Category Archives: Bahamas

Hurricanes, Hugs & Humor

The first two weeks of October, I was on the road A LOT, offering my heart and receiving so much heart in return.

When Hurricane Irma hit the Keys, I struggled from afar for half a dozen reasons, part of which involved immense empathy and understanding for my Keys island family, having lived through a CAT 4 storm myself.

As the days ticked by, I found myself becoming increasingly more anxious to step foot in my old stomping grounds. I was antsy out of excitement, nerves, and fear.

Without consciously planning it this way, the timing of my trip proved to be quite serendipitous. I boarded a red eye on September 30, the two-year anniversary of the day a tropical storm was brewing in the Caribbean that might hit the remote Bahamian island I was living on. I landed on October 1, two years to the day I woke up to a CAT 4 historic hurricane on top of me.

But the second I walked out of Miami International Airport and into the arms of my Bahamian island parents who drove from Naples just to see me, my anxiety melted away. My island parents hug like no other–strong, sturdy, genuine. Their embrace needs no words to tell how they feel about you, about life, because their assuring physical touch says it all.

They drove me down to Florida City after a quick jaunt at Cracker Barrel (a restaurant I haven’t seen or visited in years–Amurrica!). I then waited excitedly in a Starbucks to reunite with my friend Kris who left the Keys nearly five years ago. I was SO excited that, in sending a flurry of texts and phone calls sharing my whereabouts and ETA to Keys folk, my palpable joy started putting smiles on faces of the coffee shop’s caffeine-infused customers.

I expected to hold back tears as we entered Key Largo, creeping south toward Marathon in the Middle Keys. Memorable and iconic local hot spots were strewn about; towering piles of debris lined the roads. But mostly, I had a smile on my face, because I knew I was about to see my island family.

In the short week that I spent in the Keys, I had limited time to help: ripping off moldy, sodden baseboards, tearing down dry wall, and digging through sand. My friends are exhausted; cleaning up the aftermath of a hurricane is a daunting task. Many of my friends are now homeless and/or jobless.

But they still have so much love to give.

I spent the evenings attempting to organize gatherings–relief from the hurricane relief. I knew one week wasn’t much time for me to make a dent in the clean-up and construction, but aside from putting my set-building skills to use, I also have my joy, love, and comedy to offer.

Before my trip to the Keys, I was struggling to process it all. I called one of my closest friends who knows the long version of what I’ve been dealing with the past couple years. He asked me to recall the first time I laughed after Hurricane Joaquin.

I really, really had to think about that. Due to my isolated situation following the storm, it was two weeks before I could get out into the community. I had no one to talk to about the fear I’d experienced or the apocalyptic aftermath that kept me awake and inappetent. Two isolated weeks following a traumatic experience is like two years.

But I thought hard, and then I started laughing. I remembered someone lending me some gasoline so I could drive the truck down south and make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to distribute to the now homeless, alongside the hot dogs my friends cooked. (Read more about the incredible perspective I gained from this trip south here.)

Bahamians like their meat, and they don’t eat PBJs. (It’s largely an American thing.) I made somewhere between 50 to 100 PBJs… but I had to practically beg the locals to take the sandwiches from me once we ran out of hot dogs. I remember laughing at my efforts to help and seeing how people can still be opinionated in the hardest of times. It reminded me that no matter what life throws at us, we’re still human.

Even if I am covered in sweat and dirt and my muscles are sore, I am still me. Even if my heart is broken and I can’t imagine tomorrow, I am still me. I will always have the gift of crazy, uninhibited, Energizer-Bunny energy, and I tried my hardest to share that with my island family then and now.

Another aspect of my healing process that was missing post-Joaquin was human contact. Studies show that supportive physical touch–a simple hug–actually results in incredible physiological changes within the body, including decreasing stress.

I hugged often and I hugged hard when I was in the Keys, because I’m a hugger, and I know how much I’ve missed and needed that in my life. My Keys friends are huggers, too, and they have a way of making me feel more loved than I’ve ever felt before.

Mother Nature can turn lives upside down in an instant, but she cannot destroy our human nature, that indelible mortal connection. Laughter and physical touch bring joy and hope that have a healing power all their own.

The Keys will recover just like Long Island, Bahamas recovered, and it happens with love, joy, and a little bit of laughter.

To anyone experiencing hardship: hug & laugh, more & often.

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Is This the Apocalypse? Then Here’s a Glimpse of Hope

I am writing to offer some hope. In the immensity of the disasters happening right now–we’ve got wildfires raging out west, hurricanes and flooding around the globe, an earthquake in Mexico–it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that this is–it must be–the apocalypse. It is easy to give in, give up, lose hope.

My heart right now is breaking. I can’t stop pacing my apartment, I can’t focus at work, I can’t sleep through the night. Strangely, the only place I have wanted to be in the past 48 hours is in Long Island, Bahamas with my island family, threading the eye of the hurricane and riding the spherical needle to its next destination, predictably to its mainland fall in my forever home in the Florida Keys. How helpless we are left to feel when we willingly wish ourselves to be in harm’s way for the sake of leaning on each other.

But that is what we must do–support each other. In the imminent devastation that Irma will leave wherever she goes, we must hold onto the silver linings. Sifting through the aftermath of Hurricane Joaquin, I choked back vomit and tears more times than I can count. And while, admittedly, even from far away Irma has shaken my subconscious into unwelcome flashbacks of my own experience flirting with the dangers of Mother Nature, that is not what I remember most from my island life.

Landscapes, homes, hearts, and minds are not impermeable to devastation, but they are resilient in the wake of it. Trees regrow; buildings are rebuilt; our spirits heal. When life makes us take a step back, we pick up, we rebuild and somehow, sometime, we get back to normal. We have to, because there is no other option.

I remember vividly the strength of the storm I endured in October 2015, but I reflect fondly on a strength far greater than Joaquin. I am humbled by the community that arose from the rubble like a phoenix from the ashes, the neighbors who opened their doors, the locals who distributed home-cooked meals to the now homeless.

What makes these places paradise more than their beautiful scenery is their beautiful people. It wasn’t the turquoise blue waters that I had a hard time saying goodbye to; it was the friends who became my family that made it so difficult to leave.

So, to all of my beloved friends and strangers who have to endure Irma in one way or another, I offer you this morsel of hope: devastation does not mean destruction. Find hope in knowing that whatever happens, together you can and you will rebuild. We did it with Joaquin and we’ll do it with Irma. You, the community, are what make a place home.

I love you all from the bottom of my heart. #longislandstrong #keysstrong

I Feared For My Life & This Is What I Learned

October 2017 will be two years since I lived through Hurricane Joaquin, the historic perfect storm that I remember as the two longest days of my life. I have never known time to stand so still, during which I prayed constantly that my family and friends knew how much I loved them.

Effectively isolated after the storm on a remote island in the Caribbean, it would be eight days before I could hunt down a satellite phone to let the people who mean the most to me know I loved them, I was breathing but far from okay, and please send donations because the island was devastated. I didn’t know when I’d be able to reach my family again.

In the months following Joaquin in which an overseas, across-the-country move took place, I was a mess. Trauma from the storm unlocked trauma from my past until, nearly a year later when I thought I was healed, another window opened that my mind had bolted shut. I started seeing a therapist in the immediate aftermath of the storm who diagnosed me with PTSD on top of PTSD on top of PTSD.

But this post isn’t about fearing for my life. This post isn’t about my PTSD. It isn’t about my past (though that story begs to be told at a later time, when I’m ready).

This post is about my recovery. This post is about me, now.

So, you ask, how am I now?

The short answer: Freaking fantastic.

The long answer: I’m working on it.

My wounds will always be scabs turned scars that make me who I am. I would never in a million years wish any of these hardships upon someone. But I cannot change my past, so instead, I decided to see how my past could shape my future.

Breaking apart the most harrowing experiences of my life, I made a list of what I gained from them.

Here is that list:

  • Empathy & compassion. Sometimes life has to beat you up to give you empathy and compassion you didn’t know you were lacking.
  • Perspective. My eyes were further opened to the existence of poverty and racism in the world today.
  • Strength in vulnerability. Turning to others for help did not make me weak; it takes a great deal of courage to bare one’s heart and mind so openly.
  • Cultural enlightenment. I mean, I did get to live on a remote island in the Bahamas living the real island life and making lifelong friends turned family. So there’s that.
  • Dreams. I needed to start following my dreams NOW, and never ever stop.
  • Relationship knowledge. I learned what I want, need, and deserve in a relationship.
  • Self-awareness. In order to heal, I had to fully know myself. It was an isolating road to travel down, but necessary.
  • Peace within myself. Knowing who I am meant accepting all of me, including my flaws, quirks, and neuroses. Better yet, it meant embracing them.

Despite having just emerged from the darkest period of my life–and, admittedly, still having moments in which I feel like I take a step back–I am the happiest I have ever been.

My path of healing from PTSD threw me under the self-reflection bus, and I am eternally grateful to it for that. But I don’t think you need to claw your way out of the lion’s den in order to begin this journey.

The three experiences that led to my struggle had a common thread: I felt small, helpless, and insignificant. I have spent the last twenty-four months fighting to be strong, confident, and significant. I have worked hard at believing in myself, taking risks and viewing subsequent failures as successes.

Now, most days, I wear that cheesy ear-to-ear grin on my face that everyone who knew me before I moved to Seattle remembers. But I’ve changed. I have so many layers to me now. Good layers. Deep layers. Real layers.

One of my friends from the Florida Keys, who has always praised me for my positive and uninhibited energy, recently told me, “Stacey, you’re not the same person you were when you left here, and I mean that as the highest compliment.”

As I’ve begun reconnecting with college friends, they say the same thing. I still dance my crazy dance moves in the middle of the grocery store, but there’s more than a zest for life behind those crazy legs. There’s understanding. There’s a profound appreciation for it.

 

The Stranger on a Plane Who Saw My Broken Heart

I held the pink, laminated reusable boarding pass in my hand, rubbing my finger over its bubbled edges. The weight shifted in my backpack as I re-situated it on my shoulders and picked up my laptop case. I handed my paper ticket to a woman behind the metal fence and walked along the concrete to the plane’s steps.

No security checkpoint and no overhead storage bins awaited me. My ears would not be alerted by an announcement that the plane was about to lift off. I could reach into the cockpit and touch the pilot. I could hold hands with nearly everyone on the plane without having to leave my seat.

Though it felt like the 1940s, it was 2015, and I was leaving the place I’d learned to call home.

I was saying goodbye to an island whose people, simplicity, and natural beauty I’d come to love.

And yet, at that moment, I wanted to be away from people, floating on a cloud among the birds of the sky. I wanted to be free but have all the answers, I wanted to feel loved and worthy and adored, and I wanted the fissure in my heart to be miraculously healed.

As the plane took flight, I leaned against the thick, sweating window glass, trying to become invisible. I didn’t want to look outside because that meant accepting the daunting truth that those turquoise blue waters I’d come to know would no longer be present in my daily life. I didn’t want to look down because then I’d see that I was moving away from those white sand beaches of quiet isolation, not toward them.

I didn’t want to look out the window because then I might see my reflection, and that would feel like staring into the face of someone I didn’t know.

Instead, I closed my eyes tight and hugged my backpack to my chest, trying to shield my face from the other passengers on this 14-seater plane, trying to hide my pain. But the tears falling down my cheeks coupled with my silent sobs gave me away to the man sitting across the two-foot aisle from me.

Wordlessly, he removed a tissue from his bag. I was burying my brokenness into the nylon cover of my travel backpack when he tapped me on the shoulder. I raised my head a couple inches to see the tissue dangling by my cheek.

The stranger on the plane smiled at me.

Without saying anything, I took the tissue and wiped my eyes and runny nose. I crumpled it into a ball for later use and then made eye contact with the man. My lips turned up ever so slightly, a genuine smile but one that took effort nonetheless.

The stranger on the plane nodded his head and turned to look forward, giving me privacy to process my feelings.

His kindness reminded me that I am not and should not feel alone in this world, and that I am also allowed to have my feelings–no questions asked.

I didn’t know that the next two years of my life would be the hardest two years of my 29 years. I didn’t know that they would also be the most rewarding.

I didn’t fully understand all that I was leaving behind, that it was a testament of self-love to jump headfirst into this new unknown–lost, scared, confused, sad, lonely, depressed, anxious, and in that moment, so very broken-hearted.

I didn’t fully grasp that taking this first step on the next part of my journey would, in time, prove to be one of the most valuable and meaningful chapters of my life.

It took me two years to recognize that abandoning the island life to chase opportunities in the city was one of the most courageous things I have ever done. Two years and I realized that leaving that island home–one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done–was also one of the most loving things I could ever do for myself.

I am not, I was not fearless. But I did stare fear in the face while navigating an increasingly rocky path to become the incredibly self-aware woman I am today.

If you asked me if I’d do it all over again, I don’t know that I’d say yes. But if you asked me if the loneliness, heartache, and utter confusion were worth it, I’d look you in the eyes and tell you that believing in myself and knowing who I am and what I want in life is my biggest achievement, and I have those feelings to thank for that.

Beach Essentials: How to Make the Most Out of Your Sandy Relaxation

When I lived the island life, I quickly developed a habit of grabbing the same beach necessities every time I headed to the water.

While the coast of Washington doesn’t see me snorkeling like I did in the Bahamas and Florida Keys, I still pack my beach sack with the same things, excluding snorkel gear.

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Here’s a list of beach essentials that I recommend you carry to make the most of your shoreline adventure:

 1. Travel games

I refuse to go to the beach without Bananagrams and a deck of cards. Even if I’m going solo. Sometimes it’s too windy for cards, so keep that in mind before playing Solitaire or Rummy. And sometimes sea gulls will swoop in and steal the letter tiles for Bananagrams, particularly the coveted vowels. Here’s proof.

 2. Water

It is of course important to stay hydrated while soaking up the sun, but I also never go anywhere without a water bottle. Drinking fountains are just too far away from my beach towel anyway.

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 3. Headphones

I always bring music with me. If it’s a crowded beach, I am most likely going to be plugging in the tunes. If I’m traveling, I play music from my outdated iPod (read: songs from 2000–expect lots of High School Musical).

However, if the sound of nature overpowers the tourists, I forego the headphones. Puget Sound surprised me last summer with a delightfully vocal group of seals and sea lions!

 4. Blanket

In addition to the obvious beach towel, I usually bring along a comfy dedicated beach blanket. My blanket of choice has morphed between various styles over the years as they become soiled with seaweed and saltwater.

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 5. Camera

The best moments in life can’t be relived in a photograph, but nature constantly has beauty to behold. When I lived in Long Island, Bahamas, I kicked myself every time I got to the sea turtle cove and the camera was either forgotten or uncharged. Now I make sure I’ve got a means of snapping a picture if the opportunity presents itself.

 6.Waterproof shoes

Many of my beach adventures turn into hikes along old coral beds, which can’t be done in flip flops. I had to retire my last pair of Scuba booties, but any sort of waterproof shoes will do. (We called them aqua shoes in Ohio, but I’ve been told that is not a universal term. WHAT DO PEOPLE CALL THEM!?) Keens are also great! I wore out my pair in Florida–they’re not made for saltwater.

tidal pool

7. Other games

In addition to handheld games, I like to be active with other games on the beach. (I loooooooooooove games.) Growing up spending the summers on Lake Erie, my sisters and I played a minimum of two board games a day. Game pieces actually got lost in the sand and were recovered in future years during sandcastle building, hole digging and people-burying.

In case you’re feeling a 90s throwback, the beach board games of my youth included:

  • Pizza Party
  • Mall Madness
  • Sorry!
  • Guess Who
  • Ready, Set, Spaghetti!
  • Hi-Ho-Cheerio
  • Clue
  • Scrabble
  • Memory
  • Chutes and Ladders
  • Candy Land

In my 20s (ohmygodImalmost30), I tend to bring a volleyball and cornhole to the beach if I can.

crashing wave

 8. Beach snacks

Snacks at the beach get their own term–“beach snacks”–because they tend to be bite-sized foods that we gravitate toward time and again when packing up for the sand. In my Ohio years, we always had Oreos at the beach. We’d freeze them and then let them melt in the sun. (Fun fact: Oreos are vegan.) Chips ‘n salsa was also a must and usually some fruit, veggie and cracker trays thrown in there. Frozen grapes are great!

Nowadays, I tend to bring fruit and trail mix as well as a sandwich. Check out my healthy, allergy-free recipes for some ideas! It is zero fun having to leave the beach because you’re hungry. Prepare ahead of time to prevent this!

 9. Book

Don’t ever go to the beach without a book. Just don’t do it.

Once, I made the mistake of bringing a book I’d read a few months before. I have regretted it every day since.

Kindles are great; just make sure they’re fully charged!

Sometimes, I also bring my animal identification books (birds, shells, etc.) because once a zoologist, always a zoologist.

beach

 10. Beach cover-up

To protect my skin from the sun but avoid overheating, I have a nifty, flowy, breathable button-up I bring. I apologize that I don’t know what material it is made out of, because this fashion piece is dynamite. If someone could help me out, that’d be fantastic.

 11. Sunglasses

Make sure you have good UV sunglasses, and don’t trade fashion for protection. With good research, I promise you can have both. If you have giant white scleras like myself, take extra caution to protect those eyeballs or you’ll get UV damage like I did! 😦

 12. Notebook and pen

Not only does this come in handy for keeping score in card games, but it’s also a necessity if you’re a writer like myself. When that muse hits you, it starts spewing like a jar of marbles. Be prepared to snag those good ideas before they roll too far.

13. Jar for seashells

To be honest, I usually forget this one, but I am a sucker for beachcombing. I’m always collecting shells, seaglass and rocks on the beaches with which to make little seashell creatures. The beach finds end up going in my teeny backpack (which I much prefer to a tote bag) or in whatever container I have leftover from my lunch.

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14. Miscellaneous

I’m limited in how many arms I have, and sometimes I get to the beach on my bike. But when I can carry more items, I’ve also brought or enjoyed the following:

  • Hammock (you’ll need trees for this one)
  • Chair
  • Metal detector (my friend had an underwater one and we found a whole penny!)

boat on beach

Note: This post was inspired by Tripping.com’s Florida Vacation Rentals. If you’re heading to Florida this spring or summer, be sure to visit some of my favorite coastal towns heading south:

  • Anna Maria Island
  • Sarasota
  • Boca Grande
  • Florida Keys (all of em!!!!)

What are your beach essentials? Florida and Bahamas friends, I want to hear from you especially! 🙂 

**Please do your part to protect the environment and avoid taking plastic bags to the beach. They blow away in an instant and are mistaken for jellyfish by sea turtles and other animals!**

All photos ©Stacey Venzel, Creative Commons license.

 

50 Things I’ve Learned Since 2015

My life has been a series of catapulting adventures and misadventures since I left the Florida Keys in February 2015. But I’ve never felt more alive.

Here is a non-exhaustive list of some things I learned in the past two years:

  1. Some people will be there for you; some will not. Always be the one who is, not the one who isn’t.
  2. Dogs cure everything.
  3. Date yourself at least once in this lifetime.
  4. Be real on social media.
  5. Being a member of a community is vital to your own humanity.
  6. Almond butter > peanut butter.
  7. Everyone has a voice, but some voices are stifled. Be a voice for those who want to be heard but aren’t.
  8. It’s okay to be emotional.
  9. Never stop asking questions; it’s how you learn.
  10. Second chances keep you from second guessing.
  11. Not everyone will “get” you. Embrace those who try, forget about those who don’t try.
  12. Laugh at yourself often, a minimum of once a day.
  13. Friendships are just as valuable as blood and boys.
  14. Stopping to smell the flowers is a legitimate excuse for being late.
  15. Modern luxuries numb perspective and gratitude.
  16. More often than not, strangers are beautiful humans trying to get by just like you.
  17. Individual independence is a state too few obtain in life. Seek it.
  18. Change precedes growth precedes fulfillment.
  19. The city can eat you alive, but it also teaches things you can’t learn anywhere else.
  20. Most opportunities you have to make for yourself.
  21. Never take an unhitched breath and a normal heart rate for granted.
  22. No dream is ever too big. Dream and then do and then repeat.
  23. Always flip head over heels for the little things in life.
  24. The harder you work for something, the better it tastes.
  25. Find the equilibrium between listener and advisor.
  26. Self-awareness is a necessary state of living.
  27. Forgiveness is an incredible gift. Give of it freely, and accept of it graciously.
  28. Know when and how to stand up for yourself.
  29. Failure is inevitable. Learn from it.
  30. If you sacrifice until your sacrifice is no longer a sacrifice, you’ll be an expert on compromise.
  31. Happiness is subjective.
  32. Success is subjective.
  33. Beauty is subjective.
  34. Hate begets hate begets hate.
  35. Be funny.
  36. Push yourself, but don’t be hard on yourself.
  37. Celebrate your accomplishments, even if others don’t understand them.
  38. Don’t forget the power of face-to-face conversations.
  39. Trust your gut.
  40. Be an expert problem solver.
  41. Never go anywhere without nail clippers. Hangnails are the devil.
  42. If you’re going to lose yourself in something, Nature is a good option.
  43. Balance the good with the bad and the old with the new.
  44. Believe in something. Be grounded and steadfast in that belief.
  45. Not having a car is one of the quickest ways to learn patience.
  46. You can be informed about lots of things but you don’t need to know about everything.
  47. Cooking over a fire is not the same as cooking over a stove.
  48. Fearing for your life is something you never really get over.
  49. Some people are toxic, and you have to let them go.
  50. Empathy can feel like a curse. See it as an incredible gift.

We only have one life to live. Let’s give it all we’ve got.

I’ll Be the Dandelion and You Can Call Me a Weed

“The difference between a flower and a weed is a judgment.” –Unknown

When I was little, maybe 6 or 7, I used to ask my mom why certain flowers are called weeds.

Plucking dandelions from the lawn, I’d comment, “Aren’t weeds supposed to be ugly? Dandelions are pretty.”

My mom explained to me that a flower is called a weed when it isn’t wanted.

“People don’t want dandelions in their yard, so they’re called weeds.”

When a wildflower pops up among meticulously placed perennials in the garden bed, it’s an invader, unwelcomely disturbing precision. It is the harbinger of mischief in a petaled sea of peace. For where one weed grows, many will follow.

I spent a fair amount of time in the garden growing up, though not always digging up dirt to plant seeds. Sometimes I was looking for four-leaf clovers so my sisters and I could iron them pressed together between two squares of wax paper, preserving luck for generations. Sometimes I was building homes for earthworms and “potato” bugs, arranging pebbles and leaves as sofas and tables for the creepy crawlers of the earth.

My childhood was nurtured by nature, for it has been in the dirt and the grass and the trees and the weeds that I have learned some of life’s greatest lessons.

A small patch of flowers stood out to me on one of the mounds in my mother’s garden. I fell in love with the burgundy flower heads, rimmed with crimson quickly fading into vibrant yellow.

“One of many types of painted daisies,” my mother said. “A weed to some people but not everyone.”

I have seen painted daisies in various colors across dozens of landscapes, but I never came across that color pattern again. Until two years ago when I traipsed through a garbage dump in the Bahamas.

Rummaging through rubbish heaps is a regular pastime on Long Island, Bahamas, where one man’s trash really does become another man’s treasure. On a particularly blistering day, I found myself hopscotching over upturned car doors and broken mirrors heading toward a patch of grass by the dirt road. Empty glass bottles were pinched in my grasp, teetering on the brink of disaster as I scurried to add them to my growing collection in the truck bed.

As my ankles straddled a sullied plank, I looked down at the ground to plan my last jump toward freedom. There at the base of my right foot was a painted daisy, growing tall and wild and proud, echoing the colors I remembered so clearly from two decades ago.

A weed, I thought, that by any other name would smell so sweet.

There among forgotten and discarded man-made possessions grew a tenacious little flower, its wiry spirit disparaging the rolling piles of waste. An invader claiming back the land where once fields of its kind–wildflowers, weeds–likely thrived.

A protester, dreamer, leader, fighter, nonconformist.

Steadfast, virtuous, invincible.

Like the dandelion.

A weed.

“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” –William Shakespeare