36 Questions

An old friend and I got together for dinner and a movie earlier this week. We met towards East Colfax, a bustling, growing part of Denver. I parked my car (admittedly, it was a bit stressful as I have only recently become competent at parallel parking) and made my way towards the restaurant.

As we ate our food and caught up on the small details of life (work, summer activities, and dating) she mentioned that on several dates she had gone through the now famous 36 questions that are thought to lead to intimacy between two people with recent suitors.

The study, led by Arthur Aron and a group of psychologists, found that “reciprocal and escalated self-disclosure” can be associated with the development of closeness. The research and findings became famous because they were featured in the Modern Love column in the New York Times. I first heard about the study while listening to an episode called “To Fall in Love, Do This” and was fascinated at the idea that interpersonal vulnerability could create such a strong bond.

My friend told me more – she shared that the last activity after asking these series of questions (there are three sets, designed to build in depth) was to stare into the other person’s eyes for four minutes. FOUR MINUTESImmediately, I thought to myself, I definitely need to do this with Chelsea.

We haven’t tried it yet – but I want to. In the mean time, I have read a bit more about the questions and the study.

Some of the questions in the exchange include items like:

For what in your life do you feel most grateful?

Is there something that you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time?

Why haven’t you done it?

When did you last cry in front of another person? By yourself?

Tell your partner something that you like about them already.

Alternate sharing something you consider a positive characteristic of your partner. Share a total of five items.

If you knew that in one year you would die suddenly, would you change anything about the way you are now living? Why?

What is the greatest accomplishment of your life?

Better yet, I stumbled across this charming, touching, tender video of three different couples going through the process of asking the questions. I literally wept. There is something about watching love manifest between two people, especially in their interactions. It is both inspiring and soothing.

Check out the video below – you won’t be sorry. And, if you get a chance to start exploring these questions with someone you love (it doesn’t even have to be a partner!) who knows where the conversation might lead.

God just is.

I have often found that the presence of the Divine is surprisingly subtle.

Experiencing, feeling, noticing, observing, communing (or really, whatever you want to call it) with God, for me, is typically an occurrence in the quieter, more reflective spaces of my life.

This is counterintuitive to many of the religious spaces I have found myself in over the years. Places where God is equal to loud praises, loud shouts, and loud songs. And sure, God can be found here too, in fact, I think that God is accessible anywhere and everywhere.

Yet, for me I feel God when my environment errs on the side of discreet and still.

So, it was completely “on brand” that when riding my bicycle this afternoon I felt the noticeable, pressing experience of God. Gliding along the paths near Crestmoor Park I was sorting through what felt like a million feelings. I had just returned from Rwanda. Even after two weeks, I was literally gleeful to be with Chelsea again. I was considering upcoming transitions. I was thinking about weddings, fall plans, and the end of summer. I was also recalling conversations with my parents, wanting to make sure that they were both doing well after not speaking with them during my travels.

A lot was on my mind. At one point during these thoughts, I turned the corner, touching on my brakes ever so slightly when –

Silence.

I felt a need for all things to be quiet – mostly the noise in my head. And so, with resistance, I silenced my questions, to-do lists, and contemplations. I existed in the moment, amidst the vibrant, green trees and slightly rocky bike paths. Suddenly, a mantra –

You are loved. You are enough. You do not have to explain yourself.

These phrases came to mind – on repeat – like a song that you just cannot get enough of. I wondered to myself: how do you know when you are skimming the line of God versus when you’re giving yourself positive self-talk?

Real question.

And, the real answer is that I don’t know. I literally have no idea. However, I do have a hunch.

When I am with God, everything is in balance. Everything is with perspective. And, any thoughts I have (positive or otherwise) feel exquisitely simple and yet equally profound. It is as though my spirituality is full of reminders of love, yearnings for compassion, and fierce dedication to hope. All of this, without any of my own internal baggage. It is quite nice.

Prayers, revelations, and messages come together – time with God is never so clearly sparred out and divided like we do with our church programming. God just is.

I kept riding my bike, sifting through this nugget of faith that I was greatly welcoming. You see, connecting with God in this way has been more difficult lately. There has been so much moving around, so much change, so much distraction, to be frank. Because of that, I have missed these still moments that allow me to push further, beyond myself, so that I can access God, the Divine, and explore life from a fresher perspective – even if it is just for a moment.

Connection with God, I am learning requires connection to self. One must take the space. One must understand their identity. One must be willing to find what is available to them in any moment. God does not require a church, God does not require a certain verse or saying, God does not require a performance.

God just desires you – me – us.

Realizing this is changing my prayers, too. Today, I prayed a simple set of questions, a kind of prayer of humility:

God.

Thank you for today.

Thank you for bringing me home.

Thank you for the love I have in my life.

My hope is to steward this love well.

Where can I grow?

Where can I learn?

Where can I forgive?

Where can I hope?

Where can I give?

Where can I receive?

Where can I support?

Teach me how to explore these spaces – whatever my resistance, whatever my disposition. May I live well. May I love well.

God, help me to not forget the richness of this life. God, be with the hungry. God, be with the lonely. Be with all of us – regardless of belief, regardless of circumstance, regardless of anything. May your presence and experience be known. May your love reign.

I love you.

 Faith is both incredibly simple and extraordinarily complex.

I will forever fall short of describing my faith. I mean, how does one describe that which can only be felt?

Here’s to finding God in all kinds of places, in the most unexpected of ways.

IMG_7046.JPG

Growing & Learning (a lot)

I started graduate school at the University of Colorado Denver (UCD) about 6 months ago. It is just the beginning of what will be a long (but significant) journey; my schooling (inclusive of practicum and internship) will last over three years, then, for two years I will work under supervision before I can become officially licensed as a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC).

I joined UCD’s Counseling Program specifically because of the program’s multicultural focus, fusing psychological approaches with specific cultural contexts for people of all backgrounds.

Originally, a few years ago, I had thought I had wanted to be a social worker.

Post-Peace Corps, I applied to the University of Denver, got in (twice) and subsequently decided that I didn’t want to fork over that much money simply to be qualified to help people.

There was more too – I realized that while social work is an incredible profession – creating ways for individuals to access important resources – I wanted to help individuals, groups, and communities in a more relationally focused way. I started researching and exploring and found that counseling was a great fit for my interests and skillsets.

Social workers work within systems, usually matching services for the needs of a client.

Counseling, however, provides treatment (often in the realm of mental health) for clients in a setting that prioritizes a professional relationship so that a person can slowly heal, grow, and become fully empowered in their life. I like to think of this more positively; instead of focusing on a person’s shortfalls, a lot of constructive change can occur when a person knows (and uses) the assets and strengths they hold. Leveraging these, I’m learning, is a powerful way to pursue health and wellness.

Upon starting my program, I was ready to learn about the ins and outs of counseling, therapy modalities, and techniques to use when working in therapeutic settings. I had a vision for the kind of therapist/counselor I wanted to be – one that worked with individuals from different trauma backgrounds (like refugees), cultures, and age groups.

As with any formidable learning opportunity, already a lot has changed.

My coursework has challenged me; I have had to confront my own bias’s, beliefs, opinions, assumptions, and understandings about people. In just a handful classes, I have also re-explored some of my own past to understand better why I do what I do. In doing so, I can see where some of my perspectives have come from, and while I can hold onto these, I must also see where my blind-spots exist, too.

You see, what I forgot to consider in starting my path as a counselor-trainee was that I would need to continue to do “work” with myself. After all, without self-awareness and knowledge of self, how can I possibly begin to help the clients I work with in the future? As a result, It feels like the door has opened and that this journey has brought far more emotional healing than I could have otherwise found. That has been a pleasant surprise.

I have also felt overwhelmed at my interest areas, not unlike a child in a store filled with candy:

Do I want to focus on trauma? How can I use narrative therapy? What if I want to work with older adults? Can I specialize in working with LGBTQ+ populations? Do I want to work in an agency or focus on private practice?

 The questions have felt endless, but I do believe this is ultimately a really necessary step within a much larger process. I am beginning to filter through where and how I will work. I mean – how cool is that?

In the meantime, I am learning to be kinder to myself, to let myself dream, to imagine what my profession will be like as I learn, and to enter it all with fearlessness, grace, and patience. It isn’t easy – but it is necessary.

Here’s to growing, learning, and doing it all with some humor, sass, and fun.

Screen Shot 2018-06-15 at 3.18.07 PM

Cakes & Things

If I have learned anything as a budding adult it is that saying “yes” to some things requires a “no” to other things.

Classic example: sleeping in is saying “yes” to rest and “no” to an early morning work-out. It might vary on a different day; we are constantly making choices that fluctuate depending on our environment, our situation, and our needs.

I have found that since starting graduate school in January I have said “yes” to pursuing my dream to be a counselor and “no” to lots of other things – extra time with friends, more time write, and the ability to read books for fun. However, I would choose this “yes” a thousand times over so truly, no regrets.

One of the other sacrifices I have had to make is my deep immersion in the plethora of podcasts I listen to (CPR, The Liturgists, TED Radio Hour, Fresh Air, and Queer Theology). This means that I do not always have the most up-to-date news insights or analysis of current events. I am trying to keep up, but in full honesty, it is hard.

And so, the only reason I heard about the Supreme Court ruling on Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission is because my news ticker on my computer alerted me right away – somehow, awhile back, I set a reminder to send me the ruling when it was released. And low and behold, it was decided this past week.

As I read the decision and court brief I was shocked. However, undeterred, I read more.

The case, was actually quite complex in the process to reach the Supreme Court, proposed two sides: the right to create (or not) “art” that is line with a person’s beliefs and the right for a person to not be discriminated in a public space (business).

Ultimately, the decision of the court was with Jack Phillips (Masterpiece Cakeshop) because of the hostility he faced from the Colorado Civil Rights Commission (which certainly failed to remain impartial during the proceedings and ruling process.

However, even in the majority opinion, the rights and protections of LGBTQ+ were affirmed. I wondered, could this still be an advancement for the LGBTQ+ community?

Justice Kennedy, in releasing the majority opinion wrote, “Our society has come to the recognition that gay persons and gay couples cannot be treated as social outcasts or as inferior in dignity and worth. For that reason the laws and the Constitution can, and in some instances must, protect them in the exercise of their civil rights. The decision clearly states that it is a general rule that religious and philosophical objections “do not allow business owners and other actors in the economy and in society to deny protected persons equal access to goods and services.”

While the case failed to be a “win” in the traditional sense for the plaintiffs, Charlie Craig and David Mullins, there are undercurrents in the decision that I hope will bode well for anti-discrimination cases in the future (I am sure there will be many, many more).

After reading (and reading some more) about the case, I spent some time reflecting and honestly found myself slightly lethargic. Though the case may actually fuel protections for LGBTQ+ people, I feel a bit weary in trying to remind people that really, people are just people. It would be nice if we could all treat each other with basic decency. We do not have to agree. Not even a little.

I keep hoping that we can arrive at a place that acknowledges (no matter what you think or what politics that you hold) the humanity central to all of us.

We are all just people. I get that we have beliefs. We have ways of seeing the world. We have ideologies. But my goodness, if we continue to bicker about who we can (or cannot) sell cake too, I’m worried about how we can move forward in other dialogues and other forms of living together.

I guess this is a bit idealistic, eh?

I am no law expert, but I do rest on the fact that I would rather spread more love than not.

I would rather welcome more people than not.

I would rather say “yes” than not.

You can still hold your beliefs and decide to acknowledge the humanity in another human being. I promise, it is not impossible. What’s the worst that could happen?

When you have experienced exclusion, you know the pain and you know the hurt of being outside of belonging. Inclusivity, I think, propels us forward far faster than exclusivity. For this reason, and more, whatever and wherever I end up, I will press for the inclusion of everyone. This is the work of social justice.

welcoming summer

This year is moving at blazing speeds and I have felt myself running, hustling, jumping – simply to catch up. Somehow, when I awoke the other morning it was June and the sun was shining through at a cool 84 degrees. Summer has arrived.

Summer is my favorite time of year: shorts, sunglasses, and ubiquitous green oak trees, along with an ease to the air that has been absent all year long. And it’s easily the best time of year to snap on rollerblades and roll along with views of the city.

IMG_7327

Mostly, summer reminds me to breathe, relax, and just enjoy the existence of, well, life.

Summer is also easily planned; booked with trips and adventures and any other outdoor activity you could think of. This summer is a bit different, too. Fresh off a week-long jaunt to Mexico, I’m squeezing in extra classes at school while also dreaming and planning a wedding with Chelsea for next summer (in 2019). Summer, then, feels like a bridge over water, a transition that we have all been anxiously awaiting (at least I have).

Summer is usually when I am most happy. Life feels a little more open, a little more spontaneous, like a meandering walk with no agenda, or a flower blooming without a care in the world.

When this year started, I choose the word “breathe” to be my mantra. My hope was that I could remind me to stop and simply be in the crevices of moments when things got crazy.

Easier said than done, right?

Yet, when I have honored those short, still moments it feels like I can tap into something deeper, as if for an instant I can absorb all that is sweet about life. Awareness does this: it opens our eyes, minds, and hearts – suddenly we can observe and bear witness to occurrences that we wouldn’t otherwise see.

IMG_7320

Case and point. I paused to breathe the other day while walking from the bus. I sat at a bench and looked around. It was as though everything and nothing was miraculous at once. I saw people hurrying to work. I saw, in the same blocks, people begging for money. Students were in the thick of exams, double-fisting with coffee and study guides. And, I saw a sweet old woman mightily propelling her walker up the hill, presumably to enjoy a mid-morning stroll. She was tenacious; never once stopping in her aims to proceed with her journey. It was surprisingly beautiful to see – all of us, simply living our lives on another day, at the edge of a new season.

Breathing lends itself to seeing and seeing keeps the wonder alive. Even in the craze of summer, that is my goal – to stay wonderous, adventurous, and of course, to breathe deeply every chance I get. It’s easier for those moment to slip by as life changes course and more adulting and responsibility comes our way. However, they do not have to.

When we breathe and find awareness to our world, we are present to life. And, I do believe our presence is the greatest gift we can bring, not only to others, but also to ourselves. Happy summer, friends.

IMG_6568

double engagement

 

A friend asked recently how I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life with Chelsea.

Reflecting slowly and wanting to give a full, thorough answer, I still found myself rendered speechless. Articulating the ways in which one falls in love or has the necessary intuition to know the person to spend their life with is a lot like putting words to picturesque mountain views, laughing without restraint, or times when pure, untamed joy strikes. It’s nearly impossible.

There are some experiences that transcend words and explanation; they just are.

Chelsea is the woman I choose because of who she is. Chelsea lives life, welcoming all experiences, while opening the hearts of people around her. She laughs fully, explores freely, and loves without reservation. She is intensely intelligent and is uniquely self-aware. Though I have known Chelsea for many years, she is the kind of person that you can learn something new about with each passing day. One of my favorite parts of Chelsea, though, is that she is silly and makes me laugh. She holds space for profoundly important conversations and ridiculously silly moments. The balance between the two is the key to a keenly rich life.

I also knew I wanted to share life with Chelsea because of the kind of woman she encourages me to be: my full, real self. I can be who I am without reservation. In our life together, there’s an ease, a grace that is immensely refreshing. It has been in this ease where we have found a rhythm and the space to let love grow.

I trust her when we drive together at night. She celebrates my dreams. We share duties in the kitchen. We discuss our strengths and weaknesses. She rubs my shoulder when I’ve had a long day. Big or small – there are corners of my life that are now forever different because of her.

For these reasons – and at least a million more – I said “yes” when Chelsea asked if I would marry her.

Certainly, “double engagement” was always a part of our plan. Our initial discussions of engagement in the summer of 2017 included the core agreement that we both wanted the opportunity to ask each other in marriage (and say “yes” too). Plans came to life. I asked her to be my wife just days before our 1st year anniversary. And, as snow turned to Spring, I wondered if Chelsea would be asking the same question soon.

Turns out, she was voraciously planning. Thick in preparations for the end of my first school term and working full-time, I was not caught off guard by the few signs that the proposal was coming soon. Randomly, I noticed that a particular mid-April weekend was loaded with special occasions: a massage for me, a day at the park, and a romantic dinner for two. Chelsea shared that because she had landed a big design project that she wanted to treat me. Cool, I thought.

I had no idea of what I was getting into.

On the morning of Saturday, April 14th, Chelsea and I slept in as the sun crept into our bedroom. We smiled as the day began. It was going to be a great day.

We grabbed a casual brunch with a friend before making our way to Washington Park. We go to the park all the time, so I thought this was just another standard park Saturday. In addition to wearing my go-to Patagonia jacket, I decided to wear my very loud Colorado hat. Additionally, I had packed a football and frisbee in the car but decided I would grab them after we finished our first lap around the park.

Ironically, as the walk began, I prompted an entire conversation about wedding planning. Washington Park is one of our top choices for a wedding venue and so it seemed fitting and appropriate to start dreaming as we took a stroll around. Oblivious to Chelsea’s nervousness, I suggested we stop at a bench near the North end of the park to take a closer look at the boathouse. Quickly, and probably with some surprise, she obliged. We sat, and I drank a free sparkling water that we picked up along the way.

After a few minutes, Chelsea cleared her throat.

“So, I thought I could show you some of the prints I told you about earlier this week.”

I was confused: why would we be looking at her prints at the park?

I asked, “are they on your phone?”

“No, I brought them with me.”

Opening up her backpack (which now, seemed completely out of place given the fact we were just taking a walk) she pulled out a black book with four prints inside. I opened the book and began taking the prints out, one by one. I tried to let each one sink in slowly. By the third one, I was pretty sure that something special was happening. I could feel it. And, the third print included a short lyric from one of “our songs” that we want to use at our wedding.

Chelsea prompted me on the last one, saying that, “there’s one more,” while turning it around (it was facing backwards near the end of the book). As she flipped it over, I read the simple, but powerful, emotion-laden words, “Heather, my beloved, will you marry me?”

Indeed, it was happening.

Of all the things, I had to ask: “Do you have a ring?”

Obviously, she did. She even had it in the most perfect tree ring box. Every small detail was planned.

My stomach turned to mush, and my heart felt like it was beating out of my chest. Tears brimmed swiftly, and I said an emphatic, “YES!”

She smiled and remarked, “I’m not quite done yet…”

I breathed heavily in and out. I wanted to hold onto this moment. Everything was happening so fast. We locked eyes and I felt time freeze as she read a letter she had written for the special day. She read each word with such sincerity. She told me she loved me. She shared the kind of joy she felt in doing life together.

Getting on one knee, she opened the ring box and asked again – “Heather, will you marry me?”

This time, I said a louder “yes” while also kicking my legs back and forth and hugging her tightly. This was really happening. She put the ring on my finger and I gasped. It was stunning. The shock commenced: how had she pulled this off? When did she talk with my parents? Where did she hide the ring? How long had she been planning? Who knew what was happening?

With glee and joy, we called, texted, and messaged family and friends to share the news that we were engaged – again. Double time.

Double engagement is much more than two proposals. To me, the value of two individuals – already whole – coming together and proposing is that we both are opting in. We are both committing. We are both saying “yes.” This is not so different from the real-life reality of relationship: on the tough days, we each have to show up for each other in different ways. We make the choice to be together and we feel that a double engagement symbolizes this important aspect of relationship.

The rest of the day was a dream. Immediately after the park we went to get our favorite kind of ice cream at Sweet Cow. The ice cream shop has been iconic in our relationship; we went there at least 15 times in the first few months of dating in 2016. For the evening, Chelsea had booked a romantic dinner at Dazzle, a Denver jazz club downtown. Sharing champagne, we finally took everything in and celebrated. It was lovely, and I was simply, so happy.

So, now doubly engaged, we are beginning the formidable task of wedding planning. It’s a new step in our relationship, and we’re doing our best to adjust and figure it out.

What I know for sure is that Chelsea will be my human forever. She will be the one I marry.

Life will throw us challenges, difficulties, and hardships – I know this because it already has. And while our life won’t be perfect, I am sincerely grateful that our faith, our love, our hope, and our commitment will be what can stand anything. I am relieved to believe in this kind of love. Chelsea has changed my mind about what is possible with love.

Before, I thought love was an ideal to strive for and a way in which to live a life.

Now, I know that love is power – it can transcend anything, withstand anything, and hold up anything. Love is more than just something to hope for, it is something to be felt, to be shared, to be cultivated. I do this better with Chelsea in my life and if that isn’t a reason to marry someone, I don’t know what is.

Cheers to love and forever and for tree ring boxes.

Body, Trauma, & Connection

Over the last month, I have had a book recommended to me, mentioned to me, and shared with me at least four times. The book, The Body Keeps the Score, is a well-known read in the psychology world as the author, Bessel Can der Kolk, is the founder and medical director of the Trauma Center in Massachusetts.

IMG_6587.jpg

Blending neuroscience, medicine, psychiatry, and healing, Kolk breaks down what we understand trauma to be and how it shows up and manifests in our bodies. Powerfully, he uses case studies, interviews, and research to push the fact that because trauma is a fact of life, it is also an inherent public health issue.

Though only halfway through the book, I have already learned a lot of new concepts, particularly about our brain systems and how information is processed. Moreover, I have learned how this changes for someone with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and the difference is huge. Traumatization re-wires processing functions and thus, reactions to stress occur even if the trigger or the stimulus does not present a viable threat. Kolk explains this process when he writes,

“While we all want to move beyond trauma, the part of our brain that is devoted to ensuring survival (deep below our rational brain) is not very good at denial. Long after a traumatic experience is over, it may be reactivated at the slightest hint of danger and mobilize disturbed brain circuits and secrete massive amounts of stress hormones. This precipitates unpleasant emotions, intense physical sensations, and impulsive and aggressive actions. These posttraumatic reactions feel incomprehensible and overwhelming. Feeling out of control, survivors of trauma often being to fear that they are damaged to the core and beyond redemption.”[1]

Yeah, I know. Our minds (and bodies) are powerful.

Interestingly, a lot of what I am learning from this book connects to topics, therapies, and theories that I am learning in my coursework in the Counseling Program at University of Colorado Denver. In both of my courses, Counseling Theories and Multicultural Counseling, we have discussed trauma in varying capacities. In Multicultural, we have explored the epigenetics of trauma (intergenerational trauma) when it is passed down and through family lineages. In Theories, we have begun conversations in how to use certain techniques with clients who have experienced trauma, techniques like eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), exposure therapies, or stress inoculation training (SIT).

It is all connecting – and usually that is how I know am on to something meaningful and important in my life.

For most of this year (and last), I have been working on reconnecting with my emotions and body. For a long duration of time, it was hard for me to cry and emote for things that would have previously sparked an emotional response (Moana and Coco not included). This left me feeling disconnected and far from the core of my personal self. This is another aspect of trauma that is just as important, but perhaps, less discussed.

Kolk shares in some of the stories about clients he worked with that some “could not feel whole areas of their bodies.” This happened because in some cases, to cope, people shutdown of parts of their brain, particularly the parts that send out feelings and emotions. This doesn’t only affect the negative emotions, the ones that they want to remove, but all emotions, too.

While my experience in desensitization was not as extreme, I still knew that my brain and body has experienced emotional blockage. Through walks, hikes, rollerblading, writing, counseling, and weightlifting, I have come to understand the weightiness of shame and how it blocks us from our true selves. This has been a major part of the emotional blocks that I have felt in the last year and being able to name that has been an important part of re-orientating my self-awareness.

So, what, in this context does healing look like?

For me, it has been about confronting the pain, sitting in silence, recognizing the hurt (non-judgmentally), and taking power back over it. Just trying to identify what I feel in any given moments has been annoyingly slow (to be honest). But also, as I have been able to do this, I can move closer to a radical acceptance of myself.

This begins in the body, mind, and heart and flows outward.

Like I said, it is a long process. But, I have needed to start it, and I am grateful I have. Plus, it’s pretty wonderful to have good books to help, support, and clarify the process along the way.

Kolk proposes the question that guides his work and his book, “how can people gain control over the residues of past trauma and return to being masters of their own ship?

I am still learning and figuring that out. I think in a large sense, we all are.

[1]Van Der Kolk, Bessel. (2014). The Body Keeps the Score. New York, NY: Penguin Books.