A Morning in Vernazza, Italy

Here I meet the Mediterranean Sea. I can walk all the way up to its powerful, rolling, green body and stare directly into its eyes. The salt spray clings to my hair and the humid wind draws sweat from my pores. Behind me stand rusted orange, yellow and pale pink buildings with dark green shutters sprawled open on every window. From behind them peaks the little dome of the cream-colored chapel halfway up the hill. A train passes along the sea cliff and disappears into the rock tunnel beneath stripes of grape vines stretching wildly in every direction.

The sea is a translucent green, defined by a line of navy blue as the water deepens farther out from the pier. It pushes its waves around the rocky cliffs with intensity; where they collide, big white sprays leap into the air and drop again, leaving dimples for a split-second before melting back into churning currents.

I’m staying in an Inn where a resident cat greets me each morning with a raspy meow. In 30 seconds from my door, I’m at the water’s edge, glistening under morning sun. I’m two months into my travels, and I’ve seen a lot of incredible places, but Vernazza feels like a dream. It’s so piercingly beautiful and idyllic, it’s hard to fathom it’s real, and that I’m somehow here.

Vernazza is one of five colorful cliff-side villages that make up the famed Cinque Terre in Tuscany, Northern Italy. Today I’ll hike to Monterrosso Al Mare, a village north of here, but first, I need an espresso.

Her hands move skillfully with ease as she flicks milk foam atop the fragrant brown liquid. I smile widely out of excitement, and she stares back indifferently, swatting the flies now gathering above a piping hot plate of focaccia vuota on the counter. A graying mass of wild curls frames her tan, sun-soaked cheeks and full lips. The brown mole above her left upper lip twitches momentarily as she slides the cappuccino my direction. “Grazie,” I say, blushing at the sound of my obvious American accent.

Next I head to the only grocer in town, which is stocked with local produce, fresh pesto in gallon glass jars, cured meats, olives, cheeses and the other necessary items like toilet paper and pasta. I buy a container of pesto, a hunk of cheese and some prosciutto to take with me for lunch on the trail.

The sun is already hot on my shoulders, so it’s time to get a move on! As I make my way toward the trail and begin climbing up through the hillside vineyards, I look back over my shoulder and fall even more in love with Vernazza.


The view down the trail wasn’t too bad either!


When the Leaves Fall: Loss, Grief & Facing Tomorrow

It was almost a typical Monday. I woke up, drove to work, sat down at my desk, and sipped a cup of hot coffee. One thing that was definitely different than the previous Monday was the weather: dark gray clouds, ominous with the smell of rain, hovered outside the window. It was the Fall Equinox after all, and nature was fittingly showing off her punctuality.

I felt as if I had gone to bed the night before still in the dreamy arms of summer, only to wake up at fall’s feet a day later. But that wasn’t the only thing that caught me off guard. That morning, a message from a friend in Europe was waiting in my inbox with a request I couldn’t have anticipated.

She asked me to write a love letter to a family member who needed something to hold onto — a reason to keep going after the sudden death of her best friend had turned everything painfully inside out, and upside down.

I was stunned first, and then sad second, and then I got down to business. I spent two days thinking about what I’d write. What could I possibly say that could help?

I don’t have the answers; that’s the first conclusion I came to. And although I’ve been wracked with grief myself at the loss of several friends over the past few years, and most recently, my beloved writing mentor, I’m aware that loss touches us in such different and personal ways. There is no “one-size-fits-all” advice to give when it comes to grief. And yet, I was being asked to offer something to a stranger that would somehow encourage her to keep moving forward and still find the beauty in living.

This is not the only person that has been brought to my attention who is currently experiencing loss and change. At this time of year especially, it feels as if a hand has silently grasped the veil of summer’s illusions and pulled it aside, revealing a plainer, much harsher truth. Relationships are ending. Paths are shifting. Souls are departing. But just as there is no problem that exists without a solution, the shadow of life cannot exist without light. These illusions are being shaken loose so we can reconnect with our most primal existence and remember that life is a yin and yang of life and death, love and suffering.

“For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one.” -Khalil Gibran

It goes without saying that it’s a tough time for many. The only salve I know of is to take hands with those you love and share the load. We’re in this together.

And in that spirit, I sat on my blue and white bedspread and wrote my 28th* love letter, which I promptly sent through the internet to a country approximately 5, 298 miles away.

With the permission of my friend, I’ve pasted it below. Please note that I’ve changed the name of the letter’s recipient in order to protect her privacy. My hope is that if you are reading this, and you too are suffering a loss of great proportion, this helps ease some of the pain, if even for a few minutes.

Birds Flying

Dear Anna,

I met your sister in a hostel just over a year ago. When I saw her from across the room, she was a glowing mass of passion and energy – a force of spirit. And I am so glad I got to travel with her. Out of her love for you, Anna, she asked me if I’d write you a love letter, because she tells me you are going through a very difficult time — an unimaginably painful time.

I’ve been thinking about you for the last two days, wondering how I can possibly comfort you with my words when you must be feeling as if the world has torn a piece right out of your heart. Darling, I want to tell you that the only beautiful thing that comes from loss is this: you feel your beating heart, albeit its being full of sadness and grief, it’s yours, and it’s beating for a reason. There’s a purpose for your soul here on earth, and this immense trial in your life may be a part of it. Perhaps now some comfort will come from reading other people’s stories of loss. Look to those who have been torn open, but somehow made it through to the other side. Cheryl Strayed, author of “Wild” is one of those people. She writes matter-of-factly about the process of grief:

“Nobody will protect you from your suffering. You can’t cry it away or eat it away or starve it away or walk it away or punch it away or even therapy it away. It’s just there, and you have to survive it. You have to endure it. You have to live through it and love it and move on and be better for it and run as far as you can in the direction of your best and happiest dreams across the bridge that was built by your own desire to heal.” -Cheryl Strayed

My advice is to let the grief exist. No need to fight it. This is your experience, and it’s real, and it’s valid. It’s also 100% natural. There’s no one way to feel grief, so don’t believe the books that tell you about the stages and try to estimate how long it will take to move on. This isn’t a matter of logicality; it’s a deeply personal matter of the heart. The process of grief is one of the core experiences that makes you human and connects you to people all across the globe who also know what it feels like to have lost someone they loved very much.

As difficult as it feels now, one day you will wake up with a little less pain than the day before. Gradually, after many days and months, and years, you will gain a strength you never knew you were capable of. And that strength will guide you to put one foot in front of the other and practice living again, until one day, you’ll feel love bloom in your heart, and you will risk caring about another person as much as you did about your friend. This is how you will know that you’re healing.

Until then, darling, there will be a lot of very difficult days. Unfortunately, no one can protect you from them, so you just have to hold onto what good things you can (like your family, a big oak tree, a walk by a stream, your favorite music, etc.) and ride your emotions like the brave woman you are. You are surrounded by people who love you and want to be there for you. Take their hands when you can. You don’t ever have to do this on your own; although no one can take the pain away, sharing your thoughts and feelings with others will help a lot.

Eventually, after an unknown amount of time, you will find a way to make peace with your friend leaving too soon. But in order for acceptance to come, you’ll have to do some soul searching and reading, and deep thinking about what you think life and death are about, and find a way of making sense of things for yourself. This might take a very long time, and understandably so. It’s okay to ask god, or friends, or family, or yourself the same questions over and over again, and not have any immediate answers. Humans spend their lifetimes trying to understand why things are the way they are.

Still, it won’t change the fact that they are the way they are. And that’s why sorting it out the best you can by establishing your own philosophy will give you a very important pathway to navigate your sadness by. This is what spirituality and religion exist for – they provide a light for you to walk beneath when you are lost in unimaginable darkness.

And on that topic, the universe cannot exist without light. What that means is there will be good things to come for you, Anna. This is not the end. It’s just the beginning of something different. You will get through to the other side.

In the meantime, my heart goes out to you. You are experiencing one of the most difficult aspects of being alive, and it fucking sucks. That is undeniable.

But the light is still all around you and within you, and someday soon, you’ll be able to see it again; of this, I am 100% certain!

Love to you,

This is what I imagine the landscape of healing might look like before plants break through and bloom in your heart.

This is what I imagine the landscape of healing might look like before plants break through and bloom in your heart.

No Better Feeling than a Traveler Sleeping on My Couch

Something bulges out from the sides of her back and hovers above her head like an extra body part. Shoes dangle from laces tied to a piece of webbing. Her body is weighted, but her spirit cheerful.

I recognize the outline of a traveler before our eyes even meet. We hug and I welcome her inside. She unbuckles the waist strap and swings her pack to one side; it rests momentarily on her right hip, then slides down her side and onto the floor.

I put fresh linens on a pillow from my bed and prop it at one end of our small black leather couch. I hand her a glass of water. We chat amiably about her day, and my heart swells just hearing her speak. It reminds me of being in Spain. It reminds me that my heart now holds countries, and street corners, and seas, and friends, and cities, and beautiful moments in it from many thousands of miles away.

Seemingly from a dream.

But then again, so real.

I can feel them in this moment more than ever before, and hosting her, Nuria, the couchsurfer from Barcelona I’ve just now met, is like being reminded of the sky’s color or the smell of rain on concrete. I now know I have to return.

Europe is forever a part of me, and I want to forever be a part of it.

Nuria flops on the couch, tired from a day of hiking and exploring. Then the familiar routine of settling into a new place; home for the night. I watch as she ruffles through her pack for the essentials — toothbrush, cell phone charger, pajamas and sleeping bag. My housemate hands her our Wifi password on a piece of paper, and I can see the relief as it moves across her face like a cloud uncovering the sun.

She relaxes a bit more now that her means of communication to the other side of the ocean is whole again. I know this feeling. I felt it so many times in foreign places when I had no bridge to home, aside from the internet and my own thoughts.

I tell her “My home is your home,” and a warmth blooms somewhere beneath my ribcage.

We say goodnight, and I fall asleep smiling.

In the morning I make coffee for two and leave a cup and an orange on a little table in the living room. I write her a note and tell her to enjoy the day and that I won’t see her until later that evening.

Tonight is her last night in Oregon. I call and arrange a taxi to pick her up in the wee hours of the morning to deliver her to the airport.

In the living room, me sitting cross-legged on a chair, and her on the couch, she talks about life in Sweden, where she is working on completing her Postdoctoral. Then we chat about love. She tells me how she met her boyfriend. It took two years for their paths to cross again by chance on the subway. And even then, they didn’t exchange contact information. But she found his email by contacting a mutual friend — she was determined.

He replied right away and they met the following day. And then the day after that…and again the day after that. It was as if there weren’t enough days to spend together, so days turned into weeks, and weeks turned into months, and months turned into years — 7 total now.

When she speaks about him, her face shows the calm and content knowing of love, the kind I imagine is as real and as alive as a mountain that withstands windstorms and rain.

Mountains are as forever as we can hope for in a lifetime.

We let silence hold us. And I think of memories of all the couches I’ve slept on and of the people who took me in and welcomed me as family, even though I was a lone woman traveling on the tail feathers of wanderlust, easily excitable and unsure of what came next.

Suddenly, she looks up from her book and asks “Who is Jerry Garcia?”

I play her Touch of Gray by the Grateful Dead, and we grin at each other, nodding to the song.

Eventually, it’s time to say goodnight. She says if she leaves anything behind, I will need to return it to her in person. We laugh and I say “Deal!”

She invites me to both of her respective homes in Spain and Sweden.

I get the feeling, as I sometimes do, that we’ll meet again.

Backpacking Europe: morning in Prague.

Backpacking Europe: morning in Prague.