Simple Life

I’m not exactly sure why I stopped writing. I probably have more to say right now at this point in my life than I ever have. And second only to dance, writing is my therapy. So, here I go… my first attempt to put into words how the past seven months have forever changed my life.

If I’m being completely honest, and why hide anything at this point, Shaun and I were starting to talk about an exit strategy. After almost three years on St. John, we were starting to get the itch to try something new. In 2014, when we sold our home and our things and made plans to move to the Caribbean, we intended to get a little life “reset” that we predicted would amount to six months to a year on the island before we snapped back into reality and assumed some sort of a normal life again. We never thought that after one year we would be only beginning to discover what life had in store for us and what we were capable of achieving in our (not so) new home.

Back in August we began thinking of a plan. We may be “those crazy people” who moved to an island, but we are Type A, strategic planners. And guess what? Mindfully moving yourselves, your animals, and your life to a tropical island isn’t easy or for the faint of heart. In similar strategic fashion, we begin thinking of the logical timeframe for our next move. We made a list of possible destinations. The list was short- Hawaii. We’d heard enough amazing accounts of life in Maui in particular that we were sold. We started planning for when we could take a trip across the world to check out our future home. And no, you’re not misunderstanding… we’ve never been to Hawaii but were seriously considering a move there.

Then there was the subject of work. Shaun was working for a huge hospitality company, and we were hoping that maybe a transfer would be possible. My job was a different story. In March of 2016, I gave birth to what I call my accidental dream come true. I’ve shared a lot about Twerk and Tone, so I won’t bore you with the details of how it filled my heart with such overwhelming joy that some days I actually thought my heart would explode. I won’t go into how I eagerly anticipated every Monday morning, because it was truly my life’s greatest joy to enter into the studio and teach classes.  I’ll just say that consciously leaving that behind was what I knew would be the most difficult part of leaving St. John.

Enter Molly. The answer to my prayer. Several weeks before, I was contacted by the most positive, exuberant young woman who said she had been following me on Instagram and was hoping to work with me in some capacity. She explained that teaching fitness classes in college had brought her the same indescribable feeling that I knew so well. Molly was set to move to the island in October. In my mind, I was already thinking of how I’d train her and we’d collaborate to make Twerk and Tone even better and offer even more to the amazing community of men and women and teenagers I served. I had a dream that Molly would want to take over when I left or, if not, that I’d spend the next few months looking for the perfect person. In my mind, the transition would be almost seamless.

On Monday, September 4, I taught my last two Twerk and Tone Cardio Sculpt classes on St. John. I remember saying “I’m so sad that we can’t dance tomorrow night, but they are apparently coming to board up the studio later today.” The ladies in my 7am class (my heart) and I agreed that worst case scenario, we’d be back in the studio end of the week or early the following week. I taught my 9am class and said the same sort of “goodbye” at the end. I had lunch at Cruz Bay Landing with my friend Degs. I remember sharing with her that I had the itch to leave. I remember crying to her and my island children, Marci and Katie, about how I was feeling so torn with all of the emotions. I felt guilty for wanting to leave when I had created my dream job and quite possibly, my dream life, on St. John.

Later that day, I received a Facebook message from my friend Parrish. He asked if Shaun and I were still on island. Sure we are, I replied. Parrish offered to contact his friend whose family owned a plane to see if they could possibly come and get us. I remember thinking that is the sweetest and most dramatic idea I’ve ever heard.

We had “prepared” for the pending storm, “Irma”, by buying water and canned goods and such, and, like most everyone else, were anticipating the storm turning before it struck us. Shaun and I never watched much TV while on island, and we were living in a temporary apartment at the time while our apartment floor was being re-tiled. We didn’t have wi-fi or cable, so we didn’t see any weather reports. I guess no one else did either, because we went to bed Monday night unalarmed despite the fact that a Category 3 hurricane was heading our way.

Tuesday, September 5, I awoke to several alarming texts and Facebook messages. It appeared that the Category 3 storm was now a Category 5 and it wasn’t turning. It was headed straight for us. I have to give credit to my island girls’ real mother or as we like to call her “Continental Mom,” Laura, whose motherly intuition had kicked in several days before, and she had wisely booked Marci and Katie plane tickets to leave island.

Henry, my Scottie, was 13 at the time. He was sick. He’d had a GI bug for a couple of days, and on Tuesday it had gotten much worse. He was having nearly uncontrollable diarrhea and vomiting episodes that I now appreciate as his sixth sense. That was at my house. Meanwhile, around us, people were starting to freak out. I mean really freak. Katie and Marci had made their way to St. Thomas to fly out. There was word of the car ferry stopping service soon. There were rumors that the people ferry wouldn’t be running for much longer. Commercial flights were beginning to get canceled. Katie and Marci called me from the airport saying they doubted their flight would actually take off.

What the girls reported next horrified me. They said they had witnessed frantic, hysterical people, begging strangers to take their children on the flights that were still leaving. People were literally trying to give their babies to strangers to take them to somewhere safe.

I knew I had to act fast, so I contacted Parrish and asked if he would call his friend and ask about coming to get us. He did, and while his friend’s jet wasn’t available, Parrish provided me with contact info for three plane brokers. I don’t really think it registered at the time what I was actually doing, but I began calling the brokers. I’ll never forget what the first one asked me: “What kind of plane do you want us to send and where do you want to go?”

Since I didn’t know the names of any aircraft and I hadn’t stopped to think through any of this, I just said “We need to get to America. Wherever you can take us. Tell me how many people fit on the plane and I’ll try to fill the seats.”

I’ll spare the details of the next couple of hours but it involved more anxiety, more tears, and more coordination than any effort I’ve ever undertaken. You know how Chris Harrison from the Bachelor always says it was the most dramatic thing ever? Well, it actually was. It was the most horrific, stressful, dramatic, roller coaster of a day I’ve even experienced. One broker confirmed that he was sending a plane out of Curacao but called minutes later to report that the St. Thomas airport was closing even earlier and the plane couldn’t get there and back out in time.

I’ll never forget Zoe, the broker from NYC, who promised the plane was coming for us, out of Jacksonville, FL. I doubted her because of what had happened with the other plane, but Zoe assured me the plane would be there for us.

I’m not emotionally prepared at this time to share what else happened that day and the series of events that unfolded after I booked the flight, but one day soon I hope to be able to write about that. I also can’t yet fully articulate what unfolded the next few days, but time is healing and even writing this much has been a cathartic exercise for me.

On September 5th, I boarded a private plane with Henry, Logan, Katie, Marci, Hunt and Chapman (who were visiting the island) and left my life behind. I didn’t know that would be it. I remember Katie and I couldn’t stop crying. I remember how sick Henry was and being so worried about him having an accident on the plane. I remember not looking back for a final glance at my home. I remember crying the happiest tears when America was in our sights. I remember the gridlocked interstates in Miami and how we got our flight pattern changed so that we could continue on the same plane with the crew to Jacksonville.

Upon arriving in Jacksonville, we were greeted by the operations manager of the little private airport. I cry every time I share this part of the story. He said, “Welcome to Jacksonville. Guys, I am so glad we were able to get you out of there. We were eleven minutes away from not being able to send this plane.”

Nothing has been the same since that day. The past six months have been overwhelmingly sad. Some days it seems that the sadness won’t lift. I feel like I am rereading a chapter in my life over and over again, and I can’t seem to move on. I miss my simple life so much. I miss Twerk and Tone. I oscillate between grief, anger, sadness, and hope. I’ve identified the three things I miss most about my life, and I’ll share that soon as well.

I mentioned that I was starting to think of an exit strategy in the spirit of full disclosure. It’s easy to act like life was perfect and we had it all figured out on the island. It’s better to act like we had no intention of ever leaving. Why? I don’t know. Maybe I think it’ll make people more empathetic. Maybe I want people to understand how hard all of this has been for us. Maybe I’m ashamed that I was starting to feel antsy on that beautiful piece of paradise. Maybe I feel guilty and just need to get it off my chest.

I think the real reason I’ve decided to share that part of the story is that going through a natural disaster has taught me many lessons. I’ve learned empathy on a greater level than I ever knew. I feel things more deeply. I desire a stronger, more meaningful connection with people. But the main thing Hurricane Irma and then Hurricane Maria taught me is that we are never fully in control of the outcome of our life. We think we are. Especially the Type A, strategic thinking, methodical planning, control freaks like me.

What I want to say is I’ve learned is to live every day to its fullest. I want to say that I’ve been celebrating my health and my ability to bounce back with grace and strength. But honestly, I haven’t. I’ve felt broken and sad and lost and confused. I am having an especially hard time attempting to assume a “normal” life that I don’t feel like I got to choose.

But with each day, I see a new reason to connect and to love and to put myself out there. Today I connected with my friend Carla who said to me in 2013 when I shared with her that we were thinking of moving to an island: “Once you do the thing you’re most afraid of, everything else is easy.” Those words resonate with me in a big way. I want, more than ever, to help show others that life is full of options. That stepping outside of your comfort zone is the only way to live life fully.  That taking big risks are worth it, regardless of the outcome. That the more experiences you have, the better. I am praying that I will be able to continue to connect with people and share my story in hopes of inspiring others to live their best life now.

My goal for myself and for you if you’re reading this and going though pain and suffering is to believe that this too shall pass. Everything- really, everything- is temporary.

Martina McBride (or whoever wrote her song) says it much better than I can:

You can spend your whole life building

Something from nothin’

One storm can come and blow it all away

Build it anyway

The world’s gone crazy

It’s hard to believe

That tomorrow will be better than today

Believe it anyway.

ashley cates

ashley cates

ashley cates

ashley cates

ashley cates

simple life

ashley cates

  • Scott Harrelson
    March 19, 2018

    Great read! Are you guys still living in Wrightsville Beach? Just wondering how you are settling in. If you two want to visit Charleston sometime give us a shout.

  • Lindsay
    March 14, 2018

    I cannot begin to imagine what you and so many others have gone thru before, during and after the storms hit. I enjoy reading your blog and this post gave me a lump in my throat. Sending love and positive vibes to you!

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