Sunday, January 29, 2006

The bend of my hair, the palm of my hand

Last night I went to the culture show put on by the African and Carribbean students' group. There was a little girl sitting next to her grandfather in front of me, so as I watched the skits and dances I kept wondering what she was making of it. My first reaction was that the shakings of African dance weren't something I would choose for a child to watch, but as the night went on I realized what a weird Puritanical standard I was holding up to the situation.

Given that this girl probably sees Shakira on TV doing far worse, I was glad she was in this room. Given what else is out there that she could be hearing, I'd much rather her be hearing Maya Angelou's “Phenomenal Woman.” Given the reality of violence in our world, I'd rather her hear a condemnation of domestic abuse and violent African political regimes than be at home playing Tomb Raider or watching Kill Bill (or for that matter, ignoring the violence entirely and thus doing nothing to change it). During the fashion show at the end, as we watched each smiling woman in costume from Ghana or Haiti or Cape Verde sway and shimmy up the aisle to “African Queen”, I was so glad that she was watching them instead of the identical, shiny-haired contestants from Miss America or any other pageant.

Why is it that we consider certain aspects of adulthood appropriate for children to see and others not? A dance that shows off the shape of the adult female body is considered inappropriate because it's considered sexual. But when I saw my classmates on that stage and saw how much the little girl loved seeing them perform, I saw a celebration of themselves, their bonds to each other, and their national cultures. Here was a presentation of adulthood that was positive for once, something for her to aspire to. Long live Africa.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006


When I was eight, we went to visit my grandmother for the last time at her beautiful old rickety farmhouse in the Shenandoah valley before she moved to a retirement "cottage", whatever that means. I fell off her exercise bike and cut my knee open, and when I saw the cut I hoped it would scar so I would have some reminder of my last day in those thistle-covered hills between the mountains. It wasn't a bad cut, but it scarred just like I wanted it to.

The burn where I hit my finger on the heating element of Dorte's oven while taking out a sheet of gingerbread people is fading, but I hope it won't vanish entirely. I'd rather like to have a memento of that evening with Ricky and his cousin in the living room watching "Jul i Valhal", the December night kept at bay by a pot of tea on the table and the Christmas lights hung from the curtainrod, and the smell of gingerbread.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Take my life and let me be

My father says that when he was a child, he had this goal of making his life a constant prayer. He laughs at the idea now, partly because he's an atheist but mostly at the idea that anyone ever could.

In my Quakerism class today we talked about the beliefs of the original Quakers, one of which is that life should focus on continuous and active worship. They believed that God is always present and might send revelations to anyone at any time, so we should always be listening. To do that you're supposed to clear out all the noise from your life and your thinking – thus the emphasis on simplicity. You're supposed to look to the Gospels for guidance on living the nonreligious parts of your life, but the real goal is to fuse your life so there are no nonreligious parts.

And the way you spend your time, the work you do, is to be examined for its implications. So if you go to Meeting every week but the work you do supports the military, that's wrong. But if you work writing railway schedules, you write them to the glory of God, because you're serving your fellow humans by letting them know what time their train leaves. And doing the work God calls you to do, they believed, leads to inner peace. It reminds me of Kahlil Gibran:

And when you work with love you bind yourself to yourself, and to one another, and to God.
And what is it to work with love?
It is to weave the cloth with threads drawn from your heart, even as if your beloved were to wear that cloth.
It is to build a house with affection, even as if your beloved were to dwell in that house.
It is to sow seeds with tenderness and reap the harvest with joy, even as if your beloved were to eat the fruit.

I don't know anyone who's fused all the parts of their life, who can make every moment intentional or prayerful or whatever you want to call it. But I'm not going to laugh at the idea.

Of course, I can't very well spend my life in worship since I can't bring myself to believe there's anything out there to worship. What am I listening for, since I don't believe there's anyone out there speaking? I know there are agnostic and atheist Quakers out there, but I don't know how they reconcile all this. Perhaps "reverential" is a better word?

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Sometimes our voices give out, but not our ages and our phone numbers

I've discovered the greatest advantage to living in a rather unwired room: when someone asks me for my number I can answer with perfect truth that I don't have one. As I was leaving the lunch after Quaker meeting this fact was vital in escaping the extremely strange Abercrombie-shirted (honestly! at a Quaker meeting?) fellow sitting next to me spilling soup on himself and asking me, at completely random intervals when I was clearly listening to a different conversation, what kind of music I listen to and had I seen any movies lately and do I play any sports. Never have I been so grateful not to have a working telephone.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006


Tonight as I was rifling through the house's free box, Kaity joined me and found a purple yoga mat. I was delighted on her behalf, but when she realized I would have loved it too she offered to put it in the spare room where probably neither of us will use it. I love living here.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

In a nutshell

I've just read the perfect description of my religious identity (or lack thereof). One of the readings for my class on the history of Quakerism mentions a gathering with "great numbers of Presbyterians and several Jews . . . with divers others that neither themselves nor anyone else can tell what sect they follow or imitate." I picture them looking really confused and kind of shrugging when asked.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

A room of one's own

Just before heading back to school I was listening to Cowboy Take Me Away a lot and rereading Anne LaBastille's Woodswoman and generally wanting to go live in the wilderness someplace and get up early and drink cold water and spend a lot of time not talking. That hasn't exactly come true, but I'm now moved into my sunny little hardwood-floored room in Bryn Mawr's vegan co-op. It looks over the woods and the creek, now dusted with snow.

When I was dating Simon, I felt like every anecdote from my past life involved Bridget in some way. Being around Ricky, it seemed that every story involved Simon. Before I left Richmond, I was telling some story to Simon and thinking, "Oh, but he was probably there for this" but then realized that it had happened before I knew him. It felt good to suddenly be reminded that I have a life as just Julia, not in the context of a relationship with someone else.

The night before I left I was searching in the attic for something and found a vagabond doll I had made when I was ten. I was very into vagabonds for some reason, particularly with the idea of carrying all one's belongings in sledges or packs. My doll was made of an old pair of white tights and had strapped to her back a pack containing a shirt, pants, a skirt to wear alone or over the pants in cold weather, a cooking pot made of masking tape, a waterproof ground cloth, and a tent. (I think originally she had a cardboard dog and a snare for catching rabbits as well. Unfortunately I forgot to give her a knife or way of making fire, so I hate to think how she would have dealt with any rabbits she caught.) I was delighted to see this miniature Anne LaBastille I had made up half a lifetime ago, a model of independence.

My goal for this semester is to learn how to live without anybody particularly important in my life, but to stay connected to people - alone but not lonely.

Friday, January 13, 2006


Tonight for the first time in my life I heard my mother call someone a turd. The lucky winner of this apellation was none other than Pat Robertson, who later in the evening was called "the scourge of humanity." I'm tempted to bring him up again just to see what new thing will pop out of her mouth.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Academia's taint

I know your studies are supposed to change the way you think, but I'm wondering if academia is supposed to have quite the effect it's having on me: I want to write papers.

I can't listen to the song "We Don't Need the Men" without wanting to write about the irony of objectifying the male body. I can't watch The Fellowship of the Ring without wanting to write about the class paradigm in Frodo and Sam's relationship. You see what it's doing to me? I just used the word "paradigm"! Thanks to having altogether too many friends (read: two) who study philosophy, I have now actually used the word "epistomological" in a conversation with my mother.

I know part of the point of academia is to turn you onto learning on your own for the rest of your life, but if my impulse when I notice something interesting is to formalize it in a paper, does that mean my thoughts aren't free to just exist? Surely you should be able to just have thoughts without needing to trap them in essay form? If so I'm in trouble, since after all what I write here is just a chance to do the same less formally.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

What I'll take away from Christmas School

Despite Sarah's assertion last night that everyone likes to look at women and no one likes to look at men, I've decided there's nothing more fun to watch than college-age guys dancing with each other (unless it's two kittens playing with each other.) There are occasional forms of folkdance that can be breathtakingly lovely done by women, but there's nothing to equal the energy and springiness a couple of 21-year-old college boys can put into a contra dance or a Morris set. If I could jump like that, I would die happy. Hopefully I'll die happy anyway, but until then I'll watch them whenever I can.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Honey lights

My favorite phrase in my translation of the Odyssey is “the honey lights of home.” It’s hygge, it’s what Dorte’s house had that Jorgen’s didn’t. There are a lot of things I’m willing to do without, but to have a house with that kind of glow is one thing I won’t give up.

Danish has a verb for “to stress out over Christmas” – julestresse - which I find entirely reasonable. It’s not Christmas without Mom or me breaking down in tears for one reason or another, which started this year in the computer lab in Denmark when I found out I was only going to have a day and a half in Richmond before we went off to the tour of relatives’ houses. I wondered if I was crazy for spending my one evening at home having four friends over instead of sleeping off jet lag, but I spent the day in a blur of baking and decorating and extending tables and grating potatoes. Suddenly it all came together and the eight of us were holding hands around the table with candles and a big plate of latkes, singing “Joy to the World” in three-part harmony. There they were, the honey lights of home. Especially seeing it through Andrew’s eyes, to have the whole family together and everyone smiling was suddenly worth any amount of julestress and jet lag.

Tonight after the high school reunion I pulled a similar hostessing feat when five people unexpectedly came home with me for dinner. I had hoped that one of the things I would learn from the Danes would be their hospitality prowess, and I think I pulled off a very decent evening with tea and candles and vegan chocolate cake and everything. I'm quite pleased with myself.