3/5/14: Taking the long way home

I took the long way home from school this afternoon.

Why did I take the long way home? A sunny jacket-free day of 14-degree temperatures had beckoned to me from classroom windows and done a damn good job of distracting me for a solid two hours, so no doubt that was one reason. There was also the prospect of saving nearly two euros by not taking the metro back to Bastille — I mean really, that’s a whole bag of pasta and a whole freshly baked delectable baguette. Priorities.

But that’s not all. Each day I’ve spent in Chapel Hill during the past three school years, I’ve tried to remind myself how fortunate I am to be where I am. But I think being blessed this semester with study abroad and the chance to travel Europe has opened my eyes more fully as to just how lucky I am to be how I am. Small everyday activities seem to mean more to me. Like this hour-long walk.

Before I go on, I need to make clear that I’m not trying to proclaim self-righteousness or anything related. This is not about morality. I’m being completely honest about how I’ve felt during the last two months. There has definitely been a change. Maybe it has to do with my faith, maybe some experience I had, or maybe it’s something else — I don’t know. And I’ve really wanted to write it down somehow. Today seemed like the right time.

I was also inspired after reading my friend, fellow UNC student and DTHer Kelly Anderson’s most recent blog post about her roommates in Spain. One of them has two parents with cancer, and she has battled health problems for her entire life. A blood clot in her leg means that she can’t go more than a couple of hours without walking around, making travel even within Spain near impossible. Reading her story is guaranteed to make you grateful for how you are, and if you’re that sort of person you’ll send her and her family a little prayer, too.

I took the long way home this afternoon for those who are unable to walk or run — to appreciate my health, my fitness, my ability to walk the nearly three-mile distance without pause. I thought about the young woman perhaps only two or three years my senior who I saw on the way to Sciences Po this morning; she was being pushed down the sidewalk in a wheelchair.

I thought about something mentioned during my class that day, a Pulitzer-winning series of articles in The Huffington Post chronicling the struggle of many who return from Iraq or Afghanistan as triple amputees, forced to live with prosthetic legs and only one arm, to reintegrate into American society.

I thought about the 54-year-old man on the front page of The (Raleigh) News & Observer recently who caught the flu in December and woke from a coma two weeks later to be informed that he had no legs and would be losing both of his hands as well to an unusual infection.

I thought about the star cross-country runner from Winston-Salem profiled just days ago in The New York Times, a teen girl with one of the fastest 5k times in the country. She has M.S. and could become wheelchair-bound any day, any time — for now, she logs 50 miles a week and is heading to college on an athletic scholarship, hoping and praying that her career will last as long as possible. But that could change in a heartbeat.

It was a day to be thankful for my legs.

I took the long way home for those who are unable to see — to relish the rare sight of Paris and the Seine on a virtually cloudless day. I thought about the man I’d seen in Luxembourg Gardens several days before, a blind middle-aged man walking arm-in-arm with a woman who was guiding him gently along the path. They were smiling, happy, in love. But I’m sure they’ve been through a lot of pain together, pain I can’t understand.

It was a day to be thankful for sight.

I took the long way home for those who are unable to go to a home — to remember how fortunate I am to have a warm, comfortable apartment to return to at the end of the day. I thought about the many homeless lining the streets near the Bastille and shivering inside the nearby metro station on a cold day.

One street in particular that leads to the tourist bar district tends to have more young children on its sidewalks. It absolutely kills me to walk by two- and three-year-olds with nothing but pavement and a thin, ragged blanket for a bed. It’s not fair, and it’s not right. Socialist leaders in power in France have said that they’re working to combat the rising homelessness here. But I don’t see improvement. And I hate feeling helpless.

During middle and high school I was an avid volunteer with an outreach organization linked with my home church that assists homeless families and gets them back on their feet. I’ve also helped cook and serve meals to the homeless in Chapel Hill on several occasions. But this time around I have no idea how to make it better for them, and it’s frustrating.

It was a day to be thankful for my home.

I took the long way home for myself, too. For the benefit of exercise, of fresh air. It allowed me to pick up a baguette and a small pastry at one of my favorite French delis on the way. While doing so, I thought about the numerous friends of mine with food allergies, whether it be lactose intolerance or gluten or nuts or whatever. I don’t know why I should be able to walk into any cafe and order anything (meatless) whatsoever without a second thought while others have to be so careful, often for fear of serious or even fatal reactions.

So I decided it was a day to be thankful for my diet, too.

Then I thought more about friends. And family. I thought about how it’s always friends and family that pull me out of any depressing, stressful or anxiety-inducing situation. I thought about how many young people, many UNC students like me, don’t have that support system, or it’s simply not enough.

I thought about The Daily Tar Heel‘s recent series revealing many of the troubles that students have with UNC’s on-campus psychological services. I, too, have been to UNC CAPS, and I can testify that it’s got flaws. During freshman year I poured my heart out to a counselor for an hour, who then proceeded to say “thank you for sharing that” and did nothing more but give me a sheet of paper referring me “into the community” for further help. I was at a low point. I didn’t have the guts to call someone up myself and admit my issue and take the initiative. I threw the paper away and recoiled back into myself.

It was my friends and family, even those who didn’t know anything was going on, who gave me all I needed. In many student cases, that support and love isn’t there. Their mental struggles impact their daily lives far more than anything I’ve experienced.

It was a day to be thankful for special people in my life.

And as I walked by two homeless people sitting beside a filthy mattress on Rue de la Bastille on the last leg of my promenade, I thought about how I didn’t really need the other half of my baguette. I gave it to one of the men, who smiled and offered a “merci mademoiselle, vous êtes trop gentille” in return.

It was the first time I’d interacted with them besides a “bonjour” during the two months I’ve been here. And I know people here who do so much more to help them, to help others in general. Maybe being grateful will push me to do a little more myself.


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