Things I Learned This Summer

I worked at my retail job yesterday, and the six hours slipped by surprisingly quickly. For the most part, it was a routine day — ringing customers up, bagging their purchases, straightening clothing on the racks, and, best of all, talking to my coworker about life.

As routine and repetitious as the day was, something was subtly different. In part, this was due to the fact that this was our last time working together and my penultimate day at the store.

Maybe.

But I think it was more due to the fact that today, we shared the store with a butterfly.

It’s been a rare low-humidity, low-heat day in central Virginia, and we kept the door wide open all day to welcome in the calm breezes of fresh air. As a customer signed the receipt slip, I saw a dark shape zip past her. I watched it crazily zig-zag around the ring of jewelry cases where the cash register is, past the dizzying mirrors lining the fitting room area, and around a table displaying overpriced t-shirts, silently praying that it wasn’t a wasp.

But when it settled on the counter for a second, I could see its large, flat wings, orange and brown like an ugly stained glass window. It only stopped for a moment before it zipped off again, and I lost sight of it.

About an hour later, we heard laughter from the back of the store where a woman and her young daughter had been shopping.

 “My daughter looked at your big sunflower and said, ‘Look, it’s a butterfly!'” she said, “And when I touched it to show her it wasn’t real, it flew off!”
A little while later, a customer noticed our little friend perched on a display of bumpy necklaces, and after that we noticed it crashing into the large glass window that serves as the front wall of our store. The butterfly battered itself against the glass, an exercise in utter futility, and finally we had the chance to step in and help it out of the store.
First, we tried to get it to land on the sunflower again.
The large, colorful sunflower must have disappointed the butterfly; completely made of plastic, it's bone-dry of nectar.

The large, colorful sunflower must have disappointed the butterfly; completely made of plastic, it’s bone-dry of nectar.

Next, I tried to get it to walk onto a piece of paper, to no avail. Each time I moved the paper, the butterfly would rocket off in a panic. Finally, I realized that I needed to make a catcher.
Butterflies, in my experience, are incredibly gullible insects, so I drew a flower on my piece of paper. Next, I made a little top for my catcher out of another piece of paper. Remembering Miss Frizzle describing the squiggly lines on plants as road signs for plants in “The Magic School Bus Goes to Seed” (my favorite episode of all time), I added some squiggly lines to the top, just to make the catcher as tantalizing as possible.
This craft project epitomizes everything I made in the third grade.

This craft project epitomizes everything I made in the third grade.

The squiggly lines directed the butterfly right into my catcher.

The squiggly lines directed the butterfly right into my catcher.

It worked perfectly — the butterfly walked right in and bounced harmlessly off the paper until I released it outside.
At U.Va., I rarely find opportunities for practical problem solving. College in general has molded me into a more adaptive person, but this summer I really began to appreciate how many mundane, real-world things I have yet to learn. In addition to how to catch a butterfly, here are a few others:
  • Lighting charcoal for grilling takes a long time. Like, 30 minutes. Start early and don’t panic when it’s smoking and you don’t see any flames. The juicy chicken breasts will be worth it. Also, s’mores.
  • Scented candles do an amazing job of keeping old-house smells at bay.
  • If you find a spider in your bed, just get rid of it and move on. Repeat as needed.
  • Coke Floats are delicious.
  • Ice cream can solve practically any problem. (I already knew this, but it’s never been so true.)
  • Staying up until 3:00 AM to finish a great conversation is worth it, even if you have work the next day. That’s what being 20 is all about.
  • Putting paychecks directly into savings is a great way to learn how to be thrifty. So is taking $20 out at the ATM and making it last all week (a “fun budget,” as Laura says).
  • Trader Joe’s actually isn’t overpriced.
  • Some days are just going to be less productive than others. That’s okay.
  • Not everyone relieves stress the same way. Although exercise works for most people, it’s okay if your stress relief is reading a good book or magazine. This doesn’t necessarily mean you will become fat.
  • Subscribing to a newspaper actually does improve quality of life. Also, it gives you way more to talk about.
  • When I’m at home, my parents do way more for me than I ever realized.
  • There’s a huge difference between working full time and taking classes, even if the hours are the same.
  • Always appreciate sleeping in a bed. You never know when you might not have one.
  • If the oven makes your un-air conditioned kitchen too hot, there’s really nothing you can’t cook on the stove top anyway.
  • Coffee actually isn’t a necessity. To anyone who knew me in high school or first year at U.Va., this might come as a shock.
  • Always lock your doors. People WILL try to break into your house, car, yard, etc.
  • Pepperspray is actually a great thing to have, especially when men yell things at you when you’re walking home at night. (Luckily, the yells and catcalls never escalated, and I never had to use mine.)
  • Going out to eat is a total luxury.
  • Don’t be stingy. The more generous you are — with time, money, energy, patience, etc. — the more generous people will be with you.
  • Talk to everyone about what you want to do with your life. Chances are they can help you get there or know someone who can.
  • Everything is temporary.
  • You probably have more in common with people than you’d think.
  • Just when you think you’re out of energy, you’ll probably be able to do one more thing. Or two. Or three. Or four….
  • Napkins and paper towels are nice, but you can get away with not having them for longer than you’d think.

And just in case you’re like me and wanted to rewatch that episode of The Magic School Bus, we’re both in luck — it’s on YouTube.

Brent Staples said it best

I’ll never forget reading Brent Staples’ “Black Men and Public Space” for the first time. I was in the eleventh grade, doubling up on English by taking AP Lang as an elective in addition to English 11, and Ms. Owens assigned it out of a Norton anthology with a fluorescent yellow cover. It was September, I was sixteen years old, and I felt my world changing as my eyes stayed glued to the pages. The essay opened up a worldview that my place of relative privilege would never allow me to experience. Not only Staples put into words something I had long since noticed, but he also offered an intimate window into an experience that I, as a white woman, will never have. The question of privilege versus authentic understanding is one that is debated endlessly.

And yet, I’m in this essay, too. I am the woman hurrying down the street. And I do the same with any man. This summer alone, I’ve had unpleasant encounters while walking home at night. “Hey, sluts!” a man on the corner greeted Hannah and I on our way out of The White Spot earlier this summer. “ARE YOU GIRLS WALKING OR WORKING?” some jackass yelled out of a car window at Winnie and I as we arrived in front of my house. What if they had stopped the car? I wondered later. What would I have done?

In both cases, the men were white, but I’ve been heckled by men of other races, too. “Holaaa! Guapaaa!” a construction worker called to me from where he perched working on a roof when I was on a midday run in my neighborhood last summer. I felt my face color, and not from the Virginia heat. A piercing whistle was followed by laughter. I come from a Hispanic family and have spent my life loathing the racism with which Latin Americans are treated in the U.S., yet the way that encounter fulfilled the negative stereotypes common thrown around in my suburban landscape left me feeling nauseated. To me, this was one individual who chose to violate my comfort zone — I would have been, and HAVE been, made uncomfortable by similar interactions with men of other races, from the African American man who habitually sings for money on the Corner and tells me that my eyes are beautiful to the drunk, white U.Va. bros who cruise around at night yelling out of car windows — but it was disturbing to experience an episode that not only played to my discomfort around men unknown to me but forced me to confront racial stereotypes. The whole thing left me with a bad taste in my mouth for the rest of the day, and I started running on the treadmill in my basement or driving to a nearby bike path until the construction was finished.

These encounters in public space have made me wary — for women of my age, these negative expectations are also known as being “smart,” “proactive,” and “defensive.” It’s unfair to me, and it’s also unfair to the well-meaning men who would never dream of harming me, yet whom I reflexively fear.

I’ve wanted to post about gender and race for weeks now, but each time I start, the topics swallow me up before I know what to say. Hostility is bred between members of different races and different genders in a variety of intangible ways that seem to sprout from inherently similar places. I wish that I was the edgy type of writer who could write words that punch racism and sexism back. But honestly, I’m frightened by the fact that the U.S. has struggled to treat its citizens humanely since its creation. Institutionalized racism and sexism and all sorts of other terrible -isms boil down to me seeing a man eying me on a bus and assuming he means me harm instead of entertaining other possibilities, like he’s staring into space or wondering what I have in my shopping bag. I’m inherently implicated, aren’t I? Fear isn’t a sentiment that I find directly represented in the media very often — outrage, disgust, and hate all swim in the same ether — but it’s one that is at the root of all of these -isms.

This isn’t to say that I don’t live with the conviction that civil rights and racial/gender equality must be fought for and defended. Of course I do. Like everyone else who opposes the various destructive -isms I mentioned, I recognize my power to set an example for those around me by refusing to tolerate hateful speech I encounter and by treating those around me with equal kindness regardless of race or background. But often, it doesn’t feel like enough. It feels so small, such a tiny energy in a world where darker forces are at work, as we’ve seen in the news recently as historically black colleges and universities struggle to stay open, the Voting Rights Act was struck down, and George Zimmerman walked away without even a manslaughter charge. Not to mention the Paula Deen scandal that buzzed in headlines for weeks and heated debates over rape culture (an unsettling turn of phrase in and of itself — rape is barbaric, the farthest thing from culture).

My work this summer has focused on interviews with 50 black leaders who shaped America for the better. Nearly all of them mention the millions of unsung heroes who lived quiet lives, supporting equality and integration every day. Last November, my grandfather shared a story at his 90th birthday celebration that left us all moved to tears; he told us that when no hospital would hire a dark-skinned, Spanish-speaking anesthesiologist from Colombia, a young white doctor in Annapolis actively demanded that my highly qualified, educated grandfather be hired as part of his staff. These connection-makers, these healers are out there, and they’re doing wonderful work. In an onslaught of discouraging headlines, I wish I could hear about them instead. Surely collectively they’re making a quantifiable difference, but as it stands now, false claims that we live in a society that is suddenly, miraculously colorblind (and therefore measures such as the Voting Rights Act are no longer necessary) threaten their good work.

I don’t like to knock my own writing in a post, but this time, I’m sure I’ve stumbled through some of these thoughts and associations. The fact that I’m so nervous to share my views just goes to show what a tricky, charged topic I’m dancing around — it’s like walking through a minefield where any false step could thrust me to either side of a dilemma aptly described by Nikhil Pal Singh in Black is a Country:

Today, to see antiblack racism as something that still generates social inequalities marks one at best as oversensitive, with suspect judgment, and at worst as racist, still invested in an invidious logic of race.

The same sentiment applies to a range of other issues. But instead of keeping quiet, waiting until I somehow felt “ready” or “qualified,” I wanted to contribute my own tiny solution. The best thing I can think to do is to share this powerful essay in the hope that it can affect other readers the way it moved me. I’m still finding my voice and my own way of dealing with racism and sexism in life and in writing. I thought about analyzing passages and mixing them in with my own opinions, but I found that I couldn’t bring myself chop something so important to me into separate parts. It needed to be shared as a cohesive whole. Brent Staples said it best.

BLACK MEN AND PUBLIC SPACE

Brent Staples

My first victim was a woman-white, well dressed, probably in her early twenties. I came upon her late one evening on a deserted street in Hyde Park, a relatively affluent neighborhood in an otherwise mean, impoverished section of Chicago. As I swung onto the avenue behind her, there seemed to be a discreet, uninflammatory distance between us. Not so. She cast back a worried glance. To her, the youngish black man-a broad six feet two inches with a beard and billowing hair, both hands shoved into the pockets of a bulky military jacket-seemed menacingly close. After a few more quick glimpses, she picked up her pace and was soon running in earnest. Within seconds she disappeared into a cross street.

That was more than a decade ago, I was twenty-two years old, a graduate student newly arrived at the University of Chicago. It was in the echo of that terrified woman’s footfalls that I first began to know the unwieldy inheritance I’d come into–the ability to alter public space in ugly ways. It was clear that she thought herself the quarry of a mugger, a rapist, or worse. Suffering a bout of insomnia, however, I was stalking sleep, not defenseless wayfarers. As a softy who is scarcely able to take a knife to a raw chicken–let alone hold one to a person’s throat–I was surprised, embarrassed, and dismayed all at once. Her flight made me feel like an accomplice in tyranny. It also made it clear that I was indistinguishable from the muggers who occasionally seeped into the area from the surrounding ghetto. That first encounter, and those that followed, signified that a vast, unnerving gulf lay between nighttime pedestrians–particularly women–and me. And I soon gathered that being perceived as dangerous is a hazard in itself. I only needed to turn a corner into a dicey situation, or crowd some frightened, armed person in a foyer somewhere, or make an errant move after being pulled over by a policeman. Where fear and weapons meet–and they often do in urban America–there is always the possibility of death.

In that first year, my first away from my hometown, I was to become thoroughly familiar with the language of fear. At dark, shadowy intersections, I could cross in front of a car stopped at a traffic light and elicit the thunk, thunk, thunk of the driver–black, white, male, or female– hammering down the door locks. On less traveled streets after dark, I grew accustomed to but never comfortable with people crossing to the other side of the street rather than pass me. Then there were the standard unpleasantries with policemen, doormen, bouncers, cabdrivers, and others whose business it is to screen out troublesome individuals before there is any nastiness.

I moved to New York nearly two years ago and I have remained an avid night walker. In central Manhattan, the near-constant crowd cover minimizes tense one-on-one street encounters.Elsewhere–in SoHo, for example, where sidewalks are narrow and tightly spaced buildings shut out the sky–things can get very taut indeed.

After dark, on the warrenlike streets of Brooklyn where I live, I often see women who fear the worst from me. They seem to have set their faces on neutral, and with their purse straps strung across their chests bandolier-style, they forge ahead as though bracing themselves against being tackled. I understand, of course, that the danger they perceive is not a hallucination. Women are particularly vulnerable to street violence, and young black males are drastically overrepresented among the perpetrators of that violence. Yet these truths are no solace against the kind of alienation that comes of being ever the suspect, a fearsome entity with whom pedestrians avoid making eye contact.

It is not altogether clear to me how I reached the ripe old age of twenty-two without being conscious of the lethality nighttime pedestrians attributed to me. Perhaps it was because in Chester, Pennsylvania, the small, angry industrial town where I came of age in the 1960s, I was scarcely noticeable against a backdrop of gang warfare, street knifings, and murders. I grew up one of the good boys, had perhaps a half-dozen fistfights. In retrospect, my shyness of combat has clear sources.

As a boy, I saw countless tough guys locked away; I have since buried several, too. They were babies, really–a teenage cousin, a brother of twenty-two, a childhood friend in his mid-twenties– all gone down in episodes of bravado played out in the streets. I came to doubt the virtues of intimidation early on. I chose, perhaps unconsciously, to remain a shadow-timid, but a survivor.

The fearsomeness mistakenly attributed to me in public places often has a perilous flavor. The most frightening of these confusions occurred in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when I worked as a journalist in Chicago. One day, rushing into the office of a magazine I was writing for with a deadline story in hand, I was mistaken for a burglar. The office manager called security and, with an ad hoc posse, pursued me through the labyrinthine halls, nearly to my editor’s door. I had no way of proving who I was. I could only move briskly toward the company of someone who knew me.

Another time I was on assignment for a local paper and killing time before an interview. I entered a jewelry store on the city’s affluent Near North Side. The proprietor excused herself and returned with an enormous red Doberman pinscher straining at the end of a leash. She stood, the dog extended toward me, silent to my questions, her eyes bulging nearly out of her head. I took a cursory look around, nodded, and bade her good night.

Relatively speaking, however, I never fared as badly as another black male journalist. He went to nearby Waukegan, Illinois, a couple of summers ago to work on a story about a murderer who was born there. Mistaking the reporter for the killer, police officers hauled him from his car at gunpoint and but for his press credentials would probably have tried to book him. Such episodes are not uncommon. Black men trade tales like this all the time.

Over the years, I learned to smother the rage I felt at so often being taken for a criminal. Not to do so would surely have led to madness. I now take precautions to make myself less threatening. I move about with care, particularly late in the evening. I give a wide berth to nervous people on

subway platforms during the wee hours, particularly when I have exchanged business clothes for jeans. If I happen to be entering a building behind some people who appear skittish, I may walk by, letting them clear the lobby before I return, so as not to seem to be following them. I have been calm and extremely congenial on those rare occasions when I’ve been pulled over by the police.

And on late-evening constitutionals I employ what has proved to be an excellent tension-reducing measure: I whistle melodies from Beethoven and Vivaldi and the more popular classical composers. Even steely New Yorkers hunching toward nighttime destinations seem to relax, and occasionally they even join in the tune. Virtually everybody seems to sense that a mugger wouldn’t be warbling bright, sunny selections from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. It is my equivalent of the cowbell that hikers wear when they know they are in bear country.

Reflections on 1,000 views

Last night, my blog passed 1,000 views. For veteran bloggers, this probably seems like nothing, but since I’ve only be at it for a few months, this is a big milestone for me. I’ve never had so many eyes on my writing, and it’s great motivation to continue. Thanks so much to everyone who has been reading, whether it’s an accidental click or a habit.

I’ve been thinking about Bruce recently. Bruce was my friend for one hour of one day I spent on Prince Edward Island two summers ago when I was freshly graduated from high school.

I was on a vacation with my family, completing the customary Delgado Family Bus Tour. We’ve looped through Boston, Charleston, Montreal, Lexington and Concord, and more by bus, stopping off at various historical sites throughout the cities. Generally there’s a tour guide delivering a moderately corny commentary, and we crane our necks in vain attempts to see out the small, murky bus windows, past the lumpy heads of our fellow camera-toting tourists.

These photos usually are pointless; if seeing out of the window of a moving bus is tricky, you can imagine how difficult it is to snap a decent shot. Regardless, when our bus pulled up in front of the Prince Edward Island Preserve Company, I took this picture. I’m not sure why – I had no reason to. It’s not even a particularly good picture. But whether it was random chance or the tingle of premonition, I documented my first glimpse of Bruce.

Bruce's kilt-wearing is habitual, our helpful tour guide told us. According to the province's website, PEI is the most Scottish province. Coincidence or fate?

Bruce’s kilt-wearing is habitual, our helpful tour guide told us. According to the province’s website, PEI is the most Scottish province. Is it coincidence or the stirrings of a larger pattern structuring my life?

Bruce jumped on the bus and delivered the story of his shop in a quick, joking manner of speaking. After years of failed attempts to break into the restaurant world, he found himself with an enormous quantity of berries and a few bottles of sparkling wine – the last few ingredients, bought in bulk, that he needed to move out of his recently-closed restaurant by the next morning. Sad and stubborn, Bruce decided to cook the berries into preserves rather than moving out – a last hurrah before he had to leave the kitchen behind.

The preserves turned out so well that the recipe remains best selling to this day, and the moral of the story was that if you want something badly and stick around long enough, you’ll find your way in. Bruce’s success had been hard-won, but his easy manner of being revealed the benefits of the struggle to find success. It seemed clear to me that in the process, he had gained some heightened self-awareness and with that, release from the endless cycle of self-doubt and envy.

As everyone flooded off the bus and into the little shop to buy Bruce’s preserves, I circled the little shop, keeping my eyes on Bruce and waiting for a break in the conversation. I was drawn to him because he was so obviously at ease with himself. He wasn’t giving a pitch to tourists, he wasn’t a slick salesman who wore a kilt as a gimmick. He was just a guy living his own life, charting his own course. And he seemed so, so happy about it.

Finally he was free, and to my surprise, he turned to me. “I wanted to tell you that you have a great smile,” he said.

I’ll never know if the connection I felt was one-sided, but I thanked him and awkwardly, abruptly asked him for advice. “You seem so comfortable in your success,” I prefaced my request. “What advice can you share with me?”

He was in. “Learn from your mistakes,” he said without hesitation, and then said something about following your dreams. But then he seemed to stare into a distance wholly internal, and, grabbing a pen and a blank order form, he stepped outside with me, leaving the busload of tourists behind in the crowded shop.

“It’s all the D’s for me,” he said. “I’ll show you what I mean.”

The D’s turned out to be a long list of verbs, all starting with D. You start out with the dream – what you want out of life – and the dream leads you to make discoveries. At one point, the path can diverge to doubt and subsequent downfall. But if you resist the temptation to become discouraged and you repeat the middle steps enough times, you’ll eventually find your own true way. I wish I had brought the whole list with me to Charlottesville this summer, but you get the idea.

It seemed like no coincidence that PEI is also the setting of Anne of Green Gables, the novels that brought my friend and fellow St. Andrews student Susan and I together. During one period of eighth grade, we watched the nine-hour miniseries practically every month. Anne has very specific beliefs about friendship, saying,

Kindred spirits are not so scarce as I used to think. It’s splendid to find out there are so many of them in the world.

A kindred spirit is one of those people who you meet and just connect with. You might have nothing in common with them. For example, when we became friends, Susan and I didn’t seem to be much alike. She was deeply religious, I was not. She had siblings, I’m an only child. I was eager to grow up, and she was eager to hang onto innocence for as long as possible.

But still, something drew us together. It wasn’t that we were neighbors – I rarely walked over to her house unannounced. Maybe it was our shared stubbornness or the fact that we mutually admired each other’s values and ambitions. Maybe it was something altogether intangible and totally abstract. But there was something there, some hook that has linked our lives for a decade now, and all of the incidental facts about us fell away. A lot has changed since those days, but the bones of our friendship have only been fortified by shared experience. We are kindred spirits; there’s no other way to describe it.

So, Anne is right. People reveal their similarities in surprising ways, sometimes so wholly and profoundly that you feel as if you’ve known them forever even if you never see them again.

The most important thing Bruce told me was to say thank you. People have good luck all the time, he said. But what makes a difference is when you stop to thank the world. It’s not about thanking the people who give you success, but thanking people for just existing and sharing the world with you. Whether we’re kindred spirits or you wound up on my blog by mistake, thank you.

Drunk on possibility

Those who read my blog somewhat regularly may have noticed that I post every three or four days – I don’t stick to a particularly rigid schedule, but I like to keep the blog updated regularly and I generally have plenty of ideas to write about, whether they’re things pulled from my journal or just a response to something I saw that seems important that day.

However, there was a sizable gap between my last two posts that merits explanation. I vanished for about a week, and I’m not even sure how that time disappeared.

drunk on possibility

In the past few weeks, my life has exploded with opportunities. I bought a magazine last week, Creative Nonfiction, and I noticed a phrase on the back cover: DRUNK ON POSSIBILITY, it says, the block letters blending subtly with the color of the cover. It seems like an apt phrase for describing both my exhilaration and time loss.

I can hardly keep up with everything that I’m working on right now, and my inbox has been flooded with emails daily. I’m suddenly finding myself with job opportunities – the option to extend my internship, the possibility of working as a research assistant this winter. One of my favorite professors asked if she could quote something I said during class discussion in a paper she’s publishing and seemed happy to chat with me about choosing a novel for my thesis paper. The professor I’m working for this summer put me in contact with another professor who in turn talked to me for over an hour about my thesis before offering to send my resume to a current Slate columnist and a former editor of the Wall Street Journal. I have PDFs of anthropology papers saved on my desktop, all piling up for when I have time to turn my attention to beginning my thesis work in earnest.

This is all a little cryptic as I’m still refining what I’m planning to study, but suffice to say I’ve found a way to study something in which I’ve had a lifelong fascination. For me, the trick with school has always been to find a way to make it personally meaningful to me. The grind of papers and assigned readings can really wear you down, so I play a memory game with myself, summoning up relevant History Channel programs I saw a decade ago to help me contextualize whatever novel or history text I’m currently unraveling.

I’ve also been reading Ted Conover’s Rolling Nowhere: Riding the Rails with America’s Hoboes. Published in the ’80s when Conover was only 24, Rolling Nowhere is the nonfiction account of his gutsy anthropology project to embed himself in hobo culture one summer. I had previously read Newjack: Guarding Sing-Sing, a book Conover wrote after serving for a prison guard for a year. Compared to Conover’s seasoned reporter’s voice in Newjack, he sounds, for lack of a better explanation, like someone in his twenties. There’s a certain earnestness in his literary references to Kerouac and The Wizard of Oz, a certain awkwardness to occasional phrases, that excites me. “I could write like this,” I thought as I finished Chapter 1.

Today, I managed to read half the book during a three-hour lull at work, and I realized just how impressive Rolling Nowhere really is. Not only did Conover reproduce large blocks of quotations in dialect, but the book is the accumulation of a million tiny details. Many of these undoubtedly came from the journals he kept while he rode the rails, but I imagine his journaling had to be reasonably discreet lest others become suspicious of him. Additionally, it took remarkable courage to forsake the comfortable environment to which he was accustomed, not to mention his unjust arrest and night in jail in his own hometown of Denver.

I also connected something I stumbled upon last week completely by accident. While hiking, I was writing the post in my head and opened up an app on my phone to jot down a few notes. The first thing I wrote was my mood: “content and happy.” Later, when I wrote the post, I had been on the phone for a few hours and was trying to finish by a reasonable hour so that I could sleep before work the next day. Bogged down in the logistics of daily life, the ebullient mood that had prompted me to write that note had dissipated throughout the course of the week. I didn’t feel discontent or unhappy, but I realized for the first time the difficulty of capturing emotions in retrospect. In the wake of this realization, Conover’s description of feeling sadness was particularly striking:

The train wound its serpentine way up into the mountains. I planted my feet firmly near the doorway and looked out over the plains, doing an about-face to see out the other door every time the train did a hairpin turn and changed direction. Denver sparkled with the variously colored lights of buildings, houses, and streets, and all of a sudden I felt very sad. Back there were cops and the jail but also, a million times more important, back there was my family. In Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, which I had read over the summer, I had been struck by the frequent use of the word “sad” to describe almost anything connected with his travels – the “sad highway,” the “sad town,” the “sad American night.” Why, I had wondered, did it have to be sad? Life on the road for me had always been adventuresome, unpredictable, exciting, more fun than sad. But tonight, the sad made sense. It could have been used to describe almost anything around me – the city view, the boxcar, the mountains ahead. It was my sadness, the sadness of moving alone, to destinations unkown. And I realized that night what must be common knowledge among hoboes: it’s easier to be on the road when home is something you don’t feel too good about.

This passage synthesizes past emotions with epiphany. Conover wrote the book long after he felt these things, yet reading it, I felt as though he was discovering them for the first time. The only way I can think of accomplishing this is by dutiful journaling. But what if a journal is lost or stolen, as must happen frequently? Reading how fresh these thoughts feel even years after they occurred to Conover for the first time, it seems obvious to me that he has not only a great memory and a great sensibility for how people in general think through their feelings.

So, could I write a book by the age of 24? Only time will tell. Hopefully my thesis will turn into a professional blog or manuscript during my post-grad summer. To some, these goals undoubtedly seem arrogant, but my optimism depends on ignoring the potential for failure. If everyone knew how difficult it was to write a book, I doubt anyone would even try. The worst thing that can happen is failure, and I already know that like everyone, I have a fair share of unavoidable failure ahead of me. I do know that right now, tonight, I’m not nearly sophisticated enough as a writer or frankly as a human to write what Conover wrote. But someday, maybe.

The more I talk to people, the more contacts keep popping up out of the woodwork. Moral of the story: Don’t wait until you’re “ready” to start talking to people about what you want out of life. That’s not something I figured out on my own, but some good advice from one of my college advisors, and it’s brought me into some incredibly helpful conversations so far. I don’t think I’ll ever find myself in a satisfied, finished, utterly polished state, and for now the scrambling is exhilarating and the stumbling is instructive.

On another note, according to a Ben and Jerry’s tweet, today is national ice cream day. I unwittingly celebrated earlier this evening when I stress-ate a Cookout shake. I also learned that during a period of depression and drug induced-paranoia, Elliott Smith ate practically nothing but ice cream. Rolling Nowhere always triggers Smith’s “Going Nowhere” in my mind, so I’ll leave you with that and the hope that with all that’s been developing in my life recently, I’m going somewhere – slowly, incrementally – after all.

Seeing the seams of America

After a Friday night that was probably a little too much fun, Laura came into my room at 8:30 AM, her hair a curly halo. She stared at me through black plastic framed glasses as I squinted up at her from beneath my comforter.

“Do you want to go hiking?”

She sat down on my bed and opened up her laptop. I knew that it didn’t matter whether I wanted to go or not. Sighing, I sat up in bed.

Marian, who had spent the night after our adventures, came into my room and sat on my bed, sipping a glass of water. We watched as Laura typed away on her laptop, googling hiking trails. Food and coffee were my main priorities, so I looked up some coffee shops on Urbanspoon. By this point in the summer, our usual haunts are beginning to feel stale, stacked with memories.

“Wait, I have the perfect plan.” Laura said. “Guys, I’m brilliant. Okay, get ready.”

Thirty minutes later, we found ourselves leaving Charlottesville behind us, wind whipping through the open windows of Laura’s car as we headed down a curving country road toward Crozet. On the way, we had picked up Hannah, who jumped in the car in a purple tie dye tshirt, ready as always for an adventure. The new Vampire Weekend album played sunnily through Laura’s car speakers even as the lyrics emphasized the mortality of our youth.

Later, while reading a free guidebook I picked up, I learned that Crozet started as a whistle stop on the railroad where trains would pause to load crates of peaches and Pippin apples. Like most places in Virginia, Albemarle County was established by a British aristocrat and the economy and development of agriculture and infrastructure was largely produced by slaves. As the years went on, “Crozet was the town whose name was synonymous with the peach” (Phil James, “Crozet: A Thumbnail History”). I’ve picked pumpkins and apples in Crozet before, but peach picking still hasn’t been crossed off my to-do list.

After breakfast at Mudhouse, a local coffee shop with locations in Charlottesville and at the Bellair Exxon station, we walked the entire town center in a matter of minutes. Last time I ventured here with Billy, we had spotted a painter set up with an easel by the train tracks, if that gives you an idea of how picturesque Crozet can be. I say “can be” rather than “is” because it depends on your vantage point. The hub of the town seems to be a gas station/Dairy Queen combo that’s always buzzing with traffic, and the large Starr Hill brewery is a bland concrete building surrounded by a chain-link fence. However, if you turn the other way, you’ll see lush forest interrupted by the railroad tracks. It reminds me of “The Lackawanna Valley,” a painting by George Inness.

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When I visit Crozet as an outsider to the community, I get the sense that Crozet is in development. It’s not because of the suburban neighborhoods that have popped up nearby – although those exist. It’s the presence of the railroad tracks so close to the road that you can see all the gravel, all the broken wood, the spine of metal rails gripping the dirt. There’s the sense that any moment, a train could barrel through, carrying who knows what to who knows where. It’s a sense of possibility and change. Whether Inness meant for viewers to come away from his painting with impressed the power of industrial progress or devastated the destruction of the natural wilderness is something that my American Studies class debated inconclusively last fall. But there’s undeniably something powerful in that juxtaposition of metal and forest.

However, what we really noticed was just how nice the town was. All around us, we spotted signs of kindness.

We found some particularly friendly graffiti stenciled on a wall.

We found some particularly friendly graffiti stenciled on a wall.

 

Someone pinned this friendly ad on Mudhouse's bulletin board.

Someone pinned this friendly ad on Mudhouse’s bulletin board.

Did someone plant this card, or was it created by the smokers who once occupied this table?

Did someone plant this card, or was it created by the smokers who once occupied this table?

When I ran back to snap a photo of the playing card, I turned it over, curious to see what kind of card it was. It was a queen. Someone had drawn a penis on her face.

So much for simple beauty.

Underneath innocence is always the potential for crudeness, for vulgarity, for corruption. Although I was startled, it somehow seemed appropriate. Is anything really pure forever?

We put that question to the test on the next part of our day trip. Continuing past Crozet, we drove into Shenandoah National Park. If you live in Charlottesville, you’re within 30 or so minutes of this resource. We drove into the park and paused at overlooks along the way; each overlook gives you a different vantage point of the Shenandoah Valley. You can see long, bare stripes where the forests have been removed to make way for power lines, a geometric quilt of brown and green farmland, tiny soundless cars gliding by, tree tops swaying. Resisting the urge to Instagram and Snapchat every beautiful thing I saw, I looked around me.

A long and dangerous hike...just kidding. This particularly unflattering photo was taken in a parking lot. (Photo credit: Hannah Patrick)

A long and dangerous hike…just kidding. This particularly unflattering photo was taken in a parking lot. (Photo credit: Hannah Patrick)

We watched a tiny inch worm flex and drag itself across a piece of grass. We found a burn site and sat quietly among the blackened trees, watching the scenery around us change as the clouds shifted. We watched a bee pollinate a thistle.

Before long, our eyes adjusted to catching the myriad of details around us.

Before long, our eyes adjusted to catching the myriad of details around us.

I felt the story of our day sit in my chest, warm and weighty like a lap-sitting cat that won’t let you ieave your armchair. We were seeing facets, and in my mind, I stitched them together. Small town. Railroad. National park. Laura’s Japanese-made car. It felt like looking at the seams of America, where it all came together but could easily be torn apart into separate, compartmentalized components.

We wandered down a trail until we reached a fallen tree and stopped to perch on it. Our conversation at this point turned to reflection on solipsism. Marian believes that most depression is caused by feeling so, so alone. She then said something that I thought was quite profound – she believes that depression could be eased by treatment requiring time in nature because in nature, it’s hard to feel alone. It’s easier to feel part of something. Nature doesn’t know boundaries.

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I watched Marian’s theory come to life during our hike. Laura watched an ant crawl on her leg and just let it be there. Nature will get in your way, as it did when a fallen tree claimed some skin from my shin as I stepped over it. It’ll hit you in the face with a branch. Lacy ferns will gently caress your knees. A bug will whine in your ear. A thistle will scratch you even as it lures you in with its beautiful pink blossoms.

When I was younger, I was utterly uncomfortable with this boundary-crossing. I had horrible allergies; spring blossoms would lure me in only to send me reeling, eyes swelling shut, exploding with sneezes, gasping as bumps rose on the back of my throat. Even indoors, nature encroached: dust mites plagued me even in the winter.

Five years of allergy shots and a hundred pinprick scars later, I’m finally able to enjoy being outdoors again. This summer has trapped me in air conditioned libraries and an air conditioned clothing store during prime sun hours; I’ve started leaving for a few minutes of the day just to feel the fresh air. I don’t even mind the Virginia humidity any more; warm and wet, it clings to me like a familiar blanket when I walk to work.

I’m not sure what kinds of outdoor experiences Scotland will bring. I know for sure that the scenery will be stunning, but I want to know what it will feel like. How will Scotland’s frequent misty rains compare to the violence of a Virginia summer storm? How will Crozet’s tiny lake compare to vast, glassy Loch Ness? It’s hard to believe that roughly five weeks from now, I’ll know the answers to these questions.

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