Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Question: Who Serves Mini Cheeseburgers You Can't Fit in Your Mouth for a Reception at the Newseum? Answer: PBS.

Last night I had my first shoulder-rub with the iconic "Washington cocktail reception." It was for a special screening of the soon-to-be-released PBS/American Frontline "God in America" series. The film itself runs 6 or 9 hours, but they were only showing about 50 minutes, a few chapters from each section of the three part series.

I had decided to go to the event because it was about religion and politics, and hey, that's what I'm studying, and hey, that's what my internship is all about, and hey! It's always good to meet new people, right?


For starters, I got off the Metro at Archives/Navy Yard or whatever it's called and immediately realized that there were three streets in front of me that all had signs that vaguely resembled "Pennsylvania" (which is where I was supposed to go). I squinted, I put a hand over my eyes to shield them from the quickly fading sun, and still, I couldn't tell which was which. The only solution was to walk across the street, get right up under the first sign, realize it said "Indiana Ave" and move to the next one, which said "D St." So it was the last street that I could have chosen. Great. I thought to myself. I've now managed to make it look like I'm the biggest tourist wacko since Mr. Smith first came to Washington, looking at these street signs like I've never seen anything like them in the whole world! Just great. Now, I may have been exaggerating just a smidgin, but after a long day of work, don't we all deserve a little hyperbole in our lives?

So I found Pennsylvania. And the Newseum. Check, check. I even entered the right door, gave them my name, saw a black pen make a big check mark to say that yes, indeed, Hilary Sherratt has arrived, and proceeded into the main lobby of the museum to the spreads of cheese and crackers. And it was here that my agony really began.

No one really teaches how to stand awkwardly in a reception where you know no one and you can't see another person who's by themselves for about three hundred miles, and your shoes are scuffed, your raincoat is dripping slightly onto the floor, and you are sweating profusely at the pure lack of recognizable, nameable faces. The reason they do not teach us how to do this is because we don't need to be taught! I managed the awkward standing, checking my phone every 35 seconds as if I was really waiting for an important call from President Obama, when really I'm just praying that they start the movie 55 minutes early. I managed to get the hang of that all on my own!

The minutes inched by from 6:06 to 6:11. It was like watching a kettle boil, or ice melt, or even just your little gray cat find a place to sit down without being attacked by your loveable but wild black lab. In other words, it felt like I was stuck in a very special kind of purgatory: the purgatory of wondering if there was brie in my teeth, taking a glass of water from the bartender who looked at me and said, "Well yeah hunny, you don't look 21", eating a cracker loudly while trying to remain invisible, and finally being noticed by an extremely awkward man eating little pickles who turned to me and said, "You look like you don't know anyone."

This man proceeded to introduce himself as Paul, and upon finding out that I did not know anyone, asked me what I was doing in DC. I was prepared for this question, and explained with all the confidence I could muster in my sweaty, scuffed shoes about the ASP program and being from Massachusetts. He shot back, "What's you major?" I said, "Religion, Ethics and Politics." Now, readers, I have to tell you, that's usually a conversation stopper. People either say, "Oh, yes?" and immediately start looking for the nearest exit so they can go vomit at the sheer "academic-ness" of it, or they say, "Well, those don't really seem to go together, do they? You've got your work cut out for you" and proceed to tell you why really, it's much better to go to law school than pursue a PhD. But Paul immediately hit on the ethics idea, and quizzed me on the Constitution, the ethics of euthanasia and abortion, the "religious test" required to hold office in South Carolina, and whether or not it was appropriate for religious views to be present in policy discussions.

Not only was I not ready for his questions, but I was also not ready to be as completely inept at answering them. I fumbled, I nearly spilled my icy water on him, I got redder and redder until you could have served me as a garnish to the little pickles and brie on the hors d'oeuvres table. Paul caught me so off-guard that I forgot to be embarrassed at knowing nobody and was just embarrassed that I was so obviously ignorant about my own subject matter.

Paul departed after about 15 minutes, and I sought refuge on a bench next to some bored-looking college sophomores from Marymount College. They were gossiping about people's shoes and eating mini-cheeseburgers and doing all this while keeping one hand on their cell phones in case, you know, a dire emergency in someone's wardrobe struck. Then it was 6:56, and the film was going to start.

At this reception, I realized a few things that I want to pass on to you, readers:

1. Do not, on pain of stomachache and mortification, try to eat prosciutto wrapped ricotta cheese and a mini-cheeseburger AND some semi-warm truffle macaroni in quick succession.

2. Enjoy the awkwardness. There is nothing like standing in a room full of people you don't know who look at your gray tights and headband like you would look at moldy bread (which I found today in my cabinet... so sad) to get your adrenaline pumping and your heart racing. And if nothing else, that reminds you that you are alive.

3. Introduce yourself to the quiet 40-something woman sitting next to you in sub-zero refrigerator of an auditorium. She might be soft-spoken and have heard about the event on facebook, and she might not say too much, but shake her hand anyway. It will bring a small smile to her face - and that is always worthwhile.

4. That pesky, "What are you doing here?" question might make you think that you don't belong. Honestly, I am always tempted to say, "You know, I don't know! I'm in the WRONG PLACE! AAAAAAIIIIIIIEEEEE!" and then run screaming from the room and onto the nearest train bound for Boston. But "What are you doing here?" is actually the most wonderful opportunity to find out. Answer the question in different ways when different people ask you. But don't fear the question.

5. When you are contemplating going to a reception by yourself, and are tempted when you get on the metro or the bus to just go home and can the whole thing, don't chicken out. Go. Observe people. Stand in the middle of the room and look anxiously at your phone. Do the brave thing and lean into the experience. Trust me. Aside from the mini-cheeseburgers (which were SO weird), I'm so glad I went.


Monday, September 27, 2010

"Have a Great Day, Brittany!" - Or, What to do when the doorman doesn't know your name.

Well, it's official - when I walk into my fancy office building on L St., NW and clip clop my way to the shiny elevators, my name is Brittany. "Have a great day, Brittany!" the doorman Thomas says as I pass him every morning. At first I thought maybe it was just his baritone voice that made "Hilary" sound like "Brittany." Then I thought maybe he was saying, "Sweetie" or some other awkward term of endearment that wasn't a name at all. Then I thought desperately that he wasn't calling my name out, he was just mumbling a little at the end, "Have a great day now today!" (which, incidentally, wouldn't be a logical sentence but I was trying). Then after two weeks I finally realized - he genuinely thinks that I am Brittany.

In these social situations, my first thought is to run to the nearest Border's and buy Emily Post's Etiquette, look up the section on, "How to graciously correct the doorman of your building when he thinks your name is Brittany" and then march on over and just do as I'm told. Or I'm tempted to smile and say, "Thanks Thomas!" and become Brittany for approximately 25 seconds while I walk to the elevator.

What IS the polite thing to do? I don't know if any of my readers have had someone genuinely think that someone's name is something else... but it's definitely, definitely awkward. However, I once thought one of my best friend's middle name was Jean when it was absolutely not. And she finally had to tell me that whoever had the middle name Jean in my life, it wasn't her.

It's weird because I start to wonder, "Who the heck is Brittany? What is she like? Does she shop at JCrew as often as I do? Does she like to make non-alcoholic mojitos and eat chips and salsa with her roommate while watching Mean Girls? Does Brittany love good books or does she just read magazines? Does Brittany have a boyfriend or is she single? Is Brittany a fan of country music???" And in realizing that I am not Brittany, I have to wonder what makes "Hilary" distinct from this non-existent alter-ego. Hilary gets up in the morning and puts on the dress clothes and rides the bus while trying not to laugh too loudly at Bill Bryson's Notes on a Small Island. Hilary sits at her computer and tries to discover the truth about air pollution control and energy policy. Hilary has awkward run-ins with water fountains, squirrels in Farragut Park, cute ushers in church. Hilary spills coffee and trips over the raised brick on 8th St and A St, NE every single time she walks towards Eastern Market.

So today at 12:30 when I walked by Thomas' desk and he said again, "Have a great day, Brittany!" with a triumphant smile, I smiled back and said, "Actually, it's Hilary." He looked crestfallen. Great. I just made the poor building receptionist feel terrible because my name is not Brittany. Why did I say anything? Being Brittany was kind of fun! I was carefree and elegant and definitely didn't trip or turn red or freak out about homework! I should just stay Brittany. "Hilary, Hilary..." Thomas rolled it around his tongue for a few seconds. "Thank you for telling me. Hilary... remind me if I ever get it wrong again! Hilary..." And he smiled at me, and wished me a great afternoon, and I left the building.

I am not Brittany, and I don't know if my abrupt correction was Emily Post etiquette worthy, but even in this minuscule moment, I have learned that I want to be Hilary. I want my name to have those three syllables and mean "cheerful" - and I want to be the girl who trips and laughs and has showdowns with squirrels and second graders, who spills coffee and gets lost in bookstores for hours, who loves to ride the bus in DC and people watch.

If you've ever been called a name that isn't your own, or if right now there is some well-meaning person who thinks your name is Henry when it's actually Mike, or Heidi when it's Katie, or Martha when it's Michelle... remember to enjoy being Mike, Katie and Michelle. And if you get the chance, correct the person - as mortifying as those few seconds when they realize they've been calling you Brittany and you're Hilary are, the smile that spreads when your face is connected with your name, is worth it.

Early to bed, readers (I've heard it makes you healthy, wealthy and wise).


Sunday, September 26, 2010

"Poetry is nearer vital truth than history" - Plato.

Dear reader,

Today is a quieter post. When I woke up yesterday morning I lay in bed listening to the sounds of Saturday: dishes being washed in the dishwasher, the clink of a spoon in a coffee mug, the howl of a dog next door. I want to share with you a poem that rolled into my head as I lay there, and then I want to share a poem that arrived in my inbox yesterday - Edward Hirsch is a beautiful, thoughtful writer. I hope my poetry eventually becomes something like his. For today, enjoy the quiet moments, when all you can hear is the gentle whir of a fan, or the click of a computer keyboard, or even just the faint music from your roommate's stereo. Write in a journal, go for a walk, listen to Ludovico Einaudi's "Nuvole bianche" on repeat in your car. Listen to the rain, or the wind. Be.

I tell myself this far too seldom. I offer it to you now, because Sunday is Sabbath, a time to rest, a time to be quiet.

Love, always.

The sounds of love (by Hilary Sherratt... draft #1)

The clink of spoon on bowl
The hum of dishwasher
The piercing bark of next door's dog
The crinkle and groan of the bed as you reenter
The world before it awakes.

I hear my eyelashes flutter open
My hands smooth the quilt
Read stitches like Braille
I wriggle my toes towards yours
Stroke the jutting edge of your collarbone
Nestle into the crook of your coffee-cupped elbow
And sing back, love.

And now Edward Hirsch's poem... from the Writer's Almanac on September 25, 2010 (here):

Fall, falling, fallen. That's the way the season
Changes its tense in the long-haired maples
That dot the road; the veiny hand-shaped leaves
Redden on their branches (in a fiery competition
With the final remaining cardinals) and then
Begin to sidle and float through the air, at last
Settling into colorful layers carpeting the ground.
At twilight the light, too, is layered in the trees
In a season of odd, dusky congruences—a scarlet tanager
And the odor of burning leaves, a golden retriever
Loping down the center of a wide street and the sun
Setting behind smoke-filled trees in the distance,
A gap opening up in the treetops and a bruised cloud
Blamelessly filling the space with purples. Everything
Changes and moves in the split second between summer's
Sprawling past and winter's hard revision, one moment
Pulling out of the station according to schedule,
Another moment arriving on the next platform. It
Happens almost like clockwork: the leaves drift away
From their branches and gather slowly at our feet,
Sliding over our ankles, and the season begins moving
Around us even as its colorful weather moves us,
Even as it pulls us into its dusty, twilit pockets.
And every year there is a brief, startling moment
When we pause in the middle of a long walk home and
Suddenly feel something invisible and weightless
Touching our shoulders, sweeping down from the air:
It is the autumn wind pressing against our bodies;
It is the changing light of fall falling on us.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Impatiently Waiting to become Patient (and silently wanting to scream when people say you'll meet someone wonderful soon)

Have you ever had someone tell you that you are impatient? You're tapping your foot in line to get your sandwich at Potbelly Sandwich Works (which I desperately want to bring back to Boston with me) and a voice that sounds like the "Step Back, Doors Closing" voice in the Metro says to you, "Just be patient, you'll get there." You're looking at your watch during a lecture that's gone 25 minutes too long, and you make a face at the person next to you and they just shrug and turn back to taking copious notes as if to say, "Just sit quietly and enjoy this moment." And you secretly make a face reminiscent of Calvin in Calvin and Hobbes when he looks at his mother's cooking. You're lamenting to a friend who's in a relationship that no one ever asks you out, and they say, "Oh Hilary, it will happen. You just need to not be looking for it to happen, and it will suddenly appear before you! You know, Bob and I met when I wasn't even thinking about boys... I was just going to the 7-Eleven and you know, there he was buying some coffee and bagels...." and they're off down memory lane and you're sitting there looking at your sweating glass of water on its duck coaster thinking, "AUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUGH!"

Needless to say, I'm impatient. I've been in all these situations and I always want things to appear faster than they do. I want my sandwich, lecture and relationship to materialize as if they've been time warped to me. But unless the next Albert Einstein is locked in some laboratory in the middle of Kansas inventing the time machine, that is not going to happen.

But as a single woman in my 20s the clear winner for "advice about relationships and not being in one" is to be patient. I took the liberty of going online to find a definition of this word, "patient." And thanks to, I found that patient means (after its medical meaning): "enduring trying circumstances with even temper or characterized by such endurance; "a patient smile"; "was patient with the children"; "an exact and patient scientist"; "please be patient"

So when people tell me to "be patient" they want me to "endure the 'trying circumstance' of being single with an even temper and endurance". Okay...

1. This often does not help. This is due in part to the fact that we wouldn't be sitting in the coffee shop at the corner of 16th and K Sts if I already WAS patient. We wouldn't be having the "patience" conversation if I hadn't begun loudly lamenting my exasperation with life in Singledom. Doesn't it sometimes feel like one big Watergate scandal where you're "All the President's Men" style Woodward/Bernstein, trying to get to the truth about why you're not in a relationship, and everyone you ask is basically saying, "No comment"? If I ask, "Why am I not in a relationshipppppp?" ((in a whinny, complaining, nasal voice) and the response, "Just be patient; it will happen" - not only do I still not know why I am not in a relationship, BUT I start to have the distinct impression that the world is playing a colossal joke on me and the person drinking his/her skinny caramel macchiato or pumpkin spice latte or quad grande americano KNOWS the truth and won't tell me! You search and probe and poke around and try to weasel answers out of everyone you meet, and all you get is, "Just wait!" And you just want to yell into the pounding D.C. traffic, "I DON'T WANT TO WAIT! DON'T TELL ME TO WAIT!"

2. This is the truth. Point No. 2 makes Point No. 1 both easier and harder. The truth is we have to wait. We have to become patient. Whether or not it helps the feelings we have about our lack of patience, lack of boyfriend/girlfriend, lack of explanation about our nice condo complete with built-in dishwasher and backyard patio in Singledom - the truth is we have to wait. We can scream at the truth and we can loathe it with all our guts, but we can't escape it. Patience, like all the virtues, is just simply required.

3. This is more than just not complaining. Being "patient" is not just sitting around and being silent about how we feel. I used to think I was "being patient" when I just shut up about being single and wanting not to be single. I used to think I was "waiting for the Lord" when I kept those thoughts to myself. But I was just a closeted impatient person instead of an openly impatient one. How many of us have said to ourselves, "Look at me! I'm so patient, I haven't complained about being single in three weeks! I am waiting on the Lord!" And within that statement we are whispering, "See, Lord? I learned my lesson, I get the whole 'patience' thing now, you can give me a boyfriend! Anytime now... thanks for the virtue tutorial, I did what you want, so let's get this show on the road because I already have color schemes picked out for the June wedding I want to have and several different catering thoughts and I'd really like to narrow them down ASAP!" When we strain at patience and try to learn it in a hurry, we're simply moving our impatience to a deeper, quieter level. We are trying to get "patience" down so that we don't have to actually be patient. But I had this sinking thought the other morning as I was writing in my journal on the bus home from work and we were stuck at a traffic light. God doesn't just want me to "learn" patience and then when He thinks I've passed the test, I get the relationship. The relationship is not the reward. We don't need to learn to be patient because it's a stepping stone from Single to Dating, from Dating to Married, from Married to Happily Ever After. He is teaching patience because it is required to obey Him, required to love Him, and love one another as He loved us. This is about more than just not complaining.

4. I started this blog with the (hopefully catchy) title "Impatiently Waiting to become Patient" - and I want to end it with a word of empathy to my fellow Christian college women (and Christian college men too), who are probably being told at this moment in a Starbucks somewhere by a nice girl with a lovely platinum and diamond channel set engagement ring that she's fiddling with as she takes miniscule sips of her passion tea lemonade that we should just "be patient." It's okay to not be patient yet. It's okay to be tapping your foot while you wait to become patient, thinking to yourself, "Make me patient already, God! Let's get this learning thing over with already!" I've sat there and thought those thoughts and screamed in my room into a pillow about being patient. But let's not fall into the trap of thinking that we're learning patience so we can not practice it. That we're learning patience to get out of being single and into relationship. We may be "Impatiently Waiting to Become Patient" - but let's be impatiently waiting for it because it will enable us to love better and live more fully. Because we will be kinder, gentler, more thoughtful souls and hearts. Because it is good to be patient.

Lots of love, my impatient single readers (and hey, sometimes screaming into a pillow about the whole situation actually helps)!


Thursday, September 23, 2010

Marvelous, so Marvelous (Or, The Reason I Love Glee, Park Benches, and Coffee Cake)

In the "Theatricality" episode of Glee, drama queen Rachel meets her drama empress mother, Shelby Corcoran (the coach of rival glee club Vocal Adrenaline). There's a lot of dramatic moments involving Lady Gaga costumes and slurpees, but the part I love about the episode (and why I paid the .99¢ to rent it on iTunes for two days) is when Rachel and her mom are saying goodbye. Rachel asks to sing with her mom, and they duet to "Poker Face" - acoustic style. And they get to this point where they're singing, "I'm marvelous, I'm marvelous, so marvelous!"

And there's some so joyful and true about their voices singing loudly (and from the diaphragm muscle, undoubtedly) that they are marvelous.

As I sat on the back of a comfy chair in my apartment tonight after a long day at the office and looked at the girls sitting across from me, that "marvelous" line ran into my head. We had been having the "well, those guys are so cute but obviously they won't go for me" conversation, and suddenly I just wanted to drop everything, throw up my hands in claw-like "little monster" style, and belt out, "I'm marvelous, I'm marvelous so marvelous!" because the truth is, we ARE. We are marvelous! It doesn't matter that the 24 year old with the cute horn=rimmed glasses reading his book on the Metro didn't see you and immediately head out to Tiffany's. It doesn't matter that you spilled orange juice on your nice black pants before your internship this morning. It doesn't matter that you forgot your notebook and had to take notes at a briefing on a scrap of paper in the back of your daily planner. It doesn't even matter if you walked around with a little piece of lettuce between your teeth from lunch! You are marvelous. Just marvelous.

So, "marvelous" (which is starting to sound weirder and weirder as I type it) is the reason I love Glee - because they are unafraid to sing out, to let their voices loose and to wear their individuality, their uniqueness, right on their sleeves and vocal cords. "Marvelous" is also the reason I love park benches. This morning before I went to work I decided to go to Starbucks and treat myself to a tall nonfat no water chai latte, and a piece of warm pumpkin loaf. I was seriously excited about both these items, mostly because there isn't much that can be spilled/slopped/stained in the order. I took my steaming purchases to Farragut Park. Which, I learned, is NOT the Metro stop where all the trains connect because some wealthy people didn't want to move the statue in the park. And between you and me, the statue is not all that thrilling. Nice, but not thrilling. So what the fuss was about beats me.

ANYWAY (I digress)... I was sitting in Farragut Park, watching the steady stream of bleary-eyed, messenger-bag-carrying, loafer and stiletto wearing crowds exit the Metro and the bus and thinking about how lovely the morning was. And then I saw it: a rabid squirrel.

It might not actually have had rabies, but it was definitely possessed by something. It had its eyes on the pumpkin seeds I had dropped on the ground in my exuberant consumption of my little slice of pumpkin heaven. And nothing was going to stop this squirrel. I, of course, freaked out and tried to shove the squirrel away with my foot. This did not work, but I did make the squirrel more determined to get the seeds and inch nearer and nearer to my quivering foot. I swear it knew I was afraid. And as I lashed out one more time in my brown flats, this cute guy in a button down plaid shirt and brown pants walked by. Yep, walked right by me with my latte in one hand, my other hand full of pumpkin loaf crumbs, trying to kick a squirrel away from my park bench. Oh yes, if he didn't think lunatics existed in DC, he does now. Yep, I'm "marvelous."

And finally, "marvelous" is the reason I love coffee cake. This morning after my run-in with the squirrel I went to work and discovered that I was going to a staff meeting that morning. And there was free food, and so to be polite I took a big piece of coffee cake and some fruit salad and sat down with my coworker Elizabeth to enjoy not being responsible for a committee report (sorry, GCSA, I don't miss those committee reports). And just as I was taking a decently sized bite of my coffee cake, my supervisor Scott began to introduce me. Hello, organization, I'm Hilary, a student of Gordon College. Don't mind me, I'm just stuffing my face with your food!

I was embarrassed, swallowed too quickly and tried to say, "Hi" but it came out kind of garbled and tight as the coffee cake made its way down my throat. But Scott went on to describe what I'd been working on and then said, "she's been doing a great job so far." There it was: the affirmation I had been hoping for since I arrived at my internship last week. There it was, coffee cake and all! Perhaps, after all of my escapades and run-ins, all of my ups and downs and squirrels and sketching and parks and Georgetown - I am marvelous. I am marvelous.

So reader, here is what I want you to do. Go to Hulu or Fox or something and watch the "Theatricality" episode of Glee. Watch Rachel and her mom Shelby Corcoran sing the "marvelous" line from "Poker Face." And then, whenever something happens to you that makes you feel anything less than marvelous, sing the line. Sing it in your head, or out loud, or in a whisper to your best friend. Sing it as you go to class or turn in your first paper or spill hot coffee on your new skirt. Sing it when a rabid squirrel tries to eat your fallen pumpkin seeds. Sing it when you eat coffee cake too fast. Sing it because you are so marvelous, from your thoughts and ideas, to your passionate love for math/science/art/poetry/film/lacrosse/theater/student ministries/politics/intellectual history/ethics/theology/french/latin/soccer/dance... You are marvelous from the way you just aced your economics homework to the way you just asked a great question at the panel discussion on So-and-so's new book. You are marvelous - just ask my friend the squirrel.


Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Oh look! The White House!

You know you are a DC resident when you are eating your ham, provolone and edamame hummus sandwich at a park on H St, NW, looking at the pigeons land on a statue's head and you suddenly turn around and realize that the White House is behind you.

Today I was startled into remembrance that I am in the nation's capital city. You'd be surprised how quickly you forget where you are once a routine has settled in and you're accustomed to your surroundings. I know my D6 bus, my free mocha-cappucino-latte thing from the machine at my office, my dress clothes that sometimes make me feel like I'm pretending to be a professional lawyer when inside I'm still a six year old in Mom's high heels, my apartment mates, my class work... routine, routine, routine. And I so quickly forget that I am here, in Washington, DC, on an incredible journey into the center of all things political and vocational.

So I am thankful that I stopped in the park on my way to a briefing at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on 21st century energy policy. I'm glad I packed a sandwich and my sketchbook, and forced myself to slow down for a few moments and just be. In the city you're always walking with a purpose: to the Metro station, the Starbucks (where, if you can imagine it, the prices are HIGHER than in North Beverly or even Boston. How do they do that?), the office, the cool vintage consignment shop, the Au Bon Pain for a chocolate croissant... So today I meandered, through the park, through the shade of trees, by benches full of cute, suit-wearing couples eating power lunches before going back to their twelve-hour day, by some poodles and their owner who was dressed in a hot pink tracksuit. I meandered, wandered, strolled... all the good slow words for walked. I had no purpose other than to be. I had no agenda, nowhere to "get to", no plans, no needs. It was just me and my little sketchbook and my edamame hummus. And then, to turn around and see the White House! There is nothing like it in the whole world.

Which leads me to my challenge to you, readers. You, who love routines and schedules, who relish being able to eat the same chicken salad sandwich on a pita with cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato and pickles from the nice lunch ladies in Lane every single day, who make To-Do lists on post it notes and paste them to the top of your Wilson Hall built-to-the-wall desk, who worry when they're told to "go with the flow": slow down.

Meander. Stroll in the woods. Amble across the Quad on your way back from class. Don't be concerned with "getting there" - however important there is. Don't be worried that you are missing a moment from your busy day - however busy, however rushed. Breathe deeply the smell of fall leaves and pumpkin spice lattes, feel the scratchy wool of a new sweater on your arms, wriggle your toes in your new Toms or moccasins or Uggs. Feel the changing seasons. Take a book out to that big tree by the bell and just read it for twenty minutes. Take a couple of friends and just go sit in the sun outside the Chapel.

You may not turn around and see President Obama's residence. You may not turn around AGAIN and realize you are inadvertently blocking seven Japanese tourists from taking pictures of Obama's residence. You may not put on your high heels and hear yourself walk into the Chamber of Commerce's building because everything echoes on marble. You may not get on the Metro at Foggy Bottom (I love that name, by the way - Foggy Bottom.... just say it and smile to yourself), or Farragut North, or Union Station. But wherever you are, no matter how seemingly mundane or quiet, the world offers itself to you to enjoy. So go for a walk with your senses alive to the world. Slow down in this harried, hurried world and breathe it in with deep, slow breaths.

I leave you with this poem. Goodnight, readers.

The Invitation, by Oriah Mountain Dreamer

It doesn't interest me what you do for a living.
I want to know what you ache for
and if you dare to dream of meeting your heart's longing.

It doesn't interest me how old you are.
I want to know if you will risk looking like a fool
for love
for your dream
for the adventure of being alive.

It doesn't interest me what planets are squaring your moon...
I want to know if you have touched the centre of your own sorrow
if you have been opened by life's betrayals
or have become shrivelled and closed
from fear of further pain.

I want to know if you can sit with pain
mine or your own
without moving to hide it
or fade it
or fix it.

I want to know if you can be with joy
mine or your own
if you can dance with wildness
and let the ecstasy fill you to the tips of your fingers and toes
without cautioning us
to be careful
to be realistic
to remember the limitations of being human.

It doesn't interest me if the story you are telling me
is true.
I want to know if you can
disappoint another
to be true to yourself.
If you can bear the accusation of betrayal
and not betray your own soul.
If you can be faithless
and therefore trustworthy.

I want to know if you can see Beauty
even when it is not pretty
every day.
And if you can source your own life
from its presence.

I want to know if you can live with failure
yours and mine
and still stand at the edge of the lake
and shout to the silver of the full moon,

It doesn't interest me
to know where you live or how much money you have.
I want to know if you can get up
after the night of grief and despair
weary and bruised to the bone
and do what needs to be done
to feed the children.

It doesn't interest me who you know
or how you came to be here.
I want to know if you will stand
in the centre of the fire
with me
and not shrink back.

It doesn't interest me where or what or with whom
you have studied.
I want to know what sustains you
from the inside
when all else falls away.

I want to know if you can be alone
with yourself
and if you truly like the company you keep
in the empty moments.

Monday, September 20, 2010

"You can never find a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me." - C.S. Lewis

How right he was. Yesterday afternoon after a delicious meal at the White Tiger Indian Restaurant (Sunday buffet until 2:30pm), I hauled myself and my three chapters of energy security reading down to Port City Java, a coffeeshop on 7th St., SE. My apartment Jaclyn and one of the guys from across the hall came with me, and we sat in the afternoon sun reading about geopolitical threats and the need to diversify energy supply and suppliers in order to achieve greater energy security.

After 45 minutes or so, I had finished the readings and felt the distant call of Capitol Hill Books stir in the pit of my apricot tea-soaked mind. "Hilaryyyyyyy" it seemed to say. "Don't you really need some more poetry? Don't you need to spend an hour browsing through old, war-torn, dog-eared pages of Shakespeare's Love's Labors Lost and John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath? I tried valiantly to resist the call, because neither my small Peruvian over the shoulder bag (a gift from my friend Lillie two summers ago) or my checking account would appreciate a foray into the world of books.

But it is September, the sun is shining, and there is nothing more restful or more Sabbath than to browse in the most incredible used bookstore I've ever encountered. There are more nooks and crannies in the store than there are actual shelves, more stacks of books on the floor with paper labels "G" and "Salinger starts here", more of the delicious "used-book" smell that fills your nostrils as you hear the door creak behind you. The music plays softly, as if in time with the pace of your thoughts, and your feet move in leaps and bounds from room to room, up the narrow stairs and back down, and your heart feels like it will explode with the joy of words.

So you can tell by now that I went in the bookstore. And I found to my utter joy that there is an entire room of poetry - first editions of Frost and Elizabeth Barrett Browning peeking out from behind Anne Sexton and Pablo Neruda. It was like walking into a new apartment, new office, new school - and realizing that your friends are already there, waiting for you. The words of my favorite poets have accompanied me to DC and I took a few home with me from the bookstore: The Catcher in the Rye, Equus, Notes from a Small Island, a copy of Poetry magazine, some CS Lewis...

There is a call in the pit of my stomach towards words when I am looking to understand the world. There is a call in my head when I hear good words to write them down quick before I forget, because I don't want to lose a moment of their beauty. There is a call in my heart to words when I know they are true. And so, when I left Port City Java and the important (though certainly more technical) words of energy security, and happily ensconced myself in Capitol Hill Books until almost 4:30pm, it was the call of words. It was the elusive largest cup of tea and longest book in the world, the promise that time itself will slow down a little bit so you can turn the next page and read one more paragraph.

And so, readers, I leave you with a short list of books that I saw, and loved, and wanted to buy (but refrained only to probably go back next week):

1. East of Eden by John Steinbeck
2. In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden
3.The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
4. The Complete Poems of Anne Sexton by Anne Sexton
5. Wise Blood by Flannery O'Connor
6. Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino
7. Pursuit by Erica Funkhouser

Hilary (the words lover)

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Lemme Count the Calories... 10, 50, 500...

Why do we count calories? Why do we sit in our comfortable green chairs around a plain wooden table, our eyes glued to the small black and white column on the back of the chip package, the pasta package, the green bean and potato package, the orange juice, the diet soda, the pretzels, pears, goldfish, real fish, frozen peas, tortillas, snickers bars, apples, grapes, fruit-by-the-foot... you get the idea.

Why do we count calories, though? Why do we measure how "good" something is for us by its energy content as measured in calories? In France they use kilojoules... but most of the time I doubt French families read the nutritional information on the back of their freshly baked baguettes. Why do we evaluate food, and our experience with food, by this strange and artificially scientific standard? I mean, do the people at Hostess Snack Cake Company really lie awake at night, thinking, "I did a good deed today! I produced seven different varieties of synthetic, artificially flavored, chemically rich 100 calorie snack cakes to sell by the millions in grocery stores to nervous women everywhere, inadvertently advertising to them that their bodies are not sufficient for the absurd beauty standards of American pop culture!"? Is there some person who, upon being interviewed for a job, would say that their life goal is to design a "calorie-free dessert with little taste, no natural ingredients, made of wood paste and Splenda packets"? Does that person exist anywhere?

I was walking through beautiful downtown Georgetown this morning, hauling a Trader Joe's reusable grocery bag with me (it is decorated with DC themed decorations, thank you very much), and my apartment mates and I were on a cupcake mission. We originally planned to go to Georgetown Cupcakes, the bakery famous for having its own TV show. When we got to 33 and M St, however, and saw that the line extended out the door and up an entire city block, we decided to make our way back towards Baked and Wired, a more out-of-the-way bakery that boasted large cupcakes for $3.59, espresso drinks, and pies that looked so good I wanted to give up on teaching, law and the liberal arts and become the next Betty Crocker.

And then it hit me, right as I was drooling over the glass cases filled with sample cupcakes like Unporked Elvis (peanut butter, banana and chocolate) and Blueberry Lemon (blueberries... and lemons). Why do we count calories? The experience of shoving the "Pretty Bitchin'" cupcake into my mouth (it's dark chocolate cake and fresh peanut butter frosting, just in case you were curious) is worth the 400 calories, right? And more than that, how can the 400 number accurately describe the feeling of sitting there with some good friends in the warm September sun, looking out at Georgetown and the water, realizing I am in Washington, DC and that I am an independent, cool, cupcake-eating person (who is mistaken for a local sometimes!)? When there is so much contained in between my bites of chocolate/peanut butter goodness, why should I count how many units of energy it contains?

We probably count calories because we want to be healthy. We probably count them because since we were four years old we have been practicing our numbers, and want to stay on top of the tens and hundreds places. We probably count calories because our friends do, or because we're on a diet, or because we aren't very happy with how and what we are eating, and we want to change it.

And I don't want to discount these reasons; I just want to offer a suggestion that our experiences with food are never going to be adequately captured by the caloric intake number. I want to suggest that when we eat, we engage all our senses, we create memories of place and people, we bond with each other, we enjoy the good fruit of creation. I will never forget this afternoon where my fork and I devoured that cupcake like it was our business, nor will I forget the wonderful spinach and mozzarella ravioli I got at Eastern Market, or the apricot iced tea at Port City Java, or even the overly-iced blended chai smoothie thing at Jacob's Coffee & Tea House. Food creates memories; calories create anxiety.

So if you are tempted to turn over that chip bag or that bread loaf or that soda can next time you're sitting at your kitchen table, remember that I am here, in Georgetown, or Dupont Circle, or Chinatown, or even Capitol Hill itself, wholeheartedly loving eating cupcakes. My caloric intake is decently high here, but it corresponds directly to some of my favorite memories so far: FroYo at Mister Yogato, going to Red Velvet Cupcakery and waiting 1/2 an hour for a non-existent bus one night, walking through Georgetown with my roommates enjoying the sun and the window shopping, having pizza at Cosi and talking about living in DC after graduation with a friend, and of course trolling Eastern Market for fresh fruit and veggies. And I will happily pay for those memories in calories.

Love to you all,

LCM: The Last Christian Man

You know him. He's tall/dark/handsome, with a killer smile and a style that mixes JCrew jeans and blazers with Perry's loafers and a maybe the occasional gray sweatshirt. He's got a few bandanas or bracelets from his trips to the Adirondacks, and his water bottle is a BPA-free Nalgene, or he sports a sturdy Northface fleece jacket and carries a guitar with him from lounge to lounge, serenading residents. Whatever his major is (and you may never be quite sure), you do know he's studious but not too studious, taking breaks from reading to grab food with his buddies and play Ultimate Frisbee at night on the Quad. He spends plenty of time with the Lord, may sing or play guitar in a Chapel band or at All-Hall worship, and certainly knows what it means to "hear God's call."

When we fall for the last Christian man, it's for good reasons: he is smart, interesting and fun. He is kind, he is Christian, he makes us laugh and our hearts flutter. He has a style we didn't need to teach him, he encourages us in our faith, and he's honorable, polite and definitely beloved by our families and friends.

The only problem is that LCM isn't, in fact, the last Christian man.

My apartment mates and I were up late talking the other night about dating and relationships, comparing our college experiences and laughing about the similarities between our very different schools. In all of them, though, the girls outnumber the guys by a significant margin, which gives the guys much more choice in potential "MLCW"s (My Last Christian Woman). In all our schools, single girls wonder how it is that cute, eligible guys stay single, don't ask them out, or half-heartedly "date around" without choosing anyone. We see our friends getting married and our roommates find love, we see so many "DTRs" that we name particular benches or ponds on campus after them. And we, like Carrie Bradshaw and her iconic old-school Mac computer, "couldn't help but wonder... what is with Christian college dating culture?"

LCM isn't the last Christian man we'll ever meet. He isn't the only cute guy in a world of six billion people (and counting). In fact, LCM may not even be the second, third or twentieth to last Christian man. I can't deny it will be harder to meet people (after all, we spend 4 years or approximately 26, 880 hours running around small campuses with only 18 - 24 year olds in sight). But what about graduate school, jobs, cities you move to, new churches you join, small groups, dance classes, movie theaters, gyms, libraries, bookstores, clothing stores...? (admittedly I've never heard of a couple who met in a clothing store but it could happen, I'm just saying). There may not be a Christian man waiting to sweep us off our feet in all of those situations, but we certainly shouldn't believe that, when graduation arrives, a puff of wind blows the eligible men out of our universes and we then walk slowly towards a fate of feeding our cats Moe and Curly and crocheting baby blankets.

If I'm learning anything in the city of Washington, D.C., it's that life is full. It's full of Kristina on the bus telling her sister, "I'm sitting next to the beautiful lady!" when she plops down next to me. It's full of my coworkers at my internship stopping by my half-office to check in and see if I want to talk to Au Bon Pain and grab a sandwich. It's full of striding confidently out of Union Station after your first day at your internship and knowing, "I can get home from here and not need to ask directions from anyone! AND I can do it wearing cute Nine West wedge heels!"

It's full of people that we can know and love, full of work that is good and fruitful, full of challenges that are difficult, full of joys, full of hope. In a life that full, it shouldn't be so hard to believe that, far from the last Christian man, the guy who lives two floors below us or sits behind us in Intro to American History or who stops by our room "just to say hello" may just be the first.

Christian college women: I am you. I fall for that LCM (and his Gap/Banana/EMS style). I wonder why he doesn't ask me out. I wonder if I will ever meet anyone who wants a relationship and not the vague "hanging out" that miraculously seems to appeal to guys (why IS that? I have never known - the awkward sitting there on the same couch, close but not couple close, watching a movie that neither of you are paying attention to but both of you are trying to pretend that you find it fascinating while you sneak peeks at each other).

But now, in the city of Washington, D.C. (or Wenham, MA, or Chicago, IL, or Santa Barbara, CA, or Memphis, TN, or Portland, ME), we are able to live fully. And the FCM (First Christian Man) will arrive when there is room in the fullness of our lives for him, and in the fullnesss of his life for us.


Tuesday, September 14, 2010

People Watching in Starbucks

One of the things I love most about being in the city of Washington, DC is the fact that I get to people watch all the time. I wouldn't say that I have an unhealthy fascination with people watching, but in the silence of the morning bus ride, or the quiet chatter of my new Starbucks haunt on 16th and K Sts, NW, there is something comforting about looking around and imagining the lives of the people around me.

This morning, for example, the man sitting next to me and my double tall skinny vanilla latte this morning had the weirdest hands I'd ever seen. They looked like rubber gloves - reddish and sort of oily, and they were typing furiously on a keyboard that was about the size of his thumbs. It was so weird and funny that I started wondering how he held a fork (did the sweat on his palms make it slip between bites?), held the bar of the Metro car (what if he lost his grip and fell over when the train lurched into Union Station?), or even held hands with someone (I don't know about his significant other, but I don't think I'd want to hold hands with ol' rubber palms). And that led me to thinking about what he did in Washington, DC. I work in lobby land, so if he works anywhere near my office building he probably crunches numbers at a think tank, lobbies Congress with a top DC attorney or possibly reviews political trends and publishes analyses to gain support and funding. He probably got up this morning and went to a small closet in a small apartment in the NW section of the city, chose his pepper colored suit and orange tie and threw his laptop in his messenger bag and scurried onto the Metro, getting off at Farragut North and proceeding straight to my (I really haven't been here long enough to call it that, yet) Starbucks on his way to work. I wonder if he had a good day...

There was a woman on the bus this afternoon whose life I've been imagining since she sat down next to me. She couldn't be more different from RubberPalms. She had a silver Adidas bag as a purse and walked onto the D6 bus chattering into a bejeweled pink LG Dare touch-screen phone. Her tight jeans barely reached the ankles of her colorful pink and silver sneakers, and she had a ripped and shredded T-shirt underneath a leather jacket. Her hair was stick straight and carefully arranged, and I could see small fake diamond hoops in her earlobes.

Her phone rang loudly inside her bag as we were nearing Metro Station and apparently her mother had called. The girl, who I named Adidas, is pregnant. Her boyfriend or the baby's dad (I don't know if they're dating) wants to check on the baby with an ultrasound every month. Adidas thinks that's ridiculous. She does want amniocentesis though, and her doctor to test the baby for "Down syndrome and tri-sonomy... trisomy... treesony 18 or something," because if her baby is sick, she is going to terminate the pregnancy. My eavesdropping hit the pit of my stomach about two stops after Union Station (Massachusetts Ave & 2nd St, to be precise), and I suddenly felt devastated. There is a baby inside Adidas that may or may not be wanted depending on a medical test. There is a lonely-looking guy in the Starbucks. There are faces everywhere of people who are haggard, overworked, sad, frustrated. There IS joy and movement, excitement and a rhythm in this city. But people watching also opens my eyes to difficulties, to cultures I have never known before and to people struggling with life, just like they do in Rowley.

I hope that when I return from this journey, I have better eyes to people watch in the North Beverly Starbucks, or on the T, or walking through the streets of Rowley or Boston. I hope that I learn to see the stories behind the faces, where RubberPalms and Adidas are more than just passing encounters.

Be well, all.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Writer's Almanac

I get the Writer's Almanac every morning in my Gmail inbox. It's fairly exciting, I suppose - the promise of the poem for Wednesday, August 29 never fails to excite the heart. And though the poems themselves do not always have the richness, subtlety or beauty that I seek from poetry, I read the email diligently, hoping to learn something about poetry.

And today this gem arrived. Read it slowly, and out loud, and then again. I love how stark it is, how blunt. And I love the phrase, "impatient virgin." You can find the Writer's Almanac or subscribe here.

A Difference of Fifty-Three Years

by Noel Peattie

Here is a magazine called Seventeen.
It comes out on the stands every month.
The girl on each cover is welcome
as cherry pie; she's tubbed, pure,
her hair is up, or ribboned.
Her life is all dresses,
parties, and little pink wishes.
She says to the world, Oh hurry,
hurry up, please, and it does.

Here is a man about seventy.
Why isn't there a journal called Seventy?
Because he isn't as welcome;
because nobody wants to be like him.
He says to the world, Slow down;
my flat feet can't keep up with you.
He whispers, I'm still alive.

But it doesn't slow down, the world.
It keeps on hurrying; for, see there,
an impatient virgin is waiting.

(Every day, an old man is buried).
Every month, there's another young girl.

Much to tell, friends. My first day as an intern, my first day of policy class... I will write tonight. For now, enjoy the poem.



Sunday, September 12, 2010

The National Zoo, and the Reason American Tourists are Loathed by the French

I walked into the Smithsonian Institute National Zoology Center (a fancy way of saying, the big zoo in DC) yesterday afternoon around 2pm. Within three minutes and fifteen seconds I was ready to fight my way back against the throngs of pale flabby arms and legs and run across the street to hide in the "charge-you-$3.50-for-a-teabag-in-water" Starbucks.

Why this sudden panic, you ask? Answer: the family of obnoxious American tourists who, armed with their fanny packs, expensive cameras, strapped-to-their-wrist-projectile-missile-sized water bottles, food bags fit to feed a small nation, and piercing nasal accents, managed to precede my every move in the zoo.

They were at the sloth bear exhibit, rapping on the glass, smudging their pudgy, Little-Debbie-cake-filled mouths up against the glass, and shoving smaller children out of the way so the eight year old girl could "film" it with her new sleek red HD video camera. Wait, let me say that again. The EIGHT year old girl needed to FILM the zoo with HER own, new HD video camera. Something is definitely not right.

They then preceded us to the clouded leopard area, where two exhausted looking cats sprawled on logs, doing exactly what my sore, blistered feet were screaming at me to do. This family and their sweaty T-shirts jostled to the front of the line, snapping pictures, banging the pull-out info cards on the clouded leopards' habitat, endangered status, and diet. I thought about leaning over to the boy, who couldn't have been more than 10 years old and saying, "Hey, wanna find out if you taste good to a clouded leopard?" and then tossing him in with a ferocity that would initiate shock and surprised cheers from the watching crowd. I restrained myself, however.

It got harder as we neared the bridge overlooking the elephant field where they can roam and get exercise. Now elephants are some of my favorite animals. They are so gentle and powerful, and they always seem a bit surprised to be as big and strong as they are - like they woke up one morning with a long trunk that can rip branches off trees and tusks that can gore lions and said, "Oh gee! Look! I'm big!" So I was excited to see the beautiful baby elephant. But of course, who should be in front of me as I angled my old family camera close to the bars but The American Tourist Family From the 9th Circle of Hell. Of course. And as my elbow was jerked off its perch by the grubby, clutching hands of the two children, and my camera snapped a picture, not of the beautiful elephant spraying water into the air, not of the rolling hill and his sweet gray leathery skin, but of my shoe. MY SHOE! I have a picture I could have taken back in my house in Massachusetts, instead of my National-Geographic-worthy shot of the elephant romping in the National Zoo. At this point I am near boiling. These people have shoved little children, sweated profusely, smudged the glass, provoked animals, talked at an ear-splitting decibel, and ruined my photograph of the elephant. As far as I am concerned, these things warrant eviction from the entire Metro DC area.

But just wait - this family makes my visit to the Zoo even better. As the eight year old brat runs in front of her mother screeching, "COME ON I WANNA SEE THE FLAMINGOS NOW!" the mother, who sports a dark blue polo shirt and shorts that are too short for her hefty frame, suddenly loses control. Apparently her children, who have successfully tortured the entire zoo guest book for the day, have finally gotten to her. "CAROLINE!" she yells. Caroline pauses in her trek to the flamingos, her camera clutched in her hand. "Caroline, get ova heah. Now. I don't wanna tell ya twice. Get ova heah and if I see ya runnin like that again I sweah, I will make you stand in a cohnah of the zoo and we will leave ya theah!" I'm sorry - what language, precisely, is that in? Is that comprehensible English? Have I gone temporarily deaf to the letter "r" at the end of your words? Are you secretly related to some of my favorite New England families that throng Crane's Beach in the summer? Did you and your Boston accent follow me to Washington, D.C. to remind me that I will always be a Yankee at heart?

Caroline, instead of looking appropriately shocked and horrified (the look I was sporting at the mention of leaving a child in a zoo alone), stuck her tongue out at her mother and slouched forward. Everything in her body language screamed, "I do it because I don't care, not because you told me to." The mother ran her overly manicured hands through her dyed red hair and called for Ed and Bradley to join her and they'd all go see the red panda. Thankfully, we were headed to the bird house so I was spared seeing this family interact with a red panda, though I can picture it: girl shoves her brother out of the way to "film" the panda (which actually looks like a fox) and then losing interest after three seconds, the overweight dad being bristled that the mom has no control over the children and silently munching on snack crackers out of his backpack, and the mother trying valiantly to document their trip to the zoo without realizing that snapping a picture in front of glass with the flash on doesn't work.

Why is this family what I remember from the zoo? Because it's a reminder that, for the most part, Americans are horrible travelers. We demand English, efficiency, friendliness verging on instant bonding, and our every whim satisfied. We expect taxis to know where to take us before we get in them. We expect strangers to accommodate what we are accustomed to, and give us many Kodak worthy moments to take home to our families.

I've spent some time in France in my young life, and I remember always having the same conversation about culture before we would depart. My high school emphasized learning from the host culture and attempting to appreciate and participate in their ways, rather than demanding our own. So we'd haltingly ask for "une baguette avec un peu de fromage, s'il vous plaît" in a café, or say "Excusez-moi mademoiselle" when we bumped someone on the labyrinth of the Parisian metro. And though I've yet to meet a French person I did not like, I can imagine that the Tourist Family from Hell would sing a different tune. I've always wondered why tourists are snubbed in the "City of Lights" - and why people look surprised when I talk about how much I love traveling to Europe. Now, having met the people who have both the financial luxury and time on their hands to travel to my beloved France, I'm not so surprised "American tourist" veers towards a four letter word.

Friday, September 10, 2010

A Poem

Dear readers,

The world is full of poetry. It is the crinkled face of the woman at the bus stop, whose hands tremble so much that she cannot hold her cup of cheap coffee. It is the night vision of the Capitol building. It is memory: my first time singing "Angel" by Sarah McLachlan, my mother teaching me to do laundry, driving through the rambling fields of England with my father talking about becoming a novelist. It is the quick, quiet call of your heart out of itself towards the story of Echo and Narcissus, because try as you might, you hear yourself echoing someone else's words. It is the agony of waiting to be beautiful, or waiting to be told. It is the book you open and inhale, smelling its mustiness and promise. It is your ponderings about predestination as a poker game, drawing with words the oak tree covered in Spanish moss that sits in the old cemetery in Selma, AL.

Today I want to share with you a poem I have loved for a long time, by a poet named Lisel Mueller. She writes this about Monet:

Monet Refuses the Operation

Lisel Mueller

Doctor, you say that there are no haloes

around the streetlights in Paris

and what I see is an aberration

caused by old age, an affliction.

I tell you it has taken me all my life

to arrive at the vision of gas lamps as angels,

to soften and blur and finally banish

the edges you regret I don't see,

to learn that the line I called the horizon

does not exist and sky and water,

so long apart, are the same state of being.

Fifty-four years before I could see

Rouen cathedral is built

of parallel shafts of sun,

and now you want to restore

my youthful errors: fixed

notions of top and bottom,

the illusion of three-dimensional space,

wisteria separate

from the bridge it covers.

What can I say to convince you

the Houses of Parliament dissolve

night after night to become

the fluid dream of the Thames?

I will not return to a universe

of objects that don't know each other,

as if islands were not the lost children

of one great continent. The world

is flux, and light becomes what it touches,

becomes water, lilies on water,

above and below water,

becomes lilac and mauve and yellow

and white and cerulean lamps,

small fists passing sunlight

so quickly to one another

that it would take long, streaming hair

inside my brush to catch it.

To paint the speed of light!

Our weighted shapes, these verticals,

burn to mix with air

and changes our bones, skin, clothes

to gases. Doctor,

if only you could see

how heaven pulls earth into its arms

and how infinitely the heart expands

to claim this world, blue vapor without end.

Do you have poems you love? Send them to me - I love to hear new poems and people's favorites.



Wednesday, September 8, 2010

"I'm tired!" (or, Why I Sometimes Question The Human Desire to Procreate)

"I'M TIRED!" Georgia flops her head down into her reading comprehension homework. She squints one eye at me from beneath her folded, hot-pink-sweatshirt clad arms. Deep breath, Hilary, deep breath. You are Mary Poppins. You are light and airy and holding a magic pencil. "You can't be tired!" I smile jovially, as if letting her in on a big secret to the nature of reality. She isn't buying it. Seriously? SERIOUSLY! You've been here five minutes! The walls are brightly colored and full of friendly faces! There are snacks in the next room! Your homework does not include a six page annotated bibliography!

Georgia grins mischievously, and continues to resist my efforts to put pencil to paper and name the three types of clouds or give three example of citrus fruits. Just as I'm thinking, "Fine! I give up!" Ms. Mary walks by. Ms. Mary is the leader of the Little Lights program where I'm doing this service learning project, and Ms. Mary is the person I'd need to impress if I was ever trying to prove that I deserve to work with children. Just as she pauses by the desk to listen, Georgia slams her pencil to the paper, draws a dark line straight down through the paragraph, questions and blank spaces for her answers, and kicks her feet against the desk. Great. Just great. She picks this moment to throw the big hissy fit and make me look like an incompetent fool. Score: Georgia 1, Hilary 0.

I didn't make a comeback for the Georgia-Hilary showdown. She finished her homework as crankily as possible, shoved it into her bag and huffed off without so much as a "goodbye." Fine, I thought to myself, that's fine. But what I was probably really thinking is, "That girl has an attitude I'd like to kick to the moon and back a few times!" or maybe, "How is it that a seven year old can manage to procrastinate with 'I'm tired' ? What exactly do seven year olds DO that could possibly be so tiring that a paragraph is too much to read?"

The truth is, of course, that students like Georgia are precisely the reason that I want to teach. I seriously think children calculate the exact right moment to tip the flower vase over, spill soap on the floor, cut their sibling's hair, throw their peas at the wall, and throw a homework fit. They know when it will make a maximum impact. They know somehow that if they wait until a teacher/parent/cool adult/impressive person is there, and THEN they explode/implode/wreak havoc/freak out, me, the babysitter/tutor/weak adolescent/poor college kid will look stupid. Children know these things.

But there is something profoundly humbling about realizing how much Georgia needs help with her homework. There is something about watching her sound out the words slowly and hesitantly that makes me stop my tirade and think about the opportunities I've been given to learn and grow. Mrs. Budd poured into my first grade mind the knowledge of how to read books. Mrs. Panikian poured into my third and fourth grade mind how to write paragraphs and science reports. Mr. Columbo poured into my fifth grade mind the knowledge of the three branches of government. Mrs. Cooper poured into my sixth grade mind a love for asking questions and writing good sentences.

And then high school it becomes blurred into the names: Yasmine, Allegra, Josh, Jim, Charles, Peter, Neil, John Wigglesworth, Christiane, Matt, Vicki, Holly, Greg Moss, Francis, Steve, Tim Bakland, Tim Averill... there are so many, I couldn't count them. And don't get me started on the influential people at Gordon (we'd be here forever).

And then I look at Georgia. She's wearing a hot pink shirt, her black hair pulled back by a rubber band. Her chewed fingernails skim the surface of the paper as she points to each syllable and speaks slowly. She comes from the Potomac Gardens, a low-income housing project in DC. She comes from a family who looks very different from mine. She thinks of school as hard and frustrating. Her shoes have city dirt on them, and her voice has a slight accent, Southern and not at the same time. Her dark eyes look at me skeptically, and I can't say I blame her. I've sat in my folding chair fuming that she won't do her reading, won't work on her homework, and that she pitched a fuss in front of Ms. Mary.

Maybe she is tired. Maybe she is tired of having trouble with her homework, of it always being hard. Maybe she is tired of seeing a new visitor or volunteer at the program every day. Maybe she is tired of wondering whether or not she is good enough at something. And with these thoughts comes the stunning realization that as a teacher I could help Georgia not be tired. I could help her with her homework, teach her to love books, be a consistent presence in her life, teach her that she is good at many things.

We've been talking about vocation in class for the past two weeks, and this is the first time I think I've seen the possible future of my own sense of calling. Georgia might have been tired this afternoon; but if teachers exist who can make learning exciting, who can love their students and want to see them grow, who can be faithful presences in young lives, then Georgia might not be tired the next time I see her.

It's late, all. Thank you for reading.


Monday, September 6, 2010

You Ain't Go No Alibi: Watching U.G.L.Y. performed by the Howard University Theatre Department

"Ugly, Gina, ugly, Gina!" The jeers and insults drip from the girls' mouths onto the audience. They may be dressed in normal jeans and T-shirts, reading their parts from scripts and music propped up on music stands, but I am mesmerized. I can't even see their faces for the hoard of people crowding towards the roped-off seating area. I remember that I am in love with theater (like art, science, and... french, too).

It's the booming nature of their voices over my head, into the back of the long, carpeted "Grand Foyer" of the JFK Memorial Center for the Performing Arts. It's the colloquialisms that have the audience laughing and clapping as we hear our own voices captured in theirs. It's the way that every inflection is magnified, every dirty look or pitying glance or lovestruck gaze or hopeful tremor until it can be seen by the 600 people gathered in the room. How can you not love this form of art? It is the acting, but above the acting. It's the music, but through the music. It's the script, but more than the script. Theater, the "performing arts" is the place where everything is used, and nothing wasted. Choices actors make to look left or right, step forward or not, are used by the director to say something about the character. Lights are used, music is used, costumes and makeup are used. There's tremendous economy in theater. It even uses its audience to be part of the process and product!

So imagining to myself that Washington, DC is full of budding theater-lovers and possibly some pretty fantastic plays is like imagining myself in a giant room full of my favorite books, being told I can spend as much time there as I want and read everything as much as I want (a more typical analogy would be the old kid in the candy store - but personally I think that poor kid is trapped in the store and so sick that she'll eat nothing but carrots and celery the rest of her days after being force-fed copious amounts of Twizzlers, chocolate, M &Ms, lollipops and Peeps). It's hard not to jump up and down and say, "Okay, let's forget about class and work and just go watch plays!"

I know I can't do that, but the thought is tempting. That's one of the things about being in a city: everything is a bus/metro ride, or walkable, and you're tricked into thinking that you can just hop on something and go regardless of your other commitments. But there's also something so special about being close to where these things are happening. I find my mind thinks more and more about theater and art and music now that there are opportunities to hear those professionals outside my door. I am more aware of, even in just a little bit of time, the buzz and energy of the arts in the city.

Yesterday when I was getting coffee with a friend at Port City Java on 7th St, SE (right by Eastern Market), a live performance of folk music was being set up. My apartment and some other girls went to the 9th Annual "Page to Stage" performance of Darius Smith's U.G.L.Y. at the Kennedy Center last night. There was a concert on Capitol Hill, a blue festival out towards Maryland (or Virginia...), there are art galleries and museums everywhere you turn. Washington, DC may be a land of politics and power, but it's got an underbelly of artistic and theatrical life that I feel especially excited to explore.

So for all you out there following this blog who love theater and the arts, I'm with you! I can't wait to keep you all posted on my forays into Shakespeare, musicals, ballet, new plays, the Portrait Gallery, the Renaissance wing of the National Gallery...

Off to Internship Orientation class in a bit!

Have a wonderful day,

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Ebenezer's Coffeehouse (a.k.a., National Community Church)

If I were to make a list of things I have never seen before in a church service, they would go like this:

1. A church building where the first floor is a coffee shop, and where after you buy your latte you go downstairs to the "worship space."

2. Six (count 'em, 6) screens all flashing the "theme" of the service (in this case, it was called Garden to City), alternated with the translucent, screen-saver-esque church logo.

3. A grid of theater lights not unlike what you see in the Gordon black box theater - and a stage area with colored lights that softly faded in and out.

4. A church bulletin where there was no list of hymns, songs, prayers, or liturgy (but an artful, collegiate-looking list of the church's many locations and a link to their head pastor's blog).

5. A pastor wearing torn jeans and a plaid Quiksilver collared shirt and funky framed glasses.

6. An offering plate that was a recycled burlap sack.

7. A "welcome box" that looked like an old-fashioned popcorn box but that included glossy brochures about the church and a book to help with your spiritual growth.

Welcome to Ebenezer's Coffeehouse, or, as it's actually known, National Community Church.

There's something ironic about the name of this church. Isn't "National Community" at least sort of oxymoronic? How can something be a community church (which to me at least implies a local, relatively close knit group of people) also be national? They are "One church. Multiple locations." Wait. Doesn't that mean you are multiple churches? One church with several wings? One church that moves from location to location?

My confusion wasn't aided as I sat down and saw lattes, cappuccinos, and iced green teas nestled next to purses, messenger bags, their owners Toms shoes peeking out from underneath their artfully ripped skinny jeans. I skimmed the program and, finding no hint of either hymns or contemporary worship songs, I turned to the back cover. The back cover addressed me in a friendly-with-a-hint-of-overly-personal tone.

"Expect the unexpected." Well, I thought, I got that one down. "Irrelevance is irreverence." Ummm... don't know what that means but I will think about it later, since the intro music is getting to an increasingly loud volume. "Love people when they least expect it and least deserve it. Playing it safe is risky. Pray like it depends on God and work like it depends on you... It's never too late to be who you might have been."

The lights dim. We all stand up. What follows is roughly my thoughts for the first twenty minutes.

It's a Saturday night, the light is streaming in the window by the emergency exit stairs, and I'm at sea. A blonde woman takes the microphone and several other people take the stage, strum their guitars, tap their drumsticks and suddenly a song has started! I'm late into singing the words. I can barely read the words because the image behind them (of a tree becoming a lamppost) has distracted me. Wait, they're changing key! I can't keep up! Ummm, sing Hilary, sing! Do I put my hands in the air? Do I keep my arms folding? Can the blonde singer see that I don't know the words? I think she can! Oh no! Another song has been introduced! Late again. I think the blonde singer knows I don't know this one. She is whispering into the microphone as they slow down. The girl in front of me is bobbing her heels in time with the drummer. How does she already know to sway with this song, but clap to that song? Is there a secret earbud in everyone's ears telling them what to do? Okay, now the pastor is getting up, and making some jokes, and I think he's going to pray... oh yes there it is. He is praying - and I think my arms are supposed to be stretched out right now... ummmm, I still don't know where we are in the service, but he has pulled up a bar stool and a music stand and looks like he's going to tell more jokes about his trip to the Grand Tetons and how we need to be like Habakkuk... is it Habbakuk, Habakkuk? I don't remember how to spell that but I guess I'll take notes on it.

Needless to say, I was overwhelmed. As I begin what is likely a long processing period about the contemporary church, my first question is: what does it mean, "irrelevance is irreverence."? Irrelevant to whom? By what standard? Would St. Aquinas, Augustine, Benedict be considered irrelevant? Do Dante and Flannery O'Connor and Pope John Paul II count as "relevant" to this church? How do we measure relevance - and should that be our first priority?

Friday, September 3, 2010

Voca-what?: Talking about Vocation

I'm in the city of Washington, DC for many reasons. I want to see the "halls of power" that are written and rewritten in everything from popular crime novels to studies about Christianity in the political sphere, to newspapers and CNN special reports. I want to hear the stories of the poor and the rich. I want to know what it's like to write research proposals and send them out into the world, knowing that the small stapled packet will likely end up on an intern's desk and be reviewed in a building that you could walk to from your small apartment.

I want to know why this city attracts the 20-somethings of our generation: is it because we are more decisive than other emerging adults, or less? Is working here about putting on mantles of responsibility, or leaving them in the closet while we add internships and entry-level work to our résumés?

My mind was bursting with these questions when I arrived. What I was not expecting when I came to Washington, DC was to be asking myself whether or not I am called to be here. At first even the question sounds silly: no one picked up a heavenly telephone and tapped into my cell phone, saying, "Hello Hilary, this is an angel of the Lord speaking. Please report to Gate C at Logan Airport to fulfill your call to be at the American Studies Program, Fall 2010. Thank you for listening. This is a recording. In a few moments this message will repeat. To disconnect now, press Star."

Yet everyone seems to "get" this concept of vocation.When I look around me during lectures or guest speakers, I see people nodding and taking copious notes. Sometimes I see people shake their heads, clearly uncertain about how this person's view of "vocation" fits with what they've been taught. But I'm sitting there in my Massachusetts, liberal-artsy, Anglican pants, hearing different theological takes on vocation, different vocabularies about vocation, and after a while the word "vocation" sounds more and more like, "vacation" which has more than once led my mind to thinking about sunny beaches and bodysurfing in the Caribbean (okay, maybe the bodysurfing is a bit out there, since I'm by no means an outdoorsy girl).

Where did this word even come from? I have heard of it in classes at Gordon, in discussions with participants of the Elijah Project (which focuses intentionally and intensely on vocation), but I don't know if I've ever really asked what it means. And now, as I'm sitting in Washington DC on pins and needles about starting my internship, I am confused about why I'm asking questions about being "called" to be in politics or being "gifted and called" with a mind for policy or law. Have I, in my academic towers of ethics or philosophy or the humanities, missed the boat on being called to jobs, apartments, cities, spouses? When I was asking whether or not intrinsic good lurked in humanities and literature, in science and math, should I have instead been asking where I was "called by God to go"?

I wasn't sure I was meant to be here when I arrived. I didn't have that feeling of certainty when I got off the airplane. I don't, even now, feel necessarily "called" to this semester. And since arriving and starting this unit on "Leadership and Vocation," I am less and less convinced that I am even asking the right question. If I spend all this time and energy examining whether or not I am "called" (literally or metaphorically), then what am I doing about just being here, being faithful to what I see in front of me? What if, as students of Christian colleges, we are asking the wrong question?

I have no doubt that vocation is a word that has serious meaning, for Christians and non-Christians alike. I have no doubt that it deserves time and attention, and I'm thankful that I get the opportunity to enter the conversation about vocation in a place where I never expected to see it. So my first question to the other participants of this conversation is, What questions are we supposed to ask about vocation? What questions get at the meaning of vocation? Where do I begin to look?

I'm excited to hear what you think!



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