Easter in Ohrid

“A prophet he was, without words, but with a most beautiful personality. A prophet he was, without words; A prophet–with righteousness and mercy.”

-The Prologue from Ohrid, St. Nikolai Velimirovic (1880/1-1956)

Almost every night at dinner when I was little, my dad would open The Prologue from Ohrid and read a passage on the life of a great saint. This life story usually ended with a gruesome martyrdom (being torn apart by lions in a Roman amphitheater, for example), followed by a prayer invoking the intercessions of the saint (oh holy Saint n., pray to God for me). There are a lot of oddities like this encompassed in early Christian tradition…

It was odd growing up Orthodox in America; I never knew how to explain to people that I was Orthodox, but not Greek or Russian and often felt insecure about being the odd one out at parties. In all my travels up until now,  I realized that I had never once been to an Orthodox country.

That changed last month when I went to Macedonia for the first time. Macedonia, if you’re wondering, is a tiny country situated in between Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, Kosovo (another contested state), and Albania. The country is also referred to as FYROM–the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia–because it is just that. Its national sovereignty is also contested by Greece.

Regardless of Macedonia’s current political status, the country is mostly Orthodox (the second largest religious group being Muslim, I believe). Most people there speak Macedonian (a Slavic language very closely related to Bulgarian), while others speak Albanian (and technically refer to themselves as Albanian, not Macedonian). There is also a Roma population who speaks Romani and something else, I forget what. And that is, unfortunately, the extend of my ethnographical knowledge. Still, the country takes all Eastern Orthodox religious holidays as national holidays, including Good Friday and Bright Monday (the day after Easter/Pascha). So, with my friend whom I was visiting, we went to Ohrid, a lake town about three hours southwest of the capital city, Skopje.

Ohrid reminded me a tiny bit of Jerusalem: textile and sweet shops lined narrow, cobblestone streets as mobs of families and tourists forced their way through. But then, once you turn a few corners, you come to Lake Ohrid and find a beautifully pristine scene reminiscent of southern Italy with its sunny sidewalk cafes:

 

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A view of old Ohrid from the pier

 

Indeed, the weather was beautiful, a far cry from the wintry storms I had experienced up until then (and would experience again after leaving Ohrid :(). We took advantage of the sunshine to explore the city’s tiny cobblestone roads. This was how I began to understand its ancient history and the connection to early Christianity.

Ohrid is a city on a hill, with the homes, corner stores, and churches built into the landscape. The further we climbed, the more I began to realize that there was a church on virtually every street corner; sometimes two or three. Not all were very large or even open. But there they sat, sometimes tucked in between homes, always with a sign of patronage (the church of St. Barbara, St. Sophia, Sts. Constantine and Helen, for example). Once we reached the top of the hill, I laid eyes on another ancient site that began to make my brain spin: a half-uncovered Roman amphitheater.

 

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Roman amphitheater

 

Remarkable as this structure is, it is to be noted that quite possibly, this amphitheater was used to execute Christians in the Roman period before Emperor Constantine legalized and embraced Christianity and shifted the capital east to Constantinople (now Istanbul). After learning this fact, I started to wonder if that’s why Ohrid has so many churches, and why the Prologue (the compilation of martyrs stories I mentioned earlier) was penned from this ancient city.

One can only postulate.

Having this in my mind, I felt very cautious the rest of the weekend. Upon whose bones might I have unknowingly tread? It began to feel even more like Jerusalem, a place where every stone and grain of sand has history.

Yet here I was on Easter weekend, the time when Christians celebrate Christ’s victory over death and the promise of a life that transcends earth. My mind couldn’t understand it. But somewhere deep down, my heart knew something was amiss on the eve of Pascha. I felt afraid and timid as I ventured out of my AirBnb around 10 pm, alone, in the dark, trying to find the Church of Sts. Clement and Panteleimon, where I knew many Macedonians would be gathering. I said a prayer as I walked uphill toward the ancient fortress (another pre-Christian era force of strength built by relatives of Alexander the Conqueror) and it must have been heard, because as soon as I started strolling down a very dark, remote path, someone called to me from a house across the way “not that way!” Through a brief exchange of gestures, I eventually figured out the proper direction. Once I hit the street I was swept up in a loose crowd of people all walking the same direction. Men sat on the side of the street selling candles. I figured I was in the right place. I arrived to the ancient church, which overlooks the lake from high atop the hill. Already families were gathered outside.

I went inside, venerated the icons (a traditional greeting and sign of respect when one enters an Orthodox church) and then stood against a wall, waiting. I was greatly pleased at how normal everything felt. I have always loved this about the Orthodox church. No matter where in the world one may be, the church has the exact same meaning.

Eventually the service began with the traditional invocation. Even though most of the prayers were in Macedonian, I knew essentially what was happening, because again, the services follow the same pattern the world over. About fifteen minutes in to the night, all the lights went out. This signifies the night. Then the priests (there were two, as well as the Bishop present) began to sing…in English, the words are this: Come take light from the Light that is never overtaken by the Night. Come glorify the Christ, Risen from the dead. I can’t tell you what the Macedonian is, but I know its meaning. Which is pretty cool, I think. As they sing, they pass by with candles and share a flame, until every person present has a lighted candle. Then they left the church and we followed out, until we were mostly outside.

At this point, may more prayers were said and the Gospel was read to the crowd. Then the Bishop began to speak. Though I could not understand, I did hear Makedonia mentioned several times in the speech. It was then that I had another thought about the connection between Church and State and how, in some ways, I wondered how differently the Church was perceived in Macedonia. Is it seen as an institution, as most churches are perceived in the States? I’m sure to some extent, yes, though I shouldn’t make assumptions. But it was a great reminder of the limitations of man’s own agenda in the political makeup of history and one of my favorite lines from the Orthodox liturgy (from a Psalm of David):

Put not your trust in princes, in sons of men, in whom there is no salvation.

 

Then the bells began to ring, and a familiar song came through the air:

I apologize for the poor video quality, but the song is this:

Christ is Risen from the dead

trampling down death by death

And upon those in the tombs bestowing life!

The smells of incense and candle smoke perfumed the air as I walked home later on in the early morning hours. I looked over hill top and the moon was smiling at me from above the clouds, illuminating other churches and homes where I knew the same prayers were being said and the same Resurrection was being celebrated. It was as if the night was saying to me, “Why are you afraid? There is Peace. There is Light. And you are wonderfully small.”

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Ah, Germany!

Charm, family, history, and agency. These words summarize my quick but memorable trip to Goslar, Braunschweig (aka Brunswick) and Berlin, Germany.

Berlin was my first stop in Europe; normally I arrive exhausted from a long trip and wander around the airport until I find a person or a sign to direct me to where I am going. But this time, my cousin and sister were waiting for me. I’m so used to going this alone that it was definitely a nice change, and I was so glad to explore Germany with them. My cousin and her boyfriend live in Brunswick, about two and a half hours west of Berlin. I ended up staying with them longer than expected because of some travel miscommunications, but this was fortunate as we got to explore a former medieval mining town and UNESCO heritage sight, Goslar. Below are a few photo highlights:

That’s Goslar in the background. Behind us were thick, piney woods, and above us were some daring paragliders. All in a half a day’s visit 🙂

 

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Hummus victory!

After leaving Brunswick, I went back to Berlin to meet up with a friend and former study-abroad companion. It has been four years since studying abroad and seeing her, but it felt like no time had passed. And it was so nice to talk about life and politics and how much our lives continue to be shaped by those momentous, sandy six months in 2012. She even found a delicious Israeli hummus restaurant like the ones we used to eat at in Be’er Sheva. Here’s the secret: don’t add too much tahini and serve the hummus warm.

 

I suppose no trip to Berlin would be complete without visiting some historic sites, including the Berlin Wall Memorial, which stands soberly as a poignant reminder of the futility of walls and the resiliency of the human spirit; the East Side Gallery, another remaining portion of the Wall that has been covered with beautiful and provocative murals from artists all around the world; and the Topography of Terror, a museum that covers the Nazi atrocities from historical and sociopolitical perspectives, on the sight of the former Reich Security Main Office, aka the Nazi and Gestapo headquarters.

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You will never run out of things to do or ways to get there in Berlin. I was amazed at how quickly I felt at home on the S-Bahn, even when I took the wrong train.

My friend and I talked about the politics of asylum in Germany and how quickly those policies are changing throughout Europe and the USA. It was very sobering; it seems the whole world is trying to come to Germany, while half a century ago, millions were trying to leave, and no one seems prepared for how rapidly the world is changing these days. Memorials and museums are supposed to teach us how we let these things happen and challenge to ask ourselves, “Why?” It’s so easy to remain quiet and complacent out of fear or willful ignorance, and I’m certainly guilty of that. But I listened to an American podcast last night about the US elections, and I was reminded of how empowering protesting or civil resistance can be in the face of oppression. Like the man in the picture above, I don’t have to raise my hand just because everyone else does.

I hope you’ll go to Berlin someday, if you haven’t already. I hope Germany will still be an open and welcoming place when you go. Berlin is…funky.

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Prague: Take Two

I fell in love with Prague five years ago on my first trip to Europe. The moment I stepped on to the Charles Bridge, I felt home. I also contemplated moving there and supporting  myself by singing opera on the famous bridge for money. I even wrote a set list. But while my chanson dreams might be on hold for the time being, I was overjoyed to find Prague’s charm and romance no less palpable on my second visit, and I have a feeling I will never stop returning to Prague.

 

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On the outskirts of Prague, waiting for our boat taxi to take us across the Vlatlava…

 

Prague has an ancient history, and some of its oldest standing buildings date back to the 14th century, when King Charles IV, ruler of Bohemia and later the Holy Roman Empire (which included all of Germany, Switzerland, Belgium and the Netherlands, most of the Czech Republic and parts of Austria, Poland, Italy, and France) established the first university in Prague (King Charles University). It’s no big deal to walk around a neighborhood in downtown and see modern trams running next to gothic cathedrals and art-noveau buildings. This is the flavor of Bohemia!

Of course, there are also a few modern additions, including the infamous TV tower, notoriously hated by Czech people, which was built under communism. The building might be an eyesore, but it offers some of the best views of the city. We rode to the top of the tower and had a 360 degree view of all of Prague’s architectural wonders:

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View of Zizkov neighborhood from the Prague TV tower. The slanted, red brick roof are a signature style of the city; in the distance you can see Gothic spires peeking up to say hello!

In Old Town Square (Staroměstské náměstí), one can find the famous astrological clock (which parades a collection of dancing marionettes every hour on the hour…think “world’s biggest coo-coo clock”), as well as several churches, a memorial to Jan Hus (Protestant reformer), and this hidden gem inside the old City Hall, the Skautsky Institut (Scout Institute, non-profit and community organization for youth. If you’re there, you should visit their café inside the building on the second floor. It reminded me of several funky coffee shops in Memphis, only a bit smaller.

 

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A side view of the very old City Hall building, which is now owned by the city and rented out to the Skautsky Institut and other organizations.

No trip to Prague would be complete without a visit to the famous Prague castle, which is a huge compound that includes the Gothic St. Vitus Cathedral, beautiful Baroque-style gardens, and several ancient halls where kings of old were crowned and celebrated and some unpopular nobles were pushed out of windows. The castle stands on a hill top, and its spires are visible for miles. The area also offers some of the most picturesque views of the city, like the ones below. On the left is from this trip (our weather was less than ideal, but c’est la vie). On the right is from five years ago. There’s a bit more sunshine and fewer trees, but it’s still the same skyline!

When you visit the Castle, I highly recommend a guide and a comprehensive admissions ticket. I didn’t do this last time, but I am so glad I did on this trip. It is a bit pricey for Prague ($14 USD), but the ticket gets you inside of the Cathedral, the old hall, All Saints Church, and the Golden Lane, which is a small, cobblestone street with museums and displays about Prague in the High Medieval era. All in all, you get an a lot of insight into Prauge’s complex history. Bonus: It also includes a visit to the dungeon and a few dozen rusty torture instruments on display (Game of Thrones, anyone?).

The second visit was even better than the first. This was largely due to the gracious hospitality of our friend, host, and tour guide, whom I had met five years ago while studying in Israel. She took us to some truly remarkable places that were tucked away inside cobblestone lanes, including a hip vegetarian restaurant called Lehka Hlava (which means “Clear Head” and runs only on reservations) and a wonderful little wine bar dedicated to St. Agneska (Agnes), who founded a small monastery nearby in the 13th century, before Gothic spires had taken over Europe. We all decided that this place, called simply Agnes, serves the best hot wine in Prague. The key is to add raisins soaked in rum, and serve it with a spoon for fishing out these delicacies.

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I heard from my friend that the owners of this wine bar are ready to retire. They want someone to take over and continue serving wine and snacks to locals for the next few decades. My friend is too busy, but who knows? Maybe I can work there when people get tired of hearing my rendition of Ave Maria on the Charles Bridge…

One can dream 🙂

 

The Joys and Pains of Traveling Cheap

“Travel is the only thing you buy that will make you richer.” (Quote courtesy of Chlohemian :))

I am a penny pincher. For the past few months, I’ve been obsessing over how to keep the cost of my upcoming (tomorrow!) trip to Europe as low as possible, since I am technically unemployed. Nothing says bohemian like backpacking on a dime, right?

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Europe trip #1. I had one 6kg backpack, one purse, one pashmina scarf and one pair of sandals. I’ve never traveled lighter, but my toes were definitely cold 🙂

Except that I’m noticing that my desire to cut corners is running into conflict with my desire for little comforts, like beds. For example, on my first trip to Europe, I spent the night before my flight in the Prague airport so as to avoid paying another night in a hostel. It was fine, except that I was cold and uncomfortable and of course didn’t really sleep. I’m not sure I would do that again now.

That being said, the age of convenient, budget travel is upon us. More and more budget airlines are popping up, as are wonderful Airbnbs and hostels offering very affordable rates for accommodation. I spend a lot of time researching budget airlines and ways to “hack” my way into more affordable travel (to the point of obsession. I’m learning there is a limit.  ). Having friends or looking on travel forums for people who know the areas I’ll be travelling to helps a lot, too.

Even though there might be catches or hidden fees here and there, I’m grateful for the flexibility and possibility the age of budget travel has brought me and lots of travelers like me. Here are my favorite travel “hacks” for keeping costs low while being mobile.

1. Budget airlines. OK, OK, I know, you have to pay to choose a seat and you don’t get free food. While I admittedly love airplane food (all the palak paneer I can eat on Air India and free yain adom (red wine) on El Al? Yes, please), you know the cost of food is built into a higher priced ticket. For my trip from Boston to Berlin, I booked through http://www.kiwi.com and found a very cheap one-way ticket. However, food is not free, and it’s a seven hour flight. So I’ll be bringing tea bags and protein bars and hopefully sleeping through most of it, anyway. Also, on most budget airlines, you also have to pay to check a bag, which brings me to to hack #2…

2. Never check a bag. I know it’s hard. I’m going to be stuffing my backpack down to fit the 55 × 40 × 23 cm | 10 kg carry-on dimensions (roughly 22 by 16 by 9 inches and 22 pounds), but I am determined. It helps to wear your heaviest items on the flight and find clothing and toiletries that can pull double, triple, or quadruple duty (I like a pashmina for a scarf, a folded-up pillow, a blanket, a wrap skirt, a shawl, a head-covering, a sarong for the beach, and a towel in a pinch. I also love coconut oil for virtually every hygiene need.) I learned all my packing light tips from the genius behind http://www.onebag.com. I even down-sized my host gifts to fit into 100 ml containers:

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A little taste of home that I’m bringing as a meager thank you to my friends and hosts overseas.

There’s a great adage that goes like this:

“When you’re planning a trip, lay all your clothes and all your money out in front of you. Then take half the clothes and twice the money.”

I’d add that you should bring a rubber sink stopper and some packets of laundry detergent 😉

3. Accommodation. I’m sure this one is really controversial, because everyone has different needs and levels of comfortability. I definitely think that the older I get, the more I gravitate towards private rooms where possible. But my first trip through Europe consisted entirely of budget, dorm-style hostels, and nine times out of ten they were lovely. Occasionally you get roomed with a severe snorer or a smelly alcoholic, but those are rare. You also tend to meet exciting people who are as eager to explore a new city as you and can serve as lovely travel companions. My best tips for surviving dorm-hopping: bring a sleep mask and good ear plugs. Trust me on this. People come in an out at all hours of the night, and while most people are quite polite, you just never know…

By the way, http://www.hostelworld.com is typically my go-to sight for booking. Though recently I booked a private room through hotels.com for a stay in Berlin, and it was cheaper than the listing on hostelworld. I suppose it’s always a good idea to check both places. I also just booked my first room through AirBnB for a one-night layover in Beauvais, France. It seems to be a more controllable, paid version of couchsurfing, which can be hit or miss. My host seems lovely and (bonus) I get to practice my French! More on that later.

4. I’m really going to challenge myself to eat simply. I know this is another area where costs can add up, and I tend to think that because I’m on “vacation” I should get the fancy wine or dessert or nice entree. But, nah. I was speaking with a friend recently about her time in Ireland, and she said this:

“I ate a full Irish breakfast every morning, which was included with my Bed and Breakfast. I’d take brown bread and butter from the spread with me for the afternoon. In the evening I’d have a bowl of fresh fish chowder and a Guinness, and I’d be full.”

Of course, everyone has different eating habits, and I’m not suggesting you go without. But personally I would rather fill up on the views and the scenery than the food. We’ll see how this goes!

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Czech goulash with horseradish and potato dumplings. Another great tip is to eat and drink the local fares, which tend to be more affordable. Though this was before I swore off meat and became allergic to bread!

5. Read, and take advice. This is probably the most obvious “hack,” but it’s more so just common sense. Do your research and ask people who have been there, or who are still there. Personally, I find this kind of research so much more enjoyable than airfare hunting; it’s like my reward after all the other booking stuff is done. I just cracked open an old Fodor’s guide and became immersed in the excitement of my first visit to Paris. Paris! Take notes. Allow yourself to be excited. Then go, be flexible, and drink it all in.

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My favorite part of the planning process: getting pro-tips from seasoned travelers. And yes, I know this book is six years old. Hey, I’m on a budget, remember?

 

At the end of the day, I think the most important tip is to relax and go with it. I woke up this morning remembering, “Whoah! I’m going to Europe tomorrow.” And suddenly, everything else seems like gravy.

Happy planning! What are some of your best tips?

M

My Peace Corps Manifesto

“You’re gonna go off and make the world a better place,” said my dad as he drove me in the dark to catch my 7 am flight from Memphis to Philadelphia. We were talking about my Peace Corps service. I leave in June, and in the midst of all the traveling, working, and packing I’ve been doing, I’ve had little time to think seriously about what’s about to happen to me.

My life is going to change. I’m not sure how, but I know it will. Language, culture, and climate are just a few changes I’ll experience. There will also be more subtle adjustments, such as the pace of life and the way of doing things that may take longer to understand and accomplish. I’m nervous about the inner resistance I might experience from crossing over into another culture.  I’ve been telling myself, “You’ve done this before. You know what it’s like to feel a fish out of water. You know what it’s like to be the minority.” But every experience is so vastly different, like comparing apples and oranges. I have no idea what’s in store for me in Madagascar, so how can I prepare? How does one prepare for Peace Corps service? If any fellow volunteers are out there, I would love to hear from you. What is one thing you would tell someone about to embark on service?

“Spend time with your family and friends, and enjoy all things American. Eat all the ice cream.” These are pieces of advice I’ve received from  a few current and returned volunteers. “Don’t spend too much time obsessing over packing,” is another. In short, don’t worry; just savor every moment.

But there is something that’s been weighing on me, and that’s this archaic notion of actually making the world a better place. By myself. Alone. In a foreign country, where you can’t speak the language. 

In reality, I’m not joining the Peace Corps to make the world a better place. Maybe I will play a very small part in a greater movement, but I am committed to shaking off any concepts I have of bringing something valuable with me. If travelling has taught me anything, it’s that I know absolutely nothing. But when I’m open, I learn, and then I can laugh at myself as I stumble over cultural norms and relax into the discomfort of unfamiliarity. Still, one of Peace Corps’ three goals is “To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.”

How can I know nothing and be a trained volunteer simultaneously?

I think it’s actually quite simple. Some days, I know absolutely nothing. Some days, the things I think I know are challenged and unravelled, and some days I succeed in a small way towards a tiny goal. Triumphs, as well as failures, are essential for growth. And when I remember that I’ve had successes before, and I ask myself, “What did I do that made this class/meeting/activity/journey successful?”the answer is nearly always this: I asked for help.

So I wrote this manifesto for myself, to be clear with myself on where I’m going and why I’m going there. I will write this on my wall and say it to myself, every day of service if I have to, to remind me of some important truths:

I am not a dignitary, a missionary or a zealot.

I am not an expert.

I am a student. 

I am a learner.

I am growing.

I want to keep growing.

To keep on growing, I need to ask for help.

I will always ask for help.

Is there anything you would add to this list? Leave it in the comments below.

-Mel

 

“Have a good Lent”

It’s been a very eventful week for me.

1: a bicycle accident

2: losing my dog…again

3: moving out of my apartment in Midtown

4: starting TEFL assignments

5: planning a Europe trip

6: oh yeah, the first week of Lent…clean week…the week that’s supposed to be all about God

How many times have I forgotten that?

I know there are lots of non-Lent people out there. The simplest way I can explain Lent is that it is an opportunity  for life to finally be not all about me. Because I am always acting in my own self-interest. Even when I make to-do lists and bucket lists and packing lists, those lists are serving my own self-interest. Lent comes at a time when life is starting over, trees begin to bloom again, and we force our bodies into social exile. Why? Because Christ did it first, for us. This is our opportunity to tune everything else out and tune in to Christ.

I wasn’t looking forward to Lent until recently. I’ve been on a roller coaster with my faith, I admit plainly, and so I was looking forward to Lent as a way to level the spiritual playing field, so to speak. But then I wiped out on my bicycle and landed in the hospital. This was Monday. Thank God I’m okay, and I do mean thank God. And my guardian angel. And helmets.

Today is Thursday. I walked outside for the first time since Monday afternoon, and I got so excited about it that I left the front door open and my dog snuck out. Here I was thinking things were getting easier but nah, that’s not real life. 

Fortunately my dog came back. But the lessons never cease. There will always be something going wrong…and that’s the thing I should devote my time to. I’ve been so preoccupied with upcoming plans and Peace Corps service that I’ve completely neglected my own body, mind, and soul. I’ve failed to be present. I wrung myself out to dry.  I got to the point where I became unknowingly careless. 

But Lent is all about forgiveness. I guess that starts with me. I need to forgive myself, recognize my brokenness (literally) and find beauty in the little things…like being able to enjoy the sunshine and walk on the concrete with both feet.

I guess I’m having a good Lent so far. 

On Travel, White Guilt, and Moving Forward

I’ve been doing some housecleaning lately.

I’ve updated, rearranged, edited and (I think) improved the look and accessibility of this little site. I want it to be a place where people can explore ideas as well as cultural environments. Since this blog is my project, I want it to reflect my personal values and style. I’m still working on connecting this site to social media and photo sharing sites, which will be coming soon. I want everything to be in one place.

In addition to digital housecleaning, I’ve been doing some personal/spiritual cleaning as well. I’ve been reflecting a lot on my time in Memphis, my hometown, where I’ve been living for the past year and a half, trying to figure out just where I fit in to this great landscape of social movement. There’s a lot happening in Memphis right now. Revitalization, rehabilitation, and an increasing awareness of others are bringing people together in building a safer, more inclusive and accepting community. I’m honored to be a witness and beneficiary to this change.

Yet despite all of this positive energy, I am choosing to leave. The whirs of jet engines are calling, and I must follow. I have some amazing opportunities coming up, and I’ll be saying goodbye to my friends and family in a few months.

I’m very aware of the fact that I have this choice. I can choose to leave, and no one will stop me or tell me that I can’t go. This is because of the privilege that’s been afforded to me my whole life as a white, American citizen. No one ever told me I didn’t belong in a certain space because of the color of my skin. No one ever told me I couldn’t do whatever I chose to do. No one ever took away my passport, my civil rights, or my human rights and gave me some lame excuse about it. I was given an education that I didn’t have to fight for.  It’s unfathomable to think of how many people still don’t have those opportunities all over the globe–including in Memphis.

It’s easy, and normal, to feel guilty because of this. I didn’t choose my birth, nor did anyone else. So why do I get more while others get less? I don’t have a correct answer to that question because there is not one. There is only history and memory and law and empathy, which, if we are conscious enough, can work to our advantage to understand our place in society, how others view us, and how we want to view and be ourselves. And once we understand this, than we can put that understanding to work for justice and empathy in all corners of the globe.

I will forever come back to the power of words to center and guide me. I lean now on the words of three great champions of civil rights and human rights to remind me of where I’m going and why:

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” –Dr. Martin Luther King Junior

If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”  -Archbishop Desmond Tutu

And finally,

“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”Aboriginal Activist Group, Queensland (often attributed to Lilla Watson)

I’ve learned so much in Memphis. I’ve learned how to be an ally, how to show up, and how to not always have the last word. I’ve learned that connecting with people is essential, and that letting myself be supported is wonderful. I needed these lessons, because where I’m going will be all about connecting with people and letting myself be observant.

I’m joining the US Peace Corps. I’ll be serving in Madagascar for the next two years as an English teacher and trainer. Finally, I feel as ready as I can be, and I am so grateful to Memphis for that.

It will be a long and complicated journey, and I can’t wait for it. But before I go, I’ve got some other trips planned for refreshment, restoration, and friendship. More on that coming up.

Thank you for being part of my journey and I hope you’ll stick around.

With love,

Mel

 

Ironies of Comfort, Familiarity

Alain de Botton ignites my soul. Every line in his traveler’s manifesto, The Art of Travel, has me nodding my head, biting my nails, scribbling frantic responses in the margins as I read on feeling validated, awed, inspired, humbled and humiliated by my own solidarity with his words. Botton describes with painful and beautiful accuracy the sensations of traveling alone and lingering in places of eternal transience: hotels, diners, train stations, gas stations, airports.  I am not alone as I read:

Continue reading “Ironies of Comfort, Familiarity”

The Savior Complex

“A voice cannot carry the tongue and the lips that gave it wings. Alone it must seek the ether.” –Khalil Gibran

 

If I had my way, I would be a bird. I would fly from place to place and peep in on other people’s realities, never getting too attached or involved. I would skim the surface of life, laughing at my reflection in oceans and dancing on telephone wires. As a traveler, all I have truly ever wanted is to sit in tiny rooms with friends and drink in laughter between paper thin walls, sweet, steamy chai wafting through our noses and thick, melodious languages dripping from our tongues. But I’m not a bird, and I’m not a wallflower. I exist; people notice me.

I hate that people notice me. Sometimes I wish I could just keep the inspirational experiences in my heart and leave the embarrassing ones behind. I wish I could help people when I want to help rescue them and not when I feel obligated to do so. There comes a point when one can feel so emptied that we cannot seem to be filled. Perhaps this is because “help” has turned into “rescue.”

The world doesn’t give us a break. We can’t decide when people need our help, and we can’t really decide when we need another’s help. But not asking for help when we are drowning doesn’t make sense. Yet how do we move on from a rescue?

No man is an island. But for those of us who have grown up privileged, it’s easy to think that we have some God-given power to help others because of our circumstances, because we’ve been told to go out into the world and make it better. But change isn’t a power, it’s a responsibility, and a very precarious one. If you’re not aware of your own impact, you can do more harm then good.

Reflecting on my time in Thailand, I think I felt a lot of pressure to live up this image of a rescuer that, at the time, I was not aware I had. Being part of a faith community, learning about the plight of refugees, I became very involved with the idea of saving others. I didn’t see it as anything problematic, but I wasn’t just a witness. I was an actor and people noticed me and started assuming things about me that I wasn’t aware of because I was not fully present. I was in my own head. 

I grew up in my head. I dreamed away my reality with visions of waterfalls, open fields, and a sense of life with a purpose. I am learning how to live a life with purpose, but a lot of this has been painful. I think that’s the point. The hardest part about wanting to rescue someone is needing to save them from pain. Sometimes this is absolutely vital; sometimes it isn’t. I don’t know where that line is and I never want to make that decision but I know that I will. Life is tough like that. I have a tendency to remember only the good things and forget the times I failed. But at the same time, failure can be life’s greatest teacher, even if it means giving up and moving home. A friend of mine asked me, “What do you want to learn from this?” I think that’s a great start.

I’ve failed a lot in my life, which is how I know I’m not a savior. I believe there is only one Savior. But even if you don’t, as travelers, teachers, explorers, we have to start acknowledging our own impact. We are not wallflowers and we are not birds. We might be called on to rescue someone, but we need to examine our motivations as well as our plans. Does this person need help? If so, what does that need to look like?

Never stop asking questions.

67
Inle Lake, Myanmar: 2015