World maps and spinning globes. Stovetop popcorn that knows exactly when to stop popping. Big, bright stars and the bigger, brighter, moon. Tiny houses. Paying it forward. Every kind of engine. A friend’s handwritten letter that brings so much comfort I carry it around for days. My mother’s hands. My brother’s resilience. My partner’s fun-loving spirit. A good cry and a healthy dose of vulnerability. Physics. Chopsticks. Chapstick. My body. How words can simultaneously fill me up to the brim and deplete me completely. How sentences are the building blocks with which I navigate this world, and how, without them, I’m not sure I could get by. Vipassana meditation. Tinkerbell. Foreign language fluency. French fries dipped in chocolate Frostys. The freedom to love whom and how I, you, we, want. Driving fast with the sun on my face and the wind in my hair. The sun and the wind and the elements in general. My father’s discernment. My sister’s full-blown silent laughter. The way Piper lets me lay my head on her soft puppy body even though I know I’m disturbing her nap. The ocean, so stubborn; the river, so insistent. Car wrecks we walk away from, unscathed. The grace with which Granddaddy left this world. The grace with which a dear friend’s baby girl came into this world. The Grand Canyon’s ridges and how, after hiking them for days, they became sweet potato wedges, slightly browned crispy indentations, layer upon layer of comfort and challenge and sustenance.
The Lone Bellow. Birth control. Billy Collins’ poems. Hoping for trick-or-treaters anyway. One-of-a-kind greeting cards that sing with love and sweetness. Executing a perfect dive. Twinkles and tangles. The power of those pussyhats. Fluffy diner hotcakes and fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice. Singing Christmas carols, in church, as a family, on Christmas Eve. A cricket’s chorus on a hot summer night. How bending to work can feel like hope, like grace. How FaceTime is so much better than just calling and, on that note, how incredible it is to hear another human’s laughter while holding their face, vis-à-vis a device, in the palm of my hand. A hammock’s mechanics. Soft candlelight. Those first few kisses. The way campfires live on in the folds of my favorite flannel. How, at the airport, after long stretches apart, the man I love lifts me up and spins me around and grins into my hair and this, I know, is home. Lightning. Airplanes. A propensity to seek silver linings and an ability to habitually find them. How my best friends just get it. The thrill of arriving in a new place. The thrill of being lost and feeling great about it. This Colorado sky. God, all up in these mountains. Knowing when to stop. Knowing when to keep going. The efficiency of high-speed trains. Window seats and playgrounds and tree house sleepovers. Feeling known, deeply truly known. Coming together. Coming home.
The day I moved back to the U.S. from Sri Lanka, I was given a warning.
“Your passport is full,” the oily-skinned customs agent said. It was a Friday afternoon in July, 2012. The immigration lines at Washington Dulles International airport were hours long. The agent glanced at my short hair and round cheeks, then back down at a picture of me taken dozens of countries and a lifetime ago. “You are not permitted to leave the U.S. again until you get a new passport.”
“That’s fine,” I said, adjusting my heavy backpack’s straps. I’d been back in the States for seventeen minutes. “I’m not going anywhere for a while.”
// four years later //
I suspect 2016 will be the most traveled year of my life so far. This past summer alone saw two trips to Europe, three weeks in the New Mexico desert, one solo road trip, and a cross-country move. Since Christmas of last year, I’ve traveled to Germany; Switzerland; Austin, Texas; Green Bay, Wisconsin; Virginia; New Orleans; Florida; Portland, Oregon; Maui; Green Bay (again); Durham, North Carolina; Albany, New York (x3); Germany (again); Poland; Madison, Wisconsin; New Mexico; the Czech Republic; Eau Claire, Wisconsin; New Orleans (again); Boston; Maine; Houston; Door County, Wisconsin. Then it was to Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley for my best friend’s wedding, followed by election week in New York City.
Home, by the way, is now Colorado.
At the moment, I’m en route to Florida to spend the Thanksgiving holiday with my boyfriend’s family. (My parents are coming, too. Dad’s several rows behind me on this plane, alternating, I’m sure, between napping and watching wealth management PowerPoint seminars on his iPad.) I’ll spend Christmas with my family and boyfriend Ben at our family’s new home in the Colorado mountains. I’ll kiss 2016 goodbye while hiking down the Grand Canyon on a several-day New Year’s hike. The first big trip of 2017 will be a few weeks later, when Ben and I fly to Rome to celebrate his birthday.
Re-reading that list of travels, what strikes me most is the fact that in a single year, I traveled to Wisconsin on five different occasions. I had no idea what a “cheesehead” was until I fell in love with one, and, well, for a girl who spent her formative years living in Germany, dating a Wisconsinite is all kinds of gemütlich.
Typing out those trips, what came to mind were not window seats and calendars, but a rush of moments. Dancing inside a golf cart on a summer night in Krakow. Cruising down Berlin’s river Spree with Katrina, Mom, and Dad. Riding shotgun past apple orchards sprinkled along Wisconsin’s two-lane windy roads, dusted with autumn’s reds, greens, and golds. Laying in my grandparents’ backyard in northern New York, face in the grass, blinking into the sunshine. Laying on an air mattress in Ben’s apartment, falling asleep to the rain. Laying on the bare wood floor of my apartment—the one I called home for two years—after the movers drove away.
One evening earlier this year, after a long day of writing and sitting at my desk in my Brooklyn bedroom, I pulled on my running shoes and hustled down my apartment building’s five flights of stairs. I burst out onto the tree-lined street and jogged two blocks to Fort Greene park, where it seemed many others had the same thought: time to go outside and play. I smiled. The sight of city-dwellers enjoying their local parks and green spaces never ceases to delight me.
It was early spring and the air was still cool. After my run, I plopped down on the stone steps at the top of the hill. I had begun to look forward to these post-run minutes, stretching in the sunlight, as much as I did the run itself. I caught my breath, watching the golden light fade behind the Manhattan skyline on the horizon, and looked around.
A young woman and her father did Tai Chi in matching navy blue Adidas track jackets. A ripped, middle-aged man grunted and sweated his way through running drills. Teenagers kissed, couples jogged, dogs ran off lead. A man in extremely saggy pants crushed a cigarette and immediately lit another. A woman flew a drone.
I have this bad habit of feeling nostalgic for a place before I leave it. It would be several weeks until I moved away from New York, but I’d already begun to savor the little things in my neighborhood that, for two years, kept me sane. Fort Greene park and its cacophony of people was a refuge. And the desire to remember these seemingly banal Brooklyn scenes, to stubbornly commit them to memory and draw meaning from the mundane mess, was fierce.
A few weeks later, when the air was considerably hot and heavier, I sat on the roof of my apartment building and composed a text message to Ben:
just walked past the spot you and I had our first kiss. the Brooklyn moon is just as big, but the stars aren’t as bright. it’s a hot and sticky night and everyone’s out under the twinkle lights filling the gentle streets, drinking rosé and smoking cigarettes in their underwear. kids sit on the stoops. it’s trash day so the curbs are piled high and it stinks, these tree-lined blocks are thumping with crickets and I’m a hot sweaty 26-year-old mess, a writer with little money but so much joy in my heart because I got to call this place home, for a blink of an eye. I just got back from walking the long walk back from my best friend’s apartment and I may not know much at all about my next chapter or hers or yours or anyone’s but I do know that there is never a last walk home, not really.
Most of us, I think, are in a state of running away from something and running towards something. (I’m writing this from several thousand feet up in the air, the irony of which does not escape me.) This belief brings me great comfort, but it’s difficult to say why, exactly. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve grown more comfortable in the in-between. I am an expert packer and a savvy frequent flyer-mile spender. I sleep well on planes and read easily on trains. For the past eleven years, I have celebrated my birthday in a new place. I am at my best when I am on my way.
Traveling has taught me that joy and relationships are location-independent. In fact, for me the two are often location-interdependent: the majority of my travels center around visiting, celebrating, or otherwise being with people I love. My partner, fortunately, also loves to travel, and we’ve naturally eased into being the other’s co-adventurer. Learning how to leverage our airline miles and credit card points to travel inexpensively and/or for free has helped (something my brother, our resident Trusted Travel Adviser, has mastered with one of his side businesses!). As a freelance writer and editor, being able to work from almost anywhere helps immensely, too. I’ll never mind the long, tiring days of travel when it means flying to and from my friends and my family.
“There’s something about moving in a space that is not my home that makes me more aware about my place in the world,” I read once. Coast-to-coast and across oceans, with every trip, my eyes widen and my heart expands. A relative once informed me that I am—clearly—afraid of “settling.” What is “settling,” anyway? The notion has such strong negative and positive associations. I don’t equate settling with staying in any one place. In that sense, I’ve been doing the opposite of settling for a decade. And I’ve grown to love it. What a privilege it is to wander with people who make me wonder—the peripatetic life is the one for me. I have seen and experienced and learned and loved so much that sometimes it’s hard to believe I am only 27. Most days, my default state of being is one of jet-lagged gratitude, of bleary, bright-eyed bliss.
Years ago, I picked up a greeting card that said it best:
“I’m not where I have been. I’m not where I’m going.
But I’m on my way.”
Somehow things feel like they’re coming full circle, but I can’t quite tell. I think it’s just that familiar, bittersweet collision of past and future. A chapter closes; a new adventure begins. As I write this, the sun is setting on top of the clouds outside my airplane window. Tonight, the golden-blue sky rests easy. Beneath the clouds, a million clambering hearts are settling in a million different places. Some, I know, are in pieces; for many, it has been a disheartening month. These are troubling times. I hope, deeply—and perhaps naively, but I don’t care—that restoration and peace resound this holiday season.
Whenever it is time to go, I feel a familiar, curious tug of fullness and nostalgia. Leaving is bittersweet. Coming home is bittersweet. Sometimes the act of putting up my tray table, as I’m being told to do right now, is bittersweet. But, there is this: in a few minutes, the man I love will find me at a baggage carousel and wrap me up in the biggest bear-hug. That feeling of arriving will breathe through our bones—a kind of comfort we’ve grown used to knowing. With our families, we will break bread and share stories and give thanks. And through it all, I’ll be reminded of how we all, in our own ways, make our homes wherever we go.
Twelve boys in matching sports jerseys stand shoulder-to-shoulder on the top deck. Ramos. Garcia. Elvin Jr., their backs read. They gaze out at the water, muttering in Spanish to one another until a noisy nearby helicopter drowns out their voices and then they are quiet, resting their foreheads on the rail. Above, an American flag whips in the wind. It’s flying at half-mast, but it shouldn’t be. The freight containers out on the water look like Monopoly pieces, bright tokens shuffling across evanescent waves. A man next to me is on his cell phone, yelling about grocery shopping: “I TOLD YOU, I’M NOT GOING. I EAT LIKE A BIRD ANYWAY, SO I AIN’T BUYING SHIT.”
In the distance, fog blurs the bridges and buildings, making the skyline seem softer than it is. There is nothing soft about New York. I realize I have not lived in New York long enough to be able to say definitive things about this city, but there is nothing soft about New York.
I eavesdrop on three different conversations and hear three different languages I can’t identify. “Restricted Area” warning signs bark from almost every door and gate on the ferry’s top deck and except for the Statue of Liberty—where is she, anyway?—I can’t name any of the structures that I see. I think I’m facing north but I can’t say for sure, really, and this is more-or-less how I’ve felt since moving to New York a year ago: disoriented, a little dizzy, but some days, when I’ve got my sea legs beneath me, something close to sturdy.
The great affair is to move, wrote Robert Louis Stevenson. The ferry lurches along. The waves turn into suds. We continue taking in the view. I want to think it’s prettier at night. I want to think the gray, hard skyline will take me in and blur me up around the edges, too. I want to think I will stay in this city long enough to outgrow it.
The approaching. The being almost there. The scallop-edged waves, the gladness of the river. The looking behind, wondering how far I’ve come. The crossing over, again and again.
Tonight, I’ll climb out of my apartment’s kitchen window, up the fire escape to the roof. I’ll wave hello to neighbors I’ve never met who are enjoying a last summer rooftop soiree. I’ll make my way across the concrete until I’m at the edge, looking out at the same skyline from the opposite direction. Up here, it is prettier at night. Up here, there is a little bit of softness. The bright lights puncture the sky with a kind of purpose that I envy, and I still cannot name most of these buildings, but I am certain I am facing west.
This past January, on the first day of my internship at the New York Times, I went home before lunch. I can’t recall ever hearing the words, “Natalie, why don’t you take off early today?” and grimacing, but there I was, staring out a huge glass window on the 20th floor of the Times building in Times Square, watching what would become ten inches of snow settle on the ground below, and wishing it would stop so I could stay inside this building for, well, forever.
I’ve never wanted snow less. When I told my editor I was happy to work from home, she smiled, shook her head, and said, “Just get home safely. We’ll see you next week for your real first day.”
On that real first day—the overhyped “Snowpocalypse” behind us—my editor sent me downstairs after lunch to get my I.D. card. The security guards shuffled my paperwork, took my photo, and issued me my card. The three of them stood up behind the tall desk. “Welcome aboard,” they said, each shaking my hand and smiling. “Welcome aboard the Times.”
That evening, I skipped to the subway.
In early May, on the last day of my internship, the team I worked with sent me off with doughnuts. (Not just any doughnuts. Dough doughnuts. The best of the best.) They asked me what my favorite part of the internship was, and I told them that while I enjoyed the research and fact-checking, nothing beat standing in the newsroom with the entire New York Times staff when the 2014 Pulitzer Prizes were announced in April. I wrote that day:
It was an incredible privilege to stand in the venerable New York Times newsroom this afternoon and hear from the paper’s journalists and photographers who just won Pulitzer Prizes. There was laughter, tears, and so much applause in this temple of journalism today. In case I ever forget why I write, and why I aspire to produce powerful journalism, today will serve as a forever reminder.
I walked through the doors of the New York Times building many times over the past few months, and I smiled on every occasion, whispering a small thank you. It was an incredible privilege to work in the mecca of journalism, even for just a short period of time. I certainly hope to be back one day.
I have two semesters left of graduate school, which strikes me as both exciting and terrifying. I love being a master’s student and studying journalism. I love being a student, period. It was not an easy first year, but it was more rewarding than I knew it could be. I have self-selected into a community that challenges me and is helping me grow. This was hugely important in my search for the best-fit graduate program, because if I am not challenged, I sink—or worse, settle. I go out of my way to surround myself with people who bring out the best in me, whether they know it or not. In my personal and professional life, this is paramount. It didn’t always used to be, but it is now, and I’m fortunate to have found that at NYU.
Studying journalism, as my professor Brooke Kroeger has written, means understanding the importance of “enterprise, persistence, originality, and precise expression.” It involves learning how to gather thorough background; what heavy documentation means; why it’s vital to use a variety of sources; and how respect for facts and the truth matters above most else. It means being trained on the strategic use of time, the economical use of words, the thoughtful interview technique. And, perhaps most importantly, it involves taking to heart the phrase: “More thinking, less typing.”
Journalism is an outlet for writing that allows me to expand my curiosities. Researching and writing an article or an essay is the best kind of puzzle; I love the challenge of piecing together facts, expressive language, and perhaps an emotional truth or two to create a mosaic of meaning—or at least a piece of writing that asks for engagement and sparks a conversation. In “Man in Profile,” Thomas Kunkel’s biography of the writer Joseph Mitchell, Kunkel writes: “Literary journalism is the convergence of superior reportage and writing that manages to be both penetrating and transcendent. Put another way, it is everyday life transported to the realm of art.” To do that work, to transport and transform, a journalist must call upon what Ta-Nehisi Coates, in his moving tribute to the late New York Times reporter David Carr, calls “the violent and incessant curiosity represented in the craft of narrative argument.”
That word, curiosity. It always comes back to that, doesn’t it? Being a journalist means I’m required to know what’s happening in the world, which means I spend a lot of time these days consuming the news. Sometimes it feels overwhelming; sometimes my need to know what’s going on in the Horn of Africa or the Redwood Forest or the bodega on my Brooklyn block is insatiable. I hunger for good writing that explains complicated things, that asks me to engage and reflect. I am greedy for other people’s lives, for their stories and perspectives. And while I don’t think one can ever be too hungry for the world, I do believe we must think carefully about our digestive tract, because how and what we consume determines so much.
And so I sometimes make my literary self dine the old-fashioned way: with actual primary sources and thick, hardcover books. When a gray-haired librarian at the Brooklyn Historical Society plops a 20-pound municipal records book on the desk in front of you—dust whirling, pages curling—you’d better get to work. Graduate school has taught me to appreciate archival research; poring over old atlases in the New York Public Library or cranking the slide projector at 30 Chambers Street (NYC’s Department of Records) can be thrilling. The hunt for accurate information—which is to say, the truth—is a pursuit like no other.
Graduate school has also taught me that journalism is about much more than just writing. I’ve been dabbling in audio journalism and learning how to produce pieces for radio and podcasts. After a week-long introductory radio workshop last August, I produced this short clip (it’s rough, but you gotta start somewhere, right?), and have been working on a few others since the spring. (I love audio journalism. I think I’ll devote a whole other post to podcasts, which I can’t get enough of—especially nonfiction podcasts, like Serial, which are doing great things for longform journalism.)
Over the past several months, I’ve been privileged to have a few of my articles/essays published. Last October, Slate published a short piece I wrote in response to Apple’s and Facebook’s decision to pay for its female employees to freeze their eggs. In December, I wrote an article for New York Magazine’s Bedford + Bowery, in which I investigated the origins and mystery behind a building in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. And this spring, the New Republic published a piece I wrote about the mixed messages women face when it comes to our fertility.
(Let me take a moment here to say a huge THANK YOU to those of you reading this post, and my other pieces. Family, friends, peers, professors: thanks so much for reading and sharing my writing. Thanks for being part of this beginning.)
About a week after the New Republic piece went up online, the editor I had been working with wrote to me saying they wanted to publish my piece in the May issue of the magazine’s print edition—and double my rate. I proceeded to dance alone in my apartment to ‘90s music for half an hour. And then I wrote the editor back, using all my willpower to reply with calm and collected words instead of with !!!!!!!!!!.
Those I saved for May 1st, when I walked into the Barnes & Noble at Union Square in Manhattan, strode to the magazine section, opened up the New Republic, and beamed at my first real byline. It was a beautiful spread. An artist had drawn original artwork to complement my words, and the pull quote was spot on. I took three copies of the magazine from the shelf and headed to the checkout counter, where I promptly put one back, because at $7 a piece I decided my parents could buy their own copy.
And then for the second time this year, I skipped to the subway.
The most significant thing I’ve taken away from my first year of graduate school is that I have a lot of work to do. A lot. I have loved writing since I wrote my first short story at age eight—a two-pager called “Into the Woods”—but I have only recently started to take writing seriously. Turning a hobby into paid work, a passion into a mission, is both practically and emotionally challenging. Yes, I hope to make a career out of writing. Yes, I hope to write things that illuminate and maybe inspire. But to do that, to do even a fraction of that, I have to do the work—the kind of work that requires what my mother calls “elbow grease,” the kind of work that complicates and frustrates, the kind of work that brings me to my knees and has me handing over my heart in the form of the page. Some days, I feel brave enough to attempt that. Other days, I feel like crawling under the covers and watching Netflix until the sun sets. But that’s not an option, because I’m committed now. I’m committed not just because I’m in graduate school studying writing, or because I’ve been published, or because I have an annoying proclivity for proper grammar—I’m committed because I can’t not write. And it’s the things that we cannot stop ourselves from doing, the things we would do for no money or praise or acknowledgement whatsoever, that we must pursue with every bit of tenacity and courage we can summon.
Big Mike has a protruding beer belly and a matted beard and is yelling about orgies. When people begin murmuring as he walks to the stage, I know this is going to get worse before it gets better. He moves the microphone aside—his booming voice doesn’t need it—and proceeds to spend his seven allotted minutes in the blue spotlight making uncouth jokes about midgets and what my mother would call “bathroom humor.” This is the first open mic night I’ve been to in New York City, and I’m not in the mood for midget jokes. I wrap my scarf around my neck, preparing to leave. As I stand up, the man next to me introduces himself and asks if he can buy me a beer.
On Monday nights, The Inspired Word open mic series unfolds in the back room of the Parkside Lounge on East Houston Street. By 8:00 p.m. on a recent Monday, there are 17 of us—I’m one of two women—huddled around small tables, gathered for a night of spoken word, poetry, comedy, and music. Founded and produced by journalist and former Village Voice columnist Mike Geffner, The Inspired Word began as a poetry series at a sleepy vegan restaurant in Forest Hills during a blizzard in March 2009. I’m told the first night was a catastrophe but that now almost all of the kinks have been worked out.
“I hear this place is called ‘the champagne of dive bars,’” the young man says. He’s wearing a red beanie, dark curls escaping around the sides. The waitress sets down my beer and Red Beanie and I clink glasses, turning toward the stage. Big Mike has been replaced—finally—by Serene, the other woman in the lounge tonight. Serene is middle-aged, with long, streaky blonde hair and a jewel on her forehead. She is whispering to us about the last time she snorted cocaine.
I moved to New York City six months ago. The first few weeks were not unlike the beginning of tonight’s entertainment: surprising, uncomfortable, and often sending me into a state in which I constantly felt under assault. Lugging all of my belongings up five flights of stairs while double-parked on a criminally hot August day was, I’d later discover, a typical move-in day for hoards of twenty-somethings arriving in the city. In New York, few experiences are unique. Everyone has seen or heard or done it before; I am nothing special.
And yet, when, on a cold November night at Terminal 5, one of my favorite singers yells into the microphone to the hundreds of us standing beneath her that we’re her favorite crowd in the entire country, I believe her. There is a sense, I think, that New York City is a place revered more than most. There is a reason why those of us here put up with the daily barrage of frustrations and annoyances—and that reason, beautifully, is different for each one of us. “New York is one of those cities that welcomes you, takes you in, lends you its name,” Lauren Elkin wrote. Even though it’s only been six months, there are mornings I wake up and without knowing exactly how or why, feel slightly changed.
On the Parkside Lounge stage, Raj Mahal, a spoken word artist, asks us to repeat after him: “It’s all about engagement.” Comedian Justin Peel tells a bad joke comparing Native Americans creating casinos to African Americans creating the NBA and it continues to go downhill from there. I look around the room. Red Beanie is half-reclined next to me, mesmerized (somehow) by every act. Two young women strut in and heads turn. An older gentleman, who will later perform some of the best improv I’ve ever seen, is staring at the flickering candle on his table. Hot toddies replace beers as the snow piles up outside and the room gets colder.
This morning, my 15-minute walk to the subway took me half an hour. I have never walked so far out of my way to avoid knee-deep puddles of slush. I have never seen so many knee-deep puddles of slush. My backpack got stuck in the train doors and I got lost in the madness that is the Times Square subway station at 9:30 a.m. on a Monday morning. There were angry email exchanges during my commute with my apartment building’s ridiculously incompetent management company. There was the wind almost knocking me over when I left the New York Times building for lunch. There was tearing the fingertips in both of my gloves as I tried to open my umbrella in the sleet.
As the evening unwinds, the performers get older; the most seasoned, it seems, have been saved for last. At 9:30, a slight man wearing jeans and a black button-up shirt walks on stage holding an old guitar. His white hair is pulled back in a bun. Without introducing himself, he says into the microphone, “Last week, y’all complained I didn’t sing this original tune. So here’s ‘Paris in the Rain.’” He smiles and starts to strum and suddenly we’re in Paris in the 1920s, walking on wet sidewalks and laughing in the rain, indulging in too many cigarettes, a glass of flat champagne. The man, who must be pushing 70, is shaking his hips and whistling the chorus until the crowd begins whistling, too. I can’t whistle, but everyone else can’t help themselves. It is snowing steadily outside, but I am in rainy Paris. This old man is swinging his hips and playing the same three chords over and over like it is what he was born to do, and the young hipsters in the crowd have forgotten their drinks and are whistling along to a tune that will stay in their heads for days.
“In New York, there is everything,” a performer says near the end of the night. I am not yet convinced it is possible to have a good relationship with one’s post office branch in this city, but there are sunsets from the steps of fire escapes and every kind of ethnic supermarket and without fail, when I desperately need one, a Russian seamstress around the corner who can sew a button back on my dress after it pops off when I’m walking down the street. There are spontaneous Sunday walks on Brighton Beach in the middle of a cold, cold winter. There is the boy in my apartment building who is embracing his entrepreneurial spirit, charging $3 a task for his services as a concierge, errand-runner, jack-of-all-trades. There are people of all ages playing air guitar on the subway and billboards for everything from cruise ships to cutlery to condoms. There is putting it all together just to take it all apart. And here, at least, in the champagne of dive bars, there is the probability of an evening getting slowly better instead of slowly worse.
A college student named Justin is the last act of the night. He lets us down easy, reciting trite, comforting poetry about the heart’s hopes and tribulations before concluding, ever so decisively: “Love is not margarine. Love is butter.” No one is sure what to make of this—that there is just no substitute for the real thing, perhaps—but we all silently concur that it is nice to end the night on love instead of bathroom humor.
Most days, Kigali is bursting at its dusty seams with activity. It’s busiest in early evening, when ‘rush hour’ means triple the amount of motos weaving in between SUVs, cars that are missing dashboards, and pick-up trucks hanging so low to the ground that sometimes whatever is down there scrapes the road with a very loud screech. (I know I should know what is happening there—I still have a lot to learn about cars.) The honking is incessant, but nearby, birds perching on the power lines chime in to the cacophony. The sounds of Kigali traffic can be accosting, but I’ve come to depend on the evening’s crescendos and diminuendos, the way the city revs me up before letting me down easy.
On Christmas, my mom and I have one of our spontaneous dance parties, doing our thing across the tiled living room floor while singing—belting, really—“Sweet Caroline,” her favorite. When my parents leave a few days later and it’s just Katrina and me, we stay up late catching up on months of being apart. We paint our nails and eat spoonfuls of peanut butter and watch Friday Night Lights. The chiding begins immediately: she slaps my hand every time I crack a knuckle and I growl stop biting when she nibbles on her nails. We settle into our sister routine, which I’ve been missing more than I realized. There are almost always thousands of miles between us; sometimes I forget how well she knows me, how we know each other better than anyone else.
It starts pouring in the middle of our hike in Nyungwe rainforest. The water comes down hard and fast and within seconds I learn that my waterproof jacket is not, in fact, waterproof, but my brand-new water-resistant hiking boots repel water like it’s the one thing they were brought into this world to do. I blink my way through the rain, breathing hard through my mouth. The rain never lets up and we never stop walking.
It is heavy here. The weight of the worst things humans can do to their fellow humans is pervasive. Twenty years ago, after Rwanda’s genocide left over a million people dead, the bullet holes in the walls of the Parliament building were left as a reminder. Bodies were dug up around the country—skeletons of mothers and husbands and grandparents and babies, their bones preserved with limestone—and placed delicately on display on top of wooden tables to serve as reminders, too. So their surviving relatives and countrymen can come see. So the world can come see.
In her book The Empathy Exams, Leslie Jamison wrote: “You’re just a tourist inside someone else’s suffering until you can’t get it out of your head; until you take it home with you—across a freeway, or a country, or an ocean.” The stench of the skeletons was overwhelming, but I couldn’t bring myself to cover my nose and mouth. To know inside the heart is difficult, Fidel said to me. Maybe the difficult part is realizing we too often try not to know.
It is light here. Light enough to put a million tiny cracks in the armor you and I and everyone builds up after difficult times. Light enough to let the Rwandan sunshine pour through. Light enough to melt resistance. When you are riding on a moto at 60 miles per hour and all you see are the city lights painting the hills and all you feel is the warm night breeze tucking you in and all you want is to be tucked in, by this air and place and even by that feeling of your stomach in your throat when the moto driver doesn’t break hard enough for the speed bump and you’re airborne, light for a weightless second and all you can think is, I trust this.
Last night, I made a simple dinner. I roasted garlic and sautéed a couple red onions. I cooked a sausage and a bit of rice. I cut up fresh vegetables—cucumber, carrot, tomato—and put them on a plate with pieces of ripe pineapple. It was a simple, fresh, colorful meal, made in a small, breezy kitchen on a small plot of land in a small but tremendous country.
Today, like usual, I woke up under my mosquito net and lay listening for a while. Cars and motos were scuttling down the street, their horns punctuating the morning. The birds outside my window were having full conversations. The caretaker, Felician, was doing some kind of gardening that entailed hitting a metal tool repeatedly against the brick. I smiled, remembering many mornings waking up in Ghana and Sri Lanka, where I learned how in some parts of the world, when your neighbor is up, it means everyone else should be up, too.
And so I’m up, opening all the doors and windows in the house because I can’t get enough of this country’s breeze and sunshine, all 70-something degrees of it. I start boiling water for coffee and walk out into the yard. I decided a long time ago that if I could go barefoot for the rest of my life, I would. The earth under my feet, the grass and dirt between my toes—this is what grounds me. After coffee, I take my time hanging things on the clothesline because in the history of chores, this is one of my favorites. When I was young, I helped my grandmother hang clothes in the backyard of my grandparent’s home in northern New York. The line stretched from the patio to the grandkids’ tree house and I’d stand on a chair, stretching up to secure the clothes, hanging on to every word Grandma said. Years later, in Ghana, hand washing and pinning up clothes was a sweaty, tiring, three-hour ordeal. I loved it so much I saved all of the clothespins I bought there to use again in the backyard of my future house someday.
Felician walks by with his loud metal tool. “Mwaramutse,” I say. Good morning. “Amukuru?”
1. a stack of plastic chairs
2. a Christmas tree
3. a stack of mattresses
4. house plants
5. a wooden bed frame
6. milk jugs
7. an astounding number of bushels of carrots
8. a goat
9. a fence
10. three men.
The mother is wearing a bubblegum pink shirt and tight jeans. The toddler is barefoot and perched on her hip, staring at me with his fist in his mouth while his mother orders at the counter. The father, a large man with a sheen of sweat on his forehead, is wearing Adidas sandals and socks. The couple is disagreeing about what toppings to get on their pizza. The father starts to lecture the teenager behind the counter about something that, judging by his confused look, the teenager does not understand. That makes two of us. I’m standing in a noisy Domino’s in a suburb of Shanghai, blinking into harsh fluorescent lights, my ears buzzing and full of a language that, frankly, I am tired of not understanding.
A small, tan-and-white Chihuahua lives near a fire hydrant I pass every day. I think he belongs to whoever owns the shop across the street from the fire hydrant—I’m not sure. But I know that he is there every morning when I walk to school, sniffing around the peeling red paint and licking the cracks in the sidewalk. When I turn the corner at 8:50 a.m., coffee in hand, he is there, smelling and tasting the morning. He is my one daily constant in a city of constant chaos, a city I feel like I’ve been crowd surfing in for many days.
I can say two things in Mandarin: “Good morning” and “I am a tiger.” I learned that second sentence from one of my students, Frankey, after I heard how lovely the word ‘tiger’ sounded. I tried to explain to Frankey that it was metaphorical, that in Shanghai I felt like I had to adopt the fierceness of a tiger just to step onto the street. That to be a tiger in this city helps me face the accosting traffic, the men constantly spitting on the sidewalks, the people who push and frown their way past me.
I did not say all this to Frankey. I thanked him for teaching me a little bit more Mandarin.
I am in Shanghai to teach a leadership course to Chinese high school students. I’m part of an instructional team put together by Duke University, and for the most part, teaching is going well. Our students are as fascinated with my co-instructor’s bald head and my tattoo as they are with the leadership curriculum we are teaching. They are talking sponges, absorbing and questioning everything. The days are long here, but I love being in the classroom.
What I am not loving is Shanghai. And I can’t stop analyzing why that is and why I feel guilty about it. I have loved almost every new place I’ve ever traveled to—why is this place different? Have my travels hardened me, made me less accepting of the discomforts and annoyances here that I would normally greet with a shoulder-shrug or a head bobble? Am I resisting this city because my new home, New York City, is waiting for me? I sense a shift. For years now, I’ve felt compelled to explore the U.S. more, to put down some semblance of roots in a place I can commit to for an unknown period of time—a place to call home on my own terms. This is what New York will be for me, I hope. And I think this is why I feel so pulled to the new adventure that’s about to begin there.
I know that many of the things I don’t like about Shanghai are things I am sure to encounter in New York. But in cities like Shanghai, speaking the language is everything, and my two sentences of Mandarin do not help me order dinner or decipher street signs or ask to whom my Chihuahua friend belongs. I rely on my Mandarin-speaking colleagues constantly, and this lack of independence does not a happy traveler make. I look forward to returning to China someday to explore other parts of this vast country, away from its congested cities. For now, though, I am realizing it’s okay to not love every new place I travel to. This does not make me a picky traveler or a close-minded person. It just means I am discerning what I value and most enjoy in my travels, and what I do not.
I’m not sure why it took me this long and so many new places to learn this.
Our last day of the leadership course was my 25th birthday. It was a fantastic day. For the past 10 years, I have been lucky enough to celebrate my birthday each year in a new place, almost always in a new city or country. My students made my birthday in Shanghai very special, surprising me with gifts and snacks and even a chorus of “Happy Birthday” in both Mandarin and English. I was fortunate enough to spend my birthday doing something that always brings me joy: teaching.
Most of our instructional staff flew back to the States the next morning, but I stayed an extra night in Shanghai. I had just turned 25. I was coming off of an intense summer, one of many highs and lows, and was about to move to a new city and begin graduate school. I decided to take to heart what my best friend told me to do on my birthday: “Treat yoself.” So I checked into a hotel for a day and night of luxury.
I immediately changed into workout clothes and took the elevator down to the hotel’s gym, where I ran and ran and ran on a treadmill, sweating out Shanghai’s smog. I practiced yoga in a quiet, dark room. I swam laps in the hotel’s huge pool. I indulged in the steam room and the Jacuzzi. I read. I ordered room service. I took a bubble bath and when the suds began overflowing, I let them. I sat on the king-size bed and looked out at the water and skyscrapers. I read some more. I took a stroll on The Bund, enjoying a bustling Saturday night in Shanghai, and then fought the crowds to enjoy a delicious $5 dinner of spicy noodle soup with sides of kimchi, seaweed, and boiled peanuts. When I came back, there was a slice of chocolate birthday cake and a glass of champagne resting on the bed, courtesy of the hotel.
Looking back, I realize that day and night was one of restoration. The treats were nice but what I really relished in was taking time to just be. I had forgotten what it felt like to be still, to not be constantly on the move and onto the next thing. I had been running from the busyness of the spring and the sadness of the summer, running to different cities and countries and new experiences. And now I was about to run and dive headfirst into a new life chapter in a new city.
But first: an immaculate king-size bed to jump on. A bubble bath to soak in. And a piece of chocolate cake with a single candle for me to light, make a wish on, and blow out with a big, deep, grateful breath.
Leading 25 high school students throughout Ireland last summer was one of the most challenging and rewarding teaching jobs I’ve ever had. My co-leaders—a fun-loving, extremely skilled photographer and a smart, witty poet—and I barely slept for those two weeks. But we loved (almost) every minute engaging with these talented teenagers, teaching them what we know about writing and photography and helping them create and adventure their way through a new country.
Every evening, our three groups came together for a big family meeting. One of our nightly traditions was writing down and sharing an “I remember” statement, encapsulating a memory from the day.
On our last night in Dublin, the students put on a reading and showing of their writing and photography at a venue in the city. They weren’t just teenagers that night but artists, artists with incredible stories and brilliant detail. What I’ll always remember most from that evening was how enthusiastically they clapped for one another, all evening long.
Below (interspersed with a few of my favorite photos from the trip) are some of the “I remembers” from our final meeting.
I remember hearing beautiful words and seeing striking photographs at tonight’s reading.
I remember feeling like a family when my group sang “Imagine” in a circle.
I remember having the most fun and loudest walk home ever.
I remember when I had afternoon tea with pastries stacked high on silver platters.
I remember the amazing feeling of finishing my pieces of writing this morning.
I remember the first day, when we stepped off the plane, like it was yesterday.
I remember feeling at home surrounded by so many like and talented minds.
I remember bonding with Sydney and Katie over dinner, through nerdy pick-up lines, which was really great.
I remember being blown away by all the talent at our show.
I remember bittersweet: presenting a tiny piece of myself to you all here, who I’ve truly come to call friends, and at the same time knowing that, yes, I will be home tomorrow, but as for the temporary home I’ve built here in Ireland with the help of all of you lovely people, that will be sorely missed.
I remember being shocked seeing a fox roaming the streets of Dublin.
I remember visiting The Little Museum of Dublin. It was unlike any museum I’ve ever been to.
I remember having some hard times. I remember a lot of support. I remember feeling and receiving a lot of love. And I remember a rad Bruce Springsteen duet with Patrick.
I remember eating multiple scones at afternoon tea.
I remember linking arms and laughing walking back here tonight.
I remember walking the streets of Dublin for the last time, watching all the places we visited pass by.
I remember feeling relieved after finally showing my photos.
I remember today being the best day ever.
I remember everyone’s amazing writing and photography and making new friends and memories that I’ll never forget.
After coming painfully close to not obtaining my new passport in time and then missing my flight to Dublin, I wasn’t so sure I was going to make it to Ireland last June. Which really wasn’t an option, since I was set to lead twenty-five students throughout the country on a National Geographic Student Expedition starting in a few days. But thanks to my Uber driver’s lead foot and a really nice Delta agent, I got my passport and a seat on a different flight, headed to Shannon. From there, I took a long train ride across the country to Dublin, checked into a hostel, and walked around the corner to a pub, where Guinness stew, a pint, and a copy of The Irish Times welcomed me to Ireland.
The week I spent traveling around south and southwest Ireland before starting my National Geographic duties was one of my most memorable weeks of 2014. I travel often, but almost never alone—the countries I have spent time in over the past several years are, for the most part, not ones in which I felt safe traveling around by myself.
Like many other women (and men), in my travels I’ve been grabbed at, pushed down, robbed, and verbally harassed. I dealt with these things when they occurred and moved on. The more one travels (no matter where), the more likelihood that bad—as well as wonderful—things will happen. And yet. It is hard to talk about getting hurt. As time passed, I began to see how those ugly occurrences have made me a more hyper-aware and anxious traveler. When I spent time traveling around Turkey with two good friends in July 2013, I was shocked to see that compared to them, I was far less trusting of strangers, of sketchy interactions, even of nightfall. This deeply bothered me. When did I become so jaded? I wondered resentfully. The three of us had spent a semester abroad in Ghana together in college, where we were eager and adventurous almost to a fault. Ghana opened us right up and we drank it all in, approaching every weekend trip and kind stranger and power outage and bout of malaria with overwhelming optimism and a healthy dose of innocence. When I think back to those months, I remember a sponge-like curiosity. I remember saying yes to almost everything. I do not remember feeling afraid.
So when the opportunity came the following summer to fly to Ireland early so I could travel before my co-leaders and our students arrived, I jumped at it. I felt sure I would be able to explore Ireland safely on my own, without worrying too much. I wanted to reclaim part of that carefree spirit, my modus operandi that guided me through Ghana. And so after one night in Dublin, I headed south to County Cork.
On my second night in Cork, my mother called from the States to tell me my grandfather had died. I was expecting the call, but not this soon. I had said a last goodbye to him in his home a few days earlier and knew he would pass away while I was gone. But knowing someone you love is dying does not make it easier to accept when it happens. I left the pub where I had been watching U.S. vs. Belgium in the World Cup and went around the corner to sit on the curb and listen to my mother tell me the details of Granddaddy’s death: who had been with him, what happened after, what would happen now. I felt guilty. I should be there, not here. This, surely, was why it had been so difficult to get to Ireland. I am supposed to be there, not here. When I hung up, I hugged my knees to my chest. Cars whipped around the traffic circle and I watched their headlights and cried.
The next morning, I took a bus to Blarney Castle and spent the day in the sprawling green gardens. For the first time in my life, I grieved alone. And so my week of solo travel became a time to honor my grandfather, the most traveled man I’ve ever known. That week, I explored with a sense of abandonment I had been sorely missing. I kissed the Blarney Stone. I explored the Titanic’s last port of call in Cobh. I tucked a wildflower behind my ear in Killarney National Park. I rode around the Ring of Kerry. I took an unhealthy amount of pictures of sunsets and pet many stray cats.
In Kerry, the night before I bussed back to Dublin, I took a taxi back to my hostel after having dinner in town. The driver, Joe, was so quintessentially Irish I couldn’t help but grin at every word that came out of his mouth. (And there were many words. But as Paul Theroux wrote, “To be in the presence of talkers is a gift to the writer.”)
“Here’s something for ya,” Joe began. “The other day, I was waiting for the bus. It was taking ages to come. And I was enthralled with this piece of paper flying about, getting brought up and brought down. And I said to someone, ‘How long will it stay up there?’ I couldn’t stop thinking about that little piece of paper. So when I got home, I wrote a poem about it.”
He began reciting:
Paper blowing in the wind Is like a sailor fighting sin. The only time that he can win Is when he rests in heaven.
Joe smiled and looked at me through the rearview mirror. “I think everyone has a story in them, a poem in them,” he said. “It’s natural. You just gotta reach in and pull it out, ya know?”
I smiled back. I thought of Granddaddy. I thought of where I was: a small town in southwest Ireland, full from a hearty meal, the summer air streaming through my hair. I’d soon be falling asleep in a small bunk. Stars were beginning to pepper the evening sky. I was alone, and I was so far from alone.