Every step homeward

I’ve never minded coming home in the dark. I used to walk home all the time in Prague. The bus would roll up to our stop at the edge of the village and the doors would open with a loud sigh, leaving me on the stone sidewalk beneath bare tree limbs and bright stars. 

That short walk up the hill to the old home in whose attic I resided for two years was one of the best parts of my long days in Prague. There was contentment in putting one foot in front of the other, knowing that each one was taking me closer to somewhere I belonged. The peace and purpose that comes from simply walking the path before me was impervious to the influence of wherever I had been and whatever was waiting for me up ahead, good or bad. 

I don’t live in the moment as well anymore. 

Post-hat wedding shot. PC: @loveisradco on Instagram.

“Really?” I said to the large semi merging in front of me on a crowded Bay Area highway with not enough lanes. This was two summers ago and I was headed to a wedding.

On either side of me were cars backed up for miles. And they say LA traffic is bad. I had been stuck in Bay Area rush hour for two hours and as the time on my GPS readjusted again, I realized I might be cutting this wedding a little close. 

Leaving my sister’s house had been harder than I expected. Not that I wasn’t able to get ready early enough – in fact, she even took the kids outside so I could use the bathroom to primp without being interrupted a dozen times. 

But once my dress had been donned and my hair done up, I stood by the patio door and watched her and my niece and nephews soaking up the sunshine of late June on Berkeley’s greenest, most bee-occupied lawn. 

Deborah caught my eye and walked over with her three-week old – a bundle of pink wrapped in nylon hair bows bigger than her head. 

“You look nice, Mefs,” she said to me. 

“Thanks,” I said. “The outfit looks alright without the hat.”

This wedding invitation had asked guests to wear hats and fascinators and as I haven’t owned a fascinator since I lost the one I bought for the 3 a.m. live streaming of Kate Middleton’s wedding, I went with a hat. It was large and conspicuous and I wouldn’t have done it for anyone other than Lina. 

“The hat’s not so bad,” Deborah said as I tried to fit it over my heavily sprayed curls. She stepped inside into the kitchen and I followed her.

“Whose wedding is this, again?” she asked. 

“Lina,” I said, knowing a name wouldn’t help. “She was the one I met right before I left for Prague and then we were penpals.” 

“The same one you visit sometimes when you’re up here?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Her.”

My family hasn’t met the amazing, mousy miss Lina, whom I have always affectionately called “Dinky.” 

Deborah bounced the newest addition to our family on her hip while putzing around the counter, clearing up from our lunch. 

Ten years ago, all I wanted was this. I wanted a little home and a gaggle of kids and a person to live my life with. I think a lot of girls who grow up in the church want that. I think we want it naturally, but I also think we’re implicitly taught that marriage and kids is our purpose in life, our calling. So I’ve spent large periods of the last decade feeling like I haven’t arrived yet, like I’m on hold and, no matter how nice the “please hold” music sounds, all I really want is to talk to the person waiting on the other end of the line. 

(It should be noted that I never felt that way in Prague. Not for one second.)

And, in the face of not getting what was once my dearest hope and desire, my aim of late has been to figure out how to gracefully age out of one dream and into another without retaining any of the bitterness that so often accompanies disappointment. 

“You’ll be late if you don’t get started,” Deborah said. “Traffic up here is pretty bad.” 

It was hard to pull away. I hesitated one more moment, breathing in the quiet joy of her happy home, and then I grabbed my shoes and headed to the car. 

It took me the better part of three hours to get from Berkeley to San Juan Bautista, but driving my snazzy blue rental car into the tiny Northern Californian town was worth it. The main street was lined with old store fronts and antique facades. Off the main street were neighborhood lanes (I got lost down a couple) with “children at play” signs. The blooming gardens and the well-kept homes were evidence that people here cared about the life they were building. 

Suddenly, I felt very much like someone passing through – not just through the town, but through life. If I have a home or garden or roots of any kind, I couldn’t tell you what they are. 

A narrow street off the town center strip hailed me over with long-limbed oak trees and I parked. I was early, even after all the traffic, and the venue was a five minute walk away, according to my GPS. I took a deep breath and opened the door. 

Getting out of the car took considerable effort, given the hat, but I made it out and was immediately swept up by a strong breeze, the kind that knows where it’s going and pushes you out of the way in a hurry. 

One hand on my hat and the other firmly on my dress, a la Marilyn Monroe, I sauntered as conspicuously as one can up the quiet lane, past a man in a T-shirt and shorts who gave me a quizzical look, and then onto the main street. 

Time to find a drink. 

Now, I’m sure San Juan Bautista has some decent bars, but the closest one to the venue was a small, four-stool dive on the adjoining end of a Mexican restaurant. 

Three of the stools were already occupied by a few comfortably-dressed locals. My hat and I sat down in the fourth.

A very friendly bartender peered over the counter at me with a smile I thought I recognized and asked, “What can I get for you?”

I leaned in close and said in a low voice, “I’m about to go to a wedding and I have to wear this hat.”

He nodded with a grin and said, “I know what you need.” 

I don’t know what he ended up giving me – something with lemon and vodka – but it did the trick. Within fifteen minutes, I was chatting with the other patrons and making smalltalk with the bartender. 

“Joe,” he introduced himself, and suddenly I realized I knew why he seemed so familiar. His godfatherly reach around the bar, his gentle tone with servers who came up asking for drink orders or buzzing with a question they couldn’t answer, his commanding presence behind the counter, his jolly and affirming interactions with any customer who approached him for a drink or a friendly word – these were all qualities possessed by a Joe of my own. Joe from the diner, our graveyard buser and personal diner coach, always ready to give a pep talk when things get harried at 2 a.m.

Joe helped me get my hands on some chips and guac until I finally worked up the courage to walk down the block to the venue, hat still perched conspicuously on my head.

It so happened that, as I was walking down the main street, Lina and her entourage were walking up it. 

My friend is a beautiful woman who shines from the inside out, glowing like stardust and exuding a cool and conquering spirit like she’s Disney’s most down-to-earth princess. She’s translucent, a fae in human form. Seeing her there, silhouetted by a dipping sun, backlit by golden rays, slightly windswept in flowing ripples of white and crowned with flowers, I nearly lost my breath. 

“I’m so glad you wore your hat,” she said emphatically to me as we brushed by each other.

I did this for you, babe

The venue was a patio garden, draped with lights and decked with all the trimmings of a millennial wedding – a chalkboard with seat assignments, a churro truck… You know, the basics.

Mentally counting hats among the other attendees, I found a seat and waited for the ceremony to begin. 

It was short and sweet, which was fine with me because I was hungry and the hat was giving me a headache. I only knew a handful of Lina’s friends, but one of them was also at my table. We were of comparable age and life stage, so there was enough to chat about as we awaited our fellow table mates. 

An L.A.-based writer in her late twenties or early thirties, a Los Vegas-based script and screenplay composer in her late twenties or early thirties, a self-made fitness coach in her late twenties or early thirties… The pattern became clear fairly quickly.

“This is not the Singles Table, is it,” I said. It wasn’t a question. It was a statement.

The Singles Table was clearly two down from us with all the younger women and single men. 

“Yeah, no. This is definitely the 30’s Table,” said one of the girls over her drink as we watched the other table. “We’re no longer single girls, ladies. We’re single women.” 

There was a moment of silence as we listened to the polite laughter and awkward giggling floating from the singles table – that necessary social grace required when sitting next to strangers at a wedding. 

We had had very little of that at our own table – most of us had dropped into deep conversation pretty quickly. Why are relationships so hard and why do we decide to stay or leave them? How much do you put on the line for a dream job that has small odds of ending in success? When do you throw away caution and when do you abide by it? What do you do when life gets lonely? And how the heck do you stick to a nutrition plan when you have roommates with terrible eating habits (”and what if you’re that roommate?” I asked).

Our laughter wasn’t awkward, and neither were the moments of vulnerability we all seemed to share so openly. 

We all agreed to take our hats off, and when some of the girls were ready to find the bar, I went with them. We came back with Dirty Shirleys and cosmos and something super pink. Our table was one of the last to be called for food and we had a good time joking about the wait. No one felt up for dancing until one of us did, and then we all went onto the floor together. We checked in on each other as the night rolled on, unfolding in merriment under crystal stars and warm breezes.

“How are your feet holding up? No shame in going barefoot if you need to, girl.”

“Hey, are you doing alright? Do you want company or would you rather have a minute alone?”

“Can I get you a lemonade, babe? I’m going that way now.”

“You wanna dance? I wanna dance. Let’s go.” 

It felt good to be cared for and to care for others.

The girl gang dancing the night away. PC: @loveisradco on Instagram.

At some point in the evening, we all shared our “So how did you meet Lina?” stories. Most of us met her through a friend. 

I met her in a parking lot. I was picking up campaign signs for my boss – a political guru during the 2012 election cycle – and she was riding around with her friend while her friend delivered the signs to various drop off points. The three of us had talked for a minute in the parking lot, made the exchange and gone our separate ways. 

Then I got a text from Lina saying, “Hey, got your number from my friend. You seem cool. Let’s hang out.”

That’s a paraphrase, but not much of one. 

She hounded me for several weeks and I eventually ran out of polite excuses not to see this stranger. So we met up at a coffee shop with another one of her friends and we worked on our laptops for a few hours… And that was it. We have been friends ever since. 

Eight years, dozens of international letters, a few baseball games, numerous cups of coffee and hundreds of deeply sincere and meaningful conversations later, I was here at her wedding. What a life we live. 

“I’m starting to think she did this on purpose,” said one of the girls at our table. “Like, she didn’t make a 30’s Table, you know? She just made a table with all of her friends and she wants us to meet because that’s what she does. She introduces women to other women and we all become deeper and stronger and better for it.” 

That sounded like our Lina. 

And it was nice attending a wedding and not worrying about whether I’d meet someone on the dance floor or in the cake line or in the seat next to mine at the table. Instead, I spent five hours with these incredible women – handpicked for me to meet by one of my best friends. They oozed cool and confident and carefree while being tender and sweet and strong. They made me proud to be a woman and they made me want to be a better one. 

How much time do I waste looking for a man to spend my life with and end up missing out on the women who have been there all along? 

Platonic relationships are so undervalued. 

I thought of Joe from the bar as I sipped on my last drink and he made me think of Joe from my diner in San Diego. Friendships abound all throughout life if you make the effort to look for them. I’m a lucky girl.

We all exchanged contact information and said our goodbyes in waves of retreat, each of us passing into the dark in due time to find our cars and our ways home. 

Keys in one hand, hat in the other, I found my blue rental beneath the spreading limbs of moody trees, each bathing peacefully in starlight and shadows. 

And then I drove home in the dark. 

The four hour commute in traffic was barely two hours long at midnight. And I thought about life the whole way home – how good it is to surround yourself with friends, how lucky I am to know the women I do and how sweet it is to have somewhere to go even if it’s just one step at a time, like a drive in the dark, a walk back from a bus stop on the edge of the forest, or a day in an ordinary life given to us by an extraordinary God. 

There is contentment in putting one foot in front of the other, knowing that each one is taking me closer to somewhere I belong, and that somewhere will not be here in this life. As sweet as it would be to have a blooming garden and a kitchen full of kids and someone to hang up their hat on my wall at the end of the day, all of those aspects of home are temporary. They will turn to dust in time, like the rest of the world. We do not belong here.

So I will keep my eyes on my heavenly home, knowing that every day is a step toward it, all while rejoicing in the journey and the friends that join me on it.

Mary vs the impending zombie apocalypse

“I don’t think you’d make my zombie apocalypse team,” I said matter-of-factly, pulling the car out of park and starting towards the dark street. Woodstock’s Pizza glowed behind us in bright letters and our camera equipment rattled quietly in the back seat.

“Why wouldn’t I make the team?” Zach asked.

“I just don’t know what skills you would bring to it,” I pondered, fingers tapping the steering wheel.

“I’d be the one who’d die first, give you guys a fighting chance,” he said. “You know, I don’t see myself surviving the zombie apocalypse anyway.”

“See,” I said as we turned on to College Avenue, back towards the newsroom, “I just can’t have that kind of attitude on my team.”

Zach, AJ, Tony and I trying to keep it together while filming the DA Preplay.

It’s pretty safe to say that I am more prepared for the zombie apocalypse than I am for finals.

It’s a growing paranoia, my fear of the zombie end-times. On some level, I know it is completely ridiculous. But that doesn’t stop me from checking the backseat of my car after dark before getting in to make sure there isn’t a member of the living dead waiting for me. It doesn’t stop me from turning off the night lamp in the kitchen because zombies are attracted to light. And it certainly has not stopped me from devising a complete zombie apocalypse survival plan should we be in an actual crisis.

I’d rather be in the ranks of the foolishly over-prepared than join the legions of the undead.

Transferring to San Diego State University in late August shook up my life in all the expected ways: longer commute to school, fewer viable food options, more homework, less sleep, etc. The most aggravating change by far, however, has been the need to completely reorient my zombie preparedness plan. My home and former schoolmates are too far to realistically call upon during a breakout.

I have a new ground zero. And now I have to establish a new team.

“This office is woefully ill-equipped for an escape,” I mourned from my swivel chair. We had returned from shooting our pregame show at Woodstock’s Pizza on El Cajon, and now the staff was in the throes of ‘production night.’ I was rendering video, which is my new least favorite thing to do because you just have to sit in a chair and wait for the computer to finish doing whatever it does.

That’s a lot of my life, these days. I render video. How I managed to get myself into an editorial position that required me to do video, I still can’t figure. I don’t like being on camera, I miss writing terribly, and I am just as ill-equipped to edit film as our office is to providing a viable means of escape.

“Firstly, this is a basement,” I said, mostly to myself because as soon as I mention zombies people stop listening. “And although zombies are unlikely to get in, neither will anything else — food, water, light, clean air. We’d die down here. I’d give us 72 hours after we lose electricity.”

“Come on, York,” said Brian gruffly from his chair. “You know this isn’t the worst place you’ve been.”

Brian would know. He’s been with me to most of the worst places I’ve been, including that pirate-themed bar in National City. He also gave me a survivor’s guide to the zombie apocalypse last summer (because this is a paranoia that needs feeding…), so he’s got a credible grip on my zombie background.

And it’s true. Hands-down the worst place to be when the break-out happens is SDCCU Stadium. Not only would getting out of Mission Valley be a nightmare, but at any given Aztec football game, that stadium can have 30,000 people in it.

That’s a lot of zombies.

SDCCU Stadium
SDCCU Stadium

I’ve been on the field during games a number of times this semester. It’s one of the best parts of my job. The guys get settled up in the press box overlooking the stadium and I saunter down several floors by way of a rickety elevator that sometimes doesn’t quite make it all the way back up to the media level at the end of the night. Then, I crawl through the blue and grey passageways under the stadium, lit by flickering lights that Dean Spanos never thought to get replaced, and down a long walk-way that spills out onto the field and into the roar of thousands of fans.

Sometimes, when I’m on the field with a huge camera propped on my shoulder, when the game is in between plays and the cheerleaders are making the most of the screen time to flip and bounce around, when all I can see is black and scarlet in the stands and the bright stadium lights washing over the endzones, I stop and imagine how funny it would be to be chased by a zombie from the tuba section of the marching band.

No really, at least once I game, I ask myself if I’d really make it out of the stadium alive. I’m still not totally sure.

It has become a game, of sorts. Every new corner of campus I find myself in, every classroom or parking structure or campus garden, I ask, “How would I escape?”

And there are a lot of new places in my life right now.

In fact, I haven’t had such a massive change of scenery since I moved to Prague. SDSU is hugely new to me. Not just the campus, but the people, the pace, the lifestyle. To be honest, I’m not sure I like it.

I don’t mean to sound like a whiney older person here, but being surrounded by 19-year-olds all day is exhausting. Granted, they’re not all bad, but some of these kids have no concept of real life — jobs, rent, taxes, family responsibilities — they’re basically glorified high schoolers who still think they’re the center of the universe. Did you know sorority girls don’t even wash their own dishes?

No, I can’t. Don’t get me started on sorority girls. My only hope is that the zombie that finally gets me is not one of the 10,000 vapid, clueless bottle-blondes on this campus.

“They’re actually very practical,” Cami was trying to explain to me. At some point in mid-September, following one of my sorority girl rants (which are becoming more vitriolic) as we trekked down the winding staircase outside of the Education and Business Administration building to the newsroom basement, she had taken it upon herself to defend the basic girls on campus. “I mean, the shorts and the tank-top are a staple. What else are you going to wear when it’s this hot? And the flannel tied around the waist is for when it gets cooler later. See, practical?”

Cami would probably make my zombie apocalypse team because she’s like human sunshine, always bright and full of ideas.

“The shorts I just won’t ever understand,” I said obstinately as we neared the foot of the staircase. “Also, have you noticed how this stairwell, the footbridge to the parking lot and that little sidewalk along the slope are the only ways out from here? It’s not easy to escape in narrow spaces like this. I prefer open ground.”

I say it like I’ve been there before, like I’ve fought off zombies at some point in my life and I’m just back here at college because someone finally convinced me I needed the degree to ever get a job.

No one’s going to need degrees post-civilization.

“You just need a bargaining chip,” Tyler explained to me. “For example, if the zombie apocalypse happens, I would trade Will for gasoline.”

Will lifted his head rather quickly.

“I”m sorry, I’d rather not be bartered,” he objected.

“Too bad, I’m bigger than you are and we need gasoline.”

“You are not allowed on my zombie team, Tyler,” I said, crossing my arms. I have taken to occupying the couch in Tyler’s corner of the office — billing or ads or whatever it is he does. Tyler is a decent conversationalist, but I really do just come for the sofa. “How can I rebuild civilization if my people have no moral compass? No values?”

“We don’t need values, we need gasoline,” he reminded me with a chuckle. “You’ll see, Mary.”

It’s funny to see the warlord come out in Tyler, and the hesitant victim in Will. Normally, Tyler is the office sweetheart, the guy who makes coffee in the morning and says “aw, I’m sorry you’re having a bad day” and actually probably means it.

Will is the secret service, the armed forces and the mad scientist all in one. I mean, he’s the news editor.

DA franzz
Will, Ella and Jasmine hijacking my computer with love, friendship and the office knick-knacks.

Will would definitely make my team.

AJ wouldn’t. He’s one of the smartest guys on our staff and he’d be a great asset, but I don’t think he’d listen to me — he’d have too many of his own good ideas. I’m nipping insubordination in the bud and just not inviting him in the first place. He can make his own team. I’m sure they’ll do just fine. He and Tyler can hoard gasoline together.

Jasmine couldn’t be on my team because she’s also an Alpha. But I’d miss her, because she’s lovely and kind and fierce.

Justin would make the team because he does what I tell him to and because he’s a baseball player so I’m assuming he’s good with a bat.

Tristi makes the team because she’s chill when I’m not, and I need a right-hand man like that.

David and Jocelyn make the team — they’re sweet but they’re fierce.

Andrew doesn’t make the team, but only because he laughs harder than anyone whenever I mention the impending doom of mankind. One day he’ll regret that.  

Ella makes the team because I just wouldn’t leave her behind. Ever.

I have surface streets mapped out for escape routes out of town, I know where we would pick up supplies and which of the school’s vans we would commandeer to get out of Dodge quickly. In every room I enter, after locating a viable means of escape, I pick a weapon to fight my way out with (Zach’s golf clubs, the whiteboard ruler, that steel-framed stool in HH 210 that looks dangerous to sit in). For the 24-hour, 48-hour, and week-long waves of realization, reaction and post-apocalypse re-establishment, I have a plan.

And it’s nice knowing that no matter how much people laugh at me for this, or say through tearful chuckles that I’d never survive a zombie attack anyway, I know what I’m doing.

I wish I had that confidence in life, because for the last three months I’ve been wandering around campus lost and horribly unprepared. The strong, determined, resourceful person I know I can be never seems to come out at school and I can’t figure out why.

I’ve spent a lot of time on the floor of the newsroom (or on the sofa in Tyler’s corner of the office when he lets me), staring at the ceiling wondering how to pick up and keep going. Everytime I think I’ve found the bottom of this semester, someone throws me a shovel.

I wish I could win friends into my life as easily as I can add them to my imaginary zombie-fighting team. I wish I could have prepared for the heartbreaks and disappointments of the last three months the way I seem to be able to prepare myself for the destruction of all mankind.

Like, seriously, something is out of whack with my sense of prioritization.

Maybe actual life is just harder, though.

Maybe I dream up nightmares because it’s a lot easier to be brave when you’re facing a zombie than it is to be brave when you’re facing people who don’t believe you can do what you say you can, or don’t see the value in your efforts; when you find yourself playing catch-up and missing opportunities just because life took you a different way than it took most everyone else, like when the coach of the rowing team says, “I’m sorry, but you’re too old to walk on — you’ve missed your window.” 

It’s hard to see yourself as a fighter when you’re three hours into a closing shift at a gym, or when you’re dragging yourself to school the next morning for an 8 a.m. class. It’s difficult not to feel small when someone else gets credit for your work, or your scholarship application gets returned in the mail after the deadline has passed, or you come face to face with the side of you that realizes how easy it would be to cheat your way through the online class you keep forgetting you have and the coward wins.

And when someone says, “Sorry, I’m talking to someone else,” the zombie-fighter inside you just shrivels up completely and that powerful space it filled in your chest turns into a huge, aching, cavernous vacuum.

Honestly, I’d rather have the apocalypse.

But who I am now is who I’ll be in the end times, too. We don’t get to choose our own character for this. When civilization comes crashing down, the person I am in college, the person I was in Prague, the person I am in traffic on my way to school or on the campus sidewalk after a long day of let-downs, that’s the person I’ll be in the apocalypse. And I do have control over that person. Every day can be a practice round for me to be better, stronger, more determined, more hopeful.

We dream up perfect plans and perfect people to have in our lives, but the truth is that the only thing we can really control is the people we become, and there is no point in having the ideal individuals around you if you can’t give something back to the team.

So, tomorrow I start over. I plan to be ready for the apocalypse and for all the life that happens before it begins.

What happens when you clean your bookshelf

2015-11-01 18.14.51.cr2

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).

2015-11-01 18.17.01.cr2

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.