A Matter of Weight and Size

One of the best things about traveling is packing to come back.

Everything comes down to weight, then size. The weight requirements are rarely negotiable, the size often is. How much does this weigh, objectively, in the world? How much does it weigh to me? Does the size make it too big to fit in the remaining space? What can I move, rearranged, rethink so that I can make room for this thing that weighs a lot to me? The more you pack, the more you leave a place knowing it could be forever, the better you get at learning what something weighs to you.

That clock you bought can—even should—be wrapped in shirts and returned to its box and bubble wrap with a glove shoved into the almost-space remaining at the top. Shove the other glove into a crevice nearby. Definitely leave behind the cheetah print slippers someone gave you because she didn’t check the size, and which you used for months even though you find cheetah print disturbing, because the slippers were free.

I like to buy jewelry as gifts precisely because the pieces are light and small and understood. Scarves, too, make great souvenirs because they stuff into the weirdest corners until every seam of the bag stretches and groans, its largest version of itself, but the scarf itself objectively weighs very little. I once picked up rocks in every town or significant location I visited throughout 5 week study abroad trip to three countries, bagging and labeling them like a Martian astronaut. And after that level of commitment I felt I had to devote the weight and space to take them all back across the Atlantic with me. Where they have sat on a shelf in a cookie tin ever since.

The goal is to fit everything you personally find weighty in your luggage. For international return travel, I usually only take one checked back and one carry-on. I buy a cheap duffle in Barcelona or a London street corner and stuff it with souvenirs and new clothes and whatever else I want to come home with me. The return trip gives me two checked bags and one carry-on.

Checked baggage generally cannot exceed 45 lb each. Thus the night before I leave a place where I’ve spend any significant amount of time becomes a stressful exercise in declaring my priorities, and a test of strength and endurance as I repeatedly heave my bag into my arms as I stand on a scale and calculate the bag’s weight.

Sort. Weigh. Weigh. Arrange. Rearrange. Weigh and pray. Tell myself to “Leave the gun, take the cannoli.” Get vicious. Re-sort. Weigh. Rearrange once more. Pray. Weigh. Add something back in that you cut. Weigh. Make a pile of what I’m leaving behind. Finally go to bed. Barely sleep.

When you’re home again and unpacking all your treasures for all your treasured to see, pray you reasoned well. Pray you have no regrets about the contents of the pile you left on your bed back in Johannesburg!

Things I Have Left Behind:
Slippers
Coats
Notebooks
Cardigans
An AirFrance blanket
An inflatable neck pillow
Belts
Medicine
Umbrellas
Jar of Peter Pan peanut butter

Things I Have Brought Home:
Magnets
Socks
London A to Z(ed)
A fancy clock
The Complete Works of Shakespeare
French- and Spanish-language editions of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
Stuffed animals
Boots
Rocks
Plastic shopping bags
Necklaces
A sword
A vuvuzela
Flags
Betty Crocker crepe mix

Things I Have Regretted:
Betty Crocker crepe mix
The Complete Works of Shakespeare
French- and Spanish-language editions of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
Rocks
An AirFrance blanket
Coats
Cardigans
Plastic shopping bags

Maybe you tend to drive. Maybe most of your trips are just to your grandmother’s and back. Maybe your return trip is heavy a cooler of leftover ham and more pie than you could possibly eat, but you still have one fewer bag after Thanksgiving than you did before. Maybe you don’t bring as much back from your trips as what you leave, so it’s a net loss. For good or ill. Light on gifts, heavy on exhaustion. Light on patience, heavy on endorphins. This is still a matter of weight and size. What did you choose to unload and leave behind? What was taken from you? What was important enough that you made sure to bring it back?

My past two trips have been of the lighter-returning-than-leaving sort. The first instance confuses me, as I didn’t leave anything behind. Not even accidentally, as far as I can tell. And yet it was easier to pack, load my bags into the rental, check into security, and get all my stuff back to my house again after we landed than it was to get it to Virginia in the first place. On my most recent trip, I took a lot of food for Thanksgiving and some gifts, so I knew I’d be lighter on the way back. However, I also brought a good-sized care package home with me, so you’d think it would have worked itself out to about even. Not so.

Maybe I’m just much better at packing to come home than I am to go somewhere. After all, going somewhere is full of unknowns. Will it rain? When? Will I be caught in it? Is this enough socks? What if it’s hotter than expected? Maybe I should pack a pair of shorts, just in case. It’s November in Middle Georgia, after all. You’re as likely to sweat as you are to shiver. So I tend to pack for a number of possibilities and encounter few of them. On the way back, as long as all the essentials end up at my house eventually, it’ll be fine. I know what home holds. I know I can adapt to it.

Now that you’ve been traveling for a while and are getting really good at this, look deeper than the lists. What was important enough that you never took it to begin with? What do you somehow end up carrying back and forth every trip, but you can’t remember the last time you actually used or needed it?

I’m this way with hair dryers. I know that there is one at my parent’s house and one at my grandparents’ house and even one at my brother’s apartment, as well as at almost every hotel in the country, and yet I still find myself trying to justify its odd shape and bulky curves and never-ending cord to myself as I pack for each trip. And I almost never take it. I used to, but I’ve packed a lot since then.

A “Me, Too” Story

This week on Facebook, I’ve seen a lot of posts saying “Me, too.” The movement started ten years ago but has gained momentum lately in the wake of Harvey Weinstein’s long-awaited public shaming for being a sexual predator, protected and enabled by many for decades.

The language we use to talk about sexual harassment and sexual abuse is generally passive (ie, “she was harassed” instead of “a stranger harassed her”). However, sexual harassment and abuse are not things that happened to women because they’re women, like menstruation. They happen because men do them to women. Men, not exclusively but most widely, are the actors in this. They harass and abuse, and other men don’t do anything to stop it. Instead, they laugh or dismiss or ignore or excuse or look embarrassed and turn away. (Don’t say, “Not me.” You’ve done it. You may or may not have noticed when you enabled another man’s harassment or abuse. You know so many women saying, “Me, too.” We aren’t all getting harassed or abused by the same five of men in the world. You know harassers and abusers. You may or may not have noticed.)

As a woman, you learn very early that every man can be a threat. And there are plenty of women who abuse and harass, and victims are not only women. I don’t want to belittle that violence, and I don’t want to erase the victims. But masculinity is toxic and a constant possible threat to my happiness, my contentment, my safety. I could talk about a lot of harassment experiences but I only want to tell one story.

So I’m not going to tell you stories about the rocks and gum and vulgar words that have been thrown at me while I’ve been driving my car. I’m not going to talk about the man who rubbed his erect penis against me in a crowd at a parade. I’m not going to talk about the man who pushed against me and tried to kiss me at a circus. I’m not going to talk about the guy who stood in my driveway and screaming my full name for five minutes when I wouldn’t go outside to see him. I’m not going to talk about the high schooler in the stairwell who touched my breast as he ran past me, or the professor who put his hand high on my thigh during a class field trip. I’m not going to talk about the men who shouted and whistled and whooped at me as I walked to class, into the grocery store, on my way to church, in my own front yard. I’m not going to talk about the kissy faces and shouts about my body that have been cast at me for more years than I can count. I have no idea when it started. Men were looking at me, and leering at me, and saying things I didn’t understand when I was so young. All I knew was that I was uncomfortable and sometimes afraid. I didn’t know what they were doing or thinking. I didn’t know, yet, that I was being harassed.

The story I will tell happened six years ago, still affects my actions, and can still deeply upset me. I was driving from my best friend’s house to my parents’ house, where I was currently living. I was on a familiar stretch of interstate about three hours into the five hour trip when a man in a green truck, with a landscaping company name and number on the back blew the horn at me. I thought something might be wrong with my car, so I slowed down a little and looked over the driver. He was grinning, leering, and started making kissing faces at me, licking his lips and running his hands along the wheel as if it were my body.

My automatic reaction was disgust, and I know it my face distorted with it. I hit the gas and zoomed away, my heart hammering fast, shaking and angry and feeling vulnerable. He was pulling an ill-attached trailer with a picnic table strapped in upside down. I knew a trailer should not be driven at high speeds, so I thought my burst of speed would leave him far behind, but he sped up, too. And up, and up.

For 20 minutes, he chased me, pulling alongside me, cutting me off then slowing down, and every time he thought I could see him, whether he was in front or beside me, he made those same licking, kissing faces at me through his window.

He was in a landscaping truck. The number was on the back. I was going too fast—more than 90 miles an hour—trying to get away from him and I was too afraid to take a hand off the wheel to pick up my phone in the cupholder. Not to take a picture, not to call the number on the back of his truck that he was harassing me in, not to call 911 or anyone else. It went on so long, him driving so recklessly through all the other cars to chase me down the interstate, that I realized he might cause me to wreck. I could die, or I could be injured and trapped, and what if he was the only person who stopped? What if he made someone else wreck? We were going too fast and he was driving too recklessly. He didn’t care about my life. He didn’t even see me as a human or he wouldn’t be going to these lengths to harass me. He wouldn’t be harassing me at all if he thought of me as anything more than an object for his lewd appetites, someone to have power over.

Finally, I decided I couldn’t keep running from him, that it was too dangerous, so I scanned the other drivers as I buzzed past them. When I got to a black Suburban driven by a couple who looked to be about my parents’ ages, I slowed down and wedged myself in between them and a car driven by two men. I tailgated the couple for two miles so that when the harasser pulled alongside me again, I would have witnesses, including male witnesses. Or, maybe he would leave me alone. Maybe he wouldn’t cut me off and actively threaten my life again, if he thought might hurt these other people—other men—too. Any woman alone in public (and maybe not even alone) could have been the one he targeted, so I didn’t expect him to have more respect for the women in the cars around me, so I had picked cars with men and a woman in them to wedge my car between.

The harasser did pull alongside me. He rode in my blind spot so he could see me but I couldn’t see him unless I turned my head. When I didn’t, he pulled forward, our windows side by side, so he could see my expression when he blew his horn at me.

I didn’t look at him. I stayed exactly on that black SUV’s bumper and I looked at the heads of the couple, the woman’s swiveling toward the man in the green truck.

And then my harasser pulled onto an exit ramp.

Relief drenched me, but I didn’t trust it. He might get back on. He might still come after me. And maybe this time there wouldn’t be any other cars around. Maybe this time he’d run me off the road. Or maybe this time I wouldn’t see him and he’d follow me off my exit, and I wouldn’t let myself think about what might happen then.

I backed off a little but stayed exactly behind that SUV for another mile or two, checking my rearview and side mirrors constantly, looking for the harasser’s truck and trailer to come back at me. When it didn’t, I got in the other lane and slowed down just enough that the other two cars could get ahead. I felt embarrassed that I’d been targeted, that I’d driven so seemingly erratically, that I’d risked their safety too by trying to shield myself with them. But I also felt vulnerable without them. I was terrified that the same harasser, or even someone knew, was going to come up behind me and this would all start all over again.

Another ten or fifteen minutes passed before I forced myself to let those two cars out of my sight.

I called my best friend, told her what happened, and asked her to write down the name of the landscaping company so I wouldn’t forget it. But I was so adrenaline high that my brain had already garbled it. When I got home, after telling my parents what had happened, I couldn’t find an exact match to the company name. I wanted to call and complain to the owner of the company. Although it might have been the owner of the company who had been harassing me. I considered calling the police, but I’d crossed state lines. I never did report it.

If it were to happen now, I would have done some things differently, but if your inclination on reading this is to criticize my actions, you are part of the problem. You are why harassment and abuse happens. Because it is not my fault I was harassed. That man is the only one at fault. He should never have harassed me. He should never have endangered me and every other driver on that stretch of road for those twenty minutes. He harassed me because I am a woman who exists in public. Criticizing my actions blames me for his harassment, recklessness, and utter lack of respect for the autonomy of another human being. And please don’t wonder whether he has a wife or daughters or a sister. Men shouldn’t have to have close relationships with women to see women as people.

This incident hasn’t stopped me from driving or taking long trips, but it has forever changed how I drive. For instance, after six years, I still don’t meet other drivers’ eyes. Friends say that they see me in my car all the time, but I don’t ever see them because I never, if I can at all help it, meet another driver’s eyes. That’s not why I was harassed, but it was the first action I took in that incident. He blew the horn, and I looked. He blew the horn so that I would look.

The number one rule for dealing with street harassment, which women learn at a young age, is do not engage. Do not engage with the man or men harassing you, shouting at you, cat-calling you, trying to provoke you. They want a reaction. They want to feel powerful. And not engaging won’t stop the harassment, but sometimes they’ll get bored, and sometimes they won’t take the harassment any further than shouting. Maybe they won’t throw anything. Maybe they won’t follow you.

I’ve taken lots of long trips since then. Some alone, others with friends. I learn detours and alternate routes everywhere I go. I’ve learned to use my cell phone while under pressure, especially when driving. I have the ability to call hands-free if I need to. I’ve even trained myself not to look around at a blown horn at a stoplight. I’ve developed plans for what happens if someone starts following me in my neighborhood, in a place I’m familiar with, or in a place I don’t know.

Sometimes, like earlier this week on my way home from work, I can still feel terrified by what happened and what could have happened that day, and mostly by what could happen to me now, at any moment. Even if the drivers around me have done nothing wrong, or seem to have made no notice of me at all, I don’t look at them. They could men or women or tigers, but I don’t look, and I can still feel afraid of them. After all, at any moment, some bored or power-desperate man may pick me out, simply for being nearby and for being a woman.

I shouldn’t have to revisit such painful, frightening memories because painful, frightening instances should never have happened, to me or anyone else. I shouldn’t have to change my behavior in hopes that a future harasser will pick some other woman instead of me.

That’s what the “What was she wearing?” question means, by the way. It means, “You should have dressed differently so the harasser/abuser would have picked some other person to harass or abuse.” And I hate that question. I should be safe to get into my car in my front yard or drive to the grocery store or walk out of a movie theater without being shouted at, gestured at, touched, or followed. It doesn’t matter what I wore while I other people harassed me. I shouldn’t hear laughter from enablers while some man is harassing me. Most women know this inherently, and will do what they can to help another woman while also trying to avoid being targeted. I’m so sorry to those women I was too afraid to try to help.

I shouldn’t have to say “Me, too” for men, and many women, to understand how widespread and serious the problems of sexual harassment and abuse are. But people don’t realize. And women need to know they aren’t alone. And some need to say it for the first time.

Me, too.

Me, too.

Me, too.

Me, too.

Circles

Writing feels useless. And stupid. And lonely. 

But I hate disappointing people, or even feeling like I might have disappointed someone. And I hate to quit. Well, I hate being a quitter. At least I’m stubborn. At least I have that going for me.

So in the hopes that this will end up being something sort of meaningful to somebody, maybe somebody I don’t even know (which feels even more lonely than anything I’ve said so far), I’m going to talk about circles.

Last weekend I spent a long weekend at my brother’s, with his girlfriend and my boyfriend, so we could see the total eclipse. Macon was experiencing a 95% eclipse, but for just 4 hours of driving, I could see my brother and introduce our respective significant others, and see a bright circle in the sky. The circle I’m referring to is the corona, the white circle of the sun’s atmosphere visible around the moon in the three minutes of a total solar eclipse. There is no corona at 95%, in Macon. I had only ever seen photos, and the Heroes TV show logo, and I wanted to see the sun’s corona for myself. I’ve talked before about how much I love space, and after three terrible weeks at work on top of three incredibly busy weeks in my personal life, and after a week of being sick, I wanted my boyfriend and my brother and interesting space things to all be in the same place at the same time. 

However, much as the moon and the sun only seemed to occupy the same space at the same time during the eclipse, my weekend didn’t go to plan. Not just because I was exhausted and recovering from a bad cold, but because of unmet expectations and my inability, especially while so drained, to recognize how my supine personality was working against me. When this happens, I find myself struggling with the same things I’ve struggled with in the past. You’d think what I learned would have stuck better than that. I look through past journals and prayers and blog posts and constantly tick off a box in my head for lessons I must now relearn. 

I thought of this phenomenon first on the drive to my brother’s as I told Tyler about the movie “Letters to Juliet.” It used to be one of my favorites, but I noticed a pattern. I would watch it, enjoy it thoroughly, and hate my life afterwards. It’s a movie about traveling, and writing, and love, and each time I watched it (the last of which was two years ago), I was pining for all three. I wanted to be traveling but wasn’t. I wanted to be writing but was struggling to finish anything. And I wanted to be in love but had never been. As I told Tyler this, I had to force back tears. I wish it was because I was so thankful for him, and that after so many years of learning to be lonely but happy I felt the gravity of the blessing of being in love and happy. No, I fought tears because once again I am not traveling and not writing.

I don’t need to see the movie again to see the circles I’ve drawn in my life. Just as I knew two years ago when I last watched two people fall in love on a road trip to a Tuscan Winery with Vanessa Redgrave, I know that this is a wholly unrealistic situation. I also know it prompts me to make an equally fictitious summation of my life. There are so many things I love about my life, including the fact that I have traveled. A lot. And written a lot. And loved many, many people. I knew this two years ago, and the year before that, and every second I have let myself lie about my life. I know these thoughts are based in fear, including my old nemesis the fear of missing out, and not in fact. I struggled, even as Tyler sat beside me and held my hand, to relearn the lesson and view my life more frankly.

You know it’s bad when a more frank perspective of yourself would be more compassionate of you.

Since the three minutes I saw the corona, I’ve wanted to write about the eclipse. I enjoyed telling my co-workers what I saw, how the air felt, and inadvertently convinced my boss that he should travel to experience the total solar eclipse in 2024. Yet to write it down, when we are inundated with images and accounts from countless other people, what can I say? What use could it be? And how can I encompass my experience of those three minutes? Three minutes which I regretted being gone the moment the diamond of light appeared at the cusp of the moon’s top right quadrant. Three minutes which I now want desperately to experience again in 2024.

What can I write that hasn’t been written before? What can I say that will mean anything to anyone anywhere? Ageless questions, ones I used to spurn as being from those who had not committed, or fully committed if I was being charitable, to the life of writing. And now I’m asking these very questions. I’ve circled back.

Here’s to breaking a circle. Even if it’s stupid and useless and lonely.

The corona was “a ring of pure and endless light.” More pure than anything I’ve ever seen. It was easy to forget that there’s the moon between the sun and me, easy to forget that this isn’t science fiction. With the sunset in every direction, a loop of gold around our dimness, and with the purple and blue and pink thunderheads on our periphery, it was easy to feel both chosen and insignificant. In the dim, identifying planets and noting planes, we looked at the white-silver atmosphere of the star that keeps us alive. How little light was needed for the world to seem normal. And now normal was gone, replaced in the sky with this unearthly beauty. And silence. I felt like angels should be singing arias around us and over us and through us. But there was nothing.

Well, not nothing. There were the crickets, and the birds swooping to their nests, and all the summer sounds of twilight that were out of place in this dim not-night. People we couldn’t see shouted, and I think we did too, at the moment of totality. People on a sandbar in the river behind us, people in the apartment complex’s pool, people on their balconies, people with lawn chairs in the parking lot. If it weren’t for those shouts, it would have been easy to believe it was only happening to us. And in those shouts I felt the tremble of alarm and surprise echoing backwards and forwards throughout human existence. We knew it was coming. We’d seen photos of past eclipses and live videos of this same eclipse experienced in Oregon and Kentucky, and still we shouted when the lid closed on the jar and we were in darkness.

The moment of totality should have been as gradual as the rest of the eclipse, but it wasn’t. The streetlamp came on beside us, a disorienting LED surge at the moment of dark.

Though, it wasn’t dark exactly. It wasn’t like night. It wasn’t like twilight. It was like the pantyhose filter used to film “The Fiddler on the Roof” had been dropped over the world. Or, I suppose, it was like an Instagram filter. Everything we could see was dingier, a kind of brown, except for the sky.

Three solar flares were stretching our yellow sun’s atmosphere in pure white shoots. Nothing appeared yellow about our sun in that moment. Nothing appeared familiar. No feature of our moon was visible. It’s dark side was absolute and temporary. I wanted to watch the corona for hours. I wanted to see the solar flares change the corona’s shape. I wanted to look into the vivid sky, wave at Jupiter and Venus, and peer 360 degrees around me at the strong sunset.

I took four photos quickly, immediately, including one selfie. I used my Sky Map app to identify the star and planets we saw. We noted a drone and some planes. The frenzy of all that newness began to subside. I said I wanted to look at the corona for hours. I glanced at the tree below the streetlight where we’d looked at tiny sun crescents earlier.

“It’s ending!” my brother’s girlfriend cried and my soul shouted “No!” Frenzy took me. I looked up, and the diamond on the ring of light was growing. I couldn’t see the flare shapes in the corona anymore and my eyes stung. One percent of the sun reemerged and we fumbled for our eclipse glasses. Even one percent was too much to try to look at without protection. The frenzy was chased by disbelief, regret, and finally resignation.

I would have liked to have stayed there, watching the crescent sun grow back into the disc I’ve always known, but my life’s cares had rushed back with it’s single percent of light. We wanted to get ahead of as much traffic as we could. We stood up, walked back inside. Tyler and I shouldered our last bags and tucked our eclipse glasses inside my writing notebook. I drove the four hours back to Macon thinking about circles and regret and how my next chance to see the corona will be in 2024, I considered how much farther away than a four-hour drive the totality path will be, and how I’ll need to take more than one day off work so I can spend more time with the eclipsing moon and inconstant sun.

I hope I can. It’d be a good circle.

(Photo courtesy of NASA)

On the Eve of Great Change

Last week, Ingleside’s young adult ministry launched The Summer Gathering, a mid-week worship service for young adults. It’s more liturgical than the church’s usual services, and even seemed more reflective. Or more contemplative. Anyway, it was for me.

Blake’s sermon focused on God visiting Jacob at the river Jabbok in Genesis 32, the wrestling match that ensued and lasted all night. The gist is that this restless, sleepless night came on the eve of great change. Jacob knew that when he went to bed. He’d see his brother the next day, his brother who might want to kill Jacob for his past trickery and theft. He knew his life was about to change, and he was so afraid, and though he began to wrestle with God wanting to win, when he finally learned that he was hopelessly outmatched, Jacob just wanted to hold on long enough to convince or compel God to bless him. In reality, God changed Jacob’s name and very nature, and Jacob because Israel, father of a nation.

As I sat in this cozy space, warmly lit with sandy carpet and translucent curtains, I remembered one of the longest, most restless nights I’ve ever experienced.

I was camping in the desert in Egypt. It was the white desert, so named for the chalk imbued with shells and shark teeth and littered by fragments of petrified wood—evidence of the long-ago sea in this area—that has been carved by the wind-driven sand into sculptures. It was the final night of a two-week trip, led by my favorite professor, to study the country’s politics and role in that area of the world. We’d had class in a Nile garden, visited the military museum, climbed inside a queen’s pyramid at Giza, attended a mosque during a service, and been followed by secret police. We’d visited a legal group, rested at a Coptic monastery, and been ordered not to photograph the facade of a Jewish synagogue. We’d also had plenty of internal strife, acting either too much or nothing at all like the siblings we pretended to be, fissuring viciously as a few of us tried to hold hands across the seams.

It was the last night. It was January. The evening had been pleasant by the fire and within an open-air room of carpets, eating roasted chicken and listening to our drivers and guides speaking Arabic across the table from us. But now we were in sleeping bags, weighed down by blankets so heavy I could barely roll over. I was in a very small tent with Kristen—my friend, ally, and fellow Christian—that was barely wide enough to hold us both and not quite long enough to also hold our suitcases. Exhausted, cold, after dinner we nestled down until the sleeping bags were over our heads and fell asleep.

It was horrible. The wind whistled and rippled the canvas. The temperature continued to drop. And nightmares plagued me, waking me too frequently to count, sometimes still paralyzed, and exhaustion always pulled me back under. Amongst other things, in the very late and very quiet, I dreamed someone had come into the tent and drugged us, then kidnapped Kristen. I woke, but the environment and sigh of the wind were exactly the same as they had been in the dream. I tried to roll over but couldn’t, the thick blanket too heavy. I tried to twist my head around enough to see her, but I couldn’t see anything the mound of my own shoulder.

I was starting to panic, not sure if the dream had been a dream, so I said into the air, feeling small and alone, “Kristen?”

Immediately, she answered, “It’s okay, I’m still here.”

Relieved, I lay my head back down and went back to sleep.

In the morning, one of our leaders woke us so we could watch the sun rise, something we’d been excited about the night before. Now I wanted to cry because the night was finally over. We dragged on coats and trudged into the sand, not speaking. Our group found private places, away from each another but staying in sight. At any time, I could count us, just as I, the oldest student and pretend big sister, had been doing all trip. The only reasonable one among us worked to restart the fire. Silent, facing east, we waited. And when the entirety of the sun had crested the sands, spilling intense golden light on our faces and pinkening the sky, we climbed down from our chalk mountains and bunched together around the fire.

We had all had nightmares. Every American, which concerned our translator and guide, Ahmed. Most of us had had more than one, had woken frequently or laid awake for what we assumed was hours. We’d suffering from our dreams, all of which had involved each other. Car crashes and murders. Returning to Cairo to find the airport burning. Kristen had dreamed that something vague but terrible had happened to me, but she’d been facing me when the nightmare woke her and could see that I was okay. She didn’t remember reassuring me. She didn’t know why she said what she did. When I told her about the dream that had prompted me to say her name, she shivered at how eerily her own words had matched my fear.

As we broke camp, it rained. In the desert. None of our guides or drivers had ever seen that before. Ahmed didn’t even know the Arabic word for rainbow when we saw one arch from horizon to horizon on our way back to Cairo. Later that day, Tunisia ousted its president. The first protests in Egypt, organized by members of that legal group we’d visited, were held in Tahrir Square that day. Sitting at our gate that night, waiting to board our flight to Istanbul, we watched the Egyptians watch the news, their faces opening with wonder and possibility. That day was the beginning of the Arab Spring, which saw the fall of Egyptian President Mubarak and the police state we’d spent 2 weeks studying from within. Footage in the coming months showed clashes on the same streets we’d walked and in the same squares we’d bought shawarma. Coptic monks were gunned down outside their monastery, and I’m still not sure if it was the one we visited or the monks who’d hosted us.

Even now, when I hear of a bombing at an Egyptian church, I remember the little girl who prompted us to take off our shoes before entering the prayer chapel in the Coptic church, I pray that she and her parents and baby brother are safe. I think of the Last Supper and picture the stone table in the dining hall at the monastery, at which the bishop sits with the oldest monk on his left and the youngest on his right. I remember the reedy spot by a high wall where tradition says Moses was found as a baby. I picture the sign on the interstate pointing to the wealthy suburb where Joseph’s wife came from. When a rainbow comes into my sky, I wonder if another one has come into Ahmed’s sky in the past 6 years. All those wonderful people. All those English phrases offered on the streets, “Welcome.” “Hello.” “Come please.” “Welcome to Egypt.”

My night before great change was long, restless, thick with cold and nightmares. Jacob walked the rest of his life with a limp as a result of his long, restless night, but he discovered that his brother no longer hated him and even embraced him. And his life by no means became easy, but he was blessed, and he did move through the world differently. In a small way, so have I.

Late-night Drives

When was the last time you were out at 1 a.m.? Or 11 p.m.? Or 3 a.m.? Whatever really late is to you.

A couple weeks ago, Tyler and I were coming back from a musical at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta and it was late. We got back to his apartment, I packed up my things—the bags and shoes I had littered across his apartment in the 5-minute whirlwind I’d created getting ready after work. And I sat down on the couch for, like, 2 seconds. And when I woke up it was even later.

Driving home, I was surprised by how many people were on the roads and the interstate. I wondered how many miles that truck driven in the last 24 hours. How far the people in that car have been today and how far they will have to go before they sleep. Did they go to a concert or baseball game and live farther away than I do? Did they get a late-night call from a friend, for injury or illness, and are on their way to them?

I wondered about the car at the stop light and why that truck is coming out of my neighborhood. A parent headed to the store for their sick child? Or maybe just someone who can’t sleep and wants to drive around for a while. Maybe they are people like me, who stayed too long or fell asleep or watched a really long movie and are now going home to somewhere close by.

But the later it gets, the more dire I think those stories probably are. And I wonder especially about people on the interstate. What happened today, and in these last hours, to put them on the highway this late at night?

Everyone who has had a very late, very terrible night driving, I hope there was someone praying for you as you went by. And I hope you found a hug when you got where you were going.

A Moment at Ellis Island

I’m not totally sure what I’m trying to accomplish here. Maybe I just want to share a moment with you.

I was on the 2nd floor of the main building and museum at Ellis Island, and had paused to look at the open diary of a woman who had worked on the island. The diary entry for that day detailed being summoned to escort a teenaged girl into Ellis Island for deportation proceedings. All individual women had to be escorted by female employees (and single women were not allowed to proceed off the island without escort by a male relative). The teenager had an unspecified mental illness and had become violent in the mid-Western town where she’d settled.

As I bent over the pages, puzzling out the carefully looping, neat script, a young man with fair skin and hair, who looked to probably be in college, came to stand a little beside and behind me. I shifted over in case he wanted to see. Instead, he asked in a light accent of strong consonants, “Can you read it?”

“Yeah,” I answered, straightening to face him. “It’s not easy, but I can.”

“Would you tell me what it says?”

I began to explain, pointing to how far I’d gotten, only about halfway down the first page of the spread.

I read on, and the young man stood still, waiting. After another couple of paragraphs, I told him that the judge and other male officials overseeing her hearing asked the employee writing the journal if she was afraid. She wasn’t. She told them she would just lay down on the girl if she became violent so she wouldn’t be able to hurt anyone or herself.

My fellow Ellis Island visitor grinned at this and looked back at the page. A couple friends came up to him, paused as I kept reading, then moved out of the room. I expected him to go, too, but he didn’t. He wanted to know all those pages shared. And he waited—patient, pleasant, non-threatening, interested—for me to learn myself so I could impart it to him.

When I reached the first description of the girl, I caught him up and read out the traits: brunette, fair skin, seventeen, German.

“German?” he asked, beaming. “I’m German!”

“That’s amazing,” I told him. It wasn’t, in a strict sense. No more than me being born in the US is amazing. But I recognized that his connection to this woman, nameless at least on these two pages, was profound even before he learned of her country of origin. Now, it was amazing.

I read the rest aloud, no longer worried about bungling a word at first or misreading an unfamiliar phrase. He stepped forward, almost beside me, looking at my finger on the clear case as I traced my way to the end of the page.

“She was German,” he said again, when I’d finished. His face almost glowed from delight and awe. “I can’t believe it.”

A little circle of other museum patrons had formed behind us, listening to me read, and were now side-stepping and breaking apart.

“Yeah,” I said. “I wish we knew her name.”

“Yeah,” he answered, looking at the pages again. Then, “Thank you for reading it to me.”

“You’re so welcome! I’m glad I could share it with someone.”

I left the room first, he lingering by the case. I wondered all sorts of things about him, but despite that feeling of connection we’d shared, I didn’t feel close enough to ask a lot of questions of him. “Why are you here, at Ellis Island? Where in Germany are you from? What did your friends say to you when they left you here, waiting for me to read more of the journal and interpret it to you? Where are you going now? What are you hoping for in life?” So I kept going, and even though I tend to take museums at a near glacial pace, I didn’t see him in any of the subsequent rooms. But I keep thinking about him, his rich, full life, and the five minutes we bent over a long-dead woman’s journal and read her words detailing a ten-minute span of a single day in her rich, full life.

Things I Miss about Manchester

I’ve lived in Manchester twice, the first time in the neighborhood of Withington for 4 months and the second time in City Centre for 6 weeks. The flat I lived in the second time was about 10 minutes, walking, from the Manchester Arena where this week’s suicide bombing targeted young concert-goers and their parents. I would have been one of those people offering, at 2am, a cup of tea, a chance to recharge phones, even a spare bed.

To honor this city I adore and greatly miss, I’m making a list:

1. The people. Individual people, absolutely. The first I knew something had happened in Manchester was when I started getting Facebook notifications that friends had checked in as safe. But I also just miss the spirit of Mancunians. This is a former industry town, red-bricked and soot-stained with old canals and some gleaming new facades. First-rate public transit. Prams (strollers) in parks. Excellent museums and art galleries. Where there are more students than you can reasonably hope to count. Where I once saw a person in a rabbit costume walk sedately up the street. Where the Queen once attended a couple’s wedding in city hall. Where I could look up from my kitchen table and into the faces of passengers on the top level of a red double-decker. Where a statue stands of Abraham Lincoln, commemorating that though the American Civil War decimated Manchester’s economy, the ending of slavery in the US was worth it. They are extraordinary people.

2. Piccadilly Gardens. From hot chocolate at an outdoor table to watching children play in the fountain, from whirring over the city in a carnival swing to the Primark at the corner (good grief, I miss that Primark). I miss just walking through on my way to Arndale’s food court for lunch with a friend or to Printworks then a pub. (Both Arndale and Printworks are mere blocks from the arena.) I miss the ridiculous two Starbucks locations on opposite sides of the square, and a Cafe Nero, and another Cafe Nero around the corner. I miss getting desperate enough for a single Krispy Kreme donut that I pay that price and queuing for the bus in the freezing cold. I also miss running to the first stop up Portland Street when I arrived too late and my bus had already shut its doors to depart.

3. Food. MCR loves curry. And American restaurants. And Chinese food. Mostly curry, which is as it should be. And Chinatown is fantastic (I have a favorite place). Krispy Fried Chicken, Kansas Fried Chicken, and various other establishments (including KFC) can be avoided quite well, thank you. (The meat is hallal, there’s no such thing as extra crispy, they fry in olive oil, and it’s the greasiest food you can manage to find in all the Isles.) A friend begged me to go with him to the Arndale mall food court when Taco Bell opened. I know someone who threatened to move when the American-style burger place in the Northern District burned. But oh, goodness. The curry!

4. Parks. This is very much an English thing, but Manchester’s parks are amazing. I already talked about Piccadilly Gardens. Then there’s the one nearest my flat in Withington with double duck ponds and willows that look ready to whomp. The one where the Salford and Quays meet. The one where my friend took her boys to play every day, even in the rain, and where I also took them when I babysat them. The one we’d cut through visiting friends in Fallowfield. The one where I saw a 5-actor production of “Pride & Prejudice”. The ones attached to homes in the National Trust, great sweeping grounds of manor houses like Dunham Massey, Tatton Park, and Lyme Park (the house used as Pemberley in the classic “Pride & Prejudice” miniseries). There are even a couple more I can’t place. But parks are well kept and well valued by Mancunians.

5. City Katie. I’ve written about her before. She was her best self in Manchester. And she got really good at applying eye liner, mascara, lipstick, and blush on the train. Less so on the bus.

I long to hear the Mancunian accent. I long to queue! Every Christmas I miss the markets with an almost physical pain. I find myself wistful for a particular yarn shop, wishing I could get my watch battery changed at a certain hardware shop. I yearn for a specific Italian restaurant and please, please give me Nando’s! Did I mention Primark? I miss Primark. The Piccadilly Gardens one.

Manchester is truly English (much more so than London), truly British (see halal meat and curry), truly in love with sports (Man City over United any day), truly lovely in just about every sense of the word. And I am so, so sorry for them. I am also immensely honored to have called Manchester home those short, pivotal times in my life.

Things I Already Miss about NYC

I spent last week in the city of lights, specifically in Brooklyn and I was immediately a bit of a snob about it. I miss the narrow, tall house, the smooth wooden banisters, the orange and red tulips on my dresser. I miss the wonderful friends who hosted me. And here are some other things I miss.

Delivery on everything. We didn’t even order in groceries or pillows or bagels or postcards. But I could have. And I’ve missed that freedom.

Interesting food. Also bagels. And pizza. And macarons. And cart pretzels (even though I didn’t have one, they were always nearby). The restaurants themselves were fascinating: long farm tables so you can share a workspace, round tables stacked with silver plates of pastries, a narrow counter at an open window, a tiny square table in a former church.

Walking culture. I almost never say, “Let’s walk there,” in my life in Macon, GA. It’s still rarer for everyone in a group to assume we’ll walk. Even at church I take the shuttle to and from the back lot where I park. But in NYC, of course we walked the 1.2 miles to the book store. Of course we walked the 8 blocks from the restaurant to the theater. And I’m happier doing so. And I discover so much more along the way. And the Brooklyn Promenade my first night in town irrevocably captured my heart.

Trains. I love them so much a friend called me Sheldon. Mostly, I love that I can travel hundreds of miles without long waits and baggage hassles (as in airports) and while free to read, write, crochet, work, or any number of other things not possible when driving. Trains are soothing, scenic, inspiring, and the least stressful way for me to travel.

Good public transit. Set me down anywhere in a city like New York, ask me to get anywhere else, and I can do it. I don’t need a car or bulky bags—I can’t take anything too heavy with me—I just take myself where I’m going. I get to people watch. I get to share the space and experience with strangers. I’m also, as on trains, free to use my time because I’m not busy driving.

Connections. I had no idea how far the Chrysler building is from the Empire State building. I had no concept of how close Brooklyn Bridge is to Freedom Tower. I saw movies and read books about New York, so every place in New York was a shot framed under a lamppost, a pan of the skyline, every location disjointed and without context. I couldn’t see how the pieces fit together, relate to one another, and continually marveled at how near things were, even more than how big. Plus, I love recognizing a place I’m seeing in front of me from a favorite TV show or a well-loved movie (“You’ve Got Mail” came up a lot).

History. Yes, I love history. Give me a good museum and I’ll be happy all day. But NYC is, in so many ways, sacred ground. Every inch I walked and every train car and every seat in every restaurant has been vital in a person’s life. More than one person. In an old city, my heart beats in the echoes of all the heartbeats around me and before me. For centuries. Including people I admire and people I ought to admire but don’t know.

Art culture. Sculpture installations, galleries, musicals, plays, schools, book stores, and every other form or product of art. NYC is a place for art. When you visit the city, you’re expected to see at least one Broadway musical. The names of galleries and museums can be rattled off by people who have never been been to the Big Apple: The Met, MOMA, the Guggenheim, the Natural History Museum. And I do love art in Macon as well, and in Atlanta, but there isn’t a culture surrounding art in the same way.

Parks. City folks love—and need—parks. And NYC’s parks are unique, like The Highline: a former above-ground rail line full of trees and grasses and flowers weaving through the West Side along the river. Sitting on a bench in Cadman Plaza, I watched children race their scooters and nannies change diapers while a tiny soccer practice was underway. I live near a wonderful park that I use often, but NYC’s walking culture combines with the unique flavors of neighborhoods for delightful beautiful in high contrast to the surrounding miles of concrete. Not that NYC lacks green beyond it’s parks. I was delighted to find tulips growing at bases of nearly every tree on the sidewalks of Brooklyn.

City Katie. I love who I am in a city. I move through the world confidently. I’m comfortable. I’m so happy. Even when something goes wrong (or many things), I have options and I solve problems. Some days the city wins, but I win far more frequently. I’m flexible, patient, amused and amusing. I do so much in a day. I buy things that bring me joy and that I don’t mind carrying for the rest of the day. (It’s a good litmus test, really: am I going to regret buying this after carrying and keeping up with it for four hours?) I have access to almost any experience I desire. I’m creative. I’m so tired by the time I flop into bed at night. I’m on a constant adventure. I love being this creative, curious, confident, capable person. Driving to work in an ill mood this morning, I missed her the most.

“No imagination, I guess.”

For the sake of privacy, I am going to be scant on certain details.

I went on vacation to a warm place on the coast. I was visiting a friend, we fell in with a local artist, and this artist took us to romp around a local, undeveloped island. There we met some of the people who live there, essentially off the grid, who have solar panels and cell phones but sleep in tents on land none of them own. They drag cast-off furniture up from the beach and cook over a campfire surrounded by rocks. This particular morning, when we appeared on the path and the artist called out her greetings, their leader invited the three of us into their camp.

After introductions, the islanders chatted with the artist, with whom they are familiar and friendly, catching up with her and catching her up. The biggest events since they’d last seen her related to an inflated sofa tucked between some trees on the island’s north side and a spat with usurpers who’d come to the island. These men had set up camp beside the tent of a couple who were now sitting beside the fire. The men had set up in the same clearing without asking permission and then had refused to move. They’d stayed up late making noise and moving around beside the couple’s tent, generally being pests until, one day while the couple was off the island, they ripped down their tent and threw their stuff into the trees. The woman wanted to retaliate with glitter bombs, which I thought a rather restrained response considering, but the mother of the island (a steady woman who spoke so rarely that every word had ten times the weight of anyone else’s) had advised against. And so, even the talk of retaliation had stopped. The male leader explained how unreasonable these people were, how the islanders around this fire would have helped them make another camp elsewhere, and been good neighbors to them, if they’d only asked.

He asked several times, clearly still frustrated, “Why move right there? Why take over someone else’s camp?” The others kept reiterating how close they’d set up their tent to the couple’s, how hot that camp is in summer, how each of them—even the mother—had tried to convince them to give the camp back to the couple.

“Why do it?” asked the leader again and again. “Why would someone be that way?” And as I studied the woven armoire adorned by parrot feathers, he answered his own question: “No imagination, I guess.”

It seemed like such a strange conclusion, that I turned back to him.

He said, “I guess they couldn’t look at a place and see its potential. I guess they were afraid of settling somewhere new, where they didn’t know if it’d flood on high moon tides or be covered by birds in winter. Not that we wouldn’t have told them. But maybe they couldn’t picture how it could be. I suppose they thought, ‘Well, these people have been living here for years so it must be an okay camp.’”

Still frustrated but clearly resigned to this new conclusion, he sighed, “Just no imagination, I guess.”

I distrust people with no imagination. No imagination to put themselves in another’s shoes, no imagination to reinvent a space or schedule so it’ll work for them. People who say, “Don’t ever change.” People who believe that society and systems won’t ever change.

Which is not to say that I’m fantastic at this. I try hard to imagine what might have created this fist-clenched woman in front of me or this selfish, vapid man. I try to consider who they might become, who I might become, and speak kindly. I try to look beyond “Well, this works for now/ever” and see what would make me happier. I don’t want to be someone with no imagination. I don’t want to mooch off of other people’s attempts to improve their lives. I don’t want to dismiss someone else’s way of living simply because haven’t lived that way. I don’t want to say I’m a dog person because, actually, I’ve never lived with a cat.

The leader’s words struck me as strange at the time. By way of explanations, it seemed shallow, a mite compared to the usurpers’ behavior. But the more I think on it, the more I do see the leader’s sense.

So, this week, I’m taking Birdie’s advice in You’ve Got Mail (one of my favorite movies). I’m daring to imagine that I can have a different life.

I’m not talking about huge changes necessarily. Getting up earlier, shifting some furniture, volunteering at a hospital, starting to dance again. I won’t do them all, but I’m imagining. And I’m daring to imagine bigger things, too, like living on a boat with a friend, trying online dating, taking singing lessons, pursuing my master’s, traveling abroad again.

I do love so much about my life, but it seems like a really good time to imagine.