Monthly Archives: February 2017

Rural Religion

I took a speech class at community college when I was nineteen, and during one class around this time of year, I noticed the teacher had a huge black smudge right on her face. I spent the class wriggling uncomfortably, debating if I should raise my hand and call attention to it, or just let it go. Nobody else was saying anything, but they had to have seen it. All I could think of during class was the smudge. All I could see was the smudge. She didn’t seem to have any clue it was there. And as class wrapped up, I mentioned it to a classmate, incredulous that we all just let her continue with an hourlong class without a single word.

And that’s how I learned about Ash Wednesday.

Growing up, most churches were mainline Protestant denominations: Lutheran, UCC, Methodist, an occasional Baptist or Presbyterian church. I went to Girl Scout meetings in their basements. Genealogy books that list my ancestors mention Reformed churches and Union congregations with German names. My Sunday school was UCC, and I have early memories of being picked up by my parents in the old brown trailer that predated the construction of a new wing of the church. For years, my grandmother coaxed me into uncomfortable nylons and dresses, and I went to the trailer and started the morning singing songs about Zacchaeus, about where the foolish man and the wise man built their houses, about Jesus loving the little children of the world, and begrudgingly repeating “This Little Light of Mine,” hating the melody and the fact that the little kids loved it so much. When I learned to read music, I would sometimes get permission to take the Wee Sing Bible Songs book home and attempt to play them on whatever instrument was at hand.

All the preschool and elementary classes were held in the trailer, tables separated by thin curtains with the youngest kids at the back of the trailer. As I moved closer to the door through the years, learning Bible stories and stories about being nice to others photocopied from workbooks, I could see a poster with a graphic of the earth from space, and part of John 3:16 trailing off: “For God so loved the world…” Sometimes I would stay for the church service, sitting next to my grandmother in the second-last row, making origami animals or drawing crude comics featuring one of the childless younger adults who sat in the last row, especially the one who looked like the long-haired redhead character in the Doonesbury comics. I would put the dollar my grandmother gave me into the collection plate and sing from the hymnal tucked into the wooden holder in front of me. I’d come up for the occasional children’s sermon, where a friend’s grandmother would tell a story with colorful felt people and animals, smoothing the felt pieces down as she placed them on the felt board, or the pastor would tell a story and then line us up to place his warm hands on our heads for a blessing. Once or twice, around Easter, the children’s sermon featured a lamb that we got to stroke. Sometimes, I would sit still while trays of crouton-sized cubes of bread and little red glasses of wine and grape juice were passed, then trays to collect the emptied glasses. I remember once watching my grandmother prepare for communion on a late Saturday afternoon, pouring out the bread cubes from their plastic bags, and the sweet, Niagara grape smell of the wine when she decanted some for the pastor to use.

When I was six or seven years old, I was recruited to play the virgin Mary in a Christmas play, which required wearing an oversized blue robe over my head and body and holding a baby doll while kneeling next to a boy in a brown robe. I was a shy kid at that age, and I dipped my head down so low, my grandmother exclaimed afterwards that nobody could see my face. I would later play a mother going to cut down a Christmas tree with her family, intentionally matching a green turtleneck to brown corduroy pants for the performance, and I had a line or two in an Easter play.

When I was 10 or so, my grandmother took my brother and me on a bus trip to see the story of Noah at Sight and Sound Theatre in Lancaster. Before pulling out of the church parking lot, I answered a trivia question of some sort and won a Good News Bible, and, voracious reader that I was, I cracked it open immediately. Over the next few days I would read familiar stories, creation and the fall of Adam and Eve, and the flood, and the dove that came after the flood. Then I reached the story of Noah, post-flood, drunk and naked in his tent, and how his son Ham saw him and his other two sons covered his nakedness, and Noah awoke to curse Ham’s son and all his progeny. With many questions in my mind, I set down the Bible. I didn’t reach for it again for nearly 20 years.

I’d had doubts before, for sure. As a little kid I could take in that Abraham had lived hundreds of years, but it seemed unlikely as I got older. The Earth couldn’t have been created in six days, either, and it didn’t coincide with what I learned in science class. I prodded my teachers with questions about whether things in the Bible had really happened. I asked for explanations for the post-flood story of Noah, and I couldn’t get an answer. I asked why there was evil in the world. I asked how, if we were really made in God’s image, we humans could do such horrible things to one another. I thought about how the pastor, the religious leader of the church, had told racist jokes at holiday dinners. My parents’ reply to my stream of questions, and the holes I found: that’s why they didn’t go to church. I knew they didn’t pray, because I had suggested it to them when they’d separated for a few months and they told me it wouldn’t do anything. When I said I didn’t think I believed in a literal hell, my father said that hell was what we were living here on earth. My mom taught me the word “agnostic.” I liked it.

I had two friends, siblings, whose grandparents were friends with my grandparents and who went to another school district. We would swim together in my grandmother’s pool in the summer, play with my brother’s Tonka trucks in the mountain of sand placed next to the volleyball court in the picnic grove, and eat turkey barbecue – simple shredded meat in juices held warm in crockpots – unadorned on hamburger rolls. The girl and I traded complaints about being made to go to Sunday school, our doubts over what we were being taught, and about the other kids in our class with whom we didn’t get along. We both went to an information session one summer on the confirmation process, learning about choosing a mentor and what the process meant. My friend wasn’t given a choice in whether to go forward, but I was. I decided not to continue on with confirmation. When marching band came along in the fall, the late-night bus trips back from competitions prevented me from staying over at my grandmother’s house and going to Sunday school the next morning to see my friend. It meant the end of my religious education.

In school, I knew of two Jewish kids and a handful of practicing Catholics, who you could identify by their pale skin and freckles. In the World War II units in school, we learned that Catholics and Gypsies were among those killed by Germans in addition to Jews. Judaism and Catholicism were both different religions compared to mine, both an other. I, like many people I see on Facebook and the comments section of YouTube, learned to confuse the term “Christian” with “Protestant,” so in the semantics that followed, it was easy to fall into the assumption that Catholics were not Christians.

There was a discussion once, when I was young, and I asked which religion I could be when I grew up. I ran through the ones I knew. Baptist, I asked? Yes. Jehovah’s Witness, like the older ladies that came to our door and my mom invited in for tea when she had time? Yes. Amish? Yes. Jewish? Yes. Muslim, I asked, thinking of the Quran my mom had bought and started reading? Eh… sure. As long as I didn’t become Catholic. When I asked why not, my father mumbled something about them gambling in their church basements. (Later that summer I put tickets in a raffle at a church picnic and played basket bingo with my grandmother.)

Around the time that child sexual abuse by clergy was in the news, I overheard that Catholic priests wouldn’t make housecalls or leave their churches to visit the sick, not even to deliver rites to the dying. Or that they would charge lots of money for it, and any other services. Friends attested that nuns teaching in Catholic school were strict, like in the movies. Family members told stories of being excommunicated for marriages, or shown records of their monetary contributions to the church in the past year when they requested services. In my community college history class, I learned about Martin Luther’s theses, the indulgences, and the Great Schism. In a comparative religion class I took as an elective, I learned about transubstantiation. I went to Rome with yet another class and visited St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, and wondering at the arches and the marble floors and the Pieta and Michaelangelo’s Last Judgment, I remember somebody remarking how much money it would have cost to construct it… and how many mouths could have been fed with that money.

This was all in contrast to Protestant expressions of Christianity, such as the Lutheran church of my maternal grandparents. After my parents divorced, my mom took us to their Christmas Eve services once or twice, and with encouragement from my maternal grandmother, I joined their orchestra and later their weekly adult choir as a musical outlet during my time at community college. I’d always liked the music at church services, and I had given performances at local churches with the vocal ensemble in high school. There was something in the Lutheran services that I liked, too. I liked the reverence for the bread and wine, and how everyone stood up and went in line to receive it in the front of the church, instead of staying seated. I liked that the Nicene Creed was recited every time, even if I didn’t believe all of it. And I loved the late-night Christmas eve service, where they would turn off the lights and we would light candles and sing “Silent Night.”

But the faith just wasn’t there. And there were so many choices, too. I had no doubts that there was a god, a force of some sort that had created the universe and kept it all from falling apart. Comparative religion class had introduced me to new ideas, too, like that the force, the divine, was in all of us. There were concepts in Judaism and Islam that I liked, and the idea of nonattachment in Buddhism stuck with me. Deism came up too, the Enlightenment-era idea that God exists but is not involved in human lives. That sounded most in line with what I could empirically observe about the world.

I was struck, though, by how our instructor, a very knowledgeable adjunct, a Jewish lady with frizzy hair and a warm personality, described the Bible. She had started the semester by writing the word “ineffable” on the whiteboard and talking about its definition, and we kept coming back to the idea of the ineffable. When we discussed the Bible in the Christianity section of the class, she described it as a book written by man, an earnest attempt to capture the truth, to give words to the ineffable. It wasn’t perfect, but the effort, and its very imperfection was, in her words, “beautiful.”

I had to agree.

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‘Kill all Americans.’

My husband just played a old popular song from Afghanistan, “Sabza Ba Naz,”which had been redone by newer artists in 2010 and played everywhere in Tajikistan when my husband visited there for a few weeks to work on his spoken Persian. It’s one of four languages he speaks (or so he claims, though I’ve heard him say a few words in Arabic and Turkish this week in addition to the English, Russian, Spanish that he’s fluent in and the Persian that he’s working on). And I remembered something very telling about where I fit in – or rather, how I didn’t – while growing up.

Somehow or another, and for the life of me I can’t remember how it started, I got really into stuff from India. It might have started with an errant music download, or I might have sought out the music from the scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom where bejeweled women in saris are dancing at the maharajah’s palace, or it might have appeared in a different movie. Or it was a proto-hipster urge to be doing something different when everyone was watching subtitled Japanese anime. However it began, I got my hands on the Rough Guide to Bhangra sometime in high school. I remember playing it in a relative’s car on the way to the mall with my brother, and while I was rocking out to the extraordinarily catchy “Bhabiye ni Bhabiye,” singing along to what words and vowel sounds I could catch, looking forward to the Malkit Singh song coming later, my relative was visibly uncomfortable. I pressed my relative, who eventually blurted out, “How do you know they’re not singing ‘kill all Americans’?”

Even as a high schooler, I knew this was completely, and utterly, and unbelievably ridiculous. First, the music was from India, not from any of the countries that had been in the news over the previous couple years. Second, the music publisher was based in the UK, and they wouldn’t have put anything like that on CD. But most importantly, no country could possibly base its entire culture upon hating another country. That’s simply not enough to sustain a culture, especially when there are so many better things to sing about. Love. Loss of love. Looking for love. Looking for a lost dog. Anything. Anything is better fodder for a song, unless you’re a counterculture punk band and doing it tongue-in-cheek like the Dead Kennedys singing “Kill the Poor.” It made me angry that my relative would flatten other people’s lives, that it would even cross their mind that somebody – presumably just because they looked different and spoke another language – would even consider putting the effort into making nice-sounding music about a country they hate.

And that’s something that set me apart from rural Pennsylvania, and why I was destined to leave. My world was bigger, and it always was bigger. Even if I didn’t know what it looked like, I knew there was something beyond my little corner. Even though going to Philadelphia was a big deal, and going to New York an even bigger deal. But even that became a little less monolithic when I went for a weekend with the National Honors Society. Instead of busing in for the afternoon to marvel at Times Square and see a Broadway musical, I remember getting frappuccinos at the first Starbucks I had ever stepped in, visiting the Statue of Liberty, taking a bus tour with a lady who claimed to have never left the city, and roaming around a mall on the waterfront.

My mom’s side of the family is responsible for my bigger focus, I think. (That’s not the side of my family that my uncomfortable relative was from.) My grandparents were always traveling somewhere, it seemed. When I was 10 or so, they took a trip to Iceland, bringing back coins for the dozen grandkids and photos of themselves in parkas, smiling in front of a flat tundra landscape. They went with my older cousins to England and Scotland, and they took a cruise in Alaska. Their fridge was covered in magnets from Cancun, and Hell in the Cayman Islands. They hosted luaus and Halloween parties, and brought back navel oranges and honey sticks and Everglades Heat seasoning when they visited friends in Florida. Other relatives moved as far away as Georgia and Indiana, or spent a winter working in Antarctica and then traveling in New Zealand, or took trips to Turkey and eastern Europe. My mom regretted that she couldn’t afford to take my brother and me abroad, or even up to Prince Edward Island as she had done in her childhood, but we managed to camp with family outside of Binghamton, New York, and on Assateague Island in Maryland. We took a bus to Baltimore to visit the aquarium with them once, too, for the day.

With my paternal grandparents, travel was a bigger undertaking, at least when it revolved around cities. Hotels were booked for multiple nights during trips to Philadelphia, and Baltimore too when we went with them. We spent a week outside of Seattle to visit my grandmother’s sister, going to their camper (which was the first time I learned that there were campsites other than state parks and accommodations more permanent than my other grandparents’ RV), visiting Fort Casey and Mt. Rainier and Leavenworth, and seeing the anticlimatic space needle during a day trip into the city. Visits to Hard Rock Cafe were a fixture, and when they traveled to Las Vegas and other cities in the U.S., my brother and I – their only grandchildren – inevitably received Hard Rock t-shirts or plushies or both, in addition to souvenirs from other gift shops they found along the way. They went on a cruise once, but I don’t think they ever left the country.

Trips to the country were more common with them, and I believe they were more in their element there. Every few years, my grandmother would take a bus trip to Missouri to see the Longaberger basket factory. Day trips to Lancaster were a thing, going to Amish country or seeing a Bible-based show at the Sight and Sound Theatre. And almost every Independence Day weekend was spent driving four hours to remote Potter County, the fifth-least populated county in the state, where my grandfather’s cousin had a cottage where he would spend hunting season. My brother and I loved it up there, from the wholesome black-and-white portrait of a World War II-era nurse in the cramped, powder blue bathroom with a porcelain sink and exposed pipes, to the black and white checked linoleum in the kitchen, to the blankets that looked like they were from the 1960s, to the enclosed porch where I could do 1000-piece puzzles with my grandfather’s aunt, to the stairs that pulled out from the ceiling and led upstairs to a few cots, to the mallards and deer heads and turkey feathers and gigantic rattlesnake skin on the walls.

For many Pennsylvania Dutch families, whose ancestors had also lived in the same area since moving from Germany, I think this was par for the course. I don’t know how or why my maternal grandparents differed from everyone else around them, why they were curious about the world outside of German Pennsylvania, but it rubbed off on my mom, and in turn on me. I knew there was a larger world out there, full of people that didn’t share my experiences or identity, but who had fully-formed lives. I wasn’t rural-centric, culturally myopic. But many people there were, and didn’t see a world in which their own lives weren’t the focus. When I overheard people speaking Spanish, I assumed they were talking about the same inane things that comprised my conversations, just in the language they were most comfortable using with their conversation partners. Whether or not they liked the shoes in the store window. Gossiping about their friends. But many people from my area would immediately become suspicious that those conversations were about them personally, and would care intensely that people were using their power of bilingualism. Or think that music in another language was somehow about them, too.

It must be exhausting, to be constantly afraid of the rest of the world. To fear the unknown. But for some people, maybe it’s easier to do that, to fear from a distance instead of trying to understand. Instead of looking up the lyrics. Instead of learning new languages and taking trips. Instead of smiling at a stranger and saying “hello” instead of averting your eyes or casting a suspicious glance. Instead of putting aside what is shown on the nightly news, and interacting truly with the person in front of you, as an individual, instead of as a representative of that inevitably false idea you’ve formed about all people who look like them.

I’m not a huge-huge fan of TED Talks, but I love Chimananda Ngozi Adichie’s talk on the danger of a single story, of projecting indirect knowledge or experience of an individual upon an entire group of people. I bring it up in conversations when they veer political, especially when I’m talking about where I come from. I’m reminded of it when I tell people about my husband’s Middle Eastern history program, when they ask me to pronounce his country of study several times because I say “ih-RAHN” instead of a drawn-out “eye-RAN.” When I see them working out a sideways question about my husband’s ethnicity because my answer will significantly alter the direction of the conversation. I think of the danger of the single narrative if I see worry wash over their face and I feel the need to assure them I have no fear about his travel to Iran, and that I want to go myself, that the world of travel isn’t limited to just Western Europe and North America. My hometown is full of single stories. It’s no wonder that they voted for a man who reinforced those single stories with hateful, fearmongering rhetoric, and then acted not by extending understanding and compassion, but by banning individuals who have come to represent a vague, imaginary threat against the vague, imaginary uniformity of the American way of life.

Turned Urban: Raised Rural 5

(If you haven’t read Raised Rural one, two, three, and four, I recommend reading those first. Also consider checking out Ivy Wrapped Around My Throat about how my social life changed along with my politics at this time, and The Music Dies about my college dreams.)

To recap: in college in Philadelphia, I identified myself politically as an Independent, leaning libertarian, embracing social freedoms but concerned mostly with fiscal responsibility, economic freedom, and a watchful foreign policy. I supported moderate Republicans. Then, when I lived in Chicago – outside of the bubble of campus housing that I’d lived in while in Philly – I started seeing the cracks in the social systems that I’d thought were fair and just. This is how I came up close to those cracks, learned a vocabulary to describe them, and if I’m a good enough writer, how it changed me.

 

“Community” is not a word I understood until very recently in my life. Of course, I knew the dictionary definition, but I’d never been shown its actual meaning of community – in fact, I was raised by parents who were at times hostile to the surrounding community, and from a young age I knew the meaning of words like “nonconformist,” “small-minded,” “hypocrite,” and “ignorant.” So naturally, I didn’t invest in community. Not the public school, where I struggled to fit in and felt isolated. Not the church, where my grandmother took me to Sunday school and I prodded the teachers with questions they couldn’t answer to my satisfaction. Not among the Pennsylvania Dutch, whose heritage I shared but racial attitudes and small-town perspective I found abhorrent, and whose stagnation I found stifling. Not at community college, where I knew I would leave after two years, and not at La Salle where I didn’t fit in among the middle-class suburban kids who had attended private religious schools. It sadly wasn’t until 2013, when everyone was excited about the men’s basketball team and there were touching stories about the team members’ families and friendships, that I realized how awesome La Salle’s community was and allowed myself to root for the team and feel like I was part of it.

In Chicago, though, I took trips by myself downtown, for errands and for fun. After work, I walked my dog around the neighborhood and let her run around with puggles and Australian shepherd mutts. We walked her along the lakeshore, and we would pick her up to laugh at the sight of her eating mulberries right off the tree in Washington Park. I borrowed graphic novels and art museum passes from the local library branch. I read classic novels and Augusten Burroughs while riding the Green Line out to my graduate courses in the River Forest suburb, watched my breath come out in frosty puffs while walking and listening to Rilo Kiley and Wolf Parade, sat on a bench with crochet hooks and yarn in the lobby of the botanical garden until my classes in their library started, and wrestled with oversize WPA blueprints in the narrow archive of the African American History museum. A few months before I left, I bought a White Sox hat and wore it to represent the South Side. I could have lived there, happily, for much longer than two years. However, as in so many other places, I knew my time in Chicago had an expiration date. I was a temporary visitor, and my opinions wouldn’t mean much. And as a white 22-year-old student living in largely Black and then mixed neighborhoods, who couldn’t find Chicago on a map until after the lease was signed, I didn’t think it was truly my space to claim.

But I went to New Haven knowing I would be here at least six years, the minimum amount of time it would take my husband to get his doctorate in history from Yale, and with the possibility that he would need an extra year, or that we would land good jobs that would keep us in the area. I had a reason to care more about my community here.

Again, though, I’m jumping ahead. Thinking about community and involvement in these terms was something I had to learn. And I learned it from my job.

When we moved to New Haven in August 2011, I had hoped I would get a job in archives or special collections, or maybe a museum. I had the MLIS that qualified me for professional work as a librarian. We hoped that Yale might take an extra look at my resume, if I dropped in my cover letter that I lived in town because my fiancee was getting a Ph.D. from them. I applied to every position in the university’s library system that I could (not the ones that required fluent Japanese or an advanced degree in GIS), and I got a pile of rejection emails, and an interview for a job at the second-lowest tier of library clerk work, which amounted to nothing. I luckily found a temporary part-time job at a corporation in Stamford after a few months, and when it was extended from 3 months to 6 months, we finally set a date for our wedding and knew we could pay for it. For work, I was limited by what I could reach by the local bus system and Metro North, and when several part-time positions opened up in the city library a month after the temporary job ended, I had no choice but to go for it and keep applying for full-time jobs that would allow me to afford a car. That’s how, after a year in New Haven, I came to public libraries.

My life up until this point had included little contact with the public library world. My mom got my brother and I library cards when I was eight or so, and we used them to check out old stories from the libraries near Allentown while my mother gathered sources for a community college paper. Sometimes in junior high school, I would spend my Wednesday afternoon in my hometown library, asking one of the two librarians for help finding Stephen King novels, or reading books on ghosts and the supernatural until a parent picked me up on the way home from work. I didn’t return until my senior year of college when I needed to use a scanner to complete a graduate school application for an academic program, several months before I considered turning my work-study archives job into a career path. This library was still a single room with a small staff, but I had been happy to see they had a number of modern computers and a group of boys playing games on them. A couple years later, I would run into the librarian at a summer fair in town, and her husband would step into the conversation and complain about the boys’ preference for Spanish, stating, “This is America. Speak English or get out!” with a violent thumbjerk. I had been too stunned to ask why he thought it was any of his business. In hindsight, I might have formed my response in Spanish.

I knew the issues facing city libraries from what I learned in library school out in Chicago, and from visiting my neighborhood branches and the big downtown Harold Washington Library for a weekly class. New Haven was an education unto itself. I got to know the regular patrons – disabled women who borrowed hundreds of books a year and ran a library out of their apartment for their neighbors, men who harmlessly flirted with the women workers and called my hijab-wearing coworker “sister,” elementary school girls in uniforms from the nearby private school whose appetites for books challenged my readers’ advisory skills, orthodox Jewish families with mothers who often seemed tired, exhausted elderly wives acting as constant caregivers to their husbands who were deteriorating from Alzheimer’s, young autistic adults who lived down the street and sometimes couldn’t control their emotions, single mothers who borrowed DVDs, retired Yale professors, men who used the computers every day to search for jobs, smiling middle-aged women who called me “honey,” high-functioning alcoholics, people who talked to themselves or who chronically spoke too loudly, quiet kids who weren’t in school and who hung out at the library all day until their parents returned home after work, and refugee families who barely knew English.

I was a very rule-oriented person for most of my life, an extension of my father’s parenting and his black-and-white worldview. It carried over into my work for years, and the public library challenged that. Adherence to the rules meant collecting sometimes exorbitant fines from people who I knew were receiving assistance or were unemployed. It meant stopping a child or homebound adult from borrowing a pile of books because of the limit on materials borrowed. It meant not getting interlibrary loans to curious adults because the limit was too low for their information needs. It took me years, and the wonderful example of my boss (who was also trying to balance internal problems in the workplace), as well as bosses and coworkers in other library systems, to learn the best way to deliver library services. You override the book limit. You waive the overdue fines, even if the person on the phone or in front of you might be lying about their extended hospital stay. You waive half the fees and let them borrow the book in their hand, even though their balance is technically still too high to allow borrowing. You let the wife take the newspaper out to her husband waiting in the car, even though the newspaper isn’t supposed to leave the library. When the city hasn’t plowed the street and your tiny parking spot is the only place where parents at the nearby preschool can put their cars, you talk to the head of the preschool instead of shouting at the parents. You let the person whose phone has run out of minutes make a call from your branch’s phone. You tell people you just want the books back that have been overdue for the past year, and you heap them with gratitude  when they return them while you waive their bill. The kid who is hanging out in front of your library in below freezing temperatures an hour before you open, you start a conversation with him and call his parents to feel out his situation. You order the rap CD or the Sister Souljah book even though you know it’s going to be stolen. You let the person you’ve never seen before pay you back next time for their printouts. You let the ESL learner, who takes classes in the basement meeting room with the literacy volunteers, renew the English-Arabic dictionary over and over and over.

It became clear to me that, contrary to what I’d believed before, we were not all on an equal playing field. I met people, primarily working-class African Americans from the area around the library, who searched for jobs for months and even years unsuccessfully, though I saw them in the library every day, and their friendliness never wavered. I saw cover letters rife with so many grammatical errors and so simple in tone compared to my own letters, that I didn’t feel like it was worth commenting, especially when my workday didn’t allow me the time I would have needed to help them. I once helped a young man try to navigate the online system to expunge a drug conviction from his record, and I heard over and over again from men in their 40s and 50s about how they had made mistakes in their past that prevented them from getting good jobs, or any jobs. I helped – or tried to help – a woman get on the waitlist for section 8 housing, a needlessly labyrinthine process that involved a hunt through the local newspapers to find the announcement that listed the website that would be open for a week, and the specific times she needed to be online to apply, times that didn’t coordinate with our open hours.

And my institution was playing a part in keeping that playing field uneven. The kids with unstable home environments, who walked to the library by themselves and who couldn’t give a permanent home address, were kids who might take materials out and never return them, but they were also the kids who needed the library the most. Those who couldn’t afford a home computer and internet connection, let alone a printer, had to pay high printing fees for paper applications for food or housing assistance. Many libraries don’t put much of their budget into hip-hop albums or urban fiction or blockbuster films due to the high rate of theft, even though they often reflect the interests of many patrons more accurately than National Book Award winners and foreign films. Computers filled up fast at the main branch, so people would take the bus to our branch – but the time limits on the computers were too low for those who were looking for jobs, and there were still too few computers for us to always extend their sessions. And I noticed that patrons who didn’t share my skin color – the color of most library workers, cops, aldermen, teachers, politicians, and other authorities – were more likely to acquiesce to the rules instead of ask for an exception. I could see in kids’ eyes how they calculated the answer they thought I wanted to hear, or the simplest answer they could give, even if it wasn’t the most truthful answer. I realized that the Dewey Decimal system includes at least 73 numbers for topics in Christianity, but only one – 297 – for Islam, that most books on racial discrimination usually get filed under current events instead of under history, that it gives preferential treatment to Western European languages and even ancient languages over those from Asia, and that it shows its limits as the product of a 19th century British Christian male.

I fucked up, plenty of times, and perpetuated the injustices that I was only beginning to understand. I waived the fines for the patrons who challenged them and let meeker patrons pay them. When I had to reiterate library policies to unfamiliar patrons, I sometimes lapsed into a casual tone with who looked like me and stayed formal with those who didn’t. The well-behaved kid who wasn’t in school and obviously had a chaotic home life, once when he hit his daily computer limit and he jumped on somebody else’s computer session after she stepped away for a moment, I canceled the session from the admin computer and without a word he got up and wandered the stacks, when I should have just let him use the computer to play games and been happy he had a warm place to be, or better yet, I should have asked him if there were books or movies I could get him and show him I was a safe adult. I let one of the autistic young adults have a meltdown because I told her she needed to wait her turn when the desk was busy. I didn’t always give my full attention to reference questions from patrons whose minds jumped from one subject to another before my first search was over. When I heard two boys calling another boy stupid, I should have stepped in and told them that treating people well was much more important than intelligence. Sometimes, I myself struggled to kill with kindness.

But I know I made a difference in lives, too. I would talk to one of the regular ladies about movies, and when I found her a certain film one day, she was so happy she gave me a hug. One of the curious adults spent a long time in the local hospital, and he gave us medallions with the Serenity Prayer from the hospital shop when he came back. I gave directions to GameStop to a refugee family’s father who wanted to buy one of his children the handheld game system they had seen their friends playing. I made friends with another refugee family’s daughter, a six-year-old with moxie to spare who asked me to help her with her math homework. I looked up services that were available to full-time caregivers and printed them out for the exhausted wife. I found a food pantry for a patron who had lost his housing and who couldn’t get some necessary medication, and he appeared several months later looking much healthier and holding down a steady job.

Throughout this whole time, I had become deeply curious about issues of race, and I started seeking explanations for the realities that I’d only started seeing at 20 years old when I moved to cities. Freakonomics had included a chapter by sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh, and I finally got my hands on his book Gang Leader for a Day, where he talked about the economic system of gangs in one of the decrepit housing projects not far from where I’d lived in Chicago. I learned in Articulate While Black: Barack Obama, Language, and Race in the U.S. that being able to code-switch between street language and school language hinted at a linguistic prowess that I, as somebody who speaks in one mode, do not possess – and I also learned that when I’d said Obama was articulate, it came with an unspoken asterisk: “for a Black man.” At one of my library jobs I was lucky enough to maintain that current events nonfiction section, and I pulled together a display on racial discrimination in our country after Michael Brown was shot, and I earnestly scouted new titles to add to the collection. I read Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped and learned how she received messages of her sub-worthiness as a Black girl, and listened to audiobook versions of Wes Moore’s The Other Wes Moore and Alex Haley’s gigantic Roots: The Saga of an American Family. I watched documentaries and read Wikipedia articles on Malcolm X and the Black Panthers, the more violent parts of the civil rights movement which had never, ever been discussed in my high school, ever, and which had been spoken of with negative, dismissive, or hostile tones when the terms were used in rural Pennsylvania. I came to understand the necessity of those radical strains within the fight for civil rights. I learned the phrase “making a way out of no way” and how it related to the perseverance of African Americans. I learned how nuclear families were intentionally separated in public housing projects, shedding understanding on the statistic I’d heard that African-American women have a high rate of single parenthood. I learned that the non-charter public high schools in New Haven graduate less than 70% of their students, and that it was a significant improvement from five years before.

In 2008 I started embracing my formerly secret love of hip-hop, and with burned CDs from my husband’s brother (who people had called some stupid racist words in high school for his love of Black rappers) and my husband’s admission of his own love of rap, I began understanding how it worked: some rappers spoke to a reality they’d faced, some used the language and imagery of samurai films to express violence in their neighborhoods, some sold fantasies of endless money the same way rock bands sold fantasies of endless sex, some were fascinated with gang life the way the rest of our culture was fascinated with the Italian mob. I channeled Jay-Z’s swagger before going into interviews, felt trapped with Tupac when I thought I’d never escape working shitty jobs and living in shitty apartments, got angry with Nas, and blew off steam with ridiculous Ludacris songs. Parts of Black culture became my culture.

 

After two years working part-time in the city library, and living in the city myself, I could no longer ignore the realities of my patrons and my neighbors. I could no longer believe in equality. And that’s why I could no longer subscribe to libertarianism, or vote only for fiscal issues while ignoring the social.

 

Addition on February 20 when I realized I completely forgot to talk about the neighborhoods in New Haven:

During this time, I saved money by mostly walking the mile and a half from my downtown apartment to my workplace, instead of constantly taking the bus. My path down the major street took me past multiple Dunkin Donuts, hair braiding salons, chain pharmacies, soul food and fried chicken stands, liquor stores, bank branches, quiet rowhomes, and a Jamaican place that pulled a gigantic smoker out onto the sidewalk on the weekends for jerk chicken and made the block smell heavenly. The neighborhood visibly changed when I got close to my branch, to brunch places, art galleries, salons with European models on their signage, the section of the large park that held a weekly farmer’s market, an optometrist, yarn-bombed bicycle racks, and pubs beloved by longtime residents. On my lunch breaks, I would take walks around the neighborhood, passing cute single homes with cats lazing on porches, Tudor woodwork, magnolia trees, and bougainvillea spilling from planters.

Sometimes coworkers or Yale students I knew mentioned locking their car doors at night when driving through other neighborhoods at night, or avoiding them entirely. They were neighborhoods whose mostly African-American demographics were similar to the neighborhood I passed through on my commute, where I had never felt in any danger. Passing those supposedly dangerous neighborhoods during the day, I felt bad for the people who had to live next to decrepit abandoned houses, without a trash can or a bus route or a well-stocked grocery store in sight. One night in my early days of running, I ended up taking a wrong turn and passed right through a street that people avoided. My big takeaway from my journey – aside from noticing the crumbling sidewalks that characterized every block in New Haven that wasn’t part of Yale – was that there were a lot of churches. Another day, when I stopped for groceries on my way home from work, I saw a memorial for a teenage boy who had been killed by gunfire from a rival gang outside the store a few days before. I put some money into a collection at checkout for funeral costs, knowing it wouldn’t lift the grief from his family and classmates – and not once having the thought cross my mind that my store was unsafe.

When conversations drifted to the high rate of violent crime in New Haven and eyebrows shot up in disbelief at where I walked, I brushed off my conversation partners’ concerns by reminding them that I’d lived in south side Chicago and north Philadelphia. And I remembered an orientation at La Salle, when an older student pointed out that the neighborhood around the university was working-class regular people and the threat of looming danger was blown out of proportion. There was crime against students, for sure, but most of the incident reports related muggings late at night against kids who were almost definitely coming back from parties. I wasn’t wandering around backstreets drunk out of my mind at two in the morning, and potential muggers would have been disappointed to find only a few dollars in my wallet anyway.

 

On Connecticut’s Fiscal Year 2018-19 Budget, and Concentrated Activism

So, for the second or third year in a row (at least, but remember I’m fairly new to caring about this) there are cuts in Malloy’s budget for the state. In previous years, Connecticut libraries lost massive funding for their delivery system, and we’ve never recovered. We also have not had a statewide catalog for well over a year, maybe even two. CT Humanities had to eliminate their Quick Grant program last year due to cuts, which means less funding for cultural programs in libraries. And the parks. Several state parks reduced their hours, or camping seasons, and some parks closed their campgrounds entirely. This year, the statewide library delivery system, CT Humanities, and DEEP are all facing cuts yet again. I don’t know how we’re supposed to handle it. And I’m especially angry about the state parks, and especially because the season passes and parking fees that I proudly paid, thinking I was supporting the parks, goes into the state’s general fund. So I sent an email to Governor Malloy, and also gave it as written testimony to the Appropriations Committee that is doing public hearings about the budget this weekend:

I am writing to urge you to preserve funding for Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, which is facing a cut in the 2018-2019 fiscal year.

Growing up at the foot of Blue Mountain in eastern Pennsylvania, I learned to value the beauty and importance of our country’s natural landscape and resources. My childhood was spent hiking on trails, making lean-tos, memorizing bird species, and camping in state parks. As a child, I also saw the environmental devastation brought by zinc companies, which stripped all animal and plant life from one side of the mountain for decades.

As an adult who has lived in Connecticut since 2011, I now value our natural resources even more. I live a five minute drive away from Sleeping Giant State Park, and I have spent countless afternoons hiking its trails – and exploring trails in parks throughout the state – with my husband and dog in pursuit of exercise, education, and entertainment that requires little or no money. Sometimes in the parks, I find myself with a few moments of privacy within our densely-populated state, and at other times, I find community in other Connecticans who are out enjoying nature with their own families, and who also believe in the importance of preserving our natural spaces within the state park system.

However, our parks system is not perfect. Our state parks are severely underfunded, with Connecticut ranking 49th out of all 50 states for lowest percentage of the overall state budget allocated to parks. Our camping facilities are not as modernized and welcoming as those in nearby states, with privies in campsites like Macedonia Brook State Park, and only one dog-friendly campground in the entire state after the closure of the Connecticut’s second dog-friendly campground, Devil’s Hopyard State Park, last July.

I strongly believe in the importance of maintaining our state parks for recreational, educational, and health purposes. Our state parks are open to enjoyment by all residents, and parks like People’s State Forest, Gillette Castle, Wolf Den, and Day Pond preserve local history within the park borders. Time outdoors has been linked to lower rates of obesity, attention deficit disorder, and depression in children, and adults are well-aware of the peaceful effects of walking in nature. Without our state parks providing experiences of the natural world, we will be less healthy and less happy – and without their protection through DEEP, we may lose those valuable experiences and resources, the way my hometown lost part of their mountain.

An easy first step to preserve DEEP funding is to separate the parking fee revenues at our state parks, which currently goes into the general fund, into a fund earmarked solely for parks. It is estimated that this move alone would provide around $6 million in revenue. I am also in support of a $10 charge on all vehicle registrations in exchange for free parking at our state parks, which would encourage more Connecticans to utilize our protected natural spaces and generate an estimated $14.3 million in revenue.

Our state’s parks are too important to us, and to our children, for us to further reduce their already shamefully low amount of funding.

Yesterday, after going to a work-related social justice event and running errands, I drove up to Hartford so I could give testimony in-person. Fun fact: if you want to be in the lottery for speaking order at a 4:30pm public hearing at the Hartford Legislative Building, you must show up between 9:00 am and 1:00 pm. I, like many people, am terrible at digesting information that I read on a computer/phone screen, so I missed this. Not that I could have really done anything about it, really. So I wandered around for about 10 minutes, wondering if everyone else wearing suits and business attire were there on behalf of their jobs or if I was just breaking an unspoken norm by wearing jeans, and found some security guards and staff members who helped me get on the end of the speaking list. It was nearly 8:30 by the time I got my three minutes to speak, and I focused on my experiences as a kid in a poor family whose vacations were hiking on trails and visiting state parks, how state parks are open to everyone, how they preserve local history and improve health, and how Connecticut is beautiful and it’s a state that deserves a robust park system. It was a really long day and I had to wake up and go to work early the next morning, but I’m glad I came out to see the hearing process and meet other people who are fighting on behalf of DEEP. I’m also glad to see that the Appropriations Committee was sympathetic to the vast majority of those giving testimony. I’m under the impression that the speakers who showed up are frequent advocates in Hartford, and that the committee members are, unfortunately, used to fighting against budget cuts.
So why am I fighting for DEEP and the state parks? According to a number of activist-related things I’ve been reading such as this Medium article on how to #StayOutraged, it’s best to concentrate your efforts on one or two issues. I’ve decided that the issues I’ll actively fight for are social justice where it intersects with immigration and race, and on a local level, the environment. Planned Parenthood will get lots of support, as will DAPL. The arts and humanities have advocates, as do LGBT organizations. I’m still supportive of these causes, of course, but my local parks need somebody to speak up for them, keep them clean, and remind people of their importance. And I need to fight for the incredibly brave refugee families I have met who fled their homes and may never see their parents and siblings again, and for the girls and boys in my town and across the nation who receive direct and indirect messages about their worth as human being because of the color of their skin or the neighborhood where they live.

The Music Dies: How My Dreams of Music School Were Crushed

In the course of chatting with a friend just now, I remembered that I once planned on going to music school. In elementary school I discovered my grandmother’s chord organ and would play songs using fingering charts in the ancient music books that were sitting around. When I found a toy Casio keyboard in her closet, I spent an evening learning how to play along with the four pre-programmed songs. They played in a specific order, and I couldn’t wait until the first two songs were over and I could play “Swanee River.”

I wanted to play an instrument in school, and since string instruments weren’t an option and the alto saxophone was too expensive for my parents to pay the monthly rental, I picked the comparatively affordable trombone, which had the bonus of looking like an easy instrument due to the single slide instead of a bunch of moving buttons. I liked playing but barely practiced, and I remember crying through a frustrating practice at home, tears streaming down my face in the dimly lit living room as I couldn’t reach the note on the page. At one point my father said we were returning the instrument, and when I returned it to the elementary school music teacher, he called my parents and convinced them to let me keep it, citing that for how little I practiced I was quite good. So the trombone stayed.

Over the years, other instruments appeared. I got a bigger Casio keyboard for Christmas one year and started writing my own simple songs on it. My father had a bass guitar and an electric guitar that he’d played before the trombone arrived, and my brother and I got frustrated on the frequent occasions when he took one of the guitars out, ostensibly to teach us, and it turned into a solo jam session. The solution was a beat-up electric guitar that lived in a thin battered case, nothing like the gorgeous cream-colored Stratocaster or P-Bass that lived in plush comfort when my father wasn’t playing them. I painted an  angel on the case to make it pretty. I spent afternoons trying to make something harmonious come out of the guitar, but it took me years and years to be able to stretch and bend my fingers in the right way to make a progression of the four most basic chords sound like music. A couple Christmases later, a lipstick red bass appeared under the tree with my name on the tag.

By the time I got to high school I was in marching band, concert band, concert choir, vocal ensemble (small choir), high school jazz band, and pit orchestra and chorus line for the musicals. We had purchased the Conn student trombone I had started renting in fourth grade, and I used it all through high school. Two kids in marching band had purchased new instruments, but everyone else in marching band and concert band used the student rentals they’d purchased. I was in percussion ensemble, where I’d hoped to play marimba but was moved to bass guitar when they found out I could play. I was recruited to play bass for the middle school jazz band and once at a choir concert. I took music theory through high school and rented a clarinet and then a violin just for fun. I auditioned unsuccessfully for leads in the musicals, solos in concert choir, and state choir, but I did get into county band and county choir, whose participants were decided by each school’s band and choir directors. I was one of the last chairs in band for the two or three years I participated, and it wasn’t difficult to see that the higher chairs were occupied with students from wealthier school districts, with nicer instruments, who played much better than me. They had probably gotten private lessons after school instead of being dismissed from science occasionally to practice with the band director for 30 minutes. I had four or five private lessons in preparation for state band auditions, which required learning a song called “Morceau Symphonique.” It was difficult to track down the sheet music, and it was even more difficult to learn the piece. I don’t think I was ever able to play it in its entirety, and I don’t even recall if I went to the audition.

In my senior year I had started collecting literature on Berklee College of Music, West Chester University where my band director went, Temple University, and Ithaca College in New York. I looked at the books in the guidance counselor’s office at what an average musician would make. As a dedicated music school where Aimee Mann had studied and dropped out and still managed to have a huge career, I didn’t think I had a chance at Berklee even if I could afford it, so we dropped it. I toured Temple and Indiana University of Pennsylvania as a backup, but I really fell in love with Ithaca’s campus and their music program. My parents had separated and divorced in the previous year, and I remember a phone conversation with my father where he said I couldn’t afford Ithaca and wouldn’t get in. My mom was supportive, though, and she didn’t complain as she set up a second road trip to the Finger Lakes in the dead of winter. For my part, I gathered up a few of the vocal and piano compositions I had notated with a free trial version of some notation software. I practiced them on the upright piano that I had finally acquired after years and years of begging. It was a freebie my mom had found online, a big heavy wooden thing painted over in semi-gloss white, and she gave a couple family friends a case of beer as compensation for help with the move.

On the day of the audition in Ithaca, I was surprised to see so many nice instruments. In fact, everyone but me had beautiful instruments, gentle golds and roses instead of the pockmarked yellow of my trombone. They were also dressed as if they were performing for a concert, black velvet dresses and hair half-up. I was wearing my usual: black tee from Old Navy, baggy jeans frayed on the bottom, men’s Vans, and a beaten-up leather duster. It was not a good sign.

I don’t remember the trombone portion of my audition, but I remember sightreading vocal scales and intervals in a basement room, the auditioner singing resting tones to me. I was more interested in my composition audition more than the instrument audition. I was brought into a room with two or three other prospective students interested in composition, and the boy next to me seemed more prepared than me and the other kids to talk about our composition styles and goals. We were asked if we wrote music or lyrics first, which I thought was an odd question. Wouldn’t the music be more important? It certainly was for me in my listening at home. I had no idea what they were saying in most of my favorite songs, since I was attracted to the music instead. When a separate auditioner looked over my written score for a four-part harmony, he sang the notes as if he were a magician conjuring them out of thin air. He asked me about lyrics, too, and why I didn’t have them. I explained that it didn’t necessarily have to be vocal voices. They were asking questions that seemed advanced for a high school student not in a college-level music program.

A month or so later, I got a letter from Ithaca regretting that I was accepted into neither the composition program nor the general music program. I think I knew it from the moment I stepped into the building that day and saw how out of place I looked.

And that’s how my teenage dreams of being an experimental composer, musician, all-around artist died, as well as the near future I’d laid out for myself of going to a small artsy college and doing small arsty college things. Instead, I submitted my transcripts to the local community college and tried to reshape my vision of the future.

Raised Rural 4: Rural Politics

I’ve been trying for weeks to get to the point where I can talk about how my culture and politics have fundamentally changed. Before I get there, though, I think I have to spell out exactly where my politics were. I have to take a step back so I can dissect exactly how they changed.

At home, I had a politically disengaged mother who would have voted for Ralph Nader if she had been registered, and a father who was deeply distrustful of government. He told my younger brother and I, in no uncertain terms, that we should never trust a government that wanted to take guns away from the people. On his desk, he had a “stop scabs” button protesting the temporary workers who come in when unions go on strike, and a MAD magazine cartoon picturing a museum docent in the background, explaining to a tour group that vikings believed they would be rewarded in heaven for their barbaric and violent behavior, and in the foreground, a crazed-looking man with “Arab terrorist” written across his machine gun strap exclaiming “Sounds perfectly reasonable to me!” The desk was a heavy metal thing that looked like it belonged in an office somewhere, and though I remember seeing his business textbooks from his courses at community college sitting on the desk, I have no memories of my mom using the desk when she was enrolled.

Sometime after we got a computer in 1996 or 1997, but before my father started taking online classes at the University of Phoenix, he shared a printout of racist jokes with my brother and me. It wasn’t our first time encountering them, of course. I had heard them traded at holiday dinners, especially when the pastor of my grandparents’ UCC church would join us. The pastor recited his contributions with a slight Pennsylvania Dutch accent, one that wasn’t nearly as heavy as my grandfather’s accent was when he interjected comments while listening to Rush Limbaugh’s radio show. Or when he told me to “turn that crap off” when found me watching Janet Jackson’s “You Want This” on MTV in the living room one afternoon. Or when my brother and I overheard mutterings about “the Mexicans” drifting back to us from the passenger seat of my grandmother’s minivan. We had learned about the evils of racism and prejudice in school when we studied the Civil War, and we were both shocked that it still existed, let alone in our own family and in the leader of the church where we went to Sunday school. Coupled with statements from my parents about how the Pennsylvania Dutch around me were ignorant and backward, it bred in me a low-grade revulsion that lasted for years and years.

In school I learned that the Republican Party was business-focused and the Democratic Party was people-focused, and at home I learned that all politicians were corrupt. In the high school sociology elective that I took after my parents’ sociology and philosophy textbooks piqued my interest, I got more information in the the form of a handout explaining the demographics of each political party. Republicans were generally rural, had a high school education, and were working-class. By contrast, Democrats were generally urban, had college degrees, made more money, and/or were often non-white.  In my interactions with outspoken high school girls who were dressed in trendier clothing than me and had “the only bush I trust is my own” on their MySpace pages, I also learned that Democrats tended toward self-righteousness.

Because of the timing of my 18th birthday, I was late getting in my voter registration, which would have declared me an independent and given me the ability to vote for Bush in 2004. I didn’t do much research aside from a cursory Internet search, but I knew Kerry claimed to represent the interests of of the people while being one of the wealthiest men in Congress. Shortly after the election, my grandfather said something about boycotting Heinz products.

I became slightly more engaged with politics after my boyfriend (and later husband) and I got together that fall. His parents hailed from Catholic working-class and middle-class families in the Philly suburbs, and they moved around the Philly area and the Midwest before landing in our town when my husband was a toddler. We’d first met in the elementary school gifted program when he was a quiet fourth grader and I was an awkward sixth-grader, and in high school he sometimes came to football games and traded Monty Python quotes with mutual friends who sat with me in the marching band section. Instead of music clubs, he pursued debate team and scholastic scrimmage. The way he explains it to me, he was an “elite nerd” who enjoyed arguing with peers, and since his peers were primarily liberal, he had to take a conservative stance in order to have arguments. At some point, he started believing in the persona he had formed. It was reinforced by the beliefs of his parents, who often watched Fox News when we hung out in the evenings, and other respected adults in the area, who presumably understood the world better than teenagers.

My boyfriend/husband read political theorists like Machiavelli and Rousseau, as well as lots of history books, and he argued his stances with refreshing pragmatism instead of the unexamined gut reactions. For example, such-and-such government program sounded great in theory, but it would be prohibitively expensive. Or, so-and-so federal law was basically a good idea, but lawmakers had hidden a bunch of junk in it to appease their constituents. Or, so-and-so senator shouldn’t be writing this bill because he has no expertise, or so-and-so is saying this strategically but he actually votes that way. Or, this-and-this government program targeting that-and-that problem created dependence and actually perpetuated the problem instead of solving the root cause. Socially pretty liberal, but skeptical of implementation of social policies. He rolled his eyes at mainstream conservative media figures like Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, and Bill O’Reilly. He was knowledgeable and impassioned, and his libertarian-esque beliefs and concerns mostly became my own. We believed everyone had equal opportunities for success and just needed to use their own talents accordingly, as we had.

His family ties to the Philly area – and the desire to go somewhere much more exciting than our town – led him to enroll at La Salle University and work towards a history degree, while also working 30 to 40 hours a week at the restaurant his father managed in the suburbs. I needed desperately to get out of our town too, and I joined him at La Salle after I finished up at community college. Through his social circle I met religious conservatives, a branch of conservatism that I hadn’t encountered in our hometown of mainline Protestants whose politics were completely detached from their religion, as well as business-oriented conservatives from well-off families. As mentioned before, I became friends with other socially liberal, fiscally conservative, moderate independents. We wondered at the narrow aims of our outspoken Democrat friends, who seemed solely concerned with social issues. My friends and I liked Obama’s personality but distrusted his message (and felt more than a little alienated by his dismissive “clinging to their guns and religion” statement), and we voted for McCain, the war veteran with years of experience, a message of ‘reaching across the aisle,’ and an immigration policy that was to the left of the GOP party line and more palatable to us and the undocumented workers we knew from our jobs.

During our time in Chicago and in New Haven proper, my husband fell into political nihilism, refusing to acknowledge any position at all. After what I’d experienced in Chicago, I wasn’t sure what to think, either. The Tea Party movement had gained traction within the GOP, and it quickly morphed from a libertarian opposition to excessive taxes into refusal to compromise with Democrats, calls for Obama’s birth certificate, statements that he was a Muslim with the implication that a Muslim president was a bad thing. It was a movement with racist undertones that I did not want to be part of. I didn’t register to vote in 2012, but I found myself somewhat happy that Obama got a second term. Despite my initial hand-wringing and the passing of the controversial Affordable Care Act, he had gotten us out of Iraq and started withdrawal from Afghanistan, slowed and stabilized the economic recession he’d inherited, and he had proved tougher than expected in foreign policy. He hadn’t been terrible, and might have even been good.

Plus I’d liked living in his neighborhood.

Ivy Wrapped Around My Throat; or, Yale Culture Is Not My Culture

(This is the continuation of Raised Rural parts one, two, and three. And sort of my own Hillbilly Elegy.)

With degrees in hand, my husband and I moved from Chicago to New Haven, Connecticut, where I started looking for a job and he started a Ph.D. program at Yale.

In Chicago, people had been relaxed and happy to talk and connect. I found this to be true among the Midwestern students at my graduate school, undergraduate co-workers who would crack jokes at my retail job at a huge clothing store on the Magnificent Mile, strangers at the bus stop. My husband would meet up with University of Chicago graduate students – and professors would occasionally hold after-class discussions – at neighborhood bars, where non-drinkers would socialize over a water or soda. The U of C graduate students, and the recent graduates I encountered as well, seemed like normal people despite being educated at one of the best universities in the world. They were from all different backgrounds – immigrant families of modest means, wealthy families in Europe, regular lower-middle class Northeasterners, and with only one or two exceptions, the “cultural elites” with politicians, Nobel prize winners, and CEOs of Fortune 500 companies in their families, didn’t wear their status openly. We talked about beer, outrageous anecdotes about professors and colorful relatives, pizza, terrible movies. We wore t-shirts and traded British comedy DVDs and tried, unsuccessfully, to create solutions for Israel and Palestine after a few drinks.

One block from our second apartment in Chicago, there was a much-loved chicken joint, bank, laundromat, liquor store, haircut place specializing in children’s cuts, independent grocery store with low priced produce, and chain pharmacy in the busiest shopping center in Hyde Park where students and non-university affiliates would do their business. In New Haven, the shopping area between our apartment and Yale’s campus featured the Gourmet Heaven corner store (known for high-priced groceries and illegal wage practices that eventually led to its shutdown), an Apple store, Origins beauty supplies, and clothing stores catering to the prep aesthetic: J. Crew, North Face, Gant, several boutiques. There was often a friendly middle-aged African American lady who sat on the corner all day selling flowers, who I have heard students refer to as “homeless.” In my first week, I saw a slim, naturally blonde-haired, blue-eyed, white-smiled, unblemished and perfectly tanned young adult wearing a blazer with boat shoes and rolled-up pants walking with a small group of other young men outside one of Yale’s architecturally-imposing residence halls. He was one of those men who is so impossibly handsome you feel not attraction, but an involuntary urge to punch them. He reminded me of a Ken doll parody I had seen in a commercial once, with a pastel-colored sweater draped perfectly across his shoulders. He practically dripped with privilege, his self-aware clashing fashion choice and genetics and smile saying “fuck you, I can have anything I want.” I had seen my first true WASP in its natural habitat. It would not be the last time.

Later I would learn the difference between “old money” and “new money.” If U of C represented the culture of new money, then Yale represented old money.

The drinking culture that typifies the Midwest – and might contribute to their casual affability – is simply not present in New Haven. While in Chicago I could buy liquor at the grocery chains, or pick up something at the corner store until they closed at midnight, but until recently Connecticut’s restrictive state laws prohibited alcohol sales on Sundays, most holidays, and after 9pm, with no ability to buy a 6-pack from a bar as you could under Pennsylvania’s laws. Many students at Yale didn’t drink, and there were few meetups at bars, so we couldn’t employ our usual strategy for making inroads into social groups. (I say “we” because I mainly leeched off my husband’s social life). I supplemented the scant social calendar with being conspicuously sunny to store clerks. Retail work and living among friendly Midwesterners in the previous couple years had made me an expert at being sunny around strangers. And many New England clerks, it turned out, were just as polite and happy to have little conversations as I was, despite the area’s reputation for chilliness.

When we did socialize at house parties, conversations were strained. My husband –  whose sharp wit, loud laugh, and unapologetic Philly-style swagger characterize his interactions with his friends and family (he’s singing Pixies songs to himself at this moment) – donned button-down shirts and leather shoes and tamped down his personality, bowing his head when we met gathered at the homes of faculty members. At informal parties at students’ apartments, conversation topics with a fair amount of back-and-forth were difficult for me to unearth. Students defaulted to talking about their research at Yale, or their professors, or other work-related gossip. I was neither researching at Yale, not working at Yale, nor even working full-time in my chosen career. I took the public bus to a retail job three towns away near the mall, later adding a temporary job in Stamford and then 19 hours a week at the local public library into my work rotation. My job search was completely alien to their experiences, and my despair made some of them visibly uncomfortable, not to mention affecting my own mood when I had to recount my economic setbacks multiple times in a single evening. Significant others, who were my usual go-to conversation partners when I accompanied my husband to his social events, were frequently graduate students themselves, so I didn’t have the common ground of the normal world to share with them. I became an expert at the blank, half-aware look of partners when they’re debating whether they should try to join the conversation they don’t understand, or risk moral judgment when people notice how many times they retreat to the low pressure and high carbohydrates of the snack table.

After two years, I decided to adopt a scorched earth approach. I started skipping over the usual exchanges of “and what do you research?” or “oh, I love that cookbook you have,” not allowing time for their polite inquiries about my Yale affiliation and my reply of “no, I’m not at Yale” and the awkward pause that always followed, as if I’d yanked away their roadmap of follow-up questions. Instead, I headed straight into Louis C.K.-style self-deprecating jokes and references to episodes of Archer, simultaneously trying to inject the levity I craved and also rejecting the pressure I felt to pantomime refined manners. Yale manners. I was not Yale, and I was no longer going to let them assume I was Yale, or pretend that I wanted to belong to Yale. One time, I declared that I was happy I wasn’t accepted into the academic graduate program I had once dreamed of, that I would have wasted money and would have been completely unhappy. It only took a few seconds for the peripheral conversations to die and a complete silence to descend across the room.

My husband later told me that it’s because I had vocalized the exact anxieties that every single person in the room felt.

While we had friends in Chicago with socioeconomic backgrounds similar to ours, they seemed nonexistent at Yale, and we frequently encountered assumptions that Yale students were financially well-off. The grad students in the humanities received a stipend barely above MIT’s living wage, and students that didn’t find a roommate to help defray the high rental costs almost certainly have to supplement their student income with savings from past careers or help from relatives. Many of them had relatives with funds to spare, whose parents would be happy to help them out, as their own parents might have helped them. As I mentioned in a previous post, a faculty member once asked somebody if he had working-class friends, and lamented the difficulties he had expanding his social circle beyond his own class. Our own social circle at Yale included the children of faculty at world-class universities and Manhattan doctors and diplomats, former lawyers and scientists, and people with graduate degrees in hand who were switching careers, who got Bachelor’s degrees from the best universities in the world, whose families have second homes in different countries, who grew up bilingual or even trilingual, who think nothing of getting on a plane to travel across the ocean, and sometimes travel abroad just to see family and loved ones for a week or to take a break. Once I got to know them, I learned that they worried about their finances and debated if getting a Ph.D. from Yale was the right choice for them, or if they should go back to their first careers or take a different track entirely. I thought it remarkable that those who had been given a chance to earn a degree from Yale – beyond the wildest dreams of anyone from my hometown – could be second-guessing themselves.

This is a completely different world that I inhabit nowadays. Most people I know from my own college experiences and my jobs have lived in the same region, or even the same town, for all their lives. I am the anomaly among them, the one who has lived in three states and two major cities, the one who has vacationed abroad in a place that wasn’t resort-heavy or Western Europe. Five years ago, I was amazed that I would even get to touch the buildings of Yale. Now I’m constantly frustrated when I try to organize parties during holidays that fall on academic breaks, and I find that friends are doing research abroad or have moved to another country while they write their dissertations. I don’t have that life myself, but it’s completely normal to know people that do. I walk my dog in neighborhoods where famous literary critics live, and I attend church services with people who have edited versions of the Bible. My husband works with intellectuals who have been published in nationally-circulated newspapers and are visible, outspoken critics of Trump.

I find myself stuck in between these two worlds: close to what some would call the “elite,” but not quite part of it, but also no longer working-class rural Pennsylvanian. Middle class in income and profession, but without the characteristic middle-class drive to increase my material and financial wealth and attention to status markers. When I return to rural Pennsylvania I see people glancing at the out-of-state front license plate on my hybrid car. Even when I’m wearing my sweatpants at the grocery store, I look different. My sweatpants are better quality and more athletic-looking than the pairs from Walmart and Kmart. Dresses, boots, and cardigans from the internet are the staples of my professional wardrobe, not black pants and blouses from Kohl’s. I’m muscular, and it shows in the slope of my shoulders. Though I’m slightly overweight, I weigh noticeably less than many other Pennsylvania Dutch women, and we don’t choose the same entrees when we go out to restaurants. I wear thick-rimmed glasses. I don’t speak like anyone who grew up there, and my smiles and eye contact are often met with grunts. I walk my dog on a leash instead of letting her walk out the door.  But I’m not like the women I see in New Haven either, not elegant, not slim, not descended from Puritans or an ethnicity that stands out in rural communities but has achieved the normalcy of whiteness in cities, with no tradition of boarding schools or generations of education in my family. You can see my rural origins in my face and in the shape of my waist. In the torn-up, mismatched outfits I wear to the gym, the big canister of Chock Full O’Nuts in the kitchen, and the coarse, vaguely sexual curses that come out of my mouth when I’m angry at the copier at work.

When people ask how I got to Connecticut and I’m not meeting them at a Yale function or somewhere in New Haven, I almost always say my husband is getting a graduate degree, and only volunteer the words “Ph.D.” and “Yale” and “Iranian history” if my conversation partner leads us in that direction. Whether they’re from rural Pennsylvania or from the relatively affluent town where I lead storytimes, I recognize the power behind those words and how they can stop the flow of conversations the way my lack of Yale affiliation did within Yale circles. I’m afraid those words can lead to undeserved admiration for my non-accomplishment of marrying somebody who chose to do academia, or even worse, those words can mistakenly lead people to think I’m better than them. I’m not better than them. I am not Yale. I am not even New England. But I am also not rural Pennsylvania, and I never fully was. I don’t know if I’m fully anything.

 

BONUS RANT ABOUT YALE AS AN INSTITUTION

At an institutional level, it seems that Yale reinforces the notion that Yale is for those with financial means. Yale provided health insurance to my husband, but insurance was not available to me at all until my and I were officially married, despite the fact that we lived in the same household (which is the language used by many insurance policies including those offered by the Affordable Care Act). Yale also did not offer employment support for graduate spouses or partners, which I had hoped to find, given the amount of money the university was investing in my husband. It was assumed that graduate students with families that moved to New Haven with them had the means to support themselves. Later, when my husband had fellowship funds denied to him due to a technicality in the disbursement – a fellowship that he needed for academic progress during the summer – a clerk at one of the Yale offices asked him if he had a family member that could pay the $2500 difference. My husband, an independent adult, a graduate student who had not lived at home for years, was deeply offended. He and I both came from families where teens eagerly looked for work when they reached legal working age, not where adults in their twenties asked our parents for thousands of dollars.

Yale’s campus buildings and history are designed to awe, and they seem to carry on traditions I had only read about in World War II-era literature about all-boys English boarding schools, or in children’s books about wizards. There are historical sites on campus dating back to the American Revolution, and the headstones in the nearby cemetery bear names that are found in dozens of history books. Undergraduate students live in residential colleges with a faculty member who lives on-site with their family and acts as a mentor to the undergraduates, instead of an undergraduate resident assistant who is getting a tuition break for their service. Each college has their own dining hall and social facilities, instead of sharing them with everyone on campus as I’d encountered at most college campuses I’d toured or attended, and I saw gorgeous wood-paneled study rooms through the windows of residences when I would pass by. Students take classes, practice for orchestra recitals, and get books from tall, Gothic-style stone buildings. Their Payne Whitney Gym holds the Squash Hall of Fame, a sport I hadn’t known existed until a friend at La Salle mentioned that he played it at his family’s country club. Sometimes, Yale alumni and professors host dinners at Mory’s, who tout themselves as “A Yale Tradition c. 1849,” on their website. There is apparently a membership fee to pay, and membership is approved by a Board of Governors. I have never been in, but rumor has it there is a dress code. In my mind, Mory’s represent the pomp and elitism of Yale culture, and I am still somewhat amazed that nobody rolls their eyes when the name comes up in conversation.

As a kid, I heard a fair amount of conspiracies, especially in the wake of the terrorist attacks on 9/11. I heard about how the Skull and Bones secret society was controlling the world, and how George W. Bush joined the society when he was a student at Yale. From the vantage point in rural Pennsylvania, where I hadn’t even heard of the World Trade Center until the attacks toppled them and New Haven was just as foreign a location as Manhattan, it was easy for people to give credence to the conspiracies. But living mere blocks from the Skull and Bones tomb, the Wolf’s Head tomb, and other secret societies, I quickly learned an alternative narrative: they’re a drinking club for the kids of rich folk. The late-night screaming, sounds of breaking bottles, and packs of bare-chested boys roaming in freezing temperatures were more commonplace in New Haven than in my residences at La Salle. Our apartment was near a residence hall and next to a fraternity house, and there was almost always rotting garbage on the sidewalks in front of their building. Once, a burned-up couch appeared in the middle of the sidewalk and stayed there for weeks. At first, I couldn’t believe that the same kids who took classes at an Ivy League university in gorgeous buildings would simply dump their trash on the sidewalk and expect somebody else to clean up after them. Then I had to believe it.