Adventure

sail away from the safe harbor...

I’m about to embark on a new life adventure and fulfill a longstanding dream deferred. In the early 2000s I went to San Francisco, CA for the first time with my soul friend Caitlin (this photo of me below was my first SF pre-cell phone camera selfie in the summer of 2000 Happy) I immediately fell head over heels in love with the city and returned several more times. I loved its breathtaking beauty, the hills, the trees, the water, the horizon, its diversity and culture, and most of all, its expansive healthy lifestyle and nourishment options on every corner. We were supposed to move there together in the great Unwreckable Journey of 2000 (made tee shirts and everything, complete with a fuzzy iron-on letter misspelling! Happy).

My twenties were a tumultuous roller coaster of severe chronic illness (Crohn’s) ups and downs, and while Caity made it out there, I never did. Life happens to all of us, and I believe it is the way we handle our circumstances that define us. Because I’m driven to continual learning and personal success, I admit a bit sheepishly my pride that despite my adversities I have been continuously employed since the age of 15, and graduated from college with honors after many hospitalizations and incompletes. More education may be in my future, but I am content with what I have already accomplished and embrace that I am enough, no matter how many twists and turns my journey has taken or how long it takes me to achieve my goals. We all have obstacles in our paths that challenge us and I am grateful for all of mine because they have chiseled me into who am today: a fighter, a survivor, and a person that I have grown to be very proud of. I haven’t always been able to give myself that grace.

And so, sixteen years later, I now have the opportunity to make this dream come true and move to the Bay Area in early October of this year and I could not be more excited. Many of you have heard about this over the past two years and supported me in a variety of ways as I have worked to forge a path for this to happen.

Today is my last official day at CCL. I will remain closely connected as a consultant and they will be one of my biggest clients. Little will change as I will stay on my two current primary projects, RWJF Executive Nurse Fellows and the Young Women’s Leadership programming and see those through. In addition I will be working to grow CCL’s social sector work and already have some promising leads. The good news is I will be back in North Carolina several times over the next year for a couple weeks at a time so will be able to stay connected to my community and family here.

It is the right time to take this leap and build my net on the way down. I have expanded my consulting business, vallmark* LLC (
www.vallmark.com) and am currently accepting new clients. My passions include helping build and deliver leadership programs for young people, empowering young women, coaching, writing, communications and speaking.

This shift will allow me the flexibility to be open to possibilities that present themselves as I find my niche out West. Yes, it has changed a lot in the 16 years that I've been longing to be in its midst, and the irony is not lost on me that I am a low-tech grassroots gal drawn to this current hub of innovation and massive growth. I am interested to find what is calling me there, whether its to be a grounding source for community work, a person/people, learning opportunities, all of the above... I remain open.

Over the past 9 years I have been so privileged to be surrounded by incredibly intelligent, caring, thoughtful and dedicated colleagues at CCL who continually inspire me, motivate me to dream bigger and bolder, and who have become trusted friends and advisors that I am beyond thankful for. I'm happy that won't change!

Meanwhile- little old Greensboro, NC over these almost 13! years since I was “banished” here from Austin, TX to get well- has grown into a place very near and dear to my heart. I now know I came here to meet some of my best lifelong friends who have been, quite literally, crucial to my survival and development into the most fully realized version of myself yet. I am getting verklempt... Really, just a huge THANK YOU to each and every one of you for what you have given to enrich my life in all ways.

My sister and I have joked that over the years we have followed my parents around the country as they move- they keep running away and we keep following Happy. This is the first move I’ve made on my own and I know that in order to be the best family member I can be I have to follow my heart, even though it will feel hard and far away at times! I love them to pieces for loving and supporting me unconditionally.

Are things perfect? Of course not. Its true what they say about not waiting until everything is to do something. Do your research, prepare as best as you can, hedge your bets and jump in! Because #onelife, #yolo, and #betterlatethannever right?

How the West was won almost two centuries ago is a great narrative of facing and overcoming adversity on the quest for exploration and navigating unchartered territory.

It was during my Girl Scouts program almost 4 years ago where something clicked and I reached that state of flow and pure joy in my work. I realized that in order to be a role model, particularly for young women, it is of the utmost importance to live my fullest, most authentic life, no matter how scary that might feel to do, and to share my story and truth with others. I fight my humility by remembering I also owe it to all those who have not been as fortunate to see their dreams manifested. So with that, here I go…

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” ~ H. Jackson Brown’s mother

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five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes...

One year ago today I received a letter in the mail that would change my life forever. Sounds like a good opening line for a book right? Winking First of all, to receive a Real and Important letter in the mail blew my mind! It was from a Vermont adoption agency, telling me that they had some information they thought I would like to have and asking me to please contact them about it. It was the Friday before Memorial weekend after 5pm, so I had to wait 3 verrryyyyyyy long days before I could find out what it was. Yes, my crew and I analyzed every word in this letter up, down and sideways! I found out the following week that my biological mother had sent some medical history information to the agency for me on that side of my family and shared her contact info. as well.

Several weeks after that, I received the info. and her name (and I released mine)… and immediately called my Godsister Hannah in Burlington, VT to help me research, ahem, aka stalk my entire birth family tree on that side for the next two hours! Lots of gasps and goosebumps and tingles and surrealness. It was an exhilarating time to say the least, seeing names and photos and faces … after all these years of wondering. The adoption coordinator encouraged us to write letters, so I checked my mailbox for the next couple months, and did not reach out to the family I had found online because I wasn’t sure if it was OK to do so. Just knowing they were out there was honestly enough for the time being, and we took those months as a family to catch up a bit and process some of this news.

I realized that it was my turn to send something in return for the initial outreach, so I finally got a first letter in the mail. I procrastinated (a lot) because I felt like it had to be the ‘perfect-kitchen-sink-letter’ and, what do you say in the first letter ever?? Thankfully I have dear friends who helped bring me down to earth about it, and this whole time period in general, and keep me accountable on just getting a starting point down on paper, so I wrote a short intro hello note with the help of my Grandma one Sunday afternoon at the end of July last summer, and sent it off on its way to Vermont. I had all these doubts about the Mail all of a sudden, and how crazy it is to rely on sending something off like that, almost on faith, it felt like to me at the time. About six days later, 2 of my birth aunts contacted me on social media… and of course I freaked out in a good way… I connected with my newfound and dear cousin Nicole, and then a letter came from Cheryl in the mail. Then it was a flurry of first connections with more new cousins (13 in all, not counting their children and partners!), and I spent the next few months in a hazy pink cloud, a thrill of excitement coursing through my veins with the ding of a new message (thank you Facebook, for being awesome and very handy for this purpose!).

My cousin Brian reached out with: "Hi, are you cousin? I’m a McDonough, if you are who I think you are then your mother and my mother were sisters…” I had already been told about Brian, and from everything I saw from stalking him and his photos Laugh, I could tell we would be fast friends. We are both oldests in our family, nostalgic, and love family history, etc. Next thing you know we are Skyping (then e-mailing, texting, calling, ha!) and he and his lovely fiancé, now wife, Becca’s bright faces were staring at me through the computer screen! Between the 3 of us the permagrins were in full effect, and next thing I know they are inviting me to their wedding in October and not taking no for an answer. !!

So, off I go on an adventure to meet all but one of the immediate birth fam clan to Connecticut and Vermont in the fall. I spent an incredible six days with mostly all new people, and thankfully my Godfamily interspersed in there for some much needed grounding support Happy. I got to meet my cousin Sean on his birthday (pretty cool present I was able to give him if you ask me ;D). I was welcomed with a party, wined, dined, and chauffeured, and filled in on family 101 cliff notes, and they all made real efforts to see me (and the wedding was pretty helpful!).

I am at a perfect time in my life for all of this to unfold, but I certainly still had my moments of overwhelm and feeling a bit unmoored. There have been ups and downs and a roller coaster of emotions for everyone, and bittersweetness throughout it all. “Bittersweet is the idea that in all things there is both something broken and something beautiful, that there is a moment of lightness on even the darkest of nights, a shadow of hope in every heartbreak, and that rejoicing is no less rich even when it contains a splinter of sadness. ~ Shauna Niequist

This was SUCH a big and important thing for me in my life journey and path that I had compartmentalized it off so that I could live my life. When the letter came and the floodgates opened, it was honestly beyond my wildest dreams because I hadn’t entertained many thoughts about it or asked the what ifs, other than a fleeting innate curiosity here or there. I didn’t have any expectations, so not only was I not disappointed, but I was gifted and overwhelmed, frankly, with a new and extraordinary family that I am still coming to know. On the last night of my trip I met another cousin and his family for the first time, Pat McD, who I hadn’t connected with previously because he is not on Facebook. It was the perfect ending to a wonderfully full and rich week, and he, also the oldest in his family, gave me some much needed kindness and words of support that helped coalesce everything I had been experiencing to that point. He invited me back to do the Penguin Plunge in February, a cause that the entire family gets in on and is near and dear to their hearts, and I realized after settling back in at home that I didn’t want to waste another minute not having them in my life, and I went back (and plunged, into freezing Lake Champlain! Happy). Happily I got to meet my cousin Amanda this visit to complete my dance card! There is still so much more to learn, and this is just the beginning.

Most days now it is life as usual, and I guess in some ways this just isn’t that big of a deal, and happens every day for people, all the time. I also am aware that it does NOT happen this way for so many, and I know with every fiber in my being how lucky and blessed I am. Then there are some days where it hits me in beautiful waves and I smile, when I have a connection with some of my new family, recount the story to someone, or just think about all of these amazing new additions to my life. I didn’t need them, but I want them, in ways I didn’t know was possible to feel. Even though we didn’t grow up together (and I wish I could take a magic carpet back and see what that was like), the bonds were immediate and strong. I’m still exploring and learning like everyone else on this planet. Families are living and breathing things and they grow and change and shift. When I stop and think about it and zoom way out, I am still totally incredulous that we are here, and that I have my chosen/given family of origin, and now even more with my nature family. I also think it’s hard to explain, because it’s mostly feelings. 

I acknowledge and thank my family, my sister Kathryn, who is my rock and has my back, my parents, who I ended up with on purpose, my one and only Grandma who has always made me feel so special and so supremely loved, my aunts, uncles and cousins, my dear Godparents Bernie and Michael Schwartz, and my friends who are like family to me- I truly have a village (and need one- LOL!), and that has made doing all this so much easier. 

We were so excited to have cousin Megan visit us in January this year, and cousins Brian, Becca, Liam, and Finn with us this spring, and for them to meet my family! My family has opened their arms and hearts in the most generous of spirits throughout all of this, and I am in awe of the way they love. 

And if you’re still reading, thanks for allowing me to share… it's been a pretty big year.


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hj7LRuusFqo

From Seasons of Love, Rent (one of my all time favorites, ever).

Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
Five hundred twenty-five thousand moments so dear
Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
How do you measure, measure a year?

In daylights, in sunsets
In midnights, in cups of coffee
In inches, in miles, in laughter, in strife
In five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
How do you measure, a year in the life?

How about love? How about love? How about love?
Measure in love
Seasons of love


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inspiring person of the week.

Greg Long is a big wave surfer and human role model. Not only is he very easy on the eyes Laugh, but his energy, heart, genuineness, and perspective are so appealing. So incredibly wise for 30 years old! I've been a fan of him since I started following surfing, and I love what he had to say in the August 2013 issue of Surfer magazine, when he shared in the aftermath of a three wave hold down ordeal that nearly killed him:

"My goal in life is to constantly keep improving in every aspect and facet, not just surfing. The amazing thing about this life is that there's an infinite number of possibilities that could direct you into a whole different place than you'd ever thought you would be. I never took for granted the amount of amazing people and experiences and opportunities that I had from surfing. But, what really matters is my family, my friends, and my health and well-being, as well as all of theirs. The ultimate goal is just to be happy and content. So if it carries forward in surfing, that's beautiful. If it happens in some other avenue in life for me, then I'm still gong to be happy and content."


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it's like falling in love.

Meeting new blood relatives is a bit like falling in love, or certainly the infatuation phase (except that it isn't temporary!).

I LIKE them so much! Makes me smile when a relationship with one of them deepens and grows. This post was started in August, but the fall became a wonderful whirlwind spent writing and getting to know this family, via letters, Skype, text, email, Facebook, and a first face to face visit in October, and I am just beginning write about it (I've had quite a year!). Hearing the ding of a new message online is so exciting! And with 13 cousins, 2 aunts, 1 uncle, and one birth mom (not to mention spouses, kids of cousins, extended family etc.), I've had a bit more to keep up with than them Laugh

It is the strangest thing to do, meeting your blood relations for the first time, having missed so many years of each other's lives. There is no guidebook for this, trust me, I looked! All I can describe is my experience, and it has been amazing. Its kind of a giddy feeling- endlessly fascinated with learning about them for one thing (because you know virtually nothing!) and with checking them out, from every inch of what they look like to their personality and how they interact with people, and what they spend their time doing. Its all so incredibly interesting! Happy The thing that makes its different is that you are meeting people who are instantly family. The trust isn't there, but yet it sort of is, in an immediate and unconditional way. These guys would do just about anything for me and extended such a warm welcome to me when I went to visit and meet them all in Vermont and Connecticut in October. I feel the same way about them and I've only met them once!

It is a warm feeling. It dies down for a while, then when new correspondence takes place, and next visits are planned to see one another, I get excited all over again!

Also I'm not sure if it is rose-colored glasses or not, but I pretty much only see the good things and characteristics about them! I had such a great time that I am going back in a few weeks to see them again Happy I wasn't sure I could make it work, and then I thought about it and realized how much time we had already missed in each other's lives and decided I don't want to miss another day. It's funny how things become important so very quickly. I can't wait to go back and for them to visit me and meet my family too! Warm fuzzies all around Happy.

Photos of me meeting my cousins, birth aunts, uncle, and birth mother for the first time

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it takes a village.

My mother and godmother have always said it takes a village to raise a child. Tomorrow morning, I’m embarking on a new adventure to meet my birth family on my mother's side. I want to thank all my family and amazing friends who have been there to support me through this journey, at every stage for all these years. It has been a very long time coming! I have the best family in the world and I know I am incredibly lucky. Our family is growing, and we welcome my new clan with arms wide open!

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inbetween days.

After being sick this entire holiday break and quarantined in my pajamas, with one happy exception on Christmas Eve, (my work is closed for the holiday season until after the New Year), I'm back to the grind of purging and sorting.

It is draining, emotional, lonely, wandering through the hallways of the past. It is necessary work. It is also incredibly poignant, fun, and daunting. Feeling the feelings as they come and allowing them to pass through me. The deeper I get, the closer I get to me. This is the cool part. As strange and
in-between a process as this is (I could use a good dose of The Cure right now, the anthem band of nostalgia), I know I am marching towards my most authentic and true self and destiny, and that feels exhilafrightciting, to use a phrase created by someone I used to know. Swimming in the depths of nostalgia, scraps of thought, kind words from loved ones, glimmers of who I want to be, things I want to explore, and old shit, it is like walking the pages of a Choose Your Own Adventure book.

I took a mental break this evening and saw
Dallas Buyers Club, and something Ron Woodroof's character said rang very true for me: "Sometimes it feels like I'm fighting for a life I ain't got time to live." I feel like I am playing catch up so much of the time that I don't get a chance to stop for a minute, catch my breath, and just be in the present. I try to reassure myself with the thought from my doctor that I have indeed been living, all these years, just like everyone else, just doing different things, and learning in different ways. I may not have been out "playing pinball" as he put it, but I was living and learning just the same. That comforts me.

I've connected on a deep level to the HIV and AIDS movement since the early nineties, when I was very ill and could relate to so many of the struggles faced by those afflicted. It's worthy of a separate post sometime, but this raw passion for health, born out of experience and hardcore empathy, is an important chorus that rattles around the chambers of my heart, and physical space, present in books, articles, notes, people, and knowledge. It was a nice reminder to supplement the deep dive explorations I'm doing in my surroundings. A few finds from today:

Consent for treatment, 2002.
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Dreams.
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My very first Apple product, my PowerBook G4, circa 2005, is being laid to rest.
Bon voyage, silver bullet.
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My cute Momma helping me sort
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I've carried this thing around from state to state over the years. Must be I liked what it said...
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ten years gone.

It's hard to believe that it has been ten years since I've moved from Austin, TX to Greensboro, NC, this Thanksgiving weekend in 2003.

I had extensive life saving surgery for cumulative years of severe Crohn's disease in December 2002 in Austin, which included four feet of intestines removed, a hole in my bladder repaired, and a fistula repaired. My immune system was completely shot at that point and I was very weakened and susceptible to other difficulties, and it was a domino effect in the worst way. I recovered the best I could but it was not ideal conditions, looking back. 2003 was a hell of a year.

I developed C. diff (Clostridium difficile) from that hospital stay unbeknownst to me, and muddled through work for months wondering if this was how I was supposed to feel. I drove myself to the ER after my ankles swelled up enormously one day and my co-workers feared something heart related, parked in the front, and didn't come out for a week. I also developed a sulfite allergy that summer, and had another trip to the ER as my throat closed up listening to R.E.M. at the 2nd Austin City Limits music festival!

While on disability from work for a month recovering from the C. diff and everything else, I came to stay with my family who had just moved to NC and made trips to Duke, UNC Chapel Hill, Wake Forest, and Johns Hopkins. I was glad I did because at 3 out of 4 places I got new answers to the various befuddling complexities I was dealing with. I discovered I had terrible latex and formaldehyde allergies that were breaking me out all over my body, and I had experienced an allergic reaction to Remicade, which was a newer drug at the time with side effects not being reported by its maker yet because it had been administered to less than 5,000 people.

At that crossroads, I remember weighing the pros and cons of moving from an amazing city that I hadn't really had a chance to fully appreciate or enjoy because I was too ill, to somewhere near my family that had many big medical institutions in close proximity. I was genuinely torn and heartbroken about leaving Austin (considered leaving my stuff in storage there), but ultimately decided to just pack it all up and come here where I had found at least some of my answers.

I had tried everything humanly possible to get well in Austin, but I was too sick ironically for any of it to have a chance at working. Painstakingly slowly, over this past decade in NC, I have had the opportunity to take baby steps towards getting well (two forward and one back), and have built up a dedicated health team army in the process.

As much as I've begrudged being "banished" here from the cool city to get well, incredibly, I do not regret the decision.

Just came across this sorting through files from that move...
photo
11.25.03 - back when photos had printed timestamps...
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Ten Years Gone.
10yrgone

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on attitude & perspective

Attitudes are self-created. You are free to choose to be victimized by circumstance or people, or you can choose to look at life with an open mind and be victorious. No one else can choose your attitude for you. Your perspective and choice of attitude gives you the power to be in control. That is the essence of true freedom. ~ Irene Dunlap


This was one of my favorite quotes I hung in my cabin when I was a camp counselor at Camp Oasis, a camp for kids with Crohn's and Colitis. There were others too that I brought with me to decorate the walls and the girl's minds, wrote with markers on colorful construction paper that my mom and friend John helped me make, some that I still have hanging on my wall in my office below, reminding me of that experience.

I paid over $1000 to volunteer at this camp, all told, in the summer of 2006 in St. Louis, MO- now that is saying something! They say you should ask yourself what you would do for free, or if money was no object- and whatever it is, do that. I've certainly volunteered for a lot of camps over the years, so it will most definitely be a part of my what-I'm-going-to-be-when-I-grow-up plan!

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surf.

I've developed a voyeuristic interest in surfing and surf culture lately, spurred somewhat from the inspirational story of Bethany Hamilton in Soul Surfer, and have watched other films since then, such as Chasing Mavericks, Blue Crush and Beautiful Wave. Cheesier depictions perhaps, but good enough for me. I've researched the stories of these legends, and have been endlessly fascinated with the way they live their lives.

I was considering what interests me about it, since I've never surfed, and I'm not sure if I plan to. I'm a strong swimmer and have always loved the water. I love sailing and boating. I've bodysurfed plenty, mostly as a fearless kid with my Dad in the cold Atlantic ocean, and have felt the panic of being knocked down by sets of waves at a time, discombobulated, not knowing which direction is up. I've lost my bikini top as a teenager, crawling out of the water on my stomach, so embarrassed and awkward. I've waited, heart pounding, for my Dad's bald head to bob up in the water as a sign he is OK. I've lost my nerve as I've gotten older and have become more risk-averse for sure, opting to stay on the shore most times, or just getting wet.

Mostly though, I just have a love affair with the ocean. It is one of my most favorite places to be, where I feel so small, and yet incredibly grounded and peaceful. I love the color. I like hearing the waves and smelling the water and the salty sea air. Also there's such mystery and power in its vastness. It breeds adventurers and seekers. The fact that there are people who spend the majority of their time in the water chasing their bliss as a hobby is thrilling to me, and something I feel like supporting.

I picked up
surfer magazine recently, and I gotta say I love reading it. I actually know many of the names mentioned now and can understand and visualize most of the descriptive jargon. Seeing jaw-dropping photos of big wave surfers in their element is like art I want to hang on my wall. In fact, I've torn out a couple particularly breathtaking pages to stare at. Surfing world, please welcome your newest fan.

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