Exploring Closer to Home

So now that we’re all experts at navigating the path between the refrigerator and the couch, what about some outside trails?

I recently came back to be with my parents in rural Pennsylvania, and there’s not much to do here in our small town. (Not that I’m out painting the town, anyway. I’m staying home!) However, I was getting restless for new scenery, and a lot of the local parks/attractions I’d already been to. That is, except for Nelson Ledges Quarry Park in Ohio.

We opted to spend a weekend out in nature, and who knew Ohio was keeping this gem hidden? I loved climbing over these giant rocks, squeezing myself between crevices, hiking all the paths to waterfalls.

Two weekends later, we woke up on a Sunday and decided to go for a drive. My mom had heard about Freedom Falls in Pennsylvania, and we ended up there. We parked on the dirt road and walked down to the falls, where there as only one other person there. I was amazed at how clear and crystal blue the water was. The gentleman that was there told us the falls weren’t as impressive as they usually are due to the lack of rain we’ve had this year, but I was still blown away by this little teal paradise in the middle of nowhere. We hiked down the river to the furnace and the tunnel, taking some nearby trails. Honestly, it was awesome.

There were also many covered bridges along the way:

Where have you explored lately? Any secret spots that are a close drive from northeast PA? Let me know- I’d love to hear!

                                                          Until then, stay home & stay healthy,

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The Cinnamon Traveler Chats

Since creating my public Instagram account (@fromthissideofthesun) to showcase my travel adventures and writing, I’ve made so many connections & found friends in like-minded individuals. I’m so grateful that one of them, Edher, AKA The Cinnamon Traveler (find him on Instagram, and his Facebook page) asked to interview me on his YouTube channel.

Edher lives in Cusco, Peru and has conducted several interviews with travelers, bloggers, and more that I’ve found to be both fascinating and inspiring. He’s one of the most genuine people I’ve met, (which says a lot seeing as how we’ve only “met” a couple months ago, and have yet to meet in person!) and I’m so glad he shared his platform with me for me to tell my story as a solo female traveler.

I’m super awkward and there were some technical difficulties on my end, but I had such an amazing time chatting with him! Check out the full interview here.

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Safe travels to the fridge and back for now,

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A Decade Under the Influence

[Titled after the Taking Back Sunday song I listened to in my teenage years? Maybe.]

Here we are- at the end of a tumultuous decade. There isn’t a way to describe it all, really. Beautifully hard, bittersweet. My timeline and newsfeeds are overpouring with side-by-side photos, recaps of the past ten years: accomplishments, losses, pain, love, suffering, obstacles, growth, change. I’m no stranger to it all, as I think back on 2009-2019. I am more conscious of time, how I move forward through it, how much stares back at me in the rearview mirror…

Some defining moments:

• Earned my B.A. & M.F.A. degrees
I started at Susquehanna University my freshman year and transferred to Westminster College in the fall of 2009. I graduated in May 2012. I was part of Mortar Board, PRSSA, the Holcad Newspaper, Scrawl literary magazine, Campus Programming Council, Sigma Tau Delta International English Society, Alpha Gamma Delta sorority, and other organizations.
After six years out of school and months of consideration, I began my MFA at Carlow University in January 2018 and graduated this past December 2019. The two residencies at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, were among the highlights of my time as a graduate student.

• Moved to Pittsburgh & into my own apartment
I moved to Pittsburgh (“the big small city”) in the summer of 2012 and lived for two years in a house with a few of my good friends before moving into my own little apartment, where I have made my home for the past five years. I’ve sunbathed on my roof, I’ve decorated my apartment with secondhand store gems, and I’ve burned meals. I took a bus for the first time, made it my mission to try all the new restaurants/breweries, learned that I love French fries on my salad, kayaked the three rivers in the summer, and fell in love with late night city lights. But I also grew tired of the never-ending sports talk and the dull grayness of this Steel City, how suffocating its boundaries can be.

•  Bought a one-way flight to Spain & traveled Europe for six months
In 2013, after working a job that left me burned out and at rock bottom, I bought a one way ticket to Barcelona, Spain. Through the help of Workaway, I lived with the most amazing family for three months in Blanes, and then spent the other couple months traveling all across Europe. It was the most thrilling thing I have ever done, and the thing I am most proud of, to this day. I learned how to rely on myself. How to love myself despite failure or faults or fear. How to feel the world around me, and see where I belonged in all of it.

• Traveled to 43 countries & countless cities
Though my wanderlust had begun long ago, that journey in Spain (or Catalonia, rather) kick-started what would be a nearly nonstop travel addiction. I have traveled extensively both domestically and internationally, since 2011. 43 countries in total, and 5 continents. And nope, I have no plans of ever stopping!

• Started my blog
Because of these adventures, I wanted to create a home for the stories, photos, and memories to live. I admittedly have a terrible memory, so I wanted to do this for myself, but also as a way to share these experiences with friends and family both near and far. Thus, this blog was born in 2015.

• Ran races, including first full marathon
In between 2014-2015, I fell in love with running. What began as a small challenge for myself grew larger like wildfire until I was running multiple half-marathons and even completed my first full marathon, just six months after I received my pacemaker.

• Got a pacemaker 

Which, oh yeah- I got a pacemaker in March of 2016, after some health issues. It came as a shock, since I was healthier than I’d ever been. But it was also fuel. Fuel to keep living a life riding the edge, to not wait until the next month/year or until I had more money and things were more convenient. Fuel to cherish this body I’ve been given and not waste any more time doing the things I want to do while I am still physically capable of them.

• Published two books & many poems

I published my first chapbook, Next to Everything that is Breakable, in 2017. Not long after, my second chapbook, The Shedding before the Swell, was published in the fall of 2018. Two book launches were celebrated, surrounded by ones I love most. Many poems were also written, sent out to journals and literary magazines, rejected, accepted, edited, published, revised, and reborn. I gave dozens of public readings. I attended a handful of writing conferences (Conversations & Connections, AWP, Sigma Tau Delta, etc.) and even won some awards. I started my author website and Twitter. Above all, I was able to cement my passion in something concrete, and from that foundation, build a community around it.

• Became an aunt to two adorable girls
My sweet Cora was born in 2015, and my fiery Ellie was born in 2018. They are as different as night and day, and their relationship as siblings reminds me so much of my brother and I when we were young. Watching them grow up, evolve into their own selves, and see their wonder for life and learning has captured my heart in a way I hadn’t felt before. (Although it’s still weird to me sometimes that my brother is a dad!) I cherish this family.

• Found Level Red Boxing
When my body decided it needed a break from running, I found boxing. As a woman who travels alone, I’d originally been looking for self-defense, but when I took my first class at this place, I was hooked. This gym has become my second home, and the members and instructors have become some of my closest friends. They push me every single time, and help me feel strong at every level.

• Left a toxic working environment
My first job was a hostess at a family restaurant and my second was being part of the general maintenance crew at PennDOT. During my college years, I worked in the Admissions Office and gave tours to prospective students, which I truly enjoyed. I’ve always been passionate about higher education and have loved working in the field, so after graduation, I started my career in Admissions at a for-profit college. In 2013, I finally left that toxic (and ultimately unethical) job to work in Administration at another thriving University where diversity, inclusion, innovation, hard work, and heart are the core values.

• Diagnosed w/ MDD, anxiety, & excoriation (dermatillomania) disorder

While I knew deep down I was struggling with my mental health, and always have, I was officially diagnosed toward the latter part of the decade. I began taking medication and started therapy. Everything comes in waves, still. And I suppose it always will. But I am learning to stay grounded and not be swept away with the first wave. Dermatillomania, however, was something very new to me, and difficult to accept. I try to continue to be transparent about each and every one of these struggles because not only is it important to end the stigma around mental health, but because you really never know who is suffering in silence. We all have our demons and downfalls. We all suffer. We are human. The more I am open when it is easiest for me to close off the world, the more it helps those around me know I need support. And this, my friends, is exactly what I’ve learned more than anything. I need love. I need support. I need connectivity. We all do. I have been nothing without those around me, caring for me and guiding me, always.

• Joined The Madwomen in the Attic workshop community & became co-curator of the reading series

I love the Madwomen in the Attic. With every fiber of my being. If you follow me on any social media, you’ve no doubt heard of this wonderful group of women writers. I was honored to start co-curating their reading series back in 2017 and am lucky to be the emcee. This has given me the chance to hear new voices, meet new poets, and stay involved in the community.

• Lost a lot of loved ones, learned how to survive my grief

My grandfather, a man I loved so dearly, passed away on Valentines Day in 2017. I have said goodbye to classmates, former friends, and extended family both in death and distance. I grappled with the fact that not everyone who enters your life is meant to stay, and that friendships don’t always outlast what you think they will. And that it’s okay- sometimes they aren’t meant to. I’ve watched friends become strangers and strangers become friends. I have entered and left two very serious long-term relationships, both which absolutely broke me at the time. I learned that heartbreak is incredibly physical. And that I can survive it. I have learned how strong I am- that I am, and always was, whole on my own. That I love the person I am becoming and every scar she used to try to cover up. That the essence of a woman’s worth is not equated to who she’s with, if anyone, or motherhood or beauty or any other ridiculous notion society pushes. I have written some of my strongest pieces after emerging from the fires that tried to engulf me and learned to become the flame- hence the current working title of my manuscript, Ember. Nothing can ever really extinguish us. We don’t have to have it figured out. We just have to keep going.

• Met some of the BEST humans & strengthened old connections
This needs no explanation. Through my travels, my education, my work and recreational endeavors, I have met some of the most fascinating, kind-hearted, talented, and brilliant souls. People who make early mornings more alive, who make long drives and running errands adventurous, and who make being lost feel like you’re right at home. They have carried me through so many seasons of my life. You guys- you are my home. Thank you, and Happy New Year, wherever in this world you may be reading this.

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Ireland Residency #2

JUNE 2-17, 2019

I know I said my last residency was going to be January in Pittsburgh, but I decided I couldn’t miss out on one last opportunity to spend two weeks in the beautiful country of Ireland, learning from and connecting with incredible writers. Thus, I tacked on one more residency of my MFA program. (Click here to read about my first!)

I deeply missed my travel companion, Jaclyn, but still very much enjoyed solo travel in Limerick. I caught a flight there early to spend a couple days exploring before nestling into my dorm room at Trinity College, Dublin, for the two week residency.

Limerick was an adorable city, and I spent most of my short time walking over Thomond Bridge and along the River Shannon, admiring King John’s castle, St. Mary’s Cathedral, and the beautiful street art and roses. I stopped in for a coffee at Jack Monday’s, breakfast at Bakehouse 22,  had a drink at Katie Daly’s Heritage Pub, and dined at Nelly’s Corner. (I basically ate my way back to my AirBnb. But really.) I spent a lot of time in People’s Park, sitting on a bench in the sunshine, and writing. I got lost downtown, stumbled upon Tait’s Clock, and browsing countless boutiques. While I was there, I also saw the Treaty Stone and visited the Milk Market, one of the oldest markets in the country. The Locke Bar next to Matthew Bridge was a great choice for my last night, as I experienced traditional music and dancing. It was a peaceful two days before the residency. See below:

The next day, I caught a bus near Arthur’s Quay Park to Dublin. Can I just say I love how easily you can travel this entire country?

Okay, okay- so now the writing part. During my first residency, in June 2018, I worked with the wonderful Irish poet Enda Wyley. I’ve never met a more passionate reader/writer. She reawakened my excitement for the written word and its endless possibilities. Here are all the current mentors in the Carlow/Trinity program:

 Evelyn Conlon, Fiction
 Carlo Gébler, Fiction
 Brian Leyden, Nonfiction
 Jean O’Brien, Poetry
 Enda Wyley, Poetry

Visiting writers during June 2018 residency:

Thomas McCarthy, Poet (Master Class Instructor)
Sinéad Gleeson, Nonfiction
Richard Blanco, Poetry
Ann Harverty, Fiction
Alannah Hopkin, Nonfiction
Claire Keegan, Fiction
Mark Roper, Poetry
Declan Meade, Editor
Rosita Boland, Nonfiction

What a lineup, huh? So for this most recent residency (June 2018), I was lucky to work with another Irish poet, the fierce Jean O’Brien. Jean taught me to survive my grief, and to “kill the ruddy doves!”

Visiting writers during this June 2019 residency:

Paula Meehan, Poet  (Master Class instructor)
Caitriona Lally, Fiction
Annemarie Ni Churreain, Poetry
Claire Keegan, Fiction
Sinéad Gleeson, Nonfiction
Kevin Barry, Fiction
Nithy Kasa, Poetry
Emilie Pine, Nonfiction
Danny Denton, Editor/Fiction

*Paul Muldoon reading

Every session was rich in its content, every writer was captivating in their craft. Unfortunately, I got sick somewhere between Limerick and Dublin, and the sickness seemed to spread like wildfire throughout the group. I had plenty of hot toddies to soothe my throat, and still managed to attend nearly every reading.

We also took a trip to Boyne Valley/Newgrange area, where I enjoyed the biggest Irish stew & coffee after exploring the Hill of Tara and Trim Castle:

That’s Valerie and I doing weird yoga poses in the photo halfway down on the left, one of my new favorite pictures 🙂

There is a part of Dublin, with its gritty streets, its green plazas, its rolling and quiet beauty, that roars on– a song cemented in my heart. I am forever grateful for the experiences I have had here, shared among friends and mentors, and the opportunity to connect with these brilliant writers, learning from them and their history.

 

These are just snapshots of a place, of laughter, of people in time. I take so many photos because I want to remember it all. And I’m so glad I do. A fellow student, Elicia Parkinson, passed away suddenly in October. She was a brilliant creative nonfiction writer and a dedicated student. Elicia, I hope wherever you are is as beautiful and lush as Ireland’s green pastures, and filled to the brim with books just as heavenly.

Our director included this poem in her e-mail to us, and I want to close this post with it.

 

And Yet the Books
And yet the books will be there on the shelves, separate beings,

That appeared once, still wet
As shining chestnuts under a tree in autumn,
And, touched, coddled, began to live
In spite of fires on the horizon, castles blown up,
Tribes on the march, planets in motion.
“We are, ” they said, even as their pages
Were being torn out, or a buzzing flame
Licked away their letters. So much more durable
Than we are, whose frail warmth
Cools down with memory, disperses, perishes.
I imagine the earth when I am no more:
Nothing happens, no loss, it’s still a strange pageant,
Women’s dresses, dewy lilacs, a song in the valley.
Yet the books will be there on the shelves, well born,
Derived from people, but also from radiance, heights.

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Final Residency

I completed my third (and final) residency in my MFA program in January. To say that this program has changed my life is an understatement. In the words of my friend and former Madwomen mentor, Tess Barry, it is a “two year bath in champagne.”

I have worked with incredible mentors, had the pleasure of meeting and listening to many renowned visiting writers, and made lifelong connections in the friends I have found here.

Here’s our group at Steel Cactus: Amy, me, Jaclyn, Phillip, Cathy, Hannah, and Sam.

And then at the famous Jazz Night: Gerry, Phillip, Jaclyn, me, Cathy, Richard.

I met the remarkable Sandra Cisneros, award-winning author and beautiful soul.

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I presented my craft talk, Writing the Wandering Home: Place and Placelessness in Poetry.

And here we all are at the final dinner, the original crew: Richard, Cathy, me, Gerry, Jaclyn.

& the three musketeers, the girls: Jaclyn, me, Cathy.

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I would not have made it through this program or the past year of my life (including surviving Ireland!) without this incredible human. Thank you, Jaclyn. We did it!

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My brilliant, powerful teachers: Judith Vollmer and Jan Beatty.

I am beginning this last practicum with a full reading list, and a notebook full of goals. I’m not sure what shape my manuscript will take, but I know my voice is shifting the more I grow in this program, and I can’t wait to see how it sounds.

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Going For It

Not many people know this, but I started graduate school for my MFA in January.

I am still working full time, but I decided that this goal was one I seriously wanted to accomplish for myself and to push myself academically and personally, to become a better writer.

My motto for this new year has been to just go for it, and that’s what I am doing. The residency proved to me that I made the right decision. Never in my life did I connect so quickly to my peers and mentors. I felt like even though I only met these people ten days ago, it felt like we had been friends for a lifetime! I was surrounded by the most brilliant writers, and the energy was contagious. All in all, it was the single most overwhelming (but in the best way) thing I had ever experienced.

And now, the real work of practicum begins. For those of you who are or have previously been in grad school, especially a low residency program, what advice would you give?

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How I Travel

Oh, how I wish I had a dollar for every time anyone has ever asked/told me any of the following:

I’m so jealous, I wish I could do that!”
Ugh, if only I had the money!”
If I ever had the time, I’d go.”
Don’t you get scared/lonely/tired of traveling by yourself?”
“…yeah, but you’re young and a woman.”

Maybe you, reading this right now, have even thought the same thing about me. You see pictures on Instagram and posts on Facebook: Peru, Thailand, Aruba, etc. and think, how does she do it? The money, the days off work?

Let’s get one thing straight here: I am no different than the average person. I am not rich, “just lucky,” or any of that. And it would make me furious to hear how some people just assumed all of these things about me or the way I lived my life, simply because they didn’t know. I worked my ass off to get to where I am and for the things that I have accomplished. I work a full-time job, take writing classes, pay my school loans, struggle to maintain a social life, go to the gym, etc. and still get a decent night of sleep like everyone else. I am an ordinary girl, who just decided what she wanted and went out to get it.

While there are certainly traveling tips I’ve picked up over the years, nothing will get you there until you can understand and accomplish #1 on this list.

  1. You have to want it bad enough.
    It seems so simple. Who doesn’t want to go on a vacation, explore somewhere new and fun, make memories seeing the world instead of being at work? But it’s more than that. You have to want it bad enough that you are willing to make sacrifices to achieve it. You have to want it more than you fear the unknowns or what-ifs. More than you doubt yourself and your abilities. You have to want it more than you make excuses for the reasons you can’t do it. “I want to travel, but…” No. If you truly want it more than anything, you will find a way or make a way. This goes not only for traveling, but whatever you want in life. A degree, to get in shape, etc. You have the power. Mindset is everything.
  2. You have to be willing to sacrifice. 
    I get it. Money holds us back. Not once did my parents give me money to go on trips. I don’t come from a rich family. I’m still paying student loans (and probably always will be until I die). So what are you willing to give up? I worked a job I was miserable at for a year, but it allowed me to save up money to spend five months in Europe. I don’t get Starbucks every day. I recently sold my car. I don’t buy Michael Kors purses or go out drinking every weekend, because those things don’t bring me happiness. I’d rather spend my money on experiences. If you know that you can cut back somewhere- do it! I also didn’t stay in nice hotels when I went on my first solo international trips. I stayed in very cheap hostels, in dormitories, and ate bread and Nutella sandwiches, and carried a water bottle that I would refill at water fountains so I could have something to drink. I hardly ever went out to eat. Not glamorous, but that’s the truth. I wasn’t dirt poor, but I wanted to save my money for other things. Not eating out for every meal, every single day, allowed me to buy flights to Belgium and Switzerland. And believe me, I’d trade dinner at a restaurant for that kind of adventure any day of the week.
  3. You have to be flexible and open-minded.
    Maybe you’ve been dying to go to Chile, but flights are so expensive for the time you want to go. If you work, can you change your vacation days and go when flights are cheaper, in the off season? If not, can you look into other destinations that are more in your budget? Google Flights has an amazing tool that allows you to view the varying prices of flights over time, and also track when the price fluctuates. I went to Aruba over July 4th weekend. During the summer, my department gives us the option of working flex time (basically working 10 hours days four days a week, and then having a day off). I usually take Fridays off so I can have a long weekend, which is really convenient for traveling. Example: I worked that week Monday-Thursday, 10 hour days. Had Friday (my flex day) off. I left for Aruba Thursday night. Since July 4th was on a Tuesday, I only took off Monday, July 3rd. And there you have it! A five day vacation, only taking one day of PTO. I also was able to pay less for the flight, because I chose one with an overnight layover in Charlotte, where my best friend graciously allowed me to stay at her apartment. I was able to put up with longer travel time because of the payoff. I strategically planned it this way to my benefit. You just have to think outside the box, which leads me to my next point…
  4. You have to be smart and put the effort in. 
    This one goes hand-in-hand with being flexible and open-minded. Maybe you’ve seen an amazing Groupon for Italy, with airfare and everything included! Before you purchase it- consider the small details in print. Is your airport even listed as a departure point? If it isn’t, how much is it going to cost to travel to the next closest airport? How many meals are you really getting, if any? Look up the hotels they’ve listed. How much is the nightly rate, and how much is airfare for those dates? It might actually be less expensive to book it yourself, separately. Vacation packages are usually solely for the convenience of not having to plan it yourself, and if that’s why you want to go that route, then more power to ya! But, if finances are a factor, do your research. Can you stay at a more affordable hotel than the one they’ve pre-selected for you? Is the airfare cheaper if you leave the day before or come back the day after? When I travel solo, I try to be as economical as possible. Where some would normally take a taxi, I go on foot. I walk everywhere. It allows me to be among the locals more, to really get to experience a city and see more of it, and also is great exercise. I also really feel like I’ve earned it, in a way I can’t explain. But the same goes for excursions and tourist sites. Instead of going with a big group or private guided tour, can you pay the minimum of the entry fee, find a less costly way of arriving there, and explore the site yourself?
  5. You have to overcome your fear.
    People tell me I am “brave” or ask how I am not scared to travel alone. I’m never sure how to answer this. I was scared to death before I went on my first trip alone. I still get anxiety over so many things. As a woman traveling alone, I constantly have to have my guard up and be aware of my surroundings. People don’t see or understand that it isn’t fun 100% of the time. It can be so stressful and exhausting. But the reward is all in the rest of the experience. I refuse to be held back from the fear of “what if”. The risk of NOT taking the risk is a lot greater for me. Bad things can happen in the States (or whatever your home country) as well as South America, in any city, to anyone, at any time, whether they are alone or not. I don’t want to be on my deathbed regretting not following my dream because I was worried about what “might” happen. Traveling alone made me realize what I am made of, and to be comfortable with myself, which is something I had to learn. You’re going to be with yourself the rest of your life, might as well start getting to know who that person is. Do I wish sometimes that my family or friends could come with me? Of course. But they would never hold me back from going just because they couldn’t go. The reality is that if you wait for someone else to be ready, you may be waiting forever. It all comes back to #1, a single question: How bad do you want it?

Bottom line: Don’t spend your life waiting and wanting.

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P.S. Check out my article, What Keeps Us, if you want to learn more about getting out of your own way.                                                                           sig2

Contest Update

Delighted to announce that while I did not receive enough votes to catch up to first place, the coordinator of the contest  reached out to me personally to inform me that they really enjoyed my story and thought it deserved a special award. They are offering me $300 and a variety of opportunities to work and/or write with them in the future.

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Overwhelmed with gratitude for the outpouring of support I received from friends, family, and strangers to help me with this goal.

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