Living a new and improved story… thanks MPC!

I am feeling incredibly nostalgic, emotional, proud, excited, emotional, incredulous today.

A year ago, this month, I got off the couch. I thought it was just so I could climb munros in Scotland like Sam Heughan did. I thought I was probably going to fail (again) at the C25K program I was starting. I didn’t have a lot of hope or confidence in myself.

But apparently there was enough of something (desire? desperation? hope?) to ignite a flame that has yet to burn out. (Sure, it flickers and looks like it is going out sometimes… usually when I am lounging on the couch again, with pizza and chips scattered around me. But it still doesn’t go out.) One small success after another of not failing, of not falling back into my “old ways” led me across the world and to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro.

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(click on the image to go to the recorded episode)

Last night, I was interviewed by a life and business coach, Mark Schall, in New York on a radio show called “Mark My Words.” The first half of the show focused on my personal couch-to-kilimanjaro journey (basically the content of this whole blog), and the second half was about my time in the Congo meeting Esperance and the broader cause of trying to end violence against women in warzones. I was a nervous wreck going into it, but quickly began to enjoy being able to talk about the things that I was most passionate about and was actually surprised when we ran out of time and didn’t even talk about actually climbing Kilimanjaro. 🙂 I said UM and UH and YOU NOW about 1346 times, but other than that (and some bumbling that I am trying not to kick myself over) felt really good about the interview.

And talking through my story again just made me all the more grateful for this time in my life, and for the “players” that have contributed so profoundly to the changes that took place over the last year.

Outlander. Sam Heughan. My Peak Challenge. Peak Warriors. Hiking. Mountains. #C25K. One Million Thumbprints. Esperance.  CrossFit. Kilimanjaro. ALL GAME CHANGERS IN MY BOOK.

Here are some topics from the interview that I feel need a bit of expounding… 

On becoming a fangirl** at 36 – I would have never in a million years thought I would become a fangirl. Of anything. I have always been a movie buff since a child, but never really got into the YA series of books and shows that had a significant fan following. So imagine my surprise in January of 2015 when I fell into my first fandom, Outlander, at age 36. Today, though, I wear that label with pride because of how much this experience has enriched and changed my life. I don’t think other fandoms are quite as full-service as ours (though I wouldn’t know otherwise). Sam Heughan has definitely outdone himself in using his relatively overnight stardom and platform for good. And I am the direct beneficiary of making a whole new group of friends (a support group, really) with a common love for all things Outlander, Sam, and fitness/health.

**And by fangirl I do NOT mean hyperventilating-frothing-out-the-mouth-plowing-over-children-animals-and-grandmas-to-get-to-see-or-touch-sam-or-any-other-human-being kind of fangirl (of whom there are many of this variety apparently). I mean mature, fun-loving, whisky-drinking women of all ages and stages who happen to be great fans of Diana Gabaldon’s books, the Starz Outlander show and/or the actors (Sam, Tobias, Cait et al).

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And just for kicks and giggles, here are my (shameless) top 3 fangirl moments and memories: 

  1. Sam commented on a couple of my posts in the private MPC Prep program Facebook group. This is serious fangirling fodder. He and John Valbonesi are considered our “coaches” and we (all 3000 + members) get giddy with excitement when either of them comment or like what we share. When I wrote about the tattoo I wanted to get (quite an emo post), he commented with a “Just perfect.x” and that made my day. We all have such deep and profound respect and appreciation for those guys creating the MPC program and taking the time to encourage and challenge us to new heights and goals… and to living a much better life story.
  2. After summiting Kilimanjaro with the 2014 MPC flag (lent to me by the BAM Strength girls), Sam commented with a congratulations in the Facebook group and then tweeted my summit photo and congratulations.*drops dead* I remember being in the Tanzanian hotel post climb in the one area of the hotel that had spotty wifi at best and saw that he had liked my tweet about summiting which made me “squee” (fangirl internal screaming). And then the wifi went out. And when it came back on, my phone was blowing up with all these retweet and like notifications on Twitter (I have like 300 followers so this was not normal). My friend, fellow climber and fellow fangirl, Joy Beth, silently screamed across the room from me when she saw his tweet. It was an amazing moment. 🙂 FullSizeRender 13 FullSizeRender 14 IMG_6408 IMG_9290
  3. Earlier this month, many of my fellow fangirl (see above description of fangirl) friends were planning to spend a long weekend in NYC for the Tartan week, Outlander Season 2 premiere and the Tartan Parade. I knew that after such a long trip to Africa, my family probably wasn’t too keen on me checking out again for a few days, but I did manage to talk them into letting me take a long day trip up to the city for the parade. Sam was going to be the Grand Marshal of the parade and I knew so many friends going. It was going to be so much fun. A friend and I hopped on a bus at the crack of dawn and landed in rainy, cold NYC in time to walk around and take in all the Outlander promotions… costumes in the Saks Fifth Avenue windows (absolutely mind blowing work by Terry Dresbach) and the Outlander S train between Grand Central and Times Square. Whoever came up with the marketing idea to outfit an entire train out with Outlander promotional images and decor should get the biggest freaking promotion of their life. Just brilliant.  12973309_10153541013306765_1930227453776901946_oIMG_7199Before the parade started, I got a text from one of my friends asking if we wanted to march with her in the parade with Laphroig (arguably Scotland’s best whisky and also a sponsor of the parade). YES. I knew we would miss out on seeing Sam march by, but I thought, “When will I ever have the opportunity to march down 6th Avenue in NYC with thousands of Scots?!?” (answer: probably never) Laphroig was an absolute joy to march with. They outfitted us with t-shirts, hats, flags and shots of whisky to toast before we marched. It was seriously one of the most fun experiences I have ever had. The energy and camaraderie of this community of Scots and Outlander fans was pure perfection. We DID get to see Sam up on the promo bus at the end of the parade route. We cheered him on and he cheered us on. And then a group of us dashed off to a local pub to get warm and dry. After our meal, my friend and I walked back to the bus stop, and slept all the way back to Maryland. Fantastic day! IMG_7218  12473958_10153541024976765_6735910866565210822_o 13002514_10153541025106765_3029383857711589827_o 13007169_10153541026396765_6135287682164066417_n IMG_7262

On the powerful nature of a support group when trying to change your life – I have been so grateful for the MPC support groups I have become a part of in this process (namely the Peak Warriors). I have never been a part of a support group of any sort before now. But as I reflect back on why I was able to meet goals and overcome obstacles this time around, I realize that it was probably largely because of these groups. Both groups have been the safest and most uplifting and challenging (in the best way) of groups I had ever encountered online.  When you have a group of 500, 800, or over 3000 that are mostly women, you just wonder how “great” it can really be, because most of us have seen how nasty adult women (and men) can be online. Well, these two groups (the MPC Prep and Peak Warriors) have been quite abnormal. Women truly celebrating other women and cheering them on in their goals, successes, milestones and achievements… empathizing with and supporting one another in their failures and struggles and even challenging each other towards greater goals and successes. You simply don’t find this online anymore. It is a gold mine and I have been the beneficiary of so much love and support I can hardly stand it at times. Fortunately for me, I live in an area where there is a large local representation of Peak Warriors and other Outlander fans so we have had many happy hours, hikes, parties, dinners, events together in real life. While I was climbing Kili, a group of Peak Warriors were climbing a mountain in Maryland in solidarity. Truly amazes me.

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On the power of storytelling in the work of advocacy and activism – I was able to share Esperance’s story in the interview. And then the story about meeting Esperance and watching and photographing her and Belinda (founder of One Million Thumbprints) reunite. I could have talked about the issue of violence against women in conflict zones in terms of numbers and statistics. UN reports. But who is going to resonate with that? Next to no one. Its just noise at this point, online and offline. Big, huge global issues that don’t directly affect me will remain big, huge and DISTANT global issues unless I can relate or connect with the issue in some way. And that is where the power of storytelling is going to literally change the fabric of humanitarian work, advocacy, activism. When I tell you about violence against women in warzones in the context of a woman’s personal narrative, her story, you will most likely connect with the issue. She is human. You are human. She is a mother. I am a mother. You have a mother. When we see each other through the lens of a shared humanity, we start to listen, to see and to respond from a level of empathy and understanding that numbers and statistics will never be able to create. Esperance shared her story with us, with me. She gifted me with her story so that I would “tell the world.” All I can do is keep sharing her story in hopes that the mothers and grandmothers and daughters and sisters of the world will see themselves in her pain and her courage and will lean into these big issues for the sake of our shared humanity.

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I know that my story isn’t anything truly extraordinary. I could tell 10 stories right now about people on my Kilimanjaro team as well as people in the MPC program whose experiences and transformations would truly blow your mind. Extreme weight loss, beating cancer and other debilitating illnesses, overcoming severe demons of the past and emerging with more strength and fortitude than ever… and on and on. But the point isn’t whose story is the most extreme or jaw-dropping, is it? The point is that we are all LIVING A STORY. The point is that we get to share and celebrate our stories. We get to help and support one another to live the best stories we can. And when there are those among us whose stories are not being told (but desperately need to be), we get to step up and use whatever platform, whatever opportunity and privilege we have to amplify those voices and stories.

So what kind of story are you living?

What stories are you sharing?

Whose voice can you amplify with your privilege and platform? 

 

 

 

UHURU – an epiphany at 19,341 feet

This is part of a series of posts about the #1MTclimb4peace charity climb and my #MPC2016 challenge up Mt. Kilimanjaro on March 8, 2016 (International Women’s Day) with One Million Thumbprints. Please click the hashtag #1MTclimb4peace to see all of the posts in the series. 

As most of you know by now (and by most, I mean the wonderful 7 of you who subscribe to this blog 🙂 ), our whole team summited Mt. Kilimanjaro on March 8, 2016. Statistically, 3 of us were not supposed to make it for one reason or another. We beat the odds, and all 15 summited Kili at the Gilman’s Point summit (with some truly incredible stories to boot!). There are 3 summits along the rim of the top of the mountain. Some paths take you to Gilman’s Point first, others to Stella’s Point and the last summit is called Uhuru Peak.

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I did not know what Uhuru meant when I stood in front of the sign at the peak. A group of 6 of us had continued along the trail past Gilman’s to try to make it to Uhuru before bad weather came in. As soon as the sign was in sight, our guide said, “Go ahead and run if you want… no more pole pole.” I literally ran to the sign. I was euphoric. My heart was about to beat out of my chest, but I was giddy with excitement. We all took our photos, cried, hugged and just a few minutes later  our guide said, “Sorry, we have to go now, the storm has come.” And we booked it down the mountain in a complete white out (hail, rain, snow, fog). But that is a story for another post…

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(when I ran to the sign and took a selfie because no one else was there to take the photo yet 🙂 )

It wasn’t until the next day, our last day on the trek that I found out what the Swahili word Uhuru means.

FREEDOM

Have you ever had an experience where a word or phrase jumped out and just grabbed you at a soul level? Perhaps you pick a word each year and it really defines your journey for that time… Perhaps something happens and that word or phrase helps you hold on when life seems to be crumbling around you.

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This was my word.

Personally, climbing Kilimanjaro was a journey of freedom for me. This whole blog is a testament to that journey.  It has been an intensely personal journey of becoming free FROM some things and free to BECOME something new. This is the beauty of participating in a community like My Peak Challenge, where the challenge to get fit and healthy permeates all parts of our lives… emotional, spiritual, mental, physical.

This past year, I have become free of unhealthy patterns and thoughts (I can’t do it, I am not a runner, I will never finish this, I can’t climb that, I won’t be able to breathe up there), unhealthy beliefs (about faith, God, myself, my purpose). And in the process of getting free from those things, I am becoming something totally new. I am healthier than I have been in years. I have accomplished goals and benchmarks that that old me would have given up on a long time ago. I have pursued dreams and attained them. I have a newfound sense of worth and purpose and calling. I (physically and mentally) can and do hard things for the sake of others. I am now living a legacy that I feel good about leaving my girls. (Please hear my heart… this is not coming from a place of pride or arrogance, but of transformation and deep gratitude for the changes in my life.)

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(this was the first drawing I did of the tattoo.)

So, this idea of uhuru, of freedom is deeply personal and meaningful to me.

It also represents the past few years of my social justice journey. About 6-7 years ago, I started learning about human trafficking and slavery. Since then, social justice issues and passion has very much been a part of my life and personal journey… from starting the Do A Little Good website, to hosting fair trade holiday shopping events, so hopping on planes and flying to places like India and the DRC to document and share stories of freedom and hope and dignity in the face of intense suffering.

Climbing Kilimanjaro with One Million Thumbprints was an act of pursuing the freedom of my sisters who live in the war-torn countries of the Congo, South Sudan and Syria/Iraq… freedom from violence, shame, despair. We long to see women around the world free to live with value and purpose, in dignity and in safety. That is why we climbed. For uhuru, for peace. 

When I came home, I realized I wanted to do something that would literally engrave this word, this concept of freedom on myself. So, I engraved it on my skin.

My first tattoo.

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Mountains: If you have read this blog from the beginning, you know how much the mountains mean to me. They are one of my happiest of places. Always have been. And it was Sam Heughan’s munro images on Instagram that literally shook me out of my numbing life existance onto this journey of freedom a year ago (almost to the day… April 1). The three peaks are representative of the MPC logo and the role that community has played in my life and transformation over this past year. They are also representative of the 3 loves of my life… my three little girls who are watching me, learning from me.

Uhuru: I drew this word out in my own handwriting, which is way messier and harder to read than the tattoo artist’s handwriting was. But I asked her to trace my handwriting because this journey of freedom is seldom neat and tidy and more often messy and hard to follow.

Rivers: The lines on either side of uhuru represent another happiest of places for me… the river. I grew up on rivers and streams and I would rather be in a river than just about any other body of water. I love the sound, the feel, the look. I love that they are in constant motion, moving with purpose with a destiny in mind. They are refreshing.

I chose to have this put on my wrist so I could look at it each day and remember… Remember the past, the journey, the accomplishments, the adventure (MPC, Kilimanjaro!). Remember where my soul finds rest and peace (mountains and rivers!), and where I have yet to go (more peaks and valleys) on this journey. Remember my calling and purpose (to pursue freedom for myself and others).

Getting the tattoo was actually a deeply spiritual experience. I didn’t expect that. I never thought I would get a tattoo (just never had the desire), but now I can’t imagine not having this symbol on my body.

Again, I am so, so, so incredibly grateful for this experience and journey… all of it. I am so grateful to be on the path I am on now. I am actually excited about life, about the future and all the possibilities it holds. Reminds me of a verse in the Bible that I used to laugh (cynically) about, but that I can actually hold with hope now. Proverbs 31:25:

She is clothed with strength and dignity,
    and she laughs without fear of the future.

Couch2Kilimanjaro – Tomorrow is the day!

This will be a super short post, but just wanted to check in….

Tomorrow is the day it all starts. Day 1 of 6 days on the mountain. Tuesday, March 8, 2016 is the day of reckoning… my attempt to summit this giant.

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We just got to Tanzania this morning after 3 of the longest, hardest days of my life, I think. We went to Rwanda and to the DRC to visit the very World Relief programs that this climb is fundraising for. I am so thankful we did it. So thankful. But we now carry more weight with us up that mountain. Not the physical weight of too much in our packs… but the emotional, mental, spiritual weight of all we have just been given in the DR Congo and Rwanda.

We met with women survivors of sexual based gender violence, who were so happy to share their stories with us and who ask us to tell the world about the violence that is rampant in their villages and country. We met members of local Village Peace Committees who are experiencing and facilitating peace in their communities and with each other without having to bribe officials who do nothing for them. We met women in a Fistula hospital in Goma, DRC. We drove through some of the most abject poverty I have ever seen (and I have seen a lot). We drove through a war zone (I now know the difference between the sound of firecrackers and of semi automatic gunshots – not aimed at us, but aimed in the air to try to get a car to stop so the bandits could loot it).

I held the hand of the 5 year old daughter of a fistula patient who was sitting on her mother’s bed… not immediately realizing that the 5 year old was also a patient. She had been raped just last week. 

These are the women, the stories we are carrying up the mountain. These women have something to say and we will do all we can to amplify their voices and continue to advocate for a better, more peaceful life for them and all of their children. No 5 year old should be a patient at a hospital specializing in rape victims. Ever. Anywhere.

And so tomorrow, we wake up, load up our bags and packs, try to swallow our fears and anxiety and start walking.

Thank you for following this journey with me. If you want to learn more about the organization I am climbing for/with, please click on the One Million Thumbprints button on the right of this page. Also, if you want to follow us in real time, check out the One Million Thumbprints Facebook page!

I am so utterly thankful for the privilege and honor to make this trek… for the women and girls I just met in the Congo, and for myself.

Want to climb Kilimanjaro? With your camera? For women?

(This is my #couch2kilimanjaro story. Follow along by chapter: Chapter 1Chapter 2Chapter 3Chapter 4Chapter 5, Chapter 6)

 

I can’t really remember how this conversation first went down in real time. Was it on the phone? Over coffee? Email?

What I do remember is this.

 

My friend Belinda sat me down at some point and asked me to consider joining the growing team of women who would climb Mt. Kilimanjaro in early 2016 with One Million Thumbprints. And not just join, but fulfill the felt need of a campaign photographer/storyteller.

So let me get this straight… 

Climb an epic mountain? For a cause I am already very passionate about? As the climb/campaign photographer? To share stories of dignity and hope and courage?

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Dreams do come true. They really do. Sometimes they come true with no effort of your own, just luck, fortune, blessing from Above. Other times you work hard for your dreams, and it pays off. In spades. 

Belinda told me that she had been watching me over the last few months… running, climbing, training – dedicated to improving my health and fitness. She said that if my doctor gave me the green light (asthma wise), she would be thrilled if I could join the team as the team photographer. I am pretty sure I cried.

So, yes, this opportunity to climb Kilimanjaro is a gift from Above on so many levels. It is also something I worked very hard for, even though I didn’t know what “it” was.

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I am so very, very thankful for this opportunity. I get on the plane in 3 days. We sit with the very woman who inspired this movement in 7 days. We start up that mountain in 10 days. We stand on the roof of Africa in 14 days to proclaim PEACE for women experiencing the violence of war… on International Women’s Day.

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And I really need to pause and say something…to my Outlander/MPC people: 

Outlander, Sam Heughan, My Peak Challenge, Peak Warriors… these are the people who got me off the couch less than a year ago. They were the inspiration and the motivation. And now they are the loudest cheerleaders in my “squad.”

Throughout this journey, my MPC/Peak Warrior “fanmily” has been the most supportive of this adventure/goal/dream by far. Perfect strangers have continually expressed heartfelt encouragement and support and even financial donations! I have been brought to tears on several occasions already by the people who have rallied around me at this time. People from all over the world (Norway, Germany, USA, and elsewhere), all walks of life, on various MPC journeys of their own. People who take the time to comment and email and message their best wishes and go-get-em’s!

Local MPC friends have even scheduled a “solidarity climb” on the weekend we will be heading up Kilimanjaro! They are literally going to “walk with us,” up a mountain.

I am profoundly grateful that I fell into this “fandom.” It has quite literally changed my life in the best of ways. I aim to stand on the top of Kilimanjaro and hold the MPC  #BAMflag with the greatest pride and the deepest gratitude for helping me summit my mountain.

I would absolutely love it if you would follow along. I will be posting, blogging and the like at a few places for the team. I am hoping to post as often as possible here, but Instagram and Facebook might be the best way to track with us.

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Um, what about Kilimanjaro?

~ brief intermission ~ 

Kilimanjaro is coming.

I promise. 

It’s just that it was/is a result of the journey I started months and months before…


 

I often wondered, “Why did it work this time and not the other times?” I can’t know for sure, but I suspect that many of the other failed “get healthy” or “get fit” attempts were coming from a place of LACK. I didn’t like how my body looked, I didn’t like the size of my clothes. I didn’t like how I felt. There is nothing wrong with feeling this way, of course. But  the problem was that I became my own worst enemy when I did try to get fit/healthy/lose weight. I didn’t like myself, and when my eyes stayed on ME, my failures became insurmountable. So when I didn’t complete the run, or lose the pounds, or whatever, I beat myself up even more and then threw the towel in. I failed again therefore I labeled myself a failure. It was all about me and my lack of being able to do what I thought I wanted.

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(photo: on top of Old Rag in the Shenandoah Mountains of Virgina, 2015)

The difference this time around? I had my eyes set on something beyond myself. I had a goal. I was looking UP THERE, or OUT THERE and not at myself. I decided that there was something I wanted more than self loathing. I decided it was a worthy goal to work towards. And I decided I could do it. And that I would do it.

I firmly believe this is the power of the whole MY PEAK CHALLENGE phenomenon. People are actually succeeding at things they have tried for years, decades sometimes because they have their eyes on a CHALLENGE, a GOAL, a TARGET. And to aid in that process, there is an entire support component that is just the boost that most of us need to hold on and keep moving forward. I keep reading the stories and successes and I am so encouraged and inspired.

Munro bagging was my goal. My eyes were set on the mountains. And finally, finally I was able to succeed at my fitness goals. I even found profound spiritual significance in the following verse from the book of Psalms 121: 1-2:

I will lift up my eyes to the hills,
    from where does my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
    who made heaven and earth.

Peak Warriors

(This is my #couch2kilimanjaro story. Follow along by chapter: Chapter 1Chapter 2, Chapter 3)

I don’t remember when I discovered the Peak Warrior support group on Facebook. I had never been a part of a “support group” before. I know people swear by the power of community, support and accountability… its why AA and WW are so successful. But those are “in person” support groups. How supportive could an online group really be?

 

Turns out pretty damn supportive.

During the late spring and into the summer of 2015, I wanted to jump off the #C25K program more than a few times. Running has never become fun or exhilarating to me. It’s just work. A lot of huffing, puffing work. And I don’t enjoy it. But it is a means to an end. I knew I couldn’t climb mountains without better lung capacity and cardio capacity.

So this completely random group of women online held me to it. I watched their own stories unfolding. Stories that both inspired me and pushed me to keep moving, one step at a time.

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When I wanted to skip a run, I saw Elise in Norway, faithfully putting on her warmest coat and headlamp and walking in the frigid cold and dark above the Arctic circle. My god. If she can do that, I can get my butt out the door for my 25 minute workout in mild Mid-Atlantic temps.

When I wanted to just sleep in or nap during the afternoon slump, there was Tess faithfully changing her whole life, 90lbs down and counting. No short cuts. Just good old fashioned exercise and healthy diet choices. What an inspiration.

This was no quick fix. This had to be a lifestyle change for me…. Working in exercise and activity into every week of my life, if not every day.

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The Peak Warriors now have a wonderful new blogsite… Please, please consider following and joining us on Facebook if you are in need of a little motivation, inspiration and accountability for your journey. I credit this amazing group for helping that April 1, 2015 decision to get off the couch to become an actual LIFE CHANGE event 10 months later.