Ping Pong Paddles and 3am Fears (urban thriller – the real world edition)

2:30am, the numbers flash at me from the phone in my hand. I sigh, eyes wide open as the familiar ball of anxiety tightens in my stomach. The laundry list of work issues ran through my mind; had I done everything I needed to get ready for the next day? Mentally checking off the things I would need to accomplish to get through the day successfully. Seems to be my new pattern: middle of the night thoughts that slip through my brain on repeat, keeping me awake for hours on end. I deftly unravel my earbuds and slip one into my ear, hoping that familiar old audiobook I’ve listened to a dozen times will break up my anxious musings long enough to grant me the solace of sleep before my alarm goes off.

An hour later, still lost in my own thoughts, calculating how many more hours I could possibly get if I were able to fall asleep in the next fifteen minutes. A familiar whir breaks through the silence of my empty house. I freeze, pull out the single headphone and listen, heart beginning to race. The garage door. 3:30 in the morning and every creature residing in this home is laying on this bed, all asleep except for me. A flicker of confusion and fear flashes in the back of my mind, not fully willing to process what I know to be true: someone else is here.

I shake my partner awake, and demand in a hushed voice, “Did you forget to close the garage door?” I instantly knew that wasn’t the right question, as his bleary eyes squint into consciousness, a hint of annoyance playing at the corners. He doesn’t know that the garage door just finished it’s route, awake just in time for the silence to fill the room again. He thinks I’m just waking him up to hound him. He answers me with a ‘no,’ but starts getting out of bed anyway, perhaps sensing something wrong with the tense way I’m pulling the blankets off myself and beginning to move.

“It just opened, I heard it open,” I babble as I reach for my glasses. He’s immediately moving out of the bedroom and to my little office across the hall; it has a window overlooking our driveway and surrounding street. He doesn’t see anything, not a single person. I don’t know yet if that is a good thing or a bad thing. Are they downstairs? Did they get into the house?

My mind focuses in on the fact that the door between the garage and the house is unlocked- it’s always unlocked, I have never felt the need to close off access to these two places. The garage door itself is always closed and we live in a good neighborhood. We were never worried about security, never thought to lock that single door that can now grant unlimited access to anyone with ill intent.

We move slowly down the stairs, my tough german shepherd in step right beside us, curious why we are roaming as a pack in the middle of the night. For once he had slept through the sounds that forced me out of bed. He has no idea why we are tense, but he stays close to our knees nonetheless, always so good at reading our moods and reacting accordingly. He moves as silently as we do, surprising for the dog who barks bloody murder when he simply sees the reflection of our family cat in any window, confused and unsure how that little Houdini ball of fur manages to be in two places at once.

There is a blue light shining from the living room, casting it’s glow across the bottom of the stairs. Are they already in here, roaming through our possessions and deciding what to take? But if someone were trying to steal it, why would they turn it on? You don’t exactly test the resolution of a screen before stealing it. My mind flashes to a movie we watched the night before- another one of those macho-styles where someone breaks into a home and the dad (naturally a former secret agent of some kind) goes on a killing spree to get revenge for the trespass. The irony is not lost on me as I tell myself we must have forgotten to turn it off when we finished it. We were exhausted, ready for bed. Yes, that’s it- we must have left it on. What else did we forget in our bedtime fog?

The door to our garage is immediately ahead of us, across from the bottom of the stairwell. We creep toward it, eyes glancing around us; but the inside of the bottom floor seems quiet. A panic hits me: what will we do if someone is behind that door? I don’t even have a baseball bat, just a dog that I don’t want getting hurt. Then again, the dog is loud- probably scare off anyone who might still be lurking. Hopefully that would be enough, they would hear that growl, the bark that could wake up half the neighborhood, and they’d run. Before I can even tap my husband’s shoulder, he has the door open, peering inside. I have to give him credit: fear never paralyzes him, always ready to charge ahead when he feels it’s necessary. I follow, not wanting him to face any dangers alone.

But there’s nothing, not a hint of movement to draw your eye. It is still and quiet. The garage door is an open maw to the outside world, the lights, which automatically turn on when the garage door opens, are illuminating the entire space. There is a curtain of darkness just outside the shine of our glaring lights, hiding what does not wish to be seen. We carefully eye the room, moving slowly to get around the disassembled truck we’ve been trying to rebuild. The garage is a mess, but it is the same mess we remember from the night before. My husband silently moves to the far side, to check the nooks and crannies where he have our goodwill boxes and tiny plastic greenhouse stored. Meanwhile I gather the courage and duck down to make sure no one has slipped under the truck. After all, that’s the first place I would hide if I knew I couldn’t get out the door in time.

My heart lurches when I see a dark shape at the far end of the truck; but as my eyes focus I nearly laugh at myself when it recognize an innocent tire with some metal contraption propped up against it. The same metal piece that got caught on my little plastic greenhouse a few hours ago as I’d wheeled the precarious tower to its new home in the corner.

No one is here. The space is empty. Whoever had been here must have run off into that black canvas of night outside our little dwelling. I hit the button to close the door while we look around one more time before going back into the house, locking the door behind us. The garage is no longer the sacred space attached to our home; it is other, dangerous, a battlement that has been breached.

My husband grabs his keys, “I’m going to go check the cars.” And he disappears out the front door. I am still uneasy, as I move about the lower floor, checking each closet and every possible hiding place that a human body could curl into. Just in case. I don’t believe they made it inside, but now is not the time for taking risks and making assumptions. My dog stands at the front window, watching my husband move about outside. I keep my ears trained to the sound of him, ready to move at the slightest hint of alarm.

When he comes back, he moves straight for the garage again, an insistence in his step, “They broke into my car. I must have forgotten to lock it. They were quick, you couldn’t even tell they’d been in there. It wasn’t until I opened the center console and saw the ping pong paddle was gone. Didn’t get much, just that, my headphones, the keys to my roof rack, and the garage door opener.”

My mind catches on the ping pong paddle for some reason, trying to work out why in the world he’d had one sitting in his glove box and who would deem it valuable enough to steal? Did they really skip over the expensive sunglasses to snag the ping pong paddle? A second or two later, the rest of his words soak in. The garage door opener. I trail behind him and numbly ask, “They got it, as in they still have it?”

He’s back in the garage now, up in the air inspecting the little contraption that is responsible for the garage door. I look up how to secure one, which buttons to push to deprogram the remotes. We unplug it for good measure. In the next few hours we will learn new tricks to secure the space: by the time the first rays of sunshine strike the side of our house, the garage will be the safest room in the building. But for now, we still feel uneasy, positive that they will find a magical way of getting back in even with it all disabled.

He wants to drive around, to see if we can spot anything: check the neighbors houses and look for suspicious characters. Personally, I think this is silly- what will we do if we see someone? Hop out of the car in my fuzzy pajamas and mascara smudged eyes to challenge a stranger to a game of ping pong, hoping they whip a paddle out of their pocket and say ‘your on’? No, it’s a silly idea. But I don’t want to stay home alone and he is determined to go on his patrol.

We don’t see anything, the neighbors houses all look secure, there’s just some evening workers at the Home Depot down the street chatting outside their cars when their shift is up. When we pull back into our driveway, he agrees to call the non-emergency line to report it. Not that they’ll be able to do much at this point, but at least it will be on file, in case it happened to others. Or if they come back.

Within five minutes we have two deputies knocking on our door. It’s strange looking out the window to see a sheriff’s SUV parked at the end of our driveway; no lights, it is a quiet affair. They ask a few questions, intrigued more by the engine laying disassembled in our garage- car guys will always find a reason to dive into shop talk. They let us know there is a chance the person will try to come back- they usually test the garage door opener to see if it works, and then wait until no one is home to come back and break in. To me this seems silly- why test it now when there is a risk someone will hear it? If they had simply grabbed it and waited until we were at work to come back and try it, we probably never would have known until they had managed to get away with all the tools and gizmos we store in that space. Sloppy, I critique in my head. The officers indicate they will try to do more patrols, and show us another trick to secure the garage. Then it’s ‘have a good night’ and out the door.

We won’t know until the next morning that there were reports of suspicious activity down the street about twenty minutes after they left our house. We are marked as a ‘burglary’ on the neighborhood crime map. Claim to fame. The next day we’ll get new cameras, suddenly realizing how few there are at our end of the road. We’ll knock on the neighbors’ doors and post in our neighborhood app with that happened- letting them know that if they have any trouble in the future, we have some fancy new cameras that might be able to help. We’ll feel silly as we explain that it all happened because we forgot to hit the lock button on a car door- the routine thrown off after unloading new plants from a coworker. We’ll wait to see if the culprit shows back up, suspicious of any car driving by, and person walking through- are they slowing down? What’s in their pocket? Are they looking at the house? We’ll triple check every door and window at night, looking at our house as an outside might.

It is an interesting thing, when you go from secure to fearful; though I am sitting in my home all alone right now and still feel perfectly safe. But suddenly we have become the people with cameras and safety plans, locking interior doors and peering through our cameras every time it alerts us to a person walking nearby (there are a lot of walkers in our neighborhood, makes me feel a little creepy when I see someone mosey past pushing a stroller). It is an interesting thing when you take the dog for a walk and wonder if the person you are passing just got a new ping pong paddle (seriously, what do they plan on doing with that?) or checking Craigslist and other website to see if anyone is selling a very specific style of headphones.

It is interesting infusing a fearful story with humor, the emotions juxtaposing, reminding me how interrelated they can be. There is that balance between explanation and dramatization. But at the end of the day, it’s the thought that a sacred space is not always sacred, and that a simple careless act, mindlessly forgetting a basic routine- could lead to such awful outcomes. Though we were lucky: I still don’t know what we would have done if someone was still standing in that garage, their heart beating with the fear of seeing us just as ours were pounding from the thought of them. It seems like a useless risk, and I can’t help but wonder what led them to our home that night. What prompted them to take that remote and push that button knowing what the risks could be? With the world being what it is, when you don’t know if you will find the barrel of a gun on the other side of a door: what makes that worth it? What happens in your life to make you think that taking a chance by going into someone’s home is a worthwhile risk? I hope they at least get some use out of the ping pong paddle and find our boring little neighborhood is really just that- a bunch of families with little kids that invest in silly toys more than anything else.

Getting Down and Dirty (gardening and anxiety)

Perhaps the mindfulness portion of my creativity challenge is stretching on a bit longer than I had originally planned. We should be diving into the ‘bored to brilliant’ portion shortly, but I think there is still some ground here that we need to till before we move along- after all, these two topics are flip sides of the same coin. Once we have one managed, the other will slip easily into place.

I think I’ve mentioned before that I have struggled with anxiety for just about my entire life. And I don’t mean the kind you get right before you have to make a big presentation. I mean the kind that grows and duplicates until it starts to impact my daily functions. Phone calls can turn into a Herculean feat requiring a pep talk, a little bit of rehearsing, and (hopefully) a reward after a job well done. I can keep myself up half the night when I know I will be driving somewhere new in the morning, convinced that I will somehow get myself irreversibly lost, even with GPS. I have to map things out, I need to know step by step what to expect; this is why I always appear overly prepared and why I ask a lot of very detailed questions- my brain demands the answers that will allow me to visualize the game plan.

Over the past year my anxiety skyrocketed (hmm, couldn’t even begin to sort out why), and I found myself struggling even more. Sleepless nights, sick to my stomach, migraines, exhaustion and insomnia existing side by side. I struggled, to say the least. Once you start rolling down that hill it is very difficult to slow the momentum and climb your way back up.

And this, my dear adventurers, is why I find myself enamored by this particular phase of the creativity challenge. Finding that sliver of peace I had craved for so long became more then a goal, it was damn near an obsession. I’ve tried most of the tricks people suggest: meditation, yoga, deep breathing, sensory tricks. And while all of these options carry their own benefits, it didn’t get to the core of my personal issue. Sure, they could help me calm down once I’d already started amping up- but was there anything that could get me out of my own head long enough to slow my downward spiral right in it’s tracks?

And that’s where I landed on this challenge: attempting to discovery new ways to curb my anxiety and de-stress my brain, ones that I hadn’t attempted before. Truthfully, I didn’t expect to find much. After all, I had spent years meandering down this particular path of self-discovery, it just didn’t seem likely that I would find a magical little unicorn answer to solve my wayward woes. Dang, was I wrong.

Growing up I always had a deep love of nature and anything plant-related, though my thumbs are far from green. The first house I ever lived at was a pretty large plot of land next to my grandparent’s cattle farm. We had a little garden that my mom took care of, and we spent our days climbing the fruit trees scattered across our yard: apple, cherry, pear, and a few walnut trees- it was heaven. We moved when I was still in elementary school, traded in those fruit trees for wild country woods. It was the kind of place where a bear could stroll into your garage on accident and you could follow the paths the deer made through the underbrush. Perhaps this is why I’ve always felt most at home in nature.

I guess gardening wasn’t a big leap to make after that, though this is the first year I decided to really jump in. Sure, I’ve cared for my share of desk and house plants; I’ve got my main four that have moved between offices and houses with me for years: Bonnie, Clyde, Fifel and Travolta have been faithful companions even when I didn’t deserve them. But outside of these beauties, I haven’t had much space in nature to call my own. This year was the first one where I had a tiny patch of land to call my own, and while it is pretty tiny, its still mine and I get to decide how to play in it.

I honestly had no idea how relaxing a garden would be until I started planting. There was something deeply soothing about the entire process. I have a really bad habit of getting caught up in my own head, lost in my thoughts that lead me down rabbit holes best left alone. So the act of putting my hands in the dirt and caring for something else was liberating: the physical outlet pulled me out of my cartwheeling thoughts and grounded me in the present moment.

Gardening and the Brain Game

As it turns out, I’m not the only one who felt a breath of fresh air invigorate my soul as I dug my hands into the dirt. In UK study involving 317 people who took part in table-top gardening sessions 80% self-reported better mental health resulting from the work, while 93% said that they had improved confidence and motivation. When asking gardeners why they partook of that particular activity, the second most common answer was for mental health (the top response was for recreation). The benefits have been seen so broadly that there are now horticulture therapy programs where you garden for the specific benefit of your own mental health.

Many of these therapy programs have relied on studies that indicate that the activity can reduce depression, anxiety and stress-related symptoms, alleviate symptoms of dementia, increase the ability to concentrate and engage, and reduce reliance on medication and self-harming behaviors. While it may sound a bit strange at first, there is science to back it all up. Studies have shown that gardening is linked to mental clarity, as well as the promotion of problem solving, learning, and sensory awareness. The variety of brain functions you have to employ while working with your leafy compatriots acts as an exercise routine for your brain itself, keeping it healthy and strong.

Accepting the Imperfect

Those who have been gardening long term have also noted that it allows you to practice acceptance: often what you expect and what you get when gardening can be two very different things. You can do everything right, and sometimes those carrots still won’t grow. This is an easier and safer way to dip your toes into acceptance and, to a degree, grief at the idea of missed expectations. It also forced you to move past perfectionism: while mother nature is beautiful, she is far from perfect.

Growing a Mindset (and a few cucumbers)

If you’ve ever read a self-help book, you have probably heard the term ‘growth mindset.’ When you are living with a fixed mindset you are resistant to change. A growth mindset, on the other hand, is one in which you are always learning. Failures are not viewed as defeats; they are lessons that you can pick up and use later on for improvement. Those who partake in tricky hobbies like gardening have an easier time developing a growth mindset because, let’s be honest, there is always something to learn and improve on. Most early gardeners initially indicate that they feel a degree of stress when they run into failures because they don’t feel like they’re doing things right: but this feeling is very quickly followed by a bit of research, connecting with others, and developing a new play going forward. Suddenly the failure isn’t the end of an entire hobby, it is merely a little speed bump on the road towards delicious asparagus.

Creating Community (and cauliflower)

I always envisioned gardening as a solitary endeavor: you sit there outside with your little watering can and your beds and get to work. And while that can sometimes be the way the cookie crumbles, there is actually a large and thriving community centered around this all-consuming hobby. Even as a novice I have been welcomed with open arms by anyone and everyone I know who dabbles in the craft. A two minute conversation during a break at work had led to tips on cultivating tomatoes, an offer of free raspberry bushes, the best type of cucumbers to grow, how to make hops good enough to use in your own home brews. And that’s just after a week enmeshed in this little world.

The community you are able to build around something you collectively love is perhaps one of the strongest connections you can make. There is something about that spark of passion that inspires kinship, even amongst vastly different individuals. This type of interpersonal connection is crucial for building up a strong mental health base. Having a support system you can fall back on and talk to greatly reduces stress levels, giving you the room to vent when you feel like a tea pot ready to scream from the pressure.

Aligning with Nature

Not only does gardening connect you to other people, but it gives you a direct vein straight into our natural world. There is something deeply humbling about feeling that vibrant connect to other living things and viewing yourself as an integral member of this crazy world of ours. And not just a member of it, but someone who is actively doing your part to make it a little better, healthier and greener. This will easily help boost confidence and motivation all on it’s own. Two key ingredients for optimal mental health.

Having meaningful work to focus on provides us with a sense of purpose, a reason to get up in the morning. It increases optimism, resiliency, hope, joy, happiness, and satisfaction. Finding meaning in your life is considered to be vitally important to your health. If you’ve even known of a person who retires and has their health immediately begin to decline: one of the reasons often discussed stems from this lack of purpose. Your mind and body crave a meaningful life- and meaning can be derived from anything. You don’t have to be the President of the United States to have a purpose; sometimes it can be as simple of being the person who waters the plants that you love. They depend on you to live; in my book, that will always be vitally important work.

Getting Fit by the Pumpkins

Plus: it’s a physical activity, which means it’s good for your body too. And when you look at this from a stress-reduction standpoint: physical activity is one way that you can complete your stress cycle. The act of moving calmly and methodically through the daily steps involved can convince your brain that the danger has passed and it’s okay to move on. Not to mention: if you are growing delicious and healthy things, you are more likely to consume delicious and healthy things.

Physical activity all on its own changes your brain chemistry. It releases endorphins, norepinephrine, serotonin and dopamine (the body’s natural stress-reliever), while increasing blood flow to the brain (providing it with more oxygen and nutrients). Not only that, but it actually decreases levels of negative chemicals in your brain, while forcing your physiological systems (these are all involved in the typical stress response) to communicate and work more closely together; once again, completing that pesky stress cycle.

A Mental Outlet Amongst the Plants

But for me, the biggest selling point wasn’t necessarily in the act of planting itself: sure, that did do a lot to ground me. But yoga was also capable of grounding me in my body. So what was different about this activity that the five hundred others I’ve tried over and over again the past few years? It’s simple: gardening was able to give my brain an outlet to focus on even when I wasn’t actually outside with my plants.

You see, I tend to ruminate. That’s one of the things that makes my particular flavor of anxiety so difficult for me to manage. I can get manage myself in a stressful moment, but my brain will flip back to that unlucky event over and over again once it’s passed. I will play it on repeat like a toddler watching Scooby Doo (or whatever toddlers are obsessed with these days). Gardening, however, required a lot of creative planning, plotting, and research on my part. I’ve been checking out library books, watching videos, looking up articles; all in an effort to learn more to make me a better plant mama to my new little charges. Not only that, but every single plant has slightly different needs: this means that the research is never really over. Once I figure out how tomatoes tick, I can move on to broccolini or pear trees.

I’ve also had to get creative to solve my space-problem. My yard is quite small and the little bit that I do have is somewhat landscaped in a way that I really enjoy to look at. So the trick became: how to maintain a garden when I am limited on space? This was a big hurdle requiring a lot of creative energy to problem solve. This required more focus, a tad more research, and connecting with others to get their input and opinions about the things they have tried. My current answer: container and vertical gardening. Which requires an entirely different skill set than in-ground traditional gardening. So guess who found even more fodder to focus her mental energy on?

My brain has been so busy sorting and learning about my new project that I have simply forgotten to think about my usual stressors. I don’t have time. I can’t sacrifice the bandwidth it requires to ruminate and relive uncomfortable moments- not when I have tomatoes that desperately need to sprout and water schedules to sort out. And the best part? It really didn’t take much effort at all on my part to mentally switch gears. The transition has been fluid, and that alone is insanely exciting to someone like me who has spent years trying to figure out how to turn off that anxious piece of my brain when it wouldn’t give me a moment’s peace. It’s been game-changing. And while I know the novelty might eventually wear off, right now: it’s the best trick I’ve tried, and I’m not going to lie, I am feeling pretty good.

So ultimately, for me- my garden gave me the gift of mindfulness in the sense that it carried my mind away from it’s most painful moments and gave it a directed focus on a hobby that makes me feel good for even attempting. So there you have it, my friends- finding peace in the places that you least expect. I told you: the creativity portion of the challenge is brewing just below the surface: we are dipping our toes into these waters without even realizing. What other brilliant clues to our own happiness do have hidden just below the surface of our own consciousness?

Photo by Brett Sayles on Pexels.com

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.