Monday, January 25, 2010


Saturday, January 23, 2010

They all said it would happen at some point. And I guess they were right.

For no particular reason, I found it damn near impossible to peel myself out of bed this morning. My eyelids were so heavy. The morning sun was too strong. The covers were pinning me down. I was trapped in my own inexplicable heaviness; too anxious about what the day would bring on the other side of the blankets to push them off.

There was no good reason for my state of mind. I hadn't partied the night before. No one had wronged me. I haven't even gained weight! In fact, I had every reason to be optimistic about certain new possibilities wiggling their way into my life.

It was my complaining bladder than forced me out of bed eventually. Like a newborn wailing to guarantee that first instinctual intake of air, my body took over, saving me from the smothering amniotic blankets.

I went through the motions of my Saturday morning routine. Coffee and NPR with a side of oatmeal. Shower, alternately ice cold and scalding hot without warning. Brush teeth. Jeans and a sweater. Make bed. Grab lesson plan. Out the door.

About to walk out of the building, I stopped short at the mailboxes, finding a pink slip of paper sitting inside. A package awaited at the post office.

Everyone loves a package, especially an unexpected one. Sunshine and speculation carried me the extra mile out of my way to the post office.

The package, which took the perplexed employees about 10 minutes to locate, was from my Aunt Gobie. She was thanking me for the time we spent together when she was in the hospital earlier this month. In the box was a beautiful sweater that hadn't fit my uncle, two bags of rice and beans mix, and six Reese's peanut butter hearts. And the sweetest card, with a neatly folded, crisp bill, which I knew was only a representative mite of what she wished she could give.

And so it began.

My heart ached. I'm sure that outcome was the very last thing Gobie had in mind when she put the package together. But I missed her. I missed Uncle Brad. I missed a hundred people at once; some scattered across the globe, and others in this very city.

It didn't help to hear the excitement in her voice when I called to thank her. The thoughtfulness with which she had assembled the simplest items ("Don't vegetarians eat a lot of rice and beans?") killed me. I sat on a bench at 46th and 6th while we talked, under the bland towers of midtown. The streets were emptier than they should have been, and all I wanted was to fill them with the faces of people I loved.

After talking with Gobie and Brad, I had to go teach my weekly Musical Theatre Workshop. I volunteer with a group called Artists Striving to End Poverty, and every Saturday, a few of us teach a class for the International Rescue Committee. I have about 15 high-schoolers in my class who love to sing and dance, even if they can't speak English well enough to really understand what they're singing.

Walking into the building, already dripping in my own melancholy, I was greeted by a group of student leaders trying to come up with ideas of how they could help in Haiti. Several of them wanted to go there immediately.

To put this in perspective, all of the students in my class are either refugees or political asylees: They all come from parts of the world rife with unrest. I have students from The Sudan, Guinea, Nepal, Tibet, Myanmar, and the list goes on. They know far more than their fair share of grief, and yet they wanted to go help out their Haitian brothers and sisters. I was speechless.

Throughout the rest of the day, I couldn't stop thinking about the collective sacrificing spirit of my students. Every week, I learn more of their personal stories (courage and fortitude are inadequate words by a long shot). Though the faces are different, these students remind me so much of the young people that I taught when I lived in Nicaragua. My soul got heavier as I ran through the names and faces of those students, wondering how they are doing. Some are still in prison. Others, the more transient ones, disappeared long ago, and I will likely never have contact with them again.

When I get an a mood like this, I can really start spiraling fast. Walking down the street after class, I started projecting faces of people I haven't heard from in ages onto strangers' bodies as they passed. It didn't take much: If I saw a curly head of hair, I was suddenly convinced that it was my dear friend Natali, the holistic healer and best barista in all of Nicaragua. A blonde jogger wearing a camelback zipped by, and I was sure it was my cousin Rachel, whose birthday was today, and with whom I had shared some of the most spectacular weeks of my life on the bike trip this summer. Walking by a cafe, I almost tripped over myself, convinced that I saw TK and Judy dining inside---an couple who had adopted our motley crew of cross country cyclists out in Colorado.

At first, I was somewhat aware that my mind was playing tricks on me. But after a while, my brain got out of the equation, and just let my heart wallow in its own puddle of self-pitying nostalgia. For several minutes, I associated every stranger's face with someone I loved.

Some people might call it homesickness, what I was experiencing all day. But that word doesn't fit right for me. The people I love are not all concentrated in the same little town, where I can hop on a bus home from the big city and see them all at once. I have made and loved many "homes" in the past few years, most of which have only lasted a few weeks or months at a time. For four months this year, I made my home in a new place every night, as I made my way across the continent by bicycle. And in each "home," there are people and places that I learned to love, fast and furiously, and then learned to leave, just as quickly.

And so a better word for my particular brand of melancholy today would be, "Roam-sick." I don't know what brought it on, but it hit me hard today, and I was rubbing it all over myself like a one-year-old playing in his own poo. I wanted to reek of roamsickness, so everyone would know just how blue I was. At one point, I'm almost too embarrassed to admit, the following thought ran through my head:

"It's like I feel all of the sadness of all the people missing in my life concentrated in a single point in the center of my chest. If I feel this way, how must God feel to have the weight of the entire world concentrated in God's chest?"

Okay Hamlet, calm yourself.

Again, it was my bladder that saved me from myself. Suddenly, I had to pee so badly that I ran through the first open door I saw, which was the Church of Saint Mary the Virgin, just off Times Square. Once my bladder was empty, I realized that I had stumbled into a dress rehearsal of a Madrigal ensemble that would be performing in the church that evening.

The haunting chords of the ancient instruments and pure voices stilled my self-pitying heart. Something stopped me dead in my tracks, and plopped me down in the third pew from the back, just a few rows behind a homeless man curled up and snoring on the bench.

I sat for about an hour, not thinking of much. Sometimes, when you start to spiral into self-pity, not thinking of much is the best you can do. At least it puts on the brakes long enough to help you change directions.

As the ensemble played, I felt a growing need to pray, but I was still a little to smeared with roamsick-tastic baby poo to come up with the right words.

I remembered something my college chaplain used to say: "When you don't have the words, remember: Prayer is Breathing. Breathing is Prayer."

And so I just breathed. I breathed in openness, and I breathed out roamsickness. I breathed my prayer over and over, deeper and fuller, to the sounds of harpsichord and the theorbo, the lirone, the tiorbino and the arpa tripla.

And after several minutes, I mustered a smile. They had all told me this would happen. All of my friends who had moved to New York before me said that at some point in the first year, you hit a wall, when not much makes sense, and you don't really know why you're here, and you really just want to go home...or go roam, as the case may be.

Sometimes, when I pull myself out of one of these self-destructive wallowings, I can go too far in the other direction. I get mad at myself for wasting so much energy on a stupid problem. "How adolecent, to mope around like a child because you've had too many wonderful adventures and met too many wonderful people, and you miss them. How many people in this world would kill to have seen what you've seen? There are too many real problems in this world for you to spend energy on that! Look at HAITI!"

But this time, I was a little gentler with myself. I went to my favorite Chinese restaurant and got some Chow Fun. (Mostly, I ordered it because of the name.) And then I had a donut. A delicious, chocolated drenched, pink sprinkled donut.

And now, sitting in my bed with my geriatric laptop and a cup of tea, this morning's blankets don't feel nearly as heavy.