435 million years ago, our farm land was covered with seawater. Organisms called crinoids that were half animal, half plant, roamed the shallow ocean floor, where they caught plankton in their floaty calyx heads. And when they died, their bodies disintegrated, leaving behind the circular vertebrae of their spine in the banks of Grindstone Creek.
And 435 million years later, sweaty catfish-smelling kids in cowboy boots roamed the farm, a 396-acre piece of land that our great grandfather had settled on when it was still Chickasaw Nation. We were the great-grandchildren of white settlers and we stomped on the land, eyes peeled for Indian arrowheads. Mostly we just found the crinoids, which were a sort of distant participation prize. We filled our pockets with the pieces of the spines, and our parents would dutifully store them in shoeboxes, that were put in garages and closets, that were then thrown out when we went to college.
We called them hole-y rocks, because of the hole in the middle, but in my mind, they were “holy” rocks, because we were in the South, where everything is ordained by God.
We're here now.
This is what I keep thinking to myself. I'm a wedding photographer, and sometimes brides tell me, "We don’t believe there’s just one person forever, but we’re together today.” And I’ve always thought that this was an indicator of the incompleteness of their love.
Last summer, I took myself on a honeymoon to Greece. Ok, really what I was doing was looking for a husband, because I thought that in Greece I would find that unicorn of a man who is both manly and sensitive. But when I realized I was looking for a husband in a place where people were mostly vacationing with their husbands, I decided that I was instead on a solo honeymoon. Because I was 41, and unmarried, and if I had been married, this would have been the honeymoon of my dreams.
Greece is beautiful. Beyond beautiful. It is soul-wrenchingly beautiful. And stark. The earliest of the earth’s formations are at your fingertips in every rock surface reflected in the clear water. Color theory is effortlessly cool in the wildflowers on the side of the road. One afternoon, I spent an hour rearranging 4 small rocks on my beach towel. I couldn't get over how naturally they complimented each other, despite their varied textures and shapes.
But Greece, it turns out, is also the playground of the world's 2nd worst (after American) group of tourists, the Brits, who pound beer at 9 in the morning and eat in restaurants without their shirts on. Over dinner one night, I found myself staring at the hot pink flesh of one man’s breast, and decided to move on.
So I went to Albania, where everything is weird and busted and garish and laughably capitalist, but at least it’s authentic. And this is where I met Ilias. I had spent the past 8 weeks wondering what I wanted out of life. I had read the last Game of Throne book I could stomach, and now my biggest task for the day was deciding when I would swim and when I would eat and if I should have 1 or 2 glasses of rosé at lunch. And I thought. A lot. For 2 months it was just me and my thoughts. I decided that I wasn’t truly comfortable being a journalist and that what I wanted now was a home, and a partner, and a garden, and a kid. I could figure the rest out later, but what I wanted now was someone who was unfailingly good, someone I could trust, someone I loved to have sex with, someone who made me laugh, and someone I could talk to.
And in a tiny seaside village in southern Albania, a 40-something buff, tan, smiling man walked into the guest house where I was staying. Later, when we recounted that first moment we met, he told me that he could feel my eyes following him, so he went outside, took off his shirt, "because I knew you would like it" and made another grand entrance.
I told him that when I first saw him, my first thought was, "Oh. You’re the one I’ve been waiting for." To which he shrugged. “I knew that morning, when a bird pooped on my shoulder,” and he gestured towards the bird nest wedged in the roof of his home. The bird didn't just poop on him once. It stayed on his back, and poop blessed him twice.
He wears turquoise polo shirts and Diesel jeans one size too small, listens to house music, and douses himself in designer cologne every morning. I wear essential oils, floral dresses from Salvation Army and listen to NPR. His first words to me were, "You have a very athletic body," to which I replied, "I'm also really smart." I think I felt the first tinglings of love one afternoon when I got car sick on a mountain road, and as I leaned out the door and vomited, he put one hand on my belly and the other on my back, all the while saying, "Ack, moro Becky, ack moro mou."
We can’t talk. I speak very little Greek, and he speaks very little English. (He identifies as Greek, as do many people in this part of Albania, and Greek is his first language.) When we fight, we yell into Google Translate and pass the phone back and forth. When it gets really heated, we pick up an additional phone to keep up with the pace of our frenzied thoughts. We’ve developed our own twin language of inside jokes and variations on phrases we mutually understand. So my understanding of him comes not from words, but from feeling his hand cupped on my face when he falls asleep, and watching him carry my geriatric cat around the garden, or the way he clasps and kisses his great Aunt's hand as they say good-bye, or when he silently cuts a slice of cucumber and puts it in my mouth without looking, or when he crushes the leaves of a sage plant between two fingers and holds them out for me to smell. When we fight, he gets insomnia, and when he drives, his jaw is set and he is silent and I can see the thoughts that he does not want to share running and running as navigates the mountain curves, working his jaw and gear shift.
Sometimes, I am so content, I feel as though I am inside a tent on a winter day, piled under deerskins next to a roaring fire. But other days, I feel lost and alone inside this relationship of non-communication, inside this den of two cultures that cannot intuitively understand each other, alone on a foggy plain of past mistakes and not knowing who or if to trust.
So all I can say is, today, this is where I am. I am here for now.
The Yet to Be Titled Nepal Story
Whenever you fall, I will catch you, my father said my brother.
No doubt my father regretted speaking in metaphors to a child when he looked up from his morning coffee to see his son yelling, “Daddy, I’m falling, catch me!” And then slowly falling backwards off the top bunk, spread eagle, arms crossed in front of his chest, trust fall style.
Perhaps it was because of this incident that, over the course of the next twenty years, my father honed his instinct for falling children. I have a memory of myself, falling out of the crumbling ivy-covered tree on our back deck. I remember slipping out of the tree, sliding as the bark scratched at my skin, and my father suddenly appearing to catch me, clumsily. I don’t know where he came from, and I do not know whether this actually happened or if I dreamed it.
There are pros and cons to being a photographer, my profession for the last ten years. A pro being that I can hone in on small details, visually, and tune out everything else as I become mesmerized by lights, shadows, colors and movement. This, as you can imagine, is also a con. It means that I get lost in conversations, that I am annoyingly quiet during long road trips, and that I often miss subway stops. It means that deep in my heart, I know that one day I will become mesmerized by something, perhaps the swagger of a fellow pedestrian’s step, and step off the curb only to be struck and killed by a New York City bus.
In 2000, my father took me and my mother on a trip to Nepal. For 7 days, we ambled along the Johnson trail, through tiny rural villages, up and down stone steps. We slept in wooden shacks that people called guest houses, ate garlic soup when altitude sickness struck, and marveled at the Nepalese who ran down the mountainside in flip flops with giant sacks of potatoes on their backs.
The sound of the donkey train carrying goods up and down the mountain was ubiquitous. The hollow gong from the bells around their necks called through the mountains, distantly at first, and then like thunder as they approached. Often we would stop what we were doing and lean out of the restaurant or guest house window just to watch them amble up the trail. I don’t know how they managed, with their big ears, because the sound coming from the bell attached around their neck must have been maddening. With every step it bonged and clanged. They had traveled the same trail so many times and were so faithful and reliable that their owners could send them on the way with a smack on the ass, confident that they would reach their destination unaccompanied. Many were also wearing elaborate sequined headdresses with a feather on top. I suppose for their owners, this would be the equivalent of putting decals and rim lights on a car. Or maybe they felt that the donkey would feel special and pretty as it trudged up the mountain, loaded with sacks of flour and beans and powdered cement, parading for tourists who would ooh and ah over their exotic village charm. But actually I think the donkeys were humiliated. They were workers, not mascots. And so they looked as if they had forced themselves into an almost zen-like meditation, one foot in front of the other, giant sacks across their backs, decorative feather on top cock-eyed, their sequined headdresses slipped and partially covering one eye. They donkeys focused in on what was directly in front of them as they traveled the same road they had traveled a million times, tuning out everything else until they arrived at their destination. It’s a skill that I can certainly appreciate.
I was charmed by the donkeys with their big eyes, gray and white coats, and musicality. As I stood on a stone staircase, waiting for my mother and father to catch up with me, I was entranced by their slow methodical steps, the rhythmic hollow gong of the brass bell, and their long eyelashes that blinked slowly every few steps. I felt lucky to be so close to this charming parade. The donkey in front paid me no mind. I was a faceless tourist, an interloper who gawked just like everyone else. I stood quietly as the donkey approached. There was just enough room for both of us on the trail. And then, when he was inches from my face, I saw it: the giant sack of flour hanging over his back, 6 inches wide and weighing at least fifty pounds. I too had forgotten that these donkeys were there to work.
The sack hit me with full force and I tumbled over the edge of the stone staircase, plunging ten feet in the air towards the stone landing below. And my father, god bless him, caught me.
The donkey did not look back. He had a job to do.