Nora Livingstone on Everest in Nepal

I think it started when he explained he had been lying to himself about his feelings for me. It may have been when he told me he hadn’t loved me for the past year. Or maybe when he told me he was in love with someone else. I’m not sure when the volcano of tears, snot, and emotion started to build up in my face but I know when it came out. When I realized our engagement was off and the plans we had made to get married, buy a house, and have kids wasn’t going to happen. The stable life I had tried to build on the shaky foundations of this relationship was collapsing under the weight of my high expectations and my desperate need to cling on to something.

Intellectually I knew I would be okay but my heart wasn’t convinced.

It would be years later when I realized I wasn’t just going to survive, I was going to thrive. Just as the break up was an acute breaking of heart and spirit, this realization was an acute moment of clarity and empowerment. It was the moment I saw the words: “I’m sorry” pop up on Facebook and my heart didn’t flutter, my heart didn’t even care. Why? Not JUST because I had grown, moved on, changed my dream, served other people, hugged animals, leaned into God, survived that mess but also because I had just gotten back from Everest.

We were together for more years than anyone thought we would be and getting over him took more than I truly wanted to admit. I dated other people, tried to find wholeness in relationships, alcohol, and everything else. The only thing I hadn’t tried was getting up and physically moving on. So I did. I bought a ticket to Nepal and took off. I started volunteering with different groups so I could give back and so I could meet people in this strange and beautiful new country. I ended up staying months to volunteer with kids, a medical clinic, and a dog welfare group. I served these groups and lived with families, finding more acceptance and love in every new door I walked through.

The animal welfare group was truly the most healing experience of the whole trip. I spent my mornings grooming and socializing the dogs and the afternoon helping with administrative tasks, paperwork, and design work. I had no business doing any of it; I wasn’t sure how to groom a dog who had mange (I ended up getting it a few times), I certainly didn’t know how to socialize them (turns out, you just walk them, rub their bellies, and cry into their fur when you are sad), and I don’t have any design experience (title pages in grade 8 absolutely don’t count). But the dogs wagged their tails when they saw me, the other volunteers took me out for my birthday, and the staff members laughed along with me when I would leave every day covered in drool with a huge grin on my face.

My trip to Nepal was originally a way for me to escape my sadness in beautiful vistas but it became a healing place—where I could treat others the way I longed to be treated. The discarded dogs all had heartbreaking stories of abandonment. Humans had treated them with a serious lack of grace and empathy. This was my chance to change their story, redeem their lives, and show them they were worth it. I felt like each dog was a mirror into my sadness, it was my responsibility to show them they had value, they had worth, they had love, and in doing so I started showing myself the same thing. These dogs weren’t any less lovable because they didn’t have homes and I wasn’t any less lovable because I didn’t have him. The more shifts I did, the more I healed.

The more love I gave to them, the more love I felt—from them and from myself. 

I met someone on one of my shifts who wanted to trek to Everest and I couldn’t think of a better way to end my months in Nepal. We went together. It was winter in Nepal, so it was perfect conditions for a heartbroken, ice-queen Canadian. As I walked to the largest thing in the world, my problems seemed smaller and smaller. Was it because the mountains were getting bigger and bigger? Or was it because I was thinking less about him and more about the wonderful families I had lived with and the dogs I snuggled while volunteering?

Every night we laughed with the people we stayed with, during the day we sang Ace of Base, I hugged yaks, we took selfies in front of the largest mountains on the planet, and when we got to Everest I took a nap. We weren’t there on anyone else’s time or for any other purpose but to see something big. I think it was the first time I had ever actually done that, just did something for myself. Time heals a broken heart, that is absolutely true, but so does perspective and so do acts of service. Nepal taught me to not only give love, but also accept it. When my world was about myself orbiting around him, my world was small. When he left emotionally and then I left geographically I saw the world was much bigger and yes there was pain but there was much more love out there. When I got a message from him saying he was sorry, I realized that I wasn’t.

I was happy.

At that moment I realized acutely that my broken heart wasn’t so broken anymore. I was given a wonderful moment of clarity and insight. I, the victim of this circumstance, the person he had cheated on and lied to and left, somewhere along the line became happy again. The story I was telling people was wrong. I wasn’t this broken shell of a person, left at (almost) the altar. I was insanely, richly, deep down happy over my circumstances. It wasn’t because he was replaced by someone, it was because I was able to find myself once he was gone. I had clung onto what he could do for me rather than what I could do for others and what I could do for myself.

Thank God he broke my heart, I thought. If he hadn’t, I would be in the suburbs picking out paint swatches. Would I have been happy there? Maybe. But would I be fulfilled? Would I understand the feeling of being valued? Would I have made these individual dogs’ lives better? Would I have started a new educational campaign that is still being used by this organization? Would I have laughed so hard with my host family that I actually peed (just a little)? Would I have gotten to Everest by my own two feet? No. None of those things would have happened.

When I left Nepal I traveled and volunteered more, so much that I started a company about traveling and volunteering. My life was not better only because he broke up with me, my life was better because I used that freedom to find myself. Now I can help empower other people find their freedom, their voice, and themselves while traveling and volunteering—in Nepal and around the world!

Thank God for dogs, travel, Everest, and break ups. 

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About The Author

Nora Livingstone's picture

Nora Livingstone is the Co-Founder and CEO of Animal Experience International, a B Corp that matches animal lovers with beneficial and adventurous volunteer experiences around the world. She has volunteered with animals in more than 25 countries, including Croatia, Mongolia, Sierra Leone, and Guatemala. Nora holds a double major from Trent University in Environmental Studies and Cultural Anthropology and holds internationally recognized certifications for guiding, leadership, crisis intervention, and deployment during natural disasters. She carries a tiny plastic horse and stuffed mouse with her every time she travels.

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