Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Self Arrest: Slowing Down to Train for Selection

I'm a minion on Mt. Rainier!
Larry about to show me how it is done.
Arresting myself.
Self-arrest happens on flat land too.
And then after you stop yourself from tumbling, life catches up to you.

As Larry plunged backwards head first down a steep icy slope, I watched nervously hoping he could stop. Flipping over quickly and orienting himself properly uphill, he plunged his ice axe into the snow. 

He laughed and said, "I'll try that again, cleaner this time." 

I giggled nervously and said, "You want me to do that? On purpose?" 

He smiled and told me, "Yes, you need to be able to do this under any circumstance in order to not die on the mountain, and to save your partner if he falls into a crevasse."

Um, shit just got real.

In mountaineering, "self-arrest" is the ability to stop yourself from sliding down a slope, or to stop yourself from getting pulled into a crevasse if someone on your rope team falls into it. To be able to save yourself directly affects your ability to save your partner and/or members of your team.

As we practiced fall after fall on the packed snow that morning, my thoughts turned philosophical to life on flat land. 

Three years ago, I was not good at self arrest.

When I started training for Selection I was full on in beast mode. I rucked more than 15 miles every time I put my pack on with no less than 55#, did 5-7 gym workouts a week, and generally over trained.

Going into my first GORUCK Selection I had acquired plantar fasciitis, a strained rotator cuff, and was at a precarious point in my relationship with my now ex. Selection was the only thing I thought about. I read articles and watched videos about it every free moment I had. Constantly, I brought it up in conversations. I dreamt, lived, and breathed the event. I had a vague sense that I was not healthy, and that my relationship was suffering, but I didn't care. Selection was really the only thing that mattered.

I was tumbling headfirst down a slippery slope without even trying to stop myself.

Then I failed Selection.

I was crushed.

Going back to training after failing Selection the first time was easy. This time I would train harder! I immediately signed up for the next one. I put in more miles, did longer workouts, and generally ramped up the volume, more than I had the previous training year. At one point I fasted for a week then did the PT test after not having eaten for five days. I annihilated that test, in starvation mode no less. 

Looking back I cringe.

I went from quickly sliding down a steep slope to careening; I wasn't even aware that I was tumbling out of control.

Before that second attempt at Selection, life wasn't rad. That training year I had re-injured my shoulder, broken a toe, strained a groin, aggravated my plantar fasciitis, tweaked my back, pulled a tendon in my hand, and the relationship I was in had come to an end. The month before Selection I had lost ten pounds and dropped below 10% body fat. I was a wreck, but told myself I was ready for the event.

Then I failed it. Again.

But this time I wasn't crushed; I was relieved. 

At some point, my fall lost momentum and I came to the realization that if I didn't help myself, I would never be happy, let alone finish Selection.

After Selection attempt #2, I decided things had to change if I wanted to go for a third try and complete the event. So, I didn't sign up for Selection right away. I decided to not even think about it for a while. Instead of getting right back to high volume and private coaching, I joined CrossFit group classes (for the first time in 5 years) at my gym. I had fun being part of a community and not having a training goal.

In September I did an endurance race with friends and completely enjoyed it.

October came and I spent most of it outside, camping, hiking (with no weight!) and rock climbing with my love Larry.

November arrived. Larry and I traveled, ate whatever food we wanted, climbed, went to movies, and laughed.

My body was healing; I didn't wake up sore every morning. Nothing was injured.

December came and I felt healthy. I threw my ruck on (this time with some weight) and dashed into the hills. After I had walked a few miles, I decided it was time to commit to Selection again. This time I felt in my heart that I was ready; that I would train in a different way and remain grounded and healthy.

Things went smoothly for a few months, then in March I severely sprained my ankle on a training run. 

10 weeks later, I went on my first run since the sprain. It was May.

Though the sprain was a major setback, it gave me time to work on a piece that I had been missing throughout years of high volume and insane workouts. I started to look inside and work on my mental game.

These days I am focusing on nutrition, breathing, and thought processes. I'm learning how to brace properly with my core, to eat food when I'm hungry, and to tell myself what I know will become reality. Don't get me wrong, hard physical work has not fallen by the wayside, but life balance has become more important.

In slowing myself down, not over training, and listening to my body, I feel the strongest I have ever been. The strength is not physical, however; it is in my head. There is a belief in myself that only I could build by taking some focus off of the physical (thanks to a sprained ankle), and placing it on balancing life and training. 

Yesterday I woke up and thought, "I'm ready for Selection." 

The funny thing is that I've said that hundreds of times before and didn't believe it. But this time...this time it resonated in my head, body, and heart. 

This time, it is true.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Song of Arya

I wake to the chirping of midnight crickets. Your head is pressed against my shoulder; we breathe together, in and out, in and out. We share a bed and I sometimes move to the floor to give you more space because I love you, more than a good night's sleep...I smell your fur, pines commingled with salt water and cow poop; your whiskers brush my cheek and I cry, it is our final weekend together. I know you aren't dying, but I will never see you again, so my heart dies a little each time I think of you, my lazy, loving, majestic Arya.

Before I knew you, I didn't want a dog.

I thought, your hair will get on my clothes,
You will ruin my social life, my training, my sleep.
I'll be allergic to you;
You may not like me.

The day I went to see you, I didn't want a puppy.

Puppies had to be trained,
fed more,
trained again,
and I didn't have time for all that.

Then you walked into my life, sat at my feet, stared into my eyes, and loved me.

You are a song to me Arya; the rhythm of your moods are etched in my mind.

I know when you want to play; you chomp the air and chuff like a tiger.
I know when you are tired; your neck gets shorter and shorter as your head rests heavier into your chest, then you struggle to keep your eyes open as you drift off.
I know when you are feeling scared; you curl into a tiny ball of 100# of fur and push your nose into your tail like there is an imaginary snowstorm on the way.
I know when you are hungry; you sit in the kitchen and stare at the refrigerator, or the magic food box, as I imagine you call it.
I know when you are nervous; you tuck your tail between your legs and refuse to let anyone pet you.
I know when you are happy; you smile huge and jump around all floppy like an oversized rabbit.

You are a song to me Arya, the beat of your life plays in my heart.

You hate bikes more than fish hate dry land.
You think you are a cat.
You want to eat all the birds.
You love dog friends more than you love humans.
You rarely look into cameras.
You sit for dried mangos,

Eating grass is your diversionary tactic;
Being off-leash is your way of living the FREEEEEEDOM scream that echoed at the end of Braveheart through everyone's souls...
Chasing big "chuck-it" balls, especially ones that aren't yours, is definitely your cup of tea.

As you fall asleep your nose drips onto the ground from atop your perch on the bed.
Your breathing slows.
You start to twitch.
You dream those doggie dreams...
Maybe you have caught the bird?
Maybe your are the bird?
or the cat...
YOU are flying, running, barking; ingesting all the ice cream in your perfect doggie dream world; you are the predator, the stalker and catcher of all the rabbits.

You are a song to me Arya; everything you think, all you do, all you love and hate, I know it and breathe it too.

Before I knew you I thought I didn't want you; today I cry knowing that our time together is over.

Now that I know you...

I like your hair on my clothes because it reminds me of your silly lean; that lean you do when you are tired and just need a little help standing up.

I love taking you to the gym; you always lick me during the hard sets and make me smile

You are the only one who camps and rucks with me consistently; and appreciates stopping for snacks and watching the bugs fly by.
You've made me a better athlete,
more patient
more loving
I'm not even allergic to you!

I thought you wouldn't love me, but I know you do because you sit on my feet when I'm going to the bathroom and lick my face in the morning and run right next to me in the woods and fart in my face when I'm sleeping and stick your head between my legs on walks and bark at me when I try to walk away and put your paw on my hand when we sleep and dig holes with me at the beach and lie on the ground with me when I am crying and lick my tears away and you are my copilot and you plank with me even though it is hard and you always want to sit with me even though you are as big as a horse...


You are my silly friend, my workout partner, my rucking buddy, my camping companion, my co-pilot, my doggie love, and no, I was not planning on eating that, you can have it A-dog.

You are a song to me Arya, always in my heart, forever.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Rekindling an Old Flame

Sunset over Wadi Rum, Jordan, 2007

The light from my headlamp threw the shadow of a lurking lizard onto the wall and made him 100 times larger than his actual size. His silhouette bobbed up and down and chirped loudly, trying to attract the lady lizard who was hiding in the dark. Though I couldn't see the female, I knew that he'd find her eventually and some lizard mischief would go down that night. I was all too familiar with this reptilian dance; I'd listen and watch every night as I went to sleep.

It was 2003 and I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Yap, Micronesia.

Before wireless Internet, there was lizard sex and the reading of books.

I was sick of partaking in the observation of the former, so I wrote a letter to my father requesting the latter.

When my dad asked me what I'd like to read, I suggested that he send me Queen Noor of Jordan's book, Leap of Faith: Memoirs of an Unexpected Life. I had been reading a lot about Middle Eastern politics while I was in Peace Corps; I wanted to move to the region after my service and learn more about the Palestinian and Israeli conflict. I did not yet know much about Jordan, but understood the country played an important diplomatic role in the region, so I chose to read a book that would further educate me about the complexity of the place.

As it was, I first fell in love with the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan as I huddled under my mosquito net trying to ignore a plethora of lizards reproducing in my midst. Stories of Queen Noor and King Hussein speeding through the deserts of Wadi Rum on the back of a Harley pleasantly distracted me from all of the chirping.

Not only did I admire the royal couple's relationship, but I also respected their politics. King Hussein was a great diplomat, bringing together countries in conflict, and building trust in the region. At the same time, Queen Noor was working on women's rights, education, and environmental policy within Jordan.

Politics aside, I became obsessed with Queen Noor's love story, American-girl-turned-Arab-Queen, and thought there was a slight chance that I could emulate her. Maybe if I played my cards right I could become a Queen too? Hey, I was lonely on a lizard and mosquito infested Pacific Island and I had no boyfriend.

For many years after I left that island of lizards behind, I still dreamt of Jordan.

It wasn't until graduate school that I finally had the opportunity to travel there. At that point I was volunteering with Global Majority a non-profit that promotes peace through non-violent conflict resolution. The organization was planning an international course focusing on conflict in that region; it would be held at United Nations University in Amman, Jordan.

Come summer, I found myself sipping mint tea and eating hummus with friends at "Matam Hashem," King Abdullah's favorite restaurant in downtown Amman. We were all attending Global Majority's seminar together, Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians, one Iranian, one Kurd, Americans, Europeans, and Asians. During the day we simulated peace negotiations for the region (even in our simulations there were pre-conditions!); at night we danced, ate, and became friends.

From Amman, I traveled to Israel, then the West Bank, Palestine. Though the summer of 2007 was a volatile one for the region, Fatah and Hamas were locked in a civil war in Gaza, my heart opened to this land; I felt at home there in the beautifully terrifying twisting volatility.

I'd return again in 2008 as a trainer for the same seminar. In 2010 I'd take a break from a teaching fellowship in Afghanistan to visit friends and spend Christmas in Jerusalem.

It is difficult to explain, but each time I set foot in this region, I feel like I am cliff-jumping. If you know me, you understand that is a good thing. My heart rate increases, my senses heighten, and my mind opens to all that I will learn. My soul sings desert songs and I am never the same.

Every. Single. Time. I fall in love with the place over and over again.

And so, as fate has it, I will get another chance to rekindle my love for Jordan.

This time, I will be returning not as a selfish dreamer thinking I may become a queen, or as a wide-eyed student unaware of the complexity of the place, but as a teacher, attempting to contribute some small thing to a country I have loved most of my adult life.

On the same Department of State Fellowship that brought me to Afghanistan, I will head to Jordan in September 2016. I will be living in Amman and working with the Hashemite Fund for Development of the Jordan Badia for a year, traveling around the country training teachers. I'll also work on coordinating a three-state English Language Teacher's conference for educators in Jordan, Israel, and Palestine.

In addition to working with teachers from the region, I hope to work with the Syrian refugee population. With hundreds of thousands of refugees who have moved to the country, I hope that there is some small way I can help them, and the Jordanians, deal with the crisis.

And I will not be alone. Larry will be with me, learning, taking photos, working on his own projects, and trying to figure out how to be useful in this gorgeously complex place.

The final detail I needed to iron out before accepting the position was this; As I finished my interview with the American Embassy in Jordan, I asked:

"Is it okay if I take a leave of absence from the project for 10 days in October?"

The project manager asked me why.

I told her, "There is an athletic event I have been training for, for three years and...my entire life...to complete, so it is important that I not miss it."

Guess what the manager said?

"Do it."

And so I will.

For the next six months, as I set my sights on Jordan, I will continue to train my little heart out for that one event I will do in Bellbrook, Ohio in October. I'll study Arabic tirelessly, contact all of my friends in the region, and do my best to understand the situation in the Badia, the country, and the camps. I'll head to Jordan with a full heart, strong body, and with determination to do what needs to be done, and to learn all that I can along the way.

Guess where we are moving?!

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Being Bigger than Tiny

Running around at a healthy weight.
 Not tiny; fortunate for these muscles.
He loves me for everything that I am, and all that I dream of being.

Thinking about how I needed to be bigger, I stood in line at Trader Joe's with a basket full of meat and vegetables that I had no appetite for; I looked at the row of chocolate bars and added a few to the basket. At the same time, a lady in line tapped me on the shoulder and said, "I wish I had your metabolism, you are so tiny, you look great!"

As soon as I heard the word "tiny" I felt a fit of sadness welling up inside of me; I was about to start crying. I wanted to tell that lady to be quiet and keep her nasty thoughts to herself, but I knew she was just trying to be nice. I put my basket down and walked quickly out of the grocery store, holding back tears.

It was two weeks before GORUCK Selection 017, one of the toughest endurance races around, and I was the smallest I had ever been in my adult life.

This was not a good thing.

Not only was I physically small, but I was a shadow of my own self emotionally. I had just gone through a major break up, moved, was losing my business, and was trying to be ready to punish my body for 48 hours straight. I was afraid that weight loss associated with the stress I was going through would adversely affect me at the event. I had two weeks until the start, so I was attempting to eat anything I could get my hands on. I needed to gain weight fast!

After sitting in my car for a few minutes, I became angry at that lady who complimented me. I was angry because she thought that "tiny" was great and told me so. I was pissed that I, at my most reduced, small, weak, self was considered beautiful. I desperately wanted to be bigger in every way and was trying really hard to put on some physical and emotional mass.

After the tears stopped,  I went back into the store to pay for my food. After all, I still needed to eat.

Over the course of two weeks, I gained a few pounds. It didn't matter though, in the end my tiny ass froze in a pond in Bozeman, MT. Rightly so. When I came to and realized what had happened, I decided it was all good, I'd leave all my tiny parts, ass included, behind in that pond.

Six months later, I am not tiny anymore.


I am strong, and healthy, and am a larger version of my once reduced self. I also understand that tiny is not good, and that when a woman is commended for being cute and small, we take something away from the strength that she has.

So how did I get bigger?

Well, it sounds a bit silly, but being surrounded by love, encouragement, and positive people has helped me gain not only some much needed weight, but perspective too. I purged negative people and places from my life and relied on the love and support of my friends to lift me up.

My love Larry put it into perspective for me a couple of weekends ago when I told him about my day...

I was trying to coax my shy, horse-sized dog onto a grain scale at the pet store so I could see how much she weighed. Because she is afraid of shiny things, flat things, strangers, and well, all things, I stood on the scale for a second to encourage her to follow me.

Whilst I was standing there, my weight registered on the meter. A store employee looked at me and said, "Wow lady, you weigh more than you look! Must have some muscles in there!"

A bit embarrassed, I hopped off the scale quickly and got Arya to take my place.

When I told Larry the story, I explained that I sarcastically thanked the guy for being surprised at the number on the scale. Larry laughed and said, "I think that guy was trying to compliment you for being strong."

He was right. I instantly felt proud that I was no longer seen by strangers as a reduced, small thing. It finally felt good to be bigger than tiny.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Failure...F*** that!

 Training ruck...
Zoom in; this is what it looks like to stare failure (or my I-phone) right in its dirty face!

Let's talk about the "F" word. No, not the one you are thinking about. Well, okay first we will talk about the one on your mind...

When I was a kid, I had a pretty bad potty mouth. It was so bad, that one day at school, my friend Tiffany pulled me aside during recess to talk to me (it must have been fourth grade). Tiffany was a good Catholic girl and was concerned about my language. She told me that sometimes when she sinned, she would visit church and go to confessional.

"Everyone sins Jaala, there is no reason to be ashamed of it." She stated.

I listened intently.

Tiffany told me, "As long as you confess your sins to God you will be forgiven."

Considering the information, I asked "So swearing is a sin?"

She looked at me and smiled sweetly, "Yes it is."

I asked, "But what if I do it, just when I really mean it and need some strong words?"

"It is still bad Jaala." She explained.

"Okay." I said softly.

Thinking she had convinced me, she asked, "So will you go to confessional?"

I paused for a moment, then replied, "F*** that!"

Yes, it may have been completely inappropriate that I had such a sailor mouth at ten years old, but I was a precocious girl with an analytical mind. I didn't want to be like everyone else, and I sure as hell (see what I did there) did not want to stop swearing.

Luckily, everyone around me let me be the tenacious person that I was. My attitude, as expressed by my words, was that I would never let someone else tell me what I could and could not do if I was passionate enough about it. Apparently at age ten, I was passionate about using explicit language.

Over the years, though I've tempered my mouth (well, not really but in public at least) I have not lost my determined spirit. I refuse to do what others think I should do; I live life hard and choose the tougher route 9.9 times out of ten. Life is much more exciting this way. 

So what am I getting at?

This: (Thanks Adele)



Its me.

I was wondering if after all these years

You'd like to meet.

To go over...


They say time supposed to heal...


After not finishing GORUCK Selection two years in a row, many people may think that it is time to move on to something different, but me, I am not done yet.

To paraphrase my friend Grant, he says:

"If you are not failing, you are not setting tough enough goals."

I believe him.

But, I also believe that if you fail at a tough goal and you learn from that failure, you do not have to reset this goal or adjust it lower. On the contrary, you must move through the failure and use it as a tool to succeed at that once unattainable goal. Because if you actually learn from failure, you grow. Then scary things become less scary, tough things become easier, and before you know it you've hit your mark.

So, though I have erred, my methods have changed and I am smarter now. I have not adjusted downward, things will not get easier, but I will not lose sight of what I want to achieve; I keep driving forward toward that goal of finishing GORUCK Selection.

I'm staring failure right in the face and, in the words of my youth saying:

Failure...Fuck that.


Thursday, December 17, 2015

In Afghanistan, Predictions Come True

Me checking on students in writing class; Kabul Education University 2011

Award ceremony Kabul Education University (me in the green chadar!); 2012

Three and a half years ago, before doing my last teacher training in Afghanistan, I wrote about my expectations in the coming years. Many of the teachers I worked with have since completed their master's degrees, the country has become more volatile, most troops have left. These predictions came true. On the other hand, I never started my doctorate, but took on other endeavors. Life goes on and takes twists and turns; it is nice to look back and see what was, and what can be.

June 24, 2012

It starts as a low drone. Echoing baritones in the distance, haunting the morning. After one mullah starts the call to prayer, all others follow. One mosque, far away begins the wave of all other mosques in town singing Allah’s name until the mosque across the street from my apartment joins into the chorus. The loud speaker faces my window; I cannot ignore the song. Though I am not Muslim, the call to prayer is in my heart. Every time I hear it, I sing along and know that at that moment, I am probably singing with thousands of others, about to get down on their knees and offer their prayers to God. Here, the holy is in the air; I breathe it in everyday and wonder what affect it has on me.

This is my third time in Kabul and I am still amazed at the place. Each day I encounter the kindest people, the friendliest and most devout hearts. Though poverty abounds, people offer anything they can to make me feel at home and comfortable. My friends are happy and my students are ever curious. At the present, life is good in the city.

But when you dig a little deeper, you can see that it will not be this way always. Most of my friends and colleagues agree that as soon as ISAF forces draw down, the country will become much more violent. Though I know that the troops will not completely withdraw, I feel worried for my friends; I feel like their future is so uncertain. I know that the U.S. has to leave some time, but I wish that stability could be created by the people and by the ANA before the US and other nations leave.

I also think that this will be my last time in Afghanistan for a while. Though I love coming back here and teaching my friends, with the addition of the MA program it seems as though I am no longer needed here. This is great for the Afghans. It means that the educational infrastructure is developing and that things are getting better. I no longer need to come back to do teacher trainings because now the faculty is being trained in a new degree program. 

I also will not come back because I think it is time for me to move along with my life. I want to stay at my home in my country and make my own life in America better. I don’t want to have to come to Afghanistan to make money, I want to make money for myself in my own country. I want to go back to school and get a doctorate. I don’t know when the best time will be, but I am sure that will be revealed. 

I am hoping that this time in Afghanistan goes well, and that the teachers are satisfied that I have dedicated a small part of my life to being here. I hope that they are appreciative of what I could offer. Though it wasn’t much, it was part of my heart, some of my skills, and a little love.

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Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Fire, Then Life

At the same time over 12,000 acres of land was on fire in the Sequoia National Forest last summer, my life was burning too. 

As flames threatened the Giant Sequoia National Monument, headlines proclaimed that many of these trees that had lived thousands of years were in danger. If we didn't take action, these pieces of natural history would be lost. 

"We must stop the onslaught of this natural disaster!" Shouted reporters.

Eventually the fire subsided and something amazing happened. The trees that were actually injured by the heat and flames of the fire were able to produce "stump sprouts," new life from the very place that the fire touched. Instead of being destroyed by the disaster, the Sequoias were able to produce life and grow.

I took this to heart and told myself to look at my crumbling life as an opportunity to create something better.

After being in a long-term relationship with a good person who was wrong for me, we ended it and decided to move on.  As we broke up, we changed the structure of our small business into a silent partnership (I becoming the silent partner, he becoming 100% manager). We also decided to split time taking care of our lovely dog 50/50. Things seemed to be amicable. I breathed a sigh of relief…

…Until the fire started.

The fire came in the form of love; not only did love ruin a pleasant ending to my previous relationship, it created something new in my life that has enhanced and rejuvenated me beyond anything I could have imagined. 

The thing is, I fell in love with someone on the heels of a broken relationship.

"How can love happen that fast? You must have cheated on me." Reasoned my ex.

True, it seemed to have happened quickly in his eyes, so when he read my e-mails and saw that I was in love with another man, he reacted. His reaction was the spark that started a fast-burn.

As it was unfolding, I shouted alarming, sometimes opposing things in my mind; I was on offense, then submitting, questioning my worth, then on defense:

"Attack and fight!"

"You must stop this from gaining ground!"

"Give in and concede!"

"How could you let this happen?"

"Defend yourself from this disaster!"

In the end, all I could really do was wait and let the fire burn itself out.

What happens after everything that your life was, is gone in the end?

What happens when the man you once loved, the gym you once spent hours a day training and coaching at, is no longer part of your daily routine?

What happens when you disappear from countless people's lives without an explanation?


I have mourned, gotten mad, felt extremely sad, asked countless questions, felt sorry for myself, felt sorry for my ex, cried, felt relieved…and done it all again, and again, and I still do it all; sometimes in the same night. 

But all of those feelings have burnt themselves out to some degree too. 

Giant Sequoias reproduce best by becoming "injured," by losing a limb or getting burnt by a fire. They create something new from what many see as a natural disaster.

Now in my life there is space where disaster once was. I, like the Sequoias, take these losses and use them to create something new. The love that has sprouted from a disaster has made me grateful for all that can come from an ending…a beginning.

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Monday, September 28, 2015

Marked by Life

Can you see all that I've done, all that I am? Just look at the marks life has left...

Before she noticed the sun's signature on me...

Last spring, after an amazing day playing on Coronado Island with my brother's family, we crammed ourselves into a rented Prius to head back to the hotel for dinner. Happy to be with my family, I sat in the backseat between the kids and felt the warmth of their sun-tanned bodies against me. Emory, my niece, picked her nose and wiped it on my leg. Nolan yelled with excitement and told Em that friends don't wipe their snot on other friends. I giggled and left the boogers there.

We drove slowly, through mid-day traffic, across the bridge towards downtown. Em and I laughed at the wind blowing our hair all crazy this way and that. I tried to fix my hair as Em watched me. Then she said something that surprised me. She said, "Aunt Jaala, why do you have a mustache?"

I thought, "Oh shit. Why do I?"

But instead of saying that, I asked her what she meant.

Emory said, "...your skin, it is darker by your lip, it looks like a mustache...and a beard!"

A little taken aback, I considered my answer carefully.

I thought about how I could explain to young Emory that although I'm a little self-conscious about my skin, it shouldn't matter that much.

I said, "Em, this is not a mustache, it is called sun spots. When people get older, sun tans go crazy and sometimes go darker in some places than in other places. Because I am always outside playing in the sun and enjoying nature, the sun leaves its mark on my face. This mustache is part of me, it shows where I have been."

Emory thought about the answer.

Then she said, "I like your mustache, Aunt Jaala."

And my happy heart melted a little.

Though this is a sort of superficial interaction about flaws and what we make of them, lately it got me thinking about flaws and weaknesses on a deeper level.

There are moments in each of our lives when we realize our flaws and weaknesses, and decide to do one of two thing: We either deny them or accept them. In denying the flaw or weakness, time waits for another opportunity to present this thing we have denied, and the Universe waits for the time we can accept the lesson it offers. In accepting the flaw or weakness, we learn a lesson; hopefully it enriches our character and we become better at life. We evolve, we reflect, we move forward.

This year has been tough and enlightening; I've experienced things that I never envisioned I would, but I try to take each experience in stride.

Though it wasn't so serious at all, Emory's comment about my skin was the tip of the iceberg, a moment for me to see that outer beauty in life, something me and so many women are obsessed with, is fleeting. We grasp tightly this form of beauty and sometimes forget that the beauty is in the flaws, the ones that we never intended to acquire.

What do the spots on my face mean?

Well, to me my skin reflects my life.

It shows that I live life hard and fast and appreciatively. I throw myself at life (with not enough sunscreen apparently) and I expect it to throw itself back at me.

I fuck up.

I get selfish and greedy.

But I always try to learn from my own flaws, from my mistakes, from my self-indulgence.

This year has stripped me bare and maybe added some spots to my aging face. But I accept each one of those spots as a mark of experience; of living. I know that these outer indications of a life lived are attached to my inner self. A growing, thriving, ever-changing light lives within me. Maybe it is just trying to get out via my face? I don't know, but I'm willing to accept whatever the reason is that I change and become more weathered each day. It is an honor to be marked by life.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Coming out of the Night, choosing to Fight

Reflection of the smoked out sun; Murphys, CA

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever Gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

We all brought our own demons into the night. Some of us feared getting lost in the moonless, starless expanse of the forest, some of us were already lost in the dark when we arrived.

The Endeavor Team Challenge was more than halfway over when we set out on the "night land navigation" course into the actual night. Smoke from the Butte Fire blotted all light from the sky and filled our lungs with pieces of everything that had burnt before that moment. As we headed out onto the course, compass and maps in hand, I thought, "Maybe I'm breathing pieces of exploded stars?!"

I probably should have been thinking about pace counts instead, but off we went.

Moving through space with zero illumination and a dim headlamp is challenging enough. Add a treacherous jeep track filled with loose boulders, air thick with smoke and dust, and the skill of navigating and you have quite a task on your hands. Thank God for smart friends! My partner Paige is a navigatress (queen of navigation); finding points, for her, seemed second nature so we were able to find the mandatory points assigned to us, plus a couple more.

While Paige was focused on navigating, my mind was wandering in and out of lucidity, battling with itself to think about the terrain and my pace count, to trying to ward off dreamy dreamland thoughts. Since I wasn't superbly amazing at warding off fantasy land, the dreamy dreamland thoughts often filled my head. Every so often, our head lamps would illuminate large black spiders (about the size of our palms) resting on the trail. At that point, the deep black skin of the spider would remind me of the darkness of the night, which would in turn remind me to recite the first stanza of "Invictus," a poem by William Ernest Henley, that we were tasked to memorize and repeat upon command (we had not yet been required to recite the poem).

Whenever I saw those spiders, I'd say: "Out of the night that covers me..." and mess up the rest of the stanza with my own lines: "Black as..." that giant spider on the ground...holy crap, that thing is huge...I hope it doesn't jump...or crawl into my mouth while I'm sleeping...I should not step on that spider!

Practicing land navigation sans nighttime...and spiders...and fire smoke

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloodied, but unbowed.

After hours and hours and hours of walking among dust, smoke, spiders, mutes (aka Tim and Grant), and through silent moments that went on for longer than the time that accompanied them, we finished the night navigation task. It was three in the morning, and both Paige and I were sleepy enough not to be completely in control of our capacities. Of course, this was the moment we were asked to recite "Invictus" from memory. We were told that until we could recite the poem perfectly, we would not be able to rest.

Though I didn't know the second stanza completely, we had been practicing the poem all day so I knew enough to help Paige through this part.

Earlier in the day, Paige mentioned that the poem was taking on meaning as we went over it more. I agreed with her; though I already had it written on the wall in my kitchen (REALLY!) it was taking on meaning out there in the woods as we repeated it over the course of the day.

Listening to Paige recite those words, in the middle of the darkest night I had ever seen, I thought that this poem is a metaphor for this event, and our lives, of course.

Though we were beaten down at that hour, we were still moving forward...we recited the poem and accomplished the task.

Though I've been beaten down at times, more recently than ever before, I've fought and continue to move forward.

Rhythmically and deliberately, Paige said the third stanza:

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

Though I was listening to her, I was inside of myself, telling myself that there would be so much more after this night; so much more to experience, do, and see in life and that I should not forget this pain, but appreciate it and move through it; I should not forget this moment, in this place, because this is right where I was, and am, supposed to be.

The event was not yet over; but it was time to sleep...

We woke to a smokey, quiet morning.

Our final task was upon us.

Paige and I grabbed our bricks (we were each given one to carry throughout the event) and water bottles and got ready for our final movement.

It matters not how straight the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,

Ambling through the forest, scrambling up rocks, swimming across Lake Alpine, Paige and I caught up to our friends, Chris and Leilani. As we all walked through the forest, Chris and I talked about what it means to accomplish something in this type of racing. He mentioned that as long as you are giving it your all, as long as you finish and at that point know that you had nothing more to give, that you tried your best and enjoyed the experience, then you have won and should be happy.

This, I know is true:

At Endeavor Team Challenge, and in life, those of us that gave our all, and give it everyday, are right.

I am the master of my fate,

Whatever situation I find myself in, I have a choice to make. Whichever decision I take, whether to fight, and work, and help, and give 100%, or to ignore what needs to be done and be weak, is up to me. I can choose to be lost; I can choose to crawl into the darkness and let it consume me. But I won't. I choose to fight.

I am the captain of my soul.

Leilani, Chris, Jaala, Kent, Tim, Grant, Paige; people who choose to give 100%.

Monday, August 31, 2015

A Universal Conspiracy: Afghanistan, Selection, and a little Fate?

No I did not have a camera in the bathroom during Selection. I returned a few days later to take this picture.

On September 12, 2001, I sat in a field at University of New Mexico and thought about my life. I wondered if I was headed in the right direction and if what I would do later down the road would have an impact on the world, and help prevent 9/11 from occurring again. I felt an extreme sadness and confusion about what had just happened, but what was clear to me on that day was that somehow I had to learn more about Afghanistan. Someday I would go there.

Ten years later, after a lot of living, I went to Afghanistan to teach. The twisty turning road of my life took me to many different countries as a teacher; I went through highs and lows with sports; was married and divorced; and eventually had forgotten about my earlier need to see and live in Afghanistan. When I was offered a fellowship there, however, all of those feelings resurfaced.

I wondered, "Will I die there?"

It turns out that most of my family and friends thought of that too.

A few days before I left for Kabul, my friend Nick asked: "Jaala, are you ready to die teaching in Afghanistan?"

I took a few seconds to consider this question and said, "Yes. I am." 

He asked me to explain.

I told him that ten years ago I knew that I would go to Afghanistan someday to learn about the place and to teach. I knew that I would be such a small piece in the larger picture of what was happening in the world with regards to the war and the fighting and the danger of the place. But I was willing to go there because it was right to me. Not only would teaching affect maybe one person and make a small change, but my heart had called me there years ago, so I would listen.

In the book The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho says, "When we least expect it, life sets us a challenge to test our courage and willingness to change; at such a moment, there is no point in pretending that nothing has happened or in saying that we are not ready. The challenge will not wait. Life does not look back. A week is more than enough time for us to decide whether or not to accept our destiny."

Ironically, it took me about a week to accept the job.


I went, I lived, I thrived, I saw, I taught, I learned...and I returned many more times.

My life changed in a multitude of ways before, during, and after my time in country. I'm still not sure If I have uncovered all of the lessons therein. I'm still learning day by day what being in that place means to me, and what it means for my future. Even though I am not there anymore, pieces of me remain.

My friends have grown, changed, gotten more education, expanded their families, and I've gotten to see it all happen. My Afghan "sister" becomes more beautiful everyday; I want to hug her and tell her I love her, because part of her spirit lives in me.

And now friends that were lost have been found again, and live in me here in the states in the strangest of ways. Just when I need them the most, little signs appear showing me that their love follows me on my journey through life. 

Though this was not going to be a story about Selection; the event is woven into the fabric of my life, so what isn't a story about Selection these days?

During Selection in Bozeman, in between the 5 mile run and 12 mile ruck march, I had a chance to use the public bathroom. I ran into the stall, focused and tried to move quickly. When I was doing my thing, I looked up at the door to the bathroom stall and saw lyrics to an old Beatles song, "Blackbird" written there.

At that moment I knew that I would be okay, no matter what happened during the event. To me that song reminded me of a special person in Afghanistan; I had already been singing the lyrics that weekend, and to see it scrolled there on the bathroom wall in the middle of Montana in a public restroom, I knew that I was moving in the right direction.

I'm not sure if I fully understand life yet, but I do know this is for sure: When something is right, when something is meant to be, just like Coelho said later in The Alchemist:

 "... todo o Universo conspira para que você realize seu desejo.
...all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it."

I desperately want to live a life full of challenges, love, and growth. I want to constantly be moving forward, yet serenely taking in all that this time and space has to offer me. I want to meet the challenges as they come, inspire others to do the same, and have a positive affect on the world.

These days it seems to be that the Universe agrees with my wishes.