On Comparison vs. Acceptance

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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about acceptance. Ever since graduating college, I’ve felt a lot of pressure (from myself, mostly) to do certain things, be a certain way, or have a certain level of accomplishment in my life. Where does this pressure come from? I hate to be cliche and blame it on social media, but it’s true that information is so accessible these days that it’s near impossible not to feel a little less than compared to my peers. There is always someone traveling to amazing places, getting engaged, having a baby or celebrating some other adult life event I’ve yet to encounter. I actively participate in this comparison game without thinking twice about it.

What does comparison do for anyone? It rarely ever spurs me into action. In fact, it does quite the opposite. It makes me feel like I’m not enough, like where I’m at in life isn’t the right place, or that I’m not successful when compared to others my same age. Comparison does nothing for me except make me feel inadequate and sad, and like my life is lackluster in some way even though it’s not.

With age, I’m learning the value of acceptance. Acceptance of where I’m at in life, and acceptance of who I really am regardless of my notions of who I should be, or who others think I should be. I’m a little scared right now, and that’s okay. Most days I wake up and wonder where life is heading, what I want to do with my life, and it scares me that I don’t have the answers. So I scroll through the lives of others, picking up bits and pieces of the possibilities but realizing that I don’t feel much better after doing so. We really should stop that. In reality, does anyone in their 20s, even 30s and beyond have the answers? I’m not sure any of us ever find the answers we so obsess over finding. Life flourishes when we’re willing to let go a bit and embrace the change. We never grow when we compare, we grow when we accept, let go a little, and move on.

So – I accept my body. I accept that I really love pizza, and ice cream, and baking cookies. (Especially cookies.) I also accept the fact that I know I have the discipline to diet and workout 5 days a week and have the body to show for it, but also that maybe I don’t really want to be that hardcore. I’ve got some arm flab and some extra around my middle, but I’m okay with that.

I accept that good for me is enough. I will share my thoughts and my photography here and know that there are people out there who will think it’s bad and will dislike it. Fear of not being accepted (ha) is a big one for me. It holds me back from sharing things for fear of social disapproval, but I’m ready to be done with limiting myself in this way. If I am writing about something I find interesting, or take a photograph I find beautiful, I feel really good. And good to me is enough. It doesn’t mean I won’t push myself to be better or grow, it means I understand that what I think is good is not the same as what others deem good. I have little control over this and therefore shouldn’t let silly things like that control me and influence my decisions.

I accept that I’m not always so good with money. It’s really frustrating and exhausting to deal with cleaning up those messes, but I’m thankful for the lessons I’ve learned along the way. It took me a long time to end the cycle of overspending, buying clothes and shoes out of boredom (and I still struggle with impulsiveness sometimes) and the desire to fit into a certain look that wasn’t me. It took an even longer time to begin the cycle of paying off debt and actually paying attention. I used to think I could find happiness in a shoe box or a new dress. A lot of money has come into my life over my years, and I’ve spent almost all of it without recollection of where it went (okay, shoes). But I’m also making really positive steps in changing how I think of money, saving, and spending, and that feels really good.

I accept where I am at right now, not where I am going or have been. We waste hours and days dwelling on things that have either already happened and therefore can’t be changed, or things that have yet to happen or may never happen in the future. The past is gone and can only really serve to teach us and help us grow, and the future is never certain. I’m not perfect at the balancing act of past, present and future and never will be, but I accept my past failures and triumphs and relinquish my desire for 100% control of my future. It’s just not realistic. Some of the best things in my life have resulted from stepping into complete uncertainty and it’s important to remind myself of that when I’m feeling afraid or trying too hard to control my future.

I accept my big, crazy dreams. I want to travel the world, live in another country, sail around the world with John, find a job where I can write, photograph and design all at once, make a big difference in someone’s life, be a bartender or own a beach bar, live at the beach, I could go on and on. There is so much I want to do in this life but I’ve always played gatekeeper when it comes to my dreams. If it sounds crazy I’ve been quick to dismiss it. I’ve bought into the assumption that the acquisition of things and status symbols and more money means more happiness. That is what everyone else does and it feels safe and “right.” My dreams and desires don’t fit into that world though. I accept that achieving my dreams is going to be difficult. It will require a lot of discipline and hard work, successes and failures, but to me it is totally worth it.

I accept who I am. Perfection is not attainable. I can admire others, but should not desire to emulate or be them because instead, I am me. I can grow and change, but it’s okay to do that on my own terms, at my own pace, true to my own values and opinions. I’m not perfect and will certainly be influenced and tempted from time to time by others, another thing I accept fully about myself, but at the end of the day I’m very thankful for the person I’ve become and in almost all ways am happy with myself. The relationship I have with myself is one of the most important ones to invest in. I never want to stop working on it.

The biggest lesson of all has been that acceptance doesn’t mean settling. Acceptance is to embrace. I’ve realized that I’m probably never going to have the answers to my life’s big questions if I can’t get past the step of accepting me 100% first. How can anyone make a change or move in a new direction without first knowing what she likes and values? And we certainly can’t move on from something without first accepting what has already happened. Acceptance is a baby step towards big change and I’m ready to take that chance.

A Letter to my Little Sister

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Dear Amy,

As I write this you’re on your way home from a one week “solo adventure” where you did nothing but exactly what makes you happy. I don’t mean to get sappy, but as your big sister you have no idea how proud/inspired/happy this makes me feel. While I always try to be the best example for you that I can be, what you may not know is that you’re an increasingly amazing example for me.

I know I haven’t always been the best big sister. Our 6 year age gap meant that I went through my crappy teenage phase during the years where you yearned most for a relationship with me. You were my mini-me (still are – quit stealing my look) yet I ignored you for so much of the time we could have actually spent together. Gladly, I grew out of it, and gladly, you forgave me for it. My time with you now is some of the most valuable time I have and you’re one of my best friends.

Like any great relationship, our friendship and sisterhood has taught me a lot. You’re going to be 20 next month and for someone your age, you seriously have your shit together. As the big sister, aren’t I the one that’s supposed to have my shit together, leading by example? Sometimes I like to sit back and learn from you instead of the other way around.

Being your big sister is one of my favorite roles. I have a built in best friend for life. I have someone to call at any hour of the day to talk to about everything or nothing. You’re my shoulder to cry on and that person who nudges me to do what I really want, without letting fear get in the way. And you’ve already taught me SO much.

You teach me to live a life true to myself. I admire that you follow your passions and dreams and take risks. You don’t really care what people think of you and your decisions because if they make you happy, then why NOT do them? You aren’t afraid to voice your opinion or take risks and as a result, good things tend to come to you naturally even when you change course. You exude confidence in what you do and how you do it, and I so admire you for it. You’re a little more adventurous and a little less afraid – maybe this stems from being the younger one – you benefited by witnessing my mistakes and triumphs early on. Lucky.

You teach me how to take care of people. When you came along my instinct to take care of you and protect you was totally natural and I feel it now more than ever. You’re about to enter your 20s and while you’re making things happen for yourself I know that inevitably I can’t protect you from everything. But you can bet your butt I’ll be there for you every step of the way.

You also teach me that I don’t always have to be the caretaker. As we both get older, we only get closer. I share things with you that I don’t share with anyone else, and I can count on you to always cheer me up when I’ve had a bad day, or cheer me on when I’m contemplating a change and need a little push. I’m amazed at how great you are at taking care of ME.

You’ve also taught me about what’s really important. For me, that’s time with the people I love and care about, and time spent doing things that bring me fulfillment and happiness – like my art, and writing, reading, being outside, etc. The time we spend together is always full of the good stuff – laughing and eating and being active and okay – snuggling with Bally because who can resist? You don’t expect me to do certain things or be a certain way. Like any relationship, the big sister little sister one takes work. And with both of us entering our adult years, I’ve realized that there is little more important than time together in our relationship. I’m so thankful for any of it that we can soak up.

Lastly, you teach me that it’s okay to let go a little. Being the big sister is an important job. I know I have someone in my life looking to me for guidance and a glimpse of what the future and adulthood look like, so I put a lot of pressure on myself to be the best role model. I’m the uptight and more anxious one of us, but you always find a way to ground me. You know nobody is perfect and have no problem reminding me of that. You accept it yourself. You let yourself dwell on the crappy stuff a little bit, then take action or make it better or simply move on.

As you return from your trip – which I know was amazing and incredible – I hope you’ll realize that the time you spent discovering things about yourself has also caused me to reflect on the things you’ve taught me about myself. You inspire more than you know and you’re always teaching me new things or showing me a new way to solve an old problem.

Being a good big sister to you takes work. But I’ve never felt luckier.

Love,
Your big sister

Confronting Fear in the ATM Cave

Belize ATM Cave Tour
Image credit

“Do the thing you’re supposed to do in the place you’re supposed to do it” is incredibly simple travel advice found in Kristin Newman’s hilarious memoir, What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding.

It didn’t take much researching to discover that the ATM (Actun Tunichil Muknal) Cave in Belize is definitely “the thing.”

You enter the cave with no expectations, and leave holding your head a bit higher. It is a badass feeling, knowing you just spent hours inside of a cave (swimming, climbing and sometimes contorting your body in odd positions to make tight passages) once used by the Mayans for sacrifices (sometimes human) to their gods.

Our guide told us that exiting the cave was akin to rebirth, and strangely it did feel that way. I’m not sure if it’s the swim out in crystal clear water, or the sight of brilliant daylight after spending hours in the dark, or simply a side effect of being in a state of wonder and awe and presence for several hours. As much as I’d like to proclaim that I was reborn as a badass, I’m still scared of stupid things and remain mostly my same self. But the experience did make me better. A little braver, a little more confident. And it’s all thanks to a stupid ladder…

I’d been inside of the dark and fascinating ATM cave for over an hour, alternating between climbing slippery rocks and swimming, while simultaneously telling everyone this tour would never be allowed in the U.S. It wasn’t until I spotted the ladder that I truly became afraid.

I watched as members of our group went up the ladder one by one, dodging a large rock at the top and climbing to solid, safer ground.

The ladder shuddered. It didn’t look steady – I started panicking in my mind. An hour inside of a cave climbing rocks where one wrong step could easily lead to broken bones or worse – and it was the modern ladder scaring the daylights out of me.

“Next!”

My turn.

Going up wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought and I quickly made it to the top to meet up with the others. The adrenaline wore off and amazement took over as we viewed ancient Mayan pottery, crystallized skulls, and a fully intact human skeleton from Mayan times known as “The Crystal Maiden.”

It’s difficult to see such a thing without a million questions popping into your head. Who was this person? Were they sacrificed? What was their life like? It’s an experience that gives you a rush, then asks you to pause and reflect on what you’ve seen long after the experience is over.

I’d forgotten about the ladder until the moment I realized I had to go back down. I immediately felt anxious.

After expressing my concern with Ben, our guide, he decided to make me go down first. Great. He started down and demonstrated where to place my feet and hands to ensure a safe descent. The first step was the hardest, but eventually I started descending. Knees weak, legs turned to human Jell-O, I was afraid I’d just fall the rest of the way down. But I made it.

I laughed it off and made fun of myself, but long after I saw the situation in a new light. It was one of those rare moments in which I allowed myself to become completely vulnerable and afraid. It was 30 seconds of pure fear and uncertainty, but I made it down and so did everyone else. (Full disclosure: the Snickers bar awaiting me at the bottom may have had something to do with this.)

I’ve realized that it’s difficult for me to allow myself to be vulnerable and afraid, yet it’s the things that make me the most uncomfortable that ultimately lead to my best memories.

Taking a leap into the unknown, trying something new and terrifying; it always feels so difficult and scary until it’s done. But none of these experiences negatively impact me – they lead to growth, confidence and clarity.

It’s easy to be comfortable. But sometimes the most exhilarating moments of life are delving into the uncomfortable and finding fulfillment on the other side.


A note about the tour: The ATM Cave was my favorite experience in Belize. Cameras are not allowed due to damage done to the pottery and skeletons in the past. This is not a bad thing – being free of distractions forces you to soak up the experience, be present, and truly appreciate the cave. The tour is described as acceptable for anyone in good physical condition but it was much more physical than I anticipated, and there was also a lot more swimming. Most of the “hike” inside the cave was easy, but the first 10-15 minutes felt the hardest. I’m chalking most of that up to the adrenaline of being inside of a cave for a first time, but some of the climbing is hard and feels frightening at first. We did the tour with Carlos the Caveman and were very happy with our guide, Ben.

Lessons in Passion, Dreams and Intention

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Belize will forever be a special place to me.

For years, since graduating college, I’ve internally struggled with feelings of fear, failure and inadequacy when it comes to my photography. In my head is a constant, questioning inner dialogue. Am I good enough? Is this work worth sharing? Is what I am photographing meaningful? Do I have what it takes? Is photography still my passion at all?

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This constant line of internal questioning and fear of failure led me to stop trying. I put down my camera, and I ignored my passion. In turn, I robbed myself of the one thing I have always received fulfillment from: creating.

Yet, if there’s one thing I’ve learned about passion and dreams, it’s that they will never give up on you, even when you’ve given up on them.

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Belize allowed me to open that door back up and rediscover what it feels like to be passionate about something. I think that’s one of the things I love most about travel; when you remove the pressure, expectations and distractions you can suddenly very clearly see what makes you happy and how you enjoy spending your time.

My camera was with me at almost all times, and I let myself see and interpret the world again. Sure, not every image came out technically perfect, but the most important thing for me was that I was taking pictures and enjoying it again.

I came home feeling energized, inspired and happy. That’s the thing about passion – you can try to quiet it and ignore it and be afraid of it all you want, but it has a way of always creeping back up on you, reminding you how good it feels.

I had started and stopped this blog, but missed writing terribly. I no longer made time for it and got caught up in what others were doing, which led to my blog feeling inauthentic and not at all like me. Again, I feared truly putting myself out there and just being me. But I couldn’t quite let it go, and it was always here waiting for me to come back. Passions are very patient.

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Belize also gave me permission to dream. So often, I shoot down my dreams just as fast as I conjure them up, but when I came home I felt a real desire and pull towards a more fulfilling, meaningful life. Travel is one of the best ways to get clarity on what you truly enjoy and want your own life to look like, and I finally gave myself permission to welcome those dreams and desires into my life, while also realizing I could make them happen.

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I dream of traveling more and experiencing the world while I have the ability. I also dream of writing, photographing, and creating every chance I get, even if it’s scary to put myself out there.

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When I came home from Belize I connected with a friend, Lisandra, who I’d met in Zumba class. We talked about my vacation and the kind of creative energy it had given me, and she showed me that these things are all connected: passion, dreams, intention. None of them can exist or survive without the other. Passion is what keeps us going, and gives us those bursts of energy and inspiration, causing us to dream. Sometimes following dreams can lead us to discover a passion unexpectedly. But passion is not a constant, and without a plan for how to make our passions and dreams reality in our lives, they quickly squander.

Belize was simply the vehicle in which these ideas surfaced in my own life, but it also invited me to dream and be passionate again. And for that, I’ll always be thankful.

Breakfast at Estel's San Pedro

The Best Thing(s) I’ve Ever Eaten: Belize

When I think of my recent trip to Belize (with 6 other women, most of them family) I think of laughter, adventure and sunshine. But I also think of the food.

Our 9 day adventure led us from the jungle in San Ignacio to the ocean breeze and sunshine of San Pedro, Ambergris Caye, but I think I speak for everyone when I say that none of us expected the food to be as consistently good and beautiful as it was. While I have many more photos to share and stories to tell, I figured it made sense to first share the most important aspect of our travels: all of the delicious and beautiful things we ate.

Breakfast at Vanilla Hills Lodge

Everything Claudia cooked at Vanilla Hills Lodge – San Ignacio
No really, everything. During our stay with Claudia and Franklin at Vanilla Hills Lodge, (a small yet gorgeous eco-lodge/B&B outside of San Ignacio – please go there now) we ate every single meal with them (with the exception of lunches, and one dinner). We only went out because we were gently encouraged to explore.

Claudia is passionate about cooking, immediately evident in her careful choice of dishware (an extensive and jealousy-inducing collection) and natural ability to make food look as beautiful as it is delicious.

Banana Pancakes and Chocolate Mousse Vanilla Hills Lodge
The breakfast view at Vanilla Hills Lodge Belize

Breakfast included homemade breads, jams, brie, banana pancakes, farm fresh eggs and local fruits. For dinner, there was no menu. It was more a game of sit down and be surprised/amazed at what Claudia cooked up for the evening. This is a fun game and I highly encourage you to play it someday.

The food here was art. Delicious art. I am still dreaming about it. If you have any interest in staying here, I highly recommend it. The TripAdvisor reviews speak for themselves.

Fry Jacks and more at Estel’s Dine by the Sea – San Pedro, Ambergris Caye
I’d read about Estel’s (and pretty much every other place we visited/ate/drank) from San Pedro Scoop, which is an AMAZING guide to Ambergris Caye (and beyond) should you ever decide to visit Belize. Really, I don’t know how I would have planned this trip without that website – it’s perfect.

Breakfast at Estel's San Pedro

Anyway, the fry jacks at Estel’s just came off as one of those specialty items you need to try in San Pedro, so we all did.

To put it simply: fry jacks do not disappoint. I appreciate that I can go into a restaurant for breakfast, order not one but TWO giant pieces of fried dough and nobody judges me. It’s also really fun and mature to put them in front of your mouth and pretend they are your mouth. They also taste really good when you are hungover and need comfort.

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Fry jacks stole the spotlight here, but the fresh juices (Grapefruit and Limeade) and my lobster omelette were equally amazing. If lobster is in season when you visit, that omelette will make you very, very happy.

Breakfast view at Estel's San Pedro

It’s worth mentioning that Estel’s also has one of the most fantastic breakfast views. Sitting in sand, looking out over the Caribbean sea while palm trees sway and rustle gently in the wind, stuffing your face with fried dough and fresh lobster…it’s the stuff of dreams.

Ceviche at Wild Mango’s – San Pedro, Ambergris Caye
As much as I love food, I’m sheltered. There are so many things I tried on this trip that I’d never tasted prior (lobster and ceviche to name a few). Yet I found myself ordering ceviche with confidence, like I’d tasted it a million times before.

Ceviche Wild Mango's San Pedro Belize

When I took my first bite, I wished I could taste it one million times more. I taste tested everyone else’s ceviche, and then ordered ceviche again when we returned here for our last dinner in San Pedro. Not quite a million times, but hey, I did my best.

Drinks and a view at Wild Mango's San Pedro Belize

Should you find yourself at Wild Mango’s, there’s not a ceviche there I wouldn’t recommend. And don’t be surprised if you find yourself going back for more. Don’t forget a panty ripper – they are ridiculously good here.

The Belize Chocolate Company – San Pedro, Ambergris Caye
The Belize Chocolate Company should actually be called Heaven on Earth, or My Favorite Place Ever, or if I Could Control My Dreams I’d Go Here and Eat This Every Single Night or maybe The Place Where Chocolate Dreams Come True.

Belize Chocolate Company

At first, I tried to be practical. We were on our way to an early dinner, so I figured I would just try one. Then I really wanted 3. Then I lost all willpower and just decided screw it, it’s economical to just buy a box of 6. And then eat them all. With a milkshake on the side. (Isn’t being a grown up awesome? Nobody can tell me not to have dessert first.)

Assortment of Chocolates Belize Chocolate Company
Chocolates from Belize Chocolate Company San Pedro

I love chocolate, so it’s no surprise I loved this place. Do not miss it.

Stew Chicken, Rice & Beans & Plantains at Ko-Ox Han nah – San Ignacio
This is a meal that made my ex-vegetarian sister proud to be an ex-vegetarian. It prompted her to exclaim how much she loves chicken. It made her want chicken…for breakfast. Actually, I think it made everyone want chicken for breakfast.

Stew Chicken, Rice & Beans at Ko-Ox Han nah

The service here was friendly and warm. The restaurant is incredibly small and open air, but colorful and inviting. Stray dogs ran by the open door and peeked in while we ate, trying to appear curious but really just trying to pick out who the biggest dog lover in the group was. (It was Karen. She abandoned her meal for dog pets outside.) I loved this restaurant and meal so much that I had to go home and learn how to make stew chicken for myself.

In the end, Belize pushed me out of my culinary comfort zone. It taught me about all of the delicious things that can happen when you just say yes. It also taught me that taking an extra 5 minutes to present your food beautifully can magically make it taste better. And that there is truly no better thing than lingering over a meal, surrounded by people you love, laughing and eating something delicious in a beautiful place.