Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Hardest Part About Leaving…

If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a thousand times: the hardest part about traveling is coming home again.

The first time I truly traveled – in that I left everything I knew about the world behind and exposed myself to something wholly foreign – was the time I struggled with coming home the most profoundly. This was when I was 14 years old and traveled to Tijuana, Mexico for a mission trip with my church. I worked in orphanages and assisted living facilities. I carried cement up a hill for an entire day to build the foundation of a one-room home for a family of 6.

Beyond the experience of traveling outside the United States for the first time, the confrontation of scarcity a girl from Northern Minnesota couldn't have prepared herself for changed my life. Coming home from that trip was a painful experience – I felt disjointed from my friends and family who had never seen the things I had seen, I felt guilty about the lush forests and acres of land surrounding my home as well as my family’s comparable wealth. Most profoundly, I was horrified by my own privilege for being able to walk away from the people I met. I was baffled that I had just gotten on an airplane and gone there – then come back. I couldn’t believe that dusty, strange world had ever existed, still existed in fact, from my bedroom in Clover Valley. As an adult who’s studied social justice and thought a lot about what in the world “helping” or serving means for both the helpers and those being helped, I also recognize that I was facing a lot of confusion and trying to tackle the dynamics of privilege and a much deeper issue - which is another rant for another time, honestly.

Other times I’ve come home and it has been such a powerful relief, I can hardly articulate the pleasure of a beautiful July afternoon, sitting in a park with friends, feeling grass below my skin after months in Venezuela, which was arguably one of the most difficult times of my life – once again for reasons that are too long of a story for today.

I had considered the fact that coming home after this most recently trip would, of course, be its’ own brand of newness and strangeness. I had thought about the prospects and pressures of finding a job, the reality that I was moving back into my parent’s house after nearly ten years of being away. I was, all at once horrified at the fact that my adventure so well planned and dreamed of for so long had come to an end, and so relieved and delighted to be heading home. Home to my favorite city in the world, to my family, to the wonderful community of Minneapolis. Winter be damned: it was home!

And in the beginning, it was so good. It was the typical whirlwind I've had every time I've come home since moving to California: see everyone as quickly as possible. Catch up until late. Hug long. I was sleeping in friend’s houses, sharing a bed with my sister. Job hunting, sure. Waitressing, yeah. But nothing felt real, I didn't comprehend that I was here for good – until about a month ago.

On April first, I moved into this lovely studio apartment on Grand Ave: the neighborhood I’ve always dreamed of living in. Near the Mississippi, lots of trees, lots of breweries and restaurants. A brownstone with built-ins just like I’ve been picturing when I thought about my life in the Twin Cities. I’d been working for a month for an organization that challenged me, where I was respected and pushed -  and that most importantly is doing work I believe in- for a month. I lovingly put each book in its place. I made the bed. I hung the same maps which have followed me across the walls of 4 states now, covered in scrawls of marks of where I’ve been. I hung my colorful lamps from Turkey, the evil eyes from Greece, the beautiful table cloth from Vienna: all the things I’d day dreamed about putting into a home while on the road.

I made an amazing dinner, opened a bottle of wine from California I’d been saving for the occasion. I took a bath in my claw foot tub and for like, four days, I basked in the glory of being home after living out of a suitcase for nearly 10 months.

Then it hit me: this is it. I’m here. Trains through foreign cities, getting lost along rivers, writing my book for hours every day, then going home and drinking wine with my crew of friends at the hostel. It's all done. I'm in the Twin Cities. It happened, and though it's all I ever wanted, it means so much has come to an end.

That’s that.

I’ve been surprised at this reaction, after the depth of my longing for a home, for a place of my own for so long. I suppose it stands to reason, given my own wanderlust, and the change of life’s pace. I knew I was being silly when, on a hot day in Serbia, I daydreamed of the routine of driving through traffic to get to work, cramming some granola and yogurt at red lights and sipping coffee from behind my legs.

I can tell you with certainly: the grass is always greener, no matter where you go in the world.

All of that is to say, though I still look longingly at maps – all the places on that big colorful map above my bed still missing black dots, specifically – though I’m still watching deals from GAdventuers (who I traveled in Peru and Turkey with) like I have money to afford any trips at all, I am so happy to be home. This transition is just a process of reminding myself of that. Being able to go my friend’s birthday and bachelorette parties, watching the spring leaves make everything heart achingly lush, working for an organization that challenges me and aligns so well with what I want to  be doing.

I’m truly lucky. The transition back was as good as it could possibly have been. This is exactly where I want to be, usually, and deep down in my heart I know it’s where I need to be – at least right now. I will say I’m surprised: I kind of thought I’d be as good at coming home this time as I was as being an intrepid, independent traveler. But all is well. Really.

I just have to keep slowing down and reminding myself of all of this, which is good practice no matter what. No matter where in the world I am!

Just about a year ago today I got the tattoo: Swallows are a traditional sailor's
tattoo: they travel the farthest of any animal, but they always return home.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Missing Story & The Last Adventure

A store front in Siena, Tuscany.
I spent the last two weeks of my trip in Italy, which was never part of the plan. Actually, there is a rather major twist in this story that I have not yet written about publicly.

For so long it was tenuous, so imagined and uncertain and tender with hope that I didn’t feel like I could share it. As it was unfolding, it was risky to give away the details, since I was sure to sound more and more like the hopeless romantic than I am. But there is crystal clarity at this moment, and to hell with sounding crazy because if we can't be crazy when we're in love there is very little else worth loosing our senses over. So far it all unfolded better than I ever could have imagined and at this point I’m ridiculously happy for so many reasons.

Not to mention, this is a great story. It deserves a place in this little collection of snapshots of my life. It enhanced and changed everything about the second half of my trip, so it’s not right to leave it out of this little travel journal I’m creating. And you all deserve to hear it too, those of you who have been paying attention and following this incredible part of my life so faithfully.

The short version of this story involves a Greek island, a handsome stranger and a shared love of maps and traveling. From that afternoon on Lipsi, there was driving all along the coast of Ireland, wandering in Spain, lots of late night Facebook messages and Skype conversations, online Italian lessons and finally ten days in Italy with my own personal tour guide, who by that point also happened to be my boyfriend.

A village on Lago di Garda in the Alps, also the
northernmost point where citrus grows year round
I realize there are probably a few people out there – myself 6 months ago included – saying, “wait, wait – hold on. I thought this trip was about the exact opposite than falling in love. What about all that stuff you wrote about feeling like an awesome, sexy, independent woman traveling and loving spending time investing in herself again?” The only thing I can really say to all of that is that this could be another example of the best kind of love coming when you’re looking for it least? This was not the plan, in fact I actively fought against this development because I was having such an amazing time being on my own. But thank god for Gabriele’s persistence and my romantic heart, because I am astounded and utterly delighted by this development in my life. 

When Gabriele first told me, while we were walking back to Kostas’ on Lipsi after our second day together, that I should come visit him in Italy I laughed good naturedly. I thought of course that sounded very nice, but was invested on keeping my feet planted firmly on the ground far away from crazy love town at that point. So I said something like “Sure. We’ll see what happens.”

Four months later, as my plane made a bumpy landing in Milan, my stomach was in a worse knot than the day I arrived in Reykjavik six months beforehand. Anticipation like that only comes from the best places, and even the traffic of Milan couldn’t bring down my mood once I was on the ground.

Anyone who knows’ me knows my three favorite things in the world are red wine, spaghetti and romance, which means Italy is probably the most dangerous (also incredible) place in Europe for me to visit. And it did not disappoint one bit. I mean, I was lucky enough to have a tour guide with a car and the ability to read maps and plan adventures to the same crazy degree as I like. We didn’t go to Rome or Florence, but it was a once in a lifetime opportunity for me to explore and experience the back roads and smaller villages of the Alps and Tuscany.

A hike through the Dolomites, in the German-speaking Alpine region of Italy.
We didn’t bother spending much time in Milan, a few hours walking around the city was enough before we headed north east, towards the Alpine lakes and German-speaking valleys of Trentino Alto. We explored sunny villages along the shores of Lago di Garda – the northernmost place in the world where citrus grows – and stayed in the shadows of the Dolomites. After a few days of hiking and driving over the high mountain passes, we descended again to Venice. 

Venetian alleyways 
I’ve heard a lot of mixed reviews on Venice. Most Italians have told me that it’s crowded, hot and stinky. I’ve heard groans about the water and the cost of keeping the city standing. But all of that is always followed by the admission that one really has to go there at least once in their life because in the end it’s really incredible. 

And, my god: Venice is truly a wonder. It was a chilly, overcast winter day when we visited, but I think that actually worked in our favor. I don’t know how many tourists can say they got a seat on the ferry through the Canal Grande or found themselves actually being the only ones in a back street of the city. Because of the season, Venice wasn’t insanely crowded so we were able to leisurely take in the atmosphere of the elegant, magical place. I’m a sucker for historic, romantic places and you really can’t get much better that the gondoliers, elegant alleyways, mask-filled store fronts and general grandeur of Venice. I almost don’t ever want to go back because it was such a good day I’m afraid I’ll break the spell that we captured on that January afternoon.

Over Canal Grande in Venice.
We spent another day in transit between Mestre – the city just outside of Venice, from where we took the bus into the lagoon – and Siena, stopping in Ferrara and briefly glimpsing the sprawl of Florence along the way. Arriving in Tuscany was almost surreal in how similar it felt to Napa Valley, which I suppose makes sense: wine country is wine country. Except for the villages; the villages of Tuscany are beautiful and unique and the best way to see them all is by car.

Tuscany village life
The villages of Tuscany are a blur, but this is one of them.

I could write about each village we stopped in, the towers of San Gimignano or the still hills around the Archabbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore, but it’s really all a blur of twisting alleyways, brown stone buildings, so many coffee bars for a shot of espresso, lunches with a glass of red wine – “I’m in Tuscany, right? Why not?” – and delicious food. Tuscany had all the details I would have expected it to, and didn’t disappoint me in the least.

We decided that we would spend more time exploring the cities and landscapes than visiting museums and galleries on this trip. And it was perfect for us: there probably isn’t a better place in the world to fall in love than the Italian countryside. 

Our final morning in Tuscany 
On the last day of traveling, we hurried through Pisa (because, well, the tower and stuff) towards the Mediterranean coast to Cinque Terre, the five villages perched along the rocky, cliff-covered shoreline where many people hike during the summer.

Gabriele and I walked down the steep streets of Manarola and sat at the edge of the ocean, much like the first afternoon we met on Lipsi, while we quietly watched the sunset. We kept looking at each other and the ocean spread out before us – the one which would soon separate us – baffled and blissfully amazed at the place where life brought us. It was basically a given at this point, but we both reiterated that night that the chance which brought us together was too much to ignore, that the passions we share and feelings we have are too incredible to walk away from, even though I was flying back to Minnesota the next evening. 

Manarola, Cinque Terre. 
And I did leave Italy the next evening. I’ve been in Minnesota for two weeks now. I still can’t believe the turn my life took when I met Gabriele on the beach in Lipsi, not just because of the time I got to spend in Italy, but because of all the things we dream of together. From the beginning of this adventure I focused on being opened and accepting of whatever Fate brought to my plate and I’m still amazed to have found myself here. There, actually. And back here again.

And of course at this point, I’m waiting to see where it is we will be going next!

Monday, January 19, 2015

Hogmanay 2015

The Christmas Market of Edinbrugh, still lit up for the Hogmanay Celebration
Edinburgh has been near the top of my dream traveling list for a while now. So when I found out that I was invited to spend the Christmas holidays with my dear friend Hannah and her family near Londo and the two of us began throwing ideas around for a New Year’s Eve side trip Scotland came up. Even though Hannah was born in England she’s never visited Scotland - or Ireland, much to my dismay, but that’s another issue entirely - and we were both intrigued by the idea of rugged highlands, castles and listening to the lovely Scottish accent, piqued by the sound of bagpipes of course, for 3 days.

This was before we realized how amazing Edinburgh is on New Year’s Eve. The traditional Hogmanay celebration has been revived in the city of year-round festivals in the last decades and we were surprised to find out that today it is one of the Number One ways to spend New Year’s Eve in Europe, or even the world. With ticketed events to traditional dances, pop superstar concerts, fireworks all over the city and even a 8,000 person torch light processional to begin the festivities, the party in Edinburgh is a once-in-a-lifetime one.

And don’t forget: you’re singing Auld Langs Syne in its’ homeland! It still doesn't make sense, but at least you can pretend you get it.

Hannah and I carrying our torches through the city.
The first night that we arrived – after a short walk along the Royal Mile and a trek up the nearby Arthur’s Seat, which requires hiking boots, we learned unfortunately late – was the Torchlight Procession. Taking place on the 30th, this is the official kickoff event of the festival and features 8,000 people carrying real torches through the city for about a mile. First of all, I’m shocked that they still allow 8,000 tourists to walk through the city with live fire in their hands – “This is a grand way to burn down your city,” Hannah’s dad noted at one point – but I have to say, the authenticity really made it a highlight of the trip for all of us. Bagpipes were playing everywhere and from every direction you could see a river of fire all around you.

The tradition of the torchlight procession ties into the old traditions of the solstice and burning away the old year as well as carrying light with you into the New Year. After everyone has made their way through the city center, the group is gathered at Calton Hill, where fireworks begin the real party. 

New Year’s Eve day we visited the Castle. We ate an excellent dinner – in which I almost tried haggis, but backed out, but did eat delicious lamb – then headed to our ceilidh, which was a traditional Scottish dance and music show. This was one of my favorite parts of the trip because I really love learning and participating in traditional dances (remember all the circle dances on Lipsi?) and the Scottish waltzes felt just similar enough to the Wild Thyme Dances I used to go to as a child that I felt completely at ease and at home. Of course it was complete chaos, but it was an awful lot of fun.

The Castle on top of the hill, behind a 1700's graveyard.
At Midnight, the whole city lights up again with simultaneous fireworks shows over the Castle and Calton Hill, which we were right in between. As the lights and bombs die down, everyone crosses their arms, grabs someone nearby’s hands and at least mumbles the first line and the tune to Auld Langs Syne.

I’ve done a lot of things to ring in the New Year. At the beginning of 2011, I stood on the side of the Mississippi in New Orleans, watching the New Years Baby get thrown from the roof of Jax Brewery while a jazz band played nearby. At the beginning of 2010, I spent the day in New York City and made a visit to Time’s Square – though I’ll admit we watched the ball drop from my aunt and uncle’s house in Connecticut because we really couldn’t be bothered to stand in the cold for 8 hours. I’ve rung in the New Year most often at a good friend’s house in Clover Valley, surrounded by my dearest family and oldest friends, popping champagne while my dad plays Auld Langs Syne on his guitar and a bonfire burns outside.

There was something really special in Edinburgh, though. It is a beautiful, rugged, historical city with a lot of gritty and interesting history. And there was a joy among the people there I didn’t find much throughout all my travels, a friendliness and frivolity without abrasiveness that I could appreciate. There were bagpipes, men in kilts, real torches (I still can’t get over the fact that they were real!) fireworks and lots of laughter and joy.

It was truly the best way I could have completed the unbelievably adventurous year I've had, and to invite some more into my life in the next!! Cheers to 2015! 

The Royal Mile, leading to the Castle of Edinburgh
The closest we got to the highlights, hiking on Arthur's Chair.
There is a part of me that could feel disappointed that I didn’t get to see more of the highlands or castles and villages dotting the incredibly rugged landscape of Scotland, but I also can’t believe how lucky I was to be a part of this incredible festival and traditions, especially with such a fun group of people. There’s a lot to be said for traveling alone, but in moments like these, it’s good to have a good friend or two to experience them with.

And that just means I'll have to come back to Scotland sooner or later.

Other highlights included: Edinburgh Castle, The National Museum of Scotland (if you love history and artifacts, they do an excellent job with their Scottish history), the Cathedral, Arthur's Seat and a Ghost Tour with Auld Reekie Tours.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Thanksgiving in Krakow

Going to Krakow for three days was certainly veering away from the path I’ve been on lately – backtracking, really. Considering I was in Prague and Bratislava in late July and early August, it is a strange choice to fly all this way from Dublin. But my great network of awesome international people includes an old friend from Duluth named Morley, who is currently teaching in an international school in Krakow. And when you have a friend who’s living somewhere in Europe, you don’t just not go to that place while you are also visiting the continent.

Cathedral in the Market Square

And, oh my god, I’m so glad I didn’t miss Krakow! Not just because it was great to hang out with someone who I know well for the first time since August. But people kept saying to me “Oh Krakow is wonderful! You have to go!” and they were so right. Even if it felt a little like backtracking, it was another side of the region, another way of telling a story I’ve been trying to flesh out, and they have a lot of great craft beer to enjoy.

The old streets of Krakow
It’s easy to see why Krakow is the city that Poles bring their children to learn about Polish culture. My first impressions were that Krakow is a mix between Prague (with similar architecture, culture) and London (filled with parks and green spaces.) The Market Square in the center of the city is one of the biggest I’ve seen since Mexico City, but without the huge, gapping feeling of Plaza Zócalo. It is one of the most beautiful I’ve seen yet in Europe, with fantastic architecture, historic buildings everywhere – including a spectacular church and the old town hall’s clock tower – horse-drawn carriages echoing up and down the alleyways and people milling everywhere. They were even setting up the Christmas Market with lots of evergreens and little wooden stalls, but it unfortunately opened the day after I left Poland.

The entire historic city center is everything a European city should be: cobbled streets lined with attractive shops and restaurants, a grand and historic castle upon a hill with a dragon that will spout fire in your direction and churches on every corner, each more beautiful than the last. I saw more nuns walking about Krakow than any other yet in Europe. It's a great city to wander into shops with unique, local made items, eat interesting food and learn about the history of the region.

Not everything is beautiful and wondrous, of course. Most of the city’s inhabitants burn coal to heat their homes in the freezing temperatures, so the pollution sat heavy in my lungs, bringing back a cough I had thought I was just getting over with a vengeance. All of the florescent-lit tourist shops sell the same things as every other city in the world, with a different name printed across each item of course. The twisting streets of Kazimierz, the Jewish Quarter, reveal hundreds of hip bars and restaurants, a youthful energy and grittier side of the city, but of course a cloud hangs over this part of the city; you can still see hollow synagogues, memorials everywhere, the remains of the walls which were built around the Jewish ghetto during the Nazi occupation of Krakow, eerily resembling lines of graves. And not far down the road is Auschwitz, the most notorious memorial to the horror humans are capable of inflicting upon one another.

In the Jewish Quarter

More than anything, it was excellent to see my old friend Morley, to make our globe-trotting paths finally cross and to spend a few nights sipping tea in her tiny apartment covered in photos of Duluth, Minnesota and our north woods home. We went out for Indian food, pub quizzes and made Thanksgiving dinner together while swapping traveling and culture shock stories, day dreaming together about the places our lives could bring us. In Krakow, it felt like winter was truly coming to the continent. I bought myself a hat and hurried through brisk streets. It’s strange to acknowledge the coming of Christmas on a whole different continent, but I’m also glad, after so many years of more or less unchanging weather season to season, to enjoy chilly nights and days here, cities filled with Christmas markets and the coming of the holidays.

Old City Hall in the Market Square.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

100,000 Words in 31 Days

I’m not really sure how one writes about writing, but it’s a lot of what I’ve been doing lately – at least it’s probably the only thing worth writing about that I’ve been doing.

My days here in Derry have slipped into a bit of a haze. This will probably be the time I look back upon when I have an infant or two at home, day dreaming about the excesses of sleep and laziness I was able to achieve for two months in Northern Ireland. The hostel is slow this time of the year and with three-six of us volunteers, even a few beds, vacuuming the whole place, a good clean in the kitchen and dusting in the common room just doesn’t take so long.

I wake up, drink my coffee while I read, clean for about an hour (if that), eat lunch, practice some Italian (why not use so much free time to try another language, right?) then I head out to the library, spread my maps, calendars from 1972, notes and reference books around me upon a table and dive back in. I usually am able to work for about 3-4 hours (a number that has been steadily rising) before I’m exhausted and need to step away, back to an evening of yoga, daydreaming about other trips I’ll go on one day, beer drinking and TV watching with my fellow volunteers. Sometimes we go out to the pubs. Usually, no.

I walk home from the llibraryeach day the long way, unless the rain is really coming down hard. Through the Bogside, looking down from the City Walls to the murals depicting the battles, rallies and IRA fighters. I take the steep hill past the street I have decided the Crilly Family – my narrators – live on, past orange, white and green lamp posts, signs reading “BRITS NOT WELCOME – IRA” and graffiti. I walk the streets, which are so incredibly different – the whole area has in fact been rebuilt – since 1972 when the book takes place, smiling and greeting the people who nod at me when they walk by.

I am writing right now with a determination and clarity I have not felt since the summer I turned fifteen, when I stayed up until 3am nightly, before the eerie glow of the family computer furiously creating the world of my fantasy novel. I know where I am going, what’s going to happen to my characters. There is an event’s list, and I highlight and mark off major events as they happen. For many, many years this book has been one scene pieced together without a clear path or ending. It feels so good to have purpose and clarity, I cannot even tell you how relieved I am to be in this place.

I even have a title, everyone. Well, I see something outlined, just out of my grasp that could be a title. I haven’t been able to jump up and get a steady hold on it just yet. But it's there.

I’m over 100,000 words into the book and almost every single one of them is new - only about 5,000 were salvageable from the wreckage of all those early drafts. Here are some things I have learned/remembered about writing in the last month:

1)      You need structure and routine to make a large-scale project like this happen. Sure, there are moments of inspiration, lightning bolts that hit you, keep you up late and can propel your creativity through a few days, weeks maybe. But after that, just like the romanticism at the beginning of a new love affair, the jolt, the clarity, the buzz tends to fade. And you’re left with a lot of work. I don’t think I’ve ever meet a writer who doesn’t feel like writing every day isn’t work. Beautiful, fulfilling, exciting work. But work. And I have to get myself off my comfortable ass and go do it. Some days I hate it. But if I miss an afternoon, especially a few days, it is so hard for me to get back into the swing of things. My creative brain responds well to consistency. I show up every day and even if the first half hour is shit, I keep saying, just a little longer, just a little longer, and eventually my fingers start moving with rhythm: the words start coming. It’s in there and I need to give myself the structure to give it space to come on out.
2)      I can’t think about being published yet. That is a recipe for becoming totally and utterly overwhelmed, for seizing up with all the doubts, uncertainties, questions of “is this readable? Is this relatable? Is this worth my time, even? Was the whole trip worth doing?!” will make creativity stop short. Plus, if I’m writing at this moment for what I believe an audience wants, I am certain that what I come up with will be utter shit. 
3)      It’s OK that I’m writing this book. For a long time I was embarrassed to tell people about this book, especially people on the road, especially people in Northern Ireland. I wondered just who the hell I thought I was, trying to tell a story I in no way lived, full of horror and details I cannot even imagine. This probably comes from my social justice background and I still admit to struggling with it from the standpoint as a person of privilege. But reactions to this project have not at all been negative, and I’m not the only author to attempt to wade into a world in which I was not born. Granted, this doesn’t automatically make it OK, but I do believe I have given the subject matter as much research, deliberate investigation and scrutiny as I could in order to honor my characters and the interesting, yet difficult situation I got sucked into exploring.

4)      I’m allowed to call myself an artist. For a long time now, I’ve cautiously skirted around the topic of being an artist. I’ve been embarrassed about the connotations, about the fact that I had not been able to devote myself to my writing in a way that felt like an “artist” should for many years now. Throughout the trip I’ve been trying out the phrase, “I’m an artist, working on my first novel” and watching people’s reactions. Mostly it’s good. In fact, I can’t say I’ve met any truly negative reactions. And it continually reassures me, makes me feel more and more like I am, in fact, an artist.

So, all in all, 31 days into the complete overhaul and rewrite of The Still Unnamed Novel, things are going amazingly. I was terrified of this time before I left home, in the weeks leading up to arriving and even now if I overthink just what it is I’m doing here. All my friends are at home, getting engaged, having their first babies and buying their first homes. And what am I doing with my life? Just living abroad, writing my first novel, traveling and exploring. 

I suppose that I can, in fact,  live with that.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

I Don’t Deserve This

Sometime between Pécs, Hungary and Sofia, Bulgaria, I was reading the book The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd. (Not my favorite book of the trip, in case you were wondering, but that’s not exactly important.) Offhandedly, the biblical verse from the Book of Luke came up: “If you cling to your life, you will lose it, and if you let your life go, you will save it.”

Being at one time, at least, a good Catholic girl, I’ve been exposed to my fair share of the Bible. So sure; I’ve heard this one before. But at that moment, sitting on a train somewhere in the countryside of Serbia, I was struck with how much these words suddenly meant to me; how true this idea has turned out to be.

In moments of reflection, I have realized that I tend to see my life as checkmarks upon an endless list: how many cities, how many countries, how many national parks can I mark off? I think in some ways I’m getting too good at leaving. I have stirred and shaken out my life, left something beautiful and fulfilling again and again, sometimes because I had to – graduating from the Perpich Center for Arts Education, finishing a year-long contract at Friends In Deed – and sometimes because there was something somewhere in my gut saying it was time.

Honestly, I have left so many communities and friends and routines behind that if I think too hard about it all, I could fall to my knees and cry out for the horror of what I’ve missed.

What keeps me standing and always moving is knowing how much I have gained.

A day trip in Donegal
By giving up everything in my life, by walking away from friends and family and routine and comfort, I have found a new sense of myself again and again. I have found confidence, self-reliance, joy and adventure. Not that every day – especially of this trip – has been easy. Not that every day has been fun or even exciting (I do get bored on the road). But by expanding my sense of the world, exposing myself to newness and letting go, I have pushed the edges of my personality, frayed some of my world views and opened up new channels of thinking and living.

I am happy. I am so very happy. Happiness is, in my humble opinion hard to define. It is not exactly joy, not exuberance. It is not a time without sadness, fear or anxiety. But I am fulfilled. I am excited to be living right now and every day into the future, in every sense that these words can be true.

Don’t get me wrong: I was happy, very very happy before I left California in June. I had friends, stability, adventure, love. I had family not too far, I had work that challenged me. I knew at the time that I was in the middle of one of the times in my life that I will also look back on and say “wow, what an incredible life I lead.” But I left. I’ve mused over why I left, what I was called to explore and experience. I don’t have an answer, but I can say that today I feel a new kind of happiness than I’ve ever been blessed with before.

And I think that’s how life goes: happiness comes. Joy sweeps our lives as do anger and despair. It comes to everyone, uninhibited, unexpected. Undeserved, really. No one deserves the sadness and hurt they receive, and no one is deserving of the happiness they receive either. These gifts just show up, and our job is to accept them, experience them and allow them to move on when their time comes.

I've been writing about happiness. Let me explain what I think I mean here because everyone says they want it and the thing I'm calling "happiness" isn't the same thing.

Happiness is something you can’t grab hold of. If you try to claim it, to give it a name or a permanence, it will dissipate between your greedy fingers. I have learned that true happiness (for me at least) needs more than a pinch of novelty to stay alive. We will always grow tired of a certain kind of happiness, a certain way of experiencing our passion or challenge or scenery. If we are brave enough to throw out all that we think – or even know – makes us happy and safe, we are rewarded.

Everyone is looking for happiness, myself included. Some people complain and ask for joy as if they deserve it. I don’t believe anyone is owed delight or contentment. The world is not typically a joyful place to be in, and consistent delight is not what brings us long-term happiness, or a sense of identity. We need to be pushing against the edges of our personalities, taking on risks and experiencing pain and hurt in order to fully grasp who we are and what we believe.

And this brings me back to that moment on the train, reading a book and thinking about gaining life (happiness, fulfillment, grace, whatever you want to call it) by allowing yourself to lose everything you have. When you truly let go of your life in some way or another, you will always gain something greater.

People always ask me how I do what I do: how I move across the country, how I travel the world. How I have confidence. How I write 70,000 words of a book in less than a month. I just do it. I just put one foot before the other, say where I’m going, save the money and go there. I just go to the coffee shop every day and force myself to write, even if I’m not inspired, even if what comes out is total shit. Maybe I’ll have to throw it away later. It’s showing up, opening your hands up and saying “what do you have for me today, world?” that’s the important thing. I love not just the stories I gain from loosing everything, I love who I become through these acts of abandon and risk.

I am lucky, yes, but I worked for this. I am blessed, yes, but I gave up everything to gain this blessing.

I am happy, yes. I am so deeply, elegantly happy. I let go of everything, had to allow the edges of myself to disappear, and it gave me grace, depth and courage. It won’t last, not in this particular way at least. This time and place and particular form of fulfillment and joy is a gift unto itself. It’s always good to be able to look at what you have and say to yourself “wow, I will always look at this time in my life as one of the most incredible!” 

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The City of Bones

I had no idea before I arrived in Ireland that the origins of Halloween are Celtic, nor did I know that Derry hosts the biggest Halloween party in Europe, with three full days of parties, arts, parades, fireworks and a carnival. It was a pleasant surprise.

Before Christianity arrived in the British Isles, the Druids celebrated the Samhain Festival each year at the end of the harvests in late October. It was a kind of New Year’s Eve for these cultures, a time when the bonfires of last year were ceremonially extinguished and relit to symbolize ending and beginnings. All the crops had been harvested – if you left apples on the trees, fairies would spit on them and you could no longer eat them – and all the animals were brought in for the winter months.

Along with the fiery endings and beginnings, this day was a time when the wall between the world of the dead and our living world fell down. Ancestors would be wandering, looking to come back home and people would leave food out in their homes for ancestors who would be back to visit. Of course, along with the spirits of ancestors, malevolent spits – like fairies, banshees or ghosts – were also wandering among the living, and these evil spirits wanted to find living bodies they could inhabit in order to stay in our world. One way to be certain that an evil spirit would not inhabit your body was to dress up as something else and confuse anything lurking around while the veil between the living and the dead was briefly lifted. You could also carve a menacing face into a turnip which you would place outside your home to frighten away evil. If you were very concerned, a candle inside would enhance the effects of the protective lantern.
Of course Christianity and all of the centuries since the Druids lived in Ireland have transformed Halloween, but today it is well known that Derry is the place to celebrate the holiday. Annually 40,000 people storm the city, everyone wearing costumes (and drinking, of course). In the nights leading up to Halloween, the old city walls were covered in a live performance with fire, dancers, fire dancers and acrobats. It was a full carnival for three nights straight. They called this the "Waking of the Walls." 

The Waking of the Walls on the 30th of October
Halloween brought out a parade, fireworks,  lots of pub parties and day-long festival events for people of all ages. The parade at moments felt like the Duluth Christmas City of the North Parade with little ones dancing and bands playing, then suddenly like the May Day Parade in Minneapolis with huge papermache puppets dancing down the street. I can't really speak to trick or treating - I'm not sure I saw any, but I wasn't looking either. 

Halloween Parade

Our group before we headed out to the events all night