finding the barrio: a love story about tacos


On an almost vacant lot between Telegraph and the 805 North freeway entrance sits a very unassuming taco truck. The blue and white lettering are quaint and the awning set up over a few plastic tables and chairs does just enough to provide shade from the persistent sunshine of Chula Vista’s early winter days.

I first met this taco truck on a late-night newsroom food run last year. I was with people I haven’t seen in months, people who, at the time, were just about my whole world – a new world, a world whose predecessor I still missed. Funny how time washes everything downstream, gently and without stopping.

Anyway, the tacos were a thing to behold. Perfect, greasy, authentic Mexican tacos, and they were inexpensive to boot.

I don’t actually think I ever went back. Not with them. Not while I was in that world.

Spring semester ended with layers of heartbreak and change. Summer happened.

I traveled. I traversed back to a place that still feels very much like home, and then I left it again. More heartbreak, and some literal injuries as well.

And then I came back to San Diego, face-to-face with a new job teaching high school, a position on a sports team, and some noticeable vacancies in “people I love to be with” department.

But I am getting good at this. I am learning how to move from one world, one future, one plan to the next without even needing to take a breath at the key change. So I threw myself into my new neighborhood of life with vigor.

Life is full of beautiful coincidences, but my favorite this year has been teaching and taking Spanish classes simultaneously. I would teach my students gendered articles and verb conjugation patterns in the morning and then in the evening immerse myself in relative pronouns and expanding vocabularies in my college courses. The time in between, I practiced. I practiced with my growing group of friends on the cross country team. I practiced with the lady who lives two houses down from me. I practiced with old pals from school. And I eavesdropped on basically every conversation in Chula Vista. I was getting to know my neighborhood through new ears. God bless the barrio.

One day, I decided to take my students on a field trip to the taco truck. It is right down the road from our little school and I figured the possibility of food might get more Spanish out of them than I had been able to up to that point. My assumption was correct. They did beautifully.

I marched my little underclassmen up to the window of the truck and made brief introductions to the man at the counter. He thought it was hilarious that I taught Spanish (soy una guera) and that I had chosen their truck for our prodigious field trip.

We ordered without making too much of a mess and then we hurried back to school with our treasures. And just like they had been that cold winter night last February, worlds ago, the tacos were delicious.

I went back once or twice during cross country season. It’s the perfect spot, right on my way to college from the school, so I’d “carb up” on my way. (Though I might add that running on adobada is not a smart idea).

Softer than a whisper, quicker than a pleasant dream, Autumn disappeared. Cross country began to wind down, and I saw these new, very important people in my life less and less. My schedule loosened without daily 3-hour practices, and the extra time went into the attic of my affections and began digging up old memories of the place I miss most.

“Where are you?” my teammate David texted me one day after practice. I was sitting in my car dreaming about tacos.

“Parking lot,” I said.

“Food?” he asked.

“Tacos?” I replied.


He found my car and I drove him to the taco truck.

Peering down from behind the window, the man said, “Hey, you brought your class here once, right?”

“Yes, that was me,” I laughed. He gave me a twinkly grin and said, “Cool.”

David and I, and our teammate Corey, go for tacos on a weekly basis. Someone texts, “tacos?” and within an hour, we’re all chowing down, listening to the rustle of cars and the crystal ring of perfect skies.

Cross country effectively ended after the State meet and Corey and David were the only people from the team I ever saw, and it was always for tacos.

I brought my little sister one afternoon and the guy looked down at me with the same twinkly grin. We said our “Hi”s and “How are you?”s and then he looked at my sister and said, “We know her here.”

People say Tacos el Gordo are the best tacos in the South Bay (though, I personally don’t consider anything north of the 54 “South Bay”), but they’re wrong. Tacos el Ranchero on Telegraph is the best. It’s indisputable. And I eat there several times a week now, so I would be the expert.

“She eats here without us,” Corey moaned to David over a mouthful of asada. David just nodded. He goes without me, too. When the taco calls, you must answer.

Finals kept me busy, busy enough to stay out of that drawer with all the old memories. But they ended too.

On Monday night, the cross country team celebrated the end of the season with a banquet at La Bella’s Pizza Garden. Awards were had, tears were shed, pizza was eaten en masse. Eventually, the dinner ended, like all good things, and people went their separate ways.

A few of us stuck around for a while to play pool in the arcade room. Our numbers trickled away until it was just me, David, Corey and two of our steadies on the team.


The lights of the restaurant flickered off for a moment, letting us know we had overstayed our welcome, so we picked up our bags and walked into the cold, dark streets of downtown Chula Vista.

“I’m hungry again,” said Melissa as we walked to our cars.

“Tacos?” said David.

Corey and I nearly screamed. Yes, tacos, always tacos.

“We have to take you to this place we know,” said Corey.

“They have the best tacos,” I promised.

Melissa and Jesse looked skeptical, but it was three against two. Tacos won.

But by the time we pulled into the lot, the awning and plastic chairs had been taken down. The side door of the truck was open and only one customer stood nearby, waiting for his order to be finished.

“Are you still open?” I asked, peeping into the truck’s kitchen as someone in the back bustled over a sizzling stovetop.

The man turned and was about to say they were closed, but his head stopped mid-shake and recognition lit his eyes.

“Are you the teacher?” he said with an excited smile. “! We love you here! You can order whatever you like! We are open for you!”

My friends, mis chicos, and I all lined up and put in our requests as the truck continued to close up from the outside. After saying our thanks, we took the plates to the hood of someone’s car and ate. We ate delicious tacos and talked about nothing and just stood around for a long time. And the longer we stood there, the more I realized this was another ending of another world. Most of my teammates from cross country will not be doing track, for varying reasons, most of which are based in mature, adult rationales. But it means starting over for me. It means trying to make new friends and build a new neighborhood.

I’m feeling very much the nomad these days.

So I’ll probably just keeping coming back here, to this taco shop.

It feels nice to have somewhere to belong at a time when everything else seems to be concluding, even if that place is on a vacant lot between a busy street and a freeway entrance.

Saint George, tea and my wee little star

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

George led us in prayer before tea began.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

“Why didn’t they?”

“I guess they got lazy,” she said.

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

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


“This is beautiful,” I finally said.

“It’s home.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And it was a good reminder for me.

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

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

-Margaret Hodges, Saint George and the Dragon

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

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


9 things that are worth the weight in your rucksack

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

I’m here to tell you that it sucks.

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

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

Italics are Katka.

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

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


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

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

We suggest snacks.

“But not cheese.”

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

(:Sigh: “Seriously?”)

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

“Speak for yourself, lady.”

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

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


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

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


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

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

It was lovely.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


From the Rose Garden in Vienna.

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

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

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

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

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


Hungarian roadside fowers.

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


HOWEVER, running did several important things for us.

“Really? Like what?”

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

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

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

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


The view from a shore on Lake Balaton, Hungary.

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

So yeah, hand sanitizer.

That’s all I have to say.

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

. . . That’s all I have to say.


Katka and I not killing each other in Budapest.

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

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

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

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

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


Vienna’s beautiful roses.

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

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

It’ll be worth it. We promise.

Lost in Budapest

We rang the doorbell a second time. After bouncing on anxious toes for a minute, we heard the crackly voice of a man over the intercom.


I raced to the speaker right above the doorbell, both set into the old stone of a doorframe in Budapest, Hungary. It was almost midnight and it was still hot out.

“We have reservations for a room here but our bus was late and we missed check-in,” I said, the words hurrying out on a wave of concern.

“Sorry, hotel is closed,” said the man.

“No, but we have reservations,” I said. I could feel my blood pressure surging.

I’m getting pretty good at traveling. Contrary to what one might think, being good at traveling is not the ability to get from one place to another in a seamless fashion. Rather, it is the ability to remain seamless in composure as one encounters every conceivable disaster that inevitably accompanies leaving one’s comfort zone. Coming to Europe this summer, I was delayed for three hours in an airport, nearly missed a connection in Iceland, almost lost my luggage in Berlin and barely caught my bus to Prague, all while shouldering a 35 pound rucksack (how to pack a rucksack should be a post in itself). But what amazed me was how easy it all was. The last three years must have made me immune to the gut-churning, heart-pounding, eye-watering feeling of being lost (“It should be called being ‘creatively misplaced,’” a friend in Athens once told me). I have been creatively misplaced a lot.

But not having a room to sleep in at midnight in a strange city was a first for me.

There was no response on the intercom so my friend and I assumed he had hung up on us.

Katka and her family agreed to let me stay with them while I’m in Prague. She and I decided to take a week to see parts of Europe neither of us has been to yet.

Bratislava and Budapest

The bus that morning had taken us from a city we both consider home to the neighboring town of Bratislava, capital of Slovakia. Bratislava is nice enough, but it’s not Prague, and by 6:30 that evening we were on another bus headed for Budapest.

This was not a city I ever planned on going to. Three years ago I would have written it off completely (and did, several times), in the hopes of traveling to more refined locations like Rome, Madrid, Dresden, whatever. Budapest sounded like a ragtag city for wandering yuppies.

“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”

-Ernest Hemingway

A little window slid open in the heavy wooden door we were standing beneath letting a broken beam of pale light out into the dark street.

“Hotel is closed, not open till weekend,” said the man from the intercom, who looked as blearily grumpy in person as his voice had suggested.

“But we have reservations,” I said again, a small whimper escaping my chapped lips.

“New hotel. Not open till weekend,” he repeated before shutting the window in our faces and taking with him the only real light on the street.

Katka and I looked at each other. We both enjoy a healthy dose of adventure, but this was a quite a spoonful and there didn’t seem to be anything sweet to help it go down.

We were both hot, sweaty, tired and sore (I’m in the middle of cross country training right now and Katka is making sure I get my miles in, so neither of us can feel our legs, which makes walking a difficulty).

“What do we do now?” asked Katka, her enormously large blue eyes blinking up at me with question and a trace of annoyance.

I had one job. Literally one. Book the hostel.

“Let’s walk back down the street,” I said. “Maybe we missed something.”

Back down the block, past the sleeping bums who had curled up in front of doorways, past the Sir Lancelot night club that seemed to be open but deserted, past the rows of silent trees and silent cars, past two taxi drivers…

Taxi drivers?

Taxi drivers know everything. If I ever decide to take over the world, I’m building my secret service entirely out of taxi drivers and waiters.

Katka doesn’t like taking the lead on talking to people we don’t know (because she’s smart and likely to be the last of the two of us to get kidnapped and murdered), so I walked up to the two men who seemed to be having a comfortable chat, leaning against the side of their cars.

One of them was thin and wiry, dragging on a cigarette, clothes too big for his frame. The other had a beefy belly and thick arms. His eyes seemed much more alert but a lot less kind. Neither seemed dangerous, but that was probably just because they were wearing capris.


“Hi,” I said, approaching the duo, realizing that this too was something I would not have been comfortable doing three years ago. “We’re looking for our hostel but it’s not here.”

They spoke no English and the only Hungarian I have picked up so far is the word “Yes,” which I’m still fairly certain I’m mispronouncing.

But, like knights with glistening armor and gleaming swords, they came to our rescue. They talked amongst themselves for a moment before the skinny one pulled out his phone and looked up where our hostel should have been. He followed our well-beaten path down to the end of the block, had the same conversation with our grouchy doorman (but this time in Hungarian), and stopped some random guy entering his apartment to ask about the hostel (that dude didn’t speak Hungarian or English and we were all just like, well, okay, great then).

He made several phone calls, pulled up a number of webpages and addresses on his phone, showing me each in turn so I knew what valiant steps he was taking to help us.

Finally back at the taxi, the larger man gave his friend the smile that said, I think it’s cute that you found these two little strays, but you’re going to have to put them back where you found them eventually.

“We should just go to the McDonald’s and get internet,” said Katka. Neither of us have data and we both hate ourselves so much for it.

I offered our hero 1000 HUF (which is like two and half cents in USD, but infinitely cooler than American currency because they’re called forints, guys). He declined rather profusely and we scooted on our way so he could shuffle in the passengers coming up to the car. I hope he had a bumper night. I also hope one day he gets a castle.

The McDonald’s was basically a castle itself. Three floors overlapping each other with balconies and weird jetties decked with tables and booths climbed downward toward the register in center of the building like and inverse Mayan temple.

An unpleasant security guard (and the only unfriendly Hungarian I have met thus far) told us to order food before we used the internet (which, honestly, would have been reasonable to ask if he hadn’t done it with such lip). We got a large orange juice and pulled up our hostel booking.

“Oh no,” I said, feeling my stomach fall through my seat. “Katka, you will not believe what I did.”

“Really?” she said, calmly sipping the orange juice and looking up other hostels in the area. “Because at this point I think I’ll believe anything.”

“I booked the wrong day,” I said. “I guess I didn’t take into account that we wouldn’t be staying overnight in Bratislava. It was so last minute.”

Katka didn’t need excuses or explanations. She needed a place to sleep and a refill on the orange juice. The least I could do was the orange juice.


When I came back with a second cup, she had found us a place to stay. Because she’s awesome.

“We might as well stay here the whole trip,” she said. “Can you cancel the other booking?”

I did, swallowing bitterly the 19 EUR deposit I had already paid for.

Once more, we shouldered our packs.

Our new digs were pretty nice and right in a lively pub area where lights and faint chatter carry out onto the street late into the night.

When Budapest woke us up the next morning, we were ready to meet it.

Coincidentally, this hostel (LOL Hostel, for those curious) serves the greatest cup of coffee I have tasted on this continent. Ever.

Budapest is beautiful, as can be expected. We lazed around in a Turkish bath for most of the scorching afternoon, found a quaint little spot for lunch, took a couple of pictures. Took a nap.

When the sun went down, Katka and I both strapped on our running shoes and headed down to the river.

We run at different paces (mine being a bit of a wobble at the moment, and Katka’s rather resembling that of a Cheetah racing to take down something small and innocent). I started off well enough, but she passed me quickly. I looked down at my phone and liked my time (I’m on Nike+ Running if anyone wants to add me – let’s race!). I’m learning that we all go at our own pace. If life is a competition, it is only with ourselves.

Around me, the city was aglow with the love-struck fever of summertime. Couples sat along the stone retainer on the river, their feet hanging over the edge. Families strolled along the path that runs along the bank and bikers and backpackers rested their weary limbs on the benches overlooking the water.

Night had transformed the murky green waters of the Danube into hushed currents of dark indigo that reflected lights from the ferries traversing the river between banks of shadows. A tram crossed over the glistening Chain Bridge, each window lit so that as it slid through the dark it looked like a procession of druids floating through the evening. The castle stood above it, still and lustrous.

Budapest surprised me with its beauty, its culture, its sense of self.

I finished my run with a new personal best time (don’t get excited, folks — my personal best is like a quick walk at this point). Katka was waiting for me on the bank of the river, her own run long completed. We both knew our legs would be sore in the morning.


As a kid, I always wanted to be a traveler. As a teenager, I always wanted to be a runner. It’s taken a long time, but I’m finally turning into a bit of both.

Nothing else of who I am has been what I expected. I was hoping to turn into someone elegant and refined, much like this cities I once wanted to visit. Sometimes I look at myself in the mirror and wonder how on earth I ended up being this somewhat clumsy, somewhat lost, very self-deprecating anti-romantic with two half jobs and a tattoo. Sometimes I worry that I turned into the wrong person. Why am I not Paris? Why am I not Rome?

Maybe these are the critical musings of every twenty-something as we struggle to meet our own expectations in the face of a reality we hadn’t planned on.

But this week I realized that I am not as afraid as I used to be. I’m not afraid of getting lost, of losing things, of making mistakes. Because I’ve done all that. And this restless wanderer I have turned into has also made me stronger, bolder and insatiably curious.

So I feel a little like Budapest today, and it’s a nice surprise.

Finding the lights in San Francisco

“I think I scared your nephew,” Ernesto laughed as we got into his car. He added with a grin, “I mean, not as much as you seemed to be traumatizing him.”

I slammed my door.

“Where are we getting food?” I asked.

The ignition turned over with a cough and Ernesto’s battered silver mustang drove us out of the Village under boughs of bright green leaves and the bending rays of afternoon sunshine.

“I know a place in Oakland that’s really good,” Ernesto said as we puttered the quiet streets of Albany where my sister and husband live with their adorable, perfect, heavenly child.

Oakland? Not a chance,” I shot back.

“Why not?” Ernesto asked. His loud voice filled the car with a cheery ambiance impossible not to be affected by.

“Firstly,” I gritted at him, “We’d never get out alive. Secondly, I just can’t eat in Raiders territory.”

Ernesto laughed (probably at me, rather than with me. I wasn’t laughing, so I suppose that’s fair).

“I hear Oakland is getting kind of posh, actually,” he said. “Things change, Mary.”

We ate in Oakland. Clearly I lived to tell the tale.

And it actually was nice. Spring break could not have given us better weather. The sky was placidly blue with just the right amount of fluffy white stuff and the sun was warm and infectious. People were biking and basking on the grass by the (…um, whatever large body of water that was. Bay? Ocean?). And I was here with one of my oldest, greatest, most ridiculous friends, about to start another grand adventure.

Ernesto and I go way back. I try not to think about our choppy beginnings, but they come back to me slowly and sweetly on days like this when I get to see what a fine young man that frustrating little curmudgeon has turned into.

Since our days working together on the college paper, Ernesto has gone on to a bigger college paper at Chico State University where he was a (beloved? feared?) Editor-in-Chief, and then on to writing for actual newspapers. He also has a job that pays actual money (because journalism tends not to) and he seems to be good at that.

I’m back at the same newsroom where we first met. So of the two of us, he’s winning the race to adulthood.

“It’s a nice change to be the one to have it all together, though,” he said in the most affirmingly back-handed way possible. The Bay Bridge rose up before us, our pockets considerably lighter from our brunch and the bridge toll. (“Thank goodness those trolls didn’t make us answer a riddle,” he said with faked exasperation. “We’d have never made it over.”).

We sat on the water in traffic that inched by slowly for more than an hour before the steep streets and narrow neighborhoods of San Francisco spread out before us.

Parking was a tough find, but a spot opened up next to a middle school near Chinatown. We claimed it and began our adventure on foot.



Chinatown was a bit underwhelming.

“It’s just not like the movies,” I said as we stopped to take pictures beneath the paper lanterns. Ernesto and I are both photographers, which is ideal for adventuring because we both stop to take pictures at the same time making pacing much less of an issue for us. “Like, I guess I was hoping for a parade with one of those dragons or a CIA agent getting chased through the streets. Or like, a magic kitten? I don’t know.”

I mean, it was colorful and we did see some dried sea cucumbers. And at one perfect moment, I looked down an alley just in time to see pigeons rising in a flurry as two boys chased a red ball down the narrow, dimly lit lane between twin brick buildings. That was something.

Ernesto got us turned around looking for the entrance to Chinatown so we could see the archway. We ended up buying an armful of cheap rice snacks and jelly candies from a local market and winding our way back to the car instead.

“I guess things don’t always live up to our expectations,” I said as I divided our spoils in the dusty mustang. I unwrapped his candies so he wouldn’t get distracted kill us behind the wheel. Not that it helped.

Next stop: Fisherman’s Wharf.


By the time we found parking again, the sky had clouded over and a brisk wind had picked up off the water.

“Bring your sweater,” I said, grabbing my own from the backseat.

“Thanks, mom,” Ernesto laughed at me, ignoring my advice and sauntering down the hill with a jaunty spring in his step.

The Wharf was beautiful. Pungent smells of salt spray and algae mingled with the odor of the local catches. Crabs, lobsters and fish were being sold, raw and cooked, along the walkway. An abundance of tourist traps (some of which we fell into) laid out their merchandise in an entertaining display of the most basic marketing ploys.

“Okay, you were right,” said Ernesto when we reached the wooden railing that separated us from the large, gray bay. “It is cold.”

I smiled.

“When are you going to learn that I am always right?”

“I should know by now,” he agreed.

To warm up our hands, we got hot coffee before trekking back to the car. I was hungry but Ernesto wanted to get a picture of the Golden Gate before it got too dark. He was doing a photo project and needed a shot of the bridge and one of Twin Peaks at night for a light trail. So we hit the streets one more time, racing the oncoming fog bank.

Stripping off shoes and socks and slinging camera equipment over our shoulders, we left our car in a gravelly lot and walked the sandy beach toward a pile of rocks that jutted out into the bay.





The tide was coming in and, already, light was leaving the sky in a thin, dimming exodus. We clammered across the rocks (not an easy task. I almost died. Twice). Up the slippery sides of the sleeping giants, we scampered until we found ourselves nestled between two large rock faces with no view of the bridge and no way forward.

“That’s a disappointment,” said Ernesto cheerfully.

Ernesto is not easily disheartened.

A little more slowly, and more acutely aware of how hungry we both were, we walked back to the car through the sand and the foamy tips of the bay waters. Silver air caught the curling green waves and lifted them into the evening breeze.

“Mary, if you were a pirate, what would your name be?”

I thought for a moment, letting tied waters run over my feet as they plodded through the mushy sand.

“Seablood Mary. Captain Seablood – that’s what they’d call me.”

“That’s not bad,” Ernesto said with a nod. “I’d be Longsworth Stickybeard, because my beard would always be sticky from rum. I could be your ship’s cook. Or your first mate?”

“Of course you’d be my first mate, Ernesto,” I said. What a stupidly obvious question. As if I’d sail the high seas with anyone but Ernesto.

Ernesto’s phone told us there was an Irish-Western fusion pub that served a kimchi reuben, so we cranked up our Taylor Swift playlist and drove through the darkening streets to get to the grub.

The pub was nearly deserted when we got there and both food and drink were divine. We sat and talked about school and life and plans.

And then we were back in the car to get to Twin Peaks for Ernesto’s final photo opportunity. Winding around the hill, we knew he wasn’t going to get his light trail. San Francisco’s fog had rolled during dinner. Some lights were still visible through the mists and they twinkled and scattered like a kaleidoscope as the rays hit the water particles in the air.

Never one to be disappointed, Ernesto plucked up his smile and got back in the car to drive me home.

Being twenty-something is weird. One minute the whole world seems open before you, the next minute you’re double checking the Ones in your wallet to make sure you can pay for dinner. College plans are not the same thing as life plans, and neither guarantees fulfillment. And, like San Francisco, a lot of it is underwhelming, disappointing, and a little bit colder than you expected. Perhaps that’s why we have friends to remind us to bring jackets or to keep our spirits up and find the rays of light when things get foggy.

We let Taylor Swift take us all the way back to Berkeley. Ernesto has basically all of her albums and I knew which songs to skip and which to replay.

“I’ve never seen San Francisco at night,” I said as we crossed back over the Bay Bridge. Lights reflected off the satiny black water, much the way they do back home in San Diego, but without the familiarity and friendliness.

“Well, you’re only twenty-four,” Ernesto reminded me. “There will be plenty more firsts for both of us.”

And I suppose that’s true.

More firsts. More adventures. More memories to add to our growing collection of golden days, so that when the years darken our sight and the fog rolls in, we will still see bright spots shining through like so many lights of a beautiful city.



What we sometimes need to hear

For reasons I cannot account for (given that this is supposed to be my good, healthy, happy, even-numbered year) the last few months have been a struggle. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’m failing as an adult and a person. . . I wouldn’t say it. But I feel so far away from the person I was as a middle school teacher on the other side of the world. It’s like all the adulthood I earned in Prague through blood, sweat and tears didn’t convert over into my American life.

Anyway, I was home sick for my kids and started re-reading some old blogs. I found this one and I think I needed it more than they ever did. Maybe you will too.


Dear students,

On Tuesday we had to say ‘Goodbye.’ For some of you, this was easy – you were excited about the next step of your lives, your summer plans, or even just getting home for lunch. For some of you, the last day of school was tougher. You were torn between a past that you loved and a future you’re unsure about (no matter how excited you may be for it to come). And then, not all of us got to say ‘goodbye,’ did we? That happens too.

For me, the hardest part of the day was walking down the first floor hallway for the last time. You know the one – it runs along the ninth grade classrooms from the lunch hall to the big staircase at the end of the school. All those big windows let light come washing onto the smooth floors and across your lovely picture boards. I’ve been dreading that walk for a year and a half. I go that way every day after lunch to get to my office. Really, the day I realized how hard it would be to walk through this hallway on the last day of June was the day I realized how much I was falling in love with you and your school.

But the day did have to come and, even though you’ve already moved along with your summer plans, I want to say just a few things. Think of it as one last little piece of love from your teacher to help you through the next few years.

Be ready to smile.

I know Mondays are hard and it’s easy to be glum when you get bad marks or lose your phone (or someone hides your phone and doesn’t say where! . . . Honzo. . . ). But smiling is a way to fight back. Happiness is not something we find, it’s something wemake. Smiling – even when you don’t really feel like it – is the first step. And I think you’ll discover that if you smile at people, they’ll smile back. That’s called human connection and we don’t do it enough. But more importantly, your smile will have an effect on those around you. Your smiles have gotten me through some really difficult days. The person I am today is made up of tiny pieces of the people you have been for the last two years. You have shaped me by our shared experiences and you’ll continue to shape those around you for as long as you live! We humans share this planet and we will influence each other, for better or for worse. Remember that and decide: how do you want to shape people? If all you ever give the world is a smile every day, it will be a brighter place.


Be kind.

This one is tough. Being kind isn’t easy and it isn’t glamorous. It certainly isn’t cool. But you know what? It is one of the greatest things you will ever learn. Learn to be nice to people you don’t like. Learn to keep quiet when you want to say something funny at the expense of someone else’s feelings. Learn not to laugh when a friend is down, no matter how funny it might seem to you – help them back up instead. I know this might sound boring to you. It’s not. Kindness is both a gift and an adventure, and only the bravest will ever know its fullest depths. It is the most underappreciated form of goodness and heroism that exists. There is no glory in being kind – only the reward of helping another person. And that is enough, trust me.

Don’t complain about lunch.

We can all agree that not every lunch in school is a good lunch. I particularly struggle with the fish dishes. Gag. But someone made that food. Someone paid money so that you could eat it. And someone much hungrier than you is going without lunch at all today. This isn’t meant to make you feel guilty, only to remind you to appreciate what you’ve been given. Appreciation is something you’ll struggle with your whole life. Start now. Start by thanking God for food to eat, friends to eat it with, and a school to eat it in. The best part about this is that the more you appreciate what you have, the fuller life will seem to you. Richness and joy will leak out of every mundane activity and colorless possession and you’ll discover an entire world that most people will never notice because they never learnedappreciation.

Work hard.

Duh. Turn in your homework. Study for tests. Get good marks. But hard work won’t do you any good if you’re not doing it for a purpose. And I don’t mean, “Mom is happy when I have good marks,” or “I need to get into a good high school.” Work hard because you can. What a gift it is to learn! What a privilege it is to fill our minds! God has given us the most amazing capacity to grow and expand! It can be a struggle and you won’t always win, but I want you to try. I want you to aim to grow yourself into the brightest, smartest, hardest-working person you can be – but don’t do it for me! Do it for yourself. Do it because you owe your humanity the very minimum respect of cultivating your mind, body and soul to the best of your ability.

Don’t give up on yourself.

I’ve seen some of you quit. I’ve seen you come to a wall that you didn’t think you could climb. Can I tell you something? Watching you give up on yourselves is the hardest part of my job – worse than grading papers (or losing students on the metro. . . Petře. . .). Thomas Edison (inventor of the light bulb) once said, “I didn’t fail – I found a thousand ways not to make a light bulb!” And after thousands of tries, he finally succeeded. And all those failures added to his character – they made him a stronger person. The key is to keep trying, because, ultimately, our greatest successes are not what we accomplish but who we become. Become someone who doesn’t quit.

Don’t give up on others.

There have been a few times in the last few years when I’ve thought, “I’m not meant to be a teacher – I can’t do this.” (One of these times may definitely have followed the ping-pong incident). Do you know why I didn’t quit? Because you wouldn’t let me. Every time I got worn down, you picked me right back up. We need people to believe in us. We need to believe in others – and not just with things like school and work! Growing up is hard and we all make mistakes. Be patient with your friends. Forgive. Forget. Work together. Don’t give up on those around you who are struggling to find themselves – and I mean everyone, not just our friends. Everyone. Our faith in humanity is much too fragile. Learn to sympathize, learn to respect the struggles of others, learn to lift people up.



Follow your road.

Leaving school has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. It breaks my heart to go. A lot of people have been asking me, “When will you come back?” And the truth is, I don’t know if I will come back. Who can know the future but God? On Tuesday, when someone asked me when I’d be coming back to Prague, a dear teacher took my face in her soft hands, looked me in the eyes, and said, “Your life is ahead of you.” I needed to hear that. I needed someone to tell me that it’s okay to say ‘goodbye.’ Love and friendship are not bound by space and time. So follow your road. Go where you need to go. The people who love you most will be waiting for your return or simply praying for your safe journey, wherever it takes you.

Keep your heart open.

I want to thank you for letting me into your school. You can’t know how I scared I was when I first came to Prague. I didn’t understand anything anyone said. I wasn’t used to the rules and customs here. And I kept getting lost on the stairwell! Most of all, I was scared of letting everyone down, of being a bad teacher. Nebyla jsem špatná učitelka, žejo? I could not have made it through the last two years without your help. You have been so kind to me. You have been so much fun to work with. And you believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself anymore. If anything, you were my teachers and I was your most adoring student – and I always will be. I want you to know that you have been my greatest adventure. I also want you to know that it’s okay to love your new teacher the way you have loved me. People come and go – that’s life. But there is no end to the amount of love we can give. Don’t let the pain of an ending keep you away from the beauty of a beginning. All things do end, eventually. Keep your heart open for whoever needs a home there. And be ready to love everyone – no matter where they come from or where they’re going.

It took me less than 90 seconds to walk from one end of that hallway to the other. The school was quiet – the way it is in the afternoon when you’re all tucked away in your last classes of the day and everyone is sleepy from a full lunch. For that 90 seconds, I thought about all my favorite moments in this school. The first snowfall, Halloween, learning our Christmas songs, the Garden Party. I thought of all your little triumphs and all your dreams, your fears and hopes and crazy ideas – pieces of yourselves that you’ve given me. What an honor to have been your teacher!

But before I knew it, the hallway ended. The view around the corner spread out before my eyes and, looking backwards, the hall lay still and silent.

Life happens quickly. It’s over before we know it. Don’t waste a moment, don’t miss a beat. Remember that you won’t always have the chance to say ‘goodbye,’ so live each moment expressing your love for those around you – let there never be a doubt in their minds how much they mean to you. I hope, I hope, I have been able to express just how much you have meant to me.

But above all, don’t be afraid. The world needs brave people who will be kind, fair and loving.

Are you ready?

Best of luck,

Your Teacher, Mary

The truth about New Years

This time last year I was 16 hours into one of the worst years of my entire life. Sick, exhausted and extremely rumpled, I was lying on a wooden floor in an apartment that belonged to a stranger I hadn’t met yet. My sister Sarah and two Czech friends were making the best of a saggy couch and the German girl with us was nodding off on the edge of an unmade bed. It was a small apartment.


Berlin ate me whole, that week. For the two-ish days that we were there, I felt miserable, physically and emotionally. The physical I could understand. Sarah and I had stayed up till 3 a.m. the night before to celebrate the new year on the icy flanks of Petřín Hill. We shivered on a wet bench for three hours to watch the city below fade into an ever-growing cloud of smoke till we could no longer see the fireworks that were popping off all around Prague. Our cider tasted like dog food, our jackets were insufficient and both of us are much more comfortable with 10 p.m. bedtimes. Only the countdown, which the crowd around us shouted out in four or five different languages, and the slippery hike through snow and ice back down to the trolleys (during which we were given a free sparkler by someone we didn’t know) redeemed our frigidly wet adventure.

We got up the next morning at 6:30 to catch our bus to Berlin and I was dreading the return to a city I knew loathed my existence.

We have never been friends, Berlin and I.

Our friends met us gleefully that afternoon at the bus stop and fed us waffles. We walked through the confettied, fire-crackered streets. I hadn’t booked a hostel because they promised their Indian friend had room for us at his flat.

He didn’t. I realized this as I rolled in and out of moody consciousness on his hard floor. When I woke up fully, he was sitting on the edge of his bed next to our German friend. As far as first impressions go, I have made better.

He had not been expecting us, but was taking it all in stride. When you’re twenty-something and life throws you a sticky mess and a headache, the answer is nearly always pasta. So we went to the Italian place down the way and procrastinated on our decision about housing.

Sarah began to wane in the seat next to me surrounded by a pile of pizza crumbs and pasta plates and I finally insisted we figure something out.

We didn’t. We just went back to the apartment and watched a Bollywood film. Most of us fell asleep before the film ended and we ended up sprawling over the couches and bed of the very tiny apartment, only to be woken at 6 a.m. to help him clean it so he could get to the airport on time.

By 7 o’clock, we were on our feet and out in the cold again, looking for somewhere to eat.

Over the course of the day, I was dragged from parks to monuments with stores and souvenirs in between. I wanted to die.

The emotional misery I have less of an explanation for. I tried not to be a downer, but I certainly wasn’t maintaining my normal level of cheer. Life is peaks and valleys, and while my peaks are high and often, my lows can be a long, long way down.

Looking back now, the trip is one of my favorite memories from 2015, even if it was dreadful to live through. I think I knew even then that it was a precursor to the twelve months ahead of me, though I couldn’t have known how familiar I would become with the valleys of my mind.

It’s been a year, folks.

Last night, I rang in the new year with friends I didn’t know six months ago, people who have become very dear to me. There was a lot of bitterness in my voice when I said farewell to 2015, but I don’t think there should have been.

This year has shaped me. Sometimes I look in the mirror and don’t recognize myself. If I hadn’t been there the whole time, I may not have believed just how much I have changed.

I am so anxious about the next twelve months. Actually, for the first time ever, I am so anxious about the rest of my life. I am no longer the girl with the plan, another part of the aftermath of 2015.

I decided as I drove home last night in the early hours of a year in the making that I wouldn’t be scared this time. To live in Christ is to live boldly. If I truly believe that there is a God who created me with a purpose and has a plan for my life, why should I be anxious?

We make promises for the new year, like going to the gym, drinking more water, reading more books. The goal isn’t to drink more or read more, the goal is to become healthier and to broaden our minds.

My goal is not to be unafraid, but rather that my lack of fear will be a reflection of my conscious decision to trust the Lord with my future every day this year, just as he has taken care of my past.


Berlin was not kind to me, but if I could go back and choose to avoid our first few meetings, I wouldn’t. It uniquely prepared me for a journey I did not realize would ask so much of me.

If 2016 is another 2015, I won’t complain. I don’t need the years to be better if I am the one changing.

7 Rules for Road-Tripping with Friends

“I have sandwiches and eggnog!” I shouted across the street at a disgruntled driver sitting in a warm car, engine still running.

“Is that what took so long?” he asked as I shoved backpack and camera bag in the back seat and slipped our lunch sack under my chair.

“Not exactly,” I mumbled, glancing at the clock on the dashboard. We were getting a late start.

Alberto, sports editor for our college paper, had tasked me (or rather, I had volunteered in a moment of stupidity and lack of foresight) to cover the cross-country beat as the season drew to a close. This had absorbed more than one of my Saturdays already and was about to eat up a whole weekend as he and I hit the road to cover the state championship in Fresno.

I was going to take the pictures. He was going to do the interviews. I’d write the story and he’d pay for all our coffee refills during the 9-ish hour trip up north.

Wait, 9-ish hours to Fresno? How?

Ah, so you’ve noticed. Fresno is only six hours from San Diego. Very observant of you.

We were actually going to Chico first.

Let me explain.

Because we are both cheap, starving college students, we decided that we’d rather spend a little extra time driving to Chico to stay with some friends than to each get a hotel room in Fresno. See old friends and save money? What could possibly go wrong?

And so our road trip began.


“Do you mind if I take my shoes off?” I asked, already freeing one set of toes without fully waiting for an answer.

“What?” Alberto laughed. “Who asks that?”

“It’s part of road trip etiquette,” I said, taking the other shoe off. “You’re supposed to ask in case someone really has a problem with smelly feet.”

He chuckled again.

“How do you know this?”

“I looked up road trip etiquette last night,” I admitted. “You know, just to make sure this was as seamless as possible.”

“Seriously?” he said, mouth slightly agape, not sure whether to laugh or . . . just continue gaping stupidly. “You actually researched this?”

“I did.”

“What else did it say?”

“Oh, basics, really,” I assured him. “Stuff like, help pay for gas, give timely instructions if you’re navigating. Those sorts of things. Most of them only apply to large groups anyway and there are just two of us.”

Alberto seemed appeased.

“We should make our own road trip rules,” he suggested, looking contemplatively at the bumper and brake lights in front of us.

“What, like as we go?” I asked.

“Yeah, sure.”

“Okay,” I agreed. “Rule number one: Don’t ride with Alberto.”

“Hey!” he snapped back (the way a very fluffy bunny might, with lots of unintimidating fury). “I’m a great road trip companion. How about: Don’t insult the driver!”

“Eh,” I shrugged.

We compromised.


We chatted about poker strategies most of the way to LA (mostly I listened or referenced that one month in high school when I got super addicted to facebook’s Texas Hold ‘Em app). It was obvious when we finally hit the big city – all our radio stations fuzzed out on us.

This is the real beginning of any road trip and the test of true friendship: the moment when you’re out of range of familiar radio signals.

The battle over the radio began mildly enough. I would occasionally and nonchalantly skip past a song I didn’t care for or he would laugh passive-aggressively whenever Katy Perry graced the tin can we were driving in.

I made a fuss over that song about not being able to feel your face because I don’t get it and I think it’s stupid but then I felt badly.

“You can change it back,” I said with a simper. “That’s technically a road trip rule. You’re supposed to let the driver choose the music.” (I have since discovered that the official rule has an exception for trips lasting longer than 90 minutes. Ours was definitely longer than 90 minutes).

“Yeah,” he said with a sarcastic snort. “But there’s also a rule about being a decent human and not letting people who ride in your car suffer. I’m not going to make you listen to something you hate.”

He has no idea, I thought to myself, how much Rachel Platten I’m planning on listening to this trip.

So was born the new rule.


We snaked up the sloping chest of the Grapevine with concerted but casual effort – as one does – and then slid down the backside like a kid shooting off a plastic slide. We fizzed in and out of radio stations and random conversation topics with a comfortable, amusing tension. Thankfully, we both really like Taylor Swift. She served as a great third-person mediator and the radio had her on every station all the way up the Central Valley.

When the radio crackled and hissed at us, we turned it down and talked about life instead. Things like the pros and cons of country living, or whether or not I’m weird because I was homeschooled or if I just got a set of really odd genes.

I don’t know where the time went to, I really don’t. Cell service came and went, as did lunch (my sandwiches were baller, in case anyone is wondering. And the eggnog was on point as far as decisions go. I know how to earn my keep).

Eventually, Fresno pulled into view and we turned off the road to fill up the gas tank.

“You want a turn driving?” asked Alberto, getting out of the car. I closed my Spanish textbook and agreed. You can only do so much homework on the road, you know.

“So this is where we’ll be tomorrow?” I asked, settling into the driver’s seat. “Fresno?”

Alberto confirmed monosyllabically.

“It says we’re four hours away from Chico,” he said, looking at the GPS on his phone and then up at me. “Is that right?”

“Wait, four hours?” I said. “That can’t be right. That means it’ll be four hours back from Chico to Fresno tomorrow.”

“What time does the race start?” he asked.

“10 a.m.”

“I definitely thought it was only like a two hour difference when I planned this,” Alberto said.

We both sat quietly for a moment.

“It’s going to be an early morning for us, isn’t it?” he said.

I slammed the gears into drive in response and grumpily shuffled the car out of the parking lot.

“I’ve never seen you drive,” Alberto admitted. This is true. Normally, I’m the one begging for rides home from school. But I can drive.

“I’m actually a very good driver,” I told him. “I’m not good at driving, but I’m a very good driver. I follow all the rules, like using my blinker and stopping at stop signs. I’m just not good at doing things like changing lanes or remembering which is the brake and which is the gas.”

Alberto visibly tensed.

“The key to driving with me is learning to play Chipper Check,” I said soothingly.

“Which is?”

“California Highway Patrol,” I explained. “CHPer Check.”

He nodded.

“Alright,” he agreed. “I’ll keep an eye out for cops.”

“It wouldn’t hurt to check the right side for me when I merge,” I added.

Alberto moaned into his hands but came up laughing.



The sun went down quickly after that – it probably didn’t want to witness me with free reign on a California freeway. Alberto did a good job helping me navigate the I-5, which is a lot like playing tetris except that if you lose you die.

“Can I fit in there?” I asked Alberto as we came closer to the back of a truck inching along the right lane, the car in the fast lane not far behind us to the left.

He looked over my shoulder and said, “Yeah, you got this.”

By the time we reached Sacramento our friends had begun texting us coordinates to meet up in Chico. The last hour between the capitol and our destination seemed like eight years – mostly because the passing lane disappeared and I am nothing if not an impatient driver.

We found the restaurant our friends had picked and staked out a booth for our group. It was a cool joint. Very NorCal.

I was nearly bouncing in my seat, I was so excited to see the group again.

“I don’t know why you’re so thrilled about this,” said Alberto, who was clearly worn down by the nine hour drive.

“It’s been so long since I’ve seen everyone!” I said, beaming with anticipation.

When the rest of the gang entered the establishment, I knew we were in for a night. They were in rare form. Truest to character was Ernesto, who called my name all the way across the restaurant and ran past half a dozen tables before burying me in a bear hug, causing several heads to turn curiously.

Anna, Mason and David all slid in beside Alberto and I, giving us the run-down of all the best appetizers.

“You may as well not even come here if you don’t get the beer cheese,” Anna said authoritatively.

“Yeah, and I could use a pretzel anyway,” added Ernesto.

Most of the gang I had seen at some point during the semester – journalism conferences, award banquets, the odd meetup in New York City… But not David.

He turned his head to me and said over the babble of our table, “It’s been years, right?”

“At least two,” I said.

“Where were you, Russia?”

“The Czech Republic,” I said. “In Prague.”

He nodded and Ernesto nudged me right as the waiter dropped off our waters.

“Are you married yet?” he asked loudly with typical Ernesto jest (which sounds a lot like rudeness if you don’t know and love him well). “Did you find a Czech husband?”

I grinned and shook my head.

“I can’t believe you’re not married yet,” he said again, very loudly, a big smile growing on his face.

Alberto gave me a quizzical look as David joined in.

“I bet she won’t get married until she’s 28,” he said. “I mean, there’s just no way.”

“You don’t know her like I know her, she’s not going to wait until 28,” said Ernesto, leaning over to me and adding in a poor whisper, “We’ve got a bet going on this, actually.”

“I say 30,” Mason said, joining in from out of nowhere.

Alberto looked completely floored at this point. His face matched how I felt.

“What is this?” he asked me in a much better whisper than Ernesto had managed as the rest of the crew began spitting back their bets and rationales.

“No clue,” I said, smiling and turning several shades of red. My friends are kooks. “Just go with it.”

“TWENTY SIX! I SAID TWENTY SIX!” Ernesto was yelling gleefully, half raised from his chair, as Mason pointed a mischievous finger at him and yelled back, “THIRTY.”

By this point, most of the restaurant was watching our table with mixed interest and disdain.

Alberto and I just sat there, grinning awkwardly, until they settled their bets and calmed down enough to enjoy the appetizers that had appeared during the debate.

“Glad that’s settled,” said Anna pleasantly.

Stuffing our faces with calamari and beer cheese, we continued the gaiety with steady vigor, if not steady volume.

“It’s good to see them all again,” I whispered to Alberto. He nodded.


We split passengers between cars and made our way to Ernesto’s flat. It was nearly eleven o’clock and Alberto and I were both very aware of our early morning commitment. Anna chatted in the back seat of the car, asking us about the new staffers and why we still weren’t meeting deadline. All four of our Chico chicos had been either editor-in-chief or managing editor of our paper at some point and they all had a vested interest in how things were going.

“We’re almost out of gas,” I mumbled sleepily to Alberto between Anna’s running commentary.

“We’ll fill up later,” he said.


Ernesto’s flat was tidy – considering that college boys lived in it. We sat around on couches and the backseat of someone’s car that had been taken out and stuffed in a corner of the living room.

For reasons I still don’t fully understand, Ernesto has a polaroid camera. We took pictures.

That actually entertained us for quite a while until it was sufficiently past our bedtimes and I had fallen asleep in the armchair. They woke me up as they were gathering coats and I followed them out to the car in a sleepy trot.

Neither the gas gauge nor the clock made an impression on my sleep-deprived senses (and may I point out that at this point, I was the least qualified person to be behind the wheel and we should all be grateful I didn’t plummet us headlong into a telephone post or a stationary cow).

Mason had agreed to let us stay with him for the night and his two roommates were also former staffers. Cue reunion numero dos. (See all the Spanish that’s coming out now? That’s because second languages only come fluidly when you’re too tired to speak your native tongue).

So we stayed up for another hour with Kasey and April.

And then I quit.

I sank into the pull-out trundle beneath Kasey’s bed and slept for a solid, beautiful four and a half hours.

At 5:30, Alberto and I were both up (if not conscious) and gathering our things in the dark. Without a word of goodbye to any of the sleeping housemates, we slipped out the front door and wandered the lonely streets in the cold til we found our car.

We hadn’t filled up on gas the night before but I had recalled there being a quarter-ish of a tank left. So I didn’t even look at the gas gauge (again). I did check the clock on the dash as Alberto pulled up the GPS.

“We’ll get there exactly at 10:00,” he said. “But I bet we can shave a few minutes off since it’s so early in the morning.”

I was a little uncomfortable with that arrival time so I sped past several gas stations leaving Chico which was still blanketed in chilly darkness.

As soon as we hit the open road (a one-lane highway with exactly two exits for about thirty miles), I realized we had made a mistake.

“The gas light is on,” I said, suppressing the anxiety clawing its way up my throat.

We consulted the GPS. The next station was twelve miles up the road and then eight miles down a street that led, for all we could tell, directly to the capitol of Nowhere.

“We actually might not make this,” Alberto said.

“We definitely won’t make the race if we have to drive that far to find gas,” I countered. My voice was shaking and I could feel my hands tensing on the wheel.

Carefully coasting down hills (a skill I perfected in college during my starving student days) and shooting up the other side, we monitored the gas light and took turns groaning loudly about how stupid we were to have not filled up at, literally, any point prior to getting on this fate-forsaken highway.

“We are never making this mistake again,” we both promised each other.


I filled up the tank and Alberto ran inside to grab donuts and coffee. We ate our breakfast of champions while plowing down the 99. The GPS said we were now going to arrive at 10:20, precisely 20 minutes after the women’s race would have started.

“The thing is,” I said with forced calm as I watched the speedometer tick upwards of 80, “This isn’t like other sports. You can show up late to a football game and still write a story. You can miss the first half of almost every sport that exists and still get photos and action.”

“I know, but cross-country is a one-shot sport,” Alberto said through his fingers. He looked like he was on the verge of hyperventilating. As sports editor, he needed these photos as much as I did.

“Right,” I said, talking myself through the terror of our quandary. “You have the starting line and the finish line. And we’re here to shoot an athlete who can run the 5k in 16 minutes. Alberto, by the time we get there, she will have crossed the finish line.”

He moaned into hands.

“They’re going to kill us,” I said. “We came all this way only to miss the story because we didn’t want to spend money on hotel rooms.”

In between our frantic snippets of conversation and Alberto’s tortured groans, flashes of slumbering orchards and silent lakes rushed past us. The sunrise was incredible, reflecting in a brilliant array of colors across the surface of the reservoirs to our left and lighting up the fog banks hiding between the rows of trees to our right. Every five minutes placed us in a new, breath-taking scene of tranquil, country bliss.

I’d be slamming my fist on the wheel one moment because their was no passing lane to get around the truck in front of us and the next I’d be cooing in awe at the sparkle of golden sunlight giving halos to every leaf in the orchard beside us.

“It’s hard to be upset on a morning like this,” I said, Taylor Swift still blasting on our speakers.

Alberto kept checking the GPS arrival time.

“We’re down to 10:19,” he said. “If we can just get to 10:15 we can get her crossing the finish line.”

Overly optimistic, I thought.

And then luck turned our way.

As we left Sacramento, joining a spotty caravan on the nearly-empty highway, two ritsy cars sped past us. They were brightly colored and hitting speeds which we had dared not go.

“Okay,” I told Alberto, easing my foot onto the accelerator. “There was a time when I used to be a bit of a speeder. I’ve put those days behind me, but I think today justifies a temporary relapse.”

“So, no more ‘good driver’ then?” he asked.

“We’re going to tail these to cars,” I said, already positioning myself behind them. “If they slow down, we’ll slow down. If they speed up, we’ll speed up. If there are speed traps along this highway, they’ll get those two cars first.”

“And if we get pulled over?”

“We’ll split the ticket,” I said.


And that was that. We followed those Saturday morning cruisers almost all the way to Fresno before slowing down to a much more comfortable 75 mph. Arrival time: 9:52.


We still missed the start of the race, but I was there at the finish line when our champion crossed it. Until one o’clock, when the event finally drew to a close, we rotated between finding runners to interview and framing shots for our spread.

The team invited us to get lunch with them and we accepted, happy to put something more substantial than gas station donuts on our stomachs. We sat at the edge of the table, exhausted from our long morning, and listened to the team banter back and forth. Alberto and I are both a little late to the college scene and, halfway through a cornbread muffin, I realized just how young these kids were (it was probably their third helpings of the soft-serve ice cream that eventually tipped me off).

Alberto looked at me with his let’s ditch face, an expression I’m getting pretty skilled at recognizing.

So we said our thank you’s, congratulations and goodbyes and hit the road again. Just six hours home now.

As soon as we stepped into the parking lot, embraced by soft sunshine and a cool breeze, I stretched out my arms and sighed deeply.

“So glad that’s finished,” he said.

“Me too.”


I didn’t mean to, but I slept a lot of the way home. When I woke up, we were coming up to the Grapevine again and the light was thinning out.

“My arms are sore,” I said, lifting them up curiously.

“Probably from driving this morning,” Alberto consoled me. “You drove for four hours and it was pretty intense.”

“Was that really four hours?” I asked, counting them back in my head. “It seemed like it wasn’t more than twenty minutes.”

I guess time really flies when you’re breaking the law.

“Well, I’m happy to have you behind the wheel again,” I told him. “And I never want to drive over 65 ever again.”

Alberto chuckled and I kicked off my shoes.

“Seriously, Mary?” He rolled down a window. “Your socks smell horrendous. This shouldn’t be allowed. We’re making this an official road trip rule.”

I smiled and fluffed my jacket against the window.

“Do what you want,” I said. “I’m going back to sleep. Wake me when there’s food.”

Things I’m thankful for in 2015

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

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

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

This Thanksgiving I have a lot to be thankful for.

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

Overcoming the Birthday Curse

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

JACC 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

Luz just nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The kids were home.

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

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

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

The letter in my hands lay open like a book.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I obeyed. Everyone obeys Luz.


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

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

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

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

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

Around 4:30, Luz shook me awake.

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

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

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

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

Make yourself known to me, my heart echoed.

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

Fear. Panic. Death.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So we did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I grabbed another petal.

“Here’s to peace. And to purpose.”

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


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

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

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

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

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

Time to move on.