Letting Go of the Weight of The World

I dropped heavily into the back seat of the car, exhausted from a full day bouncing between production lines and meetings with factory engineers. The air conditioning was a welcome escape from the hot, thick air of summer in China. I stared out the window, trying to clear my mind. The streets were packed. People were everywhere, walking with umbrellas to fend off the sun, others driving cars, riding bicycles or tractors or some bizarrely constructed vehicle that seemed to be a combination of both. This place felt so heavy. For me, at this moment in time, China felt heavy and full; full of meetings, full of people, full of factories to visit, full of pollution, full of fires I had to put out, full of billions of things being manufactured in every single breath I took, full of potential and full of irreparable damage. It was Just. So. Full.

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A moment in the streets of China

My driver made his way aggressively down the crowded streets, at times pulling up onto the sidewalk (full of pedestrians mind you) in order to avoid the red lights and traffic jams. Oh how badly I wanted to teleport myself back to my tiny apartment in Hong Kong and retire for the day. Finally we made it to the highway onramp and began accelerating. I watched as the half-constructed sky-scrapers faded behind us, replaced by flat stretches of watery rice fields.

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The ever-present cranes line the skylines of nearly every Chinese city I have ever stepped foot in

Suddenly, without warning, my driver slammed on the breaks, threw the car in reverse and spun us around, quickly accelerating and flying past the ramp we had just used to get on. Startled, I leaned forward just in time to see a line of cars that were blocking the entire highway, sitting at a standstill. Apparently my driver was trying to save us from hours in this traffic jam, but as a result we were cruising the wrong way down the highway at 70 MPH. I sat deeper in my seat and thought, what the hell are we doing?

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Just another chaotic traffic jam in China

At that moment, this question wasn’t inspired solely by my driver and the fact that we were flying in the wrong direction way too fast. It was a much bigger question that had woven itself into my view of the world. It was a question embedded in the products my company was sourcing for our clients. It was a question embedded in my mind every time I walked across a bridge with water flowing beneath it so polluted I had to cover my nose and quicken my step. It was a question that taunted me after I began having to wear masks whenever I left my apartment in order to keep my lung condition from worsening. It was a question embedded in the realization that everything, every single thing, carries with it a cost when we choose to bring it into existence.

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I continue to struggle with chronic inflammation in my lung tissue due to the black carbon exposure while living in China

The weight of it all settled on me silently, almost unconsciously and even as I continued with my work, that “what the hell are we doing” question just wouldn’t let me be. And yet, what could I do? I was just one person, this massive system had been around far longer than I had, and “business as usual” just felt so… usual. The experience burned me out. It shut me down, stole away my fuel for inspiration and reinforced the belief that it was all too big for me to have an impact that mattered. It made me feel small and insignificant.

I felt this way the other day, as I walked the shores of the Rio Trancura, along the outskirts of Pucon. Since October 1st, I’ve made time everyday to get outside. Some days I have hours to spend out exploring. Other days I might only be able to steal away for a half hour or so. Regardless, I try to find new spots every day, and I am finding that it’s a beautiful way to constantly discover new angles through which to see this lovely place I call home.

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A sunny afternoon hike up the Rio Turbio outside of Pucon

In addition to getting outside everyday, I have committed to post a photo of any trash that I happen to collect during my adventure. My intention from the start was to raise our collective consciousness of the stuff we consume. The entire project has turned into a kind of experiment, and I can feel how radically it’s already shifting my perspective as my mental filters change and I continuously acknowledge the incredible volume of stuff around us, even in this wild and remote corner of the world.

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All of the trash I packed out during this same sunny hike up the Rio Turbio

As I pulled into the somewhat overgrown lot with a dirt boat ramp, my eyes immediately swept back and forth between the huge piles of trash. It looked as though the area was recently designated as the public dump. I was shocked. Throughout my efforts this month, I’ve picked up a lot of trash, much more than I have in the past, mainly, I think, because I just see more of it now. But this place was by far the most polluted and it just kept getting worse as I edged closer to the river.

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A discouraging site as I pulled up to the trailhead

I got out of the car, let the dogs out, put my backpack on and began walking toward the river. As I walked to the water’s edge, I looked to my left and right, trying to decide which way to go explore; but all I could see was trash. Everywhere. Instead, I walked back up to the car, took my gloves and trash bags out of my backpack and left my pack in the car. Today would not be about the adventure. Today was about the trash.

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I was so pissed off at the end of this day. I spent about an hour collecting trash along that incredibly beautiful river, and I was never more than 100 feet from my car the entire time. I focused on the trash closest to the river, along the trail and in the sand. I packed out diapers, paint cans, cardboard boxes, bottles, plastic, cans, clothing and by far the most styrofoam to date. 3 kayakers floated by, waving at me as they moved along; 4 large rafting groups also passed by. The sight of them discouraged me, as I felt indignant that they were not making more effort to care for this precious place we were all so lucky to enjoy.

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I lugged the two trash bags that I had filled back to the car, cursing that I hadn’t thought to bring more. I sat in the car with the engine off feeling heavy. Feeling that same silent weight I felt when I was in China, when I was just becoming so aware of the amount of stuff we were producing. Here the weight was tied to my heightened awareness of all the stuff we were consuming. My efforts felt futile, small and insignificant. The two bags of trash in my car didn’t even appear to make a dent in the garbage that remained. Yet again I felt like we were speeding the wrong way down a highway and I was sitting there wondering what the hell are we doing?

Over time, I have found that confronting big, heavy, challenging realities can be overwhelming and discouraging. I have also found that confronting them can lead to some of the most inspiring and motivating work I have ever done in my life. The trick, for me anyway, is to first get out from under the weight of it all, to begin by letting go of the weight of the world. We simply do not have enough strength or space to bear this weight while also imagining positive solution-oriented ideas that lead to incredible change. While the process of getting really pissed off and angry about a certain reality can be a pivotal catalyst for action, in order to be effective with whatever action you take, you have to let go of that anger and frustration to make space for all the creative juices to flow.

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I draw so much inspiration from wild places

For me, the most powerful way I have learned to let go and make space is to go outside into nature. After reaching an overwhelming state of cynicism during my first few years working in global manufacturing, it wasn’t until I retreated to the Appalachian Trail and removed myself from the discouraging environment that I really began to see how I could influence change in this space.

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Learning to let go of the weight of the world while thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail

Sometimes you have to go out to go in. After my angry evening on the river, I decided I should go climb a mountain the next day. I went to a remote area where I would have to work physically to muscle my way up. As I hiked up the steep trail, I spent time with all of my thoughts and frustrations from the day before. I acknowledged them, dug a bit to the core of what was motivating them, and then I let them go. The higher I climbed the lighter I felt. As I entered the incredible mixed coihue and araucaria forest I stopped repeatedly, leaning back and staring in awe at the huge trees. A child-like grin spread across my face as I was filled with delight and wonder by my surroundings.

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An amazing, massive araucaria reaching for the sunshine. This tree is around 1000 years old, inspiring awe and deserving respect

As I reached the ridge I stopped to catch my breath and take in the view of the three incredible volcanos on the horizon.

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I felt invigorated and strong. I continued along the trail and began thinking about different approaches I could take to inspire curiosity about the things we buy. I explored how I could motivate changes in behavior locally in a way that could also inspire others globally. I imagined tangible solutions I could contribute to immediately, and played with big, fantastic solutions that had huge-reaching impacts. I just let all of the creative ideas come in and excite me and it literally felt as though my excitement about these solutions was filling the space I had made when letting go of the anger about the problems. I didn’t feel heavy with this invisible weight, I felt lifted by this invisible force.

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I can do this. You can do this. We can do this. Whatever it is- whatever impossibly huge thing you want to tackle, whatever negative thing that you see in the world that you believe can be turned into a positive- it can be done. Don’t be discouraged by the weight of the world. It is not your responsibility to carry it. It is important to acknowledge it, to face it and see it for what it is, but then let it go. Let it go and get on with the good stuff, the stuff that excites and inspires.

Welcome Home

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My many “homes” in the last 18 months- San Francisco apartments, tiny tents, two person+1 dog hammocks, and Pucon properties owned by others (just to name a few)

The customs agent looked down at my passport, turning the pages until he reached the last one. After a year of constant travel and daily border crossings from Hong Kong to China, I had effectively filled my entire passport with stamps and needed to add pages while I was in the States for the next three weeks. I looked up at him, somewhat disheveled from the 13 hour flight and the jet lag that was my constant travel companion. He smiled at me, stamped my passport and handed it back to me.

“Welcome home.”

Home. There have been a few chapters in my life where the concept of home seemed to be an elusive idea, playing hide and seek with me as I bounced around the world living out of a backpack or a suitcase. Chapters spent literally flying around the world every three weeks, living in hotels, airports and temporary bases- finding homes wherever I happened to be. Chapters spent climbing mountains and crossing rivers for five months, living out of a backpack, carrying my home on my back. Chapters spent in that in-between travel mode that was a mix of couch surfing, country-hopping, friend and family visits and constant movement for weeks on end. And chapters like this last year, spent living on the road, on the trails, and care-taking the homes of others here in Chile. It has been a chapter where home was not a destination, but instead a creative venture- one of pure flexibility and freedom, and one that constantly challenged the traditional idea of the word.

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Finding myself at home in the air, on the road, or on the trail!

Personally, I don’t consider myself a nomad, even though I probably travel more than the average person. I have never thought of myself as one of those people who can constantly be on the road and on the go. I like home-making sometimes. I LOVE to cook, and I love to host and celebrate friends and family in our home. I love to have the things that give me comfort available. And I am one of those weird people who actually enjoys cleaning and organizing, so I adore those cold rainy days that motivate me to sweep up the house, light some candles and pick some fresh rain-soaked flowers for the kitchen- ideally from my own garden. I love sharing in the abundance that having a home allows.

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Cooking in my house kitchen and cooking in my road/trail kitchen- I’m happy as long as I’m cooking 🙂

On the other side of the coin, there is an invigorating freedom that comes with releasing yourself from the responsibility of home and taking to the “road” (or sky, or trail) and living light for a while. I equate this way of life to something that one of my favorite poets, David Whyte, discusses when he talks about how essential it is to “go hungry” at least once a day, to say no to everything that is not a yes, so that when you finally dig in, when you finally say yes, it is such an incredible experience you are overwhelmed with gratitude for it. Regardless of its simplicity or complexity, the experience is, in and of itself, a reminder of what it is to live.

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Backyards with sweeping city views are sweet, but so is having remote tiny towns or endless wilderness out the back door (or tent door).

There are two key things I always look forward to when giving up my home to explore and adventure into the unknown.

First- the discomfort that comes when you let go of the comforts of your home. It is in this space of discomfort that I experience so much growth, it is here that I face my fears so fiercely, as if my life depends on it, becomes it often does. Letting go of the trappings of your home makes you seriously appreciate the bare necessity. To this day, I cannot tell you how deeply I appreciate every single time I stand in a shower and feel hot water come out of the faucet. Before I thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail, where I had to endure cold splash baths in icy ponds and otherwise go without showering for a whole week at a time, I never gave that hot water a second thought. Now, even seven years after my hike, the appreciation for this simple thing is still so intense.

When I start to crave this discomfort, that is usually when I realize it is time for a shift, it is time to let go of something in order to make space for something else. And often I need to let go of something big, in order to allow for something bigger to arrive.

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The comforts of home can take many shapes and forms

Second- the physical act of letting go of what I do not need in order to be comfortably mobile for any extended period of time. I like to refer to it as “living lean”. You cut away the excess, you purge your closets and your cabinets, minimize your belongings to the bare essentials and the things you love so deeply you would run into a burning building to save them. The rest you let go of. And afterward, you actually feel physically lighter. It’s like this invisible weight that you were never aware of is taken away- and it feels amazing.

As thru-hikers, we called this “pairing down”- and it was an essential lesson during our hike. When we first started, Ale and my packs were so incredibly heavy. We quickly learned the lighter your pack, the less physical pain and suffering. It’s funny how this lesson can be applied to the way we choose to fill our homes with “stuff” we may not need or have the money to pay for- the less of that we have, the less credit card debt we have, and therefore the less stress (i.e. pain and suffering) we have to manage. There is a higher level of consciousness of the physical things we consume, and with that comes a confrontation of why we consume them, and if we really need to in the first place.

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Ale and I cut the weight of our packs in half while thru-hiking. The photo top left is Ale’s pack at the start of the trail, the one on the right top is midway through after serious pairing down. We also paired down heavily when we moved to Chile. The Uhaul on the left was filled with all of our belongings when we moved to San Francisco 6 years ago. The photo on the right, is us driving our 1998 Subaru Forester here in Chile, with all of our belongings packed in the back (we moved to Chile with 6 bags total).

I am not suggesting that everyone out there must abandon their home, sell their belongings and hit the road in order to really appreciate life. That isn’t the point. The point, is that there is humility, beauty and strength awaiting us all when we actively participate in some form of letting go of what makes us comfortable in order to embrace what makes us uncomfortable. Whether that is choosing to do one thing each day that scares you, making more space in your home by giving away or selling the things you no longer need or love, or simply giving yourself time away from the clutter of your daily existence.

Today, I write this post from my kitchen table. After 18 months on the road, having roughly 27 different places that could be described as “temporary homes” in six different countries, we once again have a home in the traditional sense. On this day one year ago, Ale and I got on a plane and flew to Chile with hearts and minds wide open, and the idea of home a distant intention. The focus at that moment was embracing the discomfort and pairing down to travel with ease.

Mission accomplished. Our focus and intentions shift as we once again retreat to the comforts and responsibilities of this home. Although I don’t have any intention to start filling this place with more stuff, it sure feels good to take all of my belongings out of their weary and worn packs and finally have a place of belonging. It feels good to have a consistent space for creative ritual, to have a place to do yoga each morning that overlooks the mountains and trees filled with hummingbirds. I am filled with gratitude to retreat to a mattress each night after a tough day of climbing mountains, instead of my thin Thermarest. Oh, and how I adore having a kitchen again, where I can cook up lovely things to share with my husband and visitors. Best of all, we have space to host friends and family comfortably, something I longed for while living in our tiny one bedroom in SF, and couldn’t even imagine as we lived on the road these past 18 months.

The culmination of all our experiences here, all our travels, and now having a place of our own once again, all of it has been instrumental in building this feeling of home here in Chile. And it feels good to be home.

Road Home

So, on that note, who’s coming to visit?

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.

So, what do you do?

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Me posing with Volcan Villarica after an invigorating climb on a crisp, beautiful July day.

“Oh you live in Chile? Wow, so, what do you do there?”

“Well, mostly I climb mountains and surf.” I say with a smile and a little laugh. I laugh because this response inevitably always draws a quizzical look and a flurry of follow up questions. I smile because this simple little statement is a true reflection of how I’ve been spending most of my time lately, which was my intention when I closed the last chapter and began writing this one.

By now when someone hears that I live in Chile, they typically first assume that I am here for my job. That is why I stopped telling people what I do for a living when they ask me what I do in Chile. I didn’t come here for my work, I came here for my life. Their next assumption is usually that we moved here for family- also not accurate since neither my husband or I have any family here. I get it, I’m in my thirties, most people don’t just up and move to a remote part of the world for reasons other than work and family, but I also kind of love the fact that we did.

I remember the pangs of fear that crept in when I initially decided to quit my job and move to Chile, fear about answering that question, “what do you do,” as so much of my identity had felt tied to my work. I remember thinking about how I should update my Linkedin profile, how I could validate my credibility as a capable and successful professional without the title that went with my role. Even with those questions and doubts causing concern, the greater concern for me was that I would spend the majority of my life in an office, in front of a computer screen, finding time to do the things that brought me the most joy only around the edges of my life, not within the focus. I didn’t only want to experience joy in the edges, I wanted it to be flowing constantly.

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Pre-surf yoga always helps me clear my mind and connect with my intention before heading into the waves.

It’s funny how we subscribe to society’s definition of success, and learn to build our goals and dreams about achieving it through that lens, rather than the lens of our own souls. It is a practice to refrain from pursuing success in this manner, it is a practice to go within, to listen, to understand what ignites joy within you, what makes that feeling of love and gratitude just overflow to the point of uncontrollable giggling and mile-wide smiles. I don’t think this is a struggle, but I do think it is a practice. But when we engage in this practice, oh wow. Wow what unbelievable beauty can unfold!

In the past month, I have hiked through the backcountry of the incredible and ancient snow-dusted araucaria forests of southern Chile, climbed to summits where I had 360 degree views of wild landscapes filled with volcanos, waterfalls, lakes and a huge variety of forests. I have explored the southern coast in search of clean surf breaks, perfect for a cold but sunny winter surf session. I have spent days meandering down dirt roads, deep into unknown territory with my favorite person on the planet, laughing and finding magic places that only we know about, where we can someday bring our loved ones to share. I have put skis on and skinned up a smoking volcano, overlooking massive jewel-toned lakes with craggy mountains on the horizon, then turned around and skied down, back home in time to make a fire, do laundry and cook up a feast. I have also put in a good bit of time working on some exciting consulting projects, logged the necessary hours on my computer, all the while feeling creatively energized. As much as I love the work that I do, I still relish in the fact that I can step out my back door and huff and puff my way up a mountain that will totally have me giggling with childlike glee when I reach the top. This is my bliss, and now that I have it within arm’s reach, I try to embrace it daily, on some level.

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With this as your backyard, it is hard to justify spending a day inside in front of a computer screen 😉

So, when someone asks me what I do, my gut reaction is no longer to tell them about my work. Although I love my work deeply, it no longer feels as though it is the most important part of my identity. Instead, I want to share what I actually do, what makes my heart sing, what invigorates me and reminds me that THIS is living, and I should be doing what makes me feel most alive as much as possible while I am able to.

How would you answer the question “what do you do,” if you were referring to how you spend the majority of your time? Does your answer excite you? Does it make you smile and laugh? If not, what would it take for you to pull joy from the edges of your life to the focus?