I think one of my favorite things about rowing is that whenever you mess up a stroke, you immediately get to take another one, a better one. The consistent repetition forces you learn to move on quickly and efficiently; you learn to let it go and focus on the next one. There’s no time to beat yourself up over your failures or get mad about other people’s mistakes. It’s just you, your crew, your shell and oars, and 2,000 meters of water. There’s no looking back.
Except for the fact that you’re facing backwards. Which brings me to another aspect of rowing that I love: the necessity of trust. As a control freak by nature, trust can be hard for me because I don’t want anyone else to be in control. But you have to trust with rowing and give away some of that control. You have to have faith in your coxswain (or bow in the case of sculling) to keep you and your boat safe and heading in the right direction. You have to trust your other crew members to keep rowing so you can stay together. You have to have confidence in your stroke to keep the pace. You have to rely on other boats not getting in your way. You have to be assured your coach is doing what’s best for the team as they instruct you to give 120% press for an entire piece.
You have to trust because you can’t see where you’re going, only where you’ve been. And one thing I’ve learned in the past few years is that not matter how much you try to plan out your life, you can never know for sure where you’re going to end up. You can only reflect on where you’ve been. You can use that information to fight to improve so you can reach your goals, but the reality is that there are so many forces out of your control that can change your path, so all you can really do is learn to trust that life will keep you safe along the ride. Things change, and that’s okay. You learn to keep rowing, you learn to adjust and move on.
So here I am, sitting at JFK Airport one year after I sat in London Luton, reflecting on where I’ve been, trusting that I’m going on the right path even if I can’t yet see where that path is taking me.
A lot has changed since I sat in LTN awaiting my flight to Brno for the start of what was going to be a year-long backpacking adventure, visiting 100 countries in the span of 12 months. My path has changed dramatically, and is continuing to grow and evolve in a way that I’m trusting is for the best. And if it’s not, I have confidence I’ll be able to learn and grow from it.
A little over four months into my travels is when everything really started to shift in an unexpected and, to put it bluntly, horrific way. Until that point, the journey I had embarked on was pretty much exactly what I expected it to be – an epic tale filled with remarkable memories and experiences. And looking back, that’s still true for my overall journey through 53 countries in six months.
I still can’t believe I actually did all that and more.
Of course it wasn’t perfect and there were a few rough moments, but that’s to be expected because as I’ve learned, if your experience is 100% perfect, you’re travelling wrong. But during a one month span starting mid-November, a whirlwind of bad came plummeting my way: I got sexually assaulted in Chisinau, strip searched in Dubai for being trans, had a man start masturbating in front of me in Colombo and then followed me when I tried to get away, had a man at a hostel climb into my bed while I was sleeping in Bengaluru and the next day got repeatedly yelled at and harassed at the airport for being in the “wrong line” where they segregate security by gender, and saw someone in Nyaunshwe who looked exactly like a man who raped me – sending me into a major PTSD flashback. And those were just the big things.
So, while I was in Kolkata (after Bengaluru, before Nyaunshwe), I reflected back on my original mission: to spend a year focused on myself, and learning what it really means to engage in radical healing and radical self-love. I thought long and hard about what that meant to me in that moment, and here’s the (abbreviated) conclusion I came to:
December 17th, 2017 - Facebook post
When I started travelling in August, my plan was to go to 100 countries in a year. It was an ambitious, exciting challenge that I was looking forward to taking on... But I also promised myself that I wouldn't be so stubborn about making it happen that I missed out on other opportunities or directions in life that came up along the way.
This year is supposed to be about focusing on me and doing what I need to do to put my own needs and desires first. For the past five months that has been travel... But now I'm realising that putting me first now means that I need to do what I've been putting off for too long: top surgery and legally changing my name/gender marker. So it is with a heavy but happy heart to say that come late January, I'll be heading back to the US to do just that.
Since I made that post, more has changed, because life happens and things change. And I keep having to remind myself that that’s okay. I've learned to just keep rowing.
It is a bit surreal how much has changed, that I have a passport that better reflects who I am…
That I finally got top surgery after years of dreaming...
That five weeks post-op I was not only back to rowing but racing…
And now just shy of two months post-op I’m getting ready for a multi-day, international competition: the Gay Games.
It seems appropriate that exactly one year after my initial departure, I’m sitting in yet another airport getting ready to depart on another adventure, albeit shorter. It's my first trip since legally changing my name and gender marker and since getting top surgery. In many ways it’s just as terrifying but it’s comforting to know that for the first time in my life I’m really getting to embrace all major parts of my identity through a singular experience: the athlete, the travel junkie, the queer and trans activist, the writer, the creative. I'm excited about getting to go back to this magical city to be immersed in a queer community while competing in my first international competition, and I'm excited to try to capture it all through words, photos, and video.
The past year I've learned to keep moving on, taking the changes and hurdles life throws in stride. It isn't always pretty, and it isn't always easy. I've also learned that it's okay to be gentle with yourself when you can't. I've learned that it's okay to show weakness, that it's okay to ugly cry or scream, that it's okay to not be okay. Accepting these things, and learning to trust that life will happen and that I can find happiness and healing regardless of whether or not it happens how I planned, has been a beautiful, ongoing journey. This past year of radical healing has shown me that it's important to fight for yourself because there won't always be someone else around to do it, but that it's also important to fight for others who might not be in a place to fight for themselves. This past year has made me understand just how non-linear and never-ending the journey to happiness - whatever that may mean - truly is, and that the journey can be just as fulfilling as the destination.
Most of all I've learned that things change. People change. Society changes. And that is a beautiful thing (most of the time...). We can plan and anticipate as much as we want, but nothing is ever a guarantee. I used to think that meant living each moment to the fullest, as if every day was your last, but now I see that means to embrace each moment for what it is - whatever that may be. That it's okay to mess up or have a lazy day or not meet a deadline because life will keep moving on. You accept each moment and learn from it, so the next moment can be better.