Category Archives: road to freedom

The Commencement Address I Didn’t Give

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Today as I sat at my students’ high school graduation, I thought: I hope I never have to give a commencement address.

It doesn’t matter how engaging the speaker, how moving his or her message. Really, what we want to see is that student’s name called, watch her walk across the stage, get the diploma, move her tassel to the left, and throw her cap in the air.

We want to witness that smile that can’t be stopped because the work is done. Finally.

Only so much wisdom can be digested in moments of anticipation.

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This was the fifth graduation I’ve been a part of – whether as a student or as a faculty member – and I remembered my own high school graduation. Eight years ago.

I remember singing a song that was entirely inappropriate for a graduation because I’d been asked to sing and I didn’t have a lot of repertoire.

No one wants to hear “Pur di cesti, o bocca bella” when their children receive their diplomas.

And I have yet to see a flattering mid-singing photograph.

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I remember the strangest things about that day. I remember being so happy, driving my bug with the top down. I remember crunching a row of baby turtles on my way to school and crying because I couldn’t believe I’d been so careless.

I remember hardly believing high school was over and I remember being terrified of what September would bring.

I remember eating a celebratory lunch at Striper’s restaurant and overlooking the river.

But mostly, I remember feeling very grown up.

~     ~     ~

I don’t think I will ever be asked to give a commencement address. I’m more of the pep-talk teacher, the one who encourages in one-on-one conversations.

But if I did give one?

If I did try in ten minutes to bestow some sort of wisdom on young minds which couldn’t bear to handle one more ounce of wisdom?

I’d probably say the following:

Chill out. Please.

I know you think you are grown up. And you are, sort of. But not really. And by the way, I haven’t met many people who feel it and are.

I know you feel sexy in those five-inch heels, but trust me, you look far more elegant in flats and confidence.

People tell you “don’t have any regrets.” I tried that – I tried living in a place of denial, in a place that said, “I did everything right and I wouldn’t change a moment.” This place does not really exist. You will have regrets. It’s about what you do with that regret that matters.

You are full of ideas and dreams and expectations. (I still am – I hope I always am.) But wait. You might study music and never sing at the MET. You might get your dream job and loathe your existence. It might end up that college isn’t the road you should take. Don’t be embarrassed that you were wrong. Embrace the second chance.

Do not be surprised when you learn the same lesson twice. Or three times. Do not think you are dumb or naive. Sometimes it takes more than one experience to hammer in a new idea, a fresh lesson in growth. Let yourself be imperfect, but don’t let yourself stay exactly the same imperfect.

And this one might be the most important:

Choose without knowing the future. Take action without waiting for lightning. Make the best possible decision with the knowledge you have, and when you look back, give yourself grace. Do not chastise your past self for making the best possible choice with limited sight. This will paralyze you.

~     ~     ~

In May of 2016, I will walk across the stage and receive my Master’s diploma. There will be a commencement address. I will try to listen. I will strain forward or sit back with the ease of taking it in.

But my mind will be filled with life – my past, my future – and most likely, I will be feeling exactly the way my seniors did today: excited, a little afraid, but mostly hopeful.

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Who Am I?

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We play this game in class with the last few minutes on Fridays. I call it “Who Am I?” but really it’s just “20 Questions,” and only sometimes do I make them choose Greek and Roman mythological characters. One student leaves the room while the rest of us decide which person he or she is.

They love making boys goddesses and girls gods.

And so we’ll choose a character and call the exile in. He or she will commence asking yes-or-no questions until eventually it becomes clear who he or she is supposed to embody.

The thing I keep noticing is this response from the rest of the students.

Let’s say it’s a girl, and she only knows that she’s from mythology, she’s male, and she’s not a god. Her next question might be:

“Did I defeat a lion?”

Every time, the rest of the class guffaws in disbelief.

How could you ask that question?

OBVIOUSLY NOT.

Oh my gosh…!

I didn’t quite understand what was happening until this week.

While one student stands ignorant in front of her classmates, the rest of them can only function with their knowledge. They’ve forgotten (in the span of about .65 minutes) that not everyone has the same information they have. This student asks “Did I defeat a lion?” with less knowledge than they have, but with enough to wonder, hmmmm…maybe I’m Hercules…

Student: “Did I get punished by the gods?”

Chorus: “HAHAHAHA!”

Student: “Did I become an animal?”

Chorus: “WHAT?!”

After a few rounds of this teeheeing and finger-pointing, finally I stood up.

“Listen, guys,” I said, “you have to remember that she doesn’t know what you know. Her questions make complete sense because she doesn’t know already that she’s Theseus. The question only sounds crazy to you because you already know.”

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I have this vision of something big and grand that would open high schooler’s eyes to the great wonderful world. I have this idea that our faith is too small, too cultural, and that to get these kids out where Christianity looks different but transforms just the same is part of my job.

I look at my students, and I want to dump every ounce of experience and wisdom I’ve gained through trial and error into their beings so that they don’t have to do it themselves.

I wonder how parents do it. How do you watch these little half-yous-but-not-at-all-yous walk the earth and not suffocate them? How do you let them function in their ignorance? And it isn’t ignorance in the negative way, so much as it is a stage.

You can’t force experience.

RIght, you can’t, but what is experience if not created?

How do you not expect your children, your students, to be in the same place you are?

I am constantly reminding myself that I function at a different level than these young minds and souls I teach.

They don’t know who they are.

They walk into the room, and they don’t know who they are, so their questions, the way they interact, might seem strange to me, the one who has just a bit more knowledge.

The one who progressed smoothly (and not so smoothly) through the stages of growth to arrive at a non-arrival where things are still being worked-out.

Even people all the same age are not in the same place. Whether it be actually (some are married, some are single, some have children, some travel the world) or just internally (some feel confident, some love their jobs, some long for more, some have faith that pumps life), we are all spinning on different trajectories.

And that’s okay.

I will never have the calmness of my high school friend, who, when I asked her, “What do we have to look forward to?”, said:

“Well, I’m a pretty content person. So I don’t know what to say.”

That will never be me.

We’re spinning different stories, but we’re both playing our own games of “Who Am I?”.

Good Things #45: A Face that Shines

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Exodus says that the people could tell Moses had been with God based only upon the look of his face.  It is real when it is real hard. Don’t go to a place to preach, go to help and in helping earn the opportunity to share the reason your face looks different.”

I asked my uncle about missions and what he thought about them and I tried to explain why I wrestle with a lot of what I see around me. And this is what he sent me.

It has been my prayer since opening his email.

Does my face look different? Does it shine?

Am I breathing in that I may breathe out?

 

Bleeding Out

Even if I was lonely, even if I was broke
Even if all the dogs in the pound let me know
Saying it’s never over, it never ends
Grab the guns and the ammo, let us descend
To the darkest of prisons, and break their defense
We will rattle the cages, rules will be bent
Oh, remind us our days are all numbered not spent
And peace it comes easy, like mist on a ridge

[Chorus]
Breathing in, breathing out, it’s all in my mouth
Gives me hope that I’ll be, something worth bleeding out
Breathing in, breathing out, it’s all in my mouth
Gives me hope that I’ll be, something worth bleeding out
All the worries folks tell us to break all of our ties
To our families and loved ones, we leave when we fly
To these cities we think we need in our lives
Oh you Manhattan jungle, you tangle our pride

[Chorus]
Breathing in, breathing out, it’s all in my mouth
Gives me hope that I’ll be, something worth bleeding out
Breathing in, breathing out, it’s all in my mouth
Gives me hope that I’ll be, something worth bleeding out

All the buildings, they lean and they smile down on us
And they shout from their roof tops, words we can’t trust
Like you’re dead, you are tired
You’re ruined, you’re dust
Oh you will amount to nothing, like tanks full of rust
But we scream back at them

From below on the street

All in unison we sing, at times, been redeemed
We are all of the beauty, that has not been seen
We are full of the color, that’s never been dreamed
Well, nothing we need ever dies, yeah
Nothing we need ever dies, yeah
Nothing we need ever dies
[Chorus]
Breathing in, breathing out, it’s all in my mouth
Gives me hope that I’ll be, something worth bleeding out
Breathing in, breathing out, it’s all in my mouth
Gives me hope that I’ll be, something worth bleeding out.

Adulthood: Part 1

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[Was teaching English with this lady worth it? Yes, I’d say so.]

On April 6th, I wrote two checks: one to the federal government and one to the state government. I cursived boldly because I was angry. I whined to my father that it didn’t seem right to take so much money from someone who made so little. I dipped into my savings to cover the amount of money I owed my country in taxes.

Frustration comes quickly when it comes to money. I’ve been working hard over the past year to save as much as possible, partly because I knew I’d be paying for grad school, and partly because somewhere in my imagination I’d love to buy a little house in the future. Every pay check, I’d put a little away, and I’d been hoping not to touch it for years.

Well, I had to.

It’s the first year I’ve ever owed the government. I’m used to getting a good chunk back (thank you! forced savings!), but this time, because I worked as a contracted employee teaching English last summer, I was the one in the red. Yes, I was fully aware when I took the job that I was responsible for the taxes. What I’d been hoping was that somehow it would all cancel out…I grumbled as I took money out of my account, and I grumbled as I mailed the checks.

But that’s exactly what savings are for, right?

Don’t we have them for expenses we’re not anticipating?

These are the words I know my father was thinking but didn’t say. These are the words I used to coach myself down from my anger. (It’s not like the roads are all well-paved and pothole-free because I paid my taxes. My bug is getting DESTROYED out there.)

I will say I benefit greatly from the Library Reads campaign that’s been happening in my town. And from the stop signs and traffic lights, sidewalks and what-have-you. Yes, taxes are a necessity, I know this.

So shouldn’t I be grateful that I had the money to pay these taxes?  That I didn’t have to ask my parents to help their flummoxed daughter?

I feel this is the beginning of a lifelong balancing act between patriotism and my desire for autonomy.

Despite my half-joking prayers, God did not have my taxes miraculously paid for me. But he did enable me to save up to pay them myself.

So, I’m working on being grateful. Guess I’ll have to put off buying that luxury yacht another year.

Lessons While Driving

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My mom says Dad could never sit around the apartment. He’d come home eleven hours after he’d left, shed his city-coated suit, eat the dinner my mom was learning to make, and then say, “Let’s go for a drive.”

We’d get buckled into the blue volvo and cruise the streets. Mom says it was back when gas was cheap and they were young and the apartment walls felt like a trap.

I don’t remember this – we moved out of the two bedroom apartment when I was three – but I do remember the lull of the car from the backseat. I remember watching the taillights and asking how come everyone got to speed except us. I was sandwiched between the twins’ carseats, and they thoroughly enjoyed pulling my hair.

When we grew up a little and moved to the house, I remember driving on the weekends. My favorite was when we headed to the beach, especially in a storm, and watched the waves hit the rough, red sand. Late-afternoon Sundays spent along winding marsh roads, the twins had stopped pulling hair by then, and Harrison was tucked into his carseat. We ate grapes and danced in the water, my aunt and uncle meeting us for a beach dinner (or at least, that’s how I remember it).

And then our twice-yearly trips to Maine…a slightly different story. We drove the six or seven hours, often with a dog or two in the backseat. Long after we’d started asking, we stopped at a gas station and Dad would buy two fruit pies – one for himself and one for the four of us to split. Mom would get her diet coke (but none for us ’cause kids drink tried and true coca cola), and, when I got old enough, I’d opt for a snickers over the fruit pie. I got pretty adept at reading in a moving vehicle, and the first book I remember reading in the car was a green biography of George Washington. The biggest book I ever read was Harry Potter, page after page until we rolled into the driveway.

[This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, I thought as I was taking my driving test.]

My first car will beat any future cars because it’s a cream convertible bug and there’s nothing that screams *FUN* like one of those.

The first time I was allowed to drive kids outside my family (i.e., the day I had my license for six months) was Cinco de Maio in 2005. My two cousins and my sister and I headed to Chile’s, the top down and the freest we’d ever been. We were home by 8:00 but it felt like heaven.

This summer I went for the longest road trip of my twenty-five years. The girls knew what they were doing – they packed food to eat on the drive, taught me that you leave in the middle of the night and take shifts, and were far better at pushing through the exhaustion than I was. I felt like a little kid in the backseat, and I didn’t mind the feeling at all. When I woke up, rubbing my eyes, we were in New York state and it was my turn soon. I felt like a little kid who could somehow drive a car.

When we stopped, I got a coke and snickers. Tried and true road trip food.

Good Things #32: On Seeing Three-Dimensionally

IMG_1301 There aren’t many times when I feel misunderstood.

Let me clarify.

There aren’t many times when I stay feeling misunderstood.

There’s nothing worse than trying to explain how you feel/think/believe and having someone furrow their brow in confusion.

I try very hard to communicate well, and not just because I love words and sharing ideas. A lot of it has to do with sharing myself; what’s the point of communicating if you don’t do it clearly? And how can you convey your actual self if no one understands what the heck you’re saying?

I feel misunderstood, sometimes, when I speak too passionately, too quickly, and find myself overwhelming my listener. My family has mastered the art of discerning when to take me seriously and when to smile, pat my shoulder, and let me cool down a bit.  Come back to me later, Cath, when you’ve simmered down.

[They’re not always quite so kind, but they don’t rise to my bait as much as they used to…]

It’s not that I care less than I seem to when I’m spouting about a wrong-doing, a wrong-thinking, or what I perceive as wrong-whatevers.

It’s that it’s never the full picture.

I probably care as much as I seem to, but deep down there’s a logical side, too. The side that puts things in perspective, that reminds the other part of me that passion is important, but so is rational thinking, decision-making, and action. They don’t amount to much in isolation – they must be combined to mean anything.

 ~     ~     ~

I wrote earlier about reading my old journals, sifting through page after page of angsty emotion, thought, and concern for the future. This made me a little sad about- and a little terrified at – the image I was projecting.

What will my children think if they ever get their little paws on those journals?

They’ll see only a slice of what it meant to be me growing up, wrestling with tough questions, trying to understand what it meant to be a creation of God but also being terribly insecure in that fact.

It’s kind of like first impressions, really, the one-sidedness of them. The way I decide in a moment if I will like someone, and even if that decision is based on entirely decent observations, I am forgetting the depth of that person. I am cheapening them to a cardboard cutout. I am closing the door to giving them the humanity I so very much desire for myself.

There are few things more frustrating than feeling like you’re misunderstood, like you’re only half-seen.

Don’t half-see people. Let’s both try.

Thoughts on Courage

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Working at the loose leaf tea shop my first year out of college was such a beautiful time of my life. It was a difficult time (because who likes floundering and admitting that you aren’t sure where life is headed?), but I look back on those days of Earl Grey and Mao Feng and Russian Caravan with a sweetness. We sampled tea, we mixed tea, we talked to interesting people, and we had some of the best discussions.

You know how there are certain things people say that burn into your brain? I have one of those friends who consistently says sentences that stick with me. It’s a friendship I treasure, but there is also a little carefulness to it because hearing truth isn’t always the easiest thing.

The sentence that has been reverberating in my mind from those days in the tea shop is this:

“Don’t make choices based on fear.”

It went along with a conversation about how you can’t always have 100% pure motives but that waiting until you do is paralyzing. Living out of fear is paralyzing. Being a coward is paralyzing.

I took this to heart, this choosing not out of fear but out of trust. I’ve been attempting to live this way, in both my private life and in my professional life, but it’s an in-progress evolution.

~     ~     ~

I thought cowards said “no.” I thought that it was the brave who grasped life by the horns and ran, who said an exuberant Yes! to all that came their way. And so I say yes because I want to be brave. I don’t want to turn my back on possibilities, and I open my hands.

Recently, I’ve been toying with the idea that perhaps “yes” is not always the answer, or at least that maybe it is sometimes the answer born of fear. In more than one instance, I have said yes because I was afraid of reaction. I was afraid of seeming weak. I was afraid of hurting someone.

But where does a weak “yes” get you but to a later, more painful “no”?

~     ~     ~

In 2014, I have said a few “nos” that were hard. I dropped a grad school class because I knew in the pit of me that two at once was too much on top of teaching. I never drop classes. Not once in college. It was humbling for me to say, You know what, I don’t think I’m gonna do this.

I was telling a student the other day (she was asking me for advice on a program to study in college and music and what to do) that I am not the person to go to if you want to be talked out of something. If you want to be encouraged and fired up and emboldened, I’m your girl! But you want to be told to let go and drop it? Find somebody else.

But that’s exactly what I let myself do this January.

No to that second class that will ruin both classes and my life.

No to that second date because we have nothing in common (I’m sorry, but trust me, some girl somewhere will love to sit and watch sports with you and make you chicken wings).

No to feeling guilty about skipping small group once in awhile to rejoin my college trivia night team.

No to trying always to be perfect, to following a timeline, to forcing myself into a little mold that can’t hold me or anyone else, really.

Too often I have said “yes” because I’m afraid. I’m afraid of hurting people, of letting them down, of being the woman who’s weak and can’t handle it.

I’m learning that sometimes it is as fearful to say “yes” as it is to say “no.” I’m still figuring out the difference.

[Photo: Sarah Hawkins]

2013 – A Year in Pictures

 Start off the New Year with a birthday and a dance party. Enjoy the fact that 2 goes into 4 twice and 24 makes a beautiful number.

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One of the perks of sticking close to home is you get to visit your old favorites.

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The girls had a rainy spring and the garden went through a transformation.

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At first, I was completely against the pond. “It’s too big! Who’s gonna maintain it? My forsythia bush!” Now, though, I’ve grown to like it. I do NOT however agree with the unceremonious way my forsythia was disposed of.

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We sold out of honey for the first time this year – a good thing, in most ways, but I hate having to tell people to wait till the spring. We’re also doing the favors for two weddings. Picture this: cute little glass jars with “One Pound Honey” on them, a simple cream label and a bow of twine.

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My first wedding of the season was on a beautiful island in Maine. We sang “My Shepherd Will Supply My Need” and frolicked in the night along the dark streets of a sleepy town.

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I learned that you can have the wedding you want and surround yourself with all different kinds of people at once.

Hannah\'s Wedding

We drove half-way across the country to celebrate another college friend’s wedding. The groom made their wedding shoes of leather and they danced to swing.

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I even missed a wedding, but I got to go on a hiking bachelorette – that’s the way to do it!

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The wine tasting which brought four friends together on a hot June Sunday. It’s also where a little bet began, but that’s for another day.

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The best summer job ever – teaching English at my Alma Mater.

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We didn’t have any fun at all.

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And then a trip to London, a trip I never thought I’d go on.

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A train-ride away was Oxford, and this is my attempt at a panorama.

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We stumbled upon an exhibit of mystical writings and illuminated manuscripts at Oxford University. We also found a large blue rooster.

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This photo was taken at Kensington Gardens, after a not-so-pleasant run trying to catch a tour through the palace (“I’m sorry, it’s 5:02. The tours are closed.”). I look much happier than my feet were feeling at the moment.

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A week at the Swiss L’Abri and mornings of “Oh my gosh, this is real.” Did you know the Swiss care about bees, too?!

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Fishing trips in the Atlantic are always cold, even in August.

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We didn’t win the photo contest, but the winners were holding a baby. Not fair.

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Cousin Christmas pic.

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The last photo of 2013. A reunion of roomies and I got to hold her little one for the first time.

[This has been a good exercise for me. Too often I let things slip through my fingers, moments of joy and communion, the hard lessons I’ve learned and re-learned.]

[Next week, I’ll be posting my favorite things of 2013. A little late, but I want to make sure it’s a rocking list.]

A London Update

The best sleeps are the stolen ones. I’ve had a lot of those since getting to London. The best, though, was in a tiny graveyard in Oxford. I thought it was secluded (“I just need a place where no one can see me. I’ve had enough of people.”), and I laid down in the grass and leaves and branches and fell asleep. It was safe – my friend sat beside me writing a short story – but it wasn’t nearly as secluded as I’d imagined. People walked by, talking and laughing, and the sounds of the small city lulled me to sleep. It’s been far too easy for me to drift off lately.

Not everything about this trip has been so easy.

For example: I am currently sitting in an airport again, roughly 6.5 hours early, because we had to check out of the hostel at 10:00, and who wants to drag this luggage all across London? S is off on his way to Scotland, so I paid the 5.50 pounds it costs for a one-way ticket and came to Heathrow early.

Decent plan.

Until they tell me I actually have to check this bag (“I carried it from Boston.” “Doesn’t matter.” Ah, joy.), but when I went through the queue to check it, it was way too early.

“You’ll have to come back at 16:50.”

“Are there any coffee shops I can sit at?”

“Well, most things are through security…”

And I find myself at a Krispy Kreme (Yes, you heard that right, a Krispy Kreme in London. I’ve never set foot in a Krispy Kreme at home.) I’m writing this in Word because I only get 45 minutes of internet.

My vision of an afternoon spent sipping strong coffee, reading, and writing, is looking very different.

~     ~     ~

“Catherine, what should I do when I go to London?”

Well, first off, buy a London pass. It goes against every bone in my body to fork over 60 pounds in the blink of an eye, but it is so worth it. We toured the Globe (If only we could’ve seen a show there! An actor was warming up on stage while we were touring, and she sounded like us music majors, all trills and blubberings and over-dramatizations.). We walked through the whole Tower of London and saw the crown settings of Georges and Henrys, Victoria, and Alexandra.

We did the London Bridge Experience (an underground historical/horror show) and my eyes were closed for most of it. The butcher took a liking to me and kept asking me questions, but he was a crazy murderer and I was freaking out.

We climbed a monument (ah! I forget the name!) and saw the city from the sky.

We did all the free stuff at the Tate Museum of Modern Art. It was awesome. But there are whiney artists everywhere, I guess, and they’re always wanting to stick it to the man.

And, probably the best part aside from the Tower:

Westminster Abbey.

There it was. The real thing. So many names I wasn’t even expecting. So much history behind that stone.

Kings and Queens, Dukes and Earls.

And Poets’ Corner shocked me with its concentration of literary history.

Then there was Oxford, with its more intimate streets and academic walls and surprise exhibit of Magical Books. Illuminated manuscripts peered out at us, with the imaginings of J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and countless others. The best part was that it was unexpected: we just wandered in and there it was, golden and colorful and fantastical.

~     ~     ~

“What should I not do when I get to London?”

DO NOT not buy an Oyster card. Your feet will destroy you.

DO NOT assume they will take your card everywhere. (“Do you have a chip?” “What?” “A chip?” “What?” “We don’t accept cards without chips.”)

DO NOT assume that the coffee will be strong. It probably won’t be.

DO NOT assume that trying new beer will always pay off. It often won’t. But at least you were adventurous, right?

DO NOT think you can fit everything in. You can’t. Just accept it and tell yourself, “If I really want to, I can always come back.” You might never return, but it’ll placate you long enough to get you back home.

~     ~     ~

Now, Switzerland waits on the other side of that plane ride. A friend I haven’t seen in over a year (the same friend who writes me beautiful letters of her new life) and a chance to think and read and talk about things that matter to me. Such a different vibe, I think, than London.

We shall see!

 

[P.S. I am so technologically challenged that I cannot figure out how to get my pictures from the iPhone my mother forced upon me for this trip and my computer. I guess they will have to wait. Know that they exist and that the photo in this post is unrelated but at least pretty.]

London Awaits

This very moment I am awaiting my plane to London, England.

I am sitting at the terminal, surrounded by people, but I am alone. This is my favorite way to travel.

“Catherine, is anyone going with you?”

“Yeah, S is meeting me in London, but I still get to fly alone.”

My grandmother does not understand my phrasing – “get to” – and most people don’t. There’s something about the separation – the ability to exist without the confirmation of anyone else – that reminds me who I am.

C. S. Lewis wrote that it is only when we look at the other that our Self is able to be. I agree with him…mostly.

There is another Self that materializes at the Gate, and this Self is just a little different from the others. She doesn’t need to do anything. She doesn’t need to be anything for anyone else. All she has to do is be. Oh, and do what she’d like, of course. Which is write this, at the moment.

My bag is filled too full with books (check out the What I’m Reading to see what I brought), and as you can tell, I decided to bring my laptop after weeks of internal debate. Of course I could just write in my notebook, but the moments flit by so fast, I know I’d lose them.

I sit, eager and calm, ready and not ready, because I’ve learned that after each trip, I come back just a little different than before. Not in big ways – I don’t dye my hair or pierce body parts or change my name – but the landscape of my mind shifts. It grows. It changes. And the places my mind wanders in down moments now includes the place I’ve just come from, with all its colors and shapes and sounds.

Here I come, London.