An Ode to Hand Sanitizer and Friendship

The glass doors slid open with a familiar swoosh and a gust of wind pulled me into the cool room by the tails of my heartstrings.

Newspapers covered every flat surface and plaques hung so closely together on each inch of the walls that the white paint beneath was almost unnoticeable. Large windows revealed a passageway lined with offices leading around behind our newsroom “bull pit.” A great, three-panelled white board clung ceremoniously to south wall, and directly to the left of it was a small doorway leading into our archives room and connecting to the passageway of offices where they disappeared behind an award-plastered wall.

This was where I began the painful process of growing up all those years ago. This is where I learned how to write, how to rewrite, and how to pretend to write when you’re really watching Bridesmaids in the back office with someone else’s cheese puffs. This is where I first learned what it really meant to be a friend to someone – not because I was, but because they were to me.

“Thank God for air-conditioning,” said someone, sweeping past me into the newsroom.

“Is it just me or does it smell like bleach in here?” asked someone else, plopping a school bag down one of the forty chairs in the huge room. People took seats at the rounded tables or scurried to their offices in the back to grab pens or drop off bags.

“Max has been trying to keep it clean in here,” said Bianca, her ruby lips and voluptuous hair framing her face with a sheik burst of ‘chic.’ “If we get ants in here again he’s not going to be happy, so let’s try to remember the food rule.”

About eight of us had been waiting outside in the hot, August sun for Bianca to come unlock the newsroom so we could hold our pre-semester editor’s meeting. School was starting next week and we had to get our act together.

Hand Sanitizer

During the wait I had had a chance to meet some of the editorial board. One or two of them I had met briefly after I graduated in 2012 and we have been awkward facebook friends for these several years. Most of them were completely new to me. Most of them were kids. Nineteen, twenty, twenty-one.

Twenty-one. There’s a year I hope I never have to repeat.

Jaime, our intrepid editor-in-chief, began the meeting with a toss of his Biebery hair and a small smile.

“Let’s talk Issue One,” he said with an incredibly even-tone voice. I settled into my chair and tried not to say anything. In flashbacks I remembered joining the newspaper my second semester of college. I needed computer credits and this seemed like an easy way to get them.

After exactly one afternoon, I was hooked.

And for those who don’t know, journalism is one of those professions that will suck your life away before you’ve even noticed that you haven’t really been home in about four days. Several of the editors have couches or mattresses in their offices. Most of us have emergency food stores tucked away in our office cabinets, right next to the red pens, battery packs and several full seasons of The Office. If the zombie apocalypse goes down in my lifetime, this is where I plan to stake out my fortress, or whatever.

But I knew coming back wouldn’t be the same. For starters, I trained most of their mentors. While still in Prague, I had been given an introduction I’m sure was exaggerated immensely. There was pressure to prove I wasn’t just a byline from our archives. The last editor-in-chief, a go-for-the-jugular kind of gal, had asked me to be photo editor and, because I’m an idiot, I said, “Sure.”

I do not have the qualifications to be photo editor.

So I just sat and listened as each editor talked about their section and how to get the semester going. I tried to match names and faces. I’m a middle school teacher – I should definitely be able to keep track of names at this point.

About halfway through the meeting, as I did mental flashcards with people’s faces, the double doors swooshed open again and a short, ball-capped, spit-fire of a human being walked in. He swaggered over to a chair next to Jaime and slid in, widening our circle by one, incredibly large measure of sass.

Immediate uproar.

“You’re back!”

“How was it?”

“Dude, so excited you’re here.”

He accepted the rush of affection with a very chill shrug of the shoulders and the complacent grin of someone who belongs.

“Dan is one of our really good cartoonists,” Jaime explained to me. Jaime was doing a good job of keeping me in the loop. It was almost like he could see the smoke billowing out of my ears as I tried to keep up.

Everyone knew everyone. I was the new person. I’m used to this by now, of course. Switching debate categories my junior year of high school, going to college that first year, moving to Prague. Yeah, I’m super used to being the new kid on the block.

“Is there anything anyone wants to add?” Bianca was asking. They were talking newsroom maintenance.

I raised my hand.

“When I was here we used to have hand sanitizer by the computers in this room and at the front desk. Is that not a thing anymore?”

Everyone exchanged blank stares and someone smothered a chuckle. (I’m sorry, people. I have a thing for hand sanitizer. Get over it). But I guess maintaining a clean working environment and preventing the spread of contagious diseases LIKE EBOLA is not a priority anymore. I accepted this and the discussion moved along.

Thankfully, I had a bus to catch and was able to duck out of the meeting early. I’m becoming less and less of an extrovert in my old age.

The first day of school dawned bright and early for me. My first waking thought – immediately after, “Who on earth gets up this early to do anything?” – was a fluttering wish to know how my students in Prague were doing on their first day of school.

A world away, in a corner of time that I will never be able to return to, a dozen little classes and their darling teachers are gathering in a little yellow school.

I brushed the thoughts away. I can only think about my time in Prague in 60-second clips before I get choked up. One day those precious memories won’t stir up difficult emotions, but it was not this day or any day this summer.

After skillfully and courageously surviving the trip to school and the first seventy minutes of class, I dropped by the newsroom just long enough to tidy up the photo office. Tomorrow was our first big day and I wanted my room to be presentable to our future photographers.

The multimedia and campus editors were occupying the hallway with half-cocked grins and tired eyes. I surveyed them from a distance like a cowboy sizing up a buffalo he’d really like to mount on his wall. There were only two of them, after all. I could manage that.

This is it, I thought to myself. This is my chance to make friends.

“Hey,” I said in my most nonchalant, I’m-a-totally-cool-person voice. “I’m headed to the Dollar Tree for hand sanitizer. Anybody want some?”

The pretty campus editor with the perfect eyebrows perked up.

“Yes, definitely,” she said. “Would you mind?”

“No, not at all,” I said with a cheery smile, feeling like one of those popular blond girls from the TV shows who have their lives all put together.

I was feeling like a total champ for about six minutes, right up until I rounded the corner on the end of campus and saw my bus pulling away from the curb.

Missing buses is something I’m used to. It happened all the time in Prague. But there was always another bus, or tram, or metro. I checked the schedule.

“AN HOUR?”

The pidgeons next to me fluttered away to a safer distance and someone shot me a curious glance.

An hour? Really? WHY, AMERICA, WHY?

I couldn’t go back to the newsroom, that was obvious. I couldn’t ruin that perfect impression of having it together – not with so much at stake. Maybe I could walk to the Dollar Tree? How far away was Bonita? Just down the hill, right? And I had planned to walk home from there anyway.

It was hot and I was wearing jeans (again, because I’m an idiot), but I could not be detered. I needed this hand sanitizer. I needed a cheap candy bowl to lure potential friends into my office. I needed to get to the Dollar Tree.

So I set off walking. I walked everywhere in Europe. This should have been no problemo.

About two miles later, having lost nearly a quarter of my body weight to sweat, limping from a blister building on my left heel, I began to rethink the whole process.

The green logo of my destination did eventually come into view and, after purchasing my goods, I started off for home. The total trek was about 5 ½ miles, coming in just over an hour and a half.

About a mile from my house I pulled out my phone and staged a fake conversation, just so I could vent out loud without looking like I was talking to myself to anyone who might be driving by.

“You’re an idiot, Mary,” I told myself through my phone. “You couldn’t have just waited for that stupid bus, could you? Now just look where you are. Walking home. Walking six miles home. I hope you’re happy with yourself.” I wasn’t.

I tried to put the incident behind me and when I dropped the hand sanitizer off in the campus editor’s office the next morning, she gave me a very grateful, “Aww, thank you, girl!”

No girl, thank you.

“We were a little worried about you yesterday,” she said as I turned to leave. “You totally disappeared on us!”

“Oh,” I laughed nervously. “Um, yeah, I just went home.”

Laaaame.

Jaime shared the same sentiments when I dropped off a bottle of hand sanitizer at the reception desk, currently occupied by Dan the cartoonist guy.

Little King Trash Mouth

“Everyone was like, ‘Where the heck did Mary go?’” Jaime continued as if the Case of the Missing Mary was the most interesting thing to happen in the last 24 hours. Surely not.

“I just went to the Dollar Tree in Bonita,” I said. “It’s right on my way home.”

“I thought that was you I saw,” said the cartoonist, spinning around. Without his ballcap a ruffled mohawk striped the back of his head. “I drove past you. I think you were on the phone. Why were you walking, though?”

I groaned.

“I was going to offer you a ride,” he said in an off-handed way, “But I was like, ‘Eh, I barely know her. That might be weird.’”

“You should have!” I moaned pathetically. All pretense of being chill flushed away. “I missed my bus and I had to walk all the way home!”

Jaime and Dan both let loose a chorus of laughter while I sat there and fidgeted, and then Jaime said, “But… Why did you go to the Dollar Tree in Bonita? Don’t you know there’s one right across the street?”

I lost it. I absolutely lost it. Whatever efforts I had been trying to make to seem like some cool, accomplished, put-together piece of whatever, they were all failing miserably.

“I am such an idiot,” I pouted, cradling my head in my hands.

“Yeah, that wasn’t a super smart move,” said Dan with friendly American sarcasm. “The Dollar Tree by the school is literally so close.”

No one let me forget about the hand sanitizer incident. I don’t even know how they all found out so quickly.

Dan, especially, thought it was hilarious. He proved to be a real cheeky rascal. The kind that pulls a Jim Halpert face every time someone cracks a ‘your mom’ joke (and by ‘someone’ I mean ‘me’).

“You are so aggressive, Mary,” he would say to me from whatever office chair he had turned into his throne for that day. One minute he’d be shaking his head disapprovingly, and the next he’d be instigating – with devilish glee – some act of office mischief.

Annoying Dan became one of the joys I depended on to get me through the day.

I spent that first week up to my eyeballs in equipment inventorying, story assignments, press badges and templates. I didn’t have an assistant yet so I was dropping balls right and left. I may know how to take a good picture, but managing a section is a completely different duck pond. And all my ducks were like radio-active baby rhinos that I had to teach to swim.

On top of all this, I have been using a Canon for the last three years and the school’s equipment is entirely Nikon. About twice a day I would walk into someone’s office and ask, “Does anyone know anything about cameras? How do I increase the shutter speed on this?” To which they would shrug and say, “Aren’t you the photo editor?”

Ah, yes. Yes, I am.

Bianca and the multimedia editor did mountains to help me get things sorted and the viewpoints editor helped me start my computer at least three times the first week.

And every time I would feel overwhelmed or flustered (outbreaks which the editorial board has begun calling “Marydowns”), I would think about my tiny office in a tiny school in Prague with hand-drawn pictures and students projects pinned up along the walls, reminding me that bunches of tiny people loved me. Just for a moment. Just until it started to hurt again.

The first week of school melted into the third week and I found myself an assistant. I figured out where the playback button was on our Nikon cameras. I put things up on our office walls. Slowly, the place started to feel like my own.

Accept for the fact that I still felt like everyone thought I was one, big, unjustifiable failure, I was hanging in there.

One evening, as I was blaring David Bowie’s “Under Pressure” (a college staple) from my computer and desperately trying to figure out how to crop things in photoshop, Dan opened the door to my office, dragging a cushy chair behind him.

“I stole this from multimedia,” he said, making himself comfortable. “Why are your lights off, dude?”

Relishing the opportunity to ignore my current technical difficulties, I spun around and faced him.

“I get distracted when I can see everything, so I keep the lights off when I need to work,” I said in as matter-of-fact, I’m-not-crazy-I-swear a tone as I could possibly muster under the circumstances.

“Hmm,” he said, looking around my two-bit working space. “I’ve been stalking you on Instagram a bit,” he said still examining the white boards and the sticky notes everywhere. “Your students looked really cool.”

“Wait, which picture did you see?” I asked, excited to talk about something other than how badly I was fulfilling my duties as photo queen.

“The one with the kid wearing the meme shirt,” he said. “And a couple others. What was it like teaching in Europe?”

And I was off. I told him about the Wall-of-Shame and our English Clubs. I told him about the rascals and the angels and all their crazy antics. I told him how much I loved being a teacher and how much I miss it. And it all came out so naturally, like it was any other part of my life.

We compared notes about pre-teens for a bit and then the multimedia editor came back looking for her chair.

Dan got up to go and I went back to work. It felt so normal I didn’t even realize immediately the significance of that conversation. I was able to talk about Prague, about a part of my life that I have been feeling like I lost, without the ache that comes with it.

It was just another memory. Just another time. Just another piece of me to share with a piece of someone else.

The gift of friendship

I had no idea how badly I needed people this month until they turned up. Part of what has made coming home so hard has been the gaping hole in my heart, carved out by precious children and fearlessly loving teachers who welcomed me with open arms and made me one of their own.

As difficult as it is to be the new person, it is incredibly humbling and incredibly beautiful to once again be the object of friendship from strangers. To be included. To be offered a place in a family of human beings who are loyal and kind to each other for reasons the rational mind cannot fathom. And so, to be reminded of the goodness of God as He is reflected in His extraordinary people.

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True things I’d forgotten about college life

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I earnestly considered titling this post, “Who seriously does this on purpose a second time?” (Also in the line-up was “Always a freshman, never a post-grad” and “Netflix, I love you”). But the basic premise of the following list is simply that coming back to community college as a technical freshman (but like, way older) has reminded me why we all try so hard to eventually leave college in the first place. Not that it isn’t a barrel of hoots and all, but at some point every baby eaglette will look around its nest and say to itself, “I know it’s a long way down from here, but I’d much rather end up decomposing on the forest floor in a pile of feathers than spend the rest of my life eating $2.00 pizza-pockets from the cafeteria.”

Or, you know, something along those lines.

Now that we’re officially finished with the first full month back at school, I’d like to share my list of all the true things about community college life that I’d forgotten in my three-year absence.

  • The freshman fifteen is not a joke. It is serious. It is very, very serious.
  • Putting money on your print-card for the library may mean surviving on a smaller gas budget, but there’s no way you’re giving up your daily coffee ritual. Priorities, bro.
  • There is no right way to make friends in class. Everyone is just going to feel very awkward until after midterms. Get used to it.
  • *Sweatpants.
  • Three sequential weeks at the same desk confirms place ownership. If someone takes your spot at anytime after the three week mark, it is within your legal right to Regina-George-glare them into humiliation.
  • Procrastination has a whole new meaning. Well, the meaning is the same, you just demonstrate it a little more prolifically.
  • Netflix.
  • Bus schedules, student parking and scantrons become a much bigger part of your life than  you ever wanted or hoped for.
  • People who ask clarifying questions about homework that you’re too lazy or scared to ask are appreciated. People who ask if there will be homework are not.
  • There will always be someone who cares less than you do. Unfortunately, this does not help the Curve.
  • Grunge is almost in fashion. Don’t even bother with the mascara.
  • Crying the first day of class will brand you for the rest of the semester by everyone who has figured out how to juggle classes and jobs and transportation like real adults already. Don’t be the person who cries on the first day. Be the person who cries on the second day.
  • People who try having existential discussions before your early morning class have not yet realized that college is just glorified high school and no one cares about their opinion before eight o’clock in the moooorning. You are not obligated to talk to them pre-coffee.
  • There is such a thing as “pre-coffee.”
  • The quiet ones are either brilliant, cool or clueless. Anyone who talks is way too excited to be here.
  • Group projects are where teachers send smart kids to die.
  • If you eat at the cafeteria, the cafeteria will eat you. Your soul is precious. Protect it.
  • Everything you learned in high school has no useful purpose in college. Everything you didn’t learn in high school but should have is sitting just beyond the reach of your panic-stricken mind, laughing at you in deep, drawn-out chuckles.

*Back in my day sweatpants (or yoga pants) were still a thing. Apparently, since I’ve been gone, leggings are the new do? Oh children.

Dandelion Boy

I’d forgotten about this.

I’d forgotten that there’s a physical adjustment period when you move somewhere new and your immune system is hit with a host of little bugs it hasn’t had to deal with before and it has a meltdown (not unlike the ones I have on a semi-regular basis). It packs a bag, grabs the last of your dignity, and says, “See ya’, pal. I’m checking out.”  

I tucked my legs in the space between the seat and the airplane window, wishing I could figure out how to my make seat recline, and sneezed pathetically into a goopy paper towel.  

All things considered, it’s been worse. The first time I went to college I got Whooping Cough. Twice. I was basically sick for an entire year. This I attributed mostly to jumping from 18 years of being home schooled (where the few germs that missed Mom’s weekend bleaching routine were basically on a first-name basis with us kids already anyway) to spending 10 hours a day on a public campus.

Then I moved to Europe two years ago and spent another 10 months with violent fevers and a perpetual cough. My neighbors told me it was the weather – always wet, always cold. My Czech friends told me it was probably just that I wasn’t used to European germs yet. My fellow teachers told me that this happens to most first-timers who haven’t yet built up their immunity to the biological minefield that is a Middle School. It was probably a bit of everything.

Three weeks into the semester and I’m remembering now. . . The American Germ Association has had two years to regroup in my absence and they’re throwing me quite a ‘welcome home’ bash.

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Coming in over San Francisco was breath-taking (not that I had much left to spare). Soupy clouds spilled out around the feet of the mountains that stuck out into the bay in jagged, broken lines. A patchwork of marshes, flats and waterlines rolled away beneath us as the plane lowered in elevation. To our left, a Delta flight was descending in sync with us. Sometimes we were ahead, sometimes we were behind, but the sleek airliner never left the small frame of my window, finally touching down on the runway four seconds before our own wheels thumped onto the solid ground of San Francisco’s airport tarmac.  In my head, I counted down the minutes standing between me and my nephew.

My phone buzzed with alerts as I turned it back on. People following up on school assignments, someone inviting me to a concert, a friend asking me about my thoughts on the Syrian conflict.

Coughing and sneezing, I inched my way into the aisle, avoiding eye-contact with the guy who had asked me earlier which seat I was in, to which I had replied, “Number A” (You are in college, Mary. You know ‘A’ is not a number).

I stared at the BART map for ten minutes (unable to find the very clearly labeled SFO airport), before buying a twenty dollar ticket and asking someone how to get to Berkeley. In the haze of my exhaustion-wracked mind, directions weren’t processing well and I ended up halfway to Bay Point before realizing I had missed a connection.

To add to the general stress of things, because having your lungs leak out of your nose in public isn’t traumatizing enough, I forgot to add money to my pre-pay account this month, so my phone wasn’t doing so hot. Between me, my immune system, and my poverty-stricken phone, we were one miserable mess on the Richmond-bound train.

Deborah picked me up at the train stop with a hug and a baggy of homemade cookies (at least one of us is figuring out adult life). Her son (my incredible, adorable, perfection-incarnate nephew) giggled at me from the back seat of the car. He is eleven months old but we have been acquainted for only the last two. It’s a budding friendship.

I told Deborah bits and pieces about the trip (she was curious to know why I was so late and hadn’t called her, etc), but the desire to breakdown in the comfort of her clean car with a mouthful of cookie seemed out of place. Perhaps part of me was still enjoying the gentle rocking and sweeping views from the train window, perhaps I was just too sick to care anymore. I like to think that a small piece of me still hasn’t given up on the struggle to one day turn into a real adult.

I remember the night Ilias was born. I was still in Prague – nine hours ahead of the rest of my family. He actually graced our planet with his presence in the morning, I’m told. But past the first message or two that he was officially on his way, I didn’t end up on the loop of family text messages that were circling space for several hours. That happens when you live on a different continent. No hard feelings, fam.

He’s the first grandbaby in the family and we’re all a little twitterpated.

After waiting patiently for about six hours, I finally sent several pathetic messages to various family members, begging for information. My own evening had stretched on past my usual bedtime in the hopes that I’d know something for sure before going to sleep.

My brother-in-law sent me a quick note with Ilias’ weight and time of birth. Family filled me in on the details in waves over the next few hours, but I was already asleep. All I had needed to know was that first assurance that a new life was in the world.

I find it amazing how much a baby makes the world seem bigger and brighter, like the road is open and endless.

We got back to Deborah’s apartment just before noon – the train station was only about a ten minute drive away. Her husband is a student at Berkeley and the family-oriented neighborhood they live in off campus is packed with children riding tricycles and young parents bouncing fussy babies to sleep along the winding sidewalks.

Deborah gave me something from the medicine cabinet for my fever and I collapsed on a bed for several hours.

I think I needed that nap, regardless of the coughing, semi-comatose state that I was already in. I barely had time to get settled at home before I lept into community college courses and coaching commitments. I went from getting up at 5:30 to teach darling little Czech children every morning to waking up at 5:30 to drool in pre-dawn college classes every morning. (Not a fair trade, in my mind). I’ve spent weeks figuring out San Diego’s bus system, countless days trying to put my finances in order, and at least an hour and a half wondering what I’m supposed to do with the rest of my life. Like, at least.

It’s hard, not knowing what happens next. There is a huge (mostly self-inflicted) pressure not to waste the life you have and there are so many things to do. How is one supposed to pick just one direction? Especially when one still struggles to follow basic directions on a color-coded transit map?

I came back to America and realized how few people know about the Syrian refugees seeking shelter in Europe. I was bombarded with two years of pop culture that I missed while away and I found it shallow and embittering. And I am still blown away by the phenomenon that is the American Drinking Fountain. FREE, CLEAN WATER and it’s EVERYWHERE!

I want to be useful. But with a world that needs so much help, where does one even begin? What could I really do? So I dig wells in Africa. So I teach English in Asia. So I work in orphanages or hospitals or poor houses. So what? Tomorrow will bring another drought, another war, another problem. And I won’t be there then.

If I give all I possess to the poor and give my body over to hardship that I may boast, but have not love, I gain nothing. – 1 Corinthians 13:3

Admittedly, and this is important, the desire to help others is inherently selfish. The urge to do great things is born from a very small need to have value. To be needed is to have purpose. And to have purpose is in a tiny way to keep yourself from disappearing into the vastness of time.

At one point last week I found myself sitting on the edge of the living room coffee table, crying into my hands as my Dad looked on helplessly from behind his book. (He should basically be used to this by now, but I think he may have expected me to be past this particular mode of expression by this point).

“I just want to be useful,” I blurted out. Between shaking fingers, I clutched several torn-up pieces of paper with lost opportunities inked into their margins. I may pretend like I’m living the hobo dream, but it’s really just to disguise how badly it hurts to walking barefoot and blinded down a road you don’t know.

“You will be useful,” my Dad reassured me simply. He would know, I imagine. Who can spend their evenings reading the short stories of James Harriot and not know that life will eventually work itself out.

It’s been a while since I’ve had a real nap. I woke up to the flushed-red feeling of a broken hibernation and the sounds of my sister chattering away somewhere nearby. Navigating myself through their tiny apartment, I found her on the patio with a phone to her ear and a child on her knee. She was talking with our brother and Ilias was chewing on a basil leaf.

“Yeah, she’s here,” Deborah said. “She finally woke up.”

I grinned. I have a bad habit of visiting my siblings and spending most of the trip asleep in various corners of their respective abodes. This brother had an especially comfortable bean bag…

Berkeley is much cooler than San Diego right now. The Bay Area is chillin’ around the mid-seventies, which is a lot more reasonable than the sweltering crock pot that is currently my home town, thank you very much.

Deborah wrapped up the phone call as Ilias crawled his way into my lap. We both sat on the concrete beside the sliding door to the small, square patio, his little hands tugging at my bigger ones. I hope I don’t get you sick, pal, I thought. (Spoiler: I did).

“Ready for dinner?” Deborah asked, picking up the toddler clinging to my shirt and leading the three of us inside. She’s a good mom to all of us.

As my sister chopped and peeled and washed and simmered things in a chorus of perfectly timed kitchen-esque pirouettes, I grabbed the little guy and took him outside. Beyond the knee-high wooden gate circling their small patio, over the cold sidewalk, our barefeet found a patch of green grass with dandelions.

Ilias sat between my knees as I picked one flower after another. He’d crumpled the gifts between his chubby fingers and let the lacy seeds grab onto tendrils of the Autumn breeze and lift off, leaving us on the earth below.

Afternoon sighed one last warm breath before fading into a silver evening with cool winds and rustling leaves. The pale light brushed through our baby’s hair and he smiled as a handful of dandelion tufts left his palm in a flurried dance onwards and upwards.

The sunshine stroked my face softly and I thanked God for Vitamin D.

I remembered the night he was born. How immense and beautiful our futures had suddenly seemed because he was in them.

It’s easy to get lost in the mire of tragedies that carpet the world over. It’s easy to fall into despair, to lose your road, to lose your faith. It’s easy to see yourself as a dandelion – here and then gone in the impossibly fast skip of a heart beat. And as a dandelion, what can you really accomplish anyway?

But Ilias makes the world look different to me. He has great grandparents from Europe, from America and from the Middle East. His ancestors are a collage of stories from varied points around the globe. Some had harder lives than others. Some ended in joy, others in sadness. But would any of them have guessed that a hundred years after their own births, a little boy with twinkling eyes and an ineffable grin would sit on the grass beside the San Francisco Bay? A boy with an entire life of opportunities ahead of him.

No, just a life. A life that is his.

A friend of mine reminded me today that growing up is a gift denied to many.

I’ve never really cared for the idea of growing up – especially since I’ve not proved to be particularly good at it. But it is a gift.

Every breath that comes from lungs which pump air with blood that races from warm hearts to warm hands, every flicker of light that dilates our eyes, every sound that sends melodies ringing through our souls, it’s all a gift we don’t deserve.

We will help. We will find ways to save the world, one day at a time.

I hate to say it, but love is the answer. The love of a mother, a neighbor, a friend. The love of a God who sent His Son to die for a people who refuse to love Him back.

There is a change that is lasting, a water that doesn’t dry up, a shelter from the fray. The love of God.

My Dad would know better than anyone that heroes are not always the people who slay the biggest dragons. That being useful can mean spending your life as someone small and unnoticed in the same corner of the world you were born in. For that matter, my sister knows this too. They are the ones who teach and build, live and learn and die. They are the ones who love. They are the dandelions, spreading pieces of themselves across a vast period of time, planted deep within the hearts and minds of those around them. And even though they may seem to disappear in the wind, they will grow again.

I am a Jelly Butterfly

I really did think that I would magically be a better driver upon my return to the good U.S. of A. That the days of panicking every time I have to merge onto the freeway were over; that I’d gotten my last traffic violation; that I would no longer be a human wrecking ball, careening into objects solid and stationary at speeds so awkwardly unimpressive that I couldn’t even really turn them into good stories later on.

Not so, my friends. Not so.

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Two years away from home and one of the first things I noticed coming back was how much I changed while I was abroad – changes that were excruciatingly highlighted by the old habits I fell back into oh-so quickly.

The Saturday before my first week of school found me driving the winding back roads of San Diego County in absolute hysterics as I desperately searched for the turn-off that should have been on this hick-ville, dirt-road excuse for a major thoroughfare. (Sensing a little bitterness? Just a little? Wait, there’s more).

I actually maintained my calm surprisingly well, at first. I survived the London Underground, surely I could manage this.

A glance at the dashboard clock told me the Bridal Shower I was headed to had already begun. It wasn’t my fault that I was late, of course. It was simply that Google Maps had told me a bold-faced lie. (Google Maps has gone to absolute pot since I left the States, by the way. Totally useless).

But after driving narrow, sharply curved roads for half an hour (and passing signs that said “Welcome to Jamul” followed some time later by “Welcome to Dulzura”) I decided my best course of action would be to stop and ask an elderly motorbiking couple for directions. They were very sympathetic, considering the circumstances (they told me not to cry at least twice – if only they knew…) and pointed me back down the road I had just come from.

I drove for two hours before finally realizing that, even if I did find this place, the party would long be over. THAT’S when I started the water works. It was like college-Mary all over again.

“Whyyyyyy c-c-can’t I eeeeeeeeeever find a-a-aaaaanything?” I sobbed out-loud to myself, choking slightly and seriously distressing several passing drivers as I struggled to stay in between the white lines through my wailing. “You’d th-th-think I’d be a-able to find one st-st-stupid a-a-address on one st-st-stupid road in this st-st-stupid country! How h-have I not gotten ANY b-better at th-this in the last -[hiccup/sob]- TWO YEARS! It’s like I’ve gotten worse, like I’v-v-ve DE-AGED. . . I’M B-B-B-BENJAMIN BUTTONING!”

My walk of shame from the car to the kitchen with my un-gifted wedding shower gift was one of the most humiliating I have ever taken. Not that my family was very surprised.

“You should have just called me,” Dad said as I dropped the cumbersome present onto a chair.

“Admit that I got lost my first time back behind the wheel of a car?” I laughed bitterly. “Never. That’s just not okay.”

That was a low point.

Considering how rough the summer was (though not without a daily ray of sunshine!), it was really just par for the course. It’s an odd-numbered year. Those are the bad ones. If I can make it to 24 in one piece, I’ll consider myself on dry ground.

Community college, however, may stop me from doing just that.

And for those of you just now joining, here’s a little context.

I’ve already done community college. I’ve served my time. I went in as a naive little girl who couldn’t afford actual college and came out with an Associate Degree, an education in people, and a triple-shot venti-sized boost in confidence, street smarts and weight-gain (the Freshman Fifteen is real. . . The Sophomore Ten I may have invented out of necessity).

The same could almost be said of my return from Prague (if you change the Associate Degree with TESOL certification and the weight-gain with slightly healthier habits), except that the trip back from Europe included something I hadn’t expected. Reverse culture shock.

For those who don’t know what reverse culture shock is (and I certainly didn’t when I came home this summer), lend me your ears.

Reverse culture shock is when a person returns from abroad (or away) to find that ‘home’ as they remembered no longer exists – both their former environment and their former selves have changed in such a way that neither fully recognizes or fits into the other. It can range from being amusingly uncomfortable to emotionally jarring.

For me, it has come in waves of both. Although tipping drives me nuts now and I suddenly don’t understand why we don’t take our shoes off inside (and I’m OBSESSED WITH DRINKING FOUNTAINS), the most notable change has been the race debate.

Racism exists openly in the Czech Republic to an extent that would shock most Americans. If you are from Eastern Europe, chances are you will have fewer friends in school. If you are from the Middle East, chances are you will get teased. If you are Romani (“Gypsy”), you will be treated like a second class citizen your entire life. This mindset exists almost unapologetically across the generations currently living in Prague, from my youngest 4th graders to the most beloved elders in the community.

Coming back to the States, I felt annoyed at how much racism has become an issue since I’ve been gone. I read about Baltimore and Ferguson when I was in Prague. One day I opened up facebook and it was literally in flames. Those same headlines danced before my eyes in Czech on newspapers read by fellow passengers on the bus or the metro. “Is the American Dream Burning?”

But, I told myself, these people have no idea what actual racism looks like.

I take the bus to school now which means leaving the house before it’s fully light. It’s a ten minute walk and then a ten minute wait followed by a twenty minute, standing-room-only ride to campus.

Public transportation in Europe is wonderful (in varying degrees), and everyone uses it. Rich or poor, housed or homeless, everyone rides the metro, regardless of color, creed or background. It is the great equalizer.

In San Diego if you’re riding the bus, it’s because you can’t afford a car, which creates a class distinction. I am by no means rich, nor is my family, but I can afford the new backpack I brought to school and the new jeans I’d bought the week before when I was visiting friends in New York City.

Waiting at that bus stop, I felt like a fish out of water. I felt very conspicuously white. And that feeling stayed for most of my week on campus. It’s not that anyone said or did anything to make me feel uncomfortable – I just felt different. I felt like I didn’t belong. Unlike what some might have us believe, this is not a feeling owned by any specific race in America – it’s a universal human feeling which, justified or not, can be isolating and traumatic.

Thankfully, for me it has just been another new sensation. Another wave of culture shock I didn’t expect. The tone has changed in my neighborhood and race matters. The more of this I noticed, the more I felt like the naive little girl who first showed up on this campus five years ago.

That first week, I assured myself that everything would be okay. Except for missing a bus home and walking six miles to find a Dollar Tree, nothing had gone horribly awry. I found all my classes, I bought all my books, and I only stress-ate once.

One morning, I filed onto the bus with the twenty or so other people headed towards jobs or classes. We were a tight fit and an elderly gent in front of me was encouraging us younger students to keep backing up.

“Bus driver says, ‘back up!’ then you back up! We all got to fit on this bus, now,” he said with a laugh. “You young people hear him say, ‘back up!’ and you just look behind you like, ‘Oh what, me?’ Yes you! Back up!”

Those of us around him couldn’t help but chuckle at his vivacity. It was so much better than coffee. I’ve always loved friendly people.

Standing next to him were two boys – maybe around 20 years old – and he noticed with a grin that they were enjoying his commentary.

“You know what?” he said, turning his address to the young men specifically, “America’s finest do a really good job here. You know who I mean, of course.” He laughed again. “America’s finest will lie to your face your whole life. Try to keep you down! But you know what? It’s your responsibility to stand up for yourself.”

One of the boys was grinning and nodding, the other took a very small step backwards.

“You know who America’s finest is, don’t ya? Caucasians.

The word turned into a brick which knocked the smile from my mouth and landed with a thud in the base of my stomach. There were a few more chuckles. People were enjoying the spectacle, but I couldn’t tell if they were laughing with him or at him. He was so close to me that my nose nearly brushed his shoulder. He went on a few more times about white people holding everybody else down when finally I said, “That’s such a lie.”

I didn’t say it accusatorily. But the simpler, younger version of myself – with bright eyes and a bushy tale – was ready to bring justice to this situation. In hindsight, that may not have been the best opening argument.

He turned around on me slowly, as if seeing me for the first time. After giving me a sweeping glance he scoffed and turned his back to me.

“You’re a child,” he huffed. “I’m not going to talk to you. I’m 50 years old. I’ve lived. I have experience. You don’t know what you’re talking about. I’ll talk to your parents before I talk to you. What are you even doing on this bus? Can’t you buy a car? Surely someone in your family can buy you a car.”

There was more laughter and I realized I had thrown myself into a needless, pointless debate in front of a whole bus who not only thought I was crazy for engaging this guy, but probably racist for defending white people. I felt my face grow hot, and not because we were all packed in and sloshing about in this MTS tin can.

I wanted to point out that I was wearing duct-taped sandals or brandish my useless pre-paid phone at him. Instead I just turned red and mumbled something unintelligible. I remembered that this isn’t Europe and race and class disparities aren’t viewed the same way.

“You come back and talk when you’ve spent ten years in jail for a crime you didn’t do, lost your wife and your kids. That’s what happened to me.”

“I’m so sorry,” I said quietly.

“Sorry? You’re sorry? What’s sorry gonna do? Is it gonna get my ten years back? You think you can fix anything with your ‘sorry’?”

“No, but -”

“I’m going to college to make myself better, get myself a job.” He showed me his shirt which said, ‘Everyone deserves to shine’ on the back. Proudly, he told the younger fellows next to him about his car-washing plans. Then he turned on me again and said, “I wasn’t even talking to you in the first place. You think this is all about you? I wasn’t talking about you. I was talking to them.”

I couldn’t seem to get my thoughts to come out in words and as I felt the eyes of the whole bus on me I struggled to keep from crying. Wouldn’t that just be the cherry on top. Crying in public.

The problem is not what he said, but how he said it.

He bullied me into silence, I thought. He denied me a voice because of my age and my color. And I have a voice. Sure, I wasn’t there to defend ‘white people’ or demand justice for his remarks (which, frankly, I really wasn’t that offended by). I wanted those boys – and that whole bus full of students that were listening intently – to know that not all ‘white people’ are trying to hold them back. And to say so is an injustice to our community of people (of all ethnicities) who will bend over backwards to help young people like us (regardless of our own ethnicities) to make it in the world. The lie he was spinning will do nothing but breed more hurt and distrust.

If I’ve learned anything in Prague, it’s that racism isn’t simply the oppression and harm of one people group by another people group, it’s the oppression and harm of humans by other humans that creates barriers between us all.

Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends. –Maya Angelou

But I didn’t say any of that. I just stood on the bus, hid my face in my arm, and prayed that the next ten minutes would go by quickly. The old-Mary was humiliated for having jumped right back into her habit of self-righteous declaration of the good, and the new one was wishing she had the wisdom to handle the situation more gracefully and in a less public setting.

The rest of the afternoon I walked past people on campus who had shared that bus ride with me. Some sniggered, some looked purposefully away, others just stared.

Becoming a social pariah the first week of school was definitely not my intention. The race debate may have changed since I’ve been gone, but people haven’t. And apparently I haven’t either.

What am I doing here, I wondered on the bus ride home. Why am I back at community college? Why does it feel like I haven’t learned anything in the last five years? Seriously, God, what’s your plan here? The culture shock, the pathetic tendencies I thought I got rid of – how long am I going to have foot-in-mouth syndrome or lose my way to bridal showers? WHY DOES IT FEEL LIKE I AM GOING BACKWARDS HERE?  

I felt like stress-eating my weight in cheese puffs.

As another Saturday rolled around, I found myself at the party of a friend-of-a-friend. I didn’t know most of the people there, but there was an ice-cream bar, so I made myself at home.

The patio was trimmed with white lights and deck chairs. Music floated through the air and a few people were dancing on the lawn.

After consuming a brownie and an indecent amount of whipped cream, I found myself sitting around a firepit at the end of the patio, across from the black-green lawn and the swimming pool which reflected the strings of lights in a twinkle of soft ripples.

The young women around the firepit introduced themselves. We were all mid-college or post-college or going into college. We were all coming to the close of long summers – some good, some bad. And they all seemed very excited to hear about my life in Prague and my plans now that I’m home (of which I have none). It was a bit like telling ghost stories around a campfire as we all ‘oooh’ed and ‘awww’ed around the firepit (except that ghost stories aren’t nearly as scary as being a twenty-something in 2015). The air was like a warm breath and the inky-blue evening peeled back a layer of clouds to give a few optimistic stars the chance to glimmer half-heartedly in the L.A. sky.

I had an attentive crowd, so I told story after story. When those ran out, I eventually talked about how hard it was to come home and how I have no clue what to do next. I admitted that I’d put aside my plans to teach and that being plan-less and directionless was almost as bad as the culture shock. I told the bus story.

I didn’t say that I feel as though my developments as a human being all got left behind in Prague. I learned how to be an adult in Europe. Now I have to learn it all over again in America.

Learn how to use directions. Learn not to cry when you get lost. Do not engage strangers on the bus. Don’t assume you know everything about people. Stop thinking everything is about you. Stop judging your own self-worth based on the plans you make for yourself. Maybe use less whipped cream in the future? We’ll work on that one.

For a moment, I could feel myself behind the wheel of a car, driving into nowhere. Directionless and lost. The conversation lapsed into a quiet hum of unspoken reflections.

Then suddenly, like an oasis in the desert or a signal bar in a tunnel, the girls opened up their hearts to me, one by one, and revealed a life-changing secret: they are lost too.

They all seemed to get it. No matter who they were or what their background was, they all knew how it felt to be headed down a road with no clear destination. They each had a story and now it was my turn to sit and listen, enraptured.

“It’s like how a caterpillar changes into a butterfly,” explained one of them, her cherry-red lips forming a smile in the firelight. “When the caterpillar spins its cocoon, it essentially becomes jelly inside as all the parts reassemble themselves. It’s not a random process – they have all the cells they need to become butterflies from the time their mother lays their eggs. But while they’re in that cocoon, they have no definite shape.”

A round of giggles followed this analogy as we imagined little jellified insects hanging from petaled branches.

She looked at me sweetly and said, “My guess is that you have changed a lot in the last two years and that you’re going to a change a lot more. You’re in the jelly stage right now, but you need to be here if you want to become a butterfly.”

I thought about what it might mean to be a jelly-butterfly. I thought about what a gift it is to be able to listen (another aspect of culture shock – adjusting back to English!).

The drive home was long.

I thought about the old man on the bus. He didn’t have a car.

I am extremely fortunate to have been given the life that I have. Fortunate to have spent two years in Prague. Fortunate to have the time to figure out where I’m going next. And none of this is random. These things are gifts from God, both the things that look like blessings and the things that don’t. They’re all part of the cocoon that I’m wrapped up in right now.

I know I’ve come a long way, but I have a lot more to learn. And that’s okay. I have a voice already, but if I listen more than I speak I can strengthen it with broader knowledge and a greater sense of empathy. I can be silent. That’s okay.

I won’t always be lost, but I am right now and that’s okay. I can ask for help, and that’s okay too. And if this winding, wondrous road is what I have to take to reach the feet of my gracious God, it’s a path I delight to take.

A New York Moment

Niall’s Irish Pub, 52nd Street – Tuesday, 4:30 p.m.

“That’s a lot,” Ernesto said with a soft exhale of breath. I could tell he had something to say but he was allowing a moment of silence out of respect for my situation. I fiddled with the Ironman toy he carried around with him, which had previously been leaning against my beer glass like the sherif of a dirty town.

“But you know,” he finally began, “You’ve already done this.” He scratched the stubble on his face and continued in an even tone. “You’ve served your time at The Sun. You’ve learned all you can. Other people will need a chance to do what you’ve done, and you need a chance to move on. And it doesn’t have to be doing what everyone else does. You get to choose your own life. And you’re certainly too different a person to let other people’s ideas of what your life should be dictate how you live it.”

We were both quiet for a moment. It was my turn to say something. This was, after all, the talk I’d been expecting (hoping?) to have all day (summer?).

Disappointing people is one of my larger fears, even to the extent that if the barman suggests I might like the New England Pale Ale, doggone it, that’s what I get. And I tell him I like it.

Now imagine that on a major-life-decisions scale.

I wanted to tell him (Ernesto, not the barman) that I know, that all this makes sense in my head, but I didn’t. I just made Ironman lean against the sweaty glass with his head in his hands.

“I’ve got to go, Mary,” he said (Ernesto, not Ironman). “But let’s meet up again when I’m back in San Diego.”

He paid for the bill and then stepped into the restroom to change into his new sweater before heading off to catch his Broadway play. I stuffed my things back into my bag, the stem of my umbrella popping up unexpectedly for the eightieth time. He chuckled at me (Ernesto, not the umbrella) and gave me a hug ‘goodbye.’

“Take care of yourself, Mary York,” he called before the door shut him onto the street, leaving behind nothing but the tinkle of the doorway bell. I knew two years was a lot longer than the time that lay between us now, but just the tiniest bit of anxiety splashed around in my stomach next to the small seed of hope Ernesto had planted. Good advice from a friend is a treasure, but the presence of a friend is priceless. And when, in this crazy world, would I see this one again?

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Rite Aid, Manhattan – Tuesday, 3:00 p.m.

“Where have you been, Mary York?” I dropped hand sanitizer and some Haribos sweet and sour peaches onto the checkout counter before looking up, the afternoon glare from the window blurring my vision slightly.

“Ernesto!” I blubbered excitedly when I saw him todder up to the front of the short check-out line. “I talked to the most incredible woman!”

“When?”

“Just now!”

“You mean this whole time you’ve been talking?” he asked me skeptically as he surveyed the aisles of the drugstore for any trace of a human matching the description of an ‘incredible woman.’

“She’s a publicist in the city and she gave me all her contact information and said she can help me get in touch with people about my writing!” I went on, enthusiastically. ”She had all this great advice!”

“Your writing?”

“I mean, she thought I lived in the city because I said I’d been turned around since I got here – you know how I get lost – but I couldn’t back out of the conversation once we started.”

“What writing?”

I signed the receipt and put away my card.

“Maybe I could live in New York…Maybe I need to scrap my plan and just move here. I’ve been rethinking the whole thing anyway.”

I grabbed the plastic bag from the counter and stuffed the receipt inside. Ernesto was staring me down.

What plan, Mary?”

I brushed him off and hurried outside, trading the sanctuary of the air-conditioned drugstore for a humid whoosh of cars, humans and leaky air vents.

“I’ll tell you when we get to the pub!” I called over my shoulder as we rushed headlong into the flow of New Yorkers, a rare breed of creatures who neither see nor care about any other moving objects around them.

Our plan was to find a department store where we could purchase some cheap clothing. He had a Broadway play to attend and I had a dinner date with an old family friend. He didn’t feel comfortable going in a T-shirt and I didn’t feel comfortable going in shorts. So there we were, at the foot of a two-story, glass-walled H&M.

“Ten minutes, ten dollars. And don’t let that umbrella of yours hurt anyone,” he said, before disappearing into the racks of clothing.

A New York department store. Now this was an experience. And I had thought Central Park was a jungle. I shuffled through jeans on sale and looked at some black slacks. Part of me wanted to buy something snappy and practical, something distinguished and forward. Something I could wear to work or to university classes. That was what I had always wanted, right? That was the plan. That’s what I had told everyone. Finish the degree. Get the teaching credential. Live long and prosper.

I felt empty even thinking it.

A stack of pants came crashing off a shelf and I bent down to scoop them up before someone judged me for not knowing how to walk in a straight line.

The pants, I noticed, were $9.99. Definitely in my price range. Time was ticking and my companion is nothing if not punctual. Several semesters of meeting deadlines with him at the college newspaper followed by years of him showing up precisely when needed had led me to believe that Ernesto may in fact be the White Rabbit (which would make me clueless Alice, and frankly, that fits pretty well too). I grabbed a pair and tried them on for kicks.

They fit.

Well, one can never have enough jeans, and I don’t have any right now, I reasoned as I walked away from the slacks.

The girls in front of me had racked up more than $600 at the register before they opened a second line. By the time I met Ernesto by the front door, ten minutes had gone out to pasture. But he had spent more than $10 on his sweater, so we called it even.

“We could compete on those reality shows,” he said. “We’d be awesome.”

We would be awesome, I thought as my umbrella stem popped up under my arm with a shink. And, at this rate, cheap TV shows sounded a lot better than my plan anyway.

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The Met, 5th Avenue – Tuesday, 12:00 p.m.

“Is there a real dead person in here?” I asked as we stared down at the canoe-shaped mummy box. Our clothes were still damp from the walk over. My umbrella had ceased to function and then nearly popped an old man in the face when we were safely inside the museum (“It keeps doing that,” I tried to tell him as I stuffed it back down into my bag, but I don’t think he understood English. He just stared at me with a terrified expression).

“Of course there’s a real dead person down there, Mary York,” Ernesto chortled. “They don’t keep fake dead people in The Met. This is a world-class establishment.”

We had just found our way out of the costume exhibit, which was a special display of Japanese runway clothing and communist-era dress uniforms. We were happy to be back among the dead. Hieroglyphics and crusted pottery lined hall after hall. We wove between the awed visitors, muttering things about Egyptian Macklemore’s and pigmy hippos and taking pictures of Ironman with papyrus people. I kept a tight grip on my umbrella stem. The last thing I wanted to do was set off an alarm or break a four-thousand year-old chamber pot.

Finally, we came to a room encased in glass that jutted into the park, allowing a soft, natural light to spill into the high-vaulted chamber. A pond had been fashioned in the center and a pyramid rose out of the water at one end. We stood there for a moment, taking in the view with breathless silence.

“I’ve seen bigger,” I finally said, shattering the moment into a thousand ridiculous pieces.

“I bet you have,” Ernesto said with a snort.

“No really, in Madrid,” I pushed back as we walked alongside the pond to the line leading into the ancient assemblage of brick. The third little piggy really went to town on this thing. “It was bigger and cooler because it was outside on the edge of this cliff and when the sun went down you could see the reflection in the water.”

I must have drifted off into my travels because when I looked up, Ernesto was several feet ahead of me.

“Should we go in?” he asked. “Is it worth it?”

I don’t know what it was about that question, but the thought of my plan – of living in the same city for five more years of education, spending money I don’t have on a degree I’m still not sure about, for a job I don’t know if I want anymore – that thought felt like a bucket of cold water. I grimmaced. Is it worth it? I felt foolish even thinking those things about my decent, practical plan.

Decent.

Practical.

Plan.

“Let’s wait till we can do one that’s still in Egypt,” I suggested.

“Deal.”

We spent the next three hours getting lost in Parisian apartments, medieval armor, armless statues and a bunch of weird, unexplainable hats.

“If you were riding into battle, Mary,” Ernesto would ask me as we walked into a new exhibit, “Which of these banners would you choose to go with you?”

Then we’d both stare for a while before offering up our answers. The blue and white one with the two-headed lion, duh.

-If you could use this French drawing room for any purpose, what would it be?

-If you could have one of these statues in your garden, which would you choose?

-If you could pick one of these helmets… except obviously not the gold, dragon-spined one because it would weigh a ton and you’d die. I wouldn’t let you pick that one.

These questions are my favorite. Hypothetical. The answer doesn’t really matter.

Life doesn’t work that way.

“I need to sit,” I said finally. “I need to sit and consume a food of some sort. Want lunch?”

“Yeah, you’ve been awfully quiet,” Ernesto said. “And you still haven’t told me what your plans are for this semester. We never got around to it at the bagel shop.”

“Okay, as soon as we find food, I’ll tell you,” I promised.

“Then let’s do it!” (Ernesto is a bit of an enthusiast). “Let’s go to like an Irish pub or something. Hang on, I’ll find us a good one.”

He pulled out his phone and I looked around the exhibit we were in. Someone at the end of the room was making an inappropriate joke about a statue (his girlfriend didn’t seem to be appreciating it). An elderly couple was sitting on a lone bench. A flash – people are always trying to take pictures of things they can’t capture.

If we must take impossible pictures, I’d rather take pictures of people’s thoughts. I wish I could see how a person feels in all the color and vibrancy of our deepest emotions.

For a moment, standing among artifacts that have been lost in time, I felt like the costume department that allowed someone to display a montage of Communist Propaganda films alongside dynasty-themed runway dresses so that when people came by they wouldn’t think, “Gosh, the Met really needs to get its act together. Look at all this blank space!” But maybe there are some things worse than blank space?

“Okay,” said Ernesto, coming back to me with a satisfied smile, “The lady said the quickest way out of here is down the hall and then a left turn at the statue of Perseus with the Head of Medusa.”

Finally. Some straightforward instructions.

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(this is the pyramid from Madrid. it's real. i took this picture).
(this is the pyramid from Madrid. it’s real. i took this picture).

H&H Bagel, 2nd Avenue – Tuesday, 10:00 a.m.

Rain pooled in golden, early-morning puddles around my bare ankles as I splashed through dirty gutters. Of all the days to wear shorts in New York City, this must be the worst. It had been hot and I was tired of walking around the muggy streets of the late-summer city in jeans. Locals gave my bare legs and sandaled feet shoddy glances as they hurried past with umbrellas.

My own umbrella, which my friend had forced me to take before leaving her house that morning (because New Yorkers can sense when it is going to rain), had a popping problem. As in, the stem would pop up when I had it folded away neatly. So far, it hadn’t done anything more serious than startle me several times in succession on the train, but I had a bad feeling about this.

I waited under the awning of H&H Bagel for several minutes, watching the streets whir past in a blur of wet color. Taxis. Girls in yoga pants. Tank-sleeved workers hauling produce off a truck. Flowers lifting up their silky petals towards the falling rain as their florist shuffled pots around. I could get used to this city.

Ernesto was late. This, being uncharacteristic of him, I could forgive. But as ten o’clock became ten-thirty, I felt myself getting antsy.

Ernesto is one of my best friends. We have been dabbling in each other’s schemes and dreams since college. Saying ‘goodbye’ as I left for Europe was hard, but we had pizza and that made it easier. He was the one who helped me set up my first blog. At some point, I’ll probably ask him to help me with this one (how come it doesn’t email me notifications, Ernie??).

We hadn’t planned to both be in New York City at the same time, but we were. So we picked a time and place and here I was.

Here I was in the complete mess that is myself. The last week had been a tough one. Like, not from the outside. A week hiking in the mountains followed by a trip to New York for a wedding – that’s the life. It’s all the other stuff that makes me feel like . . . Well, like my umbrella – ready to pop my top at any moment. It’s the age-old questions like, “What is my purpose now?” – “Where do I go next?” – “What do I do with this life I’ve been given?” And the thing about good friends is that they’re apt to answer boldly those questions we timidly skirt. Tell Ernesto that I had lost confidence in myself, in my purpose – that I was back at community college? He’d have something to say about that, I knew. And I didn’t want to disappoint him. I didn’t want to disappoint anyone. I came back from Europe promising people that I had a plan, that I was moving forward. I promised myself that I was moving forward.

Sometime between stepping onto the tarmac in San Diego and standing on this sidewalk in New York City, I realized that I was lost. But at this point, it was just easier to pretend that I still had a plan.

At the end of the sidewalk I could hear the slushy sound of wet footsteps.

“Mary York!” called out a voice I recognized immediately.

“Ernesto!”

We both ran, dropping our umbrellas in the process, and met in the middle of that New York City sidewalk, with a hug and a spin that would make the best in Hollywood smile (and more than one patron in the bagel shop grin at us sheepishly). We were soaked in seconds, shivering with laughter and chills.

Two years, a long summer and a thousand questions slipped from my mind for those few, beautiful seconds. It was just us, a glistening street, and the looming adventure stretching before our feet – the adventure that is a day with a good friend.

“It has been too long, Mary York,” Ernesto said as we walked into the bagel shop to start our morning. “You’ll have to tell me everything.

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