Memories of Albania

Sensory memories are funny things, aren’t they? We can inhale a whiff of fall air and suddenly remember the scratchiness of jumping in leaf piles in elementary school, or see a white pine tree like the one we used to climb and have an intense recollection of sticky sap, white fluffy clouds, lunchboxes, and laughter with friends. It’s so visceral, an almost uncanny re-living of events or re-visiting of places. Any time I look back on my 10 months in Albania, I’m hit with more sensory memories than anywhere else I’ve lived.

There were the potted plants on my bedroom balcony that kept falling over and spilling dirt everywhere, on the other side of the door and the transparent blue curtain that always blew over and prevented it from closing. There’s me, running late for a zoom tutoring session, dragging a chair out to the balcony to show the mountains and red tile roofs to my students by lifting the laptop and spinning in circles. I see my neighbor’s dog and grapevine sprawling over their courtyard, and a dirty gravel road beneath me, with the neighborhood dumpsters at the end (no trash collection in the area). I remember that day I heard a noise that I had only before heard in movies; I walked onto that balcony and saw teen boys, presumably from the surrounding rural areas, riding a line of horses up our street! I locked eyes with the young driver and felt like I was in a movie.

I remember the red checkered table cloth, and the dirty dishes that I always left a little too long in the sink. My roomate shaking out heavy rugs out the window during weekly cleaning. The stairwell and the kids hanging out in the street. Checking to see if the hot water heater had enough hot water every night before showering. Shining a phone flashlight in the pitch-black dark apartment basement to unlock our winter firewood from the grey metal cell it was imprisoned behind. Dragging the big rough canvas sack up the stairs with my roomate until one day I could throw it over my shoulder and do it myself.  The trail of bark bits on the floor that had to be swept up afterwards.

Shoving saved-up bits of cardboard and paper between the wood in the black furnace, coupled with a little piece of styrofoam-looking firestarting material lit with a match. Watching the cardboard quickly shrivel up and burn away to ash without the wood catching on fire. Trying again until it worked, and having a smoky room to show for it. The pride and satisfaction of getting it going. Sitting next to the stove for a little warmth, head in my hands, wondering how I would cope during the next few months of living alone while dealing with the remaining psychological toll of pandemic isolation and a touch of seasonal depression. Resolving to make it through somehow anyway. Sleeping on the sofa often because the room with the stove was warmer.

The dear old  boxing gym, hand wraps with the crappy gloves and the new blue ones I bought for myself. The echoing slam of boxing gloves and the numbers 1-4, a number for each punch combination, called out in a ringing voice by the profesor – “Një! Deux! Tre! Katër!” The satisfying thunk of my punch hitting the pads he held up, over and over, like a choreographed dance. The divine smile of love and pride from my instructor.

My black boots stepping over the uneven cobblestones of all the side streets. Walking past groups of staring men and squaring my shoulders to push through the invisible pressure of their stares. Like wading through water, it felt, sometimes – an almost physical resistance. The proud, standoffish dignity that it called up in me. The lek coins, and little plastic 20 bills with the see through section. 90 cent espressos with two packets of sugar. Dogs. Black cans of delicious Limonata soda. White feta-like cheese. Hearing and learning to speak a handful of words that rolled around new and foreign in my mouth: Faleminderit – Thank you. Mire – Good. Pavshim – Bye.

Coming back to life in the springtime like the plants on the hillsides. Sitting in a lush, green, overgrown churchyard and watching a shepherd and his sheep move through the trees. Long wandering walks on those hills in the sunshine, listening to the lilting calm voice of Perdita Weeks narrate Circe on Audible. 

Listening to country music in the rental car on a road trip with an American friend from Kansas, and feeling completely rejuvenated to my old self. Hauling my backpack down the streets of Tirana, the capital, and climbing stairs to a hostel on weekends when I got stir crazy in the small town and hopped the bus to get a city fix. Alexander Skanderbeg on his horse, the giant statue of the national historical hero showing up dark and tall in the city square with blue mountains behind him.

Picture taken from the blog “Wilbur’s Travels” https://wilburstravels.com/2020/06/12/friday-photo-skanderbeg-square-tirana-albania-2/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=friday-photo-skanderbeg-square-tirana-albania-2

The circle of people dancing to haunting traditional music, faster and faster, and frantically trying to figure out which way to kick your feet as you tried to keep up. The leader of the line, a teenager still in soccer uniform, waving a paper napkin in place of a handkerchief. Oh, a feeling of joy and belonging to last a lifetime. It was like the “Look at your life through heaven’s eyes” song and dance number from The Prince of Egypt movie, when Moses is taken in by Tzipporah’s nomadic shepherding people in the desert. 

I was unspeakably lucky to have had the experience of living in Albania, not only for the amazing opportunity to experience a difference culture’s way of life but because I got to meet some amazing, dear, hospitable people. I heard stories of extreme hardship, violence, and poverty from an oppressive past, and a yearning for a better life in the future. I watched a generation of young people do everything in their power to try to bring it about, for their communities and the people they loved.

 Oh, someday, girl, I don’t know when

We’re gonna get to that place

Where we really wanna go and we’ll walk in the sun

But ’til then, tramps like us

Baby, we were born to run

-Bruce Springsteen, “Born to Run”

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Ask Me About Busses!

Over the past 4 years, I’ve lived in 6 countries and owned a car in none of them! No two locations were alike. There were so many adventures and even more misadventures at every step of the way.

When fresh-off-the boat Grace first took the bus to her new teaching job in Suzhou in 2018, I got on the same bus to go home that evening, not realizing that I needed to cross to the other side of the street in order to go back the direction from which I came. I ended up on the far western end of town at the end of the route – after dark! It was massively lucky for me that the bus driver still had to return the bus to the central part of town, where it could bunk with the rest of the sleeping busses at the depot/hub/whatever that place is. Fortunately I was able to use about 3 or 4 Chinese words to tell the bus driver my region of town and the subway line I needed to take to get home. He, like the vast majority of bus drivers I’ve ever encountered, was very helpful in making sure I ended up where I needed to be. Using gestures and words that I didn’t understand, he stopped me from getting off the bus at the wrong subway stations until we got back to the Line 1 subway. When my roommates said “Well?” when I finally walked in the door, I didn’t let on just how far away I had ended up. “I don’t want to talk about it!”

When I was younger, I imagined that busses must smell like cigarette smoke and have rowdy, noisy people on them. Nothing could be further from the truth in my experience. It absolutely is safe to ride the bus, at least as safe as any other transport method. Bus drivers are extremely helpful if you need to figure out what part of town to get to or what other busses will get you where you need to go. The part where the concern comes in is the walk to and from the bus stop and the time you will spend waiting there. That is up to your judgement and depends a lot on where you live/are going.

I remember waiting for the bus outside Barking train station in East London, in an area where knifings were frequent. Even my extremely danger-oblivious, non-perceptive lack of situational awareness self could realize the surroundings and people felt sketchy, and I kept telling myself “I am NEVER doing this again!” Then a man got onto the bus looking like a villain from Oliver Twist, and I practically cringed down in my seat before scurrying to the downstairs portion of the bus where he wouldn’t have to pass me on his way out. As an aside, did you know there are security cameras in all those busses? Only close to midnight did the few remaining travelers on London transport ever feel sketchy. Here in Chattanooga, TN, busses don’t even run after about 8 pm anyway.

I’ve told you the most colorful bus stories I can remember, but the truth is that all those busses, including the ones in the United States, were clean and relatively quiet. I would love to see more people start taking public transport here in the US. I wonder if increased demand would lead to expansion of routes and more frequent timing, but the truth is, the supply and demand there is a little bit of a chicken and the egg situation. If the bus doesn’t run to your neighborhood, and therefore no one uses the bus, what is the point of expanding the route if everyone has their own car and never gets on the bus at that point?

I remember when busses would run every 20 minutes, practically on the dot, not just in Suzhou but also in South Korea and greater London. Arrival times were updated on the city transport map. You could search a destination or bus number and find out all the times it was scheduled. Here in East Tennessee, the busses regularly come as much as 30 minutes late. This rules out taking them to work, unless you leave super early. Regular bus systems are absolute lifesavers; busses that regularly arrive late, have stops that are inaccurately marked on Google Maps (looking at you, Chattanooga), or lack a usable scheduling app in my language? Not such a lifesaver.

Taking busses when traveling is often preferable to shelling out big bucks for taxis, but it can also be a hassle, depending on the circumstances. I’ve had to lug rolling suitcases down bumpy sidewalks in the mid-summer heat in Tirana, Albania (for more than 20 minutes, no less!!!), to get from a hostel to the shuttle bus station that ran between cities. On Okinawa, in the summer of 2020, I had nothing but time to explore. I regularly walked over an hour each way to get to somewhere new. The island was clearly developed with cars in mind, but since I couldn’t figure out the bus timetable, it wasn’t worth the risk to gamble on a journey that involved multiple transfers if the “layovers” were too short. If I hadn’t met a new friend with a car, I would never have been able to see the Okinawa WWII war memorial and museum in honor of my late grandfather, who had been in a battleship outside those very waters.

I want to be very clear that I have schlepped my luggage on many a bus and train without issue, and been very grateful for it! What can I say, I’m a budget traveller. I wholeheartedly recommend using city busses rather than renting a car while sightseeing within a new city, provided the city’s transport system is robust enough to make it practical. We have probably all benefitted from a special shuttle bus for an airport, hotel, or attraction, not to mention public school attendance, at several points in our life. Riding the city bus in not much different, except it’s probably roomier inside. You’ll want to find a kiosk inside a transport station and put money on a card, unless of course the busses accept cash. It varies from place to place.

The more I try to take busses in the US, however, the more logistical issues I run into. For example, sidewalks beside streets matter. There will always be someone who needs to walk that route – always. But that has been the least of my concerns. If busses don’t run on time, it becomes almost pointless to try take the bus to work, since the arrival time is non-negotiable. The cost of regularly taking Ubers add up, believe me! I’ve been doing this for the last few months as I save up for a car, now that I’m back states-side. Not everyone can afford a car, which limits the locations where they can work, and therefore make money to buy that car. Most American cities do not, and likely will not have, a subway system any time soon, given their size. This leaves busses as the primary method of public transportation.

A bus ride here in my town costs $1.50. You can pay with cash ( a bus card or $1 bills and quarters ONLY). It turns a 15 minute trip into a 45 minute or hour journey, if you count the walk to the bus stop and the long wait for it to arrive, but it’s worth it if you’re broke or saving up. However, someone with kids likely wouldn’t have the luxury of waiting if they had to get them to school or pick them up. This is one reason I would love to see expanded routes and more drivers and busses, so as to increase the frequency of bus arrival. There are so many factors to consider here, but I have benefitted from easy to use public transport systems in so many different cities where I didn’t even speak the local language, that I consider it a matter of equity.

I sure as heck don’t have the answers to the United States’ underdeveloped infrastructure system. I do know that funding for infrastructure and public transport is a drop in the bucket compared to, oh, I don’t know, a single military jet fighter? Then again, such matters are purely in the hands of the states and are funded through local taxes. Rising global temperatures are soon going to make walking and biking to work even more impractical in many areas, further driving up transport costs, carbon emissions, and reducing physical fitness. A robust public transportation system is a fantastic safety net for city residents, especially, but by no means limited to, those who find themselves in the lowest income brackets. It cuts down massively on road traffic and emissions, and has the potential to be the lifeblood of the city.

One thing I do know is that if I were in the shoes of some of my immigrant neighbors, who have never seen areas of town that are a 10 minute drive away, or in the shoes of my own self back in February when I was crashing in a spare room in my parents’ apartment that was not in walking distance of ANYTHING, I would become depressed. I assure you it is not exactly possible to hold onto all your sanity and motivation, much less productivity, when you’re cooped up in 4 walls without freedom to leave. I know, because I’ve been relying on busses and Ubers for a few months while I save for a car. I’m doing fine, but I can’t choose to go hiking, run over to McKays off the interstate to shop for books, or drop by a bunch of thrift shops to buy affordable and sustainable clothing. For the large majority of Americans, a car-free lifestyle is not a practical option. Most of the time it just means that you’re trapped without transportation.

I cannot describe the giddy feeling of walking out of my first apartment in Suzhou back in 2019, with nothing but my phone and house key, knowing that I could hop on a train or bus and go ANWHERE in a whole city of 2 million people. I remember those bright spring days. It felt like having wings. It was an almost limitless sensation of weightless mobility. I’d love to bottle up that feeling and give a tiny crumb of it to someone feeling low, down, stuck, or trapped.

Tips for Long Flights

Having done my fair share of long global flights, including journeys with multiple connections, I have to confess that there’s no secret to it. The flying part itself is the easiest thing in the world – just stay in your seat as long as the seatbelt sign is on! Booking tickets, getting to the airport with bags in tow, checking in, etc., on other other hand, is the hard part. Presuming you’ve found a good deal on the flight, got your negative Covid test results in hand, and got through security to your gate on time (sorry about those extra baggage charges), here are a few ways you can make the long haul marginally more enjoyable and/or relaxing.

Dress for maximum comfort.

That means from head to toe! Basically, you just need to avoid tight or professional clothing unless it’s nice and stretchy. (So, that’s a no-no on jeans, suit jackets, or formal slacks if you can help it.) Comfort includes temperature, and as it can get pretty chilly on planes sometimes, you’ll definitely want to layer. That’s easy enough to do in winter, when you were going to be putting on and taking off a coat anyway, but even in summer you will likely want a light sweater handy. The cabin blanket might not quite do the trick to keep you warm enough, and that’s a lot of hours to be uncomfy. Oh, and speaking of the “toe” in head to toe, you’ll want footwear that is as easy as possible to take on and off when going through airport security if you’re flying in the U.S. No pulling off long boots or untying and retying laces for me if I can help it, thanks. Whatever outfit you pick out, just remember that this what you will be wearing while seated in a small space for hours, trying unsuccessfully to get some sleep. (Come on, most of us are probably flying economy.)

Wear minimal makeup.

If the flight is long enough for cabin lights to be dimmed and window shades drawn at any point, that’s your cue to make sure your face has been wiped clean. I mean it! There are two reasons for this. First, it’s bad for your skin to leave makeup on it for the entirety of a flight that’s long enough to count as red-eye or give you jet lag. Second, it’s not good for your eyes either to leave the eye makeup on them, and if you try to sleep, you’re going to smudge it. These days you’ll be wearing a mask anyway, so that makes it way easier to not feel self-conscious about your looks if you don’t usually go all-natural. When I first started flying through different time zones, I felt weird about giving my skin a break, but now I strongly recommend it. If you feel more comfortable putting some effort into your appearance, then by all means do so, but I generally let that slide if I’m flying through the night or have to get up super early to get to the airport. Just enjoy a movie or a nap during the flight, and if you want to be wearing makeup when you land, you can always take a makeup bag into the restroom and apply it near the end of the flight.

Bring what you will crave; no more, no less.

This means snacks! Obviously plan to take anything else you really want to have with you, like downloaded podcasts, audiobooks, music, or episodes of your favorite show on one of your devices. But if you haven’t opened that book that you’ve been meaning to read for the last 6 months, are you really excited about reading it there in the window seat or about the idea of reading it? You just spent plenty of money and went through a lot of hassle to have these hours to yourself, so don’t feel guilty for just sleeping or watching movies. Speaking of sleeping, bring a neck pillow only if you’ve used one successfully before, on another flight or in a car. Otherwise it will just obnoxiously take up space. Now, if this is a business flight and you normally work in these situations, then work away to your heart’s content, but don’t put too much pressure on yourself to be productive under the circumstances unless that’s your preferred method of escaping the discomfort. Whatever you have with you in your carry-on, make sure it’s geared toward maximum comfort and convenience as you settle in for the journey.

Photo by Daria Shevtsova on Pexels.com

Make sure all toiletries are travel-sized.

I know this is backing up the timeline to back before you got on the plane in the first place, but it’s important enough to bear repeating, even though we all know it. Don’t go losing any perfectly good products because they were in the wrong bag! If you’re bringing your toiletries with you on any of your carry-on bags – which I absolutely recommend doing, just to be on the safe side – make sure any liquids or creams larger than travel size have been transferred to your checked bags. Once I had to give up a perfectly good tube of toothpaste in London Heathrow airport! This last time I flew internationally, I suddenly remembered, in the moment my bags were being weighed, that I needed to take my bottle of lotion out of the small carry-on suitcase and get it into a checked suitcase. Saved, just in the nick of time!

Hydrate!

Don’t worry if it makes you have to get up to pee. You need the water because you will be even more dehydrated than normal when traveling. Your body is cramped, tired, stir-crazy, stiff, and sleep deprived, so the last thing you want to do is deny it the water it so desperately needs in order to function well. It’s probably going to make the difference between feeling crappy with a headache and, well, feeling a bit icky but without a headache. Drink up!

That’s it for what I have to offer from my personal experience and from discussions with others, but let’s hear from you now. What tricks have you discovered to make any kind of long journey more pleasant?

Houseteads Roman Fort (and Hadrian’s Wall)

Near the end of 2021, I got the chance to tag along on a road trip up to Scotland. My friend from Wales, whom I met while we were both teaching English in China, was part of a wonderfully motley band of historical re-enactors who were going to be displaying authentic Viking garb and sword fighting. (If I could hang around any of the people in their group more often, I would jump at the chance.) It was slightly chilly and damp up there in the north, but very much worth it. Scotland’s population density is far lower than England’s, and the scenery is great. On the way back down, my friend stopped by a section of Hadrian’s wall, and we saw the ancient Roman Housesteads Fort.

While most of the remaining stones are very close to ground level, the extensive layout is impressive (and far more intact than plenty of other fort sites). The compound included a hospital building that would have provided fairly comprehensive care, not only for all the soldiers stationed there but also possibly for some of the members of the small local community. The granary, pictured below, was built on raised stone supports for the wooden floor. This would have kept the rooms above ground level- and the dry food away from mold/rat/miscellaneous creatures.

Granary building at the Roman Housesteads fort in Northumberland, England

The toilet room had a large, stone washbasin still intact in the middle after almost 1,900 years! You could see where the wooden floorboards would have been laid about halfway down the pit to leave plenty of space for sewage below. There was a drainage system in place which let rainwater wash the waste down the hill. During drier times of year, water would have been manually poured in to flush the waste. You gotta hand it to the Romans for really knowing how to do plumbing well. Heated bathouses, flushing toilets, aqueducts; you name it, they had it. A building and plumbing system like this would have been a major factor in preventing the spread of disease.

Latrines in the Roman Housesteads fort in Northumberland, England

According to english-heritage.org.uk, the Roman fort at Housesteads was built from around 122-132 AD and was known as Vercovicium. It was one of 15 other forts placed periodically along Hadrian’s wall, which was commissioned by the Roman emperor Hadrian during his visit to the nation in 122. The entire wall stretches completely across England from east to west, a total of around 73 miles, and took 6 years to complete.

This impressive project was a result of Hadrian’s focus on solidifying the Roman empire’s hold on its vast existing territory, rather than continuing to conquer and expand ad infinitum. He could see that the far-flung empire was becoming stretched thin and needed protection against “barbarian” invaders. The Picts and other northern tribes in Britain, and of course up into Scotland, had been formidable foes from the time the Romans first took over the territory in AD 43. Hadrian’s wall created a physical barrier between the settled, pacified Roman Britain and the untamed, native north.

Section of Hadrian’s Wall

Further down the road, we pulled the car over and trekked up through the sheep and cow pastures to see a portion of Hadrian’s Wall. I stared over it, knowing that it was the inspiration for the North Wall in Game of Thrones, but I couldn’t picture why. It wasn’t there, the wild and dangerous north. What lay in front instead was nothing but sleepy north England sheep pastures and farmhouses. It was out of reach to try to imagine a fearful, threatening atmosphere when facing that direction, but of course it was that way at some point. What was that experience like, being on the lookout for your neighbors to march on you and to meet them with killing? For bodies to be left in the fields for someone to retrieve later?

While things seem to have stayed more or less quiet around the area of Hadrian’s Wall until the Romans left in 410, conflict between rival kingdoms continued off and on throughout the subsequent centuries. During the winter of 1069-1070, William the Conqueror from Normandy laid absolute waste to Northern England during the horrific Harrying of the North, as it was dubbed. Burning farmsteads and crops led to widespread famine and death. It was the worst the area saw, but it was hardly the end of conflict. Rivals for the throne would continue to raise armies and fight battles across the nation whenever the line of succession was unclear (or just challenged).

Surely the previous people of the area, throughout so many centuries, would approve of the peace of the area in our own times. Perhaps they would even marvel at the realization of what at times was a distant hope – a land united and in harmony. Were any of the empires really worth it? Worth it in the sense of making anyone’ life better, that is? Territory doesn’t just belong to nations, kings, nobles, or chieftains, but to the hand-to-mouth farmers who till it as long as the daylight lasts. It’s their land, and they deserve to live in peace on it.

Confessions of a Former Homeschooler

K-12.

All the way.

The only in-person class I ever took was drivers’ ed. That was fun. I got to sit at a desk.

This was not an easy article to write. It’s why I haven’t published any other content on this blog for months. I’ve been on a full writing hiatus/freeze, emotionally trying to untangle the web of my entire upbringing, my life, my youth, to distill into coherent linear form for one single article. I think – I hope – the storm is finally ready to break. Every time I try to write this article, I end up adding new paragraphs to the jumble of ones already there, when what I want more than anything is to produce something simple and hard-hitting. This evening, at a cozy London pub with a live Christmas tree in front of me and some liquid courage in me, I am determined to release some version of this or bust. Honestly, it’s hard not because I don’t know what to say, but because I have so very much to say.

I sat on this one a long time. I know how to explain this life to people outside of the subculture, how to laugh about it with new acquaintances. I travelled the world a bit and found that everyone – including children who are my own students – are shocked and disapproving of the idea of never going to school. What I’m wondering right now is what words to use when addressing the insiders. The relatives who read this blog.

This one is for the home team, and you guys aren’t all going to like it. At first I thought I had to walk a line of moderation, jumping through hoops of assuring everyone that I was grateful for the enormous privileges and advantages that came with being spared so many damaging influences and getting a stellar education (in my case, and in many cases, but definitely not all homeschoolers, not by a long shot.)

I don’t. I don’t have to do that. None of us do. Those things are true but they’re not the whole truth, and we will speak out and complete the story, amending the narrative with our own experience whether you like it or not. Those involved are invested in maintaining the company line here, but the entire rest of the world knows that an overprotective reclusive subculture is just ridiculous. A storm has been slowly brewing inside of me, a storm of confusion and processing and grief, and then anger, as the full extent of my past sheltered-ness became clear to me. I found I didn’t have any easy or concise answers to the question “How do you feel about being homeschooled?”

So instead of getting into all the details of the good, the bad, and the ugly, of explaining how my parents ordered a rigorous curriculum and our reading levels were so much higher than our peers’, of taking aim at the cult-y families we all knew and the educational (and other!) neglect and even abuse that go unreported, of blowing the whistle on the suspicion of social workers, extremely limited media consumption, oppressive outdated gender roles, and raising one’s children to live in a bygone century; instead of sharing fond memories of reading about Charlemange on an overstuffed chair, having plenty of free time after finishing schoolwork mid-afternoon, eating a picnic lunch with mom on the driveway, and checking my answers only after the test with the teacher’s manual myself; instead of sharing cringy memories of Christian nationalist curriculum and written tirades by evangelical leaders against gender equality and multiculturalism, of missing out on my teen and even young adult years thanks to that thief of healthy development called purity culture, I want to tell you a story.

It’s the story of the movie The Village, 2004, by M. Night Shyamalan, starring a young Bryce Dallas Howard and Joaquin Phoenix. It’s really better that you watch it; I cannot recommend it highly enough. Those who don’t want plot spoilers, please skip ahead several paragraphs now, because these twists really do deserve to be seen and not heard (or read), but they tell the story I’m trying to tell.

A England Puritan village lives in constant fear of attack from deadly monsters in the woods, and they obey the rules of the elders to be indoors before dark and not stray into the woods, ever, in order to save lives. But when a young man is injured, someone must go to seek medicine from the outside world, and a blind girl ends up being the only one free. Her father takes her into a shed and shows her none other than a monster costume. He lets her in on the secret: it’s been people of the village dressed up the whole time. But she does end up encountering – and slaying – a monster on her journey. Was it real or imaginary? We can see, unlike her, and of course the real monsters are always people. When she finally makes it to a road, she meets none other than a state trooper.

It’s the 21st century. That’s right, these people set up a utopian alternative lifestyle community in a national park with a fence around it. Why? What is the common denominator that would cause these adults to abandon the outside world and raise their children strictly, old-fashioned-ly, with no knowledge of its existence?

Trauma. They’ve been victims of assault and crime, watched loved ones die, and come to the conclusion that this world isn’t for them. They ran from it. And so did all of you.

The separatist nature of fundamentalism open champions raising children in a bubble and showing them a carefully curated sampling of the world instead of preparing them to live in the real one. This extended to withholding basic facts about sex and science. I’ve read all your prim justifications of how you really are teaching critical thinking and you really do believe in being in the world but not of the world. You’re not teaching your children how to make decisions if your version of exposing them to other ideas is explaining in a neat set of talking points “Here’s why everything else is wrong”. (Looking at you, so-called worldview training.)

I can’t. I can’t hold back against this subculture anymore. I have always tried so hard to not scandalize or offend in any way, but I’ve gotten out and there’s no way I’m going back in the box. “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” – Shakespeare, Hamlet

What frightens me are the ones that never left the nest. Never shook it off.

Picture a plant with roots curled around and around its pot, looking only ever inwards to its own family. Now it’s removed, placed gently in new big outside circumstances with a world full of soil in which to grow. “Here little plant, you’re okay now, run and play, you can grow in any direction you want.” But it sits, frozen, roots curled around itself, shaking its head. Like a proverbial kid making a face, it stuck that way. We missed that wave, didn’t we? Can it come back in the late twenties instead of the teens or college years? Is it ever too late to have a proper teenage phase? Isn’t that shameful, something self-respecting adults should avoid? You know, like a mid-life crisis? Well that’s just another term for a human being waking up and realizing that, if we’re all going to die soon, it’s never too late to act young and start doing what you want and really living. Because if you act like you’ve missed your chance, then you’re just condemning yourself to boredom and misery and less life in your life until you die, and what possible virtue are you going to call that in order to help you sleep at night as you watch that life cruelly drain through your fingers? There is no virtue in it, only tragedy.

That heart needs to find a way outside of that room where the roots have curled around the walls and use some of them to climb down the window. Make a run for it. Resolve to sneak out the window in your heart and run free or bust. Push your way through the maze of inhibitions and preconceived notions and habits and the past and expectations and scramble like mad toward the light and the fresh air, anything new, anything but this, what you’ve had so long. Fight for your freedom, hack away the branches, slip away into the night. Someday you’ll take someone with you, you’re showing so many people the way.

I want very much to leave you with one of my most special memories. I was 27 and had just moved into my own place in Suzhou, China (this economy, go figure). I listened to Bruce Springsteen and absolutely leapt for joy, dancing and spinning around with glee in my work uniform baseball-style jacket and worn khaki pants on the bad faux wood floorboards of my first apartment alone, coming alive and coming of age. I ran through the building complex to to go to work, I was so high on life. The exhilaration naturally led to the sorrow, to the grief of what could have been so much sooner, even though we’re all on our own clock etc. I want you to know that it’s not easy walking around in a world you weren’t raised for, but I love it. I love this world so much. I fell in love with it, with cities, with art and architecture, with coffeeshops and trees. With human faces. With myself and my heart and love and dreams and passion. It happened so fast, in a great flood that knocked down my internal walls, and I fully expect it will keep happening for the rest of my life. And that’s painful but so, so, beautiful.

“Badlands”, Bruce Springsteen

…..Talk about a dream
Try to make it real
You wake up in the night
With a fear so real
You spend your life waiting
For a moment that just don’t come
Well, don’t waste your time waiting

Badlands, you gotta live it everyday
Let the broken hearts stand
As the price you’ve gotta pay
Keep pushin’ ’til it’s understood
And these badlands start treating us good

For the ones who had a notion, a notion deep inside
That it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive
I wanna find one face that ain’t looking through me
I wanna find one place
I wanna spit in the face of these

Badlands…..

I know why you did it. I know your stories, your family background. I know the shit you dealt with as kids – the abusive/harsh father you fought with, the alcoholic parent you pleaded unsuccessfully with and covered for, the mother who didn’t like or nurture you, the workaholic parent who was never there, the mentally ill parent who wasn’t able to be there for you. I know why you grabbed your kids and ran, throwing up fences around them and swearing to give them the perfect, golden-haloed little upper middle-class suburban Christian family lifestyle you never had. I could weep at the strength of that desire to give your kids the stability, security, and care you never had. I applaud it. We applaud your cycle breaking, and drink to you. Now we will pick up the baton from where you left it, and run with it. We build on your foundation. We will not be defined by the trauma or fear that we either experienced or inherited. We’re breaking free and setting our priorities like you did, only we have leveled up further than your younger self ever had the chance to, ever could have possible dreamed of.

You don’t have to run from this world to be at home. You can be at home amidst it. Out there are horrible people and damaging societal narratives, yes, but also wonder and beauty and good people too. Face your fear, wrestle and conquer it. Your children are asking you to. They need you to. If they can do it, so can you. Don’t be afraid.

We turn you, grown and strong now, and demand, “Get up. Stand and fight.” Get a therapist. Shed your close-mindedness. Once upon a time you stood in the water and held up your arms for us to jump, saying, “Come on in, the water’s fine.” We say that to you now. We former homeschoolers may be many things, but we are not cowards. You raised us on stories of Daniel, Esther, and the three young men in the furnace. Of martyrs and missionaries and heroes. What did you expect? That we would be too cowed to call out anything wrong when we saw it? Not likely. You raised us to laugh at peer pressure and be willing to walk through fire for what we believe. It worked.

Holyrood Palace – A Bloody, Beautiful Home

Mary Queen of Scot’s chambers can be seen here, her royal rooms the scene of a shocking and very personal murder. By way of very brief context, Mary was the younger daughter of Henry VIII and younger sister of Elizabeth I, queen of England. Elizabeth was Protestant, like much of the country at that point, but Mary was staunchly Catholic.

A stained glass image from Mary’s quarters.

Before that happened, though, she married the Scottish Henry Stewart, better known as Lord Darnley, in Holyrood’s chapel in 1565. She found him quite handsome; upon agreeing to marry him she claimed to be “half in love with him” already based on his portrait. At first the couple seemed well-matched in addition to the union working politically. But he was “arrogant and violent”, according to my audio tour headphones, and became jealous of the influence of her secretary, David Rizzo.

Portrait of Lord Darnley as a teenager, seen here with his younger brother

Rizzo was also rumored to be her lover, but there seems no way at this point to know anything for certain in that respect. There must have been some truth to the rumors, though, or at least a high degree of closeness or influence, to awaken Darnely’s level of jealousy. One night he and his men burst into Mary’s chambers to remove and murder David Rizzo. He hid behind the very pregnant queen, but to no avail – he was dragged out and stabbed 57 times. Yes, you read that number correctly.

A plaque marking the location of Rizzo’s body, with artificial bloodstain added much more recently for emphasis

To imagine this scene going down, to envision a prince actually sending armed men into the queen’s chambers, possibly endangering his wife, the country’s queen, and the child she carried, in the middle of a dinner gathering and completely illegally without any plausible pretext of war or treason, is pretty mind-boggling. Storming past such a domestic boundary in their very own home, without any kind of warrant or decree, seems an almost unheard-of breach of…well, everything. But then Scotland’s history is rife with infighting, betrayals, royal upheavals and bloodshed (as is England’s too, of course), so perhaps that’s why Lord Darnley was not held accountable.

Not legally, anyway.

These events happened on the 9th of March, 1566; Mary had only just married Lord Darnley the year before. The following year, on the 10th of February, 1567 – almost exactly eleven months after the event – the Kirk o’Field house there in the city of Edinburgh was destroyed in an explosion. The bodies of Lord Darnley and his servant were discovered, but here’s the kicker – the bodies were in the garden, not the house, and they were untouched by the explosion. They did, however, appear to have been strangled. Mary and her most trusted nobleman, the Earl of Bothwell, were immediately (and obviously) suspected, given that they had the clearest motive. Bothwell was acquitted at his trial two months later, and one month later Mary married him in the same palace she had married Darnley and witnessed Rizzo’s murder.

These stairs lead to Mary’s chambers. It was this very stairwell that Darnley’s men used to enter and seize Rizzo that night.

In the ensuing years, Mary was driven from the throne by concerned Protestants, imprisoned comfortably for years, and eventually executed for treason (against the fervent wishes of her sister Elizabeth, whom the Catholic plots were directed against). But the child that Mary carried inside her that fateful night at dinner – James Charles Stuart – would grow up to be king of Scotland and then of England as well. (Wagging tongues have since questioned his legitimacy, of course, much like the rumors about Diana and a red-headed palace guard, but it seems pure conspiracy theory.) He united the two thrones and is known as King James 1 of England.

Now, about the palace itself. Holyrood Palace was constructed by King James IV in the early 1500s as the home of the Scottish monarchy. After the later uniting of the thrones under the British crown, Holyroodhouse became the home of the British monarchy when visiting Scotland. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert stayed there for a while every year and practiced their drawing skills on the view from the bedroom windows overlooking the back gardens. Queen Elizabeth II still holds official events there during one week out of every year.

These paintings were all done by a single artist at the king’s commission. The effect on the eye is a bit odd – everywhere you turn, the same style meets your gaze until it all starts to swim together.

If you pick up the headphones for the free audio tour included in the price of admission (I highly recommend it), you can hear Princess Anne discussing how much she has always liked Holyrood Palace. Rather fascinatingly, she alludes to what seem to be well-know rumors of ghosts and hauntings and, rather than dismiss them outright, says that it’s been the opposite of her own experience. She goes on about how the palace walks the line between functional and cozy, without using those specific words, and conveys a real love for the place. The beloved, no-nonsense, down-to-earth royal, who has no taste for royal glitz and glamour, loves Holyrood. It’s easy to see why; Holyrood may have plenty of space and royal trappings, but at the end of the day, it’s also sensible, functional, and dignified.

If you’re ever near Edinburgh, do take the chance to see it if you can.

How Horrible are the Elsie Dinsmore Books?

They need to be taken out of print immediately.

The behavior of these adults is not portrayed as villainish, and that’s a huge problem. This stuff is normalized, not presented as a tragic backstory or obstacle to overcome. Children’s stories, from Harry Potter to Cinderella to A Series of Unfortunate Events, but especially Victorian literature, are filled with mean, neglectful, and frequently dangerous adults behaving badly. So is the real world. Jane Eyre’s family were hard on her and her stubborn, strong will, but we as readers were always rooting for that little kid who tried to hold on to her worth. We never thought that spirit inside was something she needed to learn to let go of. And we never take the side of adults who are mistreating the protagonist!

This book blurs the lines and tricks us into doing exactly that by making Elsie’s views unsympathetic to modern readers. This child gets into a royal battle of wills with her father over her refusal to play the piano when requested on Sundays. And read a book to her sick father. And go for a walk. As punishment, she is forced to stay seated on the piano bench for hours, skip meals or socializing, etc. A protracted standoff ensues, lasting for days (possibly longer, if memory serves), as there is a collective attempt to break Elsie’s will. Absolute obedience is required, and her wishes and moral objections will not be taken into consideration. Her father doesn’t need these things from her. He wants them. And he is determined to fight a battle to the death rather than drop the issue. How mature is that?

Elsie’s dad is over-the-top cold to her, choosing to not relate to her with embraces or any sign of warmth at all upon his return after having been out of the country for most of her childhood. He inexplicably, cruelly, responds to the other children of the family with affection and warmth, but not to his own. Elsie is made to feel that she is on some kind of probation where she needs to earn his love by proving herself at every little thing she does and being on the best behavior possible.

Elsie herself is not a particularly likable character – she’s a sanctimonious goody-two shoes who supposedly was born with a strong will and rooted it out of herself through spirituality. She also has a bizarre religious belief in “not telling tales” even if, as it turns out, the situation requires it. An abuser’s paradise. That’s right, she scrupulously considers herself honor-bound to let not a word escape her lips of another’s wrongdoing, even into her teen years when her dangerous, bullying, thieving, drug-addicted cousin begins threatening her for money! In addition to being a terrible role model who seems to almost intentionally maneuver herself into martyr-type situations for their own sake, Elsie is not the kind of character that children can consistently sympathize with, and therefore we find ourselves playing devil’s advocate for the horrible adults in her home.

Perhaps strict Sabbatarianism would have struck a spiritual nerve of Christian devotion and religious persecution with the original readership, but I suspect it jangles as a bizarre, artificial, made-up legalism to any modern readers who identify as Christian. Activities that used to be viewed as secular and wrong to engage in on Sundays are not forbidden to any current believer I ever met, and I was in church ever single Sunday of the year. Young people reading these books are not going to understand where Elsie is coming from, at all. Elsie also wants to convert her father to Christianity, which adds another complicated and problematic dynamic to the ongoing power struggle.

It is not the job of the child in any situation to de-escalate, but the adult’s. I learned this lesson in no uncertain terms when I started working with children as a teacher! Kids push you to your limit surprisingly quickly, and you’re still responsible for the direction that you choose to take the situation, every single time. Oh, and obviously, no child anywhere, ever, should once be made to feel they have to earn love. This has gone beyond the old-timey cautionary tales meant to scare children into obedience (little Timmy wandered off and fell in a well, maybe children should listen, hm?) into one of those Reddit “Am I the A**Hole?” threads where the vote returns as ESH: Everyone Sucks Here. This is just an extremely uncomfortable abusive situation, and we as readers are clearly being given the option of victim blaming a young girl.

Stories work because we’re supposed to identify with, or at least sympathize with, the protagonist, even if their actions are far from “right”. But the author has set up a situation where our sympathy hinges on whether or not Elsie’s stand is morally justifiable. If it is, she is truly a persecuted religious victim, an explicitly Christianized version of the suffering white-dress Victorian heroine. But if Elsie’s position is indefensible from a Biblical point of view, she has no other leg to stand on, because that was the premise of the whole thing. There is no other reason for her to be doing what she was doing, and now she looks to be nothing more than the obstinate, willful, troublemaking child her relatives are accusing her of being – arbitrary and putting her own opinions and desires above the well-being of others.

Worst of all, wrapping up the story with a reconciliation between the two, a happy ending held up as a promise that the one who hurt you could be the one to heal you if you just keep trying to earn favor, is the definition of a trauma bond. People like these, unfortunately, are not people you should be pushing closer to in hopes of doing your part to establish peace and goodwill.

This is not love.

Love does not do these things.

It is not loving to torment, withold food from, and publicly shame/humiliate a child. Over and over, in front of the rest of the family. That’s exactly what happens in these books.

The Elsie Dinsmore books are born out of and explicitly perpetuate a toxic, damaging, tyrannical version of Christianity that believes that the presence of a human will at all is wicked and sinful, and the goal of not only God but parents and even husbands (Oh yes, I’ll get to that bit at the end) is to drive it out of you. Obedience is prized above all, even at the expense of love, as we see here in these books. A person who has actually been psychologically broken is an appalling sight. Have you ever seen it? A strong, vibrant soul, broken and crushed and manhandled into a spiraling mess of self-loathing, shame, and blind, eager codependence?

I have. It was awful. If I never see another person I love trapped in spiritualized self-hate it will be far too soon.

The Elsie Dinsmore books send the message that bad treatment from others is for your good, and that you should have a fundamentally negative view of your heart, emotions, will, desires, etc. Both messages will destroy you if you let them in, even a little bit. Stand your ground. Some pride in the sense of having dignity, self-respect, and self-worth, is necessary for survival. It’s not wicked or sinful. It’s that sacred place inside ourselves Maya Angelou talked about.

Chadwick Boseman talked once in an interview about how everyone needs to see themselves as the hero of their own story. Authoritarian spiritual environments and teachings reject this idea in favor of seeing your self/will/spirit, as inherently problematic obstacles in the way of the story. Others may attempt to remove them for you – this is for your benefit. It is a gracious blessing on your quest to root out sin, and of course God would agree. But this is horrifying. A person has to have a healthy, well-adjusted relationship with themselves or they don’t stand a snowball’s chance of navigating the ups, downs, successes, failures, and relationships of life.

At the very moment Elsie enters into the fight of her life, a battle of wills for nothing less than her own autonomy, self-determination with regards to conviction and conscience, a struggle for freedom of basic actions and choices, the uprising not of a toddler or teenage spirit but the holy human spirit itself, , the right to behave as her own person instead of a trained object, to exist on her own terms – the reader’s support wavers. It should never be stronger. She becomes less likable, less relatable, when she should never be more so. The author has made her cause a bit ridiculous, and it undermines the struggle considerably. And the struggle itself is anything but ridiculous. We feel confused about how we feel towards Elsie in her greatest hour of need, when our hearts should be going out to her. No young person should feel this way about themselves in their greatest hour of need.

Take a look at some of the other (much briefer!) online reviews below. I found these after I had already composed this article and was just re-arranging the paragraphs in the final round of editing. I just wanted to confirm that they were, in fact, still in print, but when I looked them up, I saw this host of confirming voices using phrases like “creepy”, “emotionally abuse”, “bully”, “milksop”, “doormat”, “caricatures”, “most stressful reading experience of my life”, and “horrifying”.

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/611861.Elsie_Dinsmore

Oh, and I’ve buried the lead – a controlling marriage between a 21 year old man and a 15 year old girl! That sickening, heartbreaking storyline, comes along much later in one of the later books in the series. This child is orphaned and a family friend steps in and marries her to make sure she is provided for. This would have been legal and above-board at the time (and in many U.S. states until rather recently). It’s not implied at all that they’re actually sleeping together, if I remember correctly, but he takes the role of a guardian and tells her what she can and cannot do. The incident that stood out to me was when he comes over to her as she plays with the younger kids and tells her to come down out of the tree. He scolds her for being unladylike and says she can’t do that now that she’s married.

Holy crap. It’s so messed up. It’s a soul-crushing storyline. She ends up writing a note and running away one night, because she feels so unhappy and feels like it’s all her own fault. Because this is a moralistic Victorian tale, her dress gets caught on the door and she stays there trapped in the dark, thinking about how she could be at the mercy of any man who comes by, until she faints away (told you this was Victorian!). But oh, what a lucky, happy ending! Her husband comes home and finds her and they agree to not say anything about it. She is relieved and properly ashamed of her silly, wild ways, and promises to be a good wife for him from then on. It’s a cautionary tale to instill fear in girls who don’t feel inclined toward the prospect of submitting to a man’s authority in marriage – see, you could die or worse without him. You’re lucky. You’ve been a stupid child. If you’re very, very lucky, you will be forgiven and we’ll forget all about this. And then you can submit your whole heart and soul to this person who…who parents you.

This is not love.

Love does not do these things.

Loving husbands do NOT teach their teenage wives that they’re not kids anymore and it’s time to act like a grownup now.

I hope and suspect that most of the readers of the first Elsie Dinsmore book who are responsible for those five star reviews on Goodreads never read the subsequent books in the series. Like, seriously, I do not think the vast majority of people make their way all the way through all those books. (Most of them are less compelling than the first book but they do carry judgy overtones throughout, as their basic purpose is still moralistic.) So it is at least a relief to know that most impressionable young girls reading what they thought was a good Christian lesson-teaching book never had to encounter that tragedy.

But I did.

I was about 12 or 13. I read these books on my own, put them back on the shelf, and endeavored to forget what I had just read without processing it at all – by myself or with another person – because the messages were just a tad too close to what conservative evangelicalism had been pumping into me my whole life. To challenge these dynamics would have been to challenge the very foundation of what I knew of family life and morality. I knew that the books were vaguely, generally messed up and kind of looking-down-over-one’s-nose, but didn’t have the mental vocabulary of ideas and categories to call any of it out by name. It felt like when, at that same age, you knew an adult that gave you the creeps, but never told anyone because you couldn’t explain it and didn’t want to have it dismissed.

Martha Finley wrote these books in the late 1800s during the prudish, self-denying, holier-than-thou morality of the Victorian era. I remember they were being recommended among moms in the homeschool community, and I was surprised that my little sister’s friend was reading them.

She was in elementary school. I didn’t like that idea. They didn’t seem thematically appropriate, and yet they are actually intended for this age range!

There are plenty of rave review of them online, so these messages have clearly found a ready audience. Whatever damage has already been done to those who read those books long ago as children is done. It is everyone’s responsibility as adults to think critically now about how relationships work and identify any bad messages they received when they were younger. Grownups can fend for themselves, but when I think about any of the eager faces that looked up at me in 3rd and 4th grade Sunday School class in Tennessee or English class in China, I would go up against anyone, any teaching, any institution, any belief system if it came to defending their well-being.

What bothers me is not that grown women won’t change their minds on this issue but that even one girl that I ever knew, ever babysat, ever taught, ever waved at, ever chatted with, ever exchanged names with, might one day pick up these books and absorb even one thing written in them. It’s the next generation I’m worried about, not those who have gone before. This generation is bright, powerful, perceptive, ambitious, and compassionate. Their light is too bright to be tamed by this tangled mess of unhealthy dynamics.

The Elsie Dinsmore books need to be taken out of print immediately so these ideas don’t get any more airtime in front of young minds. If you have the time, please read the articles below, written by a blogger named Libby Anne in 2017 following the Roy Moore scandal. In them she explores the child marriage dynamic in much more depth. (Multiple examples, unfortunately, are found in the series.)

According to Wikipedia, “A new Elsie Dinsmore series of eight books was adapted and abridged from the old one and published by Zondervan/Mission City Press in 1999, dubbed “Elsie Dinsmore: A Life of Faith“.”

So if you want to contact the publishing company, start there.

Leftover Impressions of China

Dongbei, the region composed of three provinces in the very northeast of China, was particularly well-represented in our company for some reason none of us could figure out. A blunt, sometimes rough-around-the-edges people even by Chinese standards, Dongbei-ren (“ren” means people) have stories of icy winters, growing up without a phone in the house, coal- fueled air pollution that stains white coats, and potentially deadly bar fights. Dongbei-hua is a gruff sounding language, and the Dongbei-ren sound VERY different from Suzhou-ren when they speak Mandarin. Even if you only know a handful of words or phrases, you will soon be able to tell the difference.

The “arrr” ending to all words in the Beijing style always made some of us foreigners snicker; we were just so used to hearing the sing-song southerners add a cutesy “ah” sound to the end of words instead. People from Dongbei and Inner Mongolia sound like pirates, we decided. It’s not exactly the Chinese version of a “posh” accent, but then neither is the Taiwanese style of speaking – one woman asked my Taiwanese/Chinese/American coworker “Are you a gay?” immediately upon meeting him. (China isn’t exactly politically correct on most social issues, and communication is either indirect hinting or brutally blunt.) Poor dude, it wasn’t fair that we always snickered at his distinctive Taiwanese way of speaking Chinese. It’s alright, though – the British and Australian and American coworkers were giving each other crap about accents and dialects as well. So much cross-cultural learning going on.

The people of China are very dear and are often willing to go out of their way to help a stranger. They bundle their children up against the cold as if they’re going to catch their death from a cool breeze, and they put the food into their mouths well into elementary school sometimes. Racism against Chinese people is common everywhere in the world and I have no tolerance for it; behaviors like “rudeness” or “loudness” or “no personal space” are cultural differences that are not perceived as rude within China, so I don’t think we outsiders have any business taking that kind of thing personally.

In “Shadow of the Silk Road”, Colin Thurbin quotes Central Asian people groups such as the Uighers as saying that the Han (majority ethnic group in China) have no soul. That’s untrue, of course, but there are reasons why they say that. I think part of it has to do with the helpless tendency to keep ones head down and look the other way when something wrong or unfair is happening in society or the workplace. If you know anything about what happened in China during the 20th century, then you know that the Chinese people have learned the hard way that minding one’s own business can be a matter of life and death – or at least prison. It’s really hard to make deep friendships in China. Guarded on the outside, warm on the inside is a good generalization of the people. Presenting a perfect mask to the outside world is so valued that you can consider yourself lucky if you catch wind of anyone’s private problems. People are quicker to trust a friend to make a huge financial purchase on their behalf than to hear any personal information about their life without using it against them.

Whenever I left China for a vacation abroad or a home visit, my heart would sink at the thought of returning. Other expats reported feeling it too. I knew it would never be home. In the airports I would reluctantly go to the China counter and hear the language on the overhead with distaste, an uncomfortable sinking feeling of “I don’t want to go back.” Sometimes it feels like life itself has been sanitized and regulated out of Chinese society, scrubbed away with that same dirty mop that the elderly use to polish the floors of the shopping malls. A special blend of chaotic and organized, dirty and spotless, full of people and yet not always full of life.

Yes, Big Brother is uncomfortable. Yes, China often feels like it’s missing something. I still deal with lasting health effects from air pollution. I also think back on my time there with a lot of fondness. The smiling faces of the students, the peaceful parks, the hordes of motorbike drivers bundled up in rain gear…it was a home, and a good one.

(The red paper sign on the door in the picture above is a New Year’s good luck sign. Everyone buys a new one at the time of the Lunar New Year and then leaves it up all year until the next New Year celebration.)

(This post was taken from my drafts folder from well over a year ago. If I hadn’t written this stuff down at the time, I probably would never have thought to do it later as my impressions faded. To all fellow writers – and humans! – let’s keep on sometimes remembering to journal mundane stuff as well as pertinent thoughts whenever inspiration strikes.)

No “They”, Only “We”

There is no default kind of human being! There is so much freedom in not seeing yourself or people like you as the standard norm for society. This “one of the bunch” mentality unlocks something more refreshing and rewarding even than superiority. You are not interesting or worthy because you’re the right kind of person, or the best kind of person; you’re interesting and worthy precisely because you are A person.

I’m currently staying for a while in London, an ancient, bustling, cosmopolitan city that is incredibly diverse. People from all imaginable ethnic, national, and religious backgrounds walk past each other on the streets and wear masks next to each other on the underground. It’s normal. It’s fine. It’s fun. It works.

The above picture is of a fountain in Hyde Park, London. It’s a tantalizing departure from a city full of standing statues, mostly British men of the past. These figures, in contrast, are very much alive. They’re nameless, vibrant, anonymous, non-European, swimming, ambiguous, dancing, enjoying themselves. They are humanity, and it’s bursting into life.

Regarding racism and anti-immigrant sentiment – Who are you to think that society is “yours” to grant or disallow to newcomers in “your” city? You don’t own it any more than anyone else does. You did not erect its buildings, pave its streets, sit on its zoning committee when your neighborhood was built. Mother****er, it’s not your sidewalk! You just can’t call dibs on the world. You were merely born into it, just as “they” were- whoever it is that you choose to think of as “they” instead of “we”. Everyone currently living inherited this world from the past. None of us currently living built the society in which we now live, so it takes hubris to try to keep anyone out of our little slice of it.

Society is just another word for people and the world and systems they’ve made. It’s made up of everyone, full stop. Lack of inclusiveness toward anyone – woman, disabled, foreign language speaking, etc – is an oversight to be remedied as as soon as possible, not debated as if it were a legitimate defensible “position” in the name of conservatism or devil’s advocate or anything else. No one has the right to stand in anyone’s way while debating whether or not that person deserves access to the same opportunities or representation that they themselves enjoy. It’s the kind of privilege of a child who has snagged more than her fair share of the communal playground toys and won’t let anyone else play with them because they’re “hers.”

Photo by Grace Broadwell

Any artificial system of supposed superiority resulting in oppression is incredibly unnatural. The reality of our intrinsic equality has also been present since birth. Egalitarianism is the truest, final reality of humanity no matter how many times it is trampled on.

Of course it’s a very natural impulse to see people different from you and think that you’re the normal one and they’re the weird one, but we’ve got to mentally struggle our way uphill towards maturity on this issue by decentering ourselves. The whole “Different is icky and I don’t like it Mommy” initial reaction to new things is born of basic survival impulses that don’t know when to quit. Your subconscious brain looks at something it’s never seen before and can’t tell what’s a threat and what’s not. Fortunately we are adults now and can observe and figure out what merits our fear and what merits curiosity.

The fear of difference also applies to other religions, expressions of gender and sexual orientation, etc. Focusing on people’s differences in order to distance ourselves from them makes us see them as primarily a problem instead of a person. Enter fear and callousness. Once you’ve deliberately shut off empathy for any group, you’ve opened the door for certain lives – notice especially statistics for those who are imprisoned, undocumented, low-income, LGBTQ, or elderly – become more dispensable than others. “Othering” people who don’t happen to move in your own social circle results in political and social policies with deadly consequences. We cannot afford to do it, ever.

Let’s flip the script, remember how this thing called life really works, and band together against common obstacles and in favor of common interests with everything we’ve got. Rights are not privileges. Everyone gets rights, and we’ve got to fight for that tooth and nail. But that’s just the basics. Nothing stops us from going higher, so much higher, as high as we want to when it comes to creating deep connection and belonging among and across all the wonderful disparate groups that together make up society. We don’t have to be afraid of each other or avoid each other; we can be in each other’s homes and grocery stores and neighborhoods and schools and places of worship and pubs.

Moving as far as one can get from my homeland of the USA opened my eyes to the fact that the way I was raised, and the culture I came from, were not standard but unique and surprising in many respects. It was such a glorious, exciting, giddy feeling, like a sheltered only child dropped off at rough-and-tumble camp for the summer, to find out that I was just one of the crowd. People didn’t have a good frame of reference to use as a shortcut to understanding my life story – I was going to have to explain things. Sink or swim – you’re not a little kid anymore! This is the delightful side of being an emigrant – you gain a much deeper sense of your own national and cultural identity when it’s held up in contrast with others’ backgrounds and customs for the first time. (Apparently it’s weird to sell pancake mix when that’s basically just flour?? Apparently not everyone else was brought up in a conservative religious environment like in the “Bible Belt” region??” Apparently some people cook spicy food??)

Everyone is different in some way, and so are you. Once you and your group (s) stop holding yourself up as the ideal universal bar (static, lifeless, feels like not having an identity at all because you’re just “normal”), you get to actually be special for the first time. Life is like a party: No one walks in and says, “How will you all prove that you’re equal to me?” or, “I don’t have a problem with you being here but I don’t like to hear you talking near me”. The buffet has tons of different dishes, everyone brings what they like best and explains it to everyone else, your contribution will stand or fall on its own merits (sorry about that), and you earn respect the old fashioned way – telling stories, or out on the dance floor.

What can you offer, what do you bring to the table, what is your party trick or cool story, that you bring to a multicultural society where no one group holds the reins and there is no standard? Jump in and join the fun. The water’s fine. Let’s bump shoulders, learn a few things, and make some new friends.

Being Alone

Being alone is hard, worth it, draining, empowering, and lethal to overdose on. Do it, learn to enjoy it, do it often, and know when to quit.

It’s more than just taking yourself out to eat or on a solo vacation. It’s watching major life moments – the happy ones – happen in front of your eyes, dreams coming true, just standing there on the sidewalk, trying to press record in your brain like Wall-E did during extra special moments so you don’t forget anything. It’s bittersweet in the kind of way you’ll always remember. It deepens the experience, making it into one of those gold and blue memory orbs from Inside Out – a “core memory”.

There were some times that I felt a bit sorry to not have someone with me to share the experience, but other times were just pure wonder and focus on the experience of living. For anyone considering solo travel, I assure you, there is far more sweet than bitter in the experience. It’s quite liberating and empowering, actually. I can’t recommend it enough as a precious experience and confidence/strength boost.

Brene Brown said that when you’re forced to stand alone in life, “…your heart gets marked by the wild.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x_sYCThUQc8&list=WL&index=17

Something I have seen almost no discussion of in online chat groups for solo travelers is the crippling loneliness that comes with being a digital nomad. Done right, it has truly been an exhilarating fairy tale dream come true. Done wrong – chronic self-isolating – I’ve watched my mental and physical health drain away. It’s been an eventful road, for sure.

Loneliness is a serious health risk, according to medical studies. Too many of us went through so much more than our fair share of it in the past year and a half of Covid-19 lockdowns and distancing. Truly the pandemic has been a long-term collective trauma, and I wonder how many of us have made permanent lifestyle changes as a result – not going back to the office, or perhaps getting a little too used to not meeting up regularly with other people? The CDC website says “Social isolation significantly increased a person’s risk of premature death from all causes, a risk that may rival those of smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity.” https://www.cdc.gov/aging/publications/features/lonely-older-adults.html

Just because I CAN endure it, doesn’t mean I HAVE to. (I saw that quote on Instagram, and that concept, without a doubt, has changed my life.) Don’t operate on a scarcity mentality, doing and feeding yourself only as little of what you need or want as necessary to survive. You. Can. Have. What. You. Want.

Don’t do this to yourself. Don’t slip into hermit-hood and darkness without a fight. Don’t you deserve community and belonging? Don’t you want it? It gets so lonely it’s genuinely dangerous out there, in the dark on your own. If you’re getting cold and hungry out there in the wilderness of isolation, march up to the door of some happy lit-up house and knock. And then keep knocking, on as many doors as you have to, until someone answers. Gyms, places of worship, dating apps, online meet-up groups, that person you met at the party, your friend on the end of the phone in another town, that kid who needs a kind word, your elderly neighbors, anything. Your survival, and equally importantly, your thriving, are at stake.

And just maybe, theirs as well.

“Hello Sunshine”, Bruce Springsteen, 2019

Had enough of heartbreak and pain
I had a little sweet spot for the rain
For the rain and skies of grey
Hello sunshine, won’t you stay?

You know I always liked my walking shoes
But you can get a little too fond of the blues
You walk too far, you walk away
Hello sunshine, won’t you stay?

You know I always loved a lonely town
Those empty streets, no one around
You fall in love with lonely, you end up that way
Hello sunshine, won’t you stay?

You know I always liked that empty road
No place to be and miles to go
But miles to go is miles away
Hello sunshine, won’t you stay?