A Little Bit of Wonder is where I journal about the somewhat roundabout way that I have been working to establish a career and a strong sense of self--I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about "direction" and "identity." I have a Master's Degree in Literature, but I'm no longer working as an English Professor; I'm starting the next step in my life as I work to establish a career as a writer in the non-profit sector.

At my companion blog, Little Wonder's Recommended Reading, you will find reviews for both books and other blogs that I enjoy. The two blogs are inter-linked, so you can access my reviews and reading challenges from the sidebar on the left.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

No Place Like Home

I’ve written in previous blog entries how sometimes I feel a bit like Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, and over the past few days, I’ve found myself wishing that I had a little bit more of the confidence that Dorothy displayed when she squeezed her eyes tightly shut, clicked her heels together and chanted, “There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home.” In that moment, at least, she knew exactly where her home was – back in Kansas with Uncle Henry and Aunty Em. She may not have been trying to run away at the beginning of the film, but by the time she has journeyed through the land of Oz, she knows that there’s no place she’d rather be but Kansas. Her voice is fervent and self-assured as she recites the magical mantra, and happily, she ends up back in her very own bed, surrounded by loved ones. But if I had my own pair of magical ruby slippers right now, I’m not so sure where I’d ask them to take me.

My husband and I are originally from Michigan, which has become a wasteland during this fabulous economic recession. We left our home state so that we could go to graduate school and get jobs, but we were a bit ahead of the crowd. It seems like we started a trend – and when it comes to considering your individual survival, it’s a trend that makes sense. We worry, in fact, about our friends and family who are still back in Michigan and are either fearfully monitoring the precarious position of their jobs, or counting down the days until the unemployment checks run out. We miss our parents, brothers, sisters and friends more than we can say – but we also know that we can’t go back.

Moving from Michigan to Washington D.C. was extremely difficult – more difficult than I thought it would be. I had imagined that setting up shop in D.C. would be a lot like going off to college – I would go to parties, meet new people, make new friends. I had a lot of friends in college. A lot. I had eight bridesmaids, for Pete’s sake – and that was the whittled down number. I used to be good at mingling, chatting, being social. But the reality is that once you graduate from college, it’s a lot harder to meet people, so things didn’t turn out quite like I had envisioned. We had been living there a couple of years before we really hit it off with anyone.

I missed being social – and I also missed having a place that felt homey. When I was in college, I felt like I belonged at Eastern Michigan University. During a five minute walk across campus, I would see three or four different people who would want to stop and talk, I would zig-zag my way from building to building, taking care of different pieces of business. I knew how to handle different all my different responsibilities, accounts and social situations. I also felt like I belonged in the town of Ann Arbor. With all it’s little novelty shops, old theaters, restaurants, bookstores and hang-out coffee joints, there were a million different familiar places that I could settle down for an afternoon to read, finish up some homework or catch up with a friend. I knew my way around. I had routines and favorite seats. And all of this gave me confidence.

D.C. wasn’t really like that, though. We lived in a less-than-stellar neighborhood and I didn’t really enjoy going out on my own. When I went to visit the campus of American University, I had the biggest thrill that I had experienced in a long time – it was adorable, clean, safe and, as I told my husband when I came home, it was “me-sized!” As soon as I stepped onto the quad, I immediately had a sense of belonging that I hadn’t experienced since we left Ann Arbor. Unfortunately, after I completed two years of graduate school, they insisted on giving me a diploma and sending me on my way. I threatened to chain myself to the furniture in the Literature Department Lounge so that I wouldn’t have to leave, but I’m not sure how I would have gotten my meals on the weekends. So, I felt like I lost the only place that felt truly homey to me in D.C.

Fast forward to July 2010, when we moved to Nyack. Our little village in the Hudson River Valley reminds me so much of Ann Arbor. As we drove down Main Street toward Broadway, coasting slowly down the hill that overlooks the water, I had that feeling again. I gaped at the bright blue façade of the Blissful Spa, the little second hand stores and gift shops, and the wooden sign hanging outside of the Patisserie. I knew I was home, and so did my husband. We hadn’t seen more than a thirty-second stretch of street in Nyack when we turned to each other and said, “We have to find an apartment here.” And even though we don’t know many people here – we certainly haven’t made the kind of good friends in New York like we have in Michigan and D.C. – I still have that feeling that we belong in Nyack. I have favorite spots to sit by the creek at the park, at the Art Café, at the library. I have opinions about local restaurants and certain routines.

So when we went back to Washington D.C. for a visit this past weekend, it threw me for a bit of a loop. We drove down Friday morning and met a friend for coffee and some bookstore browsing. Then another friend had us over for dinner, and we were able to catch up with several people. It was great seeing everyone and after we left, my husband was practically glowing. With a big grin on his face, he told me, “It’s good to be back. It feels like coming home.”

Awkward pause. I didn’t know what to say because despite the fact that I loved every minute of the time spent with friends, there still wasn’t a sense of belonging in my heart. Washington D.C. was where I learned to detach from people, places and things. It was there that I learned how to cope with isolation and long-distance relationships. While I had once been deeply interwoven into a church community in Michigan, it was in D.C. that I became an island, an independent and absorbed academic. I may have met some great people in D.C., but I didn’t allow myself to get too attached to most of them. And I certainly didn’t get attached to our neighborhood, with its punk car thieves and active local arsonists.

My husband made several comments that night, in fact, that made me feel awkward. Usually he and I feel the same way about things like this – we both loved our undergraduate alma mater, Ann Arbor, and some of the suburban hang-outs near my parents’ home like Royal Oak and Birmingham. We’ve usually agreed on places that we have disliked, and we both immediately loved Nyack. But here was my husband sharing a well-spring of happy feelings, practically saying that he wanted to move back to D.C… and my heart just felt hollow. All I could think about was the hours that I spent sitting in the most horrendous urban traffic that you can imagine – the Capital Beltway. Even traffic in New York City has nothing on the Washington D.C. Beltway, and while my husband never had to commute to work on this notorious freeway, I did. His experience and my experience of living in the D.C. Metro Area were quite different, and I’m all too aware of how urban congestion can literally choke you, smother your soul. I now relish the fact that I live in a village, and that if I’m going to get held up by traffic on my way through town, it’s going to be pedestrian traffic.

There were some tense moments that night, as I tried to let my husband enjoy the buoyant feeling in his heart without out-and-out lying to him about how I felt. And honestly, the difference between our reactions scared me. I couldn’t help but wonder, what do I do if he decides that he really does want to move back to D.C.? Now that I’ve realized just how cramped I was, packed into that tightly-packed urban sprawl, I don’t think I can leave the Palisades cliffs and the Hudson River. I don’t think I could survive without the park with the creek where I actually feel safe to go and sit by myself. Now that I’ve learned to live detached from the people around me, I’m not sure that even the idea of moving back to be with some of my favorite people in the world (and there are a few of them in D.C.) is enough motivation to uproot me from Nyack.

[There is more to come on the subject, though…]

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Alone at the Clinique Counter

Grief is a strange and changeable monster.

Some days, it is strong and ferocious, washing over me like a tidal wave – an apt comparison to a tsunami even, since my memories of my grandparents become a painful surge with the potential to destroy everything in their path.

Then on other days, I can chatter casually, even flippantly about my grandparents with co-workers, hair dressers and waitresses. With a little smile, I can say something to my husband like, “Remember how grandma used to buy us those horrible sugar free candies at the dollar store? I never had the heart to tell her that I didn’t like them because it made her so happy to bring us a treat she had always two or three more bags for us. Don’t we still have a big jar of them somewhere?” In certain moments, I somehow manage to be detached from the strongest emotions that otherwise threaten to overwhelm me – and I can enjoy the memories of my grandparents precisely because I’m detached.

Sunday was one of those days that I felt separate from my emotions, as though the grief belonged to someone else. I could see it, almost pick it up in my hands and examine it. I was hanging out at the mall – all by myself because my husband was out of town this weekend. But despite the fact that it’s pretty pathetic to go marathon shopping by yourself, I wasn’t sad about the current dismal state of my social life.

I felt lonely not because I was alone, but because shopping was a special pastime that I shared with my grandma.

When we were young, my grandparents would take me, my brother and my cousin to the mall all the time. They would allow us to sit at our very own table and order the grilled cheese sandwiches and chocolate milk ourselves. This is a big deal for a five or a six year old, and as we chattered with the waiter, we felt as though we were independent grown-ups. After lunch we would wander around the mall for a while with grandma and grandpa trailing behind us, peering in the shop windows at the glittering gowns on display. While at the mall, my grandparents allowed us a sense of independence and freedom that was exhilarating, especially to a couple of kids whose mother wouldn’t allow us to go down the block on our own.

Later in the afternoon, we always got to order a giant cookie before we went home. I believe my grandparents might have actually believed that not only were cookies an excellent treat, but were a valid remedy for many minor illnesses. I remember a couple of times that I had a stomach ache and was surprised that when they came to pick me up from school, they didn’t take me home and tuck me in to bed – instead, they insisted that I would feel much better after we went to the mall for a cookie.

In fact, I think I played hooky from elementary school more often with my grandparents than I ever tried to ditch class in high school! I felt sort of guilty sitting out in the open, in middle of the mall at 1 o’clock in the afternoon. I worried that someone would catch us and yell at us for sitting there so casually, munching away on our cookies. My grandparents, on the other hand, seemed perfectly at ease. The funny part was that their remedy worked – I suspect that my stomach ache had more to do with social anxiety than anything else, so a cookie and a little time spent with grandma and grandpa turned out to be the perfect medicine.

As I got older, my grandmother became my best friend and my favorite shopping partner. We would go to the mall at least once every season (spring, summer, fall, winter). Children and teenagers are always growing and always need new school clothes, after all. But these were not just quick trips to find a functional, institutionally-approved wardrobe; these were full-day excursions, complete with a leisurely lunch, during which grandma imparted many important life lessons. She taught me to appreciate good-quality fabric and stitching, to avoid horizontal stripes, and create a clean, uninterrupted visual line from head to toe in order to appear thinner. She taught me to always buy more than one tube of lipstick when I found a shade that I liked – so that you’d have enough for a long time if the cosmetics company discontinued that color. The same goes for a good pair of shoes or nicely-fitting jeans – buy more than one pair and you’ll be set for years. She helped me develop an eye for coordinating colors and her taste for anything sparkly rubbed off on me.

She taught me all of that before the age of twelve and so by the time I was a teenager, I was as picky of a shopper as she was. Even after I started hanging out at the mall with my teenage friends, I still went shopping with her for my clothes because she would be much more honest with me about how something fit. “That doesn’t flatter you,” she would sometimes tell me, wrinkling her nose. “It makes you look pregnant, the way that it poufs out over your stomach…” But before you imagine that her comments were cruel, let me assure you that I appreciated them – her honesty made her a much better shopping partner than any of my peers, who were afraid to hurt my feelings. But there was also the fact that when something did “flatter my figure,” she was a much more gratifying admirer than any of my friends would have been. Her eyes would sparkle and she would begin to beam. I’m fairly certain I wouldn’t be nearly as vain if it weren’t for her unadulterated admiration.

Because of both her honesty and her appreciation, she was also the first and most important person to take when shopping for special events. She and my mother accompanied me to choose every single prom dress I ever bought, and while in college, she once convinced me to go out and look for a black cocktail dress – when I didn’t need one for any particular reason. (We actually ended up buying two that day!)

Grandma and my mom both obviously had to be present for every single trip to the bridal salon when I was planning my wedding as well. She became obsessed with Oleg Cassini, the designer that created my gown. She was also the one who insisted that I buy a $200 wedding veil simply because it was the only one that had sparkles… if I wasn’t going to buy it, she was going to buy it for me, and that was that. According to grandma, you cannot ever under-estimate the value of sparkles.

Once I moved to Washington D.C., I never did find another shopping partner and so my trips to the mall became lonely affairs. I sometimes drag my husband in to the dressing room once I have tried everything on and vetoed the losers – his job is to apprise the second round contestants. Sometimes he helpfully offers comments like, “that pattern looks like cauliflower,” and then I know I have to return that shirt to the rack. But he lacks the critical eye and the ability to color-coordinate that my grandmother had. I started calling my grandma from the dressing room, trying to describe the items that I was trying on, which met only with limited success since she obviously couldn’t see how the clothing actually looked on me. But at least it was a little bit like having her with me.

The day after she died, I decided that I had nothing appropriate to wear to her funeral – and something that would have been incredibly important to my grandma would have been my wardrobe and appearance when I got up to give her eulogy. I knew that in order to honor my grandmother properly, I had to go shopping.

And so, despite the fact that I hadn’t slept more than 45 minutes and I felt like I was a zombie that had been drained of even the desire to consume human brains, I went to the mall the day after my grandmother died. It was the most miserable shopping trip of my entire life.

I wanted to find some kind of a black or dark dress, or perhaps a fancy top and black pants. But there wasn’t a single dress or dress blouse that didn’t either 1) have awful-looking ruffles all up and down the front or 2) look like a skanky clubbing outfit. "Oh, grandma,” I muttered to myself, “I'm glad you can't see all these hideous ruffles. What are they thinking this season?” When I couldn’t find anything to wear at any of my favorite stores, I stopped and thought, “What would grandma do? She would tell me to look in Macy’s and the other department stores. She would tell me to persevere, at least until I had exhausted my options.” So I trudged around the mall for another two hours without success (the hideous ruffles were everywhere), and ended up buying four different sparkly scarves in a fit of self-indulgence and self-pity. I came home in despair, knowing that I still didn't have anything nice to wear for the funeral. (Thankfully, I was able to find a dress in a last-ditch effort at a little shop near my parents’ house. I made my mom buy something new to wear, too -- reminding her that Grandma would have told us to go out and get something nice.)

Now when I go to that mall by myself, I can’t help but think of that horrible day, the day after she died, at least for a moment. Because of that epic shopping failure, even my mall in New York seems to have a strong connection to my grandma.

And when I took myself to the Clinique counter on Sunday, of course I thought about her. She is the one who scheduled me for a Clinque pore-cleansing and make-over when I was in high school. She was the one who insisted that I buy two tubes of Stellar Plum the last time we dropped by the counter in Macy’s together. After all the time I spent fusing over foundations and powders and lipsticks with grandma, I suddenly found myself going for a consultation at the Clinque alone. And although I didn’t cry while I was there, I felt very hollow inside knowing that I couldn’t even take home my new lip gloss to model for my grandma and ask her if she thought it was too dark.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Keep Myself Awake

I’ve spent several comfortable years in the academic life, which allowed me to teach classes from 8:30 to 11, make it home in time for lunch, then enjoy a nap or a walk before throwing in laundry, then reading or writing for the rest of the afternoon. Don’t get me wrong – there were some long, torturous 8 hour days of paper-grading thrown in there, too. But I had it pretty nice. If I wanted to take the afternoon off to read a novel or go shopping, I could usually do so. But now I’m up every morning and driving across the TappanZee Bridge by 8 AM, knowing that the return trip won’t come until 5:30 or later.

I squint against the sunlight both ways, but when I first started my new nine-to-five, my worry wasn’t that the sunrise would affect my eyesight so much as the fluorescent office lighting. Thankfully, I don’t work in a cubicle; I have my own office and can shut the lights off. I only have one narrow, high-up window, but it lets in enough sunlight so that I can read the stacks of papers on my desk, so I’ve developed a habit of working for most of the day in the dark. I believe this is saving me from developing a dangerous addiction to Visine or Clear Eyes, and it’s far more Zen. Then again, maybe I've picked up one too many habits from my favorite film noir characters and broody vampire detectives.

But when I began working a more traditional schedule, I had far greater fears than the possibility of developing Bleary Eye Syndrome. Mainly, I was – and continue to be – concerned that a 40 hour a week job eats up a lot more time than just 40 hours a week. Let's do the math. There’s the commute, which I estimate takes me another 7.5 hours a week on average. But that is still less than 50 hours, and there are 168 hours in a week, so even if you sleep 56 hours a week (8 hours a night), you should still have somewhere between 60 and 70 hours to yourself. Right?

But you can’t forget to add all those pesky household and personal hygiene things in to the tally – showering (and for some of us, blow-drying your hair), preparing food and washing the dishes… let’s say there goes another ten to fifteen hours during the week. We’re down to 50 hours, but you have to remember that half of those hours are your two weekend days. In that time, you’ve got to do laundry, go grocery shopping, go to church, take the car for an oil change – and you should probably at least acknowledge your husband at some point. So when am I supposed to find time to write??

I’m aware that all these things are the normal concerns and activities of normal adult human beings and that I shouldn’t be so irked at having to fit my life into this schedule, but as I’ve explained before, I’ve been extremely spoiled. Not only did my parents, grandparents, and even my husband cater to my desires to a certain degree, but my chosen career as a professor often enabled my whims. I could take papers to correct at the bookstore, which made grading feel less like work because I could go browse the shelves. I could make the rounds of local coffee shops and restaurants during the afternoons, or choose to put off my work until the middle of the night if I wanted. I thrive on flexibility, and a career as an academic allowed me to do so much more reading, writing – and ultimately, living.

When I started this nine-to-five gig, I was afraid that I wouldn’t have much time left for “living” – although admittedly, my definition of the word would seem fairly boring to many, since it basically involves reading and writing out of doors as much as possible, whether at the park or the beach, or by an open window. It also involves long walks and the general ability to kum-bah-yah with nature on a frequent basis.

What I’ve discovered is that even though the different responsibilities at my new job are actually pretty interesting and enjoyable (to me) and I’m happy to devote time to these tasks, I come home exhausted and unable to fully enjoy those twenty-five free hours that I’m supposed to have to myself during the week. Sometimes I can’t keep my eyes open for more than an hour or two after eating dinner, so I’ve found myself falling asleep to The Daily Show and The Colbert Report; my routine is starting to remind me of graduate school, which is not a time in my life that I particularly want to repeat. Ever. Again.

Over the past week, I’ve been even more drained for some reason; I think I fell asleep around 7:30 or 8 PM almost every night. Look at me – I’m not even thirty and I’m already turning into my grandpa. He was a sweet man and I love him dearly – but wasn’t I already boring enough??

Honestly, I can live with being a generally boring person to the outside world, but it is important to me that I am able to continue reading and developing myself as a creative writer and memoirist. I want to be able to recapture the more amusing, self-depreciating tone that used to come a lot more easily to me as I wrote. (Anyone else miss those posts?)

I also just want to be able to enjoy the simple pleasures in life. Is it too much to ask that if you’re earning enough money to be able to buy a few books and a dinner out, that you also be able to enjoy said books and your husband’s company? I really don’t want my life to be all about a paycheck – or even about a career, for that matter, even though it’s a career that I’ve decided is interesting, valuable and fulfilling. I still crave the freedom to freely express myself – consistently, constantly.

In order to be able to do that, though, I may need to resort to more coffee and diet Coke to keep me awake. I may gain a new appreciation for my chronic insomnia, and you might start to notice that my blog posts begin appearing at 2 AM, there to greet you when you come bleary-eyed to you computer in the morning. I may develop an addiction Visine after all.

Whatever happens, I know that I’ve spent too much time lately in a haze of one kind or another – grief and exhaustion have defined my life, weighted me down and limited my sense of adventure. Everyone has been urging me to get out and make new friends, which will certainly become more of a priority soon. But first I need to simply be able to stay awake…

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Where There is Despair

As Japan continues to be in the news, my heart continues to ache for the victims – particularly the children – of the earthquake(s) and tsunami that hit their country last week. I’ve noticed, though, that of the photos released in the days following the disaster, most of them were not of suffering, injured people – the kinds of graphic pictures that were released following the earthquake in Haiti last January. Instead, many of the photographs from the disaster in Japan are of damaged property: landscapes of decimated houses, twisted cars and other debris. From the media reports that I’ve seen, it seems as though there aren’t as many seriously injured people in Japan; a representative from a Doctors Without Borders Assessment Team reports that the need for clean water, food and shelter is more immediate and widespread than medical emergencies. Even so, I’m somewhat bothered by the fact that many photographers seem to have been more interested in property damages than suffering human beings.

But I don’t want to judge anyone too harshly – none of us truly know how to respond when something of this magnitude occurs.

And that’s something that’s been on my mind a lot in the last week – my own response to natural disasters, tragedies of epic proportions, raw human suffering and need.

So many people – my friends, my co-workers, people on Facebook and Twitter – have been discussing the tragedy. I’ve seen many status updates either directly or indirectly related to the quakes. #prayforjapan and similar hashtags have been trending on Twitter. (For those of you who are not Twitter-literate, that basically means that the topic “pray for Japan” has been extremely popular.) I’ve been participating in a discussion with other bloggers about whether or not we will post on the tsunami.

But despite all the media coverage and conversation on the damage from the quakes, the danger from the over-heating nuclear power plant, and the suffering of the Japanese people, I’m not as visibly, demonstrably distraught over the current situation as I was last year about the disaster in Haiti. I think that this is partially because last January, I was on Winter Break when earthquake struck and so I sat at home for several weeks, watching footage of screaming children having an arm or leg amputated without any anesthetic.

I would turn on the news and then spend the next half hour (or more) listening to various reports with tears streaming down my face. In contrast, I haven’t shed more than a solitary tear here or there for the Japanese people.

But before you think I’ve turned into some kind of unfeeling Gila monster over the past year, let me explain.

At some point last January or February, I realized that sitting around my apartment in Maryland and crying didn’t really do anyone any good, least of all the Haitians themselves. I wanted to help, but I’m not a medical professional and couldn’t volunteer to help in that sort of capacity; I can't even stomach having my own blood drawn and have to kick back on a cot until my wooziness subsides. I didn’t really think that I was in much of a position to volunteer to fly down and dig people free of the rubble, either – my arms are approximately as strong and muscular as a well-cooked fettuccine noodle. I really wouldn’t be all that useful in a crisis situation, to be honest.

I desperately wanted to help – the footage of those screaming children was enough to turn anyone’s stomach, not just a soft-hearted former elementary school teacher such as myself. But as an under-paid adjunct professor, I didn’t have much extra cash in my bank account. I donated what I could, but still found myself sitting around and sobbing and asking, now what? Tears were not the answer, though – that was just wallowing. I realized that if I was so moved by the suffering I was seeing, I needed to find an active way to help.

Essentially, I made a decision about the kind of person that I wanted to be. I didn’t want to sit around wringing my hands, limited by my own tiny bank account. I didn’t want to donate $50 and be done with the situation, either – I couldn’t simply forget the children who were suffering in Haiti, and even if I could have put them from my mind, I didn’t want to forget them. I realized, though, that constantly thinking about them wasn’t healthy. I needed to find a healthy emotional response and a way to help.

I racked my brain for things I could contribute. People were donating clothes, but I wasn’t satisfied with the idea of rounding up a few sweatshirts to send off. Representatives of relief organizations were getting on TV and telling people that money was the best thing to donate, anyway, because then these organizations could purchase exactly what was most needed – water, food and medical supplies. My bank account was currently drained down to its minimum required balance and I wouldn’t be receiving another paycheck until Winter Break was over, so I became convinced that I needed to FIND more money somewhere else.

Then I came up with the idea of selling my hand-made jewelry. I had more than I could possibly wear, plus extra supplies from teaching jewelry classes and leftovers from my own projects. I went out and purchased some extra jewelry wire, then got to work making duplicates and triplicates of my own necklaces. I opened an Etsy store, linked it to my Facebook account, and basically spammed all my friends to buy my jewelry with the promise that I would donate all the proceeds to the Red Cross, Unicef and Doctors Without Borders relief efforts in Haiti.

By the time I had to close up shop in May (in order to pack things for our move to New York), I had raised and donated a few hundred more dollars. It wasn’t that much money in the grand scheme of things, but that cash bought some blankets, medical supplies and tent shelters for the Haitians. And I was crying a lot less.

And this is the kind of person that I want to be – not unmoved, but moving. When we see suffering, we should be moved by it – but sometimes we are so upset that we become paralyzed. At least, that has been my tendency in the past. But someone who is paralyzed by disaster is powerless to help alleviate suffering.

I don’t want to be useless in a crisis, unable to help. I don’t want to be limited by my own emotions; I want to overcome my human frailty in order to act on my human empathy. As stated in the beautiful Prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi: “Where there is despair, [let me sow] hope.”

I don’t mean this to be a religious appeal or any kind of guilt trip – I just simply want to declare my own desire to be a stronger, more selfless person. I’m not really sure if I’ve reached that goal, or if it’s a goal that you can even reach fully. It seems likely to me that the average person could always find more ways to give of herself. But this isn’t all about donating time or money to me, but also about being strong. Strong enough to face heartache and disaster and keep going, so that instead of indulging my own grief, even in the most warranted moments, I might wipe away other people’s tears. Sometimes, more than anything, it is that strength that I long for.

But the suffering people on my mind right now are half a world away in Japan, and so instead of wiping away tears, I am going to check my bank account balance and see if I can't find ten or twenty more dollars to donate. And then I’m going to go on a walk with my husband and clear my head, because it never does anyone any good when I sit around at home too much.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Thirty Seconds

“What are you doing?” The harsh whisper came across the table, startling me and stirring up a streak of fear that shivered through my stomach.

I had been caught. Caught reading a novel in the middle of class.

I hadn't been caught by the teacher, but by the new boy. The cutest boy in class.

At that moment, the latter seemed to be more mortifying.

I shoved the book farther under the table. “Nothing. Reading,” I said defensively.

“No you weren’t,” he said, his tone belligerent. He leaned in toward me, getting dangerously close. I could feel my face turning red as he said, “You couldn’t have been reading. You were turning the pages too fast.”

I stared at the fringe of thick, dark lashes around his coffee colored eyes. Even though I couldn't look away from his eyes, I somehow noticed his rosy cheeks. His close proximity made me tremble a little: this was an intense moment for a sixth grader.

I gulped. “I was too reading.”

“How fast can you read, then?” he demanded, still whispering. So far, the teacher had not noticed our quiet conversation.

Oh, crap. Now he was challenging my skill as a reader – one of the few skills that I felt I possessed. I had to defend my honor – but I didn’t have a clue how fast I could read. I just knew that I read fast. And I also knew that I suddenly wanted very badly to impress this cocky, handsome sixth grade heartthrob.

I’m sure I must have stuttered and blushed. “I don’t know,” I told him.

He paused for a minute, tilting his head and studying me. By this time, I must have been redder than Anne Shirley’s carrot-colored hair.

“I’ll time you,” he said. He held up his wrist, displaying his watch. “We’ll see how long it takes you to read a page.”

Now the pressure was on. I was a shy and stuttering sixth-grade geek with no other way of impressing the new boy than to try and dazzle him with my intelligence and speed-reading skills. But perhaps more important than that, I suddenly felt the need to prove to myself that I was good at something. So I nodded, pulled my book back out from under the table, and set my eyes to the top of the page.

“Okay,” he whispered, his eyes on the minute hand as it ticked slowly around. “Wait, wait – go.”

I skimmed the page quickly, looking up and whispering a triumphant “Done!” when I had gotten to the bottom.

“Thirty seconds,” he said, looking at me with new admiration with those coffee-colored eyes. I couldn’t stop staring at his thick lashes. “And you remember what you just read? Tell me what was on the page.”

I gave him a quick recap of the subject. I couldn’t tell him exactly what had happened, but I knew what characters had been talking and what general subjects they had discussed. It was enough to convince him that I had actually absorbed the information on the page in thirty seconds.

Having convinced him, I suddenly felt a new pride in my identity – I might have been a book geek, but at least I was a skilled book geek. And even though the cute boy and I didn’t exactly end up being lunch buddies, he actually paid attention to me from time to time – and I didn’t stutter and blush nearly as much when I answered him.

I’m not exactly sure what made me think of that incident today, a little moment from the life of a bookish sixth grader who has clung tenaciously for the sixteen years following to the identity that I established at that moment. First I was a reader, then I blossomed into the writer and communicator that I am today.

At that age, I could never have imagined that I’d be able to talk as much or as loudly as I do at parties, chatting with all kinds of people for hours without stuttering. A regular Little Miss Chatterbox.

I could never have pictured myself up in front of a classroom, with enough confidence to not only skillfully teach, but even entertain my eighteen and nineteen-year-old students. But maybe it was this very moment – where I was pushed to declare myself, to defend my ability and so define myself through that ability – that made the rest of my career possible. I had always loved reading, but I remember this moment so clearly because it was the first time that I had been challenged to prove that my skills were impressive and important.

So maybe it is thanks to the boy with the thick, dark lashes and a gaze with the intensity of a laser gun that I became confident, sure of who I was and who I wanted to be. I was proud of myself, perhaps even for the first time. In those thirty seconds, I learned some extremely important things.

I am a reader, a critic, a writer, a communicator. I am good at those things, and those things are valuable.

And from that day forward, I have never stopped defining myself that way.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The First Opportunity

As I posted on Thursday, I want to look for more opportunities to challenge myself to be a better person. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to take the 40 Days of Water Challenge, giving up all beverages except water for 40 days and donating the money that I would be spending on coffee, tea and pop (soda, for my East Coast neighbors). My challenge to myself doesn't even have to involve sacrificing something; it could involve other types of fundraising efforts, or include volunteering to serve in other ways. But in the wake of the massive earthquake and tsunami in Japan, I’ve found something that I could (even should) challenge myself to give up for a good cause: book buying.

Now there’s a real indulgence: my book buying addiction. I call myself a book store junkie, an Amazon whore. I can never resist browsing the latest books when I visit the mall and I spend many nights of insomnia trolling the premier online bookseller for deals and new reads. My only Black Friday tradition is to surf through literally hundreds of pages of discounted books and DVDs, getting most of my Christmas shopping out of the way and always picking up at least fifty dollars of stuff from my own wishlist. I don’t even want to admit to you (or my husband) exactly how much of my paycheck each month goes to pay my Amazon bill… and I love my Amazon credit card, which lets me earn triple the points for each dollar spent on their website, all of which tally up and let me earn AMAZON GIFT CARDS. My husband struggled at first to understand why I didn’t just want cash back – but oh, the lure of more books, free books.

But this isn’t meant to be a public service announcement for Amazon. Or maybe it is, sort of.

In times of disaster, Amazon has dedicated homepage placement and donated use of their payments technology to the American Red Cross. Amazon.com customers have contributed more than $35 million to global relief programs since 2001.

2001: $6.9 million contributed for 9/11 relief in the U.S.
2004: $15.7 million contributed for tsunami relief in South and Southeast Asia
2005: $12.4 million contributed for Hurricane Katrina relief
2008: $180,000 contributed for Cyclone Nargis relief in Myanmar and earthquake relief in China
2010: $750,000 contributed for earthquake relief in Haiti

$6.9 million for 9/11 relief is amazing. $15.7 and $12.4 million even more so. But why only $180,000 and $750,000 for Myanmar, China and Haiti? Can't book lovers do better than that?

My thought was, how much money do I spend on books each month... each week? Can't I match myself and/or give up a week or two of book buying to help ease the suffering,and devastation in Japan? I indulge my book buying impulse so often these days, after all.

For example, on my book blog, I participate weekly in a meme called “In My Mailbox.” This is an opportunity for book bloggers show off books that they have purchased or received that week (not necessarily in the mail literally), before they actually read and review them. We post our purchases, then read about everyone else's new books. The point is that book lovers get to share their excitement over new acquisitions with each other. We’re all book geeks of one kind or another, and our enthusiasm needs an outlet, an audience that understands our bookish glee over new paperbacks and hardbacks, those beautiful covers and unread pages… It also ends up being extra promotion for the specific titles and authors, so everyone wins.

Many people who are regular participants of In My Mailbox acquire between four and twelve novels each week, and ever since I got a full-time job, I too have been indulging myself a fair bit. I no longer feel guilty dropping money on a few books each week when I find them discounted on Amazon, or when I want to grab a couple specific titles so that I can join a new online reading challenge. I've definitely been spoiling myself.

So when I saw the Amazon banner inviting donations to the Red Cross Japan Earthquake/Pacific Tsunami Fund, I realized that instead of giving up beverages, I should start by giving up books. At this point, though, my TBR (“To Be Read,” terminology of the book-addicted world) stack is so high that I won’t be lacking anything to read, anyway. It’s not a sacrifice of my intellectual life or my reading enjoyment so much as a sacrifice relating to my shopping impulses. Some of you will understand when I say that it's an emotional sacrifice.

Most of my readers probably aren’t book bloggers, but I challenge you to think of something that you spend $10–30 a week. Maybe it’s a Starbucks addiction, a tendency to overspend at Target (I do that, too) or even just a comparison to your monthly Netflix bill. You spend $10 or $15 dollars a month to get DVDs through the mail and access instant viewing. Can’t you spare just as much for people who have just lost their homes?

I challenge you to give what you can. Even text REDCROSS to 90999 to donate $10. Most of us can probably spare the cost of a single new book or a month of Netflix.

And I am issuing a special challenge to book bloggers this week: those of us who have jobs (even low-paying jobs at libraries, non-profits, elementary schools, etc.) should think about this: if we have money to splurge (as we so often do) on books, can't we give up our indulgences every once in a while to help when a need like this arises?

I'm going to go examine my Amazon credit card bill, determine what I spent on books within the past few weeks, and match the amount, donating to the Red Cross Fund for the victims of the Japan Earthquake and Pacific Tsunami through Amazon. This is my first opportunity since challenging myself to do something concrete, even if this first step probably won't change my personal character that much.

I’m not posting this because I want a pat on the back – I’m posting this because I want you to join me. Find something that you can give up for a week or two, then donate. And then come back and leave a comment here for me, letting me know what you’ve chosen to give up – I think it would be really cool to hear about other ideas of what people decide to do.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

It Starts at Home

“Everything thinks about changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” – Leo Tolstoy

In order to spark some ideas and strategize for my new role as a PR/Communications Associate at a non-profit organization, I’m reading an awesome book called The Networked Non-Profit: Connecting with Social Media to Drive Change, by Beth Kanter and Allison H. Fine. Yesterday, on the train ride home from a class on Grant Proposal Writing, I came across Tolstoy’s quote in Kanter and Fine’s book.

I realized that while I used to closely connect my concept of “who I am” with the lofty aspirations that I had to change the world, that my identity became less and less dependent on my role as a social servant. After moving around a few times, experiencing a crisis of personal religious thought and the East Coast cold shoulder, and slaving away in isolation as a graduate student, I became more of a pragmatist, a realist – yes, you could even say a bit of a jaded cynic. (Although I work for a non-profit now, so the idealist must still be in there somewhere, and clawing her way to the surface again.) I had been a resident of the Land Called Youthful Ignorance, but I packed my bags and moved to the Land of Terrified Disenchantment.

Thinking about Tolstoy’s words, I felt inspired to come up with ways that I could change myself before/while I take on the huge task of trying to promote and shift a movement of social change. I’ve been generating a lot of exciting ideas for projects that my non-profit organization could make a difference in the Bronx, one of its core service areas. I’ve been excited about how we could use Facebook, bloggers, and possibly even tweets to spread awareness, raise money, collect donations of books and clothes, find volunteers and supporters. But if I’m honest, it’s been a long time since I’ve really given much thought to changing the person that I am, at least in that capacity.

I think a lot about my selfishness in the context of my relationship with my husband. I think one of the perfect ways to sum up my experience of marriage is the Bible verse Proverbs 27:17 that says, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” My husband certainly spoils me in many ways, but beginning even before we got married, my relationship with him has forced me to confront and change many aspects of my selfishness. Whereas my parents and grandparents spoiled me in almost every way imaginable, taking care of their little princess, my husband expects his wife to be his partner – and rightly so. And I’m honestly grateful for the way that our conflicts and struggles have sharpened me, whittled me down little by little. I want to be a mature, responsible, capable woman.

But while marriage has perhaps been the experience that has “sharpened” me the most, there are other valuable relationships and situations that challenge and sharpen a person – many of which have slipped out of my life since we moved away from our friends and families in Michigan almost six years ago. While I used to be a dedicated member of a church community, deliberately allowing myself to be checked and challenged by several close Christian friends, I no longer have people in my day-to-day life that notice and speak up when something about my behavior is less than admirable. It’s almost a bit of a shock when I get into a deep conversation with one of my old friends and they point out that I’m being kind of a jerk about something.

I think I’ve slipped a little ways down the rabbit hole and gotten away from Tolstoy’s intended meaning – or have I? There are a hundred different ways – a thousand – that we could each resolve to change our behavior, our demeanor, our hearts. Wouldn’t each of those decisions make the world a little bit better?

But here’s the kicker. I came home to find this email in my inbox: “40 Days of Water Begins Today! Sign Up Now!” 40 Days of Water is a fundraiser for the awesome charity Blood Water Mission, which "empowers communities to work together against the HIV/AIDS and water crises in Africa." The concept of the 40 Days Fundraiser is this:

It’s a big commitment to not drink anything but water for Forty days. But from March 9 to April 23, that’s exactly what we’re asking you to do. By giving up what you'd normally drink in exchange for the water from your tap, you can save that money and donate it to help build clean water projects for communities in Uganda. Imagine it this way, because $1 can provide a year of water for 1 person in Africa, with each drink you give up each day, you'll be providing years of water for someone else.

We hope that through this experience you’ll be reminded daily of the privilege of having safe water at your everyday disposal, and that you gain a sense of solidarity with your neighbors in Africa. We also expect that your heart will be filled with hope that something can be done about the water crisis – and that you’re a part of actually doing it.

An awesome idea, right?

Except I hate the taste of water. Except I have a stomach condition and I often drink peppermint or chamomile tea to aid my digestion. Except I love cream soda. Except with my new job, I need the caffeine in my diet Coke to get through the day, especially when my insomnia has kept me up the night before and I’m running on four hours of sleep, trying to produce copy that sounds eloquent for a grant proposal or a newsletter. Except I hate the taste of water.

My first round of thoughts: Can’t I just donate a chunk of money? Even a dollar would provide a water supply for someone else for a full year.

And then I respond to myself: Lauren, you’re such a selfish jerk. You want to change the world? Or even just yourself? But you can’t even give up drinking diet Coke and tea for forty days.

Maybe my stomach condition is a legitimate excuse, maybe not – that’s not so much what I want to debate. I want to think about the kind of person that I really am and challenge myself to find small ways that I can make a difference. I want to think about changing myself before I go on a mission to change the world, or even the Bronx.

I’m going to search out some different events like 40 Days and sign up to participate in some of them, as well as consider if there are any other ways that I can challenge myself to “sharpen” my character. Change starts at home – in your heart, if I’m allowed to be hokey for a minute here.

What are some ways that you challenge yourself?

Tuesday, March 8, 2011


I think I can officially be considered a “workaholic” of sorts.

Job #1: Grantwriter

While I’ve been a fairly polished, organized and artful writer for a long time, grantwriting is a whole new skill and art form to learn. Basically, you’re asking someone to give you a huge wad of cash (the first grant that I’ve been assigned to work on is an ask for $50,000). This means that you need the style and aplomb to convince the grantmaker that the people served by your organization have a particularly compelling need; moreover, that your organization is capable of meeting that need once given the necessary funds. In order to be convincing, you need to write a proposal that is a winning combination of frightening statistics (for example, 40% of residents of the Bronx live in poverty), compelling personal stories, and your organization’s record of success managing funds and meeting the community’s needs. There is a narrative, and then there are forms. Lots and lots of forms. For the past month, I’ve been busy learning how to put all these things together… and I still have a lot to learn.

If I’m honest, though, I actually like it. A friend of mine called to catch up the other day, and when I told him that I was learning the fine art of grant writing, he apologized profusely. “No, no,” I assured him. “I know this makes me an even bigger geek – but I like doing the research. I’m learning a lot about poverty, parenting, the foster care system, autism, etc. And I love writing the narrative. Of course, budgeting has never been my strong suit…”

Job #2: Communications and Public Relations Associate

This job title could mean a lot of things – one of my pet peeves while I was job hunting was the ride range of companies that slapped the title “associate” on any and every listing. From what I can tell, it’s the easiest way to say “you’re not a manager, but you’re still going to be asked to manage a lot.” I’ve seen it applied to secretarial positions, sales clerk positions, copy writing positions, glorified babysitting positions…

Fortunately, what this translates to in terms of my own job is a list of tasks and responsibilities that I genuinely enjoy. I get to play Lois Lane: I write for our organization’s website, email newsletter, and hard copy publications. I also get to manage our Facebook page, monitor the web for instances that we appear in the news, and eventually develop some other strategies for spreading awareness about what we do. I’m learning more about the concept of branding (how you make a name for your company or organization, then present a compelling story) and networking. It’s actually quite fascinating… I’ve even been reading little bits and pieces on branding and social networking some evenings after work. (See? Workaholic.)

“Jobs” #3 and #4: Personal Blogger (on A Little Bit of Wonder) and Book Blogger/Reviewer (on Little Wonder’s Recommended Reading)

Okay, so these aren’t paid positions. I shouldn’t call them jobs – especially if they’re hobbies, meant for my own enjoyment. I shouldn’t feel obligated to blog, right? Except I have a do do do mentality. I’m always working on a project, always designing something, making something, reading something, writing something.

In my world, even the (hundreds and hundreds) of books that I want to read become items on a checklist, and I have to be careful not to get too bogged down with my read more read more mentality, or I stop enjoying myself. I think this is partially a product of my stretch in graduate school, but it’s also just who I am. I have always been eager to read more read more – the term “voracious reader” is particularly apt. It’s like an insatiable hunger. And I have always churned out pages and pages and pages of writing. Back at my parents’ house, I have whole shelves full of journals, from back before I started typing my entries and blogging. There have always been projects that have kept me up until 3 AM – websites or artwork of some kind. I just can’t keep still, can’t shut my brain down. I'm kind of an intense person.

The blogging, then, is great for several reasons; overall, writing focuses my energies productively. My book blog forces me to really think about what I read, keeps my literary analytical skills sharp despite the fact that I’m no longer taking or teaching literature classes, helps me keep track of all my thoughts, and keeps me connected to a literary community. Journaling on A Little Bit of Wonder helps me to think through my life and therefore live more deliberately, and also serves as a sounding board and first draft for things I would like to include in the memoir/novel that I would like to put together one day. All very important things, all things that help me meet my personal goals of being a dedicated reader, disciplined writer and – someday – a published author.

So what’s the problem?

The problem is, I go to work and I write. On my lunch hour, I read and/or write. I drive home, kiss my husband hello, grab some dinner, and sit down at my laptop to write. On the weekends, I throw in a load of laundry, go pick up some more diet Coke from the grocery store, read 1-2 novels, and write. There isn’t time for a lot of variety in my life these days, now that I work 40 hours a week and still try to blog in my spare time (at least six entries a week, between the two blogs).

I’m a little bit concerned that as long as my blogging and writing are a priority, I won’t be able to develop much of a life that exists outside of all my “jobs.” Thank God for my husband, who is a much more individual than I am. He gets me out of the house most weekends – this weekend, we managed to go out to Greenwich Point again on Saturday and take a seven mile walk in our neighborhood on Sunday. But I worry that I’m neglecting him for most of the week. And I don’t know when I would have time to socialize, even if I did feel like making friends in Nyack (which I’m still not quite ready to do… not quite yet). I think at some point, something is going to have to give – especially when we want to have kids (in three or four years, perhaps). But even before then, will I really be able to maintain such a rigorous writing life?

Yet all of these things have become really important to the way that I now define myself as a person and maintain my goals. I don’t really know if I can keep up the pace, but I’m going to be disappointed if I can’t… and I feel that by giving up some of my blogging, I would be greatly diminishing the likelihood that I will actually ever produce a novel or a memoir – I can’t simply rely on my grantwriting to keep my creative narrative skills sharp. So, I’ve got to find a way of balancing all the writing with more exercise, socializing, etc… and once in a while, I’ve got to find a way to take care of other random but important responsibilities. I’ve got to find time, for example, to take down my Christmas tree one of these days.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Penguin Plunge

When my husband and I lived in the Washington D.C. metro area, we were in graduate school and needed to find an apartment with relatively low rent. We ended up grabbing a deal on a one bedroom, one bath with a den – plenty of closet space and the all-important extra room for my book collection, carefully shelved behind glass doors. Our rent was around $1000, which is cheap for the D.C. area, but the appliances all worked and everything was clean, so we didn’t ask too many questions.

It turns out we had moved into a somewhat notorious apartment complex – famous for the arsons that were taking place a few blocks over from us and the car thefts that were pretty run-of-the-mill. We personally experienced the car theft, in fact – twice before we moved out. (Those are actually pretty funny stories, despite the fact that the incurred repairs cost us a lot of unexpected cash… you’ll never meet a dumber set of car jackers than the teenagers who took our Plymouth for a joy ride. Except perhaps the thief who tried to steal our vehicle when it had a dead battery, then ended up leaving us his own car key on the seat. Too bad we didn’t know where he was parked.)

Let’s just say that being a little blond white girl, I didn’t really feel all that comfortable going for a walk by myself when we lived in the suburbs of D.C. Of course, I could drive over to the park in historic Greenbelt and sit reading at one of the picnic benches without fear of being harassed. But there were times when I tried to walk in my own neighborhood and a truck full of greasy, shifty-eyed men followed me, which understandably made me quite nervous.

So when we moved to Nyack eight months ago, I suddenly felt FREE. In this little river town with a cobblestone library and row after row of Victorian houses, I can wander through the neighborhoods without my husband acting as a chaperone. I can walk to the post office, the Starbucks and any number of mom-and-pop restaurants, coffee houses and gift shops. There are even a few art galleries and several antique stores. I feel a little bit guilty and un-politically correct for saying it, but I’m back in the tax bracket where I feel most comfortable and safe. It immediately felt like home, the very first time that we drove through Nyack – its quaint little shops remind us of Ann Arbor and Birmingham, which are two of my favorite places to hang out near my parents’ home in Michigan.

Beyond just the picturesque and charming setting, though, Nyack makes me happy because it is the kind of community that makes me comfortable – and even glow with pleasure. You can tell that they have the kind of neighborly attitude that we missed when we left the Midwest – in fact, they’re a little more neighborly than the residents of suburban Detroit. Nyack seems like Avonlea – like I could walk down the road and find Green Gables or the White Sands Hotel. All throughout the summer, the merchants put on street fairs featuring dozens of out-of-town art vendors. There’s a weekly Farmer’s Market that they set up in the parking lot of the bank. My husband and I haven’t become a part of the community yet – we’ve been too busy getting settled with our jobs to go out and meet people – but I love to watch as the residents put on events, invite people in to their beloved little river town, and take care of those who are a part of their community.

For example, we’ve stumbled across a couple of events in town designed to raise money for cancer survivors and local children with hefty medical bills. It was last fall when we first saw the community coming together like this – we were out for a walk in the evening and saw a procession of tiny flickering lights that began at the riverside playground and wound up the hill toward town. We asked what the rally and parade were for and learned that the event was in support of local residents battling cancer, survivors and their families. The candles were in memorial of those who had lost their fight against the disease, and you could purchase your own to help raise money for those who are still fighting.

Then today, we were out on a walk in the unseasonably warm March weather, when we came across dozens of people emerging from the park wearing beach towels. Yes, beach towels. I did a double-take, then insisted that my husband and I make a detour to explore what was going on. Down by the Hudson River, we found residents of our new home town decked out in everything from Speedos and bikinis to full scuba gear (no joke). There was a bandstand set up and several tents with refreshments – and everyone was standing around drip, drip, dripping. It turns out that this was the local Penguin Plunge, a dip in the river organized to raise money for two local children with serious medical conditions and not enough money to pay the bills.

I love that there were people of all ages jumping into the river today, just blocks from my apartment – there were even three little boys dressed in Batman raincoats and hats who looked as though they might have made the plunge in their superhero attire. And I LOVE that the residents of my new home are stepping up to raise money for other families. When we lived in the suburbs of D.C., we were surrounded by people who couldn’t make ends meet – but from what I could tell, their typical reaction was to smoke more weed (which we could smell drifting from one apartment to the next, and into our kitchen, where I had to constantly keep a Febreeze candle burning). I’m sure that there were plenty of hardworking people who lived in our apartment complex, but they kept to themselves – they were probably intimidated by all the car thieves and arsonists, too.

Here in Nyack, I almost feel like I’m back in the Midwest again – and it’s a welcome change from the East Coast mentality that we experienced (although not from everyone) in D.C. As we walked through the crowds of dripping teens and adults down at Memorial Park today, I found myself wishing that we knew someone there, someone to that would call out a hello and welcome us into a circle of bystanders. Someone who would offer me a cup of coffee and would try to convince me to participate in the Plunge next year. I found myself feeling a little bit more willing to go out and meet people soon. Maybe I need to take a plunge of my own.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...