Sunday, July 28, 2019

A Day in the Lakes

A few days ago I went canoeing with friends in Tyresta National Park, a tradition that has been going for the past three years. It’s comforting in its familiarity and still it never ceases to amaze me that I can get on a bus and in half an hour be somewhere which feels so much farther away. We always convene at Andy’s cottage, where the doors are flung open, the trees crowd around big and full of green, and there is music coming from everywhere. He will be in the middle of packing up, friends will arrive in waves, and then we’ll walk to the house where a family has a fleet of canoes ready for renting. It’s a sign of Swedish life and trust in community that tens of canoes are neatly stacked in the backyard, a relatively far distance from the house, certainly not close enough to keep watch on. There is a sign that gives directions for how to rent the canoes should you find yourself there when the family is not.

Once the life jackets and canoes are sorted, it’s a quick hop across the street to the dock into the river.
This part of the trip is narrow and shady, with cool breezes that smell like wet ground and leaves.
Trees reach from bank to bank to bend their branches together in a canopy, and the water is earthy
toned and velvety, swirling with layers of peat that hold the light like amber. The river flows into the
sudden openness of the first lake, splashing out into an expanse that makes you feel small but capable
as you pull yourself forward. This marks the first long push, and you feel yourself settle into a harmony
with your partners as you coordinated the same movements over and over.

The way the paddles bead perfectly spaced drops of water in a crescent on the surface of the lake
when you lift them to push them forward again is a type of perfection that smoothes out something
tangled inside of me. Just now I am trying to think of the way to describe the pace of the way the drops
of water punctuate the surface, something like the methodical beat of a metronome, or a long tapping
on paper of an endless ellipsis, or a creature running softly in an arc across an obliging surface, leaving
perfect spaces between each footprint. The paddle comes up, you pull back to swing it forward again,
and from the smallest corner of  the bottom edge they come, spilling out, each one catching the light
so it’s both sun and water- is it like beads sliding off of a string? But what can I say about the sound-
the lapping sound of the paddle is easy to describe, I think you can hear it, but it’s the patter, maybe
that’s the word, the soft round patter of each drop punctuating the surface that is so soft and small but
holds the attention. And then behind that movement is the wider, overwhelming feeling of watching
that stream of drops release themselves back into the lake, once individual, now back into the mass,
over and over. The paddle pulls them up, for a brief second they are solitary, and then they dissolve
into the lake. I can close my eyes and see the arc, over and over, a paddle moving in an eternity of
lake, something without edges. The mind ricochets with thoughts of how many of those small moments
coexist together to form the volume of the lake, which feeds into rivers and channels and still more
lakes, and that simultaneous existence of water both minute and massive feels pleasantly heavy and
hard to grasp, the awe of nature existing with you in it to witness.    

The islands will go by, the ones we know but which still make us comment on how beautiful this or that
house is, or how bird covered this one is at this time of year. We turn into the shallow river bed, and
this time (unlike others) the waters lifted us up over the rocks and we didn’t have to get out and push
even once. Then it’s time to dock for a land passage, heaving the canoe up onto land, strapping it to
a wheel, guiding it to keep it up from galloping down hill. This part of the trip is always an outrageous
mass of lush green, with the feeling of the earth being very far down from the surface of the grasses,
leaves, and flowers you can see. A small wooden bridge reaches across a teeming mass of plants and
undergrowth, and everything feels oversaturated, a hectic chorus of living things pushing up towards
the sun. I still haven’t  been able to decide, even after almost four years here, if Swedish summer is
particularly lush and verdant, or if, by virtue of the harsh contrast with six months of dark and grey, it
benefits from the comparison and looks especially beautiful. I suppose regardless of the reason, it
looks especially beautiful.

We finish the land crossing on a  narrow dirt path under the trees, and come to a wide mouth of a bay.
It’s back into the water, crossing another lake, and then we are at the cluster of small uninhabited
islands that we get the luxury of choosing from. This trip our usual spot was taken, so we paddled on
seeking solitude and climbed ashore a new island, which we all promptly agreed might be better than
“our island” after all. This is when everyone agrees that it’s time to eat, because of course snacks
and drinks are always on hand. Blankets and towels are spread out, everyone eats everyone else’s
food, and eventually the conversation dies out and we all lay, drowsy from the sun, food, and
paddling, and the conversation stops. The sun goes in and out of clouds, birds call to one another,
we hear the far off muffled conversations of other people in their canoes sliding across the lake to
other islands or campsites or places to fish. Sometimes there is no sound at all except your own
breathing and the sound of your friends’ subtle movements on the blankets next to you. Long moments
of silence are broken with random bursts of conversation, whatever comes into your mind whenever
you have the opportunity to be quiet in nature surrounded by people you like to talk to. Inevitably a nap
will happen, unexpectedly coordinated, and your group sleeps in the sun close to one another, some
physical reference to much earlier people, and much earlier ways of living, that feels calm and safe. 

Someone must wake up first, but it feels like we all wake up together, and then it’s another round of 
food and drinks before changing into swimsuits and getting into the water- regardless of what the water
offers, you will get in, because you didn’t come all this way on top of the lake to lay next to it and not
get in. The water is always some variation of cold, ranging from something that demands a sharp intake
of breath shock to eventual ease, all the way to the less desirable experience of deeply uncomfortable
followed by tolerable.This last trip it was thankfully the former. I waited for Andy to go in first, followed
by Ninja waiting on the rocks near where we had pulled our canoe up to rest, beached, in a narrow gully
of dry grass. Andy swam out into the lake, with Ninja watching, and I stopped to wait on the blankets
just to take in the tableau that was suddenly making my eyes mist over. I was overcome with simple
happiness that the people I loved were healthy enough to be able to pull their weight across a few lakes
and then slide into the water and feel the vitality of pulling themselves through the water. The light
shone on Andy’s wet head, and bounced shadows off of Ninja’s back, and between these two points
of human connection all the rest rushed in with water, rocks, greenery and blue white streaked sky,
cut through with birds and their calls. I followed Ninja down the rocks, joining the scene I had been
watching, and the two of us slid one after the other into the cold. I have long felt something like
excitable dread at bodies of water that are deep, and dark, with underworlds that are impossible and
terrifying to fathom. I told Andy and Ninja about what I imagined and why and we all laughed at
how ridiculous it was. The three of us bobbed in the water, small and covered in sun, laughing, talking,
considering the relative difficulty of floating and the freedom of swimming, however clumsily humans
are forced to. The clouds eventually took over the sun and the lack of warmth pushed us back to
shore in search of blankets and towels and swimming clothes drying in the breeze. 

After another round of drowsy lounging, drying off, absentmindedly grazing on food, someone will
say “Shall we?”, which also always happens to be well coordinated and universally received as a
good idea. We will marvel at how well we work together at launching the canoe, congratulate ourselves
on not capsizing it when we get in, and turn back to retrace the paddle stroke beaded path back home.

This time, as we cut past “our island”, we saw an osprey circling right above us. A huge nest, unseen
before from the other side, was spread across the top of the only tree. Our happiness of proximity
was not shared by the osprey, and it circled in ever more aggressive arcs, showing us its impressive
wingspan, expanding and then narrowing, at one point looking uncannily like a fighter jet, all sharp
angles and aerodynamic curves. Ninja and I were impressed, but Andy was stunned. Not knowing
much about birds, or the relative scarcity of such encounters, we learned through Andy’s translation
of the moment that this was a rare interaction, and that “if we had been real birding geeks, we would
be shitting ourselves now.” We had all stopped paddling of one accord to look up at the osprey,
and as the small waves moved our canoe I had a visceral memory of my senior class last year, my
small group of four by that point. We analysed the poem “To a Waterfowl”, in which the speaker
describes walking along the water and observing a  bird from a distance. The speaker is overcome
with the realisation that the bird has their own life and path, and that they have no more right to
assert control over the bird than the bird has to assert control over them. The speaker positions
themselves and the bird within the broader context of existence, spiraling out into a perspective so
broad as to encompass all of life intersecting. It is frankly sublime, and revels in the egalitarian
freedom of viewing oneself as part of nature as opposed to above it. The speaker grants the bird
its autonomy, not out of sovereign right to bestow it, but out of an understanding that this was the
inherent truth of the matter of life. At one point, the speaker reflects that there is comprehension
beyond our understanding.

 “There is a Power, whose care
Teaches thy way along that pathless coast,
the desert and illimitable air
Lone wandering, but not lost.” 

We sat in the canoe, watching the unexpected osprey, realising that she was in her right place, and
we were out of our element on both sides- the air above wasn’t ours to command, the water below
received us so well only thanks to the accessories of canoes, oars, and lifejackets. We paddled on,
into an unexpected rain shower that came and went in almost the same breath in spite of the
ominous clouds. 

Then it was back through the river that remained thankfully high enough to clear the rocks, over the
bridge and the land crossing, and finally the long last lake. At the dock back home, Rasmus was
waiting, an unexpected surprise Ninja kept from us all day, during which we had said several times
how sad we were he couldn’t have made it back in time. He helped us pull up onto the dock, the
canoe was returned, we took part in the miracle of Swedish efficiency by paying for our canoe
rental via an app on our phone, and then we walked home, tired, damp, sun worn, and ready for dinner.

The barbecue after canoeing is always on top of the rock behind Andy’s cottage, although here again
I feel language fails me because saying rock conjures something much less impressive than what I
mean here. The rock is enormous, towering over his cottage, and it requires all adults to make several
trips up to carry all the supplies to the waiting fire at the top. We crouched around the flames, Ninja
directing the traffic of sausages and veggie hamburgers and halloumi, endless halloumi, on and off
and around the grill. We ate in stages, whatever came off first, and of course after a day of cold snacks
the food was amazing. There was another wash of gratitude that we are here, right now, climbing up
a rock with enough food to eat and share, to cook under a fire, to point out birds and loping deer, to
meander through conversations around mouthfuls of whatever is warmest and just off the grill. The
sun is no closer to setting, even at 9:30, because Swedish sun in July makes it up to you after the
winter by dutifully putting in overtime. We eventually wound our way down the steep mossy backside
of the rock, back to the cottage to curl up together on the couch, look through some pictures, relive
some moments for laughs and inside jokes to be used later, and share some tea. Ninja and Rasmus
peeled themselves off the couch and into the darkness to find a bus home, and I stayed the night
like I have so many times before. Andy spread out on the floor, I wrapped up on the couch, we talked
about books or future plans, discussed the relative merits of an apartment choice to be made for
Almaty, listened to old music, and as usual I wove in and out of sleep first before Andy climbed the
ladder to his loft bed and we said goodnight. I have yet to understand the magic of how I can sleep
so well on an old, lumpy couch, covered over and under with random blankets, but I always do. It is
a cat sleep, a comfort place, an animal moment of giving into rest in a place that is not my bed, or
my home, but that still feels right and safe. The sun comes in through the window the next day and
wakes me up, Andy says good morning, and I put on the kettle. Another day. 

It is a marvel to me that there is a place in this world with a small wooden cottage, at the base of an
enormous rock, up the stairs from a lane of apple trees, down the road from a dock where you push
off on a canoe with your friends to feel the privilege of healthy bodies that spring to your command
to paddle and pull and talk and laugh, to swim and drink and eat, to lay and rest, to be silent and be
together. Not everyone has such a place, or such people, or such freedom, or this health. I can stand
where I am, and I can say that I am blessed beyond what I can fully describe or accurately appreciate.
This is what my life in Sweden has so often been like, unexpectedly and startlingly joyful in the
details, something I didn’t know would happen, a place I never planned on being that has given me
so much so generously, even though it was all by chance and accident that I ended up here at all.

I keep coming back to that line in the poem- “Lone wandering, but not lost”. For most of my time abroad,
I have been lone wandering, but I haven't been alone. It’s the people, places, and connections that
have guided me along my solitary way. I might not have known where I was going, but I wasn’t lost.
I can set off in a new direction without any idea of where it will lead me, but these touchstones of
memories I carry with me ensure that I can feel certain even if I don’t know what lies ahead. Getting
lost is an impossibility in the broader sense of things, because behind what seems like an expanse
of the unknown, these people and experiences are teaching my way forward. The more I experience
taking a step without knowing where it will lead, the more I can feel myself being buoyed up by that
power of connection. I imagine myself in a lake without edges, pathless coasts, an eternity of
water- I am moving along, and just as soon as I cut a path, it dissolves into the water behind me.
Nothing remains the same, and nothing can be predicted ahead. But I still go forward regardless. 

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Right Now in Amsterdam: New Year Hopes

I just checked out of my hotel room and am sitting in the cafe of my hotel with all my things piled around me, killing time before my three p.m. train to Hamburg. I also just logged into this space for the first time in almost a year, and was confronted with my second to last blog, where I stated that "my goal for 2018 is to write more".

I have not written so little since I was in high school, and I can't quite be sure why, but I think part of it was that I felt I had gotten to the end of the road of usefulness for rambling self reflecting journal style essays. I had decided, tentatively, just inside myself and barely there, that I was going to devote 2018 to proper, scheduled, Serious Writing. I wanted to knit together all the tangled stories I have dropped here over the last almost seven years, and the prospect of that seemed absolutely daunting. Somewhere inside myself and without really acknowledging it, I quietly nodded my head along with my plans to begin the process of editing this all together, and then I slowly slipped out without telling anyone I was leaving. And so this blog has sat, untended, for almost a year.

There are some things in my life I figured I would always have, and writing was one of those things. I had years of being downright prolific, but anytime I get near anything that looks like trying I always, always quit. It is much easier to pull faces and tell funny, self deprecating stories to make people laugh or reflect for a moment than it is to ponder trying to actually write something in a culture and context where everyone is self published and writing and trying to make money on the internet. I sometimes think about the hours I have spent on this scroll of internet, writing and revising and editing and stream of consciousness vomiting up my insides, and it feels, quite honestly, absolutely pointless. Which is why, I guess, I tried to make it have a point by creating a destination of something like a travelogue, or a book of essays. I was well intentioned about searching out places to get published, and looked around for online journals to submit to, and researched websites and magazines.

After all that, I didn't write for a year. I have also barely read. It's strange to look back at the year and realise those two things, because they are so intimately tied to who I consider myself to be- I read voraciously. I write. Not this year. Not even close.

I started off this trip to Amsterdam with a debilitating stomach flu and then dragged myself on the train after not eating for a few days. I can do that, but I can't sit at my table and edit an old story about the slow boat to Luang Prabang. I will sometimes find it foolish to spend so much time sitting here writing, but I don't blink an eye when three hours of my life slithers away into the internet, on things that I don't even remember anymore. I will think I can't afford to upgrade this space, to design something nicer, to get a real web address- and then I will spend money on eating out or random things or even, yes, even travel to expensive places on holiday.

I defeat myself, I undercut myself, and I do the things to myself that I tell my students and people in my life not to do to themselves. I suppose we all do it, but I am annoyed with myself in particular here, an English teacher who tells students they can do it and to just do the damn thing and to try because trying and really fucking up is much better than just wasting time not doing anything. I have wasted time not doing anything, more time than I care to admit. More time wasted than time spent well- I get that we all fall into this trap, this procrastination of distraction, but the painful thing is that I have things I genuinely love doing- writing, reading, studying Swedish- that I have pushed all the way down to the bottom of the list this year. In 2018, I can admit, sheepishly but with honesty, that I haven't been very good at making conscious choices with my time in terms of pouring it into things I love. I just let it kind of pour out.

I spent the last few days on the kind of solo trip I have come to love and loathe, but a kind my brain can sometimes give me when I need it- the kind where the abrupt switch of scenery drops you into a new place and everything around you says oh, that's how you've been doing things? Do you know why? You have to kind of shrug and stutter out a little bit of a lie, some self delusion, but the particulars just keep staring out you until you finally say yes, actually, this is what I've been up to. I don't know why.

It looks so much worse out of context, doesn't it? Look at it. It's yours- is that what you want? If no, why keep doing it?

I walked for hours upon hours through endless canals, dodging bicycles and peering earnestly into the rows of houses to see if the architecture could tell me something to distract me from these persistent circling thoughts in my brain. The lights reflecting off the water, the sunset glinting off the long abandoned bikes, the echoes on the narrow streets, this was all so beautiful. I have had the kind of time here I needed to have, even if part of that was showing me things I didn't want to see.

People seem to operate in binaries- you are either happy, or you are sad. You are doing good things, or bad things. I appreciate that anyone who loves and cares about me might read the previous and be left in a state of consternation. Have I been miserable the last year? Is everything just going very, very wrong? No to all of those questions and any like them. It's a Walt Whitman kind of thing. I contradict myself, and I know it, and it's natural- I contain multitudes. Because of that truth, I can say that in 2018 I have had more moments of joy and contentment and satisfaction than I can count. They are heaped up all around me in my body in the same space where I am holding all of these other thoughts. I want to be right where I am, even in these vulnerable moments where I have to be startled at the way I have veered a bit off course for my mental and creative health. Oops. I made some wrong turns, little detours. I took the wrong path because it was easier, but it was less enjoyable. I get it. I am retracing steps.

The main takeaway is that there are simply things in life I could be doing, small changes, that would greatly increase my day to day peace and contentment. They are mundane little details that are for me to attend to, but it can be summed up best this way. In 2019, I want to take more pleasure in creating than in consuming. This means creating in a variety of broadly defined ways, and it means limiting consumption of similarly broadly defined things.

In a few hours, I am going to get on a train to Hamburg and wrap up this trip. I cut it short, actually, excising Belgium entirely from my winter vacation in favor of going home five days early. I realised, as I was curled up in my bed, that I was incredibly happy to have had this trip to Amsterdam, and that I had experiences I was needing to have. I was not, in any way, excited about Belgium or looking forward to it or really even feeling any curiosity towards it. So I cancelled it all, and felt instant relief.

self timer shots in Estonia

Yesterday was spent in a full on aimless wander, going nowhere with no plans, just soaking in the last full day here. I took a long mid day break to lay on my bed and do nothing- actually nothing, no music, no internet, just in bed with all my clothes on listening to the sounds old buildings make and watching birds in the trees. Later that night I realised that it was five years since I had taken the first of what would be countless solo trips. Feeling nostalgic for myself five years ago, and propelled in part by the optimism that always comes when you embrace your own regrets and realise you can change things, I wrote this about that first trip:

Estonia was my first solo trip (not counting picking up and moving to Japan, which is a different thing). I took this picture with a self timer, all alone in nature in a strange place a new country, and I was terrified. I haven't traveled on my own in about two years, and this trip felt a bit rusty at the start (ha! a bit?!...) but the last few days have been filled with reminders of why I deeply enjoy moving alone through the world in a new place. I like the awkward moments, the down points, the feeling of freedom and sometimes, yeah, loneliness. The accomplishment of little things and figuring it out on my own. As my time here in Amsterdam comes to a close, I am feeling deeply nostalgic for my five years ago self who rambled through Estonia and came out on the other side a different person. I am glad she made the choices she did to get here. I have always been brutally honest with y'all that no life, no matter where or how you live it, is perfect or easy. I despise the perfectly filtered, hashtagged, overly blogged, simplistic and trendy idea that just because you live life where you weren't born or travel often things are automatically better/more magical- it's not, because wherever you go, there you are. I have had a lot of really, truly, shitty moments over the last few years, just like we all have. There is not a place in this world you can go to escape the difficulty of being a human being, and there isn't a universe more inescapable than your own brain. Much of life, no matter where or how it happens, is confusing and difficult and painful. But if you have the privilege of choosing your confusing, or difficult, or painful, then it's easier to bear. I would choose this track a million times over, even if I had a million different times to choose it, and I am so grateful for the sheer dumb luck and chance that plunked me down where I was in order to make that choice.

Here's to 2019, and being more brave.

Street art, traveling solo in Berlin 2015

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Right Now in Sweden: Best Laid Plans

I decided that once I got back from Canada, this would be my return to glory. After a stutter step November/December, hindered a bit by injury and darkness induced "meh" approaches to most things in my life other than work, I would find Productive Me, regain my motivation to do All the Things Nonstop, and hit January 2018 running. Sleeping well, eating well, saving as well as one can when a traveling problem is involved that requires a lot more money in Scandinavia than in SE Asia- it was all going to come together. I just had to take a car ride, two planes, two trains, and get through 30+ hours of sleeplessness and a 6 hour time difference to jump right back in with both feet. I got home on January 2nd, and truly believed I would be a paragon of efficiency on January 3rd (if you want the real lolz, consider that I thought I would unpack, clean, and go grocery shopping on said January 2nd after no sleep for more than a day, having just jogged in place behind my airline seat every hour on the hour for all 8 combined flight hours). If you have no idea why I would be jogging on an airplane across the Atlantic, read here. I'll wait.

So, of course, I got home and spent a few days in a quicksand of uncooperative jet lag, which, by virtue of having never traveled home during the school year and on a short break, I had naively thought I "had never really had". Um, no. When you leisurely backpack your itinerant ass to America every other summer break by traveling across the globe (literally across the surface of it, usually) languidly peeling hours back layer by unnoticeable layer, and then you get to your final destination and have 5 weeks to "adjust to a schedule" that consists of staying up late and partying with friends and family, sure, jet lag isn't a thing. And, when those weeks of summer socializing wind down and you come back to whatever country is hosting you via a series of spaced out flights dropped neatly into various time zones for little adjustment periods of sightseeing, and then end up with a glorious tail end of vacation to slide you into some obliging inset days in August at the beginning of the school year, you REALLY "don't really ever get jet lag".

I suppose one good thing about jet lag is that I was awake during the night, with no distractions to keep me from being productive, and making plans, and setting some goals for this year. Anyone care to guess how I chose to spend my jetlagged insomnia? In the spirit of new beginnings, was I making budgets? Culling my things to give away? Writing goals? Unpacking?

Nah, mostly I just slithered through internet rabbit holes for about 3 days. Last night I finally hit my limit and found enough disgust to at least have the decency to read a book when I was awake until almost 4 a.m. What finally snapped me out of it and made me do what I should have been doing all along, which is reading a damn book? I had been inexplicably watching marathons of 2-5 minute clips of the Duggar family on YouTube. This was after spending an hour reading old blog posts (when I could have at least been writing a new one), and before I found the search function on Instagram and realized I could kill time there just as easily as anywhere else. Did you know there is an entire world of accounts devoted to skin removal progress pics following massive weight loss? And of course, okay, yes, one or two was interesting and inspirational- but once I had scrolled through five, and by scrolled through I mean I made it back to their first post, I was just being ridiculous. This was better than what I did the night before, I guess, when I decided to teach myself, at 1 a.m., how to use an eyebrow pencil I bought on a whim when a drugstore employee working her way through college drew better eyebrows on me than I was born with. I saw God a little bit in the magic, but it might have been her highlighter blinding me. Whatever the reason, I bought brow things to bring back to Sweden as a result, and I fell asleep in my tentatively drawn new eyebrows after the sun rose, before sleeping until 1 p.m. and getting out of bed at 3 p.m. The brows, in case you were wondering, were still in place.

But back to last night. Apparently this was my approach to getting back into a more productive swing of thing- watching outdated videos of religious zealots court their way into early marriages, making appraising/approving facial expressions to no one but my phone screen as I viewed the nearly invisible stitches that run along the outline of an entire human body after it is sewn back together where 15 pounds of loose flesh used to be, and drawing fake hair on my face above my real hair.

Oh, wait, I also wrote a blog post about how I didn't want to write a blog post, optimistically referenced going to bed at midnight (clearly that didn't happen) and fell asleep with that book on my chest around 4 a.m. I woke up to an even more optimistic alarm at 7 a.m., felt like I might actually die of exhaustion like those medical interns you hear about, and let myself sleep in until 9:00 a.m.

After 5 hours of broken sleep, littered with weird Duggar references I still can't categorize as dreams or nightmares, I think I am finally, FINALLY, back in Sweden, in terms of my body understanding I am here. My mind is still lagging a bit, and I have more than a small amount of trepidation about rolling into work bright and early Monday morning.

I suppose one positive of losing 3 days to a stupor of sleeplessness and exhaustion fueled internet dickery is that it has led me to a good old fashioned stream of consciousness blog- and this leads us, dear reader, to my having posted two days in a row, for the first time in years. I mean, both of these posts are trash but I'm rusty, just give me time.

For now, I am going to eat another chunk of grocery store kladdkaka and write 2018 goals about health.

Picture of kladdkaka for reference:

If you want to make kladdkaka at home, try my easy recipe: take a box of Duncan Hines brownies, and instead of baking it, just broil the top so it's chewy and crispy and everything else is raw and gooey. Start 2018 with a taste of Sweden!

I can't find a picture of it the way I eat it, which is to plop it in a (large) bowl and pour room temperature coconut milk over it. It pairs nicely with the endearing clip of the Duggars Do Asia. Serve in bed. I didn't mention that part until now, but yes, I was also eating cake in bed. 

Come on 2018!

Thursday, January 4, 2018

2 Years In, or, What Day is It?

Yesterday, January 3rd, was my two year anniversary of living here in Sweden.

Unfortunately, I didn't know that until I realized today was January 4th, because yesterday was spent in an addled haze of jet lag, insomnia, and staying up until almost 7:00 a.m. this morning dealing with both.

Last year, I wrote a nice long reflection on what a year inSweden meant to me. You can read that here if you want to revisit my more traditionally wordy ways. I'll come back to the topic of time in Sweden soon. But not tonight.

Since one of my goals for 2018 is to write more, even when it's not perfectly thoughtful or several rambly paragraphs long, you are getting this, dear reader, which might be the shortest message I have ever sent you. But it's less a message, anyway, and more of a checkmark of accountability, a single step into 2018. And it ends now, because it's midnight and I am finally, blessedly tired at the proper time, which is now technically January 5th.

I can't tell if this is a good start, because perfection is the enemy and at least I'm doing something, or if it's a bad start, because this is just an action to say I did it. I guess we'll never know.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Predictions are Pointless

Exploring my current home country- my love for forest lined, temperate beaches continues (I am sorry SE Asia, but the sun...)

I think almost any question about life- what should I do? where should I go? why pick this over that, or do this other thing? if I obsess enough, will I come to the perfect right answer?- can be brushed aside with the following quote:

"... nothing in the world can one imagine beforehand, not the least thing. Everything is made up of so many unique particulars that cannot be foreseen."- Rainer Maria Rilke

Rainer, real talk, if you weren't long dead I'd kiss you for how perfectly you build a sentence and weave a thought through it. But seeing as how I am already pathetically in love with one dead poet (what's up, Walt? still singing songs about yourself? cool, cool) I guess I'll just say, yeah. You're right on with this one, Rainer, like always. And, like always, although I found and loved this quote almost a decade ago, I am still working on believing that truth. It is so much easier to get wrapped up in the idea of certainty and rightness, as though punching in the right combination will make everything work. I think I can look back at the last few years and say that I have pretty much punched in every random combination one could think of, and it all worked out.

Tonight, in my Swedish immersion lesson, my Swedish teacher asked me how I chose to move to Sweden. I laughed, a spontaneous burst of "oh, honey, no" tinged sound, and repeated back his sentence- how did I choose to move to Sweden? I never really did- I simply ended up here on accident and now, after a year and a half, I can have full conversations in Swedish with my teacher and tell him how I got here: I was traveling, aimlessly, without a plan, and met a person who would become my future co-worker in a hostel in Bosnia. Why was I at that hostel in Bosnia? Because I was reuniting with the friend with whom I had worked two years earlier in Albania, and she was now living in Montenegro, and her vacation happened to coincide with the travel plans of two friends I had met in Laos, after leaving Albania.

Life is absolutely insane. People say things happen for a reason. There is no reason. Fantastically unpredictable things happen, awful tragedy and pulsing joy and unexpected challenges and unearned luck and privilege, and then you respond to those things as best you can. This goes on every day of your life until your life is over. The best advice I was given to assuage my perfectionist, anxiety riddled need for certainty was that there is no "should do" when one is vacillating between several perfectly good options, or making a decision with little information to go one. You just make your choice, do your best, and work with what happens.

I just had an hour long conversation in a language I never wanted to learn in a country I never planned on visiting, let alone living in. What an absolute joy it is to have absolutely no clue where you will end up when you start something.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

5 Years Later

June 18th, 2017 marked five years since my sister died. August 3rd, 2017 marked five years since I moved abroad. I had no idea what I was doing, I was mourning the loss of my sister, and I was heading to a continent I had never been to so I could live in a country I knew very little about and start my very first year of teaching. To say there were questions, to say I was confused, to say I was overwhelmed, is a massive understatement.

Five years on from such a great loss and such a great change, and it seems unimaginable and terrifying to leave when I did- I have no idea just how it formed and affected me as I was grieving and simultaneously leaving everyone and everything I knew. I remember thinking that there was no way I could leave for Albania a little over a month after her funeral. But I did, because in the end I knew that there would be no right answer either way, and that leaving or staying, she was already gone. I knew for certain she wouldn't have wanted me to stay for her, when she wasn't there.

So I carried her with me across the ocean and grieved my way through that trip and the next year in Albania. I wrote about her, over and over, and wrote to her, and cried for her, and spent untold hours just sitting and thinking about who she was and how much I missed her. In some ways, in eerie and spiritual ways, she was my closest companion even as I grieved that she was gone. Away from home and family, when I turned to memories and tears and sinking feelings of loss, she was also, even in the form of a memory, the one who comforted me, who understood the loss of that family bond. It was, in this way, that I grieved my way with her, about her, and into a place I came to again and again, that I carried her, and carry her now, always.

I wrote the following passage about my sister a year after her death. Re-reading it on the fifth year since she passed I don't feel quite this way anymore. It's all still true, and I still feel it this viscerally at times and in some ways, but the feeling of carrying the absence has become less of a noticeable and painful burden. I think it's because I have gotten to used to the weight and space it occupies in me. This is where grief ends up in you, in the bodily record of loss. It doesn't get any easier to lose a sister. It never becomes ok. You simply learn to work with that reality. If that means you can go stretches of time without pain or sadness because you have grown accustomed to bearing the absence, it also means that sometimes you will be walking through a grocery store and hear the song played at her funeral and suddenly there are tears running down your face. It comes and goes, and when it comes you are more prepared than the time before. No amount of years will ever undo the wish for more time, but at least now, when I reflect on the time we did have together, the memories can bring me the joy of remembrance for what we had, instead of the pain of the loss of what we can never have now. I think Heather would be happy to know that five years since her death and four years since I wrote these words, I don't feel so carved and cut these days. Her name and face are her own again in my memories.

For My Sister

June 18th was the day the summer carved and cut from me, shredding and scattering and leaving the hollow. The sun baked the edges and burned away still more. I poured out of my face and fell out of my throat and rotted in my own belly. Every waking began with the slivered edge of a remembrance of what was, followed fast by the rushing wailing of the remembrance of what was now. I was breaking and broken and crucially crumbling, wasting away in the tender part that knit us together, the part that was carved, the place that was cut, the pieces that were shredded and scattered, the hollow that remained, waiting, growing. I crumpled around the absence and slid inside. I wept my way around the borders of this emptiness; I crawled in the dark of it, finding it ever expanding under my searching palms, my dirty knees, my bowed and broken head. In this way I mapped the shape of the place my sister occupied in the person I was. I often forgot where I was and thought I would find her there, even though there was the place of where she was not. So I heaved and sobbed through a wretched and winding way, and in these crawling, sliding, elbow dragging travels I discovered what the hollow held. There in the dark, wet cold, I did not find a straightforward grief, or frank loss, or blunt pain. It was nothing so simple or neat, not so clean or sane. Inside, instead, I found a living thing. I found an unwanted and strange creature, humming and fluttering along under my ribs. It has a name I love and a face I miss, but it is not her.

It’s a beating and breathing mass of all that she was, and all I was with her, and all we were together. It murmurs what was left unsaid, and remembers what should never have been said. It shimmers with memories beautiful, and shudders under memories terrible. It teems with joys, with guilt, with questions; it dreams in misty ifs and cries in sharp barks of why, why, why? It is frenetic and dangerous, full of teeth and grasping claws that mark me over and over again; it is smooth, docile curves where I can rest my head and hear the beating heart of what it meant to be and to have a sister. In the hollow, beneath my ribs, sometimes it’s so small I can breathe around it. Sometimes I forget it is there and glance down to find its eyes on me, and then I have to discover it all over again through the infinite shock of knowing. Sometimes it’s wild and screaming and threatens to overtake me; sometimes it does, and then I’m in the hollow, in unfamiliar places I have yet to map, crawling again on searching palms and dirty knees, lost. Sometimes, when it has been exceptionally tame and I am feeling especially brave, I make myself reach in and carefully cradle it in my hands. I make myself feel the shape of it, and softly stroke the finality of what it means to have such a creature inside of me. I feel the awful weight of it in my palms, the warm, weeping reality cupped there, the insistence of the necessity of carrying it with me until I, too, am an unwanted and strange creature beating and breathing in the hollow under someone’s ribs. Rare are these brave times, because they leave me exhausted- far more so than those first lost days of crawling, sliding, elbow dragging travels. At the bottom of everything, of course, such distinctions are pointless: whether cupped in my hand or curled in the hollow, I can never, and I will never, be apart from it in any way that truly relieves me. The geography of the body doesn’t allow for such distance. Our proximity is complete and final.

Most of the time, I can be neat and clean and sane, and allow it to live as I know it must live, to dream and scratch and breathe and beat and shimmer and shudder, to hum and flutter along somewhere under my ribs. Most of the time I can set my shoulders and move through the world even as it moves inside of me. Most of the time. Still, in slipping moments I sometimes give in to the need to stand on the slivered edge of remembrance of what was. I shake my head at what is now. I try to fill in the space where I was carved and cut, but it pours out of me. I try to gather the shredded and scattered, but it is forever lost. In this ritual I try to deny what is now, even as I know I cannot forget the crawling travels of the hollow, or ignore the unwanted and strange creature under my ribs.

Despite the hopelessness of it, I do so desperately wish that it hummed and fluttered anonymously.

Despite the hopelessness of it, I do so desperately wish that it did not take the name I love and wear the face I miss.

Despite the hopelessness of it, I do so desperately wish for June 17th.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Rainy Days and Wasting Time

The crooked staircase leading to the abandoned amusement park

I am writing to you, as I so often do, on a long train. This one is the Kaunas, Lithuania to Bialystok, Poland version. It’s a three carriage affair with bright new red seats that was, for the first half of the journey, so silent and empty that I had an entire carriage to myself in which to shamelessly roll out a yoga mat in the aisle for half an hour. Considering this was a four hour, no, surprise, you forgot about the time change, five hour train, that kind of first half was certainly appreciated. Currently in the second half of the journey the train is more bustling, with cell phone conversations and seniors on bike holidays and painfully cool teenagers who are studiously and self-consciously draping themselves into various positions of could not care less- no, really, I don’t care, see? I see. The mother two aisles back from me has been desperately wrangling a small bouncing child, who has now resorted to screeching a protest against the time spent on the train. The train is indifferent to the protests, and continues to pursue the track at a slow and methodical “yes, we will take five entire hours to get there” pace. 

The scenery sliding by my window could be the American midwest: rolling hills, cows dotting the countryside, flocks of white birds bursting low across the tops of fields. The skies are summertime blue, clouds are obligingly white, and coupled with the farmhouses that crop up intermittently it is thoroughly earning the description idyllic. Nothing is left of the sopping day before. That day was wrung out in Kaunas, spent biking into a constant faceful of cold, pricking mist that frequently turned to fine, persistent rain. It doesn’t occur to me to feel anything towards this seemingly bad weather luck, even though one would think rain and trains and sun and bikes fit together more nicely. Generally speaking, this is true, but there are always exceptions. Almost nothing reinforces a lack of responsibility more than willfully, slowly, moving your body through the rain without concern for the consequences. No matter being wet, hair frizzled, smelling slightly of outdoor cat and wet leaves, sweat mixed with humidity, a fine layer of grit all over- to move unhindered by, and uncovered in, the rain is to declare that absolutely nothing is expected that would require being presentable.

And so every pedal stroke over every slick surface chanted Iamonvacationrightnow, round and round. I was spectrums of wet and disheveled all over that town- there was no quick dash from shelter to shelter, no wait it out, it was all let’s swan through, take the time, look at that statue, have another turn around the square. I walked through an abandoned amusement park under trees dutifully turning leaves full of water over onto my head with every breeze. I sat down to lunch decidedly not dry all over, my hair expanded into a water born creature with a life and goals of its own. I visited a bakery after carelessly sitting in the puddle my bike seat had collected while I observed a church organ for as long as I wanted, humid and thoughtful. That evening, I crept softly through the shelves of a local bookshop with my jacket quietly weeping down my legs, rain drop curls clinging to my neck. The clerk responded to my request for Lithuanian poets with a handwritten note that listed four names; she pressed it into my damp palm where it promptly transferred the authors backwards into my hand, passport stamp proof of that strange and lovely day.

I will remember Kaunas as a cold, grey bowl of a world, explored lazily on a rented bicycle, guided by a paper map, the meandering route in the wind and rain punctuated with these warm pockets: the abrupt, stark silence of the unexpectedly stunning cathedral; the circle of heat from the pizza oven at lunch; the yeasty air of the bakery; the bookshop scented with coffee and pastries. This might not even be Kaunas- who knows what the sun brings- but it’s the Kaunas I had, and it was gloriously grey scale and otherworldly. 

I’m telling you this part after a train station layover, now on the final leg to Warsaw- the first time for that city, but the third visit to Poland. Returning to foreign countries is something I never thought I would do and will probably never get used to. It still seems lucky and strange to me to get to visit new places at all; going back to old places and enjoying familiarity and favourite spots and comfort feels like a luxury that belongs to other people with different lives. I don’t know if the person I was a few years ago would have been able to make the most out of the one day spent in a small town being surrendered to rain without being filled with regret. Everything felt so tenuous, so desperately important, when I was first traveling and living abroad. There were so many firsts to be had, an almost endless parade of them that I knew I wanted, and I also knew I didn’t want anything to be squandered. Being able to graciously rinse a day out in the rain, or leave earlier than planned, or stay later than expected, or “waste” vacation days going back to the same city just because I liked it on a previous trip, is a freedom that has come with getting to the point where I have satisfied so much of what I needed to satisfy. 

I realized, even just now as I was writing this, that I don’t travel like I am starving anymore, like I need to consume the world in one mad dash to make up for lost time (which is usually not lost at all, just defined as such, and so it finds itself lost). I have spent years of my life pursuing what I needed to have, and I have been able to have so much of it. I am finally at a point where I can give all the time I want to it. I can stay longer. I can go back. There isn’t an arbitrary expiration date hanging over me anymore, wagging a finger that I need to hurry up. I don’t have to pray for sunny days, or hope a school will hire me in spite of lack of experience, or wonder if my funds will travel with me as far as I want to go. 

I’ve reached the point where Kaunas can rain, and I can let Kaunas rain, and nothing feels ruined or lost. This is the current version of the product of all these decisions over the last five years. I have traveled and explored and searched my way into feeling like I am walking through places now, and letting them wash over me, instead of running after them. I liked the running- it felt good to know I could run to get the things I wanted, when I needed to. I don’t need to anymore, and that feels good, too.