nine books that (pretty much) defined my childhood

Here’s a new one for you: #throwbackthursday, literature style.

Anyone who knows me probably realizes that I’m a bookworm. You might even say that was an understatement. My friend Lizz, for example, made me this bookmark for my twenty-first birthday:

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These are all stories that have meant something like that to me–stories that have made me think, made me laugh, made me cry. These are books that have made me want to run up to the nearest human being and thrust a copy into their hands. Here, I’d say. Hi. You have got to read this one.

And so, without further ado, may I present my take on #throwbackthursday:

Nine Books That (pretty much) Defined My Childhood–or, nine books you should probably consider reading if you haven’t already.

Continue reading “nine books that (pretty much) defined my childhood”

this one’s for you.

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Dear You,

You know that phrase que sera, sera? I’ve often used it to explain away parts of my life. What happens, happens. What will be, will be.

Today, though, that seems foolish. It’s like that quote from Winnie the Pooh: You can’t stay in your corner of the Forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.

You can’t spend all your days sitting around and waiting on something to occur, waiting for some sign that yes, this is when your life startsHead’s up: your life already started. You’re already alive. Right now, your heart is beating. thump. Blood just passed from one chamber of your heart to the next. thump. It’s rushing past your lungs, picking up the oxygen you just inhaled. thump. back to your heart. thump. Out to your body.

Right now, there are thousands and thousands of mitochondria making energy for you to use. There are red blood cells and white blood cells making sure your body’s doing what it’s supposed to. There are nerves telling you that the mosquito bite you got last night is itching rather dreadfully–can’t you do something about that? There are brain cells telling you not to do something about that unless it’s something like cortisone because scratching a mosquito bite–you might remember this from your previous encounters with them–makes that bite worse.

You’re alive, alright, but that was never the question. The question was whether or not you’re living.

That’s an answer I can’t give. You can only really figure that out for yourself. I know a fair bit about being alive–I can tell you that there are three types of muscle in your body and that oxygen is practically our life blood and that the reason I take antihistamines every single day is because my body reacts to things like trees or flowers or grass like they’re an attack on my immune system, and that triggers the release of histamines that make you feel all puffy and swollen.

But living–that’s another issue entirely. I’m only twenty-two, so I don’t know much about living, really. Still, here’s what I’ve figured out so far.

In a nutshell? You can’t sit around waiting for life to happen.

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Living isn’t passive. You can’t always wait for things to come to you–you have to go out and find them. Sometimes you have to fight for them. Have you ever read the story of Jacob wrestling the angel? He was losing from the beginning, but he kept fighting. He clung to this angel as tightly as he could, wrestled with him until the angel agreed to bless him. Sometimes, you have to cling to the hard places until they bless you. Not always–sometimes, you have to let them go.

But sometimes, other times? Sometimes you have to grab life by the lapels and shake it and say, “You don’t own me. I am not defined by what you put in my path. I am more than the sum of my experiences, and I will not let you make me forget that.”

Because, you see, you are more than the sum of your experiences. Here’s a newsflash: life is not about you. You can try to live like that, but you will only ever succeed in making yourself miserable. Human beings are meant for community, meant for relationships–we quite literally need each other, even if you don’t like that idea. We need encouragement and affirmation and love, whether that means holding hands, high fives, swapping recipes, pulling silly faces at each other, having deep conversations, crying over ice cream together, or creating secret handshakes.

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You are more than the sum of your experiences because you are also some of their experiences. That time you and your best friend went on a road trip to nowhere in particular, the time you almost burned down the kitchen but your roommate realized you’d left the stove on, the nights you spent as a kid running around and catching fireflies, that feeling of absolute terror and absolute excitement you got from hearing those words, Congratulations to the Class of…, the awe you felt when your parents took you to the ocean or the mountains or hiking in the woods for the first time, that glance you shared with a classmate when your teacher made a really bad pun or a really funny movie reference.

Whitman had it right: I am large. I contain multitudes. So did e.e. cummings–i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart).

You are many things, see? Life is many things. Living is so, so many things. Don’t dither over which station has the cheaper gas when you could be on that road headed Somewhere. Don’t worry about the shortest route when you could be blasting music and chasing dreams and singing at the top of your lungs, or maybe just driving in silence as the miles slip past you and the stars come out overhead and fill you with their wistful calm. You’ve been given a chance. Don’t waste it.

And when you get to your Somewhere, remember this: sometimes, somewhere is right where you started, and that’s okay. It’s okay to stay put. It’s good to sink roots. It is a ridiculous, crazy, life-altering blessing to stay in one place and get to know that place so incredibly well that you actually know it better than the back of your hand.

That’s the funny thing about Somewhere: it’s not anywhere in particularIt’s not a state, or a country, or that spot on the highway where you know you’re almost home and can’t wipe the smile off of your face; it’s not a solo road trip with your favorite tunes or a cramped city bus with no more standing room; it’s not a job or a five-year-plan or getting into that school you’ve always wanted to attend. Somewhere is all of that, but also none of that.

Somewhere is a fancy way of saying Where you are now, Where you have been, and Where you are going to be. It’s a way of saying that life is not a destination, but it’s also not your average journey. You might not know exactly where you’re going. You probably have no idea where you’ll end up. If you’re anything like me, you probably don’t even know all of the people who will be traveling with you.

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And when you get to your Somewhere, remember this, too. I want you to remember wondering what you were doing with your life, whether or not you were living, where you were going and why. Remember how scared you were. Remember how terrifying it is to have no idea what you’re doing with your life. And when you do, I want you to laugh at yourself. Feel that smile stretching across your face–because you’re Somewhere now–and laugh to yourself because you may not have known where you were going, but look where you’ve ended up.

You’re already alive. Living is just the next step. Don’t worry if you’re scared–I am, too. We all are, here. None of us know what we’re doing, or where we’re going, or even (sometimes) how we ended up where we are. We all feel pretty lost at sea at one point or another, and that’s okay. Remember what Dory said? Just keep swimming. 

And yes, que sera, sera. Life’s going to throw some hard things your way. It probably already has. Maybe it suckerpunched you just this morning. Hang in there, okay? Think about what I said earlier. Your heart is beating. Your lungs are expanding. Your body is processing oxygen and quite literally making something out of thin air.

Remember this: You are more than the sum of your experiences. You’re already alive. You’re already somewhere. You’re living, and there’s an awful lot of stuff for you to do at this somewhere. What are you waiting for? You can’t do much if you’re just sitting there staring at these words on your computer screen. Hop to it.

…and when you get a minute, let me know how it all works out. I’m cheering for you.

Until then,
Me

… but you’re a girl!

N.B: I want to preface this by saying that I think about my name a lot. I have no idea if anyone else does this–it’s not something I discuss with anyone on a regular or even occasional basis–but, as a cultural anthropologist, I must admit that I am quite curious. What do you think of your name? Does it mean something particular to the world, but something else entirely to you? I’d love to hear your stories!

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Flannery O’Connor                                                                               image source: http://clatl.com/atlanta/new-biography-shows-flannery-oconnors-true-colors/Content?oid=1278158

I was seven months into my first year of college when my academic advisor realized I was a girl. We were sitting there at 8:30 in the morning in our small seminar class that had started with 40 students and dwindled to around 20. I had just answered a question and my advisor, who was also the professor for this seminar, asked me for my name so he could give me the standard bonus point for a correct answer.

“Up near the top–second one down on that list. Connor.” He looked up from the list of names on the overhead projector and stared at me.

“Oh, you’re Connor!”

“Yes.”

“… but you’re a girl.

“Yes,” I said, nodding slowly. “Yes, I am.” You’d never know I’d met with him–in person, one-on-one, two separate times–to have my course loads approved.

“Isn’t that a boy’s name?”

“…Not always.”

I didn’t give much thought to my name when I was growing up. I never thought of it as strange, or unique–in fact, I was pretty jealous of my friends with what I perceived as “cool” names–that is, ones with built in nicknames: the Elizabeths, Rachels, Rebeccas, and Katherines of my acquaintance.

I’m not even entirely certain what age I even realized Connor wasn’t a “girl’s name.” Since those days, though, I’ve had my fair share of e-mails addressed “Mr.,” plenty of confused glances, and more than my fair share of double takes (many of which took place when I was studying abroad in Dublin. If I ever tried to meet the person sitting next to me, it was almost inevitably a guy named Connor. They were all quite confused by this American girl who shared their name).

When I graduated eighth grade, our (small) class (of six girls, that’s it) elected our Latin teacher to give our commencement address. She was the teacher all of us had known the longest, we said, and she sent us off in style. In true classics scholar form, she presented us with the etymology of our names–whitebeautiful flower, maiden, victory, grace, and mine: much wanted, strong willed. That became the manner in which I considered my name for years: a memory of sweet words and the transition from middle school to high school, from New York City to Philadelphia.

I myself did not read any Flannery O’Connor for many, many years. I remember asking mom about it when I was maybe seven or eight; she told me I would have to wait for a few years until I was older. I thought it was quite strange of her to name me after an author whose works I couldn’t even read, but I grew up admiring her from a distance. She kept peacocks, after all, and that was pretty cool.

When eleventh grade rolled around and my English syllabus proclaimed we would be reading A Good Man is Hard to Find, and Other Stories by Flannery O’Connor, my stomach squirmed. What if I didn’t like her? What if I was named after this famous American novelist whose work I actually despised? I was a sixteen year old, fantasy novel loving, baking addicted, technical theatre geek of a girl. What could this Southern Gothic novelist have to do with me–and what was Southern Gothic, anyway? It certainly sounded fishy, that was sure.

We read “The Misfit.” We read “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” We read “Good Country People.” My classmates started staring at me oddly. They hadn’t read Flannery O’Connor before, either, and now half of them thought my parents were completely bonkers to name me after this woman.

Me? I loved it. While my classmates shook their heads in bewilderment at these absolutely bizarre stories, I started reading the unassigned ones in my free moments. A free period spent with Rachel in the library, the train ride home, the hours between classes and rehearsals–for a few weeks, they filled right up with these stories by my namesake.

When that section of class ended, I put away my Flannery O’Connor stories. I haven’t read much more of her work since then, actually. Recently, though, I’ve been trying to fix that. I’ve been learning about her: how she thought, why she wrote, what else she did (Cartoons. Who knew?). I stumble across quotes from her stories and essays on the internet and smile to myself, identify with them. The more I read, the more I relate to her–the more I feel like I might, possibly, be like her. A little. Maybe. Even without the peacocks.

While I was off in Ireland last fall, I skyped with my parents semi-regularly. One day, my mom and I were discussing Christmas. I told her I had already figured out everyone’s presents–easy, you know, since I was abroad and everything would be considered awesome–and that I had two requests.

One was a box of Candy CaneJoe Joe’s, which did not exist in Ireland and thus were lacking from my Christmas preparations. The second was a copy of Flannery O’Connor’s prayer journal, which had been published a few weeks previously. Mom laughed, but come Christmas morning I found both wrapped up in ribbon.

I finally started reading the journal a few weeks ago, and I haven’t stopped laughing to myself since. Miss O’Connor and I, we share struggles. We share hopes. We share dreams. We share a love of words that borders on the visceral. We write prayers like letters, sometimes; we seem to have similar issues with Kafka. We share a sometimes sinful desire to be (or at least be seen as) clever, and are sometimes so lost in thought that our prayers trail off into questions like I’ve been reading this or that, and it’s wonderful. Will I ever know anything? or an abrupt ending of Can’t anyone teach me how to pray? Sometimes we hedge our prayers with disclaimers, like Dear God, please give me as much air as it is not presumptuous to ask for.

I think just about anyone can relate to that, namesake or no, but the name is what makes me pause. Did my parents know all this when they were naming me? Did they know I would grow up loving words stories the way my friends love science, filmography, theatre, or nursing? Did they know I’d end up here, twenty-two, with a list of possibilities and plots swirling in this slightly off-beat head of mine? Surely they must have had some inkling of the woman they wanted me to become–otherwise, why Connor?

In theory, your parents name you, and that name is a gift–one of the first they give you. The more I read of Flannery O’Connor, though, the more I wonder if our names aren’t God giving us something we need: small presents meant just for us that keep unwrapping as we grow to understand who we are and what we stand for and what it means to live in this strange world.

The more I learn about living, too, the more I start to wonder if he’s doing this on purpose–to make us sink roots more deeply and feel more connected to this world that surrounds us, to make us enjoy our time on this side of eternity just that much more, to make us roll our eyes, or just to give us more chances for good stories, good memories, and more chances for laughter–

even–or perhaps especially–when it comes from relating stories of people who tilt their heads after hearing your name, squint at you, and say, “…but you’re a girl!

everything will be alright if…

I started off my foray into the world of twenty-two armed with a cheery attitude, a plan, and a Taylor Swift song.

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I had walked halfway to work before I realized I had forgotten my key. Our offices all stay locked, always–medical records and liability or something–I needed that key. If I walked back home, I’d be late to work, so I did what anyone in my shoes would: I called my mom.

She met me at the corner, brought my key, and dropped me off at work. I got there early.

The second thing I did as a twenty-two year old was to inaccurately respond to a question one of my bosses posed to me on a telephone call. You haven’t done your homework, he said. Working here isn’t like school, it’s not coming in on a Saturday evening to do the work. It’s different, but it’s still importantWhy don’t you figure out the answer and get back to me?

It felt a little unfair, actually. It wasn’t unfair at all–I have been there two weeks, I should know the answer to this basic question–but it did, and I felt more like a twelve-year-old than a twenty-two year old as I sat at my desk and tried not to tear up. This does not define me. I can do this, but even if I can’t, I am more than this mistake. 

As it was, I researched the question, figured out the answer, realized I had been correct but hadn’t been articulating myself very well, and shot him an e-mail. He called me back a few minutes later. That’s exactly what I was looking for, he told me, and my lips quirked a little as I went back to work.

The worst thing I did at twenty-two was miss an important e-mail from my other boss completely. I didn’t see that last minute urgent: please e-mail me this particular file before you leave today, didn’t notice the (1) on my inbox until I got home. It’s my birthday, I wanted to tell her. I’m sorry. I got distracted, I wanted to get home, and I’m sorry.

Over all, today was not the best of work days. I messed up files, composed silly e-mails, and felt over and over again that I was not measuring up to what is expected of me. I hate that feeling–this idea that I have to prove myself in a new area, introduce myself to my new colleagues by way of my actions all over again. It’s never really bothered me when I moved, but taking a new job is a different kind of move. There may only be seven or so people in my office, but they don’t know me at all. And unlike working at camp, this isn’t the type of work where you can prove yourself quickly by jumping all in and having a good attitude and a good work ethic.

(Because I’ve tried that, and I still feel a bit lost at sea.)

Even the people who knew it was my birthday (there were two of them) didn’t say anything to me about it today. Granted, they were busy, and I’m not particularly an attention seeker (says the girl with the blogs, I know, I know). That’s just the kind of environment this is: people eat at their desks and work their way through lunch. We don’t talk much past the “Hello, I’m fine thanks, how are you” in the morning and the occasional question about a file or protocol.

It’s quiet, which is a change from my last office job. It can be hectic, though, and it can be loud–but in general, I work in solitude and silence, which is actually… kind of relaxing, and not as lonely as this is making it out to be, especially now that 90% of my friends are moving into my neighborhood. It’s not what I want out my life ultimately, but it’s okay for now. It’s a step, not a destination. In the long run, it will help. In the meantime, I’ve learned that I never want to be the type of person that works through every lunch and drives two hours each way to get to and from work. I don’t want to be the person that obsessively checks their e-mails 24/7, sending reminders and notes to my new employees anywhere from 4:20AM (this morning) to 11:50PM (last week). I don’t want to be a person who lives without boundaries, who can’t separate her work from her play, her job from her life.

That sounds miserable and unhealthy and I don’t know how these people do it. I’ll eat at my desk, sure–especially if it’s raining and no space outside–but I will be turning off my computer screen and settling in with a book for at least twenty minutes, thank you.

I ended my first day of twenty-two much more positively with most of my best friends–some of that 90% over for dinner now that they’re here, my fam, a few phone calls, a video chat. I ate some delicious food, laughed long and hard, and spent a lot of time just smiling. My friend and family are pretty amazing, and it was an absolute joy to have so many of them in one place.

My mom always told me to write on important days–when things were hard, when bigs thing happened, when I wanted to remember something. I have page after page of half-filled journals covered in stories of what happened today. There’s an entry from when I was seven that’s dated 1/20/2000 and consists only of me writing the birthday song down for my sister. Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday to you. 

So today, here’s what I think it’s important to write, important to remember.

to twenty-one: thank you. You sent me off to new countries, pushed me to make new friends, and sat me down more than once to have a heart-to-heart about whether or not I’m serious about the writing thing, or the medicine thing, or whatever I happened to be worrying about at the time. You gave me a thirst for adventure and new things and big things and scary things–and you also gave me more love for the ordinary, for home, for the known and familiar and routine. It takes both, I think, to live pleasantly. Remember those last two books you read? What were those lines you loved? Oh, right. One was from Stardust, and the other from Warm Bodies.

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Thank you for living like that, without even knowing you wanted to do so: for being so completely captivated  by the world that all you could think was expect me when you see me and so, so utterly caught up in this life and its stupid sticky rawness.

and to twenty-two: there’s this saying that I’ve always heard called a Chinese curse, whether or not it actually is: may you live in interesting times.

I’m not sure what you’re up to yet, twenty-two, but I have a feeling it won’t be dull. Here’s to fun with friends, travel to help you breathe, and the stamina to make it through the first year of a nine-to-five. Suck it up, dear–discipline builds character, after all, and we could all use some more of that in our lives.

And so, self–if I can address myself for just a minute here–may this year be one that builds up grace and builds up character, inspires joy and creativity in yourself and those around you, and doesn’t leave you crying because the weekends are too short. Don’t forget that resolution you made when you were fourteen–you know, that one you decided was important enough to write down in the middle of the night–literally?

I don’t want to live by the “I’ll be fine once”s of the world: I’ll be fine once it’s the weekend. I’ll be fine once pre-season finishes. I’ll be fine once field hockey ends. I’ll be fine once it’s Christmas break. I’ll be fine once finals are over. I’ll be fine once it’s summer. I’ll be fine once the play is over. I’ll be fine once _______.

Remember that? It’s what you wrote, and it’s still true. Forget T. Swift’s “Everything will be alright if…” Your fourteen year old self knew better. That’s no way to live, you said.

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So hop to it. You’ve got a life to live, and it’s not just going to sit around and wait for you to catch up to it. Remember that stanza Miss Thomas wrote in your eighth grade graduation present–the one from a poem by Longfellow that you memorized so quickly?

Let us then be up and doing,
with a heart for any fate;
still achieving, still pursuing,
learn to labor and to wait.

today, i smelled like chlorine.

Today, I smelled like chlorine.

It made me remember
the summer I turned eight, when my brother and I
joined a local swim team,
and while I did not win any races
(and I still cannot do a proper underwater-flip
to change directions while swimming laps),
I cherished the ribbons I did earn and kept them
for years. Red and white and blue:
your time has improved.
Orange:
eighth place in butterfly
(I always wondered
if they saw my three–no more, no less, just
three–breast stroke kicks and figured that
they hadn’t.
Now I wonder if they did
and if I earned that ribbon
for having fewer frog-kicks than the others).
White, and one Red:
third and second places
not on my own, but a group effort,
a relay.
When I was thirteen and in
a different city, a different state,
a different school,
I would stare at these ribbons I had kept,
these memories of a summer spent
swimming,
racing,
and eating pizza with friends after the meets,
and I would smile, and I would wait
for summer.
Then we would leave this new city
and swim, and swim, and swim
until we reeked of chlorine once again
and relaxed in the water’s caress.
That hypothetical  choice between breathing underwater and flying
has never been difficult for me.
 
When I was fourteen, we moved again,
and I threw out my ribbons.
I left them in a trash bag and
told myself I did not need them,
did not need to keep them any more.
I played new sports that I did not love
with teammates I did not know
and slowly, slowly made new friends
who did not know how much of me missed
that handful of colorful ribbons
and chlorine in the air
and water in which to swim.
I wish I had kept a few–
red, white, orange.
There were deep purple ones
for first in heat and a green one for fifth
and so, so many brightly neon yellows
for the odd ones out, like my ribbons
for twenty-second place.
I had at least three.
I turn twenty-two next week.
I still miss those ribbons, but now
I am learning to be an adult.
I have a college degree and
new friends who may not know about
my ribbons, but do know an awful lot
about me.
I have a new job, a new boss, a new desk–
a new place to prove myself capable,
responsible,
mature.
But today?
Today, I scowled at the morning and
glared at my alarm
and rolled my eyes when I
remembered that I so often say, “I’m a morning person.”
I stomped all the way downstairs
and through the house
and into the car
and cried
on the way to the gym.
And when I arrived, puffy-eyed, bitter, weepy,
I slipped into the pool and swam.
And when I left the water
and slipped my glasses on again,
the world was a little kinder,
and my scowl disappeared in a smile.
I went home. I ate. I pulled my things together and
I went to work
at the new job, with the new boss, and the new desk,
with the new coworkers
who do not know anything about that old collection
of colorful ribbons that meant so much,
let alone know much about me.
But today I smelled like chlorine,
and every second felt like home.
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rule no. 1: don’t kill the dog

There’s an unspoken rule that floats around about storytelling. It goes like this: kill as many people as you like, but don’t you dare touch that dog.

You probably know why this exists, too. Maybe you grew up reading Old Yeller or Where the Red Fern Grows. Maybe you cried your way through Marley & Me or wept when you watched I Am Legend.

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Today was a lot more Marley and Me and a lot less Homeward Bound. 

Continue reading “rule no. 1: don’t kill the dog”