More Cloudy Days in Chicago

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You should see how many blog drafts I have.

“Maybe what you need is to leave Kansas City. Like, physically get into your car and drive away. Reset.”

Monday, January 6th, 2020 I walked out of my corporate reality, and took a running leap into the great unknown. I knew I didn’t have all the details worked out for self-employment, but I was consumed with one major thought: Time is not a renewable resource. I was doing this for the future Ariell ten years down the road.

Getting through the rest of 2019 to 2020 took everything I had, which wasn’t much. I was running on fumes, and my victory run to the finish line looked and felt more like a forced jog.

So, here I was post-Monday January 6th soaking up the residual shockwaves of an intense building year, and my body took this as it’s long-awaited opportunity to plummet into rest and recovery. Though I have been able to regularly get into the gym (thank God!), plummet, my body did. I was exhausted. Like, exhausted. After this started to subside in its intensity, internal paralysis started to move in to take its place. I was stuck not only physically anymore, but also mentally and emotionally.

A couple weeks after the brakes on my corporate life were applied and I was thickly tangled in the internal mess of the ups and downs of my leap of faith, I was having another long phone call with my mother (affectionately known as Ma). She made the suggestion to pack up from KC and make the trek up north to the Chicagoland area to get away and reset. Here I would also be surrounded by immediate and extended family, and the kind of old friends who will always and truly know me. Made sense; she was right. Why didn’t I think of that first?

This past Tuesday I packed up my CR-V (Lafawnda the Honda, according to my sister) and made the eight hour trek to the land of Bears hats, deep dish pizza, and where the passing lane is an expectation rather than a suggestion (I’m looking at you, Missouri). One of the great things about this new life of mine is I am not restricted by time. I don’t have the looming pressure and anxiety of having to be back in Kansas City by a certain time.

So far, I have seen my Ma, sister, youngest brother, and one of my best friends from high school. I had healthy and ah-mazing vegan food with my sister in a restaurant called Dancing Dog, then followed that up with a double-shot drink and mozzarella sticks in the bar she manages. I took the L for the first time, and one of the guys on the subway called me out as a newbie (I didn’t realize it was that obvious). My youngest brother called to have free day passes set aside for me at the gym he used to work at, so I gladly got my butt kicked in a barre class. My brother bought me $1 earrings in Boys Town. My friend Jesy and I talked and laughed at Goddess and the Grocer outside Wicker Park, remembering instantly why we were such good friends in junior high and high school.

At the moment, I am sitting in a coffeeshop (imagine that) in Downers Grove, Illinois’ Main Street, watching Saturday shoppers with their dogs and coffees in hand and the regular passing of the Metra trains. I have been writing, rewriting, writing, tearing up, deleting, then writing again. It is a cloudy day, which according to the chatty and Euro-stylish retail associate outside Wicker Park, is a record. Apparently, Chicago has never seen this many consecutive days of cloudy weather. Today marks day twelve.

I have known all about cloudy days lately.

As I write, light gray slowly turns darker gray as winter dusk approaches.

I don’t know how to express all I have been feeling since leaving the corporate life. I had enough. Will you allow me to be real? As most women in the workforce can personally attest, this wouldn’t have been the first work situation where I had been held back, talked over, treated like my opinion had little to no value, hushed, put in my place, ignored, and worse… repeatedly. This is tame for what I could write, and as a woman, I don’t want to give in to the pressure anymore to be quiet about mentalities like this towards the input and value of women in the workplace. The thing is it is rarely the majority of the workplace, just a few who are this way at key moments (and not even necessarily all the time!). I believe we all have a greater responsibility to do better. Let’s do better, and value women.

I left with the belief if I make the space, all the good things I had built and invested in would have the necessary room to expand and flourish.

I always want to be encouraging, but all I have to offer is this current raw struggle. This blurry cloudy place. Vague, yet very real. It has been a fight to keep fighting. I have often wondered how the heck all of this will work out, and I keep wanting to tie off all of these things I want to say in a pretty little bow. Hence, all the blog drafts. But that’s just not happening in the way I like (yes, I overthink things), so this is as good as this is going to get today.

Right now though, I am settling into the arms of people who love me, who will always be my safety net, and into the belief there will always be an end to cloudy days.

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https://www.beautycounter.com/ariellbraem

It’s A Movement Back to the Table

I believe the movement back to the greatest privilege of life starts around the table.

Years ago, I was living in Africa. I was four weeks out from coming back Stateside, and I was dreading leaving. Why? The “poor” of third world countries have a gift we don’t have – a life without first world demands. My experience with third world peoples is limited and just my own; I don’t claim to know third world realities as a whole. I realize there are things that we are blessed beyond words for, but when I lived among them, I believe they have us beat on valuing one of the greatest gifts of life: relationships.

I remember a beautiful Australian woman I was in Africa with asked if I was excited to go back home. I just cried. No, I wasn’t. You don’t realize the tremendous stress we live under in this country until you are stripped off it for a period of time. Limited internet, no bills, and a whole lot of just “being” together. Loving, learning, laughing and living. We would eat together for hours despite our conversations limited by language, and they were some of the best experiences.

My passion for the table started in an old farm house on Beaver Valley Road.

One of my favorite memories of my ma is of her cooking and her love of experiencing good food. This is a woman who will talk passionately of the soil in her garden, who will indulge wholeheartedly in fresh picked, dark red tomatoes with good bread and Bulgarian feta, who will laugh so hard she’ll slide off the couch, and who would encourage me to invite my friends over all summer to just hangout around the pool and would make us homemade pizza. When she would cook, she’d fill the house with Dinah Shore, Patsy Cline or The Tenors, sometimes pour herself a glass of White Zinfandel, and put her favorite pan on low heat. She would find what was in the refrigerator and create. This is where cooking became way more than food; it became an experience.

The ladies – my ma, me and my sister, Georgia.
As usual, I am the only one following directions and smiling like a normal person.

She would call me into the kitchen, ask me to taste the sauce she was making to see what I thought was missing. I would give her my opinion, and she would take it. She’d then call me back 10 minutes later to see what I thought now. We would do that a few times until we felt it was right. This is where I learned it was okay to experiment and make mistakes in the creative process.

Ten years ago, I was accidentally introduced to the profound potential of the table.

In my twenties, I was celebrating my birthday with about 15 people, some of whom I knew and a few of whom I did not, at Buffalo Wild Wings in Northern Illinois. When we went around the table to share how each person knew me, they shared how they had just met me the hour before. I loved it! This is where I learned the possibility of the wonderful sneakiness of the table to bring people together who may not any other way.

I had other dinner parties and helped manage big events over the next decade: Christmas Extaveganza’s of 2009 and 2010, Thankful Friends Dinner of 2009, and my own birthday party once I moved to KC, to name a few.

But I wanted to do more, and I hadn’t found anyone who truly “got me” in this way when I relocated to Kansas City eight years ago.

Then, a year and a half ago, I met Ricky and Whitney around their Epic Table.

Long story short, they decided to clear out their apartment living room in Hyde Park, and with board by board hoisted through their third story bedroom window, they built an 18-foot table, inviting anyone in the community to come. I immediately became a groupie. I came to almost every dinner. Brings tears to my eyes now, because for the first time, I found people who extravagantly did something audacious with the table on a consistent basis. They got it. They got me.

The #glitterbomb couple #rickywhitney and me at their last Epic Table in their apartment.

And at that time in my life the table became a life raft of hope and peace thrown to me. It was deeply healing for so many reasons, and I am forever grateful for their audacious decision to do something “crazy” and out-of-the-box.

A new season of Epic Table has begun.

In July, Ricky and Whitney hopped a plane and crossed an ocean to Bangladesh to volunteer for one of the world’s largest refugee camps in the world for the next year. They sold their apartment, and I took up the torch in Strawberry Hill to keep the movement going.

When I say you are welcome, I mean it.

I believe the table is a powerful thing: the way it nourishes us, builds community, fosters belonging, heals broken hearts, provokes meaningful interactions, and forces us to engage with those we wouldn’t in any other setting. It levels the playing field, and levels out our over-stressed nervous system. It is a place to be safe and seen. It encourages us be vulnerable, to believe the best in people, and to live a full and abundant life. We laugh often, eat always, grow beautifully, cry sometimes and just connect.

You don’t have to come to Epic Table, because I realize that’s a difficult thing for some people. If more comfortable for you, be encouraged to start a tradition of your own to meet with people around a table on a consistent basis. You will be so grateful you did. I also want you to know you are undeniably welcome around Epic Table.

Let me say that again: YOU ARE WELCOME.

The reason I shout Epic Table from the rafters so much is because I am tired of not living a full and abundant life, and I have a sneaky suspicion you feel the same way. Ricky and Whitney made space for something truly transformative to happen, and it is my joy and honor to carry on that legacy.

There is no catch, no bait and switch, no fine print. Epic Table was started with the understanding that if the proverbial and physical space is created, the rest takes care of itself. And that’s the only goal.

Come as you are. Come as you. Come.

New Beginning

A spotlight shines quietly over an empty stage where a lone microphone waits.

It’s time.

It’s taken blood, sweat and a lot of tears to get to this moment – this very uncertain, unknown, exhilarating moment.

My moment.

Our moment.

I peak through the curtains stage right, palms sweating and surveying the dimly lit gymnasium, thankful for the natural light streaming in. Chairs are lined in mostly straight lines, and a few friendly faces fill those seats. Some family and friends who know and love me. I smile. I am not just doing this for me; I am doing this for them. But it is also because of them I can find the courage to even be here.

I wonder who will fill the remaining seats. What new faces will come. I get a little nervous.

I read a quote recently – one that I have been encouraged to adopt as daily reading. It reads:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” – Marianne Williamson

One of the first real pictures I took of myself after working
KC Fashion Week’s Fall Show 2018.
This was a significant moment.

I believe in the power of story. So, this is mine.

How do I possibly begin to summarize the roller coaster that has been the past 7-8 years? Not to mention, the last 2 1/2 of those years. Phrases like peaks but mostly valleys, hopeless disappointment, crippling exhaustion, and “at the end of my rope” are a start. And my goodness, the waiting. #canigetanamen

This took a noticeable toll on my body too. Oh, and let’s not forget the ever-popular aging process. I spent an entire year hiding from cameras. And crying a lot.

Then one day this past fall, while I was volunteering for the first time ever for Kansas City Fashion Week’s fall show, I looked at the models walking the runway, and realized, “I can do that.”

I had been told in my 20s that I should model. But I did not see what they saw, and I imagined only mockery, heckling, and pointing and laughing in my direction. I imagined my worst nightmare. My answer was always no.

“Who the hell does this girl think she is?”

“She looks just like my sister, random acquaintance, that one girl on that one TV show, the cashier at the grocery store, every other girl I have ever known in my life. She is not unique looking.”

“She’s not that pretty. Or in shape. Or talented.”

“I thought she was a good girl. Good girls don’t ever do, say, experience that or this or god-forbid THAT (whatever “that” may be to someone).”

Armed with the hard work of therapy and inner healing, I am embarking on arguably the worst and best timed modeling career (or whatever this turns out to be). I started trying out for shows, and walked my first ever show a couple weeks ago!

But this isn’t just about modeling (again, or whatever this is).

This is about the next chapter of my life. This is about me becoming me.

I’ll chat about modeling, networking (because I love showing off the amazing people in my life), vulnerable moments, health and wellness, beliefs, business ventures and advocacy (I sell Beauty Counter, so it’s bound to make an appearance every once in a while), probably a smidge of controversy, as much laughter as possible, maybe a man. Whatever, and come what may.

I believe it is time to share my story, because I also believe this is many of yours – this journey of shedding the old and walking into the new.

It’ll be messy and imperfect, but it’ll be worth it. You may love me now and not like me later, or vice versa. You may question my morals, judge my version of beauty, be brought to tears, or walk away feeling refreshed and empowered to finally be you. One thing this won’t be is squeaky clean. Consider this your friendly warning.

As dramatic as this may sound, I believe it is time to be seen. I feel like many of you can relate. I mostly hope this may (possibly, hopefully, definitely) serve, empower and compel you to flex your you-muscles to a waiting world. For me, there is no glory to settling for the sidelines or sitting in the cheap seats. #brenebrown I am drawing a line in the sand. And I am asking you to cross it with me.

Please cross it with me.

Is this audacious? Possibly.

Necessary? Absolutely.

Scary? Hell yeah.

Encouraging, uplifting, empowering? My greatest hope and reward.

Happy Blog Launch Day.
– Filling Station on Gillham –

As I begin my walk onto that creaky wooden stage leaving my veiled existence behind, I think about how everything up unto this point matters. I know I don’t have it all figured out, and I fear the criticisms and the misunderstandings. I left my speech notes backstage, and I’m excited where this may go. I know Marianne is right – playing small does not serve the world. I smile to myself knowingly – I am right where I am meant to be.

I reach the microphone, adjust the stand, tap it to make sure it’s on…

And open my mouth to speak.