Destruction/Compassion: The Secret Languages of Flowers from Strangers

Do you know the sensation of being rubbed raw, like knees over gravel after being thrown from your bike?  All concussion-y and scraped and grit mixed with blood under the skin. That’s how I felt when my boyfriend of 3 ½ years was moving out of our house of two years and two cats, taking with him what had made it our home.  That’s how I felt walking through a grocery store to get something to eat after days of feeling empty.

Maybe that’s why nuts sounded like a good thing to purchase.  That’s all my mind could cognate.  Go Buy Nuts.  Eat something that has the texture of how you feel.  I oddly remember getting nuts that were already in pieces-crumbled, smashed, broken.  The brain is a funny and mysterious place.

I must have stood in the nut section for a long time, long enough to get a strange and uncomfortable look from the lady nearby. I didn’t care. I couldn’t care.  I totally get what being dazed and confused in real time is all about.  So when the checkout clerk asked me what I was going to do with my sunny afternoon, I didn’t pause.  I didn’t blink.  I didn’t breathe.  I didn’t skip a beat before a monotone utterance of, “I’m going to pack up the boxes of my partner of 3 ½ years because he’s leaving.”

She just looked at me, eyes steady, and like we were an hour into a three hour conversation, she launched into her own story.  From what I remember, it went something like this: her man of five years wouldn’t propose, and she was too old for that, and as she was starting to pack when he realized what an idiot he had been and popped the question.  They were now engaged.

I stared at the assorted things I had just bought.  Nuts and coffee and salsa.  What was I going to do with this?  It didn’t make sense.  Nothing made sense.

After packing my choice items, she said, “Wait just a moment. I’ll be right back.”  Then she jumped from behind the counter and ran off.  When she returned, she was holding a bouquet of flowers.

“I know, but it’ll get easier,” she said.

I put those flowers on my table newly-designed for one.  In the midst of what felt like once-promised love masticating me into paste, I somehow managed to see the flowers.  A stranger who knew how it felt when my world was slipping out from under me, who wanted to let me know, I get it, and you are not the only person who has transformed into pieces of chewed nuts.  After a fit of tears and snot, lying on the floor, I could still see the flowers. I was not alone.

A few weeks later, I was pulling out of the parking lot of the same grocery store and saw a woman with a sign scrawled in pen reading Anything Helps.  She looked rubbed raw, from too much sun and too many nights of who-knows-what and too many people not making eye contact while zooming past her to the stop sign.

I looked in by bags and pulled out a sunflower from the bunch I had just purchased and stuck it out through my car window.  She slowly walked to the car, looked at it, took it, and started crying.

“Sweetheart, you made my day,” she told me with her eyes brimming.

I believed her.

Flowers from strangers-a secret language to say, I don’t know you, but I see you, and I am sorry you are suffering. You are crumbly and grungy and dazed and beautiful and human and you will be ok.  I know.  I get it.

We’ve all been rubbed to smithereens, dazedly walking through our own liminal places where time and space and food objects all pulverize together.  We all share this language of break-down, albeit told through the different accents of sob storms, self-help books, whiskey, driving cars too fast, having something to prove, having someone to catch your full body weight when you slump, walking dazedly through grocery stores, and waiting by stop signs for help.  Still, often, when we see it in others, we want to move along as quickly as possible.  Nope, don’t stop, don’t look them in the eyes lest they make you feel it too, lest they make you remember.

But we all share another secret language.  The language of kindness.  It’s told in whispers of smiles and holding doors open and buying the guy behind you his coffee and listening to your friend cry for hours and giving strangers flowers.  If you listen, you can hear its sister language of empathy sing you a lullaby when you need it most.

When the space-time continuum shifts ever so slightly so that there is translation between these three languages, we can get down to the same universal message:  We are all human, and we all get it-the fiery grind of destruction and the aloe-on-burn calmness of compassion.

Sometimes inside that snotty, body-jumbled-on-the-floor, can’t-breathe-through-the-tears part of transformation that we all go through at some point in our own way, sometimes all we can hear is the secret language of flowers from strangers whispering, I know.  I get it.  You got this too.

Do you remember the last time you heard these languages?  Do you remember the last time you spoke them?  

Creative Cartography: Four Ways to Up your Map Making Game in 13 Milliseconds

Does 13 milliseconds sound like a lot of a little?  That is the amount of time science says your brain can process information from an image.  Drawing pictures to illustrate how to find important things (like water, buffalo, the best restaurant in town) helps humans navigate their way to the necessities of survival in a lot less time than reading directions.

I am a geographer, and I like maps.  I do not speak for all geographers everywhere (the discipline is fairly all-encompassing), so maybe I should rephrase: I like spatial storytelling.  And since the brain can process an image 60,000 times faster than text, it makes sense why we navigate our lives visually and should take that into consideration in how we communicate.  Google Maps is a given, but have you ever taken a moment to think of how often you involve mapping in your everyday life?

We are a spatial species and constantly look for pattern recognition.  This probably started when humans were first trying to figure out how to get dinner through mammal migrations or how a repetitive rubbing of sticks together at a certain speed gave us a cozy cave and kept the wolves away.  Today, evidence of this can be seen from an airplane or satellites looking down upon repeated visualizations of how cities form and agricultural fields lay out.

So how does this bring us to being mappers?  As we are constantly in pattern-recognizing states from a visual perspective, why not have some fun with it?  Humans like stories and pictures, so when you put it together in space in an innovative way, you may find yourself entering the realm of creative cartography. More so than the basics of navigation, map making in the digital age has lead with an imaginative edge.

Just in case you’re still in topographical denial, check out the following ways to up your map making game and become the creative cartographer you were born to be.

Story maps

Sound maps

Game maps

Art maps

So mappers of the world unite because we all are spatially-based beings.  Tomorrow when you leave your house and go to wherever it is you go, think about the mental maps that are getting you there and how they look, sound, smell, etc.  Your very oriented existence depends on it.

Ever participated in the age-old homo sapien activity of transmitting information through spatial storytelling in a strange and wonderful way?  Do tell.

Image: World Map by TimeToTakeBack

The ‘Tudes of Transformation: Vicissitude, Attitude, Gratitude, Rectitude, and Longitude

In-between spaces may lead to an extreme makeover of oneself, but let’s face it, that whole dark night of the soul thing to reach personal transformation is not necessarily what you’d choose to do on a Saturday night…or really ever.  Usually it chooses you.

So how does one make it through the valley of the shadows of failure, uncertainty, and groundlessness without being eaten alive by mountain lions?  I like to think that sometimes we just need a bit of remembering where we’re really at and what ‘tudes we have in our own personal transmutation toolboxes.

Vicissitude: The deal is done, there really is no turning back, and there is no un-doing (or un-seeing), so accept it.  Even if you haven’t fully come to terms with it yet, you are undergoing change at some fundamental level.  Vicissitude is all about the state of change or being changeable (and makes a fun addition to your Scrabble vocabulary). Sometimes just acknowledging the idea that growth implies change lends itself to new perspectives.  If nothing else, just saying this linguistic gem five times fast might temporarily break any impending-doom/is-this-really-happening thought patterns for a few moments.

Attitude:  Attitude greatly affects how we see the world and interact with it.  I’ll be the first to admit that it’s not always easy to take a breath and say, “I’m sure that guy who just cut me off on the freeway probably just lost his job/broke up with his girlfriend/just got cut off on the freeway.”  But sometimes a momentary pause in the space between our initial feelings and our thoughts might change our reactions (way easier said than done, I know).

In addition to our moment to moment ability to embrace what is happening, I like to think of attitude less as something that “needs an adjustment” and more as something mutable, sassy, sexy, powerful, honoring, and possessing of oneself.  I like to think of attitude like ladies dancing in a burlesque show: purple boas, swanky 20’s music, and just owning it.  Because, really, it’s yours.

Gratitude:  I recently was complaining to a friend about feeling bad for being judged harshly for gaining a few pounds.  She said, “I wish I had your body because it is beautiful and can move.”  I realized what a jerk I was, complaining about feeling fat to a friend who had trouble walking.  And then I thought, I can jump, skip, dance, hike, climb…I can move.

Sometimes, in the midst of life’s wreckage, after I go through my list of how bad things are, I remember how good things are (like my incredible family who really would do anything for me and like my friends who accept my crazy and still answer my calls even when they know it’s going to be a broken record-a-thon).  Even the current bane of my existence, graduate school, is still pretty amazing because I get to go to graduate school.  Gratitude=remember the little things also comes in the form of hot showers, Netflix, my favorite burrito joint, that epic night in Prague, and a best friend who has her one-year-old son leave messages telling me he misses me.  Sometimes we just need to think of one thing in our lives that brings a smile to our face.  My ultimate go-to in a pinch is remembering that my cat starts gently meowing a few minutes before my alarm goes off every morning and then snuggles with me. This reminds me every day holds some kind of warm fuzzy.

Rectitude: Honesty and morality-super big deal.  Call it Karma, but even in the midst of incredible discombobulation, knowing that you are an honest, honorable, and overall good person can provide a good leg to stand on.  Personal integrity consists of a lot of things, and for me, honesty is one of its pillars.  And in times where this ‘tude might seem lost in the void, I try and look for it under my bed (aka where I am hiding it from myself).  Having a strong moral compass in your lifepack is an invaluable way to finding the route home, for oneself and for others.

Longitude:  Sometimes we get so caught up in our own world we forget about the actual world that we are all standing on.  Underneath us sits a mass of carbon and magma and feldspar all held together by pure gravitational genius.  In addition to all of the chemistry and biology and ecology, at the very moment you are reading this, someone else is waking up and someone else is going to sleep. Someone is dying and someone is being born.  Someone is falling in love and someone is hearing his or her own heart rip in two.  Someone is drinking tea and someone is jamming out to a favorite song.

I like to think that while I am up until midnight writing my thesis and wanting to claw my eyes out, someone else is swimming in an ocean and someone else is looking at the stars. More importantly, we are all here inside of planetary motion, inside a solar system, inside a galaxy, etc., etc..  It puts things in perspective real fast when you can think about the space of your life as an actual longitudinal, universal place (or latitudinal, if you’re into that kind of thing).

So during times of big shift, remember the ‘tudes of transformation:

Vicissitude: Accept it

Attitude: Own it

Gratitude: Smile at it

Rectitude: Know it

Longitude: Stand in it (or jump if you prefer)

Geography gifts a constant reminder that we are all existing in a multi-dimensional space-time continuum.  When all else fails, you can always just close your eyes and try to comprehend that gravity actually stops you from literally spinning off into the void.  Now that’s a grounding thought.

Got any other ‘tudes in your toolkit…quietude, fortitude, crassitude? Please share below.

Lessons from Inside an Algerian Airport Riot: Surrender, Make Friends, and Practice Yoga

Delays, layovers, attempts at sleep in awkward positions, intestinal pains from Cinnabon ingestion.  Almost everyone can identify to some degree with getting stuck at the airport. Then there’s the occasional off-chance that you might get locked into an airport (say, because an angry mob is storming the planes).  In cases like these, sometimes all you can do is embrace the phrase Keep Calm and Do Yoga in the Baggage Claim.

Hour 0.15:  Quickly walking past the approximately 500 men and 100 fully-suited up riot police, the main entrance to the Algiers airport seemed almost normal at this point.  Since my five days in the country, I had seen instantaneous corner-gatherings of 200 plus people with fireworks, cars zipping around boys with flame throwers, mass looting, and burning buildings.  All this followed reports of multiple Algerian fan deaths in the qualifying 2010 World Cup game with Egypt only a few days prior.  To incite the matter, the Algerian president had promised tickets and flights to the final game in Sudan to 10,000 Algerians.  Hence the major lineup at the airport.

Party/riot in downtown Algiers as citizens show their passports in hopes of being selected to attend the  qualifying World Cup game in Sudan.

Party/riot in downtown Algiers as citizens show their passports in hopes of being selected to attend the qualifying World Cup game in Sudan.

Hour 1.5:  After one-too-many strange Algerian sodas, the boredom broke when I heard yelling from one of the main airport entrances. A crowd of seemingly very angry people started pouring in, whom I later learned smashed airport glass walls, uprooted palm trees, and crushed concrete planters.  Strange ideas come to mind when faced with an understanding that you are about to be part of something you have only read about on a computer screen from 2,000 miles away.  I scanned the area, looking for exit routes/hiding spaces/anywhere a young, American blonde girl might clandestine herself.  Somehow the artery of influx stopped, and airport guards quickly herded us away.

A smashed glass billboard holder lays testament to the frenzied riot outside the airport.

A smashed glass billboard holder lays testament to the frenzied riot outside the airport.

Hours 2-7: Officially relocated to a gate of the airport, I saw people sprawled out, sleeping, or reading magazines.  Occasional Arabic screaming outbursts would peak and dissipate.  Insider news claimed the 500 men outside had tried to hijack a plane.  The man sitting next to me told me that he had been waiting for three days to get on a flight to Sudan.  When I asked him if my travel partners and I could leave, he said, “I don’t think that’s a good idea.  You might get stoned.”  But as the hours passed, I started meeting the people next to me and really hit it off with a group of them.  I still maintain Facebook contact with one today.

My new-found airport riot-induced community.

My new-found airport riot community.

Hour 7-9: Although it would be another two hours, we were told our bags would be released at the baggage claim.  One particular man frantically paced the area shouting.  At this point I decided, that’s it, I’m doing yoga!  So I started with Tree Pose.  When I saw a man watching me, I motioned for him to join.  Maybe he thought it would be a great story to tell later or maybe his back really hurt from multiple days in an airport chair, but he attempted to mimic my poses.  We spent the next hour practicing yoga, only interrupted occasionally when the still-ranting man got a little too close for comfort.

Of all the places I’ve done yoga, this definitely makes the list for top weirdest.  Funny how sometimes in a perfect storm, we can run around in a frenzied manner, or we can do yoga with a stranger in a baggage claim and wait for whatever to pass.  I can say now that in my life, I have officially done both.  And it reminds me that in spaces of uncertainty, sometimes all you can do is breathe, wait for the doors to open, and meet strangers in downward dog.

Do you have a story of a seemingly precarious experience providing calming insight?  Please share below.

Need tips on getting grounded? Step 1. Jump out of a plane


Ever wondered what falling backwards out of a plane humbles one to think?

Hmmm, something just doesn’t seem right.  

 From there, the thoughts tumble into quick succession.

Oh look, there’s a plane up there that I was just in a second ago.  Weird.


This feels kinda wrong.

and then…

I mean really, really wrong.

swiftly moving toward…

This was probably the worst (and last) decision I’ll ever make.

with a delusional shift into…

If only I squeeze my eyes and fists and concentrate really hard I’ll go back up.

then a rapid acceleration toward…

Goodbye cruel world!

and a final embracing of…

Well, if I do only have three more minutes to live, I really should enjoy the view.

 When the parachute actually opens, relieving brain chemicals flood your mind into a euphorically-induced satisfaction that no, you did not die, and yes, your feet are literally dancing on air.  One friend told me, “I actually kicked a rainbow.”

Nothing quite puts perspective on groundlessness like literal groundlessness.  Our lives, so full of all attempts to maintain control of our surrounding areas (be that physical, mental, or emotional) sometimes needs a sideways air current, arms extended, is-that-ground-below-me-approaching-at-a-rapid-speed kind of jolt.  Although not a fanatic of extreme adrenaline-producing activities, I understand that sometimes a little real fight or flight produces states of stress our brains and bodies are biologically designed to handle, with a definite start and stop.  Juxtaposing this to our normal chronic stressors, we can experience a moment of reset.

In addition, these spaces in-between allow us a moment of serious reflection on why we make certain choices (say, thinking it a good idea to jump out of a plane), or how we need to take personal responsibility (such as admitting you made the choice to be 10,000 feet above ground and falling quickly toward it), and finally, leaning in to your decision (well, if the chute doesn’t open, not much I can do now, so just enjoy the ride).  Of course, that sweet feeling of relief when the parachute does indeed open gives you a moment of realizing, “Oh yeah this is why I pushed myself to do something that was a little nuts and not my normal Thursday behavior.”  You get an all-around new perspective.  And once you hit ground, you always can decide if you want to do it again.

Sometimes complete surrender to exactly where we are is really all we can do.  So if you’re in some need of getting some new eyes on our planet and/or your mind, may I suggest the following?

  1. Jump out of a plane.
  2. Remember, you don’t have much control after that so take personal responsibility for your choice to hurl yourself toward the ground at an incomprehensible speed.
  3. Make sure to pull the chute when it’s time (or have the giant Brazilian man strapped to your back pull it).
  4. Enjoy the scenic glide down until boots hit the ground.

Remembering that decisions we make every day truly affect our point-of-view can give us what we need to allow ourselves to release, trust, and fly.

What about you?  Ever thrown yourself into 120 mph terminal velocity?  Do you remember your most poignant/insane/inspiring thoughts?  Please share.

Walking the Liminal a.k.a. Being Bug Soup

(Gerard de Jode 1593 map of unknown territories)

Terrae Incognita.  The way the ancient mapmakers marked what only their imaginations could chart.  A kind of unexplained space, between places known and those desired for discovery.  A mythical, magnificent place.  A place of intense fear.

This blog, entitled Liminal Grounds, examines these spaces in-between.  The word liminality stems from the Latin word limen, meaning “threshold.”  According to anthropologist Victor Turner, the liminal realm consists of the state inside ritual where one lets go of what was and goes toward what is to be.  It’s these airborne moments of transference (and hopefully transformation) where success and failure all mix into groundlessness, spotlighting in a most uncomfortably exquisite way, who we were and who we will become.  It is a space of unknowns, entropy, and evolution simultaneously co-creating; a space I now personally find myself located. It is a space a friend recently referred to lovingly as bug soup.

In a metaphoric attempt to reassure me that these completely disorienting and painful times in our lives serve a purpose, she offered up imagery of the sublimely disgusting transformative process of caterpillar to butterfly.  It is a time when legs, eyes, and everything else disintegrates into a pile of goop before restructuring takes place.

It’s a space to remind me that real change = bug ooze.

Caterpillars_cocoon (3)(image: WC The Emperor Gum Moth in Its Cocoon by fir0002)

The geographical desire to map Here Be Dragons teaches us that space can coexist between the real and the imagined.  And so this blog explores these geographically-bound processes of honesty, of dissolution, and of surrendering to the creative chaos of the unknown by walking through places that exist within the actual change state.  From cocoon to shifting continent, the places and spaces we wander through constantly teach us that change always happens.  By allowing ourselves to look around inside these moments and embrace these spaces, we might just learn something about our own constant metamorphosis.

Being a geographer, I often think in terms of space and identities, where time and place, emotion and perception, and imagination and materiality intersect.  So let today’s inspirational place-based thought be that of the embarkation on getting real with liminality inside the actual geographic location of bug eyes and stomachs and all else squishing into a cocoon of mushy unknowns.

Let today’s liminal lesson be that sometimes you just gotta be ok with being bug soup.