Blessings in Disguise

IslandWood, Bainbridge Island, Washington 2007

Do you have a moment in time when you can pinpoint the single most significant change in your life? I can, and it happened in August of 2007. I had been in my new position as the Finance and Administration Assistant for the National Credit Union Foundation in Madison, Wisconsin for less than a month and was sent on my first business trip (ever in my life) for ten days. I spent those ten days on Bainbridge Island, Washington with a group of fifty strangers from all corners of the United States as well as several other countries.  There were no modern day conveniences I had thought to expect while traveling such as television, vending machines, or even caffeinated beverages.  We were located at a place called IslandWood in the middle of 250 acres of forest. This was long before I discovered my love for the outdoors and camping and amidst a hefty caffeine dependency.  Needless to say, I was extremely uncomfortable, lonely and feeling far from home. I almost resigned and hopped a plane back to Wisconsin right then and there on my first night. Luckily, I stayed and spent twelve hours or more on each of those days in close proximity to this group of strangers, helping to facilitate experiences for the group to work together, learn from each other and discover the true spirit of cooperative principles, credit union philosophy and international development issues. I was intrigued with all the stories and experiences these people shared. These people, who had traveled the world, living for extended periods of time in exotic places, making lifelong friends along the way all while making a real difference for real people and their families, were inspiring.  I never knew that life could be lived with that kind of purpose and passion.

I started to reflect on my own life: Who was I? What was I doing with my life? Where was I going? What sort of legacy would I be leaving behind? It did not take me long to realize that I was not living my life, I was just merely existing. I wasn’t truly applying myself to anything.  I was in a co-dependent marriage, settling for less than I needed with no real goals or vision for my future. I made a conscious decision that I needed to change my life and in a big way, although I knew I would have to start small and work my way up to the bigger things. I used that one experience at IslandWood, that one week in time, to make the single biggest and most important change in my life thus far.

Keep purpose constant ~ A favorite saying of Edward Filene, father of the U.S. credit union movement

From that point on, I began a deliberate shift in how I would do things.  I started small, with trying new foods.  Then, I started to look at opportunities with my “yes” goggles on.  I wanted to seize every opportunity that made sense, regardless of my fear, or the possibility of failure. Realizing the difficulty that exists in making true friends, I founded the Madison Women’s Social Meetup group as a platform for women of diverse backgrounds to gather for the sole purpose of developing meaningful and lifelong friendships.  Most of my closest friendships today are due to the women I met in that group and better yet, there have been many similar success stories for other women in the group. This was my first taste of what it could mean to do something that was bigger than me, that could have longterm effects for the world around me. After several years of success and growing the group to over 800 members, I decided it was time to move on to other endeavors, so I handed over the leadership to someone new and the group continues to be successful for the women in Madison, Wisconsin.

The very first meeting of the Madison Women’s Social Meetup Group

The confidence I gained from seeing the success of that group gave me the courage to do more.  I went back to school and also began volunteering for Alliance for Animals, to support causes that I was passionate about: animal and environmental rights.  Then, I got divorced, again.  At the time, it felt like my biggest failure  — getting divorced not once but twice before I was even thirty years old. Thank goodness for a great therapist who talked me through some very dark days. It didn’t take much time at all to realize that my divorce was exactly what I needed to happen to really succeed in my pursuit of a meaningful life.  I started to travel more.  First to Orlando for my 29th birthday to visit a coworker and then a few months later to New York City with a friend.  I took a series of solo trips, first to Mexico then to Las Vegas and then a road trip, based solely on seeing an artists work on the internet that moved me so much that I simply had to see it in person — Ohio being the closest place I could do that at the time. Solo traveling is an experience that I think everyone, especially women, should have.  There is a lot to be learned about yourself when you have no one to rely on and need to make your own way in the world.

The connections I made through volunteering at Alliance for Animals led to a job opportunity managing an animal shelter in Neenah, Wisconsin. The idea of helping animals while in a leadership role was alluring. I knew it would be challenging, involve a huge time commitment and would mean leaving behind everything I had built in Madison.  I decided to go for it and packed my bags and moved a couple hours away to Oshkosh for the opportunity. It was challenging, as I knew it would be, but also rewarding.  I learned a lot along the way, everything from managing people to the politics of the nonprofit world. The best part of the experience though was making a sudden and unplanned decision to adopt a little black pug name Coleman — named after the city in which he was born.  He was surrendered by a recently divorced woman whose long work hours didn’t afford her the time to give him the love and care he needed. Enter Cole — the number one best decision in my life!

Hiking with Cole at Pewitt’s Nest, Wisconsin

When the shelter job no longer aligned with my values, I resigned and moved back to the Madison area, this time to Verona, and then shortly thereafter back to the west side of Madison.  Seven or so months later, I decided to sell everything I owned and relocate to Seattle, Washington in pursuit of something new, something bigger — although I wasn’t sure exactly what that would be.  After an amazing cross country road trip with Cole and my two cats, I was saddened when I quickly discovered that permanent work was harder to come by than I expected and the temporary work that I was promised ahead of time wasn’t panning out.  I quickly went through what little money I had in savings, and reluctantly decided to move back to Wisconsin. From the outside looking in, it was seen as yet another failed endeavor — on top of taking a chance on a job that didn’t work out and two failed marriages. I got a tattoo the day before I moved back to Wisconsin. Despite feeling defeated, lost and not sure what I was going to do next, I wanted to commemorate the circumstances that had gotten me to that point and count my blessings for all the opportunities for growth and change that had come into my life after making that one big decision at IslandWood because of the people I met through DE training.

CUDE tattoo, Seattle, Washington 2010

Once back in Wisconsin, I went back to school, yet again. I worked temporary gigs through employment agencies and got politically involved when the Scott Walker protests started in Madison after watching a co-worker at a temp job essentially being silenced by her ultra-conservative husband. I applied and was accepted into Organizing For America as a community organizer and I even participated in a conference call with President Obama.  Then another connection from my volunteer days at Alliance for Animals approached me about volunteering for her newly formed non-profit organization, Heartland Farm Sanctuary. Through a series of events in which I said “yes” instead of the more realistic “no”, I landed a paid gig. With other passionate and kind people, I helped bring one visionaries goal of building an organization from scratch that not only helped animals but also people suffering from trauma, to fruition.

Cannon Beach, Oregon 2011

Meanwhile, a plane voucher, gained from purchasing a flight back to Wisconsin from Seattle in anticipation for my sisters wedding, sat unused. Unbeknownst to me, the decision to use that voucher for an Oregon vacation with a good friend would yet again change my life in a big way that I had no way of seeing was coming.  Once I took that first footstep onto the Oregon coast, I was hooked.  I had found the home that I never knew was missing but had always felt it’s absence.  I vowed one day to call Oregon home — but this moment was not the time.

After my divorce, I focused on pursuing a life of purpose and after three years of solitude, I ventured into my first relationship.  During that relationship, I discovered my true love of hiking, nature and photography that, together with my Oregon vacation, sparked an appetite for nature adventures. After a year and a half, the relationship had run it’s course and it became clear that I needed to move on. With a heavy heart, I made the difficult decision to end the relationship but I started writing again — something I hadn’t done in years — and thinking more seriously about Oregon. Within four months, I met someone else who seemed pretty great and we dated for the next six months but alas, it didn’t work out either. Shortly thereafter, my grandfather lost his battle with Alzheimer’s and passed. After his funeral, I reflected yet again on my own life, as so many people do in these types of situations. What was I doing with my life?  What would I be remembered for?  Was I really happy with where I was at in life?

I decided it was the right time to make my move to Oregon. I worked hard to gain some extra income by picking up a contract job coordinating the Verona Hometown Days festival and, together with my gala bonus from Heartland, invested it in a nice camera and then a cross country move to Oregon. Since the move to Oregon, I’ve had many adventures in nature which I used the photos from to start my photography website.  I’ve also had two relationships, neither of which worked out but both contributed to me growing and learning a lot more about myself and what I needed in a relationship to be happy.

So what has changed in the last eight years since that one experience sparked the new direction in my life?  A lot.  In ways I could never have imagined.  From events that could easily be seen as failures to anyone looking in from the outside. I, myself, felt like a failure many times over but all of these experiences have helped me gain a strong sense of independence and confidence that I can pursue anything I put my mind to.  I learned how to connect with people better.  I learned how to go after what I want. I learned how to not settle for less than what I deserved. I developed a desire for spontaneity and adventure.  I live a life of compassion for people, animals and the environment.  I believe in karma and following the golden rule to do unto others as you’d like done to you — even when it would be easier to wish ill upon someone who hurts you. I continually make time for introspective self-reflection through writing and solitude in nature. I allow myself to dream big but still live a simple life that values experiences over things.

We’re all in a constant state of change.  Of growing.  Of improving. Of experiencing setbacks.  Often, what seems like a failure at any given time may just be a jumping off point to something so much better.  Although difficult to do, it’s important to have faith that where we are is exactly where we are supposed to be and what is happening to us is exactly what’s meant to be happening. There is no telling what we’ll take away from those experiences and how we’ll apply that to our decisions going forward.  Life really is a mix of destiny and simply floating like a feather on the breeze. But what really makes up a persons life? Is it the things we leave behind?  Or the people we’ve touched? Perhaps it’s the memories we’ve built?  Or the art we create?  I’m fairly certain that these questions can be answered simply by being open to what life puts in front of us and listening to our instincts when deciding what next step to take, in whatever direction we’re meant to go.

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