when all is said and done / 2016.

We all do a balancing act between our personal and public lives. On a global scale, this year has been tough for so many different reasons. It’s hard to say whether this year is cursed or not, or if all years are like this and we’re just being ~dramatique~. Either way, it’s been hard, globally speaking. And it looks like it’s only going to get worse from here, as Donald Trump clatters into the White House in January. So, fun!

New Year’s is easily the most stressful holiday – it’s an arbitrary line between one year and the next, when in reality, one year ends and the next begins every day. The internet’s looking back on 2016 (I saw someone make it into a horror movie, which was extra but also funny) and I couldn’t help but look back on my own year.

Which, on a personal level, was one of those years where a lot of stuff happens. I did a lot of traveling, made new friends, and met my girlfriend. For the first 4.5 months of the year, I was in Italy, drinking wine, taking trains to faroff cities, and stuttering through Italian 101. Even though I look back on it fondly, my second semester abroad had a dubious beginning, because I was unwilling to let go of how great 2015 had been.

In the beginning of 2015, I had to go to my school’s home campus for the first time, and spent January and February in kind of a depressed fugue, hating it all. But I broke up with my boyfriend, the snow melted, and I started going to the gym. Everything looked up fairly quickly. Even though I had a summer job at an insurance company, which I hated every minute of, the fall semester ended up being fantastic. I got to live with two of my closest friends in the world. And I made the decision to study abroad again based on the fact that they were both going to also be in Europe – one in Dublin, one in Barcelona.

I’m not saying that I closed my eyes and pointed to a map, but essentially, that’s what I did. I ended up in Perugia, enduring cold temperatures and a surprisingly rainy winter, wondering why the hell I had chosen to come there at all. I had been having so much fun at my home campus with my friends. I liked my classes and professors. I was getting involved. So being in Perugia, where I didn’t have any friends and had no clue what was going on, felt like a total displacement. I cried to my mom on the phone every night for the first week, saying that I should have been in Barcelona, with my best friend from school, or at the home campus. It felt like that was where my life was.

I was lonely. Lonelier than I’d been in a long time. I started to make friends, but the friendships were new and fragile, not as rich as the ones I had back home with girls I’d met during my first semester abroad. The weather wasn’t what I had expected it to be (Italy is a Mediterranean country, right?!) and traveling didn’t turn out to be as easy as I had hoped. I didn’t speak any Italian. At all. I felt utterly unprepared.

As the weeks wore on and I continued to be in Italy, it became increasingly clear that being unhappy wasn’t going to change my situation at all. My friends and family were thousands of miles away. I was alone – grocery shopping, walking home from class, eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner utterly alone. No one was coming to my rescue. No one was going to hold my hand through this.

So I held my own hand. I started to meditate in the hopes that I could use this newfound loneliness – and freedom, if I squinted – to become more chill. It didn’t work that well, because my mind kept wandering which frustrated me endlessly. But the fact that I was trying made me feel good. I bought a notebook and took it everywhere I went; I wrote a poem about a sunset that made me cry, which was…a weird moment. But that cry was necessary, I think. I started experimenting – a little – with cooking. I went to a weird cafe where I sat on a lumpy velvet couch, drank hot tea, and watched what they were playing on the small TV – which was weird videos of men in fur hats doing decidedly strange things. At one point, one of the men rode another man into space.

It felt good to help myself. I didn’t have to worry about anyone else, just myself, so I did what would make me feel better. And slowly, it did help.

Until I went to Dublin. I was there for less than 48 hours with the two friends I had lived with in fall 2015. I had missed them so much, and seeing them was great until it wasn’t – until I was sobbing at a train station in Italy because I was going back to Perugia, and the loneliness. Seeing my friends had helped only in the short-term, but I was on my own again, with just my backpack and my shoes. I ended up writing this poem as a response to the uniquely awful experience of crying alone on a train platform in the middle of nowhere, Italy. Oh – and it was Valentine’s Day.

I met myself on a train platform.
I asked where she was going;
She said she doesn’t know
Funny, I laughed —
     Neither do I.

After a moment she decided
She knew after all.
“I’m going to find myself,”
She said,
And it sounded as good a destination as any
So I marched Converse to ticket booth
And asked for a ticket to me.

A few days after that, I went to a birthday aperitivo for one of my friends. After some sangria and a strawberry colada, I found myself dancing through the cobblestone streets to a gelateria with Kayla (who is now my girlfriend) and two other friends. Inside the gelateria, I picked up a paper heart left over from Valentine’s Day and asked if any of them wanted to be my Valentine.

Kayla said she did, and a few days later we were on our way to Florence to begin our complicated relationship. (Note: we didn’t go to Florence with this express purpose, but shit happens.) The Florence trip – February 20-21 – marks the end of my Homesickness. (Homesickness with a capital H as a permanent state of being, versus homesickness, which involves a passing sigh or two and possibly a tear shed every few weeks.)

It’s not super hard to figure out why my Homesickness went away. I was beginning something new and exciting with Kayla, and I didn’t have a lot of time to worry about the fact that I was in the “wrong place” when I was worrying that I would get drunk at the wine tasting and tell her I was like, super into her, or something embarrassing.

The moral of this is not that romance will cure all ills, because it won’t. But what did happen after Florence is I started going places more. I would meet Kayla and get gelato. I’d ask our group of friends if anyone wanted to get dinner. I went on weekend trips with my new friends. I spent hours laughing in Kayla’s kitchen, making spaghetti with meat sauce and eating raspberries.

So bad shit ends. It always does, it’s in its nature, thank God. And whether you have to meditate your way out of it, or start kissing a pretty girl in an Italian sunset, or write a whole bunch of poetry until results, you’ll find a way through.

I left Italy at the end of the semester, and Kayla flew back to Colorado while I returned to Pennsylvania. She visited me, then I visited her – twice. This summer I also went to Mexico and California. I took a lot of solo plane trips, which I’ve grown to hate a little less than I did in January. I wore out my old shoes and had to buy a new pair, which was its own little tragedy. I felt independent, zigzagging the continent alone a bunch of times.

And then after all that traveling, I came back to my home campus after 9 months away. Remember – this is the place I’d spent so much time missing in Italy. But my living situation was new, and most of my closest friends were gone. I was ambivalent about my classes. I found myself spending a lot of time alone… Again. My girlfriend was doing the same thing over a thousand miles away, in Boulder. I missed the past and all that jazz.

But I’d learned my lesson. I decided to start going to counseling, which was free so why not? It was a relief to finally address my anxiety and OCD with someone who wasn’t a blank journal page. I spent long hours in the library reading. I started watching Buffy and going to the gym again. I threw myself into classwork. I went places with my new roommates. Thanksgiving break came faster than I thought, and I got to see my girlfriend after 100+ days of separation. Then finals happened and the semester was over. I’d survived.

So, 2016 was weird for me. It was a good year, ultimately, even though I had to chase my own happiness all alone several times. And if I had to sum it all up in a nice bow and say how I changed, what I learned, etc – which I don’t have to do, but I’m too sentimental not to – I’d say that it’s this: Your life is wherever you are – it isn’t something you can accidentally catch a plane away from. And the past is best to be left alone. Don’t think too much about it and don’t compare your life now to your life then. You aren’t who you were then anyway. You’re new and cool and you can definitely find a path to your chill, no matter how many Italian hills you have to climb to get there.


What Do We Tell The Kids?

On November 6 I was canvassing for Hillary. It was my second day (I wrote an article about it for LocoMag) and the weather was starting to turn chilly for good. I juggled a clipboard and notice stickies to place on people’s doors. It was a Sunday.

Sundays always feel ominous to me, like you’re on the precipice of something – Monday, usually, but in this case, something more chilling. Still, though, I chose to feel hopeful, wearing my Hillary sticker proudly on my jacket. I had a few nice conversations with people who planned to vote. I ran into some kids who said their parents liked Hillary; I thought that was nice, that their parents talked about politics around them.

It was a solidly middle class neighborhood in a county that normally votes Democratic. I was only knocking on the doors of registered Democrats who were “unreliable” – that is to say, they hadn’t voted in at least one out of the last few elections. It was the final push in what will always be known as a historical campaign.

Towards the beginning of my route, I climbed the steps to a front door and knocked. The girl listed on my sheet was 19 years old – a first-time voter, the only one in her house. This could mean one of two things: either her parents were reliable voters or they weren’t registered Democrats. There was only a screen separating me and the darkened living room, but I saw a toddler wander forward, look at me, and say, “Someone’s here.”

From further into the darkness of the room, I heard a woman say, “If they’re here for Hillary let’s set the dogs on them.”

I glanced back at where my aunt was filling out the voting address on one of the notices, halfway down the driveway. She couldn’t hear. I had to decide whether I should leave quickly before the older woman came to the door, or if I should stay and try to speak to the younger girl. I didn’t believe that they’d really set their dogs on me, but I did know that this woman would have a negative reaction to me when I told her that I was actually “here for Hillary.”

She didn’t open the door, just rudely said “Who are you?” Instead of telling her, I asked if the girl who was on my list was home. She ignored me and said “Who are you?”

So I told her, “I’m Helen and I’m out here knocking on doors for Hillary Clinton.”

She scoffed. “No. No.”

I thanked her and turned to leave. As I was walking down the stairs, I heard a man’s voice from inside the house yell, “We don’t vote for criminals!”

My heart was racing. I gripped my pen tighter. I thought of the boy inside the house and what he’d just heard his parents say. If anything, this strengthened my resolve; as someone had said during the training that morning, “I’m here because the alternative is unthinkable.”

Two days later, we were plunged into the unthinkable. And now here we are. Every day since the election has brought with it news of swastikas drawn on buildings, hate crimes, cabinet appointments that threaten the rights and lives of millions. I don’t need to list these things, I don’t need to say why they’re chilling.

But I will say this: we need to find a way to respond to people who threaten to attack someone with dogs. People who shout vague and uninformed insults at someone’s retreating back. People who do these things in front of their children.

Kids absorb what they see and the next four years will shape some of their views of this world forever. We don’t need to hide it from them, nor do we need to brainwash them with our own ideals. As Margaret Mead said, “Children must be taught how to think, not what to think.” Our country is divided; it always has been. I grew up knowing that we were at war throughout my childhood and adolescence. But Obama was elected the year I turned 13. Even though there was dissent, and loud voices on the other side made it known to many that they didn’t like him, I didn’t see it. That never came into my life. But this one is different in that it’s put on display the bipartisan tension between the two Americas. There is the America who believe that the way to Make America Great Again is to exclude people based on the color of their skin and their religion. Then there is the rest of America, who I believe make up the majority, who believe that everyone deserves equal rights and opportunities no matter what.

We need to make sure that kids know that good still conquers evil, that love does trump hate, no matter what the government does or what their parents say. No matter what they see drawn on the side of a building. No matter how many people they see die because of their skin color, religion, sexuality, gender, class.

It’s disturbing to think of kids who live in bubbles where they’re taught that African-Americans are dangerous, Muslims are terrorists, gay people are sinners, etc. We (being that second half of America which believes that everyone’s rights are equal and everyone should be protected by their government) need to find a way to teach these children, as well as our own children, that they can choose what to believe. And then we need to show them how good kindness feels and how rewarding it can be to be open-minded. We need to educate them (in a time when education will probably be under attack). We need to make sure the next generation is a group of smart, strong-willed free thinkers.

We have to find a way into those bubbles of kids who are taught how to hate when they’re taught how to talk. We have to give every child a glimpse of the good in the world and let them draw their own conclusions about it. We have to keep our own children, and our friends’ children, from becoming cynical.

I don’t know how to do that. But I do know that it’s our responsibility to try. Because the alternative is unthinkable.

Who Will Write to the Devil?

The devil wants to start conspiracies,
The devil wants to set a fire,
The devil wants to pepper spray
The eyes of protesters

The devil wants to fire water cannons
The devil wants to spill oil in the water
The devil wants the shore to be overcome

The devil wants to heat the people up
And choke them with it
The devil wants to breathe his hot breath
On the ice
He wants to melt it all

The devil wants to take Religion
And shoot it up with drugs
And words
And guns
And hate
To paint his dirty face on the pulpit

The devil wants to shoot the Innocent
The devil wants to tear us apart
The devil wants to draw fear
From the pits of our stomachs
And place it in our hearts instead

The devil wants to rape our Women
The devil wants to kill the Others
The devil wants to drive a plane into a building
And watch it crumble from his cockpit throne

The devil wants us to put our hand on our chest
And pledge allegiance to him

Who’s going to write to him?
Who will send him the letter –

I’m sorry you didn’t get to do what you wanted
I’m sorry we beat you to it

Who will tell him that we used freedom
To curl around our Mother
And choke ourselves and our children
With heat

Who will write to the devil
And tell him we beat him to it all?

-Helen Armstrong, December 12, 2016

This is just the first draft of a new poem, but feel free to share this if it spoke to you! Just please make sure to credit me.