November 30, 2012

Finding Eden

Whenever I have had a long day on campus, I find myself amazed time and time again at the renewing effect of simply stepping outside to walk back home. If I'm lucky, the darkness won't have totally settled in just yet. The peaks of the mountains have a bolder outline as the sun first sets, but little by little they become more blue and mysterious and even mythical. Squaw Peak juts out jagged (and almost arrogant, really); the mountain ranges to the south and west are straight out of an Impressionist painting with their creamy pastels, soft around the edges; and of course, Timpanogos to the north: strong, sculpted, assured, snow-capped more often than not. It's easy to forget that campus is a little mountain of its own; it isn't until I start the steep descent back down into the city that I remember we're that much closer to the sky than the rest of Provo. The sidewalk just across the street from my office offers a breathtaking view of the city lights, the dimensions of the neighborhoods below, Utah Lake, and the faraway peaks to the west. Like a well-worn melody, it never gets old. I am always in awe when I take the time to look. There is a certain comforting familiarity to be found in these mountains, so constant in their presence and so dear to me for everything they've come to mean.

A pulsing realization has come to me in layers over the past six years. I will never forget the first time I traveled back home to Michigan. I had only been in Provo for about two months, but it was a long two months without my family or any of the comforts and familiarity of home. The occasion was a production of Children of Eden at my old high schoolit was my sister's senior year, and thus her last year performing in a musical at the beloved Tibbit's Opera House. Dad picked me up from the Detroit airport that Thursday evening and we raced straight to the theatre to catch the beginning of the show. As if the situation weren't inherently fraught with enough emotion, the play itself followed the heartbreaking narrative of the human race, starting with God, His relationship to Adam and Eve, their relationship to Cain and Abel, and so forth. The whole show was a cycling of generations, of patterns of curiosity and rebellion that finally give way to sacrifice and lovethe painful kind of love that only a parent can know. The kind of love that asks you to let go. All the while, the children of every generation continue the search for Eden, which is ultimately a search for home. When you think of the Creation and the Fall in those terms, it seems like we're almost programmed for nostalgia: that primeval longing for a sweet Edenic homecoming. Needless to say, I was already reduced to a puddle of tears by the time I was able to hug my sister for the first time in months at the show's end. I went to all three nights of performances. I knew I needed to be instructed in how to cope with homesickness, which is perhaps one of the central struggles of the human condition and definitely the biggest thing I was facing at the time.

My sister Sarah and me on opening night of Children of Eden

It's really no surprise that I had such a tender and powerful experience in returning home that first time. What I wasn't expecting was a Provo homecoming almost just as sweet: the minute I returned to my cramped dorm room, I received a call on my desk phone. My newly acquired group of friends and my sweet-natured boyfriend were all but screaming on the other end of the line, asking me to join them in the cafeteria for Sunday dinner. The love was palpable as I stepped into the Morris Center. I was greeted warmly with hugs and kisses and proclamations that even my paltry three days' absence had left little holes in their weekends. I was missed. I was loved. And somehow, Provo had already become another home.

Imagine what six more years of making this place home might do to my heart. The friendly mountains. The familiar contours of the oft-walked streets. The tunnels that still ring with Sunday carols sung with friends. That kiss atop the bell tower. The temple, shining like a beacon in the night, on whose grounds I've so often sought solace and cried freely. The classrooms I've been instructed in. The ones I've taught in. The whiteboards that might still bear a smudge of mine, maybe a fingerprint. That hill at the park by the Riverwoods where I have stargazed with the dearest of souls. The concert halls where I was lucky enough to perform. That parking lot where I used to practice the foxtrot with a special boy. The inconspicuous little look-out point on Y Mountain where I have gone to cry, to advise, to let off sky-lanterns, to celebrate. The Marriott Center, where my heart caught on fire more than once at devotionals, basketball games, music and dance performances. The drives down to Springville with nothing but Eric Whitacre between me and the smeary sunset. The quaint glow of Center Street on a summer evening. The big hearts and warm hands I've come to love.

I could go on. Chances are, I will do just that in the coming months of saying my goodbyes to this place. But this is less an elegy for my Provo days and more a celebration of that lesson I started learning as an eighteen-year-old Eve torn from everything I'd known: that I needn't wait for Eden. There are bits and pieces of home glowing all about me in the pattern of the stars or the constellation of freckles on a face I love. Home is a kind of warmth. And it just might be a mountain reaching up into the darkness in search of its own heaven.

November 22, 2012

Of Mothers and Motorcycles

My guess is that there are few reading this who aren't also my friends on Facebook. Yet I can't think of a single reason in this whole wide whimsical world why not to re-post this insanely awesome vintage photo of my mother being "mad, bad, and dangerous to know" (a phrase once used to describe his majesty Lord Byron and, thus of course, the highest of compliments). 

Yes, folks, I am her daughter. And so happy about that.

November 16, 2012

Things I may never understand about the culture I live in

*Nota bene: I don't necessarily hate these things. I especially don't hate you if you happen to like any of them. I just don't understand them.

Including but not limited to:

1. Pinterest
For those of you who have already heard me rant about this, my apologies. But can we all come to terms with the fact that there is no such thing as a "Pinterest craft" or a "Pinterest recipe"? It's just a craft! It's just a recipe! From what I understand, the website doesn't generate any unique content; it only helps you find and organize existing information on this here world wide web. When I search for a recipe online using Google, I don't make the resulting recipe from and then tell everyone, "Yeah. It's a Google recipe. I found it on Google." Why should it be any different for Pinterest?

2. Twitter
It's like Facebook statuses. Without the rest of Facebook to go with it.

3. Late-night talk shows
Too many men who think they are too funny for their own good. I just don't get it.

4. For that matter, most comedy TV
I've tried watching The Office. Not that funny. Also, Arrested Development; it just makes me uncomfortable. I don't watch Modern Family or Community or Parks and Rec or 30 Rock... can't do it. Nope. (I admit, though, my own taste in TV is not necessarily aesthetically or morally superior: I love Law & Order, Criminal Minds, I Almost Got Away With It, Storage Wars, and virtually anything on Food Network. So it's okay if you don't understand me, either.)

5. Twilight
And/or the recent preoccupation with vampires in general. (Why is everyone watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer again? Wasn't that show cancelled almost a decade ago?) But people who make a point of hating Twilight are almost as annoying as those who unabashedly love it, so I won't say anything more on the subject.

6. Keira Knightley and everything she represents
Remind me: Why do we want to be transported back to the Victorian Era? And why must Keira Knightley be the one to take us there? (And ugh, why was she cast as Anna Karenina? There are other actresses for period films, y'know.)

7. Memes
Don't get me started.

8. Ranch dressing
Okay, to be fair, that's a mystery of the ages. Moving on.

9. Calling everything "epic"
I'm pretty vocal in picking a bone about this. Things that are epic: Gilgamesh, The Odyssey, the Earth's creation, etc. Things that are not epic: the bowl of ice cream you ate for breakfast (even if you put Nutella and peanut butter on it), the trick you did on your skateboard, the Ultimate Frisbee game that went down last night, the "fail" you supposedly had by slipping and falling on the ice on your way to class, or anything else that isn't "heroic, majestic, or impressively great."

10. "Fail"
I already alluded to it in #9. This one just gets on my nerves.

11. "Legit"
This one isn't nearly as offensive as the previous two. Still, I dare you to say "legitimate" any time you are tempted to say "legit" and see what happens.

12. "I'm not gonna lie..."
Good. Shouldn't it be the default not to lie?

13. Mumford & Sons
Actually, I can level with this one a little. I'm known to love me some indie/folk from time to time. I just don't think Mumford & Sons are doing the best out of all the folkers out there. The lead singer's voice is kind of weird. And all of their songs sound the same. (Funny thing: I listened to a track called "The Boxer" from their most recent album to make sure I was willing to include them on the list. Just as I began thinking, "Wow. I actually really like this song," I realized that it's a Simon & Garfunkel cover. Case in point.)

*Nota bene: There is a lot of contemporary music that I can't stand. Mumford & Sons doesn't even begin to top the list. They at least have some talent and some soul. I mostly included them because everyone is all, "OMG THIS CHANGED MY LIFE" and, as the title of this list suggests, I just don't get it.

14. Crocs

A mystery to everyone. And yet, they continue to plague our society.

15. People who "love to read,"
but really they just read Twilight and fan fic. Or worse yet, Twilight fan fic.

16. "That awkward moment"...
when there wasn't an awkward moment and you didn't write a complete sentence to describe it.

17. "Stalkers"
Because, apparently, anyone who says hi to you or is your friend or looks at a picture that you posted on Facebook (presumably for the purpose of being looked at by others) is a stalker and is creepin' on you.

18. Why it's perfectly socially acceptable to incessantly text while you're at lunch/dinner/a party/living real life
Umm, rude.

19. Diet soda
Umm, gross. Aspartame is bad for you! And it leaves a nasty aftertaste. (YES, YOU CAN TELL)

20. "Poor college students" with Macbooks
If you're eating Ramen for dinner every night, chances are, you can't afford that Macbook. Get a normal computer and splurge on a PB&J for dinner.

21. Cats
I love 'em too. But I feel like everyone else loves them in a different way. All of a sudden. Why so many cats? Seriously. Why is that a thing?

Wow. That was therapeutic. Did I leave anything crucial out?

November 12, 2012

Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow

After my perfect autumn Thursday (and aren't Thursdays already kind of autumnal in their own right?) came a Friday that brought winter with it in full force. What started as a sweet, drizzly rain in the morning quickly escalated to winter wonderland-status faster than Burl Ives could have narrated it in song. I was expecting to feel rather annoyed with this drastic change in weather, as fall is my favorite season after all, and why should I have to scrape ice off my windshield in the morning nearly two full weeks before Thanksgiving? Also, I'm known to have some pretty embarrassing pratfalls when campus gets icy. Also, turns out my black suede boots aren't waterproof (I know, I know, I'm not sure this should have come as a surprise to me). 

But, y'know... I have an awful lot of cute scarves that beckon me from their little bin in the corner of my closet. To say nothing of the knitted berets. And my sweaters, they are so inviting. Putting on my black wool coat that afternoon was like greeting an old friend. There was something incredibly peaceful about sitting in the office watching the cold flurry happening outside my window. Before long, I was downright enthusiastic about the wintry day, and even more so about the wintry night ahead. I left campus long after sunset, but the darkness hadn't fully settled in. The combination of clouds and fallen snow and streetlamps and reflected light made the sky an exquisite shade of mauve. It was a little eerie, admittedly. Mostly magical, though.

I came home to a cozy apartment: my blanket, my legwarmers, Seinfeld reruns on TBS. Some friends ended up joining me for my snowed-in evening. We played chess, listened to bossa nova, and ultimately wished our power would go out like the apartment complex next door so that we'd have an excuse to light all the candles and snuggle up against the elements.  (Okay, that might have just been me. I had similar fantasies just before y2k.) We turned out all the lights and used a flashlight while playing parlour games. (No, seriously. We took our cues from this hilarious Wikipedia list.) Sometimes my life really is that good. 

Once everyone had ambled back to their own dwellings around 2 a.m., my roommates and I stepped out onto the cold stone balcony in awe of the fact that it still wasn't dark. The sky was still dimly lit up in a tawny pinkish purplish hue. The frosty matte finish of the sky made the sparkle of the glistening snow crystals all the more stunning. We opened our blinds to let in that cotton candy light glowing ambient and quiet. I fell asleep on the couch in total peace.

I woke up to this picturesque little scene outside my living room window on Saturday morning. I felt like I was in a snowglobe, surrounded by a certain fragile beauty. I was filled with gratitude. Everything I had to do that day seemed at least a thousand times more enchanting with this as my backdrop. I could read a novel! (I could write a novel!) I could write a letter! I could write five letters! I could tidy my room! I could take a nap in the company of sugarplum fairies! I could grade papers, and even that would be magical because that tree outside looks like a giant snowflake and isn't the world just wonderful?!?!

What I did instead was probably the best thing of all. I made a hearty beef stew. While I was chopping vegetables and waiting for the meat pan to deglaze, I danced around to Ella and Louis in my leg warmers and a pirate hat leftover from my Halloween costume (Captain Hook, for the record). I twirled and I sang and I marveled in this life that is mine. 

The snow really is magic.*

Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong,
"I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm"
(aka my Saturday kitchen soundtrack)

*I added a handful of that magic snow to my stew and, needless to say, it's the most delicious batch I have made to date.

November 9, 2012

Staff Picks Shelf

Yesterday was a perfect fall day. My sweater was just warm enough against the slight chill, the leaves were crunchy underfoot, the air smelled faintly of earth and cinnamon, the light was dim and moody. I nobly achieved all most of what I set out to do in the afternoon: grading a batch of papers, sending out some important e-mails, moseying on over to the administration building about registration, going to the bank, pretending I'd showered, etc. Both the student at the registrar's office and the bank teller asked me about my upcoming Thanksgiving plans, and I was able to respond with all the joy in my heart that I'm going home to Michigan. I played John Mayer's Born and Raised (an album I came to love somewhere in the middle of Iowa on a summer roadtrip) as I took an evening drive to the Orem Public Library. I donated $20 to the library in exchange for their letting me keep all my checked-out materials an extra two or three weeks. (It's a wonder they haven't revoked my library card after lo these four years of nothing but overdue books.) I'm glad my Barefoot Contessa cookbook still wasn't due for another week or so; I've been meaning to try her rosemary white bean soup and caramelized butternut squash, just to name a couple. In the courtyard between the fiction wing and the audiovisual wing, I saw two young children racing down a hill on their stomachs. The stars are coming out much earlier now that we're not saving daylight anymore.

One of my favorite things about the library is looking at the Staff Picks shelves. A mysterious library worker named Eliot (whom I have yet to meet and/or thank in person and/or marry) has changed my life more than once with his recommendations, not the least of which was my haphazard decision to pick up The History of Love from off his shelf in early 2010. (Please go read that book if you haven't already. Just do it. For Eliot.) As I passed those beloved shelves last night, each of them beckoning me and tempting me to read something notforschool, I had a thought: What would I pick? If I had the exquisite privilege of being a librarian with such a shelf, what would go on it? Obviously, my choices would change over time to reflect mood and season and new discoveries. But what would I choose right now

I have given this a little thought and have decided to let you in on it. Since I am known to check out (and subsequently return late) books, DVDs, and CDs from the Orem Public Library, I will give a handful of Staff Picks for each category. The unifying theme is "me right now" (which is, more or less, autumn).

1. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë 

Moody. Dark. Romantic. Wuthering. It's everything you want in an autumn read, really. The protagonist is a volatile orphan named Heathcliff who falls in love with his childhood friend Catherine. He lives on a lonely estate in the moorlands called Thrushcross Grange. I'm not sure it gets more decidedly autumnal than that. I have really sweet memories of reading this on a cool Saturday morning in November 2010, wrapped in a comforter and daydreaming about hot cider. Yeah, it's that kind of book.

2. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

I recently read this book for the second time and was amazed at how much I enjoyed the experience. Gatsby isn't just for high schoolers! Who would have thought? Seriously. It's for everyone who loves beautiful, lyrical prose and a story that captures the spirit of a bygone era. To say nothing of the fact that the novel really is suited to autumnal weather and all it represents. Read more about it in my GoodReads review.

3. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco 

Monks. Monasteries. Murder. Need I say more? The novel is long, but it is well worth your time. Bonus points if you have a fireplace in front of which to enjoy this historical murder mystery.

  • Honorable Mentions for Books: Pale Fire, The Big Book of Soups & Stews

4. The Secret Garden (1993)

This movie was a major part of my childhood. I watched it again last week for the first time in years. I marveled. I cried. The cinematography is gorgeous, the themes are timeless and beautiful, the music is haunting. You will fall in love when you watch it. I'm not even sure with whom or what: Dicken? (I'll admit, I had a crush on him as a young'un.) The fanciful wonder of childhood? The world in all its beauty? Probably all of the above. Just trust me, you'll fall in love.

5. Annie Hall (1977)

Always a winner in my book (er, DVD player). A non-linear love story, both funny and heartbreaking in real ways. Per usual, Woody Allen really delivers on the witty dialogue, creative technique, and memorable scenes. Something about the 1970's academic sensibilities and the New York City setting make this a good choice for a Saturday afternoon in autumn.

6. Dead Poets Society (1989)

The New England boarding school milieu practically begs you to watch this in the fall. Look at all those matching crimson sweaters! Also, this happens to be one of my favorite films of all time. You really can't beat a story about a group of boys who go out into the woods because they want to live deliberately, to "live deep and suck out all the marrow of life"in other words, read poetry. And live it. (Umm, marry me today?)

  • Honorable Mentions for Movies: October Sky, Big Fish

7. Early in the Morning, James Vincent McMorrow

This whole album is gorgeous and haunting. McMorrow's voice is tender and reveals an old soul. You really can't go wrong spending an autumn morning with him. I especially love "Hear the Noise that Moves So Soft and Low," "This Old Dark Machine," "Early in the Morning, I'll Come Calling," and "Down the Burning Ropes."

8. Fleet Foxes, Fleet Foxes

If God hadn't invented autumn, Fleet Foxes would have. Their music has all the moody nostalgia you could ask for: melodies that respond to your ancient memory, that sing to you from the dust. I could likewise recommend the record Hopelessness Blues, but their self-titled album was my first love and it features unmistakably autumnal songs of longing such as "Blue Ridge Mountains," "Tiger Mountain Peasant Song," "Oliver James," and... oh yeah, all of them. Fleet Foxes are a staple in my collection, but they are especially suited to this time o' the year.

9. Live at Blues Alley, Eva Cassidy

Eva Cassidy is one of those musicians with an aura of mystique from having died too young. She was not able to develop her career as fully as many of us would have liked, but this live performance recording from just before her passing is a true treasure and something to have in your collection if you like blues or folk or jazz or beautiful voices and souls. Notable autumn tracks include: "Tall Trees in Georgia," "Fields of Gold," and "Autumn Leaves." If you're anything like me, some of the songs on this album will really stick in your ribcage.

10. Portrait in Jazz, Bill Evans Trio

Bill Evans is one of those musicians who can break your heart and restore it again in one fell swoop (I'm always big on that). His music was my inspiration as I started writing my November novel. (!!!) "When I Fall In Love" is especially me right now. I'm always falling in love. With everything. And Bill understands.

  • Honorable Mentions for Music: Fleetwood Mac's Rumours, anything by Bon Iver (who are we kidding?)

There you have it: a few seasonal favorites of mine that have been following me around of late and inspiring me. So, tell me. What's on your Staff Picks shelf? (No, seriously. I'd love recommendations. And it's kind of a fun thought experiment for a sweet drizzly morning like this.)

November 2, 2012

Literary Abandon

Starting things is really hard. 

So is finishing them, come to find. 

For the past two years, I have counted myself among the ranks of those who participate in National Novel Writing Month, which takes place every November. (Learn more about NaNoWriMo here.) Brave souls, those who take up the dizzy deed of writing a novel in one month. I'm sad to say that I have yet to surrender myself wholly to the "Thirty days and nights of literary abandon!" that characterize true dedication to the cause. Instead, it turns into about thirty minutes of literary abandon in which I write a chapter, remember that I'm not James Joyce, and then allow a sort of despair about my own mediocrity to wash over me and blot out any chance that I will be 50,000 words sadder and wiser come December. "Literary abandon" becomes just "abandon." As in, giving up. Leaving my novel behind in the dust. With tumbleweed a-blowin'.

That's not to say that the stories ever go away. They live and breathe in my conversations with close friends. They duel with my unconscious at night. They nestle into my back pocket on my walks to campus and dangle from the rear-view mirror on evening drives. They send me Christmas cards and always call on my birthday. Stories are such lively companions, and loyal to boot. They don't easily forget.

So why would I ever abandon such a lovely thing as a story? Two main reasons: 
1) I'm a grad student. I'm busy and stuff sometimes I guess. 2) Writing scares me.

The first "reason" is more like a pretty lame excuse. The second at least has the advantage of tugging on your heartstrings for a few moments before you realize it is equally lame and that I just need to get over my fears of vulnerability and mediocrity and judgment and realize that, while my novel may not be even 17% as literary as anything I read for my grad school seminars, it is a valuable intellectual and emotional exercise. Maybe even vital. I can't just sit back and notwriteanovel so that no one can ever accuse me of producing a shoddy novel. I have to get to the point where I would rather be a bad novelist than notanovelistatall. (In saying this, perhaps I am doing a disservice to ten-year-old Richelle, who indeed wrote novels aplenty about an impoverished girl named Rosaline. Maybe my creative genius peaked at a young age.)

This year will be different. I can feel it in my bones. The same obstacles still threaten to deter me, however, so I'm trying to cut them off at the pass. I have been telling anyone and everyone willing to listen that I'M GOING TO WRITE A NOVEL THIS MONTH! Chances are, more than one of my friends have rolled their eyes, thinking, "Sure. Why don't you send me a moon rock while you're at it?" By and large, I have been blessed with beautiful, gracious friends and family who are eager to see me take this on. If you are one of those lovely people, thank you. You are my sweetest stories, all of you.

So to kick things off, I thought I would take a trip down memory lane and reveal the opening paragraphs of my 2010 and 2011 attempts. The first was going to be called Traces, and the idea was that everyone carries some kind of grief or burden with them that is mostly hidden but occasionally surfaces in brief moments of vulnerability; everyone wears traces of their own stories. I meant to write about a few seemingly unconnected characters and let them kind of become tangent lines to each others' lives in a big web of human grace. Last year's story... well, that is an entire post waiting to happen. For now, I will let these first lines speak for themselves.


Jane could never figure out why her parents had decided to name her Jane. Didn’t they know that it rhymed with plain? Not to mention stain, feign, pain, et al. As a child, she used to wonder how many people at that same moment were slamming a car door, drinking cherry Kool-Aid, or wondering why the very notion of infinity didn’t scare everyone into the oblivion. (Unfortunately, mortality and its finiteness didn’t seem too bright a prospect either.) She reassured herself that maybe if people all around the world were engaged in the same activity at the same time, nobody would ever have to be truly alone. She had no reason to feel alone at the time. Yet for some reason, she persisted in her favorite activity: play-acting as though she were an orphan. When her mother handed her morning bowl of oatmeal, Jane would secretly pretend it was gruel. She didn’t know what gruel actually was, but she knew it was eaten by the likes of great orphans like Oliver Twist. She imagined it looked a lot like oatmeal and tasted like grasshoppers. Something about pretending to be an orphan made Jane feel less guilty for being lonely. 


The binary opposition between fiction and fact is no longer relevant: in any differential system, it is the assertion of the space between the entities that matters. Paul de Man

Is this her?”
Michael’s eyes widened in disbelief and horror as the medical examiner pulled back the sterile white sheet to reveal a pallid, lifeless version of his wife lying on a cold metal cart. Her skin was gray, her lips dried and pursed in an expression unique to the dead.
That’s her,” he said, more to himself than to the woman with the clipboard. “But… how… you said she was murdered?”
I’m so sorry to put you through this, Mr. Hutcheon. The police are actively investigating the circumstances surrounding your wife’s death. We do believe it was a homicide.