Because travel is just regular life, displaced, regular things go wrong. A missed flight in Guadalajara, for example, is a lesson in how quickly expectations can plummet. You downshift from being annoyed at a delay—convinced the airline will have to do A LOT to win back your favor—to begging said airline for any ticket out of Mexico, at any price. There are pleading conversations in Spanish at every airline counter in which you learn that the next flight to Tijuana doesn’t leave for three more days, and eventually there are hundreds of dollars you didn’t plan to spend.
There will be other, more minor annoyances: bureaucratic hiccups due to a lost wallet, sitting immobile on tarmacs, the discomfort of long travel days. One morning, shortly after arriving in Spain, you fall under the spell of an unnamed virus. It pulls you down and keeps you pressed flat to the mattress for four days, never able to sleep enough, rolling in and out on the tides of fever dreams.
To be sick in this apartment feels like being seasick. You are wobbly and dizzy in the cabin of a bright white boat, sailing above the surfers and tourists on Zurriola Beach. You float above the world in a haze of half-consciousness. Through the windows you watch life go on, tides following the moon, sun rising and washing the room in too much light. One morning you dream you are bodyboarding a shorebreak and being dashed, again and again, into the sand. The light presses a fist into your head. You wake up sweating in the pool of sunshine, the white bed and the white walls burning in this small ship of a studio.
On the fourth day the fever is gone. When you stand up from bed your legs don’t shake; the floor has stopped rolling beneath you. The day is washed clean again after a rainstorm and sea air gusts down the narrow streets. You walk a slow circle around the neighborhood and duck into a corner store with crates of fruit stacked outside. You buy four peaches for one euro and carry their fragrance home in a paper bag. Standing at the window you eat slice after slice of peach, early summer breaking on your tongue.
This is where we begin. Four months of travel stretch ahead and we start here, southern Mexico, in a city I’ve loved recklessly and disproportionately for years. Before we landed I wondered if the city could live up to the one I’d built from memories, but it was just like I remembered. Oaxaca feels like someone’s imagination of what Mexico is like: men carrying bouquets of spinning pinwheels and teenagers singing ballads on the terrazas and clusters of balloons waving among the zócalo’s trees; dust and heat and color and the smells of cologne, cleaning solution, tortillas cooked over the comal.
One night we left a mezcal tasting feeling light and buzzy and stepped into the warm evening. Crossing the street toward Santo Domingo church, we ducked through vendor booths selling gauzy blouses and the straw hats worn by every expat in the city. I was looking up at the trees, their flaming blossoms that fringed the plaza, then at the sky and its thin nail of a moon hanging high above. Wildfires smudged the sky brown during the day, but now that it was evening the smoke and low sun turned everything gold.
We paused at the edge of the plaza behind a crowd that extended for blocks. There was the murmur and movement of waiting: women bouncing toddlers, people with cameras raised, and a young man pulling plastic garlands of lollipops out of a box and distributing them benevolently to outstretched hands. In the center of the crowd, standing in the street, kids and teenagers stood at attention, dressed in white. They carried signs and flags and whirling shapes. It was a parade, just about to begin.
I looked at Davis, his hair getting long on top and a beard already growing out. He was wearing a shirt I loved: the navy one with a collar, the single “nice” shirt he packed on this trip. He turned to me and we shrugged at each other. “Want to watch for a bit?”
As we turned back to the parade the music began, a brass band led by a trumpet playing something that was not Banda and not mariachi but unmistakably, wonderfully Mexican. Two small boys with larger-than-life puppets on their shoulders began to spin, and the puppets seemed to dance in time with the music. Then the stream of people in the center of the crown surged forward, processing down the cobblestones to the cheers of the crowd. Davis and I cheered too, and became the same crowd holding our phones aloft to film, reaching out to catch the candy that parade members tossed into the air like jewels.
The group who garnered the most cheers was a group of children with Down syndrome who marched together, dressed in white linen shirts (the boys) and traditional dresses with red lipstick (the girls). They beamed at those of us watching, exuding delight, and I thought of the parents who had helped them dressed, who had braided hair and applied makeup to set their beauty on display.
The whole parade took just twenty minutes to pass us, and most of the crowd—likely family members and friends, followed the music and noise toward the zócalo. A blur of color and horns and candy and then it was quiet. Only in Oaxaca, I thought. We could only stumble on something like this in Oaxaca. Davis and I looked at each other, smiling, shaking our heads, and I knew he had felt it too: the city’s enchantment that resists words.
We walked up the steps to the plaza and sat under a tree facing Santo Domingo. A group of high school graduates dressed in robes and caps posed for portraits as a group. Then, as one, they took off their caps and tossed them into the air. Above us: moon, caps, sky. The caps rose like a rush of pigeon wings, spinning and then falling as the church bells tolled.
My favorite story that I’ve written this year. I came to Greece to see refugees, and instead I met the people who will disciple Europe. Here’s an excerpt—you can read the full feature on Nations Media.
“On my first day in Athens, I climbed to the Acropolis with Easton, a photographer. On our way up the hill we stopped at a rocky outcrop overlooking the city. The outcrop sat in the shadow of the Acropolis and offered a panoramic view of Athens. Turning slow circles, Easton and I took in the cyprus trees, the flat sea of downtown, and the ruins interspersed between cafes and markets.
As we stood on the rock, we debated where Areopagus Hill—also called Mars Hill—stood. Areopagus is the hill where Paul preached his Acts 17 sermon to the Athenians. There he spoke about resurrection of the dead, liberation in Jesus, and a God who knew people intimately, a God not bound by temples made by human hands. Easton and I wanted to see it, having been told it was an essential stop in Athens. So with that very hill under our feet, we scanned the city, wondering if we could see Areopagus from our vantage point. No kidding. Standing on the rock itself, we were looking at the wrong thing.
Only after we returned from the Acropolis, sat down with €4 wine, and consulted Google Maps did we realize that we had stood where Paul stood two millennia before. Areopagus Hill was under our feet the whole time and we didn’t know it. We told each other we would go back later in the week, and that this time we’d know what we were looking at.
This is a story about what you see when you look again.”
Last Tuesday was a Terrible Writing Day. Lots of procrastinating, lots of despairing Art Feelings, lots of heavy sighing. I spent the afternoon “writing” a feature story, by which I mean that I rearranged the same sentences for three hours. Mostly: stops and starts, detours, much inward complaining.
I finally admitted defeat and went for a run to jar the words loose and…same. Starting, stopping, feeling sluggish.
As I plodded through Mission Hills, I passed a park where a little girl was playing soccer with her dad. The soccer ball came up to her knees and she was practically swimming in her Liverpool kit. She was small enough to walk through her dad’s legs without ducking. From the looks of it, he was teaching her to kick without success; girlfriend was not having it. He placed the ball in front of the goal and crouched next to it, windmilling his arms to encourage her forward. I could just picture what he hoped for: his toddler sprinting at the ball, scoring her first goal while he applauded. Instead she shuffled a few steps and stopped. Come on, he yelled. You got this. Head hanging, she managed a few more unenthusiastic steps toward the ball, which sat only a few feet from the goal. I thought, You and me both today.
As I ran, my inner toddler whined. Why is writing so hard? Why is running so hard? And why do they feel so similar? My friend Charlotte wrote a great satirical essay about how much writers who run love to write about running. It’s true, but there’s also an undeniable kindredness to the two. For example:
Both activities are largely unpleasant while you’re doing them.
Related: they feel best when they’re over.
They require a lot of self-psyching-up, procrastination, sweat, and snacks.
Writers and runners like talking about these activities more than doing them.
Both train you to pay attention to the world, and to use your imagination.
In both cases, if you know, then you know. Otherwise you seem crazy.
Halfway through the run I gave up tracking my pace and decided to enjoy the view instead. No epiphanies, but some pretty things, like a tree whose leaves were nearly neon, lit from within by sun. On my way down a hill I was pulled off the sidewalk by flowering weeds that rose up to my chest. A leprechaun hillside, with a path weaving through the weeds. All that green from ground that’s been fallow so long. I followed the trail and watched a chocolate lab’s tail sail through the grass like a ship’s mast. Everything shimmered and tickled my legs. As I walked I reminded myself of something I heard a friend say: A writer is someone for whom writing is harder than it is for other people.
And I thought of these words from a favorite book, even though I didn’t believe them at the time:
El trabajo es bien duro, no?
Si, pero el trabajo es bonito.
The work is hard, isn’t it?
Yes, but the work is beautiful.
In February I was gone for what seemed like half the month, moving between Greece and San Diego and Durham and Mexico City and then back home to San Diego again. On one particularly long travel day I sat in the Munich airport, drinking a cappuccino and gearing up for the 12-hour flight ahead, having already taken one flight and woken up at 3:15 that morning.
The airport restaurant was vaguely Middle Eastern-themed, with clubby overtones and, jarringly, Latin pop playing through the speakers. Looking around as I scooped cappuccino foam with my finger, I thought: I love airports. I love the anonymity and introspection they offer, and I love the way they prompt me to pay attention.
Collected thoughts from that solo coffee break in the middle of the Munich airport:
Travel hands you the gift of fresh attention.
This: Outside the airplane window, rock shelves become sliced loaves of bread dusted in a powder of snow, baked in the brown dusk. The unknown spread before me, anticipation dissolving on my tongue like sugar crystals.
This: On the Athens metro, a woman stares unseeing at the murals of graffiti that flash by, her pupils flicking over each quadrant of color through the windows. Morning sun liquifies her eyes to amber as they jump back and forth, keeping time with the prayer beads that click through her seatmate's hands.
Travel hands you the gift of expanded imagination.
Moving closer—toward people, into foreign spaces, toward uncertainty—expands my imagination. It makes it impossible to slap generalizations onto the particular, concrete experiences and people I encounter. I’ve been thinking lately about these words: “If you want to change people’s obedience then you must change their imagination” (Paul Ricoeur).
How much more compelling is story, is conversation, is an interaction with a human than any argument one can make.
This little neglected space was in need of some TLC, so I gave it some updates. I’ll be posting more works-in-progress here in the new year, and sharing quotes/passages/poems that I’ve found and loved. (I’m a turning over a new website-savvy leaf, guys!)
If you’d like to read some of what I’ve been working on lately, here ‘tis:
I interviewed the badass Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins, executive chef at El Jardín and champion of Mexican cuisine and the women who keep it alive.
Hidden Compass, a literary travel magazine that I’ve admired for ages, published my essay in their winter issue. The piece is about the women behind Pattaya’s reputation as the sex capital of Thailand.
Food Tank invited me to write a short piece about two of the subjects that fascinate me most: food and the U.S.-Mexico border.
I also wrote a meditation on beauty for Nations Media. Beauty is one of Nations’ four core values, and it’s what I find most compelling about our mission: that we don’t just tell stories from places of pain or crisis but also look for God at work there.
Also, books! So many great reads this year. Here are my top ten (please note that at first I tried to pick just five LOL):
The River Why by David James Duncan - Took a while to get into but I was hooked (that’s a pun) by the end. David James Duncan writes dense novels about things like fly fishing and baseball, and somehow they are still my favorite.
Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner - Oh my word I wanted to live inside this book. It was the first Stegner novel that I read, and now I don’t want to read his other work because I don’t think it can possibly top this one?? Someone tell me if I’m wrong and if so, which book to read next.
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid - A magical-realist take on a world in exodus. Hamid sets a romance within the present-day movement of refugees across countries and cultures.
The Bright Hour by Nina Riggs - File under Books To Make You Weep. Riggs, a poet, wrote this at the end of her life. Her prose writing is aching and lovely and unsentimental.
Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann - My friend Megan recommended this novel and it is just as transcendent as she promised. Set in New York in the seventies and told by a cast of diverse, intimate voices.
Homing Instincts by Sarah Menkedick - This essay collection contains a lot of things I love: odes to Oaxaca/Mexico, lush descriptions of place, domestic scenes, and reflections on the narrator’s inner landscape. I read everything Sarah Menkedick writes.
Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood - Me to my friend who recommended this memoir: “I’m reading Priestdaddy! It’s hilarious and weird and I love it.” Patricia Lockwood’s writing, as well as her subject matter (her family), is bizarre and irreverent and brilliant. This book takes a turn toward the end, which was satisfying.
They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Abdurraqib - Can anyone else write so incisively and compassionately about Carly Rae Jepsen or Fall Out Boy? Abdurraqib made me interested in subjects I thought I didn’t care about. Also he is a sentence wizard.
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman - Surprising, smart, and tender (with a dark note that kept me intrigued). I read this in three days and then moped for another few days when it was over.
Walking on Water by Madeleine L’Engle - For anyone interested in art, faith, and the intersection of the two. L’Engle is an artist theologian, so I love her/want to be her.
Sitting in the courtyard of the San Luis Rey mission, I’m thinking about Advent and the incarnation. The courtyard is steeped in that hybrid California/Mexico beauty: stucco archways painting curved shadows on the walls, a fountain mumbling its watery song, potted lime trees, the mottled red of sun-bleached tile, piano notes stuttering down the halls, December sunshine warming my feet and ankles.
I’ve been reading Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water recently, so I’m also thinking about how both the annunciation and the incarnation are echoed in the making of art (“Here I am. Enflesh me.”).
It’s a beautiful and strange metaphor to call Jesus the Word. I take this to mean that in the person of Jesus, God’s promises and stories are particularized, enfleshed. God speaks God into being in Mary’s body, and God now speaks us into life. He is a word, an answer; the response to all of our longings and aches. The Word spoke in parables and shared the way to life through language. As a writer, of course I love this.
This Advent I’ve reread Luke 1 and Mary’s Magnificat. How would it have felt to be Mary, carrying God inside her—terrifying, immensely comforting? Both, I imagine. Maybe she felt invincible, and maybe suffocatingly vulnerable, walking around with God taking up space in her own flesh. What is incredible—seems even implausible—is that those who follow Jesus are said to carry the same gift: God residing in our bodies.
“Nothing will be impossible with God,” Gabrielle says to Mary. I stick on that phrase: nothing will be impossible with God, not for God. This choice of grammar seems important, because it gives Mary—and by extension, all people—agency and participation in the work of God. When we are with God, nothing is impossible. When Mary hears this she assents and gives herself over. But I also love that God comes to her first and waits for her yes. He invites her to participate in the creation of something beautiful; he chooses not to do it without her.
My most-repeated prayer is nabbed from the words of poet Mary Szybist: “What I want is what I’ve always wanted. What I want is to be changed.”
For years I’ve prayed for transformation. What I want is to be healed and made new, a process so long and subtle that I often don’t believe it’s happening, and so I repeat the same words again. Recently, though, I can feel healing taking place in my body, as though plates deep inside me are shifting and settling into a more solid foundation. There’ve been a series of events this fall that I can point to: prayers spoken over me, a particular sermon (that I recommend everyone listen to, right now!), and vision to see that I’ve been begging for healing while pushing God away out of fear.
With this shift at the ground floor of my being, I’m starting to sink into very old truths that feel new: God is only good. He heals, he transforms, he brings new life from nothing. I don’t have to bully or badger God into changing me. That is the whole promise of the life of faith: that Jesus resides inside us, bringing forth wholeness and healing. As we consent to the Word taking up residence in our bodies, we are changed.
So here I am, thankful and expectant this Advent (and really running with this pregnancy/incarnation motif). I have a sense of being filled and prepared. Words are piling up in the eaves, nudging me to enflesh them. Old wounds are closing. The Word is teaching me to speak a new language.
This is the season where I drink caffeine recklessly and let my worries sit on the sidelines for a while. I typically carry the perverse view that worries are guardians against being blindsided by something terrible, that they are bodyguards or fire insurance. But damn if I don't feel better without those bodyguards. I'm learning that opening my hands to let them go is a form of obedience. It's taking practice.
Summertime, meaning rose-gold skies seeping past 9 p.m. Meaning everything feels a little lighter, a little freer, suspended in a season of play. Meaning I feel most like my child-self, the girl I am growing up to become. I've spent years trying to get back to her. She's wiser in some ways than I am now; more curious, attentive, unselfconscious, a little bit too earnest, and inspired by everything new. Years ago that girl dragged blankets out into the backyard at midnight in response to an inchoate tugging on her still-forming spirit, and sat expectant on a bench. Stars spiraled overhead and solstice was still teething. She's here somewhere, still, recognizable most easily in this season of potential, when it seems like something surprising might happen any minute and I feel capable of transformation.
In other news, I wrote a few pieces in the spring. Here are my three favorites:
- A feature on immigrants who risk their lives and spend their resources for the love of families on the U.S.-Mexico border—my favorite story to write this year, hands down.
- A profile of ranchers who grow the best dates you'll ever taste (IMHO) in a desert oasis.
- An essay about questions, and how asking them of ourselves and the world makes space for God to flood in.
Two pieces that I reworked (and reworked and reworked) from my manuscript were published this week! And both on the same day...when it rains it pours, I guess, in the best way here.
The first essay for Brevity Magazine involves my enduring obsession with Mary Karr (spiritual/literary hero) and her work. I wrote this piece to explore the embodied elements of faith, and what paying attention to carnal, embodied details in life might teach us about writing. You can read the full essay here, or in the January print issue.
The second essay for Fathom Magazine is about contemplative prayer. Learning to pray without words is one of the most uncomfortable and healing spiritual practices I've ever undertaken. The experience felt—still feels—as foreign as learning Spanish, and much less formulaic. Disfruta!