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|April 30 - May 6, 2009
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Leaving my life to live it
Author Sarah Murray guides us through her decision to leave Nirvana in search of something more
by Sarah Murray
I.I live a good life.
The sun shines some 300 days a year in the town where I’m a local. On most days I get outside to feel the warmth on my cheeks.
And when I’m perfectly exhausted, friends meet me at a pub, where I’m received like family. A foamy head of laughter overflows onto the big, wooden tables and, on most nights, settles into deep talks.
My bike is made of carbon and, finally, my muffler is not attached by a hanger. I have a job with the Women’s Sports Foundation that pays me well and is easy on my conscience.
Sleep comes easily every night, with my partner holding me tightly around the middle. When we wake up, we don’t rush the day into action. No fighting traffic or job dread. We eat eggs, toast with our coffee mugs, and talk about which single track to enjoy before the sun sets.
Life is beautiful.
And I am leaving.
Three years ago I wrote a feature story for Women’s Adventure magazine, called “The Aha Moment.” It was about five women who made seismic shifts in their lives in the name of personal growth. There was Dana Flynn, who left a vee-jay job with MTV to open a yoga studio, and Sally Taylor (James’s daughter), who started a nonprofit to help victims of landmines. Each story of these “cowgirls of the moment” was more inspiring than the one before.
In all honesty, I didn’t write it for you. That story was born out of a need to be inspired.
It was just about that time I started grinding my teeth at night. The dentist wanted to mold me a mouth guard. To hell with the Band-Aid — I wanted to get to the root of it. Here was this laid-back hedonist getting all stressed out when my conscious mind surrendered. But why?
My childhood was tumultuous, filled with ups and downs that far outweighed my years. I lived in 16 different places by the time I was 16. When I had the opportunity to create my own reality after college, stability was paramount. For the past eight years, I have been in the same relationship, the same job, the same town, and, embarrassingly enough, wearing many of the same fleeces. My outdoor adventures were my stretch; everything else was consistent and familiar.
It finally hit me at 12,000 feet on a hut trip in Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness on my 30th birthday. I realized I was grounded, and now that stability was strangling me. I could learn more, grow more, give more. I was coasting. Here I was, a woman with an ability to write, who was spending all day long editing the writing of others. The girl who used to taunt change with an outstretched tongue was living in fear of leaving the comfort zone. Thriving, truly thriving, would require more than hut trips, triathlon training and regularly scheduled promotions. What a cop-out!
The epiphany was instant relief, in that sucker-punch-to-the-gut kind of way.
Glory be the realization — but without a direction the inspiration was meaningless. What exactly did “more” mean? For the next year, I tried to figure that out. I read books about taking a “gap year,” searched virtually every page on the Internet, became a horoscope hound, and flashed my soul to anyone willing to listen. Turns out the answer is not on Facebook.
The blueprint for this shift would need to be the homegrown sort.
And so I tapped into the veins of my existence and started to ask myself the big questions: What do I want to be doing every day? Why am I here on this earth? What makes me unique and valuable?
The answers came slowly and at the most unlikely times, inspired by song lyrics, snowboarding sessions and teary conversations with my partner. I began to piece it together...
I need a timeout from the everyday-a-thon, a break from expectation and the linear drive to succeed.
I have wanderlust.
I am good at helping women and girls find their power through sports.
I need room to explore the untouched depths of my creativity; maybe I could be a documentarian, a banjo player, a spoken-word poet.
And the toughest part: these needs were uniquely mine, and only I could follow through on them.
On no particular day, those puzzle pieces all finally fit together. The vision just came to me. I would take all the airline miles I had accrued over the years and book a free round-the-world flight. I would get in touch with individuals and organizations helping to empower girls and women through sports and offer my services to them pro bono. I’d build websites, shoot and edit video and get them networked online to increase exposure and, hopefully, funding. The route would be determined by where I could find organizations in need and where I could find brilliant adventures. I would drink coffee at odd times, play soccer with strangers in dusty lots and surf breaks at the bottom of the world.
This was my “aha moment.”
And I bought it. And it fit. And I believed I could pull it off.
In one month I will sit by myself on a plane to South Africa.
I will cry. I will miss.
Excitement and fear seesaw constantly as the reality of this sets in, and I am working to embrace all of it, even the virulent pangs of questioning that haunt me. Why would I jeopardize my relationships; trade hikes in the Rockies for lonely nights in hostels; leave Maverick, my beloved big-hearted black Lab mix; willingly enter a state of financial rubble? Despite the conflict, once I committed to the vision I instantly stopped grinding my teeth at night.
Getting honest with myself about this life change has been one thing; unfurling the concept to my family, my friends and my raised-eyebrow colleagues has been an entirely different beast.
The time came to share the news with my co-workers at the Women’s Sports Foundation in New York about a month ago. As I stepped out of my hotel in Chelsea, gumption strapped tightly to my chest, I heard music. Literally. At seven in the morning, a guy with an acoustic guitar walked right past me on this unlikely side street, singing his guts out.
An omen. Amen. This would be a good day.
The reception at the home office in New York was basically what I expected: a congratulatory celebration with a touch of that nightmare realization that you’ve gone to work naked. Bearing my soul to women who share my passion was a magic affirmation of having spent the past 10 years in this job.
Naturally, there were a few skeptics.
“What will you do when you get back?”
“You’re going alone?! Nutso.”
My defense for this line of questioning is dialed in. I listened, apprised them of the precautions I’m taking, and tried to gently quiet this vicarious fear that can most simply be understood by turning on the evening news. And it’s not just my co-workers. My mother’s husband insisted on spending Thanksgiving evening teaching me how to use a jacket as a shield in the event of a knife fight.
All the concern surely comes from a place of love. And maybe they do have a point. In my life I do take risks many Americans choose not to take. And the deeper the challenge, the greater the jeopardy. But in my mind this is not a foolhardy way to live; I consider this the only way to live.
There are but a handful of perfect days each year. This one was the fall kind — Aspens glowing, air so crisp it thrust deeper into my lungs than ever before. With the trip looming, I went on a hike with my best friend, Maverick, and his gal pal, Mavis, a fluffy chow.
As I put one foot in front of the other, I considered again the heft of the decision to walk away, even temporarily, from this beautiful existence. Inhale. Exhale. Who would put this dream of a life up for grabs?
Maverick and Mavis must have felt the perfect spirit of the day, too. Every critter or rustling leaf was fair game. Up the hillside with a sprint, back down to plop in the stream. For some reason I decided to let them completely go. I didn’t call them to come; I just let them be dogs and savor the day.
Five minutes after I decided to let them run free, Maverick had a heart attack. Instantly, without pain, he lay down and made that his last hike. In shock, three rangers and I, like pallbearers, carried him out of the woods on a stretcher, yellow leaves carpeting our walk, tree branches forming a canopy overhead.
Maverick had always possessed a Buddha-like calm and wisdom. He was truly enlightened. On that day he taught me a lesson of impermanence. Just as I let him run free, he too gave me the permission to do the same.
Order the video camera online. Stop my gym membership. Research permits for getting into Tibet. Write this article.
My plane leaves Denver International Airport in exactly 34 days. My itinerary callously reminds me that in two months I will be in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and, in four, Lima, Peru. I am two paychecks away from unemployment during the worst economic downturn in decades. But let’s be honest: The world has woes greater than Wall Street’s.
Days seem to be defined by checked-off items on the to-do list, last-minute this and that’s, and emotional conversations. My sister announces she is pregnant — due two weeks after I return to the States. I practice yoga constantly, trying to keep a tight grasp on The Power of Now. Eckhart Tolle is losing the battle.
As I count down to this self-inflicted personal upheaval, all I know to do is commit to feeling — the butterflies in my stomach, the pride in my shoulders, the enormity of my potential. So many people go through their lives afraid of failure and new tastes. That will not be me. I will gulp hard and plunge into this fear like I would a cold ocean wave that rips the breath out of my body. I will embrace all the new beauty that is before me. I will open my heart to the possibility of becoming more fulfilled than I have ever been in my life.
If not for the richness of feeling, why live at all?
Follow Sarah’s journey and the Girls’ Sports Media Project at www.sarahjmurray.com.
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