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Walk (It) Away, Girl

When my father died (and then later, my mother), I wanted the world to stop. I couldn’t understand why the world didn’t stop. Days, minutes, hours kept passing, life marched on all around me, and I just wanted to be still, to think, to figure this thing out.

But the world didn’t stop. Long before I was ready, a week had passed, and then a month, and then a year; time, life, the rest of the world relentlessly moving forward. And I ran helplessly along, always feeling two steps behind, my arms full of my grief, my feet tripping over it, trying to keep up; trying to keep living.

Last year I found myself in that kind of pain again; the kind of pain where you wish the world would stop. Pain that feels like it’s written on your skin; you wonder why the whole world can’t see it. In those early days of grief I remember wanting to blurt it out to cashiers, waitresses, strangers at the grocery store, explain that I was a walking wound, and would everyone please be gentle and don’t get too near me because everything - everything - hurt me right now.

This new heartache was as raw as my grief had been. I was an exposed nerve. Everything hurt. With no idea what else to do, I walked. When my spiritual heart ached so badly it caused me physical pain, when the guilt and fear and confusion overwhelmed me and made it hard to breathe, when I simply could not stand to be in my own skin, I walked. Miles. Every day.

First in the blazing heat, then in the bone chilling cold. Sometimes along the river, other times wandering the sidewalks of my neighborhood or the campus where I worked. I walked on the treadmill with music blaring; I listened to motivational speakers and thought leaders and gurus, searching for an answer, someone to show me the way and help me make sense of the mess I’d made of my life.

Most days I moved so that I wouldn’t have to think, but sometimes even the walking failed me. I remember one day, early autumn I think, when I couldn’t go another step; didn’t know how to put one foot in front of the other. I stopped and leaned my head against the sun warmed bricks of a building and wept as though my heart would break.

When Cheryl Strayed’s book, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail was released and became the first Oprah’s book club pick, I was super annoyed - and not a little bitter. “Well sure,” I thought. “We’d all like to take off when things get hard. When my mom died I didn’t go for a hike, I went back to work.” Why was she allowed to stop when I had to keep going? I didn’t know I could tell the world to stop.

And then one night, 8 years later, as I was once again walking, walking, walking in hopes of escaping my head and my heart, I finally got it. And it literally stopped me in my tracks.

Cheryl Strayed didn’t head into the wild because she was running from her pain. She was walking straight toward it.

Much of the reason I was burning in my own personal hell that evening in late spring was that for years I had turned away from what hurt me instead of walking toward it; when given the choice to do what was safe instead of what I truly wanted, I chose safe; when given the choice between myself and others, I chose others. And so I ended up, many years later, pounding the sidewalk, a 40 year old woman with a tired soul, aching heart, and desperately restless spirit. I had tried to outrun my wild but my wild had found me.

(sidebar: my psyche may be a mess but my shoe collection is LIT).

That was a turning point for me. I was already neck deep in the business of painful truth telling. But that evening was when I finally accepted that I’d been getting it wrong all along. Safety and stability alone do not make for a happy life. What’s more, they cannot be guaranteed no matter what price I am willing to pay.

I’d spent a lot of years being afraid; a lifetime of grief and trauma will do that. I made choices that kept the peace and made me feel safe. Until they didn’t. Until I’d compromised so much of myself that I ended up in exactly the place I’d tried to avoid: lost, scared, suffering, and uncertain.

Fear is a slow acting poison; it can take years to destroy you. But it will if you let it. And it’s so easy to let it.

Fear claims to keep you safe by pointing out everything that can go wrong. Fear says it alone can protect you from making mistakes. What it really does is prevent you from living.

Fear tells us to hide - and hide from - our truth.

Fear keeps us where we don’t belong.

Fear promises safety but instead compromises who we are meant to be.

Fear lies and calls itself reason and practicality and then asks us to deny what our hearts know.

Fear keeps us from saying the things that need to be said and taking the actions we know we need to take.

It is fear that kept me small and scared for years. Fear is the reason I told lies, both to myself and to others. It’s why I made the wrong choices for myself, and didn’t take the risks that would have made my life look and feel a lot more like me.

This past year has been one of the hardest of my life. I have had to confront things I’d been running from, in some cases for decades. I’ve had to answer for pain I’ve caused, both myself and others, and I’ve had to ask questions and make choices that felt impossible - questions and choices that went beyond right and wrong, reason and logic, that could only be answered by knowing who I was and what truly felt right to me.

To be frank, it was terrifying and I hated it. I still do. But I continue to do it every day because it’s the only way to build a bridge between where I am and where I am trying to go.

It’s a slow process. Sometimes I have to look backward to remember how far I’ve come. But I AM moving forward. I’m walking a straight line toward my pain, toward my fear, toward my wild, and ultimately, toward the highest version of myself and a life that feels right for me.

There is no final destination (not until I’m called to the giant Bloomingdales in the sky, anyway). I will be walking this path for the rest of my life.

But, as it turns out, it is a whole lot better than sitting still.

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