What happens when you clean your bookshelf

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five months of apathy took over.

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

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

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

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

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

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

So that just left one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now I have people I miss while in San Diego.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Star-gazing and Zombies

“Come back here!” cooed Hosanna in the most aggressively affectionate tone I’ve literally ever heard.

“No,” spat back Sophia with a laugh. “I’m taking these to the car.”

She didn’t get far. Her cheery face and black hair disappeared behind Hosanna’s sweater as the big sister devoured the younger one in an octopus hug. There was a struggle.

My own sister and I watched the tousle a safe, respectful distance from the tangled wrestlers and from each other.

“I feel like we should hug or something,” I said making tentative eye-contact with her.

“No,” said Sarah flatly.

Sisters were part of the reason I came home. Both the ones I’m related to by blood and the ones who’ve adopted me over the course of many, many years. They’re part of what made coming home worthwhile. Even the unaffectionate ones.

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“Shotgun!” I called, dragging blankets and thermoses of tea out to the truck. Sophia and Sarah piled into the back, begrudgingly giving me command of the iPod as Hosanna took the wheel.

Sarah and Sophia are a lot alike. Very stable. Very practical. Very capable. Very void of touch-feely.

Hosanna and I are a lot alike. Adventuresome, soul-searching sojourners who need a little Practical in our lives from time to time.

And that’s what this evening was. The sister reunion, the reconnection of yin and yang, the defragmenting session we all needed.

Nine o’clock hung over us like a cape, flapping in the wind, driving us onward into the far side of San Diego County. The sticks. The boondocks. Pine Valley.

The drive was about forty-five minutes, but between the power struggle over the song selection and my solo performance of Hakuna Matata, it went quickly.

“I think that’s it,” Sophia said, several minutes after passing the last house-light in the valley and crossing over a cow gate. She pointed to a spit of dirt just off the road and Hosanna followed her finger, steering the big, black truck into the narrow space.

We tumbled out of the car, taking our blankets, tea and a box of animal crackers with us. In the dark, we arranged everything neatly in the bed of the truck before piling in on top of the cushy mess.

“We didn’t pick a great night for star-gazing,” I said, noting the full moon smiling above us.

“Yeah, but at least it’s not freezing cold like last time,” quipped Sarah.

Our last trip was a mid-December disaster in which we spent twenty minutes shivering in the back of the truck before heading home to sleep in warm beds. This time we brought blankets.

“That was a terrifying experience,” said Hosanna, patting down the folds of a silky sleeping bag. “I don’t think I could do this again in pitch darkness like that.”

“I think you should all just be grateful that I got us out here at all,” said Sophia with insistence, cashing in on her initiative in organizing the night. “You’re welcome.”

“Thank you, Sophia,” we all chimed in, various levels of obligation flaring up in our pitch.

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We spent a lot of time tossing and turning. Shift weight or stretch, we all ended up uncomfortable for most of the evening.

“Next time we’re bringing pillows,” I said as Hosanna distributed the tea. “And more snacks.”

“We have animal crackers and carrots,” said Sarah with a distinct crunch. “What more could you need?”

“Yeah, whenever you feel bad about the animal crackers, just eat a carrot,” said Hosanna. “It’s a balanced diet.”

“What’s the ratio?” I asked. “One carrot to every two crackers?”

“It’s whatever your conscience tells you,” Sarah affirmed, giving the cracker box a motherly pat.

Our voices lowered and the steady munching joined the chorus of the universe above us – a universe which, on this particular night, in this particular part of the world, consisted of about four stars and a very visible moon.

“At least we have that helicopter,” said Sophia, snapping a lion cracker in half with her front teeth.

I hugged my camera to make sure it was still there and then settled deep into the folds of a sleeping bag as Sarah began questioning Hosanna about her summer.

Hosanna left for Europe a few weeks before I came home from it. I needed her here this summer. I needed her positivity and encouragement. Mostly I just needed to know she was there, that I had someone to come home to. But I also knew she needed this trip. Just like I’ve needed mine. We are wanderers.

Hosanna’s face lit up, making the moon look modest and unassuming in comparison. I had heard most of her adventures before, but Hosanna knows how to string a yarn and I found myself thoroughly roped in and we followed the sound of her voice across the farmlands of France, through the streets of Berlin and into the heart of the Netherlands.

It’s been a long time since the four of us were all together. Eightteen months, give or take. However long ago the wedding was, when the four of us were standing in the hotel lounge. Sarah and Hosanna were halfway into several glasses of wine they had found abandoned at a table and Sophia and I were wringing the water out of our dresses by the fire, having led the charge into the hotel pool, post-reception.

Eightteen months is a long time. To me, it seems like another lifetime ago. But being in the back of this truck was helping me readjust again.

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Conversation and jest flitted from one topic to the next and I noticed that it in no way resembled our muddled, giggly gatherings from high school. For starters, the hypothetical questions have decreased substantially. We also just seem to care more about what’s happening with everyone else.

The one thing I will say for age – the longer you live, the more struggles you will face. The more your struggles, the more you approach people with empathy. And empathy makes better listeners of us all.

Eleven o’clock inched closer and the truck had quieted down to a mere ripple of conversation. For a while, and I’m not sure how long, I slept.

I woke up to the hushed and hurried whispers of the girls as they slid out of view of the road beneath the lip of the truck. They buried their faces into the blankets, shushing each other and dimming the lights from their phones.

Without moving, I listened to the grumbling of gravel come closer. Headlights swept over us and the girls shushed each other again.

“What would we even have done if someone had stopped to check the truck?” Sophia whispered when the lights were gone.

“They wouldn’t have checked,” said Hosanna with an air of insider info.

“Are you kidding?” said Sarah, still reeling from the close-call but beginning to peep her head above the lip of the truck. “We could be dead bodies back here for all they know. I totally would have checked!”

At that moment, the headlights reappeared, this time coming from the road behind us. The girls dove once more and I felt someone’s elbow dig into my leg.

“Sarah,” Hosanna whispered over the gravely approach, “No one is going to check the back of a truck that’s pulled up along a dirt road. Haven’t you ever listened to country songs?”

As realization washed over Sarah, the headlights washed over us before disappearing one last time down the road.

We waited in silence for a moment and then the girls straightened back up to their sitting positions. Sarah was the only one brave enough to allow her head to peek out over the edge of the truck bed (“Someone has to keep a look out!”).

“What was it we were so scared of last time?” asked Hosanna, checking her watch. We had far outdone our last trip’s record. “Remember we were out here for a little while and then we went straight home?”

“Mountain lions,” said Sophia.

“Indecent gentlemen?” I suggested.

“Zombies,” Sarah said. “It was definitely zombies. And guys, if they come, I’m still the only one keeping watch!”

“Forget it, Sarah,” Hosanna said from her nest of blankets in the corner of the trunk. “I’m nice and warm here. I’m not moving.”

“Neither am I,” I muttered from my half-comatose state.

“Well, you are all going to die when they do come.”

“I wouldn’t last the zombie apocalypse very long anyway,” I said sadly.

“We need to stop talking about zombies,” said Sophia. “It’s making me nervous.”

She and I giggled mostly to disguise how certain we actually were that the night might end in bloodshed and I clutched my camera. If the zombies do come, I’m definitely getting it on film.

“Wait,” said Hosanna, sucking in her breath, ears pricking up and eyes flashing. “Do you hear gr-”

Sarah, Sophia and I jumped up – “WHAT?”

“Gravel?” she said again.

We relaxed.

“Am I the only one who thought she said ‘growling’?” asked Sophia. “Like, seriously?”

“Yeah, I did too,” I said.

“Maybe it’s time to head home before we scare ourselves out of ever coming back,” said Hosanna.

We all know that will never happen. The scare is half the fun. I think it’s the scare we’ve been waiting for before heading home again. And when we’re ready for another one, we’ll troop back out.

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The girls pulled the blankets out of the back and stuffed them into the spaces between our seats. I reached for my camera. Might as well get some of these stars. We don’t have many, but gosh darn it, why not? They are ours, after all.

On the most sensitive settings, I was surprised to find, many more stars appear in the sky than we can see with just our eyes. I jiggled around a bit with the ISO and the aperture, getting different results. The girls eventually knocked on the windows and I got inside the truck.

The ride home was quiet. No one complained when I played “Geronimo” twice in a row. These songs that are old news to everyone else are all new to me still.

Sarah and I helped the girls bring our gear back into the house before saying our ‘goodbyes.’ At some point, and for reasons unknown, Hosanna tackled Sofia in another person-enveloping hug.

“Don’t even think about it,” Sarah told me with a smirk.

She loves me.

I’m still adjusting to life back home. I’m still discovering people who’ve changed and it reminds me how much I’ve changed. I suppose that will be true for the rest of life. Our little spot on the side of the road may still be there, but we won’t be the same people we were the last time we visited.

And at some point, that call for adventure or purpose or a good scare will beckon me away from my sisters out onto a path lit only by the knowledge that God made it mine.

But even in this transition from girl to slightly-older girl to whatever-comes-next, animal crackers are still good, zombies are still scary and there’s no one I’d rather star-gaze with than you.

An Ode to Hand Sanitizer and Friendship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After exactly one afternoon, I was hooked.

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

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

I do not have the qualifications to be photo editor.

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

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

Immediate uproar.

“You’re back!”

“How was it?”

“Dude, so excited you’re here.”

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

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

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

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

I raised my hand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The pretty campus editor with the perfect eyebrows perked up.

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

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

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

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

“AN HOUR?”

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

An hour? Really? WHY, AMERICA, WHY?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No girl, thank you.

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

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

Laaaame.

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

Little King Trash Mouth

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

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

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

I groaned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ah, yes. Yes, I am.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The gift of friendship

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

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

I am a Jelly Butterfly

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

Not so, my friends. Not so.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That was a low point.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m so sorry,” I said quietly.

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

“No, but -”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The drive home was long.

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

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

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

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

A New York Moment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“When?”

“Just now!”

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

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

“Your writing?”

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

“What writing?”

I signed the receipt and put away my card.

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

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

What plan, Mary?”

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

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

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

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

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

I felt empty even thinking it.

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

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

They fit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Decent.

Practical.

Plan.

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

“Deal.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life doesn’t work that way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finally. Some straightforward instructions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ernesto!”

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

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

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

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Duck, duck, Buffalo

Miss? Excuse me, Miss?”

My head jerked away from the window to look into the deeply black eyes of our shuttle driver who was navigating through a river of honking vehicles, most of whom didn’t seem to understand how traffic lights work.

“Miss, you should walk. It is only three blocks from here. Three blocks and to the left.”

He began pulling the shuttle over to a dirty curb and the British couple next to me shuffled awkwardly as I tried to crawl over them to get to the door. When I reached the trunk, the driver already had my suitcase out.

It will take me all night to get to the Port Authority with this traffic. You will not make it by six o’clock. But you go three blocks, back to Times Square, and then left, okay?”

I had already begun weaving through the crowds when I heard the shuttle honk its way back into the flow of traffic, its captain plunging the vehicle forward confidently from the helm.

Several blocks up, Times Square rose out of the garden of tall buildings and noisy streets. Everything was colorful. Everything smelled. And the Square, dazzling as I suppose it was, didn’t differ greatly from the surrounding blocks. I was too preoccupied trying not to be crushed by the wall of humans to feel the pang of disappointment at the underwhelmingness of Times Square. I had expected it anyway.

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New York City was never on the top of my destinations list. Mostly because I figured the New York City in my mind – the one shaped by the crooning tones of Sinatra and the daydreams of Hollywood writers – didn’t actually exist in real life. It was the same assumption that kept me away from Paris, led me into Rome with the lowest of expectations, and muttered a disgruntled “I told you so” on the plane back from London. I’ve dreamed of visiting a thousand places, but I typically only go to the ones I’ve never heard of before. Things never look the way you expect them to. And once you’ve been there, once you’ve seen it, the dream is replaced by the reality, no matter how much grayer the reality might be. There’s no going back.

The Port Authority was right where the shuttle driver had said it would be. My phone buzzed in my back pocket.

“Hey Sam,” I said, stepping into the dark, dirty entrance of the Port Authority to avoid the excess noise from the street. “I’m here. Where are you?”

“I’m still at work,” he said. I could hear his usual smile over the phone. Sam always smiles. “If you meet me in lobby I can take you up and show you around my office before we go.”

My suitcase felt heavy in my hand – I had taken the wheels off to make it fit the regulation carry-on size.

“How far is your office, Sam?” I asked, hesitantly. Walk more? No thank you.

“Right across the street. Do you see the Times building?”

“Yeah.” It was hard to miss.

“That’s where I work.”

My jaw dropped as I pushed open a door and stumbled onto the sidewalk again under the shadow of the skyscraper which thrust out its chest into the golden afternoon still visible above the tops of the buildings. The New York Times Tower is supposed to be the most significant piece of new architecture in the skyline, reaching 52 floors.

The lobby was spotless and immaculate, and empty except for the columns of elevators, an electrical art display, and two symmetrical security desks positioned on either side of the floor. I could see Sam waiting as I walked up to the glass doors.

“Hey,” he said with his big grin. Sam is a friend from high school, although we’re much better friends now than we ever were when we were teens. He and I met through our Speech and Debate League back when kids still drank SoBes and flip phones were cool. The summer before our senior year, we met up at a friend’s birthday party. We sat on the ground watching Disneyland’s summer-night firework display with our buddy, Evan, and the three of us decided to start a club for losers. Not that we were losers, exactly. We just definitely weren’t the kids who won tournaments and paraded around with lots of friends. We weren’t success stories.

But senior year was kind to us all and we never needed to assemble the Losers Club. It wasn’t until halfway through college that we reconnected. I was on my way to Prague and they were both neck-deep in university work, but we stayed in touch. Once every few months we’d do a group-call and make sure everyone was still alive and well. When Sam took a semester abroad in Oxford, I went out to visit.

He looked different now, standing in the lobby of the fifth tallest building in New York, an ID tag hanging off his shirt, proving that he belonged there.

“You look like Ms. Frizzle,” he said, taking my suitcase and walking up to the security desk. “They’ll need to see your ID.”

I am channeling a slightly more wind-tossed and wild look these days. I had also just gotten off a plane. I handed over my drivers license to the man behind the desk.

The elevator let us out on the 44th floor and I got the full tour. The view was phenomenal, but my favorite part was hearing people talk to Sam in polite, ‘office’ voices. He’s someone to impress, someone to admire – I could tell just by the way they’d say hello. He was definitely someone here.

People will always be more magnificent than buildings.

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We grabbed a slice of pizza on the way to the bus. I struggled to keep up with Sam’s New York Stride. And then we waited between some Afghani street vendors and the High Line to get on our bus to Buffalo.

You see, Evan is getting married and we decided that we couldn’t miss this excuse to get the Losers Club back in the same place one last time.

So it was Buffalo or bust, and despite having just come back from the Sierras the evening before (and pulling an all-nighter to pack and shower before hopping on a plane) I was excited. Jittery, even?

“It’s just like a rom-com, Sam,” I said several times. “Old friends reuniting at a wedding.”

“It’s probably good that you didn’t sleep last night,” said Sam, unable to relate to my vein of pop-culture references. “You’ll be able to sleep better on the bus.”

A third person joined our party – a friend of the Groom’s family. We greeted each other and shared introductory information. We joked about how much my feet had swelled on the plane ride over (or maybe it was the week of hiking in the Sierras just before). We Googled items on the street food cart that we didn’t recognize. And we waited for our bus to arrive.

Public transportation in Europe is flawless. It’s organized, timely, dare I say ‘almost comfortable?’ Not so in the States. When our bus finally arrived (an hour late), no one sat in the seats they had reserved, resulting in a chaotic search for space. Sam and I got split up. He found an aisle seat halfway back and I shared one-third of a seat with a very large woman who didn’t fit entirely in hers (she did, however, have a very fluffy blanket that kept falling into my lap, which -given how high the AC was cranked up- was actually sort of nice). But at the 2 a.m. rest stop, she bought a bag of sour cream and onion chips and between the crunching and the aroma, sleep became a lost cause.

We arrived in Buffalo around 5 a.m. and the Best Man picked us up. He excitedly described the wedding adventures up to that point as we drove through dark, deserted streets.

“This feels like a rom-com,” I said again as we pulled into a quaint apartment complex where the newlyweds would be living. “You know, like ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’ or basically anything in the early 2000’s with Hugh Grant.”

The guys nodded but I’m pretty sure they don’t even know who Hugh Grant is. We were all so tired at that point, we’d become extremely agreeable, especially as the prospect of sleeping in horizontal positions became a closer reality.

“Guys on the floor,” the Best Man told us as we walked into the livingroom. Several members of the Groom’s family were already crashed on couches. It was a tiny, one-room apartment, but even in the dark I could see some of the pretty picture frames and artistic mirrors. A well-feathered nest.

“Mary, there’s a mattress for you on the floor of the bedroom,” Josh whispered to me as Sam flumped onto something soft on the floor and our third friend walked into something solid in the dark with an “Oohf!” I peered into the dark room. Evan’s parents, who I’ve known since I was a freshman in highschool, were sleeping on the bed and a mattress and sleeping bag were stretched out on the floor beneath the dresser. The room was dark. It was after 5 in the morning. I couldn’t exactly say, ‘hello there, don’t mind me. I’m just going to sleep on your floor here.’ So for a moment I just stood in the doorway. Then, seven days of sleeping on Sierran rocks, a night on a plane, and a night on a bus all hit me at once like a brick to the back of the head. I crawled into the sleeping bag without brushing my teeth or using the bathroom, and without a further thought to the awkwardness of the sleeping arrangements. The Queen of England could have been in that room and I just don’t think I’d have cared. 

The Mother-of-the-Groom woke me up around 8:30 the next morning. Her cheery face and blonde curls were blurry as I tried to focus my morning-vision.

“Don’t get up,” she told me. A bright blue dress hugged her neatly and she held a purse in one hand. “Sam is driving us over to the church now, so you go ahead and get ready at your own pace. He’ll come back for the rest of you later.”

I was still too tired to be embarrassed about any part of crashing at the Groom’s family’s place for this shindig. A real mattress? I’d have eaten every left-over bagel in New York to re-sleep those last three hours.

The rate at which a person can mature is directly proportional to the embarrassment he can tolerate. -Douglas Englebart

She insisted I wait a few more minutes before getting up and I heard the wedding party filing out of the apartment in a flurry of keys, cameras and half-buttoned jackets.

When the sounds closed behind the front door and disappeared down the stairwell, I got up and started making myself look like a human again. The family friend was sitting at the kitchen table nibbling at pieces of donut from a large, pink box. We joked about ties and heels and the fact that my ankles had gotten worse on the bus. The pressure in my toes was extraordinary, but I really just couldn’t handle looking like I’d been attacked by a colony of bees with a fetish for feet.

“Unbelievable,” I said several times as we rotated between the many mirrors in the house. “My first wedding in years and I have fat ankles.”

It was a pretty place. The Bride had done a wonderful job making the space look homey and inviting.

“The Best Man says she’s really sweet,” said Sam as he drove us to the church. Evan had gotten engaged so quickly, we hadn’t even known they’d been dating, and because I was in Europe and Sam was working in New York, neither of us had gotten to meet her.

Sam pulled into the lot of a McDonald’s.

“Quick cup of coffee before we go to the church?” he asked. We all agreed with typical morning moans that only come from a decaffeinated mind.

“What time does the service start?” the family friend asked from the back seat.

“10:30,” said Sam, casually navigating us toward the Drive-Thru. “I think.”

“You think?” I asked him. The family-friend raised an eyebrow. “Can we double-check?”

“Yeah, maybe that’s a good idea,” Sam said, reluctantly stopping the car. “Anyone have an invite?”

We scrambled around for a minute, checking purses and pockets. The friend finally pulled up the online registry and a small hiss slithered out from between his teeth. He looked at us with a pained expression.

“It’s at ten o’clock.”

I groaned loudly and Sam screeched the car out of the lot and down the road.

“Can we make it there in six minutes?” I asked.

“If we hit all the lights right,” said Sam.

“I cannot believe we’re going to be late for this wedding,” said the family-friend in the back seat.

“We won’t be,” Sam promised us, calmly swerving down a neighborhood lane, his usual smile glazed with a definition expression of concern. “We won’t be late.”

We weren’t, but it was close. I did my best impersonation of a Renée Zellweger sigh-of-relief as we walked through the tiny front doors of the rustic little chapel. She, at least, could rock chubby ankles.

Most of the church was occupied by the Bride’s family – Evan is a California boy and, except for a few university friends, we were his only pals from back home. We slipped in quietly and monopolized one of the many empty pews on the Groom’s side of the church. (“We have the whole place!” Sam whispered with amusement and triumph).

Just like it had seemed strange to see Sam at his glamorous new place of work, it was strange to see Evan standing at the end of the church, face beaming as his bride floated down the aisle. When I met him, he still had braces.

The ceremony was short – 23 minutes, to be exact. It was over before ten-thirty.

“We’d have missed the whole thing if we had stopped this morning,” Sam said as we stood in the breakfast line at the reception. “Can you imagine coming all this way and missing the wedding for a cup of coffee?”

I snorted. McDonald’s coffee, no less.

We sampled the yogurt parfaits and the DIY waffle bar. Some of Evan’s college buddies let us join their circle and we talked about bits and pieces of life.

At some point, Evan and his wife came over to greet us and then Evan circled back around to us again later.

“Thanks for coming guys,” he said, checking his watch to make sure he didn’t miss the grand exit to the getaway car of which he was fifty percent.

“We wouldn’t miss this,” said Sam. “We probably won’t all be together again until the next wedding. And by the way, did you know that Mary has caught four wedding bouquets?”

“Really?” Evan looked at me with an impressed lip-curl.

“Not that it’s done me much good,” I quipped. “You’re the first one to officially graduate out of the Losers Club.”

“Getting married will do that?” he asked as a flower girl bounded up to us, handing out ribboned wands for us to wave at the departing newlyweds.

“Yes,” Sam confirmed with his usual smile. “We’ll send you your certificate later.”

I couldn’t help but feel like maybe we’d all graduated and just didn’t know it. And also like maybe we’d all always be honorary members anyway. Life doesn’t really have winners and losers. Just people who will fly across the country for you, who will show you off to their co-workers, who will let you sleep in their house on the night of their own wedding.

When the newlywed car drove away, Evan’s bride stuck her head out the window and waved back to us. I heard a couple behind me say, “She is the sweetest.” And I believe it.

We spent the afternoon driving up to Niagra Falls (the American side), and then driving back. I was much more impressed with the original Buffalo wings we got in town than I was with the falls. Underwhelming. It was one of those expectation things again.

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Nine hours later, Sam and I were walking through puddles colored with neon reflections of New York City. The sun hadn’t risen yet and we were stiff from the bus ride. Just another night without a bed. I’m getting used to this.

The city surprised me in the wee hours of that Sunday morning. Thoughts of a couch to crash on for a few hours kept me walking. Breakfast. Church. All good things were visible in the Near Future.

But the Now is what took my breath away. New York City is a strange fellow in the dark blue of the pre-dawn hours. Mysterious. Enchanting. He leans against a lamppost with his fedora cocked over his eyes, hands in his pockets. And he grins, daring you to go down one more street, drink in one more curb-side song. And we do. Because he is very persuasive.

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“I don’t think life is going to be what I expected it to be,” I told Sam when the train dropped us off in Brooklyn. “I think there’s going to be a difference between the life I dreamed of when I was younger and the life I’m really going to meet. It won’t be Sinatra, and it won’t be Hugh Grant. But I’m ready to be surprised.”

Sam didn’t say anything, but not even the New York night could hide his usual smile.

Broken Heights

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The mountains thrust out their ancient bellies and the valley beneath expanded into a gushing current of wind with every step I took. It wasn’t steep. I wouldn’t have come nearly so close to the edge if it had looked anything like the trails we had been hiking all day – Heights. Ugh.

Gently, the boulder-face rolled into the abyss several yards down, broken by rocks and trees as it followed its roots down to the heart beneath the Sierra Nevada mountains.

I didn’t look back at my friends. Wesley had already taken his turn and Lydia wiggled impatiently on a rock waiting for me to get it over with so we could go back to camp and she could find a ‘bathroom’ (read: tree).

“I miss Prague!” I shouted into the canyon, my voice magnifying for a moment before disappearing into the wind. I shouted louder. “I hate change!”

The mountains looked back at me with eyes they didn’t have and I realized I wasn’t speaking to them. I wasn’t speaking to myself. This was my prayer. My frustrated, angry, confused prayer to God after weeks of radio silence.

I squeezed my fists, not sure of what to say next now that I knew who I was addressing. If you think the mountains make a person feel small, try standing before their Creator.

“But I trust you!” I cried in a betraying tone, the anger welling up in my chest. I wanted tears to roll. I wanted sobs to erupt from my quaking body so God would see just how upset I was. Instead I just stood there, awkwardly clenching my fists. “And you’d better have a good plan!”

No answer. Not that I’d expected one. I was fully prepared to figure out the next step of my life without a word from the Almighty. I was just a little upset that He didn’t even seem to want to put in His two cents. 

I trudged back to my friends, avoiding eye contact, before gruffly muttering, “Let’s go.”

 You will never completely be at home again, because part of your heart will always be elsewhere. That is the price you pay for the richness of loving and knowing people in more than one place. –Miriam Adeney

Coming home was so much harder than I thought it would be. People vaguely warned me that reverse-culture shock is a thing and that you can never really “come home” because “things change.” I knew for a long time before I had to leave Prague that it would break my heart. The last three months teaching at the Czech primary school in Lhotka were some of the most precious, most torturous months of my life, followed by two short weeks of goodbyes to all the people I’d grown to love for two years and then . . . home, whatever that means.

The plan was to get back Stateside just in time for Independence Day (although, as I like to believe, every day should be Independence Day in America). I got in late on the 3rd, ate pizza, slept for a solid ten hours, and woke up to a foggy window. San Diego hosts a marine layer in the early summer that we lovingly call “June Gloom” and it was a bittersweet reminder that I was a world away from Central Europe. I could hear Saturday morning noises in our house from the bottom bunk (I fought my little sister for several months via a fierce email chain for rights to the bottom bunk upon my return). Dad was already out on a morning hike – he’s an early riser – but the coffee pot was grumbling downstairs. Brushing pages told me that the younger brother was reading in his room next to us. Mom was shuffling about down the hall.

Home. Minus the last two years, I’ve lived in this house in this room for basically ever. I remember when we moved the huge wooden dresser into the room (we haven’t been able to figure out how to get it back out yet). I remember when we used to raise baby rabbits (and for one horrible year, baby rats) in the back of our closet. I remember when my sisters painted these walls mismatching shades of blue. I remember when I packed up half my things and moved to the other side of the world.

Looking at my room that morning and for the first time not being sure how I got there or whether I belonged was the only time I cried after coming home. Not for a lack of trying. I believe in crying like I believe in mac ‘n cheese, the Tooth Fairy, and the peanut-buttery Spirit of the American people. Some things are just good for the soul.

But I hadn’t expected it to hurt so much, (or be so impractical trying to cry without waking up my sister sleeping on the upper bunk). It was like being spliced down the middle – half my heart in this strange new place I used to love so well and half my heart still very solidly in a sun-filled, sixth-grade classroom on the other side of the earth. We had a family reunion that week for the first time in two years. I had people to meet up with, classes to register for, a driver’s license to renew and tons of Mexican food to consume. So I just decided not to think about Prague until a more practical time when there weren’t gobs of people around to witness whatever would follow (I laugh now at the thought of actually having any control over when I lose my top. It just happens, folks). I knew there were sweet, treasured memories to be cherished from my two years abroad, but currently, they were buried beneath a layer of hurt, anxiety and anger, and getting through that layer would require a very special kind of meltdown. The kind you just can’t have on any regular Tuesday afternoon – though almost getting hit by a bus that one time while crossing the street just about brought it out of me, as did several waiters upon asking, “What would you like to drink?” before I was emotionally prepared to answer direct questions.

In fact, most questions made me feel uneasy. “What’s next?” “What are your plans now?” People may as well pin my nerves to a wall and throw darts at them. I had a prepped answer, of course – something about finishing college and teaching and a concoction of other things that sound age and life-stage appropriate from someone in their mid-twenties. Truth: I’m beginning to wonder if I didn’t just come up with a plan for the sake of having one and the pressure of trying to figure out what I really want to do before classes start feels like unto that of a steamroller gradually running over a cartoon bunny (picture: eyes slowly popping, tongue twisting, exclamation marks appearing circum caput). Of course, I’m much too independent to really admit to people that I’m pretty sure I have no clue what happens next.
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The worry I had now as my friends and I trudged back to camp to join our team of thirteen was that maybe I couldn’t get past that top layer of emotion at all. Maybe I’d bottled it all up for so long that it just wasn’t going to come out now. After all, the past four days of rolled ankles, sunburns and sleeping on rocks hadn’t been enough to push me into it. At this rate, nothing would. I’d just stay like this, blandly plodding through each day. And that was a scary thought, because, for me, my deep perception of feelings that are painful (the ones that come with varying forms of “emotional breakdownage”) is simply the other half of my ability to feel joy. It’s the loss of this second kind of feeling that scares me the most. A life without pain would never be worth living if it were also to be a life without joy.

Everyone was playing cards when we got back to camp. A group trotted up from the lake with tired smiles and wet hair. We gathered for singing and devotions which were interrupted by several deer wandering through camp.

Dinner happened around several cookstoves. We ate, we cleaned, we added several more layers of warm clothes. Then, singing with the stars, we climbed up the hill to get a better view of the galaxy stretching out before us.

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Half our group, the more athletic of us, scampered up the sloping boulder and disappeared in a blink. I just stared up in the dark and thought, “Absolutely not.”

“No,” I told the curly-headed boy next to me, urging me to follow him up. “Dear heavens, no,” adding, “Heights” for emphasis so that he knew I had good reason to stay exactly where I was. I don’t trust my feet (or my hands, for that matter) to get me safely to the top of anything, let alone a veritable cliff face in the dark.

Several false starts led him to a path jagged enough for me to follow and we slowly, and with much grumbling on my part, scaled the spine of the sleeping rock.

(I’ve been having a recurring dream where I reincarnate as a mountain goat and now I understand just how terrifying that would be).

The top was gorgeous and the team had already settled into stone crannies out of the wind with open sleeping bags and shared jacket sleeves. A silent symphony of crystal starlight strummed across the horizon, dipping behind shaggy mountain peaks and meeting in a breathtaking crescendo directly above us.

The stars were worth seeing, all things considered, even if I wasn’t in a state to appreciate them. But when the rest of our group took the chatter and giggles back down the hill to their tents, I snuggled up next to Lydia, with Wesley on the other side of us. We just sat there, minds full of worries and wonder.

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Silence was occasionally broken by a story, a joke, a thought. Slowly, the layers of our hearts peeled away until we were almost bare beneath the limpid sky. And still I didn’t cry. Save a lump of undefined worries sitting on my throat, my chest felt as empty as the expanses of the universe towering over us. No pain. No joy.

“I just wish I’d have this breakdown already,” I said brusquely, wrestling with the sleeping bag that kept falling off my shoulder. “I wish I could get it off my chest.”

“Don’t force it,” Lydia told me, her reassuring voice harmonizing with the pale moonlight cresting the ridge. Under a moon like that, night seemed like day and the cold just pressed us closer together. She gave my shoulder a nudge with her own. “Let it happen when it happens. That’s an awful lot to carry around for so long. It’ll come off eventually.”

I had my doubts.

“I feel bad for shouting into the valley today,” I said. “It was kind of a disrespectful way to address God, you know? The pot shouldn’t talk back to the Potter.”

God had a plan for me, didn’t He? Even if He wasn’t saying. Who was I to challenge it?

Lydia nodded in the darkness and then added, “But I think God appreciates your honesty.”

I’ve been confiding in Lydia since my first visit to Prague five years ago. We were on the same missions team that summer. As far as twenty-somethings go, she is incredibly understanding, kind, wise and long-suffering. Also, and perhaps more importantly, she sounds just a wee bit like Junior Asparagus.  

“You know what I love about Psalms?” Lydia said, “The emotion. They are the prayers of real men who poured out their hearts to God. We’re not really taught to do that growing up, but clearly it’s not a bad thing.”

I couldn’t pour out my heart to God just yet. It was a bit of a mess, after all.

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I spent most of Monday in the back of the line, wobbling around on my rolled ankle, catching my breath every time the trail led us to a pile of rocks to be scrambled over. Being in the rear of the group did as much damage to my pride as the rocks had been doing to my psyche. My pack was heavy and my heart was heavy and my emotional stamina was spreading thin. . . Er, thinner than usual.

For those who don’t think hiking requires emotional stamina, I would gently like to challenge you to try pooping behind a tree for a week. Then we’ll talk.

But Monday was really just the build-up to Tuesday, because it was on Tuesday that we went off-trail. Bouldering.

If you don’t know what bouldering is…

Bouldering: (verb) the progression upwards and/or forwards across large rocks (not all of which are stable), along no particular path, for practice or sport. It can be very easy and fun, or it can be very difficult and dangerous. Tuesday was a bit of both.

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The uphill part of the morning wasn’t so bad. The hillside the near the base had pretty grasses and flowers, and despite the steep incline I found myself enjoying the view of the valley from a higher vantage point. The rocks started small but were tricky to climb over with my rusty ankle and I fell farther behind the group as we plugged on.

Then came the first steep turn. I came unexpectedly around the outside of a rock with a plummeting edge and a narrow foot space, and I nearly lost my breakfast (which, delicious as it was going down, had little promise of being as pleasant on the way back up). The vastness of the space opening up right next to my feet seemed several times deeper as I teetered on my gingered ankle. After that, every big boulder seemed bigger and every drop seemed farther. Half way up the mountain my breath got wrapped around my lungs, refusing to come out (probably just as terrified of heights as I am). My heavy breathing became more sob-like as we trekked upwards and several times the guy behind me, Richard, asked if I was okay. Because I’m fiercely (if even unsuccessfully) independent, I said yes.

But I wasn’t. Because this wasn’t just a mountain.

It wasn’t just a ‘heights’ thing. It was the unexpected uncorking of all my emotions from the last four weeks – grief, confusion, anger, disappointment, apprehension, lostness – like a soda bottle that my little brother would shake in the back of the car the whole way back from the store, they were about to explode all over the side of this horrid mountain.

My foot lodged itself into a crevice of a split rock, my other foot still dangling over a gap in the boulders. Stuck. My hands shook as I held onto the rough surfaces of the rocks, pack weighing down, sweat dripping, eyes watering. The drop between the rocks couldn’t have been that far, though the pack would have exacerbated the impact. For a second I inhaled and tried to pull it together. I could get out of this. I’d gotten through everything else this summer.

Richard called out something I didn’t understand and the guy in front of me stopped and turned.

“Are you okay?” I remember him asking over the rock, extending a steady hand in my direction.

And then I burst into tears.

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I cried all the way up the mountain and most of the way down as he and Richard (and nearly every other member of the team at some point) helped me from rock to rock in what I shall endearingly recall as one of the most humiliating afternoons of my life. They took turns carrying my pack and literally held my hand as I fumbled across the mountain. Every crack that seemed too big, every edge that felt too high, every lizard that gave me a funny look scaled me down to a pathetically small size. And beneath those peaks, small has a whole new meaning. 

Granted, I did try to keep myself together enough to get over the mountain. The term ‘man-up’ can be aptly applied to my efforts for the proceeding two hours. But the bottle had been uncorked and when we picked a place to set up camp, I slipped my Bible from my bag and found a bush near the edge of the lake to hide in. And I melted all the way down. Every anxious thought, every angry feeling, every drop of sadness spilled and bubbled over until the bottle was greatly reduced and the checkered sobs in my throat had subsided to an occasional hiccup.

Lydia’s words resounded in my aching head – real men poured out their hearts to God. Probably not the way I had over the edge of the valley several days before. Probably not with bitterness and anger.

I opened my Bible to the Psalms.

Okay, God, teach me how to pray to you.

Years of underlining came in handy as words jumped off the page of the deeply-moving Hebrew poetry.

When my heart was grieved
   and my spirit embittered,
I was senseless and ignorant;
   I was a brute beast before you.
Yet I am always with you;
   you hold me by my right hand.
You guide me with your counsel,
   and afterward you will take me into glory.
Whom have I in heaven but you?
   And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
   but God is the strength of my heart
   and my portion forever.”
–Psalm 73:21-26

  “Search me O God, and know my heart;
         Test me and know my anxious thoughts.
   See if there is any offensive way in me,
          And lead me in the way everlasting.”
–Psalm 139:23-24

The stream gurgled next to me as it followed its course into the lake and I sat there, wet with sweat and tears and the dampness of the bush I’d been sitting in. An afternoon wind blew across the water and made me shiver.

I didn’t feel the way I thought it would. I had no new answers. I still have no clue what happens next. I still miss Prague. I still hate change.

But the thing that was broken, the thing that needed fixing, was my prayer. Of all the relationships I left behind in Prague, the one with my Savior-Redeemer was (and is) the most important. It’s easier to assume that He’s left us behind or turned off His phone than it is to recognize that we’re not talking to Him the right way.

I brushed my face with the back of my dirty hand to clear the tear-tracks and thanked God briefly for being with me – on the plane, in my room, on this trip, all summer. Then I threw a glance over my shoulder to make sure no one could see me in my hiding spot before coming out – there is no graceful way to have a meltdown.

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Lydia, Wesley and I huddled in a tent to play cards after lunch. The wind ripped at the tent fly and the light footsteps and hushed voices of our fellow campers floated about from various corners of our new safe haven. I still had questions about what happens to me next, and a gentle ache hugged the places of my mind where my memories of Prague are tucked away (kept safely until the time is right to retrieve them), but the anger was gone. I no longer felt abandoned. No longer was I a bitter child shaking her fist at the mountains. And I realize now why I had to stumble around for so long, lost in the wilderness of my own will before trusting in His.

In humbleness, in brokenness, God brought me back to Himself – like a cold night that draws us together or the jagged rocks of a mountain the force us to lean on hands that are not our own.

And His hands are not our own.