an interesting life

Today I had the chance to chat with an older gentleman at church. Over a classic Lutheran potluck meal, we discussed incredible experiences he had during his childhood and college years. Fighting the selfish and juvenile urge to jump in and share my own stories, I forced myself to sit back and listen. Really listen. He was so happy to give some insight into what his life was like 30 years before I was even born - and I was happy to learn!

Similarly, my sisters and I couldn't get enough of my nana's stories about growing up in London, and more recently, we sat starry-eyed through Nana's best friend Pat's stories about the trouble they would get into together.

Every time I get the chance to hear stories from the another generation, it always inspires me to live an interesting life so that someday I will have amazing anecdotes to share with my grandchildren.

But what exactly is that je ne sais quoi that makes a life worth telling about?

I used to think it came from the items I checked off a bucket list.

Jump off a bridge? Check.

Study Spanish abroad? Check.

Sleep under the stars in Mexico? Check. (Mex04!)

Eat a bug in the rainforest? Check.

Sip wine on the banks of the Seine in Paris? Check.

Watch the sun set in Red Square? Check. 

Survive an attempted mugging in Panama? Check.

The list goes on and on.

I would get so desperate to make sure my life was adventurous, unique, and intriguing. I wanted others to be jealous of my experiences. I wanted to show off everything I had done. I, I, I. Me, me, me. It was all about how I looked to everyone else.

What I have begun to realize, though, is that these stories mean absolutely nothing without the relationships behind them. It is the people with whom I share these memories that make them so meaningful to me. Honestly, the best stories - the stories that have shaped who I am as a person - are about the dear friends who befriended, accompanied, and supported me through ever country and disaster and circumstance, or they are about the people I have met who opened my eyes to a new way of thinking.

My new theory is that the people who come into your life have the chance to change you, the chance to bring adventure, the chance to alter your world view, and the chance to make you feel alive.

Find those people who already exist in your life. Ask questions and really listen to the answers. Then go out and meet some new people. Everyone has something to contribute. Sometimes we just have to dig a little.

Hobbies are great. People with no hobbies besides watching television aren't experiencing everything the world has to offer or using their talents to the fullest.
Travel is amazing. It has given me a new appreciation for cultural traditions and values. It has changed the way I view myself and others.
Reading and learning also make for great conversation and ideas.

All of these things help to shape an interesting personality.

But a truly fascinating life is created through relationships. Some relationships will be there from cradle to grave. Others will crash into your life and be gone in a week. Still others may come in and out like the tide. But each relationship is a story.

Find your partners in crime, and make a great story.

favorite travel memories | n° 4

Tomsk, Siberia, Russia - Summer of 2006

So this one time, in Russia...

That was our "catchphrase" the whole trip. We were incredulous that we had the opportunity to go to Siberia. Siberia! Who gets to go there? The trip felt so avant garde. While all my friends were going to graduation parties, I was packing a carry-on for three weeks of teaching Vacation Bible School at some mission churches in Russia.

But the specific memory doesn't have much to do with the actual teaching of children. No, that is the story of the "death craft." A story for another day.

Today's story could be entitled "The Night from Hell."

The memory begins when we left rural Iskitim for the more urban Tomsk. With five universities (or so I'm told), there were plenty of opportunities for outreach and mission work. We were put up in a modern and chic apartment with a jacuzzi, modern appliances, and beautiful hard wood floors. We were thrilled with the accommodations, and ready to start our second week of teaching.

Summer in Siberia is much like summer in the midwest: hot, humid, and full of mosquitoes. It was no surprise, then, when we would have to slap at the occasional mosquito in our lovely flat. It didn't bother us one bit. That is, until night fell. One by one, we shut off our flash lights, and let our journals slide off the air mattresses. Drowsy, still a bit jet lagged, and with an early wakeup call, we expected sleep to arrive swiftly.

Instead, I went through all 5 stages of grief due to loss of sleep.

Denial and isolation: Dreamland was within reach when that first mosquito buzzed in my ear. I convulsed on my mattress, then pulled the blanket up over my head - annoyed, but not distressed. 250,000 repetitions of this scenario later, I realized that sleep would not come as easily as I had hoped. I gave my travel alarm clock a furtive glance - hoping not to wake the others.

I needn't have worried, for I was not the only one engaged in this battle of man vs. insect. We collectively tried to deny what was happening - that is until the cat started. Have you ever heard a cat in heat? Or perhaps a drunken cat singing karaoke in an alley? Or perhaps a cat having its claws ripped out one by one? I have. Probably.

Anger: This was the last straw. I sat bolt upright, scowling and huffing in the way only one who is dealing with a snoring roommate can. This time I didn't care if I woke anyone up - I was not going through this agony alone. Once again, I needn't have doubted. The others had similar reactions to the feline performance.  Plots of murder were hatched and fists were shaken. I rent my garments, donned a sackcloth, and beat my chest like a gorilla.

Bargaining: We couldn't end the cat's misery, but we could do something about the mosquitoes. Or so we thought. If you have ever owned a yellow lab and a black coat, and have tried to remove by hand each individual hair shed from your pooch off your coat one at a time, you will know how hopeless this task felt. Bug traps, bug crusades, bug genocide. We tried it all. And each time we crawled back under the covers, the mosquitoes had multiplied. It only confirmed my theory that when you murder a bug, its ancestors come back to haunt you. At this point, I promised to be a better person if only the cat would shut up and the bugs would die.

Depression: At this point I could only cry. I just wanted to sleep. Just. wanted. to sleep.

Acceptance: Finally, we came to terms with the fact that we would have a hilarious story to tell later. We were just not ready to laugh about it at that moment.

Sleep was a long time coming. I think the sun was coming up as my eyes closed, and I know I got ready in 5 minutes the next morning because I hit snooze so many times.

It was the night from hell. But at least the week could only go up from there. And hey - I got my story, didn't I?

I don't follow directions

alternate title: Nutritional Yeast is NOT the Same as Baker's Yeast. 

But no one likes to hear the word yeast that much. 

Every once and awhile I get a little cocky about something I have absolutely no business being cocky about. Let's take, for instance, my abilities as a "homemaker." (Is that still a thing?)

Since I get to stay home with Pip this year, I fancy myself to be super domestic and knowledgeable on things like "nutrition" and "going green." I have shopped at the local health food coop more than once. My lifestyle is all natural and I am one with mother earth. 

Then mother earth slaps me across the face and says, "No! You are not domestic and nutritious because you don't follow directions."

I suppose it all goes back to my days as a student in elementary school. This is not even a disguised humble brag; it's just a brag: I was smart. I say was in past tense because I think everyone else caught up to me by high school or college. But I started off at the front of the pack. I know this because I read to my kindergarten class when my teacher got a sore throat. I read the Diary of Anne Frank in third grade, and rather enjoyed it! I got to choose my spelling words, so I picked words like antidisestablishmentarianism. Needless to say, I was a know-it-all little hotshot.

So when it came to doing homework assignments, obviously the directions didn't apply to me because I already knew what to do. Those slow kids had to have the work explained to them, but not me. Naturally, I suffered the consequences more than once. My parents would have a serious talk with me.

Parents: Why did you get a B on that test? Didn't you study?
Me: Yeah, I just didn't follow directions on the last section.
Parents: Well that's dumb. You could have gotten an A, but because you rushed through it you didn't do your best.
Me: It's just that the test was really easy so I thought I knew what I was supposed to do.
Parents: We hope you have learned your lesson, young lady.

I didn't.

I think the consequences were not drastic enough for me to take the lesson to heart. If there are any children reading this, just skip the next sentence. Apparently grades in elementary school don't have any bearing on life at all.  There, I said it. So what if I got a B in science class in 5th grade even though I was capable of an A? What effect has that had on my life? None. None, I tell you. Unfortunately this means I kept not following directions throughout my whole life.

There was that time I thought parchment paper and wax paper were the same thing.

Or that time I had to pay a $200 fee to leave Ecuador because I thought my 90 day tourist visa started over if I left the country and came back in.

I rush through things, thinking I know better. Directions are beneath me, and there are too many details that I can't be bothered with. As an adult this is coming back to bite me in the butt.

Anyway, back to being a domestic failure. So because I'm all nutritional and one with mother earth, I decided I would start making bread from scratch. I don't want my family eating all of those added chemicals and preservatives! (I kid you not, there is a half-eaten donut on the table right now. So…) 

So I stopped by the health food coop yesterday to pick up yeast. As I perused the baking aisle, the kindly hippie who was stocking shelves offered to help me. Sure! Where's the yeast, Cosmic Stardust? (By the way, my hippie name is Ryvre Sunburst). He guides me over the the bulk shopping section and naturally I act like I have done this a thousand times, so he walks away. I am left to decipher the many types of yeast before me. I choose nutritional yeast, because it sounds nutritional. I'm confident that all yeasts are basically the same thing, because they all have the word yeast in them. (Say yeast one more time.)

Today was the day I would start my granola lifestyle. I followed the recipe to the letter, determined that this homemade bread would not be another one of my flaky fiascos. I left the hunk of dough to rise, and busied myself with laundry and walking the dog and playing knock all the toys over with the baby. When my timer went off after two hours, I anxiously took a peek at my dough, excited to see how much it had risen.

Despair. It was still just a lump of dough. I took to the internet to discover that no, all yeasts are not created equal. Nutritional yeast is apparently just used for seasoning on popcorn? Well, not to be deterred, I thought that if I baked the bread it might be misshapen, but still somehow delicious? (Because that always works out for me.)

No. It was an ugly lump that was gooey on the inside. And not good gooey, like in a warm brownie. Bad gooey. No one wants gooey bread.

So I guess I still haven't learned my lesson. That lesson is this: pay attention to directions. And follow them. Or else have gooey bread.

The end.

family history

This post is in honor of my late grandmother, who passed away this past weekend. Nana lived an incredible life and taught her children and grandchildren so many important lessons about what our true priorities in life should be. I am very grateful I had the opportunity to interview her several years ago about her childhood in London during and after WWII. Here is my take on her story of meeting my grandfather. 

You don’t often think of your grandmother playing hard-to-get. I always assume the dating world was much more civilized back then. There was no playing games, no awkward moments, no scandal. I know how naive that sounds. As Solomon said in Ecclesiastes, “there is nothing new under the sun.” Surely human beings have been playing games, misreading cues, and causing scandal since Adam and Eve fell into sin! At the same time, though, when your proper English grandmother tells you she made your grandfather chase her a little bit, it comes as a juicy and shocking surprise. “Nana!” my sisters and I gushed with delight and mock horror when she relayed the beginnings of what was to become our family.

He was a dashing young yeoman from Wisconsin, stationed in London post-World War II. She had been a little girl in London during the War, who had experienced the mandatory evacuation to Wales, the terror of a bomb dropped across the street from her flat, and the camaraderie the people of London shared during wartime. The setting of their first meeting was the day of her brother’s wedding at a drinking club.

Her brother, Phil, had just left for his honeymoon with his new wife. It was only 3 o’clock in the afternoon, and my grandmother Maureen was all dressed up with nowhere to go. Ladies, I think we can all relate to the dread of wasting a new outfit and perfect makeup and hair. Someone has to see it! Fortunately, her friend Eileen was supposed to meet up with her then-boyfriend Jerry at a drinking club, and invited Maureen and some other friends along. It took some convincing, but Maureen’s strict father finally acquiesced and allowed her to go. The new dress would not be in vain!

Once the group arrived at the club, they chose a half-circle booth, and settled in to order. Eileen recognized some Americans she knew, who proceeded to join their table. One gentleman, who (spoiler alert!) turned out to be my grandpa Herb, approached Maureen.

“Would you mind moving over?” 

Indignant, she replied, “Yes I do mind!” as she proceeded to slide in to allow the rude fellow to take a seat. 

“You can buy me a drink.” Bold, Herb. Bold.

“I don’t buy anyone a drink,” Maureen said. It seemed they were not off to a good start. 

According to my Nana, Herb proceeded to ‘talk to her’ the rest of the evening. The way she describes it, it sounds like she couldn’t wait to get out of there and never see this guy again in her life. Then he dropped a bombshell (metaphorically of course.)

“Would you like to go out sometime?” he asked.

“No, I don’t think so.”

“Why not?”

“Because I don’t want to.” Hm. Why didn’t I ever think to try this blunt approach when getting hit on in bars?
Undeterred, Herb continued, “Well, how about Tuesday?”

        “I’m washing my hair Tuesday.” What? How did she get away with using “washing my hair” as an excuse to get out of a whole evening? And how can I apply this to my life?

They proceeded to go through each day of the week, Maureen presumably using more gems for excuses such as, “Wednesday? Oh, on Wednesday I have to iron my socks,” or “Thursday? I wish I could, but it turns out I’m brushing my teeth.” 

Apparently he wore her down, though, because she eventually agreed to a date. They decided to meet at the cinema one afternoon, and Maureen was almost positive he would stand her up. She told herself if he wasn’t there she would just hop right on the next bus and head home. But when she arrived at the Odeon Cinema, there stood Herb dressed in civilian clothes, and if historical fiction movies are telling me the truth, I’m sure he had a bouquet of flowers in his hands, and she was wearing red lipstick. 

Well, one date led to another, and soon the two were seeing each other several times a week. In our day we call this, “we’re not putting a label on anything.” This went on for 8 months. This casual dating didn’t inspire much confidence in Maureen, and she made plans to break it off. 

Now I’m not sure if it really happened this way, but this is how I imagine the scene per my Nana’s description.:

Maureen makes plans with Herb at a neutral location to end the relationship, because it was ‘going nowhere.’ They sit down to a spot of tea and probably crumpets, because it’s London, and Maureen clears her throat emphatically. 

“I don’t think this is going to work. I don’t think we should see each other anymore.” She proceeds to wait dramatically for the heartbreak that will inevitably ensue. 

Herb’s response: “Oh. Will you marry me?

So that was that. Proof that men don’t listen to what women are saying, and that women can be wrong, contrary to popular belief. 

Four months later, in August of 1955, Herbert Otto and Maureen Barnfather were united in holy matrimony. I guess it’s lucky my grandpa Herb was so darn stubborn, and also a bad listener.