On the Folks that Matter

If we are lucky, and engaging, we meet new people everyday. My friend Jeff makes it a goal to meet a new person everyday; I think this is a lofty and wonderful goal. We meet people on the street, at work, at the market making groceries, at the bookstore or the bar and anywhere else you might possibly find yourself at any moment of every day. These people, in the most minor to the most unimaginable, impact our lives in myriad ways. I have found myself wondering as of late how we determine which of the people we meet are the ones that will ultimately matter in our lives.

I have decided, through many years of introspection, and well, just life experience, that the people that matter most are the ones that lift us and cheer us and stick around when it is really most inconvenient for them. Case in point: when I was studying for my Ph.D. comprehensive exams, arguably the most stressful six months of my life, I called two friends – Colleen Purcell and Beth Palumbo – everyday, for six months. Every day. For six months. Imagine that loyalty would you? They WERE loyal and, they stuck around and they answered the phone and allowed me to vent to them every day, for what seemed like an unbearably long six months. They held fast in my most awful trying to “survive-on-coffee-and-cigarettes-and-beer” moments while I read every single day for eight hours and tried to push through the anxiety that still overwhelms me on a regular basis while I worked my way through hundreds of history books on my way to taking comprehensive examinations that unquestionably plagues every Ph.D. student with a genuine and palpable fear of failure. Colleen and Beth were there. Every day. And they were there when five professors walked out a closed door conference that seemed to have lasted hours (and, in reality, only lasted fifteen minutes) while said professors deliberated over whether or not I would pass and go on to teach and write my dissertation, and shook my hand and informed me that I had, indeed, successfully completed the horrific hoop jump that is written and oral examinations. I called them from my tiny, bland office cubicle that early afternoon, half asleep and half in denial, and quietly thanked them, with whatever inadequate words I could muster up, for their steadfast support. I called them again later that day, after I drank two thousand and twenty four martinis (dirty) at my local haunt, The Riverworks, and finally got through the phone issues that we don’t experience today to reiterate in a somewhat more coherent and exhilarated state that I was, in fact, ABD (all-but-dissertation) and yes I would live to see another day. They were first people I called, not my father who is my stalwart friend and biggest cheerleader, but them. (Of course, I called him next). And they were there when I drove to Ohio, a week later, after grading exams and finishing for the semester and gathering my things and my dog and when I was way too thin to be recognizable after barely eating for months due to the stress. They were there when I took a long needed shower in Kent, Ohio, at Beth’s lovely apartment after driving all day and they were there when they handed me a glass of wine and seeing my woefully thin naked body said I needed to eat something, anything to put weight back on. They took me out to celebrate that evening. We cheered to the fact that I was now just going to teach and write and that I had gotten through the most stressful time in my life and I survived it. They proudly told everyone they could that their friend was ABD and was on her way to being a college professor. Of what I remember of that day and evening, I was blissfully content. And even though time and partners and kids lacrosse games and generally just daily busy lives have lessened the amount of time we spend together or on the phone, they are, still to this day, the two people that matter the most to me in this world. I probably don’t remind them of this as often as I should.

As I’ve aged I’ve found myself fairly discerning about the people that I allow in my “inner circle.” I’m lucky to have an amazing group of friends who are genuine and quite lovely. They all work hard and think hard about the world and embrace love and dare to love and sound off when shit gets hard and tiresome and ask when they need assistance. We are a diverse group (politically, economically, religiously, and culturally) of about fifteen to twenty people that check in every week or so and drink great craft beers or bourbon or both, together. And there are others. My therapist often comments on the fact that she has never met anyone who has a group of friends like I do. We’re here for each other through the good and the bad. Sometimes we hike it out, sometimes we simply text each other to offer support and love. I consider these folks my Bethlehem family.

We all need people that matter in our lives. Science has shown that people who have solid, genuine relationships are happier and live longer and more satisfied lives. I have a fairly satisfactory life. It’s a work in progress, always. But today, I celebrate the friends that are my family, whether they live next-door or many hours away. To be sure, friends are the family we choose for ourselves. I have chosen well.

On Stepping Back In Time

I love being a historian. I love (most) everything that defines the profession from researching in dust-filled, musty-basement smelling archives (something that is quickly becoming unnecessary as we move more and more into the digital age), the intense delving into the lives of those who have long since passed and who quite possibly, and probably, never thought that anyone would ever be interested in anything that they did or had to say, and, more than anything, I love to write – about those individuals whose seemingly mundane lives tell us something about who we are today in the 21st century.

I’m currently on sabbatical. I’m supposed to be writing and reading and researching for my new book on a plantation in Louisiana in the 19th and 20th centuries. I’ve found myself mired in other work these days – reading theses for my graduate students who are trying to graduate, seemingly never-ending inquisitive emails – about my work, fall semester, and anything else that requires my immediate attention – work for a national organization of which I’m on the board, and what seems like a million other things that have nothing to do with 19th century letters and plantations and women and the history that I love.

When I do find myself reading the hundreds of letters and diaries and plantation records these days it’s not lost on me how my life and, our lives, are quite similar to the men and women who came before us. We eat and sleep. We get sick and deal with complicated family matters. We long for love as we, at the same time, long for solitude. Mostly, over the centuries, we all just want to feel like we matter; that in the long stretch of time that is our lives (and not so long in the 19th century), we mattered to someone or something in this world. I think, that at the end of the day, at the end of our lives, we want to know that we made a difference in some way in this world. At base, every letter I read, no matter how brief or seemingly insignificant, the overarching theme seems to be this: “What am I doing today that will live beyond me?”

I’m currently reading a long stretch of letters – files of letters – from the 19th century and mostly to the women I’m researching, that are replete with sentiment that is fascinating and intriguing and funny, at times, and sad, at times, and mostly, not unlike what we tweet or post on Facebook or spend hours upon hours discussing with our friends on a daily basis. There are men who are quite sappy and, if I can perfectly frank, quite needy. There are friends who want to know every detail of someone’s daily life. There are seemingly inconsequential words about the weather and the crops and the myriad bugs that exist in the Deep South, and the Mississippi river that seems to rise every other day threatening crops and roads to be traveled. But mostly, what I have discovered in these letters are lives. The everyday lives of individuals who just want to matter to someone, much like we all do.

Stepping back in time allows me to leave my life for a while. I’ve become immersed in the lives of the Watsons and the McCalls and the Striplings and the Cooks and their neighbors and friends. I’ve been living through births and deaths and illness and good crops and bad crops. I’ve shuttered at the thought of living with fleas and gnats and mosquitoes; sweating in swampy, humid temperatures that I’ve long since left back in Louisiana; and impassible roads due to torrential rains.

But what I have found is so much sweeter. Love between brothers and sisters and cousins who could only write letters and not communicate daily through text or email or Facebook and Twitter. Genuine sentiment about what it means to be family who are far apart in time and miles. Love that only comes when a gentleman brings you a watermelon, which apparently means he’s going to ask you to marry him (I’ll note that for the future). And bonds that form not because people are convenient, but because they mean something and are true and real and don’t wish to be anywhere else but with you when 19th century infrastructure just doesn’t quite make it so simple. There’s something to be learned from stepping back in time. I think we should all read 19th century letters, if only to remind us just how fortunate we are to be living here, this day, with the people that surround us and complete us and bridge the gap between what we think is difficult in our every day lives, and what truly is not as hard as we believe it to be.

On Being Anywhere But Here

I feel like I always want to be somewhere else. As K.D. Lang sang, “Anywhere but here.” I’m not sure why this is the case because I love my tiny house and my friends here in Bethlehem and my life, most of it, and everything that makes up my world on a daily basis. But there are moments when I really do want to be anywhere but here. I think, no I know, that I have a wandering soul.

I had a sorta fucked up childhood so wanting to be “anywhere but here” was what I mostly recall about my early life and teenage years and, hence, the wandering soul emerged. It seems to have fully taken hold after my father moved out of our house when I was sixteen and I was stuck there with a step-mother who hated the fact that my father moved out and hated me because he loved me more than her, and my young brothers, who just were trying to get by in a fairly odd and uncomfortable family situation. Those were difficult years, but we all made it through.

When I was in High School I was a “flag girl” in the marching band. Our band was good; so good that we went to Washington, D.C. one year and marched in the Cherry Blossom Parade, where I had arranged to see my mother who lived in Delaware at the time. I had not seen said mother in years and on a free afternoon, when my bandmates were acting as tourists and visiting monuments and museums, she took me to a bar and shockingly, and, probably sadly as I look back on this now as an adult, let me drink wine at sixteen years old proudly showing off her pretty, teenage daughter to the male friend she brought along. (I think I got in trouble for that because I was clearly tipsy when I rejoined the band group.)

What I remember most about those years, when my family was disintegrating, yet again, and I was a lost, lonely, and fragile teenager with no mother-figure per-se and an absent father whom I adored, was the time I spent at the football stadiums on Friday nights in the fall with the band. I relished the time away from my stressful home as I wanted to be anywhere but there. Our team played games in small towns all over Ohio and after we marched during half-time, I would hide behind the bleachers, staring at the roads and highways that stretched out before me with the fourteen-wheelers driving by, watching all of those people who had the freedom to be in their cars; I wanted to be them. I meditated on the long stretches of paved land that led those people to places I could only imagine and where I dreamed I might be someday. Somewhere interesting perhaps; perhaps not. I just wanted to be on the road to somewhere. Anywhere but here. And then, when those football games ended and the Friday night lights dimmed, I’d get back on the band bus and back to Bowling Green and back to my wholly fucked up life that I wished, every day, would end immediately.

I bought my first car when I was nineteen, with the help of my thirty-two year old boyfriend who co-signed for me because I had no credit and he too wanted me to be free; a life and freedom that only comes with having a moving vehicle that you can drive anywhere at 6am or 6pm or anywhere in between. I think he mostly co-signed so I could drive to his house in the wee hours of the morning, when I was finished bartending, so he didn’t have to pick me up from the bar at 3am and I could still crawl into bed with him because how cool is it to have a nineteen year old girlfriend when you are thirty two and balding? And, much to his chagrin, and because I wanted to be “anywhere but here,” I left him shortly thereafter. I took that relatively new car and I traveled the country, mostly to Washington, D.C. where I was working at the Community for Creative Non-Violence and lobbying and cutting donated rotten onions and tomatoes and potatoes for the night’s meal and just, honestly, living at the shelter that I called home periodically, with Mitch Snyder and Harold Moss and Brian Anders and where I believed I was safe and making a difference. I was making a difference, but, mostly, I was anywhere but here.

Today I can absolutely go anywhere but here. I’m a historian and a writer who is on sabbatical and I can travel the country if I like, with my sweet dog, Magnolia, and visit friends and places I’ve never seen and just, well, be. But, I can also just be here. I have the freedom of not having to answer to anyone. The thought of being on that highway, with the fourteen wheelers and the people heading to “somewhere” is always in the back of my mind, yet I don’t need to be there to be here. Sometimes anywhere but here is right exactly where you need it to be, generally with the people that love you and want you right where you are.