transition

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.

In fear of Spring

eternally nostalgic

In late July, as I was photographing a friend's hands clasping pebbles from a Greek beach, I pronounced myself a "summer person." I did so with the awareness that being Greek and being a "summer person" was, practically, a tautology, but I declared myself one with certainty: "Definitely a summer person," I said, and I was off to the water once again.

By late October, as I was pointing my camera up at a tree whose red leaves reminded me of everything I missed about New England autumn, I had changed my mind. "I'm a fall girl," I declared.

Not even for the sake of a writerly analogy can I pretend that by mid-February, as I was trudging through the post-snow slush, I was a full convert to Boston winter. And still, something about the sound of synchronized snow shoveling interrupting the piercing quiet after a heavy snowstorm that resonates with me. Eljiah caught on to how fickle I was with my attachment to seasons and remarked, "You are, apparently, an all-seasons girl. I don't want to hear it. You love summer, and you love fall, and you love winter."

And then there was spring.

I felt it today, that familiar anxiety of spring, as the world was in mid-thaw, snow droplets dripping into gutters. Buds are fighting to burst out of tree branches. The galoshes that felt essential yesterday felt incongruent today. Everyone was drinking iced coffee, even though it was still only 30-something degrees. We were drinking iced coffee because we recognized the kind of undeniable sunlight that inspires, if not requires, iced coffee, even if our fingers were reluctant to crawl out of pockets for long enough to hold on to icy plastic and a straw.

The sound of leaves crunching under boots or of synchronized shoveling or the smell of sunscreen -- those are the associations that have a different effect on me than the advent of spring. It is not that spring lacks the beautiful imagery. Sundresses would be offended if my memory did not celebrate their return, as would lemonade and porches and lemonade on porches. Rather, spring carries a more anxious weight.

I remember the spring when I myself had to thaw. I remember seeing almond blossoms and realizing the depths of my grief.

I remember a spring so full of loss that I did not even realize it happened until it was mid-May and I was sitting on a lawn in three sweaters, sweating next to a picnic basket under the weight of my obliviousness.

I remember another spring so full of questions that I could not yet answer and so full of terror at the uncertainty. I remember the glory of the spring after that when I slowly befriended vulnerability and gently carved out room in the lemonade-on-porches vision for red wine.

I remember a different spring when everything felt distant and remote. I had not had to fight through winter that year; it was another one of those years when I lived in the perpetual summer and darkness of work in conflict zones, whether due to calling a desert my home or the Equator. Perhaps spring felt less of a triumph when I did not have to sit through the short afternoons of a February or the slush of a December Wednesday; perhaps that is why everything felt unattainable that one spring.

Spring catches me by surprise. I can feel fall coming and ease into it. I can taste the crisper breeze, the bluer skies, the pashminas giving way to cardigans giving way to jackets with hoods. Winter sashays in slowly too, with the increasingly frothier beverages, with one neighbor lighting her fireplace and then another and then the whole neighborhood smells of fireplaces and snowflakes. Spring bursts out of trees and emerges from under layers of clothing with a speed that finds me unprepared each time. There is a bird chirping outside my window while the snow melts, and I find myself begging for a bit more time under the heavy covers to reflect, to put the pieces in order, to stave off the grief, uncertainty, loss, or fear of the above, to be ready for spring, just-this-once.

Therein lies my discomfort: There is something disquieting about feeling like your emotional state is out of step with that of your universe. The spring break inspired catalogs and commercials tell me it's almost Denim Shorts Season and my favorite candle store no longer stocks "Leaves" or "Vanilla Hazelnut Doughnut" because the shelves are full of "Sunscreen Mist" instead. Ready as my legs are for the caress of sundresses on bare knees, my heart needs more time to match the collective exhilaration. So allow me to linger here a bit longer, under the weight of a panda hat and a knit scarf and in the company of a foamy chai latte -- hot, strawless. Let me hide a little longer until I am ready to face the blossoms. And, should I ever feel compelled to point a camera at said blossoms and exclaim anything, you will know that it will likely be another declaration of being a girl of the seasons.

Kitchen Meditation

breathless

The potatoes are cold in my hands, imbued with the chill of the refigerator. My husband will only peel potatoes after they’ve been sitting in a bowl of warm water for a few minutes, but I prefer to do it quickly and go on to other things. Dusty brown peelings curl off into the trash can, the little pile growing fast as the white flesh of the tuber is revealed. When the potatoes are chopped and placed in boiling water, I raid the crisper for other vegetables: Carrots, onions, fresh garlic (a staple in my kitchen), celery, corn. I have a method for chopping each different vegetable—the carrots are sliced in half long-wise and then diced into half-moons; the onions are gently scored in both directions across the top, so that when I cut off an inch from the onion’s face, I’m rewarded with a shower of evenly-chopped pieces falling to my cutting board.

I vividly remember a conversation I had shortly after getting married, when I was still part-time in college and struggling to get the degree I knew was out of my reach for the time being. “I want to like cooking,” I had said into the phone. “I feel like it’s the kind of thing that I should enjoy, that I could enjoy. I feel like it’s something that could bring me a huge amount of satisfaction. But I’m always just too tired.”

And I was. Even with a light class load, by the time I got home from my one or two classes in a day and finished my homework, I’d exhausted my slim supply of energy for that day. I made dinner each nigth with my husband because I believed in good, home-cooked food, and I loved eating the fruits of our labors—but I rarely enjoyed the experience. Always, I felt that frustrating sense that the true joy of cooking was just out of my reach, the kind of thing I ought to feel, but didn’t.

I baked bread, and ended up so tired I could hardly enjoy the finished product. I made muffins, and thought that cleaning the muffin tin might be the death of me. I cooked soups and puddings and even, on occasion, things like pasta from scratch, reveling in the knowledge that I could identify every ingredient that went into our meals—but ultimately, feeling utterly spent by the task.

Two years later, when I began the true transition from part-time studenthood to full-time homemaking, I was surprised to discover that suddenly, I was beginning to love cooking. All at once, as I began to spend less time in the classroom and have more time for the kitchen, I was feeling all those things I had thought I should feel before. Baking became a celebration. Chopping vegetables became a game. Doing the dishes afterward became a meditation.

Now, as I sweep a neat pile of onions and carrots from my cutting board into a pan for sautéeing, I think about that time of transition. Cooking still tires me, of course; it’s a physical task, one that requires time spent standing up, and often one that demands strength in the kneading or rolling out of dough. But in my life as it stands now, that’s all right. I may be tired afterwards, but I have the liberty to spare a few minutes for rest and recovery.

It is, I think, a perfect example of the unexpected joy the last few years have brought me—my adult life in a microcosm. For such a long time, I was frightened of my plans being changed, terrified of being forced to find something new to define myself. And yet, when that change did come, it wasn’t meaninglessness that lay on the other side—it was just a different kind of purpose, a different shape to my days.

A different shape, but a good one.

I pour extra-virgin olive oil over my pan of vegetables, letting the rich, fruity scent of the oil assail my senses, hearing the crackle and pop as it hits the bottom of the hot skillet.

And in this quiet kitchen moment, I know what it is to feel peace.

How To Live Out Of A Suitcase

eternally nostalgic

I have always resisted "How-To" musings. Their prescriptive confidence tends to oversimplify life and obliterate its intricacies. Everything would feel manageable, if only you'd buy into Steps-1-through-5. Everything comes in neatly ordered bullets or numbered lists, always in increments of 5. The first time I read a "7 tips to a healthier closet" in a magazine, I nearly fell over at the violation of the increments of 5 bit. I used to love the structured life: the healthy closet, the happy living room, the robust plants. The magazine how-to's always paired adjectives and nouns in unusual ways that made me think that "if only I could follow the steps, I, too, could have a giggling patio or a witty sink or a resplendent relationship." Somewhere along the way, I met a wonderful man who refused to think in tight increments or in standardized measures. He sets his alarm clock to 7.03 AM or 8.57 or 9.14 because "life does not need to unfold on the dot." There are few subjects for which I'd change my feelings on How-To's. When Kim said "I'd like to commission a post on practical matters about living out of a suitcase," I knew this would be the How-To corner of the internet I could call my own. This is less a "pack pashminas-they are so versatile!" guide (though do! they are!), and more a reflection on how to navigate the emotional turmoil inherent in transitions.

Know your anchors. The are few life transitions that require one to live with one T-shirt, two pairs of underwear, and some jeans. If you are embarking on one of them, there is something grand enough ahead that makes the stinkiness worth it. Nobody ever uttered "I am so moved by the world right now but gee do I wish I had all my life's belongings with me!" If you are embarking on a different kind of transition, make peace with that which you cannot let go. It may feel silly to lug a stuffed panda bear across what used to be the Uganda-Sudan border, but if it is the connoter of memories, it gets a passport to travel. Some are attached to their cooking spices, others to their stationery. Figure out what will become part of your gratuitous weight and let it come along. Minimalism for minimalism's sake is a powerful way to glide through life---but it becomes more powerful if you figure out how to violate its tenets to make them more resonant and viable.

Put down (some) roots. For a book lover, keeping books on the shelf is one of the pleasures of a semi-permanent life. Nobody ever left in the middle of the night with tomes of the complete works of Joan Didion in her one carry-on bag (though if that happens, World, let me be the first one.) Walking past used bookstores with the knowledge that "we do not have room for books" or that we must resist everything that will weigh us down creates weight in itself. So, buy the books if you need to. Find a way to receive mail temporarily if seeing your name on an envelope brings you glee. You will find a way to pass the books on to someone who will love them, and to forward the mail, and to move all of yourself and your memories. Put down (some) roots in the meantime; transitions need not be mere parentheses in the narrative of life.

Method to madness. Google Reader is as embedded in my morning routine as coffee is in other people's. It does not matter if I am waking up in Boston or Jerusalem, if I have to go to work in an hour or class in thirty minutes. Browsing the morning headlines and reading my favorite blogs helps me feel connected to the world as it was before transition. It may feel small sometimes, or downright trivial, or such a hassle to hold on to routine and ritual when the rest of life is spinning around you. But it is those very routines that make it all slow down. If you are a runner, find a way to go for a run early on in your transition to a new environment. Do you write in the morning? Then, write, even among the boxes. Write your heart out. Do not let your camera gather dust in a box if its shutter clicking will make you feel more mindfully present. And, in the same breath, make room for the new routines that emerge out of a new life.

Carry the lightness with you. I used to think I excelled in transition, if that is the sort of experience one can master, until I set foot in my new apartment in Boston on September 1st. After three years of work in conflict and post-conflict areas worldwide, the possibility of staying in one (secure) (exceedingly comfortable) place for two years was intoxicating. I turned into a Nesting Monster. In the build-up to this move, I had lived out of the same suitcase for months on end, but the second that suitcase entered our new apartment, everything had to be unpacked. Immediately. And the furniture had to be built. And the boxes had to be recycled. Immediately. It was as though I had become allergic to transition overnight. Elijah humored me and assembled the dresser and the desk and the shelves in one afternoon.

Last night I asked him if he feels that our space is cluttered. Let me be clear: it is not. But, compared to our couch-free Jerusalem living room, the furniture feels imposingly permanent. Compared to the luggage I had in Guatemala, the knit sweaters feel bulky, even if Boston requires them.

As someone who failed at this, allow me to urge you to keep the lightness as long as possible. The transition will be over one day, and suddenly you will own 13 different pieces of Tupperware. Ask yourself where that came from, ask yourself if you need it. The fact that you have space to fill and time to do so does not mean that the roots of stuff will be the roots you thought you were craving. So hang the beautiful string lights you had been wishing to have in your space ever since you dreamed up permanence. And if it all starts to feel heavy and much, remember the time all of life fit in one suitcase and try to bring some of it back to that beautifully lit space you now call home.

Days undocumented

eternally nostalgic

I was a child of the pre-Facebook, pre-Pinterest, pre-Skype, pre-plus-one-and-like era. Our mode of digital anticipation involved waiting for someone's screen name to show up as Available on AIM or for someone to sign into MSN Messenger. Those were the acronyms that felt relevant to us. Beyond the availability of our friends to chat and the esoteric lingo that came with those conversations, we gleaned insight from carefully-crafted Away messages. Nobody was just "Away" back then, and---because we were 16 and, no matter how much self-importance we could muster, we were not quite busy---nobody was just "Busy" either. We populated Away messages with song lyrics and quotes, inside jokes and pointed messages full of the truths and feelings we could not utter face to face. In the past few weeks, I have felt the need for an Away message to hang on the door of my life---preferably one with a witty quote or Green Day lyrics for the full throwback and nostalgia effect. For the first time in four years, I am no longer living out of a suitcase. I own shelves. I have put nails in walls. I have shared coffee with people with the confidence that we will all still be right here tomorrow . . . and in 13 days, and in 4 months. My universe has been flooded with the kind of permanence of which I once dreamed.

Permanence makes me quiet. It is my love of "process" that has fueled my embrace of transitions with relative peace. I am intrigued by the little shifts: the packed box, the new photo on the wall, the coat hanging in the corner, the new bakery from which I buy muffins in the morning. Those become the markers of a new chapter, punctuated by a different routine, marked by different milestones. I document the process of moving, the process of saying goodbye, the process of making a home and then disassembling it as though it were made of Legos. The photographs freeze those transitional moments in time to remind me that life is not just the story of neat heres and exciting theres, but of clumsy in-betweens.

This time, there are no photographs of transition. My silence has been born out of impatience: an impatience to find a place for everything, and for me, and to have those places feel anchoring enough. I have not pointed the camera at the new corners that make a home feel like me, nor have I written about the new batch of muffins. I feel firmly planted here, bound to an address, magazine subscriptions, and a barista who knows my coffee order. I own possessions that make it impossible to pack up and leave into the night. Nobody left lightly with three coffee makers in tow.

Once an embracer of process, I am now embracing the photos not taken, the words not written. I am living in a blank away message, waiting for the lyrics to populate it, and for new processes to appeal photogenically to a pair of eyes perpetually in love with novelty. Inspired by Kim and, inevitably, by the 1990s.

Telling a new story

eternally nostalgic

"Roxanne Krystalli is a gender-related development specialist in conflict and post-conflict areas."

What do you do when the first line in your biography no longer fits?

I am between stories at the moment, a process that involves consistently living off the top two layers of my still-packed suitcases, debating the merits of paint swatches, and confronting the reverse culture shock inherent in returning to what used to be a home with the task of sorting out the disorienting dance between the unfamiliar and the too familiar.

And the first line no longer fits. Having worked in conflict and post-conflict areas, I know not to confound conflict and war. Conflict, human pain and strife exist in Boston and Colombia and Guatemala and Jerusalem and I have called all these places home at some point along the journey. Yet, you would hardly call Boston a "conflict or post-conflict area."

You would hardly call me a specialist. I have grown wary of specialists and experts. The longer I have worked with women affected by conflict worldwide, the more I have uncovered the boundaries of my knowledge. The universe of concepts I do not understand and of life I cannot make sense of keeps expanding. It would be out of step for the titles and labels to keep narrowing. "Specialist" and "expert" do not fit. Do not even get me started on "guru."

As I fill out the paperwork for orientation at the graduate program that is anchoring my return to Boston, I notice everyone is grabbing for story. The prompts might as well read "Tell us who you are . . . in 250 words or less. In a paragraph. In 140 characters. In a text message without emoticons. With bells and whistles, without embellishment, with enough intrigue for us to want to be your friends, roommates, or mentors."

Life stories evolve, and so do their 140-character biographies. I am slowly realizing that a bio is not the story of "is", not exclusively the story of here and now. It is a journey between points, a question about the axis on which you are traveling. The story of "has lived and has worked", not of "lives and works." And, perhaps most thankfully, it is the story of beyond "lives and works." On Twitter, in her own blog, in the Admitted Students Handbook, Roxanne Krystalli is - still - a gender-related development specialist who works in conflict and post-conflict areas.

In life, Roxanne Krystalli is in transition, perpetual transition. Her heart is in gender advocacy and conflict management, in the Middle East and Latin America. This is the work that feeds her faith in humanity, a phrase she overuses, right up there with "the universe is winking." Her mind likes to wrap itself around the concepts of remembrance and forgetting, nostalgia and grief, of storytelling as a vehicle of empathy and, shyly, maybe even as a vehicle of peacebuilding. She sees the world, really sees, through the viewfinder of a camera. She loves panda bears, everything that smells like vanilla, and the art of loving in itself---as an art.

This is not the stuff of LinkedIn, of student handbooks, or maybe even not of Twitter. But it is the story of now, the biography of a journey from elsewhere and a past "then" to a future that has yet to be painted.

When the bookmarks change

eternally nostalgic

Kalomoira is pregnant with twins.

I imagine you want to know who Kalomoira is. She was the winner of Fame Story, a Greek talent show that came into being long after American Idol had solidified itself into the American pop culture conscience. In the ten years that have passed since then, I had thought about Kalomoira maybe twice.

And now I know she is pregnant with twins.

***

In making homes away from Greece, be it in Colombia or Egypt, I relied on a ritualistic consumption of the news. I was determined to assimilate and to do that, I had to know. So I read the local papers every morning until I had memorized the layout of the page and could rhythmically find my way to my favorite columnist or to the sports section. I had a favorite columnist. Everywhere, from Guatemala to Jerusalem.

There was no better home for my news-guzzling obsession than Jerusalem. My favorite radio station interrupted the music every hour for a brief news report. Without the kind of command over Hebrew that allows one to understand fast-paced news segments over the radio, the hourly report became a game. I hunted for words I recognized and matched them to the English news I had read about the region earlier that morning. "Hebrew Hebrew Syria Hebrew Kofi Annan Hebrew peace," the announcer said, and I knew she was talking about the diplomatic attempts to broker peace in Syria. Jerusalem radio may not have supplied me with news of which I was previously unaware, but it did teach me how to say peacekeeping and failure in Hebrew -- and it made me long for the kind of news and linguistic comprehension that would allow me to dream of peaceful co-existence and success.

***

I left Jerusalem for my homeland, Greece, 39 days ago and my news scouring habits have changed. Days can pass without my realizing there was a stabbing in my old neighborhood. 39 days ago, I knew about car accidents on highways I had yet to even drive through.  Even though the web broadcast of my favorite radio station is bookmarked in my browser, I cannot bring myself to click through, guided by the fear that "Hebrew Hebrew Jerusalem Hebrew Hebrew film festival" will propel me into an ocean of nostalgia.

Instead, I know that a local pop star I have not brought to the forefront of my mind in a decade is now pregnant with twins. Not only I have migrated, but also my bookmarks are shifting with me. I have the kind of wandering eardrums that long for Colombian salsa in Kosovo and Greek music in Guatemala. I have the kind of fickle tastebuds that long for arepas in Uganda and falafel in Mexico. All of me is punctuated by a serial infidelity to place; enamored as I may be with where my feet are currently meeting the ground, I will let the senses wander to the other places they once called home.

And yet, it is at bookmarks that I draw the line. The very newsy trivialities that help foster my sense of home when I am new to a place cause me painful wanderlust as soon as I have booked the departing flight. It is as though my brain can only handle one pregnant-with-twins pop star at the time: the local one. Any more than that, any more soccer team updates or festival schedules or a repaving of a street on which I once used to live, and my heartstrings are stretched till they tear.

There is indigestible irony to the realization that someone who has dedicated her professional life to international development and conflict management and aspires to understand notions that are far larger than herself needs to shrink her world to the news cycle of Here and Now, lest her feet want to carry her to all the Elsewheres she has loved.