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Saturday, February 4, 2017

Admon in Turkey: Part 4


Admon’s iPhone was “too much” (as they say in Iraq) an extension of himself that I often found it difficult to separate man from machine. I teasingly rebuked him but secretly found it extremely annoying how dependent upon it he was. In the break room at school even while joyfully surrounded by teachers at the breakfast table, there it sat before him; he was texting someone. When he drove it was in his hand; he was navigating through songs. When we were out, it was out; he was snapping selfies. I wasn’t his girlfriend and I should not have cared, but feeling like that that phone was Admon’s mistress evoked a hot jealousy from my heart.
At school...

around town...
and even hiking Admon was constantly snapping selfies!


One afternoon at school not unlike most, I laid my books down on the table beside Admon between classes. The phone was in his hands and, distracted, he instinctively moved over for me to sit. He didn’t look up. I was tired and irritated. Shifting uneasily in my chair to get comfortable without showing any part of my legs from under my long skirt, I wanted the company of his conversation. “Admon, what are you thankful for about grade 9? They’re driving me crazy! My humanities class has 52 students. It feels too large for me alone and they are using it to their own advantage!"

“What? OK, sure,” -Ad’s classic response when he was trying to be agreeable. He lifted his brown eyes to me for the first time.

“Admon, who are you texting?” my voice rose, rebuking him. Why wouldn’t he pay attention to me? the human sitting right next to him! My irritation was turning to anger.

“It’s Mr. Sufian,” Ad’s voice was gentle and rhythmic. He hadn’t heard the emotion in my words, so he did not reply in kind. He placed the phone on the table, looked at me fully, and signed. I read the sadness in his sigh and because of his answer my anger melted into shame. Sufian had been Admon’s best friend the year before. They worked together and, both Iraqi Christians, shared much in common. Sufian had taught Admon how to use the gym, a newer and growing hobby for men in Iraqi Kurdistan. The two of them had coordinated many social events with other coworkers, and their families were close. They had been neighbors until, two months prior, Sufian and his young wife had obtained the coveted green cards to emigrate from Iraq. Knowing these details I meekly listened to Admon’s report.

“They are getting settled in Indonesia. Sufian hopes that it won’t be a long stay until the UN gives them clearance to move to America. His daughter gets sick from the wet climate.” And I listened on until finally I saw it: Admon at his core is relational; the phone was simply a tool that connected him to the people he loved. These people were becoming geographically more distanced from him as Iraq’s Christian population quickly disappeared from a country in which they no longer felt welcome. I sighed to myself and made a resolution to be less judgmental of my friend over his technological tether.  

Not long after I became a beneficiary to Admon’s iPhone addiction. In Iraq it seemed like bills became due on the collector’s whim; there was no pay schedule that I could discern. This meant that random Middle Eastern men appeared at my gate at indiscriminate times, demanding dinar (Iraqi currency) for utilities I often hadn’t previously knew even existed. Few spoke English, and I understood even less Arabic. On a rainy weeknight the electricity bill collector rang at the gate and summoned me onto my patio. “Englizi dasani?” I inquired in Kurdish, gathering the grey sweater I had hastily slipped on to cover my arms under my rib cage with fists of agitation. The happy-faced middle-aged man assured me, that no, “Kurdi noz-sanum, Englizi noz-sanum,” but, “Arabi dasani!” He knew only enough Kurdish to tell me that he spoke neither. 

We motioned back and forth with no success for several minutes, the man waving a translucent paper with unintelligible squiggles and dots that was my bill. His presence had interrupted my dinner and I felt increasingly irritated by the communication gap until my roommate shouted to me that I should, “Call Admon!” Suddenly hopeful for a resolution to this man’s demands, a rescue from the rain, and a return to my dinner, I whipped out my cheap pay-as-you-go cellphone and had Admon immediately on the other end.
Korek was the service provider for my cheap phone. To pay for "minutes" I bought scratch-off cards at the local grocery store.


“Let me talk with him,” said my savior with a cheerful cadence to his words. I offered my phone to the man and Admon efficiently navigated the conversation in Arabic. After some time the service man, smiling, handed the phone back to me for Admon’s explanation in English. “Let me stay with you until you are done,” offered Admon, “if you have more questions.”

I turned to our collector with large hand motions and awkward facial expressions asking him to “please wait, I’ll be right back,” and disappeared to retrieve the dinar from my bureau’s top drawer. I was able to pay our bill and quickly sent the man on his way. The transaction complete, I told Ad, “Shukran, Mr. A.,” before hanging up. Laughing at my Arabic, Admon responded, “You’re welcome, Miss A. I’m happy to help.” Genuinely, I knew he was.
I needed Admon for practical things like paying bills, getting places, and understanding the culture. I also needed our interpersonal relationship but couldn’t believe that Admon needed me like I needed him. It was through Ad’s use of his iPhone that I began to believe that our friendship was truly interdependent. He used it to tell me things that at first he wouldn’t tell me in person.

An illness kept me from school for several days. On the second day I lay on my sickbed contemplating my helplessness and aloneness in that foreign land but Admon’s texts surprised me with a different reality: “Abbey! I miss you! You need to feel better soon. I’m going crazy alone at school.” He was the only coworker and friend to reach out to me in my illness. Admon's simple words made me consider that my absence exposed a definite void in his life. In the beginning Ad needed his iPhone to tell me so.

And, again, when I left for America during Christmas break he used his phone to communicate his need for what my friendship offered him. “Miss A.,” the texts received by my cheap phone read in fragments as a taxi sped me along narrow, potholed roads to the airport, “I hope your holiday is the best with your family but I’ll be so bored without you. Come back to us soon.” My face flushed with pleasure. Later during my time away he messaged me through Facebook: “Hey friend, I miss you. I hope you are fine. I just wanna ask you, when are you coming back?” Social media became our cross-continent form of regular communication until I returned to Iraq at the end of our break two weeks later. After that Admon felt somehow emboldened to express his feelings for me in person.

During the second semester Admon’s availability through his phone became a professional lifesaver. Third quarter grades were due in the morning and I struggled alone at my computer with stacks of yet-to-be-graded papers framing my tiny kitchen desk, mocking me. I would need to convert each student's grade from so many points into 100. On Facebook I messaged Admon my SOS with two words: “Math question!” It was past 1 a.m. on a Thursday night but Ad’s response popped up within a minute: “Okay, go ahead” with emojis showing me his eagerness to help. I presented my problem. Admon explained the conversion steps I needed to take and included a photo of the necessary equations. Effusive in my thanks for his help, his response was simple: “No need. I’m always here for you. Good night.” He was. And because of his iPhone, I knew that he always could be…

Monday, January 9, 2017

Admon in Turkey: Part 3


View from my rooftop...
Dohuk is a city of 350,000, nestled in northern Iraq in a quiet valley encircled by mountains that spring up from the Tigris River. I lived there for ten months and all the while those ancient mountains stared placidly down upon me. Wide-eyed, I looked longingly back at them (“Are they indifferent? or sympathetic?” I often mused, unable to decide if those mountains were my quiet solace or a terrible tease). In this culture and because of our proximity to ISIS (I lived one hour away by car from Mosel, their then-newest hub) I was not allowed to go out by myself to discover the answer.  My nature-worshipping soul shriveled daily without a cohort to escort me on outdoor exploration. This confinement was bitterness added to my already dessert-parched mouth. From my living room and rooftop, respectively, I poured out my complaint to these silent, steady onlookers.
and from my living room
A view from the Mall: the mountains surrounded Dohuk on all sides
A team of us teachers enjoy the Mountain backdrop


            I overheard expatriates and nationals, including my students, speak about hiking these mountains, but their stories existed in a place inaccessible to my mind because of all the “rules” that applied to me, an unmarried woman living close to ISIS-controlled territory in the Middle East. The stories inhabited the same space as those of women running freely (and alone) in the public park, of Arabs showing respect to minorities, and of Christians and Muslims cohabiting peacefully as neighbors and friends. In my mind, I placed all these stories in the same category as I did folktales, legends, and myths: beautifully desirable, yet totally unreal.

            In February, my life changed when two Americans were added to my teaching team. Most significantly, these two were a married couple. Culturally, I was allowed to tag along with them outside of the house and my world broadened. I determined immediately to include outdoor explorations into my wider scope of experience and I said so to Admon at school. Like a boy, Ad seized my idea with brio and we began excitedly plotting our first real adventure together.

            On a Friday afternoon, “we were six” (as they say in Iraq): the married couple (Tim and Esther), two responsible boy students (Pel and Avraz), Ad, and myself. We met at Gali Circle in the old part of the city, which at that time of day on a Friday, the Muslim-majority day of worship and rest, was deserted. Gali was a small commercial area of restaurants, tea-houses, and a sweets shop built up around the base of the Dohuk dam. We had met here to climb “Flag Mountain,” so named because of the huge and highly visible Kurdish flag painted on its side. From a distance (the only view I’d had of the precipice until this moment), the mountain had appeared docile and even inviting.
Can you spot Flag Mountain's Kurdish flag behind me? Look closely; it appears "small"!

At the base of Flag Mountain


Our two students, Pel and Avraz, arrived cool and confident. Perhaps they’d turned up only to witness the spectacle of Westerners summiting their mountain. Perhaps they were bored on a Friday and our hike was a nice distraction. Whatever attracted them to our group, I was grateful for their presence. We needed their help navigating the path to the top.

Like the boys, Tim and Esther were also quietly composed, but they turned outward to our group in warm conversation as we began to climb. Their focus was on the relationships represented there and less on the event itself. But Ad and I were both wildly distracted by our own excitement: he, to be sharing a new experience; and me, to be outdoors roaming beneath the day’s perfectly azure sky, discovering the beauty of Kurdistan with my own eyes for the first time.

We were a small group and for the first two tiers of the mountain remained as a pack. Before the first tier we stepped through short, timid clods of grass which would become a thick carpet of green after February. A humble community of young trees greeted us at the first leveling out of the mountain and from there the route became rock. The boys raced ahead and our group disbanded, save for the married couple, who together brought up the rear. Each of us enjoyed the climb in our own way. I watched Avraz and Pel challenge each other to reach the next point first and heard their Kurdish exclamations then still unknown to me. Admon, slightly ahead of me, stopped at intervals to praise the beauty of a flower, take a selfie, or examine the remains of a previous hiker’s fire. The cool afternoon air kissed my face and I drunk the warm, white, pre-spring sunlight with silent gratitude.
Tree tier: "Miss, how did you...?"

Still smiling at Tier 2

Avraz and Pel led the way


View from Tier 2


The Kurds make this look easy!

Upon the boulders of the third level, our group reconvened for a photo. Tim and Esther stopped climbing there, but, again, Pel and Avraz sprinted ahead. We were two-thirds of the way to the top and together Admon and I gaged our goal. To reach the summit we had to pass by the painted Kurdish flag and climb along a nearly 70° incline. As Admon stepped he pleasantly talked about school, but my own steps increased my anxiety: I suddenly remembered that I’m afraid of heights!
An upward view from Tier 2. There's the flag!

At the next level the Kurdish flag- proudly painted bright red, white, and green, with a yellow starburst in the center- greeted us. At this proximity, I estimated it as quite larger than I imagined from the mountain’s base- perhaps 60 feet squared. Admon, though impatient to get to the top, couldn’t suppress his desire for another selfie and, smiling, I indulged him. We both climbed past the flag, but Ad slightly outpaced me. The climb now required me to use my hands and I fingered for pieces of grass and rock to hold onto.
A partial view of the flag on "Flag Mountain"

These angles righty depiect the feeling of hanging on for dear life!


Alone, I looked down at the terrain we had covered and was overwhelmed by the smallness of things below me. I looked up at the distance yet to be climbed and estimated it to be about an eighth of a mile. I froze. My body dropped against the rock. Waves of panic began to wash over me. All I could do in that moment was remember to breathe.  
As I clung onto the side of that mountain in northern Iraq I remembered when a twelve-year-old me had gotten stuck in a Virginia pine tree. I had forged my way to the top of that tree without an exit plan and became stuck tight. An hour later, after much noise-making, the neighbors found me and proffered their ladder to get me down. From 9,000 miles away and 7 hours behind me, my dad now inserted himself into this thought-string, his pragmatism rebuking me: Who will be there to bring the ladder for you this time, Ab? Always have an exit plan. This is not about you proving yourself to anybody!

He’s right, I meditated through deep, controlled breaths to prevent myself from hyperventilating, Who will rescue me from the top? What if I get up there, but can’t come down? I imagined an Iraqi helicopter hovering above me and a rescue team suited up in matching Jason Bourne black outfits descending from a ladder to hoist me up and off and down from this mountain. This would never happen. Helo rescue teams don’t exist in Iraq to save dumb Americans from summiting heights too great for them (do they exist at all?). It was impossible and I was impossibly frozen with fear.

I was frozen there (for how long I don't know) until a voice called me back. I sensed the voice approaching me but my face remained buried in the mountain until I heard it ask distinctly, “Are you OK?” and Admon himself stood above me, his voice, curious, rising at the end. I raised my head but couldn’t look at him; I was trying to be humble. Of course I wanted to summit that mountain, but my Daddy’s specter’s argument was compelling. I was preparing to turn back, but frozen still, my mouth formed these words, “Ad, I’m afraid of heights. I can’t make it to the top.”

He began his negotiations.

“Abbey, look, the boys are at the top already. Why did you stop? I’ll help you,” he soothed.

“No, Admon. I’m more worried about getting back down than about getting up. I won’t make it down if I keep going.” Defeated, I conceded, “You have to go on without me.”

Ad’s reply was gently stubborn, “You’re making it to the top. I’m not leaving you.”

I turned my face towards him. Admon’s hand, larger and stronger, reached for mine, “And I will help you get down. Do you trust me?” This is the real question, isn’t it? I put to myself: Do I trust Admon? A quick and quiet analysis surged through my synapses. In a moment, I had my answer: “Yes! Yes I trust you!” and I surrendered to his grip. He instinctively, firmly, pulled me to my feet. I exchanged my mountain-clinging for hand-grasping.

Pel, seeing his teacher fearful, prone, and clinging and his other teacher urging her on, scrambled down to our spot and lead the procession onward. A few paces ahead, he watched our path, calling out to Ad where to lead me. I clutched onto Ad’s hand or he held mine. Or perhaps both. As we stepped, I watched Ad’s feet and listened to his voice. Adrenaline surging through my body, Admon’s words were indistinct but I heard his tone, gentle and affirming. I focused on the sound of it, remembering the sage words of Solomon:

Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up!

I thanked God that Admon, in that moment at least, was my “plus one.” Under Pel’s care-taking with these thoughts I grasped Admon’s hand, warmer than mine, all the way to the summit of Flag Mountain.
Pel and Ad "taking rest" (as the Iraqis say)
At the top, which was flat and wide, I released Ad’s hand, knelt, stared at the ground, inhaled, and exhaled until my panic passed by. The guys were taking in the sights. I heard their exclamations and finally, timidly, rose to join them. The beauty of our vista sent me into near hysteria of a different kind. There was the city sprawling, miniature, beneath us. There were the other mountain peaks that surrounded our city and here we were peers with them. Here we touched the sky, now cloudlessly pure blue. There were the vast waters of the Dohuk dam, mirroring the sky, and I traced the shoreline. I laughed and exclaimed with the rest of our group. I was incredulous, yet grateful to be there and I considered that without Admon, I wouldn’t be.

Miss Independence had just been schooled in the necessity of friendship by my kind, unassuming coworker and our blithe, young students.
 

View from the summit: Dohuk Dam 


Still shaky, barely smiling
The Mountaineers celebrate our first Mountain in Kurdistan!


After a respectful amount of time enjoying the victory and snapping photos for posterity we began our descent and Admon again generously offered me his hand. I wanted to take it –I had liked the feel of his grip and desired a reason to be closer to him- but, awkward and suddenly shy because of our students watching us, I refused. Nevertheless, true to his word, Admon coached me down step-by-step from our great height. From only a few paces ahead of me, Ad’s happy chatter and pleasant laughter calmed my again rising anxiety and distracted me from my fears. When we reached the mountain tier at the base of the Kurdish flag I was able to relax completely. Admon pulled out his phone and shared his music. He took song requests and played my favorite, by Coldplay, on repeat. Satisfied, we began planning more hikes and adventures together. I now knew that I completely trusted this man and I thanked God for the surprise Ad continued to be…
Everytime thereafter I passed by Flag Mountain (far left) it was with great satisfaction ("I did it!")
and humble gratitude ("because of my friends!")
Our hiking group revisited Flag Mountain.
We challenged ourselves to climb through the flag and succeeded.

Dohuk sprawled, minature, below me.
By the second climb I was able to really smile...
and make friends at the top with some surprised locals!
I was so proud of that Kurdish woman who conquerred her mountain!


The Two A's: "Two are better than one"



Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Admon in Turkey: Part 2

The next several "installments" of Admon in Turkey are vignettes which follow the last paragraph of the first "installment" and which fill in those memories on which I was meditating...
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At thirty-thousand feet, perhaps somewhere suspended above the Black Sea or Turkey, I had pulled out my clean notebook to detail every event and experience I expected to encounter. Every one.
Being misunderstood… not seeing the stars… not feeling satisfied in the work that I do… getting sick…
My future roommate and cultural guide had counseled me months prior, “My one rule: Don’t have any expectations.” She had done this five times before and spoke with a voice of both experience and authority., But she had somehow had forgotten (didn’t realize?) that humans are programmed with an imagination and some with a highly active one (I happen to be of the latter brand). To not expect would require me to cease being human, and I believed hers was an unfair expectation of me. Perhaps she meant that I should lower my expectations. Regardless, this was the bit of her advice that I had immediately decided to discard.
Not getting enough exercise… not communicating with Home enough/frequently… forgetting tampons… having difficulty learning names…
I was on my way to northern Iraq to teach high school to Kurdish students. For my sanity’s sake, I was compelled to put onto paper what my over-active imagination projected concerning the year to come. Getting dehydrated… feeling over-worked… culturally confusing honor and rightness… confinement… That way, when it did happen, when the pressures of my foreign environment built up into an excruciating furnace and I feared I’d explode on my hosts, I would look at that list, do several rounds of deep yoga breathing, and remind myself, “Abbey, you expected this would happen.” This was my emergency plan in an environment where I expected to have few coping resources.
Meeting fascinating people… picnicking… learning Kurdish dancing… discovering that I love teaching… My List included positives as well, in my effort to be comprehensive. (I had to have something to be excited about!) So I exhausted my imagination for an hour on that flight into Erbil and filled three journal pages with all of my specific expectations.


My sense of adventure had drawn me to Iraq but, consequentially, made living there essentially impossible for me. Before I was even unpacked my life was immediately cleaved into two categories: What I am Allowed and What I am Not Allowed to Do, Wear, Say, and See, an agglomeration of cultural norms sitting as Judge over each of my choices. Restrictions on wearing, saying, and seeing were easiest for me to manage; the cultural rules for me as a woman over doing, however, (or rather, not doing) became suffocating. As I expected.
            At Christmas I traveled back to America for two weeks of rest, reflection, and for a respite from the stress of daily life in Iraq. I reassessed that Expectation List and put check marks on the expectations which came true: 49 checks out of 56. My first semester lived up to my expectations- in a word, it was challenging. And true to my emergency plan, that List had been my tether to a small buoy of sanity when disappointment, exhaustion, and rage had threatened to drown me in the ocean of cross-cultural chaos.


But as thoroughly as I had considered the unknowns and as contemplatively as I had thought about the future, even my imagination has its limits and he was not on that List. He took me by utter surprise. Tall and Middle Eastern, he was fantastically dark and handsome. His face was gracefully long and important, his jaw serious and square, and he always wore a five-o’clock-shadow which made him look older, mysterious, and extremely attractive. Thick and perfect eyebrows framed his deep brown eyes which were laughing or sophisticated (at turns) but always gentle. His full, round lips could be saucy or sweet and he didn’t like his Assyrian nose. But, like the rest of him, I thought it was perfect.
            He was a surprise because he was an Iraqi national, a Christian, a man, and quickly became my best friend. In my imagination and understanding of the world, these variables never fused. As an unmarried American woman living in a predominately Muslim Middle Eastern country, missing male friendships… romantic turmoil… and loneliness… were the bullet points that made my Expectation List and I was therefore unprepared for such a friendship.  

I met my surprise at school. Over time, as our friendship grew, I learned his story. He had been born the last of five children and given the proud Assyrian name “Admon.” When I feared I was misspelling it (some at school spelled it with an “E” and others even with an “I”), Ad quickly explained why they were wrong and I was right: “It’s our version of ‘Adam.’” Like his Hebrew namesake Ad’s name meant “of dust, earth; formed of clay.” In the Hebrew narrative Yahweh God formed Adam, the first man, with his hands out of the dust of the earth. True to his name, Admon was uniquely impressionable, shaped by the external events of his story. Yet as I learned more of his story I would marvel at how he- living as a minority amongst Iraq’s minorities- preserved a soft, moldable, and beautiful heart.   

            Admon and I taught together at the high school: he four sections of mathematics and I three of liberal arts. It was Admon’s third year teaching and my first. When I had time and free brain space during my breaks I watched the various Iraqi teacher-to-student and teacher- to-teacher interactions with great interest. As in all his relationships I observed Admon engage in, he was gentle with his students (even when he had to be stern) and was big-brotherly with his affection towards them. His students respected him and, true to their culture, demonstrated their affection publically. They also teased and joked with him, which were behaviors that he both provoked and reciprocated with unconcealed pleasure. Towards his coworkers Admon was the same man: warm and social yet refreshingly unpretentious in a culture wherein flaunting one’s self was the celebrated norm. As I observed other young teachers flirt and vie for attention or favor, Admon was no-nonsense. He was not only tallest in stature of all our teachers, but the height of his personal character quietly rose above us.  




When I first met him Admon, as the Iraqis say, “had 24 years” and was very much a mature man but, despite all the hardships of his young life, he maintained a boyish soul. Perhaps this is how we became fast friends, and why our friendship blossomed: Ad loved fun. He worked hard and was well respected, both in and out of school but, unlike many of his peers, he was curious, sought out new experiences, and found levity in the mundane moments of life. This part of his nature complimented mine. I had found a kindred spirit in Ad.

School was where we laid the foundation for our friendship. Admon interpreted Arabic for me and English for our Iraqi Kurdish teachers when, left to ourselves, we were unable to communicate. He played music, told jokes, and shared breakfast. Ad and I laughed and plotted together during our shared breaks. He quizzed me on American culture and voiced his anger over the dominant Iraqi cultures treatment of women and minorities. Admon was a genuinely bright soul, but deeper conversations with him revealed the complexity of the grief he carried as both a observer and a recipient of Iraq’s discrimination and persecution. Sympathetic, Admon became my professional advocate when I needed help managing my own anger over the treatment of minorities. When discouraged, we worked hard to cheer for and encourage each other, respectively, in our workplace.

Then, on a Saturday in October, I had discovered we were literally closer than I thought. On a brisk walk around my neighborhood an immaculately white Chevy Cruze pulled up and drove close beside me. The driver’s window rolled down and I heard his voice, inquisitive: “Why are you walking in my neighborhood?” Startled by the vehicle yet relieved by the voice emitting from it, I replied smartly, “And why are you driving in mine?!” We were both very happy to learn that we were neighbors! Admon quickly volunteered and became my willing driver to anywhere I normally was not allowed to go by myself; sometimes (with my roommates’ permission) we broke the cultural single-girl/ single-guy rules and traveled together unchaperoned.

Living and working in close proximity, our friendship grew daily. My coworker, my neighbor, my friend, Admon was my on-and-off again secret crush, but, more than everything, my best friend. Even our students recognized it: “Miss, you and Mr. Admon go together,” a group of ninth graders explained. My Iraqi surprise, Admon became the most important person in my Middle Eastern life, enhancing and often sustaining it...

A Middle Eastern Market


Iraqi food prepared and served "the proper way"


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Thursday, December 15, 2016

Admon in Turkey: Part 1

It's been two years. It's time now for me to start writing about Iraq. To protect friends, some names and small details have been altered but the stories are true. I lived them.

This first  piece will come in "installations." 
I wrote it for Admon, my glass of cool water in the desert.
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A mosque in the Kurdish Region of Iraq

Antalya, Turkey: Camp Cherry Grove, June, 2015
It had been a big step for him. He got on a bus that took him into a country he'd never visited and out of the one from which he'd never parted in all his 25 years. Next, he got on an airplane (again, for the first time) to fly the 1,000 miles into Istanbul. Multi-lingual though he was, he didn’t speak Turkish. I had wanted to be with him, but he did it alone.
The day before Admon left was my second to last full day in Iraq. The Tailors, a family from the UK whom I had adopted as my Western family, hosted a goodbye party for me: a merry melee of Iraqis, Brits, an Aussie, and a handful of us Yanks. Ad came and brought his oldest sister- sweet, quiet Nadia.
At evening's end, the party filed out of the Tailor's front door, one by one, giving me their goodbyes. I would only cry for Nadia. And that would happen the next evening, when I truly told her my Goodbye and when Admon was gone.
Admon, the most important person in my life in Iraq, I did not hug. Admon I did not give my Goodbye. Somehow, in the surge of bodies that crowded me at the front door, he had slipped out silent and unseen. Later, Nadia would tell me that Goodbyes are distasteful to Ad. He can't handle them. Besides, Ad texted me late that night and before his departure the next day for Turkey would sever our texting communication, I'll see you in Turkey.
I had legitimate reasons then to doubt the fulfillment of Ad’s seemingly casual assertion. Sharing a few days in Antalya, Turkey was part of our original plan to travel there together by bus from our city in northern Iraq. He would then go on to Istanbul to spend the month with his friend and I would start work at camp. But Admon had gotten the dates wrong and accidentally booked the trip by himself all the way to Istanbul, 450 miles northwest of where I would be in Antalya. After his mistake and before he left Iraq I had told him, When you visit me in Turkey it must happen during my time in the city before I go into the countryside for camp. I’ll be working 24/7 once I get to camp and I won’t have time for you. Meeting up in Antalya proper during my first five days in Turkey seemed like the best and possibly the only time for us to connect. I knew that communication between us in Turkey would be very difficult because neither of us would have Turkish-compatible phones. Nevertheless, prior to his departure Admon never revealed to me his actual plans to visit. He probably also didn’t –couldn’t- understand how absolutely essential Goodbyes are to me. And he was gone -without one. Would I see him in Turkey?
Weeks later I would see the images on Facebook of Admon’s parents parting from him at the bus station that next morning. They looked sad and possibly even afraid (it would be a somewhat dangerous trip for him as an Assyrian Christian traveling through northern Iraq and into Turkey along a route where minorities weren’t welcomed) but in the pictures Admon himself maintained his classically cool demeanor, sporting shades and wearing his sexy, serious face.
When I left Iraq the following day Facebook became Admon and I’s only medium for communication. We used it on my first day in Antalya to message each other briefly. Turkey was a whole new world of adventure and exploration for Admon and he was enjoying it immensely. A day, and two, and then three passed as I waited for him to announce his plans to meet me in Antalya. And… nothing. My stint in the city sped quickly by. On the fifth day, before I departed for camp, I left him this message: Ad, I’m sorry our communication failed. I want to see you! I think our best option is to plan on meeting 3 July. Maybe you can fly to Antalya on 2 July and stay the night somewhere in the city close to the airport. Then I will arrange to meet you in the morning before my flight takes me back to America at 5 pm. I cringed at that small window of time to share with him and considering all the variables (neither of us would have phones; neither spoke Turkish; neither knew the city nor anyone therein) made me sweat. But this Plan C was the only other option I could think of.
Penthouse living in Antalya proper (the City)
A rooftop view of an open air market in Antalya

The Mediterranean


The Old City
At the end of those first five days as I drove into the countryside Admon’s silence felt heavier than the Tailor's SUV when the trunk (or “boot,” as these Brits so delightfully called it) was filled with 5-gallon Culligan jugs. Culligans, I remembered, the water that sustained our lives in the desert, like Admon's friendship has sustained me over the past year. That weight pressed in upon me even as the excitement of camp activities commenced.
Camp life in the Antalya countryside



I was sure that my plan was not a viable one and I began to mourn my opportunity to see Admon a final time. Then a few days into my work a friend gave me another idea: have Admon come to camp! I was busy working from sunrise to sunset, but I did have four hours of “free” time most afternoons. He couldn’t hang out at the campsite, but I could go to him if he stayed in a nearby pansiyon (hotel) and we could hike, swim, and hang out together. Timidly, I asked my boss for permission and it was hesitantly granted. On my second Tuesday of camp, I frantically messaged this plan to Ad. I waited.
Days were busy for me, but not too busy to forget Admon. On nights when I had access to the Internet, I checked for his response. A week passed in this silence. I began to make up all kinds of explanations for his non-communicativeness. Perhaps the nature of his exciting new experiences in Istanbul married with the laissez-faire influence of his home culture prevented him from viewing the situation with the same sense of urgency with which I viewed it. Or perhaps our friendship wasn’t as close as I’d thought and his parting words “I’ll see you in Turkey” were a ruse. Or worse, what if he had forgotten me? What was going on with him? I waited, impatient, until my impatience bled out and gave life to hopelessness.
Now, two weeks have passed since my arrival in Turkey. Our first full week of camp completed, it is Friday evening. The camp is asleep and I should be too. But Admon keeps me awake. I am wondering about him, wondering why his silence remains his only response to my inquiries. Camp has been full of activity, new people, outdoor adventures, and refreshing, renewed freedom unlike I ever enjoyed in Iraq. (The sun is allowed to see my skin! And I go running alone in the mornings! And I’m allowed to be publically friendly with men! These and other forgotten pleasures multiply infinitely!!) I could give in to the pure exhaustion of the day and sleep, but as I lay on my bunk a single, nagging desire stimulates my eyes wide open. Sleepless, I’m staring into the darkness.
I am desperate to see Admon. Here in Turkey, I am both literally and metaphysically in-between worlds: Turkey, the geographical and historical meeting point of East with West, is a bridge between the Home I had long labored for- yet could never lay hold of- in Iraq and the fearful uncertainty of what a new life back in America will look like for me. Admon represents tangibly what was for me the best of my old life- my Iraq life- and scared about my future, I’ve not yet fully surrendered these feelings. In this transitional place, I feel frantic to be with him, to put my arms around him -as I was never allowed to do in Iraq- and part from him with his knowing how important he is and how deep the grief of separation will lodge in me.
In my desperation, I cry out to God. Please! I want to see and say goodbye to my friend. I want to see him, really see him, apart from the rules and restrictions and regulations of our lives in the Middle East… Although three other sleeping girls share the cabin with me, the emotion is so strong that these words escape audibly, forcefully, from my lips. They drift into a silence that hangs inconsolably above my white sheets. My bunk is a loft and a high ceiling catches parts of my prayer. Wooden walls absorb the rest. Does God hear?
Prayer brings me no relief. As I lie sleepless in the darkness of my bunk, I sense a heaviness in my body not from fatigue. I trace it. The heaviness tells me that I don't expect a favorable reply; I believe my petition is empty. I actually have no hope of seeing Admon. Ever again. In seven days, I will leave this city, this country, this continent, possibly forever. I’m kicking in my dark loneliness against all the odds that separate us: the miles, communication barriers, the cultural expectations, and restrictions. My grief multiplies as I consider how, when I return to America at the month’s end, each one of these variables will themselves increase: 500 miles will become 9,000, social media will be our only communication forum, and I will perhaps never get to experience a slice of life with my friend free of the suffocating restrictions. Mine is a despair driving me mad. Why am I convinced God's answer will be “No”? Why do I believe I’ll never again see my friend?
Too upset to entertain answers to my questions, my thinking dissolves into memories of Iraq, turning away from my problems and fears onto Admon himself. I begin to remind myself of the man he is and why we are such good friends as my hands fumble to deconstruct, stone by stone, this tower of despair in which my grief holds me hostage.
_____________________________________________________________

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

A Sacramento Night in Fishers

The idea for this Story occurred during a nighttime November trip to Target. I wrote it to encourage readers to consider the “terrain” of their inner lives and what tools might be needed to reshape the visceral lands when once those lands become unhospitable. Written a genre the likes of which the writer has never before attempted, let the reader be gentle in his/her critique....


Sometimes Reality assaults in unforeseen places and at unforeseen times. When her invitation is to live freer it always comes at a cost: the path to liberation requires a multi-pronged approach that acknowledges the complexities of human nature. But I’m not thinking of Reality nor of freedom as I guide my car into the compact space in the Target parking lot on this November night. I’m musing on how it’s a Sacramento night tonight in Fishers, Indiana. As I step out of my car, my grey sweater hugs my hips above my jeans. My mind itemizes the wardrobe I wear: Tattered jeans. Mini-sweater. Blue Trader Joe’s tee. Haiti medallion necklace. Rubber-soled running shoes.

Closing the car door, my hands find their pockets. The sweater hugs all of me and, familiar to its camouflage, I hide beneath it. I hide from cold and from eyes which threaten. My second skin, this sweater. The jeans, the sweater, my Haiti medallion necklace, a blue Trader Joe’s tee, and the cool, damp weather evoke a sad happiness. I’m dressed exactly as I was after a shift at my Sacramento Trader Joe’s. Its black night, and alone in a public parking lot these many variables meet together for the first time in more than a year.

I remember Sacramento happiness. Black parking lots after closing shifts. Three jobs and living in my car, sleeping at my aunt’s. Adventuring alone in the foreign city at a break-neck pace. Exhaustion: deep-down fatigue I could not shake.

And I loved it. Even the parts that I hated were precious to me. Even the grief was wrapped in Welcome. Even the emotional chaos was an accepted Lover. Even the confused din of future decisions curled me into a hopeful smile. Because I wanted it, wanted Sacramento. It was my choice to be there and I accepted her in total.

It’s a Sacramento night tonight in Fishers. But Target’s damp blacktop tells me another story. The rain residue that meets my nose reminds me that in Sacramento there is no rain. Here, the rain is sweet, the November night unseasonably warm. The sweetness, the warmth surprises me. I’m lingering outside my car, hands now on the roof.

Gazing past the parking lot I quietly surrender to memory’s calm seduction. Like a cat kneading, my mind massages the memories with solemn silence. Memory becomes a harbinger to a low-grade grief. I might stand longer in this grief and watch it grow except for a violent interruption. Unexpectedly, a specter called Rationality pulses fast through my body, toes to head. She escapes out of me, taking on her own stately, intentional form. Her arrival and presence freak me out. We face off. wordless. I study her.

Rationality is willowy, her expression stern, aloof somehow. All her features except her diaphanous skin are dark: dark green eyes, thick, black hair. Her presence is commanding and nearly offensive. She steps forward and slowly, deliberate, Rationality grips my hands (or do I clutch hers?), elevating my arms above my head. My feet lift off the ground. She suspends me high above this soggy night, black Target parking lot. Higher, higher. My legs are swinging and I begin to see a division between fields far below: This isn’t Fishers anymore. This is my life at 30,000 feet.

At this height, and in this cold, all my senses are activated, acute. Rationality suspends me here to survey for a moment. Blood pools and my feet throb but I’m transfixed on the scene below. I see a gradient of grey-browns and greens that, like a color-wheel unwound, spread east to west. A map! I actually see words identifying the map's two regions: to the east is What Now Is; falling with the westward slope is What Will Be.

I twist and peer over my right shoulder to view the most easterly part of What Now Is. It resembles a June 7th Normandy: cement buildings look bombed out; there are no trees, blackened stubs only. But the pervasive impression is made by the unhappy mud. It colors everything (surprisingly) not in brown, but in grey.  

A tiny canvas tent stands familiar in the mud terrain: it’s what I know, my own hovel home. I startle at the sight of it but continue scanning.

The mud carries on for a long distance as it descends past my tent, surrendering slowly to fledgling grass, apprehensive grass, yellowish grass that is as yet too timid to know whether it shall live or die. From the north an almost cheerful creek quietly cuts What Now Is; here begins a visible distinction between east and west: on the western banks under the branches of three delicate poplars  healthy flora flourishes. A green carpet spreads rapidly westward towards a modest congregation of young trees. Miles away the land, still gently descending and growing more brazenly verdant, becomes a forest. Thick, it appears impassable in places and strays into the western territory marked What Will Be.

The horizon stretches too far westward for my human-girl eyes to discern the distinct details of What Will Be and Rationality prevents any further exploration. Beneath her I remain suspended, fixed, above this single spot. I turn to look eastward again. I’ve seen all I can.

I realize that my hostess’s hands are neither warm nor cold. My lungs suck in air but I will not sigh. I exhale hard and in slow motion extend each finger, palms open, and crash down onto the earth below me. I rise and stand once again beside my car. It takes me a minute to “come to” but once I do my mind flashes back to that eastern mud region I observed and to the muddied tent. I meditate. I’ve now seen the whole extent of What Now Is, my homeland, yet I’ve dug out a life in the lonely mud region. For the first time I see my home in contrast to more favorable lands. Do I love the greyscale terrain? the pit in which I shuffle? Can I defect, change zip codes, build a homestead west of the creek? Can Rationality neatly deposit me on the Other side?

Rationality, as if summoned, alights. Freedom flashes wild through my veins, a virulent burst of craving.

I look up questioningly into my Maybe-Rescuer’s eyes. She has heard my thoughts. Her response is deliberate but gentle: Rationality alone cannot repatriate me to the beautiful western region of What Now Is. It is not within her jurisdiction, solely.

Rationality leaves me alone but I sense her lingering presence. I’ll need it for decisions ahead.

_______________________________________________________________________

Hands re-pocketed in the grey sweater, I’m walking into Super Target, the fractured Indiana night reflected from blacktop’s rain-mirrors. I inhale the rubber and rain. With each step I ponder the way forward.

This 30,000 foot survey of my life exposes incongruities within myself. I live in Fishers, IN, the land of What Now Is, but chose to make camp in its mud region. –Why? I begin to remember. When I moved back into town three months ago from Where I Wanted to Be and made a brief assessment of the land my realtor, Desire, pointed out how this region was, geographically, closest to that former land. If I pitched my temporary tent, Self-Assertion, here I could live closest to my happy memories of Where I Wanted to Be. Also: the mud region had been only recently annexed by What Now Is and by living here I could avoid the uncomfortable baptism of crossing Acceptance Creek and thereby avoid paying taxes for (and enjoying the benefits of, she failed to mention) residency in the western region. And, Desire assured me, “The elevation here is highest” (surprisingly, though it is water-saturated, she is correct), although, I later discovered, there is no view.

So I signed my lease. I pitched my tent. I never surveyed the other side of the creek.

Target’s automatic doors invite my approach. It’s late on a week night and my entrance is noticed only by these doors and by Target’s enveloping white lights. The lights pierce me from every angle but cannot penetrate past my protective grey sweater. The lights, seeing and enshrouding me yet unable to read below my skin, parallel my own vision; I’ve seen high-level truth but cannot as yet distinguish its on-the-ground applications. Instinctively, I wander red aisles.

I signed a lease. But now that I’ve seen Now’s green lavish land west of my mud pit I MUST move. –Can I take up residence in the good land, break my lease? Can I ford Acceptance Creek with tent in hand, pitch it in new, greener, real estate? There are no bridges across, I recall. I shiver to think of swimming November creeks in Indiana and with a load on my back. No; Self-Assertion, my tent home, cannot cross the Creek with me. I discard the thought as I scan the greeting card rack.

But the Need is deeper than crossing a creek. It’s more comprehensive than geography. It is really not about changing my address. It really is about Desire, my realtor. She is how I make my decisions. When I’m honest, I don’t want this land of What Now Is, any of it. I don’t want Acceptance Creek, or the green grass carpet, or the young trees. I don’t want the thick forest. I don’t want Fishers, Indiana! If I had cared for any of it I would have explored the neighborhood more, made more friends. Lights see me, and now I’m seeing deeper:

The mud is my rebellion. It is my carefully disguised two-year-old’s tantrum railing against What Now Is. I see a child’s stubbornness bleeding out from my dumb choice of real estate: 'I’ll live closest to Where I Wanted to Be. I’ll endure discomfort to camp in the temporary Self-Assertion tent. I’ll fight cold, and wet, grey, and mud. I’ll make friends with Isolation and make love to Autonomy. I’ll prove my point.' Because I crave the power to choose. Like I chose Sacramento.
I meander around the women’s athletic gear section, unraveling my soul’s discord.

-Do I stay or do I move? I’m replaying the tape of my life these last three months in my foster home, seeing for the first time my chronic discontent for what it is: Desire deceived me. She played upon my wants when she pitched the deal to me. It seemed smart to erect my impermanent tent in the mud since I was no longer free to live in Where I Wanted to Be nor to have any permanent home in What I Want. In this decision I was standing up for myself, asserting my will where I was unable to assert it in other ways. But following this puerile resistance strategy, I fell into Desire’s trap. My home, my community is a dump. I remember now that Autonomy is my Lover and a kid named Dissatisfaction follows me close, calling me ‘Mama.’

Down the hairspray aisle, I’m choking with this panic. -I must get out of here! to the Good Land! Leave these life-sucking characters behind! I draw up a hasty escape plan, recruiting Rationality’s powers: I can choose to want Fishers now. A simple decision, ‘Be Happy with What you Have.’ Cross the Creek immediately, leave it all behind on the other side. Freedom!

I can feel the pull of my soul towards this Freedom, magnetic, instinctive, lusty. I’m poised to dive, swim, escape. But a thick tether, my memory, restrains me. And honesty rebukes me. I flush red with grief. Really, I don’t want Fishers, Indiana. Saying that I do cannot activate a switch in my head that turns on happiness. I recount the times past that I’ve dutifully recruited the power of positive thinking as my Army escort on my Marches for the Good Land, Satisfaction. It’s a paper army. “Victories” feel cheap and, overall, the campaigns fail because the soldiers are not reinforced with holistic reality.

          The woman behind the checkout aisle smiles at me from under her hijab. Her skin is richly dark against her red Target shirt, her smile cautious. We exchange remarks, I pay. Grasping my bags I reenter the dark and outside chill.

I’m driving now but imagine myself standing along Acceptance Creek’s shore. -What is comprehensively true? I repeat, What is Holistic reality? I ponder, toes shyly exploring the Creek's shoreline. I look up.

Unseen from my previous height, I now spot a modest gathering of young trees on my muddy side of the creek. Trees are friendly creatures and I approach them, subjecting my duress temporarily to curiosity. The trees are conferencing, and shiver at my approach. But at my hesitation, they wave their branches, extending to me their Welcome. I step. Standing among them I feel their gentle strength. Both hands reach. I steady myself on their starchy smooth, slender trunks and surrender to their secret.

But my hands, stroking, sliding, are surprised. I touch words. Branded on these young trees are words, one word dug deep into each trunk. My fingers trace, and my heart memorizes their odd assembly: Emotion, Will, Fear, Past, and Community. -What can these words mean?

The trees stir under my touch, excited. I draw back, their secret pregnant amongst themselves yet to me still intangible. They will not speak to me but I believe I may be closer to my question about holistic reality and how to reach The Good Land. Looking back at the creek, I move towards home, grey sweater shielding me from a gentle rain.

_______________________________________________________________________

This Target trip has been. Weird.

I burrow into my soul to examine thoughts as I make my way home. -Am I... melancholy? ...cautiously hopeful? ...guilty or acquitted? ...nearer freedom or an eternal hostage? I feel the old grief wash over me, gentle. I arrive home. Autonomy, my roommate-turned boyfriend-turned Lover, greets me at the door. Disinterested, I refuse his kisses. He argues against my aloofness and as empty words fall from his lips I stare. I survey him, see him perhaps for the first time. He looks unhealthy. Tonight we sleep apart, although my night is spent sleepless. The child Dissatisfaction nests under our sheets. But it looks somehow diminished, smaller than I remember it.

My whole existence is in question. I’ve been asleep until now to how deep the depression assails me. But now the child Dissatisfaction touches me in its tangible form, kicks its tiny legs against my back, and I am awake. Now I know how I got here. And why. I feel Autonomy’s proximity, hear his breath on the other side of my bed. I smell the rain sliding off the roof of my tent.

And I remember Desire and here is where I am stuck: When I am honest with myself about this sojourning home, What I Want, I feel trapped. The four canvas walls, the roof, the essence of this place represents my own desire. I see that to desire is to be truthful! But living this Truth seems like discontent. Discontent- the seething rebellion. Shame colors me as I remember. My desire betrays me as an insurrectionist, yet it seems to be the realest part of me.

Questions now outnumber answers. Questions repeat themselves. How do I get to the other side of What Now Is? And what shall be my existence there? If ever I do get across the creek, do I sacrifice authenticity? Must I become hollow as my few friends on this side? as unwell as my Lover? Is freedom an exchange: substance for surrender?  I consider the nature of my discontent, of my present state, of my self. Rationality woke me to at least a piece of reality in the parking lot. But I’m more complicated than this one piece alone. The incompleteness, impotence, of Rationality herself leads me towards a deeper truth. In the dark of my mind I grab with both fists and strain strong arms to separate my intimately woven strands of self: What is the “stuff” I’m made of?

I toss and Autonomy moans from his space but the child sleeps quiet. I rise to the edge of my bed, Give me peace. Let them both sleep. I finger the bed table, rubbing my hand instinctively against the wood. The texture reminds my fingers of trees, of words. Trees by the Creek! Words on their trunks! The separate pieces of their secret are joining together in a palpable answer. I start. What were those words? In the dark, they return to me.

Suddenly, I know what to do. My body flashes hot with emotion. Joy, perhaps? I slightly unzip the grey sweater, which has not left my skin. From the edge of my bed I jump, race to the other side and flat-palmed, rouse Autonomy, “I’m leaving, get up. You need to go. I’m taking the tent.” He does not wake, but mumbles. I persist, shaking him harder, “Get up. I’m breaking up with you. Take your things. I’m leaving.” Autonomy slowly comes to. Instinctively he wraps his hand strong around my arm, draws me. But I’ve practiced self-defense moves through watching YouTube tutorials and, angry, I break his grip, push away from him repeating, “You need to go. I’m leaving you.”

Now Autonomy sits up, gaining cognizance. I’m moving about the tent, excitedly throwing a few things into my yellow Nike backpack. He looks at me as I say, my voice trying to be brave, “Autonomy, I can’t be with you anymore. I” - choking, “I never meant for this to happen. We’re breaking up. I’m taking the tent. Well, not all of it. I just need the center pole.”

He is staring at me, his waking eyes mocking my quick movements, his face telling me what a fool I am, his body poised to assault me. Four words slip out of his scornful lips, “What about the kid?”

I laugh, a relieved explosion of realization, “That kid? Dissatisfaction? It’s not mine! You take it! Both of you- OUT!” And I am out. I unzip the door, push past the flap, reach up and seize the pole that holds up our roof. Fingering under the canvas enclosure, I’m sliding it out, pulling it away from the rest of the tent. As I pull, the tent slowly collapses in, my former “roommates” struggling underneath. They will be alright, but I will not if he gets his arms around me.

Like an Olympic pole vaulter –perhaps with more focus and resolve- backpack on and grasping my tent pole, I’m running towards Acceptance Creek. I reach the young trees and there throw down the pole, fumble for my pocket knife. I’m kneeling and the cold mud soaks through my jeans. I grasp each tree and saw frantically through five slender trunks. As I work I ponder each word and think:

Emotion. I am a creature outfitted with emotion.

Will. I have freedom to assert my own will.

Fear. Fear can rightly inform my will or wrongly cripple my emotions.

Past. I am not a blank slate; I am influenced by past experiences.

Community. I have the acutely human need for healthy community.

I bind these five trunks and their five words around my tent pole, Desire, thinking, To be wholly authentic, I must acknowledge desire.

Binding this unlikely assortment together with the three Target bags from tonight’s trip I realize THIS is holistic reality!
-I hope they hold.

Night’s darkness is surrendering to dawn. The rain clouds have dispersed and behind me I feel sun’s warmth rising, begin to vaguely see the other side of the creek. I mentally size up my makeshift “bridge” against the perceived distance across. Yes, I think it’s the right length and I heave the long end. It reaches the other side!

I’m on hands and knees. I crawl careful. EACH TRUTH IS A PLANK ACROSS THE CREEK bearing me to the other side. I’m moving into new real estate, into the unknown.
I remember how I got here and the planks that bear me across: Rationality woke me to my rebellion and my hovel existence, gave me a preview of the Good Land. Here, her work stopped short. I had to discover that I am a creature outfitted with emotions, desire, fears, and a will; I carry baggage; I have the acutely human need for community. Somehow, in my new home, I will learn how these complexities work together.

I will learn that in order to wage an effective campaign on Dissatisfaction, I’ll need to activate all aspects of me. I can’t just engage my rational brain, expect it to take over. This is not a single-front war, although I’d prefer it to be. Living fully on the verdant side of What Now Is will require a complex strategy that engages rationality and my will, gives credence to my emotions, and recruits the help of others.

On hands and knees I arrive on Acceptance Creek's western shore. Standing, bending, I grasp my bridge and drag it fully over, cutting my ties to the mud land from which I came. Freedom.

Hugged by my sweater, I sit and gaze on the November sun rising hopeful above what I have left behind. I breathe in cool freedom air.

One question remains with me:

-Can Desire fuse with Surrender?