It was on this day a year ago.
Deep winter. Dark nights. After-work hours spent curled in bed, alone.
Kayla Mueller had just been killed.
It must have come up in my newsfeed or something, and I must have thought she looked a lot like me: 20something, white, American.
Killed by ISIS.
I remember the feeling of being sucked into a hurricane, tumbling headfirst into a tornado of news stories that I just couldn't break away from.
I spent hours that night, crouched nervously in my bed, winter blasting along outside my window, in my little bedroom.
I suddenly felt so far away from everything that mattered.
The more I read about Kayla Mueller the more I fell in love with her. She was a humanitarian, an aid worker at the Turkish-Syrian border when she entered Syria with her boyfriend to go to a hospital and was captured by ISIS. She won awards for volunteering in high school, started an Amnesty International chapter in college, worked in India, Israel, Pakistan. She went to France to become an au pair with the intention of learning the language and going to Africa, but instead became interested in Syrian refugees and went there.
I felt like we were similar but our similarities ended so early on in her story -- I won awards for volunteering in high school, wrote papers on the genocide in Darfur, went on mission trips in college. And then -- that was it. I stopped there. My story no longer followed hers.
And now she was dead. 26 years old. She was held in captivity for 18 months before being killed in Syria.
I felt overwhelmed by grief. And in a selfish way, I felt overwhelmed by my aliveness. I almost felt jealous of her death (in a really bizarre, selfish way). This 26-year-old woman was living the life I'd imagined for myself, though that dream had died long ago, and something about her death made it alive in me again. Here was a woman living among the suffering, dedicating her life to activism, accomplishing more in her 26 years than most of us accomplish in our lifetimes.
This really is my life’s work, to go where there is suffering. I suppose, like us all, I’m learning how to deal with the suffering of the world inside myself... to deal with my own pain and most importantly to still have the ability to be proactive.
I sat in my bed long into the night, following links to links to links about Kayla Mueller's life. I cried. For her and for me.
I was alive. I was privileged. I was okay.
Why wasn't I living? Like, really living? Doing what I'd always wanted to do?
I know the real answer to this question. I was surviving. I was coming off of a series of really hard years that brought me to my knees, throwing everything I'd ever known into question. I'd worked hard to get to where I was, battling all kinds of troubles and fears.
But now here I was holed up in my bed through a long, dark winter not nearly living up to my potential. I say that with the utmost compassion and understanding for myself, because I know that was where I needed to be at the time.
But suddenly it wasn't. Suddenly I felt ready to break out. To challenge myself a bit. To make a change. To be alive, since I was.
It wasn't until I was messaging with a friend that it really hit me. We were catching up and chatting about life and she said, "Don't get me wrong, I love my husband and kids so much, but I still daydream about what it would be like to do whatever I wanted (sell most of my stuff and buy a tiny house? take up a new hobby -- cooking or photography? decorate my house exactly how I want it without taking into consideration someone else's (terrible) taste?). I'm sure that's exactly how your life is, right?!"
I realized.....it was. I had nothing tying me down. I had no partner.* I had no kids. I had no mortgage. If there was any time in my life to fucking do something, this was it. And if there's no guarantee of how long our lives will be (Kayla Mueller's death cemented this for me), why wait?
I did some research. I landed on teaching English abroad. It would be my way to travel and see the world and open up new doors. It wasn't humanitarianism necessarily, I wouldn't be helping refugees or living among the poor, but it would be something new. Something bigger. And who knows where it would lead.
I spent a couple weeks looking into different programs and decided to sign up for an online certification through International TEFL Academy. It was expensive -- I did it anyway, fully committing. I took classes all spring and summer, and observed and student-taught some in-person ESL classes in the Providence area. I applied for jobs in Vietnam, had Skype interviews.
When I was little I used to be so afraid of everything, always timid and painfully shy. But I just booked a one-ticket to Vietnam. A country on the other side of the world that I've never been to and where I know no one. And where I'll live and work and explore for a year.
Slowly, carefully, in a deep and connected way, I am learning what I need. At 28, that happens to be moving to Vietnam to teach for a year -- I feel this knowing deeply. I'm trying to hold onto this knowing, as the transition becomes more real and scary and hard. It's exciting for sure, but not without its rough spots. Somehow, I will do this. I am doing this.
Thank you, Kayla.
Photos of me above at 20, terribly lost and confused in life but loving my semester in South Africa. (And absurdly tan.)
As I prepare to leave, I'm going to be closing up shop on my business and instead turning my attention to photography and blogging while I'm away. I'm really excited to use this space as my visual diary, if you'd like to follow along. And regarding Ruth Clark Design -- stay tuned for a mega clearance sale!
*My first day of certification classes began on March 16, 2015. That night I went out for drinks with a friend and ended up meeting my love -- the very same day my classes started. The irony is not lost on me. I became so okay with not having a partner that I began taking steps to move across the world -- and only then did I find him. The story is not just mine to tell and so I won't go into this too deeply here, but I decided to go forward with my plans to move, despite this amazing relationship I'd found and created. We're still together now, and are moving through this transition with as much love and awareness as possible. It's amazing and awful all at the same time.
To read more about Kayla Mueller, visit For Kayla.