October days

Happy October!

I took some photos walking back to my dorm after my morning class. It’s hard not to appreciate Bryn Mawr’s beauty in all seasons, but you can always take the time to look a little closer. Just this morning, I saw two things I never noticed before: a blue jay and the most fairytale-perfect toadstools. We are in the throes of a moody mid-autumn: thick mist in the mornings, tizzies of rain during the night. The rain has nurtured soft carpets of moss on the trees, and some of the leaves are starting to blush with the promise of their changing colors. I love it when the sky is bleached, and the buildings and trees, darkened with rain, stand out so starkly. It can be a bit melancholy, but in a pensive way. Weather like this gives me a feeling of solemnity, like the world is quieting down in preparation for something important.

The last week has been quite busy for me, and this past weekend I had to finish three essays, two in English and one in Spanish. I’ve also been keeping busy with quizzes and tests in German. Studying a brand new language has been a good change of pace from my other classes, but the barrage of new material can be a bit overwhelming. As you can imagine, I’m very ready for Fall Break, which starts on Friday. I’ll be going home to Minneapolis for the first time since June, and I’m so excited. I know I’ll have to use some of my time off to catch up on reading for my classes, but I also hope to start some creative projects and spend time outdoors.

Studying children’s literature this semester has been making me nostalgic for some of the books I grew up with. Aren’t there some books that just fit perfectly with certain seasons? I think summer is for nonfiction so you can learn even when there are no classes, winter is for big sprawling novels to read alongside a mug of tea, and autumn is for cozy books: poetry and children’s stories.

“October arrived, spreading a damp chill over the grounds and into the castle. Madam Pomfrey, the nurse, was kept busy by a sudden spate of colds among the staff and students. Raindrops the size of bullets thundered on the castle windows for days on end; the lake rose, the flower beds turned into muddy streams, and Hagrid’s pumpkins swelled to the size of garden sheds.” –Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

(In case you needed more proof that English House is magical, look at these little umbrellas for elves that I found growing on the lawn outside.)

 

ear-whispered: Works by Tania El Khoury

This fall, Bryn Mawr is exhibiting four of the five interactive art installations that make up ear-whispered: Works by Tania El Khoury. Tania El Khoury is an artist who works in London and Beirut. She partnered with Bryn Mawr as a part of the 2018 Fringe Festival. In September, I was able to see two of El Khoury’s pieces, Camp Pause and Gardens Speak. I wanted to write a little bit about my experiences with these installations, but it’s been difficult to decide what I wanted to say.

Camp Pause is a video installation that can be viewed all semester in Canaday Library. It pieces together the narratives of four Palestinian residents of the Rashidieh Refugee Camp in Lebanon. Various storytelling threads come together in Camp Pause to create an unsettling but powerful impact. When you walk in, there are four screens facing each other, all playing simultaneously through headphones; while you can only concentrate on one story at a time, you are aware of the others going on at the same time. Some visual elements appear in more than one of the videos, hinting at common threads among residents of the camp. The ocean is a strong motif in all of the stories. It makes up one of the camp’s borders—the other being a military checkpoint—and therefore represents the refugees’ feelings of entrapment and claustrophobia. At the same time, the videos’ subjects often feel drawn to the water, entranced by the beauty and mystery of the natural world.

It’s hard to draw a clear moral from Camp Pause. Pieces of the camp’s historical background are interspersed with the often gut-wrenching stories of the camp’s residents. The one that struck me the most followed a young girl, because of the normalcy with which she viewed her life in the camp. In fact, her biggest complaint about her community was the abundance of litter by the seaside. It made me wonder how the generation that is growing up in Rashidieh will come to understand their situation.

Gardens Speak was only open for a limited length of time at Bryn Mawr. The piece was inspired by people who were killed by the regime in Syria. Their families are forbidden from holding public funerals, so the martyrs are often buried in secret or private graves. Gardens Speak gathers these stories through interviews with survivors, and creates a really singular experience. Although it was entirely immersive installation, it was an experience for the senses of touch, smell, and hearing, rather than vision.  This seemed quite unique for any piece of art, and I felt a bit apprehensive as the small group of us were ushered into the Hepburn Teaching Theater.

The space was entirely black, with only dim lighting. We were asked to leave our shoes and electronic devices at the entrance, and then we put on plastic coats over our clothes. Then we were led to the room, where we saw what looked like a plot of earth. Simple headstones stuck out of the soil, and each of us took our places at a different “grave.” Our guide had instructed us to begin digging in the dirt by our headstone; the dirt under my hands felt moist and smelled strongly of real vegetation. Soon enough, I found a sort of inflated cushion, from which a voice emanated. To hear, each of us had to lie down with our ears pressed against the speaker. The dirt was very uncomfortable under my body. I soon learned that the voice I was hearing was telling the story of Abdul Wahid al-Dandashi, as if in his own words. He told a brutal story of being tortured in an army prison, learning that his brother had been killed, and even after that, choosing to return to Syria and fight.

When each of the graves had finished speaking, all of us were invited to write a letter addressed to the person whose story we had heard, responding to the experience in any way. We then buried our letters back under the soil, where they would later be collected and added to the exhibit. As you can imagine, this was a sobering experience, and I found it interesting, once I had retrieved my shoes and washed the dirt off my hands, to go downstairs to see all the letters from past exhibitions displayed. Many of the letters—maybe even most of them—expressed a loss for words. Like Camp Pause, it’s hard to find an easy symbolism or moral to Gardens Speak. One might feel anguish over the senseless loss of life, or sympathy for someone whose loved one was killed, but what is there to say? “I’m sorry” is inadequate and feels detached, even meaningless. At the same time, it seems patently untrue to claim you can feel the pain of something so removed from your own life. Some of the letters I read expressed hopelessness, thinking of how many people could sacrifice their lives for freedom, yet still that dream is unrealized. The reaction that I most appreciated reading, which came from only a few letters, was inspiration. Some people, after seeing Gardens Speak, felt energized to dedicate their lives to a great cause, or to live for something truly worthwhile.

Letters written to Syrian martyrs, displayed in Goodhart Theater

 

 

The Vitality of What Will Be

After a busy summer of working at a historic house, reading submissions for a Philadelphia literary journal, participating in Bryn Mawr’s summer beekeeping apprenticeship, and dog-sitting, I am back for my final year at Bryn Mawr. This was the first year I did not return home to Minneapolis for the summer, and I feel like I was launched into the school year without a chance to catch my breath. It’s already the fourth week of classes, and the semester is barreling forward at full speed. I am currently taking two senior seminars, one for my English major and one for my Spanish major; a class on British and American children’s literatures of the 19th century; and introductory German. I am still finding my routine, and carving out space to reflect and develop the non-academic parts of myself.

 

This year I am living in Rockefeller Hall, which was also where I lived my first year. Rock has a distinct personality; it is full of little eccentricities, like the lower-than-average doorknobs and that clean, bright “Rock smell” that no one can quite define, but always makes me nostalgic for freshman year. People unfamiliar with the building find it labyrinthine, with all its winding corridors. Just in these first few weeks, I have had to give directions several times to some confused soul looking for a friend’s room. One of my favorite parts of Rock are all of its public spaces, natural gathering places like the sun-filled nooks at the end of each hall. We also have—in my opinion—the best common room on campus, with alert owls on the bannister and a coven of armchairs. 

One Rock-specific tradition is the painted windows. Most rooms have a window set into the door, and each resident can choose to customize it with water-soluble paints. The tradition is that if a painting is five years old or more, the current resident is encouraged to leave it untouched as a legacy door. This year I got “the Central Perks room,” which has been a traditions door for longer than I’ve been at Bryn Mawr. Although it would be fun to leave my own mark, I am happy to leave this wonderful painting for future generations.

The other thing I am so excited for as a senior—something I have anticipated for three years!—is getting my own carrel in Canaday library. My desk is in the corner by a window, reasonably well tucked away. Canaday has the mostly-deserved reputation of being the site of sleep-deprived studying under the unforgiving glare of fluorescent lights, but when you have your own corner to come back to, it really seems different.

Can you guess what my thesis is about?

What could be cozier than having a little space for yourself, to be able to leave your books and pencils someplace that will always be waiting for you? Maybe I’m getting the nesting urge because it’s autumn now and it’s been raining. This is my favorite season. But if you dread the impending cold weather, I’ll leave you with some wisdom from Mary Oliver who reminds us, in Lines Written in the Days of Growing Darkness:

Every year we have been
witness to it: how the
world descends
into a rich mash, in order that
it may resume.
And therefore
who would cry out

to the petals on the ground
to stay,
knowing, as we must,
how the vivacity of what was is married

to the vitality of what will be?
I don’t say
it’s easy, but
what else will do

if the love one claims to have for the world
be true?
So let us go on

though the sun be swinging east,
and the ponds be cold and black,
and the sweets of the year be doomed.

Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play

Bryn Mawr’s mainstage production this spring, “Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play,” could be described as dark. Not just because of piece’s post-apocalyptic themes, but because it took place without the usual burst of stage lighting that one might expect at the theater. As audience members entered, they were requested to hand over all electronic devices to an attendant for safekeeping, and informed that the only electricity used in the show was that which cast members could generate themselves. Because I didn’t have my phone with me, the only photo I can share from the evening is of the program.

The dimness of the scenes pulled the audience into the post-electric world of the play’s title. At a typical theater production, it’s easy to suspend your disbelief and grow accustomed to the unnatural lighting of the stage. In this play, the lack of light was at times a challenge, making it harder to see what was going on, and at times drew me into the performance, making me feel the reality of the events onstage.

Another example of the wonderful creativity of the production was how each of the three acts took place in a different location. The audience walked as a group to each, led by lantern-swinging attendants. The first act took place outdoors near the goose pond. In a previous, professional, production I  saw of this play, this act was shown onstage in a conventional theater space, and used a replica of a flickering campfire as a prop. In Bryn Mawr’s production, the actors and audience sat around a bona fide fire. We could smell the smoke and feel the cool dusk air on our skin. Nostalgia, memories of childhood summers and beach sunsets, became flooded with unease as the characters’ conversation revealed that they were the survivors of a nuclear disaster.

I don’t want to reveal too much about the plot—if such a word even applies to the work’s nontraditional format—of this innovative play. The script is naturalistic, poignant, funny, and truly committed to the world it builds. The unexpected ending is a tour de force. To me, “Mr. Burns” works to discover how rituals originate. Maybe the myths we tell are not literally true, but they don’t need to be; they don’t exist to be logical, they exist to make sense of the world. The traditions that seem arbitrary, or irrelevant to the modern age, exist because at some time, our ancestors, sitting around a campfire, looked around the dark world and searched for patterns that made them feel safer.

Blossoming

The first time I visited Bryn Mawr’s campus was in April of 2015. I was a senior in high school and the cherry trees were in full bloom. I stayed with a current student whose life seemed unbelievable to me. She lived with her roommate in a chaotically messy room, unsupervised by adults, and at around 10 p.m. she took us to the art studio to paint, which seemed to me like the height of freedom and excess. I’ve been thinking of that weekend lately. Campus has been filled with the newest batch of prospective students, including one from my own former high school.

The cherry trees are in bloom again; we had a couple of hot, summery days this past weekend. It was a heat that seeps under your skin, a tangible heat. Now it’s back to gray, but I wanted to share some photos of the blossoms. The draping trees on the pathway outside of Rock erupted in garlands of pink and white petals overnight. The campus still looks wintry in some ways—the trees along senior row are totally bare—and it’s kind of funny to see the unevenness of the turning seasons.

A while ago I stumbled upon a treasure at a used book sale called “Twelve Moons of the Year,” which is a series of 365 little essays by Hal Borland. Each essay corresponds to a specific date, and observes some aspect of the natural world in that point of the year. It’s a very specific year, of course, a temperate, deciduous rural North American year. The whole project has an old-fashioned tone. It’s something from before the era of global warming, and long before the era of ubiquitous screens and social media. And that makes it all the more comforting to me: this idea that the world will always ebb and flow, and the beautiful things you remember will always come back faithfully. One of the essays in late April reads, “Now come the surge and the insistence of growth. For a few weeks we will scarcely be able to keep up with change, which is everywhere. The miracle is not so much in budding and leafing and the opening of petals, but in the very magnitude of burgeoning and blossoming…And every day is another moment in the incredible, inevitable genesis of another year.”

Why shouldn’t we call this the new year? We’re racing to the end of the semester, but it’s also a time of beginnings and returnings. High schools seniors prepare for the beginning of their college careers, and college seniors prepare to head down unknown paths. The blossoming around me is a reminder of where I was three years ago, just as much as it is a furious and insistent call toward new adventure.

Bryn Mawr Reading Series: Ocean Vuong

 I found a seat in the Great Hall just minutes before the poet Ocean Vuong’s reading began. The setting sun cast rosy light through the high stained glass windows. “Ocean Vuong’s poetry takes a complex approach to all that geography holds, the intimate failures of history, and the victory available in visiting and revisiting one’s memories of space and time,” Professor Matthews of the Creative Writing department said in her introduction. Then the poet stood up and gave us a shy wave as he approached the podium. He said it was fitting, although almost redundant, to read in the church-like setting of the Great Hall, because “poetry is a kind of church.” With his round reading glasses and high collar, Vuong transformed into a temporary priest of poetry.

He read several poems from his collection “Night Sky with Exit Wounds” and then a sizable excerpt—a “hybrid essay”—from a forthcoming novel. At some readings I’ve attended, the visiting writers will tell stories in between poems, tell the backstory of how that particular piece came into existence, for instance, or some other musing that comes to mind. Vuong was spare with his comments. He drew our attention to themes of fatherhood, marginalization, and queer identity, but for the most part the poems spoke for themselves.  

Vuong’s soft voice echoed and dispersed. He drew out soft consonants. The rhythm of his poetry is a steady ebb and flow. At one point in the excerpt from his novel, a character sings, and instead of simply reading the lyrics, Vuong broke out into song. Unexpectedly. Mournfully. Watching him sing was like staring into a bright lamp. After I looked away everything else seemed dim.

Exploring Germantown

As I mentioned in my last blog post, I will be interning this summer in Philadelphia. Specifically, I will be working in Germantown. A lot of people I talk to are not familiar with this neighborhood, so I thought I’d write a little bit about it.

Located in northwest Philadelphia, Germantown was once a separate township from “old Philadelphia.” The area was largely isolated from the rest of the city until 1884, when a railroad line was built to connect Philadelphia with outlying parts of the county. This led to heavy development in Germantown, and it became a thriving commercial and residential district. By the 1970s, however, due to white flight and blockbusting, Germantown suffered economically. Stores boarded up their windows and the area became crime-ridden. In the present day, you can clearly see that Germantown has had a turnaround.

Walking along Germantown Avenue, you can see restaurants, bustling shops, pedestrians, and cafes. Germantown strikes me as a friendly neighborhood. Elderly neighbors walking outside wished me a good afternoon, while parents picking up their children chatted in the early spring sunlight. The history of the area is easy to see, in the beautiful old houses, the church graveyards, and the many marked historic sites. For example, George Washington’s “Summer White House,” his escape from the Yellow Fever epidemic of the city, is located in Germantown.

Germantown is not very accessible from Bryn Mawr by public transit—it is possible to take a train and then a bus, but the trip takes about an hour. This summer I’ll be living much closer, and I’m excited to have more opportunities to explore.

Searching for an Internship

Beginning my sophomore year, I started feeling a lot of pressure to find a summer internship. There are many reasons to work as an intern: to network with professionals in your field, to learn new skills, to gain experience, or to see if a certain job might be right for you. Unfortunately, many internships are unpaid, and it can be hard to predict how useful a certain internship might even be. Not to mention, many positions are very competitive.

This year I applied to 11 internships before being offered a position—had I not heard back when I did, I would have continued to send off applications to many more. After putting so much effort into pursuing an internship, I wanted to write a blog post with some tips and tricks that I learned along the way.

  1. Narrow down your interests.

At the start of this process, I made a list of the fields in which I would look for an internship. My list included magazine and literary publishing, nonprofits that promote literacy or the arts, and museums. I knew I was looking to develop my writing skills and to work with people, especially doing educational work of some kind.

Having this specific set of criteria helped me eliminate any internship that did not suit my interests and goals. It’s also important to have some idea of where you want to be during the summer. For the past two summers I have gone home to Minneapolis, but this summer I looked for internships in the Philadelphia area.

  1. Google research.

Once I knew what I was looking for, I started doing research in the broadest way possible, just to get a sense of what was out there. I just typed keywords into Google—for example, “Philadelphia literary journals”—and clicked on anything that looked interesting. Many websites will have a “careers” or “opportunities” page, where any internships will be listed. If you can’t find anything listed, it never hurts to send an email (from your .edu email account!) asking if the organization ever does offer internships for college students.

  1. JoinHandshake.com

JoinHandshake.com is a website where you can find so many job and internships listings, and often apply directly through the website. There are filters to find jobs in certain geographical areas or fields. You can also create a personalized profile so that the website will recommend jobs that fit you.

This website is how I found my internship for the summer, so of course I would recommend it! I found it very efficient and easy to use, and since Bryn Mawr students automatically get accounts, you might as well try it out.

  1. BookJobs.com

BookJobs.com is a website that might be of interest to other English majors that lists jobs from all over the country that relate to the publishing field. I responded to a couple of postings on this website. You can narrow down the results to just internships or just jobs. As you might expect, many of the positions are concentrated in New York, so if you are looking to be in that area you should check out this website.

  1. Have confidence in your application skills!

This might seem obvious, but if you don’t know how to write a cover letter or format a resume, make sure to brush up! Bryn Mawr’s Career Planning Office was a lifesaver last year when I needed to learn these skills. After a little practice, I had my application-writing process down to a science.

Job hunting of any kind is stressful, and it’s easy to feel paralyzed—by the sheer amount of options in front of you, but also by the fear of failure or rejection. I am by no means an expert, but the most important piece of advice I have is to cast as wide a net as possible. In other words: apply for jobs you might not be qualified for; apply to jobs you find fascinating but have no experience in, apply for jobs that are ridiculously competitive. A year ago, I agonized over every application I sent out, pinning all my hopes on one prospect. This year, I applied to everything that looked intriguing. An internship is kind of like a trial run—it’s a short-term commitment to explore your interests and learn about what you need from a work environment. Good luck to everyone who is waiting to hear back about summer plans, and I hope these tips were helpful!

Community Day of Learning 2018

On March 20, Bryn Mawr held its fourth annual Community Day of Learning. Instead of classes, students, faculty, and staff have the option to attend a wide variety of workshops and lectures devoted to topics that help us better understand each other and ourselves. I went to all three sessions throughout the day. In the morning I attended “Reflecting on Bryn Mawr’s Relationship with Mental Health and Disability on Campus,” after lunch I headed to “Narrative Therapy: How the Stories We Tell Impact Our Present,” and then I finished up the day with “Managing Difficult Conversations: How to talk so people will listen and listen so they will talk.” All three sessions were interesting and informative.

The workshop on mental health and disability was the only one I went to that was led by students; three members of EnAble, a club for students with disabilities and their allies, did research in the Bryn Mawr archives to learn about how the college acknowledged disability throughout its history. I really admired how they read between the lines, piecing together documents to find the presence of students with disabilities and mental health conditions, who have always existed but have not always been accommodated.

I went to the session on Narrative Therapy just because I didn’t know what that was, and was curious to find out. The session was led by a student at Bryn Mawr’s Graduate School of Social Work. He taught us that Narrative Therapy is a tool to explore and reframe one’s experiences in a way that can empower the individual. We were encouraged to discuss thought-provoking questions about the narratives that are prevalent at Bryn Mawr as well as in our larger culture, and how these might affect our ways of thinking. This session was a little intense at times, as we discussed very heavy topics. Still, it was good to get a reminder of how I can shape the stories that I tell myself about my own life.

The last session, on listening to others, provided the most practical skills of the day. We divided into pairs for most of the session and took turns practicing active sharing and listening skills. Then we gave our partners feedback. I am always trying to become a better listener, so I appreciated this opportunity.

I’ve gone to Community Day of Learning every year I’ve been at Bryn Mawr, and I would encourage everyone to take advantage of these sessions as much as they are able. It’s fun to learn about things you are not specifically studying in classes, especially topics that are so pertinent and important.

Double majoring and a conversation with Maria

About a month ago, I visited my Spanish advisor to ask about transferring credits from study abroad to count toward my Spanish minor. Although I hadn’t seen her for the better part of a year, Professor Quintero remembered me and warmly welcomed me into her office, which is covered from floor to ceiling in books. After discussing the classes I’d taken abroad, she informed me that with the amount of credits I now have, it doesn’t make logical sense not to major in Spanish. I was shocked; it had never crossed my mind to become a double major. The truth is, my interest in Spanish is not really academic. My plan had always been to study Spanish in college in order to maintain my language skills and then be able to travel after graduation. Learning about other languages fascinates me, but reading or writing about Spanish literature or scholarly articles is not my strong suit.

Learning that I had enough credits to major in Spanish was a surprise, but it probably shouldn’t have been. If you talk to enough Bryn Mawr students a pattern starts to develop: very few people end up following the exact same path they envisioned when they entered college. Our academic journeys take strange twists. One particular class or professor might open someone’s eyes to a previously unknown passion. Over time, a person’s chosen major may seem less relevant to their preferred career path. It can be hard to let go of your assumptions about yourself. When I was a sophomore I had little trouble deciding to be an English major, with a Spanish minor hastily thrown in for good measure. I now see that I could have been more open to challenging myself with a double major. On the other hand, if things hadn’t worked out for me quite so well, double majoring might have involved so many required classes that I wouldn’t be able to take as many electives or try new things.

My fellow banter blogger Maria is a sophomore who has spent this year deciding what majors to declare. She is now a double English and Sociology major. Maria has graciously agreed to answer some questions for this blog post about her perspective on the choice to double major.

 

Rachel: Which major did you choose first, and why did you decide to add a second? How does this choice add to your academic goals?

Maria: I chose Sociology first, pretty early in the fall semester of this academic year. I had realized that Psychology couldn’t capture all of my intellectual passions as naturally as Sociology did, and that I could still look at how people engage with one another while maintaining my dream of counseling and opening up more options for what I may do in my professional work. Not long after, I realized how much I need English in my life—chances to write more creatively and analyze language in a way my brain naturally does, that I could only really get from English courses that I would enroll in anyway, English major or not.

R: How do your two majors complement each other?

M: I think having understandings of both enrich one another. I can employ Sociological concepts to English material or take my critical eye for analysis into Sociology, as is the beauty of a liberal arts education. I can exercise different kinds of writing but learn from both or combine both if I so choose. There are many people here who chose to double major in English and Sociology, or who love both departments and find similar meaning in both.

R: How do the two departments at Bryn Mawr compare/contrast to one another?

M: Both departments are extremely warm! I haven’t had enough close experience in either department as I’m pretty new to the majors so I don’t know the tiny differences, but there are professors I absolutely love in both who I feel care genuinely about their students.

R: Do you think that you use very different skills for the different departments? Why/why not?

M: Not really! I employ so much English in my Sociological work and Sociology in my English work just from how I am as a student and as a person. They are both reading and writing heavy. For Sociology there’s certainly a research part of my brain that I need to turn on when I inhabit those spaces, where taking a Sociological lens to literature is more seamless. Especially with the English courses I’ve taken which tend to emphasize social identities, aside from learning how to understand research, the two overlap well.

R: Do you have any advice for a first-year student about choosing a major?

M: Give things a chance! Explore, trust your intuition on what things you love to think most about; there are so many expectations but remember that the choice is yours & there is always more learning, time, and a whole world for you outside of undergrad that will bring things you may not expect. The most energizing majors will come from there.

Make sure to check out Maria’s blog at mbritt.blogs.brynmawr.edu!