stories that matter

A few days ago, someone posted a story about Lucy Stanton Day-Sessions on Facebook. In case you didn’t know, LSDS graduated from the Oberlin Ladies’ Course in 1850 and is generally considered the first black woman to complete a four-year college course. Her speech, A Plea for the Oppressed, is a resounding call for solidarity and civil rights. I didn’t read the article, because I’ve read her actual letters, but I did watch as the post was overwhelmed by likes and comments. “Inspiring!” people gushed. “Who knew!”

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And this is where my blood pressure began to rise, because I knew. I’ve known for years. I took the time to learn about my community and the wonderful people who lived there and tried hard to inspire people to care like I did. One HuffPo article and suddenly everyone does? Why even bother? At this point, it was all I could do to keep  myself from digging through decades of Facebook posts to find the exact moment I shared the same story and no one noticed. “Guys, look,” I wanted to instruct, “I’ve been saying this for years so if you could all direct your praise to me now, where it obviously belongs, that’d be great.”

I can be horribly petty at times.

But I didn’t say that. I left the post alone and silently stewed in my own misery. If one HuffPo article can reach 100+ people I may never get the chance to engage, that’s amazing. These stories, the stories of driven people in small communities, are too important and far too often overlooked for me (or anyone else) to get possessive and clingy. Look at any era in U.S. history, and I bet the first three names that come to mind are men, and I bet those men are white.

(This is when some jerk is going to comment that, no, the first name that comes to mind when they think of the American Revolution is Phillis Wheatley. And, sure, yes, I’ve definitely been that jerk before but, in all honesty, despite years of studying everyone else, I still think of George Washington.)

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The point is: representation matters. Lucy Stanton Day-Sessions is empowering because her story is so often erased from traditional narratives. She is inspiring because she fought against the very same odds in life that her story now faces in remembrance. George Washington is many things, but he is not a black child growing up in Cleveland. He is not a woman fighting just to be heard. Sometimes I think our narrow definition of what it means to be an American–white, middle-class, straight, male, Christian–stems from our narrow study of our country’s history. Stories like these matter because the more we learn and teach our children, the richer our understanding of our communities and the people who live in them.

Now that I’ve convinced you (hold your applause, please), I would like to share a story from my city’s history that fits in perfectly to what I’ve been trying to say. 100 years ago, a tunnel exploded five miles out and 250 feet beneath Lake Erie. Nine workers were trapped inside; no hero who entered the tunnel returned until one man arrived on scene: Garrett Morgan.

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Morgan was born in 1877 in Kentucky, the son of two former slaves. Like many black Americans, one of Morgan’s ancestors was a white slave owner who had had his way with a woman he considered his “property.” Born in the wake of Reconstruction, a botched and aborted attempt to get the South on board with civil rights, Morgan came of age in an era of Jim Crow in the South and de facto segregation in the North. When he moved to Cleveland in 1895, he beat the Great Migration generation by about a decade. In 1910, the black population in Cleveland was still only 8,000 strong. By 1925, that number had grown to nearly 34,000.

Morgan’s life took off during the Great Migration era. He married his wife, Mary, in 1908. She was a Bavarian immigrant he had met doing handiwork in a garment factory in the Warehouse District. Forbidden from fraternizing across racial lines, the couple quit their jobs and faced the world together. Mary was disowned by her family. Morgan struggled to find work, but his active mind and entrepreneurial spirit carried them through hard times. Before 1910, he had already sold his first invention and opened a thriving sewing machine repair shop in the heart of the city. By 1915, he had also created a complete line of hair and beauty products for African Americans and patented a safety hood for firefighters. He also invented the first traffic signal to include a middle warning between stop and go.

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Morgan had a keen eye for marketing. To get the word out about his hair products, he bought a bus and installed an organ inside. He would drive around the city blasting music, and when people asked him what all the commotion was about, he took the opportunity to direct them to drug stores that sold his product. Knowing his safety hood would be less successful in the South if the race of the inventor was known, Morgan hired a white actor to portray the genius, while he played the role of assistant. He would create huge spectacles in which he demonstrated the effectiveness of his hood by running into burning buildings and coming out unharmed.

Garret Morgan’s success made him a hero of his community. He was a founding member of Cleveland Association of Colored Men and used his influence to lobby for civil rights in Cleveland. He was a member of the Phillis Wheatley Association, which filled the role of the Y.M.C.A. and Y.W.C.A. in black communities where these entities did not exist. He created the Cleveland Call & Post, a newspaper devoted to reporting the news of the black community without prejudice. He used his money to buy land in Wakeman, Ohio, to create a safe space for black people to recreate and enjoy the outdoors. He was the first black man in Cleveland to own a car. He was a Big Deal…which ultimately brings us back to July 25, 1916.

At 3 a.m., the police arrive at Garrett Morgan’s house and explain what has happened in the tunnel under the Lake. Without hesitation, Morgan grabs as many of his safety hoods as can fit in his car and arrives on the scene barefoot and in his pajamas, ready to help. Of the dozens of people who had gone in to rescue the workers, Garrett Morgan was the only one to return. He saved lives, and his life was immediately forgotten.

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Despite being called on by the government to do his civic duty, Morgan’s name was not recommended to the Carnegie Hero Fund for a medal of honor. Instantly outed as the inventor of the safety hood (which, by the way, had saved thousands of fire fighters’ lives), Morgan’s sales in the southern states immediately dropped. In 1917, he wrote to Mayor Harry L. Davis that, “the treatment accorded me…is such as to make me and the members of my race feel that you will not give a colored man a square deal.” In the 1950s, Morgan was still struggling for recognition of his heroism. “I was paid only in promises,” he lamented. “Nothing was ever done for me.”

The good news is that Garrett Morgan was eventually recognized by the city for his many contributions, and he was (thankfully) alive to receive most of the praise. The bad news is that stories like Morgan’s still aren’t told in equal proportion to those of men like Rockefeller. When asked “who built Cleveland?” the most common answers you’ll get are Tom Johnson, Amasa Stone, John D. Rockefeller, or (more likely) I Don’t Know.

Representation matters…Black stories are stories that matter. When all we see is a white [male, Christian, heterosexual, etc.] legacy, that’s all we’ll fight to protect. I’m not the first person to say it, and I won’t be the last. It’s time to change that.

Poetry.

I have been quiet recently because the events of this world have made me fearful. I’m not the type of person who screams when they are afraid. Once, when I was little, and I was afraid of being sick, I told dad that he would know to get mom to help me in the bathroom when I screamed, but all I could manage was a small whimper before I threw up all over the bed. Once, while camping, I saw a spider the size of my hand on the wall by my sleeping bag–literally, in front of my nose–and I didn’t scream or run or even flinch. I closed my eyes and repeated over and over in my head, “There is no spider. There is no spider. There is no spider. There is no spider…”

When I am scared, I grow quiet. I close my eyes, cover my ears, curl up into a ball, and do my best to disappear. It’s comforting to feel invisible in the darkness, to feel removed from the danger. These days, I can wrap myself in the warm security of my upbringing (of my skin color) and I can hide for weeks.

It’s surprising how easy this is.

Growing up sheltered in the suburbs was a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it is possible that I didn’t see color as a child. I knew my best friends were Indian, but that wasn’t the point, because we were all just horses or tigers on the playground. I was open to everyone, and I loved the new cultures my friends’ families invited me to learn. Racism didn’t exist in my world. It wasn’t something I brought to the table, but it doesn’t mean it wasn’t already there. What is magical in children is less so in adults, and I learned this the hard way. I wasn’t just blind to color. I was blind to everything.

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Derogatory terms were so far off my radar that I didn’t even know they existed in the 21st century. I had never heard them on T.V. and I had never heard my family use them, not once. We read Huckleberry Finn, but I had never heard the word spoken aloud, and so I thought that’s just what it was–something you read but you never, ever say, the relic of a very distant past. I remember in college, I heard someone talking about a person I knew and they called her a J.A.P. It was the only term I’d heard before, thanks to watching a lot of corny WWII movies. I remember leaning over to my friend and whispering, confused, “But…she’s not Japanese.” My friend just looked at me and frowned. “That’s not funny, Jen.”

I realized much later that the comment had had nothing to do with being Japanese. In my ignorance, I had missed an opportunity to defend someone I cared about. How many times, I wonder, had I missed that opportunity growing up? Had any of my friends tried to talk to me about what it was like being a different color, practicing a different religion? We talked about books and movies and boys and ice cream. We frolicked like champs and did science experiments together. Maybe I missed something then, too.

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When I was in high school, I remember hating poetry. The first poem analysis I completed my senior year was titled “NO,” and I basically failed. My gracious English teacher gave me a second chance, even after I tried giving up poetry for Lent, and I ended up doing okay, but I didn’t like it for one minute. I couldn’t connect with the medium at any level, and I refused to try because I didn’t like it. The best description for this literary Catch-22 I have ever heard comes from a scene in The History Boys. As the teacher announces it’s time to read some poetry, one of the students groans and falls forward dramatically onto his desk. “Sir, I don’t always understand poetry,” he admits. “I don’t see how we can understand it. Most of the stuff poetry’s about hasn’t happened to us yet.”

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The pain and suffering, all the life and love of poetry, wasn’t accessible to me at that moment. I was soft. My worldview was small and myopic. I didn’t possess the tools to understand and I wasn’t able to step out and realize that how I experienced the world could be so wholly different from someone else.

This entry is me eating crow.

I’m older now, and trying to be wiser. Despite the temptation to shut my eyes and plug my ears, to burrow deep into my privilege like a cicada into the earth, I have tried to remain present. I am reading what articles I can. I am listening to people grieve. My mind is opening further than I ever thought possible, and, as time goes on, the events of the world cut closer and closer to the core of my existence (the security of my white skin). The more connected I allow myself to be to the world around me, the more personal these news stories become…

A twelve-year-old boy from my city, who attended a school that sends kids to my museum, was shot and killed in less than two seconds.

Another woman is raped on a college campus and her rapist is pitied.

Men and women who look and love like some of my best friends are gunned down without apology while they were carefree and dancing.

My friends, some of the kindest people I know, are scorned and forced to answer for senseless acts of violence they had no hand in committing.

Still more friends are waking up to learn that their homelands have been bombed beyond recognition and must come to terms with the fact that most people would rather look away.

Still more friends are waking up almost daily in their own country to pictures of violence and murder perpetrated by law enforcement against people that look like them, and have to live with the realization that their lives still count for less, even in this nation of freedom.

The more I live, the more I come to appreciate the power of poetry. This world is a broken and a terrifying place, but poets are craftsmen, magicians. With an idea as pure and simple as light and a scant few lines, poets take all that pain and suffering and transform it into a thing of beauty. The meek and mourning find their souls’ grief articulated so perfectly in so few words. It’s as if the poet were holding you in their arms and rocking you gently back and forth, whispering gently, “Me, too.”

A tiny flower grows from a mountain of crap.

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The events of the past few months have shaken me, and, again, I have retreated into silence, but this time it is different. I have been silent, but I have also been listening. I may not have the words to articulate how I am feeling (she says 1000+ words later), but I thought I would share three poems that have recently brought me to tears. Read them slowly, perhaps quietly in the dark, alone, and reflect. Open your mind to the fact that violence against anyone is wrong, but that it occurs disproportionately across the world to people who may be different from you. Allow those ideas to enter your heart and to course through your veins. Open your eyes and lean in.

Allowables
I killed a spider
Not a murderous brown recluse
Not even a black widow
And if the truth were told this
Was only a small spider
Who should have run
When I picked up the book
But she didn’t
And she scared me
And I smashed her.

I don’t think
I’m allowed

To kill something

Because I am

Frightened.

– Nikki Giovanni

A Small Needful Fact
is that Eric Garner worked

for some time for the Parks and Rec
Horticultural Department, which means,
perhaps, with his very large hands,
perhaps, in all likelihood,
he put gently into the earth
some plants which, most likely,
some of them, in all likelihood,
continue to grow, continue 
to do what such plants do, like house
and feed small and necessary creatures,
like being pleasant to touch and smell,
like converting sunlight
into food, like making it easier
for us to breathe.

– Ross Gay

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It goes without saying that our world needs peace and compassion and understanding. Our country–the cities we live in and were raised in–needs people to be brave and to hold out their hands to their neighbors. Poetry may not be the answer, but it does make me more optimistic that the answer is out there. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to continue. But I feel stronger knowing someone out there has the words to plant that flower in this giant mountain of crap.

How to Survive without Air Conditioning.

Things are heating up here in Cleveland. The Cavs won the NBA championship, the sun is shining, and window A/C units are popping up all over the city as temperatures climb well above 80°F. If you are one of those people who can boil water without overheating, who can comfortably keep all their clothes on, or who can sit on the couch after work without sticking to it, then this post is not for you. If you, like me, live in a third-floor apartment with direct sunlight so strong that your peanut butter liquefies in the cupboard, listen up. Whether by choice or circumstance, I have lived without air conditioning at home since 2008. I don’t even have air conditioning in my car, and I am ready to share my vast wisdom with the world. This list could change your life.

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First thing you should do is leave.  Why should you go mad indoors when you can read a book on a shady bench or drink an ice cold beer in an ice cold bar? “A resourceful man knows when to leave his home for another man’s A/C.” – Ancient Proverb

Pretend your ice cold shower is a waterfall in the rainforest. Your feet are in a stream and you’re rinsing your hair beneath the trickle of a gentle waterfall. Far off in the distance comes the call of an unknown tropical bird. Bright flowers color the peripheries of your vision. A virile man appears without a shirt…

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Variety is the spice of lifeIf you’re looking for a change, skip the self-help books and try switching the direction of your ceiling fan instead. The blades should move counterclockwise to promote a cool, downward flow.

Work those biceps with the following exercise routine: Open all your windows. Close all your windows. Open all your windows again. Repeat. Shut your windows and curtains while you’re away to keep that nice morning chill from flying the coop. Open them at night for a refreshing breeze.

Stop wearing clothes. Come home and strip down. Lay on the floor and vow to never move again. This is where you die.

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Keep a rotating stack of shirts in the freezer.  If you must wear clothes, submit yourself to this truth: there is no closet. Do not take the clothes from your closet. The freezer is your closet now. Then you’ll see that it is not the clothes that are hot, it is only yourself.

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Turn off all the lights. Lights produce heat. Live in the dark. Become Gollum.

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Break up with your partner. Replace them with an ice pack. Trust me. You’re better off without them. Nothing feels better than sleeping alone on a hot summer’s night.

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And, lastly, remember to drink water. There’s no quicker road to misery than dehydration in the middle of summer. Stay cool, it’s a hot one out there.

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Bobby, baby

I was riding in the car the other day, when my friend suddenly asked me: “There was this guy…he lived here in the 1970s and was elected to Congress…what is his name?” I laughed and replied that I had no idea. “Man, I don’t know. If it’s not a woman and it’s after 1920, count me out.”

I wasn’t always like this. When I started college, I could have told you anything about U.S. history. While I composed elaborate Founding Fathers fanfiction in my head, in a classic freshman move, I also attached a Suessical poem I’d written about the 1960 presidential election to the front of my research paper on Richard Nixon.  The poem was called Little Dick & Younger Jack, and I’m 10% certain it was the difference between an A and an A- on that paper.

atop the highest mountain
little Dick did strive to be
where in his mind, so dark and sad,
only he could see

but from the deepest valley
all little Dick could see
was his sweet rival climbing high
where only one could be

for all he tried to do that year
and how fast he tried to climb
the younger man had money
and a haircut that looked fine…

The point is, I’m no longer the same historian I was in 2008. The generalist passed away, and I gained a much closer, more intimate and nuanced view of social movements and women’s history in the early decades of our country. The little facts floating around in my brain that could not be tied down with relation to my studies disappeared as my focus narrowed. Teapot Dome took a back seat to the development of female patriotism. So it goes.

Sometimes you go home to visit your parents and end up digging through your old closet. You find all these outfits and tiny shoes you could never wear again. You laugh, and you throw them in a bag to donate to Goodwill. But sometimes you find a little dress from the 90s that still fits over your head and could pass as a pretty fashionable shirt in 2016. Although I rarely lament my historical transition from generalist to specialist, what strikes me most unexpectedly are the outliers that continue to be dear to me, the things I put back in the closet to save for a rainy day. What does it mean that I still relish in the drama of Marbury v. Madison? Who still feels bad that Franklin Pierce’s 11-year-old son died right in front of his eyes? Why do I still cry when I think of Bobby Kennedy?

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I’m no expert, but reading about the 60s, or watching a documentary, to me, feels a lot like following Game of Thrones. The world was in chaos; the country was divided; and everyone had their own idea of how best to fix it. There were manipulators, schemers, bullies, peacemakers, secret agents, and  heroes. Leaders were taken out, it seems, in disproportionate rates. On June 6, 1968, Robert F. Kennedy died in hospital from an assassins bullet. His rise was unexpectedly meteoric, and his fall was devastating. Five years after his brother’s assassination and only months after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., another hero of his generation had died. In his wake, vulture Richard Nixon finally seized the presidency.

Perhaps I feel Bobby Kennedy’s loss so strongly because 2016 feels like the cousin of 1968. A highly contested election with conventions that will most likely have unsavory results, institutional racism, a war on women. Our leaders’ present rhetoric on the specter of terrorism is shockingly parallel to Red Scare rhetoric of yore, and the rise of social media and the 24-hour news cycle has drastically altered politics. Not a career politician, Bobby Kennedy was not above confronting the establishment to shake things up where he saw injustice. Maybe he was the hero Gotham needed then. Maybe he is the hero Gotham needs now.

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Or, perhaps I feel Bobby Kennedy’s loss so strongly, not for any political reason, but because of who he was–shy, introverted, youthful, passionate, overlooked and confused. Ignored by his father, he clung to his mother, but even she saw little potential in his poor grades and sullen attitude. He tripped over air and lacked the easy, debonair style of his siblings. He was sensitive and depressive and had absolutely zero game. (Jack actually stole Bobby’s girlfriend once while they were on a date.) It’s easy to relate to someone as painfully outcast as that. Baa baa, black sheep. Baa baa, Bobby.

That isn’t to say I’m blind to his flaws. He wasn’t always right as a policy maker and his religious zeal made him a conservative adolescent. Every time I read his life, I am consistently disappointed by his machismo and his initial reluctance towards the civil rights movement. When the author notes a homophobic comment he made towards someone he didn’t like, I cringe and consider abandoning interest. But, then, he’ll do something that makes my mind spin. He’ll see a child in pain and reevaluate a situation. He’ll tour a rundown community and realize the government has failed them in unforgivable ways. He’ll revise his hawkish reaction to instead counsel peace. He’ll wonder aloud why so few of the lawyers in the justice department are black. He’ll ask a journalist what their favorite flavor of ice cream is and share that his is chocolate. He’ll acknowledge that women are absolutely necessary to the election process or join a migrant worker strike and my heart will be all aflutter again.

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As an adult, Kennedy was hard and masculine, but he was intuitive and emotional at his core. His ability to empathize was off the charts. Although he resisted at times, his moral compass was in full functioning order and usually won the day. But, for most of his life, he was the trumpet and scapegoat of his family. If Jack wanted something unsavory done, he could call on Bobby to do the dirty work. If someone criticized his father, no matter how his father had discounted him as a child, he would bristle and fight. It wasn’t until 1968 that Bobby Kennedy reluctantly edged into the spotlight left vacant and flickering after the death of his brother.

A good story has a beginning, sufficient rising action towards a climax, followed by enough falling action to lead you towards the end. Kennedy’s story started slowly and unremarkably as the neglected third son of ambitious parents. It continued slowly, as he consistently put his hopes and dreams aside for his family. He charged on after 1963, though directionless, and became his own man. In just a few short months, Bobby Kennedy, the shy, skulking boy from the background, found his voice just as the nation was ready to change its tune. It was a voice no one (not even himself) had heard before, but it rang loud and true and unafraid. “We need change,” it said. “Will you help me?” it asked, and the people of this country roared an overwhelming “yes.”

RFK is a giant, but he’s a giant what if. Would he have won the Democratic nomination in 1968? Possibly. Would he have won the election? Maybe not. But his sudden death allows us to speculate, allows us to imagine that climax, that falling action, and the eventual ending. He was a man of contradictions, who was constantly growing, constantly feeling. In such a short amount of time, he seemed to lift America’s hopes and present an optimistic future. Oh, the places he could have taken us…

So why do I still cry about Bobby Kennedy? Because he was a hero. Because he was human. Because he was afraid but he always did what was right in the end. His hands still shook when he spoke in public and he still struggled under the burden of his name, but his courage and determination are inspiring, his ability to escape his privilege and empathize with the working class is striking. As his funeral train sped through all the different landscapes of our beautiful nation, all the different people that make up that nation came out to mourn him. Overlooked as a child, hundreds of thousands of people now patiently waited by the tracks to say goodbye. That’s a powerful image, and I think it’s worth a few tears.

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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.

Do Not Attempt

I hate yoga like I hate eggs. You may think there’s little in common between the two, but you would be wrong. Sure, one is edible and the other is guided stretching in comfy pants; but when I confess my dislike of either, I am met with the exact same skepticism.

“But it’s really, really good for you.”

“You just haven’t tried it this way.”

“Ugh, you’re wrong! This is the best way to start a morning.”

“Hate is a strong word.”

I’m not kidding. If I had a dollar for every time someone tried to convince me I didn’t really hate yoga (or eggs), I could take a week off work and fly to Bermuda and get a hot summer tan. It’s always the instructor’s fault, or the style of the class, or the  aura of the location. Hating yoga (or eggs) just isn’t a thing people understand, but trust me. There’s something about stretching and then holding it as long as I can that makes me want to run away screaming. There’s something about being quiet and breathing intentionally that (ironically) makes me want to hyperventilate. I’ve tried yoga in the woods, by the lake, in a gym, at the art museum, in classes, with mom in the basement…

I hate yoga.

But I’ve also had a stressful few weeks. On top of starting a new job, working double shifts, trying to feed myself, and remembering to get gas, I’ve also had trouble sleeping. My mind just won’t stop working. It’s like someone took the nice, neat compartments I’d made for my thoughts and bombed them to smithereens. My responsibilities used to be predictable and routine. Now there’s a mess of mental rubble–memories, stress dreams, creative ideas, and endless to-do lists.

“How can I fix this?” I wondered a few nights ago, suddenly questioning my long-held bias against yoga.

I briefly reviewed the reasons I hate yoga: it makes me fart; my butt feels vulnerable up in the air; my clothes aren’t stylish enough; it’s too quiet so everyone can hear me fart; I can’t touch my toes; conspicuous wedgies…

“Still,” I mused, alone in the gloaming, “what if I tried?”

With the entire Interworld at my fingertips, I did a quick search for the top ten easy yoga poses. As I typed, I imagined myself attempting the poses and my problems falling gracefully to the wayside. My hair came out of the rubber band in cute little wisps and my shirt draped romantically over my shoulders. My face was serene, my mind relaxed. The following is what really happened:

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I skipped the nostril breathing. According to one practitioner, three slow breaths from their left nostril was enough to put them to sleep each night. No, thank you! Good for you; not for me!

Without the aid of my left nostril, I went straight into what is called the “Easy Pose.” (I should mention that I will not be using any “asana” names during this post because I definitely would not call what I did correct or authentic in any way.) I won’t lie. I only held this long enough to take a picture.

Verdict: comfy.

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I moved on to something familiar. I’ve been doing Child’s Pose since I was a kid and mom dragged me to her yoga class. Sure, I can curl up in a ball. I can even pretend I can feel this stretching my thighs and ankles and back. But there is a limit to how long I can stare directly at the ground before I start to feel strange. One practitioner online commented that this was the cutest pose ever because they felt like a little biscuit.

Proposal: Rename this the Little Biscuit Pose.

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Now here’s a yoga pose I can get behind. The Corpse Pose is not only simple, it is also how I spent 90% of my day off on Sunday. Psshhh, yoga is easy.

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Things got a little dicey when I moved onto the Cobra Pose. This was another familiar pose, introduced to me in dance class after ab work outs, but that didn’t make it feel any less awkward as I tried to remember where to put my hands. Turns out, there’s a Cobra Pose for Dummies website. Maybe I should have consulted that first.

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Life didn’t get much easier for me as I tried out The Bridge and The Happy Baby poses. No need for commentary. I think my face says it all.

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I redeemed myself ever-so-slightly with the Camel Pose, though (trust me), it was not without some audible groaning. It took me way longer than necessary to find my heels, too. The generic, stock-photo women doing this pose on the website looked so serene as they bent over backwards. Me? I was never more aware of how much I hate yoga as when I was doing this pose.

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Undeterred, I pushed on, following with a gravely impassioned Warrior and an absurdly giddy Tree. To be fair, I was confusing the Tree with the Baby. Or, maybe I was confusing yoga with Bob Ross. Looking back, it doesn’t make sense that a tree would be happy. But then again, yoga doesn’t make sense to me. Whatever. Hindsight is 20/20.

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Things got weird when I tried to make a triangle with my body with my butt to the camera. I don’t know exactly what I was thinking, but it had something to do with wanting to imitate the woman on the website, and her butt was to the camera, too. This pose was a pretty decent stretch, but it definitely did a better job showcasing my burgeoning wedgie. We can’t all be perfect…

It was at this moment that I decided to attempt my Everest. Some people struggle with handstands, others with finding the perfect scenic location to record themselves being fabulous. I can’t touch my toes. (Yes, even after all those dance lessons mom paid for.) I took a deep breath and began to fold myself in half, imagining that I was doing it vertebrae by vertebrae, just like a yoga instructor would advise.

And then I hit a wall, but don’t take my word for it. In good faith, I documented everything.

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Nope. No matter frequently I exhaled–no matter how desperately my arms flailed looking for something more toe-like to grab–I flat out failed. Toe touches just aren’t in my wheelhouse. Sorry, mom.

After that disappointment, I couldn’t go on. My tolerance for uncomfortably pushing my board-stiff muscles to new heights was waning, and I was feeling more and more ridiculous by the minute. Don’t get me wrong, though! Some of my friends feel and look powerful when they do yoga. Some of my friends find a peaceful quietude that helps them organize their lives and conquer their demons. I don’t doubt the benefits of comfy pants, mindful breathing, and body contortions for other people. That doesn’t change the fact that I hate it.

I may be worse than a novice…I may have only looked at pictures to do these poses…I may have been too caught up in what exactly constitutes half a fish lord…I may have thrown in the towel without really trying…But I do have to hand it to yoga: it was so awkward, I stopped worrying about work.

Disclaimer: DO NOT GOOGLE YOGA AND ATTEMPT YOGA. YOGA REQUIRES PRACTICE AND BASIC INSTRUCTION. I AM A MORON.

 

First Day Report

Many of you know: today was my first day at a new part-time job. Most of you can’t know how absolutely ready I was, how absolutely terrified.

Rewind.

Almost two years ago, I moved from my college town to a new city, hoping to connect with what many of my peers seemed to have experienced after graduation. Career opportunities, friendships, relationships, success, and pride: that’s what I hoped to find. Whether I was chasing a pipe dream or not, I don’t think it would surprise you to hear that moving to a new city was not an insta-cure for the quarter-centenarian malaise. Some 80 weeks later, I was still feeling isolated, discouraged, stuck, and hopeless. The feelings of shame and worthlessness persisted, but my network of support and mentors had drastically shrunk. I was (as Lord Elrond once described the race of men) “scattered, divided, leaderless.” I was (as John Adams once described James Otis Jr.) “a ship without a helm.”

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Rewind.

In college, I took a bowling class. The coach had a policy against negative thought patterns. If we weren’t mastering a skill quickly enough or if our scores were disappointing, he wanted us to hit the brain breaks and reorganize the route. If we were particularly bad at optimism, he suggested we actually say “STOP” out loud, followed by a sentence that could turn our thoughts around. For example, if you miss a spare and you feel like you’ll never get it right: “STOP. You’ve done such great work, I bet you’ll get the next one.”

You can probably guess who took this skill out of the lanes and to the next level. (Spoiler alert: it was me.) I was having a particularly difficult year writing my thesis, and I ended up walking around campus, muttering “stop” every fifteen minutes or so. It was one of the few things keeping me from crumpling under anxiety and feelings of inadequacy. I sounded insane, but it worked. I finished my thesis. Even now, after a few hundred tries, I can usually spin straw situations into gold if I just remember to STOP.

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“Thank you, Chris. You’re welcome, Chris. I sound insane. I’m going to go talk to my therapist.”

Fast-forward.

I think this past February was the hardest month in my life so far. To kick it all off, I caught a knife with the palm of my hand, which resulted in a trip to urgent care and my first stitches. For a week, I couldn’t braid my hair, tie my shoes, scrape snow off my car, or even fasten my own belt. I was impotent and useless in ways I’d never experienced, and all my dissatisfaction with life came rushing forward. I could no longer temper the ennui with hours of Netflix and cups of tea. I felt overworked, undervalued, bored, and stagnant…

…And then I remembered to STOP.

I made it my mission to shake up my life. As soon as my stitches were removed, I took a long shower, brushed my hair, and cleaned my apartment.”New or challenging” became the mandate for all after-work activities. I went to concerts instead of binge-watching shows I’d already seen. I journaled in coffee shops instead of scrolling through Facebook. I went on runs through the woods; I practiced viola; I started and finished books. For the first time in over a year, I updated my resume and started scouring the Internet for jobs. Even the smallest breaks in routine boosted my energy and joie de vivre, and the tangible results came quickly.

Less than a month after my injury healed, I scheduled my first job interview. Interview followed interview. I had made a change and now the ball was rolling, rolling. It was almost frightening how quickly my own agency was confirmed. All this time I felt blown around by the winds of chance, and suddenly I was in charge. Positive action had reaped positive consequence, and the only thing to do was keep driving…

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Fast-forward.

“Starting a new job is always emotional,” said my training manager today in the biggest understatement of the year.

As I sat through the endless hours of training to prepare me for success in my new job, I oscillated between homesickness for my museum and overwhelming excitement for my future, both of which nearly brought me to tears. I was dressed in a sad attempt at business casual: my pinstriped eighth-grade-orchestra pants and a white lace free box crop top hidden under a hand-me-down blazer. I felt young and inexperienced as I entered the boardroom and tried to make small talk with strangers. I thought back on my last days at the natural history museum, tried to remember what it felt like to be sure, and repeated the congratulations of my coworkers over and over in my head.

Good luck.

I’m glad you got a position you wanted.

You’ll do great.

We’ll miss you.

This new job was never in my plans, but something about it feels good. Years of hard work have been validated by a 100% increase in hourly wage, more creative responsibility, and entry into a workplace that (according to these training sessions) is reserved for only the best candidates. I feel nervous, excited, overwhelmed, overjoyed, and empowered. I made a choice to make a change, and now I’m here, standing on the precipice of possibility. You’ll have to stay tuned to find out what happens next.

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“Congratulations, [redacted]!”

hello blackbird / hello starling / winter’s over / be my darling

It’s been a whirlwind long time since my last update, and I’ll do my best to slowly catch you up to where my life has gone since the end of January. (Don’t worry. It’s not too far.) I have been feeling incredibly creative lately, but I have also been struggling with focus and productivity. My thoughts come in quick bursts, as mandated by my hectic schedule. I’m lucky if they organize themselves into a complete sentence, and luckier still if a piece of paper happens to be nearby. Usually, I’m on my way to a band rehearsal, symposium, public presentation, job interview, art modeling gig, or regular shift at work, and there’s no time to record my eloquence for the ages.

(Apologies if my writing is a little rusty. Language is a muscle, etc…)

The last time I remember being able to press pause was the end of February. I managed to secure two days off work in order to see Josh Ritter & the Royal City Band perform live at the Taft Theatre in Cincinnati. In much the same way I weaseled into courses that were already full in college, I used candy as bribes, texted and e-mailed constant reminders, and even issued ultimatums. I needed to go to this concert, and it may seem an exaggeration to think of a musical performance as a mental health panacea, but trust me: there is nothing quite like a Josh Ritter concert.

I arrived in Cincinnati to meet with my friend, Joe*, who would be my concert buddy for the night. We killed some time (pun intended) by strolling through an old cemetery near his house, and I geeked out over funerary monuments with flying buttresses and German epitaphs. Once we were hungry enough for dinner, we got some deliciously greasy grub and headed to the concert.

(*not his real name)

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As we walked into the theater, I became increasingly nervous. Josh Ritter is so dear to me, and I was sharing his music with a good friend in a much more intimate way than a casual Dropbox file. I do nearly everything on my own these days, and social anxieties are often amplified 1,000x when I’m out with others. I was worried that something would go wrong, that Joe would have a miserable time, that his car would get towed, that the date was printed wrong on my tickets, that none of the instruments would be in tune, that the crowd would be weird… From the moment we entered the venue, my anxious little mind was chugging along at full speed.

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I was not, however, too distracted to accurately date the theater based only on the art deco designs around the stage. A win for history nerds everywhere!

I think part of the reason Josh Ritter’s music is so important to me is the fact that it is one of the few things I can know for sure is mine. I am a chameleon. I will change my clothes, my music, my vocabulary–my entire everything!–to be what I imagine others want me to be at any given moment. I am so good at this that I can change practically by the minute. It’s certainly a skill, but it doesn’t leave one with a very strong sense of self.

Josh Ritter is different. I fell in love with his music before I fell in love with any boys. None of my friends knew who he was, and his wasn’t one of the many CDs my parents handed me hoping it would distract me from N*SYNC. His music has been with me for years, and it has shaped, clarified, and ameliorated so many of the struggles of my nascent adulthood that I have lost count. His lyrics are magical and excite my imagination. When I close my eyes, I can see the stories play out with vivid characters and mystical landscapes. His music is warm, comforting and nostalgic. I am never so much myself as when I am listening to Josh Ritter sing…which may be the reason I always find it so hard to share him with others. He is such an intrinsic part of myself that it feels like a personal attack when someone doesn’t dig his music.

(One time a boy I thought I loved told me Josh Ritter was for old men, so I stopped listening for three whole months, and it felt like losing a piece of my soul.)

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All nerves aside, the concert was amazing. The venue was a beautiful art deco theater in the heart of downtown Cincinnati. The opening band, Barnstar, was brilliant and hilarious. As the lights dimmed to signal the end of the break, Josh Ritter opened with a truly moving acoustic rendition of Idaho that left me in literal tears. If you have not yet heard that haunting melody, go and listen to it right now, and imagine, while you do, sitting not 20 feet away from the man as he softly croons the tune bathed in a cool, blue light...

That alone is what all my dreams are made of, not to mention the rest of the set, which had me oscillating between that intoxicating mix of weepy nostalgia and unbridled joy. I stopped worrying almost immediately. To paraphrase some of his lyrics: it was hard to think a smile could bring springtime, but it did. He is truly one of the happiest performers I have ever seen. I am notoriously pessimistic, but I cannot be sad in front of Josh Ritter. His energy on stage and high spirits carried the evening and set my heart free.

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After the concert, sweet, patient Joe waited with me by the side door of the theater for the performers to exit. The group ahead of us in line turned into a tale from the Book of Virtues when they were thrown out for trying to sneak backstage, which left Joe and I first in line. I don’t remember much of what happened next, because, before I knew it, Josh Ritter had wrapped me in such a warm, familiar, and genuine hug that my mind went completely blank. I know we talked about Oberlin and history and museums. I was lucid enough to ask if we could take a picture but not enough to tell the woman taking it how to use my camera. There were more hugs–at least four!–that made me feel so loved. He told us to drive safe with such sincerity he could have been my brother or cousin or best friend. But he was a complete stranger. As we walked back to the car, I kept reminding myself that he was a complete stranger, but the recent memory of so many consecutive hugs overruled any logic. For the first time in forever, I was unselfconsciously giddy. My entire body was vibrating with happiness. I could have run a marathon. I barely slept that night.

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The next day, Joe and I spent a solid 3 hours at the amazing Cincinnati Museum Center, got some ice cream, and then I dropped in to say hello to my grandma before I headed back to Columbus to finish my laundry. I visited my parents, hugged the cat, and then finished the northward haul to Cleveland.

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A really awesome exhibit in the history museum at the Cincinnati Museum Center

I hit the ground running as soon I returned to Cleveland, arriving on time for a work shift before I even saw my apartment. It’s been the same ever since. I barely have space to breathe, but I’m hoping to update this blog soon with every important milestone I’ve achieved since my last post. (Hoping, not promising.) These include such gems as: the Mary Church Terrell symposium at Oberlin College in February, cutting my hand open in an hilarious-in-retrospect kitchen emergency, the perils of phone interviews, and voting in Tuesday’s primary election.

Until then, I wish you all the happiness of seeing Josh Ritter performing live.