roots and wings

graduation cute 2017

“Why so fancy today, Miss York?” my students ask as we wrap up our Friday tests. I laugh and shake my head. The sun is shining through the partly closed blinds, sending dusty rays of light across our 2016/17 academic year calendar pinner neatly to the board.

“I’m going to commencement,” I say, absentmindedly wiping my chalk-dusted hands across my freshly ironed graduation dress. “I have an art final, an athletics banquet, and a graduation today, so you have no excuses not to get your homework finished this afternoon.”

They chuckle because they know I won’t be assigning them any homework. The school year is wrapping up. Things are coming to an end. And when I think about how long ago everything started, I marvel at how I ended up here. Here specifically, in this classroom, inside this body, heading into this future that seems so different from what I had expected it would be so many years ago.

***

I was eighteen when I took my first class at Southwestern College. Dad dropped me off at the base of stairs in the bottom parking lot, wished me good luck with an endearing smile, and then left me there to figure out adult life on my own. That was a long time ago.

Homeschooled my entire life, stepping onto a community college campus was like walking into a strange new world. For starters, I’d never really been to school before. I literally asked a professor if I was allowed to chew gum in class. I found a tree on campus and sat under it every day for hours doing homework and journaling until one day someone asked me for a cigarette…then I started using the library because I didn’t want people to think I did drugs. My obsession with hot pockets may have directly coincided with this particular semester.

But I was unused to the culture and customs of the general public. Everything I knew about people outside my community of conservative Christian homeschoolers I learned from TV and talk radio, and the former was pretty limited. People amazed me, disgusted me, surprised me. Stereotypes were fortified and broken down at equal paces and I spent much of that first semester feeling like fly on a very big wall, silently observing, unnoticed by humanity, an outside observer who didn’t quite belong in the fluid chaos of existence on campus, awkward in my own skin.

In some ways, it’s precious to think of how ardently principled and idealistic I was then, my convictions untested, untampered, untouched by the world and its realities, my direction unclear, the person I was not yet fully-formed.

***

I skid onto campus and park in the lot beside the tennis courts, across from the newsroom. I find this fitting, seeing as I spent the better part of four years in this corner of campus.

First stop: Athletic Banquet.

It’s been weeks since I’ve worn heels — months, even? Whenever the shin splints started… Trodding across the pavement in my tan pumps now feels alien. I miss my running shoes.

Chewy is waiting outside the banquet room in the athletic building. He’s wearing a tie.

I remember when they built this building. I remember writing story after story about the Corner Lot, the public bond money, the fraud and embezzlement, the District Attorney’s investigation. And then the debate about football favoritism on campus, abuse of the baseball team’s self-raised funding, illegally recruited basketball players from the Bronx. My year as the news editor of our student paper in 2011/12 was quite the adventure, and the bleed-over into the world of athletics provided a pivotal introduction to something that would become an obsession.

And now, after all that fuss, here stands the multi-million dollar project — the Home of the Jaguars field house. For the briefest second, I hear chuckle of irony waft on the breeze blowing by as I am welcomed by a structure whose creation I was once so adamantly against.

Chewy sees me and smiles, bus bag schlopped over his shoulder.

“There you are,” he says.

Inside, Melissa is sitting with her boyfriend and family. Ed shows up with an entourage, looking sharply pressed and suave. I almost don’t recognize Dae — the sprinter is polished up like a new penny. And Coach is there, all smiles. In fact, the whole room is filled with people I recognize. Athletes from the women’s soccer team, men’s basketball, football, volleyball. Coaches, trainers, administrators. And I feel like I owe everyone something, because I can pinpoint specific moments this year where each one of them has done something for me — offered athletic advice, supplied important encouragement at game-changing moments, extended the hand of friendship. Without even knowing it, these people have shaped my whole year.

The coaches call us up by teams and present each of us with a golden stole that says, “Student Athlete,” and my heart swells with pride. I earned this.

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***

Those first two years at school…What an education in life. I learned how to use the bus, how to find the best snacks on campus, how to make friends in class…

Ah, friends. The real gem of my college experience. I have met the most amazing, talented, kind, interesting, loyal people at Southwestern College. I am proud to say I have made friends of students, professors, coaches, faculty and governing board members alike. I almost made friends with some of the campus police as well…They ticket me often enough…

In fact, after three semesters as an editor for the student paper and a year as president of the paralegal club, when I graduated with my Associate’s in 2012, I felt oddly nostalgic. Southwestern felt like a second home. I felt like it had developed my passion for writing, tested my independence, and challenged my beliefs and perspectives enough to reaffirm what I knew to be true and sand the sharp edges off the rest. And for the first time ever, I had started doing something unexpected — I was learning about sports.

It started as baseball game briefs and quickly turned into photography and season coverage. And to everyone’s surprise, including my own, I loved every second of it. It was empowering to discover something I enjoyed doing — and was slowly becoming good at — that fell so far outside what people, especially myself, expected I would be interested in.

But, as a writer, I respect the closing of chapters. And life is full of so, so many chapters. So I turned the last page of my college story with the tassel on my graduation cap, vowing to never look back.

 

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***

My heels click over the sidewalk as I race from the banquet to my art final. I still have to show off my portfolio.

When I walk in, the class is halfway through presentations, but they stop to cheer as I swoop in, breathless and still wearing my student athlete sash.

“You look so nice!” they say, cooing over my graduation dress and commenting on the cap and gown I have tucked under my arm. No one fully expected me to show up today. They all know I have graduation this afternoon. They’re also used to me flying in halfway through class, still dressed in my practice uniform, or hobbling in late with my boot or ice bags. And yet, their patience never seems to run out.

They go back to the portfolios on display and I sneak over to the potluck table. I ate almost nothing at the banquet and it’s going to be a long afternoon. Unable to find any forks, I pick unceremoniously through the remnants of the feast with my fingers and I watch my classmates on the other side of the room. They have been so fun to learn with, the perfect mesh of ragtags and misfits.

Seven years ago, I might have felt uncomfortable among such openly awkward human beings who aren’t sure how to wear their opinions, backgrounds and social make-up — honestly, people in the same stage of development I was in when I first came to school. I wouldn’t have understood. I wouldn’t have known how to cultivate friendships with people so different from myself. Some of them are that way with each other, not knowing when to forgive, or overlook, or rise above. As it is, we all get along splendidly now. I love them to pieces. And some of them really need some lovin’, so I’m only too happy to give it. What a small gift to offer in return for the wealth of joy and friendship they’ve given back.

One hand in the chow mein, the other holding a piece of chocolate cake, I wonder where I learned how to be a good friend. I wonder if it is perhaps because, so long ago, people here were a friend to me.

***

I worked for a year in San Diego after graduating with my A.A., covering college baseball as a freelance writer in my spare time for a local paper, and then, in the summer of 2013, I moved to Prague. A lot of life happened in Prague, most of which I’ve already blogged about extensively. All I will say here is that, moving back to San Diego was the hardest thing I have ever done. It literally broke my heart. And, upon discovering how little it felt like I belonged back in my old stomping grounds, and how much I missed Prague, I returned to the only place I knew would welcome me back without question — Southwestern College.

But instead of the bright-eyed idealist who first walked onto campus on a muggy morning in late-August, 2010, it was just me, complete with broken heart and battle scars. I was struggling, cynical and more than a little lost. The person I was in August 2015 felt more like someone who’d been put through a blender and then asked to walk home, dripping anxiety and dragging the shreds of hope and purpose gracelessly behind.

And yet, there was Southwestern, waiting for me with open arms. It didn’t matter that my friends from high school had all moved on and moved away. There were new people here — people who have become some of my dearest treasures.

And it didn’t matter that I didn’t know where I was going next, because neither did anyone else. And we all just sort of took our time and let the doors open one at a time. It was humbling and empowering and beautiful.

***

The heels come off. I left art class after presenting my portfolio and washing down the cake with a dixie cup full of Dr. Pepper. Everyone sent me off with waves and well-wishes, and it was actually a little difficult to turn my back and walk away from my raggamuffin art friends.

But I have somewhere to be.

Running across the deserted campus barefoot in my dress feels oddly appropriate. I’ve been here long enough to feel comfortable getting comfortable.

The newsroom bursts into view and my heart flutters a little. I may have forsaken its walls this last year in my pursuit of athletics, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t all start here. For three years, I worked in these walls. This is where I fell in love with languages, where I discovered a passion for sports, where I broke out of the shell I grew up in.

I have lived through four generations of writers who graced this building. That’s the nice thing about The Sun. It’s a family. Everyone is welcome back, and most of us never really leave for good. So the editors who taught me how to be a journalist back in 2011 are still spoken of in hallowed whispers by this year’s staff who were trained by people I once trained.

So flying through the doors now, cap and gown in tow, feels like landing a biplane on the same little island airstrip that I’ve always used to refuel before long trips. I know these palm trees.

“Ooh, pretty dress,” says Ella from her computer as I walk through the sliding glass doors.

One second I’m standing and saying, “thank you,” and the next I am sliding on the floor, lying on my back looking up. It’s ritualistic at this point.

“Aw, is this your last official Marydown here?” Ella asks me. Alyssa comes out of her office with her phone.

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“We have to Snapchat this,” she says.

 

So, here I am. Lying on the floor while my phone buzzes — Melissa and Chewy want to know why I’m not in the graduation line at the football stadium.

Maybe I’m not quite ready to go down there yet. Maybe I’d like to soak in the memories of late-night production week madness, the feeling of being surrounded by people who love and appreciate me even when I don’t really deserve it, and the thrill of knowing what is waiting right around the corner of tomorrow, even if it’s just another story to tell.

“Better get your cap on,” Ella says. “You don’t want to miss your own commencement.”

She helps me pin the cap on and waves me out the door before turning dutifully back to her own work at the computer. And so I leave the newsroom one more time, knowing somehow that it won’t be the last.

marydown

***

I think I was surprised by how unchanged Southwestern was when I returned. Sure, the new stadium was finally up, and what a beauty! The faces on campus were new, for the most part. But the feel was the same. The trees still flower in purples, pinks and creams every semester. The sun still sets over the buildings with breathtaking drama. The parking is still only barely tolerable.

The sameness of the college highlighted the changes in me. When I stepped foot on campus again for the first time in three years back in 2015, I felt changed, different from who I had been when I graduated in 2012, or took my first class in 2010. And I the feeling strikes me again as I wind my way towards the back of the football stadium, into a sea of black caps.

***

“We were worried you wouldn’t make it!” says Melissa. My cap and gown were eskew from running down the back end of the stadium to where the graduates were being held. Chewy let me use the reflection in his sunglasses to fix everything. I have an extra tassel for graduating with honors, and a medal to show that I’m a transfer student. I’m proud of that too.

There we all were, suited up and looking sharp.

 

Ernesto was in and out, taking pictures of everyone. He works for the school now. To think he used to be my assistant at the newsroom, and now look at the two of us. Time flies in weird directions.

The ceremony takes forever, and we’re pretty much in the last row. After nearly two hours, it’s our turn to stand up and move down to the stage at the end of the football field. Coach is all gussied up and ready to give us our diplomas. I hear several people call out my name from the crowd of graduates. People I’ve met over the years.

Under the corner of the stage, sunlight bending in ribbons over the field, I realize how much time I have spent here. Nearly every day of the last year, I have walked down the steps onto this field for practice or to go to the locker rooms or the trainers. In the process of becoming an athlete, I have developed immense affection for this place and the chorus of life that resonates in echoes of possibility through the stadium.

More than that, I watched football games here in 2010 during my first semester. I didn’t know how football worked back then, and I didn’t have anyone to watch with. But I wanted to belong to this school so much. Isn’t that what we do? Go out and support the home team?

The home team.

The thought brings tears to my eyes, because this really is my home team. This is my school and these are my people.

I get lost in the twists and turns of life so frequently, battered and beaten by a world too rough for bright-eyed idealists, and Southwestern has been the safehaven. Not for my ideals — those have been challenged and tested. But it’s been a safe place for them to be put under inspection, a place where the voices raised in opposition are raised in friendship.

In fact, as I mount the steps to shake coach’s hand and take my certificate of completion, I realize that I haven’t really changed at all, as much as I feel like I have. I’ve developed, grown, broadened my horizons. But the core of who I am on this stage, in these awful heels with cap slipping off, is really the same as girl who walked onto campus alone one morning in August. The journalist, the athlete, the idealist, the friend, all culminating in this person I have become.

I have memories in the very fabric of this campus. Reminders that what I am and what I believe are holding steadfastly. But from the roots I have cultivated here have sprouted wings. The metamorphosis has taken place. I can see it from where I’m standing and I can feel it in my heart, held together by the healing bonds of home.

graduation diploma 2017

 

How to almost miss your final

I’m pretty sure I didn’t do college right the first time. I say this because I never remember spending this much time on Netflix. Deadlines were met with ease. All-nighters were both non-existent and unnecessary. Countless hours were wasted in the quiet, study-conducive environment of the school library. I think I even checked out books.

But don’t worry, I have it figured out now. And for those lost little college freshmen who still haven’t quite figured out the system, allow me to share my foolproof method for turning in college papers just under the wire.

Consider it my Christmas gift to you. Happy finals week.

  1. Read the syllabus several times to make sure you are very, very clear when the exact deadline is due. Now forget it and get back on facebook.
  2. Open a Word document. Don’t title it yet. There’s no need to make that much commitment up front.
  3. Google “great ways to start an essay” for several minutes and then Google “great ways to make money” because that popped up first in the automatic listings and, frankly, feels a lot more promising.
  4. Decide to title your Word document. “Essay.”
  5. Casually instagram your computer keyboard with a caption like, “No rest for the weary! #collegelife #thuglife #killinit” – Spend twenty minutes picking out a filter.
  6. Look at the clock and realize that you’ve not been super productive for the last hour and mentally slap yourself. Then look up a youtube video of Shia LaBeouf’s motivational video and JUST DOOOO IIIITTTTTT.
  7. Check facebook.
  8. Pack your backpack and laptop and go to a coffee shop to “get some real work done.”
  9. Thank the barista for your tall skinny peppermint mocha latte and find a table that isn’t already taken by someone better at procrastinating than you are.
  10. Instagram your laptop keyboard + coffee. Caption: “Round two! We are knocking this sucker out tonight! #allnightifIhaveto #Ihaveto #redcup”
  11. Check facebook.
  12. Write a couple paragraphs. At least one of them should have more than two sentences.
  13. Pull up dictionary.com to double check a spelling, but then get distracted by the Shakespearean terms of endearment on the sidebar. Spend the next fifteen minutes wiki-ing the complete list of Shakespeare characters.
  14. Answer a call from your mom. Yes, that is your wet laundry in the machine. No, you’re not sure how long it’s been there – Thanksgiving? And can she check if your driver’s license is in the back pocket of your jeans, please?
  15. Because mom’s are inspirational, you write another couple of paragraphs. Mess with the settings on your paper to add extra spacing between all the letters.
  16. Google collective nouns for animals. Text the best ones to all of your friends.
  17. Check facebook.
  18. Tell yourself you are really going to get serious and write for a half hour.
  19. It’s getting late – go grab some dinner before you curl over and die because you haven’t eaten in like, seriously, like four hours.
  20. Get distracted on the way home and find yourself mysteriously in a Barnes & Noble. Peruse.
  21. Your friends have texted you and want to have a study session at a someone’s house. Bring snacks.
  22. Studying with friends includes catching up on several episodes of the Walking Dead (and that’s what you’re beginning to feel like) and re-watching an episode of the Office (which you may never see the inside of if you don’t graduate from college).
  23. Someone gets the munchies again. Volunteer to accompany them on the food run. Take as long as you want. In fact, take longer. Literally, don’t come back for two hours.
  24. Come back and get settled in front of your computer again.
  25. Finish your essay.
    Hahahahaha, just kidding. Check facebook.
  26. Instagram a selfie of you (sad duck face) and your computer. Caption: “This essay is killing me. Make it stop. Need coffee! Ahhh! #stressed #hungry”
  27. Eat something and talk to your friends about Saint West. Google weird celebrity baby names.
  28. Someone wants to go watch a movie because -they know it’s late but- there are $6 tickets at the Regal theater right now. Consider it.
  29. Uncommitedly tell your friends that maybe you should finish this essay first because it’s due tomorrow.
  30. Go watch the movie with your friends. (Hashtag: YOLO). You can just finish this essay before class in the morning.
  31. Set alarm for 5:30 a.m. before you go to bed.
  32. Sleep through it.
  33. Wake up at 7:45 and PANIC.
  34. Open your laptop and write two pages of almost-total nonsense (with a surprising amount of collective nouns and Shakespeare references).
  35. Go through and repeat the word “the” in multiple places throughout the the text.
  36. Run spell check. Click “change all” and hope for the best.
  37. Forego showering or changing shirts.
  38. Run through several extremely yellow lights.
  39. Sit in the parking lot for ten minutes trying to find parking.
  40. Run to your professor’s office to drop off the paper with two minutes to spare.

Like a boss.

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True things I’d forgotten about college life

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

Or, you know, something along those lines.

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

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

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

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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