Boston

The art of staying

eternally nostalgic

For Kate and Erhardt

In what is perhaps a twist of irony, I am writing these words as I sit on the floor next to a packed suitcase and a printed boarding pass. By the time you read them, I will be in Colombia,  where I will be spending this summer conducting the kind of field work and research that has made 'leaving' so rewarding for me in the past.

On August 5, 2012, I landed in the United States after four years of near-constant motion. From Sudan to Guatemala, from Egypt to Uganda, from Colombia to Jerusalem, from the Jordan-Iraq border to the Lebanon-Syria border, I cherished the many lessons that stemmed from conflict management, gender analysis in conflict-affected settings, and mindful presence with a generous side of faith in humanity. The past year required that I put the suitcase and boarding passes away and learn lessons of groundedness, emerging from libraries and owning a permanent mailing address alike.

My friend Kate has been an invaluable companion on this journey. Hers was the home I would always visit between stints of field work. My every transition was marked by sitting at her breakfast table, with each of us in the same seat every time, as though they were assigned. There were crepes and endless cups of coffee and whispered daydreams of living a mere walk away from each other. It was through glimpsing into Kate's life that I first realized that some of the images of permanence began to resonate. I loved her pantry---never mind that I do not cook unless there is an emergency. I loved the idea that one can be rooted long enough in a place to fill a pantry. I loved her shelves, carrying all the books she had read. Even though I have always been an avid reader, my books would either nest in my Kindle or would be gifted in paperback form to other traveling professionals I'd meet along the way. Permanence allows one to own books and anchor them in bookshelves.

On August 5, 2012, Kate and I did get our wish, as Elijah and I moved a mere 15-minute walk away from Kate and Erhardt's apartment. The breakfast table became a fixture in my new Boston routine. It held pistachio muffins and macadamia nut coffee, red wine after a particularly bad day and ice cream once the healing had started. We gathered there to share our anxiety and fear, our anticipation and hope. We gathered at Kate's place to recover from the Boston bombing, to cheer the Boston Bruins on, to eat popcorn 'just because' on a Sunday evening. I have had a lot of practice in the art of leaving, the art of transition, and---recently---the art of returning. It is through Kate that I have slowly learned that staying is, indeed, an art.

On the weekend before my departure for Colombia, friends came together to celebrate Kate and E's engagement party. In many senses, for me, this was not only an ode to love, but also an ode to Boston and to staying. There was lobster, which all but one of us had no clue how to eat, thus flinging it clumsily on hair and fishing pieces of it out of our bibs. There was clam chowder---or, as Elijah corrected me, chowda. You can't live in Boston and not be tempted to pronounce it like that. There was wind in hair. Courtesy of said wind and my own clumsiness, I spilled red wine at least twice and nobody cared. More giggles. The evening capped off with a walk through the North End, Boston's famous Italian neighborhood. There was a table of rotating desserts. The table could hold no more than 4, but we managed to park all seven of us there, as well as our gelato, tiramisu, limoncello, and array of cakes.

Thanks to Kate and Erhardt, and their love, I now know this: The art of staying tastes like rotating desserts, dug into with the same spoon, with your friends affectionately shoving bites of gelato in your mouth.

By the time you read this, Roxanne is in Colombia. Follow her journey there on Stories of Conflict and Love. She promises she'll be back in Boston in the fall, as she feels accountable to her friends, to love, and---naturally---to chowda.

Boston: Stories of compassion

boston

Earlier today, explosions rocked the Boston Marathon, resulting in deaths, injuries, and widespread fear through the city I now call home. I have never quite known what to say in the wake of a tragedy and my inclination has always been to say very little and, instead, to watch, to hope, to hold humans in my heart.

As phone calls and text messages started pouring in, the irony was not lost on us or on most of our friends that we have had to do this before: The shock after a bombing, the cycle of calling and texting, the confusion, the indignation at injustice. The brain has a way of linking these experiences together and every image of the blasts in Boston calls back the sounds of blasts in Uganda and Gaza and Bogotá and Jerusalem.

We are safe, and blessed with love---and, as we heal, we count those blessings.

Boston is a home so full of compassion that the Red Cross blood banks are full, only hours after the events transpired.

Boston is a home so full of compassion that some marathoners ran straight from the finish line to the hospital to donate blood.

Boston is a home so full of compassion that Bostonians are opening their homes to stranded runners, spectators, and their families who may need a place to stay for the night.

Boston is a home so full of compassion that in my graduate school community, within minutes of the explosions, students created a spreadsheet to track down runners and spectators, offered one another rides to get out of the blast zone, tracked down those who were momentarily unaccounted for, and held one another in kindness as we struggled to process what happened. Boston is a home full of humbling compassion.

The Atlantic is compiling these stories of kindness here today, and it is to these that we turn for hope in the wake of tragedy.

So now we wait. We share meals and feed one another. We watch TV together because companionship alleviates pain, and we turn it off when solace and quiet serve us better. We resist the inclination to judge or to jump to conclusions or to spread rumors. We photograph the beautiful sunset, or walk our dogs, or fold the laundry, in search of beauty or normalcy in the face of injustice. We shower our first responders with gratitude, and we are thankful for those who keep us safe and informed under these circumstances. We hold the wounded and those whom we have lost in our hearts, and open our hugs to those still in shock or grieving. We mourn together, as a community. We look for the light in our collective home. We ask questions, with patience through the slowness of the answers. We extend compassion. We love. We keep our hearts soft, stirring for hope and for the stories that will continue to fuel our faith in humanity.

This essay was originally posted on Stories of Conflict and Love.

Slow Browsing

Window shopping was a fact of life when I lived in Boston. Since I walked everywhere or took public transportation, it was impossible not to peek at the window displays or stop in for a browse at one of the many curious shops on my way to and from work and school. The bookshops of Harvard Square—Raven Books, Harvard Book Store, Grolier Poetry, Globe, Schoenhof’s—were particularly irresistible, but anything from the watch shop on Church Street to the Anthropologie store (set mercilessly behind a three-story wall of glass) could lure me in just as easily.

There were a couple of things, though, that kept me from whiling away my whole life in those perfectly curated shops and breaking the bank on the whole lot of it. First, I was broke, so there’s only a certain amount of time you can stand to spend among small, brightly colored objects that cost more than your grocery bill for the month. Second, I had rule: love it and leave it.

If I found something I really truly absolutely loved and “needed,” I made a special point of admiring it and then promptly leaving the store without it. It was pure anguish, but it was a perfect test. I told myself that if it was still on my mind in a week, I’d come back for it, and if it was still there, well, perhaps it was meant to be.

For the most part, those things I thought I couldn’t live without disappeared within twenty-four hours into my vast mental archive of objects briefly admired but never possessed. The things that stuck were rare and sometimes unexpected. A pair of boots I wore to pieces over several years. A yellow, vintage-looking kitchen timer I never came back for because I was sure I didn’t need it. I’m still sure, but it persists in my memory years later.

I’ve been thinking lately that a similar policy might help with my internet consumption. There are so very many lovely things to read online that I could spend my whole life consuming them, never stopping to let one of them sink in, never returning to being and doing in the world. The ever-changing landscape of the internet lends a sense of urgency to all this. If I don’t read it right now, it might be gone later, I might forget about it entirely, or worse, I might not be able to retrace the winding path of links that led me to it in the first place.

In order to deal with the last fear, I’ve taken to bookmarking articles of interest in Evernote and making an effort to avoid reading every great thing I find on the spot. If it’s really worth my time, I’ll remember it later and come back for it. If not, well, I suppose it disappears then into my digital archive of things briefly admired and never possessed. For what it’s worth, at least the digital archive is searchable, and perhaps I’ve saved myself as much time as I saved money during my student days in a land of beautiful and expensive things.

When Memories Collide

eternally nostalgic

You could have fit five people in the front of this car. In Alexandria, maybe even eight.

In the early days of knowing one another, before love, we crammed into a 6-person van to see the other side of the Mediterranean. Having grown up in Thessaloniki, Greece, the Mediterranean always faced south of me. Watching the waves crash with an awareness that more sea lay north was a sight I needed to behold. Accomplishing that involved cramming 11 foreigners in a car that was designed for 6. My first glimpse of Alexandria took place while I was sitting on a woman's lap with my head bumping up against a sticker of Hannah Montana. Next to me, there were two men in the driver's seat. One of them was holding the door open. Or closed. Whichever way you look at it.

Those early days of Hannah Montana and two drivers and a stranger on your lap set the precedent for our driving excursions in the years to come. There was that one car we rented with an engine so loud that we would have to shout directions to one another to be heard. There was that other car-like vehicle with seats so small that our fingertips touched as he steered and I unfolded the map.

***

And now we are sitting in a car named Valor. A car with front seats so wide that you could fit our whole Egyptian clan between him, the driver, and me, the recently-arrived passenger.

"It feels strange to have you so far away," I tell him, aware of the irony that he feels far one seat away from me when we have just spent two months of summer a continent and a half away from one another.

"I know," he responds. "It's not a rental car if we are not practically sitting in each other's laps."

This is the kind of car that lets you plug in your iDevice of choice to fill the space with music. I fumble with the cables and remember driving through Kentucky with a car that only accepted cassette tapes, through Israel with the car that would not read CDs, through a desert with a car that would only broadcast Galgaalatz FM.

"Beit Habubot!" I scroll through his iPhone and find the music that provided the soundtrack to our last road trip, to what we had then nicknamed The Farewell Tour. Music pours out of Valor's sound system and all I hear is the sound of waterfalls in May, all I see is a green scarf tied around my hair and droplets forming on his forehead as we hike. Higher. Onward.

***

Beit Habubot continues to play in the background and I struggle to catch my breath as he drives through Harvard Square. I am not used to experiencing this space from behind a windshield. There are no one-way streets on foot for foreign freshmen walking to get their first burrito, or for sophomores slipping on ice, or juniors getting their heels caught in the cobblestone. By senior year, I had driven a U-Haul through here. I had already put a layer between myself and the site of memories, reinforced by the rage Boston driving inspires and the need to shelter oneself from cold and farewells.

In a minute, Harvard Square is behind us. We are past it. It is neither our final destination nor our shared one. This was Home for me before I had ever heard of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. Before "home is wherever I'm with you." Before him, and us, and love. Redrawing this memory to carve out space for him, and us, and a car named Valor feels like worlds colliding.

***

We park in front of a falafel shop in Davis Square. If Beit Habubot was the soundtrack of our shared explorations in the Middle East, then falafel was certainly the culinary backdrop. I had a favorite "falafel guy", he had a favorite "kebab man", and both of them made us promise that we would come back to Jerusalem in the future. My return to a former home well-loved is accountable to mashed chickpeas.

This falafel shop is hip. The walls are bright red. There are certificates of cleanliness on the wall, and of Not Being a Fire Hazard, and of being Allergen-Aware, and so many certificates that my head hurts with propriety. More typed signs, more instructions on how to make a falafel sandwich. Instructions on how to eat. Instructions on avoiding the garlic sauce. In the back, a woman is sculpting the mashed chickpeas into the perfect falafel ball. I can feel my falafel man cringing a continent away.

***

We take our falafel to go and Valor soon smells of the Middle East. Right by the checkout counter, we picked up a flyer about falafel. More instructions. More information. I read outloud to him in an homage to all the times I read out from a Lonely Planet or an incomplete map. "Falafel was a mid-1962 discovery for coca farmers in remote Colombia."

He does not let me finish the sentence. That is too much for both of us. We can deal with the transposition of Beit Habubot from Zefat to Harvard Square. We can wrap our minds around the slow shift from the overpacked van with Hannah Montana stickers on its ceiling to the Kias and tiny Fiats to the Valor. But Colombian falafel is where we draw the line.

"You know I love Colombia. You know just how much I love it," I offer. "Wouldn't it be convenient if falafel were from there?"

He does not need to respond. We have both born witness to Egyptians and Jordanians and Lebanese and Israelis lay claim to falafel as their national food. We have participated in the taste tests. We were even willing to carve out some room for it in our new home, to let it be part of a new story. Secretly, we may have even been hoping we could draw out a falafel man with his cart on these cobble stone streets. Colombian falafel, however, is too much of a stretch, too much of a collision of memories.

We drive back through Harvard Square in silence. Tamacun by Rodrigo y Gabriela is playing in the background. I picture him making pancakes in our Beer Sheva home and me getting in the way of the ladle with my kitchen dancing. We have each arrived in Boston with two-ish suitcases, but the hidden load is that of the memories of all the Elsewheres we have loved. We do not quite know how to be here. We were not quite ready for this collision of falafel and Colombia and Beit Habubot and Valor, of my Harvard Square and his driving, of his guitar in the corner and my baggage. Neither of us has unpacked. In a sense, we do not need to. There are memories spilling out of everything, slowly filling the empty space.