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Flames and Flowers

May 15, 2019

Every now and then, life sends you a storm to remind you that you’re human.

November 8 started out like any other Thursday: Wake up at 5:30 a.m., rush to get ready, drive through the canyon and meet tens of smiling college students anxious for good futures as their professor at 8:00 a.m.

Driving through the canyon, I realized it wouldn’t be an ordinary day.

Moving to California, I never resubscribed to cable. I’ve been living without TV for the last 20-months, and if there ever was a 20-month period to be sans TV, it would be the last 20-months. The Charlottesville rally took place the week I moved and in its aftermath, our country seemed to unfold with vitriol week-after-week, day-after-day and minute-after-minute. Without a cable subscription, I have been able to make my home a place of bliss–a place safe from the world and its ever seeming doom–a total reprieve from what’s going on in the outside.

Because of my profession and desire to be a good citizen, I know I can’t live in absolute ignorance of what’s going on in the “real world.” So I listen to talk radio and scan Twitter and websites every morning to get my daily dose of misfortune and bad news.

November 8 was bad.

As I carefully careened my car across the curves of Malibu Canyon, conscious of the time and hoping I wouldn’t be late, I heard the news.

The night before, people–including my college students–went out for a night of fun at a country bar some eight miles from my house. 13 of them wouldn’t leave that night, because a gunman entered a place where people desired to be joyful and carefree and murdered them.

It seems like every day we hear about another mass shooting in America. Various points of my life are bookended by mass shootings. I was a high school freshman on April 20, 1999 when Columbine took place minutes from where I grew up. My father’s coworker lost his son. When my dad called me that night from work to tell me he loved me, it was one of the first times I heard him cry. I was a new prosecutor in Aurora, Colorado on July 20, 2012 when a gunman entered a movie screening of a Batman film and murdered 12 people. I would be working in the jail he was housed the next day, carefully navigating through the cells to offer plea bargains to people accused of much less serious crimes.

In each of those instances, I felt innocent–a kid living in a movie where the backdrop was a country with a growing violence problem. At both points in history, I was living with my parents and because I could come home to their nest, I felt like I didn’t need to face the issue head-on. I was the kid. The adults would fix everything. I would be safe.

On November 8, I was the adult.

By the time I entered class at 8:00 a.m. on November 8, my students had heard the news. One of their classmates, Alaina Housley, a beautiful, talented and pure 18-year-old, had been murdered at Borderline.

I don’t know what I said to them that day. But standing in front of the room as a professor whose vocation is to lead a group of young people to bright futures, I felt hopeless. Hopeless that the world these young people are moving into is one that as days go on, seems more rife with violence, hatred, mistrust, deceit and greed.

I couldn’t focus once I got back into my office after teaching. I had a speaking engagement at the Tiger Woods Foundation in Orange County that afternoon, so I left Malibu early and drove south. I cried a lot in the car that day, just questioning how things can be so brutal in this world and how a simple, small person like myself could ever make a difference.

November 8 was a bad day.

Walking into the Tiger Woods Foundation, my mother who lives 1,000 miles away called me. She said she was having stroke like symptoms. A 14-hour drive away, I again felt hopeless, unsure of what I could do to help her in that situation. While November 8 would mark another hospital visit in a string of several for her, luckily all would turn out alright.

I spoke to a group of high school students at the Tiger Woods Foundation who will be first generation college students. Hearing their dreams and aspirations provided a sparkle of hope in an otherwise rough day.

Leaving the speaking engagement, I met my friends, Andy and Katie, for dinner. As I drove, the radio announcer came on saying a fire had started. It was near my house, but far enough away that I didn’t feel I needed to cancel my dinner plans. I figured I would enjoy dinner, drive the 90 miles home, pack a bag and be prepared to leave the next day, if need be.

Because of the stress of the day, I let my guard down at dinner. We relaxed and enjoyed each other’s company. I wasn’t in a rush. I hugged my friends goodbye several hours later, thankful for the role friends play in otherwise dire days.

Driving up the 101 freeway, my mind raced again about the role I play in securing the positive futures of young people. My heart hurt for the dreams that were taken too soon by someone filled with such great hate. I questioned how hate could be erased.

Night had fallen and it was now dark. The air smelled like a campfire and dust was falling from the sky. I was going to pack, put my tired self to bed and wake up to face whatever November 9 had to offer.

Or so I thought.

My phone buzzed and an alert popped up, letting me know that my neighborhood was about to be put under mandatory evacuation. I put my foot on the gas and drove through barricades to my apartment, which had largely been evacuated before I got there. I had three-minutes to pack things before the mandatory evacuation went into effect. The air was hot, ash was falling and the wind was screaming.

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It was hard not to panic when I got inside. How do you pick up the pieces of your life in three-minutes? I spent the first 30-seconds wandering aimlessly, lost. I then walked into my bedroom and through the billowing howls of the wind outside that were brutally shaking my flimsy windows, collected myself.

“Nothing is permanent, Alicia. Just go.”

I grabbed two belongings: the Bible my grandmother gave me on my first communion and a picture of my grandparents, who played a big role in raising me. I grabbed my document binder and a clean outfit.

And I was out the door.

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I don’t scare easy. I approach strangers, walk alone with homeless people and have traveled solo to developing countries. For once, I was afraid.

It’s hard to explain the sounds of fire or the heat or the pulses rushing through your body as you wonder if you took too long, if you have enough gas and if traffic will be too crazy to get out.

I exited my barricaded neighborhood and made my way through Malibu Canyon, the road I meandered some 15-hours earlier, unaware that I’d have to counsel teenagers about the murder of their peer. Little did I know that soon thereafter, the fire would unexpectedly jump the freeway and burn through the neighboring canyon and onto the precious campus where I teach.

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November 8 was a bad day.

At this point, I can’t remember how long I was evacuated, but it was at least a week. And in a strange way, being evacuated allowed me to fully process all of my thoughts and come to grips with the craziness this life presents.

For the first time in my otherwise charmed life, I was a nomad. Moving from place to place, reliant on the grace and giving of friends to sustain me. I had nothing but a few things. I had no work to do, as my work was literally on fire. For a brief moment, life consisted of just me and Time.

I did a lot with that Time. You think a lot when you don’t have anything and also have nothing to do.

I thought about the people I need to forgive. I rattled the scenarios through my head with the time I had. I let things go. I uttered to the universe and air and space and Time my forgiveness and sent up a wish that they, too, might forgive me.

I thought about the fortune of my life. That despite being without home or work or things, I was so full. I had people who loved me. I had places to go. I had offers to restore the material things that had been lost. I had nine zillion text messages a day from what seemed like every human I ever came into contact with. I uttered to the universe and air and space and Time my gratitude for the abundance I have been given.

I thought about what mattered. I thought about all of the things that I had accumulated and stored up inside of a home that for all I knew, had burned down. I thought about how easily and freely I was able to walk away from it all. My body still in tact, my soul still hopeful. I questioned where I was storing up my treasure. Is my treasure on Earth? Or is it in heaven. I sought forgiveness from the One from whom forgiveness really matters.

In the end, I went home. The fire burned less than one-hundred yards away from my house. It was truly miraculous that I went home.

The scene surrounding my house and neighborhood in the wake of the Woolsey Fire literally looked like something out of Armageddon. Everything was black and burned and charred and destroyed. What was once beautiful and alive and sprite was in total disarray. Hopeless.

And in that image, I saw the world I had been witnessing for some 20-months. I saw the ugliness and blight, the bitter and wrong, the unforgiving and unrepentant. There in front of me was a graphic display of all that could go wrong.

It’d be easy to say that was the end of the story. Everything was amiss, a mess and wrong.

But that would be wrong.

The rain came.

What a gift rain is. Rain is central to life. It washes. It cleans.

And it restored.

It wiped the mountains clean. It pushed away the soot. It channeled through the mess.

And presented the beauty.

It brought the flowers.

After the flames, came flowers.

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Flowers everywhere. Flowers taller than buildings. Flowers of vibrant colors. Flowers of unimaginable density, dancing around on mountaintops like ballerinas.

Flowers taught me one of the most joyful and abundant lessons in this life:

Nothing is permanent.

We possess nothing.

Redemption always comes.

If you find yourself in the midst of flames, keep going.

The flowers await you.

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A Perfect 24-Hours in Asheville, North Carolina

January 30, 2018

These days, it seems like Asheville is the top location on many American travelers’ lists. After visiting the bohemian southern city for myself, it’s easy to see why Lonely Planet named it the best U.S. destination to see in 2017. While the city, which boasts small town charm, has plenty to keep tourists busy for days, if you’re wondering what to do in Asheville to have the best trip, keep reading! Below I tell you how to best explore and enjoy the city if you have only 24-hours.

Check-In: There are many great hotel and home rental options in Asheville, but critical to me was the centrality of the location. With a mere 24-hours to experience this city that hosts so much culture and energy, I wanted to find a place to store my bags and quickly hit the pavement on arrival.

For me, the Renaissance Asheville Hotel was the perfect hotel. Given the hotel’s moderate price and sleek decor, I was nicely surprised upon arrival to realize how close it is to many of Asheville’s prime locations. The front desk staff was incredibly friendly, providing solid advice and opinions on how best to enjoy the city. My room was comfortable, quiet and clean, making for a wonderful getaway from home.

After Check-In: The best thing about staying at the Renaissance Asheville Hotel was being able to exit outside of the hotel’s back entrance and stumble upon a landmark celebrating one of America’s top authors.

The Thomas Wolfe House is the boyhood home of the author who wrote Look Homeward, Angel and other works.2E818911-83A1-403E-811D-D6BF0F67DBB4

For $5 on Tuesdays through Saturdays from 9:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. visitors can go inside the home that provided the scene for much of Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel. The experience is one that allows visitors to transcend time and get a glimpse into southern life in the early 20th century. Allow 45-minutes to one-hour to visit and tour the house.

Departing the Thomas Wolfe House, you will find yourself in Asheville’s eclectic downtown. Surrounded by the Appalachian mountains, downtown Asheville features a well-organized neighborhood of unique cultural cuisines, funky coffee shops and eye-catching shops. With each turn down a new street, you’re met with an opportunity to partake in a cultural and engaging experience. This journey makes one thing apparent: People in Asheville are friendly.

As a solo traveler wandering in and out of restaurants, coffee shops and stores, one thing was certain: I never felt lonely. Every location presented ample people–locals and tourists alike–willing and excited to strike up an interesting conversation.

Entering downtown Asheville, I set my sights first on shopping. The area’s shopping options present something for everyone–from the college student to the pet lover and the new mother to the retiree. My favorite shop, though, was Desirant. Aesthetically pleasing in interior design, Desirant’s shoppers are greeted with a note scribed on their window reading, “We believe in living life beautifully. Fall in love. Treat yourself. Get inspired. Be generous. Live in the moment. Surround yourself with beauty.” Inside, shoppers can do all of these things, selecting from beautiful clothing, personal care and home design items.

Tired for shopping, I decided I needed a treat. When in Asheville, there is no debate as to where to find one. French Broad Chocolate Lounge is the only place to go. Located in downtown Asheville’s Pack Square, the lounge is the dessert restaurant of chocolatier, French Broad. Don’t let the long line outside sway you away; the wait will be worth it. Inside, you can sample from the brand’s delicious chocolate offerings, homemade ice creams and delectable desserts. However, my suggestion is to enjoy some drinking chocolate. Think: hot chocolate made infinitely better. Grab a flavor of your choice and enjoy sipping it around the square as jealous passerby wish that they’d braved the line.

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If you find yourself hungry after visiting the French Broad Chocolate Lounge, consider walking across Pack Square to enjoy a snack at Rhubarb. Rhubarb is the restaurant of award winning chef, John Fleer, a five-time James Beard award finalist. At Rhubarb, Fleer brings his unique take on American cuisine to the plates of patrons. Enjoy the southern experience by snacking on pimento cheese in a mason jar and seared royal red shrimp before heading on your way.

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Exiting Rhubarb to your right, walk a mere 900 feet to enjoy a highlight of North Carolina’s burgeoning craft beer scene. Wicked Weed Brewery is the brainchild of Walt and Luke Dickinson and presents east coasters a chance to sip on west coast inspired brews. The brewery’s tappings range from sours to stouts and IPAs and pale ales and have amassed a following of dedicated beer drinkers. In fact, in 2017, the craft brewery partnered with the family of Anheuser-Busch craft breweries.

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After wrapping up your shopping and sipping tour of Asheville, it’ll be time for dinner before heading to bed or stepping out to enjoy the city’s nightlife and life music scene. One restaurant stands out for those desiring vibrant tastes in a welcoming setting. Despite being thousands of miles east of California, Limones presents premier California cuisine with Mexican influence. Chef Hugo Ramirez hails from Mexico City and credits his mother for sharing the secret ingredients that make his dishes flavorfully impactful. Located inside of a former Asheville residence, the brick building is small, making dining intimate and reservations necessary. If you visit, be sure to order the carrot-habanero margarita and slow braised short rib nachos. You will NOT be disappointed!

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Before You Leave: Experiencing all Asheville has to offer is impossible in 24-hours. Before you leave, though, there are two places you must visit.

For breakfast, drive a quick ten-minutes to Hole Doughnuts.

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You’ve had doughnuts, and then you’ve had Hole Doughnuts. These doughnuts are on an entirely different level. For starters, they are made fresh to order in an open-aired kitchen. The doughnuts feature no gimmicks. Here, you won’t find doughnuts wrecked with globs of frosting or dollops of sugary cereal. In the world of doughnuts, Hole is a traditionalist. The menu is minimal, featuring three flavors and a seasonal option that rotates weekly. Come hungry and eat many, because you’ll search long and hard to find another doughnut this tasty. The space inside of Hole is small an intimate, with table seating and a counter customers can saddle up to to watch their doughnuts hit the fryer.

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Prepare to stand in line and expect the preparation of your doughnuts to take some time, because good things take time. Savor the experience, though, by ordering and sipping on a coffee drink. Hole serves PennyCup Coffee, which is roasted locally in Asheville.

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No trip to Asheville would be complete without a visit to the Biltmore Estate.

A93B9C53-01B4-4164-8148-1FAA273DB343Leaving Hole Doughnuts, drive 20-minutes to the estate built by George Vanderbilt, which is an eye-dropping example of American opulence. Spanning over 8,000-acres, the estate features a myriad of rooms filled with ornate furnishings, artifacts and art. With Renoir paintings gracing its walls and a library stacked with 10,000 books, Biltmore Estate visitors’ jaws have reason to drop at every turn. The price of admission may make some tourists balk, but at least once in life you must see how the “other side” lives.

Catching one last glimpse of the Biltmore Estate as you walk up its long driveway to leave, you’ll think to yourself that you’ve never found yourself more at home. Asheville is a city of charm and friendliness, culture and vibrancy, that everyone can find something they love in.

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Light

June 12, 2017

Before daylight broke, I quietly climbed down the wooden stairs of the top bunk, confining every move so as not to wake the three others I was rooming with. When my feet hit the tiled floor, I looked over my shoulder to make sure I hadn’t woken anyone. Seeing everyone still sleeping soundly, I slowly opened the creaky door and made my way outdoors.

Outside, roosters crowed and strangers milled about the dirt road outside the gate, their busy days already starting.

I used my iPhone as a light and shuffled my bear feet across the driveway sprinkled with dirt and up the stairs on the side of the house to the rooftop. I climbed into a rocking chair and sat in the dark rocking back and forth, trying to drown out the persistent sounds of the rooster to just let my thoughts unfold.

“Tell me what I’m supposed to do.”

I shouldn’t have been in Haiti. My to-do list was longer than it’s ever been, and that’s saying a lot, knowing what my to-do list typically looks like.

Yet, I’d received an invitation from the KORE Foundation–an organization I’d admired from afar since my first trip to Haiti in 2014. They were heading down and invited me to see their initiatives, which create sustainable solutions to poverty in Haiti. I wrestled with the thought of going as I was one-week out from hosting the second annual University of Miami Sport Conference and preparing to welcome over 300 guests and keynote speakers, Greg Norman and Alex Rodriguez.

The world told me I didn’t have time to go to Haiti.

The Spirit told me, “Go. Run. Get there as fast as you can.”

So I went, knowing that with spotty electricity and Internet service, it was highly unlikely I was going to get any of my to-do list done.

Little did I know, though, that it would be one of the most productive trips of my life.

Earlier that week I received a job offer from Pepperdine University. The job offer was an answered prayer–literally. I prayed for the opportunity to become a professor at Pepperdine. I only began praying about it in the fall of 2016, though. I prayed in a way that I asked God for the opportunity to become a professor at Pepperdine at some point in my career, thinking it would be at least five to ten-years away. Little did I realize how quickly God would work and that I’d have an official offer in front of my eyes some mere six-months later.

I was so grateful for the offer. Truthfully, though, I was scared. Was it too soon to leave Miami? There was so much more I want to do in Haiti. Was I abandoning a place that healed my heart when I didn’t think I’d ever find joy again? Was I turning my back to my second family to return to a peaceful coastal life?

As overfilled with joy as I was to receive the offer, I knew I needed to pray about it. I knew I needed to ensure it was a decision I could make fully knowing that my relationship with and belief in the people of Haiti could not only continue, but grow.

As busy as I was, the trip to Haiti with KORE came at the most perfect time.

In our three days together, I saw light in places where I thought there was none. I saw hope and a future for a country and people I love so much. I saw for the first time a path and a plan and a way to give these amazing people the true freedom they deserve.

One of the main operations of the KORE Foundation involves giving Haitian people micro loans to build businesses as chicken farmers. Members of the KORE team help the farmers build their coops, teach them how to care for and grow healthy chickens, along with how to market, price and sell the chickens.

To date, KORE has helped 185 Haitian families enter the farming business. These farmers see on average a 400-percent increase in their incomes. The opportunity they’re given has allowed many to build homes and send not only their children to school, but also care for children in their communities. Beyond this, 2,000 Haitian children are fed with chicken raised by KORE farmers.

One of the most beautiful gifts God has given me is bringing me to Haiti at a time when there was much darkness in my life. He took my broken heart and dropped me in a place where the naked eye only sees so much darkness, hopelessness and despair. Selfishly, on my first trip in November 2014, any heartache I felt quickly disappeared, as I realized there were people fighting much greater battles and pains than I. On this trip, though, I finally saw the light. Literally.

The grandchild of farmers and a proud Wheat Ridge High School Farmer, I am the epitome of a city girl. I knew zero about farming until my visit with the KORE Foundation.

It seems simple and obvious now, but I never realized that the fatter the chicken, the deeper the pockets of the farmer. Chickens only eat when it’s light outside. Recognizing this, the KORE Foundation realized that if they equipped their farmers with solar power lights for their chicken coops, the chickens would eat at night and thus, eat more, get plumper and be able to be sold on the market for higher prices.

On the second day of our trip, we drove to a beautiful village located near Nepaly, Haiti, next to the clear water of the Caribbean. All I knew is we were there to install a solar light in one of KORE’s top farmer’s coops.

As we parked our car and made our way towards the home with a coop in the backyard, children seemed to come from every direction. They grabbed our hands and tugged at our skirts, chattering quickly and joyfully in Creole. They pulled us back towards their play area in the back of the house, near the coop.

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Once there, we were met face-to-face with one of the most stunningly beautiful women I’ve ever seen. She was tall with a strong jawline and nose, her head wrapped in the most vibrant red piece of cloth.

“Bonswa!”

Hello, light.

This woman, Magdalee, is one of KORE’s top chicken farmers. She is a mother, a community leader, entrepreneur and honestly, the truest depiction of #GirlBoss I’ve ever encountered.

Her pleasantries were short as she had work to do. She quickly greeted us then got back to work in her coop, moving in and out of it seeming to do an infinite amount of tasks my mind couldn’t begin to comprehend.

As we watched her hustle, I was told her story. As a mother, she would frequently come to the Christian mission near KORE’s Haitian headquarters in Gressier, Haiti. Jobless and impoverished, she had no option but to beg to feed her children. She’d go without food so they could eat.

One day, a leader from KORE asked if she’d like a job. With the job, she’d be able to feed her family.

“Oui!”

Yes. Yes she did. She fed her family. She fed her neighbors. She fed her community. She raises the fattest chickens around. She was given light and with that light became light for the world around her.

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The next day, I said my goodbyes to the wonderful people at KORE and the beautiful community of Gressier. I was headed back to Delmas 75, a suburb of Port-au-Prince, where the organization I’ve worked with since 2014, I’mME, is located.

So encouraged by the future KORE is painting for Haiti, I knew there was one more affirmation I needed to see to feel comfortable relocating an eight-hour flight away from Haiti.

My trip to Port-au-Prince would be short, but I knew what I was looking for. I wanted to see signs of hope for the community in Delmas. I wanted to see opportunities brewing for the children there I care about so much.

And saw I did.

I met Jessica Drogosz and Renise Jean, the co-founders of Sa Voix, an organization using the arts to give Haitian women their voice, while also designing and selling some incredibly beautiful handbags. I went to the top of a mountain to visit Wynne Farm, one of the most stunning places I’ve ever seen in this world. I learned how the granddaughter of Victor A. Wynne, a Harvard and MIT civil engineer, is fighting to promote environmental education and sustainable development in a country that has been ravished by forest destruction and environmental disasters.

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I saw light in the way these women and their organizations are bringing hope, possibility and dignity to Haiti and its people. I saw a future in the handbags they’re selling and the tour groups they’re hosting. I saw the plausibility of a beautiful, booming economy and the eventual eradication of deep-rooted poverty.

It was enlightening.

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I came back home to the house in Delmas 75 that night with the greatest hope. And then, I received my answer.

I spent the evening playing soccer with the I’mME kids. When it was about time to go, I sat down with the boy I sponsor, Prosper. We chatted about school and soccer and plans for the summer.

Then I asked, “Do you remember where you’re from, where your family lives?”

“Oui.”

“Where?”

He told the interpreter, the interpreter told me and I looked at the map.

“Near Gressier?!”

“Oui!”

“I was just there! Do you want to see pictures?!”

“Oui, oui,” he nodded his head quickly, with happy eyes.

I showed him pictures of his former home as he looked on interestedly. I thought, “Wow. What are the odds?”

“Do you know where you want to live when you grow up?”

“Oui.”

“Where?”

“The U.S.”

“Where in the U.S.?”

“California.”

This boy–who helped heal my heart, who was a pinpoint of light amidst darkness–who grew up in a quiet village and found his way into a children’s home in a bustling city, told me unprompted that he wants to live some 4,000 miles away from home when he grows up.

I nodded and smiled.

“It’s nice there. It’s sunny and bright and there are glowing city lights.”

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The next morning I crawled onto the roof and sat in relative quiet.

I rocked back and forth on the sturdy wood rocking chair, just me, my thoughts, humid air and vast land in front of me. I thought about how far life has taken me in these last few years. I thought about the great magic of God’s tapestry and how when we just let what is to be unfold and stop fighting against His plan, our greatest stories are told.

My soul is restored. I’ve regained hope. I can see a vivid future despite not knowing entirely what may come. I’ve given up the need for selfish control. I’ve let go of the desire to dictate outcomes.

I’ve accepted I don’t need to know all the answers or reasons why. I may not always receive a sign. But I can always go by and do what is right.

And it was with the utmost assurance, grace, belief and peace that as I walked back down the steps to join the now bustling house for coffee, I knew where my journey was going.

I wanted to see the lights of California.

Mountains

March 28, 2017

I wonder if someone from my family will be good enough to come here someday.”

My Dad was 20-years-old. To say that life was hard for him as a youngster would be an understatement.

His next-door-neighbor at the time, Linda Chavez, would go on to serve in the Reagan and Bush I administrations. But in the summer of 1970, she and her husband were moving from Colorado to California for him to begin a Masters program at Pepperdine University.

They were broke college students who couldn’t afford a moving truck, so Linda’s dad paid my Dad a couple hundred bucks to move their stuff to California. On an August night shortly before the LA Riots broke out, my Dad stood in front of Pepperdine University’s then South Central LA campus wondering if anyone from his family would be good enough to go there someday.

In February 2017, some 46-and-a-half years to the date later, I found myself sitting in the office of the President at Pepperdine University. The office features one giant plate glass window with an expansive view overlooking the Pacific Ocean, which is across the street from Pepperdine’s now Malibu campus. Our chairs faced the window, rather than one another directly. President Benton looked down at my curriculum vita, and rather than asking me about my jobs or education or serving on the Law Review, his first question was, “So, tell me about Glory of God Lutheran Church.”

My response can best be summed up as follows: For as long as I can recall, God has met me at the foot of mountains and consistently and devotedly, moved them out of my way.

Vivid, vivid dreams.

Dreaming is one of the greatest gifts I’ve been given. I have vivid, vivid dreams nearly every night. Each relates to my waking life in some way.

I began dreaming about the mountain in late-summer. Every night, the same mountain. Every night, I’d spend my dream driving a winding, curvy road up the mountain, seeking a location that I knew I’d been to, but just couldn’t remember what was there. Every morning, I’d wake before I got there.

Frustrated, I’d shower and get ready for work wracking my brain wondering where this mountain was. Had I passed through it? Was it somewhere I was going in the future? What was on the other side?!

I’ve been climbing a mountain since I was five-years-old.

As a kid, I never went hungry. I always had clothes and shelter. I never doubted if I was loved.

But I knew that I would have to work for anything I earned and I knew I needed to work my tail off to get where I was meant to go.

Nothing in my life has been handed to me. And I knew from a young age that nothing would be.

My Mom went to parent-teacher conferences in Kindergarten and learned from the teacher that I knew how to read. She doesn’t think I remember this, but I remember clear as day the moment I recognized that I “knew” how to read. We were in the library of Stevens Elementary School and one of my classmates showed the teacher she could read. Intuitively, I knew education would be my outlet. So, when she was finished, I told the teacher I could read, too. I found a book my Mom had read to me many times, “Clifford the Big Red Dog,” and “read” it to the teacher. Later that night, I “read” it to my Mom. And from then on, I was Alicia the Kindergartener who could “read.”

I wasn’t blessed with great looks, athleticism or wealth. But what God gave me to get through this life was a brain. And from a young age, I’ve learned how to use it and rely on God to take me where I needed to go.

The same intuitiveness that a 5-year-old used in 1989 to show that she could “read” led me away from the favorite location I’ve ever called home. In December 2011, I quit a job at a mid-sized law firm that just offered me a 15-percent raise during the height of a recession so that I could move into my parent’s basement and earn $15,000 less.

I remember driving to Crystal Cove State Park in Corona Del Mar, CA the day I quit my comfortable law firm job. I walked my usual route, but this time in a designer suit, until I reached a large enough rock to sit on a few feet into the ocean. Fully aware that I looked like a lunatic, I had zero cares about what others thought. Instead, all that screamed through my mind was,

WHAT DID YOU JUST DO?!

I looked out into the Pacific and watched pelicans nosedive into the water and come out with dinner for what felt like hours. I felt the wind breeze past my cheek and could taste the gentle salt of the California coast on my tongue. And while it made absolutely zero sense at the time, all I could hear in that moment was Him telling me, “Go.”

Leaving was the last thing I wanted to do. But it was the one thing that I heard so loud and clearly in a time intertwined with so much confusion. So, I stood and walked away from the one place I loved. I turned from a safety net into an unknown, all the while knowing I’d be back, just unsure of when or how.

Waiting for me on the other side of my decision to leave California were a world of people who gave me chances.

In 2011, one of my greatest mentors, George Zierk, called me and said, “Come home. It’s a pay cut, but you’ll get great trial experience. If you finish your cases, I don’t care if you go into the office and write. You can build your sports career here.”

What George Zierk did in that moment was give me an opportunity to make my dream come true. He knew my dream was to work in Sports Law, but what he had to offer was a job as a prosecutor. He was the most supportive boss and mentor I’ve known. When the NFL called inviting me to cover Super Bowl 47, he didn’t bat an eye over giving me a week off of work to do it. He encouraged every wild, insane dream of mine that at the end of the day, was completely unrelated to any task the job he managed me in required.

During this time, I honestly thought I was going to become a sports broadcaster. My agent was pitching me for jobs with major media networks. The one hiccup was that I had zero TV experience. So the negotiations stalled and much to my mother’s dismay, I was itching to get out of her basement. I thought about what else I’d like to do. I was a national officer of my sorority at the time and really enjoyed working with college-aged people. I’d begun a speaking circuit at sports law symposia across the country. So, in my mind, there was one logical answer: Become a professor!

Now that I’ve been a professor for four years, looking back, I realize how naive I was to think I could just become a full-time professor. People spend their entire educational careers preparing for this profession. They’re called PhDs.

Yet, five people–Windy Dees, Ty Martin, Sue Mullane, Paul Resnick, Warren Whisenant–and the administration at the University of Miami, gave me a chance. They hired a 29-year-old with zero teaching experience and zero academic publications to her name to become a full-time professor at a top-50 university. Over the last four-years, they built me into a professional, each mentoring and guiding me in their own unique ways. I will always remember the chance they took on me and treasure the friendships I’ve built with each.

In late summer 2016, I was sitting on my balcony in Miami that overlooks the Atlantic Ocean. For weeks, I was trying to fight off the agitation, discomfort and urge. My Dad says I have “rabbit feet,” and I know it’s one of my greatest flaws. I get restless. I live to prove my Dad wrong, though, so I kept trying to push the feeling down, to swallow it.

On my balcony that day, though, clarity smacked me in the face.

“It’s time to go.”

And I knew He was right.

“Where do you want to go, Alicia?” I thought to myself. “Pick the wildest place you can imagine, the place that surely won’t let you come. That way you don’t have to leave. That way–for once–you can stay.”

Pepperdine.

In October I sent a quick email to the chair of the Sport Administration program at Pepperdine University introducing myself in an effort to network. I figured it would get lost in a sea of emails in an inbox some 3,000 miles away and at best, I’d get a courtesy reply weeks later.

20-minutes later I was shuffling out of my condo and the phone rang. It was a Los Angeles number and if I knew what he was going to say, I probably would’ve fallen off of my 19th story balcony before I answered it.

Alicia, I don’t know what inspired your email today, but I started this program three-years ago and just found out that we will be able to hire another professor. Obviously, I can’t make any promises, but I will let you know as the search unfolds.”

In February I got off of a cruise ship and drove straight to the airport to fly to Los Angeles. In the boarding area, I called my parents.

“Leesh?,” my Dad said.

“Yea?”

“Did I ever tell you about the time I moved Linda Chavez and her husband to Pepperdine?”

“Nope,” I said.

“It was in the late-60s or early-70s and they couldn’t afford movers. I was a broke kid, so her dad paid me a couple hundred bucks to drive the moving truck for them. The whole time they were talking about how great Pepperdine is, this and that. They wouldn’t stop talking about it! We got there at night and went to the campus. And I just remember looking up at Pepperdine thinking, ‘I wonder if someone from my family will be good enough to come here someday.'”

I collected my thoughts and breath and shifted my glance away from the Pacific Ocean and to him.

“Well, sir, Glory of God Lutheran Church is the church I’ve attended since I was born. My Mom took me there and there, I met some of the greatest people of my life. While I could talk to you all day about the congregation, I’d like to tell you about my relationship with Christ.”

Redemption.

It’s a story of redemption.

Wrapped in and around my faith is the constant, consistent, redeeming proof that today–as always–He has met me at the mountain and driven me over it.

Today, I am humbled and honored to accept a tenure-track position at Pepperdine University.

Today, for the first time in my career, I feel like I get to build a home.

I wish I had a time machine, but I don’t.

I wish someone could go back in time and tell my 20-year-old Dad, “Yes. Just wait.”

Someone will go there.

IMG_2074

 

What May Come

December 18, 2016

I met an above average number of famous people, traveled to picturesque places and even paid for professional head shots in 2016. I’ve given it a lot of thought, though, and this is hands down my favorite and most important picture of me from this year.

img_1438I rode the train alone to Amsterdam this August. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t scope out Pinterest and Instagram beforehand, seeking out the best places to take the pictures to really send a message to the Internet of how awesome my trip was.

I hit the pavement in a fresh pair of Birkenstocks immediately after dropping off my suitcase at the hotel. It was raining, gray and cold, but I was undaunted. I needed a picture of my smiling face and Pinterest-inspired outfit in front of the Comic Sans like “Amsterdam” letters spelled out in front of the Rijksmuseum. You know, so the world could know and see that my trip was living up to all expectations.

I handed my phone to a stranger who looked trustworthy enough. I’d just lost my phone on a boat ride in Haiti a month before, so I couldn’t afford to lose another. She smiled and snapped pictures. I told her, “Thank you so much! I really appreciate it.” She nodded and walked away. I walked towards the Rijksmuseum, scrolling through my camera roll confusedly.

There were two pictures. And in both, I was fighting the wind and rain to keep an umbrella out of my face.

Certainly, it was not the perfect moment I hoped to capture and share with the world. In hindsight though, it was everything it needed to be.

I’m taking a break from packing my suitcase to head home to Denver for Christmas. It’s Christmas again! It feels like I was heading home to the cold weather and my family just weeks ago. The calendar, though, tells me that another year has passed. And as I think about 2016, I have contentment in my heart, because I know it was everything it needed to be.

When the clock struck Midnight on January 1, I told myself it’d be a year of redemption. I started the year reading the book of Hosea and ended it turning back to what I needed.

I’ve battled to create a perfect life for myself. And what 2014 and 2015 taught me, is that’s impossible. Life is filled with heartache, challenges, betrayal, disappointment and regret.

If you give way to what may come, though, life is filled with redemption. It’s filled with hope and joy and a future and peace.

It’s filled with my 2016.

I let go of expectations in 2016, and perhaps that is the most freeing thing I’ve done in my years. My favorite instance of this arose in early June. Earlier in 2016, I met a University of Miami alumna who runs a nonprofit in Haiti, teaching children there about marine life. She invited me to bring the I’mME children on one of her boats to look for dolphins and whales.

The first week of June, I flew to Haiti to surprise the kids with a boat ride to celebrate the completion of their first year of school. I had such great anticipation for the day. In my mind, it’d be a Disney like day–perfectly executed and enjoyed. We’d see dolphins and whales jumping over the water, laugh and giggle with each other and soak in the sun, sand and water.

What I painted in my head for the day little resembled the day that unfolded. We woke the children early in the morning and didn’t let them know where we were headed, as we wanted to surprise them. We packed them tightly into a tap-tap, while the adults rode in the back of an open air truck. It was hot and dusty and every single one of us forgot to eat. As was traversed through Port-au-Prince, we were pulled over outside of a United Nations checkpoint lined with armed guards. We were stopped for a fair amount of time, during which one of the children got sick in the back of the tap-tap. Given that there’s little free flowing air through a tap-tap and we were driving in the middle of a hot, Haitian day, the kids in the back of the tap-tap were stuck with a smelly, hot ride.

It took us several hours to reach our destination. When we arrived, we realized we forgot food. We were hours from home and not near a place where you could purchase food or snacks. Everyone was getting cranky, but we proceeded with the boat ride nonetheless.

The American in me never stopped to think that the children had never been on a boat. I couldn’t communicate with them in Creole, so you can imagine their horror as I snapped life jackets on them and then threw them over the water to a handler on the boat. Their surprise and confusion intensified as the engines were fired up and we started cruising towards one of the most picturesque beaches I’ve ever seen.

The water was choppy that day and there were high winds. The boat started rocking back and forth and the babies started wailing. It was then that I realized we also forgot diapers for them. Pieces of the boat actually started blowing off and for a quick second, I almost had a panic attack wondering how we’d save the children if the weather took a turn for the worst and the wind and waves picked up even more.

To my surprise, the boat outing lasted several hours. Before I knew it, we were picking up the kids and packing them and their things into the tap-tap to begin the long journey back to Port-au-Prince. I felt defeated. I wanted nothing more, but for the kids to have a perfect day filled with fun on a boat. I wanted to cry, because in my eyes, it was anything but.

As we were getting in the car, I had one of the Haitian adults ask Prosper, the boy I sponsor, if he had fun.

He said, “Wi!”

T-john then asked him why he had fun.

Matter of factly, Prosper immediately responded, “I had fun today, because today I went on a boat and I have never been on a boat before.”

In that moment, a 9-year-old boy taught me one of the greatest lessons I’d learned in my then 31-years.

The lesson he taught me was to let go of expectations and to accept what may come with an open heart.

When I look over the last year with that perspective, it’s been a year of great redemption. I’ve stopped making plans for my own life. Instead, I’ve surrendered to His plans. For after all, Jeremiah 29:11 says, “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.'”

2016 saw my heart finding a soft landing spot. It saw the building of memories to last a lifetime with friends, old and new. It saw developing deeper relationships with my parents. It saw the creation of purpose for a career. It saw traveling to places literal and figurative I never thought or knew I could go.

Most of all, though, it saw me giving up.

As the most extreme type-A person I know, perhaps the most surprising thing about 2016, is that it no longer pains me to write those words.

For once, I am not trying to manipulate my future. Rather, I am welcoming what may come with open arms, finally recognizant of the truth that great expectations may perhaps be the most futile and dangerous symptom to plague a life.

I had fun this year. More fun, probably, than I’ve had in any year before. I had fun this year, because I took each day as it came to me and molded it with ounces of hope, faith and joy, to make it the most exceptional.

I had fun this year, because I had never experienced 2016 and this year, I experienced 2016.

Wishing you all hope, peace and joy this holiday season and that you can give up your expectations in exchange for the great surprises that await you.

Why I’m Not Watching ESPN’s “Catholics vs. Convicts”

December 9, 2016

I had lunch at Pastor Steve’s house earlier this semester.

Pastor Steve and his wife, Arlene, are the University of Miami’s Athletes in Action Ministers. Pastor Steve is also the team chaplain for the Miami Heat. It was inside the Heat’s media dining area that I first met he and Arlene. Our conversations for most of the season centered on my constant battle of finding a man of God, but that’s a story for another day.

“Have they told you about the Bibles?” he asked in between bites.

“Yes, sir.”

“What have they said?”

“They like them. They’re reading them. They’re appreciative,” I replied.

“What’s the last place you’d ever live in America?” If you asked me this question in 2011, I would tell you Miami.

I grew up in a small, close-knit suburb of Denver where you can make it anywhere you want to go in ten-minutes. Everyone knows each other and more than likely also knows your mother and grandparents. There’s little diversity and few challenges to the norm in Wheat Ridge, Colorado.

My career in the sport industry began in 2011 when I started RulingSports.com while practicing law in Orange County, CA. I launched the blog in July and it received decent traction. In December, I marched down the hallway of my law firm’s office, into my co-worker Colin’s office and closed the door. “Write this down. In two years I’m going to be writing for ESPN.”

I don’t think I gave him time to speak. I swiftly turned back around and marched back to my side of the office to bill some more hours. It was a bold prediction and certainly a haughty move. But I’ve always had strong self-esteem and belief in my abilities.

I started RulingSports.com not merely to provide sports law coverage, but to begin shifting the needle in terms of how sports news is conveyed. I wanted to channel away from negativity and toward highlighting athletes making a positive difference in the world. I wanted to celebrate athletes’ feats; not their demises.

Nearly simultaneous to the start of my sports career, the Nevin Shapiro scandal erupted at the University of Miami. Stories related to the scandal were filled with some of the most sensational allegations. To the rest of the world outside of Miami, Miami was filled with nothing but criminals, cheaters and rule breakers. The program was out of control.

In 2011, I was one of those people outside of Miami. I went on ESPN Radio stations to discuss the NCAA’s case and voiced my disgust and displeasure over the unsavory allegations being made. I called for the NCAA to levy heavy sanctions.

Over the next two years, I worked with a major broadcasting agent who pitched me for numerous sport broadcasting and writing jobs. The process was moving too slowly for me and there was no guarantee anything would pan out. Recognizing my unhappiness as a litigator, I asked myself what else I’d like to do. I knew I loved working with college-aged people through my work as a national officer of my sorority and that I knew a lot about sports law, so I pursued a career as a professor.

In 2013–two years after I told Colin I’d be working for ESPN–I didn’t find myself in Bristol, CT. Instead, I found myself in the place I’d never thought I’d call home, Miami, as a first-year professor at the university I questioned, the University of Miami.

Today, though, I know why God sent me to Miami instead of Bristol.

Today, as a professor who has taught 28 of the current Miami Hurricanes football players and many more over the last four years, I have a chance to change the dialogue on how this team is covered and represented in the mainstream media. I have a chance to show the world outside of Miami–like the person I used to be–that in total, what this program represents resembles nothing close to criminality, but rather, some of the most positive attributes in society.

I teach the children of billionaires and the children of those who have nothing. I look at and treat them all equally, because they are in my eyes. They are all equal, because they’ve chosen to pursue a college education to give themselves a better tomorrow.

Walking around campus at the University of Miami is a beautiful scene. I often think of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, “I have a Dream” speech. Walking around campus, I see people of every race, religion and sexual orientation. They laugh together. They all sit around tables and stare at their smartphones together. They sip Starbucks and sit by the beautiful palm tree lined lake in the middle of campus together. The football player and the non-athletic class introvert slap each other’s hands as they pass by each other in the breezeway.

I feel like I’m in a utopia when I am at work. I think to myself often, “If the world looked and acted like what happens here, it truly would be a beautiful place.”

My students are leaders. My students conduct research and lead projects that are changing the world. They are artists and musicians. They are innovators and inventors, constantly pushing the needle and improving the world’s technology. They are humanitarians that travel to developing countries to serve the needy. They quietly volunteer in their communities and don’t ask for recognition. They manage football schedules that sometimes account for 60+ hours of their week, along with courses, internships and other extracurricular activities.

My students are dedicated. My students are in class everyday. They are prepared. They speak up. They have relevant items to add to discussions. They engage with their peers. They perform well on exams. They don’t ask for favors. They accept the grades they earn. They are the true definition of student-athletes.

My students care about their peers. A few weeks ago, I gave a hypothetical in class of a female sport industry employee being sexually assaulted in front of co-workers. I asked a classroom full of students how they would respond. The first two hands up were those belonging to football student-athletes, Michael Smith and Terrance Henley. They gave wise answers of how they’d handle the situation and protect their female co-worker and her dignity.

My students are accountable. Sometimes, I don’t think students know how perceptive professors are to all that’s going on in the classroom. As I was wiping off the board as class ended one afternoon, over my shoulder I heard my student, Brad Kaaya, say, “Hey, man” in a serious voice. I turned over my shoulder a little bit and saw Brad pointing and looking at a fellow student, who is not a student-athlete. “You need to throw your trash away!”

My students look out for other people. Two years ago I was battling a bad inner-ear issue that impacted my balance. During this time I went for a run, fell and tore up both of my knees badly. I went to work with bandaids covering both knees. Former Hurricanes running back, Duke Johnson, was in my class at the time. After I finished teaching and the rest of the students left, he came to the front of the classroom. “Hey, is everything ok?” he said. “Yea, why?” “I saw your knees and wanted to make sure nobody did anything to you.”

My students are intelligent. The NCAA measures Division I athletic programs’ academic success through a tool called the Academic Progress Rate. It measures two things: 1. Whether student-athletes graduate or remain enrolled in school (i.e., don’t drop out) and 2. Whether student-athletes are academically eligible. The highest score a program can score is 1,000. The NCAA requires a 930 minimum. The lowest score the University of Miami football program has ever scored is a 956. Earlier this month, the University of Miami football team was one of only three of all 128 FBS teams to receive the AFCA Academic Achievement Award.

My students are talented. Two of my former students will play in the Reese’s Senior Bowl. Six of my former students signed with NFL teams this season. They’ve broken records. They win games. They have God given athleticism.

I have many talented, intelligent, driven and wonderful friends who work at ESPN. This isn’t about them.

It’s about changing the dialogue.

Stop calling my students, “Convicts.”

I understand that the film airing Saturday is about a game played in 1988. I was four-years-old and a Colorado Buffaloes fan then, so truth be told, I remember nothing of this game.

And that’s how it should remain. If the dialogue surrounding the film was merely about minutes on a gridiron, that would be one thing. It isn’t, though. The film is perpetuating a stereotype that doesn’t meet a single one of the young men I’ve taught in my four years at the University of Miami.

That’s wrong. It’s unfair. And it is not unbiased journalism.

In fact, one ESPN.com article wrote that the “Convicts” label still follows “the Hurricanes to this day.”

Well, let this be the last day.

If the world outside of Miami needs some labels for the Hurricanes, here they are: Leaders, dedicated, caring, accountable, intelligent, talented.

“Pastor Steve?”

“Yes?”

“Did Coach Richt give the players any instruction when he gave them the Bibles?”

“Yes, he told them to start in Proverbs.”

So it’s in Proverbs that I’ll end.

Proverbs 31 is an incredibly important chapter in the Bible for women. Proverbs 31:8-9 is the mission for my life. While it relates mostly to my work in Haiti, it is relevant here:

“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and the needy.”

 

 

Rest

October 20, 2016

When I was looking for a church to join in Miami shortly after moving to Florida, I spent several weeks moving from one congregation to the next seeking a spiritual home. I’ll always remember this time, because over three straight weeks and inside vastly different churches, the sermon was the same.

Rest.

Looking back, I find it so apt that the message that greeted me when I moved to Miami was to rest.

To pause.

To stop.

To let things happen. To let the Lord do His thing. To wait. To quit the endless doing.

The last decade of my life can best be surmised with one word: Work.

I’ve worked very hard to get to where I am.

Over the last decade, there have been few moments were I truly felt I could let my guard down and rest. I have spun my wheels in every direction, taking on countless projects, jobs and opportunities that came my way.

In the sport industry, work is glorified. If you glance at my Twitter timeline or read the Facebook feeds of my friends in this industry, it is as though we are in a competition to out work each other. The competition is fierce, and there is a perception that if you slow down someone will sneak in to take your spot.

Given this pressure, when I entered the sport industry in 2011, I rarely took breaks. I worked weekends. I glanced at my phone during nights out with friends and even while on dates. I worked from sun up to sun down and was always “on.” “Vacations” were traveling to sporting events to cover them for whatever media entity I was working for at the time. My life resembled nothing of a work/life balance.

Then I heard those sermons. My first Sunday in Miami, the pastor who preached at the church I attended said something that I had known since my first week of Sunday school: “And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made; and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made.”

A lightbulb went off in my head: If God could create the universe and still find time to rest, I could be a productive member of the sport industry and still find time to rest.

Resting isn’t weakness.

Resting is about recharging.

Resting is about securing your purpose.

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Taking long walks to clear my mind has always helped me find or re-identify my purpose. I enjoyed one this summer at the Hofgarten in Dusseldorf, Germany.

Working in sports, it’s easy to get burnt out. The days are long and the seasons seem to never end. Working without rest, it’s easy to lose your purpose and rather, just begin to exist.

In the last year, I’ve become very intentional about observing the Sabbath. Yes, the Sabbath is about worship, but it is also about rest. It is one day that we are called to stop and pause our worldly work. It is a day to recharge our batteries. It is a day to ensure our relationships are secure. It is a day to slow down to fully appreciate all that has been given to us through His grace and beautiful work. It is a day to question whether we are truly living out our purposes on this Earth.

I’ve said, “No” more in the last year than I ever have. I’ve turned down speaking engagements. I’ve opted out of trips. I haven’t written as much as I used to.

I’ve rested more than I ever have.

And in that rest, I feel that more so than ever, my purpose has come to life.

I am no longer scattered. The work, people, places and activities that I invest in are intentional. I know that each fulfills the purpose I was put on this Earth to live out.

When you don’t rest, you lose restlessness.

Instead, you gain focus.

And through that focus, you develop priorities.

When your priorities are set, time to rest becomes abundant. You recognize the times in which the work is done and all that is left, is for you to enjoy it.

img_0968What are you doing that you aren’t meant to? What wheels are you spinning that are making you tired? What are you pursuing to keep up with others that prevents you from living out your true purpose?

It’s critical to identify a mission for your life. No mission is too small, and no mission is too lofty. A mission is a reason for existing. To identify your mission, ask yourself what purpose you most desire to serve.

After identifying your mission, brainstorm ways you can accomplish it. What goals must you achieve to ensure that your mission comes to fruition? What roadblocks might prevent you from achieving it?

Those living for a mission–or higher purpose–know that their livelihood must be spent working towards achieving that mission. They cannot get lost pursuing roads that don’t lead to the completion of the mission.

Yet, those living for a mission–or higher purpose–know that they are best equipped to achieve their mission if they allow themselves rest.

If you don’t know your mission yet, that’s ok.

img_0972I’ll let you in on a secret, though.

I didn’t find my mission through working. My mission didn’t come to me through long nights or hard work.

My mission arrived when I stopped everything. When I slowed down. When I took long walks. When I sat on the beach and journaled. When I sipped coffee and turned off my smartphone. It came to me when I gave my brain and heart permission to pause the rat race and search for what I am here to do.

It’s an amazing thing that our purpose isn’t found through work, but in rest.