Even the Bathrooms

April, 2012. Eight months into my undergraduate career and I’m feeling spontaneous, flippant, perhaps vaguely overtired by and underconcerned about the outcome of my semester. Riding the El for hours each week, commuting to and from that beloved poolside job, I stop one night, on the walk from city stop to city school, and step into Walgreens. Ten minutes later, I’m down $11 and carry a bag containing one box of semipermanent hair dye, swinging from my hand all the way up the street, up the elevator, to my room.

Two days later, late on Friday night, after another afternoon spent pacing the pool deck, dodging splashes, cheering on Friday Fun Day relays, Mary dyes my hair in the bathroom down the hall from our adjacent rooms.

We take a selfie first, a kind of Before Picture. Except there is no After, and the flash from my phone goes off, reflecting oddly off the bathroom mirror, and it takes five tries before we’re both looking, both smiling, both content with our expressions.

She dyes my hair, and late that night, I post that selfie on Instagram.

The next morning, Saturday, my homework-in-bed, no-breakfast-early-to-lunch day, there’s a notification on my phone, a comment on last night’s picture from a friend who graduated this very school several years before, when my own dreams of attending Moody were middle school fantasies.

Ah, those bathrooms, she says, I remember them well! I have many treasured memories from my time at Moody! She exclaims.

The comment makes me smile, and I pause for a moment, phone tossed haphazardly onto the bedspread beside me, and imagine the treasured memories that I will make, in the years and months to come. I wonder who my treasured friends will be, I hear the question echo vaguely, not even fully articulated, in the back of my mind. I wonder what we will do, what we will look back on as our own precious memories, the intangible and unrepeatable moments that define our time at college.

I wonder, and it never occurs to me, sitting there in my room, the heavy scent of hair dye still thick around me, that I am living those moment, with those treasured people, right then.

Now, August 2015, I still have red hair, but it’s only the ends and this look cost me 85 cents of Kool-Aid powder and a pot of boiling water. Now, I haven’t lived in a dorm in nearly eight months, and the hours that I spend on public transportation have significantly decreased. Now, I have a Moody Bible Institute diploma in a school-issued cover, and no papers to write, nor reading assignments to check off of my to-do calendar. Now, my neighbors are families, my phone is the primary way in which I communicate with Mary, and no one bangs on the wall of my room when I laugh too loud after 11pm.

And I miss it all.

And I know now, I see now, that those were the treasured memories.

The three times Mary and I dyed each other’s hair, sitting on one of the mismatched chairs we dragged from the kitchen down the hall, old towel around shoulders, looking up intermittently as the door swished open and closed.

Showering in those shadowy showers, risking scalding with every clink of the pipes, every near-unnoticed change in water pressure potentially signaling the impending loss of valuable skin cells. Yes, it burned, yes, I stormed out of the bathroom more than once when my preferred shower had been taken, but even that room, with the odd rock-patterned floor, the green tinted tile bricks, the ever-running toilets- even that bathroom holds a wealth of moments, all its own.

Running in on my way to class, backpack dumped on the flat carpet outside the door, just to check my outfit in the full length mirror next to the sink.

Getting ready in the early morning light in front of that same mirror- when the hour was just too early to justify bumping and shuffling around the room with a roommate mere feet away.

Early morning, late night, and everything in between, that bathroom down the hall is a part of the vast array of moments, places and memories that fold, that weave, that meld together to create the Moody that I treasure, the years that I cherish, the relationships that I’m still overwhelmed with gratitude to have.

~Natalia

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Life Right Now {#63}

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On that familiar train platform,
This time waiting with cousins,
Sisters, parents.
Nearing the end of this short Christmas break,
Traipsing downtown
In the rain and the sleet.
Shopping and snacking,
Michigan Avenue
And the Lincoln Park Zoo Lights.
I may have left the city for now,
But there’s a lot of wonder there yet.

~Natalia

Dear Mothers of the El,

I have headphones on, of course. And you’re right, usually I’m listening to music.

Loud music, more often than not.

But sometimes, when I see you step on the train, little ones in tow, on your hip, I turn my music off.

It’s partly because I’m curious, I suppose. Not many children ride the cta, at least not during the hours of my commute, and so see a child, or maybe even two, swinging their short legs in the space between seat and floor, always catches my eye.

I’m curious, yes, but also empathetic. Just like all those around us in this florescent-lit train car, you’ve a story that stretches well beyond the tiny clues and haphazard guesses I can venture as I sit across the aisle from you.

You and your little ones are coming from somewhere, going to somewhere, and as I listen to snippets of the words you share with your children, I find myself cheering for you. I feel my heart softening, a smile fighting to spread across my lips.

When you get on the train and I recognize your cropped hair, small frame, long coat from a late-night train ride last week, but then my eyes land on the child stepping beside you, her jeans tucked into worn boots, I want to greet you, smile at you, even though you don’t know me.

As she tells you about the time her grandpa let her taste coffee, and you sip your own drink (it’s espresso, you tell your daughter) and strategize about how you might tackle all the tasks awaiting you at home, I support you, I want to encourage you, even though we’ve never spoken.

When you step off the train into the dark, and her little steps echo yours down the concrete steps to the street below, I wish you well, even as your jackets disappear from view and the train I’m still on pulls out of the station once more.

When you get on the train downtown, and your child’s screams shatter the hum of silence that rush-hour commuters always seem to create, I watch for a moment as the seats on either side of you vacate.

We pass two stops, and then I move, sitting there between a woman with headphones on, identical to my own, and the screaming, flailing infant draped across your arm. I catch your gaze as I sit, and offer a smile, as if with one friendly nod of my head I could tell you that we don’t judge you, aren’t angry with you, don’t hold you responsible for the noise of the tiny, opinionated human in your lap.

When the train rushes through stops, moving on the express track out of the city, and you rub the child’s belly, pat her back, whisper to her, and she quiets, becomes still, I want to tell you that you’re patient, gentle, brave. You’re doing what you do well, and the baby, now laying quietly against your chest, her eyes roaming the packed train car, she knows you love her.

I want to say these things, and more, too, but I don’t know you and I don’t quite know how, so I nod, smile, sometimes speak, a little, and I hope you know that I am rooting for you, hoping for you, cheering for you, and praying for you, too.

~Natalia

Run Into Fall

There’s a park alongside the tracks. From my Brown Line vantage point I can see the two baseball diamonds, their rounded edges ending abruptly in deep green grass. There are soccer fields, too, strategically placed stretches of flat grass, tall white soccer goals capping off each end of the fields.

I’ve passed the park before; many, many times. In the summer, when the train blows cold, stale air from the vents lining the thick windows, and every stop brings a waft of hot, sticky city air along with it, the field is barely visible. Instead, gazing almost unseeingly out the window, I watch green leaves whip by, catching an occasional glimpse of the field beyond through the tall branches.

Now, in these early October days, the park is a little more visible. Fall is almost a surprise in the city; the leaves turn almost imperceptibly, and life on the ground, on the sidewalk, on the street, is so very busy, there’s not a lot of looking up that we do. So we live and we rush and we try to keep up with the maddening pace, and then one day, we get on the train, northbound, and up there on the tracks, the air is brisk, and the trees, they’ve thinned, dropping leaves that have suddenly turned luscious red, orange, yellow.

And through the gaps in the branches, there is the park.

Today, I almost miss it. I’ve my back to the door, bookbag weighing me backwards. One hand wrapped around the metal bar, steading myself against the sway of the train car, my eyes slide, disengaged, over the treetops, the apartments, the storefronts that we pass.

But there’s a bend in the tracks, the train swinging in a wide arch around an invisible obstacle, and I turn towards the door, catch myself against the momentum, and catch a glimpse of the park.

We’re moving fast, of course. Rolling along the tracks to the next stop, and the stop beyond, and on until the line ends. But for a moment, I lean my shoulder against the window, watch the movement in the park, just for a moment. Watch because something’s caught my eye, and I want to hold onto the scene, the sight, the picture, beyond the second I’ll have it here, in front of me.

Down on the grass, in the rolling emerald green between the baseball diamonds, a boy runs. Red sweater above blue shorts, the white flashes of shin guards and soccer socks. His fair hair moves in the wind, barely long enough to show the effects of the fall wind. His arms and legs pump, not in the tight, hard rhythm of someone working, but in the loose, flying chaos of a child playing. His head thrown back, he’s moving forward, but his gaze is thrown sideways. I cannot see through the autumn leaves still anchored to the branches, but I imagine another child beside him, racing him, pacing him, chasing him.

And then we’ve rounded the corner, swung the long, snake body of the train up around the curving track, and I can see him no more.

I watch the window for a moment more. I see nothing of the field, the child, but the scene, the snapshot I captured in my heart’s eye, brings a joy, an excitement with it. This is fall, I think. This is the changing of the season and the calendar and the very air itself. This is the changing of sports seasons and of tree color and outerwear. Yes, winter will come, bringing with it the aching cold of sharp wind and murky-white ice.

But this is not winter yet. This is the beauty and the color and the grace of fall, and there’s joy in that.

Joy to throw your head back, let your arms move, feel your legs kick the ground in every step; joy to run into fall.

~Natalia

Manifesto

Train ride back downtown, late April night riding backwards in the silver tube of the el.

It’s growing dark outside, my own reflection stares back at me through the window.

Behind my faint reflection, apartment buildings, stores, train stops whip past in the spring dusk.

I watch them.

Watch and think.

That’s why I love these weekly hours on the train; I understand myself, life around me, better on the train.

Better when I watch the city blur past, the clouds above us skidding lazily across the lakeside sky.

Tonight, my phone is in my lap, tossed atop the pink bag now ragged and frayed from three years of daily use.

Five miles south, Mary’s finished work. I imagine her standing in line to pick up a late dinner, clutching keys, ID, in one hand, texting me with the other.

We trade intermittent messages, and then the conversation pauses, falls silent.

We’re content, involved elsewhere.

She eats, I watch night descend on the city.

I imagine her opening her styrofoam dinner box, waving at friends passing through on their way home, their way out once more.

Eyes unfocused on the glossy pane, I lean against the window.

Gently air blows from the fan that lines the window, and I blink as the stale air blows faintly across my face.

Without realizing it, I frown slightly, the depth of my internal conversation dragging my eyebrows down with it.

Then I’ve snatched my phone again and am swiping it on, typing in the password I stole from Livi (which, days later, Mary will change for one of her own liking).

Returning once more to my conversation with Mary, I begin to type.

As the spires of Chicago’s downtown towers glide closer, I type.

As memories and conversations slide through my mind, snapshots of things said and things done and decisions made, I type still.

I want to be kind. I want to be gentle. I want to be wise.

I want to be thoughtful and gracious and wise.

I want to know how to handle situations

and not be caught off guard

and never have to hurt anyone.

I want to be confident and content.

The train rolling, bringing me yet closer to the school I come home, I type my declaration.

Far from bragging, the list I’ve created is a list of goals; deep desires for who I want to become.

Sparked by train hours spent reflecting on that which bothers me, on conversations turned sour, both parties floundering, by my own blunders.

There’s more, of course, and I pause in my furious typing to think, to mull over a word, an attitude, an emotion I’m trying to capture.

I know perfect describes God and nothing else, and I know standards are set high, sometimes never to be met, but nor are these words flung onto an iPhone screen flippantly, without consideration.

I’ve thought about this, battled with this. I’ve thrown ideas and solutions back and forth in my head until the thinking frown above my eyes began to ache.

I don’t know if my late-night train ride manifesto is the solution, but when I think about those words, about the person I want to be, it brings me back to Jesus.

To a real person, a real relationship, and real change.

~Natalia

This is Summer: Season Three {#3}

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Summer school these weeks;
One class, three trains, back downtown,
Swaying up the tracks.

~ Natalia

Traveling Still

There’s a man on the Red Line.

In the long cars, the new ones, with rows of blue-cushioned seats under the windows, facing each other.

He gets on above ground, after we’ve passed Belmont, Fullerton even.

Gets on and shrugs his shoulders, slings green backpack off his back, lets it slide to the ground, between his boots.

It’s snowing outside.

He has big glasses shielding eyes whose color I cannot discern, as my eyes sweep past in the noncommittal glance we’re supposed to use in such public places.

His glasses are square, gently rounded on the edges, and I can’t tell the shade hidden behind them, but I’m caught, momentarily by the way the lenses augment his eyes, magnify lids, lashes, pupils.

As a little child playing with a hand-held magnifying glass, a plastic one, I held the miniature tool up to one eye, and my brother, mother, laughed at the bubbling, lopsided exaggeration of eye through lens.

On the train, I listen to music loud enough to cover up, eliminate almost, the sounds of the commute, but you don’t need ears to see, and I watch him take out a book.

Later, almost at the end of the line, he’ll close to book, slide it back into his green backpack.

Later, I will see which book he is reading and I will remember the movie by the same title, a dark, dramatic film that my brother selected, only to leave, go to bed, forty minutes in.

But he’s just opened the book, long, narrow fingers gripping the sides of the thick volume, and I cannot see the title.

He pulls the book open towards the front of the novel, some eighty pages in, I imagine, and I’m about to look away, away from yellowed pages and long fingers and tidy coat sleeves, when I notice his bookmark.

I’d recognize that paper, that shape, that faint gloss on almost receipt-thin paper, anywhere.

It’s a plane ticket.

Old plane ticket tucked between two fingers, he flips the pages past his thumb until they arrive at the end of the book, nearly. And there he slips his bookmark, until he’s done next.

He tucks the ticket, begins to read.

I watch a moment more, sitting in musical silence across the swaying car from him.

The book is a travel book, I realize.

Not one of guides and maps and movement, but a novel, a story. Maybe even purchased in an airport, in anticipation of his flight.

A book to read as you go, as you ride, as you travel. A book of coffee stains and dog-earred pages and a ragged plane ticket tucked between the back pages.

And now he’s on the train, in the snowy city of Chicago, reading that book, and traveling still.

~Natalia

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