Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Marvelous Things

For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; 
The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land;
The fig tree putteth forth her green figs, and the vines with the tender grape give a good smell. 
Arise, and come away!

(Song of Solomon 2:11-13a)

Friends! It’s spring! The sun is shining! The birds are singing! It's almost too hot some days, isn't it? And isn't it fantastic? After a cold, cold winter, to see the sun again. I bask. 

Things have been looking up since last time I wrote. And I've been thinking of all the marvelous things that exist. For some reason, it's easier to be chipper when it's 80 degrees and sunny than when you're locked inside your house on a chill, cloudy day in the middle of February. More than anything, I feel grateful for steady employment and for supportive friends who never let me down. Without them, life would be poor and cheerless. 

Here is a list of some other things that make me happy. 

#1: Afternoon rain. I work in the morning and at night, so I usually have a few hours between 1:00 and 5:00 p.m. to enjoy the world. There are fewer things more peaceful than watching a steady afternoon rain.

#2: Morning sun. My current apartment faces north, so I only get a few hours of sunlight in the morning, which completely disappears by noon, leaving the place in darkness. But the light is lovely filtering in through the window as I’m getting ready in the morning.

#3: Green leaves (not the Japanese band, but the literal leaves on the trees): I didn’t know how much I had missed them until I saw them popping out again. There’s a tree right outside of the living room with so much foliage on it that it blocks the street. It’s a shame it can’t block the noise from the traffic as well.

#4: Books. I think I’m reading four books at once right now, and have two more waiting in the wings. I love having options for which universe to visit.

#5: Coffee. Specifically afternoon coffee and pie on a lazy weekend, but settling down to morning coffee, breakfast, and the newspaper before work is definitely a close second.

#6: The smell of honeysuckle. Can’t. Be. Beat. 

#7:  Blackberry blossoms. I am going to gather so many blackberries this summer, and make so many pies and cobblers and jams. I feel like I'm seeing so many more blossoms this year than last and am excited about picking them! 

#8: A new place to live. When my lease is up in June, I will be moving to a light and airy 3-bedroom townhouse on the other side of the city, and the next era in my life will begin! 

Friday, April 24, 2015

The Grief Cycle: Healing

"After a a great pain," writes Emily Dickinson, "a formal feeling comes . . . first chill -- then stupor -- then the letting go."


But she fails to mention the rest. That aside from the blankness, you experience a host of other feelings. Despair. Glee. Anger. Relief. Rage. Incomprehension. Regret. Calm. Angst. Nostalgia. The list goes on.

One hundred and fifty years or so after Ms. Dickinson, we all know about the Grief Cycle. Or the Grief Roller Coaster, as it were. And we all know it's not linear. It's not crisp. Everything can be fine, and then one thing -- a comment, an object, a place -- brings the memories back up to the surface and makes the whole day bad. It's a cycle that certainly isn't circular, a roller coaster you can't just jump off of whenever you'd like to.

How to combat it? I wish I knew. There's the feel-it-now-or-you'll-feel-it-later strategy (good for when there are tissues on hand). There's the distract-distract-distract method, which also works well for a while. But there's also all this damn processing that has to be done: a long, arduous, cognitively-draining affair in which you analyze and re-analyze until you give yourself a headache and need a stiff drink. Then the procrastination strategy is employed.

What's also helpful is the everyone-goes-through-hard-times methodology. There is comfort in reading how the great poets and writers of the past are able to take raw emotions and transform them into something beautiful (poetry is better than all those angry or sad songs, I imagine). I can scarf down 19th century rhyme easier than self-help books.

There might not be any great epiphany that comes as a result of the bad things that happen in life. Maybe there isn't an answer to "Why?" It's like they say, it just is. But after experiencing all the turmoil, etc., there comes the letting go part. And that's going to be a good place to get to.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

In Praise of Solitude

This is where I spent the afternoon one recent Tuesday:

There, on the shore of Jordan Lake, far, far away (well, far enough away) from my life in Raleigh. This will give you a better idea:

We’ve been talking about Solitude at church recently (along with some other virtues like Simplicity and Fasting). Solitude is a good thing: time for quiet, time for reflection, time for stillness. Now that I’m living by myself again, I feel like I’m getting more than enough solitude at home. But at-home solitude isn't quite the same as out-of-the-house solitude. At-home solitude sometimes feels like being crushed by to-do lists: do lesson plans, fold laundry, respond to emails, make important life decisions, etc. etc. And sometimes the quiet can be unnerving. Solitude can border on loneliness. Those are times when I have to escape.

So during spring break when both morning and evening classes were on hiatus, I took advantage of my free, sunny, 73-degree day, packed myself some snacks, a notebook (and of course a stack of textbooks), and went to spend the day at the lake, a 40-minute drive from home. When I first arrived at the recreation area – a stretch of beach with a copse of pine trees on one side and the placid lake on the other – I knew this was exactly what I needed. Sunshine (oh! that glorious Vitamin D!), peace, beauty. I gathered my belongings and made my way to the beach, which was peppered with about a dozen other lucky souls who had the afternoon off. My original plan had been to stay near the recreation area itself, but the strident voice of an overtanned and underdressed woman in an ill-fitting bikini drove me from the public beach into a less crowded area. 

I made my way on the sand past the sunbathers, the cell-phone-screechers, cook-out-ers, and the volleyball players, until I found another stretch of white sand completely undefiled by anyone. All was still except the lap of the water and the gentle whirr of the wind in the pines behind me.

The moment I set down my load and spread my quilt on the sand, I felt physically relaxed in a way I don't remember feeling for months. I couldn't do more for a while than just collapse on my back and look up at the sky in joyful thankfulness. 

For the next three hours, I stayed there, sometimes reading ("Broken Open"), sometimes making lesson plans for the next week's classes, and sometimes just staring at the water with my toes in the sand, thinking how incredibly lucky I am to have access to this kind of beauty. To have time to think -- or not to think -- as the day goes on. 

As I sat there, I thought to myself: Dang it, I take such good care of myself. My routines aren't always perfect, but I do yoga when I need to, meditate when I need to, drink some wine or some straight whiskey when I need to, write in my journal, surround myself with my understanding and compassionate friends, cry when I have to, distract the hell out of myself when I can't do anything else, and give myself time and space to think. And even though sometimes I want to fall into despair and scream out WHY GOD WHY, I know it’s a question that has no answer.

I know, though, that I’m going be OK. I’m always going be OK. Life is picking up the pieces and moving forward, and that’s what I’ll do this time, too. As long as I can have time to collect my thoughts and get them organized. 

Besides, after my glorious afternoon at the lake, I came back to Raleigh and had a date with this guy who told me all about how he used to sell drugs and guns back in his home country, how the police back there bowed down to him and his rich family so he could get away with anything, and how he broke one brother's arm and the other brother's leg over some argument about who knows what. He did sneak a dozen pink roses and a hot pink t-shirt from Wal-Mart into my car after dinner, though, which totally makes up for his lack of moral character. Right?


I need another day at the lake. 

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.


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.