Sunday, July 31, 2011

Whimsical at Harvard

In a chapter of A Million Miles in A Thousand Years, Donald Miller's book about living and writing better stories, the narrator converses with a character who "didn't think we should be afraid to embrace whimsy. I asked him what he meant by whimsy, and he struggled to define it. He said it's that nagging idea that life could be magical; it could be special if we were only willing to take a few risks."

When I was an undergraduate student at Harvard University, whimsy evaded me. So did bushy tails: I graduated without having taken a single photograph of the squirrels in Harvard Yard. I have now returned. And I brought my whimsy with me.
Sever Hall on a summer afternoon
Widener Library reflected in a puddle
Harvard Square cobblestone after a sunset rain
Harvard Square after a sunset rain II
Scraps of paper on a student bulletin board
A leaf is caught in a spiderweb in Harvard Yard.
Spider plant in Harvard Yard
Redeeming myself: Photographing squirrels - Part I
Redeeming myself - Part II
Redeeming myself  - Part III
The Harvard motto: Veritas
A sticker on the back of a STOP sign in Harvard Square instructs us to "Stay Cute."
Found in the dressing room of a shop in Harvard Square
For the month of August, I am participating in August Break: taking a break from words and, instead, sharing photos and the stories that come with them. Join in.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Through the glass

I had never watched American Beauty until my sophomore year of college. Sure, I remember the posters outside the movie theater in Greece. A rose petal, a belly button, a big bold R rating to indicate that rose petals and belly buttons were not the stuff of 13-year-old Greek girls. At the time, the suggestiveness evaded me. I simply thought rose petals looked right on girls' bellies in the same way that linen pants look right on summer nights.

October of sophomore year of college found me on a friend's couch. It was one of those couches that belonged to a friend of my friend's and to that friend's older brother and to his girlfriend - one of those couches that have gone to college with everyone and on which you sit with the acknowledgement that you will absorb some of the odor of sweat, beer and love. American Beauty seemed a little extra seedy in that setting.

Years later, the perversion of the movie and the odor of the couch have both faded. There is one line from it that has not. Lester Burnham muses:
It's hard to stay mad when there's so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I'm seeing it all at once, and it's too much, my heart fills up like a balloon that's about to burst... And then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on to it, and then it flows through me like rain and I can't feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life... You have no idea what I'm talking about, I'm sure. But don't worry... you will someday. 
There was nothing soothing about American Beauty other than that disclaimer. Years later, I'm starting to get an idea of what Lester Burnham was talking about.

A boat of glass, with a heart on the left
Boat reflection 
A glass ceiling I do not protest

The beams that hold up the ceiling
Glass sculpture close-up
Raining glass
Glass garden
The glass garden has roots.
Mixed materials
A glass venus fly trap
I do not know if it is possible to be around these creations by Dale Chihuly and not be mindful of one's own fragility. I have been thinking about the life steps I am trembling too much to embrace securely. This glass is alive and speaks to me in a way that inspires leaps of faith, as did the kindred spirit whose heart skipped next to mine at the sight of all the wonder. My friend and I glided through the rest of the museum, with the other exhibits being secondary characters to the fairy tale in which we were floating. We talked about photography and art and poetry and writing and sharing and other stuff as dreams are made on. We talked about processing and choosing and deciding, we laughed, we reminisced. We talked about the trauma of conflict, of loss and of heartbreak. We reveled in unbridled joy. There was no room for groundedness last night. She and I needed to float. As Lester Burnham would have it, our hearts filled up like balloons that were about to burst.

There was no bursting or breaking last night. We simply walked along one another and let the vulnerability flow through the cracks. 

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Anchors of love

Mary Oliver has written one of my favorite lines in poetry: “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” There is a lot of advice for international development workers and conflict specialists and nomads and travelers and ‘women on the road.’ I have been told not to get attached. To live fully and to experience everything and to not linger or get caught up in people, in stories, in places or in circumstances. I have been told this is no way for a love to grow and thrive; I have been told to settle down and I have been told to choose.

Mary Oliver still wins in my heart. There is a love somewhere across the ocean, in our former dusty home whose living room is probably unswept right now, and that love fuels me. It grounds me, it energizes me, it slows me down. It helps me process. It makes me look forward and it makes me reminisce. When I was a more emotionally stunted college student with 643 too many inhibitions, I never dreamed I would live like this. Writing about love on the internet — about my love no less! — violated every New England sensibility that had seeped into my Greek blood. Since then, I have lived in a dozen conflict and post-conflict zones, I have been terrified and drunk off life, I have unlearned a lot of ingrained habit, and I have let Mary Oliver teach me.

This is an excerpt from my latest column at Gypsy Girls Guide. To read more about what Mary Oliver has taught me about distance, life, love, and loneliness, click here.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Postcards from a USA misfit

Location: Felipe's Taqueria, Mt. Auburn Street, Cambridge, MA
There was a period in my life when pico de gallo and a quesadilla were the key to happiness. In fact, it may still be that period. I revisited the site of my college late-night (and early afternoon and mid-day) eating to find out if the magic of Felipe's quesadillas permeates time.

I did not have my first burrito until I was a 17-year-old freshman in college. Burritos have not caught on as quickly in Greece as tequila has. When I tried to explain to my Greek extended family what those burritos I was eating "in America" were, one of my uncles said: "Ahh, I see now. It's Mexican souvlaki!"

Six years after that first burrito, in Colombia, I was told I "eat like a gringa." After watching me navigate a Colombian burrito, my colleague suggested (in mild mortification): "You need to take bigger bites. Eat faster, do not let it all unwrap itself by the time you get to the end. Bite in the middle of it, not delicately around the edges. Do not let the rice drop and do not squeeze too hard because all the sour cream comes out on the other end and you make a mess of yourself. Put extra cilantro between every bite; it makes the rice taste fuller."

At Felipe's in June 2011, I am willing to give all this another try.

"Quisiera un burrito, por favor. Sin queso, sin frijoles. Con arroz, salsa, carnitas. Sin maiz."

The man behind the counter looks up at me in recognition. He is one of the men who wrapped my first burritos seven years ago. I knew it was him when I walk through the door and he knew it was me when I ordered because, really, how many people order burritos without beans, without cheese, without without without?

The magic of Felipe's
"Aprendiste Espanol!", he tells me in amazement of my actually speaking Spanish.

I do not tell him that I was learning Spanish then too, but I had been too shy to ever open my mouth in imperfection. He asks if I am studying here again, I respond that I am a tourist. I almost said "just a tourist", but there is nothing "just" or "merely" about a return to Harvard Square laden with memories.

I eat on the steps of Widener library, watching parents pushing strollers through Harvard Yard, some of them inevitably entertaining the possibility that their child may one day walk through here "with purpose", like those people in Crimson sweaters do. Not a single drop of rice escapes from the burrito. Not a leaf of cilantro hits the ground.

Location: A coffeeshop in Davis Square
"I'd like a coffee, please."
"Right away. What kind of coffee would you like?"
"A sweet coffee."
"You mean, with sugar?"
"Yes, exactly!"
"Cream or milk with that?"
"Yes! Milk. The frothy kind. Oh... non-fat, too. Or maybe soy!  Do you have soy?"
"We do have soy! ...The frothy kind? Do you want a latte? A soy latte?"
"A soy latte sounds perfect."
"What size? 24, 32 or 36 ounces?"

In the land of brick-colored memories
Tell me who needs 36 ounces of coffee. I did the math in my head, converting ounces to units of measurement I understand, thinking I may be wrong, thinking that it has to be less than a bucket of coffee the size of my head. If I ever need 36 ounces of coffee, please tell me to forget about (organic) (fair-trade) (from Rwanda!) coffee beans and go back to bed.

The barista who rang up my order was very patient with me, but she could not help but display the "oh, girl-whose-first-time-it-is-ordering-a-coffee-beverage-do-you-know-commuters-are-glaring-at-you" look on her face. There were days in the field with rockets exploding or gunshots in the distance or someone following my every step when I thought that every problem in life could be fixed by a milk frother. You know, that tool that makes milk magical.

Away from the surveillance shadows and the rockets and the gunshots, I have forgotten how to function in America. I have forgotten about choice and abundance and the fact that caffeinated beverages with frothy milk are called lattes and they come in different flavors and sizes and that I used to order them, oh, daily when I lived 'here' full-time. I am that person at the Metro who gets the growls of everyone behind her because she needs to swipe her Metrocard twice. It took me twenty minutes to figure out how to adjust a thermostat, and figuring it out involved an epiphany about opening a window instead. I learned that such a thing as "frosting shots" exists, for those people who buy cupcakes just for the buttercream on top. I am mesmerized by TVs in taxis (worry not, though, I have been warned not to touch the screen without bathing in Purell. I still know some things.)

Sitting in Havana, Cuba, and drinking a cafecito, I was reading Onward, the book by Starbucks CEO Howard Schulz. I like to think that I fully appreciated the irony of reading about tall, half-caf, soy lattes with sprinkles and a dash of whipped cream in one of the places least reminiscent of America. Four weeks later, hours after the soy latte incident, I touched the hardcover edition in one of the Harvard Square Starbucks, remembering what a print book in English feels like, and slowly recovering the memories of how to function when surrounded by frosting shots and tall vanilla soy lattes.

Location: A generic Starbucks, NYC
I have successfully ordered coffee without exceeding my allocated 12 seconds in line or using the word "frothy." I am seated next to a mother and her five-year-old son, who is taking sips out of a cup that may not hold 36 ounces of liquid, but is certainly bigger than his head. She is encouraging him to write in his summer journal.

"What can I write about?" he asks.
"Anything, sweetie. You can write about anything you want."
"Can I write about sitting here with you right now?"
"Yes, of course you can."
"Why do I need to write about right now in my summer journal?" This kid is twenty years younger than I am and he articulates all my anxiety surrounding the relevance of writing about one's life better than I do.
"Because it's practice. You are a very good writer, a great writer! But you avoid writing. Don't be scared. Write your heart out."

Advice someone heard at five, and I need to hear at two decades older than that. Thank you, Starbucks, New York, and five-year-old writers with doubts.