Beyond Room 119

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I haven’t written much during this reign of coronavirus. Part of my brain has been operating on overdrive, so I think I tried to compensate by not thinking at all the rest of the time. Admittedly, perhaps it hasn’t been the best coping mechanism. Thinking back over the past two months, there are a number of things that stand out and I’m sure I’ll be pulling some of them into here at some point. Tonight, there’s something that’s been percolating in my mind for a few weeks, so we’re gonna roll with that.

I was on a Zoom call with a good friend recently and we were choosing from a list of questions and going back and forth with each other. One of the prompts was to take turns telling the other person something you considered a positive characteristic about them, for a total of five items each. Nothing that he said to me was surprising, and my guess is he would say the same about what I shared. What struck me, though, was after we finished that question, he looked at me and said, “I feel seen.”

Sight. Vision. Most of us take it for granted, and yet how often do we look without actually seeing? How much do we  glance at the people around us without ever truly looking at them?

I remember the first time I saw my little sister as just my sister, without the “little” attached to it. We were in Utah and went outdoor rock climbing with a guide one day. The guide was keeping an eye on things as I belayed her, and she started her journey up the rock face. Partway up, the path got harder and a bit more technical. Now, my sister had minimal experience rock climbing prior to this, so her technical expertise was lacking, to say the least. She tried to make the next move and missing it, fell a foot or two as I held the rope taut. She tried again and once again, she missed. There was a small outcropping right where she was hanging, so she rested on that to take a break as she studied the rock wall. She tried a few more times, and missed the move every single time before she took a break on the outcropping again. That wasn’t the first climb she did that afternoon, and her arms must have been fatigued. Our guide expected her to give up and for me to belay her back down gently. I’d known her for 20 years, and heck, I expected her to give up. And yet, somehow she missed that memo. She stayed on that tiny ledge for a while before giving it another go. I can’t say how long I stood there, head craned upward, keeping that rope tight as she continued to fight for that next move. All I know is that she tried, tried, tried some more, and somehow, navigated the tricky spot and made her way up the entire rock wall to the top. She did it. Perhaps for the first time, I realized what a strong, stubborn, and formidable person my sister had become.

She had been there the whole time, and her identity didn’t shift in the course of one afternoon. But something happened to my vision that day which widened my perspective and helped me to see her more clearly, and perhaps, more fully.

Fast forward to the present. I’ve been taking a lot of walks on the beach lately, and I see a lot of people there by themselves. The other day, an older gentleman’s dog ran over to me. Pre-covid, I would have pet the dog in a heartbeat, but now I always ask permission. He seemed excited that I wanted to pet her – “usually people are scared of pit bulls,” he said to me with an unconcerned shrug – and we chatted for a minute or two. These little conversations – whether with the guy at the surf shop, the guy who always smokes outside the building, the barista at my favorite local coffee shop – have been happening a lot lately. Sure, part of it is absolutely all of us feeling the effects of over two months of a stay-at-home order and the decimation of our social lives by coronavirus.

It’s more than just that, though. People want to be seen. We want to be understood. We want people to look at us for who we are, to say our name, to know us. We want to be more than just a server, a barista, a counselor, a random guy on the beach. We crave that real connection, even for the briefest of moments. I believe coronavirus simply stripped away all our bravado and the faces we may put on for the world and laid it all out, bare. Laid us out, bare. I think it’s made many of us be more honest with ourselves and others, and that authenticity naturally forges connections, whether they be short or sustained.

We aren’t meant to be in isolation. We were made for community and connection, and that can’t take place without seeing those around us. Our friends, our family, our neighbors, yes – but the people we encounter in other spaces, too. By seeing those around us, we not only give them permission to do the same, but we also silently and often unknowingly encourage them to do so with others.

So to all of you out there: I see you. I see you, and I’m sorry for the days when I haven’t taken the time to take off the blinders of busyness. I’m grateful for this time to pause and remember what’s important to me. My hope is that as states start to open up and our lives slowly return piece by piece to what we used to know, we all continue to reflect on what matters to each of us and to keep that as our foundation, rather than an afterthought.

“Your vision will become clear only when you look into your heart. Who looks outside, dreams. Who looks inside awakens.” (Carl Jung)


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I signed a withdrawal form last week for one of my favorite students. 

I first met her over a year ago, when she showed up in my office on probation. Over the past year or so, she’s gradually opened up more about her background, her home life, and the struggles she goes through to be at school. I’ve tried to listen, be present with her, help her get back on her feet academically, and more than anything, remind her that she is capable and worthy of being here. She hasn’t had an easy time of it, and I know that if everything else in her life were straight, she would be just fine at school.

Problem is, everything else in her life isn’t straight. In fact, it’s all pretty damn crooked. That’s one of the hardest things about my job – I can help students with academics, we can discuss career goals and how to get there, we can talk about life, and I can refer them to appropriate resources all day long, but I can’t change anything about their situation. I’m not a therapist, a social worker, or a doctor- I’m an academic counselor. When I was considering graduate school, I very intentionally chose not to go into counseling programs, and I believe I made the right choice. But man, sometimes I just wish I could do more. 

So she showed up in my office last Thursday afternoon, beating around the bush, and I knew instantly something was up. She avoided my questions so we shot the breeze for a bit, and I knew she was working up the courage to say what she needed to say. After a while, she was quiet for a moment and I let her be. She presents as tough as nails, but underneath, I know she struggles with a lot. Eventually it came out that she’s decided she needs to spend some time working on her personal situation because if she tries to keep hiding from it, she knows it’s going to continue to interfere with anything that she tries to do. She doesn’t know when or if she’ll return to campus, since she also feels like she’s drifting in regards to the future and what she wants to do. 

Can you be simultaneously proud of someone and still have part of your heart break? I’m so proud she made the decision she needed to and I truly believe it was the right thing for her to do. I knew she struggled with sharing this with me because she thought she was failing me, so I told her that she didn’t need to worry about letting me down – my focus this entire year hasn’t been on her getting her degree here, but rather, on her making the best choices for herself. But man, I wish life was easier for her so that those best choices didn’t have to look like this.

Before she left my office, my student last week asked me, “How did I deserve you?” My answer was immediate.

You showed up, I told her. 

Showing up can be half the battle. I’ve written before how, over the past six years or so, I’ve come to realize the value of showing up, and I have learned how much the simple act of attendance can mean. There have been a few people in particular in my life during these past few chapters that have consistently just shown up, and it made all the difference. 

What I’ve come to learn over the past year or so is that the opposite –  letting go – can be a bit harder. Letting go requires surrender and trust – surrender in realizing that some things are beyond our control and trust that the person or situation will be okay. Letting go is something that doesn’t come easily to me, I’ve learned. I like control and I don’t let people in very easily. When I let someone in, I surrender some of that control, and that person becomes part of my heart. For better or for worse, there’s no eject button. It’s been a fun lesson to learn through my different relationships and one that I’m still figuring out. 

In a chapter on affection in The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis writes, “But the proper aim of giving is to put the recipient in a state where he no longer needs our gift…Thus a heavy task is laid upon this Gift-love. It must work towards its own abdication.” 

We cannot give with the expectation to be needed. We cannot serve if we’re doing it to make those being served dependent on us. We cannot love with the condition that the other loves us back. True giving, according to Lewis, works towards making itself unnecessary. A true gift of self. Selfless love, rather than selfish love. 

It’s a high bar, but it’s one worthy of striving towards. Selfless love can be beautiful and true and good, and still leave us curled up on our couch sobbing. It’s a balancing act, to be sure, as taking care of ourselves is still important and not to be ignored. But I think it’s about viewing our needs in relation to those of others and prioritizing accordingly. Some days those priorities might look different than other days, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Our capacity to give may be different each day depending on the other pieces we have going on in life – the struggles, the joys, the hardships, the obligations. Our task, then, is to be self-aware and other-aware at the same time. Only then can we learn what balance means and work towards attaining that harmony.

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Months ago, when my good friend decided to run her second marathon in a town only an hour south, I immediately marked the date in my calendar. I LOVE spectating distance races. Having run two marathons, I acutely remember hitting that wall at mile 22, walking across that bridge at mile 24 as I threw my Gu on the ground, unable to stomach the thought of yet another energy gel, and thinking “Are you serious?! I’m not done yet??” at mile 26. I also remember how much energy I got when a good friend surprised me and showed up at mile 13, when another friend was playing his guitar at mile 24, and when I saw so many familiar faces along the courses. Spectators make a difference, whether they know the runners or not. I love taking the opportunity to pay it forward and be that person who gives someone a burst of energy or some encouragement.

I’m not going to lie: I’m an obnoxious spectator. I have the world’s loudest cowbell and I use it aggressively. I wave my posters vigorously at runners passing by. I shout words of encouragement, and when runners get close enough, I squint to see their name on their bib and personalize my cheering. There’s a reason I’m now hoarse: I just don’t shut up. Because it’s fun. Because it makes a difference to the runners. Because every single one of them out there on the course has a story and a motivation for being there. You don’t just wake up one day and decide, “Hey, I’ll run a marathon next weekend!” No, it takes months of training, discipline, and determination. It takes perseverance, grit, and an ability to push through the pain and the soreness. And let’s be real – it takes a good bit of crazy, too. In a way, being a spectator allows me to honor the journeys of each individual marathoner passing by. 

Today’s race course was a bit unique in that it was two big loops along the Pacific. As a runner, that monotony can be terrible, but as a spectator, it meant that I got to see the same runners out there multiple times on the course, and I got to see my runner out there three different times. At mile 14, I could tell she wasn’t on her A game. At mile 17, I knew she was hurting. And when she didn’t arrive to mile 23, where I planned to meet her and run her in, until 20 minutes after I expected her, I knew without any doubt that the race was not going the way she had hoped. As I ran with her those last 3.2 miles, I tried to find the balance between cheering her on and giving her the mental space to be present in her pain and disappointment. She handled those last few miles well and I’m so proud of how she pushed herself today. She finished a good bit behind where she wanted to, but man, she finished, and she pushed so hard that last half mile, despite the intense stomach cramps she’d been having for the past thirteen miles. I would think she is a rockstar had she finished in her goal time, and after seeing her performance today, I’m even more impressed by her. 

That’s the thing about distance racing. You can plan all you want, train as hard as you can, prepare your race day nutrition all season long, but at the end of the day, you can’t prepare for everything. Come race day, you have to be content knowing that you did all you could to prepare, and as long as you leave it all out on the course, any result is a good outcome. 

That’s kinda how life is too, isn’t it? We can prepare as much as we want for things. But at the end of the day, life is too powerful to be constrained within the box we sometimes try to place it in. When we attempt to put parameters on life, it has a habit of laughing at us. The trick, I think, is to enjoy the process, as messy, colorful, and disorganized as it may be, instead of always looking ahead to the finished product. Because truly, there never will be a finished product.

In college, one of the campus priests would end every single homily by saying, “May God bless us all on this wonderful journey, this wonderful journey we call life.” This life is a wonderful journey indeed, and it’s worth investing in, preparing for, and then eventually, letting go once we’ve done all that we can. 

And of course, there’s always room for more cowbell. 

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pre-birthday thoughts

Last night, I watched a ridiculous cheesy and entirely predictable Christmas movie to inaugurate the season. In it, the mom tells her daughter, who of course was single and alone at the family gathering after having an argument with her love interest, “You know, honey, a lot can change from one Christmas to the next.” 

My birthday is in two days and I always use that as an opportunity to reflect on the previous year and look ahead towards the next one. Tonight in particular, I’m struck by the wisdom in that mother’s statement of how much can change in a single year. 

Last year on my birthday, I had two friends over to celebrate by decorating the Christmas tree. After they left, I remember crying in my room, thinking that I only had two friends to celebrate with, when I had recently left a place where I could have pared down the guest list and still have had twenty friends over. Numbers aren’t everything, of course, and I’m certainly someone who appreciates quality over quantity, but I deeply missed both the depth and breadth of friendships in the place I had left. 

Tonight I went over to my brother and sister-in-law’s for dinner to celebrate my birthday and had some good time to play with my two-year-old niece. I’m sorry to any aunts or uncles in the audience, but Emmie is The Most Adorable Child, hands down, and I’ll fight you on that. I spun and reverse-spun her (she liked the reverse spins more, for whatever reason. Good to know.), watched as she tried to put a diaper on her stuffed animal golden retriever, laughed as she struggled to open a banana (and eventually succeeded on her own!), and listened as she chastised the real dog, “No, Sona, not yet not yet!” They told me that her Christmas show at school is in two weeks, and I was able to mark the date in my calendar instead of wince with frustration, knowing that I wouldn’t be around to see it. She’s an absolute angel, and I’m so grateful to be a part of her life as she grows older.

A week ago today, I went to the grand opening of my brother’s new restaurant. He’s the GM there and I was surprised I got an invite at all, so naturally I made the trek out to LA county to see what it was all about. As I hung out with his wife, I watched as he checked in on all the different tables, making sure everyone was happy and taken care of. He introduced me to bosses, investors, and other people whose roles I didn’t even catch. It was such a gift to see him in his element, to see how happy he was after so much hard work, and to feel like he wanted me there to see it all. I haven’t spent a ton of time with him since he went off to college, so to see him on a more frequent basis again is a surprise that I truly appreciate. 

I’ve written ad nauseam of the things that I now love about my life here – especially my nephews. As I continue to spend time with my other siblings and their families and as I think back on the past year, I’m just struck with gratitude. 


I’m grateful for my crazy family, full of chaos, noise, and poopy diapers (or chonies, if you’re my youngest nephew). 

I’m grateful to my parents, who were insane enough to have seven kids.

I’m grateful that God opened my heart to moving, regardless of how hard that process was.

I’m grateful that He led me here, back among family. 

I’m grateful that I had the courage and faith to say yes when that job offer came. 

I’m grateful that He gave me the strength to persevere during the hard times here.

I’m grateful for the old friends I have across the country who listened to me cry over and over again and loved me all the same.

I’m grateful for the friends and communities I have here, both old and new.

I’m grateful for a job that I truly love and where I feel like I make an actual difference in people’s lives (almost) every day.


I’m grateful for my Christmas tree and fire, both keeping me cozy as I sit here, in this place that now feels like home.


And on a slightly different note, I’m grateful that the Hallmark channel lets you subscribe for a mere six dollars per month. Let the Christmas movie watching season commence! 

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Falling in love

A few weeks ago, I was running through the park we train at during one of my run club meetings. This particular loop has about a quarter mile stretch that is surrounded on both sides by six foot bushes and brush. It’s also on a bluff overlooking the city and in the distance, the beach. In this particular moment, the sun was low on the horizon and the sky was a beautiful orange as sunset drew near. As I was sprinting through this stretch, tired from my previous repeats and slightly out of breath, I was struck by a thought: I love this place. 

When my run club first moved our location to this park at the start of the summer, I was unimpressed. It’s more of a cross-country venue, with dirt paths, a good number of hills, and the flora is what you would expect in southern California: brown bushes, dried brush, and zero green. But over the course of showing up every single week, exploring the different paths hidden within the park’s boundaries, challenging myself with each run, and growing closer to the other runners, something changed. The park has come to represent all the things I love about running: growth, challenge, bettering the self, community, the outdoors, and fresh air, just to name a few. 

After the run that night, I was chatting in the parking lot with a friend. One of the old guard (essentially the club’s de facto president, who has been a member longer than I’ve been alive) approached us and nonchalantly suggested that we take up the mantle of leadership and revitalize the club with our energy and the money in the club’s bank account. Now, regardless of whether we actually do anything with his suggestion, the mere seed that he planted showed that he sees the two of us as part of the group now. He trusts us with the future of this club that he’s invested into for the past few decades. What caused this? Two things. The first is that my friend and I both have consistently been showing up. One thing I’ve learned over the past few years is that the mere practice of showing up makes a difference. It indicates to us (and others) what our priorities are, it can be a show of support, and others notice it. I’ve been coming to our Tuesday night runs nearly every week since January, and I rarely miss it. It’s become a priority and something that I look forward to every week. The second factor is that we’ve just been ourselves this entire time. We’ve been genuine in the relationships that are forming, the encouragement we share, and in who we are. People notice when someone is authentic and it fosters trust. Over time, that trust builds and strengthens relationships.

I didn’t start to feel like southern California was home until June or July, which makes almost a solid year since moving here. But in the few months since then, it seems like all the work I’ve put in over the last year into my different groups and communities has been coming to fruition simultaneously. That Tuesday night workout was just one example. That thought I had a few Tuesdays ago of “I love this place” was in reference to that park which has come to feel more like home. More importantly though, that thought was indicative of a much deeper emotion: I’ve come to love southern California again, not just as a destination to visit and see family, but as a place that I’ve chosen to make home. 

This point was hammered home for me last week, when I got a job offer last week at my alma mater. I applied mostly because my old supervisor from undergrad specifically invited me to, and I figured, “Eh, nothing will probably come from it, but why not?” When I got the offer, it made me stop and actually ask myself if this was something I really wanted. While I would love to work for my old boss again, my heart instantly rejected the offer. The job was great, the supervisor was incredible, but the location was wrong, at least for now. The heart knew that I’ve finally made this place my own, and I’m not ready to uproot again quite so soon. 

All this to say that when I moved here last year, I didn’t think this would ever feel quite like home. I was excited to be closer to family but I didn’t think this would become anything more than just the place I settled into. It’s nice to remember that I can’t always predict what the future will bring and that every so often, I might just be wrong. 

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Perfect days

I’m 27 years old and as single as they come. 

That reality would terrify some of my friends. Other people in my life simply don’t understand it. “How are you single?” they ask. Or my favorite, “Why are you single?” Thank goodness I have older brothers with kids that keep my mom living the grandma life so that she doesn’t bug me too much about settling down.

Don’t get me wrong – I love kids and want a good number of them someday. And when I meet that person who makes my life that much better, I’ll be happy and excited to join forces and tackle life together with them. But my philosophy has always been that I already have so many wonderful people in my life and so many things that I like to do that I’m not going to change that for someone less than incredible. 

One of my dear friends once called me “fiercely independent.” I think that this is entirely accurate and not necessarily a bad thing (though, to be honest, I have learned that it is a trait that must be tempered sometimes). Take today, for example. It’s only late afternoon and I’ve already felt like I’ve had the best day. My roommate was gone, I had no set plans until the evening, and I just did whatever I felt like. I wound up starting with my long run, as is usually the case on a Saturday morning. It went surprisingly well, so that’s always a bonus. I’m dogsitting for a friend this weekend, so I got to play with lil Rory as I made breakfast and did laundry. Rory and I went for a walk while I caught up with one of my best friends on the phone. During the run that morning, I had remembered that weeks ago, my older brother mentioned that he had a grass volleyball tournament today and I mentioned that I wanted to watch him play, so I texted him to see if he still wanted a cheering squad. 

I wound up going for a few hours, and it was just a blast. Luke is five years older than me and an absolute riot. He played volleyball in college and I haven’t seen him play since then, so it’s been over a decade. I met a bunch of his friends whose names I’ve just heard over and over the past few years. One of his good friends I hadn’t seen since Luke’s wedding, and it was fun to see him again. I was able to watch as Luke both destroyed it out there on the court and got lazy (the tall man likes blocking but hates digging so more than one ball hit the floor on his watch…). I trash talked him from the sidelines with his friend visiting from out of town. I got to play with the most adorable children while their parents were busy playing. 

More than anything, it was pretty amazing to see Luke in his element. He’s known many of these people for ten or fifteen years, and it was obvious to see that every single one of them thinks the world of him. Any of them would be in his corner in an instant, bullshitting and trashtalking aside. I heard people tell me how Luke was one of the most genuine people they knew, how Luke was one of the only one of his fiancee’s friends that this one dude invited to his bachelor party (which, in Armen’s world, was a big deal), and how Luke was just a good guy. It’s one thing to know someone as a sibling, and truth be told, Luke and I aren’t the closest. I know he’d be there for me if I needed it, but we’ve never been tight on a day-to-day, week-to-week basis. Because of that, it was awesome to see who he was with the people he’s chosen to also make family. 

The only reason I moved back out to southern California was to be with family. At the time, I thought  it was to be near my three nephews and one niece. I think I forgot that even though I have siblings that I may not be close to, there are always ways to show up for them, see them in a different light, and grow closer, and I’m grateful that I took the time to do that today. Family often knows just how to push our buttons, but at the end of the day, they’re family. And because of that, they’re indelibly connected to us, whether we work to strengthen that connection or leave it as is. 

As I sit here at my new favorite coffee shop, listening to one of my favorite bands and writing this, I’m again struck by how beautiful this time of singleness is. As I said, I look forward to that time when I find my person and we create our own adventures together. With that said, I think it’s important to acknowledge the beauty of independence and doing what we want, when we want to (within reason, but you get my drift). So far, today has just been an adventure in doing all the things that I love and enjoy, and I was able to do that because, well, because I could. I didn’t have to check in with anyone, I didn’t have to coordinate schedules with anyone, and I had my own timeline. I stayed longer than I originally planned at the volleyball tournament because I was having fun and why not? There are things you can do when it’s just you. As Luke said to one of his friends today, learning how to be a parent and put someone else first was the hardest lesson he’s had to learn. When it’s just you, you have that freedom and flexibility to just do you. 

There have been so many ups and downs this summer alone. Family drama, letting go of old friendships, letting someone new into my life, and more. As always, there have been tears and lots of long runs spent processing and in one-sided conversations.. And yet, sitting here right now, wishing that I had more of my dirty chai left, I wouldn’t trade any of it. I’m happy again with my life. I have community. I have family. I have my independence. I have people in my tribe. 

I recently came across this gem in a book that I’m currently reading: “The best way to prepare for the future is to live fully in the present” (Fr. Jacques Phillipe). I don’t know what the future holds, and truth be told, there’s nothing that I can really do about it. I leave the future in God’s capable hands. And in return, he gives me the present moment every single day and asks only that I seize each day. 

It’s a challenge I’m happy to accept. Today, I’m grateful for the people in my life – my friends, both near and far; my family, both biological and chosen; the gorgeous eternal southern California summer; and the opportunity to be fully present today. 

Let’s do this. 

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One year later

A friend asked me the other night how I was doing. My answer, I later realized, was pretty similar to what it’s been for the entire past year: “Ups and downs.”

Next week marks a year since I left North Carolina. A year since I left the place that has felt more like home than anywhere else in my adult life. A year since I planned a farewell dinner with three of my favorite people at the bizarre sushi/hamburger combo restaurant that has fantastic chocolate cake and the loudest gong. A year since I hugged one of my best friends goodbye, stepped into my silver Camry,  and cried gut-wrenching tears as I drove away from a place I loved so dearly. 

I can’t even count how many tears I have cried over the past year. How many tissues and rolls of toilet paper that were used to wipe those tears away. How many times I stared at the crucifix in my bedroom and just asked, “Why, God? Why?” How often I wished I could just spontaneously grab kombucha with one of my dear friends as we talked about boys, work, and life. How many times I wished I could go on a run at Umstead and be completely engulfed by trees, fireflies, and greenery. 

Yes, there have been downs. I think it’s safe to say there have been many, many of them. Or rather, there have been just a few downs, but I felt them often and I felt them acutely. This has been one of the three hardest years in my life, trailing only slightly behind my year spent teaching and the year my parents divorced. It’s been hard, it’s been rough, and there have been times when I’ve been downright concerned about my mental and emotional state. 

I was taking a sunset walk at the beach the other week with a friend and she point-blank asked me, “Why don’t you go back? We want you to be happy.” I thought about it for a moment, and as tears formed in my eyes, I told her, “Because as hard as it’s been, I know this is where I need to be right now.”

The last year has tested me in many ways, without a doubt. But in return, it’s also given me so much. I got to visit my grandfather a number of times before he passed away this month. I was able to see the glimmer of recognition in his eyes when he saw me, to give him a hug, and tell him how much I loved him just a few days before he left this earth. I was able to take the day after he passed away off to spend time with my grandmother, who I love dearly, and who spent the day telling stories about Pop and his life. 

I’ve been able to develop stronger relationships with three of my nephews. I invite myself over at least once or twice a month and just play with those munchkins. In five years or so, they may not care much about hanging out with their crazy aunt, but right now, they love playing whatever latest game I taught them when I visit. It’s been such a gift to spend more time with them, to bake them cookies and hear that they like mine better than their dad’s (a highlight in my life that will never be overshadowed), to tuck them in and say bedtime prayers with them, and to spin them around blindfolded as we play Blindman’s Bluff in the dark. 

I have a beautiful niece who’s just a year and a half, and I’ve had the opportunity to watch as she gets older – to see her progress from when she started walking all wobbly-like to now, where she bounces around the house without a care in the world and tells me what books she wants to “read” with those bright blue eyes looking intently at everything around her.

I’ve spent more time with my parents and some of my siblings and have enjoyed the little things – dinner here, a walk on the beach there, getting my dad hooked on the Bachelor, going shopping with my sister to find her a graduation dress, getting to spend more time with my sisters-in-law, thanking my brother for something he did and hearing his response: “that’s what family does.” I think it’s fair to say that I’ve rediscovered what family means and what it takes to nurture those bonds. 

I traded in my Umstead runs for runs at the beach – sometimes in full daylight, sometimes at sunset, and occasionally, in a throwback to my college years, at night underneath the stars. I jump in the water after a long, hot run to cool off. I’ve gone to the ocean on the weekends and after work to go body surfing because hey, why not? 

I’ve met some absolutely incredible people along the way. I met someone who I hope will be one of my bridesmaids someday – someone who listens to me go around in circles, who loves the world around her so beautifully, and who loves me unconditionally. I became good friends with someone whose strong faith and devotion to Mary inspired me to grow deeper and explore my own faith more without him ever saying a word about it. I’ve met folks in my run club who have kind hearts,  positive outlooks, and welcoming spirits. I’ve made connections made through my church group, Ultimate Frisbee, and more. 

When I arrived in California last year after a road trip spanning ten states and just shy of three thousand miles, I wrote, “Here’s to writing a new chapter while cherishing the path it took to get here.”  I’m so grateful to all the friends who became family in North Carolina, and I miss many of them dearly. I wish I could pick up all the members of my tribe and move them into the same neighborhood so I could see them as often as I like. Barring that superpower, I’ll settle to just be grateful to each one of them for the person they helped me to become, the relationships created, and the memories shared. I will always cherish the path that took me to North Carolina, and I’m sure that some days, I’ll still have those acute longings for a place and the people I love so much. 

But life moves on, and this year has been about writing that new chapter. It’s taken me a year to be able to say this, but I’m grateful for the tears, the heartache, the times I felt like I couldn’t do it, and the fear that I made that wrong decision. If it weren’t for any of that, I never would have felt the love, support, or sense of family that has come from this year. 

It hasn’t been easy, but then again, life rarely is. It’s in those difficult moments, though, that we learn what we are made of and who we can rely on. We choose how to write the story that we then star in. I choose to feel all the emotions when they come (whatever they may be), to be grateful for what I have, to love fiercely those around me, and to continue to move forward with peace, joy, and faith. 

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A few weeks ago, I went to the track for a speed workout. I had a prescribed workout from my coach and a target pace at which to run it, and I started strong. For all of a lap. Then I started slowing down, and my legs felt heavy. For the first part, I was supposed to run six laps straight. I stopped after three and thought, “What is going on here?”

Now, I do track workouts at least once a week these days (sometimes twice), and about 85% of the time, I’m able to bring my A game. This morning, it felt more like my C game, and I didn’t want to keep going. It wasn’t fun, it was so hard, and I was completely over it. I felt for my car key and thought about throwing in the towel.*

But then a curious thing happened. My head was saying, “Stop, stop, go home.” I wanted to respond, “Cool, that sounds great. Let’s go.” But then my heart jumped in and said, “That’s nice, shut up. We’re doing this. Now.” And the feet obeyed the heart, not the head. For another nine laps, I ran around that track.

Now, I didn’t do the original workout Coach Charlie said. And I sure didn’t go the speed I was hoping to. But I ran the same overall distance around that darn track. I felt pretty terrible when I finished, but I did it.

One of the biggest reasons I love running is because the lessons learned from it are transferable to the rest of life. Sometimes we don’t want to do something, even though we know that’ll get us closer to our end goal. Sometimes we want to give up and go home. Sometimes our energy is drained and we’re just done.

And that’s when the little voice that speaks the truths of our hearts speaks up. “Hey, c’mon, you’ve got this. You know you have what it takes. Let’s go now, one step in front of the other.” That voice is small but mighty, reminding us what we’re capable of.

When I push through a hard run or hit a time goal, it shows me how much I am capable of. It reminds me how strong I am. Those realizations then carry over to the other parts of my life, or they give me the perspective needed to reframe other parts of my life.

For example, the day before that track workout, I was with a good friend from college and her mother, who is like another mom to me. At the end of our afternoon, my friend’s mom gave me a beaded bracelet.

“It’s jasper, a grounding element,” she told me. “Because you’re grounded now. You’re home.”

It was a beautiful bracelet and I thanked her for such a sweet gesture, while every ounce of my being fought so hard against what she said. I almost started tearing up after she hugged me because I so strongly didn’t want this to be home.

Which made me stop and think almost instantly. Am I having a hard time adjusting to being back in California because it’s genuinely difficult to make friends, build community, create a new life, etcetera etcetera? Or it is because I don’t want this to be home and I’m still holding on to somewhere else?

I think for the past few months, I’ve been telling myself that this place didn’t feel like home because of the former. While elements of that are certainly true, if I force myself to be completely honest, it’s really been the latter. Somehow, my run that morning connected those dots for me. Doing something I didn’t want to do on the track made me realize my true motivations and feelings about something else I haven’t been putting my whole effort into.

One weekend last month, a few things collided that made it not the best weekend. That Sunday night, I prayed to God, “Please, just give me something right now. Anything.” A few days later, I had an awesome, impromptu guitar lesson with my neighbor, who turns out to be a really cool dude. The next day, I volunteered at a “feed the hungry” event that was absolutely beautiful and showed me what the power of community can do. That same day, I spent time with my friend and her mom. Then I had the opportunity to celebrate Mother’s Day with my mom and family for the first time in six years.

I think God’s been sending me these pieces of the puzzle for some time now; I just wasn’t fitting them together correctly. I was fighting so hard against this place being home when I thought I already had a home, even if it was 2,600 miles and 10 months away. I haven’t been fully embracing the place that I’m in, and it took almost ten months to realize that.

I’ve been wearing that bracelet every day as a reminder that I get to choose where home is, and this too, can be home – if I make that choice. It may take time and it may not be easy, but that’s life. It’s about perspective, it’s about falling down and getting back up, it’s about finding your tribe and leaning on them, and it’s about being real.

It’s not easy, but if life were easy, it would be called kindergarten. There comes a time where we have to make the choice of how to respond to the events life throws at us. Right now, I choose to copy one of my students, who used to write on the back of her Mad Minute quizzes in her little third-grader scrawl, “Let’s do this.”

All right, life, let’s do this.

*Note: if I had felt any pain or that twinge that has been my unwanted companion off and on the past few years, I would have stopped instantly. That’s when you listen to the demands of your body. Or had I been perpetually fatigued, that would be something to get checked out. This was neither of those.

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Midnight runs

I remember that night so clearly. It was a perfect, North Carolina summer evening – warm enough to be outside with only a tank top and shorts, but not too humid so as to make breathing unbearable.

I was at a concert of an incredible musician with friends that I loved, but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t appreciate it for more than a minute or two at a time before the intense waves of hurt and disappointment came crashing through and threatened to pull me under faster than a rough riptide. Earlier that evening, a good friend of mine did something that hurt me emotionally in a way that very few people have. I was deeply hurt and I was disappointment in myself for letting this person’s actions have that much sway over my emotions. Throughout the concert, I acted like I was paying attention and enjoying the show, while inwardly I vacillated between wanting to throw dishes at a wall and curl up on the uneven grass beneath my feet and just cry.

I wound up leaving the concern early and got home just before midnight. At this point, I was equal points seething at my friend and frustrated with myself. I can’t remember the last time before that I did a midnight run (college, maybe?), but the instant I got home, I started putting on my running shoes almost without even thinking. There was a four mile loop I often ran, and autopilot kicked in once I was outside, one foot moving in front of the other.

Truly, it was a beautiful night. The air had a tinge of briskness, the cicadas were playing their symphony, the trees were still a deep green above me with the stars twinkling through, and it was just me and the pavement. I remember wanting to stop and just break down a few times during that first mile – to stop and let the hurt and the pain overwhelm me, to beat myself up, to give up in general.

But I didn’t. I kept moving, kept running.

And then a funny thing started to happen. Just over a mile into it, my thoughts somehow started changing. I started to remember who I was, what I was worth, and what I wanted. I started to put the situation in perspective, and I realized that although I couldn’t change what had happened, I was able to decide how it would impact me and what I would do moving forward. And even before these new thoughts entered my consciousness, I started to feel stronger with every single step in a very tangible, measurable way.

People rarely ask me why I run. They often ask how long I’ve been running, how far I run now, or  if I’ve run a marathon. Those questions are easy and can be answered in just a few words.

When someone asks me why I run, I usually pause and assess why the person is asking. If I think they’re just making small talk, I give them a true answer, but perhaps one that is less personal. “I love having that time outdoors” or “It give me time to just be quiet and think” are some answers I’ve given that fall into this category.

if I gave someone the real answer, though, it would be so much longer and give so much more insight about who I am and how I work. I don’t think even this list is a complete answer, but since I need to go to bed at some point tonight, it’ll do for now.

I run to think. More often, I run to make time where my brain isn’t thinking at all.

I run to challenge myself.

I run to push the limits, and then push those new limits some more.

I run to work through problems and issues in my life.

I run because that runner’s high is real.

I run to form new friendships and deepen existing ones.

I run to beat my goals.

I run because it’s hard.

I run towards solutions.

I run to discover my strengths.

I run to grow.

I run to keep my sanity.

I run because it’s fun.

I run so that I can sleep at night.

I run not from emotional pain, but through it.

I run to appreciate all the small things in life.

I run to grow stronger.

I run to develop discipline, which then manifests itself in all areas of my life.

I run for me – to work through who I’ve been, to honestly assess who I am now, and to determine who I want to be.

I run for those who can’t.

I run to quiet my mind.

I run to find peace.

I run for freedom.

I run because I can.

I run because I love it.

I run to keep the rest of my life in perspective.

I run because it makes me the best me I can be.

After I finished my run that night last July, I laid back on the trunk of my car and looked up at the world. The stars shone more brightly, the trees smelled even more fresh, the cicadas sounded more lovely, and the world felt so brilliantly alive. I laid out there for a good while taking it all in, grateful not only to be able to run, but that such a simple act could remind me of my inner strength and encourage me be a better me.

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When you leave a place that was home for so long, it stands to reason that it takes a while to not be so painfully homesick. To some extent, as long as it’s still home in part of your heart, I’ve realized that you’ll always miss it at least a little bit. I think it’s similar to running injuries. Runners typically face two main types of injuries: acute and chronic. The acute injuries are the ones that sideline you for an undefined period of time. These are the broken bones, the torn ligaments, the things that hurt so much you can’t move because it knocks you down so hard. Then there are the more chronic injuries, such as shin splints, tendonitis, plantar fasciitis. These are the ones that you can still run on, but man, you feel that pain or tenderness in every step. Neither one is fun, and as runners, we manage each category differently.

In my recent experience, the same is true of homesickness. When I first moved, my homesickness was definitely of the acute variety. Nights spent with a roll of tissue paper were painfully common and there were times I just wanted to curl up in the fetal position and do nothing else. Somewhere along the way,  it shifted to the chronic condition. It certainly flares up at times, sometimes quite painfully, but the default is a deep, accepted longing. I have friends now, certainly, and I am immensely grateful to spend more time with my family. At the same time, though, that underlying feeling remains, more present at some moments than others.

I’ve realized that whenever I encounter something that reminds me of home, it warms my heart just a bit. Whether it was the fellow at the conference in San Diego wearing a UNC sweatshirt (how I’ve missed Carolina blue!), the lady at the beach with a Tar Heels hat, the random dude in downtown LA with an NC State sweatshirt, or the guy on my kickball team from Charlotte (a city that I’m not even that particularly fond of), each contact lifts my day. It’s similar to the way that whenever I saw a California license plate while living in North Carolina, I became irrationally happy.

I’ve come to realize that these touchstones are important. Good old Merriam Webster defines a touchstone as “a fundamental or quintessential part or feature.” And sure, that may be true. Certainly, any time I see something in a particular shade of blue, I instantly think of UNC Chapel Hill. But these touchstones are so much more than merely a part or feature. They are an arrow towards a chapter of our lives, an entire bank of memories, of a plethora of emotions, of communities and people that matter.

Touchstones. A reminder of who we were or where we come from. In a world where movement may be the only constant, we may have made homes and left pieces of our heart all over the world. We might have people we love three, five, or eight time zones away. When we leave those places and those people, we’re never the same as when we first arrived. Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher, once said, “No man ever steps  in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” The people with whom we surround ourselves have the power to transform who we are. When we leave what we know and those that became family, remembrances of these people or that which was once home can remind us of who we were at one point in time. These touchstones can serve as a tangible bridge to a piece of our past and help us to move forward into the future.

It can be a tricky balance to remember and appreciate the past, live in the present, and look forward to the future, and those touchstones can serve a vital role in establishing that balance. Sometimes it may seem like an impossible task, but it’s one worth pursuing. As I used to tell my kiddos, “If it were easy, it’d be called kindergarten.”

It’s not kindergarten; this is life. So let’s get out there, and as one of them used to say back to me, let’s do this.