The Night Gunshots Interrupted the Birds’ Song

 

MO 2015

MO 2015

It’s my favorite space in the house- the top story bathroom which has a small, rectangular window perfect for catching evening sunsets or for smiling at the moon while brushing your teeth. During the fall, I’ve spent hours taking sunset pictures, all the while my soul coming closer and closer to the present moment until I am in an entranced, gentle place filled with color, wonder, and no words.

Tonight I was having one of those yearnings as I looked outside the window. I opened it wide, feeling slightly warm March air press lightly against my face. I scanned the trees to find the birds, whose brown feathers matched the still bare trees, blending in, yet standing out because of that infectious song. Their lively chatters echoed my souls’ celebrations of this last week of winter, knowing not just by the dates on the calendar, but by their choirs that spring is indeed coming.

I grabbed my camera and began snapping some sunset shots. There were two birds singing shoulder to shoulder, true love birds perhaps. I wanted them to move just one branch over to get that perfect shot of the birds’ silhouettes against the backdrop of a cascading orange and red sky. Just move over. I begged internally. Come on, move a little to the left. Slightly annoyed at a missed opportunity for a “perfect” shot, a still small voice whispered in. “Just watch. Just enjoy this as it is. Stop trying to make everything so perfect. Embrace this as it is, not how you wish it would be.” With that I closed my eyes, to solely focus on the delight of the birds’ song. I lingered in this space for a good 20 minutes before wandering back to my room that connects to this bathroom. I left the window open to keep enjoying the birds while I worked out. The night darkness came over, chirps turning from a mellifluous sonnet to an evening lullaby.

And then I heard three loud bangs, a pause, and a few more bangs. Could that have been…? No. It wasn’t, I reasoned. I lived in an under-resourced area of Baltimore for a year, in which there were a couple shootings around the block that I was fortunate enough not to have been home for. All the bangs I did hear in that neighborhood ended up being kids playing with firecrackers, something that’s fun to do, apparently, even when it’s not July 4th. But there are few kids in my current neighborhood, and the ones I have seen are toddlers, plus the seldom one or two six-year-olds.

A swarm of police and an online crime alert confirmed my fear. Helicopters circled overhead. My roommates and I looked out the window to find several police cars a block and half up the street, in clear view from this top story window. We gave each other tight hugs, talked about our own privilege, talked about longings for peace and justice, talked about the neighborhood in which we live, met with its quirks and joys, marked by outsiders and many insiders as “up and coming,” a seemingly trite phrase that has some grain of truth if one considers “coming” to mean gentrification.

Within the next hour, the police cars became fewer in number. I can still hear the “bang, bang, bang,” noise sharply in my head. I look out the window one last time, wondering at what point the birds had stopped singing. I supposed they could have gone to sleep before the gun shots could disrupt their song. But even now as I type this, I can still hear an insomniac bird making noise, as if to have some company in his or her sleeplessness.

All of this feels so disparate. How did the view from the window go from lingering in the beauty to facing the reality of violence? It’s so hard to acknowledge that this same experience happened in one night. They seem so incongruous, the latter incident being one of disbelief- did all of that really just happen?

Yes, it did. We live in a world in which it is possible to hear the song of birds and cacophony of gun shots in a single night. We live in a world with incredible shades of red and pink and purple nearly every evening. And we live in a world in which damaging floods and hurricanes can come from that same sky. I live in a body with hands that long to hold another’s, limbs that long to wrap themselves around someone, a smile with an upper lip that shows a lot of gumline. And I live in a body that yelled, “Are you fucking kidding me?” to a driver yesterday who got too close to me while I was biking. A body with a brain that thought demeaning, judgmental thoughts towards someone today. A body that once accidentally drove through a red light and hit another human being, the “How could you!?” narrative reverberating not from outside sources, but internally.

So much darkness.
So much light.
So much life.
And so much of this life is that space between the darkness and light. Finding hope in despair, beauty in the presence of pain, something sacred in the midst of the banality. So much of life is seeing it and feeling it all, and still gazing your head upwards, feeling love for your Maker in the midst of walking away from a particular way of practicing this love. 

Tonight as I lay my head, I’m grateful for this Maker that I’ve come to know as God. Grateful for the light, room in my hands to accept both of these incongruous experiences. Grateful that there is something beyond the darkness, a story whose ending pages read of love over hate, joy beyond suffering, of discovering there is room for all of us in this story, that no one is or will be left out or left behind.

And for now, I’m in that space between. The one that has the synonyms and antonyms in the same sentences, and tonight, even the same breaths, encouraged to “just hold on to the way it is tonight and learn to love through the darkness and the light.”

The Space Between Rootedness and Exploration

“Roll the word around on your tongue for a bit. It is a beautiful word, isn’t it? So strong and forceful, the way you have always wanted to be. And you will not be alone. You have never been alone. Don’t worry. Everything will still be here when you get back. It is you who will have changed.” -Donald Miller, Through Painted Deserts

Photo: Firlefanz, Pinterest

Photo: Firlefanz, Pinterest

I never thought I would come to love this city so much. In fact, when I moved back here after backing out of my Peace Corps assignment, I felt ashamed. For four years, I lived In the Baltimore surburbs as an undergraduate. The world felt big and wondrous. I planned to spend two years in Africa with the Peace Corps and then two years in Colorado for grad school. Never was it in my plans to live near here again. But in 2010, after my mental health tanked and I needed to say “no” to my Peace Corps dream, I received a job at Johns Hopkins, living in Towson for another year before spending another three in different neighborhoods of Baltimore. In 2011, I moved to an underserved neighborhood with a friend and while I could never bring myself to say hate- I detested Baltimore. This neighborhood. My job. Didn’t see what this city had to offer, where its life was.

But then I moved to a quirky neighborhood, that, while not particularly racially diverse, is an eclectic source of artists, hipsters, cyclists, social advocates, a few old white men who never seem to leave the bar, and, of course, your standard Bawlmer Hon. I began going to a liberal Church that particularly focused on LGBT inclusion, learning much from my pastor who is a married lesbian. One meaningful connection led to another, as so often does, and pretty soon I began meeting these funky people in my neighborhood. We made videos on being people of faith who support marriage equality, paraded monthly through diverse neighborhoods of the city on bikes, gathered together for Tuesday night discussions on spirituality and social justice. I biked with triathletes through beautiful farmlands and open spaces. I became friends with a 60 year old Jewish woman I met in jury duty. I began going to holiday parties, meeting more and more friends who felt like “my” people in which I could both be accepted and challenged to become my best self in the community and the world. Sitting on the ledge of the front porch one night swinging my legs up and down, I looked up at the moon feeling so grateful for people and places of beauty and belonging. I don’t even recognize the me who once felt ashamed of living in this city with amity in my heart.
So in June 2014, when it was time for me to move to Washington DC, a mere 42 miles away, I sat back on the ledge of that front porch, feeling bittersweet about an exciting fellowship I’d soon be starting, and moving away from a city I began to love like a mother-nothing-can-stop-me-from-loving-you-do-you-hear-me kind of love. Sure, it would be easy for me to come back. But I reckoned it wouldn’t be the same.

And same it wasn’t, because life wasn’t created for sameness. But it has been good. And now, with a few months out in the horizon, I will be facing another transition. My fellowship in DC will end and I have no idea where I’ll live or what I’ll do. But in processing decisions I will soon have to make, I am struck by two orientations: rootedness vs exploration. Rootedness is what caused the latter half of my Baltimore experience to be so good. It’s those on-going deep conversations with people that only comes from meeting time and time again. Staying somewhere long enough to be able to laugh about an event with a group of friends that happened ten years ago… 10 years worth of stories, tears, ends and beginnings, a history so rich, you lost track of when you called these people “friends” instead of family.
I stopped looking for ways to leave this place, this “family,” given over instead to a desire to not just stay, but to connect with as many people, places, and activities that moved my heart. Some people call this “settling down,” a term I’m uncomfortable with. A phrase that brings to mind homogeneity- white fences in the suburbs with a spouse, dog and kids. A description that creates a binary- that you are somehow “unsettled” if you don’t take on this narrative; immature, wasting your life on the pleasures of the world instead of doing important adult things. Whatever you call it, though, it’s being able to say, “This is what I want. This is where I want to be. This is who I want to be with. This is what I want to be doing.” 

But what about those parts inside that long for new experiences, to learn as much from the world as possible by setting foot in all of its pockets and contours. That discovers career opportunities in other parts of the world that would be stimulating, yet would require leaving. That longs to say I spent my twenties (thirties, years, decades, whathaveyou) catching sunsets from different latitudes and longitudes- beyond travel? That wants to explore everything? That’s had enough of the fast-paced productivity-driven culture of DC and remembers, well, then you can simply leave?

I know this isn’t black and white, but I somehow feel as though one has to choose between rich relationships spent in community versus discovery and excitement that comes from living in many new places-a year here, a couple there, etc.

But what I’m slowly discovering is that space between. Not a cliche you-can-have-it-all space, but a space that celebrates meaningful relationships while also celebrating freedom and exploration. That’s fearless to leave, not afraid of packing up and charting anew, that won’t stay somewhere because it’s safe and convenient, but because your heart can truly echo, “This is where I want to be right now.” 

Rather than watching friends leave, a voice inside you wondering, “Gee, am I supposed to be leaving too?” Instead, knowing it’s perfectly acceptable to stay too. If I only ever lived within a 3 hour radius of my hometown, what does that say about me? Will I have missed out on some grand experience every young adult is supposed to have before marriage and family (if that’s even in their life plans)? Will it say I haven’t ventured out far enough?

Maybe, maybe not. But I won’t base the quality of these years on where I did or did not live. Maybe I’m never meant to officially move outside this 160 mile radius. Maybe the only time I will have wasted is time spent being somewhere, not fully there. That forgot to recognize this rootedness-exploration pendulum looks different for each person. Perhaps it looks like leaving before you can talk yourself out of it. Perhaps it’s staying engaged in a community and place you love, while feeding your heart’s longing for exploration through travel and diverse friendships, staying far from ritzy hotels and tourists traps and getting lost instead in people’s stories, culture, and off-beaten paths that await. Perhaps it looks like leaving and staying in touch. That setting aside money for a plane ticket back to the city and people you love once or twice a year is a worthy investment. Perhaps it’s simply the orientation that nothing is supposed to stay exactly the same.

I wrestle with this space, this space I know actually exists if your heart really wants to find it. I treasure this space. I celebrate this space.

Where are you going next? Where will your final resting place on Earth be? I can’t tell you that. Where will your friends go, your family, those you met on past travels? Will you ever be able to pinpoint on a map where “home” is anymore? Can’t tell you that either. I can only ask my soul, your soul, to open your hands wide enough to prepare for when that next step comes, that always-hard-at-first moment of transition. To look up at the sunset no matter what latitude or longitude you find yourself gazing from, and find it beautiful. To create community wherever you go, especially by vulnerably speaking your musings and experiences while listening to others as they do the same. Our hearts are big. But they’re also small when you compare it to our limbs and bones. The world is huge. But it’s small enough that there’s room enough in your big heart to hold the people who make it beautiful to you, and as your world expands, the people inside will squeeze in tighter, but in an sacred embrace they wouldn’t experience otherwise. Root. Unroot. Re-root. Transplant. Sprout. Or leave the ground altogether. And treasure that blessed space between.

I’ll see you between the water and the ledge.

mel cliff jump

Photo: MO 2010

 

 

The Panoramic Intersection of God, Family and the Open Road: Part I- 2014

MO 2015

The black and faded grey asphalt of I-95 southbound leads straight into the sunset. Trees on the interstate edges cascade from bare brown to hunter green with the passing of each new state. A free, soothing feeling comes back to me, … Continue reading

Let’s Have More (Thoughts to begin 2015 from Majo Aldana)

Beautiful new year’s mercies from my writer friend Majo Aldana. She writes at Quedamos los que puedan sonreir. Her original post “Let’s Have More/Tengamos Mas” can be found here.

africa sunset

MO 2007

 Let’s have more / Tengamos más
Have you looked at the stars lately? A sunset, a sunrise? Maybe at some kids playing at a fountain or a field? Have you looked at your hands, your eyes? Have you felt your heartbeat?
This 2015, instead of or in addition to (whatever your preferences) the new year’s promises and resolutions, simply decide to have more.

More compassion
 for others and yourself.
More water,
be it in tears, dances in the rain or snow fights.
More food,
to savor in your mouth, to share with others and realize where it came from.
Be thankful.

MO 2012More light,
     in the form of sunshine, knowledge
or simply in the company of others that share theirs.
More love,
from hugging a tree, talking to your grandparent about life
or enjoying a kiss or a hug.
More life,
to live well and more presently,
making sure you are contributing to others’ well being in some way.
More color,
from flowers, music or travel.
More smiles, more questions, more… Let’s have more.
MO 2008

MO 2008

Looking forward to “more” with you this 2015.
Thanks for reading.
Melissa

Majo AldanaMaría José (Majo) Aldana is a Guatemalan woman, passionate about people and life. She writes as one form of expressing emotions, thoughts and ideas. She’s an anthropologist, passionate for health and sexual rights.

The Year That Started With a Dream Wall: 2014 in Review

MO 2014

MO 2014

It started with friends coming over for a post-New Year’s party featuring a dream wall that everybody signed with goals, hopes, and dreams for 2014 and beyond. We each happily began our year, friends coming back throughout the months that ensued to check off items, scratching out a few that didn’t stir our hearts anymore, and adding new ones along the way, because we are ever changing, and true dreams recognize the wind and waves to move with you, not against you.
Right now, I can only tell you my journey of those winds and waves this year.
It went a little something like this:

I found my people.
Together we biked down city streets at night cheering at the top of our lungs so free. We climbed trees, played ukuleles in each other’s backyards, square danced, and laid under stars together. We told stories, shared struggles, asked bigger questions, stepping away from black and white into grey, yellow, neon green, and those hues Crayola has yet to codify. 

I celebrated firsts.
My first jellyfish sting.
My first skinnydipping on Playa Flamenco, a beach on the island of Culebra. And it was everything I thought it would be until a second jellyfish stung me and I ran out of the late night water screaming, forgetting to cover my parts.

MO 2014

MO 2014

I fell in love.
Not in the traditional romantic sense.
But with the Earth, animals, and humanity.
I fell in love with chickens, experiencing the joy of chicken farming and that tingly happy feeling you get when you cuddle a chicken.
I fell in love with the night sounds and the warm breeze that wafts into your tent as you fall asleep with the window unzipped.
I fell in love with a city that grew me up into maturity. 
Then I moved cities, far away enough to seize an irresistible new opportunity for growth, but close enough to come back and sit on its docks in total silence feeling like I just had the best conversation in the world.
I settled into a new house with roommates from India and Canada.
I left a job and began a new one.
I changed perspectives.

I judged certain people and realized the ways in which I am every bit as much of a contributor to the problem as part of the solution.

I defended myself silly until I learned to stop pining for my opinion to receive external validation.

I went pescatarian, and at the end of this year, watched a man reel in a fish that bled profusely as he removed the hook, making full-on vegetarian one of my 2015 goals.

I ditched make up. For good. And don’t feel guilty about the times I whip out tinted sunscreen under my eyes after late night writing binges.

There were tough calls, hard breaks
An ended relationship like a fissure with jagged edges
That ended more beautifully than I could have ever imagined.

There was music.
Music that got me through death.
Music that got me to and through my third half ironman.

I developed confidence. Developed it by forcing myself to tell others about my book idea-turned-into-action. And I kept telling others even after I received discouraging feedback in an encounter that left me so embarrassed, I ran out of a conference room and cried in the bathroom. Then I gave myself a pep talk, walked out the bathroom door, and the next day, told triple the amount of people I’ve ever told in a single day.

I developed it by openly disagreeing with others, stating my opinion, and making my voice heard. There was that work meeting where a man interrupted me and I said flatly, “I wasn’t done speaking yet,” without even a second thought about holding back.

I felt.
Felt afraid of riding my bike for the first time as I rode in an ambulance to the ER with a friend who got hit on a training ride. I felt afraid after getting hit by a car on my morning commute, grateful for how minor it was. I felt afraid of training rides with a new team after there were three weeks in a row of accidents. I felt resilience as I rode and trained anyway. I felt freed after I reached out to female cycling friends once I realized just how afraid I became, and was met with encouragement and understanding. I felt joy as I had more and more God-its-good-to-be-alive mornings on my bike, my freedom machine, my Big Blue. The kind of mornings that make you stand up on both pedals and say, “Weeeeeee,” biking fears replaced by biking bliss.

I gave myself the permission I never needed.
Permission to not have kids. Permission to reduce my triathlon training in exchange for pursuing creative endeavors. Permission to not have to feel productive all the time, instead spending an hour capturing the sunset through my camera lens from a third story window.

I wrestled. With seemingly everything.
Marriage. God. Myself. Gender. Anything with one too many question marks. Privilege. Food justice. Bike parts. The back door lock. Academia. The front door lock. The US political party system. Women- only spaces. Mouse traps. Death. The future. The past. And the length of this paragraph.

I learned.
Learned from friends who live in Rwanda what it was like to grow up during the genocide. And then, I learned about the peace and reconciliation process of Gacaca, moved as my friend told me, “People think Rwanda’s story is about genocide. But what they don’t know is ours is a story of forgiveness.”
I learned that perhaps if we aren’t experiencing joy in our lives, it’s because we’re not creating it. And with that, I stopped at a waterfall that I used to zoom past every day on my way to work. Stopped for a week straight to take pictures of it. Stopped to close my eyes so that I could solely focus on my sense of hearing- hearing that thundering waterfall sound with a few birds chirping in the background. And I would make sure to do this again when it snowed and again when it thawed until the only thing that stopped this newly adopted morning routine was moving away.

MO 2014

MO 2014

I spent money.
On a new racing bike, a Specialized Alias, feeling only one twinge of guilt over the cost before smashing it to the grindstone, remembering that privilege guilt doesn’t actually create systemic change, and that part of my triathlon passion is not just the joy of the sport, but in challenging gender norms.
I spent it on airfare to Puerto Rico, where I timbered trees with a WOOFer from Czech Republic who’d sing the words of Ke$ha everytime the tree fell: “It’s going down, I’m yelling timber…”

I interviewed people. Interviewed women in their 80s, 90s (including my 93 year old grandmother) and even 100s, on their lives, asking hard questions, receiving even harder answers. I interviewed men regarding gender dynamics, and walked away with full reality of male privilege but completely excited about allyship and creating spaces for women and men to talk about the messages we face daily but often don’t bring up.

I let go.
Let go enough to be silly and join strangers-turned-friends in giving out free hugs at the Farmers Market.
Let go enough to dance on a street corner to “Jump on it” with a woman who was homeless.
Let go of the cradle-to-grave life itinerary I used to demand and took on a one year global health fellowship. I have no idea what I’ll do when it’s over in 7 months. But never the matter. I’ve let go. And choose to believe it will all work out.

I laughed.
Laughed as friends and I sledded, saucer-ed and snowtubed down a staircase-turned-snow ramp during the polar vortex, bombogenesis, snowmageddon that was winter 2014.
Laughed as my dad told me stories about his life “BC” (before children)
Laughed at myself as I mispronounced bike parts and for the first time, it didn’t sting; the need to prove myself as a competent women replaced by need for humor and grace.

I stopped.
Stopped going to Church.
At least the one that meets on Sunday mornings in pews, instead experiencing the kind of Church that happens when you’re about to go into your house but something catches you outside, urging you to sit on the porch ledge and ponder the Pleiades until yougaze becomes a wordless prayer as you experience the intimacy of God like one thousand choirs filled with sacred song.  
I stopped filling journals with worries and instead, created “memories I don’t want to forget” pages, trying to capture experiences that leave my mind all too quickly.

And as quickly as it started, so quickly it’s ending.
Benjamin Franklin, looking at a painting of a sun that artists found difficult to decipher as a rising or setting sun, once said, “But now at length I have the happiness to know that it is indeed a rising and not a setting sun.” The coda to this year may end with 11:59:59 on the clock, a few dim stars in the winter air, about to be blasted with fireworks. But in my heart is tomorrow’s sunrise, an invitation to not just a new day, but a new year. I can already peer into its apertures, knowing 2015 will bring another move, some wanderlust in Africa, my 10 year high school reunion, and lots of humble embraces with old and new friends. The dot-dot-dot ellipses of these 365 days ahead remain a mystery, but we’re about to fill pages with color, question marks and exclamation points.
Two thousand fifteen.
Let’s write the next first sentence in our stories that are ever changing, ever evolving,
forever living onward into a beautiful infinity.

MO 2014

MO 2014

Caroline Numuhire, Butare City, Rwanda

Melissa Otterbein:

I founded a project called “Letters to Future Sisters” in which women from all over the world tell their stories of what life was like growing up in their part of the world while sharing dreams for future generations of women and girls. Here is my wise friend Caroline Numuhire’s letter on growing up in Kigali, Rwanda during the genocide, the innocence of her childhood, and her dreams for future generations of women and girls.

Originally posted on Letters to Future Sisters of the World:

Caroline- Letters to Future Sisters Submission Picture
Dear sister,

I grew up in Kigali but I was born in Butare, a University City in southern Rwanda. I grew up during a very challenging period because in my early childhood, Rwanda experienced one of the worst holocausts of our century. I grew up in a society torn by this division which engendered a profound mistrust among its children. But this doesn’t include the fact that I have known the insouciance and innocence of a childhood, children’s plays and oral stories told by the elders.

I grew up in a family of three girls and one boy. My father, though highly educated and very smart, was like the majority of African men who believe that women must play a secondary role in society. He was constantly recalling this. But my mother, a very emancipated woman, always whispered the contrary in our ears. At the same time, whenever something was…

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Laying Down Superwoman.

Photo: SO 2014

Photo: SO 2014

I am secretly coming to love the late autumn and early winter. It’s in these months that I give myself permission to reduce my triathlon training mileage. To take a break from my intense personality and the regimented core workout–work for 8 hours–timed race pace run–nutrient dense dinner–stretch–ice–foam roll–nine hours of sleep–40 mile ride in the morning– schedule. To tame down the constant part of me that insatiably demands, “More, more, more,” always dreaming of being stronger and faster. To slow down in order to let my creative spirit take precedence over the athlete in me.

This lending over to the artistic spirit allows me to bask in awe of beauty, binging on new musicians via Spotify until 2 in the morning, musing over what experiences and stories led up to these lyrics being sung in this exact manner. I’m Skyping with old souls from all over the world. I’m owning my book project with far less hesitation and it’s leading me to people and organizations I’ve been dying to meet. I’m singing more than ever before with less reservation, in front of more and more people, not just my shower walls. I’m finding my way into local coffee shops, museums, libraries, and concert halls- the most recent being Lincoln Theater to see James Vincent McMorrow thanks to the generosity of a friend who offered me his tickets when he no longer could make it.

Sitting there in the audience Saturday night, I watched, captivated, mesmerized by the budding, expanding, blossoming of the human voice. His voice holding out into time and space, long, lengthened pitches, strong and resounding. Beats and questions and thoughts that float along steady into the atmosphere, a bit like bubbles coasting in the daylight, lingering, hovering a little, and then… a combustible, “Pop.” How vulnerable it must feel to put something out there like that.

What would the world look like, though, if we spoke in those soft, yet loaded, gentle, iridescent bubbles that pop in fits and spurts until something inside of our soul that once was trapped has become freed, so freed, it could just do it again and again and again and again? How empowering would it feel to finally find an expression that elucidates your innermost feelings of an experience? 

I think this gripping beauty mingled with freedom would get us to stop and nestle in deep into the heart of it all, ditching the fluff-and-stuff of life for the yes-and-yearn.

The yes-and-yearn is not easily won. In fact, it can be downright hard, can’t it? To live exposed like that, willingly putting yourself in front of the microphone, or name on the page, speaking those words and asking those questions that it feels like nobody else is asking, just wondering alone to themselves in the dark on some restless, sleepless night?
It can be hard to get in touch with every part of ourselves without sacrificing one part for the other.
But it’s worth it.
So worth it.

Spring will come again, my miles will expand, and I will fall in love with the beauty that ensues when running shoes hit shaded trails.

But today I will fall in love with the beauty that resounds in coffee shops and viewfinder eyepieces. I will fall in love with the full spectrum of the human experience by pondering what’s going inside the soul of a musician as he or she sings his or her truth. I will fall in love with color by popping out the screen window and taking copious amounts of sunset pictures from my third story window, chronicling its evening travels off the edge of the horizon. Maybe, even, one of these mornings, I will wander downstairs to make a warm cup of coffee, only to come back upstairs to take in the sunrise. And together, the light, the people, the connection, this spiritual world will leave us with no other option but to… 

Photo: MO 2014

Photo: MO 2014