But, I wanna be productive! Don’t I?

The return trip back from any time away from home, whether a week or a long weekend, sets my brain and heart into motion. The parts of me I allowed to unwind begin to tightly coil once again.

I anticipate all that must happen in the next ten minutes, even when I’m still 30 minutes away from home: the unloading of the car, unpacking of bags, washing of clothes. The watering of plants, wrangling of cat fur tumbleweeds taking over the downstairs. The emails to respond to; the calendar plotting for the week ahead. Do I need to get groceries today or can that wait?

All of this is self-inflicted. And unhelpful. Remember how much fun we just had on vacation, Katie?

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Warning: that’s a genuine smile. Because I was having fun in the woods.

After spending the past two nights in the North Carolina mountains, I sit at this laptop with the goal of giving myself the gift of grace. Do what truly needs to get done in order for you to feel prepared to take on the week ahead. But, leave the “shoulds” out of the conversation today. BUT IT IS SO HARD!

Those “shoulds” are loud, often. Deafening at times, in fact. I will be the first to raise my hand and admit my cultural adherence to the notion of “productivity.” I prove my worth through tasks and outputs. Spending time on creative exercises, even writing this blog post right now, can provoke that small inner voice to speak up. “Psst, Katie, shouldn’t you go vacuum right now? The kitchen floor needs to be wiped up. And, why don’t you just check your work Inbox for a few minutes? You’ll feel so much better tomorrow…”

Will I, inner voice? Or will the small pool of “shoulds” morph into a tidal wave of anxiety, sweeping me into a vortex for the next two hours and then I look up and Sunday is over?

Do I sound like I am speaking from experience? Absolutely. Frequently. It has been a goal of this year for me to intentionally shift how I value myself and my time. Because, if I don’t, I will continue to miss out on opportunities to live fully.

Isn’t the notion of retirement weird? Our culture dictates that you have to earn your time to take adventure, develop hobbies, give back,etc. But, we have these mortal bodies that wear out over time. It becomes a heck of a lot harder to do all the things we may have wanted to do 30 years prior. (Unless you’ve developed erectile dysfunction. Then we’ve got a pill for you!)

We ran into many (perceived) retirees while hiking in the mountains on Friday. Of course — it’s a WORK day [note: “work” day in the dominant narrative of what constitutes “real” or “professional” work in a white supremacist society but NEWS FLASH: people work EVERY HOUR OF EVERY DAY and many of us take their schedules for granted — things still get delivered to ours doorsteps; our loved ones in the hospital are receiving care; office buildings are cleaned; fields are harvested; passengers arrive from one part of the world to another].

Back to my Friday morning hiking rumination. Aaron and I stuck out like a bit of sore thumbs as the youngest climbers of that time slot. Why would people of working ages be climbing a summit at 11:30am unless they were:

  1. Retired
  2. Vacationing
  3. Stay-at-home parent
  4. A person who takes time during their day to go hike a trail

Yes, number four is an option. (And no doubt there are a slew of other options so excuse my lack of inclusion. It is not meant to short-change anyone’s reason for being on a hike at 11:30am on a Friday. If you are on a hike at 11:30am on a Friday, you’re a badass. Period.)

Taking the time to make these moments happen, for me, can be so hard. Guilt of not feeling a contributing team member with my colleagues; fear of not being able to respond to the needs or questions of board members, donors, other stakeholders who are working on a Friday at 11:30am.

I like me some routine. I like me some dependibility. Funny how life provides neither of those. I can feel like I’m in a groove, that I’ve got things figured out. And then:

BAM.

A new opportunity. An illness. A phone call. An injury. A ticket to a sold-out show. Whatever it is, the exciting and excruciating, serve as reminders that change is constant. Which I know I know, but it doesn’t really sink it. I can still sing every lyric to Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles” as proved on our drive home today.

But, I refuse to grant space in my heart and mind that my perception of routine is false. Things are happening behind the scenes. It’s our own Upside Down from Stranger Things. Hopefully with fewer horrifying creatures.

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That’s essentially the face I make when confronting anything outside of my routine. IF IT IS NOT WRITTEN DOWN, I AM NOT SURE IT CAN HAPPEN. (Photo credit)

Here we are: on a Sunday afternoon, fretting about living up to standards set by society and me. The shadow of having to justifying taking a Friday off, of not doing another load of laundry today. One could be done, sure. There are a thousand things that could be done; there are a dozen tasks that I could list as “should be” completed.

Today, I started my morning, sipping hot coffee while leaning on a window ledge as a fog swallowed the homes, farms, and gardens enclosed in our valley. I heard the call of the rooster, alerting the masses that it was time to stretch our limbs from a good night’s rest. I smelled the rich earth, dotted with dew, and breathed in the cool, crisp air one would never expect in a North Carolina August.

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I should sit in that memory for a bit longer. It will fade, in time. But the feeling it has imprinted will serve as a reminder of why I choose, today and each day, to live. Productivity, be damn.

Finding one’s roots (literally)

When I grow up, I want to be a farmer.

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This is what farming life is like, right?

I was sitting on an airplane, reading Jen Sincero’s “You Are a Badass”, when this realization first struck me. To that point, I had dabbled in spring and summer gardening, casting “ooohs” and “aahhs” as seedlings emerged from the soil and pollinated flowers transforming into peppers and tomatoes. Owning the title of “green thumb” still felt far in my future. Yet, I savored the moments spent in the dirt, checking each plant’s progress, and nurturing those in need of extra care due to rising temperatures or a hookworm infestation.

I want to have a farm that provides organic, healthy, local food.

I laughed at myself, embarrassed, after a beat. What did I know about farming? I had never even set foot on one to that point. Besides the three years of backyard gardening and the occasional interaction at the Durham Farmer’s Market, I was as green as the crops I so badly wanted to yield.

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This sums up the amount of interaction I had with farm animals to that point. Is that how one properly holds a sheep?

I want to create a place where young people can work, acquire skills, earn an income, and reconnect with the earth.

This pursuit, while ever evolving, stems from my core values of connection to earth, animals, and people; stewardship of natural resources; promotion of well-being; and access to one’s humanity and the skills, values, and temperament to build stronger communities.

During my time teaching in Vance County, my students became intrigued with the various fruits and vegetables I packed for lunch. Upon seeing a bag full of red bell pepper slices, one of my students, Ahmad, gasped: “You’re going to eat those?”

“Yes…?” I responded with that questioning lilt trailing off to signfy my confusion.

“Aren’t those hot?”

I smiled and opened the bag, letting Ahmad know that these red bell peppers slices were far from hot; in fact, they were sweet and crisp. He warily eyed the slice he plucked from the bag, looked at me once more for reassurance, and then took his first bite.

He smiled. “No, these aren’t hot at all!”

Such interactions with Miss Paulson’s lunch offerings took place with jicama, mangoes, and sugar snap peas. While most students lived in a rural county, their ability to access fresh food was minimum. Nearly 1/4 of Vance County residents are below the federal poverty line and 30% of children live in food insecure homes. But, don’t worry folks: there are dozens of fast food restaurants in the county seat of Henderson:

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I’ve thought about my students, their families, and the broader Vance County community a lot since leaving in 2009. Often, these reflections are tinged with guilt and sadness. I left. I had the choice to leave, and I did without hesitation. On the surface, I became an example of “white privilege tour of poverty” levied at Teach For America.

But, I promise you that while I physically left Henderson, I’ve never forgotten it.

Back to the plane: here I am, seeking out my purpose. And images of Vance County surged from my past and plopped down on the tray table in front of me, wriggling with anticipation. What if such a place could exist in Vance County, partnering with the school system, community leaders, and other organizations? Do such programs and projects already exist within Vance County or in surrounding places that I could support and learn from?

I want to create a place where young people have the opportunity to learn and demonstrate empathy and compassion to creatures and crops.

I want to develop a platform for them to build strength — physical, mental, and spiritual. I want to give them the tools to cultivate the earth at their homes and churches to transform our food system from reliance on processed, transactional products to homegrown, transformational produce. 

This lightbulb moment took place two years ago. At first, it was easy for me to shrug off taking further action. Between work and professional commitments, I was too busy. There wasn’t enough time; I didn’t have enough energy.

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I’ve done two volunteer shifts at the Piedmont Animal Farm Refuge in Pittsboro. Nothing says getting more hand’s on experience than cleaning out goat barns!

Alas, I have cast those constraints to the side. The call rings louder and louder each day for me to do something to work towards this dream. This past week, I finished Will Allen’s “The Good Food Revolution: Growing Healthy Food, People, and Communities” about his project to transform the food system starting in his Milwaukee home. There are a multitude of stories similar to Will’s where people just starting doing. He emphasized that call-to-action in his book on several occasions.

Just start doing.

One theme I heard from two of the #NonprofitSTRONG Summit conference breakout sessions I attended involved honoring one’s roots. Our ancestral histories can be fraught and painful. And, they are still part of us.

I’m sorry that I know so little of my family lineage. One thing I do know is that I come from a line of agricultural stock. In fact, I still have extended family members operating farms in Minnesota. Perhaps the seeds of my dream were planted for me by past generations. Perhaps it’s part of the social awakening that the systems we have to nourish and feed us are failing us instead. Perhaps its a selfish quest to marry all of my passions — education, food, conservation, mentorship — under one perfect umbrella.

Perhaps it will all be a bust. But I won’t know if I don’t do.

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Finding leadership metaphors in kayaking

I’ve started the last two Sundays like this:

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Ready to take on Falls Lake.

The changing weather means dusting off the kayak and spending mornings on the water. Aaron and I have been frequenting Falls Lake due to both its proximity to our home and the seemingly endless opportunities to explore the 12,000+ acre reservoir.

I still consider myself a beginner in the ‘yak (and perhaps calling myself out even more by referring to it as a ‘yak). Adding more upper body strength workouts to my routine has made a difference. But when boats motor by, sending cresting waves towards my 7’ vessel, staying the course requires more than brute force. It’s about keeping my mind focused, remembering to breathe, and taking it one stroke at a time [leadership advice 101, am I right?]

Without falling into too deep in what could be a cheesy metaphor, I reflected about my own leadership style while kayaking these past two outings. My need to control the outcome of my trip results in me paddling without taking many breaks. But, when I do stop and sit, even for a few moments, I allow nature to guide what happens next. If I’m lucky, it’s a sighting of an osprey diving for a fish or a heron squawking across the lake, letting us know that we’ve disrupted its morning routine (sorry heron!) I try to ask myself in the real world: how can I let go of what’s not in my control today? Believe me: easier said than done.

Wind brings another element of surprise and struggle on the open water. On our first Sunday out, we faced choppy waves as we headed back towards the beach. It was exhilarating: the kayak bowed and dipped, spraying water into the air and all over me. I feel this way when new ideas bubble up from within me or from working in collaboration with others; those times when we’re in sync and progress is being made and the momentum is on our side until..

until is it not. Turning the final corner, my forward motion came to a screeching halt. Fatigued, I tried to find my rhythm with the oar once again, but the natural elements didn’t let up. Was I even moving forward? Or did someone spread molasses on the bottom of my kayak?

Do you know that feeling too? Even when pointed in the right direction, it can feel insurmountable to get to the end point, or at least to the next stop. For me, this feeling can stem from the tasks required of me. There are some tasks that come easy to me, and some that I put off…and put off…and put off…(did someone say data analytics? Because I’m pretty sure my calendar says lunch and then nap).

However, these laborious items often need to be completed for the purposes of evaluation, accountability, or preparation in order to hand the project off to someone else. (Note: if there’s no reason or context for a task existing outside of saying you’ve done said task, I’d stick a let it go sticker on it and find something more useful to do with your time.)

I needed to get off of Falls Lake at some point. Aaron would probably want to head home. I was getting hungry (and didn’t want to slip into hangry mode). So, I had to grit my teeth and press on. Sometimes that’s what leadership looks like: gritting one’s teeth (or biting one’s tongue) and looking ahead to what you can do to improve the situation or to find a different solution.

One of the greatest gifts I’ve received serving as Chair of the YNPN Triangle NC board of directors these past three years is this lesson. I can’t – and won’t – ever make everyone else on the board happy. I’ll be too soft; too mean; too unapproachable; too hands on. I told a former board member today that I fail frequently as a leader; when I do step on toes or make a mistake, I apologize and try to learn from the experience.

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What brings me fulfillment: lip sync battles with some of my fellow YNPN Triangle NC board members.

Even after one year as a kayak owner, I’m still a bit clumsy in the boat. Sometimes my oar handle hits the side. I’m not sure if I always have the best form. But I do what I can, each time, to improve while also allowing myself to enjoy the experience.

As a leader, if you’re not enjoying the experience, what are you there for? Despite the obstacles or challenges I’ve faced with YNPN and in other leadership opportunities over the years, I still find joy and fulfillment. Most of the time, it’s from the people I’m surrounded by, the dedicated volunteers or co-workers who show up, work hard, and fight for necessary change.

That feeling is the same on the water. Aaron’s enthusiasm and sense of adventure are what makes our Sundays on the water so special. Yes, I’m still smitten to see a bald eagle perched in an overlooking tree. But, I’m even more smitten in watching the sheer happiness consume my kayaking partner, one moment at time.

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These birds, I tell you what. Photo credit: Aaron J. Todd

Keep calm and kayak.

I never envisioned myself kayaking. Granted, I did grow up in a desert. The notion of participating in any water sport felt foreign, outside of the occasional boogie boarding in the Pacific Ocean during an annual San Diego summer vacation.

In July 2015, Aaron and I broke our kayaking-seals in Traverse City, Michigan.

 

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The first taste of kayaking – oh so swet

The 3+ hour journey took us through the calm, meandering Boardman River up the gut of the city, spilling us out into Lake Michigan. Our sense of peace shattered as we battled the wake from dozens of high-speed boats and wave runners. Our tired arms somehow found the last ounces of strength to paddle us in, leaving us exhausted and exhilarated (and gosh, did that ice cream afterward taste even better!)

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Vegan ice cream ftw!

Even after only one kayaking adventure, we both casually expressed the idea of investing in our own. One year and two more rental kayak trips later, we took that step. Aaron spent several weeks researching the various options: price points, length, sit-in or sit-on, etc. He read reviews, reviews, reviews, and drew up a list of about five potential candidates.

I lack the drive to research like Aaron does. I glanced at his list, looked at a few pictures online, and made my decision based on sitting in several at the Dick’s Sporting Goods on a Saturday morning. The moment I sat into the Perception Swifty Deluxe, I knew it was the one. The price was right (reduced to around $350), and the color options were on point.

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You won’t be able to miss us out on the water in these.

Aaron took his maiden voyage while I was out in Portland, Oregon, for a conference. But, the next two Saturdays, we tossed up our ‘yaks on our folding J-hooks (purchasing the equipment to go along with owning kayaks = both expensive and important lessons to be learned, including make sure you can drive your car out of the garage with said J-hooks own).

We started close to home, venturing over to Falls Lake both times. I learned several lessons from the first trip out, namely that kayak grips are critical to stop the blistering bonanza.

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Aaron played master photog on our first Falls Lake outing

This past Saturday, two friends joined us as we explored a quieter part of the lake (no boats allowed!), sharing the morning with many birds and plenty of jumping fish.

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Serenity now

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Exploring every cove 

 

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An ideal August morning to be out on the water

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Playing around with filters

I derive so much pleasure from the act of kayaking. The transition between movement and stillness; the sound of the oar dipping into the water, gliding me forward as I try to take in all of the sounds and sights.

Our kayaks open up so many more possibilities on how we can interact with our surroundings. While I’m tired after wrapping up our time on the water, I’m also eagerly anxious for our next trip.

Oh, what adventures await for the rest of 2016 and beyond…