TOUR Day 17 - Ohio and Close

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Driving through Ohio was achingly beautiful: sky-scraping barns and fields upon fields of sun-yellow corn. We passed by a few Amish vehicles (respectable, low-frills, horse-drawn buggies). I couldn’t get over how much I enjoyed saying “ominous Amishness” out loud. No one said anything about “Amishness” not being a real word. Roadside shacks sold hard cheddar cheese and seasonal jams. The clouds were bombastic.

In high school, I was the kind of person who really liked to read my writing out loud. You know how sometimes your English teacher would be like, “Would anyone like to share their work?” And everyone in the room would kind of shrink into their chairs, willing the moment to pass? I LIVED for those moments. Here were my favorite words back then: “ubiquitous,” “verisimilitudes,” “destitution,” and “virulent malady” (I liked those two in succession). I was VERY proud of all the big words I knew, and the frequency with which I could use them. I was a mostly unremarkable student — I didn’t make straight A’s by any stretch of the imagination, and I didn’t get into college on merit scholarships — but I was GREAT with big words. I felt like that could fool plenty of people into thinking I was a genius.

Senior year of high school, Paul Schmerd told me that my penchant to read out loud in class had seriously annoyed him. He told me that now that he knew me (we had been in Environmental Action Club together for a few years), he felt kind of bad about how much he had disliked me on first impression. He said he had originally thought I was the most pretentious asshole in the whole school, and it was all because of the big words I used in those essays I patently insisted upon reading out loud to the entire class day after day.

This still happens, of course. I blog every day, and I’m still into big words. The first sentence of this entry, for example, is super-saccharine to the point of being unpalatable. The word “super-saccharaine” ALONE might turn a potential reader away. But I still like those big, descriptive words; and I guess I must love the sound of my own voice, even over the Internet. When I self-publish my writing, it’s no big deal: people can choose to not read it, and it’s rare that someone will say, “Your insistence on pretentious vocabulary makes me wanna vom.” (“Vom," of course, being street-speak for “vomit.”) When I submit pieces to magazines, though, the fallout is harsher. One magazine sent me a rejection letter that said, “I couldn’t get through more than a page of this. The voice is trying too hard. Please seriously reconsider your voice before you resubmit to our publication.”

The thing is, I don’t think I’m actually that pretentious a person. On certain subjects — namely “The Gilmore Girls,” vegan pie, Walt Whitman, and early Rilo Kiley discography — I can adopt a know-it-all-ness, sure. But mostly, I am pretty aware that I have a lot to learn. I am open-minded to change. Most of all, I would never consult myself as an expert on anything. That’s just to say, it’s hard to know who people really are. You have to do a little digging.

One of the easiest ways to do that, I am learning, is to spend every waking hour in a van with someone. The experience utterly humanizes. Maybe you thought you knew the most prominent characteristics of a person, because you chatted him up at a party. But you don’t really know someone until you have been with him alone in the Internetless stretches of Ohio. You don’t know someone, really, until you’ve seen him hit his own emotional bottom, and watched him deal with the center of it. 

I didn’t know Jonathan at all before this trip — I considered him really smart, very hardworking, and multitalented. Yesterday in the car, he opened up about some of his deepest hopes and fears and questions and desires, and I saw a whole different, more complete human portrait dissolve into focus. In some of the moments of this conversation, I felt the rarest kind of joy: the kind that shakes your blood a little bit; makes you feel more alive. This is what it is to connect. I think there are times that we don’t even realize we have been longing for connection.

I’m introverted. I don’t have trouble performing (reading my essays out loud), but I’m terrified of unorganized social time. I hate being around groups of people. And I like being alone so much that I think I forget how much I also long for connection and community. You can be introverted — less comfortable around people than you are alone — and still require deep connection with other human beings.

And honestly, I am a lot like Paul Schmerd. I would venture a guess and say that we all kind of are. It is easy for me to write people off and try to oversimplify them into little boxes. “She is ambitious and driven. She’s all about her job and doesn’t really care about anything else.” “He isn’t very smart. He is friendly, but there’s not much behind that skull.” We default to defining people in OK Cupid Profile Summary shortness. As if there are 180 words that can describe any human life; people can be neatly sorted.

Maybe it’s because it’s overwhelming, when you are watching a man steering a horse-drawn-buggy (for example) down a wide cement road, to internalize that he has hopes, dreams, and great unrealized loves. He’s got some problem in his life that wakes him up at night. There is something he wants more than anything in the world, and he holds his breath in prayer, willing his wishes into existence. It takes too much space in our hearts, and we would rather just say, “Look at that funny Amish man.” In Ohio, we passed by beautiful churches, with gray-blue paint peeling off the hinges. Churches, to me, represent our species’ need to gather, and to find meaning in what is so inexplicable. Whether you do that at a church, or in a mosque, or at a rally, or in a bar, we’re all bound: we don’t want to be wandering around this earth alone.