The God of Cats in Greece

It’s nearly midnight in Greece, and I’m following a long-term volunteer at the refugee camp on a path up the hillside. I step gingerly over scrub brush, peering in the dark; she knows the path, and leads the way. We’re searching for a friend of hers, Mohammed, who took in a small stray kitten one of many cats and dogs wandering on the island that then became sick and weak. We’re bringing him cat formula.

When we make it to her friend’s ISO-box, a storage-crate-like structure that 10 or so live in, he is gone and the men who live with him are sitting on benches and the hard packed dirt of the hillside, talking and smoking. They invite us to sit. She knows several of the men, and settles in to talk. There’s a buzzing florescent light somewhere nearby, around the corner of the ISO-box; it’s enough to see people’s faces.

One of the men is kneeling on the ground next to a hot plate, warming a small glass cup of liquid and holding a second glass at the ready. When it’s hot, he pours the liquid into the other glass and repeats. It’s a smooth motion, practiced and meditative, like an experienced baker kneading and pounding out the dough. It’s hypnotizing, a little, like a campfire; whenever the liquid stretches between the two cups, it catches all the available light.

The man sitting next to me introduces himself. “Mohammed,” he says.

“Oh, you’re the one with the cat,” I say.

He shakes his head. “Different Mohammed,” he says. There are a lot of Mohammeds here, the same way there are a lot of Johns back home.

We try to keep up the conversation, but don’t get far; one of the other men starts to laugh at us. “You don’t speak any French,” he says to me. “And he doesn’t speak any English.” I grin, and lean back against the warm metal of the ISO-box to listen.

The men gathered here outside are from Gambia, Senegal and Congo, at least the ones I understand. The man with the cups speaks clear English, and he’s another friend of the woman who led me here.

“There are rich Muslims, you know,” he says, his eyes never leaving the cups in his hands, unhesitating in their motion. “Saudi Arabia, Dubai they have money. But it’s you Christians that come to help us, from America and France and Amsterdam.”

“Why do you think that is?” she asks. She is American, and a Mennonite: she wears a doily over her hair and long skirts every day, the tangible signs of her religion. She leans forward in her chair.

We end up talking a lot about religion at the camp. All volunteers at the camp promise not to evangelize, no matter their faith; Greece is a Greek Orthodox nation, and It’s illegal to proselytize across the country. But religion is at the forefront of everyone’s minds it’s noticeable everywhere, in the head coverings the Christian and Muslim women wear, the way we greet each other, the way men and women interact, the way we say thanks, the way we swear. The differences between people are exaggerated here, in close quarters, and faith seems more visible.

A lot of people want to talk theology: where each of us comes from, what we believe. People talk about their faiths, about their childhoods, about the choice they made and ensuing struggle to cross into Europe. Maybe it simply rises to the surface here, where people who have faced tangible evil gather, still reeling from the events they fled. It prompts the old question why would a good God permit this?

While some volunteers seem uncomfortable under the no evangelizing rule, I’m glad it’s in place. I’ve never liked evangelists. They make me feel guilty, shameful, even when I know I’ve done nothing wrong, even when I hold their same faith. They demand something from me that it feels they don’t deserve. And I’ve had the luxury of living in a nation where my faith isn’t obvious. I don’t wear Christian T-shirts to work or have a cross tattooed across my bicep; you can’t see my religion from across the room.

Here, though, people stop me and say, “You’re Christian, right?” People thank me, bless me as I pick up trash along the main drag. One teenager wraps her mother’s hijab around my head, eager to show me how it’s folded in Syria, how it’s different from the way the Iranian woman next to us folds hers. A man hears my accent and says, “American! Are you a Christian?” I say yes and he smiles, wide: “Me too!”

I’ve never been in a place where my faith has felt this visible, a neon sign to those around me.

The man kneeling on the packed dirt sees me watching and smiles. “You want some tea,” he says, and offers me the full cup. It’s green tea, and shockingly bitter. I finish it and hand the cup back; he begins to make another, pouring again between the cups. When we rise to leave, they invite us back, thank us for Mohammed’s cat formula.

The next day when I arrive at the camp, the other volunteer pulls me aside, smiling.

“I saw Mohammed this morning!” she says. “He named the cat after me.”

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My Friend in Greece

It’s been nearly two months since I returned from the refugee camp in Greece. My roommates and I unlocked the doors of our new home, still littered with cardboard boxes, and started to resettle our roots. Transplanting is always hard, and not all plants survive the process; but it helps if there’s support, fresh air and plenty of water.

What does it take, to become a refugee? How much will you endure before you make this drastic, dangerous choice? What will it take for you to pick up your family and what you can carry in your pockets and leave the people you grew up with and everything you’ve built and make the trek across your country, across other countries, over risky waters, against open and armed opposition, to come to a land where you don’t speak the language in the hesitant and temperamental hope that they might let you stay?

I think you have to believe that no matter what you find, no matter what you find, it will be better than what you leave.

The refugee camp used to be a Greek detention center, surrounded by a cement wall topped with barbed wire, people coming in and out the open, but guarded, gate.

There was not enough space.

Rooms the size of my living room were divided by blankets hung with rope to make room for five, six, seven, eight families — maybe a 4-by-6-foot space for a father, a mother, and their two young children. They slept on the floor, on top of blankets. Privacy had disappeared long ago. In the single men’s housing, bunk beds filled the rooms, and tents filled the gaps between the rooms. ISO-boxes, storage-crate-like structures for expanded housing, were tiered up the hill inside the camp: windowless, with sometimes-functional electric lights, and people shared bunk beds or slept on the floor.

One of our jobs, as volunteers, was to find places for new arrivals to sleep — making space where there is none, setting up ever-smaller tents in ever-smaller spaces, hanging new blankets to divide another room into smaller family sections. We needed to persuade the current residents to allow new people to be shoehorned in: clogging up the shrinking walking space on the floor, forcing more of your children to share bunks, making everyone breathe shallowly in the stuffy tents.

I made a friend at camp who taught me her name. (She was nine years old, I am told — I am a horrible judge of ages.) On our first day as volunteers, as we learned to navigate our way through camp, she and her sister were waiting for their mother and stopped to stare at us, sneaking closer. They teased us, learned our names, showed us children’s magic tricks, taught us the names of their stuffed animals, shook our hands and then hugged us and kissed us. They greeted us every day they saw us, and asked after us on the others. My friend taught me a few of the basics of Arabic — or at least some handy sign language that worked across languages!

And when my new friend took me to her home in the ISO boxes, there were no bunk beds and few blankets on the floor. With sign language and google translate, her parents worked out how to tell me that she and her sister used to have two older brothers — dead when their house was bombed, they explained, showing me the wreckage of their home on a cell phone screen.

How bad does it have to be before you go?

When I was a kid, I used to stop and stare at planes when they passed overhead. I didn’t notice until another volunteer pointed it out that when planes passed over the camp, the children became silent and still, waiting for it to cross the treeline on the other side.

So my friend and her family are in Greece, trying to find safety in a country that has not yet granted them asylum. It takes me weeks to feel comfortable in a new place, months to let myself put down roots, sometimes years until an acquaintance shifts into a friend.

How long did the little one know me before she kissed my cheek and tried to hide under my volunteer vest? Five minutes? A day before my friend memorized my name? It was a week and a half, maybe, before their family made me feel welcome on the floor of their ISO box.

How can people — children, parents still grieving — possibly stay that open, stay that kind?

I don’t have a lot of answers.

More to follow.

Everything Changes Very Fast

This month began with a series of changes, some planned and some … unexpected, and I haven’t quite gotten my breath back since then.

  1. The first change was with work. As The Globe completes its shift to a twice-weekly paper, I was asked to switch to a dayside role. In this new shift, I remotely manage designers across the tri-state area as we produce weekly and bi-weekly newspapers. I haven’t worked an 8-5 shift since… college, actually, and it’s been a bit of a transition.

The hardest part: mornings. Who invented these? Who thought, “I know, I’ll expect people to use their higher brain functions at those times marked ‘early’?” I’m told I’ll adjust, given enough caffeine and a daylight bedtime, but I’m not holding my breath.

  1. The second change was my living situation. A chance opened up for me to move into a house with some friends, people I’ve begun to know better during the last few years. It’s a good choice, and I’m excited! Still, I will miss my little home with its nooks and crannies and character, its slanted floors and crown molding. It’s been a comfort to me, a safe place when other things have changed, and I am sad to see it go.

And the new house, soon to be home, has a basement and a garage and laundry inside the house — sheer luxury. I haven’t had roommates since college; it’s going to be an adjustment, but one I’m looking forward to. The people you live your daily life with matter, often shape the direction your life holds in the inbetween times.

  1. The third change came as a surprise. I answered the phone groggily on a Sunday morning to a call: “We’ve been knocking on your door for like 20 minutes! Somebody hit your car!” I sprinted for the door in my pajamas to find the wreckage of a collision in front of my house, hemmed in by a cop car, an ambulance and most of my neighbors. Despite the damage and the impossible physics of the crash, the other car’s driver emerged all but unscathed.

Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t hard to prove liability — “I was in my bed, asleep” turns out to be a pretty good defense. “I talked to the cops in my pajamas” is just a bonus. Still, car repairs take a toll: a dent in the pocketbook as well as extended phone time — several hours of conversations about insurance and estimates and rental cars.

  1. The last major change is a plan that’s been in the works for several months finally coming together. At the end of May two friends and I booked tickets to Lesvos, Greece. The island is one of the first stops for refugees fleeing across the Mediterranean Sea. We’ll be volunteering at the refugee camp there.

The decisions that led us here don’t revolve around politics or even altruism; this is choice prompted by the faith that exhorts those who believe to welcome strangers, offer justice and treat the oppressed with mercy. It’s easy for me to say the words; perhaps this is an attempt to put them in motion, to let the words take life. I don’t know what we’ll find, and I don’t know how to prepare for what we’ll find. I’ve never been a refugee, never been forced to run from my home with my family. If it comes to mind, please pray we can bring comfort and help to those sheltering at Lesvos.

When all of this came together — a new role at work, complete with a sleep cycle shift; a new home, to move within a month; a lot of car-related drama; and a trip across the ocean that we cannot hope to be fully prepare for — I headed north. I calculated the number of miles I could travel in my rental car and drove to my parents’ home, where I baked cookies and read books and spent far too long trying to figure out how to construct a bed frame from a flat pack and made the rounds to the local nurseries looking for marigolds and coleus. We talked, a lot. It’s always good to see those two.

“Are you bored?” my mom asked me. “We’re not really doing anything exciting this weekend.”

“It’s fine,” I said, turning the next page of my book. “I like this.”

Was I running away? Maybe. Yes. I drove back to Worthington for more car insurance calls and moving in scheduling and a still-skewed sleep cycle and more planning, so far as we can, for the trip to Greece. None of us speaks Greek.

Pause, breathe, and keep running.

Springtime Is All About Decay

I know spring is supposed to be about new life and awakening and fresh youthful delight and whatnot, but mostly it makes me think about dead things.

I’m up at my parents, raking leaves. The leaves left on the lawn after the snow recedes are different from the first batch last fall. These are pounded into piles, worked into the old growth grass; we tease them out with a garden rake, like dandruff out of stringy hair. The leaves packed into the crevices in the yard are still wet between layers from the last snow; when peeled up, they reveal the grass beneath — bleach white, limp, starved for light. The wet leaves have started to decompose, and disturbing them (stabbing them with a metal rake) lets the scent of dried and poorly rejuvenated organic material starting to rot seep into the fresh air.

Ah, spring.

It’s warm now. My dad is re-converting the snow blower into a lawn mower as we scrape the leaves onto tarps and drag them into the woods. The leaf pile is growing — soon we have to crawl over and into the pile, clenching the corners of the bursting tarp. Our arms are starting to feel the work — or perhaps the heat of the sun boring into our shoulders.

A scrape into a wet crevice disturbs a toad. He won’t move out of my path, despite my prodding, and dead season or no, I don’t want to disembowel him with the tines of my rake. I work around him, leaving him glaring out between the tiny pile of leaves over his head. I strike up a conversation with him — it doesn’t seem so odd, here at home, here in the yard where I grew up.

“You’re going to get hurt if you don’t watch out,” I say. “I won’t be here in a few minutes, and my sister might not see you when she circles around.”

He does not say anything.

I start to think about a movie I saw once — one of all the trite stories about men who fall in love with women who have cancer. “I’m dying,” the woman reminds her husband, and he says, “Let’s not talk about that now.”

“You can’t avoid it,” she says. “It’s true. It’s what makes this, where we are now, worth it.”

I pause, for a minute, stretching my arms as my dad wanders over to my part of the back yard.

“There used to be so many more trees here,” he says. “You remember? And that storm took down all the ones in the front with the power lines when you were in high school.” He gestures to the clump of five the treehouse he built when we were kids is nestled into. “These — should have trimmed this bunch down to one when they were small, but I wanted to build the treehouse there. We’ll lose them all in the next couple years.”

The low-hanging starter branches on the climbing trees are gone now — some snapped by us as we grew older, some sawn off before we could do more damage. A few were taken out in storms. Some were just lost to old age, the wood growing weaker, bark brittle and thin. We walk to where the tree with the swing used to be — a towering Boxelder, cut down dying before it could choose which way to fall and crush the wood shop.

A clump of small branches with wrinkled, bright great leaves is shooting up out of the stump.

“New ones are growing!” I say.

“It’s a dirty tree,” he says dismissively. “It sheds. Litters. Drops debris all around it.”

I know he’ll save one shoot, see if it stretches to old heights.

And there are the lilacs — decimated a few years before, first by the weather, then by the lawn mower, then by the deer, who ravaged growth across the neighborhood. There’s a fence around them now, the way you shield something when you want it to grow.

Lilacs: if spring — fresh decaying season — ever had a saving grace, it would be lilacs. A person would do a lot for the promise of lilacs.

I walk by the lilacs in my neighborhood, here in Worthington. Purple and white, each bud tentatively uncoiling wet petals, straining toward blown open, unabashed — a new face to notice every time. Always different. And gone in two weeks, wilting into pale brown and folding into the soil.

The leaves we rake will be, too. My dad will shred them, eventually, and spread them across the lawn — maybe the garden? — and green things will sprint skyward like they’ve been given a shot of adrenaline, recycling their dead cousins into something new, something living. Something that we’ll have to rake up in a few seasons.

Still — a person would do a lot, for the promise of lilacs, even if they only last a few days.

Colorado or Bust

My trip to Colorado starts with an early flight, cutting above the clouds as the sky faded pale, racing the sunrise to Denver.

Well, really, the story starts with me, in the rain, the night before, searching for my sister’s keys in a bush outside her house. She’s already in Colorado, and since my flight leaves the next morning, she’s decided to let me stay at her place before my flight. She has hidden her house keys in an “easy” spot for me to find, and even sent me photos of the location to “help.” Like some kind of garbage thief, I riffle through the ripped grocery bags and decomposing Pringles cans caught in the branches while her neighbors walk past on the wet sidewalk, trying not to make eye contact. The photos, it turns out, were of a different bush entirely.

The first sentence just had a better ring to it, you know? But this was never going to be classy.

I miss my Greyhound to Colorado Springs in Denver, proud home of the world’s most confusing airport, and wander around for a few hours in the city with a suitcase sans phone charger and a dead phone, trying to remember my winding route so I can retrace my steps. The next Greyhound is hours later, but I can get a ride on a “Bustang” midday — a bright purple bus with an orange horse logo painted along the side. I find my way to the bus stop under a parking garage overhang in downtown and lean determinedly against the cinderblock walls, crushing cigarette butts under my boots.

I meet the bus and claim a seat on the right side. “The view from the left side is just Kansas flat,” I’ve been told. “On the right side you get mountains.”

I clutch my dead cell phone to my chest and forget about rental car connections for a minute, because mountains — this is something I’ve missed, something I don’t remember wanting until I’m there.

Mountains are snug and risky at the same time — they shield you, shelter you from the outside, like a bug in a cocoon, but they don’t go to any effort. You could climb them or stick to the ground; the mountains don’t care. You can take a few risks around them, precisely because they don’t care enough to judge you.

When I pictured Colorado, it was always snow and ski lodges — stock-photo Colorado. Here in person, it was on the edge between desert and texture, like snapped peanut brittle, smooth in some places, jutting up sharply in others, unpredictable. Old West country. You could imagine gunslingers here, or ladies in frilled, high-necked gowns; explorers and gangsters made their way here, a city with a Native American history as rich as the towns I come from; streets with gift shops and museums and restaurants and pot dispensaries jumbled into the same clusters; crowds split between people who don’t know how to drive in snow, and people complaining about people who don’t know how to drive in snow. Sometimes it made you feel right at home; sometimes you were uncomfortably aware that you were a tourist. Colorado doesn’t care. You didn’t ask its opinion, and it’s not going to ask for yours.

I could talk a lot about what we did — the places we stayed, the people we met, the train conductor with the terrible puns as we climbed slowly up Pike’s Peak, the mineral springs we sampled, the gorgeous sprawling beauty of the Garden of the Gods, the places we explored, the way it felt to wake up in the morning and see the view just outside your window, yours to take and touch and try to claim.

And I will, some other time, but here I just want to talk about missed buses and forgotten phone chargers and the sweet girl at the rental car station saying she’s so sorry, she just doesn’t know how to ring it up even though I prepaid, about poorly marked roads and hairpin turns and my sister laughing uncontrollably every time I say the word “Bustang.”

This was never going to be classy.

But if I could do it again? I wouldn’t make any changes.

Reading Out Loud

I consider reading a solitary endeavor. I like to hold my book in my hands, a warm mug nearby and lamplight shining across the page, and sink into the story. I get easily frustrated with people who interrupt me in the middle of a good book — even accidentally — and if someone demands my attention, it’s tantamount to yanking off someone’s headphones: you’ve crossed a line, punk, and I’m not responsible for your injuries.

But lately I’ve been reading aloud with kids — while babysitting, in the church nursery, while helping with homework. Sometimes I sit next to the older ones while they sound out the long words, and sometimes the tiny ones crawl into my lap and drop a stack of books on the floor, demanding, “Start with this one.”

When I was a kid, my mom would spend hours reading out loud to my siblings and me as we sprawled across the living room floor, coloring or doing homework or just listening. She read good books, books worth drowning in, and made us look up words we didn’t know. I still remember some of those stories in her voice.

My parents call it “lap time”: that concentrated time spent reading with kids. I’m not a psychologist, but I know that that combination — invested time, affection, learning, listening, reinforcement — is good for children, good for development.

It sometimes freaks me out when I remember that all the children around me — careless and overflowing with unselfconscious energy — have malleable, flexible brains, growing in personality as well as height. We’re literally watching them become people.

In George Orwell’s “1984,” one of the things Big Brother does to control the people is limit their vocabulary. A growing list of words becomes illegal; the dictionaries shrink; the words people use become smaller, less nuanced. After all, people who don’t have the words for rebellion won’t be able to talk about it.

Good book. Super depressing.

Last summer, a few friends and I sprawled on blankets across the grass at Centennial Park, watching clouds and brushing off the occasional wandering ant as someone read aloud the latest Harry Potter book. (She did the voices, too.) It’s one of my favorite memories from the season — others were louder, flashier, more exciting, but this was was molasses-slow and peaceful, a chance for me to breathe and laugh and listen and watch the sky change with the wind.

I sometimes forget that I and the people around me are still changing, still growing — that brains don’t just freeze in place when you hit 20 years old. We’re still getting smarter, gaining experience, adding skills, getting better at talking.

There’s not a point when you stop becoming human.

Melt, Reveal, Build

I hate spring.

It’s a brown, half-melted time of year, when the ice holding things in place is just beginning to thaw, dripping, dripping into soaked soil, rotting wood, as houses and people bound together by the cold start to sag apart.

To separate, like curdled milk.

I don’t like spring largely because spring makes me think about things I don’t like thinking about — life goals and world problems and loneliness, and the way we’re not measuring up to the standards we set for ourselves.

Spring is when your rain gutters, pried away from the roof by the ice, freezing and expanding, finally need replacing. They were smoothed over with snow, but now they just look tired, bent out of shape. You’re not sure you can bend them back to order.

Politics in our country are at a standstill right now, and no one is happy, no matter your party or position. The way we move forward will determine who we’ll be, as people, in the next few years.

But spring is the time of year when optimism feels like lying — when the voice that says it’ll never get better than this seems the deepest, the surest, the most confident.

I think it is lying, though.

It’s sort of a gamble, really — none of us are fortune tellers. But the weather will keep warming until crops begin to grow and trees unfurl their tiny wrinkled leaves — and optimism isn’t blindness, it’s hope for the future.

We’ll put our hands into the wet soil and let seedlings take root. New rain gutters, and fresh-oiled hinges; drying dust cleared out of the corners of the porch.

And the things that spring reveals — the ugly, jagged vulnerabilities that looked so gentle under the snow — we can heal those, too. We have the tools.

The ingredients for curdled milk also make smoothies.