A Twin Peaks Experience

Binge-watch (v.t.) the practice of watching television for longer time spans than usual; often described as watching between 2-6 episodes of the same show in one sitting. E.g. “I am going to binge-watch my favorite comedy all night.”

I am Netflix’s most eager hostage. In my Stockholm Syndrome attachment to the automatic playback feature, I have managed to “accidentally” watch the entire series of Parks & Recreation twice in the past four months. In a single night, I watched seven episodes of Elementary simply because I could. Two nights ago, I watched four episodes of Father Ted before going to bed, and two again the next morning.

(I can stop anytime.)

I am currently in the unfortunate position of being held firmly in the grasp of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. The episodes are long. The dialogue makes no sense. Half the characters make me cringe. The music is grating. Yet, having only begun the series anew three days ago, I am already well into the second season. (Thank god there are only two seasons.) Already, I can feel my mind changing, flitting about between what is real and what is Netflix. Already, I can feel the side-effects of this fateful, late-night decision…

Upon waking up this morning, I found myself followed by an imaginary and intensely sensual jazz soundtrack. Every experience stands out against this background music, even when it doesn’t make sense that I should be hearing jazz. Brushing my teeth, walking past a fountain, putting on and taking off socks. My mind generates jazz at every moment, and it’s all I can do to pursue what, I hope, outwardly appears to others as the continuance of a normal life.

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I’ve found myself staring. Not ponderously. Not meaningfully. I’ve found myself staring, for no reason except for that’s what they do in the show. They stare with open mouths (or closed mouths). They stare with eyes as big as saucers as that haunting jazz pushes on in the background. Sometimes they sway. Sometimes they lean backward (or forward). One time they started barking.

(I haven’t started barking.)

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I’ve found myself terribly offended anytime Audrey Horne and Special Agent Dale Cooper are not on screen together. It is a crime against nature that two such beautiful people were cast with no hope of locking lips. Even watching different shows, I think of those perfect arching eyebrows, those softly curving lips and hips, and I’m offended that they are not onscreen.

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I really want to smoke a cigarette. That is to say, I want to be the sort of person that would smoke a cigarette, hold it loosely between my fingers while I stare vacantly (yet deliberately) at objects that mean nothing. I want to stand alone in the middle of the room with a cigarette and gently sway back and forth as I drown in jazz, and I want that to be normal.

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I like my coffee black as midnight on a moonless night. (I have always liked my coffee this way, but it would be a horrible offense to not use this image.)

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I want to say cool, beatnicky things about owls and giants and mysterious one-armed men. And, what’s more, I want those things to mean something. Like, I want to dance sideways into a room and announce, “My toes sleep soundly when the fly smiles.” I want to say that, and I want an attractive man to be in the room. He will be wearing a three-piece suit, just because. I want him to stand up, walk towards me, take my slim shoulders in his hands. His fingers will curl tightly and press into my skin, and his eyes will be ablaze with wonder. “Your toes!” he will exclaim, his voice wavering. He will look down and stare intently before grabbing my hand and pulling me out of the room. “The fly!” We will run together to a destination, and together we will stare some more. There–just there!–will be the answer to everything.

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Now, it would seem by these side-effects of binge-watching Twin Peaks that this show has a pretty good hold on my life, but I can stop anytime. (I can stop anytime.) With the completion of the thirtieth episode sometime in the next two weeks, things will go back to normal. The jazz will fade, the coffee will lose its taste, the staring will taper, and the lust for meaning will dissolve. The owls will be exactly what they seem, and I will restart Parks and Recreation……….. 

But, for now, my toes sleep soundly when the fly smiles.

(this is from clueless)

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Whose Boobs?

When dissecting a person’s work, we tend to focus only on the content and form of the product. That is the meat and potatoes of the thing, right? Still, I believe there’s something to be said for the dinner plate. At least as far as my own work is concerned, just as much labor (if not more) is spent on the packaging. A painting’s frame, a poem’s font–these often overlooked parts invite us into the whole, prepare our eyes and minds for what we are about to experience, and, without our realizing, can influence how we ultimately process the information.

I spent days perfecting the layout of my blog until I felt it would suit the character of its content. I carefully chose a title, and I painstakingly tested thousands of different header images. Now, you may have noticed over the past two years that the header of this blog features a lady’s boobs elegantly covered in cream-colored satin. I have explained my username and the title of this blog as an homage to Alcuin (1798) by Charles Brockden Brown, but you may be wondering–just whose boobs are those, anyway? Well, they belong to Judith Sargent Murray, one of the most outspoken advocates for women’s rights in early America, and I chose them for a reason.

Judith Sargent Murray (John Singleton Copley, 1770s)

Judith Sargent Murray (John Singleton Copley, 1770s)

It had to be her boobs because the development of Judith Sargent Murray’s writing career offers a beautiful and informative parallel to how and why I engage with social media. It couldn’t have been any historic lady’s boobs up there, because not every historic lady found the same empowerment in careful curation of a semipublic self, and not every historic lady openly admitted that she was doing for personal validation.

I was prompted to write this entry and explain the boobs because, every so often, an article or a video about the dangers of social media and “screens” (ironically) appears on my newsfeed. We’re missing the beauty of everyday life! We’re losing the ability to be genuine and empathetic towards others! We’re stunting our emotional development and our children’s imaginations! Everyone, hear me now! Put down your phone, hold out your hand, and in ten seconds or less a little goldfinch will perch on your outstretched fingers and whisper the world’s wisdoms in your ear…!

Before I go any further, I will concede that I often rail against social media’s unique, glib style of communication, and I adore any musical parody mocking the disingenuousness of peoples’ profiles. I’m painfully introspective and easily recognize everything that is bad about my relationship to the Internet. It’s such a farce. I compare myself to others. I take selfies at work. I aggressively cry over ex-lovers’ wedding pictures. Sometimes I would rather consent to Netflix playing yet another episode than get up for a glass of water. Truly, I am disgusting. I’m single, underemployed, and gaining weight faster than a newborn babe. Surely I can blame this all on social media!

That’s what I used to think, and, to some extent, it is true. But it’s not that simple. As the author Emma Healy recently wrote: “Fetishizing ‘presence’ by telling everyone to stop staring at their phones perpetuates the myth that simply being around other people automatically means you’re attuned or empathetic to them…Confusing the easy work of ‘unplugging’ with the hard work of meeting your feelings of solipsism and alienation and distraction on their own turf doesn’t benefit anyone. Ultimately, the doctrine of disconnection-as-self-improvement can only offer us the same kind of shallow distraction that social media does…The real work of ‘connecting’ is still just in learning to live with ourselves, and others, and our faults, and not stop caring.”

So, what about social media and what about me and what about Judith Sargent Murray?

Despite society’s consistent pining for “the good old days,” the epistolary culture of the 18th-century was remarkably similar to our modern social media culture. Letters were never truly private. Excerpts were often read aloud to others in the room. As soon as a brief left your hands, it was completely out of your control and could be read by anyone who happened upon it. People knew that and they created public personae in their letters that didn’t always reflect their lived realities. Still, this was intentional and empowering. As Shelia Skemp writes: “[Letters] provided writer and reader alike with a fictive place where people could meet, breaking down their sense of isolation, establishing connections, and sharing beliefs, interests, and experiences.” For women, letter-writing was their way to connect and enter the solidarity of sisterhood. It gave a voice to the voiceless, a community to the isolated.

When I first read about Judith Sargent Murray’s forays into writing, I instantly felt a kinship. I had studied early American female authors before, but I had revered them. I didn’t relate to them. Never had I read a biography that seemed so closely to echo my own soul. Not for the benefit of posterity or the development of the republic–Judith Sargent Murray started writing because she yearned for validation and praise from her ever-expanding circle of friends. She wrote, she claimed, out of desire “to snatch from oblivion the sentiment of worth.” Each positive response encouraged her to write more and better.

The experience, for her, was transformative. Even as she performed her wifely duties in the home, she could send the written word out as an avatar far beyond the reach of her personal experience. She suddenly had control of her identity. Her collection of correspondence was her story, and she found she could tell it any way she wished. She obsessively edited her letters until they were nearly flawless. She omitted many of them that were personal and too revealing.Where her life was messy, on the printed page, she was able to control the view of herself and her world that future generations would receive. As biographer Shelia Skemp writes: “While a woman could not transcend her sex in the real world, on paper, if she could write correctly and with some evidence of erudition, she might be able to create her own literary universe where mind ruled and body–sex–was momentarily forgotten.” At a time when women’s worlds were small, writing allowed Judith Sargent Murray to dream bigger–of fame and recognition. Eventually, she would make her mark by taking on important subjects like female education.

A screenshot of an old blog entry

A screenshot of a four-year-old blog entry (and, yes, I spent nearly an hour looking for the perfect one)

We often make the mistake of thinking that social media provides a quick, casual snapshot of our lives, but it’s more than that for me. If it was as instant as we claim, we wouldn’t spend hours combing through our own profiles and removing or altering the bits we don’t quite like. I was a shy, nerdy teenager when I first started blogging. I think only one person responded to my entries, and I responded to hers, even though we sat next to each other in class and called each other after school. We safely experimented with slang and emoji, and made up different (often unintelligible) ways of typing. Later, I started a different blog, with more followers. I continued to grow as a “scribbler,” and soon I was talking about more than just food and attractive celebrities. Soon I was talking about politics, religion, and mental illness. Those blogs are nearly unreadable now, but they were intrinsic to the development of my voice.

There’s still a lot in this world that terrifies me, but social media allows me to be more confident. A photograph of a city with big buildings and loud traffic that makes me nervous, when posted on social media is a beautiful image my friends can like, and I can even start liking it, too. The more I take pictures and the more people praise them, the better I become at documenting my own little world. It’s empowering. Situations that have made me cry can be funny on Facebook. At times I feel small and lost; I am whole and home when I blog. I can find solidarity and comfort in shared experience, and I can learn to laugh in the face of personal tragedies. Every comment on my blog encourages me to keep writing and my voice gets stronger with each post.

I may present a curated image to the world through social media, but it is not fake, and it is not disconnected. I have grown up writing online for myself, for my friends, and for any stranger that happens to pass by. The things I have learned, the people I have reached and that have reached me, the sadness I have overcome–a lot has happened online. The Internet is not a plague on my generation. It’s the extension of collective growth and development of identity that began with the written word. So, like it or not, history seems to say social media (selfies and all) is here to stay.

""I remember that my first idea of the happiness of Heaven was a place where we should find our thirst for knowledge fully gratified." - Hannah Adams

“”I remember that my first idea of the happiness of Heaven was a place where we should find our thirst for knowledge fully gratified.” – Hannah Adams

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All that was me is gone…

“I’m going to go blog about my feelings,” I joked as I left the apartment this morning. My keys jingled as I put them in my backpack, and I slammed the door shut behind me. (If you could only see the door, Your Honor, you would agree that the force was necessary!) I walked around; I got a little lost; my backpack made me sweat in really weird places. My left shoe broke halfway to the coffee shop, and then it started raining. Now I’m sitting here watching a woman in the restaurant across the street chew her food. It’s been a weird morning…

I came to blog about  my feelings, but the truth is, I’m not 100% sure what those feelings are. My friends in committed relationships like to remind me that I’ve never been in love, that I’ve never had the experience of sharing a life with another person, all your interests, hopes, and dreams. Out of respect for their opinions, I’ve refrained from calling any romantic engagement I’ve had with another human “dating.” I’ve refrained from calling any ending a “break up.” What I say is this: “We did stuff, then he rejected me.” I even called one instance “A Mutual Dissolution of Something That Was Bad,” or AMDSTWB for short, to avoid taboo terminology. I did this because I heard my friends, and I agreed with them.

I don’t agree with them anymore.

I’m going through a break up now, and you know it’s real because I’m calling it a break up. For a few years now, we knew it wasn’t working the way it should. The love was still there, so we tried to make it work. I think we succeeded…for a little while. I had something to talk about to strangers in bars. I had a reason to get up and get dressed in the morning. I was proud of it, of how much I knew, of how special it made me feel. We saw each other every day, and it was almost spiritual the connection I felt we shared. The more we kept it up, though, the more I realized that something was missing. Most of the important places in my heart were full to the brim, but those that weren’t were empty and meaningless. I cried sometimes for no reason. What we had couldn’t help that. What was staying giving me? I felt thin and old, stretched too far. My wants and needs echoed unanswered in the emptiness. I knew it was time to leave.

Yes, Oberlin is the closest thing I’ve had to being in a relationship. Did we go on dates? Of course not. Did I get weak in the knees thinking of the well-manicured streets and cute historic homes? Don’t be silly. But for upwards of six years, being an Oberlinian has been a defining part of my personality. I loved walking through the streets knowing who had walked there before me. I loved chatting with the bartenders and baristas that I knew, not only by name, but by having actually worked with them. I loved everything about it, and I still do. That’s the thing: I still do.

You may think I’m crazy for comparing moving to a new city to breaking up with a partner, but hear me out. What I had in Oberlin, I can’t have anymore by virtue of not living there. We’re not strangers, but whenever I walk the streets, it will just be temporary now. The storefronts will change, the kids I taught will grow up, and we won’t share that experience. I’ll visit, of course, but it won’t be the same like I want it to be. We’ll make casual small talk. We will part amicably and promise to see each other soon, but I can’t wrap myself up in its familiarity on a cold, lonely night anymore. The intimacy that existed between us is gone, and my future is unknown.

As scary as it is, I think separation is okay. If movies have taught me anything about break ups, it’s that the love is still there, but you’re better apart. There’s a lot my deep connection to Oberlin prevented me from experiencing. This is a step forward, but it is so hard not to look back. For the next two weeks, I will be filling my unemployed hours with things I haven’t yet planned. There’s nothing I want more than to go back to Oberlin, to drink where I know I’m safe, to make old jokes with good friends, to be somewhere where my crazy knowledge of local history adds to a conversation…

It’s hard to describe my feelings because, like most of my knowledge, I find myself suddenly displaced and irrelevant. Cleveland is a small city, but my experience of life is minuscule in comparison. I know I’m smart and talented and independent and all those good things people keep telling me. (That’s another similarity to a break up. My friends are rallying around me, validating me, and rehashing all the bad things about my relationship to Oberlin like that will help me forget I ever loved it.) I know I’ll be okay. I know someday I’ll find what I couldn’t in Oberlin. But for now, I’m going to randomly start crying. I’m going to miss it with all my heart.  And I’m going to call it a break up.

Edgewater Park, September 1 2014

P.S. Cleveland is still perfect.

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Honeymoon

“Sarah, you look super cute today!” the barista exclaims as a tall woman in a sweater and pearl necklace walks into the shop. I’m facing away from the counter, so as soon as she walks past me, I can no longer see her. The conversation continues behind my back, and I can hear every word. Here’s what I know: Sarah does look super cute today. If this was Thomas Hobbes’ “state of nature,” I would probably kick her in the face and steal her sweater. Sarah is applying for a job. She knows the barista and at least two other people in the building. They are laughing. Sarah likes room for cream in her coffee. She likes giving relationship advice, too.

My back is to the counter, but I can see out a big window in front of me and another one on my right. I can’t hear anything that is going on outside, but I can see a dog and some people milling about. A couple of them are hugging. An old man put out a little bowl of water for the dog, and a little bird just stole a piece of bread from a big bird.  Three children are jumping off a ledge where their father is sitting. Every time they make the jump, they act like they’ve just flown over the Atlantic. Their father joins in. He is barely in the air two seconds, but he makes the same jubilant face as his children when his feet touch the ground. The youngest child, a toddler, falls over from laughter. The father picks up all three children, puts them back on the ledge, and they do it all again.

A few days ago, I began moving to Cleveland. In a little over a week, my move will be complete, and I will commence the next chapter of my young life. Here’s what I know:

Furniture is essential. There are few things that are crazier than living without furniture. I did it once my senior year of college. I slept on an air mattress, and barely anything I owned was higher than two feet tall. Live like that for a year, and you start forgetting that you need to stand to use regular furniture. Sleeping on a hardwood floor is great and all, but I’m thinking it’s not something I want to continue doing…

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Furniture is expensive. Dear god, is it expensive! I could buy a used couch, but then I’d have to find a way to transport it, which would also cost money, and at that point, why didn’t I just buy a new couch and have it delivered? Well, because buying new things is a little ridiculous when you can give old, storied things a new home. A home needs furniture, but furniture needs a truck and friends to help move it. In this particular situation, my extreme independence and inherent stubbornness prove to be my greatest faults. (I did, however, build a bookshelf out of concrete blocks and pieces of plywood. It looks pretty good, but I would not recommend it unless you are The Hulk.)

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Biking is fun. Today, I decided to bike through downtown Cleveland to a coffee shop where I could sit and do some work. Biking is amazing. It’s like driving, but you get to see things. I could hear little bits of people’s conversations. “Yes, I got the eggs!” and “When are you coming home?” My heart beat a little faster when I saw Lake Erie on the horizon. Without my GPS yelling at me to turn left or right and when, this vast hole in my mental map of Cleveland is quickly filling in. Superior Avenue runs parallel to St. Clair. Prospect goes straight to East 4th. &c.

3.3mi is far. I don’t know any way to say this without making it seem like I am majorly unfit, but I was seriously winded by the time I arrived at my destination, a cute little place in the Market District. I was sweating buckets. My thumb was bleeding from where I’d pulled a hang nail at a traffic stop. At that moment, all I wanted to do was teleport back to my apartment. (Speaking of teleportation: we have iPhones, why don’t we have teleportals?) But I sat down. I drank some water and ate lunch on a bench in front of a pretty mural. I feel more revived after the necessary food and water intake, but I’m sort of dreading the ride home…

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I know that the refreshment and joy I feel living in Cleveland is a honeymoon phase. When I studied abroad in Ireland, they issued warnings about a honeymoon phase, between the jetlag and the onset of culture shock. I know that some day I will be biking through the rain. I know that some day I will have to shovel snow off my car. But, right now, why can’t I just enjoy the fact that the sun is shining, the people around me are smiling, and I rescued a bumble bee from playing Sisyphys with a window?

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Oberlin Bucket List

“I was trying to feel some kind of good-bye. I mean I’ve left schools and places I didn’t even know I was leaving them. I hate that. I don’t care if it’s a sad good-bye or a bad good-bye, but when I leave a place I like to know I’m leaving it. If you don’t you feel even worse.” – J.D. Salinger (Catcher in the Rye)

By this time on Friday, I will have said goodbye to five dear friends in less than seven days. I will have hugged five different people. My eyes will have blinked back five different walls of tears. My lips will have stretched themselves into five different “go get ‘em” smiles. My hands will have patted five different shoulders. My lungs will have sighed five different sighs…

The past few months, it seems, Oberlin has become a place people leave. A place that once meant home to so many people I love is now just a place those people will drive through. The brick buildings, the faded chalk on the sidewalks, the smell of Ohio grass in the air will be nothing but a sweet memory fed by a fancy brunch and a cheap pint…and then it will all be gone  again.

I used to bristle and get angry when returning Obies waxed nostalgic and remarked on all that had changed. I used to want to shout that this was a place people lived, not their personal memory. I wanted to shake off their Instagram-colored glasses. I wanted them to live here like me, with me. I still do…but the more people leave, the more I realize “my” Oberlin wasn’t all that real either.

While I grew roots, my friends grew transient. I had built my stability on top of a collapsing sink hole. I can wax nostalgic and remark on everything that is changing all I want, but I can’t fix it. This is a place, not a sanctuary. It was never mine. The louder I shouted about students and rich alums like they were some sort of inconvenient truth, the less I understood about this place I love with all my heart. Blaming alumni who come back for brunch and a beer but forget to tip doesn’t change the fear that I am about to become one.

In less than a month, someone (I hope) will be hugging me. Someone (I hope) will be telling me they’ll miss me and twisting their lips into a “go get ‘em” smile. Alternatively, I will stand under the stars, shove the last box into my car, and head 40 miles east to Cleveland with only the stoic, brick buildings and faded chalk drawings to note my passing. Whatever happens, no matter how much I love it, Oberlin has become a place that I will leave. It will no longer be the center of my identity, the first thing my friends know about me, the last thing I think about when I go to sleep. (I work at a historical society. It’s not weird.)

Anyway, like Salinger’s Holden Caulfield, I struggle with good-byes. Loose ends and unfinished business are my worst nightmare. Incomplete interactions keep unhealthy friendships alive, keep me up at night browsing old flings’ wedding pictures, make me guilty when fate takes the person from my life too soon. I am determined that Oberlin will not become an old fling’s wedding picture on Facebook, so I made up a list for me (for you) of 25 things I think everyone in Oberlin should try at least once. As I prepare to say goodbye, as Oberlin becomes a destination more than a home, I want to make sure that I can say good-bye to these things properly.

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1. Visit the Oberlin Heritage Center. What better way to discover Oberlin than by learning how it all began? There are house tours, walking tours, public talks, self-guided bike tours, family days, etc. Really, if you haven’t been there yet, it’s your own fault, and you should remedy it immediately.

2. Walk through Westwood Cemetery. Established in 1864, this 150-year-old cemetery connects the past to the present and whispers the story of a unique and profoundly dedicated town. The graves appear simple, but their inscriptions tell the story of generations of Oberlinians who shaped the city. The trees, ponds, and abundant wildlife make the cemetery an enchanting place for a stroll.

3. Participate in a community garden. Community gardening fosters civic participation, encourages locally grown foods, and preserves green open spaces. Plus, there’s nothing quite like watching something grow. If you’re feeling especially ambitious, you can plant an extra row and donate that produce to Oberlin Community Services.

4. Go to Feve Brunch. Yes, brunch with a capital B.  The menu changes every week, providing Feve fans with an exciting dining experience as well as an unparalleled sense of urgency. Think you’d love those peach-lavender pancakes? Better get them now, because you might not see them again for a while. I don’t even like brunch, but Brunch is an institution.

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5. See a movie at the Apollo. The Apollo opened in the early 1900s and was the first theater in Oberlin to show a “talkie.” With different daily bargains, special screenings, and its unique relationship to Oberlin College’s cinema studies department, it’s “always a good show” at the Apollo.

6. Visit the Allen Memorial Art Museum. There are over 12,000 works of art in the AMAM. Founded in 1917, the collections include paintings, sculpture, decorative arts, prints, drawings, and photographs from a variety of cultures and periods. I used to sit in the galleries and do my homework. There’s no greater inspiration than the inspired work of others.

7. Take a hike through the Arboretum and Ladies’ Grove. These little pockets of nature are great for wildlife, trail running, and working through problems on long, wandering strolls.

8. Listen to WOBC-FM. Sure, WOBC can be weird, but that’s all a part of its charm. I don’t really know what “freeform radio” means, but when you tune into 91.5FM, you’re tuning into something special. With more than 150 weekly programs that range from talk shows, news reports, live performances, and music of all genres, every hour they broadcast daily is unique.

9. Volunteer at Oberlin Community Services. This organization is amazing. Their programs do great work in the community, and it’s been far too long since I’ve been an active part of it.

10. Go bowling at Oberlin College Lanes. For those of you who are new to this blog, you probably don’t know how much I love bowling. This has got to be one of my favorite places in town. Cute, affordable, and fun–the Lanes are a great place to bowl.

11. Bike somewhere. It’s always been a dream of mine to bike to Kipton, or Elyria, or Chance Creek, or Lake Erie, or an apple orchard…The point is, Oberlin is close to a lot of really neat places. And it’s also pretty flat. Take advantage.

12. See a show with the Oberlin Summer Theatre Series. It’s free and their line-up has something for everyone. Plus, the people who produce the shows are pretty darn talented. I can’t think of a better way to spend an evening.

13. Eat something sweet at Gibson’s. People say all the time that Gibson’s is overpriced. True or not, history demands you get at least one piece of candy, doughnut, or ice cream scoop from this store. It’s older than just about everything else.

14. Buy a book at MindFair Books. There are so many options, and they all smell gloriously musty. You never know what you’ll find, so be sure to spend some real time browsing the stacks. Bonus points, you’re giving a book new life when you buy it and love it.

15. Visit Martin Luther King Park or sit at Toni Morrison’s Bench By the Road. Oberlin has a really important history of fighting for social justice. I think it’s easy to get caught up in today’s issues and not take into account how the struggles of the past still affect our lives. These places are good for sitting and thinking.

16. Attend a concert. Classical, contemporary, solo, choral, ensemble, jazz, TIMARA, dance, folk, indie, oldie…so many options, and they’re all so damn good!

17. Make use of the Oberlin Public Library. There are programs, book sales, and your standard library fare all in this repurposed grocery store building. Oh, and did I mention the friendly staff? Mudd Library is great, but OPL just has that charm.1

18. Support local farmers. There’s plenty of ways to support local produce in Oberlin. Farmers’ Market, City Fresh, community gardening…I’m about to move to a city. I should take advantage of this while I can.

19. Use a microfilm machine and visit the Oberlin College Archives. Mudd Library has a lot of resources that have changed my life. The documents in the Archives are spectacular, and the microfilm machines will never cease to make me feel like I’m on a television show. Seriously, there’s nothing quite like casually browsing issues of the Oberlin Review from the 1890s.

20. Finish an Agave burrito in one sitting. It is a truth universally acknowledged that any person, at some point in their lives, will be in want of a burrito the size of their face.

21. Go to the Free Store. I can explain this one in one word and an overdose of punctuation: FREE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

22. Visit the kittens at the Ginko Gallery. Not only are these little critters adorable and will melt your heart, the organization that rescues them plays an important role in helping reduce Oberlin’s feral cat population. They make sure these sweethearts get a good forever home instead of struggling to survive on the streets.

23. Walk to every single monument in Oberlin. I couldn’t pick just one. I love them all. (Highlights: Gateway to Women’s Education, Giles Shurtleff, Shansi Memorial Arch, Harper’s Ferry Memorial, and Charles Martin Hall Plaque.)

24. Get another free cone at Krieg’s. This custard is like God’s poop…meaning it is the most delicious thing on a hot summer day. I just started a new loyalty card. Buy 10, get your 11th free. Bring it on, custard.

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25. Go to the Observatory on Peters Hall. They have great telescopes, a planetarium, and a friendly, knowledgeable staff. (I should know. I used to work there.) Just being on a roof and looking down on the other buildings and people is enough to give anyone a God complex, but don’t worry. There are plenty of stars, galaxies, and planets to put you back in your place.

There is, of course, so much more that makes this town special for me. If I had less self-control, I would have put things like “catch frogs in the AJLC pond,” or “eat a bowl of cereal in Tappan Square,” or “take a walk after a nighttime rain in the summer,” or “go contra dancing,” or…see what I did there? I said them anyway.

Words cannot express how hard it will be for me to leave this town. Oberlin is more than just the stuff I listed, but maybe if I manage to do them all, my heart will break a little less, and I will be able to look forward to the next adventure with a little more youthful abandon.

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“Hitch your wagon to a star…”

The past three days, I have devoted myself to writing an essay on the 1916 Easter Rising. I’m done with school, but I entered an essay contest as part of the Columbus Feis because I was feeling disenchanted with my dancing. I haven’t been able to increase my endurance, perform my steps without error, or even motivate myself to care. Embarrassing as it is to admit, I get a little demoralized when I don’t win. Culture, history, and my own nostalgia don’t need a fancy dress, a big wig, or even a fake tan for validation, but they feel a lot more pride when they’re rewarded with a trophy.

In short, I saw that there was an essay contest, that the prompt was women’s involvement in the 1916 Easter Rising, and I thought, “That prize is mine.”  Later, when I saw that I was the only one entered, I was even happier. I was going to do some quality work, and someone was going to say “Good job!” (That doesn’t happen enough in the world. To everyone who is doing work out there–any work–great job, keep it up, you matter.) Anyway, long story short, the deadline was yesterday. All I had was the skeleton of an outline and a choice. I wasn’t that invested. It was only a $7 entry fee. I could always just quit…or I could do the research, learn something awesome about my heritage, and try to submit it anyway.

I chose the latter, and I learned a valuable lesson. Irish women were seriously awesome. What’s more, I learned I don’t really care about the commendation…at least not as much as I appreciate the opportunity to research and know these incredible people. I woke up this morning, I watched some TV, did some gardening, and then sat down to write. Four hours later, viola. Without further ado: my words.

Hitch Your Wagon to a Star:
Women in the 1916 Easter Rising
by Jen Graham

“Hitch your wagon to a star. Do not work for the right to share in the government of that nation that holds Ireland enslaved, but work to procure for our sex the rights of free citizenship in an independent Ireland.”
– Bean na hEireann, 1900s

On Easter Monday in 1916, the city of Dublin was engulfed in a week-long revolt for Irish independence. The Irish Citizen Army and Irish Volunteers set up garrisons at posts around the city, including the General Post Office, Stephen’s Green, and City Hall. Over the course of one week, shots were fired, arrests were made, and the lives of Irish women were changed forever. In 1917, when Margaret Skinnider published her memoir of the 1916 Easter Rising in the United States, she lamented that “when the revolt of a people that feels itself oppressed is successful, it is written down in history as a revolution…when it fails, it is called an insurrection—as in Ireland in 1916. Those who conquer usually write the history of the conquest.”[1] In the historic memory of the world, the events of Easter Week have gone down for nearly a century as a failed rebellion. It is possible, however, to push Skinnider’s idea one step further: because those who write the history of the conquest are usually men, the 1916 uprising has been recorded as a decidedly male movement.

The Fianna Eireann—the boys of Ireland—are more often associated with the rebellion than the nation’s daughters. Yet it was a woman, Constance Markievicz, who founded the organization and recruited those boys, teaching them the history and language of their country and how to shoot a gun.[2] Typical historical narrative closely associates masculinity with violence and femininity with pacifism. However, historian Gerardine Meaney argues that “women are not…essentially more peaceable, less dogmatic, uninfected by blood-thirsty political ideologies. Women have been actively involved in every possible variant of both nationalism and Unionism…Women have supported and carried out violent actions. They have gained and lost from their involvement. If patriarchal history has portrayed us as bystanders to the political process, it has lied.”[3] The 1916 Easter Rising engaged hundreds of Irish women, uniting disparate strands of feminism, bringing them out of the narrow confines of domesticity, and opening the door to fight for a greater role in Irish society. Far from impartial observers, Irish women were active participants in the struggle for independence, before, during, and after the events of 1916.

Cumann na mBan

Cumann na mBan

Before 1913, women’s attitudes in Ireland were divided along ideological lines. Members of the Irish Women’s Franchise League (IWFL), founded by Hanna and Francis Sheehy-Skeffington in 1908, considered universal suffrage the top feminist priority in the nation. According to Janine Booth, Irish suffragists felt that women should not simply champion the cause of Irish independence if, in an independent Ireland, they would still be disenfranchised, second-class citizens.[4] Suffrage women believed only the vote could save them from the lives of “mere camp-followers and parasites of public life.”[5] The nationalist women of the Inghinidhe na hEireann (Daughters of Erin) believed differently.

The Daughters of Erin were founded in 1908 by Maud Gonne for women who “resented being excluded, as women, from national organizations.”[6] They believed that universal suffrage could not protect Ireland from the tyranny of the British. Securing the vote for women while Ireland was still under British rule would not liberate Irish women, but would make them participants in a government whose legitimacy they did not recognize. The Bean na hEireann, a publication of the Daughters of Erin advocating “militancy, Irish separatism, and feminism,” emphasized this idea when it urged women to take action. “Hitch your wagon to a star,” it advised. “Do not work for the right to share in the government of that nation that holds Ireland enslaved, but work to procure for our sex the rights of free citizenship in an independent Ireland.”[7]

Divided, the feminist movement in Ireland could not live up to its potential. Both suffragist and nationalist feminists needed a cause to unite them, and that cause soon revealed itself in the form of labor and socialism. Politically active women like Constance Markievicz and Margaret Skinnider witnessed the poverty of the Irish first hand. Walking through Ash Street in Dublin, Skinnider remembered the decrepit living conditions. “The fallen houses look like corpses,” she wrote, “the others like cripples leaning on crutches…They were built by rich Irishmen for their homes. Today they are tenements for the poorest Irish people…the poor among the ruins of grandeur.”[8] Markievicz, too, found her firm convictions wavering in the face of poverty. “What was the best way to tackle the problems of huge unemployment, exhausted workers, wages, and poor accommodation?” she asked in 1910. “Nationalism alone may not be the answer.”[9]

Children on the streets, 1913

Children on the streets, 1913

In addition to experiencing poverty, activist women were becoming disillusioned with the political process in the early 1900s. Sinn Fein, a nationalist organization founded in 1908, was not actively anti-feminist, but the group was slow to react to women’s demands.[10] Socialist James Connolly, on the other hand, believed in the ability of women to successfully power social movements. Connolly identified with the feminist cause, writing that “the worker is the slave of capitalist society, the female worker is the slave of that slave.”[11] Thus, Connolly actively recruited women to join a strike known as the 1913 Dublin Lock Out. The strike centered around a dispute between Irish workers and their employers over the right to unionize against poor working conditions and low wages. As a result of the strike, employers locked their employees out of the workplace and hired scab workers from Britain and other cities in Ireland instead. For seven months, Irish workers, the poorest in the United Kingdom, were forced to live off what charity they could find for their families.[12]

The events of 1913 effectively brought the causes of labor and feminism closer together. Women who disagreed on the priorities of nationalism and suffrage involved themselves in the fight for justice. Constance Markievicz was known for working day and night, “collecting funds and serving meals in the food kitchen. Her home [had] become a sort of refugee camp for all those who had got into trouble with the police.”[13] Actress and activist Helena Molony described Markievicz as “working as a man might have worked for the freedom of Ireland.”[14] Of her own experience, Constance Markievicz wrote: “My first realization of tyranny came from some chance words spoken in favour of women’s suffrage…That was my first bite, you may say, at the apple of freedom, and I soon got on to the other freedoms, freedom to the nation, freedom to the worker.”[15] The women who participated in the 1913 action learned that freedom was multifaceted. Neither nationalism, socialism, nor suffrage alone could solve the nation’s problems. It was only through a unification of ideologies that Irish women could free their country from tyranny.

The Dublin strike, 1913

The Dublin strike, 1913

In 1916, the time seemed ripe for a political upheaval. Britain had declared war with Germany in 1914, and the pride of the Irish had been rising for decades. Through plays, stories, and poems, the Irish people had learned of their ancient culture and history. What was called the Celtic Revival had shown Ireland what was, and what could be once more. “The refusal to do or say or think in the Anglicized way,” wrote Margaret Skinnider, “held in it a loyalty to something fine and free, the existence of which we believed in because we had read of it in the history of Ireland in our sagas. We were not a people struggling up into an untried experience, but a people regaining our kingdom.”[16] Capitalizing on the birth of a national conscience and the distraction of the British Army, James Connolly and his Irish Citizen Army (ICA) planned and executed an Irish rebellion on Easter Week in 1916.

The Proclamation of the Irish Republic, also known as the Easter Proclamation, was read aloud on the steps of the General Post Office under the new flag of the republic at the beginning of the uprising. The Proclamation was signed by activist leaders James Connolly, Padraic Pearse, and Joseph Plunkett, and made official the rising’s commitment to women’s rights. The Proclamation addressed “Irishmen and Irishwomen,” claimed “the allegiance of every Irishman and Irishwoman,” and declared the intention to establish a national Government for the Republic of Ireland, “representative of the whole people of Ireland and elected by the suffrages of all her men and women.”[17] As Margaret Skinnider noted in her memoirs, “For the first time in history…a constitution had been written that incorporated the principle of equal suffrage.”[18] Where Sinn Fein had dawdled, James Connolly and the Irish Citizen Army followed through on granting equality to women.

Proclamation of the Easter Rising

Proclamation of the Easter Rising

Not every organization involved in the rising agreed with the Proclamation. The Irish Volunteers, a militant counterpart to the ICA, did not accept women into its ranks. The group had “a macho ethos” it did not want disturbed, and so it created a subgroup for sisters, wives, and sweethearts of the Volunteers to join called the Cumann na mBan.[19] The women of the Cumann na mBan initially played a background (and thus more “feminine”) role than other female participants.[20] They were cooks, nurses, and fundraisers, and they were given no say in the management of the organization. Constance Markievicz saw women’s exclusion from the Irish Volunteers as a joke, “depriving women of initiative and independence,” and instead became involved in the Irish Citizen Army.[21] It wasn’t until later that the Cumann na mBan changed its tune and took on a more active militant role in the Easter Rising and its aftermath.

In contrast, Connolly’s Irish Citizen Army opened its ranks to any woman who wished to join. Although the Irish Times considered it “deplorable that amongst the rebels, working their insensate folly, women were found doing unwomanly work,” the female participants in the 1916 rising were outfitted in the green ICA uniforms, given weapons, and even promised positions in the new government should the revolt succeed.[22] Women of all classes joined the ICA to fight for Irish freedom; however, it was largely upper class women like Constance Markievicz and Dr. Kathleen Lynn who were able to devote the most to the cause. Where working class women were constrained by family responsibilities and the desperate situation of their employment, members of the upper class could choose where to invest their time and money, and these women were involved at every turn.[23] Markievicz was a member of the Army Council. Dr. Kathleen Lynn held the rank of lieutenant and was in charge of the medical section. When the Irish Citizen Army hoisted the Irish flag over Liberty Hall, it was raised by Mollie O’Reilly.[24] Margaret Skinnider made reconnaissance missions to British barracks, transported explosives from the continent, and bravely rode her bike between garrisons, carrying dispatches and ammunition.[25] When Skinnider was denied the opportunity to join a mission to bomb a building, she reminded her commandant that “we had the same right to risk our lives as the men; that in the constitution of the Irish republic, women were on an equality with men.”[26]

Constance Markievicz

Constance Markievicz

Even after the fighting had ended and the cause was lost, women continued their bravery. Dr. Kathleen Lynn, when the British decided not to arrest her based on her status as a Red Cross doctor, insisted upon her own seizure, describing herself as “a red cross doctor and a belligerent.”[27] A woman named Chris Caffery, who had been a bicycle dispatcher like Margaret Skinnider, was apprehended, stripped, and searched by the British soldiers, “but she had eaten her dispatch before they dragged her off the streets.”[28] Constance Markievicz spent more time in prison than any other woman who was arrested. She had originally been sentenced to death, but after having executed all the signatories of the Proclamation and even Irish leaders who were not involved with the uprising, the British government reconsidered her sentence.

In addition to imprisonment, women carried the burden of perseverance. With nearly the entire male leadership of the rebellion executed or in prison, only the women remained free to carry the torch and pass it to the next generation. The survival of the movement depended on their commitment, and they delivered.[29] As Margaret Skinnider lay injured in hospital, women of the movement visited her and told her “stories of heroism and stories of disaster…each strengthening my belief that the courage and honor of the heroic days of Ireland were still alive in our hearts.”[30] The Cumann na mBan organized masses for the dead rebels and held after-mass political meetings. They taught their children of the heroism of 1916, and raised the next generation of Irish republicans.[31] Women of the ICA even took the message of Irish resistance abroad to the United States, where they met with government officials, gave lectures, and published political tracts.[32] Inspired by the work of her peers and the rise of women in Ireland, Margaret Skinnider wrote in her memoirs, “Perhaps it is for this we should love our enemies: when they cleave with their swords the heart of a brave man, they lay bare the truth of life.”[33]

Margaret Skinnider

Margaret Skinnider

The 1916 Easter Rising brought together socialist, nationalist, and, in its devotion to equal rights, feminist ideologies. However, for the women involved, there was an intense backlash in its aftermath. Involvement in the struggle for freedom had opened the possibility for women to step beyond the domestic sphere. As these women became increasingly involved in public affairs, they entered into a world that had previously been dominated by men. Rather than honored for their contribution to the nationalist cause, women were ridiculed for “acting like men.”[34] Women were increasingly shut out from the politics of the post-1916 movement. Eventually their heroism became invisible even to history. Nevertheless, just as women were intrinsic to the movement for Irish independence, so too was the nationalist fight significant in the development of female political consciences in Ireland. The 1916 Easter Uprising engaged women in new and exciting ways. For the future of feminism in Ireland, it is important to reclaim women’s place in national memory.

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My Own Un-doing

A few months ago, I asked my Facebook friends where I should go on vacation. It was a hypothetical week off at the time, and so I told them to go wild. Pretend I have money, I instructed. Pretend transportation is not an issue. No suggestion was a disappointment. Close friends suggested I hop on a bus and visit them in The City. The globe-trekkers tempted me with sandy beaches and mountain peaks. On my lunch break at work, I googled every place and quietly sipped a coffee while I imagined myself there. In 30 minutes, I went on a million vacations, each as fulfilling as the last.

And then I got my week off.

Realizing that my service hours were nearly complete almost two months before my contract is set to end in August, my supervisors actually encouraged taking time for myself. I submitted my request for vacation days, extending what I’d already requested for a dance competition, and it came back in less than an hour with a signature, a smiley face, and a “have fun!” I haphazardly began to plan…but suddenly, I wasn’t so keen. Machu Picchu never seemed further away.

Since graduation, my newsfeed has been lighting up with adventure stories. A new apartment in The City, a week in the jungle without a shower, a fellowship abroad, destination weddings and selfies at the beach. Here was my chance to join them. I looked up wineries, campsites, and bike routes. I planned at least four different out-of-state vacations, and I went on none of them. I cried about it for a few hours, but somewhere between the tears and the hiccups, I realized that none of those vacations would have been mine.

In the end, I chose to stay. What I wanted wasn’t a vacation. What I wanted was a nostalgic filtered image (with an artistic lens flare for good measure) that would make my peers jealous. Every morning, I wake up to see my friends go-go-going and do-do-doing, and, every morning, I wake up to face my own un-doing. I’m twenty four years old, and the last time I used my passport was at a bar when I couldn’t find my drivers license. When did I get so boring?, I wonder. When did my stories stop making people laugh? I put on my clothes–likely the same outfit I wore last Wednesday–and I bike to work. Every day, my friends are going, and I am staying, wondering where I went wrong.

This isn’t to begrudge my friends’ their adventures. Peer pressure isn’t always a negative thing. In college, watching my peers introduced me to new political issues, foods, board games, music, books, and movies. In dance, watching the other girls has helped my technique and style. Peer pressure can push you in really positive ways to expand your horizons and discover new things about yourself. What’s troubling is that my interaction with my peers lately has been largely impersonal. Like contemplating a photo-shopped image of a celebrity on the cover of a magazine, seeing my friends’ lives filtered through Instagram and shared on Facebook has made me question everything. 1,000,000 sit-ups won’t make my neck longer or my teeth smaller. A series of sepia toned pictures won’t make me a better adult, but having an actual conversation will.

The first step is admitting there is a problem… Rather than appreciating a photo with a glib thumbs-up to let my friends know I saw it, I should actively engage in a conversation. What did they like best, did they try any new foods, how was the weather? I have yet to meet anyone who doesn’t want to talk about their vacation, whether it was a disaster or not. Shared words are how we grow; manicured money-shots are just the icing on an already delicious cake.  I’m immensely grateful to social media for keeping my loved ones close, but I’ve been going about it all wrong. I want to learn about and show my appreciation for my friends’ lives on a deeper level. It’s time to stop liking and start talking.

There’s a lot of pressure to achieve as a young person, and most of that we place on ourselves. It’s exciting to test out new research methods and try new recipes. I can read the books my friends recommend, but no matter how hard I try, that cornfield will never look as good as it does in lo-fi. To say that I’m sitting in a coffee shop in Columbus, completely content with my un-doing, would be a lie. I want to go somewhere; I want to do something. I could have gone anywhere this week, but it wouldn’t have been for me. It would have been for future lovers (to keep them interested), for old professors (to make them proud), for people I haven’t talked to in years (to make them jealous). My photos would have been gorgeous, but they would have been meaningless. I stayed for me. I stayed for my friends, my family, my wallet. This vacation may not be “exciting,” but it’s mine, and I’m going to make the most of it.

I did win a medal on Saturday, so there you go.

I did win a medal on Saturday, so there you go.

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