Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014 In Review

This year was Bulgaria. And Return. I feel a broken mind when I think about the year, like I was two different people or two different time streams or a wild break in the time space continuum. A year ago, I went to an elegant dinner with Marie and Mane outside of Jonshiping, Sweden. Fireworks went off in the street and we stood between the houses of exploding flames with glasses of champagne. A good start.

What did you do in 2014 that you've never done before? 
Seen Croatia. Loved it.
A rich easter with friends.
Red cross relief effort.
West coast swing event
Conducted interviews

Did you keep your New Year's resolution and will you make one for this year? 
2012: Just do it. Stop waiting.
2013: Yeah... about that..
2014: wear more dresses. drink more beer.

I totally kept it.

2015: Love what you've got.

Did anyone close to you give birth?
Maggie! Twins!

Did anyone close to you die?
My grandfather: G-Dad, Al Jenkins

Did anyone close to you get hitched?
Jessi and Joe
Sam and James

What countries did you visit? 
Czech Republic

What date(s) from 2014 will remain etched upon your memory?
June 29, the day I left Bulgaria
July 26th, the day I came home
August 26th, the day I started grad school

What would you like to have in 2015 that you lacked in 2014?

What's your biggest achievement this year? 
My BEST speech and debate team!
Making friends in Dobrich: Kal, Rozi, Sylvia, Irina

Biggest failure?
Living under fear.

Did you suffer illness or injury? 
Depression last January and February. Bad news bears.

What was the last thing you bought?
A memoir at Tattered Cover in Denver

Whose behavior merited celebration?
Anyone who wrote me a letter.
Seth Martin for being the bestest roommate
Rozi for her support of me throughout the spring

Where did most of your money go?
Writing workshops in Prague.

What did you really get excited about? 
Prague Summer Writer's Workshop and the response to my writing. Namely, the awesomeness that is Patricia Hampl was teacher and human being.

Coming home

The debate tournaments with my students

First ever west coast swing event and a second place win!

What song will remind you of 2014?
"Photograph" by Ed Sheeran

Compared to this time last year, are you happier or sadder? 

What do you wish you'd done more of?
Learning Bulgarian.

What do you wish you'd done less of?

What was your favorite TV show?
Doctor Who!

What were the best books you read? 
Lila by Marilynne Robinson
The Florist's Daughter by Patricia Hampl

What was your best musical discovery?
Bulgarian folk dancing

What did you want and got? 
Folk dancing

What movies did you see in cinema? 
Gah. I don't even know. I saw movies at random times throughout Bulgaria. "Fault in Our Stars". "Divergent." "Princess of Monaco" "Interstellar"

What did you do on your birthday? How old did you turn?
25. Dinner at Made in Home with Fulbright friends then a beer night with the whole crew.

What one thing would have made this year more satisfying? 
Slower fall. Better relationships in my town. Teaching conclusions.

How would you describe your personal fashion?
I can pack it in a backpack and go. Dresses and leggings.

What kept you sane?
Skype home.
Robbie Fraleigh.
Hannah Allen and Sarah Craycraft discussions on faith, life, and feminism
Erika Sanders for her sane and caring self and the refuge of her apartment in Ruse
Folk dancing.

Who was the best new person you met?
Sylvia. Kal.

What was a valuable lesson you've learned?
Keep going.

Monday, December 22, 2014


I see faces that don't belong in my day. All the time.

Five months since I stepped back on US soil, took forever to taxi and  unload off the plane, and ate Chik Fil A for dinner with my mom and sister.

I see faces.

My students. Just them. All of them. The most random student who never spoke will suddenly seem to appear on the sidewalk by Starbucks on Garner St trying to jwalk in front of my car. A furred coat hood will be a girl from tenth class with green tipped hair. A tall broad shoulder strutter will by, by turns, several of my eleventh or tenth class boys. Heavy steel toed boots and I suddenly see one boy who sat in the back right corner, his legs suddenly too long to fit under his desk, stuck out in the aisle.

And I don't mean I remember them. I mean I see them. I see their faces for a second before I realize that I can't be seeing their faces. My mind puts their expressions on strangers and for a minute I can't figure out what is happening.

It's unnerving. It happens multiple times a week and it hasn't slowed down in the months after my return.

I'd say it's missing. But it's of faces that I wasn't necessarily close to, though sometimes it is of the students I knew. Ah, but then again, students: I looked at them and studied them in desperation to know what was going on as a teacher. I'm not seeing faces of my friends or colleagues. I think I'd recognize my students even years after not seeing them if they were to show up at my door, even the quiet ones or the trying ones or the ones who just came in and out of my life for one year.

The sitings are a kind of post traumatic love note. I knew you. I didn't know you. I studied you with all I had. It was the love I had to give you.

To all my students at Geo Milev: you are still with me.

весела Коледа!

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

I'm Left Asking or "Lila"

... "I don't know".

I hate saying this.

The cloud of it is haunting the dark corners of my periphery the last few weeks.

I don't know.

The world is dark and I am confused.

At a dance event, several older men made sexual comments to younger dancers in our community. Comments that left deeper harm than we even realized as we joked about them over dinners in our hotel room. We talked to organizers who responded with grace and appropriate concern and action. Still, I'm left asking: Why did this happen? How could we have responded sooner? What is an advocate and how do I become one?

My younger sister had a conflict with a peer that ended in an encounter of some violence that gives her nightmares for three nights. I'm left asking: How can anything that causes this kind of harm be allowed or tolerated? Why wasn't I there? (Because I'd have caused double harm the other direction, I imagine)

A friend and I sit down to do the math on ages for legal sexual consent, out of curiosity, out of concern. I'm left asking: How can Deleware have Age 7 as the youngest age for legal consent? How can many states have laws that require "prior moral upstanding" (a.k.a female virginity) prior to prosecuting in cases of illegal consent between minor and adult?

On FB, a friend points out that WWI laid the ground work for key aspects in the Syrian conflicts, in Iraq, in the Balkans/ Ukraine. War beget war. And here we are. I'm left asking: How do I carry the responsibility for the world I did not make? How do things heal? What if they don't?

After watching the third Hunger Games film, I wonder about its connection to current political realities and the affects of war. I'm left asking: When does film lead us to true empathy? And when does it merely give us a substitute emotion?

Then Ferguson. Watching, at a distance, as several people I love express their anger. I'm left asking: ... I don't even know what to ask.

This month, I've been reading "Lila", the latest novel by Marilynne Robinson.  The main character roams through her memory and her present, trying to understand a God who could exist within her past and present experiences. She's asking questions, trying to understand "the mystery of existence", which is how her husband (an older pastor in a small Iowa town) describes it each week in his sermons. While having very different pasts, they ask the same questions of each other, trying to think (in her case) or pray (in his case) their way through to understanding.

One moment in this elegant and moving book, the pastor John Ames shares with his young wife Lila part of a thought he wrote down in the middle of the night.

"I don't mean to suggest that experience is random or accidental, you see. 'When I say that much the greater part of our existence is unknowable, I acknowledge His grace in allowing us to feel that we known any slightest part of it. There fore we have no way to reconcile its elements, because they are what we are given out of no necessity at all except God's grace in sustaining us as creates we can recognize as ourselves.' That's always seemed remarkable to me that we can do that. That we can't help but do it. 'So joy  can be joy and sorrow can be sorrow, with neither of them casting either light or shadow on the other." (p. 223-224)

This is, I want to tell you, an odd part to quote. Most of the novel is written in a kind of stream of conscious within Lila's mind. She lets us hear this moment as a gentle and tender moment as John carefully and in the best way he knows how reveal his vulnerability around the struggle for faith and the impossibility in understand. He's trying to talk himself into something here. And trying offer comfort to Lila. They are both bewildered by the joy and sorrow in themselves, the unexpected comfort of their marriage and the fear that attends it.

I'm at a loss, too. There is a joy attended on each of the things I mentioned that is not part of the injustice itself. Admiration for a friend, comfort of conversation, holding hands during a movie, good dinners... all these things bound up together, one after the other.

I don't know. It's a mystery.


Friday, October 31, 2014

Friends Who Read

A few weekends ago, I sent a facebook message to a woman I wasn't facebook friends with:
This is, perhaps, an odd message to receive [no duh!]. To put me in context: go back to second grade playing Nancy Drew detectives and swapping chapter book readers. I saw your mother last year at my cousin's wedding and learned that you were at Cornell. I am currently getting my masters at Bucknell in English. Seems we both ended up majoring in reading to some extent.
In the end, I asked if we could get lunch together when I was in town.
I sent this to a girl I had known in childhood, a best friend of sorts from the age of 5 or 6 to the age of 9 when my family moved away from Georgia to Pennsylvania. We had been, what I can only describe as Reading Friends. We weren't too many years into the skill when we became addicted. We read a lot and shared a lot of books, starting with the American Girl Doll stories that accompanied our multiple American Girl Dolls, and continuing into the Nancy Drew chapter books and other adventures. There were sleep overs where we traded books and told stories. There were play dates where we wandered my house in search of secret passages and hidden rooms. There were so many afternoons in the yard of her house and the tree house.
But a friendship started that young, without too many visits... we lost contact.
Curiosity prompted me to write her. What was she doing now? Who did she become? How did she think about the church we attended at the same time? AWANA clubs? The books we used to love? She kindly replied to my strange invitation and on a cold and rainy Ithaca afternoon, she picked me up and we had lunch at her house.
Later, my sister asked me if it was weird. I replied: "No. Not at all." To which, my sister replied, "Now that is weird." Yes. The fact that it was not weird is very weird. And it was not weird for this reason:
We still love all the same things.
The journey we started as kids  had led us, somehow, despite our differences in high school experiences, our choices of colleges, the locations of our growing up, our differences in religious belief and practices, the friends we kept or didn't keep, it all led us to the same tastes and opinions in music, film, tv, books, short stories. And not merely the same tastes but the same reasons for liking and disliking. It wasn't enough that we were deeply committed to questions about young adult dystopias and has a special love for the recent book "Divergent" by Veronica Roth. We had the same reasons for being devastatingly angry with the final novel: too political, unnecessary disruption of universe, lacking in narrative consistency, manipulation of structure for unnatural plot ending, etc.
 These trails were through our whole conversation.
I really couldn't get into Madmen. Here is why. Yes, exactly. I'm more of a Parenthood fan myself even though it makes me cry. Of course, that's the point of Parenthood: real life fighting and lots of crying. Did you go through fantasy in middle school? Oh yes. Lot's of Tolkien and high fantasy.  Let's be honest, I'm still there. Totally. I'm very committed to young adult fiction. I keep it on my shelf to balance the snooty Ivy League book shelves of Goethe and Nietche trying to seem smart. It's still the best stuff out there. Yes. What do you feel about John Green? Good writer. Not sure what to make of him all the time. He seems to be an odd choice but yes, can't argue with his styling.
It seems we were still, as Anne of Green Gables would say, "Kindred Spirits."
Our lunch ran like a love song to reading. Reading matters. What kids love to read matters. It runs as a thread through life and at age 25, two women who at one point both loved Nancy Drew, can sit down with 16years of silence and growing up between them, and find the world they once shared still there, still waiting, still as rich and fascinating as it was when they were kids. 

At the end of our visit, she handed me a book, "Graceling" by Kristin Cashore. "I love this series and have an extra of the first book I wanted to get rid of. But I wanted it to go to a good home. Take it." It was a "high fantasy" book, one from a few years ago that I hadn't heard of. When I sat down with it the next week, I stayed up late to finish it.



Monday, October 27, 2014

The Returns of Returning: Ballroom Dance (cont.)

Robbie and I
The last post you heard from me, I was talking about the vulnerability of returning to the competition. Heck, the vulnerability of returning to the dance floor. Period.

I went to the Cornell Competition. I Returned to Ballroom Competing.

And I'm grateful.

The moment that moved me from the woman who wrote the blog post  to a woman ready to dance, happened sometime in the early morning hours of the competition day. I went off by myself, found a corner of the unused weight room, and spent some alone time. I had my "Wailin'Jenny's" on the ipod, a book of poetry, some favorite stretches. I prayed. I was alone for an hour, let my body be wakefully restful, and I found a center.

I came to a point where I had nothing to lose. I was able to wave farewell to my embarrassment of not having a costume. I was able to say No to my fear of humiliation, to the desire to look good in front of my peers, to letting Robbie down, to my fear that I'd never be able to dance the way I had before.

The physical preparation (dressing and make up and warm ups) were then easy, relaxed. Robbie and I laughed and enjoyed ourselves, cheering on the beginner dancers when we could.

At 10am, Robbie and I went on the floor for a vienesse waltz, my first competitive moment since March 2013.

Rocking the Short Hair styling
I had an immediate dance high. It was awesome. The day could have ended there.

And here's the other joy, the one that didn't have to happen for this day to be meaningful, but was a lot of really good icing on a really good cake: we did well. Really well. As in: first place "gold level" standard. First place in syllabus vienesse waltz (a separate event).

It was kind of embarrassing, knowing the terror I had expressed, knowing that the hours we had put in were paltry in comparison to some of our hard working teammates. I mean that as high praise to them. My teammates are hard workers, that they are committed to their art/dance/sport. What I'm trying to say is that it was humbling:  it is often just a few points, a slightly off the bellcurve of marks, that makes a first place from a second.

What I think they saw was this: I danced like I was at peace.

So when it came time to dance "up" a level, stretch ourselves a bit, I was far less scared. I had come to the point where I had nothing to lose and I wouldn't lose anything on the pre-champ floor that I hadn't already said goodbye to before the first round of gold.

We didn't come in last. That's a huge win.

The support from our fellow Penn Staters was also a gift. Emma, one of our teammates in the finals with us, hugged me: "I'm so excited for you. I read your blog. I know what this means to you." I forget that other dancers sometimes read this. They read, remembered, and celebrated with me.

Also a TEAM MATCH is the best way to get school spirit going. Loved getting to dance in that as well.

Next weekend is Competition #2 in DC. I'm so excited. I'm grateful to have passed the first mile marker getting back into this world that I love.

Please don't stop the music!
My people! WE ARE... PENN STATE!

Friday, October 03, 2014

Return to Ballroom

What I've found is that the things I missed the most have been the hardest to return home to.

I missed ballroom more than I had words to express this past year.

Returning to ballroom has been hard.

It's never just ballroom.

My friend Mel said this to me. It's never just ballroom. It's the rest of life. And ballroom. It's ballroom. And the rest of life.

Coming back. I'm doing a lot of "coming back" right now, though it feels like that part should be more concluded than it is. I still cry a lot, the symptom I had early in Bulgaria and that, honestly, lasted long into the year. I cry far more often than I used to, used to being in the years after college. Tears come to me over small and large things, the lovely and the heart breaking.

When you leave a physical activity for a year, the body adjusts to living without it. The muscles forget things.

The mind less so. I know all the things I should be doing. I remember what it should feel like and I can't seem to force my way into dancing that way, the way I used to.

Before, it felt like I was on a constant progression "up", however slow. Now I am covering old territory and wondering when I lost the ground.

The biggest part of this is my fear of what people see in me. That they will know I'm supposed to be a TA, a good one. I have a reputation for being a good dancer. I've said this about myself even. People were excited that Robbie and I were going to be dancing together again too.

But it's slow. We haven't had the time we know we need to make it work. I haven't put in the physical training to make it work. My body didn't take kindly to American food and the stress and there is weight gain. There isn't money for the dress or new latin shoes. And, oddly, I feel the first year of age in my body, the first year I didn't look the odd paradox of young young and more grown up. So I look at students who started in the past year and who are dancing at a level well above me and I think Something is wrong with me.

It's taking more courage and head+heart work to return to the floor than I ever imagined. This weekend, I'm heading to Cornell for my first competition in 1.5 years. The practice hours have been few. I'll be ragged. Exposed. This is how I envision the weekend returning to the floor.

I'm scared of the shame.

There are lots of things I know. Like how I'm in a supportive place. That my dance partner is gracious to me and says that we don't have to compete at a certain level. That he extends a patience to a strained point (and he has a deep patience) at my emotional ups and downs, the way I quit during rounds, my tears, the physical inability and mental inability to push through. That people ultimately don't care at all how I dance and are way more interested in how they themselves will perform on the floor.

It's far more mental. And deeply spiritual.

I need a new story.

I've also realized that what I missed about ballroom included the people I loved, the music, the movement, the competitions, the space. But it was also me missing the person I was in those places. Coming back, a changed person (in ways I'm still discovering), I haven't walked back into the shoes of that confident, a little cocky, sweeping dancer that I loved being. She's gone. On the good days, I'm hoping for a deeper and more mature woman to be in these dance shoes, that my artist friend's idea that as Life grows us, our Art by extension must grow too. But I don't see her yet or the fear is blocking her or... well, it's October. I've only been home a few months. And these things take far more time than I've ever been willing to admit.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

An Elegant Protest: Pillows, Mattresses, Art

Yesterday, Bucknell had a protest in solidarity. I heard about it from the Writing Center Folks. So I pulled out my pillow and carried it too.

It started at Columbia. A senior named Emma began carrying her mattress by herself to all her activities on campus. She was raped in her sophomore year. The perpetrator was still on campus and the legal system had failed her.

She decided to make art. Hear her talk about it at Carry That Weight.

Students began helping her carry it. And the word spread. Bucknell students showed their support by carrying pillows with them to all of their activities.

I've been following the story since it first appeared online. I value what art can do and say. Emma made what I can only describe as an Elegant Protest.

Grateful to have the opportunity to protest on behalf of the women I have known and loved and cried for who have been through this.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Return to Old Spaces

I'm living in the town I lived in before I went Bulgaria.

Before Bulgaria. Bulgaria. After Bulgaria. Three sections of life that I refer to with regularity.

Living in the same space makes the past year feel like a dream. Did I actually live that way? Was I gone so long? How is it fall again?

Today is a year since the start of school. Hello School Year!

I'm in graduate school. At Bucknell.

This is a new space so it isn't quite in keeping with the title. Bucknell is on a small hill, built in red brick designed especially for them. It is a campus of "designed especially" but old enough to have the hodge podge of old objects sorted randomly on shelves only sensible to the ancient tennant of an ancient house. Why are there stone benches that don't face the mountains? Why is the registrar a window booth in a long hallway without a name? Why is the poetry center in a building by another name entirely? I don't know. I get lost often even though the campus is far smaller than my old PSU stomping grounds.

3 days a week, I climb in my red car and drive to Bucknell. My car is appropriately named after a successful Bucknell graduate (Makoto Fujimura), a connection I had not noticed until I sat down to write this post. Two hours ago, I left a reading by Evie Shockley, a poet with bold and fiery words and a smoky voice and gentle presence.

It's cool to hear poets speak again.

I'm slowly collecting people who are just back.
A classmate back from Oxford.
A college friend back from Tajikistan.
An office mate back from Germany.

We are confused and anxious about strange things. We say the phrase "Reverse Culture Shock" to help each other forgive the strange things we do. Some of us have big problems, others not so much. But we are all wandering around with a confused, "Is this really where I'm living?" We were abducted by foreign aliens; we were the foreign aliens. And now we speak easily in farmer's markets and don't understand why all the students must worry about the details in every assignment. We know that assignments aren't made by details but by the big idea in an applied context. No one hears this in class though. They keep asking about the syllabus.

The syllabus? I wish I had a syllabus this whole year! Ugh.

I'm happiest when:
I am tipped out of a canoe.
My brother tackles me to the ground.
I hear poetry.
Robbie hugs me.
Seth cooks.
I play with kids and run and screech and laugh.
I pick out children's books in a bookstore for a 4 year old's birthday party.
I go to the woods.

Returning. Expanding. Finding new ways to be in old spaces.

Did I dream Bulgaria?

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

"Don't be a jack-ass."

In cross-cultural dialogue, someone is [almost always/at some point] a jack-ass.

They do something that is just totally not okay. That is defensive, offensive, and other "sive" words. No way around it.

I was the lovely "j.a." last night.

Robbie and I were at the Grange Fair. The night was perfect. I ran happily into Barb Baldner's arms, the first time I'd seen my beloved mentor in over a year. We ate fried food. We gawked at Barb's grand prize winning cake. A country music concert got us two stepping around the grass.

At the end of the night, we were looking for the tent where Barb and her family were visiting ("visiting" as in chatting, as in spending time together). S10 something row. It was dark, we weren't sure where we were.

 I guess we looked particularly confused. Particularly vulnerable. Or, more accurately, I felt particularly vulnerable.

An old man suddenly shuffled past our elbows. "Excuse me" he stopped us, a small hand reaching out towards us. "Excuse me," he said again, because my face had suddenly transformed into a scowl of "don't f with me" and I pulled away from Robbie and moved quickly down the gravel drive.

Robbie stopped. The old man continued. "You look lost. Can I help you find something?" Robbie thanked him and got directions.

I stood chagrined, the idiot look of a scolded dog. Robbie shook his head, laughing at bit as he scolded me, "Dana, chill you, it isn't Bulgaria. You don't have to be a jack-ass. You're safe."

See, in moments of fear this past year, I learned a scowl that would put the must disgruntled Baba to shame. I used it to put off people I didn't want near me: the aggressive beggar, the forceful vendor, the man who chose out of hundreds of benches to sit down next to me and lean towards me to start a conversation. It was my default walking face, my "I belong here; I'm not a foreigner and helpless and open to abuse. I speak the language but you'll never learn that it's a lie because you won't get close enough to talk."

So this tactic is particularly, shall we say, off putting. It was useful at times. But perhaps it was not the greatest for making new friends.

In a moment of being lost in another type of foreign country (rural PA crammed into one fair ground), it sprang to my face. And I was horribly rude to a kind old man who wanted to help us, whose gesture towards us was merely an expression of goodwill and gently catching our attention.

Opa. facepalm.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Unanswered Prayer

This is a post to the people who believe and those who lead them. It is also something written in the middle of pain and about people who never had the opportunity to speak for themselves away from their roles on stage or in spiritual leadership. It is hard to walk with someone in pain, help them find a way forward in it too. I am bad at it, though in this post I shriek against those who find it awkward and unbearable to act. It is the one sided view. Have compassion here as I attempt compassion for myself.

I landed in JFK airport at 4pm on Saturday, my first moments in the USA after a year away. The next morning, I went with my mother to church. This church was new in the area, or at least in the last few years. But it felt deeply familiar, frighteningly so. The songs were displayed on screens with accompanying melody lines marked in musical notation. The instruments were traditional and new. Many members were recognizable from my childhood church: the pianist, the keyboardist, the violinist, the pastor leading both worship and preaching. While I had grown up worshiping in an enormous sanctuary, this cast of characters worshiped in an old warehouse, AC units working overtime to keep the congregation cool. Still, the same old ladies, now more widows than wives, marked time with their feet from the front row.
The man who led the four singers had played Jesus in a musical when I was young. He grew older in the intervening years. I remembered him standing in the lobby being sprayed with fake blood for the crucifixion; his muscles would ripple as he reached for his crown of thorns. Sexy Jesus. He prayed a prayer for the sermon.
“Dear Father, we come to you today just in awe of who you are and to give you glory. Just take our minds and our hearts, take them over, let us think your thoughts and see with your eyes. Remove distractions for us, let us be only yours; see only you. Amen.”
My throat constricted. What the hell was that supposed to mean? A year since I had been in a church of English words, a year, and this was being prayed: English words, meaning as lost as Bulgarian in my ears.
            The pastor presented his Five Reasons for Unanswered Prayer. Ah. I subject of great familiarity to me. I’ve known God’s Silence. There was one prayer I prayed for years but was not answered the way I thought God was supposed to work things. I know the heaping of pain onto pain that comes after a desperate plea for help goes unanswered. My parents did not stay together; my parents did not love each other.
Now, a pastor with 5 Reasons for the things I lost.
The sermon proceeded as these sermons do. There were five bullet points that appeared at duly appointed moments on the overhead screens. They contained no heresy and were supported by a plethora of verses removed from their place in long passages and granted to us like special amulets. God has a specific plan for our lives. God says No to the things we ask for that are Bad For Us. He says No (or is silent, the difference between the two was not addressed) because we’d Sin with what we were Given. And my favorite: He wants us to be strengthened by pain, and give what we’ve learned to others.
            He proceeded with practiced emotional distance, a learned clinical air, a carefully measured presentation style meant to exhort and comfort. It came off badly rehearsed.
            Perhaps it was my cynicism. A man sat across the room from me. The pastor noted that this man’s mother had died the day before. He nodded and rocked to the sermon, a smile across this face, mouthing the words to the passages the pastor quoted. He knew each of them by heart. He leaned over his Bible like a magic crystal, for meaning. Comfort. He seemed to be drinking it and it radiated from his body.
            The final two songs were a neat conclusion that we all must have obviously reached in our hearts by such a moving sermon. The piano player, his wife, was in cahoots with the sermon message. What E’re my God Ordains is Right. Blessed by the Name of the Lord. The first, deeply elegant hymn now sung sprightly and quickly. The second, a major chord crescendo celebration of surrender.
My mother cried. I refused to sing.

            Once, I asked a pastor friend of mine for help in how I counseled friend of mine who was in deep spiritual and mental pain. I shared similarities with this girl. “Comfort her with the comfort with which you have been comforted” he advised me. I looked at him; he noted no irony in his words. He was quoting 2 Corinthians. He assumed I had been comforted. No. I had not known comfort, not then. Did I have nothing to give her if I was not spiritual or Godly or trusting enough to know comfort from Christ? The word comfort carried a connotation as long as language itself and as misleading. What did comfort actually feel like in the bones of my heart?
Words are not themselves only. They are weak and break open with mishandling, meaning lost.

            Bulgaria changed words for me. I lived where I could understand nothing. Words were buoys on the surface of oceans of meaning I could not access with my own language. What is behind the words? Compassion? Friendship? Intimidation? Confusion? It hadn’t seemed important before, this invisible track of talking, than now; I grew eyes and ears for unspoken meaning in a year where the words were like the film on the top of heated buttered before clarifying. Words were only surface signs of a deeper whole, flimsy and inconsequential, something to be skimmed off and set aside. In Bulgaria, I hung tight and desperate to the driftwood of nonverbal talk, the hand motion, the slowing down, nod of the head. I distrusted my words each day in Bulgaria. I trusted my body more. And even then, it could betray me. Even my body could not say what it needed. A smile, though, would go far, a humility in my limbs. Please, I’d smile, I can’t understand you. I need help. When the lady came from the water company to check my meter, she would stand in my entry hall without any motion in her face or arms, no gesture with her pen and register. I was adrift without help. I never understood her; even taxi drivers gripping the steering wheels of their chugging, yellow vehicles did not leave me so helpless as she. Words were merely opaque notations and clarified butter was the meaning, the clear yellow and gold gleam, something beyond what words could do.
            James Brasfield, a poet and a professor at Penn State, once told me that he admired preaching, that there could be poetry there. “I knew a Presbyterian minister once. He spoke poetry. He would let the words lead him.” James Brasfield had also once told me that religious belief held a suffocating hand over the mouth of Poetry. Yet even he conceded that a preacher, when the words would lead, could birth Poetry. I do not know, though, if it was really words that he was hearing. I think what he heard was not word but Spirit leading the preacher, where the words waited to stand meekly in their required places, the color to tell one thing from the other, yet not being the thing itself. Words did not stand like a whip behind the message, driving it in front, but stood like a sail in the wind. Letting the words lead. The sail out front, the wind giving movement.
            It is not enough, then, to “speak truth”. Too often, Truth has been left to the brutal hands of Accuracy. This is not Truth, not in isolation anyway. Theology carries the gift of accuracy and a sermon can carry the specific marks of reliability and correct conclusion.
Correct Conclusion be damned, I now conclude.
Someone’s correct conclusion gives me no comfort, only shame at the impossibility of wrestling my own heart to bow to its accurate measurement of God. The summarizing points of accuracy and detail are not what my heart needs. Tell me the truth, but “tell it slant” as Eugene Peterson said (and I now adopt to my own ends). It is Truth when it is told with some modicum of compassion, when there is silence between the bullet points to admit that words do not suffice. Admit to me that there is darkness and silence from God. Tell me in detail how my own disobedient, prone to wander heart closes my ears to hear. Draw me the consequences in stark detail. But do not give this to me in medical textbook jargon as my spirit stands naked in papery hospital gown, a forgotten patient in some back room. Don’t leave me like that.
            Because being left like that, accurate diagnosis aside, is a lie.

            I feel bitterness when I think about this. Anger. Distraught fear. Desperation. But this is not entirely true to my experience now. I think it is empathy for the Dana Who Was, the Dana of Unanswered Prayer. I feel her pain intensely, for it is my own. It will still be mine. Yet things are not all the same. I do not hold the same grudge against the God of my Life. I feel, perhaps, a grudge against the ideas that led me to so shame myself into hiding my Unbelief. Faith is sustained by God and God alone. I can weed and garden but I do not grow. I refuse Shame for the places I cannot Believe. Because cannot is a literal place. Someday the change can come. Someday (and even now this has happened), I’ll believe and find comfort. But Belief and Comfort are perhaps not what I thought they were. The surface meaning is not what it experientially feels like to live and breath.
Listen to yourself, Dana-Who-Was (and Will-Be-Again): in the passing seasons, let pain be felt and obliterate belief without fearing for my Soul. Let distrust fill and mark me, let me honor loss by grief so great it eclipses my only light—because an eclipse is temporary; it is not the end or the Apocalypse. It is fear of annihilation but it is not the end itself. There is still a sun and the sun’s gravity is itself the thing that brought the moon to blot out the light. Why, I don’t know.
But please, please be unashamed for fearing when the Light goes out. Leaving God, disillusioned with Him, is not where shelter comes. It is your own heart, your own people, the human race you have been disillusioned with. Faith is not dead. It was never yours to keep alive.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Coming Home

It took me two hours from the moment my plane landed at JFK to reach Mom and Hannah. First there was the gate problem, an injured plane being nursed to health where my feet were supposed to disembark. Then the lines for passport control. Then customs. Then the long wait, the wait for the bags, two of them, which came in the last round from the Warsaw plane.

Two hours. I was going nuts. I tried to deep breathe as I walked and waited and jumped around and thoroughly descended into misery. I will see my mom tonight. I will see my mom tonight. I repeated this. Without a cell phone, I couldn't tell them what was going on or what had delayed me.

But, as all these trials tend to do, time passed and I made it out the door and to my family.

Contrary to my most earnest predictions, I did not cry. I was too angry about waiting for the bags.

The humidity fell on my like a blanket. Oh hello, PA summers!

My first meal was ChikFilA. Delicious. I was startled at several points when strangers addressed me in a language I understood. All conversations, the small business exchanges, had felt so significant this year, wondrous if I understood them in Bulgarian and deeply personal and intimate if in English. Suddenly, the language downgraded. I'm still not used to the distance and casual exchanges that dominated my life this past year.

People told me about "reverse culture shock". It's the reentry, the landing roar and clattering of the plane touching down. Oh hello America. Hello Family. There are times when it feels like I never lived in Bulgaria, where nothing was real, just a long dream, the longest dream of my life. There are times when it feels like nothing changed here, but then small things startle me: my brother's height and dense muscles, the drive to my mom's new house, how people pray in church, using a credit card to pay for everything etc.

I'm still in the honeymoon stage, even with some moments of being overwhelmed.

Some of the honeymoon:
  • Every beer I have, especially locally brewed ones, taste like the best beer I have ever had.
  • A conversation with a friend makes me giddy with happiness. I float through the rest of the day.
  • Penn State is the MOST BEAUTIFUL place I have ever seen. Including the construction.
  • My bed. New mattress. Long sleep. Each night.
  • Being so happy/overwhelmed with old friends that it floods the emotional circuits and it kind of hurts.
  • Dancing, even just a little bit at this point.
  • Holding Maggie's baby girls!

Some of the Misery:
  • Attempts to speak in Bulgarian when pushing through crowds.
  • Why does Pennsylvania have a weird accent? Why do they like Duck Dynasty? Why are there so many shopping centers that are empty?
  • Family re-entry. People I know and don't know. Ways of doing things I forgot. Sorry Hannah, for the challenge of sharing a bathroom again.
  • Church. There is no rival to how weird and uncomfortable church has been. The majority of my "I'm weirded out right now" moments come from there. Working through faith things this year, now thrust back into an American, English speaking lens... it's alienating and uncomfortable. After talking with a PastorFriend, this now has a name: "Missionary Culture Shock". Who knew there was such a thing or that I could get it...
  • I hate driving my car. I knew I would.
Haven't done any writing. Every day is full to the brim of something. I went to Bucknell just yesterday and started to find my way around there. I start Graduate School. I'll have an office.

I'm young and ignorant and it's awfully soon to be working on classes when I just got home.

More to come on the Re-Entry saga.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Americans in Prague

Things Get Distorted
According to my land lady who heard it on the news,  88% of Czech citizens will travel abroad during the summer holidays. In Prague, a city of 1million permanent residents, I suspect the number is higher. I do not hear Czech spoken on the streets. Charles Bridge is impossible to cross. I ran into a lot of Americans. You know how you sometimes look at your family in disgust and think, "My God, how are we related?" And other times you look at them with writhing dread and think, "My God, we are related!" This is how I sometimes feel about being an American Abroad.

“Is this butter?” he asks as he shoves a white package almost into my nose.
I am in the super market mulling over what I want to make for dinner. Pasta? Gnocchi? Rice and beans? Something cheap, something quick and easy. While I am now adept at figuring out which pasta is overpriced, it is still a new place and I stand with a serious expression scrunching my face, basket at my side.
“Is this butter?” he asks. He is tall, taller than me, looms a bit, too close.
It says, in French, “la beurre” in the top left corner. The package, which I took in my hand to get it out of my nose, feels like butter. “Yep,” I reply. He marches away towards the check out line where his father leans over the counter towards the woman, as if he cannot understand her perfect pronunciation in English of the price.

“Yes, I will!” the girl child wails, pulling the full length of her tiny arm, twisting to get out of her mothers grip
“No. You hit me. You don’t get dessert.”
“Yes I will!” the girl is not longer wailing but stating. She’s played this game before.
“If you hit me one more time, you will not get dessert.”
Ah. So we’ve moved to the future tense now. The game has changed. The girl is winning or has won and she knows it.
She hits her mother again.
They are lost in crowd moving across Charles Bridge.

In the Asian market, she greets me in czek and tells me the price of the green curry paste and coconut milk, her broad face has a bright look, not a smile, but a cheerful look all the same. When I pause and smile at her apologetically, she says “Oh sorry!” and proceeds in a clear American (to my ears) accent. She wants to know where I’m from and says that she thought I was Czek, she wouldn’t have known I was American. I tell her, “I take that as a compliment” and she laughs. I ask where she learned English so well. “Oh I’m from the Phillipines.” Ah. Yes. Perhaps to compliment on this is an insult, but she sounded American herself, as at ease in English as a teenager in blue jeans with holes in the knees.
I want to ask how she came here to a city of tourists, a steady outsider in a sea of constant outsiders. But I don’t. I ask instead about the price of vegetables in the city. She tells me which mini markets have good vegetables and that her little asian market specializes in Phillipino food. She tells me to come back and I say that I will.

“Oh my god, I just can’t even deal,” she says, throwing her intentially messy hair back over her head, eye liner carefully applied, bright pink lips, pink nails, iphone held in one hand sunglasses on head. “I need to go back and put deodorant on for, like, the first time today.” The other four laugh. Georgetown Villanova Penn State Syracuse. Sweatshirts reveal their towers of learning. Here to “study” for six weeks complex subjects like literature, politics and economics. One coughs and shifts her lighter to another hand. “I just can’t go out again tonight, I’m too sick, I’m still drunk,” one says. “Do you remember the part where Dylan got left behind? We were totally lost.” “Wait, you got back into the strip club? How did you do that? Why did they kick me out and not you?”
            They hit on the Czech guy working the counter. “Do you work here every day?” they ask in raspy voices, louder than the background music or the running coffee maker. “We’ll be in every day” they say to reassure him that he means something to them.
He smiles a delighted smile, a smile that lights from him like a benediction. It is the same he will give me when I murmur a quiet “thank you” as he hands me my check. I leave him a tip to say “Sorry.” Sorry for the Americans. Sorry for being… us.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Last from Abroad

13 hours till the USA. 

1 year. 9 days. 

Nine countries. Uncountable Bulgarian towns. 

An upswing in my social media popularity that I expect to disappear immediately upon arrival home. 

A new language in a new alphabet. 

175 students. A plethora of Slavic names. 

Explaining again and again how to say my first name and settling for something like deena or Dawna. 

Getting lost. Getting unlost. 

Shopska, French fries, white cheese, kamenitza. 

A flood. Two earthquakes. 

4 visits from home. 

A GRE exam. An acceptance to graduate school. 

Friendships that acted like family. 

And some that didn't. 

It will take me fewer hours to get to the USA than it took me to get from Bulgaria to Croatia. 

My first holidays away from my family. 

My first holidays in Bulgarian. 

Homemade coconut curry accompanied by a movie. Lots of movies and tv shows. 

Salsa dancing. Only dance I'm still any good at by this point. 

Folk dancing. 

Red wine. 

Speech and debate. Night trains. 

Ciao This Life. 

Chapter concluded. 

Long term narrative effect: to be decided. 

Monday, July 21, 2014

She said "No. Stop."

Yesterday, I watched a man my age follow a woman my age, his friend, with a camera. The light was gold and she was beautiful. She had dark eyes against her gold hair. She stood with elegance.

She did not want her picture taken. She did not like pictures taken of her. She said, "No. Stop."

There was a moment of waver. A moment of insecurity in her "No. Stop." To say "No. Stop." takes courage, a strange courage, a courage it should not require.

 He kept coming. "Please, just look at it me; it will be great."

It will be great.

What people assume when a beautiful woman says no to her picture being taken is that she is insecure. She does not know that she is beautiful. If she can see a picture of herself, then maybe she will know that is is beautiful.

That is the story we tell. Is it true?

The one who takes a picture has power over the person whose picture they are taking. They have the tool, the capturing method, the weapon. They aim. They shoot.

When a beautiful woman [a woman, a man, a person] says "No. Stop." maybe she is saying that she refuses his power over her, his claim to her beauty, his desire to use it to make a beautiful picture.

I use "her" and "him" but the genders can go either way. But the power dynamic is more clear in "him" taking a picture of her", as in the setting of my story. I do not see women chasing men to take their picture in golden light of an evening in the woods.

It, the picture, will be great. What about her? Maybe she feels like he is removing her beauty or reducing her to it (are these not the same?).

Maybe she just doesn't want the camera in her face.

Maybe she wants to see if he will accept a No.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

A City of Whistlers


I hear whistling everywhere I go. I hear it from my window from the guys doing construction on the building next to me each morning when I wake up. As I walk from one place to another, whether climbing a hill to see an ancient library in an ancient monastery, or take the tram to Prague 4 to raid the Program's library... I hear whistling. The cheerful, unspecific whistling, no particular tune. The whistling while you work. Or on the way to work. Or wherever. People also whistle to call out or to get attention. But the Cat Call is conspicuously absent here, just a lot of little human birds singing along through the cobbled streets.

Part of the Prague Whimsey: "The Dancing Building", aka "Fred and Ginger"

Friday, July 18, 2014

The Perfect Metaphor

"We aren't knitting a sweater here. We're quilting. We're finding and making tiny pieces and then arranging them into a whole. We have one shard of pottery from an archeology dig and we don't know if it's a bowl or a cooking pot or what. So we keep finding fragments and brushing them off and then we'll have what we need."

Patricia Hampl on Memoir Writing as said in the Savoy Cafe (Prague) last evening over dinner

All it takes is the right metaphor for a way forward to come clear.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

One Year

A year ago, I got on a plane in the Washington Dulles airport and flew to Bulgaria.

A year ago, a saw the last of Maggie Pre Babies. A year ago, I had lunch at the French Embassy with Natalie and Robbie. A year ago, I visited the Bulgarian consulate and got my visa.

Today, I spent the morning in my pjs writing. I spent time in McDonalds to use the internet. I saw writer friends in Prague 4, a 30 minute tram trip from my apartment in Prague 1. Today, I will have dinner with two fantastic peer writers and Patricia Hampl. Today, it is going to rain and cut the sticky heat with a sharp knife of lightening, like the kitchen knife Robbie gave me as a going away present, one I used almost everyday.

In nine days, I get to return to the United States and see my family and friends. I've missed it in one way or another each day for the last year. Soon. So soon.

Thanks, Europe, for the year.

Special Shout Out to Bulgaria (duh), Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Turkey, Sweden, and the Czech Republic.

I'm ready for those Pennsylvania slow summer sunsets. Any day now. Any day.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Terezin: "The Beauty/How it Matters"

Sit with me and tell me once again
Of the story that's been told us
Of the power that will hold us
Of the beauty, of the beauty
Why it matters

-Sara Groves "Why It Matters"

I think of this song, not directly, not in quotations, but I think towards the shape of it in my life as I walk through a museum after Terezin.

Terezin is a town and former concentration camp (Nazi, WWII era) in the Czech Republic. My writing program took a trip there yesterday, saw spaces where lives were undone. And also, the places that lives were lived.

In the museum, the top floor is dedicated to a display of art that was composed in the nearby ghetto, the last work of thousands who lived there.

Pictures, stories, poems, cartoons, children's operas, music sheets, a newspaper the teenage boys composed each day of local events and escapades. Someone organized an orchestra of the talented musicians who were there. They held concerts.

When the Swiss Red Cross came through, some painted pictures of the darkness and smuggled them to other countries. Ultimately, the Red Cross reported that things were fine in Nazi Czechoslovakia.

They weren't.

In the end, the majority of those who lived in this space were sent on trains to Auschwitz and died in the gas chambers. They made their art in the shadow of current and future loss.

Christian Wiman notes in "My Bright Abyss: A Memoir of a Modern Believer" that there is two kinds of art (I paraphrase here): that which drives towards life and which drives towards the self.

I could not have made what they made, they in a circumstance beyond what I've known. I've had loss and watching things die. It takes people with you to keep making things.

Standing in a field, thinking this over, I had no thoughts but strong desires and instincts, tangible imaginations: I just wanted a baby. I wanted a baby after all the children who were executed. I wanted to paint a picture with the strong stench of oil paint on my fingers. I wanted to cook a huge meal and feed it to a table of friends, a large glass of wine at each seat. I wanted to dress up, touch perfume to my neck, and go dancing. This instinct, to make in the face of destruction, I think this is a human instinct, part of the goodness still residual in us. I don't trust it or foster it.

In Sarajevo, a man named Vedran Smailović regularly playing his cello in ruined buildings during the Siege of Sarajevo, most notably performing Albinoni's Adagio in G Minor (wikipedia). There was destruction: so make.

it's protest of the darkness
And the chaos all around
With its beauty, how it matters
How it matters

I don't know that art itself will save the world. I don't believe that humanity-alone can save itself. But if I were to write a manifesto for myself, a hope of what making would do, it would be this: to make art that draws towards life. Only that. Towards life. I would be humbled more than I could say if anything I do, whether writing or otherwise, would accomplish such a thing.

Monday, July 07, 2014

A Final Goodbye

Dear Reader for my Bulgarian Year,

Many of you have followed along with my year in Bulgaria. And for that, I thank you.

 I left Bulgaria on June 29th around 1am. My taxi crossed the border to Romania along with several large buses from Greece and Turkey and trucks carrying produce. I arrived at the airport at 2:45am in Bucharest and waited until my 8am flight, awake and tense, curled up on suitcases and watching Season 3 of “Grey’s Anatomy” (seriously, nothing like blood and guts and dysfunctional characters to keep you awake to watch your stuff).

The final days were stressful and oddly empty. I had a few structured goodbyes but even the classes were largely empty. It was almost summer holidays, of course. Who can compare to the allure of summer holidays and the anxiety of living them fully? Not one soul, my friends. Not one soul.

The weekend before, there was a severe flood. I was going to write about it but somehow couldn’t quite yet. It was part of saying goodbye. The destruction of part of my town was a surreal experience. I helped one afternoon with mopping up mud in one house, children’s toys and blankets sitting outside to dry. And then it rained and the grief of the house owner came with the rain and seeing undone work and the loss of years in a night of water and bad piping.

Who to blame? Everyone looked for someone to blame.

The priest of the local Orthodox church also died the night before I was supposed to leave. His reputation went before him as a kind and gracious man. He had established a home for women from abusive situations or as a step to leave prostitution. He was a man respected and loved. I attended the end of his funeral on accident, waiting for my last Bulgarian sunset in the garden beside the church, wondering what people were doing loitering outside. I saw the casket covered in flowers ready for burial in the garden. I only learned later that it was the priest people said I should meet but whom I had never been able to.

Rosi, my Bulgarian instructor and friend, came with me to Varna to catch my transport. Peter, her husband, drove. Radost sat with me in the back and we had silent dance parties to the radio. They are a family I feel as if I have known for longer than a year. Hopefully, my winsome portrayal of Pennsylvania will convince them to come for a visit.

And then I crossed the border to Romania, across the bridge from Rousse spanning the Danube River.  Then a short flight. And now I am in Prague.

Prague. A city of magical buildings. After a year of Dobrich and Balkan life, I find Prague large and strange. Gothic and Baroque and Catholic. I do not know these buildings and feel odd in their streets. I’m here to write but it’s been hard to do that yet with so much imposing grandeur and a complicated living situation. But it’s starting.

Being around a whole posse of writers is a breath to me. My lungs feel full of air. Breathe in, breathe out. Breathe in, breathe out. Energy and motion. I just finished lunch with the two other nonfiction writers in our crew. It’s the feeling people describe as finding “my tribe”. There are probably others, but having Julia and Lara is like have a little tribe. Being in your 20s and memoirists will do that to individuals.

I’m in love, but not with Prague: with the writers around me.
That being said, Prague is astoundingly beautiful.

I’ll more about Prague another time, perhaps. Not that you, my blog reader, necessarily want to know about all my travel destinations. There are stories that can be told, though, stories worth hearing. It’s so different from all I’ve known this year. I can feel my “Bulgarian showing” as the other American teachers used to joke. One of the writers has been to Bulgaria and it’s been nice to compare stories from our travels there. You’ve been to Rila? What did you think? Sozopol during summertime is just a party town but you’ve been there in the off season? Perfect. Isn’t Sozopol perfect in off season?

I’ll be in Prague till July 26th. On that day, I head home. Blogging may or may not happen with any regularity during that time due to writing focus in other places. Think of me.

I’ll drink a proper Czech beer for you.