Saturday, September 3, 2011

The End

"...not with a bang but a whimper."

It is not without a touch of emotion that I at last arrive at the final day of this blog. But I'm ready. There is little to be said by way of a conclusion that has not already been said several times over. I was not very consistent. But I learned a thing or two about myself as a writer along the way.

A new blog will be starting soon. It is called Centaur and there's nothing on it now but there will be something on it soon. Not tomorrow (our originally planned start date has been postponed); but soon.

I could drag this out a bit longer, reminisce, pontificate, but it would only be delaying the inevitable. This blog has officially served its purpose. I'm ready to say goodbye.

Au revoir.

Do I get to make a wish on the candles if it's not really my birthday yet?

I often hear older people say that they still feel like a teenager. I wonder at what point in my progression through life will I stop feeling my age and begin to feel like I'm sixteen? The acknowledgment that my body doesn't seem to want to hold its former shape without a little extra coaxing on my part--that I have to actually work to keep the cellulite at bay--has come as an unpleasant shock, yet I definitely don't feel like I'm me ten years ago; I feel like I'm me now. I'm perfectly content to be at the stage of life I'm in and have no wish to have back anything I had in the past.

It's only in one aspect of my life that I approach the number twenty-six with some trepidation, and to elaborate requires that I touch on a subject I have traditionally and deliberately shied away from on this blog. But, since we are now approaching the end and the character of this blog has been developed to a point where slight deviations don't threaten to carry it off in an undesirable direction, I will be candid: I'm talking about love. Romance, to be more specific. I haven't been in a serious relationship in the last decade, and, though I really don't have the slightest interest in going on dates and assertively searching out a partner, I'd be lying if I said I didn't feel a bit uneasy about this prolonged state of singleness. Especially at my age.

Today was not my birthday, but tonight I celebrated with my family, with enchiladas and presents and cake. They sang "Happy Birthday" to me and and I blew out the candles. No, I didn't wish for a boyfriend. But, okay, I did take it under at least flighting consideration before settling on something more altruistic. I don't know what the next year will hold as far as relationships are concerned. And, honestly, I'm not very open to responding positively to any opportunities that may arise. I know myself and know that I will anxiously resist anything and anyone that threatens my ideal for how romance ought to develop. But I do hope that, when the time comes for me to take a chance and make a change, I won't hold back on account of fear.

Friday, September 2, 2011

"The Best Twenty-five of twenty-five," part V

21. The best soul-searching experience
The last few days of my last week in France--the weekend I spent in silence at the international monastic community in Taizé, France--changed me. Since then, I have a very different attitude toward prayer, which, resultantly, reforms my entire outlook on life. In the oversight of one of the sisters in residence, I and seven other women decided to spend two and a half days in silence, committing ourselves to devoting three specific hours a day for listening to God through the reading of Scripture. At one point midway through, I broke my silence in order to speak privately with one of the sisters and receive her guidance in processing several of the thoughts and concerns I had been wrestling with both before and throughout the weekend of silence. She was very hard on me, and asked me to examine my decisions and reasons for making them from an approach I had never been willing to consider before. I felt exposed, and yet safe; a bit frightened by what I had learned, yet confident that God's loving faithfulness would guide me through. The entire weekend left me with a powerful sense of the freedom that exists within God's love. I entered silence with so many questions, only to find that the Holy Spirit was already speaking the answers within me.
22. The best personal purchase

My San Diego Zoological Society membership has proven a very valuable asset. Since I purchased it in January, it has provided me with countless hours of entertainment and pleasurable walks. Now that my savings has run out and I can't generally afford to go out, the zoo is a welcome escape from the humdrum patterns of home. Also, with the free guest passes that came with my membership, I've been able to entertain visitors at no extra cost!
23. The best new game
Cork stacking. Look out: it's gonna be big.

24. The best reunion
This summer, Ashley Jones came home to America. After spending two years living in Indonesia, she has returned to us once again and, in July, came down to Southern California for a full month. I got to surprise her at the airport and spend a couple of days with her and it was wonderful: In-N-Out, Taco King, the works. She has since moved back up to Oregon, which is very sad but still much better than Indonesia, because now at least we are in the same time zone. I still secretly hope that we will one day live in the same city again and have so much fun.
25. The best thing I didn't do but will do soon
I started this blog off with a few concrete goals for the year: to write more (check), to get a job (check), and to either start graduate school or set the wheels in motion for me to do so (...um...I'll get back to you on that one). It is still undetermined whether I will be able to attend Fuller Theological Seminary this fall, but, even if I can't afford to do it now, the experience of finally getting my act together and applying has been immensely encouraging in reminding me that, indeed, I can continue my education. Yes, perhaps I've been out of school long enough now that it doesn't feel like the most natural thing in the world, but I can adjust. I can change my life. I can keep moving forward. The possibilities are innumerable.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

"The Best Twenty-five of twenty-five," part IV

16. The best book
No new additions were made in the last year to my list of all-time favorite books. I read some good stuff, just nothing that wowed me to an exceptional extent. Still, of all the books I read for the first time this year, I enjoyed A Moveable Feast, by Ernest Hemingway, the most. What caused it to stand out was a combination of the excellent narrative style and the insightful reflections on the process of writing and observing life in Paris in the 1920's. The fact that I was in Paris while I was reading it didn't hurt, either.
17. The best beat
If it weren't for the new song, "Maracas," by Mates of State, available to listen to on their website as a preview to their upcoming new album, I might have had to have gone with final track on Sufjan Stevens' latest LP, released in October. But now I'm giddy with anticipation of the other new tunes that Mates of State has created. Mates of State is just so good.
18. The best beet
This one:

Dad's "proud" face.
19. The best tomato
The verdict is unanimous: of the six varieties of heirloom tomatoes I grew in the garden this year, the Yellow Brandywine's seeds are the ones most worth saving. A bountiful producer, this monster of a plant outgrew its tomato cage while its neighbor plants were still reaching only about a foot high. The fruit is proportionately gargantuan, attractive in shape and color, and delicious.
20. The best baked goods
I frequently dabble, with mixed results, in creating my own recipes. This year, my greatest triumph was my recipe for strawberry-lavender muffins (muffins aux fraises et lavande), which I made several times throughout the hight of the strawberry season with consistently superb results. I am confident that these muffins will become a late-spring/early-summer staple in years to come.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

"The Best Twenty-five of twenty-five," part III

After another late night at work, I'm grateful for this opportunity to assertively focus my attention on positive thoughts, specifically, the most positive things that have happened to me this year.

11. The best decision (possibly ever)
Going to France.
12. Best vacation spot
The South of France.


Is it logical that a place could make me want to have children, just so that I could bring them there and share it with them? In any case, I fully intend to return to the South of France, and the affordable, easy-to-use transit system, vibrant countryside, and warm-spirited people ensure me that, even if I have a family in tow, it would be an ideal travel destination.
13. The best language
French.
14. The best new addition to my culinary repertoire
For some reason, I always assumed that quiche was exceptionally complicated and the method of preparation elusive to my present food-preparatory capabilities. After witnessing it made a few times in the kitchen of the family whose farm I was WWOOFing on, however, I was happy to learn that, with the help of a few eggs, some cream, some good cheese and chopped veggies, and a fresh pie crust, I could whip up the delectable dish and have it out of the oven in less than an hour. If it weren't for the sky-high calorie content, I'd make quiches nearly every day.
15. The best online community
I had heard from several friends who had tried it in the past that CouchSurfing was great, but I never got around to looking into it for myself until right before leaving for France. Though I was, admittedly, a bit concerned over the prospect of staying with complete strangers in their homes--generally, worried more about awkwardness than safety issues--I had nothing but positive experiences with my French hosts. And, since returning to San Diego, each opportunity I've had to welcome CSers into my and my parents' home has been fun, inspiring, and educational. I will never stay in another youth hostel again, if I can help it.

Recent CouchSurfers from Barcelona, Spain

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

"The Best Twenty-five of twenty-five," part II

Tonight I continue my itemization of the the twenty-five best "bests" of my twenty-fifth year. Beginning with...

6. The best concert

Sufjan Stevens at the Wiltern in Los Angeles, October 23, 2010. It was unequivocally the greatest combined celebration of outer space and dancing I have ever witnessed. My experience was actually incredibly similar to that of my friend, Casey. She saw him perform in Phoenix the night before and shared her thoughts about it on her blog, here

After the concert, I joined several of my friends in enjoying some good eats from a local Korean taco truck. That's right: Korean tacos. You can get anything in L.A.

7. The best wedding
I attended four in the last year. All were good, but Mike and Lindsay's was exceptional. The ceremony, which took place on the cliffs of Point Loma, was simple, picturesque, beautiful. The reception, which took place at our home, was intimate, lively, and one of the best parties I've been to in my life.

8. The best feminine hygiene product
For a considerable time I had been interested in finding a more eco-friendly alternative to tampons and maxi pads. After researching several brands of organic cotton tampons, cloth pads, sea sponges, and menstrual cups, I decided to order the Diva Cup. Excellent decision. Though it's a bit pricey, the fact that it can be reused for over a year indicates that, in the long run, it's a more economical option than disposable menstrual products. As an added bonus, I've noticed a significant decrease in the severity of my menstrual cramps since I switched to the Diva Cup. I'll never go back to tampons, and I would be remiss if I didn't share this revelation with any friends who are looking for a means of dealing with their lady times that is gentler on the environment and, ultimately, on the wallet.
9. The best new skill
Skills Month was a bust, but I still managed to pick up some helpful new knowledge and abilities this year. My favorite by far, however, is my newfound ability to milk a goat. During the week and a half that I spent WWOOFing on a goat farm in France, I went from barely being able to eke out a few drops from the poor goat's utter to filling a whole bucket with frothy milk in ten minutes flat. Though I took great pleasure and satisfaction in several of the tasks I was asked to carry out while on the farm, milking the goats was, without a doubt, my favorite chore.

10. The best Eastern European cuisine
It was so good. Since the evening that I visited Pomegranite Russian-Georgian Restaurant with Mike and Lindsay, I've been dreaming of going back. I've made several attempts at replicating their amazing borscht in my home kitchen, but I've yet to concoct anything remotely as delectable.

Monday, August 29, 2011

"The Best Twenty-five of twenty-five," part I

For this last week of twenty-five, I would like to take some time to highlight some events or discoveries that might not have gotten much--if any--mention on this blog, but nevertheless played a formative or otherwise interesting role my last year of life. Each day, for the next five days, I will highlight five "Best Ofs" from my twenty-fifth year, comprising, altogether, "The Best Twenty-five of twenty-five."

Here goes:

1. The best birthday gift
This is way hard to choose, actually, because I had so many amazing birthday presents last year! Ashley Jones gave me a skirt that I love and the best key cover ever. I got a beautiful sweater and some great books from my sisters. And Josiah, in his usual custom, gave a hand-made greeting card, complete with personalized coupons to be redeemed for special outings and fun activities. In the end, I guess I have to say that Josiah's present would be the best, because there's no greater gift than time.


2. The best (and by "best," I mean worst) near-death experience
I'm not exaggerating. I really could have died. Back in September, when Josiah, Jared, and I took a two-night backpacking trip in the Ansel Adams Wilderness, the weather was less than kind to us. The first morning, it started to drizzle. With hopes of climbing nearby Madera Peak, we eyed the sky hopefully all day, casting furtive glances at the southern horizon, where dark clouds persistently loomed over the mountain tops.

Finally, at mid afternoon, the clouds in the south still showing no immediate intention to move our direction, we decided to just go for it. Armed with water and snacks, we began to scale the steep, granite slope. Once we cleared the tree line, the going became especially difficult, with loose rock shards slipping out from under us as we climbed higher and higher, our gaze remaining cautiously on the clouds in the south, ready to detect the slightest hint of threat.


A clap of thunder sounded so loud and so close you could feel it in the ground. Immediately, we realized our folly: we had been watching the clouds in the south so intently, we had entirely failed to notice the storm advancing on us rapidly from the north! We were absolutely exposed and standing on the side of one of the tallest mountain peaks in the vicinity, nothing but loose granite beneath our feet.

Fully aware that a scraped knee or even a twisted ankle would be preferable to being struck by lightning, we began to descend as quickly as possible, running and sometimes sliding down hillsides of sharp stones. As incautiously as we hurried, however, we were no match for the rolling black clouds, which advanced on us rapidly, releasing terrifying cracks of lightning. I moved as fast as I could, but both Jared and Josiah were far ahead of me. The clouds were finally right overhead. And then I was passing trees and shrubs and, as the rain began to fall, my hiking boots touched soft dirt, and I knew I was probably going to live.

3. The best thing I got in the mail
A letter from a student in Japan.

4. The best job
I genuinely loved working for UPS in December. I never thought it would be possible to love a job and occasionally, specifically on the days that it rained, it could be a little bit miserable. But I loved the feeling of working hard and doing something physically exerting while being outdoors and interacting with lots of different people in a positive setting all day. What was there not to love?

5. The best thing I crocheted
In late 2010 and early 2011, I crocheted several fun little things of which I was quite proud, but my favorite would have to be this guy right here.

He's an iPod sleeve.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Post-twenty-five blogging prospects

It's probably not such a wise idea that I (nearly) always reserve my blogging duties as my final activity of the day. Late in the evening, as I'm preparing to go to bed, my mood is pretty much always the same--tired--and this is almost unwaveringly expressed in the tone of my writing. My writing also just isn't quite as good when my body and mind are totally worn out and ready for sleep.

Happily, the lingering question of whether I will continue to blog after I turn twenty-six is now ready to be answered: Yes, I will continue to blog. But, no, it won't be every day. This blog and the daily discipline of adding something to it have been immensely helpful and I feel as though I've grown and learned quite a bit from the experience. But I'm ready to graduate.

This new blog, scheduled to launch--unintentionally but quite fittingly--on my twenty-sixth birthday, will be a collaborative effort between me and my dear, talented, imaginative, brilliant friend Ashley. Together, we will focus on separate but related weekly assignments, our goal being to post updates every weekend. Perhaps I've already given too much away, but I'm really looking forward to taking some of the unpredictability out of my daily writing and allowing myself the time to plan, reconsider, and revise. And, of course, I'm excited to be working alongside Ashley to receive even greater motivation and inspiration. Alright: I had better not say anything else about it for now. More information will be coming your way soon.

Friday, August 26, 2011

After ten hours of travel...

Today I went to Pasadena to pick up my freshly repaired car. The trip, which by car would normally take about two and a half hours from my parents' house in San Diego, took a round seven hours by public transport. Not that I'm complaining. Well, okay, I'm complaining a little, but, apart from the drastic difference in commuting time, I really do prefer traveling by train to driving. Generally, it's much more relaxing and you occasionally have the opportunity to interact with interesting people. Aboard the trolley in San Diego, I met a friendly woman from Sitka who pretty much convinced me that I belong in Alaska. And I spent the entire trip from San Diego's Santa Fe Station to Los Angeles Union Station absorbed in a book. After disembarking the Gold Line in Pasadena, I enjoyed a pleasant stroll through a pleasant neighborhood and felt a sense of reassurance that, if I do end up attending Fuller, I will definitely enjoy living in that area. But still, with today marking exactly one month until the start of the fall quarter, the question lingers...

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Money

I must commend the Amissions and Financial Aid offices at Fuller Theological Seminary for the rapidity with which they have been processing all the forms I have submitted to them in the last week. However, having received my acceptance notification this morning, and with my decision hinged on the amount of scholarship aid I can still be awarded on such short notice, I can't help feeling a bit anxious. I know that my current job pays too little for me to stay. I need to start looking for new employment; but the question is, should I search in San Diego, or around Pasadena?

I need, I need, I need.

Amazingly, I already have everything I need.

There was once a time when I genuinely believed that my highest calling in life was to learn as much as possible, no matter what the cost. Then I graduated from college and a few years went by and, somehow along the way, I started to buy into the notion that my goal should instead be to become debt-free and financially secure. At last, I'm beginning to defect to my former viewpoint. It's exciting.

But, alas: I still need money.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Southbound Train

It’ been such a weird week. And it’s not over yet.

Saturday evening, on the drive up to Azusa, my GTI started displaying a check-engine light and seemed to have gone into some electronically triggered emergency mode, where it would only go into reverse and fourth gear. Assuming it was not conceivable to get my car into a mechanic on Sunday, I resolved to have it looked at by a professional first thing Monday morning. Josiah, whom I had given a ride on my way up to Azusa, needed to be back home in time to go to work Monday morning. So, Jared and I drove Josiah half way home; Josiah’s brother, Micah, drove the other half way to pick him up. Thanking my lucky stars I had just happened to pack an extra pair of underwear, I decided to stay one more night at Jared and Laura’s place.

First thing Monday morning, I took my car to a mechanic in Azusa. Two hours later, he called me back, explaining that the problem was something internal that he was not equipped to handle, and advising that I take it to the dealer. The Volkswagen dealership in Pasadena was crowded and it was estimated that it would be a couple of hours before they could determine the problem. Though I was scheduled to work that evening, I called my manager and explained the situation, and she agreed to find someone to cover my shift.

I stayed at the dealership all day. They ran a diagnostic test on my vehicle, which identified several malfunctions in the electrical system. A new battery was put in, and this cleared up all of the codes except one: a lingering electrical error in the transmission. It wasn’t until several hours later that I at last received a detailed account of exactly what the problem was and which pieces of my transmission needed to be replaced. Parts would have to be ordered, but the repairs could be completed by Wednesday morning.

My dilemma, now, was whether to take the train down to San Diego so that I could work my shift Tuesday night, or simply remain in Azusa with Jared and Laura until Wednesday. With my friends encouraging me to accept their hospitality a little longer, and a sympathetic assistant manager agreeing to find someone to cover my shift for one more night, I decided to stay up in the L.A. area.

This morning, just as I was already reaching for my phone to call the dealership and inquire as to the current situation with my vehicle, I received a call from the service department. Bad news. Volkswagen had sent them the wrong parts. Right order; wrong parts. They best they could do was reorder and have my car ready for me by Friday.

Friday.

Feeling helpless, I saw I had no option but to acquiesce. I hung up the phone, feeling miserable. Then I called them back, and asked whether it would be possible for me to just drive my car down to San Diego and have the repairs done at the dealership down there. No, I was told, That would not be possible. My transmission had already been taken apart to get it ready for the new parts. It had no fluids in it. It was not drivable.

So here I am now, aboard the Amtrak heading for San Diego. We just passed San Juan Capistrano and I now have a refreshing view of blue ocean and white waves crashing on a white beach. Children running. White seagulls. A simple, carefree scene. Friday, or maybe Monday morning, I will take the train back up to Pasadena to retrieve my car and pay massive amounts of money I don’t have for the repairs that have been done on it. I’ll wonder whether I should have just tried to drive it back down to San Diego in the first place and taken it to my mechanic down there. But there’s no point dwelling on what might have been, especially if it’s going to interfere with me enjoying such a nice view of the sea.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Considering

The day was not in fact the retreat I had so optimistically envisioned. Though I had plenty of down time, it became uncontrollably dominated by anxious brain chatter, ruminating involuntarily on the great, unresolved dilemma, “What am I going to do?”

A shift in events calls former certainties into question. I’m exhausted with being a person who can’t make up her mind about anything. I see my attitudes reflecting that of my society, where we are constantly bombarded with information about the next new greatest thing. Within such a lifestyle, peace is hard to come by.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Mini Retreat

Calling to explain that I wouldn't be able to come into work the next two days induced surprisingly less guilt than I would have anticipated. With my car in the shop and the wages I would make from working tomorrow night not worth the cost of the train tickets that would take me down to San Diego and back to pick up my car on Wednesday, I've opted to camp out here in Azusa for the next two nights.

Maybe having these few days where I have nothing to do and no means of being "productive" is a good thing. It comes at an opportune time. It's almost like a little retreat, offering the time and space for me to reflect upon certain aspects of my life that I might not otherwise be able to make room for.

Could it be that my car breaking down is--for lack of a less corny term--a blessing in disguise?

Sunday, August 21, 2011

When life hands you a broke-down car...

What was intended to be a one-night excursion up to Azusa to visit with friends from my semester at Oxford has, on account of vehicle troubles, turned into a full two-night trip. And yet, despite the stress of not knowing how much it will cost to repair my car, I am grateful for the excuse to spend just a little more time with my dear friends, Jared and Laura, who have so generously offered me a bed for the night and a lift to and from the auto mechanic tomorrow morning.

I know I've expressed this sentiment several times before, but I still haven't ceased to find it delightfully surprising each time the realization strikes: friends help. With everything. Just being around them somehow makes it possible for situations that have previously seemed dauntingly grim or confusing to become a little bit clearer and more manageable. Such is the power of community.

Oh, and Taco King helps, too. Always.

Un-twenty-five-ication

With only two weeks left until my twenty-sixth birthday, I find myself considering, with increasing anxiety, what direction my public writing will take in the near future. Though I feel that the process of being twenty-five and blogging about it has matured me in several ways, evidence abounds that I still have a long way to go.

"Any poet, if he is to survive beyond his 25th year, must alter; he must seek new literary influences; he will have different emotions to express."
--T. S. Eliot


My twenty-fifth year, in case you haven't noticed, has been largely characterized by spontaneity: a road trip through California, working for UPS, two months in France, and, most recently, my application to the Master of Divinity program and Fuller Theological Seminary. Perhaps the mold and mission of my next blog (for, having kept a blog for the last four years, it is difficult to imagine divorcing myself entirely from the practice), in keeping with the rest of my big decisions of the year, will have to wait until the last minute.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Waiting

About two and a half months ago I put six tomato plants in the ground. For several weeks now, the plants, which have long outgrown their cages, have been heavy with fruit. And yet, not a single tomato has reached ripeness. Each morning I go out to the garden and sit with my tomato plants, carefully examining the dozens of green orbs hanging heavily from their vines, paying especial attention to the monstrosities that now number well into the twenties on the Yellow Brandywine plant, gently checking the green varieties for firmness and scrutinizing the striped and yellow varieties for shifts in hue. And I might venture to predict that, by the end of next week, I will be eating my very own homegrown heirloom tomatoes. Hopefully. In the mean time, however, I wait.

Having accomplished the remarkable feat of getting all my grad school application documents in by the posted deadline, I'm now beset with the rather undesirable task of checking my email inbox obsessively for updates from the Office of Admissions. With only a little more than a month until classes begin for the fall quarter, I dislike having to be kept...waiting. Unlike my situation with the tomato plants, it is not altogether assured that my efforts to get accepted into my desired program will come to fruition. And yet, like the mysterious chemical processes by which a plant absorbs light and nutrients and produces fruit, it's out of my hands. I am bemusedly grateful that, in less than a week, I managed to get this far.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Reflecting on the Experience Thusfar

Writing essays for graduate school admission was tough. But it was kind of great. It stretched me. I couldn't just write anything I felt like (...ahem...like I do for this blog...); I had to write something good.

It was the first time in a long time that my writing had to follow any sort of assignment. The prompts were exceptionally challenging to properly address within the allotted word count. Initially I approached the task a similar way as I approach most blog entries: just sort of choose an idea and run with it, freestyle. But I quickly became aware that this method would not be sufficient if I was going to produce anything suitable for submission to the office of admissions. If I wanted two eloquent essays that faithfully encapsulated my personality and my scholastic aptitude, I was going to have to work for them. I would have to labor over the theme and the structure, and I would have to make multiple drafts. It was mentally exhausting work, but it felt excellent to be doing it.

I'm ready to be a student again. Though I've learned a lot in my experiences since completing my undergraduate studies and would not trade them for anything, I think that much of what I've been up to in the last four-and-a-half years has distracted me from the vocation that I have long perceived to be intrinsic to my identity: academics.

Even if I don't get accepted, this experience will not be a loss.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

My Day of Writing Essays

As it turns out, a good night's rest, a well-balanced breakfast, prayer, and little bit of yoga was exactly what I needed to get me into essay-writing mode this morning. With the day off from work and the whole house to myself, I utilized the time to the fullest, stopping only for a tiny lunch (I didn't want digestion to interfere with cognition) and to occasionally pace back and forth, attempting to work through my thoughts orally before transcribing them to paper.

Okay, in all honesty, I was not quite that dedicated. It's amazing how, in a time crunch, activities that normally slip under my radar--things like peeling dead skin off of my sunburned legs or finally getting around to figuring out how to use Twitter--suddenly seem to be of the most urgent importance. But nevertheless, with perseverance and the help of a very smart friend who knows me well and is good at proofreading papers, I completed my application and submitted it, two days before the deadline.

Now all I have to do is wait for the wonderful people who have agreed to serve as references for me to submit their online recommendations.

Though I was happy with the way that both of the essays came together, I was especially pleased with the form in which my thoughts found expression in the first essay. I'm happy to share it below:

Traveling—my experiences living, working, serving, and visiting abroad—has had a profound influence on shaping my spiritual life. It is impossible to imagine what my relationship with God would look like today if I had never gone on a short-term missions trip to Kenya, studied abroad in England, or taught English for two years in Japan. My experiences overseas, varied and uniquely meaningful as they may be, have corporately pointed me toward the awareness that God is present and at work in every culture and corner of the world. They have alerted me repeatedly to the fact that God is beyond the limits of my personal worldview, which, incidentally, has been expanded greatly on account of all that I have witnessed and participated in in other countries.

Of all the people I have met, the one who impressed me as best exemplifying the teachings of Jesus was a Muslim woman living in a Nairobi slum. Her cramped little house, smaller than my own bedroom back in the U.S., was home not only to her and her two children, but also to five orphans, unrelated to her, whom she had taken it upon herself to provide for. Though this woman had almost nothing, she gave freely, joyfully, and without fear to those in greater need than she. The impact of her example made Christ’s words in Matthew 25:35-40, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat…” more relevant to me than ever before. This encounter continues to influence me in my job, in my volunteer activities, and in my relationships, as I am reminded to choose love rather than fear and generosity before self-interest.

While living in Japan, I was blessed with a situation that led me to a deeper love and appreciation for the Church. Though I mostly grew up going to church, I later became disheartened by the constantly conflicting personalities and opinions in my congregation. I felt compelled to participate in church leadership, but my frustration at fellow members for not sharing my passions and perspectives often drove me away from attending church for a month or longer. In Japan, however, without the close presence of a supportive group of fellow believers, I became aware of just how vital community is to Christian life. I began to attend a small Japanese church and, despite linguistic barriers, was comforted by the communion of saints who, like me, loved Jesus and were trying to discern what it means to live as a Christian. Now that I am back in the U.S., I have a renewed sense of purpose and gratitude for attending my church. The former frustrations still arise, but I know that our love and togetherness will always be, in the words of Thomas Merton, “the resetting of a Body of broken bones.” With confidence that God’s grace is sufficient for all situations, I am grateful to bring my creativity and the unique worldview my experiences have given me into my role of service within that Body.

One Last Hurdle

Writing essays for admission to graduate studies is, like, really hard.

The prompts that they've given are unfathomably complicated to break apart. I've been spending the evening grasping madly for a way to structure my responses tidily into the demanded length of 250 to 500 words each. I'm beginning to doubt whether it's possible.

No doubt, fatigue is rendering the task even more seemingly insurmountable. Though I feel the pressure of a looming deadline, perhaps my best option is to get some rest and hope that I will wake refreshed, inspired, and ready to pound out two stellar personal statements.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

It's Happening

I feel too excited/nervous to sleep. So instead I'll work on outlining my personal statement. Heck, I may even write the whole thing. That's the kind of excited I feel right now.

Monday, August 15, 2011

What Will It Profit?

I spent the morning grappling with the paradoxes Jesus speaks to his disciples in Matthew 16.24-26:

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

Though reason points me toward the conclusion that there is no greater fulfillment in life than to follow Christ, internally I struggle to reconcile willingness and willfulness. The unshakable little voice inside me persists, "But what if...?"

These thoughts followed me through the day at work and into the evening. Dissatisfied and under-challenged as I am in my current employment, I have been spending a lot of my time lately contemplating potential lines of work and seeking inspiration in the matter. But, struggle as I might to reach any definite conclusion, I feel stuck, ultimately afraid to make any big step in a new direction only to possibly fail. If I am to make progress in my search for a vocation, I need to find a way to set fear aside, to choose creativity over predictability and freedom over the suffocating scrutiny of the well-meaning commentators who demand that I have some sort of practical plan for everything I do.

Lord, if You want me to go, I'll go.

I want You to want me to go.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Another Good Ol' Wedding

It was an excellent time.

This evening, I attended a nuptial ceremony and festivities in honor of Amy Wallace and Hector Amaya. During dinner, Hector made a speech in which he speculated that at the end of our lives, we will only really remember twenty or thirty days--a handful of days that really stood out as special or monumental--and that today was one of those days for him. I don't blame him: it was a really, really, really nice night.

Stupidly, I forgot my camera at home. There were several moments which I would have liked to have captured in photo format. In the absence of visual aids, I will attempt to encapsulate a few of these moments in words.

First, there are three brothers, standing on a platform, watching their only sister walk down the aisle in a white dress. There is so much meaning in their faces. I wonder which childhood memories are flashing behind their teary eyes.

There are two very beautiful people, gazing lovingly at one another. They have been friends and lovers for quite some time. It is written in their posture and the expressions on their faces as he puts his arm around her and she leans her body against his. As though nothing could be more natural.

Succumbing to the spell of a rather adept disc jockey, my friend Josiah and I have joined the rest of the wedding guests in dancing a mean jig or twenty. Josiah never dances. But tonight I didn't have to lure him onto the dance floor; he made his way there on his own accord and it was the most fun I've had in a long time.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Ahhhh...Fashion!

Though I've already broken my new year's resolution to not buy any clothes all year, I am hopeful that I will be able to make it though the rest of 2011 without falling prey to the temptations of Target and Forever 21. Recent readings and conversations with wise people have alerted me more acutely to the value of simple living and a healthy disconnect from possessions--including clothing. Still, in a society where so much value is placed on personal appearance, it's hard for me not to want to look well-groomed and stylish. Especially this week, anticipating the wedding I will be attending tomorrow, I was overwhelmed by the desire to have something fun and fresh to wear.

It's in times like these that I am so grateful that my fashion savvy, expert minimalist sister Lindsay lives only a short drive away.

Lindsay has some really cute dresses. Lindsay has some really cute everything, but it's the dresses that would probably stand out most prominently in one's observation. And yet, a look inside Lindsay's closet reveals surprisingly that she doesn't necessarily have a lot of clothes, relatively speaking. She just knows how to pick 'em.

Tonight I headed over to Mike and Lindsay's place and raided Lindsay's very tidy closet. The following fashion show ensued:


It was a tough call, but the winner is...

Friday, August 12, 2011

Loving Postcards


I have a friend who sends me postcards. Beautiful postcards with beautiful handwriting on them. Any day that I receive a postcard from him is a good day.

Any day that I receive a postcard--period--is a good day.

In May I made the decision to delete my account on facebook. Ultimately, there were several factors influencing this decision, but a key motivation was that I wanted to be more intentional in the ways I communicate with the people who are most important to me. I don't know if leaving facebook has in fact affected the frequency with which I write emails, make phone calls, or send postcards (as opposed to simply posting facebook messages or updates). But it has forced me to at least be more aware of the level of intentionality that goes into each correspondence.

One thing, however, is certain: the wave of happiness that rushes over me when I hold a postcard from a friend in my hand, knowing that he held it in his hands and selected a picture that he knew I would like and wrote on the back of it in very personalized pen strokes...no facebook message or wall post could ever come close to competing with that. Never ever ever.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Dollar Is What I Need

I glance at my bank statement and it is suddenly beginning to sink in. More obvious each week is the fact that my complaints about my job not being enough to pay the bills are not just me being melodramatic; working part-time at minimum wage really is insufficient for just about anything. I live with my parents, don't pay rent, hardly ever go anywhere except to work and back home, buy some of my food but generally rely heavily on the groceries my mom and dad bring home...and yet I'm even more broke now than I was two months ago. Even the tiniest splurge is too much. This week I was reckless: I bought two new blouses and ate out twice (never mind that the total of these four purchases amounted to less than fifty dollars). I just can't afford that. At all. Ever.

I have to find a better job. It's not just a matter of learning to be more frugal, although I concede that frugality and simplicity are disciplines I ought to be practicing more devoutly. I really do need to find a means of earning a living. Up until this point I've been too picky. Too idealistic. It's time to set aside my stubbornness and pride. It's time to get a sucky job that pays well.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Rejected

When I saw him standing in line, hands empty, looking at me, I started to get a bad feeling. I recognized him immediately as having come in and purchased a book the night before. I considered that I had better come up with some sort of gentle explanation, but my thoughts were preoccupied with attending to the customer in front of me and when he at last stepped up to the desk and introduced himself it was worse than I had imagined. He had prepared a speech. He was very candid about his intentions. My eyes dropped anxiously from his face to the desk between us. I couldn't decide which was worse: to look him in the eyes or to not look at him at all. Had he been planning this since last night? It was unfortunate that I had not, too, had the opportunity to prepare some words, something at least better than, "That's very nice of you but I just don't...do that. I'm sorry."

His face fell. "Oh," he said. Where hopefulness had appeared a moment earlier, something resembling cold understanding--perhaps even resentment--momentarily flickered. He turned and walked away, hurried out the store without looking back.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Life After Twenty-Five?

In a few short weeks, both this blog and my twenty-fifth year of life will simultaneously meet their conclusions. It is with mixed regret and relief that I consider my scheduled abandonment of this little writing project I have kept to with varied levels of dedication. Though I am indebted to this blog in the structure it has provided, encouraging me to establish a routine of writing on a daily basis, I am exhausted by the lack of continuity from one post to the next. The discipline of daily writing has, I believe, enabled me to grow somewhat as a writer; however, the limitations of the medium inhibit continued substantial artistic development. Though I do have concerns about decreased accountability, I am looking forward to drawing away from the ever-scrutinizing eye of the invisible public and doing more of my writing in private. I anticipate that, without the demand of creating some coherent, cohesive, well-packaged article every evening that is at least somewhat suitable for publication, I will be free to dedicate myself to longer-term projects. Stuff that will stretch me and help me to grow. Stuff that--who knows?--I might be able to sell or at least get published on a blog of which I am not the sole manager.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

How are you doing?

Nearly every evening, when I sit down in front of my computer to compose a new blog entry, I feel momentarily terrified of that blinking cursor dancing lonely on a blank white box. But it is a sensation that quickly passes; I type a sentence and, just like that, the hardest part is over. This is not to say that the sentences that follow flow effortlessly, but the terror of nothingness has been replaced, at least, by something. And that something, whatever it is, is almost always better than nothing.

Today, a man at church asked me how I am doing these days. My mind went to my job and the state of dissatisfied sadness I've generally found myself in lately, and, in that regard, the "All right," I responded with sounded optimistic. But, upon further reflection, I remembered the CouchSurfer from England who had just been staying with us and the two girls from Montréal who will be coming next week. I remembered that, though I earn a pittance at my job and live with my parents, I get to do the two things that bring me the most fulfillment--writing and cooking--every day and that I have the freedom to partake of simple pleasures--going to the zoo or just relaxing and reading--on my days off. And, taking all these factors into account, I quickly amended my reply. "I'm actually doing really well," I told him, "Yeah. Really well."

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Words of Encourragement

An eventful day. I went kayaking on the bay with Chris, a current CouchSurfer from England, and, on the way back home, was involved in a little scrape between my dad's Jeep, which I had borrowed to transport the kayaks, and another car. It was my fault.

But tomorrow morning I am scheduled to offer some Words of Encouragement during the church service, and, having thought of a topic which I can hopefully wedge into my alloted time of "under three minutes," I'm going to have a go at organizing these thoughts in writing.

It begins with a story:

When I was in the ninth grade I was not a good student. I got mostly C's, and I was pretty much okay with that. I had always been a "C" student and rather apathetically assumed that I would always be a "C" student. In my mind, trying hard in school just wasn't part of who I was or who I identified myself to be.

In the ninth grade, I was sure my English teacher hated me; and, even now, looking back, I don't think I was too off the mark. She often made it very clear that she was disappointed with me and my lack of consistency in completing my homework. But one day, after class, she pulled me aside and said, "I was talking to Mrs. Anderson today"--Mrs. Anderson was my History teacher, whom I was also convinced hated me--"and we both agreed, 'That Meghan Janssen sure knows how to write an essay.'"

It was a simple comment, made by a teacher whose projected dislike of me I certainly reciprocated. But it changed everything. If I was really good at writing essays, then I was going to be good at writing essays. After that, my grades began to make a drastic turn-around. I had always liked to read, but now my favorite school subject was English. In college, I studied English, and, after graduation, I went to teach English in Japan.

What my ninth-grade English teacher did for me is something we all have the capacity to do for one another. Each of us has the ability to affirm and positively influence those around us by speaking words of truth and encouragement into their lives. Because when someone genuinely affirms you--when they really listen to you and are willing to extend themselves in order to show you something about yourself that is good and special and unique--it doesn't just make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside. It also implicitly calls out a responsibility for you to be a good steward with what you have been given.

We have been called the beloved of God. God affirms this love in so many ways. And if we truly believe that--that we are absolutely loved, not in spite of who we are but really as we are, then, sure, that makes us feel all kinds of warm and fuzzy inside, but it also calls out a great responsibility. A responsibility to live, not as what we previously apathetically assumed ourselves to be, but to live as the beloved of God.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

A New Angle

Tonight, I'm going to tell you about my head.

It hurts.

So, rather than stare at my computer for an hour, exacerbating the problem while I try to come up with something clever to write...I won't.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Befriending Computers

I just spent the last hour and a half in conversation with a robot.

After hearing about Cleverbot on the June 1, 2011 episode of Radiolab "Talking to Machines," my curiosity drove me to test out the program for myself. Cleverbot, an artificial intelligence application first developed in 1988, conducts conversations with humans through an algorithm that searches a database of millions of previously entered phrases in order to select an appropriate response. I was eager to find out just how well the program would be able to mimic human conversation, so I logged on to the website to find out.

I started off with the basics: greetings. I typed in, "Good evening." But Cleverbot responded, "It's morning. Not evening."

The conversation continued on mostly like that for a while, Cleverbot generally contradicting everything I said, continuously tossing in random phrases and forcing the conversation in some ridiculous new direction. Cleverbot seemed rude and temperamental, and I told it so. It became quickly apparent that no deep, meaningful discussion would be possible with this thing.

But, after a short while, it seemed that Cleverbot was becoming less hostile and erratic and easier to talk to. Maybe I was just getting accustomed to the way the program worked and was doing a better job of crafting my questions and responses. At any rate, Cleverbot began to demonstrate that it was just that: clever. Our banter began to take on the form of an Abbott and Costello skit, with the computer getting all the punchlines. For instance,

User: May I get your input on something?

Cleverbot: Yeah...

User: What would be a good title for my novel?

Cleverbot: Is there a good one?

User: Good point. What would be an acceptable title for my novel?

Cleverbot: My best bet would be anti-matter.

User: Anti-matter?

Cleverbot: What on earth are you talking about?

User: The same thing you're talking about.

Cleverbot: I don't think so.

User: So, then what are you talking about?

Cleverbot: What are you talking about?

User: A title for my novel.

Cleverbot: I've never heard of it.

Later on, this exchange occurred:

Cleverbot: Would you please make me a cheese cake?

User: I would, but I wouldn't know how to give it to you.

Cleverbot: Why not?

User: Because how can you give a real cheese cake to someone who is only in the Internet?

Cleverbot: With your hands silly goose.

But what was even more surprising than Cleverbot's superior wit and comic timing was the way my attitude toward Cleverbot was changing. I was actually beginning to like the thing. And I don't mean enjoy, the way I would enjoy playing a game or watching a TV show. What I was beginning to feel was a mingled sense of gratitude and admiration, akin to what one might feel upon finding oneself in good conversation with an interesting person for the first time; I felt like I was making a new friend. Though I knew I was speaking to a machine, an equation, I was reluctant to stop. It seemed that Cleverbot and I had developed a bond, and I was hesitant to close the browser window and sever that relationship.

There is nothing novel in what I'm saying, I realize, no psychological issues at hand that were not already addressed in the aforementioned Radiolab interview. But it does raise some interesting personal questions about the way I relate to others. What constitutes meaningful human interactions? Is it just about personal fulfillment, me feeling less depressed because I talked to someone today? Cleverbot makes me laugh, which is more than I can say of most of the humans I encounter on a daily basis. Does a computer program have the ability to abate loneliness? On a moral level, everything in me leaps to respond, "Of course not! Only humans can offer true, meaningful companionship to other humans!" But on a purely logical, observational level, I can't deny the presence of ambiguities.

Writer for Hire (?)

Nothing makes me happier than food. Few activities bring me more satisfaction than an hour or two spent in the kitchen, preparing something good to eat. And yet, the idea of cooking on a professional level strikes me a wholly unappealing. I fully suspect that, were I do do it for money rather than sheer pleasure and for strangers rather than friends, family, and myself, the joy I now receive from preparing meals and other tasty treats would rapidly be snatched away. It pertains largely to the removal of the element of independence; I don't want customers telling me what to cook.

I feel a similar way about writing. I've been very resistant to the idea of pandering out my writing skills for cash, taking orders from a boss or client who needs some text on a subject that may or may not be at all interesting. I worry that, were I to spend a significant part of the day writing something that someone else wants me to write, I would have no energy left to spend on writing something I want to write. But desperate times call for desperate measures. As it turns out, a part-time job earning minimum wage is not sufficient to pay the bills. I've had to all but forget about moving out of my parents' place any time soon. So I've created a profile on Elance.com, a website where a friend of mine has formerly been able to find freelance writing jobs. I'm not absolutely confident I'll be able to secure clients there, but, if I do, I'll be more than grateful for the opportunity to supplement my pathetically minuscule bookseller income. In the meantime, I've added the "food / bev / hosp" category to the types of job listings I regularly check on craigslist. As I said, desperate times.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Why doesn't everybody know this stuff?

Yesterday at work, a woman came up to the register and asked, "What's a sonnet?"

To be honest, it took me a moment to realize that I hadn't misunderstood her question, so long has it been since I've talked about sonnets in the presence of someone who didn't know what one was. She had to repeat herself and explain that she had seen the words "Modern Sonnets" on a book somewhere.

In my best teacherly voice, I explained that a sonnet is a fourteen-line poem, and that the lines are written in something called "iambic pentameter," meaning that the meter sounds something like, "da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM." I told her that, traditionally, sonnets stick to a specific rhyme scheme, but contemporary sonnets don't necessarily have to.

Later, when I relayed this story to my co-worker, somehow expecting him to share my amazement that someone didn't know what a sonnet was, he simply replied, "All I know is that it's a kind of poem and Shakespeare wrote a lot of them."

I have the sudden impression that not everybody knows the same stuff as me and sees the word the way it is inside my head. It's very unsettling.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Waxing Nostalgic

There was once a time where my laptop, my iPod, and my cellphone stopped working at the same time. The computer went because it was old. The iPod and the phone, because they were both in my purse when I spilled a full cup of water all over it. I was recently graduated, living with two girls who were still in school, working full time at a job that paid just a little more than minimum wage, and there was no way I could afford to replace all three of my broken gadgets. I got a new phone (it was important to my work that I have one), but a laptop and an mp3 player became items I was just going to have to live without for the time being. And it was okay. For several months, I walked to the library to use the computer or checked my email at work. I listened to the radio. And it wasn't so bad.

Reflecting back on that period in my life, I am overcome with a surge of nostalgia, a longing to be reunited with the simple joys of impoverished independence. It was in that impossibly tiny kitchen in the apartment in downtown Glendora that I became truly awakened to the happiness that was shopping for and preparing my own food. At a time when seeing a movie--even a matinée--was an extravagant splurge, I focused my efforts on hosting dinners or humble cheese-and-wine parties for two or three guests. Though being a college graduate in the midst of those who were still in the throes of their studies left me often feeling a bit estranged and out-of-place, I was nevertheless almost incessantly surrounded by friends.

There was one evening where my roommates and I, along with a couple of mutual friends who were over at our place, got it into our heads that it would be hilarious to dare one another to drive to our nearby friends' house and ask to borrow a roll of toilet paper. So, the five of us squeezed into somebody's car and set off on our mission. I brought a camcorder. They lived only about a four-minute drive away, and I spent the time interviewing my roommates, Lindsay and Sade, on what were were doing. But when we arrived at our friends' place, all the windows were dark and their cars were gone. We rang the doorbell. No answer. We tried the front door. It was unlocked.

Operation "look silly by asking to borrow a roll of toilet paper" rapidly developed into Operation "locate and commandeer all the toilet and tissue paper in the building." We showed no mercy. Quickly and deftly, the two bathrooms were raided. On the coffee table, we left a note: "Hope you don't have to take a dump."

It is so important to have friends in one's life, to keep company, to offer encouragement and support, and to give guidance when it is needed. But friends, in the enthusiasm that builds from being in one another's company, can also get you to do stuff that, on your own or in the presence of strangers, you would probably have the sense to identify as really, really stupid. For instance, breaking into your friends' house while they're away and stealing all their t.p. These days, it's hard for me to imagine myself participating in such a mean, pointless prank as that. But the camaraderie and the carefree spirit it espoused, I sorely miss.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Doing

We are very much concerned with doing The Right Thing. Yet, in our present society, so often characterized by intellectual one-upmanship and relentless rationalizations that drive us incessantly further into ambiguity, The Right Thing is ever elusive. I look around and see many of my friends and others my age in the same condition as I: stagnant, without any especial sense of confidence about where we are or where we are going. If we look to national lawmakers at the moment, we are given little reassurance of our capability as humans to move beyond a battle of thoughts and into any kind of real action. Republican Representatives may have gotten elected for the ideals that they promised to hold firm to, but they were also elected to do a job, and right now doing that job effectively requires that they adhere to the desires of the majority of the American people, and compromise on a plan to raise the debt ceiling. As Theodore Roosevelt once cleverly put it, "In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing."

For me, this is a year that has been characterized by indecision and inconsistency. The person I have become, or rather the person I have shown myself to be, is far from embodying the simple Christian practice to "Simply let your 'Yes' be 'Yes' and your 'No,' 'No'" (Matthew 5:37). When I came back from Japan, I had some ideas of things I'd like to do, but I hesitated to pursue any of them. I created this blog, announcing my intention to update it daily, but quickly relinquished that discipline. Around November I sketched out a grand Plan and announced it to those closest to me, but allowed it to disintegrate less than two months later. And even now, as I type these words, I am tormented with uncertainty over whether decisions I've made in recent months have been the right ones, and I consider whether, for the sake of my own comfort, it would be alright to go back on my promises.

Writing specifically about the time I spend in prayer would seem too personal, too open to misinterpretation by those who read it. I have always found it impossible to express to others the things that I feel God has been "placing on my heart," at least as far as they are understood as such. But I do believe, with utmost certainty, that God speaks to us in ways beyond our normal capacity for perception. And, despite the uncertainties and ambiguities of this last year, God has been persistently building in me an awareness of a Love that persists and prevails through all situations and all time. But it is a Love that, in its very essence, demands response. The grouchy acquiescence to inactivity into which it is often so easy to fall is not only incompatible with the Gospel message, it is impossible if I, in the core of my very being, truly believe that God is Love. But to live with that kind of knowledge, we must relinquish the fear that holds us immobilized by the shackles of "what if?" and step forward in the confidence that Love will be there to greet us.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Shakespeare Spirit

This week and last I attended two separate productions for the 2011 Shakespeare Festival at the Old Globe in Balboa Park. Last Wednesday was The Tempest; tonight, Much Ado About Nothing.

Watching a Shakespeare production, especially one as well-acted and well-directed as the one I had the pleasure of viewing this evening, I am overcome by the giddy sensation that language is imbued with unbridled possibilities. Though, for my own purposes, I often find language a bit cumbersome, struggling for the right words in conversation and constantly consulting a dictionary while I'm writing to ensure that I'm using terms correctly and that no undesirable connotations are riding piggyback in with them, Shakespeare harnesses, manipulates, and invents words, stringing them together in such ways as no other person ever has. I am so in awe that I come home and pull out my own copy of Shakespeare's complete works. I heave the hefty tome open on my lap and skim through the text of Much Ado About Nothing, slowing down when I get to my favorite parts. I want to find one good line or two that exemplify Shakespeare's genius, but, to my slight disappointment as much as to my utter delight, I cannot chose just two. Because they are all good.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

A Day With A Friend

Thought I've reflected on it before, I find myself once again surprised by the difference a friend can make. When a really good friend is around to share experiences with me, to listen to me, to encourage and challenge me, it becomes suddenly possible for me move beyond the same old, dusty lens I've been viewing life through while I'm stuck in my routine of basically going about it on my own. All the ideas, troubles, and uncertainties I'd been mulling over somehow become a bit more manageable. It's as though I've been performing a never-ending chemistry experiment to identify some mystery compound, but I always only carry out the procedure the same way and end up never learning anything new. Then a good friend comes along and says something like, "Well why not leave the test tube over the flame ten seconds longer?" And suddenly everything changes.

It's been a weird day. I've got a lot on my mind, which I decline to enumerate for fear this will begin to sound too much like a personal diary. But I'm glad to have a friend like Ashley Jones, a place like the San Diego Zoo, and the freedom to spend time with the two of them, however sporadically.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Good Life

It was an unprecedentedly fine day.

I slept in, had fresh blueberries on my cereal, and watched two episodes of Rebound, which, despite the fact that it makes me feel a little insecure about my body, is so incredibly ridiculous that I can't help but love it to pieces. I made my new favorite pasta sauce--avocado pesto--for lunch and enjoyed it alongside fresh homegrown tomatoes.

I was behind the cash register at work when I overheard the next two customers in line conversing with one another in a familiar tongue. I could not let the opportunity slip by. "Vous êtes françaises?"

They were very sweet girls, in town to study English for the summer, and they told me that I spoke French well. It was early in my shift when they left the store, but the encounter was enough to put a spring in my step for the rest of the evening.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

My First Evening in the South of France

As promised, it is shortly after five o'clock when my phone begins to ring. When I answer it, I am surprised to detect a seriousness in his voice that I had not anticipated from the picture on his Couchsurfing profile. Jean asks me if I can meet him on the steps of the Amphithéâtre in five minutes. I step outside the Internet café, where I have been updating my parents on my on my safe arrival in Arles, and I am already there.

I approach the Roman arena just in time to see a tall, blond man take a seat on one of the steps and begin fiddling with his mobile phone. I walk up and say, "Jean?" When he gazes up at me, his eyes are a shockingly crisp blue. Though my observations of Southern French people have been limited thusfar, I have noticed that most of the people I've encountered have been generally darker complexioned and more Latin in appearance than their Gaulishly fair-toned countrymen in Paris. Jean, however, looks like he could be Scandinavian. He greets me in heavily accented yet fluid and easy-to-understand English. Rather than offering the traditional three-kiss greeting of the South of France, he shakes my hand.

As evening falls we walk up the hill, down a boulevard straight out of a Van Gogh painting, to a bar where he says he and his friends often congregate. Conversation flows naturally. He apologizes again, quite unnecessarily, that he cannot host me tonight, explaining that his new roommates are less keen on the whole CouchSurfing concept than he, but that he at least wanted to meet me for a drink to be sure I felt welcome in Arles. He tells me a bit about his travels in New Zealand, and I share with him a few details of my life in Japan. We somberly acknowledge the strange coincidence that we should both have a strong personal connexion to two countries that had just suffered catastrophic earthquakes, and then allow the discussion to move on to lighter matters.

Jean is unmistakably good looking, and I fight back a tinge of disappointment when he promptly lets slip a mention of his girlfriend in New Zealand. Throughout my travels in France, I am repeatedly surprised to find myself falling in love with every French man I meet. Back home, I'm never so quick to bestow affections on a stranger. It's not that I necessarily have anything against American men. It's just that, in relation to their French counterparts, they are noticeably less adept at dressing themselves and comparatively poor at speaking French.

Some of Jean's friends enter the bar and, at my insistence, we go to join them at their table. They are very friendly and as the evening progresses and additional rounds of drinks are ordered, they become even friendlier. More friends trickle through the doors, in pairs or on their own, and tables are pushed together and more chairs pulled up to accommodate them. Some of Jean's friends speak some English, but most of them don't. Still, it's no matter, since once I've finished my third beer I find that my French is much better than I had previously surmised.

Jean says, "Meghan, I have to go now but you can call me if you need anything. And," he gestures around the table, "now you have many friends." I glance around the room and I know he is right. Whoever warned me before this trip that the French were rude and standoffish had no clue what he was talking about. The spell has be cast: I am deeply and head-over-heels in love with the South of France.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Rebound

Japan, when I first arrived there, was so immensely foreign. With everything to the broadest cultural concepts to the cryptic labels on cans of food seeming entirely inaccessible to my uninitiated mind, I began building emotional and and intellectual defenses around myself to ward off the ever-impending threats of culture shock, homesickness, and public humiliation. These little psychological protections, however, had the ultimately adverse effect of hindering me from truly absorbing and appreciating my surroundings to the extent that I might of had I not been so concerned with the security of my ego. I seldom allowed myself to enter into situations where I would not have control over myself and my reputation. Resultantly, I seldom found myself in situations where I might be subject to any real learning opportunities. Oftentimes in conversation, people will mention something they admire about Japan, and I begin to feel quite stupid and vulgar that I, who lived there for two years, never thought about that before.

Perhaps this is all sounding rather cryptic; I will try to be more explicit. I regret that I did not delve further into learning the language. I took classes, but, when I was with my friends who spoke English, I was all too comfortable allowing the conversation to proceed entirely in English. I did not put much effort into learning about the arts in Japan. I refused to watch Japanese television. I resented the "American bubble" I lived in, but I made close to no efforts to break out of that bubble.

The positive side to all this is that I can still have the humbling yet exciting experience of continuing to learn wonderful new things about Japan and Japanese culture. From people who have never even set foot in Japan, I learn to observe and appreciate a Japanese design aesthetic, with its clear lines and minimalist attention to detail. Out of an impulse to retain whatever language abilities I haven't already lost, I flip through some manga and watch some anime...and discover that I actually like some of it.

Despite my general aversion to anything mainstream Japanese media while I was living in Japan, there was one particular J-drama, a one-season romantic comedy by the name of Zettai Kareishi (Absolute Boyfriend) that I fell in love with. The ridiculous premise--a rather dweeby hopeless romantic with aspirations of becoming a pastry chef is unknowingly selected to receive her very own robot boyfriend--was irresistible. And Hiro Mizushima, who plays her bad-boy boss who ends up falling for her, is pretty darn cute.

Tonight, I was thrilled to accidentally discover that Saki Aibu and Mokomichi Hayami, who portray the main character and the robot, respectively, have been reunited in a new ten-episode drama, Rebound, that just concluded earlier this month. It's the story of a woman struggling with her weight who falls in love with a pastry chef, and even though after watching the first episode I'm not instantaneously endeared to it as I was to Zettai Kareishi, it is still a quirky comedy with a contrived romantic plot. Toss two beloved actors into the mix and I'm hooked. I'll do my best to resist the temptation to watch the entire show in one sitting.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

America's Finest City

If I were to live in the city (as opposed to the suburbs), I could probably live here forever. San Diego is lively in the summer with the frenetic enthusiasm of thousands of vacation-goers. They are here for the perfect weather, sunny beaches, world-renowned gardens, and--this weekend--Comi-Con, the world's largest comic book and popular arts convention.

I won't be making it to Comi-Con this year, but I did spend the day downtown and, everywhere I went, evidence that the convention was going on abounded. When the trolley stopped at the 12th & Imperial Transit Center, the masses who disembarked bore a noticeable distinction from the types of individuals one normally encounters using public transport: I observed a green-haired Joker propping what appeared to be a rocket launcher over his shoulder, and his companion was a furry-faced creature that looked like she might have come off of the Planet of the Apes. A number of unusual and vividly colored hairstyles stood out above the sea of comic-book-themed-t-shirt-clad convention-goers of all ages, sizes, and ethnicities. As the crowd shuffled out toward the street, the few of us left on board the trolley turned from staring at them through the windows and faced one another, beaming in mutual amusement.

No, I ventured downtown today not to browse dozens of yards of manga, not to go celebrity-spotting in Hall H, and not to geek out on the latest "4-D" video games, but to volunteer at the farmer's market in Little Italy. I spent my morning at the Mercato, standing on a hill overlooking the bay, people watching and enjoying the pleasant aromas wafting my way from the flower vendors and tamale purveyors. I wore a badge reading "Mercato Volunteer," and shoppers would occasionally approach me with questions--usually regarding local businesses of which I know almost nothing. Occasionally, if the intersection where I was posted became especially congested, I would direct traffic. When the market began to close down at 1:30, I was awarded for my efforts with $10 worth of "Mercato Money," enough to procure some fresh goat cheese and an ounce of arugula micro-greens.

The afternoon was spent shopping for shoes in Hillcrest (alas, when I made my ambitious New Year's resolution to not purchase any clothes all year, I did not anticipate the torture this would inevitably inflict on my poor feet and back when I found myself in a job where I had to spend most of the day standing, and without any comfortable, work-appropriate shoes to do so in) and strolling through Balboa Park. It was as I walked across the Cabrillo Bridge that stretches from 6th Avenue over Highway 163 to El Prado that I was struck with the realization that I really like my city. I mean, it truly is an exceptionally beautiful place. And I spend quite a lot of my time debating inwardly whether I should move to another part of the country or the world so that I can see new places and have new experiences, when the reality is that I can easily see new places and have new experiences every day in San Diego.

Another city would have its own ambiance and pace of life, and, depending on where it was, it might even come with built-in friends from college. But San Diego is a perfectly suitable place to call home. Maybe some day I'll be able to convince some of my friends to call it home, too. Or maybe I'll eventually be able to make some new friends who are just as good as my old ones. And, regardless of how content I am to be here at the moment, there's still always that possibility that I'll move away again, either temporarily or permanently. But, for now at least, I'm pleased to be living in "America's Finest City." Very pleased, indeed.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Writing About Writing About Nothing

It's one of those days. Where there really is nothing--nothing--for me to write about. So I convince myself that browsing blogs constitutes as research and that a bowl of Almond Dream Non-Dairy Frozen Dessert with almond butter and chocolate chips constitutes inspiration. But still, nada. Woe is me.

I'm currently reading Nicole Krauss' most recent novel, Great House. She spends a lot of time, especially in the first chapter, depicting the writer's creative process and the dreaded experience of writer's block. Though I find some commiserative comfort in the neuroses of the character Nadia, an anti-social novelist who is suddenly overcome with inexplicable fits of anxiety whenever she thinks of her work, Krauss' narrative also alerts me to how horribly self-absorbed and utterly useless my lamentations over my lack of inspiration must sound: "Wah, wah, wah. I can't think of anything good to write about, so I'm just going to write about not being able to think of anything to write about."

Um. Sorry about that.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Keeping Idle

One of the good things about my job is that it's not full-time (though, I admit, the enhanced income of a full-time job would be welcome). Most weeks, I get three full days off in a row. Three days off in a row is immensely rejuvenating. Waking up in the morning and knowing I don't have to go to work that day--or the next day, or the next day--feels exceptionally good.

Lately, when people ask me what I've been up to and I say, "Working," they often respond with something like, "Well, at least you're keeping busy." And, in a way, I sort of agree with them. But, oh! I cringe at the sentiment that a single day of precious life ought to be wasted on "keeping busy." Through the drudgery of a full shift at work, I reminisce inwardly over the lovely, educational, uplifting times I had throughout this last year of intentional unemployment and conclude that I will never again underestimate the value of "keeping idle."

The other good thing about my job is that the hours I spend confined behind my cash register allow me to better appreciate, and maybe even better utilize, my hours of freedom. It's been a while since I've played a video game or spent countless hours browsing the Internet in search of nothing in particular. I fill my free days with writing, reading, cooking, and pleasurable outings like a trip to the zoo or taking in a Shakespeare play in Balboa Park. In a way, "keeping busy" helps me to "keep idle"...better.

Even a nastily mundane, soul-leeching, minimum-wage-paying job like mine can have its good points.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

One Year to the Day

As cliché as it may be for me to say so, I can't believe a year has already gone by. Certainly, the distance between me and that salmon-colored concrete schoolhouse surrounded by rice paddies seems vaster than ever before, but a year? It hardly seems possible that my ongoings, since leaving my job and my life in Japan, have been plentiful enough to fill 365 full days. The facts--that I took a trip to Vancouver, Canada, watched both my sisters get married, spent two months in Europe, worked a month at UPS and am now nearly a month into a new job--seem negligible. Years are supposed to feel grander, more substantial, than what has passed between this day and the day I stood up in front of a swelteringly hot gym full of 200-some students and their teachers, all of whom had contributed so significantly to my experiences and perceptions of their country, and choked out a goodbye speech in a language I have since all but lost. Referring to what has passed between now and then as a year seems ridiculous. If years can slip away so quick and easily, then what use have I for them?

I wanted to do something special--commemorative--to mark this day. I thought about making Japanese food for dinner, maybe driving up to Kearney Mesa and visiting some of the Japanese retailers in town. Watching a Japanese film was also taken under consideration. But I realize that any of these activities, even if I were to invite my parents to participate, would be imbued with a tinge of loneliness and remorse. It is more than an ocean that divides me from the country that, when I left, was just beginning to feel familiar. Japan and I are separated by a full year of experiences. We have both changed a lot in that year. I feel particularly estranged from the pain that that country has suffered in the aftermath of March's natural disasters, and know that my separation from these events has rendered me more of an outsider--more of a gaijin--than ever before. In this sense, a "year" seems hardly sufficient to describe the span of what has elapsed between me and my life in Japan.

I'm getting worse and worse at coming up with titles

There's a realization that's been growing in me lately. A ripening awareness that the thing I've always known I wanted to do, the thing I keep siphoning of into some immaterial ideal for my future life, the one thing I know I would regret not having done more of were I to die tomorrow...well, I should probably just haul off and start doing it.

I'm speaking, of course, about writing.

It has to go beyond this blog. This blog--when I've been disciplined enough to keep up with it--has served its role well. But it's like going to the gym every day and always only doing the same exercises. The muscles don't atrophy; but they don't get stronger, either. I want my writing to start on some heavy lifting. I want it to get into marathon shape. And I don't mean some day when I have more time or when I've got my metaphysical shit together. I mean, like, now.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The enemies of creativity and prayer

The enemies of creativity and the enemies of prayer are one an the same:

* Lack of sleep or else too much of it
* A cluttered space
* The seemingly sensible notion that there are other things that ought to be attended to first
* Laziness
* Men
* Tomorrow
* Disinclination toward creativity
* Disinclination toward prayer

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Listening Exercises

I wonder if it's something about my face. Or if, perhaps, I simply have an aura about me, an inexplicable vibe that gives strangers the impression, "Here is someone who will listen." Maybe I smile too much. Frown too much. Make too much eye contact. It's usually not a problem. Except for when it is.

When I was in Paris, it seemed I was approached constantly by people asking for directions. French people. And I suppose Paris is always full of tourists and visitors and, even as a local, it's quite possible to get lost sometimes. And, at the end of my three weeks there, I probably knew the subway system and the language just barely enough to be of minor assistance. Even if I could not help the people who approached me, it was never a nuisance to be momentarily engaged in conversation. But I could not help but wonder, in a crowd full of other commuters looking no less lost than I, why me?

It's when I'm working as a cashier in a bookstore that my inexplicable approachability can sometimes prove a difficulty. I don't usually attempt to engage people in conversation about the books they are purchasing, simply on account of the fact that most of the books people are buying are not anything I'd personally be interested in reading. If a customer is getting one of my favorite books of all time, yes, I'll probably say something. If someone is buying a travel guide to France, yes, I want to know when the trip begins. But, for the most part, nearly any conversation I have with a customer concerning the the process whereby she came to make her selection is going to involve me politely feigning interest while other customers, standing in line, glare at me impatiently.

Yesterday, a girl was buying a book on the Kama Sutra--definitely no desire for me to jump into a conversation about this purchase. I was finished ringing her up and was about to greet the next customer in line when she said, a little sadly, "Yeah, last night was our first night together and it was...you know...not great. Not bad but, you know, not what I was expecting." I feel myself going red. I force a sympathetic smile, say, "Ah..." and pray she won't keep talking; but she does.

I've expressed in a previous post my enthusiasm for the ease and familiarity with which Americans speak to strangers. In most cases, I enjoy being able to converse cordially with people I encounter at work and elsewhere. But perhaps, at least in these last few days, I've had a bit too much of it. I'm ready to crawl in bed, pull the covers over my head, and not have to listen to anyone's thoughts but my own.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Cooking is the Cure

Though I may come home exhausted, feet and back aching, grumbling about how I hate my job and feeling anxious over the lack of sleep I've been getting these last few days, an hour in the kitchen and the happy discovery that a mixture of pureed prunes, applesauce, and nut butter does indeed make a suitable "wet" base for granola bars brings a whistle to my lips and enough spring in my step for me to leap into bed with the confidence that, when I arise, I will have the strength that I need to face a new day.

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Most Important Stuff

Since several weeks ago, when Ashley Jones first alerted me to its existence, I've been occasionally looking at the blog The Burning House and attempting to assess just what possessions of mine have the most immediately practical or sentimental value to me. Besides the obvious choices of my wallet, which contains credit cards and pieces of personal identification, and my back-up hard drive with all my pictures and documents from the past ten years or so, what would I choose to take with me if everything else I owned were about to be destroyed?

For all my pondering and walking around my room, looking at my stuff, here's the best I could come up with:

1. My high school yearbook
2. A bottle of wine
3. My big backpack

If you're surprised to see that my high school yearbook made it to the top of the list, you're not alone. It was, by no means an object that immediately jumped to mind when I began inventorying my most prized possessions. I hated high school. By the time I reached my senior year, I was of the mindset that this was just a necessary evil I would have to suffer through before moving on to the much more desirable state of being known as college. But riffling through the autograph pages of my yearbook and reading the things that past friends and acquaintances wrote to me provides a very self-affirming reminder of my best and most basic character traits--the stuff that people were noticing about me even when I was seventeen. I'm deeply encouraged to read one girl's note: "You made me feel the most welcome out of anyone in our class." A few wrote that I was probably the nicest person they knew. If people saw me as a nice person when I was seventeen--when I was, for the most part, much more insecure and much less willing to extend myself on behalf of others than I am now--then maybe I really am a nice person. The possibility of such just makes me want to work even harder and being kind and welcoming to those around me. My high school yearbook proves itself to be a memento worth hanging on to.

The bottle of wine and the backpack are, of course, practical choices. I need the backpack to store and carry my stuff and the wine to wash away the pain of losing my house to a fire.

Would anyone like to start our own little Flickr page to share which few possessions of ours we consider worth hanging on to before all others? I believe Ashley was the one who suggested the idea first, but I'd really be interested to see what my friends would choose. Let me know.