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“Some Sweetness”

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“Grab somebody, come on down/ Bring your paintbrush, we’re paintin’ the town/ Oh there’s some sweetness goin’ ’round/  Catch it down in New Orleans…You wanna do some livin’ before you die/ Do it down in New Orleans…” The Princess and the Frog, “Down In New Orleans”

My final morning in the Big Easy started slowly.  I packed in a quiet apartment, before my hosts were awake, and thought about how quickly it all had passed.  I was so nervous about the trip, about everything involved, and now I wanted it to last indefinitely.  I straightened up the living room and tip-toed over the creaky wood floors, savoring each minute left in the city.

R and I drove back to the French Quarter for breakfast.  Early on a Sunday, it was just coming to life.  Families strolled the streets and vendors unloaded their wares.  It was just beginning to stretch out of sleep as we wandered in.  We walked down to the Mississippi River.  The Mississippi River.  It was surreal, something out of books and history, something huge and untamable.  We stood on its banks in the warming sun, staring out at the rippling water.  I may as well have been visiting the rings of Saturn.  It was all so mythic.  It was smaller than I thought, quieter, but still magical.

We walked the banks back to the historic Cafe du Monde.  Standing in the winding line, we watched people pass and eat.  We inched into the shade of the cafe, thankful for a little relief from the ever-hotter sun.  We picked our way to a table in the back, ready for the heavenly beignets to arrive.  We swooned over the cute children, covered in powdered sugar, being wheeled in in strollers.  Realizing that there is no dignified way to eat a beignet, I dove in.  R laughed as a fine, white dust settled on her black dress and I fought to find a way to bite without sugar coating my entire face.  Eating more than we should have, I finished my plate, reminding myself of Robert Frost’s insight: “Yet knowing how way leads on to way/ I doubted if I should ever come back.”

Breakfast at the Cafe du Monde!

After  breakfast, we walked back to the car, taking a detour through the French Market.  Looking through used books, shot glasses, produce and drinks, I picked up a small souvenir to send home and we hopped back in the car and headed to church.  I was a bit nervous about going to church, but R wanted me to see it and I wanted to enjoy all of her New Orleans.  We pulled up under a tree and she pointed out that we were parked next to a few of the remaining Projects.  Even they were beautiful.  Red brick houses with old trees lining the streets made even the neediest part of the city enchanting.  We walked into the building and I immediately felt out of place.  After growing up Protestant in a Catholic school, I still feel unwelcome when I attend mass.  I sat alone in the pew as R ran to the bathroom, and looked around the sanctuary.  Transported back to my theology classes in college, I noticed a lot about the church without speaking to anyone.  It was bright, open.  The colors were light and welcoming.  The Stations of the Cross were closer to folk art than anything else and beautiful.  R pointed out that there is only one crucifix in the building, and it is off to the side of the altar, out of sight.  People walked around, some praying, others chatting.  The choir warmed up, piano music floating through the room.

The choir leader emerged from behind the piano, which was adorned with a Saints pennant.  She walked to the front of the sanctuary, dressed in a Saints jersey, black leather pants, and a gold chain belt.  She talked to those of us who were seated, explaining the new language that has been added to the mass and how to follow along.  She was lively and funny, engaging as she readied the congregation for mass.  Then the service began.  The music was enlivening.  The piano played, a horn and saxophone joined in, a drum kept time and a tambourine made appearances.  People sang with joy, the priests swaying at the altar as they did.  Everything that could be sung was, and it was sung with zest.  The mass was familiar but new, welcoming in ways it never was before.  We sang the Lord’s Prayer.  We sang “Peace Like a River” after the sign of peace, which was mashed up with Sinatra’s “When You’re Smiling.”  It was a party, relevant and accessible in ways that I had never felt before.  The mass, which was the same one we crashed at the cathedral, was tailored to its congregation, meeting their passions and needs beautifully.

The priest’s homily hit me deeply.  Tears flooded my eyes as I realized why exactly I loved this city.  He talked about giving to Caesar what is his and God what is His.  He talked about life, how it is fleeting and the important things are what belong to God.  “Amens” filled the air as he continued, a far cry from the silent, formal masses I knew from childhood.  He talked about money belonging to Caesar, because it is stamped in his image, and us belonging to God, because we are created in His.  He instructed that we are to give everything to God, because our lives are His: money, time, burdens, joys.  As the mass concluded, the recessional hymn was a game day tradition: “When the Saints Go Marching In.”  And then a “Who dat?” chant started.  R grinned widely, at home in room of people in love with life and their city.

We got back in the car and I tried to explain what I was thinking and feeling.  We drove through New Orleans and down to the 9th Ward.  She explained the Ward system, described different neighborhoods, and prepared me for what I was about to see.  As we rolled through the streets, I caught glimpses of gutted houses, rotten porches.  Spray paint still marks homes, though I didn’t even want to ask what it all meant.  As we arrived in the Lower 9th, I was fascinated by it all.  I had expected something frightening, a graveyard of houses.  I imagined dark, decaying messes, frames falling apart, destruction everywhere.  In fact, there were cute little homes, brightly colored, all over.  They were smaller than the ones on St. Charles, but I couldn’t help but love them too.  She explained that every empty lot I saw was once a home.  I saw quite a few, filled with dirt or looking like a lawn with no home to claim it.  We crept over the jagged streets and asked if I truly understood what I was seeing.  I apparently wasn’t.  There were plenty of clear lots, but there were also countless homes in fields of grass, reaching at least shoulder-height.  These were once homes too.  What looked like a house built on a lot with meadows surrounding it was a neighbor to an un-kept lot.  Then it hit me just how much was missing, what was lost.  It was weird, driving past places where people died and entire lives were lost.  We talked about whether we would come back, if we lost everything, or if we would just rather not see it all.  She showed me the homes Brad Pitt was helping rebuild.  They were cool, but couldn’t hold a candle to the beauty of the aged New Orleans.

We got back on the Interstate, driving toward my trip home.  We passed through a massive cemetery, lining both sides of the freeway.  White tombs litter the graveyard, housing generations of families together.  They keep the dead away from the mud and rain, keep them buried in the storm.  As I hugged R goodbye, I was sad to leave it all.

I tried to explain to her what I had fallen in love with.  New Orleans is a city at ease with tragedy.  It is violent.  Cemeteries litter neighborhoods.  Brass bands lead funeral processions.  Katrina still lurks, a scar that they cannot shake.  In the middle of all of this is Bourbon Street, children dancing in church, artists lining the street.  There are festivals and music, drinks for everyone and hospitality freely shown.  It is a city with every reason to mourn and fear, but it chooses life.  There is a choice to live the little time we have, to accept that it will end, and the determination to taste all that we can of this world.  The passion and zeal of the city are inspiring, it bursts with energy and celebration.  They dance for marriages and deaths, communion and touch downs.  It is the opposite of my life–vivid and electric.  It refuses to give up or grow up, greeting each day like a child: twirling through life with wonder and radiance.

“Mardi Gras is the love of life.  It is the harmonic convergence of our food, our music, our creativity, our eccentricity, our neighborhoods, and our joy of living.  All at once.”  Chris Rose, 1 Dead in Attic

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“Dreams do come true in New Orleans”

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“I’m not going to lay down in words the lure of this place.  Every great writer in the land, from Faulkner to Twain to Rice to Ford, has tried to do it and fallen short.  It is impossible to capture the essence, tolerance, and spirit of South Louisiana in words and try to roll down a road of clichés, bouncing over beignets and beads and brass bands and it just is what it is.  It is home.”  –Chris Rose, 1 Dead in Attic

There is a magic to New Orleans that cannot be put down in words–it must be lived.  On Saturday, R and I woke up a little later than planned and got dressed to go see the mythic French Quarter.  As we walked down the street to catch the Street Car, the sun was warm and a cool breeze sifted through our hair.  We climbed onto the full car and rattled down St. Charles.  As my curls tangled through the open window, whipped in the sun, I drank in more of the beautiful architecture.  R, being the girl she is, struck up a conversation with a lost couple next to us.  They asked where to get off for Lafayette Square and she directed them, asking what they were up to.  They told us there was a festival, so we decided to get off with them and see what was out there.  We wandered through booths and heard a little music.  R told me “I love a good festival!” and that summarizes New Orleans well.  We got breakfast–a beer for R and the best pina colada on earth for me–and walked on.  (One of the strangest, and most enjoyable aspects of New Orleans was the ability to drink on the streets.  It never felt normal to get a drink to go, but it was wonderful!)

R wanted me to see a Second Line, so we walked to City Hall for the Occupy NOLA protest, listening for the band.  As we sipped and watched, R saw some of her friends from school, who stopped to chat for a moment.  They told us that the band could not be booked, and no Second Line was coming, but they were heading our direction, so we joined them.  We were accidental protestors.  “This is what happens when you fly by the seat of your pants!” she said with a wide grin.  Walking with the protestors was surreal and we were glad to have alcohol on our side.  A young girl rode on her parent’s shoulders on the outskirts, taking in the scene.  Signs were everywhere, all angry about something different.  A woman marched in front of us with a sign on her backpack reading, “3 degrees, 2 jobs, and I can’t sell my house.  I’m tired and angry.”  A drummer walked next to us for a block, flanked by a saxophone player, as people shouted “This is what democracy looks like.”  As we entered the Quarter, we broke free and left behind the shouts of unrest.

We stopped in a stately hotel, cool behind its white pillars, and glimpsed the slowly turning Carousel that made up the bar.  After the pit stop, we strolled the streets, passing galleries and shops and a cat in a window.  We wandered the historic streets, older than the stars and stripes.  The corners bore tiled signs, proclaiming the names the streets were known as under Spanish rule.  Stone and brick sidewalks turn into cobbled alleys, old shuttered doors bright and warm.  We wound down to Jackson Square, arriving just as horns began to echo.  We were surprised by a Second Line!  We stopped to watch, as the band approached, and clapped as the bride and groom followed.  We walked past the artists, work strewn on tables and pinned on fence bars, and the fortune tellers, browning in the autumn sun.  Skinny streets with beautifully old names crisscrossed through history and we wound up next to the mule-drawn carriages.  Promised a cheap ride if we joined strangers, we toured the Quarter by carriage, listening to tidbits of history and lore, seeing the oldest bar in America (Jean Lafittes Black Smith Shop), the only business open during Katrina (Johnny White’s), and an elementary school just off Bourbon Street.  Back at Jackson Square, we admired Saint Louis Cathedral, popping in for a look around and a homily about economic justice.  We walked back past the art vendors, enamored with a collection of bird paintings, and then headed for lunch.

We entered an almost empty dining room at the Gumbo Shop, which I would have walked right past if R hadn’t stopped me.  We entered the cool restaurant, seated next to the window where we watched a large woman, dressed all in red, clean up her keyboard and seat for the day.  R ordered gumbo and I enjoyed my first po’ boy after we shared an order of alligator sausage.  It was all new, steps away from all that I know and have ever experienced, and it was delicious–just like the city itself.  Full, hydrated, and content, we left our first real meal of the day for more walking.  Our feet had grown tired and we had not drunk nearly enough for a day in the Quarter, so we made our way down Bourbon in and into Pat O’Brien’s, where we would stay for much longer than we intended.

In the dark, smoky piano bar, we found an empty table near the stage and sat down with my first hurricane.  Sipping and singing, we watched tables fill and empty and fill again.  We heard some songs three or four times, and grew excited when a new one was requested.  We were mesmerized by their fingers, pounding and flying, effortlessly creating every song we threw at them.  The players cycled through, as did our drinks, and we sang on.  Finally R’s roommate joined us, which called for another round of drinks, and shouted our day’s journey to her over the music.  Eventually we tottered our way out, squeezing between crowded tables, and found that it had grown dark outside as well.  We walked to the car, taking Bourbon just to say that I did, and slowly drove away from the Quarter, just beginning to pick up for the night.  We listened to her roommate’s day, filled in details of ours, and decided some food was in order.  We drove through Rally’s, another new taste, though much more familiar than alligator.  We limped home, tired and hungry, and snuggled in for a little television before sleep.

At the end of the day, it felt like we had live a week.  It felt forever ago that we climbed onto the Street Car, and we crammed as much into a day in the French Quarter as possible.  I got to see and taste the city, breathe in the pounding heart of New Orleans.  It is a place of history, rich in humanity.  The streets ring, sing right along with the brass bands marching.  People come to perform, to dance and play, to paint and predict.  People come to where the life is.  For one day, I was one of the people who came to the Quarter, one of the pulses creating the beat of the street.

“You cannot help but learn more as you take the world into your hands.  Take it up reverently, for it is an old piece of clay, with millions of thumbprints on it.”  –John Updike

Shakespeare, the city and me

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“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.  So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor.  Catch the trade winds in your sails.  Explore.  Dream.  Discover.”  –Mark Twain

On my first full day in New Orleans, I was left alone for most of my day.  R had to work, so I woke early (even earlier when I remembered the two-hour time difference) and tried to plan for my time alone in the city.  I spent my first hour catching up with my online obligations for my new job and then debated where to wander.  I checked (and double checked…or triple checked) that I had the spare keys in my pocket (and that they worked…some things never change) and headed out into the streets.  I packed a camera and went to see just what there was to see.

I started out searching for St. Charles to see the historic homes.  I stopped at the corner to watch the street car pass and dodged through some traffic.  I had big plans.  I was going to find a coffee shop, get breakfast, and take in the neighborhood.  I walked and gave myself whiplash looking at all the houses.  Everything is old and wonderful.  Houses are wrapped in cozy porches and balconies.  They hide behind twisting wrought iron.  Bricks are everywhere and broad, white columns stand tall watch.  I could look at those buildings forever.  I fell in love with the old, full trees shielding me from the sun and the bright colors splashing relief against the russet bricks.  I kept watch for my destination and kept walking.  And walking.  And walking.  I passed schools, towering and stately, and more of the delicious homes.  And more.

After a half hour of walking, my feet were sore and the sun left few places to hide from its rays, so I turned to go home.  I walked and savored the homes, the beauty of the old neighborhood.  I stopped suddenly, overtaken with a sweet aroma: floral notes, melted with a fruity scent.  I searched for what the smell could have come from, but could not determine its source.  It smelled like a summer day in the South should.  I lingered over water meter covers, the quiet beauty of something so mundane.  Every street name, tiled into the cement from bygone decades, broadened my smile.  Sweating and aching, I came to my final street crossing and looked at what I had missed before: St. Charles was the first intersection I had come to.  Frustrated that I had missed the mark by so far, and reaffirming that Charlie Brown in me, I went inside to rest.  My feet were blistered and face pink with the midday sun.  So I showered, turned on a movie, and relaxed in the beautiful apartment, tiptoeing over the dark, hardwood floors and lounging under the ceiling fan.

R came home late, so we hurried to get cleaned up and head out for the night.  We started by meeting two of her friends from school for dinner.  I continued to step into a limbo of familiar-new with cajun-mexican food at Juan’s Flying Burrito: jerk chicken nachos.  They were delicious and her friends were wonderful.  They were funny and sweet and instantly treated me like one of the girls.

After laughter and dinner, we set off for the New Orleans Museum of Art for a night of Shakespeare under the stars.  We wandered in, taking our program/fan from the children at the entrance, and got a drink.  We spread our blanket on the grass and settled in as R pointed out acquaintances and professors.  As A Midsummer Night’s Dream opened, I was more enamored with the experience than the play.  We watched the beginning on a grass slope and then moved further into the garden for the bulk of the play.  Trees spread overhead, dripping with moss and fairy trinkets, as the action unfolded in the hollow below.  As I bored of the story, never one of my favorites, I noticed the moon beginning to rise.  It was massive, yellow, magical.  R noticed it too and we were transfixed.  As the play closed, we followed the fairies around to a pond, where the cast rowed out onto the water to close.  It was such a wonderful experience, unique and tactile–theater as it should be.  We loaded up the blanket and left for a bar.

My single gripe about New Orleans is that smoking is still allowed in bars.  Gross.  But we entered and R warned me that it is a “pet-friendly” bar.  We found stools and ordered drinks as a small wiener dog ventured across the floor, looking exactly like my own.  He scampered off into the dark back room and we met more of her friends from school.  They were beautiful, smart, outgoing girls and I felt a benevolent jealousy of her world.  They are passionate and driven to make the world a better place, and have more fun than anyone I know.  We drank and talked until late and then headed home.  Smelly and blistered, my eyes were heavy and ready for some rest.

The play was delightful.  It was a remarkable experience, sitting huddled with the crowd, rapt beneath the moon.  We shared a magical night, sitting among the statues in the shadow of the museum.  The bar was fun, seeing R in her world, her life at its most silly and joyful.  I have felt recently, and my stroll through the neighborhood confirmed, that I was born at the wrong time.  The cracked sidewalks and bumpy bricks tell a story.  The houses are old, have endured and seen, adapted and withstood.  I find comfort and peace in the beauty of the old, something that new, state-of-the-art can never bring.  The steadfast trees and porch swings beckon me and welcome my soul home.  For an hour, those streets were mine, and we both loved it.

“Over hill, over dale,/ Thorough bush, thorough brier,/ Over park, over pale,/ Thorough flood, thorough fire,/ I do wander everywhere.” –William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream

“Until the very end.”

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“My test of a good novel is dreading to begin the last chapter.” –Thomas Helm

Tonight, I went and saw Horrible Bosses for only six dollars–a steal!  On my way into the theater at 5:15, there was already a long line of fans waiting for the midnight opening of the final Harry Potter film.  I sit on my couch very jealous and slightly bitter that I am not at a midnight showing of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.  I get so excited every time I see the commercials and am bursting to see the movie.  By and large, I love the movies–not quite as much as the books–and love going to see them.  I have special memories of each film (Azkaban through Hallows, that is, but I’ll save those for tomorrow) and the people who love this world with me.  My biggest complaint about the movies tends to be that they are not long enough, leave out too much of the minutia that makes the books that I love.  I was deeply disappointed when I saw the runtime of this movie was just barely more than 2 hours.

Part of my sadness is that the movie has a lot to cover in very few minutes.  More than that, my disappointment is that it is all ending.  Harry has a very special place in my movie and book collections, and in my life.  I was late to the bandwagon, hopping on after film two and before book five.  I devoured the books, after being bullied into reading them, the summer before I started college.  In two weeks, between shifts at summer camp, I was finished and hooked.  There is such a rich world in the books, so much imagination that I deeply envy.  I am in awe of Rowling’s ability to create such vivid places and people effortlessly, with minimal words.  I have tried, and cannot pinpoint how she does it, but she does.  As a person who likes to write, and would love to be thought of as a writer, I am humbled.

More than enjoying the craft of the books, they were an escape for me.  When I was in college, I read the books all the way through twice a year: Christmas break and summer vacation.  The hours at home were long and contact with my college friends was limited.  I was busy with school and new people and lost touch with many of my high school friends.  Thus, when I came home, I was alone.  To stave off the isolation, I would stay up late at night, huddled in my mom’s rocking chair, letting myself drift off into Hogwarts.  I would let my magical friends embrace me when my real ones seemed to forget me.  It was an escape from my loneliness, a retreat.  I read all night, stopping only as dawn neared and I knew my parents would be waking.  I don’t know if I would have made it through those breaks alone without my Hogwarts crew.

Part of the solace that I found was in the fact that Harry and his friends were not popular, that they too knew isolation and awkwardness.  The summer after I graduated, I read the whole series one last time, ending with the final book.  That long, unemployed summer was the hardest yet.  I lived alone, did nothing, and left for one last trip to Hogwarts.  Since then, in four years, I haven’t read all of the books again.  That does not mean that I never will, because I still love them deeply and fall into a spectacular magic stupor when I dive in.  Something in me, something even in my loneliness, has not needed them.  Perhaps when temperatures drop and days shorten I will feel more drawn to that world, but I am finding it hard to believe it has been four years since I have embarked on that journey.

The unopened books do not mean that Harry, Ron and Hermione have not been with me these past years.  I have seen them on the silver screen, and thought of them.  I have talked about them and bonded with people over them.  I felt a deep bond with Harry (which I realize is odd, because he is not real) as I settled into my job.  I lived two lives: one, the before, where I was important, impressive.  The other, the now, in which I am insignificant and disrespected.  I had a Hogwarts, I was known and praised.  And then I fell into a world where the cupboard was too good for me, where dignity had no place.  I clung to the fact that someone else knew this pain, lived two lives unrecognizable to the other.

There is a poignant sadness in closing this chapter.  After the books were finished, no matter how satisfied or not I was, there was always a film to look forward to, something to keep the world alive.  Now, with the stroke of midnight, that world closes.  Yes, I will reread and rewatch, but there is no mystery, no anticipation–all secrets and surprises are revealed.  I love how the books feel familiar in my hands and words settle into their places in my memory.  I have read this before, this is mine, I know this.  I like comfort and familiar, but there is that small, daring part of me that wants to have an adventure, to sneak a peek into the unknown.  That little adventurer inside cannot wait to see the movie this weekend, and simultaneously wants to put it off forever.  If only I had a time-turner…


“Lord! when you sell a man a book you don’t sell just twelve ounces of paper and ink and glue – you sell him a whole new life.  Love and friendship and humour and ships at sea by night – there’s all heaven and earth in a book, a real book.” Christopher Morley

Weddings and Flowers

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“The best things in life are nearest: breath in your nostrils, light in your eyes, flowers at your feet, duties at your hand, the path of right just before you.  Then do not grasp at the stars, but do life’s plain, common work as it comes, certain that daily duties and daily bread are the sweetest things in life.”  –Robert Louis Stevenson

This is delayed, but tonight I collect my thoughts about the royal wedding.  I admit, I was more than happy to wake up in the middle of my night to watch two strangers marry.  I was excited, not sure of what to expect.  I just knew, as I went to bed, that I wanted to wake up and be a part of something historic, to watch with millions around the world. 

I was sad, when I flipped on the television, that I had missed most of the ceremony.  I thought I had calculated everything right, but I was misinformed.  I was hoping to see Kate walk into the church and barely got to see the couple walk out.  But I stuck with the newlyweds.  I watched them leave the church, ride away, kiss, and begin life, husband and wife.  I did this with a joyful heart.  The much-anticipated dress was lovely, but so unexpectedly ordinary.  It could be on any bride, fit any ceremony.  The two walked down the aisle and the future king gave side glances and small smiles as he met familiar eyes.  They invited friends and family and the people who sell them candy. 

The thing that I loved so much about the wedding, what made waking up more than worthwhile, was the splendid ordinariness of it all.  Yes, they are royalty now.  Yes, it was expensive and pretty.  But they were a happy young couple committing to life together.  The now historic second kiss they snuck was incredibly unrefined and loving.  The stories of Prince Harry’s “survivors’ breakfast” for the guests who could stay up all night was exactly what a best man/brother should have done.  The queen, after the royal reception, left the castle to the couple and friends.  Yes, it was a castle, but it was not much different from the wedding of my friends.  It was beautifully, refreshingly normal. 

That same week I went to see the famous flower fields of Carlsbad.  I had wanted to visit them last year, but did not make it out before they closed for the summer.  I was so excited to go see these acres of blooms.  I wanted to practice a little photography and see if I could get a good shot or two.  I woke up early, made the drive, paid my entrance, and excitedly entered the fields.

The fields were pretty.  There were a lot of flowers.

There were many kinds of flowers there. 

I am glad that I went.  I wish that I had gone a little earlier in the season because some of the flowers were starting to wilt and die, but it was nice.  It just wasn’t the overwhelming experience I thought that it would be.  Perhaps I had built it up too much in my mind, but I expected…more.  I expected breathtaking.  I expected.  I may have expected too much.  I liked the flowers, but had thought I would be inspired, I would fall in love, I would rave about it and never want to leave.  I was satisfied rather quickly, much faster than the driving I did to get there and back.  These famous fields simply were not as great as I thought that they would be.  In fact, possibly my favorite part of the field was a mistake, something only I seemed to notice:

It struck my, on the way home, that it was the ordinary, the unexpected that moved me.  This magnificent flower patch was pretty, but it did not make me feel like I had hoped it would.  Instead, I thought about the yellow flowers (okay, weeds) that line my route to and from work.  The wall of yellow against the freeway, following the river bank, makes me happier than most things these days.  They are my flowers, my spring, my joy.  Today I spotted this poking through the parking lot fence:

I made sure to return and take a quick picture of it on my way home from the grocery store.  These are the things that I love deeply.  They are the everyday.  They are the common beauty.  They make this city of concrete and this world of pain a little more friendly and beautiful.  They are the free, accidental gifts of life.  They are quiet and simple.  This is what made the wedding great, the flowers stunning: the unremarkable.  The simplest things bring the most awe.

Happiness is just outside my window/ Thought it’d crash blowing 80-miles an hour?/ But happiness a little more like knocking/ On your door, and you just let it in?”  –The Fray, “Happiness”

The speed of childhood

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 “But to be most effective, the faces of the children would need to be painted in a blur, the way all children’s faces truly are.  For they blur as the run; they blur as they grow and change so fast; and they blur to keep us from loving them too deeply, for their protection, and also for ours.”  –Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister 

In the past week, I got to visit my babies that I’ve had the privilege of watching live.  My baby cousins, now little boys with hobbies and voices and lives, and the children I babysit, now in preschool and building Lego houses, are not the tiny ones I once knew.  I have held them and fed them bottles, burped them and felt their tiny fingers squeeze my own.  I have propped them on my hips and stroked their wispy hair.  And now they are all walking, talking tiny people.  They like some food, hate others.  They tell jokes and giggle and tell me stories.  They say my name and climb into my lap all on their own.  In the past four years, I have stagnated and life has passed with no noticeable changes.  For them, life has made them unrecognizable.  I love their little toddler voices and the little boy stories they tell.

To see these children grow is bittersweet.  They bring us all so much joy as they develop and change.  They become more complete and whole as we watch.  I do not see them nearly as often as I would like, so each time I meet new children, find new little lives that have developed.  I watch as their scribbles straighten into shaky letters and words.  Their steps stabilize and evolve into endless running.  I love seeing them become more every day, but I miss those tiny bodies that slept and cried and just wanted to be cuddled.  It’s the pull everyone feels, every parent agonizes over: an ache to keep the baby frozen in time and an excitement to watch the child come into their own. 

I watched Voyage of the Dawn Treader this week too.  The Chronicles of Narnia were a fixture of my childhood.  I can remember sitting on the couch, next to my dad, in my brothers’ room, listening to the stories before bed.  But, in the scariest way possible, the memories are fading.  They stories are hard to remember, the details vague.  I can’t remember the nightgown I wore or which side of my dad I sat on.  I remember the story time, feel my heart swell each time I hear the books even mentioned, but the details are fuzzy.  It scares me that twenty years have melted away and that life will never return. 

 Watching the movie, I lost it and cried uncontrollably as the children slept on a dark beach.  They lay next to the fire, Eustace quietly crying his giant dragon tears.  I felt that fear, that pain so deeply.  I wake up and have no idea how I became this monster, this grown-up with freedom and power and authority.  I don’t know where my old life went and how I managed to let it slip away.  It is lonely and uncertain and all I can think is how much I want to be back home with my parents protecting me.  Somehow, my life got away from me.  That story, those words that lulled me to sleep all those nights, are forever a memory, never again reality.  I don’t get to go back, to return to those nights.  This, more than anything, breaks my heart. 

I marvel at the little lives I get to watch unfold.  I am a witness to their stories being written, their memories branded, their persons formed.  I love knowing more of them, privy to more of their thoughts and ideas and joys.  I do mourn the quiet, small times when they couldn’t play tee ball or chase after the dog.  I miss the soft weight of their tiny bodies curled against my chest.  I am trying to remember to enjoy them just as they are, each time I see them.  It is exciting to tell my parents about the changes they have to miss, the wonders of the everyday.  As I was told all about cars and school, I was just struck by how fast is has all gone by.  It is a reminder that each day is only here for a moment, that things change and people grow.  The first girls I ever babysat are now graduating from high school. 

The years streak by and there is joy in the changes that they bring.  The danger is not savoring the changes as they come, enjoying the process of life.  The more I drink in the present and force myself to be present, the more salient the memories become, sinking deeper into me.  Those nights, listening to stories of dragons and fauns and witches, my mind was not wandering.  I was not worried about the next day or regretting the one passed.  I was quiet and still, drinking in the story as it happened. 

“…Stop this train I want to get off and go home again/ I can’t take this speed it’s moving in/ I know I can’t/ ‘Cause now I see I’ll never stop this train…”  –John Mayer, “Stop This Train”

some very small things

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“Our lives are made in these small hours/ These little wonders, these twists and turns of fate/ Time falls away, but these small hours,/ These small hours still remain…”  –Rob Thomas, “Little Wonders”

I tend to return from a trip home to see my parents with a certain loneliness.  It’s sad to go back to my empty apartment, listening to the roar of the freeways instead of the wind rustling in the trees.  My laptop is warm on my knees, but not as cozy as our dog curled at my side.  It can be a bit hard to pull out of this funk because I miss my parents, miss my home, and am floundering on my own right now.  I miss the security and companionship and comfort of home. 

Yesterday I decided, in order to help myself feel a little more upbeat, I would make and send some Easter packages to my brothers, who are now both away from our home for the first time.  I had the best of intentions and picked out things to remind them of our childhood Easter baskets and the excitement of that morning.  I even spent the better part of the afternoon tracking down ingredients and testing recipes for some cookies one had asked our mom for.  I didn’t make it to the post office.  I couldn’t find packaging tape.  I made some gross cookies before getting the right recipe from our Grandma and making some good ones.  And I felt like a failure.  My good intentions and high hopes were ruined and I couldn’t pull it all together.  I was disappointed and saddened, but amidst this, little things brightened my day.

I have come to really, really enjoy PassiveAggressiveNotes.com.  A lot. My best friend introduced me to it, ironically, after we reminisced about how we lived with a girl in college who only communicated through rude post-it notes.  Now I love checking in on the stellar communication skills demonstrated on the site.  As I struggled to haul my bags up to my apartment, I was greeted by a wonderful example of my own:

The envelope was clearly one sent for returning an invoice or something else to a sender.  The ample scotch tape is classic.  I love that someone else saw the note and decided to add, in different writing and ink, who the note was “From:”  And the kicker is the paper towels, torn up and tucked inside!  I should have been disgusted, for sure, and probably annoyed with my neighbors.  But I was tickled!  I laughed out loud and, clearly, felt the need to photograph it.  I loved it!  This literally made my day.

Then I dyed eggs.  I have no one to hide them for, no one to hide them for me.  I will probably not get around to eating all of them before they go bad.  But I realized that I had not dyed eggs since I was in high school, and I desperately wanted to.  So I bought some vinegar and a cheap dye kit and got to work.  I wish I could say that they were stunning.  They should be artistic, impressive, something far superior to those of my youth.  Martha has taught me better than this.  But they were nothing special, nothing exciting.

Yes, I cracked some eggs boiling them.  No, they were not spectacular.  But they made me so happy.  Knowing that they are sitting in my fridge makes me happy even now.  I am excited for egg salad sandwiches next week, because that’s part of Easter, but I’m also sad to think about the fact that once these are gone, my eggs will be white again. 

I’ve tried to find little things to make my day because the big ones seem to be few and too far between.  While creeping on a friend’s facebook page, I saw that one of her friends recommended a blog to her.  The title sounded promising, so I browsed through it.  I now love it.  I loved the pictures first, because I wish I could take good photos.  And I wish I had beautiful little girls to dress up.  Now I love reading the posts, hearing her thoughts, sometimes nearly my own, sometimes very far from them.  I highly recommend a look at Enjoying the Small Things.  If nothing else, it brings a smile and reminds me to keep looking for the little moments, the things that make days good. 

Until the big things come along with some certainty, the little things will have to do.  And that’s okay, because big things can be overwhelming and confusing.  I’m not sure what I will do with a new job or relationship or home.  I am sure that my Easter eggs make me smile.  For today, in this tiny moment, that is enough to be sure of.

“Human felicity is produced not as much by great pieces of good fortune that seldom happen as by little advantages that occur every day.” –Benjamin Franklin

Just Beachy

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“I hope you still feel small/ When you stand beside the ocean…” –Lee Ann Womack, “I Hope You Dance”

The Pacific

With no work, and no friends to spend time with, I headed to the beach today.  I have been alone a lot lately and am trying to work up the courage to go and do all the things that I want to, despite the fact that I have no one to come with me.  After getting up, I decided the longest day of the year and the first day of summer deserved some time in the sun.  I planned to go read, listen to the waves, enjoy the sun and then run my weekly errands.  Because I am me, things did not go that way.

About fifteen minutes after settling down in the sand, taking pictures of the rolling waves, Murphy’s Law caught up to me.  Miscalculating the speed at which the tide was creeping in, I was not quite quick enough to pick up my things and got much, much wetter than I had planned.  So I headed back, sandy and wet, fully clothed, with a very heavy towel.  As my face heated and shame settled in for my stupidity, I remembered why exactly why I went to the beach.

I looked around at all of the people.  Some sunbathing, some walking, volleyball players and cyclists.  People come from around the country and world to see the beaches here.  All different shapes and sizes soaked in the sun, enjoying summer’s emergence from hibernation.  People didn’t come here to judge me and my wet pants.  People watching is part of a day on the boardwalk, but it’s not why we go to the beach.  There are so many weirder, louder, more baffling things there than a girl who’s wet.  While I was uncomfortable and sandy, the anonymity of crowds gave me a little bit of dignity back.

I went to the beach to enjoy the beauty of it, but also to get perspective.  The waves crash in, spreading along the sand, drowning out talk.  They come regularly, rhythmically, always.  The water stretches to the sky, and beyond.  Turning my back on the boardwalk, it is easy to forget that yards away are homes and hotels; the ocean becomes consuming.  The sky and sun  cover the sand, uninhibited and free of power lines, overpasses and towering buildings.  The sand stretches out to the piers, and deep into the water.  It continues deep beneath the small indentations my feet make.  The tide smooths it, erases the messes people make, leaving sparkling perfection.  The ocean is too big, to the point of inducing anxiety.  My heart races when I think of how small I am in comparison, how easily I could be lost if I went out there. 

And it is comforting.  I am small.  I am young.  I am transient.  The ocean in huge, old, permanent.  It doesn’t waiver.  The tide comes in and goes out every day, waves continuing their predictable dance.  Waiting to hear about this job is easier.  The cruelty of my acquaintances, whom I misjudged to be friends, is trivial.  My loneliness is lessened.  We are all small.  I remember why I live in this city, why I struggle and stress over money in order to live here.  This is why I miss my family, why I miss friends, why I stayed behind.  Sitting small in the warm sand, I remember why I love this city.  Everything else, everything that isn’t warmth and refreshing and huge and enveloping melts away. 

“You know what the Mexicans say about the Pacific?’

“No.”

“They say it has no memory.  That’s where I want to live the rest of my life.  A warm place with no memory.”

The Shawshank Redemption

“Survived the madman’s dream…”

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“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” –attributed to Edmund Burke

I cannot place the beginning of my fascination, for lack of a better word, but I am captivated by stories of the Holocaust.  I understand that this is a somewhat disturbing statement that, at best, requires a caveat, but it’s nearly impossible for me not to read an article or watch a show that I stumble upon about the subject.  There are two things that simply boggle my mind with respect to the horror. 

The first, and perhaps greatest thing that intrigues me is that is happened, plain and simple.  I was chilled the first time I watched footage of the infamous Milgram experiments to show the power of authority and peer pressure.  (For a rundown, check out http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milgram_experiment.)  I know, that on a much more mundane and miniscule scale I have gone along with my peers and failed to question authorities that I may not agree with.  I can see how good, honest men and women were swept up in the Nazi movement– to an extent.  There comes a point, however, that I like to believe my humanity would kick in.  I think that I would draw a line and stop my obedience before it got too far, if I were involved.  But I cannot say this for sure.  There is such an unimaginable darkness to the actions of Nazi soldiers, but there is a part of me that really can comprehend how it got so out of control.  Especially when it came to protecting their lives.  This does not make the whole reality of the hell that developed any less astounding.  And it happened fifty years ago.  Not centuries past, in barbaric times.  My Grandmothers were alive to see these days.  This is what I cannot wrap my mind around. 

“The children of Israel survived the madman’s dream…”

In honor of those lost, on behalf of those who live on. That we may never forget, and never allow this again.

The second thing that simply astounds me with respect to the Holocaust are the superhuman acts of bravery that took place.  The amount of hope and determination and strength that it took to endure the torture is beyond what any human could be expected to muster.  People are simply amazing.  Stories of survivors, stories of those who protected, stories of those who remember.  It is so inspiring.  That is the paradox of the Holocaust: it was literally the darkest period of human interaction, and the most glorious.  People slaughtered others with indifference at best, hatred at worst.  And people survived hell, proving that “The human spirit is stronger than anything that can happen to it  (C.C. Scott).”

My interest has not extended to everything on the subject.  In fact, there are many great stories and accounts that I have not yet encountered.  However, I would highly recommend the following films, simply for the inspiration they have given me: Everything Is Illuminated (based on the acclaimed novel), Life Is Beautiful (who wouldn’t recommend this one?), Paperclips (a moving documentary about children learning about the Holocaust), Forgiving Dr. Mengele (an unbelievable documentary on a survivor’s decision to live a life of forgiveness) and The Children of Chabannes (about schools smuggling children to safety).  There are so many others, more than I have seen, but these are phenomenal and I highly recommend them. 

I know that there was not a whole lot of reflection or insight in this entry.  It was not poetic or eloquent.  But after visiting the memorial this weekend,  this is on my mind, my heart, so here it is.

“I have reflected many times upon our rigid search. It has shown me that everything is illuminated in the light of the past. It is always along the side of us, on the inside, looking out. Like you say, inside out. Jonathan, in this way, I will always be along the side of your life. And you will always be along the side of mine.”  —Everything Is Illuminated