The Pen, Mightier

- | 37

In grade school it is not uncommon for an English teacher, attempting to instill an appreciation for the glories of description, to say, “Get out a pen and paper and describe what I have placed here without naming it.” For example, a banana, a poster of a Cézanne forest, a Bunsen burner.

To honor bygone writing exercises, I offer the following:

It is about three and a half inches long and mostly black. It has a cap that, when removed, reveals a small silver point, out of the end of which comes black ink. There is a window of clear plastic on the body of the object through which you can monitor how quickly said ink disappears. The general shape is cylindrical. Its diameter is less than one centimeter and fits nicely between the fingers of a woman who is 5’4” tall with slightly oversized hands for her height. The decorative elements are minimal, but there are some advertorial ones. These read: “Pilot. Precise V5. Rolling Ball. Extra Fine.”

Pens are often considered a fetish item of neurotics with disposable income, but a Mont Blanc sensibility is not my point. Despite being reliably cash-poor, writer-types are often as particular about their pens as they are about their fonts. (When Helvetica—the trend, the font, the film, the MoMA exhibition—was the rage, Slate published a piece asking writers about their favorite fonts and those queried had cultivated preferences at the ready; Courier, mostly, since those writers who may not fetishize the pen fetishize the typewriter instead.) We care about what our words look like because we somewhere believe that this says something about who we are beyond font or scrawl. We think we can detect gender and personality, childhood traumas, future ambitions deep-seated hang-ups, sophistication and intelligence from the way a person’s hand puts ink to paper. “Real typeface is rhythm; it’s contrast; it comes from handwriting,” says Erik Speikermann in Helvetica, the film. “Poets don’t draw,” Jean Cocteau said. “They unravel their handwriting and then tie it up again, but differently.”

The starting point of handwriting is no doubt neurological, but pens have been, historically speaking, what has gotten us from capital letter to full stop. Hence, the fabled image of writer bent over desk, pen to paper, deep thoughts flowing like wine down the esophagus. The pen’s place in a writer’s self-image is somewhat sacred. For better or worse, I don’t think it’s an overstatement to venture that some are as likely to pony up for pens as for health insurance.

The Pilot Precise V5 with an extra fine rolling ball and black ink is my pen. I grew up with it. My handwriting developed with it. With it, I perfected the signature that appears on the title page of the book I have written in my daydreams and anxiety-induced nightmares. Friends have tried to convert me with pens that have finer points or a perhaps less prosaic shape, ones that are reusable and more earth friendly, or that can survive a change of cabin pressure when flying. Yet I remain firm in my attachment.

I enjoy the simplicity of the Pilot’s shape and decoration. The angles are right angles and the color palette is basic: black and white with a subtle grey belt. Uncapping it to begin writing, the separation of the two pieces of plastic makes a satisfying snap. The pen is smooth, firm, and room temperature between my fore and middle fingers, which are just far enough apart from one another thanks to the heft of it, to feel as though they are not hanging on to just themselves, but to something real. My handwriting arrives in tall, loose, right-leaning lines (everything, ironically, I am not in person, either physically or politically) and the ink takes up residence on the page as if it belonged there, not as if it had been pressed there against its will, as with ballpoints.

Like my preferred working font (Garamond) I imagine that, to others, my pen preference indicates some unflattering personal traits. Pretentiousness, perhaps. Or boringness. Or rigidity. Or snobbishness. I, of course, prefer to believe it is evidence of more flattering qualities. An appreciation of simplicity, for example. Or elegance. Or understatement.

There’s no small amount of vanity wrapped up in handwriting. We place value on the handwritten word even as it dissolves. The old-fashioned letter is now a novelty item that seems romantic, cool, twee, or pointless, depending on your perspective. We look at the inscriptions of secondhand books and at the notes in their margins, wondering why some person who owned the book before us circled the words, “Made love” twice and wrote “light-skinned boy” in the margins. If you’ve ever made a foray into the land of special collections, you know what it means to hold the correspondence of Joe Hill and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn as Hill sat in prison, waiting around to die. You think those letters would feel different if they were typed. You think the intimacy would be lost, not just between Hill and Flynn, but among the three of you and across the years. You think of Edith Wharton writing in bed and tossing the pages of her manuscripts to the floor as she finished them for a maid to collect and order. You think of Lish’s marks through Carver’s stories.

Handwriting isn’t business. It’s personal and it’s a fact: Penmanship is dying. Those schoolbooks filled with your grandmother’s tidy, feminine script resemble terrariums nursing strange and delicate plants. One day will they be more akin to drawers lined with lost insects pinned to linen and labeled alphabetically by their Latin names?

Although its gradual disappearance is a possibility and one we must consider as a time becomes foreseeable when formal thank you notes and credit card receipts are rendered obsolete, we still notice the handwritten word, value it and judge it. I’m no different and won’t lie. If I like your handwriting, I like you better. If I don’t, there is a small part of me who likes you less. For example, I do not like handwriting in odd colors or with a disregard for lines, the hard geometry of the alphabet. This I would have known about you promptly when I was fifteen, whereas now it might take months, even years, to learn. Either way, I cannot name a close friend who commits either sin. This may make me old-fashioned. It may also make me peculiar or obnoxious or a jerk. It may also make me like you.

I was not paid to write this by Pilot Corporate: I come by my enthusiasm honestly, from having picked up other, lesser pens, put them down and left them there. As usual, there was no shortage of experiments on the road to discovery. Pens were everywhere growing up. They were by the telephone and bedside tables. They were on my parents’ desks, as well as on my own and my sister’s. Pens were in my father’s pockets, my mother’s purse, my sister’s hair, at the bottom of my backpack. They were left on the floor and chewed by the dog and they were put away uncapped to leave a stain on the left breast. We are a family of bleeding hearts and I distinctly remember those hearts bleeding ink. Our pens were picked up and put back again even when tapped out. They were discovered later and complained about to whoever would listen because, “Jesus. Where have all the working pens gone?”

They were everywhere because they were with what we wrote. We wrote thank-you letters and notes to one another about who had called or where we had gone and when we would be back. We wrote copious telephone lists and filled in our address books and calendars. My older sister and I composed homework assignments and diary entries and little stories and poems and drawings of horses and dogs. My parents wrote to-do lists and grocery lists and checks. A surface wasn’t a surface if it didn’t boast a Post-It somewhere with a reminder of something our lives required in order to carry on. “Does anyone have a pen?” was not a relevant question. Everyone had a pen because functionality depended on it.

The heavy fountain pen my father kept hidden in the breast pocket of his blazer was the first of the pens I recall with any specificity. With this, the precise, strong-lined print he was taught in architecture school became heavier and more authoritative than under the spill of ink from less substantial pens. It would appear and disappear on his person as mysteriously as a quarter between a street magician’s thumb and forefinger. Occasionally, I would ask to borrow it for a duel of tic-tac-toe, and he would hand it over eyeing it all along, saying I had a knack for losing things already. Sometimes he would withhold it from me for fun, saying I wasn’t prepared for the kind of responsibilities a pen in hand implied. Lucky for him, I had opinions about pens even then and I didn’t like this one: the ink flow was unpredictable, arriving too quickly one minute and not at all the next. He tried to tell me the trick was in the angle, but I didn’t have patience for eccentric pens; if it required a course in “how to,” I was over it.

My mother kept a variety of brands at her disposal, and it was culling through her collection that my education in the common pen began: Bic, Caliber, Papermate, Uni-Ball, Pentel, and Pilot. I learned the pros and cons of each in turn. Bics encouraged my unfortunate fondness for chewing on cheap plastic and were left mutilated in my wake to likely give me cancer in forty years. Uni-Balls were almost what I was looking for but fell slightly on the wrong side of flimsy. I thought Pentels were just plain ugly and that Calibers looked like they were designed for engineers. Not the look I was going for. Papermates seemed alternately sophomoric and reminiscent of the pen handed to you at the drugstore when you need to charge a late night box of emergency tampons.

The Pilot Precise V5 Extra Fine was The One because those were the ones I was always saddest to lose. Its virtues were revealed over time: it said, “classy but not rich,” the weight was satisfying without being overwhelming, the ink flow was solid without being sloppy, and the plastic did not awaken my oral fixation. By college, it was my pen.

I remember learning to write, Mrs. Ozbey standing over me, forcing my recalcitrant fingers into position around the six sides of a number 2 pencil. I would grasp that rod of wood and graphite so intently that when I released the thing my middle finger would be red and dented and my hand would need to shake it out. We were given large sheets of lined paper, the lines of which were extra wide with a dotted line down the center indicating the boundary above which lower case letters were not supposed to wander.

Cursive was introduced two years later. Master this complicated new art, they said, and it would save us untold time in the future. Print wasted precious seconds; cursive was the way of writing we would take with us into adulthood. Even then the idea seemed dated and by the time I was in sixth grade our teachers had stopped trying to make us write in cursive, trying instead to teach us to type. There was a new physical position we were supposed to learn that had nothing to do with holding something in our hands. Our hands should now live this way and over a keyboard. Use all your fingers on both your hands. Yes, even your pinkies. Don’t look down; look straight ahead. This was when screens were black and words were green and those of us being taught to type didn’t understand what was happening.

It wasn’t until college that I accepted my keyboard, not my hand, as my primary writing tool. Only then and almost without noticing, did I switch out the printed word for the typed one. Except, that is, when the process was creative. Then, I kept the partnership of hand and pen intact. I wrote poems in college and I wrote those poems by hand, crossing out and rewriting, switching out words, finally typing up the stanzas, only to continue writing and revising by hand. That was not a relationship or a process (which is it?) I was ready to upend. As if doing so would be akin to cutting in on Fred Astaire when he’s dancing a waltz with Ginger Rogers, the cameras rolling.

I teach writing to college freshman. One of the first things I tell them as I attempt to instill the virtues of the essay is that “Writing is thinking.” This is not lip service, but something I believe: that the more you write and rewrite, the further you push your ideas on the page, the further you push them in your mind and the more deeply you comprehend and understand your thoughts and feelings about the world and your place in it. My freshmen are more than ten years younger than I am and they write—compose and think—exclusively on their computers. Watching toddlers with iPhones, I suspect it’s the only way they’ve ever really known.

With computers, the physicality of the writing process has largely been eliminated. You think a string of words and they appear in front of you; the relationship of brain to hand to keyboard to screen is almost effortless. So many laments and odes have been written about how the new ways we are reading affect us for better or worse, that I sometimes consider how the ways we write have changed and whether this matters. Even our vocabulary reflects this: we don’t technically write any more, but “word process.” The tap of the keyboard is a white noise nearly as familiar as a breath entering my own body and the feeling of a key succumbing to the pressure of my fingers is almost as natural as a spoken sound. Almost. That said, I don’t wish for the time when I thought of writing in terms of the cramping in my hand and the annoyance of running out of ink at the wrong moment. The vague and constant fear that my computer will crash and I will lose everything is something I am willing to live with if it means I have a tool that allows my body to keep up with my mind.

I’m as reliant now on the machine as the next person. There remains, however, an ineffable peculiarity about that duo of hand and pen that I cannot come between. Or don’t want to. I somehow believe that because it was with a pen between my fingers that I learned to write that this is the way I do that best and always will. Fred and I switch off with Ginger these days. He cuts in, then I cut in on him. I type first drafts, then edit by hand, type in the edits, then edit the edits by hand. Of course, it’s difficult to know whether this is a simple cause and effect relationship, since writing by hand keeps me focused and safe from the internet, or whether there is some connection between my brain and my hand that only a pen can access.

As for the Pilot Precise in particular, maybe my thoughts are indeed more confident and clear when a piece of paper is at the mercy of its point. Maybe, too, it is just my idea of a lucky penny. In this way I keep it in my coat pocket. I fiddle with it there throughout the day, taking the cap on and off, clutching it, feeling it between my fingers, pulling it out sometimes to show it the light of day.

An edited history my family’s handwriting lies packed away in the attic. If I went through the bins long enough I could trace two childhoods via a timeline assembled with marks my sister and I once made on paper. Sometimes I even stumble across evidence of our parents’ early days as living, thinking, writing human beings: a short story in my mother’s small script, a handmade book of dog breeds (illustrated and alphabetized) from my father’s Boy Scout days.

If I ever cobble together a family of my own, we won’t have this history of our handwritten words. I remain uncertain how I feel about that. I know I am prone to fits of nostalgia and rose-tinted glasses, and I know too that this is not a habit to coddle, but rather one to hold, examine, accept as part of myself, but then to move past because to do otherwise would be counterproductive. These days I know enough writers, but I don’t know anyone who composes anything by hand more than a note stuck under a glass that says “Rent’s due!” The image of writer bent over desk with pen and paper has been supplanted by the image of writer at coffee shop with laptop and latte. The alternative seems precious. Now when someone looks up and asks, “Does anyone have a pen?” the answer is not so simple. There is a rush to check pockets and bags and, seven times out of ten, it seems, the answer is, “No, sorry…”

I fall at the tail end of Generation X, on the cusp of Generation Y. As it is with cusps of astrological signs, those of us on this generational cusp exhibit characteristics of both X and Y which can sometimes confuse us as to where we fall in the larger cultural picture. This sense of rose-tinted glasses worn with an awareness of the fashion’s irrelevance is part of this cusp, of relating to both the before and after when it comes to the computer age.

Yet the similarities that those of us who were born in the ’79, ’80, ’81 range share with the Gen Xers sometimes seem more profound. We remember the Challenger explosion and the fall of the Berlin Wall in a way that those born in ’83, ’84, and ’85 do not. We also remember a time when computers were not part and parcel of our lives, the way we thought, wrote, communicated. We are savvy with technology and to most we appear self-assured with it, prone to internet addiction and a knack for communicating more effectively over email than in conversation. But not a few of us, I imagine, are quite as fluent as our friends born just after us. In some ways we were outdated before we hit puberty. For this group of us there remains a lingering sense of “this newfangled thing in this brave new world” that we felt the first time when we were six or eight or ten and staring at the black screen with the green cursor blinking at us, as if into oblivion. Though we’ve spent the rest of our lives trying to prove otherwise, the strangeness of this second language persists even as our accents may remain imperceptible to anyone’s ears but our own.

(Image: In reply to @rockbandit, this is my favorite pen. A Pilot Precise V5 Extra Fine. from brandonpapworth’s photostream; Image 2 courtesy the author.)

The Way We Used to Walk the Dog

- | 16

As had become our Saturday morning summer routine, my friend and I were sitting on the benches outside of our local café nursing iced coffees and watching the neighborhood go by.

“That’s a weird outfit,” Anshu said, nodding in the direction of a man whose printed belt matched his printed shoes, which matched his printed hat.

“Is it just me or are there more lesbians around here than there used to be?” I responded.

“Maybe.” She chewed on her straw. “Remember that time in college when it snowed two feet? I want it to be cold like that now.”

I nodded. We were silent, taking in the traffic and the people coming and going and the small dog that was tied to a signpost and the woman who was having a battle of the wills with her bike lock.

Anshu’s eyes then landed on a girl—about nine or ten—sitting with her mother on the bench beside us, oblivious to everything, her nose in a book.

“She’s reading The Witches,” Anshu said, nudging me and nodding in the child’s direction. “I can see the words ‘Norwegian Witch’ from here.”

I looked over. Sure enough, I could read the large, child-sized font from where I sat as well. I looked again at Anshu, who is not known for her soft side. I could almost reach out with my bare hands and grab hold of her desire to be picked up out of her own body and replaced into that of the girl’s.

“I love Roald Dahl,” Anshu was growing more misty-eyed by the second. “I wonder if her mother gave her the book?”

“I don’t know,” I said noncommittally and eyeing the girl’s mother who, like us moments earlier, seemed preoccupied by the intricacies of traffic patterns.

Anshu was on a roll: “James and the Giant Peach, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Twits. Do you remember The Twits?”

I smiled. I wanted her to keep indulging the nostalgia.

From there we traded childhood reading habits. Anshu had grown up Indian-American in Seattle and I had grown up Just Plain American in Virginia, but our formative literary lives had been the same. We remembered bringing books to the dinner table and we remembered being told to put them away and participate in conversation. There were the flashlights snuck into bed for reading after lights out. I was indignant all over again about Amy stealing Laurie out from under Jo even if Jo didn’t care. Anshu described running across her backyard in Seattle the way she imagined Anne ran across the fields of Prince Edward Island towards Green Gables. We both remembered how, when we walked our family dogs, we would leave the house with a leash in one hand, a book in the other. The walks, which without a novel seemed endless and boring, would be over and we’d be back at our front doors—dogs relieved, parents satisfied—before we had even had a chance to look around and take note of the clouds, the weather, our fellow dog walkers, trash days, “For Sale” signs, the Volvos parked in driveways.

I wondered whether these experiences were some of the things that had led us to be, at thirty, sitting together on a bench in Brooklyn: single, childless roommates.

If we are lucky we are read to before we read to ourselves. That is where it all originates. For me, the beginning of the story went like this:

Dinner is over. It was creamed asparagus on toast and I had seconds. Dad is doing the dishes and my sister is upstairs in her room finishing her homework. The dog is licking the dishes sitting pre-washed but still dirty in the dishwasher. It is almost my bedtime, but first mom will read a chapter aloud. Every night for almost two months we have been sitting down together on the couch at this time and, as dusk gathers outside, she has been reading me Little Women. Before starting, she reaches an arm around me. There’s a part of her that is a would-be actress and so she is good at reading, doing distinct voices for different characters in their various situations: Meg leaving home, Jo cutting her hair, Beth exclaiming over that piano, Amy telling Jo she’s fallen for Laurie, Marmee in the arm chair by the fire reading letters from their father on the front.

At the end of each chapter, my mother gets quiet and still for a moment. By now it is completely dark outside and I can’t believe how quickly the time has passed. I can’t even see the trees in the front yard. Then: “Bedtime,” she announces decisively. I protest. Just a few more pages. One more chapter. But my mother grew up in the fifties on a chicken farm in rural Maine and has the get-on-with-it attitude of that time and place. “No, it’s off to bed with you,” she says taking her arm from around me and closing the book. “Another chapter tomorrow night.”

And so it would be until there were no more chapters because the little women had all grown up.

If there is one thing that can consistently reduce even the most hardened cynic to a sentimental softie, it is the books she read as a child.

Of course, we still read, my friends and I. We read on the subway and on the couch or in bed just as we used to do. But it’s not the same: the subway ride ends, the couch inspires naptime, a flashlight under the covers is absurd. I certainly can’t remember the last time I heard someone say, “I was walking down the street reading a book when….”

The closest I’ve come to witnessing such a scenario was last summer when a friend and I were going hiking. She had her nose in the trail map and we had yet to leave the parking lot or break a sweat when—not looking where she was going—she fell off the curb, cutting herself so badly she ended up needing to go to the hospital and foregoing the hike. In the time between now and when we last walked the dog and read a novel at the same time, it seems we’ve lost the ability to read and walk simultaneously. These days, I put dinnertime ahead of reading and fit the latter in where I can and when I feel like it. Often, until I am directly confronted with the sight of a girl and her book—a sight outside the purview of my current routines—it can slip my mind that I, too, used to read like that. To love reading like that.

As it was with our first loves, we fall hard for our first books. When we were with them the rest of the world fell away. And as with our first loves, we will never let go of ourselves like that again. I’ve asked myself when it was I read for the last time as a child, but the question is as pointless as asking when me and my first love lost what it was we once had. The answer is probably nothing more than, “One day the magic was there and the next day it wasn’t.” At some point I just took the dog for a walk without a novel, looked around, and either the things around me had changed or I had.

The diminishment of the intensity is an evolutionary imperative. We reach a point at which we no longer allow ourselves to read like that because if we did we would never get anything else done. We wouldn’t meet new people or remember to make those doctors appointments. If we still read with the intensity of an eight-year-old or loved with the intensity of a novice, at thirty we might forget to leave the house at all.

While the same could be said for boys—who I am sure have their own list of classics that conjure a unique common history—I am speaking here for girls. Girls and the books that taught them everything from how to reach out and touch something fuzzy to what it was like to get their periods and find an insane not-so-ex-wife in the attic. Just a list of titles is enough to conjure the timeline of an entire X-chromosomed American childhood: Pat the Bunny, The Runaway Bunny, Blueberries for Sal, The Lonely Doll, Miss Rumphius, Madeline, The Secret Garden, Little House on the Prairie, Little Women, Ramona Quimby Age 8, The BFG, Island of the Blue Dolphins, The Black Stallion, Misty of Chincoteague, Julie of the Wolves, Jacob Have I Loved, Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret, Jane Eyre, Anne of Green Gables, Rebecca, Jane Eyre again, Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre again, Ethan Frome

Somewhere around Ethan Frome is where the unselfconscious abandon began to dissipate in lieu of simply sincere appreciation and sometimes even a little critical distance. Whereas I can’t count the number of books I couldn’t put down in the first fifteen years of my life, I could name on two hands and feet the number of books I’ve felt that way about in my second fifteen years. But that fact does not make me sad or give me pause and not because I tell myself that if it were otherwise I would have ended up a hobo. What seems to matter most is that I had those first fifteen years to begin with.

My friends feel similarly. One formerly horse-crazy friend talks often about her childhood passion for the Marguerite Henry books. Another friend has an entire shelf devoted to her childhood library, and that’s where she turns on the days when she’s tempted to get in bed and never get out. Another friend has taken it all a step further than the rest of us and is getting a Ph.D. in Y.A. Literature, writing academic papers on Ramona and The Twits that she then presents at high-brow conferences across the country. These are the things we have carried with us and as such are the things we have to give away.

When I turned thirty this year, the same friend who had fallen off the curb and gone to the hospital gave me her three favorite Y.A. novels from childhood. A few months earlier, she and I had compared notes on what we’d read when we were young and she had learned that her favorites had not been on my early reading lists. When I told her I hadn’t read Caddie Woodlawn she said, “You haven’t?!” as if I just told her I had never brushed my teeth. With this birthday present she had wanted to rectify that—to her mind—gaping hole in my life.

I haven’t read the books she gave me just yet, but the fact that she gave them to me at all is just it: Not only do we hold these books we’ve read and characters we grew up with close, but we want to share them, to pass them on. As of my writing this, my friend who fell off the curb is also single and childless. I am not convinced I was the person she wanted to be giving books to that day.

When people have children, some are reluctant to admit it, but they have a secret preference in their hearts for a girl over a boy or vise versa and for a multitude of reasons. I am nowhere near the stage in life of being a parent myself, but when the time comes as I hope it one day will, I often think I want a girl. I want this because I recognize even now how much it will matter to me to know and understand how she is feeling and what she is learning and experiencing all for the first time. I know too how difficult it will be to access these complicated growing-up emotions of hers, ferreted as they will be inside a person not myself. To put a book that was once special to me into her hands and watch it become special to her is one way to do that. At least for a little while.

But before I send her off to read on her own, I want to be able to sit on the couch with her and do the voices of the characters. As it is with my mother, there is a would-be actress inside me, too. It will be getting dark outside and the spot on the couch where she and I will sit will be the only well-light place in the house. A husband will be doing the dishes and have a dog to keep him company and help with the grunt work. He won’t be watching because he wouldn’t want to intrude, but he will listen from the other room.

I will put my arm around her and start like this:

CHAPTER ONE: Playing Pilgrims

Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents, grumbled Jo, lying on the rug…

Seen from outside the window, she and I in the arms of the light beside the couch might make you think that here is where the entire world begins and ends.

[Image credit: Frank]

Skills and Interests

- | 23

I was recently fired for the first time. When I was hired I had harbored no illusions this would be a job I would love or at which I would even modestly excel; instead, I thought it was a job I could do to a perfunctory degree of competence. In the interview, my future boss looked over my resume and asked me basic questions about my schedule and experience before describing the tasks and required skills. The subject was popular economics, and the job—as a research assistant—would be mostly image searching, he said, with some fact checking and occasional reporting. When he finished, he turned and looked at me: “Does this sound like something you could do?”

We were sitting next to each other in oversized armchairs and my resume lay on the coffee table in front of us. It was the silent third party in these negotiations, and I couldn’t tell whose side it was on. I had recently made its verbs more active and its alignments more precise, and the result was, without a doubt, an attractive piece of paper. My education, work experience, and skills and interests fit onto a single page, appearing neither cramped, nor as if I were unaccomplished. I had experience with both books and periodicals, and had paid my dues while also gaining some management experience. According to my resume, I had the skills to do the job.

Still, I hesitated. I stared at the piece of paper, wishing it could talk, that we could excuse ourselves into the other room and confer as to the best course of action. Instead the thing sat there, flat and silent, and I was on my own to weigh pros and cons. Deadlines were not an issue, but the subject matter would be since I am as good at economics as I am at being an astronaut. That said, it was pop economics, which would be a stretch for me but a stretch I could maybe make. I don’t like fact checking but I have experience with it, and while talking on the telephone isn’t my favorite thing to do, I can do it the way I used to run laps around the gym. I met the gaze of my future boss: “Yes,” I said. “I think this is something I could do.”

Two and a half months later, he called to tell me our time together was over. The night before I had sent him images of the wrong radio towers from the turn of the century for the second time in a row. It had been late and I didn’t know where on the internet to find the right ones but excuses had ceased to matter: I had made so many mistakes by then that adding another to the list was what the job had become. It wasn’t that I didn’t care about the job or like my boss; I both cared about the job and liked my boss; I was just empirically bad at the work.

After we hung up, I stared at the computer screen. I was not happy about having been fired, but I was relieved I wouldn’t have to wake up the next morning knowing it was a foregone conclusion I would spend my working hours professionally underperforming. I had had a feeling this would happen, but it was a feeling I hadn’t wanted to face because it meant admitting that the few skills I had accrued over my thirty years were even less flexible than I feared: Being able to talk to people about poetry or folk music or their lives in general did not translate into being able to research trivia about car seat fatality statistics in the 1950s. The worst part about getting fired, however, was that it prompted the question, “What now?” to which I didn’t—and don’t—have an answer.

Starting early—as young as four or five—I was one of those girls who was obsessed with horses. I had the books and the Breyer models and, sometimes, I ran around in the yard or the street pretending to be one. It wasn’t long into the obsession before I began asking my father—architect, urban planner, humble university professor—for a pony. The first time I asked I was six and my father’s response was that if I wanted a pony I should plan on becoming an investment banker. When I asked him what an investment banker was his definition was, “Someone who makes enough money to have a pony.” This was when I understood that money is one of life’s confounding questions.

There’s a famous drawing by William Blake of a figure standing at the bottom of a ladder that leads to the moon. The figure is reaching skyward; the caption reads, “I want! I want!” and seems to perfectly illustrate my relationship to my career, such as it is: I am on the ground while this career of mine lurks in the dark nearly 400,000 miles distant. After I got over wanting to be an investment banker for the ponies the profession could afford me, I went through phases of wanting to be a professional horseback rider, a folk singer, a Supreme Court justice, a vintner, a personal shopper, and a writer. While none of these—save scoring a spot on the Supreme Court—is a particularly lucrative career choice, the choice of writer is perhaps the least so of all. This makes it especially unfortunate that wanting to be a writer is the only one that stuck.

By the time I graduated from college, enough people had told me I couldn’t make a living this way for me to begin trying to jury rig my skills and interests into skills and interests that paid. I worked as an English teacher, a crime reporter, a waitress, a library assistant, and as a research assistant for authors. With each job I told myself it was temporary: just a job until I could forge a writing career. Alas, the most money I’ve ever earned for a piece of writing I’ve written because I wanted to write it is $50, and that was a month ago. Until recently I had—naively—not considered fully demoting my future writing career to past, present, and future hobby, but the reality is that the time has past come. I’ve paid the rent these ten years by looking at my resume and telling myself to “Make it work,” as well as with some generous support from my family. I now see that writing is proving at least as costly as a pony could have ever been.

It’s true: I worry sometimes that writing has gone the way of the pony, that it is no longer a way to help work the farm but—as it’s been said before—has become a pastime only for those who can afford it, and among whom I do not number. This is also when I feel as if I am beating back the tumbleweeds of cynicism with a piece of string. I try to turn the analogy around, repeating to myself the cliché that a writer is not what you are but who you are. By this logic, writers are the ponies. Because we can’t afford to keep ourselves, we hire ourselves out to humans. In the best case scenarios we like our humans and enjoy the challenges of what they have us do. Indeed, under their guidance we are able to do things we never thought possible: pirouette and jump over fences as tall as we are. In the worst-case scenarios we end up foul-tempered in a stall, pinning our ears to the backs of our heads and gnashing our teeth whenever someone tries to come in and tack us up.

Sometimes, too, while trying to jump fences, we don’t quite make it over cleanly: a rail comes tumbling to the ground or we do. We’re usually able to pick ourselves up long enough to exit the ring with dignity, but in the more dramatic mishaps, there are those inevitable moments after the fall when we are running around the ring, spooked and directionless, broken reins swinging wildly and in danger of tripping us again.

I would be lying of course if I didn’t admit I fell harder than I initially may have thought. The days and weeks following my firing were the first time I admitted to myself that instead of building a Blakeian ladder to the moon that could hold my weight, maybe I have been building one bound to collapse, constructed from toothpicks all along. When I build again I want it to be with real wood and nails, and maybe propped this time against a new and different moon.

Resumes are funny things because they are pieces of paper on which we are supposed appear both professional and human, which, with any luck, we are. When I look at my resume and consider the left turns I could make at this career crossroads, I am forced to consider what my skills and interests truly are. According to my resume, my skills and interests include, traveling, eating food and drinking wine, playing music, cuddling with homeless animals, contemporary design, MS Word, and MacIntosh and PC platforms. While I like to think these things are true, I hope I have other, less canned attributes. Perhaps, too, when these are combined, a picture of my strengths might emerge with an eye to job placement. I sometimes play with the idea of creating a resume that relegates Education and Work Experience to a few lines at the bottom of the piece of paper, and instead gives the featured slot to my Skills and Interests. Each skill and interest would be put into resume-speak and bullet pointed:

Imaginary degree in angling furniture.
High tolerance for busy work.
Ability to pee efficiently in public restrooms.
Precision sweeper.
Passion for shunning umbrellas in favor of getting wet.
Open to criticism of clog wearing.
Adept at hating brunch.
Self-taught in the art of having feelings.
Pretty good at sharing.
Communicating via face every thought that passes through brain.
Eager to jump to tragic conclusions about temporary illnesses.
Prompt to excuse self after belching.
Laughs loudly, often, at other people’s jokes.

Looking at the list now, it seems my skills and interests qualify me for nothing other than being myself, which was at least part of the problem to begin with: I can’t get paid for being me, nor should I be and nor do I want to be. Keeping a running list of my skills and interests is only a beginning. Since I am by now a fully formed human being, it is a beginning I can only hope won’t take another 30 years to maneuver in my favor.

I write this as the mail is piling up on my kitchen counter, more than half of which is bills and monthly statements from Bank of America that I am afraid to open. The rest is from my alma mater asking me to give them all the money I don’t already owe to credit cards, hospitals and my therapist. I already know I owe more money than I have and I don’t want to see the cold hard evidence written out on paper. When I visit my parents the time always comes when my father sits me down and says, “So, how’s your bank account?” as if my bank account were a member of the family. It practically is—the ugly stepchild—and I treat it accordingly. I tell him it’s fine or at least that it was the last time I hung out with it. I don’t tell him I can’t remember the last time this was because, the truth is, I don’t want him to have to worry about it and I am wracked with guilt that he does and that he has to.

Once upon a time my father wanted to be a painter. He became an architect instead because the schooling pardoned him from the draft and the degree would let him afford a family. I know he has felt conflicted about this decision his entire life—that he felt forced into it by his parents when he was young and trying to figure out how to make his way. 

I know because I have watched him struggle for years with how he should advise me to proceed with my life. Moments after he suggests I try advertising or television as a career move, he backtracks and says I should do something that makes me happy, to not give up on this writing thing quite yet.

He’ll then hedge–money makes things easier–before telling me again. Keep writing.

[Image credits: Images from Fiaschi’s book, J Mark Dodds]

Down by the Riverside

- | 6

Having failed to convince friends to join me, I went alone to Riverside Church the night of November 9th for Mary Travers’ memorial service. On my way in, an usher handed me a program with a black and white photograph on the cover of a bombshell with long blond hair and blunt bangs, a straight nose, almond eyes staring at the camera, and a sensuous mouth. I opened the program and scanned the pictures—black and white and color, aesthetically delineating eras—on the inside flaps: that same blond bombshell performing at the Lincoln Memorial (black and white), smiling at her husband (color), doing presumably good deeds in a presumably third world country (black and white), and with her two bandmates, smiling and bald from chemotherapy on what looks like the stage at Carnegie Hall (color).

Inside the sanctuary, the pews were packed with the predictable sea of gray hair, sober colors, practical sweaters and comfortable shoes. (Two thousand people, the paper reported the next day.) I slipped into a seat three rows from the back between a man my father’s age and a woman my mother’s. At 29, I was at the youthful end of those who had read the small notice in the Times that morning: “A memorial celebration of the life and music of the folk singer Mary Travers will be held at 7 p.m. on Monday at Riverside Church. Ms. Travers, who with Peter Yarrow and Noel Paul Stookey formed the renowned trio Peter, Paul and Mary, died on Sept. 16. Besides Mr. Yarrow and Mr. Stookey, participants in the celebration will include Pete Seeger, Judy Collins, Tom Paxton… Whoopi Goldberg, Bill Moyers, Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and former Senators George S. McGovern and Max Cleland.”

A video montage of Peter, Paul and Mary concert clips featuring “If I Had a Hammer” and “Blowin’ in the Wind” was code for “Please turn off your cellular devices,” and the service began. Cameras on mechanical arms manned by a PBS film crew patrolled the airspace above the gray heads like giant disembodied insect legs. As it goes with memorial services, a parade of people—many famous—from Travers’ life then began filing on and off stage to lead the audience in song and to recall and applaud her beauty and talents and hobbies and temper and quirks and grace in the face of illness. November 9th would have been her 73rd birthday. I thought about how somber parades like this of personalities and anecdotes ask us, “Remember this time? Remember that time?” and how we in the audience then say to ourselves, “Yes,” even when the truth is closer to, “No, but I believe it.”

Veiled cell phone warnings notwithstanding, for the duration of that first half hour, a man in the pew in front of me held his phone in the air so that the person at the other end of the line could hear what she was missing. I pictured that other person on a couch in a comfortable living room somewhere sitting alone with the phone to her ear, her face quiet. I wondered whether she was his wife, daughter, or granddaughter and whether she could hear a word of what was being said or sung through the earpiece, or whether all she heard was the occasional garbled lyric of a well-known protest song and the static of periodic applause.

I preferred to imagine her as woman of about my own age and the man in front of me as her father. He had probably told her about the car he drove in those days, about the time he took it to the record store to buy his first Peter, Paul, and Mary album, about how he had taken the record back to his house, put it on the record player and promptly developed a crush on that blond bombshell. Maybe he had told her how he had once seen the group in concert and been close enough to see that the buttons on Mary’s shirt were made from mother of pearl. Speaking of mothers, he may have then said, your mother has always been very patient with me. Sitting behind him that night, I wondered whether holding up his phone was this man’s way of asking his daughter to remember the things he had told her about who he had once been in another time and place. I wondered whether the she in this equation was sitting wherever she was sitting with the phone to her ear for his sake or hers.

As a teenager I watched the movie Harold and Maude thinking what an eccentric hobby it would be to spend one’s spare time attending strangers’ funerals. That’s what you are supposed to think when you watch that movie; its eccentricity is the engine of its charm. Yet in the past year, this extracurricular activity seems to be one I’ve begun cultivating. Last February I braved an hour and a half in the bitter cold outside Riverside Church in a line that wrapped around the corner and reached to Broadway to attend Odetta’s memorial service. In May, I finagled prime seats to Pete Seeger’s 90th Birthday Bash at Madison Square Garden. The concert may have been billed as a celebratory extravaganza but it resembled a memorial service in that the celebration was one of a life nearing its end, and Pete was more the theme of the evening than the primary performer. And now, the Mary Travers service, back again at Riverside. I plan to keep going as the services keep coming, which they will.

So far, the events I’ve attended have shared traits: length (they have all been at least four hours long), singing, the singing of specific songs (“This Little Light of Mine,” “This Land Is Your Land,” “Amazing Grace”), references to Selma, Vietnam, Cambodia, Dr. King, the Kennedy brothers, Nixon’s List of Enemies and Greenwich Village in the fifties and sixties, and famous faces on stage or at the pulpit podium (Pete Seeger, Harry Belafonte, Gloria Steinem, Peter Yarrow, Bill Moyers). The crowd always knows the words to the songs, as well as to clap reverently while nodding knowingly at the mention of key cultural touchstones. To watch a crowd like this respond to the word “Vietnam” is akin to watching more traditional evangelical churchgoers respond to a particularly resonant passage from The Book of John.

I went with friends to the Odetta service and to Pete Seeger’s birthday concert, and socialized with them throughout both, so sitting alone through Travers’ service was a new experience and one I intend to try again. All around me was a burgeoning community of mourners coming to pay their final respects and say goodbye to all that. The pews have been full thus far, but looking at that sea of gray hair I have begun wondering whether this Riverside pew community will begin to thin out as the services reach a fever pitch, then slowly fade to nothing. I keep picturing myself among the stragglers at these final services and us stragglers—us Harolds and Mauds—getting to know each other, making the pews a good place to be as our own hairs begin to gray.

A fair number of the people there had probably been at Odetta’s service and Pete’s birthday as well. Many were the same people who had celebrated life in a different way fifty or sixty years ago, doing their small parts to imbue the words “Selma” and “Vietnam” with the meanings they have today. Many, but not all. Some were also young, some middle-aged. These are the ones I will sit with when the pew population thins out. I looked for them now and then among the faces in the crowd that night. I wondered whether one day one or more of them would confide to me that the same things that brought me to these pews had brought them as well.

When I first took my seat that evening, I noticed those around me taking stock of my person—my age, my moderately expensive handbag, my iPhone, my fur vest. Throughout the service the man on one side of me would occasionally lean over and quietly ask me a question. In each case, I couldn’t tell whether he was hard of hearing or whether he was quizzing me on my place in that pew. If it was a quiz, I failed. The woman on the other side of me would wait for my responses before correcting me.

“Who’s that?” he whispered, as a man with white hair in a grey suit took the podium.


“McGovern,” corrected the woman on my other side. I flushed.

As a string quartet played Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” he turned to me again and whispered, “What movie is this from?”

Apocalypse Now?”

Platoon,” hissed the woman on my other side.

I wanted to apologize for getting his questions wrong even when I knew the answers. Instead, I smiled as I stood to leave five minutes early. For the past half hour people had been slipping out and I had begun to feel as if I had stayed too long at the party. I was neither family, friend, nor peer, after all. I wished them a good night, hoping that next time, I would answer their questions correctly, that I would know my history, for their sake and mine.

Goodbye to all that. You can’t write that phrase and not name-check Didion, who earned her reputation as the observer in their youth of the generation I was now observing in their age. In her famous essay, she explains how over the course of a decade, she fell in and then out of love with New York. She flew into the city at 20, a girl with all the time in the world, and she flew out of it at 29, a woman aware that neither time nor life were what they had been when she arrived. The essay is a memorial to a time and a place, and to a girl who had been and who that girl had become. It is melancholy and wry and wise and tender and bitter and sweet.

As it was beneath the arched stone ceilings of Riverside Church, beneath the strict architecture of Didion’s sentences, there is a great deal of emotion churning that people understand. Sitting in the church that night with nearly 2,000 people who remembered where they were and what they were doing on those days in 1968—more than a decade before I was born—when the gunshots sounded in Memphis and Los Angeles and their youth ended, I realized that just because these people had said goodbye to all that does not mean they ever let it go; that’s what memorial services like this were for. While some of the famous folkies may have lived fast, that was not the image they were projecting. The movement’s breakout stars were people who resembled, at least superficially, your average guy and gal who wanted to change the world and make it a better place back in the day; the folkies most resembled the everyday members of that generation. The ones dying now are not dying young, troubled, or tragically; these are the ones who have just gotten old and sick.

I never worry much about the fate of classical music or the novel when I catch talking heads bemoaning their imminent demises. I have a feeling both will find ways to weather their current and future storms with an audience to support them spiritually if not financially. I don’t know if I can say the same for folk music. It rose to popularity as a single generation came of age. It fell from grace when that generation got its rude awakenings. It has been growing old ever since alongside the people with whom it blossomed. I wouldn’t be surprised if it dies with them, too.

When Pete Seeger took the stage at Mary Travers’ memorial service, the entire room rose to its feet, a single organism, to give Seeger a standing ovation before his name had even been announced. Everyone in that room knew who the stooped old man carrying a banjo in the plaid shirt was. Last year, when I told friends—well-educated, left-leaning, socially-conscious individuals—I was going to Pete Seeger’s birthday concert, more than a handful had responded saying, “Wait, that name is familiar. Who is that again?”

There’s a Tumblr site called My Parents Were Awesome where people can submit old photographs of their parents when their parents were young. The site is like a photo album for a generation, not the public face of that generation, but a more private one. There’s Jim with his long hair and beard smiling at Elaine with her long blond ponytail and paisley shirt. There’s Vilma bearing her middriff at a dancehall. There’s Karin and Gary snuggling on a lime green beanbag chair. There’s Jim, hairy and shirtless, standing in the doorframe above Sue in her swimsuit on the steps of a wood-framed cabin. There’s Bob sucking on a hookah at the dining room table, and a smiling David embracing a smiling Norma in a peasant shirt that billows over her pregnant belly.

My parents were awesome once, too. My mother left the chicken farm in Maine where she had grown up for adventures in rent-striking, a summer on a Massachusetts naked commune during which she ate a naked dinner with Taj Mahal, and a failed-yet-eye-opening attempt at group-living in Haight-Ashbury; and my father, the architect and painter, who escaped the stifling atmosphere of country club St. Louis life for Cambridge and the offices of Hugh Newell Jacobson and Jose Luis Sert. They weren’t exactly hippies or fervent subscribers to any particular counter-cultural trend, but they were young and open to experiences and taking chances with their lives.

For years, there was a large painting of a suitcase hanging in my parents’ living room in Virginia. When I would ask about it my mother would respond, “Oh, that’s just by an old girlfriend of your father’s back in Cambridge.” I always wondered why my mother was okay with the fact that this strange still-life hung in our family living room, but it seemed to be something I would never understand. I’ve seen too the clothes my mother wore then. I fit into them in high school: the pink Mexican dress that ended halfway down my thigh, the brown and white striped Marimekko shift cut for a stick figure. I remember when she first brought them out of the attic for me to try on. “You look beautiful,” she said, looking at me in the Marimekko. “It fits you perfectly.” I continued growing, of course, and the dress hasn’t fit me for years. I don’t even know where it is now—whether it’s packed back away in some attic box that I will find when I have reason to go through those boxes, or whether I forgot it at a friend’s house or left it behind in a hotel room somewhere along the line.

There is a photograph I have on the refrigerator of my Brooklyn apartment that I think illustrates a moment of transition in my parents’ lives between who they were once and who they are now. It’s a family portrait taken on my mother’s childhood farm. My mother, in oversized sunglasses and her long hair pulled back, is beaming and holding the reins of my grandfather’s appaloosa. My father, in his aviators and chin-length hair, is standing behind the horse. You can’t quite see it, but you know his left hand is supporting me at six-months-old perched in the western saddle in front of my sister, who was seven years old at the time and who has her arms wrapped tightly around my babyness to make sure I don’t tip over and fall off. My parents are still relatively young here, they both look young and as if they might still occasionally act young around their friends. When my own friends come over and notice the picture, they often do a double take between me in real life, and my mother frozen in time. “You two look exactly alike,” they say.

The photograph, snapped in 1980, is in color, but the color wears that yellow coat of time. It is maybe the only photograph I have of my family in which I can see, for my parents, the continuity between their youth and their age. That said, I write this in a moment that I recognize as yet another time of transition in all our lives. The baby in the picture has just turned 30 and my father celebrates his 70th birthday in May. The hand holding up the baby in the photograph is slowly being lifted up and away from horse, saddle, and the blond seven-year-old as well.

My father, who has taught architecture at the University of Virginia for more than three decades, has been trying to pin down his retirement plans for years. He would habitually drag his feet when the topic came up, but this past summer, he set a date: May 2010. Two months later, the 36-year-old who was once the blond seven-year-old was diagnosed with cancer. There’s still the four of us for now, but there are also other things.

I discovered the music of the folk revival movement after watching The Eyes on the Prize PBS series about the Civil Rights Movement in my eighth grade civics class with Mr. Moore and wondering about the soundtrack. Mr. Moore wasn’t crazy about getting up to the blackboard to lecture us, so he showed us movies instead. The Eyes on the Prize series took up a good two weeks of class time and by the time we had finished it I had decided I wanted to be a folk singer when I grew up because that was an effective way to change the world. I remember coming home each day after school and asking my parents about whether they had been to Selma or the March on Washington or where they had been when Dr. King was shot and how they had confronted their own parents about politics and whether they had ever seen Dylan in concert, or Odetta. To some questions they answered “Yes, and he was rude,” and to some, “No,” sometimes adding, “but we did watch on television and were of course sympathetic.” I was disappointed that they hadn’t been more politically strident, but was glad they hadn’t been boring either.

I don’t know if folk music is still an effective method of changing the world, but I still have a soft spot in my heart for it and for the sincere singers who popularized what became anthems for my parents’ generation. That said, I’m not and never have been a huge fan of Peter, Paul, and Mary. For all the individual strength of Mary’s vocals, I’ve always thought of the group as a little bland. Although my parents know all the songs and have memories of the group from when they were young, they feel—and felt—the same way; my parents and I have always preferred Seeger and Woody Guthrie and Arlo and Joan and Joni and Dylan. I did, however, at some point during my adolescence buy a CD or two of Peter, Paul, and Mary’s music that I would listen to occasionally. The first (and only) time I ever tried to add my own verses to a folk song was in ninth grade after repeatedly listening to Peter, Paul, and Mary’s version of “500 Miles.” “If you miss the train I’m on,” the song goes, “you will know that I am gone…” I cannot remember what new stanzas I wrote down in the song notebook I kept, but I do remember how encouraging my parents both were when I came downstairs to sing for them with the guitar they had bought me.

I went to Mary’s memorial service, not for Mary so much as for my family. These days, when I talk to my parents on Sunday evenings as is our routine, we ask each other what we’ve done during the week. I tell them about the parties I’ve been to and the music I’ve been to hear and the museum exhibitions I have every good intention of attending. They tell me that the dog is well fed, that they talked to my sister a few days ago, and that things in general are just fine. But more and more, they’ve been telling me, too, about who doesn’t know how he hurt his back and who is feeling sad about her childrens’ life choices and who needs a hip replacement and who died quietly from a heart attack the day after he had gone out and bought himself a new computer. Every six weeks or so, we’ll go through the “What did you do this week?” routine, and they will run through the typical list of responses before I will say, “What else?” and they will then hesitate before elaborating: “Well, we went to so-and-so’s funeral. It was nice.” Most of the time it’s just an acquaintance or neighbor they have lived down the street from for 35 years, but sometimes too, and with increasing frequency, it is a beloved old boss or friend. I think then about Mom and Dad coming home from these services, my father calling to the dog and retreating to his studio, my mother going to her computer to see if there is a new email waiting for her in her inbox from either me or my sister. I can only hope we don’t let her down too often.

I knew when I told my parents over the telephone I had gone to Mary Travers’ memorial service that—even though they hadn’t been fans per se—they would want to hear all about it, just as they had wanted to know every detail when I told them I had gone to Odetta’s service and Pete’s birthday. I could hear it in their voices as they asked me questions—Who spoke? What did you sing? Did many young people go? Did you have a good time? Who went with you?—that they wished they could have been there. In each case, I tried to tell them everything I could remember to make what I had seen come alive for them, but I am a poor storyteller and I know my paltry accounts left them unsatisfied after we had exchanged “I love yous” and hung up the phone.

Riverside Church it is not yet a confirmed venue on the old folkie memorial service circuit, but my money’s on the likelihood of it becoming one. It is an interdenominational church with a liberal tradition. Martin Luther King spoke there, Nelson Mandela has too. The walls soar up past scenes in stained glass from the life of Christ to a domed ceiling. Church acoustics are always tricky, especially when the place has to accommodate more than a single voice. Sounds bounce from wall to wall to wall so that when you are singing as part of a group you can never be sure if you are singing to the intended beat or to your own imagined tempo; it’s nearly impossible to discern whether what you are hearing and following is coming directly from the choir and choir director, or from an echo across the room. Not even Pete Seeger, the master song director himself, can overcome this technical glitch. That night, my corner of the room reached the final line of “This Little Light of Mine” at least a measure ahead of Seeger and his banjo that “surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.”

Outside, the church dwarfs the other buildings on its quiet Harlem corner and opens onto Riverside Drive. Unlike the great cathedrals of Europe, it does not open onto a city square in which pigeons beg for birdseed, men with carts sell postcards, and enterprising artists sell watercolors to tourists. Instead, it opens onto a scene that at first appears more modest but is really just more American. From the front steps you look out not at other buildings enclosing you inside the city, but to Riverside Park, the Hudson, and across the state line to the trees of Cliffside Park, New Jersey. Even the church’s name reminds me of its political and social allegiances. It was probably an unintentional allusion, but nonetheless when I think about the church I soon find myself humming an old Baptist spiritual co-opted by the folk revival movement: Gonna lay down my sword and shield, down the riverside, down by the riverside, down by the riverside…

I met the first boy I ever really loved during our first week of college in 1998. We sat next to each other at a lecture being given by the Reverend William Sloane Coffin. It was a small lecture hall and only half full. Coffin had been the outspoken and progressive chaplain at Yale during the Civil Rights Movement and then served as a senior minister at Riverside through the late Eighties. He retired to Vermont, not far from where I arrived that September, more than a decade younger than I am now. I don’t remember exactly what he lectured on that evening, but I do remember his thick white hair and how whatever it was he was saying was what I wanted to hear when I was scared and lonely, missing home and my parents intensely: stuff about taking on the world and doing the right things and making our families proud and one day, too, ourselves and our own children. Coffin died in 2006 at age 82, two and a half years after the boy I met that night when I was 18 years old broke my heart.

The boy and I didn’t start dating immediately as I had thought we would when we said goodbye to each other that night in the chilly New Hampshire darkness outside the lecture hall. In fact, we didn’t even know each other until we met again and started dating a couple of years later. We were a case of opposites attracting. I am highly sensitive and impulsive where he was (and is) analytical and methodical. It took me a long time to understand him, but my lack of understanding never meant a lack of sympathy, respect, or comfort. I always remembered how something had brought him to that auditorium his first week of college, how he had been there, his knee touching my knee, as we forgot—temporarily—our anxieties about our new lives. When we were together, I would sometimes ask him if he remembered that night and he never did. “Don’t you remember? Don’t you remember?” I would ask. “We went to see William Sloane Coffin. We sat next to each other. I knew then that everything was going to be alright so far away from home.” In response, he would smile and shake his head. “No,” he would say, “I don’t remember, but I believe you.”

Image credit: Fabian