Destination: Africa!

There was no way that I could spend thousands of dollars entirely on myself, abandon my family and jet off to Africa to trek up Mount Kilimanjaro. 

Who does that? Me? Absolutely not. I mean, my husband, Kelly, and I work very hard and have some disposable cash, yes. But everything extra goes into two college savings accounts that we pretend will somehow prevent our sons from amassing unfathomable debt even before they have any bankable degrees in hand. 

Plus, I just started my own business. And, if we were going to free up that kind of time and money, shouldn’t we take a trip as a family? Those go mostly well, right?

But “absolutely not” is more of a temporary state for me. As just about anybody — from teachers to co-workers can attest — the question, “Why not?” has a much higher usage rate in my lexicon.

I love calculated risks, and have always fought against knee-jerk, fear-based decisions. 

My philosophy is that even watching a bad movie allows for the good experience of finding joy in the absurdity. Except for Disney princess movies, which have absolutely no experiential value. Especially Frozen

But in general, I believe all experiences have worth, and if you work from good intentions and gather good people around you, life will work out in the end.

Even that one time, when I intended to gracefully hop my bike over a small lip that led into a driveway. The problem was that I was also turning over wet pavement, traveling at 27 miles per hour on skinny tires. A gross miscalculation and assumption of risk. 

Online, Garmin had visually graphed exactly when I hit pavement with a dot, marking the intersection of when my speed dropped to zero and my heart rate jumped to 180. 

My husband’s soothing words were, “That’s the thing about biking — you learn quickly from your mistakes.”

Beautiful View

But then life changed

As I grew older and took on more responsibilities, life stopped being full of possibilities that felt worth calculated risks. I was devastated. 

I had no more time for fun: There was work to be done! Before I opened my eyes in the morning, a list of chores, emails, errands, work (and workout) demands flooded my brain. 

I had color-coded checklists everywhere for everything — work, kids, groceries. Crossing things off had once been empowering, but now I was putting things I’d already done on the lists just to cross them off. Huh? 

The sheer number of daily decisions that had to be made was overwhelming, and I felt a door crack open — to fear.

The need for more runs, ski days and bike rides grew. But their post-bliss, brain-quieting benefits began to dim and didn’t last as long. Yoga, with its demands of a singular presence, was unbearable. 

Another glass of wine sounded better. 

My kids started calling me a funwrecker, and deep down, I knew I was driving my husband nuts as my confidence eroded. 

I’d make decisions and then undo them, sure I’d miscalculated. The family was on a non-stop roller coaster, and I had become demanding. Anger had been seeded. 

What on earth was wrong with me? Everyone else seems to find joy inside The Working Mommy Wife Life, right?

Thin air

My mother

After a friend’s urging, I agreed to drive 40 minutes across town to an East St. Paul suburban strip mall with a run-of-the-mill chain massage day spa. I’d booked an hour and a half massage/energy session using a $20 refer-a-friend coupon with — oh let’s just call him Kevin, “Who is A-mazing!”

Why not? I wanted to let go, but was in no mood to talk it out ad nauseam for six months with any kind of psychologist. 

If Kevin could just unblock a chakra or two, maybe I’d make it back home smiling while I finished off those work emails, cleaned up the kitchen, paid a few bills and worked out before the kids got home from school. Wouldn’t it be great if the dog had learned how to walk himself by the time I got back?

Back in Aruba, one of the day spa’s 10 dimly lit massage rooms, Kevin and I introduced ourselves. 

He left. I undressed and slid under the top sheet of the warmed massage table, waiting to be amazed. After a polite, warning knock, Kevin entered the room snapping his fingers around his head and breathing fiercely out of his mouth, “Just relax and notice what you feel. I’ll ask you about it later.” 

Kevin’s hands began to hover over my body. He touched my right leg, then the left. 

I feel you touching my legs, I thought. 

“Such darkness,” he said. 

That’s probably because it’s dark in here.

I still felt nothing, but was thinking of a falafel (the kind with pickled beets), when I ran smack into my dead mother. 

Kevin sat back and pulled his hands into his lap, “What happened to your mother?”

“Um, she died,” I said.

“Yes. During your time of marriage and children, you lost your female mentor, your connection, and you never replaced her. You are lost, doubt yourself and have little female support. You think you can do this alone, but you cannot. So, you think life is unfair.” 

And just like that, my mind focused and cleared: I wasn’t broken, and Kevin is “A-mazing.”

Guides and Porters packing up at Barranco Camp, Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania

There she was again

Remember the bike crash? Well, my physician referred me to, let’s call him Paul, a physical therapist/Reiki practitioner to recover from a separated shoulder, a concussion and a little bit of PTSD.

“Would you like me to do some energy work on you?” Paul said.

“Why not?” I said.

After two minutes of hand hovering, Paul asked: “Who is LIE-zza?”

“Liza?” I said. “Um, my mother. She died. Liza is short for Elizabeth.”

“Yes,” he said. “I can see that her death is still hard for you.”

Whoa, I mean, I never think of my mother. OK, rarely do I think of her. And then, out of the only two times I’ve gone to any kind of energy/Reiki person (with six years in between), my mother comes up? 

She died, like, what — two decades of marriage, two kids, a cross-country move, a master’s degree, five jobs and a dog ago?

Kevin was not as polite as Paul who gently left me with his acknowledged sympathy. 

Kevin broke me open and released the full realization of my mother’s absence and my compartmentalized grief. 

A haze cleared, and I began to feel the void of every encouraging word she never spoke, every slightly contradictory piece of wisdom she never said, and every memory of how she raised a smart, mouthy daughter that was never passed down. 

Life could be hard and unfair, and it was even harder without a mother to help guide the way.

Jennifer With Friends Playing Euchre in the Mess Tent

Women need women

I drove home and cried for two days, speaking to no one as I bobbed in the lost sea of my mother, while my husband tried to hug me back to life. The knowledge that I was grieving, not broken, had cracked open the door once again. This time, fear slowly made an exit, taking frustration and anger along with it.

I was 24 when my mother got sick. I had not yet taken full ownership of my adulthood. Liza was still considered young, and she was definitely loved. 

The “real” adults around me were in such a state of shock and outward suffering that I ran toward gratitude to save myself. I vowed to never taint her memory by suffering from her loss of life. Instead, I would honor her love by holding the precious gift that she was sacred in my heart. 

I would focus on what she was, not on what she wasn’t. I didn’t want to be sad when I thought of her, or even worse, for people to be sad when they thought of me.

I was numb to her loss and the effect her absence played out in my daily life as I matured into a woman who was trying to pave out a career, a marriage and raise two big-hearted, sensitive sons. 

“Women need women,” Kevin had said. “You can’t do this alone.”

Jennifer With Friends at Summit

And there it was! 

Wait a minute: Didn’t a savvy travel agent recently invite me on a women’s trek up to the top of Africa? 

She was putting this trip together because her mind was starting to spin from nurturing three businesses and a family. She, too, needed a break from the multitasking, and Africa was her quiet place.

“At the core of Africa’s richness is a simplicity that strips your senses raw and forces your mind to quiet. I want to dig deep and challenge me for myself, up to the top of Kilimanjaro,” she had said. “That is why I’m putting this trip together for women. Do you want to come?”

I had made the decision to trek up Kilimanjaro while I was still lying on Kevin’s table, but first I needed to check in with Kelly. 

I gave us a few days to regroup, and then in true Working Mom fashion, I offered up a matrix of financials, a list of pros and cons and a plan to pay the money back into savings.

“What do you think?” I asked, wrapping up my presentation. “Should I go? Or am I crazy?” 

My husband looked at me and said, “Babe, this one is on you.” 

He listened and talked through the pluses and minuses with me. We prioritized the biggest risks and how to minimize them.
We came up with a plan to save more for the kids’ colleges.

But Kelly never said, “Yes, you should go,” or “Absolutely not, we can’t afford it.” Nor did he say, “Yes, you can go, but then I get to go heli-skiing with the guys next year.”

Kelly’s a smart guy, and ultimately, he gave me what I needed most: A chance to own and execute a decision that I made for me. 

Jennifer Hyvonen is a Minneapolis-based creative writer, copywriter and communications/brand expert. Learn more about her trip to Africa — and read her Write On! blog — at