once a teacher

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img_20160906_085443There it was. Bright red and gleefully tucked beneath the clear folds of plastic wrap and blue ribbon, my very first “Teacher’s Apple.”

It’s an idea I have loved since I first spotted it in the soft colors of Norman Rockwell paintings kept in a book beneath our living room coffee table. Giving the teacher an apple. How classically, iconically American.

Needless to say, it wasn’t really something I experienced in the Czech Republic. Oh, I was begifted with plenty of little treasures, but apples were never a thing there as far as I could tell.

So beginning at my new little school this year, ten minutes away from where I grew up, has been…Well, it’s been a long time in coming.

My tumultuous year away from my Czech students in Prague was reaching an excruciating peak in March when I was contacted by this little school to see if I was interested in a teaching position.

I wasn’t.

Already, I was mapping out a survival plan for my remaining three years of college education here in San Diego and teaching part time at a tiny Christian school was just not in the cards. It wouldn’t be Prague, you know? And I would be too busy.

But I have trouble saying, “No” to people, so the next thing I knew, I was in the middle of a phone call with a board member and then in the middle of an interview with the entire school board and then negotiating hours.

None of it held any large office space in my mind. I was in the middle of several meltdowns in April and May, mostly involving finals and anxiety about my trip back to Prague in the summer for some final goodbyes and a little closure.

And all the while, I assumed I would turn the job down eventually. Something wouldn’t work out. Because how could it? This school wasn’t mine. It wasn’t Prague, remember?

And yet an insatiable curiosity kept pulling me along. This was no longer an inability to be an adult and say, “No, thank you, but I just can’t.”

There was a turning point, I remember.

During the full-board interview, after being sufficiently and terrifyingly grilled on my values, virtues and skill sets (most of which I may have slightly oversold), the Chairman leaned back, pointed his sharp eyes on me and said in his gruff voice, “Is there anything you’d like to ask us?”

I thought for a moment, whispers of my little Czech students still echoing in my ears all these months later, and said, “Tell me about the kids.”

All heads turned to the Chairman, who had been to this point the most intimidating figure in the room. He softened. He smiled. He said, “Let me tell you about them.”

I don’t remember what he said, but I remember how he said it. He said it with the same tenderness I have felt for my own little okurky. He said spoke about them with affection and hope, as though he could vividly see all the promises held in their futures lined out like golden stepping stones and he wanted more than anything to help them jump from one to the next.

And I knew that feeling so well.

So I took the job.

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Harvey, the fake owl that sits on my candy bowl. He is a dear friend.

I rearranged my school and work schedules. I found minutes in the day I didn’t know existed until I had all the time I needed to make everything fit. I read text books. I made lesson plans. I drafted a friend into decorating my classroom for me.

And on the first day of school, I found myself on the receiving end of an apple. The girl was quick about it. She placed it in my hand and then dashed away.

For three and a half hours, I made my way through high school level English and Spanish. Then I packed my things, locked my classroom and dashed off to campus to begin a round of back to back college lectures.

All week, I was in and out so quickly, I barely noticed the flurry of paperwork and signatures and beginners ‘how to’s’ I still needed to walk through. I did notice the other teachers graciously asking, “How’s it going? Are you doing okay?”

And I was, surprisingly.

After teaching several hundred students of all grades in a different language in the Czech Republic, a room of six high schoolers who all understand English seemed too easy. It was like training for a marathon and then running a mile.

On top of this, it was good to be back in the classroom. Indoctrinating a new generation of children on the importance of adverbs and explaining complex grammatical concepts with shoddily drawn stick figures. Having a little room with a little desk to sit behind (or on, as is more often my case). Having tiny people just bursting to ask questions, push buttons and grow into themselves.

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It wasn’t until Friday, the end of the first week, that I felt it. A realization. A revelation. A homecoming.

As my new students waltzed out of the room, practically singing, “See you on Monday!”, tripping over themselves to get to lunch, I felt a little tug on the cords of my heart. The same tug I always felt when school let out in Prague. It would be a whole weekend before I saw my students again.

My new school isn’t my old one. I knew that going in. I am very aware of it now. And I know that nothing will replace what Prague was to me.

But I think God knew I needed to be back in a classroom. I think maybe he’s been wanting me here and I was too stubborn to go on my own, so he just kind of pushed me into one.

When the Chairman bustles into my classroom with his gravelly voice and his broad smile and asks, “How are you doing?” – I tell him I’m doing well, that I like it here, that it feels like a good fit.

But the truth is, it’s more than that. It feels like home.

the real life of fancy people

dresssy

dresssy“Is it supposed to be ripping?” Aubrey asked as we struggled to get the dress over my head. Some get-ups are simply a two man project, and this dress was quite the get-up.

“No, generally that’s not a good thing,” I said as I tried unsuccessfully to shimmy into the sparkly death trap. “Mom already redid the seams on the side. Can you check to make sure the straps are still attached?”

Last year, when I was asked to cover the annual charity ball of a particularly humanitarian chamber of commerce in San Diego, I wore my only pair of fancy dress shoes (purchased for my High School Spring Formal back in 2009). Both straps snapped before dinner made it to the tables. The barman was kind enough to lend me some masking tape, but eventually I just went barefoot.

I have sturdier shoes now. It’s the dress I’m worried about. I just don’t have fancy-people clothes.

“I mean, for being Sarah’s dress, it fits you pretty well,” Aubrey said as we stood back to admire our handiwork (getting the dress on in one piece). For being a thirteen-year-old, Aubrey is a pretty good wingman.

Mom insisted on getting pictures as I hurried out the door. I protested because this was not Prom, this was work, but all she could see were the glittery earrings and the fact that I was wearing make-up for the first time in several months. We snapped some hurried photos.

I raced to Downtown, nerves flaring. I may have gently nudged a parked vehicle with my car this week and it was a scarring experience, especially considering that the other driver was sitting in the front seat while it happened. I haven’t cried so hard in front of a stranger since that bus driver in Prague shouted at me two years ago.

These happy thoughts in mind, I made my way gingerly into the crowded, chaotic streets of the Gaslamp and circled disorientedly for a place to pull up.

“Where have you been?” my editor asked cheerfully through the phone as I locked my car and began a conspicuous trek through downtown in all my second-hand pomp and circumstance. He knows I’ve been lost.

“Almost there,” I said, navigating the muck on the sidewalks with my unnecessarily long, swishy dress, camera bag slung unceremoniously over my shoulder.

“How are your shoes?” he asked.

“Sturdy,” I promised.

San Diego’s Horton Grand Hotel rose before me, lit brightly from the inside. Glamorous figures paraded around the entryway and lounged in the dimmer parlor bars on either side of the lobby, some already well into the evening’s supply of alcohol. A pair of finely dressed greeters stood near the door to sign people in and accept donations for the charity gala’s cause.

Golden shoes and glittery dresses flashed and sparkled and men in bowties and waistcoats pranced about in black masks. Everywhere was a different face – here an elephant man, there a phantom or a butterfly or horned lion.

Romance is dead, my friends. Social media has killed it.

I had brought a mask with me but I bought it at a 99c store and, frankly, it was just a little too yellow for my taste. Besides, I was working. One cannot take pictures while wearing a mask. That’s what I’ll tell him. I had a whole line of excuses ready for my editor for not wearing one.

By the time I found him, he was lining up on the red carpet near the entrance to the patio and could have cared less about my mask. Granted, the massive, live boa constrictor was a bit of a distraction.

Individually and in groups, guests stood on the carpet to get their photos taken by the professionals waiting behind flashing cameras while a snake handler draped the large reptile over their shoulders.

My boss was nigh on gleeful when we finally made our way across the room and into the patio, lit with thousands of white bulbs and washed in the warmth of a perfect summer night. Tables with treats waited for VIPs and a DJ and acrobatic dancers kept the air full of energy and movement.

I took a water bottle from our table and stowed my camera bag beneath one of the chairs. Time to get to work.

For the next 45 minutes, I moved around the hotel from lounge to lobby to back hallway bathrooms and back again in the search of a perfect photo for the story. Mostly, I found a lot of delightful, inebriated people dressed very, very nicely. The Horton had all types, really. The cool kids of wealthy community members who were trying to not enjoy the silver spoon they were dining on, the loners dreaming in corners on dark bar stools, the loud and lively divas with outfits as sparkly as their personalities, the nicely dressed men who think that hitting on a woman these days means asking if she has facebook.

Wait, let’s stop there.

Gone are the days when a man approached a woman with mystery and finesse. Smooth talking, swashbuckling roustabouts that our mamas warned us about no longer exist. They have been replaced by guys who totter over to say you look pretty and then ask if you can be friends on facebook and then make you type your own name into their phones.

Romance is dead, my friends. Social media has killed it.

But back to the soiree.

I sometimes pay for gas in quarters. Like this morning.

At some point, I found myself climbing a water fountain erupting from the side of the west-facing patio wall. For someone scared of heights, I felt this was going above and beyond the call of duty, but a winning trait of a good photographer is relentlessness and I’m trying to improve. With the sound of water trickling behind me and a devastating fall waiting in front of me, I looked out over the masked faces of several hundred people and thought, so this is how the fancy people live.

Crowning the evening was the main event, a fashion show and hair styling contest. I crouched down on the ground in front of a row of other photographers (I have also learned how to be pushy in this occupation), and clicked away as model after model sauntered through the crowd, heads tossed back elegantly as if to say, beautiful people don’t pay for their gas money in quarters.

I sometimes pay for gas in quarters. Like this morning.

The hair models were even more magnificent, sacheing from one corner of the fairy-like patio decor to another, holding up massive hair displays on slender necks.

By the end of the show, my sparkly black gown seemed rather commonplace.

Eventually, the DJ returned to his throne behind the speakers. A pageant queen was sitting on a chair, enormous crown pinned to her head and sash wound around her tiny waist, trying to rest her heeled feet. The line at the bar reappeared out of nowhere.

Too noisy to interview the designers and too chaotic to talk with the organizers, the party seemed to be losing its potential for productivity. I found my editor outside by the valets.

“I think my job here is done,” I told him, collapsing onto a bench. “I can call my sources tomorrow when they’re a little more available.”

“How did your shoes hold up?” he asked.

I looked down to double check that they were still attached to my feet, only to notice that a seem on my dress had begun to split.

“They’re doing okay,” I told him, “But if I don’t get home by midnight, I may turn back into a pumpkin.”

“Did you have fun?” he asked me as I packed my camera back into its bulky black bag.

“It was a nice evening,” I said. He waited.

“Honestly,” I finally said with a small sigh, “I think I’d rather be covering a game right now.”

He smiled.

Promising to get him copy on time (always a challenge for me), I swooshed into the night with my sturdy shoes and an old black dress that wasn’t even mine. I hadn’t had to put my mask on all evening and as I mentally reviewed my pictures, I was positive I had at least a few workable shots.

Downtown glittered in the midnight air and laughter and music spilled from the labyrinth of streets that led me back to my car.

Homeless people picked through trash and Uber drivers and taxis let out well-dressed men and women into streets full of regular people just having a good time.

And I was happy to be one of them.

an open letter to single women and literally everyone else

single laaaaadaysssszzz

Dear single women and literally everyone else in the whole world, but especially in the Christian community,

I think it’s time we cleared up a few things. These are things I know you know, but sometimes a reminder is helpful (if you’re tired of reading things about singleness, feel free to move along. I’m impressed you even stopped by). And because I’ve had this conversation four times in the last week, I decided to just blog about it to save myself some time.

Because tone is tough to convey online, please know that this is said in love with firmness of conviction and gentleness of heart. This did not used to be an easy subject for me to talk about and I know many of my dear friends still find it hard to put words to the feelings of doubt, loneliness, isolation and rejection that can come from being a single woman of “marital age” in the Christian community.

So…

  1. Your value as a human being is not in your relationship status, but in the image you bear that reflects our Creator.
    Okay, this one is basic and we all know it. But I also know it doesn’t always seem like this when our friends get married and have kids and we’re still here burning poptarts and watching Netflix by ourselves on Friday nights (..um, okay, maybe that’s just me). The point is, I know that the trend in our community sometimes seems like you aren’t important unless you have family – this is true especially in the church. Gosh, it’s like we aren’t even fully human until we get someone to put a ring on it. But know that God didn’t make you half a person, destined to wait for your other half to come along. He made you a whole person. And he also made you with a job to do, and right now he’s asking you to do it in whatever your current relationship status is (because this applies to married people too). God has a purpose for each family, and each individual. So go out and do it, you beautiful, capable, whole person!

     For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

    -Ephesians 2:10

  2. A relationship will not fulfill you.
    Mmk, in the spirit of honesty, I learned this one the hard way. I was in a relationship with a godly young man that could reasonably could have ended in marriage. I was surprised to find that after six months, not only did it not feel fulfilling, but (at least on my end) it also didn’t seem very godly. This may have been because I went into the relationship hoping to achieve my own ends rather than allowing God to work out his own. The only relationship that will fulfill you is the one you have with God. But when we take our eyes off God and our aim is no longer to glorify him, we will ultimately fall short of the good things God has in store for those who wait on him. Keep in mind that good things do not necessarily mean “husband and kids” (though they also sometimes do, and that’s wonderful because it has made me an aunt and that’s probably my life’s second-greatest joy and definitely my favorite job). Those good things might look very different from what we’ve been wanting, expecting, or told we should want or expect (but we will rejoice in them because they are from him and his inexpressible fullness and grace will be far greater than what we had even thought to ask for!). And that leads us to our next point.
  3. The community does not decide your calling, God does.
    I don’t mean to sound prickly here, but sometimes the church community can be a little over zealous about marriage. We know everyone is well-intentioned, but it can feel like a witch-hunt sometimes (single women being the witches, with gossip, judgement and pity – the very worst of the three – being the flames that consume). And if you embrace your singleness and explore the plans God has for you, sometimes those flames get a little aggressive. (STOP AND BREATHE: I am obviously not saying everyone who has asked you about your relationship status is a witch-hunter, nor should you. I’m saying, a lot of us know what it feels like to find our feet walking down a path leading us far away from the expectations and hopes of dear people in our lives). Do not be dismayed. God sees your patience and your graciousness. And he also sees the plans he has for you, and he knows they are good. Because, of course they are. He is a good God. If God calls you to be a wife and mother, rejoice. If he calls you first to go to college, become a doctor, work on a mission field, travel the world, pursue the arts or stay home to care for elderly parents, rejoice! If he calls you to be single till the day he calls you home again so that you can serve him in that capacity, rejoice! Rejoice always. Rejoice, because you have been created for a purpose, elected as a child of the Risen King, and given a job to do, chosen by the Almighty himself. And if that job is sweeping floors, or building skyscrapers, or raising children, or sitting deaf, lame, and blind in a corner praying for people you’ve never met, it will be the same in the eyes of God. And believe me, if done unto the Lord, there is peace that comes with sweeping floors.
  4. Love God first, and he will help you love everything else.
    It is easy to feel isolated when you are single. Easy to feel like everyone else caught the wave into shore and you’re still sitting stupidly on your surfboard in the open ocean, wondering if sharks can smell fear and cheap pizza. It’s easy to feel like every glance your way is a pitying or judgemental one, like no one understands what you’re going through (especially married people), like life is a little more unfair than people claimed it would be. And it’s easy to think that maybe there’s something wrong with you. (Like, I know I’m a little high-maintenance and have the emotional stability of a goldfish, but I’m really a charming person beyond that. Just ask my pet rock!). People will tell you to love yourself. People will tell you to find contentment in the Lord and then he will give you a husband (Ha!). People will say that you are fine just the way you are (that may or may not be true. I know I personally have some work to do). I’m here to tell you that this is misguided advice. Love God and he will give you a new heart with which to love everything else, including yourself. When you start seeing yourself as a child of the God you love, and everyone else as his children, and this whole world as his beautiful work of art, a divinely written story that we get to be a part of, suddenly it does seem lovely. Our own attitudes will inevitably shift when we look to truly see the works of God’s hands and are filled utterly with his ineffable grace. And this is important because the more we channel that love into our lives, the better witnesses we will be for God’s kingdom, to testify to his goodness and minister to his people.

Now. Which of those four things might also apply to someone who doesn’t strictly fit the “lonely 20-something” category of youngish women? All of them. That’s because relationship status does not put you in a separate category of what it means to be a Christian. It’s simply another way we are sometimes called to serve.

So enough of the pity-parties (for yourself or for the poor, dear single women in your church). We have been given jobs to do on this earth in this lifetime. What a privilege!

Now may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.”

-Hebrews 13:20-21

And, lastly, know that if you are called to serve as a single person, you will not be doing it alone. We work together, the unified body of Christ, brothers and sisters. We are all his bride. Let us unite and use the gifts, time and talents he has given us to fight the good fight. And may we find peace and joy in the task!

sincerely,

a sister in Christ

Mary vs. Olympic shoulder angels

Forty thousand feet in the air and my mind was tracing a dirt path on the ground in worn out sneakers. Over and over again, I saw myself round the track, hit the final grass stretch before the finish line and blaze into a first place medal. Not even the turbulence could stop me.

It’s been a long time since I’ve done anything competitively. My last high school speech and debate tournament was an unmitigated disaster (by my own standards, at least). I was second in the State going into that national tournament. I finished somewhere in the teens. After the awards ceremony, all my friends went out to watch the fireworks over Mission Bay. I just stood there and cried, colors bleeding down my face and across the black bay water. I was so disappointed. Six years of pushing myself towards this one goal and I had fallen short.

I don’t often feel defeated because I’m not a quitter, and as Babe Ruth says, it’s hard to beat a man who never gives up. But that night, I felt defeated. I felt defeated for a long time.

Needless to say, I am nothing if not over competitive.

I stopped competing formally in college. Too busy to join the debate team. Then life and work and the real world kicked in and I never had a chance to go back to anything that might put me on a path towards a podium and a medal.

Not till this summer.

As some may know, I have been working as a sports reporter for nearly a year, and it has been brought to my attention that I may broaden my abilities as a journalist in this field if I actually had some experience in athletics (which I don’t, unless you count some intense games of ultimate frisbee, or that summer my church insisted on playing volleyball every Wednesday and I was named the MVP for the opposing team three weeks in a row).

So I signed up for the cross country team. They spent this summer training. I spent the summer in Europe. Aware that I would need to keep pace with everyone, I asked the coach for some things to practice while I was traveling around.

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Running through Czech forests, summer 2016.

In Prague, in Budapest, on the silver shores of Lake Balaton, Hungary and in the majestic mountains of Šumava, Czech Republic, I ran. I did 300 meter sprints that nearly killed me, again and again. I raced up hills. I ran for miles through forests. I’d get up before my friends to finish my workouts so we could spend the day together. I ran my way through Europe.

Coincidentally, I also ran my way into a bit of a hamstring problem.

One night at the English Camp I volunteered at, we watched “Chariots of Fire” (everyone was getting pumped for the Olympics two weeks down the road and Chariots of Fire is like, the greatest Olympic movie of all time).

Irish missionary Eric Liddell and self-made man Harold Abrahams are running these 100 meter sprints in ten seconds and because I’ve been doing sprints all summer, I know just how ridiculous that is to do. You guys have no idea how long 100 meters is when you’re running hard.

I really relate most to Abrahams. He has an intensity I resonate with when it comes to winning. He lives and breathes competition, so much so that the anxiety and the pressure of it seems to shake him to his core, but it’s what drives him forward too. And although he has something to prove to everyone else, you just know he really just needs to prove it to himself.

But when I would be in cold sweats outside a semifinal round, it was Liddell my dad would remind me of as I wrung my hands and paced the floor. Dad loved Liddell’s quote about God making him fast and that when he ran he could feel God’s pleasure.

That was Dad’s way of reminding me that I do what I’m good at not to prove that I’m good at it, but because when I exercise my God-given strengths, God is glorified in it.

In the dust of defeat as well as the laurels of victory there is a glory to be found if one has done his best.”

― Eric Liddell

By the time I touched down in the USA this summer, my leg and I were not on speaking terms.

I stretched, I iced, I ran again, because I am not a quitter. And because I didn’t know what else to do. Coach wants us to be at 12 miles by the time the season starts and I can barely manage eight.

Sitting on my sister’s couch, watching the Olympics and sitting on an ice pack, I thought to myself, I want to feel that thrill. Not even the thrill of winning, just of getting to compete again.

“Are you going to see someone about your leg?” my sister asked.

“Naw,” I said, shifting on the ice-pack under my thigh. “It’ll get better.”

Besides, I had other things to worry about.

All new athletes have to get a physical from the school medical staff. I showed up with like 50 wanna-be football players and spent the day having my blood pressure taken, my weight measured, my balance examined and my eyesight checked. It was all rather new and glamorous to me. I’ve never felt so cared about by strangers. This must be what being a princess feels like.

“You’re 5’11,” said a nurse measuring my height.

I gaped at her. There’s just no way I’m 5’11, ma’am.

“Let me see that,” I said, bending over her petite shoulder to see the chart. The stocky jock behind me snorted.

“Can I have a few of those inches?” he asked.

I’d trade, I thought as I walked to the last examination station. Thirty of us waited in a crowded line in the sun for the examination. Behind me, several football players were making some low-key cat calls (I’d like to assume they were directed at me, but they were probably intended for the blonde soccer girls a few heads in front of where I was). The guys were rowdy. The day was warm. And I was tired of standing on my bad leg.

But I was just so excited to be in this new, seemingly glamorous world of athletics that I didn’t even care. Also, I’m not a quitter.

We must have waited in that line for half an hour, and by the end of it, I’d been invited onto the football team as an honorary member (they said they needed a kicker).

Then it was my turn. I was almost done. So close to having everything I needed. Just one quick sit-in with the doctor and I would be finished!

She checked my vitals and said some friendly things that I don’t remember. Then she looked at my chart and asked, “Have you had chest pains during exercise this summer?”

Yes, I had checked that box. It was just once, I explained to her, right after that first round of horrible sprints in the summer heat. Just an ache. Only lasted a few minutes. No big deal. I’m not a quitter.

“You’re going to need to get an EKG before we can clear you,” she said.

My heart sank.

Instead of getting out of there, I found myself in another series of lines to have my insurance checked, my medical history reviewed, and my options clarified.

During the process, we discovered that I was one academic unit short of eligibility.

“To compete, you need to be a full-time student,” they told me. “You need 12 units. You have 11.”

My mind roared in frustration. How was I supposed to find another unit? I’m about to transfer! I have no classes left to take! And where am I going to find the time (or the money) for another class? I’m already working two jobs and I’ll be training all afternoon every day. Most of my night classes don’t end till 10 p.m. anyway.

I left with a piece of blue paper that had the number of a clinic in Chula Vista, a printout of my current class schedule (11 units circled in red) and a few fraying threads of my resolve to do cross country. I could feel my hamstring wincing all the way up the stairs to the parking lot.

But I’m not a quitter.

I spent a week trying to set up an appointment for that EKG. I found a 7 a.m. yoga class (which is full, but I am on the waitlist and I’m ruthless. So…). I also started going to the neighborhood hot tub to soak my leg (which is some mighty dedication to recovery, given the 90 degree temperature we’ve been scorched with this month).

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Hiking to church with the fam-bam, August 2016.

On Sunday, we hiked to church for evening service. My dad has done this periodically since we were kids. If the afternoon is too restless, we walk to church. A good way to simmer down before worship. And truly, one of the prettiest corners of San Diego you’ll ever see, especially in the golden stretches of evening.

It’s only two and a half miles and we were only walking, but when we got to the church, my hamstring was practically singing. I tried stretching it out a little with no luck. Fighting back the urge to cry, I washed the dust off my face in the bathroom sink and went to find a seat with my family in the sanctuary.

On Monday, I still hadn’t heard back from the doctor regarding my EKG, and now my coach was sending me emails asking if I had been cleared to run yet. I called up the receptionist again (who knows me by name now because I have called her every day for a week and a half). She said she’d personally inform the head nurse of my message.

It’s been a long summer and I felt myself running out of steam. I just wanted to compete again. How hard could this possibly be?

“Maybe God is closing this door?” my pastor said gently. I’m sure it would have been a helpful nudge to anyone less of a hardhead than myself. When people tell me I can’t, the Harold Abrahams in me rises up to say, Oh yes I can!

It’s possibly one of my worst qualities and has gotten me into more than one traffic citation.

“Why not just drop this?” my dad asked.

“I can’t,” was all I could think to say back.

Why not? Because I spent my whole summer abroad training for this when I could have been sleeping in or hanging out with my friends a little more. Because I can basically feel the blood shooting through my veins when I even think about running competitively, vying for a medal, aiming to win at something again. And because the idea of coming back to San Diego to compete in cross country this fall was one of the only things that soften the very difficult goodbye when I had to leave Prague again this summer.

I really needed to be able to do this.

So there I was, lying on the ground with my mind up in the air, somewhere floating around the sewage of lost dreams and abandoned ideas. I felt very much in a haze, the way Abrahams looks when he’s lost a race (which he doesn’t do often, and frankly, neither do I).

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All iced up in the field house at school, a week before the start of the fall semester, 2016.

All the anxiety built up on being able to compete and win was taking the fun out of running. And running is something that I have always loved to do.

Eric Liddell sat down next to me, taking the fuming Abrahams’ place. “God made me fast, and when I run, I can feel his pleasure.”

More prone to turn God-given abilities, these divine gifts, into my own self-serving aims, Eric’s perspective is one I have to fight to hold on to. I learn because God gave me a brain and it glorifies him for me to do so. I teach because God gave me a big heart and a steady hand and it glorifies him for me to do so. I run because God gave me long, healthy legs and a passion for movement and it glorifies him for me to do so.

I pulled myself off the floor and immediately drove over to school.

I sat on the examination table and let a trainor bend and prod my leg in all directions. Then I sat on more ice and was told not to run till the start of school. So much for 12 miles.

But I felt better.

It has been a wonderful experience to compete in the Olympic Games and to bring home a gold medal. But since I have been a young lad, I have had my eyes on a different prize. You see, each one of us is in a greater race than any I have run in Paris, and this race ends when God gives out the medals.”

Eric Liddell

The nurse from the clinic called back and I scheduled an appointment for the EKG. Hopefully it comes back clear, but if it doesn’t, I know I’ll find a different race to run.

Because I am not a quitter, and not every race is on a track.

a return to joy

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Speeding on a train from Kutná Hora to Prague. Photo Credit: Eli Hirtzel.

“Did you get any rest?” Rachel asked me, lowering herself into the deeply cushioned chair next to my corner of the couch.

“Not really,” I said. Early evening light filtered into the livingroom of the house I had once lived in for two years. The day was hot and muggy and we were both glistening, despite the coolness of our new surroundings. It’s a long walk from our hotel rooms on top of the hill to the house at the bottom (during the late summer evenings, you can sometimes see fireflies along the path in the forest, but I’ve not managed to spot any this trip).

Rachel tilted her head sideways and eyed me, looking every ounce the schoolteacher she is.

“Why not? What were you doing all afternoon?”

“Mopping up the bathroom,” I said. “And crying.”

Rachel smiled. Not a happy one, but a knowing one. She understands, about the crying at least.

“Why were you mopping the bathroom?” she asked.

One of my roommates, a girl from the American team who had come to help with the English Camp, had had a disagreeable moment with the shower in our hotel room and we didn’t have time before church to mop up the lake left in the wake of their dispute. So following Sunday lunch at the house, I trekked up through the forest alone to our room and found myself knee-deep in water, wet towels and something unexplainably sticky.

Then I rehung all my laundry around the open window, hoping they’d dry out better in the fresh air than in the dank of our bathroom before I packed them for a final time in the evening.

Then I broke the bathroom hairdryer trying to shortcut the hang-dry process with a pair of shorts.

Then I stared out the window for a while.

Then I sat on my bed and cried. For about two hours.

I don’t know why I came back to the Czech Republic, to be honest. Technically, I came to help with an English Camp the church puts on every summer. Technically, I came to see my former students and fellow teachers one last time before their school year let out. Technically, I came to catch up with a few dear friends I had to leave behind when I returned to San Diego last July after living and working in this beautiful country for two years.

But I couldn’t tell you what I was really coming to find. Peace? Closure? The missing remnants of my broken heart so I can piece myself back together before resuming my new life in San Diego?

Why had I come back to Prague? What a truly awful, horrible, stupid idea. Because I knew this moment would come. This afternoon when I’d be sitting on this couch for the last time, wishing with all my heart I could stay, knowing I’d have to leave.

I wish I could explain why leaving Prague last year was so devastating to me. It’s a question I have thought about a lot this summer as I have revisited forests, fields and the homes of friends I know so well. My breath still vanishes when I cross Charles’ Bridge. My eyes still linger on the horizon whenever St. Vitus Cathedral stands against it. Prague is always new for me. But it also has the feel of a very old friend, one who knows me perhaps better than I know myself.

Every sidewalk I traversed this summer led me down a thousand memories of the city and its people, each in a different season. Every friend I visited refreshed my mind and loosened my tongue to the Czech language (which, sadly, I have only been able to speak with my cat for the last year, and she’s not much of a conversationalist). And every day, I remembered anew why this place feels so much like home.

Which is unfortunate since I don’t live here anymore. And I find myself asking God, “Why would you give me this just to take it all away?”

“Have you ever thought about moving back?” Rachel asked me, echoing a question I’ve heard maybe a hundred times.

Of course, is always my answer. I’d give my right leg to be here forever. Sometimes I wish I was Czech or wonder whether my Czech friends feel special to belong to a people and a place like this.

In fact, even the difference between returning to San Diego, which was difficult and stressful, and returning to Prague was shocking to me.

They say you can’t go back. You can’t go home again. That was totally true for me. When I moved back to San Diego, it felt forced and awkward. I had become a stranger in the town that raised me. I had chased a different wind and had changed with the current, such that the old seas felt rough and strange to me upon return.

Okay, I realize this all may sound a little over-dramatic, but I just don’t know how else to explain how I’ve been feeling for the last year. Not that I haven’t adjusted, made new friends, started new ventures. But in the still moments before sunset, the walks from my car to the house when the stars are out, the muffled laughter of people enjoying themselves right here, I find myself somewhere else. Somewhere far away, in a time that almost seems imaginary, as though I fell asleep for two years, dreamed a wonderful dream, and woke again to a world that has moved on without me. And it leaves me feeling heartbroken and lost.

I thought ‘coming back’ would be the same with Prague. I had been away for a year after all. Would I recognize this place? Would it remember me?

Prague surprised me. I instantly felt pieces of myself fall back into place as I immersed myself again in a culture and a language. I visited my school and saw my students and fellow teachers. It felt like I had never left. Like I had been gone only a day.

And I’m wondering if this is because the ‘Home’ where we begin is a launching point, setting us up for flight and a future. To return is impossible because it represents the past. But the ‘Home’ we create on our own is our future. Coming back is easy and natural, like finding your way back to the path that leads you onward.

So why don’t I just move back? Get a teaching position again? Make my own way of things?

Simple, really.

I first considered moving to Prague in 2010 after a short term mission’s trip when it was obvious that there was a need for workers in the field. I felt so called to go. For three years, I waited, planned, prepared. Finally, I was accepted to go as a missionary associate for two years, with the possibility of extensions. It was so hard and yet so easy to struggle through those two years (five, if you count the three years in San Diego it took to get me to Prague) because, at every step, I knew that this was where God wanted me to be. And in my heart I knew I wouldn’t leave Prague unless God sent someone to replace me or made it very obvious he wanted me elsewhere.

In a way, He did both. So I left.

I’m in San Diego because it’s pretty clear to me that God wants me there right now. And I’m not unhappy.

Not unhappy, but I’ve been missing something. For months now, I’ve noticed the lack of something very important in my life, something I long to have back.

I’ve lost my joy.

I’ve been missing the delight of waking up every morning and knowing I’ll get to see all my students, I’ll get to walk through fall leaves or winter snows, I’ll get to learn new words and practice old ones. I’ve been missing my friends from school, the women who opened up their lives and hearts to me. I’ve been missing impossibly clear Czech skies, feathery forests and wayside flowers. I’ve been missing the life I had and all the joy that came with it. I have this fear that my two years in Prague were the best I may ever get, nothing will ever be quite so golden. And even though I know in my heart that this is probably untrue, it’s hard to fight the feeling. Especially sitting in a house that was once home, looking out a window into what was once my world and my future.

“It is hard having your life in one place and your heart in another,” I finally said.

Rachel gave her head a little shake, sympathy in the highest degree, and we waited for the evening devotional to begin.

The dear man who led us through Scripture and then prayer began quickly and finished quietly. We read only three passages, each about the sacrifice of the Christian life. For us, living safely and happily in the first world, the Christian life doesn’t require many sacrifices. Certainly not the pain of death. Not torture, not imprisonment, not persecution.

Literally, all I have to do is live by the Word of God and follow His direction in my life. And in return, He has given us a peace that passes understanding.

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God,which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

Philippians 4:4-7

All this I know in my head, but it has taken a year for that knowledge to work its way into my broken heart.

Suddenly, I felt a lifting of my spirit, a calming of my soul.

My world of hopes and dreams here in Prague seem like an awfully small sacrifice to make for the One who gave me all.  

Sitting there in that living room, I suddenly felt myself breathe for what felt like the first time in a year. The idea of being able to bring a sacrifice to the altar of the Lord brightened my soul in a way I didn’t expect.

Prague is not something God is taking away from me. It is something He has given me, which I should be delighted to return to him to make room for the new plans He has for me whatever or wherever they may be.

Logically, it doesn’t make sense. It is very truly a peace that passes understanding. And, although it didn’t come all at once, that evening I began to realize it personally.

I trooped back through the forest to the hotel that night with another friend from the team.

“I really want to see fireflies,” I told him. “This is my last chance before I go home.”

In the dark, I could hear him laughing, but he made a point of staring into the abyss of the shadowy creek for bobbing lights with me. We found none.

I sighed. Not even fireflies? Like, I understand that God gives and takes away as he pleases, but not even one little firefly? You know, as a consolation gift? Is that too much to ask for?

We kept walking, my friend bending the conversation as softly as the curves in the road.

And then I saw it.

Glowing unmistakably, it flickered a few yards in front of us. Beating nearly as loudly as my friend’s heavy footsteps, my heart seemed to pound uncontrollably as we slowly approached the little creature.

“It’s not a firefly,” my friend said, crouching on the pebbled pathway near the grass where our new acquaintance lay blazing like a supernova.

“No,” I said, entranced. “He’s a glow worm.”

A dozen memories of Czech mountains and Czech children and all the glow worms they’ve brought me over the years blinked before me.

“Should we take him with us?” asked me friend.

“No,” I said again, feeling a smile spreading warmly across my face as we watched the only glowing insect in the whole forest beaming before us. “His place is here.”

He’s not a firefly, but he’s something – a reminder from the Lord that he hears me. That I’m not alone. That he’s sending me back to San Diego for a reason. Just like he sent me to Prague for a reason.

Prague is my glow worm. Beautiful, magical, moving, but not mine. Prague and the people in it belong to God and it is time to let go of the idol I have turned them into, to give them back and trust that they will be just as safe in his hands as they’ve ever been.

Coming back to San Diego was no easier this time around. I still feel so deeply sad to leave a home I hoped was mine. But my heart is healed, fully back, not inside me, but in the hands of my Savior. I’m ready to love again, adventure again, find a new home with a new people, if that’s what he asks me to do. What a little sacrifice, to live this life God gave me unto him and no other.

And with that readiness has come the return of my joy.

Saint George, tea and my wee little star

Saint George and the Dragon by Margaret Hodges was a book I was raised on. Beautifully brought to life by the art nouveau illustrations of Trina Schart Hyman, the story captured my childhood imagination with distant lands and faraway places.

As Saint George, mounted on a valiant steed and bearing a red cross upon his white shield, follows the fair Princess Una into a realm terrorized by a dragon, I too trailed behind them, lighted by images of faeries and magical creatures, led by the dim glow of adventure ever on the horizon.

Northern Ireland looks a lot like the pages of that fairy tale. Green and gold fields lie in patchwork patterns, stitched together by rows of hawthorn bushes. Brick cottages line country roads like red-capped mushrooms leading towards a fairy castle. And sunlight, softer than stardust, falls from magnificently clouded skies.

After leaving Prague, which was just as difficult as I expected it would be, I found myself on a bus speeding towards Belfast to spend a day with one of my very most favorite families, literally ever. I like to break up the trip home with a stop in Ireland because 24 hours on a plane is just no bueno, and I couldn’t leave Europe without seeing the MacArthurs.

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They picked me up from the bus stop, drove me southeast into the countryside, put me up in a room inside their beautiful Georgian dollhouse of a home, gave me a spot of tea, and sent me to bed, which was basically the best welcoming reception of all time.

That feathery sunlight woke me up the next morning, which was incredible considering how dark a morning it was, complete with the foreboding winds of a coming storm.

“Victoria’s going to take you around today,” Mrs. MacArthur told me over cereal, hot cross buns and tea.

Victoria seems exactly the same since the last time I saw her 18 months ago. There is something about youth that keeps a person growing, and yet unchanged, like a star that churns in the abyss of the galaxy where time cannot reach its effervescent twinkle.

She’s a pretty girl, sweet and unassuming, with a perfect blend of joviality and tempered enthusiasm. And she’s just gotten her driver’s license.

So it was with mild trepidation that we both began our morning’s adventures, her as she got behind the wheel of a car, and me as I climbed into the left side of the vehicle.

Our first stop was Greyabbey cemetery, and the road that took us there wound through a collection of villages decked with flags and bunting from the most recent public holiday.

“Those are for Prince William of Orange,” Victoria explained. “He defeated someone on July 12, but I don’t remember who. And this used to be a castle we’re passing but I’m not sure who it belonged to.”

Where information was lacking, charm and general pleasantries about the countryside was used as substitution. For Victoria, this magical place is just home. For me, it’s a strange new wonderland and I spent most of the day picturing myself traversing it on a grey horse with a gleaming sword (and a super pretty, probably impractical princess dress).

“Do you ever think that whoever owned that castle could be your lords today if we were still under that kind of governance?” I asked as we pulled into the gravelly car park.

“I guess not,” she said. “I don’t think I really know the area that well. This is actually only my second time to the abbey. I only discovered it a week ago.”

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Greyabbey was built in the 12th century by a group of people whose names we could not pronounce and therefore cannot remember. Most of it still stood erect, minus the roof and about sixty percent of the walls. But the beautiful arches and the front edifice remained. It was huge.

Wandering through the garden, past plants like mugwort and vervain, felt very Medieval indeed.

And then the graveyard. It’s stone markers falling over, crumbling to pieces, it looked derelict and forgotten. Most of the tombstones dated back to the 17th and 18th centuries. These people lived and died before my country was ever born.

We got our fill of nostalgia and wandered back to the car. Next stop: Victoria’s grandparents.

George and Rosemary live in a quaint brick house. A sunroom off the kitchen juts out into the brightest flurry of garden flowers you will ever see. Blazingly orange nasturtiums and baby-pink wall roses nestled between shocks of purple and blue flowers and doves and pigeons lighted in and out of low-creeping tree branches. What a garden!

In the sunroom, a blue-and-white tea table was set with little cups, plates of potato bread, jams, honey, berries and a tea pot snuggled deeply into a tea cozy.

Rosemary led us to a sofa and Victoria took a seat at one end. One more spot was open next to her and a wooden chair sat just beyond that. Suddenly, years of flipping through Norman Rockwell picture books came flooding back to me. This was a real tea. I was expected to sit like a real little lady, probably with legs crossed at the ankle and back straight, as Victoria was already so aptly demonstrating. Thrill filled my soul. Tea time.

I sat down and was asked questions by Rosemary about my life and plans, and when she got up to busy herself around the kitchen, George came out of the garden woodshed and took up her place.

Was I a student? What did I study? Did I work? What kind of journalism did I do in the States? Where was I coming from? Did I like Prague? Had it been hard to leave? Yes…some changes are very hard, indeed.

George led us in prayer before tea began.

“We thank you, Lord, for all these good gifts,” he said, his deep brogue bending wide in sincerity as we approached the feet of our Creator. “And let this food nourish our bodies today – even Mary’s, though she is herself a journalist.”

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And so commenced our tea. Delightful, from the first sip to the last breadcrumb. I especially enjoyed the “traybakes,” a scrumptious compact of biscuits, candied cherries, marshmallows and sweetened condensed milk. But before reaching for a butter knife, stirring my tea or taking a bit of something laid out before us, I would glance over at Victoria first to see if I was doing it correctly.

When tea was finished, Rosemary showed me her collection of tea cozies, which she sells online (and which you should totally look into if you’re at all into the tea scene).

Then she packed us a picnic lunch and filled our arms with gifts and goodies for the road, and we were ushered on our way.

Several runaway strands of sunlight christened the start of the afternoon as we drove past the local lough, which, I later learned, has the largest presence of organisms of any lough in Ireland (or something along those lines. I mostly just remembered that it look pretty).

We parked on the slope of a hill and walked a short ways through a stronge breeze and grey sunshine to the top where Scrabo Tower stood proudly and alone against a pale sky.

Around us, Northern Ireland stretched out like a blanket, covering the world we could see in deep greens and golds. To one side, the Irish Sea sidled along the coast, bringing the Isle of Man and the shores of Scotland just into view.

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“They were going to build a castle here too,” Victoria explained as the wind rattled our jackets (I was wearing a jacket and a hoodie because it was freezing. Victoria barely had a sweater on).

“Why didn’t they?”

“I guess they got lazy,” she said.

The tower was tall and dark, made of thick brown stones and covered with moss around the base. My head filled with images of knights climbing the hill, fully armored, ready for siege or ready for rest. What a world this must have been only a few hundred years ago.

We climbed back down the hill for a spot of tea (again) and lunch. Sandwiches were pulled out of our hamper and chocolate and traybakes were distributed. I rambled on and on about fairy castles and dueling knights as Victoria sat in patient silence.

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“This is beautiful,” I finally said.

“It’s home.”

In an instant, that word brought me speeding back to the Czech Republic, beneath amber rays of sunlight and skies as big and open as the universe. I don’t know when it happened, but at some point in the last six years, home for me became the winding curve of the Vltava covered in hoar frost and the gentle sloping of forested hills and spired villages. The feeling was so powerful that not even the enchantment of a day in a fairy land with my wee little friend could distract me from the sudden rush of heartbreak that welled inside me.

I don’t know what I had been thinking, going back to Prague. Because, although my six weeks in the Czech Republic were a dream, I knew, I knew, leaving was going to break my heart a second time.

Our last stop of the day was a pottery barn where we could hide from the rain that had begun to plop down against the countryside. The weather was beginning to reflect the somber churnings of my mind, so bright colors and sponge molds were a welcome relief from it all.Temp1_drive-download-20160801T181131Z1

Victoria is a pottery pro. Her plate was finished and looking fine a good half hour before mine was. She patiently sat and watched me painstakingly etch out my feelings onto a plate, disguised as clouds and birds and seascapes. I threw in a few faerie mushrooms as well, just because.

When we got back to the house, the heavens had opened up on us and rain was coming down with sincerity.

Dinner wasn’t for a few more hours so Victoria and I agreed we had both earned a nap. I shut the door to the little guest bedroom on the second story, the view of hawthorn trees blowing in the gale framing my window, and fell fast asleep into dreams of home.

Dinner was a wee affair, with just the four of us there to enjoy the delicious food and splendid conversation. Mostly, we talked about other missionaries, some I had met in Madrid when I first ran into the MacArthurs, others I had only heard about from them. Lots of people coming and going from one spot on the map to another, wherever the Lord calls them to serve next.

Finally, we piled into the car one last time and went into town for ice cream and coffee. Victoria grinned eight shades of happiness behind her cone and cup.

Curled up next to a window that looked out onto a street splashed with rain, we continued to chit chat about life and the world. This little family exemplifies Christian hospitality, such that I am humbled and inspired in my own Christian walk because of them.

And it was a good reminder for me.

I’m sure the Lord is using these good people for more important tasks than simply helping one lost Pilgrim find the path of purpose again and the way home, but on this day, that is exactly what they did. They reminded me that God calls us to serve in many places and none of them will be home, for home is heaven.

“The Fairy Queen has sent you to do brave deeds in this world. That High City that you see is in another world. Before you climb the path to it and hang your shield on its wall, go down into the valley and fight the dragon that you were sent to fight.”

-Margaret Hodges, Saint George and the Dragon

Who knows where we’ll be called to go under the banner of God’s Kingdom? To the darkest parts of Africa or the glimmering lights of cities who do not know our Savior, or even right back to our own front door. All these adventures we must first embark on before we can truly go home, and when that day comes, every tear shall be wiped away and all that was lost will be refilled with the goodness of God himself.

And I will rejoice to see the MacArthurs right there with me, joining the throng of the church invisible, brought to completion at last.

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9 things that are worth the weight in your rucksack

Every good adventure includes a rucksack. It’s the standard wayfarer’s pack. It’s the modern-day bindle for the millennial yuppie traveling the winding roads between Paris and Rome or Hanoi and Bangkok.

I’m here to tell you that it sucks.

Nothing is worse than a heavy rucksack when you’ve been meandering around for six hours, even at a “slow pace” (and for those who’ve never met my most recent traveling companion, Katka, “slow pace” really means “quick jog or I’m leaving you behind”).

Katka is helping me write this post because it was a shared adventure (“And we both survived”) so the following advice comes from both of us.

Italics are Katka.

“Whatever, there is such heavy censorship here, I bet barely half of what I say is going to make it in.”

So, here are NINE THINGS THAT ARE WORTH THE WEIGHT in your traveling pack.

SNACKS

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Gelato Rose in Budapest. A good decision courtesy of one Cody Quigg.

Traveling is a hungry business. You’ll be tired, you’ll be excited, you’ll find yourself waiting in train stations and at bus stops and you’ll be hungry.

We suggest snacks.

“But not cheese.”

[*Katka would like to clarify that she loves cheese and that she’s upset that I’m not using exact quotes to convey how she feels.]

We packed a bunch of typical Czech snacks in Prague, including several small rounds of hermelin cheese, and stuffed them into the tops of our packs. Our train left at 5 a.m. and we later caught a bus that dropped us off in Bratislava, Slovakia around nine in the morning.

We were tired (probably mostly because we stayed up too late the night before binge-watching TV shows) and hungry. So we took out our Czech pastries, yogurts, crackers and fruit candies and had a veritable feast on a park bench.

As the week progressed, we refilled our snacks several times (the cheese didn’t make it but we didn’t manage to throw it out for an unfortunately long period of time). In Budapest I discovered Kinley Ginger Ale. Katka seemed to find watermelon in every town we stopped in. Sacks of coconut cookies and local candies found their way into our bags, though not for long.

The 2 liter bottle of ginger ale actually lasted quite some time, but, honestly, it was worth the weight.

UNNECESSARY PERSONAL HYGIENE ITEMS

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Katka enjoying the view in Budapest. “Looking dope.” 

The difference between travelers and tourists, they say, is in how much your luggage weighs.

(“Why are you using italics for that? Italics are my thing.”)

A traveler, someone who is going to explore and experience, has no room for things like makeup or hair dryers, they say.

(:Sigh: “Seriously?”)

We’re here to tell you that for your own comfort and peace of mind, it is so worth it to bring an unnecessary personal hygiene item.

“Speak for yourself, lady.”

I brought a curling iron. It’s small and light. I only used it twice. But it was there when I needed it. When did I need it? When Katka rolled out of bed looking like perfection for the fourth day in a row and I was just sitting there collecting dust and flies. So I showered in our rather difficult hostel restroom facilities, let my hair air dry (which took about two seconds in Budapest, or shall I say the fiery pit of hell, and then plugged in my curling iron. Ten minutes and two missing fingers later, I looked like a human again. It was just the pluck I needed to get out and follow Katka’s break-neck pace for another day.

Sometimes travel is exhausting and you need to look your best to feel your best. That’s not being a tourist, that’s being human. Bring the hair dryer.

NICE CLOTHES

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Candles in a cathedral in Vienna. I don’t know which cathedral because I wasn’t paying super close attention and Katka wanted to leave before I could get the pamphlet.

“You know, just this morning I thought of something else we could add to this list, but then I forgot it.”

Anyway.

For the most part, Katka and I couldn’t afford to eat three meals a day on the road, let alone go to nice places to consume nutrients. However, we did splurge once or twice.

We cleaned up and put on pretty skirts and walked around town without looking homeless.

It was lovely.

I think, to experience a city, you have to see the slums and the skyline. Places are orchestras, complete with harmonies in both treble and bass. To only listen to one piece of the melody would be to miss the song completely.

So do your hippie travel thing with your handkerchief scarves and ratty, been-there shoes. It’s a good way to get places.

But a set of nice clothes that you can stash in the bottom of your bag and pull out for a morning church service in the country or an evening in the pretty lights of a city will round out what you see in your travels.

A BOOK

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The Working Man in Bratislava. He and I connected on a real level.

This may seem obvious, but you’d be amazed at how strong the urge is to leave it out when you test out your pack for the first time and realize that it weighs roughly that of a small elephant. When you begin pulling things out and asking yourself, “Will I really need this?” the answer to your book is yes.

I brought my copy of Noam Chomsky’s “Who Runs the World,” that I purchased in Iceland’s quaint excuse for an airport this summer. The book is frankly a mess, but it kept me engaged and interested during every lag in our trip.

“Hey, I was the one who kept you engaged and interested. Why do you think I even went along?”

For example, there was this one time when we were waiting for a train in the middle of absolutely nowhere (and by that, I mean Csopak, Hungary). We had 40 minutes and nothing but fields and a pub we couldn’t afford to eat in to keep us occupied.

Katka decided to go exploring. I stretched out on the grass, kicking off my shoes and diving into Chomsky’s oversimplified opinion of world affairs.

For the most part, Katka and I spent every waking minute together, rambling through the countryside and cityscapes of the former Habsburg Empire. But there were moments when we both needed a break from traveling – be it for the sake of our feet, our minds, “Or our mental health” – and during those moments, I’m so glad I was willing to lug around a book.

STUDENT ID

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From the Rose Garden in Vienna.

This may be one of those things you just don’t think to bring, especially if you are on summer break and would like to think about school never, ever again.

However, we would like to proposition the thought that taking advantage of that otherwise useless and bureaucratic piece of plastic may be the best decision you can make as a traveler (assuming, you are in fact a student).

Where did that ID get us? Into museums, onto buses, and into the sympathetic hearts of people hoping a more educated generation will not screw the world up as badly as we’re likely to.

Okay, cynicism aside, the ID was great. And worth stuffing into your wallet.

“I don’t want to say anything about student ID’s. I hate student ID’s. My picture is the stupidest ever and I just want to forget about it.”

RUNNING SHOES

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Hungarian roadside fowers.

I know what you’re thinking, or rather, how hard you’re laughing. Go running? On vacation? Or, like, ever? Ha. Hahahaha.

No.

HOWEVER, running did several important things for us.

“Really? Like what?”

It got us out of our hostel when we weren’t sure what else to do. When it’s hot and sticky and Budapest or Bratislava feels like the inside of a closed honey jar that’s been left out in the sun, it’s easy to think that waiting life out in your hostel is the best possible option.

But pushing yourself through a run will give you a good look at your new city and you’ll probably find the only breeze available (depending on how fast you run, of course. My run is a like a limpy trot, so not a lot of breeze there).

And you’ll cover a lot more ground than you would have otherwise. Go running on the first day. Get a glimpse of what’s out there to see. Then go back and walk through it all later.

“Also, going running will make you feel like a hero. I feel like a hero. And now my legs look nicer.”

HAND SANITIZER

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The view from a shore on Lake Balaton, Hungary.

Like, I shouldn’t even have to be telling you this. Hopefully this is already on your packing list. But if it’s not, it should be. The road is a dirty place and clean water, soap and towels are grossly underappreciated in America because we don’t realize that the rest of the world doesn’t just give them out for free.

So yeah, hand sanitizer.

That’s all I have to say.

(“If you’re Mary, you’ll bring like eight, at least. You always had hand sanitizer. Remember when that one crazy woman spit on you on the bus? And then you like bathed yourself in sanitizer? And people thought you were weird?”)

. . . That’s all I have to say.

SOMETHING FOR A FRIEND

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Katka and I not killing each other in Budapest.

I brought my crazy intense rucksack (“Oh, I thought you were gonna say ‘friend’”) because I am an American and I believe one should go big or go home. This meant that many of Katka’s belongings ended up temporarily or permanently housed in my pack. Things like running shoes, changes of clothes, weird food things and like, a lot of flack for it all.

Occasionally, during our semi-regular spats (which are par for the course when you travel with one person for more than two days), I considered dumping her things into the Danube or giving them to someone homeless and in need.

We’d walk the streets of wherever – Vienna or Brno – not talking because, you know, friendship tensions. (“Friendship tensions? I can’t believe you said that. Rude.”) Katka would be a half-mile ahead of me and I’d be meandering behind at my own jolly pace (carrying the 80 pound rucksack, mind you, darling). The streets would float away beneath my feet like a stream and I just had to keep following. And I realized anew in every city that we probably wouldn’t be getting lost. Because Katka knows what the heck she’s doing. It’s a new feeling for me, to get to follow the leader and not worry about where we’re going or how we’ll get there. In exchange for an extra pound or two of luggage, Katka lifted a huge weight off my mind. It was a fair trade.

“I can’t believe you’re saying nice things about me. Who are you?”

If you can help your travel buddies carry something, it should be the very least you do for them.

A SENSE OF ADVENTURE

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Vienna’s beautiful roses.

We’re interpreting this one broadly. Adventure could be the cheese we left in our bag for three days. It could be the liter of ginger ale we picked up in the Hungarian lake region. It could be wet clothes we repacked because we had no choice (honestly, 90 degrees all week and it rains the one day we decide to do laundry? What is life?). A sense of adventure, where the rucksack is concerned, is a go-with-the-flow kind of attitude and it has as much to do with you as with your pack (obviously).

Throw caution to the winds. Buy the sandwich. (“The sandwich? More like that whole bottle of wine we took down in Budapest.”) Bring the extra shoes. Carry the extra weight because it will make your back stronger and your memories … um, more intense?

It’ll be worth it. We promise.