In the spring, does nudge into the yard. The fawns are not afraid of me, standing there with an outstretched grasp. Deer old enough to remember the gunshots of autumn will run. The mothers’ legs tremble at the first sign of broken grass blades, but fawns, alone, will stay. You could touch them, I think, if you tried.
I’ve always loved them, for their grace and speed, for their blinking, liquid eyes. I drew pictures of deer as a child, four straight lines for legs and white crayon baubles for spots.
The does’ retreat in Valley Forge is Mount Joy, and so was mine, once. Mount Joy is a hot hilltop in the summer, ringed in cannons and asphalt paths nicked into the slope. You could lay in one of its round meadows and drink yellow sunlight with your head back. There are deer everywhere among the birches.
I’ve never seen a deer on Mount Misery, which slants sharply into a stream, clear and cold and banked in silver leaves, a place I have played since childhood. When I go there now I still slip off my shoes, leave them by the path, wade into the water, feel moss slick beneath my feet. Emerge with mud between my toes. Mount Misery used to be Mount Sorrow—but I’ve never heard a story about the name that I believed.
One year we got a Christmas card: my cousin had killed his first deer. A picture of a boy and his rifle fell out; he was twelve. They were proud, they wrote. In the photograph, he curled his fingers around the barrel, crouched beside the body, beaming. Don’t look at the blood blooming in its side. Look at its teeth and its ears and its warm black nose.
I almost hit a deer once. I was driving at dusk on a coiled road bracketed by dark pines when I had to stop. Do deer fear cars or revere them? I think it is a moment of pure blindness. Would you run if you fell under sudden lights?
Can I judge a boy with a gun, when I have never handled a trigger and never sat in the woods with an animal’s life hanging in the air before me? At least, for a moment, someone considered that fact, of life. You could be haunted by loudness in the woods. You could remember it and keep it with you and think, when you go home to your kitchen, a boy’s life is not like a deer’s. But a deer’s is its own small marvel, while it lasts.
I’ve been told more than once that I should keep a dream diary. I have vivid, strange, surreal, sometimes awful, rarely lucid, dreams, that meld the fantastic with the everyday. So, here’s last night’s.
I was staying in a wooden and metal frame house with a two story high glass panel window, a place I had never seen before. It looked a little like the mountain house my aunt built in South Dakota years ago. The house seemed elevated far above the ground. As I sat staring at the window, a giant eagle, twenty feet tall, smashed through the glass like a truck pummeling through a storefront. Other, smaller eagles crashed through the window at different square panes. At first, I watched this without being afraid, but then the eagles’ cold yellow eyes were peering at me and i could feel the air from outside rushing in. I ran out of the house.
I found myself on a tram, like at a theme park, with low metal cars, on a green hillside. Almost like a child’s train ride. The sky was yellow. We went to a classroom with a chalkboard. A girl who I had never seen before asked me to do equations on the board. I couldn’t solve the problems and then I remembered what natural logs were and suddenly saw an e, written in white chalk.
The night ended with me and three of my friends in an Italian restaurant.
I grew up in the charged space between an atheist dad and a Catholic church-going mom. When I was eight, I spilled red wine down the front of my Communion dress at the ceremony. At nine, I tripped and broke a crucifix that had belonged to my grandmother on the patio behind our house, a few weeks after she died. At ten, I whispered to my dad that I didn’t believe in God in our living room late at night. I was afraid that my mom had heard me. When I finally told my mom, I was twenty, and she cried.
Throughout my childhood, a white wicker angel sat on my nightstand. A silver cross hung above my bed. Tucked behind the framed picture on the wall were always last year’s palms. When my mom took me up to bed, she kneeled beside me and folded her hands, and we prayed.
I loved church as a child. The hymns were my favorite. I wanted to learn how to read so that I could sing along. I loved the ritual of Communion, of cupping your palms together and crossing yourself as you walked away. I was terrified of Confession. The first time I went, the priest, who was an older, graying man, asked me to tell him my sins. I said that I argued with my little brother, that sometimes I wanted to hit him. I was in second grade.
I wasn’t allowed to choose my Confirmation name, because my mom insisted that it be my grandmother’s, whose rosary I still have in a cardboard jewelry box in my room. My grandmother’s religion was integral to her being in a way that I could never understand. She carried those blue beads in her pocket for years. One night when I was up sick, she told me to lie down and say the rosary with her, that prayers would bring me peace. Hail Mary, mother of God.
I used to sit at the top of the stairs while my mom carried on long conversations with her sister, listening. There was a fire in my aunt’s house the same year my grandmother got sick. They had no insurance, and the family heirlooms and photographs in the attic burned with the knickknacks and kitchen utensils downstairs.
My mom brought me to Florida with her to see my aunt and grandmother. When they found my grandmother’s cancer, I was in the waiting room. But I hung back when the doctors came over to us, like I always do, watching my mom’s face from across the room. I sat alone in the hospital for three days while they ran tests. I went back to my grandmother’s house with my mom, folded the quilts, dusted the shelves, packed the books in boxes, readying it for the sale we knew would come soon, although I did not really understand why. One afternoon I was cleaning the photos in the hall with my mom when my uncle elbowed through the door. He was my mom’s youngest brother, a man with long dark hair and a mustache, who I had rarely met. He stood, facing my mom in the center of the hall.
“Where the fuck is mom?” he asked, swaying.
“Don’t you dare curse in front of my daughter,” my mom said. “And get out of this house.”
“No,” he slurred. “This is my house too. I’m not leaving unless you make me. You can’t. I’ll win that.”
“I dare you to touch me. Go ahead. See what happens.” She stared at him, shaking, but not with fear.
I did not understand that my uncle was drunk, did not know that he had been stealing money and alcohol from my grandmother for years, something that continued until she died a few months later. I was afraid but, also, I was not. My mom is invincible, I thought.
I took my first Communion twice that spring. Once at home and once in Florida, for my grandmother’s sake.
An English major walks into a bar... -
Why you should stop mocking English majors
When you finally get to the city you’ve always dreamed of living in, you find that it deflates in little ways every day. You get stuck in a stalled subway car for an hour and the whole car clogs with heat and sweat films on your forehead. You spend your lunches measuring mouthfuls while women in stilettos clatter past, a rhythm that says stay skinny get thin eat less. You try on pencil skirts and pumps, but you just keep tripping up. In August, an eighteen-year-old girl jumps from her window into the street one block from where you live. Maybe the place you thought you belonged in doesn’t want to belong to you.
Today, I read this: http://allysonbird.com/2013/03/19/why-i-left-news/
Every day there is another news article, another blog post, another adult telling me all of the reasons that I shouldn’t try to be a writer. You will never get a job, they say. You will never make money. You will be bitter and penniless and boxed into a shadowy apartment and a dead end future. They advise me to apply to law school or try consulting or PR.
Who am I to believe that I have any kind of fighting chance in journalism? That I won’t be broken down by long hours and low pay, if so many reporters who are older and smarter and better than I am can’t keep going?
Writing is and has always been the only path that I could see. This is what I am good at and what I love. This is how I want to do good and give back. This is how I want to make my life matter.
Maybe I will buckle under the weight of a “decaying” industry. Maybe I will end up sad and frustrated and shattered. But maybe I won’t, and I have to keep going long enough to find that out.
Top 5 Reasons Nick & Jess should just admit they're in love -
check out this recap of last night’s new girl episode that i wrote!
You know the train’s coming when the rails start to rattle. It’s not loud: a gentle, silvery whistling, so high and delicate that if you’re not listening for it, it’s invisible. It precedes the moment when the train’s grey nose slides into view by almost a minute. The station is the only broken down thing about this town. It’s been allowed to dilapidate: the paint peels in wobbly yard-long strips; the pavement cracks; the tunnel beneath the track leaks no matter the weather. It was a landmark once, a waystation for horse drawn carriages to the grand Devon hotel (an ashy shadow in the soil today; it burned to the ground in 1910), where Victorian ladies sipped lemonades under striped yellow awnings in between evenings at the horse show. The station is just a relic, its glory days forgotten by the living, but better a shell of a thing than no thing at all.
The commuters (businessmen in starchy black suits and oily loafers, looking harried and important) aren’t idle while they wait: they clutch cell phones and laptops and wrinkled newspapers and briefcases bulging with dog-eared files, jabbering and nodding and creasing and pacing. But they aren’t all that way. There was the man in a royal blue seersucker suit and a purple satin tie, a toothpick propped between his lips, who sat down beside me on the 10:10; a Bugsy Malone for this century, dapper and nonchalant, his feet planted firmly on the vinyl floor.
The people with questions are more interesting than the lawyers and accountants who crowd the train with their occupied boredom. They’re alone, dragging duffel bags and luggage; or they’re young mothers with children in strollers, or teenagers, newly permitted to venture into the city unsupervised. The travelers frown and tug their bulky bags out of the aisle, struggling to heave them onto overhead racks. The mothers plot out their journey’s course for their children: the zoo, or the museum, or maybe Daddy’s office in the skyscraper on Market. The teenagers chatter incessantly, their banter filling every car with bubbles of noise that burst when the doors slam shut. They bunch together, squeezing three to a seat, prattling about crushes and grades in cutoffs and polo shirts.
They’re all anxious, obsessively fingering schedules, folding tickets, and craning at the route map, asking the conductor to verify this or that stop, this or that detail. I can’t forget the blonde woman in a flight attendant’s uniform who slumped into the last seat on the last train out on a Saturday night, clearly addled, a bright flask in one hand and a pill bottle in the other. She staggered, her words melding into soupy slurs, as she asked if this was Radnor, and revealed in a stage whisper that she’d been mugged in New York.
The best thing about the train is the glimpse it affords into people’s homes by way of unshielded backyards. I love the split level with the koi pond, lined neatly with burnished stones in a well-kept and watered lawn, and the white clapboard house with a stream cutting a fluid angled path through its property. The houses grow as the train approaches Wynnewood and Merion; but these houses safeguard their backs with black woods and shrubs thick with vines, so that only tiny bits of gingerbread turret or stone-worked chimney are visible through the branches. After Overbrook the houses shrink, collapsing into brick row-homes with rickety porches and postage stamp gardens.
The train passes the Strafford station first. Now there’s a relic revived. I remember the reconstruction well; they loosened the whole building from its moors and set it back on stilts, gutting it and stuffing it with new insides. Its woodwork is cream and green, all curving arches, and it’s so lovely and antique and bric-a-brac that you could imagine it nestled on a hillside in rural Europe, maybe in Germany, maybe one hundred years ago.
Next is Wayne, with its competing church spires, and St. Davids’ apartment complexes and unkempt grass. Then Villanova: its station’s 19th century skeleton has been cased with lacquered blue and white paint in the name of school spirit. There’s Ardmore’s glowing shopping center, its frosty patrons and glossy windows such a contrast to its discount counterpart down the line, the one with red block letter billboards and abandoned storefronts and doors shuttered with boards. Narberth’s station is a study in the tragedies of modernity; the original structure was flattened in favor of a graceless sandstone box. There’s a gleaming charter school set opposite its languishing competitor; a mural of a little girl in braids, her head haloed by rings of color; an Acme factory whose gangly sign was probably last replaced during the Eisenhower administration.
There’s graffiti and the tube-like building that houses train cars in need of repair, an overpass and then a tunnel: 30 seconds of darkness before you emerge knowing that you’re finally in the city, its towers and its lights lined up before you, waiting.
Oxford is a waking dream.
It’s a constant reminder that you are here on loaned time: it’s not yours forever, you’re just borrowing it for three years or one, and then you’ve got to give it back to the tide of new students taking their first steps on the High Street, putting their footprints next to yours and thousands upon thousands of others.
It’s lawns like spongy carpets and orange lilies that nod their tall heads beneath the windowsills. It’s wisteria like a banner over the doorway to your classroom, and stairs that narrow and creak.
It’s the porter shouting when you try to cut through the grass.
It’s standing in the post office, fumbling with stamps and shipping prices and getting asked by a woman how to send letters to China. It’s saying with a laugh that you wish you knew.
It’s fear. It’s getting lost. It’s reading Shakespeare for hours and days and pain in your shoulders and burning in your eyes and deadlines that never cease to arrive. It’s not knowing the right answer and sitting stiffly while your professor’s mouth turns down at the corners.
It’s the headmaster’s wife correcting your pronunciation of a river’s name and drinking champagne in a seventeenth century house. It’s the two white dogs and the portrait of Samuel Johnson who live there too.
It’s lining up your coins by year and marveling at Queen Elizabeth’s softly rounding profile, marching through time. It’s amazement at Charles Darwin’s face on a ten-pound note.
It’s almost getting run over by cyclists when you cross the street because traffic is on the wrong side of the road and you always forget. It’s eating fried bread in the covered market and learning to like baked beans and seeing folk dancers and fiddlers inches from your table on a Sunday morning.
It’s eating Cadbury’s in the library and books with tea-colored pages that fall apart in your hands because they’re 150 years old, and they’ve just been sitting on the shelf since 1965 when some other student checked them out and then tried to piece them back together with tape.
It’s stumbling in heels on cobblestones with your best friends. It’s taking your shoes off and walking barefoot because the stones are clean and your toes are bleeding.
It’s a friend kind enough to stand in the drizzle with you while you wait for cheesy chips from the kebab truck at eleven o’clock at night, because you hate lasagna and you ate nothing at dinner.
It’s reading poetry in cafes, and drinking tea at all hours, all occasions, all lapses and pauses and breaks. It’s loving the careful ritual of porcelain teacups, of saucers and dainty spoons, of sugar lumps and small cream pitchers. It’s going fifteen minutes out of your way for the best scones in town.
It’s snow on the Christ Church spires and the sunrise hurling orange light into your window. It’s opening a secret cupboard in your bedroom and finding initials carved into the wood in jagged strokes and a plastic red purse.
It’s triumph. It’s an essay with “excellent work” written on it. It’s figuring it out, slowly. It’s understanding and it’s trusting yourself, finally.
It’s a boat lit up with flames in the quad, leaving a cindery skeleton behind—a sacrifice to the rowing gods for victory.
It’s eight weeks of rain.
It’s buying a green dress from a shop on Queen Street for a ball and feeling imagined.
It’s walking to the meadows just to spend time with the cows. It’s wearing a straw hat with a bow on a boat and reaching out to touch the water while ducks glide by and all you can think is idyllic and impossible.
It’s sleeping on the quad and drinking Pimm’s by the river, and Summer Eights and sundresses and picnics purchased from Tesco and croquet after dinner. It’s beers in a medieval pub where Bill Clinton used to smoke.
It’s feeling belonging for the first time in a long time in a place three thousand five hundred and fifty two miles from your hometown.
It’s eating sushi in the sun outside the Bodleian, watching a local news crew and thinking that someday soon you won’t be able to walk into the Rad Cam, that you will forget the slang and the magical codes of thinking, that you will need to be jolted into nostalgia by a name or a face in order to remember what it was.