Monday, February 24, 2014

Why I Love Team RWB: A Civilian's Perspective

Saturday was my "Meet and Greet" with Team Red, White, and Blue. Luke, the Chapter Leader for Team RWB Los Angeles coordinated it. He introduced me to the organization, and has taken me under his wing during the last year, as my champion and my friend. I

I wish I would have thought of some words to say to the wonderful people who showed up to show their support, to tell them why I'm running for RWB. Since I missed my opportunity, I'm writing this blog, in hopes that it will reach Team members of RWB as well as veterans who could benefit from what they offer.

First of all, I'm not a veteran. I'm a civilian. I'm supporting Team RWB because I think they really deserve it. 

When I decided to run across the United States, I had the opportunity to choose any cause in the world to support. I didn't have anyone telling me what to do, and I could have chosen to save the bees, or the whales, or starving children in Africa, whatever. But I really wanted to pick the cause that was the most worthy. 

When I started reaching out to veterans that I knew, I talked to them about their experience in the military. I immediately started to understand the huge sacrifices that many have made and the seemingly insurmountable obstacles they encounter upon coming home…and  a funny thing happened. I empathized with them. I started to care. A lot. The three things that are most important in life above all others--  kindness, compassion, and empathy (recognizing yourself in others)-- are things that veterans need more than any other group of people. Veterans have been through some really gnarly stuff, stuff that makes my"trauma" look more like drama. And it seems to only get harder for a lot of them once they get home.

I decided to run for veterans. 

I want to raise awareness among civilians about what veterans have to teach civilians about dedication, brotherhood, discipline, and what it means to serve in the military. That's why I started Face America with Miss Robot Photography, a collaborative artistic project that is dedicated to telling veterans' stories on film.

My main goal, however,  is to raise awareness among veterans that there is an entire country full of amazing people that are here for them. There are people everywhere looking for opportunities give their support, to be a friend, to be generous and kind. Trust me, I meet them every day. But you have to get out of the house to find them. You have to take the first step.

While looking for an organization to support, I found Team RWB. Actually, they found me. 

 I was running the Hollywood Half Marathon and I spotted two guys running side by side, donning red long-sleeved t-shirts. One proudly carried an American flag, making the duo extremely visible from half a mile away. I approached them after the race, and met Luke Farnell and Shawn Parsons, two members of Team RWB Los Angeles. They described what Team RWB does, gave me a red bracelet, and told me to join. Their willingness to embrace and include me in their circle touched me, especially because I am a civilian.

This is how Team RWB will look when you
see them at a race. This is Luke Farnell,
from Team RWB Los Angeles. 
When I went home later that night, I researched what Team RWB does for veterans, and I immediately realized that they were the organization that I wanted to support. What I love about Team RWB is that once you join, you get to choose your own level of involvement.

You really get out of it what you put into it. You can show up to events every once in a while, and have fun with a bunch of people who openly accept you and embrace you. Or you can get really involved, and embrace the community that has been created almost entirely by people who have the passion and desire to help each other and make a difference.

Veterans who join Team RWB become a part of a new family. The heart of organization lies in it's members, who support each other in more ways than just offering them a Clif Bar at mile 16 in a marathon. Veterans in RWB help each other move out of their houses, fix broken-down cars, and find new jobs. It's incredible. The most impressive part of RWB isn't their integrity, stellar leadership, or the passion of it's members…it's the outpouring of love I see members giving each other at every event.

They really are creating a network of support, instead of simply talking about it. And it's working.

Team RWB gets people out of their houses and doing physical activity, which for me was the key to start tackling anxiety, depression, and other issues I've dealt with in my life that find their roots in traumatic experience.

 I found when I was in my darkest place, I wanted to isolate, and I felt paralyzed when I was confronted with situations where I was expected to make myself vulnerable to another person. Running helped. A lot. In fact, it was the key to healing my broken heart and my broken spirit.  Running exhausts me, so all the adrenaline that I feel for no reason when I wake up in the morning, the jumpiness and nervousness that shows up as anxiety, gets burned off. I finish long runs feeling happy, like I just did a deep cleaning session on my psyche and my body.

Running next to someone else creates a sense of camaraderie. You automatically are in tune not only with your own body, but with the body of the person that is running next to you. If you are running together, or as a team, you know that you can only go so far as the person you are running with. And every once in a while, you have these gorgeous moments of silence, only listening to footsteps and breath, transcending language and finding a news way of connecting with each other.

When I run long enough with another person like that, walls start to break down. I let myself become vulnerable, and it feels natural. It feels safe.  I start to get real, talking about everything from spirituality, to my biggest fears, to my dreams and the things that I hold dearest to me. I laugh a lot, and sometimes, when it gets really hard, and when I don't want to go another step, I cry. And it's okay. We walk it out, we get a beer, and we laugh about it on the next run, when all the pain feels like a distant memory.

If running does this for me, I think it will help veterans too. And Team RWB is making it possible. 

After a 30 mile run with Navy veteran, Sean Litzenberger.
Running is a bonding experience. 
I hope to make the rest of the country aware of Team RWB as I am running across it. Team RWB members are meeting me as I run, and hopefully running, walking, or biking next to me as I traverse the country. In Los Angeles, Phoenix, El Paso, Dallas, Fort Worth, Shreveport, Birmingham, Atlanta, Charlotte, Richmond, Fredericksburg, Washington DC, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York City.

If you are a runner, or a member of Team RWB, or simply someone who is inspired by this project, please connect with me on Facebook, and share this blog if you want to help.

I'd love to hear from you. More than that, I'd love to meet you in person, to run a few miles, or more than a few miles. What I'm doing isn't easy, and I'm going to need people who will help me stay positive and focused on my purpose--to create opportunities for others to experience compassion, community, and love- and in doing so, to enrich the lives of America's veterans, one step at a time.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Missing Home While I'm Still Here

  I am drawn to the ocean. As the reality of embarking to run across the country sinks in, my stomach does backflips. I find myself thinking about leaving the things that I love. Pelicans snapping at fisherman on the pier, surfers coming out of the water all smiles and invigoration and dripping with salt and sunshine, and the most beautiful romance you could ever imagine. I feel a chicken bone in my throat, like I am constantly am trying to swallow bad news. 

Yeah, I know, how dramatic. I mean, it's only 100 days. It's not forever. But the enormity of the challenge I have taken on makes it apparent that after the run is over, my life (as I know it) will be over. Or at least unrecognizable. This is a good thing, and I'm not complaining. Trust me, I need it. I need to finish this run, if I don't do anything else for the rest of my life. 

It is foreign to me to physically long for and miss something that is right in front of me. I think this is what they call attachment. I don't want to say goodbye to everything that I love, but I've come to terms with the fact that I will be different when I return, and thus everything will be seen through a different set of eyes, and will carry new meaning. 

 When I look at all my paintings, my life's work, I feel as if they were created by a different person entirely. I miss her. I miss the carefree artist who never returns calls or keeps her phone on her, who travels to foreign countries at the drop of a hat. I miss spending all day behind my canvas, listening to audiobooks and immersing myself in a world of thought and creativity.

But my art wasn't doing the trick, I guess.  I failed at being a painter. I wanted to change the world, and all I could do was make beautiful things. So, I'm trying something new. Running across the US is my performance art, my demonstration to the world that change, community and pushing past your own limitations can be possible. Well, at least you can try.

It took me a little longer to grow up than I anticipated, and I somehow feel that this run will be my rite of passage. 

Of course, the journey has already begun.

And, it's flipping awesome. 

Monday, February 17, 2014


 If theres one word to describe my experience this weekend, it is this: humbling.

Let's rewind to Saturday.

I woke up feeling overwhelmed. Four million things on my to-do list and at least 3 people who will be disappointed with me by the end of the day no matter how hard I try.

Looking back on it, I was reverting to old behavior, avoidant behavior. In an earlier time, feeling the way I did- anxious, antisocial-- I probably would have cancelled all of my plans, gotten behind my canvas, put on an audiobook, and hid. Maybe for a couple days.

Guess what? I can't do that anymore. It's not an option.

Hiding is no longer an option, because what I'm doing isn't really about me anymore. There is my team, a group of extremely dedicated individuals who want to make a difference in the world as badly as I do.
And more than that, there are all the people who I want to help. Veterans, athletes, non-athletes.

Barefoot Jake setup a meeting with some of his friends down in San Diego. They are veterans, and some of them have been grieviously injured in Afghanistan and Iraq. It might sound a little silly to you, but I was really nervous about meeting them. I guess when it comes down to it, in my heart, I don't really feel all that worthy to represent and champion the men and women who fought for our country. In the beginning, when I started this project, I thought I understood what "sacrifice" meant. I guess I put it in a box with a bunch of other cliches that I didn't understand. But I guess thats part of misunderstanding. You don't know how wrong you are until you get smart enough to realize how stupid you were before. Does that make sense? A more eloquent way of putting it: Hindsight is 20/20.

We met up with these guys in a park in San Diego. I brought Turner New Zealand Filets to cook on the Grill that were generously donated to us by Noel Turner because he realized how badly we were hurting for money and needed grocery money. On the way down, traffic was terrible. It was madness. Tensions were high. Communications were static. I was planning on interviewing them on film with Robot, but as the day progressed and our plans kept getting sidetracked and delayed, I realized that this would probably be something that I would have to let go.

When they showed up to the park, everything changed. I've never been so astonished and touched by another human being. And it wasn't just one human being, it was five.

I don't how to describe the simultaneous feeling of humility, admiration, respect, connection, and love I felt immediately. Even writing this makes me feel it all over again. All I have to do is think of their eyes. A light seemed to shine from somewhere inside them, like their irises were lighthouse windows shining in a dark storm.

I have to wonder…is it me? Just now waking up? Is it that I am just now noticing the light in people, a light that has been there all along? Why was it that every time one of these veterans spoke to me I felt so humbled, so grateful?

Some of these guys lost their legs in combat. All of them have been through much, have seen so much. They were beautiful, and confident, and shining. They were open, and generous, and kind. Their spirits seems so strong and bright, and every time they thanked me for what I planned to do, I felt a twinge of self-consciousness, of silliness, of shame. Like it was such a silly little endeavor compared to what they had already been through. It makes me that much more motivated to run harder, to push farther, and to really make what I am doing count for something.

When I think about James or Tim or Cody rock climbing or running down the street with a prosthetic leg, it makes me realize that my bravery is a drop in the ocean. There is so much courage in the world, and so much love. I just wish there was some way to see it, to know it is there, to remind us that we are not alone, and there are people out there with valiant hearts and spirits that understand ours.

And now I think about their eyes, and I see that the light in them is like a beacon.

I'm starting to feel that way a lot. I have spent a lot of time trying to understand why I'm doing it in the last few weeks. What it began as certainly isn't how it's ended up thus far. I'm constantly being humbled by the aptitude,  kindness, generosity, and greatness of the people who I'm working with, and the people who I'm running for.

Even though I have yet to come up with the money I need to complete this journey successfully, I'm finding that more than ever I am getting the spiritual and emotional strength I will need to complete the journey.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Drug-Induced Honesty (this blog may be taken down within hours, better read it quickly)

This morning I learned that if you jump up and down while holding your breath, the snot that is lodged in the top of your nasal cavity falls down like an avalanche into your mouth and makes it a lot easier to hawk a loogie. This is not something that works all the time, but if you have bronchitis or pneumonia, or some other kind of respiratory condition like I seem to have right now, it really does the trick.

It took me getting this sick in order to actually lay down on this couch, and cover myself up with a blanket and get down to writing. It's been a couple months since my last blog. I've just been busy. When I say that I'm busy, I mean that every waking second of every day I feel simultaneously that I am being chased and I am chasing something. I no longer know if I am the hunted or the hunter. All I know is that I am driven towards my goals in a way that could be described as maniacal.

The sand is filling the bottom chamber of the hourglass, and it seems to be falling quicker as the days go by.

I just coughed up some more blood.

Lately, I feel like my time and my body no longer belong to me. I am constantly striving, talking, organizing, running, stretching, talking, e-mailing, more talking, filming, refilming, programming, designing, connecting, delegating.  Thoughts and connections are coming at increasingly rapid speeds. It is exhilarating. It is what you read about. 

This process has been completely transformative and I haven't even started my journey yet.

My spiritual beliefs have changed. I have come to an understanding with the Alpha and the Omega, with the piles of lotus flowers that erupt in my dreams, with the intuition that flips my stomach head over tail when it is time to make a judgment, with the tears of gratitude that come at the most
unexpected times-- when I am on the phone with the lead designer Nike, when I have an impromptu connection with a stranger in public, when I witness something beautiful and profound and fleeting, when I come to terms with the person I once was, and the person that I have become. I have relinquished control and have begun to see myself as tool, as something to be of service to others and the world at large.

I am humbled.

I am not afraid of failure. I am not afraid of injury. This is not to say that I have a sense of invincibility, that I am untouchable. I used to feel this way, but I have learned that I am fragile and mortal the hard way. I am learning this lesson now, as I struggle to breathe, as I continue coughing, and coughing, and coughing. I understand the possibility of being injured, and I understand how difficult it will be when it happens. I do know that no matter what happens-- broken bones, pneumonia, sickness, tendinitis, mental breakdowns, difficult people, I will finish the run. If I have to do it on crutches. If I have to do it in a wheelchair. Whatever it takes.

In the beginning, this run was a selfish idea. When I say selfish, I mean that it was all about my own gratification. Experiencing the country, getting bragging rights, proving something to myself and others. I decided to run for veterans, to learn about what they have gone through, to use the run as an opportunity to help others. This is when everything changed. Even as I write this, I am overwhelmed with emotion and my heart swells with pride. I feel that I have no place in this world which I have intruded-- the world of war, the world of the military, of sacrifice, of destruction, of brotherhood, of valor. Incrementally and over the course of the last year, I have begun to understand it. I am still outside of it, and I think I am supposed to be there. I do not know if I am strong enough to see it from the inside, to truly empathize. I am probably not.

I have seen that the heroes I have idolized my entire life--the ancient Greeks, the Odysseuses and the Joan of Arks-- exist. The people that have shown up in my life in the last year are extraordinary examples of human beings. I am meeting them everywhere, all at different stages of their evolution. They are seeds waiting to be germinated by some unknown catalyst, they are green shoots jutting up through the earth and facing the sun for the first time, they are in full bloom. They are all around me.  I see it in the eyes of veterans. They have known it--that lost love. That nostalgia.  The bitter, slighted feeling that was once self-actualization, but has progressed into disillusionment. To know your greatest self, but have no way to express it in the context of your culture. That is torture.

And then I think about what it takes to go into battle, something that I may never be able to fathom, and I wonder what makes that kind of bravery possible. And I see that it can maybe happen by embracing the principle that love is greater than fear. Something I never understood about the military before I started this project was the brotherhood that exists between soldiers in combat. I have been privileged enough to learn about it from the interviews we have conducted over the course of the last year. And it seems that this principle is that which drives us as human beings to do that which terrifies us. Out of love for our brothers, out of love for ourselves, out of love for the people around us. When that much love exists, nothing is impossible.

I asked one veteran recently whether he thought that this kid of brotherhood would be possible outside of combat. He said no. We talked about it for while. I asked if he thought that you needed a common enemy in order to unite people. He said yes.

I have found my enemy, and it is apathy. All of the worlds problems can be traced back to apathy towards our fellow man and toward our planet. It shows up as carelessness, it shows up as laziness, it shows up as nonchalance, it shows up as "cool". So often we extinguish our desire to show compassion or care for another, to shut ourselves off to our emotional responses, to connect with others. Apathy is learned,  and it is a protective device. But it can be unlearned. We can move past apathy and into empathy, into compassion, into love, but you cannot fight against a negative idea and turn it into a positive one. You can only starve it. Starve fear and apathy of your attention, and give that attention to love instead and see what happens. I am trying it. It is working.

My greatest battle will be conquering the apathy I have for myself. It is my cyclops, my Medusa, my fire-breathing dragon.

I have a lot to be afraid of. I don't have the money I need to get across the country. I have an RV, but no gas to put in the tank. I have Superfood shakes and supplements and workout snacks, but no food to eat. I have a team of people who are helping me for free, and I don't know how I will feed them. I don't know where we will stay.

But I am not afraid.  I have faith in God, or the Universe, or the ultimate, or whatever you want to call it. I have faith that I will get exactly what I need. My job is simply to do the very best that I can.

I have been lucky enough to find people who are willing to be generous. People who have no reason to help me except that they believe in what I am doing, and for that I am eternally grateful. Every day I am given gifts, whether they are lessons that are difficult to learn, or amazing things that fall into my lap. I don't know if I deserve them, and I feel that I must continually improve and make myself better as a human being so that if I don't deserve them now, maybe I will in the future. Maybe I am getting these blessings on credit.

I went through a phase of tremendous guilt last week. A hard look at my past. At the apathy I used to feel for everything and everyone around me, including myself. I saw how my actions were like stones dropped into a pond, with the ripples extending out farther than I could imagine. I committed myself to act more cautiously, more presently, and with more kindness. I know that I have a long way to go.

Maybe it is the sickness or the cold medicine that is prompting this kind of honesty, or maybe this what they call the unbearable lightness of being…?