Tankini

I’m flat on my back, soaking up the luxuriousness that is Day One of vacation. My beach towel is freshly laundered and fluffy, my skin free of sunburn, and my bag packed with iced tea, still-crunchy Cheez-Its, and some deliciously unpretentious books.

Version 2For awhile it feels good to just lie here, relearning how to do nothing, but soon I begin to contemplate rolling onto my stomach to crack open a book. To roll over or not to roll over? That is the sort of question you face on a true vacation.

It’s not like shifting from back to tummy is such an ordeal, but it does involve a certain amount of resolve and strategic sand resituating. The butt-shaped hollow I created with a horizontal booty-shake when I first stretched out on my towel will need to be filled in with some sand, while new, boob-shaped divots—much harder to get positioned just right—will be called for. But that iced tea does sound good…

I decide to go for it. One, two, three…I engage and shift muscle and bones, my loose belly coming along for the ride, lagging just a split second behind the rest of me, as it does. Settling myself face down, with a wiggle of my hips to reposition the sand, I say a silent prayer of thanks for whomever invented the tankini.

Since having babies, the tankini has been my swimsuit of choice. The concept is simple, yet genius: the ease of a two-piece in wet-swimsuit-bathroom-scenarios, with the coverage of a one-piece for stretch-mark-riddled tummies.

It’s been nearly two decades since my body underwent the enormous transformation that resulted in the birth of my first daughter, and I’m just beginning to accept that no amount of cocoa butter or yoga or time will erase the marks pregnancy left behind. Time, in fact, seems to be hurting, not helping.

I suspect I’m not alone in this predicament. What else could have inspired and sustained the existence of the sensible tankini? At least the one I’m wearing is somewhat hip—chocolate brown with a sexy halter style top and retro ruching at the hips. Most importantly, I feel comfortable in it, even while rolling from back to tummy, where I now lie, popping Cheez-Its into my mouth.

I look over at my teenage daughters with their bikini-clad, impossibly toned skin, and wonder, “Did I really look like that 30 years ago?” I’ve earned my age, of course—I don’t expect to look 16 again, and I certainly don’t want to be 16. But there is a small tug in me—part vain, part nostalgic—that wishes I was wearing a bikini rather than its modest cousin.

My enlightened daughters tell me what many of you are thinking: I can and should wear whatever I want. It’s a topic that even gets my youngest daughter a bit worked up, and my firstborn goes so far as to proclaim, “You would look so cute in a bikini!”

I love how liberated and affirming my girls are—much more so than I was at their age. I grew up in the 80s, an era of many thin models and very few voices questioning the cultural expectations being set in the pages of teen magazines. Body shaming was both everywhere and nowhere—everywhere in the air we breathed, but also nowhere because “body shaming” wasn’t a phrase anyone used. As a teen, I didn’t hear voices of opposition, calling it what it was.

Now, in my middle age, I’m as troubled by my faint desire to wear a bikini as I am by my hesitation to boldly wear whatever I damn well please. What does it all mean? I suppose it means at least two things: my desire to wear a bikini isn’t all that strong, and being a woman at the beach is a complex thing.

My daughters give me hope, though, for a new generation of women. I marvel at their comfort level, both with their bodies and in standing up for issues. As I watch them get up off their towels to go test the temperature of the lake, I muse, “Where did these amazing girls come from?”

Oh, right: from my puckered belly. It all comes full circle.

That there’s a link between my pregnancies and my stretched-out tummy is no secret, but for years I had somehow isolated the two realities in my mind. That all changed the day I casually complained about my saggy skin to a friend, who suggested plastic surgery.

My anger was immediate, and with it came a burst of clarity: The physical record of my childbearing was not a “flaw” to glibly erase!

Ironically, it was the realization that I could take surgical measures that led me to accept my belly as it is, not as culture dictates it should be. I began to see the excess skin below my belly button, and the rays of scars emanating around it, as a history—a Curriculum Vitae of my body’s experiences and job descriptions: the once-home of my babies, the still-home of my aging self.

That doesn’t mean I’m rushing out to buy a bikini. I’m just feeling a fondness for what is tucked comfortably beneath this trusty spandex: the stretchy first-home to two remarkable young women, whose bodies are on their own journeys. Toned skin and flat stomachs are just the beginning.

I look over at my daughters, reading books on their own towels, and decide to turn myself over once again, taking with me my pouchy, ribboned skin: this record of miracles.

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  *   *   *   *   *

Kristin bio YAH

Powder Room Diplomacy

The year is 2007 and our bags are packed with “layering tanks” from American Eagle, flat irons to steam our hair into long, flat planks, and short denim skirts. The manufacturers have carefully ripped the skirts to look like the storied clothing item of a ranch hand or someone who has army crawled through a field of barbed wire.

Well, not ALL of our bags share these contents. Mine didn’t.

It’s senior ditch day and I have packed the few items I imagined would be necessary for the sort of girls weekend where we’d eat ice cream out of the carton in between fistfuls of Cheetos: comfortable sweatpants, a swimsuit, and a small bag of hodge-podged toiletries and makeup that I don’t intend on using. photo-1453761816053-ed5ba727b5b7

When the other girls begin to rip open their overnight bags at the bed and breakfast, I realize my mistake. This is not that type of weekend at all. There are seven of us on the trip. Four of the girls are my closest friends at school while the other two are more acquaintances, friends of the others who tend to pull them in a direction where I fit in less.

Even though the temperature is well below swimming weather, the girls insist on shimmying into their bathing suits so we can take pictures on the dock. While my friends wore various iterations of the bikini, I brought what can only be described as a swimsuit designed for moms with ample bosoms. The Lands’ End two-piece is a tasteful navy and features underwire support for D-cup breasts and a control-top skirt designed to tuck in postpartum bellies. Even with these precautions, I nervously tug at the hemline, not having had the appropriate amount of time to tend to my forest of upper leg hair.

I take cues from my friends during the self-timed photos, imitating their pouty lips as we huddle under towels for warmth. I follow just a slight step behind, in the same way I’d slurred along with the lyrics to songs I didn’t know on the car ride up.

After our photoshoot, we decide to go out to dinner. I throw on a pair of jeans and declare myself ready, sweeping back my frizzy hair whispies into a messy bun. As I plop down on the bed to wait for the other girls, the rituals of the powder room begin.

Not only have my friends brought nice outfits for going out, they brought several nice outfits, each with corresponding layers of tanks and cardigans, items branded with size zero and XS labels, currency to be traded for the tiny clothes brought by the other tiny girls.

From endless compartments in their luggage and small floral zippered bags, they produce little black vials and canisters and line them up across the bathroom counter. Some girls use stubby makeup brushes to apply “bronzer,” something I’ve never even heard of. Not only do they know how to expertly apply it to the bridges of their noses and across their cheekbones, but they happily chirp back and forth about the merits of brand A and some horror stories about brand B, which they had switched to after trying brand C.

photo-1453822858805-7c095c06011eThese girls speak in a diplomatic language I don’t know, bartering trade agreements: help with the hair straightener in exchange for help applying “smoky eyes,” or a slinky sundress traded for a ruffled skirt that rests confidently at the upper thigh. One girl forgot her serum or pomade or spray and needs to borrow from someone else who happily supplies the product she can’t live without.

Alone in my bathroom at home, I’d cheer myself on for allotting enough time for a flick of a mascara wand across my lashes, or on an extravagant day, a swath of crusty bronze eyeshadow extracted from a cracked Cover Girl palette held together with a rubber band. I didn’t own a straightener and only occasionally pulled out our dusty hair dryer from a basket of abandoned hot tools, predominantly unearthed for formal events and Halloween.

Looking back at pictures of myself, I notice a layer of oily skin sheen and a characteristic zit by the corner of my mouth. My noise was spotted with wide open pores and many sprays of hair trailed around the outline of my already-too-thick eyebrows.

Even just looking into the face of high school Meredith makes my armpits sweat as I remember the way clothes chafed and tugged in all the wrong ways. My closet was full of clearance tops from Old Navy.com that I liked in theory, but never looked the same after a wash or two. Everything was either stretched out or rolled up my body like a window shade. The poor quality fabrics occasionally caused me to break out into hives and made me sweat everywhere they brushed against my skin.

Sitting in the bed and breakfast, it strikes me that no one sees fit to convert me, to make me their project. I long to be transformed by a fairy godmother with an eyebrow pencil and experience with contouring, but instead I sit silently, trying find small things to do to extend my preparation time. Clearly, it’s supposed to take longer.

My mind doesn’t often go towards beauty and grooming. It never became a part of my routine, and so I don’t often think about hair and makeup; I’ve long been accustomed to my bare, natural face, which most days makes me grateful.

I now have a basic grasp of the concept of cognitive load, that we each can give our concentration to only so many things, that I give mind space to things that others don’t have on their radar or would find trivial. The majority of the time, I’m not too upset with my cycle of forgetting about my beauty routine only to panic at the sight of my brows in the fluorescent light of a gas station bathroom.

But put me in a powder room or a hotel room or at someone’s parents’ house getting ready for a wedding and I start to feel the gap between my primping and that of the other women with me.

Now, I know to get up off the bed and humbly admit to my dear friends, I have no idea what I’m doing!

*Photos provided by Unsplash.com

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Holiness Standards

Jesika, Jamie and I sat outside Sweet Frog, eating frozen yogurt. I dug down into the yogurt with my spoon and found a gummy bear. I chomped down on the sweet candy using the safe side of my mouth, but it still found its way to the cavity on my left. My mouth zinged in pain.

    “Dammit,” I said around the gummy. “That hurt.”

    “Just get it taken care of,” Jesika said.

    “Yeah, I know. I hate the dentist, though.”

Jamie pulled out the lipstick she’d just bought. “Isn’t it hot?” she said. She painted on a layer over the pink she’d put on at Sephora earlier. It was hot. It was an opaque neon pink. A Cyndi Lauper pink with electric attitude.

“You gonna wear it at the office?” I asked.

“Maybe. If I feel like it,” she said airily. It looked great on her tanned face. I looked over at Jesika whose face was powdered like an aristocrat, peach circles of blush painted on each cheek, blood red lips. She looked like a kewpie doll crossed with a vampire.

“Oh my gosh,” said Jamie.

“What?” I said looking up. “Oh.”

A group of young women were walking toward us. My stomach tightened a little as I put down my yogurt cup. The gummy bears smiled up at me. “Busted,” they said.

There were five of them. Each was dressed in what I could only call a uniform: long jean skirts–despite the 90 degree heat, long-sleeved tops and blouses, and uncut hair past their knees or carefully done up in pioneer women knots.

The girls wore no makeup. My own face paint, courtesy of Jesika’s industrious applications of the makeup counter’s free offerings, was starting to melt. I wished I wasn’t wearing that stupid purple eyeshadow which looked cool at the store and now felt merely ostentatious.

“Hey guys!” Jesika spoke. “How are you?” She smiled up at the girls and they came over and sat down with us. She and Jamie started talking with them at once. They’d all gone to the same church together in high school. I smiled at them and said nothing. Kept my eyes down on my dessert of drowned gummies. Thought about these girls. Thought about the many accusations, frustrations, and the general confusion in my own heart. Two months earlier I might have chosen to be one of those young women.

***

Whenever we talk about these girls, the many girls we know who are “in” this mode of dressing, Jesika laughs and rolls her eyes. She was brought up in that religious movement. “They’re just confused,” she says. “If they knew how great it feels to cut your hair and wear shorts and smoke Black & Milds, they’d be doing it. They wouldn’t think twice about their salvation.”

What she means–and what we who have been introduced to that particular faith know–is that the young women believe that their salvation hangs in a precarious balance. Along with their Christian beliefs come proscriptions against outfitting one’s body in a modern way: no makeup, no haircuts, no shorts or pants, no short sleeves. These admonitions are a part of the church’s holiness standards for its women.

Standards by which to measure a woman’s holiness.

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I dated one of the men from this faith for a year. Though I railed hard against the prohibitions, my own hair was growing longer–longer than I liked, my skirts were getting longer, my makeup got lighter, my decisions deferred more and more to him.

     “Don’t cut your hair–promise me you won’t cut your hair again this summer,” he’d said to me.

    “That’s not something I’m going to promise you,” I said.

But I never cut it again until we broke up. I wanted to fit in. To belong with him and his mother and sisters. When we broke up, I looked horrified at my closet. I piled up all the “modest” clothes and threw them in a dumpster. I bought the shortest shorts I could find, had Jesika hack off my hair to the chin, and applied black eye pencil like it was medication. Round and round my eyes I drew in deft circular marks, writing my own standards with each stroke.

*  *  *

We said goodbye to the girls and threw our empty foam cups into the trash.

    “My house or yours?” Jamie asked, looking at us.

    “Yours!” Jesika and I said as we walked to our cars. In my rearview mirror, I saw the girls in their jean skirts disappearing into the shop. I shivered. Then my eye caught Jes powdering her face again in her own rearview mirror. I giggled. I tried to wipe off some makeup but it only made a mess.

The standards we live by vary. They are confusing. Chilling, even. We women are taught how to look and how to be from infancy. Those young women come to my mind often. But my own friends come to mind much oftener–the women who’ve shown me that feminine standards are variable, mercurial, and dependent on what we believe about ourselves at any given time.

*  *  *

Elena bio YAH

Love in the Time of Baseball

I was a spindly-limbed, nine-year-old boy who enjoyed spending afternoons on the farmhouse porch reading Madeleine L’Engle and C.S. Lewis. I’d sit there for hours in the summer, moving my lawn chair so that I stayed in the shade, waving away the flies. Two huge oak trees stood like sweating sentries, their backs towards me, their faces looking at the small country church across the street, the one flanked by an enormous graveyard. The sky was vast and blue.

But I was also a first-baseman and pitcher for my local little-league team, Lengacher’s Cheese. We wore orange with the name of our sponsor emblazoned on the front in white. Our oversized baseball caps were made of mesh with the tab-and-hole size adjusters in the back. The pants were scratchy, some devilish form of polyester.

Two evenings a week and sometimes Saturdays I’d don my Lengacher’s Cheese baseball jersey and my parents would drive me to the ball field. Our home field was behind the local VFW, but on one particular summer evening an away game took us to the field of our arch rivals: Weiler’s Garage. Their uniforms were mostly green with a bit of yellow. Their players were all humongous, having been born and bred in a rough area we called The Welsh Mountain. They were legendary, a team to fear.

There was one player in particular who I felt anxious about playing against that night. Her name was Anne (obviously names have been changed here to protect the innocent). She had black hair and brown eyes. She was the only girl on the Weiler’s Garage team. I had a crush on her.

On that particular day fate would have it that my coach put me on the pitcher’s mound. The Weiler’s Garage field was at the back of a remote, overgrown park in the middle of The Welsh Mountain. It was lined on one side by a junkyard and the other side by a deep, impenetrable forest. Even with summer sunshine stretching late into the evening, the park felt dark and shadowy.

I took the mound. I felt the baseball in my hand, the red, raised seams rough on my fingertips. Their hitters were all strong, and I fought my way through the lineup. I looked up and realized Anne was making her way to the plate. She stood there confident and ready. I suddenly realized the predicament I was in.

downloadWhat if I struck her out? I didn’t want to make her feel bad – I had a crush on her! In my little nine-year-old way, I wanted her to know that I liked her without actually having to say that. Striking her out didn’t seem like the first step on a path towards a budding, elementary school romance.

On the other hand, she was a girl, and if she got a hit off of me, I would be humiliated. There it is, the plain and simple truth. Girls weren’t supposed to be as good as boys at sports (though she was a good baseball player). If I didn’t go up against her and win, I knew my friends would make fun of me for it. I would never hear the end of it.

I took a deep breath. She stepped into the batter’s box. The ancient trees leaned in closer, casting their shadows on the old ball field. The sun dropped down behind them. The fans in the small bleachers, normally loud and chattering, went silent. I felt the seams again. I reached back and threw a fastball as hard as I could.

I don’t know if what happened was intentional – I can’t remember the exact thought processes of my mind from 30 years ago. More than likely it was due to the fact that I was nine years old and only a marginally decent pitcher. But was it more than? Was my subconscious working overtime to avoid losing to a girl while at the same time somehow keep from embarrassing her? Whatever the case, the ball flew through the heavy, summer air. The red seams spun. The catcher reached for the ball with his oversized mitt. But the ball never reached him.

Because I hit her.

I hit her with the pitch, and she fell to the ground.

* * *

shawn bio YAH

Living in the Shadow of a Wonder

 

S8002468-lanczos3I was impressed by the monumental size of the stones, the mystery of how the ancients could build something so incredible and the sheer novelty of being next to such famous structures. But I tried to play it cool. We weren’t tourists; we had come to plant our lives in the Middle East.

We moved to Cairo at the end of summer with the heat still blazing down on us. We trekked through the unfamiliar streets to find grocery stores and vegetable stands, bakeries and shawarma stalls. Getting everything we needed for the week required at least four stops. Just running normal errands took every bit of effort my husband and I had as we explored our new city. Between the exhaustion from the heat and the mental strain of navigating life in a strange city, in a language we couldn’t yet understand — we were spent.

When friends offered to take us to the Pyramids, about half an hour from our new home, we welcomed the break from all of the practicalities.

Every photo I’d ever seen of the Pyramids showed these mammoth wonders of the world against a backdrop of breathtaking desert and not much else. Perhaps a camel or tourists looking like they were the size of ants would dot the base. But in pictures you get the impression that the Pyramids sit in the middle of an endless desert.

When we first spotted the famous landmarks, the peaks coming into view through the haze that seemed to hang in the air, every notion I had about the Pyramids changed.

Our car wove in and out of traffic. The honks were just friendly reminders to fight for space on the bumpy roads that transported twenty million people through the city. We rounded a bend and there they were—not in the middle of the desert but right in the heart of the bustling city. All those magnificent photos that are so famous are shot from the front of the Pyramids, with the Sphinx at the base.

But look from another angle and you will glimpse the complexities of life in this land—the ancient and the modern side by side. Wonders of the ancient world sit right next to the Pizza Hut.

BusloadsS8002366-triangle 2 of tourists flocked to the base of the Great Pyramid and the people of Cairo were there to meet them. Shades of brown — the sand, the stone, the summer haze that clings to the air — were dotted with color only by the red tasseled quilts atop the camels nearby. Men called after us in broken English, offering a photo atop a camel. We were told to avoid them as there is one price for getting on the camel. But once they get you on the towering animal, they will then tell you the price for getting down!

Women and children sat with their wares, replicas of the Pyramids and statues of Tut.  The desert sun was blazing. But the women in flowing robes and heads covered and boys donning checkered bedouin scarves didn’t seem to mind the heat. As we passed, they all looked at us with sad eyes, trying to convey their great need so you would give yS8002412-triangleour Egyptian Pounds or US Dollars to them instead of the next person that had the same exact statues for sale.

I stopped to smile at them but didn’t linger at the souvenirs. I didn’t want to look like the tank top-clad tourists. They seemed oblivious to why the Egyptian men stared at their bare shoulders when many of the local women covered themselves literally from head to toe.

I told myself we would surely get sick of the pyramids when friends who visited asked us to take them there. “How many times can you visit a pile of rocks and be amazed?” I thought. But standing next to them I wasn’t so sure. That pile of rocks sure had a way of making you feel small while simultaneously amazed at the power of what people can achieve together. When many of my Egyptian friends told me they had never even visited the Pyramids, I thought what a shame to not take in such beauty when it is literally moments from your home.

Life got busy though and we never made it back to the pyramids before our time in Egypt was cut short. After six months living in the land of the Pharaohs—we were again packing up to move back to the United States.  

In those last few days in the city I regretted not spending more of the time just standing in awe, taking in the complete wonder of such a place. In all that time not wanting to look like a tourist, I had missed some of the ability to wonder at the rarity of the chance to live next to the Nile. I realized I could both call this place home and marvel at it.

We spent our last week in the country acting like complete tourists. We visited the Egyptian museum, the library at Alexandria, and sipped coffee in local shops. We took photos and marveled at the fact that we had made our home in the shadow of a wonder of the world.

As we left it’s shadow we tried to keep our eyes open for what wonders awaited us next.

Bio SmallNicole T. Walters is a wife, working mom, and writer from metro Atlanta who loves to experience the messy, noisy, beautiful world and cultures not her own. A proud member of the Redbud Writer’s Guild, you can find Nicole writing and editing at a number of places online including The Mudroom, and SheLoves Magazine. She writes about finding God’s voice in all the noise, faith, and culture at Nicoletwalters.com and loves to connect on Facebook and Twitter.

Unexpected Favorite Things

“…but don’t you think the gazebo looks a little bit small?” The voice of our Austrian tour guide settled comfortably at the top of the treble clef. Saccharine as Salzburg’s famous Mozartkugel, this woman might as well have been a recording playing from an MP3 player hanging from a lanyard around our necks.IMG_5017

“How could they do the sixteen-going-on-seventeen dance here?” She jutted her head forward, the rest of her body remarkably stiff.

At this point in the tour, I could see where her query was going. Similar rhetorical questions had lead to the revelations that the front of the Von Trapp family home was a different property than the back of the house, that we couldn’t get to the exact spot where the opening had been filmed, and that the free place to stay in the downtown was in fact the city’s prison.

While the Alps were, well, the Alps, just about everything else from the movie was a jumbled amalgamation of buildings, Hollywood soundstages, and private properties that we whizzed past on the tour bus.

When Josh and John Mark had invited me on their European adventure, the Sound of Music Tour had been my one stipulation, my “must-see.” I promised to trek with them to stare at the outside of houses Dietrich Bonhoeffer had lived in and to check out the East Berlin Wall Gallery despite frigid winds, but this was my stipulation—to finally embark on my musical theatre pilgrimage.

I don’t know what I thought would happen on the Sound of Music Tour. That someone would hand me an outfit made out of draperies and teach me how to sing? That I’d share in an oddly steamy Austrian folk dance with Christopher Plummer? Or perhaps that I might stomp around downtown Salzburg with a guitar case wearing a dress that “the poor didn’t want” whilst asserting my self confidence in song. If you don’t know the moments in the movie to which I am referencing, you’re missing out.

Instead, at every turn, I was discovering that my childhood favorite movie was cobbled together from scraps of Austria and the Twentieth Century Fox Studio in Los Angeles. IMG_5026

I laughed nervously with my travel companions hoping for the transformative experience to start at any moment, so that the boys would think the tour was “worth it.”

Worth it.

It was the rubric I applied all along our trip to Europe, a notion I’d picked up in a frugal home where each dollar spent on vacation was squeezed like a wet rag till every last drop had been extricated. It was in the way my mom read every placard at the museum and it accompanied the anxious hum in the back of our minds; we may never get to come back to this place. So we’d hover a little longer, trying to stare hard enough at our surroundings to render them meaningful and worth it…

It wasn’t just Salzburg and the tour bus piping Julie Andrews and the Von Trapp Family Singers through its speakers, it was the Holocaust museum in Berlin, and Prague, with its corridors of gift shops filled with sundry items branded with their city’s name. At each stop, I longed to feel different and romantic, and at each stop I found myself tired, or introverted, or hungry, or craving a Diet Coke.

I found myself to be the same self I was in Chicago, except disillusioned that inhaling the European air hadn’t transformed me. In Europe, as in Chicago, real life was much more embodied and much less ethereal than it was in my daydreams. The hard things about being me, about being an adult, my depression and anxiety, and even the prickly hairs that sprouted from my chin, remained.

The Sound of Music tour guide continued with her characteristic refrain, dismantling the magical world created in the film. “How could they do the sixteen-going-on-seventeen dance in such a small gazebo? Hmmmmm? That’s because they didn’t. They built a larger one in Hollywood…”

We couldn’t even go inside the gazebo, because an elderly guest had recently broken her leg trying to dance on the benches as Liesel and Ralph do in the movie. Our passion for the film was a liability to the touring company at each step, as we were reminded to keep everything at an arm’s reach.

The tour ended in the town with the church where Maria and the Captain got married. The interior of the church had been painted pink. Pink. I took an obligatory picture in the aisle of the cathedral, wanting to stomp out of the building like a grumpy toddler. I had been promised magic and instead found altered buildings and relics beyond reach.

As she was wrapping up the tour, the guide suggested we try some “crisp apple strudel,” which was sold at several shops in town for the consumption of parents who had dragged their kids on the tour and retired couples who had watched the movie premiere in theatres. At the peak of my frustration and need for air, we took our strudel “to-go,” a phrase hardly ever uttered in Europe, and went out to explore the town.

I tried to check-in with the boys to see if they resented the fifty dollars spent on the tickets, trying to distract them with impressions of the tour guide and her underwhelming introductions at every stop. Josh and John Mark felt the disappointment of the tour, but it seemed they were able to brush it off, laugh it off… 

As we walked with our noisy plastic to-go boxes chasing the strudel around the base of the containers with plastic forks, we came upon the shore of a lake tucked in the mountains. It looked like something out of Middle-Earth. Long docks stretched their arms into the water and fog rested and pooled around rooftops painted with snow drifts. IMG_5089

It was a view similar to one in the movie, but begging to be examined on its own merits for its mountains, spiky pine trees, water smoothed as if with a frosting knife, and dissolving horizon, where the water seemed to fall off the edge of the earth in an interstellar waterfall as it disappeared from our eyesight.  

Maria Von Trapp, The Grand Canyon, or the Eiffel Tower may draw us to a certain place, but the experience we have there must transcend what could be reduced to a postcard. My experience of the “Sound of Music Tour,” once let loose of my expectations, expanded to more than I could have anticipated.

The tour was posing on the steps where Do-Re-Me had been filmed, but also the hostel we trekked to in the dark along steep gravel paths that seemed more like landscaping than legitimate passageways. It was feeling pretty in my vintage dress cinched in at the waist as we snapped hundreds of pictures at the mystical docks. It was the strudel in crinkling plastic containers, and even the monotone tour guide who disappointed my expectations at every turn.

The tour was a means to an unexpected end, as each stop begged to speak for itself and show us why it is special, the hills not so much alive with the sound of music, but asleep under blankets of snow.

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The Wall I Pretended Not to See

A half hour from my house stands an icon I used to rarely think about. It doesn’t look like much: stopped cars on a wide freeway, a low-lying government building. And in red letters, on a white overhang, a sign: Mexico.

The San Ysidro Port of Entry is considered one of the busiest border crossings in the world. About 300,000 people commute back and forth every day through this entry point between San Diego and Tijuana. The political boundary between the US and Mexico also marks the border with the greatest economic disparity of the world.

Growing up white in San Diego, I mostly ignored the border. Ignored the city and its restaurants, and hotels. Ignored the violence, ignored the plight of people deported, ignored the brutal iron wall that stands sentry in the waves on a beautiful beach in the borderland.

Why would I go to Tijuana, when everything I thought I needed was on this side of the fence? Why would I think about the border when it so rarely touched my life?

This isn’t true of every white person. I have friends who regularly travel to Baja—to surf, to vacation, to serve, to explore. Others seek out cheap medicine or healthcare, or the raucous, infamous Tijuana nightlife.

But despite my fluent Spanish, and growing up within spitting distance of a Spanish-speaking country, I’d only visited Tijuana twice—once as a kid, and once after college. I didn’t like it much either time—the pushy vendors, the activity we chose (shopping), the sense that “real” Mexico was further away, in the historic cities at Mexico’s center.

So like a lot of people in my hometown, I just didn’t think much about Tijuana, much like you ignore like an occasionally itchy tag in the back of a shirt.

A few years ago, though, I started attending a local Spanish-language church, and the border—so close, and so far away—got more uncomfortable. Less like an annoyance, and more like a wound. Less like someone else’s problem, and more like my own.

Why, I wondered, did I feel so disconnected to my sister city? Why, as a fluent Spanish speaker, had I only visited twice? Why, when I had gone, did I feel so uncomfortable?

What was wrong with Tijuana? No. What was wrong with me?

The spiked iron wall in the ocean divided family after family in my congregation. Women in my Bible study couldn’t go to serve on missions in their native country because they were undocumented, and would not be able to return. How could I pretend to ignore what the border meant to real human beings?

An undocumented  friend in my Bible study—I’ll call her M—sends her American-born daughters to visit their grandparents in Mexico every summer. M celebrates the closeness those visits create. But her daughter had a milestone birthday, and her dearest wish was to celebrate with her entire family, all in one place.

That simply isn’t possible. M and her husband can’t leave unless they exit permanently and yank their kids away from their native soil.

Another friend discovered she had liver cancer. Unable to afford treatment in the States, she went back to the public health system in Mexico. Her husband of decades couldn’t go with her; his income supported them both. When she grew worse and died near Mexico City, there was no way for him to return for her funeral.  No way for him to say goodbye.

I live without these restrictions. Why had I chosen to stay away?

Last fall, hoping to turn towards Tijuana, I asked my friend Lety if she and her husband, Juan Daniel, might visit the city with my daughters and me for a morning. We took the I-5 I’ve traveled thousands of times in my life until we passed the red letters marking our entry into Mexico. The road curved to slow motorists for potential stops, and then, so simply, so oddly, we were in a completely different country.

It’s so much weirder than taking a plane. It points out the split personalities that our borders create. Same land, same chaparral scrub brush, same rainfall, same ocean waves. Two completely different planets.

Perhaps the in-my-face abruptness is another reason I hesitate to cross.

That morning, I  expected to host, but in typical Latino fashion, Lety and Juan Daniel treated us to a generous hospitality my gringo heart still struggles to comprehend. We sampled local baked goods and toured the aquarium. We strolled through a garden, got tacos at a local stand. It was a lovely day.

Later, as we headed home, we drove along the ugly corrugated metal wall that divides the countries. I couldn’t help but notice someone had attached large white wooden crosses to it every few feet, clearly a vertical cemetery. “What are those?” I asked Juan Daniel.

“They put one up every time someone dies crossing,” he said.

I breathed in. The wall and its crosses stretched to a vanishing point on the horizon.  I had never seen them before.

How could I have known all that I didn’t know? My blind spots blinded me.

Writing this, I imagine my blind spots, my fear, my nervousness about the border—even after visiting—like invisible crosses on my side of the wall. I think about how hard it is, even sharing a language, to cross the invisible borders at my church. How the dividing lines of ethnicity, culture, privilege, and class can divide me from women who are my sisters.

It’s easier to turn away. Easier for me to stay afraid, to stay blind, to stay away from the borderland. To think of “illegals” instead of friends. To sigh about political rhetoric and skip to the next article instead of listening to real stories.

But I am so tired of being rich, and white, and blind. So tired of not admitting to myself how much my fear impoverishes me. So tired of trying to limit my world, instead of embracing the enormous open doorway that is right in front of me. I’m ready to face the border and the richness that awaits on the other side.

Border Field State Park / Imperial Beach, San Diego, California

Border Field State Park / Imperial Beach, San Diego, California by Tony Webster

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Heather

Heather Caliri is a writer from San Diego who knows first-hand how tiny steps of bravery can transform lives. She loves breakfast, advice columns, and non-violent murder mysteries. Get her short e-book, “How To Become Braver,” for free here.

The More Interesting Route

One of our travel books called it “the less-straightforward but more interesting route,” which was all we needed to know. Of course we would go that way. There was no need to confer, even as extra-considerate newlyweds. We were, after all, celebrating what could certainly be described as a “less-straightforward but more interesting route” to marital happiness. Why opt for the utilitarian route now?

It was Day 2 of our honeymoon, and the route we chose was true to its description. Winding dirt and smooth clay paths led us uphill through a neighborhood of plaster-covered homes, crowded together all hodgepodge, like blocks set in place by a toddler. In some places, the walkway was close enough to the homes for me to touch the lace curtains fluttering in screenless kitchen windows, not that I dared to—just walking by made me feel apologetic for encroaching on what most Americans would label “personal space.”

narrowpathBut we were not in the U.S. There were no wide lawns or privacy fences buffering personal space from public. Instead, we could smell garlic and lemon wafting from windows, and hear the bang of a wooden spoon on the side of a pot, the voice of a woman calling to a child, and the mysterious foreign chatter of a television show.

We walked by dogs lying lazily on shaded stoops, never tied up but also not interested in us; only their eyes moved in the heat of the day, keeping watch as we passed. Brightly-colored laundry was hung out on lines in narrow alleys between the homes, coordinating with bright pink and red flowers planted in pots and window boxes.

As the path continued to switch-back and fork every-which-way, it became clear the travel book Jason carried was no help. “Do you think we’re still on the right path?” I whispered, hoping to avoid being an “annoying tourist.”

“We’re still going up, so that’s a good sign,” Jason whispered in response, with a grin. I smiled inwardly at how automatically my writer’s mind turned everyday comments and experiences into metaphor. Are we on the right path? We’re still going up! Anything is better than being stagnant and stuck. Life is a journey. What happens along the way can be more important than the final destination!

It was all so cliche, but how could I resist? I was on my honeymoon, celebrating the hope rooted in a second wedding after years of feeling stuck and deciding that marriage—the whole idea of it—wasn’t for me. Now I was exploring new lands with someone who made every step one of companionship and possibility. I was able to be in the moment, both to feel seen and to look around and enjoy what I saw—to consider who I was in that place and time, rather than living in desperate impatience for the faint idea of what I thought my life would be.

*   *   *   *   *

Just when I felt certain we were lost in the maze of quaint domesticity (which certainly isn’t the worst place to be lost, metaphorically or actually), we spotted a sign propped in someone’s garden, hand-lettered with the word “Acropolis” and an arrow.

signingardenSomething about its complete lack of official pomp and grandeur made us laugh out loud (and take photos). I imagined a man making the sign, perhaps at the request of his wife who had long grown weary of confused, insensitive tourists calling out to her while she hung laundry or watered her flowers: “Excuse me, is this the way to the Acropolis?” The sign communicated that wry note of impatience, but also one of pride, as if to say the people who lived their everyday lives along the way to this magnificent site fully understood the value of this treasure they had to offer the world. If tourists walked daily by their windows to get there, so be it.

Soon after passing the sign, we emerged from the jumble of garlic-sauteing and television-watching and dog-napping. We could see the Acropolis ahead. Having taken the “more interesting route,” we arrived at the back entrance of the fifth-century BC site, passing through the Theatre of Dionysus, where people were setting up a very modern sound system for a performance that evening.

We climbed further, up and out, toward the Parthenon looming above. Its ancient structure was partially engulfed by scaffolding, perhaps marring the view as seen through the eyes of a romantic, but also pointing to the reality of the architecture’s age and value; it had weathered much, and was worth meticulous preservation and care.

Jason and I stood silently side by side, taking it in, struggling to grasp the weight of history, the span of time lying between us in that moment and all that had come before—in our small lifetimes and for centuries and generations back. Then we walked on, ready to see what was next.

parthenon

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Kristin bio YAH

Finding Hope Beyond the Western Wall’s Shadow

Jerusalem is a slippery place. You can’t help but notice that after taking your first steps within the towering walls.

Your feet slip and slide, and if it rains, you slip and slide all the more. After growing up in the evangelical subculture that is obsessed with “slippery slopes” of belief and practice, I couldn’t help but chuckle at the thought of this major religious center being “slippery.” And sloped.

After a few idyllic weeks in the old city during my senior year of college, tragedy struck.

While spending some time with my friends in the western valley outside the old city walls, we heard the roar of ambulances zipping to the eastern side of the city. They were on their way to the Temple Mount area.

We ran through the winding streets of the Armenian Quarter and then worked our way into the narrow alleys of the Jewish Quarter. The slippery limestone slowed us down, and we hardly took any notice of how few people were on the streets at that hour. Perhaps we knew that history was happening, and we had to be there for it. Perhaps we had seen so many soldiers with guns that we reasoned they wouldn’t let things get too out of hand. Perhaps we just ran to trouble because that’s what you do when you’re a 20-something who doesn’t know better.

From a lookout post above the homes in the Jewish Quarter, we finally caught sight of the scene. The Western Wall, known also as the wailing wall, was deserted. Soldiers lined up outside the entrance to the neighboring Al-Aqsa Mosque with riot gear. Emergency and military vehicles had streamed into the courtyard outside the Western Wall.

Aswall-picture with most things in the Middle East, the situation had been far more complex than the preliminary reports and even the endless analysis that followed could capture. Had a politician provoked a riot? Had military pressures and land seizure created pressure that would inevitably explode?

I didn’t come close to understanding any of those events back then, and now today I know even less.

Most visitors in Jerusalem make that wall a top priority, and tour groups decked out in matching vests following color coded banners make their way to the wall to pray. It’s the place where so much history happened. I understand a little of the fear and the disappointment. I think I understand why people would throw rocks and shoot rubber bullets after decades of conflict, and I suspect that I would be among their numbers depending on which side of the wall I’d been born on.

That wall was most likely near the place Jesus said should be a house of prayer for all nations. On the day that the men on one side threw rocks and the men on the other side shot rubber bullets, the wall stood as a reminder of the things that divide us.  

I stood under the shadow of that wall to pray many times in the following months. I didn’t wear a shawl or bob or sway like the other men around me. But those prayers at the wall didn’t give me hope. If anything, I felt the weight of that wall, almost crushing me. Tucking a prayer scribbled on a piece of paper into the wall almost felt like I was making it stronger. How could a world with so much violence and division ever make it?

Slip-sliding my way down an alley in the Arab Quarter, I joined a group who visited an Arab Christian church. I didn’t think about the fact that most of the Israeli Christians were just about completely divided from this group who graciously welcomed a motley group of American college students. We sang together in a room packed with about 50 people. After the songs, a translator led us to a side room padded with red cushions where he translated the announcements, prayers, and sermon.

They prayed the prayers for unity and peace that I needed someone else to pray for me. These people who were suffering the loss of business from bottled up checkpoints and trying to send food to families who were hardest hit also had the words for peace that I couldn’t string together.

Profound and life-changing as that experience was, I didn’t return to that little church. I can’t quite tell you why. I wish I had. If I returned to Jerusalem, I think I would slip down the limestone streets until I found it. But instead, I returned to the wall. Perhaps it’s easier to visit memorials and icons of our ideals. Perhaps seeking out the places where suffering meets hope is far more costly and personally challenging.

It’s easy to stand at that wall and to remember what Jesus said. It’s quite another thing to stand among the people experiencing poverty, fear, and uncertainty, joining them in their prayers that remain the only hope I have for tearing down the divisions in their land.

Ed bio YAH

A Holy Place

Three summers ago, I stood with three other women in a shady Jerusalem courtyard overlooking the Dome of the Rock. We had just been separated, like goats from sheep, from the 27 others in our tour group, and instructed with a terse hand gesture to walk half the length of an American football field to await further instructions.

As we stood in silence and exchanged raised-eyebrow glances, we wondered what unnamed crime we had committed.

***

DSC03428The Dome of the Rock, the original site of Solomon’s temple, is the holiest site for Muslims which literally occupies the holiest site for Jews. This ornate shrine is positioned within the Old City gates of Jerusalem, and it stands above what we often call the Wailing Wall, the Western Wall of that original temple.

Christians also visit this site regularly, following in the footsteps of Jesus of Nazareth, who more than 2,000 years ago both worshiped and overturned tables in that temple. After Jesus’ death and resurrection, it is believed that Peter, Jesus’ disciple, preached on its Southern Steps during Pentecost, experiencing the improbable wind and flame of the Holy Spirit, as chronicled in the New Testament book of the Acts of the Apostles.

This is the site believed to be the very place where God instructed Abraham to sacrifice his only son. Because of this significance, these few acres in Jerusalem’s Old City are arguably the most disputed property on the planet, claimed by the unreconciled children of Abraham, father of the three most recognized religious groups in the world.

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Jews and Christians are welcome to wander freely—relatively speaking—through the spaces below the high ground of the Dome of the Rock. But while Muslims can enter through any of the surrounding gates that lead to their shrine, everyone else must enter through a single checkpoint. And, as our tour guide had prepared us, visitors were wise to follow certain protocols.

Do not wear cross necklaces, or religious jewelry of any kind. Do not bring your Bibles. These things may be confiscated, or you may be denied entry. Women, dress modestly: make sure your shoulders and knees are covered. Be respectful.

I am a rules-follower by nature, so I had followed these simple instructions. I wore no religious jewelry, and to save space in my suitcase, the only Bible I had brought with me on this trip to Israel was the one on my iPhone. I wore khaki capris and a black cotton shirt with three-quarter-length sleeves and a slight V-neck. Not only were my shoulders and knees covered, but so were my elbows!

In spite of scorching sunshine and nearly 90-degree temperatures, I now suspected I should have worn a turtleneck.

Soon the guard called his buddy over, who conveniently carried with him a variety of neck scarves for sale—a bargain at five American dollars apiece. As one of my equally culpable traveling companions pulled out her money pouch, another member of our group came jogging over to offer extra scarves. She helped to drape one of them around my neck, making sure to cover the offending bare skin.

The guard indicated that we were now free to rejoin our group.

***

We spent maybe an hour wandering the grounds surrounding the Muslim shrine. It was not a relaxing hour. Of the ten days we spent touring through Israel—from the Sea of Galilee through the Judean Wilderness and up to Jerusalem—this was the place where I felt the most unsettled.

As our group paused to pose for a photo in front of the Dome, a group of 10-year-old boys came rushing by, blocking the view of our photographer and effectively disrupting the moment by tossing water on us.

We watched as an orthodox Jewish man wandered the grounds in prayer, accompanied by both a Muslim guard and an Israeli police officer. We were told that this was a common practice.

I sensed the hostility behind the stares of those who belonged, and I wanted nothing more than to return to the perceived safety outside these gates.

***

western-wallAn hour later, I sat in a plastic chair facing the women’s side of the Western Wall. I watched those around me as they pressed hands and foreheads against the ancient stones and tucked scraps of folded paper into the cracks, scrawled prayers offered on behalf of friends who could not be present.

I glanced to my left, toward the barrier between the women’s and men’s sides, my North American sensibilities questioning why it’s been deemed necessary to separate by gender to pray.

I contemplated the tensions of the morning so far and still felt unsettled—a mixture of fear and anger and grief. I knew I was experiencing a microcosm of the spiritual divisions that define this tiny Middle Eastern country, and indeed, the world.

I closed my eyes for a moment, and then I pulled my journal from my shoulder bag, opened it, and wrote:

24 June 2013

We pray for the peace of Jerusalem, for peace on earth, for Yeshua to return. Amen.

***

Amy bio YAH