the real villain

She was beautiful in a finished way – even at 16. All the boys were in love with her, and I was three quarters of the way there myself. She always sat on the same corner of my countertop drinking a half glass of Sunny Delight. She was a tile; she belonged there etched in the intricate framework of my house, a sturdy beam in the lean-to of my soul.

In my waking life, she painted every day red. We would explode with profanity in an effort to cleanse ourselves before venturing into the purity of LDS friendship. We threw popcorn at the annoying kids who loitered loudly outside her door every afternoon. We walked for miles and miles with no real destination, yet it always felt like we had traveled well. We welcomed people into our love and our lives and watched them linger, sink in, and eventually fly. We worked weird night shifts for bowling alley managers with pedophilic intent. We saw ghosts and feared them, not knowing one day we’d be ghosts to each other and sometimes ourselves. Never once did we say goodbye. She was the setting sun to all my favorite days, the centering metronome of my adolescent craze.

She was beautiful, no doubt, but not in any perfect way. There were enigmas tattooed in the wrinkles around her eyes, especially when she cried, and yes, we both cried. Her mom hit her and she screamed, my mom hit me and she screamed, she loved my mom, I loved hers, I loved my mom, she loved hers. When we needed to shatter, we played the dust pan for each other. We didn’t understand what we did wrong, but we didn’t wallow. We made each other’s out of control moments more tolerable to swallow. We were crazy. We were loud, confident, and often wrong. We made up innocent, silly songs. We avoided pain like it was our full time job.

I watched her fall hard for guy after guy. She watched me fall hard and then throw something good away for reasons I trusted but couldn’t yet fully explain. Why, I grappled, I pleaded, I cried, is this wonderful person, my very best friend, unaware of her worth? Why does she settle when she could charm the whole world? But I was there. I clambered into cars with many young men and their friends as we all roamed the streets searching for something and nothing, just a bunch of aimless teens not too concerned with the future, content with the present where would could all just take a seat.

We dreamed up entire lives together. There were endless idealizations of neighborly futures and intertwined families. I attended a Yale info session with her. She was going to be one half of the Gilmore Girls, she just knew it. She had a religious ritual for doing her makeup and hair, and watching her put it all together was like admiring an accomplished musician as they weaved their bow through the air. She was femininity embodied, but she would have kicked your ass. She threw surprise parties and she almost knew how to really dance. I wanted to be her just a little, I wanted that ease. I wanted the world to fall in love with me when I walked by, to hunger for my breeze.

So was I merely jealous when I cut her away? When I heard she spoke ill of me, did it give me the long awaited excuse no longer to stay?

She was the replenishing sigh to each of my full-body laughs. Now she’ll always live somewhere far from me on every map. I killed her off like a storybook villain. She said, “I forgive you.” I told her I wasn’t sorry. I knew what I was doing.

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duality

This is the story of my other life
The one that I’ve loved and in which I still might
I’ve been digging two gardens
One of soil, one of dirt
but I’ve watered barren sand and it’s only ever burned
So it’s time to embrace another view
Here’s to accidents, and here’s to you

This is a glimpse of my other life
The one that went dark and crept into the night
Here I heard snow whisper into my ears
Here I had dreamed we were immune to the years

This is the timbre of my other life
It’s a guttural howl
my instincts tell me to fight
I’ve been watching the curvature,
the shade of the moon
I’ve been wondering if I’d get back to you soon

This is the song of my other life
It’s melodic yet troubling, and it’s never all right
I wish you could feel it, the vibrating tones
I wish you could know it hums deep in my bones
And I’ll never stop caring about the reds, pinks, and blues
on the canvas that decorated all of my youth

But this is the door to my other life
And if I never step through it, I’ll have wished that I tried.

elegy for the monsoon season

Remember the sometimes river living next door?
Remember whispering in the dark while the power was out,
Strumming blindly on the floor and closing your eyes
Pretending that the downpour was the ocean, and you’d never reach the shore?
Remember it while you still can, because starting tomorrow your memories will contort
And you’ll be left with a dry spell, just some crumbled books that you can’t seem to sort
The parental thunder and lightning, they were this town’s yearly resurrection,
I’d watch a microburst engulf my house through the window and ignore my reflection
Then one September, I woke up to the truth – the sun had lost all my affection
I sang a question to the skies but they didn’t want to hear a song, they strung me along
I knew they might never weep again, but I wanted to be wrong.

The only time I ever felt alive in the desert was when it got scary
I never wanted stability, that’s why I always felt trapped and ran away,
It left me so wary
The dirt and the blue sky were never my home
So while the birds fled from blackness, I sat right in each storm’s throne
I’d run in the direction of the rotation, the lightning, the tingling sensation
I wished I had my own weather station, the raindrops painted my imagination
I inadvertently cheered when I stood beneath a bursting cloud
I was never afraid, I was never too proud.

Now the rivers all sit dead in a graveyard of highways, once life-giving streams
The monsoon rains went on their way, so I play them on repeat in my dreams
The summer that I realized I couldn’t count on storms to free my soul,
I told myself one day I’d be bitter and old, wishing I’d had the privilege of feeling cold
And today marks the day that I put my old friends to rest,
the almost twisters and those jagged gems of hail like kindred sisters
I hope where I’m going the vibrations rock me to the core,
I hope I never miss the mountains,
I hope I won’t need saving anymore.

love is an adventure

When I found a greeting card at the back of a dresser drawer, I already knew what I didn’t want to know. I didn’t want to go. But I went with every nerve, and this is what I rediscovered. My resilience was buried, but a bright red card, some quirky illustrations, and lost promises all unraveled. I gasped. I was no longer undercover.

Love is an adventure.

Adventures can be breathtaking, just like death, when your breath takes a bow one last time. Adventures are what quicken your pulse, what make the tin cans at the back of the car chime. Adventures are how you really live, but when you get home you’ve lost so much time.

Love is almost a crime.

It sneaks into your bed, sketchy and seductive, a stark crater steeped in moonlit shadow. It steals your soul, your car, your credit card. You’re sure nothing was ever this hard. Until one night, there’s only moonlight on the other side of the bed. Your mysterious valley is gone.

Love is an adventure.

When you’re dead sure you’ve got chills that were never meant to warm, when you’re lost but you’d rather seep away than mold into one rigid form. You say, “Yes!” Ride that roller coaster, surf that impossibly crafty wave, dive off that cliff, have so much fun you forget to shave. Then one day, you realize your watch battery died. You pretend not to care, but you start to shake deep inside. Now you can’t count the minutes until you hear, “Well, we tried.”

Love is an adventure. We were on it, but you turned around.
You saw a shiny coin in the water and sprung into the shallow pool, head-first. You collided intensely with the unforgiving ground. And hey, you seem to like it there, your own lonely voice echoing – the single resonating sound. I’m still here on land grasping, but how little you care. I have nothing to hide, no dignity or shame to spare.

So, love is an adventure
Guess I never really had a plan.
The next destination is the trash – I think you understand.
I read retired words to float again among the planets and the stars
Now we both know there’s no heaven,
But I’m closer than you are.

home wrecker

I drive the same route every day, half past five
The colors flow by season, but long ago I grayed inside
Mourning doves would swell from rooftops, make me swoon
Now I envy their wings flapping, there’s a lightness I once knew

I could be anything I wanted in this city posed as “home”
I tell my reflection it’s my own fault, I locked myself up all alone
I build my fences higher post by post with every poem
In my speech, in my movements, in my laughter, I am lost
I have everything I need to stay the same, and at what cost?

I postponed adventure for a con and a thief
It’s possible his only flaw was being incomplete
Now I’m far from old, and there’s still time to take my leave
But there’s a detachment in my retinas that’s clouded all my dreams

When I lull myself to sleep, I feel the lift-off of a plane
It feels like I might cry, but at a certain altitude there’s no room for pain
and soon I’m long gone in the sky, up and away, waving farewell to a sinking day
Sole passenger on this escape route with no earthly belongings to claim
Only in this solitude can I exhale, release, hear the essence of my name
But even freedom can be steeped in a sadness bittersweet and close to shame
Even agency can leave behind a vicious, molten stain

No matter how many miles I run, no matter who I find to blame
The address is irrelevant.  I’ll never smile the same.

if these walls could talk

When you choose to live in an apartment complex, you choose to share walls, floors, and ceilings. You choose to share what would have otherwise been your front yard. You choose to share jarring soundbites of your messy life with people you don’t know.

2815

When Courtney and I first timidly peered through the dusty windows of a bright blue condo one lazy Sunday afternoon, we were instantly sold. We were twenty years old, unhappy, and totally ignorant as to why we felt that way. Moving in with Courtney was the only idea that made sense to me now that my life in Massachusetts was a rapidly draining memory. I was dying to move on, stop wallowing, stop remembering, stop feeling homesick for a place that was only my home for four breathless months. I needed a friend. I needed something to ground me. Sunlight streamed gently into the kitchen of the little blue house and illuminated a pink flowered wallpaper that anyone’s grandmother might have chosen. I said to myself, “Welcome home.”

Sometimes, we received mail meant for our neighbors. I remember the first time I received Sharon’s mail. Although our unit shared a kitchen and bedroom wall with Sharon’s unit, we never heard a peep from her end. I often forgot anyone lived next door, except for the occasional blip of embarrassment that flashed across my mind if I blasted loud jazz music while cooking dinner. When I rang Sharon’s doorbell, there was a slightly audible rustling from some unknown location in the house. Empty cardboard boxes caged me in on her patio. One minute passed. Then three. Five. I rang the doorbell again.

“What is it?!”

She screeched it like an injured owl. More rustling, then a door was swinging open furiously and a severely irked elderly woman was practically nose to nose with me.

“I…got some of your mail by mistake – “

She frantically snatched the parcels from my unsure hands, broke eye contact as soon as she possibly could, and slammed the door in my face with such force that I was left wondering if an earthquake had just taken place simultaneously.

I can count on one hand the number of times I saw Sharon for the one and a half years I lived in the little blue house. Once, she was being loaded onto a stretcher into an ambulance. I wondered if anyone knew, if anyone was going to meet her at the hospital. I hoped.

2827

I moved 20 feet across the complex to a darker, older, smellier, and much more cockroach-infested unit as a favor to my landlord. She wanted to move her senile mother into my home because it was her best apartment. I remember saying yes when I meant no. That unit was everything that held me together. I had a beautiful view of the mountains. The rooms all filled with just the right amount of sunlight every day. My room had ugly nail holes in the wall that I had lovingly patched and reoriented countless times.

But the landlord guilted me into it, and I wasn’t yet old enough to know I could stand my ground. To be fair, Courtney had moved to a new city, and I was now living with a random girl I regrettably found on Craigslist. I thought change might do me some good.

In many ways, it did not.

But one day, I heard a cacophonous banging from behind the living room wall I shared with my new neighbors. It sounded like someone had just bought a new drum set and was attacking the heads with every heavy household object they could possibly think up, and possibly their own body to boot. I remember furrowing my brow and putting in some headphones to try and drown out the mysterious onslaught of noise. Minutes later, though, the unsettling roar of a power drill was added to the mix, and I lost my cool. I angrily twisted open the front blinds to see if I could spot any clues as to what was going on.

The sight that awaited me beyond the window threw me off more than I could have ever dreamed. At least 5 people were now exiting the unit next door with hula hoops around their waists. These people proceeded to lay blankets on the dirt parking lot. I watched in both admiration and something close to confused horror as they began to perform yoga moves that seamlessly incorporated their hula hoops.

The relentless banging and buzzing ceased.

I watched at least 15 different people regularly enter and exit this unit for the next eight months, all of them usually sporting hula hoops. I never did find out they were doing, who they all were, or what their motivations were. I wish I had been the person I am today when all of this was unfurling before my front door. I might have confidently marched right up with a hula hoop of my own and said, “Count me in.”

118

“You’re a whore.”
“You’re a goddamn bitch.”
“Stupid fucking kid.”
“I hate you. I wouldn’t care if you died.”
“Get out of my life. Nobody loves you. I don’t love you.”

I heard these words float eerily down from the unit above me almost every day for one and a half years. In my eyes, this man was evil. He was too explosive to be good.

I remember feeling the weight of morality suffocate me every time I overheard these verbal attacks. The woman, the mother of his child – she always yelled back. She didn’t seem afraid. But I was afraid. My ex boyfriend, who lived with me at the time, was afraid. We lived under a maniac. But I never quite knew what to do. He didn’t seem to be physically hurting anyone, but who knew for sure? He never yelled for too long, but his words were surely cutting enough to leave a gouge for days. But I couldn’t read her mind. I couldn’t know what it was like to live upstairs in her shoes. She seemed to walk through her everyday life confidently, proudly. She waltzed her son down the stairs every morning with his hair combed back and his shirt nicely tucked in. I wondered how much a person could be abused before they broke down.

One day, there was a knock at our door. It was the woman and her son. Ana was her name, and she was locked out of her apartment. Her son needed water. I brought her two cups and stood outside with them. It was hot and muggy. I asked her when she’d be able to get back inside her home.

“Probably never,” she said with an eyeroll. “I got kicked out.”

I felt a stab of forced intimacy in this exchange. On one hand, I felt empathy for this woman based on all of the awful fights I’d accidentally overhead. On the other hand, I wasn’t ready to start digging a hole deep into the complicated, painful life of a stranger. Not that day.

Ana and her son eventually came inside because I was weak to her suffering. I was also afraid to tell her no because she knew where I lived and could hunt me down if I really pissed her off. Even in my spineless wavering, I remained overly cautious and untrusting.

She told me the gritty details of her nonexistent relationship with the evil man upstairs. I listened silently for hours as she sat on our floor. She bought my ex boyfriend and I pizza as a gesture of gratitude for our five hour stint of unexpected hospitality. Her son played with one of my old stuffed animals. He rolled all over my bed. He found my scissors in a drawer and Ana became enraged at me for not having a more childproof home. All my boundaries had disappeared. Everything was blurry.

The sun had set long ago, and she finally decided to go upstairs and break into the man’s apartment window. I refused to help her – perhaps my one and only stroke of sensibility that day. I remember feeling like I’d just been sucked into a whirlpool when she left. Everything felt liquefied and I was in a haze. Our worlds had just intertwined, and I was exhausted.

Weeks later, Ana ran up to me in the parking lot.

“I got my own place.”

I was strangely happy for her. She asked me to help her move her stuff, and I rejected her as politely as I could. Something felt so painful about our interactions. I felt too close to her broken life. I felt hopelessly caught in her quicksand when she stood this near to me.

She asked if my boyfriend was around. I said no. I remember her mischievous half smile as she leaned in a little closer and,

“Just remember. Men get tired of the same woman after a while. They’ll lie. They’ll cheat. They don’t care. Watch yourself.”

I laughed. I laughed in her face, I laughed by myself in the car on the way to the store, I laughed to my ex boyfriend about it later that night over dinner. What a bitter sentiment. What a sad way to walk through life.

What a tragedy that she somehow foreshadowed the end was coming before I could have even joked about it.

While I was hearing her life waste away through the ceiling, she was hearing mine waste away through the floor.

1313

For the past seven nights, I thought I was dreaming a sad dream, but I think I was actually awake. I must have been, because today my neighbor’s balcony is a ghost town. The patio furniture is all gone. The nightly waft of cigarette smoke is nowhere to be tasted. I sit in a lonely column now.

When I first began practicing metta, or lovingkindness meditation as a form of mindfulness, I was instructed to think of a person I felt neutral about and wish them well over and over again. The first and only neutral person who ever came to mind was my neighbor downstairs, a middle-aged blonde woman with a loud Wisconsin accent who seemed to be perpetually glued to her blue camping chair, inevitably complaining to someone over the phone. I had no feelings about her that were positive or negative. I was slightly amused by her thick Midwestern accent that made me nostalgic for time with my family, but other than that, I was entirely detached from her. It felt furtive, to wish her health, happiness, and freedom from suffering almost every day in my head and then merely wave to her as I rushed to get to work on time. Still, I started to genuinely want her to live a good life. I guess that was the point of the meditation.

I awoke groggily one night to the distorted yelling. Somewhere in the limbo between consciousness and fantasy, I remembered I had left my window open because spring was coming way too fast, and even in darkness, warmth was already creeping into every crevice of my apartment. Because only a screen separated my bed from the outside world, the angry Midwestern accent sounded like it was right next to my ear as it snarled in pain and desperation. The woman’s harsh tone struck a dissonant chord within me. A man’s cold and resentful voice overpowered hers.

I couldn’t understand what they were saying, and I would barely understand any of it for the entire week. But it happened again and again, always at around 2 or 3 in the morning, always echoing through the unforgiving night air like a static-filled radio show about to lose signal. Every so often, I would catch orphaned words or short phrases that were especially emphasized. “U-Haul.” “Love.” “Insurance.” “Never again.” I always tried to stitch the words together into some sort of poetic tapestry for my own comprehension, but I couldn’t help but drift back to sleep as the heated, headless words outside became rhythmic enough to soothe me.

Last night, the final sound that pierced my slumber was wailing. Raw, unfiltered emotion poured all over the rooftops. I wanted to cry, too, but I in the end I just felt back asleep because I’m only as strong as my basic instincts will allow, and what’s more, I have already been the neighbor who wails herself to sleep. I have passed that role on to someone else, and I know how the story ends. She survives.

And then this morning it was all over. It was as if she never existed, as if I’d never gotten home from work and smelled her baking chicken nuggets in her oven, or overheard her telling a friend a highly dramatic account of an especially taxing Costco run. She used to be a fixture in my definition of home, and now she has flown away. May she be well, may she be happy, may she be free from suffering.

running in place

Like a steel blade that fell out of someone’s pocket in the snow, you were frigid and elusive, lying hidden in plain sight and waiting to become abusive. I remember when you left to talk on the phone at the park across the street – only a hundred yards away but miles from where you needed to be for me. I said, “Okay,” when everything in my body twisted and wailed, “Not okay, not okay, not okay,” not today. I smiled something phony and turned on an exercise video to keep me occupied while you tried, tried, tried with anyone but me. I followed the rhythm of a synthetic woman’s voice and blared techno pop that drowned it out, my falling, anything to silence my tears so raw and appalling.

She announced every exercise twice before the timer began.

“Running in place. Running in place.”

Another me watched as I collapsed to the floor. No amount of open windows could fill my lungs with the air I craved, and I caved. I knew what it meant to run in place now. I was thick in quicksand as I stretched away from demons in my own home, in my own bed, in my own reflection in the mirror. But I was still caught like my cries in my throat, and it occurred to me that someone’s respect can’t be bought, or taught, or even pathetically sought.

45 minutes later, I was panicking, sinking, far beyond the point of rational thinking. I ran outside and you weren’t there. Electric jealousy singed my scalp, traveled through each individual follicle of hair. If you weren’t there, you weren’t anywhere. Imagine a life without you? I still didn’t dare. I just sobbed on a concrete curb, the loneliest chair, and still suppressed the sickening truth that you no longer cared.

4 months seemed to fly, and I recited countless creeds of goodbye, goodbye. I eventually began to end full days without so much as a lump in my throat or a wistful sigh. And then tonight I awoke at 11:15pm soaked in sweat, sick with an imminent and shapeless threat. I don’t mourn anymore, I don’t fantasize about knocking on our former door. But you’ve injected me with distrust, and mark my words – I fight against it, because if I want to continue to grow up, then I must. That doesn’t mean I forgive. I wish I could, but I constantly bury sadness just so I can live. I travel to distant lands with garbage-filled sands. I start to fall back in love because I am older and wiser and this time, I’m ready, so slowly I can. I seek solace in fireplace chats with fearless, formidable friends. Every indicator points to, “moving on, running forward,” and I am. But I’m equal parts battered and scarred, my brain sometimes feels forever charred. I toss and turn as the furnace over-burns, and I still yearn for closure as I’m seething. Although the cadence is irregular, I’m still breathing. If I could only relearn how to sleep, maybe I could finally alphabetize the pain, create meaning.

mourning the living, part 2

My grandmother was abandoned on a stranger’s doorstep one day in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

My family knows my biological great grandmother’s name and nothing else. We don’t know what her life was like or what dreams she may have fostered. We don’t even know her heritage, and therefore we don’t fully know our own. What is the thought process of a person who rejects motherhood? Her choices haunt me, and I found out today that I’m not alone when my cousin pleaded quietly with my grandma’s cold body,  “Can you please find your real mom and dad and get the full story for us?”

The owner of the boarding house where my grandma was left was a no-nonsense older woman whose own children had already grown and gone. This woman, whom my grandma has always reverently referred to as “Mum,” didn’t bat an eye when she realized this baby’s mother wasn’t coming back. She raised my grandma as her own child although she was well past the typical age of child-rearing. She bravely led her chosen family through the nightmare that was the Great Depression and instilled within my grandma a lifelong penchant for frugality. Every jar my grandma dutifully scraped clean reflected her learned resourcefulness, and every piece of junk mail she unnecessarily salvaged revealed her deep-seated fear of scarcity. As her house began to accumulate an absurd amount of material possessions in later years, her innermost insecurities were more visible than ever. I can’t imagine the level of poverty that must drive a person to desperately hunger for things, things, and more things as proof that they’re surviving. She coped imperfectly, and in her flawed approach to life there was an enduring strength that all of us lovingly admired.

“I don’t blame her for it. I’m not angry about it. I understand it,” my grandma would muse once in a while out of the blue. She claimed that her mother’s abandonment did not affect her. Considering her frequent commentary on the matter, I’ve always suspected that it did. But that was my grandma’s persona in a nutshell. Don’t cry, don’t show weakness, and don’t wallow. The time you spend sniveling could also be spent exploring, connecting, and laughing. The choice is yours. Was she avoiding important emotional work every time she redirected negative thoughts? I think the answer is yes. I think my grandma never fully sat with her pain. Arguably, though, it was this consistent avoidance of pain that brought about some of her most memorable snippets of wisdom. I always thought of my grandma as my own personal fortune cookie. Every visit with her rejuvenated my spirits in a way that only optimistic one-liners can inspire. Whatever resentment she may have never fully purged from within, she was still able to externally energize others with her unique zeal for life. Perhaps she found healing in her motivational role. In many ways, her outlook healed me as I was awkwardly growing up and facing some of life’s harshest truths.

I’ll never forget when I sat down on her couch one day in high school and hit the “play” button on my cell phone voice recorder. I had no way of knowing that our conversation that day would be the last fully functional exchange of thoughts we’d ever truly share before dementia began unpacking its suitcase messily all over her formerly indomitable brain. I remember the dreamy glaze over her eyes as she recalled moving to Arizona with the husband she never knew she wanted. I remember the childlike joy with which she described her house being built from the ground up, and I looked at the aging walls around me with warm appreciation. I especially remember her saying to me, “You and me, we’re a lot alike, aren’t we? A kindred spirit. That’s what you are.”

I don’t know if she truly meant those words or if it was another one of her polite niceties, but I never forgot that moment, and I never quite felt like a totally separate person ever again.

I have been mourning a living woman for many years now. She has been breathing, seeing, eating, and speaking, but she hasn’t been the real her for longer than I care to admit. I sometimes caught a flicker of that feisty woman who was going to climb the career ladder long before it was socially acceptable, but that recognizable spark always dimmed before I was able to savor it. I sat with her even in these latter years, knowing that I had to let go of the her I missed and hold the hand of the changing her even when it felt sad. When she eventually forgot who I was, it felt like her funeral came too early. I cried when she lashed out at me in a hazy, anxious fear at Thanksgiving in her new care home. I was a convenient target because I was the only one there, because I had insisted on being with her on a holiday about celebrating the ones we love the most. Yes, her funeral came too early; it came while she was still alive enough to scream in my face.

I don’t know what she was trying to say to me yesterday when I touched her hand and she opened her eyes in a labored delirium on the hospital bed. Did she recognize me? Did she understand some greater truth about human life as she teetered on the edge of earthly mortality and whatever escalator extends to eternity? I will never know. But all I could think to say was, “I will see you later, grandma. You can tell me later. Hang onto that thought.”

I returned to the hospital room around 10:30 a.m without much haste. I should have been rushing as fast as I could, but I knew what was waiting for me upstairs. I knew the end was here, and I wanted to meditate upon each step I took. I was marching toward the next chapter: a life without her. When I crept in the room, my family members all knelt before our favorite matriarch – a fitting final tribute to such a larger-than-life spirit. I took my place in the formation and touched her arm. She immediately took her last breath, and I knew that the timing was no accident. She waited for me on purpose, and I knew then that even though her diseased brain had made her a stranger to me over time, her soul knew me in life and continues to know me in death.

None of our tears were shed out of shock. They were waterfalls of clarity, of finality. Mourning the living prepared me for mourning the dead. A painfully slow goodbye culminated in a sore heart and a single sob. Maybe she lives on now in my adventurous heart, in my cousins’ hilarious stories of being raised by her, and even in the obvious pain that my father feels now that he lost this woman who selflessly cared for him during some of his darkest days.

Maybe the afterlife is here on earth in scattered shards of personality, or maybe it lies some other place in the space above our heads where we all meet again. Whatever the truth about our eventual destination may be, we will probably never stop missing the option to reach out and touch a person we love. I can only hope my grandma transcended the trappings of human longing today and discovered the true peace of simply being. I hope she knows that the trials she endured here on earth were not in vain, and that she single-handedly molded entire generations of people. I hope she knows that I finally stopped mourning her when she left her body today. I breathed a sigh of gratitude that she was welcomed home at last.

 

mourning the living

Every happy day I celebrate, every language barrier I break down, every career goal I aspire toward, every liberating nighttime mile I run is still tainted by a trace of anger that quietly lurks beneath the surface. It’s the terrifying shadow of a wound that scabs but never really goes away. I still scream in the car sometimes because I don’t know where else to do it. But thank you for all the suffering you’ve caused; otherwise, I’d never have learned to fail in the ugliest way. The old me would still be sleepwalking today. So here’s goodbye to that me, and goodbye to you too. If it was so easy for you to let me go, I don’t need to know if you’re okay.

– – –

Goodbye with love, I said in the end
But you’re no friend of mine.
I thought these cuts could never mend, but your face grows stranger every day.
A loving home, kids, celebrations and tragedies –
We held a funeral for them all in one moment
You dragged me along when I should have been flying
You drew me a life, then erased it.

Who would you choose? I asked in the end,
Then I tried to pretend you didn’t say it
I tried to believe that you’d never really go
I tried to lock your old feelings in a basement.
Because once we played trivia on winding roads,
And once we shared a sleeping bag under the moon.
Once we were everything that the other one needed
Once we were in a cocoon.

Do you love her? I pleaded quite close to the end,
And you lied to me again and again.
Like an insect you provoked me, your games prodded mind and body
left me tortured, embarrassed, near dead.
See the shaking and the aching and the moaning and the taking
were signs that I should have let go
But I didn’t yet know that I was never worth quitting
You assumed I was stagnant, yet I grow.

I still believe you’re my soulmate! you cried out at last,
But you’re no longer divine to me.
If I saw you tomorrow, I’d stare straight through your dead eyes
Toward my new dreams, toward the gleaming horizon.
My still-softened heart would gush with toxic memory
and I might trip and fall into reverie,
But then I’d say our last rites and I’d never turn back
You’re my nothing
neither lover nor enemy.

the man from italy

Madrid, Spain.

I boarded the plane to Dakar with much more anxiety than usual. Popular Christmas songs like “White Christmas” and “Let it Snow” were crooning over the Iberia Airlines intercom in Spanish, which offered a little comic relief as I assessed my situation. Before that day, boarding a plane had only brought me the thrilling rush of anticipation. I always wondered what fascinating person I’d meet for a fleeting hour or two. But today, I knew we might not speak the same language. I envisioned 4 hours of awkward elbow-bumping and side-eye glances.

When I took my aisle seat next to a sleepy elderly man, I decided to follow his lead and retire to the safety of a neck pillow and some headphones. After all, I thought, this is what most people do. I’m finally being normal. I’m the only weirdo who ever looks to make friends with my seat neighbors. Everyone else is just counting the seconds until they can escape the confines of this 35,000 foot high prison. Why not try to walk a mile or 1,500 in their shoes for once? Maybe I, too, could discover the supposed misery of air travel.

At some point, a peppy flight attendant exclaimed something to me about “comer”, and I groggily mumbled, “Pollo, por favor. Gracias.” I marveled at the well-rounded meal that was placed before me, complete with a decadent brownie and everything. If I had a sweet-tooth, this would have been an unexpected bonus, but alas: in my case, it was merely taking up valuable space on my platter of savory goodness.

I nudged the man next to me in the most polite way I could muster. “Quieres un brownie?” I was really convincing myself that I was bilingual in my semi-delirious state.

He gave me a blank stare. I stared back. He coughed. I tilted my head. He raised his eyebrows. This conversation was clearly over. I grabbed the packaged brownie and extended it toward him with a shrug. He gave a small grunt, then a nod, and hastily snatched the dessert from my grasp.

I let this interaction sink in for a moment. Staring down at my tray table, I considered my options. I could either let our relationship revolve around a gifted slab of chocolate, or I could try to meet him all over again.

He looked over at me suspiciously as he carefully chewed each morsel. I took a deep breath and thought, Well, I’m a little lonely. Here it goes.

“Language?”

He stopped chewing long enough to give an almost imperceptible smile.

“I come from Italy. Not much English”

“Ah. No Italian!”

He shook his head with a chuckle, obviously not surprised that this overly outgoing and frankly nosy American girl was lacking language skills. But his next move surprised me. He pulled out his smartphone and opened Google Translate.

I watched him type, “Why do you travel to Dakar? Tell me your story.”

I took a moment to think. First of all, I could not think of a good reason why I was actually going to Dakar. Especially not a reason that would impress this random, seemingly worldly man from Italy. But I was somehow moved that he had not given up on me. He could have shut the entire conversation down when he realized we didn’t speak the same language, but instead he made the choice to connect. His invitation was a form of hospitality. He welcomed me into this temporary home at Aisle 36.

I typed back and forth with the man from Italy for 2 hours. I explained that what was originally a trip to visit a friend was now a trip where I was going to be forced to grow into a more independent individual than ever before. I explained that I had recently lost control of my life, that I had lost faith in everything I used to know and that I was relearning how to trust. I explained how I had no idea what I was doing.

He graced me with his opinions, longings, dreams, and despairs. He lamented the poorness around him back in Italy. He told me what a beautiful and damned country he called home. His fingers tapped furiously as he furrowed his brow into an explanation of his country’s selfish government. The people, he wrote, do not have a voice. We do not run Italy. Men who only care about themselves run my country. I have given up.

Because he felt powerless at home, he grew restless. He wanted to empower people somewhere, anywhere. When his friend invited him to Dakar on a Catholic mission, he said he felt this was the chance he had been waiting for. This was his window to enact social change.

At one point, after many laughs, passionate nods of agreement, and a number of challenging clarifications, he gave me a serene smile so different than our initially cold and shallow exchanges. “You are so young,” he typed. “I am sorry you have seen pain already. It won’t be the last time. But I will never forget meeting you.”

The glimmer in his eyes blossomed with authenticity. I hungrily grabbed his phone. ” I will never forget you, either. Thank you for sharing with me.”

Part of me wishes I knew how his mission trip is going. Part of me always wishes I could check back in with the strangers I meet and see where they ended up going. Did they fulfill the dreams they claimed to nurture? Did they run into heartache, loss, and other unexpected twists and turns along the way?

But that’s the beauty of connecting with a strange passer-by. You don’t have to know. Your connection existed in that one set of moments, and you will forever be a fixture in their mental map. And when they review the slideshow of all their years, you’re going to be there. A blip on the radar, maybe, but those feelings you gave each other never truly disappear. Something changes within you when you share a piece of yourself with another, and you feel a little less alone in this world every time.

a higher power

Touba, Senegal.
It was New Year’s Day.

I was wandering the dusty streets with my head haphazardly wrapped in a scarf. I constantly tugged the fabric back down over my hairline as the wind defied my attempts to blend in. I did not feel alarmed when a security guard lectured my friend, Abdel, for allowing me to wear a dress that exposed my ankles. At that moment, I understood exactly why I was in the wrong. This was not my home. This was not my sacred space. I was borrowing it for the day.

Abdel approached two elderly women who were sweeping their porch. Another conversation in Wolof played out before me and left me clueless. I was 125 miles from my hotel in Dakar and totally at the mercy of a man who was 15 years my senior and had not even told me his last name. Trust, it turns out, can sometimes be born from situations of necessity. One of the women approached me. Without a word, she gently held up my arms as she safety pinned her apron to the bottom of my dress. She stood back up and looked deep into my eyes. She knew that connecting with me using language wasn’t going to happen, but her neighborly gesture spoke to me than words ever could. We knew each other now.

My bare feet timidly merged with the mosque floor. I felt like I was ice skating in slow motion. People knelt rigidly around me on their hands and knees. Their reverence moved me in way that didn’t feel religious at all. There was objective beauty in the synchronized meditations of strangers. I believe that I prayed with more serenity on that day than ever before as I bowed my head to something I couldn’t fully comprehend. I felt the weight of Islam, Catholicism, Judaism, Buddhism, and everything in between. A young woman knelt next to me and whispered a warm, “Salaam-Alaikum”, and religious boundaries that are very real seemed entirely fictional in that suspended moment.

What if something greater than man lives within us, around us, and above us? Touba makes me wonder.

– – –

Belief

I can’t find God in a genuflection
an ancient creed, a mid-mass pew reflection
No sign of the holy spirit in these statues; I feel no protection
The only times I’ve seen the face of something greater than this earth
is deep in the wrinkled smile of another’s words
God is the laughter of a stranger on a plane
God is the embrace of a good friend when your insides pour everywhere but they choose to remain
when you forget how to breathe air, yet your lungs somehow take over
Your body carries on, and you know God is there
I call out, “He? She? It? We?”
But God is no person
No one man with a voice who can answer my plea
Yesterday I cried in vain for a savior full of grace
But today I sit in peace with my pain, for God lives in me
Every inch of my skin glows with divine energy
Though you won’t find me in church, I sing a clear, haunting hymn
I open my heart to the human race, my brothers of inevitable sin
God is goodness, innocence, harmony, what is clear
But also every flaw I’ve despised in the mirror,
every compulsion I’ve indulged, every string of hateful bile I’ve spewed
Every failure I’ve mourned, every missed chance to listen and renew
I sometimes live in fear of such massive omnipresence
I pray for forgiveness from within every second
How I long to be worthy of a higher truth, a real purpose, the desire to create
May I seek the wisdom I crave by staying fully awake
I won’t numb the hardships, I won’t run for cover
as long as God never stops appearing when I connect with another.