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From a Kindred Spirit

Below are responses to Allegra’s latest survey questions written by a woman who has become a great friend to me in recent months. She’s supportive, she’s attentive, she’s crackerjack smart, and we just GET each other. Will I ever forget that she drew me vowel charts to help me improve my Russian pronunciation? No, I will not.


What teacher in your life has made the biggest impact on you? How?

The teacher who has made the biggest impact on me is my sixth grade English teacher, Sarah. I have been privileged to have a multitude of amazing, impactful teachers, but in terms of sheer magnitude of impact there’s virtually no contest. I couldn’t tell you exactly how it happened, but over the course of my sixth grade year, Sarah invested in me and helped me find my voice in my writing. I must have been like a sponge at the time—with that attention and encouragement I just took off. Not only did her impact on me shape me academically, as I realized that I cared about school as a way to explore various passions and interests of mine, but it also shaped me personally. From there I started a practice of journaling that I’ve kept with me to this day, and I wrote constantly, from poems to nonfiction, from that point on. I got published for the first (and, thus far, only) time in eighth grade by winning a writing contest on the topic of treasured objects, in which I wrote about the journal Sarah gave me when I finished sixth grade and moved away. I even ended up going to the university I did because of this teacher. Having worked in education, we talk about how you never know what interaction you have with a student is going to be the one that sticks, so we try to be intentional about as many as possible. I clearly proved this to the extreme, because the reason I initially became interested in my university was not from a conversation Sarah had with me but from a conversation she had with another former student nearby where I was sitting. At this point I was about thirteen and still absolutely idolized Sarah. I still very much look up to her, but at the time it was far more utter idolization. Anyways, we were all working at the same summer camp, and she was talking with another former student who was on her way to Brown in the fall. From the conversation I gathered that Sarah thought rather highly of the university (which I had never heard of prior), and I ended up looking into it, liking it, and deciding I’d include it in the schools I applied to when the time came. And then I was accepted and chose to go there! Of course back in middle school I thought I was going to be an English teacher, as in the subject in school for native speakers. That evolved over time, and I ended up studying International Relations and Slavic Studies. But still somehow I’ve circled back to teaching English, just this time as a foreign language. So when I look back at the last thirteen years of my life, massive chunks of who I am and what I am doing are tied to this one teacher. And those are a lot of the best parts of me. There have been periods of months and years where Sarah and I haven’t been in much contact, but it always picks back up. I went through a hell of a summer this past year, and sure enough, there she was, reminding me I have a couch to crash on if I needed to get away from it all and spending hours on the phone with me, listening to the craziness, giving me challenging but important advice, and reminding me I’m stronger than I know. This answer is a no-brainer. As I count through the core tenets, experiences, and identity markers of who I am, I realize many would be radically different were it not for this one teacher. Perhaps some of that is simply a matter of timing—a bump in trajectory early on has the biggest impact much further down the line—but boy does it make a difference. And now nearly every week I sit down at the computer to a digital whiteboard/video conferencing system where I check in with Sarah’s daughter, nine time zones away, to tackle her schoolwork because life is funny and circular that way.


What song is a lifetime favorite of yours, and why?

I don’t feel like I have too many years under my belt as an adult with a solid sense of what I like and dislike in terms of music, so I can’t say this will earn the “lifetime favorite” title down the road when I have more data points, but I love “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” by Neutral Milk Hotel. The entire album is a favorite, but I find this song epitomizes the hauntingly beautiful narrative quality of the album as a whole. It’s also dear to me in that it’s the song that catalyzed my guitar playing. I had learned a few chords at various points in my life, but it’s when I thought, “hey, here’s a song with a strumming pattern I have internalized well enough to probably not screw it up entirely,” that I picked up my roommate’s guitar and tried to make it work. It was an achingly slow and painful first attempt, but I love that I can pinpoint this hobby back to that moment and this song in particular.


Do you have a go-to question or story to use when there is a lull in conversation?

In a lighthearted or decidedly “speed-datey” conversation I am always a fan of the question: “Would you rather have muffins for hands or muffins for feet?” It’s one of those fallbacks that has no moral or logical basis, but I like to see the way people think through this. Do you say feet because you hope the muffin stumps will become stale and be somewhat easy to balance on in the long run? Do you value dexterity in your fingers or do you start imagining that this question exists within a universe where the muffins regenerate and you have a lifetime snacking supply?

With closer friends, I like to ask what’s bringing joy in their lives and what is weighing on them. I do a lot of catching up with friends since I have moved so much in recent years, and I like to ask this directly because people don’t always feel the floor is open to either brag or lay out what’s difficult. But in the end that’s what I’m interested in when it comes to knowing someone and making sure they know I care about more than the cursory details of their life.


Can you identify a turning point in your life? What happened?

I have a really hard time identifying a turning point in my life. My life has been a lot of turns, and a lot of beginnings. That sounds dramatic and overly poetic, but when there’s so much movement and so much left up in the air I am not sure which point to turn to. I’ve moved every year for the past thirteen years, and so maybe the turning point is ahead of me when I decide it’s time to take a break and settle in for a while. But I also wonder if it may be honest to say a big turning point for me was this summer, and I just haven’t walked far enough down this road to feel confident calling it a true turning point. However, if it turns out this summer was a turning point for me, it’s for this reason. I finally decided I was going to make choices for my life that would prioritize me and how I want to move forward. I dug deep and, backed by friends who spoke scary and important truths to me, found the strength to do what I wanted to do simply because I wanted to do it. So I’m not sure if this particular venture into teaching abroad will pan out, either short-term or long-term, but if this is a turning point it is one in finding the confidence and trust in myself to set and follow my own goals in life. 


What is your favorite word in a language that is not your native language? Why?

The word refunfuñar in Spanish is a favorite in terms of just being a fun word to say. Also it means “to grumble,” which is a good word to know when pushing beyond the basics of a language.

I also love the Russian word Tocka, that particular Russian melancholy, loneliness, or grief that’s just not quite translatable into other languages. I can be a pretty nostalgic person in general, but I like to think that the nostalgic pains I feel for my times in Russia and Belarus are separate from that General Nostalgia and are a little part of my heart that maybe approximates Tocka. I think of it when I remember walking the quiet, cool streets of St. Petersburg at 2am with the dawn already breaking, or when I recall riding a deep-Soviet-era bus puttering through the wintery forest of Belovezhkaya Pushcha, wiping the condensation from the windows to glimpse a bison out in the wild and wondering how my life ever led me to that moment.

I also love the German word Heimat. It’s another one of those words that doesn’t have a direct translation, at least in English. It means home, but in a way that is a specific to where one feels at home, not just where one comes from or how a social system might define someone’s concept of home for them. This has been particularly meaningful for me as I have quietly accepted that, at least for now, I feel at home in Germany in ways that I don’t in my home country. It affirms that feeling in me, in a way, to be in a country with a word that lets me know it’s okay to feel at home simply because it’s where I feel at home.

Also German has a word for “awaysickness,” in the same way that we (and they) have a word for “homesickness.” And the word for skunk translates to “stinkanimal.” And the word for sloth translates to “lazyanimal”! You can tell German likes to mush words together. I wanted to preserve that in how I noted them here. Okay, I’m done now. I love words.


What is the most spontaneous thing you’ve ever done?

Two friends and I were working 55-hour weeks, and with only a day or so of preparation we decided to go to Yosemite. It meant a long drive for less than 24 hours and only one night there, but it was exactly what we needed. We got out of the city, got drenched by waterfalls, used what we knew from leading children in STEAM projects to cook our foil-packed meals, and sat by a rushing river for a while because it’s what we needed to recharge in the moment. I’m a planner by nature, which you can probably tell by the fact that this really isn’t that wild of a spontaneous story, but I’m glad I said yes to that last-minute trip.


What is your favorite sound?

I’m a sucker for the sound of powerful water, whether it be the aforementioned river, rain, or the ocean of my California roots. I love the sound of unencumbered laughter. And I love the sound of light conversation going on around me. I’ve fallen asleep on multiple occasions just hanging out with friends in a cozy room as a gathering extends late into the night, happily listening to them chat while not feeling any pressure to contribute in a certain way (or, clearly, even to be awake). By now you are probably well aware that I am generally incapable of picking a single favorite anything. This will likely not change. Favorite for me is a category, rather than a single unit. I’ve constructed my own meaning for the word—that’s how reticent I am to choose a favorite anything.


What is your ultimate dream vacation? Who would it be with and what would you do?

My dream vacation would miss the big cities. I’d have my boyfriend and/or a good friend or two at my side, and we’d hit the “in-betweens.” We’d hike greenways or cliff walks, because the nature in new places gives you a feel for the land from the bottom up. We’d get a lot of little bites to eat to maximize the reach of our culinary intake, and we’d also eat at someone’s grandparents’ place. Because if we’re talking dream vacation, we’d be connected with people from the places we’re going to. There would be slow mornings, and there would be the calm quiet of breathing in a place late at night when everything has settled from the day that’s passed. Of course there would be some museums and historical sites, but I also love just walking the streets of a new place. This past year I traveled with my boyfriend for the first time, and I was so happy to find that the two of us could just set out for the day with a couple destinations in mind and spend the rest of the time enjoying wherever else the streets took us. Perhaps our travels will become more organized or pointed in the future, but a dream vacation of mine includes a lot of time for unscripted discovery. I’ve also always said that my two tips for visiting a new place are to go to whatever place is the tallest, to get a view of everything, and to go on some sort of bike tour or excursion. You cover more ground than by foot, but it’s more up close and personal than a hop on/hop off bus tour.  


If you could become an expert in a specific area of something, what area would you choose and why?

9. I think I’d become an expert in something artisanal, like baking or pottery. Both are hobbies I love, and there’s something to having a physical product as the result of expertise that I find so satisfying. But I would also be totally excited about being an expert in 20th century Soviet poetry. I’ve absolutely loved the times I’ve dived into that world, and I think I would love being an expert on that corner of the world’s writings.


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A Slice of Leslie

I met Leslie in July in Washington D.C. at Fulbright orientation, but in the flurry of those quick days, I didn’t get to know much about her beyond my observations that she is intelligent, poised, organized, and professional. It was clear why she’d been selected as an English Teaching Assistant (now living in the city of Grodno). In the months since the orientation, though, as we’ve shared so much of this experience in Belarus, I’ve developed a deep admiration for this fine young woman — whom we call “Good Mom” (contrasting with my highly appropriate tag of “Bad Mom”). She’s rad, Leslie is, and not just because she was the first to return a completed survey to Allegra.

Here. Meet Leslie.


What teacher in your life has made the biggest impact on you? How?

My favorite teacher in the world is Mrs. Bell from high school. I had her for 9th grade English and critical thinking skills, when I was desperately trying to be a “cool” kid. I remember vividly her pulling me aside telling me she was disappointed in my B for the first quarter because she knew I was being lazy and could do better. Her tough love was… tough in 9th grade, but I had her for 10th and 11th, and English soon became my favorite class. She taught me to write, analyze, think critically, public speaking, grammar, and so much more. She also helped me study for the SATs on her own time and was IB thesis advisor my senior year. I truly think that without her lessons and love I would not be the learner, worker, and thinker I am now. I’m still in touch with her on Facebook and meet up sometimes when I’m home in Tampa. 

What song is a lifetime favorite of yours, and why?

“Send Me On My Way” by Rusted Root. I went to a summer camp in Colorado from age 10-17 and then became a counselor. Every Thursday was the all-camp dance at a big partially-covered area called the pavilion (pav for short). It was very PG but the perfect opportunity to dance with your camp crush. I was definitely in it for the butterflies from age 12-14, but then I did leadership programs with a small group of people who became my best friends overnight. Then, the dance was just an excuse to be crazy, to dance like you could never dance at homecoming or prom back home. As a counselor it was incredible to be with so many free spirits and amazing people, but also to see camp through your campers eyes. Anyways, “Send Me On My Way” was the last song that played at the dance before the closing campfire and it always played at sunset. They would blast Rusted Root and everyone would run down from the pav into a valley surrounded by the Rocky Mountains. There was no routine or special dance, we would all just run around dancing and hugging. This is probably the closest thing I have ever felt to magic. 


Do you have a go-to question or story to use when there is a lull in conversation?

LOL I feel like living abroad + being in a sorority + being a smiley American has forced me to come equipped with an arsenal of questions. Honestly, I usually bring up food and my love for pizza to break the ice and get people talking. Everyone – no matter their level of English, background, age, or job – adores food.


Can you identify a turning point in your life? What happened?

I can pinpoint a few turning points in my life but I think the one that impacted my the most was going to Poland for my gap year. Not necessarily the “sexy” living abroad part, but I had the hardest few months of my life there. I was unhappy at my local school, gaining weight from only eating pierogi and potatoes, missing my family since I didn’t go home for Christmas, and it was the longest winter Poland could remember for a few decades. In retrospect, it was probably seasonal affective disorder, but I definitely was depressed but couldn’t identify it. Getting through those few months was the most challenging thing I’ve ever done. But I didn’t give up, I didn’t go home and I didn’t turn to any destructive habits. Now my mom and I joke that I can literally do anything after a “winter in Lodz.” Nothing seems as difficult as those months did. And I think that attitude has shaped the way I approach challenges. I’m not afraid and I don’t let the potential of discomfort or obstacles stop me (i.e. Belarus). 


What is your favorite word in a language that is not your native language? Why?

This is lame but I love the word przedsi?biorczo?? in Polish because it looks like gibberish to English speakers and has too many consonants next to each other. It’s not a cool weird, it means “enterprise.” I also love ???? in Russian. It basically means “crap” or “dang” but it literally means pancake. I just think that’s so cute.


What is the most spontaneous thing you’ve ever done?

This is a cliche but skydiving. I was in Estonia and I was dating this U.S. army paratrooper (the guys who jump out of helicopters and planes). One morning we were talking and I was talking about how much I wanted to try his job, so he said “let’s do it.” So we called a place and he drove us to the middle of nowhere in central Estonia. It turned out there were no other newbies jumping, just a group of people with over 40 jumps each training to be instructors. They also spoke zero English, only Russian. The army guy bailed on the actual skydiving because he didn’t want to be attached to someone else (fragile masculinity, lolz). The plane was from like 1945 so I got in and was thinking “well, the only way I’m getting back is to jump because I don’t trust this thing to land.” The pilot let me sit in the cockpit and put my hand out the window. After the jump I felt high for the next two hours. It was amazing.


What is your favorite sound?

My favorite sound is the sound of wind rustling aspen tree leaves. You know, I had never thought about it until doing this survey but it came to me so quickly. 


What is your ultimate dream vacation? Who would it be with and what would you do?

Hmm dream vacation. I think backpacking in Colorado, Rocky Mountain National Park to be specific. I want to go with a group of friends or my dad. With my friends we can disconnect, bond, and sleep under the stars. My dad and I would play word games on the trail and cards at night. Some of my greatest memories are camping in Colorado with friends and family and I miss it. 


If you could become an expert in a specific area of something, what area would you choose and why?

So I kind of hate the word “expert” because I think the more you study something, you should learn that you really can never know enough. I did my master’s in Baltic Sea Region Studies and after two years, I realized how little I know. I would love to become a go-to for the Baltic Sea region and American public diplomacy in the region. This region has my heart – despite it being cold, dark, full of impossible languages, and having a largely meat-based diet. Doing public diplomacy is my dream professional goal so to combine the two would be ideal. 



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The Latest Survey: Jocelyn’s Responses

As many of you know, Allegra has been making, distributing, and collecting surveys and responses since she was in the second grade. Now on break from her first term at college, she’s done it again.

Below are my responses to her latest set of questions. If you, too, would be willing to write up answers to these questions, she would be most delighted (and your words will one day end up in a well-organized three-ring binder!). Responses to the nine questions contained in this survey can be emailed to her: allegrapihlajaATgmail.com. Enjoy, and thank you!

What teacher in your life has made the biggest impact on you? How?

Lowell Gorseth was the teacher for Honors English my junior year of high school, and, like most of my peers in the classroom, I never got over him. We read good stuff in his class – not that I can recall, at this long reach, any titles specifically – and his was the first English class that asked me to research and integrate literary criticism into essays I wrote, which subsequently taught me how to look up and pay attention to the persnickety rules of citing sources and typing footnotes and a bibliography. When I think of Mr. Gorseth’s class, I remember being in the public library downtown, pulling volumes of criticism off a shelf located on the second floor at the top of a turning staircase. And I remember being in the library of what was then Eastern Montana College, again trying to find sources to use in essays for Mr. Gorseth. I didn’t really understand how to maximize my use of the outside sources, nor did I necessarily see how it was making my papers better to use other people’s words, but I was going to fulfill Mr. Gorseth’s criteria and pretend to be confident as I did it. Memorably, I wrote a paper about Long Day’s Journey into Night by Eugene O’Neill, pulling from lit crit to support my points; I can still feel the slow-motion swoon I went into as I discovered O’Neill and realized I was getting and loving something like “adult” writing. When I found that essay in a box in the basement a year or two ago, I was surprised when I re-read Mr. Gorseth’s comments. His feedback had an eyebrow raised, and his tone in those comments was almost brusque, certainly not impressed. For someone like me, tough feedback would usually be the thing I let dent my heart, yet somehow, when I think of writing that paper, all my memory has retained is how crazy I was for Eugene O’Neill and how much I adored writing about his play. That Mr. Gorseth’s comments didn’t lodge negatively into my psyche is perhaps the greatest testament to his ability as a teacher. He didn’t put on the shine when giving feedback to me, a notoriously sensitive weeper, yet my memory only stored how much I loved that writer, that assignment, that teacher.

So what was Mr. Gorseth’s magic? Well, he was funny. Also, he pulled a student desk to the front of the room and sat in it, on our level, during discussions – not standing to lecture or sitting behind the teacher desk. He did random accents, notably a German one. He made all the kids in the room feel like he saw them as people. His standards were high; pap would not pass. He had a recliner chair in the corner of his classroom, and nearly every day during my final two years of high school, I would get up at 5:30 a.m., apply too much baby blue eyeshadow, drive to the high school around 7-7:30 a.m. (getting there before most everyone else meant I didn’t have to experience the trauma of walking past the line of guys on Jock Rock who rated girls as they walked by), shuffle some books in my locker, and then plop myself into the safe haven of that recliner. My friends knew where to find me when they got to the school; there was certainly room for more than one rear end at a time in that chair. And always, there was Mr. Gorseth, floating in and out of the room as he prepped for his work day, smiling at me and my eyeshadow, asking questions, joking around. He even took it well when his students realized he looked eerily like cannibalistic serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer and made xeroxes of the faces of Dahmer and Gorseth next to each other, hanging those xeroxes on lockers around the building.

As you well know, I became an English teacher. It would be precious of me to act as though I chose this career because of Lowell Gorseth, for I never distinctly wanted to be a teacher; it’s a profession I fell into because it seemed a way to use my love of reading and writing to earn a paycheck. However, there is this: in about my 9th or 10th year of teaching college English, I was asked to mentor a high school English teacher in my town because he would be teaching some college classes to high school students (Minnesota has a program that allows high school students to earn college credit). This high school teacher was named John Alberts, and when we first met and started learning about each other, I discovered his then-wife, Rhonda, had grown up in my hometown of Billings, Montana. Her maiden name had been Gorseth. Her dad, who had passed away a couple years previously from a brain tumor, had been named Lowell.

When I eventually met Rhonda, I burst into tears and dove for a hug. “Your dad was the teacher of my lifetime,” I sobbed. “He provided such brightness in those tangled teenage years. He helped me love literature and writing, and look at me now, teaching those things.”

Rhonda was crying, too. “I have met so many of my dad’s former students, and they always tell me how much he affected them – how he was their favorite teacher. He was just my dad, but I am constantly reminded that he was more than just my dad.”

What song is a lifetime favorite of yours, and why?

The idea of “lifetime favorite” makes me want to reach way back to childhood and find a song that has stuck with me for 40 or more years. Sure, there are many songs I have loved for a long time, like Albinoni’s “Adagio in G Minor” and “Tom Sawyer” by Rush. And if we’re talking about a song that I have heard a million times yet never get tired of, well, I will go ahead – predictable as it may be – and tell you that “Purple Rain” has never failed to raise goosebumps on my arms. It remains powerful for me even on the thousandth spin. Another song I can play ten times in a row and then play again is “Within Your Reach” by The Replacements. Similarly, the joy of “Be Good” by the Hothouse Flowers has never dimmed.

But, okay, if it’s a lifetime favorite song, and I’m reaching back to childhood, my mind goes to tunes noodled out on the piano. There was “Nadia’s Theme,” which my sister and I desperately wanted to play well and which now causes me to stifle laughter when it fills the room during yoga class in this Russian-ish place of Belarus. As well, there was “Music Box Dancer” by Frank Mills. But rather than choose a cheesy 1970s hit tune as my song of a lifetime, let’s try another.

When I was four years old, a baby grand piano was delivered to our house at 3030 Forsythia Boulevard. With Grandpa Don being a voice professor, the piano was an important tool for him to give private lessons to students. Plus, he and GramMax hoped we kids would learn to play.

Once the delivery men had oomphed that beast into the living room, my dad sat down on the bench and played a few notes. Nearby, I hovered. He patted a spot on the bench next to him, and after I clambered up, he taught me my first song on the piano. It used only three keys: C, D, E. There were words: “Here we go/In a row/To a birthday party.” That tune still runs through my head sometimes in the middle of the night when I can’t sleep.

A few decades later, when a piano was deposited into our house and the work men left, you sat next to me on a bench, and I taught you that same song. C, D, E/C, D, E/D, C, D, E, C, C. And there we went, to a birthday party.

Do you have a go-to question or story to use when there is a lull in conversation?

Jeezus. You know I have about a hundred. This is tough. Okay, my favorite such question, because it always yields a good twenty minutes of response — longer if I can work in follow-up questions – and because it always ripens the connection between everyone at the table, is this: “Tell me your life story, starting with ‘I was born . . . ‘.”

Can you identify a turning point in your life? What happened?

When I was 31, I was dumped in a way that shattered me completely. I was sure I’d never find love or have kids. Then Cousin Kurt messaged me and told me about a guy he worked with, asking if he could serve as my “agent in the field.” Without much hope, I shrugged and said sure.

In a couple months, it’ll be 20 years since I clapped eyes on your dad for the first time. His intelligence, steadiness, appreciation for who I am, and ability to live without resentment changed my everything.

What is your favorite word in a language that is not your native language? Why?

Currently, it’s

which is the Russian word for “sea buckthorn.” Sea buckthorn is HUGE in Belarus; there are juices, teas, lotions, chapsticks, oils, and on and on. In the last few days, due to a tip from Alana, a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant here in Belarus, I have been rubbing sea buckthorn oil on my face in the hopes that it makes me look young enough to be wearing baby blue eyeshadow in Lowell Gorseth’s class again.

Certainly, I love this word because I love the stuff made from it, but also: I love this word because it’s so fun to say “abla-pika,” which I am able to remember because the first half sounds like the Turkish word for “sister” and is commonly used on the streets to address strangers, and the second half sounds like the first part of “Pikachu,” which reminds me of Paco when he was younger and was into Pokemon. When I first came up with this pneumonic device, another ETA, Leslie, gave me the tip to soften the pronunciation of the “k” so that it’s almost an “h” sound. She gave me this tip at her kitchen table shortly after she’d crushed berries into hot water for the two of you to sip as evening tea.

Thus, whenever I say this word, I think of Turkey, and I think of Paco, and I think of how much the four ETAs here in Belarus and I have gone crazy for all things sea buckthorn (with Kate messaging about how the oil is “the perfect blend of good fats” and Liz giddily reporting she bought a heap of berries at the market), and I think about how you, dear Leggy, immediately tapped into the craze for it and loaded up with shampoo and conditioner and lip balm when we visited the Soviet-era department store, GUM.

When I think about the word

I think about all my many families, in all their many forms, and then I am full of wonder at this life I’ve lived, and that’s some powerful stuff right there.

What is the most spontaneous thing you’ve ever done?

In college, I would sometimes head out for class, get halfway there, be possessed by a feeling of “Nah, not feeling it,” and turn around to head back to the dorm. In other words, my every day for 51 years has been ruled by spontaneity, so this might be an impossible question for me to answer. I hate plans. I hate having to be somewhere at a certain time. I hate expectations. Spontaneity feels much more natural and right. That’s why your dad knows that if I’m not home around the anticipated time, it’s not that I’m in distress but, rather, than I decided to turn left instead of go straight, and like as not, I’m having a chai latte with someone I’ve only talked to twice before.

I do want to give you a real answer, though. Let’s go with this: last time I had a sabbatical, and we’d been working for months to hammer together a plan for living abroad, with possibility after possibility falling through, there came a moment when my husband’s father’s boss’ daughter said, “Hey, you should come to Turkey for a year,” and without too much thought, your dad and I looked at each other and agreed, “Hey, yeah, we should go to Turkey for a year.”

Following that impulse provided us with a seminal experience for our entire family. Not a day goes by, still, when we don’t feel the effects of that spontaneous choice.

Add this to your Journal of Maternal Wisdom: “Don’t plan your way out of potential adventure.”

What is your favorite sound?

The quiet whoosh of a page being turned.

What is your ultimate dream vacation? Who would it be with and what would you do?

We had just such a vacation when we went to Çirali on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey. Our year in Cappadocia was so rich, so lonely, so amazing, so taxing, as were our various travels around the country, with us trying to wrap our heads around “What even is this place?” When we headed into Çirali, we had no idea that a one-road town next to sparkling water was exactly what each of us needed. Dad needed a break from three cups of tea with guys he couldn’t talk to every time he went to re-up our bottled water order. I needed a break from the village ladies sitting on the curb eyeballing me whenever I went out for a run. You needed a break from crying through math homework during homeschooling. Paco needed a break from every part of regular Turkish life – since his seven-year-old self had decided the first day he hated the place. Those days floating in the waters of the Mediterranean, exploring the ruins of Olympus in our still-wet suits, eating gozleme with lemon and powdered sugar…well, they were my dream vacation. I just needed you three and a departure from the regular. That was all.

If you could become an expert in a specific area of something, what area would you choose and why?

I’d like to be a really, really good writer, but getting there is a life’s work; these days, I’m galumphing around the hinterlands of Good Writing, trying to tame my gait. As someone who gets weak-kneed in the presence of a well-wrought sentence, my smaller goal is to write the occasional fine sentence. That’s some hard work – because it’s not just about the words and how they’re ordered but, rather, about the thinking distilled within them. So let’s put a finer point on this: I’d like to become an expert thinker and figure out how to convey that through vocabulary and syntax.

Alternately, it would be cool to master some craft where there’s a physical result that can be displayed. All my best life gifts are “soft” and not so easily seen – “comfortable with public crying” doesn’t make for a gallery show – and so I might enjoy the feeling of making a thing, a physical thing, really well. Maybe I can become a master weaver who makes her first kilim at age 60.

Or maybe I could bang out a badass butter churn.

For a third alternative, because you didn’t give me a word limit, there’s this: I would love to be an amazing dancer, the kind who is crazily talented and attuned to how the finer nuances – a shoulder pushed an inch higher, an arm flinging left while the foot steals right – create greatness. This can happen in any genre, but since I’ve been obsessing over the dancing of Comfort Fedoke on Instagram the past few days, let’s go with the kind of freestyle street dancing she does. Fedoke is a back-up dancer for Missy Elliott, but she’s also able to make her feet write in cursive along the line of a shadow and tell a tall tale with steps that describe new spaces inside a crew battle circle.

Yeah, let me be a Comfort.


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Survey Responses by Meredith, Julie (and Sons), and Linda

From Meredith:

1. Feeling stressed. It’s a useless response to having to meet obligations.

2. Edinburgh. Fringe festival, Pan, Scotch, the Royal Mile, men in kilts. 

3. Too many hard ones to name just one. All of them right as there is no wrong answer in life.

4. Peace. It’s fleeting but once found, worth it.

5. Lurray Caverns, if you consider caverns a museum. Stalactites and stalagmites are super cool.

6. Perfect day would entail: coffee at sunrise – no bugs and an ocean view. A proper bagel with a perfect 1/4 inch of cream cheese and whitefish salad on top with no reactions. (I’m celiac and dairy intolerant so this would be HUGE) 
An evening bonfire on the beach with my whole family, my love, a comfy blanket, and a bottle of prosecco. 

7. To keep my mouth shut 8. Blueberry (pronounced bloo-bur-ee)

9. Off the coast of grand cayman – water is super clear as far as you can see and perfect temp.

10. I’ve been to several colleges, still working on a degree. I work at a college and have two kids in college. My best advice: Don’t take it so seriously, enjoy yourself, get good grades, but most importantly, Be curious – go to learn for the sake of learning.

___________________________________________________________________________
 From Jesse, age 15
  1. Summer reading. Don’t like summer homework.
  2. Going to the Galapagos with my Aunt. Enjoyed the vacation in a warm area with lots of cool animals.
  3. I haven’t really had any hard decisions yet in life.
  4. Yep, love the game.
  5. Boston’s Children’s Museum. It was fun as a little kid.
  6. No school. Play baseball during the day and then go out to dinner.
  7. Don’t really know.
  8. Maybe
  9. Down in the Gallepagos I went snorkeling with Hammerheads, turtles, and sea lions.
  10. Haven’t been to college yet.

From Alex, age 15

  1. Have had a good life, wouldn’t remove anything.
  2. The Galapagos. Because it’s the Galapagos.
  3. Haven’t made any hard decisions yet in life.
  4. Working towards Eagle Scout. Haven’t made it yet, still working towards it but think it’s a good path.
  5. Smithsonian Air and Space museum. Because I like space.
  6. A day to relax, no responsibilities, no work, no school. Reading all day. No worries.
  7. I procrastinate a bit. Would like to learn better not to procrastinate
  8. Don’t have a favorite word. I like bacon. (wearing a bacon shirt today)
  9. Swimming in the Galapagos. Got to see some sharks.
  10. Haven’t been to college yet.

From Julie (mother to Jesse and Alex), age 49

  1. Cooking dinner on a daily basis. Although I love cooking and baking, thinking about meals and meal planning is something that I don’t really enjoy. I’m not able to get out of cooking by going out to eat with the family and I’ve tried hard to get my boys to cook dinner for the family but the burden still falls on my shoulders most nights and I would love to get rid of that burden.
  2. This is a tough question to answer as I’ve had many fun trips. I lived abroad as a senior in high school and as a junior in college and took lots of trips through Europe during those times. However, the trip that stands out is my first bicycle trip across county in 1993 with a boyfriend. We met so many interesting people as we asked strangers each night to set up a tent in their yard.
  3. I feel fortunate that I haven’t had to make many hard decisions in my life as when faced with obstacles typically, with thought, the “correct” decision is fairly obvious. I recall feeling particularly conflicted when I applied for and got into Boston University School of Social work but then a few months later my relationship with my long-term boyfriend ended (He was in school in Boston) and I decided to accept my place at BU and move on in life without that relationship. I do think I made the right decision but looking back, I wish I had the guts to have applied somewhere else to school.
  4. I have worked my hardest at being a great mother and partner to my husband. Yes, it has been worth it as I have three amazing boys and seventeen years of marriage that have overall been quite pleasant.
  5. It has been over twenty years since I went to this museum but I recall being impressed by the Holocaust museum in D.C. I recall having read things about the Holocaust as a child and young adult but I think visiting the museum was the first time I was impacted by the scope of the loss of so many people.
  6. A trail run with friends in the morning followed by a tasty brunch and then maybe playing some golf or watching my boys play baseball in the afternoon. A home cooked meal shared with friends (I don’t mind bringing a potluck dish to a meal) would round out the evening.
  7. I wish I would have learned a language such as Spanish at a young age and maintained fluency in the language throughout the rest of my life.
  8. I am not a word person and I can’t say I am one to focus on or pay attention to specific words. I am amazed at people who use words well and I know words can have great impact on people. I also can get frustrated when so many people don’t use words well. However, to give an answer to this question I will say the word “Thanks” is an important word to me.
  9. Hanauma Bay in Oahu, Hawaii stands out for me. I went swimming there when my family lived in Hawaii in 8th grade and then returned as an adult in 2015 and although much of the coral had lost its color, the scenery was still pretty spectacular and love snorkeling with lots of colorful fish.
  10. Carleton College. Had a great experience socially, athletically, and academically. I’d have to say that although I recall the academics being thought provoking and challenging, it didn’t help shape what I became professionally. And, although I made great friends while attending Carleton, they are not my closest friends today. I did meet my husband, who attended Carleton a year behind me, long after I graduated and the Carleton connection was significant in our attraction to one another. I love that I can meet someone today who attended Carleton and feel as though we shared a similar life experience and I don’t think most folks can say that about the college they attended. I also have yet to meet a Carleton graduate who has not been a respectful, insightful, smart, and all around good person. Advice for attending college: I do think atmosphere and finding your “people” plays an important role in having a good experience to grow, learn, and find one ’s self.


From Linda:

  1. The one thing I would remove from my life: my built-in hankering for carbs, sugars, and foods that don’t necessarily do my body good. Why? The amount of time and energy I put into thinking about, avoiding, imbibing, regretting….
  2. The best trip of my life: backpacking through western Europe in 1985 with my Finnish friend, Lena. Why?  We were 18 years old, and spent 4 weeks travelling by train through Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Belgium, France, and Spain, culminating in a 2-week stay in a 14th-floor  apartment on Costa del Sol, Spain, looking out over the Mediterranean Sea. My favorite parst of the trip were sitting on an open-air train car, watching the countryside and castles go by, and free-lancing our way through each day.
  3. The hardest decision of my life: whether or not to start college at Gustavus Adolphus in the Fall of 1985 or to embark on the European backpacking trip instead. Right decision? I’m who and where I am today because of that decision to forego Gustavus at that time.  I sometimes regret not having the standard “going away to college” experience, and sometimes have envy for those who are experiencing it now.
  4. What I’ve worked hardest for in my life: overcoming active alcoholism and drug addiction.  Worth it?  HELL YES!  On Sept 2nd, I will celebrate 14 years clean and sober.
  5. The best museum I’ve been to: Seris Museo in Bahia de Kino, Mexico (January of this year).  What made it so great?  The director sat on the floor and taught my wife and I ancient Mexican children’s games (we were the only guests in the small history museum).
  6. My perfect day: homemade waffles with vanilla yogurt for breakfast, hike high above the shore of Lake Superior with dogs (on leashes, of course!), playing and swimming in rivers and creeks, ending with a campfire and s’mores in the backyard firepit.
  7. Something I wish I would have learned when I was younger:  How to say “NO” and how to speak my truth without fear.
  8.  Favorite word: Benign
  9. Favorite place I’ve ever gone swimming: Finnish friend’s cabin on the Baltic Sea.  Sauna. Moonlight. Sea. Friends. Perfection.
  10. I’ve had a fragmented college experience spanning 20 years. I did some time at UMD, then North Dakota State University back in the late 80s. I  finally returned to UMD to finish my undergraduate degree (2005) and earned my Masters degree in 2007.  My advice: Be grateful for your freedom and your opportunity to explore, experiment, and immerse yourself in the college experience.   My advice is to follow my mottos: “Don’t let fear hold you back” and “Something new can always happen.”


 

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Survey Responses from Susanna and Angie

My friend Susanna, in England, writes:

1  If you could remove one thing from your life, what would it be? Greed.  Why?  Because I truly believe it underlies all the other atrocities in life such as cruelty, lust for power, lack of compassion, injustice etc etc.

2  What has been the best trip of your life? Cannot choose. Why? Because each trip has introduced me to wonderful places, cultures, people and wildlife, all different, all equally special.

3  What has been the hardest decision of your life? To refuse to help my mother to end her life.  Do you think it was the right one? Yes, I could not have survived doing that, and shortly afterwards her family doctor intervened and helped resolve the situation.

4  What have you worked hardest for in your life? Health and strength.  Was it worth it?  I have not achieved it yet but have learned so much along the way, been able to help so many others, and by constantly struggling and braving difficulties have been able to do and see  so much.  It has made me a strong, brave person who loves every minute of every day and is forever grateful for everything I am able to do.

5  What is the best museum you have ever been to? Metropolitan in New York.  What made it so good?  I had a whistle stop tour by a guide who knew the place inside out and made the trip the most thrilling and inspiring I have ever had in any museum in the world.  She linked everything she showed us together in an awesome way and took us round literally running between exhibits.  Her level of knowledge and enthusiasm was out of this world.

6  What would your idea of a perfect day entail? Feeling well, being with friends and family yet apart in my own space, and being on a hillside in the country surrounded by fresh air, wind, a huge blue sky, and wildlife.

7  What’s something you wish you would’ve learned when you were younger? (not answered)

8  What is your favorite word?  Discombobulate. 

9  What is your favorite place that you’ve ever gone swimming?  The sea off Beachy Head in the UK.

10 If you have been to college, where did you go and did you have a good experience? I went to Sheffield University in the North of England.  What was the best part? The quality of the tutors who made absolutely anything and everything thrilling and expanded my consciousness.  Any advice?  Never pre-judge what is interesting.  Everything is fascinating if we only examine it with an open mind and are prepared to dig into it.


And the most lovely college friend, Angie, writes:

1. If you could remove one thing from your life, what would it be?
I want to say disease – Alzheimer’s, cancer – those beasts that ravage the people I love most.
That seems like an easy one, and yet something about it doesn’t sit right. All of the cliches
about what we learn from adversity may be cliches because they hold some seed of truth. So
maybe what I would remove is my desire to remove things from my life. I’m working on learning
how to live with a sense of peace in the middle of all of those things I truly cannot change.

2. What has been the best trip of your life? Why?
When my son Nelson was 17, the summer before his final year of high school, we spent a week
in Spain walking the final 113k of the Camino de Santiago. It was the perfect combination of
place, time, person, and plan. We’d wake up and walk through oak forests and rolling hills,
stone walls and bougainvillia, side by side, listening to the rhythm of our hiking boots and each
other as we meandered through our own and each other’s thoughts. We ate perfect bread and
salty ham and the most tender Pulpo a la Gallega on the planet. We sat under canopies of
green and played cards and drank wine (in moderation. it’s Europe – it’s ok that he was only 17).
We carried our belongings and didn’t take photos or check our phones or read the news, and
we fell in love with a country and walking and each other at the cusp of his launching into the
world. It was a good trip.

3. What has been the hardest decision in your life? Do you think it was the right one?
Leaving my marriage was absolutely the hardest and most important (best) decision in my life.
It was hard because I knew that it would be the hardest thing for my kids and their dad, and I
hate hurting people. We were all giving up all of the dreams and ideas about what our life and
my family was going to be. The other hard part was that now I had to create a new life with
intention – instead of just letting things happen and assuming that was how it was “supposed” to
be. That’s work, and it’s hard, and it’s the rightest thing I’ve ever done. Turns out it was right
for my kids and their dad, too, in a million ways. Whew.

4. What have you worked for hardest in your life? Was it worth it?
I think the common thread that sews together my professional life and my personal life into
something that feels coherent and authentic is my work to help people realize what they’re
capable of in this world. It can be really hard. It breaks my heart – shatters it, sometimes. But I
look at 28 years of students, two children, and countless deep friendships and know that it’s the
only worthwhile thing I want to do.

5. What is the best museum you’ve ever been to? What made it so good?
I’ve been lucky enough to spend time in some of the world’s great museums, and there is
beautiful art and architecture in all of them that I love. But one that really struck me is the St.
Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art in Glasgow. It’s a museum that tries to bring together
the parts of each major religion that shape how people live, and to celebrate the beauty that
religion brings to the world – it’s a physical manifestation of the city of Glasgow’s commitment to
build a community that brings people of all backgrounds, cultures, beliefs and traditions together
into one thriving community. I was moved by it, I learned a lot, and it inspired me. I wish there
was a museum like it in every city.

6. What would your idea of a perfect day entail?
Coffee, pancakes and bacon around the wobbly oak dining room table with the people I love
most in the world. Time by the water with a good book. Time on the water in my kayak. A long
hike with Honeycrisp apples and enough cold water. A big meal assembled in companionable
laughter while Frank Sinatra croons in the background. Twinkly lights after a long pink sunset.
Wine, chocolate, cards or Balderdash and a lot more laughing. A rumbly thunderstorm as I fall
asleep. Perfect.

7. What is something you wish you’d learned when you were younger?
I wish I’d been explicitly taught to trust my gut. I always felt like I needed to wait until I had an
airtight logical reason for any decision I made – especially one that wasn’t popular with the
people around me. Dating relationships, of course, but also jobs, moving decisions…the whole
lot of it. I got stuck on who am I to refuse/break up/turn down this thing being offered. It took far
too long to realize that no decision I ever entered because I wondered who am I to turn this
down turned out well for me. My gut knew. My gut also knew when I found the right thing, the
right person, the right place. I have been luckier in that I trusted that instinct more. I try to be
one of the voices in my kids’ heads saying “you don’t need an excuse or a reason. If it feels
wrong, trust it.” I needed that voice long before I found it in me.

8. What is your favorite word?
Serenity. It’s deceptively simple (even cliched), but for me, it captures all of it. All the hardest,
stickiest, most destructive stuff life can throw at me can be answered with this.

9. What is your favorite place you’ve ever gone swimming?
I’ve done some amazing swimming off of different islands in the Caribbean – all blue and colorful
fish and white sand and sky – and I loved that. But there are two places that stand out, maybe
because I wasn’t expecting to be so enchanted by them. One is Cave Point County Park in
Door County, Wisconsin – limestone cliffs and underwater caves and blue-green water. In a
county park. In Wisconsin. I couldn’t tear myself away, and the memory of floating in that water
still brings me a deep sense of peace. The other was Zuma Beach in Malibu, California. I know
– I grew up with Malibu Barbie and I should have expected it to be lovely, but maybe because I
grew up with Malibu Barbie, I expected to hate it. But I stood in the surf and felt the water drop
two feet as it got sucked into the coming breaker, and I watched the wave rise over my head
and peered through the bluegreen glass of the breaking wave, and then I would leap into the
energy of that wave and ride it into shore, and it felt like I had stepped through some barrier into
a different kind of world. Unforgettable.

10. If you have been to college where did you go and did you have a good experience? What
was the best part? Any advice?
Like your mother, I went to Carleton. It was perfect for me, in that I grew up in a very nice, very
small world. Carleton opened up my brain and taught me how to think and learn. I had
marvelous professors who worked in tiny Northfield, Minnesota because they loved to teach.
Period. Every single term, I had at least one class meet in a professor’s home. I could join the
dance ensemble, the diving team, play ultimate frisbee, sing in the chorus of the student
musical, watch Hitchcock movies in the chemistry lecture hall, eat far too much chocolate
peanut butter ice cream, join in social justice movements, and discover the people who still feel
like home to me. I didn’t have to be the best at any of those things – I just had to be willing to
say I wanted to try.

My own children chose different college paths – my daughter is at a large private university
studying film production – something she couldn’t have done at a school like Carleton. There
are things she’s missing that make my heart ache – the intense(ly interesting) academics, the
ability to join sports teams (without being an elite athlete), being in a community made up of the
kind of people who choose a school like Carleton. But she has been able to spend more than a
year in Los Angeles working on independent films, two of which made it into the Sundance Film
Festival. She’s got real experience as a producer, and she’s already making it in an industry that
has been her dream and her goal since she was twelve. She’s more than ok with the trade off.
My son almost chose Carleton, but in the end, decided to head to Glasgow, Scotland for his four
years. He had to select his degree program when he applied (a joint degree in Religion and
Public Policy), but he felt ready to do that, and he chose well. He loves his professors and his
courses, he’s fascinated by what he’s learning, and he truly loves living in Scotland’s largest city
with other students from all over the world. He joined the ultimate frisbee team and has been
able to travel all over the UK, he’s hopped many trains, spent a week in Prague, and has plans
for much more travel over the next three years. A bonus is the university was founded in the
15th Century and his classrooms look like Hogwarts.

I guess my advice is not to limit yourself in how you think about college/university. I know I
didn’t realize when I was 17 how many different options there were, and both how big and how
small the world really is. Wherever you go, don’t be afraid to try a little bit of everything. Keep
asking a lot of questions.

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Survey Responses from John, Elly, and Elaine

A college pal, John, responded to Allegra’s survey questions thusly:

  1. I would remove my wife’s student loan debt. It is a lot, and it hangs over us.
  2. I went to New York City with the woman who later became my wife. It was great because it was the first time I ever traveled with someone with whom I was in love. Plus, it was New York, so we had great food and went to fun places.
  3. Eh, I suppose the decision to go to graduate school in philosophy was the hardest. It should have been, since that takes many years to complete and the job market in philosophy was poor and I didn’t know if I was good enough to succeed. But it turned out to be correct because I am now a philosophy professor and I love my job.
  4. Maybe I worked the hardest to publish some papers in the last couple years before I went up for tenure at my professor job. It worked, as I was more productive than usual and I got tenure (hired for life, instead of fired).
  5. It is hard to top the Metropolitan Museum in NY, but for a single visit it has too much, and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam might be better. It has the best collection of the old Dutch masters.
  6. I’d be on vacation with my wife in an exotic location with historical significance, like Rome or a Greek isle. The weather would be nice, and we’d be staying in a hotel within walking distance of cool stuff. We’d walk to a place we can eat outdoors, for each meal, take a ride in some kind of boat (the sea, a canal, a river – doesn’t matter), and tour a museum. Fancy whiskey in the evening.
  7. I wish I’d known in high school and college how to study better.
  8. My favorite word is apocalocyntosis, which means “pumpkinification”, like what happened to Cinderella’s carriage. When Emperor Claudius suggested he deserved apotheosis (to be made into a God), the playwright and philosopher Seneca said that apocalocyntosis was more apt. Emperor Nero, who he advised, later forced him to commit suicide.
  9. I’m sure there are many better places to swim, such as in the Mediterranean, but my favorite of the places I have swum is Leo Carrillo Beach, near Los Angeles. Big waves knocked me over in my first time at the ocean.
  10. I went to Carleton College, then the University of California at Santa Barbara for grad school. Both were great experiences. The best part, for both, might be the lifelong friends I made. But the subtle and gradual effect the professors (and fellow students) had on my intellect was extremely important too. I’ve made commencement remarks to small groups of philosophy graduates and I have never been able to think of good advice to give them, so I just try to make the speeches short and funny. So my advice to you is that if you have to give such a speech, make it short and funny.

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Here are the responses of my beloved friend, Elly (check her out at her blog Buggin’ Word):

1 – The word “should.” It’s a dangerous word. When I think of everything I “should” do, I feel overwhelmed. What a subjective word, too. I’m trying to think more about what I “could” do instead.
 
2 – My brothers, their partners, and my parents travelled to an all-inclusive resort in Mexico when I was in my early 20s. There was some horrible mistake on the part of the resort so they bumped us up to the luxury side of the resort – everything was gorgeous and clean. )I was living in a horrible apartment in Hell’s Kitchen at the time and often found used crack vials on my fire escape.) No one was responsible for cooking. No one was responsible for planning. No one was responsible for exploding plumbing. Everyone – even my parents – were still young and healthy. We climbed ruins and shot tequila and rode giant inflatable bananas and chased lizards…together. I don’t think I’ve ever felt closer to my family.
 
3 – Deciding to become a mother. Was it the right one? Maybe. Probably. I mean, if given the option I wouldn’t go back and undo it. But I also know I would have had an interesting and fulfilling life had I not become one, too. 
 
4 – Recovering from the treatment for cancer. Not the treatment itself. Though that sucked, too. Learning how to live again despite the fear. And letting go of what might have been.
 
5 – There was a tiny historical museum in the town where I grew up – Greensboro, NC. It smelled right. And you could walk from building to building – small farm type buildings. But yet there was an art museum attached, too. 
 
6 – Waking rested. A cup of coffee on a screened-in porch with my ukulele and an open agenda. A walk. Somewhere beautiful – woods, a beach, a park. A warm meal. A cold drink. Laughing so hard and suddenly that it makes my throat raw. The sound of cicadas. A breeze cool enough to sleep with the windows open.
 
7 – My own resilience.
 
8 – Texture.
 
9 – Smith Mountain Lake, VA.
 
10 – Guilford College, NC. Yes. Amazing. And horrible. At least initially. I didn’t adjust well. But eventually I found my way. It’s where I found my love of the music industry, my activism legs, and my writing ability.
 

 
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 And our “second-mama”-level friend, Elaine/Ileyn, she who made our year in Turkey so much easier and who now lives in Istanbul with her husband and two amazing kids, told Allegra:
 

1) If I could remove one thing from my life, it would be the feeling of never having enough time in a day.  That feeling in and of itself causes me unnecessary stress.

2) The best trip of my life was the one that I took when I was in college with my then boyfriend at the time (Selin’s Dad).  We went to the Bahamas and it was magical and fun.

3) The hardest decision of my life was deciding to remain in Turkey after I got divorced when I was 26 years old.  I think it was the right one as Selin was able to see her dad and his family.  I also enjoy living and working in Turkey.

4) I have worked hardest in life to keep positive and logical even when everything else was chaos around me. 

5) The best museum that I have ever been to is the Children’s Museum in Pittsburgh.  They have wonderful and very creative exhibits for all ages. 

6) My perfect day would entail waking up at 9:00am and having a ready made picnic basket of all my favorite foods waiting for me in the kitchen.  All of my family and friends would go to the beach and have a wonderful day swimming and having fun.

7)  I wish that I would have learned how to speak fluent Italian when I was younger.

8) My favorite word is booty as in baby booty.  I like the way is feels as it passes over my lips.

9) My favorite place that I have ever gone swimming is the Bahamas.

10) I went to Edinboro University of Pennsylvania and got my B.S. in Elementary Education. I had a great experience and my favorite part was the friends that I made there.  My advice is to pick a school that suits your needs and concentrates on the major that you want to be in.  I think paying in-state tuition is a great idea for undergraduate education.  Out-of-state is not only usually more expensive, but the logistics of going home and bringing things back are harder.

 

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Survey Responses from Byron and Virginia

In the next week or so, I’ll be posting the survey responses of those who have given me permission. Let’s start that roll with the responses of Allegra’s pappy and our family best friend, Virginia. 

Quick aside: the first sentence of Virginia’s #6 (her ideal day) made me teary. Twenty years going back and forth with cancer; currently on her I’ve-lost-count round with chemo; pain with a lot of types of movement due to loss of cartilage in her joints from radiation and chemo; crazy messed up bowel and urinary systems as a result of the cancer treatments; a nephrostomy tube attached to one kidney; unable to sit comfortably without an inflatable donut pillow under her bum; a palliative pain pump the size of a hockey puck under her skin at her waistline…and in the midst of all that, she remains hilarious, uncomplaining, and insightful. You want some life perspective? Take in her first sentence to question #6. 

Anyhow, now that I’ve tantalized you, let’s start with Byron’s answers.


Name: Byron Johnson

If you could remove one thing from your life, what would it be? Why?

The feeling that there is never enough time in the day to do all the things that I want to do. Every day I want to create, cook good food, be physically active and/or be outside for hours, make a difference at my job, and spend time with people I enjoy. Every day consists of tradeoffs, choosing one thing to focus on or trimming down the time spent on each activity. Making those decisions is hard. Sometimes the flow of the day dictates what happens and what does not. I would love to be able to control my days so I did not have to make these choices.

What has been the best trip of your life? Why?

Spending a year in Turkey with my family. Why:

  • It was long enough to be immersed in the culture and to begin to understand some aspects of it. I left wanting to learn and experience more of Turkey.
  • It had extremely high spots and extremely low spots, mentally. Experiencing a high spot after being low really heightens the experience and gives it more meaning. I think of our trip to the Mediterranean in the spring of that year and how we really did not realize how much we needed that experience until we were experiencing it. That trip within our year abroad was magical.
  • The experience has rippled out into our lives far beyond the year we were abroad. We all came back changed and with a different outlook on the world and life. It was transformative, as all good travel should be.

What has been the hardest decision of your life? Do you think it was the right one?

Making the decision to leave my first full-time, permanent, job because I was miserable. I had worked for 3+ years in my field and finally had the opportunity to not work seasonally and live and work in communal situations. I was making a salary, had benefits, and a possibility for stability for the first time since I graduated from college. But I hated what I was doing and I wasn’t very good at it. I was lonely. I was sick a lot during that year, mostly from the stress of the job and not being very happy. I agonized for months about what to do, consulting with my parents and going on long runs just to think. I spent hours watching “The Simpsons”, doing sit-ups, and waiting to go to bed because then the day would be done. I worried about what would happen after I quit my job. Would I get another? Was I done in my field? How would I make money? I felt like I would let my employer down and in a tough spot if I left. But, eventually, I knew I had to leave or things would just get worse for me.

It was the right decision. While it was hard to make, I realized that things work out. Three months later I was employed in my field and in a position that suited me perfectly. I realized that people and organizations move on and personal happiness is more important than an organization.  If I hadn’t made that decision I might not have met your mother and I would not be answering this survey right now.

What have you worked hardest for in your life? Was it worth it?

For me, what I have worked hardest for is somewhat sideways and not a stated goal I set and achieved in my life. The hardest thing I have worked for is the knowledge I have NOW of the things that make me satisfied, challenged, and fulfilled in my life. I have gone through a lot of trial and error, time and energy, money and sweat to discover the few things I need in my life to be happy. I’ve tried rock climbing, subsistence gardening, canning, hunting, pottery, journaling, ultramarathons, and many other things. From these experiences I learned a lot and gained perspective on the world, but the biggest take away has been that these things do not fulfill me. By ruling out what does not satisfy me I have discovered the few things that deeply and truly make me happy—cooking and eating good food (with people I love), stitching, physical activity (with people I love), crossword puzzles, and the access to the world my library card gives me.

It was totally worth it. I have experiences that tie me to lots of people and can connect with them because I have experienced something that may be their passion. I also have a lot of years ahead of me and I now have a succinct idea of how to fill that time.

What is the best museum you have ever been to? What made it so good?

The Smithsonian’s Museum of American History.

It was so good because it brought together so much of what makes us Americans in a way that really touched me. I cried at least three times during my visit. I feel like I could visit the museum weekly and still be in love with it like I was after my first visit.

What would your idea of a perfect day entail?

  • Coffee
  • Physical activity—it could be running, hiking, biking, or swimming.
  • Good food, shared with people I love
  • A surprise experience. Having something unexpected, yet wonderful, makes a day super special. It would not have to be big. It could be finding an unexpected patch of wild blueberries on a hike and gorging until we were full.

What’s something you wish you would’ve learned when you were younger?

To dance.

What is your favorite word?

Inshallah—Arabic for “if God wills”. I love the way this word rolls off the tongue and the sentiment of hope, yet uncertainty, with which it is used.

What is your favorite place that you’ve ever gone swimming?

Lake Superior, which I swam in earlier today.

If you have been to college, where did you go and did you have a good experience? What was the best part? Any advice?

Grinnell College. It was a tremendous experience. The best part was expanding my worldview beyond what I was exposed to growing up. I met people I would not have known otherwise. I heard new music. I realized people approached life and living differently than I did. College allowed me to realize that the world is a giant place to explore and something to always learn from.

My advice—GO TO COLLEGE AND IMMERSE YOURSELF IN EVERYTHING THAT CATCHES YOUR FANCY.


And now Virginia’s answers:

  1. If you could remove one thing from your life, what would it be? Why?  My habit of speaking before thinking about the possible short-term and long-term effect of my words.  I have often wished I could “unsay” something.  “Be impeccable with your words” is the best advice I continually try to follow.
  2. What has been the best trip of your life? Why?   To Peru with Kirsten.  It was well planned and well executed between Kirsten and this tour company.  I was not in charge.  My reactions went from skeptical to reluctant to neutral to surprised to delighted to very grateful.  The bonus was that I caught a pirhana fish, walked beside a tapir, had my shoes pecked by a wing-disabled red, white and blue parrot, allowed feathery-footed millipedes to crawl up and down my forearm after a rain, and got to hold a young three-toed tree sloth in Inca village along the Amazon River.  It peed on my tshirt and I vowed never to wash it.  It somehow got into the laundry, but I have a photo, which is actually better.  Easier to share.
  3. What has been the hardest decision of your life? Do you think it was the right one?   To marry a man, because I wanted to do “the right thing” and that’s what seemed like the right thing.  It was in June of 1964.  I left this wonderful man in the summer of 1966 and went to Germany to study for a year.  Was divorced “long distance” in January of 1967.  Very amicable divorce and we were both better off.  Douglas eventually married the right woman.  They are still married, so I don’t feel bad on his account. And I am definitely in the right relationship now!
  4. What have you worked hardest for in your life? Was it worth it?  I worked hardest to acquire a good command of the grammar and an authentic-sounding pronunciation in several languages, but mainly in German and French.  It was definitely worth the effort!  
  5. What is the best museum you have ever been to? What made it so good?  Le Quai d’Orsay museum of impressionist art on the Seine’s left bank in Paris.  It’s an old train station, huge, with great natural lighting from above and a huge clock with gold hands and numbers.  It has an excellent restaurant and the WCs are very clean. But most of all, I love to stand in front of the works of artists like Monet, Manet, Van Gogh, Seurat, DegasCezanne, Gauguin, Mary Cassatt, Pissarro, Bethe Morrisot, Renoir, and others and let it sink in that these are the very paintings which they created with paint and brush strokes and their particular way of seeing life.I am so touched that sometimes tears well up and then even I see things differently!
  6. What would your idea of a perfect day entail?  It would include waking up feeling grateful that I live in safety and have choices.  I would accomplish what I intended to accomplish on that day so that by bedtime I would have no regrets for misspending my time and I would be satisfied that I had caused several people,including strangers, to smile and perhaps laugh. 
  7. What’s something you wish you would’ve learned when you were younger?  How to navigate in Facebook and how to speak and write Japanese.
  8. What is your favorite word?   cherish
  9. What is your favorite place that you’ve ever gone swimming?   The Indian Ocean off the SE coast of Madagascar, among coral reefs
  10. If you have been to college, where did you go and did you have a good experience? What was the best part? Any advice?  I graduated from St. Olaf College.  It was a wonderful, life-affirming experience.  The best part was exposure to new ideas, to poetry and literature, to interesting, deep-thinking people (both professors and students, and one German war-bride living a challenging life in Northfield and who hired me to tutor her in English).  Advice?  If you need advice about ANYTHING, ask your mother or your dad, or both, because they know you better than anyone and they are not judgmental.  I predict that you will love being a college student and you will make good use of your new and stimulating environment.

 

 

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Survey

Tell Me Something: What I Told Her

Thank you to everyone who responded to my last post and completed a survey for our rising senior in high school, Miss Allegra. She’s at the point where she has around 60 surveys from folks, with new ones still trickling in. Eventually, when it feels like “time,” she and a good friend of ours who has a Ph.D. in public health and teaches at the U here in town will sit down together so that Allegra can get a primer in qualitative data analysis — how to make sense out of and find meaning in the variety of responses she has received. If you haven’t yet completed a survey but would like to be part of our burgeoning social scientist’s learning experience, please feel free to write up your responses and email them to allegrapihlaja@gmail.com!

As I’ve posted pleas for survey responses on social media, a few people have mentioned that they’d be interested to see responses other than their own. I get that. Whenever a survey has come to me rather than Allegra, you better bet I click on it and read the thing. FASCINATING STUFF.

Anyhow, I’m happy to start the sharing of answers with my own. If any of you reading this have written answers and wouldn’t mind me sharing them on this blog, give me a shout, and I’ll put them in a future post.

So. Here:

  1. If you could remove one thing from your life, what would it be? Why?

After first reading this question, I started thinking of things in the world I’d like to get rid of — violence, famine, ham-fisted toddlerian blusterers — but then I reread the question and saw that you are asking very specifically about what I would remove from my own life, not how I’d change the world. So, after way too much mulling, I’ve come up with this: I’d get rid of complicated relationships. The best relationships for me run clean and clear and are free of grey layers and unspoken tensions that simmer without acknowledgment. In fact, few things are more destructive to my day-to-day, hour-to-hour functioning than having had interactions with people where the dynamic isn’t clean and clear. That’s why I prefer you and Paco and dad over all others; it’s so easy with you guys: I like you, I love you, I respect you, I enjoy your company, and I feel safe with all of you. Similarly, this is the way I feel about my best friends in life, like Colleen. It’s clean. It’s clear. It ain’t complicated.

  1. What has been the best trip of your life? Why?

The whole year in Turkey can’t count as a trip, I presume. More specifically, our family trip down to the southern coast when we stayed in Çirali was my favorite vacation EVER. In a year full of constant negotiations and trying to find our way, we all just relaxed on that trip. The scenery was stunning; the swimming was perfect; the lazy, laid-back single street village was all we needed. I loved eating lemon/sugar gozleme, riding bikes into town, swimming two or three times a day, doing the day-trip boat tour where we jumped off the deck and into the water, and walking out of the Mediterranean and right into the ruins of Olympus. We had no idea it would be perfect, and that lack of expectation is exactly why it could be perfect.

  1. What has been the hardest decision of your life? Do you think it was the right one?

Breaking up with a man I still loved was probably the hardest decision I’ve made, emotionally. And, to be honest, it wasn’t really a clear-cut decision at the time; it was more me trying to finagle ways for us to step back from each other — while still assuring him we were a couple, to avoid straight-on heartbreak — because my gut was thrumming with an unformed thought: “This needs to be over.” It was only once we were done that I realized I had been wanting the relationship to end. My brain was slow to catch up to my intuition. And, yes, it was the right decision. Absolutely. My relief was immediate and palpable. I didn’t want to hurt him, but I needed liberty — so I could regroup and get on with the rest of my life.

  1. What have you worked hardest for in your life? Was it worth it?

There are seventeen ways I could answer this; I could flick the spinner and just write down whatever it lands on, so…flick. I am still engaged in the work of overcoming childhood conditioning that taught me to be judgmental. Part of why this is hard work is that I enjoy being judgmental — it feels like part of my nature, so deeply ingrained is it. But in recent years I am consciously working at acceptance and empathy and an attitude of “What the hell do I know about any single person on Earth except myself?” Currently, the reality is that I judge, but I’m quicker to spot that tendency in myself and to consider if it’s fair, if it’s necessary, and if there is anything constructive that can come out of it. Usually, I’m being judgmental for my own amusement, so it’s best to keep it inside and let it roll around in my own head. Or, well, y’know, to express it to a limited few. This ongoing process is definitely worth it, as it’s teaching me, as Kendrick Lamar would advise, “Bitch, be humble.”

  1. What is the best museum you have ever been to? What made it so good?

First answer: The Peggy Guggenheim in Venice — the setting of it right there on a canal, the fact that it was her house, the unbelievable collection of art on the premises…I didn’t even care that it was packed as hell when we visited.

Second answer: The Hatay Mosaic Museum in Antakya, Turkey. Mosaics thrill me to the core, as does the feeling of standing in front of something made so many thousands of years ago. There is texture, and there is amazement, like, “People actually walked on these things. This stuff hung on people’s walls.” Plus, I bought earrings in the gift shop that have a “meander” around the border, and that’s always a plus.

  1. What would your idea of a perfect day entail?

I would wake up in a foreign country, and I would have no classes I was teaching online (so no need to check in and fight for workable internet and spend hours of my “vacation” grading stuff). A tray of food and good coffee would be awaiting my readiness, so I could stay in bed while I got up to speed. You and Dad and Paco would be there, and once we were all ready, we would head out to explore some new city. There would be pastries, cold drinks when we got hot, and excellent people watching. Later in the day, I would go for a run in a shady park. We’d all eat dinner out at a restaurant with crazy good food. There would be drinks. There would be buskers on the streets. There would be a bag of sweet treats bought on the way back to the hotel, ready for eating at midnight.

  1. What’s something you wish you would’ve learned when you were younger?

It’s taken me fifty years (so far) to get to a point where I don’t need everyone to like me. People-pleasing is full-time work, and it requires a person to sacrifice a whole lot of “self” so that others don’t feel uncomfortable. The first decades of my life were spent working at making those around me feel easy, at the expense of what I, myself, often wanted. But as I’ve aged, life experiences have burned away the noise so that I have reached a point where I’m better at valuing the way I feel and making choices based on my own feelings, rather than on what others want and expect. Still, of course, I do capitulate on some occasions, as life is also made of compromises, but I’m getting there, closer and closer, to the clarity of “I know how I feel, and I’m going to go ahead and act that way.” And people who find that difficult? Can make their own choices about how to respond. In current common parlance, all of this is known as “giving no fucks.” I wish I’d learned at a younger age how to release all the fucks to the sky, so they could flap off into the clouds, squawking as they ascend.

  1. What is your favorite word?

You know me — that I’d like to respond “all of them!” But, to narrow down: there are words that I like because they are the symbolic representation of things I enjoy, like “beer,” “sleep,” “backrub.” I suspect, however, that most people will answer this question with a word that they like the sound of (or the sound + the meaning), so to follow that, I’ll say that I have always liked the rhythm and slither of “verisimilitude.”

  1. What is your favorite place that you’ve ever gone swimming?

Okay, since my brain is a warehouse of nonsense, the swim I’ve done the most in my life is simply a replay of a scene I saw at an impressionable age when I watched a movie called The Poseidon Adventure. In it, a ship is hit by a tidal wave, most everyone is killed, and a scrappy band of survivors tries to stay alive long enough to be rescued. Anyhow, at one point, an actress named Shelly Winters — playing an old, past-her-prime matron — does this amazing swim through flooded corridors to save a guy who’s stuck, and I’ve never gotten over it. So I’ve done that swim with her, mentally, about a thousand times. Except the Shelley Winters character, at the end of her swim, has a heart attack and dies. I don’t.

Please, you will watch it now:

 

 

Now for a real one: A good swimming memory is from when I flew into Mexico to meet Auntie Kirsten when she was doing the Peace Corps in Belize; we spent some time in Mexico before bussing into Belize, including a jaunt down to Cozumel. I remember really liking the swimming there, in particular because it was the first time I ever snorkeled, and there was a statue of Jesus down in the water, amongst the coral and fish. Now that I’ve had Lasik, I’d like to snorkel again, as I’d actually be able to SEE the stuff now. So maybe let’s take a trip?

  1. If you have been to college, where did you go and did you have a good experience? What was the best part? Any advice?

DID I FORGET TO MENTION I WENT TO COLLEGE? I SHOULD HAVE TOLD YOU.

Allegra, I went to a small private liberal arts college called Carleton. It’s located in a town of, hmm, 23,000 people called Northfield, Minnesota. I definitely had a good experience there, although I cried a lot during my four years and even considered taking time off after freshman year. But college was such a feeling of release after high school (which I had enjoyed a great deal, btw) — I was so glad to be free from the clique hierarchies of “popular people” and “geeks” and “freaks,” so happy to be just myself and not someone who was trying to be someone. And college is where I found my tribe of lifelong friends; they taught me so much and made me feel perfectly enveloped.

So the very best part was and still is the people. But in addition to that, there were the classes and the chance to learn about so many new disciplines and the freedom to monkey around with different ideas and areas of knowledge. My junior and senior years are when I was able to focus on English classes and, even more importantly, to take a bunch of film and media studies classes. Those film classes brought me a kind of intellectual joy that I had never experienced in high school. I still remember visiting professor Dana Benelli giving an overview of “the conventions of cinema” — one of which I still remember writing down in my notebook: “transparency” — and there was a dizzying sensation inside my skull that went something like, “THERE ARE CONVENTIONS OF CINEMA? AND THE BEST FILMS MANAGE TO BE TRANSPARENT? WHUUUUUUUUUUT?” Sure, learning to look at the ways that we, the audience, don’t “see” the work of making the movie — so that the medium of conveyance doesn’t interfere with the storytelling — was a hyper-specific skill set. However, the beauty of the liberal arts, of learning to think about things, is that I have applied the lessons of “learning to note transparency,” along with seventy-eleven others from those college classes, throughout my life.

My advice to you, beloved daughter, for college is this:

  1. Avail yourself of every opportunity you can. Go to the free movies; go to concerts and plays; do those semesters abroad; actually attend class regularly (unlike your mother); try new languages, new sports, friendships with people who seem bizarre.
  2. Don’t get freaked out when it’s hard. I was so lonely the first few weeks of freshman year; after the long-standing friendships that populated my first 18 years, it was so much work to make myself get out of the dorm room and go to painful-sounding things like “mixers.” So force yourself to go to the painful-sounding things. There will be others there who are lonely and feeling at odds, too. Eventually, you’ll knock elbows with one of them, and one of you will say, “Sorry. I’m so awkward at stuff like this. I kind of hate it but feel like I need to try.” And then your fellow elbow-knocker will confide, excitedly, “Oh my God, me, too! I’m go glad it’s not just me.” Thirty years later, that person just might be on your “Will Donate Kidney To:” list.
  3. Be aware of the dangers. There is rape on college campuses. There is assault. There is drinking. There are drugs. There is sexual exploration. So even though we’ve talked about this stuff some, I want you to know more about how to be aware and how to live defensively while living openly. I want you to figure out if you like to drink (and/or take drugs) without dying from it. I want you to enjoy an entire life of sexual satisfaction — but know how to protect yourself against STDs. I want you to say “yes” to invitations without ending up hurt and broken. So I would recommend you do some of your famous internet research about how to live smart on a college campus. And I want you to know you can ask your mother anything and know that I will mail you condoms and check in on you at 4 a.m., if you just want someone to be sure you got home safely.
  4. Finally, take notes by hand, on paper. I mean, typing notes is okay, too, but there truly is no better way to get information to stick in your brain than to funnel it through the physical act of writing it down. If you have never used the Cornell Note-taking System, I would recommend it.

Now that you’ve seen my answers, gentle reader, don’t you want to write your own? YOU KNOW YOU DO

Also, now that you’ve seen my answers, I imagine you are left thinking two things:

1) Can “noise” be “burned away”? (See my answer to #7. I think it might be terrible writing, but I also had no desire to change it after I wrote it because, somehow, it conveys what I meant, so if it’s bothering you, go have a shot of Jagermeister and chill the hell out, Peachie);

2) Would Jocelyn send me condoms if I asked her? (YES, I WILL ALWAYS SEND YOU CONDOMS, PEACHIE; I AM YOUR ‘RIDE OR DIE’ WHEN IT COMES TO SEXUAL HEALTH, SO JUST LET ME KNOW WHEN YOU NEED A BOX OF TROJANS DON’T BE SHY).


 

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Survey

Tell Me Something

When Allegra was seven, she — for the first but not the last time — created a survey. She had questions, and she wanted to know how a bunch of people would respond. And they did. After a few weeks, she had collected survey responses from folks around the globe, and her entire second grade class had been roped into participating. Then, surveys in hand, she spent hours reading them, talking about what people had written for their answers, ultimately alphabetizing them and storing them in a three-ring binder.

A few months later, she had more questions. Another survey. And after that? Another. Each time, the responses from friends, family, and strangers have been treasured (and three-hole punched).

Now, ten years after her first survey, our girl has come up with another, this time one she created while sitting in a car in a Swedish grocery store parking lot, waiting for someone who was taking FOR.EVER. Her aim, now that she’s seventeen, is to ask “better” questions than in previous surveys; to practice posing queries that yield more complex responses.

AND THAT’S WHY I COME TO YOU HERE TODAY, BROTHERS AND SISTERS. She is looking for as many responses as possible to these latest questions. Should you choose to put some time into filling out the attached survey, not only will you benefit from some moments of reflection, your words will be absorbed, read aloud, mulled upon, appreciated for years, and FILED INTO A THREE-RING BINDER.

Thank you in advance for your participation in this important project. All ages and interested parties are welcome. Responses may be sent directly to the author at: allegrapihlaja@gmail.com. And thank you for supporting the development of a budding social scientist!

  1. If you could remove one thing from your life, what would it be? Why?
  2. What has been the best trip of your life? Why?
  3. What has been the hardest decision of your life? Do you think it was the right one?
  4. What have you worked hardest for in your life? Was it worth it?
  5. What is the best museum you have ever been to? What made it so good?
  6. What would your idea of a perfect day entail?
  7. What’s something you wish you would’ve learned when you were younger?
  8. What is your favorite word?
  9. What is your favorite place that you’ve ever gone swimming?
  10. If you have been to college, where did you go and did you have a good experience? What was the best part? Any advice?

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