Where is freedom in the USA?

September 11th, 2016

Travel Writing AwardUnited States

The Power of Unique Experiences in Indonesia

Kerthunk, kerthunk, kerthunk.

I felt as if someone had sunk a fistful of fear into my heart and let it pound it into the rest of my body. My stomach felt like it was trying to retreat behind my ribs, my eyes were wide. Reason told me I shouldn’t have been so phobic. But I was staring down my nemeses, and reason was quickly losing its place in my repertoire.

Actually, “nemeses” might be a strong word for something the size of a pin head. These were a couple of bugs so small that one could easily mistake them for a floating piece of white lint, especially in the flickering shadows of the Balinese evening. They were bed bug nymphs, and their presence meant I needed to leave before they could scurry their way into my belongings.

My mind flashed back to a bitter night far away from the hostel on the quaint Indonesian road. I was back in my apartment in Massachusetts, back to the shock of finding an infestation of biting little bugs that snuck through the folds of my sofa and cracks in the hardwood floors. I retreated to the bathtub at two in the morning, saturated in dread.

Bed bugs aren’t dangerous, but eradicating them is an awful and laborious process. I had been in physical therapy for years for a bad back. My nearest family member was hundreds of miles away. I couldn’t imagine how to pack all my belongings away with my unstable bones. I cringed in anticipation of the pain that could come from rounds of laundering everything I owned, spraying things down with isopropyl, and moving furniture for exterminators.

The predicted injury and accompanying pain led to my first visit to Indonesia. I questioned if other people with physical disadvantages could get caught in similarly horrendous situations throughout the world, and secured a grant to research the topic in several countries. Come spring, I set off on a great multinational adventure in which I fervently chased answers and lines of longitude.

During that journey, I took a ferry from Singapore to spend a couple days in Bintan Island, Indonesia. Between the driftwood and palm fronds on an empty stretch of beach, I stopped to see an eroding message written in the sand: “LIFE ALWAYS FINDS A WAY”. I felt like some vanished scribe had written it there as part of my story, like the universe had left the words there just for me.

I bought a ticket to Bali during a turbulent period a couple years later. I wanted to head back to the country where clairvoyants roamed the islands and messages were hidden in the sand.

In the place where I expected to find order and inner peace, I was being gripped by memories of injured sleepless nights and unresolved past fears. I hauled my backpack to the safety of the front porch and dove into my phone, searching furiously for new accommodations, comfort from friends, and ways to clean old demons out of potentially contaminated belongings.

I sat on the ground for so long that the stones had imprinted their shapes on my legs, so I headed to the roof terrace to obsess over my problems in privacy. I looked out to see a brilliant sunset, a scattering of stringy blue clouds hanging on a backdrop of potent pinks and oranges. Beyond the edge of the peninsula, the ocean was mirroring the colorful banners of the sunset, making it seem almost endless.

I wasn’t sure how many sunsets I’d missed while my phobias were running amok, but I didn’t want to miss that one. In the last journey I hadn’t learned to compartmentalize my thoughts, to stop a bout of fear from tainting all of the glory around me. I turned the phone on its face to gaze at the sunset, to listen to the ensemble of cicadas and monkeys and the chattering and clinking of bottles from guests downstairs.

Travel has power to put you out in the caprices of the unknown and onto the stoops of old haunts. But sometimes, it also offers you a chance at redemption.

I was myself again, watching silently as the ocean was swallowed by the night. I was free from those harrowing and pervasive fears, unshackled from the tunnel vision of anxiety.

I found no more messages in the sand, no phantoms to leave signs that I had gotten things right. I was left with open road, a painted sky, and gorgeous wildlife; all that I sought and all that I needed.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Feeling Insignificant on Serene Mt. Rainier, USA

The feel of snow in August is a unique experience reserved for those in either extreme latitudes or significant altitudes. Mt. Rainier certainly qualifies for the latter category. I had taken a break on the side of the Mountain to prep for my final push towards Camp Muir, a staging area which sits about 4,000’ short of the summit of Mt. Rainier at 14,411’. Although I needed to catch my breath for the climb ahead, this task seemed figuratively impossible given the breathtaking vista surrounding me. To the south lay the smoke-obscured teeth of the Tatoosh range, and beyond them the still-visible volcanic peaks of St. Helens and Adams. Looking to the West, I saw the Cowlitz Glacier dissipating to thin waterfalls that collected in the valley below. But it was the northern view that was the most commanding, as this sight contained the camp, the summit and a blinding stretch of steep snow that constituted the rest of my hike.

Moments like this take me back to a line I overheard in Seattle just a few days before my hike: “The great thing about nature is how it makes us feel small”. I disagreed with the speaker, at least in part. If the feeling of smallness was truly all we sought in nature, there really would be no reason to travel there. Smallness is so much easier to find in a cubical from 9-to-5, a fact I am well acquainted with. Three months prior to this evening and this hike, I was living a comfortable life in Boston with a good paying job. Stability, activity, and the prospect of upwards mobility were all luxuries I enjoyed, but it was still a small existence, a fact intensified by my oppressive anxiety and frequent panic attacks.

Conventional wisdom would have recommended, at times like this, that the weary worker take a vacation and “get your head in order”. I took the wisdom, but neglected the conventionality, boarding an Amtrak train in Boston and seeing where I could go over the next few months. This eventually brought me to the Space Needle in Seattle, where I got my first good view of Mt. Rainer. The thing was big, not just in raw mass, but with understated gravity. It gripped my attention and demanded personification, quietly scoffing at the Needle I was standing on. I left the elevator with a single conviction in mind, one that brought me to my break point on the side of Mt. Rainer, just a few hundred feet below the camp.

If ever I had sound reason for suffering a panic attack, this would be that time. I was by myself on one of the deadliest hiking trails in the country, where the afternoon sun was opening crevasses below my feet and cutting my friction-less progress to a negligible sum. What if my exertion led to a heart attack, where would they take me? Or if a storm rolls in and I lose my sense of direction? These thoughts and more could have easily crossed my mind, but none did. Instead, my focus lay in just placing one foot in front of the other until I arrived on the stone-carved steps of Camp Muir. And then I saw how small I really was. But this feeling of smallness was different than the one I knew three months prior. This experience was expansive, elevated, the kind that makes you breathe easier with a younger smile on your face. I was, in that moment, entwined within something bigger than myself without being absolved into it.

Suffice it to say, I never did return from my vacation, at least not to the job I had before. There was many more moments that lead to that decision, but the encounter with Rainier demonstrated something that I once had, had lost, and must work to awaken again. The path from here remains uncertain, but it is now a path that does at least go on..

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

From Vietnamese Mangroves and a Loving Mom

The runway was not much more than a lightly paved strip of soil which popped out of the rice paddies and mangroves like a long, rectangular oasis. As I exited the 1950’s prop, much like the one that Indiana Jones rides in Raiders of the Lost Ark, I felt stifled instead of being freed from the tight quarters that I’d just ridden in. The density and weight of the atmosphere made it hard to inhale deeply– and it was more than just heat and humidity of the southernmost part of Vietnam – Ca Mau, a peninsular province with the Gulf of Thailand to the West and the Pacific Ocean to the South and East. I was stepping foot on the same soil where my son was born, breathing the same sticky, tropical air that he did. The son I had not yet met, and the son that I would not be bringing home to Indiana after the eight days that I’d be there.

As excited as I was to meet my baby — the one that I dreamed of and had dreams for — I needed to guard my emotions. Upon seeing my first photo of him, my heart skipped a beat when I gazed into those deep brown eyes and saw the shock of black hair standing up on his head. I knew that without a doubt that he was my son. It was my moment of a doctor handing my child to me to put on my chest and feeling a love like no other.

Much like the southern Vietnamese mangroves’ intertwined roots, strong and complicated, his homecoming was constricted by the fact that he was stuck — stuck in an orphanage due to political posturing by both the U.S. and Vietnamese governments not willing to move an inch to finalize his adoption, despite him living in squalid and unsafe orphanage conditions.

I flew half-way around the world and was there with two other moms in the same situation to help care for our children and the others in the orphanage. It was the one small thing we could actually do to help our kids, while we lobbied Congressional leaders and the State Department on the homefront.

Within minutes sweat was streaming down my face and soaking my clothes – a combination of the oppressive heat and my anxiety. My friends and I headed out to the orphanage in a taxi. There were few cars on the road, mostly bicycles and motor bikes. We raced along the tropical landscape – passing roadside markets where vendors sold pineapples, roosters in woven basket cages, plastic kitchenware and even python meat. Our taxi driver honked incessantly as he passed cars, though few, and played a game of chicken with oncoming traffic. A movie of mangroves and long boats with weathered fishermen, and the occasional water buffalo grazing in a yard ran through the car windows. Children with bare feet and dirty faces dotted the fast-moving landscape – all of it beautiful, colorful and full of life.

Finally, we turned down a one-lane dirt road lined by shallow canals, lush mango and tamarind trees, and tin roof-shacks with hammocks as beds. My stomach dropped to my knees when I saw the orphanage building.

My 22-month old son was literally imprisoned in his tiny room — it had bars on the windows, a former internment camp from the Vietnam War.

I had many conversations with him before I got to Vietnam (all in my head), promising him that I would do whatever it took to get him home to Indiana. I’d say “good night” to him when I woke up in the morning and whisper “good morning” before I fell asleep at night, living with my heart twelve hours ahead. And that week, I told him in person — kissing his smooth, tan cheeks, my tears wetting his sweet face as I held him close. And, then having to leave him.

Twenty-six months later, in the most unusual of places, we found refuge surrounded by luggage carts, drug-sniffing Beagles and a melody of different languages at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. His two tiny feet touched U.S. soil, and I felt palpable relief from my shoulders, fighting back yet another set of tears as my husband squeezed my hand and hugged us both.

Sitting at our departure gate for the last leg of our journey home, he sat in my lap and munched on a banana and French fries.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

My Unlikely Friends in Mountainous Ecuador

It’s hot. How can it be this hot? Since arriving in Salasaka, this indigenous village in the Ecuadorian Andes, I have had a constantly sun-burned, peeling nose. Having an 8-year-old child on my back doesn’t help.

I struggle along, Fernanda on my back and her 5-year-old sister Ñusta leading the way. Ñusta is a great helper, waddling along with her sick sister’s backpack, which is almost as large as her. We walk down the wide, dusty roads lined with agave; sheep bleat and donkeys bray, everyone lazily complaining about the sweltering heat. I can see endlessly across the green, quilt-patterned hills, and everything looks exactly the same. We could be anywhere in all of Salasaka, and I would have no idea. All I can do is trust the girls to know where they live. At the school where I am teaching, when a child gets sick like Fernanda has, we can’t just call home, mom rushing over in her minivan to pick the child up, sign her out for the day. Almost no households in this village have a phone, and neither does the school. The only way to get them home is to do this, to carry them for miles until you reach the shanty and farm that is their home.

As a recently trained child therapist back in the U.S., I feel sick with guilt because it’s breaking every rule in the book that I’m doing this. Carrying a child on my back for miles? Taking them home when their parents haven’t given me signed permission? But I’m not their therapist, I remind myself, or try to. Because Fernanda is sick, and needs to get home, and this moment is more important than all the things I learned in graduate school.

“Podemos descansar?”, I ask the girls. Can we rest? I gently set Fernanda down, and the 3 of us sit together in the shade of a stack of cement blocks. Fernanda immediately lies down and puts her head in my lap. My “clinical instinct” is to gently remove her from her physical contact with me. Physical affection is always a liability. Keep your “boundaries”, they tell you. To the 7-year-old client who innocently tells me, I love you, I am trained to respond, I see that you really care about me, and I care about you too. Not “I love you too”, never that. A separation between you and the child. Care about her, of course, but from a distance.

I quit my job as a therapist because I was so terrified of how much I cared about my kids. I must not be doing something right, I felt. I must not be cut out for this. It broke my heart. A career down the drain because I just loved those kids too much. But here I was, in the mountains of South America to where I escaped, doing the same thing. Loving too much, again.

But I can’t help it. I love Fernanda. My heart is filled with her. She is only 8 years old and already the smartest student in school. She pulls my hand before recess ends every morning, lamenting, “Vamos a clase!” She watches over my shoulder with anxiety that is palpable as I grade her multiplication drills, as if she has ever received anything less than a 100%. There is a moodiness about her, a subtle neediness, and she sometimes sits apart from the group as Renato, the music teacher, leads them in warbling South American pop songs.

A woman passes where we sit catching our breath, wearing her chumbi and green shawl, half a dozen protesting sheep leading the way. She looks at me, and her confusion is reflected in her glare. What is this gringa doing out here with two of our precious children? The girls chat pleasantly with her in Kichwa, the sing-song indigenous language that I haven’t learned yet, and finally, she smiles, understanding. And somehow, with that smile, she is granting me the permission to love this child freely, to really love her, to love her and all of her sisters and friends without clinical boundaries, without restriction. Love her simply, freely, not as a professional but as a fellow human being, as an adult in the community who shares the responsibility of raising and caring for her. And maybe that’s not such a terrible thing.

I put my hand on Fernanda’s forehead. She doesn’t feel hot, and I don’t know if she was really sick at all or if she just wanted this time with me. “Listas?”, I ask the girls, and Ñusta puts on two backpacks, her own in the back and Fernanda’s in the front. I stoop to let Fernanda on my back, and we keep on walking.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

New Experiences with Monkeys in India

I was sitting cross-legged on a four-inch mattress that doubled as my bed. Sweat engulfed all of my pores as a simple fan hummed above. I glanced up from my book. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a medium-sized monkey open my screen door with ease. I blinked. I observed a second monkey trailing behind and then another.

My jaw dropped. I sat speechless. Three wild monkeys were just a couple of yards away.

Without hesitation, they walked toward a small round table next to my bright red refrigerator. All three admired my possessions. The taller one glanced back in my direction as if to say, “ha, ha”. With one hand, he grabbed one of my Tupperware containers. Within seconds, the monkeys vanished, leaving my door open in their wake.

I sat bewildered. Should I laugh or should I cry?

Just weeks earlier, I had started teaching at an international K-12 boarding school in Bangalore, India. As an American middle-aged educator, I jumped at the opportunity to work and travel abroad. Most of my friends and family members thought that I was experiencing a midlife crisis. Why would I leave my cushy suburban life to work in a developing country?

For years, a series of orthopedic issues had prevented me from using my K-6 teaching license. To remain an educator, I became an adjunct instructor at a local community college. I loved teaching, but something was missing.

When I was offered the primary international teaching position, one of my dreams was finally fulfilled. Once again, I would have the opportunity to work with children and use my teaching credentials. But would I be able to step outside my comfort zone and face my natural fears of living in another country?

After all, I was a middle-age woman who hadn’t traveled alone in decades. I wasn’t traveling to unfamiliar neighborhoods within driving distance of my home. I was flying half way around the world to travel solo in a foreign country. If I had any chance of being successful, I had to regain my independent spirit. I had to look forward and not scurry back to what felt safe. I relied on my inner voice that wouldn’t stop whispering, “You can do it.”

I wasn’t looking to the popular Nike slogan, “Just Do It.” I was recalling another image. Decades ago, I read the classic book, The Little Engine That Could, to my sons. How fitting that in midlife, I would look to a children’s book to instill confidence. Just like the small train in this inspiring story, I had to use daily reminders to keep me on track.

After the three thieves left my guest room, the uncertainty returned. Could I simply laugh off the absurdity of wild monkeys stealing my food or would I succumb to the temptation to long for a more predictable life? This wasn’t the first time that the monkeys had trespassed. Like ants that gravitate toward food crumbs, these larger pests could be found everywhere humans congregated. The school campus was inundated. Groups of monkeys frequented classrooms, stairwells, the playground, the open fields, the lunchroom, and the pathways between buildings.

Fanciful irrational emotions flooded my well being like a tsunami. My mind planned ways to escape in the middle of the night without a trace. While I rationally knew that I had to cope with my new life in India, it was much easier to create plans for fleeing.

I had no choice but to face my challenges head on. The monkey situation was just one example of a multitude of events. Each day was filled with unfamiliar and strange happenings.

For comfort, I listened to my favorite songs from my youth and thought about others who had successfully dealt with obstacles. I recalled times when I had to overcome challenging situations. I posted one of Eleanor Roosevelt’s quotes above my desk:

The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.

I was working as an international teacher and I wasn’t going to let any of my fears erode my confidence or destroy my dreams. My inner voice became my daily mantra. Instead of hearing a small voice inside, I mouthed the words, “I can do it.”

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Christchurch, New Zealand will always be in my heart

It’s not the miles from Home what made Me Change. It was the Emotions and Experiences New to Me. At the End I did traveled far enough, but just enough to find myself.

And I had to travel miles, distance myself for my closest things, and experience many different emotions to discover about myself, to embrace myself.
I had to keep the distance from what I knew or thought it was safe to be born again.
I had to come to the other side of the world to understand and discover myself.
I didn’t travel places. I traveled emotions inside of me.
I didn’t distance myself from Home. I created a new Home.
My heart became new; my eyes saw the bright light again.
My soul was lifted.
I was born again here.
I FELT ALIVE AND FREE AGAIN!
See, I didn’t travel just for the sake of traveling. I was naïve.
I didn’t know that away from Home you can actually find yourself.
See… I LEARNED THAT TODAY…
I had to get away to truly find myself AND FREEDOM….AGAIN!

This is my poetic way to explain all my feelings since I have moved to Christchurch, New Zealand. I wish I had more eloquent words to describe all the wonders that this country offers. It’s not only a beautiful country for its gorgeous landscapes, but it is also a country filled with great and humble people.
I moved from Miami to Christchurch, New Zealand in February of 2012 with my husband as an expatriate wife. I came with the “Miami” ideas if you can call it that, you know the big city girl ideas. And I was changed.
In Christchurch I learned to relax, to reconnect with myself. To learn about the kiwi culture, to understand that they enjoy being around nature. And that if ask them about the world, they are probably well traveled folks, but they will always return to their home country.
I learned to smile back when they smile at me walking on the street because the kiwis are very polite, and you should smile back! I learned that is ok to recycle your cartoon eggs because is just nice to return to the veggie store with a full bag of cartoon eggs to give back to them and see their smile. And to show them that you care for the environment and that you care for their store.
I learned that even being miles away from home, I can still enjoy Latin music because kiwis have a taste for dancing salsa. I learned that if you suffer a loss, like I did, a big loss, a miscarriage, the kiwis will be there for you. They will prepare your meals, they will clean your house, they will give you a word of comfort and they will be calling you back just to make sure you are doing ok.
These four years spent in New Zealand made me open my eyes to new cultures, to trying new things in life. I even tried to ski for god sake! I, the Cuban / Miami only beach please kind of girl. These four years have been amazing, and I will totally recommend visiting New Zealand.
Thank you Christchurch for all this time with Me, you made ME a new person, you gave Me back my FREEDOM WINGS!

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

 

CANADA: Finding Yourself and Finding Your World

Where I find freedom….

I am often asked this questions being a mother to four young children, a wife, an entrepreneur, and an aspiring author. How do I find the time for me?

The first step for me was realizing that I needed time and freedom for myself and I had to make it happen. Prior to going on my personal development journey to healing and find my self-love. I was going through my life trying to do what would satisfy others and make them proud. Not too long after I graduated from high school I went to college to become a Natural Health Practitioner. I had a lot of criticism from my loved ones as this was not a field they understood or could relate to, in their eyes was not credible. Even before receiving my diploma, I had decided that I would become an electrician. Instead of pursuing my dream, I went into something that I knew would be accepted by everyone around me. Just a couple months after receiving my diploma I started my electrical apprenticeship. I received praise from all my loved ones and even complete strangers, which persuaded me to keep going.

I had to hit rock-bottom before realizing that I needed to honour myself and find that freedom for me. When I was pregnant with my fourth child, I realized that I was miserable, felt lost, misplaced and disconnected within your own skin. Living in a world full of judgement, feeling as though I needed to portray a perfect life, and putting unrealistic expectations upon myself, resulted in a lot of disappointment and feelings of failure. Being occupied by another’s needs each and every day without honouring myself, lead to exhaustion and deep disconnection within myself.

In society we have been essentially programmed to put on a facade to express how “ideal” our life should be and how we should be in the eyes of our generally population. There is an accepted way to be, look, act, the house, vehicle and life you should strive for, the items or things you should have. When really all these things should be customized to each individual, who you are, your soul purpose, personality and what you would like to accomplish in your life. Not everyone is the same. From one person to another, you will do things differently, have different beliefs, have different circumstances, priorities and have different ways of doing things.

When I started my self-healing journey, the biggest change happened for me when I allowed myself to have two hours for just me every morning before the rest of my family woke up. This time allowed me to fully connect, dig into my self-healing books and programs and better myself. Because I had chosen the morning for this time, it set up my day to succeed as I had already put time into myself, feeding my heart and soul, and allowing me to be the best me for the day. This also made decision making clearer for me. I knew I was on the right track because I was motivated to continue, it felt good and freeing.

With this self-acknowledgement, my self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-love grew naturally. The more ways I honoured yourself, the happier I became, the lighter I felt and life began to flow with ease. Once I became connected with what made me happy, the faster my perspective changed. I was more accepting of others and all forms of judgment then disappears; self-judgement, judgement of others and other’s judgements on me. When I was able to release all of my self-judgements, I felt more confident within yourself and no longer needed anyone else’s opinions. When I got to the point, where I became absolutely comfortable within me and no longer felt the need to rely on other’s opinions, I instead use their suggestions as I saw suitable.

By honouring myself with “me time” everyday, I find my freedom, live my passion, and am present with my life.

My vision is:
“For all moms to think of themselves as no less than extraordinary!”

Much love, appreciation & gratitude,
Tracy Munson
Natural Health Strategist & Coach, NHP, CDC

 

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

My New Year’s Rebirth in Guatemala

Driving along the quiet morning streets of a city I would come to know and love, I bawled into the musky atmosphere of the cab. I had just flown to Los Angeles for about a week, to visit a man who would become a bigger part of my life than I could ever imagine. But as the sun began to rise and the infamous LAX came into view, I felt less than elated to be hopping on a flight to Guatemala City.

It was the day before New Year’s Eve, and the looming new year on the horizon stood a mysterious silhouette in a grey backdrop. At first the plan seemed simple, go to Central America, have a work holiday, more or less. It seemed fitting, but sometimes what you think you are ‘meant’ to do doesn’t match up with what the world has planned for you. The firm seats of the plane reminded me that I was about to spend the next few weeks in unfamiliar places, and likely sitting in similarly firm bus seats, which was almost comforting, as although I had come to realize I had no idea why I was going to Guatemala, maybe it was a childhood fascination finally coming to life, that I indeed took refuge in the unfamiliar.

When you do not know a city, when you do not know a face or a name, reality seems more malleable, free from the conditions and generalizations we bind ourselves with. But it wasn’t until after I left Central America for the second time that I would conclude that sometimes you can’t simply put yourself out of the norm, you have to be completely destroyed, and born again anew.

Arriving in the beautiful colonial city of Antigua, Guatemala, I felt instantly lonely. A rare sensation, and a wave of isolation and being far from the world I knew washed over, even as I walked the stone streets, full of character and stories. New Year’s Eve was spent with a gaggle of Australians whom I’d met that day at my hostel. Predictable, but at least I knew that all over the world, people were celebrating the same thing, a shift in time, a new year, a new era. The night proceeded in a sickly classic way, the parties were many and the drinks too strong. Upon losing my group of newly acquainted travel buddies I quickly realized I was now well and truly alone, wandering the ghostly streets of a potentially dangerous city.

Fear introduced itself promptly and again I found myself caught in a whirling dizziness of confusion. Where is my hostel? Why am I suddenly by myself? Questions of my own sanity brought me to eventual surrender when a car pulled up. It was a police officer. Now this had to be one of the strangest experiences of my life, and still now it holds a mind boggling surreal quality. The officer asked me what was wrong, to which I could barely answer between sobs. To my own surprise, as I generally consider myself verging on the edge of paranoia, I agreed to be driven home after he kindly took me to get food and a coffee.

Crying to a strange police officer over cake, in a foreign country, about nothing in particular, is probably one of the most embarrassing and messed up accounts I could ever recall, but as I began to settle down and he listened to me, offering even more surprising words of wisdom, I began to notice that on this New Year’s Day, I had been reborn. It sounds silly, but it literally felt like a piece of me had left, abruptly resigned, in the face of such fear, discomfort and the internal pain that I had been feeling. Sometimes we can only see freedom when we are forced to face ourselves solely, with no walls, no security blankets, no friends, no money, nothing we have been so trained to value, alone.

The aura of confusion still lingered but was not pressing, there was a certain lightness now. I continued to enjoy my next 4 weeks in Guatemala, and 2 weeks in Mexico, the best I possibly could, allowing what was meant to be to be. I met amazing people. I swam. I (hestitantly) rode horses on cliffs. I hiked to the tops of mountains at sunrise and sunset. I danced and ate and listened to music. I got sick. Really sick. I lost my phone. My computer died. I got sick again. I tried not to blame myself for being sick. I visited amazing places. I made a best friend.

And I watched. I observed. And still now, when I recall the entirety of my journeys from Guatemala City to Mexico and finally back to Los Angeles, when I rejoiced in being back in North America despite my mind-blowing travels, I watch it all as a movie I have seen a thousand times, and know that in some way, I had to be completely destroyed to find my freedom, to let go of all that I perceived to be true in order to make room for the new and spectacular things that were about to enter my life. I had nothing to lose. Freedom had been chasing me down, like a ghost longing to make itself known, so that I could finally stare it straight in the face.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

I Choose My Freedom in Australia…For Now

We laid on our sides on what I once called our bed. Nose touching tip of nose, eyes locked into eyes. I traced the outside of his face with my free hand, imagining that I could feel the difference between the brown, gold and crimson strands of his beard underneath my fingertips. The scent of him filled me like smoke. I breathed in earth, clean laundry and a hint of weed. In this bed, there was nothing else. Only the physical tug of my heart to his, our breath slowed down to one. If I made this moment my entire world, I was happy.

“Come home,” he said, breaking the comfortable silence. “You can still travel. Just come home to me.”

I was leaving him for now the third time. The freedom that comes with traveling– the thrill of uncertainty, the choices that follow ambiguity– had once again found prominence in my heart over anything that would just make me one half of a whole. This time, I’d be gone for more than a four month backpacking stint around Europe or South America. I was going to Australia for at least a year, and I intended to finally make this breakup stick.

However, my mind struggled to find the flaw in his plan, drunk as I was on the happiness that I associated with his presence. It sounded nice. I could have both.

He assured me certainty, security, love, a future–the sweetest of chains. So I imagined living out my life with him, continuing the dream state of that bed. The only thing that he truly stimulated in me was a sexual desire. The rest would continue to be a mindless routine, devoid of intelligent conversation. He would watch football. I would cook him lasagna. He’d tell me he thought it was cute that I liked to read. I’d try in vain to discuss Orwell with him. He would work at the bar. I would find some middleman job. He’d buy a house in a small Massachusetts town. We’d take turns digging our cars out of the New England snow, and he’d get angry when he caught me lusting after Google images of exotic places. We’d smoke weed everyday to further along the numbing effect. He’d get me pregnant one day, like he always wanted. He’d teach our child to throw a ball, and I’d try to instill enough independence and individuality in her so that she could live the life I always wanted–a life of adventure and freedom.

To stay with him would have been to make the choice to throw a huge spoiler alert over my entire life, to watch the Red Wedding scene of Game of Thrones just as I got invested in the first season. Our relationship presented only walls and no frontiers.

I didn’t know who I was when I wasn’t his. All I knew was that it bothered me, a literal constant pain in my side each time I realised that I was becoming part of an indifferent and incurious population that gets stuck in relationships that are finite, lethargic and easy. I realized that I lived for my connection to him, changing myself to fit his mold. I neglected everything else that I ever wanted, pursuing those finite moments of happiness wholeheartedly so that I could mollify my anxiety in the face of my natural state, the state of freedom. I wasn’t committed to my authenticity; I hid from it.

My urge to strike out on my own was a gut reaction, a survival instinct. I needed to ease the stomach-clenching dread that accompanied the notion of remaining in one place for long, and for someone else. I needed the ignition that comes with waking up in a strange city or country, stimulating myself by way of exploration, acquainting myself with a new place through its food, having informed and varied discussions in broken English over a hostel dining room table. My freedom comes with the weight of a backpack on my shoulders, a one-way ticket and a culture shock. I am the only one in this world who can give me what I crave; to travel. To live a life as a traveller means living a life of contrast and spontaneity, ambiguity and choices.

I did not say that travel made me “happy,” although it often does. Happiness is not the attainable lifetime goal. Happiness is finite. What I sought was freedom, an infinite state of being that far surpasses a vague and unattainable notion of absolute contentment.

So as I lay in that bed, contemplating the tear I had to force between us, I focused on my refusal to be defined by my environment and my sentiment, rather than by the choices I made when faced with uncertainty.

I’ve been living in Australia for almost 10 months now, and I am face to face with my independence everyday, my choice to try on life as a 24 year old Melburnian for the time being, absorbing the parts of it that add to my shifting identity. I do not know what the next steps are, for I cannot see them clearly or at all. And that’s okay. To have a full knowledge of what my years hold would be just as finite as a committed relationship with a small-minded man. The mystery that comes with knowing nothing is infinite. I am faced with an unlimited spectrum, and all I must do is choose and take responsibility for my choices, may they always be in line with my most authentic state. This is what makes me free.

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The Power of Unique Experiences in Indonesia

Kerthunk, kerthunk, kerthunk.

I felt as if someone had sunk a fistful of fear into my heart and let it pound it into the rest of my body. My stomach felt like it was trying to retreat behind my ribs, my eyes were wide. Reason told me I shouldn’t have been so phobic. But I was staring down my nemeses, and reason was quickly losing its place in my repertoire.

Actually, “nemeses” might be a strong word for something the size of a pin head. These were a couple of bugs so small that one could easily mistake them for a floating piece of white lint, especially in the flickering shadows of the Balinese evening. They were bed bug nymphs, and their presence meant I needed to leave before they could scurry their way into my belongings.

My mind flashed back to a bitter night far away from the hostel on the quaint Indonesian road. I was back in my apartment in Massachusetts, back to the shock of finding an infestation of biting little bugs that snuck through the folds of my sofa and cracks in the hardwood floors. I retreated to the bathtub at two in the morning, saturated in dread.

Bed bugs aren’t dangerous, but eradicating them is an awful and laborious process. I had been in physical therapy for years for a bad back. My nearest family member was hundreds of miles away. I couldn’t imagine how to pack all my belongings away with my unstable bones. I cringed in anticipation of the pain that could come from rounds of laundering everything I owned, spraying things down with isopropyl, and moving furniture for exterminators.

The predicted injury and accompanying pain led to my first visit to Indonesia. I questioned if other people with physical disadvantages could get caught in similarly horrendous situations throughout the world, and secured a grant to research the topic in several countries. Come spring, I set off on a great multinational adventure in which I fervently chased answers and lines of longitude.

During that journey, I took a ferry from Singapore to spend a couple days in Bintan Island, Indonesia. Between the driftwood and palm fronds on an empty stretch of beach, I stopped to see an eroding message written in the sand: “LIFE ALWAYS FINDS A WAY”. I felt like some vanished scribe had written it there as part of my story, like the universe had left the words there just for me.

I bought a ticket to Bali during a turbulent period a couple years later. I wanted to head back to the country where clairvoyants roamed the islands and messages were hidden in the sand.

In the place where I expected to find order and inner peace, I was being gripped by memories of injured sleepless nights and unresolved past fears. I hauled my backpack to the safety of the front porch and dove into my phone, searching furiously for new accommodations, comfort from friends, and ways to clean old demons out of potentially contaminated belongings.

I sat on the ground for so long that the stones had imprinted their shapes on my legs, so I headed to the roof terrace to obsess over my problems in privacy. I looked out to see a brilliant sunset, a scattering of stringy blue clouds hanging on a backdrop of potent pinks and oranges. Beyond the edge of the peninsula, the ocean was mirroring the colorful banners of the sunset, making it seem almost endless.

I wasn’t sure how many sunsets I’d missed while my phobias were running amok, but I didn’t want to miss that one. In the last journey I hadn’t learned to compartmentalize my thoughts, to stop a bout of fear from tainting all of the glory around me. I turned the phone on its face to gaze at the sunset, to listen to the ensemble of cicadas and monkeys and the chattering and clinking of bottles from guests downstairs.

Travel has power to put you out in the caprices of the unknown and onto the stoops of old haunts. But sometimes, it also offers you a chance at redemption.

I was myself again, watching silently as the ocean was swallowed by the night. I was free from those harrowing and pervasive fears, unshackled from the tunnel vision of anxiety.

I found no more messages in the sand, no phantoms to leave signs that I had gotten things right. I was left with open road, a painted sky, and gorgeous wildlife; all that I sought and all that I needed.

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Feeling Insignificant on Serene Mt. Rainier, USA

The feel of snow in August is a unique experience reserved for those in either extreme latitudes or significant altitudes. Mt. Rainier certainly qualifies for the latter category. I had taken a break on the side of the Mountain to prep for my final push towards Camp Muir, a staging area which sits about 4,000’ short of the summit of Mt. Rainier at 14,411’. Although I needed to catch my breath for the climb ahead, this task seemed figuratively impossible given the breathtaking vista surrounding me. To the south lay the smoke-obscured teeth of the Tatoosh range, and beyond them the still-visible volcanic peaks of St. Helens and Adams. Looking to the West, I saw the Cowlitz Glacier dissipating to thin waterfalls that collected in the valley below. But it was the northern view that was the most commanding, as this sight contained the camp, the summit and a blinding stretch of steep snow that constituted the rest of my hike.

Moments like this take me back to a line I overheard in Seattle just a few days before my hike: “The great thing about nature is how it makes us feel small”. I disagreed with the speaker, at least in part. If the feeling of smallness was truly all we sought in nature, there really would be no reason to travel there. Smallness is so much easier to find in a cubical from 9-to-5, a fact I am well acquainted with. Three months prior to this evening and this hike, I was living a comfortable life in Boston with a good paying job. Stability, activity, and the prospect of upwards mobility were all luxuries I enjoyed, but it was still a small existence, a fact intensified by my oppressive anxiety and frequent panic attacks.

Conventional wisdom would have recommended, at times like this, that the weary worker take a vacation and “get your head in order”. I took the wisdom, but neglected the conventionality, boarding an Amtrak train in Boston and seeing where I could go over the next few months. This eventually brought me to the Space Needle in Seattle, where I got my first good view of Mt. Rainer. The thing was big, not just in raw mass, but with understated gravity. It gripped my attention and demanded personification, quietly scoffing at the Needle I was standing on. I left the elevator with a single conviction in mind, one that brought me to my break point on the side of Mt. Rainer, just a few hundred feet below the camp.

If ever I had sound reason for suffering a panic attack, this would be that time. I was by myself on one of the deadliest hiking trails in the country, where the afternoon sun was opening crevasses below my feet and cutting my friction-less progress to a negligible sum. What if my exertion led to a heart attack, where would they take me? Or if a storm rolls in and I lose my sense of direction? These thoughts and more could have easily crossed my mind, but none did. Instead, my focus lay in just placing one foot in front of the other until I arrived on the stone-carved steps of Camp Muir. And then I saw how small I really was. But this feeling of smallness was different than the one I knew three months prior. This experience was expansive, elevated, the kind that makes you breathe easier with a younger smile on your face. I was, in that moment, entwined within something bigger than myself without being absolved into it.

Suffice it to say, I never did return from my vacation, at least not to the job I had before. There was many more moments that lead to that decision, but the encounter with Rainier demonstrated something that I once had, had lost, and must work to awaken again. The path from here remains uncertain, but it is now a path that does at least go on..

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From Vietnamese Mangroves and a Loving Mom

The runway was not much more than a lightly paved strip of soil which popped out of the rice paddies and mangroves like a long, rectangular oasis. As I exited the 1950’s prop, much like the one that Indiana Jones rides in Raiders of the Lost Ark, I felt stifled instead of being freed from the tight quarters that I’d just ridden in. The density and weight of the atmosphere made it hard to inhale deeply– and it was more than just heat and humidity of the southernmost part of Vietnam – Ca Mau, a peninsular province with the Gulf of Thailand to the West and the Pacific Ocean to the South and East. I was stepping foot on the same soil where my son was born, breathing the same sticky, tropical air that he did. The son I had not yet met, and the son that I would not be bringing home to Indiana after the eight days that I’d be there.

As excited as I was to meet my baby — the one that I dreamed of and had dreams for — I needed to guard my emotions. Upon seeing my first photo of him, my heart skipped a beat when I gazed into those deep brown eyes and saw the shock of black hair standing up on his head. I knew that without a doubt that he was my son. It was my moment of a doctor handing my child to me to put on my chest and feeling a love like no other.

Much like the southern Vietnamese mangroves’ intertwined roots, strong and complicated, his homecoming was constricted by the fact that he was stuck — stuck in an orphanage due to political posturing by both the U.S. and Vietnamese governments not willing to move an inch to finalize his adoption, despite him living in squalid and unsafe orphanage conditions.

I flew half-way around the world and was there with two other moms in the same situation to help care for our children and the others in the orphanage. It was the one small thing we could actually do to help our kids, while we lobbied Congressional leaders and the State Department on the homefront.

Within minutes sweat was streaming down my face and soaking my clothes – a combination of the oppressive heat and my anxiety. My friends and I headed out to the orphanage in a taxi. There were few cars on the road, mostly bicycles and motor bikes. We raced along the tropical landscape – passing roadside markets where vendors sold pineapples, roosters in woven basket cages, plastic kitchenware and even python meat. Our taxi driver honked incessantly as he passed cars, though few, and played a game of chicken with oncoming traffic. A movie of mangroves and long boats with weathered fishermen, and the occasional water buffalo grazing in a yard ran through the car windows. Children with bare feet and dirty faces dotted the fast-moving landscape – all of it beautiful, colorful and full of life.

Finally, we turned down a one-lane dirt road lined by shallow canals, lush mango and tamarind trees, and tin roof-shacks with hammocks as beds. My stomach dropped to my knees when I saw the orphanage building.

My 22-month old son was literally imprisoned in his tiny room — it had bars on the windows, a former internment camp from the Vietnam War.

I had many conversations with him before I got to Vietnam (all in my head), promising him that I would do whatever it took to get him home to Indiana. I’d say “good night” to him when I woke up in the morning and whisper “good morning” before I fell asleep at night, living with my heart twelve hours ahead. And that week, I told him in person — kissing his smooth, tan cheeks, my tears wetting his sweet face as I held him close. And, then having to leave him.

Twenty-six months later, in the most unusual of places, we found refuge surrounded by luggage carts, drug-sniffing Beagles and a melody of different languages at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. His two tiny feet touched U.S. soil, and I felt palpable relief from my shoulders, fighting back yet another set of tears as my husband squeezed my hand and hugged us both.

Sitting at our departure gate for the last leg of our journey home, he sat in my lap and munched on a banana and French fries.

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My Unlikely Friends in Mountainous Ecuador

It’s hot. How can it be this hot? Since arriving in Salasaka, this indigenous village in the Ecuadorian Andes, I have had a constantly sun-burned, peeling nose. Having an 8-year-old child on my back doesn’t help.

I struggle along, Fernanda on my back and her 5-year-old sister Ñusta leading the way. Ñusta is a great helper, waddling along with her sick sister’s backpack, which is almost as large as her. We walk down the wide, dusty roads lined with agave; sheep bleat and donkeys bray, everyone lazily complaining about the sweltering heat. I can see endlessly across the green, quilt-patterned hills, and everything looks exactly the same. We could be anywhere in all of Salasaka, and I would have no idea. All I can do is trust the girls to know where they live. At the school where I am teaching, when a child gets sick like Fernanda has, we can’t just call home, mom rushing over in her minivan to pick the child up, sign her out for the day. Almost no households in this village have a phone, and neither does the school. The only way to get them home is to do this, to carry them for miles until you reach the shanty and farm that is their home.

As a recently trained child therapist back in the U.S., I feel sick with guilt because it’s breaking every rule in the book that I’m doing this. Carrying a child on my back for miles? Taking them home when their parents haven’t given me signed permission? But I’m not their therapist, I remind myself, or try to. Because Fernanda is sick, and needs to get home, and this moment is more important than all the things I learned in graduate school.

“Podemos descansar?”, I ask the girls. Can we rest? I gently set Fernanda down, and the 3 of us sit together in the shade of a stack of cement blocks. Fernanda immediately lies down and puts her head in my lap. My “clinical instinct” is to gently remove her from her physical contact with me. Physical affection is always a liability. Keep your “boundaries”, they tell you. To the 7-year-old client who innocently tells me, I love you, I am trained to respond, I see that you really care about me, and I care about you too. Not “I love you too”, never that. A separation between you and the child. Care about her, of course, but from a distance.

I quit my job as a therapist because I was so terrified of how much I cared about my kids. I must not be doing something right, I felt. I must not be cut out for this. It broke my heart. A career down the drain because I just loved those kids too much. But here I was, in the mountains of South America to where I escaped, doing the same thing. Loving too much, again.

But I can’t help it. I love Fernanda. My heart is filled with her. She is only 8 years old and already the smartest student in school. She pulls my hand before recess ends every morning, lamenting, “Vamos a clase!” She watches over my shoulder with anxiety that is palpable as I grade her multiplication drills, as if she has ever received anything less than a 100%. There is a moodiness about her, a subtle neediness, and she sometimes sits apart from the group as Renato, the music teacher, leads them in warbling South American pop songs.

A woman passes where we sit catching our breath, wearing her chumbi and green shawl, half a dozen protesting sheep leading the way. She looks at me, and her confusion is reflected in her glare. What is this gringa doing out here with two of our precious children? The girls chat pleasantly with her in Kichwa, the sing-song indigenous language that I haven’t learned yet, and finally, she smiles, understanding. And somehow, with that smile, she is granting me the permission to love this child freely, to really love her, to love her and all of her sisters and friends without clinical boundaries, without restriction. Love her simply, freely, not as a professional but as a fellow human being, as an adult in the community who shares the responsibility of raising and caring for her. And maybe that’s not such a terrible thing.

I put my hand on Fernanda’s forehead. She doesn’t feel hot, and I don’t know if she was really sick at all or if she just wanted this time with me. “Listas?”, I ask the girls, and Ñusta puts on two backpacks, her own in the back and Fernanda’s in the front. I stoop to let Fernanda on my back, and we keep on walking.

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New Experiences with Monkeys in India

I was sitting cross-legged on a four-inch mattress that doubled as my bed. Sweat engulfed all of my pores as a simple fan hummed above. I glanced up from my book. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a medium-sized monkey open my screen door with ease. I blinked. I observed a second monkey trailing behind and then another.

My jaw dropped. I sat speechless. Three wild monkeys were just a couple of yards away.

Without hesitation, they walked toward a small round table next to my bright red refrigerator. All three admired my possessions. The taller one glanced back in my direction as if to say, “ha, ha”. With one hand, he grabbed one of my Tupperware containers. Within seconds, the monkeys vanished, leaving my door open in their wake.

I sat bewildered. Should I laugh or should I cry?

Just weeks earlier, I had started teaching at an international K-12 boarding school in Bangalore, India. As an American middle-aged educator, I jumped at the opportunity to work and travel abroad. Most of my friends and family members thought that I was experiencing a midlife crisis. Why would I leave my cushy suburban life to work in a developing country?

For years, a series of orthopedic issues had prevented me from using my K-6 teaching license. To remain an educator, I became an adjunct instructor at a local community college. I loved teaching, but something was missing.

When I was offered the primary international teaching position, one of my dreams was finally fulfilled. Once again, I would have the opportunity to work with children and use my teaching credentials. But would I be able to step outside my comfort zone and face my natural fears of living in another country?

After all, I was a middle-age woman who hadn’t traveled alone in decades. I wasn’t traveling to unfamiliar neighborhoods within driving distance of my home. I was flying half way around the world to travel solo in a foreign country. If I had any chance of being successful, I had to regain my independent spirit. I had to look forward and not scurry back to what felt safe. I relied on my inner voice that wouldn’t stop whispering, “You can do it.”

I wasn’t looking to the popular Nike slogan, “Just Do It.” I was recalling another image. Decades ago, I read the classic book, The Little Engine That Could, to my sons. How fitting that in midlife, I would look to a children’s book to instill confidence. Just like the small train in this inspiring story, I had to use daily reminders to keep me on track.

After the three thieves left my guest room, the uncertainty returned. Could I simply laugh off the absurdity of wild monkeys stealing my food or would I succumb to the temptation to long for a more predictable life? This wasn’t the first time that the monkeys had trespassed. Like ants that gravitate toward food crumbs, these larger pests could be found everywhere humans congregated. The school campus was inundated. Groups of monkeys frequented classrooms, stairwells, the playground, the open fields, the lunchroom, and the pathways between buildings.

Fanciful irrational emotions flooded my well being like a tsunami. My mind planned ways to escape in the middle of the night without a trace. While I rationally knew that I had to cope with my new life in India, it was much easier to create plans for fleeing.

I had no choice but to face my challenges head on. The monkey situation was just one example of a multitude of events. Each day was filled with unfamiliar and strange happenings.

For comfort, I listened to my favorite songs from my youth and thought about others who had successfully dealt with obstacles. I recalled times when I had to overcome challenging situations. I posted one of Eleanor Roosevelt’s quotes above my desk:

The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.

I was working as an international teacher and I wasn’t going to let any of my fears erode my confidence or destroy my dreams. My inner voice became my daily mantra. Instead of hearing a small voice inside, I mouthed the words, “I can do it.”

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Christchurch, New Zealand will always be in my heart

It’s not the miles from Home what made Me Change. It was the Emotions and Experiences New to Me. At the End I did traveled far enough, but just enough to find myself.

And I had to travel miles, distance myself for my closest things, and experience many different emotions to discover about myself, to embrace myself.
I had to keep the distance from what I knew or thought it was safe to be born again.
I had to come to the other side of the world to understand and discover myself.
I didn’t travel places. I traveled emotions inside of me.
I didn’t distance myself from Home. I created a new Home.
My heart became new; my eyes saw the bright light again.
My soul was lifted.
I was born again here.
I FELT ALIVE AND FREE AGAIN!
See, I didn’t travel just for the sake of traveling. I was naïve.
I didn’t know that away from Home you can actually find yourself.
See… I LEARNED THAT TODAY…
I had to get away to truly find myself AND FREEDOM….AGAIN!

This is my poetic way to explain all my feelings since I have moved to Christchurch, New Zealand. I wish I had more eloquent words to describe all the wonders that this country offers. It’s not only a beautiful country for its gorgeous landscapes, but it is also a country filled with great and humble people.
I moved from Miami to Christchurch, New Zealand in February of 2012 with my husband as an expatriate wife. I came with the “Miami” ideas if you can call it that, you know the big city girl ideas. And I was changed.
In Christchurch I learned to relax, to reconnect with myself. To learn about the kiwi culture, to understand that they enjoy being around nature. And that if ask them about the world, they are probably well traveled folks, but they will always return to their home country.
I learned to smile back when they smile at me walking on the street because the kiwis are very polite, and you should smile back! I learned that is ok to recycle your cartoon eggs because is just nice to return to the veggie store with a full bag of cartoon eggs to give back to them and see their smile. And to show them that you care for the environment and that you care for their store.
I learned that even being miles away from home, I can still enjoy Latin music because kiwis have a taste for dancing salsa. I learned that if you suffer a loss, like I did, a big loss, a miscarriage, the kiwis will be there for you. They will prepare your meals, they will clean your house, they will give you a word of comfort and they will be calling you back just to make sure you are doing ok.
These four years spent in New Zealand made me open my eyes to new cultures, to trying new things in life. I even tried to ski for god sake! I, the Cuban / Miami only beach please kind of girl. These four years have been amazing, and I will totally recommend visiting New Zealand.
Thank you Christchurch for all this time with Me, you made ME a new person, you gave Me back my FREEDOM WINGS!

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CANADA: Finding Yourself and Finding Your World

Where I find freedom….

I am often asked this questions being a mother to four young children, a wife, an entrepreneur, and an aspiring author. How do I find the time for me?

The first step for me was realizing that I needed time and freedom for myself and I had to make it happen. Prior to going on my personal development journey to healing and find my self-love. I was going through my life trying to do what would satisfy others and make them proud. Not too long after I graduated from high school I went to college to become a Natural Health Practitioner. I had a lot of criticism from my loved ones as this was not a field they understood or could relate to, in their eyes was not credible. Even before receiving my diploma, I had decided that I would become an electrician. Instead of pursuing my dream, I went into something that I knew would be accepted by everyone around me. Just a couple months after receiving my diploma I started my electrical apprenticeship. I received praise from all my loved ones and even complete strangers, which persuaded me to keep going.

I had to hit rock-bottom before realizing that I needed to honour myself and find that freedom for me. When I was pregnant with my fourth child, I realized that I was miserable, felt lost, misplaced and disconnected within your own skin. Living in a world full of judgement, feeling as though I needed to portray a perfect life, and putting unrealistic expectations upon myself, resulted in a lot of disappointment and feelings of failure. Being occupied by another’s needs each and every day without honouring myself, lead to exhaustion and deep disconnection within myself.

In society we have been essentially programmed to put on a facade to express how “ideal” our life should be and how we should be in the eyes of our generally population. There is an accepted way to be, look, act, the house, vehicle and life you should strive for, the items or things you should have. When really all these things should be customized to each individual, who you are, your soul purpose, personality and what you would like to accomplish in your life. Not everyone is the same. From one person to another, you will do things differently, have different beliefs, have different circumstances, priorities and have different ways of doing things.

When I started my self-healing journey, the biggest change happened for me when I allowed myself to have two hours for just me every morning before the rest of my family woke up. This time allowed me to fully connect, dig into my self-healing books and programs and better myself. Because I had chosen the morning for this time, it set up my day to succeed as I had already put time into myself, feeding my heart and soul, and allowing me to be the best me for the day. This also made decision making clearer for me. I knew I was on the right track because I was motivated to continue, it felt good and freeing.

With this self-acknowledgement, my self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-love grew naturally. The more ways I honoured yourself, the happier I became, the lighter I felt and life began to flow with ease. Once I became connected with what made me happy, the faster my perspective changed. I was more accepting of others and all forms of judgment then disappears; self-judgement, judgement of others and other’s judgements on me. When I was able to release all of my self-judgements, I felt more confident within yourself and no longer needed anyone else’s opinions. When I got to the point, where I became absolutely comfortable within me and no longer felt the need to rely on other’s opinions, I instead use their suggestions as I saw suitable.

By honouring myself with “me time” everyday, I find my freedom, live my passion, and am present with my life.

My vision is:
“For all moms to think of themselves as no less than extraordinary!”

Much love, appreciation & gratitude,
Tracy Munson
Natural Health Strategist & Coach, NHP, CDC

 

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My New Year’s Rebirth in Guatemala

Driving along the quiet morning streets of a city I would come to know and love, I bawled into the musky atmosphere of the cab. I had just flown to Los Angeles for about a week, to visit a man who would become a bigger part of my life than I could ever imagine. But as the sun began to rise and the infamous LAX came into view, I felt less than elated to be hopping on a flight to Guatemala City.

It was the day before New Year’s Eve, and the looming new year on the horizon stood a mysterious silhouette in a grey backdrop. At first the plan seemed simple, go to Central America, have a work holiday, more or less. It seemed fitting, but sometimes what you think you are ‘meant’ to do doesn’t match up with what the world has planned for you. The firm seats of the plane reminded me that I was about to spend the next few weeks in unfamiliar places, and likely sitting in similarly firm bus seats, which was almost comforting, as although I had come to realize I had no idea why I was going to Guatemala, maybe it was a childhood fascination finally coming to life, that I indeed took refuge in the unfamiliar.

When you do not know a city, when you do not know a face or a name, reality seems more malleable, free from the conditions and generalizations we bind ourselves with. But it wasn’t until after I left Central America for the second time that I would conclude that sometimes you can’t simply put yourself out of the norm, you have to be completely destroyed, and born again anew.

Arriving in the beautiful colonial city of Antigua, Guatemala, I felt instantly lonely. A rare sensation, and a wave of isolation and being far from the world I knew washed over, even as I walked the stone streets, full of character and stories. New Year’s Eve was spent with a gaggle of Australians whom I’d met that day at my hostel. Predictable, but at least I knew that all over the world, people were celebrating the same thing, a shift in time, a new year, a new era. The night proceeded in a sickly classic way, the parties were many and the drinks too strong. Upon losing my group of newly acquainted travel buddies I quickly realized I was now well and truly alone, wandering the ghostly streets of a potentially dangerous city.

Fear introduced itself promptly and again I found myself caught in a whirling dizziness of confusion. Where is my hostel? Why am I suddenly by myself? Questions of my own sanity brought me to eventual surrender when a car pulled up. It was a police officer. Now this had to be one of the strangest experiences of my life, and still now it holds a mind boggling surreal quality. The officer asked me what was wrong, to which I could barely answer between sobs. To my own surprise, as I generally consider myself verging on the edge of paranoia, I agreed to be driven home after he kindly took me to get food and a coffee.

Crying to a strange police officer over cake, in a foreign country, about nothing in particular, is probably one of the most embarrassing and messed up accounts I could ever recall, but as I began to settle down and he listened to me, offering even more surprising words of wisdom, I began to notice that on this New Year’s Day, I had been reborn. It sounds silly, but it literally felt like a piece of me had left, abruptly resigned, in the face of such fear, discomfort and the internal pain that I had been feeling. Sometimes we can only see freedom when we are forced to face ourselves solely, with no walls, no security blankets, no friends, no money, nothing we have been so trained to value, alone.

The aura of confusion still lingered but was not pressing, there was a certain lightness now. I continued to enjoy my next 4 weeks in Guatemala, and 2 weeks in Mexico, the best I possibly could, allowing what was meant to be to be. I met amazing people. I swam. I (hestitantly) rode horses on cliffs. I hiked to the tops of mountains at sunrise and sunset. I danced and ate and listened to music. I got sick. Really sick. I lost my phone. My computer died. I got sick again. I tried not to blame myself for being sick. I visited amazing places. I made a best friend.

And I watched. I observed. And still now, when I recall the entirety of my journeys from Guatemala City to Mexico and finally back to Los Angeles, when I rejoiced in being back in North America despite my mind-blowing travels, I watch it all as a movie I have seen a thousand times, and know that in some way, I had to be completely destroyed to find my freedom, to let go of all that I perceived to be true in order to make room for the new and spectacular things that were about to enter my life. I had nothing to lose. Freedom had been chasing me down, like a ghost longing to make itself known, so that I could finally stare it straight in the face.

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I Choose My Freedom in Australia…For Now

We laid on our sides on what I once called our bed. Nose touching tip of nose, eyes locked into eyes. I traced the outside of his face with my free hand, imagining that I could feel the difference between the brown, gold and crimson strands of his beard underneath my fingertips. The scent of him filled me like smoke. I breathed in earth, clean laundry and a hint of weed. In this bed, there was nothing else. Only the physical tug of my heart to his, our breath slowed down to one. If I made this moment my entire world, I was happy.

“Come home,” he said, breaking the comfortable silence. “You can still travel. Just come home to me.”

I was leaving him for now the third time. The freedom that comes with traveling– the thrill of uncertainty, the choices that follow ambiguity– had once again found prominence in my heart over anything that would just make me one half of a whole. This time, I’d be gone for more than a four month backpacking stint around Europe or South America. I was going to Australia for at least a year, and I intended to finally make this breakup stick.

However, my mind struggled to find the flaw in his plan, drunk as I was on the happiness that I associated with his presence. It sounded nice. I could have both.

He assured me certainty, security, love, a future–the sweetest of chains. So I imagined living out my life with him, continuing the dream state of that bed. The only thing that he truly stimulated in me was a sexual desire. The rest would continue to be a mindless routine, devoid of intelligent conversation. He would watch football. I would cook him lasagna. He’d tell me he thought it was cute that I liked to read. I’d try in vain to discuss Orwell with him. He would work at the bar. I would find some middleman job. He’d buy a house in a small Massachusetts town. We’d take turns digging our cars out of the New England snow, and he’d get angry when he caught me lusting after Google images of exotic places. We’d smoke weed everyday to further along the numbing effect. He’d get me pregnant one day, like he always wanted. He’d teach our child to throw a ball, and I’d try to instill enough independence and individuality in her so that she could live the life I always wanted–a life of adventure and freedom.

To stay with him would have been to make the choice to throw a huge spoiler alert over my entire life, to watch the Red Wedding scene of Game of Thrones just as I got invested in the first season. Our relationship presented only walls and no frontiers.

I didn’t know who I was when I wasn’t his. All I knew was that it bothered me, a literal constant pain in my side each time I realised that I was becoming part of an indifferent and incurious population that gets stuck in relationships that are finite, lethargic and easy. I realized that I lived for my connection to him, changing myself to fit his mold. I neglected everything else that I ever wanted, pursuing those finite moments of happiness wholeheartedly so that I could mollify my anxiety in the face of my natural state, the state of freedom. I wasn’t committed to my authenticity; I hid from it.

My urge to strike out on my own was a gut reaction, a survival instinct. I needed to ease the stomach-clenching dread that accompanied the notion of remaining in one place for long, and for someone else. I needed the ignition that comes with waking up in a strange city or country, stimulating myself by way of exploration, acquainting myself with a new place through its food, having informed and varied discussions in broken English over a hostel dining room table. My freedom comes with the weight of a backpack on my shoulders, a one-way ticket and a culture shock. I am the only one in this world who can give me what I crave; to travel. To live a life as a traveller means living a life of contrast and spontaneity, ambiguity and choices.

I did not say that travel made me “happy,” although it often does. Happiness is not the attainable lifetime goal. Happiness is finite. What I sought was freedom, an infinite state of being that far surpasses a vague and unattainable notion of absolute contentment.

So as I lay in that bed, contemplating the tear I had to force between us, I focused on my refusal to be defined by my environment and my sentiment, rather than by the choices I made when faced with uncertainty.

I’ve been living in Australia for almost 10 months now, and I am face to face with my independence everyday, my choice to try on life as a 24 year old Melburnian for the time being, absorbing the parts of it that add to my shifting identity. I do not know what the next steps are, for I cannot see them clearly or at all. And that’s okay. To have a full knowledge of what my years hold would be just as finite as a committed relationship with a small-minded man. The mystery that comes with knowing nothing is infinite. I am faced with an unlimited spectrum, and all I must do is choose and take responsibility for my choices, may they always be in line with my most authentic state. This is what makes me free.

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The Power of Unique Experiences in Indonesia

Kerthunk, kerthunk, kerthunk.

I felt as if someone had sunk a fistful of fear into my heart and let it pound it into the rest of my body. My stomach felt like it was trying to retreat behind my ribs, my eyes were wide. Reason told me I shouldn’t have been so phobic. But I was staring down my nemeses, and reason was quickly losing its place in my repertoire.

Actually, “nemeses” might be a strong word for something the size of a pin head. These were a couple of bugs so small that one could easily mistake them for a floating piece of white lint, especially in the flickering shadows of the Balinese evening. They were bed bug nymphs, and their presence meant I needed to leave before they could scurry their way into my belongings.

My mind flashed back to a bitter night far away from the hostel on the quaint Indonesian road. I was back in my apartment in Massachusetts, back to the shock of finding an infestation of biting little bugs that snuck through the folds of my sofa and cracks in the hardwood floors. I retreated to the bathtub at two in the morning, saturated in dread.

Bed bugs aren’t dangerous, but eradicating them is an awful and laborious process. I had been in physical therapy for years for a bad back. My nearest family member was hundreds of miles away. I couldn’t imagine how to pack all my belongings away with my unstable bones. I cringed in anticipation of the pain that could come from rounds of laundering everything I owned, spraying things down with isopropyl, and moving furniture for exterminators.

The predicted injury and accompanying pain led to my first visit to Indonesia. I questioned if other people with physical disadvantages could get caught in similarly horrendous situations throughout the world, and secured a grant to research the topic in several countries. Come spring, I set off on a great multinational adventure in which I fervently chased answers and lines of longitude.

During that journey, I took a ferry from Singapore to spend a couple days in Bintan Island, Indonesia. Between the driftwood and palm fronds on an empty stretch of beach, I stopped to see an eroding message written in the sand: “LIFE ALWAYS FINDS A WAY”. I felt like some vanished scribe had written it there as part of my story, like the universe had left the words there just for me.

I bought a ticket to Bali during a turbulent period a couple years later. I wanted to head back to the country where clairvoyants roamed the islands and messages were hidden in the sand.

In the place where I expected to find order and inner peace, I was being gripped by memories of injured sleepless nights and unresolved past fears. I hauled my backpack to the safety of the front porch and dove into my phone, searching furiously for new accommodations, comfort from friends, and ways to clean old demons out of potentially contaminated belongings.

I sat on the ground for so long that the stones had imprinted their shapes on my legs, so I headed to the roof terrace to obsess over my problems in privacy. I looked out to see a brilliant sunset, a scattering of stringy blue clouds hanging on a backdrop of potent pinks and oranges. Beyond the edge of the peninsula, the ocean was mirroring the colorful banners of the sunset, making it seem almost endless.

I wasn’t sure how many sunsets I’d missed while my phobias were running amok, but I didn’t want to miss that one. In the last journey I hadn’t learned to compartmentalize my thoughts, to stop a bout of fear from tainting all of the glory around me. I turned the phone on its face to gaze at the sunset, to listen to the ensemble of cicadas and monkeys and the chattering and clinking of bottles from guests downstairs.

Travel has power to put you out in the caprices of the unknown and onto the stoops of old haunts. But sometimes, it also offers you a chance at redemption.

I was myself again, watching silently as the ocean was swallowed by the night. I was free from those harrowing and pervasive fears, unshackled from the tunnel vision of anxiety.

I found no more messages in the sand, no phantoms to leave signs that I had gotten things right. I was left with open road, a painted sky, and gorgeous wildlife; all that I sought and all that I needed.

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Feeling Insignificant on Serene Mt. Rainier, USA

The feel of snow in August is a unique experience reserved for those in either extreme latitudes or significant altitudes. Mt. Rainier certainly qualifies for the latter category. I had taken a break on the side of the Mountain to prep for my final push towards Camp Muir, a staging area which sits about 4,000’ short of the summit of Mt. Rainier at 14,411’. Although I needed to catch my breath for the climb ahead, this task seemed figuratively impossible given the breathtaking vista surrounding me. To the south lay the smoke-obscured teeth of the Tatoosh range, and beyond them the still-visible volcanic peaks of St. Helens and Adams. Looking to the West, I saw the Cowlitz Glacier dissipating to thin waterfalls that collected in the valley below. But it was the northern view that was the most commanding, as this sight contained the camp, the summit and a blinding stretch of steep snow that constituted the rest of my hike.

Moments like this take me back to a line I overheard in Seattle just a few days before my hike: “The great thing about nature is how it makes us feel small”. I disagreed with the speaker, at least in part. If the feeling of smallness was truly all we sought in nature, there really would be no reason to travel there. Smallness is so much easier to find in a cubical from 9-to-5, a fact I am well acquainted with. Three months prior to this evening and this hike, I was living a comfortable life in Boston with a good paying job. Stability, activity, and the prospect of upwards mobility were all luxuries I enjoyed, but it was still a small existence, a fact intensified by my oppressive anxiety and frequent panic attacks.

Conventional wisdom would have recommended, at times like this, that the weary worker take a vacation and “get your head in order”. I took the wisdom, but neglected the conventionality, boarding an Amtrak train in Boston and seeing where I could go over the next few months. This eventually brought me to the Space Needle in Seattle, where I got my first good view of Mt. Rainer. The thing was big, not just in raw mass, but with understated gravity. It gripped my attention and demanded personification, quietly scoffing at the Needle I was standing on. I left the elevator with a single conviction in mind, one that brought me to my break point on the side of Mt. Rainer, just a few hundred feet below the camp.

If ever I had sound reason for suffering a panic attack, this would be that time. I was by myself on one of the deadliest hiking trails in the country, where the afternoon sun was opening crevasses below my feet and cutting my friction-less progress to a negligible sum. What if my exertion led to a heart attack, where would they take me? Or if a storm rolls in and I lose my sense of direction? These thoughts and more could have easily crossed my mind, but none did. Instead, my focus lay in just placing one foot in front of the other until I arrived on the stone-carved steps of Camp Muir. And then I saw how small I really was. But this feeling of smallness was different than the one I knew three months prior. This experience was expansive, elevated, the kind that makes you breathe easier with a younger smile on your face. I was, in that moment, entwined within something bigger than myself without being absolved into it.

Suffice it to say, I never did return from my vacation, at least not to the job I had before. There was many more moments that lead to that decision, but the encounter with Rainier demonstrated something that I once had, had lost, and must work to awaken again. The path from here remains uncertain, but it is now a path that does at least go on..

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From Vietnamese Mangroves and a Loving Mom

The runway was not much more than a lightly paved strip of soil which popped out of the rice paddies and mangroves like a long, rectangular oasis. As I exited the 1950’s prop, much like the one that Indiana Jones rides in Raiders of the Lost Ark, I felt stifled instead of being freed from the tight quarters that I’d just ridden in. The density and weight of the atmosphere made it hard to inhale deeply– and it was more than just heat and humidity of the southernmost part of Vietnam – Ca Mau, a peninsular province with the Gulf of Thailand to the West and the Pacific Ocean to the South and East. I was stepping foot on the same soil where my son was born, breathing the same sticky, tropical air that he did. The son I had not yet met, and the son that I would not be bringing home to Indiana after the eight days that I’d be there.

As excited as I was to meet my baby — the one that I dreamed of and had dreams for — I needed to guard my emotions. Upon seeing my first photo of him, my heart skipped a beat when I gazed into those deep brown eyes and saw the shock of black hair standing up on his head. I knew that without a doubt that he was my son. It was my moment of a doctor handing my child to me to put on my chest and feeling a love like no other.

Much like the southern Vietnamese mangroves’ intertwined roots, strong and complicated, his homecoming was constricted by the fact that he was stuck — stuck in an orphanage due to political posturing by both the U.S. and Vietnamese governments not willing to move an inch to finalize his adoption, despite him living in squalid and unsafe orphanage conditions.

I flew half-way around the world and was there with two other moms in the same situation to help care for our children and the others in the orphanage. It was the one small thing we could actually do to help our kids, while we lobbied Congressional leaders and the State Department on the homefront.

Within minutes sweat was streaming down my face and soaking my clothes – a combination of the oppressive heat and my anxiety. My friends and I headed out to the orphanage in a taxi. There were few cars on the road, mostly bicycles and motor bikes. We raced along the tropical landscape – passing roadside markets where vendors sold pineapples, roosters in woven basket cages, plastic kitchenware and even python meat. Our taxi driver honked incessantly as he passed cars, though few, and played a game of chicken with oncoming traffic. A movie of mangroves and long boats with weathered fishermen, and the occasional water buffalo grazing in a yard ran through the car windows. Children with bare feet and dirty faces dotted the fast-moving landscape – all of it beautiful, colorful and full of life.

Finally, we turned down a one-lane dirt road lined by shallow canals, lush mango and tamarind trees, and tin roof-shacks with hammocks as beds. My stomach dropped to my knees when I saw the orphanage building.

My 22-month old son was literally imprisoned in his tiny room — it had bars on the windows, a former internment camp from the Vietnam War.

I had many conversations with him before I got to Vietnam (all in my head), promising him that I would do whatever it took to get him home to Indiana. I’d say “good night” to him when I woke up in the morning and whisper “good morning” before I fell asleep at night, living with my heart twelve hours ahead. And that week, I told him in person — kissing his smooth, tan cheeks, my tears wetting his sweet face as I held him close. And, then having to leave him.

Twenty-six months later, in the most unusual of places, we found refuge surrounded by luggage carts, drug-sniffing Beagles and a melody of different languages at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. His two tiny feet touched U.S. soil, and I felt palpable relief from my shoulders, fighting back yet another set of tears as my husband squeezed my hand and hugged us both.

Sitting at our departure gate for the last leg of our journey home, he sat in my lap and munched on a banana and French fries.

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My Unlikely Friends in Mountainous Ecuador

It’s hot. How can it be this hot? Since arriving in Salasaka, this indigenous village in the Ecuadorian Andes, I have had a constantly sun-burned, peeling nose. Having an 8-year-old child on my back doesn’t help.

I struggle along, Fernanda on my back and her 5-year-old sister Ñusta leading the way. Ñusta is a great helper, waddling along with her sick sister’s backpack, which is almost as large as her. We walk down the wide, dusty roads lined with agave; sheep bleat and donkeys bray, everyone lazily complaining about the sweltering heat. I can see endlessly across the green, quilt-patterned hills, and everything looks exactly the same. We could be anywhere in all of Salasaka, and I would have no idea. All I can do is trust the girls to know where they live. At the school where I am teaching, when a child gets sick like Fernanda has, we can’t just call home, mom rushing over in her minivan to pick the child up, sign her out for the day. Almost no households in this village have a phone, and neither does the school. The only way to get them home is to do this, to carry them for miles until you reach the shanty and farm that is their home.

As a recently trained child therapist back in the U.S., I feel sick with guilt because it’s breaking every rule in the book that I’m doing this. Carrying a child on my back for miles? Taking them home when their parents haven’t given me signed permission? But I’m not their therapist, I remind myself, or try to. Because Fernanda is sick, and needs to get home, and this moment is more important than all the things I learned in graduate school.

“Podemos descansar?”, I ask the girls. Can we rest? I gently set Fernanda down, and the 3 of us sit together in the shade of a stack of cement blocks. Fernanda immediately lies down and puts her head in my lap. My “clinical instinct” is to gently remove her from her physical contact with me. Physical affection is always a liability. Keep your “boundaries”, they tell you. To the 7-year-old client who innocently tells me, I love you, I am trained to respond, I see that you really care about me, and I care about you too. Not “I love you too”, never that. A separation between you and the child. Care about her, of course, but from a distance.

I quit my job as a therapist because I was so terrified of how much I cared about my kids. I must not be doing something right, I felt. I must not be cut out for this. It broke my heart. A career down the drain because I just loved those kids too much. But here I was, in the mountains of South America to where I escaped, doing the same thing. Loving too much, again.

But I can’t help it. I love Fernanda. My heart is filled with her. She is only 8 years old and already the smartest student in school. She pulls my hand before recess ends every morning, lamenting, “Vamos a clase!” She watches over my shoulder with anxiety that is palpable as I grade her multiplication drills, as if she has ever received anything less than a 100%. There is a moodiness about her, a subtle neediness, and she sometimes sits apart from the group as Renato, the music teacher, leads them in warbling South American pop songs.

A woman passes where we sit catching our breath, wearing her chumbi and green shawl, half a dozen protesting sheep leading the way. She looks at me, and her confusion is reflected in her glare. What is this gringa doing out here with two of our precious children? The girls chat pleasantly with her in Kichwa, the sing-song indigenous language that I haven’t learned yet, and finally, she smiles, understanding. And somehow, with that smile, she is granting me the permission to love this child freely, to really love her, to love her and all of her sisters and friends without clinical boundaries, without restriction. Love her simply, freely, not as a professional but as a fellow human being, as an adult in the community who shares the responsibility of raising and caring for her. And maybe that’s not such a terrible thing.

I put my hand on Fernanda’s forehead. She doesn’t feel hot, and I don’t know if she was really sick at all or if she just wanted this time with me. “Listas?”, I ask the girls, and Ñusta puts on two backpacks, her own in the back and Fernanda’s in the front. I stoop to let Fernanda on my back, and we keep on walking.

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New Experiences with Monkeys in India

I was sitting cross-legged on a four-inch mattress that doubled as my bed. Sweat engulfed all of my pores as a simple fan hummed above. I glanced up from my book. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a medium-sized monkey open my screen door with ease. I blinked. I observed a second monkey trailing behind and then another.

My jaw dropped. I sat speechless. Three wild monkeys were just a couple of yards away.

Without hesitation, they walked toward a small round table next to my bright red refrigerator. All three admired my possessions. The taller one glanced back in my direction as if to say, “ha, ha”. With one hand, he grabbed one of my Tupperware containers. Within seconds, the monkeys vanished, leaving my door open in their wake.

I sat bewildered. Should I laugh or should I cry?

Just weeks earlier, I had started teaching at an international K-12 boarding school in Bangalore, India. As an American middle-aged educator, I jumped at the opportunity to work and travel abroad. Most of my friends and family members thought that I was experiencing a midlife crisis. Why would I leave my cushy suburban life to work in a developing country?

For years, a series of orthopedic issues had prevented me from using my K-6 teaching license. To remain an educator, I became an adjunct instructor at a local community college. I loved teaching, but something was missing.

When I was offered the primary international teaching position, one of my dreams was finally fulfilled. Once again, I would have the opportunity to work with children and use my teaching credentials. But would I be able to step outside my comfort zone and face my natural fears of living in another country?

After all, I was a middle-age woman who hadn’t traveled alone in decades. I wasn’t traveling to unfamiliar neighborhoods within driving distance of my home. I was flying half way around the world to travel solo in a foreign country. If I had any chance of being successful, I had to regain my independent spirit. I had to look forward and not scurry back to what felt safe. I relied on my inner voice that wouldn’t stop whispering, “You can do it.”

I wasn’t looking to the popular Nike slogan, “Just Do It.” I was recalling another image. Decades ago, I read the classic book, The Little Engine That Could, to my sons. How fitting that in midlife, I would look to a children’s book to instill confidence. Just like the small train in this inspiring story, I had to use daily reminders to keep me on track.

After the three thieves left my guest room, the uncertainty returned. Could I simply laugh off the absurdity of wild monkeys stealing my food or would I succumb to the temptation to long for a more predictable life? This wasn’t the first time that the monkeys had trespassed. Like ants that gravitate toward food crumbs, these larger pests could be found everywhere humans congregated. The school campus was inundated. Groups of monkeys frequented classrooms, stairwells, the playground, the open fields, the lunchroom, and the pathways between buildings.

Fanciful irrational emotions flooded my well being like a tsunami. My mind planned ways to escape in the middle of the night without a trace. While I rationally knew that I had to cope with my new life in India, it was much easier to create plans for fleeing.

I had no choice but to face my challenges head on. The monkey situation was just one example of a multitude of events. Each day was filled with unfamiliar and strange happenings.

For comfort, I listened to my favorite songs from my youth and thought about others who had successfully dealt with obstacles. I recalled times when I had to overcome challenging situations. I posted one of Eleanor Roosevelt’s quotes above my desk:

The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.

I was working as an international teacher and I wasn’t going to let any of my fears erode my confidence or destroy my dreams. My inner voice became my daily mantra. Instead of hearing a small voice inside, I mouthed the words, “I can do it.”

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Christchurch, New Zealand will always be in my heart

It’s not the miles from Home what made Me Change. It was the Emotions and Experiences New to Me. At the End I did traveled far enough, but just enough to find myself.

And I had to travel miles, distance myself for my closest things, and experience many different emotions to discover about myself, to embrace myself.
I had to keep the distance from what I knew or thought it was safe to be born again.
I had to come to the other side of the world to understand and discover myself.
I didn’t travel places. I traveled emotions inside of me.
I didn’t distance myself from Home. I created a new Home.
My heart became new; my eyes saw the bright light again.
My soul was lifted.
I was born again here.
I FELT ALIVE AND FREE AGAIN!
See, I didn’t travel just for the sake of traveling. I was naïve.
I didn’t know that away from Home you can actually find yourself.
See… I LEARNED THAT TODAY…
I had to get away to truly find myself AND FREEDOM….AGAIN!

This is my poetic way to explain all my feelings since I have moved to Christchurch, New Zealand. I wish I had more eloquent words to describe all the wonders that this country offers. It’s not only a beautiful country for its gorgeous landscapes, but it is also a country filled with great and humble people.
I moved from Miami to Christchurch, New Zealand in February of 2012 with my husband as an expatriate wife. I came with the “Miami” ideas if you can call it that, you know the big city girl ideas. And I was changed.
In Christchurch I learned to relax, to reconnect with myself. To learn about the kiwi culture, to understand that they enjoy being around nature. And that if ask them about the world, they are probably well traveled folks, but they will always return to their home country.
I learned to smile back when they smile at me walking on the street because the kiwis are very polite, and you should smile back! I learned that is ok to recycle your cartoon eggs because is just nice to return to the veggie store with a full bag of cartoon eggs to give back to them and see their smile. And to show them that you care for the environment and that you care for their store.
I learned that even being miles away from home, I can still enjoy Latin music because kiwis have a taste for dancing salsa. I learned that if you suffer a loss, like I did, a big loss, a miscarriage, the kiwis will be there for you. They will prepare your meals, they will clean your house, they will give you a word of comfort and they will be calling you back just to make sure you are doing ok.
These four years spent in New Zealand made me open my eyes to new cultures, to trying new things in life. I even tried to ski for god sake! I, the Cuban / Miami only beach please kind of girl. These four years have been amazing, and I will totally recommend visiting New Zealand.
Thank you Christchurch for all this time with Me, you made ME a new person, you gave Me back my FREEDOM WINGS!

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CANADA: Finding Yourself and Finding Your World

Where I find freedom….

I am often asked this questions being a mother to four young children, a wife, an entrepreneur, and an aspiring author. How do I find the time for me?

The first step for me was realizing that I needed time and freedom for myself and I had to make it happen. Prior to going on my personal development journey to healing and find my self-love. I was going through my life trying to do what would satisfy others and make them proud. Not too long after I graduated from high school I went to college to become a Natural Health Practitioner. I had a lot of criticism from my loved ones as this was not a field they understood or could relate to, in their eyes was not credible. Even before receiving my diploma, I had decided that I would become an electrician. Instead of pursuing my dream, I went into something that I knew would be accepted by everyone around me. Just a couple months after receiving my diploma I started my electrical apprenticeship. I received praise from all my loved ones and even complete strangers, which persuaded me to keep going.

I had to hit rock-bottom before realizing that I needed to honour myself and find that freedom for me. When I was pregnant with my fourth child, I realized that I was miserable, felt lost, misplaced and disconnected within your own skin. Living in a world full of judgement, feeling as though I needed to portray a perfect life, and putting unrealistic expectations upon myself, resulted in a lot of disappointment and feelings of failure. Being occupied by another’s needs each and every day without honouring myself, lead to exhaustion and deep disconnection within myself.

In society we have been essentially programmed to put on a facade to express how “ideal” our life should be and how we should be in the eyes of our generally population. There is an accepted way to be, look, act, the house, vehicle and life you should strive for, the items or things you should have. When really all these things should be customized to each individual, who you are, your soul purpose, personality and what you would like to accomplish in your life. Not everyone is the same. From one person to another, you will do things differently, have different beliefs, have different circumstances, priorities and have different ways of doing things.

When I started my self-healing journey, the biggest change happened for me when I allowed myself to have two hours for just me every morning before the rest of my family woke up. This time allowed me to fully connect, dig into my self-healing books and programs and better myself. Because I had chosen the morning for this time, it set up my day to succeed as I had already put time into myself, feeding my heart and soul, and allowing me to be the best me for the day. This also made decision making clearer for me. I knew I was on the right track because I was motivated to continue, it felt good and freeing.

With this self-acknowledgement, my self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-love grew naturally. The more ways I honoured yourself, the happier I became, the lighter I felt and life began to flow with ease. Once I became connected with what made me happy, the faster my perspective changed. I was more accepting of others and all forms of judgment then disappears; self-judgement, judgement of others and other’s judgements on me. When I was able to release all of my self-judgements, I felt more confident within yourself and no longer needed anyone else’s opinions. When I got to the point, where I became absolutely comfortable within me and no longer felt the need to rely on other’s opinions, I instead use their suggestions as I saw suitable.

By honouring myself with “me time” everyday, I find my freedom, live my passion, and am present with my life.

My vision is:
“For all moms to think of themselves as no less than extraordinary!”

Much love, appreciation & gratitude,
Tracy Munson
Natural Health Strategist & Coach, NHP, CDC

 

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My New Year’s Rebirth in Guatemala

Driving along the quiet morning streets of a city I would come to know and love, I bawled into the musky atmosphere of the cab. I had just flown to Los Angeles for about a week, to visit a man who would become a bigger part of my life than I could ever imagine. But as the sun began to rise and the infamous LAX came into view, I felt less than elated to be hopping on a flight to Guatemala City.

It was the day before New Year’s Eve, and the looming new year on the horizon stood a mysterious silhouette in a grey backdrop. At first the plan seemed simple, go to Central America, have a work holiday, more or less. It seemed fitting, but sometimes what you think you are ‘meant’ to do doesn’t match up with what the world has planned for you. The firm seats of the plane reminded me that I was about to spend the next few weeks in unfamiliar places, and likely sitting in similarly firm bus seats, which was almost comforting, as although I had come to realize I had no idea why I was going to Guatemala, maybe it was a childhood fascination finally coming to life, that I indeed took refuge in the unfamiliar.

When you do not know a city, when you do not know a face or a name, reality seems more malleable, free from the conditions and generalizations we bind ourselves with. But it wasn’t until after I left Central America for the second time that I would conclude that sometimes you can’t simply put yourself out of the norm, you have to be completely destroyed, and born again anew.

Arriving in the beautiful colonial city of Antigua, Guatemala, I felt instantly lonely. A rare sensation, and a wave of isolation and being far from the world I knew washed over, even as I walked the stone streets, full of character and stories. New Year’s Eve was spent with a gaggle of Australians whom I’d met that day at my hostel. Predictable, but at least I knew that all over the world, people were celebrating the same thing, a shift in time, a new year, a new era. The night proceeded in a sickly classic way, the parties were many and the drinks too strong. Upon losing my group of newly acquainted travel buddies I quickly realized I was now well and truly alone, wandering the ghostly streets of a potentially dangerous city.

Fear introduced itself promptly and again I found myself caught in a whirling dizziness of confusion. Where is my hostel? Why am I suddenly by myself? Questions of my own sanity brought me to eventual surrender when a car pulled up. It was a police officer. Now this had to be one of the strangest experiences of my life, and still now it holds a mind boggling surreal quality. The officer asked me what was wrong, to which I could barely answer between sobs. To my own surprise, as I generally consider myself verging on the edge of paranoia, I agreed to be driven home after he kindly took me to get food and a coffee.

Crying to a strange police officer over cake, in a foreign country, about nothing in particular, is probably one of the most embarrassing and messed up accounts I could ever recall, but as I began to settle down and he listened to me, offering even more surprising words of wisdom, I began to notice that on this New Year’s Day, I had been reborn. It sounds silly, but it literally felt like a piece of me had left, abruptly resigned, in the face of such fear, discomfort and the internal pain that I had been feeling. Sometimes we can only see freedom when we are forced to face ourselves solely, with no walls, no security blankets, no friends, no money, nothing we have been so trained to value, alone.

The aura of confusion still lingered but was not pressing, there was a certain lightness now. I continued to enjoy my next 4 weeks in Guatemala, and 2 weeks in Mexico, the best I possibly could, allowing what was meant to be to be. I met amazing people. I swam. I (hestitantly) rode horses on cliffs. I hiked to the tops of mountains at sunrise and sunset. I danced and ate and listened to music. I got sick. Really sick. I lost my phone. My computer died. I got sick again. I tried not to blame myself for being sick. I visited amazing places. I made a best friend.

And I watched. I observed. And still now, when I recall the entirety of my journeys from Guatemala City to Mexico and finally back to Los Angeles, when I rejoiced in being back in North America despite my mind-blowing travels, I watch it all as a movie I have seen a thousand times, and know that in some way, I had to be completely destroyed to find my freedom, to let go of all that I perceived to be true in order to make room for the new and spectacular things that were about to enter my life. I had nothing to lose. Freedom had been chasing me down, like a ghost longing to make itself known, so that I could finally stare it straight in the face.

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I Choose My Freedom in Australia…For Now

We laid on our sides on what I once called our bed. Nose touching tip of nose, eyes locked into eyes. I traced the outside of his face with my free hand, imagining that I could feel the difference between the brown, gold and crimson strands of his beard underneath my fingertips. The scent of him filled me like smoke. I breathed in earth, clean laundry and a hint of weed. In this bed, there was nothing else. Only the physical tug of my heart to his, our breath slowed down to one. If I made this moment my entire world, I was happy.

“Come home,” he said, breaking the comfortable silence. “You can still travel. Just come home to me.”

I was leaving him for now the third time. The freedom that comes with traveling– the thrill of uncertainty, the choices that follow ambiguity– had once again found prominence in my heart over anything that would just make me one half of a whole. This time, I’d be gone for more than a four month backpacking stint around Europe or South America. I was going to Australia for at least a year, and I intended to finally make this breakup stick.

However, my mind struggled to find the flaw in his plan, drunk as I was on the happiness that I associated with his presence. It sounded nice. I could have both.

He assured me certainty, security, love, a future–the sweetest of chains. So I imagined living out my life with him, continuing the dream state of that bed. The only thing that he truly stimulated in me was a sexual desire. The rest would continue to be a mindless routine, devoid of intelligent conversation. He would watch football. I would cook him lasagna. He’d tell me he thought it was cute that I liked to read. I’d try in vain to discuss Orwell with him. He would work at the bar. I would find some middleman job. He’d buy a house in a small Massachusetts town. We’d take turns digging our cars out of the New England snow, and he’d get angry when he caught me lusting after Google images of exotic places. We’d smoke weed everyday to further along the numbing effect. He’d get me pregnant one day, like he always wanted. He’d teach our child to throw a ball, and I’d try to instill enough independence and individuality in her so that she could live the life I always wanted–a life of adventure and freedom.

To stay with him would have been to make the choice to throw a huge spoiler alert over my entire life, to watch the Red Wedding scene of Game of Thrones just as I got invested in the first season. Our relationship presented only walls and no frontiers.

I didn’t know who I was when I wasn’t his. All I knew was that it bothered me, a literal constant pain in my side each time I realised that I was becoming part of an indifferent and incurious population that gets stuck in relationships that are finite, lethargic and easy. I realized that I lived for my connection to him, changing myself to fit his mold. I neglected everything else that I ever wanted, pursuing those finite moments of happiness wholeheartedly so that I could mollify my anxiety in the face of my natural state, the state of freedom. I wasn’t committed to my authenticity; I hid from it.

My urge to strike out on my own was a gut reaction, a survival instinct. I needed to ease the stomach-clenching dread that accompanied the notion of remaining in one place for long, and for someone else. I needed the ignition that comes with waking up in a strange city or country, stimulating myself by way of exploration, acquainting myself with a new place through its food, having informed and varied discussions in broken English over a hostel dining room table. My freedom comes with the weight of a backpack on my shoulders, a one-way ticket and a culture shock. I am the only one in this world who can give me what I crave; to travel. To live a life as a traveller means living a life of contrast and spontaneity, ambiguity and choices.

I did not say that travel made me “happy,” although it often does. Happiness is not the attainable lifetime goal. Happiness is finite. What I sought was freedom, an infinite state of being that far surpasses a vague and unattainable notion of absolute contentment.

So as I lay in that bed, contemplating the tear I had to force between us, I focused on my refusal to be defined by my environment and my sentiment, rather than by the choices I made when faced with uncertainty.

I’ve been living in Australia for almost 10 months now, and I am face to face with my independence everyday, my choice to try on life as a 24 year old Melburnian for the time being, absorbing the parts of it that add to my shifting identity. I do not know what the next steps are, for I cannot see them clearly or at all. And that’s okay. To have a full knowledge of what my years hold would be just as finite as a committed relationship with a small-minded man. The mystery that comes with knowing nothing is infinite. I am faced with an unlimited spectrum, and all I must do is choose and take responsibility for my choices, may they always be in line with my most authentic state. This is what makes me free.

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The Power of Unique Experiences in Indonesia

Kerthunk, kerthunk, kerthunk.

I felt as if someone had sunk a fistful of fear into my heart and let it pound it into the rest of my body. My stomach felt like it was trying to retreat behind my ribs, my eyes were wide. Reason told me I shouldn’t have been so phobic. But I was staring down my nemeses, and reason was quickly losing its place in my repertoire.

Actually, “nemeses” might be a strong word for something the size of a pin head. These were a couple of bugs so small that one could easily mistake them for a floating piece of white lint, especially in the flickering shadows of the Balinese evening. They were bed bug nymphs, and their presence meant I needed to leave before they could scurry their way into my belongings.

My mind flashed back to a bitter night far away from the hostel on the quaint Indonesian road. I was back in my apartment in Massachusetts, back to the shock of finding an infestation of biting little bugs that snuck through the folds of my sofa and cracks in the hardwood floors. I retreated to the bathtub at two in the morning, saturated in dread.

Bed bugs aren’t dangerous, but eradicating them is an awful and laborious process. I had been in physical therapy for years for a bad back. My nearest family member was hundreds of miles away. I couldn’t imagine how to pack all my belongings away with my unstable bones. I cringed in anticipation of the pain that could come from rounds of laundering everything I owned, spraying things down with isopropyl, and moving furniture for exterminators.

The predicted injury and accompanying pain led to my first visit to Indonesia. I questioned if other people with physical disadvantages could get caught in similarly horrendous situations throughout the world, and secured a grant to research the topic in several countries. Come spring, I set off on a great multinational adventure in which I fervently chased answers and lines of longitude.

During that journey, I took a ferry from Singapore to spend a couple days in Bintan Island, Indonesia. Between the driftwood and palm fronds on an empty stretch of beach, I stopped to see an eroding message written in the sand: “LIFE ALWAYS FINDS A WAY”. I felt like some vanished scribe had written it there as part of my story, like the universe had left the words there just for me.

I bought a ticket to Bali during a turbulent period a couple years later. I wanted to head back to the country where clairvoyants roamed the islands and messages were hidden in the sand.

In the place where I expected to find order and inner peace, I was being gripped by memories of injured sleepless nights and unresolved past fears. I hauled my backpack to the safety of the front porch and dove into my phone, searching furiously for new accommodations, comfort from friends, and ways to clean old demons out of potentially contaminated belongings.

I sat on the ground for so long that the stones had imprinted their shapes on my legs, so I headed to the roof terrace to obsess over my problems in privacy. I looked out to see a brilliant sunset, a scattering of stringy blue clouds hanging on a backdrop of potent pinks and oranges. Beyond the edge of the peninsula, the ocean was mirroring the colorful banners of the sunset, making it seem almost endless.

I wasn’t sure how many sunsets I’d missed while my phobias were running amok, but I didn’t want to miss that one. In the last journey I hadn’t learned to compartmentalize my thoughts, to stop a bout of fear from tainting all of the glory around me. I turned the phone on its face to gaze at the sunset, to listen to the ensemble of cicadas and monkeys and the chattering and clinking of bottles from guests downstairs.

Travel has power to put you out in the caprices of the unknown and onto the stoops of old haunts. But sometimes, it also offers you a chance at redemption.

I was myself again, watching silently as the ocean was swallowed by the night. I was free from those harrowing and pervasive fears, unshackled from the tunnel vision of anxiety.

I found no more messages in the sand, no phantoms to leave signs that I had gotten things right. I was left with open road, a painted sky, and gorgeous wildlife; all that I sought and all that I needed.

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Feeling Insignificant on Serene Mt. Rainier, USA

The feel of snow in August is a unique experience reserved for those in either extreme latitudes or significant altitudes. Mt. Rainier certainly qualifies for the latter category. I had taken a break on the side of the Mountain to prep for my final push towards Camp Muir, a staging area which sits about 4,000’ short of the summit of Mt. Rainier at 14,411’. Although I needed to catch my breath for the climb ahead, this task seemed figuratively impossible given the breathtaking vista surrounding me. To the south lay the smoke-obscured teeth of the Tatoosh range, and beyond them the still-visible volcanic peaks of St. Helens and Adams. Looking to the West, I saw the Cowlitz Glacier dissipating to thin waterfalls that collected in the valley below. But it was the northern view that was the most commanding, as this sight contained the camp, the summit and a blinding stretch of steep snow that constituted the rest of my hike.

Moments like this take me back to a line I overheard in Seattle just a few days before my hike: “The great thing about nature is how it makes us feel small”. I disagreed with the speaker, at least in part. If the feeling of smallness was truly all we sought in nature, there really would be no reason to travel there. Smallness is so much easier to find in a cubical from 9-to-5, a fact I am well acquainted with. Three months prior to this evening and this hike, I was living a comfortable life in Boston with a good paying job. Stability, activity, and the prospect of upwards mobility were all luxuries I enjoyed, but it was still a small existence, a fact intensified by my oppressive anxiety and frequent panic attacks.

Conventional wisdom would have recommended, at times like this, that the weary worker take a vacation and “get your head in order”. I took the wisdom, but neglected the conventionality, boarding an Amtrak train in Boston and seeing where I could go over the next few months. This eventually brought me to the Space Needle in Seattle, where I got my first good view of Mt. Rainer. The thing was big, not just in raw mass, but with understated gravity. It gripped my attention and demanded personification, quietly scoffing at the Needle I was standing on. I left the elevator with a single conviction in mind, one that brought me to my break point on the side of Mt. Rainer, just a few hundred feet below the camp.

If ever I had sound reason for suffering a panic attack, this would be that time. I was by myself on one of the deadliest hiking trails in the country, where the afternoon sun was opening crevasses below my feet and cutting my friction-less progress to a negligible sum. What if my exertion led to a heart attack, where would they take me? Or if a storm rolls in and I lose my sense of direction? These thoughts and more could have easily crossed my mind, but none did. Instead, my focus lay in just placing one foot in front of the other until I arrived on the stone-carved steps of Camp Muir. And then I saw how small I really was. But this feeling of smallness was different than the one I knew three months prior. This experience was expansive, elevated, the kind that makes you breathe easier with a younger smile on your face. I was, in that moment, entwined within something bigger than myself without being absolved into it.

Suffice it to say, I never did return from my vacation, at least not to the job I had before. There was many more moments that lead to that decision, but the encounter with Rainier demonstrated something that I once had, had lost, and must work to awaken again. The path from here remains uncertain, but it is now a path that does at least go on..

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From Vietnamese Mangroves and a Loving Mom

The runway was not much more than a lightly paved strip of soil which popped out of the rice paddies and mangroves like a long, rectangular oasis. As I exited the 1950’s prop, much like the one that Indiana Jones rides in Raiders of the Lost Ark, I felt stifled instead of being freed from the tight quarters that I’d just ridden in. The density and weight of the atmosphere made it hard to inhale deeply– and it was more than just heat and humidity of the southernmost part of Vietnam – Ca Mau, a peninsular province with the Gulf of Thailand to the West and the Pacific Ocean to the South and East. I was stepping foot on the same soil where my son was born, breathing the same sticky, tropical air that he did. The son I had not yet met, and the son that I would not be bringing home to Indiana after the eight days that I’d be there.

As excited as I was to meet my baby — the one that I dreamed of and had dreams for — I needed to guard my emotions. Upon seeing my first photo of him, my heart skipped a beat when I gazed into those deep brown eyes and saw the shock of black hair standing up on his head. I knew that without a doubt that he was my son. It was my moment of a doctor handing my child to me to put on my chest and feeling a love like no other.

Much like the southern Vietnamese mangroves’ intertwined roots, strong and complicated, his homecoming was constricted by the fact that he was stuck — stuck in an orphanage due to political posturing by both the U.S. and Vietnamese governments not willing to move an inch to finalize his adoption, despite him living in squalid and unsafe orphanage conditions.

I flew half-way around the world and was there with two other moms in the same situation to help care for our children and the others in the orphanage. It was the one small thing we could actually do to help our kids, while we lobbied Congressional leaders and the State Department on the homefront.

Within minutes sweat was streaming down my face and soaking my clothes – a combination of the oppressive heat and my anxiety. My friends and I headed out to the orphanage in a taxi. There were few cars on the road, mostly bicycles and motor bikes. We raced along the tropical landscape – passing roadside markets where vendors sold pineapples, roosters in woven basket cages, plastic kitchenware and even python meat. Our taxi driver honked incessantly as he passed cars, though few, and played a game of chicken with oncoming traffic. A movie of mangroves and long boats with weathered fishermen, and the occasional water buffalo grazing in a yard ran through the car windows. Children with bare feet and dirty faces dotted the fast-moving landscape – all of it beautiful, colorful and full of life.

Finally, we turned down a one-lane dirt road lined by shallow canals, lush mango and tamarind trees, and tin roof-shacks with hammocks as beds. My stomach dropped to my knees when I saw the orphanage building.

My 22-month old son was literally imprisoned in his tiny room — it had bars on the windows, a former internment camp from the Vietnam War.

I had many conversations with him before I got to Vietnam (all in my head), promising him that I would do whatever it took to get him home to Indiana. I’d say “good night” to him when I woke up in the morning and whisper “good morning” before I fell asleep at night, living with my heart twelve hours ahead. And that week, I told him in person — kissing his smooth, tan cheeks, my tears wetting his sweet face as I held him close. And, then having to leave him.

Twenty-six months later, in the most unusual of places, we found refuge surrounded by luggage carts, drug-sniffing Beagles and a melody of different languages at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. His two tiny feet touched U.S. soil, and I felt palpable relief from my shoulders, fighting back yet another set of tears as my husband squeezed my hand and hugged us both.

Sitting at our departure gate for the last leg of our journey home, he sat in my lap and munched on a banana and French fries.

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My Unlikely Friends in Mountainous Ecuador

It’s hot. How can it be this hot? Since arriving in Salasaka, this indigenous village in the Ecuadorian Andes, I have had a constantly sun-burned, peeling nose. Having an 8-year-old child on my back doesn’t help.

I struggle along, Fernanda on my back and her 5-year-old sister Ñusta leading the way. Ñusta is a great helper, waddling along with her sick sister’s backpack, which is almost as large as her. We walk down the wide, dusty roads lined with agave; sheep bleat and donkeys bray, everyone lazily complaining about the sweltering heat. I can see endlessly across the green, quilt-patterned hills, and everything looks exactly the same. We could be anywhere in all of Salasaka, and I would have no idea. All I can do is trust the girls to know where they live. At the school where I am teaching, when a child gets sick like Fernanda has, we can’t just call home, mom rushing over in her minivan to pick the child up, sign her out for the day. Almost no households in this village have a phone, and neither does the school. The only way to get them home is to do this, to carry them for miles until you reach the shanty and farm that is their home.

As a recently trained child therapist back in the U.S., I feel sick with guilt because it’s breaking every rule in the book that I’m doing this. Carrying a child on my back for miles? Taking them home when their parents haven’t given me signed permission? But I’m not their therapist, I remind myself, or try to. Because Fernanda is sick, and needs to get home, and this moment is more important than all the things I learned in graduate school.

“Podemos descansar?”, I ask the girls. Can we rest? I gently set Fernanda down, and the 3 of us sit together in the shade of a stack of cement blocks. Fernanda immediately lies down and puts her head in my lap. My “clinical instinct” is to gently remove her from her physical contact with me. Physical affection is always a liability. Keep your “boundaries”, they tell you. To the 7-year-old client who innocently tells me, I love you, I am trained to respond, I see that you really care about me, and I care about you too. Not “I love you too”, never that. A separation between you and the child. Care about her, of course, but from a distance.

I quit my job as a therapist because I was so terrified of how much I cared about my kids. I must not be doing something right, I felt. I must not be cut out for this. It broke my heart. A career down the drain because I just loved those kids too much. But here I was, in the mountains of South America to where I escaped, doing the same thing. Loving too much, again.

But I can’t help it. I love Fernanda. My heart is filled with her. She is only 8 years old and already the smartest student in school. She pulls my hand before recess ends every morning, lamenting, “Vamos a clase!” She watches over my shoulder with anxiety that is palpable as I grade her multiplication drills, as if she has ever received anything less than a 100%. There is a moodiness about her, a subtle neediness, and she sometimes sits apart from the group as Renato, the music teacher, leads them in warbling South American pop songs.

A woman passes where we sit catching our breath, wearing her chumbi and green shawl, half a dozen protesting sheep leading the way. She looks at me, and her confusion is reflected in her glare. What is this gringa doing out here with two of our precious children? The girls chat pleasantly with her in Kichwa, the sing-song indigenous language that I haven’t learned yet, and finally, she smiles, understanding. And somehow, with that smile, she is granting me the permission to love this child freely, to really love her, to love her and all of her sisters and friends without clinical boundaries, without restriction. Love her simply, freely, not as a professional but as a fellow human being, as an adult in the community who shares the responsibility of raising and caring for her. And maybe that’s not such a terrible thing.

I put my hand on Fernanda’s forehead. She doesn’t feel hot, and I don’t know if she was really sick at all or if she just wanted this time with me. “Listas?”, I ask the girls, and Ñusta puts on two backpacks, her own in the back and Fernanda’s in the front. I stoop to let Fernanda on my back, and we keep on walking.

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New Experiences with Monkeys in India

I was sitting cross-legged on a four-inch mattress that doubled as my bed. Sweat engulfed all of my pores as a simple fan hummed above. I glanced up from my book. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a medium-sized monkey open my screen door with ease. I blinked. I observed a second monkey trailing behind and then another.

My jaw dropped. I sat speechless. Three wild monkeys were just a couple of yards away.

Without hesitation, they walked toward a small round table next to my bright red refrigerator. All three admired my possessions. The taller one glanced back in my direction as if to say, “ha, ha”. With one hand, he grabbed one of my Tupperware containers. Within seconds, the monkeys vanished, leaving my door open in their wake.

I sat bewildered. Should I laugh or should I cry?

Just weeks earlier, I had started teaching at an international K-12 boarding school in Bangalore, India. As an American middle-aged educator, I jumped at the opportunity to work and travel abroad. Most of my friends and family members thought that I was experiencing a midlife crisis. Why would I leave my cushy suburban life to work in a developing country?

For years, a series of orthopedic issues had prevented me from using my K-6 teaching license. To remain an educator, I became an adjunct instructor at a local community college. I loved teaching, but something was missing.

When I was offered the primary international teaching position, one of my dreams was finally fulfilled. Once again, I would have the opportunity to work with children and use my teaching credentials. But would I be able to step outside my comfort zone and face my natural fears of living in another country?

After all, I was a middle-age woman who hadn’t traveled alone in decades. I wasn’t traveling to unfamiliar neighborhoods within driving distance of my home. I was flying half way around the world to travel solo in a foreign country. If I had any chance of being successful, I had to regain my independent spirit. I had to look forward and not scurry back to what felt safe. I relied on my inner voice that wouldn’t stop whispering, “You can do it.”

I wasn’t looking to the popular Nike slogan, “Just Do It.” I was recalling another image. Decades ago, I read the classic book, The Little Engine That Could, to my sons. How fitting that in midlife, I would look to a children’s book to instill confidence. Just like the small train in this inspiring story, I had to use daily reminders to keep me on track.

After the three thieves left my guest room, the uncertainty returned. Could I simply laugh off the absurdity of wild monkeys stealing my food or would I succumb to the temptation to long for a more predictable life? This wasn’t the first time that the monkeys had trespassed. Like ants that gravitate toward food crumbs, these larger pests could be found everywhere humans congregated. The school campus was inundated. Groups of monkeys frequented classrooms, stairwells, the playground, the open fields, the lunchroom, and the pathways between buildings.

Fanciful irrational emotions flooded my well being like a tsunami. My mind planned ways to escape in the middle of the night without a trace. While I rationally knew that I had to cope with my new life in India, it was much easier to create plans for fleeing.

I had no choice but to face my challenges head on. The monkey situation was just one example of a multitude of events. Each day was filled with unfamiliar and strange happenings.

For comfort, I listened to my favorite songs from my youth and thought about others who had successfully dealt with obstacles. I recalled times when I had to overcome challenging situations. I posted one of Eleanor Roosevelt’s quotes above my desk:

The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.

I was working as an international teacher and I wasn’t going to let any of my fears erode my confidence or destroy my dreams. My inner voice became my daily mantra. Instead of hearing a small voice inside, I mouthed the words, “I can do it.”

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Christchurch, New Zealand will always be in my heart

It’s not the miles from Home what made Me Change. It was the Emotions and Experiences New to Me. At the End I did traveled far enough, but just enough to find myself.

And I had to travel miles, distance myself for my closest things, and experience many different emotions to discover about myself, to embrace myself.
I had to keep the distance from what I knew or thought it was safe to be born again.
I had to come to the other side of the world to understand and discover myself.
I didn’t travel places. I traveled emotions inside of me.
I didn’t distance myself from Home. I created a new Home.
My heart became new; my eyes saw the bright light again.
My soul was lifted.
I was born again here.
I FELT ALIVE AND FREE AGAIN!
See, I didn’t travel just for the sake of traveling. I was naïve.
I didn’t know that away from Home you can actually find yourself.
See… I LEARNED THAT TODAY…
I had to get away to truly find myself AND FREEDOM….AGAIN!

This is my poetic way to explain all my feelings since I have moved to Christchurch, New Zealand. I wish I had more eloquent words to describe all the wonders that this country offers. It’s not only a beautiful country for its gorgeous landscapes, but it is also a country filled with great and humble people.
I moved from Miami to Christchurch, New Zealand in February of 2012 with my husband as an expatriate wife. I came with the “Miami” ideas if you can call it that, you know the big city girl ideas. And I was changed.
In Christchurch I learned to relax, to reconnect with myself. To learn about the kiwi culture, to understand that they enjoy being around nature. And that if ask them about the world, they are probably well traveled folks, but they will always return to their home country.
I learned to smile back when they smile at me walking on the street because the kiwis are very polite, and you should smile back! I learned that is ok to recycle your cartoon eggs because is just nice to return to the veggie store with a full bag of cartoon eggs to give back to them and see their smile. And to show them that you care for the environment and that you care for their store.
I learned that even being miles away from home, I can still enjoy Latin music because kiwis have a taste for dancing salsa. I learned that if you suffer a loss, like I did, a big loss, a miscarriage, the kiwis will be there for you. They will prepare your meals, they will clean your house, they will give you a word of comfort and they will be calling you back just to make sure you are doing ok.
These four years spent in New Zealand made me open my eyes to new cultures, to trying new things in life. I even tried to ski for god sake! I, the Cuban / Miami only beach please kind of girl. These four years have been amazing, and I will totally recommend visiting New Zealand.
Thank you Christchurch for all this time with Me, you made ME a new person, you gave Me back my FREEDOM WINGS!

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CANADA: Finding Yourself and Finding Your World

Where I find freedom….

I am often asked this questions being a mother to four young children, a wife, an entrepreneur, and an aspiring author. How do I find the time for me?

The first step for me was realizing that I needed time and freedom for myself and I had to make it happen. Prior to going on my personal development journey to healing and find my self-love. I was going through my life trying to do what would satisfy others and make them proud. Not too long after I graduated from high school I went to college to become a Natural Health Practitioner. I had a lot of criticism from my loved ones as this was not a field they understood or could relate to, in their eyes was not credible. Even before receiving my diploma, I had decided that I would become an electrician. Instead of pursuing my dream, I went into something that I knew would be accepted by everyone around me. Just a couple months after receiving my diploma I started my electrical apprenticeship. I received praise from all my loved ones and even complete strangers, which persuaded me to keep going.

I had to hit rock-bottom before realizing that I needed to honour myself and find that freedom for me. When I was pregnant with my fourth child, I realized that I was miserable, felt lost, misplaced and disconnected within your own skin. Living in a world full of judgement, feeling as though I needed to portray a perfect life, and putting unrealistic expectations upon myself, resulted in a lot of disappointment and feelings of failure. Being occupied by another’s needs each and every day without honouring myself, lead to exhaustion and deep disconnection within myself.

In society we have been essentially programmed to put on a facade to express how “ideal” our life should be and how we should be in the eyes of our generally population. There is an accepted way to be, look, act, the house, vehicle and life you should strive for, the items or things you should have. When really all these things should be customized to each individual, who you are, your soul purpose, personality and what you would like to accomplish in your life. Not everyone is the same. From one person to another, you will do things differently, have different beliefs, have different circumstances, priorities and have different ways of doing things.

When I started my self-healing journey, the biggest change happened for me when I allowed myself to have two hours for just me every morning before the rest of my family woke up. This time allowed me to fully connect, dig into my self-healing books and programs and better myself. Because I had chosen the morning for this time, it set up my day to succeed as I had already put time into myself, feeding my heart and soul, and allowing me to be the best me for the day. This also made decision making clearer for me. I knew I was on the right track because I was motivated to continue, it felt good and freeing.

With this self-acknowledgement, my self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-love grew naturally. The more ways I honoured yourself, the happier I became, the lighter I felt and life began to flow with ease. Once I became connected with what made me happy, the faster my perspective changed. I was more accepting of others and all forms of judgment then disappears; self-judgement, judgement of others and other’s judgements on me. When I was able to release all of my self-judgements, I felt more confident within yourself and no longer needed anyone else’s opinions. When I got to the point, where I became absolutely comfortable within me and no longer felt the need to rely on other’s opinions, I instead use their suggestions as I saw suitable.

By honouring myself with “me time” everyday, I find my freedom, live my passion, and am present with my life.

My vision is:
“For all moms to think of themselves as no less than extraordinary!”

Much love, appreciation & gratitude,
Tracy Munson
Natural Health Strategist & Coach, NHP, CDC

 

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My New Year’s Rebirth in Guatemala

Driving along the quiet morning streets of a city I would come to know and love, I bawled into the musky atmosphere of the cab. I had just flown to Los Angeles for about a week, to visit a man who would become a bigger part of my life than I could ever imagine. But as the sun began to rise and the infamous LAX came into view, I felt less than elated to be hopping on a flight to Guatemala City.

It was the day before New Year’s Eve, and the looming new year on the horizon stood a mysterious silhouette in a grey backdrop. At first the plan seemed simple, go to Central America, have a work holiday, more or less. It seemed fitting, but sometimes what you think you are ‘meant’ to do doesn’t match up with what the world has planned for you. The firm seats of the plane reminded me that I was about to spend the next few weeks in unfamiliar places, and likely sitting in similarly firm bus seats, which was almost comforting, as although I had come to realize I had no idea why I was going to Guatemala, maybe it was a childhood fascination finally coming to life, that I indeed took refuge in the unfamiliar.

When you do not know a city, when you do not know a face or a name, reality seems more malleable, free from the conditions and generalizations we bind ourselves with. But it wasn’t until after I left Central America for the second time that I would conclude that sometimes you can’t simply put yourself out of the norm, you have to be completely destroyed, and born again anew.

Arriving in the beautiful colonial city of Antigua, Guatemala, I felt instantly lonely. A rare sensation, and a wave of isolation and being far from the world I knew washed over, even as I walked the stone streets, full of character and stories. New Year’s Eve was spent with a gaggle of Australians whom I’d met that day at my hostel. Predictable, but at least I knew that all over the world, people were celebrating the same thing, a shift in time, a new year, a new era. The night proceeded in a sickly classic way, the parties were many and the drinks too strong. Upon losing my group of newly acquainted travel buddies I quickly realized I was now well and truly alone, wandering the ghostly streets of a potentially dangerous city.

Fear introduced itself promptly and again I found myself caught in a whirling dizziness of confusion. Where is my hostel? Why am I suddenly by myself? Questions of my own sanity brought me to eventual surrender when a car pulled up. It was a police officer. Now this had to be one of the strangest experiences of my life, and still now it holds a mind boggling surreal quality. The officer asked me what was wrong, to which I could barely answer between sobs. To my own surprise, as I generally consider myself verging on the edge of paranoia, I agreed to be driven home after he kindly took me to get food and a coffee.

Crying to a strange police officer over cake, in a foreign country, about nothing in particular, is probably one of the most embarrassing and messed up accounts I could ever recall, but as I began to settle down and he listened to me, offering even more surprising words of wisdom, I began to notice that on this New Year’s Day, I had been reborn. It sounds silly, but it literally felt like a piece of me had left, abruptly resigned, in the face of such fear, discomfort and the internal pain that I had been feeling. Sometimes we can only see freedom when we are forced to face ourselves solely, with no walls, no security blankets, no friends, no money, nothing we have been so trained to value, alone.

The aura of confusion still lingered but was not pressing, there was a certain lightness now. I continued to enjoy my next 4 weeks in Guatemala, and 2 weeks in Mexico, the best I possibly could, allowing what was meant to be to be. I met amazing people. I swam. I (hestitantly) rode horses on cliffs. I hiked to the tops of mountains at sunrise and sunset. I danced and ate and listened to music. I got sick. Really sick. I lost my phone. My computer died. I got sick again. I tried not to blame myself for being sick. I visited amazing places. I made a best friend.

And I watched. I observed. And still now, when I recall the entirety of my journeys from Guatemala City to Mexico and finally back to Los Angeles, when I rejoiced in being back in North America despite my mind-blowing travels, I watch it all as a movie I have seen a thousand times, and know that in some way, I had to be completely destroyed to find my freedom, to let go of all that I perceived to be true in order to make room for the new and spectacular things that were about to enter my life. I had nothing to lose. Freedom had been chasing me down, like a ghost longing to make itself known, so that I could finally stare it straight in the face.

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I Choose My Freedom in Australia…For Now

We laid on our sides on what I once called our bed. Nose touching tip of nose, eyes locked into eyes. I traced the outside of his face with my free hand, imagining that I could feel the difference between the brown, gold and crimson strands of his beard underneath my fingertips. The scent of him filled me like smoke. I breathed in earth, clean laundry and a hint of weed. In this bed, there was nothing else. Only the physical tug of my heart to his, our breath slowed down to one. If I made this moment my entire world, I was happy.

“Come home,” he said, breaking the comfortable silence. “You can still travel. Just come home to me.”

I was leaving him for now the third time. The freedom that comes with traveling– the thrill of uncertainty, the choices that follow ambiguity– had once again found prominence in my heart over anything that would just make me one half of a whole. This time, I’d be gone for more than a four month backpacking stint around Europe or South America. I was going to Australia for at least a year, and I intended to finally make this breakup stick.

However, my mind struggled to find the flaw in his plan, drunk as I was on the happiness that I associated with his presence. It sounded nice. I could have both.

He assured me certainty, security, love, a future–the sweetest of chains. So I imagined living out my life with him, continuing the dream state of that bed. The only thing that he truly stimulated in me was a sexual desire. The rest would continue to be a mindless routine, devoid of intelligent conversation. He would watch football. I would cook him lasagna. He’d tell me he thought it was cute that I liked to read. I’d try in vain to discuss Orwell with him. He would work at the bar. I would find some middleman job. He’d buy a house in a small Massachusetts town. We’d take turns digging our cars out of the New England snow, and he’d get angry when he caught me lusting after Google images of exotic places. We’d smoke weed everyday to further along the numbing effect. He’d get me pregnant one day, like he always wanted. He’d teach our child to throw a ball, and I’d try to instill enough independence and individuality in her so that she could live the life I always wanted–a life of adventure and freedom.

To stay with him would have been to make the choice to throw a huge spoiler alert over my entire life, to watch the Red Wedding scene of Game of Thrones just as I got invested in the first season. Our relationship presented only walls and no frontiers.

I didn’t know who I was when I wasn’t his. All I knew was that it bothered me, a literal constant pain in my side each time I realised that I was becoming part of an indifferent and incurious population that gets stuck in relationships that are finite, lethargic and easy. I realized that I lived for my connection to him, changing myself to fit his mold. I neglected everything else that I ever wanted, pursuing those finite moments of happiness wholeheartedly so that I could mollify my anxiety in the face of my natural state, the state of freedom. I wasn’t committed to my authenticity; I hid from it.

My urge to strike out on my own was a gut reaction, a survival instinct. I needed to ease the stomach-clenching dread that accompanied the notion of remaining in one place for long, and for someone else. I needed the ignition that comes with waking up in a strange city or country, stimulating myself by way of exploration, acquainting myself with a new place through its food, having informed and varied discussions in broken English over a hostel dining room table. My freedom comes with the weight of a backpack on my shoulders, a one-way ticket and a culture shock. I am the only one in this world who can give me what I crave; to travel. To live a life as a traveller means living a life of contrast and spontaneity, ambiguity and choices.

I did not say that travel made me “happy,” although it often does. Happiness is not the attainable lifetime goal. Happiness is finite. What I sought was freedom, an infinite state of being that far surpasses a vague and unattainable notion of absolute contentment.

So as I lay in that bed, contemplating the tear I had to force between us, I focused on my refusal to be defined by my environment and my sentiment, rather than by the choices I made when faced with uncertainty.

I’ve been living in Australia for almost 10 months now, and I am face to face with my independence everyday, my choice to try on life as a 24 year old Melburnian for the time being, absorbing the parts of it that add to my shifting identity. I do not know what the next steps are, for I cannot see them clearly or at all. And that’s okay. To have a full knowledge of what my years hold would be just as finite as a committed relationship with a small-minded man. The mystery that comes with knowing nothing is infinite. I am faced with an unlimited spectrum, and all I must do is choose and take responsibility for my choices, may they always be in line with my most authentic state. This is what makes me free.

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The Power of Unique Experiences in Indonesia

Kerthunk, kerthunk, kerthunk.

I felt as if someone had sunk a fistful of fear into my heart and let it pound it into the rest of my body. My stomach felt like it was trying to retreat behind my ribs, my eyes were wide. Reason told me I shouldn’t have been so phobic. But I was staring down my nemeses, and reason was quickly losing its place in my repertoire.

Actually, “nemeses” might be a strong word for something the size of a pin head. These were a couple of bugs so small that one could easily mistake them for a floating piece of white lint, especially in the flickering shadows of the Balinese evening. They were bed bug nymphs, and their presence meant I needed to leave before they could scurry their way into my belongings.

My mind flashed back to a bitter night far away from the hostel on the quaint Indonesian road. I was back in my apartment in Massachusetts, back to the shock of finding an infestation of biting little bugs that snuck through the folds of my sofa and cracks in the hardwood floors. I retreated to the bathtub at two in the morning, saturated in dread.

Bed bugs aren’t dangerous, but eradicating them is an awful and laborious process. I had been in physical therapy for years for a bad back. My nearest family member was hundreds of miles away. I couldn’t imagine how to pack all my belongings away with my unstable bones. I cringed in anticipation of the pain that could come from rounds of laundering everything I owned, spraying things down with isopropyl, and moving furniture for exterminators.

The predicted injury and accompanying pain led to my first visit to Indonesia. I questioned if other people with physical disadvantages could get caught in similarly horrendous situations throughout the world, and secured a grant to research the topic in several countries. Come spring, I set off on a great multinational adventure in which I fervently chased answers and lines of longitude.

During that journey, I took a ferry from Singapore to spend a couple days in Bintan Island, Indonesia. Between the driftwood and palm fronds on an empty stretch of beach, I stopped to see an eroding message written in the sand: “LIFE ALWAYS FINDS A WAY”. I felt like some vanished scribe had written it there as part of my story, like the universe had left the words there just for me.

I bought a ticket to Bali during a turbulent period a couple years later. I wanted to head back to the country where clairvoyants roamed the islands and messages were hidden in the sand.

In the place where I expected to find order and inner peace, I was being gripped by memories of injured sleepless nights and unresolved past fears. I hauled my backpack to the safety of the front porch and dove into my phone, searching furiously for new accommodations, comfort from friends, and ways to clean old demons out of potentially contaminated belongings.

I sat on the ground for so long that the stones had imprinted their shapes on my legs, so I headed to the roof terrace to obsess over my problems in privacy. I looked out to see a brilliant sunset, a scattering of stringy blue clouds hanging on a backdrop of potent pinks and oranges. Beyond the edge of the peninsula, the ocean was mirroring the colorful banners of the sunset, making it seem almost endless.

I wasn’t sure how many sunsets I’d missed while my phobias were running amok, but I didn’t want to miss that one. In the last journey I hadn’t learned to compartmentalize my thoughts, to stop a bout of fear from tainting all of the glory around me. I turned the phone on its face to gaze at the sunset, to listen to the ensemble of cicadas and monkeys and the chattering and clinking of bottles from guests downstairs.

Travel has power to put you out in the caprices of the unknown and onto the stoops of old haunts. But sometimes, it also offers you a chance at redemption.

I was myself again, watching silently as the ocean was swallowed by the night. I was free from those harrowing and pervasive fears, unshackled from the tunnel vision of anxiety.

I found no more messages in the sand, no phantoms to leave signs that I had gotten things right. I was left with open road, a painted sky, and gorgeous wildlife; all that I sought and all that I needed.

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Feeling Insignificant on Serene Mt. Rainier, USA

The feel of snow in August is a unique experience reserved for those in either extreme latitudes or significant altitudes. Mt. Rainier certainly qualifies for the latter category. I had taken a break on the side of the Mountain to prep for my final push towards Camp Muir, a staging area which sits about 4,000’ short of the summit of Mt. Rainier at 14,411’. Although I needed to catch my breath for the climb ahead, this task seemed figuratively impossible given the breathtaking vista surrounding me. To the south lay the smoke-obscured teeth of the Tatoosh range, and beyond them the still-visible volcanic peaks of St. Helens and Adams. Looking to the West, I saw the Cowlitz Glacier dissipating to thin waterfalls that collected in the valley below. But it was the northern view that was the most commanding, as this sight contained the camp, the summit and a blinding stretch of steep snow that constituted the rest of my hike.

Moments like this take me back to a line I overheard in Seattle just a few days before my hike: “The great thing about nature is how it makes us feel small”. I disagreed with the speaker, at least in part. If the feeling of smallness was truly all we sought in nature, there really would be no reason to travel there. Smallness is so much easier to find in a cubical from 9-to-5, a fact I am well acquainted with. Three months prior to this evening and this hike, I was living a comfortable life in Boston with a good paying job. Stability, activity, and the prospect of upwards mobility were all luxuries I enjoyed, but it was still a small existence, a fact intensified by my oppressive anxiety and frequent panic attacks.

Conventional wisdom would have recommended, at times like this, that the weary worker take a vacation and “get your head in order”. I took the wisdom, but neglected the conventionality, boarding an Amtrak train in Boston and seeing where I could go over the next few months. This eventually brought me to the Space Needle in Seattle, where I got my first good view of Mt. Rainer. The thing was big, not just in raw mass, but with understated gravity. It gripped my attention and demanded personification, quietly scoffing at the Needle I was standing on. I left the elevator with a single conviction in mind, one that brought me to my break point on the side of Mt. Rainer, just a few hundred feet below the camp.

If ever I had sound reason for suffering a panic attack, this would be that time. I was by myself on one of the deadliest hiking trails in the country, where the afternoon sun was opening crevasses below my feet and cutting my friction-less progress to a negligible sum. What if my exertion led to a heart attack, where would they take me? Or if a storm rolls in and I lose my sense of direction? These thoughts and more could have easily crossed my mind, but none did. Instead, my focus lay in just placing one foot in front of the other until I arrived on the stone-carved steps of Camp Muir. And then I saw how small I really was. But this feeling of smallness was different than the one I knew three months prior. This experience was expansive, elevated, the kind that makes you breathe easier with a younger smile on your face. I was, in that moment, entwined within something bigger than myself without being absolved into it.

Suffice it to say, I never did return from my vacation, at least not to the job I had before. There was many more moments that lead to that decision, but the encounter with Rainier demonstrated something that I once had, had lost, and must work to awaken again. The path from here remains uncertain, but it is now a path that does at least go on..

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From Vietnamese Mangroves and a Loving Mom

The runway was not much more than a lightly paved strip of soil which popped out of the rice paddies and mangroves like a long, rectangular oasis. As I exited the 1950’s prop, much like the one that Indiana Jones rides in Raiders of the Lost Ark, I felt stifled instead of being freed from the tight quarters that I’d just ridden in. The density and weight of the atmosphere made it hard to inhale deeply– and it was more than just heat and humidity of the southernmost part of Vietnam – Ca Mau, a peninsular province with the Gulf of Thailand to the West and the Pacific Ocean to the South and East. I was stepping foot on the same soil where my son was born, breathing the same sticky, tropical air that he did. The son I had not yet met, and the son that I would not be bringing home to Indiana after the eight days that I’d be there.

As excited as I was to meet my baby — the one that I dreamed of and had dreams for — I needed to guard my emotions. Upon seeing my first photo of him, my heart skipped a beat when I gazed into those deep brown eyes and saw the shock of black hair standing up on his head. I knew that without a doubt that he was my son. It was my moment of a doctor handing my child to me to put on my chest and feeling a love like no other.

Much like the southern Vietnamese mangroves’ intertwined roots, strong and complicated, his homecoming was constricted by the fact that he was stuck — stuck in an orphanage due to political posturing by both the U.S. and Vietnamese governments not willing to move an inch to finalize his adoption, despite him living in squalid and unsafe orphanage conditions.

I flew half-way around the world and was there with two other moms in the same situation to help care for our children and the others in the orphanage. It was the one small thing we could actually do to help our kids, while we lobbied Congressional leaders and the State Department on the homefront.

Within minutes sweat was streaming down my face and soaking my clothes – a combination of the oppressive heat and my anxiety. My friends and I headed out to the orphanage in a taxi. There were few cars on the road, mostly bicycles and motor bikes. We raced along the tropical landscape – passing roadside markets where vendors sold pineapples, roosters in woven basket cages, plastic kitchenware and even python meat. Our taxi driver honked incessantly as he passed cars, though few, and played a game of chicken with oncoming traffic. A movie of mangroves and long boats with weathered fishermen, and the occasional water buffalo grazing in a yard ran through the car windows. Children with bare feet and dirty faces dotted the fast-moving landscape – all of it beautiful, colorful and full of life.

Finally, we turned down a one-lane dirt road lined by shallow canals, lush mango and tamarind trees, and tin roof-shacks with hammocks as beds. My stomach dropped to my knees when I saw the orphanage building.

My 22-month old son was literally imprisoned in his tiny room — it had bars on the windows, a former internment camp from the Vietnam War.

I had many conversations with him before I got to Vietnam (all in my head), promising him that I would do whatever it took to get him home to Indiana. I’d say “good night” to him when I woke up in the morning and whisper “good morning” before I fell asleep at night, living with my heart twelve hours ahead. And that week, I told him in person — kissing his smooth, tan cheeks, my tears wetting his sweet face as I held him close. And, then having to leave him.

Twenty-six months later, in the most unusual of places, we found refuge surrounded by luggage carts, drug-sniffing Beagles and a melody of different languages at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. His two tiny feet touched U.S. soil, and I felt palpable relief from my shoulders, fighting back yet another set of tears as my husband squeezed my hand and hugged us both.

Sitting at our departure gate for the last leg of our journey home, he sat in my lap and munched on a banana and French fries.

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My Unlikely Friends in Mountainous Ecuador

It’s hot. How can it be this hot? Since arriving in Salasaka, this indigenous village in the Ecuadorian Andes, I have had a constantly sun-burned, peeling nose. Having an 8-year-old child on my back doesn’t help.

I struggle along, Fernanda on my back and her 5-year-old sister Ñusta leading the way. Ñusta is a great helper, waddling along with her sick sister’s backpack, which is almost as large as her. We walk down the wide, dusty roads lined with agave; sheep bleat and donkeys bray, everyone lazily complaining about the sweltering heat. I can see endlessly across the green, quilt-patterned hills, and everything looks exactly the same. We could be anywhere in all of Salasaka, and I would have no idea. All I can do is trust the girls to know where they live. At the school where I am teaching, when a child gets sick like Fernanda has, we can’t just call home, mom rushing over in her minivan to pick the child up, sign her out for the day. Almost no households in this village have a phone, and neither does the school. The only way to get them home is to do this, to carry them for miles until you reach the shanty and farm that is their home.

As a recently trained child therapist back in the U.S., I feel sick with guilt because it’s breaking every rule in the book that I’m doing this. Carrying a child on my back for miles? Taking them home when their parents haven’t given me signed permission? But I’m not their therapist, I remind myself, or try to. Because Fernanda is sick, and needs to get home, and this moment is more important than all the things I learned in graduate school.

“Podemos descansar?”, I ask the girls. Can we rest? I gently set Fernanda down, and the 3 of us sit together in the shade of a stack of cement blocks. Fernanda immediately lies down and puts her head in my lap. My “clinical instinct” is to gently remove her from her physical contact with me. Physical affection is always a liability. Keep your “boundaries”, they tell you. To the 7-year-old client who innocently tells me, I love you, I am trained to respond, I see that you really care about me, and I care about you too. Not “I love you too”, never that. A separation between you and the child. Care about her, of course, but from a distance.

I quit my job as a therapist because I was so terrified of how much I cared about my kids. I must not be doing something right, I felt. I must not be cut out for this. It broke my heart. A career down the drain because I just loved those kids too much. But here I was, in the mountains of South America to where I escaped, doing the same thing. Loving too much, again.

But I can’t help it. I love Fernanda. My heart is filled with her. She is only 8 years old and already the smartest student in school. She pulls my hand before recess ends every morning, lamenting, “Vamos a clase!” She watches over my shoulder with anxiety that is palpable as I grade her multiplication drills, as if she has ever received anything less than a 100%. There is a moodiness about her, a subtle neediness, and she sometimes sits apart from the group as Renato, the music teacher, leads them in warbling South American pop songs.

A woman passes where we sit catching our breath, wearing her chumbi and green shawl, half a dozen protesting sheep leading the way. She looks at me, and her confusion is reflected in her glare. What is this gringa doing out here with two of our precious children? The girls chat pleasantly with her in Kichwa, the sing-song indigenous language that I haven’t learned yet, and finally, she smiles, understanding. And somehow, with that smile, she is granting me the permission to love this child freely, to really love her, to love her and all of her sisters and friends without clinical boundaries, without restriction. Love her simply, freely, not as a professional but as a fellow human being, as an adult in the community who shares the responsibility of raising and caring for her. And maybe that’s not such a terrible thing.

I put my hand on Fernanda’s forehead. She doesn’t feel hot, and I don’t know if she was really sick at all or if she just wanted this time with me. “Listas?”, I ask the girls, and Ñusta puts on two backpacks, her own in the back and Fernanda’s in the front. I stoop to let Fernanda on my back, and we keep on walking.

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New Experiences with Monkeys in India

I was sitting cross-legged on a four-inch mattress that doubled as my bed. Sweat engulfed all of my pores as a simple fan hummed above. I glanced up from my book. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a medium-sized monkey open my screen door with ease. I blinked. I observed a second monkey trailing behind and then another.

My jaw dropped. I sat speechless. Three wild monkeys were just a couple of yards away.

Without hesitation, they walked toward a small round table next to my bright red refrigerator. All three admired my possessions. The taller one glanced back in my direction as if to say, “ha, ha”. With one hand, he grabbed one of my Tupperware containers. Within seconds, the monkeys vanished, leaving my door open in their wake.

I sat bewildered. Should I laugh or should I cry?

Just weeks earlier, I had started teaching at an international K-12 boarding school in Bangalore, India. As an American middle-aged educator, I jumped at the opportunity to work and travel abroad. Most of my friends and family members thought that I was experiencing a midlife crisis. Why would I leave my cushy suburban life to work in a developing country?

For years, a series of orthopedic issues had prevented me from using my K-6 teaching license. To remain an educator, I became an adjunct instructor at a local community college. I loved teaching, but something was missing.

When I was offered the primary international teaching position, one of my dreams was finally fulfilled. Once again, I would have the opportunity to work with children and use my teaching credentials. But would I be able to step outside my comfort zone and face my natural fears of living in another country?

After all, I was a middle-age woman who hadn’t traveled alone in decades. I wasn’t traveling to unfamiliar neighborhoods within driving distance of my home. I was flying half way around the world to travel solo in a foreign country. If I had any chance of being successful, I had to regain my independent spirit. I had to look forward and not scurry back to what felt safe. I relied on my inner voice that wouldn’t stop whispering, “You can do it.”

I wasn’t looking to the popular Nike slogan, “Just Do It.” I was recalling another image. Decades ago, I read the classic book, The Little Engine That Could, to my sons. How fitting that in midlife, I would look to a children’s book to instill confidence. Just like the small train in this inspiring story, I had to use daily reminders to keep me on track.

After the three thieves left my guest room, the uncertainty returned. Could I simply laugh off the absurdity of wild monkeys stealing my food or would I succumb to the temptation to long for a more predictable life? This wasn’t the first time that the monkeys had trespassed. Like ants that gravitate toward food crumbs, these larger pests could be found everywhere humans congregated. The school campus was inundated. Groups of monkeys frequented classrooms, stairwells, the playground, the open fields, the lunchroom, and the pathways between buildings.

Fanciful irrational emotions flooded my well being like a tsunami. My mind planned ways to escape in the middle of the night without a trace. While I rationally knew that I had to cope with my new life in India, it was much easier to create plans for fleeing.

I had no choice but to face my challenges head on. The monkey situation was just one example of a multitude of events. Each day was filled with unfamiliar and strange happenings.

For comfort, I listened to my favorite songs from my youth and thought about others who had successfully dealt with obstacles. I recalled times when I had to overcome challenging situations. I posted one of Eleanor Roosevelt’s quotes above my desk:

The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.

I was working as an international teacher and I wasn’t going to let any of my fears erode my confidence or destroy my dreams. My inner voice became my daily mantra. Instead of hearing a small voice inside, I mouthed the words, “I can do it.”

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Christchurch, New Zealand will always be in my heart

It’s not the miles from Home what made Me Change. It was the Emotions and Experiences New to Me. At the End I did traveled far enough, but just enough to find myself.

And I had to travel miles, distance myself for my closest things, and experience many different emotions to discover about myself, to embrace myself.
I had to keep the distance from what I knew or thought it was safe to be born again.
I had to come to the other side of the world to understand and discover myself.
I didn’t travel places. I traveled emotions inside of me.
I didn’t distance myself from Home. I created a new Home.
My heart became new; my eyes saw the bright light again.
My soul was lifted.
I was born again here.
I FELT ALIVE AND FREE AGAIN!
See, I didn’t travel just for the sake of traveling. I was naïve.
I didn’t know that away from Home you can actually find yourself.
See… I LEARNED THAT TODAY…
I had to get away to truly find myself AND FREEDOM….AGAIN!

This is my poetic way to explain all my feelings since I have moved to Christchurch, New Zealand. I wish I had more eloquent words to describe all the wonders that this country offers. It’s not only a beautiful country for its gorgeous landscapes, but it is also a country filled with great and humble people.
I moved from Miami to Christchurch, New Zealand in February of 2012 with my husband as an expatriate wife. I came with the “Miami” ideas if you can call it that, you know the big city girl ideas. And I was changed.
In Christchurch I learned to relax, to reconnect with myself. To learn about the kiwi culture, to understand that they enjoy being around nature. And that if ask them about the world, they are probably well traveled folks, but they will always return to their home country.
I learned to smile back when they smile at me walking on the street because the kiwis are very polite, and you should smile back! I learned that is ok to recycle your cartoon eggs because is just nice to return to the veggie store with a full bag of cartoon eggs to give back to them and see their smile. And to show them that you care for the environment and that you care for their store.
I learned that even being miles away from home, I can still enjoy Latin music because kiwis have a taste for dancing salsa. I learned that if you suffer a loss, like I did, a big loss, a miscarriage, the kiwis will be there for you. They will prepare your meals, they will clean your house, they will give you a word of comfort and they will be calling you back just to make sure you are doing ok.
These four years spent in New Zealand made me open my eyes to new cultures, to trying new things in life. I even tried to ski for god sake! I, the Cuban / Miami only beach please kind of girl. These four years have been amazing, and I will totally recommend visiting New Zealand.
Thank you Christchurch for all this time with Me, you made ME a new person, you gave Me back my FREEDOM WINGS!

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CANADA: Finding Yourself and Finding Your World

Where I find freedom….

I am often asked this questions being a mother to four young children, a wife, an entrepreneur, and an aspiring author. How do I find the time for me?

The first step for me was realizing that I needed time and freedom for myself and I had to make it happen. Prior to going on my personal development journey to healing and find my self-love. I was going through my life trying to do what would satisfy others and make them proud. Not too long after I graduated from high school I went to college to become a Natural Health Practitioner. I had a lot of criticism from my loved ones as this was not a field they understood or could relate to, in their eyes was not credible. Even before receiving my diploma, I had decided that I would become an electrician. Instead of pursuing my dream, I went into something that I knew would be accepted by everyone around me. Just a couple months after receiving my diploma I started my electrical apprenticeship. I received praise from all my loved ones and even complete strangers, which persuaded me to keep going.

I had to hit rock-bottom before realizing that I needed to honour myself and find that freedom for me. When I was pregnant with my fourth child, I realized that I was miserable, felt lost, misplaced and disconnected within your own skin. Living in a world full of judgement, feeling as though I needed to portray a perfect life, and putting unrealistic expectations upon myself, resulted in a lot of disappointment and feelings of failure. Being occupied by another’s needs each and every day without honouring myself, lead to exhaustion and deep disconnection within myself.

In society we have been essentially programmed to put on a facade to express how “ideal” our life should be and how we should be in the eyes of our generally population. There is an accepted way to be, look, act, the house, vehicle and life you should strive for, the items or things you should have. When really all these things should be customized to each individual, who you are, your soul purpose, personality and what you would like to accomplish in your life. Not everyone is the same. From one person to another, you will do things differently, have different beliefs, have different circumstances, priorities and have different ways of doing things.

When I started my self-healing journey, the biggest change happened for me when I allowed myself to have two hours for just me every morning before the rest of my family woke up. This time allowed me to fully connect, dig into my self-healing books and programs and better myself. Because I had chosen the morning for this time, it set up my day to succeed as I had already put time into myself, feeding my heart and soul, and allowing me to be the best me for the day. This also made decision making clearer for me. I knew I was on the right track because I was motivated to continue, it felt good and freeing.

With this self-acknowledgement, my self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-love grew naturally. The more ways I honoured yourself, the happier I became, the lighter I felt and life began to flow with ease. Once I became connected with what made me happy, the faster my perspective changed. I was more accepting of others and all forms of judgment then disappears; self-judgement, judgement of others and other’s judgements on me. When I was able to release all of my self-judgements, I felt more confident within yourself and no longer needed anyone else’s opinions. When I got to the point, where I became absolutely comfortable within me and no longer felt the need to rely on other’s opinions, I instead use their suggestions as I saw suitable.

By honouring myself with “me time” everyday, I find my freedom, live my passion, and am present with my life.

My vision is:
“For all moms to think of themselves as no less than extraordinary!”

Much love, appreciation & gratitude,
Tracy Munson
Natural Health Strategist & Coach, NHP, CDC

 

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My New Year’s Rebirth in Guatemala

Driving along the quiet morning streets of a city I would come to know and love, I bawled into the musky atmosphere of the cab. I had just flown to Los Angeles for about a week, to visit a man who would become a bigger part of my life than I could ever imagine. But as the sun began to rise and the infamous LAX came into view, I felt less than elated to be hopping on a flight to Guatemala City.

It was the day before New Year’s Eve, and the looming new year on the horizon stood a mysterious silhouette in a grey backdrop. At first the plan seemed simple, go to Central America, have a work holiday, more or less. It seemed fitting, but sometimes what you think you are ‘meant’ to do doesn’t match up with what the world has planned for you. The firm seats of the plane reminded me that I was about to spend the next few weeks in unfamiliar places, and likely sitting in similarly firm bus seats, which was almost comforting, as although I had come to realize I had no idea why I was going to Guatemala, maybe it was a childhood fascination finally coming to life, that I indeed took refuge in the unfamiliar.

When you do not know a city, when you do not know a face or a name, reality seems more malleable, free from the conditions and generalizations we bind ourselves with. But it wasn’t until after I left Central America for the second time that I would conclude that sometimes you can’t simply put yourself out of the norm, you have to be completely destroyed, and born again anew.

Arriving in the beautiful colonial city of Antigua, Guatemala, I felt instantly lonely. A rare sensation, and a wave of isolation and being far from the world I knew washed over, even as I walked the stone streets, full of character and stories. New Year’s Eve was spent with a gaggle of Australians whom I’d met that day at my hostel. Predictable, but at least I knew that all over the world, people were celebrating the same thing, a shift in time, a new year, a new era. The night proceeded in a sickly classic way, the parties were many and the drinks too strong. Upon losing my group of newly acquainted travel buddies I quickly realized I was now well and truly alone, wandering the ghostly streets of a potentially dangerous city.

Fear introduced itself promptly and again I found myself caught in a whirling dizziness of confusion. Where is my hostel? Why am I suddenly by myself? Questions of my own sanity brought me to eventual surrender when a car pulled up. It was a police officer. Now this had to be one of the strangest experiences of my life, and still now it holds a mind boggling surreal quality. The officer asked me what was wrong, to which I could barely answer between sobs. To my own surprise, as I generally consider myself verging on the edge of paranoia, I agreed to be driven home after he kindly took me to get food and a coffee.

Crying to a strange police officer over cake, in a foreign country, about nothing in particular, is probably one of the most embarrassing and messed up accounts I could ever recall, but as I began to settle down and he listened to me, offering even more surprising words of wisdom, I began to notice that on this New Year’s Day, I had been reborn. It sounds silly, but it literally felt like a piece of me had left, abruptly resigned, in the face of such fear, discomfort and the internal pain that I had been feeling. Sometimes we can only see freedom when we are forced to face ourselves solely, with no walls, no security blankets, no friends, no money, nothing we have been so trained to value, alone.

The aura of confusion still lingered but was not pressing, there was a certain lightness now. I continued to enjoy my next 4 weeks in Guatemala, and 2 weeks in Mexico, the best I possibly could, allowing what was meant to be to be. I met amazing people. I swam. I (hestitantly) rode horses on cliffs. I hiked to the tops of mountains at sunrise and sunset. I danced and ate and listened to music. I got sick. Really sick. I lost my phone. My computer died. I got sick again. I tried not to blame myself for being sick. I visited amazing places. I made a best friend.

And I watched. I observed. And still now, when I recall the entirety of my journeys from Guatemala City to Mexico and finally back to Los Angeles, when I rejoiced in being back in North America despite my mind-blowing travels, I watch it all as a movie I have seen a thousand times, and know that in some way, I had to be completely destroyed to find my freedom, to let go of all that I perceived to be true in order to make room for the new and spectacular things that were about to enter my life. I had nothing to lose. Freedom had been chasing me down, like a ghost longing to make itself known, so that I could finally stare it straight in the face.

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I Choose My Freedom in Australia…For Now

We laid on our sides on what I once called our bed. Nose touching tip of nose, eyes locked into eyes. I traced the outside of his face with my free hand, imagining that I could feel the difference between the brown, gold and crimson strands of his beard underneath my fingertips. The scent of him filled me like smoke. I breathed in earth, clean laundry and a hint of weed. In this bed, there was nothing else. Only the physical tug of my heart to his, our breath slowed down to one. If I made this moment my entire world, I was happy.

“Come home,” he said, breaking the comfortable silence. “You can still travel. Just come home to me.”

I was leaving him for now the third time. The freedom that comes with traveling– the thrill of uncertainty, the choices that follow ambiguity– had once again found prominence in my heart over anything that would just make me one half of a whole. This time, I’d be gone for more than a four month backpacking stint around Europe or South America. I was going to Australia for at least a year, and I intended to finally make this breakup stick.

However, my mind struggled to find the flaw in his plan, drunk as I was on the happiness that I associated with his presence. It sounded nice. I could have both.

He assured me certainty, security, love, a future–the sweetest of chains. So I imagined living out my life with him, continuing the dream state of that bed. The only thing that he truly stimulated in me was a sexual desire. The rest would continue to be a mindless routine, devoid of intelligent conversation. He would watch football. I would cook him lasagna. He’d tell me he thought it was cute that I liked to read. I’d try in vain to discuss Orwell with him. He would work at the bar. I would find some middleman job. He’d buy a house in a small Massachusetts town. We’d take turns digging our cars out of the New England snow, and he’d get angry when he caught me lusting after Google images of exotic places. We’d smoke weed everyday to further along the numbing effect. He’d get me pregnant one day, like he always wanted. He’d teach our child to throw a ball, and I’d try to instill enough independence and individuality in her so that she could live the life I always wanted–a life of adventure and freedom.

To stay with him would have been to make the choice to throw a huge spoiler alert over my entire life, to watch the Red Wedding scene of Game of Thrones just as I got invested in the first season. Our relationship presented only walls and no frontiers.

I didn’t know who I was when I wasn’t his. All I knew was that it bothered me, a literal constant pain in my side each time I realised that I was becoming part of an indifferent and incurious population that gets stuck in relationships that are finite, lethargic and easy. I realized that I lived for my connection to him, changing myself to fit his mold. I neglected everything else that I ever wanted, pursuing those finite moments of happiness wholeheartedly so that I could mollify my anxiety in the face of my natural state, the state of freedom. I wasn’t committed to my authenticity; I hid from it.

My urge to strike out on my own was a gut reaction, a survival instinct. I needed to ease the stomach-clenching dread that accompanied the notion of remaining in one place for long, and for someone else. I needed the ignition that comes with waking up in a strange city or country, stimulating myself by way of exploration, acquainting myself with a new place through its food, having informed and varied discussions in broken English over a hostel dining room table. My freedom comes with the weight of a backpack on my shoulders, a one-way ticket and a culture shock. I am the only one in this world who can give me what I crave; to travel. To live a life as a traveller means living a life of contrast and spontaneity, ambiguity and choices.

I did not say that travel made me “happy,” although it often does. Happiness is not the attainable lifetime goal. Happiness is finite. What I sought was freedom, an infinite state of being that far surpasses a vague and unattainable notion of absolute contentment.

So as I lay in that bed, contemplating the tear I had to force between us, I focused on my refusal to be defined by my environment and my sentiment, rather than by the choices I made when faced with uncertainty.

I’ve been living in Australia for almost 10 months now, and I am face to face with my independence everyday, my choice to try on life as a 24 year old Melburnian for the time being, absorbing the parts of it that add to my shifting identity. I do not know what the next steps are, for I cannot see them clearly or at all. And that’s okay. To have a full knowledge of what my years hold would be just as finite as a committed relationship with a small-minded man. The mystery that comes with knowing nothing is infinite. I am faced with an unlimited spectrum, and all I must do is choose and take responsibility for my choices, may they always be in line with my most authentic state. This is what makes me free.

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The Power of Unique Experiences in Indonesia

Kerthunk, kerthunk, kerthunk.

I felt as if someone had sunk a fistful of fear into my heart and let it pound it into the rest of my body. My stomach felt like it was trying to retreat behind my ribs, my eyes were wide. Reason told me I shouldn’t have been so phobic. But I was staring down my nemeses, and reason was quickly losing its place in my repertoire.

Actually, “nemeses” might be a strong word for something the size of a pin head. These were a couple of bugs so small that one could easily mistake them for a floating piece of white lint, especially in the flickering shadows of the Balinese evening. They were bed bug nymphs, and their presence meant I needed to leave before they could scurry their way into my belongings.

My mind flashed back to a bitter night far away from the hostel on the quaint Indonesian road. I was back in my apartment in Massachusetts, back to the shock of finding an infestation of biting little bugs that snuck through the folds of my sofa and cracks in the hardwood floors. I retreated to the bathtub at two in the morning, saturated in dread.

Bed bugs aren’t dangerous, but eradicating them is an awful and laborious process. I had been in physical therapy for years for a bad back. My nearest family member was hundreds of miles away. I couldn’t imagine how to pack all my belongings away with my unstable bones. I cringed in anticipation of the pain that could come from rounds of laundering everything I owned, spraying things down with isopropyl, and moving furniture for exterminators.

The predicted injury and accompanying pain led to my first visit to Indonesia. I questioned if other people with physical disadvantages could get caught in similarly horrendous situations throughout the world, and secured a grant to research the topic in several countries. Come spring, I set off on a great multinational adventure in which I fervently chased answers and lines of longitude.

During that journey, I took a ferry from Singapore to spend a couple days in Bintan Island, Indonesia. Between the driftwood and palm fronds on an empty stretch of beach, I stopped to see an eroding message written in the sand: “LIFE ALWAYS FINDS A WAY”. I felt like some vanished scribe had written it there as part of my story, like the universe had left the words there just for me.

I bought a ticket to Bali during a turbulent period a couple years later. I wanted to head back to the country where clairvoyants roamed the islands and messages were hidden in the sand.

In the place where I expected to find order and inner peace, I was being gripped by memories of injured sleepless nights and unresolved past fears. I hauled my backpack to the safety of the front porch and dove into my phone, searching furiously for new accommodations, comfort from friends, and ways to clean old demons out of potentially contaminated belongings.

I sat on the ground for so long that the stones had imprinted their shapes on my legs, so I headed to the roof terrace to obsess over my problems in privacy. I looked out to see a brilliant sunset, a scattering of stringy blue clouds hanging on a backdrop of potent pinks and oranges. Beyond the edge of the peninsula, the ocean was mirroring the colorful banners of the sunset, making it seem almost endless.

I wasn’t sure how many sunsets I’d missed while my phobias were running amok, but I didn’t want to miss that one. In the last journey I hadn’t learned to compartmentalize my thoughts, to stop a bout of fear from tainting all of the glory around me. I turned the phone on its face to gaze at the sunset, to listen to the ensemble of cicadas and monkeys and the chattering and clinking of bottles from guests downstairs.

Travel has power to put you out in the caprices of the unknown and onto the stoops of old haunts. But sometimes, it also offers you a chance at redemption.

I was myself again, watching silently as the ocean was swallowed by the night. I was free from those harrowing and pervasive fears, unshackled from the tunnel vision of anxiety.

I found no more messages in the sand, no phantoms to leave signs that I had gotten things right. I was left with open road, a painted sky, and gorgeous wildlife; all that I sought and all that I needed.

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Feeling Insignificant on Serene Mt. Rainier, USA

The feel of snow in August is a unique experience reserved for those in either extreme latitudes or significant altitudes. Mt. Rainier certainly qualifies for the latter category. I had taken a break on the side of the Mountain to prep for my final push towards Camp Muir, a staging area which sits about 4,000’ short of the summit of Mt. Rainier at 14,411’. Although I needed to catch my breath for the climb ahead, this task seemed figuratively impossible given the breathtaking vista surrounding me. To the south lay the smoke-obscured teeth of the Tatoosh range, and beyond them the still-visible volcanic peaks of St. Helens and Adams. Looking to the West, I saw the Cowlitz Glacier dissipating to thin waterfalls that collected in the valley below. But it was the northern view that was the most commanding, as this sight contained the camp, the summit and a blinding stretch of steep snow that constituted the rest of my hike.

Moments like this take me back to a line I overheard in Seattle just a few days before my hike: “The great thing about nature is how it makes us feel small”. I disagreed with the speaker, at least in part. If the feeling of smallness was truly all we sought in nature, there really would be no reason to travel there. Smallness is so much easier to find in a cubical from 9-to-5, a fact I am well acquainted with. Three months prior to this evening and this hike, I was living a comfortable life in Boston with a good paying job. Stability, activity, and the prospect of upwards mobility were all luxuries I enjoyed, but it was still a small existence, a fact intensified by my oppressive anxiety and frequent panic attacks.

Conventional wisdom would have recommended, at times like this, that the weary worker take a vacation and “get your head in order”. I took the wisdom, but neglected the conventionality, boarding an Amtrak train in Boston and seeing where I could go over the next few months. This eventually brought me to the Space Needle in Seattle, where I got my first good view of Mt. Rainer. The thing was big, not just in raw mass, but with understated gravity. It gripped my attention and demanded personification, quietly scoffing at the Needle I was standing on. I left the elevator with a single conviction in mind, one that brought me to my break point on the side of Mt. Rainer, just a few hundred feet below the camp.

If ever I had sound reason for suffering a panic attack, this would be that time. I was by myself on one of the deadliest hiking trails in the country, where the afternoon sun was opening crevasses below my feet and cutting my friction-less progress to a negligible sum. What if my exertion led to a heart attack, where would they take me? Or if a storm rolls in and I lose my sense of direction? These thoughts and more could have easily crossed my mind, but none did. Instead, my focus lay in just placing one foot in front of the other until I arrived on the stone-carved steps of Camp Muir. And then I saw how small I really was. But this feeling of smallness was different than the one I knew three months prior. This experience was expansive, elevated, the kind that makes you breathe easier with a younger smile on your face. I was, in that moment, entwined within something bigger than myself without being absolved into it.

Suffice it to say, I never did return from my vacation, at least not to the job I had before. There was many more moments that lead to that decision, but the encounter with Rainier demonstrated something that I once had, had lost, and must work to awaken again. The path from here remains uncertain, but it is now a path that does at least go on..

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From Vietnamese Mangroves and a Loving Mom

The runway was not much more than a lightly paved strip of soil which popped out of the rice paddies and mangroves like a long, rectangular oasis. As I exited the 1950’s prop, much like the one that Indiana Jones rides in Raiders of the Lost Ark, I felt stifled instead of being freed from the tight quarters that I’d just ridden in. The density and weight of the atmosphere made it hard to inhale deeply– and it was more than just heat and humidity of the southernmost part of Vietnam – Ca Mau, a peninsular province with the Gulf of Thailand to the West and the Pacific Ocean to the South and East. I was stepping foot on the same soil where my son was born, breathing the same sticky, tropical air that he did. The son I had not yet met, and the son that I would not be bringing home to Indiana after the eight days that I’d be there.

As excited as I was to meet my baby — the one that I dreamed of and had dreams for — I needed to guard my emotions. Upon seeing my first photo of him, my heart skipped a beat when I gazed into those deep brown eyes and saw the shock of black hair standing up on his head. I knew that without a doubt that he was my son. It was my moment of a doctor handing my child to me to put on my chest and feeling a love like no other.

Much like the southern Vietnamese mangroves’ intertwined roots, strong and complicated, his homecoming was constricted by the fact that he was stuck — stuck in an orphanage due to political posturing by both the U.S. and Vietnamese governments not willing to move an inch to finalize his adoption, despite him living in squalid and unsafe orphanage conditions.

I flew half-way around the world and was there with two other moms in the same situation to help care for our children and the others in the orphanage. It was the one small thing we could actually do to help our kids, while we lobbied Congressional leaders and the State Department on the homefront.

Within minutes sweat was streaming down my face and soaking my clothes – a combination of the oppressive heat and my anxiety. My friends and I headed out to the orphanage in a taxi. There were few cars on the road, mostly bicycles and motor bikes. We raced along the tropical landscape – passing roadside markets where vendors sold pineapples, roosters in woven basket cages, plastic kitchenware and even python meat. Our taxi driver honked incessantly as he passed cars, though few, and played a game of chicken with oncoming traffic. A movie of mangroves and long boats with weathered fishermen, and the occasional water buffalo grazing in a yard ran through the car windows. Children with bare feet and dirty faces dotted the fast-moving landscape – all of it beautiful, colorful and full of life.

Finally, we turned down a one-lane dirt road lined by shallow canals, lush mango and tamarind trees, and tin roof-shacks with hammocks as beds. My stomach dropped to my knees when I saw the orphanage building.

My 22-month old son was literally imprisoned in his tiny room — it had bars on the windows, a former internment camp from the Vietnam War.

I had many conversations with him before I got to Vietnam (all in my head), promising him that I would do whatever it took to get him home to Indiana. I’d say “good night” to him when I woke up in the morning and whisper “good morning” before I fell asleep at night, living with my heart twelve hours ahead. And that week, I told him in person — kissing his smooth, tan cheeks, my tears wetting his sweet face as I held him close. And, then having to leave him.

Twenty-six months later, in the most unusual of places, we found refuge surrounded by luggage carts, drug-sniffing Beagles and a melody of different languages at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. His two tiny feet touched U.S. soil, and I felt palpable relief from my shoulders, fighting back yet another set of tears as my husband squeezed my hand and hugged us both.

Sitting at our departure gate for the last leg of our journey home, he sat in my lap and munched on a banana and French fries.

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My Unlikely Friends in Mountainous Ecuador

It’s hot. How can it be this hot? Since arriving in Salasaka, this indigenous village in the Ecuadorian Andes, I have had a constantly sun-burned, peeling nose. Having an 8-year-old child on my back doesn’t help.

I struggle along, Fernanda on my back and her 5-year-old sister Ñusta leading the way. Ñusta is a great helper, waddling along with her sick sister’s backpack, which is almost as large as her. We walk down the wide, dusty roads lined with agave; sheep bleat and donkeys bray, everyone lazily complaining about the sweltering heat. I can see endlessly across the green, quilt-patterned hills, and everything looks exactly the same. We could be anywhere in all of Salasaka, and I would have no idea. All I can do is trust the girls to know where they live. At the school where I am teaching, when a child gets sick like Fernanda has, we can’t just call home, mom rushing over in her minivan to pick the child up, sign her out for the day. Almost no households in this village have a phone, and neither does the school. The only way to get them home is to do this, to carry them for miles until you reach the shanty and farm that is their home.

As a recently trained child therapist back in the U.S., I feel sick with guilt because it’s breaking every rule in the book that I’m doing this. Carrying a child on my back for miles? Taking them home when their parents haven’t given me signed permission? But I’m not their therapist, I remind myself, or try to. Because Fernanda is sick, and needs to get home, and this moment is more important than all the things I learned in graduate school.

“Podemos descansar?”, I ask the girls. Can we rest? I gently set Fernanda down, and the 3 of us sit together in the shade of a stack of cement blocks. Fernanda immediately lies down and puts her head in my lap. My “clinical instinct” is to gently remove her from her physical contact with me. Physical affection is always a liability. Keep your “boundaries”, they tell you. To the 7-year-old client who innocently tells me, I love you, I am trained to respond, I see that you really care about me, and I care about you too. Not “I love you too”, never that. A separation between you and the child. Care about her, of course, but from a distance.

I quit my job as a therapist because I was so terrified of how much I cared about my kids. I must not be doing something right, I felt. I must not be cut out for this. It broke my heart. A career down the drain because I just loved those kids too much. But here I was, in the mountains of South America to where I escaped, doing the same thing. Loving too much, again.

But I can’t help it. I love Fernanda. My heart is filled with her. She is only 8 years old and already the smartest student in school. She pulls my hand before recess ends every morning, lamenting, “Vamos a clase!” She watches over my shoulder with anxiety that is palpable as I grade her multiplication drills, as if she has ever received anything less than a 100%. There is a moodiness about her, a subtle neediness, and she sometimes sits apart from the group as Renato, the music teacher, leads them in warbling South American pop songs.

A woman passes where we sit catching our breath, wearing her chumbi and green shawl, half a dozen protesting sheep leading the way. She looks at me, and her confusion is reflected in her glare. What is this gringa doing out here with two of our precious children? The girls chat pleasantly with her in Kichwa, the sing-song indigenous language that I haven’t learned yet, and finally, she smiles, understanding. And somehow, with that smile, she is granting me the permission to love this child freely, to really love her, to love her and all of her sisters and friends without clinical boundaries, without restriction. Love her simply, freely, not as a professional but as a fellow human being, as an adult in the community who shares the responsibility of raising and caring for her. And maybe that’s not such a terrible thing.

I put my hand on Fernanda’s forehead. She doesn’t feel hot, and I don’t know if she was really sick at all or if she just wanted this time with me. “Listas?”, I ask the girls, and Ñusta puts on two backpacks, her own in the back and Fernanda’s in the front. I stoop to let Fernanda on my back, and we keep on walking.

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New Experiences with Monkeys in India

I was sitting cross-legged on a four-inch mattress that doubled as my bed. Sweat engulfed all of my pores as a simple fan hummed above. I glanced up from my book. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a medium-sized monkey open my screen door with ease. I blinked. I observed a second monkey trailing behind and then another.

My jaw dropped. I sat speechless. Three wild monkeys were just a couple of yards away.

Without hesitation, they walked toward a small round table next to my bright red refrigerator. All three admired my possessions. The taller one glanced back in my direction as if to say, “ha, ha”. With one hand, he grabbed one of my Tupperware containers. Within seconds, the monkeys vanished, leaving my door open in their wake.

I sat bewildered. Should I laugh or should I cry?

Just weeks earlier, I had started teaching at an international K-12 boarding school in Bangalore, India. As an American middle-aged educator, I jumped at the opportunity to work and travel abroad. Most of my friends and family members thought that I was experiencing a midlife crisis. Why would I leave my cushy suburban life to work in a developing country?

For years, a series of orthopedic issues had prevented me from using my K-6 teaching license. To remain an educator, I became an adjunct instructor at a local community college. I loved teaching, but something was missing.

When I was offered the primary international teaching position, one of my dreams was finally fulfilled. Once again, I would have the opportunity to work with children and use my teaching credentials. But would I be able to step outside my comfort zone and face my natural fears of living in another country?

After all, I was a middle-age woman who hadn’t traveled alone in decades. I wasn’t traveling to unfamiliar neighborhoods within driving distance of my home. I was flying half way around the world to travel solo in a foreign country. If I had any chance of being successful, I had to regain my independent spirit. I had to look forward and not scurry back to what felt safe. I relied on my inner voice that wouldn’t stop whispering, “You can do it.”

I wasn’t looking to the popular Nike slogan, “Just Do It.” I was recalling another image. Decades ago, I read the classic book, The Little Engine That Could, to my sons. How fitting that in midlife, I would look to a children’s book to instill confidence. Just like the small train in this inspiring story, I had to use daily reminders to keep me on track.

After the three thieves left my guest room, the uncertainty returned. Could I simply laugh off the absurdity of wild monkeys stealing my food or would I succumb to the temptation to long for a more predictable life? This wasn’t the first time that the monkeys had trespassed. Like ants that gravitate toward food crumbs, these larger pests could be found everywhere humans congregated. The school campus was inundated. Groups of monkeys frequented classrooms, stairwells, the playground, the open fields, the lunchroom, and the pathways between buildings.

Fanciful irrational emotions flooded my well being like a tsunami. My mind planned ways to escape in the middle of the night without a trace. While I rationally knew that I had to cope with my new life in India, it was much easier to create plans for fleeing.

I had no choice but to face my challenges head on. The monkey situation was just one example of a multitude of events. Each day was filled with unfamiliar and strange happenings.

For comfort, I listened to my favorite songs from my youth and thought about others who had successfully dealt with obstacles. I recalled times when I had to overcome challenging situations. I posted one of Eleanor Roosevelt’s quotes above my desk:

The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.

I was working as an international teacher and I wasn’t going to let any of my fears erode my confidence or destroy my dreams. My inner voice became my daily mantra. Instead of hearing a small voice inside, I mouthed the words, “I can do it.”

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Christchurch, New Zealand will always be in my heart

It’s not the miles from Home what made Me Change. It was the Emotions and Experiences New to Me. At the End I did traveled far enough, but just enough to find myself.

And I had to travel miles, distance myself for my closest things, and experience many different emotions to discover about myself, to embrace myself.
I had to keep the distance from what I knew or thought it was safe to be born again.
I had to come to the other side of the world to understand and discover myself.
I didn’t travel places. I traveled emotions inside of me.
I didn’t distance myself from Home. I created a new Home.
My heart became new; my eyes saw the bright light again.
My soul was lifted.
I was born again here.
I FELT ALIVE AND FREE AGAIN!
See, I didn’t travel just for the sake of traveling. I was naïve.
I didn’t know that away from Home you can actually find yourself.
See… I LEARNED THAT TODAY…
I had to get away to truly find myself AND FREEDOM….AGAIN!

This is my poetic way to explain all my feelings since I have moved to Christchurch, New Zealand. I wish I had more eloquent words to describe all the wonders that this country offers. It’s not only a beautiful country for its gorgeous landscapes, but it is also a country filled with great and humble people.
I moved from Miami to Christchurch, New Zealand in February of 2012 with my husband as an expatriate wife. I came with the “Miami” ideas if you can call it that, you know the big city girl ideas. And I was changed.
In Christchurch I learned to relax, to reconnect with myself. To learn about the kiwi culture, to understand that they enjoy being around nature. And that if ask them about the world, they are probably well traveled folks, but they will always return to their home country.
I learned to smile back when they smile at me walking on the street because the kiwis are very polite, and you should smile back! I learned that is ok to recycle your cartoon eggs because is just nice to return to the veggie store with a full bag of cartoon eggs to give back to them and see their smile. And to show them that you care for the environment and that you care for their store.
I learned that even being miles away from home, I can still enjoy Latin music because kiwis have a taste for dancing salsa. I learned that if you suffer a loss, like I did, a big loss, a miscarriage, the kiwis will be there for you. They will prepare your meals, they will clean your house, they will give you a word of comfort and they will be calling you back just to make sure you are doing ok.
These four years spent in New Zealand made me open my eyes to new cultures, to trying new things in life. I even tried to ski for god sake! I, the Cuban / Miami only beach please kind of girl. These four years have been amazing, and I will totally recommend visiting New Zealand.
Thank you Christchurch for all this time with Me, you made ME a new person, you gave Me back my FREEDOM WINGS!

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CANADA: Finding Yourself and Finding Your World

Where I find freedom….

I am often asked this questions being a mother to four young children, a wife, an entrepreneur, and an aspiring author. How do I find the time for me?

The first step for me was realizing that I needed time and freedom for myself and I had to make it happen. Prior to going on my personal development journey to healing and find my self-love. I was going through my life trying to do what would satisfy others and make them proud. Not too long after I graduated from high school I went to college to become a Natural Health Practitioner. I had a lot of criticism from my loved ones as this was not a field they understood or could relate to, in their eyes was not credible. Even before receiving my diploma, I had decided that I would become an electrician. Instead of pursuing my dream, I went into something that I knew would be accepted by everyone around me. Just a couple months after receiving my diploma I started my electrical apprenticeship. I received praise from all my loved ones and even complete strangers, which persuaded me to keep going.

I had to hit rock-bottom before realizing that I needed to honour myself and find that freedom for me. When I was pregnant with my fourth child, I realized that I was miserable, felt lost, misplaced and disconnected within your own skin. Living in a world full of judgement, feeling as though I needed to portray a perfect life, and putting unrealistic expectations upon myself, resulted in a lot of disappointment and feelings of failure. Being occupied by another’s needs each and every day without honouring myself, lead to exhaustion and deep disconnection within myself.

In society we have been essentially programmed to put on a facade to express how “ideal” our life should be and how we should be in the eyes of our generally population. There is an accepted way to be, look, act, the house, vehicle and life you should strive for, the items or things you should have. When really all these things should be customized to each individual, who you are, your soul purpose, personality and what you would like to accomplish in your life. Not everyone is the same. From one person to another, you will do things differently, have different beliefs, have different circumstances, priorities and have different ways of doing things.

When I started my self-healing journey, the biggest change happened for me when I allowed myself to have two hours for just me every morning before the rest of my family woke up. This time allowed me to fully connect, dig into my self-healing books and programs and better myself. Because I had chosen the morning for this time, it set up my day to succeed as I had already put time into myself, feeding my heart and soul, and allowing me to be the best me for the day. This also made decision making clearer for me. I knew I was on the right track because I was motivated to continue, it felt good and freeing.

With this self-acknowledgement, my self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-love grew naturally. The more ways I honoured yourself, the happier I became, the lighter I felt and life began to flow with ease. Once I became connected with what made me happy, the faster my perspective changed. I was more accepting of others and all forms of judgment then disappears; self-judgement, judgement of others and other’s judgements on me. When I was able to release all of my self-judgements, I felt more confident within yourself and no longer needed anyone else’s opinions. When I got to the point, where I became absolutely comfortable within me and no longer felt the need to rely on other’s opinions, I instead use their suggestions as I saw suitable.

By honouring myself with “me time” everyday, I find my freedom, live my passion, and am present with my life.

My vision is:
“For all moms to think of themselves as no less than extraordinary!”

Much love, appreciation & gratitude,
Tracy Munson
Natural Health Strategist & Coach, NHP, CDC

 

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My New Year’s Rebirth in Guatemala

Driving along the quiet morning streets of a city I would come to know and love, I bawled into the musky atmosphere of the cab. I had just flown to Los Angeles for about a week, to visit a man who would become a bigger part of my life than I could ever imagine. But as the sun began to rise and the infamous LAX came into view, I felt less than elated to be hopping on a flight to Guatemala City.

It was the day before New Year’s Eve, and the looming new year on the horizon stood a mysterious silhouette in a grey backdrop. At first the plan seemed simple, go to Central America, have a work holiday, more or less. It seemed fitting, but sometimes what you think you are ‘meant’ to do doesn’t match up with what the world has planned for you. The firm seats of the plane reminded me that I was about to spend the next few weeks in unfamiliar places, and likely sitting in similarly firm bus seats, which was almost comforting, as although I had come to realize I had no idea why I was going to Guatemala, maybe it was a childhood fascination finally coming to life, that I indeed took refuge in the unfamiliar.

When you do not know a city, when you do not know a face or a name, reality seems more malleable, free from the conditions and generalizations we bind ourselves with. But it wasn’t until after I left Central America for the second time that I would conclude that sometimes you can’t simply put yourself out of the norm, you have to be completely destroyed, and born again anew.

Arriving in the beautiful colonial city of Antigua, Guatemala, I felt instantly lonely. A rare sensation, and a wave of isolation and being far from the world I knew washed over, even as I walked the stone streets, full of character and stories. New Year’s Eve was spent with a gaggle of Australians whom I’d met that day at my hostel. Predictable, but at least I knew that all over the world, people were celebrating the same thing, a shift in time, a new year, a new era. The night proceeded in a sickly classic way, the parties were many and the drinks too strong. Upon losing my group of newly acquainted travel buddies I quickly realized I was now well and truly alone, wandering the ghostly streets of a potentially dangerous city.

Fear introduced itself promptly and again I found myself caught in a whirling dizziness of confusion. Where is my hostel? Why am I suddenly by myself? Questions of my own sanity brought me to eventual surrender when a car pulled up. It was a police officer. Now this had to be one of the strangest experiences of my life, and still now it holds a mind boggling surreal quality. The officer asked me what was wrong, to which I could barely answer between sobs. To my own surprise, as I generally consider myself verging on the edge of paranoia, I agreed to be driven home after he kindly took me to get food and a coffee.

Crying to a strange police officer over cake, in a foreign country, about nothing in particular, is probably one of the most embarrassing and messed up accounts I could ever recall, but as I began to settle down and he listened to me, offering even more surprising words of wisdom, I began to notice that on this New Year’s Day, I had been reborn. It sounds silly, but it literally felt like a piece of me had left, abruptly resigned, in the face of such fear, discomfort and the internal pain that I had been feeling. Sometimes we can only see freedom when we are forced to face ourselves solely, with no walls, no security blankets, no friends, no money, nothing we have been so trained to value, alone.

The aura of confusion still lingered but was not pressing, there was a certain lightness now. I continued to enjoy my next 4 weeks in Guatemala, and 2 weeks in Mexico, the best I possibly could, allowing what was meant to be to be. I met amazing people. I swam. I (hestitantly) rode horses on cliffs. I hiked to the tops of mountains at sunrise and sunset. I danced and ate and listened to music. I got sick. Really sick. I lost my phone. My computer died. I got sick again. I tried not to blame myself for being sick. I visited amazing places. I made a best friend.

And I watched. I observed. And still now, when I recall the entirety of my journeys from Guatemala City to Mexico and finally back to Los Angeles, when I rejoiced in being back in North America despite my mind-blowing travels, I watch it all as a movie I have seen a thousand times, and know that in some way, I had to be completely destroyed to find my freedom, to let go of all that I perceived to be true in order to make room for the new and spectacular things that were about to enter my life. I had nothing to lose. Freedom had been chasing me down, like a ghost longing to make itself known, so that I could finally stare it straight in the face.

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I Choose My Freedom in Australia…For Now

We laid on our sides on what I once called our bed. Nose touching tip of nose, eyes locked into eyes. I traced the outside of his face with my free hand, imagining that I could feel the difference between the brown, gold and crimson strands of his beard underneath my fingertips. The scent of him filled me like smoke. I breathed in earth, clean laundry and a hint of weed. In this bed, there was nothing else. Only the physical tug of my heart to his, our breath slowed down to one. If I made this moment my entire world, I was happy.

“Come home,” he said, breaking the comfortable silence. “You can still travel. Just come home to me.”

I was leaving him for now the third time. The freedom that comes with traveling– the thrill of uncertainty, the choices that follow ambiguity– had once again found prominence in my heart over anything that would just make me one half of a whole. This time, I’d be gone for more than a four month backpacking stint around Europe or South America. I was going to Australia for at least a year, and I intended to finally make this breakup stick.

However, my mind struggled to find the flaw in his plan, drunk as I was on the happiness that I associated with his presence. It sounded nice. I could have both.

He assured me certainty, security, love, a future–the sweetest of chains. So I imagined living out my life with him, continuing the dream state of that bed. The only thing that he truly stimulated in me was a sexual desire. The rest would continue to be a mindless routine, devoid of intelligent conversation. He would watch football. I would cook him lasagna. He’d tell me he thought it was cute that I liked to read. I’d try in vain to discuss Orwell with him. He would work at the bar. I would find some middleman job. He’d buy a house in a small Massachusetts town. We’d take turns digging our cars out of the New England snow, and he’d get angry when he caught me lusting after Google images of exotic places. We’d smoke weed everyday to further along the numbing effect. He’d get me pregnant one day, like he always wanted. He’d teach our child to throw a ball, and I’d try to instill enough independence and individuality in her so that she could live the life I always wanted–a life of adventure and freedom.

To stay with him would have been to make the choice to throw a huge spoiler alert over my entire life, to watch the Red Wedding scene of Game of Thrones just as I got invested in the first season. Our relationship presented only walls and no frontiers.

I didn’t know who I was when I wasn’t his. All I knew was that it bothered me, a literal constant pain in my side each time I realised that I was becoming part of an indifferent and incurious population that gets stuck in relationships that are finite, lethargic and easy. I realized that I lived for my connection to him, changing myself to fit his mold. I neglected everything else that I ever wanted, pursuing those finite moments of happiness wholeheartedly so that I could mollify my anxiety in the face of my natural state, the state of freedom. I wasn’t committed to my authenticity; I hid from it.

My urge to strike out on my own was a gut reaction, a survival instinct. I needed to ease the stomach-clenching dread that accompanied the notion of remaining in one place for long, and for someone else. I needed the ignition that comes with waking up in a strange city or country, stimulating myself by way of exploration, acquainting myself with a new place through its food, having informed and varied discussions in broken English over a hostel dining room table. My freedom comes with the weight of a backpack on my shoulders, a one-way ticket and a culture shock. I am the only one in this world who can give me what I crave; to travel. To live a life as a traveller means living a life of contrast and spontaneity, ambiguity and choices.

I did not say that travel made me “happy,” although it often does. Happiness is not the attainable lifetime goal. Happiness is finite. What I sought was freedom, an infinite state of being that far surpasses a vague and unattainable notion of absolute contentment.

So as I lay in that bed, contemplating the tear I had to force between us, I focused on my refusal to be defined by my environment and my sentiment, rather than by the choices I made when faced with uncertainty.

I’ve been living in Australia for almost 10 months now, and I am face to face with my independence everyday, my choice to try on life as a 24 year old Melburnian for the time being, absorbing the parts of it that add to my shifting identity. I do not know what the next steps are, for I cannot see them clearly or at all. And that’s okay. To have a full knowledge of what my years hold would be just as finite as a committed relationship with a small-minded man. The mystery that comes with knowing nothing is infinite. I am faced with an unlimited spectrum, and all I must do is choose and take responsibility for my choices, may they always be in line with my most authentic state. This is what makes me free.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

The Power of Unique Experiences in Indonesia

Kerthunk, kerthunk, kerthunk.

I felt as if someone had sunk a fistful of fear into my heart and let it pound it into the rest of my body. My stomach felt like it was trying to retreat behind my ribs, my eyes were wide. Reason told me I shouldn’t have been so phobic. But I was staring down my nemeses, and reason was quickly losing its place in my repertoire.

Actually, “nemeses” might be a strong word for something the size of a pin head. These were a couple of bugs so small that one could easily mistake them for a floating piece of white lint, especially in the flickering shadows of the Balinese evening. They were bed bug nymphs, and their presence meant I needed to leave before they could scurry their way into my belongings.

My mind flashed back to a bitter night far away from the hostel on the quaint Indonesian road. I was back in my apartment in Massachusetts, back to the shock of finding an infestation of biting little bugs that snuck through the folds of my sofa and cracks in the hardwood floors. I retreated to the bathtub at two in the morning, saturated in dread.

Bed bugs aren’t dangerous, but eradicating them is an awful and laborious process. I had been in physical therapy for years for a bad back. My nearest family member was hundreds of miles away. I couldn’t imagine how to pack all my belongings away with my unstable bones. I cringed in anticipation of the pain that could come from rounds of laundering everything I owned, spraying things down with isopropyl, and moving furniture for exterminators.

The predicted injury and accompanying pain led to my first visit to Indonesia. I questioned if other people with physical disadvantages could get caught in similarly horrendous situations throughout the world, and secured a grant to research the topic in several countries. Come spring, I set off on a great multinational adventure in which I fervently chased answers and lines of longitude.

During that journey, I took a ferry from Singapore to spend a couple days in Bintan Island, Indonesia. Between the driftwood and palm fronds on an empty stretch of beach, I stopped to see an eroding message written in the sand: “LIFE ALWAYS FINDS A WAY”. I felt like some vanished scribe had written it there as part of my story, like the universe had left the words there just for me.

I bought a ticket to Bali during a turbulent period a couple years later. I wanted to head back to the country where clairvoyants roamed the islands and messages were hidden in the sand.

In the place where I expected to find order and inner peace, I was being gripped by memories of injured sleepless nights and unresolved past fears. I hauled my backpack to the safety of the front porch and dove into my phone, searching furiously for new accommodations, comfort from friends, and ways to clean old demons out of potentially contaminated belongings.

I sat on the ground for so long that the stones had imprinted their shapes on my legs, so I headed to the roof terrace to obsess over my problems in privacy. I looked out to see a brilliant sunset, a scattering of stringy blue clouds hanging on a backdrop of potent pinks and oranges. Beyond the edge of the peninsula, the ocean was mirroring the colorful banners of the sunset, making it seem almost endless.

I wasn’t sure how many sunsets I’d missed while my phobias were running amok, but I didn’t want to miss that one. In the last journey I hadn’t learned to compartmentalize my thoughts, to stop a bout of fear from tainting all of the glory around me. I turned the phone on its face to gaze at the sunset, to listen to the ensemble of cicadas and monkeys and the chattering and clinking of bottles from guests downstairs.

Travel has power to put you out in the caprices of the unknown and onto the stoops of old haunts. But sometimes, it also offers you a chance at redemption.

I was myself again, watching silently as the ocean was swallowed by the night. I was free from those harrowing and pervasive fears, unshackled from the tunnel vision of anxiety.

I found no more messages in the sand, no phantoms to leave signs that I had gotten things right. I was left with open road, a painted sky, and gorgeous wildlife; all that I sought and all that I needed.

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Feeling Insignificant on Serene Mt. Rainier, USA

The feel of snow in August is a unique experience reserved for those in either extreme latitudes or significant altitudes. Mt. Rainier certainly qualifies for the latter category. I had taken a break on the side of the Mountain to prep for my final push towards Camp Muir, a staging area which sits about 4,000’ short of the summit of Mt. Rainier at 14,411’. Although I needed to catch my breath for the climb ahead, this task seemed figuratively impossible given the breathtaking vista surrounding me. To the south lay the smoke-obscured teeth of the Tatoosh range, and beyond them the still-visible volcanic peaks of St. Helens and Adams. Looking to the West, I saw the Cowlitz Glacier dissipating to thin waterfalls that collected in the valley below. But it was the northern view that was the most commanding, as this sight contained the camp, the summit and a blinding stretch of steep snow that constituted the rest of my hike.

Moments like this take me back to a line I overheard in Seattle just a few days before my hike: “The great thing about nature is how it makes us feel small”. I disagreed with the speaker, at least in part. If the feeling of smallness was truly all we sought in nature, there really would be no reason to travel there. Smallness is so much easier to find in a cubical from 9-to-5, a fact I am well acquainted with. Three months prior to this evening and this hike, I was living a comfortable life in Boston with a good paying job. Stability, activity, and the prospect of upwards mobility were all luxuries I enjoyed, but it was still a small existence, a fact intensified by my oppressive anxiety and frequent panic attacks.

Conventional wisdom would have recommended, at times like this, that the weary worker take a vacation and “get your head in order”. I took the wisdom, but neglected the conventionality, boarding an Amtrak train in Boston and seeing where I could go over the next few months. This eventually brought me to the Space Needle in Seattle, where I got my first good view of Mt. Rainer. The thing was big, not just in raw mass, but with understated gravity. It gripped my attention and demanded personification, quietly scoffing at the Needle I was standing on. I left the elevator with a single conviction in mind, one that brought me to my break point on the side of Mt. Rainer, just a few hundred feet below the camp.

If ever I had sound reason for suffering a panic attack, this would be that time. I was by myself on one of the deadliest hiking trails in the country, where the afternoon sun was opening crevasses below my feet and cutting my friction-less progress to a negligible sum. What if my exertion led to a heart attack, where would they take me? Or if a storm rolls in and I lose my sense of direction? These thoughts and more could have easily crossed my mind, but none did. Instead, my focus lay in just placing one foot in front of the other until I arrived on the stone-carved steps of Camp Muir. And then I saw how small I really was. But this feeling of smallness was different than the one I knew three months prior. This experience was expansive, elevated, the kind that makes you breathe easier with a younger smile on your face. I was, in that moment, entwined within something bigger than myself without being absolved into it.

Suffice it to say, I never did return from my vacation, at least not to the job I had before. There was many more moments that lead to that decision, but the encounter with Rainier demonstrated something that I once had, had lost, and must work to awaken again. The path from here remains uncertain, but it is now a path that does at least go on..

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From Vietnamese Mangroves and a Loving Mom

The runway was not much more than a lightly paved strip of soil which popped out of the rice paddies and mangroves like a long, rectangular oasis. As I exited the 1950’s prop, much like the one that Indiana Jones rides in Raiders of the Lost Ark, I felt stifled instead of being freed from the tight quarters that I’d just ridden in. The density and weight of the atmosphere made it hard to inhale deeply– and it was more than just heat and humidity of the southernmost part of Vietnam – Ca Mau, a peninsular province with the Gulf of Thailand to the West and the Pacific Ocean to the South and East. I was stepping foot on the same soil where my son was born, breathing the same sticky, tropical air that he did. The son I had not yet met, and the son that I would not be bringing home to Indiana after the eight days that I’d be there.

As excited as I was to meet my baby — the one that I dreamed of and had dreams for — I needed to guard my emotions. Upon seeing my first photo of him, my heart skipped a beat when I gazed into those deep brown eyes and saw the shock of black hair standing up on his head. I knew that without a doubt that he was my son. It was my moment of a doctor handing my child to me to put on my chest and feeling a love like no other.

Much like the southern Vietnamese mangroves’ intertwined roots, strong and complicated, his homecoming was constricted by the fact that he was stuck — stuck in an orphanage due to political posturing by both the U.S. and Vietnamese governments not willing to move an inch to finalize his adoption, despite him living in squalid and unsafe orphanage conditions.

I flew half-way around the world and was there with two other moms in the same situation to help care for our children and the others in the orphanage. It was the one small thing we could actually do to help our kids, while we lobbied Congressional leaders and the State Department on the homefront.

Within minutes sweat was streaming down my face and soaking my clothes – a combination of the oppressive heat and my anxiety. My friends and I headed out to the orphanage in a taxi. There were few cars on the road, mostly bicycles and motor bikes. We raced along the tropical landscape – passing roadside markets where vendors sold pineapples, roosters in woven basket cages, plastic kitchenware and even python meat. Our taxi driver honked incessantly as he passed cars, though few, and played a game of chicken with oncoming traffic. A movie of mangroves and long boats with weathered fishermen, and the occasional water buffalo grazing in a yard ran through the car windows. Children with bare feet and dirty faces dotted the fast-moving landscape – all of it beautiful, colorful and full of life.

Finally, we turned down a one-lane dirt road lined by shallow canals, lush mango and tamarind trees, and tin roof-shacks with hammocks as beds. My stomach dropped to my knees when I saw the orphanage building.

My 22-month old son was literally imprisoned in his tiny room — it had bars on the windows, a former internment camp from the Vietnam War.

I had many conversations with him before I got to Vietnam (all in my head), promising him that I would do whatever it took to get him home to Indiana. I’d say “good night” to him when I woke up in the morning and whisper “good morning” before I fell asleep at night, living with my heart twelve hours ahead. And that week, I told him in person — kissing his smooth, tan cheeks, my tears wetting his sweet face as I held him close. And, then having to leave him.

Twenty-six months later, in the most unusual of places, we found refuge surrounded by luggage carts, drug-sniffing Beagles and a melody of different languages at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. His two tiny feet touched U.S. soil, and I felt palpable relief from my shoulders, fighting back yet another set of tears as my husband squeezed my hand and hugged us both.

Sitting at our departure gate for the last leg of our journey home, he sat in my lap and munched on a banana and French fries.

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My Unlikely Friends in Mountainous Ecuador

It’s hot. How can it be this hot? Since arriving in Salasaka, this indigenous village in the Ecuadorian Andes, I have had a constantly sun-burned, peeling nose. Having an 8-year-old child on my back doesn’t help.

I struggle along, Fernanda on my back and her 5-year-old sister Ñusta leading the way. Ñusta is a great helper, waddling along with her sick sister’s backpack, which is almost as large as her. We walk down the wide, dusty roads lined with agave; sheep bleat and donkeys bray, everyone lazily complaining about the sweltering heat. I can see endlessly across the green, quilt-patterned hills, and everything looks exactly the same. We could be anywhere in all of Salasaka, and I would have no idea. All I can do is trust the girls to know where they live. At the school where I am teaching, when a child gets sick like Fernanda has, we can’t just call home, mom rushing over in her minivan to pick the child up, sign her out for the day. Almost no households in this village have a phone, and neither does the school. The only way to get them home is to do this, to carry them for miles until you reach the shanty and farm that is their home.

As a recently trained child therapist back in the U.S., I feel sick with guilt because it’s breaking every rule in the book that I’m doing this. Carrying a child on my back for miles? Taking them home when their parents haven’t given me signed permission? But I’m not their therapist, I remind myself, or try to. Because Fernanda is sick, and needs to get home, and this moment is more important than all the things I learned in graduate school.

“Podemos descansar?”, I ask the girls. Can we rest? I gently set Fernanda down, and the 3 of us sit together in the shade of a stack of cement blocks. Fernanda immediately lies down and puts her head in my lap. My “clinical instinct” is to gently remove her from her physical contact with me. Physical affection is always a liability. Keep your “boundaries”, they tell you. To the 7-year-old client who innocently tells me, I love you, I am trained to respond, I see that you really care about me, and I care about you too. Not “I love you too”, never that. A separation between you and the child. Care about her, of course, but from a distance.

I quit my job as a therapist because I was so terrified of how much I cared about my kids. I must not be doing something right, I felt. I must not be cut out for this. It broke my heart. A career down the drain because I just loved those kids too much. But here I was, in the mountains of South America to where I escaped, doing the same thing. Loving too much, again.

But I can’t help it. I love Fernanda. My heart is filled with her. She is only 8 years old and already the smartest student in school. She pulls my hand before recess ends every morning, lamenting, “Vamos a clase!” She watches over my shoulder with anxiety that is palpable as I grade her multiplication drills, as if she has ever received anything less than a 100%. There is a moodiness about her, a subtle neediness, and she sometimes sits apart from the group as Renato, the music teacher, leads them in warbling South American pop songs.

A woman passes where we sit catching our breath, wearing her chumbi and green shawl, half a dozen protesting sheep leading the way. She looks at me, and her confusion is reflected in her glare. What is this gringa doing out here with two of our precious children? The girls chat pleasantly with her in Kichwa, the sing-song indigenous language that I haven’t learned yet, and finally, she smiles, understanding. And somehow, with that smile, she is granting me the permission to love this child freely, to really love her, to love her and all of her sisters and friends without clinical boundaries, without restriction. Love her simply, freely, not as a professional but as a fellow human being, as an adult in the community who shares the responsibility of raising and caring for her. And maybe that’s not such a terrible thing.

I put my hand on Fernanda’s forehead. She doesn’t feel hot, and I don’t know if she was really sick at all or if she just wanted this time with me. “Listas?”, I ask the girls, and Ñusta puts on two backpacks, her own in the back and Fernanda’s in the front. I stoop to let Fernanda on my back, and we keep on walking.

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New Experiences with Monkeys in India

I was sitting cross-legged on a four-inch mattress that doubled as my bed. Sweat engulfed all of my pores as a simple fan hummed above. I glanced up from my book. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a medium-sized monkey open my screen door with ease. I blinked. I observed a second monkey trailing behind and then another.

My jaw dropped. I sat speechless. Three wild monkeys were just a couple of yards away.

Without hesitation, they walked toward a small round table next to my bright red refrigerator. All three admired my possessions. The taller one glanced back in my direction as if to say, “ha, ha”. With one hand, he grabbed one of my Tupperware containers. Within seconds, the monkeys vanished, leaving my door open in their wake.

I sat bewildered. Should I laugh or should I cry?

Just weeks earlier, I had started teaching at an international K-12 boarding school in Bangalore, India. As an American middle-aged educator, I jumped at the opportunity to work and travel abroad. Most of my friends and family members thought that I was experiencing a midlife crisis. Why would I leave my cushy suburban life to work in a developing country?

For years, a series of orthopedic issues had prevented me from using my K-6 teaching license. To remain an educator, I became an adjunct instructor at a local community college. I loved teaching, but something was missing.

When I was offered the primary international teaching position, one of my dreams was finally fulfilled. Once again, I would have the opportunity to work with children and use my teaching credentials. But would I be able to step outside my comfort zone and face my natural fears of living in another country?

After all, I was a middle-age woman who hadn’t traveled alone in decades. I wasn’t traveling to unfamiliar neighborhoods within driving distance of my home. I was flying half way around the world to travel solo in a foreign country. If I had any chance of being successful, I had to regain my independent spirit. I had to look forward and not scurry back to what felt safe. I relied on my inner voice that wouldn’t stop whispering, “You can do it.”

I wasn’t looking to the popular Nike slogan, “Just Do It.” I was recalling another image. Decades ago, I read the classic book, The Little Engine That Could, to my sons. How fitting that in midlife, I would look to a children’s book to instill confidence. Just like the small train in this inspiring story, I had to use daily reminders to keep me on track.

After the three thieves left my guest room, the uncertainty returned. Could I simply laugh off the absurdity of wild monkeys stealing my food or would I succumb to the temptation to long for a more predictable life? This wasn’t the first time that the monkeys had trespassed. Like ants that gravitate toward food crumbs, these larger pests could be found everywhere humans congregated. The school campus was inundated. Groups of monkeys frequented classrooms, stairwells, the playground, the open fields, the lunchroom, and the pathways between buildings.

Fanciful irrational emotions flooded my well being like a tsunami. My mind planned ways to escape in the middle of the night without a trace. While I rationally knew that I had to cope with my new life in India, it was much easier to create plans for fleeing.

I had no choice but to face my challenges head on. The monkey situation was just one example of a multitude of events. Each day was filled with unfamiliar and strange happenings.

For comfort, I listened to my favorite songs from my youth and thought about others who had successfully dealt with obstacles. I recalled times when I had to overcome challenging situations. I posted one of Eleanor Roosevelt’s quotes above my desk:

The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.

I was working as an international teacher and I wasn’t going to let any of my fears erode my confidence or destroy my dreams. My inner voice became my daily mantra. Instead of hearing a small voice inside, I mouthed the words, “I can do it.”

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Christchurch, New Zealand will always be in my heart

It’s not the miles from Home what made Me Change. It was the Emotions and Experiences New to Me. At the End I did traveled far enough, but just enough to find myself.

And I had to travel miles, distance myself for my closest things, and experience many different emotions to discover about myself, to embrace myself.
I had to keep the distance from what I knew or thought it was safe to be born again.
I had to come to the other side of the world to understand and discover myself.
I didn’t travel places. I traveled emotions inside of me.
I didn’t distance myself from Home. I created a new Home.
My heart became new; my eyes saw the bright light again.
My soul was lifted.
I was born again here.
I FELT ALIVE AND FREE AGAIN!
See, I didn’t travel just for the sake of traveling. I was naïve.
I didn’t know that away from Home you can actually find yourself.
See… I LEARNED THAT TODAY…
I had to get away to truly find myself AND FREEDOM….AGAIN!

This is my poetic way to explain all my feelings since I have moved to Christchurch, New Zealand. I wish I had more eloquent words to describe all the wonders that this country offers. It’s not only a beautiful country for its gorgeous landscapes, but it is also a country filled with great and humble people.
I moved from Miami to Christchurch, New Zealand in February of 2012 with my husband as an expatriate wife. I came with the “Miami” ideas if you can call it that, you know the big city girl ideas. And I was changed.
In Christchurch I learned to relax, to reconnect with myself. To learn about the kiwi culture, to understand that they enjoy being around nature. And that if ask them about the world, they are probably well traveled folks, but they will always return to their home country.
I learned to smile back when they smile at me walking on the street because the kiwis are very polite, and you should smile back! I learned that is ok to recycle your cartoon eggs because is just nice to return to the veggie store with a full bag of cartoon eggs to give back to them and see their smile. And to show them that you care for the environment and that you care for their store.
I learned that even being miles away from home, I can still enjoy Latin music because kiwis have a taste for dancing salsa. I learned that if you suffer a loss, like I did, a big loss, a miscarriage, the kiwis will be there for you. They will prepare your meals, they will clean your house, they will give you a word of comfort and they will be calling you back just to make sure you are doing ok.
These four years spent in New Zealand made me open my eyes to new cultures, to trying new things in life. I even tried to ski for god sake! I, the Cuban / Miami only beach please kind of girl. These four years have been amazing, and I will totally recommend visiting New Zealand.
Thank you Christchurch for all this time with Me, you made ME a new person, you gave Me back my FREEDOM WINGS!

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CANADA: Finding Yourself and Finding Your World

Where I find freedom….

I am often asked this questions being a mother to four young children, a wife, an entrepreneur, and an aspiring author. How do I find the time for me?

The first step for me was realizing that I needed time and freedom for myself and I had to make it happen. Prior to going on my personal development journey to healing and find my self-love. I was going through my life trying to do what would satisfy others and make them proud. Not too long after I graduated from high school I went to college to become a Natural Health Practitioner. I had a lot of criticism from my loved ones as this was not a field they understood or could relate to, in their eyes was not credible. Even before receiving my diploma, I had decided that I would become an electrician. Instead of pursuing my dream, I went into something that I knew would be accepted by everyone around me. Just a couple months after receiving my diploma I started my electrical apprenticeship. I received praise from all my loved ones and even complete strangers, which persuaded me to keep going.

I had to hit rock-bottom before realizing that I needed to honour myself and find that freedom for me. When I was pregnant with my fourth child, I realized that I was miserable, felt lost, misplaced and disconnected within your own skin. Living in a world full of judgement, feeling as though I needed to portray a perfect life, and putting unrealistic expectations upon myself, resulted in a lot of disappointment and feelings of failure. Being occupied by another’s needs each and every day without honouring myself, lead to exhaustion and deep disconnection within myself.

In society we have been essentially programmed to put on a facade to express how “ideal” our life should be and how we should be in the eyes of our generally population. There is an accepted way to be, look, act, the house, vehicle and life you should strive for, the items or things you should have. When really all these things should be customized to each individual, who you are, your soul purpose, personality and what you would like to accomplish in your life. Not everyone is the same. From one person to another, you will do things differently, have different beliefs, have different circumstances, priorities and have different ways of doing things.

When I started my self-healing journey, the biggest change happened for me when I allowed myself to have two hours for just me every morning before the rest of my family woke up. This time allowed me to fully connect, dig into my self-healing books and programs and better myself. Because I had chosen the morning for this time, it set up my day to succeed as I had already put time into myself, feeding my heart and soul, and allowing me to be the best me for the day. This also made decision making clearer for me. I knew I was on the right track because I was motivated to continue, it felt good and freeing.

With this self-acknowledgement, my self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-love grew naturally. The more ways I honoured yourself, the happier I became, the lighter I felt and life began to flow with ease. Once I became connected with what made me happy, the faster my perspective changed. I was more accepting of others and all forms of judgment then disappears; self-judgement, judgement of others and other’s judgements on me. When I was able to release all of my self-judgements, I felt more confident within yourself and no longer needed anyone else’s opinions. When I got to the point, where I became absolutely comfortable within me and no longer felt the need to rely on other’s opinions, I instead use their suggestions as I saw suitable.

By honouring myself with “me time” everyday, I find my freedom, live my passion, and am present with my life.

My vision is:
“For all moms to think of themselves as no less than extraordinary!”

Much love, appreciation & gratitude,
Tracy Munson
Natural Health Strategist & Coach, NHP, CDC

 

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My New Year’s Rebirth in Guatemala

Driving along the quiet morning streets of a city I would come to know and love, I bawled into the musky atmosphere of the cab. I had just flown to Los Angeles for about a week, to visit a man who would become a bigger part of my life than I could ever imagine. But as the sun began to rise and the infamous LAX came into view, I felt less than elated to be hopping on a flight to Guatemala City.

It was the day before New Year’s Eve, and the looming new year on the horizon stood a mysterious silhouette in a grey backdrop. At first the plan seemed simple, go to Central America, have a work holiday, more or less. It seemed fitting, but sometimes what you think you are ‘meant’ to do doesn’t match up with what the world has planned for you. The firm seats of the plane reminded me that I was about to spend the next few weeks in unfamiliar places, and likely sitting in similarly firm bus seats, which was almost comforting, as although I had come to realize I had no idea why I was going to Guatemala, maybe it was a childhood fascination finally coming to life, that I indeed took refuge in the unfamiliar.

When you do not know a city, when you do not know a face or a name, reality seems more malleable, free from the conditions and generalizations we bind ourselves with. But it wasn’t until after I left Central America for the second time that I would conclude that sometimes you can’t simply put yourself out of the norm, you have to be completely destroyed, and born again anew.

Arriving in the beautiful colonial city of Antigua, Guatemala, I felt instantly lonely. A rare sensation, and a wave of isolation and being far from the world I knew washed over, even as I walked the stone streets, full of character and stories. New Year’s Eve was spent with a gaggle of Australians whom I’d met that day at my hostel. Predictable, but at least I knew that all over the world, people were celebrating the same thing, a shift in time, a new year, a new era. The night proceeded in a sickly classic way, the parties were many and the drinks too strong. Upon losing my group of newly acquainted travel buddies I quickly realized I was now well and truly alone, wandering the ghostly streets of a potentially dangerous city.

Fear introduced itself promptly and again I found myself caught in a whirling dizziness of confusion. Where is my hostel? Why am I suddenly by myself? Questions of my own sanity brought me to eventual surrender when a car pulled up. It was a police officer. Now this had to be one of the strangest experiences of my life, and still now it holds a mind boggling surreal quality. The officer asked me what was wrong, to which I could barely answer between sobs. To my own surprise, as I generally consider myself verging on the edge of paranoia, I agreed to be driven home after he kindly took me to get food and a coffee.

Crying to a strange police officer over cake, in a foreign country, about nothing in particular, is probably one of the most embarrassing and messed up accounts I could ever recall, but as I began to settle down and he listened to me, offering even more surprising words of wisdom, I began to notice that on this New Year’s Day, I had been reborn. It sounds silly, but it literally felt like a piece of me had left, abruptly resigned, in the face of such fear, discomfort and the internal pain that I had been feeling. Sometimes we can only see freedom when we are forced to face ourselves solely, with no walls, no security blankets, no friends, no money, nothing we have been so trained to value, alone.

The aura of confusion still lingered but was not pressing, there was a certain lightness now. I continued to enjoy my next 4 weeks in Guatemala, and 2 weeks in Mexico, the best I possibly could, allowing what was meant to be to be. I met amazing people. I swam. I (hestitantly) rode horses on cliffs. I hiked to the tops of mountains at sunrise and sunset. I danced and ate and listened to music. I got sick. Really sick. I lost my phone. My computer died. I got sick again. I tried not to blame myself for being sick. I visited amazing places. I made a best friend.

And I watched. I observed. And still now, when I recall the entirety of my journeys from Guatemala City to Mexico and finally back to Los Angeles, when I rejoiced in being back in North America despite my mind-blowing travels, I watch it all as a movie I have seen a thousand times, and know that in some way, I had to be completely destroyed to find my freedom, to let go of all that I perceived to be true in order to make room for the new and spectacular things that were about to enter my life. I had nothing to lose. Freedom had been chasing me down, like a ghost longing to make itself known, so that I could finally stare it straight in the face.

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I Choose My Freedom in Australia…For Now

We laid on our sides on what I once called our bed. Nose touching tip of nose, eyes locked into eyes. I traced the outside of his face with my free hand, imagining that I could feel the difference between the brown, gold and crimson strands of his beard underneath my fingertips. The scent of him filled me like smoke. I breathed in earth, clean laundry and a hint of weed. In this bed, there was nothing else. Only the physical tug of my heart to his, our breath slowed down to one. If I made this moment my entire world, I was happy.

“Come home,” he said, breaking the comfortable silence. “You can still travel. Just come home to me.”

I was leaving him for now the third time. The freedom that comes with traveling– the thrill of uncertainty, the choices that follow ambiguity– had once again found prominence in my heart over anything that would just make me one half of a whole. This time, I’d be gone for more than a four month backpacking stint around Europe or South America. I was going to Australia for at least a year, and I intended to finally make this breakup stick.

However, my mind struggled to find the flaw in his plan, drunk as I was on the happiness that I associated with his presence. It sounded nice. I could have both.

He assured me certainty, security, love, a future–the sweetest of chains. So I imagined living out my life with him, continuing the dream state of that bed. The only thing that he truly stimulated in me was a sexual desire. The rest would continue to be a mindless routine, devoid of intelligent conversation. He would watch football. I would cook him lasagna. He’d tell me he thought it was cute that I liked to read. I’d try in vain to discuss Orwell with him. He would work at the bar. I would find some middleman job. He’d buy a house in a small Massachusetts town. We’d take turns digging our cars out of the New England snow, and he’d get angry when he caught me lusting after Google images of exotic places. We’d smoke weed everyday to further along the numbing effect. He’d get me pregnant one day, like he always wanted. He’d teach our child to throw a ball, and I’d try to instill enough independence and individuality in her so that she could live the life I always wanted–a life of adventure and freedom.

To stay with him would have been to make the choice to throw a huge spoiler alert over my entire life, to watch the Red Wedding scene of Game of Thrones just as I got invested in the first season. Our relationship presented only walls and no frontiers.

I didn’t know who I was when I wasn’t his. All I knew was that it bothered me, a literal constant pain in my side each time I realised that I was becoming part of an indifferent and incurious population that gets stuck in relationships that are finite, lethargic and easy. I realized that I lived for my connection to him, changing myself to fit his mold. I neglected everything else that I ever wanted, pursuing those finite moments of happiness wholeheartedly so that I could mollify my anxiety in the face of my natural state, the state of freedom. I wasn’t committed to my authenticity; I hid from it.

My urge to strike out on my own was a gut reaction, a survival instinct. I needed to ease the stomach-clenching dread that accompanied the notion of remaining in one place for long, and for someone else. I needed the ignition that comes with waking up in a strange city or country, stimulating myself by way of exploration, acquainting myself with a new place through its food, having informed and varied discussions in broken English over a hostel dining room table. My freedom comes with the weight of a backpack on my shoulders, a one-way ticket and a culture shock. I am the only one in this world who can give me what I crave; to travel. To live a life as a traveller means living a life of contrast and spontaneity, ambiguity and choices.

I did not say that travel made me “happy,” although it often does. Happiness is not the attainable lifetime goal. Happiness is finite. What I sought was freedom, an infinite state of being that far surpasses a vague and unattainable notion of absolute contentment.

So as I lay in that bed, contemplating the tear I had to force between us, I focused on my refusal to be defined by my environment and my sentiment, rather than by the choices I made when faced with uncertainty.

I’ve been living in Australia for almost 10 months now, and I am face to face with my independence everyday, my choice to try on life as a 24 year old Melburnian for the time being, absorbing the parts of it that add to my shifting identity. I do not know what the next steps are, for I cannot see them clearly or at all. And that’s okay. To have a full knowledge of what my years hold would be just as finite as a committed relationship with a small-minded man. The mystery that comes with knowing nothing is infinite. I am faced with an unlimited spectrum, and all I must do is choose and take responsibility for my choices, may they always be in line with my most authentic state. This is what makes me free.

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The Power of Unique Experiences in Indonesia

Kerthunk, kerthunk, kerthunk.

I felt as if someone had sunk a fistful of fear into my heart and let it pound it into the rest of my body. My stomach felt like it was trying to retreat behind my ribs, my eyes were wide. Reason told me I shouldn’t have been so phobic. But I was staring down my nemeses, and reason was quickly losing its place in my repertoire.

Actually, “nemeses” might be a strong word for something the size of a pin head. These were a couple of bugs so small that one could easily mistake them for a floating piece of white lint, especially in the flickering shadows of the Balinese evening. They were bed bug nymphs, and their presence meant I needed to leave before they could scurry their way into my belongings.

My mind flashed back to a bitter night far away from the hostel on the quaint Indonesian road. I was back in my apartment in Massachusetts, back to the shock of finding an infestation of biting little bugs that snuck through the folds of my sofa and cracks in the hardwood floors. I retreated to the bathtub at two in the morning, saturated in dread.

Bed bugs aren’t dangerous, but eradicating them is an awful and laborious process. I had been in physical therapy for years for a bad back. My nearest family member was hundreds of miles away. I couldn’t imagine how to pack all my belongings away with my unstable bones. I cringed in anticipation of the pain that could come from rounds of laundering everything I owned, spraying things down with isopropyl, and moving furniture for exterminators.

The predicted injury and accompanying pain led to my first visit to Indonesia. I questioned if other people with physical disadvantages could get caught in similarly horrendous situations throughout the world, and secured a grant to research the topic in several countries. Come spring, I set off on a great multinational adventure in which I fervently chased answers and lines of longitude.

During that journey, I took a ferry from Singapore to spend a couple days in Bintan Island, Indonesia. Between the driftwood and palm fronds on an empty stretch of beach, I stopped to see an eroding message written in the sand: “LIFE ALWAYS FINDS A WAY”. I felt like some vanished scribe had written it there as part of my story, like the universe had left the words there just for me.

I bought a ticket to Bali during a turbulent period a couple years later. I wanted to head back to the country where clairvoyants roamed the islands and messages were hidden in the sand.

In the place where I expected to find order and inner peace, I was being gripped by memories of injured sleepless nights and unresolved past fears. I hauled my backpack to the safety of the front porch and dove into my phone, searching furiously for new accommodations, comfort from friends, and ways to clean old demons out of potentially contaminated belongings.

I sat on the ground for so long that the stones had imprinted their shapes on my legs, so I headed to the roof terrace to obsess over my problems in privacy. I looked out to see a brilliant sunset, a scattering of stringy blue clouds hanging on a backdrop of potent pinks and oranges. Beyond the edge of the peninsula, the ocean was mirroring the colorful banners of the sunset, making it seem almost endless.

I wasn’t sure how many sunsets I’d missed while my phobias were running amok, but I didn’t want to miss that one. In the last journey I hadn’t learned to compartmentalize my thoughts, to stop a bout of fear from tainting all of the glory around me. I turned the phone on its face to gaze at the sunset, to listen to the ensemble of cicadas and monkeys and the chattering and clinking of bottles from guests downstairs.

Travel has power to put you out in the caprices of the unknown and onto the stoops of old haunts. But sometimes, it also offers you a chance at redemption.

I was myself again, watching silently as the ocean was swallowed by the night. I was free from those harrowing and pervasive fears, unshackled from the tunnel vision of anxiety.

I found no more messages in the sand, no phantoms to leave signs that I had gotten things right. I was left with open road, a painted sky, and gorgeous wildlife; all that I sought and all that I needed.

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Feeling Insignificant on Serene Mt. Rainier, USA

The feel of snow in August is a unique experience reserved for those in either extreme latitudes or significant altitudes. Mt. Rainier certainly qualifies for the latter category. I had taken a break on the side of the Mountain to prep for my final push towards Camp Muir, a staging area which sits about 4,000’ short of the summit of Mt. Rainier at 14,411’. Although I needed to catch my breath for the climb ahead, this task seemed figuratively impossible given the breathtaking vista surrounding me. To the south lay the smoke-obscured teeth of the Tatoosh range, and beyond them the still-visible volcanic peaks of St. Helens and Adams. Looking to the West, I saw the Cowlitz Glacier dissipating to thin waterfalls that collected in the valley below. But it was the northern view that was the most commanding, as this sight contained the camp, the summit and a blinding stretch of steep snow that constituted the rest of my hike.

Moments like this take me back to a line I overheard in Seattle just a few days before my hike: “The great thing about nature is how it makes us feel small”. I disagreed with the speaker, at least in part. If the feeling of smallness was truly all we sought in nature, there really would be no reason to travel there. Smallness is so much easier to find in a cubical from 9-to-5, a fact I am well acquainted with. Three months prior to this evening and this hike, I was living a comfortable life in Boston with a good paying job. Stability, activity, and the prospect of upwards mobility were all luxuries I enjoyed, but it was still a small existence, a fact intensified by my oppressive anxiety and frequent panic attacks.

Conventional wisdom would have recommended, at times like this, that the weary worker take a vacation and “get your head in order”. I took the wisdom, but neglected the conventionality, boarding an Amtrak train in Boston and seeing where I could go over the next few months. This eventually brought me to the Space Needle in Seattle, where I got my first good view of Mt. Rainer. The thing was big, not just in raw mass, but with understated gravity. It gripped my attention and demanded personification, quietly scoffing at the Needle I was standing on. I left the elevator with a single conviction in mind, one that brought me to my break point on the side of Mt. Rainer, just a few hundred feet below the camp.

If ever I had sound reason for suffering a panic attack, this would be that time. I was by myself on one of the deadliest hiking trails in the country, where the afternoon sun was opening crevasses below my feet and cutting my friction-less progress to a negligible sum. What if my exertion led to a heart attack, where would they take me? Or if a storm rolls in and I lose my sense of direction? These thoughts and more could have easily crossed my mind, but none did. Instead, my focus lay in just placing one foot in front of the other until I arrived on the stone-carved steps of Camp Muir. And then I saw how small I really was. But this feeling of smallness was different than the one I knew three months prior. This experience was expansive, elevated, the kind that makes you breathe easier with a younger smile on your face. I was, in that moment, entwined within something bigger than myself without being absolved into it.

Suffice it to say, I never did return from my vacation, at least not to the job I had before. There was many more moments that lead to that decision, but the encounter with Rainier demonstrated something that I once had, had lost, and must work to awaken again. The path from here remains uncertain, but it is now a path that does at least go on..

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From Vietnamese Mangroves and a Loving Mom

The runway was not much more than a lightly paved strip of soil which popped out of the rice paddies and mangroves like a long, rectangular oasis. As I exited the 1950’s prop, much like the one that Indiana Jones rides in Raiders of the Lost Ark, I felt stifled instead of being freed from the tight quarters that I’d just ridden in. The density and weight of the atmosphere made it hard to inhale deeply– and it was more than just heat and humidity of the southernmost part of Vietnam – Ca Mau, a peninsular province with the Gulf of Thailand to the West and the Pacific Ocean to the South and East. I was stepping foot on the same soil where my son was born, breathing the same sticky, tropical air that he did. The son I had not yet met, and the son that I would not be bringing home to Indiana after the eight days that I’d be there.

As excited as I was to meet my baby — the one that I dreamed of and had dreams for — I needed to guard my emotions. Upon seeing my first photo of him, my heart skipped a beat when I gazed into those deep brown eyes and saw the shock of black hair standing up on his head. I knew that without a doubt that he was my son. It was my moment of a doctor handing my child to me to put on my chest and feeling a love like no other.

Much like the southern Vietnamese mangroves’ intertwined roots, strong and complicated, his homecoming was constricted by the fact that he was stuck — stuck in an orphanage due to political posturing by both the U.S. and Vietnamese governments not willing to move an inch to finalize his adoption, despite him living in squalid and unsafe orphanage conditions.

I flew half-way around the world and was there with two other moms in the same situation to help care for our children and the others in the orphanage. It was the one small thing we could actually do to help our kids, while we lobbied Congressional leaders and the State Department on the homefront.

Within minutes sweat was streaming down my face and soaking my clothes – a combination of the oppressive heat and my anxiety. My friends and I headed out to the orphanage in a taxi. There were few cars on the road, mostly bicycles and motor bikes. We raced along the tropical landscape – passing roadside markets where vendors sold pineapples, roosters in woven basket cages, plastic kitchenware and even python meat. Our taxi driver honked incessantly as he passed cars, though few, and played a game of chicken with oncoming traffic. A movie of mangroves and long boats with weathered fishermen, and the occasional water buffalo grazing in a yard ran through the car windows. Children with bare feet and dirty faces dotted the fast-moving landscape – all of it beautiful, colorful and full of life.

Finally, we turned down a one-lane dirt road lined by shallow canals, lush mango and tamarind trees, and tin roof-shacks with hammocks as beds. My stomach dropped to my knees when I saw the orphanage building.

My 22-month old son was literally imprisoned in his tiny room — it had bars on the windows, a former internment camp from the Vietnam War.

I had many conversations with him before I got to Vietnam (all in my head), promising him that I would do whatever it took to get him home to Indiana. I’d say “good night” to him when I woke up in the morning and whisper “good morning” before I fell asleep at night, living with my heart twelve hours ahead. And that week, I told him in person — kissing his smooth, tan cheeks, my tears wetting his sweet face as I held him close. And, then having to leave him.

Twenty-six months later, in the most unusual of places, we found refuge surrounded by luggage carts, drug-sniffing Beagles and a melody of different languages at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. His two tiny feet touched U.S. soil, and I felt palpable relief from my shoulders, fighting back yet another set of tears as my husband squeezed my hand and hugged us both.

Sitting at our departure gate for the last leg of our journey home, he sat in my lap and munched on a banana and French fries.

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My Unlikely Friends in Mountainous Ecuador

It’s hot. How can it be this hot? Since arriving in Salasaka, this indigenous village in the Ecuadorian Andes, I have had a constantly sun-burned, peeling nose. Having an 8-year-old child on my back doesn’t help.

I struggle along, Fernanda on my back and her 5-year-old sister Ñusta leading the way. Ñusta is a great helper, waddling along with her sick sister’s backpack, which is almost as large as her. We walk down the wide, dusty roads lined with agave; sheep bleat and donkeys bray, everyone lazily complaining about the sweltering heat. I can see endlessly across the green, quilt-patterned hills, and everything looks exactly the same. We could be anywhere in all of Salasaka, and I would have no idea. All I can do is trust the girls to know where they live. At the school where I am teaching, when a child gets sick like Fernanda has, we can’t just call home, mom rushing over in her minivan to pick the child up, sign her out for the day. Almost no households in this village have a phone, and neither does the school. The only way to get them home is to do this, to carry them for miles until you reach the shanty and farm that is their home.

As a recently trained child therapist back in the U.S., I feel sick with guilt because it’s breaking every rule in the book that I’m doing this. Carrying a child on my back for miles? Taking them home when their parents haven’t given me signed permission? But I’m not their therapist, I remind myself, or try to. Because Fernanda is sick, and needs to get home, and this moment is more important than all the things I learned in graduate school.

“Podemos descansar?”, I ask the girls. Can we rest? I gently set Fernanda down, and the 3 of us sit together in the shade of a stack of cement blocks. Fernanda immediately lies down and puts her head in my lap. My “clinical instinct” is to gently remove her from her physical contact with me. Physical affection is always a liability. Keep your “boundaries”, they tell you. To the 7-year-old client who innocently tells me, I love you, I am trained to respond, I see that you really care about me, and I care about you too. Not “I love you too”, never that. A separation between you and the child. Care about her, of course, but from a distance.

I quit my job as a therapist because I was so terrified of how much I cared about my kids. I must not be doing something right, I felt. I must not be cut out for this. It broke my heart. A career down the drain because I just loved those kids too much. But here I was, in the mountains of South America to where I escaped, doing the same thing. Loving too much, again.

But I can’t help it. I love Fernanda. My heart is filled with her. She is only 8 years old and already the smartest student in school. She pulls my hand before recess ends every morning, lamenting, “Vamos a clase!” She watches over my shoulder with anxiety that is palpable as I grade her multiplication drills, as if she has ever received anything less than a 100%. There is a moodiness about her, a subtle neediness, and she sometimes sits apart from the group as Renato, the music teacher, leads them in warbling South American pop songs.

A woman passes where we sit catching our breath, wearing her chumbi and green shawl, half a dozen protesting sheep leading the way. She looks at me, and her confusion is reflected in her glare. What is this gringa doing out here with two of our precious children? The girls chat pleasantly with her in Kichwa, the sing-song indigenous language that I haven’t learned yet, and finally, she smiles, understanding. And somehow, with that smile, she is granting me the permission to love this child freely, to really love her, to love her and all of her sisters and friends without clinical boundaries, without restriction. Love her simply, freely, not as a professional but as a fellow human being, as an adult in the community who shares the responsibility of raising and caring for her. And maybe that’s not such a terrible thing.

I put my hand on Fernanda’s forehead. She doesn’t feel hot, and I don’t know if she was really sick at all or if she just wanted this time with me. “Listas?”, I ask the girls, and Ñusta puts on two backpacks, her own in the back and Fernanda’s in the front. I stoop to let Fernanda on my back, and we keep on walking.

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New Experiences with Monkeys in India

I was sitting cross-legged on a four-inch mattress that doubled as my bed. Sweat engulfed all of my pores as a simple fan hummed above. I glanced up from my book. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a medium-sized monkey open my screen door with ease. I blinked. I observed a second monkey trailing behind and then another.

My jaw dropped. I sat speechless. Three wild monkeys were just a couple of yards away.

Without hesitation, they walked toward a small round table next to my bright red refrigerator. All three admired my possessions. The taller one glanced back in my direction as if to say, “ha, ha”. With one hand, he grabbed one of my Tupperware containers. Within seconds, the monkeys vanished, leaving my door open in their wake.

I sat bewildered. Should I laugh or should I cry?

Just weeks earlier, I had started teaching at an international K-12 boarding school in Bangalore, India. As an American middle-aged educator, I jumped at the opportunity to work and travel abroad. Most of my friends and family members thought that I was experiencing a midlife crisis. Why would I leave my cushy suburban life to work in a developing country?

For years, a series of orthopedic issues had prevented me from using my K-6 teaching license. To remain an educator, I became an adjunct instructor at a local community college. I loved teaching, but something was missing.

When I was offered the primary international teaching position, one of my dreams was finally fulfilled. Once again, I would have the opportunity to work with children and use my teaching credentials. But would I be able to step outside my comfort zone and face my natural fears of living in another country?

After all, I was a middle-age woman who hadn’t traveled alone in decades. I wasn’t traveling to unfamiliar neighborhoods within driving distance of my home. I was flying half way around the world to travel solo in a foreign country. If I had any chance of being successful, I had to regain my independent spirit. I had to look forward and not scurry back to what felt safe. I relied on my inner voice that wouldn’t stop whispering, “You can do it.”

I wasn’t looking to the popular Nike slogan, “Just Do It.” I was recalling another image. Decades ago, I read the classic book, The Little Engine That Could, to my sons. How fitting that in midlife, I would look to a children’s book to instill confidence. Just like the small train in this inspiring story, I had to use daily reminders to keep me on track.

After the three thieves left my guest room, the uncertainty returned. Could I simply laugh off the absurdity of wild monkeys stealing my food or would I succumb to the temptation to long for a more predictable life? This wasn’t the first time that the monkeys had trespassed. Like ants that gravitate toward food crumbs, these larger pests could be found everywhere humans congregated. The school campus was inundated. Groups of monkeys frequented classrooms, stairwells, the playground, the open fields, the lunchroom, and the pathways between buildings.

Fanciful irrational emotions flooded my well being like a tsunami. My mind planned ways to escape in the middle of the night without a trace. While I rationally knew that I had to cope with my new life in India, it was much easier to create plans for fleeing.

I had no choice but to face my challenges head on. The monkey situation was just one example of a multitude of events. Each day was filled with unfamiliar and strange happenings.

For comfort, I listened to my favorite songs from my youth and thought about others who had successfully dealt with obstacles. I recalled times when I had to overcome challenging situations. I posted one of Eleanor Roosevelt’s quotes above my desk:

The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.

I was working as an international teacher and I wasn’t going to let any of my fears erode my confidence or destroy my dreams. My inner voice became my daily mantra. Instead of hearing a small voice inside, I mouthed the words, “I can do it.”

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Christchurch, New Zealand will always be in my heart

It’s not the miles from Home what made Me Change. It was the Emotions and Experiences New to Me. At the End I did traveled far enough, but just enough to find myself.

And I had to travel miles, distance myself for my closest things, and experience many different emotions to discover about myself, to embrace myself.
I had to keep the distance from what I knew or thought it was safe to be born again.
I had to come to the other side of the world to understand and discover myself.
I didn’t travel places. I traveled emotions inside of me.
I didn’t distance myself from Home. I created a new Home.
My heart became new; my eyes saw the bright light again.
My soul was lifted.
I was born again here.
I FELT ALIVE AND FREE AGAIN!
See, I didn’t travel just for the sake of traveling. I was naïve.
I didn’t know that away from Home you can actually find yourself.
See… I LEARNED THAT TODAY…
I had to get away to truly find myself AND FREEDOM….AGAIN!

This is my poetic way to explain all my feelings since I have moved to Christchurch, New Zealand. I wish I had more eloquent words to describe all the wonders that this country offers. It’s not only a beautiful country for its gorgeous landscapes, but it is also a country filled with great and humble people.
I moved from Miami to Christchurch, New Zealand in February of 2012 with my husband as an expatriate wife. I came with the “Miami” ideas if you can call it that, you know the big city girl ideas. And I was changed.
In Christchurch I learned to relax, to reconnect with myself. To learn about the kiwi culture, to understand that they enjoy being around nature. And that if ask them about the world, they are probably well traveled folks, but they will always return to their home country.
I learned to smile back when they smile at me walking on the street because the kiwis are very polite, and you should smile back! I learned that is ok to recycle your cartoon eggs because is just nice to return to the veggie store with a full bag of cartoon eggs to give back to them and see their smile. And to show them that you care for the environment and that you care for their store.
I learned that even being miles away from home, I can still enjoy Latin music because kiwis have a taste for dancing salsa. I learned that if you suffer a loss, like I did, a big loss, a miscarriage, the kiwis will be there for you. They will prepare your meals, they will clean your house, they will give you a word of comfort and they will be calling you back just to make sure you are doing ok.
These four years spent in New Zealand made me open my eyes to new cultures, to trying new things in life. I even tried to ski for god sake! I, the Cuban / Miami only beach please kind of girl. These four years have been amazing, and I will totally recommend visiting New Zealand.
Thank you Christchurch for all this time with Me, you made ME a new person, you gave Me back my FREEDOM WINGS!

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CANADA: Finding Yourself and Finding Your World

Where I find freedom….

I am often asked this questions being a mother to four young children, a wife, an entrepreneur, and an aspiring author. How do I find the time for me?

The first step for me was realizing that I needed time and freedom for myself and I had to make it happen. Prior to going on my personal development journey to healing and find my self-love. I was going through my life trying to do what would satisfy others and make them proud. Not too long after I graduated from high school I went to college to become a Natural Health Practitioner. I had a lot of criticism from my loved ones as this was not a field they understood or could relate to, in their eyes was not credible. Even before receiving my diploma, I had decided that I would become an electrician. Instead of pursuing my dream, I went into something that I knew would be accepted by everyone around me. Just a couple months after receiving my diploma I started my electrical apprenticeship. I received praise from all my loved ones and even complete strangers, which persuaded me to keep going.

I had to hit rock-bottom before realizing that I needed to honour myself and find that freedom for me. When I was pregnant with my fourth child, I realized that I was miserable, felt lost, misplaced and disconnected within your own skin. Living in a world full of judgement, feeling as though I needed to portray a perfect life, and putting unrealistic expectations upon myself, resulted in a lot of disappointment and feelings of failure. Being occupied by another’s needs each and every day without honouring myself, lead to exhaustion and deep disconnection within myself.

In society we have been essentially programmed to put on a facade to express how “ideal” our life should be and how we should be in the eyes of our generally population. There is an accepted way to be, look, act, the house, vehicle and life you should strive for, the items or things you should have. When really all these things should be customized to each individual, who you are, your soul purpose, personality and what you would like to accomplish in your life. Not everyone is the same. From one person to another, you will do things differently, have different beliefs, have different circumstances, priorities and have different ways of doing things.

When I started my self-healing journey, the biggest change happened for me when I allowed myself to have two hours for just me every morning before the rest of my family woke up. This time allowed me to fully connect, dig into my self-healing books and programs and better myself. Because I had chosen the morning for this time, it set up my day to succeed as I had already put time into myself, feeding my heart and soul, and allowing me to be the best me for the day. This also made decision making clearer for me. I knew I was on the right track because I was motivated to continue, it felt good and freeing.

With this self-acknowledgement, my self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-love grew naturally. The more ways I honoured yourself, the happier I became, the lighter I felt and life began to flow with ease. Once I became connected with what made me happy, the faster my perspective changed. I was more accepting of others and all forms of judgment then disappears; self-judgement, judgement of others and other’s judgements on me. When I was able to release all of my self-judgements, I felt more confident within yourself and no longer needed anyone else’s opinions. When I got to the point, where I became absolutely comfortable within me and no longer felt the need to rely on other’s opinions, I instead use their suggestions as I saw suitable.

By honouring myself with “me time” everyday, I find my freedom, live my passion, and am present with my life.

My vision is:
“For all moms to think of themselves as no less than extraordinary!”

Much love, appreciation & gratitude,
Tracy Munson
Natural Health Strategist & Coach, NHP, CDC

 

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My New Year’s Rebirth in Guatemala

Driving along the quiet morning streets of a city I would come to know and love, I bawled into the musky atmosphere of the cab. I had just flown to Los Angeles for about a week, to visit a man who would become a bigger part of my life than I could ever imagine. But as the sun began to rise and the infamous LAX came into view, I felt less than elated to be hopping on a flight to Guatemala City.

It was the day before New Year’s Eve, and the looming new year on the horizon stood a mysterious silhouette in a grey backdrop. At first the plan seemed simple, go to Central America, have a work holiday, more or less. It seemed fitting, but sometimes what you think you are ‘meant’ to do doesn’t match up with what the world has planned for you. The firm seats of the plane reminded me that I was about to spend the next few weeks in unfamiliar places, and likely sitting in similarly firm bus seats, which was almost comforting, as although I had come to realize I had no idea why I was going to Guatemala, maybe it was a childhood fascination finally coming to life, that I indeed took refuge in the unfamiliar.

When you do not know a city, when you do not know a face or a name, reality seems more malleable, free from the conditions and generalizations we bind ourselves with. But it wasn’t until after I left Central America for the second time that I would conclude that sometimes you can’t simply put yourself out of the norm, you have to be completely destroyed, and born again anew.

Arriving in the beautiful colonial city of Antigua, Guatemala, I felt instantly lonely. A rare sensation, and a wave of isolation and being far from the world I knew washed over, even as I walked the stone streets, full of character and stories. New Year’s Eve was spent with a gaggle of Australians whom I’d met that day at my hostel. Predictable, but at least I knew that all over the world, people were celebrating the same thing, a shift in time, a new year, a new era. The night proceeded in a sickly classic way, the parties were many and the drinks too strong. Upon losing my group of newly acquainted travel buddies I quickly realized I was now well and truly alone, wandering the ghostly streets of a potentially dangerous city.

Fear introduced itself promptly and again I found myself caught in a whirling dizziness of confusion. Where is my hostel? Why am I suddenly by myself? Questions of my own sanity brought me to eventual surrender when a car pulled up. It was a police officer. Now this had to be one of the strangest experiences of my life, and still now it holds a mind boggling surreal quality. The officer asked me what was wrong, to which I could barely answer between sobs. To my own surprise, as I generally consider myself verging on the edge of paranoia, I agreed to be driven home after he kindly took me to get food and a coffee.

Crying to a strange police officer over cake, in a foreign country, about nothing in particular, is probably one of the most embarrassing and messed up accounts I could ever recall, but as I began to settle down and he listened to me, offering even more surprising words of wisdom, I began to notice that on this New Year’s Day, I had been reborn. It sounds silly, but it literally felt like a piece of me had left, abruptly resigned, in the face of such fear, discomfort and the internal pain that I had been feeling. Sometimes we can only see freedom when we are forced to face ourselves solely, with no walls, no security blankets, no friends, no money, nothing we have been so trained to value, alone.

The aura of confusion still lingered but was not pressing, there was a certain lightness now. I continued to enjoy my next 4 weeks in Guatemala, and 2 weeks in Mexico, the best I possibly could, allowing what was meant to be to be. I met amazing people. I swam. I (hestitantly) rode horses on cliffs. I hiked to the tops of mountains at sunrise and sunset. I danced and ate and listened to music. I got sick. Really sick. I lost my phone. My computer died. I got sick again. I tried not to blame myself for being sick. I visited amazing places. I made a best friend.

And I watched. I observed. And still now, when I recall the entirety of my journeys from Guatemala City to Mexico and finally back to Los Angeles, when I rejoiced in being back in North America despite my mind-blowing travels, I watch it all as a movie I have seen a thousand times, and know that in some way, I had to be completely destroyed to find my freedom, to let go of all that I perceived to be true in order to make room for the new and spectacular things that were about to enter my life. I had nothing to lose. Freedom had been chasing me down, like a ghost longing to make itself known, so that I could finally stare it straight in the face.

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I Choose My Freedom in Australia…For Now

We laid on our sides on what I once called our bed. Nose touching tip of nose, eyes locked into eyes. I traced the outside of his face with my free hand, imagining that I could feel the difference between the brown, gold and crimson strands of his beard underneath my fingertips. The scent of him filled me like smoke. I breathed in earth, clean laundry and a hint of weed. In this bed, there was nothing else. Only the physical tug of my heart to his, our breath slowed down to one. If I made this moment my entire world, I was happy.

“Come home,” he said, breaking the comfortable silence. “You can still travel. Just come home to me.”

I was leaving him for now the third time. The freedom that comes with traveling– the thrill of uncertainty, the choices that follow ambiguity– had once again found prominence in my heart over anything that would just make me one half of a whole. This time, I’d be gone for more than a four month backpacking stint around Europe or South America. I was going to Australia for at least a year, and I intended to finally make this breakup stick.

However, my mind struggled to find the flaw in his plan, drunk as I was on the happiness that I associated with his presence. It sounded nice. I could have both.

He assured me certainty, security, love, a future–the sweetest of chains. So I imagined living out my life with him, continuing the dream state of that bed. The only thing that he truly stimulated in me was a sexual desire. The rest would continue to be a mindless routine, devoid of intelligent conversation. He would watch football. I would cook him lasagna. He’d tell me he thought it was cute that I liked to read. I’d try in vain to discuss Orwell with him. He would work at the bar. I would find some middleman job. He’d buy a house in a small Massachusetts town. We’d take turns digging our cars out of the New England snow, and he’d get angry when he caught me lusting after Google images of exotic places. We’d smoke weed everyday to further along the numbing effect. He’d get me pregnant one day, like he always wanted. He’d teach our child to throw a ball, and I’d try to instill enough independence and individuality in her so that she could live the life I always wanted–a life of adventure and freedom.

To stay with him would have been to make the choice to throw a huge spoiler alert over my entire life, to watch the Red Wedding scene of Game of Thrones just as I got invested in the first season. Our relationship presented only walls and no frontiers.

I didn’t know who I was when I wasn’t his. All I knew was that it bothered me, a literal constant pain in my side each time I realised that I was becoming part of an indifferent and incurious population that gets stuck in relationships that are finite, lethargic and easy. I realized that I lived for my connection to him, changing myself to fit his mold. I neglected everything else that I ever wanted, pursuing those finite moments of happiness wholeheartedly so that I could mollify my anxiety in the face of my natural state, the state of freedom. I wasn’t committed to my authenticity; I hid from it.

My urge to strike out on my own was a gut reaction, a survival instinct. I needed to ease the stomach-clenching dread that accompanied the notion of remaining in one place for long, and for someone else. I needed the ignition that comes with waking up in a strange city or country, stimulating myself by way of exploration, acquainting myself with a new place through its food, having informed and varied discussions in broken English over a hostel dining room table. My freedom comes with the weight of a backpack on my shoulders, a one-way ticket and a culture shock. I am the only one in this world who can give me what I crave; to travel. To live a life as a traveller means living a life of contrast and spontaneity, ambiguity and choices.

I did not say that travel made me “happy,” although it often does. Happiness is not the attainable lifetime goal. Happiness is finite. What I sought was freedom, an infinite state of being that far surpasses a vague and unattainable notion of absolute contentment.

So as I lay in that bed, contemplating the tear I had to force between us, I focused on my refusal to be defined by my environment and my sentiment, rather than by the choices I made when faced with uncertainty.

I’ve been living in Australia for almost 10 months now, and I am face to face with my independence everyday, my choice to try on life as a 24 year old Melburnian for the time being, absorbing the parts of it that add to my shifting identity. I do not know what the next steps are, for I cannot see them clearly or at all. And that’s okay. To have a full knowledge of what my years hold would be just as finite as a committed relationship with a small-minded man. The mystery that comes with knowing nothing is infinite. I am faced with an unlimited spectrum, and all I must do is choose and take responsibility for my choices, may they always be in line with my most authentic state. This is what makes me free.

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The Power of Unique Experiences in Indonesia

Kerthunk, kerthunk, kerthunk.

I felt as if someone had sunk a fistful of fear into my heart and let it pound it into the rest of my body. My stomach felt like it was trying to retreat behind my ribs, my eyes were wide. Reason told me I shouldn’t have been so phobic. But I was staring down my nemeses, and reason was quickly losing its place in my repertoire.

Actually, “nemeses” might be a strong word for something the size of a pin head. These were a couple of bugs so small that one could easily mistake them for a floating piece of white lint, especially in the flickering shadows of the Balinese evening. They were bed bug nymphs, and their presence meant I needed to leave before they could scurry their way into my belongings.

My mind flashed back to a bitter night far away from the hostel on the quaint Indonesian road. I was back in my apartment in Massachusetts, back to the shock of finding an infestation of biting little bugs that snuck through the folds of my sofa and cracks in the hardwood floors. I retreated to the bathtub at two in the morning, saturated in dread.

Bed bugs aren’t dangerous, but eradicating them is an awful and laborious process. I had been in physical therapy for years for a bad back. My nearest family member was hundreds of miles away. I couldn’t imagine how to pack all my belongings away with my unstable bones. I cringed in anticipation of the pain that could come from rounds of laundering everything I owned, spraying things down with isopropyl, and moving furniture for exterminators.

The predicted injury and accompanying pain led to my first visit to Indonesia. I questioned if other people with physical disadvantages could get caught in similarly horrendous situations throughout the world, and secured a grant to research the topic in several countries. Come spring, I set off on a great multinational adventure in which I fervently chased answers and lines of longitude.

During that journey, I took a ferry from Singapore to spend a couple days in Bintan Island, Indonesia. Between the driftwood and palm fronds on an empty stretch of beach, I stopped to see an eroding message written in the sand: “LIFE ALWAYS FINDS A WAY”. I felt like some vanished scribe had written it there as part of my story, like the universe had left the words there just for me.

I bought a ticket to Bali during a turbulent period a couple years later. I wanted to head back to the country where clairvoyants roamed the islands and messages were hidden in the sand.

In the place where I expected to find order and inner peace, I was being gripped by memories of injured sleepless nights and unresolved past fears. I hauled my backpack to the safety of the front porch and dove into my phone, searching furiously for new accommodations, comfort from friends, and ways to clean old demons out of potentially contaminated belongings.

I sat on the ground for so long that the stones had imprinted their shapes on my legs, so I headed to the roof terrace to obsess over my problems in privacy. I looked out to see a brilliant sunset, a scattering of stringy blue clouds hanging on a backdrop of potent pinks and oranges. Beyond the edge of the peninsula, the ocean was mirroring the colorful banners of the sunset, making it seem almost endless.

I wasn’t sure how many sunsets I’d missed while my phobias were running amok, but I didn’t want to miss that one. In the last journey I hadn’t learned to compartmentalize my thoughts, to stop a bout of fear from tainting all of the glory around me. I turned the phone on its face to gaze at the sunset, to listen to the ensemble of cicadas and monkeys and the chattering and clinking of bottles from guests downstairs.

Travel has power to put you out in the caprices of the unknown and onto the stoops of old haunts. But sometimes, it also offers you a chance at redemption.

I was myself again, watching silently as the ocean was swallowed by the night. I was free from those harrowing and pervasive fears, unshackled from the tunnel vision of anxiety.

I found no more messages in the sand, no phantoms to leave signs that I had gotten things right. I was left with open road, a painted sky, and gorgeous wildlife; all that I sought and all that I needed.

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Feeling Insignificant on Serene Mt. Rainier, USA

The feel of snow in August is a unique experience reserved for those in either extreme latitudes or significant altitudes. Mt. Rainier certainly qualifies for the latter category. I had taken a break on the side of the Mountain to prep for my final push towards Camp Muir, a staging area which sits about 4,000’ short of the summit of Mt. Rainier at 14,411’. Although I needed to catch my breath for the climb ahead, this task seemed figuratively impossible given the breathtaking vista surrounding me. To the south lay the smoke-obscured teeth of the Tatoosh range, and beyond them the still-visible volcanic peaks of St. Helens and Adams. Looking to the West, I saw the Cowlitz Glacier dissipating to thin waterfalls that collected in the valley below. But it was the northern view that was the most commanding, as this sight contained the camp, the summit and a blinding stretch of steep snow that constituted the rest of my hike.

Moments like this take me back to a line I overheard in Seattle just a few days before my hike: “The great thing about nature is how it makes us feel small”. I disagreed with the speaker, at least in part. If the feeling of smallness was truly all we sought in nature, there really would be no reason to travel there. Smallness is so much easier to find in a cubical from 9-to-5, a fact I am well acquainted with. Three months prior to this evening and this hike, I was living a comfortable life in Boston with a good paying job. Stability, activity, and the prospect of upwards mobility were all luxuries I enjoyed, but it was still a small existence, a fact intensified by my oppressive anxiety and frequent panic attacks.

Conventional wisdom would have recommended, at times like this, that the weary worker take a vacation and “get your head in order”. I took the wisdom, but neglected the conventionality, boarding an Amtrak train in Boston and seeing where I could go over the next few months. This eventually brought me to the Space Needle in Seattle, where I got my first good view of Mt. Rainer. The thing was big, not just in raw mass, but with understated gravity. It gripped my attention and demanded personification, quietly scoffing at the Needle I was standing on. I left the elevator with a single conviction in mind, one that brought me to my break point on the side of Mt. Rainer, just a few hundred feet below the camp.

If ever I had sound reason for suffering a panic attack, this would be that time. I was by myself on one of the deadliest hiking trails in the country, where the afternoon sun was opening crevasses below my feet and cutting my friction-less progress to a negligible sum. What if my exertion led to a heart attack, where would they take me? Or if a storm rolls in and I lose my sense of direction? These thoughts and more could have easily crossed my mind, but none did. Instead, my focus lay in just placing one foot in front of the other until I arrived on the stone-carved steps of Camp Muir. And then I saw how small I really was. But this feeling of smallness was different than the one I knew three months prior. This experience was expansive, elevated, the kind that makes you breathe easier with a younger smile on your face. I was, in that moment, entwined within something bigger than myself without being absolved into it.

Suffice it to say, I never did return from my vacation, at least not to the job I had before. There was many more moments that lead to that decision, but the encounter with Rainier demonstrated something that I once had, had lost, and must work to awaken again. The path from here remains uncertain, but it is now a path that does at least go on..

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From Vietnamese Mangroves and a Loving Mom

The runway was not much more than a lightly paved strip of soil which popped out of the rice paddies and mangroves like a long, rectangular oasis. As I exited the 1950’s prop, much like the one that Indiana Jones rides in Raiders of the Lost Ark, I felt stifled instead of being freed from the tight quarters that I’d just ridden in. The density and weight of the atmosphere made it hard to inhale deeply– and it was more than just heat and humidity of the southernmost part of Vietnam – Ca Mau, a peninsular province with the Gulf of Thailand to the West and the Pacific Ocean to the South and East. I was stepping foot on the same soil where my son was born, breathing the same sticky, tropical air that he did. The son I had not yet met, and the son that I would not be bringing home to Indiana after the eight days that I’d be there.

As excited as I was to meet my baby — the one that I dreamed of and had dreams for — I needed to guard my emotions. Upon seeing my first photo of him, my heart skipped a beat when I gazed into those deep brown eyes and saw the shock of black hair standing up on his head. I knew that without a doubt that he was my son. It was my moment of a doctor handing my child to me to put on my chest and feeling a love like no other.

Much like the southern Vietnamese mangroves’ intertwined roots, strong and complicated, his homecoming was constricted by the fact that he was stuck — stuck in an orphanage due to political posturing by both the U.S. and Vietnamese governments not willing to move an inch to finalize his adoption, despite him living in squalid and unsafe orphanage conditions.

I flew half-way around the world and was there with two other moms in the same situation to help care for our children and the others in the orphanage. It was the one small thing we could actually do to help our kids, while we lobbied Congressional leaders and the State Department on the homefront.

Within minutes sweat was streaming down my face and soaking my clothes – a combination of the oppressive heat and my anxiety. My friends and I headed out to the orphanage in a taxi. There were few cars on the road, mostly bicycles and motor bikes. We raced along the tropical landscape – passing roadside markets where vendors sold pineapples, roosters in woven basket cages, plastic kitchenware and even python meat. Our taxi driver honked incessantly as he passed cars, though few, and played a game of chicken with oncoming traffic. A movie of mangroves and long boats with weathered fishermen, and the occasional water buffalo grazing in a yard ran through the car windows. Children with bare feet and dirty faces dotted the fast-moving landscape – all of it beautiful, colorful and full of life.

Finally, we turned down a one-lane dirt road lined by shallow canals, lush mango and tamarind trees, and tin roof-shacks with hammocks as beds. My stomach dropped to my knees when I saw the orphanage building.

My 22-month old son was literally imprisoned in his tiny room — it had bars on the windows, a former internment camp from the Vietnam War.

I had many conversations with him before I got to Vietnam (all in my head), promising him that I would do whatever it took to get him home to Indiana. I’d say “good night” to him when I woke up in the morning and whisper “good morning” before I fell asleep at night, living with my heart twelve hours ahead. And that week, I told him in person — kissing his smooth, tan cheeks, my tears wetting his sweet face as I held him close. And, then having to leave him.

Twenty-six months later, in the most unusual of places, we found refuge surrounded by luggage carts, drug-sniffing Beagles and a melody of different languages at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. His two tiny feet touched U.S. soil, and I felt palpable relief from my shoulders, fighting back yet another set of tears as my husband squeezed my hand and hugged us both.

Sitting at our departure gate for the last leg of our journey home, he sat in my lap and munched on a banana and French fries.

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My Unlikely Friends in Mountainous Ecuador

It’s hot. How can it be this hot? Since arriving in Salasaka, this indigenous village in the Ecuadorian Andes, I have had a constantly sun-burned, peeling nose. Having an 8-year-old child on my back doesn’t help.

I struggle along, Fernanda on my back and her 5-year-old sister Ñusta leading the way. Ñusta is a great helper, waddling along with her sick sister’s backpack, which is almost as large as her. We walk down the wide, dusty roads lined with agave; sheep bleat and donkeys bray, everyone lazily complaining about the sweltering heat. I can see endlessly across the green, quilt-patterned hills, and everything looks exactly the same. We could be anywhere in all of Salasaka, and I would have no idea. All I can do is trust the girls to know where they live. At the school where I am teaching, when a child gets sick like Fernanda has, we can’t just call home, mom rushing over in her minivan to pick the child up, sign her out for the day. Almost no households in this village have a phone, and neither does the school. The only way to get them home is to do this, to carry them for miles until you reach the shanty and farm that is their home.

As a recently trained child therapist back in the U.S., I feel sick with guilt because it’s breaking every rule in the book that I’m doing this. Carrying a child on my back for miles? Taking them home when their parents haven’t given me signed permission? But I’m not their therapist, I remind myself, or try to. Because Fernanda is sick, and needs to get home, and this moment is more important than all the things I learned in graduate school.

“Podemos descansar?”, I ask the girls. Can we rest? I gently set Fernanda down, and the 3 of us sit together in the shade of a stack of cement blocks. Fernanda immediately lies down and puts her head in my lap. My “clinical instinct” is to gently remove her from her physical contact with me. Physical affection is always a liability. Keep your “boundaries”, they tell you. To the 7-year-old client who innocently tells me, I love you, I am trained to respond, I see that you really care about me, and I care about you too. Not “I love you too”, never that. A separation between you and the child. Care about her, of course, but from a distance.

I quit my job as a therapist because I was so terrified of how much I cared about my kids. I must not be doing something right, I felt. I must not be cut out for this. It broke my heart. A career down the drain because I just loved those kids too much. But here I was, in the mountains of South America to where I escaped, doing the same thing. Loving too much, again.

But I can’t help it. I love Fernanda. My heart is filled with her. She is only 8 years old and already the smartest student in school. She pulls my hand before recess ends every morning, lamenting, “Vamos a clase!” She watches over my shoulder with anxiety that is palpable as I grade her multiplication drills, as if she has ever received anything less than a 100%. There is a moodiness about her, a subtle neediness, and she sometimes sits apart from the group as Renato, the music teacher, leads them in warbling South American pop songs.

A woman passes where we sit catching our breath, wearing her chumbi and green shawl, half a dozen protesting sheep leading the way. She looks at me, and her confusion is reflected in her glare. What is this gringa doing out here with two of our precious children? The girls chat pleasantly with her in Kichwa, the sing-song indigenous language that I haven’t learned yet, and finally, she smiles, understanding. And somehow, with that smile, she is granting me the permission to love this child freely, to really love her, to love her and all of her sisters and friends without clinical boundaries, without restriction. Love her simply, freely, not as a professional but as a fellow human being, as an adult in the community who shares the responsibility of raising and caring for her. And maybe that’s not such a terrible thing.

I put my hand on Fernanda’s forehead. She doesn’t feel hot, and I don’t know if she was really sick at all or if she just wanted this time with me. “Listas?”, I ask the girls, and Ñusta puts on two backpacks, her own in the back and Fernanda’s in the front. I stoop to let Fernanda on my back, and we keep on walking.

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New Experiences with Monkeys in India

I was sitting cross-legged on a four-inch mattress that doubled as my bed. Sweat engulfed all of my pores as a simple fan hummed above. I glanced up from my book. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a medium-sized monkey open my screen door with ease. I blinked. I observed a second monkey trailing behind and then another.

My jaw dropped. I sat speechless. Three wild monkeys were just a couple of yards away.

Without hesitation, they walked toward a small round table next to my bright red refrigerator. All three admired my possessions. The taller one glanced back in my direction as if to say, “ha, ha”. With one hand, he grabbed one of my Tupperware containers. Within seconds, the monkeys vanished, leaving my door open in their wake.

I sat bewildered. Should I laugh or should I cry?

Just weeks earlier, I had started teaching at an international K-12 boarding school in Bangalore, India. As an American middle-aged educator, I jumped at the opportunity to work and travel abroad. Most of my friends and family members thought that I was experiencing a midlife crisis. Why would I leave my cushy suburban life to work in a developing country?

For years, a series of orthopedic issues had prevented me from using my K-6 teaching license. To remain an educator, I became an adjunct instructor at a local community college. I loved teaching, but something was missing.

When I was offered the primary international teaching position, one of my dreams was finally fulfilled. Once again, I would have the opportunity to work with children and use my teaching credentials. But would I be able to step outside my comfort zone and face my natural fears of living in another country?

After all, I was a middle-age woman who hadn’t traveled alone in decades. I wasn’t traveling to unfamiliar neighborhoods within driving distance of my home. I was flying half way around the world to travel solo in a foreign country. If I had any chance of being successful, I had to regain my independent spirit. I had to look forward and not scurry back to what felt safe. I relied on my inner voice that wouldn’t stop whispering, “You can do it.”

I wasn’t looking to the popular Nike slogan, “Just Do It.” I was recalling another image. Decades ago, I read the classic book, The Little Engine That Could, to my sons. How fitting that in midlife, I would look to a children’s book to instill confidence. Just like the small train in this inspiring story, I had to use daily reminders to keep me on track.

After the three thieves left my guest room, the uncertainty returned. Could I simply laugh off the absurdity of wild monkeys stealing my food or would I succumb to the temptation to long for a more predictable life? This wasn’t the first time that the monkeys had trespassed. Like ants that gravitate toward food crumbs, these larger pests could be found everywhere humans congregated. The school campus was inundated. Groups of monkeys frequented classrooms, stairwells, the playground, the open fields, the lunchroom, and the pathways between buildings.

Fanciful irrational emotions flooded my well being like a tsunami. My mind planned ways to escape in the middle of the night without a trace. While I rationally knew that I had to cope with my new life in India, it was much easier to create plans for fleeing.

I had no choice but to face my challenges head on. The monkey situation was just one example of a multitude of events. Each day was filled with unfamiliar and strange happenings.

For comfort, I listened to my favorite songs from my youth and thought about others who had successfully dealt with obstacles. I recalled times when I had to overcome challenging situations. I posted one of Eleanor Roosevelt’s quotes above my desk:

The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.

I was working as an international teacher and I wasn’t going to let any of my fears erode my confidence or destroy my dreams. My inner voice became my daily mantra. Instead of hearing a small voice inside, I mouthed the words, “I can do it.”

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Christchurch, New Zealand will always be in my heart

It’s not the miles from Home what made Me Change. It was the Emotions and Experiences New to Me. At the End I did traveled far enough, but just enough to find myself.

And I had to travel miles, distance myself for my closest things, and experience many different emotions to discover about myself, to embrace myself.
I had to keep the distance from what I knew or thought it was safe to be born again.
I had to come to the other side of the world to understand and discover myself.
I didn’t travel places. I traveled emotions inside of me.
I didn’t distance myself from Home. I created a new Home.
My heart became new; my eyes saw the bright light again.
My soul was lifted.
I was born again here.
I FELT ALIVE AND FREE AGAIN!
See, I didn’t travel just for the sake of traveling. I was naïve.
I didn’t know that away from Home you can actually find yourself.
See… I LEARNED THAT TODAY…
I had to get away to truly find myself AND FREEDOM….AGAIN!

This is my poetic way to explain all my feelings since I have moved to Christchurch, New Zealand. I wish I had more eloquent words to describe all the wonders that this country offers. It’s not only a beautiful country for its gorgeous landscapes, but it is also a country filled with great and humble people.
I moved from Miami to Christchurch, New Zealand in February of 2012 with my husband as an expatriate wife. I came with the “Miami” ideas if you can call it that, you know the big city girl ideas. And I was changed.
In Christchurch I learned to relax, to reconnect with myself. To learn about the kiwi culture, to understand that they enjoy being around nature. And that if ask them about the world, they are probably well traveled folks, but they will always return to their home country.
I learned to smile back when they smile at me walking on the street because the kiwis are very polite, and you should smile back! I learned that is ok to recycle your cartoon eggs because is just nice to return to the veggie store with a full bag of cartoon eggs to give back to them and see their smile. And to show them that you care for the environment and that you care for their store.
I learned that even being miles away from home, I can still enjoy Latin music because kiwis have a taste for dancing salsa. I learned that if you suffer a loss, like I did, a big loss, a miscarriage, the kiwis will be there for you. They will prepare your meals, they will clean your house, they will give you a word of comfort and they will be calling you back just to make sure you are doing ok.
These four years spent in New Zealand made me open my eyes to new cultures, to trying new things in life. I even tried to ski for god sake! I, the Cuban / Miami only beach please kind of girl. These four years have been amazing, and I will totally recommend visiting New Zealand.
Thank you Christchurch for all this time with Me, you made ME a new person, you gave Me back my FREEDOM WINGS!

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CANADA: Finding Yourself and Finding Your World

Where I find freedom….

I am often asked this questions being a mother to four young children, a wife, an entrepreneur, and an aspiring author. How do I find the time for me?

The first step for me was realizing that I needed time and freedom for myself and I had to make it happen. Prior to going on my personal development journey to healing and find my self-love. I was going through my life trying to do what would satisfy others and make them proud. Not too long after I graduated from high school I went to college to become a Natural Health Practitioner. I had a lot of criticism from my loved ones as this was not a field they understood or could relate to, in their eyes was not credible. Even before receiving my diploma, I had decided that I would become an electrician. Instead of pursuing my dream, I went into something that I knew would be accepted by everyone around me. Just a couple months after receiving my diploma I started my electrical apprenticeship. I received praise from all my loved ones and even complete strangers, which persuaded me to keep going.

I had to hit rock-bottom before realizing that I needed to honour myself and find that freedom for me. When I was pregnant with my fourth child, I realized that I was miserable, felt lost, misplaced and disconnected within your own skin. Living in a world full of judgement, feeling as though I needed to portray a perfect life, and putting unrealistic expectations upon myself, resulted in a lot of disappointment and feelings of failure. Being occupied by another’s needs each and every day without honouring myself, lead to exhaustion and deep disconnection within myself.

In society we have been essentially programmed to put on a facade to express how “ideal” our life should be and how we should be in the eyes of our generally population. There is an accepted way to be, look, act, the house, vehicle and life you should strive for, the items or things you should have. When really all these things should be customized to each individual, who you are, your soul purpose, personality and what you would like to accomplish in your life. Not everyone is the same. From one person to another, you will do things differently, have different beliefs, have different circumstances, priorities and have different ways of doing things.

When I started my self-healing journey, the biggest change happened for me when I allowed myself to have two hours for just me every morning before the rest of my family woke up. This time allowed me to fully connect, dig into my self-healing books and programs and better myself. Because I had chosen the morning for this time, it set up my day to succeed as I had already put time into myself, feeding my heart and soul, and allowing me to be the best me for the day. This also made decision making clearer for me. I knew I was on the right track because I was motivated to continue, it felt good and freeing.

With this self-acknowledgement, my self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-love grew naturally. The more ways I honoured yourself, the happier I became, the lighter I felt and life began to flow with ease. Once I became connected with what made me happy, the faster my perspective changed. I was more accepting of others and all forms of judgment then disappears; self-judgement, judgement of others and other’s judgements on me. When I was able to release all of my self-judgements, I felt more confident within yourself and no longer needed anyone else’s opinions. When I got to the point, where I became absolutely comfortable within me and no longer felt the need to rely on other’s opinions, I instead use their suggestions as I saw suitable.

By honouring myself with “me time” everyday, I find my freedom, live my passion, and am present with my life.

My vision is:
“For all moms to think of themselves as no less than extraordinary!”

Much love, appreciation & gratitude,
Tracy Munson
Natural Health Strategist & Coach, NHP, CDC

 

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My New Year’s Rebirth in Guatemala

Driving along the quiet morning streets of a city I would come to know and love, I bawled into the musky atmosphere of the cab. I had just flown to Los Angeles for about a week, to visit a man who would become a bigger part of my life than I could ever imagine. But as the sun began to rise and the infamous LAX came into view, I felt less than elated to be hopping on a flight to Guatemala City.

It was the day before New Year’s Eve, and the looming new year on the horizon stood a mysterious silhouette in a grey backdrop. At first the plan seemed simple, go to Central America, have a work holiday, more or less. It seemed fitting, but sometimes what you think you are ‘meant’ to do doesn’t match up with what the world has planned for you. The firm seats of the plane reminded me that I was about to spend the next few weeks in unfamiliar places, and likely sitting in similarly firm bus seats, which was almost comforting, as although I had come to realize I had no idea why I was going to Guatemala, maybe it was a childhood fascination finally coming to life, that I indeed took refuge in the unfamiliar.

When you do not know a city, when you do not know a face or a name, reality seems more malleable, free from the conditions and generalizations we bind ourselves with. But it wasn’t until after I left Central America for the second time that I would conclude that sometimes you can’t simply put yourself out of the norm, you have to be completely destroyed, and born again anew.

Arriving in the beautiful colonial city of Antigua, Guatemala, I felt instantly lonely. A rare sensation, and a wave of isolation and being far from the world I knew washed over, even as I walked the stone streets, full of character and stories. New Year’s Eve was spent with a gaggle of Australians whom I’d met that day at my hostel. Predictable, but at least I knew that all over the world, people were celebrating the same thing, a shift in time, a new year, a new era. The night proceeded in a sickly classic way, the parties were many and the drinks too strong. Upon losing my group of newly acquainted travel buddies I quickly realized I was now well and truly alone, wandering the ghostly streets of a potentially dangerous city.

Fear introduced itself promptly and again I found myself caught in a whirling dizziness of confusion. Where is my hostel? Why am I suddenly by myself? Questions of my own sanity brought me to eventual surrender when a car pulled up. It was a police officer. Now this had to be one of the strangest experiences of my life, and still now it holds a mind boggling surreal quality. The officer asked me what was wrong, to which I could barely answer between sobs. To my own surprise, as I generally consider myself verging on the edge of paranoia, I agreed to be driven home after he kindly took me to get food and a coffee.

Crying to a strange police officer over cake, in a foreign country, about nothing in particular, is probably one of the most embarrassing and messed up accounts I could ever recall, but as I began to settle down and he listened to me, offering even more surprising words of wisdom, I began to notice that on this New Year’s Day, I had been reborn. It sounds silly, but it literally felt like a piece of me had left, abruptly resigned, in the face of such fear, discomfort and the internal pain that I had been feeling. Sometimes we can only see freedom when we are forced to face ourselves solely, with no walls, no security blankets, no friends, no money, nothing we have been so trained to value, alone.

The aura of confusion still lingered but was not pressing, there was a certain lightness now. I continued to enjoy my next 4 weeks in Guatemala, and 2 weeks in Mexico, the best I possibly could, allowing what was meant to be to be. I met amazing people. I swam. I (hestitantly) rode horses on cliffs. I hiked to the tops of mountains at sunrise and sunset. I danced and ate and listened to music. I got sick. Really sick. I lost my phone. My computer died. I got sick again. I tried not to blame myself for being sick. I visited amazing places. I made a best friend.

And I watched. I observed. And still now, when I recall the entirety of my journeys from Guatemala City to Mexico and finally back to Los Angeles, when I rejoiced in being back in North America despite my mind-blowing travels, I watch it all as a movie I have seen a thousand times, and know that in some way, I had to be completely destroyed to find my freedom, to let go of all that I perceived to be true in order to make room for the new and spectacular things that were about to enter my life. I had nothing to lose. Freedom had been chasing me down, like a ghost longing to make itself known, so that I could finally stare it straight in the face.

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I Choose My Freedom in Australia…For Now

We laid on our sides on what I once called our bed. Nose touching tip of nose, eyes locked into eyes. I traced the outside of his face with my free hand, imagining that I could feel the difference between the brown, gold and crimson strands of his beard underneath my fingertips. The scent of him filled me like smoke. I breathed in earth, clean laundry and a hint of weed. In this bed, there was nothing else. Only the physical tug of my heart to his, our breath slowed down to one. If I made this moment my entire world, I was happy.

“Come home,” he said, breaking the comfortable silence. “You can still travel. Just come home to me.”

I was leaving him for now the third time. The freedom that comes with traveling– the thrill of uncertainty, the choices that follow ambiguity– had once again found prominence in my heart over anything that would just make me one half of a whole. This time, I’d be gone for more than a four month backpacking stint around Europe or South America. I was going to Australia for at least a year, and I intended to finally make this breakup stick.

However, my mind struggled to find the flaw in his plan, drunk as I was on the happiness that I associated with his presence. It sounded nice. I could have both.

He assured me certainty, security, love, a future–the sweetest of chains. So I imagined living out my life with him, continuing the dream state of that bed. The only thing that he truly stimulated in me was a sexual desire. The rest would continue to be a mindless routine, devoid of intelligent conversation. He would watch football. I would cook him lasagna. He’d tell me he thought it was cute that I liked to read. I’d try in vain to discuss Orwell with him. He would work at the bar. I would find some middleman job. He’d buy a house in a small Massachusetts town. We’d take turns digging our cars out of the New England snow, and he’d get angry when he caught me lusting after Google images of exotic places. We’d smoke weed everyday to further along the numbing effect. He’d get me pregnant one day, like he always wanted. He’d teach our child to throw a ball, and I’d try to instill enough independence and individuality in her so that she could live the life I always wanted–a life of adventure and freedom.

To stay with him would have been to make the choice to throw a huge spoiler alert over my entire life, to watch the Red Wedding scene of Game of Thrones just as I got invested in the first season. Our relationship presented only walls and no frontiers.

I didn’t know who I was when I wasn’t his. All I knew was that it bothered me, a literal constant pain in my side each time I realised that I was becoming part of an indifferent and incurious population that gets stuck in relationships that are finite, lethargic and easy. I realized that I lived for my connection to him, changing myself to fit his mold. I neglected everything else that I ever wanted, pursuing those finite moments of happiness wholeheartedly so that I could mollify my anxiety in the face of my natural state, the state of freedom. I wasn’t committed to my authenticity; I hid from it.

My urge to strike out on my own was a gut reaction, a survival instinct. I needed to ease the stomach-clenching dread that accompanied the notion of remaining in one place for long, and for someone else. I needed the ignition that comes with waking up in a strange city or country, stimulating myself by way of exploration, acquainting myself with a new place through its food, having informed and varied discussions in broken English over a hostel dining room table. My freedom comes with the weight of a backpack on my shoulders, a one-way ticket and a culture shock. I am the only one in this world who can give me what I crave; to travel. To live a life as a traveller means living a life of contrast and spontaneity, ambiguity and choices.

I did not say that travel made me “happy,” although it often does. Happiness is not the attainable lifetime goal. Happiness is finite. What I sought was freedom, an infinite state of being that far surpasses a vague and unattainable notion of absolute contentment.

So as I lay in that bed, contemplating the tear I had to force between us, I focused on my refusal to be defined by my environment and my sentiment, rather than by the choices I made when faced with uncertainty.

I’ve been living in Australia for almost 10 months now, and I am face to face with my independence everyday, my choice to try on life as a 24 year old Melburnian for the time being, absorbing the parts of it that add to my shifting identity. I do not know what the next steps are, for I cannot see them clearly or at all. And that’s okay. To have a full knowledge of what my years hold would be just as finite as a committed relationship with a small-minded man. The mystery that comes with knowing nothing is infinite. I am faced with an unlimited spectrum, and all I must do is choose and take responsibility for my choices, may they always be in line with my most authentic state. This is what makes me free.

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The Power of Unique Experiences in Indonesia

Kerthunk, kerthunk, kerthunk.

I felt as if someone had sunk a fistful of fear into my heart and let it pound it into the rest of my body. My stomach felt like it was trying to retreat behind my ribs, my eyes were wide. Reason told me I shouldn’t have been so phobic. But I was staring down my nemeses, and reason was quickly losing its place in my repertoire.

Actually, “nemeses” might be a strong word for something the size of a pin head. These were a couple of bugs so small that one could easily mistake them for a floating piece of white lint, especially in the flickering shadows of the Balinese evening. They were bed bug nymphs, and their presence meant I needed to leave before they could scurry their way into my belongings.

My mind flashed back to a bitter night far away from the hostel on the quaint Indonesian road. I was back in my apartment in Massachusetts, back to the shock of finding an infestation of biting little bugs that snuck through the folds of my sofa and cracks in the hardwood floors. I retreated to the bathtub at two in the morning, saturated in dread.

Bed bugs aren’t dangerous, but eradicating them is an awful and laborious process. I had been in physical therapy for years for a bad back. My nearest family member was hundreds of miles away. I couldn’t imagine how to pack all my belongings away with my unstable bones. I cringed in anticipation of the pain that could come from rounds of laundering everything I owned, spraying things down with isopropyl, and moving furniture for exterminators.

The predicted injury and accompanying pain led to my first visit to Indonesia. I questioned if other people with physical disadvantages could get caught in similarly horrendous situations throughout the world, and secured a grant to research the topic in several countries. Come spring, I set off on a great multinational adventure in which I fervently chased answers and lines of longitude.

During that journey, I took a ferry from Singapore to spend a couple days in Bintan Island, Indonesia. Between the driftwood and palm fronds on an empty stretch of beach, I stopped to see an eroding message written in the sand: “LIFE ALWAYS FINDS A WAY”. I felt like some vanished scribe had written it there as part of my story, like the universe had left the words there just for me.

I bought a ticket to Bali during a turbulent period a couple years later. I wanted to head back to the country where clairvoyants roamed the islands and messages were hidden in the sand.

In the place where I expected to find order and inner peace, I was being gripped by memories of injured sleepless nights and unresolved past fears. I hauled my backpack to the safety of the front porch and dove into my phone, searching furiously for new accommodations, comfort from friends, and ways to clean old demons out of potentially contaminated belongings.

I sat on the ground for so long that the stones had imprinted their shapes on my legs, so I headed to the roof terrace to obsess over my problems in privacy. I looked out to see a brilliant sunset, a scattering of stringy blue clouds hanging on a backdrop of potent pinks and oranges. Beyond the edge of the peninsula, the ocean was mirroring the colorful banners of the sunset, making it seem almost endless.

I wasn’t sure how many sunsets I’d missed while my phobias were running amok, but I didn’t want to miss that one. In the last journey I hadn’t learned to compartmentalize my thoughts, to stop a bout of fear from tainting all of the glory around me. I turned the phone on its face to gaze at the sunset, to listen to the ensemble of cicadas and monkeys and the chattering and clinking of bottles from guests downstairs.

Travel has power to put you out in the caprices of the unknown and onto the stoops of old haunts. But sometimes, it also offers you a chance at redemption.

I was myself again, watching silently as the ocean was swallowed by the night. I was free from those harrowing and pervasive fears, unshackled from the tunnel vision of anxiety.

I found no more messages in the sand, no phantoms to leave signs that I had gotten things right. I was left with open road, a painted sky, and gorgeous wildlife; all that I sought and all that I needed.

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Feeling Insignificant on Serene Mt. Rainier, USA

The feel of snow in August is a unique experience reserved for those in either extreme latitudes or significant altitudes. Mt. Rainier certainly qualifies for the latter category. I had taken a break on the side of the Mountain to prep for my final push towards Camp Muir, a staging area which sits about 4,000’ short of the summit of Mt. Rainier at 14,411’. Although I needed to catch my breath for the climb ahead, this task seemed figuratively impossible given the breathtaking vista surrounding me. To the south lay the smoke-obscured teeth of the Tatoosh range, and beyond them the still-visible volcanic peaks of St. Helens and Adams. Looking to the West, I saw the Cowlitz Glacier dissipating to thin waterfalls that collected in the valley below. But it was the northern view that was the most commanding, as this sight contained the camp, the summit and a blinding stretch of steep snow that constituted the rest of my hike.

Moments like this take me back to a line I overheard in Seattle just a few days before my hike: “The great thing about nature is how it makes us feel small”. I disagreed with the speaker, at least in part. If the feeling of smallness was truly all we sought in nature, there really would be no reason to travel there. Smallness is so much easier to find in a cubical from 9-to-5, a fact I am well acquainted with. Three months prior to this evening and this hike, I was living a comfortable life in Boston with a good paying job. Stability, activity, and the prospect of upwards mobility were all luxuries I enjoyed, but it was still a small existence, a fact intensified by my oppressive anxiety and frequent panic attacks.

Conventional wisdom would have recommended, at times like this, that the weary worker take a vacation and “get your head in order”. I took the wisdom, but neglected the conventionality, boarding an Amtrak train in Boston and seeing where I could go over the next few months. This eventually brought me to the Space Needle in Seattle, where I got my first good view of Mt. Rainer. The thing was big, not just in raw mass, but with understated gravity. It gripped my attention and demanded personification, quietly scoffing at the Needle I was standing on. I left the elevator with a single conviction in mind, one that brought me to my break point on the side of Mt. Rainer, just a few hundred feet below the camp.

If ever I had sound reason for suffering a panic attack, this would be that time. I was by myself on one of the deadliest hiking trails in the country, where the afternoon sun was opening crevasses below my feet and cutting my friction-less progress to a negligible sum. What if my exertion led to a heart attack, where would they take me? Or if a storm rolls in and I lose my sense of direction? These thoughts and more could have easily crossed my mind, but none did. Instead, my focus lay in just placing one foot in front of the other until I arrived on the stone-carved steps of Camp Muir. And then I saw how small I really was. But this feeling of smallness was different than the one I knew three months prior. This experience was expansive, elevated, the kind that makes you breathe easier with a younger smile on your face. I was, in that moment, entwined within something bigger than myself without being absolved into it.

Suffice it to say, I never did return from my vacation, at least not to the job I had before. There was many more moments that lead to that decision, but the encounter with Rainier demonstrated something that I once had, had lost, and must work to awaken again. The path from here remains uncertain, but it is now a path that does at least go on..

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From Vietnamese Mangroves and a Loving Mom

The runway was not much more than a lightly paved strip of soil which popped out of the rice paddies and mangroves like a long, rectangular oasis. As I exited the 1950’s prop, much like the one that Indiana Jones rides in Raiders of the Lost Ark, I felt stifled instead of being freed from the tight quarters that I’d just ridden in. The density and weight of the atmosphere made it hard to inhale deeply– and it was more than just heat and humidity of the southernmost part of Vietnam – Ca Mau, a peninsular province with the Gulf of Thailand to the West and the Pacific Ocean to the South and East. I was stepping foot on the same soil where my son was born, breathing the same sticky, tropical air that he did. The son I had not yet met, and the son that I would not be bringing home to Indiana after the eight days that I’d be there.

As excited as I was to meet my baby — the one that I dreamed of and had dreams for — I needed to guard my emotions. Upon seeing my first photo of him, my heart skipped a beat when I gazed into those deep brown eyes and saw the shock of black hair standing up on his head. I knew that without a doubt that he was my son. It was my moment of a doctor handing my child to me to put on my chest and feeling a love like no other.

Much like the southern Vietnamese mangroves’ intertwined roots, strong and complicated, his homecoming was constricted by the fact that he was stuck — stuck in an orphanage due to political posturing by both the U.S. and Vietnamese governments not willing to move an inch to finalize his adoption, despite him living in squalid and unsafe orphanage conditions.

I flew half-way around the world and was there with two other moms in the same situation to help care for our children and the others in the orphanage. It was the one small thing we could actually do to help our kids, while we lobbied Congressional leaders and the State Department on the homefront.

Within minutes sweat was streaming down my face and soaking my clothes – a combination of the oppressive heat and my anxiety. My friends and I headed out to the orphanage in a taxi. There were few cars on the road, mostly bicycles and motor bikes. We raced along the tropical landscape – passing roadside markets where vendors sold pineapples, roosters in woven basket cages, plastic kitchenware and even python meat. Our taxi driver honked incessantly as he passed cars, though few, and played a game of chicken with oncoming traffic. A movie of mangroves and long boats with weathered fishermen, and the occasional water buffalo grazing in a yard ran through the car windows. Children with bare feet and dirty faces dotted the fast-moving landscape – all of it beautiful, colorful and full of life.

Finally, we turned down a one-lane dirt road lined by shallow canals, lush mango and tamarind trees, and tin roof-shacks with hammocks as beds. My stomach dropped to my knees when I saw the orphanage building.

My 22-month old son was literally imprisoned in his tiny room — it had bars on the windows, a former internment camp from the Vietnam War.

I had many conversations with him before I got to Vietnam (all in my head), promising him that I would do whatever it took to get him home to Indiana. I’d say “good night” to him when I woke up in the morning and whisper “good morning” before I fell asleep at night, living with my heart twelve hours ahead. And that week, I told him in person — kissing his smooth, tan cheeks, my tears wetting his sweet face as I held him close. And, then having to leave him.

Twenty-six months later, in the most unusual of places, we found refuge surrounded by luggage carts, drug-sniffing Beagles and a melody of different languages at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. His two tiny feet touched U.S. soil, and I felt palpable relief from my shoulders, fighting back yet another set of tears as my husband squeezed my hand and hugged us both.

Sitting at our departure gate for the last leg of our journey home, he sat in my lap and munched on a banana and French fries.

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My Unlikely Friends in Mountainous Ecuador

It’s hot. How can it be this hot? Since arriving in Salasaka, this indigenous village in the Ecuadorian Andes, I have had a constantly sun-burned, peeling nose. Having an 8-year-old child on my back doesn’t help.

I struggle along, Fernanda on my back and her 5-year-old sister Ñusta leading the way. Ñusta is a great helper, waddling along with her sick sister’s backpack, which is almost as large as her. We walk down the wide, dusty roads lined with agave; sheep bleat and donkeys bray, everyone lazily complaining about the sweltering heat. I can see endlessly across the green, quilt-patterned hills, and everything looks exactly the same. We could be anywhere in all of Salasaka, and I would have no idea. All I can do is trust the girls to know where they live. At the school where I am teaching, when a child gets sick like Fernanda has, we can’t just call home, mom rushing over in her minivan to pick the child up, sign her out for the day. Almost no households in this village have a phone, and neither does the school. The only way to get them home is to do this, to carry them for miles until you reach the shanty and farm that is their home.

As a recently trained child therapist back in the U.S., I feel sick with guilt because it’s breaking every rule in the book that I’m doing this. Carrying a child on my back for miles? Taking them home when their parents haven’t given me signed permission? But I’m not their therapist, I remind myself, or try to. Because Fernanda is sick, and needs to get home, and this moment is more important than all the things I learned in graduate school.

“Podemos descansar?”, I ask the girls. Can we rest? I gently set Fernanda down, and the 3 of us sit together in the shade of a stack of cement blocks. Fernanda immediately lies down and puts her head in my lap. My “clinical instinct” is to gently remove her from her physical contact with me. Physical affection is always a liability. Keep your “boundaries”, they tell you. To the 7-year-old client who innocently tells me, I love you, I am trained to respond, I see that you really care about me, and I care about you too. Not “I love you too”, never that. A separation between you and the child. Care about her, of course, but from a distance.

I quit my job as a therapist because I was so terrified of how much I cared about my kids. I must not be doing something right, I felt. I must not be cut out for this. It broke my heart. A career down the drain because I just loved those kids too much. But here I was, in the mountains of South America to where I escaped, doing the same thing. Loving too much, again.

But I can’t help it. I love Fernanda. My heart is filled with her. She is only 8 years old and already the smartest student in school. She pulls my hand before recess ends every morning, lamenting, “Vamos a clase!” She watches over my shoulder with anxiety that is palpable as I grade her multiplication drills, as if she has ever received anything less than a 100%. There is a moodiness about her, a subtle neediness, and she sometimes sits apart from the group as Renato, the music teacher, leads them in warbling South American pop songs.

A woman passes where we sit catching our breath, wearing her chumbi and green shawl, half a dozen protesting sheep leading the way. She looks at me, and her confusion is reflected in her glare. What is this gringa doing out here with two of our precious children? The girls chat pleasantly with her in Kichwa, the sing-song indigenous language that I haven’t learned yet, and finally, she smiles, understanding. And somehow, with that smile, she is granting me the permission to love this child freely, to really love her, to love her and all of her sisters and friends without clinical boundaries, without restriction. Love her simply, freely, not as a professional but as a fellow human being, as an adult in the community who shares the responsibility of raising and caring for her. And maybe that’s not such a terrible thing.

I put my hand on Fernanda’s forehead. She doesn’t feel hot, and I don’t know if she was really sick at all or if she just wanted this time with me. “Listas?”, I ask the girls, and Ñusta puts on two backpacks, her own in the back and Fernanda’s in the front. I stoop to let Fernanda on my back, and we keep on walking.

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New Experiences with Monkeys in India

I was sitting cross-legged on a four-inch mattress that doubled as my bed. Sweat engulfed all of my pores as a simple fan hummed above. I glanced up from my book. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a medium-sized monkey open my screen door with ease. I blinked. I observed a second monkey trailing behind and then another.

My jaw dropped. I sat speechless. Three wild monkeys were just a couple of yards away.

Without hesitation, they walked toward a small round table next to my bright red refrigerator. All three admired my possessions. The taller one glanced back in my direction as if to say, “ha, ha”. With one hand, he grabbed one of my Tupperware containers. Within seconds, the monkeys vanished, leaving my door open in their wake.

I sat bewildered. Should I laugh or should I cry?

Just weeks earlier, I had started teaching at an international K-12 boarding school in Bangalore, India. As an American middle-aged educator, I jumped at the opportunity to work and travel abroad. Most of my friends and family members thought that I was experiencing a midlife crisis. Why would I leave my cushy suburban life to work in a developing country?

For years, a series of orthopedic issues had prevented me from using my K-6 teaching license. To remain an educator, I became an adjunct instructor at a local community college. I loved teaching, but something was missing.

When I was offered the primary international teaching position, one of my dreams was finally fulfilled. Once again, I would have the opportunity to work with children and use my teaching credentials. But would I be able to step outside my comfort zone and face my natural fears of living in another country?

After all, I was a middle-age woman who hadn’t traveled alone in decades. I wasn’t traveling to unfamiliar neighborhoods within driving distance of my home. I was flying half way around the world to travel solo in a foreign country. If I had any chance of being successful, I had to regain my independent spirit. I had to look forward and not scurry back to what felt safe. I relied on my inner voice that wouldn’t stop whispering, “You can do it.”

I wasn’t looking to the popular Nike slogan, “Just Do It.” I was recalling another image. Decades ago, I read the classic book, The Little Engine That Could, to my sons. How fitting that in midlife, I would look to a children’s book to instill confidence. Just like the small train in this inspiring story, I had to use daily reminders to keep me on track.

After the three thieves left my guest room, the uncertainty returned. Could I simply laugh off the absurdity of wild monkeys stealing my food or would I succumb to the temptation to long for a more predictable life? This wasn’t the first time that the monkeys had trespassed. Like ants that gravitate toward food crumbs, these larger pests could be found everywhere humans congregated. The school campus was inundated. Groups of monkeys frequented classrooms, stairwells, the playground, the open fields, the lunchroom, and the pathways between buildings.

Fanciful irrational emotions flooded my well being like a tsunami. My mind planned ways to escape in the middle of the night without a trace. While I rationally knew that I had to cope with my new life in India, it was much easier to create plans for fleeing.

I had no choice but to face my challenges head on. The monkey situation was just one example of a multitude of events. Each day was filled with unfamiliar and strange happenings.

For comfort, I listened to my favorite songs from my youth and thought about others who had successfully dealt with obstacles. I recalled times when I had to overcome challenging situations. I posted one of Eleanor Roosevelt’s quotes above my desk:

The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.

I was working as an international teacher and I wasn’t going to let any of my fears erode my confidence or destroy my dreams. My inner voice became my daily mantra. Instead of hearing a small voice inside, I mouthed the words, “I can do it.”

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Christchurch, New Zealand will always be in my heart

It’s not the miles from Home what made Me Change. It was the Emotions and Experiences New to Me. At the End I did traveled far enough, but just enough to find myself.

And I had to travel miles, distance myself for my closest things, and experience many different emotions to discover about myself, to embrace myself.
I had to keep the distance from what I knew or thought it was safe to be born again.
I had to come to the other side of the world to understand and discover myself.
I didn’t travel places. I traveled emotions inside of me.
I didn’t distance myself from Home. I created a new Home.
My heart became new; my eyes saw the bright light again.
My soul was lifted.
I was born again here.
I FELT ALIVE AND FREE AGAIN!
See, I didn’t travel just for the sake of traveling. I was naïve.
I didn’t know that away from Home you can actually find yourself.
See… I LEARNED THAT TODAY…
I had to get away to truly find myself AND FREEDOM….AGAIN!

This is my poetic way to explain all my feelings since I have moved to Christchurch, New Zealand. I wish I had more eloquent words to describe all the wonders that this country offers. It’s not only a beautiful country for its gorgeous landscapes, but it is also a country filled with great and humble people.
I moved from Miami to Christchurch, New Zealand in February of 2012 with my husband as an expatriate wife. I came with the “Miami” ideas if you can call it that, you know the big city girl ideas. And I was changed.
In Christchurch I learned to relax, to reconnect with myself. To learn about the kiwi culture, to understand that they enjoy being around nature. And that if ask them about the world, they are probably well traveled folks, but they will always return to their home country.
I learned to smile back when they smile at me walking on the street because the kiwis are very polite, and you should smile back! I learned that is ok to recycle your cartoon eggs because is just nice to return to the veggie store with a full bag of cartoon eggs to give back to them and see their smile. And to show them that you care for the environment and that you care for their store.
I learned that even being miles away from home, I can still enjoy Latin music because kiwis have a taste for dancing salsa. I learned that if you suffer a loss, like I did, a big loss, a miscarriage, the kiwis will be there for you. They will prepare your meals, they will clean your house, they will give you a word of comfort and they will be calling you back just to make sure you are doing ok.
These four years spent in New Zealand made me open my eyes to new cultures, to trying new things in life. I even tried to ski for god sake! I, the Cuban / Miami only beach please kind of girl. These four years have been amazing, and I will totally recommend visiting New Zealand.
Thank you Christchurch for all this time with Me, you made ME a new person, you gave Me back my FREEDOM WINGS!

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CANADA: Finding Yourself and Finding Your World

Where I find freedom….

I am often asked this questions being a mother to four young children, a wife, an entrepreneur, and an aspiring author. How do I find the time for me?

The first step for me was realizing that I needed time and freedom for myself and I had to make it happen. Prior to going on my personal development journey to healing and find my self-love. I was going through my life trying to do what would satisfy others and make them proud. Not too long after I graduated from high school I went to college to become a Natural Health Practitioner. I had a lot of criticism from my loved ones as this was not a field they understood or could relate to, in their eyes was not credible. Even before receiving my diploma, I had decided that I would become an electrician. Instead of pursuing my dream, I went into something that I knew would be accepted by everyone around me. Just a couple months after receiving my diploma I started my electrical apprenticeship. I received praise from all my loved ones and even complete strangers, which persuaded me to keep going.

I had to hit rock-bottom before realizing that I needed to honour myself and find that freedom for me. When I was pregnant with my fourth child, I realized that I was miserable, felt lost, misplaced and disconnected within your own skin. Living in a world full of judgement, feeling as though I needed to portray a perfect life, and putting unrealistic expectations upon myself, resulted in a lot of disappointment and feelings of failure. Being occupied by another’s needs each and every day without honouring myself, lead to exhaustion and deep disconnection within myself.

In society we have been essentially programmed to put on a facade to express how “ideal” our life should be and how we should be in the eyes of our generally population. There is an accepted way to be, look, act, the house, vehicle and life you should strive for, the items or things you should have. When really all these things should be customized to each individual, who you are, your soul purpose, personality and what you would like to accomplish in your life. Not everyone is the same. From one person to another, you will do things differently, have different beliefs, have different circumstances, priorities and have different ways of doing things.

When I started my self-healing journey, the biggest change happened for me when I allowed myself to have two hours for just me every morning before the rest of my family woke up. This time allowed me to fully connect, dig into my self-healing books and programs and better myself. Because I had chosen the morning for this time, it set up my day to succeed as I had already put time into myself, feeding my heart and soul, and allowing me to be the best me for the day. This also made decision making clearer for me. I knew I was on the right track because I was motivated to continue, it felt good and freeing.

With this self-acknowledgement, my self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-love grew naturally. The more ways I honoured yourself, the happier I became, the lighter I felt and life began to flow with ease. Once I became connected with what made me happy, the faster my perspective changed. I was more accepting of others and all forms of judgment then disappears; self-judgement, judgement of others and other’s judgements on me. When I was able to release all of my self-judgements, I felt more confident within yourself and no longer needed anyone else’s opinions. When I got to the point, where I became absolutely comfortable within me and no longer felt the need to rely on other’s opinions, I instead use their suggestions as I saw suitable.

By honouring myself with “me time” everyday, I find my freedom, live my passion, and am present with my life.

My vision is:
“For all moms to think of themselves as no less than extraordinary!”

Much love, appreciation & gratitude,
Tracy Munson
Natural Health Strategist & Coach, NHP, CDC

 

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My New Year’s Rebirth in Guatemala

Driving along the quiet morning streets of a city I would come to know and love, I bawled into the musky atmosphere of the cab. I had just flown to Los Angeles for about a week, to visit a man who would become a bigger part of my life than I could ever imagine. But as the sun began to rise and the infamous LAX came into view, I felt less than elated to be hopping on a flight to Guatemala City.

It was the day before New Year’s Eve, and the looming new year on the horizon stood a mysterious silhouette in a grey backdrop. At first the plan seemed simple, go to Central America, have a work holiday, more or less. It seemed fitting, but sometimes what you think you are ‘meant’ to do doesn’t match up with what the world has planned for you. The firm seats of the plane reminded me that I was about to spend the next few weeks in unfamiliar places, and likely sitting in similarly firm bus seats, which was almost comforting, as although I had come to realize I had no idea why I was going to Guatemala, maybe it was a childhood fascination finally coming to life, that I indeed took refuge in the unfamiliar.

When you do not know a city, when you do not know a face or a name, reality seems more malleable, free from the conditions and generalizations we bind ourselves with. But it wasn’t until after I left Central America for the second time that I would conclude that sometimes you can’t simply put yourself out of the norm, you have to be completely destroyed, and born again anew.

Arriving in the beautiful colonial city of Antigua, Guatemala, I felt instantly lonely. A rare sensation, and a wave of isolation and being far from the world I knew washed over, even as I walked the stone streets, full of character and stories. New Year’s Eve was spent with a gaggle of Australians whom I’d met that day at my hostel. Predictable, but at least I knew that all over the world, people were celebrating the same thing, a shift in time, a new year, a new era. The night proceeded in a sickly classic way, the parties were many and the drinks too strong. Upon losing my group of newly acquainted travel buddies I quickly realized I was now well and truly alone, wandering the ghostly streets of a potentially dangerous city.

Fear introduced itself promptly and again I found myself caught in a whirling dizziness of confusion. Where is my hostel? Why am I suddenly by myself? Questions of my own sanity brought me to eventual surrender when a car pulled up. It was a police officer. Now this had to be one of the strangest experiences of my life, and still now it holds a mind boggling surreal quality. The officer asked me what was wrong, to which I could barely answer between sobs. To my own surprise, as I generally consider myself verging on the edge of paranoia, I agreed to be driven home after he kindly took me to get food and a coffee.

Crying to a strange police officer over cake, in a foreign country, about nothing in particular, is probably one of the most embarrassing and messed up accounts I could ever recall, but as I began to settle down and he listened to me, offering even more surprising words of wisdom, I began to notice that on this New Year’s Day, I had been reborn. It sounds silly, but it literally felt like a piece of me had left, abruptly resigned, in the face of such fear, discomfort and the internal pain that I had been feeling. Sometimes we can only see freedom when we are forced to face ourselves solely, with no walls, no security blankets, no friends, no money, nothing we have been so trained to value, alone.

The aura of confusion still lingered but was not pressing, there was a certain lightness now. I continued to enjoy my next 4 weeks in Guatemala, and 2 weeks in Mexico, the best I possibly could, allowing what was meant to be to be. I met amazing people. I swam. I (hestitantly) rode horses on cliffs. I hiked to the tops of mountains at sunrise and sunset. I danced and ate and listened to music. I got sick. Really sick. I lost my phone. My computer died. I got sick again. I tried not to blame myself for being sick. I visited amazing places. I made a best friend.

And I watched. I observed. And still now, when I recall the entirety of my journeys from Guatemala City to Mexico and finally back to Los Angeles, when I rejoiced in being back in North America despite my mind-blowing travels, I watch it all as a movie I have seen a thousand times, and know that in some way, I had to be completely destroyed to find my freedom, to let go of all that I perceived to be true in order to make room for the new and spectacular things that were about to enter my life. I had nothing to lose. Freedom had been chasing me down, like a ghost longing to make itself known, so that I could finally stare it straight in the face.

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I Choose My Freedom in Australia…For Now

We laid on our sides on what I once called our bed. Nose touching tip of nose, eyes locked into eyes. I traced the outside of his face with my free hand, imagining that I could feel the difference between the brown, gold and crimson strands of his beard underneath my fingertips. The scent of him filled me like smoke. I breathed in earth, clean laundry and a hint of weed. In this bed, there was nothing else. Only the physical tug of my heart to his, our breath slowed down to one. If I made this moment my entire world, I was happy.

“Come home,” he said, breaking the comfortable silence. “You can still travel. Just come home to me.”

I was leaving him for now the third time. The freedom that comes with traveling– the thrill of uncertainty, the choices that follow ambiguity– had once again found prominence in my heart over anything that would just make me one half of a whole. This time, I’d be gone for more than a four month backpacking stint around Europe or South America. I was going to Australia for at least a year, and I intended to finally make this breakup stick.

However, my mind struggled to find the flaw in his plan, drunk as I was on the happiness that I associated with his presence. It sounded nice. I could have both.

He assured me certainty, security, love, a future–the sweetest of chains. So I imagined living out my life with him, continuing the dream state of that bed. The only thing that he truly stimulated in me was a sexual desire. The rest would continue to be a mindless routine, devoid of intelligent conversation. He would watch football. I would cook him lasagna. He’d tell me he thought it was cute that I liked to read. I’d try in vain to discuss Orwell with him. He would work at the bar. I would find some middleman job. He’d buy a house in a small Massachusetts town. We’d take turns digging our cars out of the New England snow, and he’d get angry when he caught me lusting after Google images of exotic places. We’d smoke weed everyday to further along the numbing effect. He’d get me pregnant one day, like he always wanted. He’d teach our child to throw a ball, and I’d try to instill enough independence and individuality in her so that she could live the life I always wanted–a life of adventure and freedom.

To stay with him would have been to make the choice to throw a huge spoiler alert over my entire life, to watch the Red Wedding scene of Game of Thrones just as I got invested in the first season. Our relationship presented only walls and no frontiers.

I didn’t know who I was when I wasn’t his. All I knew was that it bothered me, a literal constant pain in my side each time I realised that I was becoming part of an indifferent and incurious population that gets stuck in relationships that are finite, lethargic and easy. I realized that I lived for my connection to him, changing myself to fit his mold. I neglected everything else that I ever wanted, pursuing those finite moments of happiness wholeheartedly so that I could mollify my anxiety in the face of my natural state, the state of freedom. I wasn’t committed to my authenticity; I hid from it.

My urge to strike out on my own was a gut reaction, a survival instinct. I needed to ease the stomach-clenching dread that accompanied the notion of remaining in one place for long, and for someone else. I needed the ignition that comes with waking up in a strange city or country, stimulating myself by way of exploration, acquainting myself with a new place through its food, having informed and varied discussions in broken English over a hostel dining room table. My freedom comes with the weight of a backpack on my shoulders, a one-way ticket and a culture shock. I am the only one in this world who can give me what I crave; to travel. To live a life as a traveller means living a life of contrast and spontaneity, ambiguity and choices.

I did not say that travel made me “happy,” although it often does. Happiness is not the attainable lifetime goal. Happiness is finite. What I sought was freedom, an infinite state of being that far surpasses a vague and unattainable notion of absolute contentment.

So as I lay in that bed, contemplating the tear I had to force between us, I focused on my refusal to be defined by my environment and my sentiment, rather than by the choices I made when faced with uncertainty.

I’ve been living in Australia for almost 10 months now, and I am face to face with my independence everyday, my choice to try on life as a 24 year old Melburnian for the time being, absorbing the parts of it that add to my shifting identity. I do not know what the next steps are, for I cannot see them clearly or at all. And that’s okay. To have a full knowledge of what my years hold would be just as finite as a committed relationship with a small-minded man. The mystery that comes with knowing nothing is infinite. I am faced with an unlimited spectrum, and all I must do is choose and take responsibility for my choices, may they always be in line with my most authentic state. This is what makes me free.

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The Power of Unique Experiences in Indonesia

Kerthunk, kerthunk, kerthunk.

I felt as if someone had sunk a fistful of fear into my heart and let it pound it into the rest of my body. My stomach felt like it was trying to retreat behind my ribs, my eyes were wide. Reason told me I shouldn’t have been so phobic. But I was staring down my nemeses, and reason was quickly losing its place in my repertoire.

Actually, “nemeses” might be a strong word for something the size of a pin head. These were a couple of bugs so small that one could easily mistake them for a floating piece of white lint, especially in the flickering shadows of the Balinese evening. They were bed bug nymphs, and their presence meant I needed to leave before they could scurry their way into my belongings.

My mind flashed back to a bitter night far away from the hostel on the quaint Indonesian road. I was back in my apartment in Massachusetts, back to the shock of finding an infestation of biting little bugs that snuck through the folds of my sofa and cracks in the hardwood floors. I retreated to the bathtub at two in the morning, saturated in dread.

Bed bugs aren’t dangerous, but eradicating them is an awful and laborious process. I had been in physical therapy for years for a bad back. My nearest family member was hundreds of miles away. I couldn’t imagine how to pack all my belongings away with my unstable bones. I cringed in anticipation of the pain that could come from rounds of laundering everything I owned, spraying things down with isopropyl, and moving furniture for exterminators.

The predicted injury and accompanying pain led to my first visit to Indonesia. I questioned if other people with physical disadvantages could get caught in similarly horrendous situations throughout the world, and secured a grant to research the topic in several countries. Come spring, I set off on a great multinational adventure in which I fervently chased answers and lines of longitude.

During that journey, I took a ferry from Singapore to spend a couple days in Bintan Island, Indonesia. Between the driftwood and palm fronds on an empty stretch of beach, I stopped to see an eroding message written in the sand: “LIFE ALWAYS FINDS A WAY”. I felt like some vanished scribe had written it there as part of my story, like the universe had left the words there just for me.

I bought a ticket to Bali during a turbulent period a couple years later. I wanted to head back to the country where clairvoyants roamed the islands and messages were hidden in the sand.

In the place where I expected to find order and inner peace, I was being gripped by memories of injured sleepless nights and unresolved past fears. I hauled my backpack to the safety of the front porch and dove into my phone, searching furiously for new accommodations, comfort from friends, and ways to clean old demons out of potentially contaminated belongings.

I sat on the ground for so long that the stones had imprinted their shapes on my legs, so I headed to the roof terrace to obsess over my problems in privacy. I looked out to see a brilliant sunset, a scattering of stringy blue clouds hanging on a backdrop of potent pinks and oranges. Beyond the edge of the peninsula, the ocean was mirroring the colorful banners of the sunset, making it seem almost endless.

I wasn’t sure how many sunsets I’d missed while my phobias were running amok, but I didn’t want to miss that one. In the last journey I hadn’t learned to compartmentalize my thoughts, to stop a bout of fear from tainting all of the glory around me. I turned the phone on its face to gaze at the sunset, to listen to the ensemble of cicadas and monkeys and the chattering and clinking of bottles from guests downstairs.

Travel has power to put you out in the caprices of the unknown and onto the stoops of old haunts. But sometimes, it also offers you a chance at redemption.

I was myself again, watching silently as the ocean was swallowed by the night. I was free from those harrowing and pervasive fears, unshackled from the tunnel vision of anxiety.

I found no more messages in the sand, no phantoms to leave signs that I had gotten things right. I was left with open road, a painted sky, and gorgeous wildlife; all that I sought and all that I needed.

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Feeling Insignificant on Serene Mt. Rainier, USA

The feel of snow in August is a unique experience reserved for those in either extreme latitudes or significant altitudes. Mt. Rainier certainly qualifies for the latter category. I had taken a break on the side of the Mountain to prep for my final push towards Camp Muir, a staging area which sits about 4,000’ short of the summit of Mt. Rainier at 14,411’. Although I needed to catch my breath for the climb ahead, this task seemed figuratively impossible given the breathtaking vista surrounding me. To the south lay the smoke-obscured teeth of the Tatoosh range, and beyond them the still-visible volcanic peaks of St. Helens and Adams. Looking to the West, I saw the Cowlitz Glacier dissipating to thin waterfalls that collected in the valley below. But it was the northern view that was the most commanding, as this sight contained the camp, the summit and a blinding stretch of steep snow that constituted the rest of my hike.

Moments like this take me back to a line I overheard in Seattle just a few days before my hike: “The great thing about nature is how it makes us feel small”. I disagreed with the speaker, at least in part. If the feeling of smallness was truly all we sought in nature, there really would be no reason to travel there. Smallness is so much easier to find in a cubical from 9-to-5, a fact I am well acquainted with. Three months prior to this evening and this hike, I was living a comfortable life in Boston with a good paying job. Stability, activity, and the prospect of upwards mobility were all luxuries I enjoyed, but it was still a small existence, a fact intensified by my oppressive anxiety and frequent panic attacks.

Conventional wisdom would have recommended, at times like this, that the weary worker take a vacation and “get your head in order”. I took the wisdom, but neglected the conventionality, boarding an Amtrak train in Boston and seeing where I could go over the next few months. This eventually brought me to the Space Needle in Seattle, where I got my first good view of Mt. Rainer. The thing was big, not just in raw mass, but with understated gravity. It gripped my attention and demanded personification, quietly scoffing at the Needle I was standing on. I left the elevator with a single conviction in mind, one that brought me to my break point on the side of Mt. Rainer, just a few hundred feet below the camp.

If ever I had sound reason for suffering a panic attack, this would be that time. I was by myself on one of the deadliest hiking trails in the country, where the afternoon sun was opening crevasses below my feet and cutting my friction-less progress to a negligible sum. What if my exertion led to a heart attack, where would they take me? Or if a storm rolls in and I lose my sense of direction? These thoughts and more could have easily crossed my mind, but none did. Instead, my focus lay in just placing one foot in front of the other until I arrived on the stone-carved steps of Camp Muir. And then I saw how small I really was. But this feeling of smallness was different than the one I knew three months prior. This experience was expansive, elevated, the kind that makes you breathe easier with a younger smile on your face. I was, in that moment, entwined within something bigger than myself without being absolved into it.

Suffice it to say, I never did return from my vacation, at least not to the job I had before. There was many more moments that lead to that decision, but the encounter with Rainier demonstrated something that I once had, had lost, and must work to awaken again. The path from here remains uncertain, but it is now a path that does at least go on..

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From Vietnamese Mangroves and a Loving Mom

The runway was not much more than a lightly paved strip of soil which popped out of the rice paddies and mangroves like a long, rectangular oasis. As I exited the 1950’s prop, much like the one that Indiana Jones rides in Raiders of the Lost Ark, I felt stifled instead of being freed from the tight quarters that I’d just ridden in. The density and weight of the atmosphere made it hard to inhale deeply– and it was more than just heat and humidity of the southernmost part of Vietnam – Ca Mau, a peninsular province with the Gulf of Thailand to the West and the Pacific Ocean to the South and East. I was stepping foot on the same soil where my son was born, breathing the same sticky, tropical air that he did. The son I had not yet met, and the son that I would not be bringing home to Indiana after the eight days that I’d be there.

As excited as I was to meet my baby — the one that I dreamed of and had dreams for — I needed to guard my emotions. Upon seeing my first photo of him, my heart skipped a beat when I gazed into those deep brown eyes and saw the shock of black hair standing up on his head. I knew that without a doubt that he was my son. It was my moment of a doctor handing my child to me to put on my chest and feeling a love like no other.

Much like the southern Vietnamese mangroves’ intertwined roots, strong and complicated, his homecoming was constricted by the fact that he was stuck — stuck in an orphanage due to political posturing by both the U.S. and Vietnamese governments not willing to move an inch to finalize his adoption, despite him living in squalid and unsafe orphanage conditions.

I flew half-way around the world and was there with two other moms in the same situation to help care for our children and the others in the orphanage. It was the one small thing we could actually do to help our kids, while we lobbied Congressional leaders and the State Department on the homefront.

Within minutes sweat was streaming down my face and soaking my clothes – a combination of the oppressive heat and my anxiety. My friends and I headed out to the orphanage in a taxi. There were few cars on the road, mostly bicycles and motor bikes. We raced along the tropical landscape – passing roadside markets where vendors sold pineapples, roosters in woven basket cages, plastic kitchenware and even python meat. Our taxi driver honked incessantly as he passed cars, though few, and played a game of chicken with oncoming traffic. A movie of mangroves and long boats with weathered fishermen, and the occasional water buffalo grazing in a yard ran through the car windows. Children with bare feet and dirty faces dotted the fast-moving landscape – all of it beautiful, colorful and full of life.

Finally, we turned down a one-lane dirt road lined by shallow canals, lush mango and tamarind trees, and tin roof-shacks with hammocks as beds. My stomach dropped to my knees when I saw the orphanage building.

My 22-month old son was literally imprisoned in his tiny room — it had bars on the windows, a former internment camp from the Vietnam War.

I had many conversations with him before I got to Vietnam (all in my head), promising him that I would do whatever it took to get him home to Indiana. I’d say “good night” to him when I woke up in the morning and whisper “good morning” before I fell asleep at night, living with my heart twelve hours ahead. And that week, I told him in person — kissing his smooth, tan cheeks, my tears wetting his sweet face as I held him close. And, then having to leave him.

Twenty-six months later, in the most unusual of places, we found refuge surrounded by luggage carts, drug-sniffing Beagles and a melody of different languages at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. His two tiny feet touched U.S. soil, and I felt palpable relief from my shoulders, fighting back yet another set of tears as my husband squeezed my hand and hugged us both.

Sitting at our departure gate for the last leg of our journey home, he sat in my lap and munched on a banana and French fries.

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My Unlikely Friends in Mountainous Ecuador

It’s hot. How can it be this hot? Since arriving in Salasaka, this indigenous village in the Ecuadorian Andes, I have had a constantly sun-burned, peeling nose. Having an 8-year-old child on my back doesn’t help.

I struggle along, Fernanda on my back and her 5-year-old sister Ñusta leading the way. Ñusta is a great helper, waddling along with her sick sister’s backpack, which is almost as large as her. We walk down the wide, dusty roads lined with agave; sheep bleat and donkeys bray, everyone lazily complaining about the sweltering heat. I can see endlessly across the green, quilt-patterned hills, and everything looks exactly the same. We could be anywhere in all of Salasaka, and I would have no idea. All I can do is trust the girls to know where they live. At the school where I am teaching, when a child gets sick like Fernanda has, we can’t just call home, mom rushing over in her minivan to pick the child up, sign her out for the day. Almost no households in this village have a phone, and neither does the school. The only way to get them home is to do this, to carry them for miles until you reach the shanty and farm that is their home.

As a recently trained child therapist back in the U.S., I feel sick with guilt because it’s breaking every rule in the book that I’m doing this. Carrying a child on my back for miles? Taking them home when their parents haven’t given me signed permission? But I’m not their therapist, I remind myself, or try to. Because Fernanda is sick, and needs to get home, and this moment is more important than all the things I learned in graduate school.

“Podemos descansar?”, I ask the girls. Can we rest? I gently set Fernanda down, and the 3 of us sit together in the shade of a stack of cement blocks. Fernanda immediately lies down and puts her head in my lap. My “clinical instinct” is to gently remove her from her physical contact with me. Physical affection is always a liability. Keep your “boundaries”, they tell you. To the 7-year-old client who innocently tells me, I love you, I am trained to respond, I see that you really care about me, and I care about you too. Not “I love you too”, never that. A separation between you and the child. Care about her, of course, but from a distance.

I quit my job as a therapist because I was so terrified of how much I cared about my kids. I must not be doing something right, I felt. I must not be cut out for this. It broke my heart. A career down the drain because I just loved those kids too much. But here I was, in the mountains of South America to where I escaped, doing the same thing. Loving too much, again.

But I can’t help it. I love Fernanda. My heart is filled with her. She is only 8 years old and already the smartest student in school. She pulls my hand before recess ends every morning, lamenting, “Vamos a clase!” She watches over my shoulder with anxiety that is palpable as I grade her multiplication drills, as if she has ever received anything less than a 100%. There is a moodiness about her, a subtle neediness, and she sometimes sits apart from the group as Renato, the music teacher, leads them in warbling South American pop songs.

A woman passes where we sit catching our breath, wearing her chumbi and green shawl, half a dozen protesting sheep leading the way. She looks at me, and her confusion is reflected in her glare. What is this gringa doing out here with two of our precious children? The girls chat pleasantly with her in Kichwa, the sing-song indigenous language that I haven’t learned yet, and finally, she smiles, understanding. And somehow, with that smile, she is granting me the permission to love this child freely, to really love her, to love her and all of her sisters and friends without clinical boundaries, without restriction. Love her simply, freely, not as a professional but as a fellow human being, as an adult in the community who shares the responsibility of raising and caring for her. And maybe that’s not such a terrible thing.

I put my hand on Fernanda’s forehead. She doesn’t feel hot, and I don’t know if she was really sick at all or if she just wanted this time with me. “Listas?”, I ask the girls, and Ñusta puts on two backpacks, her own in the back and Fernanda’s in the front. I stoop to let Fernanda on my back, and we keep on walking.

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New Experiences with Monkeys in India

I was sitting cross-legged on a four-inch mattress that doubled as my bed. Sweat engulfed all of my pores as a simple fan hummed above. I glanced up from my book. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a medium-sized monkey open my screen door with ease. I blinked. I observed a second monkey trailing behind and then another.

My jaw dropped. I sat speechless. Three wild monkeys were just a couple of yards away.

Without hesitation, they walked toward a small round table next to my bright red refrigerator. All three admired my possessions. The taller one glanced back in my direction as if to say, “ha, ha”. With one hand, he grabbed one of my Tupperware containers. Within seconds, the monkeys vanished, leaving my door open in their wake.

I sat bewildered. Should I laugh or should I cry?

Just weeks earlier, I had started teaching at an international K-12 boarding school in Bangalore, India. As an American middle-aged educator, I jumped at the opportunity to work and travel abroad. Most of my friends and family members thought that I was experiencing a midlife crisis. Why would I leave my cushy suburban life to work in a developing country?

For years, a series of orthopedic issues had prevented me from using my K-6 teaching license. To remain an educator, I became an adjunct instructor at a local community college. I loved teaching, but something was missing.

When I was offered the primary international teaching position, one of my dreams was finally fulfilled. Once again, I would have the opportunity to work with children and use my teaching credentials. But would I be able to step outside my comfort zone and face my natural fears of living in another country?

After all, I was a middle-age woman who hadn’t traveled alone in decades. I wasn’t traveling to unfamiliar neighborhoods within driving distance of my home. I was flying half way around the world to travel solo in a foreign country. If I had any chance of being successful, I had to regain my independent spirit. I had to look forward and not scurry back to what felt safe. I relied on my inner voice that wouldn’t stop whispering, “You can do it.”

I wasn’t looking to the popular Nike slogan, “Just Do It.” I was recalling another image. Decades ago, I read the classic book, The Little Engine That Could, to my sons. How fitting that in midlife, I would look to a children’s book to instill confidence. Just like the small train in this inspiring story, I had to use daily reminders to keep me on track.

After the three thieves left my guest room, the uncertainty returned. Could I simply laugh off the absurdity of wild monkeys stealing my food or would I succumb to the temptation to long for a more predictable life? This wasn’t the first time that the monkeys had trespassed. Like ants that gravitate toward food crumbs, these larger pests could be found everywhere humans congregated. The school campus was inundated. Groups of monkeys frequented classrooms, stairwells, the playground, the open fields, the lunchroom, and the pathways between buildings.

Fanciful irrational emotions flooded my well being like a tsunami. My mind planned ways to escape in the middle of the night without a trace. While I rationally knew that I had to cope with my new life in India, it was much easier to create plans for fleeing.

I had no choice but to face my challenges head on. The monkey situation was just one example of a multitude of events. Each day was filled with unfamiliar and strange happenings.

For comfort, I listened to my favorite songs from my youth and thought about others who had successfully dealt with obstacles. I recalled times when I had to overcome challenging situations. I posted one of Eleanor Roosevelt’s quotes above my desk:

The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.

I was working as an international teacher and I wasn’t going to let any of my fears erode my confidence or destroy my dreams. My inner voice became my daily mantra. Instead of hearing a small voice inside, I mouthed the words, “I can do it.”

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Christchurch, New Zealand will always be in my heart

It’s not the miles from Home what made Me Change. It was the Emotions and Experiences New to Me. At the End I did traveled far enough, but just enough to find myself.

And I had to travel miles, distance myself for my closest things, and experience many different emotions to discover about myself, to embrace myself.
I had to keep the distance from what I knew or thought it was safe to be born again.
I had to come to the other side of the world to understand and discover myself.
I didn’t travel places. I traveled emotions inside of me.
I didn’t distance myself from Home. I created a new Home.
My heart became new; my eyes saw the bright light again.
My soul was lifted.
I was born again here.
I FELT ALIVE AND FREE AGAIN!
See, I didn’t travel just for the sake of traveling. I was naïve.
I didn’t know that away from Home you can actually find yourself.
See… I LEARNED THAT TODAY…
I had to get away to truly find myself AND FREEDOM….AGAIN!

This is my poetic way to explain all my feelings since I have moved to Christchurch, New Zealand. I wish I had more eloquent words to describe all the wonders that this country offers. It’s not only a beautiful country for its gorgeous landscapes, but it is also a country filled with great and humble people.
I moved from Miami to Christchurch, New Zealand in February of 2012 with my husband as an expatriate wife. I came with the “Miami” ideas if you can call it that, you know the big city girl ideas. And I was changed.
In Christchurch I learned to relax, to reconnect with myself. To learn about the kiwi culture, to understand that they enjoy being around nature. And that if ask them about the world, they are probably well traveled folks, but they will always return to their home country.
I learned to smile back when they smile at me walking on the street because the kiwis are very polite, and you should smile back! I learned that is ok to recycle your cartoon eggs because is just nice to return to the veggie store with a full bag of cartoon eggs to give back to them and see their smile. And to show them that you care for the environment and that you care for their store.
I learned that even being miles away from home, I can still enjoy Latin music because kiwis have a taste for dancing salsa. I learned that if you suffer a loss, like I did, a big loss, a miscarriage, the kiwis will be there for you. They will prepare your meals, they will clean your house, they will give you a word of comfort and they will be calling you back just to make sure you are doing ok.
These four years spent in New Zealand made me open my eyes to new cultures, to trying new things in life. I even tried to ski for god sake! I, the Cuban / Miami only beach please kind of girl. These four years have been amazing, and I will totally recommend visiting New Zealand.
Thank you Christchurch for all this time with Me, you made ME a new person, you gave Me back my FREEDOM WINGS!

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CANADA: Finding Yourself and Finding Your World

Where I find freedom….

I am often asked this questions being a mother to four young children, a wife, an entrepreneur, and an aspiring author. How do I find the time for me?

The first step for me was realizing that I needed time and freedom for myself and I had to make it happen. Prior to going on my personal development journey to healing and find my self-love. I was going through my life trying to do what would satisfy others and make them proud. Not too long after I graduated from high school I went to college to become a Natural Health Practitioner. I had a lot of criticism from my loved ones as this was not a field they understood or could relate to, in their eyes was not credible. Even before receiving my diploma, I had decided that I would become an electrician. Instead of pursuing my dream, I went into something that I knew would be accepted by everyone around me. Just a couple months after receiving my diploma I started my electrical apprenticeship. I received praise from all my loved ones and even complete strangers, which persuaded me to keep going.

I had to hit rock-bottom before realizing that I needed to honour myself and find that freedom for me. When I was pregnant with my fourth child, I realized that I was miserable, felt lost, misplaced and disconnected within your own skin. Living in a world full of judgement, feeling as though I needed to portray a perfect life, and putting unrealistic expectations upon myself, resulted in a lot of disappointment and feelings of failure. Being occupied by another’s needs each and every day without honouring myself, lead to exhaustion and deep disconnection within myself.

In society we have been essentially programmed to put on a facade to express how “ideal” our life should be and how we should be in the eyes of our generally population. There is an accepted way to be, look, act, the house, vehicle and life you should strive for, the items or things you should have. When really all these things should be customized to each individual, who you are, your soul purpose, personality and what you would like to accomplish in your life. Not everyone is the same. From one person to another, you will do things differently, have different beliefs, have different circumstances, priorities and have different ways of doing things.

When I started my self-healing journey, the biggest change happened for me when I allowed myself to have two hours for just me every morning before the rest of my family woke up. This time allowed me to fully connect, dig into my self-healing books and programs and better myself. Because I had chosen the morning for this time, it set up my day to succeed as I had already put time into myself, feeding my heart and soul, and allowing me to be the best me for the day. This also made decision making clearer for me. I knew I was on the right track because I was motivated to continue, it felt good and freeing.

With this self-acknowledgement, my self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-love grew naturally. The more ways I honoured yourself, the happier I became, the lighter I felt and life began to flow with ease. Once I became connected with what made me happy, the faster my perspective changed. I was more accepting of others and all forms of judgment then disappears; self-judgement, judgement of others and other’s judgements on me. When I was able to release all of my self-judgements, I felt more confident within yourself and no longer needed anyone else’s opinions. When I got to the point, where I became absolutely comfortable within me and no longer felt the need to rely on other’s opinions, I instead use their suggestions as I saw suitable.

By honouring myself with “me time” everyday, I find my freedom, live my passion, and am present with my life.

My vision is:
“For all moms to think of themselves as no less than extraordinary!”

Much love, appreciation & gratitude,
Tracy Munson
Natural Health Strategist & Coach, NHP, CDC

 

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My New Year’s Rebirth in Guatemala

Driving along the quiet morning streets of a city I would come to know and love, I bawled into the musky atmosphere of the cab. I had just flown to Los Angeles for about a week, to visit a man who would become a bigger part of my life than I could ever imagine. But as the sun began to rise and the infamous LAX came into view, I felt less than elated to be hopping on a flight to Guatemala City.

It was the day before New Year’s Eve, and the looming new year on the horizon stood a mysterious silhouette in a grey backdrop. At first the plan seemed simple, go to Central America, have a work holiday, more or less. It seemed fitting, but sometimes what you think you are ‘meant’ to do doesn’t match up with what the world has planned for you. The firm seats of the plane reminded me that I was about to spend the next few weeks in unfamiliar places, and likely sitting in similarly firm bus seats, which was almost comforting, as although I had come to realize I had no idea why I was going to Guatemala, maybe it was a childhood fascination finally coming to life, that I indeed took refuge in the unfamiliar.

When you do not know a city, when you do not know a face or a name, reality seems more malleable, free from the conditions and generalizations we bind ourselves with. But it wasn’t until after I left Central America for the second time that I would conclude that sometimes you can’t simply put yourself out of the norm, you have to be completely destroyed, and born again anew.

Arriving in the beautiful colonial city of Antigua, Guatemala, I felt instantly lonely. A rare sensation, and a wave of isolation and being far from the world I knew washed over, even as I walked the stone streets, full of character and stories. New Year’s Eve was spent with a gaggle of Australians whom I’d met that day at my hostel. Predictable, but at least I knew that all over the world, people were celebrating the same thing, a shift in time, a new year, a new era. The night proceeded in a sickly classic way, the parties were many and the drinks too strong. Upon losing my group of newly acquainted travel buddies I quickly realized I was now well and truly alone, wandering the ghostly streets of a potentially dangerous city.

Fear introduced itself promptly and again I found myself caught in a whirling dizziness of confusion. Where is my hostel? Why am I suddenly by myself? Questions of my own sanity brought me to eventual surrender when a car pulled up. It was a police officer. Now this had to be one of the strangest experiences of my life, and still now it holds a mind boggling surreal quality. The officer asked me what was wrong, to which I could barely answer between sobs. To my own surprise, as I generally consider myself verging on the edge of paranoia, I agreed to be driven home after he kindly took me to get food and a coffee.

Crying to a strange police officer over cake, in a foreign country, about nothing in particular, is probably one of the most embarrassing and messed up accounts I could ever recall, but as I began to settle down and he listened to me, offering even more surprising words of wisdom, I began to notice that on this New Year’s Day, I had been reborn. It sounds silly, but it literally felt like a piece of me had left, abruptly resigned, in the face of such fear, discomfort and the internal pain that I had been feeling. Sometimes we can only see freedom when we are forced to face ourselves solely, with no walls, no security blankets, no friends, no money, nothing we have been so trained to value, alone.

The aura of confusion still lingered but was not pressing, there was a certain lightness now. I continued to enjoy my next 4 weeks in Guatemala, and 2 weeks in Mexico, the best I possibly could, allowing what was meant to be to be. I met amazing people. I swam. I (hestitantly) rode horses on cliffs. I hiked to the tops of mountains at sunrise and sunset. I danced and ate and listened to music. I got sick. Really sick. I lost my phone. My computer died. I got sick again. I tried not to blame myself for being sick. I visited amazing places. I made a best friend.

And I watched. I observed. And still now, when I recall the entirety of my journeys from Guatemala City to Mexico and finally back to Los Angeles, when I rejoiced in being back in North America despite my mind-blowing travels, I watch it all as a movie I have seen a thousand times, and know that in some way, I had to be completely destroyed to find my freedom, to let go of all that I perceived to be true in order to make room for the new and spectacular things that were about to enter my life. I had nothing to lose. Freedom had been chasing me down, like a ghost longing to make itself known, so that I could finally stare it straight in the face.

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I Choose My Freedom in Australia…For Now

We laid on our sides on what I once called our bed. Nose touching tip of nose, eyes locked into eyes. I traced the outside of his face with my free hand, imagining that I could feel the difference between the brown, gold and crimson strands of his beard underneath my fingertips. The scent of him filled me like smoke. I breathed in earth, clean laundry and a hint of weed. In this bed, there was nothing else. Only the physical tug of my heart to his, our breath slowed down to one. If I made this moment my entire world, I was happy.

“Come home,” he said, breaking the comfortable silence. “You can still travel. Just come home to me.”

I was leaving him for now the third time. The freedom that comes with traveling– the thrill of uncertainty, the choices that follow ambiguity– had once again found prominence in my heart over anything that would just make me one half of a whole. This time, I’d be gone for more than a four month backpacking stint around Europe or South America. I was going to Australia for at least a year, and I intended to finally make this breakup stick.

However, my mind struggled to find the flaw in his plan, drunk as I was on the happiness that I associated with his presence. It sounded nice. I could have both.

He assured me certainty, security, love, a future–the sweetest of chains. So I imagined living out my life with him, continuing the dream state of that bed. The only thing that he truly stimulated in me was a sexual desire. The rest would continue to be a mindless routine, devoid of intelligent conversation. He would watch football. I would cook him lasagna. He’d tell me he thought it was cute that I liked to read. I’d try in vain to discuss Orwell with him. He would work at the bar. I would find some middleman job. He’d buy a house in a small Massachusetts town. We’d take turns digging our cars out of the New England snow, and he’d get angry when he caught me lusting after Google images of exotic places. We’d smoke weed everyday to further along the numbing effect. He’d get me pregnant one day, like he always wanted. He’d teach our child to throw a ball, and I’d try to instill enough independence and individuality in her so that she could live the life I always wanted–a life of adventure and freedom.

To stay with him would have been to make the choice to throw a huge spoiler alert over my entire life, to watch the Red Wedding scene of Game of Thrones just as I got invested in the first season. Our relationship presented only walls and no frontiers.

I didn’t know who I was when I wasn’t his. All I knew was that it bothered me, a literal constant pain in my side each time I realised that I was becoming part of an indifferent and incurious population that gets stuck in relationships that are finite, lethargic and easy. I realized that I lived for my connection to him, changing myself to fit his mold. I neglected everything else that I ever wanted, pursuing those finite moments of happiness wholeheartedly so that I could mollify my anxiety in the face of my natural state, the state of freedom. I wasn’t committed to my authenticity; I hid from it.

My urge to strike out on my own was a gut reaction, a survival instinct. I needed to ease the stomach-clenching dread that accompanied the notion of remaining in one place for long, and for someone else. I needed the ignition that comes with waking up in a strange city or country, stimulating myself by way of exploration, acquainting myself with a new place through its food, having informed and varied discussions in broken English over a hostel dining room table. My freedom comes with the weight of a backpack on my shoulders, a one-way ticket and a culture shock. I am the only one in this world who can give me what I crave; to travel. To live a life as a traveller means living a life of contrast and spontaneity, ambiguity and choices.

I did not say that travel made me “happy,” although it often does. Happiness is not the attainable lifetime goal. Happiness is finite. What I sought was freedom, an infinite state of being that far surpasses a vague and unattainable notion of absolute contentment.

So as I lay in that bed, contemplating the tear I had to force between us, I focused on my refusal to be defined by my environment and my sentiment, rather than by the choices I made when faced with uncertainty.

I’ve been living in Australia for almost 10 months now, and I am face to face with my independence everyday, my choice to try on life as a 24 year old Melburnian for the time being, absorbing the parts of it that add to my shifting identity. I do not know what the next steps are, for I cannot see them clearly or at all. And that’s okay. To have a full knowledge of what my years hold would be just as finite as a committed relationship with a small-minded man. The mystery that comes with knowing nothing is infinite. I am faced with an unlimited spectrum, and all I must do is choose and take responsibility for my choices, may they always be in line with my most authentic state. This is what makes me free.

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The Power of Unique Experiences in Indonesia

Kerthunk, kerthunk, kerthunk.

I felt as if someone had sunk a fistful of fear into my heart and let it pound it into the rest of my body. My stomach felt like it was trying to retreat behind my ribs, my eyes were wide. Reason told me I shouldn’t have been so phobic. But I was staring down my nemeses, and reason was quickly losing its place in my repertoire.

Actually, “nemeses” might be a strong word for something the size of a pin head. These were a couple of bugs so small that one could easily mistake them for a floating piece of white lint, especially in the flickering shadows of the Balinese evening. They were bed bug nymphs, and their presence meant I needed to leave before they could scurry their way into my belongings.

My mind flashed back to a bitter night far away from the hostel on the quaint Indonesian road. I was back in my apartment in Massachusetts, back to the shock of finding an infestation of biting little bugs that snuck through the folds of my sofa and cracks in the hardwood floors. I retreated to the bathtub at two in the morning, saturated in dread.

Bed bugs aren’t dangerous, but eradicating them is an awful and laborious process. I had been in physical therapy for years for a bad back. My nearest family member was hundreds of miles away. I couldn’t imagine how to pack all my belongings away with my unstable bones. I cringed in anticipation of the pain that could come from rounds of laundering everything I owned, spraying things down with isopropyl, and moving furniture for exterminators.

The predicted injury and accompanying pain led to my first visit to Indonesia. I questioned if other people with physical disadvantages could get caught in similarly horrendous situations throughout the world, and secured a grant to research the topic in several countries. Come spring, I set off on a great multinational adventure in which I fervently chased answers and lines of longitude.

During that journey, I took a ferry from Singapore to spend a couple days in Bintan Island, Indonesia. Between the driftwood and palm fronds on an empty stretch of beach, I stopped to see an eroding message written in the sand: “LIFE ALWAYS FINDS A WAY”. I felt like some vanished scribe had written it there as part of my story, like the universe had left the words there just for me.

I bought a ticket to Bali during a turbulent period a couple years later. I wanted to head back to the country where clairvoyants roamed the islands and messages were hidden in the sand.

In the place where I expected to find order and inner peace, I was being gripped by memories of injured sleepless nights and unresolved past fears. I hauled my backpack to the safety of the front porch and dove into my phone, searching furiously for new accommodations, comfort from friends, and ways to clean old demons out of potentially contaminated belongings.

I sat on the ground for so long that the stones had imprinted their shapes on my legs, so I headed to the roof terrace to obsess over my problems in privacy. I looked out to see a brilliant sunset, a scattering of stringy blue clouds hanging on a backdrop of potent pinks and oranges. Beyond the edge of the peninsula, the ocean was mirroring the colorful banners of the sunset, making it seem almost endless.

I wasn’t sure how many sunsets I’d missed while my phobias were running amok, but I didn’t want to miss that one. In the last journey I hadn’t learned to compartmentalize my thoughts, to stop a bout of fear from tainting all of the glory around me. I turned the phone on its face to gaze at the sunset, to listen to the ensemble of cicadas and monkeys and the chattering and clinking of bottles from guests downstairs.

Travel has power to put you out in the caprices of the unknown and onto the stoops of old haunts. But sometimes, it also offers you a chance at redemption.

I was myself again, watching silently as the ocean was swallowed by the night. I was free from those harrowing and pervasive fears, unshackled from the tunnel vision of anxiety.

I found no more messages in the sand, no phantoms to leave signs that I had gotten things right. I was left with open road, a painted sky, and gorgeous wildlife; all that I sought and all that I needed.

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Feeling Insignificant on Serene Mt. Rainier, USA

The feel of snow in August is a unique experience reserved for those in either extreme latitudes or significant altitudes. Mt. Rainier certainly qualifies for the latter category. I had taken a break on the side of the Mountain to prep for my final push towards Camp Muir, a staging area which sits about 4,000’ short of the summit of Mt. Rainier at 14,411’. Although I needed to catch my breath for the climb ahead, this task seemed figuratively impossible given the breathtaking vista surrounding me. To the south lay the smoke-obscured teeth of the Tatoosh range, and beyond them the still-visible volcanic peaks of St. Helens and Adams. Looking to the West, I saw the Cowlitz Glacier dissipating to thin waterfalls that collected in the valley below. But it was the northern view that was the most commanding, as this sight contained the camp, the summit and a blinding stretch of steep snow that constituted the rest of my hike.

Moments like this take me back to a line I overheard in Seattle just a few days before my hike: “The great thing about nature is how it makes us feel small”. I disagreed with the speaker, at least in part. If the feeling of smallness was truly all we sought in nature, there really would be no reason to travel there. Smallness is so much easier to find in a cubical from 9-to-5, a fact I am well acquainted with. Three months prior to this evening and this hike, I was living a comfortable life in Boston with a good paying job. Stability, activity, and the prospect of upwards mobility were all luxuries I enjoyed, but it was still a small existence, a fact intensified by my oppressive anxiety and frequent panic attacks.

Conventional wisdom would have recommended, at times like this, that the weary worker take a vacation and “get your head in order”. I took the wisdom, but neglected the conventionality, boarding an Amtrak train in Boston and seeing where I could go over the next few months. This eventually brought me to the Space Needle in Seattle, where I got my first good view of Mt. Rainer. The thing was big, not just in raw mass, but with understated gravity. It gripped my attention and demanded personification, quietly scoffing at the Needle I was standing on. I left the elevator with a single conviction in mind, one that brought me to my break point on the side of Mt. Rainer, just a few hundred feet below the camp.

If ever I had sound reason for suffering a panic attack, this would be that time. I was by myself on one of the deadliest hiking trails in the country, where the afternoon sun was opening crevasses below my feet and cutting my friction-less progress to a negligible sum. What if my exertion led to a heart attack, where would they take me? Or if a storm rolls in and I lose my sense of direction? These thoughts and more could have easily crossed my mind, but none did. Instead, my focus lay in just placing one foot in front of the other until I arrived on the stone-carved steps of Camp Muir. And then I saw how small I really was. But this feeling of smallness was different than the one I knew three months prior. This experience was expansive, elevated, the kind that makes you breathe easier with a younger smile on your face. I was, in that moment, entwined within something bigger than myself without being absolved into it.

Suffice it to say, I never did return from my vacation, at least not to the job I had before. There was many more moments that lead to that decision, but the encounter with Rainier demonstrated something that I once had, had lost, and must work to awaken again. The path from here remains uncertain, but it is now a path that does at least go on..

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From Vietnamese Mangroves and a Loving Mom

The runway was not much more than a lightly paved strip of soil which popped out of the rice paddies and mangroves like a long, rectangular oasis. As I exited the 1950’s prop, much like the one that Indiana Jones rides in Raiders of the Lost Ark, I felt stifled instead of being freed from the tight quarters that I’d just ridden in. The density and weight of the atmosphere made it hard to inhale deeply– and it was more than just heat and humidity of the southernmost part of Vietnam – Ca Mau, a peninsular province with the Gulf of Thailand to the West and the Pacific Ocean to the South and East. I was stepping foot on the same soil where my son was born, breathing the same sticky, tropical air that he did. The son I had not yet met, and the son that I would not be bringing home to Indiana after the eight days that I’d be there.

As excited as I was to meet my baby — the one that I dreamed of and had dreams for — I needed to guard my emotions. Upon seeing my first photo of him, my heart skipped a beat when I gazed into those deep brown eyes and saw the shock of black hair standing up on his head. I knew that without a doubt that he was my son. It was my moment of a doctor handing my child to me to put on my chest and feeling a love like no other.

Much like the southern Vietnamese mangroves’ intertwined roots, strong and complicated, his homecoming was constricted by the fact that he was stuck — stuck in an orphanage due to political posturing by both the U.S. and Vietnamese governments not willing to move an inch to finalize his adoption, despite him living in squalid and unsafe orphanage conditions.

I flew half-way around the world and was there with two other moms in the same situation to help care for our children and the others in the orphanage. It was the one small thing we could actually do to help our kids, while we lobbied Congressional leaders and the State Department on the homefront.

Within minutes sweat was streaming down my face and soaking my clothes – a combination of the oppressive heat and my anxiety. My friends and I headed out to the orphanage in a taxi. There were few cars on the road, mostly bicycles and motor bikes. We raced along the tropical landscape – passing roadside markets where vendors sold pineapples, roosters in woven basket cages, plastic kitchenware and even python meat. Our taxi driver honked incessantly as he passed cars, though few, and played a game of chicken with oncoming traffic. A movie of mangroves and long boats with weathered fishermen, and the occasional water buffalo grazing in a yard ran through the car windows. Children with bare feet and dirty faces dotted the fast-moving landscape – all of it beautiful, colorful and full of life.

Finally, we turned down a one-lane dirt road lined by shallow canals, lush mango and tamarind trees, and tin roof-shacks with hammocks as beds. My stomach dropped to my knees when I saw the orphanage building.

My 22-month old son was literally imprisoned in his tiny room — it had bars on the windows, a former internment camp from the Vietnam War.

I had many conversations with him before I got to Vietnam (all in my head), promising him that I would do whatever it took to get him home to Indiana. I’d say “good night” to him when I woke up in the morning and whisper “good morning” before I fell asleep at night, living with my heart twelve hours ahead. And that week, I told him in person — kissing his smooth, tan cheeks, my tears wetting his sweet face as I held him close. And, then having to leave him.

Twenty-six months later, in the most unusual of places, we found refuge surrounded by luggage carts, drug-sniffing Beagles and a melody of different languages at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. His two tiny feet touched U.S. soil, and I felt palpable relief from my shoulders, fighting back yet another set of tears as my husband squeezed my hand and hugged us both.

Sitting at our departure gate for the last leg of our journey home, he sat in my lap and munched on a banana and French fries.

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My Unlikely Friends in Mountainous Ecuador

It’s hot. How can it be this hot? Since arriving in Salasaka, this indigenous village in the Ecuadorian Andes, I have had a constantly sun-burned, peeling nose. Having an 8-year-old child on my back doesn’t help.

I struggle along, Fernanda on my back and her 5-year-old sister Ñusta leading the way. Ñusta is a great helper, waddling along with her sick sister’s backpack, which is almost as large as her. We walk down the wide, dusty roads lined with agave; sheep bleat and donkeys bray, everyone lazily complaining about the sweltering heat. I can see endlessly across the green, quilt-patterned hills, and everything looks exactly the same. We could be anywhere in all of Salasaka, and I would have no idea. All I can do is trust the girls to know where they live. At the school where I am teaching, when a child gets sick like Fernanda has, we can’t just call home, mom rushing over in her minivan to pick the child up, sign her out for the day. Almost no households in this village have a phone, and neither does the school. The only way to get them home is to do this, to carry them for miles until you reach the shanty and farm that is their home.

As a recently trained child therapist back in the U.S., I feel sick with guilt because it’s breaking every rule in the book that I’m doing this. Carrying a child on my back for miles? Taking them home when their parents haven’t given me signed permission? But I’m not their therapist, I remind myself, or try to. Because Fernanda is sick, and needs to get home, and this moment is more important than all the things I learned in graduate school.

“Podemos descansar?”, I ask the girls. Can we rest? I gently set Fernanda down, and the 3 of us sit together in the shade of a stack of cement blocks. Fernanda immediately lies down and puts her head in my lap. My “clinical instinct” is to gently remove her from her physical contact with me. Physical affection is always a liability. Keep your “boundaries”, they tell you. To the 7-year-old client who innocently tells me, I love you, I am trained to respond, I see that you really care about me, and I care about you too. Not “I love you too”, never that. A separation between you and the child. Care about her, of course, but from a distance.

I quit my job as a therapist because I was so terrified of how much I cared about my kids. I must not be doing something right, I felt. I must not be cut out for this. It broke my heart. A career down the drain because I just loved those kids too much. But here I was, in the mountains of South America to where I escaped, doing the same thing. Loving too much, again.

But I can’t help it. I love Fernanda. My heart is filled with her. She is only 8 years old and already the smartest student in school. She pulls my hand before recess ends every morning, lamenting, “Vamos a clase!” She watches over my shoulder with anxiety that is palpable as I grade her multiplication drills, as if she has ever received anything less than a 100%. There is a moodiness about her, a subtle neediness, and she sometimes sits apart from the group as Renato, the music teacher, leads them in warbling South American pop songs.

A woman passes where we sit catching our breath, wearing her chumbi and green shawl, half a dozen protesting sheep leading the way. She looks at me, and her confusion is reflected in her glare. What is this gringa doing out here with two of our precious children? The girls chat pleasantly with her in Kichwa, the sing-song indigenous language that I haven’t learned yet, and finally, she smiles, understanding. And somehow, with that smile, she is granting me the permission to love this child freely, to really love her, to love her and all of her sisters and friends without clinical boundaries, without restriction. Love her simply, freely, not as a professional but as a fellow human being, as an adult in the community who shares the responsibility of raising and caring for her. And maybe that’s not such a terrible thing.

I put my hand on Fernanda’s forehead. She doesn’t feel hot, and I don’t know if she was really sick at all or if she just wanted this time with me. “Listas?”, I ask the girls, and Ñusta puts on two backpacks, her own in the back and Fernanda’s in the front. I stoop to let Fernanda on my back, and we keep on walking.

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New Experiences with Monkeys in India

I was sitting cross-legged on a four-inch mattress that doubled as my bed. Sweat engulfed all of my pores as a simple fan hummed above. I glanced up from my book. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a medium-sized monkey open my screen door with ease. I blinked. I observed a second monkey trailing behind and then another.

My jaw dropped. I sat speechless. Three wild monkeys were just a couple of yards away.

Without hesitation, they walked toward a small round table next to my bright red refrigerator. All three admired my possessions. The taller one glanced back in my direction as if to say, “ha, ha”. With one hand, he grabbed one of my Tupperware containers. Within seconds, the monkeys vanished, leaving my door open in their wake.

I sat bewildered. Should I laugh or should I cry?

Just weeks earlier, I had started teaching at an international K-12 boarding school in Bangalore, India. As an American middle-aged educator, I jumped at the opportunity to work and travel abroad. Most of my friends and family members thought that I was experiencing a midlife crisis. Why would I leave my cushy suburban life to work in a developing country?

For years, a series of orthopedic issues had prevented me from using my K-6 teaching license. To remain an educator, I became an adjunct instructor at a local community college. I loved teaching, but something was missing.

When I was offered the primary international teaching position, one of my dreams was finally fulfilled. Once again, I would have the opportunity to work with children and use my teaching credentials. But would I be able to step outside my comfort zone and face my natural fears of living in another country?

After all, I was a middle-age woman who hadn’t traveled alone in decades. I wasn’t traveling to unfamiliar neighborhoods within driving distance of my home. I was flying half way around the world to travel solo in a foreign country. If I had any chance of being successful, I had to regain my independent spirit. I had to look forward and not scurry back to what felt safe. I relied on my inner voice that wouldn’t stop whispering, “You can do it.”

I wasn’t looking to the popular Nike slogan, “Just Do It.” I was recalling another image. Decades ago, I read the classic book, The Little Engine That Could, to my sons. How fitting that in midlife, I would look to a children’s book to instill confidence. Just like the small train in this inspiring story, I had to use daily reminders to keep me on track.

After the three thieves left my guest room, the uncertainty returned. Could I simply laugh off the absurdity of wild monkeys stealing my food or would I succumb to the temptation to long for a more predictable life? This wasn’t the first time that the monkeys had trespassed. Like ants that gravitate toward food crumbs, these larger pests could be found everywhere humans congregated. The school campus was inundated. Groups of monkeys frequented classrooms, stairwells, the playground, the open fields, the lunchroom, and the pathways between buildings.

Fanciful irrational emotions flooded my well being like a tsunami. My mind planned ways to escape in the middle of the night without a trace. While I rationally knew that I had to cope with my new life in India, it was much easier to create plans for fleeing.

I had no choice but to face my challenges head on. The monkey situation was just one example of a multitude of events. Each day was filled with unfamiliar and strange happenings.

For comfort, I listened to my favorite songs from my youth and thought about others who had successfully dealt with obstacles. I recalled times when I had to overcome challenging situations. I posted one of Eleanor Roosevelt’s quotes above my desk:

The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.

I was working as an international teacher and I wasn’t going to let any of my fears erode my confidence or destroy my dreams. My inner voice became my daily mantra. Instead of hearing a small voice inside, I mouthed the words, “I can do it.”

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Christchurch, New Zealand will always be in my heart

It’s not the miles from Home what made Me Change. It was the Emotions and Experiences New to Me. At the End I did traveled far enough, but just enough to find myself.

And I had to travel miles, distance myself for my closest things, and experience many different emotions to discover about myself, to embrace myself.
I had to keep the distance from what I knew or thought it was safe to be born again.
I had to come to the other side of the world to understand and discover myself.
I didn’t travel places. I traveled emotions inside of me.
I didn’t distance myself from Home. I created a new Home.
My heart became new; my eyes saw the bright light again.
My soul was lifted.
I was born again here.
I FELT ALIVE AND FREE AGAIN!
See, I didn’t travel just for the sake of traveling. I was naïve.
I didn’t know that away from Home you can actually find yourself.
See… I LEARNED THAT TODAY…
I had to get away to truly find myself AND FREEDOM….AGAIN!

This is my poetic way to explain all my feelings since I have moved to Christchurch, New Zealand. I wish I had more eloquent words to describe all the wonders that this country offers. It’s not only a beautiful country for its gorgeous landscapes, but it is also a country filled with great and humble people.
I moved from Miami to Christchurch, New Zealand in February of 2012 with my husband as an expatriate wife. I came with the “Miami” ideas if you can call it that, you know the big city girl ideas. And I was changed.
In Christchurch I learned to relax, to reconnect with myself. To learn about the kiwi culture, to understand that they enjoy being around nature. And that if ask them about the world, they are probably well traveled folks, but they will always return to their home country.
I learned to smile back when they smile at me walking on the street because the kiwis are very polite, and you should smile back! I learned that is ok to recycle your cartoon eggs because is just nice to return to the veggie store with a full bag of cartoon eggs to give back to them and see their smile. And to show them that you care for the environment and that you care for their store.
I learned that even being miles away from home, I can still enjoy Latin music because kiwis have a taste for dancing salsa. I learned that if you suffer a loss, like I did, a big loss, a miscarriage, the kiwis will be there for you. They will prepare your meals, they will clean your house, they will give you a word of comfort and they will be calling you back just to make sure you are doing ok.
These four years spent in New Zealand made me open my eyes to new cultures, to trying new things in life. I even tried to ski for god sake! I, the Cuban / Miami only beach please kind of girl. These four years have been amazing, and I will totally recommend visiting New Zealand.
Thank you Christchurch for all this time with Me, you made ME a new person, you gave Me back my FREEDOM WINGS!

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CANADA: Finding Yourself and Finding Your World

Where I find freedom….

I am often asked this questions being a mother to four young children, a wife, an entrepreneur, and an aspiring author. How do I find the time for me?

The first step for me was realizing that I needed time and freedom for myself and I had to make it happen. Prior to going on my personal development journey to healing and find my self-love. I was going through my life trying to do what would satisfy others and make them proud. Not too long after I graduated from high school I went to college to become a Natural Health Practitioner. I had a lot of criticism from my loved ones as this was not a field they understood or could relate to, in their eyes was not credible. Even before receiving my diploma, I had decided that I would become an electrician. Instead of pursuing my dream, I went into something that I knew would be accepted by everyone around me. Just a couple months after receiving my diploma I started my electrical apprenticeship. I received praise from all my loved ones and even complete strangers, which persuaded me to keep going.

I had to hit rock-bottom before realizing that I needed to honour myself and find that freedom for me. When I was pregnant with my fourth child, I realized that I was miserable, felt lost, misplaced and disconnected within your own skin. Living in a world full of judgement, feeling as though I needed to portray a perfect life, and putting unrealistic expectations upon myself, resulted in a lot of disappointment and feelings of failure. Being occupied by another’s needs each and every day without honouring myself, lead to exhaustion and deep disconnection within myself.

In society we have been essentially programmed to put on a facade to express how “ideal” our life should be and how we should be in the eyes of our generally population. There is an accepted way to be, look, act, the house, vehicle and life you should strive for, the items or things you should have. When really all these things should be customized to each individual, who you are, your soul purpose, personality and what you would like to accomplish in your life. Not everyone is the same. From one person to another, you will do things differently, have different beliefs, have different circumstances, priorities and have different ways of doing things.

When I started my self-healing journey, the biggest change happened for me when I allowed myself to have two hours for just me every morning before the rest of my family woke up. This time allowed me to fully connect, dig into my self-healing books and programs and better myself. Because I had chosen the morning for this time, it set up my day to succeed as I had already put time into myself, feeding my heart and soul, and allowing me to be the best me for the day. This also made decision making clearer for me. I knew I was on the right track because I was motivated to continue, it felt good and freeing.

With this self-acknowledgement, my self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-love grew naturally. The more ways I honoured yourself, the happier I became, the lighter I felt and life began to flow with ease. Once I became connected with what made me happy, the faster my perspective changed. I was more accepting of others and all forms of judgment then disappears; self-judgement, judgement of others and other’s judgements on me. When I was able to release all of my self-judgements, I felt more confident within yourself and no longer needed anyone else’s opinions. When I got to the point, where I became absolutely comfortable within me and no longer felt the need to rely on other’s opinions, I instead use their suggestions as I saw suitable.

By honouring myself with “me time” everyday, I find my freedom, live my passion, and am present with my life.

My vision is:
“For all moms to think of themselves as no less than extraordinary!”

Much love, appreciation & gratitude,
Tracy Munson
Natural Health Strategist & Coach, NHP, CDC

 

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My New Year’s Rebirth in Guatemala

Driving along the quiet morning streets of a city I would come to know and love, I bawled into the musky atmosphere of the cab. I had just flown to Los Angeles for about a week, to visit a man who would become a bigger part of my life than I could ever imagine. But as the sun began to rise and the infamous LAX came into view, I felt less than elated to be hopping on a flight to Guatemala City.

It was the day before New Year’s Eve, and the looming new year on the horizon stood a mysterious silhouette in a grey backdrop. At first the plan seemed simple, go to Central America, have a work holiday, more or less. It seemed fitting, but sometimes what you think you are ‘meant’ to do doesn’t match up with what the world has planned for you. The firm seats of the plane reminded me that I was about to spend the next few weeks in unfamiliar places, and likely sitting in similarly firm bus seats, which was almost comforting, as although I had come to realize I had no idea why I was going to Guatemala, maybe it was a childhood fascination finally coming to life, that I indeed took refuge in the unfamiliar.

When you do not know a city, when you do not know a face or a name, reality seems more malleable, free from the conditions and generalizations we bind ourselves with. But it wasn’t until after I left Central America for the second time that I would conclude that sometimes you can’t simply put yourself out of the norm, you have to be completely destroyed, and born again anew.

Arriving in the beautiful colonial city of Antigua, Guatemala, I felt instantly lonely. A rare sensation, and a wave of isolation and being far from the world I knew washed over, even as I walked the stone streets, full of character and stories. New Year’s Eve was spent with a gaggle of Australians whom I’d met that day at my hostel. Predictable, but at least I knew that all over the world, people were celebrating the same thing, a shift in time, a new year, a new era. The night proceeded in a sickly classic way, the parties were many and the drinks too strong. Upon losing my group of newly acquainted travel buddies I quickly realized I was now well and truly alone, wandering the ghostly streets of a potentially dangerous city.

Fear introduced itself promptly and again I found myself caught in a whirling dizziness of confusion. Where is my hostel? Why am I suddenly by myself? Questions of my own sanity brought me to eventual surrender when a car pulled up. It was a police officer. Now this had to be one of the strangest experiences of my life, and still now it holds a mind boggling surreal quality. The officer asked me what was wrong, to which I could barely answer between sobs. To my own surprise, as I generally consider myself verging on the edge of paranoia, I agreed to be driven home after he kindly took me to get food and a coffee.

Crying to a strange police officer over cake, in a foreign country, about nothing in particular, is probably one of the most embarrassing and messed up accounts I could ever recall, but as I began to settle down and he listened to me, offering even more surprising words of wisdom, I began to notice that on this New Year’s Day, I had been reborn. It sounds silly, but it literally felt like a piece of me had left, abruptly resigned, in the face of such fear, discomfort and the internal pain that I had been feeling. Sometimes we can only see freedom when we are forced to face ourselves solely, with no walls, no security blankets, no friends, no money, nothing we have been so trained to value, alone.

The aura of confusion still lingered but was not pressing, there was a certain lightness now. I continued to enjoy my next 4 weeks in Guatemala, and 2 weeks in Mexico, the best I possibly could, allowing what was meant to be to be. I met amazing people. I swam. I (hestitantly) rode horses on cliffs. I hiked to the tops of mountains at sunrise and sunset. I danced and ate and listened to music. I got sick. Really sick. I lost my phone. My computer died. I got sick again. I tried not to blame myself for being sick. I visited amazing places. I made a best friend.

And I watched. I observed. And still now, when I recall the entirety of my journeys from Guatemala City to Mexico and finally back to Los Angeles, when I rejoiced in being back in North America despite my mind-blowing travels, I watch it all as a movie I have seen a thousand times, and know that in some way, I had to be completely destroyed to find my freedom, to let go of all that I perceived to be true in order to make room for the new and spectacular things that were about to enter my life. I had nothing to lose. Freedom had been chasing me down, like a ghost longing to make itself known, so that I could finally stare it straight in the face.

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I Choose My Freedom in Australia…For Now

We laid on our sides on what I once called our bed. Nose touching tip of nose, eyes locked into eyes. I traced the outside of his face with my free hand, imagining that I could feel the difference between the brown, gold and crimson strands of his beard underneath my fingertips. The scent of him filled me like smoke. I breathed in earth, clean laundry and a hint of weed. In this bed, there was nothing else. Only the physical tug of my heart to his, our breath slowed down to one. If I made this moment my entire world, I was happy.

“Come home,” he said, breaking the comfortable silence. “You can still travel. Just come home to me.”

I was leaving him for now the third time. The freedom that comes with traveling– the thrill of uncertainty, the choices that follow ambiguity– had once again found prominence in my heart over anything that would just make me one half of a whole. This time, I’d be gone for more than a four month backpacking stint around Europe or South America. I was going to Australia for at least a year, and I intended to finally make this breakup stick.

However, my mind struggled to find the flaw in his plan, drunk as I was on the happiness that I associated with his presence. It sounded nice. I could have both.

He assured me certainty, security, love, a future–the sweetest of chains. So I imagined living out my life with him, continuing the dream state of that bed. The only thing that he truly stimulated in me was a sexual desire. The rest would continue to be a mindless routine, devoid of intelligent conversation. He would watch football. I would cook him lasagna. He’d tell me he thought it was cute that I liked to read. I’d try in vain to discuss Orwell with him. He would work at the bar. I would find some middleman job. He’d buy a house in a small Massachusetts town. We’d take turns digging our cars out of the New England snow, and he’d get angry when he caught me lusting after Google images of exotic places. We’d smoke weed everyday to further along the numbing effect. He’d get me pregnant one day, like he always wanted. He’d teach our child to throw a ball, and I’d try to instill enough independence and individuality in her so that she could live the life I always wanted–a life of adventure and freedom.

To stay with him would have been to make the choice to throw a huge spoiler alert over my entire life, to watch the Red Wedding scene of Game of Thrones just as I got invested in the first season. Our relationship presented only walls and no frontiers.

I didn’t know who I was when I wasn’t his. All I knew was that it bothered me, a literal constant pain in my side each time I realised that I was becoming part of an indifferent and incurious population that gets stuck in relationships that are finite, lethargic and easy. I realized that I lived for my connection to him, changing myself to fit his mold. I neglected everything else that I ever wanted, pursuing those finite moments of happiness wholeheartedly so that I could mollify my anxiety in the face of my natural state, the state of freedom. I wasn’t committed to my authenticity; I hid from it.

My urge to strike out on my own was a gut reaction, a survival instinct. I needed to ease the stomach-clenching dread that accompanied the notion of remaining in one place for long, and for someone else. I needed the ignition that comes with waking up in a strange city or country, stimulating myself by way of exploration, acquainting myself with a new place through its food, having informed and varied discussions in broken English over a hostel dining room table. My freedom comes with the weight of a backpack on my shoulders, a one-way ticket and a culture shock. I am the only one in this world who can give me what I crave; to travel. To live a life as a traveller means living a life of contrast and spontaneity, ambiguity and choices.

I did not say that travel made me “happy,” although it often does. Happiness is not the attainable lifetime goal. Happiness is finite. What I sought was freedom, an infinite state of being that far surpasses a vague and unattainable notion of absolute contentment.

So as I lay in that bed, contemplating the tear I had to force between us, I focused on my refusal to be defined by my environment and my sentiment, rather than by the choices I made when faced with uncertainty.

I’ve been living in Australia for almost 10 months now, and I am face to face with my independence everyday, my choice to try on life as a 24 year old Melburnian for the time being, absorbing the parts of it that add to my shifting identity. I do not know what the next steps are, for I cannot see them clearly or at all. And that’s okay. To have a full knowledge of what my years hold would be just as finite as a committed relationship with a small-minded man. The mystery that comes with knowing nothing is infinite. I am faced with an unlimited spectrum, and all I must do is choose and take responsibility for my choices, may they always be in line with my most authentic state. This is what makes me free.

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The Power of Unique Experiences in Indonesia

Kerthunk, kerthunk, kerthunk.

I felt as if someone had sunk a fistful of fear into my heart and let it pound it into the rest of my body. My stomach felt like it was trying to retreat behind my ribs, my eyes were wide. Reason told me I shouldn’t have been so phobic. But I was staring down my nemeses, and reason was quickly losing its place in my repertoire.

Actually, “nemeses” might be a strong word for something the size of a pin head. These were a couple of bugs so small that one could easily mistake them for a floating piece of white lint, especially in the flickering shadows of the Balinese evening. They were bed bug nymphs, and their presence meant I needed to leave before they could scurry their way into my belongings.

My mind flashed back to a bitter night far away from the hostel on the quaint Indonesian road. I was back in my apartment in Massachusetts, back to the shock of finding an infestation of biting little bugs that snuck through the folds of my sofa and cracks in the hardwood floors. I retreated to the bathtub at two in the morning, saturated in dread.

Bed bugs aren’t dangerous, but eradicating them is an awful and laborious process. I had been in physical therapy for years for a bad back. My nearest family member was hundreds of miles away. I couldn’t imagine how to pack all my belongings away with my unstable bones. I cringed in anticipation of the pain that could come from rounds of laundering everything I owned, spraying things down with isopropyl, and moving furniture for exterminators.

The predicted injury and accompanying pain led to my first visit to Indonesia. I questioned if other people with physical disadvantages could get caught in similarly horrendous situations throughout the world, and secured a grant to research the topic in several countries. Come spring, I set off on a great multinational adventure in which I fervently chased answers and lines of longitude.

During that journey, I took a ferry from Singapore to spend a couple days in Bintan Island, Indonesia. Between the driftwood and palm fronds on an empty stretch of beach, I stopped to see an eroding message written in the sand: “LIFE ALWAYS FINDS A WAY”. I felt like some vanished scribe had written it there as part of my story, like the universe had left the words there just for me.

I bought a ticket to Bali during a turbulent period a couple years later. I wanted to head back to the country where clairvoyants roamed the islands and messages were hidden in the sand.

In the place where I expected to find order and inner peace, I was being gripped by memories of injured sleepless nights and unresolved past fears. I hauled my backpack to the safety of the front porch and dove into my phone, searching furiously for new accommodations, comfort from friends, and ways to clean old demons out of potentially contaminated belongings.

I sat on the ground for so long that the stones had imprinted their shapes on my legs, so I headed to the roof terrace to obsess over my problems in privacy. I looked out to see a brilliant sunset, a scattering of stringy blue clouds hanging on a backdrop of potent pinks and oranges. Beyond the edge of the peninsula, the ocean was mirroring the colorful banners of the sunset, making it seem almost endless.

I wasn’t sure how many sunsets I’d missed while my phobias were running amok, but I didn’t want to miss that one. In the last journey I hadn’t learned to compartmentalize my thoughts, to stop a bout of fear from tainting all of the glory around me. I turned the phone on its face to gaze at the sunset, to listen to the ensemble of cicadas and monkeys and the chattering and clinking of bottles from guests downstairs.

Travel has power to put you out in the caprices of the unknown and onto the stoops of old haunts. But sometimes, it also offers you a chance at redemption.

I was myself again, watching silently as the ocean was swallowed by the night. I was free from those harrowing and pervasive fears, unshackled from the tunnel vision of anxiety.

I found no more messages in the sand, no phantoms to leave signs that I had gotten things right. I was left with open road, a painted sky, and gorgeous wildlife; all that I sought and all that I needed.

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Feeling Insignificant on Serene Mt. Rainier, USA

The feel of snow in August is a unique experience reserved for those in either extreme latitudes or significant altitudes. Mt. Rainier certainly qualifies for the latter category. I had taken a break on the side of the Mountain to prep for my final push towards Camp Muir, a staging area which sits about 4,000’ short of the summit of Mt. Rainier at 14,411’. Although I needed to catch my breath for the climb ahead, this task seemed figuratively impossible given the breathtaking vista surrounding me. To the south lay the smoke-obscured teeth of the Tatoosh range, and beyond them the still-visible volcanic peaks of St. Helens and Adams. Looking to the West, I saw the Cowlitz Glacier dissipating to thin waterfalls that collected in the valley below. But it was the northern view that was the most commanding, as this sight contained the camp, the summit and a blinding stretch of steep snow that constituted the rest of my hike.

Moments like this take me back to a line I overheard in Seattle just a few days before my hike: “The great thing about nature is how it makes us feel small”. I disagreed with the speaker, at least in part. If the feeling of smallness was truly all we sought in nature, there really would be no reason to travel there. Smallness is so much easier to find in a cubical from 9-to-5, a fact I am well acquainted with. Three months prior to this evening and this hike, I was living a comfortable life in Boston with a good paying job. Stability, activity, and the prospect of upwards mobility were all luxuries I enjoyed, but it was still a small existence, a fact intensified by my oppressive anxiety and frequent panic attacks.

Conventional wisdom would have recommended, at times like this, that the weary worker take a vacation and “get your head in order”. I took the wisdom, but neglected the conventionality, boarding an Amtrak train in Boston and seeing where I could go over the next few months. This eventually brought me to the Space Needle in Seattle, where I got my first good view of Mt. Rainer. The thing was big, not just in raw mass, but with understated gravity. It gripped my attention and demanded personification, quietly scoffing at the Needle I was standing on. I left the elevator with a single conviction in mind, one that brought me to my break point on the side of Mt. Rainer, just a few hundred feet below the camp.

If ever I had sound reason for suffering a panic attack, this would be that time. I was by myself on one of the deadliest hiking trails in the country, where the afternoon sun was opening crevasses below my feet and cutting my friction-less progress to a negligible sum. What if my exertion led to a heart attack, where would they take me? Or if a storm rolls in and I lose my sense of direction? These thoughts and more could have easily crossed my mind, but none did. Instead, my focus lay in just placing one foot in front of the other until I arrived on the stone-carved steps of Camp Muir. And then I saw how small I really was. But this feeling of smallness was different than the one I knew three months prior. This experience was expansive, elevated, the kind that makes you breathe easier with a younger smile on your face. I was, in that moment, entwined within something bigger than myself without being absolved into it.

Suffice it to say, I never did return from my vacation, at least not to the job I had before. There was many more moments that lead to that decision, but the encounter with Rainier demonstrated something that I once had, had lost, and must work to awaken again. The path from here remains uncertain, but it is now a path that does at least go on..

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From Vietnamese Mangroves and a Loving Mom

The runway was not much more than a lightly paved strip of soil which popped out of the rice paddies and mangroves like a long, rectangular oasis. As I exited the 1950’s prop, much like the one that Indiana Jones rides in Raiders of the Lost Ark, I felt stifled instead of being freed from the tight quarters that I’d just ridden in. The density and weight of the atmosphere made it hard to inhale deeply– and it was more than just heat and humidity of the southernmost part of Vietnam – Ca Mau, a peninsular province with the Gulf of Thailand to the West and the Pacific Ocean to the South and East. I was stepping foot on the same soil where my son was born, breathing the same sticky, tropical air that he did. The son I had not yet met, and the son that I would not be bringing home to Indiana after the eight days that I’d be there.

As excited as I was to meet my baby — the one that I dreamed of and had dreams for — I needed to guard my emotions. Upon seeing my first photo of him, my heart skipped a beat when I gazed into those deep brown eyes and saw the shock of black hair standing up on his head. I knew that without a doubt that he was my son. It was my moment of a doctor handing my child to me to put on my chest and feeling a love like no other.

Much like the southern Vietnamese mangroves’ intertwined roots, strong and complicated, his homecoming was constricted by the fact that he was stuck — stuck in an orphanage due to political posturing by both the U.S. and Vietnamese governments not willing to move an inch to finalize his adoption, despite him living in squalid and unsafe orphanage conditions.

I flew half-way around the world and was there with two other moms in the same situation to help care for our children and the others in the orphanage. It was the one small thing we could actually do to help our kids, while we lobbied Congressional leaders and the State Department on the homefront.

Within minutes sweat was streaming down my face and soaking my clothes – a combination of the oppressive heat and my anxiety. My friends and I headed out to the orphanage in a taxi. There were few cars on the road, mostly bicycles and motor bikes. We raced along the tropical landscape – passing roadside markets where vendors sold pineapples, roosters in woven basket cages, plastic kitchenware and even python meat. Our taxi driver honked incessantly as he passed cars, though few, and played a game of chicken with oncoming traffic. A movie of mangroves and long boats with weathered fishermen, and the occasional water buffalo grazing in a yard ran through the car windows. Children with bare feet and dirty faces dotted the fast-moving landscape – all of it beautiful, colorful and full of life.

Finally, we turned down a one-lane dirt road lined by shallow canals, lush mango and tamarind trees, and tin roof-shacks with hammocks as beds. My stomach dropped to my knees when I saw the orphanage building.

My 22-month old son was literally imprisoned in his tiny room — it had bars on the windows, a former internment camp from the Vietnam War.

I had many conversations with him before I got to Vietnam (all in my head), promising him that I would do whatever it took to get him home to Indiana. I’d say “good night” to him when I woke up in the morning and whisper “good morning” before I fell asleep at night, living with my heart twelve hours ahead. And that week, I told him in person — kissing his smooth, tan cheeks, my tears wetting his sweet face as I held him close. And, then having to leave him.

Twenty-six months later, in the most unusual of places, we found refuge surrounded by luggage carts, drug-sniffing Beagles and a melody of different languages at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. His two tiny feet touched U.S. soil, and I felt palpable relief from my shoulders, fighting back yet another set of tears as my husband squeezed my hand and hugged us both.

Sitting at our departure gate for the last leg of our journey home, he sat in my lap and munched on a banana and French fries.

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My Unlikely Friends in Mountainous Ecuador

It’s hot. How can it be this hot? Since arriving in Salasaka, this indigenous village in the Ecuadorian Andes, I have had a constantly sun-burned, peeling nose. Having an 8-year-old child on my back doesn’t help.

I struggle along, Fernanda on my back and her 5-year-old sister Ñusta leading the way. Ñusta is a great helper, waddling along with her sick sister’s backpack, which is almost as large as her. We walk down the wide, dusty roads lined with agave; sheep bleat and donkeys bray, everyone lazily complaining about the sweltering heat. I can see endlessly across the green, quilt-patterned hills, and everything looks exactly the same. We could be anywhere in all of Salasaka, and I would have no idea. All I can do is trust the girls to know where they live. At the school where I am teaching, when a child gets sick like Fernanda has, we can’t just call home, mom rushing over in her minivan to pick the child up, sign her out for the day. Almost no households in this village have a phone, and neither does the school. The only way to get them home is to do this, to carry them for miles until you reach the shanty and farm that is their home.

As a recently trained child therapist back in the U.S., I feel sick with guilt because it’s breaking every rule in the book that I’m doing this. Carrying a child on my back for miles? Taking them home when their parents haven’t given me signed permission? But I’m not their therapist, I remind myself, or try to. Because Fernanda is sick, and needs to get home, and this moment is more important than all the things I learned in graduate school.

“Podemos descansar?”, I ask the girls. Can we rest? I gently set Fernanda down, and the 3 of us sit together in the shade of a stack of cement blocks. Fernanda immediately lies down and puts her head in my lap. My “clinical instinct” is to gently remove her from her physical contact with me. Physical affection is always a liability. Keep your “boundaries”, they tell you. To the 7-year-old client who innocently tells me, I love you, I am trained to respond, I see that you really care about me, and I care about you too. Not “I love you too”, never that. A separation between you and the child. Care about her, of course, but from a distance.

I quit my job as a therapist because I was so terrified of how much I cared about my kids. I must not be doing something right, I felt. I must not be cut out for this. It broke my heart. A career down the drain because I just loved those kids too much. But here I was, in the mountains of South America to where I escaped, doing the same thing. Loving too much, again.

But I can’t help it. I love Fernanda. My heart is filled with her. She is only 8 years old and already the smartest student in school. She pulls my hand before recess ends every morning, lamenting, “Vamos a clase!” She watches over my shoulder with anxiety that is palpable as I grade her multiplication drills, as if she has ever received anything less than a 100%. There is a moodiness about her, a subtle neediness, and she sometimes sits apart from the group as Renato, the music teacher, leads them in warbling South American pop songs.

A woman passes where we sit catching our breath, wearing her chumbi and green shawl, half a dozen protesting sheep leading the way. She looks at me, and her confusion is reflected in her glare. What is this gringa doing out here with two of our precious children? The girls chat pleasantly with her in Kichwa, the sing-song indigenous language that I haven’t learned yet, and finally, she smiles, understanding. And somehow, with that smile, she is granting me the permission to love this child freely, to really love her, to love her and all of her sisters and friends without clinical boundaries, without restriction. Love her simply, freely, not as a professional but as a fellow human being, as an adult in the community who shares the responsibility of raising and caring for her. And maybe that’s not such a terrible thing.

I put my hand on Fernanda’s forehead. She doesn’t feel hot, and I don’t know if she was really sick at all or if she just wanted this time with me. “Listas?”, I ask the girls, and Ñusta puts on two backpacks, her own in the back and Fernanda’s in the front. I stoop to let Fernanda on my back, and we keep on walking.

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New Experiences with Monkeys in India

I was sitting cross-legged on a four-inch mattress that doubled as my bed. Sweat engulfed all of my pores as a simple fan hummed above. I glanced up from my book. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a medium-sized monkey open my screen door with ease. I blinked. I observed a second monkey trailing behind and then another.

My jaw dropped. I sat speechless. Three wild monkeys were just a couple of yards away.

Without hesitation, they walked toward a small round table next to my bright red refrigerator. All three admired my possessions. The taller one glanced back in my direction as if to say, “ha, ha”. With one hand, he grabbed one of my Tupperware containers. Within seconds, the monkeys vanished, leaving my door open in their wake.

I sat bewildered. Should I laugh or should I cry?

Just weeks earlier, I had started teaching at an international K-12 boarding school in Bangalore, India. As an American middle-aged educator, I jumped at the opportunity to work and travel abroad. Most of my friends and family members thought that I was experiencing a midlife crisis. Why would I leave my cushy suburban life to work in a developing country?

For years, a series of orthopedic issues had prevented me from using my K-6 teaching license. To remain an educator, I became an adjunct instructor at a local community college. I loved teaching, but something was missing.

When I was offered the primary international teaching position, one of my dreams was finally fulfilled. Once again, I would have the opportunity to work with children and use my teaching credentials. But would I be able to step outside my comfort zone and face my natural fears of living in another country?

After all, I was a middle-age woman who hadn’t traveled alone in decades. I wasn’t traveling to unfamiliar neighborhoods within driving distance of my home. I was flying half way around the world to travel solo in a foreign country. If I had any chance of being successful, I had to regain my independent spirit. I had to look forward and not scurry back to what felt safe. I relied on my inner voice that wouldn’t stop whispering, “You can do it.”

I wasn’t looking to the popular Nike slogan, “Just Do It.” I was recalling another image. Decades ago, I read the classic book, The Little Engine That Could, to my sons. How fitting that in midlife, I would look to a children’s book to instill confidence. Just like the small train in this inspiring story, I had to use daily reminders to keep me on track.

After the three thieves left my guest room, the uncertainty returned. Could I simply laugh off the absurdity of wild monkeys stealing my food or would I succumb to the temptation to long for a more predictable life? This wasn’t the first time that the monkeys had trespassed. Like ants that gravitate toward food crumbs, these larger pests could be found everywhere humans congregated. The school campus was inundated. Groups of monkeys frequented classrooms, stairwells, the playground, the open fields, the lunchroom, and the pathways between buildings.

Fanciful irrational emotions flooded my well being like a tsunami. My mind planned ways to escape in the middle of the night without a trace. While I rationally knew that I had to cope with my new life in India, it was much easier to create plans for fleeing.

I had no choice but to face my challenges head on. The monkey situation was just one example of a multitude of events. Each day was filled with unfamiliar and strange happenings.

For comfort, I listened to my favorite songs from my youth and thought about others who had successfully dealt with obstacles. I recalled times when I had to overcome challenging situations. I posted one of Eleanor Roosevelt’s quotes above my desk:

The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.

I was working as an international teacher and I wasn’t going to let any of my fears erode my confidence or destroy my dreams. My inner voice became my daily mantra. Instead of hearing a small voice inside, I mouthed the words, “I can do it.”

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Christchurch, New Zealand will always be in my heart

It’s not the miles from Home what made Me Change. It was the Emotions and Experiences New to Me. At the End I did traveled far enough, but just enough to find myself.

And I had to travel miles, distance myself for my closest things, and experience many different emotions to discover about myself, to embrace myself.
I had to keep the distance from what I knew or thought it was safe to be born again.
I had to come to the other side of the world to understand and discover myself.
I didn’t travel places. I traveled emotions inside of me.
I didn’t distance myself from Home. I created a new Home.
My heart became new; my eyes saw the bright light again.
My soul was lifted.
I was born again here.
I FELT ALIVE AND FREE AGAIN!
See, I didn’t travel just for the sake of traveling. I was naïve.
I didn’t know that away from Home you can actually find yourself.
See… I LEARNED THAT TODAY…
I had to get away to truly find myself AND FREEDOM….AGAIN!

This is my poetic way to explain all my feelings since I have moved to Christchurch, New Zealand. I wish I had more eloquent words to describe all the wonders that this country offers. It’s not only a beautiful country for its gorgeous landscapes, but it is also a country filled with great and humble people.
I moved from Miami to Christchurch, New Zealand in February of 2012 with my husband as an expatriate wife. I came with the “Miami” ideas if you can call it that, you know the big city girl ideas. And I was changed.
In Christchurch I learned to relax, to reconnect with myself. To learn about the kiwi culture, to understand that they enjoy being around nature. And that if ask them about the world, they are probably well traveled folks, but they will always return to their home country.
I learned to smile back when they smile at me walking on the street because the kiwis are very polite, and you should smile back! I learned that is ok to recycle your cartoon eggs because is just nice to return to the veggie store with a full bag of cartoon eggs to give back to them and see their smile. And to show them that you care for the environment and that you care for their store.
I learned that even being miles away from home, I can still enjoy Latin music because kiwis have a taste for dancing salsa. I learned that if you suffer a loss, like I did, a big loss, a miscarriage, the kiwis will be there for you. They will prepare your meals, they will clean your house, they will give you a word of comfort and they will be calling you back just to make sure you are doing ok.
These four years spent in New Zealand made me open my eyes to new cultures, to trying new things in life. I even tried to ski for god sake! I, the Cuban / Miami only beach please kind of girl. These four years have been amazing, and I will totally recommend visiting New Zealand.
Thank you Christchurch for all this time with Me, you made ME a new person, you gave Me back my FREEDOM WINGS!

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CANADA: Finding Yourself and Finding Your World

Where I find freedom….

I am often asked this questions being a mother to four young children, a wife, an entrepreneur, and an aspiring author. How do I find the time for me?

The first step for me was realizing that I needed time and freedom for myself and I had to make it happen. Prior to going on my personal development journey to healing and find my self-love. I was going through my life trying to do what would satisfy others and make them proud. Not too long after I graduated from high school I went to college to become a Natural Health Practitioner. I had a lot of criticism from my loved ones as this was not a field they understood or could relate to, in their eyes was not credible. Even before receiving my diploma, I had decided that I would become an electrician. Instead of pursuing my dream, I went into something that I knew would be accepted by everyone around me. Just a couple months after receiving my diploma I started my electrical apprenticeship. I received praise from all my loved ones and even complete strangers, which persuaded me to keep going.

I had to hit rock-bottom before realizing that I needed to honour myself and find that freedom for me. When I was pregnant with my fourth child, I realized that I was miserable, felt lost, misplaced and disconnected within your own skin. Living in a world full of judgement, feeling as though I needed to portray a perfect life, and putting unrealistic expectations upon myself, resulted in a lot of disappointment and feelings of failure. Being occupied by another’s needs each and every day without honouring myself, lead to exhaustion and deep disconnection within myself.

In society we have been essentially programmed to put on a facade to express how “ideal” our life should be and how we should be in the eyes of our generally population. There is an accepted way to be, look, act, the house, vehicle and life you should strive for, the items or things you should have. When really all these things should be customized to each individual, who you are, your soul purpose, personality and what you would like to accomplish in your life. Not everyone is the same. From one person to another, you will do things differently, have different beliefs, have different circumstances, priorities and have different ways of doing things.

When I started my self-healing journey, the biggest change happened for me when I allowed myself to have two hours for just me every morning before the rest of my family woke up. This time allowed me to fully connect, dig into my self-healing books and programs and better myself. Because I had chosen the morning for this time, it set up my day to succeed as I had already put time into myself, feeding my heart and soul, and allowing me to be the best me for the day. This also made decision making clearer for me. I knew I was on the right track because I was motivated to continue, it felt good and freeing.

With this self-acknowledgement, my self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-love grew naturally. The more ways I honoured yourself, the happier I became, the lighter I felt and life began to flow with ease. Once I became connected with what made me happy, the faster my perspective changed. I was more accepting of others and all forms of judgment then disappears; self-judgement, judgement of others and other’s judgements on me. When I was able to release all of my self-judgements, I felt more confident within yourself and no longer needed anyone else’s opinions. When I got to the point, where I became absolutely comfortable within me and no longer felt the need to rely on other’s opinions, I instead use their suggestions as I saw suitable.

By honouring myself with “me time” everyday, I find my freedom, live my passion, and am present with my life.

My vision is:
“For all moms to think of themselves as no less than extraordinary!”

Much love, appreciation & gratitude,
Tracy Munson
Natural Health Strategist & Coach, NHP, CDC

 

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My New Year’s Rebirth in Guatemala

Driving along the quiet morning streets of a city I would come to know and love, I bawled into the musky atmosphere of the cab. I had just flown to Los Angeles for about a week, to visit a man who would become a bigger part of my life than I could ever imagine. But as the sun began to rise and the infamous LAX came into view, I felt less than elated to be hopping on a flight to Guatemala City.

It was the day before New Year’s Eve, and the looming new year on the horizon stood a mysterious silhouette in a grey backdrop. At first the plan seemed simple, go to Central America, have a work holiday, more or less. It seemed fitting, but sometimes what you think you are ‘meant’ to do doesn’t match up with what the world has planned for you. The firm seats of the plane reminded me that I was about to spend the next few weeks in unfamiliar places, and likely sitting in similarly firm bus seats, which was almost comforting, as although I had come to realize I had no idea why I was going to Guatemala, maybe it was a childhood fascination finally coming to life, that I indeed took refuge in the unfamiliar.

When you do not know a city, when you do not know a face or a name, reality seems more malleable, free from the conditions and generalizations we bind ourselves with. But it wasn’t until after I left Central America for the second time that I would conclude that sometimes you can’t simply put yourself out of the norm, you have to be completely destroyed, and born again anew.

Arriving in the beautiful colonial city of Antigua, Guatemala, I felt instantly lonely. A rare sensation, and a wave of isolation and being far from the world I knew washed over, even as I walked the stone streets, full of character and stories. New Year’s Eve was spent with a gaggle of Australians whom I’d met that day at my hostel. Predictable, but at least I knew that all over the world, people were celebrating the same thing, a shift in time, a new year, a new era. The night proceeded in a sickly classic way, the parties were many and the drinks too strong. Upon losing my group of newly acquainted travel buddies I quickly realized I was now well and truly alone, wandering the ghostly streets of a potentially dangerous city.

Fear introduced itself promptly and again I found myself caught in a whirling dizziness of confusion. Where is my hostel? Why am I suddenly by myself? Questions of my own sanity brought me to eventual surrender when a car pulled up. It was a police officer. Now this had to be one of the strangest experiences of my life, and still now it holds a mind boggling surreal quality. The officer asked me what was wrong, to which I could barely answer between sobs. To my own surprise, as I generally consider myself verging on the edge of paranoia, I agreed to be driven home after he kindly took me to get food and a coffee.

Crying to a strange police officer over cake, in a foreign country, about nothing in particular, is probably one of the most embarrassing and messed up accounts I could ever recall, but as I began to settle down and he listened to me, offering even more surprising words of wisdom, I began to notice that on this New Year’s Day, I had been reborn. It sounds silly, but it literally felt like a piece of me had left, abruptly resigned, in the face of such fear, discomfort and the internal pain that I had been feeling. Sometimes we can only see freedom when we are forced to face ourselves solely, with no walls, no security blankets, no friends, no money, nothing we have been so trained to value, alone.

The aura of confusion still lingered but was not pressing, there was a certain lightness now. I continued to enjoy my next 4 weeks in Guatemala, and 2 weeks in Mexico, the best I possibly could, allowing what was meant to be to be. I met amazing people. I swam. I (hestitantly) rode horses on cliffs. I hiked to the tops of mountains at sunrise and sunset. I danced and ate and listened to music. I got sick. Really sick. I lost my phone. My computer died. I got sick again. I tried not to blame myself for being sick. I visited amazing places. I made a best friend.

And I watched. I observed. And still now, when I recall the entirety of my journeys from Guatemala City to Mexico and finally back to Los Angeles, when I rejoiced in being back in North America despite my mind-blowing travels, I watch it all as a movie I have seen a thousand times, and know that in some way, I had to be completely destroyed to find my freedom, to let go of all that I perceived to be true in order to make room for the new and spectacular things that were about to enter my life. I had nothing to lose. Freedom had been chasing me down, like a ghost longing to make itself known, so that I could finally stare it straight in the face.

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I Choose My Freedom in Australia…For Now

We laid on our sides on what I once called our bed. Nose touching tip of nose, eyes locked into eyes. I traced the outside of his face with my free hand, imagining that I could feel the difference between the brown, gold and crimson strands of his beard underneath my fingertips. The scent of him filled me like smoke. I breathed in earth, clean laundry and a hint of weed. In this bed, there was nothing else. Only the physical tug of my heart to his, our breath slowed down to one. If I made this moment my entire world, I was happy.

“Come home,” he said, breaking the comfortable silence. “You can still travel. Just come home to me.”

I was leaving him for now the third time. The freedom that comes with traveling– the thrill of uncertainty, the choices that follow ambiguity– had once again found prominence in my heart over anything that would just make me one half of a whole. This time, I’d be gone for more than a four month backpacking stint around Europe or South America. I was going to Australia for at least a year, and I intended to finally make this breakup stick.

However, my mind struggled to find the flaw in his plan, drunk as I was on the happiness that I associated with his presence. It sounded nice. I could have both.

He assured me certainty, security, love, a future–the sweetest of chains. So I imagined living out my life with him, continuing the dream state of that bed. The only thing that he truly stimulated in me was a sexual desire. The rest would continue to be a mindless routine, devoid of intelligent conversation. He would watch football. I would cook him lasagna. He’d tell me he thought it was cute that I liked to read. I’d try in vain to discuss Orwell with him. He would work at the bar. I would find some middleman job. He’d buy a house in a small Massachusetts town. We’d take turns digging our cars out of the New England snow, and he’d get angry when he caught me lusting after Google images of exotic places. We’d smoke weed everyday to further along the numbing effect. He’d get me pregnant one day, like he always wanted. He’d teach our child to throw a ball, and I’d try to instill enough independence and individuality in her so that she could live the life I always wanted–a life of adventure and freedom.

To stay with him would have been to make the choice to throw a huge spoiler alert over my entire life, to watch the Red Wedding scene of Game of Thrones just as I got invested in the first season. Our relationship presented only walls and no frontiers.

I didn’t know who I was when I wasn’t his. All I knew was that it bothered me, a literal constant pain in my side each time I realised that I was becoming part of an indifferent and incurious population that gets stuck in relationships that are finite, lethargic and easy. I realized that I lived for my connection to him, changing myself to fit his mold. I neglected everything else that I ever wanted, pursuing those finite moments of happiness wholeheartedly so that I could mollify my anxiety in the face of my natural state, the state of freedom. I wasn’t committed to my authenticity; I hid from it.

My urge to strike out on my own was a gut reaction, a survival instinct. I needed to ease the stomach-clenching dread that accompanied the notion of remaining in one place for long, and for someone else. I needed the ignition that comes with waking up in a strange city or country, stimulating myself by way of exploration, acquainting myself with a new place through its food, having informed and varied discussions in broken English over a hostel dining room table. My freedom comes with the weight of a backpack on my shoulders, a one-way ticket and a culture shock. I am the only one in this world who can give me what I crave; to travel. To live a life as a traveller means living a life of contrast and spontaneity, ambiguity and choices.

I did not say that travel made me “happy,” although it often does. Happiness is not the attainable lifetime goal. Happiness is finite. What I sought was freedom, an infinite state of being that far surpasses a vague and unattainable notion of absolute contentment.

So as I lay in that bed, contemplating the tear I had to force between us, I focused on my refusal to be defined by my environment and my sentiment, rather than by the choices I made when faced with uncertainty.

I’ve been living in Australia for almost 10 months now, and I am face to face with my independence everyday, my choice to try on life as a 24 year old Melburnian for the time being, absorbing the parts of it that add to my shifting identity. I do not know what the next steps are, for I cannot see them clearly or at all. And that’s okay. To have a full knowledge of what my years hold would be just as finite as a committed relationship with a small-minded man. The mystery that comes with knowing nothing is infinite. I am faced with an unlimited spectrum, and all I must do is choose and take responsibility for my choices, may they always be in line with my most authentic state. This is what makes me free.

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The Power of Unique Experiences in Indonesia

Kerthunk, kerthunk, kerthunk.

I felt as if someone had sunk a fistful of fear into my heart and let it pound it into the rest of my body. My stomach felt like it was trying to retreat behind my ribs, my eyes were wide. Reason told me I shouldn’t have been so phobic. But I was staring down my nemeses, and reason was quickly losing its place in my repertoire.

Actually, “nemeses” might be a strong word for something the size of a pin head. These were a couple of bugs so small that one could easily mistake them for a floating piece of white lint, especially in the flickering shadows of the Balinese evening. They were bed bug nymphs, and their presence meant I needed to leave before they could scurry their way into my belongings.

My mind flashed back to a bitter night far away from the hostel on the quaint Indonesian road. I was back in my apartment in Massachusetts, back to the shock of finding an infestation of biting little bugs that snuck through the folds of my sofa and cracks in the hardwood floors. I retreated to the bathtub at two in the morning, saturated in dread.

Bed bugs aren’t dangerous, but eradicating them is an awful and laborious process. I had been in physical therapy for years for a bad back. My nearest family member was hundreds of miles away. I couldn’t imagine how to pack all my belongings away with my unstable bones. I cringed in anticipation of the pain that could come from rounds of laundering everything I owned, spraying things down with isopropyl, and moving furniture for exterminators.

The predicted injury and accompanying pain led to my first visit to Indonesia. I questioned if other people with physical disadvantages could get caught in similarly horrendous situations throughout the world, and secured a grant to research the topic in several countries. Come spring, I set off on a great multinational adventure in which I fervently chased answers and lines of longitude.

During that journey, I took a ferry from Singapore to spend a couple days in Bintan Island, Indonesia. Between the driftwood and palm fronds on an empty stretch of beach, I stopped to see an eroding message written in the sand: “LIFE ALWAYS FINDS A WAY”. I felt like some vanished scribe had written it there as part of my story, like the universe had left the words there just for me.

I bought a ticket to Bali during a turbulent period a couple years later. I wanted to head back to the country where clairvoyants roamed the islands and messages were hidden in the sand.

In the place where I expected to find order and inner peace, I was being gripped by memories of injured sleepless nights and unresolved past fears. I hauled my backpack to the safety of the front porch and dove into my phone, searching furiously for new accommodations, comfort from friends, and ways to clean old demons out of potentially contaminated belongings.

I sat on the ground for so long that the stones had imprinted their shapes on my legs, so I headed to the roof terrace to obsess over my problems in privacy. I looked out to see a brilliant sunset, a scattering of stringy blue clouds hanging on a backdrop of potent pinks and oranges. Beyond the edge of the peninsula, the ocean was mirroring the colorful banners of the sunset, making it seem almost endless.

I wasn’t sure how many sunsets I’d missed while my phobias were running amok, but I didn’t want to miss that one. In the last journey I hadn’t learned to compartmentalize my thoughts, to stop a bout of fear from tainting all of the glory around me. I turned the phone on its face to gaze at the sunset, to listen to the ensemble of cicadas and monkeys and the chattering and clinking of bottles from guests downstairs.

Travel has power to put you out in the caprices of the unknown and onto the stoops of old haunts. But sometimes, it also offers you a chance at redemption.

I was myself again, watching silently as the ocean was swallowed by the night. I was free from those harrowing and pervasive fears, unshackled from the tunnel vision of anxiety.

I found no more messages in the sand, no phantoms to leave signs that I had gotten things right. I was left with open road, a painted sky, and gorgeous wildlife; all that I sought and all that I needed.

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Feeling Insignificant on Serene Mt. Rainier, USA

The feel of snow in August is a unique experience reserved for those in either extreme latitudes or significant altitudes. Mt. Rainier certainly qualifies for the latter category. I had taken a break on the side of the Mountain to prep for my final push towards Camp Muir, a staging area which sits about 4,000’ short of the summit of Mt. Rainier at 14,411’. Although I needed to catch my breath for the climb ahead, this task seemed figuratively impossible given the breathtaking vista surrounding me. To the south lay the smoke-obscured teeth of the Tatoosh range, and beyond them the still-visible volcanic peaks of St. Helens and Adams. Looking to the West, I saw the Cowlitz Glacier dissipating to thin waterfalls that collected in the valley below. But it was the northern view that was the most commanding, as this sight contained the camp, the summit and a blinding stretch of steep snow that constituted the rest of my hike.

Moments like this take me back to a line I overheard in Seattle just a few days before my hike: “The great thing about nature is how it makes us feel small”. I disagreed with the speaker, at least in part. If the feeling of smallness was truly all we sought in nature, there really would be no reason to travel there. Smallness is so much easier to find in a cubical from 9-to-5, a fact I am well acquainted with. Three months prior to this evening and this hike, I was living a comfortable life in Boston with a good paying job. Stability, activity, and the prospect of upwards mobility were all luxuries I enjoyed, but it was still a small existence, a fact intensified by my oppressive anxiety and frequent panic attacks.

Conventional wisdom would have recommended, at times like this, that the weary worker take a vacation and “get your head in order”. I took the wisdom, but neglected the conventionality, boarding an Amtrak train in Boston and seeing where I could go over the next few months. This eventually brought me to the Space Needle in Seattle, where I got my first good view of Mt. Rainer. The thing was big, not just in raw mass, but with understated gravity. It gripped my attention and demanded personification, quietly scoffing at the Needle I was standing on. I left the elevator with a single conviction in mind, one that brought me to my break point on the side of Mt. Rainer, just a few hundred feet below the camp.

If ever I had sound reason for suffering a panic attack, this would be that time. I was by myself on one of the deadliest hiking trails in the country, where the afternoon sun was opening crevasses below my feet and cutting my friction-less progress to a negligible sum. What if my exertion led to a heart attack, where would they take me? Or if a storm rolls in and I lose my sense of direction? These thoughts and more could have easily crossed my mind, but none did. Instead, my focus lay in just placing one foot in front of the other until I arrived on the stone-carved steps of Camp Muir. And then I saw how small I really was. But this feeling of smallness was different than the one I knew three months prior. This experience was expansive, elevated, the kind that makes you breathe easier with a younger smile on your face. I was, in that moment, entwined within something bigger than myself without being absolved into it.

Suffice it to say, I never did return from my vacation, at least not to the job I had before. There was many more moments that lead to that decision, but the encounter with Rainier demonstrated something that I once had, had lost, and must work to awaken again. The path from here remains uncertain, but it is now a path that does at least go on..

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From Vietnamese Mangroves and a Loving Mom

The runway was not much more than a lightly paved strip of soil which popped out of the rice paddies and mangroves like a long, rectangular oasis. As I exited the 1950’s prop, much like the one that Indiana Jones rides in Raiders of the Lost Ark, I felt stifled instead of being freed from the tight quarters that I’d just ridden in. The density and weight of the atmosphere made it hard to inhale deeply– and it was more than just heat and humidity of the southernmost part of Vietnam – Ca Mau, a peninsular province with the Gulf of Thailand to the West and the Pacific Ocean to the South and East. I was stepping foot on the same soil where my son was born, breathing the same sticky, tropical air that he did. The son I had not yet met, and the son that I would not be bringing home to Indiana after the eight days that I’d be there.

As excited as I was to meet my baby — the one that I dreamed of and had dreams for — I needed to guard my emotions. Upon seeing my first photo of him, my heart skipped a beat when I gazed into those deep brown eyes and saw the shock of black hair standing up on his head. I knew that without a doubt that he was my son. It was my moment of a doctor handing my child to me to put on my chest and feeling a love like no other.

Much like the southern Vietnamese mangroves’ intertwined roots, strong and complicated, his homecoming was constricted by the fact that he was stuck — stuck in an orphanage due to political posturing by both the U.S. and Vietnamese governments not willing to move an inch to finalize his adoption, despite him living in squalid and unsafe orphanage conditions.

I flew half-way around the world and was there with two other moms in the same situation to help care for our children and the others in the orphanage. It was the one small thing we could actually do to help our kids, while we lobbied Congressional leaders and the State Department on the homefront.

Within minutes sweat was streaming down my face and soaking my clothes – a combination of the oppressive heat and my anxiety. My friends and I headed out to the orphanage in a taxi. There were few cars on the road, mostly bicycles and motor bikes. We raced along the tropical landscape – passing roadside markets where vendors sold pineapples, roosters in woven basket cages, plastic kitchenware and even python meat. Our taxi driver honked incessantly as he passed cars, though few, and played a game of chicken with oncoming traffic. A movie of mangroves and long boats with weathered fishermen, and the occasional water buffalo grazing in a yard ran through the car windows. Children with bare feet and dirty faces dotted the fast-moving landscape – all of it beautiful, colorful and full of life.

Finally, we turned down a one-lane dirt road lined by shallow canals, lush mango and tamarind trees, and tin roof-shacks with hammocks as beds. My stomach dropped to my knees when I saw the orphanage building.

My 22-month old son was literally imprisoned in his tiny room — it had bars on the windows, a former internment camp from the Vietnam War.

I had many conversations with him before I got to Vietnam (all in my head), promising him that I would do whatever it took to get him home to Indiana. I’d say “good night” to him when I woke up in the morning and whisper “good morning” before I fell asleep at night, living with my heart twelve hours ahead. And that week, I told him in person — kissing his smooth, tan cheeks, my tears wetting his sweet face as I held him close. And, then having to leave him.

Twenty-six months later, in the most unusual of places, we found refuge surrounded by luggage carts, drug-sniffing Beagles and a melody of different languages at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. His two tiny feet touched U.S. soil, and I felt palpable relief from my shoulders, fighting back yet another set of tears as my husband squeezed my hand and hugged us both.

Sitting at our departure gate for the last leg of our journey home, he sat in my lap and munched on a banana and French fries.

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My Unlikely Friends in Mountainous Ecuador

It’s hot. How can it be this hot? Since arriving in Salasaka, this indigenous village in the Ecuadorian Andes, I have had a constantly sun-burned, peeling nose. Having an 8-year-old child on my back doesn’t help.

I struggle along, Fernanda on my back and her 5-year-old sister Ñusta leading the way. Ñusta is a great helper, waddling along with her sick sister’s backpack, which is almost as large as her. We walk down the wide, dusty roads lined with agave; sheep bleat and donkeys bray, everyone lazily complaining about the sweltering heat. I can see endlessly across the green, quilt-patterned hills, and everything looks exactly the same. We could be anywhere in all of Salasaka, and I would have no idea. All I can do is trust the girls to know where they live. At the school where I am teaching, when a child gets sick like Fernanda has, we can’t just call home, mom rushing over in her minivan to pick the child up, sign her out for the day. Almost no households in this village have a phone, and neither does the school. The only way to get them home is to do this, to carry them for miles until you reach the shanty and farm that is their home.

As a recently trained child therapist back in the U.S., I feel sick with guilt because it’s breaking every rule in the book that I’m doing this. Carrying a child on my back for miles? Taking them home when their parents haven’t given me signed permission? But I’m not their therapist, I remind myself, or try to. Because Fernanda is sick, and needs to get home, and this moment is more important than all the things I learned in graduate school.

“Podemos descansar?”, I ask the girls. Can we rest? I gently set Fernanda down, and the 3 of us sit together in the shade of a stack of cement blocks. Fernanda immediately lies down and puts her head in my lap. My “clinical instinct” is to gently remove her from her physical contact with me. Physical affection is always a liability. Keep your “boundaries”, they tell you. To the 7-year-old client who innocently tells me, I love you, I am trained to respond, I see that you really care about me, and I care about you too. Not “I love you too”, never that. A separation between you and the child. Care about her, of course, but from a distance.

I quit my job as a therapist because I was so terrified of how much I cared about my kids. I must not be doing something right, I felt. I must not be cut out for this. It broke my heart. A career down the drain because I just loved those kids too much. But here I was, in the mountains of South America to where I escaped, doing the same thing. Loving too much, again.

But I can’t help it. I love Fernanda. My heart is filled with her. She is only 8 years old and already the smartest student in school. She pulls my hand before recess ends every morning, lamenting, “Vamos a clase!” She watches over my shoulder with anxiety that is palpable as I grade her multiplication drills, as if she has ever received anything less than a 100%. There is a moodiness about her, a subtle neediness, and she sometimes sits apart from the group as Renato, the music teacher, leads them in warbling South American pop songs.

A woman passes where we sit catching our breath, wearing her chumbi and green shawl, half a dozen protesting sheep leading the way. She looks at me, and her confusion is reflected in her glare. What is this gringa doing out here with two of our precious children? The girls chat pleasantly with her in Kichwa, the sing-song indigenous language that I haven’t learned yet, and finally, she smiles, understanding. And somehow, with that smile, she is granting me the permission to love this child freely, to really love her, to love her and all of her sisters and friends without clinical boundaries, without restriction. Love her simply, freely, not as a professional but as a fellow human being, as an adult in the community who shares the responsibility of raising and caring for her. And maybe that’s not such a terrible thing.

I put my hand on Fernanda’s forehead. She doesn’t feel hot, and I don’t know if she was really sick at all or if she just wanted this time with me. “Listas?”, I ask the girls, and Ñusta puts on two backpacks, her own in the back and Fernanda’s in the front. I stoop to let Fernanda on my back, and we keep on walking.

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New Experiences with Monkeys in India

I was sitting cross-legged on a four-inch mattress that doubled as my bed. Sweat engulfed all of my pores as a simple fan hummed above. I glanced up from my book. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a medium-sized monkey open my screen door with ease. I blinked. I observed a second monkey trailing behind and then another.

My jaw dropped. I sat speechless. Three wild monkeys were just a couple of yards away.

Without hesitation, they walked toward a small round table next to my bright red refrigerator. All three admired my possessions. The taller one glanced back in my direction as if to say, “ha, ha”. With one hand, he grabbed one of my Tupperware containers. Within seconds, the monkeys vanished, leaving my door open in their wake.

I sat bewildered. Should I laugh or should I cry?

Just weeks earlier, I had started teaching at an international K-12 boarding school in Bangalore, India. As an American middle-aged educator, I jumped at the opportunity to work and travel abroad. Most of my friends and family members thought that I was experiencing a midlife crisis. Why would I leave my cushy suburban life to work in a developing country?

For years, a series of orthopedic issues had prevented me from using my K-6 teaching license. To remain an educator, I became an adjunct instructor at a local community college. I loved teaching, but something was missing.

When I was offered the primary international teaching position, one of my dreams was finally fulfilled. Once again, I would have the opportunity to work with children and use my teaching credentials. But would I be able to step outside my comfort zone and face my natural fears of living in another country?

After all, I was a middle-age woman who hadn’t traveled alone in decades. I wasn’t traveling to unfamiliar neighborhoods within driving distance of my home. I was flying half way around the world to travel solo in a foreign country. If I had any chance of being successful, I had to regain my independent spirit. I had to look forward and not scurry back to what felt safe. I relied on my inner voice that wouldn’t stop whispering, “You can do it.”

I wasn’t looking to the popular Nike slogan, “Just Do It.” I was recalling another image. Decades ago, I read the classic book, The Little Engine That Could, to my sons. How fitting that in midlife, I would look to a children’s book to instill confidence. Just like the small train in this inspiring story, I had to use daily reminders to keep me on track.

After the three thieves left my guest room, the uncertainty returned. Could I simply laugh off the absurdity of wild monkeys stealing my food or would I succumb to the temptation to long for a more predictable life? This wasn’t the first time that the monkeys had trespassed. Like ants that gravitate toward food crumbs, these larger pests could be found everywhere humans congregated. The school campus was inundated. Groups of monkeys frequented classrooms, stairwells, the playground, the open fields, the lunchroom, and the pathways between buildings.

Fanciful irrational emotions flooded my well being like a tsunami. My mind planned ways to escape in the middle of the night without a trace. While I rationally knew that I had to cope with my new life in India, it was much easier to create plans for fleeing.

I had no choice but to face my challenges head on. The monkey situation was just one example of a multitude of events. Each day was filled with unfamiliar and strange happenings.

For comfort, I listened to my favorite songs from my youth and thought about others who had successfully dealt with obstacles. I recalled times when I had to overcome challenging situations. I posted one of Eleanor Roosevelt’s quotes above my desk:

The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.

I was working as an international teacher and I wasn’t going to let any of my fears erode my confidence or destroy my dreams. My inner voice became my daily mantra. Instead of hearing a small voice inside, I mouthed the words, “I can do it.”

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Christchurch, New Zealand will always be in my heart

It’s not the miles from Home what made Me Change. It was the Emotions and Experiences New to Me. At the End I did traveled far enough, but just enough to find myself.

And I had to travel miles, distance myself for my closest things, and experience many different emotions to discover about myself, to embrace myself.
I had to keep the distance from what I knew or thought it was safe to be born again.
I had to come to the other side of the world to understand and discover myself.
I didn’t travel places. I traveled emotions inside of me.
I didn’t distance myself from Home. I created a new Home.
My heart became new; my eyes saw the bright light again.
My soul was lifted.
I was born again here.
I FELT ALIVE AND FREE AGAIN!
See, I didn’t travel just for the sake of traveling. I was naïve.
I didn’t know that away from Home you can actually find yourself.
See… I LEARNED THAT TODAY…
I had to get away to truly find myself AND FREEDOM….AGAIN!

This is my poetic way to explain all my feelings since I have moved to Christchurch, New Zealand. I wish I had more eloquent words to describe all the wonders that this country offers. It’s not only a beautiful country for its gorgeous landscapes, but it is also a country filled with great and humble people.
I moved from Miami to Christchurch, New Zealand in February of 2012 with my husband as an expatriate wife. I came with the “Miami” ideas if you can call it that, you know the big city girl ideas. And I was changed.
In Christchurch I learned to relax, to reconnect with myself. To learn about the kiwi culture, to understand that they enjoy being around nature. And that if ask them about the world, they are probably well traveled folks, but they will always return to their home country.
I learned to smile back when they smile at me walking on the street because the kiwis are very polite, and you should smile back! I learned that is ok to recycle your cartoon eggs because is just nice to return to the veggie store with a full bag of cartoon eggs to give back to them and see their smile. And to show them that you care for the environment and that you care for their store.
I learned that even being miles away from home, I can still enjoy Latin music because kiwis have a taste for dancing salsa. I learned that if you suffer a loss, like I did, a big loss, a miscarriage, the kiwis will be there for you. They will prepare your meals, they will clean your house, they will give you a word of comfort and they will be calling you back just to make sure you are doing ok.
These four years spent in New Zealand made me open my eyes to new cultures, to trying new things in life. I even tried to ski for god sake! I, the Cuban / Miami only beach please kind of girl. These four years have been amazing, and I will totally recommend visiting New Zealand.
Thank you Christchurch for all this time with Me, you made ME a new person, you gave Me back my FREEDOM WINGS!

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CANADA: Finding Yourself and Finding Your World

Where I find freedom….

I am often asked this questions being a mother to four young children, a wife, an entrepreneur, and an aspiring author. How do I find the time for me?

The first step for me was realizing that I needed time and freedom for myself and I had to make it happen. Prior to going on my personal development journey to healing and find my self-love. I was going through my life trying to do what would satisfy others and make them proud. Not too long after I graduated from high school I went to college to become a Natural Health Practitioner. I had a lot of criticism from my loved ones as this was not a field they understood or could relate to, in their eyes was not credible. Even before receiving my diploma, I had decided that I would become an electrician. Instead of pursuing my dream, I went into something that I knew would be accepted by everyone around me. Just a couple months after receiving my diploma I started my electrical apprenticeship. I received praise from all my loved ones and even complete strangers, which persuaded me to keep going.

I had to hit rock-bottom before realizing that I needed to honour myself and find that freedom for me. When I was pregnant with my fourth child, I realized that I was miserable, felt lost, misplaced and disconnected within your own skin. Living in a world full of judgement, feeling as though I needed to portray a perfect life, and putting unrealistic expectations upon myself, resulted in a lot of disappointment and feelings of failure. Being occupied by another’s needs each and every day without honouring myself, lead to exhaustion and deep disconnection within myself.

In society we have been essentially programmed to put on a facade to express how “ideal” our life should be and how we should be in the eyes of our generally population. There is an accepted way to be, look, act, the house, vehicle and life you should strive for, the items or things you should have. When really all these things should be customized to each individual, who you are, your soul purpose, personality and what you would like to accomplish in your life. Not everyone is the same. From one person to another, you will do things differently, have different beliefs, have different circumstances, priorities and have different ways of doing things.

When I started my self-healing journey, the biggest change happened for me when I allowed myself to have two hours for just me every morning before the rest of my family woke up. This time allowed me to fully connect, dig into my self-healing books and programs and better myself. Because I had chosen the morning for this time, it set up my day to succeed as I had already put time into myself, feeding my heart and soul, and allowing me to be the best me for the day. This also made decision making clearer for me. I knew I was on the right track because I was motivated to continue, it felt good and freeing.

With this self-acknowledgement, my self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-love grew naturally. The more ways I honoured yourself, the happier I became, the lighter I felt and life began to flow with ease. Once I became connected with what made me happy, the faster my perspective changed. I was more accepting of others and all forms of judgment then disappears; self-judgement, judgement of others and other’s judgements on me. When I was able to release all of my self-judgements, I felt more confident within yourself and no longer needed anyone else’s opinions. When I got to the point, where I became absolutely comfortable within me and no longer felt the need to rely on other’s opinions, I instead use their suggestions as I saw suitable.

By honouring myself with “me time” everyday, I find my freedom, live my passion, and am present with my life.

My vision is:
“For all moms to think of themselves as no less than extraordinary!”

Much love, appreciation & gratitude,
Tracy Munson
Natural Health Strategist & Coach, NHP, CDC

 

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My New Year’s Rebirth in Guatemala

Driving along the quiet morning streets of a city I would come to know and love, I bawled into the musky atmosphere of the cab. I had just flown to Los Angeles for about a week, to visit a man who would become a bigger part of my life than I could ever imagine. But as the sun began to rise and the infamous LAX came into view, I felt less than elated to be hopping on a flight to Guatemala City.

It was the day before New Year’s Eve, and the looming new year on the horizon stood a mysterious silhouette in a grey backdrop. At first the plan seemed simple, go to Central America, have a work holiday, more or less. It seemed fitting, but sometimes what you think you are ‘meant’ to do doesn’t match up with what the world has planned for you. The firm seats of the plane reminded me that I was about to spend the next few weeks in unfamiliar places, and likely sitting in similarly firm bus seats, which was almost comforting, as although I had come to realize I had no idea why I was going to Guatemala, maybe it was a childhood fascination finally coming to life, that I indeed took refuge in the unfamiliar.

When you do not know a city, when you do not know a face or a name, reality seems more malleable, free from the conditions and generalizations we bind ourselves with. But it wasn’t until after I left Central America for the second time that I would conclude that sometimes you can’t simply put yourself out of the norm, you have to be completely destroyed, and born again anew.

Arriving in the beautiful colonial city of Antigua, Guatemala, I felt instantly lonely. A rare sensation, and a wave of isolation and being far from the world I knew washed over, even as I walked the stone streets, full of character and stories. New Year’s Eve was spent with a gaggle of Australians whom I’d met that day at my hostel. Predictable, but at least I knew that all over the world, people were celebrating the same thing, a shift in time, a new year, a new era. The night proceeded in a sickly classic way, the parties were many and the drinks too strong. Upon losing my group of newly acquainted travel buddies I quickly realized I was now well and truly alone, wandering the ghostly streets of a potentially dangerous city.

Fear introduced itself promptly and again I found myself caught in a whirling dizziness of confusion. Where is my hostel? Why am I suddenly by myself? Questions of my own sanity brought me to eventual surrender when a car pulled up. It was a police officer. Now this had to be one of the strangest experiences of my life, and still now it holds a mind boggling surreal quality. The officer asked me what was wrong, to which I could barely answer between sobs. To my own surprise, as I generally consider myself verging on the edge of paranoia, I agreed to be driven home after he kindly took me to get food and a coffee.

Crying to a strange police officer over cake, in a foreign country, about nothing in particular, is probably one of the most embarrassing and messed up accounts I could ever recall, but as I began to settle down and he listened to me, offering even more surprising words of wisdom, I began to notice that on this New Year’s Day, I had been reborn. It sounds silly, but it literally felt like a piece of me had left, abruptly resigned, in the face of such fear, discomfort and the internal pain that I had been feeling. Sometimes we can only see freedom when we are forced to face ourselves solely, with no walls, no security blankets, no friends, no money, nothing we have been so trained to value, alone.

The aura of confusion still lingered but was not pressing, there was a certain lightness now. I continued to enjoy my next 4 weeks in Guatemala, and 2 weeks in Mexico, the best I possibly could, allowing what was meant to be to be. I met amazing people. I swam. I (hestitantly) rode horses on cliffs. I hiked to the tops of mountains at sunrise and sunset. I danced and ate and listened to music. I got sick. Really sick. I lost my phone. My computer died. I got sick again. I tried not to blame myself for being sick. I visited amazing places. I made a best friend.

And I watched. I observed. And still now, when I recall the entirety of my journeys from Guatemala City to Mexico and finally back to Los Angeles, when I rejoiced in being back in North America despite my mind-blowing travels, I watch it all as a movie I have seen a thousand times, and know that in some way, I had to be completely destroyed to find my freedom, to let go of all that I perceived to be true in order to make room for the new and spectacular things that were about to enter my life. I had nothing to lose. Freedom had been chasing me down, like a ghost longing to make itself known, so that I could finally stare it straight in the face.

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I Choose My Freedom in Australia…For Now

We laid on our sides on what I once called our bed. Nose touching tip of nose, eyes locked into eyes. I traced the outside of his face with my free hand, imagining that I could feel the difference between the brown, gold and crimson strands of his beard underneath my fingertips. The scent of him filled me like smoke. I breathed in earth, clean laundry and a hint of weed. In this bed, there was nothing else. Only the physical tug of my heart to his, our breath slowed down to one. If I made this moment my entire world, I was happy.

“Come home,” he said, breaking the comfortable silence. “You can still travel. Just come home to me.”

I was leaving him for now the third time. The freedom that comes with traveling– the thrill of uncertainty, the choices that follow ambiguity– had once again found prominence in my heart over anything that would just make me one half of a whole. This time, I’d be gone for more than a four month backpacking stint around Europe or South America. I was going to Australia for at least a year, and I intended to finally make this breakup stick.

However, my mind struggled to find the flaw in his plan, drunk as I was on the happiness that I associated with his presence. It sounded nice. I could have both.

He assured me certainty, security, love, a future–the sweetest of chains. So I imagined living out my life with him, continuing the dream state of that bed. The only thing that he truly stimulated in me was a sexual desire. The rest would continue to be a mindless routine, devoid of intelligent conversation. He would watch football. I would cook him lasagna. He’d tell me he thought it was cute that I liked to read. I’d try in vain to discuss Orwell with him. He would work at the bar. I would find some middleman job. He’d buy a house in a small Massachusetts town. We’d take turns digging our cars out of the New England snow, and he’d get angry when he caught me lusting after Google images of exotic places. We’d smoke weed everyday to further along the numbing effect. He’d get me pregnant one day, like he always wanted. He’d teach our child to throw a ball, and I’d try to instill enough independence and individuality in her so that she could live the life I always wanted–a life of adventure and freedom.

To stay with him would have been to make the choice to throw a huge spoiler alert over my entire life, to watch the Red Wedding scene of Game of Thrones just as I got invested in the first season. Our relationship presented only walls and no frontiers.

I didn’t know who I was when I wasn’t his. All I knew was that it bothered me, a literal constant pain in my side each time I realised that I was becoming part of an indifferent and incurious population that gets stuck in relationships that are finite, lethargic and easy. I realized that I lived for my connection to him, changing myself to fit his mold. I neglected everything else that I ever wanted, pursuing those finite moments of happiness wholeheartedly so that I could mollify my anxiety in the face of my natural state, the state of freedom. I wasn’t committed to my authenticity; I hid from it.

My urge to strike out on my own was a gut reaction, a survival instinct. I needed to ease the stomach-clenching dread that accompanied the notion of remaining in one place for long, and for someone else. I needed the ignition that comes with waking up in a strange city or country, stimulating myself by way of exploration, acquainting myself with a new place through its food, having informed and varied discussions in broken English over a hostel dining room table. My freedom comes with the weight of a backpack on my shoulders, a one-way ticket and a culture shock. I am the only one in this world who can give me what I crave; to travel. To live a life as a traveller means living a life of contrast and spontaneity, ambiguity and choices.

I did not say that travel made me “happy,” although it often does. Happiness is not the attainable lifetime goal. Happiness is finite. What I sought was freedom, an infinite state of being that far surpasses a vague and unattainable notion of absolute contentment.

So as I lay in that bed, contemplating the tear I had to force between us, I focused on my refusal to be defined by my environment and my sentiment, rather than by the choices I made when faced with uncertainty.

I’ve been living in Australia for almost 10 months now, and I am face to face with my independence everyday, my choice to try on life as a 24 year old Melburnian for the time being, absorbing the parts of it that add to my shifting identity. I do not know what the next steps are, for I cannot see them clearly or at all. And that’s okay. To have a full knowledge of what my years hold would be just as finite as a committed relationship with a small-minded man. The mystery that comes with knowing nothing is infinite. I am faced with an unlimited spectrum, and all I must do is choose and take responsibility for my choices, may they always be in line with my most authentic state. This is what makes me free.

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The Power of Unique Experiences in Indonesia

Kerthunk, kerthunk, kerthunk.

I felt as if someone had sunk a fistful of fear into my heart and let it pound it into the rest of my body. My stomach felt like it was trying to retreat behind my ribs, my eyes were wide. Reason told me I shouldn’t have been so phobic. But I was staring down my nemeses, and reason was quickly losing its place in my repertoire.

Actually, “nemeses” might be a strong word for something the size of a pin head. These were a couple of bugs so small that one could easily mistake them for a floating piece of white lint, especially in the flickering shadows of the Balinese evening. They were bed bug nymphs, and their presence meant I needed to leave before they could scurry their way into my belongings.

My mind flashed back to a bitter night far away from the hostel on the quaint Indonesian road. I was back in my apartment in Massachusetts, back to the shock of finding an infestation of biting little bugs that snuck through the folds of my sofa and cracks in the hardwood floors. I retreated to the bathtub at two in the morning, saturated in dread.

Bed bugs aren’t dangerous, but eradicating them is an awful and laborious process. I had been in physical therapy for years for a bad back. My nearest family member was hundreds of miles away. I couldn’t imagine how to pack all my belongings away with my unstable bones. I cringed in anticipation of the pain that could come from rounds of laundering everything I owned, spraying things down with isopropyl, and moving furniture for exterminators.

The predicted injury and accompanying pain led to my first visit to Indonesia. I questioned if other people with physical disadvantages could get caught in similarly horrendous situations throughout the world, and secured a grant to research the topic in several countries. Come spring, I set off on a great multinational adventure in which I fervently chased answers and lines of longitude.

During that journey, I took a ferry from Singapore to spend a couple days in Bintan Island, Indonesia. Between the driftwood and palm fronds on an empty stretch of beach, I stopped to see an eroding message written in the sand: “LIFE ALWAYS FINDS A WAY”. I felt like some vanished scribe had written it there as part of my story, like the universe had left the words there just for me.

I bought a ticket to Bali during a turbulent period a couple years later. I wanted to head back to the country where clairvoyants roamed the islands and messages were hidden in the sand.

In the place where I expected to find order and inner peace, I was being gripped by memories of injured sleepless nights and unresolved past fears. I hauled my backpack to the safety of the front porch and dove into my phone, searching furiously for new accommodations, comfort from friends, and ways to clean old demons out of potentially contaminated belongings.

I sat on the ground for so long that the stones had imprinted their shapes on my legs, so I headed to the roof terrace to obsess over my problems in privacy. I looked out to see a brilliant sunset, a scattering of stringy blue clouds hanging on a backdrop of potent pinks and oranges. Beyond the edge of the peninsula, the ocean was mirroring the colorful banners of the sunset, making it seem almost endless.

I wasn’t sure how many sunsets I’d missed while my phobias were running amok, but I didn’t want to miss that one. In the last journey I hadn’t learned to compartmentalize my thoughts, to stop a bout of fear from tainting all of the glory around me. I turned the phone on its face to gaze at the sunset, to listen to the ensemble of cicadas and monkeys and the chattering and clinking of bottles from guests downstairs.

Travel has power to put you out in the caprices of the unknown and onto the stoops of old haunts. But sometimes, it also offers you a chance at redemption.

I was myself again, watching silently as the ocean was swallowed by the night. I was free from those harrowing and pervasive fears, unshackled from the tunnel vision of anxiety.

I found no more messages in the sand, no phantoms to leave signs that I had gotten things right. I was left with open road, a painted sky, and gorgeous wildlife; all that I sought and all that I needed.

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Feeling Insignificant on Serene Mt. Rainier, USA

The feel of snow in August is a unique experience reserved for those in either extreme latitudes or significant altitudes. Mt. Rainier certainly qualifies for the latter category. I had taken a break on the side of the Mountain to prep for my final push towards Camp Muir, a staging area which sits about 4,000’ short of the summit of Mt. Rainier at 14,411’. Although I needed to catch my breath for the climb ahead, this task seemed figuratively impossible given the breathtaking vista surrounding me. To the south lay the smoke-obscured teeth of the Tatoosh range, and beyond them the still-visible volcanic peaks of St. Helens and Adams. Looking to the West, I saw the Cowlitz Glacier dissipating to thin waterfalls that collected in the valley below. But it was the northern view that was the most commanding, as this sight contained the camp, the summit and a blinding stretch of steep snow that constituted the rest of my hike.

Moments like this take me back to a line I overheard in Seattle just a few days before my hike: “The great thing about nature is how it makes us feel small”. I disagreed with the speaker, at least in part. If the feeling of smallness was truly all we sought in nature, there really would be no reason to travel there. Smallness is so much easier to find in a cubical from 9-to-5, a fact I am well acquainted with. Three months prior to this evening and this hike, I was living a comfortable life in Boston with a good paying job. Stability, activity, and the prospect of upwards mobility were all luxuries I enjoyed, but it was still a small existence, a fact intensified by my oppressive anxiety and frequent panic attacks.

Conventional wisdom would have recommended, at times like this, that the weary worker take a vacation and “get your head in order”. I took the wisdom, but neglected the conventionality, boarding an Amtrak train in Boston and seeing where I could go over the next few months. This eventually brought me to the Space Needle in Seattle, where I got my first good view of Mt. Rainer. The thing was big, not just in raw mass, but with understated gravity. It gripped my attention and demanded personification, quietly scoffing at the Needle I was standing on. I left the elevator with a single conviction in mind, one that brought me to my break point on the side of Mt. Rainer, just a few hundred feet below the camp.

If ever I had sound reason for suffering a panic attack, this would be that time. I was by myself on one of the deadliest hiking trails in the country, where the afternoon sun was opening crevasses below my feet and cutting my friction-less progress to a negligible sum. What if my exertion led to a heart attack, where would they take me? Or if a storm rolls in and I lose my sense of direction? These thoughts and more could have easily crossed my mind, but none did. Instead, my focus lay in just placing one foot in front of the other until I arrived on the stone-carved steps of Camp Muir. And then I saw how small I really was. But this feeling of smallness was different than the one I knew three months prior. This experience was expansive, elevated, the kind that makes you breathe easier with a younger smile on your face. I was, in that moment, entwined within something bigger than myself without being absolved into it.

Suffice it to say, I never did return from my vacation, at least not to the job I had before. There was many more moments that lead to that decision, but the encounter with Rainier demonstrated something that I once had, had lost, and must work to awaken again. The path from here remains uncertain, but it is now a path that does at least go on..

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From Vietnamese Mangroves and a Loving Mom

The runway was not much more than a lightly paved strip of soil which popped out of the rice paddies and mangroves like a long, rectangular oasis. As I exited the 1950’s prop, much like the one that Indiana Jones rides in Raiders of the Lost Ark, I felt stifled instead of being freed from the tight quarters that I’d just ridden in. The density and weight of the atmosphere made it hard to inhale deeply– and it was more than just heat and humidity of the southernmost part of Vietnam – Ca Mau, a peninsular province with the Gulf of Thailand to the West and the Pacific Ocean to the South and East. I was stepping foot on the same soil where my son was born, breathing the same sticky, tropical air that he did. The son I had not yet met, and the son that I would not be bringing home to Indiana after the eight days that I’d be there.

As excited as I was to meet my baby — the one that I dreamed of and had dreams for — I needed to guard my emotions. Upon seeing my first photo of him, my heart skipped a beat when I gazed into those deep brown eyes and saw the shock of black hair standing up on his head. I knew that without a doubt that he was my son. It was my moment of a doctor handing my child to me to put on my chest and feeling a love like no other.

Much like the southern Vietnamese mangroves’ intertwined roots, strong and complicated, his homecoming was constricted by the fact that he was stuck — stuck in an orphanage due to political posturing by both the U.S. and Vietnamese governments not willing to move an inch to finalize his adoption, despite him living in squalid and unsafe orphanage conditions.

I flew half-way around the world and was there with two other moms in the same situation to help care for our children and the others in the orphanage. It was the one small thing we could actually do to help our kids, while we lobbied Congressional leaders and the State Department on the homefront.

Within minutes sweat was streaming down my face and soaking my clothes – a combination of the oppressive heat and my anxiety. My friends and I headed out to the orphanage in a taxi. There were few cars on the road, mostly bicycles and motor bikes. We raced along the tropical landscape – passing roadside markets where vendors sold pineapples, roosters in woven basket cages, plastic kitchenware and even python meat. Our taxi driver honked incessantly as he passed cars, though few, and played a game of chicken with oncoming traffic. A movie of mangroves and long boats with weathered fishermen, and the occasional water buffalo grazing in a yard ran through the car windows. Children with bare feet and dirty faces dotted the fast-moving landscape – all of it beautiful, colorful and full of life.

Finally, we turned down a one-lane dirt road lined by shallow canals, lush mango and tamarind trees, and tin roof-shacks with hammocks as beds. My stomach dropped to my knees when I saw the orphanage building.

My 22-month old son was literally imprisoned in his tiny room — it had bars on the windows, a former internment camp from the Vietnam War.

I had many conversations with him before I got to Vietnam (all in my head), promising him that I would do whatever it took to get him home to Indiana. I’d say “good night” to him when I woke up in the morning and whisper “good morning” before I fell asleep at night, living with my heart twelve hours ahead. And that week, I told him in person — kissing his smooth, tan cheeks, my tears wetting his sweet face as I held him close. And, then having to leave him.

Twenty-six months later, in the most unusual of places, we found refuge surrounded by luggage carts, drug-sniffing Beagles and a melody of different languages at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. His two tiny feet touched U.S. soil, and I felt palpable relief from my shoulders, fighting back yet another set of tears as my husband squeezed my hand and hugged us both.

Sitting at our departure gate for the last leg of our journey home, he sat in my lap and munched on a banana and French fries.

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My Unlikely Friends in Mountainous Ecuador

It’s hot. How can it be this hot? Since arriving in Salasaka, this indigenous village in the Ecuadorian Andes, I have had a constantly sun-burned, peeling nose. Having an 8-year-old child on my back doesn’t help.

I struggle along, Fernanda on my back and her 5-year-old sister Ñusta leading the way. Ñusta is a great helper, waddling along with her sick sister’s backpack, which is almost as large as her. We walk down the wide, dusty roads lined with agave; sheep bleat and donkeys bray, everyone lazily complaining about the sweltering heat. I can see endlessly across the green, quilt-patterned hills, and everything looks exactly the same. We could be anywhere in all of Salasaka, and I would have no idea. All I can do is trust the girls to know where they live. At the school where I am teaching, when a child gets sick like Fernanda has, we can’t just call home, mom rushing over in her minivan to pick the child up, sign her out for the day. Almost no households in this village have a phone, and neither does the school. The only way to get them home is to do this, to carry them for miles until you reach the shanty and farm that is their home.

As a recently trained child therapist back in the U.S., I feel sick with guilt because it’s breaking every rule in the book that I’m doing this. Carrying a child on my back for miles? Taking them home when their parents haven’t given me signed permission? But I’m not their therapist, I remind myself, or try to. Because Fernanda is sick, and needs to get home, and this moment is more important than all the things I learned in graduate school.

“Podemos descansar?”, I ask the girls. Can we rest? I gently set Fernanda down, and the 3 of us sit together in the shade of a stack of cement blocks. Fernanda immediately lies down and puts her head in my lap. My “clinical instinct” is to gently remove her from her physical contact with me. Physical affection is always a liability. Keep your “boundaries”, they tell you. To the 7-year-old client who innocently tells me, I love you, I am trained to respond, I see that you really care about me, and I care about you too. Not “I love you too”, never that. A separation between you and the child. Care about her, of course, but from a distance.

I quit my job as a therapist because I was so terrified of how much I cared about my kids. I must not be doing something right, I felt. I must not be cut out for this. It broke my heart. A career down the drain because I just loved those kids too much. But here I was, in the mountains of South America to where I escaped, doing the same thing. Loving too much, again.

But I can’t help it. I love Fernanda. My heart is filled with her. She is only 8 years old and already the smartest student in school. She pulls my hand before recess ends every morning, lamenting, “Vamos a clase!” She watches over my shoulder with anxiety that is palpable as I grade her multiplication drills, as if she has ever received anything less than a 100%. There is a moodiness about her, a subtle neediness, and she sometimes sits apart from the group as Renato, the music teacher, leads them in warbling South American pop songs.

A woman passes where we sit catching our breath, wearing her chumbi and green shawl, half a dozen protesting sheep leading the way. She looks at me, and her confusion is reflected in her glare. What is this gringa doing out here with two of our precious children? The girls chat pleasantly with her in Kichwa, the sing-song indigenous language that I haven’t learned yet, and finally, she smiles, understanding. And somehow, with that smile, she is granting me the permission to love this child freely, to really love her, to love her and all of her sisters and friends without clinical boundaries, without restriction. Love her simply, freely, not as a professional but as a fellow human being, as an adult in the community who shares the responsibility of raising and caring for her. And maybe that’s not such a terrible thing.

I put my hand on Fernanda’s forehead. She doesn’t feel hot, and I don’t know if she was really sick at all or if she just wanted this time with me. “Listas?”, I ask the girls, and Ñusta puts on two backpacks, her own in the back and Fernanda’s in the front. I stoop to let Fernanda on my back, and we keep on walking.

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New Experiences with Monkeys in India

I was sitting cross-legged on a four-inch mattress that doubled as my bed. Sweat engulfed all of my pores as a simple fan hummed above. I glanced up from my book. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a medium-sized monkey open my screen door with ease. I blinked. I observed a second monkey trailing behind and then another.

My jaw dropped. I sat speechless. Three wild monkeys were just a couple of yards away.

Without hesitation, they walked toward a small round table next to my bright red refrigerator. All three admired my possessions. The taller one glanced back in my direction as if to say, “ha, ha”. With one hand, he grabbed one of my Tupperware containers. Within seconds, the monkeys vanished, leaving my door open in their wake.

I sat bewildered. Should I laugh or should I cry?

Just weeks earlier, I had started teaching at an international K-12 boarding school in Bangalore, India. As an American middle-aged educator, I jumped at the opportunity to work and travel abroad. Most of my friends and family members thought that I was experiencing a midlife crisis. Why would I leave my cushy suburban life to work in a developing country?

For years, a series of orthopedic issues had prevented me from using my K-6 teaching license. To remain an educator, I became an adjunct instructor at a local community college. I loved teaching, but something was missing.

When I was offered the primary international teaching position, one of my dreams was finally fulfilled. Once again, I would have the opportunity to work with children and use my teaching credentials. But would I be able to step outside my comfort zone and face my natural fears of living in another country?

After all, I was a middle-age woman who hadn’t traveled alone in decades. I wasn’t traveling to unfamiliar neighborhoods within driving distance of my home. I was flying half way around the world to travel solo in a foreign country. If I had any chance of being successful, I had to regain my independent spirit. I had to look forward and not scurry back to what felt safe. I relied on my inner voice that wouldn’t stop whispering, “You can do it.”

I wasn’t looking to the popular Nike slogan, “Just Do It.” I was recalling another image. Decades ago, I read the classic book, The Little Engine That Could, to my sons. How fitting that in midlife, I would look to a children’s book to instill confidence. Just like the small train in this inspiring story, I had to use daily reminders to keep me on track.

After the three thieves left my guest room, the uncertainty returned. Could I simply laugh off the absurdity of wild monkeys stealing my food or would I succumb to the temptation to long for a more predictable life? This wasn’t the first time that the monkeys had trespassed. Like ants that gravitate toward food crumbs, these larger pests could be found everywhere humans congregated. The school campus was inundated. Groups of monkeys frequented classrooms, stairwells, the playground, the open fields, the lunchroom, and the pathways between buildings.

Fanciful irrational emotions flooded my well being like a tsunami. My mind planned ways to escape in the middle of the night without a trace. While I rationally knew that I had to cope with my new life in India, it was much easier to create plans for fleeing.

I had no choice but to face my challenges head on. The monkey situation was just one example of a multitude of events. Each day was filled with unfamiliar and strange happenings.

For comfort, I listened to my favorite songs from my youth and thought about others who had successfully dealt with obstacles. I recalled times when I had to overcome challenging situations. I posted one of Eleanor Roosevelt’s quotes above my desk:

The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.

I was working as an international teacher and I wasn’t going to let any of my fears erode my confidence or destroy my dreams. My inner voice became my daily mantra. Instead of hearing a small voice inside, I mouthed the words, “I can do it.”

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Christchurch, New Zealand will always be in my heart

It’s not the miles from Home what made Me Change. It was the Emotions and Experiences New to Me. At the End I did traveled far enough, but just enough to find myself.

And I had to travel miles, distance myself for my closest things, and experience many different emotions to discover about myself, to embrace myself.
I had to keep the distance from what I knew or thought it was safe to be born again.
I had to come to the other side of the world to understand and discover myself.
I didn’t travel places. I traveled emotions inside of me.
I didn’t distance myself from Home. I created a new Home.
My heart became new; my eyes saw the bright light again.
My soul was lifted.
I was born again here.
I FELT ALIVE AND FREE AGAIN!
See, I didn’t travel just for the sake of traveling. I was naïve.
I didn’t know that away from Home you can actually find yourself.
See… I LEARNED THAT TODAY…
I had to get away to truly find myself AND FREEDOM….AGAIN!

This is my poetic way to explain all my feelings since I have moved to Christchurch, New Zealand. I wish I had more eloquent words to describe all the wonders that this country offers. It’s not only a beautiful country for its gorgeous landscapes, but it is also a country filled with great and humble people.
I moved from Miami to Christchurch, New Zealand in February of 2012 with my husband as an expatriate wife. I came with the “Miami” ideas if you can call it that, you know the big city girl ideas. And I was changed.
In Christchurch I learned to relax, to reconnect with myself. To learn about the kiwi culture, to understand that they enjoy being around nature. And that if ask them about the world, they are probably well traveled folks, but they will always return to their home country.
I learned to smile back when they smile at me walking on the street because the kiwis are very polite, and you should smile back! I learned that is ok to recycle your cartoon eggs because is just nice to return to the veggie store with a full bag of cartoon eggs to give back to them and see their smile. And to show them that you care for the environment and that you care for their store.
I learned that even being miles away from home, I can still enjoy Latin music because kiwis have a taste for dancing salsa. I learned that if you suffer a loss, like I did, a big loss, a miscarriage, the kiwis will be there for you. They will prepare your meals, they will clean your house, they will give you a word of comfort and they will be calling you back just to make sure you are doing ok.
These four years spent in New Zealand made me open my eyes to new cultures, to trying new things in life. I even tried to ski for god sake! I, the Cuban / Miami only beach please kind of girl. These four years have been amazing, and I will totally recommend visiting New Zealand.
Thank you Christchurch for all this time with Me, you made ME a new person, you gave Me back my FREEDOM WINGS!

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CANADA: Finding Yourself and Finding Your World

Where I find freedom….

I am often asked this questions being a mother to four young children, a wife, an entrepreneur, and an aspiring author. How do I find the time for me?

The first step for me was realizing that I needed time and freedom for myself and I had to make it happen. Prior to going on my personal development journey to healing and find my self-love. I was going through my life trying to do what would satisfy others and make them proud. Not too long after I graduated from high school I went to college to become a Natural Health Practitioner. I had a lot of criticism from my loved ones as this was not a field they understood or could relate to, in their eyes was not credible. Even before receiving my diploma, I had decided that I would become an electrician. Instead of pursuing my dream, I went into something that I knew would be accepted by everyone around me. Just a couple months after receiving my diploma I started my electrical apprenticeship. I received praise from all my loved ones and even complete strangers, which persuaded me to keep going.

I had to hit rock-bottom before realizing that I needed to honour myself and find that freedom for me. When I was pregnant with my fourth child, I realized that I was miserable, felt lost, misplaced and disconnected within your own skin. Living in a world full of judgement, feeling as though I needed to portray a perfect life, and putting unrealistic expectations upon myself, resulted in a lot of disappointment and feelings of failure. Being occupied by another’s needs each and every day without honouring myself, lead to exhaustion and deep disconnection within myself.

In society we have been essentially programmed to put on a facade to express how “ideal” our life should be and how we should be in the eyes of our generally population. There is an accepted way to be, look, act, the house, vehicle and life you should strive for, the items or things you should have. When really all these things should be customized to each individual, who you are, your soul purpose, personality and what you would like to accomplish in your life. Not everyone is the same. From one person to another, you will do things differently, have different beliefs, have different circumstances, priorities and have different ways of doing things.

When I started my self-healing journey, the biggest change happened for me when I allowed myself to have two hours for just me every morning before the rest of my family woke up. This time allowed me to fully connect, dig into my self-healing books and programs and better myself. Because I had chosen the morning for this time, it set up my day to succeed as I had already put time into myself, feeding my heart and soul, and allowing me to be the best me for the day. This also made decision making clearer for me. I knew I was on the right track because I was motivated to continue, it felt good and freeing.

With this self-acknowledgement, my self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-love grew naturally. The more ways I honoured yourself, the happier I became, the lighter I felt and life began to flow with ease. Once I became connected with what made me happy, the faster my perspective changed. I was more accepting of others and all forms of judgment then disappears; self-judgement, judgement of others and other’s judgements on me. When I was able to release all of my self-judgements, I felt more confident within yourself and no longer needed anyone else’s opinions. When I got to the point, where I became absolutely comfortable within me and no longer felt the need to rely on other’s opinions, I instead use their suggestions as I saw suitable.

By honouring myself with “me time” everyday, I find my freedom, live my passion, and am present with my life.

My vision is:
“For all moms to think of themselves as no less than extraordinary!”

Much love, appreciation & gratitude,
Tracy Munson
Natural Health Strategist & Coach, NHP, CDC

 

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My New Year’s Rebirth in Guatemala

Driving along the quiet morning streets of a city I would come to know and love, I bawled into the musky atmosphere of the cab. I had just flown to Los Angeles for about a week, to visit a man who would become a bigger part of my life than I could ever imagine. But as the sun began to rise and the infamous LAX came into view, I felt less than elated to be hopping on a flight to Guatemala City.

It was the day before New Year’s Eve, and the looming new year on the horizon stood a mysterious silhouette in a grey backdrop. At first the plan seemed simple, go to Central America, have a work holiday, more or less. It seemed fitting, but sometimes what you think you are ‘meant’ to do doesn’t match up with what the world has planned for you. The firm seats of the plane reminded me that I was about to spend the next few weeks in unfamiliar places, and likely sitting in similarly firm bus seats, which was almost comforting, as although I had come to realize I had no idea why I was going to Guatemala, maybe it was a childhood fascination finally coming to life, that I indeed took refuge in the unfamiliar.

When you do not know a city, when you do not know a face or a name, reality seems more malleable, free from the conditions and generalizations we bind ourselves with. But it wasn’t until after I left Central America for the second time that I would conclude that sometimes you can’t simply put yourself out of the norm, you have to be completely destroyed, and born again anew.

Arriving in the beautiful colonial city of Antigua, Guatemala, I felt instantly lonely. A rare sensation, and a wave of isolation and being far from the world I knew washed over, even as I walked the stone streets, full of character and stories. New Year’s Eve was spent with a gaggle of Australians whom I’d met that day at my hostel. Predictable, but at least I knew that all over the world, people were celebrating the same thing, a shift in time, a new year, a new era. The night proceeded in a sickly classic way, the parties were many and the drinks too strong. Upon losing my group of newly acquainted travel buddies I quickly realized I was now well and truly alone, wandering the ghostly streets of a potentially dangerous city.

Fear introduced itself promptly and again I found myself caught in a whirling dizziness of confusion. Where is my hostel? Why am I suddenly by myself? Questions of my own sanity brought me to eventual surrender when a car pulled up. It was a police officer. Now this had to be one of the strangest experiences of my life, and still now it holds a mind boggling surreal quality. The officer asked me what was wrong, to which I could barely answer between sobs. To my own surprise, as I generally consider myself verging on the edge of paranoia, I agreed to be driven home after he kindly took me to get food and a coffee.

Crying to a strange police officer over cake, in a foreign country, about nothing in particular, is probably one of the most embarrassing and messed up accounts I could ever recall, but as I began to settle down and he listened to me, offering even more surprising words of wisdom, I began to notice that on this New Year’s Day, I had been reborn. It sounds silly, but it literally felt like a piece of me had left, abruptly resigned, in the face of such fear, discomfort and the internal pain that I had been feeling. Sometimes we can only see freedom when we are forced to face ourselves solely, with no walls, no security blankets, no friends, no money, nothing we have been so trained to value, alone.

The aura of confusion still lingered but was not pressing, there was a certain lightness now. I continued to enjoy my next 4 weeks in Guatemala, and 2 weeks in Mexico, the best I possibly could, allowing what was meant to be to be. I met amazing people. I swam. I (hestitantly) rode horses on cliffs. I hiked to the tops of mountains at sunrise and sunset. I danced and ate and listened to music. I got sick. Really sick. I lost my phone. My computer died. I got sick again. I tried not to blame myself for being sick. I visited amazing places. I made a best friend.

And I watched. I observed. And still now, when I recall the entirety of my journeys from Guatemala City to Mexico and finally back to Los Angeles, when I rejoiced in being back in North America despite my mind-blowing travels, I watch it all as a movie I have seen a thousand times, and know that in some way, I had to be completely destroyed to find my freedom, to let go of all that I perceived to be true in order to make room for the new and spectacular things that were about to enter my life. I had nothing to lose. Freedom had been chasing me down, like a ghost longing to make itself known, so that I could finally stare it straight in the face.

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I Choose My Freedom in Australia…For Now

We laid on our sides on what I once called our bed. Nose touching tip of nose, eyes locked into eyes. I traced the outside of his face with my free hand, imagining that I could feel the difference between the brown, gold and crimson strands of his beard underneath my fingertips. The scent of him filled me like smoke. I breathed in earth, clean laundry and a hint of weed. In this bed, there was nothing else. Only the physical tug of my heart to his, our breath slowed down to one. If I made this moment my entire world, I was happy.

“Come home,” he said, breaking the comfortable silence. “You can still travel. Just come home to me.”

I was leaving him for now the third time. The freedom that comes with traveling– the thrill of uncertainty, the choices that follow ambiguity– had once again found prominence in my heart over anything that would just make me one half of a whole. This time, I’d be gone for more than a four month backpacking stint around Europe or South America. I was going to Australia for at least a year, and I intended to finally make this breakup stick.

However, my mind struggled to find the flaw in his plan, drunk as I was on the happiness that I associated with his presence. It sounded nice. I could have both.

He assured me certainty, security, love, a future–the sweetest of chains. So I imagined living out my life with him, continuing the dream state of that bed. The only thing that he truly stimulated in me was a sexual desire. The rest would continue to be a mindless routine, devoid of intelligent conversation. He would watch football. I would cook him lasagna. He’d tell me he thought it was cute that I liked to read. I’d try in vain to discuss Orwell with him. He would work at the bar. I would find some middleman job. He’d buy a house in a small Massachusetts town. We’d take turns digging our cars out of the New England snow, and he’d get angry when he caught me lusting after Google images of exotic places. We’d smoke weed everyday to further along the numbing effect. He’d get me pregnant one day, like he always wanted. He’d teach our child to throw a ball, and I’d try to instill enough independence and individuality in her so that she could live the life I always wanted–a life of adventure and freedom.

To stay with him would have been to make the choice to throw a huge spoiler alert over my entire life, to watch the Red Wedding scene of Game of Thrones just as I got invested in the first season. Our relationship presented only walls and no frontiers.

I didn’t know who I was when I wasn’t his. All I knew was that it bothered me, a literal constant pain in my side each time I realised that I was becoming part of an indifferent and incurious population that gets stuck in relationships that are finite, lethargic and easy. I realized that I lived for my connection to him, changing myself to fit his mold. I neglected everything else that I ever wanted, pursuing those finite moments of happiness wholeheartedly so that I could mollify my anxiety in the face of my natural state, the state of freedom. I wasn’t committed to my authenticity; I hid from it.

My urge to strike out on my own was a gut reaction, a survival instinct. I needed to ease the stomach-clenching dread that accompanied the notion of remaining in one place for long, and for someone else. I needed the ignition that comes with waking up in a strange city or country, stimulating myself by way of exploration, acquainting myself with a new place through its food, having informed and varied discussions in broken English over a hostel dining room table. My freedom comes with the weight of a backpack on my shoulders, a one-way ticket and a culture shock. I am the only one in this world who can give me what I crave; to travel. To live a life as a traveller means living a life of contrast and spontaneity, ambiguity and choices.

I did not say that travel made me “happy,” although it often does. Happiness is not the attainable lifetime goal. Happiness is finite. What I sought was freedom, an infinite state of being that far surpasses a vague and unattainable notion of absolute contentment.

So as I lay in that bed, contemplating the tear I had to force between us, I focused on my refusal to be defined by my environment and my sentiment, rather than by the choices I made when faced with uncertainty.

I’ve been living in Australia for almost 10 months now, and I am face to face with my independence everyday, my choice to try on life as a 24 year old Melburnian for the time being, absorbing the parts of it that add to my shifting identity. I do not know what the next steps are, for I cannot see them clearly or at all. And that’s okay. To have a full knowledge of what my years hold would be just as finite as a committed relationship with a small-minded man. The mystery that comes with knowing nothing is infinite. I am faced with an unlimited spectrum, and all I must do is choose and take responsibility for my choices, may they always be in line with my most authentic state. This is what makes me free.

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The Power of Unique Experiences in Indonesia

Kerthunk, kerthunk, kerthunk.

I felt as if someone had sunk a fistful of fear into my heart and let it pound it into the rest of my body. My stomach felt like it was trying to retreat behind my ribs, my eyes were wide. Reason told me I shouldn’t have been so phobic. But I was staring down my nemeses, and reason was quickly losing its place in my repertoire.

Actually, “nemeses” might be a strong word for something the size of a pin head. These were a couple of bugs so small that one could easily mistake them for a floating piece of white lint, especially in the flickering shadows of the Balinese evening. They were bed bug nymphs, and their presence meant I needed to leave before they could scurry their way into my belongings.

My mind flashed back to a bitter night far away from the hostel on the quaint Indonesian road. I was back in my apartment in Massachusetts, back to the shock of finding an infestation of biting little bugs that snuck through the folds of my sofa and cracks in the hardwood floors. I retreated to the bathtub at two in the morning, saturated in dread.

Bed bugs aren’t dangerous, but eradicating them is an awful and laborious process. I had been in physical therapy for years for a bad back. My nearest family member was hundreds of miles away. I couldn’t imagine how to pack all my belongings away with my unstable bones. I cringed in anticipation of the pain that could come from rounds of laundering everything I owned, spraying things down with isopropyl, and moving furniture for exterminators.

The predicted injury and accompanying pain led to my first visit to Indonesia. I questioned if other people with physical disadvantages could get caught in similarly horrendous situations throughout the world, and secured a grant to research the topic in several countries. Come spring, I set off on a great multinational adventure in which I fervently chased answers and lines of longitude.

During that journey, I took a ferry from Singapore to spend a couple days in Bintan Island, Indonesia. Between the driftwood and palm fronds on an empty stretch of beach, I stopped to see an eroding message written in the sand: “LIFE ALWAYS FINDS A WAY”. I felt like some vanished scribe had written it there as part of my story, like the universe had left the words there just for me.

I bought a ticket to Bali during a turbulent period a couple years later. I wanted to head back to the country where clairvoyants roamed the islands and messages were hidden in the sand.

In the place where I expected to find order and inner peace, I was being gripped by memories of injured sleepless nights and unresolved past fears. I hauled my backpack to the safety of the front porch and dove into my phone, searching furiously for new accommodations, comfort from friends, and ways to clean old demons out of potentially contaminated belongings.

I sat on the ground for so long that the stones had imprinted their shapes on my legs, so I headed to the roof terrace to obsess over my problems in privacy. I looked out to see a brilliant sunset, a scattering of stringy blue clouds hanging on a backdrop of potent pinks and oranges. Beyond the edge of the peninsula, the ocean was mirroring the colorful banners of the sunset, making it seem almost endless.

I wasn’t sure how many sunsets I’d missed while my phobias were running amok, but I didn’t want to miss that one. In the last journey I hadn’t learned to compartmentalize my thoughts, to stop a bout of fear from tainting all of the glory around me. I turned the phone on its face to gaze at the sunset, to listen to the ensemble of cicadas and monkeys and the chattering and clinking of bottles from guests downstairs.

Travel has power to put you out in the caprices of the unknown and onto the stoops of old haunts. But sometimes, it also offers you a chance at redemption.

I was myself again, watching silently as the ocean was swallowed by the night. I was free from those harrowing and pervasive fears, unshackled from the tunnel vision of anxiety.

I found no more messages in the sand, no phantoms to leave signs that I had gotten things right. I was left with open road, a painted sky, and gorgeous wildlife; all that I sought and all that I needed.

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Feeling Insignificant on Serene Mt. Rainier, USA

The feel of snow in August is a unique experience reserved for those in either extreme latitudes or significant altitudes. Mt. Rainier certainly qualifies for the latter category. I had taken a break on the side of the Mountain to prep for my final push towards Camp Muir, a staging area which sits about 4,000’ short of the summit of Mt. Rainier at 14,411’. Although I needed to catch my breath for the climb ahead, this task seemed figuratively impossible given the breathtaking vista surrounding me. To the south lay the smoke-obscured teeth of the Tatoosh range, and beyond them the still-visible volcanic peaks of St. Helens and Adams. Looking to the West, I saw the Cowlitz Glacier dissipating to thin waterfalls that collected in the valley below. But it was the northern view that was the most commanding, as this sight contained the camp, the summit and a blinding stretch of steep snow that constituted the rest of my hike.

Moments like this take me back to a line I overheard in Seattle just a few days before my hike: “The great thing about nature is how it makes us feel small”. I disagreed with the speaker, at least in part. If the feeling of smallness was truly all we sought in nature, there really would be no reason to travel there. Smallness is so much easier to find in a cubical from 9-to-5, a fact I am well acquainted with. Three months prior to this evening and this hike, I was living a comfortable life in Boston with a good paying job. Stability, activity, and the prospect of upwards mobility were all luxuries I enjoyed, but it was still a small existence, a fact intensified by my oppressive anxiety and frequent panic attacks.

Conventional wisdom would have recommended, at times like this, that the weary worker take a vacation and “get your head in order”. I took the wisdom, but neglected the conventionality, boarding an Amtrak train in Boston and seeing where I could go over the next few months. This eventually brought me to the Space Needle in Seattle, where I got my first good view of Mt. Rainer. The thing was big, not just in raw mass, but with understated gravity. It gripped my attention and demanded personification, quietly scoffing at the Needle I was standing on. I left the elevator with a single conviction in mind, one that brought me to my break point on the side of Mt. Rainer, just a few hundred feet below the camp.

If ever I had sound reason for suffering a panic attack, this would be that time. I was by myself on one of the deadliest hiking trails in the country, where the afternoon sun was opening crevasses below my feet and cutting my friction-less progress to a negligible sum. What if my exertion led to a heart attack, where would they take me? Or if a storm rolls in and I lose my sense of direction? These thoughts and more could have easily crossed my mind, but none did. Instead, my focus lay in just placing one foot in front of the other until I arrived on the stone-carved steps of Camp Muir. And then I saw how small I really was. But this feeling of smallness was different than the one I knew three months prior. This experience was expansive, elevated, the kind that makes you breathe easier with a younger smile on your face. I was, in that moment, entwined within something bigger than myself without being absolved into it.

Suffice it to say, I never did return from my vacation, at least not to the job I had before. There was many more moments that lead to that decision, but the encounter with Rainier demonstrated something that I once had, had lost, and must work to awaken again. The path from here remains uncertain, but it is now a path that does at least go on..

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From Vietnamese Mangroves and a Loving Mom

The runway was not much more than a lightly paved strip of soil which popped out of the rice paddies and mangroves like a long, rectangular oasis. As I exited the 1950’s prop, much like the one that Indiana Jones rides in Raiders of the Lost Ark, I felt stifled instead of being freed from the tight quarters that I’d just ridden in. The density and weight of the atmosphere made it hard to inhale deeply– and it was more than just heat and humidity of the southernmost part of Vietnam – Ca Mau, a peninsular province with the Gulf of Thailand to the West and the Pacific Ocean to the South and East. I was stepping foot on the same soil where my son was born, breathing the same sticky, tropical air that he did. The son I had not yet met, and the son that I would not be bringing home to Indiana after the eight days that I’d be there.

As excited as I was to meet my baby — the one that I dreamed of and had dreams for — I needed to guard my emotions. Upon seeing my first photo of him, my heart skipped a beat when I gazed into those deep brown eyes and saw the shock of black hair standing up on his head. I knew that without a doubt that he was my son. It was my moment of a doctor handing my child to me to put on my chest and feeling a love like no other.

Much like the southern Vietnamese mangroves’ intertwined roots, strong and complicated, his homecoming was constricted by the fact that he was stuck — stuck in an orphanage due to political posturing by both the U.S. and Vietnamese governments not willing to move an inch to finalize his adoption, despite him living in squalid and unsafe orphanage conditions.

I flew half-way around the world and was there with two other moms in the same situation to help care for our children and the others in the orphanage. It was the one small thing we could actually do to help our kids, while we lobbied Congressional leaders and the State Department on the homefront.

Within minutes sweat was streaming down my face and soaking my clothes – a combination of the oppressive heat and my anxiety. My friends and I headed out to the orphanage in a taxi. There were few cars on the road, mostly bicycles and motor bikes. We raced along the tropical landscape – passing roadside markets where vendors sold pineapples, roosters in woven basket cages, plastic kitchenware and even python meat. Our taxi driver honked incessantly as he passed cars, though few, and played a game of chicken with oncoming traffic. A movie of mangroves and long boats with weathered fishermen, and the occasional water buffalo grazing in a yard ran through the car windows. Children with bare feet and dirty faces dotted the fast-moving landscape – all of it beautiful, colorful and full of life.

Finally, we turned down a one-lane dirt road lined by shallow canals, lush mango and tamarind trees, and tin roof-shacks with hammocks as beds. My stomach dropped to my knees when I saw the orphanage building.

My 22-month old son was literally imprisoned in his tiny room — it had bars on the windows, a former internment camp from the Vietnam War.

I had many conversations with him before I got to Vietnam (all in my head), promising him that I would do whatever it took to get him home to Indiana. I’d say “good night” to him when I woke up in the morning and whisper “good morning” before I fell asleep at night, living with my heart twelve hours ahead. And that week, I told him in person — kissing his smooth, tan cheeks, my tears wetting his sweet face as I held him close. And, then having to leave him.

Twenty-six months later, in the most unusual of places, we found refuge surrounded by luggage carts, drug-sniffing Beagles and a melody of different languages at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. His two tiny feet touched U.S. soil, and I felt palpable relief from my shoulders, fighting back yet another set of tears as my husband squeezed my hand and hugged us both.

Sitting at our departure gate for the last leg of our journey home, he sat in my lap and munched on a banana and French fries.

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My Unlikely Friends in Mountainous Ecuador

It’s hot. How can it be this hot? Since arriving in Salasaka, this indigenous village in the Ecuadorian Andes, I have had a constantly sun-burned, peeling nose. Having an 8-year-old child on my back doesn’t help.

I struggle along, Fernanda on my back and her 5-year-old sister Ñusta leading the way. Ñusta is a great helper, waddling along with her sick sister’s backpack, which is almost as large as her. We walk down the wide, dusty roads lined with agave; sheep bleat and donkeys bray, everyone lazily complaining about the sweltering heat. I can see endlessly across the green, quilt-patterned hills, and everything looks exactly the same. We could be anywhere in all of Salasaka, and I would have no idea. All I can do is trust the girls to know where they live. At the school where I am teaching, when a child gets sick like Fernanda has, we can’t just call home, mom rushing over in her minivan to pick the child up, sign her out for the day. Almost no households in this village have a phone, and neither does the school. The only way to get them home is to do this, to carry them for miles until you reach the shanty and farm that is their home.

As a recently trained child therapist back in the U.S., I feel sick with guilt because it’s breaking every rule in the book that I’m doing this. Carrying a child on my back for miles? Taking them home when their parents haven’t given me signed permission? But I’m not their therapist, I remind myself, or try to. Because Fernanda is sick, and needs to get home, and this moment is more important than all the things I learned in graduate school.

“Podemos descansar?”, I ask the girls. Can we rest? I gently set Fernanda down, and the 3 of us sit together in the shade of a stack of cement blocks. Fernanda immediately lies down and puts her head in my lap. My “clinical instinct” is to gently remove her from her physical contact with me. Physical affection is always a liability. Keep your “boundaries”, they tell you. To the 7-year-old client who innocently tells me, I love you, I am trained to respond, I see that you really care about me, and I care about you too. Not “I love you too”, never that. A separation between you and the child. Care about her, of course, but from a distance.

I quit my job as a therapist because I was so terrified of how much I cared about my kids. I must not be doing something right, I felt. I must not be cut out for this. It broke my heart. A career down the drain because I just loved those kids too much. But here I was, in the mountains of South America to where I escaped, doing the same thing. Loving too much, again.

But I can’t help it. I love Fernanda. My heart is filled with her. She is only 8 years old and already the smartest student in school. She pulls my hand before recess ends every morning, lamenting, “Vamos a clase!” She watches over my shoulder with anxiety that is palpable as I grade her multiplication drills, as if she has ever received anything less than a 100%. There is a moodiness about her, a subtle neediness, and she sometimes sits apart from the group as Renato, the music teacher, leads them in warbling South American pop songs.

A woman passes where we sit catching our breath, wearing her chumbi and green shawl, half a dozen protesting sheep leading the way. She looks at me, and her confusion is reflected in her glare. What is this gringa doing out here with two of our precious children? The girls chat pleasantly with her in Kichwa, the sing-song indigenous language that I haven’t learned yet, and finally, she smiles, understanding. And somehow, with that smile, she is granting me the permission to love this child freely, to really love her, to love her and all of her sisters and friends without clinical boundaries, without restriction. Love her simply, freely, not as a professional but as a fellow human being, as an adult in the community who shares the responsibility of raising and caring for her. And maybe that’s not such a terrible thing.

I put my hand on Fernanda’s forehead. She doesn’t feel hot, and I don’t know if she was really sick at all or if she just wanted this time with me. “Listas?”, I ask the girls, and Ñusta puts on two backpacks, her own in the back and Fernanda’s in the front. I stoop to let Fernanda on my back, and we keep on walking.

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New Experiences with Monkeys in India

I was sitting cross-legged on a four-inch mattress that doubled as my bed. Sweat engulfed all of my pores as a simple fan hummed above. I glanced up from my book. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a medium-sized monkey open my screen door with ease. I blinked. I observed a second monkey trailing behind and then another.

My jaw dropped. I sat speechless. Three wild monkeys were just a couple of yards away.

Without hesitation, they walked toward a small round table next to my bright red refrigerator. All three admired my possessions. The taller one glanced back in my direction as if to say, “ha, ha”. With one hand, he grabbed one of my Tupperware containers. Within seconds, the monkeys vanished, leaving my door open in their wake.

I sat bewildered. Should I laugh or should I cry?

Just weeks earlier, I had started teaching at an international K-12 boarding school in Bangalore, India. As an American middle-aged educator, I jumped at the opportunity to work and travel abroad. Most of my friends and family members thought that I was experiencing a midlife crisis. Why would I leave my cushy suburban life to work in a developing country?

For years, a series of orthopedic issues had prevented me from using my K-6 teaching license. To remain an educator, I became an adjunct instructor at a local community college. I loved teaching, but something was missing.

When I was offered the primary international teaching position, one of my dreams was finally fulfilled. Once again, I would have the opportunity to work with children and use my teaching credentials. But would I be able to step outside my comfort zone and face my natural fears of living in another country?

After all, I was a middle-age woman who hadn’t traveled alone in decades. I wasn’t traveling to unfamiliar neighborhoods within driving distance of my home. I was flying half way around the world to travel solo in a foreign country. If I had any chance of being successful, I had to regain my independent spirit. I had to look forward and not scurry back to what felt safe. I relied on my inner voice that wouldn’t stop whispering, “You can do it.”

I wasn’t looking to the popular Nike slogan, “Just Do It.” I was recalling another image. Decades ago, I read the classic book, The Little Engine That Could, to my sons. How fitting that in midlife, I would look to a children’s book to instill confidence. Just like the small train in this inspiring story, I had to use daily reminders to keep me on track.

After the three thieves left my guest room, the uncertainty returned. Could I simply laugh off the absurdity of wild monkeys stealing my food or would I succumb to the temptation to long for a more predictable life? This wasn’t the first time that the monkeys had trespassed. Like ants that gravitate toward food crumbs, these larger pests could be found everywhere humans congregated. The school campus was inundated. Groups of monkeys frequented classrooms, stairwells, the playground, the open fields, the lunchroom, and the pathways between buildings.

Fanciful irrational emotions flooded my well being like a tsunami. My mind planned ways to escape in the middle of the night without a trace. While I rationally knew that I had to cope with my new life in India, it was much easier to create plans for fleeing.

I had no choice but to face my challenges head on. The monkey situation was just one example of a multitude of events. Each day was filled with unfamiliar and strange happenings.

For comfort, I listened to my favorite songs from my youth and thought about others who had successfully dealt with obstacles. I recalled times when I had to overcome challenging situations. I posted one of Eleanor Roosevelt’s quotes above my desk:

The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.

I was working as an international teacher and I wasn’t going to let any of my fears erode my confidence or destroy my dreams. My inner voice became my daily mantra. Instead of hearing a small voice inside, I mouthed the words, “I can do it.”

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Christchurch, New Zealand will always be in my heart

It’s not the miles from Home what made Me Change. It was the Emotions and Experiences New to Me. At the End I did traveled far enough, but just enough to find myself.

And I had to travel miles, distance myself for my closest things, and experience many different emotions to discover about myself, to embrace myself.
I had to keep the distance from what I knew or thought it was safe to be born again.
I had to come to the other side of the world to understand and discover myself.
I didn’t travel places. I traveled emotions inside of me.
I didn’t distance myself from Home. I created a new Home.
My heart became new; my eyes saw the bright light again.
My soul was lifted.
I was born again here.
I FELT ALIVE AND FREE AGAIN!
See, I didn’t travel just for the sake of traveling. I was naïve.
I didn’t know that away from Home you can actually find yourself.
See… I LEARNED THAT TODAY…
I had to get away to truly find myself AND FREEDOM….AGAIN!

This is my poetic way to explain all my feelings since I have moved to Christchurch, New Zealand. I wish I had more eloquent words to describe all the wonders that this country offers. It’s not only a beautiful country for its gorgeous landscapes, but it is also a country filled with great and humble people.
I moved from Miami to Christchurch, New Zealand in February of 2012 with my husband as an expatriate wife. I came with the “Miami” ideas if you can call it that, you know the big city girl ideas. And I was changed.
In Christchurch I learned to relax, to reconnect with myself. To learn about the kiwi culture, to understand that they enjoy being around nature. And that if ask them about the world, they are probably well traveled folks, but they will always return to their home country.
I learned to smile back when they smile at me walking on the street because the kiwis are very polite, and you should smile back! I learned that is ok to recycle your cartoon eggs because is just nice to return to the veggie store with a full bag of cartoon eggs to give back to them and see their smile. And to show them that you care for the environment and that you care for their store.
I learned that even being miles away from home, I can still enjoy Latin music because kiwis have a taste for dancing salsa. I learned that if you suffer a loss, like I did, a big loss, a miscarriage, the kiwis will be there for you. They will prepare your meals, they will clean your house, they will give you a word of comfort and they will be calling you back just to make sure you are doing ok.
These four years spent in New Zealand made me open my eyes to new cultures, to trying new things in life. I even tried to ski for god sake! I, the Cuban / Miami only beach please kind of girl. These four years have been amazing, and I will totally recommend visiting New Zealand.
Thank you Christchurch for all this time with Me, you made ME a new person, you gave Me back my FREEDOM WINGS!

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CANADA: Finding Yourself and Finding Your World

Where I find freedom….

I am often asked this questions being a mother to four young children, a wife, an entrepreneur, and an aspiring author. How do I find the time for me?

The first step for me was realizing that I needed time and freedom for myself and I had to make it happen. Prior to going on my personal development journey to healing and find my self-love. I was going through my life trying to do what would satisfy others and make them proud. Not too long after I graduated from high school I went to college to become a Natural Health Practitioner. I had a lot of criticism from my loved ones as this was not a field they understood or could relate to, in their eyes was not credible. Even before receiving my diploma, I had decided that I would become an electrician. Instead of pursuing my dream, I went into something that I knew would be accepted by everyone around me. Just a couple months after receiving my diploma I started my electrical apprenticeship. I received praise from all my loved ones and even complete strangers, which persuaded me to keep going.

I had to hit rock-bottom before realizing that I needed to honour myself and find that freedom for me. When I was pregnant with my fourth child, I realized that I was miserable, felt lost, misplaced and disconnected within your own skin. Living in a world full of judgement, feeling as though I needed to portray a perfect life, and putting unrealistic expectations upon myself, resulted in a lot of disappointment and feelings of failure. Being occupied by another’s needs each and every day without honouring myself, lead to exhaustion and deep disconnection within myself.

In society we have been essentially programmed to put on a facade to express how “ideal” our life should be and how we should be in the eyes of our generally population. There is an accepted way to be, look, act, the house, vehicle and life you should strive for, the items or things you should have. When really all these things should be customized to each individual, who you are, your soul purpose, personality and what you would like to accomplish in your life. Not everyone is the same. From one person to another, you will do things differently, have different beliefs, have different circumstances, priorities and have different ways of doing things.

When I started my self-healing journey, the biggest change happened for me when I allowed myself to have two hours for just me every morning before the rest of my family woke up. This time allowed me to fully connect, dig into my self-healing books and programs and better myself. Because I had chosen the morning for this time, it set up my day to succeed as I had already put time into myself, feeding my heart and soul, and allowing me to be the best me for the day. This also made decision making clearer for me. I knew I was on the right track because I was motivated to continue, it felt good and freeing.

With this self-acknowledgement, my self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-love grew naturally. The more ways I honoured yourself, the happier I became, the lighter I felt and life began to flow with ease. Once I became connected with what made me happy, the faster my perspective changed. I was more accepting of others and all forms of judgment then disappears; self-judgement, judgement of others and other’s judgements on me. When I was able to release all of my self-judgements, I felt more confident within yourself and no longer needed anyone else’s opinions. When I got to the point, where I became absolutely comfortable within me and no longer felt the need to rely on other’s opinions, I instead use their suggestions as I saw suitable.

By honouring myself with “me time” everyday, I find my freedom, live my passion, and am present with my life.

My vision is:
“For all moms to think of themselves as no less than extraordinary!”

Much love, appreciation & gratitude,
Tracy Munson
Natural Health Strategist & Coach, NHP, CDC

 

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My New Year’s Rebirth in Guatemala

Driving along the quiet morning streets of a city I would come to know and love, I bawled into the musky atmosphere of the cab. I had just flown to Los Angeles for about a week, to visit a man who would become a bigger part of my life than I could ever imagine. But as the sun began to rise and the infamous LAX came into view, I felt less than elated to be hopping on a flight to Guatemala City.

It was the day before New Year’s Eve, and the looming new year on the horizon stood a mysterious silhouette in a grey backdrop. At first the plan seemed simple, go to Central America, have a work holiday, more or less. It seemed fitting, but sometimes what you think you are ‘meant’ to do doesn’t match up with what the world has planned for you. The firm seats of the plane reminded me that I was about to spend the next few weeks in unfamiliar places, and likely sitting in similarly firm bus seats, which was almost comforting, as although I had come to realize I had no idea why I was going to Guatemala, maybe it was a childhood fascination finally coming to life, that I indeed took refuge in the unfamiliar.

When you do not know a city, when you do not know a face or a name, reality seems more malleable, free from the conditions and generalizations we bind ourselves with. But it wasn’t until after I left Central America for the second time that I would conclude that sometimes you can’t simply put yourself out of the norm, you have to be completely destroyed, and born again anew.

Arriving in the beautiful colonial city of Antigua, Guatemala, I felt instantly lonely. A rare sensation, and a wave of isolation and being far from the world I knew washed over, even as I walked the stone streets, full of character and stories. New Year’s Eve was spent with a gaggle of Australians whom I’d met that day at my hostel. Predictable, but at least I knew that all over the world, people were celebrating the same thing, a shift in time, a new year, a new era. The night proceeded in a sickly classic way, the parties were many and the drinks too strong. Upon losing my group of newly acquainted travel buddies I quickly realized I was now well and truly alone, wandering the ghostly streets of a potentially dangerous city.

Fear introduced itself promptly and again I found myself caught in a whirling dizziness of confusion. Where is my hostel? Why am I suddenly by myself? Questions of my own sanity brought me to eventual surrender when a car pulled up. It was a police officer. Now this had to be one of the strangest experiences of my life, and still now it holds a mind boggling surreal quality. The officer asked me what was wrong, to which I could barely answer between sobs. To my own surprise, as I generally consider myself verging on the edge of paranoia, I agreed to be driven home after he kindly took me to get food and a coffee.

Crying to a strange police officer over cake, in a foreign country, about nothing in particular, is probably one of the most embarrassing and messed up accounts I could ever recall, but as I began to settle down and he listened to me, offering even more surprising words of wisdom, I began to notice that on this New Year’s Day, I had been reborn. It sounds silly, but it literally felt like a piece of me had left, abruptly resigned, in the face of such fear, discomfort and the internal pain that I had been feeling. Sometimes we can only see freedom when we are forced to face ourselves solely, with no walls, no security blankets, no friends, no money, nothing we have been so trained to value, alone.

The aura of confusion still lingered but was not pressing, there was a certain lightness now. I continued to enjoy my next 4 weeks in Guatemala, and 2 weeks in Mexico, the best I possibly could, allowing what was meant to be to be. I met amazing people. I swam. I (hestitantly) rode horses on cliffs. I hiked to the tops of mountains at sunrise and sunset. I danced and ate and listened to music. I got sick. Really sick. I lost my phone. My computer died. I got sick again. I tried not to blame myself for being sick. I visited amazing places. I made a best friend.

And I watched. I observed. And still now, when I recall the entirety of my journeys from Guatemala City to Mexico and finally back to Los Angeles, when I rejoiced in being back in North America despite my mind-blowing travels, I watch it all as a movie I have seen a thousand times, and know that in some way, I had to be completely destroyed to find my freedom, to let go of all that I perceived to be true in order to make room for the new and spectacular things that were about to enter my life. I had nothing to lose. Freedom had been chasing me down, like a ghost longing to make itself known, so that I could finally stare it straight in the face.

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I Choose My Freedom in Australia…For Now

We laid on our sides on what I once called our bed. Nose touching tip of nose, eyes locked into eyes. I traced the outside of his face with my free hand, imagining that I could feel the difference between the brown, gold and crimson strands of his beard underneath my fingertips. The scent of him filled me like smoke. I breathed in earth, clean laundry and a hint of weed. In this bed, there was nothing else. Only the physical tug of my heart to his, our breath slowed down to one. If I made this moment my entire world, I was happy.

“Come home,” he said, breaking the comfortable silence. “You can still travel. Just come home to me.”

I was leaving him for now the third time. The freedom that comes with traveling– the thrill of uncertainty, the choices that follow ambiguity– had once again found prominence in my heart over anything that would just make me one half of a whole. This time, I’d be gone for more than a four month backpacking stint around Europe or South America. I was going to Australia for at least a year, and I intended to finally make this breakup stick.

However, my mind struggled to find the flaw in his plan, drunk as I was on the happiness that I associated with his presence. It sounded nice. I could have both.

He assured me certainty, security, love, a future–the sweetest of chains. So I imagined living out my life with him, continuing the dream state of that bed. The only thing that he truly stimulated in me was a sexual desire. The rest would continue to be a mindless routine, devoid of intelligent conversation. He would watch football. I would cook him lasagna. He’d tell me he thought it was cute that I liked to read. I’d try in vain to discuss Orwell with him. He would work at the bar. I would find some middleman job. He’d buy a house in a small Massachusetts town. We’d take turns digging our cars out of the New England snow, and he’d get angry when he caught me lusting after Google images of exotic places. We’d smoke weed everyday to further along the numbing effect. He’d get me pregnant one day, like he always wanted. He’d teach our child to throw a ball, and I’d try to instill enough independence and individuality in her so that she could live the life I always wanted–a life of adventure and freedom.

To stay with him would have been to make the choice to throw a huge spoiler alert over my entire life, to watch the Red Wedding scene of Game of Thrones just as I got invested in the first season. Our relationship presented only walls and no frontiers.

I didn’t know who I was when I wasn’t his. All I knew was that it bothered me, a literal constant pain in my side each time I realised that I was becoming part of an indifferent and incurious population that gets stuck in relationships that are finite, lethargic and easy. I realized that I lived for my connection to him, changing myself to fit his mold. I neglected everything else that I ever wanted, pursuing those finite moments of happiness wholeheartedly so that I could mollify my anxiety in the face of my natural state, the state of freedom. I wasn’t committed to my authenticity; I hid from it.

My urge to strike out on my own was a gut reaction, a survival instinct. I needed to ease the stomach-clenching dread that accompanied the notion of remaining in one place for long, and for someone else. I needed the ignition that comes with waking up in a strange city or country, stimulating myself by way of exploration, acquainting myself with a new place through its food, having informed and varied discussions in broken English over a hostel dining room table. My freedom comes with the weight of a backpack on my shoulders, a one-way ticket and a culture shock. I am the only one in this world who can give me what I crave; to travel. To live a life as a traveller means living a life of contrast and spontaneity, ambiguity and choices.

I did not say that travel made me “happy,” although it often does. Happiness is not the attainable lifetime goal. Happiness is finite. What I sought was freedom, an infinite state of being that far surpasses a vague and unattainable notion of absolute contentment.

So as I lay in that bed, contemplating the tear I had to force between us, I focused on my refusal to be defined by my environment and my sentiment, rather than by the choices I made when faced with uncertainty.

I’ve been living in Australia for almost 10 months now, and I am face to face with my independence everyday, my choice to try on life as a 24 year old Melburnian for the time being, absorbing the parts of it that add to my shifting identity. I do not know what the next steps are, for I cannot see them clearly or at all. And that’s okay. To have a full knowledge of what my years hold would be just as finite as a committed relationship with a small-minded man. The mystery that comes with knowing nothing is infinite. I am faced with an unlimited spectrum, and all I must do is choose and take responsibility for my choices, may they always be in line with my most authentic state. This is what makes me free.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

The Power of Unique Experiences in Indonesia

Kerthunk, kerthunk, kerthunk.

I felt as if someone had sunk a fistful of fear into my heart and let it pound it into the rest of my body. My stomach felt like it was trying to retreat behind my ribs, my eyes were wide. Reason told me I shouldn’t have been so phobic. But I was staring down my nemeses, and reason was quickly losing its place in my repertoire.

Actually, “nemeses” might be a strong word for something the size of a pin head. These were a couple of bugs so small that one could easily mistake them for a floating piece of white lint, especially in the flickering shadows of the Balinese evening. They were bed bug nymphs, and their presence meant I needed to leave before they could scurry their way into my belongings.

My mind flashed back to a bitter night far away from the hostel on the quaint Indonesian road. I was back in my apartment in Massachusetts, back to the shock of finding an infestation of biting little bugs that snuck through the folds of my sofa and cracks in the hardwood floors. I retreated to the bathtub at two in the morning, saturated in dread.

Bed bugs aren’t dangerous, but eradicating them is an awful and laborious process. I had been in physical therapy for years for a bad back. My nearest family member was hundreds of miles away. I couldn’t imagine how to pack all my belongings away with my unstable bones. I cringed in anticipation of the pain that could come from rounds of laundering everything I owned, spraying things down with isopropyl, and moving furniture for exterminators.

The predicted injury and accompanying pain led to my first visit to Indonesia. I questioned if other people with physical disadvantages could get caught in similarly horrendous situations throughout the world, and secured a grant to research the topic in several countries. Come spring, I set off on a great multinational adventure in which I fervently chased answers and lines of longitude.

During that journey, I took a ferry from Singapore to spend a couple days in Bintan Island, Indonesia. Between the driftwood and palm fronds on an empty stretch of beach, I stopped to see an eroding message written in the sand: “LIFE ALWAYS FINDS A WAY”. I felt like some vanished scribe had written it there as part of my story, like the universe had left the words there just for me.

I bought a ticket to Bali during a turbulent period a couple years later. I wanted to head back to the country where clairvoyants roamed the islands and messages were hidden in the sand.

In the place where I expected to find order and inner peace, I was being gripped by memories of injured sleepless nights and unresolved past fears. I hauled my backpack to the safety of the front porch and dove into my phone, searching furiously for new accommodations, comfort from friends, and ways to clean old demons out of potentially contaminated belongings.

I sat on the ground for so long that the stones had imprinted their shapes on my legs, so I headed to the roof terrace to obsess over my problems in privacy. I looked out to see a brilliant sunset, a scattering of stringy blue clouds hanging on a backdrop of potent pinks and oranges. Beyond the edge of the peninsula, the ocean was mirroring the colorful banners of the sunset, making it seem almost endless.

I wasn’t sure how many sunsets I’d missed while my phobias were running amok, but I didn’t want to miss that one. In the last journey I hadn’t learned to compartmentalize my thoughts, to stop a bout of fear from tainting all of the glory around me. I turned the phone on its face to gaze at the sunset, to listen to the ensemble of cicadas and monkeys and the chattering and clinking of bottles from guests downstairs.

Travel has power to put you out in the caprices of the unknown and onto the stoops of old haunts. But sometimes, it also offers you a chance at redemption.

I was myself again, watching silently as the ocean was swallowed by the night. I was free from those harrowing and pervasive fears, unshackled from the tunnel vision of anxiety.

I found no more messages in the sand, no phantoms to leave signs that I had gotten things right. I was left with open road, a painted sky, and gorgeous wildlife; all that I sought and all that I needed.

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Feeling Insignificant on Serene Mt. Rainier, USA

The feel of snow in August is a unique experience reserved for those in either extreme latitudes or significant altitudes. Mt. Rainier certainly qualifies for the latter category. I had taken a break on the side of the Mountain to prep for my final push towards Camp Muir, a staging area which sits about 4,000’ short of the summit of Mt. Rainier at 14,411’. Although I needed to catch my breath for the climb ahead, this task seemed figuratively impossible given the breathtaking vista surrounding me. To the south lay the smoke-obscured teeth of the Tatoosh range, and beyond them the still-visible volcanic peaks of St. Helens and Adams. Looking to the West, I saw the Cowlitz Glacier dissipating to thin waterfalls that collected in the valley below. But it was the northern view that was the most commanding, as this sight contained the camp, the summit and a blinding stretch of steep snow that constituted the rest of my hike.

Moments like this take me back to a line I overheard in Seattle just a few days before my hike: “The great thing about nature is how it makes us feel small”. I disagreed with the speaker, at least in part. If the feeling of smallness was truly all we sought in nature, there really would be no reason to travel there. Smallness is so much easier to find in a cubical from 9-to-5, a fact I am well acquainted with. Three months prior to this evening and this hike, I was living a comfortable life in Boston with a good paying job. Stability, activity, and the prospect of upwards mobility were all luxuries I enjoyed, but it was still a small existence, a fact intensified by my oppressive anxiety and frequent panic attacks.

Conventional wisdom would have recommended, at times like this, that the weary worker take a vacation and “get your head in order”. I took the wisdom, but neglected the conventionality, boarding an Amtrak train in Boston and seeing where I could go over the next few months. This eventually brought me to the Space Needle in Seattle, where I got my first good view of Mt. Rainer. The thing was big, not just in raw mass, but with understated gravity. It gripped my attention and demanded personification, quietly scoffing at the Needle I was standing on. I left the elevator with a single conviction in mind, one that brought me to my break point on the side of Mt. Rainer, just a few hundred feet below the camp.

If ever I had sound reason for suffering a panic attack, this would be that time. I was by myself on one of the deadliest hiking trails in the country, where the afternoon sun was opening crevasses below my feet and cutting my friction-less progress to a negligible sum. What if my exertion led to a heart attack, where would they take me? Or if a storm rolls in and I lose my sense of direction? These thoughts and more could have easily crossed my mind, but none did. Instead, my focus lay in just placing one foot in front of the other until I arrived on the stone-carved steps of Camp Muir. And then I saw how small I really was. But this feeling of smallness was different than the one I knew three months prior. This experience was expansive, elevated, the kind that makes you breathe easier with a younger smile on your face. I was, in that moment, entwined within something bigger than myself without being absolved into it.

Suffice it to say, I never did return from my vacation, at least not to the job I had before. There was many more moments that lead to that decision, but the encounter with Rainier demonstrated something that I once had, had lost, and must work to awaken again. The path from here remains uncertain, but it is now a path that does at least go on..

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From Vietnamese Mangroves and a Loving Mom

The runway was not much more than a lightly paved strip of soil which popped out of the rice paddies and mangroves like a long, rectangular oasis. As I exited the 1950’s prop, much like the one that Indiana Jones rides in Raiders of the Lost Ark, I felt stifled instead of being freed from the tight quarters that I’d just ridden in. The density and weight of the atmosphere made it hard to inhale deeply– and it was more than just heat and humidity of the southernmost part of Vietnam – Ca Mau, a peninsular province with the Gulf of Thailand to the West and the Pacific Ocean to the South and East. I was stepping foot on the same soil where my son was born, breathing the same sticky, tropical air that he did. The son I had not yet met, and the son that I would not be bringing home to Indiana after the eight days that I’d be there.

As excited as I was to meet my baby — the one that I dreamed of and had dreams for — I needed to guard my emotions. Upon seeing my first photo of him, my heart skipped a beat when I gazed into those deep brown eyes and saw the shock of black hair standing up on his head. I knew that without a doubt that he was my son. It was my moment of a doctor handing my child to me to put on my chest and feeling a love like no other.

Much like the southern Vietnamese mangroves’ intertwined roots, strong and complicated, his homecoming was constricted by the fact that he was stuck — stuck in an orphanage due to political posturing by both the U.S. and Vietnamese governments not willing to move an inch to finalize his adoption, despite him living in squalid and unsafe orphanage conditions.

I flew half-way around the world and was there with two other moms in the same situation to help care for our children and the others in the orphanage. It was the one small thing we could actually do to help our kids, while we lobbied Congressional leaders and the State Department on the homefront.

Within minutes sweat was streaming down my face and soaking my clothes – a combination of the oppressive heat and my anxiety. My friends and I headed out to the orphanage in a taxi. There were few cars on the road, mostly bicycles and motor bikes. We raced along the tropical landscape – passing roadside markets where vendors sold pineapples, roosters in woven basket cages, plastic kitchenware and even python meat. Our taxi driver honked incessantly as he passed cars, though few, and played a game of chicken with oncoming traffic. A movie of mangroves and long boats with weathered fishermen, and the occasional water buffalo grazing in a yard ran through the car windows. Children with bare feet and dirty faces dotted the fast-moving landscape – all of it beautiful, colorful and full of life.

Finally, we turned down a one-lane dirt road lined by shallow canals, lush mango and tamarind trees, and tin roof-shacks with hammocks as beds. My stomach dropped to my knees when I saw the orphanage building.

My 22-month old son was literally imprisoned in his tiny room — it had bars on the windows, a former internment camp from the Vietnam War.

I had many conversations with him before I got to Vietnam (all in my head), promising him that I would do whatever it took to get him home to Indiana. I’d say “good night” to him when I woke up in the morning and whisper “good morning” before I fell asleep at night, living with my heart twelve hours ahead. And that week, I told him in person — kissing his smooth, tan cheeks, my tears wetting his sweet face as I held him close. And, then having to leave him.

Twenty-six months later, in the most unusual of places, we found refuge surrounded by luggage carts, drug-sniffing Beagles and a melody of different languages at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. His two tiny feet touched U.S. soil, and I felt palpable relief from my shoulders, fighting back yet another set of tears as my husband squeezed my hand and hugged us both.

Sitting at our departure gate for the last leg of our journey home, he sat in my lap and munched on a banana and French fries.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

My Unlikely Friends in Mountainous Ecuador

It’s hot. How can it be this hot? Since arriving in Salasaka, this indigenous village in the Ecuadorian Andes, I have had a constantly sun-burned, peeling nose. Having an 8-year-old child on my back doesn’t help.

I struggle along, Fernanda on my back and her 5-year-old sister Ñusta leading the way. Ñusta is a great helper, waddling along with her sick sister’s backpack, which is almost as large as her. We walk down the wide, dusty roads lined with agave; sheep bleat and donkeys bray, everyone lazily complaining about the sweltering heat. I can see endlessly across the green, quilt-patterned hills, and everything looks exactly the same. We could be anywhere in all of Salasaka, and I would have no idea. All I can do is trust the girls to know where they live. At the school where I am teaching, when a child gets sick like Fernanda has, we can’t just call home, mom rushing over in her minivan to pick the child up, sign her out for the day. Almost no households in this village have a phone, and neither does the school. The only way to get them home is to do this, to carry them for miles until you reach the shanty and farm that is their home.

As a recently trained child therapist back in the U.S., I feel sick with guilt because it’s breaking every rule in the book that I’m doing this. Carrying a child on my back for miles? Taking them home when their parents haven’t given me signed permission? But I’m not their therapist, I remind myself, or try to. Because Fernanda is sick, and needs to get home, and this moment is more important than all the things I learned in graduate school.

“Podemos descansar?”, I ask the girls. Can we rest? I gently set Fernanda down, and the 3 of us sit together in the shade of a stack of cement blocks. Fernanda immediately lies down and puts her head in my lap. My “clinical instinct” is to gently remove her from her physical contact with me. Physical affection is always a liability. Keep your “boundaries”, they tell you. To the 7-year-old client who innocently tells me, I love you, I am trained to respond, I see that you really care about me, and I care about you too. Not “I love you too”, never that. A separation between you and the child. Care about her, of course, but from a distance.

I quit my job as a therapist because I was so terrified of how much I cared about my kids. I must not be doing something right, I felt. I must not be cut out for this. It broke my heart. A career down the drain because I just loved those kids too much. But here I was, in the mountains of South America to where I escaped, doing the same thing. Loving too much, again.

But I can’t help it. I love Fernanda. My heart is filled with her. She is only 8 years old and already the smartest student in school. She pulls my hand before recess ends every morning, lamenting, “Vamos a clase!” She watches over my shoulder with anxiety that is palpable as I grade her multiplication drills, as if she has ever received anything less than a 100%. There is a moodiness about her, a subtle neediness, and she sometimes sits apart from the group as Renato, the music teacher, leads them in warbling South American pop songs.

A woman passes where we sit catching our breath, wearing her chumbi and green shawl, half a dozen protesting sheep leading the way. She looks at me, and her confusion is reflected in her glare. What is this gringa doing out here with two of our precious children? The girls chat pleasantly with her in Kichwa, the sing-song indigenous language that I haven’t learned yet, and finally, she smiles, understanding. And somehow, with that smile, she is granting me the permission to love this child freely, to really love her, to love her and all of her sisters and friends without clinical boundaries, without restriction. Love her simply, freely, not as a professional but as a fellow human being, as an adult in the community who shares the responsibility of raising and caring for her. And maybe that’s not such a terrible thing.

I put my hand on Fernanda’s forehead. She doesn’t feel hot, and I don’t know if she was really sick at all or if she just wanted this time with me. “Listas?”, I ask the girls, and Ñusta puts on two backpacks, her own in the back and Fernanda’s in the front. I stoop to let Fernanda on my back, and we keep on walking.

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New Experiences with Monkeys in India

I was sitting cross-legged on a four-inch mattress that doubled as my bed. Sweat engulfed all of my pores as a simple fan hummed above. I glanced up from my book. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a medium-sized monkey open my screen door with ease. I blinked. I observed a second monkey trailing behind and then another.

My jaw dropped. I sat speechless. Three wild monkeys were just a couple of yards away.

Without hesitation, they walked toward a small round table next to my bright red refrigerator. All three admired my possessions. The taller one glanced back in my direction as if to say, “ha, ha”. With one hand, he grabbed one of my Tupperware containers. Within seconds, the monkeys vanished, leaving my door open in their wake.

I sat bewildered. Should I laugh or should I cry?

Just weeks earlier, I had started teaching at an international K-12 boarding school in Bangalore, India. As an American middle-aged educator, I jumped at the opportunity to work and travel abroad. Most of my friends and family members thought that I was experiencing a midlife crisis. Why would I leave my cushy suburban life to work in a developing country?

For years, a series of orthopedic issues had prevented me from using my K-6 teaching license. To remain an educator, I became an adjunct instructor at a local community college. I loved teaching, but something was missing.

When I was offered the primary international teaching position, one of my dreams was finally fulfilled. Once again, I would have the opportunity to work with children and use my teaching credentials. But would I be able to step outside my comfort zone and face my natural fears of living in another country?

After all, I was a middle-age woman who hadn’t traveled alone in decades. I wasn’t traveling to unfamiliar neighborhoods within driving distance of my home. I was flying half way around the world to travel solo in a foreign country. If I had any chance of being successful, I had to regain my independent spirit. I had to look forward and not scurry back to what felt safe. I relied on my inner voice that wouldn’t stop whispering, “You can do it.”

I wasn’t looking to the popular Nike slogan, “Just Do It.” I was recalling another image. Decades ago, I read the classic book, The Little Engine That Could, to my sons. How fitting that in midlife, I would look to a children’s book to instill confidence. Just like the small train in this inspiring story, I had to use daily reminders to keep me on track.

After the three thieves left my guest room, the uncertainty returned. Could I simply laugh off the absurdity of wild monkeys stealing my food or would I succumb to the temptation to long for a more predictable life? This wasn’t the first time that the monkeys had trespassed. Like ants that gravitate toward food crumbs, these larger pests could be found everywhere humans congregated. The school campus was inundated. Groups of monkeys frequented classrooms, stairwells, the playground, the open fields, the lunchroom, and the pathways between buildings.

Fanciful irrational emotions flooded my well being like a tsunami. My mind planned ways to escape in the middle of the night without a trace. While I rationally knew that I had to cope with my new life in India, it was much easier to create plans for fleeing.

I had no choice but to face my challenges head on. The monkey situation was just one example of a multitude of events. Each day was filled with unfamiliar and strange happenings.

For comfort, I listened to my favorite songs from my youth and thought about others who had successfully dealt with obstacles. I recalled times when I had to overcome challenging situations. I posted one of Eleanor Roosevelt’s quotes above my desk:

The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.

I was working as an international teacher and I wasn’t going to let any of my fears erode my confidence or destroy my dreams. My inner voice became my daily mantra. Instead of hearing a small voice inside, I mouthed the words, “I can do it.”

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Christchurch, New Zealand will always be in my heart

It’s not the miles from Home what made Me Change. It was the Emotions and Experiences New to Me. At the End I did traveled far enough, but just enough to find myself.

And I had to travel miles, distance myself for my closest things, and experience many different emotions to discover about myself, to embrace myself.
I had to keep the distance from what I knew or thought it was safe to be born again.
I had to come to the other side of the world to understand and discover myself.
I didn’t travel places. I traveled emotions inside of me.
I didn’t distance myself from Home. I created a new Home.
My heart became new; my eyes saw the bright light again.
My soul was lifted.
I was born again here.
I FELT ALIVE AND FREE AGAIN!
See, I didn’t travel just for the sake of traveling. I was naïve.
I didn’t know that away from Home you can actually find yourself.
See… I LEARNED THAT TODAY…
I had to get away to truly find myself AND FREEDOM….AGAIN!

This is my poetic way to explain all my feelings since I have moved to Christchurch, New Zealand. I wish I had more eloquent words to describe all the wonders that this country offers. It’s not only a beautiful country for its gorgeous landscapes, but it is also a country filled with great and humble people.
I moved from Miami to Christchurch, New Zealand in February of 2012 with my husband as an expatriate wife. I came with the “Miami” ideas if you can call it that, you know the big city girl ideas. And I was changed.
In Christchurch I learned to relax, to reconnect with myself. To learn about the kiwi culture, to understand that they enjoy being around nature. And that if ask them about the world, they are probably well traveled folks, but they will always return to their home country.
I learned to smile back when they smile at me walking on the street because the kiwis are very polite, and you should smile back! I learned that is ok to recycle your cartoon eggs because is just nice to return to the veggie store with a full bag of cartoon eggs to give back to them and see their smile. And to show them that you care for the environment and that you care for their store.
I learned that even being miles away from home, I can still enjoy Latin music because kiwis have a taste for dancing salsa. I learned that if you suffer a loss, like I did, a big loss, a miscarriage, the kiwis will be there for you. They will prepare your meals, they will clean your house, they will give you a word of comfort and they will be calling you back just to make sure you are doing ok.
These four years spent in New Zealand made me open my eyes to new cultures, to trying new things in life. I even tried to ski for god sake! I, the Cuban / Miami only beach please kind of girl. These four years have been amazing, and I will totally recommend visiting New Zealand.
Thank you Christchurch for all this time with Me, you made ME a new person, you gave Me back my FREEDOM WINGS!

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CANADA: Finding Yourself and Finding Your World

Where I find freedom….

I am often asked this questions being a mother to four young children, a wife, an entrepreneur, and an aspiring author. How do I find the time for me?

The first step for me was realizing that I needed time and freedom for myself and I had to make it happen. Prior to going on my personal development journey to healing and find my self-love. I was going through my life trying to do what would satisfy others and make them proud. Not too long after I graduated from high school I went to college to become a Natural Health Practitioner. I had a lot of criticism from my loved ones as this was not a field they understood or could relate to, in their eyes was not credible. Even before receiving my diploma, I had decided that I would become an electrician. Instead of pursuing my dream, I went into something that I knew would be accepted by everyone around me. Just a couple months after receiving my diploma I started my electrical apprenticeship. I received praise from all my loved ones and even complete strangers, which persuaded me to keep going.

I had to hit rock-bottom before realizing that I needed to honour myself and find that freedom for me. When I was pregnant with my fourth child, I realized that I was miserable, felt lost, misplaced and disconnected within your own skin. Living in a world full of judgement, feeling as though I needed to portray a perfect life, and putting unrealistic expectations upon myself, resulted in a lot of disappointment and feelings of failure. Being occupied by another’s needs each and every day without honouring myself, lead to exhaustion and deep disconnection within myself.

In society we have been essentially programmed to put on a facade to express how “ideal” our life should be and how we should be in the eyes of our generally population. There is an accepted way to be, look, act, the house, vehicle and life you should strive for, the items or things you should have. When really all these things should be customized to each individual, who you are, your soul purpose, personality and what you would like to accomplish in your life. Not everyone is the same. From one person to another, you will do things differently, have different beliefs, have different circumstances, priorities and have different ways of doing things.

When I started my self-healing journey, the biggest change happened for me when I allowed myself to have two hours for just me every morning before the rest of my family woke up. This time allowed me to fully connect, dig into my self-healing books and programs and better myself. Because I had chosen the morning for this time, it set up my day to succeed as I had already put time into myself, feeding my heart and soul, and allowing me to be the best me for the day. This also made decision making clearer for me. I knew I was on the right track because I was motivated to continue, it felt good and freeing.

With this self-acknowledgement, my self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-love grew naturally. The more ways I honoured yourself, the happier I became, the lighter I felt and life began to flow with ease. Once I became connected with what made me happy, the faster my perspective changed. I was more accepting of others and all forms of judgment then disappears; self-judgement, judgement of others and other’s judgements on me. When I was able to release all of my self-judgements, I felt more confident within yourself and no longer needed anyone else’s opinions. When I got to the point, where I became absolutely comfortable within me and no longer felt the need to rely on other’s opinions, I instead use their suggestions as I saw suitable.

By honouring myself with “me time” everyday, I find my freedom, live my passion, and am present with my life.

My vision is:
“For all moms to think of themselves as no less than extraordinary!”

Much love, appreciation & gratitude,
Tracy Munson
Natural Health Strategist & Coach, NHP, CDC

 

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My New Year’s Rebirth in Guatemala

Driving along the quiet morning streets of a city I would come to know and love, I bawled into the musky atmosphere of the cab. I had just flown to Los Angeles for about a week, to visit a man who would become a bigger part of my life than I could ever imagine. But as the sun began to rise and the infamous LAX came into view, I felt less than elated to be hopping on a flight to Guatemala City.

It was the day before New Year’s Eve, and the looming new year on the horizon stood a mysterious silhouette in a grey backdrop. At first the plan seemed simple, go to Central America, have a work holiday, more or less. It seemed fitting, but sometimes what you think you are ‘meant’ to do doesn’t match up with what the world has planned for you. The firm seats of the plane reminded me that I was about to spend the next few weeks in unfamiliar places, and likely sitting in similarly firm bus seats, which was almost comforting, as although I had come to realize I had no idea why I was going to Guatemala, maybe it was a childhood fascination finally coming to life, that I indeed took refuge in the unfamiliar.

When you do not know a city, when you do not know a face or a name, reality seems more malleable, free from the conditions and generalizations we bind ourselves with. But it wasn’t until after I left Central America for the second time that I would conclude that sometimes you can’t simply put yourself out of the norm, you have to be completely destroyed, and born again anew.

Arriving in the beautiful colonial city of Antigua, Guatemala, I felt instantly lonely. A rare sensation, and a wave of isolation and being far from the world I knew washed over, even as I walked the stone streets, full of character and stories. New Year’s Eve was spent with a gaggle of Australians whom I’d met that day at my hostel. Predictable, but at least I knew that all over the world, people were celebrating the same thing, a shift in time, a new year, a new era. The night proceeded in a sickly classic way, the parties were many and the drinks too strong. Upon losing my group of newly acquainted travel buddies I quickly realized I was now well and truly alone, wandering the ghostly streets of a potentially dangerous city.

Fear introduced itself promptly and again I found myself caught in a whirling dizziness of confusion. Where is my hostel? Why am I suddenly by myself? Questions of my own sanity brought me to eventual surrender when a car pulled up. It was a police officer. Now this had to be one of the strangest experiences of my life, and still now it holds a mind boggling surreal quality. The officer asked me what was wrong, to which I could barely answer between sobs. To my own surprise, as I generally consider myself verging on the edge of paranoia, I agreed to be driven home after he kindly took me to get food and a coffee.

Crying to a strange police officer over cake, in a foreign country, about nothing in particular, is probably one of the most embarrassing and messed up accounts I could ever recall, but as I began to settle down and he listened to me, offering even more surprising words of wisdom, I began to notice that on this New Year’s Day, I had been reborn. It sounds silly, but it literally felt like a piece of me had left, abruptly resigned, in the face of such fear, discomfort and the internal pain that I had been feeling. Sometimes we can only see freedom when we are forced to face ourselves solely, with no walls, no security blankets, no friends, no money, nothing we have been so trained to value, alone.

The aura of confusion still lingered but was not pressing, there was a certain lightness now. I continued to enjoy my next 4 weeks in Guatemala, and 2 weeks in Mexico, the best I possibly could, allowing what was meant to be to be. I met amazing people. I swam. I (hestitantly) rode horses on cliffs. I hiked to the tops of mountains at sunrise and sunset. I danced and ate and listened to music. I got sick. Really sick. I lost my phone. My computer died. I got sick again. I tried not to blame myself for being sick. I visited amazing places. I made a best friend.

And I watched. I observed. And still now, when I recall the entirety of my journeys from Guatemala City to Mexico and finally back to Los Angeles, when I rejoiced in being back in North America despite my mind-blowing travels, I watch it all as a movie I have seen a thousand times, and know that in some way, I had to be completely destroyed to find my freedom, to let go of all that I perceived to be true in order to make room for the new and spectacular things that were about to enter my life. I had nothing to lose. Freedom had been chasing me down, like a ghost longing to make itself known, so that I could finally stare it straight in the face.

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I Choose My Freedom in Australia…For Now

We laid on our sides on what I once called our bed. Nose touching tip of nose, eyes locked into eyes. I traced the outside of his face with my free hand, imagining that I could feel the difference between the brown, gold and crimson strands of his beard underneath my fingertips. The scent of him filled me like smoke. I breathed in earth, clean laundry and a hint of weed. In this bed, there was nothing else. Only the physical tug of my heart to his, our breath slowed down to one. If I made this moment my entire world, I was happy.

“Come home,” he said, breaking the comfortable silence. “You can still travel. Just come home to me.”

I was leaving him for now the third time. The freedom that comes with traveling– the thrill of uncertainty, the choices that follow ambiguity– had once again found prominence in my heart over anything that would just make me one half of a whole. This time, I’d be gone for more than a four month backpacking stint around Europe or South America. I was going to Australia for at least a year, and I intended to finally make this breakup stick.

However, my mind struggled to find the flaw in his plan, drunk as I was on the happiness that I associated with his presence. It sounded nice. I could have both.

He assured me certainty, security, love, a future–the sweetest of chains. So I imagined living out my life with him, continuing the dream state of that bed. The only thing that he truly stimulated in me was a sexual desire. The rest would continue to be a mindless routine, devoid of intelligent conversation. He would watch football. I would cook him lasagna. He’d tell me he thought it was cute that I liked to read. I’d try in vain to discuss Orwell with him. He would work at the bar. I would find some middleman job. He’d buy a house in a small Massachusetts town. We’d take turns digging our cars out of the New England snow, and he’d get angry when he caught me lusting after Google images of exotic places. We’d smoke weed everyday to further along the numbing effect. He’d get me pregnant one day, like he always wanted. He’d teach our child to throw a ball, and I’d try to instill enough independence and individuality in her so that she could live the life I always wanted–a life of adventure and freedom.

To stay with him would have been to make the choice to throw a huge spoiler alert over my entire life, to watch the Red Wedding scene of Game of Thrones just as I got invested in the first season. Our relationship presented only walls and no frontiers.

I didn’t know who I was when I wasn’t his. All I knew was that it bothered me, a literal constant pain in my side each time I realised that I was becoming part of an indifferent and incurious population that gets stuck in relationships that are finite, lethargic and easy. I realized that I lived for my connection to him, changing myself to fit his mold. I neglected everything else that I ever wanted, pursuing those finite moments of happiness wholeheartedly so that I could mollify my anxiety in the face of my natural state, the state of freedom. I wasn’t committed to my authenticity; I hid from it.

My urge to strike out on my own was a gut reaction, a survival instinct. I needed to ease the stomach-clenching dread that accompanied the notion of remaining in one place for long, and for someone else. I needed the ignition that comes with waking up in a strange city or country, stimulating myself by way of exploration, acquainting myself with a new place through its food, having informed and varied discussions in broken English over a hostel dining room table. My freedom comes with the weight of a backpack on my shoulders, a one-way ticket and a culture shock. I am the only one in this world who can give me what I crave; to travel. To live a life as a traveller means living a life of contrast and spontaneity, ambiguity and choices.

I did not say that travel made me “happy,” although it often does. Happiness is not the attainable lifetime goal. Happiness is finite. What I sought was freedom, an infinite state of being that far surpasses a vague and unattainable notion of absolute contentment.

So as I lay in that bed, contemplating the tear I had to force between us, I focused on my refusal to be defined by my environment and my sentiment, rather than by the choices I made when faced with uncertainty.

I’ve been living in Australia for almost 10 months now, and I am face to face with my independence everyday, my choice to try on life as a 24 year old Melburnian for the time being, absorbing the parts of it that add to my shifting identity. I do not know what the next steps are, for I cannot see them clearly or at all. And that’s okay. To have a full knowledge of what my years hold would be just as finite as a committed relationship with a small-minded man. The mystery that comes with knowing nothing is infinite. I am faced with an unlimited spectrum, and all I must do is choose and take responsibility for my choices, may they always be in line with my most authentic state. This is what makes me free.

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The Power of Unique Experiences in Indonesia

Kerthunk, kerthunk, kerthunk.

I felt as if someone had sunk a fistful of fear into my heart and let it pound it into the rest of my body. My stomach felt like it was trying to retreat behind my ribs, my eyes were wide. Reason told me I shouldn’t have been so phobic. But I was staring down my nemeses, and reason was quickly losing its place in my repertoire.

Actually, “nemeses” might be a strong word for something the size of a pin head. These were a couple of bugs so small that one could easily mistake them for a floating piece of white lint, especially in the flickering shadows of the Balinese evening. They were bed bug nymphs, and their presence meant I needed to leave before they could scurry their way into my belongings.

My mind flashed back to a bitter night far away from the hostel on the quaint Indonesian road. I was back in my apartment in Massachusetts, back to the shock of finding an infestation of biting little bugs that snuck through the folds of my sofa and cracks in the hardwood floors. I retreated to the bathtub at two in the morning, saturated in dread.

Bed bugs aren’t dangerous, but eradicating them is an awful and laborious process. I had been in physical therapy for years for a bad back. My nearest family member was hundreds of miles away. I couldn’t imagine how to pack all my belongings away with my unstable bones. I cringed in anticipation of the pain that could come from rounds of laundering everything I owned, spraying things down with isopropyl, and moving furniture for exterminators.

The predicted injury and accompanying pain led to my first visit to Indonesia. I questioned if other people with physical disadvantages could get caught in similarly horrendous situations throughout the world, and secured a grant to research the topic in several countries. Come spring, I set off on a great multinational adventure in which I fervently chased answers and lines of longitude.

During that journey, I took a ferry from Singapore to spend a couple days in Bintan Island, Indonesia. Between the driftwood and palm fronds on an empty stretch of beach, I stopped to see an eroding message written in the sand: “LIFE ALWAYS FINDS A WAY”. I felt like some vanished scribe had written it there as part of my story, like the universe had left the words there just for me.

I bought a ticket to Bali during a turbulent period a couple years later. I wanted to head back to the country where clairvoyants roamed the islands and messages were hidden in the sand.

In the place where I expected to find order and inner peace, I was being gripped by memories of injured sleepless nights and unresolved past fears. I hauled my backpack to the safety of the front porch and dove into my phone, searching furiously for new accommodations, comfort from friends, and ways to clean old demons out of potentially contaminated belongings.

I sat on the ground for so long that the stones had imprinted their shapes on my legs, so I headed to the roof terrace to obsess over my problems in privacy. I looked out to see a brilliant sunset, a scattering of stringy blue clouds hanging on a backdrop of potent pinks and oranges. Beyond the edge of the peninsula, the ocean was mirroring the colorful banners of the sunset, making it seem almost endless.

I wasn’t sure how many sunsets I’d missed while my phobias were running amok, but I didn’t want to miss that one. In the last journey I hadn’t learned to compartmentalize my thoughts, to stop a bout of fear from tainting all of the glory around me. I turned the phone on its face to gaze at the sunset, to listen to the ensemble of cicadas and monkeys and the chattering and clinking of bottles from guests downstairs.

Travel has power to put you out in the caprices of the unknown and onto the stoops of old haunts. But sometimes, it also offers you a chance at redemption.

I was myself again, watching silently as the ocean was swallowed by the night. I was free from those harrowing and pervasive fears, unshackled from the tunnel vision of anxiety.

I found no more messages in the sand, no phantoms to leave signs that I had gotten things right. I was left with open road, a painted sky, and gorgeous wildlife; all that I sought and all that I needed.

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Feeling Insignificant on Serene Mt. Rainier, USA

The feel of snow in August is a unique experience reserved for those in either extreme latitudes or significant altitudes. Mt. Rainier certainly qualifies for the latter category. I had taken a break on the side of the Mountain to prep for my final push towards Camp Muir, a staging area which sits about 4,000’ short of the summit of Mt. Rainier at 14,411’. Although I needed to catch my breath for the climb ahead, this task seemed figuratively impossible given the breathtaking vista surrounding me. To the south lay the smoke-obscured teeth of the Tatoosh range, and beyond them the still-visible volcanic peaks of St. Helens and Adams. Looking to the West, I saw the Cowlitz Glacier dissipating to thin waterfalls that collected in the valley below. But it was the northern view that was the most commanding, as this sight contained the camp, the summit and a blinding stretch of steep snow that constituted the rest of my hike.

Moments like this take me back to a line I overheard in Seattle just a few days before my hike: “The great thing about nature is how it makes us feel small”. I disagreed with the speaker, at least in part. If the feeling of smallness was truly all we sought in nature, there really would be no reason to travel there. Smallness is so much easier to find in a cubical from 9-to-5, a fact I am well acquainted with. Three months prior to this evening and this hike, I was living a comfortable life in Boston with a good paying job. Stability, activity, and the prospect of upwards mobility were all luxuries I enjoyed, but it was still a small existence, a fact intensified by my oppressive anxiety and frequent panic attacks.

Conventional wisdom would have recommended, at times like this, that the weary worker take a vacation and “get your head in order”. I took the wisdom, but neglected the conventionality, boarding an Amtrak train in Boston and seeing where I could go over the next few months. This eventually brought me to the Space Needle in Seattle, where I got my first good view of Mt. Rainer. The thing was big, not just in raw mass, but with understated gravity. It gripped my attention and demanded personification, quietly scoffing at the Needle I was standing on. I left the elevator with a single conviction in mind, one that brought me to my break point on the side of Mt. Rainer, just a few hundred feet below the camp.

If ever I had sound reason for suffering a panic attack, this would be that time. I was by myself on one of the deadliest hiking trails in the country, where the afternoon sun was opening crevasses below my feet and cutting my friction-less progress to a negligible sum. What if my exertion led to a heart attack, where would they take me? Or if a storm rolls in and I lose my sense of direction? These thoughts and more could have easily crossed my mind, but none did. Instead, my focus lay in just placing one foot in front of the other until I arrived on the stone-carved steps of Camp Muir. And then I saw how small I really was. But this feeling of smallness was different than the one I knew three months prior. This experience was expansive, elevated, the kind that makes you breathe easier with a younger smile on your face. I was, in that moment, entwined within something bigger than myself without being absolved into it.

Suffice it to say, I never did return from my vacation, at least not to the job I had before. There was many more moments that lead to that decision, but the encounter with Rainier demonstrated something that I once had, had lost, and must work to awaken again. The path from here remains uncertain, but it is now a path that does at least go on..

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From Vietnamese Mangroves and a Loving Mom

The runway was not much more than a lightly paved strip of soil which popped out of the rice paddies and mangroves like a long, rectangular oasis. As I exited the 1950’s prop, much like the one that Indiana Jones rides in Raiders of the Lost Ark, I felt stifled instead of being freed from the tight quarters that I’d just ridden in. The density and weight of the atmosphere made it hard to inhale deeply– and it was more than just heat and humidity of the southernmost part of Vietnam – Ca Mau, a peninsular province with the Gulf of Thailand to the West and the Pacific Ocean to the South and East. I was stepping foot on the same soil where my son was born, breathing the same sticky, tropical air that he did. The son I had not yet met, and the son that I would not be bringing home to Indiana after the eight days that I’d be there.

As excited as I was to meet my baby — the one that I dreamed of and had dreams for — I needed to guard my emotions. Upon seeing my first photo of him, my heart skipped a beat when I gazed into those deep brown eyes and saw the shock of black hair standing up on his head. I knew that without a doubt that he was my son. It was my moment of a doctor handing my child to me to put on my chest and feeling a love like no other.

Much like the southern Vietnamese mangroves’ intertwined roots, strong and complicated, his homecoming was constricted by the fact that he was stuck — stuck in an orphanage due to political posturing by both the U.S. and Vietnamese governments not willing to move an inch to finalize his adoption, despite him living in squalid and unsafe orphanage conditions.

I flew half-way around the world and was there with two other moms in the same situation to help care for our children and the others in the orphanage. It was the one small thing we could actually do to help our kids, while we lobbied Congressional leaders and the State Department on the homefront.

Within minutes sweat was streaming down my face and soaking my clothes – a combination of the oppressive heat and my anxiety. My friends and I headed out to the orphanage in a taxi. There were few cars on the road, mostly bicycles and motor bikes. We raced along the tropical landscape – passing roadside markets where vendors sold pineapples, roosters in woven basket cages, plastic kitchenware and even python meat. Our taxi driver honked incessantly as he passed cars, though few, and played a game of chicken with oncoming traffic. A movie of mangroves and long boats with weathered fishermen, and the occasional water buffalo grazing in a yard ran through the car windows. Children with bare feet and dirty faces dotted the fast-moving landscape – all of it beautiful, colorful and full of life.

Finally, we turned down a one-lane dirt road lined by shallow canals, lush mango and tamarind trees, and tin roof-shacks with hammocks as beds. My stomach dropped to my knees when I saw the orphanage building.

My 22-month old son was literally imprisoned in his tiny room — it had bars on the windows, a former internment camp from the Vietnam War.

I had many conversations with him before I got to Vietnam (all in my head), promising him that I would do whatever it took to get him home to Indiana. I’d say “good night” to him when I woke up in the morning and whisper “good morning” before I fell asleep at night, living with my heart twelve hours ahead. And that week, I told him in person — kissing his smooth, tan cheeks, my tears wetting his sweet face as I held him close. And, then having to leave him.

Twenty-six months later, in the most unusual of places, we found refuge surrounded by luggage carts, drug-sniffing Beagles and a melody of different languages at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. His two tiny feet touched U.S. soil, and I felt palpable relief from my shoulders, fighting back yet another set of tears as my husband squeezed my hand and hugged us both.

Sitting at our departure gate for the last leg of our journey home, he sat in my lap and munched on a banana and French fries.

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My Unlikely Friends in Mountainous Ecuador

It’s hot. How can it be this hot? Since arriving in Salasaka, this indigenous village in the Ecuadorian Andes, I have had a constantly sun-burned, peeling nose. Having an 8-year-old child on my back doesn’t help.

I struggle along, Fernanda on my back and her 5-year-old sister Ñusta leading the way. Ñusta is a great helper, waddling along with her sick sister’s backpack, which is almost as large as her. We walk down the wide, dusty roads lined with agave; sheep bleat and donkeys bray, everyone lazily complaining about the sweltering heat. I can see endlessly across the green, quilt-patterned hills, and everything looks exactly the same. We could be anywhere in all of Salasaka, and I would have no idea. All I can do is trust the girls to know where they live. At the school where I am teaching, when a child gets sick like Fernanda has, we can’t just call home, mom rushing over in her minivan to pick the child up, sign her out for the day. Almost no households in this village have a phone, and neither does the school. The only way to get them home is to do this, to carry them for miles until you reach the shanty and farm that is their home.

As a recently trained child therapist back in the U.S., I feel sick with guilt because it’s breaking every rule in the book that I’m doing this. Carrying a child on my back for miles? Taking them home when their parents haven’t given me signed permission? But I’m not their therapist, I remind myself, or try to. Because Fernanda is sick, and needs to get home, and this moment is more important than all the things I learned in graduate school.

“Podemos descansar?”, I ask the girls. Can we rest? I gently set Fernanda down, and the 3 of us sit together in the shade of a stack of cement blocks. Fernanda immediately lies down and puts her head in my lap. My “clinical instinct” is to gently remove her from her physical contact with me. Physical affection is always a liability. Keep your “boundaries”, they tell you. To the 7-year-old client who innocently tells me, I love you, I am trained to respond, I see that you really care about me, and I care about you too. Not “I love you too”, never that. A separation between you and the child. Care about her, of course, but from a distance.

I quit my job as a therapist because I was so terrified of how much I cared about my kids. I must not be doing something right, I felt. I must not be cut out for this. It broke my heart. A career down the drain because I just loved those kids too much. But here I was, in the mountains of South America to where I escaped, doing the same thing. Loving too much, again.

But I can’t help it. I love Fernanda. My heart is filled with her. She is only 8 years old and already the smartest student in school. She pulls my hand before recess ends every morning, lamenting, “Vamos a clase!” She watches over my shoulder with anxiety that is palpable as I grade her multiplication drills, as if she has ever received anything less than a 100%. There is a moodiness about her, a subtle neediness, and she sometimes sits apart from the group as Renato, the music teacher, leads them in warbling South American pop songs.

A woman passes where we sit catching our breath, wearing her chumbi and green shawl, half a dozen protesting sheep leading the way. She looks at me, and her confusion is reflected in her glare. What is this gringa doing out here with two of our precious children? The girls chat pleasantly with her in Kichwa, the sing-song indigenous language that I haven’t learned yet, and finally, she smiles, understanding. And somehow, with that smile, she is granting me the permission to love this child freely, to really love her, to love her and all of her sisters and friends without clinical boundaries, without restriction. Love her simply, freely, not as a professional but as a fellow human being, as an adult in the community who shares the responsibility of raising and caring for her. And maybe that’s not such a terrible thing.

I put my hand on Fernanda’s forehead. She doesn’t feel hot, and I don’t know if she was really sick at all or if she just wanted this time with me. “Listas?”, I ask the girls, and Ñusta puts on two backpacks, her own in the back and Fernanda’s in the front. I stoop to let Fernanda on my back, and we keep on walking.

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New Experiences with Monkeys in India

I was sitting cross-legged on a four-inch mattress that doubled as my bed. Sweat engulfed all of my pores as a simple fan hummed above. I glanced up from my book. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a medium-sized monkey open my screen door with ease. I blinked. I observed a second monkey trailing behind and then another.

My jaw dropped. I sat speechless. Three wild monkeys were just a couple of yards away.

Without hesitation, they walked toward a small round table next to my bright red refrigerator. All three admired my possessions. The taller one glanced back in my direction as if to say, “ha, ha”. With one hand, he grabbed one of my Tupperware containers. Within seconds, the monkeys vanished, leaving my door open in their wake.

I sat bewildered. Should I laugh or should I cry?

Just weeks earlier, I had started teaching at an international K-12 boarding school in Bangalore, India. As an American middle-aged educator, I jumped at the opportunity to work and travel abroad. Most of my friends and family members thought that I was experiencing a midlife crisis. Why would I leave my cushy suburban life to work in a developing country?

For years, a series of orthopedic issues had prevented me from using my K-6 teaching license. To remain an educator, I became an adjunct instructor at a local community college. I loved teaching, but something was missing.

When I was offered the primary international teaching position, one of my dreams was finally fulfilled. Once again, I would have the opportunity to work with children and use my teaching credentials. But would I be able to step outside my comfort zone and face my natural fears of living in another country?

After all, I was a middle-age woman who hadn’t traveled alone in decades. I wasn’t traveling to unfamiliar neighborhoods within driving distance of my home. I was flying half way around the world to travel solo in a foreign country. If I had any chance of being successful, I had to regain my independent spirit. I had to look forward and not scurry back to what felt safe. I relied on my inner voice that wouldn’t stop whispering, “You can do it.”

I wasn’t looking to the popular Nike slogan, “Just Do It.” I was recalling another image. Decades ago, I read the classic book, The Little Engine That Could, to my sons. How fitting that in midlife, I would look to a children’s book to instill confidence. Just like the small train in this inspiring story, I had to use daily reminders to keep me on track.

After the three thieves left my guest room, the uncertainty returned. Could I simply laugh off the absurdity of wild monkeys stealing my food or would I succumb to the temptation to long for a more predictable life? This wasn’t the first time that the monkeys had trespassed. Like ants that gravitate toward food crumbs, these larger pests could be found everywhere humans congregated. The school campus was inundated. Groups of monkeys frequented classrooms, stairwells, the playground, the open fields, the lunchroom, and the pathways between buildings.

Fanciful irrational emotions flooded my well being like a tsunami. My mind planned ways to escape in the middle of the night without a trace. While I rationally knew that I had to cope with my new life in India, it was much easier to create plans for fleeing.

I had no choice but to face my challenges head on. The monkey situation was just one example of a multitude of events. Each day was filled with unfamiliar and strange happenings.

For comfort, I listened to my favorite songs from my youth and thought about others who had successfully dealt with obstacles. I recalled times when I had to overcome challenging situations. I posted one of Eleanor Roosevelt’s quotes above my desk:

The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.

I was working as an international teacher and I wasn’t going to let any of my fears erode my confidence or destroy my dreams. My inner voice became my daily mantra. Instead of hearing a small voice inside, I mouthed the words, “I can do it.”

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Christchurch, New Zealand will always be in my heart

It’s not the miles from Home what made Me Change. It was the Emotions and Experiences New to Me. At the End I did traveled far enough, but just enough to find myself.

And I had to travel miles, distance myself for my closest things, and experience many different emotions to discover about myself, to embrace myself.
I had to keep the distance from what I knew or thought it was safe to be born again.
I had to come to the other side of the world to understand and discover myself.
I didn’t travel places. I traveled emotions inside of me.
I didn’t distance myself from Home. I created a new Home.
My heart became new; my eyes saw the bright light again.
My soul was lifted.
I was born again here.
I FELT ALIVE AND FREE AGAIN!
See, I didn’t travel just for the sake of traveling. I was naïve.
I didn’t know that away from Home you can actually find yourself.
See… I LEARNED THAT TODAY…
I had to get away to truly find myself AND FREEDOM….AGAIN!

This is my poetic way to explain all my feelings since I have moved to Christchurch, New Zealand. I wish I had more eloquent words to describe all the wonders that this country offers. It’s not only a beautiful country for its gorgeous landscapes, but it is also a country filled with great and humble people.
I moved from Miami to Christchurch, New Zealand in February of 2012 with my husband as an expatriate wife. I came with the “Miami” ideas if you can call it that, you know the big city girl ideas. And I was changed.
In Christchurch I learned to relax, to reconnect with myself. To learn about the kiwi culture, to understand that they enjoy being around nature. And that if ask them about the world, they are probably well traveled folks, but they will always return to their home country.
I learned to smile back when they smile at me walking on the street because the kiwis are very polite, and you should smile back! I learned that is ok to recycle your cartoon eggs because is just nice to return to the veggie store with a full bag of cartoon eggs to give back to them and see their smile. And to show them that you care for the environment and that you care for their store.
I learned that even being miles away from home, I can still enjoy Latin music because kiwis have a taste for dancing salsa. I learned that if you suffer a loss, like I did, a big loss, a miscarriage, the kiwis will be there for you. They will prepare your meals, they will clean your house, they will give you a word of comfort and they will be calling you back just to make sure you are doing ok.
These four years spent in New Zealand made me open my eyes to new cultures, to trying new things in life. I even tried to ski for god sake! I, the Cuban / Miami only beach please kind of girl. These four years have been amazing, and I will totally recommend visiting New Zealand.
Thank you Christchurch for all this time with Me, you made ME a new person, you gave Me back my FREEDOM WINGS!

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CANADA: Finding Yourself and Finding Your World

Where I find freedom….

I am often asked this questions being a mother to four young children, a wife, an entrepreneur, and an aspiring author. How do I find the time for me?

The first step for me was realizing that I needed time and freedom for myself and I had to make it happen. Prior to going on my personal development journey to healing and find my self-love. I was going through my life trying to do what would satisfy others and make them proud. Not too long after I graduated from high school I went to college to become a Natural Health Practitioner. I had a lot of criticism from my loved ones as this was not a field they understood or could relate to, in their eyes was not credible. Even before receiving my diploma, I had decided that I would become an electrician. Instead of pursuing my dream, I went into something that I knew would be accepted by everyone around me. Just a couple months after receiving my diploma I started my electrical apprenticeship. I received praise from all my loved ones and even complete strangers, which persuaded me to keep going.

I had to hit rock-bottom before realizing that I needed to honour myself and find that freedom for me. When I was pregnant with my fourth child, I realized that I was miserable, felt lost, misplaced and disconnected within your own skin. Living in a world full of judgement, feeling as though I needed to portray a perfect life, and putting unrealistic expectations upon myself, resulted in a lot of disappointment and feelings of failure. Being occupied by another’s needs each and every day without honouring myself, lead to exhaustion and deep disconnection within myself.

In society we have been essentially programmed to put on a facade to express how “ideal” our life should be and how we should be in the eyes of our generally population. There is an accepted way to be, look, act, the house, vehicle and life you should strive for, the items or things you should have. When really all these things should be customized to each individual, who you are, your soul purpose, personality and what you would like to accomplish in your life. Not everyone is the same. From one person to another, you will do things differently, have different beliefs, have different circumstances, priorities and have different ways of doing things.

When I started my self-healing journey, the biggest change happened for me when I allowed myself to have two hours for just me every morning before the rest of my family woke up. This time allowed me to fully connect, dig into my self-healing books and programs and better myself. Because I had chosen the morning for this time, it set up my day to succeed as I had already put time into myself, feeding my heart and soul, and allowing me to be the best me for the day. This also made decision making clearer for me. I knew I was on the right track because I was motivated to continue, it felt good and freeing.

With this self-acknowledgement, my self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-love grew naturally. The more ways I honoured yourself, the happier I became, the lighter I felt and life began to flow with ease. Once I became connected with what made me happy, the faster my perspective changed. I was more accepting of others and all forms of judgment then disappears; self-judgement, judgement of others and other’s judgements on me. When I was able to release all of my self-judgements, I felt more confident within yourself and no longer needed anyone else’s opinions. When I got to the point, where I became absolutely comfortable within me and no longer felt the need to rely on other’s opinions, I instead use their suggestions as I saw suitable.

By honouring myself with “me time” everyday, I find my freedom, live my passion, and am present with my life.

My vision is:
“For all moms to think of themselves as no less than extraordinary!”

Much love, appreciation & gratitude,
Tracy Munson
Natural Health Strategist & Coach, NHP, CDC

 

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My New Year’s Rebirth in Guatemala

Driving along the quiet morning streets of a city I would come to know and love, I bawled into the musky atmosphere of the cab. I had just flown to Los Angeles for about a week, to visit a man who would become a bigger part of my life than I could ever imagine. But as the sun began to rise and the infamous LAX came into view, I felt less than elated to be hopping on a flight to Guatemala City.

It was the day before New Year’s Eve, and the looming new year on the horizon stood a mysterious silhouette in a grey backdrop. At first the plan seemed simple, go to Central America, have a work holiday, more or less. It seemed fitting, but sometimes what you think you are ‘meant’ to do doesn’t match up with what the world has planned for you. The firm seats of the plane reminded me that I was about to spend the next few weeks in unfamiliar places, and likely sitting in similarly firm bus seats, which was almost comforting, as although I had come to realize I had no idea why I was going to Guatemala, maybe it was a childhood fascination finally coming to life, that I indeed took refuge in the unfamiliar.

When you do not know a city, when you do not know a face or a name, reality seems more malleable, free from the conditions and generalizations we bind ourselves with. But it wasn’t until after I left Central America for the second time that I would conclude that sometimes you can’t simply put yourself out of the norm, you have to be completely destroyed, and born again anew.

Arriving in the beautiful colonial city of Antigua, Guatemala, I felt instantly lonely. A rare sensation, and a wave of isolation and being far from the world I knew washed over, even as I walked the stone streets, full of character and stories. New Year’s Eve was spent with a gaggle of Australians whom I’d met that day at my hostel. Predictable, but at least I knew that all over the world, people were celebrating the same thing, a shift in time, a new year, a new era. The night proceeded in a sickly classic way, the parties were many and the drinks too strong. Upon losing my group of newly acquainted travel buddies I quickly realized I was now well and truly alone, wandering the ghostly streets of a potentially dangerous city.

Fear introduced itself promptly and again I found myself caught in a whirling dizziness of confusion. Where is my hostel? Why am I suddenly by myself? Questions of my own sanity brought me to eventual surrender when a car pulled up. It was a police officer. Now this had to be one of the strangest experiences of my life, and still now it holds a mind boggling surreal quality. The officer asked me what was wrong, to which I could barely answer between sobs. To my own surprise, as I generally consider myself verging on the edge of paranoia, I agreed to be driven home after he kindly took me to get food and a coffee.

Crying to a strange police officer over cake, in a foreign country, about nothing in particular, is probably one of the most embarrassing and messed up accounts I could ever recall, but as I began to settle down and he listened to me, offering even more surprising words of wisdom, I began to notice that on this New Year’s Day, I had been reborn. It sounds silly, but it literally felt like a piece of me had left, abruptly resigned, in the face of such fear, discomfort and the internal pain that I had been feeling. Sometimes we can only see freedom when we are forced to face ourselves solely, with no walls, no security blankets, no friends, no money, nothing we have been so trained to value, alone.

The aura of confusion still lingered but was not pressing, there was a certain lightness now. I continued to enjoy my next 4 weeks in Guatemala, and 2 weeks in Mexico, the best I possibly could, allowing what was meant to be to be. I met amazing people. I swam. I (hestitantly) rode horses on cliffs. I hiked to the tops of mountains at sunrise and sunset. I danced and ate and listened to music. I got sick. Really sick. I lost my phone. My computer died. I got sick again. I tried not to blame myself for being sick. I visited amazing places. I made a best friend.

And I watched. I observed. And still now, when I recall the entirety of my journeys from Guatemala City to Mexico and finally back to Los Angeles, when I rejoiced in being back in North America despite my mind-blowing travels, I watch it all as a movie I have seen a thousand times, and know that in some way, I had to be completely destroyed to find my freedom, to let go of all that I perceived to be true in order to make room for the new and spectacular things that were about to enter my life. I had nothing to lose. Freedom had been chasing me down, like a ghost longing to make itself known, so that I could finally stare it straight in the face.

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I Choose My Freedom in Australia…For Now

We laid on our sides on what I once called our bed. Nose touching tip of nose, eyes locked into eyes. I traced the outside of his face with my free hand, imagining that I could feel the difference between the brown, gold and crimson strands of his beard underneath my fingertips. The scent of him filled me like smoke. I breathed in earth, clean laundry and a hint of weed. In this bed, there was nothing else. Only the physical tug of my heart to his, our breath slowed down to one. If I made this moment my entire world, I was happy.

“Come home,” he said, breaking the comfortable silence. “You can still travel. Just come home to me.”

I was leaving him for now the third time. The freedom that comes with traveling– the thrill of uncertainty, the choices that follow ambiguity– had once again found prominence in my heart over anything that would just make me one half of a whole. This time, I’d be gone for more than a four month backpacking stint around Europe or South America. I was going to Australia for at least a year, and I intended to finally make this breakup stick.

However, my mind struggled to find the flaw in his plan, drunk as I was on the happiness that I associated with his presence. It sounded nice. I could have both.

He assured me certainty, security, love, a future–the sweetest of chains. So I imagined living out my life with him, continuing the dream state of that bed. The only thing that he truly stimulated in me was a sexual desire. The rest would continue to be a mindless routine, devoid of intelligent conversation. He would watch football. I would cook him lasagna. He’d tell me he thought it was cute that I liked to read. I’d try in vain to discuss Orwell with him. He would work at the bar. I would find some middleman job. He’d buy a house in a small Massachusetts town. We’d take turns digging our cars out of the New England snow, and he’d get angry when he caught me lusting after Google images of exotic places. We’d smoke weed everyday to further along the numbing effect. He’d get me pregnant one day, like he always wanted. He’d teach our child to throw a ball, and I’d try to instill enough independence and individuality in her so that she could live the life I always wanted–a life of adventure and freedom.

To stay with him would have been to make the choice to throw a huge spoiler alert over my entire life, to watch the Red Wedding scene of Game of Thrones just as I got invested in the first season. Our relationship presented only walls and no frontiers.

I didn’t know who I was when I wasn’t his. All I knew was that it bothered me, a literal constant pain in my side each time I realised that I was becoming part of an indifferent and incurious population that gets stuck in relationships that are finite, lethargic and easy. I realized that I lived for my connection to him, changing myself to fit his mold. I neglected everything else that I ever wanted, pursuing those finite moments of happiness wholeheartedly so that I could mollify my anxiety in the face of my natural state, the state of freedom. I wasn’t committed to my authenticity; I hid from it.

My urge to strike out on my own was a gut reaction, a survival instinct. I needed to ease the stomach-clenching dread that accompanied the notion of remaining in one place for long, and for someone else. I needed the ignition that comes with waking up in a strange city or country, stimulating myself by way of exploration, acquainting myself with a new place through its food, having informed and varied discussions in broken English over a hostel dining room table. My freedom comes with the weight of a backpack on my shoulders, a one-way ticket and a culture shock. I am the only one in this world who can give me what I crave; to travel. To live a life as a traveller means living a life of contrast and spontaneity, ambiguity and choices.

I did not say that travel made me “happy,” although it often does. Happiness is not the attainable lifetime goal. Happiness is finite. What I sought was freedom, an infinite state of being that far surpasses a vague and unattainable notion of absolute contentment.

So as I lay in that bed, contemplating the tear I had to force between us, I focused on my refusal to be defined by my environment and my sentiment, rather than by the choices I made when faced with uncertainty.

I’ve been living in Australia for almost 10 months now, and I am face to face with my independence everyday, my choice to try on life as a 24 year old Melburnian for the time being, absorbing the parts of it that add to my shifting identity. I do not know what the next steps are, for I cannot see them clearly or at all. And that’s okay. To have a full knowledge of what my years hold would be just as finite as a committed relationship with a small-minded man. The mystery that comes with knowing nothing is infinite. I am faced with an unlimited spectrum, and all I must do is choose and take responsibility for my choices, may they always be in line with my most authentic state. This is what makes me free.

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The Power of Unique Experiences in Indonesia

Kerthunk, kerthunk, kerthunk.

I felt as if someone had sunk a fistful of fear into my heart and let it pound it into the rest of my body. My stomach felt like it was trying to retreat behind my ribs, my eyes were wide. Reason told me I shouldn’t have been so phobic. But I was staring down my nemeses, and reason was quickly losing its place in my repertoire.

Actually, “nemeses” might be a strong word for something the size of a pin head. These were a couple of bugs so small that one could easily mistake them for a floating piece of white lint, especially in the flickering shadows of the Balinese evening. They were bed bug nymphs, and their presence meant I needed to leave before they could scurry their way into my belongings.

My mind flashed back to a bitter night far away from the hostel on the quaint Indonesian road. I was back in my apartment in Massachusetts, back to the shock of finding an infestation of biting little bugs that snuck through the folds of my sofa and cracks in the hardwood floors. I retreated to the bathtub at two in the morning, saturated in dread.

Bed bugs aren’t dangerous, but eradicating them is an awful and laborious process. I had been in physical therapy for years for a bad back. My nearest family member was hundreds of miles away. I couldn’t imagine how to pack all my belongings away with my unstable bones. I cringed in anticipation of the pain that could come from rounds of laundering everything I owned, spraying things down with isopropyl, and moving furniture for exterminators.

The predicted injury and accompanying pain led to my first visit to Indonesia. I questioned if other people with physical disadvantages could get caught in similarly horrendous situations throughout the world, and secured a grant to research the topic in several countries. Come spring, I set off on a great multinational adventure in which I fervently chased answers and lines of longitude.

During that journey, I took a ferry from Singapore to spend a couple days in Bintan Island, Indonesia. Between the driftwood and palm fronds on an empty stretch of beach, I stopped to see an eroding message written in the sand: “LIFE ALWAYS FINDS A WAY”. I felt like some vanished scribe had written it there as part of my story, like the universe had left the words there just for me.

I bought a ticket to Bali during a turbulent period a couple years later. I wanted to head back to the country where clairvoyants roamed the islands and messages were hidden in the sand.

In the place where I expected to find order and inner peace, I was being gripped by memories of injured sleepless nights and unresolved past fears. I hauled my backpack to the safety of the front porch and dove into my phone, searching furiously for new accommodations, comfort from friends, and ways to clean old demons out of potentially contaminated belongings.

I sat on the ground for so long that the stones had imprinted their shapes on my legs, so I headed to the roof terrace to obsess over my problems in privacy. I looked out to see a brilliant sunset, a scattering of stringy blue clouds hanging on a backdrop of potent pinks and oranges. Beyond the edge of the peninsula, the ocean was mirroring the colorful banners of the sunset, making it seem almost endless.

I wasn’t sure how many sunsets I’d missed while my phobias were running amok, but I didn’t want to miss that one. In the last journey I hadn’t learned to compartmentalize my thoughts, to stop a bout of fear from tainting all of the glory around me. I turned the phone on its face to gaze at the sunset, to listen to the ensemble of cicadas and monkeys and the chattering and clinking of bottles from guests downstairs.

Travel has power to put you out in the caprices of the unknown and onto the stoops of old haunts. But sometimes, it also offers you a chance at redemption.

I was myself again, watching silently as the ocean was swallowed by the night. I was free from those harrowing and pervasive fears, unshackled from the tunnel vision of anxiety.

I found no more messages in the sand, no phantoms to leave signs that I had gotten things right. I was left with open road, a painted sky, and gorgeous wildlife; all that I sought and all that I needed.

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Feeling Insignificant on Serene Mt. Rainier, USA

The feel of snow in August is a unique experience reserved for those in either extreme latitudes or significant altitudes. Mt. Rainier certainly qualifies for the latter category. I had taken a break on the side of the Mountain to prep for my final push towards Camp Muir, a staging area which sits about 4,000’ short of the summit of Mt. Rainier at 14,411’. Although I needed to catch my breath for the climb ahead, this task seemed figuratively impossible given the breathtaking vista surrounding me. To the south lay the smoke-obscured teeth of the Tatoosh range, and beyond them the still-visible volcanic peaks of St. Helens and Adams. Looking to the West, I saw the Cowlitz Glacier dissipating to thin waterfalls that collected in the valley below. But it was the northern view that was the most commanding, as this sight contained the camp, the summit and a blinding stretch of steep snow that constituted the rest of my hike.

Moments like this take me back to a line I overheard in Seattle just a few days before my hike: “The great thing about nature is how it makes us feel small”. I disagreed with the speaker, at least in part. If the feeling of smallness was truly all we sought in nature, there really would be no reason to travel there. Smallness is so much easier to find in a cubical from 9-to-5, a fact I am well acquainted with. Three months prior to this evening and this hike, I was living a comfortable life in Boston with a good paying job. Stability, activity, and the prospect of upwards mobility were all luxuries I enjoyed, but it was still a small existence, a fact intensified by my oppressive anxiety and frequent panic attacks.

Conventional wisdom would have recommended, at times like this, that the weary worker take a vacation and “get your head in order”. I took the wisdom, but neglected the conventionality, boarding an Amtrak train in Boston and seeing where I could go over the next few months. This eventually brought me to the Space Needle in Seattle, where I got my first good view of Mt. Rainer. The thing was big, not just in raw mass, but with understated gravity. It gripped my attention and demanded personification, quietly scoffing at the Needle I was standing on. I left the elevator with a single conviction in mind, one that brought me to my break point on the side of Mt. Rainer, just a few hundred feet below the camp.

If ever I had sound reason for suffering a panic attack, this would be that time. I was by myself on one of the deadliest hiking trails in the country, where the afternoon sun was opening crevasses below my feet and cutting my friction-less progress to a negligible sum. What if my exertion led to a heart attack, where would they take me? Or if a storm rolls in and I lose my sense of direction? These thoughts and more could have easily crossed my mind, but none did. Instead, my focus lay in just placing one foot in front of the other until I arrived on the stone-carved steps of Camp Muir. And then I saw how small I really was. But this feeling of smallness was different than the one I knew three months prior. This experience was expansive, elevated, the kind that makes you breathe easier with a younger smile on your face. I was, in that moment, entwined within something bigger than myself without being absolved into it.

Suffice it to say, I never did return from my vacation, at least not to the job I had before. There was many more moments that lead to that decision, but the encounter with Rainier demonstrated something that I once had, had lost, and must work to awaken again. The path from here remains uncertain, but it is now a path that does at least go on..

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From Vietnamese Mangroves and a Loving Mom

The runway was not much more than a lightly paved strip of soil which popped out of the rice paddies and mangroves like a long, rectangular oasis. As I exited the 1950’s prop, much like the one that Indiana Jones rides in Raiders of the Lost Ark, I felt stifled instead of being freed from the tight quarters that I’d just ridden in. The density and weight of the atmosphere made it hard to inhale deeply– and it was more than just heat and humidity of the southernmost part of Vietnam – Ca Mau, a peninsular province with the Gulf of Thailand to the West and the Pacific Ocean to the South and East. I was stepping foot on the same soil where my son was born, breathing the same sticky, tropical air that he did. The son I had not yet met, and the son that I would not be bringing home to Indiana after the eight days that I’d be there.

As excited as I was to meet my baby — the one that I dreamed of and had dreams for — I needed to guard my emotions. Upon seeing my first photo of him, my heart skipped a beat when I gazed into those deep brown eyes and saw the shock of black hair standing up on his head. I knew that without a doubt that he was my son. It was my moment of a doctor handing my child to me to put on my chest and feeling a love like no other.

Much like the southern Vietnamese mangroves’ intertwined roots, strong and complicated, his homecoming was constricted by the fact that he was stuck — stuck in an orphanage due to political posturing by both the U.S. and Vietnamese governments not willing to move an inch to finalize his adoption, despite him living in squalid and unsafe orphanage conditions.

I flew half-way around the world and was there with two other moms in the same situation to help care for our children and the others in the orphanage. It was the one small thing we could actually do to help our kids, while we lobbied Congressional leaders and the State Department on the homefront.

Within minutes sweat was streaming down my face and soaking my clothes – a combination of the oppressive heat and my anxiety. My friends and I headed out to the orphanage in a taxi. There were few cars on the road, mostly bicycles and motor bikes. We raced along the tropical landscape – passing roadside markets where vendors sold pineapples, roosters in woven basket cages, plastic kitchenware and even python meat. Our taxi driver honked incessantly as he passed cars, though few, and played a game of chicken with oncoming traffic. A movie of mangroves and long boats with weathered fishermen, and the occasional water buffalo grazing in a yard ran through the car windows. Children with bare feet and dirty faces dotted the fast-moving landscape – all of it beautiful, colorful and full of life.

Finally, we turned down a one-lane dirt road lined by shallow canals, lush mango and tamarind trees, and tin roof-shacks with hammocks as beds. My stomach dropped to my knees when I saw the orphanage building.

My 22-month old son was literally imprisoned in his tiny room — it had bars on the windows, a former internment camp from the Vietnam War.

I had many conversations with him before I got to Vietnam (all in my head), promising him that I would do whatever it took to get him home to Indiana. I’d say “good night” to him when I woke up in the morning and whisper “good morning” before I fell asleep at night, living with my heart twelve hours ahead. And that week, I told him in person — kissing his smooth, tan cheeks, my tears wetting his sweet face as I held him close. And, then having to leave him.

Twenty-six months later, in the most unusual of places, we found refuge surrounded by luggage carts, drug-sniffing Beagles and a melody of different languages at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. His two tiny feet touched U.S. soil, and I felt palpable relief from my shoulders, fighting back yet another set of tears as my husband squeezed my hand and hugged us both.

Sitting at our departure gate for the last leg of our journey home, he sat in my lap and munched on a banana and French fries.

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My Unlikely Friends in Mountainous Ecuador

It’s hot. How can it be this hot? Since arriving in Salasaka, this indigenous village in the Ecuadorian Andes, I have had a constantly sun-burned, peeling nose. Having an 8-year-old child on my back doesn’t help.

I struggle along, Fernanda on my back and her 5-year-old sister Ñusta leading the way. Ñusta is a great helper, waddling along with her sick sister’s backpack, which is almost as large as her. We walk down the wide, dusty roads lined with agave; sheep bleat and donkeys bray, everyone lazily complaining about the sweltering heat. I can see endlessly across the green, quilt-patterned hills, and everything looks exactly the same. We could be anywhere in all of Salasaka, and I would have no idea. All I can do is trust the girls to know where they live. At the school where I am teaching, when a child gets sick like Fernanda has, we can’t just call home, mom rushing over in her minivan to pick the child up, sign her out for the day. Almost no households in this village have a phone, and neither does the school. The only way to get them home is to do this, to carry them for miles until you reach the shanty and farm that is their home.

As a recently trained child therapist back in the U.S., I feel sick with guilt because it’s breaking every rule in the book that I’m doing this. Carrying a child on my back for miles? Taking them home when their parents haven’t given me signed permission? But I’m not their therapist, I remind myself, or try to. Because Fernanda is sick, and needs to get home, and this moment is more important than all the things I learned in graduate school.

“Podemos descansar?”, I ask the girls. Can we rest? I gently set Fernanda down, and the 3 of us sit together in the shade of a stack of cement blocks. Fernanda immediately lies down and puts her head in my lap. My “clinical instinct” is to gently remove her from her physical contact with me. Physical affection is always a liability. Keep your “boundaries”, they tell you. To the 7-year-old client who innocently tells me, I love you, I am trained to respond, I see that you really care about me, and I care about you too. Not “I love you too”, never that. A separation between you and the child. Care about her, of course, but from a distance.

I quit my job as a therapist because I was so terrified of how much I cared about my kids. I must not be doing something right, I felt. I must not be cut out for this. It broke my heart. A career down the drain because I just loved those kids too much. But here I was, in the mountains of South America to where I escaped, doing the same thing. Loving too much, again.

But I can’t help it. I love Fernanda. My heart is filled with her. She is only 8 years old and already the smartest student in school. She pulls my hand before recess ends every morning, lamenting, “Vamos a clase!” She watches over my shoulder with anxiety that is palpable as I grade her multiplication drills, as if she has ever received anything less than a 100%. There is a moodiness about her, a subtle neediness, and she sometimes sits apart from the group as Renato, the music teacher, leads them in warbling South American pop songs.

A woman passes where we sit catching our breath, wearing her chumbi and green shawl, half a dozen protesting sheep leading the way. She looks at me, and her confusion is reflected in her glare. What is this gringa doing out here with two of our precious children? The girls chat pleasantly with her in Kichwa, the sing-song indigenous language that I haven’t learned yet, and finally, she smiles, understanding. And somehow, with that smile, she is granting me the permission to love this child freely, to really love her, to love her and all of her sisters and friends without clinical boundaries, without restriction. Love her simply, freely, not as a professional but as a fellow human being, as an adult in the community who shares the responsibility of raising and caring for her. And maybe that’s not such a terrible thing.

I put my hand on Fernanda’s forehead. She doesn’t feel hot, and I don’t know if she was really sick at all or if she just wanted this time with me. “Listas?”, I ask the girls, and Ñusta puts on two backpacks, her own in the back and Fernanda’s in the front. I stoop to let Fernanda on my back, and we keep on walking.

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New Experiences with Monkeys in India

I was sitting cross-legged on a four-inch mattress that doubled as my bed. Sweat engulfed all of my pores as a simple fan hummed above. I glanced up from my book. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a medium-sized monkey open my screen door with ease. I blinked. I observed a second monkey trailing behind and then another.

My jaw dropped. I sat speechless. Three wild monkeys were just a couple of yards away.

Without hesitation, they walked toward a small round table next to my bright red refrigerator. All three admired my possessions. The taller one glanced back in my direction as if to say, “ha, ha”. With one hand, he grabbed one of my Tupperware containers. Within seconds, the monkeys vanished, leaving my door open in their wake.

I sat bewildered. Should I laugh or should I cry?

Just weeks earlier, I had started teaching at an international K-12 boarding school in Bangalore, India. As an American middle-aged educator, I jumped at the opportunity to work and travel abroad. Most of my friends and family members thought that I was experiencing a midlife crisis. Why would I leave my cushy suburban life to work in a developing country?

For years, a series of orthopedic issues had prevented me from using my K-6 teaching license. To remain an educator, I became an adjunct instructor at a local community college. I loved teaching, but something was missing.

When I was offered the primary international teaching position, one of my dreams was finally fulfilled. Once again, I would have the opportunity to work with children and use my teaching credentials. But would I be able to step outside my comfort zone and face my natural fears of living in another country?

After all, I was a middle-age woman who hadn’t traveled alone in decades. I wasn’t traveling to unfamiliar neighborhoods within driving distance of my home. I was flying half way around the world to travel solo in a foreign country. If I had any chance of being successful, I had to regain my independent spirit. I had to look forward and not scurry back to what felt safe. I relied on my inner voice that wouldn’t stop whispering, “You can do it.”

I wasn’t looking to the popular Nike slogan, “Just Do It.” I was recalling another image. Decades ago, I read the classic book, The Little Engine That Could, to my sons. How fitting that in midlife, I would look to a children’s book to instill confidence. Just like the small train in this inspiring story, I had to use daily reminders to keep me on track.

After the three thieves left my guest room, the uncertainty returned. Could I simply laugh off the absurdity of wild monkeys stealing my food or would I succumb to the temptation to long for a more predictable life? This wasn’t the first time that the monkeys had trespassed. Like ants that gravitate toward food crumbs, these larger pests could be found everywhere humans congregated. The school campus was inundated. Groups of monkeys frequented classrooms, stairwells, the playground, the open fields, the lunchroom, and the pathways between buildings.

Fanciful irrational emotions flooded my well being like a tsunami. My mind planned ways to escape in the middle of the night without a trace. While I rationally knew that I had to cope with my new life in India, it was much easier to create plans for fleeing.

I had no choice but to face my challenges head on. The monkey situation was just one example of a multitude of events. Each day was filled with unfamiliar and strange happenings.

For comfort, I listened to my favorite songs from my youth and thought about others who had successfully dealt with obstacles. I recalled times when I had to overcome challenging situations. I posted one of Eleanor Roosevelt’s quotes above my desk:

The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.

I was working as an international teacher and I wasn’t going to let any of my fears erode my confidence or destroy my dreams. My inner voice became my daily mantra. Instead of hearing a small voice inside, I mouthed the words, “I can do it.”

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Christchurch, New Zealand will always be in my heart

It’s not the miles from Home what made Me Change. It was the Emotions and Experiences New to Me. At the End I did traveled far enough, but just enough to find myself.

And I had to travel miles, distance myself for my closest things, and experience many different emotions to discover about myself, to embrace myself.
I had to keep the distance from what I knew or thought it was safe to be born again.
I had to come to the other side of the world to understand and discover myself.
I didn’t travel places. I traveled emotions inside of me.
I didn’t distance myself from Home. I created a new Home.
My heart became new; my eyes saw the bright light again.
My soul was lifted.
I was born again here.
I FELT ALIVE AND FREE AGAIN!
See, I didn’t travel just for the sake of traveling. I was naïve.
I didn’t know that away from Home you can actually find yourself.
See… I LEARNED THAT TODAY…
I had to get away to truly find myself AND FREEDOM….AGAIN!

This is my poetic way to explain all my feelings since I have moved to Christchurch, New Zealand. I wish I had more eloquent words to describe all the wonders that this country offers. It’s not only a beautiful country for its gorgeous landscapes, but it is also a country filled with great and humble people.
I moved from Miami to Christchurch, New Zealand in February of 2012 with my husband as an expatriate wife. I came with the “Miami” ideas if you can call it that, you know the big city girl ideas. And I was changed.
In Christchurch I learned to relax, to reconnect with myself. To learn about the kiwi culture, to understand that they enjoy being around nature. And that if ask them about the world, they are probably well traveled folks, but they will always return to their home country.
I learned to smile back when they smile at me walking on the street because the kiwis are very polite, and you should smile back! I learned that is ok to recycle your cartoon eggs because is just nice to return to the veggie store with a full bag of cartoon eggs to give back to them and see their smile. And to show them that you care for the environment and that you care for their store.
I learned that even being miles away from home, I can still enjoy Latin music because kiwis have a taste for dancing salsa. I learned that if you suffer a loss, like I did, a big loss, a miscarriage, the kiwis will be there for you. They will prepare your meals, they will clean your house, they will give you a word of comfort and they will be calling you back just to make sure you are doing ok.
These four years spent in New Zealand made me open my eyes to new cultures, to trying new things in life. I even tried to ski for god sake! I, the Cuban / Miami only beach please kind of girl. These four years have been amazing, and I will totally recommend visiting New Zealand.
Thank you Christchurch for all this time with Me, you made ME a new person, you gave Me back my FREEDOM WINGS!

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CANADA: Finding Yourself and Finding Your World

Where I find freedom….

I am often asked this questions being a mother to four young children, a wife, an entrepreneur, and an aspiring author. How do I find the time for me?

The first step for me was realizing that I needed time and freedom for myself and I had to make it happen. Prior to going on my personal development journey to healing and find my self-love. I was going through my life trying to do what would satisfy others and make them proud. Not too long after I graduated from high school I went to college to become a Natural Health Practitioner. I had a lot of criticism from my loved ones as this was not a field they understood or could relate to, in their eyes was not credible. Even before receiving my diploma, I had decided that I would become an electrician. Instead of pursuing my dream, I went into something that I knew would be accepted by everyone around me. Just a couple months after receiving my diploma I started my electrical apprenticeship. I received praise from all my loved ones and even complete strangers, which persuaded me to keep going.

I had to hit rock-bottom before realizing that I needed to honour myself and find that freedom for me. When I was pregnant with my fourth child, I realized that I was miserable, felt lost, misplaced and disconnected within your own skin. Living in a world full of judgement, feeling as though I needed to portray a perfect life, and putting unrealistic expectations upon myself, resulted in a lot of disappointment and feelings of failure. Being occupied by another’s needs each and every day without honouring myself, lead to exhaustion and deep disconnection within myself.

In society we have been essentially programmed to put on a facade to express how “ideal” our life should be and how we should be in the eyes of our generally population. There is an accepted way to be, look, act, the house, vehicle and life you should strive for, the items or things you should have. When really all these things should be customized to each individual, who you are, your soul purpose, personality and what you would like to accomplish in your life. Not everyone is the same. From one person to another, you will do things differently, have different beliefs, have different circumstances, priorities and have different ways of doing things.

When I started my self-healing journey, the biggest change happened for me when I allowed myself to have two hours for just me every morning before the rest of my family woke up. This time allowed me to fully connect, dig into my self-healing books and programs and better myself. Because I had chosen the morning for this time, it set up my day to succeed as I had already put time into myself, feeding my heart and soul, and allowing me to be the best me for the day. This also made decision making clearer for me. I knew I was on the right track because I was motivated to continue, it felt good and freeing.

With this self-acknowledgement, my self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-love grew naturally. The more ways I honoured yourself, the happier I became, the lighter I felt and life began to flow with ease. Once I became connected with what made me happy, the faster my perspective changed. I was more accepting of others and all forms of judgment then disappears; self-judgement, judgement of others and other’s judgements on me. When I was able to release all of my self-judgements, I felt more confident within yourself and no longer needed anyone else’s opinions. When I got to the point, where I became absolutely comfortable within me and no longer felt the need to rely on other’s opinions, I instead use their suggestions as I saw suitable.

By honouring myself with “me time” everyday, I find my freedom, live my passion, and am present with my life.

My vision is:
“For all moms to think of themselves as no less than extraordinary!”

Much love, appreciation & gratitude,
Tracy Munson
Natural Health Strategist & Coach, NHP, CDC

 

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My New Year’s Rebirth in Guatemala

Driving along the quiet morning streets of a city I would come to know and love, I bawled into the musky atmosphere of the cab. I had just flown to Los Angeles for about a week, to visit a man who would become a bigger part of my life than I could ever imagine. But as the sun began to rise and the infamous LAX came into view, I felt less than elated to be hopping on a flight to Guatemala City.

It was the day before New Year’s Eve, and the looming new year on the horizon stood a mysterious silhouette in a grey backdrop. At first the plan seemed simple, go to Central America, have a work holiday, more or less. It seemed fitting, but sometimes what you think you are ‘meant’ to do doesn’t match up with what the world has planned for you. The firm seats of the plane reminded me that I was about to spend the next few weeks in unfamiliar places, and likely sitting in similarly firm bus seats, which was almost comforting, as although I had come to realize I had no idea why I was going to Guatemala, maybe it was a childhood fascination finally coming to life, that I indeed took refuge in the unfamiliar.

When you do not know a city, when you do not know a face or a name, reality seems more malleable, free from the conditions and generalizations we bind ourselves with. But it wasn’t until after I left Central America for the second time that I would conclude that sometimes you can’t simply put yourself out of the norm, you have to be completely destroyed, and born again anew.

Arriving in the beautiful colonial city of Antigua, Guatemala, I felt instantly lonely. A rare sensation, and a wave of isolation and being far from the world I knew washed over, even as I walked the stone streets, full of character and stories. New Year’s Eve was spent with a gaggle of Australians whom I’d met that day at my hostel. Predictable, but at least I knew that all over the world, people were celebrating the same thing, a shift in time, a new year, a new era. The night proceeded in a sickly classic way, the parties were many and the drinks too strong. Upon losing my group of newly acquainted travel buddies I quickly realized I was now well and truly alone, wandering the ghostly streets of a potentially dangerous city.

Fear introduced itself promptly and again I found myself caught in a whirling dizziness of confusion. Where is my hostel? Why am I suddenly by myself? Questions of my own sanity brought me to eventual surrender when a car pulled up. It was a police officer. Now this had to be one of the strangest experiences of my life, and still now it holds a mind boggling surreal quality. The officer asked me what was wrong, to which I could barely answer between sobs. To my own surprise, as I generally consider myself verging on the edge of paranoia, I agreed to be driven home after he kindly took me to get food and a coffee.

Crying to a strange police officer over cake, in a foreign country, about nothing in particular, is probably one of the most embarrassing and messed up accounts I could ever recall, but as I began to settle down and he listened to me, offering even more surprising words of wisdom, I began to notice that on this New Year’s Day, I had been reborn. It sounds silly, but it literally felt like a piece of me had left, abruptly resigned, in the face of such fear, discomfort and the internal pain that I had been feeling. Sometimes we can only see freedom when we are forced to face ourselves solely, with no walls, no security blankets, no friends, no money, nothing we have been so trained to value, alone.

The aura of confusion still lingered but was not pressing, there was a certain lightness now. I continued to enjoy my next 4 weeks in Guatemala, and 2 weeks in Mexico, the best I possibly could, allowing what was meant to be to be. I met amazing people. I swam. I (hestitantly) rode horses on cliffs. I hiked to the tops of mountains at sunrise and sunset. I danced and ate and listened to music. I got sick. Really sick. I lost my phone. My computer died. I got sick again. I tried not to blame myself for being sick. I visited amazing places. I made a best friend.

And I watched. I observed. And still now, when I recall the entirety of my journeys from Guatemala City to Mexico and finally back to Los Angeles, when I rejoiced in being back in North America despite my mind-blowing travels, I watch it all as a movie I have seen a thousand times, and know that in some way, I had to be completely destroyed to find my freedom, to let go of all that I perceived to be true in order to make room for the new and spectacular things that were about to enter my life. I had nothing to lose. Freedom had been chasing me down, like a ghost longing to make itself known, so that I could finally stare it straight in the face.

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I Choose My Freedom in Australia…For Now

We laid on our sides on what I once called our bed. Nose touching tip of nose, eyes locked into eyes. I traced the outside of his face with my free hand, imagining that I could feel the difference between the brown, gold and crimson strands of his beard underneath my fingertips. The scent of him filled me like smoke. I breathed in earth, clean laundry and a hint of weed. In this bed, there was nothing else. Only the physical tug of my heart to his, our breath slowed down to one. If I made this moment my entire world, I was happy.

“Come home,” he said, breaking the comfortable silence. “You can still travel. Just come home to me.”

I was leaving him for now the third time. The freedom that comes with traveling– the thrill of uncertainty, the choices that follow ambiguity– had once again found prominence in my heart over anything that would just make me one half of a whole. This time, I’d be gone for more than a four month backpacking stint around Europe or South America. I was going to Australia for at least a year, and I intended to finally make this breakup stick.

However, my mind struggled to find the flaw in his plan, drunk as I was on the happiness that I associated with his presence. It sounded nice. I could have both.

He assured me certainty, security, love, a future–the sweetest of chains. So I imagined living out my life with him, continuing the dream state of that bed. The only thing that he truly stimulated in me was a sexual desire. The rest would continue to be a mindless routine, devoid of intelligent conversation. He would watch football. I would cook him lasagna. He’d tell me he thought it was cute that I liked to read. I’d try in vain to discuss Orwell with him. He would work at the bar. I would find some middleman job. He’d buy a house in a small Massachusetts town. We’d take turns digging our cars out of the New England snow, and he’d get angry when he caught me lusting after Google images of exotic places. We’d smoke weed everyday to further along the numbing effect. He’d get me pregnant one day, like he always wanted. He’d teach our child to throw a ball, and I’d try to instill enough independence and individuality in her so that she could live the life I always wanted–a life of adventure and freedom.

To stay with him would have been to make the choice to throw a huge spoiler alert over my entire life, to watch the Red Wedding scene of Game of Thrones just as I got invested in the first season. Our relationship presented only walls and no frontiers.

I didn’t know who I was when I wasn’t his. All I knew was that it bothered me, a literal constant pain in my side each time I realised that I was becoming part of an indifferent and incurious population that gets stuck in relationships that are finite, lethargic and easy. I realized that I lived for my connection to him, changing myself to fit his mold. I neglected everything else that I ever wanted, pursuing those finite moments of happiness wholeheartedly so that I could mollify my anxiety in the face of my natural state, the state of freedom. I wasn’t committed to my authenticity; I hid from it.

My urge to strike out on my own was a gut reaction, a survival instinct. I needed to ease the stomach-clenching dread that accompanied the notion of remaining in one place for long, and for someone else. I needed the ignition that comes with waking up in a strange city or country, stimulating myself by way of exploration, acquainting myself with a new place through its food, having informed and varied discussions in broken English over a hostel dining room table. My freedom comes with the weight of a backpack on my shoulders, a one-way ticket and a culture shock. I am the only one in this world who can give me what I crave; to travel. To live a life as a traveller means living a life of contrast and spontaneity, ambiguity and choices.

I did not say that travel made me “happy,” although it often does. Happiness is not the attainable lifetime goal. Happiness is finite. What I sought was freedom, an infinite state of being that far surpasses a vague and unattainable notion of absolute contentment.

So as I lay in that bed, contemplating the tear I had to force between us, I focused on my refusal to be defined by my environment and my sentiment, rather than by the choices I made when faced with uncertainty.

I’ve been living in Australia for almost 10 months now, and I am face to face with my independence everyday, my choice to try on life as a 24 year old Melburnian for the time being, absorbing the parts of it that add to my shifting identity. I do not know what the next steps are, for I cannot see them clearly or at all. And that’s okay. To have a full knowledge of what my years hold would be just as finite as a committed relationship with a small-minded man. The mystery that comes with knowing nothing is infinite. I am faced with an unlimited spectrum, and all I must do is choose and take responsibility for my choices, may they always be in line with my most authentic state. This is what makes me free.

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The Power of Unique Experiences in Indonesia

Kerthunk, kerthunk, kerthunk.

I felt as if someone had sunk a fistful of fear into my heart and let it pound it into the rest of my body. My stomach felt like it was trying to retreat behind my ribs, my eyes were wide. Reason told me I shouldn’t have been so phobic. But I was staring down my nemeses, and reason was quickly losing its place in my repertoire.

Actually, “nemeses” might be a strong word for something the size of a pin head. These were a couple of bugs so small that one could easily mistake them for a floating piece of white lint, especially in the flickering shadows of the Balinese evening. They were bed bug nymphs, and their presence meant I needed to leave before they could scurry their way into my belongings.

My mind flashed back to a bitter night far away from the hostel on the quaint Indonesian road. I was back in my apartment in Massachusetts, back to the shock of finding an infestation of biting little bugs that snuck through the folds of my sofa and cracks in the hardwood floors. I retreated to the bathtub at two in the morning, saturated in dread.

Bed bugs aren’t dangerous, but eradicating them is an awful and laborious process. I had been in physical therapy for years for a bad back. My nearest family member was hundreds of miles away. I couldn’t imagine how to pack all my belongings away with my unstable bones. I cringed in anticipation of the pain that could come from rounds of laundering everything I owned, spraying things down with isopropyl, and moving furniture for exterminators.

The predicted injury and accompanying pain led to my first visit to Indonesia. I questioned if other people with physical disadvantages could get caught in similarly horrendous situations throughout the world, and secured a grant to research the topic in several countries. Come spring, I set off on a great multinational adventure in which I fervently chased answers and lines of longitude.

During that journey, I took a ferry from Singapore to spend a couple days in Bintan Island, Indonesia. Between the driftwood and palm fronds on an empty stretch of beach, I stopped to see an eroding message written in the sand: “LIFE ALWAYS FINDS A WAY”. I felt like some vanished scribe had written it there as part of my story, like the universe had left the words there just for me.

I bought a ticket to Bali during a turbulent period a couple years later. I wanted to head back to the country where clairvoyants roamed the islands and messages were hidden in the sand.

In the place where I expected to find order and inner peace, I was being gripped by memories of injured sleepless nights and unresolved past fears. I hauled my backpack to the safety of the front porch and dove into my phone, searching furiously for new accommodations, comfort from friends, and ways to clean old demons out of potentially contaminated belongings.

I sat on the ground for so long that the stones had imprinted their shapes on my legs, so I headed to the roof terrace to obsess over my problems in privacy. I looked out to see a brilliant sunset, a scattering of stringy blue clouds hanging on a backdrop of potent pinks and oranges. Beyond the edge of the peninsula, the ocean was mirroring the colorful banners of the sunset, making it seem almost endless.

I wasn’t sure how many sunsets I’d missed while my phobias were running amok, but I didn’t want to miss that one. In the last journey I hadn’t learned to compartmentalize my thoughts, to stop a bout of fear from tainting all of the glory around me. I turned the phone on its face to gaze at the sunset, to listen to the ensemble of cicadas and monkeys and the chattering and clinking of bottles from guests downstairs.

Travel has power to put you out in the caprices of the unknown and onto the stoops of old haunts. But sometimes, it also offers you a chance at redemption.

I was myself again, watching silently as the ocean was swallowed by the night. I was free from those harrowing and pervasive fears, unshackled from the tunnel vision of anxiety.

I found no more messages in the sand, no phantoms to leave signs that I had gotten things right. I was left with open road, a painted sky, and gorgeous wildlife; all that I sought and all that I needed.

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Feeling Insignificant on Serene Mt. Rainier, USA

The feel of snow in August is a unique experience reserved for those in either extreme latitudes or significant altitudes. Mt. Rainier certainly qualifies for the latter category. I had taken a break on the side of the Mountain to prep for my final push towards Camp Muir, a staging area which sits about 4,000’ short of the summit of Mt. Rainier at 14,411’. Although I needed to catch my breath for the climb ahead, this task seemed figuratively impossible given the breathtaking vista surrounding me. To the south lay the smoke-obscured teeth of the Tatoosh range, and beyond them the still-visible volcanic peaks of St. Helens and Adams. Looking to the West, I saw the Cowlitz Glacier dissipating to thin waterfalls that collected in the valley below. But it was the northern view that was the most commanding, as this sight contained the camp, the summit and a blinding stretch of steep snow that constituted the rest of my hike.

Moments like this take me back to a line I overheard in Seattle just a few days before my hike: “The great thing about nature is how it makes us feel small”. I disagreed with the speaker, at least in part. If the feeling of smallness was truly all we sought in nature, there really would be no reason to travel there. Smallness is so much easier to find in a cubical from 9-to-5, a fact I am well acquainted with. Three months prior to this evening and this hike, I was living a comfortable life in Boston with a good paying job. Stability, activity, and the prospect of upwards mobility were all luxuries I enjoyed, but it was still a small existence, a fact intensified by my oppressive anxiety and frequent panic attacks.

Conventional wisdom would have recommended, at times like this, that the weary worker take a vacation and “get your head in order”. I took the wisdom, but neglected the conventionality, boarding an Amtrak train in Boston and seeing where I could go over the next few months. This eventually brought me to the Space Needle in Seattle, where I got my first good view of Mt. Rainer. The thing was big, not just in raw mass, but with understated gravity. It gripped my attention and demanded personification, quietly scoffing at the Needle I was standing on. I left the elevator with a single conviction in mind, one that brought me to my break point on the side of Mt. Rainer, just a few hundred feet below the camp.

If ever I had sound reason for suffering a panic attack, this would be that time. I was by myself on one of the deadliest hiking trails in the country, where the afternoon sun was opening crevasses below my feet and cutting my friction-less progress to a negligible sum. What if my exertion led to a heart attack, where would they take me? Or if a storm rolls in and I lose my sense of direction? These thoughts and more could have easily crossed my mind, but none did. Instead, my focus lay in just placing one foot in front of the other until I arrived on the stone-carved steps of Camp Muir. And then I saw how small I really was. But this feeling of smallness was different than the one I knew three months prior. This experience was expansive, elevated, the kind that makes you breathe easier with a younger smile on your face. I was, in that moment, entwined within something bigger than myself without being absolved into it.

Suffice it to say, I never did return from my vacation, at least not to the job I had before. There was many more moments that lead to that decision, but the encounter with Rainier demonstrated something that I once had, had lost, and must work to awaken again. The path from here remains uncertain, but it is now a path that does at least go on..

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From Vietnamese Mangroves and a Loving Mom

The runway was not much more than a lightly paved strip of soil which popped out of the rice paddies and mangroves like a long, rectangular oasis. As I exited the 1950’s prop, much like the one that Indiana Jones rides in Raiders of the Lost Ark, I felt stifled instead of being freed from the tight quarters that I’d just ridden in. The density and weight of the atmosphere made it hard to inhale deeply– and it was more than just heat and humidity of the southernmost part of Vietnam – Ca Mau, a peninsular province with the Gulf of Thailand to the West and the Pacific Ocean to the South and East. I was stepping foot on the same soil where my son was born, breathing the same sticky, tropical air that he did. The son I had not yet met, and the son that I would not be bringing home to Indiana after the eight days that I’d be there.

As excited as I was to meet my baby — the one that I dreamed of and had dreams for — I needed to guard my emotions. Upon seeing my first photo of him, my heart skipped a beat when I gazed into those deep brown eyes and saw the shock of black hair standing up on his head. I knew that without a doubt that he was my son. It was my moment of a doctor handing my child to me to put on my chest and feeling a love like no other.

Much like the southern Vietnamese mangroves’ intertwined roots, strong and complicated, his homecoming was constricted by the fact that he was stuck — stuck in an orphanage due to political posturing by both the U.S. and Vietnamese governments not willing to move an inch to finalize his adoption, despite him living in squalid and unsafe orphanage conditions.

I flew half-way around the world and was there with two other moms in the same situation to help care for our children and the others in the orphanage. It was the one small thing we could actually do to help our kids, while we lobbied Congressional leaders and the State Department on the homefront.

Within minutes sweat was streaming down my face and soaking my clothes – a combination of the oppressive heat and my anxiety. My friends and I headed out to the orphanage in a taxi. There were few cars on the road, mostly bicycles and motor bikes. We raced along the tropical landscape – passing roadside markets where vendors sold pineapples, roosters in woven basket cages, plastic kitchenware and even python meat. Our taxi driver honked incessantly as he passed cars, though few, and played a game of chicken with oncoming traffic. A movie of mangroves and long boats with weathered fishermen, and the occasional water buffalo grazing in a yard ran through the car windows. Children with bare feet and dirty faces dotted the fast-moving landscape – all of it beautiful, colorful and full of life.

Finally, we turned down a one-lane dirt road lined by shallow canals, lush mango and tamarind trees, and tin roof-shacks with hammocks as beds. My stomach dropped to my knees when I saw the orphanage building.

My 22-month old son was literally imprisoned in his tiny room — it had bars on the windows, a former internment camp from the Vietnam War.

I had many conversations with him before I got to Vietnam (all in my head), promising him that I would do whatever it took to get him home to Indiana. I’d say “good night” to him when I woke up in the morning and whisper “good morning” before I fell asleep at night, living with my heart twelve hours ahead. And that week, I told him in person — kissing his smooth, tan cheeks, my tears wetting his sweet face as I held him close. And, then having to leave him.

Twenty-six months later, in the most unusual of places, we found refuge surrounded by luggage carts, drug-sniffing Beagles and a melody of different languages at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. His two tiny feet touched U.S. soil, and I felt palpable relief from my shoulders, fighting back yet another set of tears as my husband squeezed my hand and hugged us both.

Sitting at our departure gate for the last leg of our journey home, he sat in my lap and munched on a banana and French fries.

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My Unlikely Friends in Mountainous Ecuador

It’s hot. How can it be this hot? Since arriving in Salasaka, this indigenous village in the Ecuadorian Andes, I have had a constantly sun-burned, peeling nose. Having an 8-year-old child on my back doesn’t help.

I struggle along, Fernanda on my back and her 5-year-old sister Ñusta leading the way. Ñusta is a great helper, waddling along with her sick sister’s backpack, which is almost as large as her. We walk down the wide, dusty roads lined with agave; sheep bleat and donkeys bray, everyone lazily complaining about the sweltering heat. I can see endlessly across the green, quilt-patterned hills, and everything looks exactly the same. We could be anywhere in all of Salasaka, and I would have no idea. All I can do is trust the girls to know where they live. At the school where I am teaching, when a child gets sick like Fernanda has, we can’t just call home, mom rushing over in her minivan to pick the child up, sign her out for the day. Almost no households in this village have a phone, and neither does the school. The only way to get them home is to do this, to carry them for miles until you reach the shanty and farm that is their home.

As a recently trained child therapist back in the U.S., I feel sick with guilt because it’s breaking every rule in the book that I’m doing this. Carrying a child on my back for miles? Taking them home when their parents haven’t given me signed permission? But I’m not their therapist, I remind myself, or try to. Because Fernanda is sick, and needs to get home, and this moment is more important than all the things I learned in graduate school.

“Podemos descansar?”, I ask the girls. Can we rest? I gently set Fernanda down, and the 3 of us sit together in the shade of a stack of cement blocks. Fernanda immediately lies down and puts her head in my lap. My “clinical instinct” is to gently remove her from her physical contact with me. Physical affection is always a liability. Keep your “boundaries”, they tell you. To the 7-year-old client who innocently tells me, I love you, I am trained to respond, I see that you really care about me, and I care about you too. Not “I love you too”, never that. A separation between you and the child. Care about her, of course, but from a distance.

I quit my job as a therapist because I was so terrified of how much I cared about my kids. I must not be doing something right, I felt. I must not be cut out for this. It broke my heart. A career down the drain because I just loved those kids too much. But here I was, in the mountains of South America to where I escaped, doing the same thing. Loving too much, again.

But I can’t help it. I love Fernanda. My heart is filled with her. She is only 8 years old and already the smartest student in school. She pulls my hand before recess ends every morning, lamenting, “Vamos a clase!” She watches over my shoulder with anxiety that is palpable as I grade her multiplication drills, as if she has ever received anything less than a 100%. There is a moodiness about her, a subtle neediness, and she sometimes sits apart from the group as Renato, the music teacher, leads them in warbling South American pop songs.

A woman passes where we sit catching our breath, wearing her chumbi and green shawl, half a dozen protesting sheep leading the way. She looks at me, and her confusion is reflected in her glare. What is this gringa doing out here with two of our precious children? The girls chat pleasantly with her in Kichwa, the sing-song indigenous language that I haven’t learned yet, and finally, she smiles, understanding. And somehow, with that smile, she is granting me the permission to love this child freely, to really love her, to love her and all of her sisters and friends without clinical boundaries, without restriction. Love her simply, freely, not as a professional but as a fellow human being, as an adult in the community who shares the responsibility of raising and caring for her. And maybe that’s not such a terrible thing.

I put my hand on Fernanda’s forehead. She doesn’t feel hot, and I don’t know if she was really sick at all or if she just wanted this time with me. “Listas?”, I ask the girls, and Ñusta puts on two backpacks, her own in the back and Fernanda’s in the front. I stoop to let Fernanda on my back, and we keep on walking.

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New Experiences with Monkeys in India

I was sitting cross-legged on a four-inch mattress that doubled as my bed. Sweat engulfed all of my pores as a simple fan hummed above. I glanced up from my book. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a medium-sized monkey open my screen door with ease. I blinked. I observed a second monkey trailing behind and then another.

My jaw dropped. I sat speechless. Three wild monkeys were just a couple of yards away.

Without hesitation, they walked toward a small round table next to my bright red refrigerator. All three admired my possessions. The taller one glanced back in my direction as if to say, “ha, ha”. With one hand, he grabbed one of my Tupperware containers. Within seconds, the monkeys vanished, leaving my door open in their wake.

I sat bewildered. Should I laugh or should I cry?

Just weeks earlier, I had started teaching at an international K-12 boarding school in Bangalore, India. As an American middle-aged educator, I jumped at the opportunity to work and travel abroad. Most of my friends and family members thought that I was experiencing a midlife crisis. Why would I leave my cushy suburban life to work in a developing country?

For years, a series of orthopedic issues had prevented me from using my K-6 teaching license. To remain an educator, I became an adjunct instructor at a local community college. I loved teaching, but something was missing.

When I was offered the primary international teaching position, one of my dreams was finally fulfilled. Once again, I would have the opportunity to work with children and use my teaching credentials. But would I be able to step outside my comfort zone and face my natural fears of living in another country?

After all, I was a middle-age woman who hadn’t traveled alone in decades. I wasn’t traveling to unfamiliar neighborhoods within driving distance of my home. I was flying half way around the world to travel solo in a foreign country. If I had any chance of being successful, I had to regain my independent spirit. I had to look forward and not scurry back to what felt safe. I relied on my inner voice that wouldn’t stop whispering, “You can do it.”

I wasn’t looking to the popular Nike slogan, “Just Do It.” I was recalling another image. Decades ago, I read the classic book, The Little Engine That Could, to my sons. How fitting that in midlife, I would look to a children’s book to instill confidence. Just like the small train in this inspiring story, I had to use daily reminders to keep me on track.

After the three thieves left my guest room, the uncertainty returned. Could I simply laugh off the absurdity of wild monkeys stealing my food or would I succumb to the temptation to long for a more predictable life? This wasn’t the first time that the monkeys had trespassed. Like ants that gravitate toward food crumbs, these larger pests could be found everywhere humans congregated. The school campus was inundated. Groups of monkeys frequented classrooms, stairwells, the playground, the open fields, the lunchroom, and the pathways between buildings.

Fanciful irrational emotions flooded my well being like a tsunami. My mind planned ways to escape in the middle of the night without a trace. While I rationally knew that I had to cope with my new life in India, it was much easier to create plans for fleeing.

I had no choice but to face my challenges head on. The monkey situation was just one example of a multitude of events. Each day was filled with unfamiliar and strange happenings.

For comfort, I listened to my favorite songs from my youth and thought about others who had successfully dealt with obstacles. I recalled times when I had to overcome challenging situations. I posted one of Eleanor Roosevelt’s quotes above my desk:

The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.

I was working as an international teacher and I wasn’t going to let any of my fears erode my confidence or destroy my dreams. My inner voice became my daily mantra. Instead of hearing a small voice inside, I mouthed the words, “I can do it.”

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Christchurch, New Zealand will always be in my heart

It’s not the miles from Home what made Me Change. It was the Emotions and Experiences New to Me. At the End I did traveled far enough, but just enough to find myself.

And I had to travel miles, distance myself for my closest things, and experience many different emotions to discover about myself, to embrace myself.
I had to keep the distance from what I knew or thought it was safe to be born again.
I had to come to the other side of the world to understand and discover myself.
I didn’t travel places. I traveled emotions inside of me.
I didn’t distance myself from Home. I created a new Home.
My heart became new; my eyes saw the bright light again.
My soul was lifted.
I was born again here.
I FELT ALIVE AND FREE AGAIN!
See, I didn’t travel just for the sake of traveling. I was naïve.
I didn’t know that away from Home you can actually find yourself.
See… I LEARNED THAT TODAY…
I had to get away to truly find myself AND FREEDOM….AGAIN!

This is my poetic way to explain all my feelings since I have moved to Christchurch, New Zealand. I wish I had more eloquent words to describe all the wonders that this country offers. It’s not only a beautiful country for its gorgeous landscapes, but it is also a country filled with great and humble people.
I moved from Miami to Christchurch, New Zealand in February of 2012 with my husband as an expatriate wife. I came with the “Miami” ideas if you can call it that, you know the big city girl ideas. And I was changed.
In Christchurch I learned to relax, to reconnect with myself. To learn about the kiwi culture, to understand that they enjoy being around nature. And that if ask them about the world, they are probably well traveled folks, but they will always return to their home country.
I learned to smile back when they smile at me walking on the street because the kiwis are very polite, and you should smile back! I learned that is ok to recycle your cartoon eggs because is just nice to return to the veggie store with a full bag of cartoon eggs to give back to them and see their smile. And to show them that you care for the environment and that you care for their store.
I learned that even being miles away from home, I can still enjoy Latin music because kiwis have a taste for dancing salsa. I learned that if you suffer a loss, like I did, a big loss, a miscarriage, the kiwis will be there for you. They will prepare your meals, they will clean your house, they will give you a word of comfort and they will be calling you back just to make sure you are doing ok.
These four years spent in New Zealand made me open my eyes to new cultures, to trying new things in life. I even tried to ski for god sake! I, the Cuban / Miami only beach please kind of girl. These four years have been amazing, and I will totally recommend visiting New Zealand.
Thank you Christchurch for all this time with Me, you made ME a new person, you gave Me back my FREEDOM WINGS!

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CANADA: Finding Yourself and Finding Your World

Where I find freedom….

I am often asked this questions being a mother to four young children, a wife, an entrepreneur, and an aspiring author. How do I find the time for me?

The first step for me was realizing that I needed time and freedom for myself and I had to make it happen. Prior to going on my personal development journey to healing and find my self-love. I was going through my life trying to do what would satisfy others and make them proud. Not too long after I graduated from high school I went to college to become a Natural Health Practitioner. I had a lot of criticism from my loved ones as this was not a field they understood or could relate to, in their eyes was not credible. Even before receiving my diploma, I had decided that I would become an electrician. Instead of pursuing my dream, I went into something that I knew would be accepted by everyone around me. Just a couple months after receiving my diploma I started my electrical apprenticeship. I received praise from all my loved ones and even complete strangers, which persuaded me to keep going.

I had to hit rock-bottom before realizing that I needed to honour myself and find that freedom for me. When I was pregnant with my fourth child, I realized that I was miserable, felt lost, misplaced and disconnected within your own skin. Living in a world full of judgement, feeling as though I needed to portray a perfect life, and putting unrealistic expectations upon myself, resulted in a lot of disappointment and feelings of failure. Being occupied by another’s needs each and every day without honouring myself, lead to exhaustion and deep disconnection within myself.

In society we have been essentially programmed to put on a facade to express how “ideal” our life should be and how we should be in the eyes of our generally population. There is an accepted way to be, look, act, the house, vehicle and life you should strive for, the items or things you should have. When really all these things should be customized to each individual, who you are, your soul purpose, personality and what you would like to accomplish in your life. Not everyone is the same. From one person to another, you will do things differently, have different beliefs, have different circumstances, priorities and have different ways of doing things.

When I started my self-healing journey, the biggest change happened for me when I allowed myself to have two hours for just me every morning before the rest of my family woke up. This time allowed me to fully connect, dig into my self-healing books and programs and better myself. Because I had chosen the morning for this time, it set up my day to succeed as I had already put time into myself, feeding my heart and soul, and allowing me to be the best me for the day. This also made decision making clearer for me. I knew I was on the right track because I was motivated to continue, it felt good and freeing.

With this self-acknowledgement, my self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-love grew naturally. The more ways I honoured yourself, the happier I became, the lighter I felt and life began to flow with ease. Once I became connected with what made me happy, the faster my perspective changed. I was more accepting of others and all forms of judgment then disappears; self-judgement, judgement of others and other’s judgements on me. When I was able to release all of my self-judgements, I felt more confident within yourself and no longer needed anyone else’s opinions. When I got to the point, where I became absolutely comfortable within me and no longer felt the need to rely on other’s opinions, I instead use their suggestions as I saw suitable.

By honouring myself with “me time” everyday, I find my freedom, live my passion, and am present with my life.

My vision is:
“For all moms to think of themselves as no less than extraordinary!”

Much love, appreciation & gratitude,
Tracy Munson
Natural Health Strategist & Coach, NHP, CDC

 

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My New Year’s Rebirth in Guatemala

Driving along the quiet morning streets of a city I would come to know and love, I bawled into the musky atmosphere of the cab. I had just flown to Los Angeles for about a week, to visit a man who would become a bigger part of my life than I could ever imagine. But as the sun began to rise and the infamous LAX came into view, I felt less than elated to be hopping on a flight to Guatemala City.

It was the day before New Year’s Eve, and the looming new year on the horizon stood a mysterious silhouette in a grey backdrop. At first the plan seemed simple, go to Central America, have a work holiday, more or less. It seemed fitting, but sometimes what you think you are ‘meant’ to do doesn’t match up with what the world has planned for you. The firm seats of the plane reminded me that I was about to spend the next few weeks in unfamiliar places, and likely sitting in similarly firm bus seats, which was almost comforting, as although I had come to realize I had no idea why I was going to Guatemala, maybe it was a childhood fascination finally coming to life, that I indeed took refuge in the unfamiliar.

When you do not know a city, when you do not know a face or a name, reality seems more malleable, free from the conditions and generalizations we bind ourselves with. But it wasn’t until after I left Central America for the second time that I would conclude that sometimes you can’t simply put yourself out of the norm, you have to be completely destroyed, and born again anew.

Arriving in the beautiful colonial city of Antigua, Guatemala, I felt instantly lonely. A rare sensation, and a wave of isolation and being far from the world I knew washed over, even as I walked the stone streets, full of character and stories. New Year’s Eve was spent with a gaggle of Australians whom I’d met that day at my hostel. Predictable, but at least I knew that all over the world, people were celebrating the same thing, a shift in time, a new year, a new era. The night proceeded in a sickly classic way, the parties were many and the drinks too strong. Upon losing my group of newly acquainted travel buddies I quickly realized I was now well and truly alone, wandering the ghostly streets of a potentially dangerous city.

Fear introduced itself promptly and again I found myself caught in a whirling dizziness of confusion. Where is my hostel? Why am I suddenly by myself? Questions of my own sanity brought me to eventual surrender when a car pulled up. It was a police officer. Now this had to be one of the strangest experiences of my life, and still now it holds a mind boggling surreal quality. The officer asked me what was wrong, to which I could barely answer between sobs. To my own surprise, as I generally consider myself verging on the edge of paranoia, I agreed to be driven home after he kindly took me to get food and a coffee.

Crying to a strange police officer over cake, in a foreign country, about nothing in particular, is probably one of the most embarrassing and messed up accounts I could ever recall, but as I began to settle down and he listened to me, offering even more surprising words of wisdom, I began to notice that on this New Year’s Day, I had been reborn. It sounds silly, but it literally felt like a piece of me had left, abruptly resigned, in the face of such fear, discomfort and the internal pain that I had been feeling. Sometimes we can only see freedom when we are forced to face ourselves solely, with no walls, no security blankets, no friends, no money, nothing we have been so trained to value, alone.

The aura of confusion still lingered but was not pressing, there was a certain lightness now. I continued to enjoy my next 4 weeks in Guatemala, and 2 weeks in Mexico, the best I possibly could, allowing what was meant to be to be. I met amazing people. I swam. I (hestitantly) rode horses on cliffs. I hiked to the tops of mountains at sunrise and sunset. I danced and ate and listened to music. I got sick. Really sick. I lost my phone. My computer died. I got sick again. I tried not to blame myself for being sick. I visited amazing places. I made a best friend.

And I watched. I observed. And still now, when I recall the entirety of my journeys from Guatemala City to Mexico and finally back to Los Angeles, when I rejoiced in being back in North America despite my mind-blowing travels, I watch it all as a movie I have seen a thousand times, and know that in some way, I had to be completely destroyed to find my freedom, to let go of all that I perceived to be true in order to make room for the new and spectacular things that were about to enter my life. I had nothing to lose. Freedom had been chasing me down, like a ghost longing to make itself known, so that I could finally stare it straight in the face.

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I Choose My Freedom in Australia…For Now

We laid on our sides on what I once called our bed. Nose touching tip of nose, eyes locked into eyes. I traced the outside of his face with my free hand, imagining that I could feel the difference between the brown, gold and crimson strands of his beard underneath my fingertips. The scent of him filled me like smoke. I breathed in earth, clean laundry and a hint of weed. In this bed, there was nothing else. Only the physical tug of my heart to his, our breath slowed down to one. If I made this moment my entire world, I was happy.

“Come home,” he said, breaking the comfortable silence. “You can still travel. Just come home to me.”

I was leaving him for now the third time. The freedom that comes with traveling– the thrill of uncertainty, the choices that follow ambiguity– had once again found prominence in my heart over anything that would just make me one half of a whole. This time, I’d be gone for more than a four month backpacking stint around Europe or South America. I was going to Australia for at least a year, and I intended to finally make this breakup stick.

However, my mind struggled to find the flaw in his plan, drunk as I was on the happiness that I associated with his presence. It sounded nice. I could have both.

He assured me certainty, security, love, a future–the sweetest of chains. So I imagined living out my life with him, continuing the dream state of that bed. The only thing that he truly stimulated in me was a sexual desire. The rest would continue to be a mindless routine, devoid of intelligent conversation. He would watch football. I would cook him lasagna. He’d tell me he thought it was cute that I liked to read. I’d try in vain to discuss Orwell with him. He would work at the bar. I would find some middleman job. He’d buy a house in a small Massachusetts town. We’d take turns digging our cars out of the New England snow, and he’d get angry when he caught me lusting after Google images of exotic places. We’d smoke weed everyday to further along the numbing effect. He’d get me pregnant one day, like he always wanted. He’d teach our child to throw a ball, and I’d try to instill enough independence and individuality in her so that she could live the life I always wanted–a life of adventure and freedom.

To stay with him would have been to make the choice to throw a huge spoiler alert over my entire life, to watch the Red Wedding scene of Game of Thrones just as I got invested in the first season. Our relationship presented only walls and no frontiers.

I didn’t know who I was when I wasn’t his. All I knew was that it bothered me, a literal constant pain in my side each time I realised that I was becoming part of an indifferent and incurious population that gets stuck in relationships that are finite, lethargic and easy. I realized that I lived for my connection to him, changing myself to fit his mold. I neglected everything else that I ever wanted, pursuing those finite moments of happiness wholeheartedly so that I could mollify my anxiety in the face of my natural state, the state of freedom. I wasn’t committed to my authenticity; I hid from it.

My urge to strike out on my own was a gut reaction, a survival instinct. I needed to ease the stomach-clenching dread that accompanied the notion of remaining in one place for long, and for someone else. I needed the ignition that comes with waking up in a strange city or country, stimulating myself by way of exploration, acquainting myself with a new place through its food, having informed and varied discussions in broken English over a hostel dining room table. My freedom comes with the weight of a backpack on my shoulders, a one-way ticket and a culture shock. I am the only one in this world who can give me what I crave; to travel. To live a life as a traveller means living a life of contrast and spontaneity, ambiguity and choices.

I did not say that travel made me “happy,” although it often does. Happiness is not the attainable lifetime goal. Happiness is finite. What I sought was freedom, an infinite state of being that far surpasses a vague and unattainable notion of absolute contentment.

So as I lay in that bed, contemplating the tear I had to force between us, I focused on my refusal to be defined by my environment and my sentiment, rather than by the choices I made when faced with uncertainty.

I’ve been living in Australia for almost 10 months now, and I am face to face with my independence everyday, my choice to try on life as a 24 year old Melburnian for the time being, absorbing the parts of it that add to my shifting identity. I do not know what the next steps are, for I cannot see them clearly or at all. And that’s okay. To have a full knowledge of what my years hold would be just as finite as a committed relationship with a small-minded man. The mystery that comes with knowing nothing is infinite. I am faced with an unlimited spectrum, and all I must do is choose and take responsibility for my choices, may they always be in line with my most authentic state. This is what makes me free.

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The Power of Unique Experiences in Indonesia

Kerthunk, kerthunk, kerthunk.

I felt as if someone had sunk a fistful of fear into my heart and let it pound it into the rest of my body. My stomach felt like it was trying to retreat behind my ribs, my eyes were wide. Reason told me I shouldn’t have been so phobic. But I was staring down my nemeses, and reason was quickly losing its place in my repertoire.

Actually, “nemeses” might be a strong word for something the size of a pin head. These were a couple of bugs so small that one could easily mistake them for a floating piece of white lint, especially in the flickering shadows of the Balinese evening. They were bed bug nymphs, and their presence meant I needed to leave before they could scurry their way into my belongings.

My mind flashed back to a bitter night far away from the hostel on the quaint Indonesian road. I was back in my apartment in Massachusetts, back to the shock of finding an infestation of biting little bugs that snuck through the folds of my sofa and cracks in the hardwood floors. I retreated to the bathtub at two in the morning, saturated in dread.

Bed bugs aren’t dangerous, but eradicating them is an awful and laborious process. I had been in physical therapy for years for a bad back. My nearest family member was hundreds of miles away. I couldn’t imagine how to pack all my belongings away with my unstable bones. I cringed in anticipation of the pain that could come from rounds of laundering everything I owned, spraying things down with isopropyl, and moving furniture for exterminators.

The predicted injury and accompanying pain led to my first visit to Indonesia. I questioned if other people with physical disadvantages could get caught in similarly horrendous situations throughout the world, and secured a grant to research the topic in several countries. Come spring, I set off on a great multinational adventure in which I fervently chased answers and lines of longitude.

During that journey, I took a ferry from Singapore to spend a couple days in Bintan Island, Indonesia. Between the driftwood and palm fronds on an empty stretch of beach, I stopped to see an eroding message written in the sand: “LIFE ALWAYS FINDS A WAY”. I felt like some vanished scribe had written it there as part of my story, like the universe had left the words there just for me.

I bought a ticket to Bali during a turbulent period a couple years later. I wanted to head back to the country where clairvoyants roamed the islands and messages were hidden in the sand.

In the place where I expected to find order and inner peace, I was being gripped by memories of injured sleepless nights and unresolved past fears. I hauled my backpack to the safety of the front porch and dove into my phone, searching furiously for new accommodations, comfort from friends, and ways to clean old demons out of potentially contaminated belongings.

I sat on the ground for so long that the stones had imprinted their shapes on my legs, so I headed to the roof terrace to obsess over my problems in privacy. I looked out to see a brilliant sunset, a scattering of stringy blue clouds hanging on a backdrop of potent pinks and oranges. Beyond the edge of the peninsula, the ocean was mirroring the colorful banners of the sunset, making it seem almost endless.

I wasn’t sure how many sunsets I’d missed while my phobias were running amok, but I didn’t want to miss that one. In the last journey I hadn’t learned to compartmentalize my thoughts, to stop a bout of fear from tainting all of the glory around me. I turned the phone on its face to gaze at the sunset, to listen to the ensemble of cicadas and monkeys and the chattering and clinking of bottles from guests downstairs.

Travel has power to put you out in the caprices of the unknown and onto the stoops of old haunts. But sometimes, it also offers you a chance at redemption.

I was myself again, watching silently as the ocean was swallowed by the night. I was free from those harrowing and pervasive fears, unshackled from the tunnel vision of anxiety.

I found no more messages in the sand, no phantoms to leave signs that I had gotten things right. I was left with open road, a painted sky, and gorgeous wildlife; all that I sought and all that I needed.

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Feeling Insignificant on Serene Mt. Rainier, USA

The feel of snow in August is a unique experience reserved for those in either extreme latitudes or significant altitudes. Mt. Rainier certainly qualifies for the latter category. I had taken a break on the side of the Mountain to prep for my final push towards Camp Muir, a staging area which sits about 4,000’ short of the summit of Mt. Rainier at 14,411’. Although I needed to catch my breath for the climb ahead, this task seemed figuratively impossible given the breathtaking vista surrounding me. To the south lay the smoke-obscured teeth of the Tatoosh range, and beyond them the still-visible volcanic peaks of St. Helens and Adams. Looking to the West, I saw the Cowlitz Glacier dissipating to thin waterfalls that collected in the valley below. But it was the northern view that was the most commanding, as this sight contained the camp, the summit and a blinding stretch of steep snow that constituted the rest of my hike.

Moments like this take me back to a line I overheard in Seattle just a few days before my hike: “The great thing about nature is how it makes us feel small”. I disagreed with the speaker, at least in part. If the feeling of smallness was truly all we sought in nature, there really would be no reason to travel there. Smallness is so much easier to find in a cubical from 9-to-5, a fact I am well acquainted with. Three months prior to this evening and this hike, I was living a comfortable life in Boston with a good paying job. Stability, activity, and the prospect of upwards mobility were all luxuries I enjoyed, but it was still a small existence, a fact intensified by my oppressive anxiety and frequent panic attacks.

Conventional wisdom would have recommended, at times like this, that the weary worker take a vacation and “get your head in order”. I took the wisdom, but neglected the conventionality, boarding an Amtrak train in Boston and seeing where I could go over the next few months. This eventually brought me to the Space Needle in Seattle, where I got my first good view of Mt. Rainer. The thing was big, not just in raw mass, but with understated gravity. It gripped my attention and demanded personification, quietly scoffing at the Needle I was standing on. I left the elevator with a single conviction in mind, one that brought me to my break point on the side of Mt. Rainer, just a few hundred feet below the camp.

If ever I had sound reason for suffering a panic attack, this would be that time. I was by myself on one of the deadliest hiking trails in the country, where the afternoon sun was opening crevasses below my feet and cutting my friction-less progress to a negligible sum. What if my exertion led to a heart attack, where would they take me? Or if a storm rolls in and I lose my sense of direction? These thoughts and more could have easily crossed my mind, but none did. Instead, my focus lay in just placing one foot in front of the other until I arrived on the stone-carved steps of Camp Muir. And then I saw how small I really was. But this feeling of smallness was different than the one I knew three months prior. This experience was expansive, elevated, the kind that makes you breathe easier with a younger smile on your face. I was, in that moment, entwined within something bigger than myself without being absolved into it.

Suffice it to say, I never did return from my vacation, at least not to the job I had before. There was many more moments that lead to that decision, but the encounter with Rainier demonstrated something that I once had, had lost, and must work to awaken again. The path from here remains uncertain, but it is now a path that does at least go on..

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From Vietnamese Mangroves and a Loving Mom

The runway was not much more than a lightly paved strip of soil which popped out of the rice paddies and mangroves like a long, rectangular oasis. As I exited the 1950’s prop, much like the one that Indiana Jones rides in Raiders of the Lost Ark, I felt stifled instead of being freed from the tight quarters that I’d just ridden in. The density and weight of the atmosphere made it hard to inhale deeply– and it was more than just heat and humidity of the southernmost part of Vietnam – Ca Mau, a peninsular province with the Gulf of Thailand to the West and the Pacific Ocean to the South and East. I was stepping foot on the same soil where my son was born, breathing the same sticky, tropical air that he did. The son I had not yet met, and the son that I would not be bringing home to Indiana after the eight days that I’d be there.

As excited as I was to meet my baby — the one that I dreamed of and had dreams for — I needed to guard my emotions. Upon seeing my first photo of him, my heart skipped a beat when I gazed into those deep brown eyes and saw the shock of black hair standing up on his head. I knew that without a doubt that he was my son. It was my moment of a doctor handing my child to me to put on my chest and feeling a love like no other.

Much like the southern Vietnamese mangroves’ intertwined roots, strong and complicated, his homecoming was constricted by the fact that he was stuck — stuck in an orphanage due to political posturing by both the U.S. and Vietnamese governments not willing to move an inch to finalize his adoption, despite him living in squalid and unsafe orphanage conditions.

I flew half-way around the world and was there with two other moms in the same situation to help care for our children and the others in the orphanage. It was the one small thing we could actually do to help our kids, while we lobbied Congressional leaders and the State Department on the homefront.

Within minutes sweat was streaming down my face and soaking my clothes – a combination of the oppressive heat and my anxiety. My friends and I headed out to the orphanage in a taxi. There were few cars on the road, mostly bicycles and motor bikes. We raced along the tropical landscape – passing roadside markets where vendors sold pineapples, roosters in woven basket cages, plastic kitchenware and even python meat. Our taxi driver honked incessantly as he passed cars, though few, and played a game of chicken with oncoming traffic. A movie of mangroves and long boats with weathered fishermen, and the occasional water buffalo grazing in a yard ran through the car windows. Children with bare feet and dirty faces dotted the fast-moving landscape – all of it beautiful, colorful and full of life.

Finally, we turned down a one-lane dirt road lined by shallow canals, lush mango and tamarind trees, and tin roof-shacks with hammocks as beds. My stomach dropped to my knees when I saw the orphanage building.

My 22-month old son was literally imprisoned in his tiny room — it had bars on the windows, a former internment camp from the Vietnam War.

I had many conversations with him before I got to Vietnam (all in my head), promising him that I would do whatever it took to get him home to Indiana. I’d say “good night” to him when I woke up in the morning and whisper “good morning” before I fell asleep at night, living with my heart twelve hours ahead. And that week, I told him in person — kissing his smooth, tan cheeks, my tears wetting his sweet face as I held him close. And, then having to leave him.

Twenty-six months later, in the most unusual of places, we found refuge surrounded by luggage carts, drug-sniffing Beagles and a melody of different languages at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. His two tiny feet touched U.S. soil, and I felt palpable relief from my shoulders, fighting back yet another set of tears as my husband squeezed my hand and hugged us both.

Sitting at our departure gate for the last leg of our journey home, he sat in my lap and munched on a banana and French fries.

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My Unlikely Friends in Mountainous Ecuador

It’s hot. How can it be this hot? Since arriving in Salasaka, this indigenous village in the Ecuadorian Andes, I have had a constantly sun-burned, peeling nose. Having an 8-year-old child on my back doesn’t help.

I struggle along, Fernanda on my back and her 5-year-old sister Ñusta leading the way. Ñusta is a great helper, waddling along with her sick sister’s backpack, which is almost as large as her. We walk down the wide, dusty roads lined with agave; sheep bleat and donkeys bray, everyone lazily complaining about the sweltering heat. I can see endlessly across the green, quilt-patterned hills, and everything looks exactly the same. We could be anywhere in all of Salasaka, and I would have no idea. All I can do is trust the girls to know where they live. At the school where I am teaching, when a child gets sick like Fernanda has, we can’t just call home, mom rushing over in her minivan to pick the child up, sign her out for the day. Almost no households in this village have a phone, and neither does the school. The only way to get them home is to do this, to carry them for miles until you reach the shanty and farm that is their home.

As a recently trained child therapist back in the U.S., I feel sick with guilt because it’s breaking every rule in the book that I’m doing this. Carrying a child on my back for miles? Taking them home when their parents haven’t given me signed permission? But I’m not their therapist, I remind myself, or try to. Because Fernanda is sick, and needs to get home, and this moment is more important than all the things I learned in graduate school.

“Podemos descansar?”, I ask the girls. Can we rest? I gently set Fernanda down, and the 3 of us sit together in the shade of a stack of cement blocks. Fernanda immediately lies down and puts her head in my lap. My “clinical instinct” is to gently remove her from her physical contact with me. Physical affection is always a liability. Keep your “boundaries”, they tell you. To the 7-year-old client who innocently tells me, I love you, I am trained to respond, I see that you really care about me, and I care about you too. Not “I love you too”, never that. A separation between you and the child. Care about her, of course, but from a distance.

I quit my job as a therapist because I was so terrified of how much I cared about my kids. I must not be doing something right, I felt. I must not be cut out for this. It broke my heart. A career down the drain because I just loved those kids too much. But here I was, in the mountains of South America to where I escaped, doing the same thing. Loving too much, again.

But I can’t help it. I love Fernanda. My heart is filled with her. She is only 8 years old and already the smartest student in school. She pulls my hand before recess ends every morning, lamenting, “Vamos a clase!” She watches over my shoulder with anxiety that is palpable as I grade her multiplication drills, as if she has ever received anything less than a 100%. There is a moodiness about her, a subtle neediness, and she sometimes sits apart from the group as Renato, the music teacher, leads them in warbling South American pop songs.

A woman passes where we sit catching our breath, wearing her chumbi and green shawl, half a dozen protesting sheep leading the way. She looks at me, and her confusion is reflected in her glare. What is this gringa doing out here with two of our precious children? The girls chat pleasantly with her in Kichwa, the sing-song indigenous language that I haven’t learned yet, and finally, she smiles, understanding. And somehow, with that smile, she is granting me the permission to love this child freely, to really love her, to love her and all of her sisters and friends without clinical boundaries, without restriction. Love her simply, freely, not as a professional but as a fellow human being, as an adult in the community who shares the responsibility of raising and caring for her. And maybe that’s not such a terrible thing.

I put my hand on Fernanda’s forehead. She doesn’t feel hot, and I don’t know if she was really sick at all or if she just wanted this time with me. “Listas?”, I ask the girls, and Ñusta puts on two backpacks, her own in the back and Fernanda’s in the front. I stoop to let Fernanda on my back, and we keep on walking.

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New Experiences with Monkeys in India

I was sitting cross-legged on a four-inch mattress that doubled as my bed. Sweat engulfed all of my pores as a simple fan hummed above. I glanced up from my book. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a medium-sized monkey open my screen door with ease. I blinked. I observed a second monkey trailing behind and then another.

My jaw dropped. I sat speechless. Three wild monkeys were just a couple of yards away.

Without hesitation, they walked toward a small round table next to my bright red refrigerator. All three admired my possessions. The taller one glanced back in my direction as if to say, “ha, ha”. With one hand, he grabbed one of my Tupperware containers. Within seconds, the monkeys vanished, leaving my door open in their wake.

I sat bewildered. Should I laugh or should I cry?

Just weeks earlier, I had started teaching at an international K-12 boarding school in Bangalore, India. As an American middle-aged educator, I jumped at the opportunity to work and travel abroad. Most of my friends and family members thought that I was experiencing a midlife crisis. Why would I leave my cushy suburban life to work in a developing country?

For years, a series of orthopedic issues had prevented me from using my K-6 teaching license. To remain an educator, I became an adjunct instructor at a local community college. I loved teaching, but something was missing.

When I was offered the primary international teaching position, one of my dreams was finally fulfilled. Once again, I would have the opportunity to work with children and use my teaching credentials. But would I be able to step outside my comfort zone and face my natural fears of living in another country?

After all, I was a middle-age woman who hadn’t traveled alone in decades. I wasn’t traveling to unfamiliar neighborhoods within driving distance of my home. I was flying half way around the world to travel solo in a foreign country. If I had any chance of being successful, I had to regain my independent spirit. I had to look forward and not scurry back to what felt safe. I relied on my inner voice that wouldn’t stop whispering, “You can do it.”

I wasn’t looking to the popular Nike slogan, “Just Do It.” I was recalling another image. Decades ago, I read the classic book, The Little Engine That Could, to my sons. How fitting that in midlife, I would look to a children’s book to instill confidence. Just like the small train in this inspiring story, I had to use daily reminders to keep me on track.

After the three thieves left my guest room, the uncertainty returned. Could I simply laugh off the absurdity of wild monkeys stealing my food or would I succumb to the temptation to long for a more predictable life? This wasn’t the first time that the monkeys had trespassed. Like ants that gravitate toward food crumbs, these larger pests could be found everywhere humans congregated. The school campus was inundated. Groups of monkeys frequented classrooms, stairwells, the playground, the open fields, the lunchroom, and the pathways between buildings.

Fanciful irrational emotions flooded my well being like a tsunami. My mind planned ways to escape in the middle of the night without a trace. While I rationally knew that I had to cope with my new life in India, it was much easier to create plans for fleeing.

I had no choice but to face my challenges head on. The monkey situation was just one example of a multitude of events. Each day was filled with unfamiliar and strange happenings.

For comfort, I listened to my favorite songs from my youth and thought about others who had successfully dealt with obstacles. I recalled times when I had to overcome challenging situations. I posted one of Eleanor Roosevelt’s quotes above my desk:

The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.

I was working as an international teacher and I wasn’t going to let any of my fears erode my confidence or destroy my dreams. My inner voice became my daily mantra. Instead of hearing a small voice inside, I mouthed the words, “I can do it.”

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Christchurch, New Zealand will always be in my heart

It’s not the miles from Home what made Me Change. It was the Emotions and Experiences New to Me. At the End I did traveled far enough, but just enough to find myself.

And I had to travel miles, distance myself for my closest things, and experience many different emotions to discover about myself, to embrace myself.
I had to keep the distance from what I knew or thought it was safe to be born again.
I had to come to the other side of the world to understand and discover myself.
I didn’t travel places. I traveled emotions inside of me.
I didn’t distance myself from Home. I created a new Home.
My heart became new; my eyes saw the bright light again.
My soul was lifted.
I was born again here.
I FELT ALIVE AND FREE AGAIN!
See, I didn’t travel just for the sake of traveling. I was naïve.
I didn’t know that away from Home you can actually find yourself.
See… I LEARNED THAT TODAY…
I had to get away to truly find myself AND FREEDOM….AGAIN!

This is my poetic way to explain all my feelings since I have moved to Christchurch, New Zealand. I wish I had more eloquent words to describe all the wonders that this country offers. It’s not only a beautiful country for its gorgeous landscapes, but it is also a country filled with great and humble people.
I moved from Miami to Christchurch, New Zealand in February of 2012 with my husband as an expatriate wife. I came with the “Miami” ideas if you can call it that, you know the big city girl ideas. And I was changed.
In Christchurch I learned to relax, to reconnect with myself. To learn about the kiwi culture, to understand that they enjoy being around nature. And that if ask them about the world, they are probably well traveled folks, but they will always return to their home country.
I learned to smile back when they smile at me walking on the street because the kiwis are very polite, and you should smile back! I learned that is ok to recycle your cartoon eggs because is just nice to return to the veggie store with a full bag of cartoon eggs to give back to them and see their smile. And to show them that you care for the environment and that you care for their store.
I learned that even being miles away from home, I can still enjoy Latin music because kiwis have a taste for dancing salsa. I learned that if you suffer a loss, like I did, a big loss, a miscarriage, the kiwis will be there for you. They will prepare your meals, they will clean your house, they will give you a word of comfort and they will be calling you back just to make sure you are doing ok.
These four years spent in New Zealand made me open my eyes to new cultures, to trying new things in life. I even tried to ski for god sake! I, the Cuban / Miami only beach please kind of girl. These four years have been amazing, and I will totally recommend visiting New Zealand.
Thank you Christchurch for all this time with Me, you made ME a new person, you gave Me back my FREEDOM WINGS!

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CANADA: Finding Yourself and Finding Your World

Where I find freedom….

I am often asked this questions being a mother to four young children, a wife, an entrepreneur, and an aspiring author. How do I find the time for me?

The first step for me was realizing that I needed time and freedom for myself and I had to make it happen. Prior to going on my personal development journey to healing and find my self-love. I was going through my life trying to do what would satisfy others and make them proud. Not too long after I graduated from high school I went to college to become a Natural Health Practitioner. I had a lot of criticism from my loved ones as this was not a field they understood or could relate to, in their eyes was not credible. Even before receiving my diploma, I had decided that I would become an electrician. Instead of pursuing my dream, I went into something that I knew would be accepted by everyone around me. Just a couple months after receiving my diploma I started my electrical apprenticeship. I received praise from all my loved ones and even complete strangers, which persuaded me to keep going.

I had to hit rock-bottom before realizing that I needed to honour myself and find that freedom for me. When I was pregnant with my fourth child, I realized that I was miserable, felt lost, misplaced and disconnected within your own skin. Living in a world full of judgement, feeling as though I needed to portray a perfect life, and putting unrealistic expectations upon myself, resulted in a lot of disappointment and feelings of failure. Being occupied by another’s needs each and every day without honouring myself, lead to exhaustion and deep disconnection within myself.

In society we have been essentially programmed to put on a facade to express how “ideal” our life should be and how we should be in the eyes of our generally population. There is an accepted way to be, look, act, the house, vehicle and life you should strive for, the items or things you should have. When really all these things should be customized to each individual, who you are, your soul purpose, personality and what you would like to accomplish in your life. Not everyone is the same. From one person to another, you will do things differently, have different beliefs, have different circumstances, priorities and have different ways of doing things.

When I started my self-healing journey, the biggest change happened for me when I allowed myself to have two hours for just me every morning before the rest of my family woke up. This time allowed me to fully connect, dig into my self-healing books and programs and better myself. Because I had chosen the morning for this time, it set up my day to succeed as I had already put time into myself, feeding my heart and soul, and allowing me to be the best me for the day. This also made decision making clearer for me. I knew I was on the right track because I was motivated to continue, it felt good and freeing.

With this self-acknowledgement, my self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-love grew naturally. The more ways I honoured yourself, the happier I became, the lighter I felt and life began to flow with ease. Once I became connected with what made me happy, the faster my perspective changed. I was more accepting of others and all forms of judgment then disappears; self-judgement, judgement of others and other’s judgements on me. When I was able to release all of my self-judgements, I felt more confident within yourself and no longer needed anyone else’s opinions. When I got to the point, where I became absolutely comfortable within me and no longer felt the need to rely on other’s opinions, I instead use their suggestions as I saw suitable.

By honouring myself with “me time” everyday, I find my freedom, live my passion, and am present with my life.

My vision is:
“For all moms to think of themselves as no less than extraordinary!”

Much love, appreciation & gratitude,
Tracy Munson
Natural Health Strategist & Coach, NHP, CDC

 

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My New Year’s Rebirth in Guatemala

Driving along the quiet morning streets of a city I would come to know and love, I bawled into the musky atmosphere of the cab. I had just flown to Los Angeles for about a week, to visit a man who would become a bigger part of my life than I could ever imagine. But as the sun began to rise and the infamous LAX came into view, I felt less than elated to be hopping on a flight to Guatemala City.

It was the day before New Year’s Eve, and the looming new year on the horizon stood a mysterious silhouette in a grey backdrop. At first the plan seemed simple, go to Central America, have a work holiday, more or less. It seemed fitting, but sometimes what you think you are ‘meant’ to do doesn’t match up with what the world has planned for you. The firm seats of the plane reminded me that I was about to spend the next few weeks in unfamiliar places, and likely sitting in similarly firm bus seats, which was almost comforting, as although I had come to realize I had no idea why I was going to Guatemala, maybe it was a childhood fascination finally coming to life, that I indeed took refuge in the unfamiliar.

When you do not know a city, when you do not know a face or a name, reality seems more malleable, free from the conditions and generalizations we bind ourselves with. But it wasn’t until after I left Central America for the second time that I would conclude that sometimes you can’t simply put yourself out of the norm, you have to be completely destroyed, and born again anew.

Arriving in the beautiful colonial city of Antigua, Guatemala, I felt instantly lonely. A rare sensation, and a wave of isolation and being far from the world I knew washed over, even as I walked the stone streets, full of character and stories. New Year’s Eve was spent with a gaggle of Australians whom I’d met that day at my hostel. Predictable, but at least I knew that all over the world, people were celebrating the same thing, a shift in time, a new year, a new era. The night proceeded in a sickly classic way, the parties were many and the drinks too strong. Upon losing my group of newly acquainted travel buddies I quickly realized I was now well and truly alone, wandering the ghostly streets of a potentially dangerous city.

Fear introduced itself promptly and again I found myself caught in a whirling dizziness of confusion. Where is my hostel? Why am I suddenly by myself? Questions of my own sanity brought me to eventual surrender when a car pulled up. It was a police officer. Now this had to be one of the strangest experiences of my life, and still now it holds a mind boggling surreal quality. The officer asked me what was wrong, to which I could barely answer between sobs. To my own surprise, as I generally consider myself verging on the edge of paranoia, I agreed to be driven home after he kindly took me to get food and a coffee.

Crying to a strange police officer over cake, in a foreign country, about nothing in particular, is probably one of the most embarrassing and messed up accounts I could ever recall, but as I began to settle down and he listened to me, offering even more surprising words of wisdom, I began to notice that on this New Year’s Day, I had been reborn. It sounds silly, but it literally felt like a piece of me had left, abruptly resigned, in the face of such fear, discomfort and the internal pain that I had been feeling. Sometimes we can only see freedom when we are forced to face ourselves solely, with no walls, no security blankets, no friends, no money, nothing we have been so trained to value, alone.

The aura of confusion still lingered but was not pressing, there was a certain lightness now. I continued to enjoy my next 4 weeks in Guatemala, and 2 weeks in Mexico, the best I possibly could, allowing what was meant to be to be. I met amazing people. I swam. I (hestitantly) rode horses on cliffs. I hiked to the tops of mountains at sunrise and sunset. I danced and ate and listened to music. I got sick. Really sick. I lost my phone. My computer died. I got sick again. I tried not to blame myself for being sick. I visited amazing places. I made a best friend.

And I watched. I observed. And still now, when I recall the entirety of my journeys from Guatemala City to Mexico and finally back to Los Angeles, when I rejoiced in being back in North America despite my mind-blowing travels, I watch it all as a movie I have seen a thousand times, and know that in some way, I had to be completely destroyed to find my freedom, to let go of all that I perceived to be true in order to make room for the new and spectacular things that were about to enter my life. I had nothing to lose. Freedom had been chasing me down, like a ghost longing to make itself known, so that I could finally stare it straight in the face.

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I Choose My Freedom in Australia…For Now

We laid on our sides on what I once called our bed. Nose touching tip of nose, eyes locked into eyes. I traced the outside of his face with my free hand, imagining that I could feel the difference between the brown, gold and crimson strands of his beard underneath my fingertips. The scent of him filled me like smoke. I breathed in earth, clean laundry and a hint of weed. In this bed, there was nothing else. Only the physical tug of my heart to his, our breath slowed down to one. If I made this moment my entire world, I was happy.

“Come home,” he said, breaking the comfortable silence. “You can still travel. Just come home to me.”

I was leaving him for now the third time. The freedom that comes with traveling– the thrill of uncertainty, the choices that follow ambiguity– had once again found prominence in my heart over anything that would just make me one half of a whole. This time, I’d be gone for more than a four month backpacking stint around Europe or South America. I was going to Australia for at least a year, and I intended to finally make this breakup stick.

However, my mind struggled to find the flaw in his plan, drunk as I was on the happiness that I associated with his presence. It sounded nice. I could have both.

He assured me certainty, security, love, a future–the sweetest of chains. So I imagined living out my life with him, continuing the dream state of that bed. The only thing that he truly stimulated in me was a sexual desire. The rest would continue to be a mindless routine, devoid of intelligent conversation. He would watch football. I would cook him lasagna. He’d tell me he thought it was cute that I liked to read. I’d try in vain to discuss Orwell with him. He would work at the bar. I would find some middleman job. He’d buy a house in a small Massachusetts town. We’d take turns digging our cars out of the New England snow, and he’d get angry when he caught me lusting after Google images of exotic places. We’d smoke weed everyday to further along the numbing effect. He’d get me pregnant one day, like he always wanted. He’d teach our child to throw a ball, and I’d try to instill enough independence and individuality in her so that she could live the life I always wanted–a life of adventure and freedom.

To stay with him would have been to make the choice to throw a huge spoiler alert over my entire life, to watch the Red Wedding scene of Game of Thrones just as I got invested in the first season. Our relationship presented only walls and no frontiers.

I didn’t know who I was when I wasn’t his. All I knew was that it bothered me, a literal constant pain in my side each time I realised that I was becoming part of an indifferent and incurious population that gets stuck in relationships that are finite, lethargic and easy. I realized that I lived for my connection to him, changing myself to fit his mold. I neglected everything else that I ever wanted, pursuing those finite moments of happiness wholeheartedly so that I could mollify my anxiety in the face of my natural state, the state of freedom. I wasn’t committed to my authenticity; I hid from it.

My urge to strike out on my own was a gut reaction, a survival instinct. I needed to ease the stomach-clenching dread that accompanied the notion of remaining in one place for long, and for someone else. I needed the ignition that comes with waking up in a strange city or country, stimulating myself by way of exploration, acquainting myself with a new place through its food, having informed and varied discussions in broken English over a hostel dining room table. My freedom comes with the weight of a backpack on my shoulders, a one-way ticket and a culture shock. I am the only one in this world who can give me what I crave; to travel. To live a life as a traveller means living a life of contrast and spontaneity, ambiguity and choices.

I did not say that travel made me “happy,” although it often does. Happiness is not the attainable lifetime goal. Happiness is finite. What I sought was freedom, an infinite state of being that far surpasses a vague and unattainable notion of absolute contentment.

So as I lay in that bed, contemplating the tear I had to force between us, I focused on my refusal to be defined by my environment and my sentiment, rather than by the choices I made when faced with uncertainty.

I’ve been living in Australia for almost 10 months now, and I am face to face with my independence everyday, my choice to try on life as a 24 year old Melburnian for the time being, absorbing the parts of it that add to my shifting identity. I do not know what the next steps are, for I cannot see them clearly or at all. And that’s okay. To have a full knowledge of what my years hold would be just as finite as a committed relationship with a small-minded man. The mystery that comes with knowing nothing is infinite. I am faced with an unlimited spectrum, and all I must do is choose and take responsibility for my choices, may they always be in line with my most authentic state. This is what makes me free.

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The Power of Unique Experiences in Indonesia

Kerthunk, kerthunk, kerthunk.

I felt as if someone had sunk a fistful of fear into my heart and let it pound it into the rest of my body. My stomach felt like it was trying to retreat behind my ribs, my eyes were wide. Reason told me I shouldn’t have been so phobic. But I was staring down my nemeses, and reason was quickly losing its place in my repertoire.

Actually, “nemeses” might be a strong word for something the size of a pin head. These were a couple of bugs so small that one could easily mistake them for a floating piece of white lint, especially in the flickering shadows of the Balinese evening. They were bed bug nymphs, and their presence meant I needed to leave before they could scurry their way into my belongings.

My mind flashed back to a bitter night far away from the hostel on the quaint Indonesian road. I was back in my apartment in Massachusetts, back to the shock of finding an infestation of biting little bugs that snuck through the folds of my sofa and cracks in the hardwood floors. I retreated to the bathtub at two in the morning, saturated in dread.

Bed bugs aren’t dangerous, but eradicating them is an awful and laborious process. I had been in physical therapy for years for a bad back. My nearest family member was hundreds of miles away. I couldn’t imagine how to pack all my belongings away with my unstable bones. I cringed in anticipation of the pain that could come from rounds of laundering everything I owned, spraying things down with isopropyl, and moving furniture for exterminators.

The predicted injury and accompanying pain led to my first visit to Indonesia. I questioned if other people with physical disadvantages could get caught in similarly horrendous situations throughout the world, and secured a grant to research the topic in several countries. Come spring, I set off on a great multinational adventure in which I fervently chased answers and lines of longitude.

During that journey, I took a ferry from Singapore to spend a couple days in Bintan Island, Indonesia. Between the driftwood and palm fronds on an empty stretch of beach, I stopped to see an eroding message written in the sand: “LIFE ALWAYS FINDS A WAY”. I felt like some vanished scribe had written it there as part of my story, like the universe had left the words there just for me.

I bought a ticket to Bali during a turbulent period a couple years later. I wanted to head back to the country where clairvoyants roamed the islands and messages were hidden in the sand.

In the place where I expected to find order and inner peace, I was being gripped by memories of injured sleepless nights and unresolved past fears. I hauled my backpack to the safety of the front porch and dove into my phone, searching furiously for new accommodations, comfort from friends, and ways to clean old demons out of potentially contaminated belongings.

I sat on the ground for so long that the stones had imprinted their shapes on my legs, so I headed to the roof terrace to obsess over my problems in privacy. I looked out to see a brilliant sunset, a scattering of stringy blue clouds hanging on a backdrop of potent pinks and oranges. Beyond the edge of the peninsula, the ocean was mirroring the colorful banners of the sunset, making it seem almost endless.

I wasn’t sure how many sunsets I’d missed while my phobias were running amok, but I didn’t want to miss that one. In the last journey I hadn’t learned to compartmentalize my thoughts, to stop a bout of fear from tainting all of the glory around me. I turned the phone on its face to gaze at the sunset, to listen to the ensemble of cicadas and monkeys and the chattering and clinking of bottles from guests downstairs.

Travel has power to put you out in the caprices of the unknown and onto the stoops of old haunts. But sometimes, it also offers you a chance at redemption.

I was myself again, watching silently as the ocean was swallowed by the night. I was free from those harrowing and pervasive fears, unshackled from the tunnel vision of anxiety.

I found no more messages in the sand, no phantoms to leave signs that I had gotten things right. I was left with open road, a painted sky, and gorgeous wildlife; all that I sought and all that I needed.

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Feeling Insignificant on Serene Mt. Rainier, USA

The feel of snow in August is a unique experience reserved for those in either extreme latitudes or significant altitudes. Mt. Rainier certainly qualifies for the latter category. I had taken a break on the side of the Mountain to prep for my final push towards Camp Muir, a staging area which sits about 4,000’ short of the summit of Mt. Rainier at 14,411’. Although I needed to catch my breath for the climb ahead, this task seemed figuratively impossible given the breathtaking vista surrounding me. To the south lay the smoke-obscured teeth of the Tatoosh range, and beyond them the still-visible volcanic peaks of St. Helens and Adams. Looking to the West, I saw the Cowlitz Glacier dissipating to thin waterfalls that collected in the valley below. But it was the northern view that was the most commanding, as this sight contained the camp, the summit and a blinding stretch of steep snow that constituted the rest of my hike.

Moments like this take me back to a line I overheard in Seattle just a few days before my hike: “The great thing about nature is how it makes us feel small”. I disagreed with the speaker, at least in part. If the feeling of smallness was truly all we sought in nature, there really would be no reason to travel there. Smallness is so much easier to find in a cubical from 9-to-5, a fact I am well acquainted with. Three months prior to this evening and this hike, I was living a comfortable life in Boston with a good paying job. Stability, activity, and the prospect of upwards mobility were all luxuries I enjoyed, but it was still a small existence, a fact intensified by my oppressive anxiety and frequent panic attacks.

Conventional wisdom would have recommended, at times like this, that the weary worker take a vacation and “get your head in order”. I took the wisdom, but neglected the conventionality, boarding an Amtrak train in Boston and seeing where I could go over the next few months. This eventually brought me to the Space Needle in Seattle, where I got my first good view of Mt. Rainer. The thing was big, not just in raw mass, but with understated gravity. It gripped my attention and demanded personification, quietly scoffing at the Needle I was standing on. I left the elevator with a single conviction in mind, one that brought me to my break point on the side of Mt. Rainer, just a few hundred feet below the camp.

If ever I had sound reason for suffering a panic attack, this would be that time. I was by myself on one of the deadliest hiking trails in the country, where the afternoon sun was opening crevasses below my feet and cutting my friction-less progress to a negligible sum. What if my exertion led to a heart attack, where would they take me? Or if a storm rolls in and I lose my sense of direction? These thoughts and more could have easily crossed my mind, but none did. Instead, my focus lay in just placing one foot in front of the other until I arrived on the stone-carved steps of Camp Muir. And then I saw how small I really was. But this feeling of smallness was different than the one I knew three months prior. This experience was expansive, elevated, the kind that makes you breathe easier with a younger smile on your face. I was, in that moment, entwined within something bigger than myself without being absolved into it.

Suffice it to say, I never did return from my vacation, at least not to the job I had before. There was many more moments that lead to that decision, but the encounter with Rainier demonstrated something that I once had, had lost, and must work to awaken again. The path from here remains uncertain, but it is now a path that does at least go on..

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From Vietnamese Mangroves and a Loving Mom

The runway was not much more than a lightly paved strip of soil which popped out of the rice paddies and mangroves like a long, rectangular oasis. As I exited the 1950’s prop, much like the one that Indiana Jones rides in Raiders of the Lost Ark, I felt stifled instead of being freed from the tight quarters that I’d just ridden in. The density and weight of the atmosphere made it hard to inhale deeply– and it was more than just heat and humidity of the southernmost part of Vietnam – Ca Mau, a peninsular province with the Gulf of Thailand to the West and the Pacific Ocean to the South and East. I was stepping foot on the same soil where my son was born, breathing the same sticky, tropical air that he did. The son I had not yet met, and the son that I would not be bringing home to Indiana after the eight days that I’d be there.

As excited as I was to meet my baby — the one that I dreamed of and had dreams for — I needed to guard my emotions. Upon seeing my first photo of him, my heart skipped a beat when I gazed into those deep brown eyes and saw the shock of black hair standing up on his head. I knew that without a doubt that he was my son. It was my moment of a doctor handing my child to me to put on my chest and feeling a love like no other.

Much like the southern Vietnamese mangroves’ intertwined roots, strong and complicated, his homecoming was constricted by the fact that he was stuck — stuck in an orphanage due to political posturing by both the U.S. and Vietnamese governments not willing to move an inch to finalize his adoption, despite him living in squalid and unsafe orphanage conditions.

I flew half-way around the world and was there with two other moms in the same situation to help care for our children and the others in the orphanage. It was the one small thing we could actually do to help our kids, while we lobbied Congressional leaders and the State Department on the homefront.

Within minutes sweat was streaming down my face and soaking my clothes – a combination of the oppressive heat and my anxiety. My friends and I headed out to the orphanage in a taxi. There were few cars on the road, mostly bicycles and motor bikes. We raced along the tropical landscape – passing roadside markets where vendors sold pineapples, roosters in woven basket cages, plastic kitchenware and even python meat. Our taxi driver honked incessantly as he passed cars, though few, and played a game of chicken with oncoming traffic. A movie of mangroves and long boats with weathered fishermen, and the occasional water buffalo grazing in a yard ran through the car windows. Children with bare feet and dirty faces dotted the fast-moving landscape – all of it beautiful, colorful and full of life.

Finally, we turned down a one-lane dirt road lined by shallow canals, lush mango and tamarind trees, and tin roof-shacks with hammocks as beds. My stomach dropped to my knees when I saw the orphanage building.

My 22-month old son was literally imprisoned in his tiny room — it had bars on the windows, a former internment camp from the Vietnam War.

I had many conversations with him before I got to Vietnam (all in my head), promising him that I would do whatever it took to get him home to Indiana. I’d say “good night” to him when I woke up in the morning and whisper “good morning” before I fell asleep at night, living with my heart twelve hours ahead. And that week, I told him in person — kissing his smooth, tan cheeks, my tears wetting his sweet face as I held him close. And, then having to leave him.

Twenty-six months later, in the most unusual of places, we found refuge surrounded by luggage carts, drug-sniffing Beagles and a melody of different languages at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. His two tiny feet touched U.S. soil, and I felt palpable relief from my shoulders, fighting back yet another set of tears as my husband squeezed my hand and hugged us both.

Sitting at our departure gate for the last leg of our journey home, he sat in my lap and munched on a banana and French fries.

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My Unlikely Friends in Mountainous Ecuador

It’s hot. How can it be this hot? Since arriving in Salasaka, this indigenous village in the Ecuadorian Andes, I have had a constantly sun-burned, peeling nose. Having an 8-year-old child on my back doesn’t help.

I struggle along, Fernanda on my back and her 5-year-old sister Ñusta leading the way. Ñusta is a great helper, waddling along with her sick sister’s backpack, which is almost as large as her. We walk down the wide, dusty roads lined with agave; sheep bleat and donkeys bray, everyone lazily complaining about the sweltering heat. I can see endlessly across the green, quilt-patterned hills, and everything looks exactly the same. We could be anywhere in all of Salasaka, and I would have no idea. All I can do is trust the girls to know where they live. At the school where I am teaching, when a child gets sick like Fernanda has, we can’t just call home, mom rushing over in her minivan to pick the child up, sign her out for the day. Almost no households in this village have a phone, and neither does the school. The only way to get them home is to do this, to carry them for miles until you reach the shanty and farm that is their home.

As a recently trained child therapist back in the U.S., I feel sick with guilt because it’s breaking every rule in the book that I’m doing this. Carrying a child on my back for miles? Taking them home when their parents haven’t given me signed permission? But I’m not their therapist, I remind myself, or try to. Because Fernanda is sick, and needs to get home, and this moment is more important than all the things I learned in graduate school.

“Podemos descansar?”, I ask the girls. Can we rest? I gently set Fernanda down, and the 3 of us sit together in the shade of a stack of cement blocks. Fernanda immediately lies down and puts her head in my lap. My “clinical instinct” is to gently remove her from her physical contact with me. Physical affection is always a liability. Keep your “boundaries”, they tell you. To the 7-year-old client who innocently tells me, I love you, I am trained to respond, I see that you really care about me, and I care about you too. Not “I love you too”, never that. A separation between you and the child. Care about her, of course, but from a distance.

I quit my job as a therapist because I was so terrified of how much I cared about my kids. I must not be doing something right, I felt. I must not be cut out for this. It broke my heart. A career down the drain because I just loved those kids too much. But here I was, in the mountains of South America to where I escaped, doing the same thing. Loving too much, again.

But I can’t help it. I love Fernanda. My heart is filled with her. She is only 8 years old and already the smartest student in school. She pulls my hand before recess ends every morning, lamenting, “Vamos a clase!” She watches over my shoulder with anxiety that is palpable as I grade her multiplication drills, as if she has ever received anything less than a 100%. There is a moodiness about her, a subtle neediness, and she sometimes sits apart from the group as Renato, the music teacher, leads them in warbling South American pop songs.

A woman passes where we sit catching our breath, wearing her chumbi and green shawl, half a dozen protesting sheep leading the way. She looks at me, and her confusion is reflected in her glare. What is this gringa doing out here with two of our precious children? The girls chat pleasantly with her in Kichwa, the sing-song indigenous language that I haven’t learned yet, and finally, she smiles, understanding. And somehow, with that smile, she is granting me the permission to love this child freely, to really love her, to love her and all of her sisters and friends without clinical boundaries, without restriction. Love her simply, freely, not as a professional but as a fellow human being, as an adult in the community who shares the responsibility of raising and caring for her. And maybe that’s not such a terrible thing.

I put my hand on Fernanda’s forehead. She doesn’t feel hot, and I don’t know if she was really sick at all or if she just wanted this time with me. “Listas?”, I ask the girls, and Ñusta puts on two backpacks, her own in the back and Fernanda’s in the front. I stoop to let Fernanda on my back, and we keep on walking.

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New Experiences with Monkeys in India

I was sitting cross-legged on a four-inch mattress that doubled as my bed. Sweat engulfed all of my pores as a simple fan hummed above. I glanced up from my book. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a medium-sized monkey open my screen door with ease. I blinked. I observed a second monkey trailing behind and then another.

My jaw dropped. I sat speechless. Three wild monkeys were just a couple of yards away.

Without hesitation, they walked toward a small round table next to my bright red refrigerator. All three admired my possessions. The taller one glanced back in my direction as if to say, “ha, ha”. With one hand, he grabbed one of my Tupperware containers. Within seconds, the monkeys vanished, leaving my door open in their wake.

I sat bewildered. Should I laugh or should I cry?

Just weeks earlier, I had started teaching at an international K-12 boarding school in Bangalore, India. As an American middle-aged educator, I jumped at the opportunity to work and travel abroad. Most of my friends and family members thought that I was experiencing a midlife crisis. Why would I leave my cushy suburban life to work in a developing country?

For years, a series of orthopedic issues had prevented me from using my K-6 teaching license. To remain an educator, I became an adjunct instructor at a local community college. I loved teaching, but something was missing.

When I was offered the primary international teaching position, one of my dreams was finally fulfilled. Once again, I would have the opportunity to work with children and use my teaching credentials. But would I be able to step outside my comfort zone and face my natural fears of living in another country?

After all, I was a middle-age woman who hadn’t traveled alone in decades. I wasn’t traveling to unfamiliar neighborhoods within driving distance of my home. I was flying half way around the world to travel solo in a foreign country. If I had any chance of being successful, I had to regain my independent spirit. I had to look forward and not scurry back to what felt safe. I relied on my inner voice that wouldn’t stop whispering, “You can do it.”

I wasn’t looking to the popular Nike slogan, “Just Do It.” I was recalling another image. Decades ago, I read the classic book, The Little Engine That Could, to my sons. How fitting that in midlife, I would look to a children’s book to instill confidence. Just like the small train in this inspiring story, I had to use daily reminders to keep me on track.

After the three thieves left my guest room, the uncertainty returned. Could I simply laugh off the absurdity of wild monkeys stealing my food or would I succumb to the temptation to long for a more predictable life? This wasn’t the first time that the monkeys had trespassed. Like ants that gravitate toward food crumbs, these larger pests could be found everywhere humans congregated. The school campus was inundated. Groups of monkeys frequented classrooms, stairwells, the playground, the open fields, the lunchroom, and the pathways between buildings.

Fanciful irrational emotions flooded my well being like a tsunami. My mind planned ways to escape in the middle of the night without a trace. While I rationally knew that I had to cope with my new life in India, it was much easier to create plans for fleeing.

I had no choice but to face my challenges head on. The monkey situation was just one example of a multitude of events. Each day was filled with unfamiliar and strange happenings.

For comfort, I listened to my favorite songs from my youth and thought about others who had successfully dealt with obstacles. I recalled times when I had to overcome challenging situations. I posted one of Eleanor Roosevelt’s quotes above my desk:

The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.

I was working as an international teacher and I wasn’t going to let any of my fears erode my confidence or destroy my dreams. My inner voice became my daily mantra. Instead of hearing a small voice inside, I mouthed the words, “I can do it.”

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Christchurch, New Zealand will always be in my heart

It’s not the miles from Home what made Me Change. It was the Emotions and Experiences New to Me. At the End I did traveled far enough, but just enough to find myself.

And I had to travel miles, distance myself for my closest things, and experience many different emotions to discover about myself, to embrace myself.
I had to keep the distance from what I knew or thought it was safe to be born again.
I had to come to the other side of the world to understand and discover myself.
I didn’t travel places. I traveled emotions inside of me.
I didn’t distance myself from Home. I created a new Home.
My heart became new; my eyes saw the bright light again.
My soul was lifted.
I was born again here.
I FELT ALIVE AND FREE AGAIN!
See, I didn’t travel just for the sake of traveling. I was naïve.
I didn’t know that away from Home you can actually find yourself.
See… I LEARNED THAT TODAY…
I had to get away to truly find myself AND FREEDOM….AGAIN!

This is my poetic way to explain all my feelings since I have moved to Christchurch, New Zealand. I wish I had more eloquent words to describe all the wonders that this country offers. It’s not only a beautiful country for its gorgeous landscapes, but it is also a country filled with great and humble people.
I moved from Miami to Christchurch, New Zealand in February of 2012 with my husband as an expatriate wife. I came with the “Miami” ideas if you can call it that, you know the big city girl ideas. And I was changed.
In Christchurch I learned to relax, to reconnect with myself. To learn about the kiwi culture, to understand that they enjoy being around nature. And that if ask them about the world, they are probably well traveled folks, but they will always return to their home country.
I learned to smile back when they smile at me walking on the street because the kiwis are very polite, and you should smile back! I learned that is ok to recycle your cartoon eggs because is just nice to return to the veggie store with a full bag of cartoon eggs to give back to them and see their smile. And to show them that you care for the environment and that you care for their store.
I learned that even being miles away from home, I can still enjoy Latin music because kiwis have a taste for dancing salsa. I learned that if you suffer a loss, like I did, a big loss, a miscarriage, the kiwis will be there for you. They will prepare your meals, they will clean your house, they will give you a word of comfort and they will be calling you back just to make sure you are doing ok.
These four years spent in New Zealand made me open my eyes to new cultures, to trying new things in life. I even tried to ski for god sake! I, the Cuban / Miami only beach please kind of girl. These four years have been amazing, and I will totally recommend visiting New Zealand.
Thank you Christchurch for all this time with Me, you made ME a new person, you gave Me back my FREEDOM WINGS!

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CANADA: Finding Yourself and Finding Your World

Where I find freedom….

I am often asked this questions being a mother to four young children, a wife, an entrepreneur, and an aspiring author. How do I find the time for me?

The first step for me was realizing that I needed time and freedom for myself and I had to make it happen. Prior to going on my personal development journey to healing and find my self-love. I was going through my life trying to do what would satisfy others and make them proud. Not too long after I graduated from high school I went to college to become a Natural Health Practitioner. I had a lot of criticism from my loved ones as this was not a field they understood or could relate to, in their eyes was not credible. Even before receiving my diploma, I had decided that I would become an electrician. Instead of pursuing my dream, I went into something that I knew would be accepted by everyone around me. Just a couple months after receiving my diploma I started my electrical apprenticeship. I received praise from all my loved ones and even complete strangers, which persuaded me to keep going.

I had to hit rock-bottom before realizing that I needed to honour myself and find that freedom for me. When I was pregnant with my fourth child, I realized that I was miserable, felt lost, misplaced and disconnected within your own skin. Living in a world full of judgement, feeling as though I needed to portray a perfect life, and putting unrealistic expectations upon myself, resulted in a lot of disappointment and feelings of failure. Being occupied by another’s needs each and every day without honouring myself, lead to exhaustion and deep disconnection within myself.

In society we have been essentially programmed to put on a facade to express how “ideal” our life should be and how we should be in the eyes of our generally population. There is an accepted way to be, look, act, the house, vehicle and life you should strive for, the items or things you should have. When really all these things should be customized to each individual, who you are, your soul purpose, personality and what you would like to accomplish in your life. Not everyone is the same. From one person to another, you will do things differently, have different beliefs, have different circumstances, priorities and have different ways of doing things.

When I started my self-healing journey, the biggest change happened for me when I allowed myself to have two hours for just me every morning before the rest of my family woke up. This time allowed me to fully connect, dig into my self-healing books and programs and better myself. Because I had chosen the morning for this time, it set up my day to succeed as I had already put time into myself, feeding my heart and soul, and allowing me to be the best me for the day. This also made decision making clearer for me. I knew I was on the right track because I was motivated to continue, it felt good and freeing.

With this self-acknowledgement, my self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-love grew naturally. The more ways I honoured yourself, the happier I became, the lighter I felt and life began to flow with ease. Once I became connected with what made me happy, the faster my perspective c