Tuesday, August 31, 2010

"It smells like a nursing home"

"There is such a particular smell in here," I whispered to my apartment mate Rebecca as we packed cold bags and frozen entrees around a stainless steel table. "I can't figure out what it is, though." Rebecca shrugged and continued on her way to find a meal that was both vegetarian and diabetic. Suddenly, it hit me like the tennis ball that was once flung at my head from the quad between Wilson and Lewis Halls (at Gordon). "It smells like a nursing home!" My exuberance at finding the particular smell was quickly deflated by two things. 1) the fact that I now label smells as places, particularly nursing homes and 2) that I've been to enough nursing homes to believe that there is a particular smell!

But if you've spent time in nursing homes, you know what I mean. It is the smell of food cooked for someone who cannot cook on their own; the smell of sickness settling into the body, the smell of aging, of being lonely, of forgetting, or remembering. There are two nursing homes I think of in particular: Seaview Retreat in Rowley, MA and Pondsmeade in Shepton Mallet, England.

Every year from first grade through sixth, my elementary school chorus would go to Seaview Retreat/Nursing Home in Rowley, MA to play songs and sing with the elderly. I was afraid of that house. It was big, the doors a dark, forboding oak color, and every wall seemed covered with lacy framed embroidery or dusty pictures of dogs. I could see the industrial-looking kitchen down a hallway to my right as I stepped into the sitting room, and occasionally I'd see people in there, stirring big pots of what must have been soup and puréed vegetables. We would gather in a little knot by a small black piano and squeak our way through, "Mrs Murphy's Chowder" and "Les Manos (I Say Clap-Clap-Clap)" and occasionally the all time favorite, "Inch by Inch (Row by Row)".

The elderly would be sitting there, almost completely silent, occasionally starting awake and wiping a bit of drool off their chins. Or they would move their mouths wistfully, as if they were remembering the times when they sang with gusto. There was one old man in particular I remember. He was in a wheelchair, close to the piano, with oxygen coming into his nose through tubes and such tired, sad eyes that they made me want to cry. His hands were wrinkly like monkey paws, and when I held out my own pudgy child hands to his, I shirked at the coolness of his grasp. His circulation was slower than mine; his limbs colder. He always seemed so sad. I imagine he's died now, and I wish I could go back and hug him with stronger, braver arms: I was afraid of that nursing home for too many years, afraid of the age I'd see there, the gentle but persistent march of illness and dependence and death. I associate the smell of nursing homes with fear.

In Pondsmeade it's a different kind of feeling. My paternal grandmother has lived there for seven years now, and I've been to see her only a few times. England is not the easiest place to visit on your weekend home from college, and when we go, there is only so much we can say to her because Elizabeth Irene has dementia. She does not remember me: she only holds my hand and asks if she can go to bed. When I walk into their plushly-carpeted interior, and sign my name at the vacant registration desk, I can think only of how the nursing home smells like forgetting. There is a picture of my father and his brother by her bed. It's an old black-and-white photo, curled at the edges, and they're clutching a young lamb between their skinny schoolboy legs. That photo reminds me that Elizabeth won't meet my children; won't see me get married; won't be able to tell that I inherited reddish hair from her or that I take after her academically. I can't tell her that her granddaughter loves to read, and still brushes the dust of the old copy of These Happy Golden Years by Laura Ingalls Wilder because it's one of our shared favorites. When I leave her room and walk back down the corridor towards the car park, I smell the nursing home smell; smell the sadness that we all feel at the things we cannot tell her.

So this morning, when I realized in the expediting area of Food & Friends on Riggs Road in Washington, DC that it smelled like a nursing home, I realized that every single person who receives the food I package is someone's man by the piano, and someone's Elizabeth: every person is a family member, a friend, a loved one who battles a life-threatening illness, who may die soon, without warning. We think of service learning as teaching us about servanthood and the need to give to others; but today it taught me to package food with more humanity, less iron-clad efficiency. To package with love for the Elizabeths I will never meet; and to love the nursing home smell for the reality, and the humility, it commands we realize.


Monday, August 30, 2010

The Need for Tinker Bell: Riding the 90/92 bus to Target in Columbia Heights

The little girl strode confidently onto the bus as we pulled away from 14th St, heading North towards Columbia Rd. Her mother, smiling faintly at me and revealing several gold-plated teeth, sat down in a chair in the middle of the bus. The girl, who must have been about six years old, sat down next to me.

She didn't say much - even to my über-friendly, "Hi there!" (Who did I think I was? The Mary Poppins or Nanny McPhee of the Metrobus?). Her legs stuck out in front of her like little freshly baked mini-baguettes. She leaned over the silver rail towards her mother, who reached over and touched the girl's hand. The girl, whose hair was clipped into two pigtails and secured with blue and pink fuzzy scrunchies, seemed to gather enough courage from her mother's hand to face me.

"What's your name?" was her first question. I laughed. I couldn't help it: there's something in children everywhere that wants to skip the preamble and go straight to the punch. "What's your name?" is like asking, "Who are you? Are you just a 20 year old girl who happens to be sitting next to me for this one ride? Are you saying hi because you want to know me? Do you want to know me?"

"I'm Hilary," I said, and smiled warmly again. I glanced up at the mom, who suddenly seemed very tired. Her face was beginning to wrinkle around her eyes and sag into pools below her lower lashes. She was wearing a lavender-colored shirt and faded jeans, and I realized that she wasn't just a person on the metrobus: she was this girl's mother, the one to read stories, cook macaroni and cheese for dinner, walk to school and home again. This woman was the hero of our bus ride.

Soon the girl (who I found out was named Maria) and I were chatting about her pretty blue backpack. Maria loved fairies, and traced the"Tinker Bell" emblazoned on the front over and over with her pudgy fingers. We talked about Peter Pan, how Tinker Bell was his helper, and the fact that Maria and her mother were going to buy a few things at the store before going home for the night.

Our stop neared and I realized that I was going to have to say goodbye to the first person I felt connected to in this city: this wide-eyed, fairy-loving, Hispanic girl who couldn't have been older than some of the kids I babysit for at home. I swung my bag around and stood up. I looked at Maria and said, "It was so great to meet you! Have fun with your mom tonight!" As I exited the bus, and the exhaust hissed to signal its departure, I thought about Maria and her mother. I have next to nothing in common with them, but between my knowledge of Tinker Bell and Peter Pan, and her ability to look at me and see, not a stranger, but a person, a Hilary - I found my first friend on the Washington, DC 90/92 bus.

We are heading into a two-week course on Leadership & Vocation - and part of the course involves service learning in the city. I think of Val Buchanan, the Director of the Office of Community Engagement, who would probably tell me to hold off on my skepticism about the course (and I admit, I'm a bit skeptical) and realize that, if nothing else, service learning is the opportunity to be humbled by the people I meet. Humbled by the stories I so clearly do not yet know; but also welcomed, and taught, and ministered to. And after meeting Maria on the bus this afternoon, I am thoroughly convinced that Val would be right (if she were speaking this to me right now).

Have a wonderful night.


Sunday, August 29, 2010

Sunday is for Relaxing... or, Why I Found Myself Running on the Treadmill at 4:57

Today I woke up with regularity: 5am, 6am, 7am... I was awaiting a grocery order from peapod.com (with my roommate Rebecca) and the delivery was scheduled between 7 and 9am. In anticipation, I found myself waking up without an alarm so regularly, I could audition for the role as the little child who says, "Cuckoo!" in The Sound of Music song!

We went to church at Christ Our Shepherd, an inter-denominational church on North Carolina Ave., SE. It was definitely a new experience. I had sort of imagined it would be like Chapel at Gordon, with a call to order and a Scripture reading, followed by the sermon. But when the lead guitarist shouted into his microphone, "Okay everyone, we're going to get started" and proceeded to strum his G and A minor chords with gusto as the words popped up on the screen, I started. Where was Andene reading us a few verses from Psalms? Where was Greg Carmer opening with a word of prayer? It was so different from my regular church in Danvers that I gave up my mental list of comparisons after about 5 minutes.

While I can't say I felt at home in the service - I spent most of the worship time squinting at the bright blue screen and humming roughly 1/16 of the melodies correctly - I did realize I have a lot to learn about what it means to worship on Sunday. Is it, for example, more important for me to feel "free and comfortable" in the presence of God, or to be humbled and overwhelmed by His power and majesty? Do I come to church because it is good for my soul, or because worship and honor are due to the Lord? Is a sermon about encouragement, exegesis, or excursions into the Word of God? Where do the sacraments fit with the songs? How does Holy Communion connect to the weekly Meet and Greet your neighbor?

I have much to learn from the congregations in this city: from Ebenezer's Coffee House (the church is downstairs, apparently) to DC Baptist, to the Catholic churches, to the Church of the Holy Resurrection in Baltimore, MD): the one thing that's clear to me now is that I am the learner, not the teacher.

And all of this was running through my mind as I sweated my way back to the Dellenback Center around 3:00pm. I thought Sunday was for relaxing, not asking yourself perturbing and probing questions about relationships between denominations and worship styles! I went up to my room and proceeded to flop on my bed, fully prepared to spend the rest of the day exactly where I was: at ease.

But when my apartment mate Jaclyn came back at 4:30 from her run down 8th St., my legs started to poke me. "Hilary, you should be running now" they seemed to say. Then my stomach chimed in, "Seriously, get on that treadmill and go!" and finally my arms propelled me out of my bed and into my sneakers. So at 4:57, when I could have been happily munching Goldfish and enjoying an episode of Leverage on TNT, I was on the treadmill for 30 minutes. I became the treadmill queen. I was fierce, I was dedicated: I was running a dinky 2 miles and sweating every step of the way.

What does this have to do with Sunday services and relaxing, you might ask? Simple: It's easier to lie in bed and "relax" on a Sunday afternoon rather than labor and pant yourself into oblivion on a piece of circulating rubber. It's easier to eat the bag of pretzels than to try and burn 200 calories. It's easier to say, "I'll think about church denominations later" than to engage your questions now, with your whole heart and mind. But just as getting on the treadmill eventually becomes more rewarding than the bag of pretzels (I'm hoping any day now), so too will our engagement with questions of church, worship, and tradition be more rewarding than merely sitting there in our stylish Sunday best and watching the flies land on the hat of the lady in front of us.

Goodnight all,

Saturday, August 28, 2010

I Was Made for Sunny Days (The Weepies, and me on the way to the Library of Congress)

I was made for the sun. My skin wasn't made for the sun - my two shoulders are a nice salmon-pink color, and my fair face is covered in freckles rather than a healthy bronze glow. But I was made for the sun. As my group (Group 4, to be precise) huffed and puffed our way down 8th St. to East Capitol (only about 4 or 5 blocks) and then over to Third, where we huffed and puffed (well, more huffing than puffing I think) to the Madison building of the Library of Congress, I felt the warm glow of the sun and thought, "This is DC sun. I am feeling the same sun as the President, the garage valet, Nancy Pelosi, and the tourist with the American Flag shirt! We are all feeling the Washington, DC sun!"

We were at the Madison building on a mission: get our Library of Congress reader cards. These do not give you the ultimate power of a local library card. You cannot march up to the circulation desk with a stack of books freshly pulled from their shelves and take them home with you. The security of the Madison building suggests you can't get out of there with so much as a tissue, let alone a first edition of Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet (which, if given the opportunity, I'd certainly want to check out of a library). No, the card merely lets you into the reading rooms and it lets the circulation desk workers get books for you to read while you are in the building under their watchful eyes.

Still, the picture of me grinning like a kid in a candy store is enough to suggest that I was pretty excited about this card. When I was little I collected library cards while my friends collected Furbies or Pogs or whatever the strange fads were when I was little. I had a Newburyport card, an Ipswich card, a Rowley card, a Boston Public Library card... it was like credit cards to a shopaholic: the endless possibilities of books, every Babysitter's Club or Boxcar Children or Chronicles of Narnia or Harry Potter book was mine to take home for three weeks (in other words, for the longest amount of time I could conceive of at age ten). I remember checking out Ella Enchanted a good 12 - 25 times in the same year. It's a wonderful story, by the way... but I digress. I love library cards.

From the Library to end all Libraries, my group made our way over to the National Botanic Garden - and as we wandered through the Jungle Room and the mist machines around the giant potted palms, I couldn't help but feel like I was made for the sunshine streaming through the windows, the bright blue sky, the hum and bustle around me. I was made for sunny days.

Some new friends and I went to Eastern Market this morning to explore the farmer's market and the artisans and craftspeople who set up shop along 7th St in the Southeast part of the city. Check it out here! Somewhere between the smells of fresh peaches and plums, the fresh spinach and cheese ravioli my friend Karly and I got for dinner and the bouquets of fresh red sunflowers and coxcomb, I fell in love (again) with sunny days. That iconic image I've had in my head ever since I heard Kayla Peck talk about Eastern Market: me strolling through the market with a little bouquet of fresh flowers in one hand and a bag of nectarines or apples in the other, my cute black dress fluttering in the breeze as I laugh easily with the local farmers did not come true today. Instead I was wearing a green tank top and feeling sweaty, lugging home bags of produce and gazing longingly at the truly local girls who walked by with their cups of iced tea from Port City Java.

But iconic image or no iconic image, I am in love with the sunny days of this city. Thank you, Deb and Steve of The Weepies, for giving me the words for the day.

Goodnight all.


PS. In case I haven't sold you on the wonders of this band, check out their music at: www.theweepies.com.

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Non-Artist Wants to Draw

Since I landed in this city 28 hours ago, I've wanted to draw. Now this may be confusing to some of you. I am a professed inexpert at the art (ha, ha) of drawing. I declare my stick figures to look like decaying cabbages and my shading to be kindergarten scribbles. I cannot recreate a statue on a piece of paper, no matter how long I look or how close I get to it (though I have come pretty close to setting off the alarm around the Dégas ballerina sculptures in the Fogg museum in Harvard Square).

I accept my lack of artistic ability with as much grace as I (who tend towards perfectionism) can. I haven't really drawn anything since my junior year at Waring, and even then all I remember is sitting in the Musée Rodin with Sharna and feeling like a fool because I could not for the life of me make the hand I was drawing look like anything but an imaginary hermit crab on its back, and she was capturing the shadows of afternoon light on her exact rendition of Rodin's "The Kiss."

But Waring put the desire to draw in me. When I get near a museum I start to itch for a piece of sketchbook paper and a stick of graphite or charcoal. I am ready to sit in front of one painting, monument or fountain and put my interaction with it down on paper. I want to record the event of seeing that fountain or painting, not in digitally accurate pixels or enhanced images. I want to record what my eyes are doing with the art. And I owe that to Waring. And now that I've taken my first trip near (near, mind you, not in) monuments and museums, my fingers are getting sketchbook fever. I brought one with me, originally thinking, "how impressively liberal artsy of me! I'm bringing a sketchbook with me - no one will think I'm a 20 year old girl from Boston!" Well, of course people know that I'm 20 (I could probably be mistaken for 15 some days), and I look too lost on the Metro to pass as a DC inhabitant, so no charcoal stick or smudging of graphite on blank paper will help me.

But what has surprised me is that the desire is real - my words on this blog about what I'm seeing, and what I anticipate seeing in the next days and weeks doesn't come close to showing you in pictures. And so, while I cannot create for you the beautiful paintings or sketches I wish I could, I will be venturing out tomorrow, sketchbook in bag, to record my first glimpses of this city. Be on the lookout for some pictures of my endeavors in the next couple of days!


Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Midge and I: Flying to Baltimore

I was more than partially lumpy-throated as my mom and I neared the Logan Airport turn off. I silently cursed the lack of traffic. I had been planning to be sitting there for at least an extra 20 minutes! I had expected slow movement from the Hilltop Grill all the way down to the crazy rotaries - a chance for the French vanilla Dunkin' Donuts to settle in my churning stomach.

But of course today, of all days, the traffic was simple and breezy, like the weather that grinned at me as if to say, "Even if you go kicking and screaming, the plane will take off, and WILL take you to DC!" When we arrived at the airport my mother and I drove around and around Central Parking, mistakenly followed a New York license plated car with the word "Covey" stamped on the bottom (they didn't know where they were going, we found out ten minutes later), and finally parked the vehicle in 4X. We then lugged my heavy black rolling suitcase, my tiny black rolling carryon and my J.Crew tote bag to Terminal C.

Now here is the part where my stomach is doing backflips and my throat feels like it's seizing up with the prospect of sending my mom off to work and walking through the gate alone. But, because life is comical and problematic, I was not allowed to wallow for long.

"Your bag... too heavy!" The man at the AirTran counter looked at me, perturbed. "Your bag... 15 pounds overweight. Very, very expensive!" He seemed to be urging me to do something about this - did I not understand? The bag was TOO HEAVY!

I looked at him, dumbfounded. I didn't have an extra suitcase in the car. Should I empty it out? Take some things on the plane? Send my mother home with an armful of T-shirts? "Okay?" was all I managed to say. My mother took charge, handed over her silver Visa card and proceeded to pay for that extra blazer, jeans and shoes I threw in for good measure this morning. As I watched the man tie a neon orange label to my bag, defining it forever as "HEAVY" - I thought to myself, I have done this completely wrong. Maybe my bag is so heavy the plane won't be able to take off, then they'll leave my bag here, and I won't have clothes in DC. Or maybe this is a sign that I should have listened and packed everything in 2 suitcases instead of thinking I could get it into one! Or maybe, MAYBE, I am not cut out to be a traveler and I should spend the rest of the day hiding in the silver stall of the women's restroom next to Hudson News.

Somehow, between Mr. HEAVY bag checker and the security line, I kissed my mother goodbye and had my license inspected, and was allowed to pass through to the part of security where you take off your shoes and walk through the beeper. And I made it through the security line, and into the terminal, and read through the September J.Crew catalog (www.jcrew.com) twice, and contemplated Supergluing my pants to the chair. The time came to board, and I found myself in 17A, a window seat, next to a nice couple on their way to Texas or Oklahoma via Baltimore. They read the USA Today; I read the Boeing 737 safety manual.

When the complimentary drinks cart came around, they each ordered a Coke. The nice gentleman pushing the cart looked at me and appeared to say, "Are you okay?" I thought, how nice! He must have seen how nervous I was about getting on this plane and flying alone to DC and is checking up on me. I smiled back and said, "Yes, thanks." A third Coke came down the line toward me. "Oh, no thank you!" I said, still smiling. Why was I being given a Coke? The flight attendant looked at me, his wrinkly face confused. "I'm all set," I said. He still stared. Thinking that perhaps it was more socially acceptable to order a drink, I asked for an orange juice. He looked at me, leaned over the couple sitting in 17B and C and said, "First you wanted a Coke, then you were all set, and now you want an orange juice?" I gaped. I coughed. I felt completely foolish. "Yes?" I managed to squeak out. It's not even 10:30am and I have already revealed my idiocy to the entire section of the AirTran flight 826 to Baltimore. Smiling weakly, I accepted the Minute Maid can and sipped it quietly.

That's when I noticed the midge. I think you call them midges - those tiny little flies that land on windows, seem to have an intense liking for human skin and sweat, and that I've always squished without a second thought. But this midge fly was sitting there on my plane window, completely still. My first thought was, "How'd he get up this high?" until I realized he was actually inside the plane. And as my thumb veered to squish him into oblivion, I stopped. Maybe this midge was like my traveling companion. Maybe he was like a little, insect version of Virgil, and I was the humble Dante being guided to Baltimore (whether Baltimore is the Inferno or the Purgatorio I don't know...). For the rest of the descent, I watched Mr. Midge, and thought about the whole process of beginning to be in a new place.

We landed safely, Mr. Midge and I, and I managed to find myself the Super Shuttle and get to 327 8th St., NE. And now I'm in the new apartment, getting ready to go to a Welcome Picnic. I'll write more tomorrow, friends. Let the journeying begin.


Wednesday, August 25, 2010

It's Tomorrow!

When I was in kindergarten, I cried every morning from September - December about leaving my mom. That's a homebody for you. The promise of cookies, naptimes or fun crafts was not nearly enough to keep my attention. Since then, I've gone through transitions to Waring (my middle and high school) and college. Neither was particularly smooth, and usually involved me crying in a very public or awkward place (the annual school Camping Trip, or in the Jenks Learning Resource Center, aka the college library).

So it's unsurprising that the prospect of getting on the plane tomorrow morning at 10:25am is nerve-wracking. I don't want to cry on the plane and be offered a stale-smelling Klennex from the woman in 12B. I don't want to cry in front of the bus driver or the girls in my new apartment, and I definitely do not want to shed tears in front of the Lincoln Memorial. The prospect of that big statue of Abe Lincoln seeing the product of my transitionally-challenged personality is a bit too much for this girl. But I also know I probably WILL cry at some point. It will catch me at a random time. I'll be brushing my teeth on Sunday morning or reading one of the books for my Leadership & Vocation seminar. I'll be tying my shoes or ironing my clothes or making mac n' cheese. And suddenly, BAM! The prospect of being in DC for the whole semester will hit me and, like that leaky faucet you don't have the time to call the plumber about, I'll be spouting water.

But perhaps the challenge is to embrace this prospect rather than run away from it. If I face transition and new situations with trepidation, and have for the past 20 years, maybe I should cry with gusto, and get on with it. After all, there's nothing more painful or exhausting than holding tears in your throat (it HURTS!) and pretending everything's hunky-dory.

So, reader, if you are like me and find the prospect of living with strangers in a new city for four months tear-inspiring, cry with gusto. Know I'll probably be doing the same.

And for those of you who are transitional kings and queens, who adjust in the same amount of time it takes me to realize that my shoes are untied and about to trip me down the stairs (yes, I'm thinking about that because it happened to me today), I admire you.


Monday, August 23, 2010

Don't Remind Me.

Don’t remind me.

Two words, one conjunction (already I can hear the sounds of “Conjunction junction, what’s your function?” playing because I may be a bit obsessed with School House Rock, to whom I owe the name of this blog). Don’t remind me. It’s a desperate cry for forgetfulness.

Today I have used it with approximately 17 people. The interactions usually go something like this:

Nice, Inquiring Person: So Hilary, have you packed for DC yet?

Anxious, Cranky Hilary: NO! Don’t remind me!


Interested, Curious Person: Have you thought about life after college, Hilary?

Hilary: NO! Definitely not! Don’t remind me that there is life outside college! Don’t remind me that there is a possibility that I am going to have to make more choices about schools, loans, cars, apartments, spouses, jobs, music, slow vs. fast food movements, veganism and hedonism, churches, salsa vs. tap dancing, or anything else! Don’t remind me!

Okay, I may be exaggerating here. It’s definitely possible that my response sounds more like, “No, not yet! I’m still pondering my many options and keeping my mind engaged with the pressing problems of my young life!” Okay, maybe my answers don’t sound like that either. But in any case, I have spent the day talking about not being reminded of what needs to be accomplished or thought about.

In most situations, I feel like we want to be reminded. Post-It has made a fortune on the fact that people don’t want to forget things – though who sat down one day and said, “I guess I’ll make these little bits of paper that could get lost anywhere and are only slightly sticky enough to stick to a flat surface and charge people plenty of money for them in ugly fluorescent colors” remains a mystery to me. Is there a Mr. Post somewhere? A Ms. It? Did they marry and create the Post-It hyphenation? Or are they just like all the cool bloggers out there who came up with a title just like *that* (that's my virtual finger snap) and added punctuation (Post It!) for extra flair?

In any case, we want to be reminded. We write ourselves notes, to do lists. We slap our foreheads and curse when we’ve forgotten something. We wish that we could have remembered the new girl’s name. We train our pets to remember commands. We value memory.

So why, then, when something looms on the horizon, do we find ourselves saying, “Don’t remind me!”? Why do we ask, in the moment when we probably need to remember something the most, to forget it?

Right now I’m trying to forget that I’m leaving. Trying to forget that I have a massive amount of squashing things into my suitcase to complete. Trying to ignore the large neon sign blinking, “HILARY IS LEAVING IN 2 DAYS!” that seems to have parked itself permanently above my head. And while I know I would be happy as a clam to forget the entire trip to DC, to arrive at Gordon and say, “Hey guys! I changed my mind! I’m going to stay here forever and live on Wilson 1 North for the rest of my life!” I know that isn’t what God has in mind for me. He has intentions beyond my imagining and definitely beyond my stubborn efforts to forget. He has visions for my life, and a will, and a purpose, that far outstrip my ability to rebel (though I’ll likely give it a try). He is not going to let me forget that I am going to DC. He is also not going to let me forget that this journey is full of His plans.

Remind me.



Dear... Love, Hilary

Dear Reader,

There was a girl in my high school who would sometimes speak in letters. "Dear Hilary," she would say upon seeing me in the hallway. "I love what you're wearing today. Love, Newt." It was always endearing and unexpected. Who would she write a letter to next - a teacher, her homework, her future college?

Sometimes, I wish I could write a letter to the nebulous things in life. You know, something like: "Dear angry person on the telephone, PLEASE STOP being so rude and inconsiderate. Love, Hilary" or "Dear strange unannounced package containing a book by Henry Adams, who I've never heard of writing anything particularly brilliant, why are you on my bed? Love, Hilary".

Words have always come easily to me. My mom says I talked a lot when I was little, telling knock-knock jokes at the side of the pool during swim lessons (I've never liked swimming lessons - just ask me to tell you the infamous story of the summer I went to Girl Scout camp!), or pretending a mini squash was a telephone while prancing around in a dress during the church picnic.

I like words. I love that we choose them, offer them to other people or to ourselves, find new ways to use them. I like poetry because we have to be so careful about words, and poetry teaches you patience and carefulness. I like playwriting because the words must become so real and so unreal, so specific to your character and so general that any actor can create that character.

And I like letters because they tell stories, because they offer a part of us to the other person, and because we are given the exquisite, trembling privilege of holding that part of them in our hands. Letters are special because they begin with "Dear" - with an endearment, a greeting of knowing the other person. And they usually end with, "Love, ____" - with a promise of loving you, an acknowledgment that the writer loves the reader.

So while I'm away, whether I'm writing letters that start, "Dear Mom," "Dear Abby," or "Dear Stress-that-is-consuming-my-life," I hope that I get to write with a love of words and a love of people. For I, the writer, love you, the reader. I love that we share words. I love that you listen to my words.

And if you would like to write to me, or have me write to you, my address will be posted shortly, and you can send me your address by commenting on the blog.

I leave you with a few suggestions, of the great letters that inspire me:

Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke
The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor selected and edited by Sally Fitzgerald
The Love Letters of Great Men, Vol. 1 edited by John C. Kirkland
Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer by C.S. Lewis


Friday, August 20, 2010

Ain't It Just Like A Middle Child: Thoughts on Being In-Between

I’m living in the land of the in-between. I’m in-between three jobs, in-between siblings (older sister, younger brothers). I'm in-between being an adult and not being on my own. I'm in-between wanting to spend all my time writing on this blog and thinking that it's highly unlikely I'll have all that much to say about myself.

I’m in-between my summer season and the fall semester I’m headed to in Washington, DC. Everywhere I turn people seem to be wondering “where I’m at” and “how I’m doing” and “am I getting excited for Washington??” – to which I long to reply, “Yes, I’m excited, I’m doing well, and I’m standing right in front of you!” I know I shouldn’t be impatient. People need to ask those questions, and want to feel connected to the thing I’m setting off to do. But the truth is I haven’t given much thought to my semester other than, “Have I turned in my paperwork?” and “What should I sent to ASP in the big package I have to mail Monday morning?”

It’s been a summer about now. When I write that it sounds peaceful (and unlike me, the Queen of Impatience!), and unfortunately trite. But I don’t mean forgetting the future or the past, or losing ourselves in our feelings or even spending long hours just breathing in one nostril and out the other (although a friend once gave me an article about how that exercise lowers your blood pressure, which I found very interesting). I am all for clear thinking, for driving the cars of our lives straight ahead without crashing into others or endangering ourselves. I am all about movement forward.

But this summer I’ve been at home in "now", my movements strangely cyclical: drive to work, work, drive home, drive to coffee at Starbucks with a friend, go to church… summer has lumbered by me slowly but surely and I am grateful for it. And it’s been about now: am I loving my family well now, am I listening carefully to the story of my friend’s self-discovery in this moment, am I working well within the boundaries I’ve tried to create for myself? And to be completely honest, now that the time to start thinking about the future appears to have arrived abruptly and without warning, I am strongly tempted to plant my feet firmly in the ground and stay put.

But before my legs start growing trunks, and my hands turn green and leafy (have you ever wondered if that could actually happen – like when your mother tells you you’ll turn orange if you eat too many carrots?), I’m left without a choice. I’ll be headed to Washington no matter what, grinding some dust and generally calling it a day in Massachusetts. In many ways I just don't want things to change; I don't want this season to fade away. But as a good friend said to me last night over coffee (I bet if my dentist saw the amount of teeth-staining beverages I consume in a week she would fall over in a dead faint), it matters what we do. I am settling into the idea that, whether or not I feel in-between, unwilling or nervous, what I'm going to do is get on the plane on Thursday morning and fly to Baltimore, MD. What I'm going to do is swallow the huge lump in my throat, grab my two old, tattered suitcases and my staple gray cardigan, and get off the plane. What I'm going to do is breathe in and out and in and out again, and walk forward.

My season of "now" - of the days blurring together into one long sunny stretch of time, of the big belly laughs with my family, of the cupcakes brought to the office to celebrate various birthdays - is ending. My new season: of wearing high heels, exploring Georgetown and waking up to the Capitol building sitting serenely in front of me is just around the corner. And so, as a middle child who finds transition troubling, as an in-between girl, as a lover of "the summer of now" - I'm ready to step out of in-between and into the next season, the next now.

Goodnight, goodnight.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Dentist: Aesthetic Fears

I am staunchly convinced that there is no one to top your dentist for getting paid to criticize you. Unless you, cyber reader, are an extremely successful author whose editor gets paid to criticize your manuscript, or a chef like Gusteau in Ratatouille (who pays in some way to hear what food critic Anton Ego has to say about his latest creation). In that case, you have unfortunately invited someone to receive monetary compensation for finding fault with your writing, cooking, etc. But the thing about the dentist is that when they find fault, it's not with your improper use of prepositions or your salty foie gras. It's with your bones! Your bones, the things that create your skeleton!

What is it with teeth, anyway? They’re these little bits of bone sticking out inside our heads. They work. They chomp up our food and send it to the esophagus in manageable pieces. Isn’t that the point?

So there I am, my ankles daintily crossed and my brand-new, still giving me blisters patent Nine West black flats reflecting the beams of that dreadful overhead lamp they use when peering in your mouth – thinking to myself, “Why am I paying to hear, ‘She has a lot of staining – yeah, definitely’ whispered about when I’m right there?” My dentist grins at me. “You drink a lotta tea?” She asks. Well, yes! Yes, I do. My father is from ENGLAND. Tea practically flows in my veins! Wait. Are you telling me that my tea, my warm mug of amber colored joy, has been causing, heaven forbid, STAINS on my teeth!?

I’m now near panicking. Maybe I should stop eating altogether. I mean, stains on my teeth two weeks before I embark on this “adventure” called a semester abroad in Washington, DC? I’m about to walk into a suite of offices in the heart of the city, my new suit still starchy from the Kittery outlet where I bought it, and I could be smiling at my new employer giving him full view of TEA STAINS.

But the dentist has more to say about my teeth. I have three “tiny” cavities. Three! Admittedly, I’ve been avoiding the dentist like the plague since May of last year, partly because of my college student schedule, and partly because I probably suspected long ago that I’d hear the dreadful “c” word and have to come back to have my teeth blasted with sand and filled with cement. When it’s put like that, I have to think to myself, “Am I a road construction site?”

So today, lucky me, I got to go BACK to the dentist to have these three "tiny" cavities filled. And once again I was filled with awe at the lengths I'll go to avoid dental immorality. A drill, an infrared (or something equally impressive) light, a huge suction tube, and some kind of teeth glue have all been put into my mouth today. All I know is that if I saw a child sticking those things in their mouth of their own curious volition, I would scream bloody murder and rush to save them! And instead I'm opening my mouth WIDER so that the drill can drill further. It seems ironic.

The heart of my musings about the dentist is really about aesthetic fears. I've gone to the trouble of having my cavities filled and my teeth cleaned because I am afraid of what a cavity-filled, tea-stained mouth would mean. But when I really stop to think about it, I shouldn't be worried that the people walking the streets of DC are going to smirk to themselves and whisper to their subway companions, "What poor oral care! She really should pay more attention to brushing those rear molars, don't you think?" I am sensitive to the dentist's critique of my mouth's aesthetic appeal, but to comment on another person's mouth would just never occur to me.

Thinking about this in the context of heading to Washington, DC in one week, I'm struck by how much thinking I have to do about what I want to present of myself. If my head is full of peridontal necessities, where is the room for a quick mind, the latest Wall St. Journal editorial, and an opinion about international energy policy? If we fill our hearts with aesthetic fears, where will the exuberance and joy go? As I sit in the dentist chair and worry about how beautiful my teeth are (or how stained, or how crooked), I'm ignoring the truth that the words coming out of my mouth have much more to do with its beauty than my regular trips to the dentist chair. As I make my plans to embark to the city, I hope I can put my aesthetic fears to rest, and focus instead on having good ideas and good words - pearly white teeth or no pearly white teeth.



School House Rock: The First Taste

It's 9:24pm on a Wednesday night. I've been telling various people that I'm starting a blog before I leave for my semester "away" from my college on the North Shore. I've been saying this for about 2 weeks but, like so many nervous writers, I've been putting it off ever since the idea first came into my head.

I know I said I wanted to start writing a blog, because I leave for Washington, DC in a week. I said I wanted a place to put my thoughts and experiences, to remember what I'll be learning, and to tell the story of my relationship with the District of Columbia. But maybe even more than starting a blog to chronicle my adventures in the nation's capital, I wanted that snappy, suave, I'm-clever-with-a-twist-of-satire title. It's one thing to sit down and compose your thoughts, and send them out to the big, wide world of web surfers to read, but it's a whole other thing to sum up your coolness factor in a blog title. Should I go with blogspot or wordpress? Is there a difference? Do I sound corny if I put my name in it? Will I be recognizable if I don't put my name in it? Does this joke make any sense to anyone but me? How do other people manage to write cool and quirky blog titles to go with their cool and quirky blog posts? Does anyone really care what my blog is called, anyway?

Such were the questions I asked myself as I sat in front of my computer for the better part of the hour, thinking of all sorts of names. Turns out, other people who write blogs about Washington, DC also want to use pithy political lingo. In turn, blogspot rejected my attempts as "Inside the Beltway" "I'mJustABill" and "BrightLightsBigCity" - three strikes and I was ready to be out.

But as I sat there contemplating the fact that I haven't even left my home town yet and I've already been beaten to the satiric punch by other bloggers, I started humming that Schoolhouse Rock song, "I'm Just a Bill". I conjured up those Saturday mornings when I was little and sat with my eyeballs glued to the TV. "Conjunction junction, what's your function?" would start playing in the background and the cute animated people with long noses and round feet like the Peanuts characters would sing educational things to my waiting ears.

Filled with nostalgia for those bygone days, I ran downstairs to inform my parents that OF COURSE I should invoke the Dave Frishberg (music and lyrics) and Jack Sheldon (performance) song in my blog title. My triumphant face was met with confusion. "Schoolhouse what?" "I'm Just a Bill? Nope, don't remember that song." Turns out, none of my family remembers anything about Schoolhouse Rock, or those Saturday mornings, or even the three bowls of Lucky Charms I remember myself eating gleefully as I was taught that a "Noun is a Person, Place or Thing."

So maybe I have imagined myself as a young child soaking in the political and legal processes of Washington, or I actually did fall in love with politics because of the "I'm Just a Bill" song. In any case, I'm now sitting here, pithy title and first blog entry to boot, humming along to these words (find them here):

I'm just a bill.
Yes, I'm only a bill.
And I'm sitting here on Capitol Hill.
Well, it's a long, long journey
To the capital city...

I'm glad to have you all along for the ride.



Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...