The Hardest Day to be Grateful For….

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On September 11, 2001, I was a carefree 25 year old…..manager of an upscale bistro and also a bartender on my days off.  I was thoroughly enjoying my life.  Then the event that changed the world for our generation happened.  Less than four months later, I, like many other patriotic Americans, had enlisted in the military.  I consider that to be the best decision of my life.  Fast forward ten years.  I was stationed in Singapore in 2011 when I found out I was selected to promote to the rank of Chief Petty Officer (E-7).  Unlike other branches of service, the Navy goes through an intensive six week training period for those priviledged enough to be selected for Chief. This training (over the years called various things…..including Initiation, Induction, The Season, and Phase III, just to name a few) is meant to help those selected develop into strong enlisted leaders. This photo is from the U.S. Embassy in Singapore on the 10th anniversary of the September 11th attacks. My class of five Chief Selects was invited to participate in the 10th anniversary ceremony there.  It was an emotional time for me as I was going through the transition process after being selected for Chief Petty Officer. Part of the transition season is that it is a time to reflect on what brought you to the point where you will receive your Anchors (the symbol of a Chief Petty Officer). As I was reflecting on my Naval career and back to those terrible attacks, I endured a difficult internal conflict which continues to haunt me every year, and likely will continue to burden my thoughts for the rest of my life. While it is awful to even consider being grateful for that day in 2001, there is a part of me that MUST be. That day gave me the courage and determination to radically change my life at the age of 25 and enlist in the U.S. Navy. Only because of that day, did I meet my ex-husband and have our three amazing girls. I will truly never forget the sacrifice all those souls who lost their lives fifteen years ago. Nor those who fought valiantly afterwords. It will always be a poignant reminder that as terrible as the events were, I am in debt to the victims and their families. For their sacrifice has brought me the greatest joys of my life.

On a sad side note, something odd struck me today……..fifteen years ago, Americans and our allies around the world hung the American flag and gathered in impromptu groups to sing patriotic songs.  The level of patriotism in our country exceeded anything our nation had seen in over 60 years.  Today, we stand an entirely different country.  Only fifteen years later, instead of reflecting on great patriotism today, we are talking about NFL “role models” (I use that term loosely) who are standing in protest against our national anthem and our flag.  Our forefathers must be weeping as much for the state of our nation today as they were in 2001.  I weep with them.

   #NeverForget

Back to the BASICS

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While serving in the U.S. Navy in 2008, they started a program called “Brilliant on the Basics”.  The goal was to remind us to get back to the fundamentals as a way of ensuring we were appropriately taking care of our Sailors.  How can you ever expect to excel in complex areas if you continuously overlook the simple stuff?  The concept spoke to me, which is why I have used that as my primary platform for my blog.  When I decided to leave the Navy and move to the Last Frontier, one of my primary goals was to simplify life for myself and my children.  As Americans, we have come to live exceedingly complex lives.  Smart devices, prepackaged food in an effort to make mealtime “easier”, health and beauty products loaded with who knows what…….All of this at what cost?


So how do we become Brilliant on the Basics?  Well, like all things, it is best to start at the BEGINNING.  Don’t ever be afraid to start over.  It could be something as simple as modifying a DIY product because the last batch just didn’t provide quite the results you wanted.  Or it could be as massive as starting over in life…..with a new career or in a new location.  Of course, we will make mistakes.  But how we move forward (which can often include taking a few steps back in order to begin again) will dictate the overall end results.  YOU have the power.  Take control of your own destiny and don’t be afraid to fail.  Our failures are what helps us forge on and become stronger.  When I decided to leave the Navy as a Chief Petty Officer (E-7) instead of continuing on until retirement, I knew people would ask me “Are you crazy?” or “What are you thinking?”  What I wasn’t prepared for was the number of people who said things like, “I wish I was that brave,” and “I’m jealous….I could never do that myself.”  People are so afraid of change.  But if you are not happy in your own skin and the life you have made for yourself, who do you really have to blame?  I knew it was time for me to make a change and so I did something about it.  To me, that’s not brave…..that’s just good old-fashioned common sense.  If in your heart, you know it is time for a new beginning, make it happen.

Once you begin, the times comes to ASK questions.  What is the value added of something in your life?  Big picture, this can apply to all sorts of things.  There was a period of time in my old hometown where I was a member of dozens of local Facebook groups.  There was everything from “Buy, Sell and Trade” groups to “Bad Drivers” and much, much more.  At first, there was some sheer entertainment value from these groups, as well as the occasional informational tidbit or great deal to be made.  But over time, the groups became such a drain on my life.  Negativity permeated the groups.  It soon became exhausting to even see a post on my timeline.  So I asked myself, “What is the value added of having these groups in my life?”  After a brief pro/con list where the scales were quickly tipped to the negative, I realized there was almost no value added.  And I deleted them ALL.  It was one of my favorite Facebook days ever.  The freedom I felt after purging those groups from my life was energizing.  On a smaller scale, I started to think about the products I use at home in the same terms.  Is there really a value added by throwing a store-bought frozen lasagna in the oven instead of planning ahead and making one myself to have stored in the freezer?  Sure, some time and effort is required to have one on standby in the freezer, but in the long run, is that really all that difficult?  Easier said than done, I know.  And I fail at this often myself.  But I would much rather have the homemade version that a store-bought brand…….it always tastes better, you know what’s in it, and you get the sheer satisfaction of knowing that YOU did that.  To me, that is value added every time.  The key here is to start small.  Don’t expect to eliminate all these unnecessary evils from your life in one fell swoop.  If you try to do that, you will fail miserably and be more reluctant to try again in the future.  Start weeding things out slowly.  Just like any new regimen, it takes time to build a pattern.  Before you know it you will be seeing long lasting results.  And once you do, you will be emboldened to continue to make more (and likely bigger) changes.

Once you know what changes need to be made, it is time to SEPARATE.  Remove all things toxic from your life.  That means the food and products that are full of unnecessary chemicals and additives have got to go.  It also means the people who are equally toxic should be shown the door as well.  Just like I did with the Facebook groups, try cutting toxic things or people out of your life for even just a few days.  Once you realize the negative impact they were having on you, you will be much less likely to go back.  This can be especially hard when the toxic person is someone you love.  You can’t ask them to change for you……that never works out.  If a truly toxic person is going to change, they have to want to do it for themselves.  If they cannot do that, you may have to consider whether or not it is time to eliminate their presence from your life.

After you determine what (or who) needs to be removed from your life, you can begin to IDENTIFY what is important to you.  Start focusing on those people, those things.  Negativity breeds negativity, which is why we purged that from our lives.  It is time to focus on the positive.  I like to joke that I am just a “Little Ray of Sunshine” in a world of “Negative Nancies”.  I challenge myself every day to be the light in a dark and negative world.  As with everything, at times I fail.  But trying to focus on the positive and not be eaten alive by negativities is one of the most important things in my own personal daily life.  For me, I’ve also come to realize that trying to make meals from “scratch” vice out of the box is kind of a big deal too.  Now don’t get me wrong…..I’m not over here with my pasta roller creating my own noodles or anything crazy like that……yet! But I would much prefer to go back to the good ‘ole fashioned way of cooking, cleaning, beauty, etc.  I believe it makes a difference.  Once we can identify the extraneous materials and eliminate them, we can focus on our priorities and start improving upon them daily.

Now comes the time to CLEAN up our lives!  You would be amazed by how much you could simplify your life by going clean.  To some people, that means different things.  Did you know the FDA just ordered 19 ingredients be removed from anti-bacterial hand soaps and sanitizers?  I walked away from the anti-bacterial craze many years ago……maybe it was an irrational fear from reading books by authors like Robin Cook.  But to me, it just seemed to make sense that we were doing our immune systems more harm than good by using anti-bacterial EVERYTHING.  I remember working at a daycare and having moms freak out because their three-year old (who finally just started daycare after being essentially quarantined for the first three years of life) would catch a cold.  Exposure to various germs early in life is generally a GOOD thing and helps us BUILD a strong immune system.  But trying to chemically alter our response to these germs (by use of a gazillion anti-bacterial products) does nothing more than make those same germs mutate into something we may not be ready to contend with.  Call me crazy, but I’d rather take my chances with the good old fashion germs rather than the mutated varietal.  As a general rule, I try to use naturally anti-bacterial and anti-fungal products instead of the chemically altered ones.  Nature has been at this for quite a few more years than humans, so I’m going to give her the benefit of the doubt.

Finally, we are ready to SIMPLIFY.  My own personal desire is the simpler, the better.  Of course my reality does not always comply……but I’m a work in progress.  Actually, my significant other is a minimalist.  As somewhat of a self-proclaimed hoarder, it’s been quite an adjustment.  But more than anything, I feel relief.  It is an amazing feeling to not have crap just piled up everywhere.  Although I am still my own worst enemy and have not quite fully embraced the minimalist lifestyle…..I want to.  Yes, I do!  But the hoarder in me still rears her ugly head from time to time.  I must admit that the simplicity that comes from a minimalist-type lifestyle is breathtaking.  As a hoarder, you can often feel like you are drowning in “things”.  What are those things?  Who knows….they haven’t seen the light of day since 1997. But they are IMPORTANT things!  Sentimental value is always what gets me…..I strive to live the life of “throw it out if you haven’t used it in the last year”.  But my personal reality is that I have an emotional tie to everything you could imagine.  That is one of the advantages of our technological age though…..you can videograph or photograph anything to remember it these days.  So I challenge you……SIMPLIFY YOUR LIFE!  Get rid of the excess!  You’ve started over.  You’ve figured out what items still have value to you.  You’ve removed what didn’t.  You’ve figured out what matters now.  You’ve cleaned up your life.  Don’t’ take it up a notch!  Take it down a notch!  You deserve it!  Once you become Brilliant on the Basics, you are on your way to greatness!  Be Bold, Be Brilliant!

Be Bold. Be Brilliant.

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Have you ever wanted something so bad……but know that everyone might think you have absolutely lost your mind? That’s where I am right now. Sadly (or not….HA!) that is NOT a foreign experience for me. I have never really considered myself to be gutsy or bold. I still don’t necessarily see myself that way. I am a true Taurus (if you believe in that sort of thing). Stubborn and bull-headed to a fault. But bold? No….emotional, dramatic, perhaps a bit shy. But not bold. However, as I look back on the last 20 years of my life, I see nothing but a string of bold decisions. Does boldness lead to regret? Of course! At least occasionally……however you never really know what can come of anything without taking a leap now and then!

Take my choice in college. I was from Delaware. Growing up, my family had moved around a bit, but we had been settled since I started sixth grade. Somehow, I found myself gravitating towards a small Christian college in Michigan. In high school, I was a good student. Honors and AP classes and decent grades were the standard, as well as a well-rounded athletic and extra-curricular activity background. While I would have considered myself a person of faith, my background was Catholic and it was not exactly to be expected for me to be drawn towards this small, private Christian college. Although I had never set foot in the state of Michigan, and never had an opportunity to even visit the school, I applied. Not only did I apply, as it turns out, I put all my eggs in one basket. I didn’t even bother applying to another school. It never dawned on me this was a risky move. People thought I was crazy. But I didn’t care. I knew it was the right move for me at the time. And I’ve never regretted it.

Fast forward a few years. I left college early in order to go home and to help take care of my equally bold grandmother. Since I was with her by day, I worked by night at a number of popular local restaurants and bars. I was just your average twenty-something, enjoying life. Then came the tragic events of September 11, 2001. As were so many, I was moved to service after that day. While military service had never for a moment been a consideration for me, I quickly knew I was going to enlist. I went through the entire process and didn’t even tell my family until after I had signed on the dotted line. At 25 years old, I enlisted in the U.S. Navy. People thought I was crazy. But I didn’t care. I knew it was the right move for me at the time. And I’ve never regretted it.

A few short months later, on my 26th birthday as a matter of fact, at a dive bar just off base, I met a guy. Actually, my busty roommate met him. I couldn’t stand her.  She was petite and had big breasts and a fake southern accent. And she wasn’t particularly nice. She had been in my sister division and lived in my berthing throughout bootcamp, so I had known her fairly intimately for a few months. A group of us had planned on going out for my birthday, but after spending a cold rainy day at the nearby theme park, everyone decided to cancel our party plans. Except for the one person I didn’t particularly care to go out with. She had this annoying way of getting guys to do anything and everything for her. It irked me severely. But here we were, on my first birthday away from home, and she was the only one. Ugh. So out we went. At the bar, she picked up this guy. I didn’t pay too much attention…..anyone drawn to her shallowness wasn’t worth much attention. I was cordial, but nothing more. Then at the end of the night, an amazing thing happened. This guy walked us “home” (aka the barracks). Once we got there, he quickly said goodnight and abruptly walked away. Instantly, my interest was peaked. I had never seen anyone just walk away from her. She was accustomed to having guys fawn over her…..buying her dinners, presents, etc. That moment made my night. And suddenly, this guy who I hadn’t paid much attention to seemed a great deal more interesting. But he was gone. I didn’t see him again for another month. Once I did, I asked him what happened that night. He told me he realized how shallow she was. We started dating and soon realized we could not compete with the draw we had towards each other. A mere two months later, he asked me to marry him. Without thinking, I said yes. Then we spent the next month arguing about how stupid that would be. For any of you who were ever in the military, you are familiar with this phenomena……boot camp love. It is where people who are in (or recently completed) boot camp inexplicably decide they have met the loves of their lives and must get married. In most cases, these folks are young and have never been away from home. B and I didn’t meet those standards. We were both 26. He was not a recent boot camp graduate……in fact, he had served four years.  So after arguing about how irrational the decision to marry was for about a month, we realized we couldn’t fight it any longer. We both knew it was the right decision for us. I called and told my sister first (knowing my mother would be in shock). The day before we went to the Justice of the Peace, I called first my sister then my mom and told them I was getting married to the boyfriend they didn’t even know I had. The day after we were married, B transferred overseas to Italy after a brief visit to see his family. We spent the first year of our marriage on different continents, although I did get to visit him for two weeks at Christmas. Before we got married, we had discussed children and both knew we were ready. We placed it in God’s hands and figured with such a small window of opportunity during my Christmas visit, if I got pregnant, it was meant to be. Sure enough, I did . By pure fate/karma/kismet, I was lucky enough to be stationed with him in Italy. I arrived (quite pregnant) in July 2003. Our first child arrived three months later. And while the marriage ultimately ended in divorce, we had a solid 12 years and three beautiful daughters that neither of us would trade for the world.  People thought we were crazy. But we didn’t care. We knew it was the right move for us at the time. And we never regretted it.

Fast forward nearly a decade and my Navy career had progressed impressively. I achieved the rank of Chief Petty Officer (E-7) in only nine years, which is a rare feat. I loved my job and my career. But due to certain national and world circumstances at the time, I felt it might be prudent to leave the military behind. It was a difficult decision, but after planting the seed in B’s head, we started to get excited about what other options our lives might have in store. We considered a number of extreme options…….from joining the Navy in New Zealand to having a wild adventure in Alaska. Both of us had always felt drawn to Alaska, and the timing seemed exactly right. After a great deal of research, we decided it was Alaska or bust! I was going to leave the Navy just prior to my twelve year mark, despite a promising future. We knew the decision was right for us. My family – the same ones who were shocked/upset/angry when I surprised them and told them I had enlisted after the terrorist attacks – now couldn’t believe I was walking away. It didn’t make sense to them. They thought I was crazy. But I didn’t care. I knew it was the right move for me at the time. And I’ve never regretted it.

Clearly, a pattern has emerged. While I know that my decisions have not necessarily always been conventional, I’ve never found them to be outlandish. I don’t even necessarily consider them to be bold. Yet those around me tend to think I’m nuts. Why? I guess because I am willing to take risks. I will be honest. There have been plenty of times I have questioned my decisions in my life. But these big, life-changing decisions? I have never once questioned them. I trusted my gut. I feel like there is not enough of that in our society anymore. As Thomas Jefferson has said, “With great risk comes great reward.” Certainly I have experienced failures. But you must experience those to reap the ultimate benefits.  I have made my decisions in recent years in an effort to provide not just a certain quality of life for my children, but also to help them learn a value set that is sadly lacking in American society these days. At the end of the day, while others may not understand it, I stand by my seemingly “crazy” decisions. I think outside of the box. I’m not ashamed of that. It saddens me that more people don’t have the guts to make big decisions like I have throughout my life . I don’t feel that I’m a maverick or a trend-setter. Honestly, I’m just living my life and enjoying every brilliant day with boldness.  I don’t care. I know it is the right move for me at this time. And I’ll never regret it.