Sunday, March 1, 2015

How Can I Keep From Singing?

My life goes on in endless song
Above earth's lamentations,
I hear the real, though far-off hymn
That hails a new creation.

Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear its music ringing,
It sounds an echo in my soul:
How can I keep from singing?

While though the tempest loudly roars,
I hear the truth, it liveth.
And though the darkness 'round me close,
Songs in the night it giveth.

No storm can shake my inmost calm,
While to that rock I'm clinging.
Since love is lord of heaven and earth
How can I keep from singing?

- music by R. Lowry; words by Anonymous

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Throwing Rocks in a Creek

6:45 a.m. I wake up of my own accord. Fragments of a dream – cars? people? – slip away.  I lie in bed a minute longer, enjoying the silence that envelops my aunt’s house in the country. The window to the left of the bed faces east; I lift the blinds and spend the next ten minutes watching the red sun lift through the trees until it disappears into the thick clouds waiting above. Snow lies thin on the ground outside; the house is still.

I get out of bed, dress in layers five thick, scrawl a note to my still-sleeping aunt to let her know I’d be back soon, and slip out into the early February morning. 

Suddenly I’m eleven years old again.

When I was a kid (years before all I wanted to do was sleep in), I’d often wake up early, don my Laura Ingalls Wilder getup (bonnet, scraggly dress, apron, shawl) and spend the next several hours rambling through the woods and fields near my house with my dog. We’d chase the sunrise – an impossible task, since all of the land was covered in trees – pick plums and blackberries in the summer, and half-follow animal tracks in the winter. Those were times when I was Anne of Green Gables, Laura in her Little House, Caddie Woodlawn, Mole of Mole End: all of my cherished childhood friends.

My aunt lives in my grandmother’s old house, settled about a quarter of a mile from the house I grew up in. It sits back a little bit from the road, which dead ends just a few hundred feet away in what used to be a healthy wood but is now fallen trees, the result of recent logging. When we were kids, my brother and sister and I would traipse through those woods, following the thin trail and white-painted trees until finally arriving at the road. Now all of the trees are lying down, and you don’t need a path to see how to get anywhere.  

It’s cold but I’m warm with my jacket and gloves. I follow the dirt path – now covered in a thin layer of snow and ice that crunches under my boots – from my aunt’s house, past the horses’ field on the right, past the old barn, and up past the goats’ pen. I get a glimpse of my old house but don’t go up to it, instead veering right onto another path, which leads to another path, set between a forest of bare-branched trees and a field of pines (a cornfield, in my youth). If you weren’t looking for it, you’d probably miss the faint break in the trees that opens to the path I was looking for. Years ago, all of this property was my dad’s, but now it belongs to a nice guy named Steve, who hopefully won’t mind my taking an early morning walk on his land. I’m sure he doesn’t know that for me, it’s still mine and will never be anyone else’s. Everything looks the same here in the snow, but I could walk this land with my eyes closed and always know exactly where I am. I slip in between some trees and find myself on a narrow trail leading through the woods.

Halfway to my destination, I stop and listen. The loud crunch from my boots on the crusted ground is silenced; I don’t even hear a bird. In the far, far distance is a car, but then it too disappears. Turning slowly in a circle, I look around. Everything is both exactly as I remember, and completely different. What used to be a field is now covered in trees and briers. The path that used to be immaculately mowed now has sticks and fallen trees over it. But the snow hides its imperfections. 

A few minutes later, I make it to the pond. It’s been . . . how many years? seven? ten? fifteen? . . . since I walked this path. I remember a large-ish body of water surrounded by a high embankment on two sides, a trickling creek on the other, and a grassy sloping hill. There used to be a rowboat moored on the hill: of course, gone now. Today young pine trees cover most of the area. The pond itself, now frozen over and covered with snow, is a fraction of its former size. The embankments, not so tall after all, are also scattered with dead overgrowth and brambles.

I pick my way carefully over to the other side of the pond, making sure to put my feet down heavily in the slippery crust of snowy ground. Once on the other side, I stand at the top of the bank, back to the pond, looking down at the trickling creek below me. Heels first, holding onto tree branches with freezing fingers, I walk down the slope until I am next to the creek.

Again, I stop. Again, silence except for the trickle of water that seeps through the thin ice.
Go throw some rocks in the creek. Fragments of yesterday’s conversation with my brother echoes through my head. That’ll make you feel better.

I look around for some rocks but don’t see any. The snow has covered them all up. So instead, I crouch down on the ground and stare into the water. The creek is narrow – maybe only four or five feet across – and shallow. Ice clings to its edges. I remember wading in this creek when I was a kid, always watching out for snakes. I remember riding horseback through this creek with my dad. I remember falling into this creek when I was four, my seven-year old brother wrapping me up in his coat and shirt and hauling me home, bare-chested. I remember exploring this creek with my siblings and our friends, finding trees carved with Native American signs and searching for arrowheads. I remember sliding down the muddy hill the day Dad first connected a pump from the creek to the huge hole that would become the pond, and how much I absolutely hated to be dragged down to it as a teenager.

A family friend from years ago once referred to our land as “Newsome’s Refuge Ranch,” a moniker that hasn't crossed my mind until today. Back when she said that, I was twelve years old, and wasn’t much in search of refuge. For me, it was my home and nothing else. Now I see what she meant. Everyone needs a silent place where they can escape every now and then.

But it’s getting late. Surely my aunt is up and waiting for me to come back. We’ll eat bacon and eggs and toast, buttered in the oven, and drink our orange juice and coffee. She won’t let me cook or wash dishes; instead, she’ll serve me breakfast and chat about her friends or old memories or just life itself. Then I’ll go back to my real life in Raleigh. But I’ll take a piece of this peace with me.


Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Meanest Thing I Ever Said

We were all sitting around the dinner table, my friends, my boyfriend, and I, praising the delicious meal we were eating and giving our congratulations to our friend who had prepared it for us.
"Oh, it wasn't just me cooking," she was quick to point out. "My boyfriend and I cooked it together. He's an amazing cook."
"Yeah, he is," said someone.
"So is mine!" said my other friend. "He can make these delicious . . . how do you call them? Crepes? And he can cook a lot of other stuff, too."
"Oh, crepes are divine!" "That sounds awesome!" the other voices chimed in.
"Yeah," brought up the first friend. "And sometimes, if I come home late from work, he'll have dinner on the table ready for us. And he cooks breakfast most Saturdays, too."
Rounds of approval.
I interjected.
"I," said with a sarcastic, twisted smile, "make breakfast, lunch, and dinner."


What a loaded statement.
A) I'm implying that he's helpless in the kitchen and incapable of preparing anything to eat (not true, btw: he has lived 38 years without me feeding him);
B) I'm sounding like a resentful bitch who doesn't want to cook (also not true, since I really enjoy making meals for us; I put pressure on myself to be perfect, though, which is the bad place that statement came out of);
C) I'm making it sound like he doesn't appreciate me or what I prepare (which he does, every day, joyously; I can't count the lunchtime "babe, this is effin delicious!" text messages I get); and
D) I'm making him look bad in front of our friends (which is never, ever acceptable).

Relationship advice, ladies: don't criticize your significant other. Not in front of other people, not even in your head. To quote someone smart, being with someone is having a unified front, being unwaveringly committed to each other. If you're feeling validly upset or aggrieved or under-appreciated, talk to your guy about it. But don't do it the wrong way, snidely, through demeaning or belittling comments--spoken out loud or posted on Facebook. Be kind. Be a team. Be uplifting. Be supportive.

And enjoy the hell out of those crepes.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Autumn 2014

In September, my boyfriend and I broke up.
Then I lost my full time job.
And in November, my apartment flooded and I had to move out.
It’s been a hell of a ride, to say the least, but hot damn! if it hasn’t been the best fall of my life! Let me tell you why.

I had met this guy in June, and by July was convinced that we were going to get married and live happily ever after in a different country for the rest of our lives. But August was an . . .  interesting month for us, to say the least, and since he’d actually prefer not to appear in my blog at all, I’ll just leave it at that. I still went to visit him in September to see if we’d be able to continue things long-distance, but the day before I flew back to Raleigh, we figured out that our life paths were actually not going in the same direction at all. So we broke it off for good. Two weeks after that, I met a fellow ESL teacher, tip-toed into a cautious relationship, discovered that we compliment each other perfectly, and then cannonballed headfirst with no regrets. (More on that later.)

Back to my Mexico trip. The day after returning, I walked into work (having just received a fairly positive yearly evaluation six days before) to the news that they didn’t want me to work there anymore. So now I don’t. Before two days had passed, however, I picked up enough hours at my other job to make it through the end of the year, so I am not going hungry. 

I could make it through losing my boyfriend and losing my job without tearing up once, but I can’t say the same for losing my apartment. It has easily been the worst thing that’s ever happened to me (and ironically the best, but we’ll get to that later). For anyone who’s ever been inside of it, you know that Apartment 202 was my nest, my home, exactly the way I wanted it to be. I was friends with the guy upstairs and the girl next door, and I hosted parties as often as I could. This is the apartment with the bright red couch, the multicolored rug on the floor, the ivy green living room wall, decorated with souvenirs from Japan, the Philippines, Mexico, and Bolivia. This is the apartment that was my first real apartment just for me since 2005. Now, knowing that I’ll never again step foot in it, cleaves my heart in two.

Technically the investigation is still underway, but it seems as though someone left a cigarette burning on the balcony on November 10, and it caught the entire third floor on fire. When the firefighters came to put it out, they dumped enough water on the building to cascade into the second and first floors as well, making the whole building uninhabitable for the next six or eight months, I think.

I was at home when the fire started at 2:30 p.m. that Monday, and watched with my next-door neighbor as the top floor went up in flames. After being interviewed by a million different TV stations and newspapers (y’all knew that already, right?), all of us who had lost our homes gathered in the community center at the apartment complex to discuss our next steps.

I had held it pretty much together for those first four hours, surviving on adrenaline and publicity, but when the Red Cross and Disaster Relief folk started talking in plain terms about staying in hotels, emergency funds, and all the rest, the tears started coming. Luckily, Brian was at my side the whole time, providing comfort and strength just when I needed it most. (He’s a good guy to have around in an emergency, too; he stays calm and doesn’t freak out when the rest of the world is. This is also the guy who, only knowing my name and that my insurance company was “some subset of Geico?” managed to file a claim on my behalf an hour after the fire started—and he’s not even on my policy.)

That first night, I stayed at Brian’s (who’s staying in a house with his friends), trying to put on a brave face for the strangers I was suddenly living with. But after everyone else had gone to bed, I wrapped up in a blanket on the couch and Brian let me sob on his shoulder inconsolably for an hour. I finally passed out around 12:30 but was up at 3:30 a.m., unable to sleep or quit thinking of all the things I had probably lost.

Imagine my surprise when I opened my apartment door at 8:30 a.m. to a perfectly whole abode. Whole as in not in pieces. The upstairs apartments were mostly ash, fallen insulation, and smoke; the roof had collapsed to let the sunlight stream in. The plaster ceiling in my place was hanging on precariously in some parts, but was still intact. Everything looked the same as usual, except that it was all sopping wet. The carpet squished, streams of water cascaded from the dining room chandelier onto the table, the bed was a sodden mess of smoky blankets – but everything was whole.

Despite its wholeness, I still lost a lot. All the furniture was ruined; so was anything that plugged in.
More than half of my books were gone, and all of my important papers (graduation certificates, insurance policies, credit card statements) were all dripping wet (shoulda got me a filing cabinet years ago!). But there was a lot to save: my cookbooks were all fine, my work computer was OK, most of my photographs survived, 99% of my clothes just needed a good washing with vinegar, and the cedar chest that dad had built after chopping down a cedar tree made it through relatively unscathed.

However, after that first initial glee that I hadn’t lost everything, I was suddenly struck with the reality of the situation: I had 48 hours to remove everything salvageable from my apartment before the disaster relief people closed the building up for good. I was moving, the quickest I had ever had to move in my life. I had to make instant decisions about what was good and what was lost, what to keep and what to throw away, all the while working in a cold, dark, wet apartment without electricity or running water. Plus, everything was damp or actually wet to the touch: twice I had puddles of standing water fall on me while I was removing plastic boxes from the closet. That first day, my dad, Brian, another friend and I spent eight hours loading up everything that could be salvaged and hauling it over to Knightdale. The second day, only Brian and I came back to itemize everything that was lost.

I only broke down once during that whole two-day process: in a sudden flash of understanding I realized that I was packing up my apartment for good and would never, never return there. I was reminded of leaving my apartment in Takasaki back in August 2012 and how I cried in every room as I was saying goodbye. But at least then I knew I was leaving. I had known for months that I was going back to the U.S. so it was hardly a surprise. This here, though, throwing everything haphazardly into plastic bins, hardly bothering to make sure it was secure before carting them off, felt more like Depression-era rapid relocation. It hurt to even think about the situation, it was so unexpected and tragic.

Fast forward a few days. We got everything packed up and moved. Three quarters of my belongings are in Brian’s friend’s garage; the other quarter is at another friend’s apartment. The apartment complex I was living at has offered me a two-bedroom, 2 ½ bathroom apartment on the third floor of another building for the same price that I had been paying for my one bedroom (only for six months, but what a deal!) that I have gratefully accepted. And the family Brian has been living with has been gracious enough to allow me to stay with them until my new apartment is available on December 10. What’s even better, I won’t be moving in alone: Brian is coming with me so we can start up a place of our own.

It has been a long, hard ride, these past few months. Losing a relationship, a job, and a place to live are all catastrophic in their own way. What’s more, they haven’t been events that just affected me, but other people as well: two other employees besides me were fired around the same time, and 11 other apartments were ruined besides mine (not that you’d know it from reading the news, ha).

But I feel that the outcomes of these life situations have been so positive that they make it all worthwhile. I have received so much support from my family, friends, church, and coworkers—even from people I don’t even know. I feel blessed to be taken care of so well. I’ve also made a lot of new friends out of all this disaster.

Each life event that has happened recently has been a catalyst for some major life changes that needed – and perhaps were going – to happen, now just a little sooner than I had expected them to. Suddenly all of those platitudes – when God closes a door, He opens a window; everything happens for a reason; every cloud has a silver lining . . . seem to be coming true. And life is becoming very, very good.

In September, my boyfriend and I broke up.
Then I lost my full time job.
And in November, my apartment flooded and I had to move out.

But nothing, nothing, has brought me greater joy.

Monday, September 15, 2014

A Knock at the Door

It’s 4:00 on Friday afternoon. I’m in my bedroom getting ready to go to a wedding at 5:00 when my doorbell rings. Half-make-upped, I open the door. It’s a man I’ve never seen before, maybe early 40s, wearing a black sports coat over a white polo shirt, black pants, and black dress shoes.
“I am so sorry to bother you,” he says with a chagrin smile by way of introduction, “I was wondering if you’ve got AAA*. I’ve locked my keys in my car.”
“Sure, I’ve got AAA,” I tell him. “I’ll call them for you.”
“I’m Melissa’s boyfriend, Melissa from upstairs,” he calls after me as I start to shut the door so I can go get my purse. “I’ve seen you around.” The only people I know who live upstairs are guys flutters through my head, but then I think Maybe he’s talking about the people I don’t know who live on the other side of the building.
As I hold my AAA card in one hand and my phone in the other, I ask him to write down the information about his car.
“Where is your car?” I asked him.
“It’s at the UPS store on Atlantic Avenue,” he tells me. “I feel like such an idiot. I'm really sorry to bother you, but I appreciate your help.”
Atlantic Avenue? That’s like four miles from here! I think. Did he really walk here from there? Wasn’t there someone else he could have called before getting to my apartment complex?
“That’s far,” is my only comment. He scribbles down “2014 Honda Accord” on the piece of paper I offer him.
“Don’t you have to be with me when AAA comes?” he asks, a little nervously.
“The last time I used it the person with the card had to be there.”
“Nah, I don’t think so,” I tell him. “If they know where your car is, that’s all that matters.” I start to dial the phone. We’re still standing outside in front of my apartment door, the door itself shut tight behind me. The phone starts to ring.
“If you need roadside assistance, please press one,” says the automatic recording. I press one.
“Thank you for calling Triple A, this is so-and-so, are you in a safe location?” intones the customer service associate.
“Yes, I am. I was calling about – ”
The man immediately interrupts me. “Uh, thanks a lot for calling,” he says, “But I guess I’ll just go see if I can find the maintenance man.”
“ – never mind,” I tell the woman on the phone. “Everything is OK. Thank you!” I hang up and look at the man. But he’s disappeared down the stairs.
I go back inside, lock my door, and call the front office.
“Hi, this is Jaimie,” I greet the woman on the phone. “Do you know if there’s a
Melissa who lives in my building?”
“Melissa? Not off the top of my head,” she says. “Why?”
I tell her about the man who just came to my house.  She asks for a few more details, and then says, “Yeah, he shouldn’t be here. I’ll send someone out right now to find out what’s going on.”
A few minutes later I get another knock at my door. It’s the maintenance man. He wants to know what the guy who came to my house looks like and what he’s wearing. I tell him, and he runs off.
            Meanwhile, I finish getting ready for the wedding, step outside, and lock my door tight behind me. On my way out of the parking lot, I see the woman from the front office locking the office door behind her. I don’t see either the maintenance guy or the AAA guy.

As of Sunday night, I still don’t know what that scam was all about, but I do know that it left me feeling suspicious and on guard. I’ve had weirdoes come to my door before, but that was in Japan. I don’t like to think that they’ve followed me here.

*for friends in foreign countries who don’t know, Triple A is a road-side service company that helps you when your car has a flat tire or runs out of gas or something. Or if you lock your keys out of your car. 

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Permanence and Temporality, the Two that Plague Me

It’s like this. I bought a car in 2012. I’ll pay it off next year. But for it to be a financially wise decision and not an economic sinkhole, I should keep it for ten or twelve years until it breaks down irreparably. Then it will show itself to be a wise investment. (Other financially wise moves involve putting more money into my IRA, paying off my student loan debt in double increments, and getting a roommate to lower living expenses: all much easier said than done.) But all of these financially wise decisions seem to hinge on one thing: me staying in the United States. And that thought, frankly, terrifies me.

It’s not that I’m planning on moving out of the country in the next few months. But I’d like to have the option, the ability, if the desire ever arose. It was doable – albeit difficult – to say goodbye, pack my things away and move to Japan back in 2010. Could I do it again? Argentina, Chile, Mexico, England, Canada, the UAE . . . is life long enough to live everywhere I want to? 

But things are good here in Raleigh, so very, very good. I’ve got my feet on Carolina soil again. I can support myself and pay for my beautiful, colorful apartment that holds all of my worldly possessions. I can visit the majority of my relatives at the drop of a hat. And I’ve got an amazing set of friends stretching all across the state who have proven themselves a loyal, supportive, understanding bunch. Why would I want to be anywhere else? 

At the same time, I remember a conversation I had with my sister a few days after returning from Japan in 2012. “What if you moved to Raleigh and stayed there for the rest of your life?” she asked me. “What if you settled down there and never left?” Without even letting her finish her question, I shook my head vehemently: “Never, never, never! I could never stay in the same place for too long!” I wonder if it was really Raleigh itself that scared me, or the thought of staying in one place permanently. I think it's the latter. 

Perhaps other people in my generation are going through the same thing. We are quite content in the present, but afraid to commit ourselves to any one thing. We switch jobs every few years, we move across the country, we escape into graduate school. No longer is a house with a 30-year mortgage and a lifetime career at the same organization a blessing. No, permanence seems to petrify us. So we race around looking for the next best thing, thinking frantically, "Is this it? What else is there?"

Maybe it's just a matter of semantics. Shall we call it stability or inertia? Am I caught, trapped, stuck, wedged irreparably into an existence I can’t get out of, or rather am I stable, safe, secure, established? It's the same thing, just seen through different lights. 

Last weekend I went to my hometown (Littleton, NC) and enjoyed the time in the country, drinking a morning cup of coffee on the wide front porch, watching the sun go down over the lake, seeing the stars come out with no streetlights to dim their glow. But would I go back to it . . . forever?  

I feel sometimes that I want mutually exclusive things. I want this:

And this:


And this:


And this:

What do they say, don't worry about the future; enjoy the present? All we have is now? 

Monday, July 28, 2014

Trust in the Lord of the Journey

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are, quite naturally, impatient in
everything to reach the end
without delay.

We should like to skip 
the intermediate stages;
we are impatient of being on the way
to something unknown, something new.

And so I think it is with you.
Your ideas mature gradually -- 
let them grow.
Let them shape themselves,
without undue haste.
Don't try to force them on,
as though you could be today
what time will make you tomorrow.

Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give our Lord the benefit of believing
that His hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete. 

-Pierre Teilhard de Chardin