Fear = Control – a tale of transformation

What’s to fear? Fire breathing dragons at a market in Budapest.

Since we’ve been home from Europe, I’ve been talking to people a lot about travel. A few times now, I called myself a travel evangelist. Since I discovered Norwegian Air’s low cost flights, I feel like we can go anywhere.

It’s not just the cheap flights that make travel feel possible. A year ago, when my husband told me that he wants to travel to Italy together, I told him we’d need five years to save enough money. It wasn’t possible in my mind. I really didn’t believe that we could put together the money to go. My mind started to spool out the sequence of things we’d have to accomplish to save up, plan, purchase, get away from work and actually go and I just shut down. Not possible. I felt bad for not believing in his vision, but I simply didn’t.


Things have changed for me over the past year or so, and I’m still trying to put my finger on what it is that shifted to allow for these adventures we’ve been having. Going to Europe isn’t the first. Last summer we took off for two weeks on a rambling excursion through Washington state that culminated with watching the solar eclipse right under the line of totality. I’ve since done my biggest solo backpacking trip of 40 miles on the Rogue River Trail. Vinnie spent three and a half months working for a World Cup snowboard racer, bringing his total number of days in Europe in a four-month period to 90.

Something cracked open and let a bunch of light in on what I believe is possible. It definitely started with going to Washington. Initially, we were simply talking about going up to see my sister for her 40th birthday. Then I saw some incredible photos of Mount Rainier National Park, and my imagination caught fire. I wanted to go there to hike those trails and see those glaciers. So we decided to go. This wasn’t difficult in the monetary sense as we’d be driving, staying with my sister and then camping in the national park. This made the trip feel doable. Once we realized that the total eclipse was happening towards the end of our trip, we added on a few more days so that we could stay far enough north to get the big view. Suddenly, we had a two-week trip planned. Well, perhaps planned isn’t quite accurate.

What I’m coming to learn is that planning is not the way forward. It may be that intention is a better word. We had the intention to go to certain places and to see certain things. We had a time frame, which had some flexibility in it. We had a car full of supplies, maps, water and a willingness to hit the road together.

I should note here that Vinnie and I have incredibly different styles to life and travel. We’ve adopted the name Patty Perfect Planner for the part of my personality that really wants to be in control: dates and locations set out, destinations settled for each night, possibly lodging arranged, costs for attractions researched and a final trip budget number firmly in mind. Vinnie, on the other hand, is the Master of Chaos. By which I mean he wants none of the things on Patty’s list – he’s completely open to let the road take him where it will. He’s camped outside for whole seasons and he’s perfectly willing to end up sleeping in the car, calling beer and beef jerky a sufficient dinner and heading out the next day to do it all over again. We’re so different that we find plenty of opportunities to laugh at ourselves. The Travel Tales of Patty Perfect Planner and the Master of Chaos could be coming to a blog near you soon so you can laugh too.

Our romp through Washington was good training for our trip to Europe. I planned out the first part of our trip, then relinquished control to Vinnie for the second part so we could see the eclipse. Not having an itinerary made my stomach ache, but he assured me that he’d take care of it and I should just enjoy the view out the window. And I did. But it’s funny and odd how relaxing takes concentration for me. Letting go can be a bitch.

I’ve called him the Master of Chaos for a number of years now, but on this trip to Europe, I started to appreciate and accept his approach – and even to find some joy in it. At one point, when we didn’t know which country we were going to be in by the end of the day, he was oozing excitement. This is how travel should be, he said, we’re just making it up. And I have to say, thanks in part to a few super handy apps on my phone, it worked out well for me too. Places and people drew our attention, and rather than worry about sticking to an itinerary and having to change bookings, we just rolled with it.

These experiences are reshaping my interior life. The voice of Patty Perfect Planner has faded significantly, although she still pipes up when things go a bit or a lot sideways. Patty certainly had her moments when we missed our flight out of Prague, but she wasn’t as forceful in her worry and fear as she has been in the past. I even laughed as we sat in the plastic molded chairs at the airport as the truth settled in: we missed our flight.

Patty Perfect Planner and the Master of Chaos enjoying a backpacking trip in the rain.

As I’ve started to practice noticing what’s happening in my life, I’ve started to see the correlation between fear and wanting to be in control. It’s so very natural to want to have a firm grip on any situation that is new, unknown, uncomfortable. Traveling with Vinnie is helping me to see that new doesn’t have to be scary and big adventures don’t have to be planned. Control is not all it’s made out to be – it squeezes the air out of place, squashes spontaneity and dulls the colors of everything around me. Control doesn’t leave room for genuine, in-the-moment living. Control is a future condition and it robs me of the present.

In the first 24 hours that we were home from our 27-day trip to Europe, we were already pricing airfare to return. When we saw how incredibly cheap tickets to London are in the fall, I couldn’t stop laughing. When we were preparing for this trip, a few people said they were so excited for us to take this trip of a lifetime. Trip of a lifetime? I’m thinking of it now as simply the first trip this year. Why would we settle for doing this once?

One of the biggest benefits to the this trip has been acknowledging that I can let go of control: that I don’t have to have it all figured out in advance, that I can’t possibly anticipate what might happen, that whatever happens, we can, indeed, handle it. With this has come the blossoming of my imagination for travel, for my expanding belief of what is possible. I don’t know if we’ll get back to Europe this September, and in some ways it doesn’t matter. What matters most is that I believe we can do it – if not this year then next – and that now I know we can travel well together without a plan, free to wander and enjoy.

The gift of travel: giving voice to fear

Flexible and having fun.

My notebook from Europe is messy. It’s stuffed with admission tickets, postcards, photos, receipts from purchases and passes from various public transportation successes. That’s a bit how my mind feels as well, now that we’ve been home from Europe for 17 days. Those 17 days stretch like a wide gulf, filled with lumpy mud and briefs moments of sunshine, between my life as a traveler and my efforts to re-engage with all the trapings of my pre-trip life.

When I flip through my notebook to try to organize the experience in my mind, those tickets and slips fall out of the book, scattering on the floor. That’s a bit how reconnecting to my life feels – things are slipping through my fingers, time warps and the strong pull of wanting to travel again, right now colors so much of my thinking. These new experiences have more texture than the worn grooves of my daily life.

A bit of research before heading out in Scotland.

Travel was great in those ways you’d expect, like seeing amazing places, meeting great people and living terrific experiences with my husband. But the real gift of travel was its transformative effect on who I am. I left worrying that the Patty Perfect Planner part of me – the part that wants control and assurances and things to go just so – would have a white-knuckled grip on this trip. She’d insist on daily itineraries, holed up in cafes frantically searching for the next thing to do or place to stay, she’d come unglued without a map and lose her shit when things didn’t go according to plan. I’ve lived with Patty for years, and I have to say that I have a healthy fear of her. Once she builds up a head of steam, she’s tough to wrestle back into a corner.

After a few days on the ground Patty faded into the quiet background of my mind. She dropped away. We started in London, where we could get our travel legs where the signs were in English. Then we moved on to Scotland, where the people speak English but I could only understand about 40% of what they said (they’ve quite the accent, if you’ve never heard it). It felt like learning to swim in the shallow end of the pool before heading to the deeper waters of Central Europe. By the time we settled in at our second hostel in Prague, Patty wasn’t on my mind at all.

Now that we’re home and settling back into life, I’m experiencing that part of my personality differently. Traveling helped me learn that planning is only necessary for us to a certain, minimal degree. Neither of us need an itinerary, we’re happy with intentions. Along with quieting Patty down, traveling demonstrated time and again that Vinnie and I can handle things going sideways: we adjust well together, we function as a team, we each have our own strengths and skills.

What that translates into it this: my fear of the unknown diminished. With that lessening of fear, my need to control things lessened as well. I could live in the moment, I could laugh at unexpected turns. I didn’t need to be in control. When we missed our flight home from Prague, I laughed. And in the tiring hours afterward of coming up with our response, we laughed some more as we found options that suited us (which means we ended up camping in the rain – but that’s another story).

Pre-trip planning: we left this map at home.

So I’ve arrived home with this developing understanding that fear = need for control. I’m cataloging what I consider my various ways of trying to control, which include extensive planning (read: spreadsheets), saying no, diving into details without first imagining possibilities, and pushing an activity into the future based on meeting some (generally arbitrary) conditions. I’m keeping an eye out for these responses and when I notice them, I ask myself: what are you afraid of? Fear is a bitch, but it’s one best acknowledged rather than stuffed down. I’m coming to realize that hiding from fear just amplifies it.

When we were in Europe and I was worried (that’s my cop-out word for “holy shit, I’m super scared this isn’t going to work out right now!”), I’d say it out loud. I’d give it a voice. Saying it out loud let it float away. It let Vinnie know why I was getting bunched up, and it helped my gut relax. It’s a practice that I’m trying to keep up now that we’re home because I want Patty to stay in the background so that this new voice of wonder and possibility can speak up.

Travel cracked open my interior life, it let new things into the conversation. It nourished that voice of hope and belief that so often gets drowned out. This is the gift I want to hold on to and to carry forward in these days of sinking back into my life and imagining our next adventure.

Taking the bus – a meditation on kindness

Waiting for the metro in Prague.

Our past few days in Prague we started to get the hang of using the public transportation system. It’s been great for us.

Saturday night we left Old Town with our new friend Merik to watch his band play in a jazz club. We ended up staying to watch the next band and got separated from Merik, so we had to find our own way back.

And so began Czech Public Transportation 101. Getting on the right bus was easy – it came to the corner at the club. We tracked the stops and got off at the metro station that would take us back into the part of town we know. We were the only people walking towards the metro station soon it became clear why – the metro closes at midnight.

Now we were in a part of town we didn’t know, without our friend, in the middle of the night. Prague, however, is a city that doesn’t sleep and plenty of people were out and about. Two guys who spoke just a touch of English got on their phones to find us a way home (we’re WiFi only on this trip). They sent us to the stop across the street and gave us the tram number that would take us back to the tourist part of Prague. People came to the stop, trams came and went. We stood alone. We trusted.

When our tram came we jumped on. It was packed, so we couldn’t sit together. Stop after stop, I watched the text scroll by announcing the pristi stanice, the next stop, looking for a name I might recognize. Since I’ve only learned a few words in Czeck, the odds were low. But finally we came to a stop where I recognized the name and Vinnie recognized the sidewalk and we got out, happy to find ourselves in familiar territory, just a block from the hostel.

The massive main train station.

The next day, charged with a growing confidence, we headed for the main train station to ride to the castle at Karlstejn. Walking into the main train station was overwhelming: it is huge, with pigeons flying around and all signs written in Czech. Thanks to a couple of super helpful station employees, we found our way to the ticket booth, then the right platform, and in just a few minutes we were watching the city go by from a new perspective.

The big challenge came Monday morning, when we were leaving for Budapest via bus. We wanted to know if we could possibly get a train ticket for a similiar cost, so first we went to the hlavni nadrazi (the main train station) – no luck on train tickets. Having used that time, now we needed to hustle to get to the masarykovo nadrazi (the main bus station).

Does this mean anything to you?

Walking in what we hoped was the right direction, at a cross walk we asked the group in front of us. The Czech woman and her two teenage kids really wanted to help, we could tell, but they didn’t speak any English. A few blocks later, the young professional woman sent us to the bus stop that would take us to the main station. At the bus stop we found a sign completely in Czech that seemed to indicate  some kind of change, but we couldn’t guess at what it might be. Then we saw the bus a block up the street, too far for us to race to. The driver pulled over where we were and picked us up. We asked if we were on the right bus to the station, but he didn’t speak English either. He recognized the word Florenc, the name of the bus station, but it’s also the name of a metro station, so we sat down, not knowing if we were on the right track.

Again I watched the display to see the next stop, and when it said Florenc BC, I figured we’d get off. The man in front of me said yes, go to the stop light and go left, and you will get to the bus station. We couldn’t see the way because there was a huge construction project, but we jumped off, hoping to figure it out.

Just a few seconds later, the bus stopped and a passenger jumped out and waved to us to come back. The only words in English she said were “not right” but I could tell by her expression that she was helping us, so we followed her back onto the bus. One turn and a block later, they shooed us off the bus, pointing towards a station that looked a bit like the one I’d seen on google map. Inside we asked on more person for help and with five minutes to spare, we made it to the platform where the bus waited, filling up with people.

After just two days of riding public transportation in Central Europe, here’s what I think: riding the bus is a meditation in kindness. It’s a time to be exactly in the moment, to be open to what happens and trust that we are all connected and that we all want to help each other.

During our week in Prague, we’ve gotten familiar enough that people have started to ask us directions, and generally they don’t speak English. The language barrier isn’t nearly as dark and imposing as I imagined it to be when we were state side. So we smile and listen for words we might know, and point and encourage, just like so many others have done for us.

Three weeks ago I couldn’t have guessed that riding the bus would be such an opportunity for kindness and gratitude.

An elegant equation

The math struck me recently while I was thinking about my mom. She was 62 when she passed on. I’m 43 now. If I get to live as long as my mom did, I have 19 years left.

It’s simple math. Just plain subtraction. An elegant equation.

The starkness of loss came to me late in life. Twelve years ago death made its self known to me, as Vinnie and I started attending a slough of funerals that stretched over years, most for people who died way too young. Those deaths ranged from ski accidents, a freakish unexplained death, bitter battles with cancer, long illnesses. And the amazing, just-as-it-should-be death of my 92-year old grandmother who passed on surrounded by family and friends.

My adult years have been punctuated by some piercing moments: singing to my mom as her body labored with its last breaths as her soul departed, the biting agony of learning that a friend with teenage daughters died from cancer just months after my own mom, my beloved cousins grieving for their father who died not long after.

And thankfully, blessedly, there have been shining moments of joy and hope: the thrill of standing in a field of wildflowers as Vinnie and I crested the rise at Summerland to look into the blue glass of glaciers; the hushed intimacy as we stood among the tall pines waiting for our wedding ceremony to begin; holding my breath next to my cousin to watch the owl that was certainly a totem from her father.

Addition and subtraction.

I think of this simple equation, the 19 standing alone to the right of the equals sign, not as a weight, but as a buoy. It lifts me up above the waves for a bigger view. It reminds me to ask, in the words of Mary Oliver: what will I do with this one wild and precious life? And even more so, with this given moment, with this single day?

There is absolutely no amount of time that is guaranteed – that is the biggest lesson I have learned in these years. With that comes the recognition that I want to cherish every day, to savor its happening.

But it’s difficult for me, as it is for most of us, to live in the present. So I do what I can: breathing and noticing the moment, the day, the loved one, the opportunity, the beauty, the divine in all things. I remind myself to live right where I am, feeling the sun on my face, instead of standing numb while my mind swirls with thoughts of the future.

I make no long term bargains with myself: I will not work now in exchange for the uncertain promise of retirement years. I will not wait to live the life that is the best expression of me. I write no bucket lists. The only yearning I want to hearken to is for those moments and days right next to the moment and day that I’m in. I have no long range vision. I am as near-sighted as I can train myself to be.

This is not to say that I don’t have hopes and dreams. But I keep them on a short leash, putting them in a one to three year trajectory, rather than imagining my life 10 or 20 years from now. And I look for ways to brings those dreams into the day that I’m living, to make them part of the experience I get to taste and hold today.

The idea of 19 years motivates me in more than one way. To live in the present as deeply as I can, yes, and also to imagine my life outside the drawn boundary of 62 years old. What could my life be like if I outlive the length of my mom’s life? What might I want for myself?

A downside to this elegant equation is this: it provides me no answers. It cannot tell me how to live my life on the other side of loss. The simplicity of it can inspire me though – 19 years, after all, is made up of a long strand of moments and days.

Look Ma – no hands

photo by Renee Casterline

When I was a kid, we used to laugh and throw our hands up whenever the car whooshed down over a hill, and shout “Look Ma, no hands!”

Do you know what I mean? Can you feel the tingle in your belly?

Well, two days ago I read an amazing piece of writing by a very brave man and I feel something similar, except the tingling is in my heart. Chris Guillebeau has been writing good works and inspiring me for years. Under the Unseen Blue Sky in Sydney, Australia, his recent blog post that gives a portrait of a moment in time, is a raw, stripped down, vulnerable telling of how he feels and what life looks like for him in the gray land of depression.

It makes me think of showing up naked and unprepared for a presentation, not because it’s a bad dream but because that’s the truth of the moment – things just didn’t come together they way they should have. No makeup. No suit. No armor.

I’ve written to Chris to thank him for his courage, because here’s the thing: We need people telling it like it is. We need role models who say, this is me, this is true and I’m not going to try to pretty it up so it’s less painful, less scary. Brene Brown says that to live a wholehearted life one of the foundation stones is to allow yourself to be seen, to be vulnerable in the moments when that is most difficult.

Chris is doing that. He’s showing up, no hands. His life is teetering on and off the rails right now, and he’s not pretending otherwise. And he’s not pretending that he’s stoked at the idea that it will make him a better person. “And lest you forget,” he tells himself, “what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger, but first it will really try to kill you.”

At the same time, Chris is doing his work, he’s showing up in the world, he’s giving as much as he can. He’s holding space for what may come. He won’t sugar coat things for the sake of his audience, he won’t lie to us: “Sometimes you’re just going to be sad, and that’s okay. There’s not always a solution, and some things can’t be fixed,” he writes.

That’s a powerful guide rail for living with grief and loss. It’s a model I needed back in those early years after my mom passed away. It’s the permission to be wrecked, to not recover in a few months, that was the truth for me, whether I wanted it to be true or not.

Chris, who has long provided tools and guides for his audience, does it in this piece too. He gives the idea of “known truths” – those things that you know to be true, and only that. Not things that might be true, that you wish were true. Only those things you can name with certainty about yourself and the time of your life that you’re living in. It’s a wonderful tool for self care and self love, at any time.

Struggle and pain are part of our lives, despite any wishing that it could be otherwise. Platitudes and unrealistic expectations for stuffing it down, hiding it away, just aren’t helpful. Community, connection, being seen and embraced for just who you are and what you’re living – those are the balms that help us through. Those are the threads that bind us closer to each other.

Thank you, Chris Guillebeau, for being so brave and so gracious with your life.