Week 12: Daily walks

In honor of my sister Grace, I am imposing a set of weekly challenges on myself. For 12 weeks, I will attempt a different “challenge” each week–to do one thing every day for seven days, ranging from serious to silly. At the end of each week, I’ll let you know how it goes.

Welcome to Charlottesville
Walking around town.

It’s hard to believe that I’ve completed twelve weeks of challenges. They’ve ranged from serious to silly, but they have all been fun and often enlightening. I’ve learned a lot of little facts about myself and about my process of making and following ritual. Some of the challenges have been incorporated into my daily life and I hope I’ll continue some of them in the future.

For this final week, I wanted to take a stroll. Now that we’ve skipped spring and gone straight into summer, a week of daily walks has been really enjoyable, if occasionally sweaty.

If I was a good blogger, I would have taken pictures from all of these walks, but I’m not, so you’ll just have to deal.

DAY 1.
Guion and I walked downtown to meet our Bible study friends Mark and Christina for Chap’s ice cream on the Downtown Mall. It was a hot and breezy afternoon and a little cup of Chap’s made it feel like heaven. I love strolling around the Mall and we walk there often. It’s less than a 10-minute walk from our apartment and it’s always packed with dogs. What’s not to love?

DAY 2.
I had to do some research for my boss at SNL Financial, which is also downtown. I parked the Jeep at our place and then walked over. Got there a bit early, so I strolled around the blocks behind the building and looked at all of the historic houses that now feature the offices of real estate agents or lawyers.

DAY 3.

Watching "Gosford Park" with my bestie.

My weekly walk with Bo turned out to be something of an exhilarating misadventure. I head over to Liz’s to pick him up and we chat about how silly it is that her team’s soccer game was canceled because of a thunderstorm/tornado warning. Yeah, absurd. I walk Bo downtown and we’re having a fine time until I feel a spattering of rain. Then I look at the sky. It is not gray. Or dark blue. It is black. Slate. Full of doom. Bo and I then run–sprint!–across the Belmont Bridge and make it back to my front porch right before the sky bursts open. We had amazingly good timing, because a second after we got inside… thunder, lightning, torrential rain, minor flooding, wind howling, the whole deal. Thankfully, Bo isn’t thunderstorm-phobic (like Emma was) and so he chilled with me in our apartment. He helped me do the dishes and then started watching “Gosford Park” with me until it cleared up enough to take him home. I think he’s the perfect dog. I confessed to Guion and Liz that I am now worried about getting a dog because he or she may not be as amazing as Bo is. I love him.

DAY 4.
Despite starting out rather rough, it turned out to be a very beautiful evening and so I took Bo for another walk. Guion joined me this time and we went wandering through the charming and eclectic Belmont neighborhood. We daydreamed about houses we’d buy and dubious ways we’d coerce current residents to move out and give us their gorgeous homes with manicured lawns and sprawling gardens.

DAY 5.
Guion joined me on a walk to the Downtown Mall to buy cupcakes from Cappellino’s for Cate’s royal wedding princess party. He was a bit astonished at the price of gourmet cupcakes. Aren’t we all.

DAY 6.
Our lovely housemate Hannah joined us on a late morning walk to the Charlottesville farmers’ market. We ended up buying delicious mint tea, baklava, and a babe in the wood, and therefore nothing really healthy or valuable for the rest of the week. Oh well! From there, we wandered over to The Garage, where Stephanie and Emily were hosting a tag sale. Guion went off to brew day for the rest of the afternoon; I went to Mecca, aka Target. When Guion got home, we walked downtown again to eat at Miyako for dinner. Quite excellent, if I do say so.

DAY 7.
Win came! We walked downtown with him and went to church and it was awesome. We’re crossing our fingers that he moves here…

That’s all, folks! It’s been a fun way to welcome spring. To be honest, it will be kind of nice to not worry about weekly goals, but I think I will try to keep some of these habits on regular rotation. Thanks for reading; talk to you soon.

Week 11: Wear a dress every day

In honor of my sister Grace, I am imposing a set of weekly challenges on myself. For 12 weeks, I will attempt a different “challenge” each week–to do one thing every day for seven days, ranging from serious to silly. At the end of each week, I’ll let you know how it goes.

I have always loved dresses. My mom says that when I was tiny and she’d try to dress me in pants or shorts, I’d pitch a fit, tear them off, and insist on wearing a dress, like any proper lady. I love dresses. I have amassed a decent collection of them over the years. During my senior year of college, I recruited about a dozen friends to join me in a “No-Pants April” challenge, during which we only wore dresses or skirts for the month of April. This weekly challenge is a natural step down from that, but wearing a dress every day has felt like the proper celebration of spring. And a proper motivator to start shaving my legs again…

DAY 1.

Dress from: Target

This is a great dress for work. It’s breezy and a bit unusual, too.

DAY 2.

Dress from: Target

Not super-exciting, but very soft. Goes with almost every cardigan I own, too.

DAY 3.

Dress from: Banana Republic

This is one of my favorite dresses, even though it is worn out. The hem has fallen out and the stitching around the sleeves is also coming undone. I started holding it together with tape, Liz Lemon-style. Mainly because I am too lazy/unskilled to sew it properly. I should just throw it away, but I love it too much.

DAY 4.

Dress from: Gap

This is my quintessential summer dress. It’d also be a great pregnancy dress. Stretchy like no one’s business. And it has pockets!

DAY 5.

Dress from: Target

This mini-dress will always remind me of our honeymoon.

DAY 6.

Dress from: Target

OK, FINE. This should just be called “Week of Target Dresses.” I can’t help it! They’re cheap and usually cute! I bought this one for my birthday. It’s summer-sexy-casual.

DAY 7.

Dress from: Anthropologie

Happy Easter! This is one of my all-time favorite dresses. My mom bought it for my birthday three or four years ago and I still love it. This photo really does not do it justice.

Next week, ladies and gents, will be the last week of my 12 weeks of challenges! Hard to believe! I’m going to be taking a walk around town every day. And it will be great. Especially if a certain Golden Retriever will accompany me…

Week 10: Playing the guitar

In honor of my sister Grace, I am imposing a set of weekly challenges on myself. For 12 weeks, I will attempt a different “challenge” each week–to do one thing every day for seven days, ranging from serious to silly. At the end of each week, I’ll let you know how it goes.

I learned how to play the guitar shortly after my father did. I was about 14 and the guitar was one of his new obsessions. He bought a number of guitars to learn on but really splurged on a beautiful (and surprisingly great-sounding) Ibanez acoustic. This, more or less, became my guitar and my emblem of my Teenage Years. We learned that guitar lessons were probably not worth it and it was just as easy to teach yourself chords as it was to watch a really fat man play them. As my knowledge progressed, the guitar became my constant companion. I started playing in the worship band at my church youth group. I would squirrel myself away in my bedroom until the wee hours of the night, playing guitar, figuring out new chords, trying to write super-dramatic songs. I mean, what’s more “teenage” than that?

I brought my guitar with me when I came to college and continued to play it throughout my freshman year. It was also a great source of solace during my sophomore year, which is like the Middle School year for college students (confusing, depressing, awkward).

But then, one night late in my sophomore year, I met this boy named Guion. He visited me in my room and picked up my guitar and started to play it. I was stunned. “I… never had any idea it could sound like that,” I stammered. This kid was a genius. And I suddenly felt very inadequate about my pseudo-musical abilities. We started dating and I started getting involved in other things, like internships and writing. My once beloved guitar gathered a lot of dust in my dorm room closet.

As a disclaimer, this should not sound like Guion is somehow at fault or responsible for my abandonment of my guitar. Rather, it should be seen as a criticism of my own lack of self-esteem. There’s always going to be someone out there who is better than one at any given skill. This does not mean, however, that one should abandon said skill. I wish someone (i.e., myself) had told me that in college. But I had moved onto other things. When I started my senior year, I left my guitar at home and effectively bequeathed it to my little brother (who has, let it be known, now surpassed me in my musical abilities).

Guion has always encouraged me to play the guitar; he hates that I gave it up. But as the years passed and my calluses disappeared, I was too discouraged to pick it up again. After all, I’d forgotten practically everything I had known. So, this week’s challenge was a return to the past, to my former self, and to the guitar. I am still grossly self-conscious about it and I can’t strum to save my life, but it’s coming back gradually. As I type this, the tips of my left-hand fingers sting a little bit. And that’s a good sign.

Unlike some of my other challenges, I hope to keep this week’s challenge incorporated into my day-to-day life. I won’t presume to ever play in front of anyone, but I was never trying to be a musician anyway. Rather, I liked having this therapeutic channel that was wholly separate from reading or writing. It would be nice to have that again.

Next week, I will be wearing a dress every day. Here’s to hoping for warm, spring-like weather!

Week 9: Studying for the GRE

In honor of my sister Grace, I am imposing a set of weekly challenges on myself. For 12 weeks, I will attempt a different “challenge” each week–to do one thing every day for seven days, ranging from serious to silly. At the end of each week, I’ll let you know how it goes.

Cracking the GRE 2011, Princeton Review

In hindsight, perhaps this was a silly challenge. In the first chapter of my prep book, the authors tell you that it’s somewhat “useless” to try to study for the GRE for a period longer than six months. Seeing as I’m not even signing up to take the test any time soon, I might have wasted a week of challenges.

That said, however, I did learn a lot about this test that I didn’t previously know. For example, I had no idea that the test was computer adaptive (your next question will show up depending on how you answered the previous one). I didn’t know that the tests from August 2011 onward will allow you to use a calculator (yes!). I also didn’t know how surprisingly hard the vocabulary analogies are. No one uses these words. Henry James doesn’t even use them.

All in all, however, this week of “studying” with this prep book made me feel like I could take the GRE at some point and do decently well on it. So, that’s reassuring. What’s not reassuring is the fact that I don’t really know what I’d go to grad school for/think an English MA might not be worth the money. I still need to ponder these things.

Next week, I will be reminding myself that I once knew how to play the guitar!

Week 8: Thank-you notes to teachers

In honor of my sister Grace, I am imposing a set of weekly challenges on myself. For 12 weeks, I will attempt a different “challenge” each week–to do one thing every day for seven days, ranging from serious to silly. At the end of each week, I’ll let you know how it goes.

This week’s challenge was inspired by blogger Erin Loechner, who challenged herself to write thank-you notes to 20 memorable and inspirational teachers. Teachers don’t get nearly enough credit in this country and it’s a perpetual mystery to me. Good teachers are responsible for most of the successes in our lives and yet we rarely remember to go back and thank them. In my own small way, that’s what I attempted to do this week.

Teacher 1. Mary Sellers

Mrs. Sellers taught my online AP English Composition class when I was a shy and yet pompous 9th-grader. When you’re homeschooled, you get to learn in a lot of non-traditional ways and online classes were one of those ways for me. In many ways, it was a strange dynamic, but Mrs. Sellers always managed to make our web classroom warm, friendly, and encouraging. She invested so much time in us as students and her hospitality was extraordinary. Mrs. Sellers stayed in touch with many of us even after we had finished her class and I was always impressed by her generosity, particularly as she was already busy with homeschooling her own children.

Teacher 2. Marc Cohen

Professor Cohen is important to me in many ways: He convinced me to be an English major and he introduced me to the great literary love of my life, Virginia Woolf. He taught my Intro to 18th-20th Century British Lit. class during my first semester as a freshman at UNC-Chapel Hill. Unlike many professors these days, Marc Cohen actually cared about teaching–and he was very, very good at it. He was creative, encouraging, and enthusiastic and I’m so thankful I was able to have him as a teacher when I arrived at Carolina. I also really appreciated that his syllabus was uniquely focused on great British female authors; we only read women novelists for the novels in that class, which was practically unheard of, especially in the British Lit classes. I read Mrs. Dalloway for the first time and I fell in love.

Teacher 3. Bill Cloud

Professor Cloud scared a lot of us in the Journalism School. He well over six feet tall and he spoke with a deep, intimidating voice and he liked to yell at you when you mixed up “illicit” and “elicit.” He once gave me a 50 on a paper because I spelled Brussels sprouts “Brussel sprouts.” I will never make that mistake again for as long as I live! But for all of his aggressive teaching methods, Professor Cloud is largely responsible for getting me a job. He prompted me to apply for the Dow Jones News Fund internship, which I never would have considered without his encouragement. Because of him, I spent an absolutely amazing summer working as a copy editor at the Denver Post. He’s served as my academic reference on numerous occasions and I can’t say enough how grateful I am for his influence. Professor Cloud has been an invaluable career resource for me and for many others, and that’s why I will always recommend him to other J-School students, even though he can make you cry in class.

Teacher 4. George Lensing

Gracious, eloquent, humble, and endlessly fascinating, Professor George Lensing taught the best class I ever took at Carolina, 20th-century poetry. I didn’t really get poetry until I heard Professor Lensing talk about it. We covered a few poems in each class, but we really covered them; we’d spend an hour talking about two lines of Robert Lowell. And then he’d start class with the story of having lunch with Elizabeth Bishop in the Brazilian jungle. Or when he had to squire Robert Frost around UNC’s campus for the day. No big deal. In my opinion, he’s the gem of the UNC English Department and it will be a sad day when he retires (which I heard rumored may be happening sooner than later). He also urged me to write an honors thesis, which was a tortured decision. But with Professor Lensing on my team, I felt like I could do anything.

Teacher 5. Erin Carlston

Professor Carlston was another very intimidating professor. She knew everything; she was fluent in most romance languages; she studied at Harvard and Yale; and she had read every important book–twice. She also didn’t let students get away with crappy writing. You had to labor to pass her class–but if and when you did, you felt like you’d reached the pinnacle of academic success. I took Introduction to Modernism with her and met many previously unread authors that came to be listed among my favorites. After that year ended, I decided to write my thesis on Virginia Woolf and timidly approached her to ask if she’d be my thesis adviser. She graciously replied that she would. Over the next year, Professor Carlston spent countless hours meeting with me, hashing out ideas, and reading and editing my often embarrassingly immature drafts. The slightest compliment from her–“This is a nice sentence.”–could make my entire week. You always knew that she meant exactly what she said and she would never give you false encouragement. She had a million things going on when she was helping me with my thesis–between finishing her own book, teaching a handful of classes, serving on numerous committees, and advising another undergrad thesis on Woolf–and yet when you met with her, you felt like your work was the most important thing on her agenda. Her advice and her edits undoubtedly made me a better writer and my gratitude to her is boundless.

Teacher 6. Mary-Lynn Whitman

I think we can all identify that one teacher who, early on, saw potential in you when no one else really did. Mrs. Whitman was that person for me. I was a shy, arrogant, and self-conscious little girl when I first met Mrs. Whitman in an art class that I took with her son, Patrick. She was bright, intellectual, and full of enthusiasm and knowledge. Even though she was already busy homeschooling her kid, she decided to take me under her wing. Her former life as a children’s book editor equipped her to teach me and critically evaluate my bombastic attempts at writing when I was in late elementary school and early middle school. I would come to her house with a few essays and she would spend hours with me talking about how I could improve and how I could become an even better writer. She saw promise in me, that there was hope that I could be a better writer and a better human, when most just saw a snotty and bossy kid. I am humbled by her attention, even now.

Teacher 7. Teresa Farson

How do you begin to thank the person who taught you everything? My mom gave up her whole life to teach the four of us. She wanted the best for us in every area of our lives and sacrificed constantly so that we could succeed. In our childhood, she endeavored to make learning fun, to spark our imaginations and innate curiosity, rather than make learning about conforming to a pre-defined mold and filling out blanks on worksheets. As a great advocate of “hands-on learning,” we figured out early on that there was no division between Life and School for us; the two were the same and every moment was an educational one. We studied botany on nature walks; animal biology when she took us to the race track; art through our monthly visits to the Mint Museum of Art. I didn’t understand why my neighborhood friends hated school so much. School was everywhere; it was our entire lives. Mom also instilled in us the principle that we were primarily responsible for our educations. If you were not educated, it was no one’s fault but your own. Many people ask me how it was possible that I could succeed at a university after being homeschooled for 12 years. Wasn’t I afraid? Wasn’t I unsure how to adapt to a classroom? Did I even know how to take tests? My transition to college was actually very smooth. Because I had been responsible for my education for years, the freshman concerns of self-control and time management were disciplines that I had already been practicing since I was young. I believe my mom is Superwoman and I don’t know, even now, how she did it all–and how she still does it (with one kid still at home). I know a thank-you note won’t cut it for all of the gratitude I owe her. But, Mom, for everything: THANKS.

Next week, I will be trying to study for the GRE every day! I’m not planning on taking it any time soon, but I go back and forth on the grad school conundrum almost daily and this is my haphazard attempt to add some discernment to my life. Until then!

Week 7: One necklace

In honor of my sister Grace, I am imposing a set of weekly challenges on myself. For 12 weeks, I will attempt a different “challenge” each week–to do one thing every day for seven days, ranging from serious to silly. At the end of each week, I’ll let you know how it goes.

Of all of the challenges I have planned, this week was, by far, the easiest challenge. But it’s in homage to my dear friend Catherine (who also invented the phrase “Monday Snax”). Catherine has impeccable fashion sense and during our years together at university, she would go through weeks during which she’d wear one accent piece–be it a scarf or a pair of earrings or a bag–with everything. I was always impressed by her stylistic bravery and her ability to incorporate so many different styles and colors into a coherent outfit.

This week, I wore the necklace above with every outfit. It’s one that I made out of an uncomfortable ring and a now-retired Japanese 5 yen coin. In some ways, this was a silly little fashion exercise, but in other ways, the coin was a reminder to pray for Japan, for my host family, and for the ongoing recovery efforts there. I liked the reminder each morning as I put it on.

Next week, I will be writing a thank-you note each day to the memorable teachers in my life. Onward!

Week 6: Writing and editing a short story

In honor of my sister Grace, I am imposing a set of weekly challenges on myself. For 12 weeks, I will attempt a different “challenge” each week–to do one thing every day for seven days, ranging from serious to silly. At the end of each week, I’ll let you know how it goes.

Week 6: Writing and Editing Stories

Deep down, every journalism and English major just wants to be the next great American novelist. Journalism is a particularly helpful disguise for this rosy ambition, because it at least carries with it some tinge of respectability (although perhaps not anymore). You get a job as some underpaid slave to the newspaper industry, staying up till ungodly hours just to finish that paragraph-long story about city council that won’t even have your byline on it, and for what? For fulfilling the dream of someday writing your masterpiece and making it big.

I walked away from my university with a degree in journalism and English, so I guess I’m guilty as charged. I’ve loved words since I was practically a baby; according to my mother, I apparently taught myself to read when I was 3 (although I might have just been memorizing those Lady and the Tramp books). I remember my grandmother asking me when I was 6 what I was going to be when I grew up. I stood at the top of the staircase and shouted, “A WRITER!”

Today, however, I don’t think I’d call myself a writer. I am a zealous reader and work currently as a copy editor/publications assistant, but I’m not really a writer. I don’t believe that I ever could be a novelist, much less a great one, and so I half-heartedly start dozens of these short stories and then abandon them after I get discouraged. I squirrel them away on my laptop and don’t show anyone, ever. (Especially not my brilliant husband, who IS a professional writer and a very gifted one at that.) These stories that litter my hard drive feel like my shameful indulgences.

However. Thanks to encouragement from a few blind, loving souls (Guion, Angela, and Emily), I decided that my challenge for this week would be to give those stories some much-needed attention. I have no starry expectations for them. I still don’t plan on sharing them with anyone. But, for me, a large part of the joy of writing is finishing. I haven’t finished a story in forever. So, I think it’s about time.

A Fake Writer’s Diary

DAY 1. As we were cleaning up dinner, I asked Guion what he did when he hit a wall. He shared some advice from his sage professor, short story writer and affirmed genius, Deborah Eisenberg. Eisenberg says that when she’s trying to get to know a character better, she will write little adjacent stories that describe something that happened to that character. The little story never makes it into the larger work, but it is an important effort in getting to know the people that live in her pages. Tonight, I tried to do this with my stubborn characters. It felt a little bit like cheating, but I think it helped.

DAY 2. Today my lesson to myself was to write focus on dialogue, even if I was producing terrible dialogue. I was thinking particularly of Franzen, who I most recently read, and his impeccable grasp of dialogue. His characters’ conversations seem effortless and believable and yet essential to the movement of the story. I don’t know how he does it. One of the realizations I’ve come to today is that fictional dialogue does not necessarily have to be a verbatim replica of how people actually talk. Characters are, after all, naturally hyperbolic and we need them to accomplish things with their speech that we may not otherwise accomplish in real life. Today I’ve decided that I am going to be OK with that.

DAY 3. I wonder if it’s a problem if my protagonist is totally unlikable. Do all protagonists need to be sympathetic?

DAY 4. It’s really dreary to hear writers talk about their writing. I don’t think I call myself a “writer,” though, so maybe this won’t count?

DAY 5. Today I taught myself the lesson that there is nothing sacred about the beginning of the story. Even though this was the first thing I wrote for this piece, it does not necessarily mean that it must stay. Especially if it’s bad. Beginnings can change. So can endings.

DAY 6. Writing by hand is difficult, but I like it. I think I write better on paper and edit better on a computer. I didn’t bring my laptop on our Triangle trip and so I am happily relegated to the good old-fashioned notebook and pen.

DAY 7. OK, so I didn’t write today. Too busy. I will forgive myself.

Despite my somewhat sporadic attention to this task, I made more progress with this shabby little story this week than I have in months. I will count that as a successful weekly challenge.

Next week, I will undergo what is by far the easiest challenge of them all: To wear the same necklace every day for a week. This is largely inspired by Catherine, who would wear an accent piece with everything for a month. Except that she always looked great and I might not.

Week 5: A letter a day

In honor of my sister Grace, I am imposing a set of weekly challenges on myself. For 12 weeks, I will attempt a different “challenge” each week–to do one thing every day for seven days, ranging from serious to silly. At the end of each week, I’ll let you know how it goes.

I’ve been writing letters since I could scribble and I’ve had pen-pals (from Japan to Peru to all over the U.S.) since I was probably 8 or 9. As you probably know if you’ve spent any amount of time with me, I have a lot of love for the handwritten word. I think it’s a deep shame that its value is vanishing in the 21st century. I still write a lot of letters today and I am thankful for a great cadre of women who are willing to write me back! In tribute to them, I set out this week to write a letter a day.

(You can click on the photos to enlarge them.)

Day 1: To Windy

I’m always a little bit intimidated when I write my mother-in-law, because she is a legitimate calligrapher; she’s the real deal. But she’s always been 110% supportive of my calligraphic endeavors and I am so thankful to have her as a resource! I think it’s such crazy fate, that I would end up with an amazing mother-in-law who also practices calligraphy. Windy is one of the most optimistic and open-hearted people I’ve ever met. She’s also a lot of fun. I’m very thankful for her and for the ways she has welcomed me into her family.

Day 2: To Ma-Maw

My grandmother is probably my most faithful correspondent. I get her little letters and notes almost once a week and I always look forward to them. She fills me in on her busy schedule and other family happenings; I tend to get most of my family news through her. She’s spunky and sweet and I love her to death.

Day 3: To Mom

I don’t often write my mom letters–we tend to stick to e-mails–but I felt like she deserved a note, because everyone deserves a handwritten note in the mail! Mom also has excellent handwriting, even though she pretends like she doesn’t. She also possesses a great collection of stationery that’s constantly making me envious (and anxious to snatch some whenever I come home!). Writing her is always very smooth and comfortable, because I don’t ever have to justify or explain myself to her. She already knows. Moms are omniscient like that.

Day 4: To Kathryn

Kathryn was one of my first friends at UNC and most recently served as one of my bridesmaids. As our friendship has progressed, Kathryn has remained my rock when I struggle with life’s big questions or with doubts about my faith. She’s always been there for me. K.B. is now in law school in Raleigh and I’m confident she’s making a big splash there. We’ve exchanged a few letters since we swapped states and I always love hearing from her; I really want to make her handwriting into a font, too.

Day 5: To Emily

Emily overwhelms me with her sincerity, imagination, and laudable skill in self-expression. Her letters are gems. Somehow she always knows what to say and exactly how to say it. I’ve missed her more than I can say and my letters to her are mostly messy, rambling things about our lives and artistic ambitions. She’s always been so encouraging to me and I couldn’t do without her. I’m going to stay with her next weekend in Durham and I am absolutely thrilled about it. Can’t wait!

Day 6: To Catherine

Catherine is the classiest woman I know. She is not only a curator of finer things, but she is also experienced in the practice of finer things (e.g., she is an impeccable dresser, a gifted ballerina, and an accomplished violinist). She also has a heart of gold and seemingly endless reservoirs of sympathy. Catherine is also deeply hilarious and I love nothing better than a whole day with her.

Day 7: To Angela

Angela is my loyal, endlessly entertaining, and honest friend who is also a brilliant writer, programmer, MFA graduate student, Slate journalist, and Mary-Kate Olsen enthusiast. She can literally do everything. I love her so much and earnestly believe that my life would be comparatively dull without her. Her letters are bursts of energy and joy and always very creatively packaged.

WHAT I LEARNED:

  • Sometimes, starting a letter without the standard pleasantries (“How have you been? How’s the weather?”) is easier. Now, I prefer to jump right into a subject. My English correspondent Diane has always been very good about this.
  • Having pretty stamps makes me a whole lot happier about sending letters. I am loving these Chinese New Years stamps that G. picked up for me.
  • I think I’ve always inherently known this, but writing letters is a therapeutic experience for me. It is very calming to sit down and write a letter at the end of a long, hectic day. Thankfully, I have sympathetic listeners!

Next week, I will be attempting to write and edit those pesky short stories that have been lingering on my laptop for weeks…

Week 4: Studying Japanese

In honor of my sister Grace, I am imposing a set of weekly challenges on myself. For 12 weeks, I will attempt a different “challenge” each week–to do one thing every day for seven days, ranging from serious to silly. At the end of each week, I’ll let you know how it goes.

I have been studying Japanese since I was 10 years old. Whoa, I should like, totally be fluent now, right?

Wrong. For a few reasons. One is that I live on the East coast and currently in Charlottesville, where I have seen perhaps five actual Japanese people. Essentially, there are no true opportunities to keep the language alive where I live. Two, I was one class away from a minor in Japanese at UNC when I was confronted by the choice of keeping my minor and losing my majors. I kept the majors and lost Japanese as a minor and thus had to drop the classes. I cried about it for a little bit and Emily consoled me in a way that only my fellow non-Romance-language comrade could. But, honestly, I was slightly relieved, because there was no way I could have taken and survived advanced Japanese my senior year (during which I was writing an honors thesis, working an internship, applying for jobs, and oh, planning my wedding). Japanese is a very difficult language to learn. This week, I’ve been remembering that fact with fresh attention.

I decided to learn Japanese when I was a child. My mother’s good friend Janet had lived in Japan for a number of years and had managed to maintain her knowledge of the language. She would tell fascinating stories about her life there and I quickly became enchanted. Japan sounded like a living fairytale kingdom to my 9-year-old ears. I announced to my mother that I wanted to learn Japanese. She told me that was great, but she didn’t have the ability to teach me such a difficult language. She wasn’t about to let my dream die, though. My mom found a handful of native Japanese women that lived in our city and hired them to teach me Japanese once a week. I learned the language through private tutoring from late elementary school through high school.

By the time I got to UNC, I placed into the second year of Japanese classes there and began more intensive study of the language. My primary goal was to get the chance to study abroad there. Through a series of amazing blessings, I was able to get a handful of scholarships to study abroad in Tokyo during the summer of 2008.

Living in a Japan for just a few months felt like the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. Even though it was one of the hardest summers of my young life, I loved my time there. My host family, especially my host mom, was unbelievably great. We would stay up after she had put the kids down and talk about culture, politics, and families in a wonderful mix of Japanese and English. My ability to speak and comprehend the language improved exponentially in just a few months. But the minute I returned to America, I came crashing down from this pinnacle of Japanese language achievement. After having to relinquish my minor, I lost almost all contact with the language that I had devoted myself to for so many years.

I don’t regret learning Japanese. I love the language–its crisp sound, its organized grammar structure, even its impossibly complex writing systems–and I love the Japanese people and culture. But it is not a practical language to learn. Unless you are a businessman from the pre-bubble 1980s or a total nerd about anime and manga, there isn’t much use for an American to learn Japanese today. This saddens me, but only briefly, because I feel very privileged to have had the opportunity to learn this beautiful–if increasingly obscure and “useless”–language.

For my weekly challenge, I bought this book at Barnes & Noble and it has been an excellent re-introduction to Japanese for me. The book, edited by Japanese scholar Michael Emmerich, takes six contemporary short stories by Japanese authors and then provides a gloss of the more difficult phrases for English-speakers and furigana over the kanji. The reading level is about what mine used to be and I have found it surprisingly easy to fall back into a pattern of comprehension. Kind of like getting on a bike again after a few years or something. I’ve also been studying old word lists, kanji sets, and trying to get into the habit of writing journal entries in Japanese again. So far, it’s been my most intellectually challenging week, but I have been very grateful for it.

WHAT I LEARNED:

  • Well, for one thing, dozens of new words that I will probably forget again because I have no real opportunity to use them. Although I have been told that the CEO of my company is fluent in Japanese…
  • Visual memory aids help me to retain my recognition of new kanji.
  • Reading out loud was very helpful for my comprehension. Although, when I listen to natives speak Japanese, I get lost in the words. My listening comprehension is not superb.
  • I don’t want to lose this language entirely. It still means a lot to me. I hope that when I’m 50, I’ll still be able to form sentences and recognize basic kanji. I need to find a way to keep this language present in my life.

Next week, I’ll be writing one letter each day to a series of my favorite correspondents. Stay tuned!

With my host family, the Koyasus, the night before I returned to the U.S.

Week 3: Red lipstick

In honor of my sister Grace, I am imposing a set of weekly challenges on myself. For 12 weeks, I will attempt a different “challenge” each week–to do one thing every day for seven days, ranging from serious to silly. At the end of each week, I’ll let you know how it goes.

Red lipstick and a new haircut. Eek.

When I was 16, I routinely gave the announcements at my church. We went to a wannabe mega-church then and so giving the announcements made me feel like a big deal. I had to wear a headset mic* and make sure my face was powdered and my tone was smooth. One morning, I decided I was going to wear red lipstick to give the announcements. I was “backstage,” waiting for my cue before I went on under the harsh lights. A man who worked in production came up to me. “Hey Abby,” he said, and then he looked intently at my face. “What are you wearing?” “Um,” I was startled. “A skirt?” He shook his head. “No, are you wearing lipstick? Red lipstick? Don’t you think you’re too young for that?” I was mortified. I didn’t answer him. As soon as he walked away, I grabbed a tissue from a nearby table and wiped it all off. My teenage pride was sorely offended.

I don’t know if there’s really a moral to this story. Maybe I was “too young” to wear red lipstick, but I don’t think I am now. I really like red lipstick, but I’ve been afraid of it ever since this incident. Part of my aim with these weekly challenges is to conquer mental fears and so, here we have the silly week 3: Wearing red lipstick every day for a week.

I don’t actually have a huge collection of red lipstick and I don’t really buy costly make-up products, as you can see, but here’s what I used:

  • Revlon lipstick in Ravish Me Red. I really love this shade–I wanted one with an orange-red tint–and this stuff is not playing around. It lasted for at least four or five hours. It did dry my lips out considerably, however.
  • Lancome lipstick in Fashion Crave Framboise (I don’t think they carry this anymore. Heh. It’s probably old.) This is not technically red, but I mixed it with some of the other shades on some days that I didn’t want to be screaming BRIGHT RED.
  • Burt’s Bees Lip Shimmer: Merlot. I can’t say enough good about Burt’s Bees’ products. I’ve been using their lip shimmers for years and I think they’re perfect. Inexpensive, light, and all-natural, they last fairly long and have great pigments.
  • Burt’s Bees Lip Shimmer: Raisin.

I’m always inspired by how great Kate from For Me, For You looks with red lips and was delighted to find her make-up review post recently. I definitely want to try MAC products, because the reigning women of the Blogosphere seem to stand by them pretty loyally.

WHAT I LEARNED:

  • When wearing red lips, tread very lightly with the rest of your makeup, else you look like a circus performer. This was a good exercise for me, because I tend to be a big blush girl.
  • I think I will always be the staunchest Burt’s Bees devotee. I just like the way their product looks and wears, even more than the expensive stuff (like the $30 Lancome, which was definitely a Christmas gift).
  • I really like playing with makeup. If I were rich, I’d probably spend an ungodly amount on makeup. I don’t really wear a lot of it–my makeup bag is quite small–but I love to experiment with new things. It’s like painting! On your face! Guion was surprised when I told him this and didn’t really understand when I tried to explain my enjoyment of makeup. But that’s because he’s a spoilsport and won’t let me put some mascara on his obscenely long and luxurious eyelashes…
  • I can wear red lipstick! I CAN!

Coming next: A week of reading and studying Japanese!