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Archive for the tag “personal essays”

30×30: Lesson 25: The world is big, and life is long

From the airplane, 2014

Leaving Pennsylvania, 2014

Every time I climb into a plane to leave Europe, I’m filled not with regret but with longing. I was abroad last summer for seven weeks, but I did not manage to see my friend Abdel in Metz nor my former roommate Tobias who just had a baby. I had tried to go to Morocco to see my friend Jen but didn’t make it — too expensive, not enough time. I’ve never seen Rome, never been to Spain, never made it to Berlin. I just backed out on an opportunity to hike Mt. Kilimanjaro (again, finances, time) despite my extremely strong belief in the importance of spending time in a place that’s neither Western nor developed.

When I first began to travel, I was told, “Life is short. Go now, or else you never will.” On some level, this is true. Traveling is aided by the certain freedom that comes from not having a mortgage or a typical job, by the open mentality that is most often cultivated when the soil of your day is never packed and firm. One never knows, either, at what point his access to travel will close, or if/when his body will fail.

But as I kissed my teary-eyed host mom goodbye in Nantes, when I think about the book that I want to write, when I imagine owning a piano in a house in which I live for more than two weeks at a time, I have to believe that life is also long. This is not an excuse to endlessly defer dreams but simply to admit that no one can have it all — at least, not at the same time.

Believing that life is long requires a different type of openness than does taking the plunge. A belief that life is long is a subdued pressing-back against time, a stubborn belief that many things remain possible if you don’t stand in your own way, a gracious placement of faith beyond yourself.

Believing that life is long is a patient bravery that discerns between which choices are not in your power — as well as which choices are.

Find an introduction on this series here.  Dig into other life lessons here.

30×30: Lesson 23: Just go back to France


Paris, 2014

Paris, 2014

It was 2008. I was a college graduate with a degree in creative writing who had just gotten back from my second extended period of time living in France — this time, spent teaching English to high school students. For the hundredth time I had taken back up the apron at Kathy’s Deli in Shippensburg, PA, where I was charged in particular with delivering food and staffing events at the local Volvo Construction Equipment plant.

This afternoon in particular, I was manning a daylong series of meetings that involved me keeping assorted cookies and canned sodas stocked from a tiny in-house kitchenette. I had brought a French novel to read in the moments when I wasn’t fanning out stacks of navy blue cocktail napkins. And I was sitting on top of an overturned milk crate, knees to my chin, whenever my friend Conrad Jackson appeared.

I don’t remember what we talked about. He most likely asked me, as a fair amount of people did, why I was back here, meaning in Shippensburg, working three minutes from where I grew up. (It was a question I hated; I was in Shippensburg because I wanted to be.) I would have answered with some bitterness — half because of his question, half because I didn’t have an idea about where I wanted my life to go — that I didn’t have anywhere else to be yet. I believe he then questioned whether or not I wanted to go back to France, and I sighed with deep, romantic sighs, and told him that it was impossible because I had obligations and life and family and college loans and a cat who would miss me.

And Conrad looked at me with a very funny gaze and said, “Just go back to France. Stop standing here and telling me all the reasons why you can’t.”

I opened my mouth and shut it. I firmly believed (and still do) in the validity of my family and college loans and cat. But I heard him more deeply than I knew at the time: sometimes the only thing standing between you and your life is you.


Sometimes choices don’t exist. Sometimes decisions are made for us — sometimes made long before us — and we have no option but to follow them. Sometimes we lack power and possibility for multiple reasons — money, situation, time. However, I am pretty sure that many of us have more power than we think.

I have never been one to say “I can’t,” but I have certainly believed myself to be incapable. I may want something deeply, but I am not always able to see a pathway. For the best of us, a solid life is hedged up by an enormous amount of structures — family expectations, financial constraints, solid logic, personal obligations, logic, conflicting dreams, the desire to not hurt feelings, and fear of speaking up — but most of these structures can bend if we are willing to lean into them.

The phrase “why not?” does not just convey careless indifference; it is a legitimate question that I sometimes have a good answer to and often don’t, a question that Jon Hoey asks me often. Why not spend extra on a good meal for the two of us? Why not take an extra day explaining that concept to my French 2 students, even though the syllabus doesn’t say so? Why not be honest when I actually don’t have time to do what people have asked me to do?

What really is standing between me and the rest of my life — even if it’s only my attitude — that is causing me to believe that the possible is impossible?

Find an introduction on this series here.  Dig into other life lessons here.

30×30: Lesson 7: Hiking your own hike

I maybe kind of don’t actually really like hiking, and I’ve tried to figure this out for awhile. Never mind the fact that I did a two-week backpacking trek with Lynn Palermo in northern France, hiked up Exit Glacier in Alaska, danced once across the Andes, and bagged two Adirondack High Peaks; there’s something about hiking that is really intimidating.

Maybe it’s because my beauty of a sister, Andrea Grove-Musselman, can hike twice as fast as I can, as a former dancer with two bad knees. Maybe it’s because mountains are just…so high. Maybe it’s because I’ve always had problems beginning projects if I’ve already seen the peak, how far I need to go — I find it easier to brush up against the details and familiarize myself with the water temperature before committing to a plunge.

A reoccurring theme of this blog — especially this series of lessons — is that I’m often very scared.

Hiking with one of my best friends, Katrina Charysyn, has always proved as awesome as it is eye-opening. With Katrina, I’ve stood amid the fog of Harding Ice Field near Seward, Alaska; summitted Mt. Marcy in upstate New York in a single 14-hour day; and hiked the Appalachian Trail in New Hampshire as the valleys beneath us burst into rainbows. (Oh, geez, I just remembered that, on a whim, Katrina and I hiked up the back of a cliff near Fontaine-de-Vaucluse, France, in 2003. This is how we met. What a beginning.)

As an experienced hiker, Katrina is beautifully prepared for my inexperience — she approves my hiking snacks (when she doesn’t pack them), my warm layers (when she doesn’t lend me them), and confirms when I should drink water. But when we hike together, I often find myself apologizing — for my pace, when I’m winded, when I need to chocolate, when I need to pee. Finally, one summer, Katrina shrugged.

“You know, just hike your own hike.”

Implied in her words was a world of questions. Why was I assuming I was falling short? Whose standards were I measuring myself by? If I hiked even slower than I was currently moving, what worth did I risk losing?

Hike your own hike. Run your own race. Live your own life. The scariest lesson of my twenties was acknowledging that the only path I have to follow is the trail that I blaze. But on the days that I can see this, the result is more beautiful than a view from a mountaintop, more satisfying than a climb, and more honest than the silence of snow, falling softly over an Alaskan field of ice.

Find an introduction on this series here.  Dig into other life lessons here.

Fontaine-de-Vaulcuse, 2003

Fontaine-de-Vaulcuse, 2003

30×30: Lesson 4: Living for today

Rosalinda is my favorite part of living in Oakland, Pittsburgh. Her English is too thick for me to have figured out when she arrived from Italy or why, but she’s the grandmother that I never thought I needed.

Friendship came first in three large tomatoes, handed off the back porch on my way to class. Then, it was a fistful of basil, a freezer bag of spaghetti sauce. “Do you like jam?” I’d say. “Peaches?” And I’d scamper back to my apartment with a can of strawberry preserves I’d made myself or some apple butter, and the two of us would go happily on with our day.

When I’m sick of schoolwork, Rosalinda calls me “sweethear” and calls me up to her porch to sit while she tells me about milking cows in Italy, making Christmas cookies, her aching lower back, her son’s blind dog who “shit all over the place when he visit.” I mostly listen, half because Rosalinda talks better than she listens but half because her stories are fascinating. From spring to fall, Rosalinda tends tomatoes on her porch and waves at the neighbors as the sun deepens the creases around her bright eyes, and from spring to fall, I look for her out my bedroom window and wonder what it’s like to live clustered amid Oakland’s college students, so together and so alone.

She loves when my boyfriend Jon visits (“he wonderful guy”), but one day, she only nodded when I mentioned that I was driving to Harrisburg that weekend.

“Good for you,” she said. “Have fun wit him, okay?”

“I’m sure we will,” I answered.

“You know,” Rosalinda said slowly. “My husband and I, we always say, ‘We want to do this, we want to do that,’ and then we say, ‘No, no, we need to save money, for the college, for the bills.’ And you know wha? Now the money is in the bank, my husband is gone, and Rosa sittin on the porch.”

Find an introduction on this series here.  Dig into other life lessons here.

30×30: Lesson 2: Strategies for teaching

As an elementary school student, I was a control mechanism, a pawn.

It didn’t take teachers long to realize that I was both too passive to misbehave and too polite to mention my boredom, so when students were placed in pairs, I was always set within elbow length of That Kid: the runny-nosed girl with no friends, the too-tough-for-fifth-grade bully, the under-understood student who smelled enough like body odor to send the majority of my peers away gagging. I, who didn’t have the type of vocabulary to express that kind of stuff, was to make the students understand her math homework.

“I kind of like it,” I confessed to my mom. “I figured out what she thought was confusing and then we cleared it up.”

I had been complaining about not being allowed to sit with Jolene Hockenberry so we could chat about the Baby Sitters’ Club books, but my mom’s eyes brightened over my after-school snack of toast with butter and cinnamon.

“That’s all that teaching is,” she said — a teacher herself. “You go from the known to the unknown.”

Years later, long after I had disregarded education as a career possibility only to unearth it again, I would sit in university-level teaching courses to hear terms like scaffolding — the process of breaking down information for students into chunks that build on one another — and be lectured on the importance of knowing your audience. And I’d call my mom after class to thank her — not just for teaching but also for modeling how drastically simple it can be to educate others: you know, you speak, and you listen.

Find an introduction on this series here.  Dig into other life lessons here.

30×30: An Introduction

I don’t know when I started telling people that life gets better after you turn twenty-five.

At least for me, this much was true: the onset of my first steady job brought a sense of purpose and vision, time during which to travel, and a cat (which, along with a piano, are my two requirements for being an adult). With my steady partner by my side, I was increasingly less troubled by the parts of life that I didn’t understand and increasingly more challenged by the opportunities that came with that confusion. Life did not get easier; instead, it deepened, became more rich, and blossomed more full.

On October 12, 2014, I turn 30, and I’m dedicating the month before this event — at the risk of being a bit too self-indulgent — to reflect on the people and lessons who have touched me most completely over this time. This set of blog posts, “Thirty by Thirty,” will categorize the thoughts, impressions, and perceptions that have changed me, bit by bit, into the person I am today.

To every reader: I love you all.

First grade, 1991

First Grade Halloween Parade (Fall 1991)

Roaring with the river

“A river is a metaphor for life,” my friend Ida announced staunchly.

I grasped my paddle a little tighter and turned to look at her across the bright red raft on which we sat with three friends. All five of us were part of a rafting trip down the Youghiogheny River in Ohiopyle, PA, and were currently drifting in a moment of calm. In the absence of the sound of crashing water, Ida’s voice was so loud it nearly echoed.

“In life,” Ida continued, glaring at a jagged rock and cutting her paddle past it, “there are many obstacles. Obstacles that you sometimes have to work around. In life — ”

She paused. A few golden fall leaves scattered into the water from the riverbank.

“Oh, forget it,” Ida said. “Take it back. I’ll stop.”

Too tired to answer, I turned back to the helm and dug my paddle in.


I had not quite known what I was getting into when I signed up for a rafting trip with Wilderness Voyageurs and four friends. What I do know is that I am apparently interested enough in tubing for it to cloud both my judgement and my mind. When the suggestion had been raised in late September to go rafting on October 5, I blissfully decided that “tubing” was another word for “rafting” because both included rubber things and a river, and that “rafting” wasn’t dangerous unless the words “white water” were spoken in haughty tones in front of it.

I was wrong. After asking my group how splashy our jaunt would be, we arrived in Ohiopyle, I was handed a helmet, we were lead through training, and a group of 50 of us were walked to a river that included 7.5 miles of class II-IV intermediate white-water rapids.

I didn’t expect a trip that was the equivalent of Hersheypark’s Canyon River Rapids but without the park. I didn’t expect that I’d sit at the helm of our raft and yell, “In! In!” to keep my group’s paddle strokes in unison while guides stood from rocks and yelled, “All left! Leftleftleft! Everybody in, everybody IN!” to help us maneuver the current. And I definitely did not expect, after hitting Swimmer’s Rapids about 2.5 hours in, that my group would be careening toward another rock-lodged raft, that we would valiantly try to avoid them by flipping ourselves, and that a powerful claw of water would whisk me backwards downstream away from the others, choking and gasping amid the spray of white foam and roaring froth.

I should say that, when rafting, being washed downstream is not abnormal. Over the course of our trip, many groups spilled a passenger or even more. I was actually — dare I say — fairly safe, for as my body tossed through the rapids, I was wearing a heavily-padded life vest and knew to keep my feet up to avoid getting lodged between hidden rocks.

However, never have I felt as helpless as I did when the solidness of my raft gave way to a cold plunge, when the sound of my own splash was lost amid the roar of the rapids, when I was thrown toward rocks only to be currented around them with the leaves that had fallen on the river’s edge. And when my body finally slowed into a pool of calmer water where other rafters had paused for further instruction, hands and paddle edges extended just beyond my reach until two women grasped the straps of my life vest and heaved me, dead-fish like, onto the red rubber of their raft floor.

This river is a metaphor for life.

Last year around this time, I wrote about the complexity of making decisions and what I learned when choosing to plunge; however, rafting was a new experience. When skydiving, the only thing I had to do was chose to fall, and that one decision was hard enough. However, rafting required a series of decisions — maneuvering, directions, strokes — and was dependent not just on me but on my friends and the thick glossy power of the water.

When paddling through the rapids, I gritted my teeth and stared hard in the foam, trying, unsuccessfully, to maintain my focus as if that control would also control my fear. I called out commands to my raft mates and yelled, “We’ve got this next drop!” before we’d reached it, for if I said it out loud it would have to come true. I know that I can be powerful within crises, but what I did not know that I would lose that power when each rock was another unknown, and that once my body was thrown downstream with a force greater than anything I’ve ever felt, I would not remember how to breathe.

But the water pooled into calm, and I was pulled out by strangers’ hands. And when my own raft reappeared in the distance paddled by two of my four soaked and shaken teammates, we climbed back in, nodded to one another, and picked up our paddles. There were miles still to go.

Wilderness Voyageurs, Ohiopyle, PA, October 2013

Wilderness Voyageurs, Ohiopyle, PA, October 2013

An introvert’s guide to settling in

When I was younger, I was unable attend anything that included an overnight stay without major bouts of tears and anxiety. In comparison to the familiarity of home, I never found summer camp exciting, wasn’t particularly interested in sleeping over at friends’ homes, and for the most part abstained from dabbling in anything unfamiliar, well into college. Even now, most trips I take away from home are considerably draining. I’m excellent at planning new visits and then finding myself extremely annoyed by them in the moment when I realize that I’ve put myself, yet again, in the place where I am most uncomfortable — somewhere new.

I just completed a month at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, where I lived in a dorm and studied French culture and gastronomy with 17 other students from across the country. When I arrived to Dartmouth in mid-June and said my first hello to the stranger across the hallway, I was surprised to realize that it’s been eight years since my study abroad experience in Avignon, France, during which I first spent four terrified and enriching months away from my comfort zone.

When our Dartmouth group parted tearfully on Tuesday, I was equally surprised to note that, since Avignon, I’ve learned a thing or two about finding home in a new space.

1) Explore your surroundings. When I arrived in France in 2007 for eight months of teaching, the first thing that I forced myself to do was to go for a long walk around my new town. During the process, I located the grocery store, the train station, and a bakery — and discovered that the quickest way to get comfortable in a new area is to understand where you are. Go for walks. Deliberately get lost. Usually, your first days in a new place grace you with more free time than you’re used to, and use this to your advantage.

2) Be deliberate in conversations. Familiarity and a sense of home do not grow only out of objects and areas; most authentically it blossoms from people. Invest in everyone around you, including the neighbors, the garbage man, the daily dog walker. Ask people questions about themselves (polite ones, of course) — about their job, their life, and your surroundings. For me, this meant that in Talange, the chocolatier was the first person to welcome me back from a Christmas trip to the US; in Pittsburgh, the first stranger who knew my name in town was my barista. These people may not become friends whose shoulder you cry on, but these people can become the framework of your new home.

3) Volunteer. For anything. I find that the most tiring part of travel is the constant need to make small talk, so when words fail, I offer actions. Give rides to the grocery store to people who need them. Hold the door open for those behind you. Swing a hammer. Be sincere. People remember. After all, actions speak louder than words.

4) Find the small things that make you comfortable. Over the years, I’ve developed a list of tried-and-true new-place items: a water bottle, granola bars, my journal, earplugs (for nap-taking near unexpected noises), Jolly Ranchers (for flights), flip flops (for communal showers), and instantly finding a good café in which I can unwind. Knowing these details about yourself allows you to better present yourself to the people who will eventually become your friends — the people who will eventually transform newness into warm familiarity.

On countrysides and coming home

You’re a young adult (whatever age that means), and you’ve been told to “get out there.” See the world. Experience new things, and become a better person because of it.

I absolutely agree with this philosophy, for it was definitely applicable to me. Before going to college, I had only met a handful of people who had been born outside the U.S. I had never seen a bagel or eaten granola, and I laughed awkwardly at jokes that contained pop culture references I’d never heard of. Before studying in France, a glass of wine in my hand was evil, not a sign of sharing; before visiting my family in the Netherlands, I laughed at adults who rode their bike to work instead of driving a car. (Bike rides were for kids. Real adults owned four wheels.) In the decade since I’ve left my hometown, I have learned to ask questions about other people’s beliefs instead of recoiling in disgust when our opinions don’t match. I learned that humanity is more beautiful than I had thought. I learned that I have a place when I create one, and yes, that I am capable of drinking espresso, using chopsticks, and driving aggressively in heavy traffic, as I had once thought growing up should entail.

But there is another side to this story. On May 2, NPR interviewed comedian Jim Gaffigan about raising five kids in Manhattan. Of city-dwellers, he said, “They’re well-adjusted. They’re not freaked out by two men holding hands. They’re not freaked out by socio- or economic or cultural differences, and that’s, I think, an important gift to give children.” Gaffigan’s point jives with me, whose process of “growing up” and “getting out there” entailed directing my footsteps toward cities of various sizes. Cities expose you to others’ differences, whether you find them at the laundromat or sitting next to a stranger on a bus; cities present you with an array of experiences from the Peruvian restaurant down the street to the political rally of a cause you’ve never heard of. For me, cities around the world have succeeded in giving me the chance to broaden myself, to expect change, and to be unafraid of other people. Like Gaffigan, I’ve viewed living in cities to be a gift.

However, what Gaffigan is missing is an acknowledgement of the countryside and the importance of coming home.

Cities are not the only place in this world that have something to offer. Having come from a family farm in Shippensburg, PA, I assert that there’s something to be said about being “well-adjusted” to the depth of a truly black night sky. It’s extremely important to me to not be “freaked out” by spiders, of the smell of sweat, and the satisfaction of heavy labor. Exposure to others’ differences is a gift, but so is the ability to wave at your neighbors (I do this in Harrisburg, whether I know them or not), to run through cornfields, and to be embraced by the absolute sense of knowing where you’ve come from. For me, the countryside is an anchor to where I’m going, and this gift is not at all less than teaching children to not be startled by the sight of the homeless or of a hijab worn in a grocery store. The countryside, like the gift of a city, is a tool that must be used wisely.

Many of my friends, like me, have grown up in small towns, and have found ourselves at any given moment traveling or living across the state, across the country, or across the globe. Many twentysomethings have responded to the call of “getting out there,” whether to a city or not, and we’ve looked at our fresh perspectives and new stories with a certain sense of satisfaction. However, after these weeks, or months, or years away, there’s a point in time where many of us, with some awkwardness, find that we are back in the same town or state in which we started, and find this return viewed (by ourselves, if not others) as a backslide, a giving-in, a choice we are supposed to defend.

If I could change the call to our young people, I would first explain that it is important to get out of one’s comfort zone and to see other places. For those of us born among mountains and rolling fields, it may be important to spend some time in bigger places, but for many others, leaving comfort zones can mean camping for a weekend without showers, or learning to respect that truck-driving neighbor who never finished high school.

But after this experience, I’d explain to our young people that it’s okay to return home — with new perspectives, new distance, and new understanding. Returning home, if only temporarily — to re-find the place where your heart was, to where familiarity upholds, to where your new point of views can really make an impact — is just as much of a gift as being able to leave it.

Picking walnuts, 2008

Picking walnuts, 2008

Counting down

When ringing in 2013, I began counting down way too early. I was standing amid the crowd at a friend’s house in Baltimore and began belting out numbers once the clock read 11:59 PM and 45 seconds, but no one joined me until I hit the number 10 and we were all taken over by that familiar breathless and senseless excitement, the feeling of fresh optimism, a new year, and new possibilities. But this year, with each number that I called out, the dread mounted in me in second-deep intervals, thudding like a heartbeat. When midnight struck, I clicked my glass and kissed my boyfriend, but when someone began singing Auld Lang Syne, I was surprised to find that I was crying.

Usually, I like New Year’s. My philosophy on life since 2009 or so is that it just keeps getting better, that age equates to possibility, that choosing to take the plunge, however small, will be infinitely rewarded. On Christmas Eve of this year, I walked home from a party down snow-softened streets with my gloved hand tucked in the crook of my boyfriend’s arm — remembering how I had done the same walk from the same party with the same friends just 365 days before — and thinking about how violently a life bookended by two years can change. Each year of my life for the past handful has deepened with meaning. I’ve been surprised by people, inspired by people, upheld by people. The world holds so much to see. And there is so much to learn. Inchallah, 2013 will be no different.

But on January 21, 2012, my roommate Dan left for Philadelphia on the snow-covered turnpike and never returned home. He was in the hospital when I interviewed for entry at the University of Pittsburgh, and he died two days before I got the email stating that I was recommended for acceptance. I do not remember the winter of 2012 very well except for the time when I finally stopped thinking about Dan every hour of every day, by the time I had cleaned out his toothbrush and shaving cream from my bathroom, that I was living a whole month behind the rest of the world, writing the wrong date on my classroom whiteboard and missing deadlines for the Patriot-News with clockwork regularity.

I am not the first to have lost a friend, and lost him suddenly. I realize this. I suppose I did not expect that I could approach this January without feeling something deeply, for if I could, it would dishonor the person I found him to be when he lived and falsify the friendship that we had. I do not know what hurts the most, the notion that we lost him, or the notion that I can see The Hobbit in theaters and he can’t, that the restaurant he critiqued on Second Street just went out of business and that he won’t know, or the fact that the 2013 Pennsylvania Farm Show is opening tonight with their half and half milkshakes that he once brought home to me.

Last February, I was looking around me, trying to find Dan in the wind, but this year, as I counted down to 2013, I was looking around me, wondering if someone I know will die. Perhaps this reaction is a defense mechanism, a way to place death on my daily planner, for if I can anticipate what’s worst in life, perhaps it will not hurt so deeply and for so long.

But what I do not often think about is that I learned both from Dan as well as from the sudden loss of him. When living, Dan showed me — among other things — how to open yourself up to people, to draw in those around you, to create community, to cultivate love. His death only reinforced these lessons. If I could tell Dan that I have learned anything, it would be that I do not know what 2013 will bring, but that I can only face it as he would have, passionately and free and open with my arms ready and waiting and wide.

January 2012

January 2012

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