Things I’m thankful for in 2015

Spending the last two Thanksgivings away from home was one of the hardest parts of being an expat. Christmas is fairly universally celebrated, at least in Europe. But Thanksgiving is the American holiday. Like, good luck even finding a turkey.

Suffice it to say, I’m happy to be back home this November.

When you come home, everything has to be discovered again. Roads are revisited. The running path in the park has to be beaten into by feet it has long-forgotten. Crisp skies and the San Diegan winter introduce themselves again. And while it takes some getting used to, meeting the familiar as if they were strangers, the upside to “coming home” has been seeing with new eyes all these things I once took for granted.

This Thanksgiving I have a lot to be thankful for.

  • Mexican food – Los Panchos, Lolita’s, Chili’s. I have missed real spices, real beans, real tortillas, real rice and real avocadoes. I waited a long time for this fiesta.
  • Hand sanitizer – You may think I am crazy – and I am – but hand sanitizer makes my life 100 percent more manageable. And if it’s not the little things, it’s not anything.
  • A nephew – As if this needs an explanation.
    thenephster
  • My 14-year old brother – More specifically, my 14-year old brother who ties his own ties, speaks primarily in a deep Scottish brogue and has a running playlist of Irish folk music on nearly all the time. Dear sir, I love you.
  • Water fountains – I’m sorry, but I can’t get over this one. Free water. Everywhere. This is America.
  • Sunday mornings – Every single Sunday morning as we drive to church, as our car crests the big hill on Sweetwater road and Mt. Miguel comes into view, my dad will say softly, “Doesn’t our mountain look great today?” as if it has always belonged to us. Then he’ll say a prayer as the car winds beneath the evergreens towards our little church. Every Sunday.
  • My 12-year old sister – Thank you for letting me borrow your clothes.
  • “Jacket weather” – I know San Diego doesn’t have frosted forests and white-tipped steeples, but it’s nice having to put a jacket on after the sun’s gone down. Like, yes, we do have cold-ish weather.
  • My Dad – When we drive somewhere and he breaks the conversation to say, “How many shades of green do you think are in those trees?” When he engages in a pun war or a game of Boggle and reminds us all what happens when you subscribe to Webster’s online dictionary ‘Word of the Day.’ When he suggests watching Disney cartoons on Saturday nights. When he believes in the plans God has for me even when I struggle to believe them myself.
  • The Sun newsroom staff – I never expected the welcome I was given here. I never expected to feel so immediately part of a family again. God has been so gracious in putting you all in my life. And you have been gracious in putting up with my “Marydowns.” I thank you. And P.S. — there is no Thanksgiving like a Sunsgiving, is there?
    sunsgiving
  • The radio – You guys have no idea. Two years without a radio nearly killed me. I was like, this close.
  • Turkey – I’m all about that baste.
  • Friends who stay in touch – It’s hard to sit down and write a letter or make time for a skype call when life throws you into the current of the everyday madness. I love my friends who freely give me precious pieces of their time.
  • Rachel Platten – Don’t you dare judge me.
  • Opportunity – Trying to figure out what to do next with my life has been the ongoing challenge of this year, but I’m thankful to live in a country where I can make that choice. Where it isn’t made for me by other people, by the government or by my circumstances.
  • Immigrants – All my great-grandparents on my mom’s side are immigrants. They came over in the 1920s and ‘30s, some to a country where they did not know the language. They faced poverty, fear of the unknown and futures full of terrible possibility. They shaped this country with their lives. And because they lived, I live. Irish and Italian immigrants were heavily discriminated against when my great grandparents first came to America. Today, that mantel of mistrust and fear is born by other people groups. I am thankful for them, too. Thankful that they’ve been able to come to the safe harbor of our golden shores, and I hope that they will help us make our country better. I hope that we never become so fearful as a people that we close our doors to our brothers and sisters around the world, that we wouldn’t be willing to risk our own personal comfort to help the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
  • God – How can I not mention my Lord and Savior? When I have felt most lost this year, when I have felt most empty, when I have felt most fearful, He has been there, for He is the greatest Comforter. What a Prince of Peace.

Overcoming the Birthday Curse

“I’m not a superstitious person,” I promised Luz as she drove me home. “But I believe in the curse of the odd-numbered year with every fiber of my being. Don’t get me wrong – you wouldn’t be the first friend to eschew this theory, but the pattern has been unshakeably consistent.”

JACC 2015

It was the night before my 24th birthday and I had been counting down the days, and then the hours. Five and a half more to go.

“Listen,” I said, still trying to prove my point as we followed the twisting road between the dark silhouettes of lonely trees. “Sixteen, eighteen, twenty and twenty-two – marvelous years. I traveled, I taught, I grew, I learned, I lived. Seventeen, nineteen, twenty-one and twenty-three… Heartbreak, change, ruined plans, lost friends.”

Luz didn’t look at me, but her thoughtful gaze was penetrated by a small grin. She didn’t fully believe me either.

Half-way through 21 I noticed the pattern of the cursed year. I began telling myself, “Just get to 22 and it will all be okay.” Sure enough, literally overnight, things turned around and – though not without a few hitches – I lived one of the most gloriously golden years I could ever hope to have. If I get even one more year like 22, I will consider myself extraordinarily blessed.

I almost thought the curse might have been broken because the months leading up to 23 were so incredibly decent.

“It’s been the hardest year of my life,” I told my friend and chauffeur as she found the entrance to my neighborhood. “Which is surprising because that’s what I said about 21 and I honestly thought it couldn’t be topped.” (I’m not often wrong, but when I am, it really stinks).

Luz just nodded.

“You’ve seen me!” I laughed, though no part of me felt like laughing. “I feel like I’m about to explode all the time!”

“Do you really think it’ll get better tomorrow, though?” she asked me. Luz is pretty no-nonsense and as we puttered up to the sidewalk in her car, I wondered the same thing.

“Alberto keeps telling me I might need two bad years in a row to break the curse,” I chuckled bitterly. “But I’m not actually sure I can survive another year like this one. I need a good year, Luz.”

“I know,” was all she said. I got out and she promised to swing by again in a couple hours. I was going to spend the night at her place so we could carpool to school together the next morning. Our newspaper staff was headed to a journalism conference in Fullerton and, to avoid traffic, we were getting an early start.

She pulled away and I walked up the concrete stairs to the little house with the climbing rose bush and a myriad of cacti out front.

The truth is, I can’t explain why a lot of this year has been so difficult. Obviously, leaving Prague was heartbreaking. Starting over at community college has been awkward, and not having a clear direction for the future has been stressful. But a lot of this year has been wrapped up in peaks and valleys of emotion that I don’t have any control over. It’s been a struggle to reconcile the damaged parts of my mind, that suffer from a very real curse, with the grace and sovereignty of a God I trust with all my heart.

And just like I raced for 22, I have been hoping beyond hope that 24 will magically turn the tides and this weight that has been turning my insides into ribbons will dissipate.

The house lights were off but, after fumbling with the spare key in the dark (spiderwebs were involved, and some subsequent yelping), I pulled myself through our back door just in time to see the upstairs lights flicker on.

“Mary?”

The kids were home.

My little siblings (not so little anymore) are 14 and 12. They are typical teens – moody, messy and always a little underfoot. I share similar qualities like unto the typical adolescent human being, so we’ve been getting along pretty well. In this moment, however, dragging my heart as well as my school bag up the stairs, I felt a thousand years older than either of them.

They chattered about their day excitedly as I dropped things off in my room. My sister was going on about something when I spotted a blue envelope on my pillow. Mom left me something.  

I sat down on my bed and opened the note. The words seemed blurry at first and I let my eyes adjust to the pale-yellow light of our bedroom lamp. Sitting down made me realize how heavy my shoulders felt and how empty my chest was, as though someone had taken a great spoon and scooped out my insides weeks ago. Nothing left down there but a chilly wind and a wisp of a soul, shivering and rasping for breath.

The letter in my hands lay open like a book.

Everything I ever needed to hear from my mom was scrawled in her familiar hand. In four short sentences, she gave me the whole world. And in two seconds I was weeping on my bed.

I know I talk a lot about crying in my blog posts. It is something I tend to do often. But there’s a difference between having a good cry and really, really crying. You have a good cry for whatever reason – the car won’t start and you’re late, you have to choose between paying bills and eating food, life, most likely. But when you finally find the bottom, it’s a different sort of experience. I’ve been falling for weeks, months even, just waiting for the floor.

Between the gaps in my fingers, I could see the silent shadows of my siblings watching me from the door. Without a word, the oldest walked over, put his arm around my shoulder and wrapped me into a hug. Every ounce of misery I had stored up came spilling out like a bitter fountain bursting from the earth, grasping for release from the confines of its rock.

Five hours. Five hours and the year would be over.

Amazing what a decent hug and a piece of cold pizza will do. I don’t eat much these days, but I will never be able to say ‘no’ to pizza. When Luz picked me up I already felt much better.

By the time we got settled at her place and had begun to make a lemon-cookie pie (“For your birthday,” she told me, knowing the guilt-trip would coerce me into trying a piece when it was done), the minutes seemed to be ticking away faster. It was 11:58 before I knew it.

“Almost there,” Luz said, now thoroughly amused at how the curse was unfolding.

Twelve months of life meandered by in the next 120 seconds. There were as memory good memories as there were painful ones, as many silver linings as there were dark clouds. And I, drenched from the downpour of living them, marveled at how anyone survives any year. What a life.

Friday quietly replaced Thursday and I felt no immediate changes. I was still tired. I was still having trouble eating. I was still worried about the future. Except that the empty feeling had been disappearing for the last several hours, I wondered briefly if maybe Alberto was right and I would need to have to back-to-back cursed years to undo this mess.

“Go to bed,” Luz told me. “I’ll clean up.”

I obeyed. Everyone obeys Luz.

Paris

The next morning, 30 young journalists crammed into cars and started up north. Word spread quickly that I had a birthday and staffers from other vehicles texted me all the way to Camp Pendleton where we stopped for a quick lunch.

A few of us had gotten our hands on temporary tattoos and the gang was shaping into a rather thug-looking crew when we returned to the caravan. Our advisor gave each car a surfing sticker.

“St. Christopher is the patron saint of surfers and travelers,” he said. “Everyone needs one.”

I slept the last hour of our drive to Fullerton and then crashed on a hotel bed.

We don’t tend to realize how tired our bodies are until we stop a minute to catch our breath. Mine was so far gone.

Around 4:30, Luz shook me awake.

The light had almost completely disappeared from the windows and the girls in our room were quietly tapping on their phones. It was eerily silent.

“We need to pray for France,” said Luz, a tremor of anxiety in her tender voice. “They’ve had a terrorist attack. More than a hundred are dead and they’re continuing to shoot people.”

The words seemed blurred to me. It didn’t make sense at first and the only thing I could think to do in my half-conscious state was slip off the bed and kneel beside it.

“Dear Lord,” my mind spoke. . . And I realized with a poignant sorrow how seldom I say those words anymore. “I pray for a world that doesn’t know you or your love. I pray for safety and peace for those in Paris, but God – God, please – I pray that you will make yourself known to them.”

Make yourself known to me, my heart echoed.

A splash of water and the sobering news woke me up quickly and we agreed to turn on the room TV to follow the news together, though the phones stayed out to continue checking updates.

Fear. Panic. Death.

As journalists, we were as much drawn in by the coverage as by the story.

“Can you imagine being the guy who did the story on skiing that they keep teasing in between Paris coverage?” someone asked. “I bet he hates his job right now.”

It seemed odd to flip from a hero dog and a 99 year-old woman’s birthday surprise to Paris. But that’s life – so much good mixed in with so much bad.

Around six o’clock, someone knocked on the door. No one made a move to answer it so I did.

In the hallway, with tired smiles and a bouquet of flowers, stood half the staff. Before I could shut the door on them, they started singing ‘Happy Birthday’ and someone placed the flowers in my arms. I noticed that they had even taken the time to write the little birthday note in Czech, with varied success.

“If you’re not doing anything,” they said, “We’re going to take you to Downtown Disney!”

I could still hear Paris playing on the TV but everyone looked worn out and I realized we all needed a reason to go out.

So we did.

We spent the evening wandering around the gorgeous plaza, melting beneath the glow of Christmas lights and taking in the fragrant smells wafting over our heads from restaurants. We broke our college budgets to split side dishes and desserts and then we ransacked the mug aisle of the Disney store until the Park’s firework display brought us back outside into the chilly evening.

What an explosion of color. If nights are good for anything, it’s good for stars and fireworks.

A dozen of us sang songs (or loudly said, “Stop singing, we’re in public!”) all the way back to the parking lot. Paris was wiped completely from our minds until we got back to our hotel rooms.

I left my flowers on the table beside the TV stand as the newsreel played.

“There’s nothing new here,” I told the girls around midnight. “Let’s just get some sleep.”

We curled up beneath the heavy white blankets of our soft, safe beds as thousands of Parisians woke up to a bitterly cold reality.

What a way to start this year, I thought as my mind drifted off. Twenty four hours in and the world crumbles.

The hotel served a pretty spankin’ complimentary breakfast – not that I really had much of an appetite.

“Mary,” said one of my roommates, dragging her overnight bag into the lobby behind her. “You left your flowers in the room.”

Intentional, to be honest, though I made a fuss over her for not letting me ‘forget’ them.

“Thank you so much!” I said, taking the huge bouquet into my arms and cradling it until we picked up our things and headed over to the conference at the local college.

I left the flowers in the back of the car and someone made a point of putting them on top of the other luggage so they wouldn’t get smashed.

All day we spent in lectures and competitions. Between the workshops and the roundtables, we had time to grab sandwiches and spread out on the benches surrounding a campus lawn. Rumors of how the competitions were going seeped back to us quickly and we churned the mill with diligence. Awards are always a big part of this affair, but they’re not everything.

I gave half my sandwich to my assistant photo editor and the rest of my chips I parceled off to the cartoonists.

This year I learned that food can only fill the stomach.

Light vanished from the sky, revealing several choice stars to look watch us as we stamped and shivered in the cold outside the awards hall. Five of us bunched together in the 19th hour of my second day, sipping coffee, joking about the weekend. The weight on my shoulders was gone and I could feel my heart pumping real blood through my very real veins.

From that moment, when I heard my heartbeat ringing in my ears, like a bell peeling on Christmas morning, the rest of the night faded into a velvet blur of peacefulness.

Not that it was peaceful. Our team spent most of the next hour cheering and screaming excitedly over our journalistic triumphs during the awards ceremony. We hustled together for a group photo that was messy and chaotic and crazy – like us. Like life.

And then it was back to the vans to go home, because no good day will last forever.

I was switching cars to ride home with Luz, Alberto and a friend. My bag was already packed away in the trunk when someone came running up with my wilting flowers.

“They were in the care! You almost left them behind!” he said, returning them once again to my arms.

This time I just held them. These stupid flowers that wouldn’t let me go. These people who call me ‘friend’ who refuse to let me remain empty and unseen. And still how small and incomparable a picture they are to the Creator who made them.

Engines were starting, but I grabbed the rose from the center of the bouquet, tugged Luz’s hand, and we ran across the parking structure in our heels till we reached the edge. Looking down four stories, and out across a twinkling town, I held out a rose petal.

“Okay, 24, I’m ready for you,” I said. “Here’s to joy.”

The rose petal fluttered on the wind like a whispered prayer, gliding into the shadows and then bursting into the stream of street lights below us before finding a home on the sidewalk.

I grabbed another petal.

“Here’s to peace. And to purpose.”

Down they went, into the great big world sleeping beneath that great big sky.

Disneyland

“May I have one?” asked Luz. She fingered the velvety petals for a moment before tossing them out. “Here’s to learning, to love, and to donuts.”

Our laughter echoed across the parking lot and headlights turned into tail lights behind us as we flung the rest over in bunches to the promise of friendship, family, faith, fun, food and a future.

We live in a world full of atrocities, capable of inflicting horrendous pain. But to turn away from the beauty of life because of the pain that comes with living is not the answer. The amazing mystery of humanity is our ability to feel both great joy and great sorrow, to walk through valleys as though they were peaks, and to look for stars in a night full of smoke and gunpowder.

“Luz,” I said, head leaning over the railing to look at our collection of rose petals below. “I’m hungry.”

Our heels clipped across the pavement and we slammed the car doors shut behind us as our driver impatiently revved the engine. Time to go.

Time to move on.

5 New Slang Terms I Never Learned While Abroad

“My eyebrows are melting off!” I moaned dramatically to the girls sitting near me. Our managing editor perked his head up with a perturbed expression.

“Melting off?”

I wailed pathetically as someone searched for a tissue. The girls were giggling sympathetically. The heat was doing horrid things to everyone’s make-up. But I’m new to the eyebrow game and I’m not used to this. How could I have known that if you pencil in your eyebrows when it’s hotter than 80 degrees they will end up all over everything before the day is out?

I couldn’t have. Because before I left for Europe, “On fleek” was not a thing.

ON FLEEK Adj. 1) (slang) a state of completeness and flawlessness, the quality of being perfect 2) the combination of fly and sleek . Synonymous with on point. Used most often to describe eyebrows.
-Urban Dictionary

The enjoyable aspect of culture shock for me was catching up on two years’ worth of slang that I missed while living abroad. So it’s back to Urban Dictionary. As a language enthusiast, this kind of stuff is right up my proverbial alley and I will walk it all night long.

“They look fine,” said Asia, the Momma of our gaggle of women – actually, she might only be the Momma to me. All I know is that whenever I really need a hug or someone to get lathered up into a righteous rage for my sake, she is who I go to. “They’re not messed up at all, really.”

Asia has perfect eyebrows. She would know.

“Well, that’s a miracle because they’re all over my glasses,” I said, glowering at my chunkie blue frames.

“Why do you guys do that to your face anyway?” asked our managing editor, typifying the well-meaning clueless male.

Because,” was the obvious answer that we all chorused with one, dignified sniff. It took me less than three months at home to become a huge eyebrow snob. What is America doing to me?

Glasses cleaned and self-confidence mildly restored, I slipped back into my heels and stood up (the kids in the newsroom are always getting on me about walking around barefoot, but what’s a girl to do?).

Ella, our incredibly competent multimedia editor chose that moment to sache in, ladden with film equipment and ready to rumble.

“We’re gonna be late,” she said with assertiveness. I grabbed my camera bag and followed her quick, short steps out of the school newsroom and across the sweating campus. It was the kind of day that was so hot, everything stood still – the trees, the grass, the sky. Nothing moved for fear of shattering into a million heat-ruined pieces, or withering away into wilted dust. In the earth’s silence, we trampled across bark patches and glistening sidewalks baking under the glare of the sun.

Our destination: La Jolla. The job: San Diego’s annual film festival. The excitement level: through the roof.

We had both dressed up for the occasion – not that either of us needs much convincing to dress up. Ella is one of those girls who always looks impressive.

How either of us got ourselves actual press passes for this shindig is still beyond me, but there we were, lost and running late in La Jolla, on our way to meet the Stars.

We ended up parking half a mile away and walking over to the ArcLight theater which was decked with all the glam required for a red carpet event. Scurrying around timidly with our bulky equipment, we found the press credential check-in and got our name badges.

“I feel so official,” I said happily as we scouted for a spot on the carpet to sneak onto. We hadn’t reserved one ahead of time and had shown up so late that there really wasn’t much room left anywhere.

“Dude, I know,” said Ella – who, by the way, also oozes ‘cool and casual’ like it’s part of her DNA. “I’m going to head over to the media line. Do you know where you’ll be?”

I shook my head and gestured clumsily in a vague direction.

“Okay,” she said simply and perkily walked towards her destination with the confidence of a very self-assured jungle cat.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. If Ella was a guy, I’d ship us.

SHIPPING – Verb. This is most often used on tumblr by fandoms. Fandoms will ship everything and anything. Shipping comes from the word relationSHIP. Basically it is when you want a fictional character, real-life person, or cartoon people to be together.
-Urban Dictionary

I’d ship us because she’s the quintessential good-guy that every girl never goes for. And because her hair toss is on point.

But we’re currently friending it up pretty hard and I’m okay with that.

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The red carpet was L-shaped and I placed myself on the outside of the corner. Already making his way up the cherry stem towards the theater doors was a young man whose name was written on a clipboard held by a pretty blonde at the end of the carpet. ‘John Boyega.’

The name meant nothing to me so I kept adjusting my camera lenses. It was tough coming into the semester as photo editor. I had no experience with the position or with anything like it. On top of that, I’m not really a great photographer either. I learned how to take pictures the way someone learns their first language – I recognize a good angle when I see one. I can press buttons and turn knobs and things turn out alright. Explaining to someone who doesn’t know how to work a camera how to do what I do would be like an American trying to explain subjunctive verbs to literally anyone. We know how to use them, we just aren’t totally sure why.

And then, of course, I wanted to make a good impression. I didn’t want to come in and just flop. Quitting, flopping, failing or in any other way not being on top-shelf level is not an option, doggonit! I had a lot to prove, too, because the last photo editor’s ghost basically indwells the hearts of the current staff and I see flickers and shadows of her everywhere, both inspiring me towards and intimidating me away from greatness.

Semi-VIP’s dressed to the nines and looking very forced-relaxed were shepherded down the carpet. Half an hour slipped away while I wrestled with my camera and tried to navigate the continuous, fidgety flow of photographers cramming for better shots.

At last, a hush fell over the crowd and a car pulled up to the curb, ferrying a very famous, much-anticipated actor – the one and only Adrien Brody.

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It should be mentioned that I had a huge Brody crush for about six months in high school. I was pretty excited to see him in person. He’s the youngest Academy Award Winner to get Best Actor and he has a knack for playing a diverse range of adorably oddball characters. And that nose. I guess he’s what you’d call Hollywood’s Talent.

TALENT – Noun. Synonymous with weight, power, ability and attractiveness. The one who has a bit of everything.
-Urban Dictionary

On the corner of that carpet, between the fans and the line of reporters waiting to get their fifty seconds with him, I got a rare glimpse of the man before the mask came on.

The moment he stepped out of the car, I felt my heart sink. Not in disappointment, but in sadness. The middle-school teacher inside me lifted her head and felt immediate empathy for a tired, lost little kid who doesn’t want to sit in his chair anymore. Adrien Brody looked beat. For three seconds, as he buttoned his coat and disentangled his legs from the car, he looked tired and in need of a sandwich.

But as soon as he turned to face the fans and cameras, there was that smile – disarming, charming and completely convincing. There is a man who knows how to step into his job.

I got a few shots of him, but that face had taken it out of me. I couldn’t see him as an actor once I’d seen him as a tired boy who’s staying up too late to do his homework before school.

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We waited on the carpet after Brody disappeared in doors, not sure if we should pack up or wait around. Evening had given the breeze a cooler touch, but it was still stuffy around the collected mass of media and onlookers. Cameramen, photographers and reporters from varying stations stuck stubbornly to their place in line, checking their equipment and comparing notes. I had almost repacked my camera when a car drove up. From the back seat slid an elegant woman in a black dress. She embodied sophistication and class from the straps of her heels to her neatly parted hair.

Geena Davis.

I’m a recent Davis fan. Only a few years ago, I watched “A League of Their Own” (this was during the height of my new-found passion for baseball). I think she’s a real lady. Honestly, she’s the kind of woman I had expected to turn into. Turns out life had different plans for me, though I’m hoping there’s still time to get my act together.

She glided down the carpet, smiling graciously at reporter after reporter who asked her the same questions.

My camera lens fell to the ground and I bent down to pick it up. Glancing forward, nearly level with the ground, I noticed Davis’ shoes. One was on her foot, the other was off. She was standing on the red carpet barefoot while interviewing.

This classy woman.

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When the interview concluded, she softly put her hand on the reporter’s shoulder for balance as she stepped back into her shoe. It was as simple and natural as anything I’ve ever seen.

After she swept into the theater, the media line thinned out. Fox News, ABC and Getty Images all packed up their bags and went home.

Ella and I lingered, running our hands across the velvet rope and getting inconspicuous selfies in front of the backdrop because we’re basic.

BASIC – Adj. Used to describe the typical girls who think they are cool because they’re artsy, can make a duck face, carry around coffee cups, and wear designer brands. You’ll know a basic when you see one.
-Urban Dictionary

Someone handed us a spare program as we turned to leave and it was only then that we discovered that John Boyega, the young man on the carpet when we first arrived, is the new lead in Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. Talk about some fangirling.

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It was nearly dark when we got back to the newsroom feeling rather triumphant from our long evening.

Dan took me home once I got all my pictures uploaded and sorted out. I’m learning not to feel embarrassed when I have to ask someone to give me a ride because I’ve missed the last bus. People love to be helpful and it’s okay to be the person who needs helping.

I told him about the red carpet, recounting the events with the onslaught of chatter I use to communicate in as we rolled down the hill away from the college.

“I had a huge Adrien Brody crush,” I said. “Probably because I refused to like Brad Pitt and Justin Timberlake, or whoever it was that everyone else liked.”

“Why not?” asked Dan in an unpresumptuous tone. Dan is a very even-keeled individual.

“I don’t know,” I mumbled. “I guess I didn’t want to be like everyone else.”

“What’s wrong with everyone else?” he asked.

There he had me. Nothing is wrong with ‘everyone else.’

“I mean,” I stuttered uncomfortably, “I just want to be myself. I don’t want to be a stereotype.”

“Oh Mary,” said Dan with a condescending little coo. “Are you a Special Snowflake?”

I paused.

“What’s a Special Snowflake?”

SPECIAL SNOWFLAKE – Noun. A member of that newly-adult, me’er-than-me generation which expects attention and praise just for being themselves — doing anything to deserve it is completely optional.
-Urban Dictionary

“It’s okay to be like everyone else,” Dan said. “You can’t not be – you’re human. And you can’t not be a little different too because. . . You’re human.”

By the time the college had disappeared from sight, the sky looked like someone had spilled a blue ink bottle across it and then poked out two or three holes for light to shine through. We call those stars.

Funny thing, stars. Some people are labeled as Stars because they shine brightly and everyone can see them, etc, blah, blah. Truth is, they’re just people. People who are trying hard to make it to the top, people who have to put on a good face for work, people who’d just rather be barefoot. They’re just like everyone else.

And that’s okay.

What happens when you clean your bookshelf

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Months before I made the dreaded move from Prague back to the United States, my mom called to tell me she was redoing my room. “Spring Cleaning,” she called it.

“It’ll be all ready for you when you get home,” she said. And as the weeks dripped by, each one revealing to me something else I knew I would miss terribly when I left, Mom would give me an update. “I bought new sheets for your bed! Aubrey’s agreed to give you the bottom bunk. We’re cleaning out the garage so you can set up an office down there. We found you a bookshelf for your things when you come home.”

Coming home is a lot less glamorous that people will let you believe. Firstly, there is no dramatic soundtrack playing when you step off the airplane. It’s just you and the white-noise of a tired airport. Exhaustion takes you by the hand and holds it tightly as you wait for your suitcases to make their way around the luggage carriage. And by the time you’re pulled safely into a car that is speeding you home, towards family and pizza and a warm bed with new sheets, you can’t feel your own face, let alone make sense of any emotion that has the audacity to interrupt your desire to sleep.

After a slice of real pizza with real crust and real pepperonis, Mom and assorted family members walked me through the house, showing me the additions to the bathroom (including but not limited to a curtain rod that works and a new cup for our toothbrushes), changes to the bedroom I share with my youngest sister (they were all very excited about the bookshelf they got for me), and the cleaned-out corner of the garage where someone had already hung up several pictures for me. Eventually, the Call of the Pizza became too great and they all meandered back downstairs, leaving me to unpack a few things from my suitcase onto my new bookshelf before flopping into bed.

It’s been five months exactly since I came home. It doesn’t feel that long. Life, in truest form, dropped me off in the middle of a rushing current that took me around the country and back and then deposited me into a full schedule of work and school and family.

After that first week, when I had time to carefully place precious mementoes from my two years in Prague onto various golden-brown shelves, life reached out a hand and started shoving odds and ends into the free spaces. Receipts, bottle caps, newspaper clippings, ticket stubs, books I haven’t read, gifts from friends, make-up and enough bobby pins to rebuild the Brooklyn Bridge – they all found their way onto my bookshelf.

Five months of apathy took over.

So this week I cleaned it out. It needed to be done and in wave of Prague-sickness, I figured it would be the most productive thing to do with my afternoon.

The top shelf is mostly make-up and jewelry, not that I own much of either. Frankly, if society allowed women to show up to Life without all the war paint and bangles, I wouldn’t own any. But I was surprised, as I untangled necklaces and earrings, how many of the little gems in my pink box were gifts from friends and students in Prague. The week I left Prague is still a haze, but I vaguely recall sorting through my collection of jewelry and giving most of it away (I be-gifted most of my belongings to friends before I left on account of airport weight limits). All this must have made the cut because they are more than belongings, they are tokens of affections that once were mine.

I dusted off the frame of the year-end school picture of all my fellow teachers, wonderful Czech women who adopted this little lost American and taught her how to teach English and take coffee (with chocolate. You always take coffee with chocolate).

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The next shelf down was half trash, half Czech CDs and ornaments I collected in Prague. None of the CDs play on US machines and I definitely cried for a solid twenty minutes when I found that out in July. It’s amazing, though, how much trash can build up when you’re not paying attention. When did I fall back into the habit of letting life run me? When did I become careless with where I put my things? When did my actions lose intention and how do I get it back? There should not be trash on this book shelf.

There is only one shelf which actually has books and it was the easiest to straighten up. One half is comprised of my Czech literature. They’re books I’m not sure I’ll ever finish because Harry Potter is a lot harder to read in a second language than one might originally assume. The other half has all my journals and notebooks. Every memory I recorded in Europe fits on six inches of bookshelf.

Three shelves down, two to go. I looked at the bottom one, my paper dungeon, and realized that some things are too far gone to change. Besides, where else am I going to throw papers that have ambiguous purpose and questionable sentimental value?

So that just left one.

I hate this shelf because it has all my pieces of Europe. Every stupid collector’s spoon that I bought in every stupid souvenir shop in every stupid city I went to.  A pile of homemade hot pads from a Czech friend. An extremely creepy rabbit that I bought from a student at our Christmas market my first year in Prague. And a stack of letters.

I never counted how many I got, but I knew I couldn’t leave them behind. How could I? Those were the voices of people from home who cared enough about me to take the time to write me a physical letter, buy a stamp and drop it in our much underused mail system without any promise of getting one in return. They just did it.

In those letters I found comfort and flavors of a world that felt very far away. When Prague got lonely, and it would from time to time, almost on cue, a note would appear in my mailbox with a scrawling American address and a red, white and blue stamp.

It always amazed me how much closer I felt to people through letters. They didn’t even always write about anything they considered “significant” – just the daily routine of existing in their corner of the world.

So when I came home late one night this week to find a letter waiting on my pillow with a Prague address, my heart surged up into my throat.

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Carefully, I unfolded the crinkly white pages and reveled in the inky heart someone had poured onto that page, entrusted in an envelope, and sent to me. In beautiful dips and curves of a silky-black ink, she chatted about her summer and its adventures. She asked me questions and puzzled over how different things had become since I left. And there I was again, in that letter, sitting next to her in a coffee shop talking about life. It was as if the grand ocean and the insurmountable distance between our two paths in life disappeared completely. And when the letter was done, it was like saying goodbye and catching our separate buses back home.

Except that I’m a lot farther away now than I was then.

I folded the letter back up, wiping away tears (and no one should be surprised to know that I was absolutely gushing), and added it to the dozens of letters I received from people I missed while I was in Prague.

Now I have people I miss while in San Diego.

It will take me a good month and a half to find the time (and the emotional energy) to sit down and write out a response. I’ll think about what I want to say, and what I wish I could say but can’t, and it will be a long time before those words make it to paper.

But for now, I want to share with whoever may be reading this what I learned from that letter, and from cleaning out my bookshelf. It’s something I’ve been needing to be reminded of.

There is no end to the capacity of the human heart to love and be loved. And if we use our souls as vessels to carry genuine care and affection for those who wind up in our lives, it is likely they will be put through the mill. But how beautiful it is to cradle our aching hearts on the floor, swaying gently to the realization that friendship is not limited by time and space, nor are we creatures made of glass which break and cannot be put back together again.

It has taken a long time for me to realize this, but my mom is an incredibly brave, admirably selfless woman. I left home for two years and she supported me, encouraged me and sent me an appreciatively large amount care packages. She is a woman who knows how it feels to set free a piece of your heart and trust that someday it will come back.

Leave it to me to make cleaning up my bookshelf an existential adventure in self-discovery. But everyone has to get their kicks somewhere.

My lesson has been learned, though. I promise to keep my bookshelf cleaner. I promise to keep writing letters. I promise to treasure the precious people in my life. And I promise, no matter where we are or where we end up, I will find a way to redeem the love that has been invested in me by so many people in so many places.