Birthdays

Some of you know—most of you don’t—that I turned 25 on July 2nd. As momentous as the math would seem—a quarter of a century, the square root of five, a number whose digits add up to seven—the whole affair turned into a bit of a letdown.

I had high hopes. Despite moving to a new city as a solitary unit, I’ve been optimistic recently that I’m finally starting to get it. I have new friends—work-friends, but friends, I insist; I have places I like to go; I have started to like myself. In light of these momentous advances in personal happiness, I genuinely expected to enjoy my birthday, but something dark and cloudy descended on my mood, and I balked. Let’s be honest: the day was rough.

It started with tears, which were followed by lines at the DMV. The sun poked through my spirits when I baked a cake and some vegan cookies to bring into my friends at work. An onslaught of curt birthday messages on social media were like arrows to my lonely heart, and then I scolded myself for being so ungrateful. People asked me if I had plans. The answer was no. I didn’t understand the questions were an invitation to make some. I went home and wrapped myself in the warmth of the few cards and packages I received in the mail, and I tried not to feel like a failure.

“Someday,” I opined. “Someday I’ll find my social agency, and I won’t be so afraid to ask people to love me. Someday, I’ll feel like I’m worth it.”

I don’t want anyone to feel like their Facebook notes and texts were unappreciated. You all mean the world to me, but sometimes the mental clouds are just that impenetrable. I’m fine now. I’m happy now. So, it’s time to celebrate a different birthday.

Call it a second chance. I was browsing my Facebook memories (this is a new daily reminder I get—my inner historian rejoices), and I discovered that my blog—this blog—is officially three years old! Like an actual child, this blog came into the world screaming. It was all tears and helplessness, but there was a nascent sense of self forming just below all the noise. My blog learned to talk, then it learned to walk. Now, it runs—on thoughts and experience, it runs like clockwork. I have found my voice.

(Who knows what I will think about my recent entries in three more years, but, for now and for once, I feel like I’m actually saying something.)

To celebrate my growth, I thought I’d take a look back. There was a time, not too long ago, that I couldn’t see past heartache and disappointment. There was a time, not too long ago, that I couldn’t write a resume or use a microfilm machine. A lot has happened in three years, and here are some blog posts to prove it.

July 2012: My blog begins with a name and a quote, both from Alcuin by Charles Brockden Brown, a source that featured heavily in my senior thesis research. I lamented my inability to function in the real world. I started a blog to document this experiment. Growing pains ensued. (No link, because the post embarrasses me. But the quote is awesome.)

If they generously admit me into the class of existences, but affirm that I exist for no purpose but the convenience of the more dignified sex, that I cannot be entrusted with the government of myself: that to foresee, to deliberate and decide belongs to others, while all my duties resolve themselves into this precept, ‘listen and obey;’ it is not for me to smile at their tyranny, or receive as my gospel, a code built upon such atrocious maxims. No, I am not a Federalist.

July 25, 2012: That summer, my heart broke, but I also met and hugged a personal hero of mine. There’s nothing quite like Josh Ritter telling you it will all work out in the end. I’m still carrying those endorphins with me.

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December 5, 2012: A tribute to bowling, which has more to do with real life than one would expect. Thanks to a mentor, Tom Reid, for introducing me to a new way to untangle my problems.

December 19, 2012: I was working in a burrito restaurant at time when it seemed like all my other friends had “real” jobs. Despite the worry I was falling behind, I loved my job and all the weird smells, late nights, and rough edges that came with it.

Killarney Nat'l Park - Killarney, Co. Kerry, IRL - October 2012

Killarney Nat’l Park – Killarney, Co. Kerry, IRL – October 2012 – I also went to Ireland at some point in 2012. The entry was boring, but this photo is lovely, so it stays.

February 8, 2013: I was starting to settle into my new life in northeast Ohio, but I still had to remind myself to let go and enjoy it. A short letter to hold onto in dark times.

August 19, 2013: I was accepted into the AmeriCorps program with the Ohio History Corps and the Oberlin Heritage Center, and embarked on a journey that would bring me even closer to the little town I loved. A brief statement on why museum work and local history matter.

December 25, 2013: Learning broadens your horizons, connects you to stories you never knew existed, and sheds light on past experiences. Commentary on a documentary and how I found feminism.

March 12, 2014: When life goes too fast, there’s nothing like developing a roll of film to help you slow down. A series of images and a tribute to my darling Minolta camera.

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March 30, 2014: In the same vein, a description of why letters are so important and why I keep all of them.

December 27, 2014: This past December, I left a job and people I loved, so I wrote a fictional account of a year in the life of my Hale Farm character(s).

February 9, 2015: I am a binge-watcher, and sometimes this changes the way I see the world. A particularly in-depth analysis of one aspect of a show I absolutely adore, and an issue that hits home.

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These posts aren’t exactly the best representation of my blog over the years. I’ve left out the entries that feel too maudlin in retrospect, or that are still too personal. I’ve also avoided the more recent, since they haven’t yet been lost to time. Instead, this is a Parade of Champions—of posts I’m proud of, that say something about me and my journey, that remind me I can achieve.

I won’t make this entry much longer, in the hopes that you can find the time to read one or two of the links above. I’ll only say this: thank you for being my friends, for following this blog with its ups and downs and in-betweens, and thank you for all the kind birthday wishes.

Morning Meeting

Good morning, friends!

This will be a short post, but one I wanted to make outside the bubble of my private, isolated Facebook page.

To begin: an appreciation. Thank you for keeping my online world relevant, interactive, educational, and moving. I don’t have a television, and I am notoriously bad at keeping up with current events. My various newsfeeds right now are 95% outrage at the church shooting in Charleston, and only 5% babies, engagements, birthdays, weddings, and cats. I’m glad things are going well for you and your pets, but sometimes the world is exploding and your baby takes a back seat. Thank you for understanding that.

Still, though, enjoy this cat doing yoga...

Still, though, please enjoy this cat doing yoga…

I have also been seeing a lot of angry posts about how white America has been silent, dismissing this not-so-isolated event as a singular, “unspeakable” tragedy. And, honestly, my first reaction has been very aggressive defense. MY FRIENDS ARE TALKING ABOUT IT. I READ TEN ARTICLES WHEN I WOKE UP. I’M OUTRAGED, TOO. DID YOU SEE MY STATUS UPDATE ABOUT IT YESTERDAY? I GOT 48 LIKES. MY FEMINISM IS INTERSECTIONAL, DAMMIT. NOT ALL WHITE PEOPLE NOT ALL WHITE PEOPLE NOT ALL WHITE PEOPLE…

Stop.

Take a deep breath.

Now, exhale.

If I wholeheartedly agree that the man (not the troubled, shy, quiet kid) who murdered peaceful worshipers at Emanuel AME perpetrated an act of terrorism–if I wholeheartedly agree that the general media is doing a terrible job covering this attack–then why do I get myself in such a tizzy when someone points out that all of white America is complicit in this ongoing extermination of Black bodies? When someone says, “White people, listen up!” and my first reaction is to shout I’M ALREADY LISTENING, then I’m not already listening. I’m sticking my thumbs in my ears and closing my eyes because I think I know best. That makes me complicit.

I have studied Anna Julia Cooper, Mary Church Terrell, and Ida B. Wells. I’ve read Toni Morrison, Anne Moody, Zora Neale Hurston, and Maya Angelou. I have friends, like you, that bring articles to my attention. I go to protests in my city and do my best to learn from the experience of others. I may know better than some of my peers, but I don’t know best.

Ida B. Wells (courtesy of University of Chicago Library)

Ida B. Wells (courtesy of University of Chicago Library)

At the end of the day, I am white America. In my name, to protect the delicate flower of my white femininity, Black men are punished, killed. When I see a police officer, I worry about tickets, not bullets. If I were ever murdered, raped, or harmed in any way, my story would be breaking news, and the person who trespassed against me would be prosecuted. My “normal” (read: white) name earns me jobs, respect, and an automatic soap-box before anyone even knows who I am. I am white America.

The number of articles I read doesn’t change the fact that I get to choose whether or not these events interrupt my daily life. When I hear people at work talking about police violence like it’s par for the course, I can choose to speak up, or I can choose to keep my head down and avoid alienating my coworkers. When the NAACP is bombed or a Black church is massacred, I can choose to join the anger and outrage on Facebook, or I can fret and worry over what the friends I just added will think of my politics. More often than not, I am silent, and I am sorry.

I’m making this post because I am so proud to know all of you who haven’t been afraid, who have helped to educate me and have made me a better person. I’m also making this post to urge you (and myself!) to carry that ability beyond the privacy settings of social media. You are smart, and you are capable, and you have these amazing thoughtful voices that are (unfortunately) being wasted in a bubble of people who already agree.

Posting an update or an article on social media is a good first step. For those of us who are shy or lack confidence, the likes that stream in can be validating and uplifting. But it cannot be the end. It does not make you an ally. Hold onto that passion and carry it with you. If someone you know says something that you don’t agree with, call them out. Talk to them. Do not be afraid of dissonance, because that is exactly where you are needed. Racism exists in this country because our silence allows it to exist. If we, as white America, do not wish to be complicit in white supremacist violence, then we cannot claim neutrality and we cannot remain ignorant. By doing so, we side with (and remain) the oppressors.

It’s time to wake up. It’s time to listen up. And it’s time to speak up.

For those of you who haven’t been so lucky as to have friends like mine, here are some articles written by people who are smarter than me. Click on them, bookmark them, read them when you have the time. This stuff is important.

These Are the 9 Men and Women You Should be Talking About

Why It’s So Hard to Talk to White People About Racism

White Fragility, Silence, and Supremacy…

The Dark Hidden Meaning Behind the Flags on Charleston Shooter’s Jacket

Refusal to Call Charleston Shootings “Terrorism”…

What the Confederate Flag Really Means…

Object Permanence

Love fades away. But things? Things are forever.

– Tom Haverford

I’ll tell it to you straight: I live in a city that can experience all four seasons in a single day. I spent a lot of time in a college town, where my core group of friends rotated based on who was in town for break. I move to a new apartment every nine months, and I’ve never had a boy hold my hand and tell me he loves me.

Change and upheaval have been ubiquitous in my early 20s, but I am stubborn as a mule. I swallowed the stones of constancy a long time ago, hoping they would grind this perpetual uncertainty into something easily digestible. I’d rather drown with my heels dug into the sand than relax my limbs, tilt my head back to the sun, and let the waves wash me ashore. I do not adjust well.

I’m making this post because I’m about to turn 25 years old, and I’ve been feeling a bit swept away. It’s not a bad thing. As a rational adult, I know that change can be good. It can mean a new job, a better home, friends who care, happiness. As a somewhat less rational adult, I’m terrified and convinced it will all go wrong. Everything. Nothing will be good. Anger and sadness. The feline inside takes over, and all I want to do is hiss and claw my way back to the familiar, even if the familiar means being unhappy.

(I may or may not have been a cat in another life. This may also explain my affinity for knocking things off shelves and head massages.)

Now, I’m not really a person who cares about things. Every time I talk to my mom about moving, I tell her I don’t want anything. I don’t want an adult bed with a solid oak headboard that weighs 2,000,000 pounds. I don’t want a couch that can’t be taken apart. I don’t want to put my posters in frames or to own more than one lamp. I want to keep my six-year-old glasses and this pillowcase from the 1970s. I’ll take people’s old clothes, but I won’t buy new ones for myself. I hate things.

But, as I’m about to get older, I’ve been thinking a lot about the things I do own. I may not be able to count on the sun coming out in the morning (thanks, Lake Erie), but most of the things I own are things that keep me feeling rooted. Through every move and every heartbreak–in sickness and in health–these things have been with me. When I hold them, I know certainty. When I hold them, I know strength. When I hold them, I know myself. This is a tribute to those things that, even when I cannot see it, remind me that I can (and will) pull through.

My baby blanket. There is a gray pile of knotted yarn sitting on the bed next to me. Too delicate to be washed regularly, it smells more human than I do with all my shampoo and perfume. It is rough–full of holes and lumps–but every few moments, I pause typing to run the fabric through my fingers. Only I know how this feels. Only I know the inexplicable comfort this action can bring…

I’ve had this blanket since I was born. That’s the excuse I give as I fail to articulate its importance. For reasons unknown to me, I chose it to be mine, and, for reasons unknown to me, I’ve been compelled to keep it. I’ve carried it with me for 25 years, and it has seen the world. I can’t even begin to list the adventures it we’ve shared. Six trips to Europe, a decade of Girl Scout camp, four years of college, spring break trips, bus rides, train rides–even caving! It has sat through every episode of Parks & Rec, every tearful phone call, every all-nighter, every head cold… If I had to describe my soul, it would be this blanket: knotted, faded, worn, but full of love and an unbreakable spirit of adventure.

I’m not an infant or an idiot. This blanket ceased to have a name when I became a teenager. It lost its gender when I graduated high school. When men stay the night, I kick it to the bottom of the bed, and I no longer bring it outside my room. But, until it has completely unraveled to nothing, I will continue to diligently tie its frayed ends together. I will continue running its edges between my fingers. And I will continue loving it as it has loved me.

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My ring. I have worn this ring on my right hand every day for the past four years. I purchased it only a week before I left Ireland because it was the cheapest one I could find. It didn’t mean much, to be quite honest. I thought it was funny when Irish boys came up with clever excuses to look at my hand to see if I was single or not, but that was about it. It wasn’t until I left the place I’d called home for half a year and set off for a scary adventure all on my own that I found it had any meaning at all.

When I was alone on the train from Berlin to Dresden, feeling lousy, I happened to look down at my hand. In that shiny silver heart, I saw rolling green hills and sheep in the pasture. I saw my friends smiling up at me–Irish, German, American, Portuguese, Austrian. I saw crystal blue harbors and rainbow store fronts. I smelled the grassy rain and heard the music of my soul. I took a deep breath and looked out the window, content.

I lost my ring for four days in Dresden. I anxiously stammered something in German to the hostel owner and then ran upstairs to frantically tear apart my room, looking. My hand felt wrong. I couldn’t even turn the pages in my book. I unpacked my whole bag over and over again until, crying, I called my mom and asked her what I should do. I was distraught. I was sure I’d never be able to use my right hand again.

A few days later, as I arrived at a friend’s house in Frankfurt and loosened the detachable front pouch on my backpack, I found the ring stuck on a string behind the pouch. For four days, that little silver circle had held onto that unreliable piece of string. It had held onto that string through multiple train rides and several panicked searches. It was a close call, but I hadn’t lost it. I breathed a sigh of relief and slipped it back onto my finger. Ireland–and all I loved about it–was with me again.

It’s difficult to explain, because I bought this ring as a gimmick. It’s just what you do when you visit Ireland, but, the thing is: I didn’t just visit Ireland. I lived there and studied there. I laughed and cried there. I flirted with my first boy in a pub on Sea Road. I joined clubs and practiced Irish with old men at bars. I introduced my dance shoes to their homeland, and I saw the world from the top of a mountain (or what Austrians would call a “hill”). It’s just a plain silver thing, but, when I look at it, especially when I’m sad, I remember that I did all that, and I can do it again.

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My Oberlin afghan(s). I’ve said it time and time again, so I won’t bore you with too much repetition: my time at Oberlin was weird. Completely enamored with the history of the place, I was also incredibly depressed and broken for most of my time there. One of my close high school friends died my freshman year, and I took to wandering alone in the early morning. I closed myself off from any potential friends in my new home, and my isolation deepened. I buried myself in my schoolwork to distract from a life that wasn’t at all what I had anticipated when I received my acceptance letter. I struggled with disordered eating, and I fell in love with the wrong person. I left a proud graduate and ran full steam into a heartbreak that would take years to heal.

But, here’s the thing. The whole time I was losing myself at Oberlin, I was also finding myself. I found a strength and a determination I didn’t know I had. I learned about social justice and humanism. I opened my mind to histories I never knew existed. I connected with the stars and the earth. I discovered new passions and tried new foods, and I eventually did make friends. Despite all the hardship, those are things I wouldn’t trade for the world.

I have two Oberlin afghans. One was given to me before I graduated. The Oberlin College seal (designed by a woman!) is emblazoned across the front in crimson and gold, and the motto, “Learning and Labor,” is embroidered in strong, bold letters. The other was a gift from the Oberlin Heritage Center when I completed my year of Americorps service there. It’s a simple white and red and depicts historic buildings and events in the town.

When I moved to Cleveland, one of the hardest changes was to no longer feel connected to the place where I lived. I had been in Oberlin so long–I had lived for its history so long–that I could barely cope with how displaced I felt in Cleveland. These afghans are my way of keeping that sense of place alive, that sense of belonging. Both represent a different experience I’ve had in Oberlin–as a student and a resident. Both remind me of the things I’ve overcome, of the lessons I’ve learned, and the people I’ve loved in a town I will never, ever forget.

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I don’t own a lot of things, and I don’t want a lot of things, but I do love the things I have. If I did an inventory of my room right now–of every single mug, trinket, and article of clothing–every single thing would have a story. That’s just how I like it. I have individual socks that have a story just as long as the ones I sketched above. But I’m stopping here, because it’s late, and I want you all to still be my friends after you read this.

My life as a young person has been a transient one. My nests have been necessarily small. As the years go by, I will probably live in more cities than I ever dreamed as a child, and it might be years before one of those cities truly becomes home. I’m facing another birthday, another move, and grad school applications. With all the craziness, it’s easy to forget who I am and where I’ve been. Ownership is a bizarre concept, but I’m grateful the things I love are mine. They hold my memories (my entire life!) and keep my roots portable. Without them, I don’t know where I’d be.

To the Class of 2015

The day of my life…A.B. is really mine.

– Mary Elizabeth Johnston, Oberlin, 1937

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To the Class of 2015: Congratulations! For all the millions of words in the dictionaries of the world, there isn’t a single one that can accurately describe what you mean to me. In the same way that your parents cry over pictures of you in diapers, my eyes fill with tears when I think of you, walking across the stage to receive your diplomas. I can’t help it! I have known many of you since the beginning, and I’ve watched you grow! You don’t know it, but you are so much more than you were when you were first years…

But, here’s the thing: what I’m feeling isn’t the same thing that your parents are feeling. I would never be so presumptuous as to claim I’ve played a major role in guiding any of your lives these past four years. What makes you so precious is not seeing all the ways I’ve shaped you, but, rather, feeling so deeply all the ways you have shaped me. You are the last class of freshmen I saw matriculate as a student. You helped me write my thesis by bringing flowers into the library, reminding me that a world still existed outside my ever-growing manuscript. You held my hand as I struggled to eat, and again through numerous relapses. You hugged me through heartbreak, and you listened patiently as I used you as a sounding board for sorting through the troubles of adulthood.

Looking back, if I’ve given you anything in your four years at Oberlin, it is a somewhat bleak preview into what the world can be.

So, I want to give you something else. It’s not advice; there’s enough of that going around this time of year. What I want to give you is an introduction into the club you joined when you completed your final credits at Oberlin College. They’re a rag-tag bunch of scholars who took on a world full of impossibility, who refused to let their poverty, gender, and race decide their futures. Centuries of history have inflated these names. Because their images are preserved as daguerreotypes instead of data bytes, we err in thinking they their stories are past. The truth is: when they graduated, they were just like all of us. Doubt and urgency gnawed ravenously at the fringe of their consciences. A vast, unknowable world swallowed their sense of accomplishment, and everywhere society was telling them “no.” Here’s what happened…

When Lucy Stone graduated from Oberlin College in 1847, she had already begun taking an ax to the system. She refused to wear her bonnet in church, and had successfully convinced a conservative institution to pay its female student teachers the same as their male peers. When she was denied the opportunity to practice debate and oration in her classes, she created a secret debate society for young women in the woods surrounding the campus. However, just like many of you, after four years spent battling an unsupportive administration, her final protest came during Commencement, where she refused to write a speech if her words were to be presented by a man (as was standard practice at the time).

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When Lucy Stone left Oberlin College, the struggle was still fresh in her mind. She wrote constantly to her best friend, Antoinette Brown, who had stayed behind to continue the fight, expressing her resentment of an institution that had supported neither of them. “Nette I am so sorry you are at Oberlin,” she wrote in 1850. “They trampled your womanhood, and you did not spurn it…O Nette, I am sorry you returned, but for all this you KNOW I love you dearly, and will say no more about it…I shant ever take a second degree and regret, deeply regret, that I ever took any.”

When Lucy Stone left Oberlin College, there was no guarantee that she would achieve her dreams of becoming an orator and speaking out for justice. When Antoinette Brown completed her coursework in theology, there was no guarantee she would find a minister brave enough ordain her. The press mocked them ruthlessly. The public pelted them with rotten fruit. Their strong words were often overpowered by heckling. Theirs was not an easy road. They put on a brave face, and, eventually, they found their way.

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Despite fears that their convictions would leave them alone in the world, both women married supportive husbands and raised the next generation of crusaders. After years of battle, Oberlin finally recognized their achievements. In 1883, Oberlin College invited Lucy Stone back to give a speech celebrating its 50th anniversary. Her speech, Oberiln & Woman, acknowledged the gifts Oberlin had given the women of her generation, but warned against inertia as she urged the town and college to take the next steps towards equality. In 1878, Oberlin College finally awarded Antoinette Brown the theology degree she had earned in 1850. Brown was also honored in 2014 with a ceremony and an Ohio Historical Marker outside of First Church. As she wrote in 1848, “The cause of woman is moveing along finely here…so this ball is rolling steadily steadily steadily.”  Their stories aren’t over. The ball’s in our court now, and we must keep it rolling…

I know their lives better than I know my own, so I apologize if you’ve heard this all before. Even Michelle Obama mentioned Lucy Stone in her Commencement speech, but a woman you may not know is Mary Elizabeth Johnston, who graduated from Oberlin College in 1937 after 25 years of hard work. She was born to a middle-class family in Sandusky, Ohio, whose fortunes turned when her father died. They moved back to Oberlin to be near her mother’s family, and Mary Johnston entered college near the turn of the century. Finding it impossible to pay for her education, she eventually split her time between college and teaching at an all-black school in North Carolina. Having never personally encountered Jim Crow laws and segregation, the South was a shock at first, but her experience instilled her with a renewed sense of purpose. When she finally completed her coursework, her mother had died. Her aunt had died. The only people who knew her in the audience were her niece and an old college friend, but she had done it. She would later describe walking across the stage as “the day of my life.”  After another twenty years of work, Johnston also received her master’s from Kent State University. She continued to teach around the United States, donating what money she could to an Oberlin fund to support underprivileged students like herself. When she retired, nearly a quarter of her yearly pension was given to Oberlin to expand the library’s collection of African American literature, and she encouraged the art museum to increase the presence of non-Western art. Despite having almost nothing, she gave almost everything so that others like her might have the privilege of an education. She died in 1981, before you were born, but you have taken up her sword, and the fight for affordable, accessible higher education will continue in your capable hands…

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Or, how about John Mercer Langston? Do you know his story? He was born in 1829 in Virginia to a black woman who had been freed by his white father. With funds set aside for their education, he and his brothers attended Oberlin College, one of the only institutions in the United States to accept students of color. He received his B.A. in 1849, and his theology degree in 1852. When he completed his education at Oberlin, he intended to enter law school, but no school would accept him because of the color of his skin. (Note: he was applying in New York and Ohio, just in case you needed a reminder that de facto segregation was a thing.) Instead, Langston taught himself, shadowing a Republican lawmaker until he was able to pass the Ohio bar exam in 1854. His drive and ambition led him to become one of the first black lawyers in the United States, and he used his accomplishment for the good of others. In 1862, he successfully argued in defense of Edmonia Lewis, a black student who was charged with poisoning her female classmates and had been brutally beaten by vigilantes. He tirelessly petitioned the Governor of Ohio to create a black regiment during the Civil War. Despite countless rejections, he won the day in 1863 with the establishment of the 5th U.S. Colored Troops. After the War, he was one of five black men to be elected to Congress, but he spent the first 18 months of his term defending his right to be there, as opponents tried to steal his seat away from him and tarnish his name. By the end of his life, he had been a lawyer, a crusader, president of a college, and a diplomat, and was one of the most prominent black men in the country. But it all started when he was sixteen years old, following his older brothers to Oberlin College. As you come into this world, preparing to enter a society that violently ignores racism and inequality, remember that you share a story–that you share a struggle–with this remarkable man…

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I could go on, but let’s not beat a dead horse, shall we? I’m telling you all these stories, because this is what I have to give. I am just as terrified and lost as you are. I am chomping at the bit, impatient for my work to make a difference in this cruel world, but unsure where to start. To offer advice would be a bit like the blind leading the blind, so, instead, I’m offering you stories. Near the turn of the century, Mary Elizabeth Johnston heard a sermon in Oberlin: “We are the inheritors of the past, the possessors of the present, and the makers of the future.” You have just joined a group of remarkable humans, but they started right where you are right now. You are a new face in a long line of strong, determined graduates who changed their communities for the better. You are still growing, but the world is already a more just and equal place for having you in it, and I just wanted you to know that.

So, Class of 2015 (and all you other recent graduates), sit back, take a breath, and let the present wash over you. Cry if you need to. Have a laugh. Hug your family. Find a quite place and reflect. And, as you move towards a future that will undoubtedly be a tough struggle, never, ever forget your roots.

I love you, and you will do great things.

Story-time.

I was driving to work the other day, listening to my usual, trashy, rage-inducing morning show, when the hosts posed a question that left me bewildered. “Do you answer your front door?” Caller after caller from the suburbs rang in to declare that they would never answer the front door, and to warn other listeners against responding to that tell-tale knock. Peoples’ answers varied from the callous (“I hate the Girl Scouts”) to the paranoid (“Remember, professional burglars pose as cleaners and repairmen all the time”). One woman replied that she would actually go into the bathroom with her toddler until she could be sure the expectant caller was gone. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing!

Now, I won’t lie. I can’t remember the last time I answered a front door. I’m pretty asocial, and I don’t go out of my way to engage with other people. I’ll actually fake a phone conversation to avoid saying hello to people I know, so you can imagine how it goes with strangers. I had always chalked that up to my own, personal neuroses and singular character flaws. I’d heard the statistics that social media and technology has increased narcissism and decreased empathy, but I had no idea our society had become so sick as to ignore young girls and fear our neighbors. But then–how could I forget the man shot to death in North Carolina when knocking on a stranger’s door because he needed help after a car accident… Iguess this is the world we live in, and, from one asocial, excessively-nervous person to (apparently) thousands of others: it’s not okay.

I want to take the time to tell a few stories, because anecdotes can be lessons and good reminders. I live in Cleveland, Ohio, fairly close to downtown. When I first told a co-worker where I was moving, she replied, “Oh, that’s where the prostitutes are!” before bashfully clamping her hand over her mouth and blushing. Other people I told followed suit, and the more acquaintances advised me to “carry a firearm,” the less proud I was of my shiny new apartment with its wooden floors, historic features, and spacious rooms. The more terrified I became of my “bad neighborhood.” There’s a problem inherent in letting others do your thinking for you, and it’s that you never get to find out for yourself.

for the record, my apartment is pretty rad When I first moved into my apartment, I was standing outside with my parents, puzzling over how to move an all-too-heavy chair the required distance without a set of wheels. Down the street, I could hear a three-wheeled grocery cart approaching, and I could see the man driving it. He was a black man with baggy, faded clothes, and very few teeth. He had a bandage on his forearm. My heart leapt into my throat, and I frantically bent to lift the chair. I was desperate to look strong, capable, and busy. I also wanted to get my parents into the building as quickly as possible. I had grown up in a peaceful, middle-class suburb, and then I had lived in Oberlin. I wanted to protect them from what my neighborhood was supposed to be. I don’t hesitate to admit the thoughts I had, ashamed as I am to have had them, because hiding our prejudiced thoughts is one way we fail to confront and move past things like racism. Pretending it doesn’t exist only allows it to silently grow stronger, even within our own, well-meaning hearts. So, yeah, I felt scared and frantically tried to move this ridiculously behemoth chair because I didn’t want to talk to the homeless guy that was approaching me. That’s the beginning. Do you want to know how the story ends?

IMG_20141020_164448 The man came up to us and commented on the size of the chair in comparison to the size of me. He asked if my dad could lift it. The answer was no. So the man lifted the chair–by himself!–and put it on his cart. Carefully, he helped us wheel it to the fire escape stairs, and then he asked what floor I lived on. He carried that damn chair up two flights of stairs and put it in my new apartment. My mom paid him $40 for helping us out of our (honestly) desperate situation, and he refused it. He said he was just trying to help some people who didn’t have what they needed. My mom only convinced him to take the money by saying that she understood and now she was returning the favor. He left, and I haven’t seen him since.

Here’s another story. I was walking down a fairly developed street, much “nicer” than my side of town, and a woman approached me. It was -20 degrees outside and snowing, but she only wore a light jacket. She directed me to an alcove where the wind wasn’t as intense, and told me she needed bus fare to get back home. She told me she had tried asking dozens of other people, but I was the first person on that cold, windy night to have stopped and listened–to have even seen her. (And, to be fair, I had walked right past her the first time.) I gave her $10 without question. It was money I had planned on spending at a bar with my friends, but I realized that I could still go into that bar where it was warm, and no one would kick me out because of how I looked, even though I would have no money. I realized that I had a car with a full tank of gas that would get me back home, to my apartment in all its glory. I gave her my $10 because it was freaking cold outside, and no one on that busy street with its microbreweries and fancy restaurants had noticed or tried to help a woman in a thin sweatshirt.

IMG_20150214_144032 Another story: yesterday, I was pumping gas. Even though it’s in my “bad” neighborhood, I tend stop there after work instead of driving a few block further, because it is usually a few cents cheaper than anywhere else in the city. It’s not the most relaxing place to stop my car and stand outside alone, so I’m always on high-alert. I saw a guy walking over from the abandoned lot next door, and I immediately kicked myself for not closing my window while I waited for the gas to pump. I was wearing a tank top and leggings, and my hair was up in a loose bun. I bit my lip. I was so not in the mood to be hit on by a homeless guy. Instead, the first thing he did was ask me about my bike rack.

“Do you like bikes?” he called as he walked over. “Yeah,” I replied, a little anxious still, feeling trapped. There was nowhere to run if the occasion called for it.  “Me too,” he said, continuing our innocuous conversation. When he got close enough to see me through my window, he stopped, keeping a respectful distance. “It’s a great day for riding bikes. Why aren’t you riding your bike?” I told him mine was broken, and we talked about the weather some more. He asked me where I lived, and I told him a general 5mi radius, but not the name of my building. He asked me if I was a student (nope), what my name was (Jen), where I worked (museums), and then he laughed, because he said I looked and acted more like a “Jessica.” His name was Harold. We shook hands.

After a few more minutes, he asked if I could spare a few bucks for bus fare. I told him all I had was a ten, and that I couldn’t spare the whole thing, but that I would go inside and get some small bills for him. He helpfully finished pumping my gas while I locked my car and went inside. “Don’t worry,” he assured me as I left my car. “I’m from the ‘hood. Ain’t nobody gonna mess with your car while I’m here.” I laughed nervously. When I emerged with the money, I handed him a few dollars and the candy bar I had bought to break the ten. He thanked me and told me to enjoy the weather. My car was still there. Nothing was missing. I drove home, and did, indeed, enjoy the weather.

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I wanted to tell these stories, because I’ve come to realize that when people tell me I live in a “bad” neighborhood, they’re really saying I live in a “poor” neighborhood, and they might even associate that poverty with blackness. I wanted to tell these stories because I’ve found that the people who claim they “don’t see color,” are the very same people who worry that their new, upscale grocery shopping experience downtown will be ruined by “panhandling.” When they say they don’t see color, are they really saying that all they can see is wealth?

IMG_20150309_150726 I’m not naive. When I told a friend that I was trying to be more open and less afraid of people, he reminded me that, to some extent, my fears are valid. I am a small, young woman, and there may be people out there who want more than a bit of change. Cleveland has a shockingly high sexual crime rate and a terrifingly corrupt police. I know this, and I take precautions. When I walk out my door, I walk out prepared to drop all my belongings and run if I need to. But I also walk out my door prepared to meet my anxieties head on and unpack them, to examine why I’m afraid, and to question the roots of that fear. When I actually investigated what was going on in my brain, I realized that the bulk of my panic comes from the various media I’ve consumed since birth, those age-old (misleading) stereotypes of white female vulnerability and black male violence, and the privilege of my upbringing. I know many others like me, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that if we can recognize and take steps to move past it. The danger comes when we ignore the effect it has on the way we relate to and regard other people in our communities. Because…ultimately, what I’ve learned, is that 90% of the people knocking on my proverbial door are asking for help, or offering help, and when we hide from that–and teach our children to hide from that–we’re teaching future generations that people who don’t look like us, that don’t live like us, are scary and “bad,” and that is 100% not okay.

in november 2014, tamir rice was shot in the park near his neighborhood. he was 12 years old. our children are the casuality of our fears.

in november 2014, tamir rice was shot by police and died in the park near his neighborhood. he was 12 years old. our children are the casuality of our fears.

So, my challenge to you (and to myself) is to look people in the eye and smile more often. If someone asks for money or help that you can’t give, apologize and wish them well. If you have the time, see if you can help in other ways. Don’t whip out your phone and pretend to text when you see another person walking down the street. Don’t cower behind the ficus in your living room when you hear the doorbell ring. Go out and greet your fellow humans with a little bit of humanity.

Frauenpower.

I’m not going to lie: I’ve completely lost track of my life. I don’t think I’ve had a coherent thought pattern in weeks. My journal has turned into a randomized list of commands and incomplete sentences. “Just do it,” I urged cryptically on March 12th. “Toddlers asking me why I’m not married,” I wrote the next day with an uncharacteristic pithiness. “Remembered why I first wanted a museum career,” I scribbled a week later in purple ink without elaboration. “Write more soon” has lately become less a of reminder and more like a testament to how scattered my mind has been. I mean, let’s face it, I even forgot to write a funny note about my weird dream last night.

(For the curious: I was simultaneously in calculus class, teaching a group of toddlers, and making out with my crush in a dark hallway…)

The point is: nothing in my life has made much sense recently, and, while it hasn’t been entirely unpleasant, it has made me an awfully absentminded person. I forgot my house keys at work the other day, and I haven’t been able to locate my peanut butter jar for a full 24 hours. I’ve misplaced my dance shoes twice, and I completely forgot to celebrate Women’s History Month. (More accurately put: I forgot that I forgot to celebrate Women’s History Month.)

Yes, I am ashamed. The guilt each remembrance (and subsequent forgetting) has brought is insurmountable. It’s like…why even celebrate my birthday now? What does it matter? The girl I thought I was is gone! I’m a monster now! I’m a disgrace–a mere cog in the patriarchy’s machine!

Melodrama aside: I did forgot, and that is kind of unacceptable, because, as short and awkward as it is, Women’s History Month is about remembering. It’s about taking the time to build a niche in our historical memory for women and using that to better understand ourselves and our communities.

At work today, I learned that elephants are an “umbrella species.” They have such a wide impact on their habitats that, if you protect the elephants, you’re most likely protecting entire ecosystems at the same time. I’d like to say the same thing about women. We make a grave mistake when we assume that women’s history is a narrow, superfluous study. Women fight; women discover; and women inspire. When we ignore and minimize the broad impact women have had on our society–culturally, politically, scientifically, philosophically, socially, everythingly–we ignore and minimize ourselves.

Now, I can always plan for future posts honoring awesome historic women, but I can’t go back and make those posts this month. All I can do is make this one post count. So, before I close this crazy thought tornado, please enjoy a heartfelt list of the women who have empowered me in my life. I hope it inspires you to remember all the women who have done the same in yours. Thank you.

My mother. The things my mother has done for me could fill volumes. It started 9,034 days ago when I was born. Growing up, I saw her graduate twice and start a career. Despite always surprising myself with my achievements, I never seemed to surprise my mother. After every performance, recital, and competition, she was there, smiling and saying, “I knew you could do it.” She let me live my dreams–whether that was wearing my Sailor Moon sweater to the Student Council picture in first grade or driving me to every figure skating performance in the city so I could meet Johnny Weir. When I was accepted to Oberlin College, she put her hand on my knee and told me not to worry about the money. When I was writing my thesis, she listened patiently while I read all 80+ pages over the phone. She never stopped me from running through the mud, and she always encouraged me to live adventurously. She gave my body life and my mind an unbreakable spirit. Truth is, I wouldn’t be anything without my mother.

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My teachers. I am extraordinarily lucky that, before I was old enough to understand what inspiration meant, I had teachers who advocated for and believed in me. My second grade teacher, Mrs. Blosser, was my pen pal for years, encouraging me to write by saying she was proud of me. My third grade teacher, Mrs. Arnold, gave me multiple books about wild, daring pioneer girls who, she said, reminded her of me. In sixth grade, despite all odds, my teacher, Ms. Simonetti, motivated me to succeed in math for the first time. The list goes on and on. History, German, politics, literature, music, dance…without my early teachers’ encouragement, there is no way I would have found my passion and my voice.

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(Note: I did not use most of my teachers’ names in this brief appreciation because I live by the philosophy that if I can google them, they can google me. Let it be known that that I am immensely thankful for all the teachers that have played a positive role in my life, and that, yes, I do google my teachers.)

My college professors. I’ve written about it ad infinitum, but it can always be said again: I had the best female professors in my time at Oberlin. Across departments and disciplines, the women who taught me taught me that there are no boundaries to what a woman can be. They introduced me to new languages, new books, new constellations, and new ideas. The more I learned, the harder I kicked against the bars of my limited, sheltered definition of womanhood. Even after I graduated, their support never wavered. They employed me, continued to instruct me, and cheered me on to bigger and better things. I entered Oberlin a soft, squishy caterpillar. I’m not going to be cliche and say I left a butterfly, but I definitely grew into something. A co-worker once told me that he had never met anyone who appreciated their education like I did, and I have these strong, intelligent, supportive women to thank.

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My bosses. My female bosses have, at times, been demanding and strict, and I have often rebelled against them with a youthful ignorance that was not charming (to say the least). Therefore, you can imagine how grateful I am that they never once gave up on me. When I look at where my career is headed, I realize that none of it would have been possible without the guidance and supervision of these women. Everything practical I have learned about teaching, children, history, and museums, I have learned from the smart and competent women that I have probably [lovingly] complained about more than once. So, consider this short paragraph an apology for anything I said or may yet say in frustration. I love you. I appreciate you. You are literally the light guiding my life right now, and I think that’s pretty awesome.

I don't have a picture of any of my bosses, but this is what they remind me of: majestic, watchful lions.

I don’t have a picture of any of my bosses, but this is what they remind me of: majestic, watchful lions.

My friends. When I was fourteen, I wrote essays about anime while my best friend wrote about reproductive rights. The truth is that I have always been ignorant, and my friends have always been there to make sure I don’t stay that way. To my woman friends, you enrich my life. From you I have learned to recognize my privilege and different species of salamanders. I have learned to appreciate different cultures and different types of beer. You showed me how to make my boobs look bigger without padding, how to paint my nails with cool patterns, how to achieve a dream, how to compromise, and how to own my independence. You have helped me find what is good and beautiful about myself, and you deserve to know the same about yourselves. Each and every one of you is a magical, passionate human rainbow. What I’m trying to say is that your accomplishments uplift and inspire me daily, and I love you.

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Women I have never met. This month is for you, Ida B. Wells. It’s for you, Elizabeth Blackwell. It’s for you, Mercy Warren and Hannah Adams. Zitkala-Sa and Heidi Lamarr and Josephine Baker. Anna Julia Cooper and Mary Church Terrell. Sally Ride and Henrietta Swan Leavitt.  To Lucy Stone and Antoinette Brown Blackwell, I raise my glass. You, too, Eleanor Roosevelt, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and Sandra Day O’Connor. Jane Addams, Gloria Steinem, and Angela Davis. Edmonia Lewis, Abigail Adams, Lydia Maria Child–I don’t have time to type or organize all the names that are in my head right now! I am literally just typing them as they pop into my brain, and I could go at this forever. So, allow me just to pause and issue a blanket statement: thank you for fighting for me and my fellow women. You have given me courage when my courage faltered. You have given me a voice when my voice fell silent. Thank you for never giving up.

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An Open Letter to Billy Boyd

(read aloud to the autographed picture on my dresser)

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Dear Billy Boyd,

Thank you for coming to Cleveland, Ohio. Ours is a scrappy city, but we have the heart and soul of good Midwestern hospitality. I hope you have enjoyed your short visit. I am sorry that it is so cold here, but if you look at what it was like last weekend, you will see that we did our best to warm things up for you. I hope you found the persistent, fluffy snowflakes more magical than menacing. Long winters are just a part of the charm up north.

I am sorry that I did not come to see you at the convention this weekend, although you probably didn’t notice. It is very hard to be 24, you see, and finally come within reach of a teenage dream. Ten years ago, this all would have been different. My best friend–my Merry–would have only lived a few miles away from me. One of our parents probably would have driven us, despite the weather, and funds for the adventure would have been covered in full, because they love us so. We would have faced the snow with the childish abandon, and the zit starting on my forehead would have been the last thing on my mind. We probably would have squealed and walked around with fake accents all day. You would have either found us charmingly adorable or painfully adoring.

Ten years makes a difference.

Mr. Boyd, I want you to know that, if my hours at work hadn’t been unexpectedly cut due to weather-related cancellations–if I wasn’t already so sick of driving in the snow–if I wasn’t plagued by insecurities about my haircut, my face, and the way my pants fit–if I thought I would have had anything intelligent to say–if I had a printer to print the tickets–if there wasn’t an 8% tax on admissions–if I didn’t have to eat or stay warm or pay for the Internet—-if being an adult wasn’t so gosh-darned hard, I would be at your side in a second.

I hope you can take heart knowing that you were the only person in the entire convention I would have cared to visit. I hope you will forgive my absence when you hear that I have had a total of three consecutive stress dreams about this decision. You smelled very good in all of them, and you solved a murder in one of them. I want you to know that I almost jumped off the bus yesterday and sprinted to the Convention Center. Even now, I am being slain by pangs of guilt knowing that you are sitting but three miles from my apartment.

When I imagine your night in my city, I imagine you going to my favorite downtown pub for a drink with your other famous friends. Because I know the place pretty well, it’s not hard to imagine myself there, too. I walk up to the wooden bar and lean against it, a twenty dollar bill crumpled between my hands. As I wait for the bartender, I fold and unfold the bill, staring intently at it to avoid making eye contact with strange men. With all the wood tables and stools, the light around the place seems almost golden as a familiar Scottish voice cuts through the noise.

“It comes in imperial pints?!”

Just kidding.

This isn’t just a letter for you, Mr. Boyd. It’s also written, with love, to my younger self. Ten years ago, I had a best friend I called Merry. (She called me Pip.) We played Tig and called our separate high schools Gondor and Rohan. I was never a Frodo or Sam, with a great mission and purpose laid before me. I was never wise like Gandalf or graceful like Legolas. I was always just naive and goofy, thrust too soon into something I didn’t fully understand and trying to make the best of it despite my many errors. I was always just a Pippin.

In another universe, I had the courage and money to meet you at the convention. I shook your hand and made a weird face when I tried not to smile too big. In another universe, I ran into you at a bar and stuttered my adoration for you over loud music and strangers’ conversations. In this universe, however, my dreams came true when my friend–my Merry–met you a few months ago and thought enough of me to send me a picture you had signed. When I opened the envelope and saw your face, I cried because there you were. I cried because I felt like a kid again. I cried because, despite everything I’ve done and all the mistakes I’ve made, I knew that one of the people I care about most in this world loves me back.

So, Mr. Boyd, I hope you met a lot of interesting people this weekend. I’m sorry I couldn’t be one of them, but you know how that is. Teenagers just don’t realize how hard it’s going to be later on. I don’t know where I’m going in life, and I don’t know where I’m going with this letter, so I’ll just close with a note of thanks. Thank you for the magic. Thank you for the music. And thank you for the memories.

Regretfully Not Yours,
Jen