Photo Credit: Jeff Schallick

Choose Joy

I awoke to a winter dawn streaming through my window, cutting strips of sunlight onto the walls of my bright yellow bedroom. The warmth of this illumination gave no indication of the harsh Ohio winter beyond my four walls, and in the earliest moments of my day, I felt an unprovoked sense of joy.

There was nothing special about that particular morning. The lightness of my mood came without cause or pretense; it simply rested there, a joy, unmistakable in the warm yellow glow of my room that morning.

Isn’t that how joy– true joy– always is, though? It comes upon you suddenly, sometimes an unexpected visitor to your seemingly ordinary life. I’m not talking about happiness, here. That emotion is entirely causal, dependent upon circumstances; happiness can be expected, it is invited by our actions. Often, it is even the end goal for which we strive every day– the pursuit of happiness, anyone?

But joy. Joy is different. The best kind of joy startles us. It is unshakable because it makes its home somewhere deeper, founded on the intangible. Joy is not a flighty house-guest that comes and goes, but is the house itself, the roof under which we carry out our entire lives.

It seems we’re all fumbling down the wrong avenues searching for joy, sometimes ending up with only momentary happiness. The next new trend lifts the spirit for a moment, but when that sinking feeling of discontentment returns, we are forced to face the reality that maybe the world can’t deliver everything our hearts yearn for. It’s the difference between ice cream for dinner and a hearty, four-course meal– one provides lasting, satiating nutrition, while the other gives instant gratification that leads to a major crash later.

Happiness can be experienced temporarily, but joy is a permanent condition of the soul– a state of rejoicing against all odds. Joy is not based on our circumstances, but rather our ability to be thankful. That means the secret to being joyful lies in our level of gratitude.

Joy, thus, is not a circumstantial emotion but an active choice we make every day. We do this by shifting our focus from the temporary things of this life– the good and bad alike– instead to rest on the steadfastness of God’s blessings. Jesus’ redemptive work on the cross is the only unshakable truth we can cling to when everything else in the world is built on sand. Happiness may be fleeting, but the joy we find in our faith is unwavering because it does not hinge on outward conditions.

“Inexplicable joy leaves behind a fragrance of undeniable hope.” -Bob Goff

The danger of defining our joy by our circumstances is that these are, by very nature, temporary and ever-changing. What Jesus did for all humanity on the cross will never change, therefore the joy we place in Him can never be taken away from us.

So don’t wait for the timing to be right or the circumstances to all line up–choose joy today.

 

 

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God’s Got a Plan, But It’s Not What You Think

Today, like every January 1st, I began a new journal. As I cracked open the crisp binding of a fresh new book, the blank pages inside reminded me of the year ahead–full of possibilities, waiting to be filled with memories of new experiences and reflections of lessons learned.

Yet, like many, I approach the new year with a certain trepidation of uncertainty. The stroke of midnight marks the beginning of the next season of endlessly unpredictable possibilities. The mystery of it all is exhilarating, but if I’m not careful, my tendency to control creeps in, stealing the excitement.

My mind races ahead to try and fill the spaces of 12 empty months, forming plans on its own without consideration for the inevitable curve balls life will throw. I feel the overwhelming pressure society puts on us to have a plan, fooling us into thinking we actually have the power to create our own destinies.

How many hours have we wasted trying to control that which is out of our hands? How much stress do we create by trying to be the gods of our own little universes?

This year, instead of stressing over the unknown, I’m giving my control back to the One who’s really running the show.

See, as I grow closer to God, I am beginning to understand that this life of mine isn’t about me at all. Instead of wondering what God’s role in my life is, I am learning to ask what my role is in His plan for the world.

I will offer up a bold statement and say that maybe God doesn’t have a plan for your life. Hang with me, here. Maybe God doesn’t have a plan for your life. Maybe God has one grand plan for this world He created, and He assigns specific roles for each of us to play in it.

I believe each of us, as believers, is an instrument of glory to be used by God to spread His light and love in the world. And oh, what a marvelous role that is to play in His great plan for the universe.

If the meaning of our lives here on earth– a mere 80ish years if we’re lucky, compared to the limitless eternity of Heaven– is to pursue Jesus and spread His love in all we say and do, then of what importance is any of the rest of it? Why should all the small details cause us so much stress when we answer to such a higher calling?

Yet it is precisely these trivial details that cause me to stumble as I try to run my heart out for God. Anxiety replaces trust, uncertainty overpowers my gratitude, and my world becomes smaller as I begin to place myself at the center.

Today, as I reflect on the year that has passed and look to the one ahead, I am setting my intention to leave behind the worry and selfish toiling after futile things. Call it a resolution, perhaps; I call it a proclamation of surrender. This is me allowing, no asking, God to use me in whatever unique way He has designed for me to fulfill His purpose– not just within the next 365 days but for whatever number of breaths I have been allotted.

I look ahead to 2018 and it fills me with hope. Not for the blank pages that I get to fill, but for the discovery of a new chapter of a book God has already written.

Christmas According to Children

The number one thing I love most about children is not their adorably chubby cheeks, toothless grins or giddy excitement; it is their unfailing ability to surprise me.

Every Monday for the past semester, I have babysat three rowdy, hyper, defiant and adorable kids under the age of 7. The trio is a test of patience, that’s for sure, but luckily, the kids have begun to take a liking to me. (They still talk back and don’t listen to me most of the time, but now they do it with a certain gleam of kindness that lets me know that, deep down, I have won their approval.)

A few weeks ago, in a desperate attempt to entertain them on a brisk fall afternoon, I decided we would watch a movie. This exhilarated them, for obvious reasons, and we settled on an old classic: The Nightmare Before Christmas. 

As we watched in rapt attention to Jack Skellington try to figure out what Christmas is all about, the kids giggled along to his mad scientist-style experiments on Christmas ornaments and candy canes.

“What’s so funny?” I asked.

“He just doesn’t get it!” the six-year old exclaimed.

“Get what?”

“Christmas!” He giggled. “He just doesn’t get it!”

I smiled because it was exactly what I was thinking. In all of Jack’s analyzing and overthinking, he was missing the point. He didn’t get Christmas because he was looking for it in all the wrong things.

“So what is Christmas all about, then?” I asked with trepidation, fearing the responses of their youth. And yet, that unmistakable quality of surprise that all kids hold shined through as the seven-year-old said matter-of-factly:

“Joy.”

The six-year-old looked at me with bashful eyes and said in a hushed voice, “Jesus.”

I won’t lie. I felt my heart crack a little as I broke into a grin, exclaiming, “Yes! That’s exactly what Christmas is about! Joy and Jesus!” This was an AHA moment in my babysitting career.

I felt hope radiating from the simplicity of a child’s understanding of Christmas. Somewhere along the path of adulthood, we have over-complicated the truth of this holiday into something unrecognizable from the joyful celebration it is supposed to be. We’re a little like Jack Skellington ourselves, piecing together yuletide artifacts, trying to create something that resembles true meaning. And like Jack, we are left shaking our fists at holly branches and trying to identify truth in a tangle of twinkling lights.

And this isn’t just at Christmastime. As Christians, our faith hinges on one, irrefutable truth: Jesus. And yet, when that one piece is missing, nothing else makes sense. So many of us live with these fragments of faith that don’t fit together. Like Jack, maybe we have “read all the books, learned all the rhymes,” but still we just don’t get it. 

Perhaps we were those kids once: understanding nothing but joy and Jesus, our tiny eyes fixed on the manger. But oh, how easy it is to be led astray– to place our celebration preparations over the One whom we are celebrating. How often we get caught up in searching for deeper meaning in the very things that distract us from it.

So as the Advent season officially begins, I encourage you to remember the only thing that matters this Christmas: Christ. Let us rest in the hope, peace, joy and love that He brings. May we find Him when we search for Him, not amidst the twinkling lights or beneath the tree, but in the Word which became flesh and dwelt among us.

We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. [John 1:14]

And if you’re still feeling a little lost, ask a child what Christmas is all about. Their answer just might surprise you.

 

 

 

 

Stardust

This universe is big.

Sometimes I stare up at the sky and it feels oppressive. The vastness of empty space stretching on forever sinks like a weight in my chest, grounding me to this one little spot where I stand. I feel small. I feel unimportant.

To be truthful, I think we all feel this way at times, and not just when we are staring up at the sky. I think it comes at random moments when we just aren’t sure why we’re here or of what use we are to this overcrowded world.

In this culture where we are constantly being fed lies that the whole universe is just one big accident, it isn’t hard to imagine that we, inconsequential, measly, little humans, could feel as if each of our lives– just one out of billions– doesn’t matter. When we buy into the idea that Earth is just the product of one big chance occurrence billions of years ago, and that this giant spinning rock and all the others that orbit with us just exist without any rhyme or reason, it’s not illogical to think that our lives are just as purposeless. But I am here to take the unpopular stance and tell you that this is not the case. Oh, our lives are so not meaningless.

“For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” [Ephesians 2:10]

We were created on purpose, and for a purpose.

Even harder to fathom than the immense hugeness of our galaxy, tiny in comparison to the endlessly stretching blackness beyond, is the idea that one God rules over all of it . And the same God that created the Universe also created you: on purpose and for a purpose. When we believe this, when we turn away from the popular belief that all of this is just a series of cosmic happenings with no rhyme or reason, we can see how truly important each of us really is. We are not just the accumulation of stardust (as appealingly poetic as that sounds), but are the product of God’s own handiwork.

“For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.”  [Psalm 139:13-14]

Every one of us holds a purpose in this world, each playing a vital role in God’s carefully orchestrated plan. Think about it, how many other lives has yours touched; how many people have you influenced in some way or another? I believe this number is inconceivably large, that the stretch of our lives extends further than we could ever imagine. Sometimes even the smallest things we do can have a much larger impact on someone else and we wouldn’t even know it.

By fixing our eyes on God, we can rest in the assurance that God sees every flaw, every failure, and loves us all the same. There is no hiding from Him the way we hide ourselves in this world, behind makeup and fancy clothes and false confidence; God sees right through our attempts, but there is comfort in knowing that He knows everything and still loves us.

Next time you look in the mirror, try to see past your appearance, past the flaws and imperfections that we all have and instead try to focus on what God sees: a beautiful soul that He created Himself, with unique and precious talents and a purpose only you can fulfill. The world would not be the same without you in it, and you are loved. You are loved by an all-knowing and all-powerful God who not only sees into your deepest soul, but rests there too.

Let Yourself Live

 

Yesterday, I got caught in the rain. Not a little drizzle that leaves a fine mist of dampness on your jacket, but a heavy shower that drenched my hair and sent streams of water trickling down my face. In the matter of a few steps, I went from cozy and warm to soaked and shaking.

I could have gotten angry, thrown a fit or started cursing my misfortune under my breath (which I’ve done, quite honestly. Getting caught in the rain seems to be a habit for me). Instead, I felt a lightness rising up in me that escaped my clenched lips as a laugh. I must have looked insane, wet and speed-walking toward my apartment, all the while laughing to no one. It’s not my imagination when I say the drivers of the cars passing me all wore the same mixed expression of pity and bewilderment.

As I took the last steps to my apartment, I turned my face toward the colorless sky and felt the raindrops kiss my cheeks in cool splashes. Though the warmth of my home was waiting to welcome me in, I lingered just a moment more, breathing in the crisp air and letting the rain cleanse me of my worries. There was, in that moment, only the present; the day that had passed was removed from my memory, the anxious future concealed somewhere far out of reach. On a rainy Wednesday afternoon, I allowed myself to simply live.

I picked up this little phrase as I was reading my Spanish textbook in a daily attempt to shorten my neverending to-do list. As my eyes glazed over the page my brain was spiraling, as it usually does, toward the next five things I had to get done that day. Then, these words snapped me back to the present: “se dejaba simplemente vivir.” 

The context of the story I was reading is irrelevant, but the meaning was one that struck me deep: he allowed himself simply to live. In that moment, like countless others, I had been so busy striving to get one thing done while fretting over everything else; I was living in the future, trying to control a tomorrow that is still unknown. In that moment, like countless others, I forgot to let myself simply live.

I think we’re all a little stuck in the cycle of going through the motions. We feel as if we have to keep up with this world that is barreling forward like a freight train, and if we don’t, we’ll get squashed. But living this way is not living at all. Planning and striving constantly for an unforeseeable future strips us of our peace for today.

Why do we forget that in every precious second, we are depleting our lives, little by little? How we spend our time is crucial; we don’t have a second to spare and the moments passed, we will never get back. Every precious second that we continue to breathe is a gift, not just a placeholder for something better in the future.

What if we stopped viewing our lives from the rearview mirror or through a shroud of anticipation for the future, and started truly living out each moment we are granted? What if we let go of all the pressure we put on ourselves and just allow ourselves to simply live and live simply?

What could we accomplish in this life if only we were paying a little more attention to it?

 

 

Seasons

Another school year is well under way, summer slipping away on the breeze like the newly fallen leaves of autumn. There’s a crispness in the air and suddenly the world has become alight with the vibrant colors of fall.

Nature produces this spectacle every year, yet each autumn brings a new sense of wonder and appreciation. My soul feels set on fire like the trees blazing with red, orange and yellow.

But soon, winter will come and the cold will set in.

Seemingly overnight, the sky turns grey and the colors fade; white stifles the fire with its freeze. In this season, there is a numbness– like sleepwalking as we wait, once again, for the thaw.

Just like our earth experiences the changing weather, our lives are also marked by this undulation of seasons throughout time. As our circumstances change, as we age, meet new people, lose loved ones and simply live, our own little biospheres adjust to these changes, too.

Every single person experiences seasons in life– from joy to grief; dancing to mourning; weeping to laughing; death to life. These common experiences are what define our humanity in this fallen world and what unite us in this beautifully messy mortality that we share.

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens. [Ecclesiastes 3:1]

We go through periods of summer– bright sunshine, long days and even longer, laid-back nights.  But we go through winters, too– frigid mornings, gray, desolate skies and an unrelenting wind that lashes us straight to the bone. Those days can feel like an eternity, and the starless nights, even longer. It is while we are in these dark, hopeless winters that we feel the most vulnerable to the world around us. We feel lost– stuck– and it’s almost enough to make us forget that summer even exists.

Lately I have found myself in my own frigid “winter,” wondering when on earth my world will start to warm up again. I write this with a lump in my throat I’ve been carrying for far too long as tears sit heavy in my eyes just waiting to spill out. I am overwhelmed, fighting to see even the smallest trace of light through the dense fog of despair.

But eventually, my eyes do find it– the cross, my pinpoint of light at the end of the tunnel. And even though I don’t feel its warmth yet, the promise of an eternal summer with my Savior reminds me that our seasons are not forever. This winter will end and spring will always come.

The highs and lows of our spiritual journeys on this earth serve to bring us closer to God, and shape us more into the person He created us to be. Without the frost, we couldn’t appreciate the warmth of spring; the crispness of fall would be far less sweet if it weren’t followed by the fever of summer.

He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. [Ecclesiastes 3:11]

As our worlds fluctuate and the seasons pass, God remains the only constant source of strength, comfort and peace. Whatever season you find yourself in today, I encourage you to look to the cross and know that God is walking right there with you.

For the Passion of It

It’s Monday morning and I find myself once again trying to recover from a weekend that was anything but relaxing.

It’s an all-too-common theme with me, feeling more tired from the things that bring me enjoyment. This particular instance was justified, though, having been the weekend that I had been both anticipating and dreading for months. Westminster’s annual “Boat Prom” on the Gateway Clipper was held Friday night, and of course, I would never miss the opportunity to get dolled up and dance the night away with my friends… even if that meant arriving back to campus at 3 a.m. to squeeze in a little over 4 hours of sleep.

That’s because, bright and early the next morning, I was already on to the next big undertaking: Saturday marked the culmination of my summer internship with Arts & Education at the Hoyt planning their Arts on the Riverwalk Festival. Months of preparation paid off with a successful event that brought together hundreds of local artists, vendors and performers and attracted thousands of community members. Drained and depleted, I reveled in the festivities while secretly counting down the minutes until the fireworks went off, signaling my freedom.

Above anything else, Arts on the Riverwalk was a public display of people’s talents and gifts. Whether it was a performer belting out the voice of an angel or an artist pouring emotion onto a canvas through color and brushstrokes, the passion of the arts community was tangible. Like a living, breathing thing, there was a presence– an intensity– that livened the downtown streets of an otherwise ghostly town. To have a role in that, to watch from the outside and feel, for a moment, like a part of it gave me an energy that more than made up for the lack of sleep I was running on.

This festival got me thinking about my own passions, too. I may not be able to create a masterpiece with a few strokes of a brush and some paint, and my musical inability rivals the kind of sound produced by a dying animal. But, I have a passion, too.

My passion is for people, and it’s the reason behind everything I do. The words I speak, the messages I write, these are all to give life to those around me. Every new endeavor I take on is my way of bettering the lives of those whose paths I cross, and overbooking my schedule is a natural byproduct of wishing only to please everyone, all the time. The things I devote my time to spark a joy in me that is almost unrecognizable beneath the inevitable exhaustion they cause.

That’s the thing about passion; it’s never easy. We glorify the word like it’s the ultimate pinnacle of a successful life, forgetting all the while that passion is not the destination, but the long and grueling road we take to get there. To live a life of passion is to strive and struggle, to push boundaries and refuse to play it safe. It’s a funny thing, how pursuing your passion usually means struggling, yet we still do it because we know that in this strife, our souls are fed.

My day-to-day responsibilities may wear me out, but I cannot part with my commitments because they are the very things that make my days worth living for. Sure, I could ease up and become uninvolved (and probably get more sleep). But the truth is, I can’t imagine living my college experience like that, and I know deep down that this intrinsic character trait won’t evaporate once I graduate. It’s more than just clubs and resume-builders; these are the things I pour myself into, the ventures that give me a chance to use my God-given gifts to find my place in this world.

In some ways, we are all artists of this life, living in such a way that reflects our passions. Some demonstrate intensity through resounding notes or canvas strokes, while for others, it is simply in the way they carry themselves, walking through this life with a heart radiating out to illuminate the dark places of this world.

So if there is a fire burning in your soul, you have two choices: you can feed the flames or squelch them. Just know that your passion will consume you either way– one by radiant light, the other, by smoke.

Discovering My Travel “Why”: My Trip to Texas, Part Three

In this final episode of my adventures in Austin, I spend Saturday solo exploring, meet my YouTube yoga role-model and discover the real reason I travel. Read parts one and two first!

 

Despite being exhausted from such a busy couple of days, I refuse to waste time on my last day in Austin, so I wake up early with every intention of fulfilling the few short hours I have before me. I have a full list of activities/landmarks scheduled for the day, but my only set-in-stone plan is a yoga class at Practice Yoga Austin with Adriene Mishler. (I have my quirks, I know.)

A little backstory on this: I am not a yogi by any means, but I really started getting into yoga about a year and a half ago when I found a YouTube channel called Yoga with Adriene, and since then, I have avidly followed her videos and blog.

So, when I realized I would be in her hometown, I knew I just had to visit her yoga studio and attend a class. I was even more excited to find that the one class a week Adriene teaches is– you guessed it– Saturday! Tell me that’s not fate.

As I approach the studio on East 6th, I see Adriene enter the door and my heart leaps like I just saw Taylor Swift on the streets of New York and not a yoga instructor with a YouTube channel (and 150k subscribers) entering her own studio. The excitement is real.

Before class starts, I am standing awkwardly in the crowded waiting room of the tiny studio when I hear a familiar voice behind me say, “hey girlfriend!” I turn around to a sunny Adriene, arms open for a hug as she greets me warmly like we are old pals. I’d like to say I play it cool in the presence of my yogi idol, but I’m pretty sure my side of the conversation goes a little like this:

adriene
Sporting that post-yoga sweaty “glow” (and only slightly fangirling at this point)

“Hi. Hello! Oh my gosh it’s so nice to meet you! I am from Ohio and I watch your videos all the time I just love you so when I knew I would be in Austin for a few days I just had to stop by for one of your classes! I am so happy to be here!”

I may even take a breath between all of that, but that’s not likely. Basically, I totally fangirl over this poor woman, who takes it graciously with a warm smile and welcomes me into the packed class.

Now I don’t want to get overly spiritual here, but this hour of yoga is truly something powerful. As our instructor’s voice guides our bodies through motions and invites our minds to find a meditative state, I close my eyes and feel the overwhelming sense of gratitude.

It was no coincidence that my only free day in Austin was the only day Adriene teaches a class. In that moment, I feel that I am there for a reason, however slight it may be, and a deep thankfulness resonates in me as I let go of everything else on my mind. My brain tries to forge ahead of me with the next task I need to get done or item to check off my list, but I return to this sense of divine contentment, thanking God for the simplicity of this moment, this body, this life.

In this tiny room, 40 strangers move through the practice, mat to mat, each in their own worlds yet taking up the same space, breathing the same air. Together we inhale and exhale, creating a steady rhythm with each breath cycle, like an ocean tide– in and out. Eyes closed, I feel the sensations of my movements, the pulsing of my heartbeats and I swear I see light and colors dancing behind my eyelids where there should be only darkness.

I know it sounds crazy, but something happens on that mat, and I will never forget my first true yogi moment.

Somewhere between warrior one and downward dog, Adriene promises us a “glow,” and while I am not sure the sheen of sweat and wisps of frizzy hair I was sporting upon completion of the class really counted as a “glow,” I leave the practice feeling lighter than I have all week– maybe all summer– certain the glow of my soul is visible even through the sweat.

The rest of my day is spent ticking items off my list of Austin attractions. My first stop of the morning is the Hope Outdoor Gallery, a fancy name for a public graffiti park and a true hidden gem, in my opinion. The Lyft driver skeptically pulls up to my destination– an overgrown plot of land set on a hill west of downtown–  and lets me out with a small shake of his head.

Looking around, I could see why one could mistake this site for a dump; I am skeptical myself at first, taking in the scattered mess of doodles spray painted on crumbling walls and half-hidden by weeds. But it only takes a few minutes for me to realize the beauty that is hidden here in this over-sized sketch pad of Austin’s arts community. Artists and amateurs alike can bring their own supplies to contribute to any open space on the surfaces of this public gallery. That morning, I spy at least three, working with laser focus to make make their own mark– to leave a piece of themselves on this collective canvas like a giant “I was here” note.

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I weave through this grown-up playground, taking in everything from movie quotes to political satires to mythical creatures. I hike the short dirt path to the top of the park where the real work of art is a perfect view of the Austin skyline. I don’t know why this view isn’t on every single Austin travel guide, but it should be, and I feel a sense of pride at finding it as I allow myself a quiet moment to take it in.

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The gallery is an unexpected highlight of Austin, and I end up spending more time there than anticipated. Already the sun is hot, beating down on my shoulders as I move onward with my itinerary toward the Capitol building downtown. Along the way, I stumble upon an entire block of streets closed down for a farmer’s market, so I take a short detour to walk through the rows of fresh produce and local goods.

I continue my leisurely pace through the city streets, taking in the sights around me and allowing my feet to be guided by the glimpse of a colorful mural in the distance or an interesting storefront I feel like checking out. Though I love sharing experiences and making new friends in neat places, sometimes nothing beats the thrill of exploring solo with only my own curiosity and zest for adventure as company.

With no real schedule to adhere to, it’s a nice change from my constant motion, and I begin to realize that I will never finish all the things on my list for the day. But as I visit little boutiques and quietly observe the happenings of city life around me, I come to understand that it’s never about the list anyway.

This, right here, is what traveling is all about for me: it’s keeping your eyes and ears open without saying a word; it’s stumbling into a farmer’s market and meandering through, sampling fresh figs and honey; it’s window shopping and veering off your path for the perfect shot of a sight in the distance; it’s talking to locals and chatting with tourists; it’s letting your feet and mind wander, feeling both entirely there and entirely elsewhere all at the same time.

These are always my highlights–the reasons I travel. If I’ve learned one thing, it’s that traveling is less about a list of attractions and more about the little spontaneous things you encounter along the way– obscure spots you learn of from Uber drivers and locals whose paths you cross en route of your destinations. Those are the things you can’t plan for, but can always count on, wherever you go.

More than anything else, these little experiences in a foreign place are not just what I travel for, but what I live for.

 

The Weirdest Bar in Austin: My Trip to Texas, Part Two

In this installment, I take a dip in an ice-cold natural springs pool, eat dinner in a trailer park and spend $5 for quite possibly the strangest performance I will ever see, making this my most peculiar Friday night to date. (Read part one of my Texas travels here.)

Friday, July 14th

If Thursday revealed the nature of Texas, Friday gives me a true taste of the unique flavor that is Austin. The capital city is anything but Texan, with its own flair and eccentricity that makes it a city unlike any other. After another day of ISA activities and professional development, we finish up early and head to a local spot for a dip in a natural springs pool.

Barton Springs is a beautiful pool of natural spring water where the sunlight sparkles off blue water that flows at a constant 68° any time of the year. Swimmers and sunbathers swarm the area on stifling summer afternoons like this one, and the giant community pool vibe could make you forget the body of water is natural, not man-made.

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On this particular 90+° day, the frigid water feels refreshing as a group of us jumps in together; we each come up coughing and squealing from the drastic shock of cold. I close my eyes and tip my face up to the bright afternoon sun, feeling the cool water rushing around me while heat kisses my cheeks, and for a moment I feel utter bliss.

That evening, my roommates and I get a late dinner at a “trailer park” on Rainey Street. This diverse assortment of food trucks that are all the rage here offers everything from Indian to Greek to fried chicken. Austin is a foodie’s paradise of a city, known for its unique dishes and crazy flavors from all over the world. I order a Thai peanut chicken rice bowl from a truck called “White Girl Asian Food” and am not disappointed by the rich, spicy chicken and veggies, even though the heat from the dish is amplified by the muggy evening and my lack of water (dumb move on my part, I realize two bites in).

A few hours of walking later, we find ourselves on 6th Street (known as Dirty Six, which should have told us everything we needed to know right there). The whole length of the area, maybe three blocks, is crowded with people and the streets are even closed off, allowing pedestrians to dance through them, crossing and yelling to each other like a Mardi Gras parade. It’s a cool scene to observe, and being under 21, that was about all I could do.

Fortunately (or maybe not, jury’s still out), we find an 18+ club that promises a “great show” and an earlybird price if we pay the entry fee then and there.

I should disclose that I never have been good with split decisions.

No sooner do we pay and step through the door do I want to turn right around and leave. The band on the stage is an eye sore of a crew: three slender, David Bowie-looking characters in outlandish clothing and more stage makeup than necessary (which is none, in my opinion). Behind them, a psychedelic background spins to the sounds the trio is producing on stage.

I can’t even call it music, this cacophony of sounds like a piano having a seizure with the occasional honk of a saxophone here and there. It is not the type of music that resonates in your soul but rather sticks in your brain, reverberating in your head without making its way to the heart. I can’t dance to it—can’t even try, so in true wallflower fashion, I hang back and observe the strange crowd in attendance.

In the city whose tagline is “Keep Austin Weird,” I should have expected nothing less.

The crew of hipster twenty-somethings in the front, gyrating robotically and wearing thrift store rags that hang loosely off their bony frames comes as no surprise. But then there are others: two women in flowy skirts and garish makeup who look more suited for a salsa club; a long-haired man with a full beard, circle sunglasses and neck scarf over a tie-dye t-shirt epitomizes Austin in one individual; two middle-aged men trying to mimic the hipsters’ dance moves (poorly, I might add); one body-builder, couples, singles and 3 college girls from ISA standing uncomfortably on the wall. Ironically, in this motley assortment of people where everyone looks a little like they don’t belong, together no one looks out of place at all.

It suddenly feels as if I am abroad all over again, this foreign culture both intriguing and frightening me, a reminder that I have stepped into something far out of my comfort zone. My friends and I give the place a solid chance, waiting 35 minutes for the “great show” we were promised.

Finally, after what feels like ages, the warm-up band finishes its last “song” and two men with somewhat horrified expressions that mirror our own turn around and ask if that was not just the weirdest thing we’d ever seen. Obviously, we nod.

“Yeah, I saw this band once,” the blonde says. “But I was on acid so I didn’t realize how messed up they actually were.”

Not sure how to respond to that, I explain that we are visitors who sort of just ended up here without knowing the type of, um, crowd we were joining. He laughs with the air of an older brother who knows something you don’t.

“Well, congratulations,” he snorts with a sidelong glance to his buddy. “You’ve just found yourself in the weirdest [expletive] bar in Austin.”

As if we didn’t already know.

Luckily, our two new friends take a liking to us (or maybe that’s just pity) and advise us where to go for a night that’s more our speed. This is not, however, before one of the aforementioned hipsters (disguised as a normal-looking human) enters our conversation uninvited. I can’t hear what he says because I am too focused on his eyes, which are black pits of pupil and darting quickly like a snake’s tongue around the room as he speaks.

“Oh yeah, see? He’s on acid. Look, you can tell by his eyes,” the blonde whispers to me casually. Figuring he of all people would know, I immediately go on high defense as this guy steps closer with every word, and I begin figuring out my escape plan.

After a short conversation in which I have no clue what was said, our new friends usher us safely away and my roommates and I leave the “weirdest bar in Austin” to find something a little more our speed.

That ends up being, unsurprisingly, a donut shop a block away called VooDoo Donuts. The brightly lit pink storefront looks out of place nestled between bars and nightclubs, and as soon as we enter, the sugary sweet smell floods my nostrils. I order a ridiculously large (and ridiculously cheap) peanut butter chocolate rice crispy donut, though I have such a hard time making up my mind on the flavor that the man behind the counter throws in an extra free one just for the enjoyment of watching my indecision at its finest.

As we leave the donut shop a little before midnight on Friday night, riding a sugar high as we weave our way through throngs of drunk partiers, I don’t think any one of us has any complaints for how the night turned out. I, for one, am more than satisfied with our metaphorical and literal taste of Austin.

 

Even the Stains are Bigger Here: My Trip to Texas, Part One

A few weeks ago, I visited Austin, Texas for a workshop at the International Studies Abroad (ISA) headquarters. This is the study abroad company I used when I went to Peru last summer, and since returning, I have been working for it as a Global Ambassador, promoting ISA programs on my home campus.

One of the perks of this gig, aside from getting paid to promote the best study abroad company out there, was this free trip to headquarters in Austin. For three days, I got to learn more about the company, gain professional development tips, swap stories with other study abroad students from across the country and do what I do best—explore a new city! For a trip this short, I came away with lots of stories and memories; here is a look into a few of the best (and worst) moments.

 

Wednesday, July 12th

I am the unluckiest person ever. In the short, three hour flight from Pittsburgh to Dallas, I managed to sit on a stray chocolate chip from the granola bar I stashed for a snack on the plane, only to realize this two hours in, after it has melted all over the seat of my white jeans.

With my Victoria’s Secret sweatshirt tied low around my waist, I exit the plane and beeline for the bathroom to assess the situation. Ever the optimist, I tell myself it won’t be that bad.

It was that bad.

Do you know what melted chocolate looks like on the backside of a pair of white jeans? Yeah, exactly what you’re thinking. I never knew a single chocolate chip could do so much damage, but when you’re as unlucky as me, it will leave you with a stain reminiscent of a toddler’s poopy handprint on the right side of your butt and hip.

I won’t go into detail of all the distress that ensued (though I am sure you can imagine), but with the help of a ridiculously overpriced Tide-to-Go pen that I bought from the airport convenience shop, I manage to remedy the situation enough that my jeans at least don’t turn any heads. No one seems to notice the damp spot where the stain used to be, or at least if anyone does, they are kind enough to pretend not to.

I haven’t even made it to my destination yet and I am already feeling this trip is off to a great start as my flight gets delayed more and more by the second. It just wouldn’t be a true Vanessa trip if there wasn’t some sort of mishap, and on the bright side, it can only get better from here!

Thursday, July 13th

I am happy/relieved to report that my Texas trip does, in fact, improve considerably from its rocky start the day before. The southwestern heat and humidity greet me like a warm blanket as soon as I step off the plane, and the people I meet are just as welcoming. The day passes quickly with workshop activities, and before I know it, we have the evening to ourselves. The other students and I head to South Congress Ave. (known as SoCo) to explore Austin. Still full from breakfast tacos that morning and the pizza they treated us to for lunch, I decide to round out this day of healthy food choices with ice cream for dinner. No regrets.

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Cutest couple pic you’ll ever see on this iconic Austin wall.

After “dinner,” we all take Ubers to a place called Dance Across Texas. It’s exactly the type of scene you’d expect from a bar/dance dive in Texas, with country music blaring and a large dance floor in the middle, scuffed from dozens of pairs of cowboy boots skillfully scooting across it to the music. It’s college night here, so the crowd is mostly age-appropriate and I don’t feel so out of place with the two black marks the bouncer adorns my underage hands with at the front door.

Within minutes, I feel a tap on my shoulder from a guy my age kindly requesting a dance. I agree (when in Austin, right?) and it becomes immediately apparent that I do not know what I am doing. My partner, bless him, tries his best to teach me the two-step, but I only really managed to get confused a lot and step on his fancy cowboy boots repeatedly.

Despite my total lack of experience, I end up dancing all night, bouncing around partners because that’s just what you do I guess; there’s a whole ritual here where men approach women and respectfully ask for a dance (Northerners, take note), then move on to a different partner once that dance is over, only to repeat the process. It’s all very old-fashioned and formal, and I have more fun dancing with these strangers than I’ve had in a long, long time.

As we arrive back to the hotel that evening and I begin scrubbing off the black marks on my hands and wincing at the blisters already forming on my feet, I can’t stop smiling at my most perfect inauguration into Texas culture.