Rejection

A reliable companion to my writing process is the voice in my head that tries to beat me down. In a singsong and crudely nagging voice she reminds me that my work is unoriginal, hurried, and cliche. The Not-Good-Enough voice, as I like to call her, seems to follow most self-aware people around, poking at passion and greedily soaking up creative energy to feed an exhaustive anxiety.

My Not-Good-Enough voice, when I pause to imagine her, probably spends most of her day scrolling through Instagram, complaining avidly but never quite doing anything, darting in front of mirrors to check if she’s got anything in between her front teeth and just generally being a true asshole. She is flighty, agonizingly unsure of herself, and worries that because people are better than her, she has no reason to do any work at all. There is no space for her, and there is certainly no room in the conversation for what she has to say.

I’m not so sure when this antithesis to a muse, for lack of a better label, was born. Nor am I sure when, without considering the consequences, I decided to rent her a room in my body (a big room, too) to set up all of her furniture and get comfortable so that she could begin to tell me what was/is wrong with my work, myself, and my current unshakeable stasis. Perhaps I fed my little voice until she became so big, her fists drumming on the inside of my head, that eventually she drowned out all the goodness I was willing to give myself—all the assurance I had gathered from working hard and putting in the time.

The Not-Good-Enough voice has served me, sure. She has even motivated me. And yet, I think it’s also important not to conflate the Not-Good-Enough voice with humility. Debilitating doubt at one’s own potential on a near constant basis is not healthy. It is not honorable. More often than not, my Not-Good-Enough voice has caused me to fold in on myself, to hide my disappointment and anxiety, to paint myself into a very isolated and unforgiving corner. And I am sick of her.

And lately, the Not-Good-Enough voice has presented some particularly complex problems. In the last blog post I mentioned that I have spent the last five months applying to graduate schools for an MFA in writing. My last semester of college was a whirlwind; I was so stressed that its conclusion felt like a relief, although not exactly for the right reasons. The graduating ceremony felt oddly false and surreal. I told myself, idiotically, that this accomplishment would feel worthy once I received my first acceptance to graduate school. Then I did. I got my first call. And then I got a second. And I was happy, in an unconvinced, anxious way. I wondered at my privilege. Am I really so selfish as to not be grateful? I still didn’t feel content or assured of my credibility as a person who could do this—as someone who not just wrote, but as someone who could begin to consider herself a writer. Instead, I felt embarrassed.

And then I received my first rejection email from a school I had been pining over. It was one of my top choices, a university I had pictured myself at time and time again, complete with a daunting three-year program that offered incredible opportunities to learn the craft. Any assurance I had been waiting for arrived, just not in the way I had hoped. In fact, a rejection email was all the convincing I needed that I was not cut out for this kind of thing at all.

Let me sidetrack, here, and tell you a little about rejection letters. And I use “a little” purposely, because I don’t know much about them. That is not because I am very good or unaccustomed to failure, (I hope that’s been established) but instead because I have just began to familiarize myself with the bravery of putting the work out there. I am just beginning the rather nasty and rewarding process of sticking my neck out—of allowing the work to humiliate itself and grow, to be criticized and considered. And that is hard. It is also wildly personal. It’s how I would imagine falling in love for the first time might feel, only to have all your expectations of happily-ever-after shattered early on. Or putting in the lousy time and effort into a seemingly worthwhile relationship only to have an assumed soulmate turn to you one night and say: I don’t feel the same. I don’t think this is love. In fact, I kind of think you’re terrible and self-involved and very, very neurotic. That was hyperbolic, of course. A dramatization. So maybe putting one’s work out there and getting rejected is not quite so debilitating as being scorned in love, but in some ways the two are quite similar. Two sides of the same Not-Good-Enough coin that further reinforce any doubts about an ability to find and keep contentment.

I have also realized that I can love my work to death: the time I spend on it, the care I take with it, the days that I close the laptop or the hardbound covers only to return minutes later because the writing has already called me back. All of this lends itself to an intimate relationship with the stuff that gets on the page. I don’t think any writer, or want to be writer, would deny that. Of course, sometimes that intimacy is utter garbage, and loving the work, feeling close to it, does not mean I think that it is good. The emotional connection cannot supersede whether the work is actually of any redeemable merit. More often than not, I come away with the conclusion that the writing is crap. The emotion/quality dichotomy has been an important lesson in learning. It doesn’t mean the work doesn’t deserve or need to be written, even if it’s only for myself.

But the rejection letter still stung. It felt as if some faceless committee in a faraway state had held my work up close to the light, quite like the way that the employees in Sephora tilt your head back to examine your skin before applying a shade of oddly unmatched foundation. Much like leaving Sephora with a clown-like, put-on face, I envisioned the people on the committee reviewing my application, pushing it aside, and remarking that the work was utter shit, or even worse, painstakingly unimpressionable. It needs to be completely different to fit in here, I imagined them saying. I didn’t want to have to put on the clown-face to have my work seem worthy. I just wanted it to be good enough. Don’t we all.

I was never so silly as to entertain the idea that I was talented enough to receive acceptance letters from all the universities to which I had applied. About half were reach schools. I have always been a reacher, courtesy of the values my parents instilled in me, and it doesn’t always fail me. I know that I will receive many more rejections than acceptances, that is the name of the game, and at least I am learning and growing and going after it.

My current creative rut, however frustrating, was a catalyst for some difficult questions. I haven’t written anything even remotely worth returning to in weeks; applications wore me out and somewhere along the way I ditched putting in the work in favor of reading books in the bathtub and taking snapchats of my cat. To that end, I have been reading a lot, more so than ever, but oftentimes I find myself in the middle of a page completely lost, my head a blank twilight zone, the words floating by in the inky darkness. That paired with the Not-Good-Enough voice and the rejection email only amplified my questioning—handing the voice a megaphone of sorts that she could use to shout at me in my moments of weakness.

For perhaps the millionth time, I stopped to ask myself if I really wanted this. If I was average. If I could see myself writing forever. If it was worth the hurt and the questioning and the unshakeable feeling of lostness that had settled in and begged me to reconsider.

And here are the answers to those questions: Yes, I do really want this. And when I question that, as I will do again and again when things don’t go my way, I will remember to return to a book I love that has changed me.

Yes, I am average. Of course I am. I have never had anything so interesting happen to me that would provide the content for a scathing, riveting, turn-the-page memoir. There’s a certain kind of gratefulness that has to accompany that. But I don’t subscribe to the notion that because I’m young my work is somehow silly and incomplete because I lack a few decades of age to offer it an air of wisdom. I’m not going for wisdom. I’m going for observation, for excavation. However young I am, my life still presents difficult choices and asks me hard questions. It is worth wondering about and it is certainly worth writing about. So what if I am average? The act of writing gives me the greatest joy I have ever known. That will never be average.

Yes, I can see myself writing forever. I’ve written through nearly everything, and those moments when I didn’t, well, I was thinking about the writing and agonizing over the fact that I wasn’t.

Yes, the feeling of lostness, of pursuing something unconventional and questionable and then reconsidering whether I have what it takes, in whatever fluctuating way it presents itself, is undeniably worth it. It is worth it (!!!!!!) That’s all I can say right now. I don’t know how it will be worth it, at least not yet, but I do know that I love something and that when you love, you push out the doubt and offer that loved thing both attention and space. You treat it kindly and check in on it. You stomp out the Not-Good-Enough voice and you get to work, even if the end-product is only mediocre. It is something, after all.

I wanted to write this blog post because when I was looking for MFA programs and looking into the pre and post application process, it was hard to find any commentary on the experience as a whole. And I’m still in the beginning stages, so I have a lot of learning ahead of me. After a bit of searching I found some blogs that offered insight into the way rejection is a spur, an act of kindness that often masquerades itself as a stinging criticism. That gave me hope.

This is the first piece I’ve written in weeks, thanks to a rejection email that popped up in my gmail inbox and then popped up again, as if to say: yes you’re not good enough, of course you’re not, which means you have all the more reason to keep going.

As my favorite and most beloved writer Sylvia Plath once wrote in her own journals: “I love my rejection slips. They show me I try.”

And try I will.

Advertisements

On Writing (and Everything Else)

At 11, 12, and 13, I wrote furiously. A story on an old laptop—roughly 79 pages of single spaced garbage, sits unfinished. Opening that document, and the hundreds of others I wrote in between its genesis and abandonment, remind me of the goodness of writing—the way it could leave me satisfied and exhausted after a few focused hours. I would sit in front of the fireplace in the living room, back to the heat, and punch at that keyboard for whole stretches of time. I had no sense of the competitiveness of an MFA program, of the anxiety afforded by wrongful comma use, or even of the connotations that shadow those who “write” for a career. In those early days I wrote to write—nothing else.

In an old journal I found from my freshman year of college, I detail the the misgivings I have toward my writing. I mention wanting to return to those days when I couldn’t get the words out fast enough—when doubt didn’t curtail every typed or penned sentence. In high school I rarely wrote. I was blissfully caught up in the throes of a relationship, in the maintenance of a social life, and in a steady involvement of extracurriculars. Writing was there, sure, (it never leaves me) but I shelved it to accommodate my life. Stupidly, boys and a reputation were more important. In college, though, writing as necessity came back with a vengeance. I was wildly homesick—feeling like a mutt in a pack of purebred faces. My friends from back home loved their universities—they’d met cool people, they were hooking up with boys, they were going out to parties and making normal college memories. I was anxiety-ridden and lonely—holed up in my dorm room with a Game of Thrones book and a Keurig I overused. The memories of my freshman year are slim to none; besides big moments, the whole thing has kind of mushed together into a slop of sadness I still can’t distinguish from anything other than a constant and enduring ache for home. 

So I wrote. I journaled. I read, realizing that despite my unease for campus life, I loved my classes. Those hours of the day were full and invigorating; I felt challenged. I met a friend who, like myself, understood the great reliability of words in neutralizing sadness—the way they make a person feel less alone in instances of questioning. We shared them, swapped them, taped them on our walls. In those days, I needed affirmation that I wasn’t the first to feel newly 18 and miserable, despite the incredible privilege of my circumstances.

The web of emotion that details my college experience still remains grafted to a corner of my brain I don’t feel ready to explore. On one hand, I am forever indebted to Monmouth University for returning words to me—for allowing me to remember what I’d neglected. On the other hand, I wondered if I really made all the right decisions—if choosing a school and a major based on practicality was a cop-out for being scared to face my own truth.

It’s funny, though, because just as I decided that I couldn’t pull any substantial evidence from my time here, I began a semester that prepared and presented a whole collection of conclusions. Here I am, in November, living with my best friend Genesis in an on-campus apartment. We are, admittedly, consumed with work. There is no waking moment where the two of us are not worrying over some project or paper, thesis or grad application. We complain often. But we find freedom. We take roadtrips—Canada and Philly and even a plane to Seattle. We try new food—last week we ate at a great Afghan restaurant down the road. We presented our theses at a national conference. We go to Barnes & Noble and overspend. We sillily read each other poetry. We acknowledge daily how good we have it, how incredibly lucky we are. It’s in the small moments, it seems. Moments I surely missed that first year when I was so consumed with what I’d left behind.

In addition to finding that sense of placement I’d so longed for my freshman year within friendship, I’ve also finally found it here on campus. I am still my old self. I don’t party—I’ve got a bottle of Ciroc gifted to me for my birthday that still sits by my bed, unopened (lame, I know). School still comes first; above everything I want a future that gives me the space to write, and that requires sacrificing certain luxuries—including routine Netflix binge sessions and skipping class.

This semester I felt again for the first time since 11, 12, and 13, the purity that accompanies gritty, unrefined writing. I’m taking a poetry class that reminds me why I’ve spent most of my young-adult life running after the right words. Words matter. They call people home; they make space on the page for empathy and a recognition of shared humanity. And sometimes they do the small things—like make us laugh or listen. I’m just now finishing up my thesis—a collection of narratives that are the bravest words I’ve ever written. I wrote a piece for my Performance Theory class last week and read it on a small stage in front of an audience of 15 or so—something I could never have done two years ago. The encouragement I received from my very generous classmates made me feel like I could step out into the world and nail it down with my pen.

Every day I feel renewed. Tired, of course, but fully satisfied with the trajectory of my life. I’ve finally stopped shaming myself for knowing what it is I want out of life: to write, always. To love and to work and to keep at it—but mostly just to write.

I’ll graduate in December and then move back home to spend a few months working before I hopefully, God-willing, get accepted to a grad program. It’s strange to have absolutely no idea what the next year will bring, but I’m oddly grateful. The coming months will be spent in a kind of limbo—in between a solidified past and a looming future. They’ll give me a chance to get back in front of that fireplace, my back to the heat, and return to the memory of why I write.

In a piece I wrote recently for class, I promise myself that I’ll continue to write myself out of dark corners, even when I feel trapped by uncertainty. There will be no shortage of uncertainty, that much I know. But this promise is a good one, a pure one, something I think I can keep.

 

 

 

In Defense of Singleness

I haven’t written much about love. It’s rugged and foreign ground, at least for me, and the decision to abstain was never unintentional. For a long time, and still sometimes, I felt strange for being so far away from romantic love in my own life. I watched, with each coming year, as more and more of my friends and acquaintances dove daringly into the murky waters of modern dating. I kept thinking, why isn’t this something that I want, too?

Naturally, I worried that any kind of “romance” writing would read like a long list of reductive cliches better suited for an Odyssey submission. Despite being inexperienced in the serious relationship department, I did know enough about being single, and that’s the ultimate fertile ground for writing. So I decided to woman-up— to talk about it, to write about what I’ve discovered as a result of remaining single (none of which are generalizable conclusions).

To start, I guess I’d be lying if I said I haven’t spent whole afternoons in bed, reconstructing scenarios in my mind about the fallouts I’ve had in past relationships, flings, and the ever-acclaimed Netflix-and-Chill setups. After all, what better way to get to know a person than to watch old Criminal Mind episodes on a Macbook Air until someone impatiently slams the laptop shut and makes a move?

Fortunately, I’m not here to bemoan the horrors of 21st century dating. In fact, a part of me quite likes them. I like that I can disappear without receiving too much flack for it, at least not often enough that I nix the notion of getting to know a new person all together. I like that I can weasel my way out of the responsibility of “strings attached” with recycled phrases that I’ve learned to perfect. What I don’t like, however, is when people inquire after my assumed detachment, using some sort of euphemism for the real question they want to ask, which is usually something along the lines of: why are you so cold?

Perhaps I deserve interrogation— at the very least from the individual I’ve involved myself with. And I would have accepted those questions more passively a few years ago, when I was artfully dishonest with myself and feigned a disastrous inability to decipher desire for attention from want of companionship. But I’ve become more transparent with guys now (from the beginning, might I add!) in an effort to avoid certain inevitable bad endings. As I result, I’ve become a staunch defender of the right behind my reasons.

My feminism propels me launch into a completely different narrative about the double-standard that paints the unattached woman as cold, bitchy, and deceptive and the unattached male as successful, sexy, and sought-after. No one ever takes up after the wifeless man in the story with pitchforks and brightly burning torches. It’s only ever the woman who lives by herself in the back of the woods, tending to a couple of stray black cats and minding her own damn business, that gets literally and figuratively roasted alive.

I’m sick of being asked why I’m still single by people who have no right to that information in the first place. I am single because I like it. I’m single because I haven’t found anyone who makes me feel strongly enough to compromise my present happiness. And shockingly enough, I am very, very happy!

Maybe I have high standards. Maybe I’m not sure what I want. Maybe I’m really afraid of vulnerability. Sometimes I think it’s all three and other times I think it’s none of that nonsense. My Mother likes to comfort me, as Mothers must do, with a placating gentleness: “You just haven’t found the one!

But I hesitate even to push this explanation because I think it oversimplifies. I am hoping that someday I’ll find a person who makes me feel ready for seriousness and all that accompanies a strong relationship, (I don’t want to be single forever) but right now I’m not at point in my life where I’d be able to reciprocate.

At 20, I feel ridiculously self-involved. This blog post is self-involved. My living habits are self-involved. My phone calls with my parents are self-involved. It’s something I’m trying to get away from, but it seems to come with the territory of being young, of thinking that everything that happens to me is the. most. important. thing. Despite that acknowledgement, this is maybe the only time in my life where it’s excusable to be so interested in introspection, so I’m going to ride that wave as far as I can until someone politely asks me to get the hell off it.

Every time I worry about my singleness or get too analytical about why I haven’t had a real relationship since my high school boyfriend (and I’m not sure that counts, considering high school is a separate galaxy where normal rules of behavior need not apply), I consider all the love in my life at present. There is so much of it.

It’s present in the relationship I have with my Mom— it seems to propel her enduring patience and kindness toward me and my brother. I find it in my Father, who sits in his chair each night thumbing through an infinite pile of work papers (as he has for the past 20 years of my life) without complaint. It’s in the time I spend with Gen, watching dramatic indie movies, appreciating the comfort of the space she takes up in my life. I recognize it in all of my female-friendships— the most steadfast and enduring relationships I’ve built outside of family.

And the most unfailing place I find it, the lover I always seem to return to, is writing. The books and the blogs and the excerpts and poems— the pages I read at night that stay tucked in my head till morning— that too is a kind of love. It’s a familiarity that’s guided me most of my life, ever since reading became a reliable comfort that I could carry with me. It’s a love that prompts my interest in classes and in education; it’s a love that helps navigate any foreign social situation: bring a book and the good people will ask after it. Then you’ll find your friends in the room.

Writing has saved me, it seems, hundreds of times. It’s a thankless relationship, but I try to do it justice by writing more often and more honestly. It’s a way of making sense of the parts of me that seem rough and untouchable. It’s helped me come to terms with my failures and has helped me make peace with old, messy, skeleton-in-the-closet-mistakes.

Of course there will be nights that I’ll spend sleepless, bathed in the milky light of my laptop screen, googling varying definitions for detachment disorders while guzzling down three to six cups of herbal tea. Under red-rimmed eyes I’ll cry, snot dripping down my chin, composing novel texts to Paige about the inevitability of my uncompanionable future.

But these nights are rare, and they are even more laughable when morning finally comes and the anxieties of the night seem like nothing more than a silly, caffeine-induced diagnosis of what has become a natural part of me: my independence, my strong sense of self, my love for nights spent alone with nothing but a book in my hands to guide me.

 

 

 

Poems for National Poetry Day

It’s National Poetry Day!

I put together a short list of some of my favorite poems from some of my favorite poets. I’m no expert, that goes without saying, but I guess you don’t really have to be when it comes to reading/appreciating poetry. It just has to feel right.

This is the writing I return to when I’m uninspired. Most of it is taped to my walls or floating around my desk drawers or saved on my iPhone. It serves as a reminder, in certain moments of doubt, that the right words can pull a person back to feeling and prove that storytelling matters— in any and all forms. It’s a reminder of humanness and sameness and love and hurt and all those other difficult little pieces of life that so often seem beyond explanation.

PS: I didn’t line-break the excerpts like I should have. I’m lazy. But if you click on the link you can see the poem in its intended form.

Black Lace Bra Kind of Woman- Sandra Cisneros 

“Ruin your clothes, she will. Get you home way after hours. Drive her ’59 seventy-five on 35 like there is no tomorrow. Woman zydeco-ing into her own decade.”

 I Am On My Way to Oklahoma to Bury the Man I Nearly Left My Husband For- Sandra Cisneros 

“You wouldn’t the years I begged. Would the years I wouldn’t. Only one of us had sense at a time.”

 The Honest HouseMegan Falley 

“Did you know that the metronome inside us quickens when telling a lie? I want to build an honest house, where the motion detector is so sharp it knows when my thoughts leave the room. Where the clap-on lamp works as a polygraph. When you swear you still love me, the lights flicker.”

Mutable Earth- Louise Gluck 

“I had nothing and I was still changed. Like a costume, my numbness was taken away. Then hunger was added.”

The Sweater- Gregory Orr

“I will lose you. It is written into this poem the way the fisherman’s wife knits his death into the sweater.”

Litany in Which Certain Things are Crossed OutRichard Silken

“Sorry about the bony elbows, sorry we lived here, sorry about the scene at the bottom of the stairwell and how I ruined everything by saying it out loud. Especially that, but I should have known.”

Oh, The Places You’ll Go! –Dr. Seuss 

All alone! Whether you like it or not. Alone will be something you’ll be quite a lot.”

Polyamory, With KnivesJeanann Verlee 

“You can take new lovers. Wine, for instance. And bread. Difficult shoes. Little blue pills.

You can lose yourself in Clifton, or Sexton, Walker, Hooks, Rich, Atwood, or Hughes.”

The Fury of Sunsets- Anne Sexton 

“All day I’ve built a lifetime and now the sun sinks to undo it. The horizon bleeds and sucks its thumb. The little red thumb goes out of sight. And I wonder about this lifetime with myself, this dream I’m living.”

My Kind of Woman- Julia Alvarez

(no link to this one, sorry)

“How many smart young woman wouldn’t want to cut their hair and bind their breasts and roam far from their fathers’ houses on their own, making the world safer for womankind?”

Ends and Beginnings

In proper keeping with an impeccable Winter Break tradition of provoking my own nostalgia, I decided to rifle through the clutter that takes up space in my room. “Clutter” includes stacks of once-beloved Nancy Drew books, sparkly silver shoes that I wore to my eighth grade graduation, scribbled-in notebooks, socks shoved into dusty corners, dried up bottles of blue nail polish, birthday cards from strange relatives, tangled jewelry that was once excusable in its gaudiness but is now certainly unsalvageable for wear at the age of 20.

I never seem to purge my room of any of its collected odds and ends- in fact, I’m more prone to sitting cross-legged on my wooden floor, trying to lasso a memory that might corroborate my reason for not having thrown out this particular item years ago. I rarely find one, but if I do I gently put the item back in its place, trying my best not to disturb the thin layer of dust that coats my bookshelves and dresser and often, it seems, my floor.

This break, however, I began mulling over more recent additions to my room- like the postcards I collected over my months abroad, the sweaters that I shoved into plastic bins in August before I left, and the hard-cover journal I wrote in while I travelled.

I knew that I wanted to write a blog when I returned home, so I sat down to give it a try within a few days of being back. But there was too much and nothing at all inside of me- I was an uncompromising contradiction. I had words but no way to say them. Feelings but a great desire to not feel. I’ve felt this way before, and I know well enough that the worst writing results from a creeping sensation of unease, of not being ready to talk about whatever it seems should be talked about. The product of that confusion is almost always garbage writing, something I shove away into the depths of my Macbook under a folder labeled Read If Ego Gets Too Big. 

But when I opened my Florence journal yesterday and read it from the first entry that dates September 1st to the final one that dates December 10th, I felt ready to write a proper conclusion to my experience. As a sort of disclaimer, I’ll say that nothing in the coming paragraphs is meant to come off as preachy or even remotely inspiring. It’s an honest summation of what I was feeling during the final week of my trip, a list I made while close to tears after a long day in a country that I was trying- and failing- to say goodbye to.

Here’s the list and what precedes it:

Overall, when I look back on this entry, I want to remember the place that I am in. And the person I have become. 

  1. You are capable of happiness.
  2. You are capable of letting go. Wallowing in self pity, thinking you are worse off than you are, is a cop out for the courage it takes to live an adventurous, interesting life. Don’t forget this. Don’t forget to live bravely.
  3. You are able to take care of yourself. Cook, clean, remember where you put things. You are a good adult. 
  4. Don’t demonize your loneliness. It’s with you but it doesn’t define you. When you find the right person, you’ll know. It’ll be obvious. 
  5. Be frugal but don’t be afraid to treat yourself. You’ve learned how to spend money, how to save, where and when to indulge. The glass of wine after a rough day will always, always be worth it. 
  6. You grow out of some relationships; it is not something to be ashamed of. Be kind and be compassionate even when you are hurt- even when the falling away is harder than you’d ever imagined. 
  7. Don’t forget the blessing of your parents, even when you are arguing over silly matters of opinion. You love them. They are home. 
  8. Yes, you are changing. Don’t be afraid. 

 

I read the list again and again and again and once more after that. And only then it seemed I was ready to approach the sticky mess of emotions I’d been corralling into a quiet corner of my brain since I’d come home. I sat there for some time, thinking and remembering, reciting the hell out of that last entry in my head. I can still recall the night that I wrote those words, understanding that sometime in the near future I’d open up my journal and feel proud of the self that had existed in this moment- the self that was stronger than she knew she was- who might need to remind future self of that very sentiment.

And what’s there to say, still? Not much. What I know of my time in Florence still seems premature. I’m a slow processor, like an old Windows program on an otherwise functional computer. There are revelations that will surface months from now, I’m sure, when I’m having an ordinary day. I’ll be reduced to tears and frantic iPhoto album surfing as I try to salvage what’s tangible of those memories. I miss Florence already- its shoe-ruining streets and its kind Trattoria owners and its romantic beauty- the way it rewrote my understanding of happiness.

To conclude, I’ll recall a moment during a trip to Ireland where I felt an unmistakable kind of contentment. It was the type that I’d imagine people feel on their best days: opening a college acceptance letter, getting married, having a kid. It was that memorable of a feeling.

There I was, sitting on a bus in the early hours of the morning beside my best friend. I was listening to the new Adele album through my headphones and drinking a coffee, all while looking out at the famed countryside of the Emerald Isle. The whole world seemed claimable. I was wearing my favorite scarf. I’d just eaten a croissant. I was warm. I felt like everything in my life was settled, all of my worries stored in little boxes with lids glued tight. Boxes that I didn’t have to peek into or even consider opening because I was capable of acknowledging that the present moment was better worth my time. When telling other people about this experience I often joke that it was the magic of Ireland that brought me this sense of calmness, a feeling I’ve sought after my whole life and failed to find. In all seriousness, though, I understand now that this was not so much a product of my environment as it was my own making.

Everyday I try to replicate that initial choice to be present. To put the lids on those boxes and settle into my life. And although the circumstances have changed- I can’t forever live my life on a bus traveling through the rolling hills of Ireland- I can take control over the trajectory of my existence instead of losing myself to the useless anxieties of the past and the future. I’ll always be a worrier. I’ll always have my sadness. But these days I am happier than I thought I could be. I feel full of a kind of energy that makes me feel hopeful and productive.

I’ve never appreciated the cliches that exist in the tales of returned study-abroad students, and this blog is full of plenty of sentimental, mawkish sentences. But at least it’s honest in its rendering of my experiences- of what it means to have lived in a place, and to have visited places, that call forth feeling.

So yes, I am changing. But I feel no fear in growth.

 

A Collection of Things Worth Knowing About Florence (and me)

IMG_4128     IMG_3921     IMG_3473

I am writing this post from the comfort of a lumpy, sage colored couch in my Florence apartment. Outside, cars are careening down our narrow street and the sun leaks in through a terrace-like window, making the afternoon hours the hottest time of day in our little home. I’ve tried napping, but each time I doze off a Vespa zips by along our road and the noise yanks me out of sleep. It’s 4:08 PM here. 10:08 in the States. I consider calling my Mom and decide against it. Although I know she’d pick up at any hour, her Thursday mornings are dedicated to breakfast with her girlfriends and I feel guilty interrupting.

During the summer I promised myself that I wouldn’t do self-involved updates on my WordPress blog about my travels. Thousands of people make travel blogs, and although those certainly have a time and place I think they can be a bit overdone and preachy. Having said this, I know that I referenced plenty of them in the week before I left, when I was looking up luggage requirements and having anxiety-attacks over “Florence Survival Tips”.

But, in a nod to my previous promise, I will not be cataloging my travels. I will not attempt to describe the grandioseness of the Duomo, the quaintness of the little Trattoria outside our apartment, or the best type of shoes to bring to prepare for Florence’s uneven cobblestones and treacherous roads.

I’ve decided instead to catalog the varying range of emotions I’ve felt since my passport was stamped in Switzerland:

After this brief moment of accomplishment, the group of us hopped on a very claustrophobic plane that took us to an airport in Pisa, where we then traveled on an uncomfortably hot bus to the Florence airport, where we finally hopped into a cab that took us to our apartment. The two full days of travel were exhausting and I’d unwisely popped two Tylenol PM on the flight to Switzerland to guarantee sleep- which landed me in a permanent, hazy fog until late the next day.

When we finally arrived in Florence our cab driver drove past our road and dumped us on the nearest street with an apathetic shrug. We lugged our suitcases in the direction of our apartment where our landlord flitted about in a frenzied panic, handing out keys and trying to direct study-abroad-student traffic.

I’d been in the country for five hours and I was already in a bad mood. I was sweating. I hadn’t brushed my teeth in 12 hours. I wanted food.

Jaclyn, who had taken a separate plane and landed in Florence a few hours earlier, was already waiting in our apartment to greet us. She slowly backed away as I stomped through the door, fumbling with my suitcases and cursing like a sailor. Day 1 in the Fabulous Firenze was already testing my patience.

I’d like to say that every day since has gotten wonderfully and totally easier; that I am on an adventurous journey of self-discovery; that I’m constantly writing; that I’ve gotten a grip on the Italian language already; that I’m meeting plenty of strapping European men who will someday be featured in my memoir under clever pseudonyms. And although some of those things are true, most of them are not (especially the part about the Italian men) and I am learning to come to terms with it.

Having said these things, I’d like to elaborate for fear that I’m giving the wrong impression.

Florence is a wonder. I’m overwhelmed with gratefulness for what has landed me here in this tiny apartment with my friends, in a city that’s full of history and liveliness. I am sad for anyone who misses out on this experience. But there are plenty of things that people don’t mention to you when they speak of their own study abroad experiences and it’s something I’ll seek to clarify.

I can very well recall my first meeting for Italy Fall 2015 Study Abroad at Monmouth University. All of the previous students stood in a line at the front of the room, eagerly awaiting their turn to talk. Each student said variations of the same things: that their experiences were “life changing” and “the best four months, like, ever” and that Florence was “full of surprises and spontaneity” and it was “all play and little study”.

As I sit here avoiding the 60 pages of James Joyce’s Ulysses that awaits me at my desk, I am understandably angry at those who told me that showing up to class would land me an A+. I still have homework- lots of it. I still lug very heavy textbooks across uncomfortable distances- it’s just this time I’m warring with herds of tourists on city streets instead of packs of sorority sisters on campus.

Amongst these minor grievances are other details that seem to get lost in translation for most study abroad students who have returned to tell their tales. It led me to consider why we all seem to fall into the very obvious trap of rosy retrospection when recalling experiences that, at the time, were hard and frustrating and definitely NOT Instagram worthy.

This is not a millennial trait or a characteristic of students that travel, OR a side-effect of the need for social-network approval. In fact, I think it extends far beyond that. I think it’s traceable through the evolution of society; humans have always thirsted for a sense of belonging and recognition that can sometimes only exist through exaggeration and the ignorance of reality.

Not to sound all deep and emotional. I’m only trying to premise this blog post so that people don’t whisper about me while I’m in the bathroom or tell my parents that I’m an ungrateful kid.

I feel like both of those things have definitely happened multiple times, so I’m naturally very paranoid. BUT, I’m just trying to be painstakingly honest with myself and the people I’ll tell my own stories to in the coming months.

Here are some things I wish previous study abroad students had told me, points that are more personal and honest than most of what I’ve heard so far:

Florence is hot. But not that hot. Previous students have compared Florence’s weather to the 9 circles of Dante’s Inferno, Satan’s a**hole, and varying other exaggerated and improbable slurs. And guess what??? September was livable in shorts and a t shirt. I despise heat and humidity and armpit sweat, but I survived. Some might say I flourished. Unfortunately, it does get cold at night by mid-September, so warmer clothes are necessary.

Now I’m freezing every time I walk to class, trying to ignore all of the Stupid American looks I’m getting from the locals about my wardrobe choices.

You don’t get to eat alllllll of the gelato and not see any visible evidence of its consumption on your stomach, hips, and thighs. Maybe this one is obvious to the rest of the normally-functioning world, but I’ve been told many a time that “all the walking you’ll do in Florence will totally cancel out any carbs you eat”. I’m here to tell you that this will never, ever be true. Having said that, Florence is not the place for a diet. Here’s my best recommendation: eat the gelato and enjoy it. Life is full of difficult choices. This is not one of them.

The supermarket is separate universe. And I mean that. It’s an unspoken rule that you put on a plastic glove before touching or examining produce. Everything is hard to find and peanut butter is gut-wrenchingly expensive. Little old italian people take priority in line and out of it, as they should. Frequenting Conad in Florence has made me feel like Superwoman: I can bag my own groceries, dig through my purse for euro, and jam to some Deal Casino in my headphones all at the same time.

You will not fall passionately in love with the city during the first week. This is a matter of opinion. But I haven’t shared a stereotypical romance with Florence. I felt overwhelmingly guilty about that for the first two weeks and then accepted that the uniqueness of my experience in no way invalidates its worth. Florence and I have warmed up to each other; we have a middle-school relationship: messy, exciting, and highly reliant on the involvement of friends.

Traveling in Italy is not cheap. Traveling out of Italy is not cheap. Traveling ANYWHERE is expensive. As I write this particular point, smoke comes out of my ears and a vein in my neck throbs under my skin. If I had a euro for every person who told me that traveling through Europe is inexpensive, I would be able to pay for all of my excursions in cash. Booking flights and trains and buses and hostels is hard. It takes time and deliberation and Mother Theresa’s patience. Maybe I’m asking too much, but I shouldn’t have to become a canonized saint before I can successfully navigate RyanAir’s website without wanting to chuck my laptop across the room.

You are going to hate the people you live with 40% of thetime. I lived on my own last year and had a safe space to retreat to whenever I wanted to stop hearing human voices for a day, or two… or three. But no one talks about apartment dynamic when discussing the thrills of studying abroad; it’s almost entirely disregarded. I’m lucky to be living with three of my closest friends, but they are undoubtedly annoying sometimes.

I can say this while acknowledging that I am probably even more annoying and sassy on a regular basis than all of them put together. (I have to say this to cover my bases in case any one of them is too sensitive for this blog post). Anyway, this is a hugely important thing to consider before studying abroad. Do you love the people you’re going to live with enough to tolerate their dirty dishes in the sink? Their bad attitudes? Their morning breath? Do you love them enough to sit really close on a bus for 12 hours?

My answer to all of these questions is yes. Yes: always and forever. Because for every moment that makes me consider escaping into the Italian mountains and becoming a hermit, there are 10 more where I feel like I’ve found another family. I feel blissfully happy and lucky and full of friend-love. All of it makes more sense when you’re sharing the good and the bad with people who will still talk to you in the morning even after you’ve pulled some Jekyll/Hyde stuff the night before.

***

This concludes my list thus far. Although there are plenty of other points I’d like to make, this post is already long enough to bore the eyes off of half its readers. Before I go, I’ll acknowledge all that Florence has given me this past month in a poor attempt to articulate my thankfulness.

I’ve learned confidence. I’ve learned to navigate the streets of a foreign city and use some Italian when I’m feeling egotistical enough to destroy its beauty with my American accent. I can cook more than an egg (this is the biggest deal ever for anyone who has ever known me).

I’ve recognized, even more, how important my relationship is with my Mother; conversations with her every night feel like the best dose of healing and home. I’ve recognized how much my parents have sacrificed for me: that I am able to visit places that they did not visit at 19 and 20 years old.

Most of my classes excite me and inspire me, for which I’m very lucky. I’m writing pieces that I don’t hate and I’m reading outside of my comfort zone. Every time I walk to class I try to take a moment to acknowledge the incredible present-ness of the moment- that I am abroad in an ancient city, that I am so young and undecided about my life, that there will never be another moment that matches these moments.

I am most grateful to Florence for awakening so many parts of myself that I didn’t know existed. It’s so easy to become locked into a routine- to go about life without putting yourself in the way of people or places that will floor you with feeling.

In Florence, there is never a lack of emotion. There are never any days where I am not fluctuating between awe/frustration, loneliness/excitement/impatience.

There are many days when I lay down in bed, too tired to write.

But there are plenty more when I’m begging to put pen to paper and catalog these moments of overwhelming beauty- these times when I feel like I’m capable and strong and full of a courage I’ve never known before.

Indecisiveness: A Flaw or a Method of Self Preservation?

Over the past few weeks I’ve discovered how incredibly difficult it is to make proactive decisions in favor of a “better future”. However ambiguous that phrase might be, it’s been a constant struggle to get nearer to the elusive “best version of myself”. What do these things mean? And why are they/should they be important at 19?

Many might argue that I take myself too seriously. On some days I’d happily agree. I teeter between the longing to live a care-free, daring life and the desire to establish a reliable character- one that will lead me to a predictably comfortable middle age. There doesn’t seem to be a happy medium. The majority of people I know declare residency on opposite sides of the spectrum, and if you happen to fall in the middle, you’ve been blessed with a stability I’ll never know.

From the decision to abstain from devouring the bag of M&Ms to the agonizing choice to write a thesis, I consistently catapult myself into a mental frenzy every time I attempt to choose one thing over another. Yes or No. These two words have become scarce in my vocabulary. I neither commit nor defer. I float helplessly in the twilight zone, where every decision has potentially undesirable consequences. By not making a choice I don’t allow myself to bear the burden of what could have been.

This technique carried me successfully through high school. On a good day, I’ll argue that it’s a fine way to go through early stages in life: never really pinpointing what it is you want or don’t want, feel or don’t feel, like or dislike. It’s a safe place. I didn’t run the risk of disappointing people and I didn’t tend to disappoint myself.

Transferring this methodology into college proved to be a very bad idea. I wandered into some bad situations because I lacked confidence in my choices. I was fickle. I went with the flow. And contrary to popular belief, the “flow” screwed things up more often than not.

Youth is a time for introspection (and in a nod to the last post, existential crises). It’s also a time for mistakes, irregular sleeping patterns, and excess peanut butter consumption. Much of my inability to make decisions comes from FOMO- or for all of my older readers, (hey, Mom & Dad) a fear of missing out. This too seems to be a side-effect of young adulthood. The trouble is, I desperately want to experience everything.

The darling Sylvia Plath wrote beautifully on the subject, which I quote below:  

“I can never read all the books I want; I can never be all the people I want and live all the lives I want. I can never train myself in all the skills I want. And why do I want? I want to live and feel all the shades, tones, and variations of mental and physical experience possible in life. And I am horribly limited.”

And I feel similar. Choosing one option means disregarding the next and anxiety often gets the best of me. How can I know which is the BEST choice? The one that will make me happiest? The one that will propel me in the right direction?

I’m tempted to say that it doesn’t matter. Life is about the journey, not the destination! But we all know that’s a load of bullshit. That’s an enabling statement. The destination is equally important. The destination will be a large determinant in my happiness. The destination might determine my salary. The identity of my husband. The number of cats I can fit in my apartment.

Having used my incredibly weighty and well-respected opinion to debunk this aphorism, I’ll add that making the hard decision often translates to the best choice. In fact, it always seems to work out that way for me (shout out to  living the played life)! When confronted with an important choice, the easy road is never the logical one. It might be the self-gratifying one. It might be the quicker one. It might even be the one that will get me more sleep at night. But it is not the right one. And it often takes time to recognize this.

This week I had to navigate the Bermuda Triangle of Tough Choices. It was a sticky, logic v. feeling decision. I knew what was right deep down, but I entertained the thought of once again “going with the flow” to avoid having to sacrifice what I wanted. This dilemma was one that required the consultation of three of my closest friends. Their kindness and willingness to lend me their ears and advice led me to the realization that I may lack dexterity in the decision making department, but I am in no shortage of friends who will generously offer me some of theirs.

This year, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I’ve grown measurably. I am not afraid to speak my mind. I have found peace in independence. More importantly, I’ve discovered that although the infamous young adult years are characterized for their lack of responsibility and mundaneness, I do not have to live my life this way if it doesn’t suit me.

I may be missing out. As Sylvia says, we are all horribly limited in some way or another. Every decision will inevitably close certain doors, but we’ll never know what these other paths may have offered and so it’s useless to mourn them. I know myself well enough now to understand that I am not the girl who dives headfirst into the abyss of the great unknown. I am a girl who tests a toe, then a foot, and maybe starts wading in after making a lengthy pros-and-cons list to getting wet.

I’ll wager that I’ve spared myself a handful of heartbreaks and aggressive regrets due to my cautiousness and though I won’t say that this is the right choice 100% of the time, I admire useful methods of self-preservation. I cannot change this about myself; my anxiety and my indecisiveness are written into me and I deal with them just as I deal with the knots in my hair and the persistent ache in my right hip.

I am proud of the decisions I made this week and all of those, big and small, that have brought me here. If such a thing was possible, I would hang my Grade-A decisions up on my mantle, slap them on my lonely dorm-room mini-fridge, or maybe scream them from the rooftop of my residence hall. LOOK AT ALL THE GREAT DECISIONS I MADE. LOOK AT ALL THE CHOICES I CHOSE. LOOK AT ME, SUCCESSFULLY NAVIGATING YOUNG ADULTHOOD.

I have made peace with the experiences I let go in favor of the decision that is best for my well-being. I am thankful for the friendships that helped me get there. Best of all, I’m beginning to find some semblance of contentment with the person I am: a chronic worrier, a list-maker, an indecisive, anti-risk, type-A female. These all sound like good attributes for someone in the medical field. Or maybe an elementary school teacher. Unfortunately, I will stay far away from both: blood and little children tend to scare me. Hey, at least I’m sure of something.