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

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

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

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.

Of False Bravery and Half-Truths

I waited for the elevator to make its way to the ground floor of the parking garage. It was one of those places in downtown Santa Monica that always smells a little like urine, even when it’s not hot outside. The kind of garage that always has a few lights blinking and crackling, threatening to burn out. The kind that makes you wish the sun were still out and that you weren’t by yourself.

The elevator arrived and I stepped on, followed by five men speaking very loud and animated Korean. They smelled like stale beer and cigarettes, and together we more than filled the small space. One of their arms kept brushing against my REI shopping bag, and another gave me a full body scan with his eyes. We had no air left for anyone else to breathe in that elevator, but I wished that someone else would join us. Someone who might make me feel safe.

We began our ascent, only to jerk to a stop and lurch down a few feet before we reached the third floor. The men exclaimed, “Oh My God” in English, while gazing at each other with panicked looks. When they then looked over at me, I smiled calmly, as if we weren’t trapped together in an elevator between floors of a Santa Monica parking garage, instead of driving our cars safely home.“Don’t let them see your fear,” the voice in my head whispered. “They need to think that you’re brave.”

I wasn’t. I was scared even before the elevator doors closed around us. I was scared even after we all got out safely. But I couldn’t let them see that. Maintaining that illusion of bravery felt crucial. If felt like it was all that I had.

It’s what I’ve always done.

When I was a kid, I needed everyone to see that I could do everything considered scary, and do it by myself. That meant not hesitating before diving off the high dive, running to the front of the line to ride the tallest roller coaster, or watching horror movies that secretly terrified me. Often it meant impulsive decisions with little regard for consequences. I was no adrenaline junkie; it was all about trying to manipulate people into seeing me as “brave”. To me, scared equated with weak, and that was unacceptable. Fast forward thirty years later and I’m still that five-year-old kid, yelling, “Look at me! Look at what I can do” from the high dive.

Last weekend, a stranger marveled at the fact that I could attend a friend’s wedding without a date. She could never do that, she told me, unsolicited. She would rather just stay home than ever go to a wedding alone. I was rendered momentarily speechless, as I so often am when someone else voices feelings I don’t want to admit to also having experienced. I quickly moved away from the conversation, eager to get away from her and her (our) fears.

Instead, I went home and rallied against that fear. I posted a status update to my Facebook page that I hoped would reinforce me as that brave, independent person I needed everyone to see.

“If I only went places where someone accompanied me, I would never go anywhere. Don’t be afraid to do the things you want to do because you don’t have a ‘date’. You are your own best company.”

I’ve written before about the importance of loving your life even if it’s not exactly what you pictured. How you can appreciate what you do have, and take advantage of all that comes with it. How traveling alone, for example, can be wonderful and even more fulfilling than traveling with a companion. I even quoted the song “Brave” recently, as a reminder of how important it is to speak use your voice. I know these things are all true.

But.

But. The truth is always in the buts. The howevers. The excepts.

But they’re half-truths, at best. Words that are, indeed, true but that don’t begin to tell the whole story. It’s like stitching together patches of a quilt when you don’t actually know how to sew, and ignoring the holes you’ve left all over. I’ve stitched together this tale about being happy, self-sufficient and brave, while neglecting to mention all the holes throughout: loneliness; sadness; fear. There’s a quilt, sure, but it isn’t the truth.

So here’s the whole truth. The whole truth is that I don’t want to go to weddings alone; I go alone because that’s the best option I have. The whole truth is that I travel alone because I don’t have a partner to travel with me, and the alternative of not going anywhere is so much worse. The whole truth is that I still struggle with speaking up because I am so worried about what others will think. The whole truth is that being single can be liberating and empowering, but simultaneously isolating and terrifying. The whole truth is that I am scared all of the time.

The whole truth is that you can love your life, and still yearn for what is missing.

Sometimes, I take the easy way out, and I pick just half of the truth—the half that doesn’t make me look weak, or feel vulnerable. The half that feels good to post on Facebook. I’m still that little a kid putting on a show. Look at me! Look at what I can do!

It’s difficult to reconcile: being proud of what you can do alone, and desperately wanting to not have to do it.

I wrote earlier this year about how turning 35 meant letting go of a life I had imagined for myself and replacing it with something else, something I was already living. But the real truth there? (Again, the but). I stopped short of the part where I admit that even in my happiness, there is still sadness. That I do still want a husband, and I do still want children. I have accepted that I don’t have them now, and I have made my life work without them because that’s what I had to do. It wasn’t brave, or strong, it just was.

Because you adapt, and you let go, and you accept, or you won’t be able to get out of bed in the morning.

If I could go back and re-write that “Confession: I am 35” essay, if I could post it as a Facebook status with the whole truth, it would read differently.

I am 35, and it’s wonderful, lonely, exciting, full, liberating, strange, multi-faceted, sad, challenging, adventure-filled, eye-opening, ever-changing and completely scary every single day. It’s real life, in all its complexities. 

And it’s mine.

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Confession: I Am 35

I am 35.

I don’t know if that really qualifies as a confession.  Or if that’s what I really mean to confess.

Maybe what I should have written is Confession: I am 35 and I’m not married and I don’t have kids and I’m not a publisher and I don’t own a big house or a car and I’m not where I always thought I would be at 35.

But that’s really too long for a title.  So I condense.  I am 35.

Sometimes it feels like I’m being left behind.

I am the bridesmaid, standing at the altar in the pink satin dress and matching shoes that I will never wear again, heart cracking a little each time I’m not the one saying “I Do.”  Each time someone else is chosen ‘for better or worse’.

I am “Aunt Katie”, aunt in quotes because I’m really not the aunt, just the stand in, that title bestowed upon single friends who gaze wistfully at sleeping babies and buy the impractical dresses with tutus because they’re just too cute to resist.  Who think when another baby is born, “this may not happen for me”, and die a tiny death each time.

I am the sales rep, I am the apartment dweller, I am the car leaser.  Nothing too permanent, nothing that lasts.  It’s a life lived in pencil instead of pen.  It can be erased in an instant.

I’m not where I always thought I would be at 35.

I was emailing with a male friend this week, marveling about our mutual friend who is having her third baby (THREE children?!?  How could that be?!).  I trotted out some of my canned lines about having children.  I prepared them years ago, anything to avoid the pitying stares that get doled out to the childless 30-somethings:

“I’m SO not ready to have children.”

“I can’t even take care of a plant.”

“I want to be able to plan an impromptu trip to Vietnam without coordinating with husbands/carpools/nannies/schools. I want to just get on a plane and go.”

I say them so frequently that I barely even know what they mean anymore.  They’re just lines in a play that I repeat back from memory with the same practiced gestures, the same indifferent expression, the blocking of this scene always the same.  But somehow this week, I actually heard what I was saying.  Maybe because I was talking to a male friend and I didn’t feel any pressure, or competition, or hint of pity from him (possibly because those without a ticking biological clock don’t know better).  Or maybe because I’m hitting a milestone birthday with regard to having children.  Or perhaps I just got it for the first time.

I really meant what I said.  I am not ready to have children.  I kill every plant I’ve ever had.  I do want to just get on a plane and go.  It’s all really, really true.   

So here I sit, throwing a pity party for one, mourning the loss of this imagined life.  Dreaming longingly about a life that, as it turns out, doesn’t even fit.  It’s like waking up and finding that the pair of shoes you have been completely lusting over for months actually pinch your toes and don’t look good on you because they are so not your style.  But you wanted them because everyone else wanted them so they must be special and so you just had to have them.

The night before my birthday, I began reading a book that just arrived by Karen Salmansohn called “Instant Happy”.  It includes simple but meaningful messages about finding happiness in your life.  One passage stood out in particular from the others on this birthday eve:

 “Much of the pain in life comes from having a life plan that you’ve fallen in love with, but that doesn’t work out.  Having to find a new life plan hurts.  The trick is not to become too attached to any particular life plan and remember that there is always a better, even-happier life plan out there somewhere.”

What?  You mean we’re not stuck with this dream that was formed at age 11, or at 25, or last night?  We can actually do a re-write?  Go back and choose a different path, like those Choose Your Own Adventure books that everyone read in the 80s?  I always read every ending.  I had to be sure I chose the right one, had to know what options existed so that I could change my mind and go another way.

I can choose my own adventure now.  I can explore every ending.  I can re-write the story, within every chapter even.  I can change the outcome.  I can change my confession.

Confession: I am 35.

I am loved.

I am successful.

I am following my passions.

I am an “intrepid traveler” (thanks JH!)

I am a writer.

And…I am happy.

I’ll choose that ending for today.

CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE

CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE

xx,

Katie