let there be stars, enchanted, *scenic -> sky -> let there be stars

if i can make it here

2014 TCS New York City Marathon
SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 2, 2014

What lies behind me and what lies before me are tiny matters compared to what lies within me.

The morning of my first marathon, I woke to my alarm at 5:30am; groggily nibbled my way through a bagel and some water; packed five little ziplock bags with pieces of bagels, potato chips, and orange slices; refreshed two different weather websites multiple times before making a last-minute wardrobe decision; struggled to cut strips of bright yellow duct tape and affix them to my shirt in a level line; put my hair into pigtail braids and pulled them down at least three or four times before giving up on trying to make them more even; pinned the top corners of my race bib to my FlipBelt while tugging on layers of throwaway clothes; and dashed out the door at 7:45am, about 15 minutes behind schedule.


I walked to the subway station and waited a while before boarding my train to South Ferry. Gradually, I realized that almost all of my fellow subway passengers were also fellow marathoners; it had been less apparent than most race mornings on the subway because everyone was dressed in their throwaway clothes rather than race day chic. We arrived at the ferry terminal just minutes before my scheduled 8:30am ferry, and I boarded with almost no waiting, managed to find an available seat (no small feat), took a few bites of a bagel while the boat carried me and a flock of marathoners across New York Bay to Staten Island.

Once we disembarked, around 9am, I followed the crowds through St. George Terminal and emerged to find an enormous line of runners waiting to board the buses to the start village. I wound up in the outermost line, at the edge of the water, and brutal gusts of wind pounded us for the entire wait. I attempted to put a garbage bag over my clothes, but it was only with a lot of assistance from the nice gentleman next to me that I was able to seize control of the flailing plastic from the wind; he ended up actually pulling the garbage bag over me for me. About 20 minutes of waiting and a chaotic herd of Italians in orange jackets pushing by later, I boarded what turned out to be an excruciatingly slow bus that spent nearly 40 minutes driving us the three miles to Fort Wadsworth. I quipped to the people around me that we'd have gotten there faster if we'd just run from the ferry, but we all agreed that sitting on the bus beat waiting in the wind at the fort. Eventually, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge pulled into view, and a few minutes later, we were there.


As we stepped off the bus, we were immediately greeted by a group of uniformed NYPD counterterrorism officers, who had us each hold out our arms as they scanned us front and back, as well as our bags, with their wands before letting us proceed. A short walk later, I finally arrived in the start village around 10am, 2 hours and 15 minutes after leaving my apartment. The start village was big and spread out and full of people in a way that made me feel like I didn't quite know where I was going even though there were maps and signs and volunteers giving out directions. I tried to head toward where the Galloway group was meeting, behind the medical tent, but the tents had all been removed due to the wind, and the general area where I thought it might be was full of fenced off corrals and long, spindly lines of runners snaking across the landscape. By this time, my corral was nearly due to open, so I decided to make my way there instead.

I arrived to find the corral still full of wave 3 runners and joined the big cluster of wave 4 runners standing outside. The man guarding the entrance told us they were running behind, and we ended up waiting 15 to 20 minutes before we were finally allowed in. Once in the corral, I started sorting the contents of my start village bag into things to stuff into my belts and pockets (ShotBloks, Sports Beans, toilet paper, the extra battery for my phone) and things to discard in a plastic bag (the extra garbage bags I never sat on, my barely-touched bottle of water, the bagel with a few small bites taken out of it). I also used a porta-potty in the corral, which for some reason had no line, unlike every other block of toilets I'd seen all morning. This was actually the first time I had used a porta-potty in my entire life (for a long time, I was very squeamish about public bathrooms), and it was a pretty disgusting but better lit experience than expected; I was thankful I had packed my own wet wipes. After that, I had just enough time to pull off my throwaway pants and toss them into a donation bin, and then the cannon was sounding and we were walking toward the start line, the strains of Frank Sinatra crooning "New York, New York" floating overhead. A photographer took my picture. At the last possible moment, I took off my sweater and handed it to a volunteer. I stopped a few steps short of the start line to juggle my phone into my belt pouch before crossing. And then we were off.

before

Staten Island

The entire Staten Island leg of the New York City Marathon is the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. My wave ran on the lower level of the bridge, which meant that we missed the iconic views of the bridge itself. Instead, those first two miles on the bridge looked and felt almost like we were passing through a long tunnel that would transport us to the separate world that was the actual race. Thanks to the wind, there were no mile markers or timing mats on the bridge, which added to the already-surreal experience of starting my first marathon and crossing the Verrazano-Narrows: I had no idea how far I had gone or how long it had taken me to get there, but strong, sweeping crosswinds, gusting over 40 mph, pressed us sideways for the entire two miles -- a slow uphill first mile, followed by a slightly faster downhill second mile -- across New York Bay. I gained a new appreciation for the term "winded" over those two miles: after each run interval, it felt like I was resting from a much harder effort than I knew I had actually expended, and it was hard to get a full breath because of the way the wind swept in whenever I opened my mouth. I started to think of the wind, which was by far the predominant feature of my experience of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and which felt especially strong while walking, as an obstacle set by this passageway to test our mettle as marathoners before we could really begin the race. The people around me were focused and quiet, many of them also doing run/walk intervals from the start. I saw the 5:45 pace group run past me very early in the first mile.

Brooklyn

I remember thinking, when I finally reached the far side of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, that I had never been so happy to see Brooklyn in my life. The wind calmed considerably once we were no longer over the water, and the ground was strewn with discarded clothing. Garbage bags floated overhead like streamers. My gloves went into my pockets. I pulled my wool buff off from around my neck and, liking it too much to discard it, wrapped it around my wrist. Already I was looking forward to seeing my support crew at mile 7 so that I could drop it off with them. This was also the beginning of the temperature quandary that I would face for the rest of the race: in the calm and the sun, my jacket felt too warm, but whenever a gust of wind would hit me, I'd feel cold and underdressed until it passed.

For those of us who started in green corrals, the first mile in Brooklyn was a weird stretch of empty highway. In the distance, we could hear the occasional sounds of music or cheering, but none of it was in sight. The first spectators I saw were standing on an overpass above the highway, and I waved to them as I passed. Gradually, the spectators grew more numerous: some looking over us as we took the exit ramp, more lining the street as we turned toward Fourth Avenue. Around the 5K mark, which was also the first timing mat, the 6:00 pace group passed me. They also seemed to be doing run/walk intervals, and they were a big enough pack that it was tricky for me to run by them while they were walking.

All along Fourth Avenue, there were plenty of spectators, signs, and DJs, although the crowds looked as though they'd already started thinning. I gave a few high-fives and slapped a few signs that said variants of "Touch Here For Power." In addition to the official water and Gatorade stations, I also saw spectators handing out tissues, paper towels, sticks of gum, and bodyglide on a popsicle stick. A lot of people cheered for me by name, which was really cool; I tried to flash a smile in acknowledgement each time. Because the course was a straight line and the streets were numbered, I knew exactly how far I was from seeing my support crew for the first time, and I spent most of the early stretch of Fourth Avenue mentally counting down the blocks until where they were waiting, really looking forward to getting some hugs.

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After I passed them, my next mental checkpoints were the half marathon mark on the Pulaski Bridge, a bit over six miles away, and seeing them again in Queens a mile after that. Around mile 8, we turned off of Fourth Avenue and merged with the orange and blue starters into a single stream of runners. The next mile was one of my favorites of the entire course. One block is etched into my memory: running between Brooklyn brownstones on tree-lined Lafayette Avenue, autumn-tinted leaves branching overhead, and crowds of spectators, hundreds thick, lining the street on both sides, closing in enough to narrow our passageway, loud and energetic, cheering and clapping and chanting my name. It felt like the kind of moment they would snapshot in a magazine ad somewhere, to entice people to run the marathon.

I think it was somewhere on Bedford Avenue that I ran into my Galloway pace group leader, Liz. We didn't chat much since we were on opposite intervals, but checked in briefly to make sure we were both doing all right. I did see some of the Hasidic Jews I expected in South Williamsburg, but while it was noticeably subdued compared to some of the earlier parts of Brooklyn, it wasn't nearly as silent as I'd expected; there were still some spectators there, cheering. By this time, I was getting really tired of Brooklyn and was just focusing on reaching the Pulaski Bridge and the halfway mark. I'd kept a pretty good pace for the first 10 miles (high 13s and low 14s), but I could feel myself starting to slow and tire a bit. North Williamsburg and Greenpoint were pretty lively -- people were cheering not only from the streets but also from windows above, and I remember hearing someone call out "Go, Pink Hat!" and chuckling to myself about their vantage point -- but I was finding it harder to concentrate on the crowds by this point. Finally, we turned onto McGuinness Boulevard, where it grew suddenly quiet, and the Pulaski Bridge was in sight, and with it, the halfway mark.

midrace-4

Queens

It was such a relief to finally reach Queens. I remember thinking that I had never been so happy to see Queens in my life and wondering if this was a thought that was going to repeat every time I hit a new borough. I had been telling myself for the last few miles in Brooklyn that I would allow myself to check my phone for the first time since before I crossed the start line during my first walk interval after the half marathon mark, so that I could check my half marathon time. That time was 3:09:45, which I was pretty happy with, and I remember thinking that I was still on pace for a 6:30 finish. I wasn't listening to music, but I had been running with one headphone in so that I could hear my interval timer, so I knew that I had received quite a few messages on Twitter as I had been running, many of them right at the start, and I was looking forward to skimming through those messages. They were a nice boost toward the end of the longest stretch (a bit over 7 miles) without seeing my support crew in person.

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Queens itself passed by pretty quickly. I was starting to get tired; my pace was slowing a bit; but I was still feeling decent, and it wasn't a struggle to keep going. It was less than a mile from the far side of the Pulaski Bridge to the 14 mile mark, a couple of blocks from there to my support crew (who were extremely easy to spot, since the spectators were pretty sparse by then along 44th Drive), and from there, a short turn under an overpass, and we had arrived at the Queensboro Bridge.

The Queensboro Bridge was long and surreal. Part of it was a feeling of "How am I here already?"; it felt early to already be at that landmark. Part of it was the way the landscape was so barren and industrial and quiet, although the quiet didn't bother me as I had thought it might, and I didn't turn on any music. Most people around me seemed to be walking, but I ended up sticking to my intervals, even on that long uphill. There were signs every tenth of a mile, but I'm not sure they actually helped; I think they just made a tenth of a mile feel long. Although Roosevelt Island and then Manhattan were technically in sight, it felt like we were in a tunnel or a dream, moving forward through an unchanging landscape without getting anywhere, until suddenly, at long last, we were near enough to the end to hear the crowds in Manhattan. And, like clockwork, I thought to myself how glad I was to finally reach Manhattan.

Queensboro Bridge, Mile 15 of the 2014 NYC Marathon
This was the only picture I took during the marathon. The entire length of the Queensboro Bridge looked exactly like this.

Manhattan, Part 1

First Avenue was loud and lively after the silence of the bridge, but it was definitely not the "wall of sound" I'd been told to expect by people faster than me; the crowds seemed like they had mainly dispersed before I arrived. And the difference between the marathon before the Queensboro Bridge and the marathon after the Queensboro Bridge was that somewhere on that bridge, the fight began. I was struggling, not doing worse than expected, just having to fight to keep going. Before, I thought I might be starting to get tired. After, I knew I was tired. Where previously I had flashed smiles to the spectators calling out my name, I now flashed expressions more closely resembling grimaces. I had gone a long way and still had a long way to go. I remember thinking that "16 miles down, 10 miles to go" might be the worst way to split the distance of a marathon, mentally. I remember thinking that when people had told me at mile 7 that I was "Looking good!" I had believed them, but these people at mile 17 saying the same thing were obviously lying.

midrace-1

I counted the blocks to the Galloway table, which was manned by people I didn't recognize, who nevertheless tried to offer me a lot of food. I ended up taking only a few potato chips (so much saltier and crunchier than the ones I'd packed in advance and gotten from my support crew all day!) and half a home-baked chocolate chip cookie (when I bit into it after having already left the table, I immediately regretted not taking two or packing some sweet baked treat in my own bags). I also ran into Liz there again, and Massiel, who'd been my pace group leader earlier in the season, showed up just in time to give me a hug before I took off again.

A few blocks after I left the Galloway table, at around mile 18, I heard the police escort for the first time. This was the group of police cars, vans, ambulances, and other official vehicles that were reopening the roads. A firm male voice announced, again and again, via bullhorn: "THIS IS THE END OF THE POLICE ESCORT FOR THE NEW YORK CITY MARATHON. THE ROAD WILL NOW BE OPEN TO NORMAL TRAFFIC. PLEASE MOVE TO THE SIDEWALK AND USE CAUTION." I knew before the race started that the roads would be reopened at a 6:30 pace, and my main goal, other than to finish, was to try to avoid being swept. It was stressful and heartwrenching to realize that they had caught up to me so soon, especially since until that point I had believed I was ahead of a 6:30 pace. I really felt panicky. I glanced over my shoulder and could see them a few blocks behind me. It was like, NO PRESSURE AT ALL but there's only a line of police vehicles with flashing lights closing in on you, telling you through a bullhorn that you have to move. I knew my support crew was waiting for me just before mile 19, and I felt like I had absolutely no choice but to push my pace as much as I could if I wanted even a few seconds with them, given that the police escort was less than a minute behind me. When I saw them, I think I blabbered something about how I had been chased by the police for a mile. Half a mile later, just before I reached the Willis Avenue Bridge to cross into the Bronx, the escort vehicles caught up to me and passed me. Fortunately, though, we only had to run on the side of the road at this point, in the bike lane, rather than on the actual sidewalk.

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The Bronx

Even though the police escort had technically passed me, they were still pretty much right next to me going into the Bronx, and I was still seeing those flashing lights and hearing that announcement over and over again. This was the only time all race that I manually typed and posted a tweet. I just felt so demoralized and upset. The police escort was absolutely the low point of my race, and I had to hear them for over three miles (from mile 18 to past mile 21) before they finally got enough ahead of me to be out of earshot. I felt drained and discouraged. It was here, at the mile 20 marker, that I switched from the 1:30-1 intervals I'd been using all race to 1-1 intervals, which felt markedly easier to endure, although it was still a struggle to convince myself to start running each time the timer sounded. We now had to run on the side of the road instead of the middle, which meant that instead of being able to run the tangents, we had to weave from side to side across roads every time we made a turn. I saw timing mats that looked half dismantled, and it was hard to tell whether they were actually registering my chip and whether the people tracking me would have any way of knowing where I was. (In the end, it turned out that the mile 21 mat was the only one that didn't register for me, so my support crew didn't have any updates between 20 miles and 35K (21.7 miles).) I knew that no spectators would be left by this point, and I was right, although we did pass by a fence taped over with signs of support. On Madison Avenue Bridge leaving the Bronx, we did have to use the sidewalk, which was mainly single file, with just enough room for two if you needed to dart around someone to pass them.

Manhattan, Part 2

There were still a few supporters out in Harlem, although most people were packing up for the day, and it was getting hard to tell who was in the race and who was just walking along the street. Thankfully, the official Gatorade and water stations were still all there, and like they had done everywhere all day, the volunteers stood waiting with cups in their hands and gave them to us individually. At one point, one of them also handed me a piece of a banana. At this point, I was drinking both Gatorade and water, nibbling slowly on the food from my support crew, not really wanting any of it but knowing I needed to keep fueling and hydrating. The marathon felt like a slog or a death march. My brain and body were both shutting down, and every time I started the heavier breathing of a run interval, I felt an overwhelming desire to cry. I had five or six miles to go, which felt at once unfathomably far in the moment and short enough that it would be okay, especially compared to the scope of the day.

I saw my support crew at 109th Street on Fifth Avenue, near the northeast corner of Central Park, where my dad held up a sign that read, "The finish line is in sight." "No, it isn't!" I protested. I remember saying to them, "Oh, thank god, we can still run on the side of the street here instead of on the cobblestones." Three blocks later, at 106th Street, I was directed to the cobblestone sidewalk. I saw most of the runners get off the sidewalk and back onto the side of the road a block or so later, and I followed suit, but we were sent back to the sidewalk soon after and were stuck there until we turned into Central Park at 90th Street. At one point, as we were being directed onto the sidewalk, I said to a cop, "Please, no, I hate these cobblestones so much," and another time, I begged a volunteer to let us run on the side of the street instead, but to no avail either time.

Somewhere in this stretch, I got a small wood chip in my shoe that I tried to tolerate but soon realized that I needed to stop to empty it out. At first, I tried to do this while standing on one foot, but I had trouble balancing on one leg and getting my shoe back on at this point. Another runner passing by actually asked me if I needed help, and I said no, it was fine, I would sit down to do it. So I plopped down on the sidewalk, covering my exposed sock with pieces of dried leaves in the process, and then I had to get those off too. Eventually I got all that sorted out and got myself standing again, which felt like enough of a feat to leave me slightly out of breath; I think I actually skipped a run interval that started immediately after I stood because I was still winded, and also because I was using any excuse I could not to run on those cobblestones. I ended up walking from about 94th Street to 91st Street, which might have been the farthest consecutive walking I did all race.

minime-mile24
At miles 8, 15, and 24, ASICS posted pictures of my mini at those landmarks to my Facebook page.

It was such a relief to finally reach 90th Street and the entrance to Central Park just because we were on a proper road again instead of those horrible, jagged, uneven rocks they call sidewalks on Fifth Avenue. Just after we entered Central Park, at the mile 24 marker, I finally turned on my music for the first time since we started. I put on a playlist labeled "Fast 5K," hoping that I could cover the last 2.2 miles in the amount of time I'd once-upon-a-time allocated for a fast 5K. And Central Park was nice. Knowing that the end was within reach, seeing the trees and the familiar roads at twilight, listening to the same songs that had carried me along those same paths so many nights before, it felt almost like an ordinary run. The run intervals started feeling better, especially down Cat Hill. And it was a relief to be running in the night, like a cloak settling protectively over me, no longer having to wonder when the sunset would catch me. Central Park was a welcome calm after all the stress of the last six miles, after police bullhorns and exhaustion and cobblestones.

At some point, a volunteer told us there was a photographer around the next turn, so make sure to smile, and there were quite a few photographers, actually, as we approached the exit to the park and the final stretch. The 40K and 25 mile mats were back to back (just over two minutes apart for me), and I heard my phone start to go crazy with Twitter notifications as I passed 40K. (It turned out that sarianna was rallying the troops on IRC to tweet at me.) I checked my phone every walk break after I heard a notification come in, and it was nice to see everyone so excited, cheering about how close I was.

Unfortunately, I had to run on the sidewalk for the entirety of Central Park South, and there were a lot of people to dart around the entire time. The cobblestones here somehow didn't seem as bad as the ones on Fifth Avenue. My support crew was waiting between 7th and 8th Avenues, but they were on the other side of the street, separated from me by two rows of fences and the road. They did yell my name loudly, though, and I waved back to them, and a cop I was passing saw my name on my shirt, matched it to the cheers he was hearing from my family, and cheered for me too. We had to go back onto the road at Columbus Circle to get into Central Park for the finish, and this was one of the most unbelievable moments of the race: we actually had to stop, line up single file, and wait for our turn to squeeze through a one-foot gap between two fences to get back onto the road. I really regret not being able to have the full experience of running along Central Park South on the road approaching Columbus Circle and that final turn into the park, seeing the unobscured lights in the distance, being able to just run rather than having to constantly pay attention to my footing and darting around pedestrians on the sidewalk.

Back in Central Park, signs lined the finishing chute: 400 meters to go, 200 meters to go. I checked to make sure that my bib, which had been folded up one way or another for most of the race due to the wind, was lying flat and showing my number. I tried to smile whenever I saw a photographer alongside the course. During my last walk interval, I walked just long enough to pull my headphones from my ears and tuck them into my water belt so that I wouldn't be wearing them for the finish before starting to run again. I wondered for a brief moment which side of the finish line to cross.

But mostly, in that final stretch, there was nothing except me and the finish line, glowing brightly under stadium lighting, and the tunnel between us. The world narrowed to these two things: me, the finish line. My eyes fixated on that point ahead of me; my legs moved toward it as quickly as they could, on autopilot; my face was frozen into a dazed grin of ecstasy and relief. And then it was over. I felt in disbelief that I had done it, in disbelief that it was done.

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I smiled the smile of a madwoman. I lifted my hands over my head, then brought them to my mouth. I bowed my head for a volunteer to drape a medal around my neck, then brought it up to my lips. Another volunteer handed me a heat sheet, which I wrapped around my shoulders. I felt at once deliriously tired and as though my senses were all heightened. I posed for a few finish line pictures, completely unable to comprehend the photographer's presumably simple instructions about which way to turn my body. I checked my phone for my finish time. A volunteer waved a piece of tape at me, and I could not for the life of me fathom why, until she used it to secure my heat sheet in front of my chest. Someone handed me a finisher's bag, which felt so heavy and awkward on my arm that I didn't even attempt to open it.

There was a long, slow slog from the finish line at 67th Street to the no baggage exit at 77th Street, along which volunteers kept checking my bracelet and telling me "You're almost there!" like bad spectators standing in the wrong spot. Then I shuffled my way down Central Park West to 74th Street, where a woman draped a warm blue poncho around my shoulders and fastened it shut for me, pulling the hood over my head while asking me how I was. From there, I slowly made my way to 72nd and Columbus, where my support crew waited at the fence, and then to 72nd and Broadway, to catch the subway. On the first train, which was packed to standing room only, I said to a row of people, "I'm sorry, but can I please beg a seat from you?" and a young man hopped up, rather apologetically, and gave me his seat. All told, it took almost exactly an hour from crossing the finish line to walking in the front door of my apartment. I took a quick bath, then spent the rest of the night wrapped up in my soft, fleecy poncho, medal draped around my neck, eating takeout Korean fried chicken and pumpkin ice cream while chatting with my visitors.

The next day, there was perfect fall weather in New York, sunny and mild. I walked back up to Columbus Circle to get my medal engraved for free at New York Running Company, where the lady who sold me my shoes in September still remembered me and asked me about my race, and then to the finish line to pose for a picture and check out the finishers' merchandise on sale. For two days after the race, my quads protested vehemently every time I tried to stand from a sitting position, and then on the third morning, they were fine. Apart from feeling abnormally tired these past few days, there's been very few signs, physically, that less than a week ago, I ran a marathon. Sometimes I glance over at the medal on my nightstand and remind myself that this was real. But that medal is mine and only mine now, forever.


I finished the 2014 New York City Marathon in 6:40:42, a 15:17/mile pace, and placed 49193/50511 total finishers, 19692/20414 women, and 2942/2983 women ages 25-29. My step count for the day was 63916, and I covered about 28 miles by foot that day.

Everyone talks about how running a marathon changes your life. It does, and it doesn't. It's an enormous day, but it's still just one day of your life. In some ways, the training was the greater undertaking, all those pre-dawn mornings facing inconceivable distances.

Because this is what the marathon has taught me. Sometimes, you can't think about the distance. All you can do -- all you have to do -- is keep going. Don't stop. The distance is finite.

Our possibilities are infinite.

And no matter what happens in my life from here, this will always be mine to keep: three years ago, I was an obese girl who had never run a single mile in her entire life, who was trying to turn her health around by jogging in place in front of the microwave for a minute or two at a time while heating up frozen pancakes. Today, I am a marathoner.

I am a marathoner.
*fandom -> ever after -> wings, wings

then i shall make you wings

Tomorrow. The marathon is tomorrow.

For me, it will be the capstone of a three-part journey two years in the making. One year to get into the race. One year to get to the start line. One day to get to the finish line.

I remember when running a mile was such an inconceivable thing that I allotted myself five years for the task. I remember gasping on the treadmill, my heart pitter-pattering wildly, my throat raw. I remember my first 5K, how big it felt, and tasting that experience I wanted again and again, of being cheered across a finish line. I remember lunch after my first 10K, medal around my neck, marveling at the distance: ten thousand meters! I remember eight miles for the first time, cruising out of Central Park in my Vibrams, my feet aching with each step. I remember ten miles for the first time, in winds even stronger than tomorrow's, and startling myself with my time. I remember when a half marathon felt like an impossible struggle. Now it feels like a relief: only 13 miles.

I remember starting running again this past May, wondering if I'd be able to keep up with the Galloway group for a mile and a half. I remember passing the half marathon mark for the first time, during that tough 14 miler in Lower Manhattan. I remember that strong 16 miler along Summer Streets and that excruciating 18 miler in Central Park and that victorious 21 miler in Brooklyn and that other 21 miler, three weeks ago, when I ran alone into the dark.

The night before my first half marathon, I wrote that I might never be the same person again, that I would emerge changed. It's strange how different that is from my thoughts tonight. I feel like I will emerge from the marathon more wholly myself. All those runs, all that training: they are a part of me now. The Saturday mornings before dawn; the weekday late nights along the West Side Highway. When I cross that start line tomorrow morning, I will only have myself and the things I have made a part of me. It will be me -- my body and my heart and my will -- fighting the battle, carrying me 26.2 miles across five bridges and through the five boroughs of this city. I'm excited to experience that confluence: the externality of two million cheering spectators, family and friends among them, and simultaneously, the internality of the challenge and the struggle.

In many ways, this feels like it will be the most enormous thing I have ever done. And whatever tomorrow brings, it will be my victory. Because I am still not an athlete and the marathon is still bigger than I can imagine. But I am going to do it.


Sunday, October 24, 2014: Poland Spring Marathon Kickoff 5 Mile

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Thursday, October 30, 2014: TCS New York City Marathon Expo



If you want to follow along with me at home: http://liveresults.nyrr.org, bib #71546.
*scenic -> paths -> softly

numbers that start with two

Sometimes even after you do a thing, it's hard to conceive of it as doable. That's what today's 21 mile run felt like. We ran from before sunrise until afternoon; from City Hall in Manhattan, across the Brooklyn Bridge, through Brooklyn Heights, Cobble Hill, Gowanus, and Park Slope, inside Prospect Park, down Ocean Parkway to within a mile or so of Coney Island, and then all the way back again.

Three weeks ago, I ran 18 miles, and it was so very hard. From mile 14 onward, each footfall was excruciating; every inch of my body felt heavy and sore and tired. I wanted nothing more than to stop. I asked myself again and again what on earth had possessed me to sign up for a marathon, what on earth had made me think that I could do this crazy, superhuman thing. I was on the verge of tears and ready to walk it in, and it was only thanks to a pace group leader who told me that I was going to do this, that we were all going to do this together, and the state of mental fog that made it easier to listen than to think, that I managed to keep (walk/)running until the end.

No wonder, then, that I spent the better part of the last few days feeling incredibly nervous and fearful about today's scheduled 21 miles. My confidence was shot. If I felt that bad at mile 14, at mile 18, how was I ever going to make it 3 miles farther, to mile 21?

And today didn't begin particularly auspiciously either. I was late thanks to a subway snafu that was completely due to my own lack of knowledge of the subway system and stations, despite having lived here now for nearly five years, and was only saved from missing the start of the run because the program director was coincidentally also a few minutes late. My feet were slightly sore even before we started and began to hurt enough to notice very early in the run. Someone in my group needed a bathroom stop at mile two. My pace group leader tripped and fell twice in the first five miles. When we got to the first aid station at mile six, we had to help set it up before we could use it. By the time we set out for the eight mile out-and-back that marked the second of three segments in today's run, I was already feeling worn down; and by the time we reached our turnaround, still ten and a half miles to go, I really wasn't sure how I would run the same distance all over again.

Today I told myself, "I will find the strength. I will find a way." I told myself to set aside the pain, that it could wait for later. I told myself not to think about the distance, not to think about what remained, to just keep going, this minute, and then the next, and then the next. My group and I made jokes. We played alphabet games. We distracted each other with stories. We ran long stretches in silence, each caught up in her own inner battle against the distance. Eventually, I was able to say to myself, Yes, my feet hurt a whole lot; yes, my best right now is very, very slow; but actually, apart from that, I'm not doing too badly. The rest of my body is holding up. I'm still talking and cracking jokes. I don't feel as strong as I did at the end of last week's 11 mile run, but I'm doing a lot better than I was at mile 14 of that 18 miler.

At mile 17, I felt a second wind, which may have only manifested itself as maintaining the same snail's pace rather than slowing farther and a willingness to try to make red lights instead of wait for them. Somewhere around mile 18, reaching a new record distance, having already lost two of our group's five people, we passed by a casket shop, which in the moment seemed eminently appropriate. I think it was at mile 19 that I finally knew that I was going to finish. Crossing back across the Brooklyn Bridge, at the spot where the bridge changes from being above land to being above water, I reached mile 20, a landmark, a milestone, an old promise to myself ("walk 20 miles in a single day," conceived as I was turning 25, never in my life having run a single continuous mile) fulfilled. And then, weaving through the thick crowds on the Brooklyn Bridge's narrow pedestrian path, darting around swarms of tourists as bikes whizzed past inches away, finally, finally, Manhattan again and 21 miles done.

"We just ran 21 miles!" I exclaimed to my pace group leader, barely able to get the words out without my voice cracking. It felt so big, so momentous. It took my breath away. It was hard to believe that it was possible, let alone that it was done. And at long last, the distance of a marathon is close enough to touch. If I had had to go 5 more miles today, if a finish line and a medal and an accomplishment with a name had waited for me, I think I would have been able to do it. I feel like today I finally met some bare minimum requirement in marathon training, like I became eligible to start a marathon in a way I wasn't until I had proven that I could cover 20+ miles in a single session with my own two feet. To be able to do that and feel good mentally at the end was reassuring and affirmative.

I am six weeks, two races, one last long run, and a taper away from the start line of the New York City Marathon. Today, for the first time, I can imagine in a tangible way not just crossing the finish line, but traversing all those interminable miles in between. They aren't interminable. This is what I learned today. The distance is finite. As long as I keep going, as long as I don't stop, I can make it to the end.

[ 30 Goals Before Age 30 : 5/30 ]

*scenic -> slopes -> at the foot of moun, *scenic -> coast -> at the foot of mount

sweet sixteen

I ran 16.25 miles today.

From Houston to 72nd Street; from Park Avenue to Riverside Drive; from 72nd Street to 125th Street; and then back again. I left my apartment at 6:30 in the morning and got back at 12:30 in the afternoon.

During the run, everyone told me that I couldn't think about the distance, that I had to think only of the current step, and then the next, and the next. But these distances are so new to me (my farthest before today was 13.5 two weeks ago) that I couldn't help but inwardly mark those moments when I run 10 miles and have a 10k to go, when I run a half marathon and have a 5k to go.

And, you know, it was okay. My feet hurt, sometimes a lot, but there was never a moment that was unbearable, never a moment when I was tempted to give up. The farther we got, the more confident I became that I would finish. In my mind, I repeated, "The mind is strong. The mind is strong. The mind is stronger than the body." And eventually everything becomes a blur, but you keep going.

16 miles was the first time I felt like more than a half marathoner, the first time that I began to understand firsthand the enormity of the marathon. It is colossal. It is a mountain without a sure descent. Whatever I am doing, it is not enough; and whatever I am doing, it will have to be enough. And nevertheless, today I allowed myself to imagine the marathon as something I could -- would soon -- tame. Walking home from the subway, I felt the desire to cry well up in me, the way it did in the last mile of my first half marathon, as though my body was suddenly too small to contain my emotions.

The marathon is 11 weeks from tomorrow. I have 10 miles to go. Maybe somewhere in those ten miles, I will scale the wall between who I am and who I will be. Or maybe that harder wall, between what my life is and who I am, the distilled self that remains after everything nonessential falls aside.
*scenic -> fields -> gazebo, gazebo

there will your heart be also

For a while, I donned this airy pink lace dress --

me posing in a gazebo in a pink lace dress

-- and inhabited this sanctuary of a tree room --

the tree room at gaia house

-- and perched on a wood swing overlooking this sunset view --

sunset over the ananda village ridge

-- and my life was an exquisite fiction, tricks of light, sheen and veneer, but no match for the transportative magic of belonging, which even the most beautiful places in the world need to be not merely where we are but where we are supposed to be.
*text -> no regrets, no regrets

greater binghamton bridge run half marathon

One year ago, I ran my first 5K and learned the exhilarating freedom of shedding a lifetime of being the fat girl picked last in gym class to don a race bib and cross a finish line. And this past Sunday, May 5, 2013, I returned to the Greater Binghamton Bridge Run one year later and completed my first half marathon.

I went to sleep at 11pm the night before and woke up feeling rested at 4:30am, took the time to gradually awaken in front of my computer, nibbling on a couple of steamed pork and chive buns my mother had made at my request and a hard boiled egg, sipping a glass of water. I showered and dressed, pinning a small yellow and blue ribbon to my bib (for Boston) and my bib to my shirt. My mother braided my hair, clucking as she always does about how thin it's grown. I filled my water bottles, threw everything I could possibly need into the red backpack I'd been given at packet pickup, sat at the kitchen table to pull on my socks and shoes.

My parents and I left the house around five past seven, and Dad dropped Mom and I off at the start line at around 7:20am and went off to find parking. The sun glared brightly overhead, and I juggled my jacket and my sunglasses and my water belt while Mom splattered my arms with sunscreen and posed me for photographs. Then I made my way to the back of the pack, Becky found me, we posed for more pictures, the crowd hushed for the national anthem, and we were off.

I started fast, clocking maybe 10:30 for the first mile and 11 minutes for the second. It was a pace I knew I couldn't sustain, but the temperature was expected to rise fifteen degrees over the next three hours, and I wanted to bank some time while the air was still relatively cool. I was already starting to slow down by the time I passed my parents for the first time, at mile 3.5, around a quarter of the way into the race, but at that point I still had the energy to put in a burst of speed for them and the gathered crowds as I crossed Court Street Bridge.

By this time, I had slowed to an 11:30 to 12 minute mile pace, and the pack around me had thinned out to just a few people. I took my first Clif Shot Blok at the four mile water station, and took them subsequently at miles six, eight, nine, ten, and eleven. I sped up to give high fives to a little girl and a little boy standing at the edge of their lawn. I got to the five mile mark just under an hour into the race, which was about as fast as I could possibly have expected. Mentally, though, climbing the hills of Conklin Avenue alone under the beating sun felt like a slog, and I worried that it was far too soon for the race to feel that tough.

As I approached the six mile water stop, the volunteers there called out, "Cup your hands!" Apparently they had run out of cups. "Are you serious?" I asked them, before pulling the bottle off of my water belt for them to refill. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the course turned into Confluence Park and the little trail by the Chenango River before crossing Court Street Bridge for the second time. My parents were still waiting there for me, and I swapped my half empty water bottle for a full one I'd given my mom before the race. Halfway there.

As I turned off of Court Street Bridge and approached the seven mile mark, the big toe on my left foot began to hurt, an unusual place for me to experience pain during my runs. I paused to loosen my shoelaces, but it didn't seem to make a difference, and no matter how actively I paid attention to my gait, it felt like that one toe was absorbing the full impact of each step. It was a pain that eventually spread through the sole of my left foot and had me wincing for most of the last six miles of the race. I was passing through mainly residential neighborhoods at this point, only one or two other runners in sight. A police car escorted me for a while, and it was odd but somehow reassuring anyway, a companion to keep up with. My pace deteriorated to about 13 minute miles for miles 7 and 8, 13:30 to 14 minute miles for miles 9 and 10, and even slower for miles 11 and 12. I started taking walk breaks (beyond walking through the water stations) between miles 8 and 9. I passed the 10 mile mark a few minutes past two hours into the race and told myself I only had a 5K left. I was near Recreation Park, where I may have walked a 5K once, back in high school. I could run a 5K. At the water station, I took two cups and poured one over my head.

There's no point when a race effort feels easy, but in this half marathon, I started to struggle around the five mile mark, and things got really tough at mile seven. By mile eight or ten or twelve, I was running on fumes. It was hot; I was almost entirely alone; the people on the sidewalk telling me I looked good were obviously lying, although I exhaled a grimacing "thank you" to each of them anyway. I tried to find meaning in the song lyrics resonating in my ears. I tried to tell myself that I could outrun a centaur. I tried to repeat to myself everything I could remember from a roster of mantras. All of it seemed far away and distant and disconnected from my experience of the moment, which narrowed to a bright, blazing, pain-laced haze of I can't stop. I have to keep going. At mile 11, back on Main Street, I took my last Shot Blok and drank the last of my water. I had two miles left and nothing in me. It's hot. My foot hurts. I have no water. I have to keep going. I can't stop. I ran as long as I could stand it, and then I walked, big, fast strides, until I felt like I could stand it again, and then I ran as long as I could stand it. Again and again. The sun beat down; cars whizzed by; the pedestrians on the sidewalk no longer seemed interested; the road stretched before me, interminably long.

After I finally reached the 12 mile mark and walked through the last water station and approached the last mile of the race, I told myself that I had run those first twelve long, miserable miles so that I could run this one, last mile. This was the mile that counted. This was the mile I had never run before. This was the mile that would make me a half marathoner. The crowds grew thicker again, and they began calling out to me -- "Almost there!" or "Just a few more blocks!" -- as though they felt compelled to offer a life ring to a drowning person.

Even in the last mile, even in the last few blocks, I couldn't really imagine how I could make my body move another mile, another few blocks. Even as the finish line approached, it never felt mentally near. The front runners of the 5K, which had started at 10am, began to pass me, looking impossibly fast and fresh as they breezed by. But then, finally, finally, at long last, I turned the last corner toward the tunnel of spectators approaching the finish line, and I felt my breath go ragged and tears well in my eyes, and from some well so deep inside of myself that I may never be able to find it again, I found the ability to speed up, to push for the final stretch, still slow motion compared to the 5K runners around me, but as fast as I could muster, and the clock read 2:48, and I crossed the finish line and raised my arms over my head and somebody handed me a medal and I brought my hands to my face and two mascots held their hands out to me and I looked at them in a daze before pressing my palms against theirs and then my parents were there and Becky and they were hugging me and asking if I was okay, and I was a half marathoner.

Afterwards, Becky walked me to the food tent, and I downed a bottle of Gatorade and a piece of banana and a couple of the sweetest, juiciest orange slices I've ever had and a carton of strawberry greek yogurt. Becky headed off, and I paced back and forth waiting for Iris to finish her 5K and even ran the last few steps with her before going with my parents back to their car and their house, and by then it was already starting to feel unbelievable, unreal, only the medal I wore all day around my neck a solid thing, a reminder, real and tangible, that I did this. I ran a half marathon.

My official time was 2:47:20, a 12:45 pace. I placed 1042/1076 overall, 557/584 among women, and 165/169 among women ages 20-29. It was so very, very hard. If I hadn't already signed up for Brooklyn (less than two weeks away!) well in advance, I'm not sure I could have brought myself to register for another half marathon, especially so soon. I woke up yesterday feeling like every muscle in my body hurt, and today has been only marginally better.

But no matter what happens in my life from here, I will always have done this. I will always be a half marathoner. And I will carry that priceless knowing with me until every pain and every memory of pain has faded, and it will be worth everything.

me crossing the finish line of the binghamton bridge run half marathon

me just after crossing the finish line of the binghamton bridge run half marathon
fleur, *flowers -> fleur, blossoms

until the last beat of my heart

Nine hours from the start line of my first half marathon, I feel mainly that I may never quite be the same person again. I feel as though I'm about to embark on a trial by fire, fierce and agonizing, from which I'll emerge changed, a different, more refined creature, with access to capabilities not yet mine.

Two weeks ago, after the longest run of my half marathon training (12.17 miles in 2:54:15), a guy from my 2013in2013 team said to me, "Tough runs make tough runners." It was what I needed to hear after the last three or four miles of that run, when more and more I couldn't quite see how to pass from each moment to the next, sustaining the movements of my body.

And then there will come a time when I must run with my heart.

I knew this, and I know this will be tomorrow's true test: not of the capabilities of my body, which is undertrained but adequate, but of the capabilities of my heart, which is a tenacious and resourceful muscle. These are the things I already know about myself, when I'm honest and brave and at my best, that I don't need tomorrow's race to prove: that I'm stubborn and persistent and longsuffering and strong.

I can do this. I will do this. In half a day, I will become that mythical self, Connie the Half Marathoner, and I will cry or kiss the ground, and this thing will always be mine to keep, and what is possible for me will change.
*fandom -> hp -> i open at the close

when your soul embarks

There are many things I want to say about running, but let's start with this.

Two weeks ago, I ran farther than 10K for the first time. Not even much farther -- 6.92 miles to a 10K's 6.2 -- but I recognized it for what it was, a ceiling breaking. Suddenly I could imagine larger numbers; suddenly greater distances were within my reach, close enough to think about and talk about and try.

Last week, I ran eight miles for the first time. It took me one hour and forty minutes, one hundred whole minutes of continuous running. Somewhere between mile four and mile five, I squeezed a small packet of vanilla bean GU into my mouth and washed it down with water from a small bottle, newly acquired, that I carried in the pocket of my running jacket, also newly acquired. Each of the thousands of the steps in the last two miles was a fresh reminder of how sore my feet were, even in two layers of socks; a footfall was a small, sharp nip. And when, at last, I sailed out of Central Park, eight miles, one hundred minutes later, there was none of the previous week's sense of possibility. Could I really hold up for another two miles? Another five?

That night, I committed to do both, signing up for my first ten miler, the Prospect Park Track Club Cherry Tree 10 Miler on February 17, and my first half marathon, the Greater Binghamton Bridge Run Half Marathon on May 5. After all the months of thinking about it and talking about it, I found myself barely willing to click the "Register" button in my browser. I held a stuffed elephant in my lap, as though we were somehow doing this together. And then I moved my finger, and it was done, and everything felt warm and liquid and I was moving slightly too fast, speaking slightly too loud, nerves and anticipation, fear and foreknowledge combining in physical form.

Signing up for a race is an act of faith. It is saying to my future self, I cannot do this yet, but I believe that you will. It is a promise: I will do what I must so that you can.

In fifteen weeks (closer to fourteen, now), I will become a half marathoner.

It is still unthinkably far. I imagine landing in Inwood, at the far northern tip of Manhattan, and being given two and a half hours (my goal) to take myself to Battery Park on foot, and I can't really imagine it. All the miles of Broadway, the many neighborhoods in between, blur together into an intangible vision of distance.

Last night, my eyes heavy and tired, I dragged myself to the gym to run yesterday's scheduled 5.2 miles on the treadmill, not having dared brave the afternoon's cold temperatures and colder winds to run outside. A few minutes later, when Lawrence stepped onto the treadmill beside mine, I paused my podcast, pulled my headphone from my ear, and told him I wasn't sure I would be able to finish the run. But an hour later, I was still there, completing the last few tenths of a mile.

Every night like this one, I tell myself that this is what I must do if I want to become a half marathoner. Each time I churn out an unending distance on the treadmill, each yoga class, each time I spend sixty or ninety minutes on the bike or the rowing machine or the elliptical, each time I do the crunches and squats and step-ups and planks I still haven't learned to like, I invest in this mythical Connie the Half Marathoner and earn her -- earn me -- the body that will carry itself forward 13.1 miles in 2.5 hours.

And then there will come a time when I must run with my heart. I read this in the comments of an article about someone's first half and knew it to be true. They say to run the beginning of a race with your legs, the middle with your mind, and the end with your heart. I know, if I keep going for long enough, that I will reach a point when my body and mind shut down and only my will will remain. It is like Kipling said in "If," long ago:

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on!"


So I run when I am tired. I run the day after I've run farther than I ever have. I run when running is the last thing I want to do. Because I am training my body, but also I must train my will. I must grow the capabilities of my heart.

I read my own words and know that I cannot do this. My eyes tear up if I consider it closely enough. Thirteen miles. Two and a half hours. I know many people -- including some of you -- have done this before, but I still can't help thinking, how is that even possible? But this is me now. This is my life now. Not who I was, but who I have chosen to become.

In these next fourteen weeks, I will make this impossible thing possible for myself.
*glitch -> sad, *girls -> sad glitch

to be woven in our dreaming

This summer, combing through lists of running quotes in search of a mantra, I came across one that resonated with me, from Bill Bowerman: "Everything you need is already inside."

There was something important to me in this idea about capability, but it also called forth the echo of another, half-remembered expression from the banks of my memory. In J. K. Rowling's words: "We carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better."

***

I thought about that again this fall, part of a dawning recognition that I was losing touch with myself and that I needed to rekindle my love affair with words, which have always been a portal to worlds for me. Imagination was the first stone I could pull from the sand, an anchor, a thing about which I could say, This is a part of who I am. This is embedded in the way I think about myself.

The imaginative has always held a draw for me, but my own creative aptitudes lie more in arranging and juxtaposing, I think, than in conjuring worlds and calling forth stories. Maybe especially because of this, I have always loved getting lost in other people's worlds and contemplating all the possible stories, not always told, that might unfold in those worlds. Mine was the kind of girlhood filled with deep nights, hiding under the covers with a flashlight and a book, moonlight illuminating the trees of my backyard until they appeared otherworldly, and a pocket knife securely stowed in a tiny drawstring bag on my bedside windowsill, so that I would be ready should I ever be whisked away to Narnia.

To me, my imagination is the part of me that believes in the extraordinary and explores possibilities, that fervently hunts for more.

I thought about all of this, and I thought, if I were ever to want a tattoo, maybe I could get the little imagination bubble from Glitch.

***

And then fall ebbed into winter, and I learned with dismay that Glitch was closing down. I can describe it in regular words -- a browser-based sandbox MMO -- but that hardly captures what this game meant to me in the year and a half I played it. It gifted me with a fantastical, crazily beautiful world, full of landscapes and animals and trees; and everything in Glitch was about creating, imagining, building up, being kind and whimsical and an explorer of the world.

Right after the announcement, I came across dozens and dozens of the saddest goodbye notes, piled over the world like fallen snow. The one I remember best said, "What will happen to us? 25 days until the end of our world." After that, I couldn't really bring myself to play Glitch in its last month, beset by a sense of futility. But on the very last day, this past Sunday, I logged into the game, sold off most of my collected possessions, emptied my tower, shrunk my house, wandered through new regions of the world and photographed them for posterity. At the very end, a few of us who had started playing together all those months ago gathered together one last time in our old home of Venet Root in Bortola and posed for snapshots. And then, in the last seconds, the strains of Goodnight, Groddle played one final time, and then the world went dark.

Glitch is gone now, but I have my avatar and my snaps, and I have ordered the art book and the soundtrack, because Tiny Speck did everything right. But also it will live on in my imagination, the same way that Narnia and Avonlea and Hogwarts do, abstract but permanent and bigger than they were. I was only lucky enough that this once, I wasn't merely told of a world I loved enough to imagine in it; for a while, I was able to inhabit it and to contribute to its unfolding stories. Somewhere out there (in here, in the other-dimensional space where who I am dwells), my Glitch still walks the streets of Ur, scooping jellisacs, petting bubble trees, squeezing her Weasley chickens, planting rookswort, harvesting paper, creating teleportation scripts for her travel agency, and poking very stinky cheese for small shiny objects with no intrinsic value with which to decorate the world and, like Gretel's breadcrumbs, mark her way home.

***

The best worlds we meet live on in us. Because we have the power to imagine.
*text -> no regrets, no regrets

and so i run

me at the start line of the binghamton bridge run 5k

I finished the Binghamton Bridge Run 5k today with a gun time (from when the starting siren sounded to when I crossed the finish line) of 37:57, a chip time (from when I crossed the start line to when I crossed the finish line) of 37:44. I was 622/783 overall, 339/457 among women, 85/103 among women in the 20-29 age group. A 12:13 pace.

That's a minute and a half better than my best practice 5k, almost 12 minutes faster than my first attempt, five weeks ago. I keep reminding myself, when I feel tempted to compare myself to others, that my narrative is of a girl who's been overweight and out of shape her entire life, who has never had any athletic proclivities or abilities, who weighs 181 pounds and six months ago had never run a mile in her life. Today, I felt prepared and challenged. I ran at a pace I thought was unsustainable for me, and I sustained it. I feel really good about my time. I feel really good about myself. And I have plenty of room to improve.

The beginning of the race was disconcerting for me; sharp and unfamiliar pain shot down my left thigh mere seconds after we began, completely out of nowhere. I kept on, more staggeringly than I otherwise might have, and the pain dulled eventually, though it hasn't gone away completely even now, half a day later. I had expected perfect running weather, the temperature in the mid-50s, but I was unprepared for the severity of the beating sun; I have sunburns even after having slathered on sunscreen, and my mouth felt so dry that the water stations felt like oases. The first one I saw, two miles in and not knowing about these things, I wondered for an absurd moment if some kind of animal had gotten into a chain of garbage bags or what kind of raucous party had littered the street with broken disposable cups. Then I heard the volunteers calling out their offers of water, saw them walking out onto the street to hand the cups to the passing runners, and I understood and felt so relieved and grateful. I grabbed a cup, took one great gulp, felt renewed power in my body, sped up immediately. At the second water station, I blurted out "I love you" to the volunteer who greeted me with a cup.

There was no order to how we started, so the first minutes of the race were filled with the faster runners hitting their strides, passing me in waves after waves after waves, and eventually the people around me stabilized to those who were around my pace. The mile markers came swiftly. I knew I was pushing myself; I knew I was pacing myself. I remember thinking, somewhere in the second mile, how good it was that I'd read books about the Appalachian Trail, blogs of runners, that I'd learned before I stepped into this thing that everyone has to hike their own hike, run their own run. I remember thinking, as I approached the last half mile, that it hadn't occurred to me to save some energy for the parts where people line the streets, ringing bells, shouting encouragements, cheering. I sped up for them anyway. And when I rounded the last bend and turned into the crowd-lined corridor to the finish line, I first admonished myself not to start sprinting too soon, to make sure I wouldn't peter out before the end, and then as the clock came into sight and I realized how close I was to crossing the finish line in under 38 minutes, I sprinted anyway, full out, fast, squeezing between two people just in front of me, coasting to the end just seconds shy of the minute.

The whole experience was exhilarating. I loved the sensation of running through the emptied streets, through the cityscape, in the company of a pack of people doing the same. I loved seeing all the cars being held at intersections so that I could command the concrete in their stead. I loved the satisfaction of pushing through the pain. I felt so bolstered by the spectators, so grateful for their enthusiastic cheers. I can run five kilometers any time I please, but two laps around the reservoir feel muted compared to the addictive thrill of donning a race bib and crossing a finish line. This is an experience that I know I want to have again and again.

I'm eyeing a mid-October 10k in Brooklyn right now, maybe a September 5k before that. Maybe a half marathon next year. Maybe a marathon someday.
*text -> found, found, *scenic -> paths -> found

but it bends toward justice

I've been cleaning my parents' basement this week, sorting through boxes upon boxes that have sat untouched for years. And among the mountains of refuse, I've found some notable childhood artifacts.

There's the political ideology quiz I took in my high school civics class, ten years ago this fall. Based on my results, I was a moderate, leaning conservative. For the question "Homosexuals should have the same rights as anybody else," on a five-point scale from "strongly agree" to "strongly disagree," I selected a three. Neutral.

There's my first Holy Bible, falling to pieces in its hand-sewn grey fleece cover. It was a gift from four girls who attended my conservative Baptist church, their names delicately penned on one of the front pages. Last week, I wrote to New York State Senators in support of marriage equality and posted a copy of my letter on Facebook. One of those girls clicked the "Like" button.

That's proof of how far people can come in the span of a decade. She is proof. I am proof.

Now the bill is passed and signed. I sat on my parents' living room floor, playing Apples to Apples with a cluster of friends, my cards unmoving in my hand as I watched two brave State Senators announce their difficult, necessary choices. In the third most populous state in the United States, a Republican-controlled State Senate voted marriage equality into law. In a month from now, right here, same-sex couples will be able to marry.

In all of history, this may become the turning point, the moment when the fight for marriage equality crested the peak of a long climb and gained enough momentum to propel ahead lastingly. I believe, now, that we are the last generation where the freedom to marry is not considered a self-evident truth. Society will always have its bigots and its cruelties, but our daughters and sons will grow up in a world where they are not shunned or shamed for who they love. And we will have been there -- here -- at the birth of that world, working to make it theirs, to make it ours.

So keep the faith. Keep up the fight.

In this country's last civil rights movement, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. often quoted Theodore Parker, proclaiming, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."

What was true then is true now. Friends, always, always, we are bending, arcing, curving toward justice.

therealljidol season 7, week 29 free topic: semper fidelis
*scenic -> fields -> many have loved, *love -> many have loved, many have loved, *text -> many have loved

an open letter to new york state senators

After being inspired by teaberryblue, I just emailed this letter to New York State Senators Mark Grisanti (grisanti@nysenate.gov) and Stephen Saland (saland@nysenate.gov), who are key swing votes on the bill currently in the state Senate that would enact marriage equality in New York State. 31 state Senators (29 Democrats and 2 Republicans) have publicly expressed their support for this bill. We only need one undecided Republican state Senator to support this bill to make marriage equality a reality here.

If you are in or from New York, I encourage you to call or email one or more of these legislators today.

Edit, 18 June 2011: I also sent a version of this to Thomas Libous (senator@senatorlibous.com) yesterday, asking him to at least allow the measure to come to a vote. He isn't undecided, but he is the state Senator from the Binghamton area, where I grew up, and he's fairly high up in the Republican chain of command. This morning, I also emailed a copy to another undecided state Senator, Greg Ball (gball@nysenate.gov).

***

Dear Senator,

I am writing to you to voice my support for marriage equality in New York State.

The fact is, I can get married whenever I want. I could marry a stranger. I could marry for money. I could marry with plans to get divorced a week later. No one would care whether my marriage produced any children.

To people who don't know me, my marriage would be wholly unremarkable.

I have no plans to marry someone I don't know, for any reasons other than love, or for a duration shorter than a lifetime, but that the law permits me to do those things is part of the beauty of living in a free society that values individual liberties and self-determination. These are conservative principles. They are American principles.

I moved to this country from China when I was four years old. Growing up in upstate New York, I was always particularly appreciative of how lucky I was to be in a society where the most important choices about how to live my life were up to me. I was always particularly conscious of how small an accident of fate or fortune made that possible for me.

Senator, I am writing to you because, thanks to a different accident of fate or fortune, the law doesn't allow some of my dearest friends in this world to make an important choice about their own lives. And you have the power to change this.

You see, because I happen to be a woman who is attracted to men, I can get married whenever I want, for whatever my own reasons and intentions might be. But because my friends happen to be women who are attracted to women or men who are attracted to men, they are denied a whole host of civil liberties that should be available to every New Yorker.

That's not fair. It's not right. And it's not the New York I know and love.

Senator, my friends are decent, loving, principled people. They dream, as I do, of finding a lasting and reciprocated love, of building their own families that are recognized by society and by the law.

Please make the brave choice, the
human choice, the choice that will land you on the right side of history, and give them that chance. Please vote for marriage equality in New York State.

Thank you,

Connie Meng
*illustrated -> branches, *scenic -> trees -> branches, branches

There was a world before and a world beyond...

"What has happened?" said Dumbledore sharply, looking from Fudge to Professor McGonagall. "Why are you disturbing these people? Minerva, I'm surprised at you -- I asked you to stand guard over Barty Crouch --"

"There is no need to stand guard over him anymore, Dumbledore!" she shrieked. "The Minister has seen to that!"

Harry had never seen Professor McGonagall lose control like this. There were angry blotches of color in her cheeks, and her hands were balled into fists; she was trembling with fury.

"When we told Mr. Fudge that we had caught the Death Eater responsible for tonight's events," said Snape, in a low voice, "he seemed to feel his personal safety was in question. He insisted on summoning a dementor to accompany him into the castle. He brought it up to the office where Barty Crouch --"

"I told him you would not agree, Dumbledore!" Professor McGonagall fumed. "I told him you would never allow dementors to set foot inside the castle, but --"

"My dear woman!" roared Fudge, who likewise looked angrier than Harry had ever seen him, "as Minister of Magic, it is my decision whether I wish to bring protection with me when interviewing a possibly dangerous --"

But Professor McGonagall's voice drowned Fudge's.

"The moment that -- that thing entered the room," she screamed, pointing at Fudge, trembling all over, "it swooped down on Crouch and -- and --"

Harry felt a chill in his stomach as Professor McGonagall struggled to find words to describe what had happened. He did not need her to finish her sentence. He knew what the dementor must have done. It had administered its fatal Kiss to Barty Crouch. It had sucked his soul out through his mouth. He was worse than dead.

"By all accounts, he is no loss!" blustered Fudge. "It seems he has been responsible for several deaths!"

"But he cannot now give testimony, Cornelius," said Dumbledore. He was staring hard at Fudge, as though seeing him plainly for the first time. "He cannot give evidence about why he killed those people."


"THE PARTING OF THE WAYS," HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE, J. K. ROWLING

***

And so Osama bin Laden is dead. It is the death he would have wanted, if one obituary is to be believed, a death by the bullet.

In another universe, I imagine him spending long years alone in a dark cell. I imagine him standing trial and giving testimony, facing the survivors of his victims. I imagine for him a prolonged death in captivity, in a world where he has stopped mattering. But that universe is not possible anymore.

Instead, in this universe, crowds are congregating on the streets of New York and D.C., cheering at a corpse. They evoke for me the faded recollections of video footage from another decade, others riotously rejoicing in our pain, and even though I know this is different, I am saddened that ten gruesome years have not taught us to be better people.

There was a world before and a world beyond, but the two were never quite alike. A decade out, that's the best I can come up with to describe what September 11th did. For me it was the transformative historical moment to which so much else harkened, the event that singularly cast into glaring light how unsafe a place the world could be.

I've learned many things since I was fifteen, but I still haven't learned how to celebrate death, the great irreversible. Of course I'm relieved that Osama bin Laden is no longer at large, no longer able to mastermind more attacks that would shatter more lives. Of course I understand that capturing him alive may not have been possible, or not possible without greater loss of life. Last night, when I first heard the news, I felt relief and disbelief entwined. I felt a sensation like the lifting of a shroud, as though the world had become a safer place for bin Laden's absence.

But the truth is that Osama bin Laden's death cannot give me my old world back. Nothing can; it is gone. Today I am wary. Sitting in my Manhattan apartment a stone's throw away from Times Square, I feel more cautious of my safety than I did yesterday.

We can kill a single terrorist; we can even decimate an individual terrorist network; but a war on terror is a war we will never win. Anger and hatred and violence cannot be eradicated from the human species. I want for us all to see the world for its complexities and nuance, to approach it with sensitivity and measure, to remember that there are at least two sides to every story.

Today a man is dead, a man with sisters and brothers, daughters and sons. I do not mourn him. But I do not delight.
*festive -> celebration, celebration

year of the rabbit

The evening of Chinese New Year, I pull on a red shirt and fold my hair into twin braids framing my face. I unearth an old handbag -- was it from a trip to China? a trip to Chinatown? -- and trace my fingers over the scratchy satin fabric, the stitched black trim, the ornate Asian knots. Then I quickly stuff my wallet, keyring (jangling with plastic discount cards to a dozen local merchants), and BlackBerry within, lace up my boots, and go to the living room to greet my boyfriend.

"I'm dressed up as a Chinese girl dressing up as a Chinese girl," I announce.

Given that I'm a Chinese girl, he's understandably confused. Gesturing to my hair and handbag, I explain. "Someone who isn't Chinese will think I look Chinese. Someone who's Chinese will think I look ridiculous, an adult dressed up like a little girl."

"No one my age wears their hair like this in China," I add as we walk to a nearby Chinese restaurant for dinner.

The night before, I paged through our Chinese takeout menus as my boyfriend watched.

"What do Chinese people eat on New Year's Eve?" he asked, curious.

"Fish," I reply, grasping onto the only piece of trivia I remember. "They eat fish so that they can leave some on the table." The sentence sounds incongruous even as I pronounce it. "The word for 'fish' sounds the same as the word for --" But I don't remember what yu means, other than fish. Fortune? Wealth? Abundance?

I don't order fish. Seafood is pricy, more than I want to spend, and anyway an authentically-prepared fish, laid out from head to tail, feels too extravagant for takeout.

When I wake up on New Year's Day, I turn to the to-do list I penned the night before. The first item is "call mom," and obediently I dial. "Xin nian kuai le," I wish her, the familiar words feeling heavy with disuse on my tongue. "Happy new year!"

Gong xi fa cai, my inner voice chimes, completing the New Year's wish for prosperity. In my recollection, these are the words of children, said to their elders, rewarded with red envelopes filled with paper money. Back in high school, before I developed this self-consciousness, I filled red envelopes with nickels and dimes and taught my classmates the words at school, rewarding them with the sweet scented parcel and its enveloped coin once they had mastered the pronunciation.

But I am twenty-five now, too old, my inner voice says, to ask for New Year's money from my parents, so I leave the words unsaid.

On the phone, my mother is telling me about the New Year's parties she's attending, the Spring Festival Gala she watches broadcast from CCTV every year, the gatherings our relatives are holding in China. She thanks me for the chives I sent, tells me she was preparing them for dumplings when I called. She's upset because my sister complained about breakfast and left for school without wishing her a happy new year.

I tell her she should have my sister prepare her own breakfast. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I make a note: eat dumplings tomorrow.

At the restaurant, the waitstaff is garbed in red dress shirts. My boyfriend is trying to remember if this is their usual uniform or something special for the occasion. I order a dongpo pork, half Sichuan style, half Shanghai style, and the waiter seems delighted when he begins to point out to me which is which and I already know the difference. On our way out after the meal, a line of servers, hostesses, and kitchen staff wish me a happy new year as we shuffle through the thin hallway between the back dining room and the door. "Have a good night!" they tell my boyfriend.

"I must have done a good job of being Chinese," I say when we get home. "I got so many more 'Happy New Year's than you."

"Love," he laughs, "I don't think that's very hard for you."

Harder than it seems, I think but don't say as we settle in for the night. I have such a tenuous grip on my own traditions.

therealljidol season 7, topic 12: the sincerest form of flattery
please join the community and vote here
let there be stars, enchanted, *scenic -> sky -> let there be stars

we are the dreamers of dreams

Many years ago I was an alien.

It was surprisingly easy to become one, especially at age four, when other people take care of the paperwork. All I had to do was go somewhere different. I didn't even need my own pair of wings.

At the border I became transformed. I became a new species. I became alien.

I did not know it at the time, but there are actually two subspecies of aliens. I was among the luckier ones: I became a resident alien. Others, like me carried to a new world by the impetus of those older than themselves, suffered a less fortunate designation. They became illegal aliens.

Many years later, after my assimilation was complete, I underwent a procedure called naturalization. I became one of them.

A United States citizen.

***

It was the words that made me wonder, at first, before I could examine the ideas. I stood on the playground and declared to my elementary school classmates, "I'm an alien!"

It was a joke that I meant seriously, complete with punchline: "... a resident alien!"

But the idea instilled in me a sense of internal inquiry: what made me so different? What about me was so foreign, so irreconcilable as to be considered not of this world? I had the same two almond eyes, the same ten fingers dangling from my two arms. Was it something about my form, my facial features, the workings of my consciousness?

I was born in another country, but I was just like them.

And what, I mused after I signed the papers as a high schooler, had been so unnatural about me that had now been corrected with my naturalization? What aberration of past or person had been eradicated from me as I raised my right hand and repeated the magic words, securing my future right to vote but not to run for President?

How was it possible that, between one second and the next, I could just stop being an alien?

***

This week, the United States House of Representatives passed the DREAM Act, which would provide a conditional pathway to citizenship for illegal aliens who entered the country as children. The legislation is unlikely to see action in the Senate.

I think that is a shame. Like me, the beneficiaries of this legislation were brought into this country by their parents, a decision made when they were too young to direct their own geographic movements. Like me, this is the place where they have grown up, where they conduct the daily activities of their lives.

But unlike me, they are the inheritors of a marred history. They are shunned and met with vitriol. They are sons enduring punishment for the actions of their fathers.

They are aliens with no path forward.

***

From space, the cast of metropolis lights ignites planet Earth, marking our population centers with a dotted glow. And because they are where we have settled, the trails of lights illuminate our waterways, tracing the curves of a thousand rivers. But the lines of our maps are invisible. The borders we guard cannot be seen. There is no trace of the boundaries we erected and defend.

And in deep space, six manmade vessels are on a solar escape trajectory, hurtling away from the gravitational pull of our sun and into the galaxy beyond. Two of them bear identical copies of a golden record, engraved with the sights and sounds of our civilization, our human artifacts.

"We cast this message into the cosmos," reads a message from former U.S. President Jimmy Carter encoded onto these records. "It is likely to survive a billion years into our future, when our civilization is profoundly altered and the surface of the Earth may be vastly changed. ... We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours. ... This record represents our hope and our determination, and our goodwill in a vast and awesome universe."

In a universe more vast and awesome than we have ever been able to imagine, how can we be so alien from one another?

therealljidol season 7, topic 6: not of your world
*scenic -> sky -> wire sky, wire sky

this is how, this is how we take to the skies now

In one century we've made the world smaller.

Our voices traverse continents faster than the speed of sound. In mere instants our images are projected across the world. One day is too long to circumnavigate the earth.

Unique in our ancestral history, we are no longer bound by space. Our affections and our work have global reach. Distance, location, place... transcended by our virtual communities, our telecommunications, our fantastical transit. In hours, we can be thousands of miles away.

We are unlimited.

We are afraid.

A species gifted with both self-determination and limitless want, some of us have turned on our own. Plundering the neighboring village; murdering in rage or malice; terror.

We search for an impossible safety. We want a reassurance that cannot be lived. And when we cannot find it, we seek its shadow, comforted by our illusions. An audience held rapt by a performance. Security theater.

*

You are asked to enter a full-body scanner.

Pilot associations, concerned about dangerous levels of radiation exposure, have cautioned their members against entering these machines, and scientists from the University of California have warned of their numerous health risks. But government officials, by calculating radiation levels distributed through the whole body rather than accounting for the scanners' skin-focused exposure and by citing the assessments of scientists who did not know how widely the devices would be used, insist that they are safe.

In the United Kingdom, these machines cannot be used on people under age 18; doing so would violate child pornography laws. But in the United States, you are eligible as long as you are able to raise your arms over your head for five seconds. Using millimeter wave or backscatter x-ray technology, the scanner generates a high-resolution image of your naked body. Your face will be obscured, but not your form. Not your surgery scars, not a woman's menses. Not your genitals.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) tells us that these images are discarded as soon as they are viewed, insisting as recently as this week that "equipment sent ... to airports cannot store, transmit, or print images." But TSA procurement records disclose that every unit it purchases is required to have the ability to store and transmit images. And although there has been no evidence that these capabilities have been activated at airports, over 35000 images captured using a similar machine at a Florida courthouse were saved and leaked to the public. I can see them right now. So can you.

You are asked to enter a full-body scanner.

You, or your friend with the memory of assault still on her skin, or your child.

*

You are asked to enter a full-body scanner, but you have a choice. You can refuse.

If you do, you face instead an "enhanced" physical pat-down. Gone are the days of a delicate brush with the back of a hand. If you choose a physical pat-down, you can expect someone to touch, firmly, your breasts, your inner thighs, your buttocks, perhaps to slide their hands beneath your waistline, between your underwear and your skin. You can expect an agent's palm or fingers to probe your testicles or your vulva.

This process is invasive by design, formulated as a deterrent. "Nobody's going to do it," one security officer told a reporter, "once they find out that we're going to do. That's what we're hoping for. We're trying to get everyone into the machine."

Many travelers have corroborated this tactic, reporting efforts by TSA agents to intimidate, embarrass, and delay those who choose a pat-down over a full-body scan. And though many agents conduct this procedure professionally, there are some who overstep their bounds. Some who touch without warning, although they are expected to explain what they will do. Some men who pat down women, although travelers have the right to be examined by a same-sex agent. Some who fail to offer a private screening or to explain a traveler's right to a witness, although these are requirements by law. Some who rebuff a patient's concerns about his medical condition.

You face an enhanced physical pat-down.

You, or your friend with the memory of assault still on her skin, or your child.

*

Questionable radiation exposure or a stranger's hands on your body. Allowing someone to see your naked image or allowing someone to feel your genitals. Trapped between two incomprehensible scenarios.

Which do you choose?

Poll #1646686 Scanner vs. Pat-Down

Which do you choose?

a full-body scanner
7(41.2%)
an enhanced pat-down
10(58.8%)

*

But wait, you say. Don't I have another choice? What if I refuse both?

Then you will not be allowed to fly. Then you violate federal law, which compels travelers to complete the security screening process once they enter it. Then you face a civil lawsuit and fines up to $11000.

But these, too, are your choices.

So which do you choose?

Poll #1646687 Scanner vs. Pat-Down vs. Fine

Which do you choose?

a full-body scanner
7(38.9%)
an enhanced pat-down
8(44.4%)
a $11000 fine
3(16.7%)

*

Some say we sacrifice our liberties when we enter an airport, that this is the price we should willingly pay for our safety. If we are unhappy, they say, we can choose not to fly.

We can choose to be land-bound. We can choose to shrink the scopes of our connections. We can choose to reach less far, to ground our ambitions and our aspirations. We can choose to inhabit only our own small domains of an untamably large world.

This is a life that some are content to lead. But what will make you happy? What do you choose?

Poll #1646688 Scanner vs. Pat-Down vs. Fine vs. Not Flying

Which do you choose?

a full-body scanner
5(23.8%)
an enhanced pat-down
4(19.0%)
a $11000 fine
0(0.0%)
not to fly
12(57.1%)

How do we escape these impossible choices?

*

"The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

United States Constitution, Amendment IV


therealljidol season 7, topic 3: it's a trap!
light, *scenic -> trees -> light

a path through the wilderness

A gold-leafed branch arches over the glimmering waters of the Shenandoah River.Sunlight slants across the pillars of a bridge crossing the Shenandoah River.

We wound up there by accident.

Three hours before our train was to depart Harpers Ferry station and whisk us back to our life in New York City, I pressed the last of my rolled clothes into my backpack and turned to my boyfriend.

"What would you like to do this morning?" I asked, thinking of the rustic shops and cafes we had passed the previous evening as we trekked to our hotel.

"It looks like there's a national park on the other side of the highway," he replied. He looked up from the map he was examining and nodded out the window.

Begrudgingly I agreed. We walked the pedestrian lane of a concrete bridge, pausing every few steps to photograph the October sun reflecting over the Shenandoah, the arches of autumn trees branching above the water, the morning light gleaming from beyond the mountains. Cars breezed by now and then, almost teasingly, speeding across in seconds the expanse over which we lingered.

At the end of the bridge, we found a set of stairs leading down. Following them, we crossed under the bridge and came to a thin dirt trail, threading through a narrow meadow overrun with wild grass and a scattering of trees. Beside the path stood a signpost, announcing the miles until upcoming waypoints.

We had stumbled upon the Appalachian Trail.

My enthusiasm restored, I suggested we hike a while. As we ambled along, I thought about how the trail reminded me of many other woodland paths I've walked -- in Vermont, in Maine, in upstate New York and northeast Pennsylvania. I thought about how people can fall into the rhythm of the terrain for mile after mile.

Then we rounded a bend and found the hitherto level path winding uphill steeply, the ground littered first with pebbles and then with stones. At one point, my boyfriend braced himself to clamber up a small waterfall, until we saw the distinctive swath of white paint on a tree in the distance, marking the trail in a different direction. I painstakingly picked my way over the rocks and roots jutting out of the damp earth, gingerly scanned the ground for footholds with each slow step.

Suddenly the Appalachian Trail seemed insurmountable. I washed my recollections of tales of through-hikes with a new coating of awe. At the top of the incline, I dropped my pack on the leaf-strewn ground and leaned against a tree to rest. Glancing in the direction from which we had come, we could no longer see the path we had climbed.

We continued along the trail for only a little longer that morning. There were still shops and cafes, after all, a town to explore and a train to catch.

But afterwards, my thoughts kept straying back, nagging me with an absurd idea. Before I knew it, I was browsing books and reading reviews online. I was clicking the "Confirm Order" button. I was answering my door and thanking the man on the other side as he handed me a brown box. I was sliding my thumbnail in the crease of packaging tape, pulling apart the cardboard flaps.

I was spending the night folded on the red lounge sofa in my living room, reading the tale of two sisters who had walked the Appalachian Trail barefoot, then turned around to hike it home. Periodically I lifted my eyes to stare out the window at the million glittering lights of New York City. Somewhere out in the wilderness, in a world that felt impossibly removed from this one, a footpath wound along the Appalachian Mountains from Georgia to Maine, beckoning me with soft but insistent tugs.

Today I may walk the city streets, steeped in the activities of my ordinary life, and tomorrow, but I know that somewhere in me a longing has been planted. Someday, if it calls loudly enough, I will have to answer.

A thin path threads between leaf-strewn grass and green-gold trees toward a mountain in the distance. A swath of white paint on one of the trees marks this as the Appalachian Trail.

therealljidol season 7, topic 1: winding up
fog, *scenic -> trees -> fog

between the mountain and the rivers

I am somewhere I have never been.

Tonight this is easy. I have come here to be somewhere new. The step-ridden hills wound me here; the tunnel of trees drew me into the dark until I could not see my own footsteps. At the end, some strangers and their dog startled me from the shadows of their stoop.

"Oh!" I exclaimed, nearly in a whisper.

"Hello," they replied, and I was glad to be misunderstood.

Isn't it strange how far we go for these experiences? Yesterday afternoon I sat in a jury box in New York City. This morning I awoke in the suburbs of D.C., stretched on a friend's basement foldout. Tonight I am in West Virginia.

This month I've been to twelve U.S. states, three of them for the first time. Four months ago, at age twenty-four and six months, I set a goal of visiting twenty-five U.S. states by my twenty-fifth birthday. This afternoon, two months shy of my birthday, my boyfriend and I slipped into number twenty-five on an Amtrak train.

I'm learning how far I can get on a Greyhound bus and my own two feet. I'm learning how many ways I can be charmed. I'm learning how much I can still learn about myself, even after a quarter century.

I'm starting to measure a year well lived by how much I don't recognize.

For every night like this, I know a harder one will come. Stagnation is easy too, and I've sunk into its seductive comforts often. But I am trying to remember, even on those other nights, that every night is new.

I set other goals too. I'm trying to make the future matter more than the past.

I want to surprise myself with where I go.

therealljidol season 7, topic 0: the introduction
*connie -> the fool

The Fool's Story

'Tis a marvel, 'tis a wonder:
a great serpent I have seen
caved above that hill high yonder,
covered with scales of blue 'n' green!
Oft-times tears drip from her eyes;
she cries out a great wail!
And when you take her by surprise,
she breathes fire and whips her tail!


It was another of the girl's half-mad songs. She sang them so often that no one paid her much attention anymore. To its inhabitants, her nonsense rhymes were as much a part of the village's scenery as the grain silo or the arc of trees near the churchyard, one of those facets of life so familiar that you never think to question it. In the village lived a tailor, a butcher, a bone-setter, and a girl who sang gobbledygook. That was simply the way of things.

On the day our story begins, the air was thick with late-summer heat, and the village buzzed with its usual activity. But the girl seemed impervious to the beating sun as she skipped her way through the village's dirt paths, a little white dog nipping at her heels and kicking up patches of dust behind her.

She sang her new song as she passed the chicken lady chasing a rooster about its pen, clucking as she cornered the animal for slaughter. She sang as she passed the smithy's shop, her song wafting over him as he looked up from his work and wiped a rough hand over his sweat-coated brow. She sang as she passed the baker tending her brick oven, not pausing in her song even as she inhaled the thick mounds of dough she knew would soon be sculpted into crusty loaves. She sang as she passed the washer woman bent over her wood buckets, wringing the dripping fabric with her strong hands.

She sang as she passed the farmers, resting at the edge of the fields as they pulled lunches from their pails. They chattered and chortled and seemed to take as little notice of her song as anyone else. But then one farm hand glanced up for a moment, a thoughtful look crossing his face as the girl's words floated by. Then he turned back to the group, rejoined their boisterous gaiety, and did not look up again.

The girl did not notice him. She continued on to her family's cottage at the edge of the village, singing and skipping all the while, and her little dog followed obediently.


*

She had found the beast in one of her rambles through the countryside surrounding the village. A dragon can be difficult to miss, to be honest. The girl had clambered over the crest of a hill and seen the creature unfold its vast wings in the valley beneath her, its head bent over a pond that seemed as small as a water dish beneath its great crown. Her eyes grew large at the sight, her mouth opening in a small intake of breath before her face lit with marvel and delight. Under the sun's gleaming rays, the dragon's scales glistened, the blues and greens dancing with the glimmer of reflected light. It was a beautiful sight to behold. Even the white pup at her feet seemed spellbound, content to sit and stare at the beast before it.

It was as the girl took her first step forward, her hand lifted as if it possessed its own sense of curiosity and wanted to know the caress of a dragon's scales, that the creature released its first wail. The sound it emitted seemed a cross between thunder and a plaintive moan, and all at once the girl was sure that she could not feel quite so happy. Beside her, her dog's tail seemed to droop too, its scrawny shoulders stooping just a little. She stepped nearer.

Now she could see the dragon's face, and she was sure she had never seen a creature so sad. Enormous tears pooled from its eyes and beaded down its scaly snout, splashing ripples into the pond below. More wails followed, each one as wretched as the first, and the girl knew now that she must somehow help this beast. She could not withstand such sorrow.

"Shhh," she said softly, then quickly scurried several paces back as the dragon startled. "Tell me what's wrong. I'll help you."

It craned its thick neck toward her voice and trained its enormous eyes on her. The girl felt as though she were being scrutinized by ten thousand heavenly judges, her soul laid open to be examined. Finally, the dragon nodded.

"It is my egg," she said (for now it became clear that the dragon was a she). "It has been stolen." Here, her voice fell as the melancholy crept back into it. "My child has been taken from me, and I must have her back to hatch her."

The girl nodded. "I'll find it for you."

"Then go to my cave yonder" -- here the dragon gestured with the mammoth tip of a glowing wing -- "and take the cards you find there. I feel sure that you will find a use for them. I will meet you near your village at nightfall." Then a small smile slipped onto the dragon's face, she turned her face to the sky and released a fiery breath, and the girl felt happy again. Beside her, her puppy's tail waggled joyfully.


*

As the sun dipped toward the horizon that evening, the girl left her family's cottage and wended her way to the grain silo near the edge of the village, her white pup trailing after her. The village was calmer than it had been at midday; most of the villagers were in their cottages now, resting with their families over supper. The air felt cooler too, and occasionally a breeze threaded its way between the churchyard trees. The girl still hummed and sang under her breath, but no one was around to hear her.

She reached the appointed place and settled on the dry earth to await the dragon. Her dog scampered around her, and absently she tossed small twigs for it to retrieve. The air hummed with the quiet buzz of mosquitos. She leaned her back idly against the wall of the silo and fell into thinking about the strange and wonderful turns her day had taken: meeting the dragon, accepting its quest, retrieving the beautiful cards from its cave before coming back to the village. She had never seen cards like these: gold foiled backs and filled with pictures of girls who all looked a little bit like her. There was even one who had a little white dog nipping at her heels. How mysterious! How fascinating!

Suddenly a clamor erupted, and she leapt out of her stupor. From one direction, she could see the dragon gliding toward her; from the other, farm hands had appeared out of nowhere, waving their hoes and pitchforks. The seconds slowed until the girl felt like she was experiencing every moment with a blinding clarity. She saw the dragon notice the men in the same moment she did. She saw it flap its great wings in quick, jerky motions. She heard its bellowing roar, the words reverberating long after they ended. "Men! You have betrayed me!"

She saw the men charging forward with the farm tools. She heard their shouts, one angry voice blending with the next in a cacophony of noise from which escaped only the occasional distinct words: "dragon," "attack," "fight," "fool." Then time sped back to its hurtling pace. The dragon exhaled a giant breath of fire in the direction of the grain silo. The stores exploded in flames. The girl darted away and found herself facing the mob of farmers, their rakes and shovels still clutched tightly in their hands. The dragon lifted off into the sky, circled, emitted a roaring wail, and disappeared in the distance. The men descended on the girl, spitting their words at her. "You traitor! You led a dragon to us! You set our grain on fire! You are going to kill us all!"

She turned. She ran, her dog trotting beside her. She could not understand what had happened. As she raced through the village, neighbors stepped out of their cottages, in an uproar over the spectacle. In the distance, she could hear the shouts of villagers near the grain tower as they poured buckets of water over the raging fire. Finally she reached her own front door. Before she could enter, her mother stepped out and proclaimed, in a cold snarl that was angrier than any the girl could remember, "You are a fool!"


*

Afterward the Fool (for that is the name she took) could never quite tell you what had happened that night when the dragon set fire to the grain silo and she had run away from her village. But she slowly puzzled out the details, turning them over and over in her memory until they became as intricate as the fine tines a clockmaker fashions into the patterns of time. She understood that each side -- the dragon, the villagers -- believed that she had betrayed it to the other; she understood that though she had neither intended nor foreseen it, she had caused great harm. And so, as she trekked far and wide out into the world beyond her village, she vowed to herself that she would repair the damage she had sown. She would find the dragon's egg. She would replenish the village grain stores. She would redeem herself.

She did not know how she would accomplish this, but the Fool was a cheery girl who was seldom discouraged by even the most uncertain of circumstances. She journeyed from village to village, her faithful white dog beside her and the dragon's cards in hand, and kept her spirits up. Often she could be seen passing these cards from hand to hand, delighting in the magic of their gleaming patterns and the dance of their shuffle. And soon, she began to learn the stories she could tell with them and that a little foresight is not, after all, so impossible.

One day, as she frolicked through a market in a town very far from her village, the Fool heard a clear voice calling over the din. "A fool!" the herald shouted, a bugle at his mouth. "Her Majesty the Queen is seeking a new fool for her Royal Court! All fools, this way! Inquire here! Her Majesty the Queen is looking for you!"

For one instant the Fool froze in her tracks. Then she turned and dashed toward the Queen's herald, filled with the certainty of the path before her and a deep sense of knowing. An important door had finally opened at her feet.

"You will only be granted one audience with the Queen," the nobleman who accompanied the herald explained to her once she reached them. "During this time, you must entertain the Queen. If you succeed, you will become the Court Fool. If you fail... well, that is for the Queen to decide."

The Fool smiled. "I won't fail," she said.


*

The first thing the Fool noticed when she entered the throne room was the curtains. Rich burgundy drapes covered the walls and surrounded the Queen's dais, filling the room with a regal air. But she quickly set aside this observation aside, because the second thing she noticed was the gleaming silver sword the Queen held in her hand in place of a scepter.

"Ah, you are another who seeks to be my Fool." The Queen gave a satisfied smile as the Fool entered the room.

"No, Your Majesty," the Fool said, holding the Queen's gaze and tilting her chin, "though I mean to entertain you."

The Queen looked surprised, suspicious but intrigued. "This audience is only granted for those who wish to become my Fool!" she declared sternly. Then she paused, clearly warring with her own curiosity. "But tell me, what is it you seek?"

"I seek a dragon's egg that was stolen from her," the Fool replied, "and I seek grain for my village whose stores were burned and help building a new grain silo."

It was plain to see that this was not the answer the Queen had expected. "A dragon's egg!" she exclaimed, "And a grain silo! How came you to seek these things?"

"I will tell you," the Fool answered, "if you will help me."

A thoughtful expression flashed over the Queen's face. Finally she spoke, "Very well then. It is to be a wager. If you entertain me, I will help your village and make you my Fool. But if you fail," -- here she brandished her silver sword for effect -- "then it's off with your head!"

The Fool nodded. She pulled the deck from her pocket, laid out the cards, and began to tell the story they contained.


*

"Birth," the Queen mused as the Fool gathered her cards. She thought about all the things the Fool had told her: about the heroine who had run away in the face of insurmountable cataclysm; about ill fortune and the mother who could not have her child; about balance and injustice. About acting with her heart and helping to solve the heroine's problems. About stories. And about birth. And the Queen knew what she had to do.

As the Fool watched, she lifted her silver sword and used it to pull a thick gold cord hanging on one of her burgundy curtains. Soon a page appeared to answer the Queen's summons.

"Find ten strong workmen, and fill two wagons with grain," the Queen ordered. "Prepare my carriages. We shall leave at dawn to visit my new Fool's village."

She paused. "And ask my maid to fetch the jeweled box from my chambers.

When they arrived at the Fool's village the next afternoon (for the Queen's horses journey more swiftly than any Fool's legs), the villagers were amazed at the procession they beheld. The Queen's own men set to work rebuilding their burnt silo, and Her Majesty had provided two wagons filled with grain to replenish their stores. But most astonishing of all was when they saw their own gobbledygook song girl riding in the Queen's own carriage, crowned her new Court Fool.

The Fool only laughed and waved, happy to have earned her villagers' forgiveness. But the Queen stood tall, sliced her silver sword into the ground, and proclaimed for all to hear: "My new Fool is the wisest Fool I know, for she knows the magic of stories. She knows the magic of compassion."

Then the Queen turned to the Fool, opened her jeweled box, and lifted out an enormous gleaming egg. Handing it gently to the Fool, she added, "And she knows the magic of birth."



This entry is my submission for therealljidol Season 6, Topic 33: Fool Me Once.

My partner for this Intersection round is teaberryblue, who wrote about Going All In.

If you liked our entries this week, please vote for us in this week's poll.
*animals -> elephants

Elephant Bombs

I was falling; oh
I was
falling.
I was

an elephant child
caught in a cradle
of sky. I
waggled my great blue
trunk, flapped
'til my ears
flopped dry. But I

kept falling; oh
I kept
falling
through the big
cold sky.

Down below
the men honked
their loud siren
horns, and I
bellowed too,
my nose
flailing in reply.
But I

couldn't stop falling; oh
I couldn't
stop
falling
no matter how
I cried.

I couldn't find
my momma, or the men
who'd loosed the tie
of my cage and set
me wobbling, a whimper
through the sky.

They dropped me; oh
they
dropped me
from their plane
as it flew high.

I kicked my
limp grey legs,
squeezed shut
my blurring eyes.
And the fields drew
near, the shouts
grew loud, the ground
flew close by.

I was dropped; oh
I was
dropped,
I was
falling,
I was
going to die.

I was dropped,
I was
falling,
and I
didn't know
why.

I was falling; oh
I was
falling,
and I
didn't know
how
to fly.


*


The first time I saw elephants falling from the sky, I giggled. How absurd it was! Only in a child's dreams is such a thing possible. My eyes were wide with the delight of so many details: the sounds of the elephant's whinny as it lifted its trunk midair, the way its ears flopped in the wind like big jellyfish. Of course I was asleep.

Even after it crashed into our field, even after it shattered like mama's china teacup the time I tripped over the table leg, I still felt sure that I was merely enshrined in the most vivid dream of my young life. It was only when the carcass remained, when those broken grey elephant limbs never moved or faded away, when more elephants fell over our village, smashing the schoolhouse, crushing the children, splattering our fields with blood, that I realized I had been awake all along.

It was then that I began to bury them, scattering brown earth over the broken bodies until my palms were raw and I could no longer see them. Always more elephants came, pushed by invisible hands from planes the enemy flew high overhead. I have always known warfare, but this was how I learned cruelty. Wasn't it enough to destroy us? How could they slaughter so many elephants?

On the day I chose surrender, I knelt beside a field of dirt mounds and swallowed the screams in my throat as one small elephant tumbled from the sky.



This entry is my submission for therealljidol Season 6, Topic 32, Part 1: Windage. If you liked my entries this week, please vote for me in this poll for this entry and in this poll for this week's other entry.
*flowers -> memory

I Will Salt The Earth

The first time we salted the earth was because of science. The freezing point of dihydrogen monoxide is 32° Fahrenheit. In controlled lab situations, adding sodium chloride to water creates a saline solution whose freezing temperature is -6° Fahrenheit. Even in the uncontrollable conditions of the physical world, salt can melt ice at temperatures of as low as 15° Fahrenheit, earning us seventeen degrees of clear roads, iceless sidewalks, and ease of movement in the face of a forbidding climate.

The second time we salted the earth was also because of science. Spring had come, and with it, we emerged with our plows and tills to plant the fields, to sow seeds into the rich brown upturned earth and prepare for our harvest. Agriculture had developed remedies for many of nature's obstacles -- dams and irrigation channels diverted rivers against arid climates and drought, pesticides rid us of the creatures who wanted to prey on our harvest -- but for the common garden slug, there was the old answer. Salt. Salt sprinkled on slugs caused them to dehydrate, and we delighted in their oozy shrivel and melt, this game we played to protect our cabbages.

The next time we salted the earth was for delight. We remembered the arches they formed in the air in winter and spring as they billowed to the ground, the grace with which they floated from our hands, and we re-enacted our salt games to drums and pipes. It was late summer. The harvest was secure and the days were long. Late into the evening, the sun stretched against the horizon, its reflection illuminating the mid-air salt and infusing it with stately grace that became magical. We laughed and danced and spread salt until the sky fell dark.

The next time we salted the earth was for ritual. One summer night had become another and another, and our recreations grew entrenched until we cemented them with meaning. This was the oath we swore between the sun and the moon. This was the nourishment we fed the earth, keeping it clear of snow and slugs. This was the path by which we formed our delight and let it linger, until it entered our ceremonies, the ways we marked time. Birth, death, harvest, repose... all these we honored with the salt of the earth.

The next time we salted the earth was for conquest. With bounty our stick-stone patterns had grown into culture; our eccentricities, into art; our quiet pride, into the drive to evangelize. What more was there than what we had? What better could mankind create on the salted earth? We rode out to spread our lifestyle to the heathens who had not yet discovered it on their own, whose creativity and evolution had fallen short of ours. We conquered their cities and added them to our own. And at the end of battle, we salted the earth to consecrate what we had destroyed, what could now be created anew. We salted the earth as a purification and as a curse against what had come before us. We salted the earth to mark this earth as ours.

The last time we salted the earth was for mourning. Our snows had grown too cold and would no longer melt. Our harvests waned. We had no time now for our salt dances, our diasporas. We had filled the earth with salt until nothing could grow. We knelt as salt tears slipped down our cheeks.



This entry is my submission for therealljidol Season 6, Topic 28: Salt of the Earth. If you liked this entry, please vote for me in this week's poll.
*scenic -> fields -> grain in the sun, grain in the sun

On Your Willingness Will Depend The Answer

It's recess, and under a tree at the edge of the blacktop, we've carved a shallow bowl into the dirt ground. I duck into a small thicket, gather short sticks and bramble, rip a handful of leaves from a low bush. The dip we've made in the earth becomes a make-believe fire pit, and I'm pretending to be a servant girl, stirring ingredients into a feast.

It's the only part I can play in this game. I'm with a few girls in my second-grade class, but we're acquaintances more than friends. They've known each other for years before I moved to town two weeks after the school year started, and I still don't know English well enough to understand everything around me. It's hard to make friends.

"Look!" I announce, gesturing to the scramble of twigs and pine needles, the garnish of leaves. "I made yamaha!"

I pronounce the syllables carefully. It's a word I've invented, something that sounds exotic and alluring. Everyone laughs. Only later, after someone explains, do I understand the joke. "Yamaha" is already a word. Yamaha is a piano company.

I play with these girls because we've been thrown together into the same small school circle. I humble myself to them because they tolerate me, and they tolerate me because I amuse them.

***

I'm in third grade, and my mother is pregnant. She and my father are thinking of names. They will give this baby an English legal name, the first in our family. None of my parents' predecessors have ever named a child in English.

They want something that starts with an "M," to match our last name. "M&M," they laugh, "like the candy!" Michael for a boy, they decide, but what about for a girl?

I think one of the girls I play with during recess, with her beautiful curls and her golden grin. "Melissa," I tell my parents. "There's a girl at school named Melissa."

At the end of the school year, I have a new baby sister. Melissa.

***

I'm sixteen years old, and I've read my ideals from the pages of books. I want to save the world, like the girl in a novel I've paged through so often its cover has worn in my palms. After high school she sails to Africa in a hospital ship, to live in sparse conditions -- a small bunk, a portable tent, a rainwater shower -- and aid the impoverished. She delivers medical supplies to inland clinics; she counsels poor women about sexual health; she rescues a baby who needs reconstructive surgery for a cleft palate from a war zone. She falls in love.

It is a life that sounds like "yamaha" when I first invented it, exotic and alluring. I want that feeling of purpose, that connection with a continent and its people, that sense of the earth as tangible and near. I want to help shape the world into a better place. I want to make a difference in people's lives, something concrete and vital, something more than my high school activities of visiting nursing homes, doing dishes at a soup kitchen, conducting charity can drives.

I want to take a year between high school and college to travel abroad and participate in a residential humanitarian service program. I'll only be seventeen when I graduate -- a year younger than most of my classmates because I skipped kindergarten -- so this makes sense to me. I'll still have plenty of time for college.

My parents balk when I mention the idea. We get into a huge fight. Absolutely out of the question, they tell me. If I don't go to college right away, I might never go. I'll grow attached to whatever else it is I'm doing. It will change my goals. It will make me give up on school. Taking a year off after high school is tantamount to condemning myself to a life of homelessness and burger flipping. This must be my friends' influence; they're all less academically-minded than I am, so they must not want to go to college and spend all our time together convincing me not to go either.

I am infuriated and devastated. I cry and cry, and my parents don't seem to understand that either. What am I doing? There isn't anything to cry over.

Maybe I shouldn't have been so surprised, in hindsight. After all, my dad had insisted that I declare my college major to him by the end of my sophomore year of high school, at the ripe and uncertain age of fifteen. I knew that I was expected to be academically-minded and ambitious; I knew I was expected to attend an elite college; I knew I was expected to choose a practical field, something with good post-graduation employment prospects and a comfortable salary.

I just didn't realize that they would find the idea of taking a gap year between high school and college so antithetical to all of these plans, formed from their expectations for me and the expectations I had learned, from them, to have for myself. And even though I did realize how small-minded and restrictive they could be -- they had also accused me of hanging out with fat people to make myself feel thin and stupid people to make myself feel smart -- I guess I didn't realize how much I had hoped, until hope became an expectation, that they would understand just this once that the world was less cruel and less rigid than they believed, that there are many virtues and many paths, not just the unerring one.

But in the end, I am still their daughter. I don't take a gap year. I don't go abroad. I don't join a humanitarian mission. I go to college.

My friends go too, despite my parents' condemnations. Most of them don't finish in four years, but neither do I. We all find a way eventually.

***

This week, by way of Facebook, I've discovered the blog of a girl I went to elementary school with. Melissa, with the beautiful curls and the golden grin. Melissa, for whom my sister was named, after a fashion. Melissa, with whom I graduated high school but to whom I have not spoken since our grade school recess days, gathering broken twigs and cooking "yamaha." Melissa, who was only my playground acquaintance, not my friend.

She is in the Peace Corps now, teaching English in Kazakhstan. She writes about her experiences with such exquisite intensity that I feel like I could be there too, taking in the ring around the full moon after a foray to the outhouse, pulling a coat closer in the afternoon chill, sitting alone at night in contemplation.

It's been too long since I've appreciated my luxuries wholly, gratitude spilling from my breath and my bones. Too long since my childhood in China, in an apartment where a hole in the floor substituted for a toilet; too long since I gave thanks for my first world privileges, for indoor plumbing and the freedoms of choice and want. It has been too long since I dreamed of going out into the world and bettering the lives of those who've been given less than I have.

A girl I went to grade school with is living that dream now, one I never realized we shared, one I have never realized myself. I think maybe we could have been more than playground pals after all. I think we could have been friends.



This entry is my submission for therealljidol Season 6, Topic 23: Underdog. If you liked this entry, please vote for me in this week's poll.
*lj -> pingback bot

Found Language Poem: Please fix this for me.

As in its companion piece, "Let's act like we never met," all the words in this found language poem, including the title, are taken directly from LiveJournal Support requests.


Please fix this for me.

Dear dude or dudette,

I'm sorry, I don't know you, but I screwed up badly.
I am known as Persephone on the mountain, Secretary
to the Ambassador Embassy, requiring no sleep, capable
of producing paper, born of the devil and Lucifer's moonchild.
I specialize in electronics, optical tuning, and modeling.
I'm trying to find out what I pay in taxes per year.

Your corner of the internet stank of cat piss, a real nest
for our species in a combative place, and the webpage that opened
was blank except for a picture of a man and a woman,
something that involves medical research. Voices and music,
a song, plays in the background. My brain strobes
like blank photo pretending his hands are guns.

I am thirty years in the future.Collapse )

How do I get rid of LiveJournal
and go back to the way it used to be?

Mother be with you,
Secretary


This entry is my submission for therealljidol Season 6, Topic 21: Hyperbole is Literally Hitler. If you liked this entry, please vote for me in this week's poll.

[ 2010 April Poem-A-Day Challenge : 6/30 ]

*scenic -> water -> waterfall, waterfall

So the years unfolded like pocket handkerchiefs.

Sometimes I think I've forgotten how to talk about love. There are picnics so old I may have dreamed them, the colors bright and surreal, haze-tinted. Star-laden nights; the soft heat of comforters; his steady drum-beating heart. An everyday ecstasy (rapturously shopping for groceries, joyously organizing his bookshelves) that I remember now only with my cognition, no longer sensate. Every recollection is too tinged, with nostalgia I do not mean or hurt I do not want.

So I talk about houses. The way my favorite part of playing The Sims was always designing the houses, drawing the floor plans on gridded pads, stretching the living rooms wide enough to fit a three-seater couch with end tables on both sides. The way we made a house together, carefully sketched out on twin sheets of graph paper during an hours-long phone call, and imbued it with our passions: his for mathematics, mine for dwelling places.

Hexagon House became our lovers' shorthand, a symbol of the future we would share with each other. We would graduate from college; we would find fulfilling, well-paid work in our fields; we would marry and have babies and buy land and build this house. We would sip lemonade on its wraparound front porch. We would play board games on the carpeted floor of its high-ceilinged great room, under the dancing shadows of its skylights. We would stargaze in the brisk night air from its master balcony, settle our children in their geometric rooms with the adjoining bathroom, paper the refrigerator with their artwork in the kitchen that opened into the back yard. We would plant flowers in our garden; we would stroll around the wide lawn in the summer twilight; we would jump in leaf piles in autumn; we would build snowmen and sip hot chocolate cocoa in the cold of winter. We would fill our household with love and cats and the serenity of time together. We would walk through life hand-in-hand, and grow old together, and be happy.

Of course it could never be that easy. Our love was formed with our innocence and our ideals, grown from a slowly-blooming friendship and stolen stretches of afternoon in a secret corner of our high school. It spanned continents, our summer correspondence wending toward each other from China, Japan, middle America. I was leaving for college, he still had another year of high school, and against the odds, against conventional wisdom, against our better judgment, we held on because our love was the one thing we couldn't bear to let go when everything else was changing.

And it worked. We talked for hours on the phone every night. I saw him on trips home; he visited me at school. We supported each other and helped each other and loved each other with a love so soul-engulfing that at times it hardly seemed possible. We made it possible. The following year he got into his top-choice college, which was nearby enough for us to see each other on weekends. Our story became one of train stations and rail rides, chasing the dawn across state lines toward one another.

And we argued sometimes too, but what couple doesn't? We always worked it out in the end, or found a way around it for a while. We didn't have the same interest in physical intimacy, but we still loved one another. I was frustrated by his awkwardness around my friends, but he was my soul mate. He thought I relied too heavily on him, but that's what people do when they're building a life together. It took a long time before we began to notice that we had grown in different directions in the crucible of years during which we flesh out our adult selves. It took a long time before we were willing to disentangle our futures from one another.

But eventually he fell in love with another girl, and I played Fairy Godmother to his Cendrillon and found myself in a dark garden, alone with smashed pumpkins and field mice and my broken heart. I mourned our love with a grief that felt unsurvivable, wandered lost in a landscape of dreams that would never be realized. I cried over the loss of what we had, but most of all, I sobbed wretchedly over the loss of what we had not yet experienced and now never would, over the children we would never have, the years we would never share, and over Hexagon House, which would never be built.

Everything changed after that. There were other boys before him, but he was the last boy I loved with such literal abandon. He was the last boy I loved fearlessly, with my innocence and my insouciance and my childhood ideals. He was the last time I could, in passion, dismiss every prior love, because I could never, will never be able to dismiss what I shared with him and what he meant to me from my life.

He was my last first love.

After him, nothing was ever the same. Every joy felt impossible, defiant, miraculous. I retreated deep within myself to soothe and heal my fragmented soul until I emerged changed, reinvented and reconstructed into a different girl from the one who loved him. She was my past but not my future, and I remember her now as a tree recollects the plumage of past springs, cool green leaves that have browned and fallen and crumpled and been reborn, new and distinct.

I don't think about him very often anymore. Sometimes we get together for a meal when we find ourselves in the same city, but the conversation is always light; the hugs, loose and cursory. We are so different now. We would be so unfulfilled together. And I am with my first next love, a boy who challenges me and stretches me and helps me to grow, with whom I am constructing a new life with a wonderfully gratifying experiential depth.

But sometimes I still think about Hexagon House, its three-rhombus basement and the balcony-style hallway ringing the second floor, and I am wistful about the girl I no longer am, that I will never live in the house she imagined, and that in a world of so much beauty and so many possible futures, we must choose only one.



This entry is my submission for therealljidol Season 6, Topic 14: The Place That Can Not Be. If you are one of my fellow LJ Idol contestants and liked this entry, please vote for me in this week's email poll.

My partner for this round is myscribbles, who wrote about Precognition.


[ 2010 February Entry-A-Day Challenge : 10/28 ]

*girls -> girl in field, girl in field, *scenic -> fields -> girl in field

Hope

She was thirteen years old, and she wanted to make things grow. She wanted to ease green shoots from the brown earth. She wanted to nurse saplings into tall, strong trees. She wanted to mold soil into a living, sculpted landscape, shape the land with her artist's hands.

She was thirteen years old, and she wanted the boy she liked to like her too. She wanted him to like her, and she didn't know what to do. So, shy and a little clumsy in the quiet canopy of her bedroom, she pulled up her shirt. She unclasped her bra. She lifted her cell phone. She touched her finger to the button. Click. The photograph. Click. Sent.

Afterwards she would not be able to explain why she did it.

She was thirteen years old, and her name was Hope.

***

When the boy hears the buzz of his phone and reaches over to check it, he is not expecting the picture that greets him. A girl from the middle school, topless. Dusky rosebud nipples against white skin, delicate developing curves.

He doesn't know what to do.

He likes it, likes this soft secret, uncovered for him. He likes looking at it, studying it. He likes the way it makes him feel. But he shouldn't have this. She sent it to him, but there is something forbidden about this. He shouldn't have this, but he likes it. Maybe he'll just keep it for a little while.

***

On the school bus, another girl asks to borrow his phone. He hands it over: she is a friend of his; there is no easy way to say no. He is still thinking about the picture, hoping she won't find it.

She does. She forwards it to some classmates, and they forward it to more. Soon everyone knows; soon everyone has seen.

Later, when he is alone, he quietly deletes the picture and tries not to think about it. He tries not to think about what has happened to it.

***

When Hope goes to school, she knows something is wrong. In the hallway, the conversations go quiet when she approaches. Then someone turns and spits "whore" at her, looking at her as though she is one. When she walks into a classroom, she hears "Oh, here comes the slut."

Her friends take to escorting her through the hallways, acting like human shields against the volley of insults, the ridicule, the hateful words, the shame. Hope cannot bear these things, but she resolves to endure them. She blames herself. She took the picture. She sent it. She must have brought this upon herself.

At night, when she is sure that no one will be able to hear her, she curls in bed with her journal and cries.

***

During summer break, school officials find out about the picture. They call Hope's parents. They suspend her for the first week of eighth grade in the fall.

Hope's parents ground her for the summer. They take away her cell phone and her computer. She does not want these punishments, but she accepts them without protest. She is convinced she deserves them. She hopes, by facing the consequences, to put the entire wretched episode behind her.

***

At the beginning of the new school year, Hope finds out that her school won't let her run for student advisor of the Future Farmers of America, even though she served that role last year, even though she took two prizes at the state convention and placed first on the statewide exam. Hope is devastated. This is what she wants to do with her life, and now they won't let her. Now she can't. Now everything has changed and everything is over.

In the cafeteria, the boys still taunt her, still ask to see her breasts, still call her "whore" and "slut" as though these were her names. Their voices are still sneering, malicious, cruel. Nothing has gotten better. Nothing has changed.

Hope leaves in tears.

The next day she stays home from school. She cleans the house from top to bottom. She takes a razor blade and carves red marks into her thighs, swaps pain for blood. She is drowning, and there is no end to this unbearable hurt. She needs an end, and there is no end in sight.

***

When Hope goes back to school, a teacher notices the cuts on her leg. She is sent to the school social worker. The counselor takes out a contract: If I feel the urge to hurt myself, I will talk to an adult. Hope signs. The counselor signs.

At home, Hope crumbles the contract into a tight ball and throws it into her bedroom trash can. She writes in her journal. She tells her mother she is fine.

She takes a pink scarf and knots it to the wood frame of her canopy bed. She touches the other end, softly, mutely, almost absently, feeling the silky texture against her fingertips. She takes a deep breath, wraps the scarf around her neck, and leans into the welcoming dark.

That night, an ambulance rushes her to the local hospital, where she is pronounced dead.

***

Later, much later -- after the disbelief, the hysteria, the phone calls; after the memorial and the burial; after the piercing anguish of grief has settled into a dull, eternal ache; after there are hours when she does not cry -- Hope's mother goes to the media. She wants her daughter's story to be heard. Maybe there will be another girl, another mother, another family she can save from this.

The media takes the story. It is in the newspaper. MSNBC airs it on the TODAY show and invites Hope's mother for an interview. After all, this is only the second known case of a suicide linked to bullying after "sexting," the practice of transmitting sexual messages or images electronically. A recent poll shows that 20-some percent of teenagers admit they have sent nude pictures of themselves over cell phones. 44 percent of boys attending co-educational high schools have seen at least one naked picture of a female classmate. In this new digital age, cell phones and the internet can be dangerous tools, and the news media must make sure we know it.

In the interview, Hope's mother asks, "Should I have been more careful about what I allowed her to watch? Should I have been more careful about what I allowed her to read?" The message is clear: the problem laid with Hope, what information she could access about the world, what exposure caused her to cave in to a sexualized peer culture, what she did.

No one talks about the girl who first forwarded the picture -- a rival of Hope's for the affections of a boy -- and how her malicious act of cruelty went unpunished. No one talks about the other students, who received the picture and passed it on, and how they went unblamed. No one talks about the bullies at school, with their merciless taunts and ceaseless shaming, and the consequences they never faced. No one talks about the discipline from school that further ostracized a girl already daily tormented by her peers, about the punishments at home that isolated her from her support network, about how making a young girl who is hurting herself sign a contract saying she will stop is an entirely insensitive and inadequate response.

Hope may have made a mistake, but hers was not the last or the worst. Yet she alone bore any consequences for the classmates, bullies, school officials, parents, news media, and society that systemically failed her -- not by exposing her to technological innovation, but by withholding from her human compassion. The true failure here did not belong to Hope or to communications technology, but to everyone who could not see beyond one little girl's mistake to the mistakes of everyone who did not react in the way that she needed, in the way that would have kept her alive.

This entry is based on the true story of 13-year-old Hope Witsell, who committed suicide this September after enduring relentless bullying from classmates who spread a topless photograph of her that she had sent to a boy she liked.



This entry is my submission for therealljidol Season 6, Topic 7: One Touch. If you liked this entry, please vote for me in this week's poll.
*lj -> pingback bot

Found Language Poem: Let's act like we never met.

Let's act like we never met.

For the volunteers and staff of LiveJournal Support; all words, including the title, taken directly from LiveJournal Support requests.

From: The True World's Greatest Master Shooter For Billiards.

We celebrate all saints in Belgium, even the atheists
if I'm in a commune. What should I do? My thumb nail is black
and I have not heard from the person I attempted to contact.
It's been months, all lingo and code-speak, fuchsia
hanging basket plants. I like to know
what how can we help the panda environment?

How do you grow? It's not in plain English. It's talking
about fallen angels that might of been the name. It is rude
and insulting. Moreover, we posted on online shopping communities.
Moreover, I can't find the 10 taxes you
you attribute to the government. Are you trying
to insult our grief, of our faith, or both? Please
do not think I am some kind of whack job. That is the privacy
issue, folks looking over my shoulder.

I'm new to this and I want to know is there a CD or something
that can show me all I need and help me make a printed tee?
My son would love a pen pal. He is incarcerated and lonely
for the communication with a female. I'm so interested
to know about pimple. I am in the future. A friend recently
told me that this could be reset if I notify you. I couldn't
see anything wrong. I'm not a scammer or a weirdo. I tried
to regale you with the vast resources of my mind which, hitherto,
I have been able to do without let. However, your system
system castigated me for using the incorrect input code.

Are you directly run on or by falsehoods?
Can I still plant tomatoes in Arizona in April?

I assume after warning me for moths
and moths since the age of 15 in a half years old,
in the summer of 1987, in the state of Ohio, I own
six goats. I don't understand where the goat came from.
To stop, to disembark, to terminate,
to terminate your services, get out, finish, turn off.
How? Hers was all cutesy and I'm wondering how
to make mine cutesy as well. Can I send you my picture?

Would you like to web cam? Do you have a full time
position available for a front end cashier? Nothing like
an error massage. The time is now, Anchorage, Alaska.
I can't find myself. Has my identity and possibly my soul
already been stolen? I will come to wherever you are
to prove I am who I am. I've highlighted the text
then I lick the cut button. But nothing happen.
My dog had eleven puppies, one of which
is the most beautiful and charismatic. The problem
is that I do not know how to pronounce the name.
The problem is in the same blank stair
I get when I start going on about the duality of cognition
versus identity in the development of modern interpretations
of Plato. What a rigmarole to tell you you are wrong.

Or more helpfully, could someone intelligent,
preferably with lots of facial hair, fix the code proper.
I've been banned due to stupidity. This is an honest mistake
and I would like to know how I can fix this.
So sorry if it's a silly question, but
is LiveJournal something for people on drugs?

[ 2009 April Poem-A-Day Challenge : 13/30 ]

*scenic -> fields -> gazebo, gazebo

Tonight, I'm keeping vigil with a man who cannot sleep.

Tonight, in my community, there is a man who will not sleep. He has spent the day looking for his wife. Tonight, he is pouring over pictures from their wedding. He is calling hospitals. He is hoping for good news that may never come. His chest is filling with growing dread of the bad news that seems more certain with each bleakly passing hour.

His name is Omri. Her name is Dolores, Doris for short. They are 53. One year ago, she left her home in the Philippines to come to America, to live the dream of a better life. She was taking an English class, hoping to become a citizen. Tonight, she may be dead, but her husband does not know.

I'm not sure I can sleep either. In the insular darkness of my room, it is easy to forget how near all of this is. It was here, right here, here in this place where I grew up, where I still live. Here, where we're safe from senseless, undirected violence. Here, where we know better and are better than that. Here, where this sort of thing just doesn't happen. Here, where it happened. Here, in a neighborhood I can walk to if I want, on a street that, until this past week, I drove past almost every day, in a room where I once ate dumplings at a party.

How many times do I have to say these things to myself before they will become real? How many times before I understand, in my eye sockets and stomach lining and the joints of my toes? How many times will I forget and remember and forget and remember? Here. Today. Dead.

Where does my story fit into this story? I am an immigrant. At age 4, I arrived in this country, and I still remember the sensation of how foreign everything was, how big and unfamiliar and incomprehensible. At age 14, I became an American citizen, signed an oath pledging to this country my first loyalty, surrendered the Chinese citizenship I had carried since my birth. Do you understand? It was a loss. It was a sacrifice I had to make: past for future, old home for new home, China for the United States.

It's easy to throw around aphorisms: "we are a country of immigrants." Do you know what it means? It means that you are born in a place where your roots are perhaps millennia deep, and you live there and grow there and plant them even deeper. And then you leave.

You leave, and you can never go back again in the same way. You leave, and you go to a place where nothing is the same or even in the same hemisphere as the same, where people speak and you can't understand, where words are displayed and you can't read, where everything from the look of the money to how it is earned, from the food you eat to how you acquire it, from the appearance of your neighbors to what they believe is incomprehensibly different. It means the things you can do don't matter. It means the things you know don't count. It means you learn all of these things, from the smallest eating utensil to the biggest devotion to liberty and justice for all, in the hardest, most convoluted of ways, trial and error and error and error.

It means that for the rest of your life, no matter how well you learn these things, you will be an other. It means that for the rest of your life, you will belong to two countries, but neither wholly. It means that you grow up an entire planet away from your aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents until neither of you can speak the other's language. It means that no one you meet will ever be able to pronounce your name, your hometown, or your favorite foods.

It means that in middle school, your classmates will tease you for the way the words that flow from their tongues garble on yours. It means that they will call you racial slurs until you learn to let those words slip off of you like water on the back of a duck, but even then, a little part of you will still wince whenever you hear them. It means that in college, the interviewer will read your name and expect a boy when you are a girl. It means that whenever you answer the phone from a stranger, you will have to tell them how to say the name of the person they want to reach.

It means you tie your shoes differently. It means you make your bed differently. It means that you will always have to explain. It means that you will always have to have things explained to you. It means that you don't know the names of vegetables or spices because your mother never says them in English. It means that your parents and your friends will never understand each other. It means you will always be trying to fit in. It means you will never quite fit in. It means that in every us vs. them, you will be the them.

It means that someone from your old country will do something with which you disagree, and you will be judged for it. It means someone from any other country will do something with which you disagree, and there will be a cast of suspicion in the eyes that slant toward you. It means that the people in your new country will berate, loudly and publicly, the policies, economic influence, toys of your old country, and you will have to listen with more tolerance than you can expect from them. It means you will always have to work harder, think smarter, and fight longer to earn the same achievements, recognitions, jobs as everyone else. It means you will never be allowed to dream of becoming President, no matter how young you were when you first stepped foot on these shores and no matter how much you love this country.

And I hope you know that I do love this country, these beautiful United States of America, with all my heart. There is never a day, now, when I question that these sacrifices are worthwhile. But they are still sacrifices. They are still the truths that define every day of the immigrant experience, the realties I only forget consciously because they are so deeply ingrained in my life.

I'm telling you this story because it's the story of the people who died in my community today, and also the story of the man who killed them and himself. I'm telling you this because it's the story of the place where they were. I'm telling you because I started to read the comments on my local paper's website, and there was enough finger-pointing, enough vitriol against immigrants, that I couldn't bring myself to continue. I'm telling you this because this afternoon, as I walked the streets of Binghamton, I wondered if the drivers who passed me were more afraid of me than they might have been the day before - me, an Asian immigrant in a community where an Asian immigrant went to a center that helps immigrants and opened fire.

There's nothing here that makes sense. There is nothing that can be explained. I don't know why someone would do this, can't conceive that there might ever be a why that made sense even to one person. There are no words, no wishes or sympathy or prayers, no matter how heartfelt, that will be enough for a man who is not sleeping tonight, or for his wife who may never stop sleeping.

But however useless they are, tonight I'm full of words, words and words and words in this language that was not my first. I know they're filled with presumption and arrogance and created divides. I know I should know better. But those other people cannot tell you this tonight - they are too wracked with grief, or their English is not good enough, or they are dead - and so I am here, saying for them words that I hope they will not mind.

We're strong, you know, for every we I know: immigrants and Binghamton and New York and America. We'll come through this. We'll go on. I just wish for all of us that we'll go on better, with more respect and tolerance and understanding, fewer divides and more bridges. We cannot raise the dead, but we - all of us, no matter who we are or where we are from - can live in ways that honor the journeys they made.
*scenic -> fields -> many have loved, *love -> many have loved, many have loved, *text -> many have loved

I am tired of the insufficiency of our understanding.

I am tired of a society that believes that sanctity depends on exclusion. I am tired of the discrimination, the intolerance, the disdain.

When I marry - if I marry - I want a marriage that's sacred not because other people are not allowed to marry, but because of the content and character of my own relationship, my own love.

I am a heterosexual female who has been blessed enough never to have struggled with my sexual orientation or gender identity, and I am tired of straight people who don't recognize or understand how lucky they are to be able to express and experience love freely, without fear of recrimination.

I am tired of people who think that civil unions are fine for gay couples, but who want marriage for themselves. I am a writer, and I don't believe that a word like "marriage" is so sacred that you want to grant the same legal rights under two different names, depending on who is to receive them. Because, look, it's not called something different if you have green eyes instead of brown; it's not called something different if you're 50 years old rather than 25; it's not called something different because of your height, your ethnicity, your shoe size, or your favorite ice cream flavor, so why should it be called something different because of your gender and the gender of the person you love?

I am tired of people who have never been truly discriminated against discriminating against others, and I am even more tired of people who have experienced discrimination because of their race or their gender or their age or their disabilities or any other unshakeable characteristic about themselves, and they still think it's okay to deprive other human beings of the same fairness and freedoms they want for themselves.

I am tired of straight people who have gay friends but who still somehow manage to reconcile this with the belief that their friends should not be recognized as equals to themselves under the law. Because what kind of friend are you if you can hang out, share meals, go shopping, play games, take walks, have long conversations, and yet you don't think that your friends' love should be recognized in the same way that yours is?

I am tired of the argument that banning same-sex marriage is necessary to "protect marriage" and "restore the meaning of marriage." Let me tell you, if you need to prevent loving, committed couples from marrying in order to restore the meaning of your own marriage, your marriage is in deep doo-doo. And if you think the way to protect marriage is only to let people who need to prevent loving, committed couples from marrying in order to restore the meaning of their own marriage marry, well, then, I don't even know what to say to you.

I am tired of people talking about the "gay lifestyle," as though it were a choice and the same for everyone. There is a "gay lifestyle" about as much as there is a "lifestyle of people with type O+ blood."

I am tired of the argument that gay marriage must be banned in order to "protect our children." What are you trying to protect your children from? A non-homogenized world? I think you are exploiting your children as a front to protect your own narrow-minded intolerance.

I am disgusted by the argument that Proposition 8 was "not an attack on gays." Yeah, it's not an attack the way it wouldn't be an attack if someone came and tried to take away YOUR civil rights and the strongest legal recognition of YOUR relationship and YOUR love. It's not an attack if denigrating an entire group of people to being second-class citizens and second-class human beings isn't an attack.

In my mind, someone's sexual orientation is my business in these circumstances and these circumstances only:

1. They want me to know their sexual orientation.
2. They are of my preferred gender, and I want to know whether there is any chance for me to have a romantic relationship with them.

That's all. Someone's sexual orientation is not my business if they are my teacher, or my children's teacher, my classmate, my co-worker, my boss, my neighbor, or my grocery store cashier. But at the same time, no one should feel like they have to hide their sexual orientation from me because of fear of rejection.

I am tired of people who justify their intolerance by their upbringing, because even if you can't control or change the way you were raised, you have the ability - and the responsibility as someone with a brain and not just grey pudding between your ears - to make your own evaluations and conclusions about life.

I've heard that people's objections to same-sex marriage are based on their moral values, but I genuinely do not understand a morality of exclusion. How is it any more morally acceptable to say that only heterosexual couples can marry than it is to say that only brown-eyed children can attend school or only people with a certain blood type can find a job?

I am tired of this. I am sickened, I am appalled, and I am angry.

I am sickened that so many people in my country treat my friends like second-class citizens, and I am so sad that these friends sometimes feel like they are second-class human beings. I am angry because I have seen them go through the struggle to be who they are in a society where who they are is unacceptable - the pain, isolation, and self-recrimination of being afraid to confess a vital part of themselves that isn't your business but should never have to be hidden.

The friends I am talking about are warm, generous, loving people. They are not deficient in any way, and they never asked for or chose their sexual orientation. They dream of becoming artists, teachers, scientists, political leaders; they dream of finding a lasting and reciprocated love. The world is at their fingertips. But in 48 states in what is supposed to be the greatest country on earth, they are not allowed to marry - and I will never have enough words to express how heartbreakingly wrong this is.


This entry is my submission for therealljidol Season 5, Week 8: Sit Down and Shut Up - Ranting LJ Style. If you enjoyed this entry, please vote for me in this week's poll.
*scenic -> trees -> winter trees, *seasonal -> winter trees, winter trees

Here you go, ghost of a world where soldiers build sculptures in the snow.

The first time he emailed me after everything fell apart, long after I had given up on ever hearing from him again, he told me about Japanese soldiers building giant snow sculptures for a snow festival. "I think it might be nice if all the soldiers in the world had nothing better to do than make snow sculptures," he wrote.

Perhaps that's the best place to begin, because in some small way, that captures the essence of what I loved best about him. And this week, for the first time in years, I've been thinking about a friendship long buried, about a boy who's become a man I no longer know or recognize, and about the gifts that were my inheritance from him: a wildly joyous passion for every facet of life, and wisdom enough to be grateful for a world too big for us - a world beyond our capacity to experience or comprehend.

I met Raymond* at the beginning of tenth grade. I don't remember my first impression of him, or how our acquaintance evolved into a friendship - only that by the end of the school year, he was one of my closest friends. At age fifteen, I thought he was everything I was looking for: intelligent, considerate, fun; a patient listener; quirky, but in the best of ways.

That summer, we met up at the skating rink almost every week and roller bladed together for hours - sometimes alone, sometimes with other friends, but always engrossed in conversations that never faltered. We talked about grammar, about botany, about birds, about classical literature, about East Asian languages, and somehow we managed to be fascinated by every single topic. He had a way of bringing life to all of his interests, and I found that when he told me about them, I could learn how to be interested in them too. I looked forward eagerly to our junior year; between all of the classes we would have together and our shared extracurriculars, I was sure that we were going to have a fabulous time.

And for a while, it was exactly that. He and I would walk between classes together, go to club meetings together, stay at the public library near our high school together late into the evenings, doing our homework and having dinner at nearby diners and fast food joints. I was so happy to spend time with him. His intensity was mesmerizing; his enthusiasm for life and learning were infectious. I felt like he was giving me a whole new way of looking at the world: his drive inspired me to expand my own horizons; his fervor led me to look for enthrallment in my own experiences. With him, I could do anything, learn anything, be anything.

Over Thanksgiving break, we met to work on an English project - we were writing two extra chapters for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn - but it was the first day of break, and we didn't really feel like doing work. So instead we went to his house, and I met his pets, his parents, his sister and grandfather. He showed me old photographs, the basement, some of his favorite music. We had dinner with his family, then we went bowling with friends, then to a café with another couple. I had a wonderful time.

Then, in December, everything changed. He missed a lot of school, stopped showing up for meetings, wouldn't take or return my phone calls. For weeks, I would try to get in touch with him, only to reach his parents, even his sister, but never him. I felt terrified that there was something seriously wrong causing this completely out-of-character behavior; I felt angry and confused and betrayed at his lack of communication, wondering if I had hugely misjudged who he was.

We were never anything more than friends, but in my heart I felt as though we had shared something significant and meaningful, that we had been together in a way that mattered. I cared for him as much as a fifteen-year-old girl knew how to care about a sixteen-year-old boy, my journal pages filled with pleas to God or any other power who was listening to make everything okay again. He haunted my thoughts, my overwrought imagination spinning out wilder and wilder possibilities of what could have happened.

He finally came back to school in January, but he deliberately avoided me. We still had classes together, but we never talked anymore, never walked together in the hallways anymore, never went out to eat or stayed late in the library anymore. That spring, I breathed a million "I'm sorry"s into the universe, hoping one of them would find its way to him. I wrote note after note that I never gave to him: "I believe in you. I believe that you are a good person and that you have the inner strength to overcome these obstacles. And I'm sorry. I'm sorry for giving up on you and losing faith in you." By the end of the school year, we were cordial but distant. He graduated a year ahead of me, and I figured I would never see or hear from him again.

It took me a long time to make my peace with this, but I did it. I still thought of him once in a while, but I knew that that particular chapter of my life was simply not going to have any more closure, and that was a sort of closure in itself.

So I was completely flabbergasted when, in the wee hours of a February morning more than two years after my last real conversation with him, I found a long email from him in my inbox - an email all about his current life, studying abroad in a country he had always loved, about soldiers building sculptures in the snow, but almost nothing about what had happened, nothing about why - only that he regretted getting out of touch with me, that he missed me.

At this point, I was well into my freshman year of college. I lived in a different state. I was madly in love with another boy, whom I had been dating for six months. My life was full and happy, and when Raymond resurfaced in my life like a ghost long buried, I didn't know how to react, wasn't sure whether I wanted to reopen these doors that I had so painstakingly shut and sealed. After lengthy deliberations, I wrote back to him, a brief, curt, self-righteous email demanding answers. He replied, I replied, and then he finally told me at least part of the story of what had happened that winter.

He told me how difficult things had been for him, between stress at work and at school, between worrying about new friendships and losing old ones. He told me that he had fallen in love with a boy for the first time that winter. He told me that his parents had put him on psychiatric medication, that he was pretty much living in his own world at the time, that at some point he had stopped taking his medication altogether in a step to regain control over his own life. He wrote to me, "It took me a long time to stop hating the people who were trying to help me, including you. It took me a long time to realize that the incredible weakness that made me want to sever contact with everything had an incredible strength to hurt people."

As I read his words, everything about my memories snapped into place in a way that had never made sense before, and I found that what I had thought was peace, what I had thought was closure, were pale shadows compared to real peace and real closure. Suddenly I could accept and understand and forgive and forget in a way that was never possible before. I wrote him back and made my own confessions in turn - telling him that I had liked him as more than friends, telling him about the concern and confusion and hurt that I had never truly voiced to him before. And he emailed me a few more times that spring; I sent him an instant message once in a while; and then we fell out of touch again, this time the natural silence of people whose lives no longer intersect.

In all these intervening years, I have seldom thought of him; I have almost never been haunted by memories of our past. I guess that was perhaps his final gift to me - the truth for which I had so desperately yearned - the truth that, clichéd as it may sound, set me free. The years - silent from all ghosts - have been a testament to the true peace created by our exchanged confessions. Yet, in this week of ghosts, his memory has come back to me - in lecture halls and on snow-dampened sidewalks as I felt the wind whip past; on my bed as I poured over the pages of my old journals, reliving a past I had nearly forgotten.

Because it's only now, years later, after I've experienced firsthand what debilitating depression feels like, after I've been the one to avoid phone calls and hide from the world, after I've been the one trying to keep the extent to which my life had fallen apart hidden from everyone who cared about me, after I too have taken antidepressants, and after I too stopped taking them cold turkey, that I think I'm finally able to understand what I couldn't back then - how courageous and how wise he was, both at sixteen and at nineteen, back when I was too absorbed in myself to realize or recognize that. I was right to see something special in him.

There have been so many years in between now that I'm not sure we would even recognize each other anymore. But somewhere in this world, there is a stranger who is the ghost of my old friend... and my life is poorer for no longer having him in it.

I want you to know that I regret getting out of touch with you. And I miss you.

* not his real name.


This entry is my submission for therealljidol Season 5, Week 6: Ghosts. If you enjoyed this entry, please vote for me in this week's poll.