The Vietnamese Student Association held an all you can eat Pho night! Normally, I wouldn’t go to a VSA event since I am not connected to the organization at all, but since Pho is one of my favorite foods EVER and since one of my roommates is Vietnamese, I got talked into going. I really enjoyed the event! All the students involved in this event were super friendly and talkative; several people sat down with us to ask us if we had ever done something with VSA before. Even though that region of the world is not what I have focused my studies on, I think that I will keep an eye out for VSA events in the future. I hope that no matter where I end up living, I will have access to Vietnamese food. And if not, then maybe it’s time I learned how to make it!
The Latin Dance Ball was my second international event of the semester. This one was a bit odd for me as the last time I had done social dancing was in Ecuador. In Ecuador, they most dance Cubano salsa, which is quite different from New York like they do here. I was really stressed the whole time because I had forgotten protocol for American social dances! One thing that was really disappointing was that they played music that was popular years ago in Latin countries and had only just arrived to United States pop culture. Overall, I had a very enjoyable time just by default of latin dancing, but the event as a whole really through me for a loop and brought me back to one of those “why-did-i-even-come-back-?” phases. Thankfully, it also reminded me of the amazing memories I had made abroad, so I was able to smile because of that. I hope that by the next salsa ball I am better adjusted to Latino culture in the context of the United States and will be able to enjoy the event more.
It is 2:00 AM and I am sitting in a metal can being jet propelled through the sky thousands of feet above the ground and I cannot sleep. All the lights are off and all the headphones are in and hundreds of people are developing neck problems that will manifest themselves 15 years from now when they can no longer sleep on their left side, and I cannot sleep. My contacts are out and I’m listening to an obscure collection of “relaxation songs” and I am wrapped in the blanket that smells of the home I just left behind and I cannot sleep.
How does one trade everything that they know and love for one small piece of paper that holds information such as “Departure Gate” and “Seat Number”? I wish I could tell you how seeing as I just did it myself, but my words currently taste like room temperature milk when I have been fresh squeezed juice for a while now.
I have never been phenomenal at goodbyes. A few of my Ecuadorean friends even figured that out this last month and have been giving me grief about the excellence with which I can slip away unnoticed from an interaction without so much as a kiss on the cheek. Perhaps it is because I have a fear of being alone, or perhaps because I enjoy being a mystery, or perhaps because I am afraid of death. There are a lot of perhaps’ you could attach to this quirk of mine but no matter what perhaps you assign it, I still had to face myself and learn how to say goodbye to a lot of things and a lot of people when I left this country just hours ago.
I’ve been on the verge of tears for nearly a week now, slowly realizing that no matter how globalized this world becomes, continents are still continents and I will still not be able to teleport. That means that my goodbye’s here have all been followed with a probable lie when I say “I’ll see you soon”. I went for a walk around Quito and whispered to the blackened ugly streets “I’ll see you soon” and Quito spat pollution and a beautiful sunset back at me saying “I doubt it” and I knew that she was true in her conviction. My darling Quito, may your doubt challenge me to prove you wrong.
Goodbye is one of those words that should be stripped of its entire honor and thrown in to the prison cell of never-should-have-happened’s and experiences-too-painful-to-put-words-to’s. It should be locked up and put on death row and injected with a serum that makes the world smaller or flights cheaper or makes it so I only fall for friends who live within 7 hours of me by car. Goodbye is so hard to swallow I wonder if the man who invented the word thought he was being clever when he put the word “good” in it. Someone should have smacked him.
I suppose I started saying goodbye a long time before it happened in the way I made excuses to stay away from my house and in the ways I tried to tell my friends that I love them. But when it came down to it, I was still trying to swallow waves when the moon just grew bigger and bigger, pulling them out of my throat. It’s even harder when you know how to say goodbye in two languages.
Now I am in a home with an infected ear piercing and the irony is not lost on me that it was fine until I showered in the States. And they told us to be wary of the water there. I’ve got songs I’m playing on repeat and I’ve got lists of things I want to tell you about my life here because I feel as if you’re the only one who will understand and I made fried bananas this morning. But these songs do not answer any questions and I’m the one that left and my bananas ended up looking like black poker chips and I’m glad to be home.
I’ve received so many messages from so many extranjeros that were with me and they all say the same thing. They say, “I miss you. I miss it. Everything is wrong. I’m so glad to be home.” This semester turned us into people who have realized just how wrong it is to lock young people up in classrooms with bare walls and tell them to read until they know and to fill in the right bubble and run the right equation. That is not how you learn, that is not how we learned. I did not learn how to say goodbye by reading books about it. I learned by having people become to precious to skip the one last hug. I learned by understanding that distance does matter and that memory fades and that time does not respect anyone just because they are young.
Ecuador was an unexpected shaking of the tectonic plates of our hearts. It was learning how to live and learning how to love and learning how to forgive ourselves and those to come. This semester will fade, quickly, but there will be days when we hear a song or smell food in the street and we will be sucked right back to day one. I will be cold and lonely for quite a few nights before I come to peace again with the instability of this world. Even though saying goodbye is a lesson that hurts to learn, I am so glad that my life is a life so full it constitutes learning it over and over again. Ecuador: do not let them tame you; do not let your heart beat slow. We ran up so many mountains, some physical, most not, and at the end of it all, we are still just trying to catch our breath.
A cumulative list of all the things we will forever bear on our Quiteñen hearts as we venture away from the lovely and charming trash compactor called Quito. Quito, may you forever remain the soap opera we call home.
- The three words that will ruin anyone’s day: Departing from Quitumbe
- Just as white men fetishize women of color, Ecuadorean men fetishize white women.
- It is in fact possible to survive on meals that cost $3.25 or less but doing this 100% of the time will result in a perpetual state of subtle hunger, malnutrition, and fatigue (Almuerzo? More like Almuerz-letz-GO).
- If you didn’t cry in Bungalow, did you really go to Bungalow?
- It’s pronounced ah-HEE, not AH-hee.
- The taste of street food is absolutely, undoubtedly, 100% worth the possible destruction that will take place in the bathroom merely hours later.
- If you don’t know a word in Spanish, just say it in a Spanish accent and someone will probably understand you.
- You know you’ve made it when the taxi driver asks you for directions.
- The whole “don’t drink the tap water” thing is more of a guideline than a rule.
- The whole “don’t be in parks at night” is NOT a guideline; it is a rule that should be strictly followed.
- If you’re doing well in a class it’s because the professor takes pity on your crappy Spanish skills because you’re a gringo. If you’re doing poorly in a class it’s because the professor is biased against you because you’re a gringo even though you speak perfect Spanish.
- Let’s play a game. It’s called “Fireworks, Car Backfiring, or Gunshot?”
- We are all royally screwed in our Spanish courses back in the States due to the fact that Ecuador taught us to use “le” in place of literally any direct or indirect object pronoun.
- We all “hate” reggaeton but will probably cry at our first club back in the States when we don’t hear “La Bicicleta” and “Shaky Shaky” four times in one night.
- When you’re ten minutes into Salsa and chill and he says “Kentucky”.
- Habas habas habitas habas habas habitas habas habas habitas habas, etc.
- We will undoubtedly be yelling “FONDO” at any given point this next semester and nobody will have any idea what we mean.
- Word most used of Fall 2016: Perdón.
- ALWAYS bring the topographical maps.
- If you’re about to do something social frowned upon or possibly illegal, just yell “intercambio” and you’ll probably get away with it.
- The guaranteed 45-minute bus ride to and from school everyday is actually very pleasant and serene.
- You know it’s going to be a good day when you can see all of Cotopaxi.
- The Mitad del Mundo Monument isn’t actually on the mitad del mundo AKA all of Ecuador is a lie (Curse you, France!)
- Do NOT by any means or for any reason eat frejol con tocino.
- Sometimes the bus route changes and sometimes they don’t tell you and sometimes you end up missing class because you were wandering lost around Quito for over an hour trying to figure out where your bus went.
- If your host mom gives you propoleo, do NOT let her put it in your mouth.
- Sometimes Quito really nails the street art thing.
- Sometimes Quito really sucks at the street art thing.
- Let’s play another game. It’s called “How many alpaca sweaters can I buy before I turn into an alpaca myself?”
- Every Ecuadorean ever: ¿Para quien votaste, Trump o Hillary?
- They most likely sprinkle a tiny bit of cocaine into the batter of the baked goods in the foyer at school.
- Fool proof way to attract a herd of gringos: open a bag of chifles.
- “Hablas español?” “Sí” *proceeds in english*
- When your friend asks if you’re going to Bungalow tonight: “Si te vas, yo también me voy…”
This past weekend we finally did it: we finally hiked the glacier called Cayambe. Sitting at 5,790m at the peak, Cayambe had been our goal and our fear for the month and a half leading up to the actual summiting. It was me, three other Americans, a Brit, a French, and three guides – one of which spent a decent amount of time smoking at our base camp. We were crampon wearing adventurers with more layers of clothes than your average onion and visions of shooting stars falling like avalanches out of our eyes as we stood laughing into the foggy void the afternoon before the big hike.
Within an hour of arriving at the lake where we were camping, the sky opened up and so did my smile as ice began pouring from the sky and for the first time in my semester in Ecuador I began to feel that pale could too be beautiful. We rushed to set up our tent and I scooped handfuls of hail into my mouth, remembering what it was to be young and undamaged and content to shiver in a cave made of snow in the backyard. You do not have to be young to know that water tastes better frozen. As we piled into the tent, throwing sleeping bags and thermal rests all around, I realized that in less than a month, the people who make me laugh would be spread around the world and I will wonder if I made the right decision in choosing not to stay. Our jokes are inappropriate and immature but they are ours, and even if I am the butt of a lot of them, the people who make them make sure that they are the only ones who get to laugh at me. I think that looks a lot like love.
That night, as we lay in a row like sardines left in the freezer aisle, my friends on either sides of me wrapped their sleeping bag feet around mine and drifted into restless slumber. I, being me, found that the largeness of Cayambe and the insecurities of my heart did not permit me to sleep and I lay awake, my feet becoming numb but warm beneath the watchful gaze of my friends’, staring at the tent ceiling, wandering if any of the words I had prayed to that mountain earlier meant anything, wondering if these people I was with thought that I meant anything.
Eventually I rolled over and came face to face with Gabe and instead of hearing the babbling brook of his sleeping respiration that we all know so well, I heard him giggle and ask the question “Are you asleep?”
“No, you?” I replied.
“No.” He said.
We proceeded to fall into the kind of laughter and conversation that I thought died out in middle school when we all started trying to hide our weird and in that moment I was truly happy. We talked about the things we’ve climbed and the things we had to leave at the bottom to get to where we were. I told him about why I speak to the earth and he told me about why he wants to leave and neither of us felt ashamed for having fears. About an hour into our accidental slumber party, the earth beneath us cut our voices off as it groaned and shook itself awake. It was quick and it was subtle but it was seismic enough to make us stop and stare at one another, both wondering how fast it would take the glacier to break into pieces and preserve us in a tomb called earth forever. I was already shaking from fear of the hike but the fact that Cayambe might not want us there took it up a notch. Gabe has been around enough to know when my infrastructure is cracking so he pulled one hand out of his sleeping bag and gripped mine and I told him about what I had prayed to Cayambe that afternoon.
I have a habit, neither good nor bad, of believing that the spirits inside of this earth are not dormant or forgiving creatures. Before I hike or walk or swim, I make sure to reach out to whatever God had in mind when He placed each part of this sanctuary and speak to the skin of the earth that I stand upon. That afternoon, I went to go ask permission to summit Cayambe. It was slightly hailing and I sat on a rock ledge and closed my eyes and placed my hands on the ground. I whispered to both God and His creation in hopes that at least one or the other would hear me. I whispered to Cayambe and told him that I saw him and I respected him and I was a child of his maker. I told him that he was unconquerable and that everything we did was an attempt to witness the power of the mother earth, not to believe that we were greater than her and all her children. I told him that he was a king and that people find warmth in the freezing and that I understood what it meant for people to take weekend trips into my soul. I asked him for permission to summit, without any problems. I asked that he permit us to tread upon his body and that we make it out alive. And I asked him that if he didn’t want us there, that he would give us a sign before we even started so as not to risk injury. And I told God that His creation was beautiful and that I didn’t necessarily agree that creating man had been good and that I saw His fingerprints in the crags that we jumped across on our way up.
When that temblor rippled through our campsite, I thought it was Cayambe responding to my question. I thought it was him telling us to get out, to leave and never return, to let him grow beneath the subzero temperatures instead of shrinking beneath our harmful feet. I thought that this wrinkle on the skin of God’s weathered hands had had enough of our insatiable need to achieve new wonders, to demonstrate our dominion.
Eventually we fell asleep, probably sleeping less than two hours before Andy’s “midnight beach” alarm clock woke us up and we sat shivering with anticipation. And then we were off.
I do not know where I went to get myself up that mountain. I don’t remember what I was thinking. When I go back now, I have brief memories of songs cascading through my brain and words being repeated over and over and over. It was so much a mental battle as it was physical. It was crunchy step after crunchy step, forcibly lifting and planting our feet onto the sloping hills of frozen tears beneath us. I know that I focused on the pattern of my feet and ice axe for a very long time. Right, Axe…Left. Right, Axe…Left. Right, Axe…Left. My left foot dragged behind, my muscles begging me to sit down and stop. We had no time, we had no direction, our guides knew where we were going but us kids? It was all just a uniform shuffle into the eternity of the milky way, hoping that sooner or later we would see the sun. When we stopped, the cold began to eat at our bones, and though I shook like the rest of them, my eyes were glazed over as I thought of the self-created memories of my ancestors building homes out of the fjords of Norway. I want to believe that they would have been proud, that they wouldn’t have blacked me out of the family registry.
About 45 minutes from the top there came a fissure, a fissure not as wide as I remember but certainly the most looming part of the hike. My guide stood twenty feet in front of me with the rope pulled tight and I stood staring down the crack seeing tragic headlines from back home with my name and the words “crushed between glacier walls almost as cold as her dead, icy heart”. I realized then that the bad spirits I so often hike to leave behind, had been clawing at my ankles all the way up that mountain. My breath was stuck and tears welled and I pointed my headlight down as far as I could see knowing that if I jumped across this fissure, I would certainly die, dragging the rest of my team with me. I called out to my guide and he responded with “you have to keep moving” a phrase, had it come from Jakobo or Gabe would have gotten me across, but from this stranger seemed to paralyze me even more. I began counting down in my head from three, hoping that sooner or later, getting to one one would push me over instead of getting caught in my throat. And then I heard the sweet voice of Clementina from behind me calling “it’s okay, Hannah, you can do anything in the world” and I got to one and I jumped.
Okay I more of flopped.
I swung my axe out and into the ground as hard as possible and jammed my crampons into the ice. And I did not fall in the crack or down the mountain. When we reached a resting place completely exposed to the elements about twenty minutes after, we were almost to the top. I still had not found my breath but the near complete lack of oxygen made it so everyone else was also gasping and nobody had to know that there was a little blue monster with red wings and completely black eyes clinging onto my back with his hands around my neck. We sat and shivered for what seemed forever and Gabe told us he was going to take a nap. I thought that if I fell asleep right now, I would never wake up again.
They said we had to keep moving and left the answer to “or what else?” floating unspoken in the thin air between us. We were about 20 minutes from the top but the second I stood up I was taken back to the hospital two weeks earlier when the world had faded away from me and the floor had fallen out from under my feet. I gasped and I tried to move forward, my feet tripping over themselves and I told our guide that something was wrong. He said we were so close and Gabe told me we were so close and I kept moving even though I felt as if someone was pulling my own soul right out from between my frost bitten fingertips. I kept moving, so slowly, probably pissing of the fiercesome Clementina behind me, but I kept moving.
And then we made it to the top.
We were the tallest things we could see. There was nowhere else to go. As someone who has made herself smaller for years in order to accommodate for others’ comfort, I have never felt that big in my life and I wonder if I ever will again. I was so close to crying but I had to convince myself not to in order to not glue my own eyes shut. Gabe and his eyes that do not see himself grabbed me and kissed me on the forehead, a gesture filled with pride and protectiveness and understanding. Clementina and I high fived, knowing that we held the lead on the front for more than half the climb, knowing that the only difference between all girls teams and all boys teams is that the girls look better no matter what they do. Julia and I hugged, sharing a silent moment of “thought we would die but glad we didn’t”. Jakobo and I hugged and I felt the strength of his unbending positive spirit flood into mine and chase that blue skinned beast off my back. Andy and I hugged, tight, and I marveled at how he trusted my friendship enough to let himself be put in dangerous situation after dangerous situation and still come back at the end of the day. And when I saw the way their eyes refused to blink in case they missed it all, I forgot about every second of the hike up.
We took some photos and I stood gazing around and I knew that this was the only fix I would ever need. I would risk my life to court the spirit called Nature any day of my life.
The way back down was a blur of wishing to turn to a statue of ice at the top, blessed forever to be standing surrounded by those I have chosen to let in, gazing out across this beautiful country forever.
Letting myself love these people will surely leave me flatlined on the bathroom floor when I return home. Letting myself love these people will surely leave me wanting. Letting myself love these people will surely leave me with regret and confusion and eyes that are looking continents away. These people I have fallen for will leave me.
I don’t know how I am to go home and peer outside and see the flat plains of the Midwest and convince myself that they were ever enough. I will not have Gabe’s hand to hold next time. I will not have Andy there to laugh at our inside jokes. I will not have Clementina to remind me it is good to be photographed. I will not have Jakobo to make sure I am in the right place at the right time with a smile on my face. I will not have Julia to gossip with of the throes of mankind.
Perhaps this loss will ricochet through my ribcage and stop my heart from beating, but chances are I will only feel as if it is but still will remain alive. Because loving these things – the stars, the mountains, the ice, the people, the laughter, the tears, the solidarity – in the end it will not kill us, it will only leave us wishing that it had.
(This post is unedited on purpose. Spelling and grammar errors are meant to show the distraction that I feel right now. I needed to write so I wrote and maybe it is not enough but it’s a start to keeping my breath steady and deep.)
I don’t know who reads these things, I don’t know where you’ve been, the things you’ve seen, the paths you’ve walked, the things you’ve lost along the way. But, if you have ever been mugged, I want you to know that we officially have one more thing to talk about over coffee.
That’s right, mugged.
Thankfully, I wasn’t beat up in a back alley or anything like that. I wasn’t physically harmed in any way. I like to think that was God’s doing. For all I know, the man who pulled a knife on me could have been looking for someone to harm but chose not to for no discernable reason.
It happened like this:
My friend and I had gone for a late picnic about a mile away from my house. As the sun was setting we packed up our stuff and went for a walk about the park. This park is quite large, several kilometers in circumference, and we walked nearly to the south end, watching the sunset and the food vendors and the yawning babies. We came to a stone staircase with seats at the top and we sat down and continued our conversations about the absurdity of studying abroad, the people we left behind, and things we want to see coming in the future. The sun had set and we stayed, just like everyone tells you not to, we stayed. Maybe it was the fact that we had survived 3 months without any incident, maybe it was that we do not have the time to not keep talking, but we stayed.
As soon as I saw him coming up the staircase, I knew. I knew he was going to assault us and I knew there was nothing we could do about it. The stranger approached us and spoke in (quite good) English “hello, how are you?” and then he pulled out a knife and pointed it at my chest. “Money, money, give me money” he said. I don’t know if we replied in Spanish or English but I tried to tell him I had money in my backpack, I reached for my backpack and he grabbed me and pushed the knife closer “Relax, money.” He moved his knife and held it to the neck of my friend and the fists my hands had been clenched in relaxed, I watched as he kept the knife at his neck, patted both of us down, grabbed our stuff, and sprinted away.
“Do we go after him?” I asked.
“No.” He replied.
And then I finally let go of my breath.
We were strangely calm as we stood up and walked away. When we reached light we both turned and hugged each other in a way that only those who share a traumatic experience can hug. The further we walked the more I had to fight to keep the bad spirits of anxiety away. We found some traffic cops and they called the police for us. We filed a report that we knew would do absolutely nothing and returned to my house where I all but begged my friend not to leave because I was afraid to be left alone.
But now I am alone and all I can do is think about that knife and all the things I have learned of fear and whether or not the man who robbed us has children. And I feel guilty. I feel guilty that I asked my friend to come to the park with me. I feel guilty that he will forever carry the knowledge that he was one swipe of a blade away from bleeding out in a foreign country. I feel guilty that I did not react as soon as I saw him coming. I feel guilty that I was careless. I feel guilty that I am privileged enough to carry around extra cash and an iPhone and do not have to steal from others to survive. I feel guilty that this happened a mile from my house and not during the time when I travelled alone and could have been the only person who had to bear the weight of the polarity of the world.
I am praying for that man and I am praying for myself, that I don’t have nightmares of this event, as my brain tends to do with trauma. I don’t know what I would do if I saw that man again, I don’t know if I would approach him or if I would run. I was going to give him every cent I had but that would not have been enough and that doesn’t make sense to me so I will sit in my room and shake and hope that someday the world is safe enough that humans are no longer categorized into Have’s and Have Not’s.
Please love those around you. Please hold hands with your friends and kiss your mothers on the cheek. And if someone looks like they need help, help them, because sooner or later they may reach a point where they have to help themselves in the only way they know how. Please pray for me and my fear and my heart. Please pray that I do not become even more hardened to the world but am broken even more every day in order to let some sort of truth seep into my cracks. I am afraid of a lot of things, but walking at night was not one of them, walking at night was a refuge, the stars and the streetlights are supposed to be my refuge and I do not want to lose that.
I began forgiving that man the second he pulled the knife out, but I have yet to forgive myself, a battle that is far more long and bloody than all the rest. I forgive that man, and I hope he knows it. I hope he feels it. I hope he lies awake at night knowing that God did not intend for him to live like this and that if he ever sees me he does not have to fall to my feet to find kindness. I do not know where to go from here.
I am confused, I am shaken, I am okay.
I’ve never been the type of person who stretched my hands out in a form other than fists. Even when I find myself standing below the altar of the Lord, when I raise my arms in praise, I have to fight to keep my palms exposed, this battle thus exposing my soul. It is a battle I have been conditioned to not be proud of. But, in my defense, it’s a habit that has been reinforced by years of people who confused love with occupation. That being said, when something of my life needs filling, I very rarely have the strength to receive. Or perhaps it is not that I don’t have the strength, but that I am too overflowing with pride and fear to have room for what those who love me want to give. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve spent my fair share of evenings knocking on doors I didn’t deserve to have opened but needing something, anything even as small as a crack to show me how to have mercy on my own soul. But, psychotic desperation is not the same as asking for help. At least not to me.
I have had so many conversations with young men who are trying to piece together the brightest world they can imagine and for some reason they think that should include me and so they sit sipping their coffee pleading “let me help you” and all I can reply is “don’t you know what that would do to me? Don’t you know the amount of wattage this world would lose?”. I’ve had so many conversations with young women who sit on the edge of their chairs by habit, saying “if you need anything, come to us, we will take you with open arms and we will not lock our fingers once you rush into our embrace” and all I can reply is “thank you, I definitely need that”, knowing I will not show. To accept help is almost as treacherous as asking for it in the first place.
I don’t know where it comes from. I don’t have a folder of psychoanalyzed reasoning filled to the brim with dreams and memories and poems I wrote when I was 5 pointing to some area of my life where I never finished development. Most of the time I think that’s a load of crap anyways (and I call myself a Psychology student). I never wanted that folder in my life so I always made sure I never needed it.
Maybe I need it.
Either way, being here in Ecuador and having my body quit remembering how to read books about homeostasis and having my stomach decide gravity was not the boss and having to realize that I am more afraid of returning home to find the earth splitting beneath me than I am here means that I am (finally) learning how to ask for help.
Last week I was at a friend’s house when I suddenly turned into an oven who just wanted more and more blankets and who could not even keep down a cup of tea and I felt ashamed for needing help. I felt ashamed and embarrassed for my weakness. But when I couldn’t make it from the bed to the bathroom without having the floor kicked out from under me I made the choice to stretch my arm out with an open hand at the end instead of a fist. And someone was there to take it. How good it feels to have someone there to take it.
A few weeks ago when we were hiking Iliniza Norte and there was rock scrambling that our helmets did next to nothing to ease the suspicion of, we came across a chasm in our descent. A chasm that the dudes in front of me crossed with ease but seemed to get caught in my throat. I hesitated for longer than I was comfortable, my anxiety rising because there were people behind me waiting. And I did what I despise and reached my opened hand across the chasm. Someone was there to take it. How strange it feels to have someone there to take it
When I ate it in cross-country and twisted my ankle in a way that halted the speed at which I normally pass through life, my good friend always offered his arm on the stairs. He always offered and I always said no even though the uneven rhythm of my steps made it so obvious that I should have said yes. And always, halfway up, my unclenched fist would sneak it’s way into the crook of his elbow and I would blush and he would say nothing and I would hope that he did not associate me with the word weak. But he was always there to support me. How full it feels to have someone there to support me.
When I went to the emergency room this weekend, I did not tell anyone I was going. I didn’t tell them when or how or that I was going alone because I was so afraid that someone would say “do you want me to go with you?” and my mouth would betray my weakness and I would say “yes”. If I had, perhaps someone would have been there to catch me when my loss of consciousness slammed my body into the ground. I tried to ask for help when I felt the world slipping away, I tried in the way that I know how but of course the random hospital employee couldn’t understand that my slowed and slurred “tengo que sentarme” was me pleading “I do not have the strength to support my own body weight and I cannot see, please help me”. And no one was there to catch me. How warm it would have felt to have had someone there to catch me.
That night, I made a friend come over and stay with me under the pretense of watching a film because that was how I knew how to ask for help in a way that let me preserve my pride. I knew I needed someone who would be there in case I went down again, literally or metaphorically. When the film was over and all that remained was darkness and music I sat listening to stories of his family and his home and the things that wake him up and I sat listening to him breath because for me, just knowing that someone else continues to push air in and out of their lungs makes the empty space I feel between mine feel a little less threatening. And it helped. It helped silence the voices in my head telling me that I was a fool for thinking anyone would want to willingly spend time with me. It silenced the raging beating of my heart reminding me that in the end my body will always eat itself alive. It silenced the poems I wanted to write that did not end in hope. He was there to remind me I am alive. How beautiful it feels to have someone there to remind you that you are alive.
So yes, I feel more safe with fists held up to friends but feeling safe does not always mean that you are safe; a tree may be refuge from the rain but when it falls at the hand of Thor, it turns from an umbrella to a coffin. I am learning to ask for help. I am learning to relax my fists and accept that I do not have to be alone and that I am not weak to ask someone to be there. It will take a long time, I have spent twenty years running in the opposite direction, but I am finding that there are people along my path who also stopped running some time ago and simply want to walk with me, step in step, hand in hand, willing to help me form the words “I need help.”
I have an essay I should be writing but here I am opening all of my windows instead to let the cold seep in and remind me that I will spend one third of my life sleeping while there are people who are missing homes and limbs and chances and other people. I don’t know what I am writing about, I have no intent, I have no goal, I have no theme for these words that will turn to a pile of binary ash when we guzzle away the last bit of this haven we should have treated as our Queen instead of as our servant. Why do we write other than to pretend we are preserving our souls? Why do we write other than to make believe someone is out there holding on to our every word? I know why I write, I write because if I didn’t there would be no part of the world that smiled past my stormy eyes and into what lays behind my skull even though it scares them. Even though it scares me.
I’ve been sneezing a lot lately. I’ve been sneezing every time I get on a bus, every time my dog walks into my room, every time I think about the fact that if we killed enough spiders we would eventually be killing ourselves and that my long gone furrowed brow might mourn the spiders more than the humans. I wonder if my sneezing is a sign that my body is rejecting Ecuador, or that Ecuador is rejecting my body. I wonder if all the sneezes were sent to remind me that my so easily burned skin and hair the color of the funny string at the end of corn husk that probably has a name but I can’t remember don’t belong in this land where it seems everyone has a touch of indigenous blood in them, some more than others, but all full knowing that the mountains around us were not named after spirits without reason.
I shoved my hands into piles of snow this weekend while visiting the volcano Cotopaxi. And after I had managed to disappear from the group as I always do, I laid upon her skin and whispered “why do you feel so much like home?” She was cold and I am finding that I am a temperature that doesn’t exist in Fahrenheit or Celsius, but somewhere in between. I whispered to her and asked her when she was going to release all her anguish at how we have turned her into a tourist attraction instead of a Goddess and all she told me was “weeping for the earth you have broken does not make you any less white” and I replied “I think I am hell bent on turning that whiteness into invisibility”. She didn’t respond after that, perhaps a sign that my disappearance act was working.
I spent 15 minutes cutting dead skin off my hand this evening, trying to erase the fact that I am most usually more a concept of mutated universal coding than feminine strength and beauty to others. Not that it should matter, but I am human and you are human and all the eyes we feel are human so of course it matters. I wonder if holding hands with rocks and mountains and stringed instruments is worth it if in the end the humans say my hands are too rough to be wanted as something to hold themselves. I tell them it means I am alive, I tell them it means I am beginning to grow my own landscape, I tell them it means I am not afraid to walk alone at night. And I am not. But I am afraid to walk alone during the day, because those alone in the daytime are the ones who do not get to choose whether they are alone at night or not. They have no one to say yes or no to.
I miss the snow and I miss the leaves and I miss the haunted houses and I miss when my best friend growing up would look at me with his full attention when we talked. But there are people here who tell me that my Spanish is good not because it is actually good, but because they stuck around long enough for me to begin to talk about something that made my eyes crinkle around the edges and pieces of the cosmos start to mold between my hands.
I am tired of wondering if the things of myself I call “art” actually sound like paper dolls to everyone else. I am tired of laying in bed in the morning telling myself that today is not the day the sun goes black so no matter how empty you feel you still have to go to school. I am tired of hearing people speak out against Donald Trump’s sexually assaultive behavior, and then shift their eyes away when women try to speak and say, “listen! this is what happened to me! this is why my hands are permanently clenched into fists!”
Are you listening?
Do you point your ears more at people whose mouths are wide open but who have hands around their necks, or do you point your ears more at yourself and others who look just like you?
Beauty is not something I have ever striven to be, but it still haunts me at night when I hear words like “not you”, “for a girl”, “I was surprised”. I do not want to be surprising, I want to be inspiring and encouraging and good. But I do not know how to reconcile those with invisible so I guess I will just stay what I am and hope that no one notices I am disappearing and hope that someone holds my weathered hands to keep me here before it’s too late and hope that God is more than the book Ecclesiastes and hope that there are other Christians who relate to Ecclesiastes just as much as I do and hope that love is not as bad as it sounds and hope that ice cream always stays less than a dollar and hope that people stop writing/singing/posting and start protesting/funding/doing and hope that we stop killing indigenous people and hope that we let indigenous people teach us how to love this planet and hope that none of the bus accident scenarios in my head actually play out and hope that my mother knows I miss her and hope that my friends actually miss me and hope that we never forget that love and occupation are not the same thing and hope that we start to hold up our women and hope that I truly believe the things I want to teach my daughters and hope that I do not give up and hope that you do not give up and hope that we do not give up and hope that and hope that and hope that and hope that and hope that and hope that and hope that and hope that and hope that and hope that and hope that and hope that and hope that and hope that and hope that and hope that and hope that and hope that and hope that and hope that and hope that and hope that and hope.
I want to talk about something that I have been really struggling with lately in my time abroad, it’s something that people typically don’t talk about, or at least get uncomfortable when it does get brought up. It’s something that countless of my young adult friends battle. It’s something that manifests itself differently for every person that suffers from it. It’s something we call Anxiety.
I had pretty amazing control of my anxiety over this past year, coming so far as to even stop taking psychoactive medication cold turkey against the advice of my doctor and turning out just fine, but in the spring, I found myself in a verbally/mentally abusive relationship that destroyed all the progress I had made in regards to my anxiety the few years prior. I began to have anxiety attacks again, invasive thoughts, repetitious behavior, nightmares, etc. All the symptoms were there. When I finally found the self-love to kick my abusive partner to the curb at the beginning of summer, I realized I didn’t really have the time or energy to go through all the motions I had gone through to ‘conquer’ my anxiety before I left for Ecuador. So I slept, I read, I watched Grey’s Anatomy, I went to church, I wrote a TON of music, and I figured that if my soul was strong enough to heal itself before I left for South America, it would.
Spoiler alert: it didn’t.
Studying abroad with anxiety is nothing like you’ve ever felt before. The thing about anxiety back home is that you know your safe spaces, you know where to go, who to call, what medication to take, when it’s a bad day, when it’s a good day; you know how to read everything. But when you are studying abroad, everything is new and changing and unfamiliar and you have no idea where you are or who you are or who you are supposed to be. It takes your anxiety, a fragile creature already, and drops it into a meat grinder that is plugged into the Energizer Bunny.
This is what studying abroad with anxiety looks like: it looks like knowing exactly where to buy headphones in case yours break or get lost and you need to minimize the time you are without access to the only music that can break through to you during an attack as much as possible, it looks like walking around campus and picking out safe zones where no one will see you relearning how to breathe, it looks like having a list of people that you associate with safety and the sunshine that you contact when you feel an attack coming/during recovery even though most of them don’t even know they are on the list, they just know that you ask them what they are doing or where they are at random points during any given day, it looks like enjoying taking the bus home because it’s the only guaranteed time you have where nobody asks personal questions, it looks like overthinking asking anybody to hang out and vowing to never ask them again even if they have a legitimate excuse not to, it looks like smiling and crying at the same time, it looks like needing to be hugged but being afraid to ask someone, it looks like people thinking you are quiet or stuck up or apathetic or distanced, it looks like wanting to scream that you are just as alive as everyone else but knowing that no one would believe you so you just dance it out whenever possible instead, it looks like appreciating every single person that makes an effort to talk to you, it looks like Guns N’ Roses and Twenty Øne Piløts and The Wombats, it looks like dizziness and tunnel vision and hyperventilation and tears and numbness and the words “I’m just tired”, and it looks like growth.
It looks like growth because it is growth.
It’s terrifying, to not be able to control how I respond to stress here, and it’s even more terrifying to try and speak to someone in Spanish while having an anxiety attack. But there is growth and goodness and holiness being found in the struggle and that’s why I can write to you all about this, that’s why I can breathe knowing you are all reading my secrets. On the days when I wake up and there is fog outside and I put on a favorite sweater and I sing Hamilton while getting ready for school and the bus is on time and I don’t have to go early to print my homework and I already have dependable lunch plans and I have time to take a nap near la laguna, that is where the goodness is. The goodness is in the friends that don’t understand why you eat so many popsicles, but believe you anyways when you say it keeps away the bad spirits. The goodness is in the friend from back home who understands you when you say you’re dark and stormy today. The goodness is in waking up to an actual Mariachi Band inside your house and being mad because it’s early but not able to think of a better alarm clock. The goodness is in encouraging messages from home and late night conversations about blue fireflies and honest writing and similar tastes in music, it’s in climbing a route without stalling and it’s in the rainbows that fall out of your mouth and into the sky when you reach the top and it’s in the people who are waiting to hug you when you get there.
So yes, anxiety is ugly and messy, but the things that scare me most are so frequently the things that teach me how to love and how to grow and how to breathe the tears into the past that letting anxiety win is not an option for me. It can’t be. Anxiety is a battle I have to fight sometimes, but I have all the weapons and all the fellow comrades that I could possibly need, so I am not afraid to fight.
If you are battling anxiety, no matter what stage in your life, I hope you know that it’s OK. It’s absolutely OK. It’s OK to be afraid and it’s OK to be angry and it’s OK to need an hour of time. Please know that you are not alone and that you will never be alone and you are not meant to be alone. We have you, I have you, God has you, the world has you. Your anxiety will not win, not in the end. You are strong and beautiful and the bad dreams will stop eventually, I promise. Do not give up. Do not give up. Do not give up.
This past weekend was easily one of the coolest weekends of my life. Now I know you are all probably thinking “Wow Hannah, but your life is SO COOL, what could it possibly take to jettison this weekend to the top of your list?” Well, let me tell you: crack climbing in the rainforest with five muscular dudes. For those of you who don’t climb, crack climbing is when the route follows a longitudal crack in the rock using technique different from normal climbing. We went to a place called Tangán which is about a 3 hour drive and 30 minute walk away from Quito. It’s a massive Basalt wall with cracks more beautiful and dark than you have ever seen
in your life. For someone who has only ever climbed outdoors once before in her life (the previous weekend), the idea of traipsing into the forest with five far more experienced climbers sounded more intimidating than cool. Thankfully I was proven wrong and I didn’t feel smaller in body or in spirit at the end of the weekend compared to at the beginning. Before I get into some disgusting life metaphor (you know it’s going to happen), I want to introduce the amazing guys that I got to hang out with this weekend.
First there is Felipe, Felipe who dances with the wall like sugar-free maple syrup dances with the tallest stack of pancakes you’ve ever seen. Felipe who knows exactly when to say, “Fight for it” and exactly when to say, “Breathe”, but both in a way that illicit the same ability to keep going from me. Simon, the youngest of us all at 16, whose refreshing youthfulness is found in the way he smiles while doing things that 99% of adults I know could never dream of. Rafa, who is as new to climbing as I am but moves with decisiveness and maturity and left harness bruises around my legs from the amount of times that he would not give up. Nico (Sexy Thor), who climbs with grace and concentration and stoicism, but still takes time to get on his hands and knees to feed the rodents that wander into our Bungalow. And then there is my Belay partner, Gabe. Gabe who smiled like Alfred Nobel’s first successful stick of dynamite right before trad climbing a 10d, who never
demeans me for panicking or falling or tweaking, who does not mind that I am slow. Gabe who is patient but not apathetic, who teaches me by simply always talking about what he is doing, who knows when to push and when to hold.
The dudes that I climbed with were beyond inspirational, more than they know. I’ve been climbing alone for over a year now, depending on my own inner bully to push me to make progress. But climbing with real people changes everything, climbing with real people at the bottom calling out things that you sometimes hear, sometimes don’t, changes everything. I climb because it seems that the louder my fingers and arms scream, the quieter the mess of emotion in my head gets. When I’m hanging off the ground, I finally don’t think about the darkness or the storms or the people or the mistakes or the sins or the future or the past, I’m just thinking about where to move to next. It’s all finally gone.
But as beautiful as that feeling is, it doesn’t work like magic, sometimes I do let it get personal up there, in fact, most of the time I’m scared out of my mind. That’s another reason I climb too, to learn how to
communicate with fear. Fear is not something you conquer, it’s not something that just goes away and then suddenly you’re like a superhero who has no qualms standing at the wrong end of a lot of guns and fists. Fear is someone you have to talk to, not ignore. She’s painful and sharp but she’s smart, and she shows you the difference between who you could become and who you could remain. Sometimes when I’m climbing, even just in the gym, I realize that the only things between me and a one sided conversation with a coroner are metal and rope, two things that don’t have brains, two things that can’t actively think about saving me. And then I freak, and I shake, and all I want is to come down.
But Gabe, being the moon that he is, only tells me “You know what you have to do”, when I’m 2/3 up a route and I let the fatigue and the fear get to me, he says, “You know what you have to do”. That is all he needs to say. Because, if he gave me step-by-step directions on where to place my feet and hands, on how to side step fear, I could always blame him if I don’t make it, saying his guidance was faulty. But when he says this, it puts it all on me. It puts all his trust in my climbing abilities on me. It puts the finish on me. And he is always right; I do know what I have to do. Even if it takes jamming my arm up to my elbow into a sharp crack on the wall, I know that I have to do it, and so I do.
Being in Ecuador has reminded me of how easy it is to be afraid, how easy it is to not remain sitting tall and straight when strange men are yelling at you from their cars, how easy it is to take a taxi instead of a bus, how easy it is to cry in front of the lawyer who tells you your visa is technically illegal, how easy it is to just not
sleep instead of having nightmares, how easy it is take a bad grade instead of asking for help. Everything here is so loud and bright and sometimes my senses feel so overwhelmed and I feel like I’m right back on that route, thinking it would be better to come down than to push to the top. But I don’t, or at least I haven’t yet, I might stall (and shake and cry and eat a popsicle), but I don’t quit. And I don’t plan on quitting in the future. I plan on continuing to look fear in the eye and tell her that she can come on my life journey with me but she is not allowed to speak unless she is spoken to, and she will remain silent, and I will remain loud, and no one will be able to tell me that I am small.