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The Peace of Wild Things

BY WENDELL BERRY

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

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Dérive

Dérive
By Jenna Schifferle

The brook babbles

As the trees whisper;

One strong gust

As the leaves kiss her.

 

The air is warm and

Filled with lilac —

She left her life

Only a mile back.

 

Right up the road

Where the path twirls,

Near the pasture

Where they danced as girls.

 

A small stone cottage

Where a warm fires burns,

And kindness and compassion

Are the only terms.

 

Right by the stables

Where the horses neigh,

And children laugh

As they roll in hay.

 

But the woods are alluring

With their drawl,

And it’s nearly impossible

To ignore their call.

 

From somewhere above

Woodpeckers tap,

As the maples sweat

Their saccharine sap.

 

As she crosses the bridge,

The sun at its peak,

She catches a glimpse

Of a creature’s great beak.

 

It’s perched high

At the top of the brush,

Silent and calm

Not even a hush.

 

Its talons dig

Deep in the wood,

As it spreads its wings

And is off for good.

 

With one foot planted firmly out of a plane, your toes curled tightly over the edge of said plane, and that same knee floating freely in the air, you don’t have much choice but to jump. My instructor informed me earlier that day that when you’re more than 10,000 feet in the air and the wind storms loudly in through the open door, “no” sounds strangely like “go.” Perched high above the earth, the word “no” flooded my thoughts and echoed off my skull. Every inch of my body tensed with fear. Standing at the threshold, I couldn’t, for the life of me, remember why I wanted to do this.

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Taking the first step

Mike and I arrived at Pine Hill Airport at noon, ready to skydive for the first time in our lives. It had been my idea — a birthday gift I bought for him that excited me just as much as it did him.  We went through an hour of training, where one of the instructors explained to us how you should contort your body for the fall, where your hands should be placed, how far you should arch your back, etc. He took us inside the plane and demonstrated how the jump would occur, though I’m not positive why he bothered. When you’re faced with the actual reality of jumping out of a plane, everything you’ve ever been taught about proper technique quickly flees the scene, leaving you only with an overwhelming feeling of trepidation. Out of everything our instructor told us, the only thing I could remember was the reminder to breathe. That I could do. So as we ascended in the plane, I focused only on inhaling and exhaling and trying not to throw up.

Another instructor, Matt, was chosen to jump tandem with me, and for this, I was grateful. Out of the four of us in the plane: Mike, Matt, me, and Mike’s instructor (whose name I don’t recall), Matt was the only one talking. He talked about himself, asked about us, and did his damnedest to distract us. On the video he shot of us, Mike and I have looks of terror etched into our smiles. At one point, Mike’s instructor exclaimed, “Who the hell would jump out of a perfectly good plane?!” The devious smile on his face revealed his sarcasm, but the statement lightened the mood, though it didn’t manage to diminish our fear.

On our stomachs, Mike and I had two bears strapped to us — and no, not for us to hug as we cried on the way down. Western New York Skydiving partners with Canopies for Kids, an organization that provides bears to kids in hospitals. The idea is to sponsor a bear with a donation, and  then take it with you on your jump. Afterward, each bear is donated to children at Roswell Park Cancer Institute, along with a personalized note from the person who jumped with the bear that explains how the recipient now gets to cuddle with the bravest bear in the world. The goal is to give them a little courage while they are battling their illness, and naturally, I jumped (pun intended) at the opportunity to bring one of these brave bears with me.

http://www.canopiesforkids.com/

Back in the days when I had my own teddy bears, I consistently told my parents that one day, I would go skydiving; I would go bungee jumping; I would travel the world; and yes, I would even go backpacking through the Amazon. None of us were quite sure where this sense of adventure stemmed from — perhaps my brother who enjoyed launching dirt bikes high in the air while performing a multitude of tricks and racing his Mustang as quickly as possible down the drag strip without blowing the engine. During those early years, we had been close, and I idolized his need for speed.

But skydiving is a different kind of adventure. My brother loved — and still loves — everything fast and powerful, but he has never once expressed a desire to launch himself out of the plane from 10,000 feet in the air or trek through terrain filled with tarantulas and snakes and other deadly beasts. Why these adventures have always appealed to me, I’ve never fully understood. Regardless, I decided it was time to check things off my bucket list. I’d like to make a side note here, just to mention that I fully understand why people hate the concept of a bucket list. Number one, it’s a bit morbid: You create a list of feats you want to accomplish before you kick. the. bucket. The whole paradigm is framed by a person’s imminent death; the idea that you are going to die, and should thus create a list of things you should do before one foot gets sucked into the grave. Horrifying, right? Besides, shouldn’t we all be living our lives with care and caution, thinking about how we want to construction our futures?

The answer to that last question is yes. And no. I would argue that we should be consistently thinking about how we want to construct our lives, but maybe not with the care and caution that one would imagine. When you focus only on where you want to be, it detracts from the moment you’re in. This mentality glorifies living for tomorrow. And that is precisely why I love the concept of a bucket list: It is the opposite of this. Given that you actually start checking items off, having a bucket list inspires you to accomplish big ticket items. It encourages you to do the things today that you will be grateful for tomorrow, as opposed to focusing solely on the promise of tomorrow. When you remind yourself that life is short, you unleash a whole new way of living that is much more present-minded.

One of my friends from college, Melanie, went skydiving months before I worked up the courage to actually do it myself. She posted pictures online shortly after her experience. As she rapidly fell from the sky, the skin on her face tight against the force of the wind, a wide smile spread across her lips. As I mused about how happy she looked, I came across a picture where she held the palm of her hand out in front of her. Four little words stood out in bold, black ink: Courage to let go.

As a mental health counselor, Melanie has seen what stress and anxiety can do to a person. In school, she helped run a club called Active Minds that aimed to break down stereotypes surrounding mental health. She volunteered for the Walk to Save Lives, a fundraiser that raised awareness about suicide and created a forum for survivors to share their stories. So when Melanie wrote, “Courage to let go,” on her hand, it had more depth than just letting go of gravity or letting go of the plane. Melanie’s simple reminder was that letting go of the emotions and fears that paralyze us is one of the most courageous acts that a person can accomplish. Whether it be preconceived notions we have about ourselves that make us insecure, traumatic experiences that have changed us, or mistakes that have haunted us, the most liberating act one can do is to simply let go.

In the end, the treasure of life is missed by those who hold on and gained by those who let go. -Lao Tzu #quote:

Easier said than done, no? For me, losing myself in these huge life experiences is a way of doing just that: letting go. Letting go of stress. Letting go of anxiety. Letting go of poor self-esteem. Letting go of societal standards and norms. Letting go of regrets, what-ifs, the should-ofs, could-ofs, would-ofs. Because when you are crashing to earth at 120 miles per hours, the last thing you’re worried about is how is you look or what people are thinking about you or that time five years ago when you should have said a few words to change a situation. None of that matters when you’re in free fall.

Free fall: Noun-The condition of unrestrained motion in a gravitational field; see also: motion. Motion: Noun-An act, process, or instance of changing place. By definition, free falling implies change. You fall from one spot to another, creating motion. What that definition fails to tell you is how liberating movement feels. Once I got over my fear of stepping through the plane’s threshold, I free fell for 36 seconds before Matt pulled the parachute. For 36 seconds, I did backflips and wrestled with a sinking sensation in my stomach that, contrary to popular belief, felt completely liberating. It wasn’t the kind of sinking feeling that comes from being upset or scared, but rather the sensation of butterflies you get before a first kiss or that little flutter in your stomach when you first lay eyes on the Roman baths or the Royal Palace or a beautiful sunset in foreign country.

After about 20 seconds, I was allowed to spread my arms wide against the wind, to show my own wise words: Carpe diem, Latin for “Seize the day.” That was my response to “Courage to let go.” Because that’s what letting go is all about: seizing the day.

 

Once our parachute sprung open and we jolted to a slower pace, Matt and I drifted toward earth like the leaves of a dandelion, swaying against the wind. From 6,000 feet, the view is incredible, stretching all the way from Albion, where we departed from, to Niagara Falls and Grand Island. The verdant trees created a thin canopy over countless houses and businesses. Through clusters of clouds, the sun shined dimly over the city, lightly highlighting the skyline.

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When we extended our legs in front of us for landing and my feet felt the earth once more, I radiated with life in a way that I never had before. I felt alive. Unhindered. Free. And for me, that freedom is worth all the strength it takes to get over my fears and tackle insane feats. So, my question for you, dear readers, is what will you do today that scares you?

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Half-Crazy: Why I Run

In retrospect, I knew it was going to hurt. Months of preparation and training had proven to be painful, even excruciating at times. But at mile 10, on the big day, I thought my legs might detach themselves from my body and jump into the nearest ditch. Luckily, by mile 11, they went numb, which proved to be the age-old dichotomy of a blessing and a curse. It helped the pain threshold, but made it difficult to keep my legs moving.

I’ve never been an inherently athletic person, so how I found myself tackling the immense task of running 13.1 miles is still perplexing to me. My life has always yoyo-ed back and forth between healthy habits and ice cream; working out and Netflix.

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Life is too busy, I’ve told myself repetitively.

I don’t have time to be one of those crazy runners.

When I graduated and got my first job, I started working out with a coworker, which was great motivation to stay healthy. I completed a few 5k races—the fun ones, of course—then endeavored to train for my first 8k. At the time, the idea of running five miles terrified me, and I had absolutely no idea how to train for it. I started running three or four days a week with no schedule, and I wasn’t tracking my mileage. At the start line of the LockRock 8k, my mind raced with doubts, and I knew I had underprepared.

Did I finish?—yes. Was it pretty?—no.

Coming across the finish line, I kept booking it pass the spectators and found the biggest tree I could find. By the time I was done with it, its fine bark was coated in that morning’s breakfast special. Talk about embarrassing. Half of me was proud that I at least finished; the other half wanted to limp as far away as I could and never come back; to ram my head into the ground and live in the hole that it created.

It wasn’t until I found myself wandering aimlessly through an ocean of spectators that I became infatuated with running. One of my friends from college moved to Chicago for law school, and while taking in the sites of the city, we got swept up by the Chicago Marathon. Thousands of people flocked to the course with shouts of encouragement on their lips; they were alive with excitement and their hands clasped signs that declared: You are unstoppable! Or Run like you stole it!

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The energy intoxicated me; the shouts were hypnotizing. But nothing made me fall in love quite as much as the expressions on the faces of the runners. Their faces contorted from ecstasy to fatigue to pain and back again, but each runner moved forward, regardless. When they crossed the finish line, some of them collapsed into the arms of their loved ones; some fell straight to the ground; and others reached desperately for water and food. Regardless of their reactions, all of them seemed divine at that finish line, their faces placid with the knowledge that they completed a feat most would never dream of in their lifetimes. To me, it seemed like a grand metaphor for life, a testament to human resilience—to be able to push yourself toward your goal when every muscle in your body begs you to stop, to be able to keep moving forward when your face so clearly screams with exhaustion—that is what being alive is all about! In that moment, I vowed to be one of them: exhausted with triumph, too depleted for negativity.

I was going to run a half marathon.

So, I started training. Slowly, of course. Progress was grueling: three, four, five miles, always intermingled with short stretches of walking. When I gained a bit of confidence, I started telling people about my plan, including my college friend, Dave, who not only encouraged me and gave me advice on the training process, but vowed to run it with me—even though he lives in Syracuse. With newfound resolve, my excuses became fewer, and my runs became longer. I woke up early on Sundays for long runs, and started needing to walk less. I explored new trails and quickly learned each and every five-mile path from my house. Doubts still weighed on me, though: Could I really do it? My training schedule was always behind, and I was nursing some pretty serious blisters that set me back in my training. Dave always swiftly shut each concern down, and eventually, I made it to ten miles, though it wasn’t the prettiest ten miles I’ve ever covered—the last few miles were still littered with stretches of walking and a whole lot of sweat.

Leading up to race day, I read articles on techniques you can use while running distances and came across one that suggested I focus on something different in each mile to break up the run. So I took this idea and shaped it into a game to motivate myself. For each mile, I vowed to dedicate the run to someone I cared about. I needed thirteen point one reasons to run this race, so I found them.

On the big day, I found myself scrambling to use the port-a-potty twenty minutes before the race, and the line was backed up for nearly a quarter mile. By the time I finished, I was scrambling to find Dave near the 10-minute-mile marker and was terrified that I would be running the race alone. Whereas the boisterous voices at the Chicago Marathon had energized me, the chatter at the Buffalo Marathon made my nerves stand on end—there were so many people. Luckily, Dave’s bright orange hoodie eventually caught my attention, and when the sign was given, we were off to a crawl, hindered both by the crowd, and my own fear of running out of energy early on in the race.

Finally, we fell into a rhythm, and I let my game begin. Mile one was dedicated to my grandmother, a fiercely stubborn and relentless woman who recently had her leg amputated and was bound to a wheelchair. As my feet pattered over the pavement, a memory came to mind of a trip my family had taken with her years back when I was a teenager. At the time, she had been using a cane to help with her balance, and my parent and I were going to play tennis. She hobbled along with us, and we snapped a picture of her gripping a tennis racquet in one hand and waving her cane in the air with her other. That picture found its way into one of my photo albums at home, and what stands out most is not the absurdness of her playing tennis with a cane, but, rather, the joy in her face that testifies that the woman never let life’s limitation keep her down. As I rounded up that first mile, I knew that she would love to be in my shoes.

I dedicated mile two to my other grandmother who struggles daily with early-onset Alzheimer’s. Despite her confusion and lack of short-term memory, she still holds fast to cherished memories that happened over fifty years ago that have shaped her into a spunky, lively, and strong woman. I dedicated mile three to both of my parents, whose unwavering support brought me to the realization of so many of my dreams. Mile four was dedicated to my best friend, and sister; mile five to my brother. At mile six, I thought it fitting to dedicate my run to my grandfather, a Korean War veteran. It was after all, Memorial Day weekend. Each subsequent mile followed suit, with a dedication to someone who helped lead me to where I am today.

My most important mile, mile 13, I saved for someone truly dear to my heart: my grandpa Mozer, who died in September 2001. I still remember all of the stories he told about snow-shoeing through Alaska with his pack of dogs and about great battles he valiantly won against strangers. He was the reason I fell in love with storytelling, and his memory gave me fuel in my last full mile. It also planted a seed for one of my next races, where I will dedicate the whole 13.1 to him and my best friend’s father, who both lost their battles with cancer.

 

(If you would like to donate to my Team Cure Challenge, you can find my page at: http://teamcurechallenge2015.kintera.org/faf/donorReg/donorPledge.asp?ievent=1136332&supid=423748822. Every little bit helps and is greatly appreciated!).

 

The final .1 of the race, I had to dedicate to Dave, for all of his support and encouragement, and for helping me achieve more than I ever thought possible of myself and my body. There were times when I wanted to quit, but he never let me. The entire trek was made possible—and much more pleasant—by Dave’s words of encouragement.

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I was kicked at mile 10, but somehow, I kept moving forward. The signs along the trail helped. When someone tells you: You Look So Skinny Right Now! or My parents are doing this, and they’re old!, you tend to find motivate to push yourself even more. When I saw the finish line, I found strength in myself to haul as fast as I could across the finish line. As my feet halted to a stop at the end of course, my exhaustion was replaced by disbelief and pride.

When they placed the finisher’s medal over my head, it wasn’t the feat itself that I was most proud of: it was the thought of the people in my life who transformed me into who I am today. It is because of them that I have the strength to wake up each day and work toward my goals.

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I’ve never felt more fortunate or blessed than I did at that finish line. And that, dear readers, is why I run: because when life threatens to buckle underneath you, you need to learn to spring back up and book it to the finish line, especially when it hurts the most.

Also, the cool finisher’s medal helps a lot.

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Lately, I have been thinking a lot about the consequences of decisions, no doubt a result of listening to the rantings of a psychic who spoke in sweeping tones about “destiny” and “energy” and willing the universe to work in your favor. I’m not saying that I believe in psychics or that I think anyone on the planet can accurately predict the future, but I went out of boredom as something to do on a Saturday afternoon, and also because part of me hoped that maybe, just maybe, she might shed some insight on an altogether confusing phase in my life.

In short, she told me that the two years since graduation from the University of Rochester are wide open, and that they will become solely what I make of them. After that, she said, I will go through a three-year period where my life is etched directly into the stars that shine above us, meaning that the universe will have a bigger influence on my life than I will.

What. A. Scary. Thought.

I have always held that my life is what I make of it and that my choices lead to my destiny, not vice versa. It is a great comfort to believe that I hold the future in my own hands and that I, alone, can make my life into something great; but it also creates a persistent sense of pressure and stress. If my choices mold my life, then the wrong choices must hinder my life in unfathomable ways. Believing that I, alone, control my destiny often leads to me overanalyzing each and every decision I make or have made. So, the more I thought about what the psychic said, the more reassured I felt. Maybe, just maybe, I should give the universe a little more credit. Maybe my wrong decisions will eventually lead me exactly where I’m supposed to be. Maybe, just maybe, my wrong decisions aren’t so wrong after all.

Among those decisions I’ve contemplated, two stand out: firstly, my decision to end a three-year relationship with someone whom I love very deeply. He was a key part of my life and someone I shared thousands of precious memories with, from vacations to late-night talks to watching his team win the Super Bowl to sharing my travel stories to slow dancing at our family members’ weddings to having bonfires in his backyard. We also shared not-so-pleasant memories like the loss of loved ones and fights that weighed heavily on both of our hearts. We were together three years, and he knew me better than anyone. In the end, I grew unhappy because of physical distance and because of how much we both had to sacrifice to bridge that distance—it wasn’t fair to either of us. Bouncing back and forth between towns drained us, and though we discussed it, the likelihood of us ending up in the same town seemed a distant possibility at best. Nine months have passed since the breakup, and not a day goes by where he doesn’t cross my mind or I don’t wonder if I made the right choice.

Secondly, I often contemplate my decision to turn down a dream job with Syracuse Woman Magazine. Just months before I completed my degree at the University of Rochester, I received a call from my former internship advisor who informed me that she was moving on to a new position with Time Warner Cable. She invited me for an interview, and, days later, I was offered the position of managing editor of the magazine. At the time, I was on the cusp of finishing a rigorous graduate program, entering my student loan repayment period, and was only a couple months into my new position at Bryant & Stratton College. To say the least: I was burnt out and had no clue which direction I wanted to go in life. Two factors played into my final decision to turn down the opportunity: my loans and my desire to travel. Had I taken the job, I would have just enough money to pay my loan, rent, and utility bills with little left to spend on food and no money or time left to travel the world.

I spent, and still spend, a great deal of time contemplating these two decisions and trying to chart them on the overall course of my life. My meeting with the psychic has made me realize, however, that very few decisions can be categorized as correct or incorrect, right or wrong. With every decision, you lose something, but you also gain something in exchange, and maybe, just maybe, the important things in life really are written in the stars.

I can tell you with certainty that while I miss my ex, if I had stayed with him, I would not have had time to work on improving myself as a person. I spent so long with him that I was unaccustomed to being alone, and, more importantly, unaccustomed to what it was like to be lonely. I say this without wallowing or pitying myself; as a matter of fact, I say this to mean quite the opposite. I think that loneliness is one of the most humbling of human experiences, and one that we must all embrace. Loneliness reminds us that it is up to us, as individuals, to make ourselves happy. We, alone, must come to terms with our inherent flaws and hypocrisies and learn how to make the most out of our lives. Equally, loneliness gives us a deeper appreciation for relationships, platonic or otherwise. If we never felt alone, we would never know the value of a hug or a squeeze of the hand or a kind word. We would never be able to truly appreciate those late-night conversations or those gentle kisses.

Likewise, the path that stemmed from turning down a dream job has led to treasured memories and moments. If I had taken the job, I would be submerged in the very profession that I find most rewarding: writing. I would be interviewing fascinating and inspiring woman who are leaving their marks on this world, and I would be sharing their stories with the world in a magazine that I coordinate and transform from abstraction to print. But—I would never have been able to afford to travel overseas to visit one of my dearest friends, Crystal. I would never have been able to pay for our adventures around Manchester and to Scotland and Bath and the Lake District. I would never have felt the healing waters of the Roman hot spring or hiked to the top of a mountain where I could see all the way to the North Sea. I would never have been able to knock my student loans down $14,000 or pay off the balance on my car loan. I would never have the money or time to take weekend trips to places like Chicago and New York City, and I would never have been able to share in so many of the beautiful memories I’ve made with my family over this past year.

I can’t say with any degree of certainty that I made the right choices, or that any of my future choices will be “correct.” What I can do is trust the universe enough to know that for every loss, we gain a hidden blessing. I can also say some things in life have the perfect timing, and maybe that is a sign that the universe really does play a bigger role in our lives than we think. It seems to be that no matter what I am struggling with, the right book finds its way into my lap. After my breakup, I happened to come across a copy of Eat, Pray, Love on the free table at work. Given the title, I previously dismissed it as romantic garbage and had no interest in reading it, but when I came across it that day, I thought: Eh, why not? It’s free! A short week later, I finished the book and felt a profound connection with the author, Elizabeth Gilbert. Suddenly, my life was given perspective, and that was exactly what I needed. Like Holden Caulfield, I wished Elizabeth Gilbert was a terrific friend of mine whom I could call up on the phone just so that I could thank her for understanding and for showing me that women are capable of transcending incredible obstacles.

Another example of this occurred during the midst of my post-graduation crisis. I started reading Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things, a collection of her Dear Sugar advice columns. In the very last column, a twenty-two-year-old reader had written in and asked Strayed what advice she had for her own twenty-something self. Her honest and poignant response seemed to answer my questions:

Don’t lament so much about how your career is going to turn out. You don’t have a career. You have a life. Do the work. Keep the faith. Be true blue. You are a writer because you write. Keep writing and quit your bitching. Your book has a birthday. You don’t know what it is yet (Strayed 351).

Looking back on these experiences, perhaps they were life’s way of comforting me, saying to me, “Listen, Jenna, if you quit your bitching long enough, you’ll realize that it’s all going to work out.” Turning down that job didn’t mean I closed the door on one potential career path; it simply meant that I need to find other ways to practice my craft.

So maybe, just maybe, it’s okay to admit that you don’t know which decision is right for you; and maybe it’s okay that I don’t know either. Maybe, no matter which decision we make, life will help us arrive safely at our destinations in the end. So, in the meanwhile, maybe, just maybe, we should listen to the words of Elizabeth Gilbert and “embrace the glorious mess[es] that [we] are.” Let’s celebrate all the decisions that make us who we are, instead of worrying that we’ve made the wrong ones.

¡Hasta la próxima!

Trophies

The word “nostalgia” comes from the Greek nóstos meaning “homecoming” and álgos meaning “pain.” It directly translates to mean “the pain of coming home,” and, for centuries, it was considered to be a disease characterized by melancholy and sadness. But since then, the word has evolved to describe a wistful longing for the past, often caused by an inability to let go.

The flat, concrete overhang reads: Anthony L. Fricano School. The building is predominantly brick with occasional stretches of windows and tan concrete. From one end to another, the complex spans almost a mile as it morphs from the elementary school into the intermediate building, the middle school, the high school; all of which are connected by occasional juts and protrusions that give it a modern appearance. It is a state-of-the-art facility. One wing of the elementary school extends perpendicularly from the other, and a playground spans the width of that second wing.

A few cars remain in the parking lot after hours, abandoned by owners that are nowhere in sight. Ghosts of children run around the soft-top covering of the playground, giggling as they run with joy to chase their friends. Imaginary teachers linger around the borders, eyeing the children closely, waiting for a discrepancy, and, occasionally, exchanging idle gossip between one another. When I blink, they all fade into the dark backdrop of the night, though children’s laughter is still hauntingly audible, floating on the gentle breeze that sneaks in through gap in the window.

Suddenly silence. Before me, the playground shifts into one that is more familiar, more comforting. The soft-top cover dissolves into a bed of woodchips, and the equipment transforms into its antecedent. Older ghosts take the stage. Children spring across the wooden structures, keeping their feet well above ground level. They rock back and forth on wooden platforms and cross monkey bars in single-file formation. The winner of “Do Not Touch the Woodchips” earns bragging rights for the rest of the day. To the left, a small girl grasps a metal triangle as she jets across the shiny blue beam to the other side. When she lands, she spins back around to do it again, but this time more boldly. The other children urge her on as she jumps up and latches her arms around the beam, declaring that girls can do it, too. She propels herself forward, one hand over the other, swinging her feet furiously and perching her lips in fierce concentration.

She nearly makes it to the other side before her hands slip, sweaty from the strain. A stark cry follows the heavy thud, and a teacher rushes forth, dissipating the crowd that surrounds the girl. The pained cry turns into a purple cast. When the doctor suggests pink, she turns up her nose—pink is far too girly. The sun rises on the next day, and the class is back on the playground. This time, the girl clutches a black Sharpie marker and retells the story in exaggerated form while her friends all sign the trophy.

Middle School hits, and a group of pre-teens stumbles over to the playground from a friend’s house down the road. It’s dark and they have the playground to themselves, running for the equipment as if it were the elixir of their youth. They jump off the swings at the highest point. Tackle each other to the ground. Run full-throttle because the world’s trying to catch up. But they won’t have it. They’re quicker, sharper, more youthful. So they run faster, reckless in their shouts of joy. And if the cops come—so what? They have the world at their feet, and they’re hungry for a confrontation. The night is theirs.

The group fades out, and three teenagers sprint by the playground, following their coach’s orders. One girl, two guys, and temperature below freezing. A dusting of snow covers the playground, and the runners are bundled in hats and sweatshirts, moving fast just to keep warm. Already a few miles in, and they’re breathing heavy against the cold. They pass a mound of snow, and one of the boys stops in his tracks. He shows no hesitation as he shoves the girl down into the snowbank, smiling valiantly before jumping in after her. The third follows, and the deepest laughter rings out straight from their stomachs.

When the snow fades, the grass grows tall, and the stars dance upon the sky. Below the palette of light, two new graduates lie next to each other on a grassy patch outside the playground, searching, with all their concentration, for the Little Dipper. The Big Dipper is easy to find; but the Little Dipper is trickier, more ensconced. Not that either of them really want to find it. Goodbyes linger silently between them, neither ready to face reality. Next week, she’ll move on to college in some small town miles away; and he’ll stay here at a local university, making other friends and starting a new life. But for that moment, all either of them can think about is how close their hands are to touching and how much they already miss each other.

Two years later, they meet back at the playground. Summer break. Two different people with a shared past. They run for the swings as they tell each other wild stories about parties they half remember and new friends they swear never to forget. The end up lying back on the same patch of grass as the night whispers between them. She mentions a new guy, says it could really be something special. He smiles and tells her to be careful, then briefly mentions the latest name in his life. They move on quickly to more comfortable topics, leaning on inside jokes from the past that nearly slipped away.

It all fades out, and I’m sitting behind the steering wheel of my car, looking past the memories at the scene before me. A new playground has encroached on the old with strange metal equipment standing where my beam once stood. The bed of woodchips has faded back into the soft covering that makes it safer for kids to play on—or so they say. My heart longs for the safety, the comfort, the promise of adolescence with all of its trophies; to set back the clock on my childhood. But the past always emerges in a stilted rendition, tricking us with its deceptive lies.

In my head, I play through the past years. The aloofness of family and friends after years away. Estrangement. Loneliness. The newly discovered friends who turned into family. Bold promises made in the dead of night, promptly broken by the break of day. And vice versa. Reckless nights followed by lazy days. Breakfasts at the diner in the town over. The excitement of falling in love with a set of golden eyes. The comfort of lying in his arms in my dorm room, in his dorm room. The paralyzing pain of letting go. Leaning on friends. Leaning on family. The confusion of a lifetime of emotions reaching their apex. Growing up. Learning. Experiencing. Changing. Growing.

One day, the pieces will come crashing together.

But for now, I throw the car into drive—my headlights shining brightly on the path before me—and move forward.

Reassessing the Dream

Four years ago, I firmly planted my feet on the starting line with hundreds of other competitors. Adrenaline surged through my veins and my body leaned forward slightly in the hope that it would give me a slight edge. When the gun rang out, I took off and never looked back. For years, I didn’t stop. I didn’t question where I was going, just kept at it. Then I reached the finish line and was greeted in a whirlwind of confetti and graduation gowns. I stood back and watched my peers rush past the finish line, just as I did. When I looked around, I realized that I hadn’t reached the final finish. There weren’t stacks of money lying on the floor to greet me. There wasn’t an executive in a fancy suit waiting to hand me the keys to my own company. My education came with no post-graduation luxuries, just a piece of paper with my name on it. The path I had just emerged from seemed tumultuous at the time that I traveled it, but from the vantage point at the finish line, it seemed to be nothing compared to facing the next step. Staring the opposite way, toward the future, the path was endless, the horizon hazy and undefined.

One of the shortcomings of our society is that it encourages people to rush through everything without ever stopping to look around and take it all in or figure out where they want to end up. Life’s a sprint to get through the next milestone: get through high school, tackle college, find a job. Run, rush, sprint. When I came back from college, a sense of dread filled me when I realized I didn’t have the summer job I had always had when I returned from college. I was unemployed and no longer a student. In a panic-driven craze, I sent out cover letter after cover letter, praying that someone would take pity on a recent college graduate looking for work, at least temporarily while she figured out what she wanted to do with her life. After all, that is the next step after college: to find a job. Finally, a temp. agency landed me a position at Bryant & Stratton College as a receptionist who also does data entry. It’s definitely not a position that I went to college for, and at first that fact gave me anxiety. Was my education a waste? Will I ever find a job in my field?

As the weeks dragged on, I realized that the position wasn’t so far off the beaten path. It was–and still is– a chance to break into a professional work environment and make a steady source of income. I work nights, which leaves my days free. Working at Bryant & Stratton has given me a sense of security. It has allowed me to write in my spare time and to halt my wheels and assess what I truly want from life. For the first time in years, I have had a chance to pour through novel after novel, wrapping myself up with characters who embark on great journeys and overcome impossible odds. I find myself with my head in the clouds, contemplating characters’ actions and examining story lines from an infinite number of angles. When the fire simmers on one story line, I pick up another book and repeat the process. Not one of the books I choose is assigned reading, and it feels liberating to read at will as opposed to as commanded.

This has given me time to contemplate what kind of novel I would like to one day write (though I’m hoping to make that one day happen relatively soon). I’ve been pooling my favorite novels and jotting down which aspects of each I enjoy the most. Not surprisingly, strong female characters top the list, as do novels set in an alternate universe and novels based on an epic journey of sorts. I read to escape reality, but by the same token, I write to understand it. I write to understand life, society and myself.

Much like writing, being home has stimulated this desire to understand my situation in life. I find myself wondering who I really am and where I’d like to be in ten years from now. The question that adults asked me as a toddler seems to have resurfaced and is now more pertinent than ever before: What do I want to be when I grow up?  In this phase of life, however, it seems more appropriate to say: Where do I want to be in another year? In another five? In another decade from now?  Ideally, I could see myself settled down in a city like Washington D.C., writing for National Geographic Traveler and traveling the world in my spare time, writing stories. Realistically, I will probably be living in a city in a small apartment, struggling to get by. Such is the curse of the writer, and it has been a possibility that has terrified me for years. But the more I think about it, the less it actually scares me. I’ve come to view that kind of lifestyle as more of a blessing than a curse, because, at very least, I’d be doing what I love: writing. What better blessing can a person have than to live a life filled with the sole thing they love the most?

I have stressed and fretted and questioned the future until I was blue in the face. I have consulted numerous professors, professionals and parents on which path they believe to be the best for me. That included questioning of whether or not graduate school will be worth it. Some said yes, others blatantly stated, “What are you crazy? A Master’s degree in English will get you no where!” Maybe it won’t. Maybe I’ll end up paying off student loans until I’m in my grave. But in my defense, I will never turn down the opportunity to learn more. Education will never work against me, and in this particular instance, I will have the chance to learn from renowned faculty members with incredible stories to tell.

Recently, I completed my second interview for a job as a reporter for the Springville Journal. I’m still waiting to hear back about whether or not I got the job, but I did have the honor of meeting with a very inspirational woman who happens to be the editor of the newspaper. She went for her Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing, while simultaneously working in the position I applied for. A few short years later, and she is now managing editor of the paper, as well as a creative writing teacher and a published author. She teaches a class for National Geographic which has given her the opportunity to travel, and she is currently awaiting the publication of her first book. Essentially, I see a reflection of myself in her, or at very least, the self I wish to be in five or ten or even fifteen years.

So maybe I don’t have everything figured at the ripe age of twenty-two. At very least, I have a passion and motivation. Even if I do struggle, this lifestyle will provide the pleasure of meeting more inspirational people such as the editor of that paper. The economy is working against me, and there’s a very likely chance that I will never write anything that will receive the attention that F. Scott Fitzgerald, George Orwell, David Benioff or even J.K. Rowling received. But for me, it’s enough gratification when my cousin accidentally reads my essay that she found resting on a stack of papers and says, “Wow, I felt like I was reading a real book.” I don’t need to be world-renowned, as long as what I write means something to at least one person. That, to me, is the mark of a successful writer.

Here’s to hoping that my words make even a fraction of a difference to someone. Even if they don’t, at least I’m living my own version of a dream.

Today is the one-month anniversary of my trip to Madrid, which means I’ve officially been home for just as long. Apart from a few cultural factors, it seems almost like I never left the U.S. but rather just fell asleep and when I woke up, my dreams lingered. The only difference is the dreams are actually memories. It’s so strange how quickly life fades into that word: memory. I have all these images floating around in my head of Madrid and such a strong recollection of everything that happened there, that it contrasts with my current reality. I suppose, however, that’s what memory is: a series of distinct images strung together with the ghosts of words and a feeling of nostalgia.

One month ago, I touched down in New York City, exhausted and disillusioned by my travels. A painfully long layover and a quick flight later, I was reuniting with my family and Zack. Despite my dismay at leaving Madrid, there was nothing quite like the sight of my family waiting for me just beyond the gate. Mel, Dawn, Dad, Joey, Mom, and Zack were all seated on the other side of the glass divider and when they saw me, their eyes lit up, and they rushed to meet me. I was so overwhelmed that I didn’t even know who to hug first. On a side note, hugs: VERY American. I’m not talking dos besos, or quick embraces, I’m talking full-on body squishes, taking someone and literally squeezing the life out of them. Those are the kinds of hugs I missed so much while I was abroad, and in the airport, that’s exactly what I got, along with flowers, iced coffee, and Blistex (thanks America for fixing my dried lips). It doesn’t matter who you are, nothing compares to the feeling of coming home. Whether you’ve traveled from China to Alaska, Canada to Argentina, or, in my case, Spain to New York, it’s always nice to see the ones you love again.

Flash forward to today and the excitement of being home is starting to settle into a comfortable rhythm that was ultimately inevitable. On M0nday through Friday, I wake up and work eight-and-a-half-hour days, eat American food, and sleep normally (that one took me a while to adjust). Lather, rinse, repeat. Every now and then I get the random munchies at ten p.m. when I would be eating dinner in Spain or I get the urge to respond in Spanish when I accidently bump into someone in public. Beyond that, though, I had more pride than ever before on the 4th of July and actually knew for once in my life what it meant to be American. I’ve been seeing my friends and boyfriend as much as I can and am currently looking forward to spending a week down in Florida (heck yes to keeping the travels going!). I’ve been pinching pennies to payoff some of the debt I incurred abroad and now know the meaning of being poor. Merecía la pena!

I do miss walking the streets of Madrid and eating crepes in La Puerta del Sol and I do miss my café con leche every morning. I miss practicing Spanish every day and hopping on a plane to France for the weekend and staying up until 5 a.m. with Crystal eating our Palomitas  de maíz  while watching terribly-dubbed television. On the flip side, I’ve been fortunate enough as to go kayaking with my dad, stay up until 4 a.m. with my roommate eating Mighty Taco and talking about life, and sit in a parking lot near the airport with my babydaddy just watching all the planes take off to some  unknown destination. Life is a checkerboard of good and bad living simultaneously together. Without one, the other would be spotty and parts of it would seem empty. Equally, when you leave something behind, there’s always something else waiting to happen, and that’s what I’m looking forward to. Memories happen all the time, and sometimes you don’t even realize when they’re being made. So while I polish off my memories of Madrid and keep them alive, I’m trying my best to make new memories here. Hey, you don’t have to be in Europe to have fun!

The clock on the bottom of my computer screen reads 3:15 a.m. as I begin to write the final post of my experience here in Spain. It’s hard not to get sentimental during a time like this, and right now my emotions have reached nostalgia after rolling through a wave of more dramatic sentiments. This is the last time that I’m going to be sitting on this couch in a four-story house in front of a Spanish television. This is the last time that I’m going to be living the life I’ve carved for myself here, and it’s the last time I’m going to be thinking these thoughts amidst a country so dynamically different from mine. Maybe I shouldn’t jump that far ahead, because I still have high-hopes for future travels and plans. I’m not the same person who arrived in Spain five short months ago. I’ve learned so much about the world, society, and life by living here. When I first arrived, I was scared stiff, my eyes furiously shifting back and forth trying to take in my surroundings. I was clueless about public transportation and sadly ignorant about a lot of things that were going on in the world around me. Now, I have no doubt that I have grown so much as a person and have learned more about myself than I ever would have by living for years in the United States. I will never forget the memories I’ve had here, the friends that I’ve shared every special moment with, and even the times that have tried my patience. Each experience that I’ve had here has contributed to who I am in this moment, and I will forever carry Spain with me as I move on with my life.

Before I left the U.S., my uncle told me to set goals for myself and I did. The two most important were 1) to learn the language and 2) to see things that startle me. Five months later, I’m happy to report that I’ve done these things beyond my wildest dreams. The language aspect is often a touchy subject with me, because I came here hoping to make myself fluent. I’ve struggled every day with the language barrier that existed and with my inner critic telling me that I wasn’t doing well enough. On several occasions, I have felt like an idiot standing before native Spanish speakers, trying to pick out words and phrases that I was familiar with and then trying to shape my own thoughts into those in the Spanish language. On several occasions, I’ve broken down and been mentally exhausted from the effort it has taken to try to learn this language. On several occasions, I have gazed upon the face of someone who hasn’t understood a single word I said despite my finest attempt at saying it. This has humbled me, because I know that dreams don’t always easy and that goals are not easily accomplished. With this, though, came those few moments of sheer bliss such as when I had a conversation with someone as if were entirely in English or when I cracked a joke in Spanish that made everyone laugh. These fleeting moment have made it all worth it, and in the end, I may not be one hundered percent fluent, but I’ve gotten so much better at saying what I need to say. The words don’t come out perfect. Sometimes they are broken or distorted, but they come out, and finally, people can understand me! I never knew how amazing it was to have the power of language until it didn’t come easy, and now I have such a newly found respect for anyone with any type of disability that prevents this.

Beyond this, I’m so proud of myself for reaching the level I have. It’s not perfect but it’s something, and for that reason, alone, I can smile. As for the second goal, it almost goes without saying (please forgive the cliche, but it’s now 4 a.m.). I aimed to “see things that startle me,” and, in retrospect, that one was accomplished almost on a daily basis. Every time I learned something about the Spanish language or set foot in a different city, it left a unwavering impression on me. The first impressionable moment occurred when I was sitting in the Valley of the Fallen for the first time, my feet dangling below me as I sat perched on a wall overlooking the mountains. Despite the bitter cold that kissed my face, the view overtook any worry or concern I’ve ever had in my life. In that moment, I knew my goal had been accomplished, though so many other factors also accomplished the same thing. Everything I’ve realized about communication, everything I’ve seen, has all startled me and shaped me.

This past week has been full of doing everything I possibly can while in Madrid and saying my despedidas (farewells). Last night, for instance, was the hardest thing I think I’ve ever faced in my life. Crystal, Taylor, and I went to an Italian restaurant with our Mexican friends as a final goodbye dinner. We ordered all the food in the world, chatted about life and our future, and laughed, all while the gravity of our impending departure weighed down on us. Each person made a speech to the group of 10 of us, and we talked about the memories we’ve had, the traveling we’ve done, and the friendships we’ve formed in two separate languages, depending on the person. After, we went to Madrid, walked around, signed each others’ Spanish flags and ate churros. On the bus ride back, the tears streamed. We overtook the back of the bus and each sat there, talking little and thinking a lot. Our friend, Ivo, played the song “Good Riddance” by Green Day on his iPod and everyone sang along, not quite ready to say goodbye. It was a bus ride we’d taken together many times before and the seats and windows were familiar to us all, but something was different. When you know that moments are limited, you tend to take in a lot more, and that particular moment seemed so distinct. Taylor sat there rubbing my back as she prepared to leave and when we approached her stop, I watched her hug Crystal and remembered all the classes we’d had together and our roles in each different trip we’ve taken. She hugged my quickly and was gone. My eyes filled with tears as she left the bus and I peered out the window to see her disappear into the night, an image cemented in my memory. My friend Carlos grabbed my hand and when I looked up to see that he too had began to cry, my heart broke. Carlos is such a sweet person and he would rather freeze to death than see you shiver once. Him crying made it real. I looked over and saw my other friend Karen trying to hide her eyes, and I laughed at my own strategic placement of my sunglasses to hide the tears. After those last moments together, our lives would forever diverge and we’d all move on to different experiences. We came together through an experience so distinct and unique in comparison to other experiences, and while we talked about having a reunion, part of me worries that I will never see them again. We’ve shared so many beautiful moments together, and no matter what happens, I will always carry them in my heart.

I’m trying very hard to see the positive in everything, and as they say, all good things must come to an end. Life can be so bittersweet sometimes. Agridulce. I’ve been removed from my life back home and while I have some inkling about what is going on, I’m going to again be thrown back into the mix, hopefully as if nothing ever changed. I hope that things are the way I remember them and that my “hellos” will be as strong as my despedidas were. I’m sad to leave this experience behind me, and perhaps the saddest thing is not knowing when I will be able to do something as equally life-changing. My program director told me that from here, it’s up to me and that I can pretty much form my own future. I know she’s right, and I know this is one taste of an entire dish that I have for my future. I’m going to miss walking the streets of the city that I’ve come to call my own and I’m going to miss eating meals with the family that has become so dear to my heart. Equally, I’m excited to see my family, friends, and boyfriend and to share stories with them about everything that I’ve done and hear their own stories. I’m not quite sure I’m prepared to decipher my own feelings on leaving, beyond me labeling it as “bittersweet,” but I do know that no matter what happens, Spain will hold a special place in my heart. As the Spanish say, “No es adios, es hasta luego.” And now, Buffalo-bound.

“You’re gonna miss this. You’re gonna want this back. You’re going to wish this days hadn’t gone by so fast. And these are some good times, so take a good look around. You may not notice now, but you’re gonna miss this.” -Trace Adkins

A majority of our time is spent in constant motion. Americans are eternally obsessed with progress and moving forward, which often leaves relaxation and enjoyment in the lurch. With that being said, there are those few rare, fleeting moments that happen in life that silence all the background noise and strike you with their perfection. It’s almost like being pinched and feeling no pain. You’re moving along and living your life. You’re going, going, going, thinking about what you have to get done, thinking about all that things that have or have not gone right in your day, worrying about this, debating that. Your mind is racing. Then all of the sudden, something pinches you and you’re brought back down to Earth to see what is right in front of your face. It doesn’t have to be some grand epiphany about the universe, nor does it have to be something that forever changes you and your mentality toward life. Sometimes, its just an image that sticks with you forever, no matter how insignificant it seems to others.

For me, that moment happened  yesterday in Madrid. It was so simple, and maybe it won’t make sense to anyone else, but to me it just seemed so undeniably perfect and memorable. We made a trip into Madrid to grab a bite to eat at our favorite restaurant, Cien Montaditos, and then to watch a movie. By the time we finished, it was around around 1 a.m., and we dropped our friend off at her apartment and went back to the bus stop to wait. We had time to kill, so I brought my friends to this one spot just down from the bus stop that overlooked the entire city. The four of us, Carlos, Geminis, Crystal and I, sat on top of a cement wall, our feet dangling over the side. Spread out before us was Madrid: a long river, a ton of buildings, a few trees, and lights that lit up the city skyline. Two specific trees glowed purple because of the lighting and the river reflected the different colors. The night was still and none of us talked, not because we were incapable, but because there was no need to. Earlier, we had been talking about how our time in Spain was running out and how we’d all miss each other, but in that moment, with eight legs dangling below us, everything suddenly became real. There I was, sitting among people I’d become so close to in just 5 short months, taking in the view of a city that I’ve come to call home, even if it is only a temporary one. Two of us on that wall were Spanish-speakers and two of us were native English-speakers. Each set of us came from very different backgrounds, with very different stories and very different futures, but it didn’t matter. Somehow, we’d all managed to overcome whatever language barrier existed between us, and we’d become friends. Somehow, through it all, we’d all established a way of communicating with each other that was quite imperfect– but worked. In that moment, it wasn’t the communication, but the lack thereof: Four of us sharing the same view, each of us thinking our prospective thoughts, knowing that time is running out for our experience here.

I have endlessly been asked how I feel about the fact that I have a week until I return home to the United States of America, to New York. Truth be told, I’m not sure how I feel about it. To date, this semester abroad has been the best thing I’ve ever done with my life. Since high school, I knew I wanted to study abroad and that idea never faltered in my mind, but in all honesty I was terrified a few days before I came here. I wasn’t sure what to expect with my host family, the university here, the language or even the country, itself. It was the first time I’d ever ventured into something so boldly unknown and new. College was one thing, but living in a foreign country for six month? Tan diferente! I can’t sit here and tell you that it was all candy and butterflies. I struggled at times with the language and the culture shock and with feeling so different from everyone, but I can tell you that it was the best decision I’ve made so far. I’m not the same person who arrived here five short months ago; I’ve grown so much. I’ve seen things beyond my wildest dreams and learned how to deal with adversity. Granted, I’m still young and I have so much more to learn in my life, but I think this was a good stepping stone. After taking this semester abroad, I now know that if I set my mind to something, I can do it. As for the going home aspect, I’m excited. I get to see so many faces that have been absent in my life for five months. I get to eat all my favorite foods again, and I get to go back to the familiar. Living outside your comfort zone stimulates growth, but having something familiar keeps you grounded and sane. I do wish my experience here was longer and that I had more time to perfect my Spanish and travel Europe, but I’m coming to terms with the fact that it can’t last, and I know that this will not be my last life experience.  I guess from here, it’s time to go home and see what comes next.