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Love According to Rainer Maria Rilke

My college boyfriend introduced me to Rainer Maria Rilke. Beauty is only the first touch of terror, he quoted during one of our first conversations, leaving me speechless. I was convinced that he had read my mind; that he had intuited something deeper than I could express as I stumbled through an inarticulate explanation of my junior-year obsession with Blake and the “sublime.” I was more than intrigued. I was dizzy with the rare thrill of feeling implicitly understood. I knew his words were borrowed, but it was all mixed up together in the months that followed – a whirlwind of handwritten letters and a borrowed copy of the Duino Elegies and professions of love.  I had never read Rilke before and so I was in awe at the way his beautiful words seemed to expand inside me, making room for new thoughts and carving out places for new feelings.

When the dust settled, I wondered if maybe I hadn’t been so much in love with my college boyfriend as with Rilke.

I didn’t read  Letters to a Young Poet in college. But, reading it for the first time recently, it still took me right back to junior year, confirming my suspicions.  I hadn’t fallen for a boy in my third year American Literature class.  I had fallen for a long dead Austrian poet and his ideas of what love should be. The college romance might be a distant memory, but I still hold to Rilke’s singular belief in this exquisite, indomitable vision of love:

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Learning

Lessons From a Writing Workshop

In an admittedly frantic effort to make the most of the last year of my 20’s, I drafted a list back in January. This list consists of a ridiculously ambitious curriculum of workshops, classes, and books to be completed before my birthday in November.  And, although the list was born of a full-on panic that has since receded (at least for now), I’m still plugging away at it. Not because I feel obligated to follow through on a  neurotic resolution, but because these are things I’ve been wanting to do and study and read for as long as I can remember and I’m enjoying every minute of finally, actively pursuing them. What percentage of these self-ordained pre-reqs to my 30’s will actually be completed before I enter the next decade of my life remains to be seen, but I do know that I want to record my biggest takeaways from these little adventures. And I’ve decided my blog is as good a place as any to do so.

It seems appropriate that my inaugural post in this series should center on a writing class. Last weekend, I attended an all-day workshop at The Newberry Library, taught by Carol LaChapelle, the author of “Finding Your Voice, Telling Your Stories.” I’ve never attended any sort of writing workshop before, and so I made my way down the stairs into the Newberry basement with a certain amount of trepidation.  My nerves, however, were quickly erased by the easy humor of the teacher and the infinitely supportive environment she managed to create. By the end, I was voluntarily reading my work aloud for my classmates to critique, the very idea of which would have paralyzed me in fear only hours earlier.   In addition to pushing me so thoroughly outside my comfort zone, the workshop also offered the following, very useful bits of wisdom:

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Writing

The Living Room

I avoided the living room when I could, pristine white carpet stretching under straight-back furniture, breakable family heirlooms in every direction – the pocket watch my Great-Grandpa brought over from Switzerland and the faded black-and-white picture taken before my Great-Grandma left Austria – she and her parents and her nine siblings, all in their Sunday best, not a single smile in the bunch.

But for thirty minutes every evening, I was held hostage, shackled to the centerpiece of the living room, the antique upright piano my parents had seen advertised in the newspaper and purchased with the doomed hope that I might turn out to be a protégée concert pianist. I hated that beautiful piano, intricate floral carvings and real ivory keys, piled with the sheet music my fingers refused to learn, and topped with a taskmaster metronome.

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Writing

All Wrong

His mouth was all wrong. 

Everything was wrong . Sallow skin and sunken cheeks.  Over-slicked hair and the box he was lying in. But nothing was more wrong than his mouth, which had never before greeted me with anything other than a grin, now severe and unforgiving, forever set by the mortician in a cold, hard, unnatural line. 

The funeral director was asking if we wanted him buried with his wedding ring – and did we want to donate his glasses?  The slideshow was playing for the third time through and my most treasured childhood memories were on display, bizarrely accompanied by violins and kitchy lyrics. Visitors were telling me that I looked just like my mom and they were sorry for my loss. I would feel better in a month or so and we would see him again in heaven and 90 years is plenty long enough to have lived on earth, anyway.

“The things people say,” hissed my cousin, scowling beside me in the reception line.  “Death makes people stupid.”

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Thinking

On faith, doubt, and growing up in church

I have such happy memories of growing up in church. I remember vanilla wafers and flannelgraphs on Sunday mornings,  all the girls in our tights and ribbons, all the boys in their tiny jackets and miniature ties. I remember memorizing the books of the Bible to the tune of nursery rhymes and reciting verses in exchange for AWANA pins, trading prized “Bible cards” for candy, and earning Pioneer Girl badges for giving my “testimony.” I remember daydreaming about playing the coveted role of Mary in the Christmas pageant while perched in the baptismal as a manger-scene dove and singing a slightly off-tune Handel’s Messiah in the choir every Easter.

I made my first life-long friends in youth group and played out the awkward flirtations of my first crushes in the fellowship hall. There were road trips and lock-ins featuring elaborate games of Capture the Flag followed by contests to see who could stuff their mouth with the most whipped cream.  There was my nerdy junior high stage where I joined the church puppet team and my (obviously much cooler) high school phase where I joined the church drama club. There were service projects that turned into laughter-filled afternoons of paint fights or leaf-jumping, “missions trips” filled with white water rafting, and, of course, Nationals, where thousands of hormonally-charged Evangelical teenagers gathered every other year on a college campus to  rock out with Jeff Deyo, “rededicate their lives to Christ,” and scope out potential future spouses.

But there are less happy memories too.

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Writing

Contact

His fingers graze your knee like a side conversation as he talks about Vonnegut like he’s the first person to ever talk about Vonnegut and asks, with all the disarming sincerity in the world, if you consider yourself a feminist. You wonder when everyone in your life stopped talking like this – not that anyone in your life ever talked exactly like this – like “cheers – eye contact” and “what are you looking for?” and “are you happy?” – with exactly this mix of eager and guileless and curious and warm. It’s the way he offers his arm before the third round of whiskey that gets you. Or maybe it’s the way he grabs your hand after the fifth, as if, yes, of course, you must be touching, of course, you must share liquor-fueled kisses in shadowy doorways up and down Milwaukee Avenue. MacCallan on your lips as your make your escape like you can take or leave it. But you can’t quite forget the taste. Contact. You want it.  You want his fingers in your hair and his mouth on your neck.  You want skin on skin. But you’d settle for a text.

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