Well so much for my travel blog. I had a blast and learned a ton in India, Nepal, Thailand, and Malaysia, but in this and future posts I plan to share the more recent events of my life, with a focus on my experiences as a field guide for a wilderness therapy organization called Open Sky. Please note, the opinions expressed in this blog are those of my own, and do not represent the perspective of other employees at Open Sky, or of the organization as a whole. How I came to decide on starting a new job in a new line of work in a new place is the general theme of this blog. In addition, I’ll share what helped me persevere through some emotional struggles preceding this big move.
Wind back to December of 2017. After four and a half years of arduous study with three majors at four different schools, I graduated from the University of Michigan with a Bachelor’s degree in philosophy. I moved into an RV, and drove it across the country without much of a plan of where I’d live or find work. The only plan I had was to attend Alderleaf Wilderness College in Monroe, Washington, and that was nine months away. After two gloomy months of looking for work in Washington, I landed an outdoor education gig near Salem, Oregon where I taught outside every day about animals. That was the first time I ever felt like I loved my job, yet the long schedule and low pay ultimately ruled that lifestyle as unsustainable. After that season ended, it was summer camp season, and I took up a role as the aquatics director of a Boy Scouts camp, high up in the Cascade mountains near Bend, Oregon. This brought even longer hours and lower pay, but I wouldn’t trade the experience for the world. Those two months I didn’t shower once, but was in the lake every day of the week and continued working alongside a close friend I made years prior when studying abroad in Iceland.
Finally when Fall of 2018 rolled around I started “school” (basically hanging out in the woods while learning naturalist skills) at Alderleaf. After a year of ups and downs, connection and isolation, I passed the final test: a five-days survival trip in the forest with nothing but the clothes on my back. I upped the challenge to no hair on my head as well. I broke my vegetarianism to survive, eating snakes and crawdads, as well as oyster mushrooms, salmon berries, and dandelion. Then resumed life in a tiny home after moving out of a mold prone RV, I put my wilderness skills to use at Wilderness Awareness School as a lead instructor for the summer. My values had never felt so in line with the work I was doing. Still, I felt a calling from deep inside me to keep moving on, away from the Pacific Northwest, after about a year and a half there. As the summer camp season at WAS was coming to a close, I struggled hard to decide what I could do for work that would actually be financially sustainable. I knew I wanted to continue teaching in some way, but all the outdoor education positions I came across were seasonal, barely enough to financially support myself, and far far away from my family and friends. I decided I’d go back to Michigan, live with my family and hang with my friends, while I figure out the next step. But first, before I settle into any long-term commitments with further work or schooling, it seemed to be the perfect time to gain some worldly perspective by roaming through Southeast Asia for a few months, alone, with just a 45-liter backpack and heart full of hope and curiosity.
It was September of 2019 when I flew to India and volunteered at several work-exchange programs through Workaway.info to get to know the locals and save on some Rupees. 95 days later, I left Thailand just a few weeks before the first COVID-19 case would be reported. That was nice timing. The greatest outcome of my trip was a strengthened intuition, and thankfully that made it clear to me when to head home. You can read all about my travels in India, and some of my travels in Nepal, in my previous blog posts on this site.
Having shaken off my nomadic jitters, I moved back into the suburbs of Detroit (ugh). It was worth it to spend time with family and friends, but I knew it was temporary. Then COVID hit, so goodbye social life for a few months. Longing for work that’s meaningful, and this time stable, pandemic-proof, and financially sustainable, I decided to try out teaching in a Montessori school. Wasn’t sure how much I’d thrive in an indoor setting, but I supported many of the core tenets of Montessori education, such as peaceful conflict resolution, allowing for freedom of choice and expression, and encouraging intrinsic motivation by eliminating grades. Figured it was worth a shot.
So in the summer of 2020 I started Montessori training, and in the fall moved out to Michigan’s west side, settling into a tiny home near Grand Haven. Working as an assistant and substitute teacher at a school just two minutes away by bike, I found plenty of joy and inspiration interacting with the students, but was lacking a sense of satisfaction. My purpose meter felt only half full. I knew I had more to give that I simply couldn’t in this setting. As much as I spited myself for falling short on yet another major life commitment, I knew that I best act sooner rather than later, before I invest even more time and energy into an occupation that at the end of the day, kept my boat afloat, but was sailing me away from my dreams.
I must pause to admit that I’m so stupendously blessed to have been able to follow the wide meanders of my dreams throughout my life. Loving thanks go out to Mom, Dad, Kathy, Paul, Kristy, Johnny, Nicky, Alec, Ben, and all the other family and friends who showed me love and support in pursuing my greatest aspirations. Even all you folks who literally paved the highways across the country, and all you great leaders of schools and organizations who put trust in me and fostered my growth, thank you. Thanks a million.
Back to Montessori life on Michigan’s west coast. September was a really rough month for me, with losing the only friend I had in the area on the eve of the first day of school. We had been developing a closer relationship over six months, and in June she had finally expressed romantic interest in me. In July I gave her a letter exposing the deep, intense feelings I had for her, and found out a few weeks later that it ruined any semblance of mutual feelings she had for me. That really hurt, but in August we met up and after engaging in a long, meaningful conversation, it seemed we were on the mend. A week later, totally out of the blue, she texted me saying she’s decided to close the door on our friendship, and blocked me in every mode of communication before I even had a chance to say goodbye.
At first I felt dismay, humiliation, devastation, and remorse. But after some time it became evident that these emotions had more to do with feeling like I kept failing at following my dreams and progressing in line with my destiny than with losing my friend. As I eased into this realization, so too did immense guilt ease into my being, reminding me that I had been given so much, yet was struggling so hard to figure out how to best give back. To friends and family, to community and society, to Earth and Sky. I felt bewildered, lost, thoroughly disappointed in myself and others, and fatigued by trying to fight off all those negative self-thoughts that I habitualized in prior times of depression.
So how did I persevere through the storm to clearly see my next best step? If I had to boil it down into two simple categories, it would be: A. regular practices, and B. deeper beliefs.
A. Some regular practices included: hiking, meditating, saying gratitude, dream journaling, reading, cooking, tapping, sitting by the lake, and charting out my action and effect. That is, keeping track of consumption habits (e.g. 2 cups of coffee), time usage (e.g. 30 minutes exercise), and the effect on my well being (e.g. rating on a scale of 1 – 10 my high mood, low mood, and overall mood). Emotions are so complex, rating them on a numerical scale felt degrading at times, but doing the practice was better than nothing. Eventually I added ratings for “purpose” and “peace” as well, which added some color. Engaging mostly in behaviours that sustained or gradually increased my well being over time, despite not being as pleasurable as the immediate kick of a few drinks, was one essential ingredient in my healing journey. At Open Sky there’s a word for this: doing the “hard easy”. E.g. Meditation can be hard to sit through and enjoy at first, but becomes easier and more rewarding as time goes on. Compare this with the “easy hard”: Binge drinking is easy to enjoy immediately, but makes enjoying life harder once the buzz fades away.
Holding myself accountable on the chart was HUGE. I watched my overall mood go from 3.7 in September to 5.5 in October, to 6.1 in November and 6.6 in December. I was motivated to incorporate changes that my own personal data showed would make me happier. For example, if I skipped meditation one day, I’d often reach lower lows, and feel less peaceful. On the positive side, exercise and reading typically boosted my mood and purpose.
Another really helpful part of this chart was recording my intention for the day. Sometimes I’d forget it by the evening, but most days I’d keep at least a mild awareness of it, and in doing so, would find some success in achieving my daily goal. However, it was integral that in setting this intention, I truly believed that I am capable and worthy of [letting go, being compassionate, restoring, trusting, etc.]. This brings me to the second category…
B. Deeper beliefs. This one’s harder to incorporate into one’s life, for I don’t believe that we entirely choose our beliefs, though thankfully they’re not entirely out of our control either. In one aspect, beliefs are something that happen to us. In another aspect, we can choose to stay in denial, or let go of false beliefs to seek and embrace a greater truth. And without healthy beliefs, healthy practices are only minimally effective. For if you were doing all these aforementioned “hard easy” activities with the belief that you’re a worthless sack of crap, then no matter how much you were acting with positive outward action, it would be as if you were picking up scattered rocks only to put them down in the same exact spot. It’s exhausting and demoralizing, exerting yourself only to feel stuck in the same pile of rubbish you were in before. To build up, you need solid, foundational beliefs. Beliefs, for example, that you are a valuable, purposeful, beautiful creation of nature. Beliefs that at your core you are free, powerful, and made of love. And that no matter how many times the shell around your heart breaks, your true heart remains blissfully at rest.
A part of me believed in all these things, but when experiencing such emotional turmoil, I also would waver, pondering that I couldn’t fully trust any of these beliefs. They sure sound nice, but do I merely want to believe these things? Throughout my life my beliefs have been weathered, drastically morphing in shape and colour several times over. Who am I to think that my current beliefs are right in any sort of objective sense?
My answer to that now is that it doesn’t really matter. Do your best, be open, and allow. Keep growing. A tree does not worry about their beliefs being right or wrong. Nor does a tree compare their branches to how a branch should be. A tree simply is. I hope to continue a discussion on beliefs in a future blog post, but the scope is too wide for further analysis here.
To close, I share with you a quote from the only poster that hung inside my tiny home. It read: “Feelings are much like waves. We can’t stop them from coming, but we can chose which ones to surf.”
This was a belief that was really hard to accept when swallowing saltwater, but ultimately I found it to be true. And life-changing.
A friend told me that sometimes we feel such immense pain and prolonged suffering in strenuous life circumstances because we think we have to, or we deserve to. Pretty simple “if A then B” type logic: A. This really devastating event just happened to me, therefore B. I must feel [x negative emotion] for an appropriate amount of time.
Basically, we tend to justify negative feelings, but certainly don’t have to. And when we are all worthy of connectedness, wholeness, and flourishing, why hold on to low spirits? Turns out, the will trumps logic. As I learned to step back from judging my circumstance in any particularly good or bad way, the negative self-thoughts and painful emotions slowly faded away. The less I saw my situation as cataclysmic, the more I saw it as rebirth. And if I could heal from this situation, and many worse situations in my past, I could help others move through their struggles, too. The realization was blooming that teaching and therapy aren’t so unrelated after all.
The waves – they were still relentless, yet I was getting better at letting the dissonant ones crash and dissipate, and freely surfing those that harmonized with my heart.