Surprises

Last week, Valentine’s Day fell on the same day as Ash Wednesday. The former was really just a blip on my radar until the night before when coming home late at night on the subway, I spotted several men with hands full of balloons and flowers. It was a surprising reminder of Americans’ unique fervor in celebrating really any holiday – the French certainly never really seemed to care much for it. I mean, sure, the bakeries will add some heart-shaped pastries to their usual line up of mouthwatering, buttery treats for a few days. But that’s about it. Whereas Americans seem eager to get behind a day marketed to them to celebrate love, the French are more apt to turn their noses up and say, yeah, we don’t need your holiday, we’ll do our own thing. Their stubbornness and free spirits lend themselves to celebrating love in different ways throughout the year.

In New York, the day ushered itself in with another one of those brilliantly blue winter skies, something I do not take for granted after three years living under clouds for most of the year. Overnight, I’d again forgotten about the holiday, readying myself for a busy day of work and class. But the short walk to my subway stop surprised me once again – more balloons and bouquets of flowers tucked in the elbow crevices of bundled up arms; an older woman selling Valentine’s gift baskets on the corner, wishing everyone who passed by a good day. Ok, but this is Brooklyn, I thought. People are just nicer here, it’s like a neighborhood.

As I climbed the stairs leading  up to the bustling, rousing space of Manhattan, though, I quickly learned I was wrong. Despite the lingering winter chill in the air, there was a warmth in people’s faces as they tilted their faces up to meet the sun and to follow the bobbing of balloons floating above the many bodies that crowd the streets of Midtown on a daily basis. Everywhere I turned, I spotted bundles of flowers and other cheesy gifts pertaining to the holiday. People rushing out on their coffee break, business people walking swiftly with their phone glued to their ear, tourists milling about – the usual Manhattan mid-week scene pressed on, just with these sweet accessories in tow. Call it reverse culture shock if you want, but I found these small gestures in the midst of the tornado of life that sweeps pell-mell across the city to be endearing.

Equal to this astonishment was the prevalence of the cross marked in ashes on foreheads of every shade, age, and profession. Again, it was just something I’d never seen before – when you live in the suburbs and drive everywhere, parts of your life remain very separate from the rest. The sliver of the population you come into contact with is narrow. Then, in Paris, where religious markings of any kind in the public sphere are wrapped up in a long history of tension and resentment, such an overt declaration of contemporary Christian faith is pretty absent. But it was an unexpected and meaningful representation to me of just how wide the net of Christ’s love is, and how even in the busiest places, people are drawn to what is greater than themselves.

On this island where people come from all over the world, we all struggle through this life to different and varying degrees against limitations beyond our control, hungry to find and live within our purpose. People work so hard here and with a conviction that it’s worth it, in a way that is more visible than anywhere I’ve ever lived, everyone chasing something while grasping onto what little space, air, energy, time, and ideas they have left for themselves. In New York, you don’t have to pretend for the sake of social graces that you don’t want something out of life. And yet, that sometimes gruff at best, no-time-to-catch-your-breath pace of life, and toughness that encompasses what it means to survive in New York runs only skin deep, it would seem. This tough exterior protects from the stinging disappointments of life, the exhausting antics of city living. But even so, there is always time for love, from its smallest gestures in the form of a holiday to what is far beyond our realm of comprehension. New Yorkers know to grasp on to its many forms in order to survive.

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the story of one ball of yarn

On a recent trip home, I decided it was time to clear out the vast array of trinkets and objects I enjoyed collecting and displaying on my shelves growing up. Yes, I know this probably should have happened a long time ago, but when your family has lived in the same house for your entire life, things have a way of accumulating – each item has its own spot and there is never any need to disrupt that. I guess I have always been rather sentimental, whether by nature or nurture, I’m not sure. I certainly had a lot to be nostalgic about from a young age – early years I wish I remembered more clearly when health, youth, innocence and long thick black hair seemed to flourish without much effort. Holding on to the bits and bobs that pass through your life, finding the glittering objects that light up your eyes for a moment, is sometimes easier than finding what you need from the universe and making it last. I wanted to line them up on my windowsill and along my bookshelves to run my fingers over and remember that time I laughed, I won that award, I spent the day with that person, I went to that place, or was asked to dance by that boy at that dance – every object a bridge back to another time.

Now, as a child, I always dreamed of living in France and other faraway places. What I could not have anticipated in following that path is the sweetness of going through these treasures after being away from home for so long. This “clutter” I’d so preciously preserved sat in my plain sight for many years beyond its value and I had stopped looking at it. My time away made these objects new again and stories I had left behind long ago came back to mind. So I decided, oh what the hell, I’ll just keep them all!

Just kidding.

Here is a non-exhaustive list of what I found: pieces of mica gathered on our gravel road, shark teeth carefully hunted for in the rock pile behind the elementary school. Sea shells gathered from beaches all along the Outer Banks. Clay beads from a local craft store my mother and I used to wander through together. Boxes of every shape and size from different parts of the world, one filled with my baby teeth. My YMCA name tag with grit clinging to the back left over from one sweltering, exhausting summer. Porcelain animal figurines I so loved as a child. A handmade rosary given to me at my confirmation. Paper cranes from when I folded a thousand of them to help a friend win tickets to the UNC-Duke basketball game one year. The P-52 airplane I’m sure I coerced my brother into giving me in some shady deal, possibly involving gambling his toys away in a game of chess I knew I would win (no longer true today), or maybe breaking off the front propellers in an act comparable to licking the last slice of pizza so he wouldn’t want it anymore, anyway – a nice reminder of how when it came to being an older sister, I was not above a lot things.

But the knickknack that caused me to laugh the most and reflect on who I was as a child was a multi-colored ball of yarn, actually made up of a bunch of braided sections tied together at the ends. It was hiding in a drawer where I’m not sure I’d touched it since the third grade. For whatever reason, that was the year I decided I was going to accomplish what no one had ever done…braid the world’s longest braid. Yes, you read that correctly. I was convinced that this would be a meaningful contribution to the world and that upon its completion, I would have achieved the pinnacle of [eight-year-old] success – an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records! I’m pretty sure this was the year I learned how to braid my own hair, so I guess I was just transferring this new skill to a larger scale. What is even funnier to me is that I was able to convince my best childhood friends to get behind this project – which honestly probably only lasted for two weeks. But during that time, we sat as quietly as four elementary-aged kids can be expected to, braiding pieces of yarn together.

Clearly, we did not get very far (see photo below), and soon enough, I abandoned this dream. I went on to the next one that popped into my head and pursued it with the same headstrong energy and determination I seem to have always had. Because I was never content to sit around idly and do nothing, always needing a project, even if it was just reading a book all day. I had a lot of ideas. In reminiscing over dinner with my brother and these  friends who participated in the short-lived Longest Braid project, they joked about how my line growing up was, “guys, I have an idea.” And how there was usually well over a 50 percent chance that it was actually a terrible idea that would either lead us to getting in trouble, getting in a fight, getting very wet, and/or lost. For a full list of “Camille’s Great Ideas”, please refer to my brother who will be happy to share the list he’s compiling. For the record, though, they were always willing participants! So there.

As I stood in my room remembering the story of this useless ball of yarn, I found myself a little enchanted with the girl I used to be. For a long time, I believed that the qualities and stories that make up who I am were not good enough, an impediment to becoming the person I wanted to be. I was too shy, I was too loud, I cried too easily, I cared too much about school, my family wasn’t rich enough, I wasn’t interested in the right things. I pursued this idea that to grow up into an adult, it was necessary to leave behind the person I was as a child and the parts of myself I learned not to like. To even recognize this self-diminution has taken a lot of time and effort, and to unlearn it is a daily process, for all of us.

Those colorful fibers intertwined into a ball of yarn, how I pulled this idea out from the sparks that fly when what is in the moment rubs against the forces of creativity, reminded me of how I always wanted to be someone. I wanted to do something big that mattered beyond the narrow scope of a day, taking whatever the day had given me and running with it. No one taught me how to be that way, though there are some who have given me the space to do that more than others. Somewhere along the way, though, I began to confuse ambition and big dreams as only mattering if you set records, achieved stardom, or were recognized for your achievements – it was about being the youngest, the first, or the best.

In New York City, where people come to pursue their dreams and claim a piece of the vast opportunity for which this city has been celebrated across generations and continents, it feels as though you truly can be anyone you want. But what I have learned through much trial and error is that I can reinvent myself in a hundred different ways, molding myself into what is more acceptable or easier, and it still won’t be as satisfying as the slow process of growing into who I already am – the girl with a lot ideas and a mischievous side, who is very sensitive but strong-willed, and who could usually do with a little more patience. I don’t want to just be ‘someone’ anymore; I want to be me, whatever that means in each phase of my life. It is harder to embrace the sharp with the soft, but easier to set aside what I cannot control and feel satisfied with the pursuit of big dreams at the end of each day, no matter the outcome. The essence of who we are, hidden away in rooms filled with rocks, airplanes, porcelain figurines, and maybe one long-ish braid wound into a ball, that we may only visit in our minds, will carry us further than what entices us with the promise of making us more likeable, beautiful, or right. Learn not to trade any part of yourself for anything in the world. That is my dream beyond anything else.

ball of thread