Thursday, April 28, 2016

Hay Bale Bus Stops and Telling Estonian Time

This is a journal entry from four summers ago, about one of my favorite and first experiences traveling solo.

There is very little information about Saaremaa online in terms of traveling on your own, so I headed into town this morning to work the information center. I found out that there was only one bus for the national park I wanted to go to, and it left within the hour. No problem, I have a bike, let's go get sunscreen and a towel. The pedal of my bike falls off, thankfully on the way back from the store, but unfortunately on the way to the stop for that lone bus which can get me where I’m trying to go. So I’m dragging my dead horse of a bike, hustling back to the bus stop for my ride, and stop to check my "watch" (my useless cell phone, with no reception, a dead box of a mid 90’s Nokia which has no idea what the internet is). It's dead, having decided that being useful in any way at all was not what it had planned for this trip. I feel it was a direct retaliation for my having said, right in front of it “This is my useless phone, which is, at the moment, just a large and strange watch.” I make a note to myself that technology can be vengeful when insulted.

I abandon my one pedaled wonder to the safety of a bike lock wrapped around a park bench and dart into a watch shop. There I buy the cheapest thing I can find- a hot pink kids' watch that conveniently says "hour" and "minute" on the appropriate hands, as well as "past" on the right half of the face and "to" on the left half. After the digital face of my previous watch the lesson was appreciated. The woman tries three different times to put it in different gift bags before she finally understands that hot pink plastic bling is all mine- there is no future birthday party with a cherub faced niece or nephew, no small child at home to whom I will give this, no student of the week prize this shall be. It’s for me, the sweaty 30 year old woman standing in front of her. I try not to feel insecure about my purchase, although her unwillingness to acknowledge it’s for me makes that hard. I leave the scene with the following score: down one bike, up one dead phone, up one slightly condescending kiddie watch, and down a bit of pride. Not my best travel game, but there is no time to think.

Oh, one more thing to add to the score card- then it starts to kind of rain. I have half an hour left, no lunch, and it’s raining just enough to warrant some sort of protection, but not enough to really be a respectable rain, so now I have to buy an umbrella for a rain shower I don’t really respect. The umbrella, thankfully, is not child sized but it is adult priced and I try not to think of how much the umbrella, the watch, the sunscreen, the towel, and my pride have cost me thus far.

I continue down the street, trying to regain my “Isn’t this CHARMING! What a lovely little island!” gusto while juggling all my new possessions that bear witness to this comedy of errors morning. My stomach protests that it has not gotten in on the gift action, so I stumble into a bar and get some pastries to go. I snag an apple off an old woman at a produce stand, and I’ll be thankful for this later. At this point I can see the bus stop, and the watch tells me with its labeled hands and patient face that I will, in fact, make my ride.

I sit on the curb and eat my pastries under the probing eyes of a small child. I instinctively pull off a hunk of pastry to share with her, stopping just in time to remember where I am- this is not Albania, and this is not a wide-eyed homeless Roma child. Her mother sits right next to her, in neat, tailored clothes. I am wearing dirty backpacker things, a scarf tied in my hair, mud crusted hiking boots on my feet. I am eating with my hands on the ground. I should be the one receiving handouts in this situation. I stop myself from bordering on child harassment and remind myself that sometimes not sharing is caring.

For the next hour I’m on a compact local bus, taking a winding route on pristine two lane paved roads- narrow, well-marked, flanked on both sides by thick woods unless it opens up into a sprawling field dotted with sheep or haystacks. People slowly siphon off at stop after strangely random stop- this one is an ornate wooden bench crouching on the side of the road, this one is a tree like any other but apparently it’s The Bus Stop Tree, this one is simply the side of the road on one of those open stretches with a sign planted like a “We conquered this for transportation!” flag. 

A small wooden bench, for your comfort, Weary Traveler

The bus driver periodically glances back at me, brow furrow ever deepening with each stop at which I do not depart. Between my umbrella and backpack it’s clear I’m a tourist and I’m certain he does not want to be responsible for me if I end up somewhere I didn’t know I was going. I want to tell him that not knowing where I was going has been a constant theme of the last year, philosophically speaking. Physically speaking, not knowing where I’m going has a relieving, tangible quality to it. Drop me anywhere, I want to say. I’m trying to find something anyway. I want to figure it out. I don’t say this, because that would be bizarre.

We drive on, just the two of us now, after I assure him that yes, I do want the last stop. His reluctance to take me there should have given me pause, but it didn’t. I’ve been trying not to pause too long and think about most things lately.

And so at the end of this gorgeous drive through isolated back roads I get dropped at the end of the line- a cluster of random buildings where there is no one in sight. I walk into a dusty “Can I retire now? It’s been a long job and I’m tired” town hall. I am greeted with a girl who looks to be about 15. She works the front desk, but it looks for all the world like a child playing make-believe in the unused front room of her grandmother’s house. This freckled young state employee tells me to walk 3 kilometers (back the way I just came) and turn right at the Vilsandi National Park signs. I use the bathroom and check the bus schedule on the way out- there is only one bus going back that evening. I have all afternoon and into early evening before it leaves at 6:45, but I have no idea what I’m doing and no idea how long it will take.  

I wander on down the road in utter solitude for half an hour.  I’m getting my wish- drop me anywhere, indeed. I don’t see a soul who could help me anyway. I sing some songs to myself. I think about my sister. I think about my family. I stop for a moment and put my hands on my knees and have to shake my head because this doesn’t feel like real life. The sky is too huge and I feel like I could slip into it and disappear, sliding out of the world down the curved slope of that blue bowl. How am I just cavalierly traveling around Estonia alone, hopping ferries and buses, walking down roads so far from home and my family and all that we’ve gone through? How did I get here? Is it okay that I’m here? Where is my sister? Where is the part of me that was a sister to her? I’ve stopped walking forward and have wandered into the edge of the trees already without realizing it, so I sit down and wait because I’m going to cry. I do, leaning into a tree. It’s not long, but it means something serious and it’s rough and it hurts my head terribly once it’s all out. When I’m finished I stand up and keep walking. I think of my sister, still. I feel like she’s in me somewhere. I’m carrying her down this road. I start crying again, but I keep walking. I stop crying as suddenly as flipping a switch. I’m used to this manic grief by now- the way it comes in, unannounced, demanding. The way you can’t stop it and it feels like something else in your skin. The way it leaves just as quickly and makes you confused.

I walk further on down the road and find myself back to a normal feeling. The eventual signs point me off the highway where I take a sun dappled gravel road through a tunnel of dense trees, a situation so idyllic that if it were depicted in a romantic comedy I would have rolled my eyes. An information center crops up in front of me, but because it’s awkwardly grouped with someone’s home and tool shed it looks like it stumbled into the wrong party and is just hanging out in the corner hoping not to be seen. Despite its obvious reluctance to help I go inside. There I find tons of brochures in a variety of languages- Finnish, German, and Estonian- but not so much in English. By not so much I mean nothing at all. Everything inside is spotless, made out of warm wood, hardy looking, like things get cold here more often than not. The woman working there is very kind but we can’t talk to one another. I wash my tear stained face in the bathroom. I am feeling better. This is relative to how badly I have felt for the last two months. It’s still better.

I’m sent on my “destined to get lost in the forest and eaten by marauding sheep” way with a map in three languages which I cannot read because dammit, America, where is your language education system? I wander in the general direction of the woman’s ambiguous gestures as to where I should begin my doomed adventure in missing American girl tourism, and commit to joining up with a dirt road whose main qualifier for my trust is that it is the only thing that looks like it could be a road to somewhere.

There are no trailheads; as I learned from my morning’s googling the trails are simply old post roads that are now grown over. I quickly come to a double fork which isn’t on my map, so at this point I can’t even read the lines on my map, much less the lines that snake into languages I can’t understand. It's fine though, I have a real watch now, and it's hot pink, and it tells me which hand is which. This probably makes me an expert at navigating. I take the left fork. I pass a farmhouse, and it seems exasperated with me, as though it knows I don’t belong here and can’t read languages in which it is probably fluent, and no one who has worked in or around it would be caught dead with a hot pink watch.

And then I don’t pass anything for a long, long while.

I am not altogether certain I know where I am, or how to get back. I wander for about two hours, but when you see no one, and hear nothing but the wind in the trees and in the waist high grass, this solitude feels like a much wider space, in good and bad ways. I mark my trail and take pictures along the way, and at one point I make myself shriek out loud in terror when I imagine returning home to edit the pictures only to discover a stranger in one of them- someone lurking in the bushes or standing at the edge of a field, waving. Why, brain? Really? Seriously, I will never run out of ways to torment myself.

Photo credit goes to crook of a tree and my self timer. 

I manage to make a loop back and lose my way about ten times, but eventually the information center sprouts awkwardly on the horizon again (in the opposite direction in which I was walking, might I add). I follow the gravel road back about 30 minutes before I need to catch my bus, and arrive with plenty of time to not get abandoned.

Since the bus stop is of the variety that is simply a sign on the side of the road I sit on the now useful map in the shade of a hay bale in someone's field and read a book. 
Hay poked and hungry, the view from here.

I stop reading the book and go back to thinking. I start to cry and stop thinking and go back to my book, the words blurred, the haybale sticking into my back, everything around me smelling like places I’ve lived in Texas. I’m alive and alone in the middle of nowhere alone in a country I know very little about, but I feel more comfortable than I have in a very, very long time. I lean into the hay bale some more. I pick up my book and the words are clear and I keep reading.

I begin to get a bit nervous when the bus does not show up at 6:45 as promised, so I abandon my hay bale to sit right under the bus stop sign, where I can see the road stretching, empty, to my right and left. I amuse myself by taking a self-timer shot at the middle of nowhere bus stop. 

I really should have made better plans. By better, I mean any at all.

The silence keeps getting louder and closer, gathering weight, leaning on me- I forgot how long I was used to the mid-level, constant cacophony of an urban center. I'm moved to take deep breaths and look around and swing my arms and just feel what it feels like to be in that kind of silence. Somehow that kind of heavy quiet seems even more tangible when you experience it with the trappings of civilization around you- a paved road with no one on it, a bus stop with a fresh, bright blue sign on a perfect new post, a tidy little farmhouse in the distance. Not a sound, from bird or animal or car or even wind now. I sit down and take out my book again. More time passes. I begin to think that I am about to have to walk back to that dusty little town 3 kilometers up the road and beg someone to let me sleep on their floor. My choices, from what I remember, include a gas station, a grocery store, the tired old city hall, and a few tightly buttoned and rather cold looking farmhouses.

My happy little watch continues to tell me bad news about how long I’ve been waiting. It’s like that really positive person who can’t read a room and barges in and talks about how great things are when everyone is stressed out. I get it, happy watch. I understand where the hours are. I know where the minutes are. I certainly know where I am- alone on the side of a road, waiting at a bus stop, living on faith the bus will come. Shut it with your helpfulness, all right? Right before I’m about to give up and walk to my floor sleeping hobo fate, the bus comes. I make up with my watch. I grab my umbrella. I almost forget my book. I leave an apple core behind.

Within an hour I’m back in the center of that charming little town, where there is Italian food for dinner, and the bike is still in front of the town hall, and my watch is telling me that it is 10:00 at night although the sun is still giving off a warm watery glow like headlights through a fog. I walk home washed in a sunlight that I’ve never seen, because I’ve never been in this part of the world, in this time of year, at this time of night. I look at the way this nighttime strange season sun falls on my arms and feel it on my face. Soon my street sign with an impossible amount of vowels comes into view, reaching out of an ivy covered fence with a maternal sympathy that seems to understand I have had very little of familiar signs today, and to come on now, you’re on the right path.

I realized that all this time I had been worried I couldn’t do this, but I am doing it, right now. I did it today. I did it the day before. I’m going to do it tomorrow. And I’ll do many, many more things like it. A fear I had never admitted I had stands up inside me now that I’ve finally called its name. And then it leaves me just as quickly, now that I know it’s not real. I feel it slide down my arms, peeled inside out, slipping off my fingertips, and I think this is probably the point where so many times before I would grab onto it at the last minute and wrap myself back up. This time I leave that inside out fear crumpled behind me on the sidewalk. And then I walk alone for the first time that day.

The remains of the day.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Right Now in Sweden: Coffeeshop Lurking and Getting Back on Track

I am sitting in the coffeeshop that became my second home during the long dark days of the Drowning in Work and Hating All the Things chapter of my life here in Sweden. That chapter was about three months long, which, as far as chapters go, was a bit longer than I think anyone wants a chapter to be, especially one like that.

I came here today without work to revel in the fact that I can bring my personal laptop, not my work laptop, and write something for myself, instead of writing pages and pages of feedback on essays, or boxes and boxes of PPT presentations. Unfortunately, my computer rebelled against my months long refusal to submit to the endless pestering from Windows 10, and somehow in the night last week it decided to go rogue and "upgrade" against my will/without my knowledge. Now, either the word "upgrade" needs to mean something else, or I need to call what it did to itself something else, because no improvement has been made. I now have a tragic interface that is so desperately trying to be hip that I just want to wrap my arm around Microsoft and say "honey, I know Jobs is gone, but... you're still not the cool one." Everything has a self consciously "edgy" and "clean" and "geometric" feel to it, and I keep getting notifications at random times, and something called Cortana never stops asking me to ask it anything. The only thing I want to ask it is why it's here, which seems to be rude, even to a computer program who showed up uninvited. I also don't want to get petty, but this is the worst time to get awful on me because my work romance with a Macbook Air was already making it hard to come home to this old beat up thing. 

Speaking of old beat up things, I have decided that the best way for me to move forward with Sweden is to give her a clean slate, and firmly quarantine the first three months in a box labeled "Work Experience and Professional Growth", as it was certainly not very much of a living abroad/setting up a new life/enjoying new discoveries kind of experience. Since I have only been here since Jan 3rd, but I didn't really feel like I started living here until about a week ago, I am saying, for all intents and purposes, that my time in Sweden, as a country, as a home, not just as a place that gave me a job, is starting April 1st. That gives me two and a half clean, fresh, unsullied by stress and work surprises months to dig in to my new home. I am coming to  America for a visit this summer, and I need to have a place I want to return to in August. I would hate to leave Stockholm in June still feeling lukewarm about it, and return for another 10 months to be tepid and uncommitted.

When I look back on Laos, I loathed living there from the end of August until the beginning of January. Hell, my finally starting to like Laos was such a revelatory aberration I wrote an entire blog post about the first time I really enjoyed myself there. We're talking a bit over FOUR MONTHS before I warmed to it, and by the end of my first contract I was signing up for a second year. Albania was easier, but it still took me a good three months to get in a real routine. In general, no matter how many times I've moved countries, (four times now!) it seems like the first month in a new school/country are just full on, the second and third months you are still figuring life out and settling into a routine (where is the gym? how does the post office work? where do I find peanut butter?), and then you build on that routine for a few months so that by month six, you really hit your stride. Month six is when you have worked out all the kinks, big and little, you know your way around the entire city on bicycle (Japan), foot (Albania), scooter/tuk tuk (Vientiane) or public transpo (Sweden). You have favorite places and a rhythm and a social calendar and all in all you've created a new life in a new place.

I will say, it isn't that different from my experience moving from Texas to Colorado. It just fundamentally takes time to set up a new life from scratch. I think that is why, perhaps, people might turn back when they move somewhere new. Sometimes it feels really uncomfortable, and lonely, and you think you have made the worst decision ever. But come on- ANYTHING is going to feel bad compared to a place where you know your way around, you have a ton of friends, you know a good chunk of the local language/culture, and you have a place in a community that is familiar. That feeling of strange newness you get when you travel? It's enjoyable only because you know it's going to end and you are going to go home to your familiar house. But when you move countries every few years, that feeling, that exact same experience, is stretched out for a few months, and you have the burden of knowing that the only thing that will make it go away is for you to turn wherever you are into your home, because you aren't going back home- you ARE home, even though it doesn't feel like it.

But for all the discomfort of that process, for all the pain of unknitting myself from an amazing community and going into an unknown place to start all over, that is exactly what I find so fascinating. Over and over again, it is the same thing- I go somewhere, it's meh to mildly uncomfortable to uninspiring, I question my life goals/decisions/capability to be an adult, I get furiously disappointed in myself for needing to bounce around so much, I chastise former me for making such a dumb move, I bathe in nostalgia and longing for My Last Home, which is now the best place in the world since it is not where I am now, and I generally just doubt my entire existence. Eventually, things start clicking into place. First this, then that. Small things, they give you a bit of ease, but not much. Then bigger things start to fall in, and then you start to understand the language around you and realize the two months of study have paid off, or you finally get your visa/ID card/work permit, or you witness the first change of seasons. Suddenly, out of nowhere, you realize, as you are walking down a street, that everything around you makes sense, you know exactly what stop you need to get off at without thinking, you have things like a favorite grocery store and burger joint and yes, even a favorite coffeeshop found under duress and kept to enjoy newfound freedom in.

When this nostalgia/doubt transition hit me in Laos, as I was pining for Albania, I thought it was due to the stressful nature of the huge life changes that were happening. When it hit me in Albania, as I left Colorado, it also made sense because I was leaving all my friends and family right after the loss of my sister, But since it is happening again, in the exact same way, here in Sweden, I now know that this is just the way it goes when you pull up your roots and roll on down the road to the next place. It is entirely possible that, a year from now, as I am nearing the end of my contract in Sweden, I will be feeling the same reluctance to leave as I am now. If anything else, I'm curious to see how I will feel when I get there. And I have to live here, and stay here, to get there.

I think now, the question is when will I tire of the novelty of the process of moving, putting down roots, building a community/life, and then pulling up roots to start all over again. I am feeling, for the first time, like I can see where this might be winding down. I don't mean at the end of my contract here in Sweden, not necessarily that soon; it's more like the idea of "I could do this forever" has now been replaced with "I wonder what I will do when I am done with all this moving around?" That, in and of itself, has been an interesting new development. 

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Praying for Sunshine

I took this picture when it snowed again, after I thought it wouldn't be snowing anymore. I was not that impressed.

About two weeks ago, I woke up to find my living room filled with patches of unexpected sun. It terrified me. I jolted out of bed in an instant panic- it had to be 9:00 a.m., the sun was the smoking gun of my lateness, how had I slept through my alarm?! I was so convinced, I didn't even bother looking at the time until I was halfway dressed- just kidding, it was 6:45 a.m., and my alarm was set for 7:00. Pun totally intended, that was when I saw the light at the end of the tunnel. The sun was coming back. I was starting to see the completion date of my seemingly insurmountable pile of work. I was almost there.

Sunset from my work window- this was a twofold victory. I was leaving work at 5:30 with a rare empty backpack, AND the sun was setting at 5:30, instead of 3:30

Today, when I got on the bus to come home, it was 7:40 and it wasn't dark. The sun had just set, but everything was still illuminated in that blue light wash of where the sun had been, and night wasn't there yet. It was absolutely, categorically, Not Dark. I felt something inside of me peek out and survey Stockholm as though, until that moment, it had never really seen it. It has been dark for what has seemed like much longer than the three months I have lived here. Well, not "lived here", exactly. I moved to Sweden on January 3rd. I wouldn't say I have been "living" here, though- I've been here, as a location in space, but being and living are two very different things. I have often joked it has felt a bit like a work release program. Work, home, work, home, repeat, filling in any random blanks with frustrating setting up life errands, or sick days, or absurd visits to the ER for concussions. More on that later...

All the good things I mentioned in this post almost two months ago still stand, but basically immediately after that post all the difficult things stood up even taller, and ever more infuriating things came out of the woodwork. Between that army of work difficulty, no sun, and a collision of 3 weeks of flu and strep throat with huge work deadlines, I was at my wit's end. I was working mornings, days, evenings, and weekends. I was waking up in the night, terrified I had slept through my alarm and would miss a class, or a meeting. No, it was just 3:00 a.m. and another night of interrupted sleep. Many, many days I would be on the bus to work, in a cold, grey morning, exhausted from stress, and think back to balmy Laos days at a school where I felt capable and competent, in a town bustling with social activity. And then I would make myself stop thinking of it because it just made me feel worse to feel incompetent and overwhelmed, in a cold (literally and figuratively) town shuttered for winter. I knew what I was signing up for (not really, but I had an idea that it would be more than I bargained for, and it was), so I just put my head down, shoulder to the wheel, and got to work.

Real talk- sometimes my efforts to put my shoulder to the wheel ended up in just draping myself, exhausted, over the wheel. And maybe hoping it would roll over me and put me out of my misery. 

But, just like everyone always tells you things do, this, too, has passed. I spent the first half of this easter break (five days) getting caught up, and finally FINISHED, on this backlog of work I inherited (inheriting work is less cool than inheriting money, in case maybe you were wondering). That left 5 days of 100% guilt free slothing around, sleeping in, interneting until early hours, catching up with friends in person and on Skype, and finally finding time to update this blog with a rambling jumble like this.

In reality, it was perfect timing, because I think basically no one has a life in Stockholm in January and February. The short periods of sun, which happen right when you are stuck in work, have the paradoxical effect of making one feel that the days simultaneously never end, and also never happen. You feel caught up in this muddled, surreal world of snow and cold and wet and dark, with blurry lines of marking time and experience. Couple this with a claustrophobic experience of all encompassing work, while also trying to settle into a new country and feel connected, and it's basically a recipe for a really difficult time. Pro-tip: if you move to a Scandinavian country in the middle of winter, take over a position in the middle of the year with no training, and then inherit a lot of unknown/undone work, and then you get sick a lot, and you have difficulties with getting immigration stuff sorted... well, good luck.

I'm coming out from this fog of work right as the sun has decided to come back to Sweden. This week I have wandered streets I have never explored before; I have seen the city in the sun, and it honestly looks and feels like a totally different place. I can finally say, in all honesty, I am living in Sweden, not just being here. Everyone told me the spring would be amazing, and I feel even more grateful for it, thanks to how hard the first few months were. This happens every.single. time. I throw myself into unknown situations, and every single time I'm convinced I'm going to fail, and then I don't, and then I am so happy I did it. You'd think I'd have learned my lesson by now, but since I haven't, I guess that means I have to keep flinging myself into uncertainty.

We're all quick to judge
And slow to learn

Friday, February 12, 2016

Where I've Been, Where I'm Going

On June 16th, 2015 I left my home and my job in Laos to start Stray Cat Summer, so named because I didn’t really think I would be rambling, unemployed and aimless, much further past the summer. It ended up stretching all the way through fall and into the winter, and didn’t come to an end until the next year, on Jan 3rd, 2016, when I rolled into Stockholm (literally, on yet another train).

As I'm sure surprises no one, I kept notes and maps and journeys listed along the way. I just went back to look them over, now that I have had a spare moment to write, and these are the final numbers.

In 202 days I covered 5,750 plane miles and 8,448 miles overland. Those numbers encompass two planes, five ferries, fourteen car trips, seventeen trains, and seventeen buses. I was in 14 countries and visited 37 cities. 

Poor Thailand- it wouldn't fit on this map, but I was there for one last wonderful hurrah

Most of the writing I did during my travels was fairly self reflective (navel gazing, let's be real) and I realized that so many of the notes and stories of what I was actually doing never made it here on the blog, because I was so immersed in what I was thinking (this is also probably no surprise to anyone who knows me well- I live in my head). I'm hoping, now that I have a bit more time, that I can go back and fill in the blanks with stories and adventures and anecdotes, if only so that I don't forget them as they go slipping out the backdoor of my brain.

I have been here in Sweden six weeks already, and even to type it out shocks me a bit. To say that it has been an abrupt and jolting transition to go from Stray Cat Summer/Fall/Winter into a respectable job at an academically prestigious and rigorous school would be a gross understatement. I have taken over mid-year, and not just for the previous teacher. He left in October, and the classes were tended to by in-school subs who took on the work in addition to their already full schedules. Due to the hectic nature of the transition, every week since I have been at school has been an adventure in What Do I Have to Do that I Don't Know I Have to Do? This has been a frustrating situation of really being the fault of no one in particular- it's just an unfortunate convergence of bad timing, making do with in-house subs, and each well meaning person thinking the other well meaning person had taken care of __________ or communicated _____________ or followed up on _____________, which resulted in a lot of things not being taken care of, communicated, or followed up on.

And so I transitioned back into my profession in the most challenging of ways- mid-year, with no previous experience in the curriculum, setting up a new life and a home and a career in yet another new country. And here, dear reader, is where I made the fatal error.

I let Sweden trick me with how Swedish I assumed it would be.

What I mean is that, when I headed off to Japan at the ripe old age of 22, having never been anywhere outside of the U.S. save Mexico, I had a healthy respect for what I was doing. I was prepared for it to be insanely different, I was freaking out about the job, I knew zero Japanese, hell, I was foolishly in love with a Mormon and was worried about maintaining our long distance relationship, the list goes on. When I moved to Albania, I was a new teacher, heading off to start my career. My sister has just passed away, things were rough, and Albania was a small country no one had ever heard of (but the U.S. State Department had a lot to say about healthcare which I am thankful I did not read before I moved there). And finally, we have Laos, which is an absolute gem but also absolutely a difficult country in which to live, from infrastructure to healthcare.

So, to be honest, after tucking three countries under my belt, and after roaming wild and free for almost seven full months, I accepted this job in Sweden and thought it would be easy peasy to just roll into town and set up shop. It ticked all the boring boxes- first world, great social safety net, Stockholm is a well run and neatly organized Scandinavian city, I would have things like fire alarms and regulated traffic and public transpo and free healthcare. It would be so smooth. Neat. Easy. Clean and safe and simple.

Which is why, when I found myself wandering the streets with a check worth my first three weeks of pay, crying in the snow in the dark at 4:00 p.m. thanks to bank bureaucracy, I was shocked. Sweden had made me cry, in less than a full month? What the hell? How did this happen? 

I suppose this is, in some ways, a good thing. I had been worried that Sweden would be too safe, normal, similar, and, if I may say so, a bit boring compared to Japan or Laos or Albania. What has happened, however, is that I have been hit in the face with the biggest challenge of my teaching career, on top of what has turned out to be a country transition that has been, while much easier than any other country, still challenging in ways I didn't expect. Sure, the basics are much easier- the public transpo, the healthcare, my lovely and fully furnished apartment which I was so lucky to get my co-workers told me I could never, ever mention again how I got the place, because it was too infuriating. I'm taking aerial silks lessons again, I can drink the tap water freely, the traffic follows consistent rules. 

But the culture is still very specifically different, in subtle but frequent ways. My check cashing adventure was one example; my experience in public places with mores of social interactions is another. The darkness, y'all, the darkness- the cold was not nearly as bad as I expected, but I have to say, when the sun deuces out at 3:30 p.m. it definitely is hard to keep it together. Living in the suburbs again, after being in the nucleus of the thriving hub of the community of Vientiane, has been the biggest transition. I went from a lively expat community to an endless parade of hostels and couchsurfing with friends to land in a wonderful little apartment in a very beautiful but very quiet (and dark, did I mention dark) suburb. I have loads of excellent friends here- it's just that we have to actually plan get togethers, instead of just bumping into each other on the riverside. The pace of life in SE Asia, and life on the road, is what I find myself missing the most I suppose.

That is not to say that I am not enjoying Sweden. I have, as I said, great friends here. I have had some dumb adventures already. My students are absolute gems. The studio where I take aerial silks is fantastic. I am reveling, and I mean REVELING, in the glory that is having my own apartment again. I can be alone, for hours, and have privacy and peace and quiet. I have a real kitchen again for the first time in two years, and every Sunday I have cooked and roasted and meal prepped. Being in cold weather has been excellent for my legs. Healthcare, y'all. Healthcare. And even this trial by fire of learning IB will all be worth it.

I wrote in my journal, as I was on the train from Copenhagen to Stockholm, that this January to June I was going to devote myself to radical self care and self improvement. After months and months of erratic sleeping schedules, terrible eating, stressful times of uncertainty, and the fear of having no health insurance, Sweden, with all its predictability and stability and safety, could not have come at a better time. It's good to push oneself, but past a certain point it's just self flagellation. In the past six weeks I have been clocking eight to nine hours of sleep a night; I've been eating more vegetables in a day than I was getting in a week; I'm working out again, between belly dancing and yoga and aerial silks and strength training; I'm studying Swedish; I'm reading books and journaling; I'm learning so much at work and taming my ego about needing to know everything; I'm hanging out in libraries again; I meditate every day. Things are really good, even though they are so vastly different from where I was six weeks ago that I sometimes cannot even believe I am the same person, and this is the same life.

When I look back on how exhausted, confused, and scared I was the day before my first day of work, and I think of how I feel now, I can only be amazed at how resilient and capable humans can be when thrown into strange situations. In its own way, taking over this position, in the middle of the year, was just as much a leap of faith as it was for me to leave Laos in June with no plans or goals. I find it interesting that I traveled for a little more than half a year, and now I will have about half a year here in Sweden as I learn the ropes of this new job. That will add up to an entire YEAR where I have thrown myself, again and again, into personally challenging, scary, and daunting situations. And up to this point, I haven't failed. I see no reason to think I would start now.

I look forward to seeing where I'll be come June, when I will have come up on a full year of confronting my fears over and over, and pushing myself into uncomfortable spaces to see how I'll feel there. And I look forward to seeing so many of you then, because I am coming home to Texas this summer. And, um, it will be Stray Cat Summer Part Two, so, if you have a couch...

Monday, January 11, 2016

24 Hours from Rome to Ljubljana: Waitress Doctors, Bridge Physicists, and Taxi Guys

The moon on my last night in Rome

I'm currently in a coffeeshop in a small town in Italy outside of another small town and the story of today is a story for a proper blog post*. It was tiring and stressful and filled with pain and wonderful people and it all turned out okay.
I head to Slovenia tonight. I am dreaming of the bed that awaits me- or, hopefully awaits me, since I haven't booked anything.”

*Three months later, here’s that backstory post.

James and I have this history where we wait until the last minute to get food before rushing off to our respective trains, well and properly late and terrified we’ll be left behind. Thus, the last night in Rome, for old time’s sake, we were darting through the streets, weaving through pedestrians, stopping for on the go pizza, and then, in a final dramatic moment, I rolled my ankle and fell to the ground in the train station parking lot under the weight of everything I own. It was, in terms of collapsing under all your things, quite graceful, and I managed to not tear my $125 “your legs suck at being legs” stockings, so all in all, I was still happy.

We managed to shuffle inside and up to a café, where a very concerned waitress gave me latex gloves filled with ice. James was already dangerously late for his train, and after trying unsuccessfully to convince me to go back to his family’s apartment, he reluctantly left me to sit with my situation.

Behold! The glamorous life of your wandering narrator. 

I confess, as he walked off to a train to get on a plane to get on another plane to head back to Australia, and all the shops were closing around me, and families were helping each other with bags and friends were walking in laughter and conversation, this was one of those times of solo travel when all I could think was “Why the hell am I making this so hard on myself?” The waitress who had gifted me these homemade (handmade, is that too much of a bad pun?) ice packs chewed her lip and looked nervously out at me as she busied herself counting down the till and cleaning up for closing time. Right before she left for the night she came over with another set of ice packs and asked me, in a speech in English that sounded considerately and carefully rehearsed while she had been sweeping, if I needed to see a doctor. If so, she could call one for me.

At this point my ankle was throbbing, but to be fair ice pack gloves given by a friendly waitress in a train station for free was exactly the extent of the health care I could afford, so I politely declined. She seemed to doubt my ability to make good decisions at that point, but, having done all she could, she left me to die alone in the woods wait for my train.

I managed to limp down the stairs with my backpack, front pack, and roller bag (aka the Roller Bag of Shame, which has garnered, at every single hostel, a slightly sneering “geez, do you have enough STUFF? remark, no matter how many times I tried to explain that while everything fits in my backpack my legs are not into heavy lifting anymore and I have to parcel these things out, and furthermore, this is everything I own in the world, back off). Never forget that backpackers are, first and foremost, very self-righteous about what good travelers they are, and carrying a roller bag is a clear symbol that you need too much to be on a trip at all, so you should probably just give up and never leave your town. I wanted to shake my fist at these gap year know it alls and rail about near death experiences and biopsies in Albania, or wax survivalist about eye metal and crazy dogs in Laos, or reminisce about washing clothes in buckets and squatting over “toilets” all over the world, roller bag be damned, but I finally stopped fighting this issue. I have a pink roller bag. I am not a real backpacker. I submit to the judgment of 18-20 year olds who are on their first trip. So let it be written, so let it be done. But wait, back to the story I was writing…

Of course on top of the ankle thing and the too many bags experience, I also was stopped by security and had to find my ticket on my quickly dying laptop. Satisfied that I was not going to cause any trouble, I was permitted to make the first limp of what was going to be a very, very long journey. Thankfully, I was blissfully unaware of that truth.

Once I was in my night train compartment I rigged up my handpacks again, and in spite of looking kind of insane by virtue of balancing leaking udders of watery gloves on my foot, I still made friends with my bottom bunk neighbor, a Ukrainian born physicist who was studying quantum mechanics in Austria. He had just been at a conference in Rome. Describing the talks at the conference made for some enchanting bedtime conversation about the nature of the universe, which led to politics in Russia, which put me right to sleep with a head full of weird visions that made even weirder dreams.

The next morning the train got into the Venice train station far too early, and Venice, enjoying her off season break, was not planning on waking up for two more hours. I had entertained the idea of dropping off my trio of bags in luggage storage to go for a nostalgic reunion wander of the city, but at twelve euro a bag that was out of the question so I pouted a bit and settled for committing to watching the sunrise from the bridge. I draped myself over my things and dozed for about an hour on the train station floor, because these are the things you do when you’ve been traveling for twelve hours already and can’t afford things like bag storage. I elevated my foot in the interest of my cranky ankle and thoroughly enjoyed the kind of sleep you might imagine you get on a cold train station floor. That is to say, I awoke with a start several times, reached for all my important things to be sure they were still with me, and then passed back out to await another theft nightmare.

Me and everything I own (which is somehow still too much, per every hostel receptionist ever) at very too early in the morning to be smiling about anything.

Right before the sun came up I schlepped all my belongings out into a cold morning, all blue and black clouds and silent streets. I had never imagined I would ever see Venice like this, having visited the first time in the high heat of summer during full on tourist time. I thumped my Roller Bag of Shame up the bridge, recalling the first time I had fought through sweaty crowds to do the same thing two years prior. 

At this point the physicist appeared, toting a vintage camera with a cumbersome assortment of lenses, the burden of which was clearly a joy. Without speaking we acknowledged the other. We leaned over the railing of the bridge to watch the sky make changes, and to periodically take pictures of those changes if they particularly impressed us. He kindly took this picture of me.

Loosely titled "Unbrushed Teeth and Unclear Ankle Injuries: A Homeless American Abroad"

It wasn’t the best sunrise of my life, but it felt triumphant because my ankle was only mildly whining in complaint and I felt out of the woods in terms of an injury that could really derail me (train pun definitely intended there). I spent a leisurely half hour on the bridge, waiting until the sun was well and truly up, and then, armed with detailed instructions from (a website I highly recommend!) I returned to the train station to start what I thought would be a relatively easy trip to Slovenia.

Dear reader, I should know by now.

The first train, an early morning hop from Venice to Trieste, was quite simple- a ticket purchased at a kiosk on my own, a quick two hour train, and here’s Trieste, thank you very much. I had decided to play it by ear- if, upon arrival, Trieste enchanted me, I would stay. If not, I would continue on to Slovenia, specifically Ljubljana. Trieste failed to impress on first glance, so I quickly started to work out the next leg of my trip: walking from the train station (with the Roller Bag of Shame and my other two bags, all on my now yelping ankle) to the historical tram, which would take me up a mountain to some small town no one knows of: Villa Opicina.

Somehow this simple task took me about three hours. Just trust me, it was a mess. From trying to find the tram tickets to politely enduring the rants of the local raving man who haunts the front door of the kiosk by the tram tracks, to getting a terrible dinner and then losing twenty euro down a grate, it was a comedy of errors, all acted out while I played the role of Itinerant Donkey, American Laden with Belongings. The tram, once it was found and a journey purchased and a raving man avoided, was a funky little Luddite adventure up a mountain, but it did, accurately, end in Villa Opicina and not down the side of said mountain.

Elevation, historically

And here’s where it all really fell apart, against the background of my now shouting ankle.
I had about three hours to kill, and I imagined a quaint nook of a small town Italian train station, in which there would be some charming café with wi-fi and pastries and coffee, where I could blog and Skype and relax before I continued on. I walked into a café to get directions for the Villa Opicina train station, where, supposedly, a train hopped the border into Slovenia. All workers, the manager, and the customers overhearing my query for directions assured me that I was going to find no train there, and that they had no idea what I was on about but it seemed like a strange and pointless desire to get to Slovenia this way. Undeterred, I soldiered on, ignoring my ankle, which wanted very much to deter me and go awol. I just had to do the following, covering about two miles with all my things: walk into town, go left through the roundabout, go down the hill, turn right around the corner, and then head down a long, empty, one lane paved road to the train station.

The real climax of this story is as follows: picture me, draped in bags and limping down the streets, sweaty, tired, and having a yelling match with my ankle about what I could expect from it in terms of being functional. When I hit the empty, one lane paved road to the train station I readily engaged in delusional expectations that I would still be greeted by my quaint nook of a small town Italian train station. Even as I began to walk past squat, dim buildings that were definitely part of the train station I brightly pressed on, pretending I didn’t see that the last possible building that could be the train station was also dark. Empty. And definitely closed. A printed sign, which did little to communicate any type of authority or trust, assured potential passengers that if they simply showed up in time for the train, tickets could be purchased on board.

Faced with these facts, I decided I needed to give up, pack it all in, and just build a home and a new life right there. Clearly there was no other option. I dropped all my bags and lay on my back in the parking lot to put my legs up (the legs, having grown jealous of the attention I was giving my ankle, had decided they, too, needed to make their protest known). There, alone, on my back in the watery dusk light in the middle of nowhere in a tiny town nestled outside of another tiny town I decided to think of every horror film I had ever seen. This was probably motivated by the unnerving arrival of a single 1980s style sedan, occupied by a lone man, who, poor guy, seemed immediately sinister given the context. I looked up at the sky and wished I had a phone to call a taxi, or even to use to pretend to be talking to someone who would notice my absence should the man in the car live up to my dreams, but my phone had been stolen in Prague. Fantastic.

The sun was setting. I was on my own tired, bored, and hungry, and potentially getting ready to star in Silence of the Lambs: Italy Edition, or, Why the F*ck Didn’t You Take a Plane? I realized that walking back into town would mean walking back to the train station again when I had to come back, but I resigned myself to the task in the interest of food and being alive. Goodbye, potential new home- it was good while it lasted. Goodbye, man in the sedan- I’m onto you. Halfway through the return trip I came across a creepy gate covered in broken mirrors. It seemed like the best place to take a self-portrait that really summed up my mood. It also reinforced the horror movie plotline in my brain. I walked a bit faster.

Mood like...

Thus, roundly defeated, I returned to the café and told my story. All workers, the manager, and the customers overhearing my story chimed in with the advice that random pieces of paper printed and stuck to doors with tape were not to be trusted. I should let the manager call a guy he knows, and that guy could take me across the border to the train station. The manager looked up trains that were guaranteed to run on the Slovenian side, picked a time, called the guy, and set me up to wait in a corner, where, as luck would have it, I ended up getting my charming Italian café experience (I ate far too many mini-cheesecakes at this point, but what is too many, really, when one is on such an arduous journey?). I did take the precaution of e-mailing my friend and telling her that I was going to be getting in a “taxi” that wasn’t so much a taxi but more like pre-planned paid hitchhiking across the border, but basically if you don’t hear from me in a few hours I’ve been abducted by the friend of the guy who manages _________ Café in Villa Opicina, Italy.

Dear parents- don’t worry, I’m always making back-up plans!

The guy shows up in a rush because he has to take the Russian choir singers somewhere since he’s their official driver. He tells me how nice they are and how well they pay for his services while they are in town. A laminated sign is hastily procured from the floorboard, and even though it, too, is nothing more than a word document printed in landscape with large letters, much like the train station sign no one believed, somehow this has the power to convey to me that he is legitimate, and that once I am safely dropped off he will certainly be making a u-turn to pick up a gang of golden voiced Russian lads.

Against a backdrop of Balkans political talk we make a breakneck dash across the border, his choirboys weighing heavy on his mind. He drops me at the most forlorn train station tracks have ever crossed, with a final note to remember that things were better in Slovenia about ten years ago and to be understanding. I promise I will, and I hurry off to buy a ticket in a lobby that looks like a hospital ward. A tiny old man sits in the corner, nursing a hot chocolate. Above him a bizarre old movie poster tries to peel away from the wall to submit to the floor, which is strangely tiled and worn down by a time before, when this was perhaps not so desolate and apocalyptic. My handwritten ticket tells me that there is one track and one train, and I get on something that looks like your grandma’s living room in the 1980s- that is, it’s comfortable, clean, and hideous, but it feels homey and dependable. I rolled into Ljubljana in the dark, tramped a final walk with my ankle screeching an assurance that THIS WAS CERTAINLY THE FINAL WALK, and arrived at a hostel that thankfully had a vacancy. It was about 24 hours since I had left Rome. I slept for 12 hours straight that night.

All I could think, as one mishap after another befell me during that long, long day, was how much more fundamentally hard it is to travel alone, on so many simple levels. There is no one to watch the things while one of you runs off, unencumbered by Roller Bags of Shame, to find information/get food/buy tickets. There is no one to keep you company when you walk down a long stretch of road, past creepy empty boxcars and wide open fields and into dark train stations at dusk. There is no one to consult about what makes the most sense, doing this, or doing that? There isn’t, simply, a companion with whom you can share a “Seriously? This is bullshit” glance of solidarity and understanding. Maybe, if you’re unlucky that day, there is an argumentative ankle to talk with, but I mean, one usually hopes there isn’t. Usually it’s just you, and whatever you’re doing, and however you’re trying to get there.

So many times on this trip I have gone into situations without a plan, or with fuzzy information, or with a general idea but definitely not specifics, and it’s all worked out. This is what I was hoping to understand about traveling this long solo. I wanted to know what it was like to throw myself on the mercy of whatever might come my way to help me. It might not be the way I would have chosen it, or the way I expected it, but I’ve always been taken care of; I have never gone without food or a place to stay or a way to get where I need to be. The travel magic thing about going it alone is that while it’s definitely you, single-self, marking a solitary line through a journey, it’s also all the people who, upon seeing your aloneness, step in and help out of generosity (or pity, but I’ll take that, too).

Friday, December 18, 2015

Delirium Train Rambles

Once more I can thank a long train for the time and space to sit and write. The following distractions are absent: internet, hostel common room, a new city with unknown streets to explore, a familiar city with nostalgia to crawl around in, new friends to make, old friends to reunite with, weekly Skype lessons, the never ending task that is innocuously called “catching up on messages” but never gets close to being caught up on. I nearly missed this train, staying up until five a.m. this morning for no other reason than it had been awhile since I had a room to myself and fast internet that allowed me to do five different things at once while also packing and streaming new music. I decided that sleeping from 5 a.m. to 7 a.m. would be just fine. Then, because plans like that made in delirious morning hours rarely pan out the way one hopes, I slept through my alarm and woke up at 7:54. This was relatively bad news as I was meant to take a shower and leave the hostel at 8:00 to walk to my 8:27 train.

I jolted out of bed covered in sunshine that immediately signaled a much later hour than was good for my situation of train catching, but I took the 10 minute allotment as a challenge and haphazardly rose to it. Maybe rose to it is too benevolent a description- I staggered to it, bleary and confused, but I ended up on the train two minutes before it departed after running down the street so I would have time to stop in at a bakery to get a bag of brown and beige things that my body hates me for eating. I also feel grateful that I have never run out of convenient excuses for why my showering on this trip has approached something averaging once every three days- dear reader, this time I’m blaming the train. So let it be noted.

I just realized I might be too tired to write anything good so this will just be stream of consciousness notes and maybe something good will rise to the top, float above the waste, set itself apart as something resembling a story, something like a narrative finding feet and crawling out of the water onto dry land. Or maybe not. We’ll see. Let’s keep going in delirium…

I’ve spent the last few days marinating in the festivities of a seaside town that never needs much of a reason to throw a good party. Split at Christmas is all white polished stone streets and walls reflecting tinsel and lights and glass ornaments on Christmas trees. Pop up shops and cafes and temporary pubs line the promenade and music stations are spaced perfectly so the edges of sound just barely almost touch but don’t overlap into murky jumbles of discordant pop and Christmas classics. The sun is still out, diligently bright despite the season, even though it leaves around 4:00 now. I spent the last four days lounging and eating and sitting on the water and having long conversations about life over two hour long dinners at a newly discovered favorite place. The waiter roped us in by translating the menu to us in such a loving way that we knew any food described with the softness a man uses to describe a lover has to be amazing- it was, so we went back every day for three days. At various points that waiter was gifted by us the following: endless compliments on his oratory skills and powers of persuasion, a tub of ice cream from the best place in town upon our finding out he had never tried it, treats adults like, and showers of praise heaped upon a tiny blonde child he produced on the third night, as we marveled that this waiter was a mystery we wished to continue unraveling had we more time in Split. We didn’t, and on the last late night star gazing ledge sit session we spun all sorts of yarns about the imaginary life we could have living with this waiter and partying in Split and eating too much soup and pasta and ice cream and teaching his child silly expressions in English. I’m certain that this imaginary alternative life in which we created a commune with a waiter, his child, and whomever else happened to be in his life would have been thoroughly creepy in the absence of the excuse of being totally punch drunk on late nights and too much rich food. Actually it still does sound kind of creepy in retrospect. Dear waiter S- I can’t apologize, you were too good.

As I sit here in rumpled well-worn clothes, full of those beige things and unshowered, recoiling like a cave fish from the light that insists on peering in on me, I’m remembering all the times on this trip I was reminded that Croatian women continue to be impeccably manicured, styled, pressed, and painted like dolls, makeup applied with an expertise I don’t even think my hands are capable of. Meanwhile, as they are waking up and engaging in hours long beauty rituals to create a vision that is effortlessly gorgeous, I continue to be a ragamuffin wanderer sleeping through my shower time, wearing jeans washed probably about a month ago (I’m being generous here), with a naked face save a smear of lip gloss just to say I’m here, I’m trying, at least this little shimmery bit. Actually, who am I kidding, my socks are dirtier than the bottom of those women’s new boots. I’m not trying even one shimmery little bit- my lips are just dry and I found this in the bottom of my bag. You’ve caught me.

I actually fell asleep after that last part and just woke up, foggy headed and, for a moment, unsure of where I was going, rising out of sleep with faint recollections of other trains and times and places. Am I coming from Ljubljana right now, or going to Milan from Zurich, or is this the border hopper from Trieste, or the night train to Venice… no, it’s sorted, the day slides back in the right slot in my brain, I’m on my way to Zagreb. All I see out of the window is mist and fog, and then I realize what I’m actually seeing is snow- snow for the first December in four years, casual snow just drifting down as though it is no big deal that I haven’t seen it for so long and I'm all hey girl, hey, you're looking well, it's been a while. We are reunited on a mountaintop plain somewhere between Split and Zagreb, the trees all black and bare and making tally mark lines up and down the ridges of hills. I tried to take a picture and then remembered my $400 camera is broken, the lens sometimes randomly stopping half way through opening before pathetically clicking over and over in an attempt to finish the job, until I finally just pop out the batteries and put it out of its misery. My half broken camera took the following terrible pictures*. Please enjoy them as best you can- which might be about as much as I enjoyed the brown and beige things I had for breakfast.

*Post-edit: just kidding, I'm in a refugee camp posting this and they won't load.

I’ve somehow managed to sleep through a bit more than half of this six hour journey, something I have up until this point never accomplished. I have also managed to convince myself that sleeping for three hours in this chair means I’ve given myself a blood clot, but that’s another problem for another time. I should get up and do my lunges and toe raises in the stairwell of the space between the trains next to the bathroom, a space that has become familiar to me on all of these trips where I try to get up every hours and work the blood back through my reluctant veins. I like to take my iPod and pretend like I’m dancing. Or sometimes I just dance, because screw it, I’m already halfway there and when you're on a train for hours dancing is as valid a diversion as anything else.

When this train pulls into Zagreb I will be seeing it for the third time- the first time was a train from Slovenia, the second time was a rented car from Bosnia, and now it’s a train from Split. I’ll know exactly where to go to buy my tram ticket, and how much it will be. I know the tram I take and where to get off by sight. I’ve been to this hostel twice before so that will be a familiar place. I have a favorite cevapi restaurant I’ve already decided to hit up, and I have a friend to meet up with tomorrow. Day after tomorrow I’m thrown back into uncertainty when I hop in a van with three other people and head to Slovanski Brod, the refugee camp on the border of Croatia and Bosnia, where I’ll be for seven days.

For now, I think it’s time to go back to sleep. Maybe I’ll even be rested up enough to take a shower tonight!**

**Post-edit: Nope. No shame.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Say the Words

My sister and I did not have a Hallmark card relationship, a sisterhood marked with whispered late nights and secrets kept and us against the world bonds. For most of my childhood, it was me on one side of the sibling equation and my brother and sister on the other. I was the eldest by a margin that wasn’t outrageous distance but was heavy enough weight to sink a space between us that felt at times like a chasm. My brother and sister, only two years apart to my six and four years older, respectively, were the sibling pair of stories and movies and sentimental quotes about brotherhood. They shared a similar space in time, their childhood was more similar to one another than to mine, they had the same interests in sports and music and partying and beautiful women.

Through no fault of anyone in particular, but through a convergence of family dynamics and socioeconomics and mundane fault lines of divorce and child custody, our sibling group was defined in Part One by my being the eldest caretaker of the younger ones, and in Part Two by my staying behind in our hometown with our mother as they went off to the big city to live with our father. I graduated high school and went off to college when my sister was just beginning high school; my brother was not even in junior high. In more ways than I can or care to recount, it was almost, almost but not quite, as though we came from two different families. The context in which we became adults was so radically different, layered on top of the early divisions and necessary separations and sometimes painful realizations of our differences, that it was inevitable that we would find ourselves so wildly and widely scattered.

All I really knew how to do in relation to my siblings was take care of them- I didn’t know how to be a playmate when we were younger because I was washing their socks and brushing their hair and telling them to do their homework. I didn’t know how to be a confidant as we got older because I was shouting at them to hurry up and get in the car or we’d be late; we were fighting on the bus over the chores they had to do when we got home; I was begging them to get out of bed when the alarm went off; I was ranting like an angry mother when they didn’t help me do the dishes or take out the trash. When we went our separate ways and separate houses in high school, the last chance of building a shared childhood that resembled what most would consider normal fell into those three hours between us and I barely knew enough to grieve it because, shamefully, a part of me was relieved to no longer share in the responsibility of caretaking and the endless low level bickering and dividing lines.

We fumbled together while I was in college doing the best we could with what we had- a shaky foundation filled with such radically different paradigms and perceptions of our parents and our respective experiences. My sister was right down the street but I don’t remember spending much time together. When she graduated high school and I graduated college I tried to connect with her in the only way I knew how- with college advice and offers of help on filing out the FAFSA, suggestions for colleges and plans and degrees. I felt that I finally had something valuable to offer to her. I felt like a boy approaching a girl he had been trying to impress for so long, with something he finally thought might work. And this didn’t work. Our conversations around that summer after she graduated were hostile, angry. We fought. I told her if she didn’t get her shit together it would be too late; she told me to stop being such an uptight bitch and thinking I knew everything. I remember one afternoon in the slanting light of a Brownwood summer day when I stood up from the kitchen table after she told me to fuck off. I told her I wasn’t going to help her anymore. I didn’t. I headed off to Japan a month after that, with my sister and I back on normal terms- which was familial loyalty and love but nothing approaching a real friendship or comfortable companionship.

What Japan gave me was a distance from my upbringing that helped me to see how I could actively repair damage. When I was home, in Texas, so close to these people I loved and fought, when I had my deeply ingrained reactions to them and to their personalities, when we were in our years long carefully carved ruts, I simply couldn’t rise above that pattern and see how circular it was- I couldn’t see the path out, the way to walk out of that dysfunction, to rise above it. I didn’t see how I could change to fix it. Half a world away, with stacks of journals filled with my cramped late night writing, halfway through my year away, I saw that what had never been done between my sister and I, what I had never tried, was to just speak to the things that we both carefully never, ever spoke about. She knew what had happened. I knew what had happened. We knew the other knew- and we never, ever spoke about it, or how it affected us so deeply and yet so differently. No one gets out of a childhood without some damage, but my sister and I sat across from one another in our lives and politely looked at one another’s scars and pretended they didn’t exist.  Where we were missing parts that made us unable to do and be certain things, we were cruel- we pretended we couldn’t see the injury, and attacked the weakness as though it came from nowhere. We knew where it came from, but we pretended to forget. I think we wanted to make it go away; but when something you want to forget is buried inside the skin of your sister, what does that make you do? How do you love one another when you are wrapped in things you don’t want to know?

So in the absence of anything else, in the face of an insurmountable obstacle, I had nothing but what was in my head and my heart. I had nothing to give but a reckoning and a recollection. I did the only think I knew how- I wrote my sister a letter. I went through every pivotal experience I could remember, all the points where I remember feeling a palpable cleaving, a line drawn, a stake driven down marking the path that took us away from each other. All the resentments that built from our different experiences. All the times when I had fucked up due to trying too hard to fix something by proxy. All the moments when I had let my insecurities take over, my frustrations drive the conversation. It took me two weeks to write that letter. I cried over that letter. I was so embarrassed that the thought of sending it to her sometimes sent me into shudders of revulsion at how vulnerable it felt to imagine her reading it. I didn’t know how she would take it. I edited it a thousand times and re-read it more than that. I prayed and meditated about what to say. I was sick over that letter. I lost sleep over it. I felt like I was building a fragile and paltry house from scratch with my bare hands, desperately hoping it would be enough to shelter us both while we figured out how to live together as sisters. I ended it with telling her that just because our situation was not conducive to building a strong bond as children, I wanted to take responsibility for it now that we were both adults. I wanted us to choose each other. I wanted her to know that I desperately, for always, had wanted nothing more than to be her sister and I was willing to do whatever I needed to do to have that bond. I sought her, over and over, in every line. It was beseeching and it was everything I had in me. It was dark and honest and terrifying to see out in black and white, exposed. The subject line was an attempt at levity: “Heavy Lifting- Bend at the Knees.”

I sent it and felt like I had reached inside myself and opened a door to expose all the soft parts to whatever might happen. I was casting a net into that wide space between us. I waited for what I didn’t know to expect.

When she wrote me back, I saw the subject line- “Knees Weren’t Meant to Bend that Way”. And even before I opened her e-mail, even before I read a single line, I knew we were finally okay. I read her letter at least 10 times as soon as I received it. I felt, for the first time, what it meant to have her as my sister- not to be her sister. To have her as my sister. To be had by her as a sister. To finally understand one another and to have everything fanned out before the other, a careful, intricate inventory. We had the freedom to look and ask and see, really see, for the first time. Just as if the previous contention had never existed, when I came home we slid into the new space we had made for each other, together, independent of our parents or our homes or our experiences. We had purposefully carved into ourselves a place to put our bond, and having that, finally, was outrageously comforting. We never spoke of that letter again. We didn’t have to.

Six years later, when my sister died, my cousin came to me and gave me a handwritten letter. She told me it was important that I read it, that I know what my sister had thought of me. It had been found in her things while the apartment was cleaned out. I opened the pages, read the first line, and saw that it was the same letter my sister had e-mailed me back in Japan- but it was twice as long. Because it was a rough draft, filled with writing and re-writing, editing and scribbles and scratches and repetitions used to seek out the perfect turn of phrase. Notes filled the margins, her arched handwriting jumping down the sides. The pages were soft, turned over, touched and re-touched. I remembered how I had agonized over my letter to my sister, and I held in my hands the evidence of her exact same struggle to find those words to knit us together, to respond to me in just the right way. That she had done it spoke to the similar ways in which we had both approached that situation; that she had kept it after six years spoke to a level of love and connection that gave me more comfort than absolutely anything else ever could possibly have given me in those days after she died.

If my sister had died without those two simple letters being exchanged, I don’t know how I could have begun to recover from her loss, because I would have been tortured with the knowledge that I had lost a sister I had never been able to have. These were only words- words on a page, on a screen, on a sheaf of looseleaf notepaper in an apartment in Dallas, tucked into a notebook under a futon in Japan. My sister and I healed years of distance and separation and pain with something as simple as words strung into sentences that mapped out our insides so we could finally show them to each other and learn who we were. We were born together through two letters. When she died I knew exactly who I was losing- and knowing the exquisite, detailed nature of the treasure of who she was, and what I was losing, was something I would never have had without our mutual courage in finding the words to give to one another.

Today is my sister’s 29th birthday. In honor of her birthday, and in remembrance of her passing, all I ask of any of you reading this is take an inventory of yourself and the people in your life. What have you not said, or asked, or questioned, that could heal you or someone in your life? It’s only words. It costs you nothing to say them, to write them, to send them. Say the words. Give them to the people who need to hear them- positive or negative, however hard they are. Please don’t deny yourself the opportunity to more fully know, and love, and connect to those around you. Don’t continue to suffer needlessly under misunderstandings, however long they have tangled you up in confusion and resentment. You might leave this world having never heard, or said, the things you need to know or share. I want you to get to the point where you can’t bear that thought, and let that give you the courage to take action.