Tuesday, July 17, 2018

The High School Reunion Blog You All Knew Was Coming

Because I certainly can't go to my high school reunion and not write about it. 

A few years ago, my high school classmates started mentioning our ten year reunion in our class Facebook group. There was talk of dates and locations and who planned to go and who was too far away. I think I was in New York City the first time it was mentioned. And then it came up again when I was in Tennessee. And then actual plans started to develop when I was in Washington, D.C. No matter where I was in the country, I knew from the first time it was mentioned that I would go. But I could never quite articulate why. 

I did not love high school. Or rather, there were aspects of my high school years that I loved, but the actual school bit was, for the most part, not one of them. My high school was the stereotypical southern variety that cared a lot about labels. (Think Friday Night Lights. Exactly that.) Aside from being one of the “smart kids” (which included all the students who signed up to take the few honors and AP classes the school offered), I was never part of a built-in group the way my sister always was. I was friends with individuals but marginal to their cliques. I knew people, because when you live in a town with four elementary schools that feed into one middle school and high school, you inevitably know people. But I wasn’t popular. I had a best friend who was (okay, is) far more charismatic than I will ever be, so some people saw me only as a sidekick. I wasn’t invited to the Friday night parties (and wouldn’t have gone to them if I had been). Instead my few close friends and I were sitting on top of cars in empty parking lots, and making movies, and writing secret blogs that only strangers and each other would read. I was voyeuristic and painfully aware of things. And though I wanted people to know who I was, I felt incapable of actually talking to them.

If other people don’t identify us the way we identify ourselves, it can feel like that identity doesn’t exist at all.

When I got into college (which was not a given at my school), part of me wanted people to know it because it would mean that maybe my peers would finally identify me the way I wanted to identify myself. (Smart, but also determined. Resilient. Bold.) For the most part, this did not happen. Very few students or teachers had ever heard of my college. Very few people understood why I wanted to go so far away. Aside from the handful of friends and teachers who knew me well, it went largely unnoticed. Though I left high school feeling recognized by the people I was closest to, I suspected that to everyone else, I was the very definition of a wallflower. 

When I graduated from college, my mom begged me to let her ask our town’s newspaper to publish something about it. To our knowledge, I was the first person from my high school to ever attend any Ivy League school, and I was about to start a degree at a second one. The thought of a public announcement felt humiliating and self-aggrandizing, but at the same time, I felt like, yes, I did a cool thing that I’m proud of, and if there’s even a chance that someone else can see it and realize that they can also do whatever cool thing they’ve always wanted to do that no one else has told them they can do yet, then it would definitely be worth me feeling self-conscious. A small part of me also wanted that validation. Look town, I’m not a wallflower anymore. 

But the newspaper wouldn’t publish it. They said it wasn’t newsworthy. All those years later, and I still felt invisible in my hometown. What if I could only be myself a thousand miles away? What if I could only be myself in cities where no one knew me? How had I gone from a person incapable of talking to strangers to being a person who only felt comfortable around strangers? Can you spend 18 years in a place and still feel like you don’t belong there? (The answer to this is yes, you absolutely can.) 

Years later as our reunion date got closer, I saw so many negative comments on social media. Why would I want to hang out with people I didn’t even like ten years ago? I already see the people I want to see from high school, so why would I want to go pretend to care about anyone else? I’m not interested in watching people stand around with their old cliques. I understood the comments, but at the same time, I couldn’t relate to them at all. I’m a sentimental person, a memory hoarder who perpetually exists half in the past. When I tried to persuade friends to come with me, they’d ask why I wanted to go in the first place. I could never articulate a good answer. Because it has never occurred to me to pass up an opportunity to reminisce with other people I wanted to say, which is true but not  the full answer. Maybe because I’m both the same person I was in high school and a different person entirely, and I want to see the ways in which that’s true for everybody else. Because I don’t have to be best friends with someone to have memories of them that I’d like to hang onto. Because I no longer need affirmation from anyone there. Because there are very few times in life when we can so clearly measure the way we’ve grown as people than the times when we can throw ourselves back into a group of acquaintances who knew us before puberty. Because sometime in the past ten years, I learned how to talk to strangers. (The only way to cure social anxiety is to move to four cities over ten years where you don’t know a soul.) 

But also there’s this. It took me six years of higher education, two years of teaching at selective high schools, and these past couple months of advising college students to fully realize how thankful I am to be a product of my high school. I’ve seen the alternative, and at the time it was what I desperately wanted. But in retrospect, I’m thankful my high school experience wasn’t stressful and that the only pressure I felt was from myself. I like that I had to find my own friends instead of having a built-in friend group. I like that I went to school with all kinds of people who were different than I was. Despite how harsh a critic I am of Mississippi public education, I also know that I wouldn’t trade my experience for another one, because it’s part of my identity, too. 

And so I went, with a couple of my (still) best friends who I’d spent months trying to coerce. And I don’t mind if it’s melodramatic to say it lived up to every expectation I had for it. I have never seen such collective and genuine enthusiasm from an entire group about seeing old acquaintances, regardless of whether the individuals were friends in high school or not. I had conversations with people I’ve “known” for 15 or more years but never had a one-on-one conversation with. I have never seen so many people connect with each other across still-in-tact friend groups and decade-old cliques and teenage animosity. If this was what high school parties were like, I hate I missed them. This reunion held none of the emotional weight and intensity that my college reunion did (see my college reunion post), maybe because it’s not a time in my life I would want to live again. Instead it was the less complicated kind of fun where I watched my former classmates dance together in a way that our teenage self-consciousness would probably have prevented the last time we saw each other. 

My general assumption in social situations is that I will know people who do not know me. But people knew me that I did not expect to, which made me wonder if I might have been wrong about how people saw me all those years ago. Who was I to you back then? I wanted to ask, but there are limits to just how weird I’m okay with being viewed in public. 

I did not mention that I write. I did not mention my college or what I did in grad school. That’s not who I am to these people, and I’m fine with that. I mostly asked questions and learned about the cool things everyone is doing and all the places they’ve traveled and met their significant others and looked at pictures of their kids and reminisced and felt weirdly proud of everyone for still liking each other this much. And then the reunion ended but everyone was having too much fun to stop, so we went to a bar and did the whole thing again when even more former classmates showed up. Letting people surprise you is always worth it. Spending a night feeling grateful for a shared past is always worth it. 

                                                  *Last two photos belong to Brittany S. 

Sunday, December 31, 2017

2017 Recap

I haven’t posted much here in 2017, not because I wasn’t writing, but because for the first time since grad school, I was writing for more than the three of you who read this, and most magazines and literary journals won’t accept work that I publish here first. Despite all the disappointments of this year, writing more is one thing I feel really good about. 

This is the 5th New Year’s post I’ve written in which I reveal the obsessive degree to which I document and hoard memories. The years have started to blur together now, and it’s the changing locations that help me to keep track of a timeline. 

2017 was a blur of emotional extremes. There was the inauguration, the resulting fear, shock, and anger. There was the birth of my niece, train rides, and friend reunions. I spent half the year working in D.C. and half the year in Mississippi, where I never expected to be for quite so long and where I’ve been unexpectedly content. I moved out of one of my favorite apartments and away from one of my favorite cities—my 8th cross-country move. I met literary agents in New York City, read my work to strangers in Baltimore, climbed a mountain in Virginia, and hunted ghosts in Gettysburg. I participated in the Women’s March, the Climate March, the Immigration Protest, and so many other empowering and hopeful gatherings. I spent three surreal days at my 5 year college reunion. I saw the partial eclipse, fall colors in Canada, and snow in Mississippi. I learned how to hold a baby without being horrified and went on more field trips than I can count with the coolest 11-month-old on Earth. I spent 215 hours (including 7 nights) on trains, 41 hours on buses, and slept in 8 states and 2 countries. I mailed several hundred brownies/cookies and mailed a letter every day for a month. I interviewed 23 college applicants and wrote what feels like 4 million cover letters. I read 55 books. 

I turned 28 last month, and though I’m not sure how 28 is supposed to feel, I don’t think I feel it. If it’s supposed to feel grown up or successful or accomplished, I don’t feel it. If it’s supposed to feel stable or settled or maternal, then I definitely don’t feel it—a fact I’m perfectly fine with. What it does feel like is that I make very good brownies, and like I’ve gotten much better at packing suitcases, and

like I’m physically stronger than I look, and like I’m not as bad at talking to strangers as I once was. I count these as victories. 

Right now 2018 feels very uncertain. I don’t have a plan, don’t know where I’ll be in a month. But that has stopped feeling like as much of a problem as it once did. There are so many things to be excited about. 

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Ghost Walk

Halloween (and fall in general) always makes me miss Providence, and my favorite Halloween in Providence was the one I spent writing my first-ever attempt at journalism for my first-ever creative nonfiction class. And even though reading my writing from 7 years ago is fairly painful and makes me cringe, I think I'd still credit this assignment as one of the main reasons I decided to pursue nonfiction for the rest of college and then grad school, and also the reason I want to do ghost tours in every city I visit. I'm so glad I found it hidden away in my email. 

Google tells me that Rory Raven lives in Salem, MA, now, and if any of you are ever there for a visit, I hope you'll find him and take a tour. 

Ghost Walk

It’s the afternoon before Halloween, and the crowd for the Ghost Walk is large. Parents bring costumed children, teenagers come in couples, and one woman’s brought her poodle. Rory Raven sells tiny orange tickets to each person that approaches. Shortly after 3:00, the crowd’s grown to about fifty, and Rory begins.  

Brown's Halloween midnight organ concert
His voice resonates.  A woman behind me says, “He’s such an interesting orator,” which I think is an understatement. He has the rolling inflections of an auctioneer, but with immaculate pauses. He’s persuaded these people to care about something that they don’t even realize they never cared about before. This is his performing voice. This is how he talks to his audiences as he leads them on Benefit Street and as he stands on stages before them in theaters around New England. 
This isn’t the voice he uses when he subtly tells the woman with the baby stroller not to worry that she could only find five dollars for her ticket instead of eight. It’s not the voice he uses to talk to the couple of women on the tour that he knows personally, joking when they pose on either side of him for the camera (“I rarely show up in pictures.”). It’s not the voice he uses with me in the coffee shop a few weeks later, offering me part of his cookie and telling me about the book he’s currently reading. But I wouldn’t consider one voice fake and the other real. I would say that Rory Raven knows how to compel a crowd to listen.  
He begins the tour by saying that others shared these stories with him, and that’s how we should take them –- as stories. “And one of these stories is the product of my own imagination,” he adds, “but I’m not telling you which one. He doesn’t, even when I ask him later.  
“People always do this. I said I wasn’t going to tell you which one. I didn’t say I’d tell you later,” he laughs. 
“But I could look up all of the stories and know it was the one I couldn’t find, right?”
He shrugs, “Well. I guess you could.” 
I don’t look it up, because part of the intrigue is not knowing. It’s this knowledge of how to best captivate an audience that makes Rory’s tour so effective.
The Ghost Walk takes place almost entirely on Benefit Street, starting with stories of Edgar Allen Poe and Sarah Helen Whitman in the Athenaeum and featuring roughly a dozen more stories and locations including Sarah Helen Whitman’s house, the house in H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Shuttered Room,” and a cemetery.  Rory walks ahead of the crowd and waits patiently for everyone to catch up before he begins a story. His speech seems far from scripted, and he frequently includes bonus information (“…and that’s the story of the Mansion Hotel. By the way, Geoff’s next door there –- best burger I’ve ever eaten. I’m serious everyone. Go there.”)  
He ends the tour by saying that he has one more story and that he can prove it’s true. It’s the story of a disturbed teenage girl whose family locked her in the upstairs room of their house on College Hill. One day the family opened the room to find the girl missing, though there was no way for her to get the key. He says no one ever knew how she escaped. He pauses and invites the audience to “Come closer. Closer.” He pulls a skeleton key from his pocket and places it flat on his palm. The audience gasps as the key slowly turns in his hand, seemingly by magic. The crowd applauds as Rory wishes everyone a Happy Halloween and tells them that Cable Car next door has coffee and a bathroom if anyone needs them.  

Later, I ask Rory about his childhood and how be became interested in all of this. I might have expected a back-story equal in eccentricity to the man in front of me, but Rory presents his childhood as nothing out of the ordinary. He was born and raised in Rhode Island and grew up thinking he wanted to be an English teacher. “I would have written those unintelligible papers with lots of subtitles,” he says without remorse for having missed the chance.  
His family was Irish-Catholic, which he feels caused his love of storytelling. He recalls getting sick as a child and having to spend the week in bed. “My sister would come into the room and read me Edgar Allen Poe stories in the dark.”  
But he doesn’t consider himself religious. As he got older, he grew skeptic of his family’s Catholic beliefs and went through a period in his twenties when he was
a devout atheist. He smiles at this memory and says that, “At forty-one, I’ve mellowed.” 
He attended Bard College and intended to major in literature, but ran out of money and came home after one year. For the next several years he took occasional courses at various schools before ultimately deciding that college wasn’t the path for him. He calls himself self-taught, saying, “I never worked well in classrooms. I wish I had figured that out earlier.”  
The tours began after he went on a similar tour in Newport and decided that Providence should have one, too. He started asking people for stories, hung a few posters around the city, and started telling the stories to whoever showed up. The Ghost Walk started in 2000. His career as a mentalist started four or five years before that. It’s hard to say exactly when the point was that he started performing for real audiences instead of just for friends at parties. When I ask exactly what a “mentalist” is, he laughs and says that the term is slowly starting to catch on in America because of the TV show. “Except people expect me to fight crime,” he adds.  
He was about 25 years old when he got interested in the idea of being a mentalist. “You know, at twelve, you get a magic set,” he says, and then pauses, “—or maybe you didn’t, but the twelve years old guys did. And they’re interested in it for a little while. Well in my twenties I came back to it, but with more interest in the mental aspect.”  
I ask the obvious question, “So you’re not claiming it’s real?” 
“No. Am I a psychic? Of course not,” he dismisses the possibility. “It’s a theatrical performance.” 
“So how does it work?”
“It involves a lot of different things –- having a good memory, being good at reading people, different kinds of psychology, some stage magic.”  
“And you’re upfront about this.”
“Oh yeah, I’m not trying to lie to anyone. Of course, they don’t always believe me. I had one lady tell me that I’m the ‘other kind of fake.’ I said, ‘Oh really? And what kind of fake is that?’ She said, ‘The kind who says he’s not a psychic but really is and won’t reveal it.’” He laughs like he’s never heard something so absurd. “Now why would I do that?” 

Rory’s attitude is a huge contrast from those who would call themselves believers in “mysticism.” One such man is a retired Brown professor whose special focus is mysticism and occult magic. We met in his office in the basement of the Slavic Studies department where he told me about leading numerous Brown students in activities like crystal ball gazing and card reading as well as performing exorcisms. Though he himself has never seen “a spirit” (though he has seen the “swirling fog” where another person saw a full ghost of a woman), he does believe that others see them.  
When I bring up Rory Raven, he smiles like I’ve mentioned an idol. “What an elegant and powerful man,” he says sincerely. “Yes, he’s a very interesting man,” he adds as an afterthought, “though we’ve never met in person.” 
I ask the professor what the difference is between someone who performs as a mentalist and someone who actually believes it. He says, “There’s a lot of overlap between a genuine occultist and a mentalist though neither wants to acknowledge it.” Both start with empathy-– sensitivity with people, picking up cues, things like skin tones, body language, and muscle tension. “So a spiritual counselor uses the same skills that Rory Raven would use to read your mind.”  
“Rory Raven has worked hard to cultivate his abilities, both on stage and off, to a level that most people did not think could be done. He’s a much more impressive presence than I am,” he says. I feel that this is a pretty profound statement considering that it comes from a man who has never met Rory, looks like a six and a half foot tall Santa Clause, and talks casually about the exorcisms he’s performed.  

Providence Athenaeum 
I ask Rory how many of the stories from the ghost walk he believes. “Well, I guess all of them. I mean, none of it’s fibs.” Of course some of the stories are spun in a specific way, and he tends to go with the traditional oral telling of the stories instead of only telling the facts that can be proven. I ask if anything strange has ever happened on the tour and he says no, “because it’s not that kind of tour. It has to do with the tone you set, and on the tour I’m not talking about orbs and things.” 
I know what he means because the Providence Ghost Tour -– the “other ghost walk”— does just that, happening at night instead of the afternoon, and lead by a guide who carries a lantern and an EMF (Electro Magnetic Field) detector (which the guide is quick to warn is not entirely accurate and has been known to be set off by text messages), and encourages the audience to take pictures of the tour sites because of the possibility of finding orbs later. The tour charges eighteen dollars instead of Rory’s eight dollars, is run by a team of guides, and seems to be a sore subject for Rory who smiles and says, “Yeah, it’s the rip-off tour,” but won’t say much more on the subject.  

When a South Carolina publisher contacted Rory and asked if he would write the stories from his tour, the result was his first book Haunted Providence: Strange Tales from the Smallest State.  
They contacted him about the second book and asked if he would write about the mafia.  He told them no –- because he has no interest, but also because “they’re still around. I told them, ‘I will if you come start my car every morning.’” So instead the second book, Wicked Conduct: The Minister, the Mill Girl, and the Murder that Captivated Old Rhode Island, is about Sarah Cornell -– a girl from Fall River who was found dead and pregnant with what was thought to be the child of a Methodist minister in Bristol. “It was the OJ case of the 1830s,” Rory says.  
The third book, The Dorr War: Treason, Rebellion, and the Fight for Reform in Rhode Island, was released just a few weeks after our interview. It’s about the 1840s voting rebellion and Thomas Wilson Dorr, who Rory calls “one of the most remarkable heroes in Rhode Island history,” adding, “You know, there’s nothing more scary than politics.” 
“So you are still doing English, just not exactly how you planned,” I say.  
He agrees, “That’s true, I am, but I’m also doing history in a sort of popular media way -– I’m not an academic historian.”  

St. John's Cemetery in Providence

Rory love what he does. He tells me that his touring has enabled him to travel to places he otherwise never would have seen. At first he would spend days online looking for small theaters in New England. Now he’s been to theaters all over the Northeast, and he even traveled to Istanbul where a friend invited him to do a show. His favorite venue might be the Haskell Opera House in Derby, Vermont, where the stage is in Canada and the audience is in the U.S. “I just want to keep touring, maybe in some bigger houses. I’m not looking for a Vegas act or NBC show. I’m happy doing this.”  
He already has an idea for his fourth book. He wants to write about the Harvard chemistry professor, John White Webster, who was accused of murdering a man and hiding his body in a waste-disposal vault at the medical school. Rory said this was so publicized when it happened that when Charles Dickens came to America on a lecture tour, he asked to see the room where the body was found.  
“I’ve never heard that story before,” I say. “It’s weird how the media can be so obsessed with something and then just forget it.”  
“That’s what’s fascinating,” he says. “It makes me wonder what we’re obsessed with now that will go away in one hundred years.”  

I close my notebook at the end of the interview and ask if there’s anything he’s willing to share that I haven’t asked about.  
He shrugs, “I mean, do you want me to read your mind?” 
I laugh and agree. This is a trick I’ve seen him do in online videos, but it’s far easier to accept things as simple tricks when they’re performed on a stage than when they happen in front of you in a coffee shop.  
He pulls a small pad of paper and pencil out of his bag and asks me to think of a number between one and one hundred.  
“Picture the number. Picture it in front of you and imagine that you’re pushing it towards me.” He stares directly in my eyes and writes something on the paper before handing me the pencil.  
“What was the number?” 
“Twenty-four,” I tell him.  
“Why twenty-four?”
“It’s my favorite number.” 
He nods his head. “So there was some significance behind it,” he says thoughtfully before he lays the pad in front of me on the table.  
I look from the twenty-four he’s written to him, both of us smiling and silent.  
“Well,” I finally say. “No explanation?”
“No,” he says pleasantly.  
“Do it again,” I say.  
He shakes his head, still smiling. “No.” 

After the interview I ask him one follow-up question in an email. “Raven’s not your real last name, is it? Or will you never confess?”  
In true Rory Raven style, he sends the reply, “You might say,’ When asked such a question, he laughs darkly and deftly changes the subject.’  Have you noticed the ants are getting larger these days?” 

Providence Athenaeum, aka most beautiful library ever



Monday, June 5, 2017


I’d forgotten how sticky DC is in the summer. The return of the sweat is a reminder that I’ve been here nearly a year—unofficially from the end of last June when I worked in the mountains of Virginia and drove to DC on weekends and officially since I unintentionally stumbled into a job here in August and moved here with one day’s notice. This city has been a wonderful surprise. Everything else has been difficult. I do not think I’m the only one relieved that the school year has ended and we have a moment to breathe. 

I spent last weekend in Providence for my 5th year college reunion during which I slept about 6 hours in a span of 64 and walked 30 miles. My general state of delirium may have played a role in the intensity of the experience, but I don’t think that’s the only reason that reunion hit me much harder than it did most people. Maybe the same can be said of college itself. Maybe college wasn’t such a transformative place to people for whom this was the plan all along— those who went through the half-million dollar preschool then college prep school followed by the Ivy League and six-figure-first-job circuit—the people who expected the person they are now was always the person they were going to be. Maybe to them college is just a memory of fun and stress and relationships and strangeness and the things I imagine all college experiences are, and their lives move on in a linear fashion with those years a memory solidly in the past. One friend said that it felt weird being back because once you leave school, you leave this version of yourself and don’t think about it much anymore because you are no longer that person. 

Welcome home
It’s harder for those of us who the past never lets go of. I’m not sure I’ve fully left that place or that I ever entirely will. I think Brown means something different to those of us for whom it was life-altering, to those of us for whom this was inconceivable. 9 years later and 5 years away and the opportunity to go to that school does not feel less shocking. 

Reunions are painted as this euphoric time of reminiscing and reliving memories with your forever-friends. Social media tells us this is true. (I want to ask all of the people of social media if anything has changed in their lives now that makes being together different than it was 5 years ago. Surely there is someone it is awkward for you to see here? Surely your memories of this place are not so straightforward. Surely no person alive is so self-assured.) Then again, I guess my social media doesn’t portray something entirely different. But social media unintentionally lies, and of course it’s more complicated than that.

Prospect Park 
Reunion was a lot of nostalgia. Sometimes it was that euphoric kind, and sometimes it was the sad type. A friend told me once that he believes true nostalgia can only exist when you wish you could relive an experience differently than it happened. There are things I do regret missing at Brown. I spent 4 years there as an intensely private person (which has perhaps not changed so much) with one or two best friends and only a couple more roommates/friends I felt close to. I spent the first year of college hardly speaking to anyone. In retrospect, I fear people may have perceived me as a stuck up snob. In reality, I was painfully shy and intimidated by people I believed were way too cool to be my friends. I was so busy observing everyone else that I let almost no one know me, except for those couple of people who made it their mission to try (which I will always be grateful for). 

 For years after college, I couldn’t forgive myself for missing out on friendships I might have had if I hadn’t been too shy to pursue them until it was too late. It took me 5 years to feel like maybe we can give ourselves second chances. Maybe it’s not too late after all. Maybe that realization was the best part of reunion. 

But I believe there’s nostalgia in missing something exactly the way that it was, too. Since graduating, I’ve only visited Providence once a couple of years ago. There was no one in town that I knew, which took away the emotional impact of it. A blizzard hit, and I had to leave early, but I remember not minding much because without the people, there was nothing else I needed there. I wrote a post about how Providence felt like home before Brown did, how I had to grow into the people there before they felt like home to me, and about what home means and how we can have more than one. 

This time, I was back on campus with hundreds of my classmates, and glimpses of my 18-year-old self reemerged complete with the social anxiety, insomnia, and self-consciousness. 18-year-old me was the boldest of cowards and the most restless of loners. Did I really live like this everyday? Always so hyper-alert, always looking over my shoulder, always feeling surrounded by people I wanted to be sure I saw first so I could decide how to react? I spent last weekend trying to sleep in a dorm bed/brick-like-plank on the side of campus I’d never lived in, listening to downstair’s party music, wondering how I slept at all in my four years there, and remembering that I didn’t sleep all that much, in fact. I felt the same in ways I didn’t want to feel the same. 

Luckily my 27-year-old self was also there to step in. My 27-year-old self recognized how incredible it is that eating 1:00am pizza with friends that random housing placed me next to as a freshman does not feel different than it did 9 years ago. Neither does trying Cambodian food for the first time with the same people who made me try my first taste of sushi/Greek yogurt/thai/salad-dressing-that-wasn’t-ranch (thanks, guys).There’s always a comfort in having friends with whom you can pick up right where you left off. 

My 27-year-old self still needed to get up too early to go to my favorite coffee shops and walk around the city alone, the way I fell in love with it the first time back when it was the first city I’d ever lived in and places like Manhattan and DC felt so far from my reality. Providence is much smaller now, but no less beautiful. I thought of the other writers I’ve known who fell in love with this city with all of it’s strangeness and poetry. I thought of the first writing workshop I ever took during freshman year before I wrote words for anyone else to read. (I will forever be indebted to you, Michael Keenan.) I felt so clearly again how happy I was to be here. How never for one second was I not so happy to be here. 

My 27-year-old self missed people. Because it is painful to try reliving memories alone that you made with others. Because you cannot separate memories of a place with memories of the people who made it home for you, and because that version of home can never exist in quite the same way it once did. 

I have never felt so strongly about a place as I felt (still feel) about Brown. There was never a time in my life when I felt so constantly on edge, so self-conscious, so expectant. There was never another time in my life when someone might knock on my door at 3am to tell me it was snowing (thanks, Eric). There was never another time in my life when I spent hours painting pictures on the art building staircase, or sneaking into the old gym’s pool in the middle of the night, or climbing roofs and exploring tunnels under the dorm. Apart from grad school, there has never been another time that I’ve felt so fascinated by every person I met. There was never another time I would have passed up studying abroad because I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving that place. That I had standing breakfast dates every Friday, frequent 3 course dinner parties with my best friend, my "own table" in my favorite coffee shops, and a city I felt belonged to me. There was always a feeling of transience, of changing fast enough to notice it, of being afraid of what happened when it was gone. There was never another time when I learned so much from every person I met or when I felt so far from home but also like I was exactly where I belonged. I love that school no less today than I loved it 9 years ago. 

It is hard to say who I would have been without Brown or to pinpoint the specific ways in which it changed me. It is hard to list the things I have to thank the school, students, and faculty for. One thing that Brown taught me in such a tangible and lasting way is to be bold in caring about things that matter.  It was not surprising that every speech during commencement got political. In Daveed Digg’s Baccalaureate speech, he said, “What these times really need are people who challenge all explanations. Who never thought outside the box because they never accepted the premise that there was a box… We need your new ideas because our old ones have made a mess of things.” I’m glad this was my reunion year so I could hear those speeches. Because I do believe in the young people in this country. Not just at Brown, but colleges and high schools throughout America. I believe they will pull us out of this mess we’re in. 

Walking through the Van Wickle Gates the first time
And 9 years later

I got back to DC on Monday and couldn’t decide if I felt like I was leaving home or coming home. I went to my last full day of work on Tuesday. I won’t be returning to this job next year, and there’s a lot of anxiety in not knowing what happens next or if I’ll be here next year or somewhere else. But I feel lucky to have been here this year, even when I might have once imagined living here during this election as torture. For now I will read all the books I wanted to be reading during the school year and try to write some things for the first time in 9 months.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Blossoms and Protests

It was a year ago today that I visited DC during spring break.The cherry blossoms were at their peak, and I admired again how beautiful this city is. I never imagined I would live here. 

The first time I ever visited DC was ten years ago, the summer before senior year of high school ,when I convinced my parents to take me on a college tour up the East Coast. This was before I’d ever ridden a train or tried hummus or knew I’d be leaving Mississippi. It was the first time I’d been above the Mason Dixon, the same trip I saw Brown for the first time (where I never thought I’d get to go), and Boston and New York (where I also never imagined I’d live) and Philadelphia. We stopped for a few hours in DC on the way back south. We parked somewhere alongside The Mall then walked around the monuments for just long enough that our car was towed onto a median and left with a nice parking ticket. It doesn’t seem like it could have possible been ten years since then. 

The next time I visited DC was spring break of sophomore year in college when my best friend and I road tripped south and spent a couple of nights with his family here. His uncle took us on a driving tour around the monuments and Rock Creek Park. We walked around the Tidal Basin to see the cherry blossoms, went to the National Gallery, then got lost trying to find the Metro. I did not know of a DC that wasn’t the monuments, Smithsonian museums, and politics. Sophomore year felt too early to think about graduation or worry about jobs, but DC wasn’t what either of us imagined when we considered it. (He ended up here for a while 3 and 1/2 years before I unsuspectingly stumbled in.) 

The forecasters didn’t think the cherry blossoms would survive our snowfall last week, but they’ve pulled through, as always. It’s the 4th cherry blossom season I’ve seen. This time it feels different. 

I get Indian food on the weekends, or Ethiopian if I’m downtown. I follow the Twitter account that tells me where the outdoor movies will screen all summer long. I ride a bike to Georgetown every weekend that it’s warm enough. I can parallel park if I have to. DC isn’t the place I imagined it to be, in that I didn’t know it could feel like a version of home. (Okay, technically my address is Maryland, but  the mile to the District line never counted to me.) 

I worried about living in DC after the election. But it’s weirdly comforting to be in a place where people are so passionate about social justice and equality and general goodness.

On Inauguration Day, I worried that the city would turn into a 1984-style dystopia. But it seemed instead like most people ignored it. We got the day off from work because so many roads were closed, and other than a sign telling me that there was restricted traffic on Wisconsin Ave, I saw no sign of it. I grocery shopped and avoided the news and watched Netflix on my couch. It was a surreal and not terrible day. 

The next day was the Women’s March. My journalist friend/former roommate was in town covering the inauguration, so we went together, and it was the moment I was proudest to call this place home. I’ve never seen so many people. I’ve never seen a group so uplifting, so passionate, so bold, so happy to be together. There’s nothing I can say about the march that doesn’t sound cliche, but every word is true. My feet hurt, and I nearly got crushed once, and we stood stuck in the crowd not moving for nearly an hour due to complete grid lock, and I regret not one second. 
On social media later, I saw acquaintances and politicians from home ridicule the “Pro-Abortion March,” and I felt so, so sad for how completely they were able to (and eager to) miss the entire point. 

There were protests every day for a while. I went to one supporting education, one protesting the immigration ban, and a vigil for free speech. My dad started calling me The Protestor.  As in, “The Protestor is coming home to visit soon!” But it never felt like some decision to embrace social activism all of a sudden—it felt like sitting home and doing nothing wasn’t an option. One of my proudest moments of life was when my mom, sister, brother-in-law, sister’s friend, and my dad (a life-long Republican) each called the Mississippi senator to oppose Betsy DeVos for Education Secretary. My dad called me afterward to let me know he’d called two offices when he couldn’t get through to the first one. I wanted to weep. 

In February, I went to New York for a literary agent’s mixer at Columbia. I was supposedly there for networking, but I mostly wanted to see my friends. I told one of my favorite professors as much and she said, “I know, it’s like a camp reunion,” before grasping me by the elbow and introducing me to some agent who I was too intimidated to look up for days. My friends were better promoters of my work than I was, and I thank them for rescuing me. 

The next day, I took a 28 hour train ride to Mississippi to meet my niece. Lily cried when she met me because she was so overwhelmed with emotion and excitement at my presence. She got past it and we became fast friends. I even overcame my fear of holding her, although not my fear of picking her up. Lily likes ceiling fans, snacking, naps, and when her Auntie Kay reads her the book about the sloth and the one about the greyhound and the groundhog. She tries so hard to talk, but as she’s 8 weeks old, it hasn’t quite happened yet. Soon, though. 

The sun doesn’t set until 7:30 now, and everyone has come out of hibernation. Restaurants have reopened their outdoor patios. The tourists have arrived by the hundred to catch a 5-day glimpse of this city. It feels good that I get to stick around this time. 

Friday, January 20, 2017

Thanks, Obama

I was supposed to be a Republican. It was an unspoken fact (though still a fact) in my hometown. Republicans were the moral ones who upheld our Southern Baptist values. They were kind and grandfatherly, familiar with their slight southern drawls. They did not have sexual relations with that woman. They did their job, which was to give long and boring speeches on TV that affected me in no way whatsoever and then carry on with whatever they did in that white house. No one in my family cared much about politics—it was never a topic discussed over meals—but I got the point, from church and from school, about whose side we were on. (And of course I’m generalizing, and of course there were people in my town with different beliefs and opinions, but as a child, I did not know those people. As a child, this is what if felt like.) Even in high school after I understood that there were issues apart from religious ones and that presidential candidates were individual people instead of cutouts of their parties, I couldn’t bring myself to care about politics.

The first time I heard of Barack Obama was during my senior year of high school. I don’t remember ever hearing so much about a candidate before—the adults couldn’t stop talking. Barak Obama was secretly a Muslim plotting against our country, I heard many of them say. He wasn’t even American—he had no birth certificate to prove he was, or if he did it was fake. He looked suspiciously happy in pictures. But what mattered most was that he was evil. Evil. Not evil like, oh, that evil teacher keeps giving me detention, but evil in the Biblical sense, like the evil that we should be deeply, instinctively afraid of. So many people said this with confidence, and surely they knew something I did not. I was treading dangerous ground anyway, asking too many questions, doubting opinions I’d always been told to have. I took AP Government that spring, and in class we researched all of the candidates for the election the next fall. Obama looked shockingly young. He didn’t look evil. I also remember taking one of those “I Side With” quizzes in class and getting Obama and not knowing how to feel about it. I was tapping hard from inside a conservative shell, the outside of which seemed tempting and terrifying. It was hard to know what was my opinion and what was placed on me by someone else. 

I went to college in the fall of 2008. Until then, I had never known a person my age to care about politics. But my classmates felt so strongly about what they believed that they were willing to knock on strangers doors to tell them.I don’t think I’d ever heard of canvassing before or met anyone who volunteered for a campaign. I didn’t know that people could volunteer for campaigns. I had never met people with this kind of passion and never heard this side of the argument. I kept quiet and listened, the way I’d listed to the adults who told me that man is evil. I realized that I’d known I would vote for Obama all along, but I’d needed to get out of that cage, needed to be sure. I wondered what my family would think, if they’d be disappointed or horrified. But by the time I figured out the absentee process, it was too late to vote. (Mississippi has a notoriously difficult absentee voting process.) I regret it still. 

I remember watching as votes came in on election night. Before he was even declared the winner, students started flooding the Main Green. I stood on the steps of the John Carter Brown Library, watching thousands of students cheering, crying, dancing, and setting off illegal fireworks in celebration. Some of my friends climbed onto the balcony of Faunce House and hung a sign they’d made as everyone cheered. Maybe I’d never seen real joy until this moment. My best friend, Sam, called me from Chicago where she was watching his speech live in Grant Park. I could hear the crowds cheering around her. There were some things I already knew at that point that I would never forget. Where I was when I heard about 9/11. When Hurricane Katrina hit my town. And when Barack Obama won the 2008 election. “Yes we can,” my classmates screamed from the Faunce steps. Yes, we can. 

Four years later, I visited my two best friends in Chicago a couple of months before the 2012 election. One of them was working for the Obama campaign, so he gave me a tour of the headquarters. Everyone there was so young, some even younger than I was. They were volunteers, sleeping on couches and doing this work for free because they believed so strongly in things that mattered. And Obama believed in young people. In my four years of college, he’d taught me and my generation that our opinions mattered, that we could make a real difference in the country. Before I was 18-years-old, no one had ever told me that. As a 22-year-old, he’d made me believe it. I finally got to vote for him that year, in my hometown, where I no longer cared in the slightest that I would be shunned if people knew. I knew exactly what I believed, and I did not need them to tell me. 

9 years later and many people back home still hate the Obamas. I’ve heard racial slurs about him and his family that you may believe only exist today in Faulkner novels and surely not real life. I cannot tell you why they hate him— maybe because of his skin color, his stance on an issue, his political party, or just because someone told them to—but they must not have spent these 8 years watching the same man that I have. I watched a man who believed in art and compassion and humility and kindness and respect and equality and laughing and having faith in people. I watched a man full of hope and love and never hesitant to show it. 

I am grateful that Obama was president during my college and grad school years, the years when I was figuring out what I truly believed and stopped listening to what I’d been told to think for most of my life. The years when I started caring about politics and understanding how it affects me. I’m grateful to have had a president and first lady who were not just figures on a TV screen but true role models. I’m grateful that I had a president who made me feel like my opinions mattered, like all of our opinions mattered. I’m grateful that I had a president who inspired me. 

Obama believed in my generation. He believed that young adults could impact the world. And then he proved that we could. 

Friday, January 6, 2017

Obligatory New Year Post

I started this blog three years ago with an obligatory “New Year Post”, and I could not have imagined then that I would find myself here three years later. Since then I’ve finished grad school, moved four times, lived in three states, spent a year sick, got better, and had four jobs. Three years ago I was trying to climb out of a difficult time in my life, and there are so, so many things that are better for me now that I’m grateful for every day. But 2016 was another hard year for a lot of us. I’ve watched this year tear people down in ways they won’t easily bounce back from. But I’ve seen a lot of renewed hope, too. 2016 had some beautiful moments. I don’t want to let the bad overwhelm those.  

In the past year I left a job I really loved so I cold move back to a city (a bigger lesson in sacrifice than I understood). I went through a job search process even longer and more bleak than the first one. I finally got hired in a city that I never expected to live in but that somehow seemed to fit. I taught summer school at a military school on a mountain. I was able to start exercising again for the first time in years. I hiked in the Shenandoah, kayaked in the Potomac, read my work to strangers in DC, listened to ghost stories at The Capital, and heard my favorite band twice. I moved from Tennessee to Mississippi, briefly to Virginia, back to Mississippi, then to Maryland. I flew on no planes for the first time in almost a decade and felt very content about that. Instead I spent over 46 hours on buses, 54 hours on trains, and 15,000 miles in my car (and then had to buy him a new battery). I rode over 100 miles on way-too-big-for-me bikes. I spent 18 nights in hotels, a month in a dorm room, and 12 nights in other people’s houses in 9 different states. I visited friends in New York twice, DC before I moved here, Atlanta, and New Orleans. I saw the Shenandoah with fall colors, Murfreesboro in ice storms, DC during the Cherry Blossom Festival, and New York City at Christmas. I saw my friends make movies and win awards and get published. I got my fist invitation to a reading series. I spent my last nights in my old apartment in New York and first one-bedroom in Murfreesboro. I owned a dog (for 5 days). I said some very hard goodbyes. I spent a lot of time missing my old students and feeling lucky that I taught them. I got closer to old friends and made some new ones. I hosted half a dozen visitors and made/mailed several hundred brownies. I volunteered for the Clinton campaign. I interviewed 18 prospective Brown students. I watched one of my favorite people get married. I only read 40 books and felt horrified at myself because of it. I didn’t use as much film as I wanted. I started working at a Catholic school and attended my first Mass. I turned 27. I missed Nashville and the granola at Portland Brew and the smoothies at The Post East, and I missed New York, and I missed Providence, and I’ve finally realized that I will always, always be missing somewhere. I found out that I’m going to be an aunt. 

I spent New Year’s Eve night in Alexandria watching the fireworks with thousands of people who were not sad to see the year go. I think we can work hard to make this one better.