What I Learned in 2017

It’s hard to pinpoint a single truth at which I arrived in 2017. This year worked its magic in an unusual and novel way. Transformation occurred slowly and surreptitiously, disguised by the challenges and heartbreak that found their way to me this year. Suddenly, however, I was on the other side of it all – a little bit scuffed up, but stronger nonetheless. For this post, I wanted to articulate some of the heftier lessons I’ve abstracted from my experiences this year, in a way that I hope is relatable. These little big truths hold a lot of personal meaning to me and provide momentary glimpses into my inner world. I hope they can mean something to you, too.

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Travel light. This one is simple, but when it’s time to move onward, whether from a physical place or another human being or even a frame of mind, take little with you. Leave behind your guilt, resentment, and fear if you can. I’m no stranger to loss and change, and I’ve learned there is freedom in traveling light. It’s easier said than done, but challenge yourself to embrace the new, and bring nothing with you but an open heart and mind when life calls for it. Otherwise, you may miss out on golden opportunities and experiences.

Be different. Although it comes with an inexplicable loneliness at times, being different is the best damn thing you could possibly be. I can see the ways that being different is beautiful and useful in this world. I remember that when choosing a certain path less traveled, there is potential for great unmet and untamed beauty, despite the many thorns and brambles. I hold onto this truth, and it hurts a bit less. It would be easy to carve myself down to fit in, but I’d be doing myself the biggest disservice. I love all the different parts of me, especially the ones that don’t quite fit perfectly in this world. They have home within me, and that’s enough.

Love damn hard. Specific life experiences have opened me to the belief that a certain type of universal, beautiful, eye-opening love is available to those who are willing to risk their hearts for it. Though it includes romantic love, it’s certainly not limited to it, and I choose to risk my heart each time I open it to a relationship with another sick child. Unfortunately, many of these friendships come with expiration dates, but I risk the inevitable grief and pain for a chance at love. A chance to make a meaningful contribution to a life cut much, much too short. I feel an obligation to sit with people through their suffering, and the only way to do this is to simply let them in and love them damn hard.

Don’t look the other way. I used to curse myself in my youth when I was too shy to approach people, especially kids my age sitting alone in the cafeteria. Once I overcame this shyness, reaching out to people in need became second nature. Turning away was no longer an option, and I felt called to the front lines, to the very source of the suffering. The truth is: you have to get yourself good and uncomfortable sometimes. To help anyone, you may have to put yourself in situations that are difficult to digest or look at. It may even break your heart… But be brave enough to put yourself there. Be brave enough not to look the other way. There are people in this world enduring unfathomable suffering – I’ve seen it with my own eyes. Your compassion can truly make a world of difference to a struggling soul.

Be a badass. Some circumstances this year left me feeling more vulnerable and disempowered than ever before, and I hated not feeling quite like myself. Being a badass involves finally getting out of my own way again, diving headfirst into my passions, paying less mind to what others are doing or saying or thinking, and living with more intent. It involves lots of focus and heart and determination to make the world better. On some more difficult days, however, being a badass is simply having the courage to get out of bed in the morning, and that’s okay. There’s something to say about living unapologetically, so I’m going to be a badass again this year. It’s about time.

Keep it light. In the midst of all the struggle that can accompany life on earth, it’s so important to maintain a sense of humor about it all too. There are moments that require seriousness and strength and grit, and I’m one to dive deep when necessary, but we will drive ourselves absolutely insane if we take this whole trip too seriously. There is humor to be found in the divine serendipity of this life, and we should embrace our inner wild and weird and goofy as often as we possibly can. We’ll live longer too.

Keep it kind. At the end of the day, I’m far more impressed by the way you treat people than by your looks, your social status, or your Instagram feed. I’m impressed by your real and your genuine and your kind (in the real world). A good heart is the attribute I admire most in a human – it trumps intelligence, success, and appearance by a landslide. Unfortunately, I had some disheartening encounters this year, with people that were less than kind to me. Though it was painful, no doubt, I would take a hit from a bully any day if it meant that someone else was saved from it. It shatters my heart to see the way that we humans treat other humans, but in honor of those who have yet to master something as fundamental as kindness, I will work even harder to plant the seeds for a kinder world.

There’s so much to look forward to this year… I have some planned trips and secret projects underway, and I’ll be releasing a new, professionally produced single very soon. I’ll continue my amazing weekly trips to the LA Ronald McDonald House, where I give ukulele lessons and play games with the kids receiving treatment at the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles. Good things are in the works, and I feel em’ coming my way.

If you made it this far, thank you so much for reading. You da bomb. I hope you have a great 2018!

Nicole

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Coming Home to Yourself

It has been a whirlwind of a year. The latter half of 2016 and the first part of 2017 were filled with events that pushed the boundaries of my experience. This time was expansive, exciting, sometimes uncomfortable, as are most things that propel us out of our comfort zones. Overall, it was wonderful, and I am grateful for every experience, whether it was positive or negative or anywhere in between.

And now, my body is calling me to creative stillness. It is calling me inward, homeward. To listen, to breathe, and to be still. And I must honor this calling, or else I will lose balance. When my body calls for rest, I sleep. When I wish to be alone, I seek solitude. When I want to write, I write, and when I don’t want to write, I honor that as well. The body’s rhythms are delicate, and many of us have numbed ourselves to its nuances. We feel burned out and uninspired because we have neglected to take the time to listen and feed the aspects of ourselves that are begging for our attention and awareness.

This process of homing, returning, introverting… it requires us to be honest with ourselves. We must drop our pretenses, let go of any our personal expectations of who we think we should be. We must be willing to do the work, to purge the toxic emotions that keep us in the same cycles of fear, resentment, listlessness, and doubt. We must nurture and soothe the unhealed parts of ourselves and act on the inner callings to take action in ways that align with our souls. Whatever your body and soul are urging you to do, this is your time to do it.

If we don’t honor ourselves and our needs, we will never truly become who we need to be. We will always fall short of our truest potential if we march to the rhythm of the world, or even the rhythm of those around us. We are all different, and thus we all have different requirements for self-care and self-expression that we must uphold. Not everyone will understand your personal needs, but if these boundaries are critical for your well-being, don’t hesitate to make them clear without compromise. You should never have to apologize to others for who you are and what you need as a human being. This is something I am still practicing, as I have often sacrificed my own needs to make others comfortable or happy. However, I am learning that if others fail to respect me, it may just be that their needs differ from my own, or perhaps they have yet to expand the scope of their compassion and understanding to those who are different from themselves. Just remember that you are never at fault for being who you are.

I believe there is a time to sing and dance, and a time to listen and be still. Whatever place you are on your path, honor it. You deserve that sort of unconditional self-love.

 

“be easy.

take your time.

you are coming

home.

to yourself.”

–the becoming

A New West Coast Life

Hello beautiful readers!
After a short hiatus, I am back, ready to supply you with a regular dose of writing! At this very moment, I am flying back to the beautiful Los Angeles to close out my first semester at USC, after which I’ll be making a stop in Denver for a few days before I return to Chicago to spend the holidays with my family.

In retrospect, these past few months have been some of the most influential and transformative of my life thus far. I can guarantee that it has not been a perfect ride, as is life. However, each lesson has served as a tool for personal growth, and for that, I am very grateful. As the semester comes to a close, I can certainly say that I am emerging a bit wiser, a little more grounded and aligned with my heart than when I began. I feel a renewed sense of purpose and clarity as I reflect on all that has transpired since I first left the comfort of midwestern suburbia for a life on the west coast.

In terms of how I want to spend my time here, I’ve had to make some important decisions. I’m currently working on filtering out all the excess and unnecessary parts of my life that distract me from what brings me true joy and what I came here to do – work hard, make music, and help kids. Simple as that. Naturally, there are many distractions at this school and in this town, and the temporary joy I’ve felt in Greek life is very illusory and fleeting. It does not compare to the deep joy that I feel when I establish a meaningful connection with a child or create a piece of music that moves people. While Greek life can be a wonderful experience for many, it hasn’t sat right with me. The discomfort and cognitive dissonance I’ve experienced the past couple months have only revealed to me what I really desire and crave in this lifetime – true connection, unconditional friendship, a purposeful life, love. Anything else, I believe, is a waste of my very precious time.

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Taken on a solo bike ride in Santa Monica.

Despite a few small setbacks, including a classic case of mono (a college rite of passage?), I often remind myself to take a step back in gratitude for this dream that I worked so incredibly hard for. Five-year-old me planted the seed, and I’ve worked tirelessly since to cultivate my California dream and make it a tangible reality. For this exciting and novel time of my life, I cannot imagine myself in any other city, studying at any other university. USC is perfect, abounding in opportunity for ambitious and hard-working kids, from all backgrounds, with a desire to make valuable contributions to the world. And Los Angeles… with mountains to its right, ocean to the left, and a music scene so rich and vibrant for an aspiring singer-songwriter like myself, it is a dream. Sigh, the west coast just hums in synchronicity with my soul. It is everything I’ve ever wanted and everything that I need.

I’m looking forward to what the next semester holds for me. I’ve had some plans and ideas brewing inside me for some time, and I can’t wait to immerse myself in what really sparks my joy. For those of you reading this, whoever you may be (I truly have no idea. For only having written a few posts, I somehow have readers on every continent – except Antarctica – and 56 countries!), thank you for taking time out of your day to listen to my thoughts. I promise to write and post more often.

Have a great day.
Nicole

To the Good Souls in a Harsh World

This post is dedicated to those of you who remain good, kind, and loving, even when this strange and beautiful world cannot be good, kind, and loving to you. You are not alone.

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I’ve had some new thoughts arise lately, particularly in response to some small disappointments. I hate to say it, but it feels as if I’m pretty consistently met with people who challenge my strength, temperament, and empathy, those who try to take advantage of my good nature. I truly love to give people the benefit of the doubt whenever I can, but my soft heart can only be mishandled and mistreated so many times before it gives up and retreats. So, as I always do when I find myself sinking into this kind of sadness, I do my best to make light of the situation, remembering that although hate seems to be such an ever-present force in this world, it can never really drive the love out of my heart. Love is what I came here to do after all, and even in moments like these when my faith in humanity runs low, I feel the love pulsing through my veins.

Being human is not always sunshine and rainbows, but I’m determined to make the most of it, extracting as much wisdom as I can from my earthly experiences. I’ve learned that not everyone will understand my purpose. Not everyone will reciprocate my kindness, and not everyone will love me or speak the truth. But that is okay. I am confident in my mission to plant seeds of love and kindness everywhere on this earth, and when it feels as if the world has turned its back on me, I remain steadfast in my purpose, continuing onward against the current. Whatever obstacles may appear, I am resilient and self-reliant, remembering that at the end of the day all I have is my own soul to fall back on. Anything can be stripped away at any moment, people will come and go, but what remains is my beating heart, reminding me that I’m alive, guiding me through the dark.

When the going gets rough, I allow myself to take a step back. This path I walk, though long and winding at times, has led me to spectacular places I had only dreamt of years ago. I would be foolish not to hold gratitude in my heart for my life and all the opportunities that have presented themselves along the way. Although this journey may be nowhere near perfect, I believe it is this imperfect culmination of both good and bad that makes it real. It makes it human. Over time, I’ve even found the lows to be as formative as the peaks, since they offer a fresh perspective and so many opportunities for growth. If you ever find yourself in these valleys, feeling as if the world has forgotten how to love you, do not let the momentary darkness lead you astray from your true self and benevolent nature. It is only temporary. Remember that when the world is not forgiving, you still are. When the world is not patient, you still are. When the people you love have forgotten how to love you, love them regardless, with a fierceness and unconditionality that they may never know. Let your warmth continue to thaw the icy hearts of those around you. Allow your love to radiate, and stretch your arms outward to those in need of your kind touch. You are a lot more capable than you realize. You are everything you need and more.

My Friendship with Delaney Clements

This blog post is probably one of the most difficult I will ever write. The pain is fresh, my heart is supple, and there are never the right words for something so incomprehensibly large. A love that runs this deep cannot be articulated. It is big and important, and I feel it with every fiber of my being… So, I’m just going to do my best to tell the story from start to finish and let it speak for itself. And hopefully it makes you feel something. This one’s for you Delaney.

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My first weekend with Delaney was in April of 2015. She was fighting a ruthless battle with Stage IV Neuroblastoma, when the Truth 365 (a Washington, D.C.-based childhood cancer organization) brought us together, along with four other girls, for a special social media campaign. We all became instant best friends, and in a matter of moments these girls evolved from mere strangers to sisters, partners in crime, and confidantes. Our sleepover was epic, to say the least. Forever etched in my mind is the memory of Delaney, snuggled up against me on the couch, in a bout of hysterical laughter. Everyone had fallen asleep, but Delaney and I stayed up laughing, sharing secrets, writing our initials on each other’s wrists in permanent marker, and pulling pranks on our unsuspecting friends. We remained awake well past midnight, despite the impending 5 am wake-up call for the airport. It didn’t matter that I would be a zombie the next day or that my eyes would be an unceasing stream of tears the following week (because I loved this girl that much). I was going to be present, I was going to give her all my love and attention, and I was going to make the most of this precious time together. This was the start of something real and magical, and I knew I would never get the time back.

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About seven months later, we received the devastating news that Delaney was out of treatment options. After several relapses and a mighty battle against an awful disease, she was sent home on hospice to die. It was excruciating to see her pain and feel helpless in my ability to alleviate it. However, there were glimmers of hope as Taylor Swift made a surprise appearance in her home, and she was able to take a few last trips with her family. We stayed in contact over text and Oovoo (similar to FaceTime but can include more than two people), and it was reassuring to know that our friendship, regardless of the distance, could bring her some form of joy.

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In March, Delaney decided at the last moment that she wanted to be alive and present at the Celebration of Life she had spent some time planning for herself. So, my sister and I packed our bags and made the most important trek of our lives from Chicago to Grand Junction, Colorado to see our sweet friend one last time. When we arrived in Denver, an amazing family took us in for the night. The next day we made a long, yet beautiful and scenic, voyage through the Rocky Mountains to see our favorite girl. As hours of breathtaking canyon and mountain passed by, I had time to really process the weight of this moment. I thought about how the stars had lined up almost too perfectly for Delaney and these amazing people to enter my life. I thought about the way each soul has served as a mirror to teach me more about myself than I imagined humanly possible. I thought about life and death and everything in between. This was it.

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When we saw Delaney, we all had to be brave for her. Even in the last weeks of her life, her spirit still shined. But she was tired. She was dying. There is nothing pretty about it. We rubbed her back and held her hand. We watched her best friend Bryleigh, with all the grace and dignity in the world, nurse and take care of her dying friend. We witnessed Delaney’s strong and beautiful mom Wendy, who not only did absolutely everything for Delaney but also made sure her two other children were loved and taken care of. When it was time for the Celebration, I helped untangle Delaney’s tubes and slip on her sparkly blue dress. I told her she looked beautiful, which she humbly and exhaustedly denied, but I meant it with all of me. Delaney mustered up all of the energy she could to enjoy the night. She slow danced with her boyfriend and ate cotton candy. She was surrounded by loved ones and best friends. The next morning, when it was time to say our very last goodbyes, I hugged her and kissed her cheek and told her I loved her. That was the last time I looked into her beautiful eyes.

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My time with Delaney was beautiful beyond expression, and I keep my conversations and memories of her in a very special place in a very special corner of my heart. She was so beautiful, kind, radiant, joyful that my heart tripled in size upon meeting her and never quite returned to its old dimensions. In our short time together, a thirteen year old girl taught me a love so real and enormous that nothing in my life will ever amount to something of that proportion ever again. I miss Delaney so much. I miss her laugh, especially… But often I wonder what I did to deserve her friendship. She has touched so many people indirectly, but to be one of her best friends is the single greatest honor of my life.

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I love you Delaney… You came to Earth on a mission to teach the world unconditional love, and you succeeded. Because of you, I see the importance of filling my days with joy and purpose. I’ve learned to celebrate each day. And dance.

You gave me something to believe in. 

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Chia Seed Pudding Parfait

Chia seed pudding is one of my favorite breakfasts. It’s vegan, gluten free, and packed with antioxidants, fiber, protein, omega-3’s, and deliciousness. Chia seed pudding works its magic overnight and is ready to go when you wake up, which is especially nice as a high school senior with very little spare time in the mornings! Not only is it one less thing for me to worry about, but it makes for a great start to my day.

The best part about chia seed pudding is its versatility. You can make it a fruit parfait (like this recipe), a chocolate “sundae”, or a warm oatmeal. You can mix it with anything from almonds to matcha to mangoes. This recipe is extremely easy to make, and it’s loaded with fruity goodness. You can swap out the berries with a fruit of your choice – it’s really up to you! Try it out, and let me know what you think.

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Ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup chia seeds
  • 2 cups unsweetened vanilla almond milk
  • 1/4 tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 tablespoons sweetener (I use organic honey or 100% pure maple syrup from Trader Joe’s)
  • 2 cup berries (strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, blackberries)
  • unsweetened shredded coconut
  • sliced almonds

Instructions:

  1. Combine chia seeds, sweetener, vanilla, and almond milk in a bowl or mug. Stir well, and place in the fridge overnight (or at least three hours).
  2. Stir the mixture again when removed from the fridge. Add almond milk to your own preference if it is too thick.
  3. Top with fruit, sliced almonds, and a sprinkle of shredded coconut.
  4. Enjoy!

Stay Close to Beautiful Things

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“Once he knew what he really was, he looked around at other humans and the rest of nature, and he was amazed at what he saw. He saw himself in everything — in every human, in every animal, in every tree, in the water, in the rain, in the clouds, in the earth.

And he realized that everyone was dreaming, but without awareness, without knowing what they really are. They couldn’t see him as themselves because there was a wall of fog or smoke between the mirrors. And that wall of fog was made by… the Dream of humans.” – Don Miguel Ruiz

This quote from one of my favorite books of all time, The Four Agreements. It perfectly articulates the idea that we often we find ourselves stumbling along through life, living in a fog that blinds us from this simple truth: that we are beautiful, whole, and connected to everything. We work tedious jobs, complete trivial tasks, and live unsatisfactory lives, but this is the nature of our human existence, since societal conditioning, the mind, ego, and the illusion of our world all withhold us from seeing our true essence. I know that deep down unconditional love beats through our hearts, but as humans, our physical bodies are not equipped to easily fathom this sort of truth. So, we fall victim to listlessness, existential depression, superficiality, and falsehood, all of which I’ve experienced, when our lives don’t align with our true passions and joy. We become crushed by the very weight of our own third-dimensional existence.

Sometimes the fog dissipates for a moment, and I see with clarity what this world is and what exactly I am here to do. I lose interest in the earthly twists, turns, and tediousness. I fall in love with the beauty of the natural world, the ancient world, the inner world. The only way for me to connect with this space, to cope with the weight of my humanity, is to follow my joy and stay close to beautiful things. Over time, I’ve come to realize that there is no use in wasting my time with anything that does not bring me happiness or contribute to the well-being of myself and others. My happiness, I’ve found, is in the simplicity. It lies in old books, writing, pastel winter skies, sunshine, flowers, yoga, giving to others, creative and intimate moments with my guitar or piano. The more I allow space and time for the activities that bring me joy, the more heart-centered and balanced I feel, the more alive in my skin, and the more grateful for the opportunity to be alive.

It is true that we do not always have to live in this fog. However, it is difficult to get outside of ourselves. It takes a brave and dauntless soul to step back and question all of the things he has been conditioned to believe. It takes a brave and dauntless soul to see beauty and surround himself with it. And, it takes a brave and dauntless soul to follow his joy and stay in his magic, especially in a world abundant in darkness. Know that there is a purpose for the chaos that is our world. Know that there is a purpose for being different and having a heart that no one understands. All you have to do is shift your perspective, and you will see the beauty that is embedded in everything. I hope this post can provide some comfort and encourage you to stay close to beauty, connect with that space within that is unabashed joy, and above all, remember who you are. So much love to you.

-Nicole Ricken