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

Hamilton Island

On a beach in Hamilton Island, I try to write my way out of it.
But I don’t know any suitable words,
Only woefully inadequate ones that mean nothing: sunscreen, seagull, oyster.
Grief’s vocabulary fails me.

I try to write my way out of it.
But the thoughts come out fragmented, disjointed,
Blowing around and reshuffling themselves in the ocean breeze.
The sentences refuse to assemble.

I try to write my way out of it.
But the unrelenting sunlight blinds me,
Leaving behind only opaque black dots in my vision.
They refuse to be blinked away.

I try to write my way out of it.
But the silky, burning sand caves in around me,
Lodging in my hair while slipping quickly through my fingers.
The scorching powder eludes a foothold.

I try to write my way out of it.
But sudden raindrops plop down on my paper,
Bleeding blue ink into circles, and trickling tiny pearls of water southward.
They slow dance down the page with my tears.

I try to write my way out of it.
But a crashing wave from a passing Jet Ski knocks me over,
Stealing my breath and acquainting me with the jagged rocks below.
Their edges scrape my palms and slash my notebook.

I try to write my way out of it.
But the undertow is too strong,
Dragging me out to sea by the ankles; the now brackish water has a firm grip.
My pen is replaced by seaweed, slimy strands that wrap around my fingers.

I try to write my way out of it.
But they tell me there is no out;
There’s only through.
And through is unthinkable.

 

Hamilton Island

Hamilton Island

Lavender Roses

I never noticed them before;

I see them everywhere now.

Four times already in Sydney,

Halfway across the world, and they are here.

You are here.

 

How can that be?

How can you be both everywhere,

And nowhere?

 

One of your songs plays on the radio,

On a taxi ride to Drummoyne.

I barely hear it at first,

But then it becomes the only sound.

You are here, too.

 

What does it mean?

(Does it mean anything?)

Is it really you that I am hearing?

 

Now it is my voice instead,

Speaking your name,

Over and over.

 

Kelly loved lavender roses.

Kelly loved Josh Groban.

Kelly loved.

 

Your name pours from my lips,

Like an upended glass of water;

Unstoppable spillage.

 

Your flowers,

Your song,

Your name.

 

You are everywhere.

You are nowhere.

You are here.

IMG_4444

Fall

 

Stowe Mountain, Vermont

Stowe Mountain, Vermont

 

Finally,

the tears that

had pressed so fervently

against her eyelids,

fall.

 

The colors unite

in a dance in front of her;

reds and yellows painted atop

oranges and greens,

a perfectly hued amalgamation.

 

She lifts her damp face

up to the blushing trees,

and offers her tears,

a silent prayer

of atonement.

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

Un-Grounded (as seen originally on The Manifest-Station)

Every night, at an interval of approximately ten minutes, the bed shakes violently. The first time it happens, I think it’s an earthquake. I lie in bed, roused from near sleep by the jarring movement, and have trouble remembering where I am. I don’t think Cape Cod has earthquakes, but I allow for the possibility. Or the other possibility that someone has run up the stairs to the patio outside the bedroom, powerfully enough to move the furniture. I never feel safe sleeping in rooms with doors that lead to the outside, and I hate that through the sheer-curtain-covered windowpane I can see shadows moving slowly. I don’t know if they are from leaves, or from the heavy-footed man who tromped up the steps to look in at me. The house next-door, with its menacing cracked window and abandoned sheets on the clothesline only fuels this fantasy. I turn my back to the door; what I can’t see can’t hurt me. And then the rocking begins again.

In Iceland last month, I felt similarly uneasy. I woke from a dreamless sleep at three o’clock one morning to find light streaming through the blackout shades that I had neglected to close all the way. A local had asked me earlier that evening to go on a sunset stroll at midnight, but there was no actual sunset. There was never a sunset. In the week I spent there, it was as bright at midnight as it was at five in the evening or five in the morning. Instead of it feeling like I was there for a week, it felt like I was there for one endlessly long day, or perhaps year. Time lost all relevance. I was always exhausted, always restless. I could not find the ground while standing on jagged lava rocks in unending daylight.

These nights in Provincetown, like those nights in Reykjavik, are un-grounding me…


 

To read the rest of the above piece, please click on the link to The Manifest-Station below!

http://themanifeststation.net/2014/09/05/un-grounded/

And follow Jen Pastiloff’s incredible site if you aren’t already!

xx,
Katie

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

The Moment

It’s sunrise in Punta Mita, Mexico. I have been waiting for it for nearly thirty minutes already. The sun is rising slowly from behind the mountains, in what feels like it should be a big, climactic moment, but is instead just the casual repetition of what happens here everyday. It won’t be rushed to glory because we are here to watch it. The orange and pink colors gradually, painstakingly spread across the sky, illuminating the stand up paddle boarders in the ocean below, as they take deliberate and precise strokes away from the shore.

The roosters crow somewhere in the near distance, their calls immediately answered threefold by the seagulls flying over our heads. But otherwise, there is silence on this morning. Those who wake early seem to understand this sacred moment of the day beginning, respecting its quiet.

There is no smell here, surprising me, when smells are so often what ground me to a particular place, like the blooming tuberose we smelled each morning in Bali, or the unique earthy mixture of horses and dirt on a farm in Italy. No fishy saltwater smell wafts up from the bay, no floral aromas surround us and tell us that we are not at home. It is only when the coffee begins brewing that there is any scent recognition at all.

I’m sitting outside on our patio, sipping tea and writing while overlooking the waves on the shoreline below, the early morning mist still rising off the water. This outdoor area is partially covered by a wooden trellis, with vines hanging over the edge, framing our pictures with context, setting them apart from anywhere else we may have taken this sunrise photo over the sea. I sink deeper into the soft cushions on our wraparound couch, crossing my legs beneath me as if in meditation, as if I might close my eyes and begin a chant of OM to seal this moment in my memory forever.

 

I am 36.

 

There’s no birthday confession this year, no fighting against what my life is, or grappling for what it perhaps “should” be. There are no justifications of my choices, or resignations of what I must accept for myself. There is no fretting about the future, or tormenting myself about the past. Not this birthday morning, not right now, not in this moment.

 

There is just stillness.

 

For the next four days I am in Punta Mita, a tiny gated area situated on a bay north of Puerto Vallarta, with several girlfriends, to celebrate the passing of another year in my life. I asked them to join me, without worrying if it was too much to ask six women leave their jobs and their families and their lives to travel to another country with me. They simply asked what time to book their plane tickets and didn’t question it further. When we arrived at the airport in Mexico, we stepped into the arrivals area to find someone holding up a sign in front of her face, meant for me to read:

To Me, You Are Perfect

A tribute to my favorite movie, Love Actually, and to me, actually. One of my friends who had been unable to commit to the trip was suddenly there, surprising me outside of baggage claim in  what could have been a scene from a movie. The movie of my life.

 

It’s the scene in the movie where the soul-searching, fumbling-for-life’s-meaning girl finally feels how much she is loved.

 

And then, (I had almost forgotten it!), there it is! That moment of climax in our peaceful morning. The moment the sun finally emerges fully from behind the mountains. It shines brightly on our faces, heating them, and glistens in its reflection across the water below. The moment that feels like a reckoning, as if all of our sins are forgiven in the face of this beauty, as if we could do no wrong in this day. The moment that reaffirms our goodness, and our place in this world. The moment that reminds us who we truly are. The moment I have been waiting all morning to find.

 

The moment that is everything.

 

Early morning sun, Punta Mita

Early morning sun, Punta Mita

The sun finally emerges, an hour later

The sun emerges, an hour later…most definitely worth the wait

With love, and so, so much gratitude from Mexico,

Katie

My Christmas In Exile

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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.