Traveling with Kindness

“This is absolutely ridiculous! I don’t know how you people can do this and keep a clean conscience, it is disgraceful. It’s the holidays, don’t you care at all what you are doing to families? We have spent hundreds of dollars on this trip!”

“I’m very sorry mam, if you will just take a seat we will do our best to resolve this issue. We understand this is an inconvenience for your and your family and I do apologize for this situation.”

The woman in front of me stormed off, huffing and puffing, pulling along her overstuffed carry on and looking ready to burst with frustration. As I stepped forward, the airline associate behind the desk smiled at me timidly, as though she were bracing for another barrage of scolding words.

Instead, I offered her a broad smile and uttered eight words that made her visibly joyful. “I would like to give up my seat.”

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At first she seemed almost stunned, and I can’t really blame her. It was New Years Day and the airport was overflowing with bustling travelers. Every flight in the airport seemed to have been oversold; and not just oversold by a seat or two, on my flight alone they had oversold 8 seats.

Eight. That’s crazy. Eight people had paid for a ticket and were now sitting in total dismay at not having a seat on the flight they paid for. Although these people had every right to be frustrated and angry with the airline companies for this injustice, at the end of the day these airline associates were wallowing in their misery with them, not rejoicing at their power and ability to deceive them. They hadn’t hand selected who would have a seat and who would not with devilish grins and mean-spirited chuckles. But here they were, the scapegoat for the computer algorithm that counted on so many people missing this flight. The airlines should really give their employees armor for the abuse they receive on the holidays. Or better yet, they should be accountable for giving people the service they’ve actually paid for and not overselling flights in the first place.

Luckily for me, it was a Saturday. I was traveling alone and didn’t have any need to get back to San Francisco until 9:00 am Monday morning, for all I cared they could lily-pad jump me across the entire United States. It was 7:30 am, feeling like the perfect time to make someone else’s day. It was the holiday season after all, right?

“Okay, so I am going to book you on a flight to North Carolina, from there you will get a flight to Atlanta, and then another to Las Vegas. You will need to spend the night in Las Vegas, but I’ll set you up in a hotel and you will be booked on the first flight out to San Francisco Sunday morning,” the flight attendant looked up at me as she described the complicated itinerary. Again I could sense she was expecting some sort of confrontation or pushback.

“That’s just fine, whatever works for you guys, I have plenty of time and have everything with me, so it’s easy for me to travel all day.” At this point, after watching the abuse this woman had taken for the past twenty minutes, I sincerely just wanted to make her feel good about some aspect of her job, and I also felt as though someone who really needed to be somewhere this day should take my seat. I had the luxury of an open schedule.

“Well, you will also receive a $500 flight voucher for giving up your seat on this flight, and the flight I have booked you on to go to North Carolina might be oversold as well, so if you decide to give up your seat on that flight then you could actually make out pretty well,” she said with a smile.

I smiled back, “Sounds like a day well spent if you ask me, making it possible for others to get to their destination while also collecting flight vouchers, can’t beat that can I?” I laughed out loud, and the airline associate also let out a giggle. “No, sounds pretty good to me” she said with a smile.

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And so began my day of intentional selflessness that ended up being one of the most self-indulgent days I can remember.

How could this day possibly be self indulgent? Well, with my sole intention being to give up my seat on every flight I was assigned to, I managed to rack up $2000 worth of flight vouchers. I also received heartfelt thanks from 4 individual passengers and a family of five who were able to fly together thanks to my seat becoming available. I received 3 hugs from perfect strangers, and an overwhelming embrace of gratitude from seven airline employees who were struggling through one of the toughest days of the year for them.

When I did manage to land a flight that was not oversold, the airline associate upgraded me to first class, twice. And when I got to Vegas, I didn’t even have to cash in my hotel voucher; instead, the airline associates there managed to get me on a flight and I arrived in San Francisco at 5:00 pm, only 30 minutes after my original arrival time.

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I can’t help but smile when I remember this day. My intention was not to collect flight vouchers (which would end up paying for 4 future flights). My intention was to make as many people smile amidst a constant stream of negativity. To travel with kindness. With the simple decision that I would flow with all that unfolded in a spirit of generosity and kindness, I ended up feeling as though I received the greatest gift of all.

It’s easy to get caught up in the streams of negativity that flow around us. Their currents are swift and they sometimes sneak up on us, sucking us into their depths before we even realize it. Each moment we live and breathe is an opportunity to choose how we participate in the world around us- how we choose to travel through it. Carrying kindness along as a companion is like carrying a life vest to keep your head above water when that stream of negativity threatens to overwhelm you and everyone around you. Kindness is often gentle and subtle, and powerful all at once.

Let us not forget how powerful it is to be kind to one another, to be kind to ourselves. Not because we have to, but because we get to; because it’s a privilege to cross paths with one another, to touch the life of another in a way that lifts us all up. When we pay attention to the opportunities that present themselves, when we lead with a generous heart, we often receive far more than we give- and in curiously delightful ways.

As Rumi so eloquently put it:

“Your acts of kindness are iridescent wings of divine love, which linger and continue to uplift others long after your sharing.”

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Cultivating Untrammeled Joy

“Joy is a meeting place, of deep intentionality and of self forgetting, the bodily alchemy of what lies inside us in communion with what formerly seemed outside, but is now neither, but become a living frontier, a voice speaking between us and the world.”- David Whyte

Untrammeled joy is the best way I can describe how I feel when I’m in the presence of horses.

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Photo: Lindsay Fitzgerald

It’s also how I feel when I get to share their presence with others.

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Photo: María Prieto

“The horses are like a smile, like a contagious smile.” My husband, Ale, once said as we were reflecting on what it’s like to ride our horses out into the community. And it’s true, there is some essential form of presence that they invoke in people, igniting ripples of untrammeled joy that might even be felt against the will of the person feeling it – due to its inexplicability.

This, in our experience, is particularly prevalent with children.

 

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Photo: María Prieto

During our long ride across Patagonia, we were approached constantly by children in the streets- wriggling in their parents arms as we rode by, pointing and squealing “caballito, caballito!” Passing cars would slow down, roll down their windows, and children would thrust their hands out into the open air, hoping to bury outstretched fingers in the fury necks. Often parents would the car pull over on the side of the road, so the children to could come up to the horses and touch them. Smiles spread outwardly and inwardly, and as we rode through town it was as though we left a wake of smiles behind us. Where ever we travel, our horses seem to naturally invoke a presence of openheartedness.

We noticed this, and decided that when we got home, we would nurture that openheartedness in our community, somehow.

When we returned to Pucón after our long ride and suddenly found ourselves to be the owners of seven horses, we felt this deep intentionality to cultivate connection between people in our community and the horses. At the time we didn’t know exactly how we could do it, but there was such a draw to share the abundance we felt by their presence, that we decided to set up a small workshop to introduce some of the children in our community to a few of the horses.

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Photo: Alejandro Matos

We didn’t just want to give pony rides though, we wanted to cultivate connection and teach the children how to begin a heart-based conversation with horses. Our idea was that by introducing them to horses through the heart- we could plant a seed of heart connection that could potentially influence how community members interacted with horses, and with one another.

Our neighbor generously offered their round pen to host the workshop and parents supported us as spotters and horse handlers. Instead of charging a set rate for the workshop, we decided to offer it based on a donation of abundance- we encouraged neighbors to offer whatever they felt they had an abundance of in exchange for us hosting the workshop.

The day of the workshop the winter rains paused their downpours and we were gifted with gorgeous sunshine. Once everyone was gathered on the sheepskins that had traveled with us all across Patagonia, I began to describe the journeys that Picante and Pichi had adventured through in order to be here with the children.

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Photo: Alejandro Matos

With wide eyes they listened as I described how Picante had crossed freezing cold rivers and treacherous mountain terrain, and how Pichi had walked in the deep sand along the ocean day after day, carrying a surfboard on her back. We were pretty lucky to be in the presence of such incredible horses.

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Photo: Heather Hillier

I then introduced them to a very special, magic way to connect with horses- with our breath and through our hearts.

All of the children closed their eyes, placed their hands on their hearts, and we took several deep breaths through our heart space. We collectively gave thanks to Picante, for his courage that brought him across the mountains and rivers, expressing gratitude for his friendliness and for his bravery in crossing so many bridges to get here. As we breathed through our hearts together, we gave thanks to Pichi for her happy persona, for her tireless energy as she walked through the sand all of those kilometers, for her curiosity and her calm presence.

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Photo: Alejandro Matos

In the few moments we breathed gratitude through our hearts, I could visibly see both of the  horses and the children sink deeper into a state of calm.

The children then took turns greeting the horses with a soft breath in their nose and open palms that patiently allowed inspection from curious noses. It was incredibly simple, and yet so stunningly beautiful to witness each child reach out to the horses with a heartfelt connection of appreciation and story.

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Photo: Alejandro Matos

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Photo: Alejandro Matos

The children took turns riding around the round pen, and then thanked their horse for his/her presence with a hug or a stroke on the neck. The air was thick with curiosity, love, attention and appreciation. My heart was overflowing with gratitude for the abundance we were able to share.

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Photo: Alejandro Matos

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Photo: Alejandro Matos

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Photo: Alejandro Matos

As morning wound into afternoon and the children scurried off to play in the field, we unsaddled the horses, leaving them to graze while the adults gathered for a potluck lunch in the sunshine. The quality of connection, conversation, delicious food and wholehearted presence was palpable. On a small table, all of the abundance offerings were awaiting us- a jar of organic  quinoa, fresh vegetables, fruits, nuts and cheese, 10,000 pesos and amazing cards of thanks drawn by all of the children.

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The children brought them to me one by one, filling me arms with everything to the point that they were overflowing- then they all hugged me at once and I could not contain the joy emanating from my being.

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Untrammeled joy.

“To feel a full and untrammeled joy is to have become fully generous; to allow our selves to be joyful is to have walked through the doorway of fear, the dropping away of the anxious worried self felt like a thankful death itself, a disappearance, a giving away, overheard in the laughter of friendship, the vulnerability of happiness felt suddenly as a strength, a solace and a source, the claiming of our place in the living conversation, the sheer privilege of being in the presence of the ocean, the sense of having danced to the music, in the rain, under the sky or with a well loved, familiar face – I was here and you were here and together we made a world.”- David Whyte

I don’t think I ever imagined I would step into a work that invoked within me such a deep level of joy. Working in partnership with the horses feels like an ever-deepening gift. I was always passionate about the various types of work I’ve done over the years, but the joy I experience when I’m supporting these wholehearted connections between horses and people…it steals my breath a bit. And as I move closer to this becoming my life’s work, I realize more and more how essential it is to ask ourselves, what invokes within me untrammeled joy? What ignites my soul and overwhelms my being with sheer gratitude for my very existence?

Why are those questions not on our college entrance exams? Or listed as essay questions on the SAT? Why aren’t we more diligently nurturing societies that encourage people to cultivate a life that invokes untrammeled joy?

Both Ale and I believe in the innate capacity horses have to awaken, heal and empower the human spirit, and we’ve committed to build an organization that cultivates this connection between people, nature and horses. We wanted to ensure we were honoring the wisdom and wellbeing of our herd. That’s what ultimately inspired us to build a company offering authentic learning journeys that will integrate Equine Facilitated Learning and Coaching, wilderness education, personal development and adventure.

In order to do this work from a place of integrity to take it to a deeper level, I felt I needed a broader foundation of how to support people in their personal development as they experience the healing power and wisdom of horses. As a result, I’ve decided to enroll in a year long apprenticeship program to gain my Equine Facilitated Learning & Coaching Certification. When we said yes to the horses more than a year ago, I knew we were saying yes to something that was bigger than us. I also knew if we wanted to create something bigger than the two of us, we couldn’t do it alone. This certification is just part of the vision we are building, but it’s a big part, and I need support in order to accomplish it.

Just as this workshop that we hosted in our little community was inspired by and initiated from a place of abundance, this wholehearted request for support is wrapped in a spirit of reciprocity, and I wish for folks to give if they can do so from a place of abundance. In the spirit of reciprocity, I’ve set up an Abundance Exchange filled with offerings of stories, photographs, and authentic experiences in exchange for financial support.

You can follow this link to learn more about the vision we are bringing to Chile and to donate, if you are feeling you have the financial abundance to do so.

Horses Empowering Humans

If you feel this work and the vision we hope to bring into the world might resonate with your friends, family or broader networks, please spread the word and share the link (https://www.gofundme.com/horsesempowerhumans) and help cultivate openhearted connections between people, horses and nature- with quite a bit of untrammeled joy along the way.

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Photo: Lindsay Fitzgerald

 

The Art of Embracing Uncertainty

My heart delights when I adventure into the unknown.

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Away we go, toward another horizon leading to the unknown

It’s enticing, the sense of adventure and the stories that I will live to tell. The people who will come across my path, inevitably linking me to another part of my journey and perhaps an entirely new chapter of my life.

 As Paulo Coelho says, “What makes life interesting is the unknown. It is the risks that we take every single moment of our day, every single day.”

There is something innate within us that craves this unknown, while also seeking a sense of security and safety. It’s such a dichotomy, such a wild and provocative thing to examine, to wonder at and to learn to dance with.

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We often feel most alive when we step into the unknown

 

I’ve taken up this act of living with a sense of uncertainty, of consciously carrying a level of uncertainty with me as a companion to my soul. For years I adventured with the idea that my ultimate destination was a sense of security…and yet recently I’ve seen this destination fall away entirely and make room for some degree of uncertainty to live comfortably within me.

The mystery of life is the unknown, the uncertainty of it all, and rather than spending time and energy trying to figure it out, I’ve decided to embrace it as a friend and listen to what it has to teach me. I’ve acknowledged that it’s going to be with me all the days of my life anyway, and rather than being afraid of it I may as well delight in its company.

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A mix of courage, heart, and trusting the unknown brought me here

Earlier this year Ale and I rode our horses nearly 1000 kilometers across Patagonia.

Rather than following my initial reflex of thoroughly pre-planning this expedition, I surveyed what it would take for us to cover our essential bases, and otherwise left the journey entirely open to unfold however it wished.

When we began our journey, we’d never been to Patagonia before and we didn’t even have horses. Our friends drove us from our home in Pucón to Puerto Montt and left us with our two dogs on the dock leading to the ferry. We waived goodbye to them, and waived goodbye to the last aspect of our trip that we’d actually planned. From now on we would be dancing entirely with fate- stepping fully into the embrace of uncertainty.

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Embracing uncertainty is not always easy, or comfortable, in fact it rarely is. It brings with it, as can be expected, many unexpected things. Looking back on how our journey unfolded, I can’t help but smile, because in hindsight it really does seem kind of fantastical and even crazy by some accounts. And yet, it happened so fluidly, it was such a wholesome journey, such a grand adventure and such an awe-inspiring experience, I wouldn’t trade the uncertainty we baked into it for anything. And I couldn’t have planned a better adventure in my wildest dreams.

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Deep in the heart of Patagonia

When we stepped off the boat carrying our excessively heavy packs, full of our backcountry gear, horse equipment and dog food, we had no comforts awaiting us. We didn’t even know how we would get to Villa O’Higgins, some 1200+ kilometers to the south. We were certain we’d get there though, and once we did, we were certain we’d find the horses we needed to ride home. Don’t ask me why, all I can tell you is we knew it with all our hearts, even as we began walking south along the Carretera Austral, our thumbs out and our hearts open.

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That first day we walked for miles. And then it began, the rides came. In quick succession we found ourselves with our feet propped up in the back of a pickup truck, the wind blowing our hair back, our puppies tongues hanging out happily and the mountains of Patagonia blowing by. For six days we were carried across Patagonia by the kindness of strangers- catching hitches each morning with ease and making our way steadily across the region.

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When we arrived in Villa O’Higgins it was time to buy our horses. Scratch that, it was time to find our horses. Just as we had been certain we would get to Villa O’Higgins, we were certain we’d find the right horses, but in reality we had no control over making this happen. We were in an incredibly remote part of the world where people use everything they owned- and horses are a vital part of the lifestyle here. Folks weren’t just selling horses off, and before we would find our faithful equine companions we would have to spend time getting to know the families living in the region, and give them the chance to get to know us. When we walked out of town three weeks later with two of our three horses, we had uncertainty to thank for the tears of gratitude and hugs we received from the friends we had made.

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The morning we left our adopted Patagonian family at Los Nires in Villa O’Higgins

We walked out of Villa O’Higgins, our horses and dogs walking beside us. We ventured up into the mountains where we’d been told we could find another horse. Nothing was certain, the horse might not be healthy, he might not be trained, the gaucho who owned him might not want to sell him for what we were willing to pay. The only thing we knew was that we could keep walking if we had to, and if we had to walk all the way to Cochrane with only two horses we would. But we had a feeling our third horse was waiting for us up in the mountains.

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Into the mountains we go

It turned out he was, and he would prove to be our boldest, strongest and bravest horse of all.

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The great Picante, our third horse found deep in the mountains of Patagonia

The first month of our ride we spent traversing the eastern mountain ranges of Patagonia, riding north from Villa O’Higgins to Cochrane following an old unmarked pioneer route. Because the trail was unmarked, it was incredibly challenging to find our way. There was a trail, sometimes, but we would often lose it as it disappeared across lakes or rivers or we would mistaken the tracks of wild horses or herds of cattle and follow them for hours before we knew we were off trail.

I have never, in my entire life, been so uncertain of where exactly I was in the world. I’ve always enjoyed wandering into the unknown, but I’ve also always had a way to find exactly where it was I’d wandered to. This particular section of the trail was incredibly challenging because even though we were never technically lost, we lost our way so many times that we would lose entire days backtracking and route finding. What we expected to take 13 days ended up taking 24 days. We had to ration our food. We had to send reassuring messages to our families using our emergency GPS tracker so that they didn’t call in the army to come find us.

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Following rivers to the glaciers they are born from deep in Patagonia

We found our way though. And we kept finding our way for several more months as we steadily continued north. We ducked and swerved mishaps as needed, we cared for our horses and our dogs, connected with locals and learned to find comfort in the simplest joys that embraced us daily. I felt the elements of Patagonia taking hold of each cell in my body, I felt the songs of the wind begin to live in my ears, the kiss of the rain felt familiar on my skin, I felt the endless pristine beauty of it take hold of my heart and squeeze it ever-so-gently. The constancy of the ever-changing sky and weather became a reliable companion, as did the uncertainty of what each new day would hold.

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Everything about this ride took longer than expected, but brought with it such unexpected beauty and laughter and joy, if anything it made the length of time entirely insignificant when compared to the depth of living we did in that time.

And that, perhaps, is my most favorite thing about carrying uncertainty around with me as a companion. It reminds me of the depth at which I can live my life when I allow a bit of mystery to weave itself into my story.

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We don’t have to always be the heavy handed narrator of our lives- when we let go of the need to see exactly what lies far beyond the horizon of our future, and instead get busy with the moment before us, when we fill our arms and minds and attention with this moment here, the uncertainty of what lies ahead is no longer frightening or overwhelming. Quite contrarily it’s enticingly exciting.

My what wonders have come from adventuring into the unknown…and my what wonders await as we continue toward the next horizon, embracing the uncertainty that adventures along with us.

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Live to the Point of Tears

Three months ago I was wiggling my fingers and toes as I rocked back and forth in the saddle, willing my body to maintain whatever heat it could generate to keep my extremities from going numb. I pulled my wool hat a bit lower and tugged on the hood of my jacket to keep the cold rain out of my face. I held my reins in my right hand, my thin gloves soaked all the way through, the tips of my fingers poking out of the holes; I tucked my left hand under the saddle pad, feeling the warmth of Picante’s thick coat, still dry beneath his saddle.

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Picante resting as we traverse a deep mountain valley in the middle of Patagonia

It had been raining for three days straight. Our equipment was soaked. Our tent was soaked. The dogs and horses were soaked. Our boots and socks were soaked. Dampness seemed to be creeping into my bones, the days of wet travel through Patagonia were wearing on us.

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Another rainy day of riding

Ale turned in his saddle, calling back to me- “How’re you doing?”

“Freezing, I’ve lost feeling in my toes again, do you mind if we get down and walk for a while?”

Ale nodded and we pulled the horses off to the side of the dirt road. I loosened Picante’s girth, hung his stirrups over his saddle and gave him a hug. He lowered his head, his ears pointed forward and he curiously nuzzled my back. Check and Curi Cuyen ran up behind me, tails wagging, searching for some explanation for our dismount. I gave them both a quick pat before rubbing my hands together and stepping forward to follow Ale and the other horses. The rain continued to fall heavily, and we continued our long journey north.

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Together we walk

After an hour of walking, the blood was sufficiently flowing in our bodies again and the feeling of cold limbs was replaced with the feeling of hungry stomachs. Luckily we found a brief escape from the freezing rain in a small refugio on the side of the road. We let the horses graze in the rain as I quickly pulled out our Jet Boil stove, a cup of instant mashed potatoes, a carton of cooked vegetables and a can of tuna. The dogs curl up beside our backpacks and slept as we cooked.

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A welcome refuge on a cold rainy day

I paced around the refugio, trying to stay warm, grateful for the roof and walls that were momentarily blocking the wind and rain. This place felt like a little paradise after days of riding and walking outside in the elements. The water quickly came to a boil; I combined the ingredients, adding a dash of merken, a pinch of salt and a healthy dose of oregano. We feasted quickly as cars sped by, splashing cold puddles on our feet.

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Happiness is shelter and warm food on a cold day

The warm food disappeared just as quickly as it had cooked, our bodies seemed to be in a constant state of hunger as so much energy was required to simply stay warm. There were no leftovers when it came to meals on the trail.

We loaded the chiwas (packhorse packs) back on Zalig, bridled Aysén and Picante, pulled on our wet backpacks and climbed back into the saddles. The rain had turned into a drizzle and the clouds seemed to dissolve into fog, drifting in between the mountain ridges. Maybe, if we were lucky, it would stop raining by nightfall. Maybe, if we weren’t so lucky, it would rain everyday for the rest of the week. Either way, onward we rode.

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Rain or shine, we travel on.

About a year ago, I was listening to one of my favorite poets giving a talk about the depth at which we must be willing to dive, in order to fully embrace the lives we are given. During his talk, he mentioned the famous quote by Albert Camus- that we must “Live to the point of tears.”

Those words grabbed hold of me in that moment, they captivated me in a manner that made my heart beat a little faster. That was it- those words captured the essence of what I was seeking. Living to the point of tears felt like an invitation to pursue the grand adventures that visit us in our dreams, that give us such stunning experiences while we live them that we could cry with delight and gratitude.

I wrote down in my journal that I wanted to live to the point of tears- that this was my intention as I moved forward with this grand adventure called life, and I believed that my adventure on horseback in Patagonia would allow me to do just that.

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Standing in awe as I look out into the expansive wildness of southern Patagonia

In some ways, that’s exactly what it is. Our ride across Patagonia was an unbelievable dance with the rawest forms of being present that I’ve ever experienced. We witnessed wild places that were so beautiful they did invoke tears. We faced hardships that resulted in tears of frustration and tears of overwhelming gratitude when relief was realized. We met strangers who embraced us as friends, and were overwhelmed by the gratitude that flooded our hearts after they showered us with simple things such as homemade bread, sharing a warm stove together, and giving us their undivided attention.

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Waving farewell to Don Patricio, a deaf gaucho who opened his simple home to us late one evening after we’d ridden for hours into the night in search of water for the horses

Embracing grand adventures that demand a larger experience of living is important- but I’ve found it’s not entirely the essence of this whole “living to the point of tears” business.

What I’ve realized since finishing our ride, and returning to the “day-to-day” post-adventure living, is that the wholesome act of living in the present and acknowledging the simple things that bring us joy, continuously nurtures a deeper appreciation for life in general. When we find gratitude in our moment-to-moment existence, we may find ourselves living with the same fullness that we experience in those “bucket list” pursuits.

The inspiration for this post was a simple moment that happened a few days ago. After dinner, I poured the leftover curry into a recycled pickle jar and strolled over to the refrigerator. As I held the door open, scanning for a spot to stuff the jar, I suddenly felt goosebumps and tears well up. I leaned back, shaking my head with a smile.

My refrigerator is so full, practically overflowing, and it suddenly took my breath away. Fresh vegetables spilled out from the bottom drawer and lower shelves; a chicken sat on the middle shelf defrosting; on the door there were a dozen eggs of varying shapes and sizes, homemade cheese and butter – all bought the day before from the neighbors down the road. We don’t have a huge refrigerator, but as I looked at it’s contents and tried to squeeze in leftovers from our last meal, I was overtaken by a wave of gratitude by the abundance before me.

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Acknowledging the abundance of our community

There I was, staring at a refrigerator full of food, on the verge of tears.

These days I could cry with joy each time I step into a hot shower, or put on a lovely smelling lavender lotion. The waves of gratitude are palpable. Each morning I awake and I look out my front door and see our horses grazing, the joy bubbles up in my heart and I’m again on the verge of tears of gratitude. I notice more moments in the day that delight me- the moment the sunlight dapples the forest with shimmery gold, the hay we have neatly stacked to feed the horses for a month, the way the sun bursts through the clouds on a rainy afternoon, the warmth of the house when I come inside after working outside all day with the horses. I take a moment to simply close my eyes and smile, so thankful for this roof, these walls, and this wood heating our little home as winter settles into the mountains of southern Chile.

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Crisp early winter sunrises with the river and volcano in our backyard

“Live to the point of tears.”

Looking back, I didn’t actually think that living to the point of tears would be so literal. But it actually is. Not to say I’m walking around all day crying (don’t start worrying), but the fierceness of the joy that overwhelms me when I acknowledge this underlying gratitude- for incredibly small things- it brings me just to the point of tears, quite literally.

I do experience a heightened sense of gratitude for hot showers and a warm house on a cold rainy day, for a full refrigerator and left overs after being able to eat to my heart’s content. To be sure, that heightened sense of gratitude is easily invoked thanks to all those cold rainy days we endured riding across Patagonia.

But, what I’m continuing to discover is that living to the point of tears is actually a way of being that we can carry with us through our daily lives. It can elevate us in moments of everyday hardship and uncertainty by allowing a constant celebration and acknowledgement of the small things we can easily be grateful for.

After all, life is not always a grand adventure- and in fact, the small, quiet moments make up much more of our lives than the risky bold adventures do. With each breath we take, with each new day, we have the opportunity to wholeheartedly live to the point of tears.

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Life after the grand adventure continues to invoke incredible moments of gratitude

So, what inspires a deep sense of gratitude in you, one so powerful it may just bring you to the verge of tears, followed by an outburst of joyful laughter?

 

In the Presence of Abundance

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The air is brisk; I can see my breath as I climb the steep slope in the dawn light. The moon sits quietly above the glacier, lingering with the last few stars in an otherwise empty sky. Curi Cuyen trots in front of me, pausing every few steps to look back at me before carrying on her endless search for that unsuspecting bird. I’m tickled with excitement as I climb higher and higher, the vastness of the valley unfolding before me, the mountains and peaks, the glaciers and rivers that had silently hidden behind the thick, cold fog yesterday now sit vibrantly exposed.

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I climb to the top of the rocky slope that sits high above our camp. Curi and I trot along the ridge, all the way to the tip where two large, flat rocks form a nearly perfect chair- setting quite the stage to watch the world wake up. I drop down, sitting cross legged with my camera and journal by my side. Slowly I pull my hat further down to cover my ears, the chill of the morning shadows creeps down my neck. Curi curls up in my lap and I’m immediately warmer thanks to her furry little body.

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I take a moment to sit with my eyes closed, feeling the stillness of the morning. I feel the absence of the wind, the absence of the wet, cold rain, the absence of the pelting sleet.

Generally speaking, Patagonia is not a quiet place- between the ferocious wind and the roaring rivers, there’s almost a constant symphony of powerful sounds weaving their way through these wild places.

But this morning, high up in these mountains, up above the mouths of the rivers, beyond the glaciers from where they are born, tucked in between the tops of the peaks where the wind cannot travel- here I find stillness. And this stillness fills each and every molecule- it is vast and grand, as large as this wild place I look out upon.

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I sit in the shadows of the mountains and watch the slow, sultry entrance of the majestic sun. Even this has a stillness to it. The sunbeams creep forth, constantly in motion and yet seemingly motionless. I turn my head and it has inched its way further while I was looking the other way. I’m reminded that there is always an abundance of light, despite the length of the night, the light always returns. As the first sunbeams reach beyond the highest mountain ridge and the warmth of the morning sun rushes over me, a smile rises with my temperature. Sunshine. Oh how wonderful to feel warm sunshine.

IMG_212525 days.

It has been 25 days since I’ve had a hot shower.

25 days since I’ve had any contact with friends or family via telephone or internet. 25 days sans email or Facebook, sans Instagram likes or BBC news updates.

24 1/2 days since I was certain I knew where we were going and how to get there.

20 days since I relinquished control and discarded expectations of this journey and instead decided to focus only on the demands of my present existence.

19 days since I’ve felt full after a meal, since we’ve been rationing our food, uncertain of how many more days it would take us to emerge from these mountains, how many more days we would spend deep in the belly of this Patagonia wilderness.

And yet here I sit, so full of a simple abundance. So full of this stillness, so full of the abundance of sunshine, the abundance of clean water, the abundance of light, the abundance of fresh air and the abundance of love for my little family of husband, horses and dogs. I’m full of the abundance of strength and resilience that I have found within me. I sit, overwhelmed, as I have been so many times before, by the abundant beauty of this earth that we are blessed to walk upon.

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I climb down from the mountain, down into the valley where the sunshine is now flooding across our campsite, drying the dew on our tent, bathing our horses in its warmth. Ale is walking up to each horse, hugging them, brushing them and checking their hooves. I catch my breath and feel another tickle in my chest. This is our home! This is our life! This is our story!

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I stroll up to our grazing horses, our faithful companions and adventure partners who have carried us across rivers, glaciers, through sheer mountain passes and rocky canyons. I hug each one, thankful for their willingness to carry us through this adventure, their willingness to endure the ferocious winds, the cold hail and rain, to endure our uncertainty and our endless desire to explore and continue onward.

Ale and I pull our damp sleeping bag and soaking wet sheepskins out of the tent and lay them across the rocks. We unpack every single piece of gear- most of it damp from the days of relentless mountain storms- and lay them in the sunshine.

All of these things have our stories wrapped up in them. I love every single thing that I handle, placing them gently in the sunshine so that they too can indulge in the abundance of warmth.

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I peel off my clothing, most of which hasn’t been changed in nearly a week, my skin feeling the cool air and warm sunshine for the first time in a long time. Each piece of clothing is handled with gratitude, as it has kept me warm and dry through the most rugged terrain I’ve ever ventured into. I adore the bright colors of our belongings as they lay strewn across the rocks, the patterns and layers- each item serving a simple but essential purpose. These clothes are our companions, just as our horses and dogs are, and they play a vital part in this story.

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I set up my little kitchen on a semi-flat rock, pulling out our fuel, stove and cookware. I collect water from the glacial stream and set about to cooking breakfast- measuring a cup of dehydrated mashed potatoes. I add what’s left of our salt, a heavy dash of oregano and merken. Even though we’ve been eating this mixture for weeks, it’s somehow incredibly delicious as we dig into breakfast in the abundant sunshine this morning. I put another cup of potatoes aside for lunch and pack up the rest of our food, it isn’t much, but it’s enough.

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I splash in the shallow river that’s gushing from a nearby glacier, gasping at the coldness, laughing at the freshness, smiling from the glee of feeling clean for the first time in weeks. I dry myself in the sunshine, standing naked on top of a cold boulder with my arms outstretched like a bird drying her feathers. The sunshine wraps itself around me and I’m blanketed in its soft warmth. These are seemingly small things- this abundance of water, of sunshine, of time in a beautiful place- but they are so precious, so essential, and inspire overwhelming gratitude in this moment.

As our things and ourselves dry, we slowly begin the process of breaking down camp, repacking all of our belongings, saddling our horses and loading everything onto our packhorse. We take our time, deliberately enjoying the pace of this day. As we put everything away, I feel grounded in a reassurance that we have all we need on this journey- on this adventure through Patagonia but also this adventure through life. It’s a simple moment acknowledging the abundance that we carry with us no matter where we are.

We begin to follow the unmarked path along the stream, uncertainty hovering above us as to whether or not we are on the right trail. Yet we are also accompanied by a confidence that no matter what lies ahead, we have all we need- and we are always in the presence of abundance as long as we take time to acknowledge it.

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She Thought She Could, So She Did

I dropped down to my knees, slowly rocking backward so that I could finally sit and take the weight off my aching legs. The hot water of the shower washed away the week’s worth of dirt that had gathered with every mile covered. My mind was blank, the throbbing feeling in my legs encompassing all thought. I looked at my legs, these strong, powerful legs that had carried me more than a thousand miles to reach the point where I now sat. I appreciated the hell out of these legs, the freedom they gave me, the journey they allowed me to partake in. A quiet smile spread across my face in the poorly lit shower, as I sat on the floor and thought about this day that was coming to a close, the epic task that I had decided to tackle, and how far I had come since the day I first stepped foot on the Appalachian Trail.

90 days. Exactly 90 days prior, three months in total, Ale and I had climbed Mount Katahdin in Maine on our first day as Appalachian Trail thru-hikers. That climb kicked our asses. We were both so exhausted after the ten mile ascent and descent that we fell asleep in our tent after a light feast of fruit snacks, too tired to even fathom the energy to cook dinner.

The next morning we awoke to aching bodies and heavy packs. We struggled to walk a total of eight miles that second day. The first week it felt as though we were moving at the pace of inch worms, and an entire day of exhaustive effort that took everything we had, hardly seemed to make a dent in the 2,180 miles in front of us. Our emotions were taxed, our bodies exhausted, our minds gasping for a productive way to pass the time when all we had to fill it was walking. The thought of reaching Springer Mountain in Georgia, the terminus of the trail, just seemed so impossibly far away.

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The early days on the trail when 10 miles in one day was no easy feat.

Flash forward to this moment, this night that I am smiling to myself sitting on a shower floor of some random hostel in Harpers Ferry, Virginia. This day I was reflecting on began early, before the sun broke the horizon.

My alarm went off abruptly at 4:00am. I sat up in the hammock immediately, my heart jumping into my throat with anticipation for the day. I heard rustling from the other hammocks as the rest of our crew began to pull themselves from sleep. I clicked on my headlamp, nudged Mango (the trail name Ale went by as a thru-hiker), telling him it was time, and dropped my legs over the side of our hammock. Everyone got ready quietly, packing up camp quickly. My pack felt so light in comparison to most days. In preparation we had all rationed our food so that we would only had enough to get through the next 16 hours- a meager effort to save ourselves from having to carry more weight than we absolutely needed.

What were we about to attempt? On the trail, it’s a little thing called the Four State Challenge where you hike across the borders of four sates- crossing from Pennsylvania, through the entire state of Maryland and West Virginia, and end in Virginia- all in one day, covering a total of 42.9 miles.

We began in the dark with a swift pace, headlights bobbing along the forest path, the dead leaves, dry from the summer draught, crunched beneath our feet as we cruised along silently. After five miles, we took a break to drink water and eat a power bar. The day before, we had all decided it would be best to manage our energy this way, hiking hard in five mile increments, then breaking for 20 minutes to replenish energy. We maintained this technique for the entire day, and I think it was essential for us to actually pull it off. The trail took us through towns, through developed parks, though nature preserves and wild woods.

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Taking a moment to rest and enjoy the sunshine during our Four State Challenge

The sun shone strong, the sky was blue and the breeze was light. It was a beautiful day. All along the way we passed shelters that looked enticing with valley views and campfire pits, but pushed on anyway. As the evening rolled in, the air turned cooler, and I felt as though we were literally walking into fall when we reached West Virginia. A grey fog rolled in and the wind picked up. We pushed onward, the miles melting beneath our strong legs and wild hearts.

After about 14 hours of hiking at the strong pace, I could feel the exhaustion of my muscles settling in. Keeping the Cliff Bars down at that point was a struggle as I began to battle nausea. The weight of my pack pulled heavily on my shoulders and hips. My feet ached as though they were weighed down by bags of sand tied to my ankles. Every incline felt like a steep mountain, regardless of the pitch.

We hiked the last few miles under cover of darkness, just has we had begun. My mind raced wildly as I stumbled along, ticking off the remaining miles- it took more mental effort than I had imagined it would. Cubby and Spoon had hiked ahead, keeping a faster pace than us; but Mango, Santana and I took our last twenty minute break together. We swapped coping advice, shared in the collective exhaustion we felt- but we also shared in quiet celebration of how far we had come, and how little we had left in front of us.

42.9 miles, in 16 hours and 37 minutes. After 90 days of walking, we were able to walk 42.9 miles in 16 1/2 hours. Only 90 days prior, it had taken us 12 hours to walk 10 miles. The accomplishment I felt was stunning. I was overwhelmed by my own strength, not just physically, but emotionally and mentally. I hadn’t even realized how far I had come, figuratively speaking, until that moment in Harper’s Ferry.

Just as I had 90 days earlier, I fell asleep that night without being able to muster the strength to cook dinner. I awoke with a smile, and a greater understanding of what I was actually able to accomplish, what I could do, if I just decided to do it. And even as I hobbled on sore legs, the rain pouring down on us as we made our way to breakfast, I had never felt so strong, or smiled so wide.

Last week I published my website- and in doing so I finally managed to bring together several of my life passions and establish, publicly, the intention of the work that I do. The journey that I’ve taken to get here was filled with plenty of ups and downs, there were calculated breaks and regenerative moments, plenty of moments of uncertainty where I questioned if I could actually do this, but as I hit publish, as I began to share it, I suddenly was overwhelmed again with the realization of how strong I am- of what I can do if I just decide to do it.

With that, I wish you a most beautiful day. Take some time and acknowledge a moment in your life when you surprised yourself with your own ability, with your power and your strength. Love that moment, hold it close, celebrate it, share it to inspire others. Who knows what unbelievable beauty will unfold as a result of you.

Oh- and if you are curious, you can check out what I do when I’m not posting here at my new website- www.gretamatos.com

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Constantly seeking new challenges that will take me places beyond my own imagination

When Minutes Melt into Miles, and Miles Melt into Smiles

The sun beat down upon my shoulders and the humid air wrapped itself around me like a hot, wet blanket. In true southern hospitality, the heat of July in Georgia was giving me an overwhelming embrace as I stepped out of the airport. The heat was a shock to my body, which had grown accustomed to the onset of winter in the southern hemisphere. My head spun for a moment, a mix of the temperature change, humidity, and a lack of sleep in the past 48 hours. As I finished my last sip of coffee, I looked to my left to see a beaming smile from an outside attendant. “Which way to Marta?” I asked groggily.

“Well now darlin’ you just head right down this sidewalk here to that last shuttle and you’ll be on your way. You keep smilin’ now you hear?” he responded with a thick, cheerful southern drawl.

Only 48 hours and 5,122 miles earlier I had been home in southern Chile. The house was still dark when I awoke, and would remain so until around 8:45 when the lazy winter sun finally pulled itself above our mountains. After an hour of predawn yoga in front of a crackling fire and our watchful Australian Shepherd, Check, the business of the day set in and I collected every last little detail I would need to take care of before leaving the country for this brief trip.

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Running into a little traffic around town in southern Chile

Darkness settled back into town before I even departed, and as I queued up to get on the bus I silently crossed my fingers that the exhaustion of the busy day would help me quickly fall asleep on the bus. At 8:30pm my bus was loaded and ready to hit the road north for Santiago. I smiled as I waved to Alejandro out the window, already missing him but excited to be making this trip. I pulled off my shoes, stretched out to the extent possible in my semi-cama and pulled out my sleep mask for good measure. The minutes melted into miles as the night bus cruised the Ruta 5 north.

Ten hours later I heard the window curtain above my head being pulled aside. I took off my sleep mask and groggily stared out the window. Despite my efforts to ensure a restful sleep, numbness in my legs and arms due to nerve damage in my lower back had me tossing and turning most of the night. I kind of hate to say this, but the days when I used to be able to curl into a ball on a bus or plane and sleep soundly for hours may only be a memory of my past now- as sign of age, I suppose.

The lush green mountains and glistening lakes I had left behind in the night had been replaced by cement, plywood and tin-roofed suburbs as far as the eye could see. Even in the dawn darkness I could see the pollution hovering like a grayish brown cloak over the city. I stretched, pulled on my boots and jacket and exchanged my sleep mask for my pollution mask. Eleven hours and 480 miles done, it was now time to hit the streets of Santiago before my evening flight.

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The smog in Santiago is particularly awful in the winter, and with each visit I have to be careful to bring my masks to protect my lungs.

The minutes of the day passed quickly, a mix of moments in transit, random conversations with cab drivers and subway riders, lunch with a great friend and a final repack before the long flight. Before I knew it I was in another cab bound for the airport, swapping stories with the driver about life in Chile, smiling at his surprise that I was living in Pucon, thankful for his patience with my Spanish as he continuously encouraged more conversation and I explained how and why we had moved here. We laughed together as he smiled and shook his head, saying, “Greta, la gringa loca!!”

Finally I was on the plane settling into my economy seat. I again pulled off my boots and jacket, exchanged my pollution mask for my sleep mask, and hoped for better luck sleeping on this second redeye. Nearly ten hours, about 20 minutes of sleep and some 4,635 miles later, we touched down in Atlanta, GA in the good old USA. Sunshine poured into the window even though it was only 5:30am, as stark contrast to my dark morning start only the day before.

From the airport shuttle I made my way to the Marta station in the domestic terminal, grabbed a Breeze pass (slightly amazed at how efficient I could be without having to first translate everything in my brain) and found a seat on the train. I looked out the window at the lush green landscape as we pulled further from the city out into the suburbs. Finally, after 38 hours in transit via bus, Santiago metro, taxi, airplane, shuttle and Atlanta metro, I stepped out of the train station and into the arms of my wonderful friend Kate, who I had not seen in three years.

The collective minutes, hours, miles and temporary moments of discomfort that it took me to get to this very place, at this very moment, all just melted away. All I could do was smile and ask her a hundred questions as we excitedly caught up on life and details of her wedding taking place in two days. The following four days were a flurry of activities, laughter and love- hundreds of little moments that I will forever look back on and smile with gratitude that I was there to witness, and participate.

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To be in the presence of such love fills our own cells up with love as well. We are made whole by one another, but we must choose to participate.

Life constantly presents us with opportunities to pursue moments like this, and it is so easy to let them pass us by if the road we have to take to get there seems a little too rough. A little over a year ago, when Kate told me where and when her wedding would take place, I felt a pang of fear that I wouldn’t be able to be there. I had just quit my job, and was in the midst of the final strokes of planning our move to South America. So much ahead of us was unknown, and although I didn’t want to entertain the idea of not going, all I knew for sure was that I would be living at the other end of the world by then.

Moments like these, although they are easy to let pass, are so fulfilling when embraced instead. They fill up every cell of our beings with joy. We are all connected, in one way or another, and when we find the people that we are meant to love, and who love us just as deeply, the world is not so big anymore. The buses and plane rides are not so long. But those moments, those brief beautiful moments we stretch ourselves so far in order to reach, those last a lifetime, even if only in our hearts.

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On the road back to Pucon after my brief, beautiful journey to the USA, a broad smile on my face and a heart overflowing with gratitude.