The Guest House

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Dear Keatsway,

I want you to encourage you as if it’s the most important task I’ve been given. You’ve been brave and adventurous, hopping continents and crossing borders, forging your career trajectory and becoming the most international person I know. All of which comes with a cost: leaving friends, meaningful work, and places you love behind. Of course, you are heartbroken and unsettled. You don’t know if you should prepare yourself for the next move or learn to love Amman. I don’t have easy answers.  I can only echo your broken heart.

Recently, I returned to America after living in England for sixteen months. In York, I fell in love with the city, the people, the lifestyle. I lived inside Roman walls, traded my car for a bicycle, bought my groceries at the year-round farmer’s market and grew to love the rain and the fog. I critiqued literature, translated foreign films, and learned how to read medieval maps. I went road tripping and hiking through the Yorkshire Moors, Scottish Highlands, the Lake District and Irish countryside. I traveled by train across Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, and Spain. I did daring things I had never done before: karaoke, bouldering, sensual bachata dancing, swimming in Loch Ness, clubbing until 3 am. I also wrote a thesis, fell in love, and started attending an Anglican church. I could write a book about everything I did in England but there is not enough space here yet for that.

A few months ago I unpacked my bags in a new place: a hamlet in southern Washington state. I am grateful for the hospitality of my cousins, and the chance they have given me to start anew in the Pacific Northwest. Nevertheless, I struggle to be fully here at times, as I imagine you are in Amman. My 16 months in England reels through my head reminding me of all the brilliant adventures and loves I have left behind. I want to return permanently, but I don’t know yet if that’s in the cards or as you say, Inshallah, if God wills it.

I agree with you Keatsway, we must write about our inner journeys. The highs and the lows. The joy of a discovering a new place and the ache that accompanies having your heart split across continents. What do you love about Amman? What do you miss about Kampala? What can you take with you from place to place to create a home regardless of where you lay your head?

I think we can choose to stay in a place and call it home. Even if we have to leave we can build our lives around returning. I don’t know yet if Amman is your city, but I do know that the last city I lived in felt like a place I wanted to stay.  I don’t know what it will take for Amman to feel like home for you. And if you are not sure about Amman, be excited about what the city has to reveal you. What the city expects of you. Maybe you will discover answers to Rilke’s questions or perhaps you will learn to carry them with grace and poise.

All that is yet unknown. As you learn to hold uncertainty with open hands, I leave you with this poem by Rumi. It offers solace for the expat whose heart is still halfway in Kampala or York.

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

— Jellaludin Rumi,
translation by Coleman Barks

So much love,

xoxo Brightstar

Chicago: 8 Months Ago

Dear Keatsway.

I meant to publish this post last November. Better late than never they say. Let’s hope they are right.

[8 months ago!] I flew to Chicago.

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I went to attend a conference on writing. Now not necessarily the kind you do for a living or on paper, but rather life writing. Of course I wanted to do both–learn how to write my life and how to write for a living. The conference was called Storyline.

When I booked a ticket to the conference and the city, Chicago, I was in one fluid motion combining my love of writing, travel, and story.  One of the joys of solo travel has always been the exhilaration of finding your way on your own terms. Being open to whatever the city will reveal to you about it’s character and the person you become as your new surroundings mold you. The city becomes then a coauthor of your experience. You impact it as much as it impacts you.

So as I landed in Chicago I reveled in the challenge of finding the right terminal to track down my CouchSurfing host, get the keys to my temporary living space for the next few days and find my way across this new and exciting city. If I could travel for a living and write about it, oh I would.

****

The next morning, as I rocked back and forth on the train from the city to the countryside to the farthest reaches of Chicagoland, I looked out across open fields and endless possibility, feeling equally open and boundless myself.

Keatsway, there is nothing quite like seeing your favorite authors in person, especially if you’re a writer. It’s a heady rush of excitement and revelation. You finally hear them (Donald Miller, Shawna Niequist, etc.) speak out loud what you’ve been reading in their books for years. All their vulnerability, fears, heartaches and mistakes on their journey to a gradual success have twice as much gravity embodied by their presence and shared eye contact. Their presence adds more credibility to their stories while presenting you with a greater responsibility and accountability to live out your own.

This conference reinforced everything I’d been studying about stories for the past two years and reminded me why I was so drawn to them in the first place. Stories have an uncanny way of drawing the reader in by presenting high stakes and an unlikely protagonist. The harder the struggle, the greater the reward, mirroring life.

I’ve wondered, though, if one of the reasons we fail to acknowledge the brilliance of life is because we don’t want the responsibility inherent in the acknowledgment. We don’t want to be characters in a story because characters have to move and breathe and face conflict with courage. And if life isn’t remarkable, then we don’t have to do any of that; we can be unwilling victims rather than grateful participants.  -Donald Miller

And of course, in between conference sessions, I met my own tribe of writers and storytellers. We ate lunch and dinner together and stayed up late waiting for the last train back to Chicago. We shared backstories about how we ended up at Storyline and dreams for the future, scheming about how we could find the courage to make them a reality. 8 months later, we are still in touch.

Who knew the city where I have experienced the most delays would become the city that would inspire me the most. How’s that for irony?

XO,

Brightstar

Transience

Summerdandelions

Dear Keatsway,

I’m in transition. In fact I’ve been living out of suitcases and boxes for the past three months, and I still haven’t found a permanent residence. Everywhere I’ve lived since July has been short term, and in a few short days it will be October (the month that I promised my current flatmate I would definitely be gone). Yet I still don’t know when the magic moment will arrive where I find an apartment in the right location at the right price with just enough amenities and natural lighting that I can see myself calling it home for the next 12 months.

The temporality of my living situation has made it hard to find anything I need, let alone feel settled. A few months ago I was accepted into two graduate schools of choice in the United Kingdom. Weeks ago I received the news (staggered by a few fortnights) that my tuition would be fully covered by either American or Canadian student loans. One month ago I decided to defer (due to lack of cost of living funds). Today I have officially deferred at my second school of choice as well. It feels real now. The dream has been deferred and the reality of the day-to-day in my ordinary job without the comfort of my sanctuary or a place to truly make my own has been unsettling, upsetting, and startling (and dare I say it–depressing).

As a matter of what I deemed to be absolutely necessary at the time (to open up the possibility of studying abroad, I needed to end all rent contracts), I broke my lease in May.  The lease of my apartment that I had loved for three years to do something that I would love more than any possession. Near the end of July I moved out my furniture, although I had physically moved out at the beginning of the month. When an opportunity arouse to house sit in an upscale neighborhood and get paid, I couldn’t turn it down, especially when I needed everything I could get to put in my savings account for England.

A middle aged couple, professors by trade, did research in Berkeley, while I watered plants and watched over their house  (and their cat had it not been put down the day before they left). It was marvelous month that made the reality of my move unbelievable as I moved out of my 670 square feet apartment into a house easily four times the size situated on an acre of land. I stayed in a master bedroom in a king sized bed and I ate breakfast every morning looking out at three different types of roses. I picked fresh tomatoes and herbs from the garden and hosted several garden parties with friends on their back deck. When my father visited, he had a room to himself and dozens of areas to read the books he brought with him: the deck, the sunroom, the study, the dining room…

It was a dream come true while it lasted. Then the harsh reality that nothing was permanent reared its head, as I cleaned the house, made the beds, and took out the laundry and moved into the basement of a friend’s duplex, greeted by the dozens of boxes and furniture parts I had relocated there with my father weeks earlier. Instead of a Pottery Barn master Suite I would face a room littered with about 50 dead and alive bugs in what was clearly not intended to be a bedroom but instead basement storage space.  I was resourceful and called up a few friends to help me set up my temporary bedroom that week, after the room had been sprayed for bugs and thoroughly cleaned.

Now I am settled, my house-mate and I have reached a certain currency in our interactions that is neither too warm or too cold, friendly yet detached. This is not the way either one of us wants to live any longer than we have to.

Image by Carli Jeep from Unsplash

It’s nearing the point in my journey where I feel quite discouraged and disconnected. My dreams loom before me as unattainable and unreal. I can’t handle another year of isolation and displacement at work. Yet this is my reality. I long for the leisurely mornings on the balcony of my old apartment with my own mugs, and cutlery (there is simply not enough room for my dishes and my roommates, so I’ve been using hers since August) looking out onto the world from a place I felt that been molded and shaped by my personality. Now I awaken as a guest who has overstayed her welcome, in an apartment without a balcony and almost no natural lighting. There are four suitcases sprawled across the floor of my bedroom, and my 1970s curtains block windows where bugs creep in land on my blanket. I have visited three potential apartments, and I had two other apartments I meant to see rented out before I could view them. I have called more than twice as many places as have called me back and easily spent every day scrolling through every apartment website in town.

Keatsway, I write here with no answers or revelations, but with the hope that the next time I write it will be from the balcony of my new apartment.

Yours with best wishes (and prayers for patience and fortitude),

Brightstar

P.S. Keatsway maybe this is cheating but I just found this draft today (from September 27) and realized I’d never posted it.  As an update I am now in my 550 square feet apartment (since mid October) with a remodelled balcony that looks out on a hill. I watch the sunrise every morning above this hill as I make breakfast with my own cutlery  and drink hot lemon water out of my own mugs. I am grateful every day to be here in a room of my own.

Delayed

Dear Keatsway,

I sit in a black leather plushy chair of an oversized waiting room. I am not sure when I’ll be done but I imagine it will be soon. Until then I’ll pass the time writing you a letter.

I’m in a car dealership (for repairs, not car buying), but if I blink I could be back at my gate in O’Hare. Except here there is free coffee–arguably not as good as Starbucks–and there are cars instead of airplanes on display.

Three weeks ago, en route from Toronto, I sat on a leather stool next to a rain splattered window drinking Argo tea, pen and journal in hand, looking out at aircraft carriers. I wished the moment could last forever. Someday soon I hope to be waiting in an airport on my way to see you. I have not, however, always felt this way about delays or waiting itself.

I feel like I am always waiting –to find my next apartment, to pursue my dreams, for the workday to be over, for the weekend to come, and then for the next weekend. Waiting for the answers to my increasingly long list of questions about the meaning of life, and learning to be OK with the space in between. The space where I act out several possibilities to my question, or sit back and wonder what my next move should be.

Waiting in an airport has no clear starting or ending point. You just can’t predict when the delay will happen and you have to be prepared to change plans and be flexible. To remain undeterred by a detour and not waste energy being angry or frustrated. To become creative and spontaneous with your time and your new plan of action.

After a year of plane delays I have finally discovered the secret to not becoming discouraged by them–accepting them completely, and finding a pleasant way to wait it out. Sometimes it’s as simple as staying nourished with healthy food, finding a quiet place to rest, discovering a new perspective, and seizing the opportunity to work on cherished pastimes–like reading or writing. Always ready to pick up everything at a moment’s notice when the plane finally does depart, and practicing patience and fortitude when it doesn’t.

As I put my plans of graduate studies, and living abroad on hold, I am trying to apply the same lesson I learned here. To decide not to waste energy on discouragement or resisting reality. Instead accept it as a necessary part of the process, embody grace and peace, and be inventive and endlessly flexible.

Maybe this delay is reminding me that it’s the journey and not the destination that counts? Keatsway, how do you handle delays?

Yours with best wishes,

Brightstar

Air, Sleep, Dreams, Mountains, and Sky

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Dear Keatsway,

I traveled to Banff earlier this month as a gift to myself for my 30th birthday. Although it was much too short of a visit, it was the best way to spend the last week of my twenties. A lot of our time in Banff was spent driving through mountains (see photo above), which was a joyful way to spend the first leg of our trip. We sang out loud to the Beatles, Muse, and Michael Buble (somehow all these songs become more epic with mountain backdrops); discussed philosophies about life and work and travel (I was reading Roman Krznack’s “How to Find Fulfilling Work,” which I recommend to you without reservation) and took lots and lots of pictures.

Our first evening– after helpful lessons in fire building and wood chopping, courtesy of my brother– we circled around the campfire drinking tea, roasting marshmallows, and softly singing Simon and Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair.” The next morning we shared the trails around Lake Minnewaka with Japanese and German tourists, stopping to try out yoga poses in front of turquoise waters and grey mountains. In the afternoon we meandered around downtown Banff marveling anew at the stone architecture, flower boxes, mountain views, the Bow River, and Evelyn’s coffee (which now has not four but five locations–in a town of under 8,000 this is a true testament to Banff’s tourism!). On the way back to our hotel we paused for several friendly mountain goats and a lookout point that gave incomparable views of the Bow River valley crested by several mountain ranges and right below us, hoodoos–arguably the best view in Banff. That evening after taking in the invigorating sight of rushing water at the Bow Falls, I opened some presents and dipped into the hot tub with M before midnight. Our last day included a full breakfast buffet, lots of Evelyn’s coffee, and a picnic lunch outside where I tried hard to imprint the sights of mountains, fir trees, and glacier lakes on my mind before we started the long drive home.

I was thankful that although my trip in Banff was amazing, I was not flying home just yet. I spent the rest of the week in our hometown, which while delightful and restful, paled in comparison to those few days in Banff. I hiked along the Red Deer River with my father, did yoga and shopping with J, coffee and a movie with my mother, a vegan restaurant and long drive with C, and celebrated my birthday with college friends over Indian food.

I’ve been back from my trip for only two weeks and I am already longing to return.  I take comfort in the fact that it won’t be long before I travel again. Until then I will revel in the memories and leave you with these words that sum up the philosophy of travel so well:

“Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things – air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky – all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.” – Cesare Pavese

There is something transcendent and majestic about spending time in a such beautiful place and the buoyancy it gave me still spurs me on weeks later.  All we needed was the sky, mountains, air, sleep, and dreams.

Yours with Love,

Brightstar

 

Ancora imparo / Yet, I am learning

Birdsinthesky

Dear Keatsway,

Thank-you so much for your letter of advice. It was timely, appropriate, and most of all it made me think deeply about my perception of time and the progress I am making. Inspired in part by your letter, I have embraced a new mantra, ancora imparo, Latin for yet, I am learning.

The Urban Dictionary captures it’s spirit perfectly:

A reminder that mistakes are a learning curve, that every first, second, third….time provides opportunity for improvement, that you are always ancora imparo.

Ancora imparo frees me from the crushing sadness and shame of failing yet again, replacing it with the realization that I learned something new this time around, and that however small it may feel, it’s progress. And in the absence of required perfection, mistakes allow us to grow.

And now for a short but true story to put this mantra and last paragraph in context. Recently, Keatsway I decided to embark into the dating world again. I had never deliberately decided to leave it, but opportunity struck and thus I became an active member again. I went on a variety of creative dates with someone I will only call L: from climbing the monkey bars at a playground to climbing a ladder to a rooftop at night to watch the city skyline to playing the demo of a video game in it’s very early stages, it was an exciting few weeks. However the very act of dating brought up a lot of past hurt and fears. Fear of love, fear of betrayal, fear of rejection, fear of being hurt again. Sometimes these feelings came on so strongly that I couldn’t fully process what was happening in the present. Every step of the way I second guessed myself, my feelings, the guy, and whether I would hear from him again, fearful that I was about to be dropped at any second. This prevented me in the end from being fully present.  Now, thanks to the maddeningly socially acceptable 21st century tradition of never returning a text or an email, as far as I know what never truly was is now behind me.  Therefore today I need something new to embrace, to keep me moving forward. So I have decided to embrace ancora imparo, yet, I am learning. And I am. Learning to let go, let it be, and be fully here now.

A fortnight ago, I felt encouraged by the heartbreaking, life affirming film, Now is GoodIn the film’s last few lines, 17-year-old cancer patient Tessa says perhaps the wisest words I’ve ever heard about embracing the present, and letting go:

Our life is a series of moments. 
Let them all go. 
Moments. 
All gathering
towards this one.

–Jenny Downham & Ol Parker (screenwriters), Now is Good

To be fully here now, I have to let go of what was and what will be, freeing myself to transform through the reality of constant change, letting go and breaking forth, the life cycle of death and rebirth. Someday soon I will not let these fears control me or thwart new possibilities. I will let them go, learning to trust myself and the process. I will lose my fear of failure, rejection, and vulnerability; no longer holding back and protecting myself so much that I cannot truly give. But until then, all I can do is repeat ancora imparo, yet, I am learning. The ground is tilled, a new bud is opening, and I can’t wait to see where this new knowledge will take me.

With love,

xo Brightstar

“When the world feels all jittery . . .”

sunsethighway

Dear Keatsway,

On weeks when my head is spinning with too many ideas and I can’t seem to sit still, I try to remember everything I’ve read to somehow put into words what seems incomprehensible inside my head:

When the world feels all jittery, like it just quit smoking, and the questions of my soul start to sound like a heavy metal concert gone awry, I find I must . . .    -Tamara Park, Sacred Encounters

Except the must part doesn’t apply to me here. Park wrote that travel stills her, but for me I find that travel just unleashes a pandora’s box, igniting a desire to plan more trips instead of plan my life.  And at this moment that is precisely what I don’t need. But the jitteriness and soul questions and thoughts beginning to sound like a heavy metal concert gone awry, that I can relate to perfectly.

These last few weeks my thoughts been swimming with what ifs and I long for a doable action, not a detour, to propel me in the right direction. The idea of what I am supposed to do with the rest of my life is overwhelming and suffocating at times. In those moments every second seems to be laced with an extraordinary weight.

But there are still the hours, aren’t there? One and then another, and you get through that one and then, my god, there’s another.  –Michael Cunningham, The Hours

What if every plan I thought would be in place by now, as I stand at the precipice of my twenties, has not come to pass, what then? Do I make a new plan? And what if I discover that I am more attached to “the plan” than living out the extraordinary ordinariness of my life?

We live our lives, do whatever we do, and then we sleep-it’s as simple and ordinary as that. A few jump out of windows or drown themselves or take pills; more die by accident; and most of us, the vast majority, are slowly devoured by some disease or, if we’re very fortunate, by time itself. There’s just this for consolation: an hour here or there when our lives seem, against all odds and expectations, to burst open and give us everything we’ve ever imagined, though everyone but children (and perhaps even they) know these hours will inevitably be followed by others, far darker and more difficult. Still, we cherish the city, the mornings; we hope, more than anything, for more.  –Michael Cunningham, The Hours

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When my heart is heavy with unfulfilled dreams and uncertainty, all I can do is crawl under the covers in the fetal position until I don’t feel anything else. Eventually I come up for air and when I do I open a book.  I escape  through other character’s stories until the wee hours  of the morning pass and I can no longer keep my eyes open For years I’ve been escaping–sometimes referred to as taking a book binge–through dystopic literature and fantasy when my own life became too vulnerable and uncertain.  Maybe somehow by reading about another life, time and place I can pick up some extra bravery and navigation skills to manage my own.

In the meant time I need to acknowledge the incredible gift of being accepted into a graduate program in England. Whether or not I accept, defer for a year (how does one put one’s dreams on hold for an entire year?), or completely change my mind about it entirely –due to hefty price tags, doubling student loans, lack of scholarships, lack of parental approval– this acceptance is a good thing and it can lead to open doors in places I hadn’t expected.

None of this trepidation and decision making will go away anytime soon; this I know. Not for a while. But in the meantime I got this post down on paper. The one I never thought I would publish. And I discovered my own way of stilling my mind, conquering the hours, and remaining undefeated by unfinished dreams: following the stories of strong, female characters  who have conquered fire breathing dragons (or their equivalent) when I need inspiration to defeat my own.

xo, Brightstar