wanderlust

The homes that inspire nostalgia

eternally nostalgic

We first met when I was on the cusp of nomadism and she was on her return voyage. I was about to embark on my first true field work in conflict management. I did not know it then, but that year would hold memories of Egypt, Uganda, Colombia, and Guatemala. Her journey stretched from Liberia to Indonesia and Boston to the Hague. We both swam in the pool of conflict management professionals, spoke with our hands, loved every baked good we met, and shared a passion for wander and wonder. In many ways, she inspired my own path with her courage, whimsy, curiosity, and attachment to service and to making impact. Meeting her kindled my faith in humanity---and sparked my consequent overuse of the term.

We are now sitting at her dining table in Washington, DC, five years later. She and her loved one built the bench atop which I am perched, and everything else in the house too. Even if she hadn't given me her house number, I would have picked it out among its companions. It is the most colorful house in the street. Everything in it is a colorful product of love too, carved with care out of wood, nailed together, splashed with the hues that matched their personalities. "We built the bed in which you are sleeping," she says smiling. People dream better in home-made beds. They ought to.

She is a different kind of adult than I am, I think to myself. A whole other league of adulthood, the kind that comes with one's own photographs hanging from her walls (in frames, I should clarify, since my own amateur photos hang frameless and in disorder). I scratch her cat's belly, as we talk about the conversations we used to have when we first met. We are still connected by those same threads, by conflict management and service, by a wanderlust for Iceland and the Bolivian salt flats alike. We joke about our loved ones' addiction to cycling, we revisit talks about neuroses that field work in some of the world's most active conflict zones could not mitigate. Peeking into her life makes me nostalgic for permanence and leaves me longing to caress wooden surfaces with an appreciation for the art that transforms them.

I used to live here too once, but the girl I was when I lived in Washington is different from the girl who returned to it now. It was the before era: before field work, before I knew that a lot of my life would unfold on the road or in conflict zones, before I grew attached to cameras and stories, before I had discovered much of what I now consider my life's work---in many senses, before I experienced what I now consider my life's many blessings. When I left Washington, I left with excitement, not out of frustration with its admittedly elevated sense of self-importance, but out of a craving to leap to the next phase of life and the novelty it had in store. And much as my memories of Washington were full of light and merriment, I did not consider it the kind of home that would inspire nostalgia.

Teetering in heels outside the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, I recognize bits of the self I was then: I was an obsessive list-maker, and I still am. I was the kind of girl who could write down thirteen to-do items, and cross them all. Part of me still enjoys ticking the boxes, literally and allegorically. In other senses, I have shed layers of skin since I left Washington. I have embraced uncertainty and developed a new comfort for it. I have appreciated vulnerability; in brave moments, I have deliberately put myself in vulnerable places with an understanding of their merits. I have marveled, marveled ferociously, demanded marveling. I have made more room. I have not carved furniture, but I have carved out space for loving, dreaming, and marveling.

And now that I am back, this time for a career trip with fellow graduate students interested in conflict management, I am marveling at a home that inspired more nostalgia than I thought it could. In between career panels and site visits, I duck into my old neighborhood bookstore. I used to stop there every single day on my walk home from work, even if nothing in the shelves had changed. The bookstore was a ritual I kept, a nostalgia-inspiring ritual that planted the seeds of marveling. Between a lunch and an informational interview, I pop into Teaism, wanting bubble tea. I giggle when I remember that they call it 'pearl tea' here. My memory had edged this lexicon out. Taryn and I sit side-by-side at Hello Cupcake, devouring cream cheese frosting. Dan and I have breakfast at Busboys and Poets. Halle and I share an almond croissant and cappuccinos at Dolcezza, which was not there when I last was. Some of the women by my side have been constant presences, on email and in teahouses, at a distance or side-by-side. Some of them are new to this memory, having sprung from shared field experiences, correspondences, school orientations, or serendipity.

This marriage of the worlds feels less foreign than I had anticipated. I practiced nostalgic eating, nostalgic bookstore browsing, nostalgic walking, nostalgic subway riding. Life was not Instagrammed when I had left Washington; all of it looked less romantic. It was not yet possible, as Cheri Lucas would say, to "enhance the mundane", "to disguise the mediocre." Surprise nostalgia is a privilege because it is as though a former home springs from the depth of your memories to claim its place in your life, to demand to be remembered lovingly. Or, at the very least, to be remembered---which, in my life, is by definition a loving act.

Imaginations of a different life

eternally nostalgic

I was between places, which is increasingly where I think I live. Between Guatemala and Bosnia, between two different worlds of heartbreak and solitary immersion into the work that makes me come alive. Between the confusion of fulfillment and immense human tragedy inhabiting the same universe. There is a level of experience that comes with floating in the in-between places and it comes with a dance of transience, reflection, and anticipation.

A dear friend asked me during that in-between place if I ever imagined a smaller life. "Can you do away with it all? Kick it into the sea?" We all like to think that we can. "No, really, I'm serious. Small house on a Greek island. White house, blue windows. That is your life. All of your life. Can you do that?"

There is exhilaration to living in the privileged overlap between the life you imagined and the life you are inhabiting. As a guest lecturer in my Processes of International Negotiation class yesterday, former Ecuadorian President Jamil Mahuad posited "sometimes, real life is more imaginative than imagination." So what if that imagination shifts? What if, enamored as you are with your current life, grateful as you are for it, you also harbor a parallel imagination of a different life?

In that life, you wake up on a Greek island. You are blessed to call that your homeland.

Your hair smells of salt, your eyes breathe of sea.

Your days are sun and waves, white-washed and bright. Your breaths are deeper, your fingers slower when they type. Or write. Maybe they remember to write, pen intertwined between them.

You remember what slowness feels like. You smile more easily, you drop your shoulders to their intended height, well below your ears.

You call yourself a writer. A photographer. A creative soul. The labels matter less; they become easier to claim. You create. You put the whole force of your soul behind your creations.

Your senses become more acute, and so does your memory. Greek islands are for nostalgia and remembrance, for making memories, for sometimes forgetting them.

You know that Greece, or the islands, is not the only place where you can do all of this: where you can claim the labels, and create, and drop the shoulders, and inhale deeply. But you also know that Greece gives you permission -- and permission is what you need to set yourself on this trail...

You fill your palette with wine and feta, with warmth and embraces.

You love. Amply. The only way there is to love.

You call that your life.

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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!

The trips that weren't

eternally nostalgic

What they do not tell you about the Pyramids is that, grand as the monuments may be, the surrounding area smells profoundly of camel piss. I arrived in Cairo ungrounded: no apartment, no friends, no Arabic, not even my own luggage. I was anchorless to the point of adrift---weightless to the point of exhilarated. Over time, Cairo became filled with the buoyancy of firsts and the gravity of love. It was the first place where I worked with the United Nations and, in many ways, where my passion for gender advocacy and conflict management came alive. Cairo marked my first attempt to live mindfully in the present, an endeavor that ran counter to my inclination to wander in the memory of the past or anticipation of the future. And on the first day of Ramadan that year, I met someone on a boat on the Nile in the kind of way that will make it impossible for me not to consider the river blessed, the city magical, and my time there transformative.

We drank strawberry juice in a street alley across from his apartment building. Pronouncing "Mumkin asir faroula?" became a small victory. The strawberry juice gave way to tea and to coffee and to domino and when we ran out of non-alcoholic drinks and board games, he would deposit me into a taxi and I would employ the only other Arabic I spoke at the time: "Five pounds. The fare is supposed to be five pounds." The driver would argue, I would say no emphatically, habiiiiibiiii would bellow from the radio, we'd run a red light or five, and my head would hit the pillow just as the first call to prayer of the day echoed from the nearby mosques. The realm for a public romance was limited and filled with mines, so our budding love was rife with the kind of companionship that prepares you well for retirement: conversation, domino and tea.

And I had yet to see the Pyramids.

This was a point of contention among my friends. It did not matter that I was filling their inboxes with the cautious enthusiasm of a young love. Everyone would write back asking how Cairo is and "have you seen the Pyramids yet?" "No, but there's this little alley that I love . . ." stopped cutting it as an answer.

Four months of alleys and domino later, I had eight hours before I had to be on a plane to Uganda. I asked the cab driver to take me to Giza for the trip that almost wasn't: the pilgrimage to the Pyramids. The postcards create an impression that the Pyramids exist in a vacuum. They do not tell you that there are apartment buildings poking the air around the area of the Pyramids. The guidebooks do not mention the all-piercing smell of camel piss.

They also do not mention that great memories are not always made in the shadow of historical grandeur. Future travelers should take note of the unmarked alley off the map (which, to be fair, also occasionally reeks of urine). After standing in awe in front of the Pyramids for a few minutes, and waving off the salesmen asking me to buy papyrus, I went back to my alley, for one last whiff of nargileh smoke, sip of strawberry juice, and exhale of gratitude for the memories that were.

In Guatemala, I failed to make it to Lake Atitlan. In Colombia, I never saw Villa de Leyva. In Uganda, I missed Murchison Falls. This was neither my criminal inability to traipse to remarkable places nor a snobbish rejection of the kinds of experiences that inspire universal awe. Rather, I learned in Cairo to allow myself to be attached to the alley---and, like Hansel and Gretel in the fairy tale, to leave a trail of crumbs to come back to. "The trips that weren't" give me an anchor in a home that once was. They supply a reason to retrace the steps to a self I left behind. Seventeen conflict and post-conflict zones after Egypt, I favored the sites of memories over those in the Lonely Planet, saving the latter as collateral to the promise that I would return.

Jerusalem was meant to be the last stop for a while. After my work there, I would fly across the ocean to the United States to return to an academic study of gender and conflict. I would unpack the bags and own what is gratuitous simply for the sake of not worrying about how to pack it for the next trip. I would own wine glasses and more than one pair of sheets and I would get excited about things like latte art and permanence. This time, I was not interested in leaving any item unchecked. A month before our departure, I made The List: walks, food, experiences to have before we leave. We ate nostalgia for four weeks, stuffing our stomachs with all the food we thought we would miss and our days with itineraries. I thought we did a good job this time, that we did so much and saw so much and felt so much that we would leave Jerusalem with a sense of satiation---as though that could vaccinate us against future nostalgia.

Two hours before we had to hail a cab to the airport, we lit a coal for our nargileh and breathed apple-flavored smoke into the street. We had recreated the alley. Everything else may have shifted, but it was still him and I and the apple-flavored smoke. We looked over The List and realized that "the trips that weren't" had become the trips that were. I was afraid that we had done it all, that there would be no more Jerusalem to discover in the future. We had crossed off the items.

All except one: The YMCA was his favorite building in town. It became mine as well. We never made it to the top.