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.

Bunk’Art 2

The museum that is Bunk’Art 2 couldn’t have a better, more appropriate setting – a large, concrete, underground nuclear bunker. Like almost all of the much smaller pillbox bunkers littered around the country, it was never used, not even during the fall of communism in Albania in 1992.

Bunk’Art 2 is perhaps one whole block away, at most, from big grassy Skanderbeg Square in the heart of the city, so it’s very easy to find. It’s listed as #2 on Trip Advisor’s Top Attractions in Tirana, right below – get ready for it – Bunk’Art 1. That’s right, there’s another massive nuclear bunker in the capital that’s been turned into a museum!

According to Trip Advisor, “Bunk’Art 2 reconstructs the history of the Albanian Ministry of Internal Affairs from 1912 to 1991 and reveals the secrets of “Sigurimi”, the political police that was the harsh persecution weapon used by the regime of Enver Hoxha. Bunk’art 2 is the first major video museum exhibition dedicated to the victims of communist terror.

I quote that website’s summary here because the first half-dozen rooms (there are dozens of small ones, mostly lining either side of one long, narrow hallway before it branches off at the end) have little to do directly with the sordid history of the Minstry of Internal Affairs. Instead they trace the painstaking, and, sorry to say, slightly boring, bureaucratic process of Albania establishing for the very first time ever its own national branches of police, military, and security forces. But these seemingly dry bits have real significance in context – the exhibits begin (although it is not explicitly explained anywhere in the museum) directly after the successful 1912 Albanian revolt against the Ottoman Empire, its 400+ year Turkish overlords.

Seen in that light, the black and white photos of different regions and towns with their first-ever police training academy classes bear more national significance than the typical outsider can grasp. This groundbreaking establishment of unification, centralization, and local self-government reminded me of the other European nationalist movements a century earlier, back in the early 1800s. Even today, Albanians joke that if the world ends, it won’t affect them, because Albania is 10 years behind the rest of the world.

But the smooth sailing of the new nation was not to last. There was world conflict in WWI and WWII, and in the latter, Albania was briefly conquered by then-fascist Italy which built a variety of buildings that can still be seen today. But oh, afterwards….there came the awful “communist terror”.

It was illegal to leave the country. It was illegal to enter. (Mother Theresa’s mother lived and died within Albanian territory which now belongs to Macedonia, denied the chance to see her grown daughter one last time.) Albanians caught trying to escape could be – and were – shot. Enver Hoxha’s paranoid dictatorship relocated individuals and families of suspect political loyalty inland, away from borders, and populated the border areas with those of known loyalty. Border guards were carefully chosen from influential political families. Anyone heard to say something like, “I want to move to Greece” could be reported to the authorities and relocated to a house in the middle of nowhere.

The young woman below, only 20 if memory serves, was one of many innocent people arrested by the Sigurimi. She stands out as an unusual case because she withstood weeks of gruesome torture while maintaining her innocence. After weeks, a friend was finally granted permission to visit her and was appalled by her appearance; she was filthy, covered in several kinds of bugs, and near mad. At that point, the regime was finally ready to release her. However, since they felt her condition was far too bad to reveal to the public eye, they moved her into a hospital for a few weeks so she could regain some physical and mental health before discharge. But after everything she had been through, it was not to happen. Her physical health improved steadily until one day she threw herself out the upper-story window to her death.

Hatlije Tafaj.

(The numbers you see in the pictures above are conservative estimates based on only officially verified cases. Wikipedia says the number of people killed was somewhere between 5,000 and 25,000.)

Many quotes regarding totalitarianism can be read on the walls on the way to the sunny exit. Before we walked up the stairs out of the bunker, to face sunlight, a clear blue sky, and dandelions in the grass by the bench, there was a wall lined with sayings.

One woman, born in Macedonia to an Albanian father, first called Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu and later known as Mother Theresa, said, “Evil settles roots when man begins to think that he is better than others.

One artist, Rajmonda Zajmi Avignon, created a sculpture in the shape of a monster, with a face composed of a TV screen showing footage of the regime’s evils. In his written discourse, he speaks of monsters that climb ranks, manipulate people, and fear free speech. At the end he says, If one day you decide to fight the monsters, be aware, while fighting monsters, do not forget what you strive for. Always… Watch out [for] the monster inside you!

Okinawan Turtleback Tombs

Imagine my surprise at meandering down a side street during my first week on the island and finding myself in a small neighborhood of concrete structures vaguely resembling graves or mausoleums! Most of them looked to be from within the last 50-70 years, if I had to make a snap judgment on how old the concrete looked. I snapped a few shots there on the cloudy day, feeling confused by the zombie wasteland-like deserted streets and faded buildings and intrigued by the discovery of a real-life mystery. Why were these sizable cemetery structures hiding in clusters amid neighborhoods of the living?

I had never seen pictures of turtleback tombs (kamekoubaka in Japanese) or heard about them until I saw them in person, since Okinawa was a surprise last-minute destination that I did not research. (And that’s a whole story for another time.) In fact, I only learned what they were called this week, when doing some research before writing this post.

I remember seeing graves almost exactly like the ones below after climbing the highway guardrail to take some overgrown stairs down to a hidden row of tombs lower down the hill. An asphalt-paved road with cars periodically passing to and fro was just above the ledge/clearing.

None of these were turtleback tombs, though. Not yet. I don’t have an answer for their presence, actually.

Now. Cut (several weeks into the future) to me walking down an asphalt highway on a steep hill down to the beach. Thick, lush tropical forest rises up and stretches out on either side of the road, occasionally dipping down to reveal houses, buildings, or lower vegetation. I’ve got no cellular data but am constantly checking to make sure the blue arrow of Google Maps and I are still going in the same direction. A four way intersection interrupts the rapid descent to where the water must eventually be, and right there by the corner, backed up to the forest, is a gigantic stone/concrete looking rounded structure. It’s…well, you hardly know what to call it. Monument? Tomb? How old is it? It’s so huge. No plaque or inscription of any kind.

It’s solid and feels unnecessarily, impressively vast in some vaguely important way. This is it, below, I think. By far the best picture I have out of all these tombs, and the most striking.

I would see plenty more during my time there, including a good handful of the smaller, not very turtle-looking ones set back into the woods but visible from the walking path in the big Okinawa Comprehensive Park.

Apparently turtle motifs are common in old Chinese graves in the coastal Fujian region, from whence the custom made its way to the Ryukus. (Think legends of the turtle with the world on its back.) This was hardly the only custom to make its way from coastal China to the islands; Okinawa and the rest of the Ryukyu chain are equidistant from mainland China and mainland Japan, and historically traded with and paid tribute to both.

But here’s the kicker – on Okinawa, it ain’t about turtles. It’s about a mother’s womb. The soul is believed to return to a mother’s womb of some kind after death; whether literal or metaphorical, I do not know. Take a look at that big tomb a few pics up and tell me that’s not a VERY anatomically accurate concrete wall about to give birth. Can’t unsee it now, can you?

Way to bury the lead, I know.

Since they’re meant to represent a mother’s womb, I’d sure like to call them “womb tombs”, since it rhymes and sounds funny. Yep. I think I will. That’s their name now.

In the bloody, hellish battle for Okinawa between Japanese and U.S. forces during WWII, there are records on both sides of locals and soldiers taking refuge in the turtleback tombs and the resulting fighting to gain control of them.

Sights like the tomb above, surrounded by the lush green encroaching forest, always made me feel like Mowgli in the Jungle Book. I wonder what he felt in his first moment seeing the ruined temple inhabited by King Louis and his monkey subjects. (There was more than one day where I strode along the side of the road on the way to a new destination singing “The Bare Necessities.”) The element of mystery that so romantically shrouds old architecture never shows up better than when unintended plant life crowds its way back onto the scene.

I can’t tell you exactly which spots on the island to find these collections of tombs, because I don’t remember. I found all of them by accident. Most were not alone but in clusters. If you go, enjoy the adventure of exploring the island yourself and the joy of stumbling upon them as you go!

Fun Facts About Albanian Culture

After living in this unique, easygoing place for about six months, here’s what I’ve learned.

Now, this list focuses on the positive or neutral aspects of life here instead of the negatives, because no one in the entire world wants to hear one of THOSE expats whine about little stuff like bad drivers. (Insert eye roll emoji here.) Yes, there are significant problems like lack of economic opportunity, extreme patriarchy, and corrupt politicians, but those are not unique to Albania and we all hear about that kind of thing constantly on the news anyway.

So here goes.

  1. The Albanian language is unique in the Indo-European family and thought to be one of the most ancient branches of it. It sounds unique but also very much like a mixture of languages sometimes- Ciao (Italian) for goodbye, Opa (Greek)for “oof”, many words that sound like their counterparts in Romance languages, and many more Turkish loanwords.
  2. “Familiar” – family-like communal atmosphere. It encompasses a generous sharing of time, food, vehicles, word-of-mouth information, general labor or assistance. Be prepared to spend a lot of time waiting around and doing things as a group, and know that you can count on your friends to be there for you any time you call.
  3. Albania was ruled by the Ottoman Empire, or Turkey as everyone says here, from 1478 until 1912. Hence those Turkish loanwords. The country is still predominantly nominally Muslim, and the call to prayer can be heard in almost every town and village.
  4. Most houses and apartments have no central heating. In the winter the average person (and yours truly!) heats their home using a small woodstove. You’ll buy a batch of small logs in the fall to be your winter stash, but also save all your cardboard garbage for kindling! This shouldn’t be a problem, as recycling facilities do not exist.
  5. Many people are afraid of dogs and the mountains – they say there are wolves and bears there.
  6. Occasionally a stuffed animal will be hanging from the front of building! It’s placed there to distract the evil spirits. Makes sense, really…it’s distracting all right.
  7. The food is not spicy at ALL. Seriously. Just meat, cheese, sausage, gyros, sandwiches, bread, potatoes, salad, pies, etc.
  8. Carts pulled by donkeys or horses can be seen on the roads sometimes in the smaller towns (aka most places outside the capitol of Tirana).
  9. People take their rugs to the carwash to be cleaned in the summer.
  10. They also shake them out the window sometimes in the morning to clean them.
  11. Speaking of which, Albanians tend to have seriously HIGH housekeeping standards! Some people mop their floors almost daily.
  12. Albania has gorgeous beaches and mountains, and the currency exchange rate makes it highly affordable for tourists – book your summer vacation now! The local economy really needs your patronage; it’s a win-win situation.

Vila Ebel

Cozy, homey, historic, and charming, Vila Ebel is like nowhere else. It feels like going back in time in a place so aesthetically pleasing it must be straight out of a movie set, or at least one of your Pintrest boards. This coffeeshop in Korce, Albania is exquisitely, earthily picturesque and everything I’m looking for.

If you arrive before noon you can get breakfast food like toast, oatmeal, fried dough balls (petulla), and eggs several different ways. (Hope you like your eggs Benedict on regular toast instead of on English muffins!) Now the actual buffet for guests in the hotel upstairs is a little more extensive. I can recommend it.

For the rest of the day, the menu is limited to drinks only. There’s traditional Albanian music playing instead of pop like in the other coffeeshops. It’s a lovely vibe, fitting perfectly with the surroundings. And if you walk all the way through the building to the back, you can enjoy this nice outdoor seating which is much nicer than the little tables out front bordering the street. I hung out in this nice little spot all afternoon and the time just flew by.

In colder weather, you’ll probably want to snag one of the two tables in each of the little rooms on the right and left of the entryway. They’re basically accurate turn of the century period-drama living rooms. 10/10 would recommend.

Now. Guess what? Oh, right, I already mentioned there are hotel rooms upstairs. It’s 5500 Lek for a single room and 6000 or 6500 Lek (I don’t remember exactly) for a double. Those numbers are roughly $55, $60, or $65 US dollars. I considered it money well spent indeed.

For a building from the 1920s or 30s, the bathroom features are clean and modern. Said bathrooms are tiny, but they actually have glass doors in the showers instead of the open wet rooms in ordinary homes and apartments. The tiny bottles of soap, shampoo, lotion, etc, smell AMAZING. The rooms are small too, as is to be expected, but the beds are soft and comfortable. The stone walls are an amazing touch that you’re not likely to find in any modern hotel. The furniture is old and wooden and the curtains are lace. How could you pass up the opportunity to turn the key in a giant wooden door that’s going to be yours for the night?

Oh, and the staff’s great.

This is not a sponsored post and this blog is not monetized at all. I’m just infatuated with the place and so naturally I’m going to tell everyone who will listen! Vila Ebel. It’s the bomb. It’s what’s happening. Check it out.