Tag Archives: self-inquiry

Last Stop, New Haven?

26 Aug

For the past week, I have been one of the leaders of FOCUS on New Haven, a pre-orientation program at Yale meant for rising sophomores and incoming transfer students. I, along with my fellow leaders, organize, transport, counsel, and challenge the 60+ participants in the program through panels, discussion groups, project sites (Ronald McDonald House of Connecticut for the win!), alternative tours, and even a scavenger hunt containing some New Haven-related quests created by yours truly. As a participant, I found FOCUS to be overwhelming, thrilling, full of no sleep and instantaneous friendships. As a leader, insert all of the above, with the addition of a self-consciousness with regards to my choices and wording during my time as a conduit between these students and the city around them and the subtraction of several more hours of sleep.

This being a program about New Haven, it is something that matters a lot to me. This being a program about service, political awareness, and the dirty, time-consuming process of forming opinions about local issues, it is something that matters to me. This being a program that clashes some of the most open student minds against their surroundings with often spectacular results, it is something that matters to me. In short, in case you haven’t caught on yet (repetition alert!), FOCUS as a program matters very much to me.

Tonight, I spent some time thinking about what I would want to share with participants if given the opportunity. What do I have to say – even for just a few minutes – about New Haven? About this program? About experiencing a city from my point of view?

Here are some thoughts, in speech form, for starters. I’d better eat my Wheaties to prep for this one.

I want to take a moment, after a week of being a FOCUS leader, to tell you what scares me about New Haven.

For a lot of people, the scariest part about this city is the crime map. Where violence takes place, what might happen to them. For others, it’s the statistics, like the number of students who graduate without adequate levels of literacy. And for still others, it’s those moments of coming face to face with someone they don’t know how to deal with, like Daksha’s encounter with a homeless woman, that make them, on some level at least, afraid.

That’s not it for me. Instead, I am scared, scared beyond anything else, to leave. Scared to find a job in another city, to change my homepage from the New Haven Independent to a different local paper, to fulfill what I think is an expectation of Yale students that we haven’t talked enough about during this week: the expectation that we will not stay, that we are transitory, and that our work, however well-meant, is rooted more in our conscience than in our physical place. The expectation, in short, that despite diving into urban affairs with all of the verve of a neighborhood activist, we will eventually cut ties and move away in a way that a homeowner here never could. I don’t know when this tie-cutting might be. I don’t even know if this will be – some of us may well settle down right here. But I can’t know that for sure, and that uncertainty at my core changes me from a resident to a traveler.

This is something that I want to share with you because it is a voice in the back of my head that I don’t acknowledge very often when I am out in the community, the voice telling me, “But what about when you are gone?” Instead, I work harder with all of you each hour, each minute, to prove how committed we are in the number of questions we ask in panels or meals we serve at the Ronald McDonald House. I don’t let myself ask why I am putting all of this effort – why all of us are putting all of this effort – into a community that we may not belong to in two or three years from now, into the absorption of localized knowledge that won’t apply to any other grid of streets. But what if, for a moment, I do allow myself to ask that question: the “why?”

This is what I thought about last night, and this is what I want to talk to you about during this morning charge.

There are generalized answers, of course, reasons that are completely valid and, in many cases, very powerful. Here, I think of our innate desire for justice, our sense of reciprocity and service, and our eagerness to belong to a group and to contribute value to that community.

But the specific answer that I have settled upon, at least so far, is one that acknowledges our potential transience by stating, simply, that as much as we are students and citizens of the city, at this moment of our lives we are also travelers by nature. I don’t mean to imply that we are jetsetters, though perhaps some of us are, or that we live out of our suitcases. I merely mean that in a very concrete sense, we have not yet committed ourselves to a “home” in this world, and until we do (perhaps by buying a house, accepting a long-term job, or running for local office), we remain travelers.

Well, this is not helping, Jess, you are thinking. I was having such a nice cereal breakfast before you undermined my entire relationship with New Haven. I understand what you are saying. But bear with me on this for just a few more moments.

I choose the term “travelers” very specifically. The word actually comes from the French verb “travailler,” which, roughly translated, means, “to work.” And it is in this etymology that I find my answer about engaging with New Haven.

In this context, traveling is not merely observing. It is not just taking classes and walking by the Green every once in a while or writing cutesy blogposts about the PechaKucha nights in town (though, incidentally, the one that I attended tonight was pretty darn cool). It is, instead, the act of WORKING, of putting your own energy into your physical surroundings, of expending effort to make connections and to leave each place better, safer, happier, brighter than how you found it when you first arrived. In other words, traveling in New Haven, for us, as Yale students, ought to be seen as our job.

In this light, FOCUS and other New Haven outreach programs make all the sense in the world. Despite the fact that we can move away and leave this city – perhaps because of that fact – we, as travelers and visitors of both the physical and intellectual kind, have a responsibility to work while we are here, to earn our hospitality and our right to call ourselves members of this community for even the shortest time.

This is what I want you to have in mind during today, your final day of project sites. This idea of you having an identity in the city that does require thinking, hard work, moments of forcing yourself to go that extra step, to make the awkward introduction, to do the obvious service like tutoring but also the less obvious outreach like saying hello to everyone you pass on the street in an unfamiliar neighborhood. This whole scholar-citizen thing isn’t easy; it requires work. But that same work acts as a legitimate retort to the stereotyped  here-today-gone-tomorrow assumption about Yale students, and it is a large part of the reason why I, at least, feel responsible for and excited about doing as much as possible with the citywide community, whether it will prove relevant to my future life or not. So over the next twelve hours – our final twelve hours – see what you can do with your traveler identity. What can you give, how can you leave your site better off for the next arriving traveler or the people who live there, how can you choose to approach your day in a light that moves you from outsider to included participant? I can’t wait to see what you’ve got. CHARGE.

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Notebook Excerpt: Beach at Ostia

22 Jun

Who tries to write a poem

on the beach at Ostia?

As if the waves are not proof enough that forward movement transitions (always)

to floating back

As if the sand here hasn’t been made from rocks collapsing

into finer and finer versions of themselves over ten thousand years –

as if my half hour stanzas won’t get buried here, too.

(As if the language of heartbreak – the poetry of it, the tight collapsing phrases, the staccato moment of letting go – exists even through the disappearance of the shade.)

In Flight

31 May

(Though I am already in Roma – or, as Lady Gaga would say, “Roma, Roma-ma-a” – I am catching up on posting after two days without Internet access, so this post is one that was written in my journal on May 29 while I was midflight. Stay tuned for more from our abode in Trastevere! Hint and non-spoiler: Rome is AMAZING. I’m still trying to find the right words.)

There is something about this trip that makes me feel as though I am in decisive forward motion all the time, shedding layers of weighty thoughts with each mile of my approach. But, as I sit here on AlItalia’s plane, whizzing through space towards this country, I still haven’t been able to figure out exactly where the mental magic comes from.

What are you, Italy? What are you that makes me want to open my whole heart to you, and my ears to your language, and my mouth to your nourishment, and my eyes to your sun, without hesitation? I am back in childlike mode, accepting and appreciating based purely on sensory experiences, in the face of this mother of all locales. What are you that your native tongue reverberates so full in my diaphragm and eases off of my curling tongue? What are you, Italy, that makes so many of us sigh and draw the earth into our lungs with deep nods of recognition when your name comes up, even if we have never visited you? What are you, that your politics are falling apart and your rough leaders allow even rougher rings to lead some of your cities, and yet we still lend you our support and black out that section of history involving Il Duce? What are you, that makes me sit here like the crazy protagonist of a quirky romantic comedy, listening to blaring Italian opera through my headphones and insisting on requesting things from the stewardesses in phrasebook Italian rather than English, just to feel myself further embedded in your culture? (For the record, “acqua” means water, and stewardesses are incredibly patient people.)

I really have been trying to absorb the sounds of Italy as much as possible, if not the entire language. For the past two days I have listened to more than 20 Italian language podcasts, tried to sing through my old Italian sheet music again (Che Bella Cosa from Treble Choir Days being my favorite shower tune – sorry, housemates), and walked around the room with my phrasebook glued to my hand. The language is so immediate to me, so unadulterated  by rules or odd vocal contortions, that speaking even the simplest phrases out loud gives me that sense of forward movement again. This is different than French – with French I feel more regal, perhaps, or as if I am part of some sophisticated secret, but never boundless.

I realize as I write this now that perhaps this is the reason Italians are known for gesticulating so wildly: their language removes the bounds and bonds between emotion and tongue, makes words fly, and loosens their thoughts so thoroughly that their joints loosen, too. It leaves them flapping their nerve endings at the sky, this feeling, and signals, “I am raw and open and tumbling with things to say — world, come meet me, cheek to cheek.”

…Okay, so I get overly poetic about Italy. Even I’ll admit that I descend into prose usually reserved for Hallmark anniversary cards. But what so much of this journey is about is finding out why I react this way – what makes these phrases pour out of me with no regard to traveling propriety (i.e. being realistic instead of overwrought about my destination.) This is just another place, after all. So why does it keep so many of us under its spell?

Even the idea makes us giddy. Mixed in among the interpretive gestures of the past few days have been some hilarious turns of phrase, fueled purely by the pleasure of trills on the tongue. A few days ago, I learned (thanks to the Dating and Socializing section of my phrasebook) that I could proposition an Italian with the simple phrase, “L’accompagno a casa?” or “May I take you home?” (My father, upon hearing this, promptly requested that I learn to translate “My father is from Texas and owns a large shotgun;” I’m still working on that one.)

And my mother – well, my mom has spent her past few days stringing together the only three Italian words she knows (“Ciao!” “Bella!” “Mangia!”) into exclamatory phrases, despite the fact that she has no idea what she is saying. “Prego!” I yelled to her from upstairs as I was packing. “Buon giorno!”

“Ciao!” she yelled back. “Ciao, bella! Ciao…bella, ciao, MANGIA!”

And on that note, now that the in-flight meal has arrived, I must say ciao, my bella readers, so that I can, indeed, mangia.

An Honest Heart

24 May

Occasionally, amidst the million flutters of excitement about this trip and the hours of packing and the composition of effusive emails, I stop dead in my tracks and say, “Jess. What the heck do you think you’re doing, spending half of your summer abroad in Rome?!”

It’s not the craziest question. In order to pull this trip off, even with the help of a very, very generous ISA award from Yale, I am emptying bank accounts that I have been filling since the age of ten (yes, Grandma, that’s where the birthday card money ended up – thank you!). I’m leaving my family behind for a month and a half when I haven’t gotten to spend more than three weeks at a time with them for two years. And, as a scholar and citizen, I’m leaving the city and town that I have spent the past few years learning about and trying to participate in for a city where I will be just a few steps above an enlightened tourist.

And it’s not to volunteer, or to work, or to intern, or even to take a required class. No, I’m going to Rome to take a class called “The City of Rome” for credits that I may not need, with a syllabus that includes both Dante and wine tasting. It is an enormous privilege that I even have this choice, and I still feel an occasional pang when I explain my summer to an acquaintance. “Actually, I’ll be in…Rome this summer. Yeah. I really still can’t believe it myself.” There is something that sounds so dangerously frivolous about this path – some hint of jet-setting entitlement.

For me, of course, that feels far from the truth. Aside from Canada (which doesn’t feel like too much of a trek from up here in New Hampshire), I have been to three countries over the course of my life. France and England on a whirlwind family vacation when I was ten (ten whole years ago, wow), and India for two weeks this past March break with a Reach Out trip from Yale where we did some volunteering in Delhi for a week and then spent a week visiting a few other areas of the country. I still consider myself a travel rookie – the one who, much to the amusement of everyone else, spent every flight to and from India with my nose plastered against the window, whispering to the mountaintops through the clouds.

This is me caught staring outside of our bus windows in India. I wasn't kidding about this constant sensation of hyper-alertness and incessant wonder.

I wasn't kidding about whispering through clouds, either. And taking pictures of them. I really couldn't bear to miss a single moment.

And Italy – well, Italy is somewhere I have been praying to travel to since I can remember thinking about traveling at all. I don’t know why it has always been Italy. Maybe it’s the food, or the language, or too much Mario Brothers. But every time my family mentioned taking a trip, I would bring it up again. Every single time. It’s like this inexplicable platial mystique from deep inside of me. And so this is, really, the fulfillment of a dream.

But it’s also this enormous thing, to travel to Europe to spend part of a summer. A thing that has connotations and expectations and very crisp evocations. And though it seems normal for many Yalies (and even many Andover kids, and more and more friends from home), it still sometimes feels weird to me. But there comes a point when I have to just stand up and say it, and that point is now.

Yes, I am lucky. I am so, so, so, so, so so so so so SO very lucky to be able to do this. No, it is not something that is directly applicable to my professional life, though as a concentrator in Urban Studies with an interest in international urban development, it does happen to be a really perfect place to get to know. Yes, I feel like this is a once in a lifetime opportunity, to be able to go live and breathe and LEARN a place every single day. For those of you who may not know the details, this class has me reading about a thousand pages a week with seminars that take place on site all around the city. One day we walk the entirety of the ancient walls, another we are assigned to visit ten separate churches. Throughout the whole course, we will each be researching our own independent project, meeting with experts and preparing a giant paper and report for our final presentation. It is the ultimate Humanities experience, one in which millennia of learning and beauty will be tied into our present day personal experience. It is how I wish I could introduce myself to every new city – by walking straight up to its gates and saying, “I have read your ghosts and studied your victories; I have been tested on your path and want to walk through your present. Teach me more.” So the real answer to the “Why the heck are you doing this?” question has something to do with responding to a yearning and something to do with a sense that if I don’t do this now, I’ll never have the chance again. A few nights ago a group of friends and I sat talking about all of those crazy things that seem to be on our life lists for some reason or other, and we already felt as though we were running low on time and serendipity. So if not now, when? And if not now, a better question to be asking myself is, “Why the heck not?”

“Carpe diem,” the saying goes. And here I go seizing it.

Who knows what life will look like tomorrow?