Category Archives: The Project

Acceptance

Acceptance is weird. Or rather, the quest for it is. By putting yourself in a position of desiring acceptance, you can actually set yourself apart from the place you want to be. You are deferent to it. Simple questions or requests can be interpreted as challenges or competitions. “If I do this right,” you may say to yourself, even if the activity in question is as mundane as chopping onions, “I can gain acceptance.”

But how much is it a matter of perspective? How much is the desire for acceptance and the ensuing competitive approach a function of our own insecurity? How many times is it the case when, if we bothered to stop and look around, we’d see that we’re on the same tier as everyone else. There is no hierarchy. We are already accepted.

As you may have guessed, I’m specifially talking about it in terms of family. It’s amazing how a shift in context can disrupt that understanding. I got it this summer (both personally and professionally). But this spring, in England, it seemed different. Until I realized it wasn’t.

It’s not that you need to win a race. You just have to realize you’re already in the pack. The pace doesn’t matter. You just need to want to be a part of it, to keep moving. The race is its own reward.

Why Is This Night Different From All Other Nights?

This evening, I’m flying the red-eye to London Heathrow, headed to England to spend Passover with my family.

It’s funny. I feel like things that for so many other people are special and exciting, are simply the norm for me. Such as flying to England. Sure, I’m excited, but this is my third time there and I know more of what to expect. It’s less of a tourist vacation and more of a family visit.

On the other hand, things that for so many other people are normal, even boring or rote, are new and fascinating to me. Such as a family with whom to spend Passover dinner. I’ve been to many a seder in my life, but never a family seder — especially one I’ve been promised is “rowdy and unorthodox.” To say I’m looking forward to it would be a gross understatement.

Passover is one of my favorite Jewish holidays. It’s anchored in shared traditions and a common narrative — every year, the seder is shaped around the same text, the same recollection of ancient events, the same symbolic foods on the seder plate. The Passover seder — at which, the Four Questions explain, you conduct yourself differently than you do at any other meal — is really a meta-meal. You don’t just eat something; you have to wonder why you are eating it. (And trust me, there is always a good, rabbinic reason.) The meal is just a medium for storytelling and reflection. In true Jewish fashion, it provides an opportunity to overanalyze everything.

For me, this Passover can’t help but be a meta-meta-meal. As we embark on our annual renewal of centuries-old traditions, recounting history through lamb shanks and several glasses of wine, I will be studying a second history. I will look around the table at a family that is somewhat new to me and try to figure out my place in their narrative. Forget Four Questions; I have about four thousand.

And hopefully, in the blissful haze of good food, good drink and good company, I’ll forget them all.

Drunk on Epiphanies

I wanted my vacation to be focused on leisure, but me being me, I had to slip a couple of projects in there — in particular, working on an outline for The Project. On Tuesday, the day of 40 mile per hour wind gusts and frigid temps, I trekked to the campus library, which was delightfully quiet thanks to intersession. I found a secluded table, took out my legal pad, and began what I thought would be an extensive process.

But as I began, the outline seemed to write itself, like a fully-formed creature just now emerging from the shadows. I was pleased, but confused. This isn’t supposed to be easy, I thought. I had blocked out two full days of time for this, but there I was, nearly done.

The next morning, after the BuzzUp, I holed up at a downtown coffee shop to revisit the outline draft, and it still looked good. I made some additional notes and fleshed some ideas out, but the basic structure remained. It had survived the “sleep on it” test.

That morning, I tweeted: “I love when ideas strike me as if my brain has been quietly nurturing them for months and just now decided to let me in on the secret.” My friend Andrew responded: “Ideas can be like wine: the best of them ferment for months, even years, before emerging as a delicious elixir. Congrats.”

IMing with a writerly friend of mine that evening, I asked, “So is it normal to sit down and in an hour bang out an outline for a book?”

“If you have been thinking about it for TWO YEARS, then yes,” she said. “One should not be concerned with normalcy.”

The brain is a mysterious organ. Could it be that all this time I’ve been hand-wringing over my stasis on The Project that some inaccessible, complex part of my brain has been working through the pieces, waiting for me to finally sit my butt down at a table so it could tap me on the shoulder and say, “Oh, BTW, I’ve got something for you”? It certainly felt like that.

But I know in the end that it’s not magic. I won’t wake up one day to find a manuscript sitting on my desk. It takes writing, revision, writing, revision, revision, revision, writing and revision. Not to mention editing. Perspiration, inspiration, the whole shebang. It takes work. Now, though, at least I have a blueprint.

That said, I suffer no delusions that this outline remotely reflects how The Project will ultimately look. But for now, it provides structure and a direction, which is what I desperately needed. I am energized to move forward with the project, and while I don’t expect lightning to strike twice, I can’t help but wonder what brainstorms might be just beyond the horizon. Perhaps some part of me already knows how the story ends.

Photo by basheertome/Flickr Creative Commons

Running Down a Dream

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This past weekend, I went down to New York to visit my brother. I hadn’t seen him since our roadtrip in July, and I wanted to see him at least once before the holidays. It was a really good trip, and not just for some of the peripheral benefits — much needed zone-out time on the bus, a change of scenery and some fun meals. It was a good opportunity to get perspective. I chatted with him about The Project, and just talking over the issues I’m having moving forward helped me sort out a possible plan (or two) of attack. We had a few other conversations that were really, really good to have, some more meaningful than others. For instance, I chatted with him a little bit (though, in retrospect, not enough) about writing process. I sometimes forget that we are both writers, albeit in different forms and styles, and it’s something I should take advantage more often. Especially when, like lately, I’m at a bit of a fork in the road with my writing. It’s in my blood; it’s just a matter of keeping the blood flowing.

One of the more interesting moments of the weekend came toward the end of the run we went on Sunday morning. The New York City Marathon heads right down 4th Avenue in Brooklyn, right past where his apartment is. When we set out, the stream of runners had not yet hit 4th Avenue, but as we looped back, we saw that they had arrived. Thousands of marathoners stood between us and my brother’s apartment, hot showers and a trip out to breakfast.

s_Frogger_2I had no idea how we were going to get across the street. But my brother knew exactly what we were going to do: we were going to Frogger our way across.

Here’s where the arteries of that shared blood split off: I’m a goody-goody, and he’s a rule-breaker. I saw cops posted on every corner and median in sight (heck, his apartment is around the corner from a substation), and I saw no way of stepping into the thick of the NEW YORK CITY MARATHON without getting collared. But for Andrew, it was no bigs. He stood poised on a cop-free corner, while I stood nearby wringing my hands. Before I knew it, he had burst off the sidewalk, keeping pace with the runners while sidling his way across the southbound lane. Upon hitting the median, he did it again, crossing the stream in the northbound lane while maneuvering toward the opposite curb.

Dumbfounded, I had no choice but to follow. I felt much like I did the time we broke into the abandoned Rhode Island School for the Feeble Minded, half-expecting a cop to jump out of the shadows and slap cuffs around my wrists.

But, much as I did in that abandoned school, I soon realized there was nothing to fear. I simply minded how I navigated myself through the crowded field of runners, and before I knew it I was across the avenue, standing next to Andrew. And hey, maybe now I can say I’ve run in the New York City Marathon (twice — we had to do this a second time to get to breakfast).

If you’re careful, my brother has taught me more than once, you can break a rule or two every now and then and it’s more than worth it — whether the reward is a hot shower, a good meal, or just the reminder that the world is more flexible than you may think.

Of a Revolution

Whenever I was studying American History in school, it always felt like the unit about the American Revolution was the longest. That’s probably because it was the beginning of the school year, and the teachers were somewhat luxuriant with (or ignorant of) time and spent three days on the Stamp Act alone. (This, of course, would lead to a wallop in May of learning about World War I on a Monday and World War II on a Tuesday.)

I didn’t learn I was actually considered a Daughter of the American Revolution until well after high school (when some of those scholarships would have come in handy). Of course, DAR has a somewhat sullied history of being racist and segregationist, which is unfortunate (though presumably remedied), but the idea of drawing a sense of pride from having a direct familial tie to the birth of your country is pretty cool. I’m also in the illustrious company of fellow DAR such as Laura Bush, Janet Reno, Bo Derek and Rory Gilmore.

When I was in Virginia this past summer, Andrew (who is, of course, a son of the American Revolution) and I reconnected with the relative to whom we trace our status by driving to Rocky Mount, Virginia, to try to find the Robert Hill fort.

Robert Hill emigrated from Ireland to the United States in 1740. (My mom suspects he could have been an English landowner in Ireland, but it is not known for certain.) He and his wife, Violet, originally lived in Pennsylvania but later moved South to become the first permanent settlers of Franklin County, Va., with 1,700 acres to their name. One account in the family history, excerpted from “Pioneer Families of Franklin County, Virginia” by Marshall Wingfield, notes that Violet—maiden name Linus—“was a member of an old Roman family that went from Italy to the British Isles shortly after the Roman conquest. An effort has been made to identify her family with that of an early Bishop of the Christian Church, but… there are no authentic records to establish that connection.”

The Hill settlement was built in 1743 in what would become Rocky Mount. The stone house was designed as a fort to protect the Hill clan from Indian attacks, but to that end, it wasn’t so successful. Two of Robert Hill’s five sons were killed by Indians—one by an arrow and one by a tomahawk. A third was killed by a panther or a bucking horse.

The house stayed in the family until 1917, but most of it was destroyed by a fire in 1960. The owner at the time, former Franklin County Circuit Court Judge B.A. “Monk” Davis III, allegedly stuffed four of the house’s five chimneys with dynamite and exploded them. The rest was bulldozed, save for the original chimney. Today, that is all that remains, standing just off the property of the Christian Heritage Academy.

That’s where we found ourselves on a mild July Wednesday. After calling the town historical society to get some directions — one thing I learned on this trip is not to task Andrew with making calls for directions, since details like writing down said received directions tended to escape him — we eventually found the school and, off to the side, the remains of the fort.

There’s not a whole lot left — a fireplace and half a wall, really — but it was a powerful experience to know that this very ground is where some of my first relatives to step foot on American soil had sat here, warmed themselves, took shelter from the wilderness around them.

The site was designated a Franklin County Historic Site in 2005, and the locals had erected an information kiosk that included a brief audio overview of the history of the fort. It was weird to look at the list of donors to the Robert Hill Fort Preservation Project and, first of all, see some Hills and wonder how closely we were related and, two, not help but feel some sense of gratitude to these total strangers who had chipped in to help preserve some of my family heritage. They don’t know me, and I’ll never know them, but we’re connected in some weird way nonetheless.

So, how does the Revolutionary War play into all of this? While Robert Hill died one year into the War, his family took an active role throughout. Violet helped supply food to American soldiers and their animals, and both living sons—Thomas and Swinfield—fought in the war. It is through Swinfield, who went on to become a prominent local judge, that Andrew and I receive our designation.

After Andrew and I were done seeing the fort, we set out to find the Tanyard Road cemetery, where we knew at least some of the Hill clan were buried. Without real directions, our effort consisted mainly of plugging Tanyard Road into the GPS and hoping we spotted something on the side of the road. Sure enough, next to the National Guard headquarters, there was the cemetery. We found markers for Robert, Violet and Thomas — for Robert and Violet, their original markers were complemented by more recent ones that noted their involvement in the Revolutionary War and were accompanied by American flags; Thomas had just the newer marker and flag. It was an amazing feeling to be able to visit the gravesites of some of my earliest American ancestors and pay our respects.

. . .

When I was walking to work the other morning, I was reminded of all of this when I passed a sign, painted state park brown, that read “Revere’s Ride.” I happen to retrace a fair portion of Paul Revere’s midnight ride on my normal walk to work. As you may remember, Paul’s ride went right past my neighborhood, but it continues on past the street where I work in Medford. When I walked past the sign, I thought back not only to our visit to the Robert Hill Fort, but all of my various tangential connections to the American Revolution. Living in Massachusetts, sure, you can’t help but be surrounded by them, whether it’s walking the Freedom Trail or visiting the location of the shot heard ’round the world. (In fact, I’ve seen the reenactment of Revere’s ride twice, and William Dawes’ oft-forgotten ride once — two of those three times entirely by accident.) And to be fair, being a direct descendant of someone who fought in the Revolutionary War is not a particularly rare designation.

But to have visited the Virginia homestead and gravesites who helped fan the flames of revolution in their own small way, and then to come back home and realize I am — and always have been — surrounded by a story to which I have a newly realized personal connection, is pretty humbling and amazing. Sure, Violet Hill is no Paul Revere, but the overall narrative is shared. And I am a descendant and inheritor of that narrative. I touched the stone ruins of the Robert Hill Fort and walked on the Battle Green in Lexington, and in some way, those two sites are connected.

If only I’d known that sitting in American History class, learning about the Stamp Act for the fifth time and wondering what was the point.

Long Way Back Home

As the story goes, Hansel and Gretel tried to mark the way back home by leaving a trail of bread crumbs. Hikers make notches in trees to mark the trail so they know how to get back to camp. Back in the day, divers would be doomed without their tether to the boat.

A lot of our lives, in one way or another, is spent trying not to get lost and making sure we get back home. One way of doing that is by tracing our way back via landmarks. But when you’re trying to reach back in time moreso than distance, those landmarks take the form of homesteads, gravesites and hometowns.

It wasn’t until I went to Virginia and West Virginia with my brother that these landmarks began to make sense to me in that context. Visiting the cemetery where my great-grandfather, his brothers, and the children that he and my great-grandmother had that didn’t survive infancy are buried — a cemetery located in a tiny valley town in West Virginia where my grandmother and great-uncle were born — somehow helped complete a piece of a puzzle I didn’t know I needed solved. I felt the same way upon seeing the tiny white house where my grandmother and great-uncle were raised, as well as visiting the town in West Virginia where many of my relatives were from — a town I’d heard about my entire life — and seeing where my cousin still lives in that town. Picking through shoeboxes full of photos scavenged from the shambles that is my grandmother’s house in Florida provides another piece,  connecting names and stories to faces that are fleshed out by anecdotes. Slowly, the branches of the family tree begin to tie together and grow leafy.

I now know why I feel the need to visit the house I grew up in each time I’m in Florida, even though I don’t have many fond memories of the place, and despite the fact that all I can do is idle on the street outside. This time around, as my brother and I idled on Second Avenue while a fierce thunderstorm began to swirl around us, a boy from the house next door collected the mail from both houses, then politely inquired as to what we were doing, parked next to the “No Parking” signs my grandmother had the city erect nearly 15 years ago.

“She grew up here,” my brother, in the passenger seat, told the boy as he gestured to me. “We’re just taking a look.” The boy nodded and smiled, oblivious to the complex family tapestry he had just grazed.

As these realizations fell upon me in Virginia, I began seriously regretting not visiting my great-grandmother’s grave in Boynton Beach while I was in Florida. Here I was, visiting the gravesites of people I’ve never met, from whom I am generations removed, but not that of a woman with whom I pretty much grew up. I sacrificed that visit in the name of making good time on the road, speeding north away from the demons and bad memories and toward the inevitable adventures my brother and I would have, watching the number of palm trees dwindle as our latitude increased.

I also began regretting the fact that my grandmother does not have a proper landmark. At the time, in January, I was in survival mode, and it didn’t seem important. Now, I am simply in living mode, and after last week, it feels wrong to be missing one of the points on this map back in time. I understand now why they are important. You can retrace those points of reference, and like stops on an audio tour, they provide relevance and context. All together, they tell a story.

The me that drove out of Florida, scrutinizing the ratio of palm to other roadside flora as we headed north, was the old me. The me that wishes I’d spent just a few hours longer down there is the new me, a me I never thought would come to pass. Sure, we were driving north, but little did I know we were really driving closer to South Florida, and that when we finally got to Virginia and West Virginia, a part of me would never really leave. We were following a road atlas and a GPS, but there was really a different map charting our course.  It was true: where we were going, we didn’t need roads.*

* I got that message as a fun auto-reply from “Doc Brown” on Twitter last week, and in retrospect, it’s mighty appropriate.

Road Trip Radio

My brother and I are geniuses, obviously, which explains why we didn’t realize that our rental car had XM radio until, oh, two days into our trip. Clearly, we were distracted from this discovery by our other rigorous intellectual pursuits. Or, maybe, we’re just that clueless.

Either way, the discovery delighted us. One of my favorite memories with my brother is tooling around Providence in a Zipcar, back when they had XM radio, and surfing through the various stations. We stumbled across some sort of public information channel, which was full of unintentionally hilarious items that left us cracking up. This time around, we quickly found our favorite stations — 1st Wave (new wave), Boneyard (metal), Lithium (grunge/90s), Classic Rewind, Classic Vinyl,  Underground Garage, 90s on 9 and 80s on 8. Occasionally, we found something on the Loft, Spectrum, Alt Nation or Coffeehouse, but believe it or not, Sirius XM U was a bit too hip for even us to bear.

All was well for the first couple of days. But by midweek, we noticed something that surprised us. I think we had expected satellite radio to be some haven of repeat-free playlists, where DJs took advantage of practically infinite archives within their genres to craft programs that were unique and diverse. But by the 8th time of hearing New Order’s “True Faith” on 1st wave and our 50th Stone Temple Pilots song on Lithium, we sensed something was amiss.

Apparently, while satellite radio has the benefit of allowing you to hone in on stations that focus on your favorite genres  — thus rescuing you from an adult contemporary wasteland that can cruelly juxtapose a pretty good Guster song with something wretch-worthy by Kenny Loggins — within those stations, the same unfortunate rotations seem to apply. This doesn’t make sense to me for a station like 1st Wave, which could easily find other New Order songs to play or bust out something by Depeche Mode other than “Enjoy the Silence.” By the end of our trip, we’d be turning the dial away from songs we had previously been excited to hear not three days previously, because we’d already heard them ten times.

Still, I really enjoyed having XM Radio on our roadtrip. It helped diffuse any potential iPod wars by presenting a highly desirable alternative, and we had a lot of fun mishearing song lyrics, hearing new songs, singing along to old favorites and generally talking about what is a passion for both of us. For my brother and I, music is a huge common thread, so we particularly enjoyed having something over which we could share our enjoyment — and our mockery.

Of note: I was in a store Saturday and they started playing New Order’s “True Faith.” I didn’t know whether to feel nostalgic or like Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day.”