A Treatise on Fear, Inspired By A Birthday And Impending Mortality

I looked at it with one eye closed, then the other. I squinted at it. I turned it upside down. I turned around and looked at it over one shoulder. I turned myself upside down, turning metaphorical handstands trying to find some new perspective that would make this Thing look like anything other than what I was seeing, which was a dead end. Odd that it should be, considering this Thing was what I had spent so long hoping for and pursuing.

If you’d told me in my freshman year of college (or my sophomore, junior, or senior years, for that matter) that I would be 25 before I had my first full-time, permanent job, I would have broken out in hives. If you’d told me I would spend three whole years of my life after graduating from college NOT being whatever it is I thought I was supposed to be after graduating from college, I would either have had a panic attack or been so thoroughly demoralized that I’d have needed an entire gallon of ice cream and a week’s worth of pep talks just to buck up enough to continue going to classes.

Because that’s not how the script is supposed to go. I don’t think I ever felt owed a job just for having a college degree, but I certainly didn’t expect that once I had one I’d still be found so ineligible that three years (and a few months spare change) might pass before I was found acceptable for any position.

Of course, they weren’t three empty years spent sitting on a couch in my parents’ house just being miserable and constantly applying for jobs. I worked three internships, volunteered at multiple institutions in my field, went to graduate school, and held a part-time job as a research assistant. But none of that had been intended. None of that was in The Plan. The Plan was to get a full-time job. Be a functional adult. Establish a life for myself.

So three years later, staring down the barrel of the fulfillment of those hopes and expectations, looking at the prospect of a full-time, permanent job in the field in which I want to work, why could I see nothing but a dead end? The mental acrobatics were to no avail, and I realized with some dismay that it wasn’t the job offer or my perspective that were the problem. It was my heart.

[[Listen, Monica, can we just have one blog post where you’re not overcome by your own melodrama?]]

[[No.]]

When you’re in your early twenties, people are eager to tell you how much time you have. The dialogue surrounding new graduates every spring is “You’re so young! You have so much time. You can travel around the world. You can take a job across the country and just pick up and go. You can go out and meet lots of new people. You can spend your money on nights out and fun experiences. You can, you can, you can! Do it now, while you have the freedom and the time – all the time in the world.”

At some point the dialogue starts to shift. “When are you finally going to settle into a job? When are you going to stop daydreaming about backpacking across Europe – you have rent to pay and responsibilities here. When are you finally going to put down roots – in places, in people, in permanence? When, when, when? Do it now, before time runs out.”

To be clear, I don’t think I’ve reached that shift quite yet. It may feel like I’ve lived lifetimes since I graduated college, but 25 isn’t so far removed from 21 that I woke up with one foot in the grave when it arrived this morning. Nevertheless, it’s hard to ignore the extra weight my major life decisions seem to have gained now that I’m officially in the second half of my twenties. This is the only quarter life crisis I plan on having, and it’s not even a very big one, so I’d like to make the most of it.

About a year out from graduation, one of my dear friends joked that my life was still progressing by semesters, and he was right. Four months of an internship. Four months volunteering. Four months of another internship. Then I went to grad school and it just kept going. Like all the years before graduation, the three years since have been defined by time passing in discrete units of activity. I have become intimate with, though not endeared to transience. It’s difficult to imagine living any other way.

Hence the dead end. This isn’t just your garden variety millennial phobia of commitment. I’m acquainted with opportunity cost and I don’t particularly mind paying its fees. It’s just that I have literally never known a life in which there was not an escape hatch – a bad class ends at the end of the semester, a bad school year ends in May, an internship that doesn’t suit doesn’t last more than a few months.

Of course, the flip side is that good things end, too. I don’t think I’ve ever loved living in a place as much as I loved living in Wales, but that time ended with my graduate program.

New graduates transition into a world without built-in routes of extraction, but it seems less fearsome when faced by all the promise of the young professional in their early twenties, flexible and free and all the time in the world to figure things out. Sure, life after graduation can be overwhelming and confusing, but then it’s supposed to be.

By 25, it seems as if I’m supposed to have a little more figured out.

I suppose the (not so) secret is that no one really has it figured out.

I could take this job and have it turn out to be a terrible fit. I may not be able to build a community, I may end up lonely and frustrated, I may crash and burn and be terrible at it. And in a year from now when I’ve figured that out, I can move on to something else. I’ll be older, yes, and wiser, hopefully, and maybe I won’t have the energy I once did as I drag my ancient, creaking, 26-year-old bones back into the job search. Still, that’s hardly a death sentence.

Or the job could turn out to be great, I guess. There’s always that little possibility.

Fear is an ugly little thing that will distort everything we look at if we give it the opportunity. Even when we’re looking at something we’ve worked for, waited for, hoped for, broken for, longed for – whether that be a job, a relationship, an award, a new living situation, a personal achievement, or anything else. Fear will ask if it’s actually everything you wanted, whether it might not still disappoint you, whether it will be enough.

Maybe it will, or maybe it won’t. Either way, if you’re alive then you still have time to change. If you are breathing, you still have time to grow, adapt, and make new plans. And you don’t have to let Fear be any part of it.

Even if you’ve just turned 25. ☠️

The Grief of Beauty

A year and a week ago, I was sitting on the ruined stone wall of a ruined stone castle, peering intently at the whitecaps in Cardigan Bay to catch a glimpse of the diminutive grey dolphins that could barely be seen cresting the waves in the fading light of sunset…

And I thought to myself how ill-prepared we are for such moments. We hear often that “you never know what you’ve got until it’s gone,” or the laments of those who wish they’d known they were in the Good Old Days before those good old days had passed. But what happens when you’re fully aware of how precious and perfect a moment is, and fully aware that it is slipping away even as you’re in it?

My year abroad in grad school wasn’t perfect by any means, but it was full of such moments – lightning-in-a-bottle moments that, if they were not electrifying in their intensity in the moment, at least sizzled at the edges with a kind of self-conscious ephemerality.

This sense of grief for a loss we haven’t yet endured, the imminence of which we sense even in the midst of the beauty we experience, is a strange thing. It suffuses the whole with a kind of wistfulness – a commingling of joy and sorrow that, despite its commonality to all human experience, is still not a sensation with which many people seem prepared to grapple.

A year and two days ago, I watched the Welsh coastal flats slide into lush English countryside as the Transport for Wales service bore me away from my little town at the end of the railway line and towards my flight home…

And I thought about all the times I’d ever bid farewell to a place, knowing deep down in my bones that I’d never return. The most recent was on the peak of Cadair Idris. After a hard climb, I had sheltered into a tumble of large stones to avoid the wind while I ate and contemplated the scene in front of me. The clouds were whirling past with breathless quickness, shredding themselves in their haste on the surrounding mountain peaks as they chased patches of undaunted sunlight down into the dappled valleys. I was nearing the end of my final term and had a great deal on my mind as I climbed that day; watching the play of sun, cloud, and wind from my rock niche at the summit was a good place for thinking. Just before I stood up to begin the descent I had the sudden, unsettling understanding that in all probability I would never set foot on those stones again.

Or some time before, there was the moment I stood ankle-deep in an icy, snow-fed stream in the shadow of the Austrian Alps, watching a thunderstorm roar down the pine-covered foothills. I was surrounded by the scent of bright red roses, tangled in untame profusion in the nearby bushes. Only moments later I would dash past them barefoot when the first sweeping spray of the storm arrived to race me back to shelter. In that brief moment of almost suspended reality, I knew there could be no replicating the wild and earthy exaltation of a footrace with a summer storm in the Alps, and I could feel that it was certainly the last time I would ever step in that stream in Lofer.

As soon as I stepped out of those places, out of those moments, they would be gone.

What a gift to realize this while I was still standing in them! Because the realization of what was passing pressed me to remain, just a few breaths longer, in the exquisite confluence of wonder and goodness and beauty they generated.

A year ago today, I sat precisely where I sit right now – on a chair in my parents’ family room, tired, tapping away on my keyboard, and wondering deeply about the narrative of my life…

And I thought of all the places I’ve ever been that I never expected to see again, yet somehow, through the inscrutable twistings and turnings of chance, found myself passing through once more: the prison-turned-museum-collections-building I once toured as a fresh-faced 19 year old, where I now work, five years later; the hospital chapel in Germany where I was baptized; or one specific bench in Heathrow’s Central Bus Station that in 2016 I thought I’d never have any reason to sit on again, but has several times since been the rigid perch for my weary body as I’ve passed hither and yon across the UK.

Not all of these places have been connected with moments so lovely that the very fact of their ending occasioned a sweet kind of heartache. Many of them were exceedingly ordinary moments in exceedingly ordinary places.

And my life seems to be much more of that ilk lately. I realize that right now, in late June 2020, to talk about plans falling through or changing or being impossible to make is de trop at best, galling at worst. I likewise realize that few (if any) people are naturally finding moments of intense goodness and beauty and awe while confined in quarantine, struggling to re-enter the world after so long in isolation, or grappling in general with the world as we find it today.

For me, that has made it all the more important to create space for them. This, in turn, means reigning my perspective back in from the far corners of my life where it tends to wander.

I, like many people, have spent much of my life Janus-faced, gaze locked behind and ahead, spanning in an arc from the No Longer to the Not Yet without troubling about the Now. But if the speed with which the last year has passed is anything to go by, my No Longer is being whisked away into distant memory as surely and steadily as the Welsh coast disappeared on that long-ago train ride out of Aberystwyth. My Not Yet is as unclear as it has ever been. All I have is this long, dragging, interminable Now, and it is my responsibility to meet it well.

As I came up on the first anniversary of my departure from Wales, my reflections ran deep on my experiences there and how they could speak to my life now. There were certainly many moments, gilded and bittersweet, that invited me to be still and soak them in. I have grieved, and in a way I continue to grieve for those beautiful times in my life that have passed.

But pass they have, and grief comes to an end. It is this reflection that is helping me meet the Now bravely.

In this weary world of confusion and distress, the temptation to despair or become despondent is strong, but if moments of beauty can be sorrowful because they will soon be gone, cannot moments of sorrow likewise be beautiful, in the surety that they do not last forever? I think our greatest allies right now lie precisely there – in Hope and in Beauty, and in our willingness to seek both through our grief and tears. I believe it is only when we hold goodness, truth, and beauty before our eyes that we have the courage and conviction to live well and love deeply in these trying times.

I’m re-reading the Lord of the Rings series right now, as I do every year, and I’m struck again by Tolkien’s profound understanding of the interplay of these transcendent virtues. I’m no Tolkien scholar, and others have written more articulate and intelligent analyses of his themes, but I will end here with a timeless quote from The Fellowship of the Ring that applies particularly well to our current circumstances:

“The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.”

Well, Here We Go Again.

It’s 9:00 p.m. on December 31st, 2019, and I’m sitting in a basement, illuminated by the twinkling lights of a Christmas tree, thinking about what to write on my mostly-defunct blog. I’ve been turning it over in my mind for the last several days, but still haven’t come up with a good idea.

“Well, why are you here, then?”

Fantastic question. You see, I realized the other day that I haven’t written anything in this space since last November. November of 2018, that is. And if I didn’t post something by tonight, I would have gone the entirety of 2019 without writing a single thing on my blog. Not the biggest crime in the world, of course – it wasn’t even on my radar until quite recently, which means it very probably wasn’t on anyone else’s radar at all.

But I’ve posted something – at least one thing – every single year since this blog was created, and as I sit here awash in the potential of a new year, it seems like a poor time to break that completely meaningless streak.

Therefore, here we are. But may I be honest? [And if not with you, dear faceless stranger on the internet, with whom should I share all my secrets?]

I feel weird. Tonight feels weird. I’m stone cold sober, watching That’s Entertainment on Turner Classic Movies with my grandparents, and thinking about how weird the world feels at the moment.

Maybe it’s because I’m nowhere near where I thought I’d be come 9:07 p.m. on December 31st, 2019. Personally, professionally, spiritually, financially, physically – you name it, and it didn’t go like I planned this year. Not always in a bad way, but never in an expected way.

Maybe it’s because 2020 is the first year of the new decade, and the first year in the last decade that I haven’t had a plan or the faintest clue of what I’m going to be up to. Maybe it’s because that doesn’t cause me any anxiety, which, believe me, is a new thing for my personality, and my brain chemistry is trying to compensate by making me feel weird about everything else.

2019 was terrible and wonderful all in one go. It was triumph and discovery as equally as it was defeat and confusion, but that’s probably true for most people in one respect or another. I showed up for some people and let others down. I doubted and I persevered and felt alive in a way that’s only possible when you’re sitting alone on a cliff by the sea drinking deeply of salt air sweetened by the scent of gorse drenched in sunshine. I also spent a lot of time in a windowless basement room stretched to capacity by the balancing act of family life, work, and thesis writing.

A year of contrasts. Most years are like that, I think. I can’t believe it’s possible for a human to feel or be or act one way for 365 days straight. It wouldn’t be healthy. And like each one before, the refining fire of this year polished off a few more rough edges and is now ushering us into the next one to do it all again in an infinite variety of new ways.

In any case, it’s now 10:03 p.m. on December 31st, 2019 (I got distracted by the show for a while, sue me), and I’m thinking that whether it’s “weird” or any other emotion (take your pick), New Year’s Eve is for feeling a lot – it’s for feeling everything, in fact. The weight of everything you’ve felt for a year, accomplishment and failure, summit and valley, imbued with all the finality of a closing book.

To be alive at 10:11 p.m. on December 31st, 2019 is to feel the weight of the past twelve months unalloyed by the illusory promise of time, because in 1 hour and 49 minutes: quod scripsi, scripsi, as it were.

Apparently, I get cerebral when I feel weird at 10:17 p.m. on December 31st, 2019, so I stop to get eggnog (spiked with whiskey, obviously) and rejoin the clock at 10:34 p.m.

I don’t have much else to say, frankly. I didn’t plan this out before I started writing off the cuff. I assume that’s apparent. Now that I have my alcohol, though, I can close with this:

To those of you who got kicked in the gut this year; to those of you who conquered mountains, literal or figurative; to those who are feeling everything tonight; to those for whom New Year’s Eve is just another night like any other (and are currently climbing into bed because there’s no reason to stay up until midnight); to those whose plans were ruined and to those who discovered new dreams; to the nighttime nostalgics; to the people who eschew the rearview mirror for the hope glimpsed through the windshield…

I see you.

It’s 10:45 p.m. on December 31st, 2019, and I see you. I raise my glass of creamy whiskey eggnog in your direction, and I drain it in your honor. I don’t know what 2020 will be for any of us, but I’m rooting for all of us as we end this day, this month, this year, and this decade so brand new ones can begin.

Cheers!

Thoughts on Remembrance Day

I’m supposed to be writing a paper right now, because I’m in grad school and pretty much all I do these days is read and write and read some more in support of writing.

HOWEVER.

This November 11th is a particularly important November 11th, and despite the superabundance of more eloquent people writing more beautiful words about it than I could ever dream of much less put on paper (… or a web page), I decided to sidle on over to my corner of the internet and jot down a couple things I’ve been thinking about in the run up to this Remembrance Day.

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Two years ago, I walked through this cemetery and wept. I wasn’t embarrassed about it, primarily because I was the only person there. Only living person, that is. I did have an audience of 2,289 young men who lay in the ground, eyes to the sky, containing in them only the life force with which hope and memory can animate the dead.

These young men had been cried over before, but nearly a century ago. After the guns fell silent on the western front, at precisely 11:00 am on 11 November, 1918; after the celebrations and the feelings of relief and triumph; as men gathered at Versailles to pin down the details of an ill-fated peace treaty; the American government realized that between combat and disease it had around 70,000 fresh graves an ocean away from the homeland of their occupants. Without any better idea of what to do, it asked the families of the fallen to decide where they wanted their fathers, uncles, brothers, and sons to lie. Over the next several years, thousands of these men returned home, but more than 30,000 of their comrades remained behind in plots of land France generously gifted to her erstwhile combat ally.

After lobbying from the Gold Star Mothers’ Association through the following decade, Congress enacted legislation in 1929 that authorized the Secretary of War to arrange for free pilgrimages to the European cemeteries “by mothers and widows of members of military and naval forces of the United States who died in the service at any time between April 5, 1917, and July 1, 1921, and whose remains are now interred in such cemeteries.” The women who had carried and raised these soldiers, sailors, and Marines – who had waved them off to war – now came in droves to bid them farewell.

Aisne-Marne throughout the 1930s was the site of reunions of the most grievous nature. I considered them as I passed through the headstones, kept immaculate by members of the American Battle Monuments Commission. The ABMC is the guardian of America’s overseas commemorative cemeteries and memorials, and is committed in these spaces to keeping the grass trimmed, the walkways clear, the flowers fresh, and the grave markers free of dirt and decay – even if the only method of quality control is one twenty year old roaming the premises in tears.

I spoke the engraved names as I passed them by – a habit I developed during my time trawling through muster rolls and reading through letters. Corporal William Barnett, USMC. First Lieutenant James Scarr, USA. Private George McIlroy, USMC. Private Patrick Cronin, USA. Private Curtis Henry, USMC. PFC Jasper Thomason, USA.

When was the last time their names were spoken? When was the last time their existence was made material – incarnate, rather than intangible memory? Many had died as young men – just boys, really – and hadn’t started families of their own. Were there Tierneys and Pedrantis and Kowaliskis tucked away in the corners of America, with faded sepia service photos hidden in scrapbooks and half-remembered tales of a great-grand-uncle in the service whispered down through the generations? Or had their names died with them?

I consider now the words of 1Lt Ralph Eaton, who served with the 26th Division of the U.S. Army at the Aisne-Marne. They were shared by @pptsapper, an Army officer and military historian whom I follow on Twitter, and are part of a body of Eaton’s unpublished remembrances. Eaton lost many men in the wheat fields on and around the grounds of the Aisne-Marne cemetery, and had this reflection:

“Again, at Chateau-Thierry, I felt this community of death when I walked through the wheat fields beyond the Bois de Belleau, and saw the rigid figures and sightless faces of the men whom I had known and spoken with the day before. Pitiful & eloquent spots of brown, inert like the earth, lying calmly in the lanes through the wheat, along which they failed to mount with their comrades to the hill and the woods above, they died with their faces to the front; and they called to us then, and still call to us.”

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Faces to the front.

You see, the power of this Remembrance Day is not just that these men sacrificed their lives. As moving as that sacrifice was and is, innocence died in more ways than one on those French fields a century ago, and the world is still grappling with the ramifications. Of course, the boys who lay in the Aisne-Marne and other American cemeteries in Europe wouldn’t necessarily understand or even recognize the world they helped create, but it was inexorably wrenched from the crucible that took their last breaths.

Empires fell. A scientific revolution of new technologies was begun. Seeds of resentment and violent extremism were sown in the language of peace negotiations. The brothers-in-arms for whom these men died returned to their homes and began the social struggles that would give birth to the American Legion and the civil rights movement. The October Revolution in 1917 birthed the Soviet Union; WWI led to WWII; and the Cold War between the U.S. and USSR after WWII led to “hot” wars in Korea and Vietnam. The world’s first institutionalized department for the study of international politics was created, because the world craved peace and was dedicated to figuring out how to achieve it.

I am as surely caught up in the legacy as the rest of the world. I have personally slipped in the muddy trenches of Belleau, and watched the wind bend the wheat stalks in the field beyond, as if to conceal the movement of crawling infantrymen; I have crested Mont Blanc and through letters have accompanied 1stLt John McHenry, Jr., USMC, to his death there; I have been staggered, more often than I’d like, by the words of a man writing home to his dead friend’s mother, rendered helpless by a century’s displacement as he struggled to communicate an impossible comfort through his sorrow. I have tried to help them reclaim their voices by bringing their stories to the modern world (or participated in the effort through my work with the historians at the Marine Corps History Division). I am now a graduate student in the very same Department of International Politics created in response to the world-shattering war they fought. I am only a small voice, but I carry theirs with me into a world increasingly disconnected from the vision they shared.

Tens of thousands of American men surged into Europe in 1917/1918 and promptly vanished from the earth – but not from history. Many tens of thousands more from France, Britain and its colonies, Canada, Belgium, Australia, and elsewhere fought and died for each other and, whether they knew it or not, for us – for the establishment of a better, more peaceful future. Their names are etched in marble and stone and memory around the world. How we respond to their legacy, and the legacy of all those veterans who survived the war and returned home to pick up the threads of a civilian life as best they could, still has the power to define the footprint of “the Great War.”

As an historian, I can’t say my vision has always been “face to the front,” but I can say that when I look back I meet the gaze of those who came before. Their memory is now our responsibility. Maybe, if we choose to remember them well, we have a chance at reaching the peace for which they gave themselves.

Dear 23

Hello my darling girl,

Just recently I canvassed why I’m not entirely on board with writing letters to past versions of myself, so I don’t imagine I’ll ever get a response to this one from you.  But what about writing letters to my future self?  I haven’t read many letters like that – although there is an entire WikiHow (that I didn’t read) on how to do it appropriately.

It makes sense.  Obviously if I were to write to 31 July 2017 Monica there is an entire year of stories to be told, wisdom to be communicated, and secrets to tell.  They would shock her socks off if she were the kind of girl who ever wore them.  But writing to 31 July 2019 Monica is an entirely different proposition.  There is nothing about me now that you don’t already know, except the stuff you’ve forgotten, which to be fair is pretty par for the course with our terrible memory.  That’s not a trait that will have changed in the next 365 days.

I exist in a liminal space.  I am no longer 22, and I am not yet the full 23 this year will teach me to be.  Birthdays are like the witching hours of life, where the veil between who I was and who I will be is thinnest and spirits can cross over (*is the comparison I would use if I weren’t actually terrified of demons – no version of Monica plays around with demons).  In any case, as I push forward into the relentless unforeseen wherein you make your home, I thought I’d write you and we’d have a chatty little monologue.

Are you embarrassed of me yet?  I’ve spent most of my adult life in varying degrees of self-castigation for the people I was before I was this person, and I wonder if and when you’ll have grown past me.  This is the best version of me I’ve been thus far, but I have high hopes you will do even better.  The never ending personal construction gig we share can be exhausting, and I confess I’m sometimes tempted to leave it all in your capable and hopefully-less-procrastination-prone hands.  But then life rarely goes long (especially these days) without throwing some new wrench in my plans, circumstance in my path, or perspective-shifting event into my arena that forces me to pick up my tools and begin rebuilding.  Just a mending of the fences of my mental frameworks here,  a shoring up of the emotional foundation there, a power washing of the spiritual windows through which the sunlight comes flooding in…

There will always be maintenance and upkeep to be done, of course – the wear and tear of my continued willingness to play with the world, even when she plays rough – but I hope by the time you inherit this old home I’ve done my work well enough that you can settle right in.

And I hope you invite people into it!  Ours isn’t a grand mansion with sparkling floors and a gallery of white statues (à la Matthew Macfadyen’s Pemberley), built to be orderly and keep company at arm’s length.  Nope, we’re going more for the cozy cottage aesthetic, complete with the welcome of a warm hearth, plush armchairs for Long Conversations, and a mudroom for boots freshly dirt-spattered from sojourns in the great wide world.  If I could wish one thing for you, and aspire to it myself, it would be that you get dirty, down to your bones, with the experience of a life well-lived.

And I don’t mean just traveling, or saying yes to adventures (although I wish those for us too).  I mean learning how to meet heartbreak and joy with equal fortitude.  I mean being broke and being broken and still being convinced that even when life’s not great, it’s good.  I mean recognizing that magic sparks at the edges, where your world comes into contact with new ideas, new challenges, and new opportunities to choose love over fear.  I mean asking yourself the big questions over and over again, because not only will you answer them differently as you grow up (a prognostication given here with all the cheerful assurance of someone still very much in the middle of the process), but the act of grappling with them will itself change you.  I mean having the audacity to believe you are more than the sum of your yesterdays.  I mean walking fearlessly in fearsome places.

I still haven’t gotten it quite right, and now I get to pass the buck up to you.  It’s a big job, but to be fair you are way more of a boss than I was when 21 turned the reins over to me.  She scampered off into the sunset just as Life showed up with a sledgehammer to wreck things, and all she could do was sort of shout unhelpful suggestions from past experience as I floundered my way through.  The fact that I can even articulate the above is perhaps the best evidence that I learned enough to gift you a firmer foundation.  This is what privilege feels like.  I hope you appreciate it.

Having said all that, I’d rather your arrival here not be overshadowed by the weight of expectation, especially mine.  I’ve been down that road before, and all it helped me do was befriend Disappointment.  She’s not a particularly pleasant dinner companion, so I’m choosing instead to be your friend.  I’m on your side.  I have no expectations, but I do have hope in who you are and what you will do as a result.

So go play!  Get dirty.  Learn.  Speak humor into the new and innovative ways you’ll find to fail, and don’t fear a single damn thing, my love.  If there’s one thing I’ve learned for absolutely positively definitely sure and certain in the last year it’s that your soul is lined with grace.  Even if everything falls apart, you will still be whole.

I haven’t met you yet, but you are my creation.  I’m already proud of who you are, because I am already proud of who I am.  I will breathe into you what is best in me and set you free to make it better.  I know better than anyone what tremendous potential for improvement you still carry, but neither of us should discount the distance you’ve already traveled; we’re talking a Shire-to-Mordor odyssey, kid, of rivers forded and mountains climbed.  I don’t have any words of wisdom for you like I might have for 22, and you already know how much I adore you so there’s no use in my saying it again.  I probably will, though, because you’re already one of my favorite people and life’s too short not to be generous with your love, especially with yourself.

I’m gonna get out of here in a minute and let you get to the business of living, but I have one final request.  My deathbed wish, if you will.  In the words of Christine Daaé, think of me fondly once I’ve said goodbye.  We tend to be harder on one another than anyone else is.  I screwed up a bunch, to be sure, but I tried awfully hard.  I know you will too.  I’m already praying for you.

With love always,
No-Longer-22

Dear 22

I’m an obnoxious person by nature, and I tend to respond to hypothetical questions with more questions – sometimes to avoid having to answer them, sometimes just to lay out all the hypothetical ground rules so as to give the best possible answer.

For example: “What would you say to your past self, if you could?”

Well, that depends.  To which past Monica are we referring?  There have been several, and most of them weren’t good at taking advice.  Are we predicating this question on the idea that she might then change her behavior, thereby changing the nature of her lived experience and preventing me now from giving her the advice she needs then?  Are there things I’m not allowed to tell her?  Most of the blogs I read that write letters to their past selves stick to pretty general life advice like “trust yourself,” or “you can’t control everything, so enjoy the ride,” and “wear sunscreen.”  This is good advice, as it goes, but to be frank, if I were to talk to my past self I could not be stopped from saying, “Don’t waste your money on this sorority you don’t want to be in; be careful on your way home from small group on this night because you’re going to blow out a tire and it’s going to be the worst night of your summer; here’s a thumb drive with every paper you’ll have to write in college, congrats on finishing all your homework four years early.”

None of that is actually good advice.  It’s revoltingly cliche, but each one of those experiences (joining the sorority for like three weeks, blowing out the tire, and having to write every single dang one of those 100+ papers) was an indispensable formative episode.  Even those life experiences on which I reflect with chagrin and can’t mentally move on from are necessary lessons learned.  And this last year, the year of being 22, was full of the kinds of hard experiences I don’t think I should take away from myself.

Even knowing that, I would still have to be physically restrained from inflicting my current knowledge on past me.  Why?  Because anything less than that would be ineffective. How so?

Um… turns out life is hard.  Transitions are the worst, change sucks, post-grad life when you don’t have a job or a plan is a long slog of uncertainty, panic, tears, and feelings of inadequacy, and there is literally no way of speaking to someone in those situations without being in the middle of them.

A wise old man I know (it was Dumbledore) said, “Youth can not know how age thinks and feels, but old men are guilty if they forget what it is to be young.”  This doesn’t mean just remembering what it’s like to feel like a directionless screw up, but what it’s like to feel like a directionless screw up being told by other people whose lives have apparently worked out more successfully that, “everything will work out fine.”

I think I was sounding out the edges of this idea in my incredibly angsty blog post of last summer, What Not To Say To An Unemployed Recent Grad (which I don’t even want to link, because really I knew as I was posting it that I was doing it from a place of bitterness – but here it will stand, a testament to the acidity of my temper last summer).  I have both a job and a plan at the moment, and I don’t feel like a directionless screw up, so I’m not reflecting from the inside this time.  But I was talking to one of my coworkers this week who just graduated with her MA and is fresh into the job search, and we were commiserating on this very fact.  It doesn’t do her any good to hear from her parents that “something will come along.”  Objectively, we know that’s true.  But that doesn’t diminish how hard it is to be in the middle of the storm.

It’s like when parents tell their 15-year-olds to stop being so dramatic about petty high school problems.  Yeah, objectively, the problems are insignificant.  But to that kid they’re the whole world, not because their priorities aren’t straight but because they’re in the middle of it and don’t have the perspective of having walked through it and lived a life on the other side.  Offering a banal “this won’t last forever,” is like a person on dry land shouting, “just keep swimming and you’ll make it” to someone who is only halfway across the English Channel – yes, I know that’s how it works, but I am exhausted and currently in the process of doing this hard thing, and you tossing me truisms from your place of comfort isn’t helping.

Whoa, hello there suppressed bitterness.

Anyway, as I was reflecting on my upcoming birthday I was thinking about how many of my early-20s peers write letters to their past selves that contain those very same kind of platitudes: “everything will be fine,” “learn to let go of control,” “find joy where you are.”  All of which are, perhaps, objectively true/good advice.  But if I’d come across August-2017-Monica crying on the front steps of the house because her life felt like it was in tatters and I sat next to her and said, “Don’t stress so much, everything is going to be fine,” I’m almost certain she would have thrown off the comforting arm and with impolite language told me what I could do with my advice.

Now, if I’d sat next to her and said, “In a month you’re going to be accepted to grad school. After that you’re going to work in three separate museums to earn experience and a very little bit of money  for said grad school, and there are a couple of people who are going to be particularly impressed with your work.  You’re going to be home in the spring when your parents need you, and you’re going to be with your grandparents in the summer when they need an extra pair of hands. You’re going to start a vlog.  There are going to be a couple rough patches in late January and early June, so make sure you’re extra nice to yourself then, but aside from that you’re actually going to find a way to be sort of happy.  That’s as far as I’ve gotten, but I’ll report back from the front lines as often as I can.  For now, let me hold you while you cry.”

That would have gone over much better.

But then, of course, if I were writing a letter to freshly-22-year-old me I shouldn’t say those things because it obviates a lot of the struggle she’s going to go through to get me where I am now.  To get here, to be in a position to offer her that kind of advice, I needed every single one of those distraught, tearful episodes.  I needed to know what it was like to wrestle with God in the darkness, praying desperately for answers and guidance and some kind of assurance that I hadn’t been abandoned.  I needed to know, intimately, the feeling of walking through uncertainty – the feeling of day after apparently pointless day sliding across my anxious skin – to understand that I had settled my certainties on every incorrect metric imaginable: employment, certain relationships, even my appearance.

Even knowing how hard the journey has been, I wouldn’t want to give my past self an easy way out.  And I know it would be useless to give her any milder kind of general encouragement. Which leaves me with what?

Dear 22,

I have nothing to say to you that will be helpful.  I wish your heart wouldn’t break so often this year, because it’s uncomfortable, and I know you don’t like to be uncomfortable.  I don’t like it either.  But your comfort is immaterial to your growth – in fact, for the most part, it rather hinders it.  When your life feels most overwhelming, think of the morning you will wake up and know this period of time as preparation rather than punishment.  I’ll be waiting there.  Pray hard.  Wear sunscreen.

Love,
Almost-23

Lyrics & Light

Have yourself a merry little Christmas…

I don’t really have the heart of a poet. I once wrote a poem whose first stanza read:
Heroes, heroes, they’re so great,
They’re not real, some people say.
But I know they are here.
Heroes, heroes, kick into gear.

To be fair, I was six years old when I wrote it, but I’m not sure I’ve improved much since then. And yet… every autumn there’s a little Monica in the corner of my heart who puts on a beret and a scarf, buries her face in a flower while looking through a cafe window into the middle distance, and starts Thinking Deep Thoughts about the world. First it’s the changing color of the leaves, then it’s the end of a year and all its attendant nostalgia and reflection, and then it’s the coming of a new year with all its newness and promise… even though the internet is riddled with blog posts every September to December with the same platitudes about change and the passing of seasons, my deep-feeling, reflective heart laps it up with delight.

I hadn’t intended to write a holiday post, but a couple of days ago Judy Garland came a-crooning on one of my Christmas playlists and since then the poetic corner of my heart has been batting around some Thoughts without any sign of relenting, so here we are.

Let your heart be light…

Have you looked at the world lately? In recent months it’s felt like our world has been fading into darkness like someone’s installed a cosmic dimmer switch and is slowly sliding it downwards (both figuratively and physically).

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While driving home from work in the deepening gloom a few days ago, Judy Garland serenaded me with “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” I’ve never been one to have a favorite Christmas song, but this year my girl Judy and her rich vocals are a strong contender. With exquisite self-awareness, this song wraps your heart up and deposits it directly inside the emotional contradiction of this time of year, which lies somewhere between hope and sorrow.

This “most wonderful time of year,” while decked out in the trappings of joy and celebration, has a disconcerting way of making us aware of all the missing pieces of our lives. The people we’ve lost, the plans we’ve made that have failed to come to fruition, and the unexpected twists of fate of the past year that have knocked the wind out of us.

What brings me hope is that humans peered into the darkness of December, the darkness of the death of a year, and decided if the universe wasn’t going to provide us light we would create our own. We climb up on houses to hang bright colorful bulbs, and strategically position candle-lit wreaths in our windows. We light menorahs, kinaras, and Advent wreaths, and collect our loved ones around warm hearths to be light for one another in the face of loss, hardship, and “the bleak midwinter” (even though winter as a season doesn’t even start until four days before Christmas, so I’m not sure how applicable that song is).

Faithful friends who are near to us will be dear to us once more.

I used to dislike the way Judy’s version of this song inverted this line. Most other versions you hear run more along the lines of, “faithful friends who are dear to us gather near to us once more.” It made more sense for the holidays – obviously the family and friends that we love gather to be close to one another during these celebrations.

This year, though, thinking about hope and sorrow, darkness and light, I felt much more in tune with Judy’s refrain. It’s like December rolls around, the light starts fading, and we start saying the things we never thought to say when the air pulsed with warmth. How are you, really? I miss you. I love you. We are reminded again of how precious our loved ones are to us, and we take this season as an opportunity to once again wrap them closely to our hearts.

Someday soon we all will be together, if the fates allow. Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow

Frank Sinatra sings this as “Through the years we all will be together, if the fates allow. Hang a shining star upon the highest bough…” Well, sit down with your holiday schmaltz, Frankie. It has its time and place, but right now Judy and I are talking real life. We don’t always get to be with the ones we love, and (SPOILER ALERT) life didn’t get rosy and grand just because November rolled into December.

This season has been less busy for me than previous holiday seasons, because I’m no longer a student and I don’t have final exams to worry about. It’s given me the time to be maudlin and reflective that many people don’t have. I realize, though, that this is a particularly frenetic season for a lot of people, and the ageless wisdom we get every year is to slow down. Be less busy. Take time to look at the lights. Life might not be ideal at the moment – we might still be carrying the weight of troubles we’re hoping will be miles away by the time this year becomes last year – but if we can slow down long enough to be present in this moment, in this time, we can see the lights the world is throwing out for us. Even more importantly, wherever we are, whoever we are, we all have the ability to let our hearts be light for others.

Another season will come, as seasons have a tendency to do, but there is light and hope to be had here in the darkness, if we let ourselves see it.

So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.

Coming Home

Just in time for the holidays!

This is actually the final entry in my summer research series from 2016, which is being transferred here for posterity. If you’re just joining us, welcome! You should maybe check out all the other posts in this series so you have some idea of what I’m talking about. If you just want to jump right in, though, don’t let me discourage your reckless abandon. Live your best life.

If you are returning, thanks for caring about some random project by a stranger created over a year ago. It’s awfully nice of you. For those special few who have subscribed to Stuff & Nonsense while I’ve been re-posting these old blog posts of mine, I will endeavor not to disappoint you when we return to my (ir)regularly scheduled programming and I have to think of new things to write.

~originally posted October 20, 2016~

I’m finally back Stateside! I returned at the end of July after having spent over six months abroad, five weeks of which were spent travelling around continental Europe doing this research. Without having been shot at or wounded and without losing friends and seeing horrific things on the battlefield I was ready enough to be home, so I sympathized with my guys – my Marines and soldiers whose desire to be home carried them through the worst parts of their wars.

I got in a bit more work once I was back, working for several days at the United States Army Heritage Center at Carlisle Barracks in Pennsylvania, and hopping around a bit in D.C. which is pretty well covered in military history.

As a “wrap up” post I’m afraid this is going to be rather unsatisfactory. While I’ve learned an enormous amount, there’s no clean cut bottom line ready to hand off to you. This hasn’t been a science experiment that has a conclusion to be reached. In fact, I’ve taken on an independent study for the coming semester just so I’ll have an extra couple of months to process my data, explore the questions that cropped up while I was researching, and create and polish that bottom line to be published in a “TL;DR” length paper by the end of the year.

What I can tell you is how my summer research wrapped up, which is to say I can tell you how I ended up with a different thesis than I had at the beginning of the process without even really realizing it along the way.

When I first started dreaming of this project, it was the dream of following certain units from WWI and WWII across Europe and finding where they intersected. I wanted to know if Marines and soldiers camped in the same place, fought over the same ground, or passed by their fallen or future comrades without knowing it, because that’s a compelling story. I ran into problems almost immediately. Records were lost or destroyed, or, more commonly, I couldn’t access them because I was already in Europe. Taking what I had, I moved forward the best I could and worked out a way to maximize the potential of my sources. I was pretty flexible about it, and of course I was going to find a way to enjoy myself regardless.

In streamlining my research I (mostly) unwittingly began changing my end game. As opposed to mapping the movement of certain units across Europe in relation with one another for the sake of finding overlap it became more about using the units I found to ground my exploration of the experience of the infantry and comparing it across both wars. As I entered into my semester back at school my independent study was converted into an Honors Thesis somewhat by surprise, and I needed to develop my argument even further.  At the moment the plan is to look at the evolution of combat motivation through WWI, into the interwar period, and through WWII.  Why these men signed up to fight, why they kept fighting, and whether or not soldiers in WWII entered their fight with any cynicism coming just twenty years after the first global war.  We’ll see where this new line of inquiry takes me as I pursue departmental honors (which is crazy and terrifying and exciting all at once).

I’m so blessed to have been able to take on this research, and I can’t wait to see what I learn through the rest of this process.  Thanks for sticking around!

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[[NOTE FROM 2017 MONICA: What a laugh this has been. I didn’t even end up writing my thesis on combat motivation, but on combat morale, which is something entirely different. I had no idea what I was doing when I took this grant to tool around Europe, but I had an awful lot of fun in the process. If you’re interested, Google “Monica Cronin thesis Combat Morale” and I should be the first thing that pops up. I earned Highest Honors and I have my own citation for other academics and everything, which is to say my life has absolutely peaked and it’s all downhill from here. Enjoy your holiday season, I’m sure I’ll be back eventually with something non-military history-related to write about. Peace.]]

In the Trenches

This is a continuation of my summer research series from 2016, which is being transferred here for posterity. For a fuller explanation, and in the interest of not starting in the middle of the story, see my firstsecond, and third posts.*

*I keep linking to those posts both for your sake, dear reader, and because WordPress gives me a nice little notification that someone linked to one of my posts. I know it’s me linking to my own posts, but notifications are nice, ya know?

~originally posted July 13, 2016~

A majority of the locations I’ve visited in Europe have had a museum, statue, plaque, or some component of written information from which I gather data. Embracing the interdisciplinary nature of my research, however, I have recently ventured into an abbreviated form of historical archaeology in which I got down and dirty with my marines in the trenches of France.

Nearly a century has passed since the events with which I am wrestling and attempting to fashion into some semblance of coherence for my final paper. That means that their physical traces aren’t as readily apparent as I might wish them to be. I’m lucky (perhaps a strange choice of words) that the methods of warfare employed in WWI carved literal, deep scars in the French countryside, and these extant trenches are still visible today. I walked in them. I sheltered in their dugouts – just shallow, mostly filled-in depressions at this point. I even slipped and fell in the mud trying to go “over the top,” which I had to laugh at considering I’ve transcribed countless letters that mentioned the nuisance of French mud and how difficult it is to navigate (granted this was 100 years ago when the trenches were much deeper, lacked the grass cover that now clothes them, and had been freshly dug into the relatively high water table of the Meuse-Argonne, but I still felt a particular solidarity with my infantrymen in that moment). These zig-zagging pathways, however, are in many areas the only reminder that any sort of conflict has taken place. The trees have all grown back, the fields have been cultivated by French farmers returning to their livelihoods, and as time has gone on shell casings and other ordnance have either been scavenged or buried and don’t lie readily to hand for those venturing into old battlefields. What possible benefit, then, could be reaped by my striking out on my own into areas that don’t exist on tourist maps?

The data gathered when working in the field depends on the researcher – their level of involvement with the site, the prior legwork they’ve done that will enable them to see what is no longer visible on-scene, and the ability to visualize things that other people visiting the area may fail to notice. There were several times in a trench in Verdun, atop the Ridge at Blanc Mont, or walking through the wheat fields of Bouresches when I wished I had a metal detector, because I knew there was a whole mass of history lying several feet below me that I was missing out on; regardless, because of battle maps, a familiarity with the progression of battle in these locations, and the fact that I travel with a compass, I was able to follow some of these trenches to extant (albeit ruined) structures that had no indicative signposts and were not on the radar of other visitors in the area.

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The sign is a danger warning – Verdun exists on the border of the ‘Zone Rouge’ or ‘Red Zone,’ which is a region of land deemed too physically and environmentally damaged by the war to be inhabited, and which contains unexploded ordnance and leftover materiel that still pose a danger to those poking around in old battle zones.

This isn’t to say I discovered anything new, of course. My field of study isn’t remotely novel enough for me to have happened across a standing building unknown to those who have spent decades devoted to mapping these wars out to the square foot. What I am saying is that entering the field with even my infant grasp on the logistics of combat at my research sites allowed me to break away from those who stuck to the memorials and museums (which isn’t a bad thing, obviously, I’ve done the same thing as I mentioned at the beginning of this post). Despite the radically different environment a century later I was able to gain a more authentic understanding of where my marines were and what they were seeing as they were writing their letters home and praying they lived to the next day. When writing about the experience of the infantry in war I think that’s pretty valuable information to have.

Slimming Down For Summer

This is a continuation of my summer research series from 2016, which is being transferred here for posterity. For a fuller explanation, and for the first and second posts in this series, click here and here!

Also, for anyone who saw this title and thought this was going to be a guilt-inducing fitness post about not tryna eat myself up three pants sizes this holiday season:

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~originally posted July 5, 2016~

We’ve plunged headlong into summer now, which means everyone’s suiting up and hitting the beaches. Getting a “summer bod” has been on the minds of many since pretty much just after New Years. For humans there’s just one simple step to achieving a perfect beach body: take your body, and put it on a beach. Done and done. For my thesis, however, it wasn’t quite as easy. It was hitting the Normandy invasion beaches (specifically the American sectors, Omaha and Utah), and it definitely was not ready.

As I have previously discussed, my thesis is as ambitious as it is complicated. I knew this from the beginning. I also knew that as time went on and I accumulated information, common themes would emerge across both wars and the story I’m attempting to tell would coalesce around them. That was the whole point, after all. The only question was, what would these points be? It seemed like a bit of catch-22: I couldn’t know what commonalities I would find before doing the research, but I also didn’t want to go into my research locations with a subject as massive “infantry” and waste valuable time accumulating information irrelevant to my topic.

Pending any radical discoveries during research that send me marching off in a completely different direction, my eventual presentation is going to be a comparison of how infantrymen experienced their war, suggesting that any common themes I would find would emerge from breaking down the basic facets of combat and analyzing how marines and soldiers reacted to them. This might seem like an obvious leap to make, and it is, but if you’d asked me several weeks ago what the brass tacks of my research project were I would have shrugged and said, “the infantry experience in the world wars.” I had, to that point, neglected to do what Voltaire demanded and define my terms.

And articulating what I’m looking for makes all the difference. My project isn’t to explore what war is, it’s to explore how certain men experienced two very specific wars, and I already have all the information I need to establish those parameters. The study I’ve already done in my field allows me to pare down my argument to such buzzword-esque war topics as leadership, morale, environment, facing the enemy, post-war occupation, etc. This meant that as I entered archives, memorials, and museums I could keep an eye open for stories that addressed these topics. It also provided a flexible framework for my paper that could accommodate the discoveries of research and adapt to new pieces of information that did not fit into these categories.

Looks like we’re ready for the beach.