In the Green

N.B.: this is not a “review,” strictly speaking. Nor is it “well-organized” or “orderly.” I hope it’s enjoyable regardless.

N.B. 2: this is my reflection after seeing the show once. I will have definitely forgotten some details, especially relating to the music, and I may not be entirely accurate on all points, but I wish this to be my immediate and most true reaction. There therefore are elements that I will not discuss, or that I will not discuss in detail, because I don’t remember them well enough. I will continue to talk about this show as I build and deepen my understanding.

Two years ago, in May 2017, I first heard about a little musical called In the Green. At that point, it was in development, hosting the occasional reading; I myself was about to graduate high school and was feeling trepidatious about the whole “college” thing. My fascination with In the Green (which, though it had just come into my consciousness, had been in development for several years) grew from my love of the more-popular musical Natasha, Pierre, & the Great Comet of 1812, in which In the Green composer Grace McLean played a principal role. It was a fragile time in my life, and I responded with attachments to the oft-abstract things I loved; musicals that I thought I would never see or that didn’t even exist yet factored among them. Despite a paucity of content relating to In the Green anywhere online – just a few songs were on YouTube, just a few scraps of news on readings, development, ideas – I clung to it. I even wrote a (highly embarrassing, in retrospect) letter to Grace McLean, the last sentence of which referenced my excitement to see In the Green, whenever it happened to be staged.

None of this is the point of this post, so I should probably stop reminiscing and move onto more pressing matters. But there’s something very special, a specific and peculiar kind of excited-anxiety-tightness-in-my-chest about the story of this show in my life, a specific poetry to the narrative I have crafted around this show. Writing this reflection reawakens those feelings – feelings of wholeness, completion, a finality of this part of my life coinciding with the beginning of something else not quite the same. It’s probably ridiculous to track my life in eras of the media I have loved, but that is how I sometimes conceptualize time. Grace McLean’s work, including In the Green, has set my life in a certain narrative that I don’t believe would exist – in fact, that I don’t believe I could conceptualize – had I not found it.

So I saw In the Green on Sunday, June 23, 2019, more than two years after I first heard about it. (I included the full date so you know it’s important.) And there are so many ways to take that sentiment, so many possible things to say next, but I think the best way to start is to talk about that lack of sureness, how that was so much a factor in the experience of seeing the show. Even though I devoured every little scrap of information I could find about the show, seeing it was like jumping off of a cliff in terms of how I was plunged into newness, unexpectedness, surprise. No amount of background information or discussion of themes or even plain explanation of the show could have predicted what it was like to be there, experiencing the show itself. No amount of overdone description or adjectives could express, now, what that experience was like. It’s something that’s often said about live theater, but I believe this is particularly true of Grace McLean’s work: nothing is ever expected; nothing is ever routine; nothing can be replicated in the exact same fashion as it was once done. Having faithfully followed the show for years, it was still like awakening in a completely unfamiliar environment and having to wind my way back to stability. Walking away from the show was still like being abruptly plunged out of geostationary orbit and back onto Earth. 

And, in more personal terms, I have found another piece of art that I want to integrate into my soul (not that I expected anything less). I have no shortage of artistic works I love deeply, but, every so often, I encounter something that I love so fiercely and viscerally that I want to spiritually commingle with it. In the Green was that for me; the themes and the music and the staging all felt overwhelmingly right. If I took no other time to evaluate my feelings on the show, that was the most important to me – that it hit me in a very perfect way; rather, it buried itself in my heart, it took up permanent residence there. No intellectual exercise could ever supersede that feeling of knowing how incredibly important this masterpiece is and will become for me, that deep but slightly ambiguous feeling of rightness

Beyond all that, though, there is so much to evaluate and puzzle out and expound upon in this show, and I am going to use every tool in my English-major toolbox to delve into that. But first, some context on the show itself: stated very simply, In the Green examines the early life of twelfth-century nun/mystic/artist/composer/polymath Hildegard von Bingen, which she spent locked in a cell with another woman, Jutta von Sponheim. Because little is definitively known about the life they shared in that cell, much of the story is fictionalized, exploring the divergent paths of the two women. Second, a caution: this is going to get pretty thorough and definitely involve what would classically be known as “spoilers.” If you have any intention of seeing this show (and you should), I would wait until you’ve seen it to read on.

The cyclical quality of In the Green, ideas of repetition and shared experience/ trauma/ healing, are prevalent throughout, but I first want to talk about this from an extra-narrative position: the fact that a twelfth-century figure inspired this modern musical. Just as the stage is set in a revolving half-column, just as the narratives of In the Green’s women repeat and cycle and continue, so too does the influence of Hildegard herself. Eight hundred years after her death, she still hangs around; she still influences modern creativity and creation and modern women. She remains a cultural ancestor. I like to think that, somewhere in the universe, she’s aware of her lasting influence, she can see how her story is still used in complex and important ways today, and that makes her happy.

Though the score is largely composed by Grace McLean, there is the occasional Hildegardian snippet that anchors it firmly in Hildegard’s influence. However, the music and the overall tone of the show – not to mention of the technology used to create it, as Grace remotely operates a loop machine during much of the show – are distinctly modern. It makes sense that a show that examines the trauma society inflicts on women, the lack of choice and autonomy many women face, should be similarly modern in tone. Never once did I feel a conflict in the more anachronistic aspects – it was simultaneously fully Hildegardian and fully modern, fully rooted in the twelfth-century narrative and yet stirringly relevant. The loop machine adds another element of that cyclicality, a kind of aural repetition to emphasize the historical and generational repetition with which In the Green grapples. 

Those cycles aren’t just a narrative device; the show goes much more deeply than that, examining very real cycles of violence and trauma – but I’m getting ahead of myself. I suppose I should start at the beginning.

The first scene opens with Hildegard being brought to Jutta as a young girl. Jutta is already entombed in her cell; Hildegard is to serve as an attendant to her and to learn from her. Outside of the cell, Hildegard is played by one actor operating a child-sized puppet. Once she enters, however, Hildegard is played by three people – Hannah Whitney, Rachael Duddy, and Ashley Pérez Flannagan. Thus begins the emphasis on physical forms, the importance of the body to the women of this show. Early on, Jutta, played by Grace, sings of her life outside the cell, referencing that “out there,” she had a body – in here, to the contrary, she lives as if dead to the world. She may still inhabit a physical form, but her body is not important to her. However, though she spends her days yearning for “the light,” a spiritual awakening that transcends the physical self, Jutta’s physicality is still significant. The historical Jutta engaged in self-flagellation as part of her philosophy of asceticism, while In the Green’s Jutta is heavily influenced by the loop machine she operates by means of a button in her ring. Each looped segment of a song corresponds with Jutta’s movements, mirroring the religious devotion of the real Jutta in a simulacrum of self-denial. This aspect of the show was absolutely fascinating to me – the physical movements required of the technology became integrated with the character herself, the loop machine melding with Jutta’s devotion as a tool of her independent, ascetic routines. 

Furthermore, this exploration of the physical form connects to the pressures of living in a body deemed “female.” Then, as now, possessing a female form inflicted a specific set of traumas and burdens on women. (A note: this discussion includes traits associated with cisgender women. Transgender and nonbinary people both share in some of these difficulties, and, beyond that, face specific difficulties and violences of their own.) Beyond the physical difficulties of pregnancy, childbirth, and menstruation are the smaller violences of beauty standards and societal expectations, the pressures constantly trying to mold women to be a certain way. I don’t believe it to be a coincidence that Jutta’s commitment to religion includes injury to her physical self, nor her denial of herself and her body. Living as a woman allows her to feel that isolation from her physical self, allows her the ability to further inflict harm on her already-damaged self. It is another aspect of this show that feels too relevant – the struggles so many women face in understanding, accepting, and being kind to their bodies. There, again, is the sense of cyclicality (and not only in the generational inheritance of such trauma): because of the ways Jutta herself experienced society, she internalizes those traumas and comes to replicate them towards herself – and towards Hildegard.

Seemingly in contrast to the “whole” Jutta, who has just one physical self, Hildegard’s form has been fractured by her own trauma. She no longer sees herself as whole. Though her three actors often sing and speak together, there are times when they reflect that fractured discordance, as well as times when they speak individually. Arguably, though, each aspect of Hildegard is necessary, and it is in her brokenness that she is whole. Each Hildegard represents one part of the whole, each an essential part: the mouth, the eye, and the hand, all larger-than-life sculpted representations. Jutta’s job, as she sees it, is to make Hildegard whole again, and therein arises a conflict. While Jutta has found her version of wholeness through self-denial, that same denial in Hildegard represents profound loss. Jutta’s view of womanhood has been, in part, internalized from her own trauma, leading her to expound upon the “curse” of menstruation and of femaleness in the song “Eve.” This is what allows her to deny and further harm herself – seeing herself as fundamentally wrong, forcing herself through pain and her own version of fracturing, represented in part by her looping – she may not have multiple physical forms, but she has multiple vocal forms.

As it relates to Hildegard, however, Jutta forces her into constant labor digging in the ground of the cell, denying her food and rest (as we later find out, she is digging her own grave). Through these hardships, each part of Hildegard gives herself up – each actor straps her piece to cables; the mouth, the eye, and the hand all hang above her head in a symbolic gesture of her physical denial. She first gives up the mouth to represent a fast or a denial of hunger, then the eye to represent a denial of sleep, and finally the hand. To Jutta, it is a step towards wholeness, relinquishing the elements that separate the three. But, as I mentioned, the conflict here exists between the Jutta’s forceful denial and the essential quality of each of the Hildegards. In giving up parts of herself, Hildegard does not become whole, because wholeness is not eliminary. It is coagulative.

I will further discuss this idea of wholeness, but first I want to examine Jutta and Hildegard as women in a hostile society. I believe something akin to W. E. B. DuBois’ idea of double-consciousness is apt here. As DuBois developed this idea to describe the experiences of Black Americans, I can’t directly apply this term without misappropriating it, but the concept still rings true. According to DuBois, Black Americans understood themselves both through the eyes of their oppressors and through their own experiences. They internalized stereotypes and inaccurate ideas propagated by white society, but they knew themselves to be different, to be better. I think something similar affects Jutta and Hildegard. Both have internalized trauma of being a woman in a patriarchal society, but Jutta especially feels herself to be cursed with womanhood, and she projects this view onto Hildegard. Hildegard, however, understands herself differently – at least, she does after the pivotal scene that reveals Jutta’s brokenness.

For Jutta has already revealed that she “once” was broken, and, in the context of Hildegard’s multi-formed type of brokenness, this presumably implies that she was once in the same state. The arrival of Jutta’s “shadow” – another of Jutta’s physical forms, played by Mia Pak – confirms this. The shadow reveals how Jutta inhabits the same state as Hildegard, broken into multiple parts, no matter what wholeness Jutta claims. As the shadow directly mirrors Jutta’s movements, there is a small detail separating them: while Jutta’s dress has gray straps crossing her torso, the shadow’s hangs free. I may be reading into this a bit too much, but, to me, it seemed that Jutta’s costume communicates how she is physically holding herself together.

The set then shifts into a view beneath the floor of the cell. Jutta is gone, and Hildegard (all three of her) encounters Jutta’s shadow below the ground – or, as the shadow herself says, Jutta’s bones. This too is significant to me, as it reveals that the Jutta Hildegard knows is missing the element of herself that provides structure and support. Locking herself away from the world perhaps reflects this, mirroring how she only has herself and lacks outside support as she attempts to heal. This is also, to me, when the significance of Hildegard digging her own grave becomes clear – as Jutta has made herself “whole” again by burying this one part of herself, she wishes Hildegard to do the same. Jutta’s understanding of her healing is that, because she has buried this part of herself, she is once again an unbroken and singular person. From a feminist perspective, it may be that Jutta has killed the parts of herself that do not align with how society says a woman should be. There are more layers to this, however, because this is the scene in which both Jutta and Hildegard’s traumatic stories are revealed. Essentially, Jutta has buried the one part of her with the ability to tell her history, buried the part of her that faces her truth rather than face it herself. From another view, however, Jutta has fractured rather than accept the whole of herself – both the lightness and the darkness, the easy parts to accept and the difficult parts. This is the part of In the Green that hit me most strongly; reflecting on this aspect of the show brought me a sudden realization of how I see myself. Without the shadow, Jutta is not her whole self – she may insist that she is, she may see the shadow as an unneessary aspect of herself, but that denial is part of what prevents her from being whole. It feels so intensely relatable to deny part of yourself to move on – to pretend that part of you doesn’t exist, to bury it, just so that you live with yourself, creating an image of who you are that you can tolerate to keep living. Jutta can only keep living without acknowledging an entire segment of herself – and so that is what she does. Likewise, I craft my own version of myself, understanding only the parts of myself that I can accept, to live as the persona I have created, pruning the parts that don’t agree with my preconceived notions of myself. It’s an act of ongoing harm, a self-fracturing that feels difficult to reconcile.

So it is here, underground, that Hildegard tells her story. She tells of her sister, Agatha, who has been referenced throughout. In the event that first brought Hildegard to Jutta, Agatha died from ingesting substances meant to abort her pregnancy, substances that Hildegard gathered for her. This is the event that broke her, the guilt she feels in her sister’s death. And again the cyclical nature of violence appears – Agatha is a victim of her society in many ways, in the fact that she can be forced to carry a child, in the way her abortion must be done in secret, in the lack of a safe way to stop her pregnancy. Again appears the presence of physical violence to women’s bodies. Again, it is another aspect of this show that is far more relevant than it should be, far too reminiscent of today’s stories – those who cannot access a safe or legal abortion, those who are injured or killed pursuing an abortion, those who are prevented from a medical procedure by politicians who deny them autonomy. The structural violence surrounding pregnancy and abortion is an old fight. But, through all of the structural factors that cause Agatha’s suffering, Hildegard blames herself, inherits her sister’s trauma. She shoulders that burden and it breaks her.

Through this story, the shadow is the witness to Hildegard’s pain, reacting with tenderness that Jutta had not shown her. It is perhaps even possible that the shadow represents traits Jutta has cast off, replacing softness with strictness and discipline. The delicate way of handling trauma – the shadow tells Hildegard that she doesn’t have to share, that she can wait until she’s ready – is hugely significant to me, as it acknowledges the difficulty of what Hildegard does. Facing her pain and telling her story is treated as heavily as it deserves. But then it is only the shadow to tell Jutta’s story and her trauma – Jutta herself does not speak these words. She is still broken, not just in the fact of her two forms, but also because she refuses to accept her shadow.

Hildegard, on the other hand, returns to Jutta renewed. She accepts the mouth, the eye, and the hand once more – and that, I believe, is the most significant statement of Hildegard’s healing. Because Jutta only saw how she was broken, Hildegard lost parts of herself when trying to heal by Jutta’s instruction. While Jutta “healed” herself by digging a grave for the shadow and burying her, Hildegard’s self-created grave goes empty, because she comes to see how her wholeness involves every part of her. Wholeness, as I said before, can’t be eliminary. A fractured soul can still be whole, through every part of itself and all of its lightness and darkness. Hildegard goes into the darkness of the underground to find a type of enlightenment, reinforcing the essential quality of the darkness, flipping the trope from darkness as bad to darkness as necessary. But Jutta, too, has been in search of “the light” – God, the spirit, Heaven, goodness, however you categorize it. And once Hildegard returns, having found her own light (and faced her own darkness) without Jutta, Jutta despairs. She apologizes that Hildegard had to see her darkness, her other self, still rejecting her wholeness, but now reflecting some of the delicate sensibility her shadow had expressed around their trauma. But then she laments that she has supposedly done everything right; she has been devoted, and disciplined, and faithful, and yet she has not found her own light. And then she exits.

Jutta is dead, and thirty years have elapsed since Hildegard first entered Jutta’s cell. Another girl has come to the cell to be mentored by Hildegard, as Jutta did for her. Grace has now assumed the role of the young girl, mentor to mentee, introducing another element of cyclicality, while Hildegard has now assumed just one form. The girl’s mother expects her to have an experience like Hildegard’s own childhood, locked in the cell, but Hildegard rejects that existence to step into the world. Here, again, arises a difference between Jutta and Hildegard. Jutta chose her life in the cell – she chose it as one of the only ways to control her own life and her own fate, one of the only ways she could claim autonomy. Separating herself from the world was her response to the harm the world had done to her. Hildegard, on the other hand, was given this life. She did not wish to be entombed in the cell, and her thirty years inside gave her great fervor for the life she can build beyond her small existence thus far. 

By my interpretation, though, despite Hildegard’s singular form, her two other forms do not fade. The now-free Hildegard devotes her life, in part, to aiding other women who are broken and healing; these other women are played by the same actors who once were Hildegard’s other parts. By one view, this is just a smart use of a small amount of actors. However, I believe this could also be a reflection of Hildegard seeing her own pain in other women, recognizing the traumas she faced in those she now helps. And, again, it’s one of the ways women inherit and share each others’ pain, how some of those painful experiences are near universal, how women as a whole carry the burden of a society that diminishes them.

On that note, one very significant theme that I have not yet discussed is the idea of “too much.” Part of the trauma Hildegard faces is rejection of her whole self as “too much” by a society that expects her to shrink. And, again, this is just another way that In the Green rings far too truthfully. Women are still condemned for being big and loud and taking up space and using their voices and claiming their existence and rights. Women still face rejection for not being accommodating, for rejecting the narrow roles created for them, for speaking up against the harm and pain a patriarchal society inflicts on them. For Hildegard, though, the traumatic event that breaks her is the culmination of many, many smaller acts of violence. It’s not just the trauma of her sister’s death, although that is a crucial part of it. It is Agatha’s death amid years of living as a girl in a society that tries to deny her and shrink her. The irony of this, though, is that Hildegard’s trauma just makes her more. On quite literal terms, Hildegard triples by her trauma.

The very last scene shows Hildegard meeting a young girl named Sigewize, a member of a Christian sect called the Cathari. She is a survivor of anti-Cathar violence that has killed her family members, and she claims that Hildegard’s public speeches have incited the violence against her people. Combined with the final song of the piece, which discusses trouble in “the community,” In the Green concludes with the need for ongoing healing, ongoing dialogue and ongoing examination and ongoing reflection, to protect against the type of trauma Jutta inflicted upon Hildegard, the harm Hildegard (however unintended) now inflicts upon the Cathars. Watching this scene, I was painfully reminded of some of my own communities and the harm they have done to their most vulnerable members – the feminist community’s mistreatment of women of color and LGBTQ women, the LGBTQ community’s mistreatment of its trans members and members of color. I think that’s why this final scene is so striking and important – it is a reminder to interrogate ourselves, to examine the harm we might be doing even through our attempts at help. And it’s a reminder of all of our brokenness, especially those of us with marginalized identities, and how those parts of our histories so strongly influence our futures.

And I think this is where I stop. I can’t touch on everything, and my own memory and evaluation skills are limited. This post can’t come close to the experience of actually seeing the show, but it was a new type of catharsis to process all of this. I still feel that there is so much more to say, but, more importantly, there is so much more to feel, so I’m going to stop writing and go cry a little bit. I am only hopeful that I can continue to feel the feelings that In the Green awakens in me, and that I can go out into the world and make art that touches souls as deeply as this piece has touched me.

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Studying Abroad: My Last Few Weeks

I wrote my first study abroad blog post three weeks into my semester abroad. I’m now about three weeks from the end of my semester. That’s a hard thing to say, because I have often felt like my time in Italy was infinite. Three and a half months seemed like an eternity to explore, observe, and fully live in Florence, but, now that it’s almost over, it feels like a maddeningly short experience. Still, I’ve made so many memories and shaped so much of myself in the past few months that, while I may have been temporally restrained, I feel like I have lived enough for several lifetimes.

As it’s difficult to evaluate any experience while still living it, this reflection will inherently be limited. However, with this post, my goal is to summarize many of the thoughts and feelings that have affected me during my time abroad. I’d like to share some of my favorite memories and some of the things I have learned. And I don’t want to treat this like an ending. In a way, three weeks in itself is still an eternity – I can still experience much, much more. I don’t have to accept that I know everything about living in Florence – even after almost three months, I’m certain I don’t.

One of my fears when I started studying abroad was seeming too conspicuously American or standing out. While I can’t help that I stand out – there aren’t many blonde Italians, after all – I have come to more fully accept that I deserve to be here. Even if I don’t speak the language well or fully understand the culture or know all the history of my adoptive city, I still have a place here. And I like to think that, through all the times I’ve spoken to people at the market, to all the gelato places I’ve frequented, to all the locals who recognize me on sight, I have made that place. My daily routines have built an identity here that is part of the city itself, and I can’t say the same about any other city despite the one where I live at home. It’s strange to think that, despite visiting cities like New York and Philadelphia often, the only places I have ever truly lived, where I have become a part of the fabric of the city, are Florence and my small hometown. While I will never be a Florentine, I’m grateful to have been welcomed here nonetheless.

While I do appreciate the comforts I have found in my daily life here, it is difficult for me to make a routine without settling into stagnation. I have come to love even the simple parts of my daily activities, like getting up early every day and starting my day with the quiet of the early morning. (Yes, I am also incredibly surprised that I have turned myself into a morning person.) However, I have lately felt that, because everyday activities no longer require a special type of effort, I am no longer making progress or advancing myself like I was when every day was a challenge. I am grateful that going to the grocery store no longer feels like a Herculean task, even though I don’t receive the same satisfaction in accomplishing it. But I now feel like I have to achieve beyond that everyday level to feel accomplished and proud of myself. Coming to Italy and living here offered me a challenge that felt like it improved me every day. Three months in, I am not feeling that same sense of continual improvement.

I think that’s okay, in a way. Part of it has also been intentional. After the excitement of being abroad in Europe, when I wanted to travel as much as possible, see as much as possible, experience as much as possible, and generally wear myself down with new experiences, I have settled down a bit. I still try new things and go new places every day, but I am not looking to travel outside of Italy or go on long trips anymore. I have become more aware of my own needs and limits, and I have allowed myself to rest rather than feeling pressure to constantly be on the move. I feel I have redefined my previous understanding of taking advantage of all opportunities – I will try new things and go new places as long as they don’t conflict with my health, sufficient rest, and energy levels. Even though I’m still far from perfectly healthy, I have generally developed healthier habits. I am hoping to take these understandings home with me and build upon them this summer.

Another fear I had when I began my experience was not studying abroad the “right” way. Part of redefining opportunities and what living well looked like to me was reshaping my understanding of studying abroad. I know that there are common threads in the study abroad narratives that are told often, but I stopped feeling a need to adhere to those ideas. The feeling of a constant vacation did wear off somewhat, and I settled into learning what it means to live here. Not vacation, not travel, but to live – completing mundane activities, spending time at home, connecting with the local culture. I found it immensely more satisfying to live by my own standards of happiness and success than by those I saw promoted elsewhere.

I don’t think I’m ready to leave soon, but I am ready to be home. I miss my family and my friends far too much to wish for an infinite amount of time abroad, but I am not happy to see my time here come to an end. It’s a bittersweet ending.

Onto some of my favorite moments from studying abroad.

I have a habit of inflating “special” moments to the point that they no longer feel special at all. The events that should feel the most special to me – going on trips, seeing iconic monuments, the like – end up secondary to the small, unexpected moments that make me smile. With that in mind, some of my very favorite moments have been simply encountering street musicians while walking around at night. Sometimes my time here truly feels like I’m living the ideal, airbrushed life of a movie, and adding music just feels like providing the soundtrack. Those moments feel idealized, crystallized, perfectly choreographed to me – and there was no expectation of them occurring. Sometimes it simply works to provide my own soundtrack and skip down side streets late at night because any moment can be wonderful and magical, I can make those memories without waiting for them to happen to me. Sometimes I catch myself feeling the same weariness and drudgery about life that often catches me at home, and I remember where I am and what I’m doing, and I immediately reverse that trail of thinking. Those are some of my favorite moments.

I’ve become better – not great, but better – about being more spontaneous. For me, it’s not like booking a last-minute flight or anything too wild, but more like just acting on what I want to do in the moment. I’ve spent a long time regulating my behaviours and activities; I have pages of schedules and to-do lists and mental constraints on how long I can spend doing various things. It’s a relief to allow myself to get lost without a time limit, or to eat gelato just because I want to, or to take an unusual route home without worrying about the time I’ve lost by doing so. I know that my schoolwork and career goals will once more get in the way of this thinking once I’ve gotten home, and some level of my obsession with maximizing productivity will return, but I hope that I can take a little bit of this attitude into next semester. Being here has allowed me to see how much happier I can be if I loosen my mental restraints a little bit and take some of the pressure off of myself, and that is definitely a feeling I want to carry into the future.

Some of my favorite moments have been when I make connections with other people from various backgrounds. One of my favorite weekly activities, spending Wednesday nights at a multilingual happy hour at a speakeasy, has allowed me to meet others who were also looking for cross-cultural connection. Each time I’ve gone, I’ve spoken to people from different countries and continents, who speak different languages, who have different goals and viewpoints and perspectives, and I’ve treasured all of them. Each Wednesday night feels like a tangible opportunity to expand my worldview and my empathy and come to understand a greater scope of the human experience. The instances of connection I’ve experienced here – bonding over a shared passion, helping others to see different viewpoints, being astounded by the stories I hear – have become some of my most treasured souvenirs. I will miss this perhaps most of all.

As my time in Florence draws to a close, I recognize more and more how greatly I’ve changed since I arrived here. I think about the person I was when I got on my flight to Rome, or at the moment I first stepped foot in Italy, or during my first week here, and I feel protective over her in a way I might feel towards a younger sibling. The me of four months ago did not have the knowledge and experience that I have now in a way that I don’t yet know how to articulate. I know I am fundamentally the same person, but I still feel as if my whole world has shifted, a fact that will be highlighted once I return to the US. My home may have changed slightly, but I will be approaching these familiar places and people as a new person. It’s difficult to confront that reality, to understand that I can never live my life in the same way now that I’ve lived abroad. At the same time, however, it excites me to know how I might continue to evolve and understand the world in radical new ways.

I still can’t quite believe that I’m preparing to leave Florence soon. It still feels like it should be February, and I should be newly-arrived in Florence and ready to take on the world. However happy I am to reconnect with my entire life back in the States, I still have a hard time accepting that my semester abroad is coming to a close. Florence has a place in my heart forever, and I look forward to return one day as an entirely different person, coming to know the city from an entirely new perspective. Until then, I intend to share as much of my experience as possible, to share the city that has captured my heart with everyone I know.

It is therefore with a sad heart that I will leave this city I have come to love and this life that I have shaped for myself here. Onto the next great adventure, I suppose.

Just some tangents

I’ve been having many thoughts recently. None of them are cohesive.

I just now realized that I tend to start my blog posts rather negatively, which can’t be good for my own confidence as a writer. So, as much as I want to call this post a disaster, I will not. Because sometimes I am a good writer! (She shouted into the void.)

Anyway. Here are some things I’ve been thinking about.

I. Good music

I tend to listen to music during any free time I have, and I have more free time than ever right now – my workload while studying in Italy is significantly lighter than the work I’ve had in recent semesters. As such, I feel like I’m discovering new songs and artists constantly.

Two albums I’ve loved recently are Chime by Dessa and MASSEDUCTION by St. Vincent. Samantha Seely (a true influencer) introduced me to Dessa through her song “Fire Drills,” an exploration on how womens’ safety often comes at the cost of their independence. Though Dessa is primarily a rapper and I typically reside strongly in soft indie jams, I love her ingenuity and her righteous anger, and I appreciate the opportunity to look outside of my typical realm of interest. I am particularly enamored with “Velodrome,” from the same album, which has been my powerwalk-around-the-city song since I first heard it. St. Vincent’s MASSEDUCTION has a similar energy for me – Chime’s fraternal rock twin. Though I was familiar with the all-piano re-release of the album, MassEducation, I somehow escaped listening to the original versions of these songs until recently. While it was strange to hear the original arrangements at first, I have now found that I prefer many of them. Special shout-outs to “Young Lover” for being incredible on both albums and to Aprille Mohn for getting me into St. Vincent and to St. Vincent for making the music that my soul wants.

II. How much I love podcasts

I know I spend a lot of time talking about podcasts. I know I start way too many sentences with “I was listening to this podcast recently…” I know. But I just really love podcasts. Here are some of the ones I’ve been enjoying!

IIa. Friends at the Table

If you talked to me sometime last July or August, you probably heard me mention The Adventure Zone – probably my favorite podcast to date, introduced to me by Sam (the aforementioned influencer). Well, Sam has done it again and introduced me to another wonderful actual play podcast – in this case, Friends at the Table. This podcast chronicles the experience of several close friends playing the tabletop roleplay game Dungeon World (though it does develop and go beyond just that game). Among actual play podcasts, I was previously only familiar with The Adventure Zone, and entering the world created by game master Austin Walker was a fascinating and highly entertaining journey. The way Austin and the players adapt the game mechanics to their own needs is compelling and further inspires me to build my own RPG campaigns in creative ways. I especially like how Austin always remains conscious of how his fantasy world derives from and interacts with our world through his considerations of racism, imperialism and colonialism, and other issues. As a plus, the relaxed style of play and little editing in the early episodes makes it feel like I’m sitting with a bunch of close friends while they joke around and have fun. Though I’ve taken a little bit of a break from listening – it’s a pretty complex podcast, and I feel like my attention span has been lacking lately – I’m excited to return to this world.

IIb. Sawbones

I started listening to this podcast last year, but it didn’t quite “click” with me until now. This show is co-hosted by Dr. Sydnee McElroy and her husband Justin McElroy, the latter of whom also co-hosts The Adventure Zone (this family is incredible). Each episode details a different treatment, condition, or person in medical history, from trepanation (drilling holes in your head!) to leprosy. The material is handled with a great balance of information and humor, which makes it very easy to follow and stay tuned in (great for my sleep-deprived self recently, as I have no problem keeping my attention on this show). I truly appreciate Sydnee and Justin’s banter and how strongly they communicate their love for each other, even when discussing the specifics of tuberculosis or historical ways of preventing pregnancy. The one downside is that I continually find myself wondering if I want to go into medicine after all – I made the decision last year to leave the pre-med track, but medical science still does fascinate me. At this point, I don’t see myself returning to medicine as a formal study, but I do appreciate this small amount of medical learning.

IIc. Good Ancestor

This is a relatively new podcast created by writer and racial justice advocate Layla Saad, whose work I’ve been following for several months now. Layla is perhaps most well-known for her Me and White Supremacy Workbook, a 28-day workbook specifically for those with white privilege (me included) to examine, challenge, and dismantle our racism, privilege, and other aspects of whiteness. Layla’s driving force behind her work, however, is her need to be a “good ancestor” – to improve the world for her descendents, to leave a legacy of justice. In her podcast, Layla speaks with writers, advocates, activists, and artists on their work and what good ancestry is to them. Because Layla and all of her guests thus far are black women, and I am white, I know that my enjoyment of this podcast is nuanced. I inherently interact differently with this work because of my race, and I don’t want to wrongfully apply their words to my own life if those messages are meant to serve women of color. However, I still feel privileged to witness (is it still witnessing if it’s aural?) the conversations Layla has with her guests, and I finish each episode feeling empowered in my own quest for good ancestry.

III. Engaging with art/building new artistic norms/artistic responsibility

At least partially spurred by Good Ancestor, and definitely inspired by my current residence in Florence, I have been doing a lot of thinking on the historical art we choose to preserve and uplift. For all of the beauty and skill of the world’s most well-known pieces, there is definitely bias in the works we laud most.

Speaking specifically of my experience in Italy, but also of my learning and understanding of art in the Western world, the majority of the artists we venerate are white men. It is rare to see a single person of color represented in any of these masterpieces; it is common to see depictions of violence against women. And, while I am entirely in support of painting and sculpting nude figures, I have seen far more nude women than men – something I also question, given that the artists were mostly men themselves. When the works we uphold as the pinnacle of artistic accomplishment have so many inherent flaws, how are we to continue to uphold them?

This is obviously a complex and nuanced issue. By no means do I believe that works like these should be diminished or expunged from history; I love them as much as I challenge them. But I think this is a conversation that needs to go beyond just awe and veneration. We should recognize possible problems in the art we collectively love and reframe our exclusionary, Westernized understandings of “great” art. And I think the first step is to initiate dialogue surrounding these concerns. (I’d love to talk with anyone on these issues further should you wish to discuss).

One thing that did recently occur to me was my own responsibility in inheriting a biased artistic history. The ways I choose to represent the world as an artist are reflective of my own culture and biases, just as the historical artists I love responded to their own cultures. However, I now live in a world that inches towards justice and equality. Unlike many historical artists, I understand my responsibility in accurately reflecting the world around me – in all of its glory and diversity. And so I still choose to be inspired by the old masters – to someday reach a fraction of their skill, yes, but also to surpass them in depictions of reality. Being of a new generation, a new century, my understandings of the world differ drastically – I can use that inspiration to better craft my own art, while creating my art with a higher level of social awareness and responsibility.

I’ll leave it up to you to figure out if that made sense.

This post was supposed to address a few more topics, but I feel it has already reached quite a long length. Rest assured that I will be back soon (?) to share more of the multitudinous thoughts I’ve been having recently.

As always, thank you for reading.

Studying Abroad: My First Few Weeks

As of my writing this, I have been in Italy for three weeks and living in my host city of Florence for two. It has been a wild, surreal experience that still doesn’t feel entirely real, and I’m sure parts of it still elude words, but I’m going to attempt to sum up my experience travelling, living, and studying in Italy so far.

To start out, while I had been excited to study abroad, the whole process was tinged with a sense of impending doom, as if something was destined to stop me from going through with it. And, to be honest, part of me hoped that it would. Studying abroad was something I always wanted to do – traveling, in theory, has always appealed to me – but I don’t want to pretend that I was comfortable with the prospect. It was an enormous step outside of my comfort zone, from a tiny school in central Pennsylvania to a metropolitan area in Italy. No matter how much I tried to convince myself that this was what I wanted wholeheartedly, part of my brain continually pulled me backwards, back to the comfortable and familiar, to the life I already knew and understood. Even as I moved towards the opportunities and possibilities that awaited me in Italy, leaving also felt like a sacrifice. I had to give up seeing my friends every day and close contact with my family and my opportunities in the States to allow myself this new opportunity.

With that in mind, leaving was far from a blissful experience. I was somewhat reluctant through some of the process, fixating upon the friends I would miss so terribly and the life I was leaving behind instead of looking towards the future that I could achieve. Nothing that was happening truly felt like it was real. I could not convince myself that I truly was going to be in Italy in two weeks, one week, a day, an hour. Even stepping onto my departing plane didn’t feel like the exciting adventure I envisioned – the excitement was darkened by sadness.

None of this detracts from how privileged I am to have this experience. I know that I am incredibly lucky to have the financial and logistical means to spend an entire semester abroad, and I am grateful for everyone who helped to get me here. I intend to take in as much as I can during this time and learn as much as possible about myself, my goals, and my place in the world. However, I don’t want to portray a false version of my time abroad. For all of the amazing things I get to see and do, the transition into this new environment is still fraught and difficult and emotional.

So, despite all odds, I am here now. I spent my first week in a cultural introduction course that allowed me to travel around central Italy, visiting so many cities and sites that I don’t even remember most of the week. I think I tried more new foods in that week (and I’m notoriously picky) than I had in the previous few months. I was able to connect with some other amazing people in my program who kept me afloat that week. But there was little time for reflection, and most of my observations were superficial. It was interesting to note small cultural differences – like the tiny sidewalks and different siren sounds and abundance of smart cars – but I ultimately still felt life a tourist, still felt like I was just visiting rather than getting acquainted with my home for the next four months.

My life has calmed down since I moved to my apartment in Florence, but there is still the feeling that I’m on a four-month vacation rather than a semester of college. Every day feels like an opportunity to see something new or have an entirely different experience. I have been trying to minimize my stress and lean into the sense of a vacation, finding wonder whenever I can and appreciating every moment I get to live in this beautiful city. There really is nothing like turning the corner and finding yourself walking alongside the Duomo on your way to class – all the years of modern American architecture could not have prepared me to process living among structures from the Italian Renaissance and earlier. While I’ve been taking pictures by the score, flipping back through them serves more to remind me of the memories than to capture every moment – it’s mostly record-keeping at this point. The pictures I take can never carry the same gravitas of seeing these buildings and landscapes and sculptures in person. I know some of my awe will inevitably fade, and I will forget exactly how it felt to view the Duomo or David or Ponte Vecchio for the first time, but I cherish the creation of these memories.

The main reason I chose to study in Florence was the rich history of art, and I have not been disappointed in the inspiration I’ve received so far. Among the city’s most famous sites, I have only visited the Accademia Gallery and the outdoor area of the Uffizi, Loggia dei Lanzi, but the masterpieces I have seen have been incredibly inspirational. Though I did write “Iconic things are just made to let you down” just before viewing David, I regretted my words as soon as I saw it myself. There’s a level of mastery so astronomical that I can’t help but commit to my own meager offerings to the universe and try to create something with a fraction of that skill. It sounds like a cliché, but the combination of artistic inspiration from all angles and my ample free time means that I’ve been inspired to do a great deal of my own art. Like everything else in my life, art has its ups and downs, but I feel grateful to be creating and improving in the city where the Italian Renaissance originated.

The more mundane aspects of life have been less wonderful. As my first time living in a city, I have still not adjusted to the walking – it’s about a 20-minute walk to class every day, and that’s only if I don’t get lost (and I usually get lost). Buying simple items like soap and notebooks has become a challenge because the exact products I used in the US aren’t available here – I have to identify what is used here and adapt to those differences. I’ve never been entirely responsible for my own groceries, so that’s another adventure. And I proceed through all of this with the vague sense that I am inconveniencing everyone. I’ve gotten better about justifying my presence here, but sometimes I wish I weren’t here to speak bad Italian and misunderstand cultural nuances and generally bother the locals by being conspicuously American. I know that’s self-critical to the extreme, and I know that most people are probably used to tourists who do much worse, but I can’t shake the sense that this city and its people are giving me much more than I can ever repay.

I hope I was able to express my complicated feelings without minimizing or exaggerating the positives or the negatives. I want it to be clear that I don’t regret any of this, and the difficulties of it in no way outweigh or even come close to the positives. I especially don’t want to seem ungrateful for this experience, because it is remarkable and I understand that many people without my privilege would love to take my place. Even the parts that feel less than ideal are still part of a veritable dream. I didn’t really have an expectation of what my life would be like while in Florence, but now that I’m here, I can say that nothing could have prepared me for this short of just doing it. And I’m learning to just go for it, whether “it” is trying a new Italian phrase or taking a weekend trip or even spending an entire day just resting. I’m learning, full stop. Everything I go through now is a learning experience.

Because I’m studying abroad in a new city, my expectation is that everything will be novel and interesting, which has been adding some extra sparkle to my life. I found myself marveling at a park the other day, and I started to wonder why this park was anything better than one back in the States. I began to think of this “mandatory wonder” that I’ve been feeling about everything around me – particularly why I couldn’t bring it back with me when I go home. And I’ve concluded that, more than any souvenir, it’s important that I do carry that feeling home. That being here teaches me to find more wonder in my life, even after I’ve long left Florence’s masterpieces.

Thank you for reading. I appreciate you, reader.

 

(Late) Semester Reflection

Note: this would have been more effective right after my semester had ended…but it took me a good few weeks to process and shape all my thoughts into something semi-coherent. So here it is, late, like most of the assignments I handed in this semester.

This past semester felt like it killed me multiple times while simultaneously leaving me hanging on for dear life. I’m not sure I’ve experienced a more emotionally turbulent and difficult time in my life, but I feel like I also learned a lot about myself and defined some of who I want to be.

I started off this semester by auditioning for the school musical, If/Then. It was my first “real” audition, the only one I’ve ever done that required me to sing, dance, and act. I didn’t have much confidence in my performance ability, but I figured I would audition for the experience and return for future shows better equipped to handle the process. I was initially cut – as I expected – but when someone was unable to accept her role, it was offered to me. It was a shock to me, yet it was overwhelmingly positive.

Performing in the musical shaped my semester. Because, yes, it was a great experience. I met new friends and solidified existing friendships. I became more comfortable with parts of my identity that I had thought I would never accept. It was all great, except when I came to the point when rehearsals were my life. I’m not sure what I expected – I’d been in shows before; I knew how much work was required of me – but I had to forego many of my goals for the semester because of the time requirements of the musical.

As such, I feel like I barely advanced in many areas of my life. I’m no closer to deciding on a future career or grad school plans. I wanted to use this semester to get in touch with myself and my goals – I wrote that, verbatim, on my list of semester goals – but I feel even more confused now than I did at the start. In fact, after this semester, I’m not even entirely sure that I belong in higher education – or any formal academic setting, for that matter. More and more often I found myself wondering why I was still in college if I weren’t working towards a degree I would use and a career I would love. Last year, when I felt this same level of burnout, I came to rationalize my lack of passion with the fact that I was working towards a career I would hate. This year, though, I was directionless – while I knew I was no longer sentencing myself to medical school (because that IS what it felt like; I felt like I was inflicting a jail sentence on myself), I had no end goal to drive me forward. My future is a hazy collection of half-dreamed fantasies and indistinct wishes that I don’t know how to reconcile with reality.

I also intended to deepen my involvement on campus this semester, but beyond the theater program, I don’t feel like I did. One of my greatest wishes was to use my leadership position in Allies (the LGBTQ group) to incite progress on campus, but I didn’t (couldn’t) dedicate the time towards that lofty goal. My limited supply of energy went first to my schoolwork and then to the musical; there was little left over for other pursuits. And I am proud of myself for this in some ways – I didn’t wear myself down by forcing myself to keep doing things when I was exhausted, and I prioritized my time to take care of my own health. However, that often came at the cost of my involvement. For everything I accomplished this semester, it still feels like I did very little, and I feel like I let my community down.

In some ways, this was a semester of new milestones and firsts, to the point that I feel like I lost some of my identity. Some of the things I did in the past few months were so unlike the “me” I knew that I questioned who I was. I came very close to pulling an all-nighter to finish a paper, staying up until 8 a.m. the night before the last day of classes. I skipped class for the first time – my bio class the morning after that almost-all-nighter. I procrastinated, I went to sleep without doing readings, I skipped readings altogether, I left my finals studying until the weekend before finals. I’ve never been one to relax in my studies, but I somehow did this semester. It was a new low for me, and it scares me a bit to know how much I sank this semester.

That isn’t to say that this semester was without accomplishments. I felt like I truly found my place at Etown in the past few months. While I made wonderful friends in my first year, this third semester was when I felt like I belonged among them, when I truly learned that the people around me were there for me. It was, collectively, not an easy semester, as many of us had our own difficulties, but I found that my friends would be with me through everything. As I left behind a tight-knit friend group when I came to college, I was scared that I would never find another group of people among whom I felt as happy, secure, and comfortable, but my college friends became that kind of family this semester. Endless love to them.

In many ways, I also found my voice in speaking up for what I believe in. While I still have further work to do as an ally to marginalized groups and a representative of my own communities, I think I made significant strides in finding my voice as a tool of advocacy. I am grateful to my women’s and gender studies course – a class I almost didn’t take – for allowing me the time to hone that voice and speak for myself and my thoughts, but I am also grateful for both in- and out-of-class experiences that educated me and taught me humility. That momentum of building my confidence while simultaneously learning humility is a momentum I hope to carry into 2019.

I am also incredibly proud of myself for applying to study abroad. While I told myself my study abroad application wasn’t going to be like my college applications – I would actually do work ahead of time instead of leaving it until the last minute – that was sadly not the case. Still, I got the application and all attendant forms done, and I am now set to study in Florence, Italy, next semester. It was something I thought impossible, but I don’t want to understate the work I did to make it true. Even though I felt like I was clueless and falling apart throughout the whole process, I got it done, and my persistence in doing so is very important to me.

I am writing this conclusion on a different day than I started this post. I am in a much better place, and I hope it shows – I am optimistic about what the next few months hold for me, and I am once more excited to be alive and in this stage of my life. My third semester of college was difficult to the point of almost breaking me, but I’m happy to still be here, still trying and failing and improving every day.

Recent thoughts

I have a fully-finished post in my drafts that I never posted. In it, I tell the future. I should clarify: I waited so long to post it that pattern I observed in that post came true.

The post is called “Comfort Zone.” It talks about how I let myself become too comfortable and I stagnate. I lose all motivation and sense of direction and I end up spending most of my time in bed. All the things I care most about – reading books, doing art, investing in my future, improving myself – are unimportant when I’m in that state of mind. Everything becomes insurmountable. That is where I am right now. It takes more effort that I can expend to even be myself. It’s like only half of myself has loaded and I’m still waiting for the other half to finish up, but it’s been a week and I’m still loading.

This is a fact that scares me. It has scared me since I observed it. When I go through these times, I feel less than whole; I do not feel like myself. And yet, in some ways, this is a very authentic version of myself. This is the me that emerges when I can’t muster the effort to actually be me. The reason I’m scared, then, is that I don’t want this version of myself to actually be me. I want the me when I’m running at 100% capacity to be the real me, but I fear all of that self is affectation.

An example. When I’m busy with work or school or other occupations, I plan everything I will accomplish when I have the time. When I actually have that time, I can sometimes work on those projects, but I often do not. I dream about doing them, I berate myself for not doing them, I stand in front of the materials I need to finish them and I turn away. These are things that I’m passionate about, mind you, things like painting and reading and sewing. I can’t bring myself to work on the things I genuinely want to do. This particular example, involving my creative pursuits, may have other factors at play. I’m not sure where the line that separates “I did this to be seen” and “I did this for myself” lies, exactly. It feels like everything I do is up for consumption. I find it difficult to distinguish where my motivations end and societal pressure starts. Even those things I do “for myself” feel inauthentic.

And that is all related to my general ennui. It takes enormous effort, when I am in one of these times, to examine myself, to reflect upon my motivations. I lose touch with myself because I am unable to explore my mind and my ideas. Some of my best, most productive times are also the times when I am best at journaling – measurable accomplishments make me more eager to examine myself, which is not surprising, considering how much of my self-worth and self-esteem depend on observable accomplishments.

I just wrote “productive” without a second thought but I actually want to get into that. I’ve been obsessed with my own productivity since sophomore year of high school. Even as I surround myself with encouragement, messages that tell me that I am allowed to take breaks, I feel guilty when I am not working. What I’m experiencing now is more than just taking a break – there are other factors involved – but I still feel like a massive failure for daring to take time off during my designated time off. I can tell everyone I know that growth isn’t linear, that we all need breaks to recover, but these aren’t message I’ve been able to internalize. I can’t accept that I can’t function at 100% capacity at all times, and I crash into depressive spirals after overworking myself. I don’t even feel like I’m living right now.

I think college has made this pattern worse because each semester is its own arc – overwork, crash, and recover to overwork again all within about four months. Almost exactly a year into college and I’ve seen the pattern three times, exactly as I knew it would happen. I’m preparing to overwork myself again in a week, when I start my second year of college, and I’m not sure how much longer I can keep this going.

This is not exactly intended for anyone to read it. It’s more like a documentation of my current crisis that I needed to express, if only for the satisfaction of knowing that I have created something – anything. If you read it all anyway, thanks. I appreciate you and I hope you have taken time today to appreciate yourself.

and what is true is that i loved

Hello these are some things I love and this post is going to read like many tangents all stuck together.

So my friend Sam (thanks Sam) got me into podcasts almost a year ago and I love them. They take some effort for me because audio-based content tends to slip through my brain, but I love them a lot. My favorite podcasts are narrative, and there’s something great about hearing a story read and performed to you. Podcasts feel quite intimate to me, and even though I know so many people experience the same content I do, I love the semblance of a personal story told just for me.

A podcast that I loved a lot recently (as you know if I’ve spoken to you in the past weeks) is The Adventure Zone, which started as a goofy Dungeons and Dragons show and evolved into something much more meaningful and special and beautiful. I have not stopped screaming and/or crying about this podcast since I finished season one last week. It is seriously one of the most memorable and incredible pieces of storytelling (of any medium) I have ever experienced. I don’t have enough words to say what TAZ means to me but listening to it (especially Stolen Century/Story and Song) lit my creativity on fire and now I’m just looking for the motivation to cultivate every seed that TAZ planted.

Luckily for me, the hosts of TAZ, the McElroys, have something of a podcast empire and I’ve listened to some of their other shows to cope with finishing TAZ. I am currently smitten with Wonderful, hosted by Griffin McElroy and his wife, Rachel. Each episode is just an hour of the two of them discussing things they love. It’s the inspiration for this post, actually. It fills me with joy that two adults have such wonder within them and listening always inspires me to love widely, deeply, and openly.

I “borrowed” my friend’s Netflix (thanks Chris) to watch Nanette by Hannah Gadsby and that was the best decision I’ve made in a while. It’s hard to discuss what is essentially someone’s soul laid bare without sounding reductive. It was transformative. I don’t want to co-opt any of her experiences or wrongfully claim a part of her pain as my own, but Nanette was a religious experience and I would like to say thanks to the universe for putting Hannah Gadsby and I in the same reality. If you look into any piece of media from this post please let it be this. (Just a warning if you choose to watch it – there is a frank discussion of homophobia, physical abuse, and sexual assault.)

I love theater. I love the entire experience of knowing that you’re going to a show, and travelling to see the show, and entering the theater as your breath is stolen by a beautiful chandelier, and finding your seat among a zoo of other theater-goers, and your heart swelling as it follows the swell of the overture, and everyone in the theater breathing as one and living out the same story, and the times when you no longer inhabit your body because you have ascended into a theater-driven divinity. I just love live theater so much.

I would like to now share something Annamaria Caputo told me the other night because I love it a lot. I was feeling Bad About Art (you know, the artist life) and she told me the following: “you have something to offer the world that no one else does & nobody else can produce art with the same exact heart & intention behind it that you do” (punctuation unedited). And I love that a lot because even if I still feel Bad About Art I think reframing my narrative to see myself as an artist requires acceptance of those facts – that my work may not be special or good in itself but it’s still my work and that’s something. I love supportive friends is what I’m trying to say and I love that I may have stagnated as an artist but I’m still growing in myself and my identity.

I’ve been cleaning a bunch of old documents out of the basement and I’ve found that I love my younger self. I wrote a four-page essay on the Warrior cats series in fifth grade and a prose poem that was a series of complaints about poetry in fourth grade. I did so much Wicked fan art. I think my younger self was better than I am today so cheers to her and here’s to regaining some of what she had.

I love the concept of reading. Even if I can’t bring myself to read so much recently, the idea that there are so many amazing books full of stories that I can discover is proof of magic in this world. I love entering a bookstore and knowing that I have entered a veritable Cave of Wonders. I love browsing shelves I know well and reminding myself of all the books I plan to read. I love thinking of the many many years I have left and all the books I can read in that time, the mounting pile of stories that I hold within me. I love libraries. I love that I can go to this place where I have grown up and find the same copies of books I’ve checked out from this place since second grade and remember the ones I checked out multiple times because I never bought books. I love looking at the stacks of books I plan to read and imagining how much I will love them. And I still do love reading in itself, even if it is a temporarily inaccessible love.

I love dreaming of who I could be. When it’s hard for me to accept who I am now, I imagine the woman I want to be and I think of how I can make myself into her. I set myself standards and goals that I might not meet, but they send me ever closer to that ideal. I love reading my journal entries from a few months ago and seeing a checklist I have now completed. Those are rare because my goals can be so nebulous but I welcome them.

I can’t talk about love without talking about my mom. The largest portion of my heart will always belong to her.

If you read this whole disasterpiece then thank you and I love you and I would love to hear about something you love the more detail the better (there is a comment section! Let us interact!).

When I Read Too Much

I have read 43 books so far in 2018. That is, by my standards, a fairly low number. And that is intentional.

There have been times in my life when I did nothing but read; it was my sole focus. Reading was a competition against both real and imaginary measures, and I had to win. I had to read the most books and the most pages and the most minutes and I could not escape that.

Part of me wishes I had spent more time learning to live. I was praised for reading, but I sometimes did little else. I avoided life by reading about it. I could read during church, during a party, during a family dinner, and it was acceptable. I could hide in a corner with a book and passing adults would make praising remarks on my studiousness. I wasn’t intentionally hiding from life; I was just doing what I wanted, as most ten-year-olds lack duties and responsibilities. And I do remain grateful for all the lessons I learned from my reading. But when I think back to those years of my life, I wonder how much more I could have developed my social skills, or how much stronger I could have built my friendships, had I not been reading constantly.

Reading allowed me to remove myself from an actual life. It still does sometimes. It became easier to stay home and read for hours on end than to make plans or to take risks or to see other people. During the summer, when the library gave out prizes for every four hours of reading, I could read a book a day – and I felt like a failure when I didn’t. Reading was a default at this point – it was just a given fact that I would read all day. And the praise kept coming, endless admiration for the part of my life that shut me out from anything else.

Reading constantly doesn’t even make me feel good. I feel fatigued and lonely after reading 27 books in a month (see last July). No book seems exciting or engaging; I begin to choose easy reads that bring me little joy just to devour more and more books in as little time as possible. I can get to the point of reading two or three books a day, and I come to hate it. It is only comfort with my normal that compels me to continue turning pages and I hate it.

External elements are a factor. Throughout my life it has been library summer reading challenges or reading logs for my English classes that fuels my obsessive reading, but now it’s Goodreads. Goodreads, for all I like it, turns reading into a numbers game with yearly reading goals. I can meticulously track my reading and count the books I’ve read. 100 books is an achievement. The content of those books is unimportant, my enjoyment of those books is unimportant – it’s just about achieving that reading goal. I have sacrificed days I could spend around my friends and family to achieve that reading goal.

This is why I’m happy that I’m reading less. It represents to me my time spent not reading – when I’m getting out of my comfort zone and living. I don’t spend hours on end reading every single day; that is a rare occasion now, and it is one that now holds weight to me. If I spend an entire day reading, it’s because my book is particularly great or I want to continue a series. I am no longer reading all day just because I’m scared to do anything else.

Maybe ‘scared’ isn’t the right word. I read all day because it’s easy. I don’t have to engage with anyone else. I don’t have to spend money. I don’t have to confront my own anxieties or challenge myself. I can just sit on the couch and read. And to a certain extent that’s great – until it becomes all that I do.

I’m doing a much better job of balancing this year. I still read quite a bit, but it no longer interferes with my ability to do other things. I try not to pay too much attention to the numbers, focusing more on reading what interests me and enjoying each book. I still get caught up in the numbers at times – vowing that I must read more to reach my goal – but that rarely bleeds into my everyday activities.

This post was partially inspired by Ariel Bissett, who has made some great YouTube videos about reading and the culture that surrounds it.

Thank you for reading.

Paintin’

Hello everyone!

This post gives a bit of insight into my painting process using a commission I just completed. It is not a tutorial, but I hope you learn something regardless.

I start by drawing a sketch of the painting’s subject, in this case a cat. I typically use colored pencil for sketches as this creates softer lines than graphite. Recently, I like to match up the color I use for the sketch with the eventual background color – in this case, a muted green.

I then paint the background. For this, I usually choose one base color (green) and mix in others (yellow, gold, white, metallic copper, and a darker green) for a dappling effect. This was my second attempt at the background; my first attempt used too much yellow and looked sickly (that’s why my sketch isn’t the same tone of green as the final background). You can still see the original background a bit through the green on the right side of this picture.

I start with the cat’s face, specifically the right ear. I block out main colors and values and then add details (you can see some of that below). I use a small brush to create the effect of fur. I paint the eyes last, which is why they’re missing from the image below.

When I finish the cat’s face (ending with the left ear), I move onto the body. For this, I use a larger brush and a looser style because the fur on the body tends to be longer. You can see below that the body is a bit ‘messier’ than the face, which is how I like it. I end by painting whiskers (using white paint with a lot of water to keep them smooth) and eyes. The eyes are typically the most important part of the painting, which is why I save them for last: I paint them and the whole painting comes together.

After letting the painting dry overnight, I go back and varnish over the whole thing to give it a nice finish and protect the paint.

And it’s done!

(If you would like a painting like this of your cat – or your dog or bird or horse – please contact me! My commissions are open.)

Pride

Nowadays, communication is never easy. It should be easy to say that my feelings align with label x and, therefore, label x is the one I choose. But label x feels like an incomplete picture. It feels like a betrayal of my true feelings to identify with label x. But no other label more closely aligns with the long-winded explanation of how I feel, so what am I?

Questioning is a liminal state. It should be a resting place between two instances of security and sureness. You begin the journey in one place, meander through the challenges of the ride, and end up elsewhere. One place, another place. But it’s been four years and I’m still on that careening car with no end in sight.

You think, on many occasions along the way, that you may have arrived. Something feels like a home. But the doubts creep in, and before long you are back on the road with the same travel anxieties as before. They are only rest stops. They are my truths while they last, and they never last. Every one is proven false and I plod on.

Liminality is exhausting. It is like residing within a fully operational airport in a world where your destination does not exist. You search and search for the flight that will take you where you belong, but you pass each terminal. Once or twice you are tempted to take a flight that feels almost right – but you do not. Almost is not the same as truth.

What am I? I suspect that even if I could put a word to answer that question it would not be The Answer. It would be an answer demanded by someone who is not me, not the answer I give myself. That answer does not yet exist, and it may never exist. I may yet set up permanent residence in that airport.

I am. That’s it.