I Run Because I Can by Kristi Lyn Reddy

May 5
Posted by Cami Ostman Filed in Advice

This guest blog is written by Kristi Lyn Reddy. Kristi Lyn is one of my clients in The Narrative Project, a business I run helping writers get their books done. In a coaching session I discovered she was a runner, and subsequently we’ve had the chance to run a half marathon together (and by together, I mean she ran fast and I brought up the rear). I asked Kristi Lyn to write a guest post a.) because she is a beautiful writer and b.) because she is a strong women with an important message to get out into the world. This post is a powerful testimony to the human will. Thanks to Kristi Lyn for being an inspiration in SO many ways!

I Run Because I Can

By: Kristi Lyn Reddy

 As I lay in bed, snug beneath my cozy blanket, visions of me in running gear fill my mind. Fresh air fills my lungs as I inhale with each stride gliding along the sidewalk heading towards the wooded trail about a mile from my home. Cars pass by, drivers gaze out their windows at me. ‘I should go for a run like that woman.’ A renewed determination fills me as I reach over for my phone. A swipe and a click and the Alarmy app opens. I adjust the time to wake me up an hour earlier than originally planned. 

My sleep is fitful like every night. Never a good sleeper, naps evade me on a sunny afternoon while laying in the grass. Unlike my husband who can fall asleep just about anywhere at any time. Eyes closed, out. My alarm is sounding, I am reminded to get up and go for a run. My arm reaches over, my hand swiping the snooze option. Not once, not twice, but three times. There is a chill in the bedroom air. The heating system has not yet warmed the house. I imagine it is cold outside. My eyes stir and glance out the window. Rain. 

I turn the alarm off and doze back to sleep. I will run another day. 

For the past several years, I have wanted to be a runner. Dreamt of being a runner. Told myself I could be a runner. If only I would try. I, likely like many of you, knew in high school, I wanted to do anything, but run. Remember the Friday mile? My high school P.E. teacher, Mr. Smith, grandpa Smith to many of us, was the best! Thinning white hair, a mustache forever needing to be trimmed, with a stern face other than the twinkle in his eye. All week long he would remind us the Friday mile was coming ‘and this week, everybody, and I mean every-body is running it. The whole mile.’ Friday came, and us girls chattered in the locker room as we changed into our shorts, tees and running shoes. Each one of us non-runners contemplating our excuse. We sauntered out to the plaza in front of the gym where other students (runners) stretched, pre-run. This week, no different than the last, Mr. Smith timer in hand, encouraged us to do our best and run as much of the mile as we could. We all jogged out of the plaza and around the corner of the gymnasium, out of sight before slowing to a walk. If we were back before the bell rang, we would receive credit for running the weekly mile. 

Fast forward a few years, I’m a young mother still carrying around the baby weight I gained when pregnant. Fonder, of step aerobics of the Denise Austin variety, I tried everything but running to lose the weight. (Well, that and not changing my diet.) A nudge somewhere within sparked the thought of taking up running. Every runner I had ever seen was thin. Long legs, muscular calves leading to toned thighs just below their short runner shorts. In my mind running was the epitome of being in shape. Slight hitch in my plan, I was living in an abusive marriage with a controlling husband. To keep the peace, I had honed several coping mechanisms. One of which was to never express I enjoyed something or that I wanted something for my own pleasure. To do so meant one of two things would happen. He would either step in and take ownership of the activity and do it with me, his way. Or he would squelch the activity altogether ensuring me he knew something better for me to do. Instead I needed to feign distaste and obligation in order to do things I wanted to do. I enlisted a fellow tenant in the apartments we lived in to be my jogging partner. To my husband I stated this neighbor was so out of shape and over weight that she begged me to help her do something. How could I say no, even if it meant spending time with someone I found utterly annoying (in all honesty I enjoyed every moment with this woman, originally from a small village outside Bombay, India). It worked. 

One problem quickly presented itself, we both hated running. It wasn’t long before she grew tired of my running circles around the vacant parking lot behind the church across the street. She wondered if we could go to Green Lake instead to run with a bit more scenery. Deep down inside I knew this would never be an option. My husband would say, no. I begged off, telling her to go on her own. I would stick to the parking lot. Without a running partner, the dull parking lot quickly stifled what little motivation I had to run. 

I gave up running before I truly got going. It was boring. My lungs hurt if I ran for more than 10 minutes. The cold hurt my body and the heat was unbearable. I was constantly out of breath. Never able to hit the runner’s stride that many spoke of, if only you got past mile 1 or 2 or was it 3? The point where you found your rhythm and realized you could run forever. Was that really a thing, or was it a myth? At this rate, I would never know. The simple fact was, I was not a runner. I needed to accept that. Besides my husband had begun to question my need for going across to the church parking lot each afternoon, now that my running partner was no more. 

Late 2015, just before the Christmas holiday, I had my annual mammogram. Routine, nothing out of the ordinary. I go in, wear the uncomfortable gown, technician squishes my boobs in several angles. Hold my breath, take a pic. Done. She tells me I should receive a letter in about 10 days and to have a wonderful holiday season. A few days later my phone rang. The nurse on the other end of the call explained the Doctor wanted me to come back in for a few more pics and possibly an ultra sound. In shock, I didn’t even ask what they had seen. After hanging up the call, there was this feeling in the pit of my stomach. Not dread, not fear, just a knowing. I had cancer. I had lost my mom to breast cancer in 2005. She was 54 years old. Now, eleven years later, I would be diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 42. 

The previous year, I had once again challenged myself to get healthy, lose a few pounds and over-all get in shape. I was working out at home (tried the gym, not for me), Beach Body videos, sit ups, push-ups. And eating a healthier diet. I was down 10 pounds and confident I could lose another 10 if I kept it up. I had shed the abusive husband in 2002 and met a wonderful man in 2003 that I married the year after I lost my mother. We had since had a son together and he had adopted my daughter from my previous marriage. We were a partnership. He was and is my personal cheerleader. The one person who always had my back and pushed me to do whatever I wanted to better myself and our family. 

Cancer, the word, the disease, did not spark fear within me. Between my faith in God, and the strength of my family, I felt calm and prepared to win the fight that lay before us. I even felt thankful for it. Thankful for cancer. Unlike anything else, cancer would slow me down. Cause me to stop, be present, take stock of my life, my activities, my future, what was and what would be. Cancer would give me time. Time to rest, to focus, to prioritize, to determine what truly mattered. If I respected it, cancer would be a blessing. And it was. 

Through it all, the Doctor visits, the surgeries (eight of them), the cancer (two kinds all things told), the chemo and the IV Herceptin treatments, I determined to exercise. Some days all I could do was bounce on my exercise ball. Others I went for a walk, did sit-ups, lunges and of course push-ups. Starting with 5 push-ups in a set several months before my diagnosis, I had advanced to 12 in one set. I would one day get to four sets of 30 push-ups in a day. Each day as I did some form of exercise, my heart filled with the strength of knowing I was staying committed to my health. On the best days, I jogged. 

On the best days I jogged.

It began one sunny day in March 2016. About 40 days post-surgery I stepped outside for a walk to soak up some vitamin D while taking in the fresh early spring air. I needed a couple items from the grocery store and thought I would walk rather than drive. About halfway to the store, which was 1 mile away, a little voice inside my head chided me. 

“What are you thinking going for a 2 mile walk 6 weeks post-surgery?”

“I feel pretty darn good actually,” I argued with myself.

“Um, what would Tom think if he knew you were doing this right now?”

I paused for a second, a skip in my normally calm breath causing me a moment of hesitation, bordering on fear.

“Ha, you almost got me there. Tom would be proud of me. He would say if I felt up for it, I should do it. If I hurt, I should listen to my body and rest.”

My self now silent, I walked on. I neared the intersection of N 130thStreet and Aurora Avenue N. The stairs leading up to the pedestrian bridge loomed in front of me. I wondered if I could jog up them. I decided I could. With a bounce in my step that resonated through my body and into my heart, I jogged up the stairs, across the bridge and down the other side. It felt great!

That day was the beginning of my running life. Not because I loved it. Not even because I liked it. Not because it felt good, in many ways, it did not. I would learn, running would never be because I was great at it or because of the high that many runners get. It was because I could. I could run. 

I finished out my cancer treatment April of 2017. Soon after I signed up for a 5k run. And then the Sounders 9K, then the Husky 10K, then the Seahawks 12K and finally the Race For A Soldier 10-Mile run in Gig Harbor. Each race I pushed myself to jog the entire time. That was my only goal. How long it took, did not matter to me. What place I came in, furthest in my mind. No walking. I would run the whole way, not because I wanted to, but because I could. 

I run because I can.

In 2018, I ran the Susan G. Komen 5K. After the other, much longer races, it felt very do-able. Almost easy. A little over zealous, I signed up for a half marathon with my writing coach and friend, Cami Ostman. Cami was training for yet another marathon and needed to run a half. I am happy to say I did it and I ran the entire thing, hills and all. I was thrilled. Sore as heck, but thrilled. I didn’t love it. In fact, on that day I determined I was done. I would not go on to run a marathon. I don’t love running. I love the idea of running. I love thinking about running. I love talking about running. I love how I feel when I stop running. I love signing up for a race with a friend and thinking that it will be the race where I decide I love running. 

I am alive. I am healthy. My body has not failed me. Cancer invaded me. My body (and medicine) fought it, and we won. As long as I am alive, I will do things even if I do not love them in honor of my body and the life it affords me. When I am running, I feel most alive. I am doing something that does not come natural to me. Something I to determine to do, will myself to do, push myself to do. Not for love. I run because I can. 

K is for K, as in 12K

Apr 13
Posted by Cami Ostman Filed in Advice, Conversations

My financial advisor’s corner office literally hovers above Seattle’s Lake Union. From where I sit, you can’t even tell there is a building holding up the room we’re in. A bald eagle soars past the window and then perches on a lamp post to the east. I wonder what it would be like to work in a room with a window. My little therapy office a few miles away in the Green Lake neighborhood is landlocked. No window. No escape route if a fire were to combust outside the door. 

“Let’s look at your numbers,” Andrea said. 

Andrea, elegant, about my age, was recommended by one of my best friends who has been worried about me. Since I don’t have any assets to speak of, my friend wants me to get my money in order. 

“Let’s do it,” I say to Andrea. I take in a deep breath, ready to hear the plan. This is my third meeting with Andrea. The first meeting was a grilling. What were my numbers? Where was my paperwork? What’s my budget? I worked hard to get her all the gory details. My debts, meager savings, and projected Social Security benefit–$1800 per month if I start taking my draw at age sixty-seven—have all been accounted for. In the second meeting, Andrea propped a whiteboard against her freshly cleaned, giant window and schooled me in all things financial. She explained what a bond was, what “tax-deferred” meant, and how the stock market works. I took copious notes and snapped photos of her whiteboard so I could study it later. 

The purpose of this meeting is to unveil the plan that will get me from my current age—fifty-one—to retirement. How much money do I need to be putting away and where should I put it.

“Okay,” she brushes her bangs away from her pretty face and her gold bracelets jangle as she does this. She’s tall, white, with short, dark hair, and red lipstick. “Like I told you, before we can make you rich, we need to make sure you’re not poor.”

I nod. That sounds good. 

“So first we have to get everything paid off. All that debt you accrued setting up your life again after your divorce has to go.”

“Sure, of course.” This isn’t news. I’m working toward being debt free.

“And then I want you to work toward getting sixty-thousand dollars in a money market so you have a cushion.”

I have to catch my breath, but I knew this was coming. She’d already explained to me that I need several months’ worth of living and business-operating expenses liquid and available in case of emergency. Since I work for myself and don’t have an employer who offers long-term disability insurance, I’m vulnerable without money in the bank. I nod again. “Okay, yes,” I say. “That’s on my radar. I’m plunking away at it.” 

“And now for the bad news,” Andrea’s face doesn’t change expression so I don’t panic. I just wait. “If you want to retire at age sixty-seven and live at the same standard of living you have now,” she pauses. I think, Which is to say… living in a dingy little apartment where other people’s homes look in through every window. But I’m listening. “Which is to say,” she picks up where she left off, “living such that your expenses don’t change between now and then, you’re going to need to save TWELVE THOUSAND DOLLARS per month.” 

I can’t breathe at first. I think I misheard her. “How much?”

“Twelve thousand.”

“Every month?” I ask.

“Yep,” she says.

“Oh, that’s a lot,” I say. Fucking hell, I think. “How is that gonna happen?”

She must be able to feel my panic. “Well I’ve seen people do it.” She tells me the story about a client who started in my situation and ended up being “just fine.” 

 “Just fine” isn’t what I want for my life. There’s no place to go down from “just fine” if you have a bad day, except homelessness. “Okay.” I say again, trying not to cry.  I sit still, look for the eagle outside the window. The absurdity of the situation sinks in. 

 “You alright?” she asks.

 Not so much. “Sure,” I say. “Just thinking.”

She waits for me, pulls her elegant black cashmere sweater more tightly around her. Am I emitting a chill?

Then the seed of an idea comes, and I can feel my heart lighten just a teeny, tiny bit. I faint smile comes to my lips. Andrea cocks her head. “What’s up?” her expression says. 

“I’m just thinking,” I almost whisper this so the idea doesn’t get scared away before I’ve caught it. In fact, I’m thinking about how I’d traveled on a shoestring down to South America the year before. For the cost of a plane ticket and less than a thousand dollars, I’d stayed in some lovely places, eaten good food, bussed myself from city to city, and visited beaches, museums, and art galleries every day. Then I remember years earlier when my ex-husband and I had traveled to Panama and had heard there were ex-pat communities snuggled away in the tropical hills of El Valle de Anton. Next a thought comes about a friend of mine whose father lives full-time in Mexico. “How much is my social security predicted to be again?” I ask.

“You can’t live on that,” Andrea says. “If social security is even still a thing by the time you retire.”

My health insurance policy alone is one third of the $1800 I’m expected to get per month. So for sure I can’t live on it HERE. But Panama must have a way for ex-pats to buy health insurance? Is the health care good there? I make a mental note to do a Google search when I get home. 

“Well, hello Panama,” I say out loud. 

“What are you talking about?”

“I guess I’d better find another country to retire in because this one is just too damn expensive.” 

Andrea nods. She’s sympathetic to my situation. Her job is help people grow their money. I haven’t given her much to work with.             

I gather my things. We shake hands. And I leave the building, get into my Kia, Soul and drive myself home to my apartment to look up, “healthcare for expats in Panama.”

Dear friends, looks like I’ll be leaving you one day to live somewhere where I can afford my life as a retiree. Help me out. Where have you traveled to that you can imagine yourself retiring? Put your suggestions in the comments. I plan to check out some of these places in the next few years! Here are my requirements.

  1. I have to be able to live on about $2000/month.
  2. I have to be able to run alone (I’m reasonable… I’m not expecting to be run through cartel territory–just through a park).
  3. I have to be able to get by with English (hiring a translator sometimes, perhaps) OR with a Romance language I think I can learn (French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian).

J is for Julie

Mar 29
Posted by Cami Ostman Filed in Advice, Reflections

I got stopped writing through the alphabet because I knew what “J” was supposed to be, and I didn’t want to face it. I’ve started and stopped this post several times over the past few months. But finally, here I go. 

My dear, dear friend and former neighbor, Julie MacPhee, died last summer, on July 8, 2018. She didn’t show up to join her mom for church on Sunday, and when her brother went to her house to check on her, he found her—already gone. 

I got the news through a series of texts and refused to believe it at first—until her sister called me directly to tell me what had happened. Not that anyone knew what she died of. A heart event perhaps? Then I was stunned and beyond sad. A gaping hole in my life opened up. And it’ll never be filled.

Everyone dies. We all know this and yet here in the West many of us do a pretty good job of ignoring the inevitability of death. I usually do. Maybe this is even healthy because, honestly, how could you carry on with your daily tasks if you had to live with your own death and the death of everyone you love weighing on your consciousness? But then when a loved one goes—without warning—the truth of life’s outcome is in front of your face. And all you can do is eulogize. Allow me to eulogize. I need to.

Julie was an unexpected gift to me. I moved into her neighborhood and we must have passed each other on the sidewalk for a year with friendly hellos before we finally got into a proper conversation. Julie was training for a marathon, she told me, so we instantly realized we had something in common. For me, the marathon life was a great adventure, a life-style I was embracing and growing into at the time. For Julie, the marathon held a very special meaning quite different.

Julie had been heavy for most of her life and, when we first became friends, she had recently had weight loss surgery—something she’d wanted to do for a long time. She was almost to her goal weight and was getting ready for the Bellingham Bay Marathon as she embraced a new life full of exercise and eating healthily. I asked her her pace and it seemed like we might be compatible running partners, so we gave it a try. We were. This is how Julie became my most regular, consistent running companion for several years. 

We spent so many hours together on the road and trails over the next years that we developed a sister-like relationship, including annoyances and private jokes. Julie fell a lot, for example. Once, when we traveled to Disneyland to run the Tinkerbell Half Marathon with two of our other neighbors and two of my pals from Seattle, Julie did a face plant on the street the day before the race. We were on a slow run through a neighborhood there in Anaheim, and she just inexplicably tripped… and went down. She hit her cheek on the cement but bounced back up onto her feet so quickly that I wondered if I’d imagined the fall. We joked often about how much that fall had traumatized me and how for her it was no big deal—just one of many tumbles Julie took for no apparent reason.

Getting ready for the Tinker Bell half marathon with Julie, Alisa, and Sonia.

Over the years, we ran in the pouring rain, in the snow, in the sunshine. We ran when we had colds and when we were mad at someone in our lives. We ran after she pulled 12-hour shifts as a night-time labor and delivery nurse at the hospital. We ran while I was writing Second Wind. I ran the last eleven miles of her first marathon with her. She ran the last two, terrible miles of my hardest race–a 50K–with me. We traveled together and ran in at least three different U.S. States besides Washington. We ran until Julie had a health event and ended up having another surgery, and then we walked.

Julie helping me finish the Chuckanut 50K. She’s laughing at my pain.
On the plane going somewhere… Possibly the Las Vegas Marathon

Julie was not the kind of friend who helped me psychoanalyze myself. Instead she had a practical way of being present for me. She shopped with me. She babysat my dogs. She gave me rides to places I needed to go. She treated me to coffees. PRESENCE is what Julie did best. She showed up. For years, she just showed up in my front yard and waited for me to come out of my door so we could hit the trail behind our neighborhood. Daily. I mean it. Every. Single. Day. Until I moved away.

I know Julie was beloved by hundreds of people. She had a big family. And she’d served as a nurse for many years. Her friendships were the life-long kind of friendships. So I know her absence on this planet is felt acutely. For me, as I said, a big hole opened up in my life, and I’ll have to get used to it. I keep scrolling my phone, even now, waiting for a text from her to come in. She’d never go this long without texting me. I’ve tried to send her a note. But her phone number belongs to someone else now.

I miss you. Where do I send that message? I hope she knows.

I is for I Did It!

Dec 27
Posted by Cami Ostman Filed in Advice

I is for I did it!

I went to Chile earlier this month to run a marathon. And to reclaim something I left there a few years ago.

Doesn’t matter how many 42.2K races I run. Every time is hard. Every time. In fact, I think marathons are harder for me now than ever before. For one thing, I’ve gained some weight. The last three tough years and a struggle with depression have left me about 12 pounds heavier than I’ve ever been in my adult life. Twelve pounds, you may think, isn’t significant, but try wearing a 12-pound backpack out on a run. That’s what I’ve been wearing for the past couple of years. Except the weight isn’t on my back. It’s around my belly, in my boobs, on my bum, and—of course—around my neck. Still… my legs are willing to carry me. And I’m grateful for that.

Viña Del Mar is a Chilean city on the 33rdparallel south of the equator, which makes it summer during Seattle’s winters.

The day of the marathon (December 2nd), however, we had a lovely cloud cover, putting the temp at about 58 degrees Fahrenheit. Super comfortable for a long run. I’d arranged to stay at a hotel a few minutes walk from the finish line. On the bus to the starting line, I sized up my competition as they boarded at 5:30 am (jajaja, just kidding, you know I don’t compete in these things) to see if anyone might POSSIBLY be slower than I. I’d checked the results from previous years to know that finishers at my pace had participated, but I started to get a little worried when I realized almost the whole running field was made up of men. There were about 200 runners in the full marathon total and probably not 20 of them were women. 

Another runner staying at the hotel with me, a Spanish fellow from Barcelona named Raimon, was sitting with me on the bus ride to the starting line, and he joked that I’d have a good chance of placing in my age group. True that! The women competing in the race were young! I had a good feeling I’d be coming in last. 

Let me level with you. I always act like I don’t mind coming in last, but I do. Two things worry me. First, what if the volunteers close up shop before I come through? I hate the idea of being 20 miles into a race and finding myself unsupported. I worry about getting lost, about getting hurt, about getting thirsty, and about being alone if any of these things should happen. The second thing that worries me about coming in last is the real possibility that the finish line will already be taken down when I reach it and I won’t know where the damn race is supposed to end. My experience is that MOST races don’t let these things happen. Most race directors I know personally worry a lot about runner safety and they want to make sure every single participant is accounted for and supported. But I’ve absolutely participated in a handful races where the last couple of runners are left to their own exhausted devices. 

Pretty quickly after the gun went off, I settled into the back of the pack. My first five miles averaged about 11:15 minutes per mile, which in a bigger field wouldn’t put me last, but there were only about four of us chugging along at that pace. Soon enough two of those pulled ahead (or I slowed… hard to say). The first half of the race was fucking hilly, but I didn’t give in to the urge to walk for one reason and one reason only. Get this:

You know that old tired joke non-runners always say to runners. “Who’s chasing you?” Well… this race director had decided the best way to keep an eye on the last runner was to drive an ambulance behind her (…er… me)—at a ten-yard distance with the lights swirling. No siren, thank god. 

I’m sure the idea was to alert traffic to the existence of runners on the street, and for sure I know that ambulance probably saved my life a few times on a treacherously twisting road. But I was disconcerted/disturbed/annoyed—even while being very thankful—that there was a Diesel engine running its noisy insistence behind me. When the biggest and most intimidating hill came along, I longed to walk. I mean, really! But these two guys in the ambulance were there. Watching my ass. They chased me all the way up and shamed me into running the whole way.  When I reach the top, I was irritated with myself for giving in to shame. I turned around to look them in the eye and to promise myself I would walk up the next hill if I wanted to. 

For a few miles, another guy named Juan (from Ecuador) slowed down and ran behind me. He was on marathon number 77, working his way toward 100. The only way to do that is slow and steady, right? But at about mile 18 he pulled ahead of me and kept going until I couldn’t see him anymore. My guess is that my own pace had become glacial. I was in pain. The hills had kicked my butt and I was shuffling. I didn’t bother looking at my pace. I was last. Period.

When my ambulance and I finally got back into town and a walkway wound its way along the beachfront, the paramedics abandoned me. As bugged as I felt with them following me, I was really offended that they drove away, as if I didn’t need them pushing me anymore. By now, I’d created a story in my head that we were in this race together. And now they were gone!

The last five miles were (I swear to you!) the longest 5 miles of my life. They never seemed to end. I finally pulled out my phone and looked at my RunKeeper at 25.5 miles and started counting in my head. How many times does a person have to count to 60 to run .7 miles at a 16 minute per mile pace? A million? 

Something dawned on me during that last little stretch of the course in my pain and impatience: The marathon always teaches me the same lessons—no matter how many times I take it on. You can do anything you put your mind to. You can choose your own attitude. You can be as strong as you need to beYou can be… you must be…  your own person. You are responsible for your own happiness. Whatever life throws your way on this course of life, you are in charge of your dignity, your mind, and your choices. Clichés? If so, they are clichés only because they are true statements that can never be said enough.

At 26.2 miles the finish line was nowhere. I was more than six hours in, and I wondered if the race director was long gone. No matter, I said to myself. I did this for me. I know what I did. 

I scanned the people milling about at the beach for someone with a medal and finally found one. “Donde esta el finish line?” I asked. He pointed ahead and relief flooded me. 

In .2 more miles, there it was.  Someone was still there waiting for me. The race director greeted me, got me water, made sure I was okay, gave me my metal, and went back to taking down his tents. I waddled along the sidewalk, trying to keep my balance, longing to give my bruised feet a break from the cement under them.

I’d finished in time to see some of the awards ceremony and my seat mate, Raimon, winning first place for his division. I placed 4thin my division—which, of course, means there were 4 of us in the field.

So boom. I finished. It was hard and I felt a lot of pain in the end. But out there on a green Chilean landscape, alone except for a noisy engine chasing me, I’d had a lot of time to think. Like always. That’s one reason we run—to think. I came to Chile to get something back. I’d lost some self-respect the last time I was in Chile. I’d turned myself into someone who didn’t stand on her own two feet anymore but who let someone else’s moods drive her into fear and people-pleasing. I needed to come back to Chile to run this race on my own two feet. No one who knows me was at the finish line. No one cheered for me. I was the only one there—for me. And finally, that’s enough. ¡Sufficient!

H is for Happy Happenstance

Dec 3
Posted by Cami Ostman Filed in Reflections, SHINE, Travel log

H is for Happy Happenstance

As you may know, I’ve been on a quest to visit some of the sites around the world that purport to feature sacred feminine energy. Before I tell you what happened yesterday as related to the Black Madonna of Copacabana, Bolivia, let me give a little background for my quest.

Mostly it’s a longer story than I can cover in a blog post. But the short version is this: I was a very conservative Christian for 20 years. And during all that time, one of the things that bothered me—a lot—was the patriarchal aspect of my faith. God was called Father; his messiah was a Son; men were in charge of the churches; husbands were the head of the family. Didn’t seem to matter who was more qualified to lead, the job was delegated to men. I once had a male leader tell several of us who were proselytizing on Hollywood Boulevard one Halloween that, “If members of your group feel leadings from God to go in different directions, follow the man’s leading. He’s ordained by God to lead, and he needs to get used to it.” There was at least one man per group, so none of us women would be led astray, I suppose.

When I left the church, I became largely agnostic. But of one thing I felt sure: I’d lived with the masculine archetype of divinity for too long, and I wanted to experience a feminine archetype that could connect me to experiences of the numinous. I didn’t want to pray to anyone per se; nor did I want to ask theological questions and try to wrap my brain around a new dogma, I just wanted to see what sort of stories were available and what it would be like to expose myself to goddess traditions. I wondered if I would feel connected to the idea of a goddess, purely from the perspective of the feminine having some power ascribed to it. So I began seeking out temples and other holy sites. I’ve been at this now for several years.

This leads me to the story at hand. I flew down to South America on Thanksgiving day. My plan: to run a marathon in Vina Del Mar and visit Valparaiso, a city I really enjoyed when I was in South America in 2014. My research told me that not far away, in Bolivia, there was a “Black Madonna,” a Catholic statue of the Virgin who was sculpted in the 1500s, I decided to make my way to her and to spend a few days in Copacabana, where she is enshrined.

The first day I visited the basilica, I had high hopes of seeing her and sitting in her chapel for a while to see if she would speak to me, but I was disappointed. She wasn’t there. Had I come all that distance only to encounter an empty glass case? All the guide books say that she is never removed from her shrine, so what was the deal? But then a local man told me they turn her around sometimes, facing her away from the chapel (so she can rest?), leaving the case empty so far as the public is concerned. He told me I should go back and check to see if she was available to hear the prayers of supplicants the next day.

When I returned to the cathedral the next day, there she was! A glowing apparition of turquoise and gold, lighted from beneath, her dark face (not very dark, actually, and looking quite European if you ask me) held a peaceful, even neutral expression, while she held the baby Jesus in her arms (who also looked completely unimpressed).

I sat in the chapel for a little under an hour, watching two women and their menfolk adorn the alter with fresh flowers. After the flowers were situated, each of them sat in a pew and prayed, mouths moving, offering (I assume) both praises and requests. Sitting in that echoey chapel, I tried to feel into her. Did she have any presence? I’ve felt a distinct sense of awe sitting quietly at other sacred sites like Lourdes in France, Glastonbury in England, and the shrine of Izanami in Japan. But here I felt nothing. She seemed like a doll and more than anything, I felt pity for her, spending all of her existence locked in a cage. She looked posed, like a model, for the adoration of men (more on this someday soon in my new book—stay tuned).

Chalking up my visit with her as something to check off a list, I turned to other tourist activities, took a tour of the two islands on the Bolivian side of the lake that still feature some intact Incan ruins (Isla del Sol and Isla de luna), then I took a bus back to Bolivia’s big city: La Paz.

In La Paz now I wanted to take two walking tours—one in the morning at 11:00am and the other in the evening which would include dinner. After the first three-hour tour of the central part of the city, I had some time to kill, and decided to take a break at a café near the San Fransisco Cathedral.

I order a double latte in the café and at to rest my feet. On the walls, there was a display by an artist called Roberto Mamani Mamani. Vibrant colors depicting indigenous life and Bolivian landscapes grabbed my attention the moment I noticed the paintings. I’m a sucker for COLOR. Maybe growing up in the gray winters of the Pacific Northwest has made me irritated with muted colors, but anyway, I love bright primary or just off-primary colors. Mr. Mamani’s colors are like candy. LifeSavers, actually. Or Skittles. The whole rainbow in every image. Geez, I’d like to meet the guy who sees Bolivia in these bright colors, I said to myself.

One large painting especially jumped out at me from a distance, and when I got up to look at it closely, I saw it was entitled, Madonna de Copacabana. I studied it. Yes, there she was, a woman holding a child with a crescent moon beneath her denoting that her fertility had already led to her having given birth. But this Madonna was full and inclusive, not tiny and encased as the madonna in the church in Copacabana. Besides the baby Jesus, she also held other round faces in her embrace, indigenous faces. Clearly the artist was depicting her as Pachamama, Mother Earth. Arms open wide, she receives the whole of humanity. And her own features were truly in the image of the local indigenous people—round and dark—not thin European features as the Madonna in the Basilica.

I fell in love with her! She spoke to me the way the Madonna in the church had not, and I felt a tingle on the back of my neck. Determined to find out more about the artist, I asked the waiter about him and learned that Mamani is the most famous painter in Bolivia. My server gave me directions to his studio, which I thought I understood would take me out of the city center, but I resolved to go there the next day. I wanted to see Mamani originals before leaving La Paz, and perhaps even get a print or a poster of the Madonna/Pachamama.

That evening I took a Foodie Tour. Those of you who know me are laughing about this, since my palate was honed on Mac ‘n Cheese and hotdogs, and nowadays—even upgraded by a higher education and exposure to people who are devoted to food—I’ve not risen to delicacies much beyond mexifries from Taco Time. But truly I like to try new things, and I do love good food if someone else is preparing it for me. Beside, one of the hardest things for me in travel is eating. Outside of tourist areas where there are not English menus, you’re guessing and pointing. My anxiety always goes up, worried I’ll get something inedible and I’ll go hungry or have to get by with a bag of peanuts. So this time I decided to let someone show me the local cuisine and to enjoy the company of a handful of other travelers.
That night on the tour, we stopped at two of the stalls in the public market and ate first a pastry and then a thick smoothie with puffed rice. My three foodie compadres and I were full before we even got to the main courses. To give us a chance to digest and re-build our appetites, our guide Max took us on a walk up to a place called Jaen street. This is where the art galleries are.

And there, in front of us, was a gallery devoted to Mamani Mamani, the same artist I was introduced to only that afternoon! It was the only gallery open this time in the evening, by now about 7:30 pm. I was so excited! We’d stumbled on the very place I was planning on spending the next day finding.

I asked if there was time to go in. This request, I want to point out, represents a departure for me. Normally I wouldn’t want to put anyone else out, but one of my new commitments is to take up space without feeling apologetic. If no one else wanted to go into the gallery, I could catch up with them later. As it turned out, everyone was interested in seeing the paintings of the most famous painter in Bolivia.

I wandered the gallery. You can see the love in Mamani’s brush strokes, the energy of the mountains channeled in the concept of the world he depicts on the canvas. Once I’d been through the gallery, I asked the clerk if she had a copy of the Madonna and she did. I bought it straight away, pleased with the happy coincidence.

On our way out the door to continue our eating tour, Max said, “This is his home, you know.” We paused to look back at the building, and then Max added, “Please wait for one moment.” We all paused while Max took out his phone and made a phone call. I now assume he called the number on the outside of the building but at the time, I thought he needed a moment to make a personal call. He spoke to someone briefly and then he said. “We must go back inside. The artist is coming to sign your picture.”

Though it was past what I would consider working hours, inside the gallery, there was Mamani, a short, dark man in a painter’s apron, obviously called away from his work, smiling and ready to meet his new fans.

He wrote a little note to me on my poster, signed it, and posed for pictures. Gracious, smiling, and generous, he signed the pictures my new friends had purchased and then drew pictures on the backs of their prints!

What luck, all of this.

I could conclude that perhaps the Goddess was leading me in the discovery of Mamani and a more connected interpretation of the Madonna I’d gone to seek out. I don’t land on this interpretation because as I said, I’m agnostic. Faith for me has suffered over the last decade or so, but I was elated by the happy coincidence of finding the painting, the gallery, and the artist all in one day—and for the FEELING of a sacred synchronicity organizing itself on my behalf. Feeling is enough. Especially if the feeling is “happy.”