The Solo Retreat: L.A. Edition

I love long drives and it had been a while since my last solo retreat so I decided to go someplace different this time. I decided to drive to Los Angeles, California, the heart of the TV and film industry and, coincidentally, only about a 7 or 8 hour drive from home. I only had two goals when I arrived: to visit the ocean and The Museum of Broken Relationships in Hollywood.

My reservations were for The Santa Monica Motel in Santa Monica. It wasn’t a particularly fancy place but I was on a very tight budget so it was the best I could do. Besides, I wanted something near the beach, preferably Venice Beach because it was listed on Discover Los Angeles dot com as the best beach for people-watching. But Santa Monica would have to do.

This wasn’t a vacation. I hoped to have time and solitude for prayer and introspection but I also hoped to learn something new. I just wasn’t entirely sure what I’d learn and, for me, that was part of the fun.

The desert as a landscape easily gives way to contemplation. Desert Center, for example, was almost a ghost town. I was the only tourist that day which made the landscape seem all the more alien. But I still chose to walk along that dusty main road and take pictures of abandoned buildings and decapitated palm trees. I might’ve ventured further but the “Keep Out” and “No Trespassing” signs managed to deter me. I’ve never been much of a rule-breaker.

Further down the I-10, I made it a point to stop for the famous Dinosaurs of Cabazon which I’d seen from the road many times but never up close. There was a gift shop inside the brontosaurus (the incorrect word I’d learned in my childhood but most certainly was still used when these were built). When I went in and I was the only customer. The young 20-year-old girl working there seemed bored and starved for conversation. So I chatted with her for a bit as I picked out postcards and cheap dinosaur figurines. I told her about my what I liked to photograph and she told me about the photography class she took at her high school. Then we talked about travel and college. She was sweet but seemed even more naïve than I was at her age and that’s saying quite a lot. But at least she’ll be able to tell the next generation about the time she worked inside a giant dinosaur.

Back on the road, I thought a lot about all the crosses I passed. I see them in the city as well but for some reason the ones along the desert part of the I-10 baffled me. I think it was because they seemed so inaccessible. Driving at 65 mph or more there was no way to gather more than a mere glimpse. It was enough time to know someone died there but nothing more and it irked me. Who were they? Who chose to commemorate them with a cross? Was it a family member, a friend, or maybe some stranger who’d been at the scene? If there were fresh flowers, who’d traveled all that way to lay them there and why? What are we supposed to remember about them anyway? Is it important to know where they died? Wouldn’t it be better to know how they lived? Would it help us to know their names, stories, favorite songs or who they hoped to be? And why does this bother me so?

I saw more and more luxury vehicles the closer I came to Santa Monica. Shiny Mercedes, Porches, Priuses, and Jaguars began to surround me. But it all made sense once I realized that many of them were exiting at Beverly Hills. Then I started to wonder who might be driving them. Was it someone I’d recognize from film or TV? Could it be a celebrity I admired or had a crush on but who would inevitably leave me tongue-tied were we to actually meet in person?

When I checked in at my motel, I asked the guy at the front desk how far we were from the ocean and he told me it was a 12-minute walk from there so I quickly dropped everything off in my room, grabbed my jacket, my camera, and the tripod, and hastened to the beach to capture the sunset.

I held nothing back as an amateur photographer. I let myself look foolish in every way except when talking to strangers. This would not be a night for asking strangers if I could take their pictures. But there were beautiful, athletic people all around me, running and cycling. There was even a kind of outdoor gymnasium for acrobats or gymnasts or something, complete with rings and high bars and slack-lining. I thought of my own frumpy, out-of-shape body and felt more like an outsider than ever. But at least this time I could call myself a “tourist” and my awkwardness would make some sense.

I hung around a little past sunset to capture the carnival lights on the boardwalk and then wandered home. As I walked, I couldn’t help but notice the prevalence of homelessness right in front of me. But it was dark and I was too fatigued to wrap my mind around the crises of homelessness yet.

Friday was my only full day in L.A. and I’d printed out directions from the motel to The Museum of Broken Relationships before I left Arizona. The museum itself, however, wasn’t open until 11 so I headed down the road to Venice Beach and began photographing and filming the surfers. I could tell these surfers were passionate about their sport. It was inspiring to watch as they waited patiently for just the right wave. Sometimes the  waiting  seemed to take forever until at last one or two surfers would stand and ride a wave for 2, maybe 3, minutes tops. The wetsuits they wore protected them from the chill of the Pacific but once they returned to the beach, I’d see them shiver. As an outsider, my temptation is to ask, was it worth it? But these surfing addicts tell me in no uncertain terms that it’s totally worth it. The waves are quite possibly their greatest love.

I only had a couple hours to spend on Venice Beach, so I walked quickly, but I also made frequent photo-stops. On the peer I saw the occasional body resting beneath worn blankets. The coast can be a chilling place to sleep, especially at night. I wonder how long I’d last in such conditions.

The fishermen were gathered at the end of the pier as were the sea birds.

Venice Beach was obviously a dog-friendly area and many of the dogs were full-bred pedigrees. Their owners doted over them as though they were their children. Both owners and dogs were well-groomed and well-mannered. Dog people sometimes seemed to outnumber ordinary people so no one felt compelled to stop and say, “Oh! Your dog’s so cute! Can I pet him?” But try walking a cat and it’s a completely different story. Suddenly all the attention is focused on you and your furry feline and everyone has questions. Everyone wants to take a picture.

Next stop: Hollywood.

I can’t remember where I’d first heard of The Museum of Broken Relationships. I want to say that Post Secret posted something about it on their Facebook page back when the museum opened about a year ago. After that, I immediately started following them on Instagram and kind of fell in love. But let’s face it, they had me at the word broken.

It’s expected for us to celebrate success in life. Most awards are given to people who have achieved something. We celebrate what we build, not what falls apart. We celebrate what we repair, not what we break. But I think what we often forget is that much of what we create is built on and from the rubble of failure and brokenness.

The museum was a little underwhelming to me, but I blame myself for that. I’d built it up so much in my mind that it was almost destined to disappoint. What I loved most about the museum, though, were the stories. There’d be an object (or a series of objects) and then a story to accompany them. The objects were meaningless by themselves. But with a story to go with them, they became exceedingly more valuable. I kind of wished I hadn’t shredded my ex’s old letters and pawned the engagement ring now because they would’ve been worthy donations (so long as he remained anonymous). But there was no museum like this back then.

Also, although most of the “broken relationships” on display were between two people who were in love, there were a few that fit in the “family” or even the “friendship” realm as well as breakups with religions, faiths, or ideologies. The heart and soul of the museum, however, are the personal stories from ordinary people and, as a memoirist, I crave this kind of stuff.

The museum is in the heart of Hollywood on Hollywood Blvd. Hollywood “stars” line the sidewalk just outside the door and it’s impossible not to see the irony. A “star” represents someone who’s made it in the entertainment world and that person will never be forgotten. But if we never achieve fame, it’s unlikely anyone will remember us beyond a couple of generations after we’re gone. There will be records of our existence but no stories. I’m not entirely sure why, but it saddens me to think of this.

Playing the role of “tourist” that day, there never seemed to be a convenient time to sit down. Once a tall, good-looking man in a white shirt tempted me with a chance to sit for two hours and watch a free movie. It took me a minute to realize that he was a Scientologist and we were, in fact, right outside the big Scientology building. So I turned him down. Of course, he insisted he wasn’t trying to convert me but I just smiled. I wasn’t witty enough to know what to say nor was I in the mood to discuss our differences in beliefs. In the end, I just told him I had to keep walking and there are plenty of other tourists he can try and ensnare. He doesn’t need me.

After our encounter, two things struck me about the Scientologists’ method of proselytizing. First of all, I only saw attractive people working as “missionaries” – I mean like movie star attractive. In other words, they were way out of my league in terms of appearance. Second, they seemed to be gifted at speaking more than one language so I assume they’re fairly intelligent. So why, when he described the movie he was handing out tickets for, did it sound like a story straight out of a science fiction novel? Why did he seem to sincerely believe it to be the true story of the origins of mankind?

Scientologists weren’t the only ones seeking converts on Hollywood Blvd. I saw a street preacher wandering around with a sign telling us all to repent. The strange thing was, he wasn’t really preaching. He was just carrying a big speaker around with a recording of another preacher. This was a new, I thought. I’ve yet to see Phoenix street preachers stoop to such levels. Once more, he left many of us with the impression that he was probably foreign and maybe he didn’t fully understand the message he was sharing in the first place.

I reminded myself that Hollywood was built as a place to create fantasy. Movies are supposed to be escapes from reality. So pretending to be a street corner preacher didn’t seem very far-fetched. Playing “let’s pretend” is what Hollywood does best.

It was hard to think of the glitz and glamour of Hollywood with the disturbing reminder that homelessness was right before our eyes and couldn’t easily be ignored. Like many others, I walked past several several folks in need because there were just too many to count. The homeless problem in L.A. is to big a problem to ignore. It overwhelming and just feels like a lost cause much of the time.

Sunset Blvd. wasn’t any better and it’s even more frustrating when you realize that Beverly Hills and Sherman Oaks are just around the corner. Many our favorite rich and famous Hollywood stars live around there in their secluded mansions, indulging in wasteful luxuries when they could better use their wealth to help the suffering people right outside their doors.

Then again, it’s not a situation that you can just throw money at and hope it will go away. Each homeless person is an individual with individual needs and individual problems. There’s no blanket solution.

Here in Phoenix, it’s not as bad as L.A. but it’s getting worse. I’m currently trying to chat with people about realistic solutions. I don’t know the hearts of our favorite stars but I can’t believe all their hearts are hardened. I know of at least one person from Beverly Hills who felt compelled to help the homeless and did. That’s Caitlin Crosby, founder of The Giving Keys. Sadly, I don’t know of other individuals from the entertainment industry who are actively doing something for the homeless in L.A. But if you know of anyone, please tell us. We could use a little more hope.

I went to the Hard Rock Café for dinner that night. I asked for a table for one. I don’t know if the server ever saw the irony but I was wearing my “People Need Other People shirt from To Write Love On Her Arms.

He sat me at a table near the bar overlooking all the other tourists who actually had people to eat with. Directly facing me was another “table for one.” I glanced up at him now and then, not wanting to stare. I wonder what would’ve happened if one of us had invited the other to eat with them? I thought I detected a foreign accent when he ordered his food. What if he spoke French? That would be so awesome because I love to speak French! Then again, he probably wouldn’t want to be seen with someone like me. Nothing like being around movie and TV stars to remind you that you’re not attractive.

On my way out, I asked the hosts about the stereotype I’d heard that almost all servers in that area were trying to become actors. There were three of them up front just then and the girl on the left shook her head “no.” The guy in the middle said it wasn’t true in a serious tone. But then the tall, good-looking guy to the right smiled and said, “I’m trying to become an actor! And I know a lot of my buddies who are working on the floor are too.”

I laughed. See? There’s a reason the stereotype exists.

Getting back to the motel on a Friday night in Hollywood without any kind of GPS proved to be a fun challenge. Parking seemed to be pay-only and street parking was filled to capacity. How do I pull over and check my old-fashioned paper map? Eventually I found a McDonalds parking lot and made it to bed at last.

The next day, on my way back to Arizona, I opted for a change of scenery and took highway 62 through Parker, Arizona instead of I-10. After driving through Twenty Nine Palms, the road became pretty quiet. I wasn’t surprised, though, since, when I’d left the last town, the sign said something like: “No Services for Next 100 Miles.”

Along the way, I pulled over to the side of the road because I saw what seemed to be a shoe shrine. Across the street and along the railroad tracks I’d already become baffled by the names and dates written with stones. How did the people get there anyway? There weren’t many pullouts until I arrived at this one where the foundations of old buildings were on the ground, covered in broken glass.

I was alone in the desert and it made me feel a little uneasy. But I had to take the pictures of the shoes. It was all very unusual. I mean, why were these people driven to do this? Some of the shoes had writing. Was this how they wanted to be remembered? Was there a superstition attached to leaving shoes here? Did they think it would bring them good luck? Who’s idea was this?

Not a single car drove pass the entire time I was there. Were all those shoes left in the cloak of darkness? Maybe it wasn’t real. My mind does play tricks on me sometimes. Oh, but I have photographic evidence! And, of course, the internet: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rice,_California

I stopped taking pictures after the shoes in the desert. The stories those shoes could tell if they could talk!

At the end of the journey, everything I’d seen seemed to be pointing at a greater truth. But I have to be careful when and how I derive meaning from objects and experiences. My mind has worked against me before. And yet the mystery and the mysticism of faith and life never ceases to enthrall me. From roadside crosses to broken relationships to Hollywood stars to homeless people to discarded shoes: there is meaning in it all.

P.S. I took some videos too and put them together in a kind of slideshow with a few of the stills and two songs that have come to be very important to me over the years. Hope you like it.

Pretending to be a Street Photographer in 2016

I’m sad to say that too many of what might have been great photos came out blurred, like these. If I were to do them over again, I’d ask my subjects to wait a moment while I made some adjustments. But I was nervous and didn’t want to make them wait.

Despite my shortcomings as a photographer, I still want my pictures to have meaning and purpose. I want them to be beautiful. I don’t know why, I just do. But I don’t know if they’re beautiful to anyone but me. I just love how the camera take me out of myself.

For me, the best pictures are of people. When I take pictures of people, it’s like I’m an anthropologist studying my own culture and its subcultures. I want to understand this world around me where I’ve always felt foreign, even in my own home.

I love it most when people aren’t posing or pretending – just being.

Then I return home and study the RAW files. I look at their expressions, their body language, and imagine what it is to be them.

I imagine their stories. They have amazing stories!

ASU Tempe Campus where I was taking a class back in January and happened upon a preacher holding up a hateful sign while a couple of students who seemed to be protesting him held up their own signs promoting peace and unity. It was a sad spectacle but at the same time I wondered what would drive a man to go out there and hold up a sign such as this while still professing to believe in a God of love.
This was the first guy in line for the VNSA Annual Book Sale in February. It says the line starts at midnight, but he had a tent so I’m quite sure he was there earlier than that.
Some young teachers keep entertained while they wait for the doors to the open at the VNSA Annual Book Sale. They must have arrived between 4 AM and 5 AM. I was there just before 3. Doors opened at 8. To me this is the only event worth waiting in line for.

 

Walking the paved trail at Multnomah Falls in Oregon on the last weekend of February.
A book-lover browses books at the Powell’s on Hawthorne bookstore in Portland, OR.
I hope this couple found love and joy in Portland, OR.
Photographers resting at the old bunkers around Fort Stevens State Park, Astoria, OR.
Young people flock to Roosevelt Row for another First Friday Art Walk.
Directions from the man in stilts at the Arizona Renaissance Fair.
Street musicians perform at the First Friday Art Walk in Phoenix.
Springtime at the World Bazaar at 19th St. and Camelback in Phoenix.
Fan art at Phoenix Comicon.
Cosplayers and other Phoenix Comicon attendees taking a break. Most of my pictures from Comicon didn’t turn out super great this year, so I tried to make some of them look like comics themselves.
This was a craft fair for Arizona crafters and merchants organized at the Mesa Convention Center by Arizona Made (I think that was the name of it)
Some of my family members are enjoying a coffee break in the corner there at Joseph-Beth Booksellers back in June of 2016.
A protest against police brutality in Flagstaff, AZ on a Sunday in August of 2016.
A protest marches through Heritage Square in Flagstaff when an audience has gathered to watch a string quartet on a Sunday afternoon in August, 2016.
An abandoned guitar in an alley way in Flagstaff, taken in August 2016
Tourists gaze down at Horeshoe bend in Arizona, August 2016.
Tourists – some of the most fascinating people for people-watching at Horseshoe Bend, AZ in August 2016.
Tourists heading back to their cars at Horseshoe Bend.
Some of the “free hugs” guys on Roosevelt Row at the November First Friday Artwalk in Phoenix.
A First Friday concert on Roosevelt Row, Phoenix, AZ.
On election night in Tucson, this guy saw me with my camera and asked (jokingly) if I wanted to take his picture. So I did, or at least tried to (I think he thought I wouldn’t take him up on it),
Young voters gather at a local bar near the university in Tucson while votes are counted, anxiously awaiting to find out who the next president would be.
Protestors against the Dakota Access Pipeline (among other things) descend upon Phoenix First Friday in December.
More protestors in Phoenix against the Dakota Access Pipeline in December 2016. Their fight would be one a day or two later.
Comedians warm up at the fire before the free comedy show behind Lawn Gnome Publishing in Phoenix.

 

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.

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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Why I Want to Share My Story

 

Why do you want to tell your story?

I want to tell my story because it’s an interesting story but also one that’s haunted me ever since it happened – even before, come to think of it, because I actually began writing my life story in my Mozart journal while I was on the train from Salzburg to Innsbruck. I didn’t really have any other motive for doing so other than this desire to simply kill time. Besides, my real journal was only in French, unless you count my generic emails I sent regularly to a massive amount of people whether they asked for them or not. Really I just missed writing in my own language. I’m just not completely sure as to why I chose an autobiographical narrative. Maybe it was because my traveling companion and I were starting to get on each other’s nerves. Just before we left Munich for Salzburg she and I had gotten into a stupid little spat over whether or not I had the right to call myself “American” since Mexicans and Canadians were technically “Americans” too (that is, if you grew up with the “6 continent” concept as opposed to the “7 continents” I was raised with) She did not believe in separating North American from South America and nothing I said would change her mind. I started to cry but she remained steadfast in her belief and so I began to question myself. I couldn’t call myself an Arizonan because I wasn’t born there. I couldn’t call myself a New Yorker because, although I was born there, I didn’t grow up there. As far as referring to myself as “United Statesien,” that simply did not sound right. So I began to have a kind of identity crises.

My travelling companion (let’s call her Amélie because that’s the first French film I saw in the cinema) had begun to be visibly irritated with me when we were staying at her friend’s house in Paris. I failed to remove my shoes when we entered the guest room and Amélie was furious because I left footprints all over the cream-colored carpet. We searched frantically for something to clean up the mess with. I apologized over and over again. Later I made it worse by insisting on speaking French when I still had a very limited vocabulary and thus couldn’t hold an intelligent conversation. Whereas Amélie’s English was perfect and if I’d just allow her to use it, she wouldn’t have to suffer through all the awkward silence.

I wanted to be like Amélie. Blaise had told me not to be like her but how could anyone not want to be like her? She was smart, bold, and confident. She always managed to find new people to talk with. Like that time we were at an Irish pub in San Francisco. We sat down to listen to the music and then she disappeared. When I finally went to look for her, there she was sitting with three Irish lads, I mean straight-off-the-boat-from-Ireland Irish lads. Apparently she was wandering around after she’d gone to the restroom, saw an empty space at their table, and invited herself to join in. Such encounters were normal for her. One of the first nights of our European travels she disappeared until morning without a word. When she returned, she couldn’t understand why I was angry with her. She’d had a wonderful night because she’d lived in the moment and followed her heart. She came back at daybreak alive. What’s wrong with that?

Later I saw some of the drawbacks to Amélie’s lifestyle, most notably how, when you give your heart to someone too freely, you set yourself up for heartbreak. Amélie frequently fell in love during our travels but just as often she’d be a poor judge of character and return heart-broken. Blaise was friends with Amélie and it was clear to him how very different she and I were. But he cared about me. He just wanted to look after me as an older brother looks after his sister.

But I digress. My story changed later that year. I went from being someone with a relatively clean past to someone with a story so stigmatized I wasn’t sure if I’d ever be able to recover from it. The story was no longer just a series of things I’d seen or done. I’d been the recipient of something which, to me, was very spiritual and full of mysticism. God, who’d always been a part of my life, became more real to me than I ever thought possible. But then, when I returned Stateside, the psychiatrists slapped me with the label “bipolar” and told me God might not have been there after all, at least not in the way I thought he was. They used the term “hyper-religiosity” and chalked it all up to manic delusions, euphoria, and hallucinations. I was hurt and traumatized. It would take me years to overcome this.

My friends are already tired of my story. Six months after I returned home from France, even Amélie, who’d gone above and beyond the call of duty to help me when I was in the mental hospital there, was mystified as to how I still wasn’t over it.

Anyway, the whole thing definitely stunted my development into adulthood. I had so many dreams, mostly of living abroad, maybe even joining the Peace Corps, but those dreams were quickly crushed when a Christian counselor told me point blank that most missions organizations won’t take anyone who has a serious mental illness – at least not in the long term. I might be able to do short-term work but, especially in parts of the world where there’s little to no access to the medicine I need, I’m basically a liability.

Well, if you want to foster suicidal ideation in someone who’s just been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, that’s how you do it. Just tell them in no uncertain terms that everything they always dreamed of doing is now completely out of reach.

So I started writing a new story. I was twenty-three when I began jotting down this memoir. I figured, why not? It’s an interesting story. Besides, writing was my principle coping mechanism in France, both in Montpellier and at the mental hospital in Thuir. I had my journals, I sent bulk email updates (that my dad so thoughtfully saved for me). To my closest friends and family I sent handwritten letters and postcards. Then, to my best friend and my parents, I’d send “talking letters” (a.k.a. cassette tapes of me talking). Writing was such a natural thing for me I figured I could easily take it a step further and write something for the masses.

I think there was also this part of me that thought writing a book that people would actually want to read would help me feel more understood and secure a place in the world for me. I still feel so very insignificant and alone in this world. But at least I no longer want to die and my newest attempt at sharing my story will reflect that.

In short, I want to connect with people. I’ve never connected with anyone more than I have the people I’ve been hospitalized with. Even in the foreign mental hospital where we all spoke French, we connected somehow. In fact, my entire diary from that hospital experience is basically a reflection of what I saw and what I felt in response to the other people I met. I learned more in the almost three weeks I spent in the Thuir hospital than any other hospital experience I’ve had since.

That’s all I got for now.

Do I Really Love Phoenix?

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Recently I was in Oregon, chatting with a young stranger from Indiana (I think). When he asked me where I was from, I said Phoenix and he immediately expressed sympathy. I didn’t exactly jump on the defense. Technically my driver’s license says “Mesa, Arizona” anyway, but you know, Scottsdale, Tempe, Glendale, Chandler, they’re all more or less suburbs of Phoenix, right? Outsiders wouldn’t know the difference.

While that may not be entirely true, stereotypes do have their roots somewhere and strange circumstances have led some people to move from much more interesting places to Phoenix for good. But then there are those who’ve fled Arizona altogether never to look back.

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It’s rare to find someone of my generation or older who was born and raised here. I was born in a latitude and climate much more suitable to my light complexion. In 1980 I was born in Potsdam, New York. My mom loves to tell me how it was twenty below zero the day I was born. Shoveling snow for six months out of the year was a way of life up there and some people chose to stay from cradle to grave.

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Then, in 1982, my dad’s work led us to Norman, Oklahoma. Five years later, we went a little further south to Fort Worth, Texas. Finally, right before the dawn of 1992, we made one final move to Mesa, Arizona.

Not every kid adapts well to moving to a new state but I for one loved it. I loved the adventure and the chance to reinvent myself.

 

Clara-Picacho-Peak-1996But in the angst of my teenage years, I became very unsettled and yearned to move on. At college fairs I only collected brochures from out-of-state universities; the further away the better.

I wanted to return to a place where the grass was literally green. In fact, it would be nice if the place had any grass at all! But there were other motivations for leaving as well. I mean, I never fit in – anywhere. Not even with my family. I fought with them far too often. They gave me everything a kid could want but I just couldn’t bear to live with them any longer. I didn’t doubt they loved me but I always felt they were too overprotective and controlling. I wouldn’t figure out why such friction existed between my family and me until many years and therapy sessions later. But that’s another story for another time….

I had the luxury of traveling a lot during my youth. In 1993 I flew by myself for the first time to Florida to attend Space Camp. I was 13 and loved feeling independent.

In 1998 I traveled throughout the Northwest and Midwest United States for 10 weeks with the an evangelical Christian singing group called the Continentals. It was the longest I’d ever been away from home and, though I dealt with difficult emotions that summer, none of them could be defined as “homesickness.”Continentals-Bus

I graduated high school in 1999 and went straight to a private Christian university in southern California the fall of that same year. It’s a long story but I ultimately transferred to Northern Arizona University my sophomore year after going on a mission trip to Romania for 5 weeks. Then, in 2002, I went to France for what was supposed to be a year but, thanks to my first full-blown manic episode (followed by my so oft told involuntary hospitalization), I was repatriated about 3 months early.

My mental illness brought me right back to where I started from: my parents’ house. It seemed as though while all my peers were moving forward in their education and careers, I’d fallen a thousand steps back and I hated every bit of it!

I wound up graduating from Arizona State University, the one place I’d sworn I’d never attend because of its proximity to home. With ASU I took one last journey abroad to Quebec, Canada to learn a slightly different kind of French. Then, after graduating, I fought to find a job that would pay enough for me to live on my own. But my BA in French and study abroad experiences were not very marketable, so I began to feel frustrated and sought a more permanent escape. If my friends can live happily and independently, why can’t I?

Three years of erratic moods and self-harming behaviors eventually forced me to move in with my parents – again. It was humiliating.

Time passed. Between psychotherapy and medication I learned to see the world differently and I learned to accept and even love my weird family. A time or two I even tried to break the disability cycle and search for gainful employment, but it wasn’t happening. Meanwhile my parents began to suffer from age related physical ailments and from time to time, I’d take on the role of caregiver.

Memories of the travels of my youth (especially those 9 months in France) began to detach from my emotions and the sense of urgency I used to feel to go as far away as possible, diminished. Sure, I kept up the language, but now I know that even if I never set a foot in Europe again, I’ll be content.

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Based on all I’ve read and seen about what makes a city great, I should feel a sense of shame and disgust for Phoenix and all its surrounding cities. To begin with, this is the desert. Water was scarce when the population was almost non-existent and now that we’ve got more than 1.4 million people around here, you can only imagine the environmental impact.

Then, of course, there’s our car-dependency problem. Public transportation has improved a little of the years but it’s still slow and, especially during the summer months, we don’t have much incentive to abandon our air-conditioned chariots. Besides, Phoenix mostly developed after the invention of the automobile resulting in urban sprawl, long commutes, freeway congestion (especially during rush hour), and massive parking lots.

 

IMG_6699Indoor shopping malls are still a thing here. In the summer time we’d die without places to walk around where air conditioning is blasting through the vents. Sometimes you walk in 112 degree heat only to go inside a building where it’s so cold you need a sweater. If you want to exercise in the summer, you either need to wake up at 3 in the morning or join a nice, air-conditioned gym. Let’s face it, Phoenix would never be as big as it is if it weren’t for the invention of modern air conditioning.

 

Mall-with-ASULastly there’s the architecture. Old cities tend to have a distinct style. Their buildings, walls, monuments, and streets all tell a story and give their city a separate identity. But here in the urban sprawl of Phoenix, there are rows of tract houses near national fast-food chains, retail shops, and grocery stores not to mention the Super Wal-Mart’s and Targets, Circle K’s and Shell Stations, Chili’s, Village Inn, Denny’s and Starbucks at every convenient location. They’re usually in or near strip malls strategically located at major free exits and crossroads. They all look the same – like giant cubes of cement. They’re the evil corporations who kill local businesses.

 

IMG_0665 (1)There are exceptions and I’ll likely write about those later. Off-hand I’d say downtown Phoenix, Old Town Scottsdale, and downtown Mesa have made major strides in recent years toward creating a sense of place and a sense of community in the Valley.

But with all these reasons to despise Phoenix, why do I find myself wanting to stay? Am I a victim of Stockholm Syndrome or is it possible I’ve found a way to love Phoenix?

To be continued….

Becoming Bilingual

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I’m standing in line with my mom for high school orientation. Other parents are there with their kids and I watch as more than once a classmate steps in to interpret for a parent who doesn’t speak English. I notice how effortlessly my bilingual peers switch from one language to another. What must it be like to live between two worlds? I wonder. It’s not fair to grow up with just one language! Why couldn’t I have grown up with at least two? I choose French as my foreign language because I didn’t want to be like the majority of people and take Spanish and the only other option was German, which, at the time, I didn’t think was a very pretty language (even though I have German roots).

2000

After my freshman year of college I’m in Sibiu, Romania sitting in a church parking lot and chatting with a 9-year-old Romanian girl who is already a budding polyglot. Her English isn’t perfect but for someone who didn’t spend a lot of time with native English speakers, it was pretty amazing. Not long before, I’d met an American widow who was a fulltime missionary. I heard her speak Romanian to someone and it sounded fluent to me. What was more astounding was that she’d only been in the country a year or two and before that, she spoke no Romanian at all.

2001

French-GuysMajor life changes lead me to become more resolute toward learning my language-of-choice: French. With one year of university French under my belt, I boldly invite a couple of good-looking French international students to assist me with my endeavor. The Fall semester has barely begun and I lead them on a nighttime walking tour of downtown Flagstaff.  They have just one condition – no English allowed. I agree because I’ve heard immersion is the best way for adults to learn a foreign language anyway. That’s when I discover how far I have still to go as I point to things I know the words for and struggle to form full sentences. Meanwhile, the French students carry on a French conversation between the two of them and I am at a loss. BUT I can’t intervene because I agreed not to speak English and I don’t have the grammar or vocabulary to join in. My thoughts are incommunicable. All I can think to do is point at something I don’t know the word for and say: Qu’est-ce que c’est? The French guys laugh at me, but I don’t mind.

2002 – May

I’ve had a year to study French with the help of the three French students studying at my university from Strasbourg. The third one, a spirited and lively woman who’d grown up in the French countryside, ended up spending the most time with me that year, although all three of them helped me immeasurably. Whether in accepting my invitations to “French movie nights” at my place, introducing me to French music by Serge Gainsbourg, Jacques Brel, and Louis Attaque, helping me with my French homework, or teaching me about French culture, they made that year one of the most memorable in my existence. So we sit in the coffee shop with some other international students and one of them gives some sage advice. He says to us, “Remember, whatever happens in life, just say ‘merde.’”

I sit on the opposite end of the table and just start laughing uncontrollably. Meanwhile, my French friend acts a little defensive and says, “Clara! You are not supposed to know what that means!” And of course I laugh more.

2002 – June (beginning)

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I’ve managed to make it to France on a one-way ticket. Don’t ask me how. Anyway, the girl from the French countryside arranges for me to stay with her family when I arrive because I’m scheduled to fly out before her and she wants to send some of her things with me. I’m at her house in Auvergne and her father says to me, “elle nous a dit de vous parler très doucement.” I almost choke on the soup I’m eating, I laugh so hard. It wasn’t just what he said, of course, but how he said it – slowly annunciating each syllable. My friend’s family doesn’t speak English but I don’t feel completely isolated like I felt nine months before with the two French guys in Flagstaff. I can make some sentences. I have more words to express myself with. But it’s not enough.

2002 – June (mid)

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I’m on a paddle boat on Lake Annecy with this guy who’s kind of my boyfriend. I actually don’t have romantic feelings for him but there is one thing I find very attractive about him – he doesn’t speak English. I’m in this French language learning program, you see. It’s with my university and there are just too many Americans. Not that I have a problem with other Americans. It’s just that I’m in France and I want to speak French. When Americans congregate with one another, however, they speak English. It’s so infuriating! We’re here to learn French! Speak French! Anyway, my “boyfriend” is with me on this paddle boat. I sing him a little song and then he reaches over to put his hand on mine. Instinctively I pull away and say, “Laisses-moi !” He removes his hand and, while still clearly annoyed with me, corrects my French. “C’est « laîches-moi » pas « laisses-moi »” This would come to be a common occurrence I’d observe in many French people. No matter how irritated someone seemed to be, they always seemed to have time to correct my French.

2002 – September

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I’m at this horrible invention designed to help American students integrated easier into the French university system at Université Paul-Valéry in Montpellier called “Pré-stage.” It’s basically a mini-America on French soil. All our classes and excursions are only with American students. All the Americans are housed in the same dorms. It’s a total nightmare but still, it was part of the program I signed up for. But it was only a month, not a lifetime. I’d survive. I stood at the pay phone and rang up one of the French guys I’d known in the U.S. He was the only one I hadn’t talked to yet. When I called, he was there and we spoke French and only French. In fact, we never spoke English to one another again.   I’d write him in English, but that was because I feared the corrections he felt he had to make in my written French. An American student from my home university overhears me and feels a little intimidated. We were in the same French class speaking at the same level a few months before. Now I was having entire conversations in French she just wasn’t there yet. Don’t worry, I say to her. “You’ve just arrived but I’ve already been here 3 months. 3 months from now, you’ll speak as good as me or better.”

It is kind of magical to finally realize you can speak a language you weren’t capable of speaking just a few months before. When you begin to read you might start with children’s books because the words and sentences are simple. At first you’re looking up every single word and it takes forever to read a single paragraph. But with persistence and passion you stop trying to translate words in your mind as the new language begins to become a part of you.

Pronunciation is always going to be a problem if you learn a new language as an adult. My French friends say there’s a distinct difference between the sound of “tu” and “tout” but I can’t hear it. I’m always going to speak French with a foreign accent.

2003 – February

Marseilles_Clara-and-TedMy father’s come to free me from the French psychiatric hospital I’ve spent the past three weeks in. None of the doctors or nurses speak English in this facility. A couple of the patients do, but it’s not their native tongue. In fact, I got the feeling they’d never really had an American at that particular hospital. I mean, it’s not like it was in a popular tourist spot. Besides, before they learned where I was really from, they just assumed I was British because American’s don’t speak French, right? Dad came in to consult with the doctor but since my dad didn’t speak French and the doctor didn’t speak English, I had to be the interpreter, just like my bilingual friends had done for their parents back in high school.

 

Happy New Year !

 

Nobody-is-PerfectIt’s the dawn of twenty-sixteen and it comes roughly two months shy of my 36th birthday. I suppose like most of you I will sit down at some point and think about how this year is going to be better than the last. Sometimes it’s bittersweet to see a year end and other times it’s a relief. In any case, the sunrise of a new year symbolizes hope and if there’s one thing this world needs, it’s hope.

I like to keep track of my own timeline and I think it’s helpful in a way to see how close I am now to the person I imagined I’d become when I was younger. Of course, when I was younger I never factored in all the possibilities. Finding out I suffered from a mental illness probably came as the biggest shock to my younger self. That was about a month after the dawn of two-thousand and three. Oh, what a fantastic New Year’s celebration that was! Dancing around Piccadilly Circus with a wonderful friend! I remember boasting about how the next year was going to be even better than the last and I was determined to make it so!

I can’t fully describe the happiness I felt when the clock struck midnight on New Year’s Eve 2002 and 2003 officially began. It was a rare kind of joy. Two weeks earlier, my favorite French friend who I will call Amélie, had given me some sage advice. You see, the next semester was to be my last semester studying abroad in Montpellier, France and who was to say I’d ever return? Since Amélie was a veteran study-abroad student herself, she told me sincerely « Profites de ton dernier semestre » which meant “make the most of your last semester.” Don’t waste time wallowing in self-pity. Step out of your comfort zone. Meet as many new people as you can. Take advantage of every learning opportunity presented to you. Speak French as much as possible. Make this the most memorable year of your life!

I was determined to take Amélie’s advice to heart. I’d hit an all-time low just before Christmas that year but I was intent now on becoming a better person; to rise above all my hardships and become someone even I could like.

I never saw the danger in being incredibly happy. No one saw it and my new-found joie de vivre was contagious. I wanted to talk with everyone and everyone seemed to want to talk with me. Whatever it was that Amélie said, it was working, it was actually working!

Exams in France back then were a couple of weeks after the winter break and I threw myself into them like never before. I had never been a great university student but somehow I knew I had greatness within me. I just had to harness it so that others could see and that meant acing my exams.

The girl I was becoming was not the girl I thought I was but I liked her so much more! I mean, I was so full of energy, curiosity, and compassion! It’s no wonder neither me nor any of my friends saw this as a problem. Amélie, (and even Deirdre) had been telling me for ages that France would change me. They believed France would liberate me from all my rigid legalism and guilt complexes. At last it looked as though they were right! France had changed me! …or so it seemed.

The next part of my story blindsided all of us. It must’ve been the endless happiness that caught us off guard. I was writing generic emails to my friends and family that were often times so thought-provoking and profound that I’d, in turn, receive encouraging replies from friends who rarely wrote me at all. Those encouragements seemed to raise my sense of self-worth exponentially. I began to feel there was something greater at work within me, like I was being touched by the divine. God was somehow working through me in a much greater capacity than ever before.

I studied harder than ever for finals. A lot was riding on my ability to prove I could handle the academics in France. Even my parents refused to make plans to visit me until I’d proven I could pass all my classes. And so if at any waking moment I let myself be distracted from my studies, I’d feel guilty. I even tried to make connections between the historical names that graced each street sign or I’d go to the library and pull down the giant book of French history so I could cross-reference what was going on with people I’d studied with what was going on in their world. I felt like a detective sometimes as I was trying to understand the past and it was exciting!

Much to my delight, all the hard work paid off and I passed my exams with flying colors! I wanted to tell someone. I wanted to shouted it from the rooftops! But everyone was too busy so I just walked home alone in joyous silence.

Once more, it’s a beautiful day today! So beautiful in fact that I can wear my summer clothes again and you know what I feel like doin’? I feel like dancing!

We had another break after final exams and while most of the other American students traveled, I stayed in Montpellier. A day or two after classes resumed, I disappeared and only when the university I was attending in Montpellier was contacted by a psychiatric hospital near Perpignan did the truth begin to unfold.

The rest of the year was painted with feelings of fear, betrayal, depression, and confusion. I never finished my year abroad. My dad flew to France to bring me back to the States and it all happened so quickly that there wasn’t even enough time to say goodbye. My apartment in France was packed by someone else and much of what I thought was real turned out to be nothing more than a delusion.

A year later I was staying with a friend in Flagstaff and I slept through the New Year. In New York they have the ball drop at midnight and in Flagstaff I’m told they have “The Great Pinecone Drop” to signify the start of a new year, but I’ve never seen it with my own eyes.

Sleeping when the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve is more my speed anyway. Then, the next day, I’ll write something either here or in my diary. I’m not a big fan of resolutions but sometimes I’ll set goals.

Each new year presents it’s own challenges. We always hope for the best but so much is beyond our control in life that sometimes I think it’s best to pray for the strength and courage to face the unknown. Happiness is an emotion and it feels so good! But like every emotion, it’s fleeting . So perhaps wishing one another a “happy New Year” is a little too presumptuous. Maybe it would be more appropriate to wish each other a “safe New Year.” And, most importantly, whatever trials and tribulations may come our way, pray we won’t have to face them alone.

Jubilation, Part 1

Dear Reader,

I’ve decided to take a break for the holidays.  I will be back with new posts on January 4th, 2016.  In the meantime, here are some collages I made to illustrate the meaning of “jubilation.”  The first 2 are made with old photos and the last two are made with photos I took this year. Let me know if you have any suggestions for new posts!  I have lots of ideas but I’m always open to new ones.  Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Jubilation-1

Jubilation-2

Jubilation-3

Jubilation-4