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Monday, August 15, 2011

Time may change me. But you can't trace time.

~All things change, and we change with them.

Change. It’s within your reach. You know what it means, but as I’ve come to realize, you can’t achieve it without some personal risk. Five years ago, I was living in a small town in N.J., surrounded by everyone I’d ever known growing up and never truly feeling content with where my life was at or the direction I was going.

Sure, I knew that it was possible to make changes, but it was so hard…and I was petrified. For me, fear was one of the main components of change. For every change I made, I became stronger, and realized that while I’d never be able to control the outcome; I could control the action I took and the energy I put out in to this World.

When I came to NM, I thought that I had hit my bottom. I was so lonely, and had nobody but myself to answer to. What that meant was I could no longer blame my bad days on other people. I couldn’t come home upset that someone had done something to me to make me feel a certain way. For this first time in my life I had to hold myself accountable for everthing I thought and felt.

It was decision time. I was only supposed to be in Albuquerque for six weeks. By my calculations that was just long enough for me to get away without missing anything, or anyone too much. A couple of weeks before I was supposed to leave, I learned that someone I had knew and cared for passed away much too young. I was so sad and wanted desperately to escape the emptiness in my heart, so I went up to the top of Sandia Mountains on a tram. When you reach 13,000 feet of elevation the air is different. When I got to the top, I sat out on the edge of a peak overlooking the land and realizing for the first time that instead of being the center of the Universe, I was only a small piece. It was something so simple, yet I’d never even considered it in all the years I’d spent in N.J. I was always too preoccupied with working too hard, stressing out too much and spending any free time I had entertained by what was going on around me rather than what was going on inside of me. I decided that day that I was going to stay in N.M. I didn’t know for how long, but for the first time in my life, that didn’t matter.

About two years in to living out here, on my own, I had some time to think and mature. I began figuring out who I was, what I wanted, and where I needed to be. It was difficult picking up my life and moving 2,000 miles away from everyone I loved, but it was worth it. I strongly feel that without risk, there is no reward. In exchange for the loneliness, I got to know myself, and for the first time, I genuinely liked who that was.

Of course, I didn’t always have the courage to make a move like that. Truth be told, I left because my heart was broken, and I knew my spirit was next to go. Also, I started paying close attention to all of the signs around me telling me it was time to leave. First, my job moved to another state. Then, I had a breakup that left me with no place to live. Finally, I tried to lease an apartment that turned in to an eight hour ordeal which promptly sent me (and my first month’s rent ) running out of there realizing, if so many things are turning out so badly, what could I do to make it stop?

People always ask me, why do you live out there in New Mexico? How do you stand living in the desert? It’s so slow there…and hot! The answer I always give is the same, it doesn’t matter where you are, it only matters who you are and what and whom you choose to surround yourself with.
In order for things to begin, things have to end. I’d always had an issue with resorting to my past for safety. Whether it be a bad habit or a bad relationship, I just couldn’t seem to keep myself away from the things that were already proven to be toxic for me. It’s like the feeling of exhaustion you get after trying to swim against the current in the water for too long. I was tired, and I knew I had no choice but to go forward. Except, my mind just wouldn’t let me. If I’d been telling this story 10 years ago, I would have blamed it on my heart. But, I learned over the years that you have the ability to control your emotions, it’s your mind that will lead you to the edge of self destruction and dare you to jump.

It isn’t easy and it never will be. Personally, I don’t think it’s supposed to be. But, there came a time when my countless hours of self reflection began to illuminate the darkness I’d been living in for so long. That’s when I knew I had found myself again. I was no longer someone’s daughter, friend, colleague or significant other, I was Melanie, and that was finally okay with me.

Taking control over your life breeds a confidence that can’t be shaken. When you have traveled your journey to wherever it is you’re going, and realize that you have the power within you to make your life what you want it be, you will never feel like you have to rely on another person again. However, ironically, when you get to that place, you turn around and see all of the people that supported you along the way. That’s how you know who your true friends are. The people that are there to wipe your tears should be the same people that are excited to join you in toasting to your happiness.

I started out just breathing at night to clear my head because I couldn’t remain calm enough to attempt meditation and my thoughts were driving me to places I was tired of visiting. The small windows of clarity allowed me a peek at what being in the moment was all about. If you’re not present for life, you miss it. You can spend a lifetime pouring over your regrets, or take a moment and be aware of what’s right in front of you.

Don’t spend life waiting, wondering, hoping for better times to arrive, make it happen for yourself. Don’t try to plan ten years from now, every breath we take is another blessing. Life can change in an instant. The only way to enjoy it is to remain flexible, and open yourself up to the possibility that the best is yet to come.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

In Your Honor

  When I left Bayonne, 4 years ago, I thought I was saying goodbye to my hometown. But last weekend that all changed when I had an idea for a group where people could share their most cherished stories of all--their memories about their hometown.

Our hometowns shape us.  It can’t be denied.  Each and every one of us is who we are, in part, because of where we grew up.  It was the people we knew, our teachers, police officers, priests and preachers,  piano teachers, PAL coaches and dance instructors who taught us lessons about life that would later prove more valuable than we ever knew they would be.

It is truly a tribute to humanity that so many people have flocked to this group with hopes of sharing a ‘remember when’ story, just aching for the chance to discuss a time when life wasn’t so stressful.   A time when people left their doors open because they knew and trusted their neighbors.  When the people that you surrounded yourself with lived on your block, or went to your school.  This group has done that by creating a welcoming atmosphere of nostalgia. Thank you, (yes you, reading this right now), for starting what I hope will one day serve as a reminder to not just my hometown people, but to everyone's. My gratitude for each and every person that feels the same way is immense.

When I look at old photographs and speak to people that I haven’t communicated with in a while, it always takes me back to a time when I didn’t have to worry if the rent was paid. All I had to worry about is being a kid. TPlaying games and laughing until my stomach hurt. That kind of carefree attitude can’t be manufactured or sold.  And once it’s gone, it’s near impossible to recapture.  That’s the beauty of nostalgia.

The overwhelming majority of folks shared the same things. Some missed the locally owned stores. Some wondered why their children couldn’t have the same childhood they did. Why couldn’t their child go out and play until the streetlights came on and it was time for dinner? The simple answer is that times have changed. But, what I’ve realized by starting this group is that people have not. People are still good even though times are tough. I truly believe that this group is indicative of what America needs today:  To reconnect with a time when there weren’t cell phones and gadgets consuming our lives.  A time when people left their house and explored their community.  We need to remember that a community is people and places with shared experiences.  What that means is that we’re all in this together.   That while we are different, we share the same memories, have passion for the same interests, and are defined by our desire to be ‘heard. recognized, and above all else, loved.

Nostalgia serves as a reminder that we are all interconnected. That while we may be different, most of us share the same kind of memories, the same common goal. We are in control of our own happiness, and ultimately are all a part of something worth fighting for: our community.  And if everybody remembers that…well, then anything is possible.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

In My Hometown

Sometimes, in order to go forward, you have to go back. Even though I live 2,000 miles away, I can’t ever forget where I came from.  After seeing how many memories people I didn’t even know had of growing up in Bayonne,  I compiled a list of the top 10 things that are the sure signs you grew up in Bayonne (or knew someone that did).

"Childhood is the most beautiful of all life's seasons."  ~Author Unknown

B# 1.           Broadway, and all its Glory:
             Sidewalks have changed, in that Bayonne no longer holds their annual ‘Sidewalk Sale’ on Broadway. Styles have come and gone from the ‘Skaters’ with their wide legged (sometimes homemade) pants to the baggy jeans issue that over time has gotten better, but will probably never completely disappear.  There were cheerleaders and there were those who marched to a beat of his or her own drummer.  We transformed from a town where people would wear their Sunday’s best to go to Uncle Milty’s to a place where the youth would rush to the local carnival, meet up with their friends, grab a zeppole and a ride on the Bullet. Whatever the case may be, Bayonne fills me with a nostalgia of a time when people only shopped at locally owned stores. The stores were owned by people we grew up with, and saw every year when it was time to back to school and you needed a new pair of shoes.  When you wanted a slice, you would go to the pizza place and after, it was on to Carvel.  When you got older, it was time to drive up and down all 52 blocks of Broadway. Then, it was off to Global .

2.      # 2.                   The Parking Situation/Snowstorm Situations
Everyone knows that there was not, nor will there ever be, parking anywhere near where you have to go. And when Bayonne gets hit with the brutal snowstorm of the year, (which it almost always does, parking gets even worse. For months, the topic of conversation between any Bayonne residents at any given time will be the putrid aesthetic of the "black snow" and how there is absolutely nowhere in town to park.

3.       # 3.            The Parks:
               As kids, we all hung out at our local park.  Whether it was hanging at 16th st. to play ball, Hudson County to go to the playground, 1st Street to go see or play a Little League game, or Vets Stadium; we all had the chance to enjoy a park in one way or another,  and were better because of it.

4.       #4.          Local Activities:
             There are many things to do in Bayonne. If you ever played basketball at the P.A.L. or worked there, like me), you’re not alone.  If the bulk of your childhood consisted of hanging out on street corners and playing manhunt and touch football until your Mom stuck her head out of the window to call you in, you grew up in Bayonne.  Broadway served as the one-stop shopping center for everything from clothes to comics and today, every time I visit, I notice that while the shops have changed hands, the people are still there, crowding up the streets.
While activities have changed over the years, some things can be counted on to stay the same.  

Where most people are these days:
1.       The Gym
2.       Tanning
3.       Eating
            4.       Working

5.       #5.         Growing up;  Bayonne Style

  St. Vinnie’s Dances
 Where you could spend the night getting all dressed up to go to a basement in a church,  and then hope that someone will ask you to dance to the one slow song at the end before the lights started to come up as the music was still playing.
                White Rock
For some it was the spot for their first kiss. Others, it was the place they recall when they remember smoking their first cigarette.  Located behind the Senior Citizens buildings on Ave. A., most pre-teens and adolescents reached this destination via the back entrance of the Hudson Bay.
              16th St. Pool
Whether you swam in it, took your kids there, or just passed by, the Pool has been a staple of the Bayonne community for a while.

Other places you might be:
-Your friend’s house
-The Bay
-The Park
-The Diner (either Uptown or Downtown. Uptown will always be my favorite!

6.      # 6.         Community:
             If I could say anything about my time there, it would be that everyone really knew everyone. What I mean by that is, if your friend took a fall on 48th St., you’d know about it on 3rd st. in just under 10 minutes. This could be both a comfort, and a curse. Now, of course, it’s still like that. It’s almost as if after childhood, the bars kept everyone glued together.  Is it possible in every town to walk into your local bar and be able to see at a minimum of 5 people you either grew up with, dated, or at least knew of? I highly doubt it.  There really was a time when the Cops, Teachers and Firefighters all resided in Bayonne and vowed to keep us safe. They did a damn good job of it too. Now, Bayonne isn’t as safe as it was and people have moved because of it.  While property taxes and Real Estate go up, the quality of people seem to dissipate. Sad, but true.
Through its gentrification, Bayonne has morphed into a place that has both changed drastically and yet somehow, remains the same.
7.       #7.         Bayonne Geography:
People live very close together in Bayonne.  Whether it’s one block, or 10, you’re not ever so far away that you can’t walk. And, that was always one of the things I adored.  Everyone was divided in grammar school, but when it came to High School, if you went to B.H.S., you, like me, were astonished by how massively intimidating the school appeared when you first saw it. And, then later, you were surprised at how small it seemed years after you left.  Besides the constant influx of nail salons, tanning salons, Liquor Stores, and Gyms located on almost every square inch of a Bayonne city block, there were  churches, parks, schools and people that helped impress upon your morals and values, (at one point or another), for every  Bayonne  Resident.  Bayonne is located less than 30 minutes from Manhattan, and about 10 minutes from Staten Island, and most residents, take total advantage of that luxury. This is why it’s expensive to live there, even if you may not think it’s “worth” it (and get pissed when you can't find a parking spot to save your life). When I needed to get somewhere quick, and I was too young to drive, the preferred method of transportation was a cab. You knew every cab number in Bayonne and for $3.25, you knew when they said "30 minutes", they really meant about an hour. Either that, or they'd tell you it would be "a while", and then they'd be outside honking like a madman while you scrambled to get your shoes on because you thought.

8.       #8.              Are you Hungry?

                 Bayonne has some of the best cuisine in the United States. Sure, I may be bias, but that doesn’t  mean I’m wrong.  From the dozens of pizza places, these are among the Top 5:

1.       Pompei Pizza: I don’t think this place has ever changed owners, and it never, ever should. This was the spot to go when I was growing up. You could go there with $5 and sit for an hour with your friend while you played their jukebox, ate a slice and had an RC Cola.
2.       Pizza Masters
3.       Tony’s
4.       Fontanas
5.       Joe’s: The only place that was open when you needed a slice  after 11pm.

Let’s not forget the joy of a sandwich from Benanti’s, Carvel, Magic Fountain, and the countless Bakeries that add to the melting pot of ethnicities that reside in that town and make it what it is.

9.       #9.               The People from Bayonne:
If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard someone say that they “can’t wait to move out of Bayonne!”, I’d be rich. Mostly, I'd probably have to pay them back considering 80% of the people that say that return at some point.  Still, there are those residents that have been there since birth and will remain there till they die. We call these people “Bayonne-ies’ “.  The drama, the gossip, the friendships, the history…it’s all what makes Bayonne what it is. An experience worth recalling .   I used to be somewhat annoyed by the fact that when I came to visit, I couldn’t go to the A&P, Shop Rite, or really anywhere in town, without bumping in to someone I know.  Now, I take comfort in that hard to find, small hometown spirit that just isn’t present in every town.  

1#10.                                    “Yeah, I’m from Bayonne. Born and raised.”  And proud of it!
       I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said this. No matter what kind of question it was, I always had the same response. In my Freshman year of College, a guy from out of town asked me if I was embarrassed to be from a town with the slogan “If it’s from Bayonne, leave it alone”.  While others may have their perceptions of what it was like to grow up in Bayonne, I have my memories. They are backed up by all the people that have shared them with me or have made their own. Either way, loyalty was ingrained in me because of where I am from, and it’s a trait that makes you want to defend your hometown, and all of the glory you know exists there. No matter how long you've been absent from it…

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Adventures in Kayaking...

Let me start by stating that I'm by no means an expert on the subject of kayaking. However, I've had a couple of negative experiences on rivers prior to this. One of them being on the Delaware Water Gap involving a Canoe that tipped and caused a hell of a debacle that ended in physical injuries, a tow trip from PA to NJ on Memorial Day weekend and a breakup. Need I say more? I've also done floating down the river, but there isn't any real work involved in that activity. You just tie some tubes together and float down the river while drinking some beer from the cooler that's tied next to you. I don't want to admit that I was naive enough to think that kayaking wouldn't be a lot of work, but when all was said and done I definitely considered myself upgraded from 'wuss' to 'warrior' status. The man that owns this place was a little chatty over the phone when I was booking my spot for this trip, but I figured he was just trying to be thorough. He asked that we arrive 30 minutes before our 9am take-off. By the time we arrived, there was a young dude cleaning off the kayaks we'd be using for our adventure so it was cool to be able to check out where our behinds would be parked for the 2 and a half hour paddle. Then, the owner came out and proceeded to bore the crap out of my and my two friends with endless banter about how we should be careful to avoid 'branches' in the river, and how we'll see these 'large metal structures' and we need to avoid them too (thanks, for that, but I think it's pretty intuitive to avoid things that are visibly jutting out of the water. We then watched a 20 minute video on everything he pretty much just spent 20 min. telling us. He even made us watch the parts on canoeing and white water rafting (why? I don't know). To top that off, he brought up his Google Map presentation and showed us where we'd be most likely to encounter these super threatening tree branches and metal structures. Ok, fine. We're ready now. We take off in the van and drive past all of the private land owned by several Indian tribes. The spot for take off was in the middle of nowhere and by that time (already past 9:30), we were ready to go! But WAIT, there's more.
The dude then proceeded to draw some diagrams in the dirt with the corner of the oar explaining how not to directly hit the branch or/and the metal structure. Finally, we take off and we're on our way out onto the waters of the Rio Grande. Or lack thereof. What I mean is that NM has been in a drought as of late so instead of floating a little with the current and then paddling we were forced to paddle furiously the whole way if we didn't want to move at 3 miles per hour. This was first.
I wound up drifting one way and my friends drifted another. As I was going through this marsh, I could hear my friend yell that they'd meet me on the other side of the little island. Great, I thought, that shouldn't be far! Instead, it was about 30-40 minutes of hell because I wound up stuck in spots with no water and the boat was way too heavy to carry anywhere. This means that I had to use all of my energy to push myself back to any spot where the water was higher than my ankle (which was hard to find).
By the time I floated out to the other side, my friends were parked and waiting for me on some rocks and I must say, I was never happier to see them. We still had about another hour of paddling to do and we started to wonder where and when we'd see the people form the Paddling place to pick us up...
After another hour of paddling, we realized we must have missed the take out point and were pretty much screwed. My friend called the owner who told her that we 'should have never went that far! Didn't we see the take-off point that was so not clearly marked?? NOPE. DO YOU REALLY THINK WE'D BE CALLING YOU FROM YOUR DAMN KAYAK IN THE MIDDLE OF THE RIO IF WE DID?? Then he says that he's not sure if he'd be able to send anyone to pick us up. This part really infuriated me because the last thing you want to worry about after this kind of trip was finding a place to park your kayak and not having a ride out of there. He told us to continue swimming until we saw the Alameda bridge, he'd try to get someone out there by the time we made it there, which would be a while since it was miles and
miles away. Really, there was no bridge in sight. This is the point of the story where I want to stress that if this guy had talked MORE about where and when we'd be picked up, and less about the branches we may or may not see in the river, we probably wouldn't have gotten lost and it would have been a perfect trip.
Instead, we wound up paddling 21 miles and cried when we realized we had no freakin idea where the bridge even was. When we finally did make it and dragged our heavy ass canoes up the dirt trail, two dude came about 10 minutes later to pick us up. They told us that this had 'happened before' and that the owner needs to stress where the take off point is. Yes, that would have been nice. He then told us they charge people double to do the trip that we just took so we actually made out like bandits! Go figure. I told him that I actually would have paid them double if they'd only been there to pick us up when they were supposed to.
This was definitely an adventure, one that I most likely won't be taking again in the near future, or until I regain feeling in my arms again. Honestly, when I do this again, I will gladly pay to rent a kayak for the $40 this 'trip' cost me. It would be easier because I wouldn't have to endure the sound of the owner rudely chatting away about things that aren't of importance for my trip. The best part about the whole experience was getting to share it with two kick ass women that paddled their asses off just like I did on a beautiful day with serene surroundings and beautiful Mother Nature providing all the kick ass scenery.