The Gentle Art Of Saying Goodbye

Anne Lamott says, “Try walking around with a child who’s going, “Wow, wow! Look at that dirty dog! Look at that burned-down house! Look at that red sky! And the child points and you look, and you start going, “Wow! Look at that huge crazy hedge! Look at that teeny little baby! Look at that scary dark cloud!” I think this is how we are supposed to be in the world—present and in awe.”
— Anne Lamott, as quoted by Leigh Shulman

Welcome to the Stories of Good series. These are stories by guest writers on the theme of good: finding good, losing good, witnessing good, giving good. Goodness is an important theme in my own writing, and I am attracted to similar stories by others.

This story is by the wonderfully talented Leigh Shulman, who, in many ways, embodies what is good in the writing world: she writes well, shares her knowledge, and inspires many. Her works are intimate but far reaching, about travel to foreign places, but also about herself. Each essay is an intimate picture of her soul and the things she is drawn to. From the moment I read her writing , I wanted her to write a Story of Good. So happy to share this specially commissioned piece with you, on how goodbye can be a good.
 

Great slices of laughter peel down beige walls and bounce off the shiny marbled floors of the airport café as three little girls, ages four, nine and ten, play.....

Up and down the elevator, tag-you’re-it on the stairs, they giggle their way toward goodbye when Ary, the smallest of the three must board a flight with her parents and fly back to Australia.

They are: Sujeeva, warm like sunshine. David is the calm, and Ary, full of energy and fire. I don’t have the slightest when I’ll see them again.

Airports are rarely beautiful, and this one is no exception. Ubiquitous black tables and chairs rest atop an ugly brown and beige marbled floor.  I’ve been here many times before, but never with so many people. This time, there are enough of us to fill the large booth at the back of the restaurant. I’ve always wondered who sits there. How do you arrive at the airport with a group of nine? Did they know each other before? Do they travel together? Are they family? Or like us, are they friends coming to say farewell to other friends?

I don’t cry at airports anymore.

Oh, I understand why people dislike airports. They’re sterile, hasty places designed specifically for impermanence, yet, where else can you observe an entire gallery of human beings in transit? A soldier returns home. The edges of his eyes crinkle upward; even so, he’s tired. A little girl fidgets and contorts her mouth at her reflection in the metal of the waiting room seat. “Like those fun mirrors,” she notices. She’s still bored of waiting. An impeccably groomed woman in impossibly high leopard spotted heels frets, glances at her watch as a family of five slows her down in the security line.

Anne Lamott says “Try walking around with a child who’s going," Wow, wow! Look at that dirty dog! Look at that burned-down house. Look at that red sky. And the child points and you look, and you start going, “Wow! Look at that huge crazy hedge! Look at that teeny little baby! Look at that scary dark cloud!” I think this is how we are supposed to be in the world — present and in awe.”

There is a endless universe of blank when you first encounter another person. Absolutely anything could be. What’s his favorite food? Does she have a temper? Where did they meet? And thus the outer layers begin to unfold.

Rewind 18 months to before I knew Sujeeva, when she wrote me asking for advice about living in Salta. I wrote back. She hired me to research schools for her daughter. She thanked me for doing a better job than she’d even expected, and a few splotches of paint color the empty canvas. A bit of pink, the color of my cheeks as I smile and remember how wonderful it is to feel appreciated.

That blank now owns a deep red cherry print dress as she deftly commands the kitchen, teaches me to temper the mustard and cumin seeds before adding them to the dhal. They brought a machine to peel apples with them to Salta. You stick an apple on a spike, turn the crank, and it skins the entire thing in one long springy strip. I smell granny smith green as it twists to the ground. Dark coffee, blond beer, deep red copas de vino. Really, any drink is an occasion to sit and chat for hours.

We don powder blue and white striped t-shirts bought at the free shop in the central market. They’re hard, plasticky things that don’t let your skin breathe. How worth it to be wearing celeste y blanco as we roar cheers of joy as Romero brilliantly blocks penalty kick after kick?

Apricot, citron and fuchsia striped textiles decorate the deep lime walls of their living room where our daughters laugh endlessly about I-don’t-know-and-everything don’t what. They brought them back along with tupperware from a visa run to Bolivia. David filled the plum colored tupperware with beans and rice to feed us after our baby was born. She brought curried green beans with my favorite spicy tomato chutney. I forgot to return it.

I’ve grown accustomed to saying goodbye.

Goodbye means letting go, but letting go means different things at different times. It means divest yourself of things. It means dare to leave yourself naked of expectation. It says rid yourself of whatever you think normal means, and embrace life’s whimsy, because you truly never know what comes next.

Sometimes, goodbye is just that last quick hug at the airport, before your friend disappears into a crowd of bodies in the security line.

We make plans, of course. I’ve never been to Melbourne. Or maybe they’ll visit us when we go to Bali, maybe next year. It takes faith in the future, trust that strong ties remain and acceptance that, yes, even with the best of intentions, sometimes we forget each other.

I’ve learned how to say this kind of goodbye, because I know more possibility still exists.

Alan Watts reminds us “there is no other reality than present reality, so that, even if one were to live for endless ages, to live for the future would be to miss the point everlastingly.”

Live in the wondrous and spontaneous now as you allow your moments to be filled with joy. I look into Sujeeva’s kind brown eyes. Her round face always smiling. “I’ll see you soon,” we say. Do not be sad for what may or may not be. Instead, rejoice in those moments together, and relish the laughter of three little girls who have entirely forgotten they must ever say farewell.

So we say goodbye. She goes to the line, walks behind the security door and into the waiting room where I can no longer see them. That’s that; I breathe.

-Leigh Shulman

A bit about the author: Leigh Shulman moves around a lot. She has lived on five continents and worked as everything from website designer for MTV to a university writing professor in NYC to teaching photography to indigenous Wichi children in NW Argentina. She writes mostly about the complications of raising children when you travel, as an expat and people who generally make choices that veer toward the unexpected. She is currently working on a book based on the journal she kept while pregnant with her first child.

Leigh began her blog The Future Is Red when she, her husband and young daughter sold everything they owned in Brooklyn and left to travel the world. She now lives in NW Argentina with her family, where she writes as well as co-founded Creative Revolution Retreats, international writing retreats for women. Her writing and work has been featured in the New York Times, The Guardian, Guernica and The Jewish Daily Forward among others. 

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Finding Roses Behind Bars

It is astonishing to me that a place as evil as a prison can hold within it beauty and truth.
— Tessara Dudley

Welcome to Stories of Good: these are stories submitted by readers to my website. The running theme is goodness found, lost, experienced, witnessed, or discovered. A secondary theme is the theme of place.

Tessara Dudley is a young, Black rights activist who I met through social media. She wrote a stunning essay on being a Black traveler who felt safer in foreign places than in her own city. I was very moved by that piece and asked her to write something for me. This essay on visiting a prison for the first time to attend a poetry reading was the result.

As with all the Stories of Good submissions, I always offer to trade work and I'll be sharing a piece on Black women travelers/writers history has forgotten on Tessara's website later this month. This is a topic--as many of you know--that excites me and I'm very happy to craft this piece for her.

Read on for a few lessons from this young woman whose open heart belied her fears and anxieties about visiting a men's prison for the first time, and who found a lasting good not just inside of herself, but in the inmates she met.  
 

I hit send with some trepidation.

Frightening scenarios float through my head: receiving an email that said I was barred from visiting; getting pulled aside for questioning once I got there; being detained because of something I didn’t know about in some FBI file I never knew existed. Of course, none of these scenarios were actually very likely, but I couldn’t help worrying: it was my first time going to a prison.

In order to visit the Oregon State Penitentiary, I had to email my state ID number, my date of birth, and my full name to the staff advisor of the group we were visiting. I received a confirmation that my background check would be run, and a couple sheets of instructions.

There were so many rules:

no low-cut blouses

no spaghetti straps

no underwire bras

no solid blue clothing

no tight clothing

no sheer clothing

no halter tops

no tube tops

no crop tops

no mini skirts

no controversial slogans

no cell phones

no paper money

bring government-issued identification

 

The restrictions were intimidating.

~

Waking early on the scheduled day, I fretted over my clothes for an hour, changing several times before my friend Lesia came to pick me up. The ride down was pretty comfortable: we talked about classes we’d each taken at our university, teachers we liked, and what we wanted our class project to be. I checked the time frequently--we were a little behind schedule. I wasn’t sure if that mattered. I still didn’t know exactly what to expect.

On arriving, we went up the stairs to the visitor entrance: a loud, busy, tiled room filled with children and adults on one side of a metal detector, and tall rows of drab metal lockers on the other. The officer behind the counter looked at our IDs and checked our names off a list. We stood waiting for our names to be called so we could pass through the detector and into the prison.

The corrections officers chatted and joked behind the desk. They reminded each visitor of the rules when they checked in, and made sure they were only taking in items from the approved list. Mothers corralled grumpy children towards uncomfortable chairs. Last names were dispassionately called, signaling the next person could come forward and pass through the metal detector. The walls were white, plain. There were waxy potted plants scattered near the seating area.

It felt like being at the DMV or the food stamps office: uniform, clinical, depressing.

One child kept escaping his older brother and running off. Another gave several piercing shrieks, crying and flailing in his mother’s arms. Two girls elbowed each other when they thought no one was looking. There was a chorus of coughs, and lockers clattered as visitors stashed their belongings inside. Three generations of a single family followed each other through the metal detector, setting their shoes on the conveyor belt, to ride behind bowls of change and wallets through the scanner and be collected on the other side.

Because Lesia and I were going to an event (rather than visiting a single person) we waited with several others until we had a sizeable group. Eventually, we all filed through the metal detector one by one, collecting our things and then trouping down a ramp and through a mechanized gate, which closed ominously behind us. I was glad that I’d remembered to take something for my anxiety before I left my house--even through my medically-induced calm, being shut in by that gate was unnerving.

Each of us checked in on the visitor’s log—writing name, purpose, and time in—before exchanging our IDs for blue plastic visitor’s badges from a guard behind thick glass. The badges had to be clipped onto the left sides of our shirts, and then we were let through another gate into a long hallway. We walked single file to the far end, where we were individually checked off of a list by yet another guard enclosed in bulletproof glass, and buzzed through a final gate.

On the other side of this checkpoint was an open floor, almost a relief after the series of small rooms and narrow hallways we had just come through. Men wearing baggy blue jeans and long blue shirts passed by us, entering and exiting the various doorways that led off of this transition area. Seeing these men in their uniforms, with “INMATE” stamped prominently on legs and shirts, it occurred to me for the first time, rather distantly, that I should probably be afraid of the men incarcerated here. But I wasn’t afraid of them. True, the environment made me nervous, but I was reacting to the overwhelming sense of state control, rather than fear of the men under that control.

The officer guiding our group led us up a flight of stairs directly across from the guard station. We waited at the top for a minute, and then we were let into a large gymnasium, with a stage at one end and several dozen seats set up in rows that faced it. We filed past the guard sitting next to the entrance, and began finding our seats: each of the outside visitors had been assigned a spot in the first two rows. Dez, the MC, came over to tell me I would be reading after Crash; he pointed out a tall, gangly man in bright red jeans, sitting at the other end of the front row.

As we sat there, men came to speak with Lesia about the writing group she usually led there. One of the men brought us each a bottle of water to drink, and a few cookies wrapped in a napkin.

This was the annual Uhuru SaSa poetry share.

Uhuru SaSa, a Swahili phrase meaning “freedom now”, is the name of the African American cultural club at OSP, a place for empowerment and community for Black men doing time. My friend Lesia volunteered with them and I was there at her invitation; she’d heard my poetry in a class we shared previously, and thought of me when she heard about the show. Now, I sat shyly next to her, self-conscious in spite of my anti-anxiety meds, resisting the urge to edit the poetry I’d brought while I waited to perform. In the next fifteen minutes, the rest of the outside guests found their seats, and we were ready to start.

Dez began by thanking and welcoming all of us in the room and talked about the theme for the event: Love and Redemption. It was a theme  meant to affirm our humanity and despite incarceration each person present was still a person, worthy of love.

“Who,” he asked, “is willing to set a new tone?”

He left the stage, and a voice boomed from the speakers, rapping about the struggle of incarceration, the difficulty of being a Black man in America. The voice belonged to one of Uhuru SaSa’s members, and his powerful lyrics made me shiver. I felt connected to his struggle, knew that my work against police violence in the months following the murder of Michael Brown were linked indelibly to his freedom. Our resistance to the prison industrial complex looked different, but we were both resisting, both making it through each day in a system meant to destroy us.

When his voice faded, the incarcerated men in the rows of seats behind us cheered loudly. In solidarity, I cheered along with them. Next up was the first of the performers from the "outside." We were a varied bunch: a professor, singers, poets, brought together under the banner of love to share space with one another and the men on the inside. We had talent, but it was plain that many of the men incarcerated here also had vast talent; beauty and imagination came out in the work they performed alongside us. We were together for an hour and a half, swapping strength and soul between us.

It felt powerful.

When the show came to a close, I got a chance to speak with the other performers and some of the audience members. Many of the men I spoke to were shy; they complimented my work, and they expressed awe for the talents of their friends and comrades, and several of them gave me hugs. When the performers were called to the stage for a group picture, the man I was talking to half-joked that we were special—not like him.

When we hugged, I told him that he was the special one.

Dez closed the show with a rap about global struggle, illuminating the connections between fracking, imperialism, poverty wages, police violence, school-to-prison pipelines, sweatshops, LGBTQ rights, bullying, racism, and healthcare access. I listened, recommitting myself to correcting these injustices. It can be easy to get burned out by evil, but going to the Uhuru SaSa poetry share was replenishing me. I realized how  the theme of Love and Redemption was timely in not just my life, or these inmates lives but in the lives of all of those people in world struggling right now.

Invigorated by the solidarity with other struggles present--the MC had shouted out about the protestors in Ferguson--I returned home, and wrote this message on Facebook:

"I just got back to Portland from the Oregon State Penitentiary, and I feel revitalized. It was so rejuvenating to be around so many, smart, passionate, thoughtful artists! Both the brothers from the inside and the visitors from the outside brought so much strength and vulnerability and beauty to the space."

~

Today, I'm so grateful for the opportunity I had to go and share my work with these men and for the gift of their art that they gave me. It was a good reminder of why I write and who I do my work for. I am re-affirmed in my belief that sharing stories makes the world a better place, and today was a perfect example.

It is astonishing to me that a place that is as evil as a prison can hold within it such beauty and truth. The mainstream narrative about incarcerated people paints them all as hard villains, hateful individuals that have to be locked up for the good of society. I’ve always known this isn’t true, but it was different being there.  I gave and got so many hugs. I spoke with and was deeply touched by those men. I am intensely grateful for the time I spent with them. The tragedy to me is that so few will be exposed to their voices, and that there are millions like them, condemned to be locked in a box for years.

 Their blooms are hidden away.

Sharing that space reminded me to have faith that together we can create a better world, even when things look so dire and dismal, so institutional and grey as the inside of a prison. Like Tupac’s Rose That Grew from Concrete, beauty is waiting to surprise us in the most unlikely of places, if only we are willing to look for it.

Did you hear about the rose that grew from concrete? Proving nature’s laws wrong, it learned to walk without having feet. Funny, it seems to by keeping it’s dreams; it learned to breathe fresh air. Long live the rose that grew from concrete when no one else cared.
— Tupac Shakur, The Rose That Grew From Concrete

Here is Tupac, talking about his life. A perfect end to this piece.

Tessara Dudley lives in the rainy Pacific-Northwest, writing poetry and personal essays from the intersection of a working class Black queer disabled life. She hopes her art will help to build a better world. Her first published piece, an examination of transit and travel as a Black woman, went up on Black Girl Dangerous in 2014. In addition to freelance writing, she recently founded a small press. Tessara can be found on Facebook, Twitter, and http://tessaradudley.com

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That Sunday Afternoon

There is something that many people do not know about me, and those who do, don’t believe: I am an emotional fool, especially when it comes to matters of the heart.
— Anubhuti Krishna

Welcome to the Stories of Good series. These are stories submitted by readers and writers about finding the good in a myriad of ways, within the context of travel and place.

This story is by Indian writer Anubhuti Krishna, who writes a story about letting go of her own discomfort and habits and she witnesses the good found in the love of others. It's an honor for me to have this very talented writer on my website, and I thank the brilliant Indian novelist Bishwanath Ghosh for bringing us together--for we found each other through our mutual admiration of his work. But now, for some good, which according to Anubhuti, shows up when you aren't looking for it.

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Around one-thirty in the afternoon, the sun was bright and hot; the balmy sea breeze however was apologizing on his behalf. I walked into the bus terminal pulling along a much heavier bag than I had pulled out of the same terminal the morning before. The bag, which just had a pair of clothes and some other essentials until then, was now full of pottery and some other knickknack that I had bought last evening. The evening at Mission Street – and shopping at some of my favorite stores – was perhaps the most potent reason for my being in Pondicherry at a whim (besides spending some quality time with myself in the quiet French colony).

I had expected the bus to be as empty this afternoon as I had found it the day before. The emptiness of the bus, in fact, had salvaged me from the shock of discovering its condition: Here I was walking into the bus stop dreaming of a plush two by two coach waiting to ferry me across the beautiful East Coast Road, what I found instead was an old, dilapidated, and dirty bus beckoning me with great élan. The first reaction was to withdraw, to look for another bus, but it would have been foolish to expect another one available at six in the morning that too at such a desolate bus terminal in the middle of nowhere.

 It had taken me almost an hour and four hundred rupees to get there (almost twice the amount of what I had paid as the fare to Pondicherry), so I went along (being alone without the girls helped too). I was exhausted and had slept in no time waking up only fifteen minutes from Pondicherry. The drive that I had been so looking forward to had been sacrificed at the altar of sleep.

I have a strange habit: when I travel, I cannot sleep for long hours as much as I might try. The positive of this is that I get plenty of time to myself – I read, write, take pictures and just be; the negative is that I am almost always under rested. This morning had been no different. I had been up since four-thirty and out since five; I had spent almost three hours sitting by the sea soaking in the rays of the rising sun, the blue of the ocean and the moisture of the breeze. Then I had walked along the boulevard rubbing shoulders with the locals and tourists alike.

After the walk, and the two rounds of breakfast – one of idlis, vadas and endless cups of coffee at a roadside stall; another of fried egg, toast and coffee at the guesthouse – and a lunch of vanilla ice cream at a quaint café in the French quarter, I was ready to crash in the bus: I was expecting it to be as empty as it was the day before. But when you desperately want something you seldom get it, so here I was boarding a bus that was already full, half an hour before its departure time. 

A little disappointed, I looked for my seat and discovered it had already been occupied by a young man, next to whom sat a petite young woman. When I politely informed him that the seat belonged to me, he smiled and expectantly asked me if I could take his seat instead. He reasoned that the girl with him had a problem travelling on seats that face the opposite direction of the motion. One look at them and my heart melted: problem or no problem, they clearly wanted to sit together. Although I too feel nauseated if I have to travel in the opposite direction for long, but I did not have the heart to separate them. I was certain this journey was special to them. I agreed.

My new seat was on the other side of the aisle. Facing me sat an elderly couple, about the same age as my parents. They had quite a few bags and even after all the adjustment, there was hardly any space left to rest my feet. As a result I inadvertently kept knocking the lady's feet; apologizing each time. The backrest of the seat was strangely aligned, and its lever broken. Next to me was a young girl, equally distressed with her seat and her feet, struggling with her backpack that lay in her lap for want of any space around us.

The harsh sun had already started to scald the right side of my face while the strong, incessant gush of cold air from the a/c duct right above my head, chilled the other half. Out went my desire to sleep.

There is something that not many people know about me, and those who do, don't believe: I am an emotional fool, especially when it comes to matters of the heart. And therefore with all the discomfort that I had inherited along with the young man's seat, I was adamant not to disturb them. They were clearly in a world of their own: Smiling coyly at each other, exchanging glances, talking softly, sharing the headphone – and the water bottle. I wanted to let them be. 

The bus was almost out of the city now and the people around had started to doze. The gliding bus, the warm sun, the cool air and the sight of all about me sleeping had intensified my desire to catch a nap, but with my feet lost somewhere in between the floor of the bus and the bags of the elderly couple and my back totally devastated by the backrest, sleep was a far fetched dream. I looked out of the window to find some relief but failed – the road was familiar and boring, moreover to find peace you need to be in peace yourself, which I clearly wasn't. 

I looked at the young couple again: The man would have been around twenty-five; he was tall and big built and had a cute boyish charm about him, especially when he smiled to reveal a slight dimple. The girl looked much younger. Both were simply dressed – the man in a tailored shirt with contrasting trousers and a pair of floaters and the girl in a white and grey salwar suit and floaters. Both had a backpack each. They made an unlikely couple. But were they a couple at all?

At a time when people take pride in publically displaying their affection and fondness for each other, these two were unusually reticent. Although their eyes spoke – as did the faces – but the caution with which they conducted themselves made it hard for me to guess if they were in love already or in the process of falling in love. The later seemed more probable. 

My back had started to trouble me by now. The lack of sleep in the last three nights and the travelling through the last three days had taken its toll. I needed to sit properly if not sleep. After much deliberation, I hesitantly told the young man that I was very uncomfortable in his seat and would like to sit at my original place. After a little confusion and a whole lot of adjustment that followed, I found myself sitting in front of the two of them. Both of them now faced the opposite side of the motion, the discomfort of the young woman notwithstanding (although I found no sign of discomfort whatsoever).

The joy of travelling alone and being reluctant to strike a conversation is in observing the co-passengers – their behavior, their body language, their conversations. One can find numerous characters and string several stories sitting in a bus or a train just by observing the people around. I tried to imagine their story: They could be colleagues or classmates. Or maybe they were lovers. They could also just be friends. Did they study in Pondicherry and were travelling to Chennai? Or did they live in Chennai and had come down for a weekend? Were they in a relationship already? Or were they just beginning to discover their fondness for each other? It was hard to tell. But they definitely shared something special, something that reminded me of simpler, more innocent times. 

The young woman had now dozed off, hesitantly resting her read on the man's shoulder, the man although awake, glanced into nothingness. The romantic in me hoped and prayed that he put his arm around her but he did not. Not even when her head almost fell off his shoulder and she woke up with a start. I was disappointed. The girl did not seem to mind though and they went back to their music and banter, exchanging an occasional, meaningful glance – and a coy smile.

All this while, The Bay of Bengal had been running along the road with nothing but trees and marshes between us, but now a stream of ugly buildings started to make their presence felt. Soon the trickle became a steady stream of gaudy, garish buildings. Realizing we in were in Chennai now, I turned to the man sitting next to me. I wanted to find out which bus stop would be closest to my place of stay.  

But I soon found myself answering his questions instead: Where did I live? Was I in Chennai for work? Did I have family in Chennai or Pondicherry? If not family, did I at least have friends? He found it difficult to imagine that a woman could be travelling alone, two thousand kilometers away from home, just for the sake of travelling. In the process, I found out that he was new to Chennai too and was unsure of where to get off himself. He had, nevertheless, taken it upon himself to help me – a woman in distress. He soon took out his newly acquired smart phone, complete with Google maps and GPS and struggled with it for almost half an hour to find me an answer but failed. I now turned to the young couple. When the man told me that I could get off with them, my neighbor seemed satisfied – I finally had someone to look after me.

In the next hour that followed, the sights and sounds of Chennai and its traffic kept me distracted. Also, by now, I had lost all hope of getting to know anything else about them. Crawling though a sea of cars and buses, when we finally reached our destination, the young man helped me pull my heavy bag down. The woman smiled at me. As I stood at the bus stop, waiting for an auto to take me home, I saw them hold hands and beam. I smiled too.


 Anubhuti Krishna lives in Delhi, India, where she divides her time between writing, mothering, photography, and blogging. Her work is focused on the personal essay and the literary travelogue, and can be found in various literary magazines and periodicals, including The Hindu. Someday soon, she'll publish a gorgeous novel, but until then you can read more of her work on her blog, Isight-Anubhuti Krishna.

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Divining the Secret on the Israeli Trail

Welcome to the Stories of Good series. These are stories submitted by readers and writers about finding the good in a myriad of ways, within the context of travel and place.

This story is by Israeli writer, Anna Levine. It's the story of finding the good in one's own resilience, the gift of others and groups, and the landscape of the Israeli Trail. A short but sweet and deeply moving piece about finding the good, and taking it home with you.
 

Daniel says that the desert holds the cure for a broken heart. With my feet on the stony ground, I stand, waiting, hoping that if I stay there long enough, I will divine the secret.
— Anna Levine

Last year I signed on to join a group of hikers walking the Israel Trail. The route stretches from the Red Sea, the southern-most tip of the country, to the farthest point in the mountainous north. Our journey would be divided over the course of two years. We would meet on weekends, sometimes sleeping out in the open, other times in rustic guest houses along the way.

My cover for traveling alone was that I am a writer. My novel is set in the desert and Daniel, our guide, has chosen our route to begin with Mount Solomon, one of the most challenging parts of the trail. Once on the bus, I find an empty seat and spread myself across both chairs. Slowly the bus fills up with a few couples, some single girls, single guys, a brother and sister duo, a family with two kids in their twenties, a triathlete and three retired men.

Arriving in Eilat, it is already plenty hot by 11:00AM. I learn that in order to reach Mount Solomon we must first climb the mountain in our way. Daniel strides ahead, forgetting that some of us have not had boot camp training.

Mount Zefahot, named after its metamorphic rock, is only 278 meters above sea level, but standing on its peak reveals a panoramic view of the entire Red Sea area. Four countries can be seen from this point: Israel, of course, but also Jordan, Egypt, and the tip of Saudi Arabia. The sea, they say, glistens blue all year round.

I like to walk close to the front of the line, believing that if I can see where I’m going it will be easier to reach my destination. My strides, at first, are long and confident.

Where Mount Zefahot reaches the foot of Mount Solomon, we stop to admire the plaque which says that we are standing on the oldest type of rock known to man, solid and resistant to time and whatever nature decides to throw at it. The geology and landscape in Eilat’s area are varied: igneous and metamorphic rocks, sandstone and limestone; mountains, expansive valleys such as the Arava, and the tantalizing seashore on the Gulf of Aqaba.

I look out over the Eilat Mountains, see part of the Sinai desert, Eilat’s bay, the city of Aqaba and the Edom mountain range. The view is simply breathtaking.

Daniel says that the desert holds the cure for the broken heart. With my feet on the stony ground, I stand, waiting, hoping that if I stay here long enough, I will divine the secret.

Everyone I know seems to be suffering from a plethora of ailments on the registry of chronic diseases. For years now, I have been holding hands, massaging backs, encouraging spirits... giving love. It feels selfish to acknowledge that caring for the people I love – watching them struggle to take a step, to pull words from their minds and knead them into thoughts, to find the courage to pretend that things are just a bit better today than they were the day before – has taken a toll on me.

The ascent up Mount Solomon is steep and we proceed in single file. The sun beats down. We stop to drink, and when we resume, I slip back to join the walkers in the middle of the pack. Even if someone were to begin a conversation with me, I feel a need to conserve my strength and focus.

The group’s progress slows, but even the retirees skirt past me. My skin prickles and I feel my heart racing as I slip to the end of the line. I have been warned that a low iron count depletes my energy quickly. Perhaps that explains the feeling I have been carrying with me.

Emptiness can be so heavy.

Parched, my pace up the desolate mountainside drags to a slow slog in the rocky terrain, not a single tree to offer shade. Life in this desert is unforgiving.       

Losing sight of the last walker in front of me, I imagine the group has conquered the mountain and reached the bus. When Daniel does the body count, only then he’ll realize there is one missing.

“Where’s that girl? You know, the writer, the loner?”

Having no choice, I press on. Finally, I make it up to the top and sink down beside the other exhausted climbers. I have just enough energy to raise my eyes and glimpse the cool waters of Eilat far below

That night we are to sleep on a kibbutz where an old friend of mine lives. I’d sent him an email out of the blue saying that I might be passing through. The bus pulls in, and there he is waiting to greet me with a handful of dates, freshly picked from their orchards. A hug, and he hands me a thermos of coffee. I’d forgotten what it is like to have someone anticipate my needs. I can barely control the tears.

My roommate for the night is a woman from Tel Aviv. She is a divorced professor of linguistics. I teach English as a second language. We talk about prepositions. I tell her that my Israeli students find prepositions the hardest to figure out because the words in themselves have no meaning. They are dull.

“Prepositions,” she says, while arranging her clothes for the next day, “are about relationships. And relationships are never dull.” With a striking realization, I think of how you can run with someone, run to, run from and – run away.

Totally sapped that night, I am not sure whether I fall asleep or pass out. I awaken the following morning rested and refreshed. Some of the sadness has drained. I gather the supplies I need, preparing to leave the desolation behind. Today's trek is less steep and I am able to keep near the front of the line. I step up and look around. I am taken aback at the beauty of this piece of the world.

On the way home, Daniel starts discussing the next trip. “You’re coming back, aren’t you?” he asks, and I hear the silence as the others wait for me to answer. I realize that in true Israeli fashion once you are in a group, you become part of the group. I am not like them but having shared an experience with them, I have become one of them. For a moment the weight of my loneliness lifts. I realize that it takes looking up to see what is around one, and I should not be afraid to head towards.

My life back home will have mountains that need to be scaled down, and there will be times when I feel I can’t go on, but in those moments, I must remember that sometimes all it takes is a prepositional shift to change one’s perspective, to turn what is down, and raise it up.

 

About the author: born in Canada, Anna Levine moved to Israel when she was twenty. She has an MA in English Literature from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Her first years in Israel, she lived on a kibbutz until she discovered that she was hopeless when it came to agriculture and left the kibbutz for Jerusalem, where she has has lived ever since, when she's not traveling. Her stories feature strong female characters who are told that they can’t, and then set out to prove otherwise. She says that writing is her way to understand and make some sense of the chaotic world that she lives in. Follow her on her website and on twitter.

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A Confluence

This can’t go on all the time, all this franticness and jumping around. We’ve got to go someplace, find something.
— Jack Kerouac

Welcome to the Stories of Good series: these are stories submitted by readers and writers about good. Finding it, witnessing it, giving it, and sometimes losing it. This story is of particular interest to me, for it is not the classic morality lesson or expected beginning, middle, or end. It is, instead, a story about a journey, a journey which twists organically and becomes a thing of good in itself.

It's written by Bani Amor, a writer of great skillfulness and talent, who I met on social media and have been a avid follower of since. She is quite the wordsmith and she crafts her pieces with a rawness and spirit which is unmatchable. Her skill is not just in her realness, but in her lyrically unbound sentences, her gift for description, and her way of piercing your heart.

It's huge honor to share her piece below, A Confluence.
 

Photo credit: Bani Amor  

Photo credit: Bani Amor
 

Borracho y Loco

Really, this is all my fault.

Last night at a Brooklyn bar I talked my friend Sarah into joining me on an urgent trip to Montreal. The emergency? Itchy feet, hypomania, four shots of Johnnie Walker Red - didn’t matter. In my mind, I was already there, waiting for my body to catch up.

But after waking up this morning hung-over and suddenly unemployed, I’m having second thoughts.

Not again.

Someone once warned me that 24 is one of the most turbulent years in the life of a manic-depressive person. I was initially diagnosed as a kid and since my relationship with that identity had been as fluid as the thing itself, pinballing from a feeling of affliction to a sense of pride to forgetting I had it to the emergency room.

Then I turned 24.                          

Suddenly all my actions look like they were photocopied straight from the DSMIV, or V, whatever we’re up to now. Excessive involvement in pleasurable activities that have a high potential for painful consequences, inflated self-esteem or grandiosity, flight of ideas or subjective experience that thoughts are racing. The inertia to leave town struck with such immediate romance yesterday that I whoosh past all the red flags, quit my job and buy a train ticket.

I like living off the map.: writing, traveling and following my instincts with an open mind, street smarts and some cash to get by. Overcoming challenges and keeping it real. What I don’t like is the idea of my fortune being locked up in a bipolar closet. How else am I supposed to spend this year? Hiding out in my room with index fingers in my ears singing LALALAs? Nothing crazy about that.

Doctors and pharma reps and pretty much any narrative streaming from the mental health establishment say that my instincts are screwed. That the unmedicated manic-depressive mind is a time bomb. That I’m disabled. Wouldn’t leaving my job and home to wander around a city abroad with nothing but a manic mind just prove them right?

I should probably do the sensible thing: fix myself up and take the Times Square-bound train to work and plead for my job back. Get refunded for the ticket, apologize to Sarah for getting all worked up. La la la.

But we all know that’s not going to happen. Time can either lean toward or work against me, but it’s not going to stop here and skip a year.

I’ve got to go.

 ↯

We are somewhere along the border, or on the border of the border, a bunch of invisible delineations in the dirt. I have vague memories of having slept last night, as vague as the sleep itself, where I wandered in and out of nightmares and half-conscious thoughts that refused to settle into the stale air of my room.

I often get lousy sleep the night before a trip, like a warning. I often get lousy sleep in general, but nights like last are when I need it the most, when faint anxiety mixed with excitement aggravates my consciousness, making me fatigued and restless at once. But what’s new.

Now we’re on a 12-hour Amtrak train ride lethargically inching toward Montreal, as slow as a bride’s steps down the aisle, seated by a pack of rowdy, drunk, hockey bros. I look over at Sarah, a 21 year-old Aquarian whose gaze is perpetually set on an unfixed point in space, and wonder how she agreed to this. Barhopping Thursday in Carroll Gardens. Or was it the West Village?

Sweating alcohol under the incandescent iris of dusty Christmas lights, in the corner of one bar or another, I romanticized the profoundness of this trip to the max, flaunting the opportunity to not just do something drastic, but something important, something to remember, that travel offers us these vestiges of freedom. Words were flying in all directions, but finally, via the tangled expressways of hyperbole spewed at autobahn-inspired speeds, I drove my point home.

“Think about it, this time tomorrow, we could be getting drunk-” whispering this last part with reverence for added effect, “In Montreal.”

And tonight we will.

This Must Be the Place

It’s the first day of April, and I’m never leaving Montreal.

For months I’ve been feeling gifted, like every action I witness could cause such exponential effects that the possibilities are blowing my mind, like my every encounter holds a magical, hidden meaning. Maybe they do, they probably don’t, but what better place to find out than here, ‘here” being a café in Montreal’s gayborhood Le Village, where I can fake French and freak out in peace. It’s like a municipal retreat for wayward folks.

Although the early spring sun rarely makes appearances, the city stays bright with one great expanse of cloud spread above like vellum acting as an absorber of light, keeping Montreal in a color story of perpetual grey. The monotone is broken up by subtle explosions of color that breathe life into the island, in floral displays that take up whole blocks infusing the city air with the aroma of gardens, in graffiti painted onto alleyway walls that veer off into perceived endlessness. Streets are spotted with eye-level windows offering glimpses into the private lives of others: candles, cats and wine along the windowsills.

Whatever the climax all this madness has been heading toward is going to go down here, I can feel it.

 

 

Fresh off that day-long train ride, after an anonymous black door on Parc Avenue shut behind us with a BAMN, two towering Canadians searched our bags but neglected to check our IDs, lending us an idea of the kind of bar we were walking into. One-third of the walls were covered in mirrors, and in the middle of one a polychrome sign hung announcing the name of the party, Faggity Ass Friday. The Talking Heads song This Must Be the Place played on a radio somewhere in my head.

We’re here, we’re queer, let’s drink. Sarah and I spent the night pacing from the ATM to the bar and back, draining our expenses on top-shelf liquor we’re used to being too broke for in New York. We were impressed by the dandy, balding bartender that properly measured the contents of our booze with archaic little instruments, like an apothecary prescribing our materia medica. What’s he doing in a dive like this? We wondered.

At around 1am a drag show got underway starring a pink-bearded queen with feather boa to match. For the last number she invited audience members up on the divey semi-stage and a spontaneous moshpit took place, ultimately sending cheap jewelry flying up into the air. Transgender punks distributed radical sex-positive literature to the crowd adding to the ambience of community, with a spectrum of gender and language represented, where everyone seemed to know everyone.

We were staying with a friend of Sarah’s at the McGill University dorms, and hadn’t sorted out who would sleep where in her room yet. Actually, she hadn’t sorted anything out with security, and I drowsily fought with the poor guy on duty until he let us up. The elevator reeked of vomit and was packed with furniture and party goers, one of which kept asking me through bloodshot eyes what ‘that sound’ was. Gee, I thought, I’m really missing out on college.

When we finally arrived in the wee hours of Saturday morning our host was out like a light and I slept on my coat in the center of the living room floor.

The next night we visited Le Drugstore, a six-story lesbian Wonder of the World outfitted with 5 bars, a restaurant, gambling stations, candy dispensers, pool tables, a patio and the occasional electric blue-wigged drag queen offering free shots of an identical blue hue. Seriously, UNESCO, get on this.

From there we walked over to UNITY, another multi-storied gay club on St. Catherine East which was hosting one of their massive bi-monthly themed parties, Saturday night’s being Jungle. Well, that’s what I gathered from the dress of clubbers, as Rambo and Betty Rubble look-a-like’s passed by the queue to smoke outside. After a mandatory coat-check I was immediately hauled up onto one of several podiums where anyone who wanted could be the star of the party. I swayed awkwardly with an injured knee and gawked at the beautiful sweaty masses of queer people bouncing around beneath me, like some sort of dream.

Eventually I came down and found Sarah, spaced-out, sober and alone, and together we discovered the diverse levels of the club, finally reaching the roof where a crowd of smokers were gathered and we caught sight of Montreal’s illuminated landscape through the hash haze.

Laval

Last night Rosalind sang simple French songs with her guitar by the fire, in a house that seemed loved. Her boyfriend Francois owns it in the suburban city of Laval, just outside of Montreal. He was the first Quebecois sovereigntist I’d ever met, resolute but sincere with a proverbial beard and ponytail. It mystified me how a medical student (albeit on strike) could be the owner of a whole, real house. I had to remind myself that I wasn’t in the States anymore.

Since Sarah returned to college in New York yesterday morning I had no reason to stay in the American ghetto surrounding McGill and instead found a Couch Surfing host, Rosalind Wong, in the working-class immigrant neighborhood beside Little Italy where the streets are lined with Latino and Asian-Canadian restaurants.

It was the beginning of a different kind of trip.

Rosalind has an open, steady stare that’s often interrupted by long bangs she quickly sweeps to the side. She talked about her work at a rape crisis center with a mix of passion and easiness that’s pretty rare, and I marveled at her in my mind in lieu of really listening. Then I asked her about the Quebec student strike and got seriously schooled.

University students in the province have been mobilizing against annual tuition hikes for the past five years, so in February when the Charest government revealed plans to increase tuition fees by 75% over the following five years, the movement in its preparedness responded with a provincial strike and acts of civil disobedience in record-breaking numbers-“300,000 in the streets!” says Francois-making it the largest student strike in North American history.

Today we all joined a solidarity protest of student strikers and supporters on the McGill campus. As we marched around campus I surveyed the energy of the crowd, marked by students shouting enraged calls and hopeful responses. Some spoke of feeling tired of fighting, but there was an undeniable sensibility of certitude fueling the gathering, like they know they’ll win.

Buena Suerte

I spent Tuesday at Quais du Vieux-Port, by accident.

I meant to visit the Chalet du Montreal but took a wrong turn at Place des Arts, got lost in the Quartier Chinois and found myself back in Old Montreal, a small tourist hood lined with souvenir shops, signs for poutine and maple everything sold on photo-ready cobblestone streets. A busker sang Hey Jude in the middle of Plaza Jacques-Cartier and Christian women invited me to a Jesus gathering in broken English. Just east of there by the St. Lawrence River is The Old Port of Montreal which was recently turned into another tourist spot; an Imax theater and shops or something. Following the train tracks to a meadow by the water, I sketched buildings in my book among a mob of loud ducks.

Back at Rosalind’s house that night she was working on ten different political projects plus dinner, bouncing gracefully from one end of the living room to the other in the same sweater she’s worn for three days.

In coming to Montreal, I had no interest in poutine or hockey games, but I couldn’t visit and not try some local weed. Rosalind pointed to her roommate Alejandro’s door. He spoke only Spanish. She spoke English, French, Arabic and Cantonese, their other roommate Sophie spoke French, English and Spanish and I spoke English and Spanish. Their house was like a microcosm of how communication happens in Montreal: somehow.

After a few quick phone calls we boarded the Metro to meet the dealer, and, broke, walked back home on foot for hours. What do you say to your Couch surfing hosts’ roommate you just met and bought drugs with?

Anything. Everything.

Alejandro’s from Aguascalientes, Mexico, tall with shadowy hair and small glasses. After living undocumented in Montreal for two years working as a restaurant’s cleaning guy, he’s getting ready to propose his case to legally stay in the country next week. All I could say was, “Buena suerte.”

We shared a joint in the house’s wintry backyard, overgrown with scandent vines that yield wild red grapes in the summer. A laundry line spangled with cotton underwear tied between tamarack trees hung over our heads like good luck. Alejandro told me about locking up his bike outside the Jean-Talon Metro stop three days ago and losing the key. Our laughter woke up the neighborhood dogs.

 

This morning I crafted a thank-you-and-goodbye letter to Rosalind replete with exclamation points, left it on her desk and walked four blocks south to Montreal’s coolest open-air market, Marche Jean-Talon.

I’m a pretty lazy traveler; my reaction to a new city is to take lonely walks all over it and daydrink in bars, so I made an effort to be a tourist just once to try and bore myself into a calmer state, only the market did nothing to relieve my nerves. The place is a massive whirlwind of edible infinity. I should have daydrank.

At first my eyes immediately went to baskets of berries garnished with petunias almost hot with redness, because so much of the rest of the place was green. Plants, Canadians love their house plants, and vegetables so fresh they were dirty while others looked to be scrubbed clean and finished in shellac, like the cucumbers and green peppers. Samples of avocado, mango and apricot slices spiraling in clockwise circles created a hypnotic effect atop their respective plates, and eggs came in so many sizes I had to pause and wonder what kinds of birds they had come out of. The scent of stinky fromageries clashed with that of neighboring chocolatiers’ and everything else was made of maple. Seriously.

Eventually I retreated from that sensory mess and got lost on the way to Le Republique, a cafe in the Mile End neighborhood of the city. A historically working-class Hasidic Jewish town, it’s long been gentrified by hipsters, punks, queers and students. Like a miniature Brooklyn but with hardly any black people. Montreal is really white.

My following host Sarala lived around there but wasn’t home yet so I wandered around and realized all the cafes had full bars. Sold. The downside is you have to buy food as well, and cheapest at Le Republique is the Caesar salad, like the loser of salads. A huge plate covered in a confetti of iceberg lettuce that’s smothered in mystery dressing and topped with an afterthought of bacon pieces, like an apology. Instead of flowers, say it with bacon! But I did it all for the sangria.

Glass after glass, I kind of fall in love with the place.

 

 

WALKED OUT ONTO SARALA’S BALCONY BECAUSE IT FEELS LIKE I’M GROWING WINGS. I THINK IT’S COLD. FULL MOON ROSE WITH SICKLY HUE. I AM IN BEST MOMENT OF LIFE, FRESH AND PERFECT. I WALK INSIDE, EVERYONE IS ASLEEP. UNDERSTAND EVERYTHING - SUFFERING, ENLIGHTENMENT. THIS IS WHAT I CAME HERE FOR. PACED AROUND THE ROOM AND READ A LOT OF BOOKS. NOW THAT I’M HERE, LIFE IS MORE DANGEROUS, MORE CARELESS, MORE ETHICAL. ASSUME TRUE DESTINY OF LIFE. ROOM SPINS WITH INNUMERABLE VOICES AND MEMORIES!

 

With Pleasure

Sarala has two roommates, and they all brought men home last night. I listened to their music from the couch in the dark, and eventually managed to catch a few hours of sleep after two full days of none. I’m still recovering from the other night’s manic episode.

Everything felt crisp and incredible like being high until an alarm went off somewhere in my chest and I couldn’t breathe a full breath. My world shrank to a few racing thoughts on a loop like a rollercoaster on a single track.

I spent the night like that, pacing the room, trying to breathe, or lying still on the couch with a sheet pulled up to my nose like a kid afraid of monsters, at first resisting the urge then simply unable to call an ambulance. In the morning I stopped trying to sleep and walked outside in a daze.

The next few hours are foggy, but I remember buying an energy drink (of all things) way on the other edge of town. Someone in line for the register spoke to me in French, and the cashier said something too, but I didn’t understand. Totally paranoid, I slammed change on the counter and darted out. Then I realized they had been speaking in English.

It’s all downhill from there.

Overstimulated by the psychoactive effects of that godforsaken drink I went from feeling like a zombie to a zombie on crack. Staggering in circles back to the Mile End I ducked into Drawn and Quarterly, an indie bookshop, where it took hours and a ton of focus to settle on a few Henry Miller, Cesar Aira and Plato books. From there I visited almost every shop of every kind in the neighborhood, leaving possessions in each one and running back and forth to retrieve them in a breathless and frenzied blur.

At night I got stoned with Sarala’s friends until they retreated to their rooms and I passed out on the couch, completely drained.

Have completed first week of April 2012 in one piece, kind of. Slept like the dead for eleven hours on my last Couch Surfing host, Walker’s couch. He’s got a mohawk, an enormous cat (no joke: he walked into a shelter and asked for the fattest, fluffiest cat they had) and a kitschy apartment in the Plateau borough of Montreal.

We drank a lot of wine last night but I didn’t feel a thing. He brought the bottle to a noise music show (it is just as it sounds) at a church renovated into an alternative art space in a far off suburb of the city. We followed a crowd to the basement where a performance was underway by a woman named Ghost Taco.

From her website, “The human body becomes a feedback chamber when you put a microphone in a squishy orifice. You can hear my voice through the mic...There is a LOT of feedback.” Now I can check ‘watching a woman make music by having sex with a microphone’ off my bucket list. After looking around I was relieved that everyone else was also a little giggly, a little into it and totally impressed. Watching her made me feel just a wee less crazy. Won’t be able to top that one for a while.

Before I left the house today, Walker relayed directions to a vegetarian café with slouchy couches, high prices and the heavy aroma of hot coffee in the air, but I opted for a cheap and grimy diner with loud punk rock competing with flat screen TVs playing sports on every wall at full volume. There are no empty seats in the gambling area by the bathroom (it’s 11am) and, of course, there’s a full bar.

To every order I make, the cook/server/bartender responds, “With pleasure!”

“Can you add sausage instead of bacon?”

“With pleasure!”

“Can you scramble my eggs?”

“With pleasure!”

“I’ll have lemon tea, and can you put honey in that?”

“It would be my pleasure!”

His bald head gleams with sweat as he scrambles away with glee, the Zen diner dude of Le Plateau. I sat by a window and caught my reflection - just beginning to look alive again. But not too alive. It’s a narrow shot but riding that wave itself is an art.

On the other side of the glass people pace up and down St. Viateur’s skinny blocks, one man with books in his hands and stains on his shirt, another with white hair and skin-tight red pants walks into a café. Very, very big dogs are in. The sky is overpowering in its muted brightness, with one single cloud-veil obscuring the skyward world.

This is my last day in Montreal.

Ceremony

The familiar New Order song Ceremony plays on repeat in this cafe-bar on Fairmount, one of the last Ian Curtis wrote with Joy Division before he committed suicide and the band continued with a new name and this old song. World will travel, oh so quickly, travel first and lean towards this time. I brood over the lyrics and drink whiskey, like many a Joy Division fan before me. Of course, I had to order a taco to buy the drink, but I don’t trust tacos made by white people so I’m bringing it home to Walker.

I got lost a lot, sometimes on purpose - accidentally through a blackout - wandering down dark alleys and dark residential streets, no lights on save for some moon-shaped streetlamps floating at a distance. Vines grow around everything reminding me of the inevitability of time, how useless it is to try and fight against it. I walk past black balconies, black plants, black cobblestone, winding steel staircases leading to second, third and fourth stories. A small boy reaches his little fingers through the bars of his balcony, saying, “Le ball, le ball.” After handing it to him over the balustrade, a small “merci” is whispered back from the dark. I could actually feel the whiskey seeping into my bloodstream, like when the river joins with the sea.

-Bani Amor

 

Bani Amor is a queer mestiza travel writer, zine-maker and photographer from Brooklyn by way of Ecuador. In 2012 she founded the platform Everywhere All The Time with the aim to "decolonize travel media" and her work focuses on diaspora, international communities of outliers and the intersections between race, place and adventure. Her work has been published in Nowhere Magazine, Word Riot, Bluestockings Magazine and Matador Network, among others outlets. She is a VONA/Voices Fellow. You can follow her on Twitter.

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The Magic of Carpet Rides

Welcome to the Stories of Good series, stories of finding the good with the theme of place: written by writers and readers.

Travel, to me, is not just about getting a plane and going to some far away land. Travel is also when are moved into a new of way of seeing, or when we shift gears and push back into the past. An object can often help us travel deeply.

Here, Shawna Ayoub Ainslie writes about finding the good in memory, in a prayer rug, in resonance, and in a carpet from Lebanon. A travel story about a carpet that transports her to the worlds of magic and faith.


The carpet smelled of soap and my father's aftershave.

I unrolled it in secret while he was at work, stepped onto it with bare feet and handled the remains of his packed earth prayer stone. Some days I sat cross-legged on the rug to imagine the earth falling away beneath me and the land my father came from, a land rich with tile rooftops and family who waved at me from bullet-marked balconies. Some days I knelt on the carpet, my face inches from its silky surface, inhaling his scent and gently tracing the beautiful shapes of an archway above a square building with the tip of one finger. Before rolling it back up, I pressed my forehead against the stone worn down to half its original circle from years of use. My father brought both the blue prayer carpet and the brown stone with him from Lebanon when he arrived in Oklahoma for college years before my birth. Always, I was careful not to disturb the lay of the fibers lest my father realize I had pulled it from the place it waited for him while he worked or slept. The carpet was more than a prized possession; it was a tangible link to the family he was inadvertently exiled from due to the commencement of the Lebanese Civil War. It was also a space dedicated to connection with the Divine.

 

My father is not particularly tall, but in my childhood he seemed a magnificent giant. At the end of each weekday, he would return home to unroll his prayer rug and bend and fold himself over it while muttering paper whispers in supplication to the Divine. He prayed with his hands clapped firmly to the sides of his thighs, elbows locked. He stood, leaned forward, stood again and folded himself neatly on top of his feet, one foot pressed into the bottom of the other. My father was a man of quick temper, but in his prayers, he was never impatient and could not be goaded. I tried many times to distract him, thinking the ritual a game until I was softly reprimanded by my mother, but he would only lift his voice to pray louder. When he stepped on the carpet, he seemed to grow quiet, small and very far away. I wondered if he imagined it flying also, as in cartoons. On that carpet, he was a man of imagination and I was enthralled.

 

Evenings and weekends I hovered outside his bedroom door until I was certain his prayers were begun. Once I heard the “k” of “Allahuakbar”, I slipped into his bedroom. I lay on my stomach on his bed, facing him. His toes were hairy and his heels dry. He wore light blue scrubs to pray, often with the pant legs cuffed to show black curls on his ankles. I watched him move precisely within the confines of the his carpet, inching closer to make out his whispers. I tried to remain quiet, but there was the calm afternoon light through the window and the soft catching of his heels when he stood on the carpet. There was his voice, normally resonant and loud, now as gentle as butterfly wings. And there was a connection--noticeable in his unusually relaxed state--one I would spend more than a decade searching for. I found it when I travelled to Lebanon off the carpet in 2001 and witnessed my father reunited with his family.

 

I was a shy and anxious child. I still have a habit of adhering forcefully to rules regardless of my opinion of their use or efficacy. Yet I found in myself, regarding my father's prayer carpet, desire outweighed fear. I lay prostrate on that carpet day after day when he was not home, once waking to find him standing over me, perplexed. He said simply, “Sweetie, this isn't for sleeping.” I dragged myself away.

 

Eventually, I could no longer bear the separation I felt from the carpet as he stood upon it. It was as though he was transported when he entered its rectangle. I found there was just enough space for me between  the carpet and the end of his bed. I shifted from perpendicular to parallel, mimicking my father’s motions and making paper whispers of my own. I ran to join him in the evenings, anxious when he disappeared to prayer without me noticing. Still, I lingered outside the door until he had begun his ritual to circumvent any chance he might say no and send me outside to play with the neighborhood children.

 

One afternoon, I lingered beyond a prayer's end and my father turned to look at me. His thick eyebrows were like crows diving toward each other. “What are you saying?” he asked. “I noticed you like to pray next to me, and I can hear you making sounds, but what are you saying?”

 

I told him, “Pss pss pss. I say it just like you.”

 

A blankness passed over his face, then my father rocked backward and laughed.

 

I gaped at him, confused but ready to laugh too. My father's laugh starts out like a rumble with a pitch that grows into high, punctuated has. Every time I visit his house, one of my goals is to get him laughing and watch him huddle over his potbelly and shake in delight. It's not difficult. He is quick to laughter. In fact, he's as quick to laughter as he once was to anger, having trained one to replace the other many years ago.

 

“You really think I'm saying, 'pss pss pss'?”

 

I nodded meekly. There were words in his breath, but I couldn't make them out. My mother had taught me breathing was a form a prayer in its meditative qualities. That paper hiss of his whispers was controlled breath to me, periodically embedded with the familiar echo of words I had once known.

 

My father took in my response and laughed longer. “You want to learn to pray?” he asked me. I did. To my surprise, he produced a smaller carpet from my mother's cedar chest and unrolled it on the floor beside his. He took his treasured prayer stone and broke off a corner. He spoke to my mother and she found and altered a slip-on headscarf made from a white pillowcase. I traded my play clothes for clean pajamas as instructed, which I rolled up in my carpet after prayers. I washed my arms, feet and face in the routine he showed me and stood on the tiny rectangle with an image of a mosque woven into it.

 

For a number of days, my father searched for me when it was time to pray. I unrolled my carpet as he unrolled his and went through the motions of prayer beside him. He took care to speak slowly, his voice a dash louder so I could hear the words. As an adult I understand how awkward that felt to him, speaking loudly your private pleas to God. I shaped my mouth to the sounds he made, but I knew I wasn't getting it right.

 

It was a Saturday afternoon when he pulled out the silver mini tape recorder. My father used the white of his thumbnail to open a packet of mini cassette tapes. He set the recorder on the standing ironing board and spoke all the words to the prayer, complete with pauses for different movements. He rewound the tape and handed the recorder to me. “Now you can practice when it's not prayer time,” he said. I stared at the object in wonder. My sisters and I listened to it on the foot of his bed. I placed it on my own prayer carpet and pressed play to find my father’s voice steady and rife with undiscovered meanings. I still prayed with him, but I was now free to indulge my own prayers by tacking on a postscript when I completed the ritual alone.

 

I would rediscover the recording in high school, a decade later, when I began to develop my own religious practice, I remembered how that tape recorder became an extension of my hand. How I once wept in misery when I was certain the prayer had been written over, but it turned out I had forgotten to rewind. I must have memorized the full prayer in a day or two, but I could not stop listening, searching for and attributing hidden meanings. I decided some of the words must be like my  father’s prayers: requests for the safety of his loved ones. Aunts, mother, uncles, cousins, siblings all mentioned to the Divine. My father’s peaceful intonation brought me close enough to touch what he had lost when the Lebanese Civil War began.

 

It was not what he intended. After all, he had given me a carpet as well, but once I had that recording in hand, the use of my own carpet was a forgone conclusion. I took every chance possible to unroll my father's instead, using the intimacy of his humble prayer-voice as an excuse to place my feet in the worn spaces where his belonged and press my forehead into the coolness of the larger stone, trying to hear what he heard and travel where he traveled.

 

Shawna Ayoub Ainslie is an active creator with mothering impulses. She is currently ensorcelled by yarn she hopes to convert into a hooded cowl in order to prevent Jack Frost from nipping at the neck of her toddler. She holds an MFA from Indiana University, and she regularly writes memoir and fiction on issues of race, place and surviving violence at The Honeyed Quill, where she also publishes a series of recipes from her time in Lebanon.
 

They Are Singing in Benin

Welcome to the Stories of Good series. This is curated series of stories submitted by readers and writers: diverse points of view from all over the world on what "good" is and how we find it.  Here, ex-Marine Lydia Davey talks about finding the good in the rituals of daily life, both her own and in the songs of Benin.

I remember the singing most. Out there, among the dust and the chickens and the flies and the lush green jungle and small, carved wooden hippos, and among all those thousands of military uniforms—a hut filled with singing.
— Lydia Davey

 

Each morning, just as dawn was breaking, a big red truck would deposit well water into a tank above the hut. And we would stream in, women white and black, in all sizes and shapes. We would close the doors, turn on the faucets, and let the water flow into large sinks as we used brushes to clear the counters for our shower goods.

 

We would sweep, sweep, sweep away the delicate layer of lace-winged insects that had fluttered to their exhausted deaths the previous night. They were drawn by standing water, we thought, and by the light. At night, the shower hut was one of the only places in miles that had an electric bulb burning.

 

Then, as the equatorial sun lit up the world outside, the singing would begin. The African women sang in French, and in tribal languages – their throaty, powerful voices as strong as their dark bodies. Such contrast, I thought, between them and us. We were pale, silent, and private in our rituals – even in an open room we were private.

 

They, on the other hand, were a frothing, splashing, dancing, laughing bunch. From time to time, one would sing out what must have been a naughty verse, because it would bring forth shrieks of approval from the others.

 

Most of my female counterparts from the Navy, Army and Air Force (I believe I was the only female Marine on the exercise) would quickly enter the room, clean themselves and leave. Some even expressed annoyance at the "noise" made by our African friends. I couldn’t understand that.

 

I stayed longer than the others in the shower hut because I enjoyed the singing, and because my morning ritual involved hair and makeup. I was determined, even though I lived a solid nine hours from the nearest hotel, and even though I knew I would be fairly melted by noon, to maintain my dignity. No matter how hot the day was, or how apathetic I felt, I would layer on the serums, products and colors, because the ritual made me feel human. But more than that – in a world where only five women existed for every 95 males – it made me feel like a woman. The ritual separated me from them.

 

Was I a Marine? Of course; many days I collapsed into my rack, covered in dust, sweat and grime, and stinking of whatever I’d had to crawl through that day, exhausted physically and mentally. But I was a woman too! Red lipstick has a way of persuading people to let you fire the AK-47, the Tokarev and .50 cal. It has a way of opening doors for interviews and photo ops, and for conversations about work, home and humanness that you might not have otherwise.

 

But the men weren’t the only ones who noticed my effort. Those female Benenise soldiers, their presence so large, saw too. And two days before I left the base at Bembereke, one of them approached me.

 

“You ah beautiful!” she said. “Every day…” and she patted her face and pointed to my toiletry bag. She smiled broadly.

 

“Merci!” I said. “I love your singing!”

 

She smiled even wider, her teeth flashing white. She looked back to the beaming community behind her and said a word, then broke into song. She sang a verse, they sang the chorus – or maybe it was the other way around, but they sang.

 

And as I stood there, clad in a tank, shorts and combat boots, my hair wrapped in a towel, I grinned. We were connected, these ladies and I, by a shared appreciation for the effort of beauty – whether through kind words, music, or the determined daily application of red lipstick.

 

And I thought of Maya Angelou’s wise, wise words: "Glamour is profound. Glamour is saying, “I want to be as beautiful as I can be – first to myself, then to anyone else smart enough to see.”

-Lydia Davey

 

Lydia Davey is an entrepreneur, published author, speaker, and media relations pro. She is founder/CEO of Moriah Creatives PR, a fee-only public relations firm that pairs her team's extensive journalistic experience with a strong understanding of the digital landscape to provide small business with fresh, intelligent ways to connect with the with their clients. Lydia served as a Marine sergeant for eight years and deployed to Afghanistan in 2006. She has worked extensively throughout Africa, Asia, and Europe and applies leadership lessons learned in the service to today's small business terrain. Plus, she writes. You can follow her on Twitter @ LMDavey

 

Leave a comment of like or share below. I love it when you do that-and I'm sure Lydia will too. Great story, Lydia. Thank you for sharing your good. AGA

 

Mickey Mouse & Elmo on Climate Change

I am learning to love the questions more than the answers.
— Devi Lockwood

The first guest story on website for the Stories of Good series is by Devi Lockwood, who after recently graduating from Harvard, got a travel fellowship, which she's putting to good use by cycling around the world and asking people about climate change. She shares a story from the beginning of her journey, and discovers that goodness is found in doing the work she loves with joy and compassion.

Sometimes it's not what you're asking, it's how you listen.

Minnie Mouse taps Mickey’s shoulder. “Mira, la chica con el letrero,” she mouths, pointing to the cardboard sign hanging around my neck.

 Mickey saunters towards me in his big, red shoes. The oversized mouse head obscures any suggestion of eyes beneath, so I take a guess and look at what I think is a reasonable human eye-level as we speak.

 “You want a story about climate change?” Mickey growls, a note of incredulity in his voice. His words are muffled slightly through the mask. I nod, point at the audio recorder in my hand and he nods back. I press record.

 “Just you wait,” Mickey breathes, his voice hushed and dark. “This whole thing–– Hollywood, the lights,” he says, gesturing at the block of Times Square that surrounds us, “––is all an illusion. Deep down something is very, very wrong.”

 Though it is after 10pm, it could be daytime for all the illuminated advertisements that hover over our heads like gods. A beacon of light: this America. Janelle Monáe and Windows Play. Gillette Razors and Coca Cola.

 “The water's gonna come and wash all this away,” Mickey continues, his hands waving up and down the tall buildings surrounding us. “The whole coastline of the country will change, this year, even. When it happens, it will set our country back 100 years. There will be wars over water. Just you wait.”

~

 Just this afternoon I left my hometown in the woods of Connecticut to come to New York City for the People’s Climate March. I’m wearing a cardboard sign around my neck as a way to engage with strangers who I would not otherwise have the opportunity to speak with. The sign has the words “tell me a story about climate change” scrawled across its surface in Sharpie on one side, and “tell me a story about water” on the other.

 I glance away from Mickey’s wide-eyed stare to watch a teetering child and his two French-speaking parents approach Batman. The father tries to hand his child over to the unsmiling character for a photo, but the boy starts to wail in fear. Batman leers on, avoiding my eye.

 Elmo approaches and lifts up his red, furry mask to reveal a smiling face beneath. “Tell a story about climate change?” he asks. I can hear the Spanish lilt in his accent. “My English isn’t so good. You speak Spanish?”

 “Sí, se habla español.” I raise a silent thank you to every language teacher I have ever had. 

“Soy de la selva.” I am from the rainforest, he begins. Elmo hails from a small town in Peru at the edge of the trees. He removes the red head completely as he speaks, cradling it at his hip as he unravels the story of deforestation in his hometown: the soil is loose and some drinking water sources have been rendered unsafe and the transport trucks belch dirty air. The logging money that was supposed to benefit the people has somehow funneled elsewhere. I nod and listen and record. It is the only thing I know how to do. We part ways as two children approach to have their photo taken with these icons of American joy. 

 I enter the Times Square subway station with my head full and swimming, trying to imagine the tracks flooded as they were after Hurricane Sandy. Water has filled this area before. Heck, there are pumps running throughout the city even now to keep this underwater tunnel system intact. Mickey’s eerie voice plays again through my head.

 

Deep down something is very, very wrong.

The water’s gonna come.

 

I cut the darkness by giving a warm hello to the man next to me in line where we wait to charge our Metro Cards. He is on his way back from a classic rock concert and asks what my sign is all about.

 “I’m traveling the world for a year to collect stories from people I meet about water and climate change,” I tell him, watching the lines of his face reconfigure to something between incredulity and oh dear goodness why would you do such a thing. Though I have been away from home for less than 24 hours, I am becoming used to this reaction. The line moves forward. It is our turn to use the machines.

 I fumble with my credit card at the kiosk, inserting and removing it too quickly. The now not-so-strange stranger says: “Try it slower. Once again. Even slower. There it is,” and points me in the direction of the outbound train. We part ways and wish each other a good night.

 I tip the man playing bongos at the platform with the change in my pocket and he smiles.

 ~

Out of the corner of my eye I can half-sense when people are reading my sign, giving the words “tell me a story” a first and second thought. Some mouth out the sentence as they furrow their brows. Many look away. I love to watch the facial expressions, the raised eyebrows or half-smile. I pull out my iPhone to check the time and notice that the battery has died. Crap. What stop am I supposed to get off at?

 The subway car is mostly empty but for a teen listening to loud music on headphones and two women sitting side by side, one with her head on the other’s shoulder. A baby sleeps on her mother’s lap. It is getting late.

 A few stops later, the couple exits and one woman tells me: “I couldn’t think of a story about water just now, but I’ll tell my partner one once we get home.” I can’t help but smile. Thanks to the simplicity of a cardboard sign, the stories I hear are only one fraction of the stories that people might be thinking of when they read it. I love the idea of storytelling as activism, of inspiring people to tell stories on these topics to their loved ones or the humans in their immediate vicinity. I am a walking prompt.

 At the next stop a woman with a nametag (“Hello, My Name is Guadalupe”) enters and sits two seats down from me. Guadalupe reads my sign and says: “Honey, you part of the Climate March?”

 “Yes, ma’am.”

 “I just finished up work at the union and we’re fixing to march ourselves. I’m in charge of signing people in,” she says, pride shining through her voice. “And water? We can’t survive without it. Water is all around us. Did you know your body is made up of 80% water?” It’s too loud to record audio, so I listen and remember.

 I have forgotten whether I get off at 145th St or 157th. “Guadalupe,” I ask, “would you mind checking something on your iPhone for me?” We open the map app to check my friend’s address in relation to the subway stop, but the Internet doesn't work underground.

 “I’ve got a son your age, just turned 22 last month,” Guadalupe continues, her hand resting on her phone in case we find some miracle of underground service. “He loves sports. Everything about them. There’s a park by the river in our neighborhood, and he goes there most days. There ain’t a sport he don’t play.”

 Blissfully, the train rolls out above ground for a stop and we deduce from the pixels of the map that I’m getting off at 145th, the same stop as Guadalupe. A few minutes later, we exit the train together and I follow Guadalupe as she expertly weaves through the crowd with speed and precision. She leaves me with a set of directions––“Cross the street, go down the hill, and take a right, honey. That will get you right to where you need to be,”–– and a kiss on the cheek.  

 “You're nicer than most New Yorkers,” I laugh, recalling an episode earlier that day in which I was desperately trying to find a bathroom in midtown, but each place I tried would kick me out. It is surprisingly difficult to pee in the city.  

 “Well, I'm from the Caribbean!” Guadalupe retorts, her body beaming the warmth of elsewhere.

 ~

I don’t think I’ll ever be a New Yorker. I can’t stand walking that fast.

 The kind of work I love is complicated, is a test of endurance, is unfinishable. This project, by design, will never be complete. I am learning to love the questions more than the answers.

 Water and climate change are ideal issues for this kind of inquiry because no single story can encapsulate their entirety. The whole of human experience on these subjects is messy. The whole is slippery, is something that I can’t put my hands on (but I can listen to its pulse).

 Listening is an act of love, and my work is never done.

 

-Devi Lockwood


Devi K. Lockwood is a poet, touring cyclist, and storyteller currently traveling the world with a cardboard sign around her neck to collect stories from people she meets about water and climate change. Her work has been published by Split This RockSinister WisdomVerse WisconsinCicadaClockhouse, and is forthcoming in Adrienne. She is also editing a book-length work of poems, There Are No Straight Lines, inspired by the stories people told her on an 800-mile solo bike trip that she took in 2013 along the Mississippi River Trail. You can follow her travels at www.onebikeoneyear.wordpress.com, on twitter, and on facebook. If you have a climate change story, send it her way.