Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Right Now in Laos: Gut Anarchy, Chipped Fillings, and Trusting the Process

Today I had an emergency filling done for $15, with no appointment and no anesthetic, in a dentist next door to where I was dancing in wrapping paper and snowflakes on Saturday night. This is why I love Laos. But wait, I need to back up.

Sunday: After being out most of the night with most of the falang in town, I woke up tangled in said wrapping paper and blankets on my friends’ couch. I had gotten approximately 4 hours of sleep, and two thoughts hit me- one, my VTE BFF Peter was rolling out of the country that day, and I needed to meet up for one last brunch, which made me really sad, and two, I need to get out of here, but the gate, like all gates in Vientiane, is high, jagged, and locked. Every other person in the house had gone out the night before, and all were definitely still asleep. I waited until I heard someone stirring, then walking across the upstairs floor, then clicking into the bathroom. Poor Erica had me lurking outside her bathroom door like a curious cat or a clingy child, and she kindly let me out of her house with barely opened eyes but still, as always, with a big sunny smile. I drove home in the sharp-cold morning air, skirt flapping and crackling and shining silver, red, gold, and green in the sun. A motorbike gang of women heading to the market, laden with vegetables, pointed and openly laughed. I smiled back, happy to be their strange falang on a Sunday morning. I pulled into my apartment as I have so many mornings, wearing strange remnants of whatever costume I had put together the night before. I love my place because I live at a gay club, and therefore the owners have zero judgment of whatever I get up to. They barely batted an eye as I went fluttershining by. They’ve seen me in lights, in beards, in flowers- nothing to see here, moving on…

A few hours later I’m at CafĂ© Nomad for Peter’s last brunch. It’s attended by several of us all moving a bit slow, talking low, squinting in the light and talking casually all around the sadly commonplace fact of a friend leaving forever. Before it’s even started it seems it’s over, and he’s gunning off on his absurd bike. I know that I won’t know he’s gone until I head to Joma on a weekday and realize he’ll never randomly be there, calling out hello darlin’, pull up a chair. I’m tired and already a bit sad, so I head home and try to write something about it, but I find that everything is sliding, and why am I cold when it’s not cold? Oh. Oh. Great. I’m sick.

Monday: I am a flaming ball of food sick and or virus but who really cares, the end result is awful.  I can’t be certain of what it is, but I do know that it feels a lot like the souvenir I brought back from Cambodia last year, when I sampled homemade tofu made with local water in buckets, pressed on dirty rocks. So, you know, not great. I had the foresight, when I was downtown and felt the first prickings of gut anarchy, to pick up some Gatorade, bananas, and crackers. That was smart. The last two weren’t happening; the first was barely tolerated at well –spaced intervals.

In between the naps filled with watery limbs and hot chills, I used my laptop as a heating pad on my belly and confirmed some last minute details for my upcoming trip, which I am wholeheartedly “I hope it will be fun” about. I’m trying, really I am, to get it up for traveling in SE Asia, and I don’t know why I just generally can’t.

I couldn't eat for over 24 hours, but when I finally broke my fast that night, I managed to chip a filling. I chipped that filling on, of all things, soggy crackers and soup. Then I barfed up the soggy crackers and soup. After that I cried a little bit because my tooth hurt and I was damned hungry and still sick. I posted a request for a dentist on Buy and Sell Vientiane, which meant that within about 5 minutes every single person in town knew that I needed a dentist, which is both useful and strange.
My stomach was killing me, my chipped filling was making ribbons out of my cheek, and I wanted more than anything to eat but my stomach was saying no in no uncertain terms. So I went to sleep.

Tuesday: I woke up still feeling somewhere on the spectrum between garbage dump and compost heap on a hot afternoon, but I dragged myself to school anyway. My students were epic- they really suit up and show up when I am a miserable sack of myself, and their empathy makes me happier than any spelling test or correct grammar ever could. All day I worry that chipped filling with my tongue, feeling somewhat relieved that my co-worker has assured me that the dentist- down the street from the best cheesesteak in town and across the street from the western themed pub where the waitresses wear cowboy hats- is wonderful, cheap, safe, and clean. I like all of those adjectives. The location, next to my first favorite restaurant, the best club in town for dancing, and a place that references all things Texas, seems propitious. I indulge in omens I don’t believe in as a sign that all will be well. I end the day haven’t not puked or otherwise expelled my late lunch, which leaves me feeling inordinately cocky and full of life and optimism. I head downtown and get the last train out of Suratthani on January 1st, and although it is fan only and the windows don’t open, I feel like I won the lottery. And then it’s off to the dentist.

The dentist’s office is somehow refreshingly casual, like going into your grandma’s living room. It’s neat and tidy, slightly careworn, some chipped paint here and there, but altogether it’s solid and spotless. I’m led back to a chair that is unassuming and out in the open, and quickly I’m turned over to the competent hands of a dentist. She pokes and scratches, and then comes at me, with no explanation, all nonchalant with a drill. I immediately lose my “No big deal, getting dentistry done on a random side street in Laos is FINE” cool, and protest as to a vital step being missed- where, excuse me, is my shot? How is there a drill without a shot? The receptionist pops around the corner, with a jaunty kind of fedora on her head, and she assures me that the shot will hurt more than the drill.

What. Are . You. Saying.

I do not believe this. I am unconvinced, to the point where I am actually clamping my hands over my mouth and shaking my head. Do not want. She laughs and promises it’s fine, saying “She just needs to drill out the filling down to where it’s cracked, and it’s not worth doing a shot for.” You don’t say? Just, not WORTH it, huh? Okay, okay, I’ll play this game. A part of me wants to test this theory just to see what happens. So I throw up my hands (literally and emotionally at this point), open my mouth, and let that tiny little Lao woman come at me with a drill. And the receptionist was right. Yeah, it hurt sometimes, but it wasn’t a big deal, and actually, it wasn’t worth a shot. I am having a revelation, sitting there in that chair, with a drill in my mouth and feeling all of it, but it stays at a level of uncomfortable, only crawling into ouch a few times, and when I place it on the scale of pain, I emphatically decide that my flaming brick of a stomach was far more painful. This is charming and novel, and I focus on the attentive eye of the dentist, an ink black pupil shining in a circle of brown reflecting the inside of my mouth. It’s over very quickly.

When I checked out, the receptionist grinned at me, gave me my shockingly cheap bill, and said “It’s funny, people from over there always think you need a shot. Most of the time you don’t. The shot hurts more than anything. It’s easier to be a bit uncomfortable.”

So I write to you with a brand new $15 filling in my mouth, and in my head I’m changing what that receptionist said into something far more profound. Numbing things usually does hurt more and take more time than just doing them. Living here involves a lot of just doing things, without any prior preparation or script to follow. I get randomly sick pretty often, from food to bizarre viruses to pneumonia to who knows what else. People I love often leave, and I often leave people I love, and relationships in general shift like sand and it’s hard to keep a firm footing. I find myself in uncomfortable new situations, having to trust in things I don’t really trust in, having to suspend my preconceived judgments, expectations, or fears. It can feel so incredibly vulnerable to go at these things with nothing between me and them but blind faith that it will be fine. But on the other side, 99% of the time, I am fine. I like those numbers.   

Sunday, November 23, 2014

For Occupation - This

This week I decided to teach a poetry unit to a group of students for whom English is a second language, and one not yet very well mastered. To say there is a wide range of abilities, motivation, effort, and home support would be a gross understatement: some of my students are near fluent, while others are still working on reaching conversational comfort. I wasn’t sure how this would go.

So I started off with Emily Dickinson, for a very simple reason- if someone were to come across an Emily Dickinson poem printed on a wayward slip of paper, wholly out of context from anything else, the sparse style, disregard for grammar, and liberal use of Capital Letters would clearly mean that this was no letter or page from a book or notes from a speech. It’s visually, in an immediate way, something that looks like poetry. It’s foreign and strange compared to ESL textbooks and even the novels we read in class. And so we started with Emily, and specifically, with this one:

I dwell in Possibility – (466)
I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –

Of Chambers as the Cedars –
Impregnable of eye –
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky –

Of Visitors – the fairest –
For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –

Look, plenty of native speaking American kids struggle with poems like this. Plenty of adults do, too. So I asked them to close their eyes, and just listen first. They did. They opened their eyes. I asked them if they understood. Not a single hand. That’s fine, I said, that’s part of the work. I paused for a second, and then promised them they would understand. Are you ready to take some notes? Yes? Okay, get out your dictionaries. Let’s dig in. We will understand this together, but you’ve got to stay with me. What is the definition of dwell? Let’s start there…

And so, together, with all my tricks and hints and leading and support, and with their dogged insistence on hanging with me and following along, we got it. They understood. Their pages were marked and annotated with definitions, and with my plain speak translations of the words. We had cracked it open, sifted through it, and put it back together. Okay. Read it again now that we’ve explained it.

They all read, and the room was so silent that I could hear the electric hum of my laptop. Not a single student, not one, didn’t read. All I saw when I looked out was the white shine of light on the tops of black hair as they bent over their papers. This was no perfunctory glance down and glance up. It was a good two or three minutes before they raised their faces again. And they were lit up. The air in the room felt different. I asked them to shout out words that they felt, just the first thing they thought of.

Full! Large! Happy! Big! Strong!
What does it mean to you, to dwell in possibility?
It makes me feel like I can do anything, one said.
Do you feel proud right now?
Emphatic nodded heads all ‘round. They looked at each other and grinned like they shared a secret.

I feel proud of you, too.

More smiles.

The bell rang and they slowly packed up, telling me thank you and have a good day and a good weekend and see you on Monday. And then- Teacher, can we read more poetry next week? Can we write our own? What is your favorite poem? They stayed a few lingering minutes into their break clustered around me. The air still felt different. I felt like we had gone on a journey together and seen something new and were remembering it together.

They left and the room was filled with that quality of discovery even after they had been gone several minutes. I stood in the middle of the room and found that I was crying. So I sat at my desk and thought about how I would never have seen that in them if I hadn’t tried to do something hard with them. I’m in the habit of writing down observations throughout my day, and I wrote the following, while it was fresh on my mind:

How many challenges in the classroom come from the teacher not having enough faith in students' abilities to do difficult and demanding work?  If a teacher has never comprehensively tried to support students in performing at a higher level, that is base laziness; it dismisses out of hand students’ possible abilities. High expectations without adequate support is counterproductive, but a lack of expectations borders on willful oppression of potential. Even if students cannot accomplish what is set before them, higher expectations and more challenging work will show them what they can do when they are required to do more than they think they can. A failure, in this context, is still a success, and a success in this context is a gift of confidence and motivation that has few rivals.

This isn’t just about teachers and students in a classroom though; this is about what we do to ourselves as well, when we choose our paths and actions. I know there have been many times in my life when I haven’t attempted something because I was afraid to fail. So I aimed for something easier. Something safer. Sure, I had to work. Yes, it was hard. But I went into it with at least a kernel of solid faith that I could do this thing and probably do it well. And that’s not really learning. Or experiencing. That’s recycling, or re-doing, or re-working something I already have. To truly learn, in a classroom or in the world, requires a moment when you just admit that you’re not sure if it will work, or if you can do it, or how it will turn out. You might not even know where to start. You start anyway. You don’t know where to go next, but you keep going.  You can fail at a lot of it. You might not get exactly what you want. But you can want so much more than you are currently allowing yourself to try to have. And if you try, even when you fail you can have so much more. You can feel large, and happy, and big, and strong, if you let go of safe- if you let yourself accept also the possibility of what others deem failure.

After days in the classroom like I had on Friday, days that leave me jittery with happiness and stunned by the humanity and will of my students, I’m deeply moved by what I’m doing right now. Teaching has, up to this point, been the most transformative and humbling experience of my life. Days like Friday remind me of the potential I have to open windows and doors in my students, not because I’m doing something magical, but because I’m helping them see what they already have inside of themselves. I’m just pointing it out- hey, look here. You know what that is?

That’s you. And you are filled with possibility.   

Monday, November 17, 2014

Marital Strife

Why would you think we have internet? Whatever gave you that idea? 

I've been having one of those periods every expat is familiar with, which is inevitable, but is still frustrating when it comes along. Here goes: I am sick unto death of Laos. I would go so far as to say I kind of hate it right now.

Wait! Before you start telling me to quit my job and just come home...

The last thing I want to do is to quit anything. I don't want to quit my life or job here at all, and from a 30,000 foot view I know it's where I need to be right now. I am getting my grad work finished, getting experience, and getting to be with some of the best kids I've ever had the pleasure of teaching at the same time, on top of being surrounded by stellar support systems of lovely friends I've picked up along the road. It's just that if Laos and I were married it would be on the couch right now. And I'd be callin' my mama and complaining about how terrible it is. Maybe I would stay the night at a friend's and tell it I'll talk to it when I was ready. You get the picture.

Right now, all the things I normally find interesting and endearing are just annoying me, and the truly annoying things, the things you just kind of roll with when you are on your adaptable and always land on your feet expat game, are too much.

A short list:

Mosquitoes, why? Stop trying to kill me! Motorbikes, so over it, I just want to not get almost hit a kajillion times on my mile drive to work. Food, why do you make me ill and dizzy and why do you have random bits of plastic and too much MSG in you? House, can you have a real kitchen? Hospitals, why don't you exist? Dust, why do you exist? Dogs, why are you such assholes when I'm just trying to be nice to you? Roads, why? Just why, on every aspect of being a road, why? Internet, do you understand how to get to Laos? Do you need a map? Vientiane, why are you so expensive, do you not understand where you are? Checking account, why do you make me feel ashamed to be 31 and have one that looks like you? Health insurance, what is that? Men on the street, do you understand how creepy you are right now?

Okay, there. I feel better. Please understand that my job is wrapped up in my current country, and sometimes I just want to bitch about that situation without worrying you guys that I hate my life or "just need to quit and come home." Thus the marriage analogy- if one of you complained about your spouse, I wouldn't automatically tell you to divorce him/her. If you said your kids were stressing you out, I wouldn't tell you to give them away. And if you complained about a job you liked 80% of the time, I wouldn't tell you to quit. I'm still hanging solid at above 80% with my current situation, so it's fine. I also admit that there is a part of me that associates complaining about anything about Laos with being either ungrateful or not openminded enough to deal with it. It's okay to just say "This sucks." And there has been a lot of my saying that this week, so in the interest of full disclosure, I wanted to say it here. When I first moved to Vientiane and really super hated it (see: every single blog I wrote basically from August until November of 2013) I felt more free to say how much I disliked it. Now that I've loved so much of it, and signed up for another year, I feel like complaining about it at all ever will just result in a fear that I'm not in a good place.

I'm okay, I'm just frustrated because Laos right now. Next week I'll love it again, and love it even more after being so over it. Cycles.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Traffic Jams and Meditations on Mortality

At home, traffic flows in neatly segregated channels. The roads belong to the cars, and sometimes, in a begrudging concession, to cyclists rolling along a narrow bridge of bike lane. Any pedestrian forays into the territory of vehicles are tightly controlled with lights and stripes and sloping curbs. There is The Road and there is Not the Road. There is A Place for Vehicles and A Place not For Vehicles.

To live in developing countries, or at least the ones I have lived in/traveled to, is to accept that everywhere is The Road. You come to know the intimacy of traffic as it constantly rushes whisper fast past the soft flesh of your body. It is to be the rock in the middle of the stream, to have it flowing around you on all sides, to know that it slides past your vulnerable, capable of death self with nothing more protecting you than a bright hope and perhaps falsely placed faith that you can trust someone not to kill you with their weapon of choice vehicle.

And so you walk in the street and learn not to jump rabbit wary when you hear a motor coming behind; you step out and expect motorbikes to swerve around; you pay no attention to cars coming at you on sidewalks because who are you, mere pedestrian, to lay exclusive claim to a sidewalk? A parking space is wherever there is space to park, and the definition of space is widely expansive even when that actual space is not. A traffic light is a valiant effort but in practice is little more than a barely tolerated novelty. A stop sign is a suggestion made in a conciliatory “If it pleases you” tone, and the threshold for pleasing is usually unattainably high. Painting lines on anything should be seen as pure artistic expression and not as anything meant to enforce ideas of traffic flow- come on, it’s just paint. Are you going to let PAINT boss you around? I thought not. A one way street is constantly having its high ideals of order crushed, and should probably just give up its unreasonable demands on direction. There is no reason to clutter up a perfectly good construction zone with cones and lights and directions as to how to avoid dropping unceremoniously into a hole. Figure it out, do what you need to do, get where you need to be. 

To be fair, traffic here in Vientiane is far, far less shocking than in Albania; it’s just that the popularity of scooters creates a whole other bag of what in the fresh hell moments.  Something about a scooter lends itself to even more flagrant violations- you convince yourself “Oh, it’s kind of just like I’m on a bicycle, but... with a motor... but I mean, not a big motor... so I can totally go the wrong way for just a moment, pull up on this sidewalk, drive around these tables, and park right here.” The justifications are endless, but honestly, even calling them justifications implies that these actions are outside the bounds- but they aren't, because there are no bounds, and it’s just a Tuesday afternoon or a late Saturday night and you’re just driving on The Road, which is Everywhere and All Places.

You can, as you might imagine, get dangerously used to this kind of freedom, and the quickness with which I took to driving my motorbike and sliding in and out of tight places and shrugging off close calls would have shocked me if I could be shocked at this point. I have to thank Albania for inoculating me against any kind of traffic fear, as a driver or passenger. Nowhere before or after has provided as much catastrophic potential in the form of roads or traffic. I loved every minute of those road trips, even as I white knuckled and gasped my way through the early ones. Never mind driving, though- simply walking was my first hurdle, to be specific about it. The first week I lived in Albania, I was crippled with heart stopping anxiety every time I had to cross a street. See, you just crossed a street- by that I mean, there was no look both ways wait for traffic to stop look at the light and then go. You just crossed, and in the act of crossing, you signaled to traffic that you’d like them to cease barreling towards you. Crossing a street of several lanes was an exercise in total blind acceptance of whatever might befall you, because if you couldn’t, on some level, just give up that reptile part of you that screams DO NOT DO THIS, YOU WILL DIE, you would be waiting on the corner of the Zogu i Zi roundabout until you did, eventually, die, because you could wait there for years while the endless swirl of cars fought round and round in a circle of diesel dust and blaring horns. So you just take a deep breath and jump in and trust the process.

Exposure training is how I think of it, because at some point, you just can’t be afraid anymore- you literally cannot produce that much fear in your body, and it gives up, and you just accept it, and then suddenly your threshold for "NONONO, WE ARE ALL GOING TO DIE” is raised exponentially. You level up into a new realm of lack of concern for this meat suit that lets you walk around. It’s liberating. There’s really no way to say it without sounding far too heavy, but living in developing countries really goes a long way in mitigating your garden variety excessive fear of your own death*. Something truly serious has to be happening to register on the meter, when you’re so constantly surrounded by dangerous practices, contaminated water, buildings with no safety regulations or fire alarms, potentially rabid stray dogs, mosquitoes who have the power to seriously screw you up, and underneath all of it, the knowledge that you have no hospital to whom to place an emergency call if shit does, finally, get real. You don't have time to sit and ponder remote possibilities when you don't really want to ponder close possibilities that aren't the greatest.

Some days, I get on my motorbike and start to drive and am struck with the absurdly out of context realization of "Oh, I forgot to put on my seatbelt!" Then I actually laugh out loud, because I can't remember the last time I wore a seatbelt in a car anyway. For a second, this realization starts to slide into trepidation. But then I shift through my gears and rattle down my road to take my place in the clattering crowd of scooters and just as quickly forget. I'm a soft little rock, choosing to live in places with traffic that wants to know me and live next to me, and I just have to trust everything will flow around me just so.

*I’ve spent the grand majority of my life obsessing over dying, and being terrified of it, in ways that I’m fairly certain are highly abnormal and unhealthy. People often tell me that I am brave for living overseas, or traveling alone, or other such things, but the secret is that my baseline brain function is to live a lot of my life in anxiety and fear. By pushing myself completely out of my comfort zone to a point where my corresponding fear is untenable, and it exhausts itself, I am finally free of that anxiety. Your mileage may vary.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Dispatches Drenched in Lung Sauce, or, It's Cool Season, Hurrah!

I googled "pneumonia cartoons" just to see what would pop up. This is a verbatim transcript of my doctor's visit, as written by a random internet stranger who makes Square Cat Comics. 

To be fair, what turned into pneumonia was really good at disguising itself, initially, as no more than a common chest cold, a kennel cough I had heard barking its way through most of my expat comrades. When I woke up with a phlegmy brick lodged generally between the area of my throat and chest, I assumed it was my turn to pass the bacterial mantle and approached the situation with Mucinex and phenylephrine and water. Having taken those things, I continued on with my fun-filled boat racing holiday. I also assumed that lots of dancing would dislodge all that junk in my chest and help it work its way out. Afternoon naps and hours long brunches after late nights, liberally applied, rounded out my treatment plan.

Look, I never claimed to be a doctor, but I have been accused of being a hypochondriac, so I now approach most health issues with a hyper inflated sense of flippancy, to prove how much I'm not worried. Just a cold, nothing to see here, moving on...

And so a week after I began hacking and struggling and snotting my way through the days, I woke up to a serious turn of respiratory events. I really just couldn't breathe that well. My head ached and I was weak. My lungs had painful rings of "I'm fuuuuuuuuuuuuuucked uuuuuuuuuuup" throbbing at me from the bottom, and I was coughing up blood thanks to my throat being so raw it was tapping out and giving itself to escape. I've had walking pneumonia before, so I knew what was up. A quick visit to the doctor confirmed it, and then I basically just spent a week lurking on floor mattresses and having food brought to me and taking lots of antibiotics and trying not to have panic attacks when I woke up coughing unto choking unto vomiting. I watched the Grand Budapest Hotel three times. I slept a lot. I missed sitting upright. I has a plastic water bottle spittoon next to my bed and I do think tobacco would have been less gross. I wore the same clothes for three days, and showered about every two. There was no internet 99% of the time, which was good, because I would have googled things I didn't need to google. I was horizontal with my eyes closed, not talking or sleeping, for hours at a time. In the absence of pneumonia, it could have been a pretty relaxing time, altogether. In the presence of pneumonia plus lovely caretakers, it was bearable.

Speaking of, I need to make a full stop right here and say that during and after I was/am overwhelmed by the kindness of my family of friends here when it came to stepping in and taking care of me. I was talked to and visited and texted and called and messaged and fed and petted and held and hosted and movie watched with and overall treated to the kind of care that reminds me that I should thank my lucky stars to have fallen in with such stellar human beings. I live alone and I love it, but being sick, and being sick overseas, is too much even for my ultra private introvert ways. When I can't breathe, I want to be surrounded by people who know things like emergency numbers and how to get me where I need to be if I can't explain it. And I was surrounded by Very Good People. This was infinitely better than last year, when I was fever stricken and puking in the street, pondering throwing bricks at people, and returning home to little more than scrawny street cats. Progress is made.

Today I'm coming to terms with the reality that is taking a week off from work and grad school, which means an epic backlog of both. As a result, I am, of course, lounging in a coffeeshop because my internet at home is, once again, not working. I asked for lemon tea, but they just brought me hot water, which is really just as good at the end of the day. I write to you while I sip hot water and watch small Korean children stumble around the chair legs of their parents. The lights are yellow and the ceiling looks like a field of inverted wooden Tetris. I'm on a futon. I'm resisting the urge to lie down, which is very hard because there are legitimate bed pillows on this thing. More hot water. So sleepy.

I know when I leave that I will go home and crawl into my bed and not need to use the AC, because the fan is starting to be enough. As I was riding my motorbike here tonight I felt a creeping undercurrent of cool breeze sifting slow over my bare knees, under the rest of the humid heat. I slowed down and looked up- the night was clear and I could see some stars. The cool season is officially sliding in on the wet tracks of rainy season. I'm looking forward to cold motorbike rides home, the possibility of pants at night, a more lively social scene of events sure to not be rained out, and sharp clear mornings where my students will chide me about not wearing a sweater because I will get sick.

Maybe I've gotten the getting sick out of the way. They're not doctors either. But maybe I will heed their warnings this year and bundle up just in case.

Thursday, August 14, 2014


I had the best intentions of writing profusely this summer, not just here on my navel gazing blog, but mostly for a personal project, an actual goal, something that might be Something. Before I left Vientiane, I got all jacked up on great literature (finally read A Farewell To Arms and felt both reborn as a reader and awkwardly in love with Hemingway's brain) as well as inspirational quotes and essays and advice about writing/the writing process and making "time for the craft" and all sorts of bullshit like that. I was motivated, inspired, and excited to start.

So, of course I went to America and promptly made less than the "time for the craft". Instead, I went home and made a tiny bomb out of sloth and apathy, which I planted inside the craft in order to explode it into a million pieces that scattered ash and "LOL, nice try" all over my summer. And to be totally honest, I suffered from it. My brain was as scattered as that condescending craft ash, I was losing sleep spending hours staring at the ceiling mulling over pretty much every decision I've made in my life thus far, which left my body in a constant state of screw you, and in general I felt overwhelmed with all the junk I had to lug around inside of me since I wasn't dumping it all out on the keyboard almost every day like I had grown accustomed to.

I had plenty to write about; I just didn't make the time, and I paid for it. A big part of it was all the terrible awful that was returning to Dallas, which was the only thing I could muster the energy to write about, because it hurt so bad it forced me to talk about it because I was so angry and sad about my sister. I think a lot of it was sensory overload of what I was experiencing by being back home, and I couldn't even wiggle out a small, external space from which to write about it objectively. Some of it was my confusion and culture shock and frustration with how damned hard it is to do anything in America without transportation, which left me feeling unproductive in general. 

But mostly? I just flat out didn't even know how to talk about what I was feeling, because even I didn't know how to categorize and explain it. I felt like I was in a surreal dream this summer- on the one hand, it was amazing and felt like I had never left. My family and friends welcomed me back with open arms and homes and help and support and love and it was incredible to have lazy days hanging out for no particular reason other than it was a Tuesday and I was there and so were they and the kids were playing all over the place all around us. Impromptu lunch dates, nights out, slow burn afternoons by the pool that turned into up all night conversations- it was an easy and pleasurable transition, in that regard. On the other hand, feeling like I had never left also felt strange- like those two years just didn't happen in the alternate reality of Texas, in the timeline of my life. It felt like I was in a holding cell, a suspended time moment, a little break off to the side, as though Albania and Laos, two countries who held a portion of my life equal to half of my college career, were mere footnotes, offhanded obscure references. But by the same token, Texas this summer didn't feel like my real life, either, even though it was filled with people who have been in my life the longest. I felt disconnected a lot, which was exacerbated by frustration that what I had been up to the past two years felt like something distant and "over there" instead of my actual, day to day, life. I live overseas and travel a lot and have a pretty foot loose and fancy free lifestyle, yes, but that is not the same thing as a vacation- it's my life, the only one I have, and it's how I've been living it for more than 24 months. It sometimes felt like it was just easier to shove all those days and months and experiences and life under the bed like a suitcase of winter clothes- I didn't need those, it's summer time, why bring them out and wear them? Trying to bring up stories of Albania or Laos, in an effort to connect with those around me by commiserating about experiences, often felt clunky and awkward, in some way I couldn't put my finger on. I wanted to punch myself in the face when I heard myself starting a sentence with "In Albania_______" or "In Laos__________", because it felt like I said it a lot, but in retrospect, why did I find it problematic? That's what I've been doing, it's where I've been, it's where I was returning- it is who I am. It's no more strange than someone talking about their kids, or their own jobs, or life plans, or routines. But for some reason, it felt stilted and forced and strange, because Albania and Laos seemed like distant planets from where I was in Texas, even to me, although I had lived there. Shoving it all under the bed and going about my business and fully immersing myself in Texas seemed the best bet, and, in the end, when I did that, I began to enjoy my time there much more and felt more connected. I knew my time in Texas was finite, but in that time, I pretended like it was the only thing that existed. I guess that's a long way of saying "live in the moment".

I failed spectacularly at the complement to my writing goal- reading heaps of books- but I did manage to get it together and read The Fault in Our Stars right before I left Texas. I was reluctant and skeptical due to the hyperbolic love it induces in people, but it was an incredibly cathartic way to end my time there. I spent my last few days in the states reading my way through the jagged familiarity of the kind of grief that comes from days, weeks, months, or even years of nestling your head against a death living in front of you inside a person you love. It motivated me to start writing again and cramming my "Journal" folder full of random Word document scraps of thoughts and sentences and rambles of ideas. There is a quote about maximizing time within externally imposed limits that I found beautiful (and which most people who have read the book are fond of quoting, judging by all the pinterest images about it). Here it is, edited a bit to avoid any spoilers.

“There are infinite numbers between 0 and 1. There's .1 and .12 and .112 and an infinite collection of others. Of course, there is a bigger infinite set of numbers between 0 and 2, or between 0 and a million. Some infinities are bigger than other infinities. There are days, many of them, when I resent the size of my unbounded set. I want more numbers than I'm likely to get... but I cannot tell you how thankful I am for our little infinity. I wouldn't trade it for the world. You gave me a forever within the numbered days, and I'm grateful.” 
― John GreenThe Fault in Our Stars

At first, I felt like I had to make my life in Albania and Laos understood within the context of my life back in Texas: to explain, to overlay it, to make them relevant to one another, to expand them all by combining them, but I was losing time on both sides. When I let that go and just fell back into the time I had stateside, without worrying about the time that was running by me as my return to Laos came ever closer, I was able to make a little infinity within the confines of my two months in Texas. I'm much the better for that choice. 

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

If I Never See You Again

The last time I was here in Dallas, and the last time I saw everyone, was during that horrendous week of planning and attending my sister's funeral. Everywhere is loss, everywhere I look. It is harder than I thought it would be. I'm trying to be positive and make new memories, but the combination of being away so long, and having the most recent memory be so terrible, has been too much at times. I sit up and think about dying. I listen to sad songs and look through pictures. I know I just got here, and I know it will get better, but at the end of it, right now, as I sit here, I'm just not capable of being sunny and optimistic on this topic, and it's all I have in the back of my brain since I got here. I hate that she isn't here. It fills me with rage that she is not one of the people I get to visit, but then the rage goes away and all that is left is sadness.

I drive down 75 and remember exiting the highway, going to my father's house, and falling out of the passenger door and scrambling to hold the edges against me while I screamed in my father's face, sitting on the curb, parked in front of the house. I see the restaurant where she worked. I come to my friend's house and lay on the couch and remember my cousin Melanie and I, destroyed with grief and exhaustion, stretched out with burning eyes and numb heads begging Bobby to please fix the powerpoint, it's 2 a.m. and we need it for the funeral tomorrow. The music won't sync. The pictures don't fade. It won't export. I'm in the bathroom and remember putting on that blue skirt, and the shirt with the birds, and Brooke comes in and tells me I look beautiful and then later I'm sitting on the bird shit covered steps of the funeral home crying my eyes out and I feel bad because I borrowed Brooke's skirt but I just truly cannot move and I just have to sit in shit and cry. I remember the awful after get together at the house we no longer have. I remember how the first time I met my sweet friend's baby girl I was covered in tears and so sad that when that child leaned warm into me, my stomach was cold and empty and I couldn't feel any joy. I remember picking up my sister's ashes. The box, white, larger than I thought it really needed to be, sitting so loud on the edge of the fireplace. I picked it up and the marble inside rocked to make its weight known and I wanted to drop it and run because I thought for sure I would vomit. I remember driving to Austin, first with the box placed in the passenger seat, then, after pulling over, it was in the back seat, and finally, tearfully, apologetically, at a rest stop I pulled over one last time and howling "I'm so sorry, I just can't" I put the box in the trunk and was mortified and ashamed in some way as I closed the trunk. I drove the rest of the way in horror at how awful I was to put the ashes of my baby sister in the trunk.

I just remember and remember and it all opens up again and I am an enormous unfolding of raw raw red and the tears burn salt in all those open places and I feel like I am falling apart from the center. I am reminded that no matter how far I go in this world I can't go around fast enough to come back to the place where she is. It's not denial. Denial didn't leave me sprawled on my bed in the hostel in Greece on that first Christmas, screaming her name into a pillow so that no one could hear. Denial didn't have me on the floor in Albania, staring at the ceiling, because the molding around the light fixture looked like a sunflower and it reminded me of the flowers at her funeral. Denial didn't make me physically ache with a pain of regret when all those tiny little brown headed girls in my first year class would pile on my lap. Denial didn't wake me up screaming, or numb, or panting in fear. I have known very well and all too deeply that she was gone. But I was gone from the place where the leaving happened. I wasn't standing in the place where she went when she left. I am now. I feel the way she left like a slap in my face, a never ending impact that says HERE! HERE! It happened HERE! I imagine things about HERE. I feel sick with my imagination.

I miss my sister every day, and I miss her even more when I find myself in the place where she was last. I feel like I am right back in that spot I was when Bobby had to carry me out. I feel like I have never moved a day past seeing the way my cousin's chin trembled as she stood gripping the banisters of the pulpit, swallowing down God knows what kind of desired shrieks and wails, starting and stopping three times, until she could open her mouth and sing the most beautiful thing I think I've ever heard on the worst day of my life. I see her hair in a braid shining in a shaft of light and that white dress and I remember the palpable rising feeling of yes please, you can, please, you can, breath holding tension as the entire room willed her to be able to do it. And she did, and on the last note she folded like a bird and walked white as her dress back to her seat with her throat convulsing and her cheeks spotted red. What is the hardest about all of these memories is that they feel more real to me than what I see in all these pictures of me with my sister. It's as though that day she left casts a shadow longer than the 25 years she was here. I don't understand how that works. It seems like an unnecessary cruelty on top of everything else. I don't understand how I can't push through a single day and embrace all the thousands of days we had before that. We had years in this city and I keep circling around and around that day, that single second when she slipped away.