Before you move to Canada

elections2016The last few days have left me confused. Not because of the election results – I saw those coming months ago. And honestly, I have worked hard to stay emotionally checked-out for the last half year because I have strong opinions about our new president-elect and they are radically different from those of the people in whose home I am blessed to live.

Peace-keeping efforts have required me to politely step out of conversations and bite my tongue at the dinner table for weeks, months. They know what I believe and why. We never saw eye-to-eye but they’re family. I’m not going to not love them because of who they voted for. Our family as a whole is more important than our individual beliefs. Our family as a whole is made up of our individual beliefs. And that’s important to remember.

Back to why I’m confused.

I’m confused because of the way my friends have handled the election results.

Let me clarify who I’m addressing this to.

Everyone.

I’m talking to everyone here.

I don’t care if you are out holding a protest sign, crying in my Biology class, or sitting comfortably on facebook condescending those people participating in demonstrations today (and, I realize that by writing this, I fit into that last category. So I’m writing this for myself, too).

The first thing I want to say to you comes directly from the lips of my least favorite president ever, Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The only thing to fear is fear itself.”

As a child growing up in a safe neighborhood in a loving, lower-middle class, very typical American family in a safe, free, prosperous country, fear was not a concept I understood.

Bugs. Wolves. Heights. That was fear to me.

Time and experience have taught me that hate, racism, malice, and danger are alive and well. But all these things, just like bugs, wolves and heights, can be overcome with open eyes, with courageous spirits, with loving hearts.

Fear, however, is a different kind of beast. It is a parasite. I saps us of our strength, our hope. It darkens our vision of the future so that we cannot see the pathway. It shrinks us, stripping us of our power as human beings to show compassion, empathy, mercy and understanding.

Fear stops us from conquering hate, racism, malice and the everyday horrors that plague the world we live in.

Much of the last eighteen months has been a reflection of what a fearful people we have become. Fearful of our abilities to provide for our families. Fearful of the dangers posed from unchecked immigration. Fearful of police brutality. Fearful of hate. Fearful of changes in attitudes that we don’t understand.

So we fight fear with more fear. We claim that our neighbors are the bigger monster. That whoever is standing on the other side of the aisle is the real threat to our livelihoods. We blind ourselves. We bind ourselves. And we exacerbate the problem, becoming one more complicated facet.

I am not here to judge anyone on how they voted. Casting my ballot on Tuesday was an excruciating decision that I dreaded for months. I’m not proud of how I had to vote. But I am proud that I voted.

I am proud of my fellow Americans who voted, who used their voices, who exercised a right that so many in the world still fight and die for. We did it safely, and then we all got stickers.

We live in an incredible country.

And still the results shock us.

For those who are judging a large wave of the population for “overreacting” to Trump’s victory, take a moment to consider where they are coming from.

Trump has spent months showing just how little he cares for immigrants, women, and people with disabilities. Whether or not he is qualified to lead this country, he has spewed a lot of hateful words and words have power.

He has incited a kind of hate in America I did not know still existed. It has been lying dormant. He woke it back up.

There are many who still think these reports are overblown. They think the problem doesn’t exist because it hasn’t happened to them.

So I’m asking you to pause and listen to the demonstrators. Whether or not they are overreacting to the outcome, they are a reflection of a very real hurt in our nation. Americans afraid of deportation because they don’t have the paperwork they need to stay in a country they love. Americans afraid of abuse for being born a certain color or for holding to certain religious practices. Americans worried about what the future now holds for their daughters and how it will shape their sons.

Real things to be afraid of.

To those walking in demonstrations, giving up on college classes and homework for the week, threatening to move to Canada or Mexico…Stop. Stop it.

It was an election. They happen once every four years. They’ve been happening for the last two hundred years, peacefully, which has awed and inspired the world for two centuries now.

We moved from one regime to another without gunfire or bloodshed. Two men with completely different worldviews had lunch together today to begin the process of passing the baton.

We went to polling booths and were not bombed. We watched an election that was fair, unrigged, and open from the start.

Women and minorities, and young people who are not yet property owners were all allowed to vote. We were all given a voice.

Why do we not appreciate that? Do we not see the victory in this? Do we not see how great our country still is?

So let’s talk about the future.

Trump is president, but he is in charge of a government made for the people, by the people, of the people. We are still in charge.

If we respond out of fear in these next few days, we will waste the strength we need for the fights of tomorrow, whatever they may be.

If we respond in fear, we will further isolate the communities of this great nation, alienating our neighbors and the friends we will need so desperately to fight those daily horrors (not all of which will be Trump-related, I promise).

If we respond in fear, we will cloud our judgement, stifle our ability to make wise decisions, and step out dangerously into choppy waters without an anchor to hold us fast.

If we respond in fear, we will continue the cycle of abuse, mistrust, hatred, malice and ignorance that has brought us to this day.

To borrow a term from our former colonizers, keep calm, and carry on.

Our nation as a whole is more important than our individual beliefs. Our nation as a whole is made up of our individual beliefs.  

We are all Americans. We live under the same flag. Let’s not give up on each other. Seek to understand, to empathize, to walk boldly towards peace and unity.

That means, for your personally, taking a deep breath and realizing that it will be okay. And if it’s not okay, we will work together until it is.

That means, for us as a nation, making a concerted effort to find common ground, for reals this time.

Thanksgiving is in two weeks and I will sit at a table with a family I am blessed to belong to. We may or may not talk about politics. I may or may not participate. But we will find a way to understand each other and be grateful for what we’ve been given.

And what have we been given? A country that allows its people to grow and change and broaden the scope of human rights.

A country that, though imperfect, and freckled with the sins of each generation that has tilled its soil, will continue to reach for liberty and equality for all.

A country that does not house a people who are fearful, but is rather a home to the brave.

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.

Six Stages of Reverse Culture Shock

The very idea of reverse culture shock sounds laughable. Frankly, it sounds a little like something a traveling yuppie would make up as an excuse for not having their life together when they return home from wandering abroad. I may have read a total of two articles about the topic before coming back to San Diego after two years in Prague. I don’t think a journal-full would have prepared me for the arduous process of taking the person you’ve become and assimilating them back into the place belonging to the person you once were.

But I’m getting there and, more importantly, others have gotten there already, which gives me hope. It took me the whole summer and several weeks into a new semester, with multiple trips around the USA, to figure this all out. Honestly, my Kimmy Schmidt-esque stories of rediscovering a culture I left for 24 months could fill several blog posts, but I’ve gotten lazy so we’re condensing this into six basic stages of reverse culture shock.

Here goes.

1. HAZE

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a plane home.

Jet-lagged, weary and inexplicably hungry (if you’re me, you’re always hungry), you stumble out of the airport in a blur of vaguely familiar sights and sounds. Some things stick out like finely stenciled pictures – the palm trees you never noticed, the size of the masts looming out of the shipyard, the feel of the new seat covers in the family car. Others play out before you like a foggy, black-and-white film. The bend in the road you’ve driven over a million times or the creak of the back gate leading into a softly lit patio. Home.

People and faces, voices, sounds and space all take on a new life and in your travel-tired stupor, they seem like strangers.

I remember the first night back in my own bed. It didn’t feel like mine. It was uncomfortable and unfamiliar and I missed my bed tucked away beneath a slanted wood roof somewhere in Prague. Homecoming is not what you expect it to be.

2. LOSS

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a walk through a Czech forest.

If going to sleep on a strange bed in your old home is hard, waking up to your childhood room is heart-wrenching. Immediately, two kinds of loss sink deeply into the conscious layer of your beating heart: what you missed and what you’ve left behind. It’s not like you expected life to stand still while you were away, but you hadn’t really intended for it to take off without you either. It did. And instead of being able to take comfort in the things around your room, suddenly you feel out of place. Your thoughts will drift to safe spots in your other ‘place’ and you will think of what you’ve just left behind. Forest paths to your home in the village, friends to drink coffee with, quilted blankets and familiar sunrises.

As the haze begins to disappear and the days turn into weeks, you’ll feel more acutely the loss of the world you left behind and catch glimpses and shadows of the life you missed.

That first morning, staring at the blue walls covered in papers and posters my youngest sister had put up in my absence, I swear I felt my heart ripping in two pieces as it tried desperately to be wholly in Prague and wholly here, at home. And, of course, it couldn’t.

3. DISCOVERY

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a skyscraper in New York City with a very good friend.

Expect to be surprised every day by something completely ordinary. Expect to have a thousand questions about things that have changed in the months or years since you’ve been gone. What is Uber? Who the heck is Ariana Grande? Exactly how long have fleeked up eyebrows been a thing, and what does “fleek” mean anyway?

Some of this will be rediscovery. Yes, water is free in restaurants. No, you don’t have to take your shoes off every time you walk inside. Being able to drive yourself places will be liberating, having to buy your own gas again will feel like a death sentence. Pandora? Netflix? Hulu? Little Caesars? Real Mexican food? Heaven.  

The radio hasn’t lost its magic yet. I’ve been home for four months and every song on the radio still sounds new to me. I’ve been getting down to Uptown Funk like nobody’s business. It’s a brave new world.

4. INDIGNATION

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a sunset in Dallas with my long-lost brother.

As the shimmery layer of sparkle wears off your newly rediscovered home, you begin to see things you hadn’t noticed before. Things like the entitled attitude your friends or neighbors have about things like owning cars or getting an education. The narrow views and set ways of family members regarding political issues will drive you up a wall. And when you walk past your fourth unused drinking fountain in a day, covered in spider webs and gunk, you want to shout out, “you have to pay for this stuff in Europe! Free, clean drinking water right here, folks! They’ll walk all day to find water in Africa and here it comes out of a spout!”

But no one will listen, because no one has been where you’ve been or seen what you’ve seen. You’ll be lumped in with every other traveling yuppie who has ever come home and said, “they do it better over there.”

Two weeks after I got home, I was people watching at the food court in the mall and it struck me how confidently Americans take their seats. They walk and talk and sit and stand like they own whatever ground they’re touching. And while they occupy that plastic chair, it is their throne. Europeans do not come close to exuding this air of confidence and control. I think that’s when I realized how hard it would be to ‘come home’ all the way because I no longer identified with my own people. Folks were going to think I was nuts. Who would ever understand the mental battle I was fighting every day just to make sense of the home I used to know? Just to keep things together.

5. ISOLATION

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a piece of my heart in San Francisco.

This may be the worst part, and honestly, it may not come in this order. You may feel alone the day you arrive home or a month later when you finally realize why things aren’t clicking the way they used to. But eventually, the frustration you feel at your own culture for their blindness to their faults and the welling sense of loss toward wherever it is you’ve left will isolate you. It’s like a breakdown in communication. Because people around you can look at the same situation and not see it the way you now do. You will feel disconnected and alone.

It’s discouraging to be back around family and friends who should know you better than anyone, but suddenly they can’t seem to grasp why you feel strongly about water fountains or why you sometimes have to stop in the middle of what you’re doing to process a painful memory.

I came home right before our family reunion. I got to hold my nephew for the first time ever. I went out for a night on the town with my brother. I got ice-cream with an assortment of siblings in an illegal takeover of an abandoned baseball field. But the people who made me feel most at home were the random friends who would come up to me out of the blue and ask, “how is it being back? What can I do? Want to get coffee and talk about it?” They were the ones who’ve been there and back. They’ve all had a ‘place’ and left it to come home again. They knew. And they reached out with human connection and empathy, and it helped me move on to Stage Six.

6. ADJUSTMENT

a new friend.
a new friend.

At some point, you have to accept that life is moving quickly and you need to jump on the train or get left behind again. Working back into crazy American eating patterns (so much grease, so much store-bought food, sooooo late at night) or re-learning how to drive a car (which I was never very good at to begin with) will come with time. Eventually, you’ll stop waking up every morning wondering what the weather is like in your ‘place’ and the hole left by the friends you miss so dearly will begin to fill with new people.

And the scariest part about the adjustment phase is the thought of losing your experience. So let me be clear. Moving on does not mean forgetting the past. It does not mean abandoning your friendships, erasing your memories or sinking back into old ways you’ve grown out of. It just means adopting this new person you’ve become and making a space for her in your old world. Both you and it have changed and the fit may not be perfect yet. But that’s how you’ll continue to grow. You’ll be challenged. You’ll be tested. You may be lost for a little while. But, believe it or not, that’s the road we’re all on, culture shock or not.

Congratulations. You’ve caught up to the rest of us. Now, onward and upward.

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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