My Jamaica house sits on a hill above Kingston, in a small community among many small communities, protected by a tall, barbed wire-crowned fence, secured with two solid wooden gates and a guard post at the entrance.
I moved here 4 months ago from the US, just outside Washington DC, to reside with my fiancé - the love of my life - for the next few years. A whip-smart economist with a heart of gold, his passion is to work with and in developing countries, places that stand to benefit most his efforts, and those of the organization he represents. It’s a form of career-based altruism I admire, and more pointedly, the commitment of energy required by this type of work - to remain curious, engaged and innovative - are a large part of what attracts me to him.
At present, I am not working. Fifteen years into my career, this move has provided a deeply desired break, and opportunity to rest before diving into the next 15. I’ve filled the past few months contentedly organizing our home, finally working through my years-old stack of books “to read”, working out twice a day, preparing healthy meals, deepening my connection with my fiancé, getting to know this place, and getting to know its people.
So far, I’ve learned that Jamaica is a country loved by many, and passionately so. I’m starting to parse the driving forces of this, and I see that it’s first about the people. Jamaicans are warm, quick with a smile, and exude the feeling of family. Although Kingston is a busy, working city, its inhabitants are aware and engaged in a way I rarely encountered in DC; they say hello, make eye contact, speak with a reassuring tone of voice that often conveys something like, “I’ve got you.” Secondly, I think adoration for Jamaica is about the physical place. Not all Caribbean islands feature mountains, and what I’ve come to learn is that Jamaica is all about its mountains; getting out to “the country”, getting up and out of the city, losing yourself in the hills, where snaking roads are narrow and rugged, trees are dense, and the air is cool and crystal clear. It’s as much a geographic reality as it is a state of mind; Jamaica is uninhibited, colorful, and a little bit wild.
I’ve also been exposed to many day-to-day realities here, which don’t necessarily detract from its perception, just create a more complete picture. Jamaica is a place of diminished stature, aged infrastructure, corruption, economic disparity, and crime. It’s a place where at red lights, men descent upon your car to wash the windshield, or sell fruit picked from the roadside, or hold out their open hands in hopes of a meager payment; where shopping centers are fenced in and guarded by security (or they are to be avoided), where walking alone down the street - as a man or woman, most certainly as an expat - is unsafe, period.
Like most countries, economies, and societies, Jamaica is a complex place with many layers. I frequently vacillate between wonder-filled joy and deep sadness in this place. I marvel at the kindness of people I’m meeting, the beauty of mountains, trees, beaches and birds, the many restaurants, shops, gyms, cafes, and parks that are so enjoyable, and safe to spend time. I relish the exploration within this new life experience, which is teaching me about myself, and binding my fiancé and I together in a way few other things could. The sadness comes when I look more closely at the often crumbling surroundings, when I want to go for a walk around my neighborhood, or a hike in the woods, and simply can’t, at least not alone, and when I remember that - though Jamaicans are hustling to improve their economy - incomes are very low, and cost of living surprisingly quite high.
Finally, I’ve learned that gratitude absent of experience can be alarmingly shallow, more an exercise of abstract acknowledgement than true understanding. While often consciously thankful for my lifestyle and personal freedoms while living in the US, I have to admit that my view was extraordinarily limited. To be completely honest - while writing on my MacBook from an air conditioned room of my gated community home - it still is. But, through this experience, still in its early days, my gratitude has certainly deepened, and along with it, my desire to engage in a more meaningful way.
I’ve got several 2018 goals in play, and the one I’m most excited about is the intention to read more often. The specific goal is to complete 40 pages each week - whether that happens in 5 sittings or 1 is no matter.
Reading is a healthy goal, right? It’s a way to learn new things, and can be a relaxing diversion, all while providing fun facts for your next dinner party. And while any one of these things is a strong motivation to keep the pages turning, I’ve realized there’s a reason far greater - reading has the power to change your life. There are a few books that have served as serious catalysts throughout my life. They include:
Skinny Bitch: A No-Nonsense, Tough-Love Guide for Savvy Girls Who Want to Stop Eating Crap and Start Looking Fabulous by Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin
Looking at that sensationalist title today, I can’t believe I ever picked up the book, much less paid for it, but a co-worker on a health kick gave a passionate recommendation, and I succumbed. Those Skinny Bitch writers pack a punch, because by chapter 4, I was seriously considering vegetarianism for the first time in my life, and by chapter 9, I’d stopped eating meat entirely. Thus ensued 1 year of strict vegetarianism followed by 7 years of full veganism, all of which resulted in a me that was fit, healthy, engaged in a greater cause, motivated to cook creatively, and inspired to learn more about nutrition and wellness, constantly. I made new friends, ate new foods, and felt consistently healthy for the first time in my adult life (I hadn’t been an adult for very long, but that made the revolution all the more significant).
Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success at Work & in Life, One Conversation at a Time by Susan Scott
I’d taken a course at work called Crucial Conversations, which provided me with helpful tools to use as a manager. It included the kinds of situational cues and questions that help a work team arrive at beneficial conclusions and produce positive outcomes. I don’t remember what prompted me to pick up the next volume in Susan Scott’s series, but by some stroke of fate or fortune, Fierce Conversations ended up on my desk, then quickly moved to my nightstand. This book, as promised, provides guidance and motivation to tackle the most challenging conversations in life, period. Without getting specific or situational, its step-by-step instructions walk the reader through interrogating her unsettled feelings, putting words to the (often yet unrecognized) desired outcome, then getting it out in the open, with the goal of seeking resolution, even and especially when the stakes are high. When I started reading this book I assumed it would further my expertise as a manager and leader. By page 149, I’d ended a years-long relationship that was no longer serving me. Mic drop. This book changed the course of my life.
Hal Koerner’s Field Guide to Ultrarunning by Hal Koerner with Adam W. Chase
I learned about ultra running after my first marathon, at which I reached the finish line and wanted to keep running. It didn’t take me long to find Hal’s definitive guidebook, which is incredibly comprehensive, realistic and actionable. It explains every little detail of ultrarunning, including differences in distance, terrain, weather, altitude, gear, nutrition, pacing, camping, and more. When the chapters about chafing, hypothermia and kidney failure only strengthened my resolve, I knew I was meant to run a distance beyond 26.2. Using Hal’s training plan, I finished my first ultramarathon in first place at age 31, truly a defining moment in my life. I mean…there could be no better endorsement for a book about running, right?
So, when I contemplate the 2018 reading goal I’ve set for myself, I know it’s about more than conversation at the water cooler or fulfilling a quota. It’s about being open to the information, inspiration, and guidance that might just reveal a path I’ve not yet considered, and nudge me to do something amazing.
I’d done some reading about The Class prior to taking it. In fact, a Fast Company article, titled "Is This Workout for your Feelings What American Women Need Right Now?" is what piqued my curiosity in the first place.
From what I’d read, I expected an aerobics-like experience in a yoga-like studio with mostly women, and maybe some yelling. I was excited about the yelling.
Founder Taryn Toomey operates a studio in lower Manhattan, where the majority of The Class sessions take place, but on a recent visit to New York, I was lucky enough to find a single session in a Bandier retail shop, much closer to my hotel in midtown (though still a 20 block hike).
In the name of research, I pre-booked this experience a few days ahead ($35/class) and found myself on the 3rd floor of Bandier, just blocks from the Flatiron Building, in a dimly lit studio, yoga mats arranged in a grid, many already occupied by a decidedly female millennial crowd, quiet music pumping as though anxious to go full volume, the air rich with delicious earthy aroma- sandalwood? Or was it vetiver? The scene was set for the senses.
Though scheduled to teach, Toomey was replaced that morning by a sub, who turned up the volume on the music, and opened the class with a series of air squats, to the rhythm of a soulful song by Florence + The Machine. Was that 4 minutes.. maybe 5? Probably the longest period of consecutive squats I’ve ever done, but the loud music, accompanied by a drumbeat of mantras and reflective questions spewed out by the teacher, the addition of arm movements and periodic yelling - the time passed quickly, the room warmed up, the energy palpable. It felt tribal. It felt exciting.
Over the next 90 minutes, we were lead through a series that was mostly cardio, with some body weight movements thrown in. In addition to the squats, there were burpees, “skating” in place, planks, various ab strengtheners, bicep lifts, dancing, yelling. The dancing was my favorite part, freeform with the beat, evolving into jumping jacks, then devolving into a slower, calmer groove. Lots of heart touching. Lots of body scanning. Lots of music with motivating beats by some of today’s cultural icons - Of Monsters and Men, Kings of Leon, Cold Play and Eminem among them. (A quick Spotify search pulls up several The Class inspired playlists, which I recommend perusing)
Perfection was not encouraged. Fitness was not discussed. Performance was not emphasized. Narratives in The Class focused on self accountability, self discovery, acknowledging life's challenges, and working through them, owning your destiny.
The time passed quickly, and when it was all said and done, I had worked up a good sweat. My quads felt like jello from so many squats, but The Class wasn’t close to the best workout I’ve ever had. For the time (and money) investment, I’ll stick to my crossfit and running regimen, no question.
But, I enjoyed the opportunity to dance and move to loud music - by myself, but not alone. I enjoyed the invitation to introspection, and the mentally cleansed feeling that resulted. I enjoyed the yelling. I enjoyed the aromatherapy. I enjoyed the catharsis - a big word, but also an important one that is discussed too rarely in our society.
So yes, I’d go back. If The Class were in my city, I’d probably find myself there a few times a year. I’d take my girlfriends, then follow it up with brunch or coffee. I think we'd all agree that it was time well spent.
We’re all born with it, the mind/body connection. As infants, we react immediately and instinctively to physical discomfort. Over time, of course, we develop the ability to take care of ourselves and we learn to consider our discomfort before reacting, even when doing so is hard. I think the ability to rationalize a body’s signals is a necessary ingredient to living a healthy adult life - if everyone reacted to everything in the moment, all the time, that would create its own kind of stress and negative health impacts. That said, the ability to rationalize or ignore what your body is saying is often taken too far, resulting in anxiety, exhaustion, injury or worse.
I honestly thought I’d be better at it than I am. In fact, training for, and completing, 5 ultramarathons in a year’s time required me to be highly tuned into my body’s signals. Spending hundreds of miles a month on foot causes a person to notice the slightest maladjustments and dial into even minor aches and pains, while burning through shoes, socks, and (gross, but true) toenails with cyclical predictability.
I completed my last ultra about a year ago, and though I’m not currently training for ultra distances, I maintain an agenda of frequent and intense physical activity. The discipline that ultrarunning has taught me, not to mention healthy habits like fueling, sleeping, and goal setting, all serve me well.
Though I mastered the self care of an athlete - a daily regimen of running or cross training, movements for mobility, stretching and smashing of muscle, frequent sports massage, maximizing diet for performance - I also learned to minimize physical discomfort. I rationalized, delayed, downplayed and disregarded the kinds of sensations that, if experienced in the course of ‘normal life’, would make many people call in sick, at the very least. I disconnected mind from body at will, and with crystal-clear awareness.
Anyone who considers herself an athlete; anyone with a physically demanding lifestyle; anyone who prioritizes performance above comfort will understand this: The challenge I see most clearly, and hold in highest regard, is respecting - and strengthening - my mind/body connection. That means having the patience to sense what’s happening and slow down, and willingness to take the time to act, adjust, or rest, all while cultivating the ability to take care of myself physically in the way I’d take care of a loved one - not just when it’s convenient, but in all moments. No matter what feats of strength or endurance are in my future, I know this challenge will be the greatest of my life and - with any luck - the most rewarding.