Monday, October 17, 2011

A Melancholy Memory (sort of) in Honor of Friendlys

Friendly's is an institution in the Northeast. I just read the news that it's facing bankruptcy and in danger of closing. 

Since I started taking piano lessons at the age of 4, my parents would take me and my sister to Friendly's after our piano recitals as a special treat.  One time my parents let us share one of those big fat sundaes which we ate in six minutes flat.

I was never very good at piano. I didn't have any sort of natural skill and I didn't like practicing, but my piano teacher was a family friend who I loved, so I stuck with it long past when I should have given it up, more for her sake than for mine (and probably a little bit because of the Friendly's treat). My sister gave piano up at age 12, but I played until I was 16.

In what would be my last recital, I was to play Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata." It sounds like moonlight, soft and slow and quiet. It doesn't have the flash of faster pieces but the beauty is in the touch, which has to be light.

I hadn't practiced enough going into it, so I didn't have the piece memorized like everyone else did with their pieces. Not only that, but midway through I lost my place and had to play one particular phrase over and over again until I found where I was supposed to be.

As soon as I finished and sat down, I wanted to leave. I knew I hadn't done my best -- not even close to it. I was disappointed, and I tried to avoid everyone when I was done, even my piano teacher. One woman who managed to stop me told me, "I could tell that was a really hard piece," which in my mind was a really bad way of saying, "I understand why you were terrible."

When I was on my way out the door, a guy from my church who was a gifted piano player, stopped me with a hand on the shoulder. "Christina, listen, no matter how you did, everyone here loves you. Everyone wants to support you and encourage you. No one is here to judge you or put you down." At the time, I hated his words. I couldn't even look him in the face while he said it. I thought to myself, "No one wants to support me! I'm awful!"

At Friendly's I didn't finish my sundae. I felt like I was too big and too old for everything, for piano, for recitals, for sitting in a booth with my parents, for sundaes. I felt like my life was a poorly made sweater, and every time I tried to pull it or shift it around, it still felt uncomfortable.

I got over it, as adolescents do. Last year as my confirmation students were practicing their speeches for the church, one young girl in particular looked like she had on that poorly made sweater. Putting her face in her hands, she couldn't even start reading what she had written. Her speech was excellent, all about her friends going through hard times, and how God uses us when people are hurting. I told her it was excellent, but it didn't help.

"What's the worst thing you can imagine happening?" I asked.

"I'll mess up." she said, "People will laugh."

She reminded me of myself, trying to slip away from the piano recital And the words of this older boy came into my head, words at the time I had hated, words at the time that I hadn't believed. Words that suddenly became true when as a confident adult I was facing myself as a teenager, when the task of feeling comfortable in my own skin had felt completely impossible. I thought about this girl in front of me, terrified about exposing her thoughts in front of our congregation, and I thought of our congregation, and how proud they would be of her, and the words she was saying, and how much she had grown, even if she stumbled over her words or giggled in the middle of her speech. Everyone here loves you. Everyone wants to support you and encourage you. No one is here to judge you or put you down.

"Let me tell you a story," I said.

Monday, September 19, 2011

one sentence book reviews: catching up on the 25 book challenge (17 down, 8 to go)

ROOM, Emma Donoghue
Don't read if you don't like baby talk -- someday I'll learn that just because something's a best seller doesn't mean it's good.

Crooked Little Heart, Anne Lamott
I love me some Anne Lamott, and this is a beautiful picture of what it means to be a family figuring out adolescence. This is the kind of book that makes you feel like the characters are still off somewhere living their lives after you finish reading. Crap, that was two sentence. Now three! Curses.

Cracking Creativity, Michael Michalko
For a book on creativity, it sure is boring.

Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian, Sherman Alexie
A good young adult book about a nerdy, skinny Native American kid trying to leave behind but still respect where he comes from, but not one that translates very well to adult reading.

Electric God, Catherine Ryan Hyde
I enjoyed this book, but I think it says something that I can't remember what it was about two months after the finishing it.

Governance and Ministry: Rethinking Board Leadership, Dan Hotchkiss
Man, I hate reading books like this, but as a necessary evil, there were some good tips on stuff they never teach you in seminary.

Push, Sapphire
So unflinching, a story of hope and resilience and the power of being given a voice.

Jim and Casper Go to Church, Jim Henderson
A Christian and an atheist go church-hopping, and the atheist gives an objective opinion of what church looks like to an outsider with little church experience. (Should be called Jim and Caspar go to Big Churches though, I was like "let's get some love for the little churches!!) (Parenthetical remarks don't count as sentences) (in case you were wondering)

Listening is an Act of Love, Dave Isay, editor
So. GREAT. (emphatic use of periods also don't count as sentences). Basically a book of true stories recorded all over the country, spanning 9/11, family illnesses, love stories, general amazingness.

Like Water for Elephants, Sara Gruen
Another entertaining novel that I don't really remember

A Pale View of the Hills, Kazuo Ishiguro
See above

Love in the Present Day, Catherine Ryan Hyde
(Apparently I was on a Catherine Ryan Hyde kick). THIS one I remember, the story of a 20 something guy who ends up having to take in a 5 year old boy when his mother disappears.

Home Town, Tracy Kidder
(I debated counting this, because it was my "bathroom book," meaning I only read it in the bathroom --is that TMI? -- so it took me over a year to read it. But I finished it in 2011). I love the way Tracy Kidder sinks into the atmosphere he's writing about (in this case small town New England) and I especially loved the people he brought to life: the cop tied with tight strands to his home town, his troubled, abusive friend, the rich man with crippling anxiety, the single mom struggling in the upper class world of Smith College.

So there we are. All caught up and back in business. What are you reading?

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Three Things You Should Definitely Do in Charlottesville VA

Last week for a part of my vacation I went to visit some friends in Charlottesville, VA, totally missing Hurricane Irene.It rained a little on Saturday, but Sunday, the day folks back in Boston were "hunkering down" (if I had a dollar for every time a newscaster said some version of "hunkering down" in the days leading up to Irene, I would not need a face painting career)

Go to The Flat
The Flat is my friend Lauren's lovely little "takeaway creperie."  I lived with Lauren for two years and she's very good at making yummy things, but she is especially good at making crepes. She uses a lot of fresh, natural ingredients, and my personal favorites were the "Babe in the Woods" (local, woods-raised sausage, Chev and cheddar cheese, spinach, and onions) and the "Sexy Cheesemonger" (full disclosure: I did not try the Sexy Cheesemonger. But isn't that a great name?) If you can't get there, like them on facebook. It'll be almost the same thing.

Get coffee and see a band at Rapunzel's
 This little coffee shop/book store/entertainment venue is in Lovingston, VA. Here's the thing. Lovingston is like an hour outside of Charlottesville. Totally tiny town. Totally in the middle of nowhere. But yet there's this funky little spot with great coffee and an even greater atmosphere. My friends and I saw We Are Star Children, and the crowd there was a crazy mix of older people, goth teenagers, hippies, and kids. Awesome.

Experience The Waltons Mountain Museum
Of the "classic" TV shows my parents DVR and never watch, The Waltons is my favorite. The show always managed to keep a good balance between the weekly angst and hardship of Little House on the Prarie, and the aw, shucks wacky hijinks of Andy Griffith or Leave to Beaver (could anyone else not stand that Andy and Ward were ALWAYS right? I mean, could Aunt Bea or June have their day? I'm just sayin') Also, I  had a little crush on Jason, with his high waisted pants and his earnest piano playing and guitaring.


Anyway, The Walton's Mountain Museum is in an old elementary school in Schuyler, VA. Two older women sit inside at a round table and shuffle over when you show up to collect your name and your $8.00. Some of the highlights of the museum:
  • Taking your photo with Ike and Corabeth cutouts at the general store
  • Measuring yourself against all the Waltons (I'm shorter than Jason -- phew!)
  • Seeing a real, locally confiscated recipe machine (recipe=moonshine, obvi)
  • Experiencing just how much Waltons paraphenelia there is in the world (John Boy and Mary Ellen paper dolls, anyone?)
  • Appreciating Earl Hamner for the prolific writer he was. Earl Hamner wrote the Waltons based on his own life (he was John Boy), but he also wrote the film story for Charlotte's Web, the TV movies of Heidi and Lassie, episodes of The Wild Thornberrys, as well as the decidedly less family friendly fare of The Long Hot Summer.
In conclusion: Eat Crepes. Drink Coffee. See Jason.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

8 things I do in my car with my broken radio

About 6 months ago, my radio died. The CD that was in the CD player (a podcast, which is entertaining but doesn't stand up to multiple listening) wouldn't come out. The radio, which was on a soft rock/adult contemporary station (Magic 106.7), wouldn't change stations. As a result I've spent a lot of time in my car, listening to soft rock or sitting in silence.

1. actually listen to Magic 106.7. This has mixed results. There are songs that Magic 106.7 loves to play, and I have grown to hate those songs (if I ever liked them. If they were songs I hated already, now they make me shake with rage -- what's that song about someone being your crying shoulder and love's suicide. OH. MY. GOSH. That song burns my brain). The other day Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car" came on and I almost cried, I was so happy to hear something that I actually liked.

2. gripe about all the songs that Magic could play, but doesn't. Soft rock, right (what does soft rock even MEAN)? Adult contemporary? Easy listening? Why don't they ever play folk? That would fit into that category. There are a million Sarah McLachlan songs they could play but they only "Angel." What about all the other Tracy Chapman songs?

3. make up stories. Someday I'm going to pay my way through a doctorate by writing a series of novels about a single female pastor in the city, all the terrible dates she goes on, and all the quirky experiences she has with her church. I use my time in the car to think up how I can change my real life stories to make them unrecognizable, or making up fake stories.

4. organize my life. Grocery lists, plans for how I'm going to start cleaning my apartment more often, in a structured way. Of course, these organizational plans don't usually come out of my car, but at least I think them.

5. call people who don't pick up the phone. The problem with being a pastor is that I'm driving around when other people are working. So I want to talk on the phone to amuse myself, and if my friends do pick up the phone, they're not likely wanting to chat. They are more likely to say, "What? I'm working."

6. sing to myself, usually show tunes. I can get very animated doing this. "Tell them how IIIIII'MMMMM deFYing GRAAAAvity!"

7. think about what might be playing on NPR. Sometimes this makes me sad, sometimes it makes me happy. Magic has almost no talk, and sometimes I want the latest news or weather.  But sometimes I think, "if this was NPR, they'd be talking drearily about the economy again." I'm ok with avoiding that.*

8. plan my face painting career. A early in June we had a children's singer come to our church who usually charges $400 for an HOUR's worth of entertainment. He was entertaining, but not so entertaining that I would ever pay him $400. But someone does, so he's clearly doing something right. So I got to thinking about what I could do in one hour that would earn a lot of money. Legally, of course. I came up with face painting, but if you have other ideas, pass 'em on.

*UPDATE: since composing this post my radio had a moment where all the buttons worked. I took that moment to change the station to NPR, drearily talking about the economy (except for a few days ago when they were talking to a guy who wrote a whole book on bananas. Weird!) Also I got a radio for my birthday that has yet to be installed. So things are looking up.

Friday, May 20, 2011

"We see from where we stand" -- Haitian proverb

A few days ago I was driving through Hyde Park.  I stopped at a stop sign, for 3 seconds like the good citizen I am, and then proceeded.

I wasn't on the phone, or changing the radio station (because I can't change the radio station, my car's stuck on Magic 106.7), but for some reason I wasn't paying enough attention, and as I proceeded I cut off a woman who was crossing the street.

She stopped short and glared at me. "Fucking bitch!" she said, loud enough for me to hear.

I was shocked, at first. I wanted to stop and say, "No, wait, I'm sorry, I didn't see you, I'm actually a really nice person! I'm a pastor, for goodness sakes!" Then I thought of all the times that someone cuts me off when I'm walking or driving, and I think something similar in my head (with less colorful language, but just as angry: "ok buddy, you're in SUCH a hurry.")

The truth is, maybe the driver who cuts me off IS in a hurry. Maybe he's a nice guy who wasn't paying attention. Maybe the woman who yelled at me was having a bad day. Maybe I was one in a long line of people who weren't paying attention to her, and she was sick of it. She and I are only seeing from where we each stand, looking at the situation from our own individual perspectives, and that makes her short tempered with a potty mouth, and me self centered with little concern for others.

It's easy to see from where we stand. But it's also only half the picture.


Friday, April 08, 2011

2 times I didn't say anything, and 1 time I did

Where I grew up, there was this old school mom and pop soda shop called Emmanuel's.  It was run by a mother and her two grown children, and I would spend Saturdays leaning over the counter picking out nickel and dime candy.  In high school we would go there everyday after school, crowding around a table, sharing one plate of fries, sitting for a couple hours and most likely being borderline obnoxious, as one is prone to do when you're young and surrounded by friends that make you laugh and blush.

One afternoon, there were four of us girls and two boys, one who was white and one who was black.  While we were eating, the mother came over and said to the boys, "You can't stay here and not buy anything."

They were confused, as we were all eating off one plate of fries, but one of them said, "OK, can I have a Coke, then?"  But she refused, and kicked both the boys out.  Once they left, she turned back to us.

"You girls are nice girls, you shouldn't be hanging out with boys like that.  They're maggots, those black boys.  Maggots." And then she left us.  We stared at each other, silent, and then gathered up our stuff and left.  We never went back again.


One summer during college I was in Dunkin Donuts and there were a few young black kids in front of me in line.  They got some donuts, and left, and the older white police officer who was standing behind me said, "We've got names for kids like that."  And then he chuckled.


In college I was in a group called Students Organized Against Racism (SOAR).  We went bowling, and I was driving some of the students home in my old Dodge when we got pulled over, because I'm from Boston and a bit of a speed racer.  In the front with me was my friend, an African-American female, and there were two Middle Eastern guys and an African-American girl in the back seat.

The police officer came up to the window and asked who we were and where we were going, as I started to explain, he shone his flashlight into the back seat.  "Show me your hands," he said, shining his flashlight into the  faces of the students in the back.  When they were slow in responding, he shouted, "SHOW ME YOUR HANDS!"

I remember thinking at the time that he actually sounded scared, instead of mean or angry.  Now, I try to imagine this situation from his point of view, not knowing that we were coming from something as innocent as bowling, possibly having had bad experiences with Colby students before, maybe being new on the job (he was quite young).

He called for backup.  With the other police car there, he collected all of our IDs and ended up giving the students in the backseat seatbelt violations, and letting me go without a ticket.  In the morning, I wrote a (pretty mild) letter to the police station that said the officer's actions could have been perceived as racist. I explained that I got off, even though I was endangering my whole vehicle and my friends were only endangering themselves.  The police chief called me a few days later.

"I spoke to the office in question," he said, "he said he's not racist."

We talked for a while longer, but that was as far as he was willing to go investigating the case.  I hung up feeling helpless.  It was my first time (or most significant time thus far) learning that not everything could be fixed.


When we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard or welcomed. But when we are silent, we are still afraid. So it is better to speak. 
--Audra Lorde

Saturday, March 19, 2011

extra short story: companions

When I was little I wanted to be a writer.  I wrote a LOT, about adventurous girls who joined circuses or ate magical candy bars that sped them into places unknown. Those stories are probably pretty embarrassing to read now, but maybe someday I'll find an old story and post it for you, if you're good.  The older I got, the less I wrote, which I didn't like.  Part of my motivation for (re)starting this blog was to follow through on my new year's resolution to write more, creatively, which can take may many forms, the extra short story being one of them.  This is a work of fiction with some real life details (I'll leave you to decide what those are).


When the woman gets on the train, there is a young boy in a black button down shirt and jeans, yelling and barking. He's not mentally ill, as far as she can tell, he just thinks it's funny to make people uncomfortable by being louder than acceptable on the train. He throws himself on the floor of the train, and the girl who is sitting three seats down from the woman threatens, mostly to herself, that she will stick her umbrella in his eye if he falls on her again. She says this with a lot more curse words. He pretends not to hear, but he doesn't come near her again.

At Haymarket the woman gets off, walking through the North End towards her friend's apartment. This is a night for dating, she sees. It's still warm enough for many of the restaurants to leave the windows open, and there are couples sitting at tables, touching hands or clutching coffee mugs to avoid it. Some of these are probably first dates, she thinks, as she walks by two men in Caffe Vittoria. The one facing her is wearing a jaunty hat and too hip glasses – he is trying hard, she thinks, but she likes it.

Unbidden, the image of the older man who sometimes comes into the coffee shop where she works appears in her mind. She doesn't know much about him, if he's married, or if he hides his money under his mattress, only that they talk about faith and luck. She finds conversations with him interesting, moreso than the dates she's been on, with the guys who can't stop going on about their dead cats or their unwritten screenplays. He is nearly twice her age, but she suddenly wonders if they might ever be seated like this, across a table over gelato.  

At the end of the night, full of gnocchi, she trails sleepily down the steps towards the subway platform, past two men, one who is blind. The man who can see is at the bottom, counting as his friend slowly edges downward. "Three more," he says, watching the cautious movements, "Now two."  On the platform is a boy on a bike, with two girls. One girl says, “Leave me alone!” and moves past him to an alcove, where she hides, but she is smiling. The boy goes after her until only his back tire is sticking out of the alcove. They're talking quietly, and her friend moves a little closer but not too close, leaning against a pole and playing with her phone. She flicks her eyes up every now and then when she hears a giggle or a hush.

There are just a few people left on the train at the woman's stop. She holds her keys in her hand. As she walks away from the station, she thinks for a moment that her car might not be where she's left it, that there might be a blank space on the street instead of her slumped little sedan. But as she gets closer she can see it, sagging to the right where the front tire is leaking, waiting quietly in the lowlit street.