Today is 30.

Three months and five days ago I was sitting on the Cross Sound Ferry. I had gone directly to the bar for a celebratory beer after saying goodbye to my family and my closest friends from home. My adrenaline was pumping. I was excited and terrified. 
 
Three months and four days ago I met my first sweet family on the beach in Niantic, Connecticut, who had a story to share for my mission. It was my first story of the trip. I took their photo, and chatted with them for a little while before they hugged me goodbye. The mother had brought a squash from her garden for my host that night, and the father gave me a twenty dollar bill telling me, “I want to be the first tank of gas!”
 
Three months ago and two days ago I sat in a chair while a woman interviewed me from Fox 61 about my road trip. I told her, and whomever was watching television in Connecticut that morning, that I was driving across the country in my mother’s car, in my mother’s honor, to collect stories of human kindness for a book I wanted to create and donate to hospital waiting rooms. I still remember the feeling I had walking through the door towards the chair that morning to be interviewed. 
 
Two months and twenty days ago I got an e-mail from a woman named Kelly. She told me about something that happened to her 28 years ago. She was working as a bank teller and having a horrible day. A customer mentioned she looked stressed and she quickly responded with the fact that “it was nothing some M&M’s couldn’t cure.” A half hour later the woman returned and handed her some M&M’s. Kelly told me she never forgot that day, and that she often shares it with her children to remind them of the immense power a random act of kindness can hold.
 
Two months and two days ago I got an e-mail from someone at a larger social media site asking if they could create a small video for their site explaining what I was doing. I immediately replied, “Yes!” I figured the more it got out there, the more stories! The video reached 35,000 people that night. 
 
One month and eight days ago I arrived at the home of a family I had never met for Christmas. The night I arrived was the night before Christmas Eve. I piled on to the couch with the family – two twin boys, who still believed in Santa, and their parents. They instantly made me feel welcome, as if I was a part of their family all along. We watched The Polar Express before heading off to bed. 
 
Seventeen days ago I arrived at the house of a third cousin in Virginia who I knew, and another third cousin who I had never met. Besides working on collecting stories, I had the opportunity to hear stories and see old photos of my family and spend time with relatives I had never spent much time with otherwise. I had a moment to gather my thoughts on the trip and relax a bit.
 
Two weeks ago I finished my wedding season, something I celebrated with my fantastic host, Lindsey, and a tequila shot. 
 
And today is 30.
 
This year, I’ve decided I’m going to feel it all. Embrace it all. 
 
And tell it all. 
 
Because I think now, more than ever, it is important we tell the whole truth. 
 
So here it goes. 
 
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Three months and five days ago I sat on the Cross Sound Ferry to Connecticut. That morning I sat with one of my closest friends to have a goodbye breakfast. I ate two pieces of toast and a sip of water. I had no appetite. I had twenty knots in my stomach. My anxiety was higher than it had ever been. And then, my tooth broke. I rushed to the closest dentist to have it patched up before I made the ferry that morning. Three hundred dollars slipped out of my “road trip fund” before I even left on the trip.
 

Three months and four days ago I met my first sweet family on the beach in Niantic, Connecticut who had a story to share with my mission. I was exhausted. I hadn’t slept in over a week and despite the fact that the guest bed I had slept in the night before was similar to a cloud from heaven, I was still restless with anxiety about starting the trip. I had googled something about having trouble sleeping and the article told me that usually it takes a day or two to adjust to a new place. This posed an issue as I was not going to be in a place longer than a night or two for the next year or so of my life. I immediately became more stressed. 

Three months ago and two days ago I sat in a chair while a woman interviewed me from Fox 61 about my road trip. I was terrified to be on live television and the entire drive into Hartford, CT to the station that day I thought I was going to be sick. My stomach was, as usual, in twenty knots of terror and for some reason all I could think about was when the next time I’d be able to use a bathroom in peace. This is something people don’t think about as much when hearing about my road trip, and maybe, out of classiness, don’t ask me. But let me tell you, being in and out of strangers’ homes poses quite an issue for being comfortable enough for bowel movements. I rock a More Good shirt and a stomachache most days of this journey. Shortly after I left the interview that day I was driving to the next host of my trip and faced car trouble. Luckily everything turned out ok, but getting my car towed and thinking the entire time that the car just died after I went on live television to tell people about my trip was…well, stressful to say the least.
 
Two months and twenty days ago I got an e-mail from a woman named Kelly. She told me about something that happened to her 28 years ago. It was an act of kindness she had never forgotten. I opened her e-mail and read the story and cried. Not because it was a particularly emotional story, but because I had been having an awful day. I was exhausted and stressed trying to reach out to people and encourage them to take action and send their stories. I was looking at a Facebook status filled with tags to people but an empty inbox wondering if the people being tagged were even seeing the post. I was feeling discouraged, and then her e-mail arrived into my inbox. A simple sweet story, it was exactly the kind of story I loved to highlight. I sat there and read it and it made me cry to think this woman took the time to write to me. She took the time to support the mission with her story, as small as it was, it was one of my favorites.
 
Two months and two days ago I got an e-mail from someone from a larger social media site asking if they could create a small video for their site explaining what I was doing. That night I checked the page and saw all of the views, then I opened the comments. People commented that I was “a retard.” “This must be what you do when you have all of the time in the world.” “She must have gotten a lot of money from her dead mom.” “Just wait for it, she’s going to get her car stolen.” I sat there with a weird pain in my stomach, like I wanted to cry or throw up. I had worked my ass off to get this trip to work, to figure out how to connect with amazing people who would host me so I could budget on hospitality, and use my own personal money to buy any other food or coffee or gas I needed. I had also created a Go Fund Me account I would run through the trip to alleviate some of the costs too. They didn’t even know me, and yet they were ripping me, and my mission to spread kindness, apart. I felt sick.
 
One month and eight days ago I arrived at the home of a family I had never met for Christmas. I had a fever and horrible sore throat. I crawled into bed after we watched The Polar Express that night and slept through the majority of Christmas Eve the following day. I felt awful and awkward being sick in a stranger’s home, especially on Christmas! Of course they were incredibly kind to me and not bothered, but I still felt horrible showing up for Christmas and bringing sickness into their home.
 
Seventeen days ago I arrived at a relative’s home. The side of my mouth had been hurting me and by the second day at my cousin’s house it was throbbing. We went to the dentist and I was informed that I was clenching my teeth so badly at night that if I kept it up in a few years I wouldn’t be able to even open my mouth. The dentist told me I needed to start stressing less, and needed to wear a mouth guard every night from now on.
 
Two weeks ago I finished my wedding season, something I celebrated with my fantastic host, Lindsey, and a tequila shot. Earlier that day I had headed to the dermatologist. I had a rash on the side of my face that hadn’t let up in a while and decided to finally get it checked out. I had tried multiple remedies throughout the trip but nothing seemed to be working and the rash was getting worse. The dermatologist said it was rosacea. Main cause: stress. She put me on an antibiotic for a month and a half, and gave me a scrub and topical cream that I was to put on a few times each day. The rash is still very much alive and it is all I can see every time I look in the mirror. I feel like I’m back in high school going through the awkward stages of puberty all over again, only I’m turning thirty and the ugly rash isn’t temporary acne this time, it’s incurable and stress related…which means it’s here to stay.
 
And today is 30.
 
 
A few weeks ago I sat at a coffee shop and talked to a woman from Virginia Beach. We had just met and started chatting about her reasons for being kind when her nine year old son, Aidan, interrupted. He crossed one leg over the other, leaned forward, placed his arm on his leg and said, “Even though some people might be bad or something might happen to you that makes you sad you still keep going. Don’t let it affect you. You have to keep going and be nice.”
 
So today, on my thirtieth birthday, I am going to let myself start feeling it all and keep going. Because that is what Aidan McKeating told me to do. Because that is all we really can do. I’m going to be thankful for all of the feelings I’ve had on this trip so far because in some way, good or bad, they have shaped me to this point. I am more passionate than ever to continue this mission. And I think, more than ever, we all need this mission to keep going. 
 
But I’m also realizing that sometimes it is ok to ask for help because at the rate I am going the stress of doing the majority of this trip alone could kill me. I’m sitting here in bed exhausted, chomping on a mouth guard, rubbing weird creams on the rash on my face, and popping an antibiotic while e-mailing every local paper I can think of, not knowing if all of it will just get sent to spam. So since it is my birthday…I thought it would be ok if I asked you for something today. Because maybe you have some really cool people you know who work for a paper, or a television station, or are part of a big mom community in their town who can spread the word and help me get my mission heard! Maybe you want to throw some money into the gas tank? Or maybe you have a really cool friend or family member you think I should meet while I travel through all of the states. I’d love you to be part of this mission. I’d love your ideas, suggestions, and connections. I’d love your help. 

Three months and five days ago I told you I wanted to change the world…
but I can’t do it alone. 
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A tall glass of milk on the beach?

I am sitting in a cafe in Florence having a cappuccino and it’s raining outside. Frank Sinatra is playing, a German couple is making some plans for their day next to me, and the waiter who delivered my cappuccino has a really sweet man bun. About a half hour ago I mustered up enough strength to put on a bra and get myself out of the apartment so that was a start to the day at least. Two hours earlier I was walking home from Piazza San Marco, in the rain, ugly-crying and debating a Sex and the City marathon. Then I thought that maybe today would be a good day to write instead.

After two ridiculous months prancing around Europe together, Cali and I said our goodbyes this morning. And much like the finale of Dawson’s Creek and every song Sarah McLaughlin has ever sung, it left me on an emotional roller coaster.

When we first got here together it was one of our Italian roommate’s birthdays and we went to the store to get her a little gift. We picked out a scarf and then Cali saw a princess crown. I debated it at first because I wasn’t sure if this would be weird. Do Italian girls wear crowns for their birthday? Would our new roommate think it was stupid or childish of us to give her this to wear to dinner that night? Then Cali picked up a wand to go with it. I told her the wand was too much. I had come to Italy with intentions of being as classy and cultured as possible and for a second I thought maybe these silly gifts would just make us look like….well, like childish dumb Americans. In the end, our roommate loved her crown and wore it out with us that night.

I realized something very important in the past two months living with Cali. There are “childish dumb Americans” who loudly parade around other countries being rude and obnoxious, and then there are Calis. People who parade around countries respectfully but with their inner child ready to go at all times. People who are full of emotion. I’m talking about laughing to the point of snorts when having ridiculous conversations but also crying when you are really happy. Being with her reminded me that tears aren’t always negative. That sometimes, when people share with you a beautiful feast or an amazing view, it’s worthy of a good cry. That crying isn’t just for when life is harsh to us. Tears can simply be a normal reaction to when life hands us things that are way more beautiful than we ever expected. For me, that was the last two months.

It was only a matter of hours after arrival that Cali and I settled into the roles of a perfect old married couple. Cali would make breakfast and paint my nails; I would make the beds and figure out the travel plans. In the last few weeks alone we bounced ourselves from Italy to Spain to France and back to Italy. In Spain we explored Barcelona and ate entire pans of paella while consuming pitchers of sangria, somehow finding room to order dessert. We danced around Barcelona beach with men in thongs lying next to us and even got a massage on the beach from an Asian woman who wouldn’t leave us alone on our last day. It was magical.

Maybe the most magical was our encounter with two Australian men who we met pre-massage. We had just finished our first beach drink when we all started conversing. Shortly after the conversation, and like every single night since my arrival to Europe, my heartburn arrived. We discussed my issue with heartburn for a few minutes before Cali disappeared only to return with a large glass of milk for me. (I’m not sure if milk is the best method of relieving heartburn but when in another country on a beach far from value-size packs of Tums, you take what you can get.) Our conversation topic quickly changed from heartburn to the Squatty Potty. If you don’t know what a Squatty Potty is, I suggest you google the video tutorial. But for the sake of opening another tab in the middle of reading about all of my interesting health issues, I’ll give you a quick description so you get the idea. A Squatty Potty is a plastic stool used to assist in proper toilet posture and therefore ease elimination. A stool to help your stools, if you will. You place your feet on the stool while sitting and it helps ease the movement because of the way our colons are shaped. It really works, and if you’re wondering how I know it’s because I got one for Christmas (obviously) from one of my friends and while I carried it on a train and a ferry home to New York after receiving it, it was less realistic to bring abroad. Which was unfortunate because if you’re anything like me or the ten million others out there who have issues going to the bathroom when traveling, you would understand why I miss it so much. ANYWAY, here I was, sitting on a beach with Cali discussing the benefits of Squatty Potties and chugging a glass of milk and for some reason, completely unknown to either one of us, these guys were still talking to us. We asked them, after an extremely entertaining day on the beach, to meet us at a rooftop bar that night. And despite pretty much everything about us including, but not limited to our conversations and lack of showers, they did! We met for cocktails and views that evening at 8 p.m. but that is a story for another post I’ll never share. It was then, I realized, after talking to guys about heartburn and bowel issues on the beach, that I had given up on being the classy, cultured person I had hoped to be in Europe and instead decided to just be myself, Squatty potty and all.

Then came France. Cali, ever since she can remember, has been obsessed with the movie “Moulin Rouge.” Paris was never in our travel plans, and people back home weren’t too excited to hear when it was, but Cali decided if she was already in Europe she was going to the Moulin Rouge. It was her dream. She booked the tickets, I booked the Airbnb and we were on our way. The night before our flight we watched the movie one more time and Cali downloaded the soundtrack, which we listened to nonstop the entire trip. Our apartment was a convenient fifty steps from the Moulin Rouge and as we walked past it the first time, Cali began to tear up. It was like watching a small child receive a puppy on Christmas morning. Except instead of a puppy it was a huge house of boobs and little red lamps and instead of a child it was a twenty-six year old…but you get the picture. The show lived up to our every expectation and more and we left France with so many amazing memories, each along with another pair of pants that no longer fit us having eaten too many croissants.

Having Cali by my side (literally) the past two months has taught me a lot. I’ve learned how to do a proper push-up. I’ve learned that “clopen” means apparently closing and opening shifts at a restaurant. (Does everyone know this besides me?) I’ve learned to be thankful that the only time we actually fought was because she was being “too easy-going” which was really a blessing in disguise throughout our entire adventure. She let me make almost all of the decisions without putting up a fight at all. But mostly we agreed on everything. We spent our days avoiding museum lines and instead spent them eating all of the tapas in Barcelona, dancing our way through the parks of Paris, and making rap videos throughout Rome.

This past Saturday I was sitting in a bar in Como with Cali and some friends. It was our last excursion before returning to Florence to pack her up. I noticed there was a sign behind one of the tables displaying Picasso’s words:

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.”

I couldn’t think of a better solution for such a problem than dancing my way through Europe with Cali. So next time you are in a store, and your friend wants to buy someone a magic wand…let them. You can drink your milk on the beach in Barcelona and have your cultured, classy cake too. You don’t have to change who you are to be respectful of other cultures. Let your inner artist self free.

Cali taught me that.

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Our final “vacation from a vacation” last weekend to Lake Como.

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Elba Island! (The first trip we took together since my last post. Included purchasing lots of beers for our Airbnb, lounging on this beach right next to our place with some champagne, renting a Vespa and me driving us around the island – only slightly terrifying on certain cliffs.)

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She would usually never let me drive, but her feet don’t touch the ground on scooters.

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Quick stop for some vino and beer.

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The best part about this moment was two minutes before it was taken we were on the ground under the scooter. When we arrived to Italy we refused to be one of those people who purchased a selfie stick…so instead we would occasionally set up our self timer on the phone and run to jump in the photo. Cali set it up, and when she ran to jump on the scooter it knocked my balance off and me, Cali, and the scooter all fell over painfully on top of each other. Luckily we were just in time for a car to be driving by.

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…then we went on a day trip to Lucca.

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Which was really enjoyable until we realized we missed the last bus home and had to run to the train station and pray their would still be a train running.

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This photo was before all of that when we were really enjoying the gorgeous day and this beautiful cup of heaven.

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We also rented bikes and rode around the wall of the city. Mid-ride, a little boy came out of nowhere and started prodding a tree branch in between the spokes of Cali’s wheels. It was the second best part of my day after seeing that last train arrive just in time for us to get home to Florence.

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AND THEN WE WENT TO SPAIN and everything was really beautiful…the tapas, the cocktails, and all of the men.

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So we tried really hard to be pretty too, and attempt to go out and dance all night, but somehow that ended with us alone at our apartment with kinder eggs and kebabs at 3 a.m.

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“It’s going to be sad when people ask me what my favorite part of Europe was and I tell them it was this breakfast.” – Cali at La Nena in Barcelona, Spain.

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For me, my favorite part was this (and every other one I’ve had here?) cocktail. We stumbled across a fantastic bar when walking around Barcelona and got some ridiculously delicious tapa to split and I got this mojito made by a sexy bartender and then Cali gave me a present! It was a crop top (as if those fit right now) that I’m going to try really hard to fit into the shirt for my next post.

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Gaudi Gaudi Guadi

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Gaudi Guadi Guadi

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Cocktails cocktails cocktails

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Dinner dates with Cali and her drink of choice.

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Lavender ice cream and chocolate soufflé.

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I have a really hard time choosing desserts which may explain why I have no money left and no pants to wear.

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street stuff.

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Our last day in Spain:(

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Cali doing some gymnastics in front of the nude dude.

 

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The best paella I have ever eaten in my life, ever. *to be found here.

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Because when you don’t go to bed until 4:45 a.m. and have to wake up at 5 a.m. for your flight…YOU GONNA NEED SOME PRETTY ESPRESSO.

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Arrived just in time for sunset and Cosmopolitans in Cinque Terre! (We have been watching too much Sex and the City on our train rides.)

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Adventure day with our new friend Marco who we met at the bar! Met him in the morning and he drove us across an island, brought us to a boat, landed us on another island and then we found this…

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we also made some other friends along the way.

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…and hiked for hours only to find out that the bar was closed on the other side. Luckily Marco was able to magically commandeer some alcohol from an “abandoned” restaurant.

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and then we got gelato! My favorite gelato of the entire trip: mint chocolate chip pistachio. HEAVEN.

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Just one last light snack ten minutes before our train departed. Champagne and chocolate cake with a view.

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BONJOUR FROM PARIS!

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This photo was taken while Cali silently wept and shook with excitement next to me.

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The best night of our entire adventure? I think so.

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As I also mentioned on Instagram…you can’t tell here but the shoes not featured in this photo are filled with blood from the agony of attempting to be “tres chic” in Paris. (They were immediately replaced with Keds after the show to go out and dance.)

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The line for the museum was too long for us, so we decided a ride on the ferris wheel was a better idea.

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…but first we needed to get some macaroons to eat on the top.

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worth it.

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Meet the Paris “Lock Bridge,” a place people locked up their love stories thinking they would remain forever, and tossed their keys into the Seine. The locks are now slowly being removed because they are weighing down the bridge in an attempt to preserve it. (More on that craziness here.)

 

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“This has been my best dinner of the whole trip.” – Cali at our favorite little spot in Montmartre finishing up with some Creme Brûlée . *Chez Toinette*

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One last photo in Lake Como.

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And one last moment with our favorite view.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

then consider me Miles Davis…

When I was about four years old my family went on a vacation to Florida. Since the nearest airport is located two and a half hours away from our family’s home, and he didn’t want to worry about parking, my father organized a limo to bring us to and from the airport for our trip. I remember we were all really excited about this idea and on the day of the trip I felt like I was a princess when I got inside the fancy car to start our big adventure. We were all having a great time in the back of the limo until halfway through the trip when I proceeded to get violently car sick. Luckily the limo was equipped with a large garbage bag, where my head spent the remainder of the ride. Super princess-y style. After our trip was over the same limo driver picked us up from the airport and it was suggested that maybe I should sit in the front to avoid getting sick. I thought this was a great idea! Now I got to sit in the front with our cool driver and hang out with him. We all piled in, and the driver handed me a Coca-Cola to help settle any potential stomach issues. I drank the entire thing, talked to him for five minutes, and then proceeded to fall fast asleep only to wake up and find out I had peed my pants.

Everyone else in the limo was already aware of what happened at that point. I was dragged embarrassingly to the side of the road and told to go pee now, which was even worse because now I didn’t have to pee. Did they not see my pants?  

I guess what I’m trying to explain is, I don’t travel well. Which is funny, because I do it all of the time. I almost always get anxiety attacks before a flight, or nauseous on the ride to the airport, or do something really cool, like pass out on the actual plane mid-flight. In 2008, when I moved to Italy to study in Florence for a few months, my laptop was stolen out of my bag on the flight over. I didn’t realize the laptop was gone until I opened the bag at the hotel. Minutes before I had been in such a happy place – I had been enjoying my first gelato on top of the steps in San Lorenzo and basking in the sun and my new life here. About three minutes after checking in and opening my bag, I was hysterical in a ball on the bathroom floor. It wasn’t that there were extremely important documents on the computer, it was actually a old piece of junk with missing keys. But being the photographer in the family, I had the majority of the family photos and they were all on that computer. That was the most upsetting part, especially now with Mom gone and knowing how many great photos I had of her on there. Those photos, and my philosophy paper on animal crackers and human domination that I also didn’t back up were the most upsetting losses that day. It took a while, but I finally adjusted to the fact that it was gone and had an amazing time living in Italy regardless.

And then came the flight home after that first Italian experience. Everything was going well until about halfway through the flight, after a few cocktails to aid my anxiety, when we were served our dinner. I had just started a movie when I began to feel myself getting light-headed. I looked at my watch only to realize that there were still three hours left of the flight and started to panic. I have always been slightly claustrophobic and I was in the window seat next to a rather large couple and had no idea how I was going to get out. I thought maybe if I put some cold water on my wrists that would help. But everyone had their tray tables down with food on them and there was no way I could fit. But I stood up anyway and then everything went black.

When I opened my eyes which felt like one second later, but was apparently a minute and a half later, I was in the back of the plane with three flight attendants standing over me. One was checking my pulse, and the others were putting cold wash clothes over my arms. I had food all over my shirt. Apparently I had stood up and then fell over the couple’s tray tables next to me before an attendant lifted me up and rushed me to the back. Luckily, after I sat up and started to feel better, they let me sit in the back in a large seat and gave me free candy to get my sugar levels up for the rest of the trip.

As I said, I don’t travel well. But I love to do it. Despite the horrible anxiety, the stomachaches, and the occasional passing out on planes…I put myself in these situations because I can’t imagine not putting myself in them. I can’t imagine feeling complacent somewhere when there is still so much to see, and I have been blessed with a passion and career that allow me to do it. 

 The other day I got one of the nicest packages in the mail I have ever received. It was from a couple whose wedding I had photographed in the Caribbean. They lived in Pittsburgh and had gotten married two years ago in St. John. Not only did I photograph their wedding, but I also got invited to the dinner that followed the ceremony, and then the boat trip they went on with their friends the next day. We have loosely stayed in touch ever since, and recently they told me they were thinking about moving to New Zealand. It was after that news that I received their package containing a letter and a small, soft item wrapped in tissue paper. I opened up the paper to find a T-shirt that said, “You have a friend in Pittsburgh.” And the accompanying letter told me how they are so happy that they met me and how I inspired them to make this huge change in their lives and uproot themselves to go explore New Zealand to make a new life for themselves. She mentioned how it would be difficult to leave family, but she couldn’t imagine staying in her current life doing the same thing each day over and over. There was a lot more in the letter, but I left it home, in a very safe place where I keep all of my back-up photos now as well, just in case. But the T-shirt came with me to Italy.  

Similar to an old episode of Friends, or chicken noodle soup when you’re sick, this shirt has become a staple comfort item in my life now. It’s a reminder for me that what I’m doing (despite it being overwhelming or scary at times) is worth it. I continue to travel so I can meet all of these amazing people and see all of these amazing sights I might not have had I stayed in my cubicle back in a job that wasn’t meant for me. And for me I knew I needed to get out of my comfort zone, to grow, in a way I couldn’t just staying in New York.  

After receiving this most recent package I realized, not only am I temporarily living in the home of the Renaissance while shoveling award-winning gelato into my mouth for three months, but I am able to inspire others at the same time. The experiences I have had and the people I have met since I made the decision to change my lifestyle have now shaped my work. They have made me stronger, and now I have the ability to pay this courage and inspiration forward.

I used to always look to my mother for reassurance. And when I lost her, I didn’t know where to look. But then I found people like you. People who send me words of comfort or encouragement after I write about what ridiculous move I’ve decided to make now with my life. People like Kristy and Anthony who tell me I’ve inspired them to uproot themselves from a comfortable place they have always known and move across the world because they saw me do it and knew they could too. We all have the ability to change it up (you don’t have to move across the world, although if you do I suggest leaving your skinny jeans behind because the food really is way better over here) but you can make small changes. Changes to make you happier. Because really, what is there to lose? If you’re so bored in your current complacent lifestyle then you’ve probably already lost your sanity. Do something different, even if it’s just having dessert for dinner tonight.

Whatever you do, don’t let fear stand in the way of doing something fabulous. You might pee your pants (But it’s cool, right?) or pass out on a plane, and you will definitely be a little more broke when you return from the dream trip you always wanted to take. But travel is the only thing that we can buy that makes us richer anyway, right? Taking a leap of faith is always worth it.

Now excuse me, I have to go find some wifi to book a vespa on Elba Island, and the chocolate croissant at the cafe across the street is not going to eat itself.

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CIAO from me and my Pittsburgh shirt.

*In case you didn’t know, I am currently living in Florence with one of my best friends who I met in the Caribbean. Her name is Cali. She grew up on Cape Cod and lived in St. John USVI for the past five years. I met her at a bar where I put my number in her phone as “Mary – PLEASE CALL SHE HAS NO ONE TO HANG OUT WITH.” It’s still like that in her phone. But in all seriousness, I only knew one person on St. John when I moved there and needed to find some friends. She finally decided to call me and today we are living together across the ocean. She is absolutely one of the best and most entertaining people I’ve met in my life and if you follow me on Snapchat you can see some of that entertainment for yourself. Anyways, I let her caption the photos below. Eventually I’ll post some nicer ones that I took with my actual camera but for now…welcome to Italy from the lens of my iPhone and the mouth of Cali Fornasaro:

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vaaaaaaa bene VIVOLI. 

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HOW many panthers did they have to kill to make these PLATES. p.s. hot date over there. 

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SINGLE AND FABULOUS- only we are in Florence, and there is one extra person…I call being “Mr. Big.” We’ve had to watch Sex and the City lately because we’ve been sick for an entire week and don’t have health insurance. 

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BUONGIORNO, PRINCIPESSA. I bet you wish you had that matching wand I tried to buy you for that crown but Mary wouldn’t let me.

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you had me at, “MANGIA MANGIA MANGIA!!”

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SUP, delicious byrd.

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CALL FOR A GOOD TIME: 555-920-6642

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picture of a picture for a blog about my blog.

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Reflecting on Venice (literally.)

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When the bar doesn’t know what Tequila is, you just have to get on the next boat out of town. 

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Hi look I’m Mary’s pony. I’m cute but I also almost dislocated her arms by trying to stampede all over my friend’s faces during our trail ride.

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#beautyandcrap

 

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#sexgoddess

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#beautyandcrap #sexgoddess

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Chamomile checks out Fudia’s giant shlong, refuses to look at camera.

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DREAM DATE.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Three years later.

There is something that happens when you prepare for the worst. I’m just learning about it, but it’s happened a few times now and I’ve finally picked up on it. When you prepare for the absolute worst possible outcome, you’re pleasantly surprised when it turns out not to be as bad as you expected. Similar to my first kale smoothie and my last dentist appointment, I’ve now experienced this with both of my sister’s weddings. I’m not talking about their wedding in general, I’m talking about having a family wedding without our mom there. I prepared myself mentally to have embarrassingly awkward break-downs resulting in make-up running down my face throughout the day, but it never happened. Somewhere in between all of the excitement and champagne, I got stuck focusing on only the positive aspects of the day. Of course her presence was missing, but it wasn’t the usual feeling I was so used to. You know, the feeling you get when you’re walking down the road and out of nowhere you suddenly remember your mom is dead and you feel like someone just knocked all of the air out of you. Even though it’s been three years. Even though you were just fine one second ago and focusing on all that positive stuff in your life. Ah yes, that was yesterday for me.

It’s amazing how grief will find you at moments when you least expect it and utterly destroy you. 

Minutes before my mom passed I was a shell of a human. I was saying the “Hail Mary,” and begging God to not let this happen. I couldn’t imagine it. I begged for hours silently. And then she died. 

And I became a different person. First I was furious, then I was depressed. I went through so many different characters in those first few months after her death that I couldn’t even recognize myself anymore. Finally, I realized I would never be that person again. That version of me lay on the ground in ten million shattered pieces and I had to learn how to pick up some of the pieces and re-construct myself. 

I had an immediate urge to do things that started making me feel alive because after she was gone I felt like so much of my happiness died with her. I started to do everything in my power to preserve the tiny bit of happiness that was left. I started learning how to appreciate things more. I became more grateful for what surrounded me; I got out of the dark, depressed bed my brain was living in and actually woke up. And I constantly looked up quotes to help me cope with this unbearable pain. There have been so many books I’ve read and quotes I’ve written and pinned to walls that have helped me throughout the last three years but one has always stuck out the most that I saw in an episode of “Ellen,” 

“When your heart is broken, when your heart has cracks in it, it lets the light in, it lets the sun in.”

I’ve taken this quote with me everywhere I’ve gone. When I left New York to move to a tiny Caribbean Island, when I returned home to continue my wedding season in the town that painfully reminded me every second of my mother, and I’ll be taking it with me next week to Italy. It has been a constant reminder that it is only through such heartbreak and sadness do we truly understand joy.

The thing is, there’s nothing we can do to prevent when life deals us a deck of shit. But we can control how we react to it. It’s really about two choices. You lay down on the ground and give up, or you let it force you to grow, and let as much sun in as possible. 

I’m not saying I’ve figured it out. Far from it. But I’m off the ground at least. 

And this year, Mom, I’m welcoming a lot more of that light in for you. 

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Some fancy Italian-styled birthday cupcakes from my sisters.

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Birthday dinner in St. John with some of the best friends a girl could ask for, and some goblets of tequila.

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Potentially the coolest cooler on the market? #blenderincluded

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Surprise beach day!

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Day of Birth anniversary

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More surprises at the new fancy NYC bar on St. John.

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Home from St. John just in time to shower our beautiful sister with lots of love and a surprise magician!

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Shower cupcakes!

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Quick snowboarding trip in Vermont with the below gang.

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Best part of wedding week for me? Getting home the night of the rehearsal dinner and putting on our mom’s old pajamas (Lady loved a stylish jammie.) And then cuddling on my bed with my sister and our father watching Father of the Bride.

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Family

The date

I was going to cancel at first. I woke up to my alarm yesterday morning and thought, “Well, my dentist appointment (yay!) isn’t until 10:30 a.m. so technically I could sleep another hour right now and just tell them I can’t make it. It felt to be about -20 degrees outside and my bed was so warm. But I got up. Our date was scheduled for 9 a.m. and, because I am my father’s daughter, I was already running late. I texted them and asked if 9:15 worked. It did. I ran outside to take care of the guinea hens quickly but that turned into a twenty minute ordeal of having to pour boiling water over blocks of frozen ice and aggressively stomping on their waterers to get the top off in order to refill them. Ah, the life of a farmer girl. To the people at the dentist today in the waiting room, I’m sorry. That was my boots that smelled like chicken shit. 

I finally finished getting myself ready and headed off to my date. I pulled into the parking lot of the coffee shop about six minutes later than I had hoped and did a slow jog to the door. An hour later I walked back out that door with some serious butterflies. I think the last time I felt this way was in seventh grade when I asked my crush, who was two years older, to sign my yearbook and he wrote me a whole paragraph. He had a class in the same classroom I did one period before me. I remember because he would always stay late in class and I would run full speed from my previous class on the third floor down to the first floor so I would be early and able to see him. I remember the day I asked him to sign it. I remember running faster than usual because I had missed him the day before and it was my last chance to get him to sign before school ended. I made it, just in time, and he said he would give it back to me after his next class so he had enough time to sign it. When I got it back, I saw he had written a whole sweet paragraph alluding to the fact we would hang out someday. It was hands down the best day of junior high. 

The same type of adrenaline rush and excitement came back to me yesterday when I left the coffee shop. Except this time it wasn’t my crush signing a yearbook, it was something very different. You see, anyone single who has lived on the North Fork of Long Island in the winter, or pretty much in any small summer town during the cold months, knows the only things keeping you warm at night are the hot toddies. This wasn’t a hot date, though if it was I probably would have changed my shoes and maybe not made it for 9 a.m. It was more of a creative date. I was meeting with a girl who I knew a little in high school who had reached out to me the night before. I had known her brother because we graduated from the same tiny class out of Greenport High School. He had the best smile and attitude in our entire class. He died in a car accident almost six years ago now.  Since his passing and a few other issues this girl had decided to start changing her life. She started on an amazing health kick and lost over 100 pounds. Let me tell you, she looks phenomenal. But that wasn’t the point. The point was that she did it. She picked herself off the ground after something really shitty happened to her and made some serious changes. It reminded me of a quote that I always loved:

“For a seed to achieve its greatest expression, it must come completely undone. The shell cracks, its insides come out and everything changes. To someone who doesn’t understand growth, it would look like complete destruction.”

I know that’s what happened, and is still happening to me at times, after my mother died. I cracked. A lot. It wasn’t pretty. But one thing that never changed during my awfully-timed moments of self-destruction was the idea that I wouldn’t let this be me forever. I gave myself time to cry. (I still do.) I gave myself a few weeks to sit at home every night in bed watching horrible TV and drinking White Russians until I passed out. But then I got up and got started. I made my exit plan from the city. I booked my ticket. I left my old life. Because that life wasn’t the same anymore. My mom was gone and the only thing I could do was to honor her with the new life I needed to start. My coffee date did the same thing. She moved through her pain as best she could and achieved a new outlook on life. She achieved a new body. She achieved a new attitude of endurance. And it was so fucking cool to see it. We talked about starting her a website and growing her business and it was exciting and scary and inspiring. It gave me butterflies. 

2013 was the worst year of my life. The first half was spent drinking through the agonizing knowledge that my mother was losing her battle with cancer, and the second half was spent adorned in black and feeling more fragile and lost than I could have ever imagined after she died. 2014 was spent picking myself up off the ground and booking a one-way flight to what I thought would be the answer to all of my problems. (I’m not saying living in 85 degree weather with amazing people and 3 p.m. happy hours wasn’t therapeutic, it just wasn’t the solution.) 2015 brought in a wave of more changes. Figuring out a place to stay for a few months in Italy once the wedding season ended, welcoming a new niece who I lived with and helped raise for the first three months of her life, and grappling with the fact that despite all of these exciting things I was still stuck. I felt depressed and tried my best to hide it because I knew it wasn’t me. I smiled through most of my experiences the past few months because I felt like they were happy experiences and I needed to at least show them some respect. But I wasn’t happy. I was lost again. I was stuck. And I was pissed that I was back in this place.

So I stopped writing. 

A few days ago my father and a friend of ours were cheers-ing to the new year with a glass of champagne.  My dad clinked our glasses and excitedly said, “Cheers!” A moment later our friend quietly said, “Happy sweet sixteen.” It took me a moment to understand what it meant as I had already forgotten it was now 2016. But once I did put it together, I decided it was brilliant. A new mantra for the upcoming year. The other years were over now. It was time to focus on a new one. A sweet one. 

The next day I finally sat down for almost the entire day and figured out my flight to Italy. I booked an apartment in Florence. I ordered some books on Amazon about Italian history. I booked another wedding for the fall. I started to plan the road trip I am starting next October. And then I had my coffee date yesterday and it was the best date I had been on in months. It reminded me how absolutely amazing it is to be around people who choose to be positive and run (nervously) full-speed towards their dreams. It’s like the quote, “Inspiration is everywhere.” It is. You just have to seek it out. And I plan on doing that this entire year. I can’t wait to write more now. I can’t wait to travel and take photos and surround myself with only people and wine glasses that are half full.

Sweet sixteen, I am so, so ready for you.

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(A lot has happened since my last post so I thought I’d catch you up in photos with the highlights…)

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One of my lovely best friends, Andi, came to visit with her son and we had many delicious margaritas and burgers.

 

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Spent a weekend with two of my sister’s best friends (Kelly & Monica) who are also like sisters to me. Got to photograph Monica’s wedding and my dad had the honor of walking her down the aisle. Only cried eight times.

 

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My sister Emily and I threw a bachelorette party for our sister Sarah on the Heron.  *fun fact this boat is based in LI and the Caribbean.

 

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Went on a camping trip to Montauk with some best friends that visited from St. John. Ate a lot of sandwiches in the car. Drank a lot of beers on the beach. Discovered I love camping.

 

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I dyed my hair…

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which turned out not to be the best decision…so I dyed it back…

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but not before being a bridesmaid in one of my best friend’s weddings. She is very forgiving. #sorryjanine

 

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Thought about how lucky I was that my college best friends are the best thing ever.

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Went to Germany with Dad for our annual Eggentaler Herbst Classic Car Rally – visited Prague and Mcely in the Czech Republic afterwards. Way too much to type about the trip in a caption.

 

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Celebrated my favorite little man’s first birthday. Christian Biglin, you are my favorite part of 2014.

 

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Went on a long road trip to Swanton, VT with the taller girl in the photo (Briana) to see our dear friend Lauren in her new home. We wore flannels to try and not look so touristy. Lauren wore a Vermont sweatshirt.

 

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Decided to get creative this year and channel my inner Pinterest girl for Thanksgiving. Spray painted some leaves gold with my sister. Felt really accomplished.

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Tried it again on Christmas.

 

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My sister took me on a surprise trip! She booked us a room in a fancy place (which turned into an upgraded suite) and we toured the Newport mansions and sipped cocktails and snuggled. Started writing my speech for her wedding after the trip. Spoiler alert: it’s all about how much I love her.

 

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Went to go see “On Your Feet.” Sarah and I used to work with one of the cast members! This is us backstage after the show getting a tour from the famous David Baida! IF I CAN GIVE YOU ANY GOOD ADVICE IN THIS ENTIRE POST, LET IT BE THIS: GO BUY A TICKET AND SEE THIS SHOW. IT IS RIDICULOUSLY AMAZING.

 

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Highlight of the year: became an aunt. I wish I could show you the ten million adorable photos I have on my phone of how cute Samantha is, but she isn’t allowed on social media so you’ll have to just imagine it.

 

Happy New Year everyone. Let this be a very happy and sweet one for you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

28 days home and counting.

I was driving home from a volleyball game the other night when I realized what song was playing on the radio. It was the first game I had played since I had moved home to New York from the Caribbean and it hadn’t gone as well as I’d hoped. I went in with the idea that it was going to be exactly as it had been in St. John. It was not. Besides the obvious differences, i.e. the beach feeling like shards of glass on my bare feet in comparison to the sandy cloud of heaven I bounced around on in the Caribbean, it was a completely different vibe. I know people often say, “If you have no expectations, you can’t be disappointed,” but that’s just not me. For most of you who know me, I”m a die-hard optimist. The cocktail glass is always full and as much as my father is always trying to marry me off, I really do believe there is a gorgeous man out there on a yacht who will find me someday and whisk me on to his boat and shower me with gifts and love for the rest of my life. I mean, if your dreams don’t scare you they aren’t big enough, right? And I’m terrified at the idea of living on a yacht – I get awful seasickness.

Anyway back to volleyball. When I first moved down to the Caribbean I was in a horrible place, if you remember. The thought of having to make new friends, and, well, start an entire new life had turned me into a shy, quiet version of myself that I despised. I used to go and sit at Cinnamon Bay on the weekends and watch people playing volleyball. Each week I’d inch closer to the net but would always be way too scared to actually ask to play. I had played when I was in Manhattan on a team with the company I worked for and we were actually pretty good, but as I watched these guys playing, spiking the ball into each other’s faces, I decided I was not ready. My time in St. John came and went and I moved back to New York for my wedding season last year without ever getting the nerve to ask to play. When I returned to St. John after the season though, I finally played, and for multiple reasons it was the best part of my entire time living there. Everyone was so extremely nice and I couldn’t believe how lame I had been for being too scared to ask to play for so long.

As I continued to think about how badly I wished I was still living in St. John and playing volleyball there, I remembered the song on the radio was one I loved and I began to turn it up when suddenly, and not so surprisingly, I burst into tears. It was a song I had sang with my roommate a few times in our kitchen in St. John. We went through a phase when I first moved back of playing instruments and singing songs, which might be normal if I had any musical talent, but I do not. So while she made noises that actually sounded like singing, and was playing a real instrument (she had just gotten her first ukelele) I sat there completely tone deaf shaking a salt shaker. Our jam sessions were one of my favorite memories, although I can’t say the same for the rest of our roommates who had to listen. They were also one more thing I was going to miss now.

A few nights before I left St. John I went to dinner with two of my best friends. After dinner, I wanted to go out some more but my two friends had to work early in the morning and quickly shut down the idea. Like most days that I can’t control my emotions, I began to tear up. It wasn’t so much the concept of sadness that I couldn’t have one more cocktail (although I would not put that past myself) but the fact that I was leaving soon and wanted to spend every single second I could with the people I was actually leaving. I was walking away from them as tears rolled down my cheeks when one of them jumped on me and told me they would stay out and we were going dancing at Caps, the local bar on the island that I had shockingly never entered. A few minutes later I watched as my two friends twirled around with two of the local men who frequented the joint and wondered to myself how I had gotten so lucky. It is not everyday your best friends give up precious sleep time to go out and be felt up by the locals all for the sake of your tears.

It’s taken me time to process why EVERYTHING seems to make me cry and I’ve finally figured it out. Like when you hear a song that reminds you of someone, or you smell something that smells like someone you know…crying reminds me of my mother. I don’t think I’ve ever cried more in my entire life than the week she passed away. And now, every time something makes me cry, it reminds me of that time. It’s weird how the brain works. One second you are cutting yourself because you weren’t paying attention when slicing the lime for your margarita, and the next you are on the floor in a full blown hysterics over your deceased mother. It happens every time. Tears remind me of her and every time tears happen, my brain automatically goes back to that time. Like the night before, when I began crying that my friends wouldn’t go out more and suddenly realized my brain had decided to be upset about that AND the fact that my mother wasn’t around anymore. Everything that made me cry (like one of the recent episodes of Grey’s Anatomy I had made the terrible decision to watch) made me also think about her, and about her not being here. It was a vicious cycle that I seemed to have no control over since she passed.

When I boarded the ferry on my last day living on St. John, as you can expect, the tears came with me. I sat on the top of the ferry looking back at two of my friends who had helped me with my bags standing there waving to me as the ferry pulled away. I thought about how weird it was that two years earlier as I sat on this same ferry on my first day arriving to the island I was also crying. Crying because I had left my home, because I had lost my mom, because the hangover from three nights ago seemed to feel like it might never leave me, and because I had left a city of friends to go to a tiny island where I only knew one person. Now, I was crying to be leaving it. I can’t describe in words the types of amazing people I met during my time on St. John, and my photographs can not come close to detailing the experiences I have had there either. But I can tell you, that was the best decision I have ever made.

I came to another realization yesterday, as I usually do during momentous occasions (yesterday was Mom’s birthday) I realized that as long as I’m not wearing mascara, crying is actually a good sign now. Of course, sitting on the ferry waving goodbye to a part of my life didn’t feel good, but I figured out that it was because of how amazing an experience I had that I felt this way in the first place. I was sad because I had so many happy memories and amazing people I had to say goodbye to. I realized how lucky I was to have had this experience at all. And while being home has felt awkward and weird so far, I know it is the right decision. And I’m about to be an aunt! Soon after, my other sister will be getting married. So I’ll be in New York until her wedding in February, and then boarding a plane to my next destination. I went to St. John to heal, and while my wound is not one that really ever completely heals, I have definitely gotten stronger. I have learned more living there than I had learned my entire life up to that point. And while there is a large part of me that wants to go back to the amazing people and beaches I tore myself away from a few weeks ago, I know that I need to do something different now. I’m not sure I’ll be able to top my time in paradise but it’s worth a shot.

And the wine is so cheap in Italy.

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My final St. John sunset view from happy hour.

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These three humans kept me sane.

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Me and my roommate in front of our home, the BBH.

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A few of the volleyball crew.

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Saying goodbye is the worst.

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The final hike and scene from my last day on St. John.

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Dad is really excited I am home so I can cook him dinner.

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And in a random turn of events I was on my first date with my new best friend for the summer, Lisl, who also lost her mother. We decided recently while attending a wedding as bridesmaids together that we would go on weekly dates throughout the summer to help each other cope with you know… life. Our first coping date was at Noah’s Restaurant for a cocktail and an app and we ran into the actress from Orange is the New Black. We spoke to for a half hour and snagged a photo. The next day Lisl told me that the actress, Alysia Reiner, actually created a short film called “Speed Grieving” to help those in grief and mourning because she had lost her father to cancer in 2002. The film was to to help those coping with death to feel their loss fully, to not have their grief be “rushed” by a youth-centric society afraid to discuss death, and to help heal the world. I MEAN OF ALL THE PEOPLE WE COULD HAVE MET ON OUR FIRST GRIEF DATE?? Pretty cool.

An open letter to the people I cut out of my life after my mother died.

I stood next to you on your wedding day. We shared diapers. We took endless car rides on the weekends in high school. We spent hours at the ocean talking about our lives.

And then my life fell apart, and you were nowhere to be found. Some of you had a reason, some of you didn’t. You sent a card, you wrote an email or two. One of you actually posted on my Facebook wall. I’m not sure about the rest of the world, but I think that when a person loses their mother, they deserve a little bit more than a Facebook post claiming they wish they could have been there.

And I hated you. I hated you for not being there. For doing such a royally shitty job displaying your sympathy. It was the worst moment of my life and you completely abandoned me.

And then I realized enough is enough. People respond in 1,000 different ways, and because I didn’t like the way you responded, or your lack of response, does not mean I can judge. Maybe you didn’t have a very close relationship to your mother so you didn’t comprehend the effect the loss took on me being so extremely close with my own. Maybe you still don’t know why you didn’t show up. Maybe you were scared? I remember one of you said you didn’t like funerals, because it reminded you of one you went to for a family member when you were younger. I remember thinking, “Who the fuck likes funerals?” You think I want to be there? You think I want to sit around my dead mother while people, some I don’t even know, hug me and tell me they’re sorry and things will get better while you struggle to stay standing and dry-eyed instead of crying in a ball on the floor like you have been every day since she died. It’s been LESS THAN A WEEK. Things are not getting better, FYI. But you do it. You do it because you have to, in my case. But you, you who don’t “like” funerals, you do it because this isn’t about you. It’s about supporting the person you call your friend, a person you love who needs you more than ever right now.

And if you don’t make it to show your support because of other reasons, I get that. Everyone has a life and just because mine came to a screeching halt doesn’t mean others’ will halt with it. Just don’t ever let that reason be because you “don’t like funerals,” and then maybe write a Facebook post to me once in a while.

It’s actually the weeks and months following that day that are the most important. Hell, it’s been over two years now and I have a few friends that still remember to text me on Mother’s Day or on March 1st, or even on my birthday or holidays to let me know they are thinking of me. People think sometimes, “Oh, it’s her birthday, I don’t want to bring it up if she’s happy, I don’t want her to be reminded.” Trust me, you’re not the one reminding me. I think about her every single day. Every single time I see a mother and daughter, every single time I’m working a wedding. Every single time I do absolutely anything in my life and then want to tell her about it. You aren’t reminding me. You’re comforting me. You’re supporting me. You have no idea how much those messages mean to me. That was when I needed you too. I needed you in a big way, I needed you more than just a “hello” text. I needed you to give me a hug or give me some kind of explanation as to why, when things got really hard, you were nowhere to be found.

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It’s time. I realized that this week as I approach another difficult holiday weekend. It’s time to let go of that grudge I have carried around for the past two plus years since my life fell apart. I read a quote once in a book by one of the most inspiring authors I’ve ever read, Cheryl Strayed, that said:

“Forgiveness doesn’t sit there like a pretty boy in a bar. Forgiveness is the old fat guy you have to haul up a hill.”

At first, my main reasoning for not letting you back into my life was that I didn’t want to think about you. Because thinking about you, meant thinking about how you hurt me. And thinking about how you hurt me, meant reliving that horrible week over and over again in my head. I don’t want to go back to that week. I’ve changed now. You’ve changed too. A few of you have actually showed some effort in mending our friendship, and I’m ready to start accepting the offer. It’s exhausting being hurt and angry. It’s backtracking really. I don’t think our friendship will be the same as it was, but a lot of things haven’t been the same since the funeral and I’ve learned to live with them. So I’ll live with you too. It will take some time, but it’s progress. It’s a start, at least.

So to my old fat guy(s), I guess what I’m trying to say here is, I’ve come to the top of the hill. The ones that have stayed in touch despite my deafening silence these past two years, thank you. Thank you for not giving up even though I wanted you to at first. Thank you for not losing hope even though I temporarily lost it in you.

And to anyone else who has been hauling old fat guys around with them since the loss of a loved one, I highly recommend getting to the top of that hill too. The thing is, the ones that matter, the ones that didn’t act according to your hopes for them, they still love you. You still love them too. And life really is way too scary and short to never forgive the people you love.

Once upon a Pee

The past two months have been like a quick summer break. First my father arrived, followed shortly thereafter by my sister and her boyfriend. Then a trip to Mexico. After Mexico my other sister arrived, and just as she was packing her bags, two of my best friends from home came down for a few days. It’s been a blur. The summer break blur we all know too well from high school. One second you’re signing yearbooks and squeezing lemon juice into your hair to make it blonder as you lather yourself in oil and the next minute you’re planning your outfit for the first day of school.  This is how I’ve felt for the past two months. Sort of like a robot showing all of the people I love the same spots and going to eat at the same restaurants, over…and over again. But then it’s all over, really fast. Trust me, I’m not complaining. I feel beyond lucky to have people in my life that will take the time and money to come visit me but ever since they all left I’ve felt a bit empty.

I remember when I was younger my mother used to stand at the door as my sisters and brother would pack to go back to college, or their respective homes. I was still in high school so I was living at home and I always remember everything being chaotic as the cars all got loaded up and hugs and kisses were thrown around and then sudden abrupt silence. Everyone was gone and my mother would stand at our front door. I remember thinking at first she was just watching them drive away.  I would run upstairs and hop on AIM to let my friends know Latham family time was over and I was free to play. Latham family time was a thing. Holidays were meant for forced family time – not that we didn’t all love each other – but usually you wanted to at least spend one night out with friends during break and trying to achieve this was always a battle. One year though, after everyone had left, I walked over to the door to ask her something, and I realized she was crying. I never processed that all of those years as she stood there, or the years to come when all four of us would be leaving her at that door, that she would be crying. She told me she was so happy when we were all home and together and it always made her sad when everyone left.

I feel like I’ve been standing at that “front door” since my last visitor left. It was so nice to have so much of my family here with me, but also so weird and sad to see them go and I haven’t really been able to snap out of it. My daily emotions have been similar to the time I watched the Budweiser’s Super Bowl commercial with the puppy. That is how I’ve been feeling for the last two weeks, at least until my roommate peed on me.

Let me preface that with the fact that I stepped on a sea urchin and its poisonous spines lodged itself nicely into my right foot before this occurred. It was Saturday afternoon and all of my roommates were home, which never happens. The four of us piled into the car with the dog and headed over to Klein Bay in St. John for a fun day at the beach. We brought two paddle boards and the second we arrived to the beach my roommate, Liz, and I headed out into the water on them. Ten minutes into our venture we realized it was way too windy for such activity and headed back where we floated on the boards in about four feet of water. I realized my board was getting too close to the rocks, so I pushed my foot down hard to kick off the bottom and push myself out further. Except I didn’t kick off the bottom. I kicked off this:

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The first few moments were sheer shock. I didn’t even realize what I did, I just started saying that my foot really hurt and a few other words I wouldn’t repeat in front of my grandmother. That is when Liz explained to me I must have stepped on an urchin and I immediately knew that was exactly what happened. I don’t have the highest threshold of pain to start with and this was not your average prick with a needle. I asked Liz how long the pain was going to last and she wouldn’t tell me. I knew that was not a good sign. I continued to half swim half drown in my pain until Liz got her flip flops on and came to help me walk up the rock covered beach. That’s when she told me she could pee on me and it would help. I was almost positive that this was not a thing, that pee in fact does nothing for a sea urchin sting. But the pain was really bad and I was willing to try anything at that point. I moved my foot over while one of our roommates held up the board to hide us, and Liz released what felt like a power hose of urine on to my throbbing foot. Shortly after the christening we piled back into the car, after a whopping forty minute beach day, and headed to the grocery store for rum. (In case you were wondering, the pee didn’t work.)

After a sufficient amount of pina coladas and some bonus tequila, I wrapped my foot in vinegar and limped (partially due to my impaled foot, partially due to the rum intake) to bed by 7:30 p.m. I woke up the next morning and hitched my way to church. Due to the fact that it was Palm Sunday, we were instructed to join the procession that was taking place down the street back to the church. Yay more walking on urchin foot! However, somewhere in the next two hours Jesus must have taken pity on me for getting myself to church because my foot started to feel better. A lot better. I walked to the store and got myself eggs and sausage and made my way home to cook some breakfast. Only when I got home and went to turn on the stove after already mixing the eggs in a bowl did I realized our propane tank was completely empty. This was about the moment I waved the white flag. I threw away the raw bowl of eggs, found whatever I could eat in the fridge and watched an episode of Grey’s Anatomy. I haven’t watched that show in ages and it’s just as depressing as I remember it. Just the music alone makes me want to cry and eat entire pints of ice cream. But sometimes we all need a good cry. I needed one.

I realized yesterday that I was starting to feel a lot better, for the moment at least. I didn’t feel as depressed and got up early to do work on my website all day. I think I have the urchin to thank for that, oddly enough. It’s almost always the painful experiences, whether as large as losing my mother, or as small as plunging my foot into a poisonous water-porcupine, that remind me of how lucky I am too. I wouldn’t get through any of my experiences without some of the people around me. In some weird twisted way, my roommate squatting over me and peeing all over my foot was exactly what I needed to snap out of my funk. It made me realize how lucky I was to have this human in my life who would perform such a duty for me.

We all have bad days. Some worse than others. But when you’re having one of them, try really hard to focus on the people you have around you. Try to remind yourself how lucky you are by all of the good things in your life. You’re alive. You’re breathing. And you always have a new day ahead of you to start over.

And if you find yourself in the ocean someday and you’ve stepped on an urchin, don’t have your friend pee on you. It doesn’t do anything. Go straight for the rum.

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An OK morning at Dad’s villa

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Dad has arrived!

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Dad and his new banana hammock!

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Cocktail time with the family

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Sister Sarah and her boyfriend Kevin and I at the Indians snorkeling

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Whole lotta sisters in Mexico!

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This just in: I AM GOING TO BE AN AUNT! Beautiful pregnant Em in Mexico!

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Mocktails with the sister!

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Em standing on the edge of the world

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Nicole and Erin arrive!

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Sunset cocktail hour.

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Pre-Injury.

Cheers 2015

I know the new year started for a lot of us on January first. Some people like to act as if a new year begins on their birthday. But for me, my new year began yesterday on March 1st. I start my new year according to when I started a new life two years ago yesterday, the day my mother died.

Losing a mother is similar to losing a limb, I would imagine. Eventually the physical pain that comes from such a tragedy will subside a little, but you are constantly reminded that a piece of you is missing. Suddenly you have to teach yourself how to live without that part of you and it’s actually quite terrifying. You have to learn how to wake up and Google your own crossword puzzle because she couldn’t email you one like she used to every day. You have to remember that you can’t call her every few hours when you have a question or just need to hear her tell you how wonderful you are because you had a bad day. You have to figure out how, if and when you do get married, you will put your dress on without her helping you.

This is your new life. It’s a life without her and you have to work damn hard to keep going without your number one fan, your best friend, the person who brought you here in the first place. It doesn’t get easier. The first two weeks after you lose her, or two years later, everyday is hard. Every. Single. Day.

My biggest fear last year was shooting my first wedding after I lost her. I had no idea how I would get through watching a mother put her daughter in the dress without having a full-fledged mental breakdown. The first wedding came about nine weeks after the funeral. It was a destination wedding. I packed my baggage, literally, and made my way to the Dominican Republic. The crazy thing is, I was okay. I mean, not really okay, but I didn’t have a meltdown. I was so focused on how happy the bride and groom were and the amazing friends and family they had around them that I was able to get out of my own head for one second. God was that a relief. I made it through my first wedding, then I made it through another one. I made it through a shoot of a mother and her daughters. I made it through a wedding where the father gave a speech about the bride’s mother who had died a few years ago and wished more than anything she could be there. Okay, I actually cried during that entire speech, but I was able to hide it well behind my bowling ball sized camera covering my face. I have made it through my shoots, I have made it through two years, and it is because of all of you.

You, my clients. The people who remind me every single day when I go through your photos how much love is still out there. I find myself constantly sitting at my computer smiling at my screen as I go through your pictures. I came across a quote the other day that I absolutely loved. “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

Two years ago I felt the furthest from alive than I ever had in my life. I sat in a hospital room holding my mother’s hand, and as the last breath left her I felt my heart leaving too. I have spent the past two years trying to rebuild part of that heart and figure out how I will keep going and then I thought of that quote. What makes me come alive? Photography. You. My work makes me come alive and so it is my work that has kept me going, kept me passionate, kept me strong.

So today, as I begin my new year, I want to say thank you. Thank you for letting me cry silently behind my lens at your wedding, thank you for inviting me in for a glass of wine when I drop off your prints and sending me the sweetest thank you notes I have ever read. Thank you for getting me through my second new year and reminding me there is so much to be thankful for. Today, I am thankful for all of you.

After going through all of your photos the other day, I’ve chosen one moment from each of your shoots that made my heart happy this year.

xo
Mala

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Joy

I remember the day I met her. It was second grade. She was sitting by herself at recess all the way in the back by the tennis court. I can’t remember what I ate for dinner two days ago, but for some reason I can remember this day so vividly. She had a baggy shirt on and her hair was pulled tight into a high pony tail. She was a year older than me. I walked straight up to her and introduced myself. She looked so sweet and quiet. I didn’t want her to be alone.

I don’t really know how to describe Joy. I guess the easiest way is by saying her name. She is her name. The second I am around her I am happy. She is absolutely gorgeous and has a smile that makes you feel the way you did on Christmas when you were a little kid.

I was around eleven years old the day she left. I got to school and the teacher told us Joy was taken away. Something had happened to make her be removed from her foster home and she was no longer going to be a student at our school. At the age of eleven, this kind of stuff doesn’t really make sense to you. I thought maybe she was just going away for a little while, and eventually she would return. But a little while passed and she did not come back. We used to line up at the nurse’s office once in a while to talk to her on the phone but that was the only communication I had with her.

Before that day I had spent a large portion of my time with Joy and her foster sister Jennie in their foster home in East Marion. I referred to their foster mom, Debbie, as “Mommy.” I remember sitting in the basket of the grocery cart when she would take us all shopping, even though I was too big for it. I remember dancing around to Leann Rimes song, “How Do I Live,” on repeat in their living room and Jennie and Joy staying up with me all night when I was too scared to watch “Waterworld” and couldn’t fall sleep. I referred to them as my foster sisters because…well, they were like my family too. I used to dress Joy up in my sister’s old prom dresses when we were little and take photographs of her with my disposable camera. Joy eventually returned to our school and once I was in high school and taking photography classes she was always one of my main subjects. To me she was the most interesting thing to photograph and she was so much of the reason I chose my career of photography in the first place. There was such a complicated story behind the gorgeous girl in my photos.

Joy was raised in foster homes shortly after she was removed from her own biological family. She lost her mother early in her life and drugs and abuse quickly replaced what family life was left. Her life since then has been more complicated than most of the people I know combined. Yet, she is Joy. She is always smiling. She is always full of love and she has always been there for me. I remember when my friends from college helped pay for her to drive up to see me sophomore year for my birthday. They put her in a huge box (not that huge, she is pretty tiny) and wrapped her up. I remember how excited I was when I realized what they had done. It doesn’t take long for people around me to know how important this girl is to me. She is a best friend, a sister, an inspiration. She’s my joy.

Once I finally left my home after my mother’s funeral Joy’s house was one of my first stops. She and Jennie were there and we sat on the couch hanging out. We talked about our usual stuff and spent the night laughing and just enjoying each other’s company. For once I didn’t feel like I was surrounded by people who didn’t get it. Not that my other friends could help not “getting it” – I didn’t want them to get it, I didn’t want them to have to feel the way I felt. But these girls got it. They had way worse situations than I did and they were barreling through life regardless. They were my inspiration to keep going forward no matter how painful. They reminded me it was ok to be happy sometimes, that you had to try to be or you would go insane.

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I told my family I would go home for Christmas this year even though I originally didn’t want to. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to see some of my friends or spend time with my family that I love more than anything. I just didn’t want to be sad. I didn’t want to be reminded of the half of my heart that was buried last year. It was our second Christmas without Mom and everything was going to remind me of her when I got home. Three weeks before I got home though, after a complicated pregnancy, Joy had a baby. I began to try and think about how excited I was to meet this little miracle baby instead of my sadness.

I didn’t really know what to write the last few weeks because I didn’t feel like I had anything really worthy to say as 2014 came to a close. The holidays are hard for a majority of people and it is hard to continuously be positive when you would really rather crawl into a ball in your bed, shut all of the lights off, and watch an entire season of Friday Night Lights instead. But that doesn’t really accomplish anything, except you develop an unhealthy crush on a TV character and finally learn one or two things about football.

And then it hit me. I’d tell you about Joy. I’d tell you about the girl who has had a life ten times harder than mine and manages to put a smile on every single morning despite everything she has gone through.

There is a song I heard a few months ago called “There is Love.” These are a few of the last lines:

“Let love give you warmth in the cold
Let faith and hope lead you on
Let joy be the theme of your song.”

I remember thinking how much I loved that last line. “Let Joy be the theme of your song.” The most important thing we can do in life is find something that makes us happy and inspires us. Our own version of joy to remind us that while things will never be the same, they will get a little better and we will become a little stronger.

So that is my advice for you for 2015. Find your own joy and make it the theme of your year.

I was lucky enough to find mine in second grade.

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Me and Jennie with Joy on her wedding day

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Joy’s baby shower!

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Baby Christian!