Captain Hilts was gloriously unbreakable. He knew that no one alive had the ability to reach inside of him and break his will, and he really enjoyed that knowledge. It’s where his swagger came from.

Back in 9th or 10th grade, my straight-laced homeschooled self saw Steve McQueen’s character smirk and talk back to the kommandant on the family TV screen and had an instant crush. I was blown away by his chutzpah, his happy, confident determination to never stop rebelling until he succeeded. Sure, he was a hero, but his goodness was almost secondary to who he was in the classic film The Great Escape. His true essence, and the source of his power, was his proud, fierce indomitability. He was a thorn in the side of the Germans who flashed his smug defiance out of his eyes. He’s my hero and inspiration, and he always will be.

We first see his character strolling into the high-security prison camp with a rucksack of belongings, a blue T-shirt that brought out his eyes, a leather pilot’s jacket, the wheels of escape strategies already turning in his mind, and a fire for freedom in his belly. “Cooler King” they called him, because he was forever attempting to escape, and forever getting himself placed in solitary confinement in the “cooler” as punishment. He marched into that cell head held high, every time, baseball mitt and ball in hand. The sound of that ball smacking off the walls was the sound of his unbroken spirit, loud, happy, and defiant for all to hear.

At the end of the movie, Hilts is brought back alive after a mass escape attempt that claimed the lives of many of the men. He takes the news in stride, as to be expected in the face of such long odds, but also learns that their efforts have gotten the commandant fired. He stands there in handcuffs, sizing up the new commandant, and begins to smile. Captain Hilts has found a new boxing opponent, and he clearly relishes the thought of the upcoming battle of wills. Right before being escorted away, he turns back and says, smirking, “Oh…you’ll still be here when I get out?”.

Hilts lost the best attempt he was ever likely to get, but at least he was alive when others weren’t. As long as he was alive, he was in the game and fighting. That made him unbreakable, and now, in their darkest moment of defeat, the hundreds of men left in the camp fell in behind him. They crowded in, spirits leaping within them, to watch the most inspiring figure in camp get ready to accept his assigned number of days in a cell and then come back out swinging like he always did. His march back to the cooler, in front of everyone in the camp, becomes a march of triumph instead of defeat.

I’d like to think there was a seed of Hilts’ wonderful spirit deep in my heart, sustaining me through the difficult years. There was conflict at home with a mostly unyielding authority figure and I lost every time. His house, his rules, and he could change them when he liked. I remember ugly, tearful scenes because I didn’t want him to keep trying to micromanage my calendar the first two years of college. I remember angry, desperate arguments because I didn’t want him to keep assigning me squats as punishment for raising my voice and being “disrespectful” during arguments with my parents. It was humiliating, so horribly humiliating, to be told “no breakfast” and made to do squats in front of the whole family sitting around the table because I came downstairs for breakfast late. Which became the start to almost every day, because I am really not a morning person. This lasted from about 11th grade through the first year of college.

One brother wondered why I didn’t stand up for myself, but the younger one said “I saw you as the nail that wouldn’t be hammered down.” Now that I’ll hang my hat on. I tried my best, and often failed, to hold onto my dignity, but there is a deeper dignity that cannot be taken. It’s what Hilts had. When you’re independent and conscious of your individuality, you have a special power because meeting others’ standards holds no allure. And their disapproval means very little.

I hope that somewhere under my distraught pile of denial, resentment, humiliation, powerlessness, passivity, and self-condemnation was Captain Hilts, deep in the cell of my heart, tossing his baseball against the walls. There was a window in that cell, you know, that he could look out of. There’s always a window in your mind that you can look out of, and that’s how I survived. Imagination is a powerful, beautiful thing.

I outlasted.

I capitulated a lot, because when I did resist, it wasn’t effective. But I did hold onto my self-respect and bided my time. I can say that I outlasted, because I never tried to turn into what he wanted me to be. I only ever wanted to be myself.

Thank you, Hilts, for showing me what spirit looks like. It took a while, but the seed you planted has finally bloomed, and the happiness and confidence is intoxicating. I’m older now, 29. I’m sitting here in a cafe in Europe, next to a cobblestone street, listening to Higher Love with a big smile on my face. I finally have a leather jacket of my own now. Most importantly, I, too, know that no one alive has the ability to reach inside of me and break my will. I really enjoy that knowledge. It’s where my swagger comes from.

“Still I Rise” – Maya Angelou

A Tale of Two Restaurant Workers

I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the only two people in the room who were quietly and genuinely enjoying themselves – the staff in the kitchen.

She was a young Japanese woman with choppy dyed brown bangs and anime eyes, and he was a warm, smiling, weathered, brown-faced Okinawan/Japanese man in a blue cap and white cooking outfit. They stood visible from my seat on the sofa, where they could be present at the register and keep an eye on the room. They kept a wide space between them but rested an arm or hip against the counter, in the universal body language of workers during a boring stretch in the workday.

He was leaning forward into the long gap between them with his arm resting on some appliance at almost shoulder height, moving back and forth in that restless manner that men do when…when they like someone. She was 10 or 15 years younger than his middle age, and stood calmly, with quieter body language. Sometimes she turned her back to the room entirely and looked over at him sideways to the left. But that was later, after her face fell and lost the spark. Most of the time they were fully facing each other, never picking up a rag or any other excuse or busywork to break the spell.

I first noticed them from the way she was looking at him. Such tenderness and love would have been reflected on the face of anyone looking at that man. He lived in a sturdy, friendly, energetic smile, and tonight she got to be in its orbit. I couldn’t even be jealous, I was so mesmerized by the sight of the two of them looking at each other behind the bottles of liqueur and tap handles and lamp and postcards and hanging glasses.

They didn’t have the passion that Bon Jovi and Whitney Houston had been singing of on the restaurant playlist, or at least they would not. Circumstances of life had taken care of that. But listening to that over the subdued, tamped-down propriety and purpose-less conversation and togetherness of those two, I saw how what they had was not only enough for tonight but was enough to make the world go round. We don’t see how precious these fleeting experiences of true companionship are when we’re in them, but looking in from the outside, everyday connection is everything.

Bruno Mars was whining about how he should have bought her flowers, Katy Perry kissed a girl and liked it, someone got a funny feeling in her toes that made her crinkle her nose, and some dude wanted to be living in Beverly Hills for some mad reason, and those two looked and talked on. They still liked each other. It was guy number 3 in the kitchen, the third wheel, that broke the spell in the end by speaking to her. When I heard, “…stand with you on a mountain/live like this forever/until the sky falls down on me” I thought, that could be them. This too is love. It doesn’t matter how many feet apart you stand. You don’t have to be flirtatious or even infatuated to click, and click well.

How many people have I looked at the way they looked at each other, and never noticed? How many men, women, and children put a smile on my face and a swell in my heart when I saw them in their easy, happy, unguarded moments? How many people did I wish would look back and understand and accept it? How many times have I, and will I, catch a glimpse of that look on someone else’s face and jerk my eyes away, scared and suddenly serious?

There is a softer version of the “I want to kiss you” look that emanates warmth, liking, and understanding of the “we’re on inside joking terms now” variety. And that is the look that will make an entire work party or dinner worth the evening. The feeling of being liked and understood washes over your and you can bask in that gentle high as long as you choose. If someone gives you that look at any point in your day, you will go to bed happy that night with a full heart. “I see you, and yes. Yes to who you are and whatever you just did or said.” Only a glance, and yet it’s a stamp of approval on someone’s personality and very existence if done right.

I miss the intensity of those casual connections, often at mundane workplaces like these. They fill you up and you get the rare sense that today, out of all the other days, was deeply alright. A person who smiles at you and keeps smiling, who keeps listening and keeps talking, shows you that you are a person worth being around. That there is something about you that lights others up. They convey to you a sense of worth, and so you light up too.

Then the two of you go on twinkling together, perhaps unknowingly, lighting up your corner of this dark, lonely, dreary world of ours. Yes, ours. Not just yours or mine alone. We can be in this thing together, and we can look at each other as if we like each other – because we do.

Connection is magic.

Photo by Rahul on Pexels.com

Tattooed in Okinawa

I finally worked up the nerve to compliment the owner of BB Coffeeshop on his Polynesian tattoos, and ask him which places he would recommend. He gave me a name – Spiderweb Tattoo Parlor. After mulling tattoo ideas off and on for months, I had finally chosen a word to place on my body. (About time, too – Okinawan tattoos are great-looking and affordable, and I was flying out in a week.)

If I was going to make a permanent mark on myself, I wanted it to be so full of meaning that the message would speak to the core of who I am. I wanted to declare a word or phrase over my life that was so deep, so powerful, that it would resonate for a lifetime and not just for a season.

Χάρις, or Charis (pronounced CARE-iss), is Greek for grace. My name is Grace. According to biblestudytools.com, charis is defined as:

  1. that which affords joy, pleasure, delight, sweetness, charm, loveliness: grace of speech
  2. good will, loving-kindness, favour

The next morning I paused a podcast, pulled up the symbols for Χάρις on my phone, and routed to the Spider Web Tattoo Parlor. The good ole 31 bus showed up and took me right back to the Koza area where I first stayed, almost directly across from that weird, deserted-feeling, roofed in brick shopping area. I followed the dotted path on the map, spinning around on the street corner as one does to try to get the Google Maps blue arc of light pointed in the good direction instead of the other three wrong directions.  I

The tattoo place was on that cool, quasi-abandoned looking street with the two narrow lanes in the middle and a doubly or triply wide sidewalk on either side, covered by a wide permanent awning of sorts and flanked by trees and flowers beside the street. Passed the embroidery shop (think cool jackets with dragon designs on the back, only not that cool looking becuase the place has that faded, we don’t get much business these days vibe) and the patch shop, as well as several closed “bars” that looked more like hopelessly has-been restaurants from 1950s or certainly no later than 1970s. It’s not a taste of home for the military folks anymore, it’s an awkward relic of a decade that actual Americans do not romanticize. A bit like the Mickey Mouse syndrome – he’s popular everywhere but home.

Saw the tattoo shop at the same moment I saw a tall, big, muscular Japanese man walking back towards it. He had half sleeves of tattoos on each arm, pale colored contacts, dark blond/light brown dyed hair styled up on top, and baggy cloth trousers and sandals. I waited and pretended to look at the different coffees in the vending machine to let him go in first, because these whole who-is-going-to-go-in-the-door-first scenarios are even more awkward, if possible, when no one can do any talking. Just awkward stopping and staring and waiting. 

Inside the walls were old faux wood panels. Sitting at a counter of sorts on the left was another tatted man, with longer black hair and a face as far from fresh, smooth, and beautiful as it is possible to get without being actually frightening. He looked a lot like Danny Trejo, only Japanese. He was shorter and slouched over. A young woman with a white facemask was behind the register on the left and greeted me in English, asking “Can we help you with anything?”

So I just showed her the symbols on my phone and she asked if I wanted it exactly like that but in black ink. Yes. “Okay, what is the meaning?” I read off the synonyms from the rest of the page. She asked something about how soon I wanted it, and I said “Well, I have to leave Okinawa in a few days, so…soon.” The man at the bar counter (well, it actually was a bar, but there were no drinks…) came over and took a picture of it with his phone. She gestured to me to have a seat on the brown faux leather couches in the waiting area, so I plopped down and watched Nacho Libre on silent with Japanese subtitles. Okay, I just watched Nacho Libre on silent, then. No health forms or liability waivers were involved and I was never shown a piece of paper or asked to sign anything! (Imagine the laughing emoji here.)

The guy brought me the symbols printed on a sheet of white paper (nice going, technology for the win!) for my approval. I said okay, but immediately thought better of it – what are you doing girl, this is going on your body?!? So I got up, walked over to the counter, and told him I wanted the lines thinner.  A few minutes later the woman went back and took the covering off another brown plastic-y table in the tattoo section. It looked a little sketchy but it was obviously clean and covered in another plastic layer.

They put the ink stencil where I showed them on my upper right arm, and then to my surprise, they asked me to lie down. I assumed I would be sitting up for the procedure, but in hindsight lying down was much better. I pulled out my necklace and had the pointy part of its metal pendant ready in my hand so as to distract from the pain. Speaking of which, it was not horrible by any means, but definitely more than a doctor’s office finger prick. For those of you without tattoos, imagine getting a shot, but constantly. If you’re hoping to avoid the most painful spots, the upper arm is not a bad place to get a tattoo. Anywhere away from bone is a good bet.

I had settled in for the long haul when I heard “okay” and the entire thing was done. That did NOT take as long as I was expecting. How could a tattoo possibly get done that quickly? I was shocked that they hadn’t put any oil or cream on the site before sticking the bandage on, but later on my brother confirmed that there are different theories about that. I sat back down on the waiting sofa a few feet away and hung out with the Nacho Libre gang for a while until the traces of lightheadedness passed.

It felt good walking down the street in my black tank top with the inky, faintly blood-smeared clear bandage showing on my arm. My brother was the only one I told and sent a picture to. He video called later and was all smiles, excited and proud. It was only at his suggestion that I took a selfie and posted it on social media at all. The tattoo was on my arm, for me, and I enjoyed just sitting there with it. Sitting with its meaning.

Charis. Undeserved favor. Not in a, oooh, you’re bad but you got something good, so now you owe God something, way. Not in a, someone did something nice for you so you better say thank you very nicely and act grateful, way. Not in a, Jesus died so that God has to grudgingly let you into heaven, way. God doesn’t do anything he doesn’t want to do, and he wants you.

Charis has been called love in action. That’s why “sweetness” and “favor” make so much sense as synonyms. This is nothing less than a, didn’t ask for it, didn’t have to, all expenses paid, pure, unadulterated, over-the-top goodness. If there’s one thing I want from God, one thing I long desperately, more than anything else in the world, for him to be, that’s it. My life could use some of that in it. Perhaps someday I will be unselfish enough, full of love enough, to show Χάρις to the people around me. I have so, so far to go. This word doesn’t describe me, regardless of whatever nice things my mom might say, but I want it to. But really all I want is to receive it, to feel it. To be overwhelmed and washed away in the full force of that gracious favor.

Putting the word on my body was staking a tenuous claim to it, setting out on a journey into the darkness of the future with just a tiny shred of faith. It was believing against belief and hoping against hope, that after so many years of dogmatic theology, routine worship, and “quiet desperation”, the full force of charis may even yet be waiting in my future. Someday my God will come, and may he show up with every bit of his famous goodness working on my behalf.

Until then, I sure have been enjoying how I look in the mirror when getting ready for a shower.

Top 5 Places to See in Korcë, Albania

Korcë may not be a large town, but it is quite well known in Albania. Its mountainous climate is noticeably different from the lower Mediterranean areas, making the winters snowier and the summers cooler. People from the capital of Tirana like to come up to Korcë for summer getaways. This town has so much to offer – its serenades are famous nationwide, and the food is so good that Tirana has several Korcë-style restaurants! Here are my top recommendations for where to go while you’re here.

  • Places of Worship

The Cathedral is an obvious, not-to-miss choice. Literally, you can’t miss it – it’s visible from surrounding streets and almost any hill. It’s the iconic town landmark; just say “katedrale?” to anyone in the nearby streets and they can point you in the right direction. Its full name is The Resurrection of Christ Orthodox Cathedral of Korcë, and it was built by Greece in 1995. It’s big, beautiful, and very photogenic! The interior walls are ringed with large painted figures of saints, not small framed icons like in small neighborhood shrines or chapels. Other orthodox churches are worth visiting, too, if you get a chance. Their basic interior design is similar to the cathedral, with holy figures ringing the entire walls, a ceiling depicting holy events like the death of Mary or the Ascension of Christ, and a dome rising up at the front.

The Iljaz Mirahori mosque, just around the corner from the Old Bazaar, is made of ordinary, picturesque local brick. Its sturdy appearance and good condition belies its age – it was built by the town founder in 1495! It somehow survived earthquakes, communism, and the vandalism of the ’90s. Don’t miss it; it’s an impressive little piece of history and a testimony to the current religious tolerance and co-existence in this largely Orthodox town, and in Albania as a whole. Someday I will go inside – plan ahead to learn which days it’s open, and if you’re a woman, make sure to bring a scarf for your head, and obviously don’t wear shorts or other clothing that shows a lot of skin. (There is another mosque, built within the last few decades, but I can find no web results for it. You’d have to rely on a local to show you. It has a lovely, entirely white exterior and a colorful, delicately designed interior. )

  • Pedonale

The Pedonale is the pedestrian-only promenade across from the Cathedral. It’s a wide lane lined with trees and restaurants, which spend most of the day serving espressos to small groups of friends. A great place to get breakfast, lunch or dinner – there are plenty of options! I’ve had better luck with coffee than with the pizzas, just to be perfectly honest with you, but there are also plenty of salad and sandwich options. I can personally recommend the Green Bar for its excellent smoothies. There’s also an easy to miss, especially delectable dessert shop with great puddings and honey-soaked pastries. It’s across from a yellow building, just around the corner from the Ana Maria gyro stand – my personal favorite food to grab on the run, or just about any time, for that matter.

  • Gjon Mili Exhibit

A pretty canary-yellow building permanently houses a photography exhibit of the extraordinary Albanian Gjon Mili. Born right here in Korcë in 1904, he grew up in Romania and immigrated to the United States in 1923. His photographs appeared on the cover of Life Magazine and his subjects included Pablo Picasso, Billie Holliday, Duke Ellington, and other luminaries. He experimented with a multiple-exposure technique that captured a fascinating series of movements by ballet dancers, for example, in a single photograph. He also gave us the rare gift of several short films of Harlem jazz groups in the 1940s.

The museum is closed on Mondays and from 2:00pm to 5:00 pm in the afternoons. When you go inside, you’ll need to climb the narrow staircase to the second and third floors to see the exhibit, and eventually will be asked for payment, which is 200 lek ($2 USD). There is a room where you can pay for a photograph of yourself in the style of the one below, where Pablo Picasso is “light painting”.

Pablo Picasso, photograph by Gjon Mili, Life Magazine, 1949
  • Old Bazaar

If you take a left at the end of the Pedonale and cross the street, you’ll be at the entrance to the old bazaar. Buildings that used to be shops have all been converted into souvenir shops, restaurants, bars, and coffeeshops. My favorite places are Sophie Cafe, Cozy Tea, and any restaurant that serves…well, I’ll save the descriptions of my favorite authentic Albanian foods for another article! In the evenings, children run and play in the cobblestone center as their parents sip Birra Korce and smoke at the outdoor seating of the surrounding restaurants. Before Covid-19, there was live music in the evenings, weather and temperature permitting. Albania is proud of its music and young people know (and spontaneously break in to!) the traditional dances.

www.montagnando.it; 2016
  • National Museum of Medieval Art

Trip Advisor rates it #1 out of 25 things to do in Korcë! Full disclosure, I have not been inside yet, as I’m waiting for the free admission on the last Sunday of the month, but I’m certainly looking forward to it. It’s open 9:00 am to 7:00 pm every day of the week except Monday, with a break every afternoon from 2:00 pm to 5:00 pm. Tickets to the Museu Kombëtar i Artit Mesjetar, as the Albanian sign outside reads, are 700 lek, which is $7 USD.

Medieval art in this case refers to Byzantine icon art, which is displayed from floor to ceiling inside. I highly recommend researching the symbolism of icons in order to more fully appreciate the paintings when you see them. Biblical characters and saints are highly stylized and identifiable by a shorthand of gestures, colors, and props. Even the manner of representing the facial features holds a spiritual meaning. Khan Academy has some good educational videos on the topic.

I hope you can come visit Korcë someday! It’s picturesque, laid-back, and affordable. It certainly gets two thumbs up from me!

The Flying Cockroach

This was my word-for-word account of a fun little event on May 29, 2020. Actually, it was not fun at all. It was a distressing little event but very fun to talk about. Evil, evil, nasty creatures. Enjoy!

A BIG ole FLYING COCKROACH was skittering around my windowpane this evening.

I grabbed a shoe but he was not easily accessible. So I waited and stared at that evil. Oh gosh, his whole big body under that shell, and HEARING HIM! Now, my mother raised her children to aggressively kill bugs without fear or hesitation. But see, this is a studio apartment and my bed is under that windowsill.

My bed. I sleep in this room. I was already a wreck at that point.

Guys, he flew.

I screamed, and my mother did not raise a coward. She didn’t raise us to curse either, but boy did I drop more f-bombs than Deadpool ever did. I was begging the Lord for deliverance.I pranced right off that bed I had been standing on and decided that no, moving to a new place wasn’t an option. The duvet is brown and he blended right in. ON MY BED. Noooooo Jesus help me!!!!(Insert every four letter word in the book.)

I gingerly dragged off all the linens, stray clothes, and pillows, fully intending to stand on the porch all night if I didn’t find the abomination. Finally I saw him next to the bed on a cabinet board, just out of reach behind a cross-beam. He was so close to being able to kill, but so close to running under that sleeper sofa bed, and once he got under there I would have been screwed. Thank God he went back up the wall, across the windowsill to the right, and onto a cushion on the other side of the bed.

All this time I tried swatting him with the Chaco sandal, but he was too quick. (Cockroaches are only really slow in cold weather.) Now he’s on the side of the cushion, so if I hit him he won’t die. The underside of the bed is so close, and he CANNOT get loose under there because I’ll never get him out. Aha – to the right are the folding glass doors to the laundry porch (yes, that’s a thing in this area of the world). If I can slide the cushion, with him on it, onto the porch and close the door, he can’t get back in because the doors look like they seal pretty flush. (There’s an open suitcase of my clothes out there, but the bed is in here, so I’ll take my chances with the porch.)

It works. He gets a free ride as I slowly slide him, but then I toss the cushion. The idea was to get it free of the door so I could drag the door into a closed position. Bad idea, tossing. He’s moving, he’s moving, he’s on the move!

Over the cushion, onto the door (I swat and miss), up onto the sleeve of a hanging shirt, back onto the door – and straight at me. He’s running back inside. I scream and start whacking at him for dear life . He gets down in the groove of the door crack. Like lightning, and before I had time to think of what to do, I turned that sandal upright and jabbed the front of it into the crack like there was no tomorrow.

He dead. I do not feel safe. He was the scout. More are coming. Gotta buy a bleach-based cleaning product tomorrow and wipe down this entire place, it’s the only way. I have always maintained that cockroaches are spawn of the devil and crawled out of the pit of hell, and after tonight, I cannot say that I have changed my mind.

Culture Shock

Have you ever been homesick?

Maybe you were young and away at summer camp, and started missing your mom (or her cooking). Maybe you were older and away at university, and started missing your dog. Or your friends from your hometown, or just having a sofa and a fully stocked fridge instead of bunk beds and cafeteria food. Regardless of your life experiences, you know what it’s like to dislike where you are and wish yourself elsewhere.

Well, sometimes culture shock is like that, but often it’s actually not. It’s complicated, occasionally subtle, and different from person to person.

With culture shock, you don’t want to go back home, not really. You’re exactly where you want to be, planned to be, wished and dreamed and worked so hard to be. And now, after the first few days, weeks, or even months (the honeymoon period), you feel…blah.

At first you had an eager, open-minded attitude; you learned as much of the language as you could remember and tried all the food. You asked a million questions, took pictures, and enjoyed the novelty of new circumstances. You prided yourself, rightfully so, on being enlightened and tolerant. Far be it from you to have anything in common with those xenophobic snobs who think their nation and background is the only “right” way to live!

And now that you’re comfortably settled in? A bad day has turned into a bad week…or several. You’re “over” the food, weather, surroundings, and even people. Cultural differences that you absorbed and adjusted to quickly are starting to get under your skin. Little things are constantly ticking you off, and you’re on the verge of losing your temper in daily interactions (if you haven’t already). If you have anxiety, depression, or other mental health struggles, those conditions are definitely acting up right now. No matter how strong, independent, happy, or well-travelled you are, you feel like a bit of a mess at this point.

Congratulations. You, my dear homie, are in the throes of culture shock. Cool, huh? Bet you didn’t know it could happen to someone as worldly and sophisticated as you. And yet here we are. Strap in for the ride.

When you have moved to a new culture (this can happen sometimes even within your own country), you are guaranteed to start feeling frustration, anger, sadness, loneliness, fear, and other assorted negative emotions at some point.

What culture shock is NOT: inflexibility, being over-emotional, small mindedness, intolerance, a bad attitude, weakness, or a personal failing. Do NOT beat yourself up for going through culture shock. Being disappointed in yourself is too big a burden to bear! It will only make things harder for you, especially since so much of this is beyond your control.

So what does it look like?

After a few months in China, I started listening to country music so I could “feel American”.

In Korea and Japan it was much more subtle; I had bouts of insomnia and quit exploring. When I came here to Albania, I soon became much more quiet and withdrawn than usual.

I saw multiple British and American coworkers lose their cool at the indirect communication style of some Chinese coworkers.

One British man said he would sometimes have a “bad China day.” “Do you ever just walk down the street and think, ‘Why does that man’s face look like that?'” he asked. I had to admit, no. “What makes it better?” I asked. “Get drunk” was his advice (rather stereotypically for someone from the British Isles).

Who can begin to say how many Americans (and other westerners with a linear concept of time) have snapped and lost their tempers at slow-moving bureaucrats, taxi drivers, waiters, and other service people? Really too many to count.

Who can begin to say how many African and Indian university students in the U.S.A. and Europe have railed in misery against the cold winters, individualistic attitudes, and comparatively flavorless food? Really too many to count.

So, what makes it better?

Good food

This is first because it’s the most important! Comfort food is an absolute necessity in these dire circumstances, and it will do you a world of good. Get a hearty dinner of a food you’ve always liked. Take a break from the local fare for as long as you need to, if it helps. You’ll come back around in the end.


Find the expat/foreign community and other like-minded people to hang out with. We humans are designed to live in close society with others, and being new in a place makes that difficult to achieve. If linguistic and cultural differences are stopping you from making friends, it’s more than alright take a little while to invest in relationships with people you have more in common with. Oh, and call your mom and friends back home! Regardless of whether you’re primarily an introvert or extrovert, we all crave belonging desperately. In fact, the lack of it is a huge part of culture shock. Reach out and find someone that you can belong with, even if it’s just over the phone or for a quick coffee.

Watch some Netflix

Come on, this is an easy one, but it does help. Sometimes the world is just too much. Numbing with a good story or exciting series is so much healthier than numbing with alcohol! (But I do recommend having a good drink or two on hand, along with yummy snacks and cozy blankets. Make a night of it.)

Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisioned by the enemy, don’t we consider it his duty to escape?. . . If we value the freedom of mind and soul, if we’re partisans of liberty, then it’s our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can!” – J.R.R. Tolkein

Things you Like

Hobbies are your lifeline. Lean into the most reassuring aspects of your everyday, usual life now more than ever. If you’re active, join a gym or club, and find good routes for hiking, running, etc. It helps to have some favorite places that you like to go, like a favorite restaurant, bar, or park. Find the stores with imported goods, get haircut and manicure if that’s what you like, photograph what stands out, and generally find a million other little ways to feel like yourself wherever you happen to be. Positive connections and associations with concrete, physical places will serve you well, no matter how low you feel. The more ordinary things you find to love, the less you will hate where you are.

For example, I love coffeeshops and immediately pick one to be “mine” whenever I move to a new place. I get a warm and homey feeling as soon as I walk in and settle down at “my” usual seat. I’m on my fourth country in two and a half years, and this tactic has never failed me. Familiarity and routine are your friends during culture shock!


Be gentle with yourself, above all. Do not get frustrated with yourself for not being at normal capacity, or pressure yourself to get over all of your feelings and be instantly okay. We tend to react to new circumstances in ways that are consistent with our personalities and general responses to stress. Know yourself and your stressors and coping mechanisms enough to recognize when it’s happening to you, and then take a deep breath and settle in for the ride.

Plants take time to adjust to new pots. They only start to relax and put out their roots into new space when they are healthy and thriving. So take good care of yourself so you can thrive.You’re not somehow coping poorly under normal circumstances, you’re actually coping pretty well under abnormal circumstances!

Culture shock can also come back periodically in waves, maybe every six months or a year, not only at the beginning. And just like a wave in the ocean, all you have to do is duck under or ride it out. It can’t take you down permanently, because it’s only temporary.

Struggling doesn’t mean you’re failing. It means you’re fighting.

Misogyny and the Canary in the Coal Mine

The canary in the coal mine was a live, chirping alarm system for poisonous gasses.

In the heyday of coal mining, men worked in small, tight, dangerous tunnels with little light. Banging on pipes with a shovel could sometimes serve as a communication system, but there was no technology to measure or detect the presence of poison gasses. Coal mining produces large quantities of poisonous gasses, especially carbon monoxide: a silent, odorless, invisible killer.

By the time a grown man begins to feel dizzy from fumes, he probably doesn’t have enough time or strength left to get to safety before collapsing. Can his friends next to him help? Not much, not if they’ve been breathing the same air. Once gas is present in large enough quantities to be detected, it’s a race against time to get people out before they succumb.

If only they could know sooner, while it’s still safe. They would have time, and options.

Enter the canary.

The miners hung a birdcage from the tunnel ceiling and went about their work, knowing that they had a way to check now. It takes a much smaller concentration of a harmful substance to kill a canary than a man, and that’s why it’s so important to have the canary there. Just look up at him from time to time – if he’s thriving, all is well. If he seems sick, something’s not right. He is the warning, our low-tech alarm system. If that little dude faints, we’re all in trouble. (Did they name the bird? Probably? I don’t know?)

Sure, they can take it and he can’t, because they’re bigger and stronger, but what a crazy point to make! If there’s enough to affect him, there could soon be enough to affect us. Shut it down. Stop work effective immediately, get out, now. Get everyone out. Find the source of the problem before someone actually does get hurt. Thanks, canary, for letting us know. As a matter of fact, if we pay close enough attention to the little guy all along, no canaries need be hurt in the production of this film.

Photo by Dexter Fernandes on Pexels.com

What does this have to do with feminism and women in society?

Discussions about subtle misogyny need to be taken seriously. Women in your life who call you, or anyone else, out on double standards or mansplaining are sounding an alarm. “But I don’t hate women.” Of course not, but you just assumed that someone was ignorant/incompetent, or you defined prominent women by their dating history and prominent men by their successes. Or your friend, or boss, or newscaster, or town council representative did.

These issues really are like canaries in the coal mine. They warn that something noxious is present – in a small dose, but still present. It’s the idea that women are less than capable, or belong in a more restricted range of roles in society. An indicator light is going off – someone is treating a woman as a wee bit lesser, just in this circumstance of course, because she is a woman, and that’s problematic. So, as a good lookout, a woman speaks up and lets you know that something is up. 

And you laugh, because you don’t believe in that politically correct, overly feminist bullshit.

Bad move.

Bad, bad move.

What a ridiculous idea, someone with right-wing politics says, that such topics are real problems. Conservative commentators waste no time having a field day and making a mockery of the very notion of adjusting one’s behavior or words for something as disgusting, as laughable, as ludicrous, as victimhood or feelings. The very idea that oppression exists is ridiculed and actually used to mock those standing up for themselves.

I’m reminded of the time Australian Senator Katy Gallagher accused fellow Senator Mitch Fifield of mansplaining; he promptly accused her of sexism against him for daring to use such a term. Ah yes, that old trusty fallback defense – those who allege mistreatment or problems in society are the real problems. If you don’t talk about it, it won’t exist.

Well, tell that to the canary.

She was trying to warn you, but you turned off your smoke alarm.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

A man who is disgusted when women start talking about makeup or periods will be equally disgusted by a gay man. Someone who laughed at disabled kids in high school is not going to volunteer to tutor refugees in English. He or she just not that kind of person. Show me a man who thinks that people who crossed a border without documentation deserve to have their kids locked in cages, and I will show you a man whose wife and kids avoid crossing him or offending him at all costs.

Bigotry doesn’t exist in test tubes labeled by sex, gender, ethnicity, religion, etc. It’s an attitude that bleeds across the spectrum of life to poison anything or anyone who is different. Toxic fumes don’t stay in one tunnel. They spread to others.


Sexism and racism go hand-in-hand, suggests new research that finds sexist and racist people are those who are likely to approve of hierarchies. The results suggest that racist and sexist attitudes are linked to personality, said study researcher Maite Garaigordobil, a psychologist at the University of the Basque Country in Spain. “Sexism is linked to authoritarianism and a leaning towards social dominance,” Garaigordobil said in a statement. “In other words, sexist people accept hierarchies and social inequality, they believe that different social groups have a status that they deserve, and they feel that the social class to which they belong is the best.”

Sexism doesn’t just affect relationships on an individual level.

(Although, speaking of the individual level, men who tolerate womanhoood or anything to do with it as a flaw, joke, offense, or failing, should be avoided in romantic relationships at all costs. That is not love. It is a foundation for patterns of abusive behavior.)

Subtle misogyny is problematic because any unaddressed, unchecked problem is bad news. I won’t compare it to early warning signs of a deadly disease, because the truth is that these things don’t usually grow unchecked in individuals. The human personality is formed by the time we reach adulthood, and the way people tend to treat other people usually stays pretty consistent throughout their adult lives. But bigotry in society can, and often does, become more openly acceptable and even encouraged. This enables the worst of human nature to come out into the sunshine and find its outlet in an escalating, self-perpetuating cycle of openly expressed hate.

Countries must do more to integrate refugee and migrant children in  schools, says UN report ✎ Theirworld
Syrian refugee children at a refugee camp in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley
 — Photo credit: GEM Report / Justine Redman

Hitler’s early anti-Semitic rhetoric was a dead canary in the coal mine. Anti-Semitism has been around for centuries, nay, millennia. While it doesn’t always result in genocide, it certainly never leads to anything good. It’s an evil weed that recurs periodically and has to be vigilantly monitored and put down whenever it rears its ugly head. It’s been on the rise alarmingly in Europe and the U.S.A. in recent years, with hate crimes being reported in much higher numbers. How much is too much?


Remember the lesson from the coal mine. If you see a symptom of sexism or any other form of bigotry, address it immediately.

God save us from the politics of men who think they’re naturally superior in any way to women. Whether hostile or benevolent, their misogyny (which they will always vigorously deny) relies on the premise that they are in some way “over” or “above” half the planet’s population, simply because of the sex they were born with. Do you really think people who think like that are capable of consistently caring about, much less fighting for, the rights and well-being of anyone vulnerable?

If they can’t respect and celebrate the femininity of the women in their life the way we respect and celebrate their masculinity, then I swear to you, by everything I have ever learned in this world, something wicked this way comes.

Heed the canary’s call when you first hear it.






Christ and the Chapel Above the City


I walked into the stone chapel and felt nothing, of course.

Two days after my arrival in Albania, my brother Freeman and sister in law Natalie drove me up the hill to see the large white cross and the small stone chapel overlooking the city of Korce. We parked the car in the lot and walked up the rest of the way, with the dog running ahead and me resolving to do more cardio. The range of rocky hills to the left, draped in evergreens, looked wild and enticing. On the right was the town below, and it was a picture to behold: red clay tile roofed houses set down in clusters on top of perfect green farmland to form a town.

After a while of admiring the view from the flat dirt space at the top, I turned and entered the stone chapel. I did so because it was there. If there is something in front of you to be seen and explored, never put it off. You might get another chance on another day to experience it, but you will never again have the golden, fleeting sliver of time that is this day. Your moment is now, and this particular one is not coming back again, not as long as you live.

Striding boldly across the empty threshold in dirty black boots felt offensive to long-ago childhood memories of paper bulletins, white tights, and “church shoes.” This place, however, was empty and alone and didn’t feel holy, no matter how much I wanted it to.

Part of me had been hoping against hope that there might be something in there that couldn’t be seen from the outside. Every time I walk into a spiritual place, I wonder, is he here? Does his presence haunt this place loudly enough to shout into a mind that hardly hears whispers?

It was small and empty and the windows contained (in my humble, non-professional, hopefully not sacrilegious opinion) exceptionally bad icons. They were nothing like the stilted, gold-plated symbolic figures I had encountered in art history; just garish colors with difficult-to-look-at attempts at the human figure – cheap and mildly appalling. It could have been a Bhuddist or Shinto shrine for all the spiritual value I was receiving, but then, I hadn’t expected anything when I walked through the door.

Sigh. Typical. And yet I was disappointed in it anyway, a shell of a spiritual building with no one there, no alter, no cross, no rituals or priest to bring the word of God. It felt so wrong.

All my life, I have struggled to sift the famous still, small whisper of God’s voice from the cacophony of other thoughts. I’ve heard it distinctly on a few occasions but usually drown it out with the cold doubt of needing logical certainty. The divine whisper comes oh so rarely, and I think I went into the chapel to chase it. Perhaps I half expected a word from him to be waiting, echoing, in the shadows. It was not.

My faith, for many years, has consisted of proverbially tying a knot in the end of one’s rope and hanging on. I hang on to not only doctrine and knowledge but to the very real experiences of others. People have met him, heard from him, felt him. He is out there. I’ve always known that. But maybe not in a way that is available for me – I’ve always known that too. Maybe I will have to live purely on faith until I meet him after death. I hope not, but I don’t know. With every year I get older, it becomes harder and harder to survive on those few-and-far-between whispers.

And then I saw it – a clumsily hand-painted picture like nothing else in the room. It was all face, a man with brown hair and blue eyes (historically inaccurate but surprisingly mesmerizing despite the amateurishness) and a crown of thorns. He was looking up and slightly to the right, as if over someone’s shoulder. The suffering Christ, the Lord in pain. He looked almost surprised or bewildered at the sight of his approaching suffering – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

I said out loud “I could get somewhere with this one” and walked over and stared at it. The Byzantine artistic tradition of iconography conveys holiness and divinity through making the subject less human – feet that do not touch the earth; robes as royal as possible; thin noses, because they do not live by their earthly senses; stiff gestures of blessing with perfect, elongated hands. Not so this painting.

In a room full of religious trinkets, this non-stylized, messy approximation of a face was a treasure. This artist had chosen to zoom in on the head alone, unusual for a crucifixion scene. Jesus wasn’t even facing the camera, so to speak, but looking up over the viewer’s shoulder as he endured his agony. Paint was splotched everywhere.

The realness called out to me, who was so opposed to fakeness. The vulnerability made it – made him – feel so real, so human. Looking at him, you recognized him. Humanity recognizes humanity, and pain recognizes pain. Thus it is that we mere mortals can look into the face of God himself and say wonderingly, “Hey, I know you!”

The time was gone. The sun was going down, and my brother called me out to take pictures with the city in the background. I tore myself away.

Standing beside the stone wall, watching this outdoorsy young couple try to get their dog in the photo, I looked down at the postcard, storybook image of Korce, and wondered, not for the first time, at the verse from 1 John that says “Do not love the world or anything in the world.” At first blush it doesn’t sound too good to me, as I am madly in love with the beauty of this world. But that’s not what John, Jesus’s closest friend, was referring to. He was warning people away from worldliness: power, greed, position, fame, lust, spiritual substitutes for God. He was not talking about these buildings, or trees, or mountains, or even necessarily the good food and drink down there in the little town. He was not talking about the people.

I know this, because in that moment I remembered the story of Jonah. At the end of the story, God remonstrates with this resentful Israelite prophet on behalf of the problematic, pagan, Assyrian Ninevites “And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” Such a beautiful, random, anticlimactic thing to tack on at the very last verse of the book- the ancient God of all wonders had compassion even for animals, and would not see them destroyed. He loved them.

As we took in the sight of the town, the evening call to prayer floated up from a small mosque on the cool evening breeze. Lights began to flicker on. There was a sunset, red tile roofs, farm plots, animals, and people speaking a language that I didn’t understand but he did. The same Christ from the chapel was looking down on Korce too, and his verdict was love.

Okinawa Diaries: Isolation

The following are excerpts from my journal, with very minor edits (mostly for brevity), from my time on the tropical Japanese island of Okinawa.

I had planned to spend the summer of 2020 with cousins in Myanmar, but due to Covid-19 border closures, we had to get out of the country in a week. There was one flight left for me and it wound it up in Okinawa, so there I washed up in the middle of March, with two clunky suitcases and zero friends.

I spent the next three months of the tourist visa counting how many weeks had passed since my last in-person conversation. I video called friends and family far too rarely. After a while I started to feel like a ghost, able to walk around and catch busses at will, even eat and drink, but not speak, listen, and be understood and seen.

It was an intense experience, and hopefully once in a lifetime. I am grateful to have gone through it.

This has been a rough year for everyone, especially the elderly and those at high risk, who have had to impose stricter quarantine measures than the rest of us. I share this personal chapter of my life partly in their honor. May we love and look out for the invisible among us until they are visible, and no one has to live as a ghost.

May 13

I feel oddly hungry here on this island, not physically (almost at all, actually), but…humanly. There is a sensation of self-digesting. As the inner world is where I spend at least 90% of my waking hours, yes, I truly am feeding off of myself. 

In past years without a strong social group, the need for connection was always real, but I just brushed it aside like one would do with a snack craving in the middle of a busy workday and went about my merry way. That house of cards is so strained right now. As a former homeschooler who went to a small college, I know what it is to be alone, and I learned to relish it all these years. But now that the world has gone quiet, it does feel like being sentenced to solitude. 

I have the gall to say that even though I just ate in several restaurants this week, since there had been no new coronavirus cases in the past week and I was hitting my limit of self-imposed distancing. Turns out going to the places that people go and seeing them in passing does not cut it, at all. Without connection, even the change of scenery is starting to feel meaningless.

An elderly woman tried to talk to me at the bus stop the other day after I tried to use hand gestures to tell her I liked her floral cloth face mask. She kept going on, adorably, as older folks tend to do when I try to engage them in a language I don’t speak. She later just randomly up and handed me the exact change for the bus fare when it was time for me to get off.  Sweet grandma. Love those kind of people. They always put a huge smile on my face. It would have been nice to be able to chat with her, but all I can say is hello, yes, and thank you. I don’ t even know goodbye. There hasn’t been any reason to learn the language because the only people I speak to are usually checkout clerks.

This place is just so quiet. I heard two planes fly close overhead earlier this evening and it was a refreshing and comforting sound – life is out there! City noises! You can still come and go to many different places with noises of their own! Gosh, how I would love to hear some really awful traffic right now. People yelling would be nice.

May 17

The other day I watched the UK video “The Blessing” being sung by individual musicians from churches across the UK. It came at just the right time. I was so at the end of my rope, having been isolated for so long, and my faith has of course been struggling mightily. When I watched it, it was as if these people were sending a message to ME. These earnest brothers and sisters from the UK reached out and pulled me back into the boat. I went from sad sack all alone to experiencing a primal, ancient, global, robustly orthodox ritual – receiving divine blessing corporately. 

It was a touching and powerful experience, and I was crying pretty good even though my emotional damper pedal was still on. The idea that “he is for you” was almost a new way of thinking for me somehow; it was disarming and overwhelming, and through the crying I had to run a quick Biblical memory scan to see if this was even theologically accurate. Being sung to with such a Spirit-filled message gave me a second wind in this “long walk home”, as Springsteen sang. That sums up the human experience pretty well – we are all taking the long walk home.

May 30

The world is full of unimaginable pain and trauma, which I have not experienced. I have no right to this. Other people deserve help and support; my life has been so privileged that the little pain that has entered it is meaningless, worthless, merits no grief or healing. It does not have a right to exist and be named. Because it is small, it must not be.

It is either trauma or nothing at all. Tiredness, fear, stress, sadness, loneliness – they don’t matter. Everyone else has them and everyone else deals with them alone…right?

Wanting a shoulder to cry on in the tough times will make me weak and unable to deal with things on my own. If I ask for help, I will magically unlearn all my coping skills for when I’m alone…okay, that sounds like it’s probably wrong. A cruel lie tells me it’s better to be hurting and strong (alone) than hurting and weak (relying on someone else). When I do have people to listen and support and comfort, it is super helpful. But they’re not here right now. So I lean in to the only way I know to deal with life – fighting back the stress and emotions and telling myself to be strong, until it takes me down. 

I am so lonely. 

I’ve read the stats on loneliness being worse for your health than cigarettes. I know it’s not natural. It may be killing me, but I don’t know where to start. I don’t have a lot of options. I’m a rolling stone. I don’t know anyone in the places I’m about to go, and I don’t know anyone here. My friends have lives. And I’m stuck in mine. How I wish I could get out of it for a little while. Being a digital nomad sounds like a dream come true, and I’m beyond grateful for the chance to travel, but the constant isolation turns the dream into a nightmare. 

I’ve always been an introvert, but this is just torture. This is not sustainable. I need to find community in the next place. After so much social distancing, I’m not even used to people sitting too close to me in restaurants. Japan loves its quiet, and I’ve gotten used to it even though it’s no obsession of mine. Life is what I crave, but I’m going to have to re-learn how to be around people without bolting.

I feel like a child with Ricketts because they never go out in the sun. I need to thaw out to people again, to get the clumsy numbness out of the inside where it has settled like the icy cold in winter soil. If ever I needed saving, perhaps it is now. No man is an island – but I’ve been living like one for a long time, and it’s starting to show. 

The above entries were written at the midpoint of the 90 day period, as I faced down the second half of the journey. Fast forward to the present, 4 months later, I’ve been living in Korea in houses with other people. Life is good – it always is, no matter what, – and so am I, thank God.

VPNs and the Great Firewall

For foreigners, life goes on as normal until a national holiday or politically sensitive anniversary rolls around. That’s when the VPNs stop working.

I never could get used to how eerie that felt – you think the VPN is the workaround, the sneaky backdoor around the Great Firewall, but then you find out they can close it whenever they want.

The Great Firewall is the nickname for China’s internet censorship of any data that it does not want its roughly 1.4 billion people to know. VPNs are technically illegal but are common practice among foreigners living in China who still wish to access websites like Facebook, Instagram, Google, gmail, and even Netflix and Pinterest, not to mention independent news outlets.

How does a VPN work? It routes – forwards, so to speak – your phone or computer’s internet connection through a private server, so that you can securely, remotely connect to a different network through a third party. Cheaper ones aren’t as secure, but many foreigners use them as a temporary backup for when the government targets the other ones.

You download the app, pay for a good one before coming to China, and enjoy the glitchy, slow-working, but mostly dependable way to have the same internet you’ve always had. Youtube will give you ads tailored to the location where you connect – I heard a lot of Japanese and Cantonese in between my rock and roll playlists. Google suggested auto-complete search results that were hilariously different in Tokyo versus Los Angeles. I was disappointed to realize I could only access the first 5 seasons of Supernatural instead of the full show. (Netflix doesn’t like U.S.A.-based VPN locations – it gives you a message like “oops, you’re watching through a proxy, please turn it off and try again” – so, ahem, a pirating website was visited. Fair is fair; I pay for these shows already!)

When one location stops working, you choose another – Tokyo 1 was the default fastest location for many months, maybe a year. After each government-led, targeted shut-down of the most common VPNs, the app bounces back and recommends a new location – I remember Hong Kong, Los Angeles 2, then Los Angeles 5, and finally Santa Monica, etc. UK Wembley worked seamlessly for many months – I watched every episode of the old BBC show “Porridge” on Netflix.

If VPNs are illegal, how do so many foreigners have them? Shedding black and white thinking is necessary here in order to understand the situation. It’s not acting in extra-legal ways that’s seen as a problem most of the time; it’s all about context. Many, if not most, major companies use VPNs and sometimes even require their employees to use them on their personal devices in order to do business and communicate on foreign websites.

The government cares about the things it chooses to care about, which do not always correspond to every little thing it tells you to do or not do. Sure, it tracks everything and everyone, but out of that massive mound of data, only certain things actually matter enough to do something about. A fellow foreigner explained this to me early on, when we were walking down the street and discussing jaywalking. Expats have been deported for traffic violations (footage easily obtained, without a warrant, from any camera in the country), but only because their real offense was getting too political on social media or pissing off the wrong person.

Self-censorship matters a great deal in China. Discussing sensitive, China-related topics such as Tibet, Hong Kong, or the Uighurs is an absolute no-go online (and often in person). Your VPN will not protect you.

The Apple Store, packed for a National Week Sale

“Just don’t flash it around” was the advice I received about VPNs from more seasoned expats. As long as you’re not spreading information that would be damaging to China, and you are foreign, you’re probably in the clear. China knows that foreigners have always had access to global media and websites. It chooses to look the other way when they maintain that web presence in China as long as they aren’t critical of China on social media.

For now.

At the times that matter most to the Communist Party – National Week, the anniversary of Tiananmen Square, a week of particularly intense Hong Kong protests – the VPNs go down. All of them, pretty much. You think yours is just being slow, so you message your friends, ask if theirs are working. The answer is no.

It’s unnerving for an entire nation to suddenly shut off accessibility to so much of the internet. Teams of computer whizzes leap into action, working round the clock somewhere in an office, all to restore your ability to access the news. And Netflix. And Youtube. Whatever the world is saying about China, whatever is going on in China, you won’t hear about it until the week is over.

Those strong servers, that withstand every attempt to assail them the rest of the year, are shot down so quickly (and seemingly easily?) that you realize they always had the power to do it. Even your secret little freedom existed purely at their pleasure. You thought they didn’t know, but they did.

They can take it away whenever they choose.

Nothing is guaranteed.