The Places In Between

the-places-in-between

Testosterone is a hell of a drug. Not only does Rory (say with British accent) set out to walk across Afghanistan (what?) he does it in January 2002 (double what?).

I’ll be honest. I wanted not to like him. A posh Scottish professor of anthropology on some odd, neo-imperial quest to use only his feet to traverse most of Asia? To what end? (I’m still wondering that.)

Having traveled through the Middle East in 2009, I can echo his cross-cultural frustrations, confusions and head-slamming-against-the-wall conversations. As a woman and a foreigner without language skills, however, I was not privy to the kind of interactions he witnessed. Rory relied completely on the hospitality of the communities he entered (which was sparse) and the perseverance to secure letters of introduction from one leader to another.

Although I found him most of the time to be overly prescriptive on what everyone was doing wrong in Afghanistan, I couldn’t help but agree with his assessment of current international post-conflict interventions: “Post conflict experts have got the prestige without the effort or stigma of imperialism. Their implicit denial of the difference between cultures is the new mass brand of international intervention. Their policy fails but no one notices.”

We are so inundated on a daily basis with continual crises that our focus becomes scattered and while intentions may be good; well, you know the saying.

Yet the most influential part of this book was his raw reaction to the walk itself. Although it was of prime importance that he was in Afghanistan, it seems the effort itself of walking, step by step, changed him. He concludes:

“Almost every morning, regrets and anxieties had run through my mind like a cheap tune – often repeated, revealing nothing. But as I kept moving, no thoughts came…

Every element around me seemed sharper, the colors more intense. I stared, expecting the effect to fade, but the objects only continue to develop in reality and presence…This moment was new to me. I had not dreamed or imagined it before. Yet I recognized it. I felt that I was as I was in this place, and that I had known it before…

[It] seemed too neat…Now, writing, I am tempted to say that I felt the world had been given as a gift uniquely to me and also equally to each person alone. I had completed walking and could go home.”

Those moments of transcendence are rare. When the peace of contentment rolls over you, not because you are lazy, but because the herculean effort of a task has been completed. Even if that effort is just letting go of your expectations and being fully present.

Although he never found understanding with most of the people he encountered, small interactions seem to have helped him muddle through. In the end, I don’t think Rory knows exactly what his walk means, but in completing it he found some form of peace.

“And what can explain the steep path to you?

It is the freeing of a slave,

Or the giving of food in a day of starvation…”

And as I lay wondering who he was, he continued gently:

“Unbeliever, I do not worship what you worship,

Nor do you worship what I worship.

I shall never worship what you worship,

Nor will you ever worship what I worship.

You have your religion and I have mine.”

(Quran S. 109:1-6)

The Blank Page

What do you write about when you can’t write anything? About nothingness, I suppose. Not to get too meta here, but the void is pretty scary.

I’m tired. Really, really tired. I’m back up here in Maine trying to catch up on all the stuff I let slack or couldn’t do remotely from Boston. Who knew being unemployed was so time consuming? From paperwork, to AT&T customer “service” agents, to re-packing for another trip this week, I am just now getting a moment to think.

It’s also my 28th birthday today. I’m not huge into birthdays and it looks like this one will pass uneventfully. Like other markers in our lives, however, birthdays are a time for renewal. A time to reflect, a time to project forward. This is the first birthday that I can truly say what lies ahead is pretty blank.

I have an incredible partner, great friends who are all too far away, and my health. Beyond those things, I’m still figuring out how to fill my days. In the midst of starting this project, my world was upended. What happened in Boston still doesn’t feel real and I have to remind myself that the nightmares and the massive mood swings are all just my brain trying to work things out. So I am doing things. Although forcing something out doesn’t seem right, doing nothing is worse.

Something that I have found comfort in are small traditions. I light a candle. I say a rote prayer. I look down at the question mark rings I bought some of my best girlfriends who are living in Boston, doing work and trying to process. I reread my favorite passages and try to relax.

So although I dont have many (or any) answers as to what the next year or beyond will bring, I have questions. Lots of questions. And those can fill a blank page just as easily.

Screen shot 2013-04-29 at 4.18.52 PM

Screen shot 2013-04-29 at 4.21.06 PM

The Behan

“I am a drinker with writing problems.”
~ Brendan Behan

I’m finishing up my week in Boston, wandering through my old places, being with friends and doing some serious healing. It’s been an overwhelming, normal, weird, gorgeous, confusing trip.

One of the places I spent a lot of time when I lived in Jamaica Plain was at the Behan. A hole-in-the-wall Irish bar, with ties to New Orleans, that hosts live Irish music jams most nights, and allows dogs as well as bringing in your own food…it may be my heaven. With the MSPCA next door, the open-door dog policy guarantees some quality puppy time. Their tap list is incredible, too. Okay, I just want to move in.

behan

A huge part of life I am still learning to build is my community. While I love our cabin in the woods, it doesn’t afford many places to engage with progressive 20/30-something dog and beer loving folk. It’s more the Pizza Hut Wal-Mart Big Truck type place. 

While I’ve met some really great people, we definitely don’t have a Behan. And that’s okay. 

What I’m trying to embrace is shaping the spaces that are here into ones in which I can thrive. It takes a lot more patience and listening to babies cry than I’m used to (sometimes I worry babies are a bit of a pass-time up here). But beyond the surface differences there is a real care for the area and its institutions.

We could use a good bar, though.

Framed

I love sanding. I feel so crafty and can-do. I mean, it’s not much, but stripping away the layers, smoothing down the grooves, reshaping the edges; it’s powerful.

Photo on 2013-04-15 at 13.41

Moving up to Maine has presented many challenges, not the smallest of which being the task of decorating a house. Both P and I have only lived in cramped city apartments where we were lucky to decorate our bedrooms, let alone the triple decker shared with seven of our nearest and dearest.

But our love of travel has given us some incredible mementos to display. Upon discovering Marden’s, an infamous “fire store,” I purchased some frames and set to work. The process was incredibly simple: sand, dry paint a new color, reframe and hang.

Photo on 2013-04-15 at 14.12   Photo on 2013-04-15 at 14.16

IMG_0016  IMG_0017

Photo on 2013-04-15 at 15.14 #2   Photo on 2013-04-15 at 15.14

The print says: “you are not a gherkin. don’t preserve yourself. go and have great adventures.” It was designed by our lovely friend and Croatian host, BooBoo. If you ever find yourself in need of an incredible artist, graphic designer, or the best dog ever, look her up in Zagreb.

The triptych of photos are from our trip to the Balkans as well, the highest is me on top of Mt. Svjnak in Slovenia, the lower two are from one of our many hikes in coastal Montenegro. They now grace our breakfast nook and office, respectively, and honestly make the new place feel a bit more “ours.”

The Wrack Line

There’s a Terry Tempest Williams passage where she’s walking on the beach, on an area she calls “the wrack line.” I’d never heard that phrase before, but we all know the place. That line of debris and deritrus from all over the world that forms a wobbly line where the surf meets the sand. Today, I walked Boston’s wrack line.

Pushed up on a wave of emotion down the side streets that meet Boylston are lines of memorials, mementos and trash. The collective gathering of small physical items, pushing up against temporary fences. A line as distinct as where the ocean pushes on the land.

I started at the end of Boylston, near the Public Gardens and the heart of Boston. At the first barricade is a large area of flowers, shoes, medals, and people taking photos. The streets have begun to open up, and this area is beginning to recapture a bit of its usual bustle.

As I walked up toward the finish line, I noticed families and children bringing homemade signs, cops doing rounds, and goodbyes from business meetings that seemed to carry a bit more weight. I saw employees greeted at the door to their office for the first time since April 15, hugging and crying and all seemingly ready to get back to work.

I saw people sitting. Staring. Sighing. I listened to the chatter of tourists on Newbury, shopping for boutique eyebrow waxing and $900 sweaters, the normal fare of the area. I watched a lot of police officers give a lot of directions, but still have to answer many questions with “I don’t know.”

By the time I walked to meet friends for a beer near BU, my feet were weary. I felt like I had just walked a city-wide Stations of the Cross. The sadness and struggle are palpable. But just as during the stations, so is community.  These markers are sacraments. They are touchstones for communal memory.

In the mix of trash, marathon blankets, signs, flowers and our own presence, Boston has built a wrack line that tries to commune with the unknowable. To knit the city back together through temporary signs that we are still here. Together. Whatever that means.

***

Click on the photos to enlarge and “walk” through my stations

Crack Book

The only day I’ve ever spent in Las Vegas was at the Star Trek Experience (RIP). It’s pretty much one of the best things I’ve ever done. I’m an unashamed, pretty devout nerd. And although I’m behind the curve on this one, Game of Thrones has recently been taking up a lot of my time.

Photo on 2013-04-12 at 15.34 #3

For this project, I envisioned my reading choices were going to be deep, substantive looks at the human condition. Instead, I got addicted to crack book. My partner, P, named it thus because GoT is really that addicting. It’s a soap opera – with dragons.

And I have no regrets. What I’ve come to call “popcorn reads” are some of my favorite pass-times. As someone who gets caught up in her own head enough, sometimes these books are the only way to break free. Yet despite being fantasy, they still make me think. I can’t help but mirror the frustration of some of the characters at the petty divisions in the world; even in the face of real, deep, powerful evil.

It also reminds me of the incredible creative power of humanity. He may be an odd one, but how the hell does GRRM keep all of this in his head? I sometimes have trouble remembering the character references because the last time they were mentioned was around 1000 pages ago (not joking).

More than anything, reading GoT over the past week has made me smile, detach and let myself be distracted for a while. It’s powerful writing when it can tear me away from my radio last Friday. It reminded me not to put so much pressure on myself to always do something “important.” Sometimes fun is the most important thing.

NOW WHEN IS THE NEXT ONE COMING OUT I NEED MY FIX ARGGHHHHHHHHH!

***

Dispatch to Tanya Landsberger this week for being the best and sending me the latest in the series. This is all your fault.

Consolation/Desolation

Baristas are assholes. Okay, maybe not all of them, but at Boston’s Commonwealth Ave ERC it’s like there’s a specific seminar before they begin work: “How to simultaneously belittle your customer and reinforce your anti-conformist superiority in an under 60-second encounter (full sleeve tattoos optional but encouraged).”

During Ignatian exercises, a central reflection point is considering where in the text you felt consolation (a feeling of being given comfort) or desolation (a feeling of emptiness). This practice is supposed to help develop your moral center. To make you more aware of when you have these feelings, or the range therein, and then to reflect on your reactions to help you make better, more rooted decisions.

So when my feathered hair, black eyelinered, skinny jeaned barista rolled his eyes as I payed in exact change, I simultaneously wanted to hug and punch him. Because this week I am finding odd consolation in desolation. Its very much a “both/and” type of experience. When I got on the B-line last night, wedged between a stroller and a tourist couple, the discomfort was soothing. It was familiar. Somehow, it felt safe.

That’s not a feeling many people have right now in this city. It’s a feeling that my friends are reaching towards but can’t quite grasp. It’s the disquiet of still not being able to go to their church, seeing Homeland Security Police on the T, knowing that your phone is broken and the downtown AT&T store is still closed.

I’ve been reminded a lot this week, by people I respect and love, that this situation is not unique. In Syria, in Iraq, in Pakistan, in the Central African Republic… And I get that. But something I’ve always struggled with, being social justice-minded, is that I don’t know what to do with that information. I get frustrated, I get mad, but in the end I don’t really have the power, knowledge or understanding to change those situations.

But Boston is my people. This is a place I can put my hands on, where I can act in my community, and I can build, in small ways, a path toward healing. I can be a part of the long, winding and murky road ahead. So when and if you find yourself thinking, “Boston was bad, but…” don’t let that global awareness downplay what Bostonians share with you. Their pain, as all our pain, is real, scary and difficult.

Further, don’t allow yourself to use all the bad that happened last week as an excuse for inaction.I’m not saying you need to be here, acting here, but please act for yourself.

Try, as I am trying, to be within the desolation to create consolation. Try to find, with me, the fertile, loving, compassionate source I know we all share. Hug your mom. Hug your dog. Dance in the park. Buy a stranger’s coffee. Paint a picture. Share a pint. Let’s breathe together into the emptiness, and reach toward comfort.

When you can’t go anywhere

Boston is on lockdown. Yet today, only three hours from friends inventing art projects for their kids, or trying to watch movies, or seek out funny gifs as distraction, I traveled all over my new home.

As I drove I made and checked off the mental list of where I knew everyone would be, and made sure they were there and safe. And for the second time this week, thankfully, they are all physically okay. They are all stuck, waiting.

I went to mass. I returned to my former work at a ski resort to pick up my equipment now that the season is over. I went to the grocery store. I sent a package at the post office. And I sat at the coffee shop, surrounded by new people. I thought about how I am always compelled to do things. To go places. To travel. That being asked to sit, and wait, and wonder, is the hardest thing I could be asked to do right now.

I share the common human impulse to “fix” things. To categorize, catalogue, put in order, improve and repair. I can’t do anything right now. I’m having the hardest time writing. The level of stress we’ve all started to internalize is too high, as armored tanks roll past windows, as downtown remains a crime scene, as idiot news anchors trying to fill time spout illogical, irresponsible “information.”

After the bombings, a friend sent out this excerpt from The Road by Cormac McCarthy:

the roadAnd I guess that’s it. To find within the small movements, the thoughts, the simplicities, those forms of healing. I don’t know what I’m going to to do exactly, but next week I’ll be in Boston with arms that can hug, time to spare, and to see if, together, we can “construct ceremonies out of the air and breathe upon them.”

The Hidden Side

My grandmother taught me how to sew. She calmed my young hands and guided my initial stitches. She instructed as I somewhat clumsily completed a cross-stitch section of the Christmas stocking for my new baby brother.

In my projects today I still get as impatient as I was at seven. In my rush, the thread knots and twists. I yank at it, and just leave a mess on the back side. I mean, who’s ever going to see that part?

My grandmother taught me to turn it over and check the back. I could never understand why I should care about the part no one could see. She always stressed that it should look close to as good as the front. But why? I’d insist.

The fact that it’s hidden does not make it any less important. It’s the secret pride in your own craftsmanship and the dedication to doing something right, not just doing it. To take the time and care and love to do something in a way that only you will see. That only you will ever know about.

The hidden side is the true mark of the crafts(wo)man. Of the love and care to create something not only as an outward gift, but for yourself.

I’m working on my hidden side. Having the patience, the love and the forethought to value what no one else will ever see. Being asked so much this week how I’m doing, I don’t have an answer. Instead, I’ve sewn. I’ve created. I’ve poured out love and tears into a silly project for a friend because I know he’ll get it. And he won’t see the back. But I will.

Photo on 2013-04-18 at 09.32 #2

***

Yes, they’re rainbow dolphins. Rainbow friendship dolphins that someone will get this week…

Dispatch this week to: BILL PEDEN

Today I Ran

Photo on 2013-04-16 at 14.47Photo on 2013-04-16 at 14.46 #3

I hate running. I really, really do. Give me an hour and a half of cardio-kick-punch, step class, yoga marathon, days long hike, flex-yo-booty boot camp, whatever. You can keep your running.

But in times of extreme stress, when I’m at a loss, for some reason it’s always what I do. Feet to ground through the Santa Clara campus, down Comm Ave to the Esplanade, sweating through City Park in New Orleans, adrenaline-fueled dog-avoidance in San Salvador, and now on the back roads of western Maine.

I’m pretty bad at this. I’m slow, I huff and puff, I grumblecurse (an art passed on to me from my grandfather). Yet eventually, like nothing else, running (okay, jogging) beats it out. I put one foot in front of the other. I have to, it’s the only way to get home.

Maybe that’s it – the connection to the earth, the absolute necessity of moving my body to take myself where I need to go. To the reward of a chair, a glass of water, and a good stretch. Maybe it’s the simplicity – just a pair of shoes and the environment. Maybe it’s that I literally can’t do anything else. I can’t listen to one more instruction, follow one more rule, or find a creative spark for anything else.

So I shuffle along. I got lost on a back trail trying to find my way home. I tripped into a mud puddle. I gave myself a blister. I smelled the pines. I thanked God for a break in my tears. I heard the rushing of snow melt and the creaking of trees. I felt my body – good, solid, alive – for the first time since Monday at 2:50pm.

“And one of the elders of the city said, 
Speak to us of Good and Evil.
And he answered:
You are good when you walk to your goal firmly and with bold steps.
Yet you are not evil when you go thither limping.
Even those who limp go not backward.”
The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran

Photo on 2013-04-16 at 14.49