Love Thy Everyone

[Insert cliche blogger sentence about how I’ve been thinking about blogging but haven’t written recently.]

I’ve been in the US for five-plus weeks, visiting with family and friends for the holidays: Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years. Aside from the coincidence and wanting to be part of our traditional celebrations, I wanted to invest time and energy in our relationships. As my uncle aptly pointed out, gathering with fourteen people on Christmas Day doesn’t create space for much more than hi-merry-christmas-nice-to-see-you-have-a-good-year. So, between miscellaneous work projects, wrapping gifts, baking cookies and other treats, and maintaining good sleep, I’ve done my best to make time to be with my loved ones and reached out to friends who I don’t speak to often.

Brandon and I met in fifth grade. Over the course of school activities, Boy Scouts, working together at his parents’ South American-inspired fruit drink shop, and whatever teenage friends can imagine, we pursued countless adventures. My memory recalls lots of laughter, bouts of “what did we get ourselves into, and how do we get out?” scenarios, and the occasional harmless prank to see who amongst our crew was most gullible. It was an easy “yes” when I called Brandon to catch up, and he suggested that I join him for part of his roadtrip from Texas to DC. From Nashville, we could take a one-night, two-day drive to Dollywood and Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Though I’ve visited every United State and I’d explored the muddy mountains near Gatlinburg some 22-23 years ago, this adventure would bring me to changed turf with new memories and lessons to learn.

A few factors made me skeptically curious about this terrain: hearing the experiences of another high school friend living and working in rural West Virginia, the conclusions in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 US presidential election (the mainstream media, national polls, and social media dialogue forgot about a huge portion of America), the ongoing and multitudinous debates about the meaning and appropriateness of memorializing Confederate iconography (the Rebel flag, statues of Confederates, etc). With a rising trend in hate crimes and a legally unresolved growth in gun-deaths, the land of comfort-food correlates to the land where I don’t feel so comfortable. The south-east United States follows a philosophy I’ve long spoken about Nashville, where much of my family lives: it’s interesting to visit but I could never live there.

I hold no doubt that I carry an “outsider” mentality. As Appalachian writer Joshua Wilkey asserts, “the single worst mistake outsiders can make when attempting to interpret the actions of voters in Appalachia is to assume that they are simply too dumb to know any better. This is not the case.” I’m humbled to acknowledge that I fight “lesser” thoughts of people who don’t speak “proper” English, and I know I’m isolated from understanding most US-Americans’ way of life, their priorities, needs, and beliefs. While I will continue a life abroad, perhaps a goal for me in the lead-up to November 2020 would be to focus on gaining perspective of the diversity of the United States and challenging the pervasive privilege of caucasian men, of which I am one. I frequently think, “at least I’m not straight, so that I have some understanding of the minority identity.”

Realizing that we both did little research and set low expectations for Dollywood, I tuned Brandon’s car radio into the Dolly Parton’s America podcast, which chronicles national culture and modern dilemmas through the lens of Appalachia’s standout celebrity. Between interviews recounting Dolly’s “give God the glory, but I’ll take the cash” philosophy and local students explaining why they and their parents practiced speaking to eliminate their so-called Hill Billy accents, we exited I-40 in Knoxville and caught the first sign of perplexion. “Turn left on Whites School Road,” Google’s Map voice announced. “Did she say White Skull or White School?,” we simultaneously asked aloud. Either way – and unfortunately the Internet can’t legitimize or disprove my fear – I’m intimidated by a public endorsement that seems to honor the white race.

Scenes from the road:

Meanwhile, we queued more than an hour in a string of gas-guzzling vehicles to enter the Dollywood parking lot, then skipped the subsequent wait for a shuttle ride by opting to walk a meager mile to the ticket stands at the park entrance. I wondered what my mass-public-transit-minded European friends would think about this arrival… this whole experience. I noticed the orange-clad family of Tennessee Vols fans and their uncle with the confederate flag jacket pile out of a caution-yellow-hued Hummer, the Amish-appareled family, and the obvious prevalence (39.8% in 2016) of obesity that plagues the United States. I know that we humans see what we seek, but I can’t get the health epidemic out of my mind when I return from Europe and visit public places.

We paid the $88 park entrance fee and followed the throngs of adults and children who took advantage of an unseasonably warm weekend day between Christmas and New Years. From first sight, I was very impressed at the polish of the Dixie/country (and slightly more reasonably priced) version of Disney World, complete with musical and theatrical shows, roller coasters, restaurants with ridiculous wait times, and cultural exhibitions, such as the (Bald) Eagle Mountain Sanctuary. Yes, I guess this is my ignorance: believing that these people and this place would be “less,” because of whatever stereotypes I hold and because I’ve not heard anyone in my small social circle recommend Dollywood.

We waited 40 minutes for a $9 loaf of delicious cinnamon bread coated in Paula Deen’s richest butter. We encountered these people in line:

  1. A middle-aged white female Dollywood expert, who explained that this was actually a short line for the famous cinnamon bread, and that there was an upstairs to this “gristmill” bakery, and that the cinnamon bread was also sold elsewhere in the amusement park
  2. Another middle-aged white woman who brought her husband and kids on their annual holiday roadtrip, which she mandates must be more than a 12-hour drive from their home in Sioux Falls. She personified the eccentric pixie-cut, call-a-manager mom, who the New York Times calls Karen and I call Carol. By the end of our time in line, we knew her kids names (Brielle, Sam, and Yuria Dixon), the story of her last summer’s vacation (solo-driving – and breaking down – an RV from Amsterdam to Oslo to chase her heritage), and her medical challenges (a rare balance disorder that prevents her from enjoying boats or theme park rides). The only things I’m missing are her own name and the selfie that she took with Brandon and I to “thank” us for the conversation.
  3. The older (also white) couple behind us in line who felt tired and overwhelmed by the crowd. The wife lovingly exaggerated: “I’m fit ta have a tantrum. The only thang cood be worse ‘s if it ‘s eighty er ninety degrees.”

In my typical tirading fashion, I could go on about our day at Dollywood. I don’t want to complain or critique. I want to elevate the perspective that I gained on the American identity, and I also want to highly recommend a visit to Dollywood, if you have the chance. In addition to celebrating the uniqueness of Dolly Parton’s identity and achievement (check out the Chasing Rainbows museum!), they’ve created an exceptional experience at a reasonable price, combining thrill, indulgent foods, artistic and musical culture, and a beautiful ensemble of Christmas decor. I can only imagine how well they execute their other seasonal festivals and exhibits.

After overnighting in an ideally-outfitted Holiday Inn Express in Knoxville, we woke up early and passed a phone between the beds to discuss what trail we might hike before driving home. Without conclusion, we ventured back toward Dolly’s native Sevierville and on to Gatlinburg to ask for advice at the national park visitors center. After receiving generic advice in Gatlinburg’s tourist office, we dug deeper with a young park ranger and asked for a reasonable day hike with moderate challenge where we wouldn’t be plagued with crowded trails. She suggested driving an hour east to Mt. Sterling, and… we did!

I’m very grateful that we made the Robert-Frost choice. We blasted bluegrass as Brandon curved the Jeep into valleys. As we unknowingly crossed from Tennessee into North Carolina, we passed wooded lots and small country cabins, not ignoring the newly constructed mansions towering at the top of various hillsides, perhaps emblematic of the growing class-division. In our journey to Mt Sterling, two favorite experiences stand in my memory.

We spontaneously agreed to turn an extra bend and spent a few minutes exploring a Zion Church – see Google Maps location – a one-room building on a bald hillside with a cemetery in the rear and two outhouses (Women and Men) on the side. I was enamored by the thick moss and reading the names and ages of the cemetery markers, combined with imagining the intimacy of the religious community that would convene here. By 11 am, there seemed to be no trace of their Sunday services, or perhaps there were no parishioners at a quiet time of year. Maybe everyone was at Dollywood?

Notice the small white outhouse(s) just on the right side edge of the forest.

Once we reached the trailhead, we meandered on well-marked trails some 2.5 miles to Mt Sterling’s summit and discovered the fire tower that the ranger advised us to look for. What a … scary experience! to climb a series of stairs that decrease in width as the wind increases above the trees. At the top of the tower, we had immaculate views of the surrounding mountain ranges, painted a mix of soft emerald green where the sunlight cast itself and a deep violet-grey where shadows covered the mix of bare deciduous bark and evergreens bows. I was done (ie sufficiently anxious) after a few minutes of photographing, filming, and listening to the wind bang the hinged windows open and closed, with small shards of glass lingering on the rain-soaked, drooping plywood floor.

From the top of Mt Sterling’s wind-whipped fire tower

We enjoyed a late lunch of black bean burgers, which we had bought two hours before at a gas station-restaurant counter in nearby Hartford, Tenn. This, too, felt like a proper perspective of America: two middle-aged women with red-tinged hair prepared styrofoam takeout boxes with sandwiches (burgers or catfish… ham and turkey were out of stock today), fried sides, and coleslaw and graciously commanded guests to hurry and retrieve their orders. The Indian owner took payments at the cash register, adding his own four items (Samosa, Vada Pau, Dabeli, Parotha) to the menu, distributed lottery tickets, and patrolled the Godly prohibition of selling alcohol on Sundays. The shelves stocked Frito-Lay snacks, essential pantry ingredients, sugar-loaded drinks, confederate flag blankets, and an assortment of MAGA/Trump apparel.

Just when I thought I was afraid enough, wondering whether I’d be harassed if I came here as an openly gay men, I spotted a hand-scribed note in Sharpie above the bathroom door: LOVE THY EVERYONE.

Brandon and I scratched the surface of meeting the people of Appalachia. While I’d love to sit for hours and days to live amongst this culture, I admit that I’m afraid to know their beliefs. My fear is probably undue. At least I’ve glimpsed the lives that are invisible to my perspective. These are the people I’ll have in mind as I hear and read politicians debate for the presidency over the coming ten months, and I hope my curiosity can teach me more. These are the people I might learn to love, as I remember that listening is an act of love.

More Human, Less Tech

Imagine: a tech conference where the hardware is a human handshake, where the user interface is face-to-face, where low battery means “I need to eat some fruit,” where networking is discussing personal perspectives instead of troubleshooting guest Wi-Fi, and where API might as well mean All People Interfacing. On the tail of participating in Copenhagen’s Techfestival, I hold reverence for the organizers’ success in organizing a conference focused on humans, not users.

Techfestival’s delivery met their marketing, which challenged conventional language of the technology sector: Care, or Die (rather than Disrupt, or Die); Humans, not Users; Trust.

I returned to Copenhagen, because Louise Beck Brønnum invited me to join her summit workshop on food tech after her June presentation on her work at Alchemist Restaurant’s Taste Lab and with teaching gastronomy to children. Following my ever-growing interest in food, I felt fortunate to sign-up for multiple sessions related to food at Techfestival. Food isn’t always recognized as a sector within tech, and I appreciated the diversity of their program. My schedule included two six-hour workshops and a two hour lecture, all focused on food, as well as time to attend a session on brain science and mental health and an evening workshop about the future of leadership in work. I wished I could have also joined the Endings summit, where the participants explored “how to design endings in four main areas: Products ; Services ; Relationships ; Life.”

Surprisingly to me, all of the sessions challenged the traditional notion of conference presentations, measuring up to the namesake and leaving me grateful that I packed shoes comfortable for standing and walking. This wasn’t a take-your-seat-and-listen event. With hundreds of topics to explore hands-on, Techfestival is much more an interactive festival than a conference.

In every session, the agenda encouraged me to meet multiple other participants, layering the agenda with time to share answers to: “what do you think will be the challenges and opportunities of participating today?,” “why did you attend this session?,” “what are you taking home from this session?,” and “ask why twenty times”. Thankfully, none of the presenters asked us to introduce ourselves by answering the ubiquitously deflating (and meaningless) question: “what do you do?”. (I’m still working on being, not doing.)

Many presenters presented brief introductions, then handed the majority of the time to other speakers and participants to collaborate – or more specifically, to co-create – on the topics at hand. Flipping away from the lecture method lent a depth of learning that’s not often found in conferences and workshops. Some formats that were new to me:

  • Workz prepared four topics from their research on the future of work. In groups of three, we identified potential challenges for one topic, then placed their Solution Map cards adjacent to the challenges to indicate subsequent solutions, questions, answers, and additional information.
  • Basque Culinary Center’s Innovation team demonstrated backcasting, a method where groups of 6-7 people imagined a future (in this case, via a potential news headline for the year 2050), then deconstructed the steps and decisions that might lead to the future vision.
  • To conceptualize a shared understanding of food systems, each team member placed diverse board-game-like pieces, one at a time in a round-robin format, to create a visual and tactile representation of how we see food systems. Once we constructed the present version, the team adjusted the pieces to represent the possible-future state – this time in silence! We also utilized backcasting in Louise and Frederik’s workshop, facilitated by chaospilot Eirik Haddal.
  • To literally breathe life into the topic of mental health and bodily awareness, a Kundalini yoga instructor Amanda Nørgaard taught an intermission: a thirty-minute class, introducing pranayama, mantra, meditation, and seated asanas.

All this talk of food and the body made me hungry at times. Fortunately, Techfestival’s organizers coordinated affordable (yes, even for Copenhagen’s high prices!) options for food at lunch and dinner, as well as making fresh fruit available during every session. On top of their foresight with fuel, all the volunteers I spoke to were friendly and competent. I find it so validating when I need directions or guidance at an event, and a volunteer responds “yes, I can help with that” instead of “sorry, they didn’t give us that information.” Techfestival is an exception to the monotony that plagues conventional conferences.

Above all, the absence or obscurity of tech itself impressed me at Techfestival. While I carried a laptop in my bag, I never once needed it, nor my phone. From my program, none of the sessions required participants to use any digital or electronic technology. None. And, get this? The technology worked seamlessly for the presenters. Yep. Not a single instance of “which dongle do I need to project?” nor “why isn’t the audio in this video working?” One session included a live tele-presentation. The screen displayed the presenter’s video feed, as well as his slides. Three microphones synced to the presentation, for the facilitator and audience to have seamless conversation with our video guest. If that’s not how to spell mic drop, then have you tried restarting?

Without doubt, Techfestival utilized technology in impressive and discreet ways, leaving the human participants to focus on the human dialog. Where technology plays a role in evolving the future of our lives, humans are the ones that live the experiences. In the words of presenter Emily Whyman, “we’ve created technologies that isolate us.” We. Us. It’s up to us to do the work, to co-create the world we need, and Techfestival is leading the way.

The Circle Stage hosted Friday night keynotes with Chris Messina, Payal Arora, and Jimmy Wales.

Obrigado, Lisboa

I left Berlin in a rush and arrived in Lisbon in a calm state of mind. That’s me in a nutshell: balancing chaos and calm.

After a delayed arrival – no worries! calm mind – I took the metro to my Airbnb and then meandered into the city, where I knew no Portuguese. I didn’t have any problem, but I like to know simple things like “ola” (hello), “fala ingles?” (do you speak English?), and “obrigado” (thank you). Almost everyone speaks English, so once I learned these quick phrases, all parties seemed comfortable in the rest of my interactions.

I wrote this much (above) on April 26, then abandoned the draft post while I began my yoga teacher training. Rather than try to recall thoughts from a month ago, I’ll close with some notes out of my notebook and photos of Lisboa.

  • Beautiful buildings. City blends well into the landscape.
  • Not much nature. Monsanto was beautiful.
  • Friendly people. Wonder if they’re hiding a struggle. My tour guide described post-Fascism fear of authority and recommended a book, Dancing Bear.
  • Tons of sunlight. Fast rainstorms.
  • Affordable, but not cheap. Suffering economically.
  • Wonder if they can preserve their culture while welcoming tourists:
  • — overemphasis of pasteis de nata
  • — farce of selling tinned fish
  • — tiles are functional (insulating) as much as decorative

Wednesday

  • Train from airport
  • Walked through Bairro Alto, Baija, and Chiado neighborhoods
  • Rainstorm
  • Smoothie made by pedaling a bicycle
  • Rainbow and concert rehearsal almost made me cry
  • Walked along coast in the sunlight
  • Into Bairro Alto for dinner, bacalhao (salted cod)

Thursday

  • Run in Parque du Eduardo to Monsanto
  • Breakfast at the mill
  • Walked to Santa Catarinha Miradouro and into Santos, another fast rainstorm
  • Read my yoga anatomy book on a park bench, annoyed by a senile homeless person
  • Walked to Praça de Camoes for Sandemann’s walking tour
    Important dates: 1 Nov 1755, an earthquake killed 2/3 of the population (est. 90k people), mostly Arabs and Jews survived in the Alfama neighborhood; 25 April 1974, peaceful revolution ends dictatorship, my tour was the holiday they celebrated 45 years of freedom
  • My tour guide, Pascal, took me to a tiny restaurant where he knows the owners, Davíd and Bella. Great food, some from their farm. They struggle to stay open. She’s illiterate. It’s not a well-known place.
  • Walked to Alfama. Beautiful live music at the miraduoros, ice cream, poked into shops in Chiado and read my yoga book at a pastelaria
  • More live music in the streets by a university “fraternity”

Lacy, Adam, and Lorelay Explore the Spreewald

Judging by my kitchen windowsill now adorned with a stuffed pink flamingo, blue bunny ears, two books, grow-it-yourself flowers in a wooden box, and countless types of Easter chocolate, I could have insisted more forcefully that I didn’t want birthday gifts. I’d written to the group before our picnic: “Oh! And, really don’t need/want object presents… I have a lot of material goods. Your presence is a present!” Most importantly, my friends did bring their loving company when we celebrated my existence this past week. Two of them thoughtfully made plans to continue the adventure and invited me for a canoe trip in the nearby Spreewald on Saturday.

Under a clear, blue sky, I walked down the street to meet Robin and Peejay at their place shortly after nine. The boys reserved a carshare for the day, through BMW’s DriveNow service, and “Lacy,” our spunky black convertible basked in the warm spring air, ready for our departure.

With the top down, we zoomed along the autobahn, escaping the city-state of Berlin into the backwoods of post-DDR Brandenburg. The crisp wind massaged our pale, winter skin, and the waves of the radio tuned out the sounds of spring nearby. Robin earned an A+ for his driving, even at the top speed of 190 kph (~120 mph). While trains are a preference for many travelers, Germany’s famous no-speed-limit highways are also a real means of transportation for inter-city transit. Germans take their cars, their roads, and their driving seriously.

After an hour of laughter, sing-a-longs, and feeling spoiled by the Easter weekend weather, grumpy, commanding attendants greeted us at the village parking lot and demonstrated excellence in German customer service (the lowest of low standards, from what I’ve seen in the world) at the peak of Easter weekend.

I knew where we were traveling but didn’t bother to do any research beforehand. The quaint town of Lübbenau seems to be known for its little waterways, its pickles, and for its ability to advertise said waterways and pickles. Wikipedia seems to verify my impression. Wooden market stands offered the local varieties of gurken in the touristic town center, and on the nearby riverbanks, the captains prepared their tour boats, called punts (in English). I’ve never been to Venice, but I’d say that Robin’s mom was right to wish us fun in the “Venice of Germany”.

We meandered around the islands and bridges and rented a two-person and a one-person wooden canoe from Bootshaus Kaupen. The attendant – this one was actually friendly and helpful – directed us where we could explore and how to enter and exit the canoe, and we entered the river “highway” with the other canoes, kayaks, and punts.

Robin solo-navigated with his sturdy steed, Adam, while I took the front of Lorelay and Peejay steered from the back. We canoed about 200 meters then tied our boats to the edge of a family restaurant/café. We changed into our swimwear, enjoyed some warm beverages in the sunlight, and applied sunscreen, all the while enjoying the sight of the other tourists (mostly locals, we presumed) passing by as they lounged and drank beer (at 11 am!) in their punts.

Back in our canoes, no more than a kilometer passed before we were out of the village and surrounded by scenic forests and meadows. The trees’ greenery is coming to life this month, and the contrast of their tall, dark trunks reflected beautifully as we glided across the water. I explained my mild fear of small water craft while we navigated the meandering waterways. Again, I find conscious fear to be a great source of motivation. As we approached the next village, Leipe, we paddled into a lock, which was graciously operated by some local volunteers. What a sensation to slowly rise up with the force of water while sitting still!

Our stomachs stopped us for lunch in Leipe at a riverside restaurant, Froschkönig (Frog King), where we enjoyed more sunshine. Lunch tasted like fried and pickled herring, bratwurst, different preparations of potatoes (mashed, roasted, boiled), sauerkraut, cucumbers in dill and cream sauce, a real beer for Robin, a Radler (half beer, half lemonade) for Peejay, and an alcohol-free beer for me. That’s a sample of east German cuisine, if I say so! (With a side serving of more excellence in German customer service…)

After lunch, we ventured further off the beaten path, well out of the way of the larger tourist boats. Sunlight trickled through the canopy above, and mosquitoes quietly buzzed on the riverbanks, sometimes to our chagrin and their demise. At times, we practiced paddling stronger, with Peejay setting pace in front and me playing steering wheel in the back. My past trauma with canoes, kayaks, and electronics triggers my fear of rocking the boat, but I like to challenge my instincts. We had the river mostly to ourselves, and playfully pulled ahead of Robin or played hide and seek from behind.

At the height of the afternoon, we came across a second, unattended lock. I imagined we would lift the canoes and carry them to the other side, but Peejay didn’t skip a beat in exiting our canoe and figuring out how to operate the lock. “He probably learned it in high school,” Robin said, quite casually. “We have a lot of locks in the Netherlands.” I guess I was the only one impressed by this…?

As the evening arrived, we rejoined the parade of touristic punt boats and passed through the adjoining town of Lehde before reaching Lübbenau. Although we were traveling on water, it felt like a casual Saturday drive through suburbia, with families working in their gardens, preparing barbecues, doing work on the house, etc.

In Lübbenau, we returned Adam and Lorelay to the boat house, then changed clothes and walked back to the town center. A day without ice cream wouldn’t be a day with Stephen, and you guessed it… Robin and I snagged some scoops at a local shop. Ordering in German – proud moment! – I sampled their strawberry sorbet first. While I’m not usually a fan of strawberry-flavored “things,” some signage and my knowledge of the German strawberry quality led me to the truth: it was delicious and paired nicely with the cherry-yogurt ice cream. Peejay ate two fresh gurkens, and I’m still working on forgiving him for skipping ice cream.

We returned to Lacy, waiting patiently by herself in the parking lot, and took the scenic route home. While it’s less than 100 km, we enjoyed two hours of back roads, flowering fields of green, forests silhouetted against the setting sun, and even a hot air balloon flying overhead. With Lacy’s top back on, we grabbed some giant authentic Italian pizzas in our neighborhood, then walked homeward with full stomachs, sunkissed arms, and warm hearts.

One thing that I take away from this thoughtful gift-adventure is that adventure is often waiting just outside our “comfort” zone. In the almost two years that I’ve spent in Berlin, I never knew or thought to explore the Spreewald. Canoeing the waterways was an easy, relaxing, and fun day trip that I’d recommend to most friends. Thanks for the memories, boys.

Here, I Am.

I haven’t “quit” my job in the normal sense, but unofficially, I have. I agreed with my various bosses that I need time off. I thought about 8 or 12 weeks – a generous leave by US standards – and they said I should take more… From my “last” day of work tomorrow, I have four-and-a-half months of freedom. I keep saying, in a half-joking tone, that I haven’t had this much free time since before pre-school.

I couldn’t be more excited and scared. I guess both joy and fear are signs to keep going.

What’s going to happen?

I have about a week of down/prep time in Berlin. Next week I fly to Lisbon, Portugal and continue on to a 25-day yoga teacher training at a coastal farm called Cocoon.

Yoga teacher training? Are you gonna start teaching yoga, Stephen?

The intent is to ground myself in a practice that I know brings stability to my mind and body. I’ve practiced yoga for more than six years and consistently had a desire for a deeper yogic experience. I put yoga teacher training at the top of a psuedo-bucket list called “what are you waiting for?”… and after all, what am I waiting for? No time like the present!

Funny side story about my first experience with yoga, pictured below: March 2013 – I traveled to the beach with three friends. A guy was doing yoga on the sand, and I decided to follow along. He returned the next day. I repeated. I went to thank him after two hours of practice, and we talked. He was an architectural designer and split his time between New York and Russia, but was visiting his mom in Florida. He said something about the importance of following the rhythm of the breath. Suddenly, my insides felt empty, and I regretfully admitted that I didn’t pay attention to my breath at all in those first two “classes.”

I am following my instinct to know this is right for me in this moment. True story: I clicked an online business school advertisement (ha!) while browsing the web in my crazy state of what-am-I-doing-with-my-life, and I wrote a candid, borderline-distraught email to one of the business school alum: Matt Corker, a writer, yoga instructor, and people/leadership consultant. At Matt’s invitation, and sensing the too-good-to-be-true, serendipitous nature, I snagged a cancelled spot in The Sacred Fig’s yoga teacher training a few weeks ago. In the past few weeks, I’ve been enjoying the pre-assigned reading and mentally gearing up for this adventure. (I admit that I am also struggling with a brain that I have habitually conditioned against focusing on reading books! … working on that… and open to advice!)

And for the 3+ months after The Sacred Fig?

Mostly to be determined… depending on my state of mind after a few weeks away from work, I will make the decisions as they come. I’m trusting my consciousness. I’ll likely stay in Portugal and Spain for late May and June, then I have a return flight from Sevilla, Spain to Berlin after a friend’s wedding. I think that I might walk the northern route of the Camino de Santiago. I may also explore Portugal more, including scuba diving, or find something else that I feel called to do with my time. These moments are about being present, seeing and accepting new perspectives, and awakening my sleeping self. I have about 9 weeks that I haven’t committed to doing anything in June/July/August, and this empty calendar is the pinnacle of the fear! WOOHOO! As I heard from an interview with Meera Lee Patel this weekend, it’s refreshing to realize that I’ve survived 100% of the scariest moments in my past so far.

Leading up to the “start” of this sabbatical I am thoughtfully developing a sense of direction and intent. Right now, here’s what I know:

  • I want to practice awareness of my calm mind and be conscious in chaotic environments. I’m drawn to chaos but I also fight it. I’m going to ground myself in the present.
  • I don’t think that there is an “answer” to find in this process. Rather than answers, I’m focused on understanding what questions are important for me to explore now and in the future. Many family, friends, and especially strangers have gifted me with thought-provoking questions. I recognize some prompts as ones that I’ve avoided answering. Now, I’m allowing myself to receive the questions with curiosity about where they lead me… hopefully to more questions!
  • I know – especially from my unstructured weekends – that it will be challenging to not have a prescribed routine, a to-do list, a schedule, etc… those false constructions that create superficial validation for me. I accept this challenge and want to be mindful of balancing a hunger for productivity with the reality that being – and doing so consciously – is the most meaningful way I can spend my time. Work (doing) is a distraction from life (being). I am pursuing a different awareness of my preferred balance. I will practice shifting from a commitment to being serious to a commitment to play.
  • I have many, many, many books that I’d like to read. (And I want to write one… topic TBD…). Stay tuned for an eventual publication.

What type of skier are you?

I didn’t freeze, per se, but I didn’t exactly know how to answer.
“Intermediate.” Note the uncertain firmness and punctuation. I didn’t speak in uptone: “Intermediate?”
My insides froze, but my outsides stayed smooth as ice, if you catch my snowdrift.

This sequence played again. And again. In Austria. In Germany. In Switzerland. In English… but with enough skepticism and distrust that I sometimes felt like I was answering in my fractured German.

I learned to ski three years ago, in a very spoiled way, and I’m graciously indebted to my brother for teaching me. Brian learned to ski before me, embraced the sport, then volunteered to spend three days of his own ski trip in Tahoe to teach me. It was an early birthday gift, one that keeps giving. My lesson consisted of (abbreviated version – there was also one-on-one coaching and patience involved):

  • “here’s how to stand”
  • “I’m not going to teach you the difference between pizza and french fries, because you shouldn’t do pizza.”
  • “stop dragging your poles on the ground”
  • “maybe we should practice slowing down and stopping”
  • “okay, let’s go down a black slope”

My brevity isn’t criticism. I reiterate that I’m grateful for Brian selflessly sharing his knowledge. I learned fast, I skied decently well, and I had fun.


Until recently, I’ve guided my life with a philosophy of foregoing expectations, rarely planning more than 4-6 months in advance. I like the freedom of being uncommitted and being ready to say “yes” when I want. At winter’s dawn, I had no intention to take multiple ski holidays this winter. To my surprise I doubled my lifetime ski experiences this winter.

When it comes to European skiing, the mountains set a higher standard, even compared to the top Tahoe terrain that I’ve experienced. The confidence check started in Kitzbühel, Austria, while vacationing with my parents for Christmas. After three decades of not skiing, they both said they might like to do it again. Knowing my own level of experience and the downhill sport’s physical challenge, I maintained quiet skepticism. (Just being honest, Mom and Dad. Love you!) Ultimately, the rents opted for a day of relaxation. I texted Brian feigning inconvenience for fear: “It’s pouring rain 😦 might not get to go”. When the clouds parted, I followed my smartphone map’s little blue dot to the nearest ski rental shop, rented gear, and scooted my clunky ski boots to ride the lift up the mountain. Remember: frozen inside but slick outside.

The next text: “You would LOVE it here. I mustered the courage to go to the rental shop and buy a ticket by myself etc. it was worth it!”

I remember pulling myself over the edge and quickly rediscovering the muscular control for guiding my skis downhill, the adrenal rush of racing atop blankets of snow, and the sensation of seeing the snow-pocked valley below with mountain air in my lungs. In those moments, I had the thought that my prior hesitation was unfounded. Downhill, ride a lift back up, repeat. The last lift brought me up the mountain then back down to home base, where I returned my equipment and gleefully expressed my pride to my very relaxed parents. I chose to worry, and there was nothing to worry about.

Fast forward to February, when I joined a company trip to Harz, a mountain (er – hilly) region in central Germany. The agenda for Saturday included the option to ski, and suddenly, I was co-coordinating ski equipment for 20 colleagues in broken English-German. By the time we reached the lift, I was ready to jump off and race downhill with screaming confidence. I was pleased with my shorter-than-usual pair of skis, and the bunny slope gave me newfound confidence in my skills on the slope.

Bear in mind, Harz pales in comparison to the Alps, but sometimes it’s also the small battles that win the war. The war? Yes, skiing was still a war for Stephen, until last weekend.

A dear ex-colleague invited some friends and me to visit his seasonal workplace, a large, decades-old cabin tucked into a mountain side in Mürren, Switzerland. Over the course of almost twelve hours, four trains, a bus, two gondolas, a cog train, and a short walk brought Robin, Peejay, Olivier, and me through the snow to our new digs: the epic, world renowned SUPPENALP. Okay, so Suppenalp isn’t well known, but it’s very well loved. Whether staying the night in their private rooms, sharing space in the dormitory, or stopping for a hearty meal, some families record multiple generations of annual summer and winter visits to this classic Alpine hütte. We met one guest who comes every year for the past thirty years, and assured us that it takes a special person to find their way to this place. All this makes Suppenalp certifiably epic for a few days of leisure or adventure in the mountains, but I digress…

Peejay learned to ski when he was four. Robin learned to ski in middle school. Olivier – I don’t know, but maybe he skied out out of his mother’s womb. Micha probably skies in his sleep; after all, he’s Swiss. Suffice to say, they’re all experienced sportsmen with great technique. I am proudly amateur enough to undecidedly state that I’m an intermediate skier, and thank the ski gods for patient friends. These guys were golden. When they weren’t effortlessly demonstrating their own great technique and enjoying the spacious runs, they offered tips on the fly and multiple short lessons to improve my posture and help me conserve energy. I skied slower while practicing – and I’ve needed speed control since day 0 – and they patiently awaited my arrival at the waypoints along the slopes, without a single complaint.

(Boys, if you’re reading this and you were talking smack about me in your native Dutch, also cool… helaas, pindakaas…) (Non-Dutchies: that means “unfortunately, peanut butter,” which is apparently Dutchies’ way of saying “oh, well!”)

dedicated to Robin, Peejay, and Olivier for their patience and wisdom in building my strength as a skier, and Micha (not pictured) for inspiring this adventure and being inspiring in general

At some point – maybe it was while we were skiing off piste through a foot / thirty centimeters of fresh powder (never tried that ’til now!), or maybe it was when I said yes to the steepest runs without hesitation (“I’m seriously up for anything – why not!”), or maybe it was on the Lauterbrunnen World Cup run, or maybe it was when the fog and snow rolled in on our second day – at some point, as I breezed down a slope, I had the thought “this is scary. I’m afraid.” and I realized that I ski with an entirely fearful mindset. Let’s be honest: how rational and safe does it sound to strap two sticks to your feet and skate sideways down a sheet of loose ice, weaving between other humans of equal (or better or sometimes questionable) capacity? It’s a scary concept, and I think our achievement in sports like this show the power of the mind and body to work in synergy with the world.

Having this thought brought pure joy, to know that I can embrace fear and that becoming aware of fear can also be a positive experience. Next time you find yourself doing something hard, trust yourself, trust those around you, and don’t let fear be a reason to change your course.

“What type of skier are you?”
“Intermediate. Afraid. Trusting. Willing & Able.”