To the Moon and Timbuktu

To the Moon and Timbuktu

Nina Sovich shares the first chapter of her new book, To The Moon And Timbuktu, with Equals. 

The cab driver assures me his sister Salima runs a lovely hotel.

“It’s a very good hotel, yes, very good hotel. No noise, no bother. Very clean. They have many, many Western tourists. Many women. Salima is a good woman.”

He leaves me in front of a squat two-story building made of poured concrete that sits on the edge of the desert next to the army airport. The second-floor balcony is hanging off its anchor bolts, and the windows are murky with sand and pink goo that looks a lot like Pepto-Bismol. The only light in the hotel emanates from a first-floor pool hall that smells of fish heads and burned felt. Cigarettes, empty milk cartons, and black plastic bags skip down the street in the midnight breeze, accumulating in a huge pothole in front of the hotel. Clean, I suppose, is a relative term.

© by Nina Sovich. Published by Amazon Publishing/New Harvest. All Rights Reserved. 

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A love letter to Colombia, Part IV

eternally nostalgic
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Previously:  Return | Firsts | Memory | Solitude | Nostalgia | Graffiti | Needs | Narratives | Trauma | A love letter to Columbia, Part I | A love letter to Columbia, Part II

This was a summer of questions. I lived in them. I learned how to design and conduct qualitative research piece-by-piece.Inquiry became my home in Colombia. It was a summer of cómo and por qué?  I struggled with shifting from my previously service-based roles in conflict-affected areas to being here in an academic capacity, with asking questions without being able to immediate use the answers to implement an initiative that responds to needs. I asked myself what the service of academia is, and whether it is immediate enough and close enough to the source of the need for me to feel that it can be a true service. I watched my communities shift and the often-solitary-occasionally-lonely rhythms of academic fieldwork give way to a group of thinkers who would proofread my every word, assess the effectiveness and ethics of my every interview question, and give my Spanish translations their correct subjunctive forms. I will miss spelling my name on the phone. In Colombia, I am Rossan, as Roxanne is too untenable. I will miss the workers at Auros, my neighborhood copy-scan-fax store. They, too, are part of the routines of my research, and I can tell they are perplexed by the formalities of the process. I credit them with having taught me how to say 'stapler' in Spanish and with having helped assemble my every consent form.

And then I was silent. When the questions died down and the music quietened, I found myself sitting alone on the Cartagena city walls. Colombia can be uncomfortable with solitude, and Cartagena is a city that demands affection. It is a country of two and many, one in which you can always squeeze in an extra seat at the table or an extra person in the airport line to say goodbye. This summer has blurred the lines between solitude and loneliness, raised the cost of distance from loved ones, and lowered the barrier to entry into becoming a loved one in the first place. This country is full of loved ones, my loved ones. It is full of love.

I have felt small this summer. It is the kind of smallness I crave, the kind that emanates from being humbled and cannot be corrected by high heels. I have felt lighter too. I have laughed more easily, stumbled more confidently, made mistakes less shyly. When I'm abroad and alone, unshielded by familiarity or company, I say yes more. I dare more, especially after midnight when the words fall out of my mouth without fear of the Spanish subjunctive.

***

I sometimes feel about Colombia like a photographer who only wishes to capture her lover's dreamier side, all the while aware that another side exists, having pushed up her fingers right up against the underbelly. I cannot definitively reconcile my memories of Colombia, those of almonds and rainbows, with the memories Colombians have narrated to me. I know they exist side-by-side, almost unfolding in parallel universes. I understand that the differences in the hues of these narratives partly emerge out of my biased eyes: those of a Colombia-loving foreigner whose multiple layers of privilege circumvent many glass ceilings and shield her from some of the challenges of life and work here. I do not wish my fondness for this land to render me blind to its injustices or to push the many conflicts that continue to unfold away from the capital to the periphery of my own vision.

At the same time, I am hopeful -- not out of ignorance or bias, but by choice. I choose to be hopeful because I have met so many Colombians who are, who believe in Colombia, who have dedicated their life to peace. During one of my interviews, a human rights defender explained to me: "We push and ask questions, even when it feels as though the mountain is not moving. Why do we do it? Because every day when I get out of bed to do this work, when I see more of us committing to it, I can feel the space for impunity shrinking. That is enough, even if I can't see it. I believe it is there. I believe it is shrinking. When you believe, you have no choice but to keep working, to keep pushing."

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By the time you read these words, Roxanne has returned to Boston, which she (also) calls home. Her field notes from Colombia may have wrapped up, but her adventures will continue, in life and on this page.

A love letter to Colombia, Part III

eternally nostalgic
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Previously:  Return | Firsts | Memory | Solitude | Nostalgia | Graffiti | Needs | Narratives | Trauma | A love letter to Columbia, Part I | A love letter to Columbia, Part II

I worry about Bogotá's rigidity, about the -isms that come up in every interview: machismo, classismo. Most are born out of certain expectations that are etched into the lives of the few -- expectations of where to live, where to eat, where to go out. Not complying with them, or flagrantly defying them, is met with palpable indignation. Can empathy grow in sheltered spaces? Of what service can narrowness be, other than protecting the interests and lifestyles of the few?

And then I meet the people who break the mould. Last Friday, I was the only person with done-up nails and high heels in a room full of anthropologists. I have come to cherish both the irony and the awkwardness of this, surrounded by Colombians in jeans and Converse who were there to patiently walk me through the process of grave exhumations. Some of the most transformative moments of my research were the ones whose profundity extinguished all room for artifice. In many ways, these are the stories that cannot be told. They are not my stories, or this is not the medium for them, or it is not yet the time to tell them. Even in their untellability, I realize that allowing these narratives to cross my path continues to fuel my faith in humanity.

The responsibilities of storytelling were on my mind this summer, in terms of the responsibilities of the storyteller to the people to whom the story belongs and to the reader. I have watched my own role constantly shift, as the different capacities I have occupied in conflict-affected areas compete for attention: conflict manager, gender-based violence specialist, academic, researcher, listener, writer. Storyteller. It is an ever-evolving contract between multiple storytellers, and it requires finding my own place in the universe of intersecting narratives.

***

I will carry the contrasts in my heart, with appreciation for moments that fracture your expectations, for the moments in which appearance deviates from reality. There was the time I was followed by a policeman for five blocks near the Presidential Palace, only to learn that he wanted to find out if this señorita was married and, if not, would she go out with him? Or the time a whole group of policemen in Cali gave up their seats at the tienda for two sleepy gringas looking for coffee before the city had had the chance to wake up. Or the numerous instances I have walked past the sports bar, Locos por el Futbol, only to hear "A Total Eclipse of the Heart" or another 1990's sappy favorite bellowing from the speakers -- with more than one man singing along. Or that other time during my solo meal in Usaquén, when the table of brunching men behind me spent twenty minutes discussing baby showers. There are moments that insert cracks into an image such that you can no longer say "all of these kinds of people are _______" in Colombia. Colombia makes you fill in the blank, and question the 'all.' It requires nuance and texture.

And yet, the often heart-warming contrasts cannot allow me to forget about the shadow economy of fear, in which boundaries are overstepped or invisibilized. Many of my interviewees use 'invisibilize' as an active verb: to render invisible. 'To (forcibly) disappear' has been another active verb that has punctuated the narrative. The hierarchies of privilege that define other aspects of life here also determine fear, risk, and danger -- with human rights defenders often finding themselves at the bottom. I have been conscious of how my own layers of privilege color my experience and provide an extra layer of protection in most instances: I am a foreign, Western-educated woman who is affiliated with a US university and is not fully embedded in the realities of advocacy in Colombia. I am also conscious of how the human rights defenders I have interviewed rarely use the language of fear directly. They speak of 'risks', 'danger', 'threats', but rarely fear itself. I seek to learn from their example as I sift through trauma, both vicarious and my own. In the moments of human connection, of asking the questions and recording the answers, of finding beauty, of experiencing learning or vulnerability or hope, I, too, feel less afraid.

Next: Conclusions from biased eyes

A love letter to Colombia, Part II

Previously:  Return | Firsts | Memory | Solitude | Nostalgia | Graffiti | Needs | Narratives | Trauma | A love letter to Columbia, Part I  

I will miss the jasmine tree, whose scent transports me back to Jerusalem and to every home I have loved.

My favorite moments under the jasmine tree unfold around 7.30 PM each night, when the security guards of the K-9 teams allow the bomb-sniffing puppies to run around the park. For ten minutes, if you are lucky, you can catch dogs sniffing each others' butts and wagging their tail as a sign of affection, not violence. There are more such dogs now than during my last time in Colombia, or maybe I am more attuned to their presence. This realization makes me cherish the whimsical butt-sniffing even more. When the security guards notice me smiling, they will sometimes oblige and give their German shepherds a cuddle. I know they are performing for me, but in so doing, they unite my Colombian universes: a single gesture blends a reminder of the conflict with unbridled affection.

The affection is unavoidable here. Desire is one of Colombia's many currencies. This is a country that touches and stares and whispers 'belleza' as you walk down the street. This is a country of princesas, and preciocas, and amorcitas. All these epithets are gendered in ways I cannot bear to ignore and, in the same breath, I cannot be cynical about calling someone mi vida. My life. When my assessment of the culture of affection becomes too rosy for my Colombian friends, they remind me of how fleeting and broken love can be here. They remind me of the men who are perros -- literally, dogs -- and of the men who cheat and of the women who cheat and of the ones who don't call and of the ones who call you princesa for two weeks before they disappear into thin air. They speak of rigid expectations, often crushed, that define the reality of a challenging love, that render longevity in romance difficult. On a rosy day, I will remind them that these quandaries of life and love are not confined to this land.

On a keenly aware day, I, too, feel choked by the rigid conceptions of masculinity and femininity. This is one of the countries in which I most notice the performativity of gender and how narrow the expectations of what it means to be a man or a woman can be. On a flight to Cali, I noticed every single woman had her nails done. On the same flight, a passenger asked me if this is my natural hair color. When I nodded yes, she asked me why I don't like to go to the hair salon to get 'this beautiful hair' straightened. Sometimes, I feel as though I provide Bogotá with its only messy curls. Sit at Juan Valdez long enough and you will observe there is a uniform for women here, one of many: leggings, tucked into boots, topped off with a leather jacket. And straight hair, of course. I am torn between finding these expectations suffocating and appreciative of a type of beauty, between finding them endearing and superficial.

I worry about Bogotá's rigidity, about the -isms that come up in every interview: machismo, classismo. Most are born out of certain expectations that are etched into the lives of the few -- expectations of where to live, where to eat, where to go out. Not complying with them, or flagrantly defying them, is met with palpable indignation. Can empathy grow in sheltered spaces? Of what service can narrowness be, other than protecting the interests and lifestyles of the few?

Next: Wherein, amidst the rigid expectations, I find hope.

Every Which Way

Every Which Way

By Samantha Shorey

For someone who basically has a camera glue to her face, there is a surprising lack of pictures framed in my apartment.  No laughing candids of dinner parties, no backlit flowers on a windowsill—just one single, wide-angle shot of a bend in the road in Big Sur.  It was taken off the side of Pacific Coast Highway and somewhere, just outside the frame, is my Honda Civic stuffed to the gills with comforters and flowy Free People tops that I had just packed-up from my beachside attic bedroom. The photo is a basic landscape, really—mostly made up of turquoise water and yellow scrub brush. I framed it to remind me that life is surprising and that sometimes, when we are very lucky, the future is better than we know to hope for. I look at it and I know that on the other end of that road is an old craftsman house and a new best friend, a local dive bar and a mountain home-town.  It was all waiting, right on the other side; I just had to get there.

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The Youest You

Asking For It with Sibyl

Dear Sibyl,

I'm pretty good at a number of things, but I don't have a special skill, talent, or hobby that I can really call my own. When it comes to my education and career path, I've managed to achieve many of the traditional markers of success. However, I'm fairly confident that's because I've chosen to stick within the boundaries of what comes easily to me, essentially avoiding failure by not challenging myself. It's also possible I'm adept at pretending that I'm better than I really am or know more than I really do.

Maybe I'm truly lazy and don't work hard enough to consider myself accomplished or skilled. Maybe I'm particularly attuned to the fact that there will always be people better than me. Maybe I'm just not cut out to excel at anything.

I'm not even sure why it matters to me. I don't want to walk around with a medal or read about myself in the paper. Am I so insecure that I'm seeking outside validation to make me feel good about myself —like my inner ten year old who wants to get picked first for the team at recess? I think having some sort of special talent would feel like a worry stone I could keep in my pocket and touch when I needed a little pick me up. Maybe what I really need is a worry stone.

Sincerely,

Just ok

 

Dear Just Ok,

It sounds like what you are searching for is greater meaning in your life—some kind of driving narrative about what you are meant to be doing and how you should shape your life.

Some call that a calling.

Recently, I read a book to my daughter (every day, several times a day, for two weeks) called Ella Takes The Stage.  Are you familiar with it?  In this children's story, Ella the Elegant Elephant is asked to participate in her school talent show.  She gets really nervous when she looks up "talent" in the dictionary, and it says, "a special natural ability."

She tries out several (singing, juggling, etc.) but eventually she just ends up supporting everyone else—mending a ripped pair of tights on a dancer, baking cupcakes for all the performers, saving the day by getting the monkey to jump into her hat for the grand finale.  Everyone claps for Ella, who does not win any medals but is appreciated as being the "wind beneath the wings" of all the people who did acts.

The message is: maybe you don't have special talent, or it could be that your special talent is supporting those who are actually talented!  To which I was like, "Oh great, teach my daughter to be a shadow artist who caretakes those with 'real talent'.  Awesome."  Don't get me wrong.  I want to champion all kinds of expression, even those who are more "behind the scenes."  But a total support person is not a fulfilling or sustainable role. So, don't buy into any of that "maybe you're just a worker bee” bullshit.

Here's how I would have ended Ella the Elegant Elephant.  Ella loves to sing, but is shamed out of it by people who think she's not good enough.  In my version, Ella would find a song she feels highlights her unique voice, even though it may sound really odd, maybe writing it herself to make sure it works.  Then she'd perform it at the Talent Show, and some people would get it, and some would cover their ears.  Ella wouldn't win the top medal in the show, but she would start down a path as an experimental musician that was highly fulfilling even as she enjoyed supporting her fellow artists by baking cupcakes and painting posters.

Shit, now I want a cupcake.  Anyway, enough elephants, more you.  It is excellent that you are thinking about this—don't shame yourself out of it.  It means that you are taking yourself, and your life, seriously.  You are craving meaning and purpose, not just empty praise.  You want to find something you're incredibly good at, not necessarily to be successful, but because it feels amazing to excel at something.

It sounds like you have gone down the "usual" pathways for finding that special something you are wonderful at doing, and have come up empty.  So here's where we flip it on its head: perhaps you're not going to find that thing in education/work right now.  Also, your idea of talent needs a re-vamp.  Maybe what you are amazing at is being you.  You need to find the medium to express your "you-ness", and follow that, even if you are not perfect/successful/praised at it.  I promise you, this will scratch the itch that you have to be "great".  You will get so much out of the process that your whole goal of life will shift.

The inimitable Martha Graham once said, “There is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost.”  So, I'm going to ask you, Just Ok, to go off the beaten path if you have to, to find that way to express your uniqueness.  Don't let it be lost in the effort to obtain society's hallmarks of success (degrees you spend a lifetime paying for, houses that depreciate in value, climbing a job ladder you realize you want to jump off).  That stuff doesn't last, and you're right, it's not worth caring about.  But finding out what you are truly passionate about, and what you can do well and feel good doing, is worth pretty much all of your effort.

So here’s what I want you to do.  Make a stream-of-consciousness list of things you’d like to try, even if it turns out you’re not the pillar of perfection at them.  Then choose one to do this week.  Laugh at how terrible you are at first, but see if you get the hang of it.  What did you love to do as a child, before the idea of “success” entered your consciousness?  Were you shamed out of it and into a smaller support role, like Ella the EE, or have you just never thought about what the adult equivalent of being a master at Light Bright is (I think it’s coding, or furniture design)?

The roof is about to be blown off of this “just okay” life you’ve built for yourself.  It is going to be surprising and strange, and you may never gain the kind of external achievement that our culture so cherishes.  But you will know where your strength lies, and that is something that no one can take away from you, and which you’ll need for the inevitable ups and downs of life.

It’s time for you to be your own worry stone.

Love,

Sibyl

P.S. I don't want to influence you too much on this search, but might I point out that your quandary letter was exceptionally well-written?  From one writer to another... whatever you do next, you should write about it.

Assateague

Assateague Island

I awoke suddenly, to find my vision held by a girl with a choppy, asymmetrical haircut, one I'd given her the previous week before our band's first show.  Her eyes were wild as she told me, "We're driving to see the ponies. Get up!"

My roommate grumbled at me as I stumbled around in the dark, throwing my favorite thrift store sweater and used CDs into my denim shoulder bag, “Shut UP!  I have a test in the morning.”  She rolled violently over to face the wall.

My friends were always breaking in to do things like this---grabbing me at 11:30pm to drive to Philly to get soft pretzels from the factory the second they came off the oven rack, whole gaggles of boys (which was against the rules at our university) in the middle of the night, picking me up in my pajamas and throwing me down the wet hill, as I screamed and laughed and rolled.  She requested a single room for our second year.

I shuffled into my shoes and ran to catch up with my friends in the parking lot, who were already hopping into their huge old cars, sturdy Cadillacs and Buicks that once belonged to their grandmothers, all with names like "Marge" or "The Porkchop Express", based on our favorite movie vehicles of the 80's.

I angled to be in a car with Sam, because I knew he would be quiet most of the way and that is what I craved: hours of this dark night to be spent staring out at towns going by that I'd never seen before, drawing designs on the window whenever they got foggy enough.  Alas, Chatty Cindy climbed in beside me, sodden down with snacks and jokes.  She proceeded to build a nest in the hatchback of Sam's car, which we took turns wiggling back into, to take little snoozes on the three hour ride.

I kept trying to get Patti Smith's Horses in the CD player, but mostly we listened to Modest Mouse and Cat Power, which got no complaints from me.

Sam looked over at me and smiled.  "Have you ever camped on the beach before?"

"I haven't done much camping at all.  I was always more of a take-the-train-to-NYC kind of girl."

"Well, we'll hook you up.  It's going to be so magical."

Sam was one of those neo-hippies who was always saying things like this, when he talked at all.  His hair was floppy and his clothes were simple, fitting his soccer body in an effortlessly attractive way, without attention to what was hip to wear.  He was also never seen without his guitar, on which he played sparse songs leaning more toward experimental music than hippie rock.  An enigma for sure, he was my first friend at college.  I was considering ditching the high school boyfriend I'd hung on to to make out with Sam, but sometimes I wondered if he was quiet because he really didn't have that much going on up there.

Cindy was babbling away in the backseat, creating little songs about her round tummy, and making Erin, the botched-banged girl who had woken me up, laugh beside her.  Erin had a great laugh, one of those honking ones that made everyone in the cafeteria stare.  It was also a bit rare, as she was a severe gal, more prone to tell you to get the fuck out of her face then laugh at your jokes.  But Cindy was so absurd and relentless that eventually everyone joined in.

When we finally got to the beach, it was still dark out, and I helped carry equipment that made no sense to me, eventually dropping it with a clamor on the sand.  "Where's the campsite?"  My voice sounded louder than it had in the cramped car.

Len, whose afro was listing to the side from the door he'd slept against in the Suburban on the way there, replied, "There isn't one.  We're technically not allowed to camp here.  But it's such a huge beach that they probably won't catch us."

Probably.  We were a sober bunch, so with a lack of alcohol or drugs to give us thrills, we were often taking these kinds of risks, to get the feeling that we weren't wasting our youth.  I was plagued with a constant fear that I wasn't living big enough, that I was going to look back with regret, wishing I'd jumped from higher peaks.

With that fear riding on my back like a dark-cloaked demon, I stripped down to my underwear and ran, legs akimbo, into the sea.  Allison, always eager to be in some version of nudity, splashed in after me, Sam at her heels.

I floated out on my back, astounded at the amount of stars that clotted the sky.  Sam started pointing out constellations, a skill I'd never quite mastered.

"Wait, where's Orion's Belt?"

"Right there, don't you see it?"  He pointed one spindly figure up, outlining the curve of the famous symbol.

"Ohhhh, yeah. . ."  I hoped no one could tell I was lying.

Len and Erin were building a fire when we came dripping out, and we warmed up and ate the snacks Cindy had brought, and some we'd scored at Wawa on our way out of Pennsylvania into Maryland.

"So, what do we do now?"  I asked.

"We wait. . . for sunrise.  And hopefully, for the ponies." Sam answered.

"What, are they just going to come running through here or something?"  I looked around me, picturing a herd of animals tearing down our precarious tents with their hooves.  The sky was changing, from pitch black to midnight blue.

"Maybe.  They're wild."  I snuggled down closer to him in our sleeping bag.  Even if I wasn't going to cheat on my chicken-haired boyfriend with Sam, I was at least going to feel his body alongside mine, like when I was on family vacation with my boy cousin, and we shared a bunk, my body alive with his otherness and what could not be.

Eventually Cindy finally ran out of things to say, or perhaps she went on a walk to look for the ponies, a huge woven blanket draped around her shoulders, her steps small and plunking.  Either way, she quieted and I dozed off.

I woke up to find the light around me hazy orange, the sun a fiery beach ball floating up over the sea.  I sat up and pulled my knees to my chin, careful not to disturb Sam, looking impossibly young in slumber beside me.

Erin was awake, standing just at the edge of the campsite.  The light made a halo around her skinny rockstar body, ringing it and burning it into my memory.  She turned to me and pressed her finger to her lips.  "Look.  The ponies!"  she stage-whispered.

I scrambled out of the bag and hurried over to her, my glee unconfined.  On a dune, amid some grass, were several beasts, horses so unlike the groomed ones I'd seen on farms and in Central Park, they could have been a different species.  They didn't look my way, lost in their own world of breakfast grazing and spraying each other with sea air as they whinnied.

I looked back at my own pack, all laying on top of one another in a semicircle around the fire.  I went over and nudged Sam with my nose, mouth clamped shut to stave off a whiff of my stale breath.  I pulled him up with my hand and stood him beside Erin, who slung a gangly arm over his shoulders.

Our smiles were like we'd figured out some precious secret.  My hands felt tingly and numb, with the knowledge that for at least this one moment, I was doing it.  I was living flat out all the way up the stars.

How It Will Come Back to the Beginning

postcards from france

More than seven years after I first meet her, Madeleine has a baby girl named Cléa. On Facebook she looks like any other baby, small and pink and bundled in blankets, but I can tell that she’s different. And I get to meet her in less than a week.

I’ve been working on the lavender harvest outside of Aix for two weeks, followed by a week at Juliette’s house helping her to make cheesecakes and scones to sell at the market. I’m making my way up north, stopping to visit Alice in Paris, where she is living my adolescent dream with her small apartment, her French boyfriend, and her studies at the Sorbonne. Now I’m catching the train from Paris to Caen, where Clémence, Roger, Pauline, Fréd, and Madeleine are waiting. And now Cléa.

I imagine her seventeen years old and coming to stay with me in San Francisco late one summer. She’ll speak classroom English and will be surprised that the bathroom and les toilettes are the same room in the United States and she’ll discover a newfound love for bagels, like Clémence did. She can stay for as long she wants, I’ve decided. It’ll be the least I can do.

[you can read all of Liv's postcards here]

A Little Walk

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Flowers by Plenty of Posies. Photo by Wonderbliss Wedding Photography.

On the night before our wedding, I woke up when Brian came to bed and thought, “I can’t believe we got married and didn’t go to bed at the same time!” Then I walked to the hotel bathroom with its mysteriously and perpetually wet floor, flipped on the light and realized, no. It didn’t happen yet. That was just the rehearsal dinner.

When I woke up again, in the morning, it was grey and raining a little. “It’s supposed to be good luck if it rains on your wedding day,” I thought, and got dressed for coffee with the wedding team. Some logistics, vegan waffles, gossip in bed and a hot shower later and it was time to get ready.

A lot of the time, I try to want the minimum, take care of my own needs, be the helper. But on your wedding day, people don’t really let you do that. If you say, “Oh do her makeup first,” when it’s 3:00 PM and becoming clear that either you or your sister-in-law, but not both, will be getting her makeup done, nobody’s having it. So you sit down in the chair and someone brings you a bottle of water. Being able to feel fine about that feels freaking awesome.

While we were getting ready, my sister-in-law Wendy, a practical, hilarious class act, as both my sister-in-laws are, called down to order champagne. She possesses that innate understanding that some practical people have of how to celebrate—what to splurge on, where to pin a corsage, when to have another drink and when to call it a night. It’s a skillset that my parents and I lack, but that somehow my brother ended up with. All my in-laws have it, and I find it absolutely thrilling.

The guy on the other end of the phone told her, “I’m sorry, we only have sparkling wine.” (Who knew the Holiday Inn were such sticklers about authentic, Champagne-region Champagne, what with the baby poop in the lobby and all.)

“That’s fine,” Wendy said, in her quick, deadpan voice.

“Well, I don’t have a price list here. My manager will be here in an hour, so I can call you back then.”

“Well, why don’t you just figure out a price, and if it’s not reasonable, just . . . make it reasonable,” she said, before hanging up the phone.

My sister-in-law Karen looked at her approvingly, “That’s my kinda girl.”

My friend Allison’s wide-set baby mammal eyes trained on my face as she applied foundation and blush with little white sponges. I drank bottled water with my mouth in an O shape to try to avoid rubbing off my lipstick.

Around 5 PM, the photographer told us that she’d been down to the wedding site and the clouds had broken and the sun was out.

I hadn’t allowed enough time for getting ready and we had to start over on the hair a few times, so we ended up arriving at the ceremony about 15 minutes late. We pulled into the farmer’s market parking lot just as my cousin Ricky and his girlfriend Amanda arrived with their dog Buddy, a giant “man in a dog suit” kind of dog.

“Is it ok if we bring Buddy?” Amanda called out.

“I think I saw a sign saying no dogs in the pavillion?” I replied.

“Oh we asked someone, she said it’s really up to you.”

“Then sure!”

Who doesn’t want a man in a dog suit at their wedding?

The chaos, cheer, and rule-breaking of my family already in full effect, I felt heartened. We may not know how to class things up, but we know how to make things irreverent, which I think is equally important.

We walked through the gravel towards the market. Wendy and I held hands. When they dropped me off at my waiting area, Karen looked over her shoulder and said, in her 80’s movie star voice, “Don’t worry. You’re just takin’ a little walk.”

I watched them find their respective husbands and start down the aisle to the Peanuts song. The flower girl walked to her “mark” (the day before, at my panicked request, my friend Ted, a film director, had graciously taken over directing the rehearsal) and took the ring bearer’s hand. I started to walk out behind them and Ted stopped me, whispering, “Wait a second, we’re building a dramatic pause for you.”

The music changed to the traditional Here Comes The Bride. It was funny the things I ended up feeling traditional about. We didn’t have a cake or toss flowers or do the garter, but I wanted that song, and I made sure to have something old (my necklace), something new (my dress), something borrowed (thread and time from my friend Kara, who helped me hem my dress by hand, watching Pretty Little Liars on the internet, just like they did in the olden days), and something blue (my eyes.)

I went to my mark, and though my instinct is always to rush, I thought, “Molly, this is the one time it’s ok to make people wait.” Which is probably really for the best, given I rarely wear heels and my dress was nearly floor length.

I walked past the decorations, which I’d helped to coordinate but which were made into reality by friends. These friends who amaze me all the time with their creativity and art had made the space so beautiful, so much better than I’d envisioned it, and I’m pretty sure I started crying right then.

I made it (slowly) down the few steps to the area where everyone was sitting, and the first things I saw were a little kid and Buddy the dog sticking their heads into the aisle and I thought, “Yup. This is my wedding.”

Brian was standing all the way at the end of the dock, so he walked up as I walked down, and we met where the water meets the land. My friend Andrea was our officiant, and looked so beautiful that I got choked up like it was her wedding day.

I had to laugh at myself a little as she read the ceremony, which I had written, clearly in a time of great trepidation, for the whole thing is kind of a pep talk saying, “don’t be scared! You can do this!” But it turned out that once it was happening I wasn’t scared.

My friend Kallista read a poem about an old man saving toads in the road, because “they have places to go, too,” which Brian referenced a few days later as he carefully saved a large slug from getting stepped on. My friend Q read a passage by Pema Chodron and Brian’s brother Mike finished it up.

I’d partly picked that Pema Chodron piece because it talks about a pilot saving his passengers, and Brian’s father, who worked for a manufacturer that made airplane engine parts, starting in the foundry and ending up head of sales, loves pilots. But when I looked to see if he was enjoying it, I saw his eyes were closed and his mouth drawn in a frown, holding back tears, a pose he maintained the whole ceremony. I recognize that sensitivity because he passed it on to Brian, and it regularly breaks and melts my heart during funerals, weddings, and tv commercials alike.

I cried all during my vows, which I hadn’t thought I would. But with all those people there, showing up and making this day, how could I not be cracked open?

By midway through the reception, I became the “I love you, man!” guy from Wayne’s World.

I told family members I’ve never said it to before that I love them. My mom’s cousin Tamison, whose house we’ve stayed at about half the Thanksgivings of my life, whose house we’d stayed at, in fact, two nights before and who, incidentally, gave my friends and I her bed to sleep in, who spent the following day making 30 pies with us and then took us swimming, replied, with her signature wild grin and Mary Louise Parker-esque lack of jaw movement, “WHY?”

And I said easily, because for that one night everything felt easy, “I can’t help it, I just do.”

She seemed satisfied with that and replied, “Well, I happen to be very fond of all my family members, even the ones no one else likes!”

Which satisfied me.

When the reception was starting to wind down, a group of us went swimming, stripped down to underwear or nothing. The moon was almost full. I went in first (unlike me, but this night I was brave) and looked back at the glowing bodies wading through the water, like bathers in an old painting, or people performing a baptism ritual, or sirens.

When I was still in the midst of wedding planning minutia, my sister-in-law referred to the impending wedding as “the happiest day of Molly’s life.” I thought that was a ridiculously romantic thing to say. Why would a day that’s just about me and Brian be the happiest of my life? I love lots of people in lots of ways, not just him. But that, it turns out, is the point.

xxxxv. provence

postcards from france

After two months of gazing up at the white limestone mountain, I finally sign up for a trip to hike to the top of St. Victoire.

Leah, Bridget and I head out on the group bus early in the morning and when we arrive the base of the mountain is still enveloped in fog. Our guide assures us it will be gone by the time we reach the top. So up we go. We climb on a mix of paths for unathletic tourists and the older, more treacherous routes, those used by goat herders when goat herding was still a thing that people did. The climb grows steeper and steeper until we are scrambling up the slope on all fours and the gravel under my shoes — made for running, not climbing — slips out from under me with every step.

I can’t see the top until we are suddenly there, and then the fog clears as the sun finally breaks through the clouds. The whole of Provence lies before me, all the vineyards and hamlets, the restaurants and the roads and the people I have and haven’t met.

The fierce wind from the north, le mistral, sweeps around me as I cling to the edge of the mountain, and for a second I imagine myself leaping off the cliff and being carried over the entire country, laughing and crying from the sheer force of it all.

This Actually Happened

loud and clear this actually happened

The Postal Service only released one album, a decade ago this year. There is no progression---no growing with or apart from the artist, no moment they went mainstream. It's weird to be old enough now to do things purely for nostalgia's sake. But, I have a feeling that's why most of us were there. That album was a sound marked with a date-stamp, a frozen snapshot of something we once loved.

Before Ben Gibbard started the second song he spoke into the microphone: "this actually happened."   The song was about a dream he had, and maybe that's what he was referring to.

Or, maybe “this” meant sixteen: a kind of affirmation to everything that had unfolded ten years ago, including the  minute, somewhere in there, where I put a burned cd into the slot of my car stereo, the words Give Up written with sharpie. That time is so far gone that it has been reduced to a few choice scenes and heavy emotions that feel too ungrounded to have actually occurred. But these songs are a relic---existential proof---of the summer I sat on the end of a dock in an Oregon town with the first boy I ever truly wanted and a bottle of raspberry Smirnoff that tasted nothing like the sugar syrup smell. Each time I hear a song from that album (usually now on a cafe playlist of muzak) a few disjointed scenes are unearthed and they are, inevitably, of summer.

There's something about this season that makes the people and places linger in our memories with all the shadowy contract of a sun high over-head. They become inky outlines in our mind, of short-lived loves and seasonal friendships that occupy a disproportionate share of my memory.

Over the balcony, a thousand heads glowed below me, and I wondered what they remembered. I couldn't see their mouths, but I could hear them singing along to the final words of the final song, “everything will change”---like a mantra said over and over. It was a message to each of us, ten years back, feeling as if the afternoon was forever. We didn't know then about the way things fade. Or that the summers would become flickers inside us, and the music would keep them alight.

 

Meet the Local: Accra, Ghana

mind the gap

Meet the Local is a series designed to uncover the differences (and similarities) in how we think and live in different parts of the world.  Over the upcoming months, I’ll ask locals from places all over the world the same set of getting-to-know-you questions.  This week, we travel to Ghana, where it's typical to have both a Christian name and a local name---so meet Jane, or Nana Ama Nyamekye.  She was born in Kumasi, and now lives in Accra, Ghana's capital, where she works at The Hunger Project, a NGO that focuses on empowering people to end their own hunger.  

Meet the Local, Ghana

What do you like about the place you live?

The people around are quite warm.  They show their communal spirits, and I communicate well with them.

What don’t you like so much?

The roads.  They are untarred, they are dusty.  When it rains, it becomes quite difficult to get anywhere, to even walk, because it’s muddy, and there are a lot of potholes so if someone is driving and someone passes by, you can get quite wet if the driver doesn’t avoid it.

What do you normally eat for breakfast?

I like local porridge, it’s made from millet and ginger and a little chili pepper.  We call it koose---it’s made from black eyed peas.  You can eat bread with it, but I feel like the bread is too heavy, so I mix it with the porridge.  Sometimes I have hot chocolate with it.

What do you do for a living?  How important is your job to your sense of self?

I’m into small scale banking, so to speak---I’m in micro finance.  I work with a NGO whose goals I really admire.  My job makes me feel fulfilled in that I grew up in an environment where people could be very intelligent but because they lacked the financial ability, they couldn’t reach whatever targets or goals they set for themselves.  My job looks at ensuring that people are economically self sufficient.  It aligns with myself, my personal feeling and hope for the world.  I expect people to be okay, I expect people to be looking out for a world that embraces people, that people will be given opportunities to make ends meet.  I believe that everybody has potential, and that, given the opportunity, they can meet the goals they set for themselves.  This job allows people to be uplifted.

What do you do for fun?

I like to be with kids---they’re adorable.  I like to admire their innocence.  But mostly, I unwind my day with a movie, or sometimes I end my day by listening to gospel preaching.

How often do you see your family?  Tell me what you did the last time you saw them.

The last time I saw my family was in the end of May, a little while ago, but I will see them this weekend.  With my cousins, they are a little older than me, but they are all involved in corporate institutions, so first I try to talk about how we can help women, and women in the workplace.  But sometimes we just talk about family.  Last time we met, they asked me to help plan my auntie’s birthday.

What’s your biggest dream for your life?

My dream is to be able to get a PhD, something that will be beneficial to other people. I want to do research, and maybe to lecture as time goes on, so that the experience that I’ve gathered can be combined with the academic world so that I can be efficient and effect change.

If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?  Why?

I always want to be in Ghana, because the people are warm, and because I have the chance to improve upon the systems.  I want to make it so most people can go to school, and then most people can give back to society, especially in the rural areas.  So yeah, I would want to be in Ghana.

 What are you most proud of?

I’m proud of being a change agent.  In my line of work, I work with people who want to take a step forward in their economic adventures.  I get so happy and proud when people tell me how their lives have changed from nothing to economic self-sufficiency.  I have more than a hundred women who had nothing, no savings, but have saved now amounting to more than 500 Ghana cedis (approximately $250 USD).  They’ve been able to send their children to school, some to the tertiary levels.  I get so happy when I realize that people are not always just sitting down folding their arms but they are always trying to work, to change their lives.

 How happy would you say you are?  Why?

I would say I’m happy, I’m fulfilled, even though I haven’t gotten to my limit yet.  There is always room for improvement.  I know that I’m working in a good team, and my team members are all working together to achieve the same goals.  In my home, there is peace---with my husband, everything is okay.  When I go to the field, I meet my women who embrace me with huge smiles because of the changes they’re seeing in their lives.

Check out previous answers from locals in Lisbon, Sarajevo, Sydney, and London.  Want to participate in Meet the Local or know someone who does?  Email liz@thingsthatmakeus.com for more details.

Introverts on the Internet

I was on my way to a first-time meet-up with some women I’d been admiring quietly online for a while. I loved their work and believed so much in what they were doing. And then, when the opportunity arose to meet in real life, well, it seemed too good to be true. Of course I would go. Except, the thought of meeting in person also set my already overactive worry machine spinning. I’m sure most anyone would get butterflies at the idea of meeting her idol. But it was deeper than that. It was the worry about kale in my teeth or saying something awkward, but it was also the worry about being disappointing or disappointed.

And so, I did what I always do when I don’t know what to do: I phoned a wise friend for advice. Here is what she said.

Arrive early, and pretend that you’re the hostess. Make it your job to make sure everyone else is having a good time.

At first, it seemed counterintuitive. What about being fashionably late? Isn’t it awkward being the first one to arrive?

I took her advice, though, and it worked like magic. I arrived at the hip (and rather intimidating) bar just as the door was being propped open. I gave the bartender a shrug—“I guess I’m early?”—and played musical chairs among all the empty stools until I found the one I liked. After perusing the menu for a long while, I knew just what to order and what to recommend.

By the time the others began trickling in, I felt at home, and I wanted to make sure everyone else felt that way too. I made a point of saying warm hellos and of staying late for the last warm goodbyes. For the whole middle of the event—the part with overlapping voices and jostling for attention—I was a quiet observer, taking note of social dynamics and the ebb and flow of conversation. Meaningful bookends to the evening were my first priority.

In Susan Cain’s book, Quiet, she recommends a similar approach to parents of introverted children. When it comes to large gatherings, she says, “It’s much easier to be one of the earlier guests, so your child feels as if other people are joining him in a space that he 'owns,' rather than having to break into a preexisting group.”

I’ve taken this advice to heart for in-person gatherings, but I’ve often wondered what to do about introversion online. Unless you’ve just started your very own community with yourself as the first member, it is nearly impossible to ever feel that you’ve joined an internet community or conversation early. How often have I come across a blog post that’s months old but feels as if it’s speaking directly to me, right now. Then, my excitement gives way to disappointment as the end of the article begets a “conversation” in the comments that’s 800-posts long. My initial impulse to respond and connect over the topic is shut down by the sense that the party was way too big, and more importantly, is long over. How could I possibly come up with anything interesting to contribute?

It happens too with online communities. An internet space you’d never heard of catches you off-guard, and you smile with anticipation while creating an account. But the process culminates in one of those inevitable “Who to Follow” pages, complete with an illustrious welcoming committee of celebrities and internet personalities. A rock lands in the pit of your stomach. Oh, no! I’m already late, and everyone else is already here.

I felt that way when I first joined Twitter. I remember remarking aloud that it felt like shouting in a crowded room. Why is everyone yelling? I thought. I couldn’t actually hear them, of course, but something about the fast-paced stream updating in real time seemed loud and overwhelming. It was as if I were standing on the sidelines of a chaotic race, looking hard for an opening to join in too.

It took some listening and observing, but before long, I caught the rhythm of the conversation. Fast forward to today, and Twitter is just another one of the many ways I communicate. It has its own rituals and idiosyncrasies, like any community, but by now, it feels familiar. I wonder, though, about my fellow introverts, especially those on the sidelines of internet conversations, waiting for an opening or an invitation to participate.

If the internet had a doorway, I’d love to stand at the entrance with a sign that says, “Welcome, quiet people.” We could gather at the entrance to stare at each others’ shoes and then work up the courage together to make our way toward all of the commotion. I’d want to make sure that every voice was valued, even (and especially) those who need some time for reflection before jumping into the fray.

Taking the Leap

taking the leap

By Ellia Guy I've sifted through, pondered, analyzed and assimilated innumerable lessons since I left my vast dry continent a year ago. Picking up your life, extricating yourself from relationships and lugging a heavy backpack to the other side of the world is perhaps not the easiest path to polishing life skills and finding direction. However (and here’s the first lesson), the advantage of challenging conditions is that they beget fervent and lasting messages.

Living in Paris was never a childhood dream or a long lusted-after notion. The thought casually snuck its way into our (best friend and my) heads on a two-week holiday in the City of Light, and stuck.  We whispered notions of packing up and setting off; running away to Paris was fabulously irresponsible and freeing and it felt like something that needed to be done, before too many ties reached out and tightened their hold, before we were required to be doing things that were expected of us and before we were corralled into forgetting that there was a whole world out there, waiting to be lived in.

Somehow, we muddled our way through the pile of papers French bureaucracy required of us and triumphantly received our ‘vacances travaille’ (working holiday) visas in the mail. One year later after that fateful holiday we found ourselves flying into Charles de Gaulle, lives carefully arranged into 23kg luggage limit suitcases and hearts full of possibility. We wandered around the cobblestone streets and swirling Seine in the first two weeks, eyes shining, continually looking at each other in amazement---‘we’re really going to live here!’ Of course, as is needed in any relocation to a foreign country in which you are referred to as an ‘alien’ in official government language, naivety and enthusiasm were our greatest allies (second lesson---never think anything is too big).

Now I have two clocks on my dashboard---one for warm, sunny Brisbane (a must have for skyping) and one for my current home, the ever-confounding but mesmerizing Paris. I have a job, an apartment and this city finally feels like home. Living in France is not all pastries, cheese and joie de vivre (though, of course, all are enjoyed in copious quantities). Banks can be mean, customer service is non-existent, I get lectured daily that I should speak more French and the petite living spaces require a cosmic shift in living standards. But (third lesson coming up), I have learned it is possible to live in a different culture, outside your comfort zone and prosper. My bank account is no indication of this, but my spirit certainly is!

Perhaps most encouraging is when you are joined on the tumultuous 'taking the leap' path by others. I recently caught up with a friend, at the beginning of her three-year career move to Germany. She’d packed up her life into two suitcases and 5m cubed and was in Paris for the weekend before starting her new job. Excited but feeling slightly overwhelmed, she said to me, ‘if I had known what a massive thing this was going to be when I said yes, I never would have been able to take the leap.’ When making decisions that take you down a new, untrodden paths away from loved ones and comfort, and that force you to navigate uncharted waters, never think too much about it. If it feels right and you want it enough, it will work out---and then you'll learn an essential lesson about yourself when you look back on it all and think ‘I don’t know how I did it, but I did!’

xxxxii. normandie

postcards from france

I am in a café in Bernay with Clémence and her friends. It is comforting to have these people around me, but it doesn’t always mean that we understand each other.

They keep saying this word, autruche, over and over, as part of a joke. Autruche. Autruche. I don’t know what autruche means, and no answers lie in my pocket dictionary whose blue cover is so bent from constant use these past three weeks. Fréd tries to explain to me what an autruche is, but I just can’t grasp it. My frustrated brain has turned off. I can’t take any more of the incomprehensible, nasal gibberish that is coming out of their mouths.

The next day, Pauline drives Clémence and me to walk around a nearby chateau. As I climb out of the car in the bright morning sun, I blink to read the billboard just ahead. On it is a picture of an ostrich advertising for a zoo in the next town over. Venez voir les autruches! Come see the ostriches!

Oh, I smile, laughing at the absurdity of the whole thing. So that’s what it is. 

Trust No One

Asking For It with Sibyl

Dear Sibyl,

Okay, you asked for it . . . This question doesn’t appear to be about relationships, but then again, maybe it is!

Yesterday, one of my best friends was doing an energy healing when with no warning whatsoever, he started speaking (something he doesn’t normally do during a healing!) an unintelligible language and making a lot of weird clicking sounds. It was later revealed that he was bringing in Sirian and Pleiadean energy to prepare him for his next level of consciousness. As if this isn’t mind-blowing enough, my friend was told that he is an ET ‘in disguise’, that he’s only pretending to be human, and that he will reveal himself within the next couple of years. As you can imagine, my friend was a little shaken by this experience.

So here’s our question: Assuming that we are living in multiple dimensions simultaneously (see Brian Greene’s Cosmos series on PBS) or at the very least have lived many lives in many galaxies throughout the multiverse, aren’t we all ETs? Is it just a matter of semantics?

Thanks,

Cosmic C

 

Dear CC,

You have a pretty exciting social life.  Seriously, the best I can do these days when I get together with friends is try not to insult each other's politics by serving only sustainable agriculture.  I am obviously hanging out with the wrong crowd - no one reveals their true identity as an alien, no matter how many glitchy hip hop beats we listen to.

So, you are clearly doing something right, at least on the level of some cosmic shit happening on any old Tuesday.

Now, to your question.  I absolutely cannot claim to be an expert in human-Extra Terrestrial relations, as my experience with communicating with beings outside this earth is confined to whistling the theme from Close Encounters of the Third Kind and then feeling a little creepy thinking about who might be listening.

However, I suppose we are all E.T.s, to someone.  In many ways, we are all aliens to one another, our own little universe in our experience.  Sometimes communicating even with the members of my own family feels as complicated as mastering an intergalactic language.

And if it turns out that life does exist on other planets, it will be important to remember that to them, we are the aliens.  I suppose it is all a matter of perspective, and I commend you for widening yours.

I don't think I'd take that friend of yours to Las Vegas, though.  What if all the lights and sounds communicated something to him, and he turned into a creature from a Ridley Scott movie?  Then you'd really have a quandary on your hands.

With Roswellian love,

Sibyl

The Price of Fear

mind the gap

I first mentioned the lump to my boyfriend after it had been there for a month.  "I thought it was a pimple," I said.  "But it's not going away." "Go get it checked out," he said.  "We live in England, so why not?"  Why not, indeed?  In the four years since I graduated college, I'd spent more time than not uninsured.  I'd chosen the path of freelance work and enterprising startup jobs, which, while rewarding, came laden with different types of concerns then I'd ever been faced with before.  One Christmas, I stared at my pinky toe, which, after a run in with a table, had now grown to the size of an apricot.  Hospital visits were going to be several hundred dollars, at a minimum, I knew.  I decided that I could walk it off.   Another time, I fainted at a cafe, the back of my head absorbing the weight of my whole body on the concrete floor.  When my right pupil grew slightly but perceptibly larger than my left---a potential sign of a brain bleed, which can quickly turn fatal---I was told by my doctor friend that I needed an MRI, which would cost upwards of $1000.  I found myself playing the Russian roulette of What If games.  What if I spent over a grand that I didn't have and they found nothing?  What if I didn't spend that grand and it was something, and then I was nothing?  Eventually, fear won out and I got the MRI.  When they found nothing out of the ordinary on the scan, my relief was surpassed by anger, guilt, annoyance.

Now, though, I was in England, where the NHS ensures that all medical care is free.  Yes, you heard me---free doctors, free dentists, free prescription medications, free physical therapy, free surgeries, free outpatient care.  I scheduled an appointment with my primary care doctor, and I waited.  And I waited, and I waited and I waited some more.  Non-urgent cases are often given appointment weeks---if not months---out.  When I finally saw my doctor, he told me that his roll, essentially, was that of a gatekeeper.  "I think it's just a cyst," he said, "but that's just an opinion."  He couldn't diagnose my arm lump, but without him, I couldn't see a specialist.  "I've put into the system that you need an ultrasound," he said.

"Great." I nodded.  "When will I get that?"

"It's in the system," he repeated.  "You'll get a letter in the post once they book you an appointment."  Ah, the post.  The British are fond of the post, and use it almost exclusively for the scheduling of medical appointments.  Three to four weeks after you see your doctor, a letter arrives.  On it, is a single time on a single day.  Can't make it?  Only then can you call a hotline, where a slightly exasperated person (who are you, after all, to be too busy for their carefully arbitrarily scheduled appointments?) will offer you a different slot.  Maybe.  If there happens to be one open.

Six weeks after my initial doctor's appointment, I went to the hospital, where an ultrasound technician looked at my arm.  "This is definitely not a cyst," the man I'd never seen or met before said.

"What is it?"  My eyes were wide, fearful.  I would not cry in front of the businesslike ultrasound man.

He snapped his gloves off and shrugged.  "I don't know," he said.  "You've got to get it out.  I'll make an appointment for the surgery."  Seeing my wet cheeks---my attempts to hold back tears had clearly failed---he sighed.  "It's an in-office procedure," he said.  "It won't hurt."

He entered into the system and three weeks later, I got a slip of paper with my appointment time and not much else.  The appointment was still six weeks out, a month and a half I spent worrying over what the lump in my arm was and what the surgery entailed.  Did I have skin cancer?  Was I going to be under anesthesia?  Could I eat in the 24 hours before?  Would I have normal use of my arm immediately after?

The day of the procedure, I woke up early to make my way to the hospital across town.  I rode the elevator up to the sixth floor, and made my way to the dermatologist's office.  "Are we doing the procedure in here?" I asked, looking around.

"Procedure?"

"I didn't eat last night or this morning," I said.  "Just in case."

"Oh, honey.  This is just a consultation."

"But the ultrasound guy said---"

She shook her head.  "For this kind of thing, you don't even need an ultrasound.  Look: there are 350 dermatologists in the whole of the UK.  We're hard to get appointments with, so they like to put obstacles in the way."  She poked at my arm, and determined that it was, indeed, just a cyst.  "The ultrasound guys don't know what they're looking for," she said, and then: "Don't worry, we'll get this thing out of you."

The kind dermatologist walked me through what it will entail, finally filling in one of the many black holes that have surrounded this experience.  I haven't received my appointment yet for the final procedure, although I'm told it should be within the next four months, or approximately nine months from my initial appointment.

In the US, I likely could've had my cyst diagnosed and removed within a week, likely for a cost upwards of a thousand dollars.  In the UK, I'm receiving care free of financial worry but laden with every other kind: six months of not knowing what a strange lump in my arm was; months of back and forths to different doctors; a disconcerting lack of clarity from most parties; being at the beck and call of a scheduling system that likely hasn't seen any change in the last fifty years.

What is the value of fear?  What is the value of convenience?  I feel incredibly fortunate that I can even ask these questions; I realize the amount of people in the US who wouldn't have gotten the MRI ever, simply because the cost was completely prohibitive.  But as our health care system is changing in the US, I think these are questions worth considering.  While I remain in favor of free healthcare for all, I now know that free does, sometimes, come with it's own price.

xxxxi. provence

postcards from france

My family takes a bus from Aix to Cassis, a small beach town not far from Aix. While my parents wander the streets and visit shops, my sister and I lay out our towels on the pebbly beach and soak in the Mediterranean sun with all the other bronzed bathers. I sit up, my arms wrapped around my knees, and stare out over the sea, imagining the Greeks who originally colonized this place looking at the same view thousands of years ago. It probably hasn’t changed very much since then.

Even though it’s June, the water is still freezing but I decide to go in anyway. I let the waves lap up to my waist, the goose flesh spreading over my skin, and then wade back out. I just wanted to touch the sea. I come back to Cassis almost three years later with my language partner from ACCP, a shy boy named Luc, whose English is nowhere near as good as my French. It is night and we are going to have dinner along the small marina and practice speaking to each other.

I still feel that same urge to touch the ancient Mediterranean water, to feel its history on my skin. And here I’ve come, just now, with ships and crew, I silently recite as I walk down to the shore to skim my palm over the lapping tide. I am Athena, Book One, lines 211 through 212, sailing the wine-dark sea to foreign ports of call. 

xxxx. paris

postcards from france

I first lay eyes on the Eiffel Tower, that eternal symbol of France, in the summer when I am 15 years old. I haven’t even had my first kiss yet, but I am filled with romantic visions of Paris — ones that I’ve carefully cultivated during repeated viewings of Amélie and Before Midnight.

On a hot afternoon train back from Versailles, I quietly watch as a French girl a few rows in front of me is approached by a cute Spanish boy, both about my age if not a few years older. Their common language is English, so I listen as she points out places to go on a folded, faded paper map of the city that he’s pulled out of his pocket. Before their separate stops in the city, she writes her phone number somewhere around the sixth arrondissement. He flashes a heartbreaking smile back at her as he steps off the train.

If only I’d sat in that seat, I scowl.

For a long time, I think of travel in this way — a matter of happenstance and luck where something magical might happen only if I’m in the right place at the right time. To a certain extent, I still think this is true. But the most magical things I’ve experienced so far have happened when I make them happen — when I uncross my arms, get up, and move a few rows over.