Learning is Winning

Yesterday was a good reminder. I was reminded of patience, joy, trust, fun, and the thrill of learning something new. I went to my first SUP (standup paddle board) Yoga class. I’ve been on a paddle board a couple of times—on a pond—but despite a dozen years in a state with some of the best rivers and lakes, I never learned much about wielding a paddle. Don’t get me wrong—I enjoyed many long river days, but was content in my role of handing out snacks and beers.

There was another first-timer at the class, and while she focused intently I mostly spaced out during the demonstration. She did some on-land paddle practice, and positioned her feet properly on the board while I gazed at the horizon and spied pelicans. The fact of the matter is, I acted like I knew more than I did and exhibited something akin to false confidence. I’m more than aware of my tendency to do this in various arenas, and I could say that historically that behavior hasn’t served me well, but the truth is I’ve found greater success (I think…) in acting “as if” then wondering “what if.”

But that’s a different story….

The Gulf of Mexico isn’t known for its waves. As far as Florida is concerned, the surfing is on the Atlantic side, but there is surfing here too—mostly during hurricane season and cold fronts—but occasionally the wind is just right and we get a little swell. Yesterday was one of those days. Ok, swell might be an exaggeration, but we had some rollers.

The three seasoned SUP yogis had been cruising around on their boards for a while, and when it was time to go I pushed my board into the water, hopped up on my knees and started to paddle. The instructor’s voice came behind me, “You’re a natural!” Then I laughed, tried to stand up, and fell. The other newcomer, who I later learned is a yoga professional, took her time getting started. I don’t know what she was thinking, but I guess it had something to do with wanting to feel confident on her board so she’d be better able to practice the poses she knows so well. Me: I just wanted to get the party started.

Jill Wheeler is the wife of a high school friend of mine and the leader of the class as well as many others she offers through Wellfit Institute.  She offers wellness coaching, therapy, adventure travel and workshops. She’s definitely a badass with a wide smile and infectious exuberance. You get the immediate sense that some of that will wear off just by being near her, and after ninety minutes playing in the water with her I can confirm that it’s true.

She wrote a blog post recently about her last month which included running the Boston Marathon and witnessing from close range the events there, then she went straight to leading a group of women on a Kite.Yoga.Love Adventure Camp in Costa Rica. After that she was home briefly then off again to yoga teacher training in Mexico. {And I thought my last month was exhausting. Perspective is an interesting thing. But here’s the real thing: it’s useless to compare ourselves to other people. Absolutely useless. The other new student and I took different approaches to the same thing, but in the end I think we had equally fun and satisfying experiences.}

Jill wrote:

Getting to Costa Rica was both a blessing and a curse. Good to be away from the trauma and drama, but hard to be away from my daughters. It was the first time I didn’t feel ready to shine as a leader…but I put on my big girl panties and planned not to miss a beat. I am really good about digging deep and pulling it all off, often at my own cost….I realized…how inspiring am I going to be if I am not leading by example and getting into that salty bay to ride, splash and play? How can I hold back and expect others to face their discomfort?”

Many of us connect to ourselves through nature, and Jill and I both fall into that camp. We don’t necessarily do it in the same ways—she’s more of an athlete, while I’m more of a feel my toes in the sand and the water on my skin and the wind in my face kind of girl—but sometimes there’s sameness in the difference and we both know one thing to be true: nature and movement are what help us keep it together when things seem to be falling apart. Or, in a more perfect world, what we use to prevent the seams from coming undone.

I have never in my life been as challenged as I have been writing this book, that has a new working title recycled from a previous (unfinished) book: NOT WHAT I SIGNED UP FOR. I joke that I’m the toughest boss I’ve ever had, and I’m not even close to kidding. I’m relentless, ruthless, critical and sometimes downright mean. I have everything I need to be successful, yet I still sometimes manage to get in my own way. If I had a choice I probably wouldn’t work for me.

I have a solid 96,000-word draft of a book, and a perceptive editor who gave me some terrific advice and a decent road map that I can use to guide me in my rewriting. He seems to understand me and suggested I do a quick rewrite. He didn’t say it in these words, but the implication was there: Don’t agonize. You’ve got this.

Sometimes I sit in front of the computer twirling my hair, and I wonder why my mind spins in a million directions as if I have nothing to work with, as if I’m starting from scratch. I worry if I have too much material and what I can do to skim some off the sides and create a more manageable manuscript. I worry that I’ll never get this done. I worry about what happens if I fail. I worry if I suffer from a Jonah Complex, or a fear of success.

The psychologist Abraham Maslow said of the complex,

“So often we run away from the responsibilities dictated (or rather suggested) by nature, by fate, even sometimes by accident, just as Jonah tried—in vain—to run away from his fate”.

I came to Naples for cutting, revising and adding a few additions to the book. I didn’t expect to like the place, but have been pleasantly surprised by the nature here—the proximity to The Everglades, the Gulf, the abundant wildlife—yet I struggle with some fundamental things about the place. If I’m being real here, and that’s the point, my struggle most likely has more to do with the rising tide within me than with geography, but it also has something to do with being able to connect to a place, and this place is so, so different from the Rocky Mountains I’ve called home for most of the past dozen years. So we change perspective a bit: big whoop, right?

Yesterday it was clearly time to dunk myself into the water. It was time to learn something new and to connect with the nature that’s here. It was time to feel like a ten year old. The summer between my junior and senior years of college I moved across the country alone to work on my thesis project. I chose Hood River, Oregon (for a magazine internship) and learned to windsurf while I was there because it was available and because I tend toward a “When in Rome” attitude.

Learning to windsurf in a world-class location known for its cranking wind has built in challenges, so most people learn to windsurf in places like Aruba where the water is warm and where you can beach start. You need a wetsuit in the Columbia River, have to watch out for barges, and the only option is to water start in deep water.  The result is that you get tossed around a lot and do a tremendous amount of face planting. But one thing is true: there’s a much greater success rate (with anything) if you focus only on what you’re doing, and keep your mind off how you look or if you’re doing something wrong or what’s for dinner. The bonus of a wetsuit: you don’t have to worry about wedgies. {There is always a silver lining.}

I found immense joy in that “mind vacation” as a twenty-one-year-old, and I hoped that I could tap into it again as a thirty-nine-year-old.  So finally, yesterday, I took Jill up on the offer to join her SUP Yoga class. And here’s the good news: it worked.

It absolutely exhausted my body, which I’d taken to the gym the night before and given a run for its money. I didn’t realize how fatigued and muscle-torn my quads and shoulders were until I was on the board paddling, but after a few strokes I forgot. I also forgot about the stress of writing and focused on the simple act of moving through water and balancing on the board.

I’m a decent yogi because I have natural flexibility, but I was not given the gift of balance. Strength yes, balance no, but the only option is to work with what we’ve got. Yoga on a moving object was not going to come easy to me—I knew this—but every time I fell off the board I smiled inside and out because I knew it was a direct result of will and effort. And sometimes, despite those things, we fall. Hoisting myself back on the board time and again I was glad to have the strength and will to do it. I didn’t get hurt, though I did bump and bruise a knee one time. The reason: I tried to stop myself from falling when I should have just let it happen. Lesson learned: submit a little.

I’d cried on the way to SUP Yoga and on the way out, but I didn’t cry during. I’m going to quote Jill again, “Nature has a way of just being without attachment to outcome, without apology for being real. Nature levels the playing field–for everyone.” I’ll add that nature and learning something new in the constantly changing environment of moving water levels our internal playing fields. Taking this lesson off the board is the next challenge, but if we can then we’re definitely winning.

I didn’t go back to SUP or yoga or even the gym today, but after writing this morning I did go back to the beach with a friend to read, rest and reconnect. It’s good for my writing and I’m getting to the point where it’s not necessary to apologize for doing what I know will work, when sitting in front of the computer and twirling my hair for too long clearly doesn’t. Learning is winning.

Jill took a picture of me trying to get up into Urdhva Dhanurasana (AKA wheel or backbend) on the board, and then another one of me after Shavasana (AKA corpse pose), the only yoga pose I never forget the name of. It’s the one where you lie back, let it all go, and experience gratitude.

Shame is a real crippler, and embracing it does nothing but breed more of the same. On my journey of trying to feel less of it I choose disclosure as the antidote, so here’s a picture of me either on my way into or out of wheel (does it matter?) and another, sitting happy, Buddha belly and all, at the end of the session, fresh out of Shavasana.




Book Excerpt: “In My Country”

I had a male writing teacher who once commented that women are always apologetic about their work. We say, “It’s not finished,” “It’s just a draft,” and the worst, “I don’t think it’s very good….” This is nonsense. In the spirit of sharing and not living up to that teacher’s analysis of my gender I’m sharing today a chapter from my memoir-in-progress.

“In My Country” is not the first chapter of I FORGOT TO START WITH MYSELF, and falls somewhere in the middle. This is not meant as a stand alone essay, so you’re bound to have some who? what? why? questions, and I’d appreciate if you’d share them with me as I continue to craft what comes both before and after this chapter. Thanks for reading….



The power is out in the supermercado, and the shelves with the non-perishables look like they’ve been rode hard and put away wet. I put my hand on the refrigerated case that’s still cooler than the air, and I speculate about how long it takes meat and cheese to spoil at ninety-five degrees with comparable humidity.

I eye the hotdogs—they don’t really spoil, do they?—and despite the fact that I grew up on meals of salmon, asparagus, and quinoa: I want them. I want the macaroni and cheese. I want the Velveeta. I want the Hamburger Helper. I want those not-even-Hebrew National-hotdogs.

My cart is empty—I could have done this shop with a hand basket—but it turns out I need the cart for support and use it as more of walker than a vessel. I’m thirty-two years old, living alone on an island off the coast of Honduras, and I’m not even halfway through two weeks of treatment for malaria, though the effects of the disease will last longer than I could ever imagine. To further complicate my self-induced scenario I also have a house under contract and a boyfriend who is cheating on me, but I won’t know these the ramifications of these game changing details until much later.

I step away from the hot dogs. I don’t need food poisoning to complicate night sweats, hallucinations, and incessant full body itching. It turns out the treatment for malaria is almost as bad as the disease itself, and once the course of treatment is started it must be completed to avoid giving the parasite the home field advantage of coming back even stronger than it began.

The cereal and long-life milk are gone. The bread and peanut butter are long gone. The beans are picked over. The battered bags of cookies are crushed into crumbs inside their packaging. My head tells me I should be able to live on mangoes, shrimp and avocados, but my heart says something different. I slide my leaden feet along the dusty floor, staring through and above the barren shelves as much as at them.

Then I spot it. The label is dusty and half-peeled off. The can is dented; and its exposed parts are flecked with rust. The price tag has three digits—way too high—then I remember to divide by twenty. My fuzzy brain computes the United States currency equivalent and I’m still appalled at the inflated price, which is three times what it would be at home. But I need it. I need this can of Campbell’s soup. It’s not tomato, chicken noodle, or cream of broccoli, any of which I could have passed by. It’s Chunky Sirloin Burger. I need that soup.

In my regular life I would consider this product completely vile as a stand-alone meal, and though I’ve consumed those creamy casseroles, never once have I prepared a meal with a can of soup as the cornerstone ingredient. Sirloin Burger represents the kind of food I work hard to avoid, but in my physically and emotionally weakened state I’m smitten with the idea of country vegetables and miniature burgers complete with grille marks. I need that can of soup.

I was lucky enough to grow up with my best friend right across the street, and because my house was mostly devoid of snacks we usually went to Debbie’s after school. Mrs. Burton often had a still-warm baked good waiting for us on the butcher block in the kitchen, but if she hadn’t gotten around to baking that day we’d dig into leftovers or hit up the pantry.

We ate Swiss Miss and Countrytime by the spoonful, added chocolate chips to scrambled eggs, and strove to discover the next unlikely pairing of dissimilar foods. We researched by eating a lot of Reese’s.

We were hooked immediately upon discovery of Chunky Sirloin Burger, and would pass up homemade eggplant parmesan or moist black bottom cupcakes in order to consume a wide variety of GMOs and a week’s worth of sodium before General Hospital was even over.

The phase didn’t last long, and the truth was: that soup had always grossed me out a little. It came out of the can as a solid mass that resembled dog food and re-coagulated quickly at room temperature. I tried not to ponder how they got those grille marks on burgers a mere half-inch in diameter. I always felt like I needed to lie down after I ate it.

In my fragile state I’m desperate for a taste of home, and the soup migrates into my cart. Everything is slower than the usual slow of island time, and I wait not very patiently in the checkout line where receipts are handwritten and manually calculated during the power outage. I hand the clerk the US equivalent of ten dollars for the soup and a box of saltines. I know with one shake of the box that the saltines are mostly crushed, but they’re the only thing I’ll keep down that day and even crumbs are better than nothing.

The dented and dusty can of soup wouldn’t make the malaria go away, nor would it bring me closer to home. Eating it would have made me sicker, and I had no intention of doing so. I just wanted it on my kitchen counter as a reminder that as bad as things can be they can always get better.

I lived on the island for nine more months. I bought the house, busted the boyfriend, and left before the military kidnapped the president in his pajamas.

I’ve never been an efficient bailer and knew it was time to leave long before I did. I made it official when I found myself starting many sentences with “In my country….” I’d say things like, “In my country a roofer doesn’t show up eighteen days late without so much as a phone call.” “In my country our power doesn’t come from an unreliable generator that runs on diesel fuel and is held together with silly putty and paper clips.” “In my country we can buy basics like fresh milk, light bulbs, and tampons.

The “in my country” statement that sealed the deal came when my friends and I witnessed a girl vomit while eating with her family at a restaurant. I said, “In my country when someone vomits on the dinner table the other people ask her if she’s okay. Or at least stop eating.” And then I booked my tickets to leave.

Life on an island thirty miles off the coast of a third world country is not going to be like life back home. Expats retreat from civilized nations in search of something different, but often what is discovered is not what was expected. People often say that if you want things to be like they were at home then you should just go home. Returning home might admit failure, so we adapt. We acclimate, acculturate and habituate.

We base our meals on what the stores have available and not on the latest recipe plucked out of a magazine. Magazines, among other things, are a hot-commodity on Roatan, brought down in a stranger’s carryon and passed among friends until the pages are free of bindings and bleeding color.

We adjust. We brush our teeth with purified water. Toilet paper goes in the garbage can, not the toilet. Gasoline is hand poured by the gallon jug into our vehicles behind a minimart. We discover things about ourselves. We expand our minds. We learn that we’re capable of much more than we thought. For some the perspective shift sticks, while others look for ways out or at least through.

That beat-to-shit can of soup stood on my counter as a reminder that life as an expat is not easy, and it’s not supposed to be. That’s not why we go and it’s not why we stay, though it often has something to do with why we leave. I don’t know what compelled me to spend my thirty-third year immersing myself in Honduran culture except that I’d made a teenage promise to some day live among foreign customs, and because at thirty-one I wasn’t getting any younger. A few weeks after my return I walked through Queens—the most ethnically diverse place on the planet—with my mother, and she said, “If you wanted to live in another culture you could have just moved to Queens!”

When I returned home I was incapable of summarizing my experiences into something palatable, so I said very little. I was quick to anger when someone heard of my recent adventure and told me they’d lived in Costa Rica for a few months. I’d silently rage at their comparison of my full cultural immersion to their three-month surf trip. “That’s not really living,” I’d say, “That sounds like more of a vacation.”

I wondered why that wouldn’t have been enough for me. For years I was unable to verbalize why I really went; I couldn’t quite comprehend it myself, so how could I explain to others? I said I went because I didn’t want to be a spoiled American my whole life, and I returned because I decided that being a spoiled American for the rest of my life wouldn’t be so bad. But there was more.

Five years later I am shocked at the physical and emotional danger I exposed myself to when I moved impulsively, alone, to an island thirty miles off the coast of Honduras. I wondered why I had to make it so hard. I could have traveled with a medical aid group or the Peace Corps. I could have enrolled in a language school or taught English. I could have at least traveled with a friend. I did not have to make it so hard.

But I did.


Jaime and Lucky on West Bay Beach, Roatan, Winter 2007



I’ve wanted to write more about surfing for the past few weeks, but there was a writing conference (awesome), my birthday (also awesome), and wonderful visits in Colorado with old and new friends. And then there was returning to Missoula and falling in love with it all over again.

I’ve been working hard on my memoir-in-progress, I FORGOT TO START WITH MYSELF, and have neglected to give attention to my public writing life. These writing lives will soon be one and the same, but for now they remain mostly separate. {Thanks for sticking with me and for continuing to tell me that you enjoy these posts, few and far between as they may be. You make my day. Every time.} So…

It’s hard to describe surfing without lurching into clichés. It’s powerful. It’s humbling. It’s liberating. It’s like being at one with the water. I could go on, and pretty much everything I have to say about surfing has been said before, but it’s not like me to know when to zip it, so on I go.

You’re vulnerable out there in that water. There are stingrays, sea urchins, and the other “s” that everyone tries not to talk about but can’t stop thinking about.

You could end up in a riptide. You could end up with your bathing suit wrapped around your neck, shackling your ankles, or both. As a worst-case scenario you could end up not even getting in the water because there are just too many things to worry about.

I don’t know about you, but for me sometimes the vulnerability associated with the limitations of fear is worse than the potential for vulnerability when going toward the frightening thing. It’s downright dizzying to wrap your head around all of it. For real.

Exploring the when, why, how and what (the hell) for? of vulnerability is what I’ve been doing lately, and it’s daunting to take that long, slow look at yourself. It’s far easier and more convenient to look away. It can be so ugly that you can’t bear to look. It can be so horrifying you can’t take your eyes off the mess. {think Jerry Springer.}

I often talk to my massage clients about how emotional distress manifests as physical pain and discomfort. About how it can be so uncomfortable to keep certain things in the six inches between our ears that we push them down to necks, shoulders, abdomens and hips. This can be uncomfortable too, but we seem to tolerate it better. We push and plod along until our bodies scream “STOP! NOW! UNCLE!” and even then we only sometimes listen.

Because this can be an overwhelming process I occasionally like to make myself vulnerable in other ways. Like posting bathing suit pictures of myself on the Internet. Yes, I did this in my last blog post and almost every day have wanted to delete them and have had to talk myself down from the tree and into keeping them up.

These are not posed pictures. Not pictures with a strategically placed sarong. Not pictures with shoulders back and chin up. Not pictures that cut off mid-thigh to give the illusion of longer, leaner legs. These are not pictures of me laughing with my arm around a friend. They’re pictures of me learning to surf, standing awkwardly, face contorted, rash guard rolling up. But this is me in real life. {Ok, surf camp is not real life, but you know what I mean….}

I look at pictures of other beginners surfing and I love them. I love the ones of the friend with her ragdoll arms. I love ones of the friend who always looks of the verge of leaping off the board. I love the ones of the friend who looks like she’s been waiting a long time to do this and like she’s been doing it forever. It turns out that pictures of beginners surfing are all sorts of awesome if that surfer isn’t you.

When I look at these surfing photos of myself I see a bathing suit bottom that was not a great choice. I see dimples that do not exist in my antique bedroom mirror where the lighting is always ambient. I see a struggling woman, and I have to ask: what’s so wrong with that?

Why? Why are we all so hard on ourselves?

I have a friend with a to-die-for-body who says her post-baby belly looks like a scrunched up brown paper bag when she bends over. I laugh at her hilarious description, but I don’t see what she does. Not even close.

I have another friend who wears shorts over her jogging pants because she feels more comfortable concealing her hips and thighs. She’s in great shape, and probably runs or walks fifty miles a week (not including the miles spent chasing her toddler) and doesn’t have a damn thing to hide. Regardless, she feels self-conscious about some of her moving and shaking parts that are bound to jiggle a little when set into motion because, well, that’s kind of what they’re supposed to do. She happens to have one of my favorite booties in town, but that’s the thing: It doesn’t matter what I (or anyone else) think(s). It’s about how she feels. If she feels better wearing a skirt over her jogging pants then all the power to this woman who knows what she needs to feel good and to keep getting out there.

Every woman I know has spent too much time hating parts of herself (inside and out) that just don’t deserve that ridicule, that scrutiny, that betrayal.

One woman hates her arms. Another her neck. Another her hair. Knees, hairlines, toes, teeth…it seems nothing is off limits. The laundry list of things that women loathe about their bodies is heartbreaking. For what? What in the world does all that self hatred do except create more of the same. Ick. Be gone with it, people.

More than one friend has a full-length mirror leaning against a wall in her bedroom to create the illusion of increased height and decreased girth. I ooh and aah at myself in these mirrors as I think “Holy crap! That looks like me in 1997!” These friends say with straight faces: “I’d never get out of the house if I didn’t have that mirror.”

It’s serious business these distorted images.

Another friend was married to a man who was raised in a home attached to his family’s fun house. Slanted floors, distorted mirrors, a place where gravity and perspective are both challenged and skewed. Floors drop, people shrink and grow, light and shapes shift. When it didn’t work out with him it was hard not to shrug our shoulders and say, “Well….think about where he grew up…What could you expect?”

But those of us who didn’t grow up in fun houses also seem to have no problem distorting images, for better or for worse, to either build ourselves up or to break ourselves down. What’s wrong with the real thing? What’s wrong with reality?

I woman at surf camp had recently lost seventy-five pounds. She told me that even when she got down to a size 8 she’d pull size 18s off the racks, not realizing they were no longer for her. She could not see herself as anything but a big woman. She brought a sweater to Mexico that was one of the first things she bought in “her size,” and now she wraps it around herself as a reminder of both who she was and who she is.

It seems everywhere we turn these days there’s a story about models being photoshopped into unachievable perfection by which we determine our own inadequacies. Photographic artistry tightens jowls, smooths armpits, and sculpts legs, but it also removes crucial body parts, makes waists unnaturally slim, and occasionally attaches a completely disproportionate hand to an arm. Magazines do features (front page stories!) about stars in the morning, stars without their makeup, stars bending over in bathing suits, stars picking wedgies, stars, they tell us, looking just like US. Through all the smokes, mirrors, and lens distortion it’s becoming increasingly harder to decipher what is real.

In The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams the Skin Horse said to the Rabbit when he asked “what is REAL?”:

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept.

“Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand… once you are Real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.”

In the 1990s a prominent women’s magazine did a spread featuring grey-haired women. It was a huge success until Clairol threatened to pull all advertising unless the magazine stopped implying that “older” women could be beautiful without coloring their hair. Scarier than Clairol’s demand was the reaction of the magazine, which promised to “never again feature grey-haired women in a positive light.”

Photographers take photos of brides both before and after the ceremony. Before she’s coiffed to perfection, but her face is hard, nervous, edgy. These are sometimes interesting, telling shots, but rarely the best of the day. Later—after the seal-the-deal kiss, after the receiving line, after the first dance—the photos looks much different. A few tendrils (from a once-in-a-lifetime hairdo) may have slipped out, she may have smudged her mascara and she may have forgotten to reapply her lipstick. If it’s Montana her dress may have a ring of dirt around the bottom and she may have changed out of heels and into cowboy boots or flip-flops. She’s twirling, she’s laughing, she’s cheersing, and for a few moments she may be focused on how she feels and not on how she looks. These are the keepers.

I don’t know what you see when you look at me, but I know what I see when I look at you.

Where you see dimples I see definition.

Where you see wrinkles I see smiling.

Where you see junk-in-the trunk, I see curves.

Where you see tree trunks I see a strong foundation for your center.

Where you see football player shoulders I see a base that holds up a beautiful mind.

Where you see a woman being lazy I see a woman giving herself what she needs.

Where you see a woman struggling I see a woman trying, absorbing, accomplishing.

I see a confident short-short wearing role model of living, laughing, dancing joy.

I see grey hairs that naturally highlight your hair and tell me you’re not fighting reality.

I see your salon-dyed hair and a woman who says, “I don’t think so. Not me. No, I’m not ready.”

I see happy.

I see that you enjoy life.

I see that you’re not trying to fool anyone.

I see your vulnerability.

And I like it.