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.
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.
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. Born one day apart, this year they turned ninety-five and fifty-nine, respectively.
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.
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.
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.
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 even 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.
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. As my eyes close to the sound of the highway rushing by, I fall asleep in motion, in transition, and without thoughts of beginnings or ends.
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
November 13, 2013
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-tuks, but 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.)
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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
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:
October 14, 2013
Last Thursday, I was honored to be the keynote speaker at a Periclean Scholars event at Elon. It was the organization’s annual “Celebrate Periclean” event, attended yearly by current Periclean Scholars, prospective Pericleans, faculty mentors, and a few Periclean alumns. More than anything else I was involved with at Elon, the Periclean Scholars program significantly shaped my undergraduate journey and impacted my life in ways I never imagined it would. Before reading on, I urge you to watch this video, which my 2011 Periclean Scholar class compiled for a graduation event that was held in honor of Elon’s leadership organizations the night before our commencement in May 2011. Watching it again while I wrote my speech (text below) gave me chills, and reminded me why it is I care so deeply about civic engagement, local and global partnerships, and the amazing things that can happen when passion meets commitment.
It’s an honor to be speaking here tonight. Last night, I was at an alumni event called “Evening for Elon” in Washington, D.C., and I spent the majority of the evening talking with fellow Pericleans I hadn’t seen in a while. President Lambert spoke at the event, and in his speech, he talked a lot about identity and family. And I just grinned the whole time, because I knew I was coming to campus tonight to talk about the same things myself, and to share how the Periclean Scholars program helped define my identity, and gave me a few different families. So thank you for having me here.
You’ve already heard all the class updates, and I’m sure you’re as impressed and proud as I am of all the things each Periclean class has accomplished lately. But I’d like to take a few minutes to speak a bit more personally. I’m going to talk primarily to the current and prospective Periclean Scholars here tonight. I’d like to share what’s in store for you, or at least what could be in store for you, in terms of your Periclean journey and especially in terms of family. Dr. Arcaro suggested I talk about what it’s like to go from being a starry-eyed Periclean inductee to a post-grad global citizen, but I’m still pretty starry-eyed about it all, so I think I’ll just stick with that.
So, a little about my journey. I’m a 2011 Periclean, and my class focused our efforts on environmental education in Sri Lanka. Like many of the other 2011’s, what I knew about Sri Lanka when I applied to the Periclean program was that it was somewhere near India and had been ravaged by the 2004 tsunami. I had no concept of how much an island the size of West Virginia, halfway around the world, would come to shape my life. There’s no way I could have predicted that our Periclean partners would become like family to me, or that someplace so far away would come to ground me like nothing else has. I had no idea that just like how Elon became my home, in all the ways that word entails, Sri Lanka would become home, too. And that’s exactly what happened.
I first traveled to Sri Lanka with some of my fellow 2011’s during winter term of our senior year, where we spent an incredible month working on the ground with our Periclean partners. I returned to the island later in 2011, after graduation, when another Periclean, Jesse Lee, and I were invited to be the only two Americans at an international conference being sponsored by one of our Periclean partner organizations and the American Center of the U.S. Embassy. After the conference, Jesse and I traveled around Sri Lanka for three months, continuing our class’s work with our partners on the ground.
And it was during that time that I applied for a Fulbright grant that took me to Sri Lanka once again the following year for another nine months. As a Fulbrighter, I taught English literature at a university outside of Colombo—an incredibly rewarding experience that I wouldn’t have had if not for Periclean.
Which brings me back to my Periclean cohort. Looking back, it was more than fitting for our class to focus our efforts on environmental issues in Sri Lanka. And while a lot of the time we didn’t know exactly what we were doing, things really came together our junior and senior year.
One of the culminating efforts of our class was holding a large-scale environmental summit—which we called “Leaders in Environmental Advocacy Forum,” or LEAF—at the University of Colombo in Sri Lanka, bringing together environmentalists, policy makers, and students to discuss some of Sri Lanka’s most pressing environmental issues.
LEAF is a great example of something I think the Periclean program does extremely well—helping to emphasize each Scholar’s individual strengths. In every Periclean class, there is a multitude of different majors, skill sets, and passions. I remember having doubts that our class would be able to maintain a focus and come together, considering how different we were; I’m sure some of you current Pericleans have had similar doubts. We had Art majors, Poli Sci majors, Accounting majors, English majors, and so on. But somewhere in the middle of our junior year, as we continued to meet for our weekly Periclean classes, we began to see how our individual passions and skill sets, more than just our majors, were beginning to define our work as Pericleans. And that was empowering.
Chas Smith, for example, a 2011 I talked with at the Elon alumni event last night, was an Econ major who was always strangely interested in water. As a Periclean, he began intensely studying water issues in Sri Lanka, which helped inform our class’ efforts toward environmental education on the island. I’ll never forget sitting in a cold room in a little inn in Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka, surrounded by about fifteen fellow Pericleans, listening to Chas go on and on about Sri Lanka’s ancient water systems. He was able to use that knowledge in helping to make a short documentary—called “The Elephant in the Room”—that he and two other Pericleans, Jack Dodson ’12 and Jesse Lee ’11, produced about environmental issues in Sri Lanka. Chas now works on Capitol Hill, but water is still on his mind; he recently applied for a Fulbright fellowship that will (hopefully) take him to Oxford to continue studying water issues.
Chas is just one example of how the issues you’re drawn to study and focus on as a Periclean are often the things that continue to define your path after you’ve left Elon. While the Periclean program emphasizes partnerships with people in other countries, it also encourages personal growth and gives us Scholars the room and resources we need to become the most dedicated and passionate global citizens we can be.
My experience as a Fulbright Fellow was part of that personal growth process that Periclean inspired. And while I was thrilled to be in this very academic role teaching at a university in Sri Lanka, my Fulbright experience was really shaped by the same things my Periclean experience was shaped by: the individuals in Sri Lanka who became my family there. The people who the class of 2011 partnered with, the scientists and environmentalists and change-makers and mothers and fathers, the people who opened their doors to our class and let us be a part of their lives. Those are the relationships this program strives to cultivate. That’s what makes this such a transformative experience.
But just having those relationships isn’t enough. It’s not enough to just reach out to an NGO in Haiti, or have a good conversation with a doctor in Ghana, or knock on a door in Chiapas. It’s about taking those relationships and making things happen, pulling together resources toward a common goal and common good. Periclean taught me how to do that, and it’s something I hope to do for the rest of my life.
Near the end of my Fulbright grant, two Sri Lankans that our class had gotten very close to and partnered with asked me to help them hold an English camp for 150 rural high-school students in Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka. Many of these students were the same ones that Jesse and I had taught while we were in Sri Lanka, bringing my Periclean/Fulbright worlds even more full-circle. Working with our Periclean partners (and good friends) Roshan and Chamindha as well as with the U.S. Embassy and my fellow Fulbrighters to organize and hold this camp was a privilege, and I’m so glad I had the chance to help pull together a program that meant a lot to the kids involved.
The English camp was a big success, and it was only possible because of the relationships that my fellow Pericleans had begun, relationships that I and other Pericleans are able to help sustain on very direct levels. And I think it’s these kinds of initiatives that illustrate how Periclean partnerships continue well past your time here at Elon, and how they can have a larger reach and impact than you probably ever imagined.
To wrap up and continue on this theme of relationships and family, I’m humbled to be able to say that three of my most influential Elon mentors are here tonight, and each are an integral part of the Periclean program. Bud Warner, Tom Arcaro, and Crista Arangala—or “Mom,” as the 2011’s like to call her—are more than just my biggest supporters and most inspirational role models; they’re my Elon family.
And they’re examples of the family that you’re going to be part of, or that you’re already a part of. I’m just one of so many Periclean Scholars who are able to say that this program and its people changed my life, and more importantly, helped me make positive changes in other people’s lives. So whether you’re a current Periclean, an aspiring Periclean, a potential Periclean—know that this is what is in store for you. This is the exciting, challenging, rewarding journey that is being a Periclean Scholar.
October 6, 2013
I left Sri Lanka a little over three months ago. There are mornings I wake up wondering where my mosquito net is and why I’m not already sweating. There are days when I’d gladly trade my smoked salmon and goat cheese sandwich for a simple lunch of rice and curry. There are evenings where the residential streets around me are so quiet they’re unnerving, and I instantly miss the cacophony that is Colombo. And there are times when I forget the Sinhala word for ‘family’ or ‘mango’ and I have to stop walking or mixing or shampooing or whatever it is I’m doing to concentrate, to close my eyes until I can see the word and brush off the forgetting, postponing the loss of pieces on their way out.
It’s impossible to predict what big transitions will bring. I still don’t feel like all of me is back yet or in one place, and I’m not sure what to make of that except to sit here typing about heat, noise, a foreign language—pieces of what too quickly feels like a past life, parts of an island that grounded me in ways no other place or person ever has.
This is the point where I would normally tell you how I feel about that, how I define and deal with feeling scattered, how I’m already attempting to fit pieces of this messy transition into some nice emotional box. But messes are messy for a reason (if you take anything away from this post, it should probably be that flash of brilliance) and I’m trying this new thing where I’m just going with it. Anyone who knows me knows I’m always quick to analyze and categorize, to dissect and explain away; but this time, for this new chapter, in light of this mystifying, unveiling, transition…I’m just going with it.
“The best travel happens when you open yourself to all human experience and activity, not just the beautiful,” one of my favorite travel columnists wrote recently. In a similar vein, my transition back is showing me that the most rewarding parts of life can happen when you open yourself to things beside just the feel-good and beautiful. Ugly and painful can be influential teachers, too.
I got a glimpse of this in the weeks just after I left Sri Lanka, when I began to realize the ways in which I’d changed over the previous nine months. As I was reunited with family and friends in Europe and the U.S., I saw myself in the screenshots they had of me, the person I was when they had last seen me six months ago, ten months ago, two years ago. I gently reminded myself that time and circumstances had changed me; that one of the points of my Fulbright experience was to, in fact, be changed, for better or for worse. And I was. For better: I am more observant, more appreciative, more calm. For worse: I am less trusting of strangers, of strange men in particular; I am less comfortable with the unknown. These shifts (and there are many more that I’m still discovering) may or may not be permanent, but they are true for me right now. They are the manifestations of a deeply formative experience, one that shimmers with many beautiful things that happened, and some ugly things, too.
The idea of pain as a teacher reminds me of experiencing acupuncture for the first time earlier this year in Colombo. One of my housemates (Luka: half-German, half-Sri Lankan, and one of the best photographers I’ve ever met) went for “treatment,” as she called it, nearly every day, and one day I asked if I could join her. I didn’t know much about acupuncture but had always been curious. I also had been learning more about ayurvedic and homeopathic medicine (hard not to when you’re living in Asia) and wanted to see how acupuncture fit in.
The place was tucked out of sight off of Galle Road, Colombo’s busiest street. We were greeted with green tea, and when the acupuncture room was free, Luka and I laid down on separate beds. A small woman came in to start Luka’s treatment right away, while I waited for the doctor. He said a soft hello when he entered and began talking to me about breathing techniques and what the acupuncture process was going to be like. As he placed small needles on different points of my body, silently poking and prodding, I thought about baking a pie. You know, those small punctures you sometimes make on the top of a hot pie when it comes out of the oven, to help let steam and heat out so it cools down faster. (If that’s not a thing, I clearly have much to learn about baking.) So if I was the pie, what, exactly, were these needles helping to release?
When the doctor gently put a needle in my ear, I started wondering what I had gotten myself into. But then, using a strange buzzing instrument that measured some sort of frequencies as it hovered over my ear, he spent ten minutes listening to what my ear needle was telling him.
There was a high-pitched tone. “Have you recently started running again after a period of not exercising regularly?” he asked. “Yes, I joined a gym last week and have been using the treadmill… how can you tell?” I dubiously replied.
A series of low tones, then a loud buzzing. “Have you ever had abdominal surgery?” he asked. “A few times…why?” A moment later, another high-pitched tone. “Have you been consuming higher amounts of sugar than normal?” “Umm…” (In my head: Uh, yeah, because living in Sri Lanka means being unable to avoid drinking copious amounts of milk tea that, without fail, contain ridiculous amounts of sugar.) “Wait, these needles are telling you all these things?” I asked, incredulous.
Turns out the needles around my knees, pancreas, and lower abdomen were sending out what he called something very technical and I’ll just call distress signals. “We’re unleashing your inner physician,” the doctor said to me as he turned off the lights and left the room, leaving me alone with twenty or so disturbingly perceptive needles sticking out all over my body. I thought about his statement while I laid still and breathed deeply for the next thirty minutes. It stung when the doctor placed the needles on the surface of my skin, but now, I could barely feel them. What, exactly, were they unleashing? What things, good or bad, were being let go of? Lying there, questions rolling in my mind, I had no idea what I was supposed to be feeling—but it began to dawn on me that that was probably the whole point.
September 28, 2013
“The most important things are the hardest to say. They are the things you get ashamed of, because words diminish them – words shrink things that seemed limitless when they were in your head to no more than living size when they’re brought out. But it’s more than that, isn’t it? The most important things lie too close to wherever your secret heart is buried, like landmarks to a treasure your enemies would love to steal away. And you may make revelations that cost you dearly only to have people look at you in a funny way, not understanding what you’ve said at all, or why you thought it was so important that you almost cried while you were saying it. That’s the worst, I think. When the secret stays locked within not for want of a teller, but for want of an understanding ear.” –Stephen King
Hey, secret-keeper. This short movie is for you.
September 11, 2013
My twist on Rosemarie Urquico’s “You Should Date A Girl Who Reads,” with some words by Charles Warnke. It’s a little cheesy, but I’m feeling particularly grateful for literature today.
Date a girl who reads. Date a girl who spends her money on books instead of clothes, who has problems with closet space because she has too many novels and essays and pages of poetry. Date a girl who has a list of books she wants to read, who has had a library card since she was twelve, who will never see the movie before she’s read the book.
Date a girl who reads because a girl who reads understands syntax. Literature has taught her that moments of tenderness come in sporadic but knowable intervals. A girl who reads knows that life is not planar; she knows, and rightly demands, that the ebb comes along with the flow of disappointment. A girl who has read up on her syntax senses irregular pauses, the hesitation of breath, the rhythm and cadence of a life well-lived. A girl who reads perceives the difference between a parenthetical moment of anger and the entrenched habits of someone whose cynicism will run on well past any point of reason, or purpose, run on far after she has packed a suitcase and said a reluctant goodbye and she has decided that I am an ellipsis and not a period and I’ll run on and on and on –
Find a girl who reads. You’ll know she does because she’ll always have an unread or half-underlined book in her bag. She’s the one lovingly perusing the shelves in Barnes, the one you’ll find sniffing the pages of an old book in a secondhand book shop because she can’t resist smelling the pages, especially when they’re yellow and worn. She’s the one with the Nabokov, the one with the Woolf. The one in the library. The one in the window of her room, reading, sipping, wondering, grappling.
She’s the girl reading in the corner of that café down the street. If you take a peek at her mug, the non-dairy creamer is floating on top because she’s engrossed already, lost in a world of the author’s making. Sit down, you. She might give you a glare – most readers don’t like to be interrupted. Ask her if she likes the book. Buy her another cup of coffee.
Let her know what you really think of Murakami. See if she read all of Moby Dick or just the most famous chapter. Know that if she says she understood James Joyce’s Ulysses she’s just saying that to sound intelligent. Ask her if she loves Alice or if she would like to be Alice. Find out what she thinks of the dreams of Paulo Coehlo’s wandering shepherd, and of those yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.
Date a girl who reads because she knows the importance of plot. She can trace out the demarcations of a prologue and the sharp ridges of a climax. She feels them in her skin. The girl who reads will be patient with an intermission and expedite a denouement. But of all things, the girl who reads knows the ineluctable significance of an end. She is comfortable with them. She has bid farewell to many heroes with only a twinge of sadness.
If you find a girl who reads, keep her close. Give her books for her birthday, for holidays, for anniversaries. Give her the gift of words, in poetry and in song. Give her Neruda, Pound, Sexton, Cummings. Know that when she corrects your grammar, she does so lovingly, and because she feels comfortable enough with you to do so. Understand that she knows the difference between books and reality but that she can’t help but try to make her life a little like her favorite book. It will never be your fault if she does — she has to give it a shot somehow.
Lie to her. Because she understands syntax, she will understand your need to lie. Behind words are other things: motivation, value, nuance, dialogue. It will not be the end of the world. And fail her – a girl who reads knows that failure always leads up to the climax. Girls who read understand that all things must come to an end, but that you can always write a sequel. That you can begin again and again and still be the hero; that life is meant to have a villain or two; that people, like characters, develop.
You’ll propose on a hot air balloon. Or during a rock concert. Or very casually next time she’s sick. Over Skype. You will smile so hard you’ll forget how to stop. You will write the story of your lives, have kids with strange names and even stranger tastes. She’ll introduce your children to the Cat in the Hat and Aslan, maybe in the same day. You will walk the winters of your old age together and she will recite Keats under her breath while you shake the snow off your boots.
Date a girl who reads because girls who read are the storytellers. The girl who reads has spun out the account of her life and it is bursting with meaning. She insists that her narratives are rich, her supporting cast colorful, and her typeface bold. The girl who reads will accept nothing less than passion and a life worthy of being storied – and she’ll give you just that in return. If you want the world and the worlds beyond it, date a girl who reads.
Or better yet, date a girl who writes.
September 2, 2013
I’m looking at a picture of my father at a beach in Florida, in 1957. He’s wearing short white swimming trunks, and the wind is whipping his dark brown hair to one side of his face. He’s looking at the sand, walking in the waves, and giving the best smile any young boy can offer the world.
There’s something about water. Something about its soothing, cleansing elements that always revitalizes us. It’s also something I keep coming back to in my writing: in a post I wrote last year, I described what it felt like executing a perfect dive, how “if the movements are perfect and crisp and tasting of that thing we call grace, then the water takes you and your grace in, tumbles and wraps you in a gentle embrace, and nudges you back to the surface as it whispers, Again, again.”
But water isn’t always so kind. I’ll never forget the first time I attempted to swim my first fifty meter race, two whole laps across the pool and back. I think I was eight. Almost to the end, water filling up my goggles, I could barely catch my breath. Had I already done a flip-turn? Could I make it? I think I DQued, but I’ll never forget that struggle. It was my first lesson in not being good at something I thought I was a natural at; my first failure in the water. The next six years of swimming and diving would grace me with many more challenges, but that first one was humbling, even if I didn’t know it then. We can’t be great at anything until we know how to fail at it.
64-year-old Diana Nyad knows something about failing before succeeding. She made history today by swimming from Cuba to Florida without the help of a shark cage (or flippers or a wet suit, for that matter). It was her fifth try to complete the 110-mile swim, and when she walked on to the shore, she said, “Never give up. You’re never too old to chase your dream.”
Fast-forward 56 years from that picture of my father. It’s the summer of 2013, and I’m about to have some pretty spectacular water experiences. First, it’s Pamukkale, a natural site of hot springs and travertines in the Denizli Province of southwestern Turkey. It’s appropriate that the word ‘pamukkale’ means ‘cotton castle’ in Turkish: the travertines — terraces of carbonate minerals left by flowing water — are an incredible sight, and they give an idea of what the Swiss Alps might look like if snow didn’t melt in 95-degree temperatures. I was visiting Pamukkale with my very good friends Rachel and Maggie, and spending a day playing in the natural pools at this UNESCO World Heritage site was a definite highlight of our two-week trip through Turkey.
My absolute favorite places to visit while traveling are natural wonders — from structures to cities, from staggering peaks to ecological phenomenons, I’m always struck by the resolve of what has always been to always be. Wading in the aqua-tinted water near the top of Pamukkale’s terraced travertines, feeling the thick white clay underneath me ooze through my fists when I scooped it up, looking at my toes peeping out of the water against a backdrop of what looked like the edge of the world… this was the most incredible place I’d ever seen. And, until I set my eyes on the Northern Lights, I’m betting it’ll stay that way.
On one of our last days in Turkey, Rachel and I experienced our first Turkish bath. Turkish baths, or ‘hammams,’ are a variant of the Roman steam-bath, distinguished by a focus on water. There are many different kinds of Turkish baths, and Rach and I knew we wanted to bathe as the locals did and forego the typical touristy, pricey hammam experience. And what better way to go local than to follow the locals? It was fun being given so much advice from the staff at a lovely cafe down the street from our Istanbul hostel – these Turkish men were very passionate about what a proper hammam experience should be. One of the young waiters had spent a decade working in New Jersey, and he told us a great story of how the first thing he did when he landed at JFK was hail a cab and ask to be taken straight to a hammam. (His Pakistani cab driver took him to a Russian bath room in Chinatown.) Wanting to make sure we got the authentic Turkish bath experience we were looking for, one of the young men walked us through back alleys and side streets to get to a hole-in-the-wall building that had a single sign reading, “Men today.” Oops! Rach and I returned the next day, happy to see the “Women today” sign, and excited to finally see what all the hammam hubbub was about.
If Pamukkale takes the cake for being the most unique natural wonder I’ve ever seen, then my first Turkish bath experience wins for the best ‘treatment’ I’ve ever had. First of all, the building had been a hammam for hundreds of years — historical significance never fails to get me in the door. The woman who attended to Rachel and me spoke no English, meaning we communicated with her through gestures and smiles during the two hours we were in the hammam, which worked out just fine. We began by laying on slabs of warm, white marble, looking up at an ornate ceiling with a large, circular window that daylight streamed in through. The attendant smiled at us, gesturing at us to relax, relax, lay back and relax…
I could write pages on the hammam experience and every glorious minute I spent there, but I’ll spare you the jealousy. I was exfoliated, sponge-bathed, and massaged; I was doused with warm water and cold water and soapy water and fresh water. I was moved from laying down in the bathing room to sitting up in a steam room, and I even had my hair washed. Never before had I been so pampered — all I had to was lift and stand and sit when told. I left the hammam with pink, glowing skin, muscles that felt like Jell-O, and the biggest smile on my face. There is something to be said for cultures in which utter relaxation and pampering is deemed important on a regular basis. Sometimes, we all need to let ourselves be taken care of for a little while.
When I wasn’t admiring or being pampered with water this summer, I was swimming in it. While in Berlin visiting my sister, I spent time with some of my best high school friends from Stuttgart — we had all planned to visit Berlin around the same time. I loved being back in Germany with them, and we spent one afternoon at one of the city’s “sees” (pronounced “zaye” but translates to lake/sea). It’s pretty much a rule that, come summer, Berliners head outside. For such a metropolitan city, there are so many fun outdoor activities to be enjoyed in Berlin, and spending a day hanging in the water and on the sand with old friends is one of them.
“The water understands civilization well,” Emerson wrote. I love that he called it THE water – a singular, restorative force. Here’s my something for you to wonder about today: what restores you? What gives you back your strength, what pulls your physical or emotional muscles, what takes your breath away with surprise and gratitude? When I’m handling the current, cutting the water with my arms, it reminds me I’m here, I’m moving – on and forward. I’m relishing a natural element that energizes me as much as it does challenge me. I’m wrapped up in something I know and trust.
And on that note – what makes you brave? While out in the choppy Indian Ocean waves of the rough eastern Sri Lanka current earlier this year, I didn’t feel so brave. I may have grown up embracing water, but sometimes, waves really unnerve me. It’s difficult to make the plunge sometimes. But you know how this ends – once you do, once you make the plunge and wade out and dive headfirst and come up laughing in the sunlight, salty water breaking over your grinning face, you know it was the right thing. You know that’s where you belong. Nothing – not failure, not disappointment, not anger – can take that feeling away from you. It’s just you and the water, you and the thing that gets you. That’s all there is.
July 21, 2013
A group of teenage boys hitting punching bags in a small, dusty compound next to a paddy field at dusk; from the train compartment I am passing by in, I take in their bandaged knuckles, their glistening arms, the looks of extreme concentration on their dark faces. Getting McDonald’s fries just that one time, after that guitar festival, before being stuffed in the back of a tuk with five Sri Lankan guy friends headed to the bar. Handing out the books provided by my “Adventures in Books” initiative, seeing the tremendous smiles on my students’ faces thanks to the generosity of my family and friends. My head of department kindly asking me, “Is everyone treating you alright?” after my first week of teaching. Receiving letters and packages from Scotland, the Netherlands, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Ghana, New York, and Virginia.The tuk driver who had provided security for American soldiers in Iraq and who gave me a free ride upon hearing that my mother is a retired colonel. Spending $15 to ride across the country in a private van. Editing a children’s book where the game of tag is called “run and catch.” When your colleague says, “Things were better when the war was on. At least then we knew what we were dealing with.” Waking up already sweating from the day’s heat. The sound of the monsoons on the roof. Waking up cold. Walking on train tracks, hearing a train coming, jumping aside just in time. Learning how to make pol sambol and string hoppers in a traditional Sri Lankan kitchen. Jumping off a canyon into a deep pool of water, my boyfriend below and grinning. Watching a student who had been too shy to reply to “How are you?” give a ten-minute presentation on The Catcher in the Rye. A typical bus ride: crowded, hot, music blasting, woman to my left lathering oil behind her ears, man to my right “napping” and trying to touch me. Fresh pineapple on my way home from work every day. $3 fresh crab curry, a Jaffna staple. Sunday morning dawn, bustling fish market, colorful boats, glistening fishermen. Girl talk on a ten-hour bus ride north through two-thirds of a country. Malinda thinking in English. The taste of pancakes. The misshapen, yellow toenails of the bus fare collector; he wears falling-apart flip-flops and handles the bright pink, green, purple, and blue bills in his hand so well you’d think he’s been doing this his whole life. He probably has.
The tears in Amma’s eyes when we hugged goodbye. The text message I received from Roshan moments before I left, calling me a child of the island that will always have a home there. Smiling when a group of airline attendants asked me why I had been visiting Sri Lanka and I responded, “Mama teacher-kenek,” making them laugh and nod their heads approvingly. Asking for milk tea on the flight out of Colombo, being told it’s not available. Sighing, I turn to the window and whisper goodbye.
You know that feeling you get when you leave the house for a big trip, and you’re packed and ready to go, but on the tuk ride or bus ride or car ride to the airport or train station or wherever, you can’t help but feel that you forgot something? Something really important? From my late-night taxi ride to the airport up until the moment my plane started to climb into the sky, that feeling gripped me. I had it when I was checking in (though maybe at that point the feeling was just anxiety caused by the – gulp – 170 pounds of luggage I showed up with at the counter), when I was on the phone before boarding my flight, when I was settling into my seat. What did I forget? I racked my brain. I mentally went through my now empty room. What could it possibly be?
And it’s only now, while I sit sprawled out on the cold marble floor of London Heathrow’s terminal five, watching so, so many different kinds of shoes pass through my line of vision, that I realize what I left behind was me. Not all of me – my fuzzy, jet-lagged brain and calloused feet are present and accounted for – but some significant parts of me are definitely missing. I feel fulfilled but a little empty, complete yet unnervingly fragmented. The hundreds of people rushing past me have me closing my eyes, needing to slow down, needing to figure out where all my pieces are.
Instead, my mind turns to another place where pieces of me were left behind. I remember clearly the moment I left Ghana in May of 2010: it was late, a dark and uncharacteristically rainy night, and when the plane lifted off of the African ground I had called home for four months, I felt less than whole. I think that when we put everything we’ve got into an experience, when we let it mold us and change us and unveil us, it’s inevitable that we leave layers behind. When we truly love something, we give parts of ourselves to it. Anthony Bourdain put it like this: “The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on memory, consciousness, heart, and body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.”
In return, Sri Lanka gave me so much. It became home somewhere between seeing dawn break over the mountains from the top of Adam’s Peak and learning to be truly honest with myself. In Sri Lanka, I found pieces of myself I didn’t know existed. Simultaneously, I became so attached to so much that it’s proved impossible to extricate myself completely from the island, despite physically being on another continent right now, despite having been in four different countries since I started writing this post.
People have already started asking me what I miss the most. How to respond? I miss the sea air. I miss pol sambol. I miss tuk-tuks and head bobbling and humid Colombo nights and being lovingly called ‘nangi.’ More than anything, though, it’s the relationships with a handful of truly special Sri Lankan souls that I’ll miss the most. I’m looking forward to staying connected in the many ways one can these days, but it won’t be the same as sharing meals of rice and curry and long conversations over cups of milk tea with the people I’ve left pieces of myself with. You know who you are, my island brothers and sisters. Thank you for always opening up your homes so graciously to me.
The best part of this Fulbright experience was – as cliché as it sounds – helping to bridge communities. I’ve always enjoyed helping bring people and groups together, but over the past many months, I’ve learned that it’s something I’m really passionate about. This took form in my classes, where I helped my students understand American literature in their Sri Lankan context. It took form in hosting visitors and traveling with them around the country, sharing meals with my American friends and family in the homes of my Sri Lankan ones. It took the form of my Adventures in Books initiative that allowed me to give my students novels thanks to the incredible generosity of my family and friends back home. And it really took form in the many individuals and groups who came together to hold English Camp – recalling that powerful experience still brings such a smile to my face.
If I were to draw a picture of my nine months in Sri Lanka, it would look like a double helix of DNA. There’s the me strand I started with, expecting and excited and a bit anxious, and the me strand that formed as the months went by, shaped by highs and lows and relationships and experiences. There’s not quite a clear beginning – Sri Lanka already felt like an old friend when I arrived last fall – and no clear end yet. The messy, colorful helix that all my experiences in Sri Lanka have formed will lead to new beginnings and new chapters, and I’m excited for what comes next. For now, though, I’ll gracefully accept this murky transition period. I’ll continue starting every other sentence with “In Sri Lanka…” while I make the most of my post-Fulbright travels in new places with my best friends. I’ll soak up the relationships and fresh vegetables I’ve so missed. And tonight, in Berlin with my sister, I’ll take my beer and cheers to summer, to adventures, and to an island that I’ll never forget.