If You See Something, Say Something.

1.

Between last year in Dubai and moving to New York for grad school, I head home to Iowa for the summer.  I tend a garden and drive my car a lot, relishing old-timey farm stereotypes – corn, heat, friendliness.  I like the thought that we’ve preserved something the rest of the world has forfeited.

Heartland

Heartland

I buy perfect tomatoes every other day from the same woman at the Noelridge Park farmers’ market.  She says something friendly to me.  I fish exact change from the pockets of my sundress, having left my purse on the front seat of my unlocked car, the keys in the ignition, the windows half down.

“I sure appreciate it,” she says. “You need a bag?” And she licks her thumb to grab a plastic sack from the pile.

“No, thanks – brought my own,” I chirp, producing a bag. I wave, moving through a splash of sunlight to the next stand.

In July, just up the interstate from my hometown, two little girls disappear from Evansdale, Iowa.  They are cousins, ten and eight years old. They leave behind their bikes. Authorities drag the bottom of Meyers Lake, even begin draining it. They find nothing. The disappearance seems anachronistic, but in small-town Iowa, such crimes are still possible because usually it’s still okay to let your kids play during summer vacation.  They’ll be back for lunch.

This abduction makes national news.  I go apartment hunting in New York and watch the headlines on the TV screens in La Guardia as I await my return flight. No one else around me recognizes the 319 area code on the screen. But still, no one wants this to be; it’s a threat upon the things for which we’re all nostalgic.  One hears words like youngsters, phrases like My word! – What else can you say when you see such a thing?

2.

Now I ride the Manhattan-bound 2 train from Brooklyn every morning, traversing the East River to work in glamorous Midtown.  An easy forty minutes – I usually read.

The New York City subway system sees most types of people.  When I am brand new in the city, I love this equalizer. I smile at people, not understanding why the subway should be a zone of mutual invisibility. New Yorkers don’t seem to see one another at all. Militantly friendly, I set out in a bubblegum-pink trench coat to coerce people into connecting with one another.

Early in the fall, I sit down on a mid-morning 2 train and open Marguerite Duras’s The Lover, billed on its cover as an “Exotic, erotic autobiographical confession.”  I delight when a man in business attire catches my eye from the bench across from me. My delight invites his commentary: “Ooh! That must be just for girls!” He grunt-laughs.

My coat is pink; you will be my friend.

My coat is pink; you will be my friend.

My smile deflates. Having already committed to cheerfulness, I force a chuckle and steer my eyes back to the page.

“Is it good?  It looks good! HA.”  Grunt-laugh. I look up, try to speak quietly, but have to shout over the din.

Yeah, it is.”

“Is it – ” he leans across the aisle to see better – “Ooh! Is it exotic and erotic? Mm!” Heads turn.

He keeps talking as though he is picking up a conversation already happening. He moves swiftly from this sexy book to a long tirade about how he really does have a job interview this afternoon – as though I’ve expressed disbelief – he goes on that he is sure he won’t get the job, though.  He keeps asking questions, and I don’t know what to do but answer them. I finally see only the page in front of me, let my cheeks redden as the man gropes for the attention of others who know better than I had.

3.

Vernon lives in France. Last year, while I was teaching abroad, I would show him how the buildings in Dubai turned pink at sunset, holding my computer off my balcony; he would show me his view of the sea or his garden in Brittany while we cooked together, me chopping vegetables, him kneading bread dough. He’d tell me about books, art, and good ideas, always generous with his laughter. He is the sanest person I know, this francophone keeper of pet ducks, with hair three French years long and a matching beard.  Now that I’m home, I’m counting days until his return in April. Until then, we’ll meet in the Internet.

Honestly.

But Vern is wary of homecoming, apprehensive about communication, of all things. I would rather communicate with him than do most anything else, so his wariness strikes me. Somehow someone so full of ideas has grown quiet, functioning now under a grownup guiding principle – something like if you can’t say anything important or helpful or necessary, don’t say anything at all.

We’ve been talking about a Chuck Klosterman essay he recently reread.  Klosterman lived abroad awhile and was astounded to learn that he hadn’t missed anything by not being in the US. He’d expected to be out of touch with election news and the NBA. He realized that even if he’d been here, he wouldn’t have experienced these events firsthand, but would have seen clips of basketball games and political speeches on TV and the Internet. From afar, the 24-hour coverage was still available, enough to blanket anything really important under the heavy snow of commentary.  His opinion: Nothing much actually happened.

Vern explains, “Everyone asks me about the United States that they see on the news here [– and, with equal urgency, How I Met Your Mother –], and I don’t know what they’re talking about. Because usually the things aren’t important.” He fears that this is what awaits him in America, but coming from people he once knew well. A particularly American pressure exists to always have something to say, and this discomforts Vern.  He sympathizes with Klosterman, “I think his point is that he’s depressed by the fact that we [Americans] need to be interested in something all the time. And I feel for that. Because sometimes, often times, nothing is happening.  We make ourselves think otherwise, but dullness has become unacceptable.”

After a statement like this, he turns away from the screen, scratches his beard as if deciding he agrees with himself. He shifts his position, revealing a wood paneled attic in his friends’ country house, a window view of farmland and sea. As we talk, his friends pop in to say hello.  I learn there’s a peat fire downstairs, that the house lost power in a storm just before their American Thanksgiving dinner; they’d eaten by the light of candles shoved into empty wine bottles.  They want to know when Vern will be ready to hike to the water.

He fears he’ll appear dull against the American glare, but it seems natural to say less. He doesn’t speak about everything he sees. He saves up his thinking to participate in something bigger than small talk, and he hopes this won’t seem rude.

Perhaps people just feel more comfortable when they have an opinion, even a haphazard one.  I get anxious when it seems like everyone else already knows something. I wonder whether I’m missing something obvious.

Through social media, it’s become easy and tempting to join the conversation fast.  We’re covered with “coverage,” and the things we hear most loudly are not necessarily most important; they’re the things people feel equipped to talk about out loud.  We proclaim opinions whenever we can snatch them up, but they are often not ours or are not complete, just something pithy, conveniently retweeted, buzz-fed, hash-tagged – #garbage – “ideas” that don’t come close to the root of any problem.  But we say them, lest someone mistake us for someone on the wrong side of any issue.

We are compelled to speak about everything we see.  Say something, for to not join the conversation is suspect.  It’s a train we can’t really stop, whether we’re onboard or not. I say to Vern, joining the conversation no longer even requires understanding the whole thing.

Vern agrees, “Joining the conversation rarely requires that you’ve heard the beginning of the conversation.  Brash reaction dominates our world.”

Everyone is shouting answers, but no one heard the question.

4.

A week after the subway conversation trap, as I get on the train, a man about my age eyes my Mary Jane pumps and says, “Hey, those shoes are POPPIN’!” Feeling wise, I smile with tight lips. I remember the book incident and decide to avoid conversation like a real New Yorker. I stand next to his seat.

He turns toward me. “Hey, that hair’s poppin’, too!”

Thanks. I give him the same stern smile and reach in my bag for my book.

He continues, almost intimately, “Look, lady, my mom died on my birthday last year and I’m just having a really hard time…”

He asks for money, but I think he wants an ear more than anything. When I find my book I open it.  This feels at first so similar to the previous situation; I think I’m finding a way out. But the words are blurry on the page and fuzzy in my ears; I can’t focus through my shame. He hasn’t done anything wrong.

What’s the matter with me? 

I couldn’t listen to him?

I don’t have an extra dollar.

I have an apple…

Am I just telling myself I don’t have a dollar because I want to buy coffee?

What’s a dollar going to do for him?

What’s he going to do with that dollar?  

No one has ever ignored me like this.

Cacophonous like the train, thoughts screech and rattle, even as I make the decision that brings on my self-disgust. Instead of doing something different, taking back my choice to ignore him, I beat myself up as though the situation has already passed, conveniently irreversible.

I blush purple, stare into my book.  He directs his story at another man; I look over to see the new listener literally feign deafness, “Hey, I can’t hear you. Sorry.” He points to his ears to suggest that they aren’t working properly.  All characters look sickly in the fluorescent light.

The pre-recorded safety announcement comes from the speakers overhead, warning that we are all to “be on the lookout for suspicious behavior” to prevent terrorism and keep one another safe. The tagline: “If you see something, say something.”

At the first opportunity, I move to a safer blue bench at the other end of the car. I feel ill for the forty-minute ride. I still haven’t figured out how to navigate these situations.  I’m good at seeing until I’m asked to also say something.

5.

I still check the news in Eastern Iowa every once in a while. It’s not homesickness so much as a mindless habit. One evening in the fall, I peek at heartland goings-on, ready to catch the train to class in the Village, and I see that in the woods outside Evansdale, Iowa, hunters have discovered two bodies. They will turn out later to be the bodies of the girls, missing since July, but at the time it is speculative. I call my mom immediately.  She is still at work.

“Hey, turn on KCRG. They found those girls from Evansdale.”

I hear her breath catch. “Oh.” It comes out as a sad groan. “What happened?”

I explain. She sniffles. Her nightmare is someone’s reality. It makes her think of her own kids, the way the four of us used to disappear for an afternoon or a morning, the way sometimes she could see us out the kitchen window, but often she couldn’t. Those were different times, she tells me.

I get on the train and stare at the ground beneath the seat across from me, lost in thinking about strangers that feel somehow less strange than the people I see here every day. I’ve never known these girls or their families, but I feel strangely responsible for holding them with me in this big, impersonal place.

“Shut up!” says a woman on the other end of the car. She speaks into a stroller that faces away from me. “I said shut up. Shut up.” The child makes cooing noises, isn’t even really crying. The mother sounds bored.

The message from the New York City Police Department: If you see something, say something. Remain alert, and have a safe day.

6.

On a late morning commute last month, I pull To the Lighthouse from my bag, glad Tuesday’s train isn’t terribly crowded.  I take a seat, and Virginia Woolf shows me the magnificence of the seemingly ordinary.  She uses language so alive that I gasp and put a hand to my scarf several times right there on the train. I digest the words, looking at the MTA subway map as though I’ve never seen it before.  The germy handrails shimmer; everything seems remarkable.

IMG_3777A young man in rolled khakis and a green plaid shirt sits kitty corner from me.  I see him see my book. Overhead, I hear “If you see something, say something,” and I close the book in my lap to let the words rest in my mind.  The train doors open to the Grand Army Plaza platform.

In walks a woman with nicely dyed auburn hair, maybe fifty.  I notice her light blue jeans, frumpy lavender polo with a white collar, tennis shoes. She carries a periwinkle backpack.  Her cheeks are cratered.  She mumbles under her breath.

She sits on the bench across from me, next to the young man, and leans to her side. She holds a folded one-dollar bill in place on the bench and uses the end of her phone to crush whatever she’s folded inside of it, sniffling, mumbling.

She sits up, facing forward, looking just past me, and holds the folded dollar to her face.  She sniffs in the white powder, wipes it from her upper lip with her sleeves and leans to her other side and into her backpack all in one swift motion.  She places the dollar in the front pouch of her bag and feels around her legs and seat without focusing her eyes to look at them, checking whether she’s dropped anything. She grabs a thick log of lip balm from the same pouch, takes it clean out of its plastic tube.  She rubs it all over her face, applying it from the broad sides like it’s a bar of soap, still sniffling, still mumbling.

I look around for astounded others.  I’m the only one watching, but the young man with rolled khakis notices less obviously, the same way he noticed my book without seeming to read the cover.  Our eyes meet but we exchange no look of solidarity. His expression is disconnected, mine concerned: Are we supposed to do something? He gets off at Atlantic Terminal, leaves me with her.  She mumbles off at Nevins Street.

A man in a black Sikh turban sits down in her spot, little crumbs of white still sitting on the bench beside him, unnoticed.  He talks to a friend at his shoulder.

7.

In December, two people were shoved to their deaths on the New York subway. Both were pushed by complete strangers, one who was mentally ill, another both racist and confused. The events seem so senseless that no one knows how to prevent more of them.  It’s an innocence millions enjoy each day, being able to get on the train in the morning, reading great literature while tunneling under a river. What can we say? Maybe we gasp, My word! Maybe we groan, “oh.” Something that should be sacred is under a threat we cannot understand; people talk around it, but no one’s saying much about it.  The answer isn’t fast, and the problem is scary.

Don't even try it. The 4 isn't running past Atlantic Avenue this weekend, guys.

Don’t even try it. The 4 isn’t running past Atlantic Avenue this weekend, guys.

“If you see something, say something,” proclaims the official voice of subway safety. I am at a loss.

So much of what we now see ought not to elicit a knee-jerk verbal response.  We see plenty; we rarely understand everything.  We cannot reasonably always know what to say.  And when we do speak, perhaps it should end more often in a question mark. But it doesn’t. Instead, we speak without knowing exactly what we saw, and it becomes a runaway habit; it derails.

I start to hear the commands differently, more aggressively: If you see something, say something.  If you can make words with your mouth, if you have a pulse, say something. Why would you think when you could Say Something? Say Something. Say Something.

But I’m still new to New York, still learning.  I don’t know enough about the train or the people to say anything just yet.  I can ask questions. Why is it commonplace to turn off our humanity to anyone, ever? Then, is anyone asking for my humanity? What is my role here? Do I have one at all?

How about this: What’s it mean that I avert my eyes from everyone on the train now? Better not to make eye contact. Better to look at my own poppin’ shoes than to acknowledge someone else’s gaze on them because in a city so remarkable – that is, worth remark – in a place where all types of people sit beautifully side-by-side on forty-minute trains every day, where we see everything, it is likely that I will not know what to say.  And I’ve been instructed, officially, that if I see something, I must say something, and I don’t know what to say. There is a disconnect between the type of person I thought I was and the type of person I am being.  This area is clouded gray, and I do not know what to say.

I do not know what to say.

One last story: Yesterday.  I am commuting at 8:15 AM.  A woman collapses on a stranger in my car.  Another stranger pulls the emergency brake.  And we all sit there, shocked to be seeing each other.  We start sentences we cannot finish. We do not know what to say. So we sit there quietly, frozen in a fluorescent pool, in a dark tunnel, underground.

Call me Bear Paw.

Last night, I was talking with my roommate Penny in our kitchen and putting away clean dishes off the drying rack.   I sent a jar crashing to its tile-floor doom.

“Penny!” I wailed. “I’m so sorry!

“Laura, it’s just a thing. It’s a jar. It is only a thing.”

She reminded me not to cut myself in my stocking feet. We swept it up together.

“My mom breaks things all the time,” she said gently, sweeping shards into the dustpan I held. “She’s just always been a little clumsy, and so she always made it a point to tell us that if we broke something as kids, it was just a thing and not a person who was hurt.”  Penny told me that her mom once confronted her own mother-in-law early in her marriage — maybe while still dating — after witnessing an angry scene over the breaking of a dish. I love a tale of bravery on behalf of the klutz.

Penny used to store salt in this jar in our pantry.  Her baking ingredients each have a designated container, some even labeled in her elegant penmanship.

____________________________

This afternoon, I grabbed a little plate to slice some cheddar to melt on a piece of toast, and I somehow cracked the plate in three in my efforts.  There was no impact other than knife on plate, and I broke the damned thing. I yelped, and Penny ran into the kitchen, again to gracefully assure me that this was a thing and not a creature, and all was not lost.

“Garage sale,” she smiled. “And we still have three of them.”

“Yeah, but it was beautiful! And yours. And how is this even possible? Penny, I’m so sorry!” I stood gawking at the three pieces, still forming a circle, cheese and knife still resting on them as though there was nothing wrong, as though I hadn’t somehow broken a dish with nothing but brute strength. I didn’t drop it. I just broke it. I shook my head. She laughed lightly and picked up the pieces, and even my shame seemed too rough.

Roommate bliss

Penny is dainty. It’s effortless — she’s just naturally quiet and lovely.  She said during undergrad once that she’ll just let her hair go gray when that happens because she’ll be proud of having earned her age.  Now, half a decade later, she has tiny whispers of gray streaking her brown curls, refined, poised.  She’s always in a cardigan of a muted hue.  She’s like a finch.

Since moving in with her, I catch myself trying to emulate this femininity.  I’ve noticed myself picking up a drinking jar in my fingertips instead of wrapping a fist around it.  I sit up straighter, dress more thoughtfully.

Penny is a warm presence, earthy, like something handwoven of wool.  I, too, am warm and welcoming, but more in the ways of a sweatshirt, something loved for function and familiarity, but not quite for grace.

Before last night, I’d made it almost two months without breaking something in our house, a personal record. I keep thinking maybe I’ll cure my tendency to shatter things. It seems unlikely.

_________________________________

There was a week of my five-year-old life when I tried to drink my milk in creative ways at dinner.  I got myself spanked with a soup ladle each time.  I tried to drink from the other side of the glass, but I just spilled the milk straight down my front. I tried to get my milk to my mouth without gripping it with my hand, setting it inside the cuff of my sweatshirt sleeve and dumping it everywhere. My siblings laughed with me, and I grinned proudly from under my mushroom-shaped hair until my dad got mad.

God damnit, Laura!” my dad would say, and the meal would be interrupted by sharp smacks on the rear with a household utensil. Dinner and a show.

I earned myself the nickname Bear Paw early on.  I came to embrace it.  I used it to make my brother and sisters laugh.  There’s plenty that’s endearing about a bear cub’s clumsiness. But not a lot of people would want to take a bear to prom. Usually it was fine, but sometimes it was a source of shame. I was never without friends, but being well-liked didn’t soothe the sting when my mom bought me Dockers “Husky” pants for boys or when I noticed that physical comedy landed successfully with my big brother, but less well with boys I’d like to impress at school.  I associated my clumsiness, my brutishness with masculinity, and thus with shame.

When I was fourteen or so, my mom made spaghetti for dinner one night.  Rather than bringing the meat sauce and the pasta to the table, we grabbed plates and loaded up at the stove.  I brought mine and hers; my oldest sister carried her own.  For whatever reason, we were the only three home.  I think by this time my mom and stepdad’s divorce must have been underway. We still had dinner every night, for whoever was there.

I handed my mom one plate.  She filled it and handed it back.  In what I thought was a very slick gesture, I held the full plate over my shoulder while handing her the other one.  The whole pile of spaghetti and red sauce slipped off the plate and onto the ground behind me.

God damnit, Laura!”

“It was an accident! I’m sorry!” I was defensive, even though I knew it was my fault.

You’re an accident!”

My sister burst into laughter, and my mom was instantly mortified, trying to laugh.

This scene sounds worse than it was. I knew even then that I was an on-purpose baby, loved deeply and truly. She said it because I’d been instigating those infuriatingly middle schoolish conversations:

“That’s dumb.”

“You’re dumb.”

“Your mom’s dumb.”

“Your face is dumb.”

And so on.

She’d simply let this comment slip, and it landed in a mess.

But I did feel awful. Mostly because I’d made more work for her.  She’d want the mess cleaned up well and would thus do it herself.  Katie and I would eat, and she would clean, and she would do our dishes and eat a reheated plate after both of us had moved on.

_____________________________

I rented a room from Jane during my first month in New York.  Jane was in her mid-sixties and walked on crutches because she had Polio as a girl. A doctor at numerous area hospitals, Jane was almost never home, but when she was, she would quilt stories of her Brooklyn upbringing in an endearing accent, always starting and punctuating her stories with, “So it’s very interesting.”

Even as an adult, Jane missed her mother deeply.  She told me about her mother’s death, how Jane had insisted on having her dressed beautifully, her face fully made-up, until the end. “She wouldn’t wanna go all shlumpy, and I knew that.  She’d wanna go like a lady. So it’s very interesting.”

We  made our home in Midtown on the East River, in an apartment where her mother used to live.  It was still furnished with beautiful matching furniture that looked like it jumped out of a parlor in The Great Gatsby, gold velvet couches, high backed chairs, all on parquet floors. She had a large china cabinet and full kitchen cupboards, storing all of her mother’s dishes. My Grandma Fuller had the same glass bowls with a leaf print etched on them.

Something about the fancy dishes and ornate furniture made me want to come off as a Lady. I figured I could pull it off, at least for that month. I kept my room immaculate and frequently left Jane notes on the counter on pretty paper when we’d missed each other in the morning.

But one night when Jane was working, I started to fix a bowl of Greek yogurt and raspberries, and my farcically dainty aura was off duty.  I reached into the cabinet, and as quickly as I’d picked it up, I dropped the bowl right along with the charade, and it shattered and scattered, not just in the kitchen, but in the dining room, in the foyer, in the living room.  I stood with bare feet among shards of broken glass, nerves buzzing, breath quickened.

What would my mom do? What did my mom always do?

Shoes.  She would put on shoes first.

I tip toed out of the danger zone and laced up my tennis shoes.

Sweep. Mom would sweep.

I worked methodically, oddly alert the whole time.  I felt guilty, not just for breaking this dish, but for endangering Jane.  I had an image of her stepping on a piece that I’d missed and without noticing it, getting some catastrophic infection.  I pictured my negligence hurting this woman who had been so kind to me.

I tossed out what I’d collected in the dustpan.

I got down on all fours and saw that there was clearly more glass. I got out the vacuum, which sounded smart in theory, but as I ran it over the floors, it sprayed the remaining pieces over my legs and the floor around me, spreading the mess farther.

“Shit.” I whispered.

I grabbed a towel and ran hot water over it. Slowly, I mopped the dining room, the kitchen, the living room, the foyer. I laid on the floor to see if I could catch the glint of tiny bits of glass. I would crawl to each one, lick a fingertip, and pick up the glass, wiping it on my cloth.

When I was satisfied, I left Joan a note on the counter, warning her to keep her shoes on and apologizing fervently.  When I woke up the next morning, she was in the kitchen.

“Honey, you’re so sweet. Don’t worry — it’s only a dish.  My mother would tell us both it was only a dish. Are you okay?”

__________________________

I’ve always tried to make myself dainty, and I’m constantly missing the point. I don’t have a sweet soprano voice, but I can play the ukulele.  I break a lot of dishes, but I can bake really well.

I’m clumsy and rough but it’s not my fault. It’s not a fault.

I come from a line of sturdy women. We’re not tiny-waisted, but we’re also not curvy in the voluptuous pin-up sort of way.  We’re just thick. We have bodies that work very hard.  We’re given to scrubbing and carrying.  I’m shaped exactly like my mother.

At the height of gardening in the summer, dirt hides in the cracks in my mother’s dry hands, which become so rough she can snag fabric.  Mine do this now, too, in the winter, and I have to watch myself when I put on tights or a silk blouse.  I tease her about giving me this trait.

We have broad smiles and raucous laughs, God, laughs that we can’t contain even when a social situation demands it.  I don’t posit that we are not beautiful. I only posit that we are not dainty.

What can your mom do?

Mom took up every one of my dad’s responsibilities when he died.  She wasn’t just doubly maternal; she took on the business of mothering and fathering.  She continued to cook dinner every night — a spread, never a singular dish — and she also mowed the lawn, shoveled the snow off the driveway, built fires in the fireplace, and carried two kids at a time across the broiling blacktop parking lot of Noelridge Pool when we’d forgotten our shoes at home.

My mom can out aerobicize any of the bird-boned younger women at her gym. She never takes any of the lower-impact options. She’s more physically fit than anyone I know, and she would be embarrassed to lift the low weights on the bars of these teensy women.  Her strength is a point of pride and why shouldn’t it be?

She’s learned she can do anything, and now she does everything. Her femininity is in her strength. Her grace is in the roughness of her hands, which make garden and house beautiful.

She stayed home for with her kids for many years, and rarely wore make up. I can picture her dressing for a special occasion — a wedding, a big dinner, and now work every day, the same process my whole life long — and I think of her hair, always cut practically short, or her make-up, always earth tones, always a brown lipstick, always stud earrings, glinting to match her bright blue eyes.

And she looks like a done-up version of herself. She looks like herself. She looks like a woman.

Nice is not always good.

That Saturday was one of the magnetic-feeling days.  I walked to Greenwich Village, which is exactly as cool as advertised, and found myself eating a farmers’ market peach on a park bench.  People walked their dogs. A man offered me a stack of napkins when my peach took a messy turn. A construction worker blessed me when I sneezed.  The sun was warm, the breeze sweet, and I added this to the list of reasons why I loved New York already.

Cafe delights

I walked to a coffee shop to write, sat in the back with my computer and my book.

The guy at the next table kept looking my way when I was typing, so finally I returned the smile, and he said he’d been “eavesdropping” on what I was reading and did I like travel literature.  Yes, I did. I also liked his glasses and the word “eavesdropping” used this way.

We chatted a minute before exchanging names and shaking hands. Then we talked for two hours. We covered writing, Joyce-Hemingway-Fitzgerald, musical theater, Arizona’s scary new abortion legislation, his girlfriend, and other topics of import.  We decided we liked New York for all of its possibility, for the way nothing he or I could think of seemed that weird when compared with all the weirder stuff that’d inevitably already happened on that street that morning. It’s all possible and it’s all relatively reasonable. I shared my pumpkin bread with him.

I sat with my legs crossed, and twice he placed a hand on my ankle to emphasize a point. On the third occasion, he said, “Sorry — that’s a lot of grabbing your foot.  You just have really beautiful legs — people have to tell you that, right?”

Nope. No. Blushing. Friendly? “Friend“-ly?

He had this incredulous way of smiling and looking straight at your eyes, like he was surprised at all the brainthings going on behind them even before you gave them voice. A comfortable pauser, he would take a minute and smile at what you said before responding, as if making sure you were finished.

He asked what I was planning for the rest of the day, and I had no plans. He had errands to run. Did I want to come along? “I’d love to keep talking to you.”

I said, “You know what? Yes. Sure. Here, eat the last bite.”

“Oh, I have gum. Hold this.”

He handed me the gum from his mouth. I was holding his gum.

He laughed and chewed. “I didn’t expect you to do it.”

I laughed back and shrugged, “It seems like the kind of thing you wouldn’t ask someone to do if you weren’t willing to return the favor.”

Nodding approval, he took back his gum and handed me a fresh piece of my own.

We went to a cobbler’s shop, where his wallet was being repaired.  It used to be his grandpa’s, who’d died twenty years ago that week.  His grandpa had been a court reporter, and the wallet was a gift from an inmate whose case he’d typed.  The grandpa’s name was imprinted in the leather.

I fiddled with the freshly repaired wallet while he dropped off a pair of his girlfriend’s shoes.  They were red cloggy things, clunky ones, evidence of petite feet. One was missing a red button, so both would need black replacement buttons to match. The man behind the counter looked at me, expecting approval.  “Oh,” I laughed nervously and looked at my friend.

We walked toward Union Square and talked about drinking tea on the couch at my fake aunt’s house. (I’m staying with a very nice older woman whom I didn’t know until I showed up on her doorstep.)  The idea of him coming home with me made me blush, and I told him so.

Until this point, we had not actually discussed the moral red flags that might be pitched on this friendship’s foundation.  Perhaps my running errands with him wasn’t actually okay. My rosy face should have brought us to a crossroads, but we just walked away from it on 14th Street.

He offered to walk me home. I said it was 20-some blocks. He said, well, let’s take the train.

The tunnel was crowded and sweltering. We ran, but the 6 left without us. The next one would be there in seven minutes. He turned to face me.

“What if I wanted to see you again?” he asked.

I smiled because it’s nice when someone wants to see you again, even when it shouldn’t be. “I think that would be fine.”

“What if I told you that it wasn’t just based on your being charming? What if I were attracted to you?”

“I would say that on different terms, I would welcome your attentions. I think you’re charming and attractive, too.”

“What are those terms?”

“If there were a time when I was not The Other Woman, I would want to see you again.”

“What if I told you I don’t think that’s possible?”

“Then I would say that’s too bad. Because this has been a lovely day.”

A train shrieked in; he leaned forward and pulled me close to repeat myself.

Too bad. This has been lovely.”  He smelled nice.

The doors opened on my train. “I said I was walking you home.”

As we left the station, he said, “Is this surreal? This doesn’t happen.” We both were shaking our heads and smiling quizzically at each other.

“I want to see you again,” he repeated.

“What if I gave you my number to use in the event of new circumstances?”

“If you gave me your number, I don’t think I could help myself. I wouldn’t mean to call, but — “

“You’re ridiculous.”

“You are really cute and smart and charming. And I want to hear more of your stories.”

“How many girls have you said this to in the subway?”

“None. Honestly, this is so surreal. Really. I don’t meet people like you.”

And who doesn’t love to hear that? My God, if I’d really set him reeling just by quoting James Joyce!  Of course I wanted to be the one who threw someone for such a loop.

But that doesn’t happen. He wasn’t reeling. He was interested, sure. He liked me, yeah. That much is perfectly reasonable.  But he wasn’t going to go home and tell his girlfriend of four years that this really wasn’t going to work because Laura Fuller likes Modern lit. No, he wanted to have his cake and also his long-term girlfriend. And that is bad.  And he is no one I’d want to be with. And I knew that even as I was marveling at how much I’d like to be with him.

It is not only nice people who can say nice things.

The walk to my door was fast.  He grabbed my wrist, delicately, as though to inspect it. He answered my questioning look, “That was just. No, I just. I thought it would be nice to touch you.” He looked embarrassed.

He asked if he might walk me as far as the elevator, and I assured him I could find it myself.

“So,” I said.

“It’s your call. I like you.”

“I like you, too. That seems to be the problem.”

“It’s only a problem if it’s a problem for you.”

I looked at him for a long moment. I pulled a subway stub from my pocket and wrote my number on it. “Do you remember my name?”

He looked offended and straight at my face. “Laura.”

I felt bad — Of all the things to feel badly about in this moment — and my face showed it.

“So a hug?” He moved forward as he said it. And he knew exactly what he was doing. No hug remains a hug when his face is buried in your perfumed neck, and he’s sighing in your ear. It turned into a kiss.

I instantly felt like a harlot. It wasn’t even a sexy kiss, just quick and loaded. We each looked at the other like we were surprised and wished each other a nice afternoon, and I left him there and walked inside.

And then I was stuck wondering whose responsibility it was.  If he didn’t feel at all guilty, why should I? But I did. I do. I’ve essentially cuckolded this woman I’ve never met before, quickly, in one moment, potentially sabotaging a four-year, two-dog, shared-lease relationship. But then, he’s probably not worth that investment anyway; he’s a cheater, and an eager one.

I wanted so badly to idealize him, to believe that he meant the very nice things he’d said, that he’d never done this before and that we were equally feeling swept off our feet.  To think that someone in a coffeeshop would also swoon when he reads “falling faintly and faintly falling” in the last paragraph of Joyce’s “The Dead,” and that this could be the basis of a Something!

It made me feel less awful.  It’s not morally deplorable to set someone’s life on its romantic head and ride the subway off into the the sunset; but to just turn it horizontal isn’t something to be proud of.

The text messages started within the hour, and then I asked for them to stop. This wouldn’t work. I would not be the Other Woman, and I’d also never be his actual girlfriend if this was how it would be. I’d changed my mind.  With no googley eyes, it was easier to see.

“That sucks,” he said.

I tried to say something kind:  “Maybe one of this city’s 18 million people will make you want to play for keeps. Weirder stuff happens here all the time.”

He didn’t write back.

I dropped off a broken bag at his cobbler’s a couple days later.  I’ve been meaning to get it fixed since I got back from Dubai. The shop is right by school; it rationalized itself.  I looked at the wall of others’ items in plastic bags and tried to intuit which were the red shoes. I didn’t see them, and I won’t.

I really mean it.

I keep catching myself not actually knowing where I’m going in New York, but leaving the house anyway. Where’s the grocery store? I’ll ask Googlemaps. And then, without processing — up three blocks and over two — I bound out the door as though confirming the grocery store’s existence were direction enough.

Feels like a left! I start out confident. But soon cabs are honking and I’m scampering away on tippy toes, yelping, “Ooooh!” realizing that I should have planned better.

I’ve come to like traveling alone because only I can judge myself in these instances.  The pressure is off when mine are the only expectations to manage.

I came to expect mis-navigation in Dubai, where you always get lost, no matter what. I would head to Al Karama to pick up my mother’s Christmas recipes from the Central Post Office, and I would wind up at Boom Boom Restaurant.

Boom Boom Store Front

“Boom, boom, boom! Sit in our family room.

My nonsense of direction came in handy in a place where it was futile to get angry and illegal to flip the bird. When intentional, lostness is actually adventure, leading to a morning alone, surrounded by homeland packing peanuts, in full and spicy air, on the second floor of an establishment that’s only just tall enough to justify separate levels.

I smiled over my unplanned feast, alone in Boom Boom’s upstairs “family room, Madam,” a one-woman family, just me and my boobs. I considered collective noun gender in Spanish and French, how one man turns a whole flock of girls to the masculine. In Arabia, I mused, just one boob has the reverse effect.

I relished my adaptability.  No one saw me flounder or get lost; they only heard the story of the time I shocked a whole dining room of gentlemen with my bold, Yankee woman’s adventurous spirit and earned heaps of chicken masala. All who heard the tale thought I’d planned it all along.

When I asked for her secret to New York City success, a Dubai-dwelling New Yorker friend gave me this: “Know what you want to order before you get to the counter.”

I wanted to call it too simple for a concrete jungle. I didn’t ask how to get a sandwich; I asked how not to die.

She continued surely, “Don’t walk up there and make everyone wait while you stare at the menu. If you need to think, think, but get out of the way.”  I shamefully admitted being a slow orderer. But this friend lives by her advice both literally and metaphorically.

I feel goofy admiration for the sure. They seem so principled. This East Coast assertiveness is a thing I work to adopt.

I don’t complain to the waiter or tell telemarketers to take a hike. It’s not just a matter of rudeness versus niceness, but a concern that I’ll raise a stink and then turn out to be wrong. If it isn’t a matter of great moral importance, I’m almost always ready to step aside.  I can be happy in a lot of scenarios. Why pretend the opposite?

I heard a brilliant idea about such things on an episode of This American Life, regarding a couple who fought on a scale from 1-10:

“I’m about a 7 on Mexican tonight.”

“Okay, I was only about a 2 on Chinese, so fiesta it is.”

Crisis averted by ownership of how strongly we feel about the matter at hand.

But my problem — if we can call it that — stretches beyond this what’s for dinner? scenario and into the territory of chasing down your one true bliss, your purpose, your — buzz word! — vocation.

I think my fear is the same in big and small decisions.  The essential question is whether I’ll look a fool later if I choose wrongly but with great gusto today. I have in my head an image of myself ranting like  a petulant child: “BUT I WANT TO BE A WRITER! AND I WANT TO SING! AND I WANT IT NOW.” And then I’m clam-happy at a teacher desk ten minutes later, embarrassed at having put on such a show.

Just taking a quick jaunt across 34th Street

I’ve been mostly thrilled since I showed up here last week.  I love my job. I pass the Empire State Building on my way to work.  I found a perfect apartment. I’m walking. I’m reading on trains. I’m writing at Piccolo Cafe.

Before I knew it would be so good, I felt that sick terror that comes with buyer’s unrest.  (Not exactly remorse.) I’m making a big investment — a move across the country, astronomical rent, horrifying student loans, big-time tuition, and at least two years’ time — in pursuit of what’s heretofore only been a hobby.  It’s like saying, “Well, you know what I’ve always loved are those bananas,” and using it as justification for moving to Brazil or wherever they grow bananas to pick them for yourself.  Yes, fresh produce is pleasant, but it’s not a thing people uproot for and invest in.

It’s unwise to make bold moves for something impractical. It is over-wild to pounce on what might just be the craving of this week. What happens when I no longer want bananas, when I learn the hard way that most landlords don’t accept bananas for rent?

One of my NYC perks is concentrated time with one of my most important mentors. He explained last week the often observed regional extremes in manners.  Many of his students in Iowa needed a sit-down talk about how there is nothing truly wrong with ambition, so don’t apologize for it. Apparently the practicality of the Midwest often silences the drive to become great.  I think we worry that we’ll offend those we come from by saying we’d like to grow outward.

Mentor explains, the problem is “arrogant ambition,” which, he reports, is alive and well in this city (but not here exclusively).  The arrogantly ambitious want you to know that they’re about to do something important, so get out of their way. They don’t need you because this step will soon be a distant memory, and you will fade with it. Where I come from, we call these folks “uppity” or “too big for their britches.” (No, we don’t.)

I will never be too big for these britches.

There is a medium, though, Mentor says. “Humble ambition” means knowing what you want, and saying what you want, but considering the effect this will have on other people.  Work for what you want, but other people need not feel like less because you’re after more.

In short, he would advise us neither to feel crazy because we’d like to move to Brazil for bananas, nor to trip people with our peels.

(What is it with me and analogies about ambition and bananas?)

Caroline, Dubai mystic, posed to me a simple what if? scenario. She asked seriously, “What if we all just said exactly what we meant?” I told her I expected there to be some chaos but some progress, too.  She thinks we’d all feel better.

She gave ridiculous romantic advice: Tell the boy people exactly what you think. “You are cute in such a nerdy way, I think I would like to date you.” This was the script she gave me.

She said, “SAY THIS,” and although the thought of it made me blush, the dare was almost too good to pass up.

Long have I judged the folks who keep their tender hearts locked up from Love (pronounced “lurve”) because they fear how it will end.  I tend to hop into scenarios of love with the most clumsily open heart there is.  I have the romantic heart equivalent of a puppy’s floppy tongue, goofy with excitement and hope and joy. Where others wonder, “What if I don’t want this next week?” I can answer, “But what do you want today?” It sounds so reasonable in romantic terms. Of course you don’t have to stay in a relationship you don’t want to be in.  Of course you should seek today what makes you glow in face and heart. Of course!

The questions of love and life-path are both careful balances between risk and reward.

This what do I want right NOW? question is too flimsy a reason to jump toward anything in terms of lunch or anger or vocation.  If it’s such a big deal, don’t announce an opinion without some serious discernment.

But as proudly as I can own my puppy-style foolishness in (largely failed) matters of the heart, I want to cover it like a bruise in matters of vocation. I can’t run blindly at a career and then change my mind, or — Oh NO! — get dumped by it.  What will be said in whispers about this?

Caroline and her cavalier suggestion place the two not far from one another at all. It’s not a fear of doing it wrong, but of saying I want to work for it in the first place. I’m not worried about whether I want badly enough to be a writer. I’m worried about whether it’s a reasonable desire. And of course it is.

And if ever I want to not do it, there are no laws that will bind me to it.  It’s as okay to dump a career path as it is to dump an ill-fitting partner. A hero English professor told me once we’ll all probably have four careers, so it’s okay to want to be a lot of things that have nothing to do with our major. Stop planning the wedding on the first date.

How many times do we fall on our lovestruck faces in a lifetime, and embarrassingly?  How many times must we crunch crackers in a man’s bed or slap someone straight in the beard? And it’s so visible; folks see us get our hearts broken.  Folks see us break hearts. But if I could sign up for a new round of the mess tomorrow, I would do it. I would do it.

I won’t ever be as assertive as my East Coast-born friends; I’m not sorry for being slower. But in just a couple of weeks, I’ve learned that it’s good enough to mean it today.  Being in the business of learning is a good enough reason to be a student right now.

It’s a matter of waltzing up to our chosen career and saying, “You are so nerdy and cute, I think I’d like to date you.” And as your breath catches in that second or week before he answers you, you don’t wonder if you’ll marry him. You wonder whether you’ll get kissed on Friday.

And maybe it won’t work out.  Maybe he’ll say no, or you’ll find someone new, or just know that you want something else without knowing what it is.  Maybe he’ll fall for your best friend, when you saw him first, damn it. Maybe you will become so bored that you can’t remember why you picked him in the first place.

Or maybe it will be forever. And it’s okay to want that.

Go home.

I went to church with Mama Jules last Sunday night, my first weekend back in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, USA.  We went to Immaculate Conception, the church downtown with a congregation, mindset, and architectural design that are dramatically pre-Vatican II. We were asked to pray for the conversion of all the people who don’t wear the same label as us. (Those poor, poor Lutherans and Muslims — no matter how mean they are to us! — and, dare I even mention them?, atheists.) The service was devoid of compassion and empathy and anything championed by any Jesus I’ve ever considered. The priest seemed to do everything in his power to sound bored and to point out the ways in which Catholicism and Catholics were not like the rest of the world. It was divisive.

And I was pissed, too, because I no longer know the words.  The Mass changed while I was gone, and I still can’t get the hang of saying, “and with your spirit”  instead of “and also with you.”

For the first time, Church as Ritual wouldn’t work.  It just wasn’t mine anymore.

Sometimes, I come home from being away, and things don’t fit anymore.  Pants? Sure! Church? This is new.

But I think I can measure my own growth by my lack of guilt. It’s not a shortcoming of mine that I’m thinking. I don’t feel bad; it just doesn’t fit. Maybe it will again someday.

____________________________

Cedar Rapids flooded once, badly, when I was five.  It was the summer my dad died.  The Cedar River, which cuts through the middle of downtown, was high. I vaguely remember low-lying areas holding standing water. The ditches by the horse barn just outside my old neighborhood were full, and I remember my brother saying something smart-assy about “floating horse nuggets.” It’s amazing what we retain.

I asked my mom about it today, and she told me that the ground was so soggy that if it was windy, “the trees just fell over.  Great big trees, roots and all.  It was sad.”

“Did it feel like the world was ending?” I asked her.

“Yeah,” She said and paused, “Ours kind of did, for a while there.” Trying to chuckle but quavering, she went on, “It hasn’t really been the same.” She shook her head and smiled, but her eyes pooled.  She rearranged dishes and papers on the counter.

My aunt Tres told me last weekend that she planted the white pines in her back yard that summer.  “Mike’s trees,” she called them. “Can you believe how big they’ve gotten?”  We couldn’t. We agreed that Dad would have approved, though: They’re tall enough to block the neighbors from seeing what’s up in the back yard.

I was home for the next round of massive flooding in 2008, the summer before my junior year at Luther.  Chris was still in Cedar Rapids then, and six and a half nights of every seven, we were falling asleep to rented movies on one another’s couches or driving in the dark through warm summer air.  That summer we were going to the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha. It’s the best zoo in the land, and we finagled a way for us both to be off on a Thursday — June 12 — to go see it. I’d just read Life of Pi and was weirdly obsessed with zoo tigers, naming them all Richard Parker in my head.

On Channel 9, Bruce and Beth had been telling us about all the precautions we ought to be taking. The water was rising with disregard for all the stopping points the well-meaning meteorologists had anticipated.  Surely it couldn’t be worse than ’93, but just as surely, it was.  Each time it rained, each night while we couldn’t see, some new crisis would pop up.  We would lose fresh water if we didn’t save this facility with sandbags.  The whole town of Palo was under water. The University of Iowa had to race its Jackson Pollock piece to safety. Only odd-numbered street addresses should shower today. This or that block, you must evacuate. “Turn around; don’t drown.”

The night before the zoo trip, we went with my mom to fill sandbags along Ellis Boulevard.  Those who were placing the heavy bags were already up to their knees in water, but, like stubborn Midwest-style ostriches, we didn’t scoot the line back.  It couldn’t possibly come up to the street.  The pool’s right there. How could it reach the pool? No, we’d keep the line here.

The next morning, we heard on the radio that those sandbags were submerged, their tops three feet below the water’s surface.

We left at seven AM in a downpour. We could scarcely see the road ahead and had to shout to be heard for all the rain.  We escaped on I-380, the only cross-town road still above water.  From atop the S-curves on the bridge, we saw downtown bridges under water, water still rising, houses up to their front steps and beyond. We raced away from it.

We turned to go west on 80, and the sun came out quickly.  The fields were wet, but the only thing that really looked bad was Des Moines.  There was water up to the roofs of baseball dugouts along the highway.  It felt like it was closing in on the road.

I made Chris put on sunscreen in the parking lot of the zoo when we got there.  We each fielded phone calls from our mothers and siblings. They were closing I-80, our route home. Turn around now. We were already at the zoo; we had to go in, but the trip was quick.  We saw the desert dome for Chris and the big cats for me. The dad lion woke up from a nap while we were there, and he roared at a zoo attendant. We left, and I-80 closed just behind us.

This picture has been waiting for years to get out of my phone.

Reentering Cedar Rapids, we sat on a should-be-20-minute stretch of 380 for hours. We’d come from sunshine back through tornado warnings and hail. We’d found locked, ghost-town gas stations with no electricity when we tried to stop for cover. Almost home, we waited under gray skies dotted with low charcoal clouds, cracked by lightning, stirred by hovering Army helicopters looking for folks who didn’t heed the warnings to get out of their homes.  Flashing emergency vehicles and Army trucks zoomed by on the shoulders while radio DJs informed us which lanes we were allowed to use.  Exit ramps led to rushing water.

The flouncy zoo joy I’d had a few hours ago was freezing up and cracking off.  The sign for the Dairy Queen right off the interstate was under water.  Houseboats were in a pileup against a submerged bridge. Drivers pulled over on the side of the road to take pictures. The windshield wipers worked overtime, and rescue boats cruised through downtown intersections where cars were submerged and useless. No one knew what to do.

Chris watched this action excitedly, chattering, taking pictures on his phone.  He was born in Nebraska and didn’t hear me stop talking. This doomed city wasn’t his only definition of home.

It kept raining, but it seemed like everything was already destroyed.  His mother’s warning that “Fox News said they’re evacuating the whole city!” didn’t seem so far out of the realm of possibility. (This seems funny on a handful of levels now.)

The graphic in the lower lefthand corner means “You’re all completely boned.” Way to predict it, Joe Winters!

We ran from the car into his empty house, drenched in seconds from a sky that hadn’t stopped draining all day.  We switched on a light just to prove we still could. We turned on the TV in the kitchen; the radar was red all over.  Evening would move in soon, bringing more rain with the dark.

We went upstairs, still soaked and shivering.  We were forever scared of being caught, but what else were we going to do? We were 20, in love, and the world was ending. He was more into the sex. I was more into the world ending.  Our own personal apocalypse, right there in my home town. The setting of all of my stories, washed out in the rain. Ring it in to wring it out, I suppose. It was sweet, I remember, like he was trying to be sorry or safe.

It felt like a matter of time before the whole place was whisked to the Mississippi. What would those Army helicopters do once we were all adrift? That night, Mercy Hospital flooded and patients had to be evacuated.

The river crested the next day.

_____________________________

I drove around Eastern Iowa again tonight.  It was my first proper evening cruise for the summer, the first time I’ve really breathed it in since last year.  I still feel about it now how I did then.

Lookin’ good!

I was heading home from Iowa City with my mom, and we avoided the interstate so we could watch the sun settle in over farmland. There were storms a couple nights ago, and now everything is lush. She drove, and I threw my head, hands, and feet out the window to breathe and bathe in it.  We drove around a map of our own dotted history.  Jonesy’s in Solon, where you get the best and biggest pork tenderloin in Iowa. Main Street in Robins, where we rode our bikes for years and miles.  The parking lot in Shueyville where a man sells the best sweetcorn in all of the world from the back of a pickup truck. We got lost and got found and took our sunglasses off when the time came.

I am happy to be home. I’m from a place of agriculture, hard work, little league, open spaces, trees, clear skies, and considerate drivers.  On this ride, I proudly reclaimed each piece of it. Iowa and I, we shone under the light of a setting sun.

________________________________

I talked to LK on the phone yesterday. She’s out West, and weary of the Groundhog’s Day repetitive Bay Area weather. I was rehashing desert heat.  We love Iowa weather. It will be weird, we decided, to one day refer to another place as home.  We’ve never lived away in a place that seems permanent, and we both say “here” to mean Iowa, even when we’re far away. We can’t imagine claiming a place with less than four seasons or without proper pastoral vistas. Iowa will still be home, even after we live somewhere for 20 years.

There’s a good chance I’ll really love New York. It’s the first open-ended move where I really believe I might stick around a while. My guess is, though, that no matter how cozy a spot I wear for myself there, I’ll still talk about “back home.”

_______________________________

Decent

We walk a lot, my family. I’ve walked a few times with my mom on the Cedar Valley Nature Trail since being home. We go in the evening, and we see the lovely things that grow along the path.  We have staring contests with deer. We ogle black raspberries.  We stop to look at how the light colors the fields.

My dad used to strap us into this buggy that he’d attach to his bike on rides on the same trail.  We’d watch the scene go by backwards, like in those ridiculous station wagons with rear-facing back seats.

I couldn’t fit into that buggy if I tried today.  It would be silly.  Even if I fit, he’d likely not be biking me anywhere soon.

I still love the trail, though.  I’ll keep walking on the trail for a long time.  It’s okay, and it’s still part of home — one of the most beautiful parts — even if it’s not exactly what it used to be. I don’t need a buggy.

I can navigate my own heartland, and sometimes that means finding new paths through old territories. I can travel on my own two feet clear across my homeland.

Tame your heartbeasts.

It’s no secret that I don’t love Dubai, the stupid wealth and secret poverty, the raging middle finger directed at the environment, the insane laws that can jail you for that same finger raised between drivers on Sheikh Zayed Road. It is hot here, and things don’t grow.

If I had stayed home, I would have been fine. I once walked a path to Des Moines, where today, I would likely be wiving a decent guy, momming some kids (no joke), maybe teaching some punks about commas. I would be a domestic queen, would still dig farmers’ markets and music, would still love my family. I would smile often.

That, and I never would have experienced the bullshit horrible feelings I’ve felt during my first school year abroad.

At its worst, morning here has been marked by this experience: I wake up before the alarm. My body feels out of balance. I am thirsty and I writhe. For as long as I can remember I’ve wrung my feet in anxiety instead of my hands, like a torturous game of solo footsie. On these mornings, my feet start, waking me, and the rest of my body follows. It’s like anxiousness is all that flows from heart to lungs to all the rest of me, like heartbeasts taking over heartbeats and snarling inside my calves and my rib cage and the nape of my neck.  It’s strange. I pull up the sheets. When the alarm sounds, I welcome it. Time to get up and leave this thing.

I don’t know if I would have felt this way in Iowa. Certainly I could have avoided some of what put me to bed the nights before these heartbeast mornings.

I never would have known the terrified adrenaline rush of yelling at an armed German guard in the Frankfurt airport after he told me that because of their nationalities some of my students would be detained on their way back to Dubai. I signed shaky papers as their legal guardian in the holding cell.  I woke up their folks with a payphone call.

Why make pancakes when you could make flapjacks?

I never would have nightmared about emails from angry mothers whom I feared could somehow intuit that I had gone to the gym or made dinner instead of grading.  I cut myself no slack on the papers, but I wound up taking and taking it while my own back was turned, forever feeling guilty about the work I just could not get my brain to do.

I never would have slapped a guy across his face on the beach at the Red Sea in Aqaba or drunkenly crunched up crackers in his bed, revenge-style, because I was irrationally pissed at how irrationally pissed he could make me feel. (I only wish these were metaphorical crackers.) At home, I never would have been bullied into thinking I ought not to listen to my family all the time. I never would have felt so small or stupid.

As each of these moments passed in real time, I wished it away as hard as I’ve ever known to wish, and I woke up feverishly squirming in the morning light.

Ask my family and my closest colleagues.  It was a rough year.

But the howling has died down.  I haven’t woken up this way in months now. I beat the alarm but not because any creature is going wild in my veins; I’m just ready for morning.

And I’m a girl who rosies up her memories almost instantly. I feel oddly nostalgic for even the shittiest moments in my own history.  So I pack my suitcases here and wonder what might have been lost if I had curled up in homeland security.  Which of the adventures would I have missed?

After that SNAFU in Frankfurt, I sat by my three stragglers on our Lufthansa flight the next day, after I had not cried in front of the guards or on the phone with the parents or when negotiating transit visas.  The kids needed to get home from Germany, and that was my job. I watched our plane’s progress on the monitor, cruising over the Tigris River and an area still called Mesopotamia in German, and I watched a George Clooney movie and pretended it was his fictional Hawaiian heritage story that made me all but crumble into my seat. We were getting home. They were safe, and I had seen to it.

A week ago, I watched my eighth-graders take their final exam.  They write better now than they did in August.

I made giant blueberry flapjacks with the guy I slapped in the Red Sea Riot a couple weeks ago.  We philosophized and talked in tried, true friendship, cracking eggs and jokes about violence in relationships.  We mixed our bloody Marys according to Ernest Hemingway on a Friday afternoon (“If it lacks authority,” wrote Ernest, “add more vodka.”) There’s comfort there that only comes from the ability to appreciate the best of someone when you’ve seen her worst.

In March, Edgy called me late in the morning on a Friday. All the good stuff seems to have happened on a Friday.

“We left the freezer open. You should come over.” Her voice was grinning.

“Okay,” I agreed, looking at the blue sky through my open kitchen window. “Wait, why?”

“All of our meat is thawed out.  We left the freezer open all night. We need to cook this shit! Grill with us. Come over.”

High Five Friday

So I suited up in a blue sundress with pockets, strapped ukulele Joni Mitchell to my back, and hoofed it over there with a broccoli salad and a bottle of whatever I had. We gathered around a mismatched feast. We made up drinks mixed with boxed juices called Whispers of Summer and Secrets of the Valley (Introducing Secrets of the Vodka, Whiskeys of Summer, Whispers of Put Tequila In It, etc.). We played our favorite songs.

We chose a glowing, silly doing-nothing over all of Dubai’s glamorous somethings to do.  Resting friendships on friendship, not proximity or circumstance.

As we fell into this scene as a Friday routine, I discovered that my favorite bits about this place were some combination of laughing and playing music, substantial conversation, writing and reading, cooking to share a meal (often breakfast), and learning from the people I love and respect.

These Fridays brought me not just relief from anything that had been hard or scary, but actual, genuine joy.   We laughed these nights with unbridled silliness.  We spoke with candor usually reserved for friends who’ve spent years earning it.

But then, these are the things I love about everyplace.  They’re just my favorite things, the things of meaningful relationships.

I couldn’t see what I did like, though, without contrasting it with what I didn’t. The good stuff needed a backdrop.

Classes are over.  My seventh-graders finished the year with The Giver by Lois Lowry.

In case you’ve blocked out middle school, this is a dystopian novel about a community of unwitting, cripplingly interdependent people who value the quality of Sameness above all.  Differences earn disapproval and ostracism. The hairy businesses of love, sexuality, color vision, money, death, and vocation are eradicated or regulated. The only folks who know that life could be different from this are the Giver and the Receiver of memory, an old man and a young man, respectively, charged with keeping all of the memories of color, music, love, and family, but also the brutalities of death, war, violence, starvation, and grief.

They plot to release these memories back to the community, hoping to allow people to feel love, know joy.  They struggle, though, with the idea of sending bad memories to the people.  They’re afraid the community won’t be able to handle sunburn and broken bones, let alone lost love and gruesome death.

There’s a really terrible memory about an elephant watching its friend die at the hands of poachers and crying out in elephant horror.  It devastates Jonas, our adolescent hero Receiver, who learns all at once that animals, grief, and human cruelty exist.  How do you feel heroic about handing that off to an otherwise happy person?

My kids widely loved the rising action and hated the ending. Jonas tries to escape, but we never know whether he succeeds. The kids were uncomfortable with the ambiguity. If he lives, it’s great.  If he dies, it’s garbage. They only wanted the good memories, and we worked hard to understand the sticky terms of the book’s bargain: There’s nothing quite like drowning to remind a person of how she rather enjoys breathing, now that she really thinks about it.

They caught on.  My twelve-year-olds explained to me that of course Jonas should try to give the memories back to his community. If he doesn’t, they’ll never know about love or anything real.

“But what about pain?” I asked in that sly, teachery, fake naïveté that I worked on all year. “The Giver himself can’t even handle the memories of warfare. Is it okay to give that to the people? They’re not even asking for it.”

“But it’ll just make them know how good love is.  It’s like they’ll know the whole range of it, like how some food is good and other food is gross. Right?” Whatever you’ve heard about squirrelly seventh-grade boys, know, too, that they make astute observations.

I’ve been ruminating on this idea as I’ve packed, painted, cleaned. I keep trying to convince myself that I want very badly to go home because of just how terrible my year of Dubai has been. I’m relieved, right? The best stuff about this place is stuff that I can get anywhere.  Good riddance. Peace out.

But I know that the heartbeast moments that brought me to heartbeast mornings served brilliantly to illuminate all that would have been good at any place or time.  This year, I have chipped away what I don’t value to shine light on what I do. I’ve focused in on the right type of people, the work ethic I wish I had, the satisfaction of honest reflection, the thrill of seeking something, and the joy of laughing way too hard.

Edgy Whitney tells me her dad’s best advice for picking companions for your life: “If you’re gonna piss off the roof, make sure you’re with someone who’ll piss with you.”  She adds the international variation:  “If you’re gonna piss off the roof in another country, make sure you’re with someone who’ll piss with you.” It’s no surprise that she’s a friend I’d trust to piss off any roof in town, no matter how haram.

It’s okay to reuse pictures when they are your favorites.

I’ve made some best friends of life this year, the kinds that tell you what doesn’t make you happy but does make you better.  I’ve learned new ways to make music for the joy of it. I’ve written. I’ve made coffee and omelets and bran muffins. I’ve kissed boys. I’ve won the affection of smart and funny children.  I’ve questioned faith and politics. I’ve learned some serious mindspeak, drawing on my East Coast friend to use a stern voice with these heartbeasts.

But hell, maybe an evenly-keeled homeland year would have been better or happier. I’ll never know.

This is what Lois Lowry asks Jonas, and through him, each young adult reader, to consider.  There is good and bad, and the bargain and miracle of human life is that we must take them both. Each enhances the other.

Edgy and I planned this unit together, through the eyes of a very real friendship that would not have been our story had we stayed in our homelands.  This is the Elsewhere that Jonas seeks; this is the real human connection brought on by experience.

Today, Edgy and I ran errands to prepare for my plane ride, which looms just a couple hours in the future. It took us half an hour to find a parking space at the Mall of the Emirates.  People still drive like idiots here.  It’s still really hot.  The toilets still have funny flush buttons, and the light switches are still shaped weirdly.  But I don’t hate Dubai for these things at all. I’m looking at this place with tenderness I never offered it before.  How wild that this place even exists. How wild that I’ve discerned so much about the world by being here. I’m not angry with this place because it allowed me to curse it so hard all year.  Instead, my heart is breaking slowly all day.

I am grateful for the good and bad moments of this year, wiser for having spent a year in a place to which I’m somewhat morally opposed. When you live in a place that lacks a heart and a soul, you just might be surprised to gravitate toward the people who fill that void.  We tried to make heart and soul enough for the whole desert, and I cherish the practice at being all the things I hope to one day be.

To the mystics, the edgy East Coasters, the lumberjack, and the other yellow-bird types, thank you for sharpening my vision, softening my heart, stretching my grin, and cracking open my brain. You teach the most important lessons in small space and short time. You are welcome alarm clocks to a nightmare heartbeast battler. I love you.

Thank you, Dubai, for all that you have been, and even more for all you have not. I’ll be learning from this year for the rest of my life.

Perhaps I’m just too nice to murder.

The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.

Interesting words of bravery from a man who died by his own hand as a paranoiac.

– Hemingway

In Cedar Rapids, Iowa, I was raised to be both nice and cautious.  Say please and thank you; don’t take candy from the guy in the white, unmarked van.

I had a lot more practice at smiley niceness than stranger-danger caution, what, with my stay-at-home mom and Catholic schoolmates.  No strangers offered me candy.

Thus, I became excellent at niceness. I figured that caution was equally well ingrained in my head.

_______________________________

I was 21 the first time I ever traveled alone. I drove to Michigan via Chicago to find Hemingway and was an uptight, crybaby-stressball the night before.  Free trip to learn about my favorite author and ram around in the woods?! Great Lakes?! HOW WILL I SURVIVE? 

The unplanned-ness terrified me.

But in those five summer days I learned the magic of talking to strangers. This is more or less what was in my journal from a day of this trip:

11:20 PM, 8/3/2009, Bay View, MI

Today I met my favorite character to date, G. T. Long*. When I called, he invited me to his home and said we could walk to some Ernest-y stuff. 

When I got to his house, quite a ways into the woods, I pulled up outside his garage and saw a lot of pretty creepy witches-really-exist stuff hanging on the walls inside.  I stopped and gawked from inside the car and thought maybe I should just leave now and pretend I got too lost.  But then he was standing in the doorway congratulating me on finding the place. 

He was booming – thunderous.  He could have really broken me across his knee.  He was tall – probably 6’4” and barrel-chested though not fat.  He had scraggly black hair – not quite chin-length, but not cleanly cut, and a face that looked like cracked red-brown leather.  He had a thick moustache and Walloon Lake blue eyes that were set deep into his worn face.  The skin right around them was crinkled, but when something surprised him and he moved them wide, I saw white skin that had been hidden from the sun before, like he spent most of his time outside, smiling or thinking hard.  He smelled smoky and wore blue jeans and a black T-shirt, was maybe 50-something.  He answered the door so warmly that he quickly became much more amusing than scary. 

Oh, sure! Hop in!

            We crossed green shag carpet and sat down with his dog Baxter at a kitchen table, which wore a Halloween tablecloth.  He shared his Ernest stories with me, told me how he’d boozed at Windemere with Ernest’s sister. She’d thrown a bottle of red wine onto the table upon approving of his company and setting down her gun, proclaiming, “Well, we can’t live on love alone!”

          He hopped in the Maxima next to me and showed me Ernest’s Horton Bay.

             I spent the day with him.  He gave me a new Michigan map and taught me about bears for my UP adventure.  He hugged me before I got back in my car and asked me to send him a copy of whatever comes of this:  “I wanna know what happens with you and all this.  This is really good!”  

G. T. was the second giant woodsman in as many days to get into my car and direct me into the woods to tell me about Hemingway.  Both times I could feel niceness and caution fighting for expression, and both times niceness won.

I thought, You have to let him in your car.  You can’t just accuse someone of being a potential predator. How rude! And just like that my manners won over the lurching feeling in my gut that perhaps I was to be killed by a stranger.

I don’t regret it a bit.

____________________________

I proudly told a class of students about G. T. in a travel writing lesson .  I explained how you could craft characters in nonfiction; they heard that Ms. Fuller endorses wandering into the woods with strange men.

While visiting Croatia, a group of students, a nurse and I went hiking outside the town of Sinj. We weren’t lost, but we were hoping for a shortcut back to the horse ranch we’d come from.

Zero teeth

We tried to sneak (in a pack of 12 eighth-graders) by a house’s back wall to cut through its yard. A man peeked out the window at us and spoke in Croatian.  We all said “hi,” but that was all we could manage. He gestured for us to wait while he came out to meet us. He had no English.

Or teeth. Not a one.

But he did have a face full of wrinkles and a terrific hat.

We met at busted up French, and he gestured for us to follow him into the woods, which we did.

Isn’t it funny how you’re not a predator? Whew!

A student said to me as we followed our new friend safely back to the horse path, “Hey! We learned this from you!” I wondered how this would sound to her mother.

_______________________________

Last weekend, I went to Fakhi’s (or “Fucky’s” as I learned it), an “antique museum,” which is equal parts warehouse of crap, Middle Eastern treasure trove, and antique-related fever dream.  All doors too small for full-grown people, bridges between store sections.  I found a neat necklace once, but I used a flashlight.

When I emerged in the sun, I instantly dreaded the walk back to the main road for a cab. (Al Quoz is a warehouse district.) It was 100+ degrees, 3 PM.  Hot enough to fry an egg on your whatever. My shins were sweating.

A Fakhi’s delivery man said, “I go to Jebel Ali.  I take you to main road.” He was smiley and there were others around, also smiley.

Don’t be an idiot was overruled by Don’t be a jerk.

I got in his white, unmarked  subtly marked van and waited for him just long enough to think how ridiculous this was and to appreciate the working air-conditioner. If I’m going to get murdered, at least I won’t be sweating.

As we pulled onto Sheikh Zayed Road, I thought it might be wise to stop at the metro, rather than letting him take me to cab-territory.  Let’s be economical and also not get murdered. He dropped me on an exit ramp and I hopped a barrier and made it safely home via train for less than a buck.

_________________________

I hadn’t done something so stupid since The Brit Incident(s). The mystical women encouraged a night or two of wild woman behavior that, if a British gentleman had been less gentle, would have resulted in death.

When last we spoke, he tried to invite himself over again before returning to the UK for a bit, and I told him that he was charming but not tremendously nice and to have a wonderful life. He responded that I was a smart girl and wished me well. I get to keep a terrific story and a black Bic lighter, one of which is mine and the other his.

Oxford, thanks a heap for not being a murderer.

_________________________

Which brings me to this week.

There’s a man in my building who looks like a cross between Jesus (friendly Middle Eastern features, long dark hair), Prince Erik from Disney’s The Little Mermaid (chiseled jaw, winning smile), and Hercules (ripped like a demigod).  He wears white linen pants and white V-neck T-shirts, thus adding to the sort of glowing man/god concept.

And every time I see him I look ridiculous.  This is not self deprecation.  I have a nice smile, I’m smart, I bounce when I walk, and I make a kickass veggie omelet.  Zero self-hatred.  But whenever I see him, I’m always without makeup or fresh from the gym.

So it shouldn’t have come as a surprise when I walked in from Sailing Club on Sunday night, salty and sandy, sweaty from the walk from the metro and grouchy about the sand in my shoes and the fact that Emirates Post is a joke of a mail service that doesn’t SELL ENVELOPES, and I found him sitting in the lounge chairs in our lobby. I looked like a slop bucket, so naturally, a divinely sexy Syrian man was awaiting me.

I smiled at him because I smile at everyone.

But what did surprise me was that he flagged me down to strike up a conversation.  He’s visiting a cousin who works in oil, “maybe till Ramadan” when it gets super hot here.  What do I do when I’m not teaching English? And can he have my number? Maybe we could get drinks sometime and he could hear me play. (Ukulele = Sexy Jesus magnet)

My cautiousness asked if maybe I shouldn’t give him a fake number, but my niceness told me that would be unnecessarily mean.

He called me then and there to be sure I had his number, too.

I got in the elevator wondering if I had missed something. Because I was still crunchy from the beach and sweaty from the walking and my face was melting off. And…

What?

What just happened?

So I’m stuck wondering what the catch is.

Perhaps he thinks I look breezy and cute in my sandy/sweaty/meltface state, although I can’t imagine how.

Or maybe he wants to murder me. Judging by the ridiculous attractiveness discrepancy, this seems equally logical.

Practical wisdom from home (and even half of my mystics) says this is maybe not the best idea.  Many rumors fly about what happens to overly smiley Western chicks when they date traditional Arabian dudes here.  It’s a cultural barrier that is tough to reconcile.

A more pleasant Amman experience than I read about recently.

I wonder especially after I read an essay from worldhum.com  about a woman’s near-death experience as a student in Jordan.  Her cab driver drove her into the desert and sexually assaulted her instead of taking her home.  She pegs herself as having been a naïve, overly smiley, loudly laughing American girl before this incident, which left her with a broken up face and a new take on how to live abroad.

Unnerving though her story is, it grates on me to think that my personality might be cause for me to be afraid. I may not pick up if my Syrian could-be lover calls, for fear of the unspeakable.

But I looked him in the eye.

I won’t not laugh.  I won’t seem less curious than I am.  Laughter and curiosity are not fueled by unkindness in me, so I won’t be ashamed of them. I’m not a jerk of an American girl in the Middle East, wearing short shorts and sitting in the front seat of taxis. But when someone asks where I’m from, I’ll tell them. Everyone knows when I lie anyway — I’m terrible at it.

I travel positively.  I like meeting people. I like remembering the ways they taught me to think about the world.

Even as I write this, I hear my mother groaning and wondering when I’ll be home, safe.

Part of me knows a measure of idiocy fuels this declaration, that I’m making excuses for having done stupid things. That I’d like to answer the phone if this guy calls me.

But more than that, I want to think that it’s okay not to assume the worst of people. I don’t want happiness or kindness to be the marks of stupidity.

Soon after my first trip, I wrote to my orignal Michigan woodsman to thank him for his hospitality. He wrote back on yellow legal paper and signed his letter, “Stay Curious, Stay Well,” and so far, I have.

*I sent G.T. this post with a new statement of thanks for helping me toward this new goal of travel writing and adventure, etc. He responded in kind, of course, and also offered these corrections and explanations: He is 6’2″ and currently 45 pounds thinner than in the above picture, just so the people know. Baxter is still kicking. And the witchy stuff was because he’s an ordained Wiccan priest. Of course he is, and of course I was too Catholic School Square to get it. He went to seminary for four years and is ordained to bury, baptize, and marry people. I hope you understand how this adds to his fabulousness.

He’s currently writing a book about his political career, which, he tells me, includes time in Russia, coaching Boris Yeltsin during his re-election in the 90s.

He confesses that he’s really no outdoorsman, but I think that’s in the eye of the beholder.

 

Marvel at my accumulation of crap.

I’ll be home in 42 days, and in a week(!) movers will load 880 pounds of my stuff onto a boat headed west.  (Let’s recall the boat ride east and the dilemma I had about books.)

I’m moving to New York, where grass grows of its own volition!  I’m going to  The New School for an MFA in creative writing (nonfiction). I’ll get to be neighbors with a best friend of life and travel by foot.  Shiny future deluxe!

So I’m packing today, deciding what the movers should take, what I need to sell, and what will make the cut and land in my two suit cases bound for the Eastern Iowa Airport. With five weeks ahead of me, two suitcases sounds like very little space.

Moving means lifting each thing I own, remembering how it all came to me.  Last week, as my friend un-hung the wall hangings he put up for me in August, I remembered the stop in Tanzania where I found that woven tapestry. I recalled the paella I shared with friends in Madrid after we went to the Prado and snagged that print of Goya’s “The Dog.” I considered how my dad’s Kipness print looked with its two partners–each with one of my sisters now–in the house where I grew up. I know exactly why I own these things; they make this Eastern Hemisphere apartment my home.

But why did I buy a cooler for one camping trip?  Why do I own two sets of mixing bowls? Why have dress pants hung in my closet for nine months now (THAT’S A HUMAN GESTATION PERIOD.) with their tags still on them? (Because I’m too short to wear them as is and too lazy to get them hemmed.) Four pairs of black high heels? Laura.

One, two, three, four, judgement.

I have a guest bed. No one has visited me here.  I bought it because I have a guest bedroom, and that’s what goes there. It’s been used three times in nine months. I bought a literal thing to fill a literal empty space, and it’s as stupid a concept as we all know it to be figuratively. Only now I have to sell the thing. (Do you want a twin bed?)

During college, I cleaned houses for a summer. Quality time with strangers’ toilets was actually satisfying work.

But there was one house I always dreaded. Though beautiful on the outside, anything beautiful inside was covered first by a layer of kitschy junk and next by a layer of filth.  We’re talking Disney and Coco-Cola fetishes (Polyfetishism is scary.), various and non-ironic Winnie the Pooh trinkets, and more Virginia Tech gear than can be attributed to healthy fandom. Three floors of shit. They also had a dog (or maybe a fleet of polar bears?) that shed no less than half an inch of white hair over all of it, week in and week out, and a toddler that must have drooled straight sugar, thus gluing the dog hair to the aforementioned shit.  (And! incredibly raunchy “romance” novels that were part of a series called “Long Tall Texans.” They had titles like The Restless Virgin and The Impatient Patient. These were proudly displayed on the bookcases and on his and her bedside tables. For the record.)

Now, I liked cleaning most houses.  It was satisfying work, and people seemed sincerely grateful. I was contributing to their quality of life.

But these were the type of people I judged hard for the whole five hours I scrubbed their Piglet figurines. I thought awful things about these repugnant beasts and arrogant things about myself while I hand mopped mysterious food grime from their bathroom floors. They were what we talk about when we criticize gross materialism.  Nothing short of hoarding, they literally avoided laundry by buying more clothes to abandon in more hampers after one use.

This is a cautionary tale in what happens when things get out of control.

Vernon lives in France.  We Skype Saturdays for a quick “Heyhowareya” that–whoops!–lasts three hours of making bagels and chatting about religion.

He rents a family’s furnished house with some friends.  His room belongs to a child, so Vern sleeps between Tin Tin sheets on his bunk bed. He’s translating his favorite novel from French to English as his Masters thesis, which he loves because he has to think about each turn of phrase.

I told my students about this one day.  One of them had picked up Night and I was gushing about how I loved the older edition because you could tell that it was translated from French, the way translations often reinvent English remarkably.

“I have a friend, Vernon, in France who does this!” I told them. They thought he sounded pretty neat.

I said, “Vern’s pretty neat.  He knows a lot about music, and minus his tuba and guitar, everything he owns could fit into one backpack!”

Their faces fell. Their heads cocked to the side.

Why?” one of them asked.

Behind their eyes, their brains gnawed at the concept of intentionally not owning things.

“Is he poor?” They were genuinely confused.

“No, he just didn’t need his stuff anymore, so he gave it away.”

More brain gnawing.

They haven’t heard about Thoreau and deliberate living yet; they don’t know about the dreadful coolness of a doomed but idealistic Chris McCandless, or a wandering but alert Jack Kerouac.

(Here, Vern would want me to say that he didn’t give away his stuff to live like a really idealistic monk.  He tells me, “I’m not some kind of purist. I need an asterisk.  I just don’t like carrying big bags through the airport.  I’m already a big guy, and I already hurt people with the bags that I have. When I’m trying to walk places, I occasionally cause people pain.” Glad we got that cleared up.)

In a station of the (Dubai) metro

In writing, I tell my kids to cut their work ruthlessly, advice I struggle to take myself.  We learned about Imagism last week, how Ezra Pound cut fluffy Romantic poetry rules to the quick.  I told them that if poetry was a cheetah (sleek, fast, 100% purposeful), Imagism was a movement that tried to shave the cheetah (sleeker, faster, 110% purposeful). I’m the weirdest teacher most of them have.

We read “In a Station of the Metro,” both hyper-concentrated lines of the thing, and I had them try to write an Imagist poem. Then I made them cut out three words.  Then I had them cut out three more. (The second round was just to take the piss out of them. “Miss, what if it’s already only three words?”)

So I’m sitting on the floor of my guest room, and I’m piling what the movers can take, what I won’t need for the next monthish, what I’m not sure I need at all. And the vocabulary of stuff-accumulation is mental-hamster-wheeling: want, need, gluttony, convenience, simplicity, usefulness, junk, heirloom, treasure, trash, necessity, cleanse.

Over spring break, I went to Jordan with some good humans, and we had a hell of a good time.  We laughed  for most of a week, even as real life snuck up on our travels. We repeated clothes and ate a lot of apples from a backpack.

Dirty feet in Petra

I came home congratulating myself for having seen a slice of what life is really about. You know, man? We didn’t rest on our purchasing power.  We were more inspired by Jordan’s pastoral and panoramic views and graffiti than we were Dubai’s glitz and mirrors.  It was a cultural cleanse.

But now as I stack my stuff, I’m noticing my complicity in what I’ve long held against Dubai. Yeah, I lived a week out of a carry-on sized bag, but I came back to a two-bedroom apartment filled with things I haven’t used since I packed them to come here ten months ago.  I don’t need most of this stuff, but I just let it accumulate, piece by piece, all the while judging the excessive city that facilitated it.  On a grand scale, I let myself think of Dubai as buying extra hampers for its new dirty clothes. But let’s be honest; I’m not just scrubbing Piglet figurines here.

No-frills tea, compliments of friendly Bedouins in Wadi Rum, Jordan

Here I am. I’m a grownup with the stuff to prove it! Look at my Tupperware! Notice my linen closet!

I’m still not a fiend about the stuff.  I do my laundry instead of compounding clothes and hampers.  So what if I have a guest bed.  What if someone had visited? Step off. Why is this bugging me?

Perhaps because I’m about to simplify by force. In one of the most expensive cities on the planet, I won’t have space for two beds or cash for unwearable clothing.

And as I realize this, I hope to remember that the stuff is not what I’m anticipating missing about here. The vast amounts of stuff have made me uncomfortable from the start.  What I’ll miss are the exceptions to the Rule of Stuff,  people and places with identity and spirit, who don’t try to reinvent and soup up a perfectly functional wheel.  What feels the best and most nurturing is the simplest, even here in Dubai (especially here in Dubai): high-five Friday jam sessions instead of twenty-dollar mixed drinks, traveling on the cheap instead of five-star lounging, laughing and thinking–dirt cheap on all continents.

I’ll probably never live from a backpack like Vern.  I’ll never be a monk. I like to cook too elaborately.  Wall-hangings make me feel like I belong in my own house.  And that’s okay.

But shedding these pieces of myself as I get ready to take the next step, reclassifying stuff by its importance, this is healthy.  It’s okay to cook a very fancy omelet as long as I don’t think that my nice omelet pan is more important than the folks I’m feeding, right? As long as I know that my omelet pan doesn’t make me more of a person. As long as I don’t buy three fancy omelet pans because I liked how that first one went. I think these are the rules.

There’s a Brian Andreas StoryPeople story for every occasion. “Leaving Pieces”:  She left pieces of her life behind her everywhere she went. It’s easier to feel the sunlight without them, she said. 

_____________________________________

Lastly, please help me come up with a new title for le blog! I’m looking for a pun about New York because the Dubai one won’t make sense anymore once I hop back across the pond. Something about a big apple? Something about being a student?  You tell me!

See what I did there? (Selected journal entries from Croatia)

I returned late last night from a weeklong field trip in Croatia with two other chaperones, Christine and J, and 24 eighth graders.  I’m editing and crafting as I type up what I wrote directly in my journal during the trip, but for the most part, these are in real time. I’ll use some initials and some name changes. Plyz don’t sue me.

2/26/12 9:00ish AM, Bus to Krka National Park.

After lights out last night, Christine and I met in the hotel reception office to email the parents.  Mr. Milo Popovic, the hotel owner and chef, was there reading the paper to the sound of American TV with Croatian subtitles.  I took a chair out of the way to journal until Christine was finished with the computer.

Note the magical glasses.

Mr. Popovic got up and sat in the chair next to me, looking subtly but undeniably like Santa. Maybe it was the accent or the grandpa quality, his older gentleman’s belly, or his red, friendly flannel.  He has playful eyes and rosy cheeks.  His glasses don’t actually hang on his ears, and they teeter perilously past the tip of his nose. I’m still trying to math out how they stay put.

“Perfecta! Meine perfecta weine!” he said to me. He poured himself a glass, explaining that this was his concoction (“mein hobby”).   He wet his moustache as he drank. He winked.

He told me his story, which I may be understanding inaccurately, but I like it all the same.  He spoke little English, and filled in the rest with bits of German that I could identify with a long-ago semester in college, and Croatian that I couldn’t discern at all. He drew pictures in my journal when I couldn’t understand.

Mr. Popovic’s story, illustrated.

I learned that he’s 62 and Croatian born, the youngest of nine.  His father had “eine problem” with his heart, and as the youngest, it was up to little Milo to steal for their family’s well being.  His uncle was the priest at their Catholic church, and when the uncle took naps, Milo would climb from his hiding place in a tree to snatch money from St. Anthony’s coffers.

At age 20, he was supposed to join the Yugoslavian army, but he refused to submit to communism (“I am ein Rebel!”) and went to jail instead.  Five months later, when he was free (I couldn’t figure out if he was set free or busted out.), he hopped a train to Germany with a fake passport and learned to cook there, making a fortune.  After Croatia gained independence, he returned with his family, paid cash for his house and hotel, and now lives in his “paradise.”

Croatia, he tells me, is the best country in Europe because it’s free, more free than even Germany.

His grandfatherly eyes flash and sparkle as he tells me about his daughter who is very pregnant.  He is a happy man, he says, because he has his family and his freedom and soon this baby will make life perfect.

………………………………….

Been marveling all day at how very lucky I am.  Enough adventure to make me want more, enough previous happiness to make me miss home, enough food to make me fat, enough sleep to wake me up, and the chance most people never get to see the whole world.  I am lucky, lucky, lucky, blessed.

2/27/12, 7:53 AM, Makarska, Croatia, en route to Dubrovnik.Windy, windy.

We teeter on narrow, mountain roads along the sea. The wind is picking up enough water to sprinkle our bus into windshield-wiping.  Periodically, our driver brakes hard as we sail uncontrollably toward small barriers.

“Oh, good!” I say to Christine and J. The three of us laugh nervously at our own ineffectiveness to downplay the danger.

We are tired today.  I suggest the quiet game as a good option for bored students, the veil on my punchiness wearing thin. Last night I woke up to shouting.

I lay groggily in my bed, letting the sounds come into focus.  I heard a voice that had sounded like jingling Christmas bells just before, now thundering, as boulders falling, repeating the same crescendoing line in Croatian.  It was indecipherable except the first word, the name of his wife: “Rooosieeee BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM!” His voice carried darkness, both angry and deeply sad. I thought I heard the squeak of furniture moving between shouts.

A quiet knock on my door jolted me; it seemed louder than it was because of how closely I was listening. I was relieved to greet Christine and not a student.  “Are you hearing this?” she asked as she shivered into my room.

We both stood there, hoping the other would have an idea. “What do we do?” she asked.  I didn’t know.

We listened together, suddenly convinced Popovic was hitting Rosie and that it was her whimpering we were hearing between hollers, not sliding chairs.  We sat on my bed, scared, clueless as to how to proceed.

We woke up J. She’s a mom. Moms know.

J mothered us, calling our guide, Kristofor.  We couldn’t communicate with Popovic if we needed to. This must be scaring our kids. Kristofor sent a neighbor to talk to Popovic.  We discerned that we could hear Rosie crying rarely, that the louder whimpering was Popovic himself.

We heard Milo Popovic again, from a more distant room.  We called Kristofor once more, requesting that he come himself.  We thought about the student whose father we suspect is a similar brand of unpleasant at home, a student whose room was closer than ours to the hotel proprietor’s apartment, exchanging helpless frowns and head shakes.

Kristofor stayed after translating from the neighbor that Popovic was very drunk but that Rosie was not near him. Was she hiding? He had been so happy earlier.  Had his daughter miscarried? Were we safe?

We offered Christine’s room to Kristofor.

Christine bunked up with me and we listened intently for a repeat performance.  We talked about times before this when we had felt so scared.  Those were childhood moments, when our parents became vincible. There was no more noise from upstairs.

The next morning, we only saw Rosie at breakfast, smiling and sweet as ever.  She served the eggs alone.

Now as we wiggle toward Makarska, I hear Kristofor and the bus driver conversing in Croatian, the language once again sounding like smooth pebbles, Ds and Ls rolling darkly and sweetly over each other, sugared with SHs, Ks, Zs.  Sleepy white noise, a steady locomotive.

The kids giggle behind me, being fourteen.  None has mentioned the thunder from last night if they heard it.  They missed it.  Today they chatter and sleep, missing the sparkle of the water, the soft, organized blowing of well-rowed olive trees.


2/27/12, 17:50 Glowing sunset, bus ride, almost to Bosnia, Croatia. En route from Dubrovnik.

We’re driving next to the sunset, and watching Christine take pictures of it through the bus windows made me think of the J. Mayer song “3×5.” I found it on my dying iPod, and now I’m jamming and remembering my own 8th grade year like it wasn’t ten years ago.  Holy hell; where did the time go?

The easy answer is literal — to high school and Luther and outward all the way to Dubai, Tanzania, and today to Croatia.  This particular song, “3×5,” is distinctly about travel.  It refers to the sunrise, but it will always be about sunset for me.  I fell for it just after eighth grade on the boat in Lake City, MN, memorizing lyrics and appreciating poetry for the first time in my life.  I’d never been farther from home than Mason City without my mom.  I’d never been kissed, never driven a car, never considered a life outside of Iowa.

And yet, I knew the song made me ache — even without possessing the word melancholy, a word my own students just learned in their last vocab unit.  There was something about the chugging along in the instrumental lines, a sense of regret or unsureness in that melody.

As I tune out my eighth graders now, hearing the same song, I drum up the same feelings I had when I first learned it at their age.  Now I can internalize the truth of the song’s sentiment, knowing firsthand just how hard it is to put the camera away and trust your memory to file the most important colors and textures of Dubrovnik.  I saw tonight’s sunset with older but only slightly wiser eyes than those with which I welcomed the dark on the Mississippi with uncles Rich and Mike a decade ago, John Mayer spinning in my discman.

A different sunset than mentioned here, but a good and Croatian one nonetheless.

I knew then that I was a person, that I had some amount of insight.  I got the bottom line of each song on the album, even if I had to also acknowledge that it would be a while till I could fully identify.  I felt special and grown up for this understanding.  I wasn’t born yet in 1983, but damn if that song, “83,” didn’t make me miss the house on Winter Court and the badass playground my dad had constructed out back.

I’m a young teacher of smart eighth graders who want sometimes to shrink the ten years that sit between us.  I stand tall at these moments in my pencil skirts and heels and explain that those are ten big, important years, and thus we are not “practically the same age!” at all. I believe myself when I say this.

But last night, I huddled with another 20-something woman in my bed, listening to a belligerently  drunk old man whale on his wife, and I was no less scared because of the ten years I have on my kids.  I wondered if they could hear this, and whether they were feeling the same timpani in their heartbeats, or if I was extra fearful because I was supposed to be able to protect them.  I still don’t know what I would have done if he had come into the hotel side of the house.  We listened like we were overhearing a fight between our own parents, unsure of how far it might escalate.

How will we explain this gray area tomorrow? we’d wondered.  I don’t know if he’s hitting her.  I don’t even know what he’s saying, let alone what’s driving it.  Poor kids must be confused and scared.

Much like me.

They were probably afraid, jumping into one bed to protect each other. They probably wanted to call us for help, but they were probably afraid to go out into a strange hallway because where was this bellowing Croatian, anyway? They probably laughed helplessly at their own silliness because crying seemed a little too dramatic.  Maybe they were talking about times when they’ve ever been so scared.

We woke up today and didn’t hear anything from them about it.  Maybe they didn’t hear.  Maybe they did, but they weren’t confused at all.

Maybe they got the sense of it without the experiences to validate their impressions.  Maybe they knew that one day they would have the vocabulary to label the rage and sorrow and wine in this man’s voice, wondering which was the pilot of this rig.  Ten years from now, their understanding will probably be crystalized but no more powerful.  They’re already there.

“Today, I finally overcame

Tryin’ to fit the world inside a picture frame. 

Maybe I will tell you all about it when I’m 

In the mood to lose my way, but let me say, 

You should have seen that sunrise

With your own eyes.”


Mystical women improve adventure.

Hope you’ve all had a good three years since last I wrote (which was SUPER depressing anyway.)

Things have happened since then. Life updates: I applied to grad schools — will keep you posted — and thusly decided not to return to Dubai after this school year. So, change is on the horizon.  Grad apps/resignation take some soul searching and some doing, though, so this is where I’ve been for the last long time.  Forgive me.  (Thanks.)

I’m thinking about women lately because of THIS ARTICLE from The Rumpus about women’s friendships. Most of my girlfriends have, too.

One of my closest women recently mentioned to me the phenomenon in which we all find what we need, the serendipity that leads us to the people whose advice we need the most.  We subconsciously listen for what we need to hear.  I absolutely don’t believe in the “for a reason” model of understanding the universe, but I think we accidentally seek what we need more often than we admit or understand it.

___________________________

I remember clearly the moment my mom decided to teach me to tie my shoes. I was pretty little. Four? Is that a reasonable age for this?  My mom came to me in the family room carrying a shoebox containing a brand new pair of white Keds, shoes for big girls.  We turned off Rugrats.

I could wear the shoes, she explained, when I learned to tie them myself. Big girls tie their own shoes.  I used the motivational logic, and she explained patiently how to do the work.  We sat on the white carpet next to the blue recliner, and we tied shoes over and over.  We tied shoes from The Price is Right straight through The Young and the Restless.  We tied shoes during lunch, splitting a Diet Coke in tiny juice glasses.

I remember my mom caring for us deeply but as an adult, not another playmate.  She told us to go outside and play so she could take care of business. She was our mom, even when that had to trump being our friend.

 Jules hasn’t ever been over the ocean, and that’s fine.  She lives a damn big life.  She’s sturdy, clever, full of reinventive powers. She is a practical woman.  I come from practical women.

She smiles and shakes her head at me a lot.  I think I remind her of herself in a lot of surprising ways that my super practical sisters do not. It freaks her out to see in me so many of her quirks, the not very Wonderbread qualities, in a more loud-and-proud form than she displays them.

__________________________

Last weekend at the Irish pub, I was overcome with magical mindspeak. I stopped the cute bartender whose British accent had come to offer me a “proper drink, darling” and I asked him his name.  I wrote my number down in a note that was both ballsy and distinctly dorky – qualities I’d like to think add to my charm – and I left with my friends for the next bar.

When we got to the parking lot to get into cabs, I checked my phone to see two cute, properly punctuated texts from a new friend, inviting me to join his cigarette break.

I showed these to the Edgy Whitneys as we arrived at the vehicles bound for the salsa bar. Mr. Edgy said, “Sweetheart, I think you need a smoke.”  He found one in his pocket and offered it to me.

Edgy said, “Ring the bell, Fuller!”

I returned their mischievous grins, snatched the cig, and waved goodbye, marching back to the pub.

I took my red dress through the iron gate at the back of the bar. He was sitting on a crate under some pink flowery vines on a trellis.  He made room for me to sit next to him. We talked.

I’m still not sure I believe anything he said. Who cares?

Eventually, he said, “So, about this business of kissing you.”

Somewhere in the thick of this evening was the turning of a corner, a fresh start.

I was sexually powerful. I was someone whose lips might be bit a little, but whose hand should be held quite tenderly. Someone to impress with a cool but possibly made up story about hiking in Mongolia (but who thinks to make shit up about Mongolia?) I was someone to pull closer by the small of her back. Someone whose nose and eyes wanted kissing. Someone to respect when she says no, but someone to hope might say yes the next time, and who knows? Maybe she will.

It was an out-of-character night with a heart pumping in the way it only can when one is doing things that are new and slightly dangerous.  I wasn’t under a familiar or protective eye.  I wasn’t thinking straight or being practical at all. I was kissing a perfect stranger, past my bedtime, internally awakening at an hour when practical people are slumbering.

_________________________

When I told my mother this story, her first response was that I should be safer, then that I should act more like A Lady.   Later, she smiled, but wished I’d been safer and more of A Lady. “Oh, GOOD GOD, Laura!”

My sisters heard the story calmly, then retold it to me from their perches of practical wisdom, highlighting the times I was most likely to be roofied and murdered, or just regular murdered without even the pleasantry of a poisoned drink to make me unaware.  “When do you come home again? That was beyond stupid.”

________________________

And I’m realizing that the women I talk to here most often, the friends who are role models, those ten and twenty years my senior, are not the practical women I come from.  I’ve stumbled upon my own crowd of mystics.

These girls ask the universe for what they need and then declare that it’s been manifested.

Edgy Whitney has been known to manifest both friendships and coffee – and the occasional text from that sexy Brit from last weekend – with unmatched skill.  Even as I write this, she sends me messages at nine PM, proclaiming that the time has come to do a tarot reading for me. She just found her favorite deck.

She does not take her family to the Wisconsin Dells for their vacations.  She takes them to Nepal to fly prayer flags, to meet her spirit animal the elephant, to learn about the Buddha in his birthplace.

Her hearthy, open home makes me feel warm and loved in an incense-burning yak-wool blanket sort of way.  At her kitchen table, she explains the signs of the zodiac, how my earth sign changes things for me, how her actions are explained by being an Aquarius.

Another friend advises at a party to run down the writing dream.  Before all of this British fresh startness, she saw me, still hung up and stupid about someone who didn’t deserve that, and she said, “Well, your heart is a mess but your head is okay. Did I ever tell you I’m a little bit psychic? I am. I’m a little psychic.”

She talks about crying during yoga at powerful moments during hip opener poses: “That’s where we hold our emotions.  It’s like a floodgate.”  She talks about how it’s okay to drink a lot of wine and eat a lot of bread when you move to France and your homeland life unravels in your absence.  She’s turned out fine, so it was, ultimately, fine.

A third proclaims that the universe will always find a way to give back to us what we put out there.  It’s always worth it to give your best, then.  It always makes sense to think the best of people or to make effort toward what you hold dear.  She looks at me knowingly over our ritual Heineken pints at the sailing club after the children have safely left, the thick, Jumeirah call to prayer hanging like the twilight, putting the Zen in Zen Sailing Sundays: “This is going to work out,” she says. “I have great intuition. It’s going to be good. Oh yes.”

She talks about ripe avocados falling on tin roofs in Guatemala.  She talks about her palm reading in India.  She talks about having her star charts done.

When I tell another of these mystics the story of last weekend, she laughs at me approvingly.  “When I was your age,” she giggles, “I was banging that bell. Ring the bell! I just love that!”

She used to live in Spain and worked by day as a teacher’s assistant and by night as a paid presence in a Madrid bar.  “It was torture after a point.  I didn’t want to stay up till two.  I didn’t want to drink. I was tired, man.”

She visits friends in the mystical village Cassadaga, the namesake of a really terrific Bright Eyes album, but not a place I’d ever really understood to exist. She talks about aura-readers there and how nice it was to just let her kids play because the place was walled in safely, just a mystical community where the children are free to roam.

When she hears music she likes, she says it makes her want to do good in the world, that it makes her proud to be a human being.  Isn’t that lovely?  I just love that.

__________________________

I’m the most mystical person my sisters know.  I’m weird and a hippie to them.  Like my mom, they smile and shake their heads at me in exasperation.

I’m as Catholic schooled, Midwestern raised, rule-following and dorky as they come to the Dubai mystics, though.  They shake their heads and laugh at me for the opposite reasons.

One group goes to Sunday Mass to pray thanks for my not having been raped and left for dead in the desert someplace after last weekend.  The other group rejoices in the very parts of that story that terrify my mother:  I didn’t know how it would work out, but I trusted my instincts straight to some risky, dangerous, new excitement.

Maybe they’re the same reasons, though.  Maybe both groups of self-satisfied, confident, sharply defined women see in me the makings of some sort of mysticism of my own devising.  Maybe I will, like Jules before me, weave bills, gardens, ground beef, and shoe-tying lessons into the magic tapestry motherhood.  Maybe I will, like the mystics, choose a different landscape from that of my upbringing but still ask the universe how to make the same sense and compassion out of it that Jules asks for each Sunday at St. Pius X.

I would love to fuse the practical and the mystical, to recognize that without one of these, the other is insufferable. There is time and space and need for them both.