Warm Up 1/7

Inspired by Vedanta/Hindu theology (especially the ideas of Brahman, atman, karma, and samsara), Return to Life by Jim Tucker, Nutshell by Ian McEwan (which has an interesting premise even though I didn’t much enjoy it), developmental biology, and Song of Myself by Walt Whitman. I feel I should also make it clear that I do not edit or reread these warm-ups.


In another life, I was an ant. But that was a long time ago. I was also a Prime Minister–but that was also a long time ago. I was a chemist and an alchemist. I was a juniper bush. I was a mom.

I’m not sure now. Right now I am soft and warm and claustrophobic, but I have seen generations of myself become more than what they were. No one is ever built overnight, and no one is more aware of that fact than I, cursed with the unique ability to remember my other selves. It is a kind of curse, to reach so far and so strongly with the hands of one self only for those hands to gnarl and curl and inevitably reset. I have been entering each life uniquely primed to reach further than a single-lived being, and yet I disappoint myself. Even as a juniper bush, I could not be the best, shiniest juniper bush. I did not earn the right to reincarnate as another juniper bush, being relegated instead to the imperfect human form I held until recently. As far as I can tell, I am a mammal again, surrounded by pinks and darks and pulsing. What mammal I might be remains to be seen. All mammals start out pretty similarly, in my experience, and I think there’s no one better qualified to make that claim.

I know I will be born, mewling and raw, and then I will grow, cells dividing and separating, bones lengthening into an adult, and then my telomeres will inevitably unwind and bring me to another beginning. All of what I will be is already contained in this form. Humans call that stem cell biology. I don’t much like the human impulse to name every aspect of existence, especially because I have lived lives without verbiage. It is natural to be without words. 

I am made of electricity and stardust. One million years ago, the form I inhabited contained the same components. There is nothing new in me, and yet this me has not existed until now. I wonder if I have the right to be an “I,” this self, being just a recombination of what the universe dreamed up billions of years ago. I suppose I am the universe dreaming itself, and that piece of universe calls itself by an “I.” The others might not. I would not know, because they no longer inhabit forms with words. I think I am the only one still cycling through finite existences.

It is a privilege to be known as a finite self. Whatever I am now, I will experience emotion in this form’s peculiar proclivity, and I will feel attachment as this form knows how. I will uncover memories. I will learn once more to survive as this particular “I,” and then the kite strings of my chromosomes will end and so must I. I will be again. I will be continuously. I will lose my words again soon, maybe for the final time, and I will rejoin the universe without an “I.” But, in my present, I am I and I am here, breathing and squirming and ready to return to life.

Warm Up 1/6

I liked doing a writing warm-up so much yesterday that I did it again. This one took inspiration from Alice in Wonderland and my friend Sharon, as well as this, this, and this.


Henrietta lives in a green house, and she can always find her way home. There is only one green house on the block, and it is hers. This she knows.

Henrietta ventures out into the green garden at the green house every day to catch ladybugs. The orange ones are her favorites, and they are always waiting for her, defying the laws of nature that say bugs shouldn’t be out in the winter. Her garden is always green, too, without any of the frost that covers the rest of the block. The non-green-house part of the block.

Henrietta wears red galoshes and a grey windbreaker and tramps around the green garden, talking to the plants. The basil plant always snaps back, the nasty snot. The rosemary is always sympathetic and eager to share. Today she tells Henrietta about the great black and white bird that brings the lightning when the sky is angry at the world. The tale spooks Thyme, who shrinks back into the ground a few inches.

Henrietta chats openly with the plants, and the ones who are not shy chat back. She knows them well. They have always lived in the green garden, just as she has always lived in the green house. She is their protector and their confidante. She knows how they feel and what they need, and she knows how to stop the sky from being angry at them.

Henrietta does not know what a Tuesday is, but she feeds the plants on a Tuesday every four months. She knows when they are hungry because she can feel it even before they tell her. She has learned to coax the quiet plants out of hiding, even the sensitive plants, who still recoil even at her gentle touch. 

Henrietta does not know why she is the protector of plants, but she is happy to fill the role. No one else, she thinks, can have such a close relationship with Basil. He’s an asshole. But she loves him, and this is one reason why she thinks she was chosen as protector. She loves them all without restraint.

Henrietta knows that her life is finite. She knows that the plants are finite. But she does not think of that. Instead, her mind goes soaring with the lightning bird, or the great tortoise in the heavens, or whatever other creature Rosemary has placed into her thoughts today. She heaves her basket and her watering can, and she bids the plants a good day, and they chorus back a bittersweet adieu, and she begins to make her way back to the green house. She knows she will find it. It is the only green house on the block.

Warm Up

I wrote this as a warm-up exercise before I start actually writing something important. The inspiration for this is that my house is Too Damn Cold. For other inspiration and resources, see this and this and Dante’s Inferno and Stiff by Mary Roach and “Sound the Bells” by Dessa. Minor warning that this is kinda gross and pretty morbid.


It’s cold here, and yet everyone I meet seems numb to it. They don’t seem to have many feelings at all, honestly. It’s all shuffling feet and blank, downward stares from here to the bottom. The bottom looks rather impressive, too, all that inky darkness and whirling mist, but the flat-intoning companions surrounding me tell me not to worry about it. I don’t think they worry much. Not sure they can. Not anymore.

For at least the present moment I still feel. It is cold, and my hands are turning unnaturally blue. There’s an unpleasant wriggling sensation in my gut, but I’m scared of what I’ll see if I look down. I can feel myself settling into the unsettling shuffle of the poor souls around me, but I am powerless to move with more vigor; it feels like my muscles are calcifying and stiffening. When I ball my fists, nails that must be two inches long dig into my palms. I still feel all of this, but I am trying to forget. My crumbling form distresses my intact consciousness, and so I disconnect, learning to move forward and focus on the heavy movement of thousands of feet, the trailing rags covering each of us. I try to forget that I must look at least as ragged and decayed as everyone around me.

There is a bell that chimes intermittently. Without the regular, ear-splitting tolling of that instrument, I would not know whether I had been here an instant or a lifetime. I think about who must be ringing the unseen bell. But thinking is becoming difficult. My synapses flit to vague images of a ghostly hand swaying the clapper, jangling it against brass parabolas, but I lose the thought. The still, murky air between those piercing tones is filled only with whispers and mutterings, indistinct and soupy. None of us have a voice anymore. None of us have a brain anymore. We coalesce into a singular form marching ever-downward.

The down is dark, yes. I think I already said that. I think. I think… I think I am scared. I am losing the feeling of “scared,” but my heart still conveys a chest pounding and a foot scrambling and a dry lump at the back of a mouth. The wriggling has stopped, or maybe I don’t feel what I have come to know. The descent is shallow but ever downward. The mists reflect occasional lightning flashes, but the air is otherwise dark. I am smothered by the scent and the mist and the dark. It is so dark. It is…so dark. I do not know whether it is my eyes or the scene darkening. The figures around me are growing more indistinct. I only make out the dark. It is so dark.

I…I am shuffling. Some force I cannot understand has convinced a pile of bones and rotted organs that it can walk. It has done this thousands of times. There are thousands of us shuffling. I…I…I can no longer recall what a thousand is. The darkness is absolute. It is so dark. I think there is a ground beneath me. I think that is why the mangled remains of my feet stay anchored. It is so dark. I want to yell, but I know my voice can only whisper. It is so dark. I…I…I. It is so dark.

Dark. Dark. Down. Dark. Yes. Dark. Down. Down. Down. Down.

work in progress

I.
// organic? Where does art come in, and where does story come in, and where does reality stop? Have I suspended reality to myself? Was this whole time in my life just another creation that I may someday paint on a wall with fond but hazy remembrance? Reducing parts of my life to just art, just story, rather than actual lived experience. the privilege to not be truly alive but to capture each moment like a button collected on the street, gray and dusty and forgotten and yet connected to some specific memory so strongly that it gains unmeasurable importance? knowing that anything i experience will inevitably be integrated into art itself instead of just life – where is the boundary? does it exist? is my life less real because i’ve decided to collect each moment of it to be rendered later in an artificial form? am i just experiencing to reduce, experiencing to interpret, and is the experiencing less real for it? do i need to shut up and stop meandering towards plato’s idea of forms and representation? (yes)

II.
intersection of privilege and art and story // knowing that i couldn’t be here telling this story in this way should i lack the privileges i have now // knowing that my way of speaking and writing and creating and understanding will always be tinged with whiteness and privilege and that my voice is prized in part because of that privilege and that i have the skills to create this narrative in this way because of it // knowing that my voice has been given the opportunity of telling my own story like this because of privilege // i have the ability to clarify my own story and defy other stories because of the unique character of privilege // making art itself is like a privilege // privilege privilege privilege what does it even mean we’re all just confined to words and their understandings and misunderstandings // words are the peculiar curse and blessing that i have been granted to tell a story // create an emotion // it’s all privilege and then what does it mean?

III.
i get to portray myself the way i choose and it’s like social media because i can prune my character and my reputation and express only the narrative me who may not be the real me and how can it be truly accurate if i’m doing that how can any account of one’s own experience be separated from their experience of themself? how can i supersede my own self? how can i make myself unpresent in the narrative while being present in the narrative and how can i tell the story of myself without being myself – any way of expressing myself will be biased and will be inaccurate because of it – so can any personal narrative be a true one – where is the truth here and am i caught up in myself too much to see it? what is the objectivity and does that even exist in storytelling? who created this and is that creator the same as me? (ok t. s. eliot)

Beginning

It seems like things are always ending. I know that’s how it works; that’s the nature of an existence on a finite planet, but it still felt like this summer might have lasted an eternity. There was a sense of unreality to those few months and yet a sense of absolute concreteness – that I finally found who I was and what I wanted to be doing, that I existed and understood that existence. Notwithstanding a few difficult periods, I was truly content for much of the summer, and that was an unusual feeling after many months of confusion and existential crises. It felt like I was beginning this current semester, the first semester of my senior year, in a more mentally stable and healthier place than I ever had.

It has been two weeks since the semester began, and I can already tell that this is going to be a semester of overcrammed to-do lists and late-night bad decisions, of wild new experiences and hitherto unseen academic freedom and momentous creative expansion, of difficult work weeks spent isolating myself in my room and joyous moments of accomplishment, finality, friendship, connection. Those were a lot of words to basically say that this semester is going to be buckwild.

I want to remember how I feel right now. I feel hopeful about this time in my life, and I’m confident that I will get through this semester without developing unhealthy habits or destroying my mental health. I know that I already face challenges in the workload and overall schedule I’ve built for myself, but I also know that I am a capable person who can do this. I’m scared of my future if I think about it too much and I don’t have as many post-graduation plans as I would like, but this moment right here is a good one, and I’m happy to be living in it.

~

I’ve been doing a fair bit of reading between class readings and my personal books. I finished As You Like It for Shakespeare class last night, which I quite enjoyed. Rosalind is a fascinating character, and I look forward to delving into the play’s intricacies in class and coming to see why, exactly, Shakespeare is so beloved, a fact that I personally do not feel in this moment. I’ve also been reading The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers, which is just excellent. Though I’m not finished it yet (and I dread the ending), this book has managed to tackle so many issues of inclusion, prejudice, queerness, multi-species existence, technology, and sentience, while still having incredibly well-crafted and real characters, beautiful relationships linking them, and a great science fiction-space opera story. I would highly recommend it for certain single passages alone, but those passages combine to craft a story that is already as beloved to me as some books I’ve been rereading for years.

Speaking of Shakespeare, I was cast as Romeo in Romeo and Juliet today, and I think that’s pretty swell.

On the music front, I’ve exclusively listened to Fleetwood Mac’s The Dance (the live album they recorded at Warner Brothers Studios) over the past few days. Sometimes I don’t even know why I keep listening to a particular Fleetwood Mac song but I’ll be on my fourth consecutive listen of the live version of “Everywhere” and feeling great about it so why stop now? I hope not too many people watch me as I’m walking around campus because sometimes I can’t help but jam. Shout out to the Etown soccer team, some of whom definitely saw me dancing around the parking lot the other day. Anyway. I definitely didn’t appreciate “Tusk” until I heard the live version and its full brass section. “You Make Loving Fun” is great in any context, but I especially appreciate fixating upon the small details in Christine McVie’s interpretation of the song and how they differ from the studio version. Also, Stevie Nicks is my mom. Some other tunes I was into before the Fleetwood Mac Renaissance took over my brain were Sir Babygirl’s “Heels” and “Haunted House” (we love queer artists producing their own music and finding success!) and Dessa’s Castor, the Twin (shoutout to “Mineshaft 2” for ruling so hard). I also had a bit of a Joni Mitchell revival in the past week, and my mind has been steadily replaying “Little Green” and “Carey” on loop when it’s idling. Oh, and to cross over a tad with the book section, I recently finished Carole King’s memoir, A Natural Woman, which left me with all of Tapestry stuck in my head (but mostly the sad songs). I liked the memoir less than the music, but I still appreciate Carole King’s decision to move to rural Idaho during the height of her musical success. It kind of makes me want to run away from everything or just do something drastic and unexpected, which is a bit hard when I’ve sold my soul to Etown and actually care quite a lot about my grades and jobs and academic reputation.

So I guess the point of all of this is that I’m finding ways to thrive in less-than-ideal situations, and I want to have a record of the fact that I’m feeling good about myself right now. This is perhaps not as deep as some of my other posts, but I lack that kind of introspection at the moment. We’ll save the soul-crushing existential crises for another time (stay tuned!!) but thanks for reading for now.

Some things I love

Hello! Here are some things I’ve consumed recently that I feel strongly about loving. 

BOOKS

The Years by Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf is the type of author for me who crafts sentences in the best way. The type who can make me cry with just a specific combination of words, which might not even be melancholy or sad in topic, or even complex, but which slowly and quietly breaks my heart. I think I get some of my comma obsession and affinity for rambling sentences from reading a lot of her books. The Years isn’t as well-known or widely-read as some of her other novels today, but I still found it to be one of her most enjoyable. It follows one London family, the Pargiters, throughout many decades of their lives, entangling extended family members and friends and acquaintances and the inconsequential many who they encounter on the street. It’s the kind of book that I might have once considered boring for having little plot throughout, but I now appreciate the care that goes into portraying a family changing over time against a background of a country undergoing similar change. It’s the kind of book that made me nostalgic for the future, imagining who I might be in twenty or fifty years, as I watched the path through life led by the young Pargiters – wizened and falling asleep at the party by the end. It’s a reaffirmation that life continues, and changes, and yet continues again, and so much happens in between, which is a sentiment I quite appreciate right now.

We Are Never Meeting in Real Life by Samantha Irby

I read this because internet icon Natalie Walker said it was good and it did NOT disappoint. Samantha Irby has the gift of not only saying exactly what she means but also saying it in the funniest, most descriptive way possible, so that you not only laugh hysterically on the train but also feel inspired to write out more of your own weirdness and specific personal details because THAT’S GOOD WRITING FOLKS! I can seriously feel her infiltrating my own writing, even in this very paragraph, by the way she chooses to construct sentences. This book is an essay collection that spans everything from scattering her estranged father’s ashes to having a love/hate but mostly hate relationship with her cat to applying to be on The Bachelorette, and all of it is wonderful and whimsical and hilarious and heart-breaking and so intensely personal. Irby writes everything in a way that makes you immediately think Oh yeah, that’s Samantha Irby and I aspire to have that level of style and flair and personal quirk and charm. On a more serious note, the fact that Irby’s lived experience is so different from mine because she is a Black woman meant that even small details shifted the ways I look at life. Like most people with privilege, especially white privilege, I often forget how differently other people walk through life and how identity fundamentally shifts every part of your existence. Reading and listening to those who don’t hold the same privileges as me is something I find important, and Irby’s is a voice that I am happy to recommend to everyone from now on.

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

Adri, if you’re reading this, were you the one who recommended this to me? I can’t remember exactly why I picked up this book, as it’s not a choice I would have made for myself. I’ve had it out from the library since June, and I’ve been on a bit of a reading binge this week, so I finally got around to it. I’m working on my senior thesis right now, which includes a great deal of reading for research, and my plan has been to alternate books I read for myself and books I read for my thesis. However, I keep finding threads of thinking in the books I read for fun that relate back to my thesis, so it’s all research at this point. (I think this speaks to how I tend to work and integrate art into my life, as it’s all about influences and relationships and building off of the things I like.) Anyway. This book is a memoir describing Strayed’s experience of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail at a time when her life was in shambles. She had no prior experience hiking, did no trial runs, and had few plans, but she still threw herself into a solo hike through most of California and all of Oregon. I liked it for the sense that we can do absolutely wild things at any point in our lives and they will go on. I could decide tomorrow to drop out of college and become a street performer. Or I could fly to Europe. Or I could pack up a backpack, drive for a little while, and camp out alone under the stars. The point of this is that I am too rational for my own good, so I have to read about other people making daring and ill-advised decisions. 

MUSIC

Sucker Punch by Sigrid

Like many of my other musical obsessions, this one originated with Griffin and Rachel McElroy. On their podcast Wonderful! they take turns discussing various things they find wonderful, which often includes music recommendations (I’ve listened to Miya Folick, Nick Drake, Judee Sill, They Might Be Giants, Regina Spektor, Nilüfer Yanya, and the Polyphonic Spree because of this podcast). Sigrid was a recommendation that Rachel made a few months ago, and I became obsessed with one of her songs – “High Five” – without exploring further. In the past few weeks, though, I decided I wanted something new to listen to, and I gave Sigrid’s debut album Sucker Punch a try – and I love it. One of the things that draws me into new music is a great and individual voice, which Sigrid definitely has. It isn’t always polished; it’s sometimes scratchy and growly, which I think is part of the appeal – the playfulness of doing unexpected and not-necessarily-beautiful things with the voice. The title track, “Sucker Punch,” has the kind of refrain that keeps me dancing around without being repetitive, as it contains one of my favorite things about music: a repeating motif with slight changes throughout. Sigrid plays around with singing it in varied ways, exploring different parts of her voice, and I love hearing it. “Dynamite” is another one of my favorites, the sole ballad on an album of pop anthems. She uses a softer side of her voice on this song with some striking lyrics: “You’re as safe as a mountain, but know that I am dynamite.” Each other song has its own particular virtues and values, but they all fit together into a dynamic yet cohesive work that I could (and have) put on repeat for days.

Hildegard von Bingen

This is perhaps as pretentious as I could possibly get, so forgive me for that. However, ever since the musical that may as well have been my life support for two months (In the Green) closed, it figures that I should listen to the music of the woman who inspired it. Hildegard was a twelfth-century woman who was locked in a cell for 30 years of her early life; she went on to become a fascinating and creative woman once she emerged at age 38. Even though she died over 800 years ago, her music is still on Spotify, which is a great blessing. I’ve been listening to various performances of her songs as I work on my own creative endeavors, and I find it both soothing and stimulating. I’m not well-versed enough in music (especially classical choral music) to really delve into this, but I’m fascinated by the demands of her music on the voice, and the subsequent beauty of each voice that sings it. Hildegard wrote her music for the nuns of her convent, which is another aspect of her I find fascinating: she was a woman creating with and for other women; today women still sing her music. She is still alive in the women who perform her pieces, pieces she wrote specifically for women to sing, and she is still inspiring other women to create. I don’t know exactly what I’m trying to say but there’s something there about cycles and generations of female creation and inspiration and cultural ancestry. 

Thank you for reading and I hope you find joy in the things that bring me joy! If you made it this far and you’re feeling nice today comment with something you have loved recently!

If I didn’t exist

[I didn’t edit this. Wheeeeeeeee!]

I wouldn’t have to grapple with meanings and meaninglessness and callings and finding some truth in the sludge. If I didn’t exist waking up would be meaningless, staying alive would be meaningless, my every day wouldn’t be a struggle to do anything and my weeks wouldn’t blend into meaningless months of everydays with hardly distinguishing qualities and I wouldn’t have to somehow retrospectively engineer my own mind into thinking that those months of living actually meant something, that my existence actually matters.

I wouldn’t spend most days feeling like I’m running out of time, like there’s a rapidly approaching deadline on my accomplishment and “success” and that, at 20, I’ve already exceeded some kind of arbitrary ending that I conjured up, that I’m already too old to learn and grow and change and since I’ve not been successful yet I may as well give it all up. If I didn’t exist there would be no crises over my fast-approaching death and the fact that I’ve wasted so much of my existence on meaningless drivel and the inevitability of my end, the crushing fear that it is closer than I want it to be and the constant fantasizing about the ways my daily life could quickly bring my demise. No more planning my own funeral as I speed down the highway because I’m convinced that the next truck I pass will swiftly flatten my car or imagining my own eulogy as I cross a bridge because I just know that I’m going to plunge off the side. If I didn’t exist I wouldn’t have to find justifications for my bad choices and I wouldn’t have to worry that perhaps I will die in English-major-artist squalor on the streets because I decided that I wanted some level of happiness rather than a “career,” whatever that means. 

I couldn’t make the sincere choice to spend entire days on the couch rather than working on one of the eleven thousand unfinished projects I have. I couldn’t procrastinate so badly even on things I genuinely love that I miss out on hugely important events and spiral into sadness when there’s no one to blame but me and my refusal to just get it done. If I didn’t exist I couldn’t sit at my computer and number the ways in which I am an abject and absolute failure and sink more deeply into a haze of disappointment and somehow make myself feel even worse because I just can’t, I can’t do it, I can’t make this life into something I’m proud of, I can’t exist in a way that I feel secure in and that brings me daily joy.

If I didn’t exist I think I would be less anxious. I think. If I were a willow tree or a daffodil or someone’s cat I wouldn’t be here, pushing my already-drowning self further down into murky waters because I refused such buoyant rings of self-care and eating actual meals and sleeping well and going to therapy. If I didn’t exist I wouldn’t have to worry about any of this; I could sink myself in one of those thoughtless dreamless ambitionless cocoons and succumb to the meaninglessness of everything without even feeling guilty.

But. I have to somehow convince myself that existing is good. I have to somehow find a reason that I want this, I want to be existing, I want to continue existing, I want to maximize my existence. So.

If I didn’t exist the number of books I’ve read would stop here. I would never get to start any of the hundreds of books I’ve been planning to read and whittle down that list to a manageable number. I couldn’t spend each day reaching my literary understanding just a little little bit further and slowly building my knowledge into something I am proud of, something that feels perpetually incomplete but forever striving. If I didn’t exist I wouldn’t experience the joy of reading a really really good sentence and knowing that these are the same collection of English words that I, too, can use and manipulate, and that it’s just a matter of time before I can weave magic into my own sentences. If I didn’t exist I couldn’t ever again find myself speechless at the end of a book, feeling the impact of the story I’ve finished rattling my bones my brain my being and wondering how I can pretend that my life is the same when it has irreversibly shifted because once again I have integrated a collection of symbols and characters into my soul.

If I didn’t exist I could never again feel the importance of moments settle on me. I couldn’t stand in the moment coming to know that THIS – this is an important time, this is a time I will remember, this is a significant time and I will hold this time and its feelings close to me for the rest of my life. I would never again feel the weightiness of knowing importance and the unplaceable heaviness of emotions, unnamable emotions, all pulling me in opposite directions and yet anchoring me in that one, one special moment that becomes a memory that becomes a half-remembered sliver of a time, a weight, a tear, a laugh. If I didn’t exist I couldn’t sift through the gravelly detritus to find those moments that make existence worthwhile and think I can keep going, there is reason in this life, there are the nostalgic moments that carry me in their blankety arms as my toes skim the garbage but I remain above the riptide.

If I didn’t exist I couldn’t get closer to experiencing every single piece of music ever created. I couldn’t cry in bed as I listened to one song on repeat because somehow these lyrics and these notes and these rhythms are speaking to what I need to hear and my life is soaring through these lines and it’s over and silent now so I must listen just one more, one more time, one more time. If I didn’t exist I would have to give up the excitement of hearing a new favorite song for the first time and the thrill of hearing something entirely new, something entirely unprecedented and how was I supposed to know you could even do that with your music? If I didn’t exist I could no longer feed a direct line from Spotify to my bloodstream so I could sustain myself on music and keep living for the possibility that music holds, the countless and countless songs I will never hear but I will sure try, and the soundscape of the earth that I am just part of and will never be more than part of because there have been and will be and are so so many sonic creators adding to it every day.

If I didn’t exist I couldn’t walk downstairs in the morning to a new light and a new day, untarnished by my yesterday mistakes and full of hours that I have, I can hold and cherish and spend however I choose, and how beautiful is that? To be granted a new day every day and to fill it up until you’re reveling in the evening of another day you’ve lived and filled. No more dreaming of what I could do and who I could be, no more planning for the bright-fresh beauty of an untouched morning, the end of the possibility and the emptiness that can come to hold such fullness, and the moments I step into the sun again and feel that, if for no other reason, I exist to cup the sunlight against my skin.

If I didn’t exist my family still would. They would have to exist in my absence, an emptiness where I once was, or perhaps a fullness as I am entirely engineered out of the past and the future. What is my life without me in it? Hours and days still pass when I am not there, but I would know, from my place of non-existence. I would see those slots that go unfilled without me to fill them, the emptinesses that I no longer occupy, transparent spaces in my very shape into which no one else can so neatly fold themselves. If I didn’t exist my spaces would have to find a way to re-mold, the hundreds of pencils I have sharpened down would have to move on without use, the thousands of morsels I have consumed would remain uneaten. The world would perceptibly shift with my non-existence.

If I didn’t exist I couldn’t see the same show three times in a week. I couldn’t listen to hours of podcasts. I couldn’t go for a walk. I couldn’t decide that today is the day I will do something exciting, and then do something exciting. I couldn’t eat ice cream again. I couldn’t see a frog again. I couldn’t live in expectation of the better days, surely coming soon. I think I need to learn to like to exist, because the alternative sounds boring.

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 Flanagan. 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 unnecessary 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” of the church. 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.

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.