Brain training: Stepping off the treadmill Reset by depriving your senses

I’m not a runner. I view people who run as a bit mad. I can’t imagine being driven to run from one place to another, pounding pavement as your ankles crack and your knees creak, all while pitting out expensive, specially designed clothing. It’s just not for me. But there is an organ in my body that is always on the treadmill. My brain is constantly running. It’s not even training for a marathon, and it’s on the go all the time. I wake up and I’m instantly flush with thoughts: Did (insert name of latest crush) text me? What is on my calendar today? Ooooohhh, Facebook. I wonder how many “likes” I have on my last post. I should change my profile photo. Email. Oh man, I have soooo many unread emails. Argh. I forgot to reply to that Doodle pole. I wonder how I can get out of this meeting.

I am NOT EVEN OUT OF BED YET and my brain is sweating.

I picture this poor organ wrapped in sweatbands, lacing tiny running shoes before it’s even fully conscious. By the time I open my eyes, this athlete is ready to go. It jumps on the treadmill and doesn’t stop until it collapses at the end the day in exhausted, overwhelming defeat.

To help this little athlete slow down, I decide to teach it how to meditate. My brain isn’t as enthusiastic as I hoped it would be about the idea.

“Meditation?!” I don’t have time for that.” Still, I commit to sitting on my carpet, legs crossed, eyes closed, while a YouTube video for meditation runs on my laptop. Every time my brain jumps on that treadmill, I scold it. “Hey. Stop that. You’re supposed to be resting.” Brains really love to run.

I figure I need to step up my game, so I try a subscription to “Headspace,” a meditation app. Pleasant cartoon illustrations speaking in British accents lead me into a meditative state, and honestly, it begins to work. The sessions start out slowly—five minutes, then 10, building to 20-minute guided meditations.

This thought is ever-present, though, that I am wasting precious time. All those to-do lists, those people waiting for my reply, those notifications pinging in the background keep my brain on the move. Soon, my app subscription expires, and I’ve only unlocked level two of meditation mastery.

I need something extreme to put this athlete on the bench. If I can’t shut out all the distractions, maybe someone else can. I seek out Kristin Gardner, who recently installed Billings first sensory deprivation tank at her business, Affinity for Healing, located at 3429 Central Avenue. Gardner promotes a “deep sense of relaxation” that can be obtained through depriving the brain of exterior stimulation.

Gardner books me for a “float” in her i-sopod Float Tank, an egg-shaped device filled with water that looks like a private vessel the cast of Cocoon might hibernate in during their journey to the planet Antarea. The tank’s water contains 286 pounds of Epson salt, kept at body temperature. The salt keeps you naturally afloat, removing any struggle you may have had in the past floating around, for instance in the bathtub or the ocean. Seriously, it’s a lot of salt.

Gardner asks me to take a quick shower to remove any body products, then walks me through the routine. Eye drops if I need them (getting this salty water in your eyes is not recommended, but if it happens, you’ll want eye drops handy), earplugs (highly recommended, as the experience is not as pleasant as it can be with water sloshing around your inner lobes), and petroleum jelly, which can be put on any scratches or cuts (yep, this much salt water can really sting on open wounds).

I begin to feel stress. I’m going to be in an enclosed pod of pitch-blackness, floating in salty water for an hour with my brain. “Don’t worry, there’s a light button and a panic button,” Gardner tells me. “You can get out at any time.” Gardner takes two fingers to show me how easy it is to lift the lid if necessary.

The first 10 minutes in the pod include music and lights reflecting through the water. After 10 minutes, the pod goes dark, beginning the sensory deprivation.

“For the most part, you want to really let your mind shut down from all the to-do lists in your head or all the errands you have to run,” Gardner says. “You want to have a deep sense of relaxation.”

Gardner exits the room, and I step into the pod, pulling the lid down. Docile music is piped into the pod, and the lights subtly change colors, creating lucidity to the space. It’s enjoyable. I feel free, gently fluttering my arms and bumping against the sides of the tank like a docked boat with its tethers too loose.

I begin to wonder how the hell I’m going to do this for an hour. The lights click off at 10 minutes, and the music fades away. I can hear my heart beat. I keep my eyes closed, hovering in the darkness. Each time my brain steps off the treadmill, I applaud it, which frustratingly only makes it hop back up and get back on.

I feel like Homer Simpson in the episode of The Simpson’s where he and his daughter Lisa try a flotation tank. While Lisa takes a journey of the mind, realizing some valuable things about herself, Homer’s in the tank next to her singing, “I saw the witch doctor, he told me what to do…He said that ….Ooo eee, ooo ah ah ting tang. Walla walla, bing bang.”

My brain won’t stop. I think, “Is this what it takes? A pod of darkness?! A complete deprivation of the outside world? And you STILL WON’T SHUT UP?”

Frustrated, I turn into my other senses. I listen to my heartbeat, flushing blood in and out of its ventricles. My eardrums pulse with this same beat. My breath lifts my chest high, drifts it down low, then back again in rhythm with the movement of my lungs. I watch the inside of my eyelids, thinking of them as empty movie screens. I’m not sure at what point the brain steps down, removes its sweatbands, and takes a break, but it happens. Its awareness of time, of pressure, of duty, seems to diminish and drop to a sub-level of consciousness.

The lights in the pod come back up at one hour. The music begins again, and I open my eyes. Coming back into the room, I feel nearly exhausted. It’s a rewarding tired, however, a feeling that the workout was hard-fought.

On my way home, I catch myself reaching for my phone to check the notifications at a stoplight. The light changes, and I push the gas pedal a bit more than I should. My athlete responds kindly. “Hey, it’s okay. It’s habit. Let’s try it a different way.” I tuck my phone in my purse, back off the gas, and turn my attention to the intention of getting off that treadmill.

To try out a float, contact Affinity For Healing at 969-2558 or online at affinityforhealing.com. Story originally published in Yellowstone Valley Magazine.

Seven Months

Excel The Greyt was diagnosed with bone cancer on July 31, 2015. His prognosis: three months.

At the time, I didn’t believe he had three weeks. The cancer moved so fast. It seemed to consume him. But I also didn’t believe the only thing I could do was wait for him to die.

I wanted him to reach his 9th birthday, on Sept. 1.

So I fought furiously. I battled cancer with food. I responded to death with love. I surrounded us with the very best adventure of life: friendship and true love.

We took to the mountains and laid in the creek. We played in the park and slept in the grass. We gardened. We held babies. We held hands. We had parties, backyard barbecues and around the block adventures. We slept in, and we snuggled.

Excel responded miraculously to the love and food he received, and I in turn grew braver because of our time. I learned how to feed with love, how to live presently in a very momentary life, and how to more fully trust myself.

Yet, I didn’t believe I’d know when our time was up. I worried that he would be in pain and I would not know, or that when it came time to say goodbye, I wouldn’t be sure. I was afraid that I wouldn’t be strong enough to take him to the end.

The evening of Saturday, March 12, the cancer overtook his lungs. All the comfort I gave Excel was gone, and he asked me to help him. My room reverberated in his pain. I felt his anguish as if it were my own. With the clarity that intense love brings, I knew I would not keep him here to suffer. It was time to release him from all the pain of his body.

That Sunday, March 13, we said goodbye. I surrounded myself with the biggest love I knew, the love of strong women and best friends. They held me, and they comforted him. Then they left us alone. I placed him in my bed, his favorite spot to be. His breath was gaspingly shallow. He would stop breathing for moments, as if he were trying out the other side. A trusted friend and vet came to my home and took him to the end. I held his head, placed my forehead to his and sent him into death with the reassurance that he was the strongest, kindest, most admirable soul I’d ever met.

I felt him leave his body. I heard him leave the room. The world shook on his exit. Of all the souls in all the world, to have known this one is staggering. To have found him across so many lives and to be able to take him to the very end was a most honorable act.

There’s vastness left in me, an expanse that is not empty but rather wide open to all the beauty and pain that death to life brings.

Time, with a soul this big, doesn’t exist. Love is the only way I know to measure of such a life’s span.


Excel The Greyt’s Adventures
July 31, 2015 – March 13, 2016

Trust on display Terpsichore dancers tell the story of connection

For Ricki Feeley, dance is personal. She groups movement into phrases the way a writer tells a story. “Most of movement I create is based on how I am feeling,” she said. “It’s a sympathetic response.”

An advanced modern technical dancer and founder of Terpsichore Dance Company of Montana, Feeley makes it easy to get lost in dance. She immerses her audience in the story that body can create, inspired by her own life experiences.

Feeley creates solitude and a sense of aloneness in her work, but it’s never long-lived. Brought to life by Terpsichore dancers, her dances erupt in mass movement, telling the story of connection that is required of dancers moving together and falling completely into one another.

This Saturday (March 5), members of Terpsichore take to the Babcock stage to perform Feeley’s vision, a series of choreographed pieces on loss and grief, of celebration and joy, and of fantasy and dreams that took more than six months to perfect. Audiences have two chances to catch the show at the Babcock Theatre during a 1 p.m. matinee and an evening performance at 7:30 p.m.

For many members, they’ve been working on these movements since last summer, meeting weekly and as often as many as five days a week leading up to the annual performance.

“It looks a little frantic right now,” Feeley commented during one of their final rehearsals. “It seems to fall apart before it comes together.” Rhythmically, the dancers rehearse, counting their steps out loud. Each movement is a number among the whirl of churning feet, flicking ankles, and nude legs.

Observing as dancers continue to run the routine, Feeley can see what happens as a whole. She follows each gesture, witnessing what the dancers can’t see when they’re in the midst—the collective whole of the piece, the audience’s view.

Whenever possible, dancers look to the large mirror that runs the entirety of the studio’s back wall. Watching the synchronicity of their lines, it’s as though they’re looking out to an imagined audience.

A dancer in the front, Maribel Schaff, reaches to another dancer, Morgan Shaw, and rolls her into a spin as though Shaw were weightless. Turning her like a floating wheel, Schaff seems to be completely unaware of gravity.

To have such connection and the ability to manipulate another person, Schaff said it comes down to trust. “You have to completely support your weight and give up to the other person. You have to trust each other a lot.”

Kate Blakeslee, who joined Terpischore in 2012, said she’s driven to participate because of what she’s able to create with her fellow dancers.

“I think creating something with a group of people is one of the most powerful things we can do with our lives, and this is my opportunity to do that,” Blakeslee said.

Terpsichore’s eighth production in six years will feature 12 dancers, including Feeley. Many are original members. What was once just a hobby for these women has grown into a nonprofit dance company staging elaborate, extensive dances that take half the year to finalize.

There are no paychecks. These dancers come together to create without financial compensation. Though their time is donated, each dancer signs a yearly contract committing to the process.

“I didn’t foresee any of this,” said Feeley, who founded Terpsichore in Missoula while studying dance at Montana State University. She obtained a BFA in dance with choreography and performance as her emphasis.

In Missoula, Feeley staged many shows as part of her dance major. When she relocated to Billings, she started an adult dance class. This collective of like-minded dancers were interested in performing for an audience, so Feeley thought, “Let’s do a little show.”

Terpsichore members practice at Montana Dance Center located on Daniel Street. The center, which opened in January after relocating from Moore Lane, was once an old garage. Garage walls and cement floors were converted to dancing studios with sprung flooring and a “marley” dance covering flown in from California, which gives the floor its spring.

Many of Terpsichore’s members teach at the center and get together after lessons to run through their pieces. The space is provided for Terpsichore to rehearse at no charge. Here, dancers have the room they need to prep for the stage.

Such space is necessary for Terpsichore pieces, constructed with expansiveness and a freedom of movement.

“I want it to be real,” Feeley said. “I have a huge appreciation for ballet, but it was all smoke in mirrors. You couldn’t move the way you felt, but instead had to do it same way as the person next to you.”

Feeley’s choreography has flow. It’s not rigid and formulaic; rather it is raw and real. Like water, it’s smooth and glossy, yet it contains great power. From movement to movement, there’s a sense that chaos could happen at any moment, yet each position creates a peaceful calm before the next.

When choreographing this year’s show, Feeley wanted to convey the way bodies move and feel. She improvised many of the pieces, evolving movement with fellow dancers to construct dance with authentic movement.

“When you try to chorographic (a dance) on your own, and set it on your own, and then come in and teach it, you put such a constriction on your expression,” Feeley said. “With Terpsichore, I can create movement on the spot without having to think too much about it. It’s been a beautiful evolvement.”

Directing 11 women in such expansive, impactful dances isn’t easy, and as the main chorographer, Feeley is in a constant leadership role. “I’m sure it gets tiring, me critiquing people all the time,” she said. “But I always treat people with kindness and respect, and the girls have such good attitudes.” There’s trust behind each movement, a sense that each dancer is looking out for the next.

“Dancers have to trust each other implicitly,” said Krista Pasini, one of the original members of the company. “As dancers, you are paint on a canvas. You are (the choreographer’s) artwork. You are going to get molded or lifted, or have an armpit in your face.”

Armpits included, the many shapes and bends of Terpsichore dancers portray beauty and strength in the female form. Each dancer’s body is a skyscraper of graceful power, from richly thick thighs to slender legs, from stout or long torsos to the limbs long.

Watching rehearsal, it feels as though the dancers could levitate. Their arms descend—timed to music—and rise again as a bird flapping. Melting, each dancer drops to the ground, and upon rising, their heads the last to arrive, they appear like warriors. Dropping their thighs parallel to the ground, they hover their arms skyward.

Moving with impactful music is a fundamental part of Terpsichore’s performances, yet some of the most compelling parts of a Terpsichore piece is created in silence, where the only sounds in the theater are of breath and body—the inhale and exhale of movement, the sound of joints and the give of the floor.

“I love to hear dancer’s breath,” Feeley said. “I tell my dancer’s not to worry about hiding it. Let me hear how the lungs get dispersed. Everyone appreciates it.”

It’s common when watching a Feeley creation to hold your own breath. There’s a feeling of anxiousness following each gesture. In movement, you sense your own longing and loss, but also a collective joy and exuberance when watching the dancers interact.

In each turn of the dance, you’re part of a greater adventure. Trust is on display. As each phrase of dance passes, you’ll find yourself silently cheering on the dancers. You’ll celebrate with them, imagining yourself in the story.

Blocked The downside of keeping our dogs, our dreams, and our exes at a distance

“It’s just a dog.”

I have considered that line more that I care to admit. When I began writing about loss and the ways in which dogs show us trust and connection, I felt almost guilty giving so much weight to my relationship with a dog.

After all, it’s just a dog.

Though fido is closer to family these days, downplaying the human relationship with animals has a lengthy history. Keeping animals out of our closest circle makes it easier to use them for sport or entertainment, or to place them in the category of property, not family. Diminishing the relationship can also make it seem easier to accept the finite life of a pet.

Beyond animals, relationships of all types can be reduced to an afterthought.

“It’s just another day.”

“It’s just a pipe dream.”

“It’s just a job.”

“It’s just an ex.”

When we say, “just a [ ],” we diminish the relationship and remove its power to affect us. Keeping our past lives, our current frustrations, and our dreams for the future at a distance also helps keep such thoughts from impacting and shaping our lives.

With technology, our ability to diminish relationships is now even easier. We’re able to block out the bad.

I’m a fan of the mute button, especially after a series of unexpected texts from a number I hadn’t seen it in nearly 10 years, though I recognized it immediately. It was my ex-husband’s.

I panicked. I handed my phone to a friend, asking for help. Without question, she turned on iPhone’s handy “Block this Caller” feature.

“There,” she says. “Taken care of.”

This wasn’t the first time I’ve turned over my phone. Like an addict finally admitting defeat, I’ve asked for help to block people from my life. An ex boyfriend’s streaming assaults on Facebook…BLOCKED. The man I ended things with on poor terms…DELETED. I’ve had friends dig deep into the bowels of my phone, pulling out missed calls and text threads, removing any recognizable bit of that person from my digital life so I can avoid the temptation of reaching out to them.

Too bad you can’t do that with brains.

Even though my ex-husband was successfully blocked, he was still in my head, as loud and as vivid as the day he left. What, though, did I expect, when I decided to use the Internet as my publisher? He’s summarized in my latest writing as “the alcoholic I married and divorced.”

I’d be pissed, too.

Actually, every relationship I acknowledged in a recent piece about detoxing from dating was summarized in one line or less. In glorifying my sabbatical from men, I diminished each of them to a few words.

The writer in me wants to defend my statements, to let the reader know this was intentional. It was written specifically to take the focus away from men and place it on my process and what I learned.

The human in me wants to say that it’s unfair to treat people who greatly impacted my life in this way. Each one of those men evolved my heart.

The “high school boyfriend I bailed out of jail” was the first boyfriend I truly loved. He remains one of my longest relationships and the first person I tried to date long-distance, making it quite obvious that I was terrible at being far away from someone I loved so much. We learned about heartwreck together, and I measured every relationship after him against the love I felt I lost.

I remember nearly every moment with the “Texas punk rock vegetarian who had a girlfriend,” especially the guilt that kept me awake in the early mornings. Keeping that relationship going for as long as I did was a blind and dishonorable way for me to live, and a choice I am not proud of.

The “cover band rocker I took to small claims court” taught me about forgiveness. I found my strength after he left, and I found enough documentation to prove he owed me a good deal of money. I thought getting that verdict was the most rewarding part of our time together, but forgiving him was even more powerful.

The “Jack Mormon” gave me more love than I felt I deserved. After my dog was struck and killed by a car, he read me “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock” and held me while I cried myself to sleep. He tried to carry all my heartbreak, and I didn’t allow it. I became that pair of ragged claws T.S. Eliot described, “scuttling across the floors of silent seas.” I locked him out. I locked everyone out after that.

“The crier” taught me about the cruelty I contain. “The older man” taught me about energy and how it’s possible to move an entire room with it. The “ski-bum heartbreaker with the broken legs” taught me about total, utter, wild love and my tendencies to be overwhelming IN. The “grass-is-always-greener-architect” helped me heal after being very broken. He taught me how to end a relationship with kindness. When I finally called it, I did so knowing I wanted to still see him and hug him and tell him about my life. That was the first time I considered not burning the whole fucking thing down.

And the “overzealous writer,” well, I’ve been that person too. In the last message I received from him, I did not acknowledge his pain. I only felt my own, and I just deleted him.

Digital life continues on after being blocked. What happens on the other lines is something we may never know, and if we shut it out, we certainly won’t be able to understand how we behave in the process. But we also have the right to block people who choose to use technology to harass us. I’m not interested in being a punching bag for someone’s unprocessed emotions.

It’s more difficult to block pain. It’s not just a dog. It’s not just an ex. These are parts of our lives, for better or worse, which live within the folds of memory and affect who we are right now.

I’ve tried a lot of mute buttons. The acute and immediate nature of our digital lives does fade with distance. There’s nothing, though, that can quiet the memories of lost love. By turning my exes into my own punching bag, I just created more pain.

My new rule for texting exes: If you can’t say something nice…don’t commit it to the electronic sea.

Writing about them? Well…the poet Anne Sexton said it best.

“A woman who writes feels too much,
those trances and portents!
As if cycles and children and islands
weren’t enough; as if mourners and gossips
and vegetables were never enough.
She thinks she can warn the stars.
A writer is essentially a spy.
Dear love, I am that girl.”

Dating Detox Reflections on a one-year dating hiatus

Midnight, January 1, 2016: The ball drops, the champagne pops, and so many kisses! Arms around each other, once-a-year pronouncing: “For auld lang syne, my dear, for auld lang syne. We’ll take a cup of kindness yet, for auld lang syne.”

Farewell, 2015.

“I love New Year’s,” someone says. “You get to start all over. Again.”

A clean slate.

My clean slate started a year ago. Being unable to make suitable decisions when it came to men, I decided to stop. It seemed logical. If I can’t make a good choice in a romantic partner, I won’t make a choice at all. One year. No dating. No sex. Nothing.

“Really? You made it a whole year, no nothing?” My friend raises a skeptical eyebrow.

Well…

“I had sex with my ex-boyfriend.”

More eyebrow.

“Twice.”

“I see.”

“I was bored. It doesn’t count if you’re bored.”

Besides, it was incredibly eye opening. It was the first time I felt oxytocin—that magical little brain chemical responsible for feelings of intimacy and bonding after sex—in all its glory and did not think I was in love.

I was so very pleased at my discovery. “I love oxytocin, but now I don’t have to think I’m falling in love every time!” I told this to a girlfriend. “It’s just brain chemistry!”

“Well, it’s a bit more than that,” she replied. “You don’t want to close yourself off to love, or reduce it to just brain chemistry.”

Shit.

Turns out, love is a lot more complicated than brain chemistry.

My decision to stop dating wasn’t rash, but it was necessary. And it wasn’t understood by most of my friends.

“I worry that you’re shutting yourself off.”

“But what if you meet someone?!”

“I just want you to be open to whatever comes your way.”

Problem: I’ve been open to whatever comes my way for a long time. Explaining my dating roster to my therapist was like opening a clown car’s door. They all came spilling out: the high school boyfriend I bailed out of jail, the Texas punk rock vegetarian who had a girlfriend, the alcoholic I married and divorced, the cover band rocker I took to small claims court, the crier, the older man, the jack Mormon, the ski-bum heartbreaker with broken legs, the grass-is-always-greener architect, the overzealous writer who said I left him, “as empty as a cardboard box.”

The final text I received from a man with whom I’d been romantically involved, when I asked if we could talk: “Fuck no. Fuck no with a cherry on top. Goodbye forever.”

Okay. I must be doing this wrong. So I’m going to stop doing it. It’s as simple as that.

Strangely, giving up men wasn’t hard. It was relieving. It removed the pressure I felt interacting with them. I stopped checking for wedding rings. I stopped marrying men I’d just met in my head. I stopped thinking that any day now, I’d meet Mr. Right.

I was uncomfortable being alone. So I went out alone. I ate at restaurants alone, went to parties alone, attended concerts alone. I tried to become comfortable being alone.

I also stayed home a lot. I wrote and I read. I drank. Sometimes too much. I watched Sex in the City re-runs and drank whole bottles of champagne alone. (Yep, it was awesome).

At work, I became distinctly aware that my job and my soul were misaligned, so I quit and started my freelance writing business back up. I started writing more poetry, mostly bad, but some gems.

I stopped wearing uncomfortable clothing. I donated or sold garbage bags of clothes that didn’t make me happy. I stopped shaving. I stopped wearing makeup. I stopped wearing a bra. I began to wash my hair every three days or so. I decided deodorant was a scam. I changed my chemical soaps to castile and traded in my 27 body products for coconut oil in an effort to detox my “beauty” routine.

I smelled, sometimes, but once away from harsh chemicals and makeup, my body found its rhythm. I started using essential oils for perfume. I wore “Balance.” “Elevation.” “Love.” They did not bring me balance, elevation, or love, but I was often told that I smelled nice.

I began to read labels. I cooked more food. I grew food. I bought more organic food. I changed how I shopped and where I shopped so that my money would stay local. I tried not to look at the higher price and instead think of the value. I began to treat my body more kindly. I went on a juice cleanse. I quit after day 3. I went on a tea cleanse (this is how I learned that some herbs can induce sudden vomiting).

I did cold yoga. I did hot yoga. I rode bikes. I crashed on bikes. I walked my dog more. My dog got cancer. I fought his cancer fiercely, and in the process I learned to love so much more intensely than I thought I could. I learned about my sorrow, and how the end of life can be the most beautiful, tender time we have with our animals. I started being more present and alert to the moment we’re in, because it’s the only one we get.

I found new ways to obtain oxtyocin: A hug you hold longer, holding hands with friends, looking someone in the eye when talking to them. I got massages (oxytocin jolts without the sex!). I tried cupping. I tried cranial sacral. I had my brain’s chemistry analyzed and found out why I wasn’t sleeping so well. I tried a natural remedy for stress called “Tranquility,” which made me feel like a tranquilized lion. I switched to “Calm.” I practiced meditation. I studied Buddhism.

I got big tattoos. I wore wigs. I traveled. I went home more. I set up my parents new computer and taught them how to use an iPod. I became an aunt (to a magic angel baby!). I had an I’m-35-years-old-without-children-or-a-husband crisis. I began mourning that life I though I’d have by now, then I decided I wasn’t going to think about that until I was on the other side of 35.

I practiced kindness. I practiced boundaries with unhealthy friendships. I strengthened healthy friendships. I volunteered. I made new friends.

I began to think about the kind of person I would want to date. I would want to date someone who knows me, knows the best and worst of me. Someone who loves me, who props me up when I fall, who carries me on their shoulders like a champion when I succeed. Someone I would want to live with and love with.

Yes. I want to date someone I would consider my friend.

Because, really, how can we possibly imagine a life with someone if we don’t know them? Know how they behave when they’re scared, or broke, or angry, or drunk? Know what their weaknesses are, know their beautiful strengths and also know the places they fear the most?

Shit.

I need to make more friends.

I ran this past my girlfriends when I still had six months on my sentence.

“You know, you don’t have to do this for a whole year. I worry you won’t be open to it, if it comes to you.”

“Okay,” I assured them. “If I meet Mr. Right, I’ll be open.”

But I wasn’t. My energy was bound up in me, in building a more self-aware, self-confident, self-controlled human.

That’s okay, one friend said. “He’s doing exactly what you’re doing. He’s getting clear. He’s got his head down. He’s focused on him.”

January 1, 2016. One year ago I gave up dating. Do I feel clear? Nah, but I’m closer. Do I know how to pick Mr. Right? Nope. But I do believe that we don’t pick. We’re just colliding molecules. We’re big brains with animal instincts.

But we do get to choose who gets close to us, what we share, how we share, and when we share. We contain the ability to open ourselves up for the right kind of connection.

Should old acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind? Every person that leaves an imprint on our heart brings us that much closer to the right connection. Every day presents us with a moment for renewal and a clean slate—not just on New Year’s eve. It takes deliberate self-work, and it’s not easy. It’s wildly uncomfortable but completely worth the investment, because no one will ever take better care of you than you.

The rest, well, it’s up to the universe’s twisted sense of humor. It’s a bit oxtytocin, a bit chance, a dose of timing, and a whole lotta self-love.

Dear Future Self A letter from your biggest fan

At age 35, I quit my job. It was a good job. I was paid well. I worked with a team of hard-working, intelligent people whom I respected. I had female boss that inspired me. I had a generous 401K and great health benefits. We had decent company parties. I traveled a lot. And I loved it.

Yet, I wasn’t happy. I wondered if there was something wrong with me. I was afraid to ask myself, “What do you want? Who do you want to be? What do you want to spend your life’s moments on?”

When I finally answered those questions, there was no choice. I had to quit my job.

Recently I was invited to attend a Girl Scout Brownie troop meeting to talk to the girls about writing their personal stories. I decided to have them write a letter to their future self.

I asked the girls to imagine their hopes and dreams, to think about the places they want to visit or the jobs and activities that that make them the most excited. I asked them to think about something they really want to do, even if it scares or intimidates them. Even if they’re afraid of someone making fun of them. Then to set those fears aside and imagine what they would do if they could do anything.

In the future, they are artists. They are teachers. They garden for people who can’t. They volunteer at the Food Bank. They are dancers, models, world travelers, homeowners, mothers, and wives. There wasn’t a lid on their dreams.

I too wrote a letter to my future self. In the future, I am published. I am not broke. I am not crazy for walking away from a job to write. And I write every day.

As I read out loud the last line from my letter to the girls, “You are strong. You are beautiful. You are brilliant. I am so proud of you,” one Girl Scout flexed her arms, repeated the chant, kissed her flexed biceps, and laughed. So we all did. We all chanted.

It’s inspiring what young girls can dream up. It’s humbling what they say when they’re asked to find their chant.

“I’m courageous.”

“I’m awesome.”

“I’m considerate.”

“I’m kind.”

“I’m funny.”

“I’m generous.”

“I love myself.

“I’m beautiful with my freckles.”

“I’m creative.”

“I’m wonderful.”

“I’m powerful and good.”

Below is the entirety of my letter, as well as images of the girl’s letters and drawings to their future selves. (For more on letters to your future self, see Kelly McGonigal​’s site).

Dear Future Self,

It’s admirable this life you’ve built. It was when you became so clear about what you wanted in life and love that you could see the path and take it when it mattered most. It wasn’t easy, but you were patient. You were deliberate. You knew that to achieve your dreams you had to focus.

The books you wanted to write, the way that you wanted to live—in moments, not in debt but in love with life, with the people in your life, with the choices in your life—you manifested this. You published your first book because you gave the writing life a chance.

You knew that you were going to struggle, but that was the only way. You knew people would not understand, that not everyone would like what you do or what you write, and that it was okay not to be universally loved.

You are strong. You are brilliant. You are beautiful. I am so proud of you.

Signed,

35-year-old Anna

Till Death…Or We Part Neurochemistry and the often messy business of ever-after

The magazine pitch: Always the bridesmaid. The gist:“All your friends are getting married. Talk about weddings from your perspective…like getting fitted for a dress you will hate, or helping plan a party, or how over weddings you are…trying to be happy for your friends while you reserve your sense of inevitable doom,” assigns my editor.

My face: Pursed.

My initial reaction: Oh, you want the 30-something divorcee to weigh in on marriage? Over my dead body.

I’ve got nothing against marriage. I think everyone who wants to get married should have the ability to do so. Not everyone who has the ability to get married should.

I reference my marriage rarely. Like a knee-jerk reaction, it comes out socially only when I’m trying to relate. “Oh, it was a great wedding,” I say. “I’d do it all again, just pick a different guy.” This usually nets a few awkward chuckles and sympathetic glances.

I recall with mysticism myself as a 20-something, ready to say, “Till death do we part,” especially given the way we were able to revoke those vows. Turns out, marriage for us was, “Till death, or we part.”

It’s in the Secret Meetings of the Bitter Divorcees where I feel most comfortable discussing what is often labeled as a failure. “Failed marriage” survivors, I’ve found, have many of the same relationship fears and regrets. We didn’t get married thinking it would end or that we picked the wrong spouse. We ponder how the life we once lived, which started out so blindingly good, could be diminished to a paper trail. Untangling one’s self from exes is painful. Untangling from a marriage is downright nasty. My ex still shows up on my credit report.

This is not to imply that I’m “over” weddings, as my editor implied. I love love, and nowhere is it more abundant than at a wedding. I’ve been on the sidelines and at the altar, been a therapist, officiator, photographer, florist, caterer, and confidant. I’ve cried joyfully, and I’ve given a few cry-worthy toasts to some of my very best friends at weddings. I’ve talked a tequila-filled bride out of the bathroom on the eve of the wedding. I’ve safety-pinned the gaping bust of a wedding dress closed seconds before the first dance. I’ve been the last one on the dance floor and the first one to the clean-up party.

Never have I seen more love and happiness in one place than at a wedding.

I’ve also seen my fare share of these weddings last. Many still have that new car smell, being less than a decade in—a feat I do not take lightly as I didn’t even last half that.

I Don’t

There’s a lot of jabber on the web about marriage these days, articles accompanied by stock images of single people in wheat fields spinning in circles. “Why working-class Americans aren’t getting married.” “Top 10 reasons it’s fine to never get married.” “Does marriage STILL matter?”

It’s as though the Internet algorithms want us unwed folks to find Zen in the relationship stewpot. Yet, to wed has long been part of our social expectation we’ve been practicing for thousands of years, but that pressure to marry may be easing.

Recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that, for the first time on record, single American adults outnumber married ones. According to the Pew Research Center, American adults above the age of 25 who have never been married hit historic highs 2014. Twenty percent, about 42 million people, have never married, compared to 9 percent in 1960, attributed in part to emerging gender gaps, marrying later in life, and cohabitating or raising children outside of marriage.

Marriage may be on the downtrend, but to wed or not to wed remains a point of contention for Americans. The generally held belief that society is better off if people marry and have children continues, yet each year young adults become less likely to marry (even while living with a partner). And for the been-there-done-that adults, only one-in-five currently say they would like to wed again, estimates Pew.

Is marriage going out of style? As younger people render it unnecessary, the ways people approach and talk about marriage has shifted. Waiting to marry can provide an individual opportunity for financial independence and gives them more time to understand the ways they love. Whereas, marriage was once seen as a way to provide stability and family, the contrary is beginning to evolve: to marry and have a family, one must be stable.

Chemical Connections

What comes with a divorce is the ultimate realization that no one is going to take care of you. You’re left to look out for #1. Yet, is this any different for the married population? At the end of the day, there’s no guarantee this person will love you forever, regardless of legal tender that binds you.

Perhaps the overwhelming sense of failure that some divorcees experience isn’t so different from the incredible pressure that some married folks endure: Their marriage could, like so many others, fail.

The question then becomes not about marriage, but about trust. Can you trust this person to have your back? Is this an emotionally safe relationship? We all want to feel safe, satisfied, and connected in all our relationships, and we want to avoid fear, frustration and heartache. When we attach to others to fulfill these needs, we engage our brain’s limbic system—the center of emotion, motivation and bonding.

Happiness, in part, is made through a cocktail of brain chemicals, specifically four neurotransmitters of the limbic system: endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin. Each of these naturally occurring brain chemicals are linked to different aspects of happiness.

Endorphins, which mask pain, act as natural painkillers. Dopamine, released in enjoyable, repeat behavior, activates the reward center. (It’s that warm feeling you get when you’ve accomplished something.) Serotonin provides feelings of value and is tied to self-confidence and pride. Oxytocin, the “cuddle chemical” or “love hormone,” is a bonding molecule. It’s released by touch and physical intimacy, and helps create feelings of trust, reinforcing relationships.

These neurotransmitters are managed by the limbic system, often called the reptilian brain. This primal part of the brain was the first evolutionary leap in our cognitive development—a reward center to train the brain. From an evolutionary stance, dopamine and oxytocin produced by love and sex contribute to survival of the species. Success at a task produces serotonin, a sense of pride that trains the brain to seek more success. Endorphins produced during exercise mask pain, helping the body with its survival mechanisms.

When the brain is in a stressful environment, cortisol, the “stress hormone,” is released. Cortisol functions as the body’s early warning system (fight or flight), originally useful in keeping us alive. In a modern sense, cortisol is manifested by anxiety and stress. For many, that cortisol drip keeps us in a constant state of paranoia, which interferes with our body’s ability to balance hormones.

When we extend trust and have each other’s backs, we’re releasing happy chemicals and reducing the cortisol drip. Essentially, to love is a survival mechanism. To connect is to be human. What we do with those connections is the tricky part.

Making Messes

After my divorce, my need for connection didn’t go away; it became heightened, but I lived without confidence. I forgot what it felt like to trust like no one ever broke it, forgot how to love without fear that I wouldn’t be loved back.

I forgot what it felt like to trust like no one ever broke it, forgot how to love without fear that I wouldn’t be loved back.

Yet, as I waned from the cortisol drip and let the limbic system drive, my paranoia declined. My ability to trust amplified, and pretty soon I was wading back into love, getting my happy chemicals from the trust I extended to others.

Relationships, regardless of rings, require incredible amounts of trust, gratitude, and grace—for you and for others—none of which I fostered in my wedded life. Marriage was a net that made me feel, no matter what, I was safe. I believed we were statistic dodgers, a couple who could make it against stacked odds that we would be thinking on a trajectory that led us down the same path.

Problem: We loved the good parts and didn’t talk about the bad. We didn’t allow space between us to grow independently, nor did we help each other in the messy underbelly of life. We didn’t have each other’s backs.

Were we too young? Not ready? There’s no science to the right time to marry, rather a longstanding expectation that if you’re in love, it’s what you do. I don’t fault the institution. It’s not so much age, rather life’s lessons that I lacked. In avoiding loss and rejection and only seeking peace and love, I was avoiding the bigger parts of life, the ones that—if you’re paying attention—prepare you to make better decisions in the future.

This time around, I’m more conscious of the kinds of people I spend my time with, and when we make messes (love is messy), I’m a bit better at figuring out how to resolve that conflict, or know when it’s time to move on.

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May I present, Mrs. Paige.

We’ve all been wounded. We’ve all crashed our hearts for someone we truly believed in. And we’re in this human stew together. How you treat yourself will set the tone for how others treat you. Love, and be loved. Give, and receive. Trust, and be rewarded. It’s in these steps toward connection where love’s chemicals flow into the neural pathways that link us together.

We exist because we love. We love because we’re human. We’re human because we connect, and break things, and make messes. We will have many great loves of our life. So belly flop into love. Face plant for it. Cross continents to get it. Do a double take, a head-over-heels NASCAR crash, an Olympic-swan-dive-karaoke-belting-traffic-stopping-carpe-diem grab for it. Your brain will reward you.

The Evolution of Camping Embedded in our DNA, camping is a distinctly human thing to do

For many of us, our lives play out in cities, inside buildings of conditioned and forced air, and in homes closed off from the elements. When we set off to the mountains and deserts, to the beaches or to the lakes, we leave these structures behind.

Linger long enough in these spaces, and we begin to reconnect with the rhythm of our bodies. We ebb and flow with the coming and going of the sun, with the rolling of the tides or the shadows of the mountains. As our skin cools from a day’s worth of sunshine, our instincts begin to kick.

We harvest wood, gut fish, and build pits to hold fire and cook food. Night skies like theatre curtains open to unveil countless stars, delivering perspective and a sense of awareness that the indoors cannot touch. Our ears prick at the rustling around us: the shudder of the trees, the churn of the stream, the crack of fire burning through wood.

Firestarters

Camping is a distinctly human thing to do. It feeds a primal desire to connect with the ground beneath us, the skies above, and to create our own space in a place where we didn’t exist before. It allows disconnection from routine. Cell phones are unnecessary, showers are optional, and time is measured not by deadlines and appointments but by the position of the sun.

Quintessential to the outdoor experience, campfires are a direct connection to this primal past. Unlike our primate ancestors, early hominids developed the ability to control fire, distinctly shaping human evolution. Such contact with fire was transformative, allowing heat and light into the night, a place to gather socially, as well as the ability to cook food and ward off predators.

Primatologist Richard Wrangham, in his book Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, maintains cooked food had a distinct effect on human development, changing the size of the stomach and intestines, the cut of teeth, and the amount of time our ancestors spent masticating foods. By cooking food, early humans also reduced chewing time and therefore expended less energy. Significant increases in brain size seen in the emergence of Homo ererctus 1.9 million years ago, Wrangham suggests, was the result of the energy dividend derived from cooking food.

As brains are metabolically taxing organs, this surplus of energy could have allowed for expansion of the brain while freeing up time to develop more efficient foraging and agricultural strategies, beginning the shift from a migratory existence to a more sedentary life.

Pulitzer Prize–winning biologist Edward O. Wilson argues the campfire is one of the founding pillars of human civilization and a large driver for “eusocial” existence. Once they harnessed the power of fire, humans, who had been travelers for millions of years hunting and gathering along animal migration routes and staying in temporary shelters, could “nest.”

With the adoption of agriculture, food supplies became controllable, allowing humans to become stationary. In the process, Wilson maintains, humans began to form societies and alliances among family members, genders, classes, and tribes.

“To play the game the human way, it was necessary for the evolving populations to acquire an ever higher degree of intelligence,” Wilson writes. “They had to feel empathy for others, to measure the emotions of friend and enemy alike, to judge the intentions of all of them, and to plan a strategy for personal social interactions.”

As a result, the intellectual and social capacity of the human brain grew vastly, forming the human condition. And it all started around a campfire.

Nature Deficit

Given our long history of nomadic travel, camping is part of our DNA. “Camping not only captures the essential spirit of nomadism but is something that we can easily replicate,” writes Roman Krznaric in his book How Should We Live? Great Ideas from the Past for Everyday Life. “It requires little more than pitching a tent with friends and family in a lush rural valley or on a cliff top overlooking the sea, and immersing ourselves in a simpler way of living.”

Increasingly, however, we’re found indoors. Children are playing with glowing electronics inside while adults, many running on empty by the end of their day, turn to digital spaces to tune out. The average American spends at least eight and a half hours a day in front of a screen, and adults age 45-54 clock in at nearly 10 hours of screen time estimates the Council for Research Excellence in a 2009 study.

“Camping hasn’t changed that much, but our environments have,” said Jim Rogers, Chairman and CEO of Kampgrounds of America, Inc. “We are put in cubicles, hooked up to iPhones, and working in office environments that provide little or no privacy. We are trying to escape the stream of constant information. Camping gives us an opportunity to unplug and to unwind.”

We are trying to escape the stream of constant information. Camping gives us an opportunity to unplug and to unwind. Jim Rogers

Rogers is one of 10 Eagle Scouts in his family. Former President for the Western Region of the Boy Scouts of America and current BSA President of the Nevada Area Council, Rogers said he learned tangible life skills and developed an appreciation of the outdoors in Scouts.

“Whether a youth is being held accountable to cook a meal in the outdoors, hike to the top of a mountain, or know safety and first aid—Scouting impacts individuals at a very early age. There are no substitutes for those skills,” Rogers said.

Referencing a national effort to get people outdoors, Rogers recommends a “Park Prescription” for people who may be suffering from a lack of nature. “Take a hike and call me in the morning!” he said.

The Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy coined “Park Prescriptions” in 2009 to help create a healthier population by connecting greater health with being active in the outdoors. Splitting humans from nature has created what Richard Louv, in his book Last Child in the Woods, describes as “Nature-Deficit Disorder.” Louv maintains direct exposure to nature is essential for healthy childhood development and for the physical and emotional health of children and adults, yet society increasingly shuts out this valuable contact.

“Nature inspires creativity in a child by demanding visualization and the full use of the senses,” Louv writes. “In nature, a child finds freedom, fantasy, and privacy: a place distant from the adult world, a separate peace.”

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Interacting with nature is about doing something, not watching something. It’s active, requiring children to exist in their imaginations and create a world from the world around them. “Unlike, TV, nature does not steal time; it amplifies it,” states Louv.

Quiet Time

Is it possible to escape the grid, to power down and disconnect fully from a plugged-in life? Camping lost 4.5 million participants in 2012, according to a study released by the Outdoor Foundation

  • [UPDATE: Participation rates held steady in 2013, with the exception of young adults ages 18 to 24 increasing 1%, while adults, ages 25 to 44 decreased 1%]

Chris Fanning, executive director of the foundation equates the decline in participation due to a high churn rate among campers—while 9.1 million Americans started camping, 13.6 million stopped. Pat Hittmeier, president of Kampgrounds of America, said the total number of days people camp may not be increasing, but the number of times they camp has grown. “We see campers taking shorter, more frequent trips,” he said.

Still, the camping public is an active bunch—38 million Americans camped a total of 516.6 million days in 2012, more than half of them in state and national parks. In advance of its 100th birthday in 2016, the National Park Service has put out a call-to-action to prepare for a second century of stewardship by connecting people to parks.

Studies show one of the best ways to instill a lifelong love of camping and the outdoors is to start young: Youth engaged in camping when they were younger have a higher likelihood to camp when they become older. JuDee O’Donnell, Girl Scouts of Montana and Wyoming’s summer camp director, sees firsthand the positive value of outdoor time when the Girl Scout council hosts summer camps throughout the two-state region.

“In my experience, children given the opportunity for outdoor play and activities tend to challenge themselves to try new things that may be out of their comfort zone,” O’Donnell said. “They build positive relationships with other camp attendees, are more attentive during education lectures, and develop an appreciation for their natural surroundings.”

Darcie Howard, Audubon Conservation Education Center Director, works to empower families to take their activities outdoors and explore their backyards. She founded Get Outside Montana, a free program that encourages children and families to enjoy recreational opportunities in Billings and surrounding areas.

“Getting youth invested in the outdoors is exposing not just the children but also the parents to the natural world in their backyard,” Howard said. “We spend our time learning science and ecology and making that connection so they will want to further that exploration.”

Could increasing our outdoor time be as simple as placing value on it, prioritizing it above the other noises of our lives? When we connect to the outdoors, we retune to a natural rhythm that powers our circadian clocks and churns our blood with the tides. Our brains have evolved into such intensely social, intelligent organs through the very process of outdoor living. Ask yourself: What is gnawing at your time? How will you choose to refuel?

“There’s a drive for most people to get outdoors,” said Hittmeier. “It’s an easy place to forget about your day-to-day life, relax, and enjoy the experience. Once you get it, it stays with you, and you’ll come back to it again and again.”

Seeking the Amorist The state of unmasked love

Amorist (noun): A person who is in love or who writes about love.

I have been seeking The Amorist: A person who is in love or who writes about love. I thought that when I finally found this person, I would be cured of heartache; I would be able to pull the chunks of heartwreck from my body and salvage what was left of my insides. In doing so, I would be able to create a new, magnanimous person capable of giving AND receiving real, true love—someone who could move through loss with grace and transcend death as though nothing is ever truly gone.

Instead, I found my quest was not for love, nor for strength or self-betterment, but rather I was seeking to numb the gaping holes in heart. I wanted to quiet the seeping memory of loss, to deny my body’s reaction to pain and force healing through a concept that I was not ready to accept.

What I have come to understand is that The Amorist is not something you can chase, nor can you catch. The Amorist does not appear on command and cannot be manifested through a rabid desire to be healed. Rather, The Amorist is something we grow into as we develop self-love and compassion for others. In becoming The Amorist, we begin to value ourselves and accept our own vulnerability. This honest approach to self acts as a conduit for reciprocal love.

My friend Trey Owens considered love the greatest subject of all, and he encouraged the people in his life to seek The Amorist within. Trey taught me to find muses, to dream but live in the present, to imagine the things that bring me closer to happiness, to health, to being the Amorist, and to pursue those things with honesty, transparency, and generosity.

The cancer that lived in Trey and took him from us in early 2013 caused him such intense pain, yet he responded with endless love and compassion. Trey’s miraculous story is of his compassion for others. Compassion itself is derived from suffering. “Compati,” the word’s Latin origins, means to suffer with. “Trey lived in his heart,” recalled his mom, Deb Raden. “If there was ever a moment when he was not in pain, he wanted to be with people; he wanted to be out sharing his love and his search.”

To Trey, existence was constant movement forward. He felt intensely the pull of life and death, the cycle of laughter and the tide of crying, and he realized at a very young age that the spirit inside of us is forever swimming. Trey never wanted to get out of the water. When he passed into the invisible beyond, what remained was the essence of his swimming—a life immersed in moments.

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Keep Swimming.

Trey taught me to keep swimming. He helped me widen my heart and fill my lungs with songs that heal, with the words of the wise, and to quiet the noise in my mind that kept me chasing ghosts.

In death, Trey left behind so many warriors that carry his spirit and his boundless love forward. I’ve seen him on the walls of galleries and in the tips of paintbrushes. I’ve heard his story in the voice of hip-hop artists who called him professor and on the tongues of poets who talk of love personified. He is embedded deeply in the mosaic of our community like a quilt where we’re all sewn together as one.

We’ve all chased The Amorist, seeking those moments of unfiltered honesty and genuine connection to bring us closer to love. Yet to become an Amorist is to understand that love is not a race, and the love we manifest for others cannot come without the love of self. Being an Amorist is to feel another’s suffering as keenly as one’s own and be moved to compassionately reciprocate the love we’ve been given. Being an Amorist is being in honest, unmasked, beautiful love.

Trey Owens The Amorist

Trey Owens came into my life as he did so many others: a chance encounter followed by a run-in at a coffee shop, a pleasant exchange, and then quite suddenly, he held my rapt attention. Naturally charismatic, with quick wit and magnetic properties, Trey possessed a remarkable ability to quickly cut through social niceties to expose the heart of a conversation.

Trey was 17 when doctors identified a rare cancer eating away at the bones his left leg. Cancer’s continued presence in his body, despite extensive surgery and repeated chemotherapy, heightened Trey’s thirst for connections, his quest for knowledge and universal truth, and it accelerated his pace of life. Trey lived each day knowing he could die, not of old age with a lifetime well spent, but at a tragically early age.

In early February, I received a phone call. Trey’s voice on the other line was ragged, and he struggled to talk. He explained his cancer was spreading. It had grabbed at his core, wrapping around his trachea while expanding throughout his thoracic cavity, but he wasn’t going to do chemo. Not again. Not this time.

Trey knew his body better than any doctor or x-ray ever could. He was finely attuned to his internal structure and sought out literature on life and death, consuming vast amounts of theology to aid in understanding his shortened life cycle. “I know that a body in motion stays in motion,” he told me, “and that a body at rest stays at rest.” Trey had reached life’s finale, and he wanted to share his story.

A Life’s Sum

Self Portrait

In 2008, Trey was diagnosed with osteogenic sarcoma, an aggressive form of cancer that strikes often in bone or tissue during teenage growth spurts. The first indication of a problem occurred while Trey was horsing around with his buddies. His mother, Deb, said her son came to her looking quite pale and feeling pain on the inside of his left leg, near the knee. Trey could see the pain, almost like an open wound, but Deb couldn’t see what was making her son hurt. Sensing this pain was abnormal, Deb took her son to Billings Clinic where doctors x-rayed his leg.

Deb’s concerns heightened as the frequency of x-rays increased. “I knew something was really wrong,” she said. Trey was referred to orthopedics, where they were told he had cancer. If left untreated, he might make it 30 days.

Of all childhood cancers, osteosarcoma is rare. The American Cancer Society estimates that half of the roughly 800 new cases per year occur in children under the age of 20. The cause is unknown.

Trey was referred to a specialist in Salt Lake City. A biopsy confirmed he had osteosarcoma in his left femur, and an aggressive chemotherapy regiment was established back in Billings to shrink the tumor before Trey could undergo surgery. He returned to Salt Lake in January 2003, where doctors cut bone from his femur to his tibia, including the knee, and replaced it with titanium parts. To kill any of the disease that remained, another intensive six months of chemotherapy in Billings followed. Trey’s cancer went into remission eight months after his initial diagnosis.

Cancer deprived Trey of his entire senior year in high school, but he made the choice to return the following year, still on crutches and recovering, to obtain his diploma. He lived cancer-free for nearly five years—a milestone for cancer survivors—before needing a second surgery. The cancer had not returned, but the titanium inside his leg was chipping away at existing bone, requiring a more substantial implant.

While osteosarcoma can be treated with surgery alone, the disease tends to manifest in other parts of the body. St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital estimates more than 80 percent of patients relapse. The same was true for Trey. Seven years after the initial diagnosis, his cancer returned.

Catalysis for Connection

Trey was known as a man of conversations, and he furiously studied the beauty and tragedy of life. He was intently tuned to the joy and pain of others and found a way to emotionally connect with every person that he met. Nate Petterson, poet and close friend of Trey’s, dubbed him “The Coffee Shop Shaman,” a title Trey earned by spending countless hours at Off The Leaf. A cozy coffee shop on Grand Avenue, Off the Leaf is often filled with students and patrons reading, working, philosophizing, and just spending time with one another.

“Trey and I spoke for hours there and elsewhere about all manner of everything,” Nate said. “From the comedic to the serious, the morose to the immature, we covered it all.” Their discussions flowed from quantum mechanics to the spiritual, universe dynamics to chaos mathematics. “He loved it all,” Nate said. “I think he might have loved everything.”

Kate Olp, another close friend and confidant of Trey’s, recalls the first night they met. “He asked me very bluntly, ‘What is your philosophy on life?’” They proceeded to chase each other down a rabbit hole of philosophical conversation. “It’s pretty rare in life that I can say to someone, ‘I think that the principles of entropy and gravity govern social organization, and they can say, ‘Absolutely.’ But Trey was right there.”

To describe Trey’s quest for knowledge, Kate shared the ancient Indian parable of three blind men who came across an elephant. They had no knowledge of such an animal, therefore no reference to explain what they’d discovered. The first blind man grabbed the trunk, claiming he’d discovered the elephant and described it as a long, sinewy object seeming to float in the air. The two remaining blind men made similar claims, though each described a different piece of the elephant. “All three of them are right, but they’re also all wrong,” Kate said. “They are only right if they listen to each other and accept that there is a much grander reality than what they’re each individually able to experience.”

Trey approached life similarly, trying to grasp as much of the elephant as possible. Conversations with Trey were substantial, often weighted with theory and questions about what happens when we die. “If you ever spent time talking to Trey, even if was just for 5 or 10 minutes, if when you were done with that conversation and you didn’t feel inspired or motivated, then you weren’t listening,” Nate said.

Trey was also vivacious, witty, and charming. He had a playful component to his personality that kept his friends guessing. “He still makes me laugh,” said Nate, recalling Trey convincing him that someone had responded to his Craigslist ad to fulfill his fantasy of having sex with a 500-pound woman.

“I will never stop laughing,” said Trey’s mom Deb, thinking of the many times Trey goofed around with her. Whether he was trying to convince his mother that he had no idea who David Letterman was, or that he’d recently been arrested (for being too good looking), Trey was filled with good humor.

Kate recalls Trey’s playful nature, even when it came to philosophy. “I’m a person who likes to get straight to the heart of an idea, whereas Trey would be like one of those birds floating in concentric circles around it. Just when you think he was going to veer off into another dimension, he’d get right down to the heart of things.”

This lighthearted, playfulness that Trey contained gave him the unique ability to consider his pursuits for knowledge as play. “He was having fun,” Kate said. “He didn’t plod through ideas, he danced with them.”

Language of Thought

Photo by Jon Barnea

Philosophy was just one of Trey’s many native languages. He spoke through multiple channels of poetry and the written word, freestyle lyrics and the language of hip-hop, and through his love for life and people.

“Trey was a dying breed when it came to DJs,” said longtime friend and fellow freestyler Charlie (Chucc D) Stripling. “He was one of the last people I knew who still scratched discs. He taught me to freestyle your heart out, to never give up.”

Deb bought Trey his first set of turntables when he was 15. He had no formal training or education on mixing beats and was proud to be self-taught. After a few years of scratching, Trey moved toward digital technology. He played shows around Billings under the moniker NuWae of Life and became a professor of sorts to fellow hip-hop artists and DJs in the scene.

“Trey was incredibly passionate about beats,” said friend and fellow hip-hop lover Joslyn Moses. “He was my KRS-One. He inspired me to become a better lyricist.” When Joslyn found out Trey had passed, she was legitimately afraid to listen to hip-hop again. “I was scared of how much it’d hurt to miss him through every beat. I hear the music louder now because I know he’d be mobbin’ with me, encouraging me to turn my levels up.”

Reflecting on Trey, Chucc D said, “Trey once told me it wasn’t just a song, it wasn’t just a beat, it was the MC who was on it, the spirit behind him, the movement behind him, the spirit inside of him, and the soul that pushed him to do what he wanted.”

“He was always searching for the truth with everything,” said Trey’s mom. “The books he read and the knowledge he had were just amazing.” She described Trey’s quest as a constant search for perfection, knowing that cancer was his imperfection.

The Amorist

Photo by Christie Quarles

Cancer often outpaced Trey, but he continued to search for love with the ever-present fear of the disease growing within his body. Each day brought him new connections, more pages, and new songs. “He was a young man with so much talent,” his mom continued. “Trey wanted to be married, wanted to have kids. His sadness was that he could never keep moving forward because he kept being setback. Yet he was giving. He was selfless, and he was always trying to find love in his quest.”

Nate describes Trey as a genius, a warrior, and a poet. “He was The Amorist. He was the best of us.” Trey had long identified himself as The Amorist, a person who is in love or who writes about love, and he pressed his friends to find their Amorist within.

Though Trey’s cancer wasn’t a choice, he was given a choice in the way he handled the disease. “It required a strong will and a great strength of character for Trey to choose over and over again to be the person he was,” said Kate, “because he could have chosen otherwise.” To Kate, such choices defined Trey as The Amorist. “Each of us—in the face of all of our daily struggles—has the choice. Are we going to become bitter, are we going to be come callous, are we going to become mean? Or are we going to make the incredibly difficult choice to remain open to others, to remain open to love?”

It was this love within Trey that allowed him to stay openhearted and led him to work at A.W.A.R.E. Inc., a group home helping physically, mentally, and emotionally challenged youths with their lives. Trey had great passion for his work at A.W.A.R.E., and his natural compassion for others was rewarded tenfold by the connections he made. In the autumn of 2009, Trey continued his quest for knowledge and began school at Montana State University Billings.

Trey was happy, his mom recalled. He had finally moved forward in a positive direction away from the setbacks cancer had caused him. Yet in early 2010, seven years after he had been declared cancer-free, Trey’s left lung collapsed. Doctors found and removed a cancerous spot on the collapsed lung. The cancer moved swiftly this time, and the following year another spot was discovered and removed. After finding a third cancerous spot, Trey underwent four months of intensive chemotherapy and then on May 1, 2012 doctors removed the entire left lung, parts of his chest wall and several ribs from Trey’s his back. The lung’s removal did not stop cancer’s devastation, and soon the headaches began. Cancer had metastasized into Trey’s upper mediastinum underneath his trachea. Doctors told Trey that this time, it was inoperable.

“This is it,” Trey said. “My life is over.”

The Compassion of Pain

Cancer’s final return was not met with chemotherapy or surgery. Trey knew he had limited time. He could have chosen toxics to slow its progression, to again lose his hair and suffer the emaciation of chemo. “But he chose otherwise,” said his mom. “Trey was a grown man with limited future. It was his choice.”

Painting by Brooke Moore

Throughout Trey’s life, pain was constant. Cancer slowed his gait, and he walked with a cane. Often he was hunched over himself, instinctually protecting his fragile body by holding his arm against his torso. Because of his many surgeries, Trey suffered nerve damage that caused weakness throughout his body.

To deal with such vast physical pain, Trey was on incredible amounts of pain medications, taking upwards of 30 – 50 pills a day. Many were narcotics, which created a sense of numbness throughout Trey’s body and caused him to lose touch with his sensations. But Trey was a renaissance man, one of those “beautiful people that you read about who stopped to smell the flowers,” said Joslyn. Yet Trey’s medications prevented him from such sensory pleasures. Joslyn recalls Trey consciously accepting even more pain in his life by detoxifying from his meds. “He would stop for weeks and months at a time, just to show himself that he could still feel,” she said—still feel the sensation of goose bumps, the grass on his skin, or the wind upon him. This seemingly boundless pain was part of the reason Trey felt such endless love and compassion. It brought a sense of urgency to his life and heightened his need to love unabashedly.

Photo by Joslyn Moses

In similar ways, Trey considered laughing and crying as one in the same, a philosophy that closely aligns with the works of Kahlil Gibran. A favorite author of Trey’s, Gibran believed death’s secrets lie the heart of life, and that only in the greatest depths of sorrow can one feel unbridled joy. Gibran’s books were a great source of comfort to Trey, as he could have easily turned his pain into anger.

Trey’s miraculous story is of his compassion for others. From Trey’s first diagnosis, his father, Fred Owens, watched his son connect with everyone he could. “Whether they were 8 or 80-years-old, Trey was reaching out to them. He was love in action,” Fred said.

Compassion itself is derived from suffering. “Compati,” the word’s Latin origins, means to suffer with. “Pain leads to compassion,” said Lyon Virostko, a philosophical friend of Trey’s. The two met at Off The Leaf. “Compassion is the endurance of one’s hardships. When I suffer with another person, I’m there with them, able to see them.”

Lyon describes Trey’s cancer as the catalysis that amplified his ability to love and his ability to suffer, intensifying the qualities that Trey already possessed. Kate described such qualities in Trey as a concentrated color, where the pigment becomes much brighter, sharper and clear. “Everything that was Trey just became concentrated into this person and into this time period,” she said.

A Wealthy Man

Trey’s life was plagued by a seemingly insurmountable writer’s block in his poetry and music. Trying to compress an entire life into a limited period of time, he furiously consumed knowledge, yet struggled to put pen to paper or finalize a beat on his hard drive.

“It became this thousand mile journey where it was really hard to take that first step,” said Kate. Perfection became Trey’s enemy. “He wanted perfectionism but knew he wouldn’t have the time,” said his mom. “This is why he constantly struggled.”

Joslyn estimates that Trey deleted a large portion of the music he created, but he was constantly working on his rhythm. “He would plug his laptop into my car and produce a beat in a gas station parking lot that would be 15 seconds pure beauty,” she said. “A lot of people didn’t get to hear that, but Trey was a phenomenal producer.”

Lyon visited Trey several times in the weeks leading up to his death. In these visits, Trey lamented how he was unable to preserve his thoughts. “It seemed that he could endure that physical pain, but the pain of not being able to write was literally agonizing to him.”

Trey’s physical pain did keep him from leaving behind a legacy on paper. “Trey lived in his heart,” recalled his mom. “If there was ever a moment when he was not in pain, he wanted to be with people, he wanted to be out sharing his love and his search.”

Nate described one of his last conversations with Trey, which circled around the idea of Karma. “We discussed the true meaning of the word,” Nate said, “and that it translates, simply, to doing. Where you are in life is your Karma: it is your doing. It’s not some system of checks and balances for good or bad deeds.”

Trey talked with Nate through another one of his regrets—not pursuing fame or success, and he felt he would be leaving this world poor. “I told Trey that had he pursued wealth and commercial success, he probably could have had them… but he didn’t. Trey pursued meaningful connections with other people because he knew that meaningful connections are all that really matter at the end of the day, at the end of the road, at the end of everything. In this way, Trey left this world a really wealthy man.”

A Fish in Water

Trey did leave tangible bits of his life behind—scratchy recordings of conversations between friends, clips from his many years of mixing beats on his computer, marginal notes scribbled in books passed onto friends.

At Off The Leaf

Deb played me one of Trey’s recordings she found, a muffled conversation between Trey and one of his friends captured on a car ride. His voice on the recorder was calm, almost soothing. He talked extensively of this idea that poetry should remain in a constant state, like perpetually swimming. “When you’re swimming, the point is not to get out of the water. The point is to be in the water. And when you finish a poem, you’re getting out of the water,” Trey said, an idea he attributed to 18th century poet John Keats.

Trey felt the same of music. “While you’re sitting there with a base line for 25 minutes and you haven’t come up with anything, indeed you have. You’ve been in the essence of what it’s all about: Existing.”

To Trey, existence was the constant movement forward, the pull of life and death, the cycle of a laugh, the spirit inside us that is forever swimming. “When you face mortality and beat the odds that many times, you live to exist,” Joslyn said.

“The greatest thing about being an artist is not the finished product and what people will pay for it,” said Chucc D. “It’s the process of doing it and going through and making something yours and your own, because if you stop, there’s no room for progression anymore.” Trey never had his hands on the trunk of the elephant and said, “I’ve got this figured out.” He was continually reaching for more.

“The most important thing for Trey was finding as much of the elephant as possible,” Kate said. “When you put something down on paper, you’re making a declarative statement that implies a universal truth. As soon as Trey put something down, that implied the portion of that search for truth was over.”

An Inspired Life

Trey’s story has unfolded to me like a Salvador Dali painting I had the good fortune to see in person: Gala looking at the Mediterranean Sea which at a distance of 20 meters is transformed into the portrait of Abraham Lincoln. As I stood in front of this massive painting, struggling to see the full scope of the work, it was obvious I was staring at Dali’s wife, Gala. Yet her body formed the eye and nose of Abraham Lincoln. This spectacular trompe l’oeil, or double image that Dali created is best viewed from afar. Yet I found the most substance and detail in the pixels only discernable up close.

Gala looking at the Mediterranean Sea which at a distance of 20 meters is transformed into the portrait of Abraham Lincoln
Painting by Whitney Marie Donohue

In similar ways, each piece of Trey’s story forms a sum greater than its parts. But the pieces convey its essence, like the painting Whitney Marie Donohue created from a photo of Trey lying in the grass at Pioneer Park. She captured an essential quality of Trey—his contemplation. “He always had that look on his face, like he was up to something,” recalled Whitney fondly. She credits Trey with her renewed passion for painting. “Trey is a hero of mine. There’s no better release and no better way to feel 100 percent happy as when I’m painting, and Trey brought that out in me.”

There are hundreds more stories like Whitney’s. Trey inspired Lyon to become a philosopher. “I was too afraid to put myself out there, but Trey brought it out,” he said. In Chucc D and Joslyn, Trey lives on as their internal MC and teacher. Fellow hip-hop artist Joshua Tree, who called Trey his little brother, said that Trey taught him to start loving people again. “I’ve been burned before,” he said, “but Trey reached outside of that. He challenged me to reach out of my comfort zone and get to know people.” Trey inspired Kate’s journey of compassion, and in myself, he rekindled me with the written word. I recently chose a path that led me away from writing, but in pursuing his story, my faith in the power of creating has been renewed.

The Last Word

In one of Trey’s final recordings, I believe he finally found his voice. Reverberating behind piano keys and laid behind a sultry beat and a lone trumpet, this voice was raspy, urgent. “It’s been a hell of a year. But I can say that it’s been more like a whole life…I’m almost at the end of the line…It’s been one hell of a sound.”

Photo by Anna Coello

Life to Trey was getting into the water. He never wanted to get out. What remains is the essence of swimming, a life immersed in moments. In death, Trey left behind so many warriors that carry his spirit and his boundless love forward. I’ve seen him on the walls of galleries and the tips of paintbrushes, heard his story in the voice of hip-hop artists who called him professor and on the tongues of poets who talk of love personified. He is embedded deeply in the mosaic of our community like a quilt where we’re all sewn together as one. He lives on through everyone he found on his quest to love. With spring’s sprouting flowers, his seeds are growing; his voice has been given wings.

“I’m never going to die,” Trey continued. “I’m timeless. I will never ever rot because I rock and roll.”