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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Things I’m Liking

  • That Duchess Kate takes her own pictures of her kids for press release rather than having a professional photographer manipulating their little selves into pleasing moments. It’s possible I’m a fan of mothers with cameras stop calling my children “long-suffering” admire this birthday portrait of Princess Charlotte


  • That the nieces of Chimimanda Adichie (the author of Americanah) are running an Instagram account featuring her Nigerian-based fashion, and it is joy


  • That Blondie has a new album out — uneven and fun and full of surprising collaborations. Pitchfork’s review concludes it’s “…an album that shows one of the most crucial American rock bands searching for footing in a chaotic, collapsible pop landscape.” Note to self: all the most dynamic music is searching for footing, all the better when it’s made by a group whose sound tugs at the heartstrings of youth      


  • That I’ve been cranking on some extra work that pays a stipend — earning my way towards shoes with so much personality they distract me from reality; one day soon I shall wear these as I hold hands with my best friend Michelle Obama while we stroll through the herb garden we planted together


  • That Sally Yates has agreed to be my Prom date next year; I’ma make Ted Cruz be our limo chauffeur that night and require him to wear an organ-grinder monkey costume behind the wheel. Lolling in the back seat of our ride, I will hold Sally’s hand when I command “Pancake-Faced Monkey Man, take us to the convention center so we can toss some dice and celebrate this year’s theme of ‘Crapped out in Las Vegas’.” As he replies, I will roll up the divider window, slowly and decisively



  • That my daughter’s Prom caused me once again to wonder where all the bitches and drama have gone. The 1980s were teeming with rude comments and cruel behaviors dismissed as “funny.” Now, in 2017, I understand a fair amount of Bitches & Drama may be hosted by the volleyball and basketball teams, but not one whit of it exists in my girl and her friends, and that is the most beautiful thing I didn’t even know how to hope for


  • That the 8th grader loves his new tall-kid softie jammies so much he lays them out on the bed like some sort of fleece-conjured Flat Paco. “I don’t want them to get rumpled because then they won’t be as soft.” This from a boy who is hard pressed to find two matching socks within the walls of his personal castle of chaos


  • That I have latched onto a few new podcasts as I seek voices to fill my ears:

Up and Vanished — I’m not necessarily a fan of true crime, except when I am, and right now, I am. The first season of this podcast revives the “cold as Alaska” case of Georgian beauty queen Tara Grinstead, missing since October of 2005. Although the host’s speaking style isn’t my favorite, and although he sometimes has “my friend Rob” do incredibly not-on-purpose-cheesy readings of character profiles and transcripts, I decided early on to give the creator my “Bless your heart; you’re young and figuring out how to make a podcast” seal of patience. I’m glad I did. The case of Grinstead’s disappearance is resuscitated episode by episode as listeners learn about the men in her life, question the presence of a latex glove on the front lawn, wonder about that broken necklace on the floor of her house, and yowl with frustration over unreleased cell phone pings. Basically, if you were into Serial, Season 1, this show will scratch the same itch. CAUTION: don’t google the name Tara Grinstead or do anything beyond downloading the show…because someone was recently arrested with regards to her disappearance, and it’s all over internet!

The Read — Listen, most of you will hate this show, so I’m only mentioning it for two of you. Then again, if you’re itching to expand your understanding of the racial conversation in the U.S., this podcast, hosted by Kid Fury and Chrissle — both gay, both black, both fresh outta fucks except for concern about why the plate of edibles went missing — you might open yourself to these smart, funny voices that, each episode, devote a segment to “Black Excellence,” make well-deserved fun of white people if they give whites any time at all, deconstruct the politics of The Real Housewives of Atlanta (I’ve never watched a half-second of any Housewives show but no matter), weigh who’s winning current rap beefs, and close each episode by “reading” the nonsense of a chosen person, event, or behavior. Three things in particular appeal to me about this podcast: 1) I rarely am able to say what I REALLY think, so hearing Kid Fury and Chrissle be straight-up about all things is vicariously therapeutic; 2) Chrissle’s laugh is as welcome and satisfying as Nutella on warm toast; 3) I am grateful to all forms of social media, including podcasts, for making it possible to hang around the edges of dedicated Black Spaces and learn. some. shit. 

DTR — This is a “branded” podcast from Tinder — “about defining relationships in the digital age” — so I was wary. However, all worries swooned gently to the braided rug on the floor within five minutes of the first episode. The storytelling is good; the inside glimpse into the dating zeitgeist eyebrow-lifting; the flow engaging. YOU’LL NOT WANT TO MISS THE DICK PIC EPISODE, Mavis


  • That the library finally had a copy of The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas available for my hands to hold. I’m not necessarily a fan of YA, except when I am, and for this book, I was. Having heard raves about its ability to give life to the story behind news reports, I cracked it open and fell into the charm of 16-year-old protagonist Starr as she lives through the realities of having one of her best friends shot by a police officer — killed for the crime of being black while driving. Fiction does it every time: it puts us inside the stories that our brains might otherwise skim across. For me, during a week when I had to grade a paper that argued the Black Lives Matter movement, the Black Panthers, and Standing Rock protesters all have been in the wrong for putting “blue lives” at risk, this book was particularly welcome. It is reaching people. It should. During the days I was reading Starr’s story, 15-year-old Jordan Edwards was killed by a police officer for hopping in a car and driving away from a party. This book reminds — teaches? — readers that boys like Jordan have family and friends whose lives are defined by senseless violence


  • That Aziz Ansari released Season 2 of Master of None, and it is so good — taking the hackneyed tropes of a half-hour comedy and turning them into something like art. Full disclosure: the acting is uniformly terrible. But I’m willing to argue the acting isn’t the focus of this on-point program that follows a young Indian-American man through his days. More important is its sense of exploration and authenticity. When we watched Episode 6, “New York, I Love You,” I kept saying to Byron, “This is so fun!” At the end, Himself noted that it felt much like our favorite episode of Broad City (Season 3, “The Lockout”), wherein the characters spend most of the show wandering around the streets of the city, engaging in the micro-moments that make up a day. Turns out I’m hardcore for micro-moments, Moby 


  • That my husband is able to dash away from the library at lunch time and attend some classes at the Y with me. When we do moves that really hurt, I sometimes slither over to his mat and whisper, “Can you please make it stop”


  • That you are here right now, reading these typings, because as much as I’m one to drop to all fours in Aisle 8 and skitter behind the #10 cans of tomatoes rather than encounter the guy who lives down the street, 





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