The CriTiki Lounge: Now Open for Business!!

Photo Courtesy of Rhiann Wynn-Nolet and Kristina Perez
Two super talented writers, Rhiann Wynn-Nolet and Kristina Perez, have come up with an awesome idea called the "CriTiki Lounge," and they have generously invited me to become one of their Lounge Lizards. Check out their concept:

"Two of the things we like best about writing contests are helping other writers and making new writer-friends. After all, we met each other during contests in 2012.

"There aren’t very many opportunities for pre-agented writers to get constructive feedback from agented writers, pub’d writers, and even the occasional agent. THIS is the kind of input that can be worth its weight in gold, or coconut shrimp (hey, it’s the CriTiki Lounge).

"To make things even more fun, we’ll have a new submission theme each week AND a Lounge Lizard who knows it better than he/she knows the bartender.

"In keeping with the relaxed and sociable atmosphere, other writers will also be able to offer their thoughts on the writer’s 'performance.' Don’t worry about hecklers––our bouncer will take care of them. His name is Kohala, yeah, like the volcano."


The CriTiki Lounge just launched in November, and I am so excited to meet new writer friends and offer query feedback. Click here to visit the CriTiki Lounge,  and get ready for some fun!

Three Years Ago Today

Al-Can Highway, October 2010, Photo Courtesy of L.O'Kane
Three years ago today. A car accident on a remote stretch of Northern British Columbia's Alaska-Canada Highway. Four lives that were inexplicably spared.

It is staggering to realize all the things that have changed since this moment. 


OCTOBER 23, 2010

The hard left swerve of the first fishtail.

The paralyzed feeling of helplessness as I bolt awake to see our truck sliding into the lane of oncoming traffic.

Ice. Obsidian patches of water. Ribbons of snow swirling across the spruce-lined highway like dim grey snakes or threads of tape ripped from the underbelly of a cassette.

Beautiful. Looks like dancing.

Michael. My Michael, my dirty, adventurous mountain man. The love of my life.

Tensed at the wheel, blue eyes wide in panic.

He attempts to correct us, flinging the wheel hard to the left, then hard to the right. His knuckles are clenched--white as paper--and stretched too thin around our sun-faded steering wheel.

A ship’s captain in the throes of a thunderstorm.

Relax. Don’t panic. This has happened once before. Everything will be fine.

Fleeting thoughts of a harmless skid back home in Anchorage, that afternoon we drove from the Hillside two winters ago. Watching with a mixture of dread and fascination as our Toyota Tacoma did a ballerina’s pirouette and came to rest at the corner of Lake Otis Parkway and Northern Lights Boulevard. Didn’t leave a scratch.

Flawlessly executed. A judge’s Perfect Ten.

This time will be just like that.

Some sort of talking. Michael’s frustration and fear, my words of encouragement. Trying not to panic.

Don’t freak out. It will just make him freak out more.

A decision.

Angling toward the ditch. Wide and soft-looking, with blades of prairie grass folded to the ground by the winter’s first snowfall.

Launching off the asphalt, realizing the road is a few feet higher than the shoulder. Watching the ground rise to meet us and clutching the “oh-shit” bar without even realizing it. Socked feet—the same pair I’ve been wearing since we crossed into British Columbia two days ago—braced against the floor’s rubber mats.

This. Is. Happening.

Just noise now. Shattering glass, the screeching of metal upon metal. Plastic and steel and tires tearing into the earth, ripping through the ground like a heaving, angry claw.

The smell of dirt, the chill of ice. Lights and darks, and the realization that we’re flipping now. Over and over and over. Tiny and insignificant, like lottery balls in a wheel.

My head is suddenly hanging out the window. Resting sideways on the door frame like that time I drank too much Bushmill's the night we got engaged.

But this time I’m mad.

Furious. Mind-bendingly, unflinchingly, unfiltered in my rage.

STOP!

STOP FLIPPING!!

THIS ISN’T FAIR… YOU CAN’T DO THIS… LET ME GET MY HEAD INSIDE THE WINDOW FIRST…

GODDAMNIT, LET ME GET MY HEAD INSIDE THE WINDOW!!!

There’s dirt everywhere. In my mouth, in my eyes. It tastes raw and silty, dark and fertile. It’s good soil.

In the midst of the chaos, I feel something hard against my chest—Michael’s arm?—and I hear a voice yelling. Screaming, actually, and I understand with a start that it’s my voice I’m hearing.

Weird.

Didn’t even realize I was speaking.

One. Two. Three. I lose count of the truck flips after four, realizing with detached amusement that my obsessive-compulsive tendencies aren’t even filtered by car wrecks.

And then suddenly, there’s silence.

Distant, detached, uncompromising silence.

Mother Nature doesn’t really give a shit about you.

We’ve stopped. The truck is right-side-up, and our twisted front bumper is angled downward into a drainage ditch. We’re teeter-tottering in mid-air like kids on a seesaw.

Thank God for this drainage ditch.

I pause for only an instant and then swirl sideways to take stock of the truck’s passengers.

There’s Michael. Eyes wide. High cheekbones drained of color and face skewed with shock. He’s okay.

Check.

Looking backward into the truck’s extended cab, I lock eyes with Bridger. Our floppy-eared, vulnerable pound dog Bridger. Black bandit’s mask and that beautiful tan face. His eyes are wide, but he’s sitting up, and those lanky sled dog legs are fully intact. He’s okay.

Check.

“Where’s Naia?”

The question tumbles from my mouth as I lock eyes with Michael again. It’s the first words I’ve spoken.

Naia. Our radiant, vivacious, black German Shepherd mix. Our heart and our soul, and the glue that keeps us all sane and balanced. The most fearless member of our blossoming young family.

She’s gone.

Michael and I move quickly, nodding in silent understanding as we turn from each other. Our hands and arms move on autopilot, unbuckling seatbelts and flinging open car doors we later won’t remember opening.

I’m outside before I know it, leaping with socked feet into the waiting drainage ditch. Bands of ice shatter beneath my toes, and I shudder as my legs sink into a freezing, muddy creek. Sulfur, vaporous and rotten, surges into my nostrils.

Shit. Now my feet are all wet.

I feel like I’ve stood in the creek for days but realize it has probably only been an instant. Clambering up the embankment on my hands and knees, I scuff my palms and tear the knees of my favorite pair of jeans. Those way-too-expensive Seven for All Mankind jeans I bought last year at Nordstrom because Michael said they made my butt look cute.

Up the hill, our belongings—suitcases, clothes, gasoline cans and blankets—are scattered through the prairie grass like leaves in the wind.

And then there’s Naia.

Tossed amongst the luggage like a crumpled rag doll, she’s awake, and her golden eyes are trained on us. Her silly, oversized bat ears stand erect like satellite dishes.

Michael has almost reached her—with Bridger bounding like a terrified jackrabbit behind him—so I make a beeline for the highway, waving my arms as a minivan pulls to a stop on the road’s shoulder. My vision seems to be flickering as an older truck slides in behind the minivan, and then Naia is suddenly howling.

She’s running with her tail down—short, compact and panicked, her legs beautiful in their musculature.  Her stance is the same one we saw two days ago at that rest area in the Yukon Territory, the one where she chased pebbles and bounded through the black spruce forest with the speed and grace of a panther.  Clipped and measured in her movements.

Like a police dog. Like a big girl.

She isn’t even three yet.

She’s bolting into incoming traffic now, and I’m yelling something about not panicking, but Michael already has her, and he’s leading her back across the asphalt. He’s holding her by that beautiful, “girly, but not too girly” collar he picked out last year for her birthday.

His injured hands are spilling blood all over it.

There’s a family—a wholesome Canadian family—and now they’re rushing us inside the minivan. Two wide-eyed daughters stare from the backseat as the mother spreads a bedspread over the middle seat for us.

It’s cute. Pink and cartoonish. Fluffy and decorated with maybe the Powerpuff girls, but I hear myself saying, “I can’t… I don’t want to get blood on your blanket…”

I’m inside now, and Bridger is cowered on my lap. Naia is crumpled in knots on the floor, and Michael is staggering back from the truck. He’s clutching my wallet and the new Canon camera I bought last year so I could “take a picture every single day of 2009.” The base is swinging crazily from its straps, winding in figure-eights like the loose seat of a swing set. The lens cap is missing.

What a funny thing to save.

The van door closes, and now we’re pulling away from the accident, swirling back toward Fort Nelson, where we stayed at that chain hotel and ate Dominos pizza last night. Looked at our map of Canada and studied that battered copy of our Milepost magazine. Tried to figure out our itinerary for this crazy move from Alaska to Colorado.

I watch our truck fade in the distance, its nose face-down in the drainage ditch and its back wheels suspended in mid-air like a child’s Tonka truck. Our camper shell has been ripped off, and our things—all our things, each one lovingly packed in preparation for this trip—are scattered in tangles like the wake of a tornado.

That’s our LIFE out there.

I catch a stray word and repeat it—“Totaled?”—feeling the wheels inside my head laboring to process the notion.

But that’s not possible. That’s our truck. We’re driving to Colorado in that truck.

Michael’s hands are on mine, and I realize I’m covered in blood, too. Dark blood, thick and viscous, spills from wounds on my hands and face.

“You’re bleeding. I’m… so… sorry.” He pauses on each word for emphasis, running his hands up and down my sides to check for injuries. “I’m so, so sorry. Are you okay?”

I don’t know. Am I?

Dragging my fingers through my hair, I pull free tiny bits of glass—beautiful, raw diamonds that shine like stars. My right hand is beginning to swell, and my left jaw is aching, but I think I’m remarkably healthy.

“I’m fine. How about you?”

I touch his arms, his face, that sandy beard he insisted on growing special for the trip. His beanie is smudged with streaks of dirt and blood, but I can still see those two campfire ash stripes he accidentally wiped across its brim during our weekend trip to Seward last spring.

“I’m fine.”

Turning to Bridger, I repeat my inspection, cradling his bony shoulders against my chest and feeling my heart break as I watch his back legs tremble.

Naia is crying, howling out in pain whenever she twists herself on the floor of the minivan. We can’t find any wounds—not even the one I thought I saw on her hamstrings just before she ran into oncoming traffic.

Internal injuries.

The thought strikes me with the weight of a wrecking ball, and I do my best to convince myself I’m mistaken. “She’s probably just sore,” I say, patting Michael’s knee after I palpate her spine and the bones of her back legs. “Everything seems to be intact, and she’s letting me touch her everywhere. That’s a good sign.”

But what the hell do I know? I’m not a vet tech.

As we drive, we thank the Canadian couple more times than is reasonably necessary, asking them their names over and over only to feel their answers drifting away moments after they form.

Duane is the dad; I try my hardest and finally commit him to memory, feeling my mind battling the word like an out-of-control kite in the midst of a hurricane. Duane. Duane is beefy and good-natured, with a gap between his front teeth and meaty, flushed sausage fingers. Duane. Remember the name Duane.

Duane and Duane’s wife—who I will later only remember as an ash-blonde blur—were on their way to Fort St. John this morning. They’ve been living in Fort Nelson for the past five years, and Fort St. John is the next town over; it’s a three and a half to four hour drive, and one of Duane’s daughters will be getting her braces tightened there Monday.

“We’ve been driving behind you the whole way south from Fort Nelson, about 40 kilometers,” Duane says. Same speed. Following at a safe distance. These straight roads will get you, he says. Your tires get away from you on that ice, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

“Forty kilometers is a long way to backtrack,” Michael says.

“I feel terrible we’ve ruined your day,” I say, watching the windows fog up from the heater and wondering why Duane hasn’t fixed that hairline crack spreading like a spider web across his front windshield.

“You’re all alive,” Duane’s wife says—or was that Duane? “If you weren’t, that would have ruined our day.”

“It would have ruined ours, too,” I say, and I smile because I’m being clever.

Get it? Because we would have been dead.

####

“I’m sorry ma’am, you can’t bring your mutts in here,” the nurse says when we arrive at the Fort Nelson hospital, staggering out of Duane’s minivan as his wife calls the police and says help is on the way.

“We don’t have anywhere else to go,” I answer, clutching Bridger’s collar and tracking wet, socked footprints across the linoleum. Michael sways in behind me, holding Naia to his chest with wide eyes and bloodied hands.

I bet we look like those people you always hear about. The crazies.

A room suddenly opens for us in an unused portion of the hospital, and we spend the better part of the morning sitting on the floor in stunned silence, giving a police report to an officer named Katie and force-feeding Naia and Bridger dry crackers and lukewarm water.

It will cost $500 per person to be seen by a doctor, so we forego medical exams for now. And Fort Nelson doesn’t have a veterinarian—what the fuck kind of town doesn’t have a veterinarian?—so Michael and I skip deliberation and make the only decision we feel is reasonable.

Give us a rental car, because we need to get Naia to a Fort St. John vet hospital right now.

####

Fast-forward four hours, and Michael and I are in the middle of nowhere on that same God-forsaken two-lane highway in the middle of a snowstorm. I am sitting in the back seat of our rental Kia Sorrento, and Naia is crumpled in a little black heap at my side. She shifts to get comfortable amongst the avalanche of belongings we’ve stacked to the ceiling around her, and this tiny movement sends a stab of pain coursing through her already weak body.

“How’s she doing?” Michael asks from the driver’s seat.

I don’t know how he’s doing this; driving through this snowstorm in the middle of this fog, dodging stray elk and flicking on and off his high-beams during those heart-stopping moments when visibility drops below twenty feet.

It’s pitch-black out here. Black as an abyss, a wormhole stretching across the frozen void of space. The steady stream of snow tapping our windshield reminds me of that Windows screen saver that makes you feel like you’re flying through the solar system.

Only now I’m afraid we’re going to spin into another accident, and this time, I don’t know if I’ll be able to keep myself together afterward.

It’s a statistical improbability, a mathematical unlikelihood. I probably have a better chance of being attacked by a shark and then being trampled by an elephant. But there’s always that one little anomaly, that one weird guy in Texas who’s been struck by lightning more than 60 times.

Some times these things just happen.

Why not twice in one day?

Naia’s golden eyes are rolling in her skull, and her breathing is raspy. I’m trying to get her to drink water, and I’m doing every trick I can think of to distract her from her panting.

“Got your tongue. Hahaha, look at me, I’m gonna get your tongue if you don’t put it back in your mouth… I’m gonna get your eye googies next." I know she has this gross little habit of always wanting to eat them after I’ve wiped her eyes clean. "Don’t you want to pause for a second to eat your eye googies?”

I watch Naia struggle, and I suddenly feel my chest closing. Those golden eyes are so beautiful, and her ridiculous bat ears are perfect.

She’s going to die. Naia is going to die right here sitting on my lap, and there’s nothing I can do to help her.

A swell of anger spills itself into tears, and I clench my eyes shut, fighting the pain and clutching Naia so tightly that I imagine my arms have the power keep her together.

The power to keep her here.

This isn’t fair. This isn’t the way things are supposed to happen.

We’re supposed to move into a new house together. We’re supposed to have babies, and Naia is supposed to be their nanny. She’s supposed to snuffle their ears and sleep beside them every night.

We can’t say goodbye to her yet. We can’t leave her here in this god-forsaken place, broken and extinguished like a snuffed candle. She isn’t even three yet.

This isn’t how this is supposed to happen.

Oil refineries tantalize us for hours, gleaming red and warm in the distance. They camouflage themselves as the town of Fort St. John only to mock us when we approach. Their wicked flame smoke stacks glow like beacons, and we feel like we’re traveling through time as we steer past them into the abyss.

####

We have been on the road for more than five and a half hours by the time we finally reach North Peace Veterinary Clinic--a square metal box illuminated by street lights and outfitted with a squeeze cage in the front for handling large livestock procedures.

My socks are gone now, so I carry Naia barefoot through the snow as Dr. North waves and pulls her glass door open for us. She’s small and athletic, coffee-haired and tan-faced, with kind eyes and rock climber hands, and she can’t believe we’ve come to her vet hospital before seeing a doctor ourselves.

Her office is warm, and the air smells like antiseptic and metal as Michael and I struggle to place Naia on an exam table. She cries out in pain, and her insides heave. A trickle of blood begins dripping in dark rivulets down the base of her tail.

I take one look and suddenly think I’m going to vomit.

Her insides. Her insides have turned into mush, and there’s nothing I can do to help her.

A wave of heat rips through me, and I collapse in an exam chair, tearing off my favorite chocolate vest and that pink American Eagle hoodie I put on this morning because I knew Michael would think I looked pretty.

It’s ripped. I ripped the sleeve of my pretty pink hoodie, and Naia’s going to die here.

The flecked tile floor feels cold against my back as I slump to the ground, and Dr. North brings me a water-filled mug. It’s old and white, stained with coffee and chipped at the handle, but the water tastes good, so I share with Naia.

“It’s good if she wants to drink, right?”

“Maybe, but we don’t want her to drink too much in case we need to sedate her.” Dr. North attempts a smile, explains that she’s going to take her now and do x-rays. We should make ourselves comfortable in her waiting room.

####

Bridger and I pass the time by walking laps through the fluorescent-lit reception area while Michael sits slumped in a corner, eyes watery and hands shaking, dried blood caked around his knuckles.

I decide to make up a new game.

1…. 2… 3… 4…

20… 21… Twenty-two steps to make it from one end of the room to the other. Gotta beat that pace next time.

1… 2… 3… 4…

Six steps to get all the way around the corner.

1… 2… 3… 4…

18… 19… Only twenty steps to get all the way back. Let’s try it again a little faster.

Eukanuba, Science Diet... Dry treats, chewy treats, cute little cans of cat food…

Bridger loves keeping pace with me. This whole thing is his idea, actually. He’s named Bridger Pacey Boop Chickos thanks to his propensity for walking laps around our bedroom at 4:00am, his black and clear toenails click-click-clicking against the lacquered wooden floors when he needs to go to the bathroom.

“He’s a morning person,” we would laugh, grumbling as we unfurled ourselves from our nest of blankets. “The rest of us are night owls, but Bridger Pacey Boop Chickos is a morning person.”

Dr. North returns to the reception area, peering at us with a tentative smile. Her words are blurs, and the x-rays she presents only serve to accentuate how beautiful Naia is, even when she’s just bones on a screen.

“See that?” Dr. North asks. “That’s her bladder. I was afraid it may have ruptured when she started bleeding earlier, but it turns out her kidneys are just badly bruised.” She points to the bones, the wispy, smoke-colored bones all lined up like Lego blocks on the flimsy plastic sheet, and she smiles again. She explains that everything looks great, and that Naia probably only has a hairline fracture on her pelvis.

“A hairline fracture,” she repeats, “so she’ll probably be a good candidate for arthritis when she gets older.”

I’m stuck on the word, and a surge of tears suddenly pours down my cheeks as I lean into Michael for support. Dried brown blood coats my fingernails, and I pat Bridger on the head as I repeat it: “Arthritis? Naia is going to get arthritis? Michael, did you hear that? Naia is going to get arthritis because Naia is going to get old. Michael, Naia is going to get old.”

Air whooshes from my lungs, and a swell of pure joy fills my ribcage, warm, golden and inviting as a sunrise.

Memories spring to life and dance like a film roll before me—wrestling matches, hikes in the sunshine, fire lit nights—and then suddenly I’m seeing pictures of things to come. Dancing in the kitchen, Christmas trees, blanket-wrapped babies and a little black, bat-eared nanny. Dog bones, snowflakes, soccer games in the park… Bridger, Naia, Michael and me fighting for space on our always-too-small queen-sized bed.

The four of us. Our blossoming, young, four-member family.

We all get a second chance.

Humbled

Photo Courtesy of Wiki Commons
I have to admit, I didn't really mean to write "How to Start Your Life Over in Ten (Not Easy) Steps." I actually sat down to work on something else, but then the words just poured out of me. Several hours later, I snapped out of my daze, and "How to Start Your Life Over" was the result.

I wasn't even sure what to do with it at first. It wasn't writing-related, per se, and it certainly wasn't wilderness-related or nature-related or anything else I usually write about on this blog.

But it was true--truer than anything I'd written about in a very, very long time--and I felt it was important, too. I wished I'd read something like it when I started MY life over last year. (And don't be fooled, everyone. In no way have I graduated past Step Ten myself. I'm getting closer, but I still experience setbacks and failures ALL THE TIME.)

So, I decided to share it. I pushed "publish" with a tentative finger, and then I sat back and waited, feeling vulnerable and self-conscious and unsure if anyone would even care to read it.

But then... I started getting visitors, and then my friends were retweeting and reposting my links. And then strangers were retweeting and reposting my links, and then I was getting comments and emails and feedback from people I didn't even know. My blog hits skyrocketed, and everyone who got in touch with me was so supportive and amazing and encouraging and genuine.

And the most important thing: Almost every single person reported going through the exact same thing I did when they started their lives over. Some were in the midst of it, some had already pulled through, but nearly everyone said they had felt so many of the things I described in my steps.

This was reassuring (maybe I'm NOT crazy after all!), but more than that, it was humbling to realize how universal our emotions really can be. And those times when we feel our most alone, there are countless other souls struggling with our exact same obstacles.

So, a lesson: Be unreasonably gentle with everyone you encounter, and know that you are never truly alone in this world. If you ever feeling lost or broken, reach out to someone. You never know... They may know EXACTLY what you are going through.

P.S.- Thank you so much to everyone who took the time to visit--whether you left a comment or sent an email or tweeted or shared or not. I noticed you here, and your presence meant the world to me.

How to Start Your Life Over in Ten (Not Easy) Steps

Photo Courtesy of Vinoth Chandar

STEP ONE: Decide it’s time to let go.

This is the hardest thing you will ever have to do, because you have been pouring your heart and your soul and your guts into your current life. You WANT to be able to fix it like you have a thousand times before, but you can’t fix it this time.

It’s broken. You know that. That little voice in the back of your head—the one that usually taps you on the shoulder and whispers for you to reconsider your choices—has taken to shouting at you lately. Her words have lost that tentative edge, and she means business now.

Because time is passing. She is growing up, and so are you. You are both starting to realize—with equal parts dread and fascination—that you should probably start doing all those things you’ve always said you were going to do.

You’re also learning that the future almost NEVER works itself out on its own. It works out because somebody decides to MAKE it work out.

More often than not, that somebody has to be you.


STEP TWO: Accept this decision.

You’re going to want to freak out now. Don’t. This is normal, but don’t give in to the urge to curl up into a ball and stare blankly at the ceiling.

Your fear will paralyze you if you let it. It will also pollute your brain—flashing a highlight reel of your current life, pleading with you to reconsider and coming up with 75,000 reasons why you SHOULDN’T abandon your path after all.

Maybe it’s your fear of failure. Maybe it’s society. Maybe it’s money or distance or your broken heart or his. Maybe it’s the fact that you’ve given this life every single last drop of your entire being, and you wonder how that can possibly STILL NOT BE GOOD ENOUGH.

These reasons are no good. You know that. If they were, you would have talked yourself out of letting go months or maybe even years ago. If there was one real, legitimate reason for you to hold on—one that would trump all the other reasons you can’t—your subconscious would have already seized it.

It hasn’t. Do you hear me? I’m going to tell you this again, because it’s important: YOU ALREADY KNOW WHAT YOU NEED TO DO, AND NOW IS THE TIME TO DO IT.


STEP THREE: Make a plan.

We always feel our most powerless when we don’t have a plan. We feel like the world is spinning out of control, and we want to shut down and close our eyes and just forget the whole entire thing. But we can’t. There is too much work to do.

So make a plan. Do it in secret if you have to. Break down the enormous task in front of you into teensy, tiny steps, and begin checking things off your to-do list. Every single day. No matter how small or insignificant, every step is a step forward.

(I would reference the journey of a thousand miles here, but I much prefer the Bill Hogan quote: “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” I also prefer organization: Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, goals I can tick off my Google Calendar task bar. The results feel more tangible, and the busy work will help keep your mind off your panic.)


STEP FOUR: Don’t give up.

If it were easy, you would have already done it. Remember that. Also, remember this: IT’S NEVER GOING TO GET ANY EASIER THAN IT IS RIGHT NOW.

Imagine how different your life would be if you had made this change the first time you realized you needed to. Now imagine your life six months or ten years from now. Don’t you think you will have wished you started today?

So don’t stop now. Keep reaching for your goal, and don’t forget to stay healthy.

Sleep. Take vitamins, and don’t drink too much alcohol. Don’t start eating donuts and taquitos and Cheese Whiz for dinner every night, either. You’re going to want to drown your sorrows in junk food, but you need fuel right now. Keep telling yourself that.

Also, permit yourself a few minor freak-outs here and there when necessary. You aren’t a robot, after all. But give yourself a timeline: ten minutes, two hours, never more than a day. You will have plenty of time to grieve later. Right now, don’t forget your fear is waiting.

Combat your grief by surrounding yourself with positive quotes: “This is the part where you find out who you are.” “You never know how strong you are until being strong is the only choice you have.” “It always seems impossible until it’s done.” Or my personal favorite: “We can do hard things.”

We can. And you will.


STEP FIVE: Celebrate your success.

Congratulations! You pulled it off! That huge and terrible mountain of change is now fading in the distance, and you see nothing but blue skies ahead.

Take a moment (or several) to celebrate your success. You’re STRONG. Do you realize this? You’ve probably gotten so used to thinking of yourself as weak that the words feel strange on your tongue.

But you are. You’re strong. You’ve accomplished something many people only dream of doing, and guess what? You didn’t die. You’re still here, and your future is bright and shiny and waiting for you to create it.


STEP SIX: Realize you aren’t finished yet.

You will probably ride your high of success for a week or two, and then reality will begin to creep in. And by reality, I really mean confusion.

Where’s the credit roll and the narrator reading, “And then she lived happily ever after?” Where’s that brand new life with the painted sign on the front that reads, “Welcome! We’ve been expecting you!”

Where’s the cheerleading squad and the brass band and the fireworks displays? What about that tunnel of strangers reaching out to high-five you as you run past?

What about your financial security? You probably turned your life completely upside down making this change, and that probably included draining lots of unintended funds and/or relying on credit cards and/or the generosity of loved ones to get you through the day.

This overwhelmed feeling is normal. It is also probably unexpected, because you were so focused on GETTING here that you never actually thought about what you would do when you GOT here.

My best advice for this moment is to surround yourself with as many friends and family members as you can. If none of them live close by, connect with them through technology. Don’t feel guilty or weak for actually needing their support and assistance right now. You would do the exact same thing for them, and they know it.


STEP SEVEN: Embrace your new reality.

This one is hard, and it’s probably going to take a very long time before you don’t feel like a fish out of water. But—as best as you can—begin embracing your new reality.

Remember all those things you always said you were going to do? You actually get to do them now, so make another list. Two lists would be even better: one of the things you want to do, and one of the person you want to become.

Take a moment to soak that in. You get to become a new person. Your core values probably aren’t going to change, and your personality isn’t either, but you have basically been granted a life do-over. Don’t waste it.

(Some time ago, I came up with the three words I hoped people would use to describe me at my funeral: passionate, creative and genuine. Since then, I have made a concerted effort to BECOME a passionate, creative and genuine person. That means cultivating passions for things like the arts, friendships and adventures; pushing myself to become a more creative, prolific person; and speaking up to stay true to myself, even when it’s inconvenient.)


STEP EIGHT: Expect setbacks. 

At some point, you’re inevitably going to hit a wall. You’re going to realize your new life is hard—even harder than your last life in some ways. It’s harder because it isn’t comfortable yet, and real growth requires two things: courage and pain.

ALLOW YOURSELF TO FEEL THAT PAIN YOU’VE BEEN REPRESSING. This is a critical stage of your growth, because that sadness will always be there if you don’t set it free.

So let yourself feel it. Sink into it like you’re slipping into the ocean. (If you live near a real ocean, I recommend visiting one and falling face-first into it. Works wonders every time.)

A caveat, though—with real oceans and conjured ones. Don’t let yourself drown. It’s easy to lose yourself in your grief, just like it’s easy to slip below the surface of the sea. But that’s not why you are here. If you let yourself disappear now, your entire struggle will have been in vain.

So, GIVE YOURSELF A TIMELINE: a week, a month, a season. Descend into the deepest depths of your suffering, but abide by your deadline. When it’s time to return to the shore, return to the shore.


STEP NINE: Have faith in yourself, and have faith in the process.

Start thinking about butterflies. And remember this quote: “Just when the caterpillar thought the world was over, it became a butterfly.”

Progress report: You were once a caterpillar, and now you are a chrysalis.

And here’s the thing about being a chrysalis: It kind of sucks sometimes.

I recently learned caterpillars don’t just gracefully sleep through metamorphosis the way we thought they did as kids. In order to transform, they must first release enzymes that quite literally digest nearly their entire bodies. It is from this "caterpillar soup" that the adult butterfly is born anew.

Imagine how scary this process must be: the melting and reformulating of one’s insides. That’s where your essence is right now. You are some form of caterpillar soup, and you still have a long way to go before you will be able to become a butterfly.

But you know what? That’s okay. Just like you can’t expect to pull a butterfly from a still-forming chrysalis, you can’t expect yourself to just snap out of this.

So… Please be gentle with yourself. You are going to have good days, and you are going to have bad days. This is a normal part of the healing process.

You know what else? YOU ARE GOING TO HAVE SOME TERRIBLE DAYS. Gut-wrenching, paralyzing days where all you want to do is lay down and die. Angry, bitter days where you blame the entire world for robbing you of the life you had planned.

Worst of all, anxiety is probably going to become your new best friend. You are going to become regularly crippled with fear, and you are going to question every single thing about yourself: from the choices you’ve made and the goals you haven’t reached to your fear of failure and the possibility that you may never, ever, ever actually succeed and find happiness again.

Because you were happy there for awhile, weren’t you? You can’t remember now. The past has become glossed over, and all you can see are blocky, distant shadows. Was it really so bad back then? Were you overreacting when you decided to do this?

You weren’t. You know that. Deep down in the pit of your stomach, you know you did what you had to do. So… HAVE FAITH IN YOURSELF, AND HAVE FAITH IN THE PROCESS.

Remember this. Write it down. Tape it to your bathroom mirror, and recite it every single morning like a mantra.


STEP TEN: Throw away your timeline.

You are going to take two steps forward and 36 steps backward some days. You are going to want to give up sometimes, and other times, you are going to hate yourself for still not being healed.

Worse, some days you are going to think you ARE healed. You are going to move forward and make choices, and you are going to think, “Is this it? Is this the new beginning? Is the worst finally behind me?”

Trouble is, you don’t have a road map for this part. And this road is more like a maze anyway, with twisting passages and dead-ends and places where you will have to squeeze or climb or crawl instead of walk.

And you know what? No matter what you do, you’re going get hurt again. It’s inevitable. YOU ARE GOING TO APPROACH LIFE WITH YOUR NEW, SHINY, POSITIVE OUTLOOK, AND IT’S STILL GOING TO SLAP YOU IN THE FACE SOMETIMES.

This is going to shock you. TRUST ME. It’s probably going to come out of nowhere, and it’s almost definitely going to cripple you again.

You’re going to backslide. Extensively. You’re going to mourn and panic and fall right back into that hole you just left.

You’re going to once again question every single thing about yourself—because if you’re trying this hard and still not succeeding, what hope do you have of EVER succeeding??

Short answer: There’s hope. And you will find it.

Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but little by little by little, you’re going to sweat and bleed and cry and drag yourself into your new life.

You’re not going to notice at first. You’re going to be so tied up in your day-to-day victories and defeats that the change won’t immediately be evident. But slowly—glacially, even—you will begin to notice something is different.

You’re stronger now. Setbacks that used to destroy you now barely make a dent. You’re lighter, too—filled with a strange, glowing energy that isn’t tentative or tremulous like before. It’s blue fire now, blazing colder and hotter than ever.

And when you look back on yourself—a year or two or ten after you started this journey—you’re going to barely recognize the person you used to be. You were a block of marble before, and now you’re a finely honed statue. Every line and ridge and muscle is there because it’s SUPPOSED to be there, and there’s no longer any room for unnecessary fear or doubt or uncertainty.

You say, “I am strong,” but this time, the words don’t feel strange on your tongue. They feel true, and the fact that you ever called yourself weak makes you shake your head and wonder why you were living with your eyes closed.

You want to travel back in time, to tell that girl she needs to pull herself together. But then you stop yourself, because you realize you already have. And your transformation is finally complete.

It was horrible. A thousand or a million times worse than you ever thought it would be. And if you had known how much suffering it would require, you’re not sure if you would have ever had the courage to even begin.

But you did.

You’re glad you didn’t know, just like you’re grudgingly thankful for all the lessons your suffering has taught you. There are countless morals, of course, but the most powerful one is this:

You are a beautiful, courageous, independent and whole person.

And you are never, ever, ever going to lose sight of yourself again.

Two Roads Diverged

Photo Courtesy of swimparallel
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear,
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I marked the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

In other words, I have started down a different path now. Different from the one that took me across the country eight years ago, different from the one that shaped me from a wide-eyed college kid into the woman I am today.

I have experienced so much in the past eight years that it's hard to know where to begin. I graduated from the University of Central Florida and moved to California, and I met a boy and kissed him while snow drifted through the air and settled like lace on our shoulders and in our hair.

I rescued sea lions and served martinis in Monterey, swam with dolphins and released sea turtles in Florida, and I packed up everything I owned when I decided to marry that California boy. We loaded our truck and headed north to Alaska, and we spent nearly four years hiking, drinking micro-brewed beers, and exploring the Great White North. I raised mountain goats and baby bears at the zoo, I watched stars and trained one particular camel who still owns a big piece of my heart.

We made friends and said goodbye to them, and we headed south again when my heart started pulling me back to Florida. That California boy would have stayed in Alaska forever, but we settled on Colorado, and we decided it was a good compromise.

But it wasn't. My heart strings still tugged me home, and the birth of my new nephew made the pain unbearable.

What do you do when you realize you'll lose yourself if you don't follow your heart? What do you do when the California boy--who is now a man--realizes he'll lose himself if he comes with you?

Do you sacrifice your path? Does he? Do both of you give up on the intrinsic essence that makes you who you are?

Or do you start down your paths alone? Do you leave your relationship in the hands of fate, in the belief that your love will survive if it is meant to survive?

And if it isn't, are you strong enough to handle that? Are you strong enough to say goodbye, to know that you will always love and care about this man, even if your destinies are no longer entwined?

The answer: I sure hope I am.