away we go

March 21, 2014

Seattle

The tap water might be the best I’ve ever tasted. The public transportation is on par with Germany’s and that’s saying something. The air is crisp and clean. It was a sunny day and now it’s a clear night and is there any better way to see a city than from a wheel in the sky? The coffee shops offer almond and rice milk in addition to soy milk. I can’t get over how friendly people are. The lady selling donuts who throws in an extra glazed, strangers on the sidewalks pulling up maps on their phones to help me with directions, the waiter putting his hand politely on my back while entertaining my many questions about the sushi menu, the homeless man holding a sign that reads I Need $ For Weed! telling me I have very nice teeth. It’s been a day of people watching and I see diversity and a city full of so many sorts of people. This is my kind of city.

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This is a startling city. A man falls off his seat on the bus and rolls around on the floor for a few seconds before getting up. A woman drops what looks to be an expensive fifth of whisky in the middle of the street and it shatters, amber drops airborne before sinking into the stone. In an upscale bar, there are backpacks and crop tops and rain boots. I really can’t get over how nice everyone is. Taking a ride on the Great Wheel, I see the water and the buildings and the lovely, interesting people from the best seat in the house. Snow-capped mountains and sunsets over rolling hills. Like a first date that leaves only good impressions, this first day in a new city leaves me curious and wanting more. The attendant at the wheel and the waiter at dinner both ask me, “Are you flying solo tonight?” I smile. I am. It’s just Seattle and me and I very happily am.

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Chicago

The twenty-something man sitting next to me on the plane tells me that the first girl he had a crush on was named Natalie. “We worked at Sonic together. I was sixteen. I liked the way she wore her skates.” I smile politely and turn to look out the window. When we land, he points out a store in the concourse selling fresh popcorn that he says is his favorite. The caramel and cheese popcorn will my first and last taste of Chicago this week—I’ll buy another big bag before my flight home.

Above the bottles of liquor at this corner neighborhood pub, in big, black letters: C-H-I-C-A-G-O. The Bulls are playing the Spurs on the television, Bruce Springsteen is playing on the speakers, couples are playing around me. Candles burn, the bartender pours, I watch. Will I be moving to this city in five months? Outside, the sky looks like it’s been shut for a long while, but in here, light glows. I was warned about the wind, but—as I tend to do when I don’t really want to believe something—I’m not prepared for it. There is a gentle hardness to the city, a feeling that all can be welcome here but maybe not right away. There is strategy to this city I want to figure out. Walk on the outside of the sidewalk, trudge through slushy, dirty snow. Walk on the inside of the sidewalk, risk getting struck by ice falling off buildings at unpredictable times. Learn the neighborhoods. Learn the pizza. Eat all the pizza. The sky will open when you least expect it and it will pull you in, in, in.

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Boston

A man is standing outside Boston Children’s Hospital. Or maybe it’s one of Harvard’s medical school buildings. The inscriptions on the granite buildings are so high I have to shield my eyes from the winter sun to figure out what is what. Walking down this street, I am struck by how many sick people are in the buildings all around me. And how there’s nowhere else in the world they have a better chance of being healed.

I’m sitting in a Starbucks. It’s fifteen degrees out and this side of the street is not in the sun. The man is wearing a heavy green coat and holding a sign. Iraq war veteran. Father of 3. Out of work. Anything will help. I watch him from my bar stool, looking out the large picture window. I can’t not watch him, really. If the glass were not between us, I could reach him in two big steps. He has a rugged, handsome face. Kind eyes. A reddish beard, well-trimmed—the kind I’ve been noticing lately. What would it be like to kiss a man with a beard like that? Not this man. Maybe this man. Father of 3. A woman stops to give him a cigarette, passes him her lighter. Anything will help. They both exhale and the smoke is indistinguishable from their cold breath. She walks away and he looks up, sees me watching. He steps to another part of the sidewalk and turns his back. In this town, on this street, he can’t be smoking a cigarette while he’s asking for money.

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New York

It’s Halloween and we’re in a dive bar called The Cubbyhole. The streets are crowded with adults in ridiculous, ingenious costumes and kids trick-or-treating their way down cobblestone lanes lined with brownstones. This city is weird and intoxicating and I definitely arrived on the right day.

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It’s a weekend of food—my favorite kind of weekend. Friday night jerk chicken and plantains and a bottle of Carmenere at a truly hole-in-the-wall Jamaican restaurant with my best girl. Saturday home-style brunch complete with breakfast tacos, mimosas, and a bunch of Brooklynites. Saturday night is the best Italian restaurant I’ve been to (outside of Italy) thanks to the perfect lighting, perfect pasta, and perfectly delightful waiter who reminds me that delivering specials is an art. Sunday: spicy Thai homemade soup. I consider seconds and go for thirds. Monday, warm up before a long stroll in Central Park with potato pancakes and pierogi and borscht. “Here ya go, sweetheart.” All weekend, the people making and serving the food are as good as the food itself. Every corner, restaurant, and borough is bursting at the seams with personality and taste.

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Will I be moving to this city in five months? It’ll take me a long time to learn my way around. I’ll get my groceries at one of the corner mom-and-pop shops and spend my Saturday mornings studying and writing in a coffee shop where I’ll become a regular. I’ll go to school but mostly I will eat. I’ll get lost often. I like the idea of getting lost for a little while. Maybe New York will accept me into its folds like the millions of young, uncertain people who came before me, I read once. Maybe so. I’ll certainly know where to eat.

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“I want to know how people did what they did. And I want to know how that compares with how I did what I did. That’s my whole life. It’s not really a life. It’s a life of inquiry. It’s a life of getting off your ass, knocking on a door, walking a few steps or a great distance to pursue a story. That’s all it is: a life of boundless curiosity in which you indulge yourself and never miss an opportunity to talk to someone at length.”  –Gay Talese

e10b24cd7159049a536cfc1eaacc7c22I am walking up the walls in inspiration. Everywhere I turn lately, there is something incredible and jaw dropping going on in the world that I want to discuss and write about. Things that I want to be on the front page of the newspaper I wish I delivered to doorsteps on my bike each morning. Things I would tweet about if I used Twitter. Things I would write to you in a letter if I still regularly wrote letters.

I’ve never been able to keep my mouth shut. I remember what the rush of sharing gossip felt like as a young teenager; the glean in someone’s eyes when I shared a secret that was not my own was a kind of guilty pleasure. While I think we’ve all experienced that feeling at some point, my curious, eager-to-please personality meant I crossed those lines more often than others. It’s not something I’m proud of. But I see traces of that young girl who loved being in the know and understanding the web of people and things around her in the writer and aspiring journalist I am today. Maybe being nosy and being inquisitive are two sides of the same coin. And now, as a young adult, asking questions is where my writing starts and adventures begin.

Seattle's most interesting shop

Seattle’s most interesting store

I sit down to write because I have ideas in my head that won’t go away. I share my words because I hope they might influence others in a positive, valuable way and maybe make a piece of this world more interesting or complicated or at least worth paying attention to. And sometimes I come across things that I want to share with everyone I know. So today, I’m opening my big mouth to tell you about things that I hope will have you, too, walking up the walls in inspiration. Today, it is my pleasure to gossip about a handful of things that truly matter.

• Maggie Pahos’s essay, Love Your Space and All It Holds. It’s such a privilege to know the woman behind these words as well as I do. I’ll sit there in the quiet and wonder: if the place I came from is gone, is part of me gone, too?, Maggie asks in this deeply moving essay. If you click on only one link from this blog post, make sure it’s this piece.

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 • Elif Shafak’s TED talk, The Politics of Fiction. This talk is poetry infused with political commentary and begins with, “I’m a storyteller. That’s what I do in life.” Shafak talks about a woman who uses coffee grounds to see the future; local versus universal stories; and what being a “representative foreigner” entails. She says (and I wholeheartedly agree) that stories transcend borders, fiction is flowing water, and we all like not knowing what will happen ten pages later. There are so many great TED talks out there, but this one’s a real gem.

• A tiny house that was conceived halfway around the world and is now a lovely home. For those of you who haven’t heard about tiny houses yet, you will soon! I’m going to write a feature on the tiny house built by my friends, Annelise and Jake—and the tiny house movement in general—here on the blog soon. Stay tuned.

Fulbright friends & our favorite tiny house!

Fulbright friends & our favorite tiny house!

The Horizon, a vehicle currently in development by Outrider USA. Committed to innovation and sustainability, Outrider builds ultra-light adventure vehicles that are fast, safe, and—I can say this because I’ve had the pleasure of riding one—more fun that you can imagine. The Horizon is geared toward people with a wide range of physical abilities, including paraplegic and quadriplegic individuals, eager for the excitement and freedom of riding a bike on almost any terrain. A vehicle that makes adventures possible for those who aren’t ready for their adventure days to be limited or over? Heck yes.

Writing the Lake Shore Limited, an essay by Jessica Gross that was inspired by a free, cross-country train trip. Train time is found time, Gross writes. Writing requires a dip into the subconscious. The lockbox, at times kept tightly latched in our daily lives, is pried open, and things leak onto the page that we only half knew were there. 

The writing is beautiful, and the story behind the free trip is pretty lovely, too. During an interview with Pen America, novelist Alexander Chee said he wished Amtrak had residencies for writers. Fellow writers immediately took to Twitter (a place I’m quickly learning offers one of the most sure ways to get the attention of a famous someone or something—for better or for worse) and in fantastic spirit, Amtrak reached out to one of the writers who tweeted, Jessica Gross, asking if she wanted to go on a “test ride.” The residency program is now in development and Amtrak’s social media director says writers can apply for the program simply by tweeting at the company’s account.

I think I just found my reason to begin using Twitter.

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All of these things were created or carried out from a place of passion, commitment, and desire to contribute something good and important to the world. When I look at this group of inspiring things, I see the past and the future; I see weight and speed. I see boundless curiosity. I see light in the spaces between the words and the railway tracks. And I see the innovation and opportunity that is in every crack of wood and meaning.

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That Paris Review  train essay really got me going. I know my fellow train-dwellers out there were moved as well—is there anything better than getting paid to travel by train, explore and adventure, write about it all, and then get published and inspire others to go on their own adventures?

No, there is not. Unless you throw in a handsome stranger and triplet Goldendoodles and a glass of Brunello di Montalcino, there is not.

It’s been a while since I’ve traveled by train, but I have been on a fair share of planes lately. 2014 has been busy and exciting (for me, excitement usually means travel, and I’ve had a lot of that lately): a weekend in Charlottesville with my mom and sister; a relaxing stay in northern New York with my sister and grandparents; a weekend in Boston visiting my good friend Rachel from Elon; a weekend snowboarding and sledding with Fulbright friends in Pennsylvania; and a week in Seattle at the annual AWP conference (a huge event for writers, authors, publishers, and presses) with Maggie—and 13,000 other writers.

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our first time on a plane together in over eight years!

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looking out my Aunt Nat’s kitchen window in Hudson Falls, NY: a view I’ve enjoyed almost every year of my life

I have tons to share about AWP, so that’s coming soon. But one reason the conference was so rewarding was because I was able to attend knowing that I’m staring graduate school in the fall—because I found out in mid-February that I have been accepted to Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism! And that I’m being granted a McCormick Scholarship! Medill is known as one of the top journalism schools in the country, and the scholarship is named for Robert R. McCormick, former owner of the Chicago Tribune. Six Medill applicants receive the full-tuition scholarship each year. Both the acceptance and the scholarship are great honors, and I was pretty much speechless when I got the call. 

Visits to Northwestern and an admission decision from the other graduate journalism program I applied to are coming up, so I’m not in decision-making mode yet. But I’m so excited. And I’ve been overwhelmed by the congratulations and support from my friends and family and mentors. To hear the people I admire and respect most in the world telling me how proud and excited they are for me is the best feeling in the world. They say it takes a group to raise a writer, and while I think it takes a group to raise pretty much anyone, I am over-the-moon grateful for all those who have raised (in all senses of the word) and influenced me.

I’m also thrilled to share that I’ve accepted a position to lead a National Geographic Student Expedition this summer! I’ll be spending two weeks in Ireland, co-leading a creative writing field workshop for high-school students (mostly from the U.S). The National Geographic expert joining the trip is Chris Rainier, a contributing editor for National Geographic Traveler magazine. I’m so excited for this opportunity—travel and writing are pretty much my two favorite things, so to be able to help cultivate those things for students is an honor. And I can’t wait. I really can’t wait.

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I began this post with things that have inspired me over the past month. I want to end by thanking those who have inspired the opportunities I am so fortunate to have had and be having. I would not be who or where I am today without the support and encouragement from “my people.” So thank you, family and friends, for inspiring me, for pushing me, for helping me lead what Gay Talese calls “a life of inquiry and boundless curiosity.” Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

On a particularly humid morning in Colombo last June, I was on the bus headed to work. It was one of my last days teaching at the university and I was already starting to miss my sweaty, crowded, hour-long daily commute. (There is just something about listening to the voices of NPR telling you about the world as you watch a bustling city yawn, stretch, and go about its morning.) I was listening to a Radiolab podcast and was treated to a gorgeous short story—one that I would listen to again and again over the next few months. A History of Everything, Including You is a powerful piece of prose by Jenny Hollowell (published in this anthology) and I enjoyed putting some of my photos to her reading of her story in the video below.

I encourage you to take a few minutes, connect your headphones, and sink in.

story // jenny hollowell
photos // natalie lampert
[all photos taken in sri lanka and turkey in 2013]

*for better viewing on your computer, press play and then select the 1080p quality setting by clicking the gear icon in the bottom right corner of the youtube video player. then, watch in full screen mode. 

I was reading a friend’s witty, poignant blog recently and was inspired by a post of “last year” sentiments she wrote a while back. I told her so, and we talked about the kinds of creativity that are often sparked by getting lost in someone else’s words and world for a little while. With her format in mind, I got to thinking about what last year was for me.

Last year was so much.

Last year was transatlantic flights and a delightful number of window seats. Last year racked up my frequent flyer miles and strengthened my resolve to (but really this time) start traveling much more lightly. Last year had bear hugs and heartbreak and the best gelato I’ve ever tasted. Last year was so many narratives, so many stories, so many beautiful places. Last year saw confused commitment and the utmost respect. Last year, the Indian Ocean was my backyard and for ten days in April, I lost and then found myself in silence and solitude.

Last year had distinct chapters and tough transitions. There were reunions and rekindling and so many goodbyes. There were bumpy bus rides and leaning out of trains as I gripped the rails behind me and stuck my chest into the wind, rain sprinkling on my face. Last year had so many good books and a record number of favorite songs. It had the best visitors and Post-it notes of love in all the right places. Last year was living in a crowded, chaotic capital city in south Asia and camping on riverbanks in a few different countries. Last year made me believe that impossible things somehow happen and imagined things sometimes stay that way—fairy dust ideas and the puff of air blowing out candles on the cake, birthday wishes that don’t come true.

Last year was bumping elbows with disappointment. It was the kind of laughter that had me throwing my head back and showing the world my silver fillings. Last year was soft flannel and sarees, running shoes but mostly bare feet. Nights sleeping in my underwear beneath my mosquito net and mornings herding cockroaches out of my room and onto the balcony. Last year was aches of missing him and her and them. It was tears of gratitude on plane rides. It was being welcomed back with handpicked flowers in a Tropicana bottle and homemade macaroni and cheese in a casserole dish. Last year was words. There were hours of writing and plans for a first book. There was poetry and handwritten letters and notes on napkins, chalkboards, and the back of my hand. Last year was the opposite of being sheltered. It saw some painful growing up and too many expectations. What last year lacked in cheese and ice cubes it made up in pol sambol and popcorn. What last year promised to be was all that and more but also somehow less.

Last year was fulfilled dreams and the privilege of working with eager, curious students. Last year reaffirmed my passion for teaching and convinced me to absolutely give all I’ve got to all that I love, even when it’s exhausting, even when I have no idea what it’ll amount to. Last year was a full passport and feeling ready to stay in one place for a while. It was a year that taught me humility and a special kind of grace. It showed me the crucial difference between naïveté and vulnerability. It had the best hike, kiss, and breakfast of my life. Last year was drinking out of coconuts on the sides of dusty roads and picking mangoes off trees in the backyard. It had decadent amounts of baklava in Istanbul and beer in Berlin. Last year was delicious.

Last year was humid and sweaty and, later, crisp and cold. It was surfing in the sea and building fire pits in the fall. Last year had stunned awakenings and the kind of hurt that makes you sick to your stomach. But it also had moments of intimacy so electric I forgot to breathe. It had vibrant connections and that feeling of being truly seen and understood. It had the fullest sky of stars I’ve ever seen.

If last year was a teetering seesaw, I hope this year is a rickety swing. The kind that an adult might eye with skepticism but a child runs toward with glee. The kind that promises moments of uninhibited joy if you accept the risk of falling, bruising, and maybe breaking bones. The kind that leaves you grinning and soaring, feet outstretched, ready to fly.

‘Scuse me while I kiss the sky.

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Sri Lanka // January 2011

Things tend to get pretty serious on this blog. So, on this last day of 2013, here are some words of wisdom from the man who always helps keep things in perspective and, more importantly, reminds us that teeth are always in style.

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At 24, I feel I have so much still to learn. Some days, it’s an exhilarating feeling, one that has me perusing the shelves at the library two minutes from where I live or mapping out a new running route or daydreaming about unwritten novels and yet-to-be kayaked rivers. Other days, though, I’m overtaken by a pressure to live up to my own expectations and overwhelmed by everything I am so eager to experience. A pressure to have the emotional trenches and skylines that are my twenties figured out. A friend of mine wrote on her blog recently that as an early twenty-something, “You still have a lot of learning to do—what makes you tick, what weighs you down, what makes your heart beat fast and what makes you feel like you have no heartbeat at all.” I like this because learning, as she puts it, is a thing we DO: we don’t learn what we want or don’t want out of life by sitting back and letting life happen to us. We experience, fail, seize, disappoint, love, break, and grow. We make hard decisions and also have no say. We give it our all and at times fall short and sometimes, the thing that makes our heart beat fast is the same thing that makes us feel like we have no heartbeat at all.

What do we do with that?

I think we work on what we know how to work on and trust that the rest will follow.

For the past few years, as the December days wind down and the new year is around the corner, I’ve come back to something written by Stephen Cavitt, a truly fascinating person that I had the pleasure of working with a few summers ago. I share his words with hopes that they give you the sense of peace they continuously give me, as one year ends and another begins:

“Whatever your shift is this year, I honor where it takes you. If your path is easy, may it be easy like a river is easy, because some innate pull leads you around obstacles. A flowing that has outgrown resistance. And if your journey is hard, may it be hard like the breaking open of a seed pod when the tendril curls toward the sky. A natural releasing.”

Indian Ocean sunset // February 2013

Indian Ocean sunset // February 2013

on roots

December 8, 2013

I love questions. I love asking them, answering them, dissecting them, rephrasing them, and struggling with them. The key-to-my-heart question: Would you like freshly grated Parmesan on that? The expect-a-much-longer-answer-than-you-anticipated question: So, where are you from? After my first few parties as a freshman in college, I quickly realized I needed a one-line answer to this question. Before I could come up with one, my new friends started referring to me as “the girl from Germany.” Since then, my answer has changed depending on where I am when answering it. At Elon, I was an American from Germany. At home in Stuttgart during college, I was from North Carolina. In Ghana and Sri Lanka, I was from Washington, D.C. In Washington, D.C., I’m from northern Virginia and Germany. It’s sometimes an exhausting circle. And every day, I am over-the-moon grateful for the life-changing opportunities I’ve had that make that question so difficult for me to answer.

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yup. in a suitcase.

The first couple of weeks back after an intense year living in Sri Lanka were a whirlwind. My transition home this summer was equal parts comforting and challenging, joyful and sad. I was ready for everything good and familiar; I was unprepared for everything difficult and overwhelming. I didn’t quite fit into the shape of the puzzle piece I left behind, but I wasn’t ready to process what that really meant. I felt strongly that I needed to slow down, make sense of some things, take some time to settle and stay put.

Instead, I unpacked a year, repacked for an overnight, and jumped in my brother’s car to drive with him from Washington, D.C. to Denver, Colorado in twenty-four hours.

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I am very familiar with transitions, with dancing along the brink of always having to let go. Instead of slowing down when I get back to the States in late July, I’m thrilled for the opportunity to find out about some of the roots I claim not to have. My brother, about to move to Denver for graduate school, has decided to drive out West instead of fly. Ben asks his good friend Charlie and me if we want to come along; we’ll fly back after a fun weekend in Denver. I tell him absolutely and ask if we can stop in Lincoln on the way.

My father’s side of the family is from Nebraska: his parents and most of his relatives were born, raised, and schooled in various pockets of the state. My ninety-five-year-old grandfather, who lives outside of D.C. now, has told many stories over the years about growing up in Nebraska. He met my grandmother in New York City soon after World War II; years after they were married, they realized they had been in a Tom Thumb wedding together in Lincoln when she was six and he was nine. They had also overlapped by a year at college in Lincoln. My parents, too, spent time in Lincoln, moving there to go to law school together soon after they got married. A few relatives still live out there and tend to land that used to belong to my grandfather, but my family’s discussions about Nebraska these days revolve around the large family plot in Lincoln’s Wyuka Cemetery, where my great-grandparents and grandmother are buried. I have never been to Nebraska, or seen these graves, or truly understood what it’s like to feel so connected to a town, a state, or any one way of life.

It’s fitting that before my brother’s big move, our family has a birthday party for Granddaddy and Dad. Their birthdays are one day apart, and this year they turned ninety-five and fifty-nine, respectively.

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I have wanted to visit Nebraska for years. I always hoped Granddaddy would be the one to show me where his family comes from—I imagined slowly driving through the streets of Lincoln, the thick sweet air setting the mood for the stories he’d be telling. But it’s nice that my first visit to Nebraska will be with my older brother, Ben, as he begins a new life chapter in a different part of the country.

We leave D.C. around eight p.m. It’s a warm August night and I am stuffed in the back of a ’98 Mercury Cougar. Ben is driving and Charlie is in the passenger seat. Ben’s car has been in four accidents (none his fault) and we’ve already discussed a contingency plan if the car doesn’t make it to Denver.

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Ten hours in, we stop for breakfast. Omelets for the boys, a small stack of pancakes for me. I brush my teeth under the bathroom’s fluorescent lights, my hot pink shirt and messy curly hair seeming wildly out of place. I study my reflection in the mirror, thinking about the turn of events that have me standing in a Denny’s bathroom in Ohio at 6:30 in the morning. My mornings of waking up underneath a mosquito net in Colombo, padding into my green-tiled bathroom to get ready for another day of teaching, seem so far away. A different world, a chapter come and gone.

I have traveled to thirty countries, but I am not prepared for what I find on this first road trip west of the Mississippi. There are cows and 80’s hairstyles and wind turbines and more cows. I make a game of attaching nouns to the states we pass through: Iowa is corn, Nebraska is equal parts heat and meat. The traveler in me wants to stop at all the sights I am passing by, but the need to get to Lincoln before nightfall makes us pass it all on by. I also don’t have much say in way of our stops since I’m not driving any portion of this trip—although I try to convince him otherwise, Ben thinks my driving skills must be pretty rusty after being out of the country and not driving for a year. I stay settled in the backseat.

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We make it halfway across the country in a day, and by the time we get to Lincoln, we’re exhausted. We pass the Cornhuskers stadium, where my parents went to home games while they were in law school. We stop for lunch at Bison Witches Bar & Deli on P Street. There’s a local vanilla porter on tap for two dollars and I suddenly love the Midwest.

Travel, as much as it causes us to speed up, also forces us to slow down. By the time we get to Wyuka Cemetery, I am revived and relaxed. I’ve got a bunch of daisies and my camera—Granddaddy wants to see that the plot is being kept up—and a bright-eyed, big-haired woman in the cemetery’s welcome center gives us a map. She tells us that Wyuka sprawls over 124 acres, and that it’s better to drive than walk to the plot.

It’s a humid afternoon and I’m grateful for the shade of the cemetery’s many tall trees as we wind our way past hundreds of graves. I already feel myself slowing down, relieved to finally be here, at Wyuka, in Lincoln. I need to know this home, one that belonged—belongs—to people whose blood I share. Even if just for an afternoon.  There are so many family stories surrounding this part of the country, so many names and places to connect and piece together. I will do that someday, I think. But today, it’s just about being here.

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Section 18, Lot 27. There we are, generations of Lampert’s home in Lincoln. My family, name written in stone, blood buried in the ground. Four footstones surround the large marble headstone, and I lay the daisies in front of my grandmother’s. She died twenty years ago. I have one vivid memory of her in a worn pink bathrobe, towel around her head, standing in the hallway looking at photos of my brother, sister, and me—her only grandchildren. Standing in front of her grave now, I call my father, who calls his father, and our three-way line is silent for a little while. I tell Granddaddy the plot looks nice and that someone has put an American flag near his father’s footstone. It is almost unnerving to be talking to Granddaddy while looking at the unmarked space next to my grandmother’s grave where he will someday be buried. A breeze lifts the leaves of the nearby trees and I am awash with the past and the strange present. The world buzzes with a dull roar, soft like suds in my ears.

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And then it is time to go, and I feel that familiar, curious tug of fullness and regret.  Maybe having roots is not dependent on settling or staying permanently, I think as I leave Wyuka. The late afternoon sun drips and rests easy on the hay fields as we leave Lincoln and begin the long, flat drive across Nebraska. This is the land my granddaddy plowed and cultivated, spending twelve hours a day with a hay rake and a team of horses. From Rushville to Lincoln, this land covered my great-grandfather and grandfather in dust over generations of Nebraska summers that I desperately want to brush off and belong to. Am I meant to recapture these roots, or plant my own elsewhere? What does it mean to belong to a place?

Suddenly tired, I curl up in my makeshift back-seat bed. I think about all the places I’ve called home, the places I know best that keep calling me back. In some ways, these few hours in Lincoln meant more than a summer backpacking through Europe, a semester abroad in Ghana, a year living in Sri Lanka. How many times have I tried to define “home,” tried to answer where I am from? The past few weeks have left me feeling emotionally scattered and exhausted, shaky and unsure of too many things. But today, on this hot August day in Nebraska, the honeyed air offers a sense of stability. I still have more questions than answers, and this taste of where my family is from has left me wanting to know much more. But it is something. It is copper-colored earth that belongs. Closing my eyes to the sounds of the highway rushing by, I fall asleep in motion, in transition, and without thoughts of beginnings or ends.

wind over sandstone

November 21, 2013

“The perception of truth evolves through small revelations. Old truths decay in the same way. The revelations are rarely thunderous. They are mites you can barely hear, working behind the wood. They are corns of wheat, bits of string. They piggyback our dreams, or wait in the dirt until the day we hit face-first. We accrete truth like silt. It hones us like wind over sandstone.” —Michael Perry, Off Main Street

Istanbul // July 2013

Istanbul // July 2013

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I’m lying on a paddleboard in the middle of a lake, eyes closed, feet outstretched. My hands are resting on my bare stomach and the late afternoon sun is warming my face. I’ve been out on the water for a while, balancing, floating, meditating, just doing my thing. It’s a Friday afternoon, it’s my first time paddleboarding, and I never want to leave this water.

*

I knew I would miss pol sambol and the convenience of tuk-tuksbut I never thought I would miss Colombo’s air. After months of longing for air conditioning, I thought I would welcome the cool respite from what was August’s heavy heat in the U.S. But after a week or two in A/C, I found the air one-layered and stale. Living close to the equator meant being able to taste the humidity, the complication, the mercurial nature of what was around me. I got used to thick air being a force to be reckoned with. (So did my hair—anyone who has experienced South Asia’s air knows that it is often suffocating, and anyone with wavy or curly hair moving to South Asia knows to cut it before going.)

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cotton candy october sky

But just as I was beginning to feel at home in the summer heat here on the East Coast, autumn began creeping in, with her chilly mornings and butternut squash recipes and red, yellow, burnt orange leaves. (And, of course, pumpkin spice-flavored everything.) One day, in early fall, I stayed the night in an unfamiliar house. The fridge operated partially on voice command, the bathroom had a hands-free soap dispenser, and the dark wooden floors squeaked in the most inconvenient places. But I felt at home lying in the creaky bed under a whirring overhead fan. The windows were open and while there were no geckos on the wall or cockroaches flying in to keep me company, the chattering crickets and warm night air assured me I would be dreaming about Sri Lanka that night.

I slept better than I had in months.

I think we are supposed to pay attention to the air, to the weather, to the seasons. It feels good to acknowledge, to be enveloped, to be in touch. But many reading this right now will be doing so from a climate-controlled home, a desk bordered by cubicle walls or monitors, or an office lined by tinted windows (or an office with no windows at all). I’m no exception—I’m  writing this from a makeshift fort of blankets that I wish were outdoors, but unfortunately is not. I realize there are practical reasons for being shielded from nature at times; I’m just having a hard time adjusting to it. Because it is so strange to see leaves, such a frenzy of color, thrashing against the window and not hear anything but the crick-crack of the indoor heater.

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On a bike ride a few Sundays ago on the Mount Vernon Trail, I was reminded of how exhilarating biking can be, because of where you are, the people you’re with, the time of day, or just the rush of a good ride. But it’s the fresh air that does it for me, how it makes my cheeks red and my eyes bright and my lungs thankful.

The morning I took the SAT’s, I woke up extra early to go on a bike ride through Vahinigen, the town I was living in just outside of Stuttgart, Germany. It was a dark morning in the middle of winter, and I was sixteen and singing Snow Patrol at the top of my lungs while rushing down a hill on wheels with no hands. And that fresh before-dawn air nudged me awake and had me grinning at what the future might have in store for me, as I realized I would much prefer to go through life judging my happiness by air quality as opposed to, say, test scores.

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“I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers,” wrote L.M. Montgomery in Anne of Green Gables. I am happily tumbling through September, October, and November this year—this is the first time since 2010 I’ve been able to smell the leaves changing. It’s hard to truly appreciate the crispness of the seasons until you go without them; I guess that makes me an East Coast girl in these parts of the world. Every time I step out into a dusky autumn evening and smell firewood, that smoky, homey, gemütlich scent has me smiling like I’ve just remembered an inside joke or been told that my dimples remind someone of an old friend. (For some reason, this has happened more than once lately. A elderly lady in front of me in line at the grocery store the other day told me a long story about how, as a teenager, she would sleep with buttons in her cheeks so she could have dimples just like the ones her best friend had, because “those cute things got her ALL the fellas.”)

My favorite activities this fall? Hiking in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Sleeping with the window cracked and waking up just a little bit cold, nestled in blankets. Playing in the leaves with my parents’ new puppy, Piper. Sitting around fire pits with Elon friends and pumpkin beers. Making spicy soups. Going on runs with one of those ear-warmer head wrap things. Seeing the leaves change hues in numerous places along the East Coast, and taking photos of the colors (many included in this post). And getting ready for the holidays that I’m so glad I’ll be with family for this year.

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And now it’s time to get back to that air. So I’ll sign off with part of a poem that I read recently that is just. exactly. right:

The sun is warm, the breeze is cool, the lake is murky,
and your weighted bobber is flying out over the water like a magical Cheeto.
You know there must be better ways of saying all this.
But it’s October and you’re fishing.

laugh lines and dimples

October 19, 2013

when the world ends (because one day it must)
the earth will jump on its tiptoes first
and squeeze itself tightly
so everyone living there will open their eyes
and look around for the first time (maybe)
and see where they are and smile (maybe)
there will be small gasps and words caught in throats
and there will be rivers of salt on faces from tears
and crying out
but mostly there will be laugh lines and dimples
because on this day the earth jumped
and the people opened their eyes for the first time
and everysinglebody was alive

laughing final

*

The above words were probably written by my dear friend Joanna, but she can’t confirm this :) I came upon the poem on a digital sticky note on my old laptop, and after reading it, I knew it had to have been written by either Joanna or Hemingway. For now, it’s a delightful mystery—one that led to me searching for my favorite photos of laugh lines and dimples from over the years. I don’t know the last time creating a blog post brought me as much joy as this one did.
To everyone in this collage full of laughter,
and to all who have deepened my laugh lines and dimples:
thank you.

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