My breasts and bottom were fair game for open discussion; I learned this early in life. I was small for my age and the youngest in my class so I was teased for being a “shrimp” and called “2×4” when other girls had already started to develop but I had not. “Just give Nicole two band-aids to cover up those mosquito bites on her chest,” a male family member joked. Everyone laughed while I died inside.
As I grew, so did the jokes. If I was too thin, I was mocked for not being enough. When my curves started to fill out and I worked hard in private lessons for a year to gain the position of drum major of my large marching band, it was still my body (and not my talent) that was on display. I was then seen as too much. Comments about my large bottom in my white uniform pants made me blush, but by then I knew this was just normal behavior. Family, friends, and strangers—anyone—had the right to comment on my curves and their proportion to what others expected me to be.
Before I’d barely begun to realize the difference between boys and girls, my admittance into the dance world sent conflicting messages about my sexuality. Dress it up in sequins and put it on display with high kicks and gyrating hips. It was normal for drunken men to gawk at my teenage body dancing at the Superbowl halftime show.
Hide it under a waif-like ballerina body, the carefully placed neckline, and perfect posture. It was normal for my friends to starve themselves for a role, to be the perfect combination of desirable but just out of reach. But always the message was clear – your body is ours to look at, to scrutinize, and to judge. It’s your weapon to wield. It’s our prize to view.
The church added to the messages my mixed-up teenage self kept hidden like the A-cup bra straps I needed to keep tucked away under modest clothing. I was told not to let my brother stumble but my brothers kept coming at me anyway. Their comments were acceptable. People laughed them off. But somehow I had to keep them at bay with longer hemlines.
The night I fell asleep next to a friend on the bus and woke up with his hand under my shirt, I pretended I was still asleep. I just let it happen because I was too ashamed to call my body my own, too naïve to know to call it abuse. It was just another normal step in a culture that gave others ownership of my sexuality but asked me to be its guardian...
There’s something inside you waiting to unfurl. It is quietly growing beneath the surface. You can feel it gathering itself up, the momentum of its growth building. How it began is a mystery. What it will become is yet to be seen—even to you. But in its time, if you nurture it well, it will bloom.
“I understand now,” she said slowly. My mom sighed deeply and shook her head like she was trying to shake off the realization that had settled over her. “Seeing the way you interact with the people, seeing how you are here…” her voice trailed off as she gestured toward the old city street bustling locals and tourists entering shops. “You’re different somehow,” she finished after a pause. “You come alive,” she said as she placed her drink down on the table, every move deliberate as if the words pained her.
I wasn’t exposed to much diversity as a child in the middle-class Bible belt of suburban Georgia. I don’t know why this hunger had been churning and rumbling inside me or why it founds its place of rest and belonging the moment I stepped off a plane onto Asian soil.
I was twenty-one before I ever traveled outside the borders of America. It wasn’t for lack of trying before but my parents said no to that trip in high school and my college study abroad plans fell through. I couldn’t name this burning desire that had always been germinating inside of me. It longed to connect to something I couldn’t see—somewhere out there. As soon as I could pay my own way and had the chance, I was gone.
In the next ten years, I traveled to eight countries and lived in South Asia and the Middle East. I dragged my mom to Hindu temples and Bollywood movies. She came to watch my classical Indian dance performance and listened to me practice my broken Arabic with at the Lebanese restaurant where she warily tried shwarma. But she never connected with the cultures for which I had an insatiable appetite. I was growing in a direction that took me far away.
My first Bharata Natyam teacher explained my immediate aptitude for the complex Indian dance form as something I was born into. “You must have been a devadasi (Hindu temple dancer) in a past life.” My South Asian friends laugh sometimes at my ready acceptance of their culture—“Sister, you are more Bengali than we are.”
Fourteen years after my first steps outside of my home country, my mom and I sat together in a café tucked inside the ancient cobbled walls of the Arab Quarter of old Jerusalem. It was her first trip overseas in her adult life and my first chance to show her the world I loved. I knew the admission pained her, to say that she finally understood it, in her own way. It was a relinquishing of sorts—releasing me to something that threatened to take me (and my family) from her side...
For someone with a love of simplicity and order, I own an excessive amount of trinkets. A few weeks before our departure from South Asia, I packed some of them in a suitcase to send back with a friend returning to the United States. I lovingly wrapped the items as I pondered the most important things to go first.
In went a wooden Coptic cross from the church we attended while living in Egypt. I settled it next to an olivewood communion cup that once held juice outside the garden tomb in Jerusalem. They nestled next to the green, white, black, and red prayer beads secretly pressed into my hand by a Palestinian in Jericho when I spoke to him in broken Arabic, asking about his nation and his faith.
These items have lived on my dresser in Bangladesh, reminding me of the places that have made indelible marks on my life. They will return to a curio cabinet in America next to items that might be worthless in the eyes of others—things like sea shells from the island we visit every year with our closest friends, stones dug out of the Red Sea, a scrap of silk hand embroidered by a friend living in the largest slum in Asia.
My kids placed the beginning of their collections inside the bag as well: a bronze tiger for my son, a little wire rickshaw for my daughter. These things will sit collecting dust on dressers for years to come, surely. But they will also serve as a reminder of the land my children called home for part of their childhood.
This place will make a mark on them they won’t be able to name for years to come. One day, though, they will want to remember. They will need to understand why the smell of ginger and garlic paste simmering in a pan stirs something deep inside their hearts, something they can’t quite place.
When my friend told me the suitcase full of “souvenirs” went missing in transit—lost somewhere in Istanbul—I held back the tears and held my breath. Thankfully, a few days later, I learned it had safely arrived. They are just things, I know, but they are irreplaceable to me, because of the places and the stories they represent...
I’ve lived on the banks of a river that is the stuff of legends—those storied waters that cradled civilization and was the bridge between life and death for the ancients. It is obvious why Egypt is called “the gift of the Nile” once you spend a couple months in the sandy, dry heat. No life could exist in such a desert without those blessed waters.
I conversely now live in one of the most lush deltas in the world. Bangladesh is situated in the fertile plain that lies between the melting Himalayan snow, the waters of the sacred Ganges flowing out of India, and the largest bay in the world. Here the 700 rivers mean life—and death. When the monsoon rains come and the rivers flow outside their banks, many people who have nowhere else to go in this overpopulated land, have to move and rebuild—again.
I’ve seen the same waters meant to bring life, carry destruction instead. How can it be?
I’ve always loved order. I think that is what drew me to organized religion as a teenager who hadn’t been raised in the church. I finally had a set of rules I could follow. There were lines in the sand dividing the good and the bad and I knew just what to do to stay on the right side of that line. It felt like freedom was in the certainty.
I didn’t act like someone who was free, though. I used my freedom to condemn, separating myself from those who didn’t stay on the side of the line that I called good. I became a stagnant, festering pool; there was no living water flowing through me to others.
So, I thought if rules brought death, I’d live free of them. I ran from the church of my youth. I pushed back against the limits to see what being boundless felt like. It felt utterly terrifying. I became a flood, destroying everything in my wake. That wasn’t freedom either.
I’ve lived with a carefully measured faith and no faith at all. Both were destructive. I searched every place I could for a real taste of liberation, but I still felt chained inside...
Surveying the damage, they can’t imagine life again after the storm. They can’t yet see the trees that will grow to replace those pulled up by their roots. They can’t picture anything flourishing again in this place of devastation.
Looking out at the endless sea of cars sitting on the interstate, I felt restless and foolish. What was usually a five-hour drive was now entering hour nine. Stretching my legs at the rest stop, I chatted with others fleeing the coming storm. Like me, they weren’t native to the Gulf Coast; I didn’t know one local person who was heeding the mandatory evacuation.
But when news of the hurricane barreling towards the Mississippi Coast hit the airwaves, the call came. My dad on the other end said, “Either you come now or I’m coming to get you.” The evacuation of everyone below I-10 included the little stilted guesthouse where I lived on the edge of the bayou.
I dutifully packed a few belongings. As I drove away I achingly looked back at the green live oaks tendrils framing my rear view mirror like fingers trying to pull me back. My friends laughed: “Yeah, she’s not from around here.” There were parts of me that wanted to defy my father and stay like everyone else. I believed it was safe to stay but my sensible, fearful side agreed with him. So, I ran.
It was a pattern set early in my life. When the storm clouds started to gather on the horizon, I took the path that promised to take me away from the squall. I don’t know why fear has always been my default. Broken relationships, abandoned dreams, and chances never taken out of fear were evidence of my cut and run tendencies.
I wanted to stay and ride out the storms. But time and time again, I didn’t believe I was strong enough to endure the floods. So, I ran.
That time I evacuated, the storm turned to the east (like most locals assumed it would) and ended up bringing heavy rains directly to my parent’s house, missing the Gulf Coast completely. Downed pines clogged the roads and made it impossible for me to return home for a few more days.
Less than a year later I said “see you later” to the sticky heat of the Gulf to return to Georgia. I lingered a moment, running my hand over the peeling paint of the living room of that little house I loved so deeply in the short time I lived there. I closed the slatted windows that let the salty air waft through the house, the crank creaking as it turned. I glanced at the pond to the right of my porch, hoping I’d see the leathery nose of our friendly neighborhood alligator rising out of the water one last time. The surface was like glass.
Little did I know I wouldn’t see that apartment again, nor many of the places I frequented in town. The next time I visited, I couldn’t even find the road where my first apartment by the beach had been located. Everything around it had been flattened in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and there were no street signs, no landmarks. Only destruction...