Rest in Peace and Love, Dearest Mike of Sheep World

I met Michael Gorringe on the second day of my journey. He was a permanent resident at Sheep World, which (if you haven’t read the beginning of the blog) is sort of a retirement community/rv park just north of Auckland, New Zealand with hot pink sheep in the front pasture. Yes. Hot pink sheep.

Mike at Sheep World

I parked my scooter, unloaded my pack and set my tent up on the front lawn. Mike introduced himself & invited me over for a meal. He poured us each a glass of whiskey, and told me about his life while he cooked dinner. We were kindred spirits/instant friends/cut from the same wacky cloth, and even though I only spent two days there, I cried when I said goodbye to him.

We stayed in touch through email after I left Sheep World. He followed each blog post, anxiously awaiting the next, and then would send me the most generous words of encouragement about where I was/what I was doing at the time. He also sent detailed updates on what he was up to…always learning new country songs to sing at the clubs & sometimes serving as an informal guide for tourists and friends visiting New Zealand.

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I hadn’t heard from Mike in a while, and if I’m honest, I intuitively already knew what I would find yesterday when I googled his name. An obituary. From January 17th. I haven’t cried that hard in a long time. I always, always hoped I would drive up to Sheep World again & see him mowing the grass. Or find him cutting lettuce with his pocket knife for his dinner. Or sitting on his front porch, watching the sunset. I know he waited for my return someday too.

My mind took that crumb & ran away with it last night into a dark and selfish shame spiral. Why hadn’t I figured out some way to afford to go back to visit? He loved country music more than anyone I’ve ever met….and I used to work in the country music business. I had a plan to surprise him and fly him to Nashville when I finished the book and had some extra money. Just seeing the joy on his face at Robert’s or The Station Inn would have been worth it. But I haven’t finished the book. And years have passed. And now he’s dead. And there is not a damn thing I can do to change any of it. I felt like I let my friend down. On and on and on went the regret and guilt and grief. I beat myself up until I could barely breathe.

Then I began frantically searching for the hard drive that contained the videos I took of Mike sharing his love story and the loss of his wife, Philomena. The videos are in segments, because I recorded him on my phone, before I purchased a camera in China. My phone kept filling up, and I had to stop Mike a handful of times, delete everything I could as quickly as I could on my phone, so I could continue recording. None of the segments are titled. Of course, this is the very first one (posted below) I just happened to open last night, in the dark, quiet of my house.

Then I watched all of them. And laughed with him when he laughed (which was often) and cried with him when he cried….and by the end of all of the footage, most of that guilt and grief had eased, and I just felt overwhelming gratitude and love for this human. Gratitude that I even went on that wild path that took me to New Zealand. Gratitude that I couldn’t afford any of the expensive hotels I passed, and that I kept going just a little farther down the road, until I saw those hot pink sheep. Gratitude for Mike’s warm welcome and generosity. For his company. For his willingness to share his losses and his triumphs with me. For the genuine vulnerability with which he spoke his truth. I can’t really explain how lucky I feel to have shared time with this beautiful soul while we were both here on this giant spinning rock in space. I loved him & he loved me.

It is time to finally stare down my fear of failure & finish editing the manuscript. Not out of regret or grief or guilt, but out of love and honor for the people, like Mike, who cared for and guided me along that wild route around the world. The people who transformed this story into something so much bigger and more beautiful than the lie that came out of A’s mouth. The people who saved me. Or held space so I could save myself. You will be hearing more from me in the coming months…

For now, I wanted to share with you this very short segment from Mike’s interview. I really wish you could have met him:

Mike Gorringe of Sheep World, NZ from Jennifer Casale on Vimeo.

Oh, dear friend. It would have never been enough. I miss you. Thank you. For everything.

Love,

Jen

 

Mike’s Obituary

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Big Transitions & Palo Santo Chocolate

 

On Friday I closed down my little shop (The Green Wagon) after nearly six years. It became obvious to me after I got back from the POF journey that I was going to struggle with running a business and finishing the book. I felt my life yanking me in another direction that couldn’t possibly involve me spinning all of the plates anymore, but I promised myself I would give the shop a year & here we are–seventeen days shy of one year since I returned. The intentions we set are so much more powerful than we realize. I got busy with the store. Exhausted with the store. The book manuscript sat on my desk, neglected for months at a time. I began to feel like because I couldn’t really focus on any of the pieces of my life, I wasn’t doing any of them well.

I didn’t want to write or work on the book when I was exhausted or not able to do my best with it. I began resenting the store, because I couldn’t find the energy to also write the book. A wise friend told me that sometimes we have to trim back certain parts of our lives in order to let other parts grow. So, a few months ago, with the lease coming to an end, I had no doubt what the next step would be. The neighborhood had changed. The shop had changed. I had changed. It was time to allow it all to evolve. 

My plan is to spend September and October finishing the book manuscript. That is as far ahead as I will really let my mind wander right now. I don’t know exactly what comes after that, but one thing I did learn on my journey (and something that I have to remind myself of often) is how much peace and joy I find when I trust the process and stop feeling the need to control what happens next. While traveling the POF path, I never knew what was going to happen in the next hour or the next day. Who I would meet. What little town I would ride through on my scooter in New Zealand. What the next city would be like in India when the train stopped. Or how I would spend my time there. Or even how much time I would spend there. I didn’t need to know where I would eat lunch or even where I would sleep sometimes. I trusted the story to lead me. And it didn’t fail me. Not once. 

Yesterday at 8am, I finished my last bit of business at the store and drove to a nearby coffee shop to treat myself to breakfast for completing the long process of closing down the store. I was standing in line and noticed a small bar of fancy chocolate for sale on the counter. My initial thought was, “I can’t have that.” Then I did something that surprised me. I picked it up and bought it. As a gift to myself. I felt the beautiful paper between my hands, ran my finger over the lavender color wax seal that held the paper closed around the chocolate. It was so pretty I almost didn’t even want to open it. It only cost me about $5, but these little gifts we lovingly give ourselves are sometimes the most luxurious and deserved. 

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I sat down and started drinking my coffee and watching the people file in and out on their way to work. The rhythm of the early morning in this particular spot. And there it was—that same inner voice that returned on the first flight of the journey. I thought I had lost it again beneath the rubble and noise of the past year of my life. Suddenly, I felt like I was just little me in the world. The same feeling I had on the top of Piddling Mountain the day I spent with the old horse and told myself there was nowhere I HAD to be for almost eight months. There was nowhere else I had to be yesterday morning. No one else I had to be but just myself. After weeks (maybe months) of absolutely exhausting work–suddenly, it all felt freeing. 

While flying back, I had a fear of losing those precious, intangible, invaluable bits of truth I had found on the journey–the kinds of things I couldn’t claim on a customs form. The types of things I still find hard to explain to people who ask about the trip. I worried that I would not be able to feel the same once I got home. And for almost a year, I haven’t felt the same. I didn’t feel bad, necessarily, but I haven’t felt the same. I am asked all the time if it was hard to adjust to being back. The answer was honestly no, but I didn’t realize why until yesterday morning. It wasn’t hard to adjust back, because I *didn’t* adjust to being back. I just sort of divided myself into who I was on the journey and who I was at home and jumped back into work. But as soon as I turned in the keys to the landlord and let go of a giant piece of my life yesterday morning–trusting wherever this decision was leading me–there it was. There *I* was. The me I was on the trip and I was suddenly able to be her in Nashville, which is what I had so desperately wanted all along. 

I was worried it would take a long time for me to feel back to myself again–to define who I was without the store–to feel something even somewhat similar to how I felt when I was traveling, but it was that simple. I felt whatever it was shift inside me. How beautiful is that? Why do we find it so hard to have faith in ourselves? To trust that we know exactly where the path is and how to get back to it? I was worried I would feel untethered and lost and directionless and depressed and have to work really hard to remember who I am, but it was like flipping a switch. It was like seeing your oldest and dearest friend for the first time in years. Except it was me. And the recognition of it all made me tear up with happiness.

I got up and let a young family have my table. Three little girls in pink tutus and ballet slippers. I walked in the coffee shop one way and out another.  As I walked to my car, I decided that my only job for the day was to be good and kind to myself. I did my best to “do nothing.” Why do we call it that? The act of caring for oneself and slowing down is definitely something essential and important and necessary. 
 
I came home from the coffee shop and watched the chickens and ducks in the yard. I sat in bed and enjoyed every bite of the chocolate bar I had given myself. And I appreciated it. I drank a glass of wine in the middle of the day and watched a documentary about India. I day dreamed. I watched the pattern the sun made through my lace curtains and how it moved across the sheets in my bed and let myself drift into a nap. And I woke when I was rested. 
 
Every time that nagging voice would rise up in me, saying things like, “You really should go unpack. Have you seen the mess you just made of your porch and kitchen table? Where are you going to put all of this stuff? You should finish a chapter of the book tonight, if you don’t unpack. You aren’t being very productive,” I lovingly told that voice to shut the hell up. Yesterday was for me. I didn’t “work” on anything other than just having a lovely day. 
 
And I feel like–even though I came back almost a year ago and even though it doesn’t make much logical sense–I just now arrived at home. Thank you to all of the people–my Mom, Sam, Mike & Leslie to name just a few–who took time out of their own lives to help me pack and move and clean and transition these past few weeks. As I hide out in my little hut in the forest over the next few months, editing the manuscript, you might hear a bit more from me on the blog. 
 
As I was just about to publish this, I heard a tap and looked up to see a hummingbird hovering in front of the window, staring at me at my writing desk…
 
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Pants on Fire Video Footage

Last night I showed a video at the party that I put together from the footage I took while traveling. I wanted to share it with all of you who couldn’t be there. Some of you who have been following along since the beginning will recognize a few of these moments from the blog.

What you’ll hear while watching this is a beautiful song that was written by my sweet friend, Melissa Capezio.

Stay tuned for pictures from the party!

New Project 2 from Jennifer Casale on Vimeo.

Invitation to the Pants on Fire 1st Anniversary Party

Can you believe that it has been almost a year since I boarded that flight to New Zealand? Well, I can’t. But I’m having a party to celebrate & to thank you for following the blog and cheering me on during the wacky process of writing this book. Hope to see you there!

All My Best,

Jen

CLICK BELOW TO OPEN THE INVITATION:

www.paperlesspost.com/events/6440427-35594a45/replies/120344187-dc884873

Final Postcard and Happy New Year Wish

New Year’s Eve I stayed home and fell asleep before midnight. To anyone else, it probably seemed pathetic, boring and like a very anti-climactic way to wrap up such a huge year in my life. I spent most of 2013 on the other side of the world, and the list of things I learned in those 365 days just keeps growing. There weren’t any particularly exciting parties happening on NYE or any particularly exciting men to kiss at midnight, and honestly, what I really wanted was to feel good and clear and ready to greet 2014. And I was.

Getting back into the routine of being home has been a different kind of journey. The time and energy I thought I would have for writing quickly dissolved into a steady (and way too familiar) pace of overworking myself. And trying to figure out how to take care of things here (without overworking myself). There are times I turn around and look at the red Pants on Fire map I have taped to the wall behind the store counter & feel like it was nothing more than a dream. People say often, “It is so weird. It feels like you never left.” And that kills me, because sometimes I feel the exact same way. I have to stare at the route on the map and remind myself that yes, yes I did actually go to those places, and a lot of things changed for me on that journey–even though it may look like the exact same woman is sitting here in front of you, wearing the exact same clothes, sitting in the exact same shop. This must be a little bit of the emotional jet lag that Florentino warned me about, but it snuck up on me gradually.

It just (big, giant surprise here, eh?) turns out that it is a lot easier to be inspired and poetic while (select ANY of the following); hiking long sections of The Great Wall of China / camping under the Milky Way in the outback / riding a train through South Africa next to giant rainbows / riding your bike on the coast of New Zealand / watching the sunrise while sitting on the bank of the Ganga River in India — than it is to feel inspired and poetic while (select ANY of the following); working seven days a week for months at a time / cleaning up dog barf at 2am / getting dumped / lightning is striking your HVAC unit, catching it on fire and melting it right before an ice storm. (Yes, really.) It is more of a challenge to keep my eyes and heart open to see all of the intricate connections and the beauty here–and that’s okay. It is something that has to be practiced. There is an art to knowing how to open and lift just as soon as you notice your eyes have narrowed and your head has lowered. And I am learning to be gentle with myself–to not beat myself up too much just because I have not reached or met the goals and deadlines I set for myself.

On Monday, I had a rare day off and pinned up photos from the trip on the wall behind my computer screen. So, as I sit at my desk at home and write this book, the faces of people from the journey watch over me. Smile at me. Remind me of how very beautiful this story became, because of their gifts and love. I also pinned all of my postcards to myself up on the wall and re-read back through each of them—which was exactly why I wrote them in the first place. While writing them, I tried to imagine what I might need to hear while reading them back at home months and years later–for days just like this, when I feel lost and full of doubt about my ability to tell this story–and here I am, on the other end of that long, long string, holding the other tin can to my ear. Listening to what I had to say to myself. And it helps.

While going through notebooks and sheets of paper on Monday, there were lists and notes. Pages full of time tables for when buses and trains would leave. Five months ago. Nearly a year ago. And this note, hidden between a grocery list and a to-do list. “Whenever you think back on this journey, never forget moments like your first night in Montenegro on the cliff–the full blue moon–and how the world wouldn’t allow you to believe you were here just by accident or coincidence. It almost knocked you over with the reminder that you were always meant to come here, and that the world is just as magical as you always hoped. This is your story to tell and don’t you ever forget it.” Which was the general message I wrote on the postcard to self from Montenegro, which I have misplaced somewhere between that seaside village and Nashville. Here is the last postcard from the journey, mailed home on the last full day of the journey.

LAST POSTCARD TO SELF :: FROM LONDON

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18 September 2013

Today is the last full day. Tomorrow morning you will get on a plane and fly home–and tomorrow night, sleep in your own bed–after 218 nights of sleeping elsewhere–on couches, trains, floors, airports, the bottom of boats and in the arms of one man. This postcard will arrive home after you do + you may hold it the mailbox and it might be hard to read. You might wish you were here on this sofa in London instead–where I am now writing this–or any of the other countries I’ve written to you from. But remember what your mom taught you, “You are exactly where you need to be.” You set out to do something really big–something you weren’t sure you could do. And then you did it. You thought and wrote and laughed and hugged and cried and walked and swam and loved your way–all the way–around this great big world. Whenever you’re scared, read these letters + know that you can do anything + I’m proud of you + love you. -ME

***

In other news, this week I celebrated the 5th birthday of my store, The Green Wagon. It is a wild thing to think back to that first day. My mom was there to help. I was so nervous. A picture of A was taped up next to the register. (He was in fake Afghanistan.) So, so much has happened in the time between.

We had cake and drinks at the store to celebrate. I sent out an email to our email list of customers. A woman and her husband walked into the shop. The woman approached me while I was cutting the birthday cake. She reached into her pocket and pulled out a small handful of soap nuts (a nut that grows on a tree in India & Nepal and has soap and a natural disinfectant in the shell). I looked and her open hand and then back at her face, a little confused. She shyly said, “I bought these at your store 5 years ago.”

In that moment, I instantly remembered her.

“Yes! You told me that your mother used to wash your hair with these in India when you were a little girl!”

She smiles. “You remember me?!”

“Of course I do.”

“I just had to come here tonight to say congratulations.”

A simple gesture, but it meant so very much to me. And, as is so often the case, the sweetest moment of the whole day arrived unexpectedly and wrapped in perfection.

Happy 2014, Pants on Fire family! Wishing you only the very best this year.

Love,

Jen