Short Observations from a Wildlife Preserve

This isn’t meant to be a masterpiece.
It’s just a wee bit of free-writing I did on Thanksgiving while enjoying some solo time. I wanted to remember what I saw as I sat there and, although most people had come for the wildlife, I liked watching the people and recording what I saw as though I were an alien from another planet. The descriptions are vague but I’ve never been big on descriptions to begin with. Feel free to fill in the blanks with your own imagination.
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I found a (relatively) quiet place to write. I’m facing a pond in the middle of a wildlife sanctuary and once in a while another human being will walk by. But mostly it’s just the birds and me.img_1456

Of the few glimpses of humanity I’ve caught while sitting here (so far), there was a family with small children. Then I saw a woman leaving alone with a camera at her side that had a long, telephoto lens. Next I saw a man entering the preserve alone, but no visible camera.

Who’s coming now?

There’s a young couple, newlyweds perhaps. And then an aunt and her nephew (I assume). At first I thought they were mother and son but then I heard the young man say “my mother” as though he were talking to this other woman about his mother. So I’m guessing she’s his aunt.

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An elderly couple just passed by. It’s funny, I’m quite sure these benches were designed for bird watching yet here I am recording far more people sightings than wildlife sightings.

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Twins! I just saw a young couple with twin daughters! They stopped to take a family selfie and then walked on. As I watch them walk away, I think maybe the girls aren’t twins after all. One is shorter than the other. It’s possible I was thrown off by their matching dresses.img_1393

A rabbit hopped right past me! Then it paused for a long moment so I reached for my iPod to take a snapshot of it but as soon as I made a move, it startled and vanished into the bushes. I can still kind of see its cotton tail, but I’m not equipped to photograph it from a distance and maybe it’s better this way. It’s hard to experience the tranquility here when you’re constantly trying to snap a picture. Although I’ll probably come back one of these days with my own high quality camera and telephoto lens. It is a beautiful place.

It’s not quite a wilderness here. I can still hear the sound of traffic neaby.img_1481

Wait. Do I detect French-speakers approaching? Perhaps not. Whatever it was they were speaking from a distance they’d already switched to English as they came closer to me. It still sounded like English with a French accent, though, so I took a risk.

“Français?” I shouted.

I guess that wasn’t the best way to ask if they spoke French. The guy looked at me weird so I switched to English. “Oh, I just wanted to know if you speak French.”

“Oh, no,” he said as he and his family moved on.

What’s wrong with me? Is the radar that I used to have finely tuned to zoom in on the sound of a native French speaker now broken? I could’ve sworn I heard them speak French to their kids when they were further away, or at least the woman spoke it. Now I’m not sure. The embarrassment of it all has confused me.

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Oh, but I would be so happy to speak French on a day like today! Francophones everywhere have to be able to sense that about me.

Pitié pour moi, les Français en Amérique! Je n’habites pas dans le pays de mon cœur!

Ok, now I hear an Asian language of some sort spoken by two young guys who just walked by. I don’t presume to know much about the multitudes of languages and cultures in Asia. A lifetime is not enough to learn all there is of that gigantic continent.

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Look! A father taking his teenage daughter on a photography adventure. I imagine it’s for a high school photography class. She’s holding a partially opened tripod and her dad’s asking her if she wants to shoot toward the setting sun or away from it. The rest of the family has come along as well, but they’re not interfering with the young photographer’s work.

I’ve seen no less than five people toting DSLR cameras today with high quality, long-range lenses. Traditional photography is certainly not dead. Top notch cameras seem to be a popular accessory here on the wildlife preserve.

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A man in an electric wheelchair just rolled by. At first I thought he was alone but then I looked up again and saw that he did have a companion with him. Both were yielding their cameras with fancy, long-range lenses.

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Now they’re all gone and it’s my turn to walk again. The only camera I have with me today is the one on my iPod. But I can’t be a photographer everyday. It’s easy to see why photographers love this place, though. It’s teaming with wildlife and all the creatures are easily accessible. You don’t have to search for them. All you need do is sit quietly for a while and they will come to you. The same is true when people watching, I suppose.

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Time Again

En façade Yann Caradec - Creative Commons license https://www.flickr.com/photos/la_bretagne_a_paris/
En façade
Yann Caradec – Creative Commons license
https://www.flickr.com/photos/la_bretagne_a_paris/

I wrote about time before but the subject continues to fascinate me, especially since I got my hands on James Gleick’s new book, Time Travel: A History. You see, I’m working on my memoir and I’ve come to the realization that my memory kind of sucks (something I’ve written about as well). But, for this particular tale, I’ve got lots of original source material to help me remember. It’s almost like telling someone else’s story much of the time, except I do notice myself smiling at certain aspects of the story or feeling somewhat melancholy because, although I’ve changed quite a bit, I’ll never forget that season of my life – not completely anyway. One of the most important sources was the diary I kept between August 2002 and February 2003; my one true friend, if you will. So I searched within in it for references to time because time is an important theme in my story and rewrote all of them so they’d be more palatable to an audience who has yet to learn the whole story. Here they are. Keep in mind, I was 22, almost 23, when this story took place and these references are in chronological order.

Time is something I can give.

Time can be taken.

Time can be taken from me.

My generation will have its time to shine.

God’s timing is perfect.

You can learn about someone by spending time with them.

Sometimes it’s better to ignore time.

Time is never truly free.

What we do with our time is not always within our control.

Alone time is to be cherished.

Time is precious and can be wasted if we’re not careful.

Time flies.

Our imagination can take us back in time, centuries before we even existed.

Sometimes it feels like the past is crying out to me.

Change takes time.

Time can be lost and, occasionally, found.

Sometimes time feels longer than it actually is.

It’s nice once in a while to slow down and take your time.

I wish I had more time.

I need time to reflect.

I don’t have much time.

It’s time to make new memories!

Where has time gone?

Why does time feel non-existent?

I don’t have enough time to write.

I don’t have enough time.

Sometimes that’s all you have time for.

Scars remain from times when I felt helpless.

Time will end.

Reflecting on Finding God in the Waves

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I might never have heard of Science Mike (Mike McHargue) had I not already been a faithful listener of the RELEVANT Podcast where he’s invited over now and then to help settle debates or make us all smarter in general. That was where I first learned about his book, too: Finding God in the Waves: How I lost my faith and found it again through science.

Right away I knew I needed to read this book.

Of course, I’ve never had a problem reconciling science and faith. After all, my dad’s a man of faith and a man of science. He even has some impressive credentials with his undergraduate degree from MIT where he studied aeronautics and engineering before switching to the left coast and studying engineering and computer science at Stanford. His Ph.D. in computer science comes from a less prestigious university, but the point is, his brain is hardwired for science. I can’t remember a time when our kitchen table didn’t have publications such as Science, Astronomy, ACM, MIT Technology Review, etc. spread across it. On top of that, he’s always admired and respected Carl Sagan and eagerly purchased the box set of Cosmos almost as soon as it came out on DVD (along with such nerd, sci-fi classics as Star Trek the Original Series, The Hellstrom Chronicle, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Contact).

My dad is also a man of faith and when I was growing up, he made sure we all went to church every Sunday. Granted he raised us in the Presbyterian church (PCUSA) which was one of the more “liberal” denominations where women could be ordained as ministers and doubts and questions were not discouraged. He spent many years as an elder or a deacon and frequently taught classes and/or led small groups.

Dad never saw the Bible and science as being at odds with one another because, as he put it, “If you want to learn about science, you read a science textbook. If you want to learn about God, you read the Bible.” He was an evolutionist as well. It wasn’t too much of a strain for him to believe the creation story wasn’t meant to be a literal account of how the world was made. And even now, if there is something he doesn’t know or understand, he isn’t afraid to say “I don’t know” and seek council from someone with more knowledge in the matter.

So when I first began learning about the New Atheist movement and meeting people who took real issue with anyone who claimed to be Christian but also claimed to believe in science, I was taken aback. What was so wrong with calling that which was beyond the realm of science God?

Unlike Mike, science didn’t kill my faith. Nonetheless, I had no trouble identifying with his loss of faith. Of course, my story is quite different and I’ve told it countless times over the years. I don’t think it needs to be told here (not yet at least).

When I publicly renounced my faith in 2006, I wrote an essay explaining why. I didn’t have a blog back then nor had I signed up for any sort of social media service. Instead I sent this to friends and family on my email list. It went something like this:

First and foremost I must send my apologies to the friends and family who strove for so long to guide me and mold me in the faith of their fathers. Although I know you did it with the best intentions, the time has arrived for me to move on, evolve, progress, and change. After careful consideration following years of indoctrination, I have at last come to the conclusion that I can no longer adhere to the old ways. That is to say, I can no longer call myself a Christian. Nor can I embrace any religion the world has to offer me. In the following discourse, I lay out the research and experiences that have led me to this conclusion.

I began my journey very pious in my faith. So much so, that I was certain only my beliefs were true and anything beyond them were of the devil. I observed the world from my comfortable certainty of a blissful afterlife and cried that so many would not be with me. My emotions, backed by a self-proclaimed loving church, drove me to tell others about what I had found, why I was so joyful, so blessed, and how they could be too. It saddened me to think that other religions had deceived their followers. It never occurred to me that I too had been deceived.

The problem was, I was lying even to myself. Truth be told, I had never experienced real joy as my parent church told me I would. Perhaps, I thought, that was coming in the afterlife. But even I couldn’t explain a loving God condemning his own creation to hell simply for not believing. I wondered, too, if that was where I should go.

Overtime I’ve been letting go of this black and white view of life and death. By and large, the people who have been the most caring in my world have been non-Christians. I remained pious as I transitioned from high school to university. That first year away from home I studied at a Christian school, but, as I moved on to a more liberal and secular university system, I came to understand that there was much more apprehension toward Christianity among those with a higher education than those without, sometimes stretching as far as anger.

I remember words of caution from my Christian friends as I told them I was transferring to a non-Christian school. They said my faith would be challenged as never before, so I must be ready to defend it. Don’t trust any source other than the Bible. Avoid taking courses on philosophy or religion at the university. Be well grounded in apologetics. Do not read material that is anti-Christian lest you give the devil a foothold.

That failed to strike me as odd until I began to branch out and encounter people with different faiths, cultures, and worldviews. All of a sudden it struck me that, if my faith were the one, true faith, then it should be able to withstand the onslaught of contradicting ideas. Oddly enough, I had pitied other religious groups for not reading literature that contradicted what they believed solely on the basis that they had been told anything written to bring down their church was bad. Now days I wonder how I ever did that without seeing how greatly I was contradicting myself.

Though my current train of thought can be largely attributed to discussions I’ve had with other people over the course of the past five years, there have been a few books recently that have also played a pivotal roll in shaping my worldview…

Contradictions between Christian churches also led me to dig deeper to unravel the secrets of the book and the religion that has shaped western civilization for nearly two millennia. It always boggled me how a religion that was supposedly peaceful still used words like “spiritual warfare” and “God’s army”. It also boggled me how a religion that was seemingly very attractive to women in the first century C.E. became one of the most oppressive religions the world has known.

I’m not angry for all those years of blind belief. However, the freedom I have now is far greater than the one promised to me by the church I was raised in. Therefore, I encourage everyone, no matter what your creed, to stop and question everything. Next time you partake of a sacrament or rise to sing a hymn, stop and ask yourself why you are doing so. Where did the words come from that you utter so mechanically during a service? If you were not raised in the your faith, would you still believe it?

As I look at world politics and the war on terror, I realize how quickly the world is decreasing in size. We can now contact someone on the other side of the world with the click of a mouse. The flow of information and ideas that we have access to now is unprecedented. I believe that is why fundamentalists are so frantic about guarding their way of life. However, change is on the horizon and no one can stop it.

… I want to thank all of you, because my way of thinking has been so deeply influenced by conversations with others, I can honestly say that there is not one among you who has not taught me something that has aided me in my journey. However, my journey is not over and hopefully neither is yours….

I obviously edited the above statement. I could’ve edited more but it felt so disrespectful to my younger-self to do so. She was really passionate when she wrote this. Of course, that was also a time when my tendency toward self-harm and suicide attempts was at its peak. Perhaps that’s why the following quote from Mike’s book struck me the way it did. He was responding to someone who was very critical of his return to faith and some of the things he’d been saying in public. Perhaps the person criticizing him felt betrayed in a way. Whatever the reason, Mike brought up an important point that I hadn’t thought of before but makes perfect sense to me.

“But if you follow my work, you know I’m not out to convince anyone of anything about God. My work is in response to suffering – there are people for whom the loss of God produces acute pain. Second, you’re right about everything you’ve said. My experience doesn’t prove anything to anyone – not even me.” (p. 139)

Two things stood out for me: the loss of God producing “acute pain” and a religious experience not being reliable proof for anyone, not even for the person who experienced it.

A few months ago I wrote a series of short monologues and one of them was about my desire to talk about Jesus. In the beginning of Mike’s book he writes about being a kind of social outcast (stereotypical “nerd” if you will) as a kid and God being like his friend, someone who was always there who he could talk to about anything.

That was how God was for me, too, especially when I entered my adolescence and didn’t feel like I could talk to my parents about most of the stuff going on inside of me. God was often my only friend and I could actually imagine him holding me while I wept because no one else was ever there to hold me. And this concept of God as my best friend carried over into my young adult years and played a crucial role in my first mental breakdown at age twenty-three, while I was studying abroad in France. Religious experience mixed with mania and psychosis if awfully hard to defend, especially if the experience was so impactful and so beautiful to you that you simply don’t want to chock it all up to some sort of brain malfunction. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

In mid-summer this past summer, I wrote this:

…In fact, to make this easier on all of us, I won’t call myself a “Christian.” It’s not like I belong to a church anyway. Why would I tell you to do something I don’t even do?

Just go ahead and call Jesus my imaginary friend because to talk to someone you can’t see or hear requires a bit of imagination. Call me stupid, irrational, spineless, and childish if you wish but I’ve been trying to cope with being alone for a long time now. It’s not easy when you’ve never quite felt like you belonged anywhere. My closest friends, even my own family, don’t “get” me most of the time. But this Jesus fellow, he gets me. He knows me better than I know myself.

So why don’t you humor me a bit because I don’t have a close friend or a lover anymore. I don’t have someone in my life with whom I feel comfortable enough to share everything. But this Jesus guy, my “imaginary friend” if you will, is all of that and even though I can’t hear an audio voice or feel his physical arms around me when I need someone to comfort me, I still sometimes sense he’s there and it brings me peace.

That’s what I want to talk about, but I won’t because I love having you for a friend and I really don’t want to scare you away.

I did not realize it at the time but much of my “pain” when I abandoned my faith was directly linked to the loss of my best friend and, at times, my only friend: God.

Books fed my doubt when I turned away from my faith. But my return to faith was also fed by literature. I have a tendency to read a book and think the author and I could be best friends. Mike McHargue refers to Donald Miller and Rob Bell, two of the authors who helped me return to faith as well and both of whom I’ve also met. But, unlike Mike, I don’t know how to talk to people I admire when I meet them in real life. With both Bell and Miller I became completely tongue-tied and I think I said something really stupid. I met Rob Bell fairly recently so I can say for a fact that it all went downhill after I mumbled something along the lines of “I don’t know how to talk to celebrities.” But, at least my discomfort and embarrassment made him laugh. If Science Mike ever does a signing here in the Phoenix area, I’ll probably just write a note and hand it to him. It’s so much easier than actually talking.

By the way, I love Mike’s advice for how church people should handle doubt:

“If you’re a Christian who wonders what to do with someone who’s in doubt, consider these words carefully: Love and grace speak loudly. The first and best response to someone whose faith is unraveling is a hug. Apologetics aren’t helpful. Neither are Scripture references. The first thing a hurting person needs is to know they’re not alone.

“My path back to God was paved with grace by those who received my doubt in love.” (p. 119)

Returning to church has been a bit of a challenge for me. No offense to Mike, but I think it’s probably easier if you’re married with children. My quest for a church home is much more difficult when I’m searching alone. And then I have the mental illness thing plaguing me. I once tried to go to seminary but I was too afraid to tell them I had bipolar disorder. I was too afraid to tell them my experience with God was basically dismissed by everyone because it was mixed with mania and psychosis. Hyper-religiosity was the name the psychiatrists gave to it and ever since it happened, my life has been derailed. I was told I couldn’t live and serve in a developing nations if I was taking psyche medicine. I was told most missions or humanitarian organizations would reject me because I’m basically a liability. What a foolish idea to think that I could serve God or even encourage other people to serve God when I’m severely mentally ill!

But I miss being part of a faith community. I suppose I’ll have to drive farther than I’d like to find one but I love Mike McHargue’s list of what a church should be.

“When it comes to finding a congregation you can serve as part of, there are two things you have to look for: a church that is safe and a church that will challenge you. You should find a church that can share or accept your views on evolution, same-sex marriage, social justice, and environmental concerns; that’s part of what makes it safe. Your church should affirm you and accept you exactly as you are, should celebrate how you were made and how you’ve grown, and should tend to your wounds and love you as you heal. But it can’t stop there.

“Your church also has to challenge you to become all you can become. It should comfort you, but it shouldn’t let you get too comfortable. The people of your church should challenge rote thinking and decision making and prompt you to put your ideas into love action – to embody the Gospel with hands made dirty by work in the world. The congregation should empower you to serve the world with grace and to see that world with ever-more-loving eyes.

“I’d go so far as to say it should make you become more like Jesus, but don’t tell anyone I said that.” (p. 223)

Anyway, all this is to say, I thank God for Mike McHargue and I’m so glad he shared his story. I’m going to give my copy away, but not as an evangelical tool. I have more friends who are skeptics than I have friends who are believers but they’ve been handed books and tracts from so many well-meaning religious folk that they just don’t care anymore. They’ve heard hateful words from street-corner preachers and have had door-to-door salesmen hang religious flyers on their doorknobs or ring their doorbells in an attempt to force religious beliefs upon them face-to-face. Therefore, if a skeptic friend wants my copy of this book, he or she need only ask. I have only one copy but I will pay the postage to send this copy anywhere in the world. That’s how important I think it is.

 

 

Dear Old Friend….

My Dear Old Friend,

Do you remember me? We’re still friends, right? Although, I guess that all depends on how you define “friend.”

(above: A mix of mostly my voice from childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood followed by a clip from Matt Marvane’s single “Un coin de paradis”– “I wish you happiness…The perfume of life is so good this day when you’ve found a reason to exist…I wish you happiness….” Matt Marvane (translated by me))

Anyway, I’ve always considered you a friend. Even when I barely knew you I knew I’d do anything for you. I don’t know if you felt the same about me. But who cares? I was happy when you were near and I think I’d still be happy if I could only see you again, even if just for a moment.

Of course, as time went on, our paths diverged. I mean, we started out as equals. We were both in the same year of college after all. But somewhere along the way you managed to harness your gifts and earned respectability while I squandered mine. You boldly chased your dreams while I self-sabotaged. And now here we are, still running the race only you’re so far ahead of me I can’t even see you anymore. Once more, you’ve taken the crowds with you. There’s no one left to cheer me on aside from a few retirees who are really only there because they’re related to me (or maybe they just pity me).

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You know, one of the reasons I decided to live was because I sucked at dying and each failed suicide attempt pushed you further away. The more I relied on you to bandage my wounds, the less you wanted to see me. And even though I really needed a friend, I forgot how to be a friend. I can see that very clearly now. But at the time, my emotions blinded me.

It was when dying consumed my waking thoughts that friends like you began dropping from my life at an unprecedented rate.

Most of you chose simply to stop answering my calls, texts, and emails, hoping I’d take the hint and leave you alone. And after all these years, I’ve actually had the chance to experience being on the other side. I know it’s the easy way out and I’ve done it too, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right way to handle things.

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I may have thought of us as friends, but I could tell in your eyes, I ceased being a friend when the world began to revolve around me and I no longer asked about you. It was before I learned to offer hugs, asking for them instead (can I have a hug?). I needed constant validation. I can’t do this. I’ll never be able to do that. I suck at this. There’s no point in trying anymore. I was so needy that if now-me would’ve met then-me, I’d probably have abandoned me too.

But there was one friend, and only one friend, who ended it right; who cared enough to formally “break-up” with me. She broke up over the phone because she was too far away to do it in person, but we talked for at least an hour. In that time, she told me this was only temporary, a year at most. She loved me, she said. But she was not emotionally capable of handling my self-harm and suicide attempts at the moment. I mean, for God’s sake, I’d been hospitalized twice in one week for drug overdoses! The first of which she’d been there for and she’d witnessed me telling the nurses I wasn’t going to do this again. I’d lied right in front of her – although I’d lied to myself too. I really did believe what I said.

So she said goodbye and of course I cried. Of course I was miserable. I was miserable for a long time but at least I understood. At least she told me how she felt instead of leaving me in the dark as everyone else, including you, had done.

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Fast-forward many years until now and guess what? Many years of talk-therapy and psychiatric medicine have actually helped a lot. Furthermore, it turns out the friend who “broke-up” with me had inadvertently done me a huge favor. She became the voice for all of you and in so doing, she guided me to where I needed to go if I wanted to have any friends at all.

Wasn’t the advent of social media amazing? During the MySpace vs. Facebook wars the word “friend” became a verb and lost much of its original meaning. I kind of wish we had more than one word for “friend” like the French do. When I was in France, I always referred to my “friends” as “amis.” But the French frequently use the word “copin” for “friend” as well. The difference between “amis” and “copins” was simply a matter of how important that person was to you. “Amis” is the stronger term although the French Facebook uses that as well so maybe it too has lost a bit of its meaning in recent years.

Peeking

I have over 200 “friends” on Facebook which isn’t a lot compared to some of those friends’ friends. Some have an upward range of a thousand or more. For the most part, my criteria for “friending” people on Facebook is simple (with a few exceptions). If I’ve met you face to face at least once and I like you, I’ll add you as a friend.

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I remember the early days when I’d receive friend requests from former high school and college mates who I hadn’t seen in years. We’d message one another and catch up a little bit and I’d naively try and arrange miniature reunions with those who lived nearby. But even with my own car and lots of flexibility when it came to time, few people took me up on the offer. Of the two or three people who did, only one still hangs out with me at all. Everyone else just piled on the excuses. Their passiveness sent me one clear message: We’ve moved on. We don’t want you in our lives.

Pixilated-PartyAt least you and many others could use the excuse of distance. We can’t travel across oceans at a moment’s notice. Although it wouldn’t kill us to Skype now and then but I won’t pressure you, lest you prove my fears to be true. (It’s not that you can’t talk with me – it’s that you won’t talk with me)

I almost feel like it’s easier to find someone to date than it is to find a friend in this day and age. I prefer guy-friends most of the time. They’re much less dramatic than us women and they don’t want to waste their time shopping for clothes or doing makeovers. Gay guys are the best because they don’t pose a threat to me and, even if I do develop a little crush on one of them, it’s already quite clear that our relationship will never go beyond the platonic level and I can easily get over such a crush. Straight guys can stay in the friend-zone as long as they’re single, but if they are looking (and not looking for me), it becomes kind of sketchy once they do begin a relationship with someone else. But, if I’m a true friend, I’ll do my best to befriend his significant other too. Usually that’s not hard if he finds a good match to begin with. I’m not referring to a guy who’s at the “best friend” level, mind you. If I met a guy who I considered my best friend and he saw me as his best friend too, I’d definitely want to marry him. But that just hasn’t happened yet, at least not for me.

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Anyway, the point is, I need a friend, a true friend, and they’re so hard to come by these days! You’re as great a friend as you can be from far away but I need to find someone here.

Here’s what I expect in a friend and the kind of friend I aspire to be:

  • First and foremost, a true friend must be honest at all times, even when the truth hurts. Not even a “little white lie” will be tolerated.
  • Someone who lives within a reasonable driving distance and owns a car (this is Phoenix, after all).
  • Someone I can see often and who I look forwarded to seeing.
  • Someone who doesn’t share all the same the same interests as me, but with whom I have enough in common that we can genuinely enjoy our time together.
  • Someone with whom I can laugh uncontrollably but I also feel comfortable enough to cry with.
  • Someone who is secure enough to admit being wrong once in awhile.
  • Someone who may not share the same faith as me but who let’s me talk about my faith sometimes because it’s important to me.
  • Someone who loves me just as am and doesn’t expect me to change but always encourages me to grow.
  • Someone who loves books.
  • Someone who knows how to actively listen.
  • Someone to just be silly with.

The Solo Retreat

I needed to get away and I knew that if I didn’t go now, it would be a long time before the opportunity would arise again. Two nights were all I could afford which meant my solo retreat would have to stay within the boundaries of my state. Luckily, Arizona isn’t all a sizzling, hot desert full of saguaros, prickly pears, rattle snakes, and buzzards. Just a couple hours drive north of Phoenix and I’m at a blissful nine thousand foot elevation, surrounded by pine trees and a cool, mountain breeze. I’m in Flagstaff.

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I’ve been to Flagstaff many times. I used to be intimately familiar with it because I’d gone to school, lived, and worked there when I was younger.

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Solo retreats are a wonderful way to recharge. I’ve had enough practice that each one I take is better than the last. This particular one couldn’t have come at a better time. A week or so prior, I’d had an emotional wakeup call from a rather unexpected source. Ten years ago, I would have let my emotions consume me. But this time I still wept, but I also interpreted this reality check as a sign. My life needed to change, in a big way. And for that, I needed to separate myself from the usual distractions. I needed to be alone.

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There was no plan really. I brought lots of books, magazines, paper and writing utensils. I left the laptop at home and went analog as much as possible. I posted a picture a time or two to Instagram and Facebook, but only when I was in my hotel room where there was Wi-Fi.

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I arrived in Flagstaff on a Sunday. Since it was still a too early to check into my hotel room, I browsed through the untranslated French at Bookmans, choosing a book by Françoise Sagan that had what appeared to be a squashed bug stuck to the title page. I bought the book anyway as well as a copy of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Then I sat down with a frozen coffee drink in the café. By the time I was done it was time to check in.

As soon as my hotel room was ready, I checked in, unpacked a little, and just rested until the sun was low enough in the sky for optimum photography. Besides, I needed a little time to adjust to the altitude.

IMG_4703Around four-thirty, I grabbed my camera and headed downtown. When I arrived, I followed the sound of drumming and shouting to its source: an anti-police protest.

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The protesters were a small but passionate group of young people. I watched them carry their signs chanting, “Black lives matter; Red lives matter; Blue lives murder.” There were no African American protesters but there were Native Americans and sympathetic white people shouting and marching through streets and alley ways. Ironically, they were followed by a few policemen. I’m not sure who they were supposed to be protecting – us or them. I don’t know the stories of the people the protestors seemed to be honoring either. Were they killed by the police too, like so many we’ve been hearing about on the news?

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I’ve never participated in a protest. I remember talking to someone about it when I was studying in France fourteen years ago, though. In France, it seemed like the young people were always protesting something. Protesting was second only to going on strike, it seemed. My French friend and I wondered if protests ever actually made a difference. He didn’t think so. From what he understood, most protests were more like social gatherings or parties anyway. It’s like, let’s all unite under a common hate, make signs, and yell at people because it’s fun. Afterward we’ll have a beer together.

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I went to the bar in the basement of Charlie’s for dinner. It was nice being the only customer and making small talk with the young bartender. But I should’ve known it was too good to last. Two young ladies came in and sat at the bar a little ways from me. They were blond, tipsy, and very pretty. I attempted to talk to them as well and, when that didn’t work, I pulled a book out of my purse and endeavored to read.

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As more people shuffled in, I abandoned the bar and finished my dinner at a nearby table. I must’ve looked like a sight for sore eyes anyway: fat, no makeup, and a scarf on my head to keep sweat from dripping in my eyes. The other people at the bar were, at the very least, a decade younger than me. I imagine when they reach my age, they’ll be married with children and bars such as this will no longer seem appealing.

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As I wandered around town, I’d sometimes overhear the newest generation of university students talking about their assignments or extra-curricular activities. In the poetry section at the bookstore, I witnessed two twenty-something ladies fan-girl over dead poets. They exuded a such a raw, youthful passion the likes of which I’d not seen since I was their age. One of the girls talked about lining her bookshelves with beautiful, vintage editions of the timeless works of great poets.

IMG_4922The next day I decided to I needed to see dinosaur tracks and headed north on 89A toward Tuba City and Page. I’d read about the tracks in Phoenix Magazine but I didn’t expect the road to feel quite so long. Most of the drive was through the Navajo Reservation and, aside from the occasional Navajo jewelry vendors, there weren’t many places to stop along the way. So I listened to my Voyage Imaginaire playlist with its 283 songs about journeys, destinations, home or being foreign. I also squeezed in a few songs to help me imagine I’m already far from here. Sometimes I tell myself it’s too long for a single playlist, and yet it sustained all the way there and back.

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The dinosaur tracks were pretty amazing. It remind me of my brief obsession with paleontology when I was a kid, before Jurassic Park was even a thing. I asked my guide if there was anything in traditional Navajo beliefs to explain dinosaurs and she said they don’t even have a word for dinosaur in her language (I think she said the elders used to call it “giant bird” or something like that). But she’d lived on that part of the Res her whole life. The fossilized footprints were kind of like her backyard where she played as a little girl.

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I had no clue where to go next but the day was still young so I just followed the signs to Page. Lake Powell, Glen Canyon and the dam were major tourist attractions, especially for international tourists.

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On my way out, I stopped to see Horseshoe Bend, a 1.4 mile round trip hike overflowing with international tourists. I heard, among other languages, German, Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch, but the most pleasant sound for me was French. I spent a lot of time simply eaves-dropping on French conversations. But I couldn’t find the courage to interrupt the French. I’d been listening to French music in the car and still knew how to speak it well. I just didn’t feel like I fit in around so many attractive people. I thought of a time when I wasn’t fat and dining with Europeans. I remember how they’d make fun of fat people, especially fat Americans. It didn’t bother me then because I wasn’t the object of ridicule. But now I’m acutely aware of what I’ve become. I am the negative American stereotype, the person I never dreamed I’d become. Couple that with the scarf I wore on my head to keep the sweat out of my eyes, my lack of makeup (also due to sweating issues), and the adult acne that had broken out all over my lower face. If you knew nothing about me but what you saw, you might not feel inclined to talk with me either.

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I did speak to one French guy. I asked him in English how the view was from where he was standing and he silently signaled that he didn’t understand so I switched languages and suddenly he was no longer mute. He had lots to say, so long as it was in his own language.

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But our small talk was brief. He’d come with family. All the international tourists had come with family, or, at the very least, friends. The point is, no one came alone. As far as I could see, I was the only solitary tourist which also robbed me of my desire to strike up conversations with strangers. Each person already had with them the only person or people they cared to talk with. No need to have a superficial friendship with an American, especially a weird-looking, fat, thirty-six-year-old, unmarried, woman like me.

IMG_5014Maybe I’m projecting but I don’t think so. I’m very observant. It is what it is and, though I can’t change everything about me, I can lose weight and find a good dermatologist to help me with my face. It’s just going to take time and it’s not going to be easy. (More on this later.)

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Back in Flagstaff, I headed to the grocery store to score a picnic dinner. I remember when it used to be called New Frontiers. Now it’s part of the Whole Foods corporation. That didn’t bother me so much as the entire “village” that’s been built up around it. The fancy new apartments built above high-end retail chains are still looking for tenants. But what kind of people would want to live there? I know people who’ve lived in Flagstaff for most (if not all) their lives and they’d probably find this sort of thing appalling. Even the “village” street names attempt to give the new place a kind of “Old World” feel like “Piccadilly,” “Regent,” or “Cambridge.” It’s like they’re trying to make a miniature Europe except European villages derive their charm from their distinct personalities built over time. The people who own and work in the shops are the ones living above them. McDonald’s may be in cities the world over, but the village should not be defined by multi-national corporations.

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Tuesday I drove to Lake Mary hoping to snap some photos but it turned out I needed a permit to park my car there. So I turned around and headed to Sedona by way of Oak Creek Canyon where I also hoped to find photo ops, but I couldn’t seem to find a place to park my car for free there either. It was all national forest land and almost everything the government didn’t owned was privately owned.

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I wondered what happened to the commons. Is there anything that isn’t “owned” by anyone anymore? Then again, maybe it’s better this way. Nature’s worst enemy is man.

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Finally I found free parking near the most popular, touristy street in Sedona. I switched to a longer lens for this one. By the way, you wouldn’t believe how many people I saw with SLR cameras while I was away! There may be a camera on every smart phone but the more sophisticated amateur photography is far from dead.

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From Sedona I went to Jerome where there were more tourists, only in this case they were mostly Americans. Storm clouds followed me there, but I didn’t mind. Give me a cloudy day over a sunny day any day. Besides, in a place like Jerome, clouds only enhance beauty and mystery.

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The clouds followed me all the way home. There was a little rain as drove through Prescott Valley but mostly the sky was amazing. I had to pull over to the side of the road a couple of times just to capture the clouds. I wish I’d have caught some lightening as well, but lightening never seems to cooperate with me. I’ve seen some brilliant photographs of lightening by professionals, but I have yet to figure out how they do it. It can’t be sheer luck each time.

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Then I came home.

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The Background Character

 

My first day at Phoenix Comicon this year I photographed a young girl cosplaying as a “background character.” Her friends had much more elaborate costumes but she basically dressed as a normal kid, the only difference was the cardboard sign she wore around her neck with the words “I’m cosplaying as a background character,” or something like that. I took the picture quick and as soon as I finished, she ran toward her friends all excited that someone actually wanted to take her picture. Background characters aren’t used to getting the attention.

When I came home that evening, I was saddened to find many of my pictures from that day were out-of-focus, including hers. I brought my camera with me again the next day, only this time I attached it to my monopod and set it to auto-focus. But that background character was nowhere to be found, as though she’d faded back into the background where she belonged.

If I ever had a role on stage or screen, I’d probably be assigned to the background as well. After all, I watch more TV and movies than I care to admit. I know what a leading lady looks like and I’m just not leading lady material. A leading lady is slender and occasionally well-toned. Her skin is clear, she has high cheekbones, a delicate smile, and, when paired with the leading man, is physically smaller.

I don’t look like that and wouldn’t even if I figured out how to lose this cumbersome weight I carry with me. So the only role I’d be eligible for would be the background character, nothing more than living scenery, the backdrop for a more important scene written for a more important character.

At Comicon, cosplayers compete for the spotlight with their elaborate and clever costumes. If your cosplay happens to be the winning combination, you’ll hardly be able to walk two feet without someone running up to you with a camera and asking for a picture with you. That in itself is an unofficial competition: Who’s going to have the most demands for a photograph?

A step above the beautiful unknowns dressed in cosplay are the invited guests, the celebrities who’ve already gained fame and fortune on TV or film and now sit at a booth while hundreds, maybe thousands, of fans queue up for an autograph or photo that they already paid a small fortune for. Of course, the fans insist it’s worth the price. And who am I to argue? You should see them gleefully admiring their celebrity photos and autographs after all is said and done! Some of them will tell you how a certain actor, when in character, has changed their lives. I realize this is hero worship. They even call the room they’re in “The Hall of Heroes.” But why are we worshipping actors? I don’t understand.

I went to Comicon alone. I always go alone. Occasionally I’ll meet up with someone I know once I’m there, but that wasn’t the case this year and that’s fine. It’s a difficult place to hang out with people since it’s so easy to get lost in the crowd. Besides, when I’m taking pictures it’s really best if I’m alone. Photography tends to hold things up. Several times people paused when they saw my camera and waited until I was done so as not to interfere with the scene. Those were usually crowd scenes though and for me, it would’ve been best if people kept walking as though I weren’t there. But how do I convey that? They’re just trying to be polite. I’m trying to take a candid photo. People are much more honest when they don’t realize they’re being photographed.

The light rail was an excellent mode of transportation. I rode from the end of the line in Mesa to the convention center on Washington in Phoenix. It was a popular way to travel to the con since parking was free there and a regular all-day pass was just $4. Sometimes there’d be standing-room-only, but most of the time I could sit and chat with other comiconers. It made the commute go quicker as we exchanged Comicon stories and advice.

I must admit, my mood disorder did manifest itself a time or two, but I don’t think anyone noticed. I’m pretty good at catching those inconvenient tears nowadays, even if they do seem to be triggered by very minor things. I saw a few others with tears too, but they tended to come from folks much younger than me who weren’t wandering alone, so I didn’t need to reach out to them. I can’t justify tears at my age, though. I mean, unless someone just died, I pretty much have to run away and hope I make it to a place where I can be alone before anyone notices. A few deep breaths later and the tears will be gone, although the sadness tends to linger.

That’s when I analyze the situation. When was the last time I had something to eat? If it’s been a while, I grab lunch or something. Afterwards, if the feeling remains, I’ll have a notebook and pen with me so I’ll just find a place to sit where there’s air conditioning which, during Comicon, is most likely going to be on the floor against a wall somewhere. But that’s okay.

Most of the people I meet at Comicon are super friendly and sometimes introduce me to new fandoms. The artists impress me the most because I couldn’t draw to save my life. I have yet to comprehend anime or manga but I will say that those who are into it tend to love anything Japanese so if that’s the gateway drug to another culture, then I’m one-hundred percent for it. It’s also pretty amazing when cosplayers have a new take on an old character or are able to meld two characters into one cosplay. I still feel sorry for anyone wearing a fuzzy costume, though. The heat in Phoenix this weekend was killer, although, as far as I know, nobody actually died.

I especially loved the guest authors, at least the ones I either heard at a panel or met at the “drinks with writers” event. I’m pretty sure they answered all my questions and they were very gracious and humble in doing so.

I can’t wait to return next year.

Did I Predict My Own Future?

RM99_3I wrote this in my diary on March 22, 1999, two months shy of my high school graduation. I was 19-years-old. Now, more than 17 years later, it’s eery how much this entry mirrors my current situation. It’s a little frightening too because it begs the question: is this all I was ever meant for? And yet the very last line takes it a step further exploring whether or not my lot in life is unique or is there someone, somewhere who might truly understand me.

This book has come to be a great consolation to me. When something is heavily burdening me, I’ve come here to talk to God, myself, and to think. Here is a place where my words are truly mine and no one else’s. I’m not judged in any way nor interrupted. I’m at peace and I very much wish I’d taken the time to fill in the empty days. There are so many memories worth sharing! I only wish I’d taken the time to write them. My life is not that hectic.

A rather disturbing feeling of laziness has fallen upon me. I want to leap up and run, but I seem to lack the energy. I suffer from no illness so I’ve concluded it’s entirely in my head.

I’ve also found myself annoyed at almost everyone who’s attempted to talk to me. This is anything but a Christian attitude and I’m frustrated with the fact that I cannot find its source.

This is all very hard for me. I constantly struggle to find my self-worth while I listen to praises from [my boyfriend] and my parents. I’m so scared to suddenly be thrust out into the “real world” and not have a single ability to survive on; to find every man I think I’m in love with turns out to be “Mr. Wrong;” to be alone with no best friends, no husband, no future.

I’m not a born-leader. I make too many mistakes. I fall short somehow in almost everything I attempt.

This is enough! Dwelling on my faults is making me depressed. I must pray and listen to what God has to say. These fears will subside [after while], I know. But they won’t go away permanently. I wonder, am I the only one who feels this way?

Dear World

 

The-WorldDear world,

Well, I gave it my best shot. I tried doing things the way you wanted me to. I put God on the back-burner because you said only people without a backbone still believe in him and I sought comfort elsewhere.

Honestly, I really just wanted to be accepted so it’s not like you had to work hard to persuade me. You basically left me with two options: be like my parents and have the people I want to be friends with most hate me, or be like my friends, laughing with them when they poked fun of my conservative, right-wing, religious upbringing.

What a waste of time! Every bit of it turned out to be nothing more than a horrible game and I had no choice. All the odds were stacked against me from the start. I had no chance. No chance at all.

How do they do it, those people I so admire, the underdogs who bootstrap their way out of poverty and shame and rise to wealth and admiration? I’ve been trying to figure it out by reading business and self-help books, biographies and autobiographies. I’ve watched TED talks and gone to classes and workshops meant to help you navigate the road to success. But for some reason I keep screwing up. I keep saying the wrong things and buckling under pressure. I forfeit my chances before anyone can even give me a chance. When I walk into a room full of strangers, I’m convinced the word “loser” can be seen visibly spelled out across my forehead.

– What have you done in life, idiot? Why are you mingling with us “normal” folk? Go back to the funny farm. No one’s going to take you seriously here. You’re un-dateable, un-employable, and un-loveable. Stop pretending you’re anything more.

I hear those words over and over again. They torment me every time I try and say something of substance and no one shows me they’re listening. I’m the only one who hears what I have to say. It’s my own voice echoing off the walls.

World, you are my biggest adversary. God knows you’ve been trying to strike me down almost my entire life. Yet here I am. My heart’s still beating and even though I’m tired and don’t always feel like getting out of bed to face you, I keep going.

I’m alive and I’ll stay alive because I don’t believe the things you tell me anymore. That room full of strangers is still painful for me but then I step outside for a breath of fresh air and meet someone else who’s been just as hurt as me. We talk. Our stories aren’t exactly the same but we somehow understand one another. We become friends and suddenly comprehend how tragic it would be to see the other person’s life end too soon. My new friend is a kind of reflection of me, not a clone, but a unique work of art. Someone the world cannot do without.

That friend who is as broken as me knows how to change the world. She began with one person. When I see the light in her eyes, I know that God still exists and there’s no point in trying to be like the world any longer. Now I have the courage to be the change I want to see in the world.

The Meanings of Songs

 

IMG_0913Fourteen years ago I was traveling solo on an old train in France. I can’t remember if I was going somewhere new or returning to a familiar place but I do remember sitting near another solo traveler, a young man. He was listening to headphones and I could hear a little of the hip-hop beat just sitting across from him.

So I got his attention and asked him in my broken French what he was listening to. He removed his headphones and held them out to me so I could hear for myself.

I knew this genre of music and I wasn’t a huge fan. Not that I had any complaints about the style. It was just the lyrics that made me cringe. They were in English and full of racial slurs, f-bombs, objectification of women, and violence. I was disgusted.

After a minute or two, I handed back his headphones and tried to be diplomatic.

“Do you understand the lyrics?” I asked him.

“No.”

“But you still like it? Why? Some of the things said in here are really mean.”

“I don’t know. I just do. It’s cool, you know? I don’t need to know what the song’s about to like it.”

I didn’t quite understand this point of view even though I’d come across it a couple of times before. In fact, it was 2002 and a year earlier, I’d begun collecting those Putumayo CD’s they used to sell at coffee shops. One of my favorites was a collection of songs called Arabic Groove. All those songs, of course, were in Arabic and I guess I was a hypocrite because it didn’t bother me much to listen to and not understand those songs. The CD insert may not have had a word for word translation of the lyrics, but at least it had a description of each song. After all, this brand was marketed to people like me who didn’t speak Arabic.

French music and even Spanish music have been highly effective language-learning tools for me. The year before I studied abroad, one of the international students from France lent me his French CDs and even went to the trouble of printing out the lyrics to every single song for me. Moreover, listening to Notre dame de Paris by Richard Cocciante and Luc Plamondon and watching it on DVD with and without subtitles (over and over again) helped my language-learning immensely.

Of course, now that I speak and understand French, I listen to French music about as often as I listen to music in my own language. Occasionally I’ll include some Spanish music in the mix because I took four semesters of it at the community college and it’s a common enough language in the Southwest that it almost seems wrong not to. But other languages still kind of elude me.

Then again, music is far more than words. Music conveys emotion in a way that nothing else can. Jaime Tworkowski, founder of To Write Love On Her Arms said in an interview back in 2013:

“Music has the unique ability to be honest, and I think it invites us to do the same. There are words we sing in songs that we would have trouble saying in conversation. Music says it’s okay to be human, okay to ask questions, okay to feel things deeply.”

Singer/songwriter Jon Foreman wrote in 2012 piece called Music Lessons:

“In many ways, my life lessons have been music lessons: the song has taught me how to live and life has taught me how to sing.”

After I wrote the first draft of my memoir last year, I began compiling a memoir playlist of songs that meant different things to me at different times in my life. Each song became a part of the emotion of a particular moment, but much more so than a simple soundtrack. The words were inextricably as important as the melody. So each song is a key to the time-capsule of my memory. Play it and the past will flow through me along with all the happiness and despair it contains.

Below are seven songs from my playlist. I capped out at 156 songs in the end beginning with my adolescence all the way to age 35. I like to say my taste in music improved with age but at the same time, I don’t want to betray the younger version of me by denying the fact that she connected with Disney songs and contemporary Christian music.

So here they are. I won’t tell the story that goes with each song here, but I will tell you how old I was when it had the biggest impact on me and where I was living at the time.

18 years old – Listening to my discman while walking home from high school after a bad day.

 

20 years old – Transitioning from a private Christian university to Northern Arizona University and trying very hard to remind myself why I needed to keep my faith.

 

22 years old – This song is forever linked with my time studying in France. It was on the radio a lot so it was impossible not to hear it but I also liked the mixture of my language with the language I was learning.

 

24 years old – back at my parents’ house. All I wanted to do was fly, somewhere, anywhere….

26 years old – living on my own in Phoenix; lost, broken, and wanting to die.

31 years old – I moved back home again and had only just rediscovered my faith.

 

34 years old – A very emotional year and the last time I had to be hospitalized.

Disappearing from the Crowd

 

AwayI can’t really remember it. I only know it happened because a younger version of me reminded me of it. Besides, I know what I was like back then. I know how unsure of myself I felt when I was in a crowd. Occasionally I’d pretend I was bold and perform for the crowd by singing a song or speaking my thoughts aloud, even if they sounded better in my head. But the crowd’s lack of enthusiasm always forced me back into my shell.

That’s not entirely true. Occasionally my singing would win over one or two people, enough to make me not give up on it entirely. I mean, I even wrote a high school essay about how I walked home feeling particularly sad one day and, in passing my old elementary school, one of the old 6th grade teachers saw me and said hi. He couldn’t remember my name, of course, but he remembered that I was from Texas and that I could sing. And then in a flash my mood switched from depressed to hopeful. If my voice left such a lasting impression on him…never mind.

But like any gift, there were people who loved it and people who just didn’t care. And the apathetic ones had the greatest power over me.

In group situations where I felt overwhelmed or embarrassed or simply unwanted, I would often succumb to the urge to disappear. And why not? If I truly believed that my presence was a hindrance to the happiness of the group, wasn’t I doing us all a favor by simply fading away?

It’s hard to remember that many specific instances, probably because they happened so often that they all kind of bleed together as one. At church camp in Texas, when I was about 10, I followed the girls in my cabin on a raid of the boys’ side of the cabin. Armed with pillows, we pounded at the door but the only guys in the cabin were counselors and they decided to roll down the windows and call for help. I got scared and slipped into our side of the cabin and under the bed before anyone noticed. The rest of the girls received a stern lecture and only once after several minutes did a counselor ask where I was. The other girls weren’t sure but at least one replied that I was probably in the bathroom and it was left at that. When the coast was clear I finally crawled out from my hiding place, eyes red from tears. I wasn’t a rule-breaker by nature and that emotion, the thing that made me hide in terror, was the reason why. That situation was supposed to be fun and we had the indirect support of our own counselors, but it didn’t matter. Pillow-fighting was, apparently, nothing less than criminal behavior.

Fast-forward four or five years and I’m at a local water park in Arizona with a friend’s church group. It’s night time and the only one or two people I know have gone off on their own adventure, leaving me behind. I wander around the park and take on a couple of water slides alone until all my joy fades. Then I just walk around in the dark, sad and alone. The church has rented out the venue. There are groups of kids laughing and splashing water at each all around. But they don’t see me. No one sees me. I wonder if I’ve finally learned how to become invisible.

When it’s finally time to leave, I see the two people I knew, the ones I call “friends” and we greet one another. But they don’t seem to understand this loneliness I’ve been carrying with me. I choose not to tell them either. Why should I ruin their evening by guilt-tripping them into acting like friends? The pain is probably all I deserve anyway.

The only other instance I remember with clarity happened during my 10-week tour with the Continentals in 1998. I felt so deeply misunderstood that summer and yet in the last days of the tour, I’d learn from more than one person that this was largely my fault. It was obvious to my tour companions that something was bothering me but since I was unwilling to talk about it, there was nothing they could do to help.

Most of the people on that tour fell into one click or another and only a couple of us were more or less outcasts. And maybe it was wrong to think like this, but I felt like if my only companion was the other outcast or no one at all, then I would much rather be alone. It was more painful for me to fake a friendship than to have no friends at all.

That tour is a story in and of itself, but when I heard the recording I transcribed the other day (from April 2003), I had to completely take a step back. What do I still remember from that day I that I remembered 13 years ago but not now?

The 2001-’02 school year was kind of a year of celebration, at least for the international students and everyone I lived with. Among our many causes for celebration were birthdays which included door-decorating, homemade cards, a favorite alcoholic beverage, and, occasionally, gifts and a small gathering of friends.

For my birthday, the French guys and the English guy came together and bought me a copy of Bilbo le Hobbit so as to encourage me in both my French and Tolkien studies. They gave me a card too. I also received a pair of “chirping cicadas” as a gift from the guy from South France. The French girl made me a card written (mostly) in French. The Swiss girl bought me some “Hooch.” My roommates made me a Lord of the Rings – themed card and I think we had a small party. Yet, in the midst of it all, I decided to step outside and wander off for a bit.

It was dark but the darkness didn’t frighten me back then and I’m sure I thought my absence would go largely unnoticed, despite the fact the party was for me. And even without a perfect memory, I can play out the scene quite well.

I know I stepped out of that room feeling useless and unwanted. I know I somehow believed that regardless of where I was or what I did, it didn’t matter to anyone there. When at last one of the girls finally came looking for me, I’m sure I told her no more than a half-truth. I’m sure I thought that my excuse for leaving would make no sense to her or anyone else.

Often time I attended the French chatters’ group in Flagstaff, despite the fact that my French was so feeble back then I’d usually be forced to remain silent the whole time. But I still thought the exposure was good for me and I was even able to persuade some of the French students to come along now and then, so we could have a few native speakers in the mix.

Blaise came once on a night when none of the others could make it. I hadn’t expected him to actually come. Serge and Amélie were much more likely to join but neither of them were there last night. Just him, a couple of French professors, and some community members.

He bought me a drink, another rarity for him. I knew he had a girlfriend so I never expected him to act very chivalrous with me. We chatted for a bit in English before the French group officially began then, when gathered at a table and everyone was in French-speaking mode, I began to zone out and the urge to depart took over.

I started to rise from my spot as discretely as possible but I hadn’t quite achieved invisibility because Blaise notice me and asked me where I was going. I felt a little teary-eyed but hoped he wouldn’t notice.

I’m going home. I said.

Why? Is everything ok?

I’m fine. I lied. I just feel like going home, that’s all.

Wait! I will walk with you.

No, I don’t need you to walk me. I like to walk alone. I’ll be fine. I lied again.

There was nothing to fear from walking home alone at night in 2002. Even before I owned a cell phone, the city was well-lit and there were enough people on the streets to keep me feeling safe all the way from downtown to my dorm. The only person who posed a danger to me was me.