The Dawn of the North, A Journey

I have no choice. ChristmasLightsTheSoul lives on in the face of adventure, in the face of enlightenment, and in the face of adversity.

Tonight, I reflect on my life, my actions both good and bad, my friends, my family and my foes, my past and my future, and most importantly of all, my spirit. It’s a lot for one person to bear all at once, and I assure you I’m not doing a great job of managing every aspect of my life in one day. But there is one thing that I can assure you of tonight. My spirits are soaring high.

As you may have noticed, ChristmasLightsTheSoul has undergone some renovation. Nearly all of my articles from my trip to Europe have been eliminated from the web. Nearly all of my photographs, my experiences, and my thoughts from the past year have been removed from my webpage. Yet even in the absence of these things, ChristmasLightsTheSoul has taken on a new look, a new style, and new goals: to share with you favorite images that I have taken, to share with you favorite quotations that have meaning to me, and to share with you stories and experiences from which I have become a better person.

The past ten days have been less than smooth sailing for me. It isn’t my desire to share with you what events have transpired over the course of these ten days, or more significantly, to discuss individuals, individual situations or my reactions to what my life has thrown at me. Everyone has scars, chapters of their lives that have helped them grow into the people they are today and yet need to remain closed. I am no different from anybody else; I am not alone in my struggles.

And so I do not need to use ChristmasLightsTheSoul as a portal for venting or angered speech. Instead, I hope to focus on using my blog to spread the goodness, the positive, the exciting aspects of life that I encounter everyday be it through my pictures, a quote, or an anecdote. Perhaps you’ll discover something you didn’t know before, or perhaps you’ll be able to relate with my sentiments exactly, and reassure yourself of a lesson learned years ago, reigniting the flame that has always been burning inside of you, reminding you of life’s mysteries and extraordinary power to inspire knowledge, adventure and passion.

The aurora borealis, the dawn of the north, more commonly known as the northern lights, are a spectacular phenomenon that occurs in the upper atmospheres of Earth towards the northern pole of our planet. An equally spectacular show occurs at the southern pole of Earth, called the aurora australis or the dawn of the south. I was extremely fortunate enough to see the aurora borealis two different times on my recent ten day trip to the great state of Alaska. Pictures will follow soon, I assure you, but I wanted to focus on the impact of such an extraordinary event.

As I stood on the snow-packed ground in subzero temperatures, bundled up in my long-johns, my ski pants and jacket, mittens and balaclava, skull cap and hoodie, I realized that I had found common ground with electrons. Seriously. Granted, negative energy was definitely in my near future at the time, but that is not the point. I stood beneath these undulating curtains, bands and waves of greens, pinks and whites uttering the only word I could think of to say: unbelievable. I wasn’t only watching one of the most spectacular things I had ever witnessed; I was watching a perfectly timed show of my life, thousands of feet in the air above my head.

The particles creating the colored, dancing spirits above my head had originated on the surface of the sun of our solar system, roughly 93 million miles of empty space away. At their origin, these particles had festered and grown into a storm of electrons potentially capable of interrupting human technology on Earth and sending a species into a frenzy. Enter Zach.

Being 21 years old, I want to believe that I still have many, many years ahead of me in life, each with special adventures and experiences to learn from. Having this mindset, and looking at where I stand in my life currently with respect to personal happiness, relationships with my family and friends, and being at peace, I can only draw the connection between my life and how I have affected people around the world with my words and my actions, and the storm of negatively charged particles hurtling towards Earth and affecting lives 93 million miles away.

But the story doesn’t end here. What happens to most of those particles in our atmosphere? They explode into colors, shapes, sizes, speeds, all of various proportions and magnitudes, dancing in the night sky to the beat of your heart as you reach out to grasp its passionate, sensational and unforgettable display.

I hope that one day I, too, can learn from, grow from, and transform my life experiences, good and bad, into a gift for other people all around me. I hope that one day I can alter, for the better, the lives of the people I love.

A goodnight to you all from Savannah, Georgia.

The Laughter Within

It’s no secret that dogs have a magical effect on their owners and other people around them. For a long time, dogs have lived alongside humans. And for a long time, humans have loved the companionship and friendship of their four legged friends. I know that I cherished all thirteen and a half year with my first dog, Mahoghany, and I have already started forging a life-long friendship with my parent’s new dog, Teak. To play with Teak, to tease him with the frisbee, to hide around the corner so that he has to seek me out, to wrap him up in my comforter and watch him squirm: these are the things that bring out the laughter within, the laughter that comes from that special place, deep inside all of us. I don’t know what it is about the physiology of dogs that enables them to communicate with us on such a primal level. No formal spoken language is required, no written word. Just a smile, a pat on the back, and a real excitement for life. You can’t make this stuff up with dogs- they know, almost innately, when you are feeling sad or down, and they know when you’re really excited. And when you show your true emotions to them and you simply just are who you are, they just stick by your side no matter what. It’s funny to me that I’m talking this way about dogs, because when I think about it, these are the things that we should all be saying about our family and our friends. To have a mutual respect and love for each other, to love each other no matter what the mood, to always be at each other’s side: these things seem so simple when said, but they are so much harder to give. I know only a handful of people in this world that exhibit these qualities, certainly not including myself. I read the introduction to Gordon Livingston’s book How to Love last night, and one of several passages I underlined for myself was this one on page xvii: “[...] the fundamental requirement for any satisfying relationship is a reciprocal to see the world as others see it, to be able to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes.” He goes on to describe many more “fundamental requirements,” but this one is specifically directed at me. Empathy is such an important characteristic that isn’t taught enough. Be it in a conversation, a situation, or a relationship, I am not so great at it. But, as Dr. Livingston puts it on page xvii, “that is why it is important to cultivate in ourselves those traits of character that we value in others.” Dogs do it so well. Without the chaos, the drama, and the petty stupidity of adolescence. Perhaps it is because their time on this Earth is even ore limited than ours and they want to take life by the horns right off the bat without wasting any time. Now there’s another lesson that we can learn from our canine friends.

Life After Travel and A Craving for Adventure

It’s been a little while since I last posted on Christmas Lights the Soul, but though my blog hasn’t been as active as I would like it to be, my life certainly has. As a friend of mine recently termed it, “re-entry into life” has resulted in nothing but pure goodness and productivity.

Life after traveling can be enormously difficult, almost like a letdown or a withdrawal. I remember coming home from the British Virgin Islands, from Costa Rica, from the Normandy coast of France, and even from the West Coast of the United States on multiple occasions. Each return to little old Savannah, Georgia was made complete by the feeling of something missing, an emptiness, an overwhelming desire to return to where I had just been days before. It’s a difficult time to get through, and even more so after the holiday season. But, I want to believe that this is part of what drives us to begin planning for and seeking out a new adventure in the future. So perhaps it isn’t all that bad in the end!

Coming home from Europe on January 3, 2012 after just over two months in the UK, Netherlands and Italy, I felt none of the above. A contradicition you say? Perhaps not. And don’t get me wrong- I loved my time in Europe and I am so proud of myself for making the decision to go and following through with it… it is perhaps one of the best decisions in my life so far. But, though I’ll sound cliche in this remark, there’s just no place like home.

Since I’ve been back, I’ve done a lot of thinking about what adventure I want to save up for next, and I keep coming back to the same answer: exploring the Lapland region of Norway, Sweden and Finland, and ending up as a volunteer for a husky farm just outside of Enontekio, Finland… but more on this later. I don’t want to get too carried away!

Another thing I’ve done while I’ve been back home has been a perfectly timed project that has needed to be done for many, many years: digitalizing the family photos that have been sitting in boxes in the closet for over fifteen years. What better gift could I give myself, a 21-year-old facing the daunting but rewarding life-long discovery of self, than a glimpse into my past?

Not only have I found entirely non-flattering photos of myself at age 2, I have found pictures from my parents wedding and honeymoon, photos of both loved ones and friends who have passed on, and even  pictures of buildings and places reminiscent of times gone by. But one group of pictures that has really stuck out in my mind is the stack of old photos from trips taken many years ago by my mom, my dad and me. I discovered the photos from a road trip to Washington D.C. in 1994 with my California cousins, Anne and Matt, when Anne ate too many hash browns with cheddar cheese from Cracker Barrel and saw them again on the side of the highway later that day. I found the pictures from our various trips to Florida to visit the Maldonado family and attend a wedding for Monica- the people who enriched my youth with their Ecuadorian smiles and laughter. But perhaps the most important trip I found envelopes and envelopes of pictures from was our six-week trip to Europe in 1998. Flying to Paris with the Roxanne, Alex and Lea Dickinson, going to school in Montmartre, taking the chunnel to London to see Dr. Croll and Jen Morgan, meeting up with my dad and driving through Dijon, the Alps, horrible dinners in Switzerland, late nights in Geneva, meeting our Italian family for the first time in Lucca and Badia Pozzeveri, and Rome. Now I understand why I love to travel. Now I get why I can’t stop thinking about the next adventure.

I am no child psychologist, and nor am I an advocate for spending money frivolously. However, I am and always will be thankful for my parent’s courage and support and encouragement to travel with me as much as possible while I was a kid. They taught me to love airplanes, airports, the excitement of a new adventure, going where I have never stepped foot before. I am certain that it is because of this first European trip in the summer of 1998 that I am the travel junky that I am now. Being the first really memorable trip for me, exploring Europe was a chance to introduce me to the world outside of Savannah Country Day, the world beyond Savannah, Georgia and the United States of America. Because of this wonderful trip, I am looking forward to many, many more trips to many, many different places on this Earth that I would never have even dreamed of going before 1998.

I am so lucky to have parents that recognized the significance of the education that travel gives. If you have the chance and the means to explore this wonderful world, get that crave for adventure and don’t ever look back.

A Mentor, A Neighbor, A Friend

It has been way too long since I last posted on Christmas Lights the Soul! Coming home to Savannah opened up so many opportunities for me to get things done, accomplish tasks, see old friends, and relax! I got out of the fantastic habit that I had kept for the past couple of months. But, seeing as how I was on the go, go, go, go, go, I am a bit thankful for the respite.

That being said, I have an enormous list of things to blog about in my journal, and I hope to write satisfactory articles within the next couple of days. I hate to think of years down the road looking back on my blog and forgetting to include some incredible memories and pictures!

Now back in the United States and no longer in Europe, I must break the log of my travels in Italy up to my departure and begin blogging once again about more random things that come to mind or daily experiences that I find uniquely intriguing and worthy of posting. However, don’t go away just yet because there will be future blog articles about the final adventures that I had in Italy including the subjects listed below.

- The Amalfi Coast, Ravello, and the Art of Ceramiche

- Views of Naples and the Bay of Napoli

- The Rim of Vesuvius and the Minute I Turned 21

- New Year’s Eve at the Colosseum

- The Catacombs of Rome and the Via Appia Antica

- Pizzeria del Pasquale

and finally, The Flight Home

In addition to these articles, I am looking forward to writing about the experience of flying into Savannah, Georgia’s “International” Airport and what expectations to have once you board the plane from any domestic airport flying to Savannah.

And finally, listed as my number one priority in my journal as a blog article to be, I come to speak about the enchanting music of Norah Jones, my friends and family, and finally, my mentor, my neighbor (just one door down on the shores of Lower Baker Pond), and most importantly, my friend, Deb Pannell.

Currently a school teacher for fifth grade students in a suburb of San Fransisco, California, Deb Pannell has to be one of the most enthusiastic, most morally conscious, and most outgoing and warm people I know. But don’t get me wrong. This post is not merely meant to boost her ego. Let me tell you that I only speak the truth that I know everyone part of the 2011 Pemi season could, and would, attest to. You want fantastic? Your answer is Deb. Taking on the Art program down in Junior camp is no easy task. But Deb made it seem so easy that the Arts and Crafts of summer camp were quickly one of the biggest hits of the summer.

There are many people in this world who do a wonderful job at encouraging creativity and teaching skills, and I have no doubt that many art teachers would have made a great impact at Pemi. However, I must tell you that Deb Pannell is so entirely different in so many inspiring ways that I could not imagine a more perfect person for the job at Pemi. Mixing a wonderful combination of maturity and mindless fun through a myriad of activities, Deb made it her job to find something interesting for every boy who walked through the door of the Arts building. She took simple skills and turned them into learning opportunities with real life applications. For example, the simple act of sewing with a needle and thread: “Guys, you realize that now you’ll be able to go off to college one day and sew your own buttons back on your shirts and pants, without a problem at all while your friends who have never been taught these kinds of things struggle to keep up!” Perhaps it seems a bit ridiculous to say something like this to eight and nine year olds, but to me it makes perfect sense! Let’s not patronize these campers by assuming they can’t think about the future!

Deb brought new occupations to Pemi last summer that revolutionized the Art program. Teaching the art of graffiti, sewing ugly dolls, weaving hats and scarves, and simple techniques with construction paper and colored pencils were all part of the artsy menu, and the kids, no matter their age, kept coming back for more. It was so enormously heart-warming to see such genuine enthusiasm for so much more than just Art and Crafts.

I was the counselor of Junior 1, the youngest cabin in camp home to eight and nine year olds. Junior 1 is situated right next to the Arts and Crafts building down in Juniorville, and as neighbors, Deb and I became very good friends. Though the kids were obviously always our frist priority, Deb and I forged a fantastic friendship, and I am thoroughly looking forward to another summer with the same neighbor this summer!

Deb and I love the same music: The Wailin’ Jenny’s and Norah Jones seems to sum it up pretty nicely in my opinion. Even now, I am listening to Norah Jones’ album Come Away with Me and I can’t help but think about Deb and the peacefulness of the New Hampshire summers. Listening to these songs, I remember the breeze blowing through the open Art building windows, laughter of the boys in the distance, the feeling of the wood floor that has seen many, many summers, a fresh cup of tea in Deb’s blue or green mug, and pure happiness and joy.

Deb, thank you for your honesty, your smile, your concern, your cheerfulness, and most importantly of all, your friendship. May we have many, many, many years of friendship ahead of us.

Amsterdam: Experiencing a Dutch Movie

In an effort to cheer myself up, I went to the movies! Intending to see a light hearted movie, I instead bought a ticket to the matinee of the new Dutch film Nova Zembla.

I had read somewhere that all films shown in Holland are shown in their original language, accompanied by subtitles in English. This is not true.

As I sat down, the previews, the opening credits, everything was in English! However, once the dialogue began, everything was in Dutch.

Watching a movie entirely in a foreign language without a clue as to what is being said is an awesome experience. I got the gist of the film, I think: a group of men who are complete idiots to try and accomplish something that is plainly irresponsible, all while one man who enlists to go on e voyage with them is in love with a woman back in Amsterdam. The men face the harsh winter, get trapped in the northern tundra, and several men die. Then it is brute force to see who is man enough to survive, make it home, and kiss the girl, while everyone claps.

But seriously. It was, in fact, a great movie. The music was good, the casting was excellent, and even though the story was a bit iffy, the history and the views of Amsterdam in the late 1500s was really cool. My suggestion? Watch it, with subtitles.

The Feeling of Being Alone

The following blog post is not me begging for pity. I promised to blog about the good and the bad of my trip, and this is the first tough blog post… Perhaps this will be read by someone who is feeling similar emotions one day, and it will comfort them to know that they aren’t alone!


And it has finally happened.

My trip, so far, has been, yes, amazing. I have seen so many wonderful things in Cornwall and Cambridge, and I am so thrilled to be here. But, I must confess, I have struggled over the past couple of days with the feelings of loneliness and isolation.

I’m traveling to Paddington Station tonight where I will arrive at midnight and wait for roughly nine hours until my train departs tomorrow morning for Amsterdam. I’m sure I will be fine, and I’ll make sure I’m in a safe area, but the trip has been hanging over my head for a couple of days now, and frankly, I’m scared.

I’m not scared about getting robbed or the like, because I know that I’ll get myself into a safe place. I’m scared about sitting there, in the quiet and the cold, alone, with my thoughts to entertain me. I have already thought about coming home early because of so many different reasons.

I feel like I’m wasting my time here. I definitely feel like I’m wasting my money. I love traveling so much that I get way too excited about it. Seriously. But I’m coming to realize that I really only love traveling when I’m sharing the experience with someone. I’ve travelled a lot with my parents, and I do love sharing experiences with them, but now it’s time for me to share it with people close to my heart (not that my parents aren’t close to my heart, but you know what I mean… People close to my heart that aren’t my parents).

I know that this is going to sound freakishly weird and annoyingly sappy, but I really want a family. I want my own home, a life partner, kids, a safe car, insurance to cover my family, a nest egg in the bank, not an expensive and showy, but a quality and cozy home with everything my family needs… You get the idea.

I’m struggling because when I have nothing to do, I freak out. I get all weird and everything. But right now, having nothing to do, I’m stir crazy but completely unmotivated to do anything at all. I need a goal. I need to be working towards a long term success that I can be proud of. I need a family that doesn’t smother me yet still protects me and is proud of me. I need a better relationship with my parents, and I need more friends. I need people who want to be around me and who are interested in me, and I need to be less focused on myself and my needs. I need to be more proud of who I am, emotionally and psychologically, and less worried about appearances in this moment.

I need a hug. Europe is great, but it is so hard to be on my own. It is so hard to be alone.