Review(ish): L.M. Montgomery as Unexpected Mentor

I’m not really sure how to categorize this post, because the extent to which I identified with Lucy Maud Montgomery throughout the first volume of her selected journals had an enormous impact on my impression of that collection. From her opening entry declaring that she had burned all of her childhood diaries (I have more than a few I would like to shred) to her descriptions of the “melancholy” that seized her when she was older (and sounded hauntingly like my experiences with depression), I felt like this woman was my “kindred spirit,” as her most famous character would say.

Anyone who loved Anne of Green Gables will essentially find bonus material in this collection of the beloved author’s journals from 1889 to 1910.  It’s easy to find the places where Montgomery drew on her personal experiences to create Anne’s world, using her own memories and sometimes brutally honest depictions of her own feelings to remember what the emotional turmoil of childhood really feels like.  It’s also easy to see her writing style as it grew into the L.M. Montgomery we know and love.  I could recognize phrases she used directly or in altered form in the Anne books, as well as general sentiments that Anne would later echo.

I could also recognize myself in Montgomery’s inner life, as I said before.

It wasn’t just the melancholia that gripped her in the winter, leaving her without the motivation even to get off couch, as the worst of my own depression has done to me.  It wasn’t just the way she felt about books as friends, the way my own bookshelves act as a comfort when I feel lonely.  It was little things, little dislikes for irritating classmates and frustrations with unseen obstacles to her dreams.  Reading her journals even went so far as to comfort me for my own sporadic entries (I cannot seem to maintain a daily habit no matter how good it is for me).

Maybe I just connected to her as a fellow woman writer.  Maybe this is just one of those things among writers, to seek out a mentor version of yourself in the ranks of those who have gone before.  Maybe it’s just a more generic writer thing (it’s well known, for instance, that many writers have struggled with depression).  Maybe I just felt close to this real person who had created one of my favorite childhood characters.

Whatever the reason, I was not expecting such a personal level of connection when I picked up these journals on a whim at Half Price Books – but I’m glad I did.

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Misfits

something that fits badly, as a garment that is too large or too small.
a person who is not suited or is unable to adjust to the circumstances of his or her particular situation

It’s bothered Bird and me for years.  Every Christmas Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer comes on and every Christmas we wonder what on earth is wrong with the doll on the Island of Misfit Toys.

Turns out, according to producer Arthur Rankin, it’s psychological.  In a 2007 NPR interview, he said that Dolly’s problem was low self-esteem and doubting herself.  Depending on the backstory, it sounds like a similar situation to Jessie from Toy Story 2: after being rejected by her human owner, Dolly doesn’t trust her ability to be a good companion to another person.  She’s hurt and depressed.

Some people dismiss this as inserting modern psychobabble into a cartoon from 50 years ago.  This post claims that the alternative explanation is “as plain on the nose on your face” because the thing that actually makes Dolly a misfit is her lack of a nose.

I disagree.  For one thing, plenty of cloth dolls in that style and time period didn’t have noses, or eyebrows, for that matter.  And for another, the majority of the misfit toys are not simply missing something.  Some fundamental part of them has been replaced with something different that interferes with their traditional function.  The train has square wheels.  The cowboy rides an ostrich.  The bird swims but cannot fly.  (OK, the elephant has the addition of polka dots, but he’s also a white elephant, which suggests being historically unwanted in the first place.)  These toys are misfits because something in them has changed to the point that they no longer fit the mold, and something would have to change again for them to be considered “normal.”  It’s not a one-step fix.

That’s why Dolly’s psychological misfit-ness rings true (for me, at least).  She needs more than a few stitches or a new dress.  There is something about her, as with the rest of the toys on the Island, that fits badly, that is not suited to her situation.  The visibility or invisibility of her struggles does not alter their validity.

And even if the explanation was inserted later to cover up some forgetfulness on the writers’ part, I’ll take any opportunity to point to well-known characters in popular culture who can help me normalize mental health.

 

Adventures on the Peninsula

Since she was leaving for college in a few weeks (though Mom, Dad, and I were largely still in denial about it), I decided to take Bird with me to visit the Engineer’s family on the peninsula.  She’d never seen it before, and she wanted to meet his dog, so we went up for a few days.

Salt Creek

The first evening, we went down to Salt Creek, one of my favorite places in the world.  As we walked along the beach where the river ran down to the ocean, we noticed an…odor.  The Engineer commented that it smelled like low tide, then added, “Oh.  Or it’s that.”

That was a dead sea lion.  It had been washed up long enough that its ribs and vertebrae were starting to show and the fur was beginning to slough off its skin (I’d forgotten that sea lions had fur, actually).  As we edged around it, Bird, future veterinarian that she is, said, “Aw, it’s cute!”  The Engineer and I did not exactly agree, but at least Bird’s curiosity didn’t let the dead animal ruin the evening.

We walked along (now suspicious of every pile of kelp lest it contain another dead animal), climbed some rocks, and watched the sun set over the water.

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Bird got a cute silhouette shot of the Engineer and me

Hurricane Ridge

After some car troubles, we made it up to Olympic National Park.  The road up to Hurricane Ridge involves a lot of winding turns and a few tunnels hugging the side of the mountain.  At the visitor center, we saw a few marmots in a meadow and an utterly complacent deer sauntering through the parking lot.  Not wanting to stay too long since we had borrowed the Engineer’s mom’s car, we headed up one of the short trails, a 1.5 mile loop that promised “spectacular views.”

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On our way up the trail

As we climbed, we saw a doe grazing on the hillside below us – then noticed her two adorable fawns!  Farther on, a brown shape scurried across the trail, eliciting a yelp of, “Marmot!” from Bird.

“That’s a grouse,” the Engineer said.  I noticed movement at the foot of a nearby bush.  The grouse had a chick with her, a fluffy, energetic chick that seemed to ignore all of its mother’s cackles that probably meant, “Get over here this second or I swear I will feed you to those humans myself.”  Kids, right?

At the top of the trail…well, the view did not disappoint.

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Marymere Falls

Since we seem to make this hike nearly every time I visit the Engineer’s family, we had to visit Marymere Falls before we left.  The trail winds through the forest to find the creek, where you can wade straight into the water from a wide gravel shore.

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20160803_140030Bird pointed to a natural, miniature harbor and said, “That’s where Ratty ties up his boat, and he and Mole can get up to their house through that tunnel in the bank, there.”  We discussed the logistics of hiding the canoe from humans, and where Badger’s house might be (further up in the woods, we decided), baffling the Engineer, who had never read The Wind in the Willows.  (Though he’s quite used to me pointing to little holes in tree trunks and insisting that fairies and elves must live there, so we probably didn’t sound too absurd.)

 

After crossing two bridges over the creek and its tributary, the trail turns steep.  We led Bird up to the higher vantage point first, then followed the loop down to where you can look up at the full height of the falls.  The Engineer and I slipped past the railing and climbed down to the pool at the base of the waterfall.

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Once we’d made it back down the trail, we decided to go for ice cream at Granny’s Cafe, where we met a 12-toed cat!

 

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He looks like he has mittens on!

So there you have it, dear readers: proof that Bird and I do, occasionally, go outside and enjoy ourselves.

Sifting Through

Tidy as I have always believed myself to be, sorting through my belongings at my parents’ houses as I prepare to move to my Small College Town full-time has resembled an archaeological dig.  Each layer of stuff reveals a piece of someone I used to be.

There are the comics, only four panels long, because I didn’t realize how much longer drawing took than writing and it turns out I can’t really draw anyway and the jokes really weren’t that funny.  Bird laughs at one Cast of Characters list, where I have drawn passable cats and labeled them with their names: Ringo, Fluffy, Sophistikitty…and Tracey.  Which she thinks is hilarious.

There is the blue dolphin lamp on its springy stand.  It probably came from Limited Too, where all the cool kids shopped among the clashing neon colors and dyed fake fur.  In middle school, dolphins were cool.  I remember the texture of its almost sparkly, rubber skin under my fingers and I can picture the room I wished I could build around this one piece of décor, one that would have bead curtains and one of those bowl chairs.  It would have been the epitome of coolness.

There are the meticulously labeled sketches and stories in fits and starts that never got fleshed out because I lost them until this moment.  One is about elk with bizarre sounding names.  According to the date, I was 11 years old when I wrote this double-spaced paragraph.  My keysmash phase for coming up with names, where my strategy was to pick something cool-sounding out of gibberish.

There is the pass to the front section of the football game where the Engineer saved me a seat freshman year, before we were dating.  I forgot I had saved it, but I remember now, how I tucked it away before he ever asked me out, just to savor the giddy feeling of having a cute guy sit next to me at a football game.  (Bird says I have to keep this forever and starts making a pile of Engineer-related memorabilia.)

There is an absurd amount of fuzzy slipper-socks stuffed in a drawer, ones I’m not certain I ever wore.  I set these aside to keep my feet warm in the Small College Town winters, which are unforgiving on that side of the state.  And there are the t-shirts from my Jesuit high school homecomings and special events.  Bird holds up the one from our Candyland-themed dance, the one with “Welcome to the Candyshop” across the chest.  “I still can’t believe they let you guys make this,” she says.

There are the letters I wrote, filled with too much angst to fit in my normal journal, speckled with capital letters and places where I wrote so heavily the pen made holes in the paper.  Skimming some of these, I want to go back in time and give my past self a hug.  She had no idea how things were going to turn out.

I don’t keep all of it.  I remember, looking through all of it, how big everything felt.  Yet, “You don’t necessarily need to feel those emotions again,” Bird points out.  I won’t try to gloss over the unpleasant stages of becoming who I am now – but I won’t get bogged down in them either.

I’ve quoted William Morris before: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”  At this point, as I start to build my own life beyond school, I get to choose to keep only the things that are useful in reminding me how far I’ve come, and beautiful in showing me that some part of myself has always been good.

Gonfalonier

When Saturday dawned, though I’d slept poorly from nerves, I was honestly more anxious and emotional about my friends’ graduations than my own.  I was proud of them, and excited for them, and a little bit sad, but my own arrival at this academic pinnacle didn’t quite seem real.  I got up early to see the Southern Belle and the Commodore (who carried the gonfalon!) at the 8 a.m. ceremony.  I teared up several times, and I clapped and cheered wildly when my two best friends walked across the stage to receive their diploma covers, and I took many blurry, zoomed-in pictures from my faraway seat because I was determined to capture the moment.

I met up with the Engineer and his family, who were in town for his brother’s graduation (having earned a master’s degree) at the next ceremony.  I walked back to my apartment in the sun, meeting soon-to-be graduates in their regalia going the other way, and I still couldn’t quite think, “Me too.  I’m graduating.”

For most of the day, Bird and I read quietly at my apartment, with brief flurries of activity when the Commodore’s and my own family descended for visits and hellos between events.  Rather than wrapping my head around my own reality, I escaped into the adventures of The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden (highly recommended, by the way).

Then it was time to start getting ready.  Rented gown, a stolen stole (borrowed from the Commodore, signifying that I had studied abroad; I didn’t get my own because I never bothered to get my Fancy Summer Institute in Nottingham credits transferred to my own university), honors cords for my major, honors cords for a national honors society, a medallion from the Honors college, and the rented yoke.  Cap pinned in place (I had finally decided on a C.S. Lewis quote the day before – appropriately, the Commodore’s hat featured a J.R.R. Tolkien quote…in Elvish).  Tassel draped to the right.

Dad drove us to the coliseum and dropped us off, where I headed in through the behind-the-scenes passageway because I was carrying the Honors gonfalon.  What exactly is a gonfalon, you may ask?  Basically, it’s a banner.  A flag.  The standard behind which I will amass my armies as we ride forth into battle.  By virtue of my carrying this 10-foot-tall piece of fabric on a stick, my family was seated in the VIP section.  Bird, Mom, and my cousin all took pictures when they spotted me standing in the back.  I looked around the coliseum, all decked out in university colors, and took pictures with the deans in their regalia as my co-gonfalonier and I stood next to our banners.

When the band played “Pomp and Circumstance,” the Engineer caught my eye and made a swimming turtle with his hands.  “My turtle swims sideways, your turtle swims upside down…” were the lyrics he and his brothers sang to the graduation march.  Naturally it was stuck in my head all day.

Once all the other graduates had filed in, we hoisted the gonfalons overhead and strode down the center aisle.  I had expected, seeing as it was the whole College of Arts and Sciences graduating, that I would barely know anyone in the graduating class.  Instead, my friends and coworkers shouted out to me as I walked by with the gonfalon.  They made me smile, a realer smile than the one I had directed at the cameras lining the aisle.

The ceremony proceeded apace, with speakers and applause and occasional technical difficulties.  We gonfaloniers stood to be recognized and tried not to smile too awkwardly while the cameras stayed on us.  Eventually, an usher pulled us out of the front row to join our respective groups, and I squeezed in between two of my friends from English.

Had my picture taken with the prop diploma cover.  Handed my name card to the announcer.  Smiled into the camera as he said my (thankfully phonetically simple) name.  Walked forward.  Shook with my right hand, took the diploma cover with the left.  Walked across to the center.  Shook hands with the university president, who wished me luck.  Slipped out of the receiving line to return to my front row seat.  Smiled and posed for the Commodore, who had gotten a great seat and was snapping pictures.

When I got back to my seat, I held the diploma cover in my lap.  Never mind that it was empty, that I will get the real thing in the mail a few weeks from now.  All of a sudden it hit me.  College was over.  I did the Thing, the Accomplishment toward which roughly three quarters of my life had been aimed.  It was finished.  All done.DSC_6072

When I took this picture, I stepped up onto a cement barrier (in heels, no less).  Looking out over the campus, I had no visual cues to reassure me.  It seemed as though I were at the immediate edge of a cliff, even though the drop to the flowerbed below was no more than a foot and a half.  Logically, I knew I was safe.  Irrationally, I felt like I was about to fall.

But for a moment, buried in the jolt of fear, it was exhilarating.

This feeling returned as I looked down at the crimson rectangle in my hands.  But I couldn’t cry, not really, not in the front row, not as several hundred others made their way across the stage.  So I smiled, blinked away the welling emotions, and looked around for the friends I knew would be coming up in line.

Stood back up.  Moved the tassel.  Cheered as the confetti rained down.  Slipped a few pieces into the diploma cover, hoping my bittersweet tears wouldn’t dissolve it later.

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Mortarboards and “Mischief Managed”

I’m having the hardest time deciding what quote to put on my graduation cap.  It’s the only part of the regalia I get to keep, the tassel and the mortarboard, so I figured why not personalize it a little?  The Commodore has a LOTR quote (in Elvish because she is awesome) and the White Tree of Gondor, and the Southern Belle decorated hers in a nod to her future grad school.  I’ve seen Disney themes, puns on student debt, gaming metaphors, etc.

I looked up C.S. Lewis quotes and found “There are far better things ahead than any we leave behind.”  But that kind of sounds like college sucked and I’m happy to be leaving, and that’s not my attitude.

Then there’s an Augustus Waters quote from John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars: “You are going to live a good and long life filled with great and terrible moments that you cannot even imagine yet!”  But that’s kind of long.

Or there’s Disney, something from Beauty and the Beast, but “I want adventure in the great wide somewhere” doesn’t quite seem to fit when I’m staying in my college town for the immediate future.

I considered a lyric from Hamilton, something like “I am indomitable, I am an original” or “Write day and night like you need it to survive.”  Those are still kind of obscure, though, as popular as the musical is.

Maybe a Bible verse?  “God is within her; she will not fail”?  Something literary, from Harry Potter or Arabian Nights?

I have so many options my friends have joked that I should just put a notebook on my cap that includes all the quotes, with the tassel for a bookmark.  I feel like I’ll know the right quote when I hear/read it – but I only have 8 more days to find it!

23 Days

Senioritis has hit many of us hard.  It’s difficult to continue caring about homework and exams when you’re steeling yourself for a Major Life Change.

The Southern Belle is leaving, heading back across the country for grad school.

The Commodore is leaving too, for Colorado and her own advanced degree.

The Engineer and I are staying here, in our little college town, until he graduates (yay, switching majors and having to go back and take a bunch of prerequisites), but this is only a year-long reprieve until we also leave, and a year suddenly seems very short.

Graduation is supposed to be the end, the part where nostalgic music plays as the credits roll and you are led to believe that everyone lives happily ever after, immediately and effortlessly finding themselves in the job they were always meant to do, meeting the right guy/girl.  That’s how it’s marketed to us.  College wants us to go out there and make it look good, so we’re supposed to focus on all the Magical Opportunities that await us as we start the Rest of Our Lives.

Except this isn’t necessarily the Rest of Our Lives.  It’s just another stage.

The Southern Belle and I were talking about this, about moving and making decisions and planning ahead while knowing that any number of things could change those plans.  She said it’s going to take courage.  She said doesn’t know if she has that courage.

“I don’t think you have courage going into something,” I said.  “I don’t think anyone honestly looks at the Big Scary Thing in front of them and consciously decides to flip some switch and just have courage.  I think courage is finding yourself in the middle of it and going, ‘Well, fuck.’  And you just plow ahead anyway.”

We have 23 days left until graduation.

Well, f…

“They John Boy-ed Him!”

Because my mom enjoyed The Waltons, Bird and I occasionally ended up watching her DVDs of the eponymous family and their neighbors on Walton’s Mountain.  Usually it was just the early years, the ones before Ma got sent to a sanitarium for tuberculosis (because the actress quit) and Mary Ellen got married.  The later episodes just weren’t as good, according to Mom, for multiple reasons.  But one day we found The Waltons on TV and decided to watch it.  Other than the actors all looking a bit older and dealing with somewhat more dramatic issues, it seemed pretty normal.  There was a stranger living with the Waltons now, but we figured he was a cousin or something.

Except everyone kept calling him John Boy.  The narrator.

“That’s not John Boy!” we exclaimed.  Mom laughed.  Apparently the role had been recast between seasons at some point.

We couldn’t believe it.  They were just asking us to believe that this was John Boy, the aspiring writer through whose eyes we saw everything on Walton’s Mountain?  It was clearly a completely different person.

“Yeah,” said Mom, “one season he went off to fight in the War and when he came back, it was this guy!”

“Wow,” said Bird.  “War really changed him.”

Once we recovered from our laughter and agreed never to watch those later seasons again, this experience gave rise to a new phrase in our household. “John Boy” became a verb, meaning “to recast a character without warning or transition and simply ask the audience to go along with it.”

I was home on a break from school one day when Mom and Bird wanted to catch up on the season finale of a show we were currently watching.  Bird, who was texting a friend who had already seen the episode, suddenly burst out laughing at her phone.

“They replaced the brother!” she gasped.  “Oh my gosh, they John Boy-ed him!”

Sure enough, toward the end of the episode, the family entered their home to find a strange boy leaning against the kitchen table.  Gasping, they all embraced him, addressing him by the brother character’s name.  Apparently he had been at boarding school (because the old actor was in rehab or something).

“Well,” Bird deadpanned, “John Boy’s home from the War.”

The Blessings Jar

I can’t work in clutter.  My room, in the upheaval and un-routine-ness that accompanies a new semester, had been in an Uneasy State of Chaos for a while, and I was sick of it.  So, working counterclockwise around my room from the door, I Cleaned – and yes, the capital is warranted, because it was no mere 10-second tidying up.  I dusted and organized and rearranged and adjusted until everything fit Just So.

I was on a roll until I got to my nightstand.  One of the Random Things that had come to rest in obscurity right next to my bed was a pickle jar with the label peeled off and many slips of multicolored paper inside.

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My Blessings Jar.

I’d forgotten about it, failed to keep up the habit, since last year when Bird gave me the idea (which I think she got from Pinterest).  As I swiped the dust rag over it, I thought now might be a good time to empty it, start fresh, swear to myself that I would chronicle at least One Good Thing each night from now on.  Settling criss-cross-applesauce on the floor, I poured out the tiny scraps and began to read.  Some made me chuckle, like liquid dishwasher soap from when the Commodore and I finally ran out of that awful powdered stuff and bought a gallon of the liquid we preferred.

Some, like Bird’s smile when she saw me in the chapel after her retreat, made me cry.

It amazes me, sometimes, the magnitude of things that can be tethered in tiny characters inked on paper.  The moments I had found worth recording were instances of love, support, and shared strength from my parents, my sister, the Commodore, the Southern Belle, the Engineer and his family, my friends from church, and my coworkers.  All the people in my life had contributed to these scribbly bits of paper showing me how many families I have looking out for me.

So often it’s easier to remember the one bad thing that happened at the end of an evening, or late in the afternoon, and let it erase all the silliness and contentment of the morning and lunchtime.  A whole day can be colored by just one negative thing.  But when I force myself to think of just One Good Thing, it’s funny how more Good Things start to come out of the shadows, shyly raising a hand to say, “Remember me?  You didn’t have such a bad day after all.”

I tucked the old blessings away in a box and set the empty, hopeful jar on my freshly dusted nightstand.

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Winter Break

Well, I survived my penultimate undergraduate finals week.  And now I sit in our living room across from the Christmas tree, surrounded by festive Yuletide decorations and books (seriously – we have four bursting plastic totes of Christmas books alone) and it still doesn’t feel like The Most Wonderful Time of The Year.

I’m still in that dazed letdown phase that follows a period of intense stress.  Relieved as I may be to have finished up my classes, going-going-going for two and a half weeks straight leaves me a little bewildered when I get home and there’s not as much to do.  I sit here casting around for the assignment or project I’m certain I forgot about, too used to having Something To Do hanging over my head.  The Engineer once “assigned” me coloring pages to do over the summer so I wouldn’t stress out about not having anything to stress out about.

This year, of course, I do have something to do – my thesis project.  Which is due at the end of February.  Which I’m trying not to freak out about just yet.  After all, the vacation is young.  And I do love my topic (the Arabian Nights), so the reading will probably go faster than I think it will.

But stress is not exactly conducive to the magic of Christmas.

So I suppose it couldn’t hurt to give myself a few days to breathe – and watch my favorite Christmas movies from childhood.