A Stone At Notre-Dame

The day we went to Notre-Dame it was raining. We were in Paris for a week and I arrived as I usually arrive to a new place, without expectation but glad to be there. On the train from Frankfurt, I drank the green we passed: fields, trees. And in Paris, our children ran through the thick grass lawns of important buildings and parks. The day we went to Notre-Dame I followed Justin from our ground level apartment along narrow streets and wider streets, over a bridge. We walked quickly because the sky was heavy, gray clouds first silvered by the sun and then only a dark, mottled sky. We stood in front of Notre-Dame, Grant in his pack on Justin’s back, Claire at my side, looking up at the wild, swooping, spikey features of the cathedral.

I go many places because my husband has the idea to go, and I follow. He plans, books tickets, runs Airbnb choices by me, reads about the city, country, region to list what we should visit, talks with other travelers about their experiences. I pack the bags and airplane snacks, my thoughts of Paris abstract until I am walking the low architecture of the city to stand now before Notre-Dame. We go inside.

My mother told me she stepped inside Notre-Dame and wept, as she had years before when she stood under the dome at Saint Peter’s Basilica. I imagined being so moved. I wanted that, really, to sense the spiritual heft or lift (I would take either) to be in a space occupied by generations of worshippers and seekers before. How many prayers sent to the arched ceiling, tracing up the spire. Of petition, thanksgiving and reverence, perhaps most of petition. I stood for a moment but no shimmer of heaven.

We moved to one side, to begin walking the perimeter of pews, pausing at alcoves of candles, statuary. The saints, saints martyred. Windows so high up. Intricate edges and stonework. Justin and the children went ahead. I stared up at faces made of marble, the cold folds of linen. The small cuts of colored glass. The shadows deeper for a sky that cracked lightning and thunder. I took pictures and most have a grainy quality – no flash photography. I glanced through a brochure about the Friends Of Notre Dame, forever rescuing the crumbling structure, washing away the soot, bolstering its bones, sautering the gaps. Look what we make with our own hands. Look what we make! The architects, artists, engineers who designed pieces of Notre-Dame, and the craftsmen and workers who built pieces of Notre-Dame, creating and building for decades, hundreds not seeing the finished work of their hands, what would stand for centuries as refuge, symbol, heart in a city, cathedral in turn revered, celebrated, neglected, found again.

No shimmer of heaven, no span of the Spirit (or perhaps, yes), but an understanding: how finite we are and how we build to stay a little longer than our breath. Look what we make with our own hands! The innate desire to create. A few years after this week in Paris a student asked me what I wanted to leave behind, after I am dead and I answered, A body of work. Writing like art. I paused before answering, but didn’t need the moment to think. I paused to decide which answer to give. I pour into my children. I am near my friends and family. I love my husband. I want a tracing of my lived love on the lives of my children and their children, yes. But I write and will leave that too, and I want what I leave to be art. Look what I make. Remember the men and women who made a cathedral to God, for us to see God anew.  

I woke one morning that week in Paris, sunk deep in a soft mattress, and cried, wanting anything but what I had in that moment but rising to join my family at breakfast. I do not like this part of my story – early ambivalence toward motherhood, still occasional hatred of marriage, selfishness crowding simple joy. We had a beautiful week in Paris but I was still there too. What I forget to remember is that over my own war, I got out of bed, dressed, held my daughter’s hand, kissed my son’s cheek, took my husband’s arm and walked through the day, summer streets, one park and pastry to the next. There are landmarks of my early motherhood where I might have set a stone to remember here I yielded more, here I surrendered to present, here I loved again as best I could, here, knowing more is asked tomorrow.

Outside Notre-Dame again we crossed a street for lunch at a small counter. We shared croque monsieur, standing under a narrow awning and looking at the stained stone, the pointy details, the gargoyles and spire, the rain funneling off the roof. I did not think we would go back, not for some time at least. I had a stomach urge to touch the cathedral once more – wet, rough rock – but I stayed on the stoop feeding bites of bread and cheese to my children. The rain did not let up. We walked away  to find our next warm, dry place, two to an umbrella, Justin carrying Grant, Claire and me matching small steps.

Sixteen of thirty-nine. 905 words.

Hosier Lane, Melbourne

Melbourne HL Looking Up

Agnes named two places we should go in Melbourne. When I mentioned wanting to see street art, she said, Go to Hosier Lane. And she said to eat at The Hardware Societe. She described the dish she ate, how she couldn’t explain why such a simple dish of egg and avocado was the most delicious, but it was.

Agnes and Rob are friends of friends. During our stay in Maryborough we spent an afternoon at their house. They have an acre in a small subdivision off a highway, a big yard for the kids, with a teepee at the back lot line, perfect for planning adventure or hiding. The kitchen opens to a large outdoor room and I spent the afternoon there, sitting at a round table made for company and long, lazy lunches. I watched the kids run around, race a remote control car, jump on the trampoline. Wherever I travel I imagine living. The outdoor spaces built into Australian homes are gorgeous – not the patio or screened porch of the Midwest, but an easy flow from inside to outside, like homes I remember in Cali, Colombia. So one day, I think while sitting at Rob and Agnes’s table, When I live in Australia or South America, I will make an outdoor space to read or write, a place to think, nap, drink a little, eat. (Maybe what I need is a tent).

That afternoon I was quiet and tired, thinking of my family in Wisconsin and why we choose to be so far away. (Why do we choose to be so far away?) But I was also thinking how, after only two or three days on my sixth continent, I was already deciding to return. (Why do we choose to be so far away?)

Melbourne MosaicMy first morning in Melbourne I ran a path south along the Maribyrnong River, toward the port, and found street art hidden on a short stretch connecting the quiet river path to a busier road route. A low brick wall was a surprise of bright color, swoops and angles, cartoon illustrations. A small utility building with a Danger High Voltage Keep Out sign was painted a weave of flames. There was a sculpture of a fish-man on a bicycle, welded from scrap metal. Running back, I looked up to see a small square tile mosaic installed on a metal and concrete bridge. I immediately thought: this is my writing.

Probably I make too much about me. But I saw that little piece of art tucked where a few people see it and I ran away ready to do the same with my work this year. Street art is daring and vulnerable. You make something to share, on purpose. You make someone see:

I put a mosaic together
I spray paint at midnight
I write poetry
I play a song without words

And you hope when someone sees they connect/ interact with/ respond to your work. We don’t always get to know that part. I wish I could tell the maker of that tiny mosaic how glad I was to see art on a trestle.

That morning we took the tram downtown. When Agnes talked about Hosier Lane I imagined a mile of painted brickwork. I imagined a whole street angling through downtown Melbourne, like where we might shop or stop for a bite, just lucky enough to be surrounded by an artist’s late night work. But Hosier Lane is an alley, wide enough to work and no storefronts to fuss. The buildings on either side are three or four stories. Giant canvases. Agnes told me wedding parties visit Hosier Lane because the backdrop is so wild. That weekday there were no wedding parties but we arrived to see other tourists with their heads thrown back to see the tallest art, to take in as much wall as they could. What I saw was all the cameras. All the poses.

Melbourne HL 4I took a couple of pictures of Justin and the kids, then left them for the hour. The lane is short enough, only a city block or so, that we bumped into each other but I didn’t pay them much mind except to shoo Claire out of a shot and tell Grant to wait a minute. Now that seems embarrassing, a little greedy. Didn’t I want Claire to see something she might do one day, paint for an audience? Didn’t I want Grant to see how unpredictable art is? But while there, I didn’t bother about my kids’ responses to the brick walls of spray paint, and I didn’t care whether Justin was enthralled. Instead I got sucked into other people’s interactions with Hosier Lane. I watched tourists like me put on faces for a camera, for a phone. And those were the pictures I wanted. I walked up and down the lane, pausing to watch and listen, waiting for the moment one person raised a camera to another. I fit that pull in the small frame of my phone screen. When someone noticed, usually after, I talked with them, said I like the picture of you taking a picture here. I asked, Do you mind if I take another? Sometimes I would take another. I didn’t ask names or places. I didn’t ask permission.

Melbourne HL Looking At MeThere was a couple with good cameras and good style hanging out at this fantastic orange and blue painting of a woman’s profile, her face surrounded by angles and arsenal, plump lips a slight smile. This couple took turns posing. They looked at one another’s photos. They might have been doing what I was doing, watching everyone else too. At one moment I stood directly across from this couple and she looked at me.

There were two girls, maybe twelve or thirteen, with phones and tall convenience store slurpees. Both wore short shorts and one tugged at her tube top. When either girl posed, it was any of: pop a hip, step up, arch back, lean, slouch, raise arms, pout, barely smile, try on serious. Between poses the two girls conferenced, switched rolls. I asked did they mind and then took a few pictures. One I really like is of the girl in yellow wearing mirrored aviators. She’s pigeon toed and looking up. She doesn’t know what to do with her hands so she drops them to the front of her waist, politely. She looks like a child and she looks like a million models.

There was an Indian family. A young family and a set of grandparents. I would have liked getting a picture of the grandmother in her bright sari. She might look like a dash of paint standing still. I could have asked. Instead I watched. At one point the family wandered away from the young son and I saw this echo: a boy painted on the wall, a boy standing next to the wall.

Melbourne HL 1There were two friends out for the day. I offered to take their picture on one of their phones and one of them offered to take my picture. I didn’t get a good picture of myself. While the one woman snapped photos of me standing in front of Hosier Lane mural, the other kept asking questions. So my face is doing this talking-while-smiling thing that doesn’t look cool or casual. I have a slightly droopy eyelid. One day my face will look old but right now my face just looks tired. I should have posed instead, like the stylish couple, close lipped, head slightly tilted, hands in my front pockets like I walk around like this all day.

We ate at The Hardware Societe, a thirty minute wait for a shared table to learn Agnes was right.

One From Africa

When Justin said he’d like to spend Christmas in Kenya, I told him to have fun and asked if he was taking the kids. He said he meant all of us, we should all go to Kenya. I knew that. I didn’t want to go. I had terrible reasons why. Travel isn’t rest. I like our Christmas in Kuwait. We don’t have all our shots. But I left the decision to Justin and he booked our flights with me standing over his shoulder thinking this was iffy at best. The weeks leading to departure were overfull. I wanted a break that looked like me alone in the apartment for days on end, sleeping. I snapped at Justin. I bought gifts and piled them on the dining table, then spent the day of our flight packing suitcases and crying because I wanted to want to go rather than what it was: nudging my body closer to boarding a plane in the middle of the night.

I was supposed to go to Nairobi when I was sixteen. I was going to stay with a missionary family we knew. My head was full of God but I thought I’d hear better in Africa, sitting on a flat rock watching the sunrise. There, God would tell me my whole life. During the months leading up to that summer, I decided I might live in Africa forever. I don’t know what I thought I’d do. Something holy. Maybe I quit trying to hear God clearly in Wisconsin because I was sure He was louder in Africa. But then the trip got nixed and I quit writing to my missionary pen pal because I was mad her anorexia got my God trip cancelled. Her whole family returned to the States for her treatment and I remember thinking, Just eat dammit. In the years following when I’d see  updates from her family, I’d look at this skinny young woman’s picture and think she got the better end despite illness and all I got was an average summer before senior year when I could have been doing so much for the Lord. (Forgive me).

Last spring when my brother told me he’d got a job in Nairobi I thought of my lost God trip. I wrote about it then, surprised by the untapped bitterness. I thought maybe I’d visit my brother, maybe someday, but when Justin bought the tickets and I spent three months thinking it was an awful idea, I couldn’t figure out what was going on in my heart.

When I am in a plane, I yield. I just go with the two possibilities (we land or we don’t) and think how sad for whomever has to clean my apartment should the latter be my fate. On the flight from Ethiopia to Kenya, I thought about who I was twenty years ago and why I thought God would speak louder in Africa. I thought about God’s faithfulness, how he spoke to me in Wisconsin and Colombia and now in Kuwait. I am learning to listen the first time. I am learning to trust. And the plane tilted a little so I could see the earth below, the Kenya I’d missed two decades ago, and God worked my heart in a way I’ve got no words for. I looked at the green land and tears came and tears kept coming the first week here and this the second week – tears for so many things, but also for this: surprise and joy at being here, in Kenya so long after I’d first wanted the land, and the sudden planted desire to be here. I want more.

I am sitting cross-legged in pants dirty with red mud, wanting more. And that is only of God.

Riding The Train In India: A Peek At Revision

I cut a 1009 word piece to 706!

I’ve been going through old essays to find work I might submit. I wrote “Riding The Train In India” in 2011, from a 2009 journal entry. In 2013 I took an online writing workshop and learned the phrase “vicious editor.” I’ve gotten a bit cut-happy. And as I’ve practiced cutting, I’ve gained confidence. I trust myself not to lop off an ear or nose when I’m trimming fringe.

(Though I once cut my fringe while my hair was wet and it dried high on my forehead. It looked terrible. I would have appreciated an undo button).

When I cut a piece, I copy and paste the whole thing  on the same document. The latest revision is always the top of the page. I cut knowing I can always find what’s missing, if it’s that necessary.

I am learning to find the truer story (more on that in another post) in my essay pieces. I think that’s evident in the first few paragraphs of my revised work below. But humor me and read the draft first:

I rode two different classes. The first was second class, from Delhi to Dehra Dun. A few hours in our own cracked brown vinyl seats with armrests and a tray table, we were given a newspaper to read and a complimentary breakfast of wet scrambled eggs, dry toast, and coffee served in a thermos that might not have been washed after its last use. Later on our trip, we rode third class and liked that much better. Third class seats were blue vinyl covered benches facing each other, the aisle at one end and metal bar covered windows at the other. My brother and his wife, Joie, and their two children Will and Annie, and Justin, Claire and me: three facing three, with baby Claire and little Annie on laps.

Everything before and after and between just sitting on the train is complicated or frustrating or difficult. Names on lists posted in the depot must be checked against the tickets. Sometimes the lists aren’t posted where you expect them. We let my brother do this while we stood in a knot of bags and children. I kept checking to be sure our passports were still where I put them. It felt like a documentary: the mass of men, women, and children on the train platform waiting, nudging, and staring. Porters carrying two or three suitcases balanced on their heads moved deftly through and around packs of passengers. I was exhausted after nights of poor sleep, but my senses were prickly alive. I couldn’t open my eyes wide enough.

Boarding the train was hateful. All pushing and pulling and faces mashed into shoulders and unwashed hair an inch from your mouth. I had a baby or a suitcase to carry too. No one was gentle with their elbows or hips and once on, you had to find your seats; once at your seats, they might already be occupied. We sat and soon after, more passengers crowded our benches, pressing us to the window.

Now, enjoy this:

We rode third class was from Dehra Dun to Jaipur: blue vinyl benches facing each other, the aisle at one end and metal barred windows at the other. We travelled with my brother, Nate, and his family. After spending Christmas together in the Himalayan foothills, we were going to see the Taj Mahal.

At the depot, we stood in a knot of luggage and children. “I don’t like the way those bags are hanging off you,” Nate said to me. I kept checking our passports were still there, exhausted after a week of poor sleep, but prickly awake in the crowd. There was a joke I made, early in our travel through India, about the country being where the world’s sweaters came to die. There was the odor of a diet heavy on onion. A woman opened her infant’s pants and flicked the contents on a track. Porters with two or three suitcases balanced on their heads moved deftly around us.

Boarding the train was hateful. No one was gentle with elbows or hips in the push up the stairs. I balanced a baby and a bag or two, mashed into the shoulder of a man with dirty hair. I swore. I hadn’t come to India for its romance. We found our seats. Other passengers found our seats too.

That alone was a cut of 113 words! And I got to add my joke about the sweaters!

I will leave this piece alone for a few days and reread it. I think it’s very close to finished.

Running Vienna

When we arrived, I asked our host where he suggested I run. He took out a map and showed me the streets from our apartment to Schoenbrunn Palace and promised kilometers of garden paths. I went the next morning, a fifteen minute run to the palace gates which open to the public at 6:30am.

I loved it.

I said Thank you, God. This summer break, running outside was bliss. The cool morning temperatures, breeze, and occasional rain. I ran the park’s paths for an hour.

I wanted to explore Vienna on my morning runs too so the next routes were up Mariahilfer, through the Museum Quater and along Burg Ring and the Danube Canal. Nearly everything I found, I found by accident. I tried to remember what direction I came from and at some turns, made a note of graffiti or statuary. I got lost a lot. I ran farther than I meant to. When I approached someone for directions, I used the train station nearest our apartment as reference. One man laughed and said, “That is a long way away.” He made a zigzag with his hand and told me which street to watch for and I jogged away hoping he meant long for a walk.

One morning I planned to meet a new friend at Belvedere for a run through the gardens. I looked up the route and knew enough of the streets and landmarks to guess where to turn. I ran and ran and ran, heading toward Belvedere, going wide and getting lost in a maze of short streets and tall residence. I stopped to ask a woman in a parked van if she spoke English. No. “Belvedere?” I said. She nodded and drew a map in the air, said, “So. So. So-oo-oo. So.” I nodded and got lost again.

Map of Vienna

Getting lost was fine. I carried fifty cents for a public toilet and learned which ones were nicest. I rarely ran fast so hearing Westbonhof was a long way away didn’t worry me. I looked up. I doubled back to see if I recognized a landmark. Later in the day I showed Justin and the kids what I’d seen that morning.

But after a few days of running the city, even the quieter streets, I found myself leaving the center early, returning to fit twenty or thirty minutes of Schoenbrunn paths in my run. My last week of running was entirely Schoenbrunn. I arrived when the gates opened and ran the flat paths and the hill. I made up patterns and loops. I got rocks in my shoes. The tree archways made me happy. The rose garden made me happy. The old men sitting on benches made me happy. I get giddy around other runners after so many months on a treadmill. I nod. I smile. I sometimes run to catch up and hold a pace, just to play running partner for fifteen minutes.

Map of the park at Schönbrunn

I met one runner on our way to Schoenbrunn and we seemed matched enough in pace that we ran a long loop of the gardens together. I loved it! We met up again my last morning in Vienna, by chance, and ran a few lengths of the park together. She’d just returned to Vienna after a year of traveling. She mentioned the value of connecting with people from the place you’re visiting. Agreed. I was so glad to meet both of my Vienna running partners.

My last run through Schoenbrunn, I went by a motley collection of broken statuary and columns piled in an empty fountain. It’s the corner of Schoenbrunn opposite the zoo, probably ignored by most visitors. But after the tree archways, that mess of stone was my favorite part of the garden. The haphazard jam of the leftover pieces – the different colors, shapes and sizes of carved stone – is beautiful. I stopped one morning on my run down the hill, on a path behind the fountain. I stood and looked at the floral design of tiles on the arch. The carved faces. Giant chunks of column. Maybe those pieces find their places at the end of hidden paths. Maybe one day they are given their own benches for us to sit on and look at them and think how lovely. Maybe they just stay together, leaning long enough that the pose gets comfortable.

If I Lived Here

Justin and I spent our first Christmas in South America in Peru. The trip included a boat ride across Lake Titicaca and an overnight stay on an island. Our group was hosted by locals whose way of life felt a little staged as they shepherded us through coca tea and dancing. The town was losing its indigenous population as youth left the island for education and jobs. I have mixed feelings about discovering these rarer, simply sustained places and introducing TV and potato chips, but when the daughter of the house led Justin and I up a ladder to our tiny room, I thought I could be happy here.

There was a short bed piled with heavy blankets, a red plastic bucket under the bed for a night toilet, a sturdy table and chair and a small shelf. I woke in the middle of the night with a blinding altitude headache and drank a Coke, took a couple Tylenol. It was silent and dark. I lay under the weight of blankets, next to my husband and in the morning, climbed down the ladder, ate a bland breakfast prepared by the mother of the house. I stood in their kitchen the size of a closet, spooning porridge and thinking I might like shearing sheep. I could stay and make my own cooking fire. I would drink the cleanest air and swallow the brightest stars and write poetry that said just that.

Then I shouldered my pack and climbed back in the boat, leaving that small room with its table and chair.

I play this game when I travel: If I lived here. It’s usually a quick game. Playing Vienna: If I lived here, I would shop at Billa or Denn’s or Spar. If I lived here I would take a weekend trip to a lake. Claire and I would go to Cafe Sperl for the apple strudel. I would eat Zotter chocolate. I would bike to work and walk everywhere and buy only the groceries I could carry home.

But I don’t live here, the game ends.

Even so, when I travel, I absorb the everyday. I enjoy the regular. I wear long sleeves when I run in the morning chill. I walk the same quiet street to the same park where Claire and Grant swing and climb and slide. I order a beer at lunch, if I like. Justin buys the same bread because it is too good to bother trying another bakery. I make ham and cheese crepes for dinner. I sit at a white kitchen table, my bare feet on the parquet floor. When I glance up from my notebook, I see rooftops and a spire with a gold point.

I leave some places thinking I am not done with them, not yet. I may not return, but I am not done there either. That small room in Peru. The spire I see from this kitchen window.

Pinkas Synagogue

Prague’s old Jewish quarter is one of few that mostly survived Nazi occupation. The Old Jewish Cemetery dates to the fifteenth century, packed with stones, graves layered according to religious law when more land could not be purchased. I wanted to see the stones crammed and leaning under the shade of trees, roots and graves underfoot.

I wasn’t prepared for Pinkas Synagogue though, the first building we walked through. Panels of lists of names are painted onto the walls of each room, recording the Jews from Prague and surrounding communities who died in concentration camps. It took me a moment to know what I was looking at and then I read the dates following each name. I remember visiting the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. when I was twelve or thirteen and feeling a similarly slow absorption of how great a loss was suffered. Name after name after name.

Photography is not permitted inside Pinkas Synagogue. This image is pulled from Flickr.


Pinkas Synagogue also featured an exhibition of artwork done by children at the Terezin or Theresienstadt Ghetto, a transit camp for Czech Jews run from 1942 – 1945. The room was small, displaying a fraction of the art created by the thousands of children moved through the ghetto, but the pieces showed a range of subjects: life before, places left, holidays, transport trains, family, fairy tales, Bible stories, life in the ghetto. A small placard next to each painting or drawing gave the name of the child, their birth date, the date they entered Terezin, and for the majority, their death date and the camp at which they died. Only a handful of the works had a placard ending with Survived.

I read a short explanation of the purpose behind art classes for the children. Elders in the ghetto recognized that children were as susceptible to depression as adults and saw art and poetry as expressions that could give children ways to remember their former life and think about their present reality.

I will write about this more, in my WP. I am a little too scattered to post more than first thoughts now – art, expression, permission. I stood still, looking at drawings on cream paper, thinking about the wisdom of handing a child a pencil, telling them to draw what they may not be able to say in words.

This collage is by Ruth Gutmannova. She was born in 1930 and died at Auschwitz in 1944. I bought a reproduction of one of her watercolors. This collage pulled from the blog The Delights of Seeing.

Running Prague

I like to run the city I travel. This summer is the first in three years that I’m able to start my mornings with a long outdoor run. Here, I’m doing out-and-back runs with branches off to see neighborhoods or parks.

I begin at the edge of Charles Park and run downhill to the Vltava River. I follow the river past the Charles Bridge and take a slope down to a cobbled dock. I run early enough to see the orange and blue suited sanitation workers sweeping up last night’s party near the bridge, but the dock collects a few empty wine bottles too. Before starting their sweep of the dock, a man and woman recline in an old Volvo, smoking. Their two little dogs are nearby, sniffing along the wall.

I am not on the dock long. The riverboats are quiet. I see a couple on a bench; he woofs at me and she doubles over in laughter. A few men are at the edge of the dock, fishing and talking, not bothering to glance up at passersby. There are some other runners out, but mostly bikers whooshing by on my left and dog-walkers on my right.

I find a trail. Crushed rock cutting through a wide field of tall grass and short trees. Other paths break from the main, weaving their way toward a busier street of office and apartment buildings. Homeless sleep in the field at night and we nod at each other in the morning – an old man carrying a back and rolled mat steps out from the weeds and I am one of many striding by in the day, seeing a tree as a tree rather than as a roof.

The trail is short. I pretend I’m in the middle of nowhere because that is where I’d like to run one day. The crushed rock is a break for my legs. The rest of the my run through Prague is on tiny square paving stones, cobbles or asphalt; all of it uneven, sloping or crowned. The trail is a flat, forgiving surface. I hold my gait but there is less work to my running: no curb to hop or stairs to climb. It is  perfect, boring trail.

I run back the way I came. Commuters are on their way to early shifts. Trams are fuller. There are more cars at the intersections. I learn which blocks are busy and skirt them. When I reach my landmark, I walk, sweaty, ready for the day.

Flash Fiction: Only Here. Only Now.

I am having fun getting my WP pages in each day! Here is flash fiction pulled from a Lucille Clifton poem. And because I’m in Prague, working that city into my pieces too.

Erica read “the mississippi river empties into the gulf” while sitting in her residence hall lobby, waiting for a boy from her Eng 210 class. She wanted him to see her reading poetry and ask. She wanted to look up and sigh, close the book and stand. She wanted to say, “Shall we?” and let him open the door. She read the poem dozens of times, waiting. Finally, she closed the book and texted him: ??? At the exam, he apologized, said have a good time abroad.

Prague wasn’t as cold as Minneapolis in January, but it was darker. She went to class and found a cafe she liked and finally quit thinking about the boy when she met an Australian who made her try Vegemite. By March, Erica decided she couldn’t leave when the term ended. She would stay through summer at least.

The tourists came – packs from Scandinavian and Asian countries – and backpackers, but the Australian left. She got the tattoo in July after stopping along the Vltava River, suddenly reminded of the murk of her own Mississippi. But her river was wider and swifter. Erica thought of the poem and the boy. She thought of the lonely first weeks in Prague, before she met the Australian, and started to cry, staring at the Vltava. She turned away, walking uphill toward her apartment.

The tattoo place had a yellow sign out front and steps that led to a small basement room. Erica was hungry and tired, but knew she had to put the Mississippi on her body, sorry she’d stayed away for as long as she had. But when asked to write the word, she wrote the last two lines of the poem instead, chose ink the color of her freckles and pointed to the inside of her left wrist.

whispering mistakenly:
only here. only now.

Wide Open And Weary: I Wanted To Be A Backpacker

On Wenceslas Square we saw a man playing a makeshift instrument, a table top criss-crossed with piano wire. The man bent over the wires and tapped them with a wooden mallet. Two dreadlocked backpackers leaned over the wires too, grinning and nodding like this unremarkable plunking was brilliant.

I never got to be a backpacker. I likely would have jumped in the wrong jeep on the promise of an unexplored waterfall and ended up dead or pregnant. My thirty-something self doesn’t trust my early twenty-something self to buy a Euroline pass and crash in cheap hostels. I know the messes I made, sans language barrier.


Backpacker culture intrigues me. I like the range of it. I like the girls in flowy skirts and the boys with shaggy hair. I like the just going part. Here, I’ve seen graying men shoulder packs and lean into the uphill walk.

My first impression of backpacker culture was when Justin and I went to Taganga on the Colombian Caribbean coast. It was hot, but I ran every morning, chased by dogs, to Santa Marta and back. We laid around on the beach, drinking beer and reading paperbacks. I ate the best coconut pie I’ve ever had at a place called La Ballena Azul and went back twice more just for the pie. I felt very alive, walking up rutted gravel paths in the dark, my belly full of pie, swatting bugs I couldn’t see, nearly tripping over lazy dogs.

I was twenty-six. Around me were men and women a few years younger, scuffed packs at their feet, sheens of sweat on their skin. I remember eating ceviche one night, watching a young woman on the porch hold court, three or four men trying. What I remember best are her bare legs and feet. She had dancer legs she stretched out then pulled to her chest, flopped open like butterfly wings. The men laughed at what she said and she laughed at what they said and they all took pulls on sweating beers. There was possibility and sex in her smile and splayed legs, in the men’s ropey arms resting on chair backs.

One day we went to Tyrona, got caught in Biblical rain and hiked out in heavy boots. We boarded a full bus, the few backpackers on board wearing our own exhaustion. Even that travel-worn posture was enviable. I wanted to be mistaken for a backpacker, wide open to what comes, a little weary after. I wanted to seem like the kind of person who would just leave their country to go see what South America was like in November.

I felt late to my adventure. I felt a little planned. I had a husband and a job. Within a year, I’d have a baby. Sitting in that restaurant, eating ceviche scooped from a plastic bucket, watching a girl get all the flattery I craved, I thought I should have gone when I first felt it. But then I’d be dead now, or parenting an adolescent itching for his or her own adventure.