Traveling with “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants”

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Like most people, middle school was a weird time for me. I was very introverted and found myself suddenly best friendless when my best friend started dating a kid in our grade who had his own band. After that, I became not so much a loner, as much as a very limited floater. Kids saw me as nice but unapproachably smart. The logic going something like this:

Because she doesn’t speak, she’s never sounded like an idiot.

So she must be really smart.

I was very self-conscious to begin with, but now people thought I was some kind of brain? That only increased the pressure to not make a fool of myself and fly quietly under the radar. Harry Potter, A Series of Unfortunate Events, Flipped, Walk Two Moons, Feed, House of the Scorpion, Uglies… I devoured books all day every day. I loved to read but it also took away the social pressure to try and make friends. Plus, it fit the profile I was assigned which meant that no one bothered me. I floated between a few girls who were as obsessed with Spirited Away as I was and didn’t mind how much or how little I talked, how good I was at Language Arts, or how terrible I was at Algebra.

I started reading Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants because I overheard a girl in my math class saying how much she liked the first book. I can almost remember whipping around in my plastic blue seat. Books! I could talk about books with this girl! We could be friends! And we did, we were. The library only had one copy of each book so we would take turns reading and then we had something to talk about for months. The book we’d just read, the one that was coming out, which character we were most like, how much I loved Kostos, and if our parents would ever fly us out to Greece by ourselves when we were in high school. (They didn’t.)

If you don’t know, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants is about four girls: Lena, Tibby, Bridget, and Carmen. They’ve been best friends from birth. Really, from birth! Their moms met in a prenatal aerobics class! They’ve hardly spent a moment apart never mind a whole summer, until their junior year of high school. This summer the friends would be pulled apart by stepfamilies, soccer camps, and a trip to see grandparents in Greece. As fate would have it, Carmen finds a pair of thrift store jeans that fits each one of them. This would be how they stay in touch all summer. The pants would follow each girl on their adventure and be there to witness the joys and sorrows that were in store.

The girls in Sisterhood became my best friends. They were so familiar and alive to me. I found pieces of myself in every one. I was artsy and sarcastic like Tibby, as shy as Lena, emotional as Carmen, and when I felt safe I could be as spirited and charming as Bridget. During such a strange time, I had found a place where I belonged. It felt like these girls were always right where I was or where I was about to be in life. Navigating love, loss, parents, college, and death, it felt like they knew what was going to happen to me and it helped me to know it had all had happened to them too.

I loved these books so much that I began reading them every summer until sometime in high school when had required summer reading books. I can remember a few: Jane Eyre, Rebecca, My Antonia, The Jungle... My oldest friend Mary and I would spend days at her house reading through these books. We’d swim in her pool and take breaks to dramatically read passages from books we found so boring. At the end of summer, we’d watch the movie versions and talk about which was better. We usually felt both versions were confusing and uninspiring. This was the trade I had made those summers: bad books for good friends.

I ended up in a group of funny, complicated, intelligent young women who loved me for all of my weirdness, brains, and emotional outbursts during high school. I had found my sisters. We didn’t have magic pants but I think prep school was just as compelling a bonding agent.

There are a few books that I love, but none other have this true feeling of existing as a part of me like those in the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series. Every so often, I find myself pulling out these books when I feel farthest from home and my high school friends.

Now is one of those times! I’ve accepted a job in Oregon that features a lot of firsts for me. Like health insurance, a salary, and no end date! I am getting more excited as time goes on (and a little more anxious about finding a place to live) but I can tell you that when I wake up in the middle of the night feeling lonely or stressed out, it’s these books I go for. The girls always felt a little braver when it was their time to wear the pants and rereading these books helps me feel a little braver too.

Billy Collins at the Hill-Stead Museum

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I imagine that my face must have burned when my seventh grade Language Arts teacher called me to her desk the afternoon she gave me the poetry project. I remember how my mind would reel in situations like that: What trouble could I be in? I know I handed in my assignment… I wasn’t talking when she was talking… Maybe my mom is coming to get me early?

The poetry project was a thick packet of instructions for me to work through when everyone else was doing something else. I went to another classroom with another teacher and… I got to work on one of the beautiful, new, Mac computers all by myself!!!

I must have come across poetry before, but this was the first time I spent quality time with it, just me and the words. I remember one of the tasks was to look at certain poets and illustrate their poems however I wanted. I used a bunch of different fonts to make This is Just To Say by William Carlos Williams, pop off the page. Plums took on a round, purple font and the word icebox was barely legible in its gray frostbitten lettering. Poems that were more than a few lines quickly lost my interest making anything Emily Dickinson wrote a favorite back then. Eventually, the packet instructed me to write poems myself, based off of paintings that interested me. I remember Mary Cassatt’s The Child’s Bath was one of them because that mom looked like mine.

My interest in poetry ebbed and flowed in the years after that. The poetry I read was usually required for a class. I’d write sporadically throughout high school and then only in letters to friends during college. I found out about Billy Collins through my modern dance class of all places, when my teacher had us work with Instructions to a Portrait Artist.

The class had been a struggle for me. I had a shaky sense of self-confidence which translated into lacking a kind of natural connection to my body. Basically, I thought about what I was doing too much. When I heard Collins’ poem I felt like this was one exploration I could do well. I understood words more than music and just knowing that was true about me made me forget to focus on how I looked to my class of ex-ballerinas. It changed my focus. In fact, that might be the best way to explain why I love Billy Collins’ poetry: it shifts your focus to the little things and grounds you.  

The two-term US Poet Laureate is regularly referred to as the most popular poets in America. Even if you think you haven’t heard of him, you probably have. You can watch him on TED or read him on New York Subways. If you’re a dog lover, a traveler, a parent, or kid there’s a poem of his for you. His poems are referred to with adjectives such as, “welcoming”, “suburban”, “conversational”, and “tender”. This isn’t inaccessible, high-brow stuff. It’s your kitchen table, the blooming hydrangeas, and a quick witted joke.

To borrow a quote from the New York Times Mary Jo Salter:

“One appeal of the typical Collins poem is that it’s less able to help you memorize it than to help you to remember, for a little while anyway, your own life.”

When I found out Billy Collins was coming to The Sunken Garden at the Hill-Stead Museum, I knew had to see him. It was the back of his head that I saw first. That unmistakable U-shaped pattern of baldness and then fuzzy, koala-like gray was hair making its way to the stage. That’s Billy! I thought with a thrill. There is something about New Yorkers of a certain age that stands out. There’s an urbanity to it that I notice the more time I spend in the city and the more people I meet. Billy has this thing, this quality. He’s also smaller than I imagined, slighter. Not sickly- but for a voice so rich, for words so far reaching- his body felt small. This was comforting to me actually. It meant that Billy was a real person and that I was a real person and we could share the same space and vocabulary. We could both be in the world making things with words. Looking at him, my dreams didn’t seem so unrealistic.

It had stopped raining right before my friend Tyler and I parked our lawn chairs between a couple of carefully manicured bushes. That “just rained” smell hung in the air. It was the first day of summer too and the sun was in its golden hour. Beautiful old pine trees dotted the perimeter of the garden and the sky was so perfectly blue and open. It felt so special, to say the least. To be outside and with words and with people who felt the same way about poetry. I hadn’t read or heard any of the poems Billy read but I came out with a few favorites I wanted to share with you. Many of them have audio, which I recommend you listening to, he’s quite the reader.

You, Reader

The prelude to this poem is gold. How he talks about his growth as a person and writer is so where I’m at: “I found out that these things had been said much better. Then I realized I had nothing to say and my poetry improved.” The whole poem plays on this theme of development, paying attention, and looking at how to take an opportunity.

Basho in Ireland

“The sense of being homesick for a place that is not my home, while being right in the middle of it.” I wonder if there is a name for this phenomenon. I think feel something similar whenever I visit my high school. Have you ever felt this way?  

I Am Not Italian

I am Italian-American and whenever anything Italian is mentioned, my ears always perk up in excitement and skepticism. Ask other Italian people, I am sure it is the same for them. You want to share that feeling of famiglia wherever you can and with whoever you can, but you’re protective of it too. Billy not being Italian but talking so elegantly about Italy in many of his poems only endears me to him more; la fratellanza dell’espresso.

To My Favorite Seventeen-Year-Old High School Girl

It’s always good to remember that poems can just be funny. Not in a rhyming, limerick-y way either, but in the “Dad joke” kind of way. My favorite line comes at the end, “By the way, I lied about Schubert doing the dishes. But that doesn’t mean he never helped out around the house.” I can imagine myself playfully reprimanding my own kid with this poem. And the subsequent eye roll. And the attempts to rip the poem off the fridge so I stop reading it to them.

Divorce

I love this poem’s simplicity. How. Every. Word. Counts. Without the title how would this poem feel? What other sense would it make?

The Revenant

When I read this poem, I imagine Frank Underwood speaking. I think the way his voice can remain so even tempered while still somehow intimately snarling at you, is just what this poem is doing.

Nostalgia

He closed the night with Nostalgia which felt fitting to include as the final poem here too. It has Billy’s characteristic humor; “It was a wonderful time to be alive. Or even dead”, while ending on a palatable but still existential meditation on past, present, and future.

It feels so good to be in the company of these words, doesn’t it?

Let me know what some of your favorite poems are, I’m always looking for more poetry to read!

Missing “My Red Homeland”

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Anish Kapoor’s installation, My Red Homeland was in Abu Dhabi. I was in New York.

“I didn’t know there was more than one Guggenheim…” I told M 1. “I guess that just shows you how much of a country girl I am.” I tried to laugh it off, but I was really disappointed. After seeing an Instagram post featuring My Red Homeland at the Guggenheim, I fixated on it. It was this giant installation of rich, red oil based wax that looked like a crater in the middle of a pristine white room. But then there was this cube with a flat arm that apparently moved. I imagined it smoothed out the wax over and over again. There was something about the richness of the color and the malleability of the wax that captivated me. I felt it with my eyes through my phone’s screen, knowing if I could touch it (and that I wouldn’t be able to) I would love the sensation. I thought when I watched this mechanized sculpture do its thing, I’d have: A Moment. An Experience. With Art. I’d have something to write about that didn’t involve being a struggling twenty-something.

But I hadn’t read the hashtags. Sandwiched between #TheCreativeAct and #Guggenheim, there it was… #GuggenheimAbuDhabi.  

The budgeting part of my brain stung first. I just spent $25 to go to a museum I don’t even like. I went to the Gug once during college and left disappointed and annoyed, unsure of what I had just seen. The building, I liked. It swirled like soft serve ice cream. M, not having been to the Gug before and being the laid back guy that he is, didn’t mind my mess up. So we went all the way up to the top floor and I tried to forget about the red wax and the moving bar and my embarrassment. There would be something else worth writing about. We found an installation that involved germs growing on white furniture and another one that featured ants in a circuit board looking maze. M thought the latter was cruel. Blinded by expectation and disappointment, I didn’t appreciate either of these exhibits.

I stalked about the rippling floors and nearly shouted at a Kandinsky that I hated it. By the third floor, I thought that maybe it wasn’t that it was modern art or New York City or disappointment, that I had a problem with, it was STRAIGHT LINES! I didn’t like straight lines! M tried to cheer me up by making up stories about each painting. He launched into this hokey 1930s radio voice which helped.

I took a photo of him looking over the side of the ramp and onto all of the other museum patrons. This was something familiar, something I could understand or at least understand my limits of understanding.

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I was about ready to leave and so was he.

Making our way out, we found Woman Ironing by Picasso during his blue period. This painting was done early in his career, at a not particularly lucrative time either. Struggling to make a living as an artist, he painted everyday people trying to make a living and used blue, greens, and gray to capitalize on this ennui. His friend, Jaime Sabartés wrote, “Picasso believes that art emanates from sadness and pain” , which is evident in this painting. Drawn in by the slant of her shoulders and the definition of her face, I stopped my internal whine-olauge. The depth of the shadow carving into her neck and collarbone made me sigh. What looks like rumpled fabric next to a bowl, I thought resembled a skull and the background looks transparent, erased. The whole thing was haunting. This woman is missing her context; her place and her people. It looks like she is painted from one long line, pulled and angled into a single portrait of exhaustion. “I like this one.” I told M and apologized to Picasso. My complaints with the museum and with myself felt trivial in the presence of this.

I found myself boarding the train home to New Haven a few quick hours later. I curled around my backpack full of dirty clothes from a weekend well spent. Almost protectively, I thought about the Guggenheim- as if focusing on earlier annoyances and frustration would be more comfortable than the ache in my chest from another goodbye to M. Slowly, the memory came back into focus with some new information. I didn’t want to look at something that looked like me. Disparate, chaotic, uncertain. The paintings and sculptures were inviting me to ask questions and I had enough questions in my life. I didn’t know it then, but even the Woman Ironing harbors a secret underpainting of a potentially much more cheerful man. There are always questions, always things unknown.

I thought about M’s funny narration again. How he was able to make the best of the situation and appreciate things for what they were. How he didn’t go into the museum with expectations like I did and he didn’t have the same lens of uncertainty I had about my life. Or maybe better put, the same uncertainty but less of the anxiety around it. He didn’t hold onto his fears like I did. Maybe he didn’t confront them as much as I did either. Still, he embraced the present in a way I struggled with and in a way I thought I used to be much better at.

Like most people in their twenties, and I suspect most people at any age, I feel a little lost and scared. I get caught between the practical: How will I ever afford to move out of my parent’s house? and the existential: How will I ever live a meaningful life? and chase my tail for days at a time too afraid or too tired to make choices in one direction or the other. It doesn’t help that I’ve been lulled into this holding pattern with each new job/fellowship/opportunity I seem to encounter:

We’ll call you in two weeks.

We’ll let you know when the funding comes through. There’s a meeting Wednesday.

We will contact all applicants by June 1.

It seems like it’s never two weeks, or June 1, or Wednesday. It’s after a week of me calling and emailing and then me assuming it’s a no, that I get an email redundantly confirming that.2

I am never going to be happy if I can’t appreciate the present more. Not in museums, not in my career, and not with M. Our long distance relationship is plagued by the anxious desire for us to “be in the same place” as my career is to “get a really awesome job”.

I remembered that feeling in front of Woman Ironing, something between shame and understanding. I annoyed myself with my expectations and the eclipsing feeling of “wanting more”. This pervasive, grumbling hunger, sometimes serving me well- as drive and diligence- but starving me now. I texted M.

You love me for exactly the way I am.

-Yes, dear. That is the case.


1 M has a very popular man’s name. When I first met him, I already had a friend with the same name. So in my 19-year-old arrogance, I renamed him on the spot. “No, no. That can’t be your name… What’s your last name?” “M——.” “Okay. I’ll call you M.” I still call him that today and for privacy’s sake, it works well for this blog.

I am maybe- a little- bitter.

Paying Attention

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I am a sucker for library events.

They are usually free, there’s usually food, and there’s usually a good discussion. When my friend, Erin, asked me if I wanted to go to a reading of A Homemade Life with author Molly Wizenberg, I said yes and all the things that are usually true about library events were true in this case.

Molly is a blogger and author of two books. She bakes autobiography into her food musings and recipes in a way that feels, well… filling. She’s just real. The ordinary, wonderful and terrible things that happen to her, happen to a lot of us. I identified with her writing in a way I hadn’t identified with an author for some time. Sure, I had loved Ewan McEwan’s Atonement and Joan Didion’s A Year of Magical Thinking that I had read earlier that year, but this was different. It was more Wild by Cheryl Strayed. There were similar flavors of poetry, style, a familiar voice. There was an element of loss that hung around the corners of my life at that time that was in Molly’s writing too.

I wasn’t a big subscriber of blogs back then. There was just one that I committed myself to, Chrystina Noel, which is about the art of staying in touch and hosting events. Why I didn’t read blogs went deeper than the excuse I gave when someone tried to recommend one- “I just don’t like to read off screens”. Honestly, I felt like most of them weren’t legit and could spiral into something hokey and awkward fast. After meeting Molly and hearing the story of her life in writing, I reconsidered. Creatively, professionally, maybe even emotionally… blogging could be a good tool for me.

For a long time, I didn’t feel like I had a thing to write about, not in the way Molly had cooking. Then I couldn’t commit to the things that did come to mind. They felt narrow and stifling. I worried that I would outgrow them. Then I worried about originality. Why should people care about what I had to say about this? How could I say something new about that? I choked myself out with these questions.

Then I had a blog! I wrote about hiking the Appalachian Trail with my friend Mamie. We made our own blog and that all morphed into me blogging for an amazing website, The Trek. I loved it. I loved sharing how I was feeling and what I was doing. It also terrified me but I thought that was good for me too. And I looooved talking to people in the comments or in real life. I loved-loved- loved it.

When I got off the Appalachian Trail, I had some things figured out. Maybe more than that, I had the right attitude to figure things out and make them happen. Here we are, almost a year later. A lot has shifted and changed, and some stuff has totally lapsed. Writing for myself is one of those things that has totally lapsed. I tried working in the freelance/ghostwriting world but the pay has been meager and there’s something demoralizing putting in so much work into something and not having your name on it. If I’m going to write it has to be about things I care about and my name has to be on them.

Which is where a second blogger and author comes in, Austin Kleon. (You will probably see his name and his links a lot on this site. He’s incredible.) Austin wrote Steal Like an Artist, which I highly recommend and for a lot of reasons, but to make a long story a little shorter, at the end of the book he recommends starting a blog. Again, I faltered and pushed the idea off. Then a potential professional connection asked me where she could read my writing, and the first thing I wanted to say was “At my blog, tlciambra.com!

And. I. Couldn’t.

In the very beginning of college, when everything is exciting and feels possible, I remember telling a friend that I loved everything art related. “Music, drama, visual arts, everything! Everything!” She laughed and told me that was good because I was studying theatre, which was a mix of all of those things. I felt so sure that I was on the right path then.

I want to write about how I experience art and how it helps me understand my life. Similar to how Molly writes about her life and cooking or how Austin writes about the things he finds inspiration from and his creative process. This feels like something I can grow with. It feels like paying closer attention to what I already love and sharing that.

I hope you’ll join me!

TLC

 

Writing for Craftivate!

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I’m excited to announce I’m now working for Craftivate!

Craftivate is an a cute little craft studio with a mission I absolutely love: getting people to make art together.

Joining Craftivate was one of those funny, “I think this is meant to be!” things. My best friend heard that our high school art teacher started her own crafting business and we started going to events. Before you know it, I’m working with her! I am loving getting to know the ins and outs of a small business and adding something positive and creative to our community.

If you’re in the Greater New Haven area you should definitely check out the fun events we’ve got coming up- from working with polymer clay to wine bottle wind chimes- there’s something for everyone to get into.

Oh and here’s my first blog post!

Happy National Poetry Month!

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Happy National Poetry Month y’all!

To celebrate, I’m going to post a poem to my Instagram every day.  For the first two days, I experimented with blackout poetry because I just read Austin Kleon’s Steal Like An Artist (which I can’t recommend more highly) and that got me into his newspaper blackout poetry. Today’s poem comes straight from my heart and my typewriter.

Follow @blisters_before_misters on Instagram to see more as the month progresses!