Just before leaving for Europe I had a chance to meet Jamie Tworkowski at a book signing. He was currently touring for a book he had just finished titled If You Feel Too Much. One of the essays reverberated in me to such an extent that I had him autograph the end of the essay. Titled “Dear Valentine’s Day,” Jamie says a number of things that I’ve been feeling for most of my twenties.
Jamie talks about the God-shaped hole in his heart, the one he’s been filling with a different girl every year or two since Junior High. I can relate. It’s hard to sit alone in your life and not feel lonely in the absence of losing someone. Someone who used to be so close that you can still see them sleeping next to you. Watching the sheets rise slowly to the rhythm of their breathing. Someone who you could swear made the daylight brighter, but maybe that’s because their own luminance silhouetted the sun.
It’s hard not to feel alone in a crowded room, and it’s hard not to want to search for ghosts even in an empty one. Love is a terribly tragic and beautiful thing. And I think there’s a lot of God in love, as I believe there’s a lot of love in God. So when we’ve had something so tangible for so long, we kind of forget about God’s love.
I recently finished Don Miller’s book Blue Like Jazz. It wasn’t the first book of his I read, but so far it has been the most impactful. I could cover the ceiling of my bedroom in quotes from that book, but I know the one that would always stand out the most is the one that says,
“…to be in a relationship with God is to be loved purely and furiously. And a person who thinks himself unlovable cannot be in a relationship with God because he can’t accept who God is; a Being that is love. We learn that we are lovable or unlovable from other people…That is why God tells us so many times to love each other.”
When I read this I knew I had found something important. One of those things you need to be quick to write down, least you forget it. I’ve carried around this God-shaped hole in me, filling it with whatever I could, whomever I could, hoping to feel something other than lonely, hollow, and unlovable. When there was someone who wanted to look me in the eyes and spend their weekends with me, rest their head across my chest, sing my songs. When someone in this world saw me for more than a face in the crowd, only then did I think I was loved. Only when I was in a relationship did I feel like I was loved. and a lover’s spurn is all you need to reverse that feeling of belonging and comfort.
Don was right. There’s no way I could ever fill this hole with God, not now anyways. As long as I’m trying to fill this hole with someone else, as long as I believe that I’ve already experienced life for as good as it will get, I will never have that moment of clarity where I can feel contentment in my own personal blessings. There was one other thing Don said, something else that I can’t get out of my head because I see it in everyone and everywhere I go,
“The trouble with deep belief is that it costs something and there is something inside me, some selfish beast of a subtle thing that doesn’t like the truth at all because it carries responsibility, and if I actually believe these things I have to do something about them. It is so, so cumbersome to believe anything. And it isn’t cool.”
I want to say life is meaningless, vacuous, and empty. That the only meaning it carries is what I give it, that life is only as full as I make it. That I should be at bars or parties enjoying my youth with friends. Going home with any blue-eyed girl who fancies my quick wit, charm, and smile. That there is no consequences or repercussions as long as we’re safe, and we both treat each other kindly. That the pang of guilt I feel each time I do something I feel is wrong is just me secretly getting over myself, and I need to keep at it until that feeling, that little voice inside me, is squelched out completely. That today is only today, and tomorrow is only tomorrow, and this is all any of us will ever have.
And try as I may, I just can’t bring myself to swallow that bitter pill no more than I can believe the sun could ever rise in the west.
When I finished my spin around the internet I got started on catching up on writing about Prague. To think, I started to write about Prague in a cafe in Amsterdam. In all the literature that has ever been written, I wonder how many times in history that has happened. I can’t think I’m the only one, though I do still think it was a pretty special moment.
Not too long after I got started my food finally arrived. Though I’ve had over a dozen so far this trip, the smell of a fresh kebap has always been welcomed – until now. I wasn’t quite sure what was causing it, but I had the most disconcerting feeling that the building I was in, the seat I was sitting at, was rocking ever so slightly like a boat in water. So as the smell of my fresh kebab made it to my nose, my stomach decided to make a quick 180 and push itself in towards my spine, making the thought of eating unbearable.
I forced down what I could and decided if I didn’t pack up now I would probably be looking at checking-in as an overnight guest. Time to resume what I set out to see at the start of the day.
It was only a few streets away, but by the time I was a turn away from where I was looking to go, the heat was making it a pretty sweaty start to the afternoon. I was lucky with shade always staying on one side of the road due to the good density of large canopy trees in Amsterdam.
When my feet finally stopped moving I was face to face with what I travelled across Europe to see – a bench. Adjacent to one of the many canal bridges, with a fairly large tree next to it and an assortment of bikes, was this completely ordinary wooden bench, painted in a dark green, and covered in locks.
This bench is passed by hundreds of people a day, thousands a week, and it would only be significant to those who were looking for it. For those who had read a specific book, and watched the movie adaption.
I took my pack off and placed it on the ground beside the bench. Sitting down I pulled my legs in to my chest and rested my head on them. I was Baskin Robin’s 31 flavors of feels right now and memories were flying through my mind at the speed of light.
Not too long ago I read a book, and then I met a girl. Then, coincidentally, I read the same book again, but over several weeks, out loud over Skype to the girl. It was one of the first things we shared together. The book was John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars.
I secretly hate how much I love that book; it’s love for the bittersweet reasons. Like knowing the cold weather is coming now that July is half way spent, or that the few grey hairs in my beard are only the start of the problem. It’s true, it’s a love story, but it’s more than a story of love – I think love is just the brief overview of it. I think it is more about life. It’s about loss. It’s about finite time and making the most out of it. It’s about knowing that as awake as you are today, you don’t know about tomorrow.
My fingers played with some of the locks on the bench, tracing my fingers over the markered letters indicating the initials of two lovers. I didn’t have a lock with me, I wish I did.
Is it appropriate though? To still want to put her initial next to mine? The all too familiar sharp pain struck my side as I remembered words I had forgotten. “I wrote your name next to mine a hundred times and I never liked seeing my name next to your last name.” It’s okay, I hate my name too.
I’ve hated my name for so long I used to ask people to call me Bob. The pain subsided as quick as it came, but older memories came to light as that first domino dropped. Remembering all the times we went anywhere that asked for my name and I would go through my mental list of biblical names that I’ve used for years: John, Job, Joe(seph). Each time would infuriate you because you didn’t see why I didn’t want to use my name and thought I was being stupid. I thought the entire process was tedious – because if I gave them my actual name, I’d then have to hear them reiterate it back to me partially confused, then try to spell it correctly, then pronounce it incorrectly, and all of this could be solved if I just continue to use my placeholder names so I can get my coffee and be on with my life. I digress.
My fingers began to run across the grains of the wood, finding cracks in it’s character. What does this bench signify to me anymore? Can a thing still hold a special meaning when the someone special it was shared with is gone? Does the story even matter now that the only other character outside yourself has chosen to write themselves out? Do those memories even matter? I found a rock and skipped it into the canal below. I hurt myself coming here, but I’m glad I did. I wanted to sit on this bench.
I read the words of all the messages carved or written onto the bench. I pulled out my knife and held in it my hands, feeling the rough hilt in my palm. I wanted to leave a mark, something outside of my head that might last longer than my own memories. The ones I’m desperately trying to expunge. The ones that dragged me, in part, to Europe – beseeching me to find my reasons to let it go. I searched my heart and knew I had nothing that hadn’t already been said, written, on the bench. I kissed my index finger and placed it upon two words: Always? Always.
My next stop was the Anne Frank House, but I wanted to take a peek at what was really in one of those ‘sandwich’ shops. If you’ve ever seen the show How I Met Your Mother, the narrator and main character, Ted, refers to anything pot related as ‘sandwiches’. Since all my friend’s tell me I’m the real life living Ted – which I hope to God I’m not because, spoiler alert, when he finally finds the one she dies of cancer only a decade later – I figure it’s only appropriate that I try and purchase something ‘sandwich’ related while in Amsterdam.
Despite the fact I’m a grown man, I’ve never been so uncomfortable in a shop. Maybe if it was one of those risqué shops, but it wasn’t – thank God. The shopkeeper had to have been near my age, and I could see in his eyes he knew I had no idea what I was doing. Still, when I browsed the edibles wall, he had no problem reiterating to me that Amsterdam is ‘the land where nobody cares what you do’. I saw a jar of girl scout cookies, and figured to settle on that – and a can of ‘Sandwich’ Energy Drink. You can only imagine how that may go down.
He welcomed me to come back before I left town, and sent me on my way after my purchase was complete. Immediately outside I popped open the can for a quick drink, I was both parched and hot. Only then did I see that the can said that it didn’t contain any ‘sandwich’ in it. Strike One.
A bit let down, I switched over to trying out some of the cookies. They were amazing and crunch, like they contained seeds in them or something. I finished two before realizing I may want to slow down, and then picked up where I left off on my walk back to Anne Frank’s.
Fifteen or so minutes later I was staring at the longest line outside of Anaheim, California that I’ve ever seen. “Great.” I thought to myself. I still had two cookies, and wasn’t feeling anything, so I managed to choke them down. The sugar high was kicking in from the cookies and the non-sandwich drink, combined with the heat I was a certifiable hot mess. I reread the labels on the jar of cookies, and was a little mislead. While it didn’t actually say it didn’t contain any ‘sandwich’, it didn’t say it did either. Strike Two.
I knew better though, and I guess God, or the universe, or whatever, was looking out for me in Amsterdam. Maybe having a sandwich while travelling alone wasn’t the best idea, especially since I had to make it to a train later for Paris.
The line for the Anne Frank House, surprisingly, didn’t take all day to get through. Maybe an hour and a half tops. As I finally made my way in, the temperature of the day had started to change, like a storm was coming in the wind had picked up a bit and the sky was no longer blindingly clear.
The one thing about the actual Anne Frank House that I will say, is the curators did one hell of a good job at laying out the exhibit. It runs over several floors, and you go up one side only to come back down the other – never crossing any opposite groups or seeing the same content twice. Even when you leave the building you exit through a gift shop and an exhibit dedicated to those who helped Anne’s family in some way. It was beautiful, creative, and somewhat tragic all at the same time. I somehow wonder if people feel the same way about Gettysburg.
While most students are introduced to the Holocaust in grade school, and are required to read Anne Frank’s journal, I somehow forgot the breadth of it. Which is not unlike me as there was a very good chance I was reading a different library book masked by the other book. While I was there I found something long forgotten, but poignant and appropriate, written on one of the walls:
“I want to write, but more than that, I want to bring out all kinds of things that lie buried deep in my heart.”
I stared at those words for a long time. I could hear the audio narration in the background, somewhere, talking about how she was living here – standing, sitting, or lying, not too far where I was now. A little girl locked away in a house and asked to be no more audible than a mouse, with nothing more than an occasional magazine or book whenever one could be smuggled in, and her diary. There was no hope to play outside, never mind setting foot down the stairs, without the risk of being discovered. The best of us would be hard pressed to show such tenacity in light of our world’s being turned inside out. It took me only four months to falter, to give up, to surrender to the abyss – and I was twice her age.
Though her diary, and her story, were both brought to an abrupt ending, it made me wonder – do any of us ever get to finish our story on our own terms? Or are we all incomplete works with an epilogue at best; written by a family member, lover, or close friend?
I was nudged slightly in the back by someone else shuffling through the room. Looking around I realized I was accidentally standing midway in a very small area, forcing people behind me to navigate around. I continued up the stairs, to the climatic point of the Anne Frank experience.
My one warning for any one who visits the Anne Frank house is to mind your footing. The stairs are perilous and steep, with very little room to actually step on. At some point I was practically walking sideways up the stairs just to make sure I wouldn’t miss a step and slip. I could only imagine having the look on my mother’s face when Dutch doctors call to tell her I broke my other arm falling down the stairs in the Anne Frank house – or worse.
The very top of the Anne Frank House was the hardest to experience. It was there where you knew the journal ended, and ended mid-sentence. A sign to the right of the room explained that on August 4, 1944 the house was raided and the secret annex was discovered. Everyone was arrested, and no one ever found out who betrayed those who were in hiding.
I looked at the date again. August 4. Flashbacks like a movie, from a different life, flickered in front of me. Like an old home movie shot on a handycam, the lighting was obscured and the picture slightly distorted, but I saw the events of another August 4 before my eyes.
A long car ride and a white summer dress. Jeans that fit too loosely, and a weight burning in my pocket. A helicopter and the skies above California’s wine country, a group of friends in an open field, and a tremendously large banner stretched across it. A question, a boy with a ring, a girl with an answer.
I forced myself to turn to a display detailing what was discovered of Anne’s fate in the concentration camp. How she first lost her mother, and then her sister. Already feeling as if her father already perished, the darkness expunged that little light.
A small sign above a framed piece of paper stated that Anne’s light went out in February 1945, two months before British troops liberated the camp. The paper was from the camp and listed both Anne and her sister among the deceased.
The rest of the tour was a slow decent into the aftermath of Anne’s life. Detailing the survival of her father, and how he was returned her journals by friends who found them in the aftermath of the raid. When Otto finally discover the fate of his family, he made it his life’s purpose to share Anne’s life, Anne’s story, with the world.
What a difference a life can make, but more importantly, what a legacy a life can leave. Beyond the extraordinary and terrible events that transpired around her, there was nothing extraordinary about Anne – or her life. She showed a particular talent for writing, so it might have been expected that she would have turned out to be a prolific writer, maybe even a famous one as well, should she have survived. Though if the Holocaust never happened, if Germany decided to attack Russia all out instead, if Hitler would have actually painted something worth a damn back in Vienna. If the circumstances weren’t what they were, would Anne Frank really be Anne Frank?
Be it opportunity, or insurmountable difficulties, we are defined not by our words, nor our thoughts, but only our actions. Which leads me to believe that none of us ever really know the weight of our words, or the impact they may make on the world.
Some time ago I watched a series of sermons, titled Elements, from National Capital Church. There was so much that I took away from each of the sermons, but one in particular, and of course I can’t remember which, said something I thought was very profound. I am the master of my words as long as they stay in my head, but when I open my mouth my words will master me. What will our words say about us, and our story? Will we build people up with them – or break them down?
That’s the thing about the stories we are all living, we don’t know the outcome of the story, or even the end of a chapter, and because of that we attribute very little meaning or worth to any of it. The things we do, or the things we say. At least that’s the way I feel sometimes… Most of the time.
Back on the streets of Amsterdam, the weather seemed to have taken a turn for the dramatic. Dark skies stretched to the horizon, and sharp cold winds beat the waterways until whitecaps peaked over the surface. It was genuinely cold, or cooler by a fair amount, and I was loving it, but just as quick as the cool air brought relief, breaks in the sky let the heat and light back in, though the rest of the afternoon did find a way to make itself more tolerable.
After snapping some photos of the front of the Anne Frank House, I had to make a judgment call on what the last sight of the day was going to be. I had spent so much time writing and recovering from Munich that my itinerary was now skewed, and now I was left torn between getting a decent dinner or going for a speed tour of the Van Gogh Museum – if it was even open. The wookiee-like roar that bellowed under my backpack’s waist belt decided for me – early dinner it will be!
While close neighbors, the Dutch had a distinct uniqueness apart from Germany. The menus as the local restaurants were different than the cosine I was used to seeing in Austria or Germany, with most places serving hamburgers and fries. I couldn’t be sure if it was correlated to the nationalities that most visit Amsterdam, or the popularity of the food, but I did know one thing – I didn’t come half way around the world to eat a damn hamburger.
Settling for a chicken dish that was surprisingly palatable, I sipped what ended up being the last beer-ish drink on this leg of the journey. I say beer-ish drink, because I’m pretty sure the recipe for it is two parts beer, one-part lemonade, and while it sounds outlandish – and some beer snobs would find it heresy – it some how is helped alleviate the long day’s sun. Finding the Wi-Fi password for the cafe, I checked to see if my train was going to be on time – and then I searched for Anne Frank quotes.
It was then I found this:
“The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quiet, alone with the heavens, nature and God. Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be and that God wishes to see people happy, amidst the simple beauty of nature. As long as this exists, and it certainly always will, I know that then there will always be comfort for every sorrow, whatever the circumstances may be. And I firmly believe that nature brings solace in all troubles.”
Between the sapphire blues and smoky greys of the burlap skies, rich amber rays made the water shimmer like emeralds and back-lit the tree canopy above the round little table I was seated at. With a clear view of whatever major road this was, adjacent to a large canal, bike after bike would speed by me – ringing their little bells. I could still hear the rap music and loud jeers of the all-too-obvious vacationing frat boys somewhere amongst the backdrop, still patrolling up and down the canals; aiming super soakers at any and all unsuspecting passersby. Girls, tall, thin, and strikingly beautiful, glided by in their summer dresses and lip gloss, men dressed as if they were pulled from the pages of a fashion magazine and cast into the early Amsterdam evening.
I sipped my beer-ish drink, sat back, and smiled. A little prayer crossed my mind; I thanked God.
What a truly interesting day indeed.