3Z9A9726I learned early on to put on a shell to save face and protect my family’s honor. It was what hardworking immigrants like my parents did. My folks weathered an unhappy marriage but in my young adult years, when I questioned my mother for staying in it, she said simply, “I don’t believe in divorce. It’s failure.” So she put on a mask when she left the house and punished us behind closed doors with her unhappiness. There was a passage in Amy Tan’s novel, “The Joy Luck Club” that resonated with me: “I was raised the Chinese way: I was taught to desire nothing, to swallow other people’s misery, to eat my own bitterness.” That was my mom. And me. Secret martyrdom was a badge of honor.

Fast forward some years and I repeated the cycle of burying my true self to wear the costume I felt others wanted to see. I followed young love down to coastal Mexico and lost myself in a cloak of wearing an identity not my own. Outwardly, I was a happy wife, a successful business owner, a busy mother… But I was crippled with resentment at living a life that I didn’t feel was mine. I was really good at playing the supporting role — helping my husband execute his hopes and dreams made me feel accomplished. Like I fit into a larger plan. But inside, I was lost at sea. I didn’t know where my compass was or what was keeping me afloat, except for the identity that was placed on me that I didn’t feel defined ME.

When we moved to the United States, and divorced a few years later, I felt like I didn’t receive much support from our Mexico friends. I secretly dismissed it as saying our friendships had expired, that I had outgrown them, and that they lacked depth. In the meantime, I was thrust into a new place, new friendships, new role as a single working mom. In the absence of clinging to something or someone else, I was forced to self define. I found my voice. I started being vulnerable, and raw, and real — it just took too much energy to pretend otherwise. And in those little steps, I started to thrive.

This past February, I decided to take our kids, now 11 and 9, back to where we lived in Mexico. I originally intended to bring closure and to show our children where our family’s roots lay. I somehow didn’t feel like the town was mine because it was chosen for me. I had felt like my entire life there — my social networks, business connections, even our daily activities — didn’t belong to me, and that I was a tag along in someone else’s life. We were going to play tourist and close that chapter for good.

But what happened was exactly the opposite. It felt like “home.” It was more healing that I could have even imagined. From the sound of the waves and humidity in the air, to the sights and smells, and curvature of the cobblestone street up to our old home, it washed over me in a way that was nostalgic and completely familiar. During our return visit, friends who I hadn’t spoken to in years reconnected and showed me that the love, community, and support had always been there. I realized that the disconnection and lack of depth I felt had been a projection of my own unhappiness. When we left this time, and I knew we would return.

I started Wild Women Tribe last fall, intending to bring women together through shared experiences outdoors. To reconnect with ourselves and each other within Mother Nature. I didn’t expect the notion of self identity — of wearing a role we didn’t quite fit into — to be such a resonant theme. I met women who were just like I had been. Whether it was through living someone else’s life, or the social media constructs competing for likes, shares and comments — there was this yearning among us women for real connection. Of stepping away from the constructs we created willingly or otherwise, and into our own light. When we live a life that isn’t authentic to our true identity it might feel safe but it’s also lonely — and exhausting to maintain the veneer of a fake perfect life for all the world to envy.

Because in that constant barrage of filtered images and scenes — and in the fictitious storylines we make up — it’s easy to forget to honor, expect, understand and encourage the honest sharing of things that make us messy, and human, and beautiful. The very essence of courage and identity.

When I was struggling and seemingly alone in Mexico, it was my own fear of being vulnerable, imperfect, and a failure that prevented me from creating the connections I wanted and needed. My own sense of self was too tenuous, immature, tentative to realize the fierceness and strength in solidarity with others who accept me no matter what. The reality I spent so much time constructing with paper walls and cardboard cutouts made me feel safe — yet it also stifled and trapped me. I needed to take a step away from the puppetshow, the fake constructs and costumed reality — and inward to the heart. That’s what Wild Women Tribe represents for me — a collective gathering of fierce, likeminded women who seek community and sisterhood through transformational experiences outside…..turning off the cell phones, stripping away the excuses, and opting to look each other straight in the eyes for soul-baring truth.

Because at the end of the day, being real is scary. But it’s the only way to build community and connection. Removing the masks that we hide behind can define who we are with a strength we didn’t know existed, and create meaningful connections that are full of depth. If only we find courage to step into the light and reveal ourselves to the world, blemishes and all.

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