There's this childhood memory I still hold on to of cold winter nights when my family had somewhere to be. My sister and I would bundle up, waddle out to the car and through our chattering teeth, we would immediately ask my dad when we would be warm again. His answer was always: by the time we passed McDonald's. Every time, without fail, before McDonald's was even in the rear view mirror, we were scream-singing along to Johnny Cash with no recollection of how miserable we had been two minutes earlier.
I think of those nights every now and then when I drive past that McDonalds. Other times, the memory shows up when life gets particularly dark and cold; those moments when it becomes easy to wish there was still someone out there who could stamp a guaranteed end to the hurt, someone to hand me a tangible countdown outlining everything I have to endure before I break through and life warms up again.
This past year was a compilation of a lot of those moments. It felt like someone blindfolded me and spun me around in a million circles, and when I got too disoriented to maintain a steady footing, my entire world came crashing down with me. I remember sitting in the rubble, slipping my blindfold off and looking around at the broken pieces of everything I had worked so hard to build. The things that I once thought would always serve as strongholds were nowhere to be found. I sat there wondering where to go next, longing for someone to come pick me up, brush me off and start shoveling a clear path in front of me, but a person with that job description never showed up.
I tried to make sense of it all, to find a home for the crumbled pieces I held in my hands, but I quickly learned there were pieces missing - pieces I had lost altogether, pieces I had yet to find and, if we’re being honest, a few unhealthy pieces I needed to let go of. It was like trying to put together one of those thousand-piece jigsaw puzzles, but for some reason, the box didn't come with the puzzle, so I had no idea what the finished product was supposed to look like. And the last thing I wanted to do was revert back to the very thing that had gotten me into that mess and buried me in the first place: trying to force pieces to fit where they didn't belong.
I didn't know what was next, but I knew I couldn't stay in the aftermath. So, I stood up. I shook the dust off, picked a direction and started walking. Literally walking. The legs that once buckled beneath me carried me five-hundred miles across the northern half of Spain (El Camino de Santiago) and as they did, I met people from all over the world. I met people with fresh perspectives on what I was going through, people eager to listen as I verbally untangled where I was at and people who walked alongside me and said: "I ache in similar ways, let's navigate this together." As the conversations and the miles passed, I found myself picking up new pieces to my puzzle, figuring out which ones to keep in my pockets and which ones I needed to leave behind.
When I got home, I kept walking, but with slightly more incline. In the months following my Spain trek, I found myself on top of nineteen of Colorado's tallest mountains. I felt like Forrest Gump, except hiking instead of running, and there were mountain goats. It was a summer filled with unmatched beauty, life lessons, growth and conversations with even more people who showed up at the very moment I needed them the most. It was exactly where I needed to be, but it was painful, too. The hiking world is filled with these things called "false summits," peaks that appear to be the summit from below. You climb and climb, believing with everything in you that the end is in sight. You begin counting down your steps and allowing yourself to prematurely embrace the rest and the views ahead until you take what is supposed to be the final step only to see a taller mountain off in the distance.
I think life feels like that a lot of the time, too. It can be so disheartening here.
But here’s what I’m embracing, lately - what I would say if I could travel back in time and put my arm around little Kate shivering in the back seat of that old minivan (or tomorrow Kate when she forgets what I'm about to say):
Life is a process not a moment, it always will be, for as long as we're here. We don’t arrive, we become. We won't ever have all of the pieces to this puzzle and it was supposed to come without the box.
Sometimes you will have to scrap entire sections you worked really hard to build or take a piece away from where you swore it was supposed to fit. Doing so might leave that spot feeling raw and empty for a long time, but please don’t force something when or where it doesn’t belong to fill it.
Sometimes you won’t have a map to tell you if the mountain ahead of you is the one you think you're climbing, or if you’re even headed in the right direction.
Sometimes the car window gets stuck down and you stay cold until you arrive at the next destination. But you'll get there, I promise. Even if it isn't when or how or the path you would’ve chosen for yourself, you'll be warm again.
And if through it all you find yourself somewhere you weren’t meant to be, stand up, shake the dust off and pick a new direction. You have two legs and a story to tell a world eager to hear it. A world filled with people who want to cheer you on and things that will make you feel alive, again.
Go find those people. Go chase those things. Everything else will fall into place.