Lat, Long The people and places that shape us.

real life

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38.873841,
  -104.886664
real life

the sun is setting in the place we first became friends and we run up and down the rocks, the hidden trails, slipping down the hills in our inappropriate footwear. we always wear inappropriate footwear. our friendship was founded on this, these unexpected adventures, these drives through the mountains just to clear our heads, these days spent searching for something else. i read a poem in the shadow the sun casts just over the ridge of the mountain and she and i both tear up because this truth is a hard thing to settle on but god – it is worth it. it is always worth it. we are bug bitten and exhausted when we leave, driving away with the sky glinting gold and pink and we talk about the harshness of summer, the way it lacks grace and gentleness like spring and fall but makes up for it in something else, some sort of magic or daydream that neither of us have quite figured out. she says “tired eyes, light heart” and i say “this isn’t real,” over and over and over. none of this feels real. real life isn’t this magical.

Lonely No Longer

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47.129458,
  -94.646100
Lonely No Longer

My suitcase is unopened but the sky yearns through the white window. The paint is still peeling. Of course. She and he and they move around me, unpacking, and I slip from the cabin and let the door fall closed with a slam. A moment later, “don’t let the door bang!” A mosquito slips through a hole in the frame. The familiarity of nineteen summers greets me flush faced like a kiss on the mouth. Pink cheeks, cinnamon freckles. My nose peels by the end of the week.

Under my feet, the dock shakes. It’s still here – though as I walk to the edge, I feel my feet give underneath me. Sway to the right, sway to the left (you are going to be okay, as gentle as a mother’s slow rock). Back and forth, back and forth. It creaks like a fifty year old body. And beyond, below: green light, minnows thick as spring petals. I close my eyes and see the water under my skin. (here a remembrance: I lie on the sun-warmed wood and scoop crayfish from the marina’s underbelly with my net. I am six and gleaming with the promise of boiled crab – almost the same, I reason – dipped in melted butter).

Do you remember, I ask him later. Of course, he says. Of course. We sit at the same table, except this year, our feet touch bottom. Safety, I whisper, or thank you – to the sky or water or small perch weaving through billowing reeds. Later a sky of flames doused with sea – I reason – returns the kiss.

Tethered

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45.743512,
  -123.958314
Tethered

This is one of my favorite places on earth. One of the others is a lake dock in an Idaho mountain town. The other is the MoMA. But I come to this place to be tethered. Grounded, placed in perspective.

On this day, of tethering, we ate salsa and chips on the beach below. Kites flapping in the rushing wind. Up here, though, eyes closed — I was escaping. What I learned, later, is that we can all tether and reckon and escape at once. But, first you need to find a place to start.

Like Honey Mead

by

52.249660,
  21.011441
Like Honey Mead

The language looks harsh, all sticky clusters of consonants, but when I figure out which letters make which sounds, the words slide out as smooth as honey mead. I know the necessities for polite interactions: good morning, please, thank you, names for places and foods, some numbers. I can greet the hotel staff, order in restaurants, and figure out the train schedule.

I have had some of the worst and best experiences of my life here. Last week I visited World War II museums and historical sites, and I saw unspeakable horrors. Those places will haunt me forever.

But this week, I got to see you. You came across the continent to see me and it’s our last night before we go back to our home countries, ten time zones apart. How fortunate we are to meet in the middle like this.

We’re eating dinner under the stars, and the city around us feels like a movie set. It was destroyed during the war and rebuilt after, and even though there are still traces of bullet holes over the entrance to the sandwich shop, the buildings are so colorful and quaint that they look like they’ve come from a cartoon.

But tonight, it’s perfect. Tonight is a balmy July night, and if this part of the city feels like a movie set then I feel like a movie star. We dressed up for the occasion. There are red lipstick stains on my wine glass and your cheek. I order duck, you order salmon, and we have apple charlotte and delicate cappuccinos for dessert. “A good meal always ends with a cappuccino,” I say, and you smile.

My stomach is full of hearty food and my heart is full of overwhelming happiness, and I’m trying to memorize how you look against the background of twinkling lights because I know this image will sustain me when I miss you.

You leave tomorrow, and it will be another month before I see you. We were lucky to have this time together, at least. I’m learning how to say “I love you” in this unfamiliar language, this language like honey mead.

Making Miles

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35.436411,
  -83.822322
Making Miles

“I hope that’s not how you live the rest of your life,” she said, only half-joking.

The shopping basket in my hand contained gauzes, tapes, and other packages claiming to either treat or prevent the assortment of injuries which I was now certain would befall my feet at any moment. Although I’d made it on the trail for three weeks without any such ailments, the tea-leaf feet of other thru-hiker hopefuls foretold a future of blisters and burns I wanted to avoid.

“They say we pack our fears,” she continued, prompting me to silently inventory the contents of my pack, stubbornly assuring myself of each item’s importance.

In another week, we’d abandon the trail which had – only recently – introduced us for one of our own. In another six, we’d traverse deserts and climb mountains, collecting sunburns and crossing state lines. In another twenty, I’d visit her in the city where we parted ways, trying to fan to flames the embers of a fire I’d only later realize had already burnt out.

The radio played on: “And I regret how I said to you ‘honey, just open your heart’ / when I’ve got trouble even opening a honey jar”.

I set the basket down and replaced it with her hand.

Packing Light

by

44.597260,
  110.273547
Packing Light

“An obstacle course for the body and for the soul”, I think to myself as I go back to that place. In my memory, the wind has picked up in the early twilight, kicking around rusty sand and pebbles. While hard to find on a map, these arid grounds have welcomed pious visitors for centuries. Even more have come here in absentia—not with their boots, but with their minds, their remembrances, their longings to take shelter in the space where the holy meets the profane. Gazing at at the setting sun, I remember…

My anguish, an illness deep and engulfing. My life as a cosmic infection. I chanted a warped mantra: I am evil. I am vile. I must be stopped. I was a black hole that consumed light and gave nothing back. I believed that I didn’t deserve redemption. The anguish of one perilous midnight broke like a fever into a realization: I needed to put my fractured soul back together.

I packed my bags.

My recovery, an insurmountable path. I had whispered in a shaman’s ear that I wanted to be whole. Her eyes saw through me as I sat eagerly, ready for her healing. I heard nothing of the hammering drum circling my ears, and felt nothing of the wet drops of medicine spat down my back. Wisps of emotion welled within me, building and growing, substantiating into another harrowing thought: no one could help me become whole. The drum stopped. My teary eyes met hers. I was hopeless. Sain yavaarai, she uttered as I left her. Again, I packed my bags.

My rebirth, a rekindling. The bright and hot hours before sunset saw me hiking through sacred caves and performing rites at adorned altars. Perched atop a cliff was a large boulder. The stone’s uneven base formed a narrow portal—a point of transition, and a fabled site of spiritual rebirth. I slid and shimmied under the belly of the rock, cluttered thoughts jamming my senses and my body. Stuck with the weight of my maladies, I was incapable of passing through. The sun was hot and inscrutable. I strained to lift my eyes. The light shone through the open crevice like a cosmic guide. It spoke: You are not vile. You are not hopeless. Shed your doubts and come! A realization, or a feeling: we are brought into this world only once. All other times, we must find the light of redemption on our own. I wanted—needed—something better. So, I cleared my mind. I took a breath. I took a moment. I took nothing else.

I emerged.

In my new life, I pack light.

Sain yavaarai. Go with joy.

The Duel

by

42.021093,
  -91.655999
The Duel

Every Sunday morning I sat on an ugly floral couch in the living room of my great-grandparents’ house. Seated in the armchair next to me was my great-grandfather – once a strong man, he was now weakened by age, forced to rely on a cane to help him walk, but his mind was still as bright and witty as it had always been. It was his mind that made me.

We sat there in the corner singing songs, making up stories, reading poems. His favorite poem was Eugene Field’s “The Duel” and I, like my father before me, was made to memorize it. This continued for a number of years until gradually, illness and old age began to overtake his mind. Barely able to remember my name, he could no longer read and write with me, but still I sat there. Every Sunday morning, right up until the end.

The day he died, we were all there. When it came time to say the final goodbye, I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t hold his already cooling hand, witness the stillness of eyes that had once been bright, blue, and twinkling with humor, couldn’t accept that he was gone, so I ran away.

I did not speak to anyone for 4 days. I sat in my bedroom, cried, and wrote. He had always told me that “No matter where you are, no matter who you’re with, the problems in your life can be solved if you just write,” but this problem wasn’t going away. The pain in my chest wasn’t easing, the tears in my eyes weren’t drying.

It wasn’t until his funeral that I spoke my first words. I was meant to eulogize him, in front of my family and his friends, but all of my carefully planned out words about his life fled my mind as I began to speak. The only thing I could say was,

“The gingham dog and the calico cat,
side by side on the table they sat…”

and as the congregation recited the poem with me, I began to fully understand just how many people whose lives he had touched.

Bridging the Divide

by

8.676573,
  80.636473
Bridging the Divide

The sun was slowly climbing the early morning sky as I roared down the A29 on the back of a motorcycle. The morning was hot and we had been on the road for about three hours.

The roads were in a state of disrepair after decades of civil war. Between the monsoons and mortars, many parts of the highway were seemingly missing. Twisted metal from blown out vehicles littered the side of the road, remnants. We did our best to navigate, avoiding craters left from bombs that had landed in the region.

Two of my traveling companions became anxious and attempted to escape the box I was holding them in. Carrying a box full of rambunctious puppies would have been difficult while walking down a street – let alone while riding a motorcycle. I started playing a perverse game of whack-a-mole. One hand was dedicated to gripping the box against my body. My other hand split its time between pushing the puppies back into the box and hanging on to the motorcycle as we careened down the highway.

This lasted for over an hour.

The road smoothed out as we approached a military checkpoint. My friends and I tensed up; news stories of the military’s atrocities floated to the top of my mind. We creeped to a halt at the checkpoint and half of our caravan was directed to the queue for locals.

My legs were shaking – I’m not sure if it was five hours on a motorcycle or fear of the soldiers. I was called up from the queue and approached grasping the box of puppies with one hand and my navy blue passport with the other.

The soldier inspected my entry visa and muttered some gruff words in a foreign tongue. We locked eyes and he asked me why I was travelling North. I inhaled slowly; humid air filled my nostrils. I explained that I had to get these puppies to my friend’s parents. I dropped the box down to the ground and opened it slowly. I stood holding two puppies as he cracked a huge smile.

Soon a large crowd of men clad in camouflage surrounded the puppies. They were laughing and teasing the dogs. The tension had evaporated.

A few minutes later we were on our way to the North, only five more hours to go.

Up the Mountain

by

39.681615,
  -77.356272
Up the Mountain

I had never been drunk before the first weekend of beginning college. I got hammered off cheap tequila and watched this kid face-plant into my friend’s lap. He was talking crazy, about fireflies and ghosts in the graveyard up the mountain, about a quarter of a mile from the school.

I didn’t go up the mountain that night, but the next weekend–with a group of people that would become my close friends–we climbed the winding stairs, drunk and stumbling in the dark. At the very top, sweaty and exultant, we laid in the parking lot on the rough black asphalt and stared at the stars.

A few weeks later, I took a boy up there. There was construction going on, someone had left a construction tower near the shining statue of the Virgin Mary. It was the twentieth of April, he was stoned and I was drunk. I asked if he would kiss me and he didn’t, just wanted to talk. We’re getting married next year.

Thinking back, I don’t know if there are real ghosts up there. I just know that I can remember these snapshots. These ghosts in my memory.

Turning Point

by

57.682996,
  11.960416
Turning Point

The one who never loses her appetite has lost her appetite.

I only feel nauseous when I think about him, but I think about him all the time. It’s been a month. I’m still wearing his t-shirt, the one I was wearing when he said it and I left in a hurry.

It’s pretty dirty by now.

On the other side of the barred windows the trees are green and bathed in light. I am allowed outside for one hour a day. As far as being locked up for mental health issues goes, I have it pretty good. It’s not that severe. At least that’s what I’m telling myself. It works when the other people in there tell me about their problems. It doesn’t work when I’m lying in my bed at night trying to cry silently so as to not wake up the other three in the room.

When people ask, I try to explain that it wasn’t just him leaving me, it was the fact that I don’t have a place in society and how can I survive when there are no jobs I can do? But even as I say it I hear it doesn’t sound believable. But it was months of thoughts about death before he tipped me over the edge. I laughed when he said he was afraid I’d kill myself. He had no idea.

A friend tells me I’ve lost some weight. I didn’t need to know that. My body is not like I knew it. I constantly feel like my heart is convulsing, trying to reject every feeling I have ever felt, tipping them into my stomach and making it impossible to eat.

Most of my days I spend in the common room. I read one book per day. The sun doesn’t make me feel guilty because I can’t just go outside. It’s a relief. I’m doing the best that I can. Someone else can enjoy the summer. I’m just trying to survive.

My favourite place is the corner of the blue couch. That’s where I read. And that’s where I’m sitting watching tv when the book has ended. That’s where I’m sitting when I take the first step toward feeling better.

It’s Beyoncé. Public television is showing a Beyoncé concert, and I’m watching noncommittally. At first. It’s fun, she’s going through her history, singing snippets of Destiny’s Child songs, and she’s a great performer.

Then it happens. “Sing it like your ex is standing right in front of you,” she says. And she sings: “it sucks to be you right now”.

It sucks to be you right now.

The words drill themselves into me and I can feel my heart stilling. That’s it. I know I’m going to get through. I’m going to feel better, I’m going to have my appetite back, I’m going to survive. That’s all there is.

I’m going to survive. That’s all there is.