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Ever since I lived in Bradenton, several years ago, I had always wanted to go to Orlando’s Lake Eola Park. I saw things online about the farmer’s markets, craft fairs, and other events that took place there, and I always wanted to attend one of them.

The issue, though, is that attending an event at Lake Eola Park was a recipe for extreme anxiety. I have always struggled with that type of thing. And if you don’t want to read about a morning of me battling with that anxiety, click away now.

Going to a large event in the middle of a city is stressful first of all because I always have panic attacks about going to new places and not knowing where to park. I know it’s silly, but that fear alone usually keeps me from attempting to leave the house.

Second of all, I tend to freak out in large crowds (Disney being the exception). Usually, if I’m discovering a new place, it’s a park or some other place in nature where the bug-to-human ratio better suits my needs. Also, I’ve always lived far enough away from Orlando that at the point that I’m up in the area, I’d rather spend my time at Disney, which is a place I know I’ll be comfortable.

But this week, I was sick of being too scared to go new places, especially a place that’s been on my radar for years. So when I saw that there was an Earth Day event in Lake Eola Park, I rallied my mental strength and got ready to go out on Saturday morning. Environmentalism is at the heart of most of my decisions–veganism, zero waste living, photographing the beauty of Mother Earth–and I thought that there would be no better excuse to go to an event at Lake Eola than this.

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I told myself that if parking was difficult, I could drive straight home. I told myself that if I hated the event, all I had to do was spend 5 minutes walking around and then I could go straight back to the car and drive home. But I at least had to try.

So I hyperventilated on my 30-minute drive into downtown Orlando and drove around several blocks before deciding that the parking situation was chaos and I could now happily return home with the knowledge that I at least tried to attend the Earth Day celebrations.

But then I found a parking spot. With that hurdle overcome, I was ready to walk to the other side of the lake, over to the rows and rows of tents that had popped up to celebrate planet Earth.

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I walked around, mostly trying not to black out from the stress of being in such a big crowd. At one point, I did talk to a lady who specializes in organizing vegan travel groups. But other than that, I was pretty much too terrified to talk to any of the people at the tents, even though they cared about the same things I did.

Fortunately, I found the big tent where the environmental panels were taking place, and that is exactly the kind of thing I need–sitting down on my own, listening to smart people talk about issues that I’m passionate about.

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Soon, I realized that the hour I’d put on the parking meter was almost up, so I got up and walked over to the other side of the park where my car was. On the way, I found the rallying point for everyone that was there for the March for Science, which I had only vaguely heard about earlier this week and had no idea there was going to be one in Orlando.

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I haven’t attended a protest or rally for years because of the aforementioned anxiety about crowds. But science is something that I care about, and I felt like maybe I should stick around and see what this thing was about.

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After adding 3 more hours to my parking meter, I signed in with the march volunteers and found a semi-shaded spot to admire the signs and t-shirts that surrounded me while we all waited for the speakers to begin.

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Several people spoke on the stage, from community organizers to astrophysicists and even a teacher, all stressing the importance of making sure that our decisions (and those of policymakers) are informed by accurate science.

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Then we all stood up and walked around the lake, chanting and waving signs. Of course, I was still too shy to join in the chants, and I didn’t have a sign to wave, but I happily walked among the crowd, happy to be part of something that I believed in.

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Eventually we all made it back over to the Earth Day tents and people dispersed and I made it back to my car just in time before the meter ran out.

So that is how my Earth Day went from I-might-be-too-scared-to-walk-around-a-park-for-more-than-5-minutes to I-accidentally-spent-3-hours-marching-for-science. And I’m not saying that I’ve totally conquered my anxiety or anything like that. But I do think that the next rally I accidentally find myself at, I might just chant along.

Love, Elizabeth