By Kaelyn Malkoski
Carrboro Commons Co-Editor
The organization that rescues animals from the factory farming industry is something that recently interested the avid runner and yoga instructor. After being accepted for an internship with Farm Sanctuary, Griffen took a five-month leave of absence from his former job at Fleet Feet, Incorporated in Carrboro.
But this internship is more than just another job Griffen can add to his resume, which already includes service in the Army, positions as a middle school and high school special education teacher, and his work as an artist.
“My journey is about locating the hottest fires in my belly and throwing wood into those fires,” Griffen, 40, says. “I don’t want to spend my time stoking a fire that’s embers just for the sake of a paycheck or comfort, because in reality, that doesn’t make me happy.”
Passionate about art, nature, running and inspiring others, Griffen has recently reprioritized his life. No longer is he living his life under what he believes is a suffocating blanket of societal norms and expectations — instead, he is putting himself and his hobbies first.
“Life’s too short to do what you think everyone expects you to do,” says Griffen, a native of Livermore, Calif. “I’m putting a stop to it.”
Griffen credits his partner, Katie Hume, with helping him with this realization. Two years ago, he met Hume while on a run, and by the third date he knew she was someone he wanted to keep around. So, he decided to cook her a vegan dinner.
Griffen admits he didn’t even know what vegan meant. But because he enjoys the challenge of new art — and because he wanted to impress Hume — he decided to go for it.
“I love the art of something new, and [vegan] cooking was a new form of artwork that was just stupid-delicious,” Griffen says.
His meal, which included rice, vegetables, a soy product called tempeh and chocolate chip cookies, did the trick: Griffen scored a fourth date and a girlfriend who would ultimately increase his drive for happiness in his life tenfold. (For the record, since their third date, Griffen, too, has converted to veganism.)
“It [dinner] was really good,” says Hume, a Carrboro native of four years. “Plus, I was really impressed that he went into all that effort.”
Hume, 39, adds that what really attracted her to Griffen was his passion.
According to Robyn Goby Larson, director of marketing and communcations for Fleet Feet, Inc., Griffen has always had a passion and zeal for life. Larson met Griffen when he owned a Fleet Feet store in Aptos, Calif.
“I’ve never met anyone like him — he’s just a free spirit,” Larson, 42, says. “He really wants to do the right thing for himself and for everyone around him.
“He follows his heart, and right now it’s calling him in the direction of the Farm Sanctuary.”
Tom the artist
Griffen says art has always been the way he expressed his creativity, but this passion and medium of self-expression was stifled when he became an adult. He says his creative side became lost in a chaotic shuffle when he grew older and fulfilled a normal social plot that included getting “proper” jobs and attending college at The California State University in Sacramento, Calif.
However, right after Griffen graduated in 2002, he took a stint as a winery intern at Matanzas Creek Winery in Sonoma County, Calif., where for two harvests he had time to revisit some of the things that he’d left behind during his evolution into adulthood.
Waking up every morning, wafting lavender from nearby fields and listening to the trickle of a running creek behind his three-bedroom house, Griffen knew something was missing. He had been suppressing his true self, Tom the Artist, for all of these years.
So, he started to paint on scraps of wood he found in the trash.
“I painted and painted and painted,” Griffen says. “The more I painted, the more things started coming out, and a release started to happen to the point where I could get almost as good of a workout from painting as I would with running.”
Painting became a liberating routine, and when Griffen was finished with a piece — when the craziness of the painting commenced and the dust had settled — he would look at his canvas and say, “I didn’t do that.”
“But, I knew it was me, not consciously, but me subconsciously,” Griffen says. “This was the spark with my adult life.”
With this newfound knowledge that HE was what truly mattered in life, Griffen readjusted his life. He started to teach people how to run (including the “I-can’t-believe-I’m-even-running-a-mile” to “I’m-running-100-miles” folks). He opened a Fleet Feet store in Aptos. And he began to show his art.
Griffen admits that his first show at a winery in Santa Cruz, Calif., in 2009, was one of the scariest, most nerve-racking experiences of his life.
“Suddenly, the real me was on the wall,” he says. “I allowed myself to be vulnerable for the first time in my adult life — maybe even in my life.”
A smarter Santa Cruz
Shortly after his first show, Griffen moved to Carrboro, a “smarter Santa Cruz without a coast,” as he calls it, to work at Fleet Feet’s corporate headquarters. Griffen still paints, primarily with oil and acrylic on canvas, and shows his work at the Carrboro Art Walk, held on the second Friday of each month.
Although his art exposes what is inside of him, Griffen says that it’s cathartic to open up and not hide behind what he thinks he needs to do or thinks he needs to be.
“You need to ask yourself, ‘What matters to ME?’” Griffen says.
Speaker, writer, endurance coach and longtime friend Terri Schneider says Griffen should stand as an inspiration for everyone. After completing a seven-week expedition crossing Bhutan, looking at what matters to Bhutanese people, Schneider applied her experiences back home to Santa Cruz and is working on a presentation on what matters to her local community.
The 50-year-old professional triathlete and ultra-runner wants to inspire people to think.
She asks, “Is what outsiders perceive of our community what truly matters to the community?”
Schneider says she admires Griffen, because he’s actually DOING what really matters to him.
“He’s making choices about what matters to him rather than just going through the motion of life,” Schneider says. “That’s big.”
On the farm
Right now, what matters to Griffen is pursuing an internship with Farm Sanctuary. He says he’s never been more excited about manual labor, which will entail working arduous hours in hot weather and shoveling out stalls in animal barns.
After his 30-day internship with Farm Sanctuary, he hopes to return back to Carrboro to apply his knowledge to similar types of organizations, including the Piedmont Farm Animal Refuge. More importantly, however, he hopes his journey will inspire others.
He is adamant that anyone is capable of pursuing what matters to him/her. He believes that every answer is preprogrammed into our guts.
“If I can push someone over that edge — off that fence — to realize that life really is more about them than they think it is, then I’ve succeeded,” Griffen says.
Although Griffen says he used to be afraid to show his resume when he was 30 because he thought it reflected the typical, flaky, middle-aged man without direction, he says that this has changed. Now, he’s proud. He says people look at it and say, “Man, I wish.”
“It’s all of my crazy-ass experiences that have gotten me to this moment in my life,” Griffen says. “And this moment is right.”