I rode first-class for the first time in my life on the train from London to Edinburgh. My friend recommended that I pay the extra cash because, in exchange, you get free unlimited food and drinks, as well as free Wi-Fi. Since the trip was a little over four hours, I thought it would be worth it. I didn’t really account for the fact that my train left at 9:30 am, meaning I wouldn’t really be capitalizing on the free unlimited alcohol, but whatever. It was nice to feel a little pampered.
I nearly missed my train. It was the hottest day in London in years, and for a modern city, they don’t really do a lot of air conditioning. The train from my friends’ flat where I was staying was crowded with commuters because it was peak rush-hour time (another miscalculation on my part), but I managed to squeeze on and stood in a corner with my rolling suitcase and large shoulder bag. The trip to downtown London, which normally takes about 15 minutes, ended up taking nearly 45 due to “signal problems.” New York and London: not really all that different. As I stood trying to corral my luggage from rolling or tipping over, I could feel the sweat rolling down the backs of my legs. I kept checking my watch, willing the train to move forward.
By the time I arrived at the train platform at King’s Cross, I had about five minutes to spare. I’d gotten on the Underground and then navigated to the ticket counter, printed out my tickets, and climbed aboard the first class carriage, sweaty and shaky and frazzled. Not the most glamorous start to my first-class voyage. The man sitting in the seat beside mine was one of those impeccable businessmen who spent the trip writing emails and barking into his cellphone. He helped me with my bag, begrudgingly, and then didn’t look my way for the rest of the trip. When the conductor came to check tickets and I handed her the wrong one by mistake (there were 5 different ones for one trip! How was I to know?), he shot her a look and said, “She’s got a lot going on.” I wanted to kick him.
Thankfully, he got off at Newcastle, and I enjoyed the last hour or so of the trip in solitude. I got a glass of rose and watched the Scottish countryside roll by. I felt myself calm down. This, this was what I came for, I thought.
I’ve never been the best traveler. Admittedly, I didn’t have much experience with the practice growing up. I took my first plane trip when I was 15, traveling to Disney World with my brother and aunt and grandmother. Before that, the only family vacation I’d been on was a road trip to New Hampshire when I was 10 or 11. I’d taken a few bus trips to New York City in high school, and visited Boston a few times with my friends. Mostly, what I knew of the world was confined to the northeastern tip of the country known as New England. And then, when I was 20, I got on a plane for the second time–this time bound for Florence, Italy, where I was to spend the next 9 months of my life. By that time, I was no more worldly, but I was eager to experience something different, something totally beyond my limited universe. But I was in no way prepared for the kind of isolating solitude and anxiety that gripped me in my year abroad.
For most college students, their junior year abroad, if they’re lucky enough to have one, is the year when they grow and change and learn and have romantic experiences like dancing drunk in piazzas and falling in love with foreigners. They backpack around the continent, drinking wine and sleeping in hostels and putting miles on a Eurorail pass. But my experience was markedly different. Though I spoke the language decently enough, I wasn’t good enough to fully express myself, and that was frustrating. My classes were difficult. I felt isolated from my friends and family. It was the furthest I’d ever been from home and I was completely out of my depths. This resulted in a nightmarish months-long battle with anxiety, which further isolated me from the few friends I had (there were only 5 of us from my college studying in Florence, and since we took classes at the University of Florence, I didn’t make many other friends). I didn’t have enough money to go traveling every weekend or out to bars every night like the other Americans scattered around the city. I ended up spending a lot of time in my bedroom, writing and listening to music on my Discman, my feet propped up on the radiator with the windows open. If nothing else, that year was formative for my writing.
My trip to the UK a couple of weeks ago was the first time I’ve been back in over a decade. Not because I haven’t wanted to go back, but because life is life, and money is money, and though I’ve gotten better, I’m still not the person who drops everything and plans a trip to another country. But my dear friend Karrin was getting married in England, and my other dear friends Mallory & Andrew had moved to London over a year ago, and I’d always wanted to go to Scotland, so the stars aligned and I made it happen.
So I set off, alone, from Boston. I stayed with Mal & Andrew in London and got to see them in the evenings when they got off of work. I also spent a day in London with two friends who were also attending Karrin’s wedding. I traveled to Edinburgh alone, though I was fortunate enough to be staying with Andrew’s mom when I got there. I met up with friends again back in England for the wedding, which was full of people and color and music and dancing and joy–tons of fun, and I’m so glad I went.
When people ask me how my trip was and what I did, I’ve had to respond that I mostly wandered around. I’d done minimal planning and without constant access to my phone, I often found myself at a loss for what to do or where to go when I was on my own in the city. I managed to keep myself busy and I always had a book with me (of course), so between the wandering, there was a lot of cups of tea and pints and poking around in shops and sitting in parks. One of my favorite moments in Scotland was sitting outside of the Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s residence, with my notebook, watching dogs playing fetch in the water and talking to a little boy who would periodically approach me with something new to show me, like his scooter or a bug or the handful of grass he pulled from the ground and sprinkled on my feet (it was cuter than it sounds). There were a lot of people napping or reading or playing catch and it was nice to just sit and observe for a while.
I do like traveling, but sometimes I catch myself wondering if it’s all worth it–lugging bags through crowded airports and confusing train stations, hot and crowded trains, delays and cancellations, hours-long journeys folding your body into a tiny seat next to strangers, hotels that run out of running water for two days (yes, that happened). There were many moments on this trip where I was happy to be there–mostly, when I was with my friends or looking around the Victoria & Albert Museum’s beautiful fashion exhibits or having tea & scones at a Scottish coffeeshop or the tiny thrill of figuring out how to navigate a completely foreign place. But there were also moments of feeling out of place, that alien feeling that comes when you’re alone and you’re not sure where to go or what to do. But now, even after only two weeks of being back home, I know it’s not those scattered moments of loneliness or panic I’ll remember. Instead, I’ll remember Holyrood Park and laughing with my friends over a ridiculous picture from the New York Times until my stomach hurt and playing musical chairs and dancing for hours at a wedding, and laughing at the absurdity of no running water while having a pint at England’s oldest inn, and the wedding after party in the bride & groom’s posh suite, and eating dinner with a kind stranger who was willing to welcome me into her home, and those moments of peace riding first class on the train to Edinburgh, not sure what I would find at my destination, but looking forward to it nonetheless.
I’ve done more public speaking this year than I typically do. In January, I participated in a Women in Clothes event at Harvard Bookstore. I recently began running a monthly meeting at work that requires more speaking. I surprised myself by getting up at a story slam and telling a story (for which I won first prize!). In my essay-writing class at Grub St., we had to read all of our essays aloud to the class. But, by far, the most challenging public speaking I needed to do was give the eulogy at my grandmother’s funeral in March.
I don’t like public speaking. I don’t much like private speaking, to be honest. I prefer writing. And silence. But when my grandmother died and we went to the funeral home to make arrangements, the funeral director gave us a book of readings to choose from for her funeral mass. My grandmother was a devout Catholic, and went to church every Sunday until she got too sick to go. But it didn’t seem right to me that these religious readings, talking about the grace of God and faith and Jesus, etc., were the only words to be said about my grandmother at her funeral. So I mentioned to my family that it was too bad there wasn’t an opportunity to say something more about her life. Cut to the next morning, when I got a phone call from my mother where she shared the “good news” that we were allowed to say some words about my grandmother at the end of the funeral mass–and that my family had nominated me for the job.
The word “eulogy” comes from ancient Greek, meaning “praise.” Apparently, any speech praising someone, whether it be for retirement or at a funeral, can be a eulogy, even though we most commonly associate its use with death. As I sat the afternoon before the funeral and tried to write my first eulogy, I realized the sheer weight of what I was attempting to do. I wasn’t just talking about what my grandmother had meant to me or giving biographical facts of her life–no, a good eulogy must encompass those things, but also, at the same time, try to encapsulate the essence of a person and what that person meant to everyone assembled to honor their memory. That task is daunting for anyone, but was especially daunting for me, realizing I’d only known my grandmother for a fraction of her life, and only in a capacity as a grandmother–she wasn’t my mother or my friend or my cousin or my sister, as she was to the others gathered at the church that day. I had to somehow make my limited experience and knowledge of her life stand for something larger, something that would be understood by everyone there.
But isn’t that what all good writing should aim to do? Make the personal universal in some way?
My great-uncle passed away two weeks ago. He was 94 and had been married to my father’s mother’s sister–the day of his funeral would have been their 71st wedding anniversary, had either of them been alive to see it. I like to think they were celebrating together, somewhere. Though perhaps a “great-uncle” isn’t typically a close relationship in one’s life, my uncle was a strong force in mine–one of my very favorite people in the whole world. He was sharp and thoughtful and kind and funny. He was the kind of person who was your best friend within 5 minutes of meeting you. In fact, though he’d lived on his own until very nearly the end, he’d needed to go to a nursing home to recuperate after falling recently, so he’d spent the last six weeks of his life there. In that short time, he’d made such an impression on one woman, who would visit her sister, also a patient there, that this woman came to his funeral, bearing a tray of homemade scones, which she explained was an Irish tradition.
His nephew, who’d been his primary caretaker, gave his eulogy at the funeral, and it was lovely. But it made me reflect, again, on how insufficient words are in the face of something as primal and permanent as death, and how limited our own experiences of people are. How no one person can ever truly know another person. There are too many facets, too many complicated inner workings and circumstances and thoughts.
But we try. And when words are one of the only things we have, we must make the most of them. Words can’t express what my grandmother or my uncle, or any other family member who’s passed away, meant to me. They also can’t express the sorrow I’ve felt for close friends who’ve suffered devastating loss. But they are something–perhaps not as good as scones, but they are something.
Lena Dunham. You love her or you hate her. She’s one of the most polarizing actors working today. Say what you will about her, she’s talented and fiercely determined and she’s an excellent (and necessary) role model for women.
A few days ago, Dunham posted a photo of herself in lingerie on Instagram. Given how frequently her character, Hannah Horvath, appears in various states of nudity on Girls, you wouldn’t think that this photo would be a big deal, but apparently, it was. Articles appeared in Bustle, the NY Daily News, PopSugar, the Daily Mail, and MTV. It was a “top news” item on Facebook. Most of the articles praised Dunham for her “body confidence” and her recent “weight loss.” It all feels a little bit like patting a child on the head for almost doing a good job. “Good for her!”
I am an unapologetic supporter of Dunham. I think she’s a great writer and I love that she is so vocal about her love of books and her support for Planned Parenthood. Of course, she’s taken some missteps. In reading her essay collection, Not That Kind of Girl, I was a little disappointed at the specificity of her experiences. But, as much as we love to foist this “voice of a generation” nonsense on her, Dunham does not speak for women of my generation–or women of ANY generation, for that matter. She speaks for herself, and for that, she should be applauded rather than torn down because her views and stories don’t always conform to what we think should be the views and stories of a certain “kind of girl.” Lena Dunham is “Not That Kind of Girl” because she is no “kind of girl” at all. She grew up in New York City, the incredibly privileged daughter of two acclaimed artists. Zac Posen was her babysitter. She was featured in the New York Times before she was eighteen–for having a sleepover. She had extensive therapy throughout her childhood, a luxury most children don’t have, despite similar struggles with anxiety and depression. Her viewpoint is a very unique one–and it’s also smart, entertaining, funny, and sometimes poignant. If you’re able to enjoy her work on an entertainment level, it’s great–it’s when you try to equate her experiences with yours that it loses its luster.
Dunham gives us a lot to talk about. Her work, on Girls, in film, in writing, and her activism should be plenty to keep the public busy. But, of course, what we hear most about Lena Dunham is about her appearance and her body–how much she shows of it, how much she should show of it, how “curvy” it is or isn’t, what her hair looks like, what an ugly dress she wore to the Oscars. Of course, we can’t get over our collective fascination with what Hillary Clinton is wearing or what her hair looks like, so I suppose it’s naive of me to hope for a cessation of talking about Lena Dunham’s body. So, in the spirit of “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,” here’s a collection of images showing Lena Dunham as a beautiful woman–because I think we need them, and I think that too often, discussion of her appearance is limited to how bad she looks. Because I follow her on Instragram, and when I saw that lingerie photo, I thought, “Hey, that looks like my body,” and we tend to underestimate how important that is, to see positive representations of all different kinds of bodies and appearances in the media.
What do you think of Lena Dunham?