Christmas in October

IMG_1862Life loses its magic quickly. We grow up. Time instills in us fears that blind us to adventure, experiences which numb us to hope, and burdens that overshadow the lonely free spirit that sits caged in the corner of our souls. I tend to be a child most of the time.

For better and for worse, the process of becoming an adult has been a slow one for me. (The fact that I ate cookies for lunch and skipped dinner today may indicate as much).

But one of the advantages of going through spurts of ten-year-oldisms is the delightfully squeelish feeling of joy in circumstances beyond our control – like a perfect day, a letter from home, warm socks after walking through the rain.

Most often I get that feeling at school when I’m walking through empty corridors at the end of a good day and the windows are letting in soft sunshine. My footsteps echo. My shadow follows me along the wall of classrooms. My fingers clench so as not to scare the cleaning ladies at the end of the hall as I physically attempt to restrain my desire to burst into giggles or song or both. It’s that feeling like you don’t want to be anywhere else in the world at that moment but right where you are. It’s like Christmas morning.

But lately I’ve been bogged down with the grown-up side of life. The side which says I need to start thinking about my plans for next year, my friendships back home, my goals, my future… It’s hard to have those spasms of joy when you’re worried about tomorrow.

Last weekend I accepted an invitation to visit a friend and her family in a South Bohemian town called Česky Budejovice. I was looking forward to a weekend away from my regular rigmarole (though still letting it sit in the form of stress in the high priority seating located towards the front of my mind), but my friend doesn’t speak much (any?) English and I had never met her daughter (who is my age and attends a University in Prague).

For those of you who may not fully appreciate the total immersion language experience – it’s terrifying. Especially if your best (and only?) quality is putting people at ease through conversation. But that aside, it takes tremendous mental effort to be concentrating on understanding and responding in another language all day, to the point where you feel physically exhausted. We take it for granted both how much we use language and how little we need to think about it. And it’s just embarrassing having to pause before every word and still mix up conjugations, declensions, and vocabulary.

So it was with a brave face and a lot of trepidation that I walked into Ivana’s modest apartment and met her daughter, Katka. Continue reading

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Things I’ve learned from writing letters

Sometimes life keeps us busy and sometimes Netflix masquerading as life keeps us busy.

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I’ve been away from home for a year and four months. It’s been nine months since I last visited and it’ll be nine more before I’m home for good. Kind of a long time to be away. From live-at-home college student to nine time-zones away from my family, I have found unexpected, inexpressible comfort in snail mail.

As a kid, I tried keeping pen pals but I would eventually lose enthusiasm and forget to write back. Aren’t we glad to know I have always been slightly lazy and self-absorbed.

But here, on the other side of the world, handwritten letters are my life-line. They’re the closest thing I have to home – they’re genuine pieces of it, actually. They’re slivers of someone’s heart, inked over with love and mailed with an official stamp that says, “This person cares enough about you to buy a half-inch scrap of sticky paper from the US government.”

It means a lot.

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But in writing letters I’ve learned things about myself, about people and about life. I’d like to share a few.

    1. Heart is in the content, soul is in the detail – We pour our hearts out in letters – things we like, people we care about, thoughts that have been weighing on our minds. But the things that best reflect the finer aspects of who we are, often, are unwritten. They’re the choice of stationary (or lack thereof), the doodles in the margins or on the envelopes, the tidiness of the address or the lilt of the pen. These things say: attention to detail, free spirit, practical, steady. I like that I have a friend who only sends me postcards from our hometown and one who always takes up the entire front of the envelope with my name in different fonts. I like that I can immediately recognize letters from one of my fellow expats because he has used the exact same sized envelope for the last year, and frankly, it’s pretty big. I like seeing who people are when they put themselves through the mail.
    2. Beauty comes in waiting – Sometimes it takes a week or two, sometimes it takes several months to hear back from people. Part of this is that letters take time to travel and I’ve had the pleasure of sending letters to some of the remotest corners of the world this year. I learned early not to be too antsy in waiting for replies. There was a time when I’d check the mailbox twice a day and feel the crushing disappointment every time it was empty. But if we spend our whole lives waiting at the foot of the stairs for the mailman (which I have done), we will miss the joys that lay outside our door. It’s been wonderful to come home and be surprised by a letter sitting on the counter for me, knowing that it was well-waited for, not in anxiousness but in peaceful anticipation.
    3. The weather matters – Believe it or not, I love hearing about what the weather is like back home. All someone has to do is say, “It’s still hot here” and the scenes of San Diego’s Indian Summers come flooding off the page – hot days with cool nights, air more humid than it was in August as it waits for the first showers of September or October to wash through, and skies that get just a little hazy. It brings me right back to my front door step or to the Bonita main street. Sometimes friends will write me and say nothing much has changed – assuming that life abroad is inherently more interesting than life at home. But life is in the details, like weather and car problems and the new frozen yogurt flavor you are currently obsessed over. Don’t deprive me of the details.
    4. Don’t be picky in accepting love – As a kid, getting letters was all about me. It took a long time for me to learn that accepting love is as important as giving it. I am touched by the people who have mailed me notes, birthday cards and little care packages. Some of them completely surprised me because I just didn’t have the senders on my “good friends” radar when I left home. But it has been a blessing to receive and to return. Granted, getting jars of peanut butter, glow sticks, sticker pads, books and fluffy socks in the mail is a feeling that cannot be compared to anything else in this world, but I’m more grateful for the friendships that have come with them. As someone who always tried to fit in with the “perfect friend group” in the early years of high school (ahh, high school), discovering the joy of learning to love people because they loved you first has been eye-opening, humbling and wonderful.
    5. It’s never too late to start again Part of the reason why I was such a horrible pen-pal as a kid (and I’ll be the first to admit that part of me just quit when I realized I would never be able to afford Lisa Frank stationary), was because I felt like if I didn’t respond right away I couldn’t respond at all. How sweet it’s been to find that you can pick up a pen months after your last response and find both words and recipients ready to begin the adventure again. I got three letters from one of my more persistent friends before it became apparent that I just wasn’t going to write back. She stopped writing. I felt horrible. Sometimes life keeps us busy and sometimes Netflix masquerading as life keeps us busy. Finally I bought new stamps and wrote her a quick note. And just like that the steady flow of airborne paper returned, as did the delight in knowing I have a friend thinking about me on the other side of the world.
    6. Sharing life is important – Look, I realize that we all have our close-knit groups, our people, our bffs. Whatever. But we need people in our lives. People who see us from the outside, with whom we can share glimpses of our insides. We need support and accountability and the simple validation that a world exists outside our immediate geographical and emotional circumference. And we need people who will challenge us to rise to the calling of being that validation for others. Sharing our stories, even in small pieces, is both a pleasure and a privilege and I have been touched beyond measure by those who’ve both listened to mine and sent me theirs.

I save all my letters in a box under my bed. They are my most cherished souvenirs from my time abroad . . . Mementos to remind me that no matter where in the world we travel, the most amazing things we will ever discover will be love and friendship.

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Eagles on the playground

eagle at school

“Don’t say that word,” I told the three little boys who were shouting profanities at the chalkboard. The rest of my 4th graders were busily engaged in our classroom activity but there are always a few Ringo Jacks in the group…

“What does it mean?” asked Petr.

For a moment I saw my mom’s big brown eyes softly blinking at me and I heard her telling 10-year old Mary something like, “It’s just not a pretty word.”

Ah, to handle life’s difficult questions with the grace and elegance of my mother.

Unfortunately, I am not my mother.

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