History’s Footsteps (Poem)

A few weeks ago, I went to visit Flossenburg concentration camp which is about 45 minutes away from where we live in Germany. We’ve been a lot of places thus far in our time in Europe, but this was by far one of the most profound travel experiences I’ve had.

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The S.S. Guards’ quarters

 

It was one of those experiences that takes your breath away, that makes you drop to your knees in prayer to whatever God will listen. I studied the holocaust quite a bit in school, but I don’t think there is any amount of study that can prepare you for the feeling of actually visiting a place. It was real. It happened. And it was absolutely horrible.

The thing that struck me the most about visiting the camp, other than what I have detailed in the following poem, is the number of houses that now surround the camp. Some even have large picture windows overlooking the camp. I just…I can’t comprehend how you can go about your day to day life living so close to where such tragedy occurred. Cheap land, I guess.

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The “Valley of Death” at the camp.

Anyhow, I wrote the following poem about my experience visiting the camp.

History’s Footsteps 

I shut off the ignition,

Closed the GPS that led me here to this place.

A knot formed in my throat as I realized

I came here intentionally,

But thousands longed to escape.

I am disgusted with myself

For having set this as a destination.

 

I notice they’ve added tour bus parking

So people can come by the masses

To see where other masses lost their lives.

 

We cross through the entrance,

An archway underneath the brick building where the S.S. guards sat,

Orchestrating the horror.

 

We are following their footsteps,

But we can come and go as we please.

 

We pass through the camp,

See the kitchens and the laundry where prisoners lived and worked.

They’re shabby buildings with chipped white paint,

Obviously worn and overused

And you can tell it’s not just from age.

 

There’s another white building,

This one shaped like the Star of David.

The same stars marks the door.

I go inside and am immediately

Consumed by the stale stench of death

Lingering after all these years.

It saturates my clothing,

Fills my lungs until I think they might burst.

 

I cannot go in any further.

I know this is where it happened,

Where 30,000 bodies were burned

Inside the same shape that acted as a symbol of their faith.

 

I’m longing for fresh air

As I’m sure they were.

But I can leave whenever I want

With my body still in tact,

Still housing my soul.

 

I lean over a railing trying to ease the queasiness in my gut

And look down into what was once the quarry

“The Valley of Death”

It was so warmly nick-named.

The lump in my throat grows,

The queasy feeling in my gut becomes turbulent.

 

The quarry is now a memorial,

A giant cemetery of unmarked graves honoring those

Who are long gone.

Flowers are left, the grass is neatly mowed.

The grounds well-maintained.

They’re given a level of respect in death

They weren’t deemed worthy of in life.

 

The rest of us flock to this place

In hopes of understanding how such cruelty is possible.

Instead we leave, hearts aching

Remembering their cruel, avoidable death.

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The entirety of the grounds is now a memorial to the 30,000 people killed here. 
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Connection, bravery and storytelling

A theme in a lot of the things I’ve been reading lately is the importance of story across time and cultures. No matter how different cultures are, there has not been one that has existed without story. Most recently I read Gloria Steinem’s book My Life on the Road (5 stars, I highly recommend it), about the feminist movement and all of the amazing people she’s met throughout her life traveling and organizing.

When I first picked up the book, I was expecting it to feel more like a travel book. I was expecting to hear about places, but what I heard about was people. I realized that’s because that’s the important part of traveling and seeing new places: getting know the people who call the place home.

I also read Brene Brown’s Rising Strong recently (another winner) where she discusses the importance of owning our own stories in order to rise strong out of a painful or difficult experience. She also talks about how being vulnerable and sharing those stories with others can be a powerful form of expression and even helpful in getting through whatever it is you are trying to get through.

Somehow I find it okay to post my story on the internet for anyone to read, but I have a terrible time answering simple questions from people making a genuine effort to get to know me. It’s baffling, but the answer is is also staring me straight in the face: fear.

I don’t have to see the look on a reader’s face if he or she disagrees with what I’ve written. I don’t have to feel small or ashamed or vulnerable when someone dismisses my work by clicking the little x in the top of their web browser because I don’t have to see it.

Somehow I’ve convinced myself I’m not strong enough to handle that in real life, but lately I’ve been proving myself wrong about things I thought I wasn’t strong enough to do.

What’s the worst that happens if someone doesn’t agree with me or doesn’t like what I have to contribute? I’m not forced to continue conversation with them. At best, I learn a new perspective and what I know about the world gets challenged.

In her book, Steinem writes: “If there is one thing that these campus visits affirmed for me, it’s that the miraculous but impersonal internet is not enough…nothing can replace being in the same space.”

Steinem has a movement she’s passionate about to keep her traveling around and writing and speaking to others and making connections. I don’t have a movement or a message. Half the time I don’t know what I think or feel or believe. When I do figure anything out, it seems so painfully obvious that it’s almost embarrassing to admit I ever struggled with it. But I keep writing about things and sharing them here in the hopes that my words resonate with someone the way others’ words have resonated with me. This is the only way I know how to share my story.

I had a golden opportunity to make a connection with a stranger, to share with them a few weeks ago, but once again I opted not to.

We were on the train coming home from Munich a few weeks ago, and I had my nose in a book secretly hoping no one else would come sit in our little compartment. While I’m thinking this, I’m sitting across from my husband who is eager to talk to anyone who crosses his path. I don’t think he knows how much I admire that about him.

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Munich was beautiful, by the way. We’ll definitely be back.

Anyways, eventually this woman walks in and sits down. She was wearing hiking boots and carrying a pack almost as big as she was and a brown bag full of flowers. Chris helped her with her bag and proceeded, in a very Christopher fashion, to make small talk with her. I reluctantly put down my book I was hoping to finish on the ride as to not be rude.

Chris learned that she’d been on holiday in the south of France, spent Easter weekend with her family and was now heading home. My mind started racing with all sorts of questions to ask about her trip to France, best places to go, how was the weather this time of year, things of that sort. I told Chris I wish he would’ve asked her, and he asked me why I didn’t just interject.

Good question, Christopher, good question.

Anyways, Chris told her about how we had just moved to Germany and a little bit about our adventures in Munich. Then she turned to look at me and said, “What do you do?”

Freezing up is a normal occurrence for me in almost any social situation, but I stared at the woman who was just asking an innocent question to be polite like she was a three headed alien. I gestured toward Sophie, looked frantically around the compartment like something would just pop out at me and made some sort of “muh, bluh, guh” nonsense noise.

I panicked, I was embarrassed. What do I do? I read books and day drink on trains, I guess. Chris swooped in and said “she’s a writer.”

I’d never heard him say that out loud before nor had I really defined myself as such without first qualifying it as “aspiring.” It was really nice for my efforts toward this seemingly impossible career to be validated. My husband rocks.

Anyways, what I really learned in that moment is that I hate talking to people because I’m afraid I’ll have nothing of substance to add to the conversation. I’ve settled into this role of wife and mother and this lifestyle where I’ve come to define myself by the other people in my life. I hate it. I’m not entirely comfortable being a wife and a stay at home mom. I have too much creative energy pumping through my body –it’s like an electric current this need to create and produce and write and connect. I’m working toward those things, but I still never know what to say when people ask me what I do. I’m afraid of sounding inferior to those who work or judgmental to those ho are happy to be stay at home wives and/or mothers. I am neither, but it is an interesting place to navigate.

I’ve been writing a lot and uncovering a lot of things about myself. One being that I am far too controlled by my fear of everything (I’ve got a great story about that one for another time). Another being that I have a fierce dedication to my work and an overwhelming passion for telling stories and getting words out there. A third is that I want to hear others’ stories as much as I want to tell my own.

I’ve got this insanely amazing opportunity of living abroad to meet all kinds of different people, but that’s impossible to do if I continue to allow myself to be content as a silent observer in my own life.

Expectations, freedom and a walk in the woods

There’s something about being in the woods that heals my soul. It makes me feel alive and safe and invigorated and full of life and calm and peaceful all at the same time. It heals all the multitudes of me. There I let my mind wander as much as my body is. I don’t question. I don’t judge. I just roam.

We went and visited Sanspareil Rock Garden yesterday, and it was incredible. The way the moss carpeted the rocks. The way these giant boulders had so many intricate parts. The way the ivy vines snaked across the landscape. The way caves and passages opened up as we went along. We stayed in a small corner of this giant nature preserve and still there was so much to explore.

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I feel like that’s how my mind is. As I try to sort and work through things, I keep unearthing more. Lots of parts go untouched or unseen because there are so many layers to uncover in the areas I am exploring. It’s overwhelming, really, trying to sort yourself out.

As we walked around and took in the sights, and I took pictures of almost everything, I had a thought. It’s me, I had about 100 thoughts. But this one feels important. This one is keeping me up at 2:30 in the morning. This one I need to share.

I thought that maybe we don’t need to be so caught up in sorting ourselves out. What the hell does that even mean, anyways?

I took in this beautiful array of vines and weeds and moss and wildflowers and rocks and dirt and roots and trees growing out of rocks and secret caves and realized this rock garden is no different than my brain. It’s a damn mess. That rock over there can’t decide if it wants to be a rock or a tree. These two tree roots are twisted in a fierce battle to occupy the same space. The ivy is twisted into impossible knots. Some of these wildflowers are no more than weeds that bloomed.

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Anyways, my point is that everything in that landscape just as. It just existed and was there. It wasn’t sorted out, and yet it as still so peaceful.

So why do I think I need to be sorted out? Why am I under so much pressure, mostly self-inflicted, to put all of my ducks in a row and get my shit together hen the ducks swimming on the lake aren’t even in a row? It’s stupid. I try to make myself be a certain way, feel a certain way, be interested in certain things and present myself to the world in a certain way. I preach so much this “doing whatever the hell you want” attitude, but rarely do I live it. So rarely, in fact, that when I do I drown my problems in tequila and make really stupid decisions. I end up doing things I don’t necessarily regret, but also that I’m not exactly proud of. But that’s another story for another, far less public time.

I’m over it.

I’m over sorting. I’m over trying to force things. I’m over trying to make things be the way they are “supposed to be.” There’s no right way to live a life. It doesn’t come with an instruction manual, for good reason. You can read all the self help books in the world, but it really comes down to knowing what you want and unapologetically seizing it.

Nailing down what you want is the hardest part. As many things as I have going for me, if you asked me what I wanted, I’d probably stare at you blankly. I don’t have a concrete answer for that question. Parts of me know that’s okay, and other parts of me are still trying to be okay with that.

All I know is I want to be happy and proud of the life I’m living and the role I play in this world. I don’t always feel that way. Sometimes I feel more like I’m playing a part in someone else’s story than living my own. That’s something I’ve grappled with a lot lately, owning my own story. I thought to own my own story I had to kick people out of it. That’s not always true. I’m definitely a proponent of weeding out negativity in your life, but it isn’t always necessary. For me, I just had to redefine some things. I spent a lot of time trying to fit an expectation, but that doesn’t lead to my happiness or pride in the life I’m living. If I’m trying to mold myself into one specific kind of person, am I really doing myself any favors? I realized I can be a good wife without being defined by my husband.

I’m happiest in the woods because that’s when I just let myself be. I don’t think about what I’m “supposed to” do or how I’m “supposed to” live. I just walk. I take it all in. I enjoy it. I give myself space and freedom, and in turn I find peace. I can do that in everyday life, too, without being reckless. Damn, where was that knowledge two months ago?

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We drove home yesterday going about 100 miles and hour down the autobahn, and I was just so damn happy. Chris even asked me if I was okay.

“Of course!” I answered. “I’m just happy.”

“I’m just not used to you being so happy,” he responded.

And he was right. Oh. So. Right. It’s sad how right he was. I’ve spent so long shoving myself into this little box, letting him shove me into this little box that I became a terrible person to be around. I was always grumpy, always irritable and forever changing my mind because I wasn’t allowing myself to be true to myself and what I really wanted. I’d try, but then I’d get so worried about fitting into that damn box so I’d change my mind to something that would fit.

Fuck that box. I’m taking a sledgehammer to that box. In fact, I already have over the past few weeks.

I thought it would take some giant cosmic shift to change things. I thought I’d have to go to the other end of the extreme to be rid of it. Hell, I did go to the other end of the extreme to get rid of it. There’s a way to have freedom and fun and spontaneity in your life without being reckless and destructive to what’s already there.

I had to remind myself that just because parts of things were bad didn’t mean that all of it as bad. I thought I had to chuck everything out and start over. I’m slowly making changes and getting rid of what doesn’t work.

Feeling free has become as simple as saying yes when I want to say yes and saying no when I want to say no. I spent a lot of time feeling like I had some sort of unstated obligation to do things I didn’t want to. I spent a lot of time letting others make me feel like I had to do things I didn’t want to do. Yes, life is full of things none of us want to deal with, but I was making everything –even the good things –that way.

I got so caught up in wanting to live with an open heart and do everything in love that I forgot it’s okay to set boundaries. Boundaries don’t mean shutting people out, not at all. It’s about respecting yourself.

I came across a quote recently that really resonated with me: “This is the messiness of life –that we all carry multitudes so we must sit with the shifts. We are complicated creatures, and the balance comes from that understanding.”

We all carry multitudes. 

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I can have 100 thoughts circling in my head, some that contradict each other. I don’t have to pick a side. I don’t have to have everything sorted into neat little stacks. My life doesn’t have to fit your expectations. Believe me, it won’t. It’s not all sunshine and daisies (although there has been a lot of both of those things lately).

Some days it’s just shit. And that’s okay. We all carry multitudes. It’s okay to be happy and sad at the same time. It’s okay not to be thrilled with things other people think you should be thrilled about. It’s okay to want to punch them in the face when they tell you how luck you are or how perfect your life is –just don’t actually do it.

It’s okay to be unsure about things. It’s more than okay to be a bit of a mess. Life is anything but neat and tidy, and I need to stop expecting it to be that way. I’m much happier when I release my expectations and just go with the flow.

I live for the moments when I can walk in the woods and watch Sophie climb and explore. When I can be free in knowing that even if things aren’t what I expected, they’re still beautiful.

I have all the power to make this life whatever I want it to be, and that, that is big stuff.