The Year Of Us

While many people do their reflecting and goal-setting at the end of each calendar year, I typically wait until my birthday at the end of January to look back at the year that has passed and to make my plans for the year that is beginning for me.

The year that followed my turning thirty-six broke the mold of all years that came before. It broke me.

And now that my birthday is, once again, here, I find that I don’t want to do things as I have previously done them.

I don’t want to look back and reflect on the year I became an only child. I don’t want to examine all of the ways this year has changed me. I don’t want to make silly lists of all of the things I plan to do on this next trip around the sun (Get back in shape! Visit new countries! Find life’s purpose!!)

My windows of time now are shorter, more fragile. Long term reflecting and planning have both been abandoned out of necessity rather than any rational choice.

Instead of ruminating about all that has occurred since my last birthday, I can only reminisce about my most recent experience. Instead of formulating plans for the upcoming year, I can only arrange for today.

*

When I booked my trip to Guatemala, life looked a lot different. It was a new country to visit, and an opportunity to connect with friends, but it really didn’t extend past that for me. Once it came time to leave, however, the circumstances of my world had so drastically changed that I was now assigning a new weight to everything, counting on each trip to save me. I worried that Guatemala, or I, might crumble under this pressure.

I arrived in Quetzaltenango (Xela to locals) with three suitcases full of clothing and random belongings to distribute to the children and women at Education and Hope, an organization founded by my friend Julie Coyne that brings access to education to impoverished children in nearby areas of the Western Highlands. Specifically, they provide scholarships, bus tickets, school supplies, clothing, day care, food, and love to the Educación y Esperanza family.

What they actually do can only be encompassed in one word: miraculous.

I was intimidated by the closeness I witnessed, each person who walked through the doors of the Proyecto offering a hug and kiss to Julie, her husband Gordon, me. I was intimidated by my elementary grasp of Spanish, and what to say to people who spoke no English. I was intimidated by the enormity of what happens there. As the week went on, I tried to memorize all of the faces and names. I didn’t succeed but I managed with a few.

*

On my last night in Xela, Lorena walks with me to set up my ride out of town the next morning. I am taken care of here, never left to fend for myself, and Lorena takes over this duty happily tonight.

I ask her how long she has worked at Education and Hope, and she tells me she has been there for twelve years, first as a student and now working there. She loves it, and loves the people. They are my second family, she says. I ask her if she has children. She tells me she has nine siblings and that as the second oldest, that is enough work for her.

She asks me if I have brothers or sisters.

It’s the first time someone has asked me since my sister died. It’s the question I have been most dreading each time I meet someone new. I anticipated it coming up on a first date, or maybe even a job interview at home. Instead, it hits me in Spanish, with the force of a sledgehammer. Tienes hermanos?

I say no, only me. But that doesn’t feel right, so I think of how I can say this in Spanish. Mi hermana está muerta. Mi hermana murió. Mi hermana no está vivo.

Sometimes even when you don’t want to know the words, your body, your mind, your heart still knows them.

Lo siento, she says. I can feel how deeply she means it. She pauses for a moment while I blink back tears, before touching my arm and telling me, Now you have a second family here, too.

On my final morning in Xela, I spend thirty minutes with the smallest of the children, letting them climb all over me, playing peek-a-boo, pretending to sleep while they shriek with laughter above me. I don’t worry about the language barrier anymore. There is no language for their smiles, and no miscommunication in their fierce hugs. The love they offer me is simple and crosses all cultural divides. As it is happening, I think I have maybe never been this happy.

It’s nearly time for me to leave.

I make my way to the kitchen to begin saying goodbye to the ladies working there, who have fed me so lovingly all week. The little kids are napping, and the bigger kids are across the street in class. The kitchen is almost empty; I discover it is because all of the women are waiting in the main room, in a receiving line of sorts, to send me off.

They each hug me, and somehow I have no trouble understanding the things they say to me, my Spanish coming through in a way it hasn’t all week. Thank you for sharing your heart with us. Please come back again to see us. We love you.

Rosenda is there, one of the younger women, hugging me intensely, before drawing back and putting her hand firmly on my heart while she looks straight into my eyes. Tu tienes un gran corazón.

I cry, because I can’t fathom how she can see this, especially with the big fault line running through its center. Until I realize that she sees the fissure too, and maybe loves me just a little more because of it. I cry harder. For Kelly, for my parents, for the women here, for all of our collective losses, for myself.

And a tiny piece of the crack fuses back together again. Not healed, not like before, but held together somehow from the purest form of love I have been shown in this special place. When I walk outside and find all of the students standing in the street yelling, Adios Katie, before running to hug and kiss me goodbye, I understand that this is the kind of day worthy of reflection. This is the kind of day worthy of planning. This is the kind of day you learn how to change someone’s life.

*

This is the year I turn 37.

This is the year that will remain largely unplanned.

This is the year that I turn the front facing camera in my mind around, and point it outwards.

This is the year of ordinary and extraordinary miracles.

This is the year of doing more, for others; of giving back that love I have received.

This is the year of sharing, nurturing, assisting, comforting, trusting, hugging, believing, smiling.

This is the year of love.

 

This is the Year of Us.

 

***To learn more about Education and Hope, or to make a donation (I can make this request, it’s my birthday), please visit http://educationandhope.org/. It is so easy to make a difference in the lives of these wonderful people. Thank you!

Mis nuevos amigos

Mis nuevos amigos

Confession: Why I Chose To Freeze My Eggs

*This post originally appeared on Role Reboot.

 

Last month, Facebook and Apple announced that they would begin covering the costs of egg freezing for their employees, setting off a firestorm of controversy across the country. Articles praising the benefits of this offering were quickly answered with articles that declared these measures just another way to get women to work harder and longer, or shaming these companies for their implied input into women’s reproductive decisions.

The story that I missed reading in this discussion was that of someone who wanted to freeze her eggs no matter what the cost or who was paying for it. The story of someone like me.

From a very young age, I wanted to be a mother. I wanted it more than fame (a recurrent childhood dream), more than getting married, and more than a successful career (not that I believe any of these are mutually exclusive). The desire for children has been a constant in my life that has never wavered. It was always the dream I reserved for “someday.”

“Someday” when I finally find the right partner. “Someday” after I’ve traveled and am ready to settle in one place. “Someday” when my career slows down and I have more time.

And then I turned 36, and suddenly it seemed like “someday” should have been here by now. I hadn’t been in a relationship in quite some time, and had never been in one that was pointed toward happily ever after, in any semblance. I had always bristled over questions about why I was still single, and deflected suggestions of egg freezing with the same response I reserved for recommendations about joining match.com: “It’s not for me.”

But approaching 36 felt different, like I was finally becoming a real adult. Many of my friends were on their second or third child, happily nesting, and for the first time, when I visited them and their adorable babies, only one thought remained after the visit: I want that, too.

I could no longer pretend that I didn’t hear my biological clock ticking. All of a sudden, there seemed to be articles everywhere about the challenges of getting pregnant after 35—or maybe I was just now reading them after years of careful abstention. When three separate people mentioned egg freezing to me within a week of each other this summer, I stopped my blanket “It’s not for me” sentiments and actually looked into the procedure and what it might offer me.

Click here to read the rest of the article on Role Reboot! I am so happy to be on their site for the first time today, and would love to read any feedback you care to share!

 

xx,

Katie

By The Numbers: A European Adventure

15,852:          Number of miles flown

12,000:          Number of gravestones visible at the Old Jewish Cemetery in Josefov, Prague, where as many as 100,000 people are buried, 12 layers deep, from the 15th to 18th century

8,800:            Hungarian Forint still in my wallet (about $37)

7,445:             Number of words I edited, over and over, in Budapest

5,000:            Number of people on the Charles Bridge at any given time in Prague (please note this number is in no way factual, but represents how unbelievably crowded Prague was)

1943:              Date seen most frequently as the year of death on the pictures of prisoners lining the hallways at Auschwitz; later arrivals and deaths were not documented with photos but with numbered tattoos instead

19:00:            Time that Rusalka, the Czech opera by Dvorák, started in Prague; also the time we arrived and begged them to sell us tickets

1,000:            Number of hippies living in a commune in Copenhagen called Christiania

120:                Turkish Lira spent visiting the major historical sites of Istanbul

108:                Dollars spent on a meal in Stockholm

97.3:               MB of data used, mostly on Google Maps to help get me un-lost, most of those times in Istanbul

33:                  Estimated number of miles walked or biked throughout the trip

30:                  Ballpark number of eye rolls and/or exaggerated sighs at the tourist groups blindly following their umbrella-wielding leaders and blocking paths at every popular tourist attraction

26:                  Combined number of churches, synagogues and mosques I visited and photographed

25:                  Approximate number of times I said, “Bye-bye Förbifarten”, a political slogan I saw almost that many times on posters in the subway in Stockholm

21:                  Number of languages spoken at Auschwitz-Birkenau; also, the number of plaques, in those various languages, inscribed:

FOREVER LET THIS PLACE BE

A CRY OF DESPAIR

AND A WARNING TO HUMANITY,

WHERE THE NAZIS MURDERED

ABOUT ONE AND A HALF

MILLION

MEN, WOMEN, AND CHILDREN

MAINLY JEWS

FROM THE VARIOUS COUNTIRES

OF EUROPE.

19:                  Number of days overseas

18:                  Estimated number of Tinder messages received across all cities, not one resulting in a meet-up

14:                  Dollars spent, total, on two meals in Krakow

13:                  Number of times I was sure I was going to crash while biking around Copenhagen in the rain

12:                  Number of castles and palaces visited or photographed

11:                  Number of flights taken

10:                 Approximate number of times I got lost in Cihangir, Istanbul; also, approximate number of tantrums thrown after getting lost

9:                     Times I cried, most of them at Auschwitz

8:                     Movies watched on flights throughout the trip

7:                     Number of countries visited; also, number of countries it rained in while I was there

6:                     Number of books brought with me, plus one purchased in Prague

5:                     Number of books actually read

4:                     Number of cemeteries visited

3:                     Number of naps taken in Budapest, where I crashed after a writing deadline and a morning of walking in the rain

2:                     Number of Turkish yoga classes attended; one with “elbow” and “low lunge” the only English words spoken in 75 minutes

1:                     Suitcase, carry-on;

Also:

1:                      Night, spent visiting friends in London

1:                      Birthday celebrated, my friend’s, in Stockholm

1:                      Mermaid viewed in Copenhagen

1:                      Shot of absinthe drank in Prague

1:                      Nun, photographed, and invisible in the resulting picture, in Krakow

1:                      Apartment of my European dreams, a penthouse with views of Parliament in Budapest

1:                      Underground cistern, whose definition I learned while there, in Istanbul

 

0:                     Part of me that is left unchanged by this trip

 

In a trip made up of moments, here are a few of the most memorable:

Taking off

Taking off

 

Beautiful Stockholm at sunset

Beautiful Stockholm at sunset

 

The Little Mermaid, Copenhagen

The Little Mermaid, Copenhagen

 

The stunning State Opera in Prague

The stunning State Opera in Prague

 

Auschwitz

Auschwitz, Poland

 

The Dohány Street Synagogue in Budapest

The Dohány Street Synagogue in Budapest

 

Sunlight entering the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul

Sunlight entering the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul

White. Blue. Brown.

I was supposed to be in Israel right now.

In Jerusalem, to be precise, in a beautiful hotel that costs way too much money, right outside the walls of the Old City. I might have been sipping tea on my terrace in the morning, planning my day, were things to have been different. I may have been different.

It was my fear of hot weather, not Hamas drones or teenage executions that caused my change in plans. Just the fear of being uncomfortably hot while walking around in a desert in July. It seems utterly ridiculous now, with what has transpired there in the last few weeks; a ridiculous reason to postpone a trip. But ridiculous is all I have, and it means that I’m not there.

I am here, instead, in Santorini, in another beautiful hotel that costs way too much money, having tea on my terrace, planning my day. Praying, as I might have also done in Israel; silent prayers for everyone who is where I was supposed to be, prayers of gratitude and relief for where I am.

I am surrounded by the colors of Greece: white and blue, contrasted only by the brown landscape of the unpopulated sections of the islands. White. Blue. Brown. To my left is a volcano that I see people climbing, perched high above as I am on my terrace. I don’t know when it last erupted, since I never read the travel guides. Before I left Italy last week, an Italian healer told me she does not like Santorini, because of the energy of the volcano. “Is bad,” she told me firmly, as fact. I can’t feel it though; rather, the island feels devoid of any energy at all, something to do with the absence of colors I think.

My eyes play tricks on me, adjusting to the beauty so that I am no longer sure if it’s real, or just something I imagined or something I once saw in a movie. The edges of my view soften, become hazy. I close my eyes periodically, longer than is necessary. When I reopen them, when I gaze back out on the white and blue and brown again, they re-focus like a camera lens, and separate the colors to once again form real things: church, ocean, volcano.

The stillness here is palpable. The ocean stretches in every direction with merely a few sun-reflecting ripples to indicate that it is moving at all. I know there is noise. There are people talking–German, French, Greek. There is a repeating loop of Lionel Richie and Hall & Oates songs playing at the pool bar. There are distant car horns beeping, and once or twice a day, a helicopter flies noisily overhead. But I stop hearing it as anything other than a white noise soundtrack to a tableau of stillness. The week stretches as endlessly as the ocean does. There is no Monday, or Tuesday here. There is just right now.

Can you be both wholly present, and completely lost in daydreams? Can you sit, with your chin in your hands, on a dock, waiting for a boat to arrive, and be both there and also very far away?

Maybe I am in Israel, too, after all.

I am writing stories in my head, stories that swirl around like the morning wind does here. Stories about beauty and color, and about life. I speak less, less than any other week in memory, so when I do speak, I don’t recognize the sound of my voice. It mimics the fragmented, accented English that I hear; it uses simple words designed to be understood when you only understand simple words; all verbs in the present tense. The benefit to using only simple words is that you say simply what you mean.

I am in Greece, and I want to speak Greek, and if I try hard enough, I can almost convince myself that I can.

I am somewhat disillusioned on my first visit to the small town of Oia, the northernmost tip of the island, to hear loud, American-accented English all around me. I crave the melodic sounds of Greek and Italian and Spanish melting together, not teenagers saying like and you know. I want to be an anonymous traveler of no origin, not someone who understands American teen. I want to be from wherever I have landed.

Sometimes it works. On our shared taxi ride to Oia, as we wind around the treacherous curves of the island road, the couple in the backseat speak haltingly to me, unsure if I can understand English. They don’t realize I know their accents. They don’t realize that I’ve been to their hometown in Long Island, that I lived less than an hour away from them for nearly a decade.

Sometimes it doesn’t work. I take a boat ride to some of the beaches only accessible by water. I am the only American, and the only one by myself. When we stop at one of the beaches, an older Greek man calls out to me as I walk alone along the shoreline. I think maybe he is afraid I cannot swim, and I can’t hear him, and I can’t understand him, but he gesticulates wildly enough to cause me to walk to where he is standing. He continues his sermon, his gestures getting bigger as I get closer. When I shake my head and say I don’t understand, he is puzzled. He asks, in Greek, don’t I speak or understand Greek? (I cannot say which he asks, since the only thing I did understand was the word Greek). I continue to shake my head and apologize until he stops me by gripping my shoulders firmly, looking directly into my eyes, and says about me, “Is nice. Is very nice.” I say thank you in Greek, one of my other known words, and continue my beach walk. Later he says, “Bye lady” as he helps me back into the boat, and waves at me as we drift away.

So I guess even when it doesn’t work, it still sort of works.

***

I want to write about all of my days here, because I want you to understand them.

I want to tell you a proper travel story about Santorini, so that you will know all about it. But I find that I don’t want to write about restaurants, or hotels, or hiking trails, or the list of all of the things you absolutely must do on your visit here. I don’t want to tell you all of my stories, the ones that have run through me for the past week.

Instead, I want to write, simply: White. Blue. Brown.

And I want you to just know what that means. What it feels like, what it looks like, what it is to be in Santorini.

I want you to write your own stories.

 ***

I was supposed to be in Israel.

I am meant to be here.

Caldera Views in Imerovigli

Caldera Views in Imerovigli

One of the many, many churches on the island; on the path from Imerovigli to Fira

One of the many, many churches on the island; on the path from Imerovigli to Fira

View of Oia from Imerovigli

View of Oia from Imerovigli

Entrance to the "white beach", only accessible by boat

Entrance to the “white beach”, only accessible by boat

The only other color, seen every evening in Santorini

The only other color, seen every evening in Santorini

A Letter of Closure: Part Two

(One Year Later)

It’s the same here, in that way that can make a place feel oddly frozen in time, despite a year having passed. The people I am with are different, but they’re somehow the same, with the same hearts.The roosters still crow us awake before dawn every morning, and the cacophony of the donkeys braying and the birds singing is as simultaneously melodious and discordant as I remember it. The dogs, the big sweet one and one who is aloof except during mealtime, where he might coax a small morsel of food from someone, still smell—of farm, of dirt, of manure and of some other intangible dog odor. The sweetness from my first donut peach this summer immediately sends me into a fit of bliss and nostalgia. The geraniums in their window boxes continue to bloom their same vibrant shades of red, and the sun still sinks behind a nearby mountain ridge every evening, beyond a lone cypress tree, enveloped in a hazy, orange veil.

The passage of time is marked only by the horses, grown from awkward foals to sleeker, more adult versions of themselves, and the children, who have done the same.  At Ebbio for the second time, in what has become my Tuscan home, I’m reminded of the magic I found here last summer, its energy humming all around me as loudly as the buzzing insects. I had worried it might not be the same.

But you can return to wonder, I learn, and I have.

(One Month Later)

It took half a year of planning, but it was over within seconds. Resigning from a career was surprisingly anti-climactic.

One minute you have a job, a career, an identity, and the very next minute you do not.  Poof! The person you have been announcing yourself as for the last fifteen years is gone. You’re no longer the character you were so proud of playing, parading around in it like a coat you never removed. You don’t get to use the slightly smug smile that you couldn’t help using when people seemed impressed with you. You leave yourself behind in an instant.

For six years, you answered the phone, “Katie from Allure.” As if you didn’t have a last name. As if you didn’t have anything else. As if nothing else mattered.

Not as much anyway.

This was your life. You thought it was what you wanted, until one day it wasn’t.

You stay. Play the part, dance the dance. Keep up appearances to hide the twisted insides. Focus on all of the things you’ve acquired, and steadfastly ignore the whispers that say, “there must be something more than this car, this bag, this life.” Build up that house of cards and climb so high you can’t see the bottom any longer. So high you can’t remember how you even got up there, or why you thought you might like the view; so high you don’t know how you are ever going to get down, or what the fall might feel like.

Because it will fall down. That’s what card houses do. They’re not built for forevers. And as soon as you start this interrogation of your heart from its apex, it quivers and buckles and threatens to collapse completely, and you’re left with the choice to jump off the top, from where you can no longer see the ground, or come crashing down with it, a jumble of cards and regrets.

So you jump.

And you immediately wonder, will I freeze now, without that well-worn coat? You wonder, should I have stayed? You wonder, am I crazy to have left? You wonder, what comes next?

You wonder, who will I be now?

(One Day Later)

The words echo around in my head, bouncing from one side to the other. I’m hearing them in the voice of the one who first uttered them to me; a prayer:

“You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves….”

 

The opening to Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese, and I can hear it now. I hear it here in yoga, at Ebbio, where the voice that first told me I could have more asks me to write another letter of closure, one year later. I watch this girl, this Katie from Allure, as if from a distance, and I think about what she needs to hear.  So I write.

 

Dear Katie From Allure,
Everything is going to be ok.
 
You do not have to always have all of the answers.
You do not need to make money to make a difference.
You do not need to have valuable stuff to feel valued.
You do not need call yourself by a fancy title to feel proud.
You do not need to worry so much about what you won’t be anymore.
You do not need to know what you are meant to do before you start doing something.
You do not need to know where you will end up in order to take the first step.
You only have to take the first step.
 
Take the step.
Then take another.
And remember this: you are the only person who can pursue your happiness. You are the only person who can listen to your own heart. You are the only person who can nurture your soul.
You are the only person who can save your life.
 Do it. Save yourself.
 
Everything is going to be ok.
 
Love,
Katie

 

(One Minute Later)

A bug committed suicide in my bed.

I woke to find him dead, my body covered in bites, his engorged with my blood. I wonder if he knew where he was headed but was simply unable to stop. I wonder if, at some point, he had an inkling of his fate, but thought he could somehow outrun it. I wonder if he would make the same choice again. I wonder if I actually killed him, smothering him as I rolled over and tucked my right arm under my pillow so that only my hand stuck out, floating in the air.

I’m here with my dead bug, thinking about the last minute, the last hour, the last month, the last year, all from a Tuscan farmhouse that feels suspended between a dream and reality, with people who are both strangers and family. I think about how happy I am to be doing it. I am saving my own life. I think about how easy it would have been to not do so, to have stayed, and I’m so relieved that the pain of the jump begins to subside. This is my life now.

I’m not that dead bug, I’m not buried under a collapsed house of cards, I’m not Katie from Allure.

I’m just me, removing coats, taking steps, saving myself.

 

Under The Tuscan Sun

Under The Tuscan Sun

 

photo 2 (33)

Girasole=happiness

Running To Stand Still

Last weekend I wondered if I might be slowly losing my mind.

I had flown home to New Jersey to attend my godson’s third birthday party. I had carefully planned my outfit so that I would be able to join in a tree pose (his favorite) at his yoga party. I was so excited to give him the mini-monster trucks that I knew would cause his big blue eyes to light up and his smile to widen. I even scheduled a blowout so that my hair would look nice (because I was sure the three-year-olds would notice).

As I sat in the salon chair with dripping wet hair on Saturday afternoon, my best friend texted to ask if I was ok, and was I still coming to her son’s party? Because his party, the one I had so eagerly anticipated, was actually nearly over, and was not on Sunday as I had written down in my calendar.

I missed the whole thing, from an hour away, under a hairdryer in what now felt like the most ridiculous blowout ever.

I started crying while the blow dryer hummed and whirred around my head. Even with the facts right in front of me, I couldn’t believe I had screwed this up. I re-checked the invite, hoping it would tell me something different. I even asked my mom to help make sense of it for me. I texted a friend to explain what happened, and she wrote back, “that’s not like you.”

I wanted to insist, “you’re right! It’s not like me!” And I wanted to just let it go, to chalk it up as one scheduling mishap, maybe laugh about it in the story I would later tell (can you believe I did that? Haha!), and go on with my day. But instead I flashed to all of the ways in which this was exactly like me, the me who now does things like this frequently.

Going to the wrong location for yoga

Forgetting a friend’s birthday

Receiving a call from the dentist confirming my appointment the next day, an appointment I had not written down and could not remember making

Booking a vacation rental for the wrong dates

Buying two plane tickets to the same destination—both for myself, both for the same dates

Getting off at the wrong freeway exit—twice—on my way to the office I have worked at for four years

Tallied up, it was staggering to me. I could not recognize this person masquerading around as me. Where was the Type A Katie who lived by her perfectly organized calendar? I felt like putting a picture of myself, the me who didn’t didn’t do things like book the same plane ticket twice or get off at the wrong exit, on a milk carton with the slogan, “Have you seen this woman lately?”

This wasn’t one instance of calendar mishandling.

How do you know when it’s just a side effect of stress, or overscheduling, and not something more?

 

****

I wanted to write something perfect.

I hadn’t published anything new in four months, because I hadn’t really written anything in four months. Frankly, I hadn’t wanted to. The writing is hard; sitting in your feelings so that you can write about them is even harder. And things felt hard enough without examining them, so I just stopped.

I went to brunch with a friend who told me that running is her savior lately, the endorphins essential to her wellbeing during a chaotic time. I understood the chaos: a brain whose whirling thoughts I was unable to control, circumstances constantly changing around me that I could not control, people around me whose actions and reactions I could not control.

I wondered if she was really running for the endorphins, or if she was running in an attempt to outsmart her own brain. Breathe, breathe, left, right, left, right, stay on pace, control. All focus on the body, the thunder of feet pounding to drown out the internal chatter. I got that. I didn’t want to hear the noise echoing around in my head either.

I gave up on writing, and reading, and yoga, exchanged them for episodes of Teen Mom and Snickerdoodle cookies the size of my open hand. I have very big hands. I sat on my couch, eating cookies and observing my jeans growing tighter, while teenagers on the television argued and screamed at each other and cried. Chew, chew, chew, fast forward through commercials.

The last thing I wanted to do was think. So I didn’t. A murkiness settled over me like a haze, and even the tv grew foggy, like I suddenly needed glasses to make everything appear clear again.

There were moments of reprieve, from both the numbness of not thinking and the constantly scampering thoughts, just enough for me to think that maybe I was still normal. A rarely attended yoga class where I felt connected to my body. A book I could concentrate on, whose words penetrated through the haze surrounding me. A party where I could actually hear what people were saying, instead of their voices being muffled by the frequently whispered loop of don’t eat that cheese, you are too fat. A morning where I woke up feeling rested.

But I wonder: why are these only choices I see? Sitting on the couch, not writing, stuffing my face and watching teenagers fight, or being tortured by my own mind. Why aren’t there more moments of calm, of grace, of beauty? What caused me to arrive to this place where I don’t do the things I love and I know I’m not doing them, but it’s not enough to compel me into doing them again? Why did I feel like a stranger in my own life, as if watching from above and thinking, who is that girl in the tight jeans on the grey couch, sitting in front of the tv again, and why doesn’t she just do something different?

My home. My living room. My grey wraparound couch; at once familiar and foreign.

How could I know exactly where I was, and still feel lost?

 

*****

It’s stress, I think. I don’t want to allow for the possibility that it’s something more, some genetic mistake that was passed down and is waiting to take hold of me. I tell my mother, when she voices the same concerns, that it’s just a symptom of doing too many things at once. I tell myself this now.

I’m not a runner. It always feels like torture to me. I’m not going to outrun anything.  I can’t stare blindly at a screen anymore either. I turn the tv off, and I listen. I wait for what will come.

I still don’t really want to write. I know it’s not going to be perfect. It’s never going to be perfect. I don’t know if I can live with that.

The racing in my head continues on, unencumbered by fog for the moment. I have a headache, but maybe it’s just that the muscles are sore from all of the running they are doing. My brain is on a treadmill, logging mile after mile, loop after loop, slowing down when trudging up inclines, losing control and flailing on the downward slopes, but never really going anywhere. Just like a body running on a treadmill. But my body is still. Mind racing. Body still.

It will never be perfect. I will never be perfect.

And this is where the writing begins.

 

danishapiro

 

“How Old Is Too Old To Be Single?”

To change the conversation, we had to start the conversation. 

 

The wonderful HuffPost Live asked me to join their discussion earlier today titled “How Old Is Too Old To Be Single?”

I’ve written about turning 35, and not being where I had always planned to be. And I’ve written also about how complicated it can feel, being happy with the life you’ve created, but still yearning for something else.

What has resonated for me the most in publishing these pieces is the feedback from the people who have read them. Those in similar circumstances who saw their own yearnings reflected back, and those with completely opposite circumstances who saw those same reflections. There was no “perfect life”, married or single, it seemed.

It struck me how many people also shared that they hadn’t previously felt comfortable admitting to all of the feelings encompassed by not being who or where or what they thought they should be. The fear, the shame, the sadness, the freedom, the independence, the resignation…all of these feelings a reaction to expectations that age was a marker for something other than years spent on this planet.

One of the ways to start dissolving these stigmas about having to be anything at any specific age is to start talking about them. To start acknowledging that there are other paths, and that straying from the traditional one is not bad, not good, just different and equally acceptable. To start seeking to understand each other, rather than judge what we don’t know. To stop putting pressure on ourselves and on others to conform to a mold that is not one size fits all.

Today’s conversation is hopefully the first of many that will start to lift the veil on how to find happiness in life, regardless of being “a certain age”…or of any particular age at all.

HuffPost Live: How Old Is Too Old To Be Single

"How Old Is Too Old To Be Single"

“How Old Is Too Old To Be Single”

 

xx,

Katie

My Christmas In Exile

harrodsgreen2

Harrods During Christmas. Photo courtesy of anee.baba via Flickr.

The undoing occurred at the gourmet cheese counter at Harrods.

It was Christmas Eve afternoon, not quite dark enough yet to see the elaborate lights display all around the exterior of the store, though that didn’t stop the throngs of tourists outside from taking picture after picture of the barely visible illuminations. Inside, in the cavernous Food Hall where the sound echoed at a deafening volume, I shuffled through the nearly solid mass of people, past the bakery, the charcuterie, the Middle Eastern prepared foods. I had also come to see the holiday decorations, and was wasting time until sundown, when I came upon the cheese counter.

A piece of Gouda with black truffle caught my eye, and then its scent filled my nose, so I took a number and made my way to the front to order a piece for the next evening’s dinner. Just enough for a single sandwich, I told the girl. “Is this for you, for Christmas?” she asked me.

It’s the simple question that stops you in your tracks, that causes your breath to hitch and your heart to clench. That undoes you.

Because if you have to admit to the British girl working at the cheese counter that this single piece of truffled Gouda is for the grilled cheese sandwich you will eat alone, for Christmas dinner, you have to admit it to yourself.

You completely screwed up.

******

I used to love Christmas.

The rituals, mostly.

Digging into the heap of presents beneath a huge, fragrant tree we had decorated as a family, my mom directing the placement of the lights (only white ones!) and the ornaments, the ones we had made over the years in school, and the glass ones my dad received annually from work. My grandparents, always sipping their coffee, smiling indulgently as I exclaimed, “Just what I always wanted” into the video camera in my dad’s hand. My mom, making waffles from scratch that we could smell from the living room, and heating the plates in the oven so the waffles stayed warm.

Later, in a new house, where I insisted earnestly that New Kids on the Block had the best Christmas album, and our new kitten ran crazily from the dining room to the living room any time the doorbell rang, sliding through the foyer and climbing up the decorated tree. My grandfather there to hear my big solo in O Holy Night in the winter choral concert, and my grandmother closing her eyes when we sang her favorite carol, A Welsh Lullaby. My mother, making the special chocolate Christmas cookies, that I could sometimes convince her to undercook just the way I liked them, and my father trying to put together a Barbie Dream house for my sister.

My family, together. My family, in love.  My family, happy.

Every year I’ve recalled these memories, these ghosts of Christmases past, these portraits of a family that I think once existed. The family in those home videos, forever immortalized on tapes too small for our VCR, that we could play back and watch through the camera’s viewfinder. I could make believe that all of our Christmases were perfect, that our family was perfect, as long as I could call up those images.

Until this year, when I finally couldn’t recognize those people any longer.

The splintering happened gradually, with little pieces of wood breaking off from the whole every year, until what remained was cracked and sharp-edged and just a fraction of what once was. Yelling. Hospitals. Criticism. Age. Dismissal. Death. Divorce. Lies. Addictions. Letdowns. Estrangement. The things that happen to families, I guess, over time. The things that, eventually, break them.

This year, I couldn’t bear it. The going through of motions, the pretending.

So I fled.

To London, and a friend I had met exactly once. To one I hadn’t seen in 20 years. To one I had worked with, sort of, at some point in time. To one I had loved once, who didn’t ask me to come. To one who was friends with my boss, a yoga teacher, who chastised me for “holding back”.

I fled to ones with whom I shared no past: no hurt, no pain, no guilt, no regret.

The trip began encouragingly, with cozy dinners in pubs and happy trips to the theatre. Kindness was the saving grace of those days, and I was met with it everywhere I turned, in everyone who tried to save me from myself. The friend who planned things she knew I would like, who listened and provided thoughtful guidance, and whose daughter climbed in my lap to brush my hair and asked me every morning to play with her. The friend who met me despite my scheduling changes, and the yoga classes that welcomed me into their fold, giving me comfort in something familiar. Even the taxi drivers, with their chirpy commentary and pointing out of sights, tried to keep me smiling.

It wasn’t enough to stave off the loneliness though, which crept in slowly. It tiptoed into the yoga class and rested in child’s pose next to my mat. It sat behind me at the theatre, kicking my seat and begging to be acknowledged. It hopped onto the train at Oxford Circus with me, covering my hand as I held onto a pole, although I lost it when switching to the Northern line at Stockwell. I thought I could outrun it, or outsmart it, or just outmaneuver it.

But it finally found me, forcing its way through the crowd at Harrods to catch me at the cheese counter, and it would not let me go. There was no more running, no more outsmarting, no more outmaneuvering.

It was the loneliest I’ve ever been, it seems. Sitting alone on a couch in my self-imposed exile, with a grilled cheese sandwich for Christmas dinner, 3,500 miles away from my family, the loneliness finally settled upon my shoulders and around my neck, like a cloak that threatened to choke me. So this is what it feels like to break your own heart, I thought. This was my punishment, I assumed, for leaving my family and ruining Christmas. I was meant to accept it gravely and stoically, while telling everyone I was having a jolly old time in England.

Except I found that I couldn’t. This time I couldn’t pretend that things were fine. I couldn’t continue to post pretty Instagram pictures and wrap up this trip with a bow and say, “Just what I always wanted”. I couldn’t act as though I was having the trip of a lifetime. I couldn’t get on yet another flight, to go to yet another city, alone. I couldn’t even leave the flat. I didn’t know how to rescue myself from this situation I had created.

I didn’t know how to undo what I had done.

Kindness, it turns out, saved me again. Kindness from the friends who said it was okay to simply give up on this trip, cut my losses and go home. Kindness from the father who answered his phone at 6am, and picked me up at the airport later that night without question. Kindness from the mother who changed the sheets to the ones I like, and tucked me in to sleep like I hadn’t abandoned her. Kindness from the grandfather who never mentioned my Christmas absence, and just hugged me a little longer instead.

Kindness taught me that you can go home again. Maybe not to that perfect family, or that perfect Christmas, frozen for all time in those old videotapes. But to the family that remains, who loved you through New Kids on the Block albums, and long holiday concerts in an overheated auditorium, and lies, and judgments and all of your other screw-ups. The family who plucks you from your loneliness and reminds you that you are never really alone.

They are your real Christmas.

Angels, Turtles and Magic: A Week in the Galápagos

My roommate sleeps with a smile on her face.

We are here, in the Galápagos Islands, for a weeklong retreat. The word “retreat” has never felt more fitting than it does here, where the main attractions are nature and animals and are so far removed from the constant traffic and smog and noise of Los Angeles. This is no City of Angels, but it seems to hold so many of them in the form of sea lions and blue-footed boobies and massive pre-historic looking turtles called tortugas.

My roommate, too. She is an angel. She sleeps in stillness while smiling, on her side, with her hands pressed together underneath her head as if in a silent prayer. She wakes languidly, smile still on her face, the physical embodiment of the lines from one of my favorite Mary Oliver poems:

“Good morning, good morning, good morning. Watch, now, how I wake in happiness, in kindness.”

I wake with the remnants of own night. Jaw sore from permanent clenching, teeth aching from grinding through a plastic mouth guard, muscles oddly tired from some unknown fight while I slept. I asked the dentist how I could stop grinding my teeth so badly, how I could sleep more peacefully. “Have less stress,” she tells me, as if stress were an object I could collect or discard at will, like souvenir t-shirts or expensive shoes. Just have less of them, and I will sleep better and my teeth won’t bite through plastic and my jaw will no longer lock. What if it were that easy? What if I could smile in my sleep too?

Or what if I was a tortuga?

We went to visit them, where they gather in ponds and roam across open land covered in landscaping scraps that looked like perfect little grass and twig houses. It was a surreal place, like we had stumbled upon the Galápagos-themed section of Epcot rather than real life. An amusement park attraction that couldn’t possibly exist in nature. Except that it somehow does.

I crouched down before one of the turtles who was submerged halfway in the mud, his shell making suction-y noises when he tried to lift himself to a new vantage point, detaching himself from the sludge momentarily before sinking back down again. I stared at him silently for what seemed an eternity, the wariness in his eyes never lessening. He opened his mouth as if to talk to me, but remained mute. Instead he kept his eyes trained on me as he slowly retracted his head back into his shell, connection to me lost for good.

I know this turtle. I am this turtle.

I know how to pull my head back into my shell. I know how to disengage. I know how to retreat.

But this retreat is actually not about retreating. It’s not about escaping at all here. It’s about finding yourself in a place, in nature, in animals.

Besides, as Chris Cleave put it his novel Little Bee, “life is not inclined to let us escape.” There is no retreating from the iguana who crosses my path, causing me to pause and admire his vivid yellow coloring. Or from the sea lion cub who stops to sniff my clothing before he flops down on the sand to dry himself, and to rest from the exertion of climbing up the rocks to dry land. Or yet another enormous tortuga, who walks boldly and deliberately towards me, eyes never leaving mine, an unspoken challenge to let him really see me.

The beauty here is both undeniable and inescapable.

At Semilla Verde, the picturesque retreat center where we are staying, the sunrise shines through the trees at 5am, illuminating them the way the brighten button on my camera means to enhance my pictures, but that I can now see fails miserably. Nothing could re-create this filter, this real light that dances across the treetops and peeks through the green.

The yoga studio, with its perfectly smooth wood floors, and dramatic wall of windows, looks out onto the tortoise pond. One night as we are practicing, in the dusk with just a few candles lit, a tortuga crosses the yard, moving slowly towards the setting sun in the distance. We pause in our practice to admire this completely natural, and completely surreal moment.

At that instant, we all believe in magic.

I am trying, desperately, to remember it all, now that it’s over. I’m writing it down and cataloguing pictures and studying our itinerary, because how tragic would it be to experience magic and not remember it?

I hope I never forget the color of the water here, and the multitude of shades of aqua and cerulean and cobalt that I’ve never before seen together. I hope I never forget the vibrant red grass that covers the desert land during the dry season, or the exact shade of the blue-footed boobies’ startlingly blue feet. I hope I never forget the intensity of the gaze of the tortugas, who seemed to see right into my soul.

I hope I never forget the smell of sea lion poop and iguana poop sealed together in the salty air, a smell so vile and distinct that it seems forever burned in my nostrils. I hope I never forget the smell of burning paper in the huge stone fireplace, where we tossed in pages of our journals, newspapers and candy wrappers; everything we hoped to leave behind in the Galápagos: our fears, our flaws and our trash. I hope I never forget the smell of the afternoon rain that fell on Semilla Verde almost daily—cool and earthy and cleansing.

I hope I never forget the sound of the frigate birds flying overhead during mating season, or the sea lion “bull” calling out from the water to his harem of females. I hope I never forget the sound of a little boy giggling as he ran through the house, or the raspy voice of our tour guide Cheche, as he shared his love of Galápagos with us. I hope I never forget our laughter as we recounted tales to each other with catch phrases like “clamp-down”, “wine-in-a-box” and “chef-on-a-boat”.

I hope I never forget the tartness of tamarind sorbet, or the chalkiness of Ecuadorian dark chocolate. I hope I never forget the amazing combination of rice and cheese and corn, fried together to make the perfect breakfast delicacy.

I hope I never forget the softness of the white sand on the beaches beneath our feet, the fine crystals feeling like something else entirely, almost like liquid even. I hope I never forget the rocky terrain we traversed, and the way it felt solid yet sometimes shifted under our slow steps.

I hope to never forget standing in the rain, barefoot in the wet grass, eyes and hearts lifted to the sky in a circle gratitude, feeling so perfectly in the right place at the right time.

I hope I never forget any of it.

Because if I can allow myself to dream of this beauty, to dream of this magic, I, too, may wake up with my hands pressed together under my head, saying a prayer of gratitude. I, too, may stop retreating into my shell. I, too, may awaken as a smiling angel. I may remember it all.

Gracias por los recuerdos Galápagos. Gracias por todo.

Tortuga

Tortuga

Sea Lion

Sea Lion Baby

Iguana

Iguana

Sea Turtle!

Sea Turtle!

View on South Plazas Island

View on South Plazas Island (sea lion and bird perched high above the water)

Sunset. Yoga. Tortuga. Bliss.

Sunset. Yoga. Tortuga. Bliss.

Katie

Confession: I Learn Most Of My Life Lessons In Airports

It happened again.

I’m sitting in the lounge at the airport in Panama City, Panama, waiting for my flight to Ecuador. It’s very hard for me to concentrate on writing, because my ears are straining to hear and understand every conversation going on around me. With my high school Spanish, I struggle to piece together stories. A couple traveling on to Brazil. A woman who works for Proctor & Gamble in Albany, Georgia. A group of businessmen who don’t care for Rihanna’s music. The cacophony of voices seems so much louder than usual, my sense of hearing heightened to a new level.

I realize how often I walk around hearing nothing.

When I travel within the US, it is so easy for me to tune out what people near me are saying. Their words altogether too familiar to me,  I just don’t pay any attention. Similarly, I can ignore the chatter in cities where I don’t have any knowledge of the language spoken. In Bangkok, or Brussels, the conversations become just a vague buzzing noise, like that of bees flying around nearby in a swarm, too far away to cause any alarm or require any action. I can stay in my head, alone; no one else makes their way in.

But toss in a few words I actually understand, followed by many, many more that I don’t, and my brain does not know how to proceed as planned. It allows everyone in, crowding out my thoughts and trying to process theirs instead. Suddenly I’m present in a way I didn’t realize that I hadn’t been before. And now I see it, my eyes functioning at once as well as my ears now do.

I learn many of my most valuable life lessons in airports.

In Los Angeles, I learned how to be less judgmental.

In Newark, I learned about how to pay attention, when I carelessly tied up a handicapped bathroom stall, changing my clothes, for five minutes, only to emerge and see a woman in a wheelchair being forced to wait because I had been on my phone, and not noticed the sign on the door. I also learned how important a genuine apology and a little humility are, when I was seated across the aisle from said woman minutes later for six hours on our cross-country flight.

In Vegas, I learned about love.

In Albuquerque, I learned about kindness and compassion when I watched a mother struggle to travel on her own with two young, ill children, and resisted the previously typical urge to pray that I would not be seated near them. I learned that offering to help rather than just saying, “not my problem” is one of the most rewarding things we can do.

In Ho Chi Minh City, I learned that asking for help (oh, and a little preparation), can aid you in being less terrified in the middle of the night outside a closed airport halfway across the world.

In Tokyo (well, in the air above Tokyo), I learned that a person can watch a flight map on their personal television for nearly ten hours straight. Okay, that’s not really the lesson. I learned that what makes us happy is a deeply personal choice, and sometimes involves staring at an image of a small virtual plane flying over a static map for hours.

And tonight, in Panama, I learned how to hear–rather, to listen–and be present.

As I make my way to the flight that will join me with my friends in Ecuador, before we head together to a week-long Thanksgiving adventure in the Galapagos Islands, I am grateful for this particularly timely lesson in Panama.

My ears are open, attuned to any language I may overhear. Ready to make sense of the symphony of sounds that nature and animals always provide–or to appreciate its beauty if I cannot really understand it. Excited at the music of laughter, and tears, and awe, and gratitude that awaits me.

Determined to stay present.

Signing off from Panama!

Katie

airplane_takeoff