50 Stories, Week 13: Yellowstone Summer

In June of 1993, I was pregnant – again. Despite having been on the pill for years and using a diaphragm correctly, this was the third time my body tried to make me a mother before I was ready. I was slated to spend my summer working in Yellowstone National Park and my boyfriend Richard had plans to ride his motorcycle up the west coast. After deciding to have an abortion, a close girlfriend brought me to Planned Parenthood and held my hand tightly. It was rushed – the decision making, the procedure, the healing expectations. Summer had begun and there was no time to mull the loss or feelings of uncertainty. My relationship with Richard was on hold since we were going our separate ways. I was unclear about the future, except that I was embarking on an adventure and it was not the kind that comes with having a baby.

Boarding the Greyhound bus in San Diego that night, I prepped for a 27 hour ride with countless stops and transfers to West Yellowstone. I curled my body up like a snail, knees against the back of the seat in front of me with my sweatshirt bunched up between my shoulder and cheek, and slept for hours. When I woke up, we were pulling into Barstow, and I popped out for a smoke. The layover was a long one, so I decided to use the bathroom inside the station – a luxury after the janky toilet at the back of the bus. When I came back out, I saw a sweet looking guy with shaggy brown hair and glasses, his head buried in a book, laying against a massive backpack. I was looking for a space to stretch my legs out so I sat down next to him. His name was Marc and by the time we boarded the bus, I knew I wouldn’t sleep until we parted ways in Wyoming. Marc was all intelligence and curiosity. He was an environmental studies graduate student, heading somewhere in the Canadian northwest territory on a research grant. We talked about everything – the cold war, religion, philosophy, nature, and of course, love. It was exciting to speak in metaphors and dig deep into my beliefs which, unbeknownst to me, were so malleable at the time. We used every inch of space between our two seats to eventually fold on top of each other – legs on legs and arms intertwined, even spooning while we watched the stunning countryside pass us by. I was elated and calm all at once, because I knew that part of the adventure would be over as quickly as it began. Marc wrote to me later that summer from a stop at Glacier Lake in the Canadian Rockies – saying it reminded him of Yellowstone. “I’ve been thinking about you since you got off the bus. What a ride! I should have married you in Las Vegas when I had the chance. I wonder if you got to sleep when you got to Yellowstone. Seems like I’ve been trying to catch up on my sleep for the past two days and I’m still out of it. But it was worth it. This is what you might call my basic – I really, really, really enjoyed our trip and wanted to make sure you know it. Miss you.” Meeting Marc gave me a feeling of possibility, that if I kept saying yes, I would be provided with what I needed. He reminded me that I was smart, beautiful, and interesting. And that I didn’t need to continue judging myself for my last bad decision. 

I didn’t get much sleep when I finally arrived but it wasn’t simply due to the deprivation brought on by hours of nonstop kissing and conversation with Marc. It was because from the moment I got off the bus to start my summer, so did everyone else. First we were assigned to a location – Grant Village for me. Then we had orientation, assigned our dorm rooms, met our roommates, found out our job assignments, where to eat, how to mail a letter, what to do in an emergency, and so on. My roommate’s names were Shannon and Jill – and our inner door opened to another room with two girls named Dominique and Gena. Across the hall was Kevin, Brian, Bradley, Guy and West. This was our crew for the summer and we became inseparable – from working, eating, and drinking together to hiking, camping, and exploring the surrounding areas. It was a quick initiation. Most of these kids were between 18-21 and from affluent backgrounds – their parents ‘forced’ them to work during the summer before or during college and they figured this was the least amount of effort with the most amount of fun. They were right. I was 23, though – old, relatively speaking – and working to live so I couldn’t call in sick as often as they did. 

I was assigned as a waitress at the Grant Village Dining Room, which overlooked the West Thumb of Yellowstone Lake. Occasionally, I had a breakfast shift, which required showing up at 6am – far too early for most people, and certainly for someone who had been drinking and smoking until approximately three hours beforehand. Yet, I began to look forward to those shifts. A forced entry into the morning air where I would ride my bike on the trail from our dormitories to the restaurant. I was moving too quickly for the mosquitos to land, and when I looked up at the canopy of trees, I felt protected. In those moments of quiet and solitude, I felt fearless, which was not how I was feeling day-to-day. In addition to processing another abortion and my relationship with Richard, I was experiencing an extra level of free floating anxiety.

Choosing to live in a National Park assumes you enjoy hiking and camping. It wouldn’t make much sense to live somewhere that beautiful and not explore. Except my fear was keeping me with one foot in the safety of my dorm room. Though I’d been outdoorsy before, and I felt a strong connection to nature in all its glory, I was terrified to be in the honest to goodness wilderness. Every step I took, I fought the stream of questions running through my head… How much longer was the hike? Would I fall and get a concussion? Would I be bit by a snake or attacked by a bear? Or both? How high did one have to hike before feeling oxygen deprivation? What are the symptoms of heat stroke? What if that boulder on the hill comes loose and crushes me? It was exhausting. So, when I let myself be peer-pressured into getting out, I stuck with the mellower hikes on well-trodden paths. 

Until one day, Gena and Dominique asked me to join them on a backcountry camping trip around Heart Lake. There was strength in numbers, they said, and thought I was funny so could be good company. I remember thinking that these two girls were probably popular in high school. Cool, with an edge of bitchiness. And even at 23, my unfulfilled high school ideals of being fully accepted compelled me to say yes. I felt a bit nervous in my gut but the first day of hiking was easy, mostly downhill and I stayed distracted by chatting away. We set up camp near the lake – back then you didn’t need reservations, we just left a handwritten note at the trailhead and that was good enough. The next day, we were out for a day hike when I started feeling funky. I had an adrenaline rush and felt my guts begin to rumble. I’d had this experience with anxiety before, a rush of needing to let go of my innards. I quickly found a place for me to relieve myself, drank some water, and rejoined the girls. While I was still new to self-awareness, I had a yoga practice by then and I remember checking in with my body and mind. Is this one of my many anxious thoughts, or is something actually wrong? About thirty minutes later, I felt a swift headache. Shortly after, cramps and another bout of diarrhea. I felt clammy and couldn’t figure out what was going on until a lightbulb-slash-question mark went off in my throbbing head. Last week, when our group went swimming at those falls and I filled up my Nalgene bottle, did I remember to use my water filter?

No. 

No, I did not. 

Eventually, dehydration set in. My heart was racing, and my low energy was accompanied by delirium. Thankfully, Gena and Dominique had just the right amount of worry (or irritation that I was putting a damper on their trip) to go find a ranger. I stayed put and after what felt like days later, a nice man on a horse came upon me. The horse seemed enormous, or perhaps the man was tiny. Things got surreal looking up from the ground. Where I’d been afraid hours earlier, I’d reached a state of resolve – as in, I resolved to die out there and that seemed about right. I thought perhaps this was nature’s way of punishing me for the intervention I’d chosen. I remember being picked up and strewn over the back of the horse, then a bumpy ride back to the trailhead where an ambulance was waiting. They hooked me up to an IV and I quickly began to feel better as we headed back to the village. Until the embarrassment set in. Gina and Dominique had to go back to our site, pack everything up including my gear, and hike back out to the car. I felt like a grade A loser for not remembering to filter my water and having a body that couldn’t manage a little foreign bacteria. I thought no amount of self-deprecating humor was going to smooth it over but when I saw them later at dinner, they were genuinely concerned about how I was feeling. And it turned out they had their own adventure to tell about a black bear that crossed their path on the way back. All was forgiven.

At the end of July, there was a talent show in our village. We’d been seeing signs the past few weeks, inviting campers to bust out their kazoos and hone their magic tricks. Bradley and Guy said they wanted to play a couple of songs for the show but needed someone to sing, and asked me to join them. Could I sing? I thought so. My father sang in a barbershop quartet and chorus since before I was born. We sang show tunes together and I loved singing along with the radio. But my sister used to tell me that I had a bad voice, that I was trying too hard to sound like other people, so instead I would end up singing silly and over the top. I knew, deep down, though, that I could carry a tune and since my vulnerability was on full display that summer, I said yes. The guys wanted to do two songs, something fun and something that would allow them to get deep in their jam, whatever that meant. We went with Janis Joplin’s Mercedes Benz & Sinead O’Connor’s Last Day of Our Acquaintance. When the big night came, I was excited and terrified but in a good way. I got up there, sang my heart out, hit all the notes, felt the levity of Mercedes Benz and the pain of Sinead’s words, and let go completely. And then… we won! Somehow, in that little cafeteria, with people clapping for me, I felt elated. Until we realized that winning meant that we were entered into the park-wide talent show the following week, in front of hundreds of attending campers. I wish I could say that I had a cold or another bout of diarrhea to excuse that performance – but the truth is that we didn’t rehearse once since winning the week before. When the big night came, performing on an actual stage with hundreds of people sitting and watching, we collectively choked. Guy broke a string on his guitar, Bradley’s drumming wasn’t in sync, and I was breathing from so high in my chest that every note sounded as if I was being strangled. Needless to say, we didn’t win that one. It was, however, a stark reminder of how with a little extra effort and less fear, we could have kicked ass.

By the end of the summer, I’d successfully done another backcountry trip, went camping with a group of twenty friends in the Grand Tetons, and whitewater rafted down the Snake River. Fear became my friend, I acknowledged her briefly then told her I was doing it anyway. On the last night of the season, we had a huge bonfire on the lakefront beach. Everyone was there, all of us over the excitement and adrenaline of our daily adventures but still unsure of what our futures held. We sipped our beers quietly and watched a meteor shower stream across the sky.

Out there, under the stars and the big sky, the safety and terror of the forest, the bison and the bears, the cool kids and the misfits… I realized that I had been healed. That I would get another chance to bring life into the world, when the time was right. 

50 Stories, Week 3: Strangers of Sacre Coeur

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I’d dreamt of visiting Paris for as long as I could remember. My grandparents were Canadian and while their French was nothing like the language I would come to know and love, I was smitten with even the idea of it. Growing up, I watched An American in Paris, Funny Face and Casablanca with my father and promptly became a francophile. I took French language courses in high school and college, studied the apparent ease of a French woman’s style, and enjoyed as many buttery flaky baked goods as I could get my hands on. 

After I finally had a job that paid a decent salary, I decided to get myself to France. The timing seemed ideal – I’d recently been through a break-up, and having a three-year-old son reminded me daily that my life was whipping by. I needed to take care of myself, I needed inspiration and adoration – even if it came from strangers in a different country.

So, on my 32nd birthday, I flew from San Francisco to Paris. By the time I checked into my chambre d’hote in Montmartre and not yet having a chance to register that I’d arrived, my jetlagged induced haze turned quickly to sleep. When I awoke, it was already dusk, the last pale pink light starting to descend on the horizon. I stood on my balcony and felt the cool air, soothing my dehydrated skin. I quickly washed my face and put on fresh clothes, determined to catch the last rays of sun from the view at Sacre Coeur. 

I began my ascent up the steps toward the basilica. I didn’t want to wimp out and take the funiculaire, at least not the first time. I felt determined that if I reached the top without stopping, I would somehow be rewarded with a more spectacular view than those around me, stopping between each step to catch their breath. Rookies.

 Even though I was getting closer, Sacre Coeur seemed like it was fading upward, and I couldn’t move fast enough to reach it. Until finally, after a turn of stairs, I found myself on the platform at the base of the church, protected by a hip-height stone ledge, and catching my breath at the view. The pinks and oranges on the horizon were like a delineation between heaven and earth, the subdued lights from buildings mirroring the flickering stars of the early night sky. 

Paris was luminous, just for me.

I didn’t go inside the basilica. I stood on that platform, taking in every person, the way they dressed, their accents and languages, their voices and laughter. Everything seemed possible and plausible. It was the perfect state of mind. 

And then my eye caught a handsome young man, half sitting on the ledge, occasionally scribbling into a notebook. He was around my age, with dark, thick, wavy hair, dark eyes, and a short but scruffy beard. He was wearing a motorcycle jacket and his helmet rested on the ledge behind him. It could have been the breathtaking quality of the light or the crisp early spring air, but whatever it was, I felt fearless. So I walked right up to him.

“Avez-vous un autre caske?,” I asked, nonchalantly.

“Pardon?” He looked up from his notebook, and smiled.

“Avez-vous un autre caske? Shit, am I saying that right?”

“Oui, yes, you are saying it right.” Oh thank god he speaks English. “But I’m confused as to why you’re asking me if I have another helmet.” Oh he speaks English and he’s got a sexy French accent.

“Well, I was actually wondering if you’d take me for a ride. Show me the sights.” I couldn’t believe I’d said that out loud. Apparently, I had left my discretion at the hotel, along with my jetlag. He smiled again. His dark eyes and long lashes were all for me.

“You don’t look like a tourist. Actually, I thought you fit right in here.” Yes. Yes, I do. 

“You could not have given me a nicer compliment.” I nervously pushed my hands deep into my coat pockets, both acknowledging the cool air and trying to keep an air of coyness about me. 

And then he DID give me a nicer compliment.

“Yes, and your French is perfect.” 

Was I about to have a Parisian affair to remember? Would he sweep me off my feet? Would we have a storybook romance? 

“What are you writing?” I asked.

“What, this? Well, it’s a musical.”

Ahhhh. He’s gay. Of course he’s gay, how many handsome, well dressed, lovely men did I know who liked musicals AND wanted to flirt with me? Zero. Though he did also have a starving-artist look about him, so I held out hope. 

“Oh. A musical. How nice.” I began to feel deflated around the same time the sun finally dipped below the horizon.

“Do I detect a note of sarcasm? It’s hard to tell with my limited English.” He smiled. Now who was being coy?

“OK, we both know you speak and understand English perfectly well. Sorry, it wasn’t sarcasm, maybe disappointment, that’s all. Anyhow, what’s the musical about?”

“Disappointment? You had expectations already? My god, we just met! Pfff, American women!”

“What is that supposed to mean, American women?! How many American women approach you and ask, in French no less, if you have another helmet so that you can take her for a ride on your motorcycle? Hmmm?!”

This time he let out a laugh and motioned for me to sit down. His teeth were funny and crooked but something I thought I might come to love. The beauty of that moment was that I was looking at this man, being free in Paris, asking for what I wanted, and receiving it. Like magic.

“The musical is unfinished and I can’t talk about it until it is, but suffice to say it’s about the love of one woman and conflict between brothers and…”

“Sounds like True West. Oh, sorry. That’s a play by…”

“Sam Shepard, yes, I know. I’m writing a musical, it’s a pretty good guess that I’d know a bit about plays, yes?” Again, that smile.

“Yes. Of course.” 

I looked away for a moment, reminding myself that I was actually in Paris. Finally, I’d made it to this place of love and passion and romance and history. The place I’d dreamed of visiting since I was a little girl. I took a slow breath and knew then that I would be hooked forever. 

“What’s your name?,” I asked.

“Guillaume. Et toi?”

“Christine. Je m’appelle Christine.”

Guillaume and I chatted for another few minutes until I could feel the jetlag setting in. He offered to take me for a ride the following evening but the whole thing suddenly felt too good to be true, so I thanked him for the conversation and went back to the hotel.

The following morning, there was an envelope under my door. Inside was a handwritten note (that I still have) from Guillaume.

If you still want to make a stroll in moto, it will be with pleasure. You can find me at the place we met yesterday evening. I’m certainly already there. If I do not see you this evening, I shall return tomorrow morning around noon. – Guillaume.

Oh Guillaume.

We met that evening and he did indeed give me a tour of Paris by motorcycle. He even showed me the secret vineyards near Montmartre. The following night we went to see a bizarre avant-garde play, the plot of which I can’t recall, only that I left feeling slightly morose and inspired at the same time. And the night after that we saw what I remember to be an incredible performance of Romeo et Juliette at the Opera house. It wasn’t a ballet per se, it was a completely new adaptation, very modern. We had drinks after at a small bar inside the Trocadero, where I felt like I was living inside my daydreams.

And then of course, it was over. We said our goodbyes. I think we both knew deep down that our time together was romantic but not intimate. Guillaume was in the middle of something with someone, and I was, too. He ended up marrying a beautiful woman a few years ago and has a little girl now, according to Facebook. Coincidentally, one of our conversations that first night was around advertising and marketing – an industry that we both found ourselves having careers in years later. 

It is strange to think of the people who come in and out of our lives – all of the what-ifs, and the might-have-beens. I saw Guillaume again briefly a year later when I returned to Paris with my son and now-ex in tow. For some reason, the language barrier was more difficult the second time around. Maybe it was because we hadn’t been practicing. Or maybe it was because the first time we met had an air of possibility, as opposed to the second time when I brought my real life along with me. 

Regardless, I’m forever grateful to Guillaume for helping me to see Paris for all that it is, and reminding me how powerful it can be to take a chance on a stranger. I only hope I can give that gift to someone in my lifetime.

So, I shaved my head.

Head ShavedIt’s not alopecia (but good for you, Ricki Lake!)

I’m not having a breakdown (remember Britney’s bald moment?)

 I’m not ill (fingers crossed, though cancer may get us all eventually.) 

And I’m not trying to make a political or power statement. 

What I am is a 49 year old woman working in the advertising industry in NYC. I am a woman who started dying my roots before I had gray hair and had no idea what my ‘real’ hair looked like. I am a woman who spends thousands of dollars each year to look younger, better, and different than I am. 

A few years ago, I started to see and feel the real signs of aging – sagging neck and jowls, constant dry skin, waking up in the middle of the night feeling like someone turned the oven on, and an inability to power through even the slightest hangover or exercise injury. But still people would say, “I can’t believe you’re 40+ years old! I can’t believe you have a son in college!” And my little ego would perk up and it would validate the work I was putting into looking young. 

My industry, like many, is not kind to aging women, in particular. And in our society, you’re forgotten, dismissed, literally not paid attention to once you are no longer aspiring to be a beautiful young thing with tits up to here and an ass you can bounce a quarter on. Though, to be fair, I do still have a fine ass. (Thanks yoga and genetics!) So I get it – we work hard to stay relevant, or at least look like we’re trying to. Not to mention all the work we do to our faces to stay ‘youthful’! But there’s a difference between a nice hydrated dewy face and spending thousands to literally keep your chin up.

Listen, I fully support anyone who dyes and decorates their hair, wears wigs, cuts it all sorts of ways. I just hope they’re doing it because they want to – not because they think they need to. 

For me, though, I’m tired. And curious. What would it look like if I was just myself for a while? If I came to love the extra five pounds I’ve been carrying around my gut? If I accepted my graying hair and loss of collagen in my neck? What could I do with the energy spent trying to be someone else?

I know it can be difficult to live a life where people question your decisions, when the things you know are right for you aren’t right for most. Especially for the people who love you. But I’ve been doing this since I was a child. The decisions that feel right in my gut, in my soul, have rarely been traditional. I’m not saying they’re interesting. They’re just different. 

And I don’t want an ordinary life. I don’t want to look like or be like anyone else. And for maybe the first time in my life, I give zero fucks (ok, maybe I give a little fuck, but I am pushing that voice down,) about what others think. Of course I care about what my husband and son think but all I can do is hope they love me, as I am.

This act feels rebellious, yes, but it also feels natural. Right. For now. For me. I can see my gray! I can see my misshapen head. I can feel my scalp. And my curiosity is satiated, for now. When I look at the mass of hair in my trash bin, I don’t know that person any more. That isn’t me. 

This is me.

Or maybe I’m just bored.

You feel me?

Before I get into my trip to Italy, I’ve had something else on my mind this past week, this trip, this lifetime.

Being understood.

I read a quote recently that “being loved is great, but being understood is profound.” I heard that and I thought YES! Of course we need love but we also need understanding and these don’t always (or often) go hand in hand. I want to be got. You feel me?

During this month away, I’ve had many moments where I’ve felt like someone just does not ‘get me.’ The language barrier, the cultural taboos, not to mention breaks in wifi or cell service. Travel can be rife with miscommunications and misunderstandings. Usually after a short round of charades or oversimplification of words, our needs can be met, but the feeling that goes along with not being understood leaves one feeling exposed.

Everyone has had these moments. You explain something to a friend or colleague and they look at you like… um, come again? Or a family member that knows you’re expressing something important and they are trying to get it but… no dice. As a writer, it can be crippling to know you’re leaving people confused by what you’re trying to convey. Part of the problem is that we are not taught to be good listeners. We are often crafting our response while the person speaking to us is mid-sentence. We don’t ask enough questions, to get clarity and even help move the conversation forward.

The other part of the problem, though, is that when we’re most in need of being understood, we are at our most vulnerable. And to feel heard, we can be emotional, over complicate, talk in a stream of consciousness, try to get everything out but end up missing the point.

This is where our actual, honest to goodness friends come in. You know the kind – compassionate but clear, loyal but won’t put up with any bullshit. People who will listen, truly listen to your process, and help you get clear on how you feel, what you mean to say. People who can say, “Listen, I love you but you are being a crazy person right now. Stop. Rewind. Start again.”

All of this is to say that while traveling can sometimes leave you raw, reconnecting with loved ones can heal you up. So thank you to the friends and family that have checked in on me during, or become part of, my journey.

And to clarify, in case sharing my experiences here have given anyone the wrong idea (like the anonymous commenter trying to invalidate my observations,) I did not hate India. I can be radically honest here and share my experiences but I can’t control how they are perceived. This was all true, for me. I’d be lying if I said the trip was easy, but I wasn’t looking for easy, I was looking for real. Beautiful, difficult, happy, terrified – it was all the things. As a friend of mine told me – Mother India will take you in, chew you up, and spit you out – hopefully with your soul a little bit cleaner. That’s all I could have asked for.

Truth.

So on to Rome, Modena, Florence… oh my! My sweet friend Jennifer met me in Rome where we had a much needed girls weekend. It felt like a real vacation for both of us. Then we came back to Modena (think chef Massimo Bottura and show Master of None fame,) where she and her man live. We took a quick day trip to Florence yesterday, and on Sunday I’ll head to London to visit my sweet niece and see three inspiring plays.

Some observations this past week:

  1. Food. What can be said that hasn’t already been said about food in Italy? Nothing. Just come here and eat your heart out.
  2. In Rome, we walked up the dome at St. Peter’s Basilica – 551 steps up. And it occurred to me that places like these are not accessible to everyone. I don’t mean the privilege of having the financial means to travel. Even if they got here, many people could not ascend the steps (or cobblestone roads of these ancient towns.) Inside the basilica, there is an elevator that gets you about halfway up but the other 200+ stairs are through narrow walkways. When I say narrow, I mean from the width of my shoulders with maybe an inch or two on each side to spare, with the dome wall curving inward. So, even if you are able bodied, if you are the size of an average American, you couldn’t do it. Maybe sideways. If you’re blind, someone could walk with you. If you’re not able to walk, you could hire people to carry you on their back. But what if you’re a larger human being? Then I thought, are we going to take all of these historical and architectural masterpieces, along with the towns they are in, and change their integrity and accuracy to accommodate absolutely everyone (#inclusivity)? I can’t help but think, though, that there are reasons we keep historical artifacts (and plain old facts) the way they were. That was my inner conflict for the week, when I wasn’t preoccupied thinking about how to change the completely insane shooting epidemic in my own country.
  3. Nobody wears helmets here either! Ok, on motorcycles, yes, but bicycles no. And while it may be a cultural thing and I’m the odd one out here to think people need them, I will never be cycling around without one. Jackson, his Dad, my husband and I have all had bike accidents and wearing helmets did us a world of good. I get it, the culture is different so car drivers don’t have mad road rage for cyclists like many parts of the U.S. But still, why take the chance with your one and only melon? It is very cute, though, to see old ladies and old men peddling around, especially when they throw their grandkids on the back.
  4. Winter comes to Modena, hardcore. It’s currently 35 degrees and snowing as of this moment! Yesterday in Florence it was 40 with whipping wind, but this has actually been good because every tourist attraction was a breeze to visit.
  5. Italy really does have super stylish people everywhere, young and old. Either very sleek wearing black head to toe or completely over the top with shiny sparkly silver or gold shoes and brocades and fur and bright red lipstick. Love.

Photos!

When navigating to find our restaurant one night, we literally walked into the Colosseum. Very cool during the day, yes, but beautiful and eerie even at night.

I found my people…

Typical Roman apartment balcony. Just sweetness and greenery.

Funny story about this photo below at Trevi Fountain. Back when I moved to NYC, a woman I’d briefly known 10 years earlier in SF sent me a Facebook message, asking if I wanted to be connected to her attractive, available brother. I said yes, of course, but the first photo I ever saw of my now-husband was him in front of Trevi Fountain from a recent trip. I remember thinking, damn, she was right, so handsome. Did I mention he’s half Italian? Here I am expressing that I won the jackpot.

Here is the view of Rome from the top of St. Peter’s Basilica dome. Insanely high, yes!

Probably a familiar painting, right? Touching the hand of god and all but you know what? It’s small. And it is one of dozens of other equally impressive ceiling paintings. Technically you’re not allowed to take photos but once I saw a group of Japanese tourists breaking the rule, I didn’t stop myself. Maybe they don’t want people to know how tiny his ‘charm’ is.

This, on the other hand, it huge. It feels even bigger than its 17 feet. It is awe some, beautiful, breathtaking even.

In a cafe in Modena, they have famous people and quotes on the wall, including the inspiration for the name of this blog… “No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Samuel Beckett

Cute girls freezing their tails off in Florence!

A view of Florence from the Uffizi Gallery. Bellissimo!

Jaipur: Are the kids alright?

Much has happened since I arrived in Jaipur, so lemme dig in…

I have been volunteering with an organization that runs a school for street kids in a neighborhood outside of Jaipur. They own the school and a homestay, which are about 7km apart. If you’ve never stayed in a dormitory situation in a developing country, its kind of like camping indoors. I share a basic room and bathroom with two women (from Italy and Sweden.) When I say basic, imagine a linoleum floor, four walls, metal bunk beds, a dense pillow, bottom sheet, and a heavy, dusty blanket. Because its winter here, people! In the common area, there are plastic cushions on the floor to sit for dinner with individual tiny tables about six inches off the floor. Too short to stick my legs under, sadly. A tasty vegetarian lunch and dinner are prepared for us daily and we are responsible for cleaning up after ourselves. This includes a regular wash with soapy water and then heating the kettle to pour boiling water over our dishes. You know, to be safe. No trash bags are provided so we improvise – empty cereal boxes work well. Every morning, we remind the ‘house mom’ to turn on the water so we can do things like flush the toilet (but not with toilet paper, this is thrown in a bag (or cereal box!) This is common in many developing countries without proper sanitation, so I’m used to it. Much like the electricity going out at least once a day.) We wash our clothes in a bucket – after only a day in the dust, the water turns a murky brown – and hang them to dry up on the roof. Where they get nice and dusty again. Circle of life!

When we arrive at the school in the morning, after an auto-rickshaw drive that has become second nature but objectively, is still slightly sketchy and loud, the kids are doing their physical exercises. Then classes separate and my 4-5 kids sit and wait patiently to be taught English.

I lie. There is nothing patient about the 9-11 year olds in my group. They are rowdy. They are also smart enough to regurgitate what they’ve been taught without truly understanding context or meaning. Maybe that is how learning starts, non? We’ve been working on emotions, body parts, and what they want to be when they grow up. This is a little heartbreaking as one of them wants to be a cricket player and he doesn’t seem to be so naturally inclined. But hey, dreams are dreams, right? We practice reading and writing, and then about 5 minutes before the break they start asking “Didi, didi, time? Time!” Didi is like ‘older sister’ but also teacher in this case. They want to know how long before they can go play cricket or badminton, and they never want to come back because math follows break and if you think learning math on its own can be tough, try learning it from a native English speaker when you barely understand English.

What I have found most challenging here is the lack of curriculum. Because this is not a government run or private licensed school, there is no required curriculum or teaching agenda. How can you give a test on Friday when you’re not building off on previous information? Its not connected, its isolated. There is just one full-time teacher, who hopes to take his test soon to become a public school teacher. Some days 10 kids show up, some kids 30. It depends on what is going on in their family’s lives. The resources are limited, all coming in forms of donations. They do not accept financial donations or do any fundraising, because of the complicated status of an NGO working under a for-profit company. Their hands are tied. And while they have the best of intentions, it is difficult to see the potential because real change can only happen in small, incremental steps. Digital learning might go a long way to bridge the gap.

Another challenge is that the kids are often hitting each other. It starts out with nasty, cutting words first. I can’t understand Hindi, but I know what it looks like when someone is talking shit. Then one of them reacts, and the next thing you know, they are yelling and smacking the shit out of each other. No tears, just a lot of anger. When I had my orientation, I was told not to smile at them (and not to smile at any men, but I’d already received that memo.) I’m generally a happy, nice person so it was difficult to pull this off but I get it – we don’t want them to think I’m weak because they won’t listen. The thing is, culturally it seems the teachers here are strict. Forceful even, to the point where they threaten to hit the kids in order to get them to do as asked. So, of course, that is how they react with each other. And I would imagine the scenario could be similar at home. Truly, though, they just want to be held, hugged, and played with like most children.

In other news, I made a friend when I arrived in Jaipur who looks uncannily like my older sister Kathy. We did some traveling together this past weekend, photos of our adventures and the children from school below.

Other observations and things I forgot to previously mention:

  1. I have faced two major fears (among others) so far: When I left Haridwar, it was 5am and no rickshaws were available to take me to the train station. The bell boy offered to drive me so I said yes. And then I saw my ride. A motorcycle! Me, my 40 lb suitcase, backpack, and the driver. And no helmets. But when in India, you gotta do what you gotta do. And I survived! So, I thought, ok, now I can take an inter-India flight. And I survived that, too!
  2. One of the first temple visits in Jaipur, we had a guide who told us that since we arrived just in time to witness the morning arti (blessing,) it was because the gods had brought us here. That there are no accidents, we are together in the moment for the sole reason that the gods divined it. It was karma. I can get behind that.
  3. Something that has been crazy frustrating to me and every other foreign woman I’ve met is dealing with groups of men on the street. Often, they say hello hello and stare but to engage in any way will give them the wrong idea, so we don’t and then they laugh at us. I have heard that in Northern India, particularly, the women are treated more unequally. The south seems to be more progressive, whatever that means. I’m checking out Mumbai this week, so will report back.
  4. One night trying to get back to the homestay, we had to haggle with the rickshaw driver but he wouldn’t give us an actual price. Instead, lots of head wobbles and then conferring in Hindi with the guy at the hotel and another rickshaw driver instead of talking to us ladies. Took five minutes for him to say 300 Rupees.
  5. Walking out of a store a few days ago, a bird shit on my head. Apparently, its good luck! Very auspicious.
  6. Oh and my rash is back, all over my neck and now my face. We think its either a delayed Malarone reaction or I’m just allergic to India. Either one is feasible at this point.

Photos!

These are my students – Komal, Sahil, Raghu, and Rohit.

And these are some other cute nuggets we play with during the breaks.

This is me and Daniela at the Anohki Museum, which is dedicated to the art of hand block printing.

This is Amer Fort. So big. And you can make out the ‘little wall of China’ that surrounds the old city.

These are beautiful elephants that we did not ride. Fortunately, more and more travelers are getting hip to the mistreatment of animals for use by tourists.

Lots of crazy detailed design within the fort, as well as the City Palace, and Hawa Mahal.

Below is the walk toward the Govind Dev Ji temple. It is dedicated to Lord Krishna and devotees pray here seven (7!) times a day.

Funny story. We got in line to get tickets for the temple. The lines are separated by men and women. So, we are waiting patiently. I am admiring all of the bright colors on these women. I smell this awesome sweet buttery smell, and I’m hungry and damn doesn’t that smell good? As we get closer to the window, we find out the line isn’t for tickets, its for food. The temple isn’t open for another half hour and these people needed sustenance. Lesson learned.

I can’t properly describe this and the photo below is shit but hear me out. This place gets up to 5,000 devotees per day. Everyone calmly walks into the temple and sits on the ground. We got there at 12pm for 12:30pm start. There were some small groups of people singing songs and clapping but generally, the mood was very calm and quiet. At 12:28pm, curtains were drawn and exposed were two small puppet-like figurines – of Krishna and his most devoted follower.

AND THE CROWD GOES WILD.

Everyone is up on their feet, praying, singing, filming, moving quickly toward the centerpiece. We are moved along, like in a mosh pit. Daniela and I are pulled along by a woman who insists we get up to the very front to see for ourselves. It becomes slightly claustrophobic but somehow we are spit out of the chaos. We follow the followers, who walk in a circle around Krishna’s stage, where they touch the wall with both hands and rest their foreheads while saying prayers. They touch the locks and chains on the doors surrounding Krishna, and then they are on with the rest of their day.

Why India?

In a few hours, I’ll be boarding a flight bound for Delhi to spend the next 40 days in India. If you asked me in the last 25 years why I wanted to go, I’d give my shpiel about having a best friend who is Indian since I was 16 or having practiced yoga since I was 20. And while those things are true and absolutely inspired the dream of visiting India, today my reasons are different.

When I started practicing yoga, I had zero understanding about my intentions, my anxiety, my joy, or my limitations. Yoga quite literally saved my life, body and mind. I read the sacred texts (though not sure I understand all of the sutras!) and stories, learned anatomy and did my teacher training. I had friends and acquaintances who made the journey or pilgrimage to the motherland, most of them in their younger days or without little kiddos waiting at home. I’d fantasize about going with my BFF and we’d visit her relatives. I had in my mind that she must have the same desire for travel as I did. But life kept moving along, and I never made it a priority to go. I had a small baby, I was in transition from jobs, I was in debt from college, I was a single parent, I had GI issues (true!) There were endless excuses but the dream never died.

The truth is, I was terrified. Of anywhere I have wanted to visit, India is the one that scares me the most. (Close second is Africa and I’m going to get there, too.) Its not the overwhelming population… or the lack of sanitation… or the waylaid trains.

Its the areas of poverty, the inequality in education, the mistreatment of girls, the old culture that is hanging on to the way things used to be done when the world is changing rapidly around them. I’ve never been much for filtering my thoughts, so I knew I would have to be a much more mature human being to visit these places and be respectful. Now, time has passed. I’ve traveled and volunteered enough now that I can see the gray. My passion for justice is tempered by a willingness to hear both sides of a story. And then to see if I can take action, work within the gray.

Oh I have loads of other fears, too. My anxiety has been on red alert since I decided to go. Malaria, dengue, dysentery, oh my! But I am facing these fears the way I have most of my life. Acknowledge, ask questions, be prepared, and then LET GO. I had a wonderful therapist who used to make me write down my fears on a piece of paper, put them in a box, and put the box in the back of the closet. Over time, I forgot about the box. The brain is bananas powerful, people.

So, I’m off. (Like a prom dress, har!) I’ll get a sim card when I land and share my number here on my next post, if you want to say hi. First few days and nights are in Delhi where I’ll be donning my mask because #smog and getting over jetlag.

Namaste, peeps.

Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. God Himself is not secure, having given man dominion over His works! Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. The fearful are caught as often as the bold. Faith alone defends. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing. To keep our faces toward change and behave like free spirits in the presence of fate is strength undefeatable.” – Helen Keller

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Triggers, or annoying things people do that drive me crazy

I’ve been keeping a running list of things people do that annoy me to no end. I want to write a larger piece about this, but in the meantime, here’s the fodder…

  • People who believe the rules don’t apply to them. See: Asshole on the plane who refuses to put his phone into Airplane mode because “it doesn’t really matter.” Actually, d-bag, there are multiple reasons for asking people to turn their phones to airplane mode, if you’d bothered to find out. But no, those rules don’t apply to you. Let’s hope everyone doesn’t feel the same way one day and bring a plane down, just by being a jackass. I mean, would it kill you – to disconnect from your phone for like 20 minutes, and then you can get wifi and catch up on all the funny videos you missed that your friends posted on Facebook or you can, oh, I don’t know, be disconnected!
  • Women who don’t check the toilet seat after you pee. Listen ladies, I get it – maybe there was something on the seat when you got in, so then you had to squat, which only made matters worse. But clean it up! You’re going to wash your hands after anyway (aren’t you?) so what’s the harm in paying it forward? Also, why are y’all squatting in the first place? You know the likelihood of you catching something from a toilet seat is crazy low – and if you’re that paranoid, just put some TP down first. That’s what I do – only because I don’t want to sit on a wet seat! Again, clean the damned seat. Please.
  • People who think that their bodies smell best when bathed, fully, in cologne or perfume. You are wrong. Whomever told you that you smelled nice was lying. They actually couldn’t stand close to you any longer than to tell you that you smelled nice and walked away. You have a cloud of scent around you – imagine Pig-Pen from the Peanuts. This is you. Just because its cologne doesn’t make people any more likely to want to stand next to you. Opposite effect. Not to mention people who actually have bananas allergies to all the crazy chemicals that go into those body sprays (although, help me, I do miss finding a spray bottle of Jean Nate in my stocking at Christmas.)

That’s all for now but there are more brewing, I can feel it!

 

Jackhammers and hummingbirds

Last week, I saw Elizabeth Gilbert speak about her new book, Big Magic. At one point, someone from the audience asked a question I’ve been asking myself for years. What if you just aren’t the type of person who is going to be obsessive and committed and dedicated to one thing, your whole life? Does that make you any less of an artist, writer, poet, painter, baker, banker, etc.? What if you’re good at a few things but not great at any one? Should I give up now and save myself the trouble?

One of the things the Live Your Legend group requires via self-exploration is to find the thing at which you are an expert, and be an expert at the thing you are passionate about. When Elizabeth received the question, she gave a great analogy. She explained that she is a jackhammer. For as long as she could remember, she wanted to be a writer. She announced it at a young age, and pursued it relentlessly, obsessively, admitting that this often made her unaware of many people, feelings, and things around her. She became the great writer she wanted to be. But then there are the hummingbirds. Those who bring nectar and curiosity from one blossom to the next, who find things beautiful that she might have missed. The cross-pollinators, who are inspiring in their own right, trying new things along the way. It was a kind way to answer the young woman’s question. The truth, of course, is that if this woman wanted to BE any one of those things, she probably would have pursued it by now. Or maybe she’s just flitting, floating and years from now she’ll discover she really loves knitting and open an online shop selling her wares. Or not. The percentage of people who fully commit to their craft, their business, their talent, is small – relative to the population of the human race. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, that’s not what I’m saying. Most of us are working hard, maybe even loving what we do, but we’re not all capable of being geniuses, of being the next Elon Musk or a Pulitzer Prize winner. I know – I sound like Debbie Downer but I think a healthy dose of realism wouldn’t hurt. It doesn’t have to be a depressing fact. It might actually be liberating to stop putting so much pressure on ourselves that because we live in America, we must innovate/create or die – each and every one of us. Maybe its alright to just enjoy a bottle of wine and a good meal with the people you love, talk about what’s going on in the world, plan a trip here and there, learn something new, and age healthfully. Maybe the only thing I will ever be an expert at is loving my son and my husband, or how to find the best desserts while traveling.  And that doesn’t feel like defeat, it feels like acceptance. Maybe even relief.