“So basically now you know all my secrets.” I nervously laughed. I had begun to feel incredibly self conscious of the fact that although I had just barely begun to know this person, they now knew my Great Grandmothers name, … Continue reading
“I think Patrick died. I have to go be quiet somewhere, I’ll talk to you later.”
These words, sent in a message from a close high school friend, flashed across my computer screen on a rainy day last October. For a moment my brain was in chaos, flipping through the chapters in my memory, trying to focus my mind on which Patrick, from what place, from what time in my life. The word “died” looked so out of place, so jarring, it made my vision go blurry. There is only one Patrick we both know, only one Patrick deployed in Afghanistan. The news articles of Patrick’s last effort to save a fellow soldier began to flood my facebook feed, confirming the worst.
Like most things, the news of Patrick’s death has sunk in slowly and silently and yet with such heavy weight on my heart that it seems to creep in with its inexplicable emptiness before I can even realize it sometimes. Loss is a strange and uncomfortable thing, it doesn’t feel right grieving Pat when there are so many that know him and grieve him in a deeper way than I possibly could. The truth is that when I learned of Pat passing away it had been a long time since we had talked – years even. The period of time our lives intersected was so brief, just a blip on the screen, and yet it left such an indelible mark on me.
Since I learned of the loss of Pat, the steady-rhythm-rumble of skateboard wheels on gravel echoes in my thoughts and I see Patrick rounding the Carlisle, Pennsylvania street corners of my mind, of my youth. This plays on loop, Patrick eternally rolling and rolling and rolling down that hill on Butler road, flashing his wide, infectious, grin to a fourteen-year-old me, over and over. And the tiny part of my heart (we all seem to have even as we grow old) that feels eternally ‘fourteen’, breaks over and over again. When I met Pat I was the new kid, as we both had so often been, and I was lost. I was starting high school having just moved to Carlisle from Greece, and I was having a rough go of it. Patrick offered me friendship and a reason to start to love Carlisle, a reason to try. We spoke about growing up in military families. He spoke about music and poetry and his interest in culinary school. He was smart, and dynamic, a bit of a mess at times, and this spoke to me. Patrick was never anyone other than himself, and this was at times hard to come by in small-town Pennsylvania, and in the world in general really.
When I first heard of Patrick’s death I was headed to my first day of Postgraduate classes. I told no one initially, there is nothing in my life here that overlaps with the life that Patrick and I had in common – the military posts, the deployments of loved ones, the military family, friends and acquaintances that belong to what seems like a different life I once lived in a foggy dream. Patrick’s passing has come after I have seen both my father (twice) and brother off for deployments to Afghanistan. There is no way to express what learning of a loss like this feels like for those of us who have allowed our worst nightmares to carry us to a place where we imagine the knock at the door, and the unidentifiable car in the driveway, the drop in the stomach and weakening knees before rational thought can even take hold. Members of the military family learn to suffer these things in silence, feeling sorrow for those who will never be able to welcome their loved ones home, tinged with the guilt and relief that you somehow escaped this fate. I hurt for Patrick’s family, even as a teen he spoke of them with such loving admiration.
So now months later I am somehow better able to digest the thoughts that inevitably follow learning of a life cut short. As my father once put it, I cannot bear the thought of a soul passing through life so quickly. I want to run and unearth old abandoned diaries that are full of teenage angst and girly high school crushing over Patrick, I want to preserve any picture ever taken just to be able to remind myself of all the places my heart has been, and that Patrick touched so many lives in his short twenty five years spent on this earth. Patrick, we will hold your memory close, we will share it with others.
It seems silly, but sometimes when I’m on an evening run and I’m hitting that last quarter mile and I can’t breathe and that mark I’m trying to hit seems like its getting further and further and the mass of people I’m dodging keep getting denser and denser and my heart is beating straight out of my chest and I don’t think I will make it – I think of Patrick. How he must have felt in that split second of reaction to seeing a friend go down before him, and how his brain must have gone blank and his vision a soft purple around the edges and he just moved forward when everything in his body was shutting down, simply because he knew he had to get there and this commitment was so intense and beyond comprehension that the option of NOT moving did not conceptually exist in that pocket of time. And on these evening runs, in this split second of thinking of Pat, I have the most grateful heart for love winning over the absurdity of politics and war, and the limits of the physical body. And my lungs open up and I become super human and I sprint all the way to that stoplight I have in sight, and beyond.
In a few hours I will be on a plane bound for New York.
I close my eyes and my mind travels back to a June day on that MTA Hudson line between Highland Falls and Manhattan, the day before I left the U.S on a one way ticket. The train is stalled on the tracks, suspended between certainty and possibility. I am propped up on my backpacks gazing out the window as I wait for the final whistle to sound and the doors to close. I try hard to focus on my own reflection in the glass rather than my fathers face behind it, I can’t bear to see it teary-eyed and strained. I try to distract my mind so I don’t cry or let uncertainty creep in, “you are used to this” I tell myself. He waves at me. He blows me kisses and shoots me sad smiles as I hear the train conductor give the final call, final stop: Grand Central. My father often knows me better than I tend to know myself. Even though I was sure I would return in three months or so, his tears indicated it would be much longer.
He was right. Now nearly six months later (to the day), I am returning to the East Coast for a short holiday. That last Manhattan bound train feels like so long ago. Everyone has shed their summer skin and the trees in the park outside my apartment have become bare too, their branches like skeleton hands shaking in the wind that sweeps off the sea. I will go to the home I left in New York, and after a few weeks I will return once again to the new home I’ve made here in Thessaloniki. It’s a home I’ve carved out all on my own. I will return to the people I’ve spent the last couple of months getting to know on evenings that lasted well into the morning. We have spent nights fumbling around in the dark with our words, trying to find common ground to latch on to. I’ve dug for personality traits and quirks and stories that might reveal connection, excavating souls like a clumsy archaeologist. I will return to the post-graduate program I enrolled in on an impulsive and pivotal Tuesday last October. I will return to walks along the seafront and my empty abandoned backpack stuffed under the bed. I will return to my new life here, but first I will return to New York.
Last time I wrote I was crying in a visa office, sure that I would be forced to leave Greece. I spent the following two hectic weeks in Athens bouncing between hostels and family, pleading with more immigration officers. I met a stranger named Liam who read my heart as we sipped Ouzo in the ancient part of the city. He had the misfortune of running into me when I had hit rock bottom, when I was at the pinnacle of my confusion about the future. He listened to me patiently, he told me he was on his way to Egypt to scuba dive and live with the Beduin. We decided circumstance was just as good a reason as any for two strangers to have dinner together, and he encouraged me to go after what I wanted unabashedly. I remember the Parthenon looking incredibly beautiful yet intimidating that night. For some reason its timeless, enduring, commanding, presence only emphasized how fleeting and unsure everything else felt. Back then I couldn’t have fathomed I would be where I am today.
I come from a military family that has become good at separation, and six months of absence is by no means record-breaking. Yet the last six months have been so packed with experiences and changes I am finding it hard to prepare myself for the return. What is it that I left behind again? Why did I leave it? How did I get here? I didn’t move six months ago – I anticlimactically walked out the door, took a long, lonely, taxi ride to the airport with a backpack full of enough clothes to last 3 weeks, and then just didn’t return. I told myself I would write stories, collect them, refine and shine them into tiny pearls, and then I would crack myself open like an oyster for others to read. I told myself it is good practice – for what, I am not exactly sure yet.
My Aunt recently sent me a beautiful piece called Things I don’t Tell my Mother, which ends like this: “I’m alone again, and in my own head—in my own narrative, really—spinning into another secret. But that’s the nature of travel, isn’t it? To fill up with stories you’re unable to tell. To realize that’s not why you collect them.”
I think about all the stories I am unable to tell, ones I convince myself I could not possibly convey. Flashes of trains through the German countryside, food-poisoning and a new friend in a Barcelona hostel, chasing after a thief in Italy, sailing into Greek ports all dance in my head. After it all, I am filled to the brim with stories. I hold and hide them like cupped hands around candle flames; I want so badly to share their light. I have to at least attempt to reveal a glimmer, for my own satisfaction.
So as I prepare to return to the familiar, I figure I might as well return to this old thing again too. I have spent the last few months challenging myself to study, make new friends, explore my new city and yet I abandoned my writing – i suppose there is a limit to how vulnerable one can make themselves feel all at once. And yet I have missed writing, and the terrifying discomfort that comes with it, leading to discovery and growth. If there is one thing I have learned in the last several months, it’s that the more raw and exposed we make ourselves, the better.
Summer has begun to fade, the beach hotels and clubs have had their closing nights, and I feel that old anxiety creep in as friends and family go back to school and work. I want to write about all the things I experienced the last month (sorry for the quick hiatus). I want to write about nights listening to the melancholic sounds of bouzouki on the beach, volunteering on a rural farm, and staying up until sunrise with childhood friends and my visiting brother. Yet my head is full of other thoughts, and before I can start to recollect, reflect, and reconnect, I want to share something that has been on my mind.
In my last handful of posts I wrote about how lucky I am to have encountered people who truly understand the importance of adventure and travel and the search for one’s identity. I am lucky to have met others like me on the road, people who value the journey and understand the value of not having a 5-year-plan – or even a 5-week-plan. However I have also met those along the journey who can’t seem to see beyond the confines of their daily routine, or choose not to. They look at me in disbelief. “So you’re trying to stay in Europe? Don’t you know there’s an economic crisis here? You think you’re going to get a job? What exactly is it you think you are going to do here? You don’t have a plan? Why don’t you want to stay in America?” They do not say these things with honest concern, they say them with judgement.
Let me clarify a few things. I know the difference between passivity and patience, apathy and flexibility. I didn’t put myself in this position because I don’t know what I want in life, I put myself in this position because I do know what I want in life – or at least I’m on the road to discovering it. Here’s a hint: it’s not a nine to five job that I hate, in an office with no windows, because someone told me that is what success looks like. I want to define my own success. I want to take things in, to learn from the world around me before I start building my ego and telling others that I am an authority on something. I realize that in order to do that I have to let go of a certain amount of security and embrace the insecurity and discomfort that comes with stepping outside of a structured environment. I recognize how privileged it is to decide to take risks, based on the fact that I am not really taking risks at all. In all reality, I could fly back home tomorrow, to an incredibly supportive family, and find a job to minimally sustain myself. In fact, I’ve done that before and it was a wonderful learning experience. I lived in a five-person apartment on the Lower East Side, worked two cafe jobs at once, there were a few weeks I ate $1 dumplings for more than one meal, and I loved it most of the time. Yet still after a few months I wanted a new challenge, and having identified that urge, the next step was to quit my jobs, move out of my beloved LES apartment and pursue something else. Even if I couldn’t exactly put my finger on what I was going after. I did not do this blindly and naively, I did it intentionally. I know that I am blessed to be given this opportunity, and that is why I took it. I do not understand people (who are in the same privileged position) who talk about how much they hate their jobs or how they are doing things they hate now, so they can enjoy life later. They say things like “I would like to travel but I have too many responsibilities” or “I’m doing a job I really hate now so I can travel and enjoy life later.” I respect that decision, I really do. But please do not jump at the chance to criticize my choices then, because that is what they are: choices. You made a choice to prioritize security, or maybe you truly and honestly enjoy this structure. I have made a different choice, and let me tell you it is all at once exhilarating and terrifying. It is lonely and whatever the hell the opposite of lonely is – I have yet to find a word that really encapsulates how someone feels when they are in the company of strangers that suddenly begin to feel like family, bonded by shared experience. I think it is very close to love.
I am putting all my strength and effort into figuring out my place in this world like everyone else, and I refuse to accept that I must do that within the borders of my own country and according to the guidelines set for me by the old ‘school-work-die’ narrative. I have a vivid memory of driving down the road between my Grandmother’s house and my Uncle’s ranch in Oklahoma, discussing this idea with my Father. We cruised down a paved road so flat and empty of cars it seemed as if we could drive straight into the big dramatic storm clouds that gathered before us, straight into oblivion. Beams of sunlight, the golden kind that pierce through the clouds right before a hot summer rain, hit the dashboard and I told my father about my time in Tanzania and South Africa and how I longed to go back. “For the first time in a long time I felt like I was in the right place, doing the right things at the right time.” I told him. “I felt whole, like I was where I was supposed to be.” It was the first time I could properly articulate that this was not a common feeling for me. That most of the time I feel “elsewhere”. That even then, there as we spoke in Grandma’s red Cadillac against a Oklahoma landscape, I was somewhere else – a splintered piece of wood, scattered glass, a split photograph. It is not always a tragic thing to feel scattered, to feel between. People always want to make it that, like you will grow up to be some ill-adjusted adult if you don’t go to bed every night knowing exactly who and where and what you will pledge allegiance to when you wake up in morning. Feeling scattered often gave me the sensation that I was bigger than the physical space I occupied, that I belonged to some grander life scheme and this always prevented me from taking things for granted. Feeling “elsewhere” feels natural to me and I have learned to honor that feeling, because it is often what challenges and urges me to travel and experience new things. It is also the same feeling that pulls me back home, to revisit old friends and seek out things that make me feel whole, things that make me want to stay a while.
It is this simultaneous feeling of wanderlust and urge to anchor that has landed me in a Greek immigration office three times this week, each time increasingly discouraging. I have attempted to extend my visa here so that I might be able to learn the language better, learn more about my heritage, and even eventually apply for my Greek citizenship. I often tell people Greece feels more like home than anywhere else, it is a default comment of mine, but in more recent years it has become increasingly hard for the words to tumble out of my mouth. As years continue to separate me from my last memories of living in Greece, I feel strange calling Greece home. I feel like a fraud.
“So you are a Greek citizen?”
“Well no…im actually fourth generation Greek..”
“So you were born there?”
“Well no…but I lived there for 6 years…but that was because of my dads job at the American Embassy…”
Rapid blinking and blank stares ensue. I’d like to just once be able to express the way I feel about my heritage and identity abstractly and have it be considered legitimate. You know that tether ball game everyone used to play on the playground? You’d beat an old weathered ball round and round its metal-pole-anchor and watch it travel the circumference of a circle, the center rod keeping it in perfect circular orbit as it bounced off of eager hands. One day in Elementary school a kid cut the rope that attached the ball to its center pole and I cried as I watched it roll off into the dust, all dead like. I am that ball, Greece is its anchor. Unfortunately such an explanation does nothing for me in the immigration office.
“I get it, she came here, she liked it, she doesn’t want to leave. That is too bad, I can’t help you.” The Greek immigration lady officer cuts me off mid-sentence to address my friends Petros and Eleana who have so mercifully accompanied me on my third trip to this smoke-filled, dank, depressing, office. She is annoyed with my broken Greek, annoyed that I am interrupting her coffee time. I can’t handle it anymore. I want to jump across the table and push all of her incomplete, half-assed, visa applications to the ground. I want to throw her phone – the one her eyes have been glued to for most of our conversation – out the window. I open my mouth to talk and my voice betrays me, coming out wobbly and high-pitched – Jesus Christ on a bicycle please don’t let me cry in this here Visa office. I say something stupid (and irrelevant to the real reasons I have actually begun to cry in the visa office) like “I have tried for weeks and no one can give me any information.” I am not even that bothered by the fact I have wasted time chasing a mythical visa extension process, to a certain extent its to be expected. What bothers me the most is the tone in which she says this. What she is really saying is “you are a fraud, this is not yours, you cannot stay here, go home” and this is what cuts my right to the core. Imagine standing in your own living room and someone puffing smoke in your face, telling you to go home. This is how I feel, justified or not.
“You do not know how to do your job” I whimper and even as I am saying it I realize I am not angry at this woman, I do not care about her enough to be angry, but I am hurt. Hurt that what she is saying is maybe true, and maybe I don’t belong here, and maybe everyone was right, this whole “scattered identity” business is a lot more tragic than I ever thought it to be. Am I ill-adjusted? Am I lost? Why am I here?
We leave the immigration office and spend the rest of the afternoon in Thessaloniki with Petros and Eleanas friends for a lengthy coffee, then lengthy drinks, then a lengthy meal that lasts well into the evening. I will save the visa battle for tomorrow. “Do not worry, we will figure it out,” Petros says as he smiles at me and I am immediately comforted. Eleana asks me what I want to drink and proceeds to introduce me to new friends. The coffee and the beer and the wine and the good company sinks in and I think to myself “oh yeah,” this is why it’s not so bad to feel ‘scattered to the winds’. I sit amongst new friends and old – I met Eleana and Petros when I was three years old – and it starts to feel very silly to feel anxious about anything at all. Here I am, that tethered ball swinging round and round in orbit, going and coming yet traveling the same circumference, full circle. I receive a text from a family member back in The States:
“Where are you?” I can picture them rolling their eyes upon receiving my response but I go ahead and send it anyways.
It reads: “Exactly where I’m suppose to be. : )”
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