The Voices of the Unheard

Eric Garner, Samuel Dubose, Philando Castile, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Sandra Bland, Walter Scott, Terrance Crutcher, George Floyd. We whisper their names like a rosary, like a mantra, like a prayer. We scream them like a war cry as we raise our fists to the sky. These are just a few: just drops in a rainstorm. So many have gone uncounted, unknown, unrecognized for what they endured. Repeat their names over and over again until society has no choice but to listen, until they stand up in solidarity and shout back into the void “No more names, no more death, I can’t breath.”

I have struggled with writing this post: not because I am afraid to speak out for what I believe in, but because I believe my role in all of this is to be a tool, a megaphone to amplify the voices that need to be heard far more than mine does. But on that note, silence can be dangerous and disingenuous. So I stand in solidarity and attempt to allow enough space for those who need to speak safely and freely.

Perhaps I’m being naive, but this moment feels different than the ones that preceded it. The spark is catching and those who once looked away can’t take their eyes off the flames. The focus is finally shifting from ‘thoughts and prayers’ to action and debate. It is solid and unmoving as the crowds hold out their phones and show us what this fight is all about.

I keep hearing people say, “What happened is awful, but that’s no reason to go around destroying things. They should be peaceful.” I’ve heard it so many times, in fact, that it feel vitally important to address right off the top.

You cannot condemn the riots without recognizing your role in their creation. Martin Luther King once said that the riot is the language of the unheard. Attempts were made at peaceful: they didn’t work. Colin Kaepernick took a knee for the cause. He and many like him were ridiculed, threatened, and their careers were destroyed. His message was hijacked and twisted to be about the military and patriotism. His platform was ripped out from under him, and his voice was silenced by the crowd that didn’t want to hear his truth. No one wanted to listen, it was simpler to divert away from the real issue and pretend it was about something else. It was easier to cling to outrage over a nonexistent problem instead of addressing the inherent racism in our collective system. If we had heard his words then, maybe things wouldn’t be like this now.

When a person is more outraged by the destruction of property than by the violent death of a human being: that is where the problem is. When you make statements that minimize murder and refocus the conversation on property damage- you have to take a hard look at why. Is it because the topic of racism is too difficult? Talk about it anyway. You have an obligation to. Are you saying these things because this chaos scares you? Because it creeps a little bit closer to your happy sphere in the world? Good- that’s the point. Now imagine the fear that led to these actions. Think about the cause- and remember that this has been happening for centuries and we refused to listen. Some issues are too important to accept silence on.

I’m not saying that all civil servants or people in positions of power are bad, because I genuinely don’t believe that. But it’s also fair to say that we don’t invest in the type of education needed when dealing with humanity at its best and worst. Would it be too far-fetched to require a police officer to take the same courses expected of a social worker? I don’t think so.

We have an obligation to recognize the racism that has been built into every system we have. It goes back generations and is so engrained in the way that we function as a society that those who aren’t victims of it might not even realize that anything is amiss. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, let’s pick a pretty recent example that allows for some compare and contrast.

Last month we saw a lot of Stay-Home protests where predominantly white groups showed up to government buildings with rifles strapped to their chests. There are pictures online of them standing nose to nose with the police screaming in their faces while holding guns. Can you imagine a world in which a black man or woman could do that without being killed?

I find it a bit terrifying when you have a group of people making a valid complaint about police brutality, and the best response that those in power can come up with is a further show of force. I have participated in protests before, I have been a part of a rally. I have marched while repeating the chant of my group as we stood up for a cause we believed in. But I have never faced an officer in riot gear. I have never feared that the baton they carried would aim for me. I have never dealt with pepper spray, tear gas, or rubber bullets. Because it seems to me that these tactics are far too often called upon when it’s black lives in the streets. When fear and oppression is the language of the powerful, how do you expect to find change? You demand a revolution.

Photo captured thousands laying across Burnside Bridge in Portland with their hands behind their backs in protest of police brutality and the death of George Floyd.

Remember the Past (Memorial Day Tribute)

Perhaps my family has been fortunate in the fact that the cost of war has not touched us deeply in several generations. The last member we lost on the battlefield was my great-grandpa’s brother during WWII. Now, I grew up right next door to my great-grandparents, and fell asleep to the twisted fairy tales my grandpa would create, so his generation was no mystery to me. But now that I am an adult, I regret that I didn’t ask him more questions about his life, his time in the war, and the brother he lost overseas.

We tend to look at our family history through the prism of distance. While we may share DNA, there is an otherness about the past that can be difficult to overcome. Truthfully, I never really put much thought into what life may have been like for my ancestors. I know where we emigrated from, but I can only guess as to why. I know what we did when we got here, but I don’t know if that was a part of the dream, or something we settled for. Where they happy accepting the farming life once again after crossing that vast ocean to get to the land of promise and plenty? Did they carry other dreams that were or were not fulfilled?

Recently I was searching through old military records and came across some files on my great-grandpa’s brother. He had been a tail-gunner in WWII, shot down over the Philippines. The plane he went down in was never recovered, and he was presumed dead for the remainder of the war. The internet tells me that his name is listed on a memorial they created on the island, but I’ve never seen it. These were all facts that I already knew, tales passed down through family lore. But it wasn’t until I came across a copy of his enlistment card that it all truly sank in. He was one of my own.

I stared at the handwriting that chicken scratched the same last name I’ve copied over onto a million papers. I couldn’t help but notice how the style looked so similar to my own, and I wondered if maybe he had been left-handed too. The enlistment form shows that he was tall like the rest of us, with the same red hair that was passed down to my sister. He had a scar on his left knee, and I desperately wish I knew the story behind it. He was still a teenager when he joined, and from what I know of my family, he probably spent most of his life on a farm, though this is purely conjecture. It’s these tiny, seemingly insignificant details that take the idea of a person and cement them into reality.

He was 22 years old when he, his pilot, and his plane disappeared over their target late in the day on February 12th in 1945. The war would be over in about 6 months, but he wouldn’t see the end of it. The military report indicates that the element leader flew back to the scene in search of the missing men or spot a debris field, but they didn’t find anything noteworthy before the setting sun forced them back to base. It was unknown exactly what happened to the two men on board. All troops on the island were put on alert, in hopes that the men would be found on the ground; and additional planes were sent out the next morning, but no one ever found a trace of them. They were gone, just like that, without any indication of what their final moments may have been like. Only 22 years old, and that was it.

As a writer, I take a particular interest in the inner workings of people. And I can’t help but feel a twinge of pain at the idea that this is all I will ever really know about a soldier who shared my name. Looking back now, I wish I had asked my great-grandpa more questions about his life and the brother he lost. I wish I knew how he responded when he heard the news. Did he ever secretly hope that his brother lived on somewhere? Did he ever struggle with the thought that he didn’t truly know how things had ended?

I remember my great-grandpa as the tough man who liked to poke at people until they snapped back. He got such a kick out of it, and respected anyone who held their ground against him. He was the same man who would greet us with “Well don’t you look all purdied up” every time we came over, even if we had ripped jeans and dirt on our faced. He’s the same man who would tell us a bedtime story of his own creation every time we stayed the night. My personal favorite was his own version of Jack and the Beanstalk, ending with the giant falling from the stalk and breaking his leg, forcing him to be kind to all of the tiny people who helped him get better. It never occurred to me as a child that there was more to his own story. I never thought to ask more questions.

So this Memorial Day, I take the time to remember the stories I know and think of the ones I was never told. I remember to ask more questions so these histories don’t die after the last breath is taken. This is the importance of stories; these truths and histories that we must be sure to carry with us into the next generation. Because the lives we live, the ones that came before us, and the ones that will follow: they matter. Even the tinies of details matters- like how a boy got a scar on his knee before he joined the war once upon a time.

Browsing for Creativity (settling for the default)

I know it seems like a silly question, but what do you think your preferred internet browser says about you? In a world of ten thousand constantly shifting options, what does this one superfluous decision mean in the grand scheme of things? As it turns out- a lot more than you probably want it to. In 2016 a study was conducted at the direction of Michael Housman involving data from over 30,000 customer service employees. The original goal of the research was to determine why some people stayed in their jobs longer than others; and yet the far-reaching implications they were able to tease out of the data carry far more weight when analyzing who we are and how we live our lives.

The group collected large swaths of seemingly unrelated data. One of the questions asked related to what web browser the participants used. Now, I’m not entirely sure why they wound up keying in on this one factor- but it ultimately took them down a rabbit hole to conclusions I never could have anticipated. The group noticed significant trends between two primary groups; those who used Firefox and Chrome vs those who used Internet Explorer and Safari. In an attempt to level the playing field they controlled for computer proficiency and a plethora of other factors that they thought could potentially shift the numbers they were getting. But the differing variables they took into account didn’t seem to matter- the data remained the same. Those who were using Firefox and Chrome over Explorer and Safari had higher sales numbers, better customer satisfaction ratings, better attendance, and even rated their personal happiness as being higher than the alternate group. So what was the difference between the two seemingly arbitrary camps that accounted for such a marked divergence in these key areas?

Defaults. Most computers come equipped with Internet Explorer and Safari as their default browser. Those who were using these search engines (roughly 2/3 of all people) were settling for the default option without much fuss. It worked, it was good enough, so they used it. Meanwhile, those in the Firefox and Chrome camp weren’t satisfied by the default. They were curious about the options and took the initiative to make the change by downloading their own choice. One group was fine settling and the other was willing to reach for more.

While this seems like a pretty profound jump to make based off of a relatively innocuous decision, the data suggests that these simple choices can give a bit more insight into a person’s psychology and worldview than you would expect at first glance. It begs the question: what other choices are you making simply because they’re easier? Just because something is ‘fine’- does that mean you should stop searching for something better? How many aspects of your life are you simply accepting a default setting for?

“Dwelling among shipwrecked dreams and losing oneself in wishful thinking cannot be a solution to tribulations. Identifying cracks and apprehending the defaults in one’s life is essential to find a way to get out of a ghetto and to start a search for a new haven.

Erik Pevernagie

And here is where it’s important to stop and evaluate- it doesn’t really matter what your web browser is. The key point I’m trying to get at is this: what areas of your life are you defaulting in? What aspects of your world do you view as so inconsequential you don’t even stop to consider that there might be something else out there?

We all have moments of clarity and action; situations where we look back and realize they were pivotal moments in the story of who we are. But what happens when you blindly stay on that road without looking around to see if you have outgrown it? What happens when you know where you would rather be, but the act of getting there is far more difficult than the status quo?

It seems to be a running theme for me- sticking with a path come hell or high water because I do well on it. Perhaps it’s a stubborn streak I have, perhaps it’s fear, perhaps it’s pure laziness, or a combination of all of the above. Take my job for example; I do well, I climbed the ladder quickly and within my organization I am currently the youngest person with my job title. But I started working in this field when I was 17 and there are days when I am quite convinced I only stay because I don’t know how to leave. In general I enjoy what I do, but lately (well, pre-COVID; my duties have changed significantly after the crisis hit) I’ve been bored and disillusioned by it all. I feel like I’m living on a default setting and I don’t know where I would go if I gave myself the option.

I think that’s a part of why my current creativity challenge means so much to me; I miss the passion that comes with building things outside the box. I miss telling stories and creating things out of nothing but thoughts. I can picture this beautiful life in my head, and I’m not sure why I am so scared to reach for it. Once upon a time the life that I am currently living would have inspired so much excitement. But I think I am outgrowing it. And that’s okay. It’s okay to realize that what was once an intentional decision has become your default. It’s okay to admit that you need to open your eyes and look around you to decide if this is good enough or not.

So here’s to smashing the default, my friends. Here’s to opening our eyes and searching- even if we don’t yet know what we are looking for. And here’s to taking steps, even if we don’t feel like we’re ready.

From Pandora’s Box Came Hope (committing to creativity in an unsteady world)

If I’m honest with myself, I know I’ve been striking out on almost every single one of my goals lately. I haven’t posted in ages, I ended Camp Nano thousands of words behind, I got a whole extra month to read my book club book and I’ve barely cracked it open. My sink is full of dishes, I have an overflowing hamper in my laundry room, and my front yard looks like Jurassic Park after the dinosaurs took over. Although, to be fair, the silver lining on that last one is that Rusty, my favorite red-coated neighborhood raccoon, has fallen hopelessly in love with the yard’s wildness. I have caught him standing on my porch staring at it in unrivaled adoration several times.

The point I’m trying to make: failures happen. They can be miniscule or spectacular in scale. Some days you will roll right through them while barely slowing down, and other days they will knock you to the ground and send you crawling to the closest blanket to cuddle under. It can be hard to admit when you are struggling, when you’ve broken that internal compass and lost your way. It can be demoralizing and it can erode your perspective of who you are and what your future will look like. There is no need to beat around the proverbial bush: failure sucks. It opens up an internal Pandora’s box; we are left grappling with all of the large and scary creatures that came flying out, while desperately searching for those tiny fluttering wings of hope.

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Perhaps it is the world we are currently living in, but I’ll be the first to admit: my mental health has taken a bit of a hit the past few months. I find myself grappling with concepts far bigger than myself, trying to wrestle with the idea that the future I had always planned in my head might wind up being a phantom image that never comes true. I know I’m not the only one feeling this way; with so many people lost in the limbo the pandemic created, we often find ourselves grieving for what we are currently missing and what may be lost to us in future. My nephew is a high school senior who is missing his final months, prom, graduation- the milestones that mean so much to us as we figure out how to carry ourselves into the next stage of life. My sister is the hardest worker I have ever known- suddenly forced into unemployment because the school she teaches at couldn’t support distance learning for her young students. She has been caught on lockdown at home while waiting for her first unemployment check to arrive after six weeks (and counting). My coworkers and I find ourselves pushed to the breaking point trying to institute new technologies into archaic systems that can’t easily support the sudden jump to virtual court hearings. And when I’m on my own time, I find myself trying to come to terms with the fact that my dream of having kids one day might actually be at an end. After two miscarriages, my partner and I were already a little nervous about trying one last time. And then when the virus hit, that little glimmer of hope faded into the dust.

So what do you do when your new normal breaks your heart? You mourn, perhaps you sink into it for a little while, maybe you bake a lot of bread and finally start scribbling into the journal that’s been sitting on your nightstand for the past two years. You learn to cope and you pray that tomorrow will be a little bit easier. And at some point, you just might be ready to take a deep breath and ask yourself one of the most terrifying questions you can posit: what now?

For me, personally, the entire landscape of my future might wind up being very different than what I had carefully planned. The idea terrifies me- that sometimes ‘happily ever after’ doesn’t translate to the real world. It is crucial that I find a way to still be okay in my new normal, to still find a reason to be the happy girl I’ve always aimed to inhabit. What makes me happy, what keeps be fulfilled, what gives me the energy to get out of bed every morning? Hope- hope for new experiences, new ideas, new stories, new skills, new adventures. I still have hope that I can create a life I will be happy with, even in spite of the losses. A few days ago I didn’t have that same hope as I lay curled up on the couch with a drink in my hand and tears in my eyes while watching Rogue One (I’m not sure why, but it’s suddenly replaced all Disney movies as my new medium of comfort). And yet, time has a funny way of slowly eroding the rough edges until you can pick up your troubles and carry them again.

If I don’t commit to myself and the things that bring joy, then the only alternative is to slip back into that dark place I climbed out of. I refuse to live like that. So here I am, committing to myself once again- committing to new dreams, new hopes, new goals. Or perhaps it’s more that I’m dusting off the ones I dropped a few months ago when I curled up into my shell and hid away from the world for a while. This new month is going to be a bit of an experiment for me: I don’t guarantee that there will be successes, just that there will at least be an attempt. I’m worn out with my autopilot, and I’m ready to reinvest in my sparks: the things that bring joy to my soul and keep me moving forward. I am ready to open the door and rediscover the adventure.

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And so it goes (hope within fear)

Well, my friends, it appears we have found ourselves in difficult and desperate times, living in the kind of world we have only imagined in our stories. It is an eerie feeling, to watch the world respond, to hear the newscasts that sound like they would be more at home in the opening scenes of The Walking Dead. There is a strange feeling of disconnected dread that hits your soul as you watch footage of hospitals overwhelmed in other parts of the world and know that your own city is only steps behind them. We have begun dealing in terms of ‘when’ not ‘if.’

Needless to say, the beginning of a pandemic is not the best time to attempt a multi-week digital detox. And while I still have not given up on my Quest to Save the Muse (from previous posts), the landscape we are in has changed. The focus of my daily life has turned towards emergency responses and government updates; both as a result of what I do for a living and simply existing during this period of time.

I don’t normally get into much detail about my work because I like to keep that screen up between my writing life and my working life. But right now it seems like an important detail to know about me. I work in the legal system, and my particular position falls into the category of ‘essential personnel’ within the courts. If my coworkers and I can’t make it in, then it effectively means that the local legal system has collapsed. We have been under evolving emergency orders that can change by the hour, requiring us to keep a pulse on the current crisis and analyze how those a step ahead of us on this road are responding. In the past several weeks I have worked more overtime than I ever have in my entire career. I have watched coworkers break down from sheer exhaustion and frustration, then wipe their eyes and keep pushing on. We have shared stories about our nightmares- waking up from a dream where our loved ones died because we got them sick. I check my temperature daily because it can be difficult to tell when your body is having a stress response or is getting sick. I worry- a lot; although as an introvert who has dealt with a long history of anxiety issues, I think I am a bit more equipped for this kind of world than some others may feel.

It has been a strange progression, watching this unfold in real time. I live in Washington state, a couple of hours south of Seattle, which was the US epicenter. I held my breath and braced myself when the first case to hit our shores landed a car ride away in a city I love- a city I regularly write about, a city my partner and I have repeatedly discussed moving to. We waited and watched as the counter started to slowly tick up and new towns were impacted.

We had all been joking about how hard it was to find toilet paper, finding laughter to cut through the uncertainty. The panic didn’t seem to settle in until the schools were closed. They announced it on a Friday night; and as soon as people got off work, many ran to the grocery stores. Friends were all sharing pictures of empty shelves and giving advice on where to go and where to avoid, “This store still has rice, that one is out of produce, the checkout lines are two hours long here, wait until morning.” That seemed to be the moment when reality truly hit people: this is happening here, this is happening to us, brace yourselves.

We’ve been on the roller coaster ever since: emergency orders began rolling out the following Monday, they changed daily and were difficult to navigate. A week later my state announced a “Stay home, stay healthy” order. We’ve had notifications of potential exposures, relatives who are in quarantine waiting for test results, grandparents in lockdown in retirement communities.

Through all of the fear and confusion, there has been one thing that heals my heart a little bit. It’s the way many have begun reaching out (figuratively) to help one another. One friend picking up a bag of rice for the person who couldn’t find any after going to six different stores. Others I only see once or twice a year who have picked up the old group chat- checking in to make sure everyone is financially taken care of. Many of my friends are teachers, most of them aren’t getting paid- some of them have been told that their schools might not be able to reopen. They mention their fears in a group text and when their phone buzzes an hour later they have money in their Venmo account and food being delivered to their door. Another friend brightened a dreary birthday by gifting me with toilet paper she had to hunt for- just to make me smile. At the end of the day, we take care of each others. That’s what we do. We reconnect from a distance and find comfort in a moment of fear and confusion. We embrace artistry to cope with reality. We keep trying, every single day, to make things better for someone else. That is what gives me hope right now- that is what keeps me sane, and that is how we find our way back to something beautiful after all of the pain.

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SoFar (embracing another’s creativity to find your own)

The yellow lights glittered against the darkened windows, blankets strewn across the wood floor. Two lone guitars stood sentinel at the front of the room, enticing us as we circled around. Like little kids crouching around the campfire, we waited with a hazy anticipation. Bottles of wine and cups of tea were discreetly passed amongst friends as all settled in, curling closer together as bodies spilled into the nooks and crannies.

We were seeing the double life of this room, the secret identity to the superhero that welcomed our little band of adventurers to walk its floors. That morning women had gathered in this space to perfect the lotus pose, slip into downward facing dog, breathe deeply standing in warrior, relax into child’s pose. This was the last place you would expect a live concert to be held. And yet, here we were, all faces turned towards an amp and two lone guitars. Eyes roved the audience wondering who the singers would be; which artists would share their beautiful creations with us?

I had never heard of SoFar before; it still feels like a secret that I’ve been let in on, like I’m carrying the code to discover the speakeasy behind the wall. Once upon a time in London there was a man who was a bit disillusioned with the way we experienced music; you go to a small venue that’s too loud, everyone is staring at their phones or talking over the artists that only want to share with the world the thing that they love. In a society that prizes moving at the speed of light, no one was slowing down to truly enjoy the inspiration of one another’s creative ventures. It needed to be dialed back, we needed to give ourselves the space to embrace the gift we were being given. 

So in 2009 Raffe Offer decided to create his own little intimate setting; he invited a few friends over to listen to a live performance while sitting on his living room floor and sharing a couple of drinks. Little did this tiny band know, this moment would prove to be the spark that would ignite an international movement. A decade later hundreds of secret shows are put on every month in 444 cities all over the world. As fate would have it, one was taking place in a tiny upstairs yoga loft right in my own backyard.

Legs crossed, we all sat and listened; not a single phone in sight as one by one the performers took our impromptu stage and shared with us the passions that breathe life into their souls. There is something mesmerizing when you share in a moment like this; one soul telling a story to another. Because truthfully, that is what it was; every single song had a story, a reason for being. From the inner workings of another’s life it had percolated and come to fruition, it had burst from the mind of these strangers and made its way to us. Dark truth and deep-felt pains were the lifeblood of the beautiful words shared to a crown of perfect strangers. It was a gift humbly given, a glowing treasure that would spark the dry kindling in another soul.

I’ll admit, I’ve been in a bit of a creative drought these past weeks; fear of the stories percolating below my surface have left me feeling trapped in my own skin. The words, while so colorful when bouncing around in my skull, dry up when I attempt to put pen to paper. I’ve felt as though I’m on the edge of a cliff, the panic setting in as I wonder: who will I be if I can’t write? When a lifetime is spent with a singular identity, it is terrifying when you feel the foundations shake underneath you, threatening to take the one thing you always thought would be a certainty.

And yet, there these strangers were; taking the dark and twisty moments in their lives and creating something beautiful with it. They were not worse for their misfortunes; no, they were more powerful because of them. The authenticity in their voices shook me, the strength in their journey inspired a hope to carry my own. There is something magical about being privy to observing the way another person carries their vulnerability on their sleeve, willingly sharing pieces of themselves. 

The obvious joy they felt for what they do reminded me again why I keep plucking away at keys the way they must pluck away at chords. Even if no one ever listens, the act of telling a story is a beautiful and brave thing. It is a healing thing. And, when given the chance, your words will strike a chord with another; perhaps helping them find a voice they thought they had lost.

SoFar I have made it. SoFar I am still here, I am still trying. SoFar I still have an ember inside that can burst into flame if I give it the space it needs to grow. All it took was a couple of singers, glittering lights and an after-hours yoga studio.

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A Queen’s Heart in Dracula’s Home (overshadowed by the darkness)

We all know the infamous tale of the darkest creature of the night. The tale of Dracula is one that has inspired the heart and minds of thousands of creative souls. I’ve read the book several times and never failed to find something new to fall in love with. I’ve been guilty of writing my own vampire tales that wound up being more of an excuse to dive into the lore surrounding these intriguing creatures (more on that as we get closer to Halloween).

It is famously said that Dracula’s Castle was based on the real Castle Bran, nestled on a steep cliff wall in the countryside of Romania. I knew this when we started planning our trip to this beautiful country. We would be attending a friend’s wedding in a small town known as Campulung- a gorgeous place all on its own.

The view from our hotel in Campulung, Romania

Imagine my delight when I discovered that Bran was just over an hour away from Campulung. Naturally, the literary lover in me didn’t have any other choice but to follow the calling of her heart straight to the castle on the cliff.

First and foremost, although Castle Bran in nicknamed Dracula’s Castle, I will be the first to admit that the strings tying the two together are about as thin as a spider’s web. It is said that Bram Stoker may have used a picture of Castle Bran that he happened across in a book as his reference point for the castle in his twisted tale. All we have to go off of is a description: a castle situated on the edge of a high cliff with a river running below it, sittin in the area of Transylvania. While it does fit the bill, there isn’t much more to go off of.

It wasn’t until later that I discovered a story surrounding the castle that piqued my interest, a tale far stranger than that of a fictional creature of the night. I was enraptured with this tale because was a true one, and often it seems that fact is far stranger than fiction. The story I will now tell you concerns the heart of a long-dead Queen who once roamed the uneven halls of Castle Bran. In fact, you could easily claim that she breathed fresh life into the place- and left her heart behind.

Queen Marie of Romania was given Castle Bran on December 1st, 1920. The castle, built progressively through the 1200s through the 1300s, was in bad shape when it came into her possession. But the Queen felt a tug in her heart for the old place. For a decade she set about the task of remodeling and improving the fortress. She even discovered secrets that had long been lost to history, such as the hidden staircase that was locked behind a fireplace.

She fell in love with the castle, spending many of her summers within it’s slightly crooked walls- a charming feature she refused to let the architects change during the restoration. She opted to emphasize it’s original beauty without forcing it into the ‘modern’ standards. But the Queen’s devotion went far deeper than many would expect.

Upon her death in 1938 her final Will was read. The Queen bequeathed the castle to her daughter because she said thar ‘only someone who understood the castle’s heart should possess it.’ But she did have one other request. Queen Marie asked that her own heart be removed from her earthly remains and laid to rest in the castle she so deeply loved.

In an attempt to see to these wishes, her heart was removed and placed in a small silver box, which was then encased in a gold one. For a while the box lay in Stella Maris Chapel until it could be moved to Bran in 1940. Originally the box was placed in the woods outside the castle, near the little wooden church. Her daughter eventually moved it into a carved niche inside the solid rock of the cliffside. A simple marker was placed so that others could show their respect for the Queen, seek her comforts and ask for her advice. The Queen was able to rest peacefully there for a time.

Yet, as so many stories do, this one takes a darker twist. If you ever decide to visit this beautiful country you will see the damage wrought by the communist regime who held power for a number of years in the region. If you speak to the locals they will tell you tales of their own time spent as children starving, attempting to survive off of ration cards. You will see cows and chickens roaming the streets and you will understand why. They will tell you tales of their beautiful architecture and history- demolished for ugly and unimaginative communist structures. You will note these differences as you drive through the towns and villages. The Queen’s heart was but one of the disrespected and ill-used artifacts of a proud history.

When the marker commemorating her heart’s resting place was desecrated, it was moved for safekeeping. For years it was locked away in the basement of a museum in Bucharest. There was an outcry, but one that was not heeded for many years. It wasn’t until 2015 that an announcement was made: Queen Marie’s heart would be moved, but not back to Bran. No, it would never find it’s way back to those hallowed halls to once beat for. Instead it would be respectfully held in Pelisor Castle, the place where the Queen breathed her last. By many this was considered a victory, and far better than the dusty museum cellar she had been left in. I can help but wonder if her spirit stayed behind in the true home she so dearly loved.

When you step up to Bran Castle you will see an impressive sight; this grand creation perched on the very edge of a cliff. You may walk through the halls and feel a bit underwhelmed. You were fed tales of Dracula and darkness; and yet this is a far cry from that. You will peek into the Queen’s chambers and know nothing about her, enjoy climbing the secret steps she discovered. You will walk away and never know the hidden tale of a lost Queen’s heart. You will stare into the trees and picture things that go bump in the night, not small gold caskets that glint in the moonlight.

You will leave this place thinking it represents darkness and death, when its true legacy is one of love. Queen Marie believed in the life of this place, she believed in the soul and the heart of the castle. Perhaps the story here is far better than any fright you could give yourself. Do not forget the tale of the Queen who so openly loved a place that she truly gave her heart to it.

The Lost Wanderer

We travel not to escape life, but for life not to escape us.

Tolkien is perhaps my patron saint of travel; the one whose quotes about adventures and struggles through the unknown have carved my view of what the world should look like. I’ve always felt a bit of a kinship with the hobbits; we are both quite fond of our routine, adore second breakfast and elevensies, don’t really come of age until our 30s, and are generally shy but capable of courage when the need arises. I couldn’t help but think of dear little Bilbo when I stepped out of my door two weeks ago, backpack slung over my shoulder and passport clutched in my palm. I had never even made it 1,000 miles from home (the distance between my town and Disneyland is somewhere in the 900 miles range), I’d only ever set foot in 4 states- and 2 of those don’t really count because I live right on the border between them. Now my little band of adventurers and I would find ourselves over 6,400 miles from home, covering over 13,000 miles in our quest for excitement. Little did I know, I would come back a very different little hobbit than I had been when I left.

Tolkien famously said that not all who wander are lost. Truthfully, I think my roaming came about because I felt truly lost in all the ways that mattered, and shackled to all of the things that didn’t. It is no secret that this past year was a rough one for me; my first pregnancy loss in January left me shattered and unsure of how to rebuild a life with the broken pieces left to me. I struggled with the things that normally brought me solace and joy. I had once been so sure of my place in this world and the future I had planned was crystal clear. But then the Earth shook, the crystals shattered and cascaded around me, crunching under the soles of my shoes. I was lost, unsure if my feet would ever set foot on the path I had taken for granted. Where do you go when the road is washed away by an avalanche? You wander, you blaze a new trail and see where it takes you. Mine took me halfway across the world to a places with new customs, accents and languages. It took me to a life I could still find fulfilling, even if it wasn’t the one I had envisioned. It took me to a place where I learned to depend on myself, and not rest on my own expectations. It’s easy to lose track of what inspires you when you stare at the same four walls, and traipse through the exact same routine day after day. In Europe I rediscovered my passions. I stepped into castles where kings and queens once walked, ambled through the streets and pubs that famous authors and artists once frequented. I saw the place where Lady Grey and Ann Boleyn were murdered (though history prefers to call them executions).

The memorial for the ladies executed in the Tower of London

In Westminster Abby I stood in Poet’s Corner over the final resting places of the great authors that still inspire my love of words. I stood in awe as I stared at the Rosetta Stone behind it’s glass case, and walked through exhibits of our histories and storytelling traditions that paved the way for writers like myself.

In Oxford I stood in the gardens that inspired Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I walked down the street that is said to have led to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardobe. And ornate door with a carved lion on the front with two golden fawns accenting either side of the door. You can look down the street to see the single lamp post that signifies the entrance to Narnia. We walked past the Eagle and Child pub that was once the meeting place for the writing group, the Inklings. Some of it’s members included Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and many others. For Harry Potter fans, Oxford has ties to the movie franchise (though there are few literary connections). In a less literary (though just as inspiring vein), we even got to see Einstein’s chalkboard preserved with his own handwriting, tucked away in the basement of a science hall.

After a week in the UK we found ourselves in Romania. There is nothing more humbling than finding yourself immersed in a country that doesn’t speak your language. The impacts of communism were brutally apparent, and many people can still remember the revolution that led to it’s overthrow in 1989. You listen to the stories of the food cards and starvation, desperate times that led to people literally fleeing across the border for a better life. Perhaps listening to these stories would give some of my own countrymen a bit more compassion with the issues we are facing. Look into someone’s eyes when they talk about being imprisoned for traveling illegally to another country to survive, observe the desperation that caused them to leave behind everything they ever knew. Drive through the countryside where people grow their own crops and livestock because they don’t trust that there will be enough food in the stores. The lives that we all live are stories of their own, we are each the protagonist in our own tale.

We attended a traditional wedding that carries on for an entire day (the celebrations often last well over 12 hours, which is a big change from the traditional 3 days they once were). It is amazing to see the cultural differences in the traditions observed. No wedding is complete without a bridal kidnapping and ransom for her return, traditional dances that everyone learns from a young age, fog machines and sparklers that are taller than I am.

In Romania we carried on with our unofficial literary tour by roaming the halls of Castle Bran, the supposed home to Bram Stoker’s infamous Dracula.

The ‘secret staircase’ hidden in Castle Bran, once lost to history until a Queen decided to remove a fireplace and discovered this secret passageway.

We ate lunch on the back terrace of the home where Vlad the Impaler was born. The village was called Sighisoura, and thr old protion has changed very little since the 1500s, though it is still a very active city. People continue to live in the same homes that were occupied hundreds of years ago. We saw firsthand how Vlad’s story is told in a very different way within his country. While we view him as brutal and cruel, he is a hero to his country, a leader willing to fight for his people.

Statue of Vlad the Impaler in Sighisoura, the city of his birthplace. The ribbon tied around it is in the colors of his country’s flag

The house where Vlad the Impaler was born

The streets of old Sighisoura; unchanged with the exception of vehicular traffic (though it is still very common to see horses and buggies through the entire country)

It is a moving experience to see the world as others do, to experience cultures foreign to your own and acknowledge that you are the outsider in this beautiful place. It is compelling to see what humans have created throughout this world; the buildings, traditions, stories, and art we have brought into existence. Our art sustains us throughout history, leaving it’s mark for centuries to come. Though we may not always understand it (like the mysteries surrounding the Stonehenge), it will be there to be witnessed for ages. To walk through the halls of our past and pay homage to the lives that led to our own; this is a gift.

I stepped back through the same door to my home that I lad left from, backpack still slung over my shoulder, passport clutched in my palm. Yet, much like Bilbo after his return from the Misty Mountains, I was changed. My heart carried adventures, my mind held new stories yet to be told, my soul was lighter knowing I belonged to a greater human tradition. My home is still the same, the laundry I left unfolded is still sitting at the foot of my bed, my dog is still stretched out with his head on my lap, and I am still here clacking away at a keyboard. But I am not who I was. This lost little wanderer is finding her way back home.

More detailed posts about the different adventures from my travels will be coming in the next weeks, this was merely a tiny little glimpse. If there are any particular topics you are interested in, leave a comment and I will be sure to include it. Happy trails, my friends.

To Create, To Experience, To Live

You are a creative soul; that’s why you are here, that is how you found this tiny little hobbit hole in the great expanse of the internet. You dare to dream in the middle of the day, you find inspiration in the most unlikely of places. You, my friend, are a kindred spirit. You can see shades of the world that others cannot or will not acknowledge. You have a flame that burns inside of you; some days it is just an ember, and on others it roars with a passion that could rival all the stars in the universe. Your work is your physical soul molded by your own hands. You tirelessly give your energy to this creation without realizing the magic you are wielding. There is a beauty in the way you bring something tangible to life, something that was born from the firing neurons and synapses in your brain. You have a passion that demands to be explored, a gift that the world would be priveledged to experience.

Art takes many forms, some are more subtle than others. We are all artists to a degree. The writers, the painters, the musicians, the actors; yes, these are easily counted. But there are others: a chef who plays with the ingredients, a mechanic bringing an engine to life, a mathematician calculating the mysteries of the universe, a lawyer crafting an argument that turns the law on it’s head. Our mediums may be different, but our love is the same. The things that we give life to in this world are often the same things that also give life to us.

To make lasting art you must step outside of your comfortable corners. To breathe life into your work you must first soak up as much of it as you can. Your new knowledge will color your creations, bleeding into the corners, etching the nuanced edges until they gleam and entice the rest of the world. An art piece bursting with life is a piece that demands to be witnessed, it is a creation that carries within it the power to change the world. To invest in your work you must first invest in yourself. It doesn’t matter how perfectly crafted your sentences are if they drop lifelessly from your pen. Interesting things do not need a perfect presentation to be noticed.

Invest in yourself, in your experiences, in your knowledge. Let your interests guide you and teach you. Pick something that you love; a place you want to travel to, a book you want to read, a skill you want to learn- and dive into it. Find a class for tarot reading, go to the post office and get your passport, find your way to the nearest museum, watch a documentary on the Stone Henge and UFO conspiracy theories, go to a Chinese New Year celebration even if you don’t know a soul there, read books about people that inspire you. Never stop learning, never stop investing in yourself, never stop feeding your passions. All of these tiny things, these new experiences, these tidbits of random knowledge will find a way into your heart, your mind, and your work. They will create an authentic story, they will grant you a new perspective that you can share with the world.

You will create something beautiful, something that will resonate with people. You may not change the whole world, but you will have the power to change a single person. You will have the power to inspire them. Your work will find it’s way into their own, over and over again until we find ourselves staring at a beautiful tapestry of the human experience. After all, that is what art is; it is passion, it is the spirit personified, it is an interwoven story of all of the things that have made us who we are. Be proud to be a part of this tradition, be proud of your contribution to it. Invest it in, nurture it, and never be afraid to dive headfirst into it.

Out of the Ashes (the growth of a seed)

When a forest is burned, what grows back often does not resemble what was lost. The searing flames cut away the old, they leave the soil barren and empty. But in this emptiness a miracle takes place; something new is given a chance to live. The seeds that had remained buried and dormant for so long are granted the space they need to struggle for the light. It may be months before you see them peek out from the wreckage, but they always emerge. Humans are more similar to the forests than we ever dare admit.
It is an inevitable reality that we all must walk through the flames; it is the price we pay to truly live. Often times the person who emerges from the fire is far different than the one who stepped into it. Six months ago I was shattered. I stumbled through my days wondering how the world could still turn even though it had cracked. And yet now, the first green sprouts are beginning to bloom.

There is pain in the loss, in the knowledge of what can no longer be. But there is a power too, when you realize that the worst has happened and you are still alive. You find a new purpose to fill your empty spaces, you pay tribute to the person you were before, and you learn to love the one you are rebuilding. It is not an easy process to grow a forest again on scorched land. It takes patience and kindness in a world that doesn’t always foster those two ideals.

When you find yourself lost in that barren landscape, one question echoes through the emptiness: what will you allow to grow in that broken place? This is the distinction between us and the forests we love- we get a choice to foster and cultivate what is left when the world changes us.

Give yourself permission to grow again, do not clutch the arid landscape of your life before. This is perhaps the hardest thing you will ever have to do; to acknowledge your pain and the way it has transformed you, to forgive, and to take the first steps towards healing. It will take time; all beautiful things do. But you are worth it, your journey is not done.

You have to feel it- everything, though there are days you may think you will break under the pressure of it all. The only way to grow is to let those rains wash over you. If you fight it, tuck it away, run from it- the pain will only make you hard and bitter to the world. But opening up to it will transform you.

Often those who have been through the worst that the world can offer are the ones who show the deepest kindness and compassion. These are the ones who will willingly step back into the flames carrying buckets of water to create a path for those still lost in the fire. These are the ones who took their broken pieces and patched them together with gold; they respect and acknowledge their damage, and are made all the more beautiful for it. Growth is not easy; it will be the greatest struggle of your life. But give yourself permission to do it anyway.

I struggled for a long time. It took me six months to realize that I was angry with myself for things I could not control. It took me half a year to acknowledge that I wasn’t willing to let myself heal, that I didn’t think I deserved it. I was carrying around so much grief, and I didn’t know what to do with it all. But you see, grief is really just love overflowing. I needed a place to put it. So I decided to start with me.

I sat down and wrote myself a letter. I acknowledged my pain, why I was so angry. And I forgave myself. I was finally ready to take that step. And then I did the thing that had scared for half a year: I gave myself permission to continue on with my life. I won’t say that I ‘let go’ of what happened or that I ‘moved on’ because I don’t think that’s always possible. I didn’t want to move on because that felt like forgetting; and that is something I won’t ever be okay with. But I acknowledged that these broken fragments are pieces of me that will always be here. I am a kinder person for them. The journey is only just beginning, and it takes effort every single day to keep growing, to show myself love and kindness, to remind myself that I deserve both. I was burned to the ground, but I survived; and now it is time embrace the girl who was strong enough to grow from the ashes.