(An ongoing series for the month of January, these are letters written to my family and friends during my college years in New York, when I discovered my love of writing. Introduction here.)
for my whole life, i’ve been the one at the table in the Chinese restaurant that gets the convoluted, enigmatic fortune in my cookie — “your life is a paradigm of successions,” or something similarly obscure. then two weeks ago, at lunch with daddy, i actually smiled after cracking open the vanilla-flavored cardboard. there was an epiphany on my plate: “you are a lover of words, someday you will write a book.”
little shivers of excitement ran through me. not because the idea of being destined to write a book was particularly thrilling (or true.) despite my friends’ flattering-but-biased predictions, i don’t think that lies in even the distant future. it was the first part of the grammatically challenged sentence that inspired me to keep the little slip of paper with orange printing in my wallet long after i had committed it to memory. a lover of words.
i believe in a Divine will, not in fate; and i’ve never put stock in horoscopes or superstition. somehow, though, this fortune got to me. it’s funny that it should take something that silly and insignificant for me to realize what so much of my personality is made of. i love words. they have power — think of a good speech or a really strong set of lyrics. a simple sentence can move someone to tears, drive two people to blows or inspire a lifelong drive for something. they can express complex things like feelings, concepts and intangible forces with perfect clarity. they seem simple but are actually very difficult, and then they seem very involved but are really relating something quite straightforward.
i don’t write because i think i have anything more to say than the next guy, or because i think i’ll say it any better than he will. i write because i love to tell people what i’m doing and thinking and feeling and *be*ing at this moment in my life — and because i can. because i have these wonderful tools available to express myself with. it’s not enough for me to have these bizarre and sketchy and wonderful experiences and then keep them inside my own head. they itch to get out. they pound on the door of my brain until i sit down and tell somebody, two people, ten people. i want to share my impressions, and words are my medium. i don’t paint, i don’t compose. i remember, and then i write.
this has always been who i am. it was not until i moved to new york, though, that it became so obvious. here, with the constant stimulation of the living, breathing city around me, i have so much going through my head that it would be silly and selfish of me to write it in a journal and keep it locked up and hidden away. i don’t need any justification for taking a few hours a week to indulge in the pleasures of e-mail. when you’re a lover of words, you can’t help it.
of course, there is a danger in loving words too much. it is possible to indulge, to cheapen them until they mean nothing but a bunch of letters put together on a page — something that i’m probably guilty of a lot more often than i’d like to admit. there’s the rub. “use them with care,” warns the little emily-angel on my left shoulder. but the emily-devil on my right goads me, tells me to throw caution and grammar rules to the wind and just write the unedited impressions as they enter my head. i think they’re both a little right. and i enjoy the struggle. it’s part of what makes words so beautiful.
it’s nice to finally know *why* i’ve been writing so religiously, isn’t it? now i have a ready answer, and substantial proof to back it up. (if the fortune cookie said so, it must be.) and there have been some delightful consequences. you don’t have to imagine the endless debauchery and moral degradation that i’m experiencing in new york, because i explain it to you in detail. and no one gets mad at me for grumpiness on account of having to tell the same story ninety-three times (can you believe there are ninety-three of you?)
and (deep breath), some exciting news … you all know frederica mathewes-green, my beloved pastor’s wife and dear friend. she is the author of the books Real Choices and Facing East, as well as numerous other articles and NPR radio spots (also, i hear she’s slated to make a guest appearance on Delicious Dish sometime soon. the topic is “cabbage.”) always looking out for this indigent college student, she forwarded one of my letters to her sometimes-editor john wilson, of Books & Culture magazine. he asked me to write an article; i wrote one about the eric fischl lecture i attended last november. when he liked that (it’s set to be published in the march / april issue), he sent me a few more possible topics and asked me to try being a columnist for one year. i was stunned, amazed and a little scared. and although “try” is the operative word, i said i would do it. we’ll see.
when i arrived at my apartment last wednesday (school didn’t start until the following tuesday, but i wanted a little free time up here before the mad rush resumed), i was shocked at the state it was in. perhaps someone had broken into my bedroom and ransacked it in a mad search for something valuable? it took a few minutes for me to realize that *i* had left my room in this state. rather embarrassing. as i cleaned, friends dropped in to welcome me, and it was comforting to see everyone again. most people think of new york city as an unfeeling place, but i’ve come to find that within the large, impersonal masses of people are little areas that have the same hometown feel of catonsville or ellicott city. when i came back, everyone seemed overjoyed to see me — starting with the guard at the desk downstairs, who insisted that i come and give him a hug before resuming his taunting about “mah haahtbeat,” and extending all the way down St. Mark’s Place to the falafel man, who nodded and beamed and asked me about my vacation.
the next days were spent in gleeful recklessness, watching foreign movies and going to quirky-but-cool restaurants. my favorite was the one in little italy that greg harrigle and i picked out; when we asked teasingly whether they had “l’ambiance” here, the foreign waiter looked a little perplexed. “well,” he offered helpfully, “i can see if it’s on the menu!” we went to see “sonatine,” a japanese film that was only enjoyable after i realized the futility of trying to understand the plot and concentrated instead on the humor of the seemingly random slayings mixed in with shots of frisbee games. “the general” was about an ordinary thief’s rise to head of a ring, and his skirmishes with the law along the way. his witty comments (though not intended as such) and constant need to cover his face with his hands when in public were what kept the movie from being overly depressing. “dr. akagi” covers the work of a japanese doctor during the second world war; he diagnosed every one of his patients with hepatitis, which he believed was the disease that would end the world. i think the reason i love foreign movies is the way they can be funny without even seeming to try — a refreshing change from the American wit, which is only funny because it’s too obvious.
milos asked what i was doing on saturday night, and i told him that my family was coming up to new york for the weekend and i was going to hang out with them. “what are you, some kind of nerd?” he sniffed disdainfully. “yeah, she has a good relationship with her family. isn’t that weird?” raquel put in. well, the orens have never been accused of normalcy. in just over 30 hours we fit in shopping trips, FAO Schwarz, trips to all my favorite cheap restaurants (mom’s favorite was the mexican place with the neon orange sign in the window proclaiming “Burritoville: Elevation 1000 Ft.”) and the off-Broadway show “Stomp!”, which was unbelievably cool. the team of 8 urban dancer / comedians beat out a rhythm on everything from kitchen sinks to matchboxes, and they even allowed their extremely ungroovy audience a chance to feel the beat. you walk out of the tiny, crowded theater with imaginary drumsticks in your hands, and spend the rest of the night tapping your feet. a must-see for anyone passing through the Village.
the day before school started, penley and i took the early-morning train to long island city to see what might be the most radical piece of architecture in new york city: a presbyterian church that was designed completely on the computer. it’s been compared to a spaceship, and certainly held a surreal quality in the drizzly gray atmosphere of the railyards and warehouses that surrounded it. on the way home we stopped at a café in west village that reminded me of paris: dimly lit, dark walls with framed prints of the Old Masters, groups of two or three parked at tiny tables and a restroom with a bright bottle-green door. the people were holding small coffee cups and great big tumblers and looked as though they had been there all day, and had no intention of leaving. i sighed and wished we led more of a European lifestyle. penley wanted to stay there all day, but after ordering lunch and finding that the prices were cheap only because a “salad” meant two pieces of lettuce and a wedge of tomato, we decided to move on. we spent the rest of the day walking all over the city, going café- and bookstore-hopping in the rain that went from drizzling to pouring and back again. the weather was very thought-provoking, and good conversation always seems even better when you’re totally soaked and don’t care. (i’ve paid for it, though, with a nasty cold for the past four days.)
tuesday it was back to the grind, dozing in descriptive geometry. my literature class is slightly different this semester: called “texts and contexts,” it studies great works of literature in conjunction with the history of the period. our textbook, “Millenium,” is ostentatiously written but entertaining. i read with particular interest the chapter on Eastern Orthodoxy, which (although not altogether accurate) i’m sure will provoke some interesting in-class discussions. and since i don’t have much time to read for fun, i’m enjoying reading for school. i love finding unexpected little haunts that are always open and parking there for a few hours over a cup of tea; it’s so much more enjoyable than reading in the brightly lit studio or among the many distractions of my own bedroom.
my first architecture history class was cancelled, but we have a different teacher there too; drawing is the same, and so, of course is architectonics. after the last semester, when i found out what it was like to get a big, ugly “C” on my report card, i was a little nervous about facing my professors. but they had conferences with us individually, and discussed where our strengths and weaknesses were and how we could improve our grade the next time around. they told me, among other things, that i’m not focused enough — i chase around five ideas at once instead of carrying one all the way to completion. (it was interesting to note that the professors had noticed my participation in the art-history lectures and were much impressed with my knowledge of Biblical history. hmmm. )
i’m glad that i got the C if for no other reason than to be able to talk with them frankly, not worrying about what they will think of me. when i said that i often felt lost and without an answer to the problem, they expressed sympathy, but as abraham put it: “if you’re lost in the woods, you have to find your own way out. we can’t help you.” tough love, i guess.
resisting the urge to be afraid — of people, of situations, of my own shortcomings — has been a hard thing for me, and only now am i starting to get a handle on it. one night, as abby and i were walking down St. Mark’s Place (despite the name, it’s one of the scariest blocks in the Village — the favorite hangout spot for green-haired crossdressers), we were accosted by the King of Piercings. in one glance at his face, i counted eight or ten. he informed us that if we felt inclined to punch a hole somewhere he would give us 50% off the normal price. when we refused politely, he offered to hold my hand if i was scared. four months ago, i would have screamed in terror; last weekend, i burst out laughing — and tightened my hold on abby’s hand ever so slightly.