music

For all the tables we danced on

eternally nostalgic

These words sound better to the tune of this.

"we've lived in bars and danced on the tables hotels trains and ships that sail we sim with sharks and fly with aeroplanes in the air"

- Cat Power, Lived in Bars

"It is always important to dance."

This phrase recurs in my friend Jonathon's book, as a life philosophy that merits reiteration.

I had never thought of dancing as something that invites the adjective "important" until I moved to Guatemala, where Jonathon and my friendship was born. My Guatemala was steeped in importance and imperatives, in trauma and injustice. It was an outsized kind of importance, the kind that shows you the limits of your knowledge and highlights the boundaries of what you can do to understand mass atrocities and serve their survivors. At no point did I feel qualified for the tasks required of me in Guatemala; and even if in some universe, I were qualified to perform the tasks themselves, no part of me was prepared for the emotional weight, vicarious trauma, and ceaseless heartbreak.

It seems curious, then, that Guatemala was where we danced. We danced with vigor and with no shame, with no reservation and with gusto---every single time, with gusto. We danced on beaches and atop volcanoes, in living rooms and on coffee tables. Perhaps that was the place that inspired Jonathon to posit that "it is always important to dance."

In my homeland Greece, dance is barely a contact sport. Fingers may graze each other, but for the rest of it, you are on your own. You are fully responsible for wiggling your own shoulders, moving your own knees, swaying your hips, without the help of hips glued onto your own. Much of what I love about dancing in Latin America calls back to my original conception of dancing. While salsa and merengue inspire more affection than my native Syrtaki, they evoke jubilation and look like hugs in motion. It is perhaps these preconceived notions of mine about dancing that made "grinding" an enigma when I arrived at an American college campus at the age of 17. My idea of dancing involved synchronized skipping around, jubilant bopping, wiggling and nodding along and smiling, endless smiling---and maybe doing all that atop a table or two, yelling Opa! for good measure.

Rediscovering that obscure genre of dancing in Guatemala felt like a homecoming---a realization that when the workday came to an end, others would wish to join me for a round of salsa or a wiggle on top of a table. Others felt, like Jonathon did, that "it is always important to dance." The Guatemalan table-dancing marked me in ways that became impossible to forget, delivering another imperative: to continue dancing, with gusto, everywhere.

And so there was the summer of 2012, on a Halkidiki beach in Greece, with some of my best friends, sweat dripping down our faces, sand on our feet. There were hoarse voices and tsipouro and broken glass and stomping around and knowing every word. There is a beauty to dancing in your own language.

There was the first Los Fletcheros concert, put on by the illustrious band of my beloved graduate school. This, too, came with ample stomping and hugging---so much hugging. Every dancing experience comes with its own soundtrack. If there were a soundtrack to my Los Fletcheros this year, it would be that of nostalgia: The Killers, Mumford & Sons, MGMT. It would be the soundtrack of youth.

This past weekend, Los Fletcheros performed on my graduate school's annual ski trip, a tradition imbued with wine, flurries, and more kissing than a library typically inspires. Graduate school dancing reminds me of all I have loved about Greece, Guatemala, and everywhere in between: it is affectionate, but not intrusive; jubilant, but (ehm, usually) not sloppy. It is undeniably alive. This is what has motivated me and Taryn---jokingly, I hope---to want to open a club called The Graduate Student.

True to our graduate student selves, Katherine and I danced on a windowsill. Friends kissed in the background. Yet other friends nearly spilled drinks on the band. Thirteen of us left our cards at the bar. Who-knows-how-many actually collected them the next morning. We went home with the wrong jackets, each other's scarves, or no jackets and scarves at all.

We all need hugs in motion, sweaty faces, hoarse voices. All hearts need to move, and be moved. And, courtesy of Los Fletcheros, I am starting my life this week with an extra dose of whimsy. This column is called Eternally Nostalgic and, in some senses, I feel that this reflection is doing its namesake an injustice. Can you be nostalgic about an experience that you just had---an experience which you are, in effect, still having?  Los Fletcheros inspire a different, sweeter sort of nostalgia: a nostalgia for the moments in which you felt truly alive. An ode to whimsy, if you will.

When the universe winks [or: Wagon Wheel]

eternally nostalgic

There have been times in my work with communities affected by conflict when I have longed for a stronger belief in a supernatural deity. I have been compelled to pray, to hope that someone out there is listening. At this stage in my life, my imagination of that "supernatural something" that resides outside of ourselves does not take the form of a deity. Rather, my belief can be summarized in the following phrase: The universe is winking.

You know the moments I am describing: In the face of adversity or great irony, of what seems like undue strife, something happens to reassure you that you are not alone, that the world is not laughing in your face, that life unfolds on a continuum and the narratives of joy and heartbreak exist side-by-side. And, if recent experiences with fragility have been any indication, the universe winking at me comes with a soundtrack---Old Crow Medicine Show's "Wagon Wheel."

The song appeared in my life during a relationship that may never have happened had it not been for grief, fragility, and emotional confusion in the first place. As Joan Didion advises in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, "we are well-advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not" and, in that vein, I need to extend compassion to the self who thought she could drown grief in affection and be blind to the traits that would make the affection shallow and the grief immutable. He hated my music. That should have been a clue. Anyone who hates the company that Cat Power and Brandi Carlile and Rachael Yamagata keep, anyone who cannot reconcile himself with my army of women singer-songwriters, is dancing on a different sheet of music than the one in which I live. So he made me a CD. [Pause for nostalgic indulgence in the quaintness of making someone a CD, not a Spotify playlist.]

Of all the tracks on it, Wagon Wheel jumped out. Even after that budding relationship withered, Wagon Wheel lingered as the soundtrack to a segment of life for which I never quite found the words.

***

Second day in Cairo. I met the girls on an email list of foreigners in Egypt looking for roommates. I met the boys on a sailboat on the Nile the night before, on my first day. Coincidentally also the first day of Ramadan, the first of many firsts. We are in the boys' apartment and I am alive with the exhilaration of belonging, with the relief of how quickly one belongs when she is a foreigner among foreigners, a stranger among strangers---all of whom wish to throw out that label and slide over to best friends already. One of the boys picks up his guitar. Wagon Wheel is the first song he plays.

That song came with me to Uganda... Sudan... Colombia... Guatemala... Jerusalem. "Points South" of all that. Now Boston. So did the guitar. And so did the boy.

***

Katherine's birthday party. Budding friendship, united by parallel narratives which---defying all laws of geometry---intersect as they unravel. The kind of friendship that fills your sails with gratitude, that makes you feel like the universe can wink simply by putting someone in your path. Her friend brought his guitar. Barenaked Ladies. The Beatles. Leaving on a jet plane. Hallelujah, Jeff Buckley.

And then, inevitably, Wagon Wheel. A room full of people singing the words along. The universe winked extra pointedly that night, to make sure I knew I was home.

***

My love for the song is immaterial. This is not the kind of song that one feels was written for her. I have never been to Johnson City, Tennessee, never picked a banjo. This is not a lyrical attachment. Rather, Wagon Wheel is my clue to pay attention. It is the way that I know that, even if I am trudging through the mud right now, somewhere out there the universe is winking. It is the music that plays, almost invisibly, to make sure that I am listening.

A well of goodness

eternally nostalgic

As Ray Bradbury would have it (emphasis mine):

"From now on, I hope always to stay alert, to educate myself as best I can. But, lacking this, in the future, I will relaxedly turn back to my secret mind to see what it has observed when I thought I was sitting this one out. We never sit anything out. We are cups, constantly and quietly being filled. The trick is knowing how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out."

One of the challenges of being a student again is that I am having difficulty carving out creative space. I am learning, I can feel my cup being filled. The tipping moments are challenging. My mind is still processing all the novelty that has been packed into it. So, in the meantime, here is some of the beauty that is filling my cup . . .

Seeing the world through its bookstores and cafes -- arguably my favorite way to wander.

Steve McCurry photographs the concept of home . . .

. . . and the Harvard Business Review discusses moving around without losing your roots.

The Soulshine Traveler explores disorientation, reverse culture shock, and shifting senses of home.

The lovely Legal Nomads has published her Food Traveler's Handbook. Salivating vicariously.

What do you regret not doing in your 20s? I love learning from Quora, and from other people's questions.

I wish I knew about this 5 years ago, and 10 years ago, and at every point in between: Helping Friends Grieve. So lucky to have recently met the woman behind it, who talks about grief, loss and vulnerability with a raw elegance that resonates deeply.

Harvard recently launched edX, an open-source platform that delivers free online courses. Let's learn together.

I want to experience this.

Passionate about mentorship and women's education? Join the Red Thread Foundation for Women. Talk to me about it.

Look for these films online or near you. Heart-breaking, awe-inspiring, moving, disorienting.

From my school pile, the stuff that makes the mind stretch and the heart race:

Now listening to the Rachael Yamagata station on Pandora . . . and Beirut's Rip Tide album . . . and Cat Power, and Brandi Carlile. Always Brandi.

Thinking of Rumi . . .

"Let yourself be silently drawn

by the strange pull

of what you really love.

It will not lead you astray."

. . . and Neruda, courtesy of darling K, "your memory is made of light."

I am Measuring Life in Photographs . . .

. . . and still weaving Stories of Conflict and Love.

What is making you feel moved these days? Share in the comments!

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.