bobby, baby II

today, on the fiftieth anniversary of robert kennedy’s death, i participated in an active shooter training at my office. shots from an airsoft gun were fired in the building. those of us in back were warned by a page over the intercom as the fake gunman fired another round. the speakers broadcast shouting voices and pounding feet all over the building. i crawled into a cabinet, next to plastic storage bins full of tempura paints, and held my breath in the dark.

is everybody okay?

the training scenario lasted less than one minute. as i hugged my knees and felt the dull, chalky smell of paint tickling at the fringes of my consciousness, an hour’s worth of thoughts raced through my mind. i considered the stiffness of my knees, the volume of my breath, the courage it would take to squirt paint in another person’s eyes…and then i heard bobby kennedy’s last words echoing in the hallway.

is everybody okay?

the drill had ended. i thought of kennedy’s dying altruism, as i, myself, emerged from a cupboard alone.

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have you ever filled a metal spoon with diesel 153 proof liquor and set it on fire?

once, as i was driving home from a bar, i attempted to conjure a scenario that might convey to my friend the feelings i experience when i study bobby kennedy’s life. it was a very physical and visceral effort–my heart beat faster, my eyes narrowed, and my brow furrowed as i chewed my bottom lip. i held my hands out, palms towards the sky. they were empty, but in them i felt the weight of the challenge.

after i graduated from college, i had a roommate who liked to set things on fire with liquor and a zippo lighter. i remember watching him one night. he poured the spirits into a metal spoon, slowly, carefully, so as not to spill on our already tarnished carpet. eager anticipation twisted in my stomach as the lighter approached the pool of liquid, and then came the whoosh of ignition. my face lit up with glee, and i clapped my hands. adrenaline surged through my veins.

then, in the blink of an eye, the alcohol had burned away. the flame sputtered and went out. and we were just two morons sitting in a dark living room, trying to remember what it was all about.

have you ever started a new show without realizing there was only one season?

not everyone plays with fire, but almost everyone watches netflix. waiting a week for a new episode to come out has almost become a thing of the past, but all this binge-watching can catch us off guard.

a few months ago, i started to watch a new show. really…”watch” is too tame a word. i was devouring it–at a rate of five or six episodes a night. the introduction was slow, as i got to know the characters, discovered my favorites, learned their demons and their quirks. but by the end of the first story arc, i had fallen, i was hooked. i planned my day around how many episodes i could fit in around errands. i made bargains with myself to squeeze in just one more–taking out the trash could wait. when i wasn’t watching, i was reading character backstories online. the soundtrack echoed through my dreams. the story had thoroughly consumed my life, and then…

…then it was over.

four days after my binge began, that was it. suddenly, all my hopes and predictions for future plot points were moot; all the hours i had booked for binge-watching were now open. i would never know if jared would marry tara or greg. lucy’s lovechild would never be born. terry would never get that promotion at the magazine. if izzy was convicted of murder, it could only happen in the courtroom of my imagination.*

it all just ends, and you’re left with nothing in the dark but a bunch of loose ends.

(*this is not a real show)

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oh god. not again.

men do not often figure in my discussions of history, but today is different. as i stewed in my selfish shame after our shooting drill, i could not shake the magnitude of this anniversary. searching for images to accompany this post, i again felt the weight of his death heavy on our nation.

i wanted a picture that showed his compassion and verve, and so i scanned the results for images of him with his family or eating ice cream on the campaign trail. (he liked chocolate.) these pictures exist. there are dozens of them: bobby getting married, bobby riding on the back of a tricycle, bobby’s hands outstretched towards the masses gathered to see him. there is so much feeling packed into those photographs that your heart swells. there is magic in them, and for a moment, you forget he is gone.

kennedy was hard and masculine, but he was intuitive and emotional at his core. his ability to escape his privilege and empathize–whether with striking farmworkers or starving children in mississippi–was off the charts. in just a few short months on the campaign trail, the shy, skulking boy in the background found his voice. it rang loud and true and unafraid, calling for unity in change, in hope, in a new day dawning.

but you cannot escape it.

ethel’s scream. her palm thrust towards the camera. that famous image of him, laid out on the floor, his own blood seeping into his shirt as juan romero–a stranger–presses a rosary into his palm and all that life…slips away. that image cuts in everywhere. between every photo of his life, his death lands a heavy punctuation mark to his unshakable energy.

that image shows up, over and over, and the bold, black headlines that ran on newspapers across the globe shoot through your heart like an arrow.

oh god. not again.

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bobby kennedy is a giant, but he is a giant what if. would he have won the democratic nomination in 1968? would he have won the election? maybe not. but his sudden death allows us to speculate, allows us to imagine the ending to his story cut all too short. he was a man of contradictions, who was constantly growing, constantly feeling. he was always putting his family over himself–eventually he would strive to do the same for his countrymen.

And even in our sleep, pain, which cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart, until in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.

bobby kennedy was a man who felt too deeply and fell too soon, and he left us with so much still to do. his legacy is a question mark and the answer is up to us. civil rights, workers’ rights, compassion towards our fellow man–in a world inundated with wealth and violence, have we lost sight of what truly matters? today, i hid in a cupboard to escape a fake gunman. someday, that gunman may be real. when i think of our country stagnating in fear and selfishness, i wonder about his last words.

“is everybody okay?” he asked as his life drained away.

is everybody okay?

i’m not sure, bob.

but i hope so.

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a poem for a new year

I took a walk in mid-Winter,
alone in the gloaming,
the sweet, muffled silence of snow.
Dozens of eyes,
unseen,
still see me,
a stranger they’re cautious to know.

The trees like dark sentinels
stand at attention,
wide boughs forming crisp, even lines.
The farm they once guarded,
the crops and the stock,
have passed to the mysteries of time.

The next generation of trees grows up wild.
Their seeds were not planted,
they fell,
carried by songbirds, or squirrels, or deer,
a sign that the forest is well.

I think of my footprints–
these, too, will pass on.
Soon no one will know I was here.
I am but a part
of the cycle of hours,
where seconds are not counted dear,

where moments aren’t governed
by ticks or by tocks,
but the warmth of the earth
and a woodpecker’s knocks,
and the rushing of water over
smooth, dark rocks.

Here the steps of a woman
join in the gay tune,
not as its master, conductor, or star,
but one in a harmony,
soft and cocooned,

where each voice has an equal,
and the song never dies,
and no matter what happens,
the sun will still rise.

16,480 words

From great failure comes great wisdom.

– someone, somewhere, probably

It is now December. November has come and gone, and, if you were paying any attention, someone you know probably attempted to write a novel.

I’m talking about NaNoWriMo (or “National Novel Writing Month” for the uninitiated). It’s a big, online writing challenge that has been happening annually since I was in elementary school. The goal is to complete a 50,000+ word novel over the course of thirty days…which, if that seems impossible to you, don’t worry. I totally agree.

“But, Jen!” comes the inevitable cry of the supportive masses. “You’re such an amazing writer!”

To which, I will predictably respond with an awkward facial contortion and some meek acknowledgement of the fact that I can, indeed, string together a sentence.

Wordsmithing skills aside, NaNoWriMo is also an exercise in letting loose, and that is where I struggle. The people I know who have mastered the challenge have learned to quiet the voice inside their heads that checks their fingers on the keys, that convinces them there is no merit to moving forward until every single word falls precisely into place.

(And, here, our narrator demonstrates her problem, having considered the literary merit of both “checks” and “precisely” far longer than necessary.)

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This year, for the first time, I decided to take a stab at the 50k word challenge. I was feeling inspired by a book I had just finished, and I surprised myself one morning with the seed of an idea. I had been feeling a bit down about the fact that I hadn’t written a story since my freshman year of college, and I was ready for an excuse to get back at it. I’m a very competitive person. I love challenges. If anything was going to motivate me to turn off the TV and set my fingers to typing, it was this or bust.

At least…that’s what I thought. Despite constantly telling my friends that what I was writing was not supposed to be good, that I would be thrilled just to finish the challenge, I could not–so to speak–walk the walk. I was immediately discouraged by how stiff and unkempt everything was turning out. Instead of moving forward, I spent more time rereading and editing what I’d already written. Hours would pass with only a word or two added to my count.

Less than halfway through the challenge, having fallen 4,000 words behind, I threw in the towel…but not before becoming absurdly invested in the characters I had created. Like the unfinished novels of my youth, these new characters have flitted in and out of my dreams. I developed hijinks-y side stories for them. I drew their faces (terribly) in my journal. They will remain special to me, even as they remain anonymous to literally everyone else in the world.

Their story will probably never be told, but I feel like I should give credit to the 16,480 words I managed to churn out before my computer rage quit Microsoft Office in the middle of last month. I’m going to pretend like I finished my novel, like it was picked up and published to rave reviews. I would go on a book tour, of course. All my favorite YA authors would be there. They would say I was an inspiration. They would want my autograph. As I’d take my book and prepare an inscription, I would be distracted by the synopsis on the back cover. I might smile nostalgically as I read:

“Eskis is a region long known for its luxurious fabrics, but only the mysterious master dyer, Santo Corelli, can turn those fabrics into a rainbow. When Corelli’s apprentice, Nico, disappears with the secret for brewing the perfect colors, it is up to sixteen-year-old Emery Davis to find her friend and protect him from his master’s rage and their rival’s greed. This new tale of adventure and intrigue carries you deep within a corrupt society full of dangerous secrets and just a hint of magic.”

Obviously, that’s all a daydream, but I figured I would post an abridged version of what may have been my masterpiece for interested parties to enjoy, mock, and/or print off and burn for warmth… Spoiler alert, tl;dr, &c., &c. Here goes…

Continue reading

i found a rainbow, baby

cw: sexual assualt

On the morning of Friday the 13th, I woke up to the Internet. This is a bad idea on a good day, but, on this particular day, it was poison. I am surrounded by some pretty decent people, blokes included, so I will forget, sometimes, the nasty thoughts people hold in their hearts.

What I watched was a video of American Indian women talking about their experiences with rape and sexual assault. What I read were the comments. All of them. Every single one, even the threads that had replies in the hundreds. It was like falling down the stairs in the dark. Suddenly the floor disappears beneath your feet. As you tumble into the void, each step rears up and beats your body. You cannot stop it, and the end comes just as unexpectedly as the beginning. You sit at the bottom, bruised and throbbing, wondering how you got there, knowing there is no good reason; and, yet, here you are…

Man after man (and yes, men, this is endemic in your gender–don’t blind yourself with #NotAllMen–do something about it) questioned their stories, suggested the women should have murdered the perps, placed blame on “illegals,” argued against the statistics, wondered if they had been asking for it, demanded to know why they hadn’t reported the crimes immediately, &c., &c.

This frequent digest is not new for me. Over the years, I have sought out and processed dozens of narratives of assault (not least because they have come up so frequently in the recent news). The truth is, I have been struggling to come to terms with events that happened to me years ago–struggling to define it, to contextualize it, to put a name to it and move on. I remember every single detail, and, yet, I still grapple with the question: What actually happened?

Was it assault? No. Yes. Maybe. I don’t think so. Probably not. 

Was it nothing? No. Yes. Maybe. I don’t think so. Probably not.

Should I tell people? No. Yes. Maybe. I don’t think so. Probably not.

The statute of limitations for feeling bad about this is up.

– Christina Tesoro, “Not So Bad”: On Consent, Non-Consent, and Trauma, The Toast

After unsuccessfully relating these experiences to two friends–coincidentally (or not) these friends were both men–I decided to wait to speak up again until I knew the answers, until I could look back and be sure. Rather than talk it out with other people, I scanned article after article, my face a bright moon in the dark of my apartment, reflecting the blue light of my computer screen. Some of these articles were written by people I knew. Still, I lurked, always silent. I did not want to cheapen their narratives with my not knowing.

It has been exactly four years and five days since the first incident. I still haven’t found the right words, but I did find a very unexpected rainbow amidst the bewilderment and confusion.

I don’t remember when, exactly, I stumbled across Kesha’s story. I never downloaded or streamed any of her music. It was fun to bop around to in the bowling alley or processing film in the darkroom, but I preferred tunes of the acoustic variety. I sought lyrics that told stories and used words like “gloaming.” I was neither hot nor dangerous. I was, honestly, quite dowdy and very safe. The wildest thing I ever did in college was steal toilet paper and pizza from the dining hall.

That said, I noticed her absence.

When I learned that she was embroiled in a legal battle against her producer, Dr. Luke, over alleged sexual assault and verbal abuse, that she had sought treatment for an eating disorder, I immediately felt connected to her. I read article after article about power dynamics in the entertainment industry, the gaslighting and shaming of strong and vibrant women. I devoured any new information about the case that leaked. I cried (softly, briefly) alone when she lost.

The first single from Kesha’s new album dropped a few months ago, and I hesitated to click. While I had identified strongly with her struggle, I wasn’t so sure I’d be able to say the same about her music. Weeks went by before I finally took the plunge.

I was at my parents’ house. It was late and everyone had already gone to bed. I was reveling in the experience of surfing the net from the comforts of home. I clicked. I listened. Time stopped.

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Praying is not just a song. It is a powerful declaration of agency in the midst of uncertainty, an unequivocal proclamation of self. Stripped of the usual, often robotic trappings of pop music, Kesha belts out her strength and endurance in such a raw and human way that I was taken off guard. My eyes watered as she quietly sang of pride; a chill shot down my spine when she screamed the high note at the dramatic climax of the ballad; but my favorite moment by far was the sigh at the very end, so soft yet alive. I heard that sigh, and I felt relief.

If the morning of Friday the 13th started badly, it ended sweetly.

I had purchased tickets to see Kesha in Lakewood because I wanted to support her attempts to reinvent herself after her trial. When I received a complimentary copy of her new album, Rainbow, in the mail, I was even more jazzed to see her live. Unlike many young artists who transform their image, Kesha does not throw herself fully into a sober, white-clad purity. While she experiments with new sounds on the album, she doesn’t abandon the poppy beats that defined her earlier career. Rainbow confronts some heavy topics, but it is also infused with joy, irony, and reckless abandon. It is a very human album that deals as much with love, lust, and levity as it does with pain and redemption.

What I’m trying to say, I suppose, is that Rainbow belies the typical narrative we demand of women who experience trauma. A woman should not have to bear the burden of perpetual seriousness to prove themselves. Having been hurt does not mean a woman can’t still boogie.

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I arrived at the concert venue by bike, as I had planned to do ever since I purchased my ticket. As I stood in line, sandwiched between a group of chatty highschoolers in matching white bandeaus and men with more glitter in their beards than beard hairs, I realized that I may be the only person in the entire auditorium that was new to this. Unlike everyone else, I didn’t know the lyrics to the Kesha classics. I could sort of fumble my way through Tik Tok, but Take it Off was beyond my capabilities. None of that mattered. I could have arrived in a business suit and still have fit in. Everyone came dressed as themselves. That was the magic of it.

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Sadly, some people were not as generous as others. The opening band was objectively terrible, but having to hear the kids behind me complaining about it for an hour and booing loudly was really not cool. When, halfway through their set, the audience began chanting for Kesha to come on, I had to wonder if anyone in the building had ever been to a concert before. It’s one thing to be excited to see your pop idol perform live. It’s another to let that enthusiasm crush the spirit of someone else. Unfortunately, I witnessed this a million times over as the teenagers behind me disparaged the woman next to me for screaming too loudly, and the woman retaliated by calling them bitches (rinse and repeat the entire concert–Kesha’s urging us to love one another was clearly lost on them).

Despite the pettiness of my particular row, the concert was amazing. Held in the auditorium of a high school, all the proceeds from the concessions went to benefit the school’s arts program. There was no alcohol served, and I was the most sober I’d ever been for live music. The backdrop was simple–a rainbow curtain and two large, glittering gold stars, accented at various moments by showers of glitter and confetti, and–to Kesha’s teary-eyed surprise–a sea of paper-cut hearts held up at just the right moment. Exactly like the album, the concert was the perfect mix of revelry and realness.

I loved it.

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While I was standing in the audience, a glitterless void, I questioned why I had come. Was I a real fan if I didn’t like her older music? Did my understated outfit and serious demeanor preclude me from the ranks of her dedicated fanbase? I was on the verge of having no fun at all when I realized that it didn’t matter when her music had touched me. Regardless of when it first happened, everyone in the audience was there, like me, because Kesha had empowered them, had offered them a safe place to belong. Whether it was in 2010 or 2017, for all of us, Kesha had been a rainbow during dark times. We were all there to thank her.

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As I biked home, the headlamp attached to my handlebars lighting my way, I let myself coast downhill. For the first time in a while, I waited to use my breaks and let my speed lift my hair from the back of my neck as cool air filled my lungs. When the road finally leveled and my bike slowed to a stop, I sighed, so softly it was barely audible.

The world is a tough place, but some things, many things, are a-okay.

mind of a model

Almost four years ago, I entered a quiet studio in the back of an old, brick schoolhouse. I laid a blanket on a small upholstered couch, removed my glasses, stripped off my clothes, and stood naked in the middle of the room, surrounded by faces behind easels.

I wasn’t just standing, though. My right leg, which bore my weight in a bent knee, was in front of my body. My left leg stretched out to the side, and I could feel the pose pulling the muscles in my thigh. My toes gripped the paint-spattered wooden floor as my legs began to shake. Even for just two minutes, I realized, this pose had been ambitious.

Nevertheless, I was stubborn. I had bristled at the artists’ shock and gentle advice to try something easier to start. I was a dancer. I could do this, I assured them, and so I would.

When I tell people I am an art model, it is usually in coded, business-approved language. To those familiar with the art world, figure drawing is just as good as “I stand naked in a room full of strangers for three hours.” To the uninitiated masses, figure drawing is vague enough that they can imagine me sitting demurely in a chair, fully clothed. If, by chance, an acquaintance ventures to inquire further, I will respond honestly.

It’s a hobby not many understand. Thanks to that meme-famous scene in Titanic, people’s first thought is of plump lips, arched backs, and furtive, lamp-lit glances in lavish surroundings. I can almost see the scene playing in the back of their brain as their faces arrange themselves into a reaction. French girls, French girls, French girls… I can hear that iconic line echoing in their ears as their mouths form around a response.

“So…like Titanic?” they’ll inevitably ask, either fearfully or excitedly, depending on the person.

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And, here’s the thing: it’s nothing like Titanic.

To help dispel a few stereotypes about my little hobby, here are a few things that cross my mind when I pose. It may surprise you to learn that it is neither sexy nor scary to stand naked in a room full of artists. As with anything (talking to your cat like a human, watching Netflix in your underwear, accidentally grabbing the barista’s hand instead of your coffee mug), it just is what it is.

Posing. One of the most important jobs I have as a model is to come up with an interesting pose that can be held for the intended amount of time. I cannot simply plant my feet squarely on the floor with my arms at my side and stare at the wall. The artists want a challenge; they want to be pushed to practice difficult skills like foreshortening. I have to assemble myself in some attempt at contrapposto (pointing my knees in one direction and my nose in the other, subtly lifting one shoulder to lean against the back of a chair, an outstretched arm or a bent leg), while also acknowledging the limits of my body (where are my pressure points, how long can I stand upright, if my leg falls asleep up to the knee will I be able to walk afterwards), while also appearing believable. It does nothing to splay myself out like an octopus in a desert. Instead, I think: what do I look like when I’m tying my shoes? How does my back bend right before I stand up? Sometimes I do alright. Other times I forget what real people do with their bodies, and I come out looking a little like this:

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Bodily Functions. It makes sense that most people think the most awkward thing about art modeling is the nudity. We consider our bodies private often because we are programmed to think of them in sexual or shameful terms. I have my own qualms about my body, which I have written about before, but that’s not the point of modeling. It’s not about how you compare to imaginary French girls. It’s about how the shadows fall on your flexing muscles, how your bones support your flesh.

However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t concerns. A prick in the back of my nose becomes an overwhelming need to sneeze, the deep breath of a yawn threatens to pry my jaws open, my armpits grow sticky from sweat with no fabric to absorb it. I am always wondering how to avoid these things while keeping my face schooled and holding steady. Bodily functions, embarrassing bodily functions, dominate a solid portion of my modeling experience. One, in particular, is the most menacing: the dreaded fart.

It’s hard to fart in public when you’re wearing clothes and can easily distance yourself from the scene of the crime. Farting while naked is a whole different animal. If you try to hold it in, there is the worry that the artists will notice the sudden clench in your muscles. If you try to ease it out, there is always the chance that it will be like a trumpet heralding the arrival of a king, or that it will hang on the air like an unwelcome guest. Before releasing my captive flatulence, I must consider what I ate for lunch, the draftiness of the studio, the texture of the surface below my bottom.

There is a strategic approach to every aspect leading up to the final moment. Passing gas while naked is like going to war.

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Passing time. Poses can vary from two minutes to two hours, and, while my face must remain passive, my mind has permission to wander. There are sessions when my gears are turning remarkably well. I plan my week, I make personal resolutions, I consider the issues of the world. It can be extremely meditative and helpful to engage in an activity that requires I step away from a screen and just think. Other times, it can be a chore to occupy myself as I sit in silence save for the soft whispers of charcoal on paper.

Without my glasses, the world becomes a blur, so distracting myself with my surroundings is a fruitless task. Instead, I’ll throw it back to grade school with an old-fashioned times table test. Often, simple counting exercises are not enough to fill the entire period, and so I am forced to get creative. The list of mundane mental acrobatics I can conjure for my brain is extensive. I’ll say the alphabet backwards and forwards, then I’ll try to find a word in German to represent each letter. I’ll quiz myself on all the Presidents, and then I’ll go back to the beginning to list the Presidents and one event during their term in order. I’ll try to name as many of my teachers I can remember, from kindergarten to college. I even, sometimes, recall enough about Supreme Court cases to spend time listing their various stats and outcomes.

I like to think this keeps me sharp. If nothing else, it keeps me awake.

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Once the drawing session has ended, I’ll walk around and peek at the artists’ work. It’s pretty neat to see the different styles that have blossomed out of your poses, to see how different people translate your features to paper. Occasionally, an artist will gift me one of their sketches, and I’ll tuck it proudly away, sheepishly pleased by my own image. Sometimes I look like a goddess on a mountain. Other times, I appear gracefully pensive. I do not have a mirror at home, and so these sketches are a welcome glimpse, a precious reminder, of the body that carries my overactive mind.

Art modeling is a hobby, a skill I enjoy perfecting. It is my chance to engage in the creative world, despite having nothing but thumbs attached to my hands. It is a challenge and a joy, and sometimes ridiculously hilarious. So, the next time you meet an art model, I hope you imagine a well lit, cheery studio full of artists who care more about lines and shadows than the zit on the model’s elbow. I hope the last thing on your mind is James Cameron’s Titanic, unless, of course, you are watching James Cameron’s Titanic together.

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my harry potter

It was a Monday evening, and I was settling into bed. It wasn’t early enough to be falling asleep, but I knew I wanted to be under the covers, and I knew I wanted to take my glasses off. There’s not much I can do after that. Removing the wire frames from my nose after a long day allows me to sink comfortably into a pillow, but disqualifies me from watching TV, scrolling through my phone, and pretty much anything else you want to be doing with your head half-buried in down…but not reading. Thank goodness I can still read lying sideways.

On this particular Monday, I found myself with a familiar book in hand. For all intents and purposes, I could describe this as an ordinary book and, here, my story would be done. But, to me, this book is far from ordinary.

The book is paperback, and its corners have long since been worn and rounded from use. The spine is covered in wrinkles, each crease a faint reminder of when I let pasta boil over, or forgot I was filling the bath, and had to quickly lay the book on its face to avert disaster. Its pages are soft and easily torn. On the cover, though faded by the sun when I left it on the front seat of my car for a week, are a pair of hands, cupping a mysterious, round stone.

This is not the first time I’ve read this book.

This is The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner. This is my Harry Potter.

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We were driving to Florida, and I was bored. I was nine years old, so I was young enough to have no patience, and old enough to know I shouldn’t make a game of kicking the seat in front of me.

“Here,” my mom probably said with a hint of annoyance as she dug through a green, canvas bag that was full of library books. “Shut up and read this.”

I didn’t shut up. I sighed audibly and grabbed the book out of her hands. It was wrapped, like so many library books, in a sheet of plastic grown opaque with overuse. I pulled open the cover, and I started to read in an obnoxious voice…

I didn’t know how long I had been in the king’s prison. The days were all the same, except that as each one passed, I was dirtier than before…

At some point, my petty, preteen revenge dissolved into genuine interest. I quit reading out loud and dove head first into a narrative that took me someplace unexpected. I was an avid reader long before that moment, and so I thought I had it all figured out. I’d read Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Narnia, and a fair number of Tamora Pierce and Anne McCaffrey books as well.

Something about this book–don’t ask me what–felt different.

Perhaps I enjoyed the scrappy inner monologue of anti-hero Eugenides. As a nine-year-old know-it-all, I certainly identified with his haughty, unbridled sarcasm that had not yet sharpened into wit. I liked his gruff, obtrusive presence, his loud, open-mouthed chewing. I imagined he was my age (although, I revise this opinion with each rereading), and it excited me that he seemed smarter than all the adults. This is, of course, what any smartass tween aspires to be.

But there’s also the landscape. The world of The Queen’s Thief is small, but brilliantly laid out, from seas of olive trees, to wide, fertile floodplains, to barren wastelands. Pieces of scenery don’t exist purely for show. They don’t disappear after the author has flexed her muscles and displayed her descriptive prowess. If you’ve seen the Hephestial Mountains once, you can be certain they will be important later. The country the characters traverse throughout the course of the story becomes almost a character itself.

The Thief is a little, winding adventure that feels big because of the power of its author’s pen. It is a down-to-earth fantasy, populated with scholars, ambassadors, and thieves. It reads like a history, with just enough myth and magic to keep you on your toes. It was not recommended to me by a friend, nor was it one of those milestone books every young person is expected to read. It came to me as fatefully as things appear and disappear in the series, so quietly I did not recognize it for what it was.

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I was much older–newly twenty and studying abroad in Ireland–when I learned The Thief was actually book one in a series. I found my current copy of The Thief in a little shop in Galway called Charlie Bryne’s, next to two others with the same cover theme. I honestly could have cried, kneeling there in front of a bookshelf full of teen fiction. Galway did not yet feel like home, and so to see a story so special to me in an unfamiliar place was like a balm to a bout of homesickness I had not expected to feel. Was this fate again? (If you have read the series, you will know the workings of its gods/goddesses and understand why I wonder…) I bought all three books and carried them with me as I gradually became more comfortable in my temporary home.

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I cracked open the series again when I moved to Cleveland. I had just learned there was a fourth book released, and I decided to start from the beginning. I was bored and lonely, and desperate for a distraction. I devoured the stories, as usual. When I had finished all there was to read, I found myself online, hungry, searching for more. It was then that I read Megan Whalen Turner’s biography:

My local bookstores right now are Loganberry Books in Cleveland and MacsBacks in Cleveland Heights, Ohio.

What.

What.

Whaaaaaaat?!

I almost died right then and there. It was that same feeling you get when you’ve been dreaming of someone and you run into them in line at Starbuck’s. Megan Whalen Turner, who I had idolized and attempted to emulate since I was nine years old, had a home base right here in Cleveland, Ohio! Maybe it wasn’t so bad here! Maybe I would finally write the novel I’d been dreaming of and be just like her.

(As amazing as the revelation was at the time, I forget this fact frequently, and have missed every single promotion she has done in the area. Have the gods deserted me?)

Thick as Thieves is the most recent addition to the Queen’s Thief Series. Seven years separate its release from the last book, and I can say it was a worthy wait. I checked it out from the library and finished it in less than 24 hours, sacrificing sleep for wide-eyed wonder. (I still read by flashlight under the blankets. I find it keeps me young.) It is a testament to Megan Whalen Turner’s narrative abilities that, despite zero inclusion of my favorite characters, Thick as Thieves did not leave me disappointed. My only complaint is as cliche as they come: I want more.

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I call these books my Harry Potter because they enchant me time and time again. My books are the first thing I unpack in any move, and this series is always the first to go on the shelf. Always. They may not have inspired generations of kids to love to read, and I have missed every single release date (probably because there are no news stories or lines that stretch around city blocks), but they are beautifully written all the same. The Queen’s Thief series is a hidden gem, as quiet and mysterious as the plots it contains. It dazzles, despite (and, perhaps in someways, due to) its lack of fame. The characters are strong, and Turner maintains a solid grasp of the plot throughout her stories. I would highly recommend this to any lover of young adult fiction.

for the soul is dead that slumbers

“did you make it?” my friend texted.

i was sitting in my car, seats still full with boxes leftover from my recent move. there was a paper on my lap with the numbers of different campgrounds in the area. i’d called down the list. every single plot was occupied.

“yeah,” i typed. the cold, black letters conveyed none of my anxiety, said nothing of the pit in my stomach. “i made it.”

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-_-_-_-_-

i used to think i was a traveler, that i was bold enough, savvy enough, to get myself anywhere in the world no matter what. i took my first solo trip when i was eighteen. i used my first official paycheck to settle the plane tickets. the change in my pocket and human kindness covered the rest. i spent my time in free museums, farmers’ markets, public squares, and cemeteries. it certainly wasn’t sustainable, but, for a week, i remember thinking: this is living.

since then i’ve crossed oceans.

it never occurred to me that the borders of my home would one day grow to be insurmountable. strolling through dresden or sipping a pint in galway, the thought never crossed my mind that i would fall into a stationary life. i had no children to worry over, no lover to abandon. my family, whenever i told them i was leaving, said, “go! live!”

but somehow i stopped anyway.

being stuck is different than standing still.

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-_-_-_-_-

“welcome to michigan,” the robot on my phone intoned as i passed a small, blue sign proclaiming some invisible line had been crossed. i smiled. come what may. this was my rubicon.

only a few days before my trip, the thought of driving my fourteen-year-old car eight hours to a place i barely even knew existed was as invigorating as it was intimidating. i’d already decided i wanted to spend my birthday in the woods, but i could have settled for an ordinary run through a park. until i merged onto the turnpike headed west, i wasn’t certain i would follow through.

“this is irresponsible,” said my brain. “it won’t be worth it. you have too much to do at home. you’re being reckless.”

i turned up the radio and rolled the windows down.

i don’t care.

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-_-_-_-_-

love at first sight. that’s how i’d describe my crush in sixth grade, being served a waffle for breakfast, and walking up to lake michigan at sunset.

perhaps the struggle is what made the lake so memorable. the long stretch of unfamiliar road, the disappointment of not securing a campsite, the unexpected two mile trek over sand, the fear of being alone in the dark. when i crested the last hill and was greeted by silence save the gentle wash of water, my heart surged with happiness. i sat down in the sand, cracked open my journal, and i wrote.

i may never be this happy again.

i remained on the beach for an hour, enjoying the dramatic splashes of color as they spread across the sky. pinks melted into oranges and slowly turned to purple as the night rolled in. i hiked back to my car in the dark, without a flashlight. i did not want to blind myself to the full experience of the woods at night. my senses flared. every sound made me flinch. i was alive.

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-_-_-_-_-

there are very few advantages to sleeping in the backseat of a sedan. the air is stale. your muscles stiffen. you wake up more exhausted than before. still, insomnia has its benefits.

the night i turned twenty-seven was a sleepless one. if i managed to get comfortable, my slumber was derailed by fear that a park ranger would discover me. as soon as i breathed easy, my back would demand a new position. driven to madness by this cycle, i stepped out for some fresh air.

it was two in the morning. the moon, which only hours before had washed out all the constellations, had set below the horizon. as i looked up into the sky, it seemed all the secrets of the universe were laid bare to me. i held my breath. even the sounds of my lungs working seemed too loud.

in the dark, my bare feet found the wooden planks of the dock near where i’d parked my car for the night. it was a long, narrow dock that went almost to the middle of the small, still lake. the water, which had been crystal blue when i’d arrived, was now a dark abyss, dotted with stars, seemingly without end.

i laid down on the dock, the milky way both above and below me, and felt my spirit dissolve.

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-_-_-_-_-

i was in sleeping bear dunes national park for two and a half days, but it was exactly where i needed to be. i hiked miles over sandy, unending dunes. i chased majestic eagles and tiny piping plovers. i saw rainbows and wildflowers. i was kissed by the sun and reborn in the sparkling, clear waters of the lake.

i am twenty seven.

i am a traveler.

i do not sit still.

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