On Adulthood; or, The Commencement of a Very Long Hike

Why does anybody ever hike?

There’s a comfort that many of us can get lately, these past couple hundred years. We walk outside for fun, not because we have to.

We don’t need to go out. Nobody’s telling us we have to go outside. For most of us in the U.S., we don’t thrust our feet into gnarled boots and drink bitter coffee before creaking outside to our own field in the frosty predawn to twist corn off stalks, over and over and over again until it’s done, in order to eat. We don’t need to taste our front yard for its cool mineral ping, in order to gauge its suitability for wheat or beans. We don’t need to feel a gnawing in our bellies about weather this season.

Now many of us have indoor jobs and grocery stores. We don’t have to go outside.

So why do we?

For me, it’s to dissolve the clutter. People clean out their homes and I clean out myself. I hike so I can feel clean.

I hike so I can discover.

I hike, now, so I can rethink what it means to be an adult.

Six years ago I was twenty-one and I was in love.  Nothing could tarnish it.  I was just besotted with the whole world. It was a honeymoon phase. Even its imperfections were lovely.  The world was alive, was throbbing with aliveness, with oceans and creatures and trees and whooshing sand and clouds and flowers and snow and people, people who grinned and wept and chattered in all different round and jagged languages, and my feet and my knees and my butt and my head were on the world except when I was in an airplane or a paraglider or a sea.

In the way that a lover becomes a student of the person he loves, in the way that he learns her food and her body and her God and her teeth, I became a student of the world and all the people in it.  My first identity was learner.  Please teach me, I said to the grass, to the raptors, to the weary man who stamped my passport in Dubrovnik, to my cousin Christopher in West Texas.

 I didn’t care what I learned. I knelt at the feet of each place I came to and allowed it to crack me open with unabashed faith that it would pour itself inside me.  Always, it did.  As long as I did my part—as long as I knelt at its feet and allowed the world to crack me like an egg, the world gurgled into my soul.  I was an extension of the world, grown up like a tree with feet. I was a human among humans, an animal among animals, a star circulator among star circulators.

Then these things, these regular things, happened. I graduated college. I worked in food service. Some people were cruel and some people were kind. I worked in conservation. I got skills. I went to graduate school. I lived in Austin and Nashville and Lubbock and New Mexico and Wyoming. Jobs were not all they were cracked up to be and were more than I ever expected.

I inhabited my adulthood.

For me, that meant that the feeling of openness, of connection, has simmered in me since I left the Bosphorus Strait, six years ago. It emerges in staccato conversations with close friends, a slash of red lipstick, a quiet trip to Nepal, seasonal outdoor jobs.  It seeps out over sweet drinks near an expanse of Austin sunset water.  Or in reading a smart book, or the scrawled comments of a professor I admire. Or alone, close to dawn, above secret New Mexico mountain mist.  Then the creativity, the freedom, the boldness, bubble into my surprised consciousness.

But over time, it has bubbled up less and less. I attribute this to inhabiting my adulthood too much, or the wrong way.

How do you come to terms with having already come of age?

Adults, it seems, are meant to be steady. We, especially those of us in academia, are meant to be sure. Many of us must be financially independent, caretakers of other creatures (dogs, children), voters, activists, artists, teachers, careermakers. In all of that, somehow, I began to feel that in order to masquerade as a successful adult, I needed to close in myself what I had so earnestly and lovingly surrendered to be cracked open before.

I think I’ve been doing it wrong. My perception of adulthood has become as follows:

Adulthood seems to mean I must be sure.

Adulthood seems to mean I must have a ready opinion on everything, including things I’m still thinking about.

Adulthood seems to neglect silliness.

Adulthood seems to bypass magic.

Adults seem to really think impossible things are impossible.

Adulthood seems to mean that sounding smart is more important than most other things.

If all that is adulthood, y’all can keep it, thanks.

But I don’t think it is. I think adulthood may be something more robust and vibrant than I’ve been giving it credit for. It’s time to reevaluate my perception of adulthood.

There are great things about being an adult, especially a single college-grad twentysomething adult: the freedom to choose your apartment or your partner or your career or whether you’ll have a dog; the ability to go after your dreams; the freedom, on a Saturday morning, to choose to wake up at ten and eat Froot Loops and watch Orange is the New Black for three hours, or choose to drink five cups of black coffee and then run ten miles in your local forest. In fact, this is a uniquely glorious time of adulthood.

So I’m going to take my very adult freedom and hike the 500-mile Colorado Trail this summer, in, perhaps, a quest for adulthood. I start this week.

An adult uses a map.

ColoradoTrail_Map_Posterlet

(Photo courtesy of the the Colorado Trail Foundation)

I want all those old, hastily-stapled cracks in my soul to reopen. I want the world to gurgle in once more, however it chooses. I am too small to choose, I’ve found. As one person in one body, I am too limited to choose what to let in and what not. Instead, the world ought to. The trail ought to. It’s the master.

Risking a Fairy Feast

In the old European fairy tales, the eeriest and grimmest of fairy tales, a person, a regular person not a fairy, was safe in fairyland as long as she did not eat the food there.
            Here is an example:
            Anna goes for a walk in the woods behind her house.  She sees a warm light in the distance.   When she follows it she finds a tiny cottage and the door is slightly ajar.  Anna, curious, creaks open the door.  Behind it is an enormous hall with an enormous table and hundreds of people with clear skin and sparkling eyes and richly dyed clothes.  They are eating more food than Anna has ever seen before, with the most exquisite textures—the juiciest birds, the most savory meats, the most emerald spinach and the most crimson apples, the latter of which somehow seem to have dyed everyone’s lips.  Everybody smiles at her, touches her with cool hands.  Someone pulls out a chair.  Anna sits.  The woman next to her bites into a peach.  Juice drips down her neck.  The man on the other side holds a turkey leg with his whole fist.  Anna hesitates and then she bites into a gold, soft roll.  It leaves a sweet sheen on her fingers and on her lips.  Immediately she forgets her own home and history and people.
            Here the important parts are these:
1.     Anna’s life has heretofore been rather stark in terms of sensuality.
2.     Certain traits, perhaps flaws, drive Anna more than sensible restraint, and they’re sort of her fault and also sort of not her fault.  She becomes consumed (ha) by curiosity and by desire, which she has already in various quantities someplace inside her personality.  But also some external force sweeps her toward the light, toward the door, toward the table, and ultimately, the crux of the story, toward the food.  Anna loses control and she must eat.
            The next thing that happens in the story is that Anna stays for what seems like a few minutes but when the spell is (luckily?) broken as a result of her clear-sightedness and willpower, and the hairy backs and pointy ears and beady eyes of the fairies emerge, and she stumbles out of the hall back into the woods, a hundred years have passed and everyone she knows is dead.
            I think this is the most pressing problem in food systems.
            In the story, Anna probably eats something like hard dark bread and watery beer most of the time, and then she enters into a rich sensuous world with rich sensuous food, and she consumes it, and then she is punished for her consumption/gluttony, and then she sees that the rich sensuous world was a lie, and then she faces a loneliness that is usually only hinted at in the stories, because the main point has been reached: do not trust sensuality.  It cannot be real.  Stick to your hard bread and watery beer.
              As an undergraduate I studied for a semester in Cape Town.  I remembered this fairy tale trope soon after I had gotten there.  The juice of produce there dripped over my skin.  Dates were fresh.  The first banana I had was on the University of Cape Town campus, outside at a metal wicker picnic table, with my new friends at lunch.  It tasted like how I never knew bananas could taste.  It tasted like a self-actualized banana. We ate peri peri chicken sandwiches for lunch and we ate birthday cake made with springbok butter.  We ate South Africanized versions of food we ate at home: red beans and rice, chili.  We drank gourds of umqombothi.  We ate beef and antelope and ostrich at braais. We ate, we ate, we ate.
            I am here now, I thought.  Once I eat this food I am a part of this place.  This food is of this place and now so am I.
            I thought maybe there could be a different moral to the fairy tale, a different way to read it.
            We tell the same fairy tale now, in our United States food culture.  The old storytellers used to know something that we now work hard to try to forget.  Food has power.  Food is a manifestation of place and an embodiment of place and a union of body and place.  When we die we become part of a place because maggots ingest our organs and then our bones become the minerals in the soil.  While we live we are part of a place because we eat it.  We eat and we are eaten.  Food is place. Perhaps my meaning was not clear earlier when I said this, but here it is again: food is the most powerful manifestation of place and our fear of this manifestation is the most pressing problem in food systems.
            Food has the power to propel away our control and sweep us into connection, into identity, into base survival.  Food is an equalizer—people of all classes need it and then shit it out—and food determines and describes class.
            Did our fear start with some kind of Puritanical anti-hedonism?  Did it start because the Catholic Church labeled gluttony as a Deadly Sin?  Is our fear religious?  Did we believe we could get closer to God by shunning our earthly bodies and our earthly places?
            Then how conflicted did we feel at weddings and funerals and birthdays and evenings and first dates, when we ate?  Did our eventual access to any food from anywhere year round increase our confusion and thus our fear?
            Did we, white people in the United States, ever know what to feel about food?
            We don’t now, anyhow.
            So we tell the fairy tale, with the moral that Anna made the wrong choice to eat the fairy food.  Our resulting fear looks like my parents, Atkins one half-year and vegan the next.  Our fear looks like our obsession with weight loss and with eating disorders and with liposuction.  Our fear looks like fat-free sour cream and frozen TV dinners that are SINFULLY DELICIOUS but GUILT-FREE.  Our fear looks like the gap between what we yearn for—connection, fulfillment, identity, pleasure—and the bland universality we confine ourselves to and that we confine each other to.  Our fear looks like our judgment of other people’s eating habits and fatness.  Our fear looks like nutrients-not-food.  Our fear looks like tapping on our smartphones while we eat, fast.  Our fear looks like our fad diets and our nutritionists/prophets.  Our fear looks like my friend Debbie who ate only spinach for a week so that she wouldn’t have a muffin top when she ran into her ex-boyfriend.  Our fear looks like the phrase “muffin top.”  Our fear lurks in our language.  Our fear shows in our girdles and our secretive bingeing and the breach between what we eat in public and what we eat in private. Our fear is gendered and it is racial.
            Food has power and we are afraid of it.  So we strip it of its place in hopes of stripping it of its power.
            In some ways, I don’t quite know what all this means.  I don’t know what local means.  I don’t know where place ends and someplace else begins.  Food, both its physicality and its tradition, is usually from someplace else: bananas are a New World food, and I ate them in Africa.  Peri peri is influenced by Indian cuisine.  “Braai” has Afrikaans origins, which has Dutch origins. Umqombothi beer is Xhosa, and the Xhosa walked to South Africa from the Great Lakes in Tanzania in 1400.  So where is the beer from?  Is anything local?  How can food be a manifestation of place, a union of our bodies with place, if it isn’t actually from the place?
            Maybe it’s all in the preposition: of versus from.  A food could be of a place without being from the place.
            What distinguishes the prepositions is the individual food’s history—where was it grown and harvested and sold?—and also its role in the area’s culture—do people in that place identify themselves with it in some way?
            The banana and the dates were grown in South Africa.  South Africa claims peri peri, braais, and umqombothi.  South Africans own those foods.  They own them like they own their feet or their hairstyles or their languages.  Those foods are inherently, unambiguously, South African.  Peri peri in India has different spices and a different name.  There are no braais in Holland.  Xhosa people are their own people in South Africa as they were not in Tanzania, and umqombothi is theirs.  In these ways—where they are grown and who takes cultural ownership—these foods are of South Africa without necessarily being from South Africa.
            I’m not sure how this works in the United States.  It’s harder for me to see my own culture, and to distinguish cultural ownership.  Easier to label a food as locally grown—but even then, I’m still not certain where the local map ends.
            So, add that as a sub-problem: how do I define place and locality?  How do we begin to talk about food and place?
            But we must, in order to begin to conquer our fear of food as union of our bodies, our identities, our culture, with place.
             This is an international squeamishness, but perhaps it is most salient here in the United States, where hard, attractive food grows in supermarkets like videogame Life Points: snatch it, hear a ding, add to the Life bar at the top of your personal screen.  We do not know where it is grown.  Our cultural ownership of foods is mysterious to us.  We eat non-jiggling yogurt on our way to work and frozen pizza at night.  In this way, food is rendered harmless.  In this way, we barricade ourselves from the sway and the seduction of a place and a people.  We can walk in the woods and see no cottage and return to our lives unaltered. We can stay in control.  We can remain untransformed.
            In this way, we do not risk our lives or our identities, and we remain unruined.  In this way, we aren’t lonely but we aren’t fulfilled.  We never meet the Others.  We die without the sensual wisdom of place and without having found who we could be.  And now we are sick with heart disease and cancer and diabetes and general ill-being, we are disconnected, and we don’t know how to fix it, from a scientific or cultural or spiritual or folkloric or personal standpoint.
            We have made a food culture where we do not have to risk an accidental fairy feast.
            There is, though, another way of reading the fairy tale.  Lately, we have found that stripping food of its place does not successfully strip it of its power and further we have found that perhaps we really don’t want to strip food of its power.  If we strip food of its power what is our power, what is our identity, what is our pleasure, what is our connection, what is any possibility of magic?  We have begun tentatively exploring, in farmer’s markets and in our kitchens, what food could mean, again or anew.  We are wandering in the woods again and there is, for some of us, the possibility of coming across a cottage that, if we say yes, could perhaps envelop us in something we haven’t known in a long time.  We aren’t at the cottage yet, but its possibility is in our weariness with fad diets, in our exploration of local foods, in our acknowledgement of food as something more than sustenance/guilt.  The cottage’s possibility is in community gardens and small farms and in ranchers we have met.  It is in our kitchens and our bellies and our classes and our talk.
            Our culture will accommodate the cottage if we make room.

Vignette 2. An Ethnographical Account of Hipsters in Laramie

Many intellectual/anarchist/musician/scientist/poet types claim Front Street is the best bar in town.
People say Front Street is a hipster bar.  As far as I can tell I haven’t seen any hipsters, only bearded outdoorsy types in flannel and thick black-rimmed glasses.  I think of that more as a mountain man with poor vision than a hipster.  Maybe, though, it’s been awhile since I’ve spied a real hipster.  Maybe hipsters in cold western towns are different from hipsters in silky hot Austin. 

This is a place where dressing up for going out on the town means putting on your best pair of Carhartts.  Sometimes overalls, or, as Wyomingites and some Coloradoans tend to call them, bibs.  Carhartts lined with flannel appear to inspire great envy among the locals.  Though I’d like to avoid environmental determinism, this envy may be due to the ubiquitous wind that comes slamming horizontally over the train tracks and through paper-thin skinny jeans.  As such, the hipsters of Laramie have pragmatically ditched skinny jeans and creative, ironically vintage facial-hair sculpting for flannel-lined Carhartts, leather hiking boots, and full, take-no-prisoners beards.
Carhartts are best worn with a thick plaid flannel button-up.  Flannel is Laramie’s silk: graceful, in high demand, simultaneously sexy and professional.  This appears, for the most part, to apply equally to women and men, although some women prefer jeans in a light wash with gleaming silver sequins or glued-on crystals, and contrasting stitching.  Perhaps in black light situations this makes it easier to determine gender.
This anthropologist is a Laramie fashion outcast in unlined Arborwears. 

September in Laramie

There is very little water here.
The plains look like ocean, and they ripple with gold and blustery wind.  It’s high up here.  We have an aspen in our front yard, and now in late September the first of its leaves are shivering in the persistent wind and spinning down like coins into the yard.  We have rocks, and a deer skull, and potted mint. 
This place is old.
Our house was built in the year 1900.  The walls are three feet thick, solid stone.  It’s cool, even in the afternoon, and especially when the wind blows in the gray dawn, and the bedroom air on my face is fifty degrees cooler than my body wrapped like a warm gyro in thick down and my great-grandmother’s quilt. 
The outside is beige stucco.  On slow rainy days I walk, and on sunny days, days when things are happening, I bike on my mother’s candy-red 1982 Univega.  I walk to my office in the English building.  The office is a graduate assistant office.  I share it with Nick, Olivia, Kenny, and Ginger.  Olivia and Ginger are poets.  Nick writes fiction.  Kenny studies literary criticism, I’m not sure what.  The other day I saw a stray loose leaf on his desk scrawled all over in deep black ink, something about slavery, and feminism, and hegemonic patriarchy.  I think he’s writing some kind of article.
I bicycle downtown.  It’s close.  There’s a yoga studio that used to be a ballet school, with creaky original wood floors and high ceilings and the old subtle markings of leather toes being dragged over the wood, in swirls and short stops.  There’s a vegetarian restaurant, Sweet Melissa’s, that doubles as the best bar in town, Front Street.  On Fridays the streets shut down all day for a farmer’s market, and I skip past the fresh bread and salsa and produce for the coffee shop, Coal Creek.  When my dad (an occasionally persnickety coffee connoisseur) visited in August, he told me Coal Creek served him the best coffee he’d tasted in fifteen years. 
I usually find a tiny table where I can see everything.  I spread out my environmental policy reading, and watch people.  Sometimes there’s a band, a couple guys with a guitar and drums and soulful voices.  Sometimes there’s a girl who sings like Nashville in the sixties, up and down and strong, with true concrete details, like I try to teach my freshmen in composition. 
Sometimes the streets pile up on one another and the ocean plains call, and beyond those, the mountains.   On mornings like that I hop in my little blue Fit and drive ten minutes to Happy Jack, and run on the warren of trails through aspen and fir and spruce.  Some days we drive west, to the Snowies, and explore the peaks and the high glacial lakes and the subtly glittering quartz boulder fields.  Once we stepped through some low juniper in search of the next cairn, and stopped suddenly as twenty elk ladies silently traipsed past.  They didn’t notice us, and we didn’t find the cairn. 
This is a kind place.  Strangers smile, and people say “bless you” if you sneeze on the sidewalk.  I think it’s necessary.  I think it’s late September and something is coming, a deep winter that blows hard snow into your skin and over the highways out of town.  The highways shut down and this will be it, sometimes, this small western town on the plains, somehow tough and vulnerable all at once, alone in the eerie hugeness of this dry cold state.  All the university and imported culture in the world cannot save a person, a town, from a Wyoming winter.

So while it’s still warm and the aspen aren’t all the way gold, I find all the pools of sunlight I can, like a cat.  I chase their fleeting warmth with something verging on desperation.  I bicycle to class and to meet friends downtown, making confidently tight turns on for-now dry streets. I run in the prairie, and in the hills, and spy on elk by lakes in the mountains.  
I smile at strangers and they smile also.

Vignette 1. Cow Tipping in Nepal

They’re upright, among the grass, strong and heavy and asleep.  It’s before dawn and the grass streaks dew along your legs and you creep, low and fast and quiet as you can.  The first one smells faintly sweet and like something else, something animal, sweat and hormones and the body results of all the processes: digestion and flowing blood and some deeply buried semblance of thought.  It peers at you with this side’s eye and the rumbling beginning of a low grumbles from its throat.   You put both hands on its side and it’s too sleepy to move quickly, to bolt, and you push hard and after one stumble it tips.
“But,” Rashmi says, “why?”

There’s a pause.  “Because,” someone says tentatively, “it’s fun.”

Dad’s Heart and Obamacare

(Written the Tuesday before Thanksgiving 2010)

This morning, someone I’ve never met cut smoothly into my father’s chest with a scalpel.

He gently (I imagine gently, I hope gently), wrenched my father’s ribs open just enough to reach his topmost artery, the one curled right over his pumping bleeding heart.

When I imagine it, I imagine that there must be blood pooling in my father’s chest cavity. I don’t know if that’s true.  I imagine my father pale and small and asleep, not there, gone someplace nowhere.

The cavity in my father’s chest is private, is a secret, is something no one should see, but this man I have never met has seen inside my father’s chest, and he knows if it bleeds.

The artery was, is, hard with fast-setting cement that my father’s body made.  It is one hundred percent blocked.  That’s what the man I’ve never met said.  That’s what the cardiologist said.  That’s what my mother said.  The man I’ve never met ripped (I don’t know how else you sneak an entire length of vein out of a body.  Do you glide it?  Do you snip it?  How do you keep it intact?  How do you keep it strong?  How do you how do you how do you?  Do you uncurl it?) a vein out of my father’s shoulder and moved it.  He moved the vein to my father’s heart.  Now it’s an artery.  Now it connects directly to my father’s heart. Now my father’s blood bypasses the messed-up cement artery like cars on a brand-new highway.

The only framework I have for imagining this is Grey’s Anatomy, pretty people in tasteful blue scrubs working frantically over my father in just-so light.

I couldn’t go because my mother wanted me to go to my last classes before Thanksgiving.  My brother cried and we held each other because our father, our father who has been vegan for six months, our father who has never had high cholesterol, our father who exercises every day, our father who advises doctoral students how to write, our father who is the most optimistic person we know and also the kindest, our father who turned sixty and grew his hair to his shoulders, our father who believes in everyone he meets, our father who could get along with a human snake, our father who always takes the blame when we don’t do our dishes, our father who is the best the best the best the best,

lay on a table this morning gone someplace nowhere and someone I’ve never met gently wrenched his chest open to fix his heart.

Three days ago he went for a checkup and told a nurse practitioner he felt winded lately and that the muscles along his spine between his shoulder blades, his back heart, clenched tight and tense.  He trotted on a treadmill with wires taped onto his skin (or maybe the nodes have sticky parts on them already, pads of skin-glue), and the nurse practitioner listened hard to the inside of my father’s body and she sent him the very next day to a cardiologist.

The cardiologist arrowed blue ink through my father’s blood so that it glowed ethereal in his body.  And when he looked at my father’s heart squeezing and breathing in my father’s chest he saw in one artery plaque highlighted white and ugly.  The other arteries were bigger and thicker than most arteries and they had taken over because their neighbor, the one they’d lived with for a lifetime, was suffocated.

The very following day, today, my father lay on a table and a man I’ve never met cut smoothly into his chest to play musical chairs with veins.

Now my father is okay and sewn up and sleepy and healthy in ICU.

He woke up briefly and told my mother how glad he was the universal health care bill passed.

My father has been working for universal health care, insurance for every person in America, since before Obama came into office.  He voted Obama in mainly because of his universal health care plan.  My father has always voted but mostly passively.  Lately, in his middle age, my father became active.  He went to town hall meetings.  He put a sign in his yard.

He finally told his conservative friends how he felt about politics, because of universal health care.

I have to say, I took longer to come around.  I didn’t opine one way or the other for awhile, because I didn’t understand it.  I’m a little ashamed to say but not very, because I’ve observed that few people really understand health insurance in this country or the universal health care bill.  I decided not to decide until I gained facts and  I was sure.

Then I went to South Africa and I worked in a tuberculosis hospital for people under 3 years old and I held toddlers who clung to me because they didn’t have any parents because their parents, in Limpopo or Durban, died of HIV/AIDS.  And I was told these toddlers were lucky because they got into the hospital, which was run by the government and had a decades-long waiting list.

Then I took Global Health, Local Health in the geography department at UT, and Medical Anthropology, and Gender and Health, and I learned about people all around the world rotting from fistulas and selling their organs for food money and dying from HIV not because there’s not medicine, but because they can’t afford it.

And I learned about people in America.

People in America clog up your emergency rooms because they don’t have insurance for a regular checkup.

People in America skip medication and doctor visits for small-time sicknesses because they can’t afford to take a day off work, or two days off work, because their jerk bosses are allowed to fire them for catching a cold.  Then these American people develop pneumonia and clog up your emergency rooms, how annoying, because they are trying hard not to die.

People in America feel like their backs are tight and tense, and they feel a little winded.

People in America sometimes go in because they’re worried, even though they can’t afford it, and a nurse practitioner expensively tells them they should go see a cardiologist.

People in America wait until they’ve got some money saved up and then they go see the cardiologist.

If it’s not too late, people in America get blue ink injected into their veins and they see their arteries unpleasantly highlighted with plaque.

People in America sit down hard, and people in America swallow or try to swallow but they can’t because there’s something bulbous in their throats, and people in America wait until they get to their cars to let a whine, a high small noise that sounds like it’s coming from someone else, emit from their vocal folds, and people in America pull over because they can’t see because they’re crying and they can’t figure out how to tell their wives and their children and their best friends that they will go bankrupt because they cannot afford, they simply do not have, the money for a surgery tomorrow, which is when they need it.

And this is what I found, after two years of deep observation and personal exploration:

I believe health is a right, not a privilege.

People seem to be misguided on this.  People seem to think that having access to the best health care is a privilege only for somebody who was born in some life that led them to working in a job with benefits and sick leave.

But this is incorrect.  I’m happy to point out the mistake.

Health, access to the best health care available, is a right even for people who have applied to ninety jobs in two months without a single interview offer.   Health is a right even for people who aren’t white!  Health is a right even for women who give birth, and even for women who breastfeed in public.  Health is a right even for people who don’t speak English.

Health is a right.

Health is a RIGHT.

We are the luckiest family in the whole world.  Only a little more than twelve hours after a cardiologist pointed out the harshly highlighted plaque in my father’s artery, my father was asleep gone someplace nowhere on an operating table while someone I’ve never met cut smoothly into my father’s chest.  In six months my father will be healthier than he has been in years, and also he will retain his house and his car and his serenity.  My brother and I can keep going to college and my parents can occasionally go camping in Yellowstone and shopping in Santa Fe.

Someone I’ve never met immediately saved my father’s life because my father has insurance.

My father was privileged to be able to claim his right to health.

Thank God.  Thank God.

Thanks to my father’s parents for giving birth to him in America.  Thanks to my father for working hard and for a university.

Thanks to Obama.

Because now maybe someone else’s father won’t have to cry in his car on the way home as he contemplates how he’ll tell his wife and children and best friends that he will soon  be bankrupt, and instead he’ll be like my father is now, okay and sewn up and sleepy and healthy in ICU.

no place but here

I sing it with a broken soul voice.

I put the “m” on the front of “baby” like John Fogherty does, but it’s mostly lost to the wind coming in through the windows. Here landscape supposedly flashes past cars like it does everywhere else, but you wouldn’t know because the terrain is identical for miles: flat. Wide. Cotton, sometimes maize. A monocrop culture of people who might live in a city and teach at a university but who are only one generation removed from a family farm.

It’s three weeks after the puddle jumper landed with a bump on the runway a few miles north of here, and I alighted into a town I’ve known for eight years. My brother is driving in fast careening curves, my father is in the passenger seat, and I am content in the back, dreaming about the present. We’re singing “Suzie Q.” We’ve got some harmony going and the wind participates too.

I have tried to talk but found that people mostly don’t want to hear, so I stay quiet.
I have so much to say.

I stay quiet.

I’m more afraid of being home than I ever was of going abroad.
I have known what it is to be the only person you know in a country, and it is a fast addiction, a high I want again.
A freedom.
I have developed more intense relationships with people in days or weeks than I have with most people in the US town where I live in years.
I have talked about HIV/AIDS, about the American education system, about Bosnia, about virginity, about God, about what it means to be alive.
I have danced where I’m not supposed to, with people who didn’t think twice about doing the same.
I have swum.
I have seen a sunrise over a field of sunflowers.
I have fallen in love with this whole beautiful planet, which is the same as falling in love with a person.

It loves me back.

Here I stay quiet.

And that is the most terrifying thing I could have imagined, and did not foresee about coming back. If I must remain quiet for fear of offending, of seeming pretentious, of being laughed at, of boring my audience,
will I forget how to live?

And so, for this last entry, I want to speak.
I want to tell you to go barefoot.
I want to tell you to write love letters.
I want to tell you to accidentally-on-purpose leave your cell phone at home every once in awhile.
I want to tell you to sometimes forget about what time it is, and don’t look too hard for a clock.
I want to tell you to climb a mountain.
I want to tell you not to be afraid of being alone.
I want to tell you to listen hard to a person who loves her job, even if it’s something you would never do.
I want to tell you to listen hard to anyone who loves anything.
I want to tell you not to laugh when someone suggests doing something out of the ordinary, and even to do it.

Fall in love all over again with your parcel of this beautiful planet.

Even if it’s alone, do something extraordinary.

So now I’m home, in my favorite country in the world, singing Creedence Clearwater Revival at the top of my lungs with two people I love. I don’t know what’s going to happen next. I don’t care much. I am no place but here, and that’s the only place I’ll ever be.

down the rabbit hole

Last night Heather and I left our hostel and wandered around the block in search of food. We entered the first restaurant we happened upon, and when we were handed menus by the waiter whose first language I could not speak, I flipped through in numb confusion.

Kebaps. Lamb. Beef. Gyros.

What country was I in?

There was a moment when I honestly could not remember.

I looked around me for clues. There on the wall was an engraving of a mosque with six minarets that looked suspiciously like the Blue Mosque.

Turkey, then.

No. We left there ages ago. I was tired from little sleep and a long bumpy bus ride, but surely I could remember where I was.

Austria. Vienna. I was in a Turkish restaurant in Vienna. The waiter spoke German.

Since leaving Cape Town, I have been in nine countries. European cities are old and beautiful, with extremely old churches and museums that hold things you studied back in middle school. But after so many cities with so many holy spaces and outrageously gorgeous gold or marble or painted decoration and cobblestone streets and languages that you don’t speak and bizarre, jilting, rolling, long train rides and bus rides that you try so hard not to sleep through for missing the countryside but end up waking up four hours later when a Croatian turns on the light in your berth to inform you he needs your passport, NOW, or that’s what you think he says because it’s in Croatian and he seems bossy and official and he’s got some kind of enormous black stamping mechanism, you fumble through your bag and you don’t mean to sound ungrateful, it’s amazing and you’re learning so much, but you’re a little exhausted and you want to stay put in one place long enough to maybe learn some of their language or watch the sunflowers turn their heads.

I wrote this journal entry on the train ride into Serbia from Bulgaria:

I find myself in a train compartment, and books come to mind, The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters, trains full of people going to some grotesque party I am not privy to,
Heather says they’re gypsies.
But here I sit and across from me are three women tumbled atop one another, speaking a language I do not understand, they don’t understand mine either, so we sit and they talk about me and I talk about them, they smoke cigarettes and have husky middle-aged voices and blonde hair, black hair, cleavage, like Dallas people but something different.
People everywhere gypsies.

Part of the appeal and the confusion and the adventure of this trip is the overwhelming bizarreness, the incessant shifting, the suspension of reality.

I am Alice.

Philosophy regarding a Turkish commode

“I can hold it,” Laura announces, sliding defeatedly into her rickety plastic chair. “It’s Turkish.”

We are at a bus terminal in Athens waiting for transport to Delphi, and Laura has
“just paid fifty cents to not use the bathroom.” I have two bottles of water and a cup of coffee in me, and a forthcoming 3-hour bus ride. I decide to take my chances.

I hand the woman manning a table before a door labeled “W.C.” fifty (euro) cents, and pass her, focused on entering the dark watery beyond. “Wait,” she calls after me. I turn. “Paper?” She holds up a generous portion of toilet paper, and I accept it, smiling.

Then turn back to my fate.

I open the stall door to find a Turkish commode: two rippled foot ledges bordering a porcelain funnel which disappears into a dark hole.

Like peeing in the woods, I decide a moment later. Except with a convenient sink and soap. Cleaner, in fact, than the U.S. and English version of toilets, given that you don’t touch anything. It even flushes.

This is something I have learned from being abroad: difference is not scary. When you need to pee and there’s a hole but no place to sit, this is not scary, it’s just different. When you need to eat but no one speaks your language so you don’t know exactly what’s in that pie you’re getting, this is not scary, it’s just different.

When facebook changes its layout, this is not scary. It’s just different.

Ultimately, if you have a safe, cleanish place to sleep, and you’re getting fed somehow, and there is a place to relieve yourself, and your friends are still alive and human regardless of how you connect with them, life is okay. Things come in different forms, but life is okay.

When you realize that, you are not only a successful Buddhist, but you are a happy happy person.

It’s a sweet kind of liberation.

Snapshot:
You stand on an uneven rock before an enormous, weathered, ivory-colored pillared building, and the sun hits the top of your head with fiery effectiveness. You’re thinking about cataracts, about peeling skin, about a hat, about the accoutrements you wish you had now, and then you stop, and you just are, you and the Parthenon, and you are full of shame because you are here but you don’t know about columns or Athena really or old politics but you’re here and someone else is not.

So you study it and catalog details so that when you do learn, you remember.

Snapshot:
The ferry is disappointingly enclosed so you press your nose against the glass and watch the spray strain to reach it. When the dock collides with the boat, you bound out, onto land, you breathe. The old Greek man with weathered skin twinkles at you and directs you down the road, there’s a beach there, maybe some tourists but mostly not, and so the three of you walk, the soft sea on one side and the Mediterranean rock and brush on the other, glaring at you kindly, and the only people who pass are brown boys on motorbikes, black hair blue eyes, they look at you with mild curiosity and then they are gone. When you reach the beach you shed your towel, your clothes, and you slide into the water and it’s the warmest saltiest smoothest clearest water you’ve ever seen and now you are in, it’s effortless, it’s like coming home, the oldness goes and you feel new.

Snapshot:
The center of the world.

Snapshot:
Istanbul. It’s Laura’s birthday so Ali the hostel-owner buys her a cake and all the hostel sings happy birthday, and then crosses the bridge for drinks, are we going to Asia? And after it’s over you walk over uneven slate cobblestones to the sea, it’s almost sunrise, there are enormous blocks of rock barricading the sea from the road and the city, and first Alex and Mikel remove their shirts and their shoes and their pants, and then Xabi, and then Heather goes, and you and Laura, and with a shivery splash you’re in the sea, very different from Greece but there’s the saffron sun, exhilaration, good morning Istanbul!

Snapshot:
You’re barefoot, your sandals are in your purse, you fumble with a blue cloth big enough to use as as a toga should you so choose, and finally you turn and ask the guard–“No problem! I show you–here.” He throws it over your shoulders, covering the skin of your arms, and you gesture at your hair, shouldn’t you cover that? He waves his hands, smiles, “Okay.” And gestures you inside.

You enter your first mosque. There’s the enormous open space, the dome above. There’s the pious man praying, up and down, murmuring in another language. There’s the low wooden fence separating you, the nonbeliever, from them, the believers. There’s the screened alcove behind you where the women go.

Here you are, in the Blue Mosque, and for the past two days you have not been anonymous, you have been white, you have been English-speaking, you have had blonde hair and blue eyes

and you have had a vagina without accompanying hijab.

Men undress you with their eyes on the street.

At first it was cheesily charming,
“Did you drop down from heaven?”

Then it was funny,
“Hello, Spice Girls. Can I hassle you?”

Then, it was
“You have beautiful lips. Come kiss me with them.”

too
“Gorgeous chicks.”

much.
Always.
You walk on the sidewalk and they want to sell you something, or they don’t, but they talk to you, the men, always men, and sometimes, sometimes, you want your body, your eyes, your lips, to not be remarked upon, because somehow the remarking makes them, your body, your eyes, your lips, belong not to you but in small part to the remarker, and after three days of remarks none of it is yours anymore.

So you stand in that mosque and you look at the women’s section and you remind yourself not to be imperialistic, not to be a judging outsider, but you stand there and you look at the women mysterious in their screened piety and you are angry.

What is this society, that is so afraid of women?

Cover them up.

If a Turkish man sees a woman he has to remark, to sexually taunt, he cannot let her be because that is allowing her to be herself and that is a terrifying kind of power.

For a week in Istanbul not a single Turkish woman spoke to me. Anytime I bought a ticket, or a sandwich, it was a man on the other side of the counter. And they didn’t let me live separate from my gender.

This, I find, is what it means to be weary.

I do not know what progress means.
So I define it myself.
Progress is not machines.
Progress is not English.
Progress is not Christianity.
Progress is not Western.

Progress is the antithesis of this soul weariness.
Progress is a society that allows everyone to grow.
Progress is freedom which is truly for everyone.

This has little to do with government or religion.

According to the government of Turkey, I am free to walk down the street in any clothes.
According to me, I am not.

There is a lack of freedom in the United States too.
A discrepancy.
If we are all free, if no group subjugates another, why is there rape?

Last Snapshot:
The most beautiful building in the world.
I have not been in all the buildings in all the world, but I know that nothing, nothing, could ever be more sacredly beautiful than this.
The Hagia Sophia.
A cathedral and then a mosque and now a museum. Mixed on the walls are murals of Christ and motifs of Islam. The ceiling goes up longer than you thought any ceiling could, and every corner, dome, rise, is painted with the kind of old art you see in textbooks.
You forgot your language, and it doesn’t matter, because no matter what war we’re fighting or what religion is currently all the rage, this is a sacred place.
For you.
For everyone.