What Germany Can Teach the World This Holocaust Remembrance Day

“Over 14 months, 2,750,000 tons of bombs were dropped, destroying 20% of the property in Eastern Cambodia, forcing 2 million Cambodians to become refugees.” “From 1961-1971, the US sprayed 80,000,000 liters of Agent Orange to deforest land to prevent hiding … Continue reading

How Several Months of Travel Has Changed Me…and I Haven’t Even Left Yet

Photo: MO 2015

Susan B. Anthony once said about the bicycle, “I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance.” I wonder what she’d say about my new 46 liter backpack. Because I have never felt so free, about to travel the world for months living out of this tool.

Let’s start by recognizing that travel is a form of privilege, though you don’t need as many resources to do so as some purport. 

I am in a situation in which I have a particular privilege: I end a one year fellowship with a final retreat in Rwanda which includes a stipend to get home, whenever I decide that will be. A natural employment break, no quitting of job necessary, and landing on a different continent with a way to get home. I am humbled for this opportunity and all that’s led up to this. I hope to be a good steward of the resources I’ve been given.
I always knew I’d travel when this fellowship ended, but only recently did “a couple months” turn into a potentially five month plan. If all goes to plan-which I can tell you it already that it won’t be smooth like it is on paper now- I will be doing everything from assisting sport for development organizations, writing in monasteries, summiting a volcano, walking on an ancient path from France into Spain, and set foot on five continents. But even if none of that happens, I have already learned so much.

Because I am doing things I never thought I’d do because of fear or anxiety.

I’m trusting I will find a job when I return.

I’m learning to spend money I’ve saved and not feel guilty about it.

I am visiting embassies. And not because my passport was stolen.

I feel more independent than ever before and that we can truly get anywhere we want with a little research.

My geography has expanded ten fold. I can now tell you where all the major cities in France, Turkey, Nigeria, India, and Italy are located on the map.

I am learning how to be present and take things one leg of the journey, country, month, day, moment at a time. Because it’s only when I think about the entire five months that things start to feel overwhelming.

I am learning French. The metric system. The Schengen Ageement. Currency exchange rates. The history of pilgrimage. What day is cheapest to fly (when in doubt, it’s Tuesday).

Photo: MO 2015

Photo: MO 2015

I am learning what I need to do to calm down on those 1 AM restless nights, in which it is one as I type this (solution: Bon Iver, a light snack, lighting a candle, journaling and sitting Indian style with my eyes closed and palms open).

 I am learning just how massive of a behemoth colonialism was…or still is.
I  am learning that travel is not as expensive as I thought and having a spiritual awakening through SkyScanner.com.
I am learning how strong my non-anxious muscles are.

I am learning that if shit hits the fan and I need to come home earlier, that’s ok and I haven’t failed anyone- not even myself.

I am learning that wrestling with change’s shadows at 2 AM will be a part of my evolution, and though we will step on each others’ toes, we will dance.

I am learning that 99.9 percent of the world will treat you with an immense kindness and goodness, like when I had my first Skype call with a sport for development organization in Togo, where I’ll be headed in August. He spoke to me with the bit of English he knew. I spoke to him in fractured Frenglish, and he helped me with my accent. We used the instant message feature a lot and he wrote, “Do not be afraid. My family and my children will be yours and we will teach you French.” Tears welled in my eyes.

Because I was afraid. Looking at my flight options, I had two choices. Overnight layovers in countries where I was nervous for my safety. Or take a 2:30 AM flight.

2:30 in the morning? 2:30 in the morning!!! My anxious bells whistled. How will I sleep? It’s not safe to be out at that hour! How am I even getting to the airport!? The cacophony in my head snowballed. What if the pilot falls asleep while flying? What if we crash? 

You’re in an airport, a voice of reason chimed in. Where other people are there for the same exact reason you are. Plus, when’s the last time a plane crashed because the pilot was tired?

Nerves eased slightly.

The next day, I had another restless night and finally got out of bed to journal. I never look at the clock when this happens but I grabbed my cell phone to serve as light, and noticed it was 2:15 A.M. A quiet laugh came over me, then an unfettered loud one. You are alone. In the dark. In a city you know. With every comfort you’d ever need. Yet you’re wide awake. And you’re worried about how you will sleep on some flight? It was comical to me. That forsaken scary hour did not appear the least bit scary anymore. I booked my ticket as soon when I woke up seven hours later.

In addition to all I’ve learned and the kindness bestowed to me, I am hearing stories of people’s dreams, fears, and personal travels. Because when people learn of my upcoming plans, they often then divulge one of those three scenarios. How humanizing it is to share fears. How mobilizing it is to learn from others. How exciting it is to share dreams until the we’re lying on our backs staring up at the stars saying, “God, I can’t believe we get to live this life.”

As I go through waves of anxiety and excitement, my soul tries to speak beyond all the emotions. I feel my soul extending palms open, longing to stop spinning in the midst of my fears over the changes ahead. To accept uncertainty and even befriend it. There’s this inner space that speaks more gently than before, whispering a cathartic, “Just be.” And on days in which I feel as though I cannot muster up enough energy to get out one more word, a simple, “Just.”

The calendar of time left before I leave is thinning. And so are my cabinet shelves as I slowly begin to move out.This global house I’ve lived in with roommates from India and Canada is coming to a close. We’re throwing dance parties and cocking our heads on each others’ shoulders when we need to lament the passage of time. But inside, something is both stirring and simmering, heart hearkened to dismantling personal barriers. If these plans should suddenly foil, I will already have learned so much.

dream big

Photo: bit.ly/1JcMsEG

“Leave. Roll the word around on your tongue for a bit. It is a beautiful word, isn’t it? So strong and forceful, the way you have always wanted to be. And you will not be alone. You have never been alone. Don’t worry. Everything will still be here when you get back. It is you who will have changed.” –Donald Miller, Through Painted Deserts

On the 20-something Prescribed Narrative, Change, and Freedom

I arrived slightly disheveled, sweaty from an 8 hour bus ride from Philadelphia, feeling like I could cry at any moment, when I received one of the warmest welcomes in my entire life. One of those welcomes in which the person drops what’s in his/her hands, looks you straight in the eye, and says sincerely, “First, welcome. Welcome,” pausing in between the two “welcomes” to invite you to breathe a full inhale and exhale.

An hour ago, I was at Union Station in New Haven crying on the toilet, grateful for the journey ahead while already missing the wonderful community that took a while to find. Now that I had it- after many lonely nights in which I wanted to move away- I didn’t want to let it go. I spent four years in Baltimore: 1 awful, 1 better and two amazing, going from a place I once near hated to a place I loved with a maternal nothing-is-going-to-stop-me-from-loving-you kind of love.

But now, I was moving to DC after a two week training at Yale to become a Program Manager at a small nonprofit that trains college athletes to become sports-based HIV educators in DC middle schools. This was a dream come true, as I spent many a torturous night writing sport for development papers longing to get into this field, but had no idea how to get there. It was going to be a great year. Though I was moving a mere 45 minutes south, it was still a big change for me. The words of a pastor I respected were helping me come to terms with this change:

Photo: MO 2015

Photo: MO 2015

“All change, even good change, must be grieved because change is a form of loss.”

I was likely never going to live in that same house with the front porch that invited you to take in the stars before coming inside each night. I was losing a spiritual community that took me a while to find- one in which we talked about social justice and spirituality over wine and genuine, vulnerable conversation. And all of this reminded me of the passage of time, which produces an almost sick sense in my stomach knowing that all of those memories will never again be in actual real time.

But now, here, one year later, I’m finishing my fellowship. Around February, I began having those nights in which you’re up until 2 AM trying to fruitlessly figure out your life. I’d light a candle by 2:15, sit Indian style with my palms facing upward, and simply connect with God. Not wanting answers. Not asking for anything but to simply be, and be open. After 5 minutes of stillness, I’d hop back into bed and laugh at myself for demanding answers to life that cannot be told ahead of their time. That is, until a week later, when I’d repeat the whole process. And the week after that. Until it’s late May and it’s hitting you that there’s two months left and you’ve done nothing to prepare for your next transition.

But then I had a moment on my bike. Friends and I were biking on our way from DC to Pittsburgh, and I could only see ten feet ahead of me, peddling in the dark with my headlamp. It occurred to me how many times I’ve tried tracing shapes out of the shadows, trying to figure out the contours of the future, when all I really needed- –and all that was beneficial— was right before me- those precious 10 feet of light wrapped in the ambiance of quiet, cool fresh evening air. In 2010, I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, a future focused orientation that detracts from the present. Since then, every change, every decision was often met with a system of checks and balances, wanting assurance from a world that cannot promise that. But here, on these quiet bike trails, this stream of light pouring from my bike reminded me of a new way in which I wanted to orient myself: I would figure out my next life steps through travel, one destination at a time.

It’s now a matter of weeks until my fellowship ends and instead of my usual M.O. of anxiety, I’m actually at peace. At peace with traveling the world for a few months without a job lined up. At peace with spending time with sport for development organizations in countries where I’m grateful to simply be able to say two sentences in another language. I’ve thought about traveling the world extensively for a while now, thinking that was the ultimate activity you were supposed to do as a twenty-something. I felt shame at 25, 26 when I wasn’t doing that, still living in a city near where I went to college. But I have hindsight now to see that any earlier was not the right time for me. I had growing pains to work through that could only be worked through if I stayed where I was until I could learn how to be present, how to use my own voice, how to create community, how to stop holding myself back from the life of freedom I was trapping myself from.

Perhaps the best way we can measure how well we lived as twenty-somethings, or thirty-somethings, or seventy-somethings for that matter, is not by the number of miles traveled, or the archetypal narrative you think you’re supposed to be living, but instead, measure it by the moments in which you did something you never thought you’d have the courage to do. Measure it by the growth you see: in yourself, in the plants and trees around you. Measure it by the number of days in which you have no journal pages, because the days were simply too filled with beauty to be penned. Measure it by the numbers of conversations you had in which you walked away challenged, questioning the framework with which you always viewed the world.

That’s how I’ll measure these next several months after my fellowship. I know I’ll have anxious nights along the way, but maybe, just maybe, I will recall those words from that pastor that subconsciously gave me permission to grieve—and celebrate— change in whatever way I need to- be it in tears at unexpected places, or at 2 AM alone in my room, unsure of where I’m going. I’m learning that dances in the dark with Change’s shadows at God foresaken hours will be a part of my evolution. I’m learning to let go of the death grip I wrapped around the false security of detailed next steps that leave no room for mystery, wonder, surprises, hard challenges that are only there to show you how strong you really are. I’m learning how to ask, “What’s life trying to teach me?” instead of “Why the hell is this happening?” Learning that there are many narratives we can choose for ourselves, and that timeframes are truly a custom-fit, not one-size-fits-all.

It would make sense, then, to share with you that I’m writing this on one of my wandering mind til 2 AM nights- because I still wrestle and fight and muse in the midst of every change, even good change. I’m almost ready for the go-back-to-bed-and-laugh-at yourself part. Maybe tomorrow, if you see me, we can laugh in person, or in spirit, and we can unclench each other’s hands if they drift away from open palms, together living these changes, free, free…free.

.

Photo: MO 2015

Photo: MO 2015

The Space Between Rootedness and Exploration

“Roll the word around on your tongue for a bit. It is a beautiful word, isn’t it? So strong and forceful, the way you have always wanted to be. And you will not be alone. You have never been alone. Don’t worry. Everything will still be here when you get back. It is you who will have changed.” -Donald Miller, Through Painted Deserts
Photo: Firlefanz, Pinterest

Photo: Firlefanz, Pinterest

I never thought I would come to love this city so much. In fact, when I moved back here after backing out of my Peace Corps assignment, I felt ashamed. For four years, I lived In the Baltimore surburbs as an undergraduate. The world felt big and wondrous. I planned to spend two years in Africa with the Peace Corps and then two years in Colorado for grad school. Never was it in my plans to live near here again. But in 2010, after my mental health tanked and I needed to say “no” to my Peace Corps dream, I received a job at Johns Hopkins, living in Towson for another year before spending another three in different neighborhoods of Baltimore. In 2011, I moved to an underserved neighborhood with a friend and while I could never bring myself to say hate- I detested Baltimore. This neighborhood. My job. Didn’t see what this city had to offer, where its life was.

But then I moved to a quirky neighborhood, that, while not particularly racially diverse, is an eclectic source of artists, hipsters, cyclists, social advocates, a few old white men who never seem to leave the bar, and, of course, your standard Bawlmer Hon. I began going to a liberal Church that particularly focused on LGBT inclusion, learning much from my pastor who is a married lesbian. One meaningful connection led to another, as so often does, and pretty soon I began meeting these funky people in my neighborhood. We made videos on being people of faith who support marriage equality, paraded monthly through diverse neighborhoods of the city on bikes, gathered together for Tuesday night discussions on spirituality and social justice. I biked with triathletes through beautiful farmlands and open spaces. I became friends with a 60 year old Jewish woman I met in jury duty. I began going to holiday parties, meeting more and more friends who felt like “my” people in which I could both be accepted and challenged to become my best self in the community and the world. Sitting on the ledge of the front porch one night swinging my legs up and down, I looked up at the moon feeling so grateful for people and places of beauty and belonging. I don’t even recognize the me who once felt ashamed of living in this city with amity in my heart.
So in June 2014, when it was time for me to move to Washington DC, a mere 42 miles away, I sat back on the ledge of that front porch, feeling bittersweet about an exciting fellowship I’d soon be starting, and moving away from a city I began to love like a mother-nothing-can-stop-me-from-loving-you-do-you-hear-me kind of love. Sure, it would be easy for me to come back. But I reckoned it wouldn’t be the same.

And same it wasn’t, because life wasn’t created for sameness. But it has been good. And now, with a few months out in the horizon, I will be facing another transition. My fellowship in DC will end and I have no idea where I’ll live or what I’ll do. But in processing decisions I will soon have to make, I am struck by two orientations: rootedness vs exploration. Rootedness is what caused the latter half of my Baltimore experience to be so good. It’s those on-going deep conversations with people that only comes from meeting time and time again. Staying somewhere long enough to be able to laugh about an event with a group of friends that happened ten years ago… 10 years worth of stories, tears, ends and beginnings, a history so rich, you lost track of when you called these people “friends” instead of family.
I stopped looking for ways to leave this place, this “family,” given over instead to a desire to not just stay, but to connect with as many people, places, and activities that moved my heart. Some people call this “settling down,” a term I’m uncomfortable with. A phrase that brings to mind homogeneity- white fences in the suburbs with a spouse, dog and kids. A description that creates a binary- that you are somehow “unsettled” if you don’t take on this narrative; immature, wasting your life on the pleasures of the world instead of doing important adult things. Whatever you call it, though, it’s being able to say, “This is what I want. This is where I want to be. This is who I want to be with. This is what I want to be doing.” 

But what about those parts inside that long for new experiences, to learn as much from the world as possible by setting foot in all of its pockets and contours. That discovers career opportunities in other parts of the world that would be stimulating, yet would require leaving. That longs to say I spent my twenties (thirties, years, decades, whathaveyou) catching sunsets from different latitudes and longitudes- beyond travel? That wants to explore everything? That’s had enough of the fast-paced productivity-driven culture of DC and remembers, well, then you can simply leave?

I know this isn’t black and white, but I somehow feel as though one has to choose between rich relationships spent in community versus discovery and excitement that comes from living in many new places-a year here, a couple there, etc.

But what I’m slowly discovering is that space between. Not a cliche you-can-have-it-all space, but a space that celebrates meaningful relationships while also celebrating freedom and exploration. That’s fearless to leave, not afraid of packing up and charting anew, that won’t stay somewhere because it’s safe and convenient, but because your heart can truly echo, “This is where I want to be right now.” 

Rather than watching friends leave, a voice inside you wondering, “Gee, am I supposed to be leaving too?” Instead, knowing it’s perfectly acceptable to stay too. If I only ever lived within a 3 hour radius of my hometown, what does that say about me? Will I have missed out on some grand experience every young adult is supposed to have before marriage and family (if that’s even in their life plans)? Will it say I haven’t ventured out far enough?

Maybe, maybe not. But I won’t base the quality of these years on where I did or did not live. Maybe I’m never meant to officially move outside this 160 mile radius. Maybe the only time I will have wasted is time spent being somewhere, not fully there. That forgot to recognize this rootedness-exploration pendulum looks different for each person. Perhaps it looks like leaving before you can talk yourself out of it. Perhaps it’s staying engaged in a community and place you love, while feeding your heart’s longing for exploration through travel and diverse friendships, staying far from ritzy hotels and tourists traps and getting lost instead in people’s stories, culture, and off-beaten paths that await. Perhaps it looks like leaving and staying in touch. That setting aside money for a plane ticket back to the city and people you love once or twice a year is a worthy investment. Perhaps it’s simply the orientation that nothing is supposed to stay exactly the same.

I wrestle with this space, this space I know actually exists if your heart really wants to find it. I treasure this space. I celebrate this space.

Where are you going next? Where will your final resting place on Earth be? I can’t tell you that. Where will your friends go, your family, those you met on past travels? Will you ever be able to pinpoint on a map where “home” is anymore? Can’t tell you that either. I can only ask my soul, your soul, to open your hands wide enough to prepare for when that next step comes, that always-hard-at-first moment of transition. To look up at the sunset no matter what latitude or longitude you find yourself gazing from, and find it beautiful. To create community wherever you go, especially by vulnerably speaking your musings and experiences while listening to others as they do the same. Our hearts are big. But they’re also small when you compare it to our limbs and bones. The world is huge. But it’s small enough that there’s room enough in your big heart to hold the people who make it beautiful to you, and as your world expands, the people inside will squeeze in tighter, but in an sacred embrace they wouldn’t experience otherwise. Root. Unroot. Re-root. Transplant. Sprout. Or leave the ground altogether. And treasure that blessed space between.

I’ll see you between the water and the ledge.

mel cliff jump

Photo: MO 2010