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…

Delivering myself to the party

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.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

On Making Plans in the Month of June


I made that map at the end of May 2012. When I made that map, I had already known for two months that I would be moving to Albania. I envisioned an epic Goodbye, America! road trip, going to see family in all of their respective homes, before finishing up in Texas and heading back up north to Colorado. It was supposed to take me all of June. I remember planning this trip, giddy with joy that I had successfully completed my internship, feeling like the luckiest girl in the world to have a job waiting for me on the other side of a backpacking trip that would be filled with places I had always dreamed of seeing. My Great Granny had passed away that March, and that Kansas stop there at the end- "K"- would probably be the last time I ever went through Hillsboro, Kansas. I wanted to have a little personal memorial there for her, to say goodbye to the place I spent so much time growing up.

The best part of the trip was going to be happening over on "F", in Virginia. My mom had recently gotten re-married and moved there. My brother, my sister, my mom's best friend, Gina, and I were all going to converge on her new home for a week of reunion times. It would be the first time all of us kids had been together with mom since I moved to Colorado two years prior. I got to Virginia a few days before Heather, Thomas, and Gina were set to fly over. I was there for less than 24 hours when we got the call, on Heather's own cell phone, that she had passed away. Then I had to call and tell my father. I had to call and tell my uncles. I had to call and tell it more times than I care to remember.

I don't remember, really, the details of everything after that. Bobby came, immediately, and we left the next day, driving through the same route I was set to take the week after what was supposed to be our family reunion. We got to Texas and planned a funeral. Made a slideshow. Cried a lot. Walked from room to room in a daze, avoiding each others eyes (at least I did) because I didn't want to look at another person who felt as badly as I did and just magnify it all into something that felt too intimately painful to share with anyone, even myself.

The last time I saw most of my friends and family and my mother and brother was at my sister's funeral, or in the sad, heavy, fuck this I hate the world days that came right after. I left to go back to Colorado, and spent the next month grief eating and sleeping all day, piling on 25 pounds of I can't handle my life while I was trying to pack and get ready to move to another country and start a new job. God bless Bobby. I saw my Dad one more time before I left, when we drove down to Colorado Springs where he was working a storm. I felt awful, he felt awful, I think we all just kind of did our best to not magnify our respective misery, but it's inevitable at that point in the process when it's so fresh you're just a gaping hole of hurt, a walking wound spilling out on the floor. Maybe it's just me and my inability to process hard emotions with other people, but being with my family hurt. When it was just me, walking around, I could kind of wrestle the grief and absence into a messy but somewhat manageable burden that I could stumble around under- it was hard to breathe or move and it was oppressive, but somehow I was standing. But when I was with my family, not only was I struggling with it, I was seeing all of them struggling with it, too. I was terrified of being called on to help them with theirs when I could barely get by with mine. I was overtaken with empathy for their pain because of my own. I don't grieve well with others. I was, in many ways, immensely grateful to head back to Colorado and grieve with piles of food and sleeping in until noon and not taking showers and not having to worry about helping anyone else grieve. I could spend two hours howling into a pillow without tensing in fear that someone was going to walk in and put their arms around me. That made it real, when other people saw it. Somehow, being alone, I could get through. And then, finally, we left, and I had something to do with my time, instead of sitting for hours staring at a wall and going through everything I could have, should have done/didn't do.

And that was how June went.

Now, being an international teacher, my Junes are always going to be filled with that flurry of planning, packing, moving, trips to be had, friends to say goodbye to business that I had leading up to Virginia. Last June was awful for me, this June has been awful for me. It's the repetition of the experience, not just of June 18th, the day I found out I didn't have a sister in this world anymore, but of the ritual before it- that flurry of excited packing and planning and reunions and goodbyes. It feels ominous to me, now, to be looking at flights and making happy plans. I keep flinching, waiting for the other shoe to drop, as I work through what almost feels like a re-enactment. The familiarity of it is haunting.

It's superstitious, it's illogical, and I know that, but I hate making plans in June. I keep waiting for something irrevocable to fall into them, as though the making of them creates a space that invites something awful to trample through. Something more than awful.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

It's Hot Season and I'm Gross, or, We're Up all Night to Get Sweaty

It's all well and good that I insist on hand washing my clothes, but the key element of that choice being effective is that I actually, at some point, do hand wash my clothes. I'm just going to go ahead and say that I did laundry this week... for the first time in a month. But wait! Before you start running through the implications of that admission by working some quick math about the ratios of average pairs of underwear owned to days in a month- it's not THAT bad. I have a (lazy) system wherein I handwash them in the sink while I'm taking a shower, since it's all one big room. Here's what laundry day looks like around here.

High tech cleanliness- it all happens in one room, and cleans the clothes and me! EFFICIENT

Drying rack + burglar deterrent
Okay, so your first "Holy shit, that is so gross" moment of disgust has been assuaged, right? Unfortunately, that reassurance must be followed swiftly with the fact that, just as I don't have enough pairs of underwear to make a month's hiatus from laundry doing not-gross, I also definitely don't have enough clothes for it either. And yeah, it's hot season, which sees every day dawning bright and solar flared with temperatures that soar majestically into the 100's most days. I am constantly sweaty. My clothes are constantly bearing the brunt of that situation. They are losing; my skin is winning. But honestly, that's exactly why I just stopped washing my clothes. It seemed so pointless, and I found that if I just hung them back up, lived in denial for a week, and then "discovered" them again, they really only smelled like sunscreen and my too-expensive, locally made, all natural citronella bug repellent. I could be a poster child for the efficacy of deodorant, basically. There were a few times I exercised restraint and lobbed certain particularly offensive items into the permanent "No, for real, you are actually dirty" zone of my laundry basket. And...just as many times I would go to that basket and do a re-evaluation. I'm just glad that I will never be judged by the justification laden monologues I gave as to why I reneged on initial pronouncements of "Do not wear this until it has been scrubbed. Twice." My threshold for dirty has reached that burning sun of Vientiane. I embrace my animal ways. No hairbrushes, no make-up, sunscreen and sports bras and sweat forever.

It's not just me, though. Vientiane is altogether a shimmering nest of slippery human mess right now. I like being sweaty, when we're all in it together and no one cares. Now, finally, FINALLY, I am not the only one drenched on the dance floor- even those who stand very still and cling to cold beer are glowing, salty, under the yellow lights. At the bar last night people danced without a care for enormous sloping sweat marks on their shirts, bangs made stringy plastered to wet foreheads, smiling under-boob Cs of "This girl is HOT", shirts stretched and stuck to various body parts made visible under the wet accordion of material, dark jeans made ever darker by being soaked through. Everyone is a glistening crush of flesh turned liquid, draped in damp material. This is the kind of heat that you just give up to, to the point where you kind of forget it's there- there is no fighting it, and you're too tired to try, so you just let it cover you. Hot hot hot. Never ending sweat.

I love hot season when I don't have anything to do. Sitting on a chair at a restaurant patio and feeling your body pour itself out of you and slide down your back, behind your knees, between your legs, down your neck, the heat so palpable you feel it in your nose and throat as a humid, you can't escape me reminder- there is something utterly relaxing about it, provided you have free and full access to the cold beverage of your choice (water for me, for always). It always strikes me that there is such a vibrant outdoor social scene going on day and night in temperatures here, which, in Texas, would be considered unacceptable for anything more than darting from an air conditioned car to an air conditioned building. I surprise even myself with how much I have adapted to just being a hot and sweaty situation everywhere all the time. The only problem is when I have to do something that requires exertion- a long walk, exercise, waking up early to do something before school. No. I have absorbed the sun and it has made a hot opiate of my blood. I cannot move that fast or that far or for that long. The only exception is dancing, which I'm somehow still able to do for hours.

The rain comes sometimes, lightning filled and wind whistling, and it drops itself onto an earth so hot that it is immediately thwarted and the temperature barely changes very much for very long. The sensation of riding my motorbike with the tent of my poncho making a greenhouse around me is one I won't soon forget. I love the sound of the drops on my helmet, and that strange experience of feeling water sliding off you but not making you wet. I don't love the cars passing fast and spraying arcs of dirt water all over me. Thank you for everything, poncho. When it's not raining and I'm on my motorbike the longest time in all the world is the waiting space under the open sun, sitting on the hot pavement, waiting for the light to turn green. I've glimpsed eternity in that space, and it feels like heat stroke and sliding off the seat of my bike because my legs are so sweaty.

Hot season for me in this time and place is: dry blue skies, the end of so many contracts and contacts, going away parties and dancing all night, soaked to our bones with ourselves and each other, cold beer and yellow lights, fronds of palm trees curling a groaning green in the sun, a motorcycle gang you never asked to be a part of heaving hot exhaust all around you, wet chairs at restaurant patios, glowing faces and talk of what comes next, summer plans hanging in the air with the heat, dusty dogs panting in the shade by the woman making your mango shake on the side of the road. It's the Vientiane sun in your head and on your ever browning skin, rivers in your elbows and behind your knees and stinging your eyes and salting your lips. It's the end, burning bright, bright.


Thursday, May 1, 2014

On How to Write Photography

I never like going this long without writing here. I come back every time after a long absence and stare at the page and think "I don't know how to write anymore." And then I start writing but it seems either forced or rushed, but certainly not natural or easy like it does when I'm doing it frequently. It's a stutter step I don't know, holding down the backspace again and again until I just stop, sitting without typing, thinking of a million different things I want to write about but haven't. I just did it right now, actually- I stopped and re-read what I just wrote and I almost never do that in the middle of the thing, the work of getting it out. I just type it out, and then re-read it for glaring errors, and then post it for better or worse and we'll see what happens when we get there.

I sent my friend a link to my blog, and after a while he wrote back and said he felt like he had read my diary. I took that as a great compliment, coming from someone who knows me in real life.
I far prefer writing about personal experiences that aren't readily apparent or seen or experienced in concert with other people. I like writing about something that happened and how I felt it, or what I thought while it was happening, and usually that circles back to some random bullshit that's been percolating in my brain that is suddenly illuminated. Whether or not I am retroactively applying the light, I always manage to find some meaning in the practice of re-telling the event, freezing it and peering at it for all angles, shaking it up to see what falls out that I might have missed. I see more of my life when I sit back and try to write about it than I do when I'm living it. It's the step back, the hey wait a minute, what was going on there, the zoom in, crop out the rest, hyper focus of telling a story that draws me back every time. I can read back over something I've written in spontaneous prose and feel genuine surprise- not because what I've written is a fabrication, but because when I look at an incident through the lens of the story teller, I gain some distance and I can see myself and the incident more clearly; suddenly all sorts of things come popping out. I can slow it down, bump up the details, expand on a fraction of a second when a human connection was made, or a color moved across the sky, or the traffic opened up and I saw that old woman crouched over her cart and I saw that I'd be there some day. It's the way I could write a paragraph about the way the light hits at a certain time of day. It's all the words I want to say about the feeling of the breeze moving across my shoulder when I wake up from a nap on clean sheets and the birds are singing. It's the moment when I see two little boys sitting together on a river bank in Cambodia, and how it makes me think of my sister and my brother and all that they mean to me, and I feel like I've seen more than two little boys sitting together on a river bank and I want to capture it in a sentence to share it. The experience is there and gone in the time it takes me to see it and then not see it, but the writing of it expands all that it was. Inside of that writing I can see the depth and be astounded at just how much we are given to feel and know, hidden below these small ticks in time. It's an exponential increase of reality, to a degree that feels like discovering universes wrapped in minutes.

Last week, it was a monk in an orange robe, carrying a blue bag under a gold umbrella. He was walking at such a distance from me that in the instant I happened to look up, he crossed my vision right in the middle of the rainbow arches of the temple entrance, through which I could see a half circle of sky. All of it was framed just so by hundreds of flowers on the branch of the tree stretching in a sweep of red above me. I was walking on a sidewalk littered with fallen petals so bright they looked like embers. It couldn't have been more perfectly orchestrated than if I had been told to sit and wait for the things around me to arrange themselves solely for my benefit. I've been wanting to write about that since I saw it. And in the writing of it, I remember even more how much joy it brought me to see it, and to realize that the monk didn't even know I saw him, and that just as quickly as it all came into focus it fell apart as he and I kept walking forward in opposite directions. But before that, when the flame colored flowers and that young monk and the gold umbrella and I came into the ideal ratio of distances to make that scene, I tell you that everything I have felt about my current life here in Vientiane came into focus and I saw the inside of my heart reflected back to me in moving color.

I know I didn't realize how much I saw it, though, until I wrote about seeing it. That's the process I keep returning to. That's what reminds me that I need to keep doing this.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Smatterings and Evolution

"Remember, remember, this is now, and now, and now. Live it, feel it, cling to it. I want to become acutely aware of all I've taken for granted." - Sylvia Plath

I'm feeling more like this lately. It's far better than feeling trapped and cramped, as you might imagine.

I haven't been posting here, but I've been writing every day. Mostly in my head, but still, even that is definitely writing, not thinking, because there is an enormous difference between my thoughts and my thoughts marching across my brain in potential sentences as I test them out before I type them out. Most of the past month has been spent in wide eyed weepy grateful wonder at how beautifully easy my life here has become. I noticed it starting a fair while back, oh, end of November, really, when I first moved into this perfect apartment next to the gay club on a random side alley. There was a budge in the suffocating depression I was feeling, some more breathing room, a relief that was palpable but small, the tiniest of tilts. December built on that, and things opened up even more, not like a wide open field, but more like unfolding from a too small seat, on a journey that unexpectedly took twice as long, and testing out your cramped legs. Christmas break was everything I needed it to be and more graciously applied on top of that; I felt doors opening that had been closed a long time, or maybe even forgotten entirely. I didn't feel like a shadow me playing the part of Cortney. I was still me, I'd just been sad so long I didn't remember how to be not sad; I'd been still and small for so long I didn't know what to do with so much space in which to move. And then, suddenly, everything came together and January and February were just a rollicking string of days and weeks and good times and friends and a sudden realization that I had been enjoying, for quite awhile, a sweet easy feeling towards this place where I'm living. I joked that my relationship with Vientiane started off like a praying mantis courtship dance, where she tried to eat me alive; we're on much better terms now despite that rough start.

When I first started feeling better here, I just didn't trust it. I played it cool, glanced at it side-eyed and wary, and pretended I didn't notice. I didn't want to scare it off, I didn't want to depend on it, I just half held my breath and squinted a bit off to the left and tried to act like I wasn't terribly invested in the small flickering bit of being okay with being here. And then it just kept going. I was... comfortable... then content... and then, really, truly, happy.

I wrote the following in a notebook back in January, and I'm transcribing it here, at least the parts I can make out, since I can't actually read my own handwriting.


Sometime in mid-January, judging by the journals around this one:

I'm sitting outside in a mosquito filled night, sweating at my favorite Indian food restaurant. It's the social part of the evening, after the sun has set, before the streets clear (outrageously early) and all around my corner of the street table Vientiane is humming by. The tuk tuk drivers, exhausted from the heat and the humidity, swing in their hammocks, waiting for the crowd of lanky backpackers to get good and close before they half-heartedly inquire "Tuk-tuk?" It's a yes, it's far too expensive, they all agree, and they're off. Cats creep and meow-growl around the curbs, cautious and waiting for scraps. The kids across the street are playing badminton, their long brown limbs flailing and filled with laughter as they play terribly, and happily, under the disinterested eye of a grandmother who's also tending shop. The yellow lights cover everything in pools of butter reflections, and make the night scenes around me look slightly warped and waxy. A china cup half moon hangs above me between the space of the awning and the festering nest of power lines; I can't see stars and I think again how much I do miss them, and how beautiful they were in Colorado when I stepped outside my tent and looked up and gasped and sat down and blinked back tears. Colorado makes me feel something close to homesick but more like the familiar soft-worn edges of heartsick grief, a purple bruise I can run my fingers over instead of the open wound I used to scratch. I look back at the ever changing parade of tourists in front of me, endless in elephant pants and inexplicably popular fanny packs. The restaurant owner leans, easy, in a plastic chair in this butter light, laughing with the man swirling dough onto the hot stone to make another banana pancake. Street dogs skip lanky and sick across the road, scooters wind forever past, and the ever present coughing sputter of tuk tuks and their perpetually squealing brakes clatters under everything. It sounds cacophonous, but these sounds are somehow complementary, pleasing even. This is no bustling metropolis; the street sounds are local and familiar, not overwhelming, they hum consistently in the way that crickets and frogs do in the woods. As I sit here and contemplate the tourists I realize, finally, that this is really my home. Not just by default, not just because I signed that contract and I'm going to honor my word, dammit, not just because I will not quit no matter how hard it gets- it is, simply, my home. I feel I belong here, in this moment, on this corner, exactly in this plastic chair, feeling beads of sweat roll down my back as I lean over this notebook and scribble out these thoughts. I'll pay out, flag down a tuk tuk, know how much is a fair falang price and negotiate in Lao, and then climb in the back after the familiar walk away/it's too expensive/okay come back dance. I'll know that the driver will take one of two routes to my house, and along the way I'll lean against the metal rails catching the breeze and watching the road roll out behind me, a shifting scene of traffic and sidewalk life framed by the open end of the tuk tuk. The landmarks, the food stalls, the predictable snarls in movement and the near miss awful intersections- nothing is a surprise. I'll feel it before we turn, I won't fumble with money, I'll say my niceties in Lao without a stutter, and I'll hop out in front of my home. My true home, in this moment, where I can actually be satisfied until June. I don't have a countdown in my head anymore, I'm not gritting my teeth and railing against my life anymore. I don't feel so much exhausting spite and bitterness. I don't feel like I'm serving a sentence. I feel once more the reality that I chose this, and for whatever reason, what I chose was a terribly hard thing for me. I can do this. I am doing this. I'm on the other side of that horrible time. I am so grateful. I am so grateful. It was worth the ordeal to feel such rushing joy of relief and peace by comparison. I'm realizing that's probably the whole point.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Gracious Goes

A week after he told me he was leaving, Bobby left. It was Monday, September 23rd, and the sun was shining because it didn’t know we’d been up all night and the morning hurt when it came. We walked downstairs, said good bye, and I slid the gate shut behind him as if it were any other day and I just had to shut the gate, because that’s what you do when someone leaves the house. I didn’t watch him walk down the driveway, because I didn’t want to ponder what it meant to watch my partner of almost half a decade walk away from me, to a tuk tuk, to a plane, back home to America without me. I didn’t cry. I just turned around and looked at the emptiness of my house, not ours, mine, and the mine of it all felt like too much to have. I didn’t want to stand where I was standing when he left, so I went back upstairs and stood, instead, in the doorway of our bedroom and looked at the bed for a very long time. I felt a wave of anxiety that was so palpable I thought it would knock me down; I couldn’t look at the bed anymore. I sat on the living room floor and felt the immense open awareness of being alone, truly- not just alone because I was out somewhere without Bobby, or we were apart for a while, but because I was alone. Single. Solitary. No invisible thread of fidelity tied me to another person in this world. I pictured that thread that I used to have, and how it was gone, and I suddenly felt disastrously unmoored, like I was drifting out into space and getting lost and couldn’t find my way back because I didn’t know where I lived, in this too big house of mine, not ours. I started shaking and couldn’t stop, so I stretched out on the wood floor and shook against it until I wasn’t shaking. I didn’t cry.  

I couldn’t handle the doorway of the bedroom anymore, so I went back downstairs to fill my hands with a distraction. I picked up the broom, and I swept the entire house. Twice. The mop came next, and then a rag for the stairs, a step at a time to clean places that no one would ever see. I bleached the counters. I scrubbed the refrigerator, which was already clean. Sweat streamed off of me, rivulets down my neck and back, my hair clumped to my neck and stuck to my cheeks,  and I needed water but didn’t get any because I didn’t want to stop. I worked on my hands and knees and scrubbed the baseboards, carefully, because it mattered. I did laundry that wasn’t really even dirty, just for the methodical calm of the process of filling the tank, switching the drain, wringing the clothes, and carefully hanging them all. I gathered up all the dusty wooden chairs in a clattering herd and doused them, one by one, with buckets of water as their legs scratched mine. The mosquitoes came with the water, and the water mixed with my sweat until my entire dress was a sopping, clinging sheet. I was barefoot in the back drain of my house, not ours, mine, surrounded by chairs that just wouldn’t come clean. The sun pressed against my hair and the back of my neck and my shoulders until, between the heat and the sweat and the dirty water running down my arms and legs, I had finally exhausted myself enough to stop. The chairs went back where they belonged, looking none the cleaner. I walked to the gate and put my hand on the lock and thought about living there alone. I didn’t want to think about living there alone. I crept up the spotless stairs and peeled off my clothes and stretched out on the floor of the bathroom with the water pounding down and streaming off of me in gritty brown snakes. It was freezing cold and I would have thought about how good it felt if I had felt anything close to good in general.

I thought for certain this would be when I cried, but it wasn’t. This was when I thought of how, when we were first dating, I would stand in the bathroom after a shower while Bobby cleaned the deep wound where a mole had been cored out of me. I couldn’t reach it to clean it, and twice a day, he would. It was a bloody, nasty gash, threaded through with black stitches, and I would wince and pout and breathe the pain through my teeth while he carefully, carefully cleaned it. It had been turning into cancer and my doctor had told me I was lucky to have caught it when I did. Love, to me, in that moment, was Bobby cleaning my wound, taking care of a place I couldn’t reach myself.

I walked my way through the memories of all the times he had taken care of me, and this mental route, inevitably, as I knew it would, led to the night I called him, screaming, to tell him that my sister had died. He was there the next morning and all the mornings after that, and he cleaned my wound, because I couldn’t take care of it myself. I thought about how he held me up as I walked, howling, out of her funeral, unable to bear the reality that so many of us were there because she wasn’t. I whispered to him that he had to get me out of here, I can’t walk, I can’t walk, I can’t walk, but I could, because he held me. For months after he held that grief for her with me when I couldn’t hold it all in my hands. This grief of loss, the shared history of our years of combined lives, this loss had the same quality, if not the same intensity. It felt familiar. It surprised me, because I didn’t know it would feel like that. I didn’t know.  

I cried then. I cried for all of it until I couldn’t cry anymore, and then I crawled into my bed, not ours, mine, and I found more to cry for in the sheets. I cried for the hands of my friends to pet me and let me sleep on their couch in the middle of the day because we’d all been there. I cried to be in the same town as my family so I could find my way to the sounds of laughter and coffee on the back porch. I cried through regrets and fear and found my way into a pathetic, shuddering sob that was little more than my own heavy, exhausted breathing. More than anything, I struggled under a guilt so tangible it hurt to feel it. A heavy guilt that shamed me. A guilt that asked me why? Why did I need things like overseas jobs in random developing countries, when that meant that my partner was so miserable he couldn’t bear to live with me? Why, after all those years we had shared, did I insist on continuing down a path he wouldn’t, absolutely couldn’t, walk anymore?

I kept thinking that what was so hard, so hard, was that we didn’t split apart so much as we diverged; there was no explosive separation, nothing to point to and say here, here is where it happened. Our parting was hard in its soft simplicity. It was a turn to the left and a turn to the right. We were, and then suddenly we weren’t. It surprised us both, I think, to look up one day and realize that the companion walking by our side was now far flung, way out in the world, and all you could see was the shape of the person on the horizon who used to be close enough to clasp hands. I thought of how far away he already was, and how long he’d be that far away, after how long he’d been close. I stretched out into a star, searching hands and feet moving into the wide empty space of the bed, and there on the edges I found more to cry for in the sheets, until I finally found sleep.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Sometimes, Vientiane

Vientiane often tries me. Vientiane often bores me. Vientiane often makes me ache for so many other places I'd rather be, and I often wonder where that rather would specifically be if things had worked out differently.

But, sometimes?

Sometimes, Vientiane can yield a soft, cool night that starts with a random rooftop dance party.

Sometimes, you can climb the stairs, zig-zagging upwards through a tunnel of muffled distant, now close and clear, social sounds, and find a corner from which to watch the lights of Thailand glitter snaking on the surface of the river. You lean over the railing and you lean into the conversations around you and you learn new names. A stutter step slow start of music and sparse movement quickly turns into a crowd of clapping laughing stomping dancing under the stars, and for the next few hours you're lost in it. The party ends and then it's zig-zagging back down those stairs making plans for the next stop. You get there and the next stop is inexplicably closed, no matter, something else. Now you're flagging down fancy trucks and finagling your way into hitching rides in the back, the wind in your face saying remember? and telling your cheeks and closed eyes the memories of Texas summers on the way to rodeos, or to the creek to swim off a weekend. You're hopping the tailgate and thanking the strangers for the ride, kawp chai'ing, sincerely and windblown, their refusal of money or Beer Lao. Now the night is heading into that dingy club draped in spider webbed green lights woven through with dubious dub step. You're yelling the words and wringing yourself out and feeling yourself sweat still more. Moving moving moving. Forgetting forgetting forgetting. In this place you feel and see the tattered edges of a grime you don't want to touch, but more than that you're in a place where you just want to keep chasing that head thrown back rapture of feeling music go through you in the dark. Early morning comes and closes the club; now everyone's piling into the tuk tuk of So, who knows exactly where you live since he's taken you home so many times before. Those three wheels strain under the five of you; you shift weight to help out, but mostly you're huddling in a puppy pile of twisted legs and arms to stay warm. One by one people drop off into the night and back to their homes, and then you find your way to yours, walking through the tile path palm tree tunnel up to the first door on the right at the top of the stairs. You get a hot shower and a 5 a.m. bedtime. You have sore feet and a sweet deep exhaustion that helps you, finally, to catch some real sleep. It comes quickly, and when it does, it's dreamless and unbroken.

Sometimes, I can live here and forget how I got here, or what's happening there where I am not, and haven't been for so long. Maybe sometimes will be more often, or at least it will keep being sometimes often enough that I can make it through to June and whatever happens next.