreshing nutrients we require to bloom.

The beauty of living in brokenness is that it prompts us to desperation, which leads to change. Without this desperation, we do not have the desire to change badly enough to warrant an appropriate response to our shortcomings. Not that we need to be perfect. But we are creatures of development, and we are meant to evolve into better, truer versions of ourselves.

As I sit writing this, a song I discovered last spring just came on my playlist. Part of the chorus goes like this: “I had to shatter to pieces / You made me reveal myself.” Perfect timing, no?

It is the moments where we deeply encounter our brokenness that we can find the resolve and motivation to move forward with life. Sure, it is uncomfortable and difficult beyond belief to not only identify but to also leave behind the places of comfort we have inhabited in the past. But it is beyond essential that we do so for the sake of our personal development. Otherwise, we will remain complacent with stagnation in the dysfunctional habits we have created.

Weren’t we made for something greater?

Valentine's Day ft. Singleness

Oh, Valentine’s Day. I can’t help saying it with a heavy sigh. How is it that a single holiday can bring up such intense emotions regarding one’s relationship status? As Spotify cheekily reminded me last Friday, you either love it or hate it. For those who love it, there is an endless supply of heartfelt playlists guaranteed to make you swoon and fill you to the brim with gratefulness for your wonderful love life. In a relationship with your bed like yours truly? Don’t you worry, there are just as many playlists designed to reiterate your frustration with the overly commercialized holiday. Whatever side of the spectrum you’re on, fear not! There is a recipe to wallow in your current feelings on the topic.

Valentine’s Day has not brought about many positive memories for me in years past. There was that one year when a guy I’d met literally a year before texted me asking me to be his girlfriend…and, mind you, we hadn’t spoken since we’d met. That was definitely the weirdest. There were the years in elementary school when I’d receive valentines from everyone in my class, none of which were signed by my secret admirer (Seriously, Leigh? Who needs romance in elementary school?). And of course, there have been the 23 Valentine’s Days I have spent without a significant other, many of which were spent either wishing in vain that I would have an admirer drop down on his knees in front of me in full confession of his love…or the alternative: hating this stupid holiday for making perpetually single ladies like me feel much less than unloved. (Yes, I know it’s dramatic, but everyone’s doing it these days.) Oh, and there were the few years where I celebrated Galentine’s Day, branding myself as a strong, independent single lady who don’t need no man!

While I still ascribe to the belief (and ultimate truth) that I am a strong, independent single lady, Valentine’s Day has become much less daunting and traumatic for me as I’ve grown older and gained major perspective…in the past couple years. Sure, I’ve never spent the day with a significant other or received a heartfelt letter, a bouquet of hydrangeas (please note that these are my favorite flowers), and a copious amount of chocolate sure to send me straight into chocoblivion, but after talking on the phone with one of my dearest friends this afternoon, I realize I’m truly at peace with the lack of Valentine’s dates I’ve had. (If anything, I’m rather relieved when I don’t receive a love-confessing note from a secret admirer! I think I would actually cry and run away unless it was mutual.) This is a huge transformation from my less mature days when the “security” of relationship status meant everything to me. When I think about it, I will never have the expectation of a future partner needing to surpass previous boyfriends’ expressions of love. I will never have the baggage of painfully remembering an incredible Valentine’s Day spent with someone I once loved very dearly. It’s actually quite nice and sets the bar pretty low. Expectations are literally eating chocolate together. All good things for anyone involved in my future!

While spending Valentine’s with my partner is something I would love to experience, I am overwhelmed with the truth that my worthiness and value are not dependent upon my relationship status, and that this holiday isn’t just about romantic relationships. As the Galentine’s trend goes to show, I can channel my heartfelt love notes to my friends and those I love deeply as a symbol of our growth together in relationship. For the past two years, I have spent Valentine’s celebrating the relationships I have with my girlfriends, and they have been the two best-spent Valentine’s Days of my life.

In our conversation today, my dear friend and I recounted our favorite Valentine’s Day: February 14, 2014. We got super dressed up (full-on makeup, dresses, and heels), went to the Malibu pier to take ridiculously ridiculous couple photos at sunset (did I mention how ridiculous we are?), and then ate dinner and lots of cheesecake at the Cheesecake Factory after doing some shopping and scoring some free wine and chocolate-covered strawberries at Anthropologie (holla!). My friend and I had seized the opportunity to treat ourselves to a much-needed girls’ night out (as if we needed more reason to hang out since we lived, breathed, ate, danced, laughed, and sang together, 24/7). And the result was a deepening of our friendship, a celebration of the relationship we had cultivated through intentionality and mutual vulnerability in the good and difficult times, and bellies full of delectable cheesecake. Oh, and no man hating and singleness shaming. Let’s just say any guys we date will have a hard time topping V-Day 2014. (So I guess I do have awesome memories and expectations for the holiday…whoops.)

It’s actually quite ironic how I spent the evening of Valentine’s this year. Any guesses? Okay I give in: at a marriage bible study. Weird, huh?! Why would a single lady willingly go to a bible study about marriage, filled with married couples on a day celebrating romance? The short answer: #relationshipgoals. And Ann’s glorious chocolate cake (I did get my chocoblivion after all). But in all honesty, I was able to go and truly enjoy the experience and thought-provoking conversation because I don’t want to conform to the pattern of this world, glorifying romantic relationships to the point where they become the main factor in my self-perception of worth, or worse: an idol.

Yes, I desire a lifelong partnership with a man. No, I am not going to let the current absence of that relationship cloud the truth of my inherent worth as a human being. And no, I am not about to listen to one of those “heartbroken” Spotify playlists and wallow in self-loathing because I am one of the two single people in Crested Butte. (I hate to admit it, but I am actually listening to the Pride & Prejudice and The Holiday soundtracks, because at the end of the day I am still a hopeless romantic. But I am cognizant of this and am still content with singleness.) And while I’m single, I want to be fully equipped to enter a lifelong relationship that ultimately glorifies God, speaks the Gospel, and does not conform to the “meet and fulfill all my needs” mentality of many relationships, if such a relationship is part of my future. Plus, the principles from the study bleed into nonromantic relationships and daily life in general. If I can begin to apply what I’m learning to my current relationships, I know I will see much more growth and glory in the intentional development of my relational life.

One of our questions this evening asked how we have seen John 15:4-5 play out in our marriages (and for the single lady: in my relationships). By abiding in Christ, I have been able to inhabit a space of grace and no judgment with some of my closest friends. In this, we have been able to build our trust through sharing difficult experiences and accepting each other despite our mistakes. A close friend recently shared how our relationship has allowed her to disclose her faults in confidence that I won’t shame her, but rather that her disclosure will reduce the shame she feels. How incredible it is that friendships can shed so much grace and love on even our most shameful experiences! This is how relationships – and not just romantic ones – were intended to be! Let us live in this reality!

While Valentine’s Day is a wonderful opportunity to express the gratefulness we have for our partner, I do believe it is sensationalized and places far too much focus on relationship status as the determining component in our value. What we need to take away from the holiday, rather than a screw-Valentine’s-Day or I-feel-fulfilled-because-I-have-a-boyfriend mentality, is the gratefulness for the beauty of relationship, whether with your boyfriend, wife, best friend, or bed. At the end of the day, we all have special people in our lives that deserve our love on Valentine’s Day, and every other day of the year. We cannot allow our relationship status dictate how we feel about ourselves or how we see ourselves as being fulfilled (or not). Wherever you are on this Valentine’s Day – single, married, divorced – I encourage you to seek peace with your current circumstances and celebrate the sheer love of those you hold closest to your heart. Each relationship is a gift and deserves to be treasured.

Joining the CrossFit Cult

I guess this blog post makes it official: I have become a member of the CrossFit cult. Now before you form a snap judgment re: my sanity and obsession with the sport let me just point out that, while I do believe in its methods and practicality, this is not the end-all-be-all of all workout regimes. I still do yoga. I still (try to) run. I still dance around when the house is empty. I still mountain bike (when it’s not freezing cold and icy outside). No one method of working out is inherently better…unless you’re sitting in the gym not working out (sorry, that’s not going to do much for ya).

I will admit that CrossFit is a cult. Those of us who do it are fanatics, which is clearly evidenced in almost every human being I’ve met who’s done it. You either love it or you hate it. We love it. And that is what really classifies it as a cult. Because those who hate it suffer through those 20-minute AMRAP workouts whereas those who love it push through the I’m-about-to-vomit progressions, knowing that they are not just gaining physical #gainz, but also practical and mental #gainz.

After this morning’s intense workout, the four of us were discussing this precise difference as a result of going through sometimes extremely brutal workouts. One girl talked about how she will sometimes look at the WOD and wonder how she will possibly get through it, but when the workout ends, she in fact was able to finish by sheer dedication and persistence. Because those of us who have done a CrossFit WOD all know the feeling of dread that comes before a Filthy Fifty workout. But having an I-am-going-to-give-this-all-I’ve-got mentality is the difference between success and failure, between love and hate. And practically speaking, pushing through a disgustingly difficult workout despite the inevitable doubts and tiredness develops the strength of willpower to a point where we ultimately recognize that we are able to take on the challenges that life throws at us: both in and outside the box.

For me, CrossFit is the intersection of natural ability and drive. That’s why it works. I come from a gymnastics and diving background, so luckily for me, all of the gymnastics components are second nature. I was kipping on my first day, and almost got ring muscle ups on my first try. Because of the precise movements required in diving and gymnastics, I have a natural proprioception and can therefore understand the basic functions in a single movement. Which, apparently, takes some people months and even years to get down. I only wonder why I didn’t start sooner…

Then there’s the competition factor. Whether competing with myself, the person next to me, or the clock, I am driven to excel. Though I would love to always finish first or complete the most reps, there are days when I physically can’t due to exhaustion, skill level, etc. On those days, it’s the presence of other hardworking athletes that keeps me going. If I were to do some of the workouts I’ve done in the box at home, I would have given up (whoops, so much for strengthened willpower). If I feel like I can’t get through the next five minutes or reps, I remind myself that everyone else in the gym is feeling the exact same way. But we are all fighting for the finish, because it’s only five minutes out of 1,440 in that day, and if he’s pushing through, so can I.

In the words of Tony Horton, “Do your best and forget the rest.” That’s what ultimately gets me through even the most vomit-inducing workout. I’ve learned that I can do whatever it is on the agenda for that day, and sometimes I exceed my best. Take this morning, for example: We did a 20-minute AMRAP of 5 burpees-to-pull-ups, 10 pushups, and 15 air squats. By the fourth round I had lost my breath (thanks, lack of oxygen at 9,000 feet) and thought I would be lucky to finish with ten rounds. As I pushed through the exhaustion and focused on what I was doing and doing it well, I finished with 13 rounds +3: well above my goal. And realized I could definitely improve that in the future. Indeed, my best determination had given better results than I even wanted. Sometimes it doesn’t happen that way, but I’ve learned that nothing is impossible and I can’t limit myself based on the doubts that come with exhaustion or breathlessness, because I can always push through (obviously I do need to take care of my body and give it the oxygen it needs and rest enough, but that’s a different story). The body is so much stronger than the mind, and when the mind is strong in willpower, performance exceeds all expectations.

CrossFit is not for everyone. CrossFit sucks some days. CrossFit is the air beneath my wings many days. In the end, what really matters is not just the strength gained, but also the growth experience. It’s really incredible what a single approach to fitness can do to transform both mind and body.

Hook, Line & Crampons

I took one glance at the giant wall of ice and, heart full of confidence, began suiting up for the day. Crampons? Check. Helmet? Check. Harness? Check. Though I was only technically on this trip to film and photograph the DC Burn Foundation’s ice climbing day, I was itching to sink my hooks into the ice as well.

Until we were standing around our leaders Jared and Jeff at the base of the icy cliff as they explained the technique of ice climbing. “It’s highly technique based,” meaning if I didn’t swing my hooks or kick my bladed boots into the ice with precision, I could majorly mess up. Suddenly my heart’s confidence turned to terror. Shoot.

I watched – and filmed – as the dozen firefighters (many of which had ice climbed before) made their way up the giant icicles. Some participants made their way up the ice with grace, easing the knot in my stomach. Yet others seemed to be struggling, especially with the height, which brought back my nervousness. Maybe I wouldn’t try.

What a joke.

At lunchtime, when I was sure the guys weren’t paying attention, I decided to take a stab (pun intended) at the ice. This way, with the guys across the river, busy with eating their sandwiches, nobody would take notice at my soon-to-be feeble attempt at scaling the cliff. My arms and legs already sore from too many pull-ups and overhead squats the day before, I made my first moves up the wall, my program director belaying behind me.

Knowing my slight aversion to heights (how the heck did I routinely do flips and twists off of 3 meter when I was a diver?), I kept my focus upward. Hook, hook. Kick, kick. (More like stab, stab…but I’m not a serial killer, so I’ll avoid that terminology.)

From time to time, I would lose footing or pull through the ice with my hooks, lurching my body downward toward the snowy riverbank below. Of course I was filled with panic in these moments. Falling to an icy death is not something in which many people would find comfort, myself included. But every time I felt the surging dropping of my stomach, the rope would catch and Read would still be below, holding me in my safely suspended position.

I was surprised when, about halfway up the ascent, Read yelled up to me that I was a natural. Say what?! Yes, a natural. Me, a small little blonde girl who has never seen a wall of ice, much less climbed one. I was immediately emboldened and continued my climb, hooking into the natural and already-made crevices of the ice, climbing farther and farther than I had originally expected. And all of a sudden, my new firefighter friends began yelling affirmations in my direction. I climbed onward, onward, onward until I reached the apex of the carabineer keeping my rope attached to the hillside. And then I looked down, astonished by the height I’d just climbed. I was at least ten meters above the ground, if not more. I had made it: my strength and Read’s support working in tandem. In all reality, I wasn’t that surprised. I wasn’t going to give up just because the climb got difficult at points. I’d started, and of course the drive in me told me I had to finish.

Now came the hard part. After taking in the scene below and around me, it was time for the descent. If the ascent took a large portion of trust, the descent required the entirety of my trust as I willingly leaned my entire body weight down and backward. I willed myself not to think about what would happen if Read lost his grip on the rope and just “leaned like a cholo,” as my new firefighter friend Luis would say.

At the base of the ice, I was greeted by high fives and celebratory applauses. All the guys claimed I’d shown them up, and some didn’t quite believe I’d never climbed other than in a gym before. Though I pretended not to hear their cheers, I was inwardly proud of my accomplishment. Here I was, a small, blonde girl, showing up firefighters’ strength and technique. It was exhilarating. It was encouraging. I felt empowered and strong: just the way I strive to feel on a regular basis. It was awesome.

Two things stick out most when I think of my grand ice climbing adventure last Thursday: partnership and strength.

Though I was responsible for climbing my way up the face of ice, it was just as much Read’s (and Will’s, on my second climb) responsibility to keep me safely hoisted above the ground. By going through the communicative commands (“Belay?” “Belay on.” “Climbing.” “Climb on.”) and beginning my climb, I verbally and nonverbally committed all my trust – and more – in my belayer’s hands. At all times, whether successfully climbing or losing grip, I had to trust that my belayer had my back. While I would definitely recommend this activity as a team-building practice, I realize it is not the most feasible adventure for a variety of reasons. Nevertheless, it stands as an illustration of what a partnership is: working together in a trusting manner to ascend to a greater destination.

Spiritually, it illustrates my dependence on and trust in God. Though I couldn’t see my belayer behind me, I relied on his voice to direct me when I got off track because he had the big picture of the ice wall. In the moments when I slipped and began the horrifying yet momentary drop toward the ground, my trust was reaffirmed when the rope would catch and I would bounce back in order to continue my way upward. Finally, I kept my gaze upward. If I focused on the increasing distance between me and the ground, I would be overcome with fear, and would be distracted from the impending move I would need to take to take me closer to my final destination. In the same way, remembering to look upward and listen for direction keeps us in step with the achieving the greatest good for our lives.

Second, my ice climbing adventure reassured me of my strength. Of course, there’s the physical strength, which I admittedly doubted I had before I began my first climb. But it also reminded me of my mental resolve to continue on with the climb despite my shortcomings. Though I will surely botch life up from time to time, I can’t keep hanging on my mistakes. I can instead take these into account, learn from them, and keep climbing. Because I have a tendency to dwell on the negatives, this is especially important to me as I work toward creating a life of increased positivity and growth. And shifting my perspective from shaming myself for mistakes to accepting and learning from mistakes has already made a world of difference. It allows me to practice self-compassion and realize my capacity for momentous growth that I would not have otherwise.

If you’re up for the adventure, take an ice climbing expedition. Or if cold isn’t your preferred climate, try some rock climbing, even if it’s in a gym. I promise you it will open your eyes to strengths you had never noticed before. And you might just be a natural at scaling huge walls of ice…who knew?

As for me, I'm hooked!