From Fire

When I was thirteen years old my great-grandmother passed. My great grandfather had gone a few years prior. They were the first people close to me to die. Theirs was the most consistent childhood home I remember. Gaudy pink carpet, high wood ceilings. My grandfather a fixture in a blue armchair donning a blue jumpsuit. My grandmother always in the kitchen. I established parts of myself here, toddler-me opening up the cupboards and pulling out pots and wooden spoons, imitating my grandmother’s domestic gifts. I can still see every inch of kitchen tile, the vinyl tablecloth, the window above the sink filtering in garden light. When they died, a young woman bought the house. She put in french doors and tore the carpet out. I have never been back. I feel loss when I think of returning. Maybe I will drive by the outside and look on, but the sense of home will not linger here — this is mine to rebuild elsewhere.

When I was nineteen I stepped onto the Marylhurst University campus for the first time. The old brick made me feel like I was at Hogwarts. This was a self barely emerging: shy and unsure, but steadfast in her love of books and words. In this space I felt the whispers of the sisters pulling me in. I knew, could feel, that so many people, so many women had found their voices here. I stood in the chapel and I read a piece for my community college creative writing class to an audience of MU students and faculty. The support and community floored me. The following year I made this my home.

It’s hard to put into words what the next three years held. I discovered myself again and again: writer, scholar, friend, leader. I read. I devoured everything from graphic novels to contemporary nonfiction to Shakespeare to medieval women writers. I wrote. My voice grew beyond what I thought possible. I met incredible people and created beautiful things with them. I felt more connected to other humans than I have felt before or since. I fell in love here. My heart was broken here. When the old sludge of self-doubt trickled in and ate away at my worth, I sat on a cold stone bench by a statue of the Virgin Mary and cried. I have never prayed to God in my life but I knew that here, she could guide me.

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I hold such reverence for this space. I put love and trust into it and it set forth a path for dreams I didn’t know I had. With fellow learners and dreamers and beloved professors, I travelled across the Atlantic. Twice. I wandered the streets of London at night; I swam in the Mediterranean; I laughed and drank wine on a Roman rooftop; I drank from the Roman baths; I saw Van Goghs and Botticellis; I saw the surviving manuscript of Beowulf; I stood where Julius Caesar died; I opened myself up with furocious vulnerability to the most intimate friendships I have had. I saw myself as limitless for the first time.

The second year I was away becoming myself, while we rode trains through lush countryside, my home burned. A fourteen year old made a thoughtless decision, and thousands of acres of the Columbia Gorge turned to ash. Over the phone, my mother described the gray debris blanketing our yard and the asthma attacks my family suffered. I felt so oddly disconnected. Two weeks before I had departed, my boyfriend and I sat atop a hill in the gorge and looked over the river, mountains breathing, trees sure and tall, evidence of life on every plane. In London and Rome, my friends and I took moments of repose when we could, to process and mourn together. My dear professor, always compassionately pragmatic, reminded us there have always been fires, that there will always be fires, and of the regenerative power that fires have on ecosystems. Within a year there would be new growth.

I imagined the days spent in the car with my family, zooming alongside the river and then hiking up to look at the falls. There was a holiness to this symbol of our Oregon landscape. I have not had the heart to return yet. I imagine driving my future children here. I imagine young trees and fresh bursts of green, and how this new beauty will be the only beauty my children will ever know. And though my heart will hurt, this will be enough.

On one of our final days in Rome, we gathered in an old building owned by the University of Washington in the Campo de Fiori. Here, vendors selling bright fruit and cotton dresses clustered under awnings. They shouted at us, pushed samples of sweet neon limoncello on us. Garbage cans overflowed. Yet there was a sense of comfort and home, too. A brooding statue of Giordano Bruno, sixteenth century philosopher who was burned here for his revolutionary ideas, looked over us. We met in our classroom above the campo, and sat at our desks waiting to discuss Goethe’s Italian Journey. Our professor, my friend and mentor, the person who had helped to shape my academic voice and critical thought more than anyone else, walked in. Usually boundlessly energetic, her shoulders slumped. There was a deep tiredness in her. She told us that she had been on the phone all night. The university was denying entrance to the students who had already been admitted to the English department for the coming fall. She did not need to say it: this did not bode well for the future of our department, for the jobs of our beloved faculty, or for the university as a whole. We consoled each other, shed some tears, and above all asked what the fate of our home would be.

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In the Campo, under Bruno’s hooded gaze, I felt with my whole body the injustice in denying others who would come after me the opportunity to transform as I had transformed. I felt my own sorrow stacked upon the sorrow of something that could have been so much bigger.

We flew home and hope flared again. The incoming English students were welcomed afterall. Some of them walked away, but many opened themselves to the Marylhurst experience they believed they could create for themselves despite the finicky moves of administration. For nine months these students read broadly, thought deeply, put vulnerable and beautiful truths on paper, and built a flourishing community. A home.

Now they tell us our home is not ours anymore. They are closing their doors. The students are being robbed. This place I have loved so completely is burning. A year ago I walked across the stage at my Marylhurst graduation. Tears tumbled down my cheeks as bagpipers infiltrated the ceremony, and with their surging notes bore us out into the world. My soul was a woman wild and reaching, brimming out of me and looking for her next adventure. Now I am not sure where she has gone. I am not sure of my place in anything. I am losing a part of myself. Many of my friends are losing much more.

I do not know what will emerge from the ashes of this institution. But I know this: I need Marylhurst to be a place we can return to. We who have grown and cried, who have sat among the headstones of the sisters, who have felt the world open up here. I need this to be a place for community and education, support for the unsupported, a place that lifts up unheard voices, a place for justice and equality to be cultivated. I need to be able to bring my someday children here. Imagine I should have a daughter. Imagine her asking me, Mama, where did your resilience, or empathy, or courage come from? Her unspoken question, Will I find these things in myself? Imagine if I could show her. Imagine my anguish if I could not. To those who have made this closure a reality: now is the time to listen. To the sisters who gave us everything: listen. Our hands are ready to help. We want to rebuild from rubble. We know it will not be the same. But we need it to be something.

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Athletic Shoes in Europe, y/n?


Since I already wrote pretty extensively on the pre-trip readings last year ( I may still touch on them again as I read back through), this year’s pre-trip blogging can be dedicated to the important topics. Like shoes. 

This time last year, I was gearing up to travel to Europe for the first time, and I was soaking up every tip and bit of advice I could. Hands down, the single biggest piece of advice I was given by everyone and their grandma who had ever been to Europe was this: people in Europe do not wear athletic shoes unless they are at the gym. It’s tacky and oh-so-American to wear sneakers around town, and it’s even considered rude to wear them into businesses. Wear sandals, wear comfy flats, but for the love of God don’t wear sneakers!!!!

I started to get legitimately worried about making a footwear faux pas. These tales were so assertive and serious about the shame that would come along with wearing shoes that might make you look touristy or American. 

But when I arrived in London, I saw something startling: I saw some of the most beautiful, stylish, classy people in London’s financial district wearing…athletic shoes. I saw everyone from trendy teens to older business people wearing them. I even glimpsed, during 5 o’clock rush hour on the tube, a beautiful woman who was the epitome of professional fashion, with sleek sweeping hair and a pencil skirt, with high heels poking out of her purse and, on the ends of her nylon-clad legs, a pair of colorful tennis shoes.

The thing is, people in London are moving way too fast to worry about what shoes American tourists are wearing. It’s more about keeping up with the pace. Don’t stop and dawdle in the tube station, get in anyone’s way, or stand on the side of the escalator where people are sprinting up and down. But no one is worried about your sneakers!

Now, in Rome it is slightly different: I saw a good amount of people wearing athletic shoes, but the footwear of choice for women is still stilettos. And I cannot for the life of me imagine the kind of skill and dedication it would take to navigate the cobblestone in them. But that doesn’t mean Italian people are going to shun you for wearin Nike’s or Addidas. Rome is such a multicultural place, like London, and I think we need to let go a little bit of the idea that we should not appear American (that’s not going to happen!). Again, just be respectul in your behavior, make an effort to speak the language, be appropriate and kind. Business owners are happy to have our business; they are not looking at our shoes!

In general, people dress up more in Europe. That much is true. It is good to have a pair of dressier shoes for a nice dinner or for going to a play, etc. Even in the US, Portlanders tend to be more casual than a lot of our other city dwellers  — not dressing up as much for meetings, parties,etc. it’s good to be mindful of that and bring some options. But bottom line – do what makes you comfortable like I wish I did last year! And for this year –behold my new (used) Nike’s 🙂

A Re-Introduction

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My last Roman Cappuccino. I miss this.

It’s been about ten months since I returned home from my first trip out of the USA, to London and Rome with my amazing Marylhurst community. I got off the plane in PDX last September haggard but inspired, and as soon as I fought off the jet lag (which was no joke — it was at least a week before I stopped wanting to go to bed at 5 p.m.) that the itch to return started growing, persistent.

I am beyond grateful, and still in a little disbelief, that I get to travel abroad AGAIN with Marylhurst. In January, I was asked to be the teacher’s assistant for this year’s trip, and the question was hardly finished before I said yes. After walking in commencement this past June, less than a month ago, this feels like the best graduation present I could have received. The same cities, the same excitement, new people, and a promise of new discovery. I am imagining the experience to go something like when you re-read a book you love, and you get more out of it the second time. You know the plot already, so you allow yourself to examine the sentences more closely. You go slower. You find more beauty. That is what I hope for.

More soon. Andiamo!

Final Thoughts


I have been home now for over a week, and I feel I’ve only just begun to process everything that happened on my journey. I don’t know how to talk about this trip without sounding cliche, pretentious, hyperbolic, dreamy, or annoying. Words like ‘transcendent,’ ‘transformative,’ and ‘profound’ sound weird thrown into every day conversation.

But it was transformative – that is the only way to to talk about it; in terms of how it changed me. I am not the same person I was on the plane from New York to London. Cheesy, but true.

Maybe, if I examine that more closely, the trip didn’t necessarily change me into a new person – it just brought me closer to a deeper self; closer to qualities I had buried, forgotten, or never knew about.

As humans, we are good at putting ourselves into boxes. We stereotype ourselves more than we stereotype anyone else. I had such clear-cut ideas about who I was. For instance, I initially worried that my introversion would bog me down – that I would get exhausted by all of the group activity and that I wouldn’t be able to carve out enough solitude. What I found was that I just adored our group so much, I actually didn’t crave solitude. I craved deep conversations out on the terrace at Viccolo del Cinque, I craved laughter and connection. I started re-thinking assumptions I had previously made about myself – has it ever really been that I wanted solitude, or have I just felt exhausted by empty social interactions? Maybe I am energized by social situations when they are meaningful and fulfilling – and that is what I got, in abundance, on this trip.

This kind of realization of, or return to, some truer interiority of self happened again and again and again. I realized more fully a desire to travel, to not limit myself, to shop around for new opportunities outside of my dear home in the Pacific Northwest; to reach out to people and make deep connections; to be vulnerable and embrace the scariness of new situations; to be always seeking wonder; to live more simply (my new way of evaluating whether I need something [possessions, habits, etc] is to ask myself: if I didn’t need it in Europe, do I need it at all?); and most of all to view myself not as static but as fluid, flexible, fluctuating – ever changing and responding to new situations and environments.

From haggling with vendors in Camden Markets in London, to speaking bad Italian and buying pretty Italian tops in Rome, to swimming in the Medetereanian, and drinking wine on our terrace late at night, and just being with the most incredible people…I am filled to the brim with happiness, fulfillment, and gratitude. I am changed and changing, delving deeper into introspection, and realizing the importance of reaching out.

I can feel the trip as something almost tangible – something I’m carrying with me into my senior year at Marylhurst, and into whatever crazy world I happen to fall into next. 

 

 

Horror at Harrods

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A disappointment.

This is a lesson in knowing yourself, your interests, your boundaries. There are many, many things I’m game for and comfortable with – I can be flexible, I promise! – but I was not prepared for the Twilight-Zone-esque experience that was Harrods, a department store in London.

Originally the plan was to get Indian food and chill for a while until we had to meet the whole group at St. Paul’s that evening. But I succumbed to peer pressure when everyone wanted to check out Harrods. Most of us were starving, but there was a restaurant on every floor, they assured us!

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A summary: I touched a plain bathrobe that cost£2300. I felt gnarly and underdressed. We wandered around and around, up and down escalators, never finding food. We finally found a pizza place with a mile long line. A pizza chef sang opera. We gave up on that. We got Hangry. We found an ice cream parlor in which we were the only diners over the age of twelve and one of us only ordered beer. I had a scoop of vanilla ice cream for  £10. I wanted to leave from the moment I walked in to the moment I got to.

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It was a surreal level of over-the-top; so crowded, so much sensory overload, so extravagant. And this was after spending the morning at Camden Markets — a Portland Saturday Market vibe; much more my speed; every vendor had something for under £20. The contrast was stark and appalling. I felt so uncomfortable in the presence of such excess I didn’t know what to do with my body – maybe it was some kind of ethical dilemma or maybe it just went against my grungy earthy Oregonian upbringing on such a cellular level. At any rate, I got out, and we got our Indian dinner, and I am never going back!

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The Best Meal

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Hands down the best meal I had abroad was this one. This is from Il Delfino, a beachside restaurant in Ostia, outside of Rome. After exploring the ruins at the incredible Ostia Antica, we hit the beach where I combed the sand for shells and laughed with my beautiful friends, getting our legs wet and sharing a collective we’re actually oceanside in Italy right now moment.

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Ostia Antica – Ancient Roman port town

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After frolicking, we decided to get a group dinner at Il Delfino, just a little ways down from the free beach we’d visited. Honestly, it didn’t look like much – a typical tourist-y vibe, but a pleasant atmosphere with outside seating and a pretty view. I was starving and would have eaten seaweed at that point, so I wasn’t picky – but I wasn’t expected to be graced with my favorite meal of the trip!

 

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I ordered spaghetti with clams and king prawn. The noodles were dense and perfectly cooked, so flavorful I would have eaten them plain; buttery, melty, glorious clams (and LOTS of them); two plump, meaty prawns. It was simple but so perfect – buenisimo!

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I knew without a doubt that this was something otherworldly, transcendent — especially as the trip drew to a close and we visited another beach town, Sperlonga. Here, we went to another beachside seafood joint, with grumpier staff and a dinkier vibe, where I ordered the same. I should have known that after Ostia, nothing could compare — and it didn’t.

Forever in my heart, Il Delfino!

A Sketch

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Here is an informal (the most informal of all informal) sketch of the view of Sperlonga’s cityscape – a beautiful medieval beach town nestled in the rock!

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More specifically, I sketched while we waited for our meal (all Italian meals are a long affair) at the Aurora Hotel, overlooking the beach we played at, and the beautiful cliffside town.

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I wish I had slowed down and sketched more on this trip, but it was nice to take a brief moment away from words and to process a part of my experience in a more visual way.