Interview: A Post-Communist Childhood

Antonella Bogdani (pictured on the left) was born and raised in the lovely mountain town of Korce, Albania. She works as a traveling English teacher to students in the surrounding villages, some of which are quite remote. She lives with her parents and her younger sister Kristina, who works as a radio host for a local Christian radio station. Both are devout evangelical believers, a small minority in a nation of often nominal Orthodox and Muslim believers.

It’s not the first time Antonella and I have gotten coffee together, but it is our first time at this place. It’s only a couple years old and is located a bit up in the hills near my neighborhood, bordering Birra Korce. We sit under umbrellas on the most spacious terrace in town, feeling the warmth of late July even in this relative haven in the mountains.

The first time we met for coffee, back in the winter, I remember her telling me that her father remembers having to wake up at 3 or 4 in the morning to get ready to stand in line outside the bakery for food. Enver Hoxha’s paranoid communist dictatorship ended in Albania at the same time the USSR fell, around 1991. I marvel to think how Antonella and I are almost the same age but grew up in such different circumstances.

The coffees arrive (cold ones, in this heat!) and I open my laptop to begin typing. She knows how to pause frequently enough to allow me to get it all down.

[The following has been edited for grammar.]

What was it like growing up in Albania in the 90s? 

I was born in 1992, and as my mom says to me, it was quite difficult to raise a child with all things that a baby needs. For example, it was quite difficult to find pampers for me, and she used some pieces of cloth that she washed by hand to be clean for her daughter. For food, it was difficult to find the best quality of food. If I compare with my sister born in 1998, the food was quite different. My sister had a lot of fruits in her diet, and milk and eggs; for me it was not everyday.

Also about toys, again if I compare my childhood with my sister, I haven’t [toys]. I played with simple toys that my mother made fo rme. I played with old plastic things, which all children had the same [toys]. After Kristina was born, after about age 10 I started to have some toys because my aunts immigrated to Greece. And then we had the most beautiful toys in the neighborhood, and we always shared them with our friends, always. Kristina and I would bring them out without thinking twice whether they were ours.

If you didn’t have fruits and milk and eggs, what kinds of things did you eat?

For example, my mom has said to me that my grandma prepared something with flour, I don’t know the name and I haven’t tasted it anymore, I don’t know how it tastes anymore. 

What did your parents tell you about life under the dictatorship?

One of the most things that my father has suffered a lot is that they were afraid to speak freely and share their ideas freely. Also it was forbidden for them to listen to foreign radio stations and television channels, the government had put something to not let the frequency of other channels enter into that nation. And also they couldn’t watch movies from other countries, sometimes Macedonia and things from China and Russia. 

Also, for example, during the young age of my father he wanted to have another style of wearing [clothes], but it wasn’t allowed. All the guys should have the same style of wearing; the government gave them some limits and they should respect them. Also for hair, my father told me that he liked to have long hair, but it wasn’t allowed.

The family of my father, they worked rugs, and my father’s grandmother made them. During communism it wasn’t allowed to have private jobs, only to work in the jobs of government. My father told me that they put the [rug-making] equipment in a room where people could not hear or see, because maybe the neighbors would go to the government and spy. But food, it was like the size of food according to the members of the family [rations]. It was called tallona. It’s a measure of food for the members of the family. For them it was a problem, for both families. My mother was grown in a village and they worked in a garden but not their own garden, it was forbidden. It was for the nation and they got paid. Both my grandmothers were very hardworking women and knew how to raise their children and how to secure and each single mealtime to have food on their tables.

One of the stories that my aunt has told me is that she was at the hospital giving birth – she was a nurse there – and she said to me that new moms, after giving birth to their child, would be given something special like an apple or a package of coffee. My aunt has told me that they would save it and use it only for special people that came to them, to respect them and to treat them honestly. For guests. My grandmother on my mom’s side told me that real coffee was really expensive, and even if you had the money to buy [it], it wasn’t in the shops. It was only for people with really good job positions or workers in the government. My grandma used barley for coffee.

Also something else my uncle’s wife has told me, was that when she came to our house as a new bride, it was a tradition that the mother of the groom should have the new bride cook. And it was difficult to find flour. They had some pasta in their house and put it into the water during the night, and in the morning it was like dough. And they cooked a pie. They find ways to cook. Interesting. Now we laugh, but for them it was terrible, I think, to be a new bride and not know how to cook.

A Critique of Celebrate Recovery

Celebrate Recovery is a Christian faith-based version of Alcoholics Anonymous. So far, so good.

It also purports to help people find progress on non-addiction issues – any and all “hurts, habits, and hang-ups.” The latter is a serious mistake, in my opinion.

It is at best useless, and at worst abhorrent, for Celebrate Recovery to purport to offer help for grief, anger issues, codependency, depression, anxiety, any kind of unwanted sexual urge, self-harm, control issues, and – believe it or not – aftermath of sexual abuse! – with a 12 step program. It’s the equivalent of medical malpractice. 12 step programs were created as a model for moving out of chemical addiction. None of the above issues resemble addiction and shouldn’t be treated as such. Mental health issues, along with one’s emotional and psychological well-being, belong squarely in a counselor or doctor’s office.

The leaders of these small groups are only qualified in the sense that they have been through a 12 step program themselves and a Celebrate Recovery training retreat. That’s literally it. There’s no issue-specific education in this program whatsoever. The fact that a leader also deals with some version of “emotional issues” themselves is no qualification at all, because their experience and progress are measured solely by the length of time they’ve been in this addition-model program. Participants and leaders alike are expressly prohibited from offering any feedback on what is shared in the group sessions or recommending counseling except if someone’s safety is at stake. No tools, suggestions, insights, best practices, research, or helpful strategies are shared at all. No one seems to even be seeking them out on their own time, just showing up week after week to have parachurch about it. It’s a lot like a placebo, but with good people who feel like friends, so you want to keep coming back.

Cheerful, rote stagnation. Progress is just a chipper slogan along with “Keep coming back!”

Now, there is nothing wrong with – and plenty good with – an addiction support group that explicitly references Scripture and includes prayer, worship, etc. Celebrate Recovery meetings are structured as church services but focused on self-help or self-improvement in a 12-step model, with small group session afterwards to go through 12 step-inspired discussion questions regarding the message.

People absolutely have the right to faith-based support groups and/or treatment. It’s a huge priority for many, since addiction is an issue that lies in the middle of a very important Venn diagram – lifestyle/behavior change and spiritual journey. For earnest believers, these two categories are almost one and the same. They’re living their life in the middle of both circles and they want a recovery program that matches that convergence so they don’t feel like they have to leave their biggest support system at the door when they come to meetings.

To have to do so could possibly leave some people feeling embattled, unheard and unseen, make it difficult to trust, and put them at odds with their treatment program instead of wholeheartedly on board. It’s important that one’s core beliefs are upheld and respected in a process like this, and during the difficult, personal process of recovery, it becomes necessary to many to be in a space where those beliefs are also celebrated, encouraged, and openly preached. They not only want but need to be around like-minded people who will uphold their priorities on the road, because they’re only recently beginning to uphold them themselves.

Now.

About those other groups – “Emotional issues” etc.

What. Are. You. Getting. Chips. For?

Attendance. I kid you not.

The benefits of the meetings and group sessions for non-addicts lie almost exclusively in finding fellowship, hearing messages of hope and healing, and being in a vulnerable space where you realize you’re not alone and everyone else is dealing with stuff too. That is to say, the benefits for non-addicts lie in the people in the program and not in the program itself. Those attending week after week who clearly needed a change of meds or a good family therapist were the saddest cases. More insight could have be gained in one or two counseling sessions than in six months in the program, I dare say.

This will likely ruffle many feathers among those who found genuine community and support in the program, but I’m going to follow all the good inspirational advice that you and I have ever heard, and choose to speak out about my convictions anyway. This won’t be the last article I post in critique of something, nor will it be the most controversial. Sometimes your life circumstances put you in a unique position to see something that others in a community don’t. What you have in your mind and heart to say in those circumstances is almost always incredibly valuable and necessary, and only after speaking out will you find many others with similar experiences.

I’m writing this article to point out that joining a parachurch 12 Step program is hardly the logical solution to a lack of community or healthy peer support! You shouldn’t have to attend “recovery” meetings indefinitely with people who are just sort of camping out there permanently with no intention of leaving, define yourself as a person with issues week after week, and chant the Lord’s Prayer, 12 Steps, and Beatitudes (as good as those are, of course) in order to be accepted and loved as you are with all your brokenness. Most importantly, you shouldn’t be led to believe that doing those things is going to result in any kind of breakthrough in your personal life, because it just won’t.

A legitimate support group, on the other hand, focused on specific issues with informed leaders who were familiar with a variety of resources would actually be helpful. And if you just want to be around believers, go to church or small group. If you can’t vent and be vulnerable there – and unfortunately you frequently can’t – about all of the pain and mess in your life, turn to the realest people you know and invest in those relationships, or find another church group to be a part of (seriously).

Those pursuing sobriety are the best suited for the program, as they are going to be attending meetings of some kind anyway and will likely be very well served by a faith-based program. Their work with incarcerated individuals through CR Inside, as well as those in residential programs/halfway houses, is to be highly commended. But many of the folks without addiction I have some reservations about. So very many people have been helped by this program, but what about all those who weren’t helped? They showed up because of false advertising, essentially. How many wasted their time pursuing a friendly but at best inefficient approach to what they were going through?

I assure you there was no “progress” being made there for most folks. Friendships, yes. That was the main reason for going, and that’s not good enough. It’s the blind leading the blind.

If you’re at a really low point in your life, CR is a great place to come with your brokenness and be welcomed and accepted with it. It just may not be the best place to find a path forward out of it.

In hindsight, CR should have stuck to addiction – but that wouldn’t sell the program booklets and other materials, now would it? Yes, I “woke up today and chose violence”, as the kids are saying on the internet these days. Look, the people of CR are very sincere and enthusiastic about helping people and participating as much as possible in the program, and that gung-ho group mentality can be manipulated in a cultish way to focus more on salesmanship or evangelizing for the program rather than ever asking once if it’s the best solution for what everyone is going through.

Celebrate Recovery made a likely well-intentioned, ignorant mistake in widening its net beyond addiction. There is a lot of good and value in the program, but there’s no denying that it holds out the promise of help in areas in which it’s neither qualified nor interested in becoming qualified to do so.

Circe by Madeline Miller

Circe is mesmerizing. It’s a lush, occasionally brutal, attention-grabbing, and deeply personal, masterpiece.

We see a woman who for the most of her life has lived in the absence of love and therefore wants the next best thing: to be left alone. Her magic is chiefly used to this end. She despises power games and this puts her far above all the others, even as an invisible unattractive wisp of a girl. Eventually she solidifies herself into this power and comes back on the scene as an inexorable force, the earth element itself personified. An electric journey of self-discovery and acceptance, a being so centered that the entire universe seems to rise and fall and revolve around her place of exile – a remote, guarded island on the edge of the map.

Once Circe is alone and at peace with solitude and with herself, almost from the second she begins to delight in the nature of her surroundings and herself, her power cracks open. Her force of will shapes itself into spells and magic and results and power, earned from nothing but sweat and trying and plants and experiments over strange-smelling bowls in her own home. Windows open to the breeze, pet lion lounging beside her, no one to fear or answer to, none disputing her earthy sovereignty. It’s the essence and origin of sensuality itself, but that’s an idea for another day. From this moment on, Circe becomes a force to be reckoned with. It’s not tricks of magic; the so-called witchcraft becomes a rightful extension of herself. You could say she wears the dress (of power) instead of the dress wearing her. She is grounded and unshakable, and that shoots truer than all the lightning bolts and thunderous roars in all the world. Because unlike everyone else, Circe asks why. Why should I do what you want? Why do you want power and wealth? Why should I? And then she says no.

Circe knows what it is to be small, overlooked, mistreated, powerless, unloved. This is why we love her, why we are so warmly on her side despite the lack of other more obvious lovable qualities. She does not try to be lovable nor does she consider herself to be so; she’s given up thinking in those terms, it would seem. She is powerful and insightful and can have any man she wants, but of course she will only rarely find a man worthy of her. And that dynamic rings true for any woman. Circe’s lonely, bitter desolation of the heart is something that her human readers should have no trouble identifying with in some way or another.

Circe, despite – no, delicately, exactly because of – her insistence on honestly conveying her shell of coldness to us as readers, earns our trust. She seems to lead with her flaws in her own account, to demand “Don’t you dare see me as good.” And that is something, in her world of gods and goddesses and nymphs and monsters and men, that far surpasses something cloying like sweetness. In a world where she could be or do anything, she chose to be real. Moreover, she is real towards us when she could be spinning her story to make herself look good. But she doesn’t, and the truth is, we see nothing there that truly horrifies us.

We, as fragile, imperfect, all-too-human beings ourselves, can related intensely with this being who feels out of place and jaded. We see her brokenness, and so we love her. At one point she looks at Odysseus’ scars and back to her smooth goddess skin, wondering how many scars she would be covered with after everything that has happened to her in her life, if her body did not magically heal every time. We see just how tired she is of it all, how wounded still. And it breaks our hearts too, in her resigned way of course, to be reminded yet again of what has become a theme in this story – wholeness is not possible for those like us, those who want it. No one has it, no one is good. (Well, precious few, at least – Circe does encounter one or two. I’l let you guess whether those were gods or mortals.) And no matter how resigned Circe seems to human (and in this universe, divine) nature, or perhaps because she has been quite so insistent on hammering home that lesson all this time, we feel the disappointment there. She wants love. She doesn’t bother to hide that to us. She can survive without it, and will always go on surviving for too long without it, and that is her tragedy.

Circe is mesmerizing because she tells our own story when she tells her own. The world is a cruel place, ready to chew her up and spit her out laughing the whole time, but she will never be okay with that, and so she must toughen up, find her power, harden her exterior, and then either fight or retreat from it. Changing it was always out of the question. If she – and we- are quite lucky, we will meet a few people in the course of our time under the sun whose memories loom large in the sacred room of our heart.

The events of the last few chapters do feel a bit surprising, the slightest bit rushed, as they constitute such a departure after such a long stretch of Circe being on the island. She was there for so many chapters and so many generations of men that bringing new characters in and having monumental, life-altering decisions and events starting to happen fast and furious does give one the slightest bit of pause to sort of buy into all of a sudden, but it’s worth it. After all, wouldn’t you do the same? Hasn’t her time on the island run its course after all, doesn’t she have the right to a different ending than the one she’s been living this entire time?

She does. And – spoiler alert – she gets it.

The Chattanooga Food and Drink Scene

…is great, but this article certainly isn’t going to try cover it all! This is an almost completely random sampling of only five spots, based on a recent three week long visit back home.

Chattanooga…I love you.

Niedlovs

Pictured above: blackberry lavender lemon scones, plus salmon and lox.

Like most coffeeshops in Chattanooga, Niedlov’s is hopping in the morning and lunch rush. Coffee refills are free. They bake a variety of bread and sweets in the bakery – many other Chattanooga restaurants use Niedlov’s bread for their burgers or sandwiches – and almost everything I’ve ever had has been delicious. Their sweet/sticky breakfast rolls, cookies, and quiches are excellent as well.

The outdoor seating area is a patio with vines on trellises for ceiling and a cute fountain and flowers display in the center It’s easier to find parking here than at most other places on Main Street, because it has its own parking lot which is FREE.

Endorsement from me: Massive Yes (It’s been my favorite coffeeshop for years!)

Mayan Kitchen

Strawberry Champagne mojito, pictured above.

In addition to the cocktail, I had a glass of horchata and a plate of pupusas, both of which were very good. If you’ve ever had authentic Guatemalan cuisine, then you know you’re in for a treat. The menu is a mix of Guatemalan dishes and more common Mexican fare.

The staff was very pleasant, friendly, and attentive, and I wished I had come for more of a full meal. This place’s menu has the biggest selection of tequilas that I have ever seen by far. It really made me want to do a bunch of shots, but alas, it was the middle of the afternoon and I was by myself. Another time, perhaps!

Endorsement from me: Big yes.

Cashew

This vegan restaurant in Coolidge Park, right under Clumpies Ice Cream (which needs no recommendation as its well-deserved fame speaks for itself) was good to finally visit. Once again, staff were friendly and attentive. This is a surprisingly affordably priced restaurant for being vegan – one would expect it to be more expensive considering the lack of other vegan options in town. The menu leans toward Mexican options but does have good variety, and best of all, there are yummy looking vegan desserts in the counter at the front!

Endorsement from me: Yes!

Nic and Normans

Nic and Normans is located in the historic Chattanooga Choo Choo massive brick building, on the far left side. (Stir is a more popular and well-known bar on the far right of the building, but I didn’t get the chance to go to it. Do it though, it’s super popular!)

I don’t recall the name of this cocktail but it had whiskey and beer and lemon and was surprisingly tasty and refreshing. The lamb burger was delicious; the spinach dip was not. Service was unfortunately slow that night despite a small crowd and plenty of staff, but hopefully that was an off night.

Endorsement from me: Sure, I guess, but only if Stir is too busy. (Let me know if you’ve had a better experience.)

The Frothy Monkey

Picture taken from Google Images results, credit to @sweetstephen55

The Frothy Monkey is also located within the Chattanooga Choo Choo and is my other favorite coffeeshop. It’s also quite popular for brunch (breakfast options are served until 5 pm!) and lunch. They’ve got a good menu for both meals and are quite the hip location. Avocado toast and mimosas, anyone? They have a variety of interesting signature drinks, like the Rosemary Honey Latte and the Monkey Mocha, made with chocolate sauce and banana syrup. The little loft up to the right is great for longer stays to chat, read, or study.

Endorsement from me: Big Yes!

Chattanooga has a great food scene, and there are so many other great places. Please comment below with some of your favorites!

Abel’s Abuse: Reading the Roadmap of Violence

Growing up in a home of abuse, you struggle with the notion that you can love a person you hate, or hate a person you love. It’s a strange feeling. You want to live in a world where someone is good or bad, where you either hate them or love them, but that’s not how people are.” – Trevor Noah

Trevor Noah’s vulnerability in sharing his family’s story is an invaluable gift to the world. If I could give everyone the chance to read just one account that would teach them how to recognize warning signs of violent men, Trevor Noah’s autobiography, Born a Crime, might be it. That’s because he takes the time to walk the reader through the collection of red flags and explicitly point out general issues and patterns to beware of. Tucked amidst stories of apartheid, coming-of-age hijinks, sociological commentary, South African culture, and laugh-out-loud humor is a pulled-back curtain on life with a violent stepfather.

It’s striking, compelling reading – or in my case, listening. (The Audible version read by him is fantastic.) Trevor’s insightful take on the situation allows him to put his finger on what makes Abel tick, creating an effective portrait of one man’s escalating threat level. The ensuing – and ultimately life-threatening – events which unfolded for Trevor’s family are a classic case study in the course of an abusive relationship.

Below is a list of the specific concerning traits that we see in Abel. These puzzle pieces form a glaring, unmistakable portrait of danger personified. And here’s the thing – none of these warning signs are unique to Abel or anyone else that you know or may meet one day. This is a type, and it’s the type to run from.

6. Traditional patriarchal ideas

Abel was raised in a tribe where women were excessively, obsequiously deferent to all men at all times and boys were not allowed to do any housework. (It was wack.) No wonder Abel was always complaining that Trevor’s mom didn’t respect him as a man – she was a badass, financially independent single mom in the city with no time or patience for such obvious nonsense.

Have you ever known a man who was really taken with the idea that the man is a larger-than-life spiritual head of household and would pull that card in decision-making? Let me guess – and don’t lie – he was super touchy on the issue of respect/disrespect towards himself, wasn’t he? A man who says “respect” and really means “deference toward me and my higher position over you” instead of “basic human consideration and kindness” has serious issues, and yes, that absolutely includes those who justify it on faith-based grounds. Well-adjusted, well-intentioned people do not feel a need to pull some kind of rank on their loved ones – that’s the exact opposite of love.

5. Substance Issues

This one is particularly interesting in Abel’s case, because there are two different substances at play. Drink turns him into a mean, nasty devil of a drunk, and I beg anyone who knows someone like this to stay away. It’s not “the alcohol talking” – lots of people are happy drunks or sad drunks instead. The alcohol is revealing a side of them they keep under wraps the rest of the time. If you’re safe around them when they’re sober but not when they’re drunk, you’re not safe around them.

Now, the weed habit is another tale entirely. Abel was a pothead before he got into a serious relationship with Trevor’s religious mom, who eventually insisted he stop. Trevor speculates that Abel probably knew he needed weed to take the edge off of himself, and once that self-medication was gone, there was nothing calming him down anymore.

My personal hypothesis is that this pattern can apply to any substance and other “vices” in general, like gambling, obsession with sex or porn, or risky/danger-seeking lifestyles. If people don’t want to change, little good will come of any effort to force them to. The real, underneath-the-surface selves of unsafe people are almost best left covered over, if they don’t have both the tools and motivation to turn and fight the underlying personal demons that will overtake them once they stop running.

4. Control

Trevor says “The way my mother always explained it, the traditional man wants a woman to be subservient, but he never falls in love with subservient women. He’s attracted to independent women. “He’s like an exotic bird collector,” she said. “He only wants a woman who is free because his dream is to put her in a cage.””

Trying to exercise control over what the other person does, wears, who they see and have relationships with, where they go, etc, is one of the first and biggest initial warning signs of abusive partners. We cannot afford to ignore any sign of attempts to outright control, since other, much worse red flags may not appear until later down the road. I repeat, this is likely to show up before anything else. Try the “smiling no” test and pay close attention to how that goes. If he hits the ceiling when you exercise basic autonomy and independence, run for the hills, sis!

3. Temper

When Trevor got bullied by some neighborhood kids and went to Abel to get revenge, Abel went way overboard. Trevor remembers the point midway through the thrashing where he stopped being happy for revenge and started being horrified at what was happening, and sorry for the other kid.

Abel had always had a temper, he just didn’t take it out on Trevor’s family. Not until well after the marriage. His mom was always arguing with Abel about his temper and telling him he had to get it under control. Surely she never expected he would turn that temper on them? After all, he had never done it before, so that meant he would never do it in the future – right?

When dealing with a person with a particularly bad temper, it doesn’t matter whether or not it is currently directed at you, because there is no such thing as an acceptable or expendable person for him to direct his temper at. Out of control is out of control, period. Lectures are not effective and promises and intentions are not the same thing as measurable change.

2. Incident

Even one time is too often. No matter how much time passes, it could still happen again, because now it’s possible. (That applies even if the incident didn’t happen to you, or if it was something else like property destruction, throwing things, etc.)

I’m reminded of a dog that once crosses an invisible fence – now that they know it’s possible (and temporary discomfort is the only consequence) they will do it more easily in the future, again and again. That dog makes eye contact with you over the edge of the property, and you both know the barrier is imaginary now.

When Abel finally hit Trevor’s mom (she was telling him off royally after he had been drinking), she was shocked. She said something along the lines of “No man in my life has ever dared to hit me!” and then handled the incident as promptly and seriously as could be expected of anyone. She took her boys with her, right then, in the middle of the night, to the police station. (The men on duty refused to press charges on a “family matter.”) So she went to live with her mother for months. When she finally agreed to come back and see how things went, Abel went a whole YEAR without a repeat incident. And then six months. And so on.

Trevor says, “There was an undercurrent of terror that ran through the house, but the actual beatings themselves were not that frequent. I think if they had been, the situation would have ended sooner. Ironically, the good times in between were what allowed it to drag out and escalate as far as it did.”

All those months without violence didn’t change the fact that the dynamic was now abusive. Trevor said (after Abel ambushed him in the closet one day) that he never let Abel get between him and an exit again, ever.

  1. Your discomfort aka gut

As a boy, Trevor was dismayed when his mom brought up the topic of marrying Abel. He was okay with Abel being in their life as a friend, he just didn’t think it was a good idea to get married. He couldn’t explain further to his mom, but there it was – a bad feeling.

They say to trust your gut, that it’s never wrong – so how many times are you going to argue with yours? It’s a built-in alarm that you can’t turn off, and you don’t want to be able to do that. Suppress it at your peril and probably the peril of others. You are never required to put yourself around anyone, or in any situation, against your better judgment.

But you say you don’t have evidence? Your gut is the strongest evidence you have, and that’s science. We’re talking about biological survival instincts. Deep down, in the subconscious part of your brain that you can’t control or turn off, there is the capacity for prey-like senses and awareness. It can and does kick in when necessary. We all have intuition, and if yours tends to stay pretty quiet or you’re just not used to listening to it before, do NOT write it off as anxiety when it finally goes off. Every time you listen to it, its voice gets louder. It is safe and good for you to trust yourself and your own judgment instead of talking yourself out of it like others may have done to you in the past.

“If you think someone is a monster and the whole world says he’s a saint, you begin to think that you’re the bad person.” – Trevor Noah

https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/mental-domestic-abuse-signs

The Quest for Nakagusuku Castle

Sometime in April, 2020, island of Okinawa, Japan

I routed to a small park near the Nakagusuku Castle, hoping to get closer to it and to find some scenic places to explore, as there was a lot of green in that section of the map. After a night of no sleep and a reduced appetite (my body schedule had briefly switched to nocturnal and I was trying to reset it by pulling an all-nighter), I felt ever so slightly faint/dizzy. The park turned out to be just several nice new collections of playground equipment in a field in a valley – not really designed for my age group. I went in a small eatery up the road to see if they had bottled water, but they didn’t and they didn’t take a card. I went down into the park to find a water fountain and was successful. I sat down under a gazebo above the park to give my head and my feet a chance to catch their breath, and saw an overgrown vehicle trail that went further up the hill to the left. 

Ahead of me across the valley was Nakagusuku Castle up on the hill, looking as movie-picturesque as ever with its even walls of rounded stones.  All business and yet so naturally ornamental above the solid green of the forest. Old castles, especially of uncut stone, have an serious but easy unadorned beauty that effortlessly welcomes the imagination with homey, inviting arms. “We are the real castles” they whisper. They do not shout with perfectly trimmed edges or obstreperous towers. They exist to keep watch, to send a message that says “We’re here, and we can always see you as surely as you can see us.”

Those walls are meant to awe from the outside and to shy up to for safety and lean on from the inside. Solid, strong arms around you to keep out the bad people, the others. The dividing line between us and them. If you gaze intently for long enough, something must happen. It has to, it should. It always worked that way as a child. If you stared long enough a whole splendid story will start to flash before your eyes, and you have to reach up into the golden light and grab it before it washes away like a dream.  Now, when I look, I see only a green light to come closer to something big and strong and beautiful. 

So I got up and took the path, guessing it to be a back way up the mountain. It started out smooth but became rapidly overgrown. I had seen that from the pavilion before starting out, and I held onto my determination to make it work or at least see how far it was possible to go.

Plants reached up, taller than me, but the outline of a path was still visible. Until suddenly it ran up against a straight wall of stalks, higher than my head, perfectly blocking all sight of anything that came after. I looked around, unable to see over or past. The sun was hot and the air was still. The black pants I was wearing were so all-purpose I used to wear them at the office.

An office. Back when I had a desk job with a cubicle and a professional wardrobe, of sorts. Now those pants were matched with a quick-dry, outdoorsy-brand button down shirt and sneakers. And I was about to take them up the side of a mountain in summer. I felt happy, carefree, and a little excited. Why not? I had nothing better to do and the whole rest of the day ahead. I loved the whole idea of plunging into the wall of grass, of not turning back for once in my life. I savored the moment, delighted at what I was about to do.

Me, covered in burrs

The stalks did not part effortlessly like soft grass in a field, but it was possible to walk through if you reached out your arm and held everything back out of your face. Climbing over fallen branches and moving around shrubs or thicker sections of plants was more tricky, but manageable one step at a time. Empty clear space was out of the question, so it was a matter of finding a direction that instead looked like it just might be possible to force one’s way through. I do remember that there weren’t thorns, unlike back home in the Appalachian woods of the Southeast, but said pants did get covered in burrs. Only occasionally did I ask myself if I had lost the path entirely; the general direction always seemed to still be “forward” no matter how much of a thicket was there, so I didn’t worry much. Obviously getting back would be no problem because I could just turn around.

Finally there was a patch of clear space, with gravel underfoot – Eureka! This really did used to be a full vehicle path in the past. Why did it stop being used? Did someone decide there shouldn’t be a path up this mountain? Were people no longer meant to go this way? How long had it been abandoned in order for nature to grow up so thoroughly? Plants certainly grew profusely on this island, and judging from how thickly flowers and shrubs grew over garden walls, and how many plants grew up around and even through sidewalks, I suspected the local flora sprung up very quickly indeed.

On I went and up, through various states of overgrown-ness and even paved-ness until I reached the top of the hill. To my disappointment, I was not at the castle walls or anywhere close. Instead, I was at the parking lot by the main road at the edge of the property. Even zooming in on my phone camera yielded no close-up pictures of the castle walls. I had routed there the previous week and walked up on the sidewalks beside the regular roads, only to find a sign on the gate saying it was closed due to coronavirus. It was still closed that day.

So I sighed and ducked away from the disappointment, not wanting to think about it or feel it too much. Instead I focused on the fact that I had successfully navigated the entirety of the overgrown trail, walked straight up the side of a hill with no trouble, and had a passably good adventure that day. There was no need to turn back, as I could walk down the other side of the hill on the paved roads and go back that way to the place I was staying.

So that’s what I did. I never did get to go inside the grounds of Nakagusuku Castle.

The grounds and walls probably resembled those of Katsuren Castle, which set of partially re-constructed ruins I did get to both visit and explore. That one had an incredible panoramic ocean view! (Note: the word gusuku refers to this type of castle on the Ryukyu Islands, a Japanese word derived from the original Okinawa word.) Nakagusuku will forever remain enshrined in the tantalizing distance of memory, which is the best possible place for it. But man, those stone walls sure looked incredible on top of all that green below.

Here’s to you, Nakagusuku, the one that got away.

Reverse Culture Shock (or, Why do You Flush the Toilet Paper?)

I’m back home in the United States for a month, and feeling pretty happy about it! Having a wide variety of food options has been fantastic, and the scenery of the Appalachian mountains in the Tennessee valley is beautiful. Catching up with extended family has been great too.

BUT I’m also feeling a real re-adjustment process for the first time, which I somehow missed on the past two visits home. Here are some of the cultural differences that have jumped out at me this time around.

  1. Relying on cars for transportation. It feels inconvenient and stranded and expensive! It’s weird. I’m a huge fan of public transport and being able to walk places, and now I’m noticing a stuck feeling and a resentment towards a lifestyle that appears inaccessible. I actually have money in savings to rent a car, but I’m resisting because I’m stubborn and not quite ready to concede defeat. My thought process goes something like this: I miss long drives. But cars are bad for the environment. But being dependent on my mom for rides is not the same. But I could make it work without a car. But do I have to? There are so many things to see and do that require a car. And it’s only for a short time anyway. I should live a little. But I would have to almost re-learn how to drive. But it would be totally worth it.
  2. Flushing toilet paper. Okay. So it’s weird when you move to a place where you can’t do that, if you’re used to it, and your bathroom trash can seems so gross. It feels so sterotypically “third world” deprivation, but hear me out – it’s weirder to get used to flushing it! I feel so strange and guilty when I throw a dry wad of toilet paper into into a tank full of water for the water treatment facilities to have to fish out in the end. Aren’t we supposed to avoid flushing garbage? It’s paper trash, it should go in the trash can. I can tell I’m not going to get over this one quickly. Ugh. I feel so wasteful!
  3. Food. Here there is so much more eating out; refrigerators and pantries are heavily stocked, and there is a wide variety of food available. No wonder people gain weight when they come to the U.S. (and often lose weight when they leave)! I am NOT complaining.
  4. Interacting with others. Speaking briefly to strangers on the street, etc., is a very normal Southern thing, but I’m out of the habit. I’ve just spent around 8 months in Albania, which has a lot of staring on the street, especially heavily from groups of men towards women. It’s so much more difficult to process than the “Oh-look-it’s-a-foreigner” curious looks in east Asia. Women, you know exactly the threatened feeling I’m talking about. After a while, the accumulated weight of that uncomfortable barrage put me in a NYC-like state of mind, striding down the street unsmiling with blinders on, focused on not engaging anyone. And now I’m back in the South and suddenly I may seem rude and unfriendly, which is the opposite of how I usually like to come across. I’m hoping to re-learn that it is not only safe but even encouraged to engage with strangers in public again. Expecting a language barrier has also sadly broken me of the habit of briefly chatting with those around me in public settings, but now for a few weeks I get to enjoy the chance for increased casual interactions in everyday life.
  5. Tips They are not 10% like in the Balkans, but 15% in the US. Unfortunately, mistakes have been made within the last week. When I left east Asia it was worse – there was no tipping there, and it took me a while to realize that tipping was in fact expected in the Balkans! For goodness sakes please don’t make this mistake at home – restaurant/bar/cafe servers are hardworking, overqualified, and underpaid, and we should always tip them generously.
  6. Cost of living. Fortunately I was expecting spending to go way up in the U.S., so I’m happy to report that I’m mostly finished whining about it! (Strong emphasis on the word “mostly” there.) Conversely, I’ve noticed that when living a place with a lower cost of living, you end up spending more by local standards and frequently overpaying because everything seems so affordable. This issue tends to mostly resolve itself in a few months, tops, if you’re ever wondering.

Most issues like this also tend to resolve themselves after a few months. You’ll think about it and talk about it afterwards, but you’ll be used to it by that point, and that’s the real key. When it comes to issues of lifestyle and everyday customs, it really is true that you can get used to almost everything. Just be flexible, open-minded, and as non-judgmental as you can reasonably be. Roll with it. Major on the majors, minor on the minors. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Enjoy the ride.

You do NOT have to be okay with everything! That’s a misconception. Some things in this life we’ll never quite get used to (like slow moving lines or bad traffic), and some wrong things in the world (like corruption, misogyny, racial oppression, etc) I hope you never become okay with. You may find that certain other things like attitudes towards politics, childrearing, religion, social issues, the environment, work-life balance, etc, also don’t sit well with you. You might try and try but remain unhappy and unable to come to terms with where you are.

Word to the wise – you absolutely don’t have to. I feel oddly controversial saying this, but if you don’t like the attitudes or customs of the place you live, it’s perfectly morally acceptable to relocate for the sake of your mental health and highest well-being. “Bloom where you’re planted” – but if you get the chance to transplant a flower to a bigger pot with more fresh air, sunshine, and water, f***ing go for it. Please. Life is too short for anything else. And then you can learn to bloom there, or here, or anywhere.

It’s a big beautiful world out there, and there is a place somewhere for all of us. If you haven’t found it yet, then cheers to the search.

An Encounter with the Byzantine

I broke the rules. I took pictures. This happened at the National Museum of Medieval Art here in the Albanian mountain town of Korce, and I started off with such good intentions to follow the rules, despite a temptation as bad as a child in a toy shop being told “Don’t touch.” But then I started seeing pieces as early as the 1500s with faces that looked natural. Guys, this is whack. I had to document it.

According to everything I learned about iconography in art history, seeing ANY signs of realism should have been as likely as hearing hip-hop at the Continental Congres. (Sorry, Hamilton.) My mind was, and still is, blown. Look down at this standard depiction of Mary and the Christ Child – a successful copy of the universal icon pose as it should be, an accumulation of universally understood religious symbols, checklist of ingredients all present and accounted for – and then look up at the Archangel Michael. The face isn’t impossibly stylized and stilted; the eyes have expression. Michael’s face is brimming with some very specific emotion like suspicion or sarcasm.

Is it really possible that the Italian Renaissance happening across the channel could have influenced something as set in stone as Orthodox inconography? Icons have always been fossilized in a stiff medieval symbolic style. The standard Byzantine style does not change substantially any more than the rounded shape of the Bhudda does. Religious icons are still made in the old standard poses, usually with a lack of individualization, TO THIS DAY all around the world.

In the most stylized, standard icons, the figures have bags under their eyes, Cubist-style long thin noses and absurdly tiny mouths. (This is to symbolize their spirituality by minimizing the earthly senses – Greek Gnosticism, anyone?) It makes them look unhappy. In one icon of Christ, his eyes are so narrowed that he looks irritated.

So what gives here? I never found out for sure, but it certainly seems that figures other than Mary, baby Jesus, and grown Jesus, were permissible to experiment on. Looking back, there is no doubt in my mind that the term “Medieval” is a bit of a misnomer for at least some of the pieces in this museum. The time period from the 1500s on places these pieces squarely in the Renaissance timeline, even if most of the art is not done in the Rensaissance style.

See the picture below for an example of a strong Renaissance influence.

Now see the enormous difference from the more Medieval icon below.

However, as traditional as it seems to be, something about the one below is different from the others. Mary usually holds up a hand to bless or gesture towards the Christ child, but here she holds him up with both her hands. Even more surprising, he looks at her instead of the viewer. It feels more intimate, like a very human mother and son.

The outside of the building is modern and minimalist with large blocks of neutral tones.

Pieces from various centuries are all mixed together, but somehow it mattered not one little bit. It was kind of fun to play “Where’s Waldo?” and find paintings in a later style that seemed out of place. I did not feel the lack of informational panels in the large gold room downstairs, even though they were missing for all pieces higher than the bottom row – and the artwork stretched up to the ceiling. It helped to just focus on the art itself; knowledge of which century it was from doesn’t actually inform the observation, so it was nice to absorb the art without written information to distract from it.

Christ Pantokrator (a specific representation meaning “Almighty” or “All-powerful”) usually had eyes unusually close together, to the point of looking fully cross-eyed. The asymmetry in general was so unsettling, it was difficult to look at. It was much more uncomfortable than looking at one of those too-perfect artificial robot human faces. Those are too perfect, too symmetrical. Here, the needle has moved more in the direction of something…ugly.

I was surprised to see Saint George make several appearances, as I always understood him to be a specifically English saint. He was easily recognizable on his white horse, killing a much smaller dragon with a spear.

Some of the coolest things I saw were the cartoon panels! There on the wall amidst standard size pictures would be long, narrow horizontal wooden rectangles blocked by carved columns into little squares, each with a different apostle or scene. They were quite fascinating to look at, but somehow the tiny scenes strained my eyes. The proliferation of human figures and colors without any regard for perspective or scale made it physically difficult to focus.

I was reminded of how literacy rates would have been quite low in those days, and these illustrated Bible stories were a visual reminder of teachings that the congregation likely couldn’t read for themselves.

The three figures at the bottom of this painting are in motion! This is a massive contrast to the rest of the painting with its typically static figures extending their arms to make various hand gestures. Two men are losing sandals, which fly in the air or down to the ground as they dive for cover with their robes billowing around them. Both men reach out with their hands to break their fall; one covers his eyes with his left hand. (This move from stiffness to action is extremely Renaissance.) These men may still have full golden halos, but they are fully upside down – a far cry from the typical murals on church walls. Their dramatic reaction is canonically accurate, by the way.

It’s the story of the Transfiguration of Christ, where he went up on a mountain and revealed his true divine glory to his three closest friends. In that moment, they saw not the ordinary looking man that they had always seen but the blinding light of divinity itself, which Jesus never once revealed before or afterwards during his time on earth. The three disciples – Peter, James, and John – fell to the ground, terrified and dazed. In this depiction, St. Peter (identifiable by that grey beard he is always painted with to mark him as an important church father) is looking up and talking to Jesus. This is also canonically accurate, per his story of saying stupid nonsensical stuff about “We should set up tents and stay here camping like this!” that he so obligingly passed on to the authors of the Gospels.

All in all, Korce’s National Museum of Medieval Art was a fascinating experience, and I recommend anyone in the area to check it out if they have time.

I’d love to hear your comments about the art, especially if anyone has studied the topic in more depth and can shed some light on the subject!

I’ll leave you with this picture of the mythical St. Christopher Kynokephalos, “Dog-headed”, as well as a link to an explanation! https://russianicons.wordpress.com/tag/kynokephalos/

30 Things I Learned Before 30

  1. Courage is a necessity, not a luxury. If you don’t have it, you can’t get through even ordinary life. If you have it, the world is at your fingertips. “Courage is not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means at the point of highest reality.” – C.S. Lewis
  2. Empathy – choosing to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and really feel what they’re feeling – is THE key to loving others well. If you lean into this path, you will find that a superpower of knowing exactly what to say and do is magically growing within you.
  3. Many of us have more privilege than we can begin to imagine. The least we can do is to listen to the stories and experiences of others who are not like us and learn how many obstacles exist out there that we were never put in a position to see.
  4. People do what they do for REASONS. We only show our ignorance or lack of experience of those reasons when we dismiss people for doing things we wouldn’t do.
  5. Don’t judge rebellious people just because you either never had the urge, were too scared or cautious to act on it, or acted on it and then reformed. None of those reasons are really virtuous.
  6. Corrugated cardboard is not very useful as a fire starter.
  7. You would be surprised by just how much physical exertion you’re really capable of. Your current body and current level of interest in exercise can change a lot more than you might realize. Leave the door open for that change to come.
  8. Do not leave your house without double checking to see if you have your keys. Ever.
  9. Coffee can be as effectively stirred with a knife, fork, or chopstick as with a spoon. You can put off doing those dishes a little while longer.
  10. But that’s a bad habit to get into, because then you never have any other clean dishes when you want them.
  11. Those who had bad acne as teens will grow out of it. Those who did not, will develop adult acne. There must be balance in the universe.
  12. When people offer to get the bill or do some other favor for you, they’re not just being polite. It really makes them happy to do it.
  13. Every woman and man needs to be both strong and soft, at once, unapologetically, and never stop. The world would be a much better place if more people chose this.
  14. Read every word of the contract.
  15. Saving money during periods of good salary or low expenses is crazy useful. If something doesn’t matter much to you, get the cheaper version or go without. Then you can splurge on what makes life fuller.
  16. Even loners are happier being around people that they really like and feel comfortable around. The trick is finding those people.
  17. Hostels, walking, public transportation – golden bargains, don’t be afraid of them. They make you feel alive, too.
  18. Don’t let a language barrier stop you from traveling; most places you’re thinking of visiting will have someone around who speaks a little basic English.
  19. Keep up your childhood interests and find new ones. You need hobbies that make you excited and fuel your imagination. ENJOY your life!
  20. That wish will turn to regret unless you act on it. That one nagging ambition is never going to go away. Research it, take baby steps, make some sort of loose game plan, but don’t ever be stupid enough to think that you can kill it. It will be back. It loves you and your potential and it just wants you to love it back. What if you could have what you want?
  21. Beauty makes us happy.
  22. The more accepting you are of your negative feelings, and the more willing you are to risk experience them intensely, the more accepting you will be of positive feelings, and the more willing you will be to let yourself experience those intensely too.
  23. Learn the warning signs and characteristics of all forms of abuse. In a relationship, control is often the first red flag. Respect kids’ boundaries and make sure everyone does the same.
  24. Push yourself to take some chances and make some memories.
  25. There is no love like the enthusiastic, open love given by little kids.
  26. If you haven’t re-examined your beliefs, experienced doubt, shed some negative traditions and attitudes, and embraced new ones, your beliefs are NOT your own no matter what you think, they’re someone else’s passed down that you’re just carrying on their behalf. “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.”
  27. Travel will teach you as much about your own country as any other. But that’s not why it’s awesome. It’s awesome because it’s a big beautiful world out there, and I hope you get the chance to run free and explore it.
  28. Time’s ticking down on life. You literally cannot afford to to spend any more of it waiting and wishing for anything to drop in your lap without you asking, repeatedly. Time to shed some inhibitions. Be crazy, be insanely yourself, and ask for what you want. None of it’s illegal.
  29. Pain fades when you honor it and allow yourself to work through it. Our brains and hearts want to heal. Pass on the healing by honoring the pain of others.
  30. It’s okay to be someone that your younger self wouldn’t have recognized. You owe it to yourself to move beyond your old assumptions about who you are. We were made to fully live!

Ever since I took the leap of moving away from the US in 2018 and then decided to keep traveling, I took comfort in knowing that, while I may have played it safe for most of my 20s, at least I was heading toward 30 with the throttle on life wide open. It makes me so excited to think that, from now on, I get to spend the rest of my time on earth being this much alive.

As I walk through the door into this new decade, my heart has never felt younger. I’m aging in reverse. The old restrictions and comfort zones have been replaced by a lightness of heart.

I have come of age, and it’s exhilarating.

The Guardian Lions of Okinawa

They were everywhere, and I was intrigued. On the garden wall or gatepost of nearly every house was a pair of grimacing lion-dog figures. I had seen giant lion statues outside the sleek downtown Bank of China back in Suzhou, and for that matter at some American Asian restaurants, but these were as common as mailboxes. I had never seen anything like it; it was so cool and unique but also mystifying. No background knowledge of the area, no language to communicate in, hardly any people on the streets to speak with even if I could have, just me and my chaco sandals and banged-up phone wandering around the tropically overgrown sidewalks taking photos of mysteries.

The lions always come in pairs – one male, one female. The male is always on the right. You can tell he is male because he is the one with his mouth open, baring his teeth to scare away evil spirits. The female is always on the left. You can tell she is female because her mouth is closed (although her teeth are probably still visible) to keep the good spirits in.

These two above are so cute. These Okinawan figurines are not actually lions like the original ones from China, but a hybrid lion-dog with an origin in varied mythology. They’re called Shisa, and they are a phenomenon unique to the Ryukyu islands, of which Okinawa is the largest. The outsides of houses are the most common place to see them, but they can also be found on gateposts to public buildings – sometimes at the entrance to the parking lot!

Like most other small porcelain Shisa that you can find in gift shops, the two figures below prefer to let their bug-eyes do the talking. I just feel like they’ve put the whole force of their eyes into those stares, trying to poke them all the way out of their face if they could. Whatever’s going on here seems very important; I feel bad for looking away from someone trying to so intensely to communicate with me!

The male and female duality here reminds me of the concept of the yin/yang and the interplay between masculine and feminine energies inside everyone. (This has almost nothing to do with your gender identity or outward stereotypical expressions of cultural masculinity/femininity such as clothing, occupation, etc. This is purely a discussion of energy.)

As important as it is to lean into your primary energy in order to flourish, it’s also crucial to be able to access the other. If we were to split hairs and categorize every activity – like planning, listening, creating, striving – into yin/yang or masculine/feminine, we would see that a healthy life requires constantly shifting between the two all day long. Talk and listen. Work and rest. Compete and collaborate. Give and receive.

Both of these energies have a “wounded” or what is more often called “toxic’ version of themselves. The masculine can become warped into dominance and aggression, while the feminine can become warped into insecure people-pleasing and passivity. One takes out its negative emotions on everyone around it; one turns its negative emotions on itself.

Both of these negative extremes make me absolutely furious to see. It’s such a brutal betrayal of an individual’s humanity and well-being, and so destructive to everyone around them. People can turn into caricatures of their worst qualities and it’s a heartbreaking cycle driven by a deep lack of self-acceptance and self-love. Both set a horrible example for children of both sexes who are picking up ideas about how men and women behave. They will have to re-learn what to expect from both themselves and relationships.

(Psst. Please enjoy the photo of whatever the heck this is absolutely losing his shit and yodeling at the sky.)

But wholeness and healing are possible. Decide to make peace with the dualities you find in yourself and to open yourself to being comfortable with the parts that make you uncomfortable. You’ll find yourself with a quieter confidence and acceptance when faced with the aspects of others that you don’t like either. They key is to not be threatened by your own humanity, to not go to war with it but to embrace it. Then you will be able to embrace the humanity in others, because finally you will understand it. You don’t have to be your own enemy.

Ah, these serene porcelain figures with the cool tones and restrained expressions. She is calm and somehow manages to be adorable through lack of facial expression – just a neutral, chilled out lion meeting your gaze with two fangs sticking out to give the whole thing character. He looks like he just saw his kid do a front flip off the top shelf in the garage – Whaaaa?????

These two below are clearly the looniest, most bizarre, specifically featured lions I ever came across. They are true gargoyles indeed – it’s almost uncomfortable to look at them for too long. Whatever weird, obscure emotion or meaning these facial expressions are meant to convey would almost be cheapened by memes…but boy, were they made to be meme-d!!!

Seriously, if you have any ideas for good meme captions for any of the Shisa in these pictures, PLEASE comment with them below!

This has been just a sampling of the dozens of Shisa I saw in Okinawa. At some point I just quit taking pictures because they all blended together. Okinawa is really a unique place, and I’m so lucky that I got the chance to explore part of it on foot as thoroughly as I did.