This website first came about in 1996, when the World Wide Web (yes, we called it that) was as wide-open and empty as the American West. Fresh out of Vassar with a degree in English and a middling aptitude for computers, I stumbled on a job for a website that forced me to learn HTML. Back then, all you needed to create a website was a text editor, some server space, and FTP software. If you were feeling really fancy, you got Photoshop and threw up some images too. I’d grown discouraged trying to break into more traditional print publishing, so posting my own writing on my own website seemed a great way to circumvent the endless cycle of applications and rejections.
Like most 20-somethings, I had no idea what I was doing. There were a bunch of other 20-somethings out there stealing sharpies and Xeroxes to make ‘zines, but I felt like I belonged to a small, elite group of people with the mix of technical, editorial, and design skills required to make a website.
What we now call blogs we used to call online diaries. No matter what you called them, they were homegrown, barbaric yawps in the wilderness. Traditional media still wasn’t sure that this blogging thing was going to take off (that’s a direct quote from a VP of Public Affairs circa 2008). Continue reading “The Not-So-Glamorous Life of a Working Grad Student”
Pope Francis’s recent visit to the United States raised a lot of complicated feelings for me. On the one hand, I’m glad he walks the walk of his namesake. In the other hand, it’s far too little and far too late; nothing he does or says in his tenure as Pope is likely to repair the damage of my Catholic upbringing. Continue reading “Trigger Warning: Jesus is Lord, Francis is Pope”
It wasn’t my strangest job, but my most memorable and also my first real-paycheck job: ushering for the Palace Theater in Stamford, Connecticut. The pay was crap — some people actually just volunteered in exchange for watching the shows — but its rewards have stayed with me through the decades. I saw Ella Fitzgerald (twice), Chuck Berry, Herbie Hancock, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, George Carlin, and countless plays, operas, ballets, and symphonies. And I didn’t appreciate it a bit. Well — maybe a little bit. God knows I do now.
I remember very little from the years between 1973 and 1980. There’s a simple reason for this, but one that omits a large part of the story. In the years between my birth and our unintentional immigration to the East Coast, I was busy learning how to eat, how to walk, how to use the bathroom, how to dress myself, and how to talk. I was learning about the world that surrounded me, and about my place in it. I was learning what kind of a person I was, and what kind of people had brought me into this world.
In the first decade of the 20th century — a decade variously referred to as the ’00s, the naughts, the oughts, the aughties, and the naughties — the big buzzword in psychological circles was resilience. Resilience was the word used over and over again in the days following the Boston Marathon Bombing of 2013. It’s a word that contains within it a kind of boundless optimism often lacking in the discussion of trauma, PTSD, and recovery from same.
This is the sort of memoir piece I aspire to write. It’s also a wonderful reminder of a few of the advantages I took for granted growing up. Compassion grows from an understanding that we are more alike than we are different.
I was 20 or 21. He couldn’t have been more than a few years older. I can’t remember his name. Once a week, we would meet at the Trenton soup kitchen. I was volunteering. He was forced to be there. One of the conditions of his probation was that he would work toward his GED. We had a long way to go. He didn’t know how to read.
I had heard of people who went through life not knowing how to read, but the concept was completely foreign to me. I struggled with reading in 1st and 2nd grade. They even held me back a year. But I had a great teacher the second time I was in 2nd grade. I had an incredible mom who worked with me at home and read with me every night. And I loved books. I loved books so much I…
The guys who called to request “November Rain” by Guns & Roses after a day installing sheet rock.
The DJ on 100.7 who played it during a particularly hellish commute home this evening — through cold November rain, early November dark, and crosstown Boston rush hour traffic.
The excellent speakers in my car so I could blast Slash’s solo in the last two minutes of the song.
The peculiarly layered sensation of hearing the song in my car now, the memory of the first time I saw the music video on MTV, and reliving in an instant the twenty-plus years between the release of Appetite for Destruction, their brief stardom, their decline into obscurity, and their return as retro metal stars. The whole concept of retro metal still boggles my mind. Those years in the late 80s when hair metal ruled seem preserved in amber, out of time.
I will never have to live through the winter of 1989 again.
“of switch vertu engender’d is the fleur” is one of the opening lines of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Even though I haven’t read Chaucer in years, I hold his work — and the Canterbury Tales in particular — very close to my heart, in part because it was probably some of the first college-level literature I ever read. In high school, AP English was famous for a few reasons. For an aspiring writer like me, it
represented the apex of academic achievement in high school. But it was also notorious because of the woman who taught it: Dr. White. No one got to be head of my high school’s English department without earning a PhD, and the head of the English Department was usually the only Doctor in the building. Dr. White was a towering inferno of a woman, lumpy, swarthy, with a mass of greying black hair spilling down over her bona fide hunchback.
My brother and his friends told stories about her, imitating her screeching voice and her derisive comments. I was entranced. I wanted to be her — I wanted to have a doctorate in English, head up the
English department of a fairly well funded public high school, and I wanted to teach other people about Chaucer. I wanted to bathe in poetry all day.
Perhaps it’s for the best that I didn’t get my wish. It might be sour grapes, but looking back over the course of my life and talking with other poets has helped me realize something I didn’t get when I was 17: that poetry is a rare, intense, sweet thing, like chocolate. And like chocolate, I find it best served in moderation.
I don’t remember exactly how Lammie appeared anymore, but he probably came in one of the boxes Grandma Donovan would send every few months. Usually, these packages were stuffed with gorgeous clothes two sizes too small for me. But Lammie wasn’t too small at all. He was huge — almost too big for an eight-year-old girl to put her arms around. He must have come in the spring, along with the swiss-dotted Easter dress that I couldn’t zip up and the Easter card with the flowery script and the lilies embossed with gold. He was a rather minimalistic interpretation of a sheep: a rectangular puff of cream-colored fleece with four black stubs for legs and a black snout poking out between two fleecy white ears.
The best thing about him was his bell, a real honest-to-goodness sheep’s bell tied around his neck with a thick ribbon. For months and months that was Lammie’s voice, a ding-ding-ding every time I sent him into the slightest motion. I carried him around in my arms, comforted by the full, round way he filled my embrace. On bright Saturday afternoons the entire family would retreat to beds and couches and immerse ourselves in books. I leaned on him like a pillow, until his great round flanks flattened from the weight of my head.
At night he kept watch at the foot of my bed, a-ding-ding-ding-ing with my every toss and turn. The sound of Lammie’s bell drove my mother’s boyfriend to distraction, kept him awake far into the night. He asked if there were a way I could muffle it, but the mere thought seemed like sacrilege to me. Lammie’s bell was Lammie’s voice, and hearing his gentle ding-ding-dings as I turned under the covers made me feel safe and protected. One day I came home to find Lammie’s bell missing from his neck. I discovered it under a pillow, reattached it with its length of now-ragged ribbon. Eventually his bell disappeared entirely. But I still have him, 30 years later, still pull him into an embrace beneath the covers, and still hear in my mind the distant ding-ding-ding of his voice lulling me to sleep.
“Try my Jesus,” she said. “My Jesus is your Jesus.”
She had the warm, rounded curves of a mature Jamaican woman. She wore white — white tunic, white pants, a white head wrap. Her name was Mother Lil.
When I arrived at the store, the woman at the counter gave me a slim, hardcover book bound in green. “Have her read Psalm 23,” I heard Mother Lil tell the woman.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want
I’d been raised on Bible verses. The Franciscans sang the entire mass, in a chapel suffused with Sunday morning sunshine. But what I remembered was Paul’s Letters to the Corinthians. What I remembered was the dingy gray Cathedral where a fat Archbishop in a gaudy dress rubbed oil on my forehead and told me to go forth and be a soldier of the Lord.