Saturday, December 16, 2006

You've Got Options

There’s this sign on campus that gets stuck in my head every time I see it. It reads: “Parking: you’ve got options.” Then goes on to list some “options” as: carpooling, biking, taking the bus, etc. I think the sign should read: “Parking: you’ve got alternatives.” As far as I’m concerned, biking to school is not a parking option. Something about the improper verbiage etches that phrase in my mind until it’s like a mantra. “Parking: you’ve got options.” Over and over.

As Mrs. Figby at Letters from the Zoo talked about opening up her options relating to a major move, discussing the stress of limiting her choices so severely that the stress threatened to take over, I was surprised at the way I related to her words. Sometimes college feels too much like backing into a corner. Less like exploring my options, and more like limiting them. Every class I take, every decision I make, is another step further from all the other choices I once had. There are times when the world seems determined to push me into existential crisis mode. Here’s a tip, never ask college students why they chose a particular major. It may seem innocent enough, but seven times out of ten, they’re asking themselves the same question. I am often asked this question, usually incredulously, as I’m displaying some interest outside of my major. The families I baby-sit for ponder why I didn’t choose child development. Former teachers opine that I was such a strong writer. Friends see art on my walls and wonder at the fact that I chose business instead. Oh, I can answer the question. “Well, the world is becoming increasingly global…blah, blah…I want to keep my options open…blah…it’s such a broad field…blah, blah, blah.” Here’s what I’m really thinking: “I would have gone to art school, but thirty grand a year for a career that may not pay off that amount of debt in a lifetime? Sorry, no. Maybe I would like to write, but really, how many people get published? Besides, I can still pursue that without a $100,000 English degree. Please, don’t make me keep defending this; the words come more slowly every time.”

And I find myself wishing that my mom was there with the perfect response, the one she always shields me with: “She is just good at so many things. She’ll do well on whatever path she takes.” I’ve never told her that I cling to those words, that absolute faith that I will do well no matter where I end up. More than that, her words aren’t limiting. They don’t reinforce a specific path, they reinforce who I am.

I was in that trapped place again this week, staring down the barrel of a take home accounting final, wondering what my life had come to. I’m adding and subtracting. I’m filling in bubbles. I’m back in high school, no, middle school. I read Mrs. Figby’s words and felt a pang. I wanted options. Then I remembered. I am a college student. I am a college student with three more years of parent sponsored education. I am reasonably intelligent. I am a generally hard worker. I am interested in any number of topics. Heck, I’m single, and that freedom factor has to count for something. I have loads of options. It gave me a bit of a thrill to pore over transcripts and classes, opening up possibilities. Not one to float freely wherever life takes me, I now have A Plan. But it is a plan tempered by the realization that my plans are likely to be as ever-changing and complicated as I am. It seems utterly silly to hold myself unswerving to the plans I made three years ago, or one year ago, or a month ago. I do not stay the same, and these roughly hewn patterns for a life I’m still piecing together should not either.

My dad has this paperweight on his desk, a gift from a lifelong friend. The flat rock simply reads: “nothing.” Get it? “Nothing” etched in stone. I think I need that paperweight. Or maybe one that says, “Life: you’ve got options.”

Monday, November 20, 2006

The Edge

So, that whole posting every day thing clearly didn't work out too well. This beginning blogger couldn't take the pressure. Anyways, moving on.

It’s such a strange state, being the age I am, feeling like I’m on the edge of my life. Maybe it always feels like this, like the next thing is forever, but this is just passing time. I try not to live like that, expecting more than what is right now. I love the right now. I love living with three other girls, pretending we’re having a sleep over every night. I’m sure that very soon the thrill will wear off, but for now, I love grocery shopping. I may not be able to spend money clothes or shoes, starving college student and all that, but I have to buy food. I still feel like a grown up putting things in the cart, sliding my card through the reader. I guess it’s not very grown up if it feels grown up. But I love it. I love that I get to pick my life. Everything I do, every place I go, is a choice that I am making. This church, this job, this class, they are my decisions for better or for worse. I love that. I’m not waiting for life to begin; I’m living a life that is slowly being created.

There is fear, too. The fear that it’s all coming together wrong. It’s hard to not view every choice as life-altering and scary. Every decision made seems trigger a hundred other related decisions that lead me further down the path in a direction I may or may not want to go. There’s the major, then the concentration, then the internship, then the career, then the specialty, then the trapped forever in a job I just fell into. I don’t want that. I won’t even get started on the boy related fears. It will only have me patting my own back again, reassuring myself that it will all be okay, eventually. I know that it will. One of the six-year old twins I watch knows it will, too:

“Eileen, are you going to have a baby?”

“Right now?”

“No, someday.”

“Yes, hopefully someday. Maybe when I’m 25. Uh oh, that’s, um, soonish.”

“Can I watch your baby?”

“Ya, sure.”

“Are you going to have a boy or a girl?”

“I don’t know, which do you think?”

“I think a boy.”

“Maybe I’ll have both.”

“Ya!”

“Or I could have none. What if I don’t get married?”

Then, with a gentle pat on the hand, I was offered this gem: “Don’t worry, Eileen, you’ll get married.”

I’m choosing to take her advice. I’m choosing not to worry. A difficult proposition for someone who plans each day, each year, meticulously. I like things mapped out. My friends make fun of the way I run down our plans every time we go out. Sometimes I forget that my life isn’t scripted. I’m not living on the edge of something. I’m not living in a chain reaction with each decision triggering another. I’m not plodding along a pre-determined life path. I’m in the middle of something vibrant, and changing, and constant. I don’t believe that life has a beginning or an end. I believe I can only go deeper, so I had better get started.

Friday, November 03, 2006

The Dance

I don’t like to dance. That was my excuse every time, every dance. But it’s not really true. At least it wasn’t always true. I was five. We would dance around the kitchen floor, Erin and I, sliding across the tile, somersaulting in the living room. Always James Taylor, “Copperline.” Dad would wash the dishes. We would put on skirts and tutus, spinning and laughing until one of us smacked into something and started howling. It was pure joy to slide over the tile, wearing the bottoms of my socks paper-thin. Even now I can’t listen to James Taylor without dancing and twirling in my head. Spinning in circles. Choreographing complex routines. My dad would finish the drying, then sweep me into his arms, my feet flying over his head before he pulled me close to waltz through the entryway.

He asked me to dance. The last dance. And it felt so silly, I can’t even remember the song now. It might as well have been James Taylor. This was different. This was different than the boys who danced too close, if they could dance at all. This was different than shuffling feet and stepped on toes and awkwardly long songs. This was twirling and spinning and fun. This was wishing it wasn’t the last song. This was wanting it to mean something more than a silly dance on a silly night. And then it was over. And I love to dance.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Blank Pages

Every time it’s there, staring at me with glaring whiteness. An empty page, a blank canvas. Then the line begins to form, the color starts to emerge. It’s never something from nothing. The soft pink lips, the sharp creases of the skin, the scruffy bits of mustache, there’s always someplace to start. And so I start. Putting down a line and bringing it up again. Laying on Burnt Sienna, then Cadmium Red, then a touch of Cerulean Blue. I can blend and craft and create and destroy, because it’s mine and there is no wrong. Like a six-year-old discovering the sky doesn’t have to be colored in with the blue crayon, I know my skin can be purple and my hair can be green. Freedom comes once the page begins to fill. It’s in the middle of the piece when I can play; creating shadows and bringing out highlights, turning up the edges of the mouth, deepening the furrow of the brow. In the beginning it’s a blank page and how I begin points to how I end. And in the end it’s the feeling that I’m done but never quite finished. But in the middle, I’ve started something and I am an artist.

Then there is the even more challenging task, when the blank page isn’t mine. When I have to use a piece of vine charcoal to bring out the volume of the skull, that sits with the paint splattered reading light illuminating it from a 45 degree angle. When I have to explore the shape of a philodendron leaf. Still, even when I have to examine the light passing through a glass pitcher I know I’m not drawing the same pitcher as the person two tables over. It is my pitcher and I can make the pour spout fill the entire page. Or I can put down the whole pitcher and make the crystal crevices shine from the paper.

Of course, I’ll be judged. My old man with the wrinkled skin will be praised or quietly ignored before I gently tuck him into my portfolio with the other characters, the ones who started as blank pages.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Vera

Standing in front of the disturbingly complete display of stuffed birds in Harvard’s Natural History Museum, there was the smell. That smell of formaldehyde. Of musty museum. I was four years old when my Aunt Vera died, and somehow this smell had lingered in my memories until this moment fourteen years later.

It wasn’t just the smell. I can picture the apartment. Curling up in bed with my sisters the night after she died. Turns out the rest of the family wasn’t so happy with us staying in the home of the deceased, so I remember the hotel room. I remember that we stayed on the seventh floor. The hallway in front of our room overlooked the lobby. I remember my sister telling me that if we dropped a penny from up there it would kill someone. Her theory was tested to some degree when my younger sister’s sippy cup accidentally tumbled onto the lobby floor, barely missing a man in a suit. The cup was yellow. It had ducks on it.

My aunt Shelley gave each of us huge teddy bears. Mine was purple with a thin purple ribbon tied around its neck. I named him Muffin. Another Aunt, Aunt Jessica, gave us Christmas ornaments. Vera must have died near Christmas. I can see the miniature train puffing its way across the wooden rainbow of the ornament, with my name spelled out on the cloud beneath it. I had grilled cheese for dinner at the restaurant that night. It came with the traditional parsley and orange curl garnish. I ate both the orange and the parsley. In the morning, we ate breakfast in the marble floored lobby. I had a cherry danish. It’s not surprising that I remember this bit; my mom guarded our palates from sugar with unparalleled fervor. My question is, why the rest?

Why does this event contain the sharpest memories of my childhood? It’s not grief. I don’t remember ever meeting Aunt Vera. I don’t know what she looked like. Yet I remember the plane ride to San Francisco. I remember the circumstances of her death (stroke in Nordstrom’s, they sent flowers). I distinctly remember picking out my inheritance, a roll of paper towels with blue geese printed on them. My mother also guarded us from the evils of paper products, wasteful, she said. We used cloth. So why? Why do I remember the color of the carpet (green)? Or the fact that her will was nowhere to be found until someone finally uncovered it in the back of a dresser drawer.

I love the randomness of it. That my clearest set of memories doesn’t come from a beloved Christmas celebration. That the memories of milestones, first tooth lost, first two-wheel bike ride, first day of kindergarten, come in flashes. It’s there, then it’s gone, each time slightly altered, colored maybe, by the rose-tinted lens of hindsight. Maybe in those memories I relive the childhood I wish I had. I can feel myself feeling in the gaps. Just like my Psych professor would remind us, memory isn’t a videotape; it’s constructive, pieced together from scraps of life. But in the Aunt Vera memories it’s these random chunks, like my four year old self just drank in the experience through slow, life altering gulps.

Was it the instability of it? My dad had driven ahead. My mom made the flight with the three of us by herself. When we got there family tension was approaching boiling point. There were feelings being hurt and a funeral to plan and a lost life to grieve. Maybe my developing unconscious sensed this churning, emotional situation and clung to the concrete world around me. Or maybe that’s the Psych 101 student in me.

Maybe it’s these random chunks that make the world as we experience it real. Something solid that exists in the ethereal world of the past. Time starts to go faster and faster as I get older. Everyone says it, and everyone is right. Sometimes it seems like time slips by, taking with it any permanence of experience. It’s just gone. So I love the fact that I can remember the pink fake nails my mom carried with her in the round white Tupperware to keep us entertained. Pink fake nails at a funeral, how reverent. “Why don’t you try to simultaneously entertain a one year old, a four year old, and a six year old,” I’m sure my mother would say.

See, because mostly my four year old self belongs more to my mother than to me. She carries the breadth and depth of the childhood that I mostly can’t recall. My dad, too, carries his own perspective on my developing life. They remember their world as parents to a small child. They can look at pictures and relive moments. They can recall how they felt cuddling in bed with me and a pile of books. But they can’t remember how I felt. I can almost grasp the memory, the coziness of my fuzzy pink pajamas with the feet, the words of Liza Lou performed with all the voice talent a father can muster. Still, it’s mostly the content smile on my face and the simple warmth that the candid snapshot captures that signals to me now what that moment felt like. I can know how it felt by the look on my face, but I can’t recall the actual emotion.

The Aunt Vera memories are different. It’s with this specific group of memories that I can prove to myself that I existed as an individual at the age of four. Just the fact that I remember things I’m sure my mother never bothered to tell me, or capture on film for that matter—people don’t tend to take a lot of pictures at funerals. The mundane things, the carpet, the cup, the questions over who gets which painting (Aunt Vera was an artist—oils), these things tell me that I remember. Even at this pupa-like stage I formed a distinct set of memories and all the feelings that go with them. My own film reel of memory that inexplicably captured the events surrounding the death of a great great aunt I barely knew, and still helps to solidify the life I live today.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Oh Deer

I feel the need to share the deer story, listed as an impetus for starting this blog. I now have a forum, if not an audience, and that is good enough for me.

Here's the scene: I'm walking back from an incredibly boring accounting class (cost allocation! fun!), thinking about what I'm going to make for dinner (Trader Joe's basil-encrusted cod, butternut squash, soy ice cream sandwich for dessert). My route takes me past the science building on a commonly traveled road. But today, people are slowing as they pass the lawn near the doors of the science building. That's when I notice a cop, wearing latex gloves, holding a pointed gun. I overhear him advise a girl walking into the building that if she doesn't want to see any gore she should keep walking. Hmmm, just what you want to hear from a guy holding a pointed gun. I also heard something about having to put it down, and gathered that he was talking about an animal quickly enough to be curious rather than terrified. So I slow down along with everyone else and look for the mountain lion or something. Then I see the light brown lump laying on the grass. The guy walking next to me mentions a deer while talking on his cell. At this point social boundaries have lowered and I interrupt his conversation to figure out what's going on. "Is that a deer?" "Ya, and it wasn't looking very good." "They're going to shoot it?" "BANG!" Yes, apparently they were. "They just shot Bambi!" Yes, I actually said that, but I know the girl standing next to me was thinking the same thing. Now there were four of us bunched together, walking quickly away from the carnage and confirming what we just witnessed. "BANG!" Apparently it took more than one shot to kill a deer laying on the ground five feet from the shooter. Venison anyone?

The story doesn't end there. Actually, it really does, I just want to create a new ending for it because that one is depressing. The next night, I'm walking to my apartment from the parking lot. It's an on-campus apartment that backs up to a lovely hillside filled with all manner of squirrels, birds, snakes, tarantulas, etc. It also hosts quite a few deer, one of which probably wandered into the center of campus in an injured stupor and was promptly shot by the campus police, but that animal's story has already been told. This night there is a new deer, new to me, but also to the world, a fawn to be exact. Now I know, don't feed the bears, don't pet the raccoons, but it was just so cute, I had to try. I got within about fifty feet of it, creeping slowly through the lot, looking absolutely ridiculous I'm sure. Here is where the deer sensed my plan, and I sensed my own silliness, a grown woman (um, sort of?), chasing after a wild animal in a deserted parking lot with hopes of petting it. The fawn began to hop away. I can't adequately describe the hop of this small deer. Picture a wobbly puppy scampering through tall grass. The back legs spring up a bit too high, "Wow, I didn't know I was so springy," thinks the deer. So the front legs shoot out to compensate, sending the back legs bounding up once more. Adorable. Such a circle of life moment, you know: one deer gets shot in front of the science building, the next night its sprightly counterpart hops happily through a parking lot. My friend pointed out that it could have been this very fawn's mother that was put down, which does make the story less "Lion King" and more "Bambi: Live Action." Hmm, oh well.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Opening the Blinds

It's time to start putting my thoughts somewhere. Just writing these words makes me want to close the door to my room.

College apartments don't lend themselves to privacy. Right now I can look straight into the apartment of the guys in the building next door. Sometimes we even write notes back and forth on white boards, communicating in a laughably tedious way considering the short distance between our rooms, and the fact that we all have phones. Then there's that awkward moment when we're both bored with the interaction, but how to end it? Closing the blinds seems abrupt, almost rude. But then there we are, still in full view of each other, a building away with no escape.

I decided tonight that I need an escape. Part of it is that sometimes my professors are just begging to be written about. Part of it is that I'm an impassioned, idealistic, completely naive college student. Part of it is that the campus police shot a deer in front of the science building as I was walking back from class and my first thought was, "I really should tell the internet about this. Oh wait, I don't have a blog." So here I am, resisting the strongest urge to turn back, to shut the blinds and keep my thoughts to myself.