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Postcard from Amilyn

Dear Nelson:

You should have told me beforehand that every man in Portugal is named João. My ride through Spain was in the camion of João. Another João took me from the petrol station where João left me to reach my first host, João. And this João reminds me of my father, who is not Portuguese but Italian, and calls himself Jim.

When my father was younger, he had not-too-short and not-too-long black hair that grew in waves around his head. The homemade videos of my childhood serve as proof that even then, it was already starting to thin away at the crown.

My father had dark brown skin, and my mother recalls that I used to tell my kindergarten classmates that he was African. I suppose I thought he was. He dressed in the daily getup of any ordinary working man: re-wearing white tee shirts and denim jeans until they were too worn-out to wear. He sported aviator sunglasses from the 70s straight on through the 90s.

In our home, he wore only his underwear, year-round; his body was virtually covered in a suit of hair, anyway, completed with a grey-black-flecked jaw of stubbly beard. He had an unusual accent that he was never able to dispose of, and he told weird stories that no one ever believed.

A few days ago, I voyaged through a hole in space and time to face a near-perfect replica of how my father used to look: before he lost his hair, and his fingertips, and his feet; before his skin went pale, when he was still hopeful about the future, when he still had a sense of humor.

I spent a few days as a guest of this João, a hint of the man my father could have been, if he were a better man.

My father was always fiery, the way I would be if I hadn't taught myself to be gentle. I've always been sensitive and emotional, and my mother: always stoic, mysterious, and awkwardly unaffectionate.

When I was little, I thought she looked the way the Virgin Mary must have looked, and my father always said that she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. When he wanted to compliment me, he would say, "You look just like your mother," but when he was angry with me, "You're acting just like your mother."

When my mother was frustrated with me, she would in turn yell out, "You're acting just like your father," although, in fact, I was not quite like either of them. They each were clearly the cœur of one another's exasperations, and since they so often left me to my own devices, I grew up feeling a mixture of parental neglect and personal independence.

As years progressed, my father became increasingly more violent, more destructive, and my mother took to responding with despondence. She was a martyred saint, helpless victim, too emotionally aloof to console my physical and psychological bruises.

In spite of it all, I was neither my father's rage nor my mother's fragility; I developed muscles that are still strong. And, I learned to climb: the graceful art of escape. I decided to draw up my own charter of self-importance and stubbornness, much to their chagrin.

At which point do you give up on loving someone who does not love you back?

Both of my parents worked hard to support the life that they wanted for me. Neither of them chose to honour the idea that I might want to have choices and ideas of my own. They weren't interested in discovering the person that I was becoming outside of their notions of whom I ought to be.

Even now, I retain a sense of uneasiness regarding sharing any details of my life with them. My father is typically traditional, my mother is oppressively conservative, and I am the liquid that can not be contained by molds. I can, instead, flow freely in and out and across any such barriers, but I have a hard time staying put.

Later in life, I realize that they were both possibly somewhat ignorant of the fact that I felt so unloved by them. One of the great flaws of humanity is the inability to remember that love is a delicate thing; that it only exists in our minds. If we don't verbalize our love, it remains intangible. Il n'existe pas.

I said good-bye to my father João a few days ago, and my current João, who is closer to my age, has been hosting me in the homes of his family, in a small town and nearby villages. Many people ask what I search for in travel. "Life. I want to learn about life and people," is generally my answer.

This João is helping me to learn about families. He knows how to squeeze hard when he hugs. He taught me how to raise a bee colony and make honey, despite his allergies. We spend our days in the sunshine, at rivers, at the ocean, in the pine forests, in the abandoned stone houses of ghost-towns.

I teach him how to climb things without fear. I teach him how to approach anyone and start random conversations. I've already learned about living head-first: about walking into the storm without a coat to reach the calm center. Anything is possible.

My only pair of shoes broke, so I started walking barefoot everywhere. I am absorbing the feeling of the life around me with all of my senses open. I am trying to not forget everything I've learned in my travels. The book is magnanimous, but I'm pleased to carry it.

Love, amylin

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