April 22, 2016 § Leave a comment
Spring has arrived in NEPA. I can tell because at the hockey games, the sunset light is still glowing through the arena doors midway through the first period. Playoff hockey is here too, with its inevitable tastes of hunger (I can’t eat because I’m too nervous because we’re about to hit double overtime in a Game 7), and sweet, cold ice cream (the only time of year I’m warm enough to eat ice cream at the hockey games is during playoffs), and soft pretzels with mustard. I wonder what playoff hockey tastes like to the guys on the ice. Blood in the mouth, sweat on the upper lip, fresh adrenaline maybe? This is why I could never be a sports reporter, because those are the things I want to know.
Ever since Matt and I started dating, I find myself paying a lot more attention to the flavor of whatever coffee I happen to be drinking. I’m getting coffee-spoiled by him and his personally roasted coffee beans. For instance, I’ve never really noticed the taste of the foam on a cappuccino before. Normally my coffees come in to-go cups with lids and tiny slit openings. Most of the foam is lost, squished against the lid’s surface, a sad waste for an unappreciative plastic container. But Matt makes me cappuccinos in warm ceramic mugs with the foam layered richly on top and I taste it in every sip. It floats like meringue on my tongue, that complex and wonderful combination of airy thickness, a light weight, the flavor of contradictions. The milk foam is bland by itself, but then he taps a dash of cinnamon across the top, a spice that has always tasted of childhood delight to me. When I take a sip and it mixes with the rich darkness of the espresso hidden below, I can’t help but smile to myself, because it’s a grown-up drink now.
Channing asked me to be one of her bridesmaids for her wedding next year. She gave me and Jess and Missy cute little cards with a wonderfully adorable handwritten message inside for each of us. Friendship tastes sweet in the soul: a warm and uplifting flavor of joy. I couldn’t be more proud to be in her wedding, to help her and Mike make a commitment to each other in front of all of our friends and family. If true friendship means looking out at the world ahead together and wanting only the good things for each other, then Chan and I have it nailed. We hauled each other to our feet so many times after falling down and we kept on going. (Literally. This one time, at Franklin’s, we were singing along to the jukebox at the top of our lungs: Friends In Low Places by Garth Brooks, and when we tried to get “low” we fell down on top of each other.)
The poet T.S. Eliot famously wrote: “April is the cruelest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land”, but I have never been able to reconcile that cold- albeit beautiful- imagery with spring here in the valley. I once wrote a poem about October- how the autumn month reminds me of a graceful old woman. And if so, then Spring in Pennsylvania is a beautiful girl. She dances around the corners of April, a blithe maid wearing a new dress. She tastes of cold lemonade and fresh rain, a soft kiss in sun-dappled shade. She is strong in a way most young girls are not: she brings with her only the necessary storms. She weaves early flowers into her hair as a crown and counts “he loves me, not” on petals as they swirl through her fingers. She is full of earnest hope and the ancient promise that joy will always enter in with the dawn. Spring is a girl with knowledge of beginnings, of nurturing. Her feet are planted firmly in the newly tilled earth and she has only begun to know the true strength of roots. The stars in her eyes are not blinding; they strike a spark of grace and wonder and an age-old longing for the truth of things. Above all, like all the beautiful girls throughout time, Spring yearns.
February 26, 2016 § Leave a comment
Matt and I went for a hike last weekend. He took me to the Ceasetown Dam and we tromped through the woods, sliding like little kids on the ice that lay under the deep shadowed trees, squishing through the muddy water where the sun had worked its invisible magic. It was one of those rare winter days in Pennsylvania where the air is a dance of contradiction, warm in the light and still chilly in the shadows. It was a day made for the sound of creeks rushing over little rocks and the lush scent of dead and rotting leaves. We took our time as we walked down the trail towards the lake. I climbed a half-fallen tree but didn’t get very far. The lichen was damp and gave my sneakers no purchase on the slanted trunk. He found a long, thin stick and we had a mock sword-fight, with little bits of bark flying every time our branches clashed. He showed me his favorite fishing spot: a giant boulder, spearing sharply up out of the water, steep and granite-cold. We sat there for a while as the wind blew. The tops of evergreen trees make a unique noise in the wind that sweeps off a frozen lake and into them, have you ever paid attention to it? It sounds like murmurs; it speaks of peace.
We stood on the rocks at the very edge of the frozen water, looking out across a green and gray horizon. The sunlight glowed in the air and then shattered off the ice into a glorious profusion of gold and silver and white. Every shade of blue in the world glinted in front of me. The colors were right at my fingertips, they were grace made visible, they shone like a benediction. And I thought: let my joy rise like incense before You, my God.
February 23, 2016 § Leave a comment
For my 30th birthday, I wrote a little story.
All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. (I’ve always wanted to say that!)
She wasn’t exactly the person I would have chosen to sit next to at the bar, but when you’re competing for an open stool with about fifty other Saturday night partiers and a casual acquaintance waves you in next to them, the least you can do is say hello, how’ve you been.
We’re not close friends, this girl and me, despite knowing each other for basically ever. We just haven’t spent a lot of time together and besides, I feel like we live really different lives. She’s kind of a loner, and I’m not happy unless I’ve got eight different friends bouncing around me.
But that’s a lame excuse for not really getting to know someone and I realized as much, as we sat next to each other at the bar and made small talk about our lives. I’m going to actually get to know her tonight, I thought suddenly. It might not work, but lately I’d been trying to talk less about myself and listen more to other people’s stories. You’d be surprised how many times you can hijack a conversation by relating everything the other person says to something you’ve experienced. I discovered that sometimes just listening is much more interesting.
The bartender slid a Blue Moon in front of me and gave her another whiskey on the rocks. As she took a sip, I noticed her lipstick was the exact shade of raspberry I’d been trying to find for ages, and I complimented her on it.
She gave me a strange look. “Thanks,” she said, a little hesitantly. “You really like it?”
“Yeah, I do!” I almost started rambling about my Estee Lauder Siren Red lipstick that had been discontinued and how that exact hue of pinkish-red had apparently never been duplicated despite there being literally thousands of other lipsticks out there… but then I remembered my promise from before and I stopped.
“You always have on great makeup.” I said instead, which was the honest truth, I swear, not just some ritual girly compliment. I certainly didn’t think it would have the effect it did, though.
Her eyes filled up with tears and I thought she was angry before she looked down at her drink. “Do you know, I almost didn’t wear any makeup tonight? What difference would it make? It never does any good.”
“I… well, yeah sometimes it is a hassle but…” I trailed off, and she instantly filled in the gap.
“I’m sorry. I’m just having a really bad few weeks. I was going out with this guy, and I thought he really liked me, but of course he didn’t. So I came in here to have a drink to relax and wouldn’t you know, he’s over in the corner with some leggy blonde bitch.”
Being a rather leggy blonde myself, I kept my mouth closed and waited.
“It’s always the same,” she laughed harshly. “I can’t get past my own insecurities. I’m never good enough for myself. I know that guy isn’t worth my regret but in my mind, it’s just another case of me not being enough.”
I spoke cautiously, not wanting to hurt her more, but trying to understand. “Not being enough what? Pretty enough?” I was baffled for a second, but then I got it. “You don’t like the way you look. You don’t think you’re attractive, do you?”
Her eyes flashed as she laughed again, but I didn’t think the anger was directed at me anymore. This was a more internal hatred, a deep, festering wound. “No. I don’t. I hate the way I look. I deliberately avoid mirrors when I’m out in public. I’ve literally never taken a selfie. I hate my body. I hate my face.”
I sat quietly, listening to the bitterness in her voice. The bar was crowded and noisy but her low, loathing words seemed to echo in my ear.
“I bet you never hear a voice in your head. How could you? You’re tall and thin and pretty. Guys are always asking you out. How could you know what I hear, what goes on in my head? Every day, this horrible little mocking voice is in my ear, in my head, jeering, laughing, asking me why I even bother with a diet when it doesn’t help, why I would ever think a skirt looked good on me. Look at those rolls, the voice taunts me. You look so gross. Seriously, how could you think that dress was a good idea. Every day, a whispering, mocking, running soundtrack to my life.” She stopped talking abruptly, and then looked right at me. The anger was gone; only misery showed stark in her eyes.
“In over twenty years, I’ve never once looked in the mirror and been happy with what I saw.”
Her voice cracked with pain and I thought to myself, we are all so full of hurt, so burdened with the weight of our struggles. I didn’t know what to do, because to say the expected “You look fine! You’re beautiful!” would have been unbearably cliché. She would have shut me out instantly. And I realized, sometimes when the depth of someone’s pain is outside your skill to heal, you just have to spill your own guts as well. Sometimes only sorrow can comfort sorrow. So despite my earlier resolution, I set my glass down and said, “Do you want to know what my mocking voice says?”
“Sure,” she shrugged, staring down at her hands, still speaking quietly.
“You’re right,” I began, “I don’t hear a voice when I look in the mirror. I don’t hear it when I try on clothes at the mall or walk past the glossy magazines with their tall and slender models. Instead, I hear the mocking voice when I see wedding pictures on Facebook, or baby pictures on Instagram. The mocking voice scoffs and jeers at me, a nasty little companion inside my head. It says, “Ha ha ha, look at all these people who managed to do this one thing, this one simple thing. All these people were able to fall in love, and stay that way. All these girls had the man they loved say to them “I want you, forever”. How many people get married each year? How many have babies? It’s like the most common thing we do and you couldn’t even manage this. You couldn’t even manage this one simple thing. So many girls get pregnant that we have a law saying you can kill your baby if you don’t want it, that’s how often it happens. And you couldn’t even have a baby by the time you’re thirty, you complete loser. You have literally wanted to be married for your entire life and you couldn’t do that yet, either. You are thirty, and you are such a failure.”
I stopped there, because I was about to cry and heaven knew I’d spent enough time crying in public for the past two years. She turned and looked at me over our drinks, and I saw true friendship in her eyes for the first time. “I didn’t know you had a voice in your head too.”
We all have a mocking voice. We all hear the smirking scorch of its acid tongue behind our flaws and failings. You flunked another class, idiot. You quit another job. You got wasted and slept with another stranger, you slut. You can’t lose those fifteen pounds no matter how hard you try, fatty. You have something wrong with your brain, who would ever want you, crazy? You let so many people down this week. You’re too busy to be a good mother. You’re too lazy to build a career. You’re too dependent to be a strong woman. You’re too independent, it turns guys off. You don’t look like Karlie Kloss, you don’t sing like Taylor Swift, you can’t write like Hannah Brencher. You don’t have any best friends. Why do we torment ourselves so, girls? The voice mocks on: Another black-out wasted night. Another diet started only to be abandoned. Another one night stand, ‘just for fun’. Another drug or another pair of shoes or another gym class or another guy to text just so the loneliness doesn’t eat you alive at night. You suck. The mocking voice slithers into our heads and down into the pits of our stomachs, hissing contempt and disgust for all our vulnerability and mistakes.
There are always wounded pieces of our secret souls, even in those who seem to have everything we’ve ever wanted.
I turned to her- this unique, interesting, intelligent girl who had somehow deceived herself into thinking she was not good enough- and I said, “Listen to me. This is what I would make you know if I could: you are not alone. We are all missing pieces inside; we all hear those poisonous thoughts. But you can’t let the mocking voice win. You have to shout over it, drown it out with love and friendship and truth.”
“I don’t even know what truth is,” she said bitterly.
“Then keep looking for it. Keep searching. Look for it in the beauty of humanity, in the commonplace faces of your everyday life. Listen,” I said again. “A funny thing happens when you stop hating yourself because you don’t have the answers, when you start letting others in, letting them help you through the pain. You realize that love can silence hate, goodness can drown out contempt, that the world is full of simple, joyful voices. Our lives are songs, they’re stories written in sunlight and in shadow. Find what makes your voice sing. Find the words of your story; write it bold and bright or quiet and humble. It’s your voice. It’s your story to tell.”
She tucked a piece of hair behind her ear and gave me a measuring look. “What does your other voice say?”
That made me laugh. I’d been trying to figure it out for so long. But I gave her the truth, because what else did I have?
“It says ‘Look at you! Your arms are not empty without a husband and child; they are full to bursting with relationships! They are overflowing with true friendship and love, spilling over with the joy of new faces and experiences!’ It says we are made for relationship, that God wants us to be in love with Him and with each other. It says love is sacrifice; it’s hard and gritty and real and when it breaks, it hurts like a knife in your heart, but forgiveness is the mightier sword. It says there are hidden gifts in every person and the purest joy lies in discovering them, in making known to someone that simply to be who they are is wonderful to you. It says there will always be a yearning in my heart, a longing for the strange ache of beauty, because we are restless by nature, strangers and sojourners in a land of light and darkness. We long for mystery and yet love to be steady. After 30 years, my other voice says we are not made merely for this world, we are made to make it better.”
I looked at her again, with her pretty lipstick and winged eyeliner and her dark eyes so full of pain, and I said “Love yourself. The world is a better place with your voice in it.”
I don’t think the mocking voice will ever be totally silenced. We are surrounded by voices and images all the time; we are sharing our lives and peeking in at others’ every day. It’s a habit-forming way to live. Comparison and envy become inevitable. I think the best way to combat them is to decide whose voice is most important to us. Do we have a healthy balance of images in our Instagram feed? If I’m beating myself up every time I see pictures of weddings and babies, why don’t I follow some amazing single women as well? Women who travel and share beautiful pictures of foreign lands, women who are serving others in the poorest neighborhoods, women who have time to do mission trips and rooftop yoga and late-night coffeehouse writing sessions, because they don’t have to worry about teething babies and a spouse’s recent lay-off and balancing motherhood and a career. Because while we are- none of us- free from the mocking voice, we all have so many other voices inside, just waiting to be heard.
February 16, 2016 § Leave a comment
“…for now, this is what I want to say, and it’s important, so pay attention: I’ve got the best friends in the entire world. I have sought and found the truth in faith, hope, and love. I’ve seen the sun rise over exotic shores and strange lands; I have realized my home is where my heart is. I’ve cried tears of joy at weddings and sobbed my guts out at a funeral.
I have learned that you can desire something with your heart and soul and the very weight of your bones and still lose it, and when you do, the loss of it will not kill you.
I’ve felt that peculiar ache that comes from yearning: I’ve felt it when I was outside in bitter cold winter air and heard the wild cries of Canadian geese flying far away above me, felt it when I rocked babies to sleep and wouldn’t put them down even though my arms were shaking, felt it in the living silence of Eucharistic Adoration as I knelt in the dim light before my God.
I’ve dreamed too small, drank too much, written midnight poetry, called my mom crying over boys, held my girlfriends as they cried, made dinner for the homeless, talked desperate people off terrible ledges, given money to gas-station strangers and car rides to meth addicts. I’ve looked for the beauty in commonplace scenes and discovered it in human souls. I’ve got hockey, hipster glasses, and a future in books and beautiful words.”
If I were to add anything further to this after another year, it would be about forgiveness, and the constancy of God’s mercy. I have expended so much effort searching for the ability to forgive, never realizing it has been inside of me all along. I have pursued it like a deer longing for water, thinking if I could only forgive, I could let go and live again.
But now I see more clearly than ever the paradox of love: we must die to truly live.
Forgiveness has often seemed to me to be a pearl just beyond my reach, a golden feeling I could not create within me. But I needed to “put away childish things” – this search for a feeling, this elusive, darting emotion. Forgiveness is already- always- within love, held by it, and strengthened with it. If my love is a true sacrifice of self, then forgiveness follows from it in a way utterly natural. To paraphrase Caryll Houselander: if you have hurt me, you have hurt Christ, who is within you. I see the wound in Christ, in you, and I reach out to comfort that wound, because He is in me also, and wounded. Therefore forgiving becomes not about me and my feelings, but about healing the wounds our sins have left on- in- the body of Christ. This is letting go, or rather dying to my own self, my own need. This is love, poured out like liquid gold refined in the fire of God’s grace.
Not I, but Christ who lives in me.
This is sometimes harder to apply to our own selves, whom we need to forgive just as often as we forgive others. Every sin I commit wounds Christ within me, and my sincere contrition for them gives me the opportunity to say to Him, “Let me comfort you.” I sometimes think of Christ in the garden of Gethsemane, looking in agony at our sins and what He must suffer to expiate them. How He must have longed to hear those words of comfort from us as He prayed. My despair and anger wound the eternally loving heart of God, and after I realize this, I turn to Him inside me and repent. But forgiveness of self is still necessary after the repentance, or else I run the risk of denying God’s utter goodness and mercy. He forgives and we are cleansed, and our sin is made white as snow. This must be acknowledged by me. I cannot cling to my sorrow, wearing it like sackcloth and ashes. We fall, we repent, we rise. The Sacrament of Reconciliation is especially necessary at times when I cannot forgive myself. We call it “Confession”, a little nickname, but should not forget that a Reconciliation between ourselves and Christ occurs as well. We are not merely depositing our sins in a darkened room; we speak- we run, we press ourselves- to the Heart of Christ through His servant the priest, and He in turn absolves us, washes us, revives us. He heals the death of Himself in us. The tomb- the darkened room- is empty. He was dead but has risen.
We live the Resurrection of Christ within us every time we forgive.
If I could choose one thing to do better as I enter my thirties, it would be to spread the knowledge of the constancy of God’s mercy. Pick your head up, my friend. Let your heart be glad. The mercies of the Lord are renewed each morning, so great is His faithfulness. You do not need to search for Him; He is already waiting for you. Open wide the door; roll away the stone. Forgive yourself. We are all darkened tombs until we allow -for He will never force Himself- the life of Christ to shine through us. We were dead but now we live.
January 8, 2016 § Leave a comment
Here’s a little secret about me:
I have never felt a strong connection to the feast of Christmas. I understand the significance of it in my faith, of course, but it’s never given me the same kind of spiritual lift that Holy Week and the Easter feast do. Maybe it’s because I’ve never had a baby? Maybe it’s because I’m just so incredibly familiar with the story, it’s hard to make it new again every year? Or because the older I get, the busier the holiday season becomes, even when I try to keep it simple? (Everyone’s in town, everyone wants to hang out. I want to hang out with everyone! I want to bake cookies, to wrap presents and play all the Christmas carols!) I don’t know. Regardless of the reason, the birth of our Lord is a feast I struggle to make holy. That sounds terrible but it’s true. Really the only part of Christmas Mass that means something more to me than any other Mass is the second reading. I was lucky enough to lector at Christmas morning Mass this year, which meant I got to say those words out loud to the congregation. Hebrews 1:1-4 (emphasis mine):
“In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets; in these last days, he spoke to us through a son, whom he made heir of all things and through whom he created the universe,
who is the refulgence of his glory,
the very imprint of his being,
and who sustains all things by his mighty word.
When he had accomplished purification from sins, he took his seat at the right hand of the Majesty on high, as far superior to the angels, as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.”
Refulgence is defined as “shining brightly, radiant”. And I love that word. It’s rich, it’s lavish, it resonates. I love the idea of the Son shining the glory of God the Father over the earth by His birth. “The very imprint of his being” is another beautiful phrase, all full of power and emphasis. Especially for me as a Catholic who believes Jesus is truly present in the Eucharist at each and every Mass, it’s a weighty and phenomenal statement. The imprint of God’s Being is at Mass, for me to take into myself.
Those are beautiful words, phrases, powerful sentences, and I love them all year round, but they don’t speak “Christmas” to me in a special way. I just love the beauty and truth of them, the way I love all beautiful true words, the way the prayer “Look not upon our sins, but on the faith of your church” hits me in the gut every single Mass, and I always, always think of those I love who have fallen away from their faith, yet who still have that indelible mark of Baptism upon their soul. Look not upon their sins, I pray every Mass, but see my faith, here it is, as small and weak and fragile as it is, it’s here. Let my faith protect them. What are we but oblations, after all? Sacrificial love made real in our daily lives. An offering in spirit and truth.
I’m getting off-topic. I began re-reading Caryll Houselander’s spiritual classic “The Reed of God” again to try to get a little more in tune with the Christmas season. It contains such moving reflections on Mary, it’s a perfect Advent read.
“He was completely her own, utterly dependent upon her: she was His food and warmth and rest, His shelter from the world, His shade in the Sun. She was the shrine of the Sacrament, the four walls and the roof of His home.”
In regards to Mary and Joseph losing the young child Jesus for three days:
“Christ suffered the sense of the loss of God, of being left, forsaken by God.
Our Lady, therefore, suffered the same thing: the sense of the loss of God. And of all the sufferings of human nature, this is the most universal and the most purifying.
Therefore she lived through this strange, baffling thing for the love of God and for the love of us; she suffered it in Christ because Christ suffers it in human nature.
We have seen that her “Be it done unto me according to thy word” is uttered again in His “Not my will, but thine be done.” Just so is her “Son, why hast thou done so to us?” repeated in His “My God, My God, why has thou forsaken me?”
Everyone experiences this sense of the loss of the Divine Child.”
She talks of Mary’s sacrificial life, of idols, grace, emptiness and faith. She says in regards to speaking with people caught in sin:
“We should never come to a sinner without the reverence that we would take to the Holy Sepulchre. Pilgrims have travelled on foot for years to kiss the Holy Sepulchre, which is empty. In sinners we can kneel at the tomb in which the dead Christ lies.”
And in regards to the times in our life when we are seeking God and cannot find Him:
“He goes away that we may seek Him. The sense of loss, the awareness of insufficiency, makes us long for Him as He is; it makes us willing to go out from ourselves and find Him where He is.
He wants us to seek, because he wants to give Himself to us. It is an experience like the experience of emptiness: the emptiness must be there that He may fill it; and we must be aware of it in order that we may want Him to fill it.”
I love Caryll Houselander for the same reason I love Emily Dickinson: because they both possess a strikingly paradoxical way of writing about the loveliness and drudgery of life. Mysticism and the matter-of-fact combined. Her words paint a picture of the toil of daily life limned with the grace of Christ, refulgent with His presence. And so perhaps Christmas is real to me after all, because these words bring Christ fully into my world, enfleshed in the souls around me. I see Him not just in the faces I love, but in all I encounter: in the utterly familiar faces of my family, the faces of all my friends near and far, in a dear face now lost to me, in the homeless men on the Square, the drunken girl at the bar, the irritable couple at table 43, the refugees in the news, in all the faces of humanity, I see His face. His humanity. Every time I stop seeing someone as merely an object, and instead view Christ in them, He is born to me again in the flesh. In this way, I receive the gift of Christmas every day.
“The gift of Christ’s Body makes everyone a priest; because everyone can offer the Body of Christ on the altar of their own life.
But the offering must be the offering of a human being who is intensely alive, a potent humanness, great sorrow and great joy, a life lit up with the flame of Love, fierce fasts and thirsts and feasts of sheer joy. […]
It is not in making our flesh unfeeling that we hallow God’s name on earth but in offering it to God burning with the flame of life. Everything can be put into the fire that Christ came to kindle; and whether it be the bitter wood of sorrow or the substance of joy, it will burn upwards with the same splendor of light.”
December 15, 2015 § Leave a comment
Costa Rica was hot. And beautiful, humid and brash and bright. The sticky-sweet heat fell like a blanket on my shoulders every time I walked outside. But it wouldn’t have been the same without it. The ocean water, green and warmed through with sunlight, would not have been nearly as refreshing without the humid air. And the icy margaritas definitely wouldn’t have been as delicious.
A few weeks ago, Channing and I spent 5 days down in Costa Rica visiting our friend Jess. The heat hit us for the first time when we stepped out of the airport, but it barely registered because Jess was waiting for us already, grinning and waving from across the sidewalk. Channing and I were practically giddy with excitement (and a little vodka & club from the flight) as we ran over and hugged her. We couldn’t stop smiling and talking. It was hard to believe we were actually, really here in Costa Rica, after hearing Jess tell us so much about it. She had hired a local man, Diego, to pick us up and drive us around for the day. Diego didn’t speak any English, but with Jess translating, he was still a great tour guide, showing us the palm tree forest where he works, and buying us Imperials, the official cerveza of Costa Rica. The drive from the San Jose airport to Manuel Antonio- the little town where Jess lives- was just over two hours, and I loved every minute of it. I’m sure Channing would have too, but she slept most of the way. She managed to wake up for a few minutes when we stopped at the Crocodile Bridge, though. The muddy brown waters flowed placidly underneath the bridge, and the enormous crocodiles slept placidly through our excited photoshoot.
The Costa Rican mountains are sharp and jagged, rising in steep folds from the tangled jungle below. The highway wound up and down through them and then flattened out along the coastline to give us our first glimpse of the shining Pacific Ocean. We stopped briefly at a stand of trees overlooking the Pacific, where scarlet macaws flashed their blue and yellow wingtips at us as they settled onto the branches.
The sun was setting by the time we arrived at Jess’ apartment, and we quickly decided to catch the bus down to the beach for the rest of twilight. We dropped our suitcases in the living room, threw on our bikinis and flip-flops, and headed back out to the bus stop. I thought we were about to run off the road at least half a dozen times as the bus lumbered its way down the twisting mountainside, but the driver remained stoically indifferent, even yawning as he wrenched the wheel around in one direction and then another. After a few more hair-raising curves, it finally deposited us on the side of the main street running past Manuel Antonio’s beach. I stepped off the bus and onto the sand. Palm trees rustled over my head and the sound of the ocean boomed hollowly a few yards away.
“We’re here!!” Channing, Jess, and I immediately ran down to where the water came foaming up over the soft, dark sand. The spray from the crashing waves was warm as bathwater and tasted of salt and fresh wind. I couldn’t stop smiling at my friends. The purple and gray clouds on the western horizon were shot through with pink sunset remnants, the ocean washed all our weariness away, and we laughed in joy.
Over the next four days, I realized that Costa Rica was special. Not just for the exotic and lush jungle landscape- although that was astonishing in its loveliness- or in the friendliness of the people, but in some indefinable way I spent hours trying to pin down. The food was fresh and delicious, filled with just enough different flavors and ingredients to make a meal surprising.
We ate at Barba Roja on Saturday night, where I had albacore tuna seared medium-rare with some sort of creamy orange sauce, smooth mashed potatoes, and coconut curry kale that nearly made me (me!) a vegetable convert.
Emilio’s Cafe was our breakfast spot for two out of the three days, and the only reason we didn’t go on Tuesday was because it was closed. I sipped a smooth, rich cappuccino at Emilio’s, looking out over the ocean view, spearing chunks of fresh papaya and banana to go with my croissant. There were eggs, rice and beans, and fried sweet plantains that tasted like candy. On our last night, Jess cooked us a fantastic pad thai, full of chicken and veggies. I would like to say I helped, but really all I did was crush the peanuts and drink white wine.
We took the bus to the beach every day, usually arriving around 10 AM and grabbing some chairs by Marco’s surf school. The sun’s heat was fierce, tropical and heavy, but the ocean… oh, the ocean more than made up for it. Channing and I slathered each other in SPF 70 diligently and yet I still burned red in streaks and spots. She developed a lovely tan, much to my envy. In the hot, hot afternoons, we would cross the street and get margaritas at Las Gemelas, where the bartender John would mix mine extra strong and gently tug my blonde hair from across the bar. He told me stories about his life and asked me to marry him on my second night there. My hair stayed curly the entire time I was in Costa Rica, and lightened with sun so it was even more blonde than usual. Three different men proposed to me during my stay in Manuel Antonio. I blame the sun streaks in my hair, and my big blue eyes. Las Gemelas was one of those places, you know what I mean? Where you instantly feel like yourself, only a happier, lighter you. Maybe it was the margaritas. I don’t think so, though. John played thumping Latin American music on his laptop behind the bar and I couldn’t keep my feet from dancing every time I went in there. The crowd was friendly, always talking and laughing in the heat and rhythm of Spanish, and I realized even more what it means to be an extrovert: how I felt energized and joyful, just from being surrounded by the chatter and music and people, and the constant boom and fizz of the breaking waves, always, right across the street.
On the first day at the beach, I got Channing to put down her book and come out to play in the waves with me. We waded out past the breakers, deep enough that the rolling waves only collapsed on us every now and then. When a huge wave crested right in front of us, she screamed, “AHHHH WHAT DO I DO!?” and I promptly -and unhelpfully- screamed back, “JUST DIVE UNDER!!!” and did so. I popped back up out of the wave, laughing so hard I almost swallowed saltwater and saw that she had survived the pounding surf. This was only the beginning of Channing’s dangerous encounters with the ocean that day, though, because later we went on the banana boat. The banana boat is basically nothing more than a giant inflated tube which you straddle, while a jetski pulls you around the ocean. It’s fun and fast and hilarious, especially when the guy driving the jetski decides to cut a sharp turn and you, Jess, and Channing all go flying off the tube and into the water. Channing basically landed on my head in the water when this happened, and my hard skull bruised her hip. Sorry, Channing. She got me back later that night though, when we were sitting inside Las Gemelas watching a tropical downpour outside. Some of the guys were trying to teach me how to roll my r’s, which is apparently a necessary skill for speaking Spanish well enough that the locals don’t dissolve into laughter when you attempt it. I couldn’t do it, though and in despair, I turned to Channing, sitting next to me on another bar stool. “Chan, do YOU know how to roll your r’s!?” “Rose,” she grinned, because she knows me well, “the only thing I’m rolling right now are my eyes. At you.” In my defense, I was on vacation. In a tropical paradise. With margaritas. And salsa music.
On the second day at the beach, Jess’ friend Alexandra joined us and we drank coconut water out of coconut shells and Channing tried to convince me to ride a horse on the beach in my navy blue one-piece bathing suit. I politely declined. We walked down to the souvenir stalls on the side street and bought pretty sarongs and seashell earrings. Channing wanted to buy a machete for her boyfriend, but we weren’t quite sure how to get it through Customs in a carry-on.
Jess showed us the monkey wires installed overhead, so that the little titi monkeys have somewhere to run other than the power lines. The tropical rain began hissing down as we sat at Las Gemelas, and I couldn’t stop staring at the ocean through the gray evening light. “Jess… can I go run out into the ocean?” I didn’t want to seem like a weirdo, but Jess just laughed at me. “Do whatever you want, Rose.” So I grabbed Channing and we ran across the street and down through the soft sand. The rain fell in chill slanting sheets upon our shoulders, giving me goosebumps on my arms and neck as we waded into the warm surf. Jess got an action shot of us during the storm:
We ate dinner that night at the bar at Hotel Byblos, where the television was showing the Texans/Bengals Monday Night Football game and there was a foosball table tucked into the corner. It felt like the Valley, until we ordered shrimp and rice and beans instead of hot wings.
On the third day at the beach, Jess’ 3 year-old daughter Alana decided it would be fun to dribble sand all over me and Channing. She pulled us down to the water’s edge and laughed the whole time she plopped handfuls of the soft gray sand on us. The sand in Costa Rica has a dark tint to it, and I was pretty sure that was due to volcanic rock. I asked Jess and Marco, who both confirmed that I was correct in my geological assumptions, which was almost as enjoyable as being proposed to. Alana called the sand “poop” the entire time she was covering us in it. After I jumped into the waves to wash the sand off, Maykoll, one of Marco’s friends, took me out into the ocean on a paddleboard. Once we swam past the breaking waves, he had me sit on the front of the long board and he jumped up and paddled us all the way out into the middle of the ocean. This was one of my favorite moments of the whole trip. The sun was hot on my back, but the water washed cool and sweet across the board. The green waves sparkled in the sunlight, throwing glints of white like diamonds off their windswept tops. We paddled all the way out past the twin rocks that Las Gemelas is named for, and we dangled our legs into the water, floating in the center of the horizon with nothing but emerald green ocean and sapphire sky stretching out before us. I kept going back and forth in my mind the whole trip, on what color Costa Rica was: vibrant hues in the sun, dark and rich during the rains, neon at night, but there in the middle of the Pacific ocean, all I could see were jewels.
Maybe that’s it, maybe that’s why I couldn’t quite pin down what it was about Costa Rica. Because it kept changing on me: it was flickering green shadows in the jungle inside Manuel Antonio National Park, it was white hot sunlight on the speckled beach, it was darkened, drenched hair and neon signs while the wild rainstorms pounded at night. The whole country buzzed and murmured and sang around me in a language I could not understand. I stood in the middle, surrounded by life in every color, and I drank it in with the sun and the salt and the water.
October 22, 2015 § Leave a comment
Today I was thinking about my old pet rat, Mervy. Mervy passed away in January 2013, so this definitely counts as a throwback. I wrote about him here when that happened. He was the most affectionate rat and the friendliest one out of the 6 that I’ve owned. (Charlie was the sweetest to me, but he wasn’t as good with other people, so Mervy gets the crowd-pleaser title.)
But today I was really just remembering one Merv incident in particular, the one that makes me so glad I have pet rats, because they’re smart and hilarious and sneaky. It was mid-December of 2011, and I was still living at home with the rat cage in my bedroom. I had a box of Gertrude Hawk chocolate Jordan Crackers in my closet, to keep it safe from the rats. (Yes, I keep snacks in my bedroom. No, those snacks are never healthy.) One day, I let the rats (Bob, Merv, and Willy at the time) out of the cage in my room to have some play time, as usual. I left the room for a few minutes, shutting the door tightly behind me, and went to grab some laundry downstairs. Mom distracted me on that fateful day, asking me a few questions in the kitchen, so that it was about half an hour before I made it back upstairs. I went back in the room and immediately saw that my closet door was open. When I poked my head inside, Mervy came scampering out of the closet, right between my feet, a Jordan Cracker firmly held in his mouth, and sticking out both sides. “MERVY!” I exclaimed in horror and pounced on him. He squirmed in my grasp, trying desperately not to relinquish his forbidden treat. I pried it out of his mouth and then promptly popped him into the cage and latched the door. Turning back to the closet, I saw he had chewed a hole through the bottom of the Jordan Cracker box and left cardboard pieces scattered around. I picked a few up and turned back around to laughingly scold him again.
And there he was, sitting in a corner of the cage, gnawing happily on ANOTHER Jordan Cracker!! “Mervy!” I yelled again, and reached in and tugged the second one from his greedy little paws. I turned around and dropped both chocolates in the trash, picked up more cardboard and threw that out, and then spun back to properly scold my sneaky little rat again. And there he was, eating A THIRD JORDAN CRACKER.
“WHERE ARE YOU GETTING THESE FROM!?” I shrieked, feeling baffled and dismayed. Mervy’s twinkling black eyes laughed at me as he eagerly nibbled the chocolate treat that was bigger than his face. On a hunch, I reached into the cage and lifted up their little sleep hut. Sure enough, there they were, a whole treasure trove of chocolate goodness. Mervy had hoarded at least fifteen Jordan Crackers inside the opaque walls of the sleep hut. He must have ferried them each individually into the cage from the closet while I was downstairs. In half an hour! I started laughing so hard I cried. The image of him trotting back and forth across my room with these giant chocolates sticking out of his mouth was too much. Then I took them all out and told Mervy he was a hilariously, adorably misbehaving sneak of a rat.
I don’t keep snacks in my room anymore.
Mervy snuggled up with Fred and Bob