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I am not, nor have I ever been, a Bostonian. I am, however, the daughter of a Bostonian.
“Jules, y’know, honey… this isn’t real. You know what it is? It’s St. Elmo’s Fire. Electric flashes of light that appear in dark skies out of nowhere. Sailors would guide entire journeys by it, but the joke was on them… there was no fire. There wasn’t even a St. Elmo. They made it up. They made it up because they thought they needed it to keep them going when times got tough, just like you’re making up all of this. We’re all going through this. It’s our time at the edge.”
I was in high school, I think, when I watched St. Elmo’s Fire. Or maybe early college. But somewhere in the range of 15 to 20, because that was the period in which my best high school friends and I met regularly to watch and make fun of movies. And St. Elmo’s Fire, which is a Brat Pack movie about recent college graduates, was perfect for that. Like, why is Demi Moore’s character trying to bury her step mother in a cat costume? The fun that could be made of St. Elmo’s Fire! And that’s what we did. I did. I made fun of the movie and didn’t think of it much again.
But I did this weekend. I just finished reading Tiny Beautiful Things, a collection of advice columns originally published for The Rumpus, which is this literary-ish website that I sometimes read. Anyway. I will blog more about the book later. The book is not the point. The point is that the book, and the advice given in it, made me think once more about St. Elmo’s Fire, of all things. And it did so for this reason:
The above quote is said by one incredibly screwed up character to another after the latter lists all of the things that are wrong in her life. All of her problems. And this is the response. And it is so perfect, I think. Because no, Demi Moore’s character, these aren’t problems. These are things that you are clinging to because it makes you feel better, in some strange, painful way.
And that’s what I do. That’s what I do all the time. I was going to detail examples of proof that this is what I do, but instead I will just say that you need to believe me when I say that I am almost 23 and lacking in perspective and that I have been following St. Elmo’s Fire.
But the truth is that my problems aren’t problems. Not in the grand scheme of things. Not even to me.
And none of this means that I don’t get to be sad or mad (or none too glad), because I do, because everyone does. But it does mean that I’m going to get through this. We’re all going to get through this.
This is our time at the edge.
In high school—and maybe also earlier on in college, come to think of it—I used to say that I was having “an ugly day.” Not every day, obviously. But if there was a day in which my hair wasn’t doing what I wanted it to or I felt my nose looked particularly large or my skin was blotchier than usual, I’d anticipate the criticism. “I’m just really having an ugly day today.” “Oh, today’s such an ugly day.” And the response, without fail, was that there was no such thing as an ugly day, and that I looked pretty much as I did every other day. And then I’d mock offense (or actually be offended—I can no longer really remember). And eventually I stopped doing things like saying that I was having ugly days, because I realized that that was bad for my self-esteem (and also really awkward for everyone). And, though I may have still believed in ugly days as a concept, I hadn’t really thought of them since I stopped citing them until this very evening.
This post is going to come off as pretentious and gross and melodramatic, but here it is anyway:
I found out that I was a Fulbright grantee exactly one year ago today. I remember being in my bedroom and getting the email and forwarding it to my parents (this was over spring break) and waiting to hear the reaction from downstairs. I was very, very happy, and also shocked, and unable to grasp, really, that this pipe dream for which I’d applied was being realized, and that it meant I’d be spending a year in Germany. I got on a plane two days later to go to Admitted Students Weekend at a law school, because I’d thought, before receiving the email, that I would spend my first year out of college as a law student.
I finished footnoting the first draft of my research paper—the reason I’m here, ostensibly—today. I’m going to the Berlin Seminar for Europe-based Fulbright grantees this Sunday. To meet up with people whom I did not know a year ago today, but whom I now consider friends. And I’ll navigate the journey and the capital in German, mostly, despite the fact that I didn’t know it, not really, a year ago today.
I still have almost four months left in Germany. I’ve been here for over seven. I can’t really believe that, but there it is.
I’m not going to law school next year, as I’d thought when I landed in Germany, and as I told the people I met, first in Marburg and then in Bremen. Actually, there’s not much of this year that went the way I thought it would. But I know now what I did not a year ago today, which is that there is nothing wrong with not knowing. How could I have known what this year would be? What it would bring? I couldn’t have known that any more than I could the contents of the email that made the year possible. You open the letter, or the email, or the whatever, and you live. And you know after the fact that you’re glad—so very, very glad—that you did.
I was riding the train from the university into town today when a young man sat down next to me and pulled out a book. It was, I noticed, because I am nosy, a “teach yourself Russian” book.
I asked him, in German, if he was learning Russian. He answered, in German that was as accented as mine, that he was. And I told him that I had, and that the beginning is the hardest part. He asked if I was German. I said that I wasn’t, and that I’m American. “We should probably speak in English, then,” he said, “because I’m from Birmingham, UK.”
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