megan.

gracie.

It’s just after 10 AM as I watch another tram approach the city center, wondering if this is the one that holds the little sister I haven’t hugged in two months. It stops about 15 meters (meters!) from where I’m standing, and even though I can’t see her face, she’s easy to spot through the window: the navy blue hat with the ear flaps and the pom-pom on top, a bold, yellow AMSTERDAM printed all the way around it. Our Dutchie friends mailed it to Topeka, Kansas four years ago, in another life. Her head swivels abruptly, and suddenly I’m looking at her face: eyebrows raised, jaw slack, eyes wide, that classic and comical expression indicating total lack of comprehension. I’ll learn later that she’s slept for most of the two-hour bus ride, only waking because of an exodus of passengers at her stop. For now, though, I’m laughing, because the whole combination – that look, the little pom-pom, the spastic head turn – makes her look like an excitable, confused six-year-old; she has no idea what’s going on and is utterly surprised by her surroundings. She doesn’t see me, so I wave and try not to laugh too hard. Her head whips around again and she’s on her feet, disappearing from view. She looks calm when I see her next, sauntering around the back of the tram and down the median, clearly trying to be nonchalant but not quite suppressing a mischievous grin. “Look at us in Europe together,” she says, shaking her head as she throws her arms around me. I haven’t stopped laughing since I saw the hat.

Her face is perfect.

Helsinki.

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megan.

across the atlantic.

New York

As we fly across the Atlantic, our progress is mapped on a giant screen mounted in the center aisle, high enough that I can see it from the penultimate row of the aircraft. Seat 63K.

Greenland
Reykjavik
Akureyri

It’s unreal to watch the names flash across the screen every ten seconds, the map’s frame of reference shifting from broad to narrow, but always showing the location of our little plane. The stats it displays are also pretty unbelievable.

Ground speed: 596 mph
-79° F
Tempo de chegada: 2:14

My clock, still on Eastern time, reads 3:27. The lights are off. The blinds are closed. The plane is dark. The flight attendants are whispering to each other in French behind the curtain. I open the blind next to my seat just as we’re clearing Iceland, and bright sunlight pours in. I see that we’re flying into a sunrise well on its way through the sky. Their time is not our time.

Glasgow
Dublin
Norwegian Sea
Munich

I’ve been on this plane for nearly five hours, but I continue to watch the screen, transfixed. What strikes me is the apparent ordinariness of so many moments that my mind knows to be of such personal significance. These names and locations are busy going from places on a map to places on *my* map.

Lisbon
Las Palmas
Algiers
Karistad

I believed it would never happen. That exploring places far from home could never be for me. I explained the situation ardently to anyone who asked — mostly reporters, but classmates, too, and teachers — that I could never risk it. That it was too dangerous. That I could be arrested and locked away forever in other countries for my beliefs and religious practices. The U.S. was the only place I was safe. God hates America, but I’ll never leave it.

Altitude: 11572 m
Velocidade de solo: 927 km/h
-36° C

And I was *just fine* with that. These are “the bounds of my habitation.” I accept these limits. In my life, they are the truth, and there is no questioning the truth.

Oslo
Cairo
St. Petersburg

I know this present reality to be impossible, and yet it doesn’t feel impossible. It feels Same. Like every other late night flight I’ve ever taken. Everyone is sleeping through this wonderful insanity, their heads resting undisturbed in their silly neck pillows (I want a neck pillow).

Casablanca
Luxor
Istanbul

But I’m scared. That’s how I know this is important (that, plus the fact that beautiful Norwegian mountains, covered in white from peak to base, the valleys between them filled with enormous snow drifts that are now drifting by outside my window). I’ve been flying for the past two decades; it’s not the plane that scares me, though it does rattle with heavy turbulence from time to time. It’s something else. Not the normal fears, either, though they’re certainly there, percolating: being robbed or roofied, losing my bank cards, getting lost myself. But there’s something new, too. A world full of people I don’t know, speaking languages I don’t understand, whose stories I can’t comprehend in any meaningful way – not even on a national level, because I know so little about these countries.

Hamburg
Tehran
Dubai

I wanted to know what it’s like to be in that position. Everyone should know, or at least contemplate, what it’s like. To be an outsider – not just ideologically, but by way of language, of customs, of national identity. And not just an outsider, but a minority, outnumbered, reliant on the kindness of strangers to help you on your way. We’d all tend to be more kind, gentle, gracious if we knew what that felt like, wouldn’t we? We’d do better about seeing the world through others’ eyes. We’d see ourselves through their eyes, too, our good and our bad. And it would make us think, and be proud, and be ashamed, and be inspired to get better, to do better, to be better.

Vasteras
Uppsala
Nykoping

At least, that’s what I think sitting here. I’m tired of sitting, though, and my legs are aching to move, so I might not be thinking clearly.

I just don’t want to be asleep.

Stockholm

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megan.

items in my purse on my trip to finland.

* 2 bags Sunsweet pitted dates
* 1 bag “Fun Size” Nestle Crunch bars
* 2 bags individually-wrapped-but-full-sized Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups
* 1 “Jumbo Bag” individually-wrapped-but-full-sized Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups
* 2 bags Grandpa Ed’s homemade beef jerky (there are two more in my backpack)
* 1 small Primal Pac from Melissa Joulwan’s first Quarterly box
* 3 small packages Biscoff cookies I got on a flight (Minneapolis to JFK, on Delta, of course), the second of thirteen that I’ll be taking over the next sixteen days. Biscoff is my favorite, but I’m saving them for Gracie, because in her world, sugar is a legitimate expression of love, and I love her an awful lot (907 grams worth or so, if we’re limiting it to what I’m dragging halfway across the United States and all the way across the ocean for her).
* 1 quart-sized bag macademia nuts
* 1 quart-sized bag almonds
* 1 snack-sized bag pecans (don’t let the diminutive size fool you; these are my favorite, which is why the stash was nearly depleted by the time I had to pack)
* 1 Key Lime Pie Lärabar
* 5 assorted acorn- and leaf-shaped chocolate bars from the famous Chubby Chipmunk chocolatier (there were six, but I ate a whole one as soon as I got home yesterday to stop myself from crying because Chad had to go to work and I wouldn’t see him for 3.5 weeks after today [Note: it didn't work; I cried till my eyes were swollen anyway and had to carry the additional shame of having desperately shoveled it into my mouth, hunched over the sink, in the dark, as if I could hide this pitiful abuse of food even from *myself*]), acquired at Anne and Jamie’s beautiful autumn-themed wedding in Spearfish two days ago

**********

Yes, the contents of my considerable purse, normally stocked with keys and creams and nail clippers and all the trappings of a woman well-prepared for every everyday calamity, have been entirely supplanted by easily mobile food items that Grace and I could survive on in the unlikely (but still plausible) event that we are unable to successfully navigate Finnish Lapland and get stuck on the side of the road for hours in our rental car in the dead of night in a sparsely-populated area somewhere north of the Arctic Circle.

I’m a planner. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

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grace.

to my gramps.

Hi, Grandpa.

I love you. I miss you. My heart aches to see how you’ve been laid waste in the media by our own family. Everyone talks about you as if you’re already in the grave; I know your heart is still beating & I hope you live up to your stubborn legacy & live for a long while yet.

To the whole world you were only ever the face of an evil entity. But of course to me you were always my Gramps. My kind, sweet, adoring Gramps. I miss you so much. I wish the sisters & I could meet you & Granny for another shake party up in your room (we’ll even bring your favorite strawberry one from McDonald’s).

I’m sorry for every second we’ve been apart this last year and four months. I’m sorry I didn’t appreciate you more when you were mine. I’m sorry our human frames are so weak & we couldn’t spend an eternity together on earth in perfect health. I’m sorry for what the church has done to our family. I’m sorry the media rejoices in the declining health of a human being. I’m sorry people reflect back the same hate & judgment that WBC delivers. I’m sorry you got trapped into a deluded way of thinking to the point that you were willing to hurt other people & yourself in order to serve a god out of fear. I’m sorry. I just am. I’m sorry I can’t hold your hand again & cry & reminisce with you as you lay on your death bed.

“You’re my great, big, beautiful doll!” You used to tell me. I wish I could hear you say it once more. This time I promise to know how much you mean to me. I never could have asked for a better grandpa.

– your gracie.

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megan.

twenty eight thank yous.

Today is my birthday.

Twenty-eight.

Celebrations after twenty-five are often treated with disdain (“Grow up, already!”), but I can’t help it: January 31 will always be a red-letter day for me. Birthdays were a big deal growing up; they were basically the only holiday my family celebrated. Well – unless you count our annual tradition of protesting as many Christmas church services in our hometown as the seventy of us could cover in a single night, regaling the parishioners with a version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” rewritten to describe [what we perceived to be] gay sex practices in graphic detail. “Five golden showers!” You get the idea. I was maybe seven or eight when I learned the song, so these weren’t concepts I understood (at least, not until Gramps explained them from the pulpit on Sunday), but I sang along heartily anyway.

Do you count that? I don’t count that.

So. Birthdays.

This month has been full of reflection for me. That’s partly because I started my first Whole30® on January 1, which I successfully completed yesterday (Miley grin, tongue and all ;) ). It’s impossible to truly change the fundamentals (food, sleep, exercise) without it fundamentally changing your outlook on life. They’re at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy for a reason, my friends! Depression, guilt, anxiety, sadness – they haven’t disappeared, but they’ve become so much easier to deal with. I’m lighter, mentally and physically, than I’ve been in years, and that’s something worth celebrating on my twenty-eighth.

The reflection also stems from the fact that after a year spent on the road, I’ve finally landed in a place I plan to be for awhile. Deadwood, Los Angeles, Kansas City, Des Moines, Chicago, Sandusky, Hartford, New York, Boston, Montreal, and I wasn’t anywhere for longer than a month at a time. Three weeks, three days – these were the norms. It was equal parts running to adventure, to awareness, to understanding, and running from “real life,” from decision-making, from the past, from the future. It was a glorious mess.

But that’s a story for another day. In this moment, I just want to share the biggest part of my thoughts: my overwhelming love and gratitude to the people who have shared their time, homes, kindness, experiences, and love over the past 1.25 years, people who welcomed Grace and me into their lives when ours had been all but emptied of those we held (and hold) dear.

In order of appearance: Bob. Keith. Jason. Libby. Logan. Dan. Amy. Drew. Aidan. Josh. Stephanie. Gabe. Brandy. Hez. Hayley. Tim. Uncle. Shirley. Bella. Adam. Graham. Chris. Larry. LeAndre. Dana. Timothy. Jeff. Moïsh. Paige. Steven. Taylor. Kate. Dylan. Emma. Susanne. Pepijn. Louis. Afentra. Danny. Laura. Dustin. Cora. Ryan. Chad. Nana. Tammy. Amanda. Tanner. Hank. Sully. Dave. Josh. Will. Jacie. Heidi. Andrew. Jennika. Joe. Michelle. Sam. Mariah. Dave. Emily. Grant. Daniel. Tristan. Anne. Wendy. Lauren. Nate. Kevin. Mac. Jake. Justin. Dan. Jack. Jane. Derek. Chad. Amanda. Brittnie. John. Scott. Monte. David. Yonah. Rachel. Moshe. Tzofiya. Shlomo. Nafi. Marcus. Josh. Ben. Dani. Meira. Josh. Michael. Eric. Zadie. Lauren. David. Ayo. Chad. Pauley. Krissy. Jeremy. Jeremy. Dan. Barbara. Chad. Kurt. Myra. Josh. Eric. Tess. Jessica. Brett. John. Joyce. Grace. Keith. Eleanor. Al. Davis. David. Maria. Marina. Dima. Jen. Mel. Sarah. Ray. Chris. Rebecca. Rob. Jess. Blaire. Kayla. DJ. Sarah. Lacy. Louis. Katie. Joey. Mandy. Greta. Blake. David. Alicia. Tara. Maggie. Glenn. Emily. Darrel. Ryan. Nicole. Ava. Thomas. Adrian. Molly. Ed. Karrie. Halle. Kate. Jasper. Diane. Tia. Sandy. Brad. Desi. Joyce. Marlin. Jerry. Cindy. Ronnie. Joan. Amy. Mike. Jaime. Angel. Mike. Sarah. Mila. Nolan. Jake. Kat. Sydney. Gabe. Ryan. Lishai. Michal. Julie. Steven. Jake. Darren. Carly. Will. Carolina. Kalervo. Amanda. Sarah. Avi. Mandy. Jeremy. Lucas. Alex. Jon. David. Jade. Matt. Karen. Briah. Tamira. Sapira. D’veer. Karen. Kell. Simja. Miguel. Sandy. Ido. Noa. Marie. Victor. Bracha. Margot. Ohad. Bill. Tyler. Eileen. Deborah. Theresa. Louis. John.

My memory is good (I get it from my mama, who, given any date of her existence, can describe it to you, including what she ate, with relative accuracy and certainty) – but it’s not perfect. To all those named and unnamed, and to every nameless stranger whose kindness I was fortunate to encounter on my path: please know that you have profoundly impacted my life. Every act and word of understanding, generosity, and care showed me how different humanity was than I had believed. At first, it was shocking to me (how wrong I’d been!). It’s still something that makes me marvel. And I’m more determined than ever to share that love and compassion with others.

Cheers to my twenty-eighth year for teaching me that we *all* need it.

- megan.

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megan.

the chosen path.

I awoke this morning in the usual way: a grab for my iPhone to check the time, followed immediately by a slide of the finger to open the text messages sent by my sister Grace in the wee hours of the morning. She doesn’t sleep so well these days, even though it’s already been nine months.

I can’t believe it’s already been nine months.

Her words fill up my screen, and I think yet again of how grateful I am to at least have some nightly relief from my plague of existential thought experiments, lamentations for loved ones lost, and endless processing of the onslaught of newness. Sleep is a natural escape from these mental gymnastics, but it’s a degree of relief that Grace is often denied.

“This article makes me angry at the writer.” It’s a link to a Slate piece written by an American-born woman, the child of first-generation Indian immigrants. She’s seventeen years into an arranged marriage she didn’t want and tried hard to avoid – but tradition has a certain amount of inertia that can be nigh impossible to overcome, and at twenty-two, she felt ill-equipped to take it on. It’s not an option to say “no,” she writes: “the stakes in our honor-and-shame-based family were too high.”

As I read the article, I’m trying to understand which part of it raised Grace’s ire. It’s a story we’re intimately familiar with, at least on the broad strokes:

There’s a girl. Girl’s life is on a track built by those she loves toward a place she desperately wants to avoid. Girl sees three options: (A) convince the track layers to change its course; (B) jump the track, creating an unbridgeable rift and losing loved ones; (C) continue on the track in order to keep loved ones, suffering losses of another sort instead.

Option A failed this woman; her family dictated her track, and they refused to hear her pleas for change. And what is left? The choice is heart-wrenching: losing family or losing all real freedom to choose your partner in what’s arguably the most important and intimate relationship a human being can experience. The woman chose to lose freedom – and though she got to keep her family, she still grieves all that choice cost her. Reading her story, I mourned for her, too.

By the time I finish, I still can’t see which part of the essay has so angered my sister, so I ask. Grace says that the woman made her choice, so she has no right to complain. I’m certain my face shows my puzzlement, so Grace explains: “She got to keep her family.” And then I understand.

The woman had made the choice that we didn’t. We got the freedom, but she, the family. We could choose our own path, but she got the love and support of those nearest her heart. We could now see the world without the blinders of entrenched tradition, but she could be there for her siblings’ birthdays, for her nephew’s first day of school, for her parents in their old age. We’re all allowed to mourn our losses, and keeping that to ourselves doesn’t make it any more legitimate – just as sharing it doesn’t make it any less so.

I understand, little Grace. I want them back, too, so much that my whole body shakes with the sick sadness of the choice we were forced to make, so much that I retreat to sleep so I don’t have to feel that way. I want so badly to hear Mom happily call out for me, “Miss Meg!” I want to laugh with Gabe as he stockpiles the bacon when the other boys aren’t looking. I want to watch “Tom and Jerry” with Zach at lunch, and see water shoot out his nose when an unexpected laugh overtakes him.

That woman should’ve never had to make the choice that she did. Us, either. But we have to remember that we still have a choice. We can still try to change the ones who lay the track. We still have hope.

Don’t lose heart, sister mine. Let’s make that our choice.

– megan.

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grace.

bus life.

I am currently sitting on a bus. I left from western South Dakota early this morning, and will be arriving at my Nana’s home in Ohio tomorrow afternoon. Twenty-eight and a half hours on a bus. My ass hurts already. It’s admittedly a small price to pay to visit my Padre’s mom, whom I haven’t seen in over four years.

I spent the morning reading a book of short stories by Nabokov, getting caught up on the latest news (and snarky commentary) via Twitter, making new bus buddies, and listening to sad indie music.

The majority of my time, however, is spent looking out the window. The deep green fields littered with bales of hay are echoes of Home. Kansas. The collections of windmills are my most favorite scene. They are magnificent and majestic against the azure skies, and I itch to climb one.

I drift in and out of sleep. My mind wanders to the bags at my feet. All The Things I Must Travel With. So much of it is technically useless. A more practical soul couldn’t have spared the precious little space in two bags for such items, but they’re of more value to me by far than my pretty bras or toothbrush or running shoes.

A ring my little brother made for me in jewelry class a few years back. A book my Madre used to read to me when I was a wee one. A framed photo of my babe brother that I’ve had since fifth grade. So many little things that my life has been reduced to. Twenty years, and this is what I’m left with. I’ll take them with me everywhere I go for forever.

I begin to feel frustrated by the woman a few rows back who’s loudly playing some random anime soundtrack. The flies that continually land on my already-bug-bitten bod. The lack of air conditioning and outlets. The grumpy bus driver. My sister sleeping beside me. I hate it all.

But mostly, I fucking hate being separated from you. I hate that I’ve disappointed you and that I can never take back any of the hurt. I hate that I can’t tell you all the ways I love you and miss you.

A Hans Christian Andersen quote comes to mind:

‘But if you take away my voice,’ said the little mermaid, ‘what is left for me?’

I may as well be mute, for all the effect my voice has. I’ll have to employ every other force I possess to make my love realized by those dearest to my heart.

And I will. I’ll do it.

My heart feels a little lighter. I find new purpose in this bus trip.

– grace elizabeth.

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