Latest Entries »

Driving Lessons

I haven’t written anything at all on this blog for quite some time, so I thought I’d try my hand at some fiction: 

My mother-in-law was driving the car when the world changed forever.  The cruise control was on as we flew over a patch of black ice.  I had been in the back seat in between my twin boys, one of whom had hit the other in the face with his rattle.  I remember how grating the crying had been on my ears, but I imagine it was only because I had had such little sleep. Upon recollection,  I can’t see why it was so bad.  I would give anything to hear that crying again.

But it wasn’t to be.  The car flew off the road and into a tree where we waited for half an hour for another car to pass and help us. My mother-in-law suffered a few broken bones, as did I.  But my boys were too young, and the force of the impact killed them both instantly.  And I sat for half an hour, pinned between the carseats, knowing they were dead.

My husband was on business in Japan, and I had to be the one to tell him that he would never hold our sons again. It nearly tore the entire family apart.  He refused to speak to his mother for quite some time, and he could barely look at me.  It was hard to look at him because every time I saw his eyes, I saw the eyes of Elijah and Noah.  When I looked at my husband, I was looking into the face of Loss itself.

The pain of losing my boys never left, but it did change.  Life carried on, and our marriage carried on.  And, in time we found ourselves talking of having children again.  Five years after the accident, I gave birth to Lily, and we were joyful for the first time in what felt like centuries.

As she grew up, we told her about her brothers, but could never say how they died, and every time we took her for a car ride, we never mentioned the boys. We were careful, and perhaps overly cautious.

When Lily was 15, her father passed away.  My world had shattered once again, shattered like the tinkling glass of the windshield that he went through.  For all of our carefulness, it seemed like we couldn’t escape the confines of all the cars that seemed for all the world like so many coffins.

Lily had doted on her father, and she missed him terribly, but we clung to each other in the midst of our pain and grew closer because of it.

I decided that I was going to teach her how to drive, that it would be the most grueling experience of her life up to that point.  If nobody else lived, it would be her, and I would be the one to show her. I would show her because I was the only one left, the only one never in the driver’s seat when worlds collapsed.

I took her everywhere–gridlocked cities, icy boulevards, hairpin turns on mountainsides, and she performed beautifully.  With each passing day, I became more and more reassured that she would make it.

One day, she hit a rabbit that was trying to cross the road.  It appeared seemingly out of nowhere, and she screamed and started to cry when she hit it.

“Pull over,” I said to her.  The country road we were on had a soft shoulder, and she coasted easily over and shut off the engine.

“If you’re crying in the driver’s seat, you won’t be able to see well enough to keep going.  You’ve gotta pull over when that happens.”  I was facing her, and she had her head in her hands. Lily nodded in agreement with me, and we sat in the car for a while as she pulled herself together.  And we kept going, knowing once again the dark feeling of life lost.

The day before her 16th birthday, I had planned the ultimate driving test–one that would require as much from me as it did from her, if not more.   I clicked myself into the passenger seat, and she asked me where we were going.  I told her to head East and get on the main road to Chicago.

About 10 minutes into our journey, I began the story.  “Your grandma was driving, and it had been so long since I had slept…”

By the time we got into the heart of Chicago, my daughter was in tears.  I directed her around tight city corners and she kept saying, “I need to find a place to park. Where can I park, so I can cry?”

But there was no place to park.  The city was packed, the few spaces along the streets had been taken up, and we had no change for a parking meter anyway–I had made sure of that.

“Lily, there is no place to park.  Sometimes you cry, and there’s no place to stop, so there’s only one thing to do–you have to keep going.  You have to muster up your courage and drive through the tears. Be careful, but keep going.”

I remember her half glance at me through red-rimmed eyes, the headlights of the passing cars glinting off the rivulets running down her cheeks.  She only paused for a second, but then nodded in understanding.

I knew she understood, because she never once had an accident.  She had many more tears, many more nights of hot cheeks and puffy eyes, more close calls and more hardship.  And, she had even more days of pure joy, more moments of ease, times of smiling and times of doting on the man she married, and later on, her children. My grandchildren.

Bless her heart, she kept driving. We both did.

A Glamorous Deception

If you are even minutely involved in modern society, you will know that kids today (I know, I’m a bit young to be saying “kids today”) are into some pretty weird stuff.  The airwaves are filled with insipid, messed-up former Disney stars, sparkly, angst-filled undead creatures, the pre-pubescent voice of post-pubescent Justin Bieber, and the graceful words of the new vernacular–”adorbs,” “cray-cray,” and “totes” (as in, “This pic of the Biebs is totes adorbs,” to which I might respond, “You’re totes cray-cray” or some version of that which isn’t insane).

I poke fun, but really, this generation is all rhyme and echo of my own. In my day (I know, I’m a bit young to be saying “in my day”), we listened to Paula Cole, BBMAK, and Cypress Hill, watched “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (apparently vamps are never out of style–just go back to Anne Rice’s novels and the first undead soap opera, “Dark Shadows”), and used words like “like” (every other word), “as if,”  and “the bomb” (as in, “Paula Cole’s like, the bomb,” to which I might reply, “As if!” if I were a valley girl).

I personally had my own brand of weirdness.  I forewent watching the traditional Saturday morning cartoons like Animaniacs and spent my morning chilling with Bob Ross’ painting shows.  I read a book a day, played basketball in the driveway and listened to the Broadway cast recording of “Evita” while rollerblading in circles for hours at a time.  I can admit it now, mostly because I’ve accepted that I was a quirky, lonely kid–and because I am no longer lonely or a kid, and my quirkiness has taken on different, cooler forms–I was uncool before uncool was cool.  However, when I was just entering my teenage years, I got involved in some things I am not proud of, one of which was the occult.  I wasn’t just in the vampire slaying crowd (though that was also a big area of interest for me), but I downloaded magical spells off the newly-created internet, researched old demon legends and Satanism (though I was a professing [read: false] Christian at the time).  I messed around with tarot cards, fortune-telling, and thought a lot about holding seances. I believed in reincarnation and a very real spiritual world–a world I knew next to nothing about.  And, true to the occult name (“occult” means “hidden”), I kept most of those things a secret from my family during the three-or-so years I was involved.

It’s interesting to me that the word “occult” means “hidden.”  When you mess with the occult, a lot of showy things can start to happen because the occult is a doorway to Satan.  I know people who’ve used Ouija boards (thankfully, I never did), and had immediate and powerful demonic encounters.  I’ve had a few of my own even without the Ouija board.  God says He’ll grant us more than we can ask or imagine, but Satan has his own brand of that promise–he’ll show us things more horrifying and more often than we asked or imagined if we open the door to him.  And, believe me–if you use the occult, you’re opening that door.

Perhaps you scoff that there is anything dangerous at all about playing with a cardboard “toy” that you can purchase at Toys R Us, or  playing with a deck of cards with a few weird symbols on them, or lighting some candles and mumbling a few words in repetition.  But if you read the Bible, you know such things have ominous meaning.  Do we really have to be so addicted to personal experience that we ignore the warnings in the Bible and the warnings of many who have tried the occult and found it scary and oppressive?

Admittedly, there have been perhaps two times in my life after my initial exploration of the occult when I have been tempted to use it again–both times after becoming a Christian.  Circumstances during those times were such that I was craving both answers and direction, and God was giving me only enough knowledge for the moment–which apparently wasn’t quite good enough for me.  God was quietly exercising my faith, and Satan loudly tried to prey on my desire for more.  Thankfully, the temptations passed, and I didn’t give in.  If you saturate yourself with the Bible, it’s easier to bear up under temptation.

I think Satan preys upon our desire for the glamorous, the showy, the obvious.  He preys upon the boredom that has come with so much ease-creating technology, and on our collective cultural desire for interesting distractions. So, he draws us in with a spectacle, a carnival, a magnificent hall of mirrors pinging objects of horror and intrigue off into an ever-narrowing stripe of infinity.  You’ll probably accumulate a lot of “interesting” stories by dabbling in the occult–probably more “interesting” than you’ll accumulate while carrying your cross behind Christ. But, if you continue down that occult path, only death lies at the end.

Then there’s God. God is glorious, but He’s not glamorous.  He has wowed me with certain experiences, but that’s the exception to the rule. God is no cheap parlor magician–His is the unchanging, still, small voice of humility, not the irresolute, loud, boastful voice of hubris.  God’s hall of mirrors shows us, but that same stripe of infinity changes our image progressively to look more and more like Christ the further into infinity we go.  It’s a path that ends (and begins) in life.  Sure, sometimes it’s not much to look at.  The way is humble, stony, thorny, and it doesn’t promise the seeming ease of other paths, but it’s really the only way to go and end where your truest heart wishes to be.

A thought grows up just as humans do. They start off fumbling, weak, small, but nourish them and they’ll grow powerful and stout as oak trees.  Starve a person, and they die.  Starve a thought, and it, too, will die.  And, if your thoughts are for spectacle, or curious for easy answers, I advise that you be very wary.  I am an extremely curious person by nature, and in younger years I gave myself carte blanche to research and learn as I wished.  Yes, I learned.  I learned that not all learning is helpful.  I learned that sometimes, a satisfied curiosity is not worth the price.  I learned that we cannot exchange the glory of the immortal God for some lesser counterfeit. Sometimes you have to let a thought simply die. Sometimes we have to learn to not be so fixated on our own entertainment. I learned that this whole idea doesn’t apply only to the occult–it applies to anything that draws you away from God, whether it be a culture that follows its every whim, an apostate teacher, or personal sinful desires. We don’t have to experience everything to learn from it, and I’m still learning this.  Wisdom can be a killer of intrigue, of glamour, of ease, of worship of  the wrong things.  And, wisdom can be life-giving.  We can get involved in some bad stuff over the course of our lives, but we don’t have to stay there.  Life, goodness, truth…all await you on the other side.

In God We Trust

I wrote this poem for a class I’m taking called “Living in God’s Presence.” It’s a wonderful class and I’ve enjoyed learning new things about my walk with God there, so I thought I’d share some of that here:

In life there are two friends

One, the fair-weather sort—fickle, absent, and shallow

The other dependable, stable and present

To whom will I turn when the storm waters rise and the waves threaten to steal my breath?

I see those friends standing by and watching as the waves overtake my eyes

Blurring and distorting my view of them

I reach my hand, but whom shall I choose?  In whose hands do I place my life?

I reach for the faithful friend and find myself in good hands.

When it comes to such trust my talent is of no consequence

“How trustworthy is the one I turn to?” Not “how good am I at trusting?”

For I fail in such ways, sometimes expecting a stone in place of bread

Or fearing a snake will rear up and strike, should I request a fish.

Forgive me for such thoughts, Father, for I have been weak.

In paradox, the storms have taught me to trust You more

For in the most shadowy nights, the stars luminesce all the clearer

Just as the Sun glows hotter and brighter

After the rains unceasingly, gently cleanse again and ever again this soiled earth

After darkness, You are light, where no shadows dwell

After rain, You are perfect and clear, beautiful as the sky

Teach me again when the tempest comes and the dark descends

That Your hand is ready to take hold and guide me through shadow and rain

Knowing that on the other side of trial, I will find myself clinging to You, You who are life itself.

And through the long ages, to forever, may I live in complete enjoyment

Of Your guiding hand and trustworthiness

Continually plumbing the depths of who You are,

Rejoicing that I will never see the end.

 

(I borrowed some of my thoughts from other poems/psalms/devotionals I’ve written, but it’s all true, and I’m grateful to be learning this lesson)

 

Filters

Many people in this world argue that “perception is reality.” However, I would amend this statement and say that our perceptions can easily set up for us a form of deception that is only just passable as reality. Sometimes our perceptions really do reflect the true state of things; at other times, what we see is not always what is really there. The filters through which we see things can greatly impact what we see. There is a certain level of naïveté in the person who sees all of life through rose-colored glasses, for example, just as there is naïveté in the person who only sees darkness in the world. In either case there is a deficiency of judgment–neither one perceives life as it is, and our filters can do the same to us in impairing judgment.

There are a great many filters through which we can see things. Our families of origin, experiences, personalities, and ways of thinking about life can all either enhance or taint our view of the world, and our view (or lack thereof) of God. It has typically been my tendency in life to view God in the light of life’s experiences; thus, my view of Him has traditionally been tainted and wrong, for all intents and purposes. It’s common to feel the need to perform and earn the affections and respect of others, and many of us are ingrained with that mindset over the years of our lives.

I always told myself, even before becoming a Christian 5 years ago, that God did not make me to be mediocre, and I always pushed myself to perform well under all circumstances. It’s been a snare for me, because I never felt like I would ever be happy in life, that I would always be looking around the next corner for the bigger and better thing. I’ve had a life of adventure and relative success because of it, but also a life I didn’t enjoy much until recent years.

This never seemed to mesh well with the idea that Jesus’ yoke is easy and His burden is light. I thought all my hard work and efforts to “measure up” were what God wanted from me. I saw the Bible as a list of commands–a harsh, rigid manifesto of sorts from a God who was unrelenting and onerous–someone who wanted only my infinite admiration and perfection as the price of His love. But where does this leave room for Jesus? And where did I even get this idea of God?  I have my hunches, and now that I’m a Christian, I’m revisiting all the old opinions I trusted for so long.  Is the Christian life all about “measuring up?” Are Christian living principles the be-all and end-all of what we’re called to on this planet?  Is God a distant taskmaster, demanding obedience in exchange for love?  Is He quiet so often because He doesn’t care? Or worse, since He doesn’t often make Himself known in the way we would like, does He even exist?  I’ve had many of these questions myself and know of many others who’ve had the same. But, I’m learning a new way. A better way.

Maybe God is not to be seen through the lens of those who’ve been harsh with us. He is not the abusive or absentee parent. Love is not a weapon He uses to coerce. He displays no indifference, but only passion–passion for us. The word “passion” itself comes from a word that means “guts.” It is a visceral, physical reaction to something that stimulates you to the core of your being. That’s how He feels about us. It’s why He physically came to earth and died an horrific death to save us–compassion. Passion.  For us. For His children. For His dust-bunny creations.

I’m changing my filters these days. I grew up with one person in particular who contributed to a negative impact on my view of God, though my own perception was the true culprit.  I always thought God was like this person because that’s what I grew up with, what I expected all forms of life to contain. But after I became a Christian, God put certain new people in my path–people who have loved me without condition. They rarely express their love for me explicitly in a verbal way, but they make the reality of it known through their actions, which has been far more important for me. They always have an encouraging word for me, a hug, a term of endearment, a way of emphasizing the bond we share. They take interest in my life and invite me into theirs. They look out for me, guard me, cry for me, lift me up in prayer, rejoice with me in victories, share opportunities, think of me fondly, and talk with me just as well as they listen, learning and teaching in the process of friendly interaction.  Why do I base my experience of God on the people who’ve wounded me deeply, and not more like the people I’ve just mentioned? They are a far better representation of the character of God.

I’m not saying that our view of God should be based on others, because if we viewed Him exclusively in that light, He would be imperfect and fragile. We would have no hope resting in a god made in our own image. But humans learn via analogia, or by analogy. Our experiences of others have surely affected our view of God in some way (the reverse is certainly true as well). But this should not be an indecent thing. There are examples of goodness and godliness scattered broadcast throughout the world. God blessed me by bringing such people into my life. They are helping to change the faulty views of God I had previously possessed. It took a couple of years for me to realize it was happening. Love crept up on me slowly, deliciously, warmly, like the blue-orange glow of the horizon when the Sun is about to rise. Now it’s apparent. God is more like the good people you know than the bad. Don’t look to your bad experiences and relationships and base your relationship to God or view of God on that. It could very well be that you’re not seeing Him through the right filters. In reality, He’s beyond anything brilliant and beautiful that we can imagine, graciously giving us little images of Himself along the path to help light the way home. And in these little images, these little lights, we see reflections of His light, the most glorious star to ever exist.

Son…You are my favorite star.

The Communicable Nature of Love

Some people are perpetually thankful for the gifts and opportunities God has given them. Every once in a while I will hear one of them say something like, “Lord, why have You given me all this stuff and just showered me with all this great love and success?”  Francis Chan said something similar about the success of his book, “Crazy Love,” about how he just didn’t get why God has always shown him favor. In giving it some thought, I realize that God’s act of love to one person (like Francis Chan) can be an act of love for others (like me).  I read that book and got a ton out of it. I listen to Francis Chan’s messages and get so much from them. God loves Francis Chan. God loves me. And God uses Francis Chan to communicate a bit of that love to me and others like me. I feel that way about all I come into contact with. God has showered me with love, success, and opportunity. Maybe He’s showered you with the same. We can’t keep it to ourselves, because maybe we are supposed to share it with someone else, and be that expression of God’s love for them.  Someone once said, “You are the only Bible some people will ever read.”  Let people read you, and see that your message is love.

Suffering

A few years ago a group of 23 missionaries went to Korea and got abducted by the Taliban.  The last day they were all together as a group, one of the ladies still had a Bible with her and ripped it into 23 sections and passed it to each person so they could have some encouragement before they were separated to be killed.  They each released their life to Jesus one at a time.  “Whatever will bring You the most glory, whether it be my death or my life, I ask that of you. Kill me if it will bring more glory to You. Let me live if it will bring more glory to You.”  A couple of them were killed, but the others returned to their homes unharmed.  The odd thing was what the survivors had to say to each other after several weeks and months of being back.  They all would remark to each other, “Don’t you wish we were still there? Don’t you wish we were still imprisoned by the Taliban? We were in this pit and I remember being fearful but I remember being so close to God. I had this intimacy with Jesus and I’ve been reading the Bible and trying to get it back but it’s just not the same. It’s not the same!”

Maybe this is why the disciples and apostles of Jesus wished to be counted worthy to suffer for the Name.  They knew that communion with Christ meant sharing in His suffering, and I can tell you from personal experience that I feel furthest from Jesus when I’m at my most comfortable.

It’s been a bit of a weird year for me thus far. I graduated college in December and began my Master’s degree studies at Phoenix Seminary in January. In May, I moved into my first apartment and got a new job the week after that. The first week of June, I made my first trek to Europe with my mom and stayed there until the 16th of that month. From that point, I worked two jobs, working as many as 26 shifts in a row at one point. In August, my car died a rather painful death, so I got a new car at a smoking deal, an orange Kia Soul that has WAY more features than I could ever possibly think to want.  That same month I resumed grad school studies. Earlier this month I quit my old job and in a couple of weeks I will begin singing at my new(ish) church. There have been a lot of changes, and not all of them good. In June or so, Satan started attacking very heavily, most of it revolving around my old job (a job that was very dangerous to do), and a big loss I experienced in my family.  Satan attacked violently, and that is one of his favorite weapons to use against me. I can’t say what all took place, but I have never experienced spiritual warfare to the degree I experienced it this summer.

Satan doesn’t really get it, I think. If he had just left me alone with all the good things that had been happening, I might’ve ended up rather far from God. It’s incredible how good times can lead to simply wanting to maintain the status quo. But when the trials started, I ran to God, to family, and to a few trusted friends and mentors to surround me in prayer (I confess I should’ve gone to them sooner than I did; Pride will tell you that you can handle it on your own, but trust me, it won’t work). In the course of my life, I don’t think I’ve suffered much, but I notice that when the suffering comes, I run to God. In fact, it was during my greatest period of suffering that I became a Christian (this coming December 19th marks my 5th year in the family of God).

I understand logically why we don’t wish to suffer. It’s painful. It’s uncomfortable. It either forces us to grow or pushes us into a pit of bitterness. But spiritually, I see the value of it. It reminds me of Christ’s suffering on the cross. It reminds me that this world is not my home, that I can share a small part in the pains that Jesus endured, His humiliation and rejection. Paradoxically, it reminds me that there is hope, that suffering will not last forever, that rejection and humiliation are not the end of the story, that I can share a deeper relationship with Jesus through such things, and that He will give comfort through times of suffering.

Jesus has been described as the Comforter.  Why do we need a comforter if we’re already comfortable?

I think of Stephen. Right before he was stoned to death he saw Jesus.  Or Shadrach, Meschach, and Abed-nego, when they went into the furnace, and God was in there with them.  The examples are everywhere!  They all shared something in common: they counted everything as loss compared to the surpassing worth of knowing Christ as Lord. For His sake, they lost everything, and counted everything as crap just to gain Him and be found in Him, without righteousness of their own that came from the Law but having a righteousness that came only through faith in Christ.

It’s not about masochism. I love to enjoy myself and have fun. I spend lots of time with my friends and family. I love to hang out, chat, go to movies, go on road trips, and just let loose and pursue adventure, and I see God in those things, enjoying them right along with me.  It’s not about wanting suffering, it’s about wanting Jesus enough to bear up under the strain of life and all the fiery arrows Satan shoots in your direction. You’ve probably seen romance movies where a man and woman don’t get along very well until they’re thrust in the midst of some incredibly perilous situation, and then they fall in love.  It’s a bit of a bad analogy, but that’s sort of what it’s like. There is something about having a relationship with someone in the extreme lows of life that endears them to you in a way that could never be had by simply experiencing good with them all the time.  It is through suffering that we experience our deepest communion with God and others.  About 6 years ago my dad took off, and I remember exactly who was with me when I saw him for the last time. She is now one of my best friends. It’s not necessarily because she happened to be there, but we bonded very closely in that moment and that bond hasn’t broken. Jesus was there too, and that bond hasn’t broken either. It has been stretched and strained at times, but the more we go through (suffer through) together, the stronger that bond becomes, and lesser things flee away.

Get alone with Him. If you’re suffering, go through it with Him and let Jesus enter into it with you. He knows what it’s like, and then some. Take heart. Whatever it is you’re going through, you’re not alone. Even if there’s no one else, Jesus is right there with you, and a relationship with Him is worth everything.

Everything happens in threes, so it is said. When we arrived in Copenhagen that final morning, it was the third time we had been to Denmark in less than 2 weeks, and the end of a magnificent adventure.  We awakened easily enough and had a final coffee at the International Café.  Dear Gina, whom we had met on our first day, was there, and we said our goodbyes to her as we enjoyed our drinks.

We had been instructed to meet in the Wheelhouse Bar at 7:30 to wait for our bus to the airport.  It was not too long of a wait once we got there, but I sped around the ship a few more times, looking for people I knew and finding no one to say farewell to.  I was sad that I had missed Miguel and several others that I had wanted to see again.  I had seen Linda the night before and we said our goodbyes on a crowded elevator, tears streaming down her cheeks as she hugged me, saying an “I love you” before the doors closed.  Linda and my mom had grown especially close and both had cried when they said their farewells.  I was sad to also have missed Bohovina and Raj, our friends and companions in Germany.  Time had run very short, though, so I made my way back to the Wheelhouse Bar, and we were ushered off the ship one final time.  I looked at its massive hulk over my shoulder once more as we got on the bus, and we were shuttled to the airport.

In spite of the small amount of sleep we had gotten the night before, we were wide awake, thanks to the wonderful effects of coffee, the legal addictive stimulant that had helped to fuel us each day of our trip.  We stood in line to scan our passports and get our tickets at the airport, the lines thick and twisting in the stark-white, sterile expanse.

My mother and I were laughing together, thinking of all the fun.  We started quietly singing “Yesterday” by The Beatles and smiled at each other, recalling our British pub lunch from the day before, and how we had sung along to The Beatles at our lunch table.  We had come on the trip not knowing how we would get along together in such close proximity, but were pleasantly surprised to learn that sometime over the course of my progressive ascent into adulthood, we had become friends.  Mom and I had long been close but frictional in that closeness, much like polar opposing magnets.  We both have mile-long stubborn streaks and different interests, but love for one another.  We’ve been to Hell and back together, and this trip was our little taste of Heaven.  It brought us even closer, and I am happy to now have that memory to hold onto for the rest of my life.

There were a few people standing behind us as we talked, and one of them called out to me: “Hey! Are you that girl who sang last night?  You did great!”  I laughed and said thank you, and we chatted for a while, discovering that all of us were from Arizona.  We moved through the line and were directed to another line to check in our luggage.  I was recognized for singing by a few people in that line as well, and each time I laughed—nobody has ever recognized me in an airport before, and certainly not for singing. It was a pretty nifty feeling.

I had had my champagne that Mark had given me in my carry-on bag before realizing that it couldn’t be carried on the plane, so I did a quick shuffle of items in my bags, hoping and praying that the champagne bottle would survive in my checked luggage without breaking and drenching all of my clothes and souvenirs.  The guy behind the check-in counter was helpful in that and very friendly (I have yet to meet a Dane I didn’t like), and we made our way through the airport to find our terminal.

When we got into the main center of the airport, I was shocked at how much the Copenhagen Airport looks like a shopping mall.  Stores were everywhere, selling everything from clothes and accessories to electronics, alcohol, cosmetics, and groceries.  Mom and I sat and had something to drink while we waited, trying to work ourselves up to finally going through the airport security line.  It wasn’t too long before we had finally mustered ourselves into it.

We got in a long line for security and on our way, we ran into Raj and Bohovina!  We were all so pleased to have caught each other and exchanged hugs.  We had seen each other on the ship a few times after we had spent the day together in Germany, and they had come to watch me perform at the karaoke finale.  They paid me a compliment about it and said how glad they were to have met us.  We didn’t have long to say our goodbyes, as the line was moving rather rapidly, so we said goodbye rather wistfully and then departed.

I suppose I must’ve left my sunglasses on my head or something, because an alarm went off when I walked through the metal detector.  I was signaled over to get a pat down by a friendly if somewhat intrusive security agent. I hadn’t been to an airport since the new TSA regulations had taken effect, and had been dreading getting the TSA royal rubdown.  It wasn’t quite as bad as I had feared.  I was ushered through without a hitch and we went to our gate.

As soon as we arrived at the gate, we were informed that our gate had changed, and was now on the opposite side of the airport.  So, we walked to the new gate.  When we got there, we were informed that our gate had been changed again and was on the opposite side of the airport.  Tiring of what was turning out to be a goose chase, we sat in the center hub, equidistant from all gates.  Eventually, we wandered over to the proper gate, where our passports were scanned.  I was selected at random for yet another pat down by security, this time in a private back room next to the terminal. The agent was very friendly; I was slightly nervous.  Again, they found no bombs or illegal weaponry and let me pass.

I’ve been trying to learn Danish for some time, so I grabbed a Danish newspaper from the newsstand and read it while listening to my iPod’s Dansk playlist in the crowded terminal.  We were finally called to board and discovered to our happy surprise that we had been upgraded to Economy Extra, and had 2 seats together.

Our last flight on Scandinavian Airlines had been like a little trip to my own personal circle of Hell. Sure, it promised amazing things to come on the other side, but the process of a transatlantic flight can be slightly traumatic.  Picture it: No matter where you sit or happen to be going, there will be at least one horribly smelly person on your flight.  The engines drone on and on without variance, almost making one yearn for turbulence just to break the monotony, the gruesome sense of being in suspended animation.  Eight seats are stacked across three rows. Everyone stares straight ahead, bodies contorted into unnatural positions, legs suspended at the same angle for countless hours, feet ballooning like twin Hindenburgs, positively yearning for the cart of overpriced drinks and mushy food that would make prison inmates riot to come your way, for scorched coffee and another inevitably boring movie starring some insipid Hollywood celebrity, thinking that one more minute of the mental hospital-like environment would prompt you to happily open the emergency door and get sucked into thin, hazy air.

I am, of course, exaggerating terribly.  Long flights aren’t terribly fun, but the destination is what propels you to keep taking such flights.  Before the plane takes off, I spend my time people-watching.  They wind slowly through the center aisle, some looking for their seat, others looking for free space to stow their bags in overhead bins, each carry-on telling a story of a long time away from home.  I wonder about those stories, if any of those people have had a great adventure or are coming home from a great heartbreak.  Airports can be places to cry, places to hide, or places to discover; everyone looks for something to find, and airports can help people find plenty in this world.  I wonder what these lined-up, thoughtful looking people in the aisle have found.

Our seats were excellent on the flight.  I enjoyed being at the window seat and looked out longingly at Copenhagen.  As we took off, we flew over the coast, and I caught my last sight of the Emerald Princess, looking stately as it waited for its newest set of passengers to dazzle, and I missed it thoroughly.  We passed over Oslo as the movies began (everyone had their own personal TV screen and a great selection of movies, music, even video games to choose from, and you could also watch the flight path and the world below, if you so desired), and I silently said my goodbyes to my homeland.  Soon we were over the Shetland Islands of Scotland, enjoying a glass of wine at 35,000 feet.  Not long after that, we were over Greenland, taking pictures of glaciers as they covered mountains, meeting an icy Atlantic at the coast, the thermometer telling us that below, it was -75 degrees outside.

I listened to Billie Holiday’s melancholy “I Must Have That Man” as we passed over Nova Scotia, thoughtful over how quickly the return flight seemed compared to the flight over.  Soon we were over Boston, preparing for our descent.

I hadn’t been to New York in 11 years, and I took pictures from the plane as we descended over the iconic skyline.  We exited what was perhaps the best flight I had ever been on, and wound through customs in New York.  The passport line was incredibly long, and in the line, someone waved over to me and asked if I was the girl who had sung on the ship the night before.  I couldn’t believe I was still getting recognition for that, and we had a nice chat as we waited.

Our flight wasn’t scheduled to leave for several hours, so we sat outside the airport for a while, parked under a Sun that felt foreign on our skin, listening to a type of urban percussion I had not heard for years.  It was a sound that felt comfortable and welcome, like a visit from an old friend, though it was only the sound of honking horns, shouting accents indigenous to Jersey and Brooklyn, and the restless hum of humanity bustling through the streets, busy with Heaven knows what.

We went to the terminal for Continental and were directed to hop a shuttle to the terminal on the other side of the airport, to the United counter.  We went back and forth a couple of times, trying to figure out where our plane was.  Eventually, we found it and made our way through security.  No TSA groping this time.

We split a sandwich and I had a Green Machine smoothie to perk me up a bit before another long flight.  We sat next to a couple in the terminal who were also on the Emerald Princess and from Arizona, and chatted with them for a while, as they had also recognized me from singing the night before.

When we boarded the plane, we were told that the only in-flight entertainment being offered was DirecTV, and we had to pay for it.  So instead of indulging, we napped from New York to Arizona, waking up shortly before we descended over the nighttime desert, the few twinkling clusters of light on the ground that were visible looking like cruise ships on dark waters.  Depressing.

We landed in Arizona and stepped off the plane into a demoralizing and ungodly heat.  One step, and I felt my blood start to evaporate in the 100+ degree temperatures (and it was 10PM).  I was thoroughly sick.  We called the number for the shuttle to pick us up as we grabbed our luggage (the champagne from Mark had happily made it intact) and went to the curb to wait for pickup.  We didn’t have to wait for long in the heat, thankfully, and we were transported to our car.

In spite of the sleep we had had, we were both exceedingly tired as Mom drove down Grand Avenue to get home.  Along the way, we got pulled over by a cop and my mom got a speeding ticket with a hefty fine.  We got to her house and I pulled my car out of her garage, marveling at the now-foreign feeling of driving.  As she pulled in, I noticed that she had two flat tires.  And, as soon as she parked, her car battery died.

Welcome home.

If I haven’t mentioned yet how much I love the open sea, let me say it now: I love the open sea.  Forgive my lackluster delivery, but it’s an irritating reality that many places and events defy description.  I can give you all sorts of facts and illustrations to describe places like the Stockholm archipelago or the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, but some places just demand silence, like a quiet, forbidden summer romance that can never be discussed. I’ve been trying since I’ve been back to fumble around for words to comfortably frame where I’ve been and what I’ve experienced, but it’s all in vain.  I can’t describe how I feel about the sea. I could take pictures, but you’ve seen some already.  I could shoot a video, but that doesn’t translate much. You could be there and feel differently.  I was there, and I simply feel glad that I had my eyes open the whole time—that I had lived to see such beauty.

It was our last day at sea, and our last day of the cruise.  We would spend the day on the sea, bound for Copenhagen once again, where we would dock and all be shuttled to the airport, then hop on our respective planes back to our homes across the globe, always carrying with us the ties we had made with the people and places we had visited.  It was a bit of a sobering feeling, but I was determined to make the most of every moment I had left.

I woke up a bit later than I wanted to, but not by much, so I didn’t kick myself too hard for that sin. I got ready in a hurry and enjoyed breakfast on the freezing 15th deck, bundled up in the scarf I got from Denmark and the hoodie I got in Norway, enjoying fruit tarts, honeydew, and a breakfast sandwich with my morning coffee.  Cruise Director Lee was on the outdoor movie screen, discussing the process for disembarkation.  I sullenly listened.

Mom had a cigarette in the smoking area while I finished breakfast.  When I walked over she was sitting at a table with a lady who spoke almost no English, just Spanish.  We tried as best we could to communicate, me fumbling around with my limited Spanish (You’d think I would know more Spanish, living in Arizona, but I know enough to order off the menu, and that’s about all.  I took French and German as my languages in high school and college…much more practical in my part of the world, I know).  The three of us agreed it was a lovely trip, figured out where we all hailed from, and extolled the virtues of each other—nice, friendly, lovely, and left as friends…somehow.

I was bound and determined to participate in morning trivia, so we went down to Club Fusion and had a seat.  It was just us in the group this time.  One of the assistant cruise directors led the trivia that morning—Andrew, from Canada, a funny and handsome young man.  We had a blast and lost of course.

We stayed put in our seats afterwards to play Bingo (there was a $2250 snowball jackpot, which nobody won), hosted at first by Colin from Scotland, and then Mark took over.  Brian joined us at our table as we played.  All of us lost (when it comes to gambling, I am a negative force to be reckoned with, apparently) but had fun.  We ordered drinks, as it was after 10AM at that point and not taboo.  I decided to change it up a bit and I ordered a strawberry daiquiri instead of my traditional Midori Sour.  The waiter asked me if I wanted a small or a medium, and I thought a medium would be fine, so I ordered that.  He brought out what looked like a giant fish bowl filled with the red, slushy material.  My eyes widened as he set it in front of me.  I’m actually surprised the table didn’t buckle underneath the weight of the thing.  But I am not a wasteful person—over the course of the next hour at the table, I drank the whole thing and, of course, felt miserable at the end.  The waiter came back and asked if I wanted something else, and I very quickly put a stop to that idea.  I thought I was quick about it, anyway…for all I know, I could’ve been moving very, very slowly.

By the time bingo was over, we decided to grab lunch at the Wheelhouse Bar, where they were serving an authentic British pub lunch.  I was all over that like white on rice, believe you me.  The Beatles were playing in the background as I ordered fish and chips (cod, of course) and a Guinness.  Guinness and Dos Equis are about the only beers I’ve ever had that I’ve even come close to liking, though by that point in my life, I had yet to finish a single beer.  And let me tell you, that Guinness was delicious, especially with the fish, and it was the very first beer I ever finished.

Like I said, everything tastes better on a cruise ship.

After that, I had yet another appointment to keep at the Lotus Spa—this time, for a seaweed wrap and full body massage.  The seaweed wrap was…odd, but cool.  First, I was painted from head to foot with hot green slop that tingled as it was put on, and then wrapped firmly in tin foil like Sunday’s roast.  Then the massage therapist placed a screen over my eyes and left me wrapped in the darkness for about 15 minutes.

This must be what it feels like to be inside a womb…tight, confined, smelly, tingly, dark…

The massage therapist came in and released me from my embryonic sanctuary, leaving me to hose off the Nickelodeon slime in the shower.  I must admit, it felt awesome.

I was thoroughly relaxed as I went to lay down for my massage.  Massages are always painful for me.  I had an allergic reaction to the lotion at the very first massage I ever had (last year) and thought to swear them off.  My massage therapist this time said my back was covered in knots (no surprise), and that if I ate more alkaline foods, I would be relieved.  Since I’ve been back I’ve tried it—so far, so good.  After the initial pain subsided, I was far beyond relaxed.

At the end of the whole thing, I soared back down to my stateroom to wash the massage oil out of my hair (the scalp massage was like a bit of Heaven) and get ready for the rest of the day.

I was just in time for afternoon trivia at Club Fusion.  Brian, Thelma, Al, Linda, and my mom were all there with me.  The same waiter from the morning came over and asked me if I wanted something to drink.  I gave him a hearty “No thanks” and he looked bemused as he said “No daiquiri?” That was no daiquiri, that was an itinerary.

After we lost, we went to dinner, our last together.  It was a sad ordeal, but I still ordered all sorts of things I hadn’t tried before, feeling like a regular bon vivant the entire time.  We all enjoyed Baked Alaska for dessert and got up from the table to go play music trivia at Club Fusion.

As we got up, our waiters said their goodbyes.  God bless them, I don’t remember their names, but one of them was such a sweet guy from the Philippines, and he pulled me into a tight hug as we departed and said “God bless you.”  I was moved by this and returned the blessing, heartened to have yet another spiritual connection with someone I probably won’t see again and is now halfway across the world.

Music trivia was a blast with Al, Linda, Brian, Thelma, and my mom.  We drank, laughed, and I got to make use of the fact that I have over 9,000 songs on iTunes, considerably improving our chances of winning.  Of course, we didn’t, but that’s not the point.  We had an uproarious time, enjoying each other while we still had the chance.

Brain Buster trivia was next, and also in Club Fusion.  Mark hosted the festivities this time.  During the trivia games, we had to be very quiet when discussing answers to the questions so as not to give anything away to the other teams scattered broadcast throughout the room, and sometimes Al would get loud.  Thelma and I shushed him so many times that after a while he got fed up and mocked us, saying “Shut up Al, shut up!” in a Donald Duck voice.  Well, that was just too much and we giggled madly, causing Mark to look over at us to see what the commotion was.  I shushed everyone again so we wouldn’t get in trouble but we still laughed quietly.  Even now, I’m laughing just recalling it.

We had a bit of time to kill before the karaoke grand finale, so we all walked around the ship for a while.  Al and Linda walked off for a little while, and my mom and I had coffee with Brian and Thelma before heading back to Club Fusion.

The assistant cruise directors had pulled out all the stops for us that night.  Instead of the contestants sitting in the audience, they had created a “green room” for us.  It was really just a section of the stage they had curtained off.  We sat back there for the pre-show and they had champagne and water for us to drink, presumably to loosen up.  One of the assistant cruise directors informed us that after each performance, we would come back to be interviewed on camera for everyone to see.  They pretended that we were on the 21st floor (which doesn’t exist, of course) in an ultra-secret, hip lounge area having a huge party where the champagne flowed freely.  We sat back there and waited for the festivities to begin.

I couldn’t see him from my vantage point, but Mark came out and introduced the first performer, Bill from Alabama, singing “Walk Through This World With Me.”  He was an older gentleman, and about halfway through his song (we could see the TV screens broadcasting his performance from where we sat), he beckoned to his wife and he held her as he sang the song to her.  It was very sweet.

Next up was Monica, the girl who won with me, and she sang the same Alicia Keys song that she had done before.  I was sitting next to Grace in the green room and she and I were talking quietly while Monica sang, so I didn’t get to hear much of it.  She did great though, from what I heard.

After that, Mark introduced Jordan from Tennessee, singing “Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash.  I don’t think I had ever really listened to the lyrics before, so when he came to the part, “I shot a man in Reno…just to watch him die” I shook my head and looked quizzically at my neighbors.  What a sentiment!

I was really nervous when Mark called my name.  I had been handed a microphone right before I drew the curtain back to go on the stage, and he was already gone by the time I got out there, so I was immediately alone and more nervous than before.  I sang as well as I could but left thinking that I had done worse than the night before.  But the audience hadn’t thought so.  When I hit the first instrumental break, everybody started spontaneously cheering wildly, eliciting a big, nervous smile of amusement from me.  They cheered loudly when I left, too, so I at least felt good at the end.  I walked back into the green room and prepared for my interview.  I don’t remember the lady’s name who interviewed me, only that she was Canadian and very friendly.  They had prepared several questions for us, and at the end we each answered a weird one.  I think my odd question was “Would you rather have hot wax dripped over your eyeballs, or have a corkscrew put through your belly button?”  I don’t remember what I said, but I hope to never have to decide in real life.  The lady had a glass of champagne in her hand and pretended with each interview to be drinking heavily.  I decided to play along and grabbed a bottle.  We toasted each other on camera and I drank straight out of the bottle in front of everyone, not quite believing that I was doing such a thing.  It got a few laughs, though, so I felt my entertainment duties had been completed.

I had a seat and the next person was called out—Joel, singing “Mandy” once again.  I could really listen to Joel sing all day long, he had such an amazing voice.  He was very quiet and seemed shy (even more so than me, which must be a lot), but seemed like a pretty cool guy.  And such talent!

After him came sweet Grace, singing her Elvis song once again.  It had been really low for her before so they cranked it up a couple of keys and she did a lovely job.

We were all finished at that point, so one of the assistant cruise directors, Melissa, came out and sang Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” as the votes were counted. It was bloody fantastic, and she had a gorgeous voice.  Once she finished and all the votes had been counted, Mark called all of us out to stage for a final round of applause and a final bow.  “And the winner is…”

Joel!!  I was quite pleased and not a bit surprised as we all clapped enthusiastically for the very talented Joel, who was looking at his feet and smiling bashfully as all eyes were on him.  Mark and the other assistant cruise directors handed out prizes to everyone. We all got a Princess Cruises reusable tote bag filled with keychains and pens, and Joel got a bottle of champagne in addition for winning.  Mark announced that they had no second place prize, and directed everyone to give Joel another round of applause before dismissing us.

I turned to Joel, who was standing next to me, and offered him a handshake and heartfelt congratulations.  He reciprocated very graciously, but we were interrupted when I felt an arm go around my waist from behind.  Joel turned to congratulate the other contestants and I turned to see Mark standing there.  He gave me a lengthy, bone-crushing hug and two kisses on the cheek before standing back and saying that I had come in second place.  Joel had 25 tables vote for him, compared to my 18, so I was a bit surprised to have lost to a professional singer by a mere 7 votes.  I started to talk to another assistant cruise director, the same one who had conducted my interview, and she gave me a big hug and said that she thought I should’ve won, which I thought was very generous of her. We were interrupted by Brian and Thelma.  They both gave me big hugs and said their goodbyes.  We had promised to keep in touch and traded e-mail addresses, but I was still incredibly sad to say goodbye to such wonderful people, especially since we had grown so close and comfortable with each other.  I wistfully let them go.

Next up were my mom, Al, and Linda.  Hugs all around, and congratulations.  We made our way out of the Club and I watched as my mom tried to force her way through the door onto the deck, the wind forcing the door closed.  I decided to stay inside for a while as they made their way onto the deck, so I went back into Club Fusion, looking for people I knew and receiving many congratulations as I made my way through, my prize still in hand.

As I was looking around, I ran into Mark once again, coming out from behind the bar.  He saw me and beckoned me over furtively.  “Do you like champagne?” he asked.  I nodded in the affirmative and he looked around to make sure we weren’t being watched as he tucked a bottle of champagne into my Princess Cruises tote bag, the same champagne that Joel had received for winning.  I told Mark how supported I felt by him the whole time, and he was pleased.  He asked what I did back home, whether I was in school or working, and when I told him I was a tech at a hospital and a Master’s student in psychology, he gave me a face that suggested intimidation, and then slyly asked what I thought of his psychological profile.  I laughed and told him that I thought he was good, safe from mental disorder. I told him also that he had a fantastic singing voice and he related to me his singing adventures in England.  After our conversation, he had to go meet with some people that had been waiting for him, so he hugged me tightly, kissing my cheek again before saying goodbye.  He looked back at me as he walked away and waved, joining the group that had been waiting for him, and disappeared through the door.

I continued to look around for people I knew, and ran into a few of the British couples I had met during the trip, and they offered congratulations and wished me well in my travels back home.  I wished them the same and walked up to the stateroom to drop off my spoil from karaoke, coming back downstairs afterwards to wander some more. I had determined at the beginning of the trip to stay awake long enough to see the sky grow completely dark for at least one night, and this was my last chance.  On my way walking through the Piazza, I saw Joel singing with Melissa, one of the assistant cruise directors, in the Crooner’s Bar.  I sat down and listened until they finished, then wandered around the Piazza some more.

I came around a corner and ran into two Scottish couples who gushingly congratulated me and offered to buy me a drink.  I declined the drink but went to sit with them in the Crooner’s Bar, and we talked for a good 45 minutes, laughing and having an uproarious time together.  It was well after midnight when we finished, and I said goodbye, thanking them for a good time.  I decided to wander through the empty corridors of the ship and take pictures of as many things as I could.  We had to be awake at 5AM to get ready to leave the ship, but I wanted to stay up as late as possible to soak it all in for one last time.

At around 1:30 I decided I needed coffee, so I wandered up to Lido Deck 15 to grab a cup.  The entire place was empty, but it had finally gotten completely dark outside (it hadn’t been dark for more than half an hour at that point).  The stars were not to be seen against the brightness of the ship’s lights, but the Moon shone bright and full over the rippling waters of the Baltic Sea.  I sat with my coffee in a lounge chair next to the pool, which had been covered in nets for the night.  I had the place to myself, and watched the dark sky for several minutes, marveling over the manner of its beauty: enigmatic, serene, enjoying my coffee and reminiscing over all the things I had done in the two weeks prior.  I must be the most blessed girl in the world to get to have such experiences and make so many excellent connections with such fascinating people. I was truly relaxed, for the first time in what felt like eons, drawing breaths unencumbered by worries, schemes, or anxieties, reassured that the world was indeed a magnificently big, marvelous place.

My reverie was interrupted by several crew members in matching windbreakers, who had come to remove the padding from the deck chairs for the night.  That’s my cue, I thought, grabbing my coffee and moving indoors.

My mom had been in the casino until it closed, and reported that her final tally for the trip was that she had broken even at the casino.  We had both arrived at the stateroom at around the same time and were packing our last few items in our carry-on bags slowly, as though packing slower would mean we would get to stay in Europe longer.  Neither one of us was prepared for it to end.

“Inception” was playing on the TV as we packed it in for the night, finally succumbing to the siren song of sleep.  We slumbered for three hours.  Thelma, Brian, Linda, and Mark all graced my dreams, and when they hugged me, I could feel it.

Growing up Norwegian and knowing my country’s history, I was skeptical about our next stop, Sweden.  Would they even let me in the country?  Would they stare me down like some otherworldly, inferior beast?  Or would I simply have an allergic reaction to Stockholm and retreat to the ship in a miserable heap? You see, the Swedes have a history of perpetually picking on their neighbors.  The Swedes were trash-talked in every country we went to except Germany (the Russians don’t count; they had clearly seen too many episodes of “The X-Files” and had taken the motto “trust no one” to heart)—even the Estonians, Danes, and Finns hated them, and those are about the most docile, polite, open-minded people in Europe.  But nobody hated the Swedes more than the Norwegians.  You can see why I was a bit skeptical.

I hadn’t been expecting much, but I was pleasantly surprised.  Stockholm looks like something out of a picture book—a beautiful network of hilly islands connected by bridges over vast waterways, brightly-colored buildings and towers, a massive city center filled with Viking architecture.  The place practically drips with culture and, dare I say, class.  We took a bus to the Old Town of Gamla Stan, where we walked around for quite a while, looking at Viking runes and architecture, shopping, and touring past the Nobel Museum and Drottningholm Palace, where the Swedish royal family lives.  Truly an enchanting place.

We bought some water at a local 7-11, but didn’t have much time to explore there (actually, we didn’t get much time in Sweden at all, just 5 hours or so) before we had to hop on the bus again to go to our main stop: The Nordic Sea Hotel, and the Absolut Ice Bar.

We arrived there and waited outside for a bit, watching the news and getting our first dose of the “real world” in almost two weeks.  We were then ushered in, single file, to get our hooded, furry ponchos and gloves.  The Absolut Ice Bar is exactly as it sounds: A bar, made entirely of ice.  There are ice bars elsewhere in the world, but the one in Stockholm is the original, and the only one that is there year round.  There’s even an Ice Hotel in northern Sweden, but we were nowhere near it.

After we had on our ponchos, hoods, and gloves, looking for the world like some silly combination of Inuit and tourist, we made our way through several doors until we walked into a room covered in blue ice.  It was -5 degrees Fahrenheit in the bar, and we were given the ponchos so we wouldn’t melt the ice, not to keep us warm.  Honestly, I probably could’ve survived without it.  The gloves were necessary, though, especially once we got our drinks.  We were all handed glasses made of ice and filled with Absolut Apeach Vodka, pineapple liqueur, and pineapple juice.  Delicious!  We sat on seats made of ice and propped up our elbows on tables made of ice.  They had different ice carvings around the place, and they changed themes of art every month.  When we were there in June, the theme was faces, so all around were carvings of different faces.  Quite a spectacle!

I had a chat with the barkeep, who was very friendly, also probably around my age.  He asked where I was from and was very curious about Arizona, and we answered questions about our respective cultures for a while before we left the chilly confines of the bar.

I walked outside, and it was a very fine day.  I happened to look to my left, and what I saw gave me chills: A building called the World Trade Center.  I shook it off as I walked across the street to the bus, and we drove through the city once again.  In Phoenix, we have a Walgreen’s or a Starbucks on every corner.  In Sweden, they have H&M on just about every corner.  I was shocked at how many I saw in one area.  I also saw several IKEA stores, not surprisingly.

We passed over numerous canals on our way back to the ship.  Stockholm is made up of 14 islands, and it’s known as the “Venice of the North.”  I can see why.  The entire place looked like one grand movie set.

We got back on the ship and decided to go to the top deck to watch our departure.  I stood next to one of the ship’s crew as we waited to take off, and he had caught wind that one of the ship’s crew had gone into Stockholm on his own and never made it back to the ship.  Our departure was delayed as a result, but as far as I know, the crew member made it onboard again.  We took off, and I watched the city float away from a lounge chair on the top deck, the seagulls circling the ship like it was a giant smorgasbord.

Stockholm is surrounded by tens of thousands of islands in its archipelago, and that was the main thing I wanted to see in Sweden.  The archipelago was absolutely incredible, small mounds poking up through the water all around for a seemingly infinite space.   It was a perfectly lovely day, the Sun creating a white corona around the retreating city, reflecting off the crystal waters that shimmered like a million tiny mirrors.

I almost hate to admit it, but I actually miss Stockholm.

After lounging on the deck, it was time for wine tasting.  A few days earlier, we had been eating lunch when a crew member came by advertising the wine tasting. We signed up for it, paying a nominal fee that was totally worth it.  So, we went down to the Michelangelo dining room, where I was seated next to a very fun British couple.  The man was clearly a connoisseur of wine who gave me plenty of recommendations and made many wry jokes.  He had an exceedingly dry sense of humor and I got a kick out of him and his wife.  We sampled five wines, with each wine being introduced by a new sommelier.  They were all from different cultures and with each new glass we were introduced to the art of toasting.   Toast to anything—to others present, your parents, your country, your love of different cultures, to life, anything will do. Then it’s “Salute!” “Kanpai!” Tokyo style. “Osassuna!” in the Basque tradition. “Cheers!”  Take a long, lingering taste, letting the full flavor of the wine coat your tongue for at least 10 seconds, and swallow.  To some, it was culturally important to drink the entire glass to the last drop, proving you weren’t a wuss or some reactionary revanchist provocateur.  At the end of it all, we had a delightful Sauvignon Blanc dessert wine in a cute little glass that we got to keep.  I said goodbye to my new friends and off we went to the next adventure.

The next adventure proved to be one we had already had: afternoon trivia.  We played well, fought our hardest, and lost.  During the entire cruise, we never won a single trivia game, losing every time either to a Scottish family or a large group from Tennessee.  But I can honestly tell you, I’ve never had so much fun losing.  And I’m quite competitive with things like trivia, so that is saying quite a lot.

Up next: formal night.  We went back up to the room to change into formal clothes and get ready for another fancy dinner.  I wore a different, more painful pair of heels than I had during the first formal night.  Just walking down our hallway, I regretted the decision, silently lamenting the ridiculous truth that “beauty equals pain.”  I’m sure I didn’t look very beautiful, though, trudging down the hallway on a pair of stilts.  And at the 6’0” height I was at, the ground looked painfully far away.  I feared I would meet it soon.  Why didn’t I take them off?  I did, at every possible interval.  And since that day, I’ve never put them on again.

We ate dinner with Brian and Thelma, enjoying our time together once again.  We were a bit more reticent this time, likely because we knew that the cruise would be over in just a little over a day, and we sat in silence, watching the Stockholm archipelago passing quickly by outside the picture window, making it look like somebody was skipping gigantic stones across the water.

Agreeing to meet up a little later for more trivia, we made the long, painful trek back to the room.  I kicked off my shoes before we had even made it into the stateroom and breathed a deep sigh of pleasure and relief.  I changed my clothes in a hurry and went down to Club Fusion for more trivia.

Needless to say, we lost.

We had some time to kill, so Mom headed over to the casino with Al and Linda in tow.  Brian and Thelma went off on their own, and I kicked around the ship for a while before heading back to Club Fusion to watch the “Newly Wed, Not So Newly Wed Gameshow” with Cruise Director Lee.

It was funny (and at times a bit awkward) to hear what kind of questions the couples were being asked in the gameshow.  Some were very personal and odd, and the three couples tried to answer questions about each other to the best of their ability, sometimes coming up with some hilarious answers.  I sat in the back and had a drink while I watched, laughing the whole way through.

Pretty soon, tons of people were pouring into the Club, as the Princess Pop Star Competition’s final heat was about to commence.  Every night of the competition, more and more people showed up.  By the final heat, the entire place was filled up.

Mark waved at me from across the room as the opening music turned on.  He ran to the stage in a state of pure merriment, introducing the audience to the night’s festivities.  If I remember correctly, I was the third singer that night.  As suggested by Mark the night before, I sang “My Heart Will Go On” by Celine Dion.

The thing about singing is that I love to do it, but I’m never completely happy with any performance I do.  Not once have I ever performed up to my standards, so it brings with it a sense of disappointment, even though I love doing it so much.  That night was no different.  I messed up in several spots as I do every time I sing, though no one seemed to notice, and I think I had about one note that I was actually pleased with.  Even that pleasure in the one note was rare for me, so I finished feeling only mildly okay with the whole thing.

The audience seemed to enjoy it though, and Mark did as well, giving me a massive hug once again as I finished, whispering his approval in my ear.  I went to sit down with my mother and friends to listen to the rest of the performers, feeling back to normal again and not so nervous as I had been before.  Linda was crying again, and I think my mom may have shed a tear or two as well.

There weren’t quite as many singers as there had been the night before, so it wasn’t long before the vote was called.  Again, I didn’t vote.  And again, Mark sang a song for us while the vote was being counted.  He sang “If Tomorrow Never Comes” by Garth Brooks, a very sweet song about how he hoped that if he died the next day, the girl he loved would know how much he loved her, and the knowledge of that would sustain her for the rest of her days.  It was beautiful, sweetly sung and heartfelt, a bit of a haunting invocation, and he looked almost angelic.  Mark being somewhat mercurial though, had to add some devilishness in there, and spiced it up a bit in a few places, strutting across the stage and giving somewhat suggestive looks to the audience, even winking at me a few times.  I got a video of part of the performance and am always amused as I watch it.

He was given the vote tally after he finished and seemed practically giddy.  He called up the first winner, Monica, a girl a bit younger than me from San Francisco, who had sung “If I Ain’t Got You” by Alicia Keys (apropos, this song had also been sung by the young girl whose show was onboard a few days before, Katrina Rose).  Then he called up the second winner—me!

Cool.

He hugged me as I came up and then stood next to me, directing us to take a bow.  I did, awkwardly, and then he passed in front of us, pointing to his cheek to seek a kiss.  We obliged and then he dismissed everyone.  Lots of people came up and bombarded me with congratulations.  Mark was the first, giving me yet another big hug and a kiss on the cheek.  He told me that I would be singing the Celine Dion song once again the next night at the grand finale, against all the winners from the past few days, so I was relieved to not have to choose a song again. My mom found me and gave me a big hug, as did Linda, Thelma, and Brian.  We all walked out together and stood out on the deck for a while.  A British couple (it’s always the British, I love them!) came up to me and congratulated me, saying they had been rooting for me for the last few days.  It sticks with me because the man looked a lot like Bilbo Baggins, and I was charmed by them both.

I went back up to the room, getting many well-wishes along the way.  I watched TV alone in the room for a while and then fell asleep as the ship gently dipped back and forth in the water (“Rock me gently, rock me slowly…”).

The sound of the waves on the open sea was my lullaby, and it sings perfectly every time.

When I woke up that morning, I was looking forward to our somewhat cryptic tour that day: “Sibelius Monument, Porvoo, and Temppelliaukio” were the words gracing our tour tickets. We may as well have picked blindly out of a hat for what we understood of those slightly enigmatic words, but as it turns out, we picked very, very well.

We went through the morning motions without a hitch, though we were slowly but surely becoming sadder by the moment as we realized how close we were to being done with vacation.  We didn’t waste much time on that emotion, however, especially once we got caught up living in the moments of the day.  We hopped on a bus and drove through a very empty Helsinki.  Our tour guide explained to us that most things were closed on Sunday mornings (and it was very early, perhaps 6:30AM) and that it was also a national holiday-Finland Day or some such thing, and that the streets would get very crowded with bicycles later on (very few cars exist on the road anyway because gas prices top out at over ten dollars a gallon!).

We didn’t have to drive far before we ended up at the Sibelius Monument.  Jean Sibelius was a famous Finnish composer.  When Finland was dominated by the Russians, it was illegal to play Sibelius’ most famous piece, “Finlandia,” because the Russians feared it would stir patriotism in the masses and cause an uprising.  Ultimately, the Finns fought the Russians valiantly and won their independence in 1917, making Finland 5 years younger than my home state of Arizona.

What an incredible, imposing structure the Sibelius Monument is.  Hundreds of steel pipes in varying thicknesses and heights are affixed together and made to stand alone in a clearing with no obstructions, and when the wind blows, the pipes make music of their own, all of it gorgeous and haunting.  “God’s Pipe Organ” would be an entirely accurate sobriquet, should one choose to use it.

Next to the Monument is a steel replica of a very sour-looking Jean Sibelius.  Our tour guide said they had a name for him in Finland: “Arriburri,” which means to have the “morning grouchies.”  We lingered there for a few minutes, watching the ducks and taking in all the gorgeous scenery before hopping on the bus once again.

This time, we drove for around 40 minutes, my mother and I having no idea of what was coming next.  We ended up outside a little town called Porvoo, east of Helsinki.  We parked next to a bridge covering a small, tranquil body of water. A number of small buildings littered the grounds on the opposite side of the bridge, their matte black roofs giving off dull gleams in the Sun.

Quaint doesn’t describe it. Charming doesn’t do it either.  Whenever I go abroad, I’m likely to take thousands of pictures.  But, if a picture is worth a thousand words, no camera would ever be able to capture what a delicate, wonderful place Porvoo is.  We strolled across the bridge and came into the cobblestone-encrusted town square.  We were pointed in the direction of the water closets and shopping district where many of the diminutive shops were opening their doors for the awestruck tourists that had just arrived. Or, maybe it was just me that was awestruck (but if it was, I’d be quite surprised).

We went through the shops, marveling at the creativity of such people who could fill entire shops with only things that they had made themselves.  The shopkeepers and pedestrians were so kind and generous that I wanted to hug them all like beloved family members.  Many homeowners left the gates to their gardens open deliberately so that anyone could simply stop in and enjoy the loveliness of a private garden. My mom and I had run into our tour guide outside of one of the gardens and we three stopped inside to enjoy the many flowers, potted plants, trees, and picnic tables of blue, red, and green.  We left after a spell to duck into several shops (some more than once), and also went to a very famous confection shop called Brunberg Oy, world-famous for their black salt liquorices.  I bought a bag, plus some toffee, and mom bought some as well (which she eventually gave to me, because she hated the stuff.  I don’t understand it—how can you hate ambrosia of the gods?).  We ran into Brian and Thelma outside of a little café where we had drinks and talked in hushed tones of how much we simply adored the place, as though the city-dwellers might hear and be embarrassed over our gushing.  And it was gushing, indeed.

My mom and I were the last people to get on the bus to leave the town.  Our tour guide walked with us.  I feel terrible for not remembering her name, because she was a vivacious, fun woman, and we walked arm-in-arm back to the bus, laughing the whole way from sheer delight at what a wonderful, surprising day we were having.  It was one of those incredibly rare cross-cultural experiences in which you realize that people aren’t so different after all and can bond over just about anything, even without knowing each others’ names.

It had gotten quite warm outside and we welcomed the coolness of the bus as we took our seats.  Another 10-15 minute drive, and we had arrived at our next destination: an old farmhouse out in the middle of a green meadow, surrounded by fields of rapeseed for several kilometers.  We had no idea why we were there.

This was shaping up to be quite an interesting day.

When we got off the bus we were directed inside a room filled with all manner of farming tools that could easily have doubled as weaponry: massive blades of all shapes and sizes, machetes, porcupine-looking lawn aerators, etc. It felt like the scene from “Twister” when Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt were in a tool shed during a tornado, and nearly ended up being shredded to bits.  I’ll admit, it was a bit of a dodgy atmosphere at first, but that was not our final stop.

We were directed further down a small staircase to an underground cavern that had been decorated with picnic tables, candelabras, fancy pitchers of water, wine glasses, and very classy table settings.  We were being served lunch down here!  And since it was warm outside, being surrounded on all sides by dirt underground gave a very pleasant, if humid, cooling sensation.  I grabbed a seat in a very dark corner and my mom sat across from me.  We were soon joined by two very charming people who were also from North America, and we chatted happily for quite a while.

Early on, I happened to look over to my left to examine my shadowy surroundings, and found a gigantic spider in the corner just above and behind my head.  I do admit, I have arachnophobia, but it has been slowly improving over the past couple of years, so I didn’t have a fit or anything.  Unfortunately though, I had trouble taking my eyes off it for more than a few seconds at a time. You never know about these things, you see.  One second a spider could be sitting happily on its web, and as soon as you look away, it could pull a kamikaze move and sink its fangs into your juicy flesh, thereby infecting you with whatever diseases it’s carrying, leading to your impending death.

But then again, I do have a tendency towards hyperbole.

At any rate, it wasn’t long before numerous wait staff came over with heaping bowls of salad, rolled beef medallions, and delicious desserts.  We ate like kings and thoroughly enjoyed our surroundings, people included.  When we had finished, we walked outside and were pointed to a little gift shop outside the farmhouse.  We strolled around inside and ran into Brian and Thelma once again and happily chatted them up for a while.  The more we saw each other and spoke, the more Brian and Thelma opened up and let loose.  It was the same for me, and I’m sure for my mother as well, but it’s always a very cool thing to see people become comfortable with each other.

Our tour guide met up with us and we all got on the bus once again.  We drove back to Helsinki, along the coast, where thousands of boats were docked in the marina, their owners in various states of disrobement, basking in the heat of the day.  We ended up in Senate Square, where we were let out for a while to look around.  We toured around the shop at the Lutheran St. Nicholas Cathedral (we wanted to go inside the cathedral but were preempted by a baptism), and wandered around behind the cathedral.  We were greeted by a young Finnish girl who told us that there was an art show going on at a place called Kafe Krypta, not 10 meters in front of us, and we decided to go inside, as Mom had to use the loo anyway.

Kafe Krypta was exceedingly cool.  It was exactly as it sounds: a crypt that had been converted into a café.  A small altar adorned the back of the crypt.  Brilliant, masterful artwork covered the walls.  A piano stood regally near a small seating area in the café.  The entire atmosphere was hypnotic, enchanting, even chic.  We poked around for a couple of minutes before deciding to check out Market Square, a very colorful place filled with one-of-a-kind merchandise, much of it very unique and fashionable, as Helsinki is surprisingly one of the top design capitals in the world.  We wound through a labyrinth of interconnected shops, and I selected a pair of fun, unique earrings.  As I went to pay for them, Brian and Thelma came up behind me.  Brian asked if I was buying something for him and I laughed.  “I didn’t realize you had pierced ears,” I told him.

We parted ways again and raced back to the bus, nearly getting pancaked by a trolley bus on the way, as we had run out of time again in our wanderings.  We got back on and I thought for sure that must be the end of the tour, but we had one more stop to make.

The Temppeliaukio Rock Church (another Lutheran church, as Lutheranism is the state religion of Finland) is one of the most famous landmarks in Finland.  It was designed by brothers Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen and completed in 1969, and what is so spectacular about this church is the fact that it is underground, carved into bedrock.  Wooden slats surround the roof (which is made entirely of copper) and hold it up.  The entire front of the church is covered in pipes from the massive organ they have there.  From the outside, it doesn’t look like much.  The inside, though…that is truly something to see.

We got on the bus for the last time and headed back to the ship.  We were apparently the last tour bus to arrive back, because we set sail almost immediately after we arrived back onboard.  I deposited my many treasures in the stateroom before deciding firmly to attend the Interdenominational church service onboard that day (as it was a Sunday), conducted by Cruise Director Lee.

We walked down to the conference room on Deck 6 forward, and took seats as one of the onboard performers played the piano for us before the service began.  Then Lee came in and discussed Hebrews 11 with us, frequently citing the Old Testament for a bit more context.  I attend seminary, so I suppose I have a bit of a critical eye for preaching and was curious to how he would approach it, and I was seriously impressed, especially when he started expounding on the meanings of words in the original Greek.

I had to talk to this guy.

We sang a few hymns and were let loose.  I went over to Lee to ask where he went to seminary, and as it turns out, he was an autodidact, which was incredible to me.  My mom told him I went to seminary, and some of the other people standing around wanted to know where I went, and so all of us had a very nice conversation about the Bible, seminaries, and sound hermeneutics.  It was great (though I was sad to be the youngest person in the room by about 20 years at least), and I’m very glad I had some spiritual stimulation while I was onboard.

By the time we had finished, we had missed afternoon trivia, and there wasn’t much listed in the Princess Patter that we really wanted to do, so where did we go after church?  The casino, of course.  Sure, it was a bit incongruous, but I didn’t spend a dime.  I watched Mom lose for a while and then I left (at which point she starting winning…sigh).  I wandered around on the deck and through the ship for a while, and went to collect my mom at the casino before heading down to dinner.

By this point in the trip we had finally figured out how to get to the Botticelli dining room without incident. Perfect timing, of course, as the cruise was almost over.  We ate with Brian and Thelma and marveled once again at how much we loved the tour that day.

As you can probably tell, I had gone goofy over Finland, falling hopelessly and irrevocably in love with the place.  I was considering, for the umpteenth time, of defecting.  After all, what else did I need?  Gorgeous weather in summer, freezing winters, beautiful beaches, an adventurous element, quaint towns, amazing people, a ridiculously hard language to learn (which is lots of fun for me), no need for a car, awesome education…I had already come to adore the scent of clean, crisp air, the slightly fishy quality of it near the seas promising untold delights, reminding me that yes! You were in Finland, really and truly!   I couldn’t even be depressed that it was over, because of the high I was still living on.

Everyone agreed that it was a remarkable place, and we adjourned after eating, Mom to go take a short nap before coming to see me at karaoke that night, Brian and Thelma and I to go to Famous Faces trivia.  We met up with Al and Linda there and did well, though we still lost.  Afterward, Brian and Thelma and I decided to go see a show onboard.

The show was a young lady, about my age, who had a lovely singing voice.  Her name was Katrina Rose, and she did well.  Brian, Thelma, and I had a hard time concentrating though, probably because we had just eaten an obscenely large amount of food at dinner, and we ended up leaving early.  I don’t know where they ended up, but I ended up going to listen to DJ Clinton play songs from the Rat Pack back at Club Fusion.  I had a drink there, de rigueur, and jammed out to Frank Sinatra for a while (especially when “Fly Me To The Moon” came on, my favorite song from Ol’ Blue Eyes).  Brian and Thelma joined me not too much later for the Liar’s Club Gameshow.  The Cruise Director’s staff all told the audience something different, and we had to decide which person was telling the truth.  It was quite entertaining, because the natural response was to suspect all of them of lying.

But, in truth, I was a bit preoccupied with psyching myself out for karaoke, which was coming up next.  I hadn’t picked a song yet and was anxiously waiting for Mark to show up with the books so I could choose something, as he was not part of the Liar’s Club.  He showed up about half an hour before karaoke was set to start, and I went over and picked out a song: “Come Away With Me” by Norah Jones.

The Liar’s Club soon finished and we were left to wait for karaoke.  I sat with Brian, Thelma, Al, Linda, and my mom, who had joined us.  Mark bounded  up to the front when the lights dimmed and the entry music commenced.  He introduced three singers before calling me up.

Mark is quite a character: flamboyant, flirtatious, kind, mature in private but young-at-heart and Puckish in a group, and always charming.  Mark is British, 26 years old, a Scorpio he says, born in 1984, very open obviously, and exceedingly extroverted.  He was a capo, possibly a consigliere in the ship’s subculture—everyone knew him and plenty would come to give him a hearty handshake and a hello.  Everybody who was anybody knew the guy, and of all the people I met, I probably miss him the most simply because of what an awesome person he is.

He gave me a big hug and before he said anything else, he tenderly stroked my arm and said very shyly, “I missed you.”  I was thoroughly amused, and laughed and said “I missed you too,” before he turned around to look at the audience.  He asked me if I was dedicating the song to someone, and I said there was no one in particular, and then he left me to it.  The song I chose is so languid in its movement that I’m a bit surprised I didn’t fall asleep in the middle of it.  I was very relaxed, which is uncharacteristic of me when I’m singing, and I think it went all right.

Cheers at the end.  A huge hug from Mark as I left the stage.  I went and sat with my friends and my Mom, and they said how well I did.  Linda was in tears.

I don’t think I’ll ever understand such things.

A few other singers came up, and then it was voting time.  Each table got to vote for who they thought the best singer was, and the top two would head to the final round.  I refrained from voting and sat there, sort of hoping I would lose so I wouldn’t have to psych myself out singing again.  While the vote was counted Mark sang for us, “Brown Eyed Girl” by Van Morrison.  He had a wonderful singing voice, and I was very impressed.

Once the votes had been counted, Mark looked at the tally and seemed a little less happy than usual.  He called one of the names: Joel, from Las Vegas, who had sung “Mandy” by Barry Manilow.  Joel was an incredible singer.  He sounded exactly like Josh Groban and was clearly a professional (indeed, he was, since we saw him singing several times at other places around the ship). He was probably around my age. The second winner was an older lady from Canada named Grace who had sung “Can’t Help Falling In Love” by Elvis Presley.

I was amused looking at the reactions on the faces of the people around me.  They seemed flabbergasted.  I got told time and time again afterward that I had been robbed, that the lady from Canada had had a huge group of friends with her who had separated tables to get the most votes, that it should’ve been me up there with Joel.  I didn’t care (I really didn’t!); I thought I was off the hook!  I had wanted to sing once on a ship in the middle of the sea, and I’d already done it twice.  I was set, and had zero  interest in “winning.”

My mom and I walked out amidst many people telling me I was robbed and wishing to commiserate.  I steered us quickly in the direction of the Explorer’s Lounge to get away from all of that, and walked through Explorer’s a little bit before getting caught by a couple who had heard me say the day before that I was a churchgoer.  We stood outside the lounge and talked about God and school for several minutes.  They said that I should come back the following night to try again at the karaoke competition, and many others had echoed those same sentiments.  I vacillated several times on whether or not I should, and then Mark and one of the other assistant cruise directors caught up to me.  Mark said quite frankly that I should come back the following night, and maybe sing a number like “My Heart Will Go On” by Celine Dion (I wondered if it would be a little strange and perhaps morbid to be singing the Titanic theme song on a cruise ship), and he wouldn’t take no for an answer.  He and the other assistant cruise director said I did great and that they were certain the outcome would be different if I came back.  Mark was pleased when I finally said I’d come back, and gave me another hug before taking off for the night.

My mom went back to the casino for a bit and I wandered the ship for a while before heading up to the stateroom for bed.

Well, at least I’ve got a song picked out for tomorrow already. The Titanic song. Ironic.

It had been a busy, thoroughly enjoyable day.  I climbed under the covers, knowing that my time in Europe would soon be coming to a close.

But I’m still here, I thought.  I’m still here.  

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 777 other followers