who would i be?

Flying from Ohio to Virginia today, I got to thinking about planes.  I could see two planes on the horizon.  I could see the shadow of my plane on the tops of the clouds.  There are planes everywhere, and I was only seeing a handful.  The flights so short.  The trips so far.  How could so many people have so many places to go?

I thought about the world and how interconnected it is.  I thought about how this changes our perspective, how it makes our “needs” just become more frivolous “wants”.  How it encourages our outrageous American sense of entitlement.

Just today, I was sitting back in the soils lab talking to Jeff and then I blurted out, “Wouldn’t life be so much easier if we just didn’t have air conditioning, heating, electricity?  If we didn’t have those expectations and then the simpler life would be so much more?  Wouldn’t we have less stress and less obligation and be better off?  And I wouldn’t need to worry about my hair looking lousy today or the fact that I had to put on a tank top under this shirt because I panicked when I realized you can see my bra…”

He laughed at my outburst, but he agreed.  And I think it’s true.

Then I wondered, what if… what if we didn’t live in this frantic era?  Here I am, starting a long journey overseas, ready to “seize” and “define” and “become” and “challenge” – but what in the world does that all mean anyway?  What if we didn’t have those opportunities?

Who would I be?

My incessant journeys abroad arose out of a panicky scramble when my personal life was falling apart, my academic life seemed too uninteresting to ever land a job, and my graduation date was approaching too soon for me to actually graduate.  There was no glorious find-myself-out-there moment or decision or scholarship…it was just GET ME OUT OF HERE and DEAR GOD HELP ME GET BACK ON TRACK.  Back on track in EVERY aspect of my life.

I was a mess.  What else would cause me to move temporarily to West Africa ALONE??

Every time I ride a train in Europe or fly through an airport, I can’t help but notice the plethora of young women in small groups giddily dancing around an unfolded map with hiking backpacks, black leggings, and sneakers.  They’ve got their bandanas on, their Fodor guides out, and they’re ready to “rough it”.  But why?

No, dear lord, please…don’t tell me I’m part of a trend.  I didn’t ask for this!

Now that the world is at our fingertips and women have access to more generous means (thanks to the push for higher education and the encouragement to abandon home-making for a life of independence), so so so many young women are out there traveling.  It’s like an epidemic.  It seems like I always see them, hear about them, or even witness them among my friends.  (I mean, men too, but not my point.)

What is it that they’ve lost about themselves that they think they’re going to find?  Am I really just the same as them?

I honestly don’t have an answer.  But while they’re so busy trying to find out who they will be, I can’t help but see who they would have been and wonder the same for myself.

At 23, where would I have been two generations ago?
A housewife, surely.  World War 2.  Cooking.  Cleaning.  Shopping.

It sounds dismal, but part of me wonders if I would have preferred it.

Relaxed, taken care of, at ease, important, with a place in this world.
These days, I don’t know where I belong.
These days, there are high expectations put on me.
These days, I still can’t walk into my job or my hockey game like a woman.
Because I’m still at the disadvantage.
I still have to work a little harder to just pass, because, well, men.
But that’s okay.
Look how far the world has come already.

But is there an intrinsic spark in me that would have caused me to rebel?  Would I have become a journalist like Skeeter in The Help and taken life into my own hands?  Chosen against a husband and instead fought for human rights?

I want to say yes, yes that would have been me.
But I’m not so sure it would have been.

Sure, now I feel like a rebel, going against the grain, going alone, fighting for native rights.
But that’s so trendy now.
Is that really that awesome of me?  Or am I just mundane??

It’s like when the whole world tries so hard to be “different” that “different” becomes “normal”.

But I’m not out to fight being normal,…or am I?

Questions even I can’t answer for myself.
But let’s say I am out there to be different.
And it’s 1940.
What would I have done?  Joined the Army?  Fought in WWII as a “soldier”?  Refused to marry, gone to school, practiced science?  Eventually walked on the moon?

Geez… Life is hard to understand sometimes.

Not only do I not have any idea who I am, but I’m unsure of who I will be and also confused by who I might have been.

Well, one thing’s for sure…I’m about to board a plane for Belgium.  And I know who I USED to be: a girl who could never board a plane by herself to Belgium.  And here I am, student card in hand, an ex-resident of southern France, ready to face the world with a loose itinerary and no reservations.

Because I’m kind of over asking what ifs.

Talking to Strangers.

I would say it took until I was about 20 to realize that all those “Don’t talk to strangers!” warnings mama gives you start to wear off and instead become a crutch if you continue to heed them.

I’m definitely a quiet person. I sit back and observe. Part of that is me naturally lacking confidence, the other part is just me fearing bad impressions or the misinterpretation of a situation. But I’m also a person who hates idleness and who wants to learn and grow now that all my physical growing has ended. It’s hard to just sit in a room if everyone’s just sitting in that room and no one is speaking. I start to form burning urges to say something – anything – that would take off the strain of silence. But lately I’ve been getting those urges in times that aren’t silent, in times that are totally foreign and uncomfortable. It sometimes frightens me, this uncontrolled adrenaline rush of opening my mouth and just saying something.

I have thus become a person not afraid to talk to strangers. Correction: I am afraid, but I tremble with intimidation and do it anyway. What’s more is this is something I have chosen to become. Talking to strangers as a child can be a dangerous sport. I don’t just mean that because of the crazy people out there today who offer kids candy and drive white vans. It can be dangerous because, as a child, you’re too easily malleable and your parents need to have some control over who puts ideas into your head before you’re able to make your own experienced judgments. I say experienced and not educated because I’ve come to realize that so much more of life is learned by experience and not in a classroom. In fact, the best parts of life are learned that way. But when you grow up enough that you’re starting to get an idea of who you are and what questions to ask, you start to realize that your learning experience – with a mental filter in hand – comes much more rapidly when you engage with a complete stranger.

Just this past month, I started realizing how many strangers I had befriended by simply going to the same restaurant during the same times. Some of them are guests, some of them are employees, and some of them I still don’t know their names – but I know their stories. These befriended strangers made me realize how we can so subconsciously bond with people who may not have that much in common with us. It got me thinking to actively making friends when I go places, and so I began engaging with random people more regularly and became enthralled with the results.

Then, finally, it occurred to me: How much of my life has changed because of these strangers?

That’s when I realized how much solo traveling has opened my mind, thanks to talking with strangers. Imagine traveling the world alone – as I have this last year – and not daring to talk with a soul you don’t know. I would have been so lonely. But would I had chosen to talk to those people otherwise? Outside of that situation? I can guarantee you No. Most of those conversations I had weren’t even in English. But just because I’m bilingual doesn’t mean I didn’t have conversations outside of any of my languages, because I did. I spoke with a woman on a train from Hungary who knew nothing but German. She had taken a train all the way to Budapest to save a rescue dog and she asked me – the American stranger! – to watch her things as she walked the dog down the night train and doted on his lingering illnesses.

If I had not tried to talk to strangers, I would never have gotten to exchange my experiences in West Africa with people who have never left their village. I showed them pictures of home on my phone and they showed me their kitchens and how to cook my favorite local dishes. They told me about how wonderful they think America is and I told them of how Americans think of Africa. Then we exchanged truths about how the African life is all they know and many of them love it, and I told them how much suffering does exist even in America… I learned that poverty is sometimes a blessing when you’re not living up against things you can’t have, and they learned that not every person from America is really as lucky as outsiders dream they are.

But you don’t have to go to exotic places to gain such insight and perspective; you just have to seek out a person you would never normally choose to speak with. Someone who is a much different age, who dresses much differently, who looks really outgoing or really timid. Someone who clearly practices different religious beliefs, evidenced by their prayer mat in a public place, their symbols of faith, their burka. You might be amazed at what you will learn. You might begin to question everything you once knew, wonder what the purest truths are, see yourself in a much different light.

So, sorry mama, but I think it’s time we all start talking to strangers.

Coffee & Whiskey

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“Give coffee to change the things I change… and whiskey to accept the things I cannot.”
I saw this quote while surfing briefly on Pinterest and thought it was funny – and quite true.  Although I don’t condone turning to liquor as a way to handle your problems, I choose to interpret this silly meme with light humor.  I do like my whiskey, but I am a huge craft beer fan.  As a cook and an artist, I think craft beer is just another form of culinary art – and perhaps one of the most finicky.  Whiskey, too, is that way.  So there is no wonder than my two favorite places to be are in a fair trade coffee shop or a quirky microbrewery, one generally for work and the other for entertainment.
So, yes, I’ll take that coffee or tea as my moment of indulgence without interrupting a stream of constant work.  It keeps me alert and relaxes me at the same time.  It can be my motivation to get up and get going, and it can be as subtly a form of art at the hands of a barista as brewing alcohol is to the brewer.  Of course, when I’m not working hard at something or meeting up with people to plan, develop, and execute new ideas, I’m likely going with a group of friends or even venturing into a new city on my own and meeting all kinds of people at some kind of microbrew joint.  In a way, it is me accepting things I don’t want to accept, like unwinding after a long week that maybe didn’t go as well as I had hoped.  But instead of moping around, I make a treat out of my time spent experiencing new places and talking with new people.  It’s my way of realizing that there’s more to life than whatever’s been on my mind while simultaneously indulging with like-troubled people over a great glass of whatever the house recommends.
This week, take a moment to enjoy your coffee while you work, and don’t be afraid to brave a new bar seat, different conversation, and perhaps a drink you hadn’t been willing to try quite yet.