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Unripened

Stories from the vine

16 Steps to Happiness at 25

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1. Get a creative writing degree (or an appropriate substitution, ideally anything that has you playing make believe, talking to the voices in your head, and inventing nonsensical stories).

2. Finish school. Wade into the ocean of uncertainty. Know that it will drown you, and hope that you can learn how to breathe underwater.

3. Nothing is certain. Cry about it.

4. Convince your friends and family you know exactly what you’re doing. (Alternately, pretend you’re still listening to their advice.)

5. Move back home.

6. Doubt yourself. Doubt yourself. Doubt yourself until it gives you nightmares (someone wrapping your head in plastic until you wake up sweaty, choking, and temporarily paralyzed). Learn about “sleep paralysis,” which makes more sense than temporary demonic possession. Acknowledge your overactive imagination.

7. Learn to read and write every day. Read about writers’ lives, quirks, and reading recommendations, and apply to funded writing programs when the timing feels right.

8. Get rejections nearly across the board.

9. Doubt yourself until it makes you literally vomit.

10. Apply to programs again the next year.

11. Acquire more rejections. For best results, let them trickle in one drop at a time like water torture.

12. Wallow: Binge on Netflix. Question the meaning of your existence. Attend a concert loud enough to shut off your brain.

13. Luck into a part time online job, take all of your savings, and leave home.

14. Set out to travel for one year. While away:

a) Go visit the people you love.

b) Fall in love.

c) Take on adventures for which you’re totally unprepared. Sprain an ankle.

d) Come up with story ideas.

e) Talk to strangers.

f) Come up with more story ideas.

g) Fall in love again, but differently.

h) Take a free online writing class and feel nostalgic about school.

i) Re-sprain your ankle.

j) Give yourself whiplash with all the ways you can fall in love: people, places, experiences, landscapes, professions, lifestyles. Fall in love with all of it, with living.

k) Go broke.

l) Cut your year short by a couple of months. (The point, after all, was to go where you wanted when you wanted, and now you want to go sit still in a place you love, focus on your writing, and not be homeless.)

15. Make yourself a promise: faced with one option or the other, you’ll leave what is comfortable. You’ll choose what you’re afraid to do, when it’s what you want most.

16. Smile. Nothing is certain.

30 Days To The End Of The Earth: Week 4

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The last week saw an influx of pilgrims eager to hike the final 100 kilometers of the camino necessary for their Compostella certificates. The path for a couple of days was crowded with new faces and fresh equipment.

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We, who knew the earlier, more generous towns of the camino, who had eaten meals offered by locals for donations, who had patched broken packs with safety pins–– we had a hundred photographs of the same sun, and we, behind the camera, were a hundred times the hidden variable.
img_2109We were weathered, comfortable hiking 35 or even 40 kilometers to their 20. We left them behind and had peace the last few days into Santiago, arriving the Wednesday before Easter.

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Four weeks of walking west. Every day, we’d woken with the sun at our backs and followed it in the afternoon into its descent.

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We made it to Finistère, where we sat on the edge of the cliffs above the Atlantic. There was nothing before us, only the ocean that stretched out until it met the sky, and somewhere beyond that, we imagined, the islands and continents. We watched the last sunset of our journey with our former selves and let the baggage of our past sink into the horizon.


Each step of the journey, we’d had to listen primarily to our own bodies, to cater to our own needs so that we could make it so far. Yet the camino was the most selfless, most loving community many of us had ever witnessed. There was something to be learned about knowing oneself intimately enough to understand one’s true “needs.” We lived simply, we shared everything, we felt often in abundance, and we were happy.

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30 Days To The End Of The Earth: Week 3

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It wasn’t so easy to trust the body over the mind. Some of us had disconcerting pains, throbs that became inflammation that became limping. Some injuries could only heal with rest, though pride tried to convince us otherwise. We taught each other tricks with tape, needles and thread, spreads, and stretches. We encouraged each other to stop when needed and called each other “brave” for admitting to the breaks our bodies required.


One night in a Buddhist-run albergue, our host explained that the Camino de Santiago had existed even longer as the Camino de Finistère, the walk to “the end of the earth.” Finistère, a cape at the Spanish coast, was for a long time the farthest point known to the Western world. It was the buddhists who convinced us we had to make time for 100 kilometers beyond Santiago, to see “the end of the world.”

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The buddhists told us walking long distances was an ancient form of meditation. Walking great distances slowed us down long enough to see the ants on the sidewalk.

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Every morning we walked and watched the colors in the sky change as the sun rose at our backs. We listened to the bird songs, to the early engines and quick shoe taps on pavement of morning commuters in town, to the slower rhythm of a cane as an elder local approached.

“Buen camino!”

Translated literally, Good walk, as if to say, Good, this walking is good, and somewhere even beyond approval, We’re counting on you. Do this for us, for all of us. We felt at times we could walk forever, we could walk to the end of the earth. Bring us what you learn.

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The animals and the plants became more important, or we learned to understand their importance. The sun and the moon told us everything, led us when we were lost. Towns rose from the earth as if birthed out of dirt, stones from the mountains, mud and clay from the plains. Towns and people along The Way knew that they were part of this thing.

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The land and the skies told us exactly what to expect, what weather, what challenges. All we had to do was learn to listen. The camino in the end was simple, listening to our bodies and the voices of our souls, to the earth, the sky, the sun, to the others, to the animals, to the changes and the sameness. The camino was just listening.

30 Days To The End Of The Earth: Week 2

The body pains transformed into a familiar and manageable throb by the end of the first week. Our minds felt clearer. We didn’t need the constant distraction of a destination or stories from our fellow pilgrims, though they still helped. We could let our thoughts wander, imagine the lives we might choose to live after the pilgrimage was over.

Every night we pilgrims met in a limited number of the town’s albergues to shower, eat and sleep. We shared stories, tables, meals and medicine. We learned each other’s alarm tones and snoring patterns in dormitory-style, bunk-lined rooms. We walked together in different constellations and memorized each other’s motivations.
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The sound of strangers’ “Buen Camino!” followed us as we passed through new towns. It made us feel like welcome visitors, travelers who were part of the scenery. The locals nodded. They knew us. They’d seen us. The face of one pilgrim echoed the face of every pilgrim, filled with physical and spiritual aches, hopeful and determined.

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30 Days To The End Of The Earth: Week 1

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The mountain pass was difficult but mystical. Yellow arrows marked the path. We set into an unsteady rhythm with the creaks of muscles and bones unaccustomed to the weight, the daily distances, and the diet.


We felt hungry always and ate without remorse. We went to grocery stores and markets in groups and split the cost of picnic lunches. We shared food as naturally as if nourishing each other’s bodies nourished our own.

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The camino pains began on the first day and multiplied each day after. The “bad day” was something we passed around like an object that first week, each of us nearly buckling under the weight of new pain and doubts while the other pilgrims helped to prop us up.

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Word traveled that a pilgrim we knew had been injured and forced to return home. We mourned like it was all of us who had been sent home, fueled by the fear that it actually could have been any of us. It was cruel that there were injuries that all the determination in the world couldn’t hike through.

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30 Days To The End Of The Earth: Prologue

We didn’t know how long it would take us, in how many pieces we’d arrive, or whether we’d get there or give up first. Blisters, tendinitis, achy bones, bedbugs, mountains, oversized packs— 500 miles of chances to be broken.

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Across an ocean, thousands of miles away, my friend and hiking companion was sent off with prayers, blessings and well-wishes. My parents told me over the phone how they cried at the send-off, and I met her at an airport in the French coastal city of Biarritz. There were many other pilgrims arriving.
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A French man lived in a country house at the foot of the Pyrenees, with the British woman who had found her way there for the camino. There’s a saying, that the camino brings people together and tears them apart. We witnessed both along the way.

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The couple had a son, 5 or 6 years old, and we, the pilgrims, traded him on laps at the dinner table while we sipped wine from our hosts. Someone even tasted what the boy had been “cooking” in the kitchen, a little bowl of orange slices dusted in salt.

We slept in a 10-bed room. In the morning the other pilgrims woke me for the sunrise from the patio. Landry the little boy came out to sit in our laps again while the fog and the gold rose from the distant hills and beckoned. We were 6, newly acquainted, all about to set out on the first day of the same cross-country journey that millions of other feet had crossed over the centuries.


“We.” As if any of us understood at the start that “we” were a group, that “we” by the end would be community, friends, family. Each of us set out having told our families back home, our friends, coworkers, and strangers on the train, “I’ll be hiking the camino.”

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A Rocky Start

My next adventure is 5 weeks and 500 miles of hiking.

I just left Lille, where my French friend and her parents always treat me like family. It was a weekend of parties and a birthday, so there was a new cake in the kitchen Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. I won’t be starting my hike hungry.

I will, however, be starting it like a chicken running around with its head cut off.

Overnight I had some kind of stress nightmare where my brother died, which led me to keep imagining his ghost and having conversations with him while I went insane. This morning I couldn’t even think straight enough to remember what time I had to leave the house. Then this afternoon, when I changed trains in Paris, I got on the wrong train and realized my mistake only after we’d left the station. But that’s, like, a normal thing that happens to people all the time, basic rookie travel mistake, super common, right?

Ok fine, I’m an idiot.

Begin my camino voyage like a chicken running around with its head cut off: check!

Naturally, by 3 o’clock on my wrong train I’d stress-eaten lunch, all of my train snacks and what was supposed to be dinner. And I still didn’t know what time we were arriving in Bordeaux or whether there would be more trains running to Biarritz the same day. The bored expressions from every train employee I spoke to for help should’ve convinced me that everything would be fine. Instead, distracted by the way the day was going, I managed to also forget my hiking poles on the train. Their location is still unknown.

On an unrelated note, I’m about to cross the Pyrenees mountains, where people die, on foot. I just found out that I’ll probably be covered in ticks along the way. Apparently a hiker once had to sleep naked in a sheet in an empty bathtub during a bedbug sterilization. I only brought 2 pairs of underwear, but my backpack is still heavier than it should be. WHAT AM I DOING.

In conclusion, my friend and hiking partner arrives this afternoon. Hopefully she can help me get my head on straight.

Also, everything’s going to be fine! [Repeat as needed until convinced.]

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Spring

It’s the beginning of spring in Budapest, a rare day of sunshine after the gray winter dormancy of the last few weeks. 


I look out over the Danube and imagine the comparison dozens of poets must have made between here and the Parisian Seine. 

It’s true, the architecture has echoes of other European cities. A walk down these streets is a walk through the ages, a living history museum whose walls breathe and whose hallways thrum with the heartbeat of the past. 

But then there are the small revelations that whisper of a unique history, of the arguments over who came first, of the Hungary that has changed hands, names and faces. 

Today one can still see the Turkish minarets and colorfully patterned tile walls, tall and elegant amidst the more recent Soviet housing blocks. Locals mix with tourists in the historic thermal bathhouses to talk politics, gossip and flirt. 

The language bears no resemblance to the Latin and Germanic roots I’m used to. It holds its own rhythm that swells and falls like a light breeze on the Danube, and carries in the sounds a juvenile sweetness. 

It’s hard to believe I’m leaving this city. I’m just starting to remember the basic phrases that will get me a smile or a laugh at my accent and grammar mistakes. This city has a hold on me. I’ve postponed leaving twice already, but I guess the third time’s a charm. 


Budapest: new sights, feelings and food alongside familiar coffee shops, roads and faces; the blooms of romance and the warmth of friendships; healthy fears balanced by hands of kind strangers; and the mysterious shift from acquaintance to family. 

I remember when I was a kid, all the things I wanted and the grownup lives I imagined living, the way it never occurred to me to hope for happiness because I never imagined all the adult ways I could lose it. 

And now that I’ve grown some I stand in disbelief, that I could be so fortunate, that in the face of those adult concerns there could still be the rich, bone-deep joy of childhood. 

Lessons from Budapest

In Budapest, there’s a whole network of Open Mics that happen every night of the week, into which I stumbled. Music, as it turns out, is more universal even than English. Musicians, music-lovers, visitors transfixed by the performance— the artists, to be sure, would play with or without an audience, entranced in the music. I was welcomed immediately by a community of improv and covers and encouraged to perform away my stage fright. Bodies kept time while musicians kept in key, patrons’ souls moved and the musicians felt the foot-tapping in the floorboards as life. We were all open, all lost and found in the music. My first week passed in Budapest by night as in a dream.

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My cousin had scheduled to blow through town on his brief tour of Europe. I set out to meet him and his friend on the evening of their arrival, eager to show the Budapest I’d come to know. There was my cousin, standing in the streetlight in confident, green-haired glory, unapologetically himself. This was his first international adventure, but he stood handsome and demure as if he knew something of the world, as if he’d been traveling all his life. We wandered that first night through the streets that had embraced me over the previous week, in search of new things.

Green hair was enough to set our little trio apart. Throughout one short weekend, the reactions from passers-by ranged from benign to entertaining. People pointed and whispered, even complimented my cousin on his look. But in the evenings, the treatment turned sinister. On multiple occasions we had grown men, bulky and drunk, sidle up beside us and shove into my cousin’s shoulder. They stood postured for a fight. Each time that we were able to pass quickly into another crowd or establishment, it felt like we’d made some narrow escape.

My cousin’s experience of Budapest was a lesson for me in privilege. There are rose-colored glasses through which I tend to regard travel. I carry privilege beyond an American Passport. I’m “racially ambiguous” by appearance, which means that today, my looks don’t come across as threatening in most of the environments I’ve visited. I don’t sport any statement style additions. I’m reminded of the doors open to me, of the often unexpected and chance-based circumstances that have gotten me here, and of the limits appearances can put in place or break down. Traveling alone, I only have this one set of experiences and this one perspective, and I don’t always have to see things through someone else’s eyes— the insidious nature of privilege, unfortunately.

So I see you now in a new light, you the people travelling under appearances, by choice or by chance, that put you at greater risk to violence. And you whose appearances put you at risk in your own hometowns, I see you. I laud your bravery, and I hope that I can be an ally to you in some way. I hope that one day you too can travel carefree and welcomed in the same way that I can.

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“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

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