Why I’m a Vegetarian

I’ve been a vegetarian for most of my life and I’m often asked why. There’s a cute little story about how it all began, and I’ll follow it up with why I still am, after more than 20 years.

I grew up on a small farm in Maine. We had horses, rabbits, chickens, and a garden. I grew up eating meat but I never liked it very much, except for my grandmother’s delicious turkey soup. I didn’t like steaks or burgers at all. Once we got a flock of chickens I spent my afternoons playing in the yard with them. One chick in particular was my favorite – a beautiful Bantam hen I named Peeps because she was always making little peeping sounds. I’d come home from school, pick her up, climb the willow tree, and lounge in the branches, reading a book, with Peeps in the crook of my elbow. I would often give the chickens scraps of whatever I was eating. One day I made the connection between the fact chicken nuggets are made out of chickens – the very kind of chickens I was playing with each day. Chicken nuggets look nothing like living chickens – very few meat products resemble their roots – so although I’m somewhat embarrassed it took me so long to make the connection, I’m not surprised.

It took me about two months to completely give up meat and ensure my family respected my decision. I received cookbooks from my grandparents but my mother would continue to feed me chicken-and-rice baked dishes, telling me to “eat around the chicken,” although the entire thing was simmering in chicken broth. I remember during that time we visited a bison farm, and for the first time in my life, I enjoyed a burger. Bison was the most delicious red meat I had ever tasted, but a few minutes later when a bison approached the fence and let me pet his nose, I knew no matter how delicious it was, I wasn’t going to eat it again.

This was the mid-90s when vegetarianism among teenagers was quite popular, and I would be lying if I didn’t say the choice was also partly social. I had friends I respected and admired who were already staunch vegetarians and as we talked about their choices it made sense to me. So, the last meat I ate was bacon at my grandmother’s house – because it smelled so good the morning she cooked it during a visit that summer – and I gave it up after that.

These days my body can’t process meat. If I eat a soup made with chicken broth, or have a bite of a party dip with chopped chicken, or even eat veggies cooked on the same griddle as meat, I find myself in the throes of gastric distress within a few hours. People often don’t believe that when I first explain, but science proves that when one foregoes meat for long enough, the body stops creating the enzymes necessary with which to digest meat. It’s been more than 20 years – those enzymes are long gone. Should I ever choose to eat meat again I’d need to introduce it slowly and carefully.

I don’t think that’s going to happen. I fought with myself a couple years ago when I began traveling, especially to countries in which meat is extremely popular (especially South America). I wanted to be able to enjoy eating whatever the locals are eating without worrying about tummy troubles due to confusion over ingredients or shared cooking surfaces. I read recipes for meat dishes and considered ordering a chicken dish when I was in a restaurant.

And then I went to the grocery store and saw the meat products sitting in the coolers and I knew I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t take raw flesh and turn it into something edible. Today, I’m not only a vegetarian because I care about animals, but also because I care about my health, and – probably most importantly – because I don’t believe it is my place to take the life of another living being. Of course, the response to that is often, “plants are alive! Plants have feelings too!” Well, yes, that’s true. But I personally have no moral issue pulling a carrot from the ground and eating it.

I could not take the life of an animal – cow, chicken, turkey, goat, sheep, deer, mouse, caribou – with my own hands. I have absolutely no problem with people who choose to do so, and I actually believe strongly in the ability to hunt. I think hunting is a fantastic way to enjoy healthy, fresh meat with which to feed your family, and I much prefer hunting to the industrialized “agriculture” system on which this country currently runs. But I couldn’t do it myself – I don’t even kill spiders or bugs in the house. I put them in my hands and set them free outside. Who am I to decide who lives and dies?

I’m a vegetarian because I believe in treating life with respect – all life. I do my absolute best to never waste food: we freeze our vegetable scraps to create stock and have begun composting on a small scale in our condo. Unless food is clearly and truly spoiled I can find a way to use it or preserve it (soups are awesome for cleaning out the veggie drawer and even giving stale bread a new life). I’m respecting my body by feeding it what feels good. I’m respecting animals by not eating them. I’m respecting the planet as a whole by not supporting industrialized “farming” and not throwing food away.

My life as a vegetarian hasn’t always been healthy and wasn’t nearly always so easy, even for me, to understand. That’ll come in another post. It’s important to make an educated choice to become vegetarian. It’s not difficult but it does involve some effort in terms of nutrition – and that’s why I often offer recipes here too.

Be Kind to Children

I will be the first to admit I’m not a typical baby/child fanatic. Case in point: a close colleague of mine just had a baby and everyone in the office is gushing over how cute the baby is. I’m mostly just happy my friend is happy, and a little bummed she’s not in the office to trade cute pet photos with now. Travis and I are not having children. I can’t have children, even if I wanted them (which I don’t).

However, that doesn’t mean I actively dislike these tiny humans.

To the contrary, I’ve recently found my aversion may actually be due to how much I truly care about children.

I LOVE teaching. It’s fascinating and energizing to engage young minds at a time during which they’re growing in so many directions. It’s amazing to see my work turn into a tangible skill in the hands of a child. Although I’m generally not a very patient person, I somehow find steel reserves of patience when teaching a child about the wonders of music.

But there’s a bit more beyond my chosen occupation.

Last year, whilst reading The Happiness Project, I came to a page where Ms. Rubin mentioned a statistic that stuck with me: 80% of the messages children receive from adults are negative. No, stop, that’s wrong, bad, etc. Since reading that, I’ve been far more cognizant not only of my interactions with my students but children in general. I want my students to feel comfortable, happy, and safe learning with me, and I want them to be excited about what they’re learning.

Why children in general?

Well, a quick disclaimer: I’ve found I recently tend to have issues with parents, not children (see our previous post about the long flights to and from Hawaii).

I dug a little deeper into myself after a routine trip to the Post Office really bummed me out: I was in line to send something for work. A little girl, maybe 2 or 3, was standing quietly to the side, clutching a stuffed animal, with her mother who was filling out shipping forms. The greeting card display was precisely eye-level with the little girl. “Mommy, look, a mom dog!” the little girl cried with glee upon seeing a silly card with a photo of a dog on the front. I generally try to mind my own business as I’m fairly uncomfortable with strangers, but I looked down and met her eyes. She looked much like my cousin’s daughters: brown curls, deep brown eyes, a big, toothy smile.

Her mother didn’t acknowledge, didn’t turn around, didn’t say anything, and my heart broke.

I know that feeling.

I was that little girl, and although it’s been years, that little hope of sharing something special with another person is still in there.

When the mother finished filling out the forms she finally turned to the little girl, now holding the card she so desperately wanted to show her mother.

“You put that back right now!” the mother ordered.

“I’m sorry, Mommy, I just wanted to show you the mom dog!” the little girl replied. My heart broke a little more. She was just trying to connect, to be sweet and funny, and instead it was shot down and instantly her fault for doing something “wrong.”

I have been that little girl. I once wanted to show my mother a Curious George book in the bookstore and she tugged on my arm so forcefully she dislocated my elbow, trying to get me to focus on whatever it was she had come to do. The next day, after the doctor put everything back in the right place, my mother purchased the book for me out of guilt.

Please don’t be the mother in the post office. Please don’t be my mother. If you’re going to have children, for the love of everything kind in this world, please be kind to them. I am aware parenting is a difficult job (which is why I am choosing not to take it on) and I know not everyone is perfect all the time. But please remember, when you’re little, all the little things matter to you. The way you speak to your child, the way you do or don’t show them respect, the way you do or don’t value their ideas and thoughts will all stay with them long after the incident has passed for you. Please try to treat your children (and other children with whom you may interact) with kindness. Kindness costs absolutely nothing and the rewards are great.

One of my friends had a mother similar to mine, and although she and her husband do not have a lot of extra money, they have a LOT of extra love. Their children will never have to doubt the love and kindness they find at home. My friend knows what it’s like to grow up without it, and she’s ensuring her children will never know that feeling.

Kindness is free, and takes just a little bit of forethought and a tiny bit of decision-making to work properly. Respond instead of reacting. Think before speaking. Actively listen, and try to see what the speaker is trying to show you.

And please, be kind to your children. They need it more than you know. When they’re  just little and the world is so big, they need to know your love and kindness are there to shelter them as they grow. Encourage their creativity and willingness to share. Show them they matter to you, and you value their thoughts. The entire world could use a bit more kindness, and those tiny ripples can create incredibly beautiful waves.

The W Stood for Woman

I recently submitted this piece into a contest but didn’t win, so you get to enjoy it instead. My brain is toast from lots of exciting new developments this week. I’m doing an abysmal job of two posts per week at the moment, but the ideas are here. I have a ton of recipes I need to post at the request of friends, and those will come (promise) but first, since it’s Valentine’s Day, here’s my favorite love story.

***

“Obie! Shhh! He’s nice!” I called out to my four-legged canine companion while he barked at an approaching fellow hiker.

“I am nice!” the young man grinned back to me. Looking up at him, I thought to myself, he is nice. He walked up to my hammock with a map in his hand. “Do you know where the nearest water is?”

“There’s a lake maybe half a mile up the yellow trail, but that’s the nearest water I know of. I have some whisky if you want!” I offered. I’d finished the majority of my four-day loop, leaving myself only about a mile to go back to my car tomorrow morning. I was celebrating my hard work by hanging in my hammock, barefoot, while my socks dried.

“No thanks. My map said there was a spring around here somewhere.” I hopped out of the hammock to grab my map and check it against his. Mine didn’t show a spring nearby, so I pulled out a PDF map I had on my phone. While we scoured the maps, the conversation flowed. His name was Travis, he was out just for one overnight, and he was hoping to tackle the AT in sections. We talked about where we lived – me in New York, him in Philadelphia – and where we’d traveled. I admitted Obie, the dog, wasn’t mine, and I was dog-sitting for a friend, but I couldn’t have chosen a better hiking buddy for my solo trip. After about fifteen minutes of conversation, no closer to finding the spring, Travis headed back to his site, and I climbed back into my hammock to watch the sunset.

I had come out to the woods this weekend alone to test myself. It had been over a year since my previous solo trip and the long northeastern winter had made me restless. I’d rather be outdoors than have a roof and four walls encircling me, and there’s something so strengthening about carrying your home and food on your back for miles as our ancestors did.

I lit a small campfire of collected downed wood in the fire ring as dusk set in. While I helped my little flame grow, Travis came back around the rocks.

“Did you find the water?” I asked him.

“Nah, but it’s all good.”

“I still have some whisky.”

“No thanks.” We talked a little more about what brought us both out this weekend as I stoked the fire. I felt like I could talk to him forever. I finally got up the nerve to ask him for his number.

“Let me get your number – I’ll send you that link to the PDF map I have to help you plan your next trip. I don’t have service here though, so I’ll text you tomorrow.” He gave me his number and I had him check to make sure I typed it in right, and I put my phone back in my pocket. A little while later, he went back to his site for the last time. Obie the dog and I hung out as dark descended, watching the fire burn, listening to the sounds of the forest and the caterpillars falling from the trees. I wondered if we would see Travis in the morning on our way out, but I was in no rush to wake up early. We had a short hike and a long drive, and I didn’t want to leave the woods.

Obie and I were among the last to leave the William O’Brien shelter area the next morning. Day hikers were beginning to come through the area while we packed up and hiked out to the car, past the lake I’d told Travis about.

At the car I changed into sandals and texted Travis to tell him we’d made it out and hoped he enjoyed his weekend. Then it was a two-hour drive back to Long Island, a huge burrito for dinner, airing out my gear, and a hot shower.

The next day I went back to work – back to the office, a computer, four walls, and a roof. I sent Travis another text in case the first hadn’t gone through – my service in Harriman was so spotty, I couldn’t be sure. That evening I finally got a response, but not the one I was hoping for: “My name is Kathy, I don’t know who you’re looking for, but please stop texting me.” By this point I’d told a few friends about Travis, and they all told me he must have given me the wrong number on purpose, or he was married and that was his wife, or something. I didn’t believe it. I’ve met lots of people during my travels, and there was something different about Travis and our conversations on the Appalachian Trail, but I didn’t know what to do.

Two days later, I was sitting in a bar alone when one of my friends met up with me and asked me why I was sad. I told her about Travis and the wrong number and how I was at a loss as to how to find this guy. I hadn’t given him my number and I didn’t know his last name. All I knew was the general area where he grew up, where he lived now, he enjoyed hiking, he was in his mid-30s, and he had traveled extensively through Europe.

My friend asked to see my phone and the number as I’d typed it in. She took one look at the number, said, “I don’t like that 6 in the middle. Change that 6 to a 5.”

Skeptically, I did as she suggested, and sent another text. “Is this Travis?” Immediately, the little dots popped up on the screen that showed someone was typing back. I looked at my friend. No way.

“Who’s this?” came the message.

“Sarah from the woods?” I’d meant to type an exclamation point, but I was so excited I hit the question mark instead. I knew it was him.

“Where’s the map you were going to send me?” he replied.

“It’s him! It’s him!” I said to my friend. I couldn’t believe it.

Our conversation had started in the woods at a shelter on the Appalachian Trail in Harriman State Park. We lost each other for a few days, and found each other again with the help of my friend’s wacky idea about his phone number. That text conversation started around 7:30pm and we didn’t stop talking til past 10pm. Texting turned into phone calls, and, three weeks later, phone calls turned into visits. Travis drove what should have been just under three hours to visit me. Instead, with traffic, it took him nearly seven. He still walked in the door with a smile – the same smile that had crinkled the edges of his eyes and made his face light up in the woods.

Two weeks later, we headed back to the woods for our first backpacking trip together. Since then, we’ve continued to hike, backpack, and adventure as a team. Our first week-long vacation together included a thru-hike on the Presidential Traverse along the AT in the White Mountains – one of the most challenging hikes either of us have done. A year after we met, we went back to the O’Brien shelter and covered more miles on the AT in New York. We’ve also logged some miles on the AT/Long Trail in Vermont and are hoping to complete it as a thru-hike in 2017.

I moved in with Travis last year, and he proposed to me after we hiked (of course) down to a secluded black rock beach on the Big Island of Hawaii in November. We’re planning to elope on a hiking trail – just like how we met.

I’d taken that solo trip to challenge myself, to remind myself that I was capable of more than the daily grind, and to shake off the long, cold winter. I had no idea I would meet my adventure buddy, my soul mate, my sweetheart, while barefoot and sweaty, covered with dirt, with my socks hung on the hammock straps next to me. Perhaps I would have tried to clean up a bit, but I think there’s something to be said for how we met. We were doing what we both love: being outdoors, being self-sufficient, being active. There was no pretense about why were there. We had no need to impress anybody else – and thus, our solid friendship grew into a beautiful partnership.

And about his map, the little piece of paper that started this whole thing? We looked at it again. I noticed it didn’t specifically say there was “water” where I’d been sitting. It simply had a large blue W in the spot. I first joked it was for the whisky I’d offered him, but we both know now why his map had it and mine didn’t.

The W stood for Woman.

Do-Nothing Days

A few years ago, I picked up a copy of a journal called The Happy Book for my sister as a gift. During some major life changes a few months later, I ordered a copy for myself. As I’ve learned (thanks to lots of reading, therapy, and choices), happiness is a continuous choice, not a destination. It’s important to stay true to yourself to ensure happiness, but sometimes it’s difficult to figure out who you are in the midst of life changes or when you’ve been on autopilot for too long. The Happy Book helped shake me up a little bit and get me thinking about what truly brought joy to my life.

I lost the book one year when my apartment flooded and it was unfortunately on the floor next to my bed (hey, it’s a convenient place to keep a journal!). I don’t remember all of the prompts and suggested activities but I do remember a few that helped bring who I am at my core back out. One of these ideas was “eat like a kid” day where you eat nothing but chicken nuggets and pudding (or whatever you associate with childhood). This grew into a few random theme-eating days for me, but I don’t do it very often. Another idea was the “do-nothing day.” When I lived alone, these were some of the best, most peaceful days. The basic premise is to turn everything off, don’t do anything you SHOULD do, and see what you end up doing instead.

On my do-nothing days, I would sleep in as late as I wanted. I wouldn’t turn on my computer nor take my phone out of airplane mode. I would make whatever I wanted for breakfast, if I felt like cooking. One do-nothing day I went downtown and got myself an ice cream sundae for breakfast on a blistering-cold winter morning. Then I was free to do as I pleased – no cleaning, no chores, no making plans. Sometimes I would find myself browsing the used bookstore for travel anthologies. I picked up a stack of best-of collections for less than $4 each during one such run. I also got a copy of “Oh, The Places You’ll Go” on the exact day I felt in need of its message. Although not much of a coffee drinker, I might go to a local coffee shop and get a flavored latte to wander around downtown. Sometimes I would just read a book all day and not leave the couch. Occasionally I watched movies all day but that tends to make me restless.

I know we never have enough downtime in our lives, but to intentionally choose to do-nothing – not be bored, but to do only what comes to your mind in the present moment – is a gift we should give ourselves more often to continue on our happiness journeys.

Check Your Labels

Over the weekend we had the good fortune to visit with many of our local friends. Catching up is always fun, especially when you can trade ideas and information. One couple has been working to eat healthier – including eating less red meat – so I was stoked to be able to serve them mushroom bourguignon. The recipe will follow – I wouldn’t just tease you with that – but during the conversation, they mentioned how my advice to read the ingredients on their veggie burgers had really paid off.

Although I’ve been a vegetarian for over 20 years, I didn’t always eat the most nutritious foods. It took me a long time to focus on eating for health. That said, when anyone mentions they’d like to give up meat and try veggie substitutes, it gives me pause. For me, personally, I would rather see someone eat local, grass-fed or free-range, antibiotic-free meat than a boxed concoction with a list of ingredients nobody can pronounce, much less identify. Yep, the staunch vegetarian would rather you eat a local burger than a veggie burger.

Disclaimer: I’m not a doctor, nor a registered dietician, nor a nutritionist. But from my own humble life experiences – and the knowledge I’ve gleaned over the past two decades – we’d all be better off eating foods with ingredients we can pronounce. We’d be even better off eating food that doesn’t need to come with a nutrition label (eg, fresh produce). If what you want is a burger, find yourself a quality burger, not a chemical substitute. I’ll definitely be talking about this more going forward because helping others to make healthy lifestyle choices has become pretty important to me.

Food memories

Another mini mobile post, this time about food.

Every time I travel I try to find a new food to enjoy…or at least sample. This way, months or years and thousands of miles later, I can bring myself right back to a travel memory.

I haven’t made arepas for a while, but arepas with eggs, tomatoes, and onions served with a cup of hot chocolate remind me of Colombia.

Shakshuka brings me back to the shores of the Dead Sea, cooking over a camping stove with my friends.

Most recently, fresh tropical fruit is totally Hawaiian but difficult to find on the east coast. Instead, my gastronomic reminder is a bowl of Bakery on Main maple cranberry nut granola. The host at our Air B&B had a bag waiting for us in the hut and we devoured it like we hadn’t eaten in days. This morning – a humid, misty, gray morning of around 60* – I had a bowl and remembered the misty gray mornings in the open-air hut.

What reminds you of your adventures?

Photo album ordered

I stayed up far too late last night deciding which photos would make it into my nice pretty new hardcover printed photo album from Shutterfly. Then I decided to change which photos I was including today, so I’ve spent another few hours deconstructing and rearranging.

Luckily for me, it’s all behind me now. WOOHOO!! I’ve actually ordered a photo album! It includes photos going back about a decade or so…featuring bad haircuts, old friends with poor facial hair choices, way too many late nights, and some big adventures. It’s a small book, so it’s not like the images will be huge, but it’ll be cool to have a tangible album of photos.

I realized going through them I’ve not shared the photos from my adventures abroad with Travis. Sure, he’s seen some here and there, but we’ve never sat down and gone through the digital albums whilst telling stories. Now that I’ve pared the albums down to more manageable selections, I think it’s time we did just that.

Unplugging the Collection

It’s really getting down to the wire here for reaching my goal of 52 posts this year. It seems such a small number, and yet, I couldn’t get myself to write even a simple post once per week.

So now I’m cranking them out any spare moment I have. I’m not joking when I tell prospective employers I work extremely well under tight deadlines.

I’ve freed myself from the mindset that each and every post has to be 750 words or longer, or else filled with an array of photos. I’m simply WRITING. More on that to come (soon, obviously).

For today, since I’m in the middle of another project, I’ll tell you about it.

Along with focusing more on writing, I’m trying to focus a whole lot less on everything else. Earlier this week I announced my intent to step away from the massive time-suck known as Facebook at the end of the year. More people than I expected have expressed sadness, but it’s also made me look at how I manage relationships with the people in my life. Are they true, authentic, and genuine relationships, or have I been collecting “friends” the way I had, for years, collected music and photos?

This digital age allows us to amass huge “collections” of whatever we desire: music, movies, books, photos, inspiration, and yes, even friends. But do we really value what we collect?

Over the last few weeks I’ve been purging my obnoxiously-large iTunes library. Honestly, I can’t remember the last time I listened to about 94% of the music on there. Why do I let it sit there, collecting digital dust? Do I want to honor the money I spent buying the songs? Am I trying to impress anyone with an offhand, “oh yeah, I have that album” comment? Or is it time to let go? I tossed all but about 15 of my CDs in the Goodwill bin about six months ago, and I haven’t missed a single one. It’s time to do that digitally. Sure, I’ll keep some rare music, or albums from local bands I loved who’ve since broken up, but I really don’t need every single Ben Harper album. I can just go listen on Spotify if that’s what I really want. As the Minimalists state, access, not excess.

So too have I begun purging my photo collection. I realized not only do I have way too many photos, but I’ve also shared way too many. What happened to my pioneer mentality? Pioneers didn’t bother showing people what they were doing. They just did it, and appreciated it themselves. I went back and deleted about half the photos I’d shared on social media because they weren’t contributing anything to the world, aside of stroking my ego with “likes.” Then the truly tough task began: purging the photos from my phone and computer.

I was able to narrow down the pics I wanted to keep into a few key categories: family, friends, pets, music (as in, bands I was in, or gigs I played – probably not a very standard category), adventures/travel, and current life. Quite serendipitously, I received a free photo book coupon from Shutterfly when we ordered our holiday cards, so – as with the blog – I had a deadline to narrow down my photos in order to get a printed fancy photo album.

You may have by now guessed I’m in the middle of arranging the album, and that’s why I stopped to write today’s blog post. Turns out I had fewer photos than I expected, after deleting ones that didn’t truly bring me joy. So instead of being just an album of family and pets, I’m having to take the next step and pare down my adventure photos to 10-11 per trip and pop them on a page too. I wanted to put that off, because I didn’t want to narrow my travel photos down. How do I choose the best photos from over 200-300? But, back to the pioneer mentality, who NEEDS 300 photos from one week of their lives?

Sure, I’ll keep some of the travel photos on my computer to post on my Instagram and on this site when I’m writing about certain places, but are they all album-worthy? Is every single photo worth putting into physical form and carrying around with me, wherever we end up next?

I thought not.

Having deleted over half the photos on my phone and thousands off my computer, everything feels lighter. It’s also allowing me to spend less time on my devices. If I open Instagram with the intent to post a photo but realize I only have pictures of my cat and my fiancé on my phone – which matter to me, but nobody else – I put my phone away and stop the over-sharing. Baby steps. The photo book coupon expires Thursday, so I have one more day to review my choices. Whew.

 

Thank You for Your Service

Last Friday I was buttering my bagel at work when a colleague married to a former marine walked into the room.

“Happy Veteran’s Day,” she said softly. “Thank you for your service. I mean it.”

Somewhat flustered, I mumbled, “Um, Happy Veteran’s Day, you too.”

It’s been years since someone thanked me for my service. I frantically racked my brain in a flustered silence, trying to figure out if, at some point in the last year, I’d made some statement that implied I had been the one in the military – not my ex-husband. But after a few minutes, I remembered her husband was a marine before they got married, and I remembered that, while I was married, I was thanked for my service regularly.

Military spouses don’t “serve” the nation in nearly the same capacity as those in uniform, but the sacrifices of those spouses absolutely helps the contributions of their loved ones. I felt strange and almost guilty accepting her gratitude for those years so long past for me, but then I thought about just how much the military shaped my life, without my ever donning a uniform.

My brother joined the Navy right after high school. He’s super smart but wanted to see the world instead of going to college. Joke’s on him: he spent most of his active time stationed 20 minutes from our grandparents’ home in Rhode Island, and he attended the Naval Academy after applying on a whim during his third year. Now in the Reserves after getting married and starting a family, his service was the closest to my heart for years.

Both of our grandfathers were in the military. Our father was a merchant marine – not the same thing, but still gone for months at a time “on duty.”

And then, I married an Airman-turned-Soldier in the process of earning his Green Beret. I didn’t know anything about the Army. I remember Googling some of the peculiar terms he’d use in our phone conversations: BDUs (now-obsolete), ACUs, TDY. I didn’t realize “redeploy” meant coming home, not going overseas again. I couldn’t read ranks and although I knew he was a lieutenant, I had no idea where that fell in the chain of command.

I learned all of the above in less than a year. I ended up working at a military museum, reading books and speaking with veterans every day. I spent 300 days of each of the first three years we were together alone in our house while he was TDY or deployed. 300 days out of every 365 for three straight years. How do you even begin to build a relationship with that kind of schedule?

Thanks to geography, I was surrounded by people either currently serving or retired from service. My rock band ended up touring with a couple other bands comprised primarily of vets and active-duty soldiers. We performed at benefits and September 11th memorial concerts and huge July 4th celebrations. An interview I gave made it into the Army Times and, to this day, is still some of the biggest press I’ve received.

Being married to the military 100% changed my life, for better or for worse. I learned how to fix a toilet that wouldn’t stop running, how to mow a lawn, how to shoot a gun, how to bake cupcakes in jars so they wouldn’t spoil, how to be even more independent than I already was, despite being in a relationship, how to be patient, and how to stay strong when I was worried. In return, I now have friends the world over, in various stages of life, and I’ve visited many of them. There’s a subculture sisterhood these other wives (and former wives) and I share, and there’s a nearly-brazen “do it yourself/get it done” attitude I share with those who served, male or female. I can’t find those connections with other civilians. You had to live it to understand, and it shaped so much of who I am now.

In the end, the military lifestyle wasn’t for me. I also learned I wanted a partner who could be there for me, not only mentally but physically. I wanted a partnership in which my goals and dreams carried equal weight. My self-reliance borne of necessity eventually led me to want to rely solely on myself. I felt guilty for so long, for leaving a lifestyle that had changed me so much, for letting down the people who said I’d be great at this, and for leaving a good man who just wasn’t good for me. I think that guilt is why I felt so strange accepting my colleague’s thanks last week. But those years are absolutely 100% a large part of my history and who I am, and I’m glad for that. That time in my life wasn’t easy but it taught me a lot about myself and the people with whom I choose to spend my time. I didn’t serve in uniform, but I did serve, in a small way, by being there for my loved ones and friends.

The Places Where I Came From

I was driving home today and an idea for an engaging blog post came to mind. I considered making a note in my phone to remember but chose not to because 1) I was driving and 2) it was such a good idea, and so relevant, I wouldn’t possibly forget.

Well…I forgot.

I know it had something to do with family, and geographic locations, and my 30 Before 30 list, but I can’t seem to make the connection right now. So what you’re getting instead is a smattering of those. Maybe by the end I’ll tie it together…

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For people who’ve met me relatively recently – meaning pretty much everyone I’ve met in the last 5 months since I moved to NJ – I appear to be “from Long Island” because that’s the answer to the usual “so where did you move here from?” question I’m asked. It’s not that I don’t want to elaborate, but I sometimes feel like it would be impossible to try to explain where I’m really from in a linear fashion. Hint: it’s not Long Island. I did spend the longest time in one apartment as an adult in LI, which is an achievement for one with nomadic bones like mine, but my personality wasn’t really shaped there.

I did most of my growing up in the deep South – Georgia and North Carolina, to be exact. Yet I can clearly remember a time in my life when I was nearly fired from a new job because I told the caller “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Southern, may I put you on hold and find someone who does?”

I wasn’t born in the South.

I was born about as far away as you can get, in Maine. I lived in the same house until I went to college, in a small rural area where we had a small farm with chickens, rabbits, horses, cats, and dogs.

For many years I was embarrassed of where I came from. I felt like it made me poor, or “country,” or unworldly. I went to college in Westchester County, New York – a beautiful upscale suburban area just outside Manhattan – and realized how sheltered I’d been in Maine. Looking back on my time in college I wish I’d taken more risks. I wish I hadn’t been so afraid of where I came from, or what others thought of that, or what it meant for my future. Newsflash: your past does not dictate who YOU are. Sometimes I feel like I’m STILL learning that lesson, nearly 15 years later.

I got my first apartment in Boston. It didn’t last long, but I learned a lot from the experience…most especially that if I could survive the cutthroat September 1st move-in-date in the Boston rental market, I’d probably be okay as an adult. I’ve lived independently since then.

Here’s the potentially-confusing linear progress my life has made:

Maine > Westchester County, NY > Boston > Westchester County, NY > Cape Cod, MA > Westchester County, NY > North Carolina > Georgia > Long Island > New Jersey

Granted, the Westchester days were all between the ages of 18-23: the college years. I transferred out (and subsequently returned) and spent months away, but I graduated on time from the college at which I started. The big moves slowed down after a while, but I moved – if I remember correctly – 12 times in 10 years. Even in NC and GA, I usually moved apartments when my lease ran out. I once owned a home and sold it and don’t plan to get on that train again anytime soon.

All of these physical locations have helped shape me in some way. Right now, of course, eating farm-grown local food is en vogue and more people are heeding the marketing call to get outside. I grew up in an area in which I could be outside all the time. I did multi-day backpacking trips in the Maine wilderness – including portions of the AT – before I graduated high school. I climbed trees in my backyard and rode a snowmobile to school. Hell, I even ran to – and from – school on those quiet rural roads sometimes. I spent more money than I’m proud of on a quality Pendleton flannel shirt that looks suspiciously like the one I’m wearing in my 6th grade class picture. What’s old is new again. I’m actually kind of proud to be “from Maine” these days.

That in-between time – my time in the South – is a little harder to explain to new acquaintances. I did a lot of growing up there, and learned how to take care of myself in ways I probably never would have needed to do had I stayed in the Northeast. I was there from ages 23-28. At first, I refused to utter the word “y’all” and I couldn’t stand having conversations with older people who pronounced my name with more than two syllables. I didn’t understand football and moonshine wasn’t something you actually got in an unmarked jug from this guy who knew a guy. Now, however, my Southern accent comes out en force when I’m in standstill traffic (“what are y’all doin’?”) or I’ve had a drink. Every time a rendition of “Georgia On My Mind” comes on the radio – which is pretty often since I listen to the jazz station – I can’t help but smile and sing along, thinking of that sweet, slower-paced life I once lived. I’m actually kind of proud to be a little bit Southern too.

I’ve struggled with feeling like an imposter in my own life – like I’d managed to “Gatsby” myself somehow and create who I am, despite whatever my background may have been. However, I’ve learned that’s…actually what you’re supposed to do. Circumstances shouldn’t dictate who YOU are as a person. Your choices do. I CHOOSE to backpack, cycle, sing, write, be a vegetarian, travel, explore. Would I make the same choices had I been born into different circumstances? I don’t know. I don’t know if I would be the same strong person with the same pull to the outdoors if I didn’t spend my childhood outside. I don’t know if I would be so easily adaptable in unfamiliar situations if I hadn’t been thrown into a whole bunch of them in rapid succession. I don’t know if I would appreciate how fantastic it is to have a peaceful place of my own if I hadn’t lived with some really difficult people. I don’t know if I would value sleep and quiet time so much if I hadn’t spent so many late nights gigging in a rock band or wondering how I was going to pay the bills.

Choosing your own path is not being fake if it’s genuine. It takes a really long time to get to know yourself. I just finished Gretchen Rubin’s “The Happiness Project” which resonated deeply with me. It can be really hard to “Be Sarah” sometimes, but at the core, whatever it is that makes me who I am is what will make me happiest. And if that means embracing the bit and pieces that shaped who I am, that’s great – regardless of who anyone else may expect me to be. As the Hebrew on my wrist reads – loosely translated – “If I am not myself, who is me?” Not what I know, not where I’m from, not what I do. But who I AM. Choosing my own path, being Sarah, being ME, is the best way to honor the experiences who shaped me into who I am.