How I Conquered the World in 2016 and Other Stories

I’m still having trouble believing it, but 2016 is drawing to a close, which means it’s time for my annual round-up of the year. And what a year it has been.

 

Twelve months ago, I was working at the New Hampshire Disabilities Rights Center. I’d only been home from Italy for a few months, and Mopsy and I were still working through our nerves about other drivers while walking around town. I’d just submitted my final law school appplication—and I’d already been admitted to several fine schools. Now, I have just completed my first grueling semester at Harvard Law School, and when we aren’t studying, which isn’t that often, Mopsy and I are cruising around Boston like pros.

 

The only goal I set for myself this year was to not be afraid. I think I was mostly successful, though it was hard to keep that in perspective when I first realized I was going to have to do a lot more cooking than I originally anticipated, or when I was exhausted from studying for seven days straight and terrified I was going to fail my civil procedure exam, or when I woke up from my recurring hospital nightmare this morning feeling like I couldn’t breathe. Or when the election happened.

 

But with my signature optimism, when I look back at all the things I did this year—so many of them brand new—I have to give myself credit.

 

Everything I did at the DRC was totally new to me, from attending hearings to investigating voter accessibility. After I finished my internship, I went on a road trip to visit all the law schools I was still considering. When we were in New York visiting Columbia and NYU, my mom and I also went on two tours of Alexander Hamilton’s New York—one of the financial district and one of Washington Heights, Hamilton Heights, and Morningside Heights. They were fascinating. Then my Italian host parents, Stefania and Bruno, came to America for three weeks, and we visited Washington D.C., Pennsylvania, New York City, Boston, and of course New Hampshire with them. my older brother got married. I went to the National Convention of the National Federation of the Blind for the first time, where I tried ballroom dancing, swing, and 1Touch self-defense. Then I spent the summer learning my way around Harvard, Cambridge, and Boston.

 

And then I started at Harvard Law School, where every single thing I’ve done has been new. I’d never read a legal opinion before. Now I feel like I read nothing but legal opinions. I learned how to do legal research and how to write in legalese. I learned how to think in a completely new way that I’m still not used to and I can’t describe. For the first time, I took final exams with no indication of my grasp of the material—an experience I’d never like to have again but unfortunately I will have to repeat five more times. And right now I’m in the middle of my first ever job search, complete with cover letters. So many cover letters.

 

But I haven’t done only law stuff. I joined a book club with some of my amazing sectionmates. So far, we’ve read Kindred by Octavia Butler and Cinder by Marissa Meyer (the last one was my recommendation if you hadn’t guessed). Right now we’re reading The Dinner by Herman Koch (well, I haven’t started it yet). I also tried out for the law school a cappella group—I didn’t get in, but it was fun to try—and I also applied to write for the law school parody—didn’t make that either but it was both the first script and the first parody I’ve ever written.

 

I’ve also started becoming politically engaged this year. I’m not going to go into the election too much here, because it really isn’t what I want this blog to be about, but I have written about my feelings on the election,and of course you’ve seen my posts on Braille literacy and the Foundation Fighting Blindness’s #HowEyeSeeIt campaign. I was chosen as a section representative for HLS’s law and government program, and I’ve applied to volunteer for a 2017 gubernatorial campaign.

 

All along, I’ve kept writing. At the beginning of this year, I started queryingagents about my novel. I paused when law school hit, but I’m going to send out a new batch of queries in January.

 

My story “Dissonance” was published in Abyss and Apex in April. If you haven’t read it yet, you can read it right here. And over the summer, I wrote and revised three more stories in the Phoenix Song universe—what i’m calling the world where “Dissonance” is set. I also wrote a poem set in the same world, my first poem since tenth grade. With a lot of luck, you might see those some day ever.

 

Once law school started, while I did write less, I did keep writing. I made sure to find time to write at least a couple times a week, not only because I love it, but also because I’ve found if I don’t write, I become first cranky, then miserable, then practically nauseous. When I feel like I’m drowning in law, my stories keep me sane. I finally got back to revising my memory-wiping academy novel, and I succeeded at my summer writing goal of getting the number of projects I’m working on down to two. And in the last couple months, I’ve been trying new things with my writing too. I wrote my first ever 250-word flash fiction story. I usually have the problem that every short story I write turns into a novel, so I was convinced I wasn’t going to be able to do it, and I was pretty darn shocked when I actually did. And right now I’m almost finished with the first draft of my first ever science fiction story. This story was actually inspired by whatever happened with my left eye back in January when my vision went all dark and shimmery for a day. Funnily enough, that was the same incident that inspired my first blog post of the year, about my decision to be brave.

 

Finally, I added some new sections to the blog this year too. Now, in addition to links to my published short stories, you can also read the stories behind the stories to find out what I was thinking when I wrote the stories and why I made the choices I did, as well as other fun facts and even some of my own illustrations. I’ve also been having a ton of fun writing the posts from Mopsy’s point of view, and I hope you’ve had fun reading them, because there’s more to come.

 

And after I don’t know how many New Years resolutions, I finally learned to use Twitter. The secret was  linking my Twitter and Facebook accounts so I only had to worry about one. I also entered a couple Twitter pitch slams for my novel, which not only got me in touch with some agents but also got me into the habit of checking Twitter and tweeting—twelve hours of tweeting and constantly refreshing does that sometimes.

 

I didn’t really conquer the world in 2016. In fact, especially in the last few months, between the pressures of law school, the election results, and the feeling that I just wasn’t writing as much as I wanted to or moving forward with my writing career as fast as I thought I would, I’ve often felt like the world was doing a good job of trampling me into the dust. But looking back on all I’ve done and all the new things I’ve tried, I’d say all and all, 2016 was a reasonable success. Now that I have a handle on how law school works, I feel like I can balance things a little better second semester. We’ll see how well that actually goes, but after a few more good nights of sleep, I’m ready to hit the ground running in the new year.

 

So bring it on, 2017.

Puppy On a Mission

It is hot. Really hot. But this morning, I still woke up my sidekick by jumping onto her face and licking her ears. Just like I did almost exactly six years ago when we first met. My sidekick says she can’t believe I’m eight years old. I’m still the same crazy bouncy puppy I was when I was two, apparently.

 

That’s right. Today’s my birthday! I’m eight years old today. Wow!

 

And no I don’t feel any different than I did yesterday.

 

All this year, whenever I take over my sidekick’s blog, I’ve been talking about what we’re doing in the present and connecting it back to things that happened to us before she started letting me write for myself. Today, though, I want to talk about what happened to me before I met my sidekick.

 

Eight years ago, I was born at the Seeing Eye. From the beginning, they told me I was a special puppy. I wouldn’t spend my days chasing down tennis balls or cuddling up in my person’s lap. I would be trained to do all sorts of important work, because the person I would get when I was done training couldn’t see. It would be my job to guide my new person anywhere she needed to go.

 

When I was old enough to leave my mother, I went to a family in Pennsylvania. The little girl in that family took care of me and started my training. I learned to sit and stay and lie down and come when I was told. I learned to park (that’s the Seeing Eye dog word for doing my business) outside. I learned to walk nicely on a leash. I got to go all sorts of places—like school and on the boardwalk—so that when I started my real training, I wouldn’t be scared by crowds or loud noises. I don’t really remember this, but when my sidekick trained at the Seeing Eye with me, they gave her a paper that said all this. It also said that I like squeaky toys, that when I’m really happy I’ll pick up my bed and bring it to you with my tail wagging my whole butt, and that when I have a bone everybody should duck because I’m probably going to throw it (this is all still true).

 

Just after I turned one, I went back to the Seeing Eye. At the Seeing Eye, trainers work with a string of dogs for four months and then they spend another month in class training the dogs with their new people. So I trained for four months. I learned to stop at curbs and steps, to go around obstacles like poles and hanging tree branches, and not to let my person cross the street if there’s a car in front of her (that’s called intelligent disobedience). It wasn’t my job to know where I was going. My sidekick would know where we were going. It was my job to get her there safely.

 

Then my trainer went up to New Hampshire to do a juno walk with a girl who was applying for a Seeing Eye dog. A juno walk is when the blind person holds the handle of the harness, and the trainer holds the part of the harness that is usually on the dog, and the trainer measures things like how fast the person walks, how much pull they want on the harness, how tall they are, stuff like that. My trainer came back to Seeing Eye, and she told me she’d found the perfect sidekick for me. I would have to wait for her, though, because she was still in high school, and she had to finish before she could come get me. So I did four more months of training, just to make sure I wouldn’t forget anything. I turned two. And four days later, I met my sidekick.

 

We trained at Seeing Eye together for a month. Then I went home with her, and we’ve been together ever since.

 

That summer, I was guiding my sidekick into the market when we passed a little kid and their mother. Like all small children when they see me, this little kid cried, “Puppy! Mommy, look, puppyyyyyyyy!”

 

When it comes to what parents say to their kids about me, I’ve heard it all. “That puppy is helping her,” is a common one. So is, “That’s a blind puppy,” to which my sidekick always replies “I sure hope not.” But this mother said, “That puppy’s on a mission.”

 

Best response ever.

 

Because I am on a mission. My sidekick and I have been all over the world together, and it has always been my mission to keep her safe and lead her where she needs to go, whether that was getting to class on time and navigating the dining hall at Kenyon or dodging maniacs with motor vehicles in Italy. Three years ago, my mission became more important when my sidekick lost her right eye, but I stepped up to that challenge too. And now we’re off on another adventure: law school! We’re already learning our way around Cambridge and practicing the subway routes. Adventure awaits! But for now, I’m going to play with my new squeaky football. Or maybe eat a bone.

America From the Italian Point of View Part Three: Farewell

When I last left you on our grand tour of the northeast, we had just returned to New Hampshire from New York City. If you’ve missed any of the posts about our trip, you can catch up here with Part One and Part Two.

 

We returned from New York very late Friday night. Stefania and Bruno only had a few days left in America. Originally, we had plans to take them to Boston and Portsmouth and the Flume—where once you could see the Old Man in the Mountain. But we were all pretty wiped out, so for the next few days, we mostly just relaxed at home. We walked around my neighborhood and downtown Concord. We played badminton and basketball—which resulted in me jamming my pinkie and having to tape my fingers together for the next three days. We pulled off a surprise birthday party for my mother, which was a lot harder than I would have thought but also a ton of fun. And of course, we played a ton of Uno. My younger brother was now home from Juilliard, and he added a new element of fun to our games. Also, he got to learn his Italian numbers and colors as well.

 

We did go out to Portsmouth for lunch one day so they could try fresh lobster, which they loved. And finally, on their last day, we went into Boston early and spent the hours before their flight left showing them my personal favorite city in the northeast. We went to Harvard Law School so they could see where I will be studying and living for the next three years. We went up to the observatory at the Prudential Center, and just like at the Top of the Rock in New York, we could see all of Boston. Finally, we walked around the waterfront and the North End, saw a couple of the monuments along the Freedom Trail, and ate some last cookies from Mike’s Pastries.

 

All in all, I think we gave them a really good trip around the northeastern United States. They saw Washington D.C. and New York and Boston. They also saw quieter places like Concord and Portsmouth New Hampshire and Gettysburg Pennsylvania. They got to try different styles of American food from different regions. And we did our best to keep it leisurely.

 

We learned a lot about each other’s cultures as well. For example, I learned that Italians eat roughly the same number of meals as hobbits. They learned how tipping in restaurants works and that you do not drink maple syrup. To correct this last bit of misinformation, we actually made them waffles one morning and showed them how to use maple syrup appropriately, then sent them home with a jug of New Hampshire maple syrup (us New Hampshirites are very proud of our syrup).

 

But more than the exchange of culture, it was so much fun for me to spend three weeks with Stefania and Bruno again. I feel like I learned more about them, and they learned more about me, than we did in the nine months I spent in Italy. This is probably because I was so much more comfortable at home than I ever was in Italy. It was because of them that I was able to complete my Fulbright, but I was still so scared in Italy that I just acted like a turtle and retreated into my shell to wait it out. But in these three weeks, I really felt like I was myself with them more than I ever was in Italy, and we had so much fun together. Already, they’re planning to come back for my law school graduation in three years, if they can. If I can pluck up the courage, I’d like to go back to Italy—not to visit Italy but to visit them. After all the time we’ve spent together, they have become part of our family.

America from the Italian Point of View Part Two: Washington D.C. and New York

I meant to write this on Saturday, but I jammed my pinkie playing basketball, and it’s a bit difficult to type with your fingers taped together. My fingers are still taped together, but I don’t want to put this off any longer. If you missed the beginning of our grand tour of northeastern America, check out last week’s post here.

 

When I left you last, my Italian host parents, Stefania and Bruno, had arrived, and we’d spent a few days in New Hampshire and then traveled to Pennsylvania to visit my aunt, whom Stefania and Bruno knew because she came with me when I first traveled to Italy at the beginning of my Fulbright year. We also introduced them to Rocket, our rambunctious black lab puppy—not so much a puppy anymore, but still crazy. We spent a rainy day relaxing, playing with the dogs, and playing game after game of Uno. My mom learned all her Italian numbers and colors, and watching Stefania and Bruno’s interactions while playing cards was eerily similar to my own grandparents.

 

The next day, we went to Washington D.C. I haven’t been to D.C. in ten years, and I barely remember it. We walked along the mall, visiting the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, the Vietnam Memorial, and the new World War II Memorial, which I’d never seen before. Stefania and Bruno were very interested in seeing the World War II Memorial, because they know the history from the Italian front, and they were interested to learn about the war from the American point of view. Thanks to my senior honors thesis, this is something I could discuss at length, even in Italian. It’s an interesting juxtaposition, that for them, the war happened on their soil, to their citazens, in an immediate and terrible way, but in America, the violence of the war didn’t touch civilians in the same way. America was fighting a larger war than Italy as well, because of the European and Pacific fronts, and even though the only attack on American soil was Pearl Harbor, the war was still felt at home in America, with every citizen pitching in to help with the war effort in a way that has not been seen since.

 

On our way back from Washington, we stopped in Gettysburg and had dinner at a really interesting restaurant. It was in the oldest building iin Gettysburg, constructed in 1776. We ate at a table, but other parties were eating in 1800s-style beds, and all the servers were dressed in Civil War style clothing. It was really cool for Stefania and Bruno, who knew about the Civil War and were very interested in it.

 

The next day, we left Pennsylvania and drove north to New York City, where we spent five full days. I’ve been going back and forth to New York all year, visiting law schools and seeing my brother at Juilliard, so I feel like I know the city pretty well. Until I got into Harvard, I thought it was where I would be living for the next three years. But it’s been a long time since I’ve done the touristy things in the city. We started with Time Square and Fifth Avenue and St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Then we spent a whole day at the September 11 Memorial Museum. It was incredible, but also very difficult, as it should be. I don’t think anyone can go through that museum with dry eyes, and we didn’t even get through all of it. It was just so much to take in—the faces of all the victims, the recordings of phone messages from people on the planes and in the Towers telling their family they loved them, the pieces of the buildings and the planes and the charred fire trucks. It was incredible not only to see all of this but to share such an intensely American experience with Stefania and Bruno, who of course had heard about the attack on Italian news but never quite appreciated the extent of what that day did to America in the same way we did.

 

After Ground Zero, we walked along the High Line, which used to be the tracks for an elevated train along the Hudson but is now a walking path. Like the bridge over the Hudson in Poughkeepsie, we had expectations that were much different from what the reality actually was. We expected a view of the city, but instead we found ourselves dwarfed, as usual in the city, by skyscrapers on all sides. We could barely even see the Hudson. However, Stefania and Bruno really enjoyed the leisurely stroll and the chance to see all the different plants and flowers planted along the walkway. They were also fascinated byt the way old, historical buildings were right next to brand new skyscrapers all over the city. I wouldn’t have thought this would be anything of note for them, because this is in fact very similar to Italy, where history is literally layered on top of older history, but I think they were so interested because it wasn’t something they expected to find in America.

 

We spent the next day at the Statue of Liberty. We climbed the pedestal, and they were able to get audio tours in Italian, which gave me a break from translating. I told them about my own grandparents, who came to America as children from Italy, stopped at Ellis Island, and saw the Statue of Liberty as a symbol of freedom and opportunity, just like so many other immigrants.

 

Finally, on our last day in New York, we walked leisurely through Central Park and went to the top of Rockefeller Center. This was incredible, because we could see all the places we had visited all week. Stefania and Bruno were just overwhelmed with everything we’d done and seen. They’d never imagined that they would be able to come to America and see New York in person. It’s thanks to them that I could see so much of Italy last year, so I’m glad we were able to give them this chance.

America From the Italian Point of View Part One: First Impressions

Last year, when I was in Italy, my landlady and landlord, Stefania and Bruno, basically adopted me. I ate with them every day, and they took me all around Umbria. Honestly, I couldn’t have completed my Fulbright without them. So when I left last June, my family and I invited them to come to America. And this week, after months of planning, they did.

 

They’ve been here for four full days now. They have recovered from their jetlag, and we’re planning a leisurely tour of the northeast. So far, we’ve had a lot of fun.

 

We picked them up Monday night at the airport. It took over an hour for them to get through customs, while we waited on the outside and tried not to worry too much. Neither Stefania nor Bruno speak any English, and without any English, we knew it would be hard for them to navigate the airport. At the same time, we knew that other Italian travelers or the flight crew from Italy would be able to help them. Finally, they came through customs, and we set off for NH. After a light dinner, we all went to bed. I was glad to find that while my Italian is a little ragged around the edges, it is still very much alive and kicking. I did devote the last several weeks to reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in Italian, which I’m sure helped.

 

On Tuesday, we relaxed and strolled around our neighborhood, but it was a bit rainy, so we didn’t do much. It was a good day to sleep and continue to adjust to American time (Italy is six hours ahead). Things I took for granted before I spent a year in Italy—like ziplock bags, vegetable steamers, and garbage disposals—fascinated them. They were also fascinated by the chipmunk population in our backyard. I guess chipmunks are far less common in Europe, and also apparently chipmunks are cute (I know a lot of people think they’re cute, but having never seen one, I’m not so sure I can get too excited about it, especially when it sounds like they’re candle pin bowling with acorns in our attic at midnight).

 

It continued to rain on Wednesday. I had a clarinet recital, just for them, where I played the concerto I’ve been working on all year. It went really well. Then we all cooked my mom’s famous roast chicken and my up-and-coming smashed potatoes together, and then I taught Stefania and Bruno how to play Uno. Of all the games I have, it seemed the simplest to play in multiple languages. Throughout my very fractured explanation of the rules in Italian, Stefania asked question after question, but Bruno said absolutely nothing, giving me no indication of whether he understood what I was saying. I was pretty nervous about it, pretty sure I completely messed it up, but apparently I did all right, because Bruno creamed us all.

 

On Thursday, we drove from New Hampshire to Pennsylvania. It was a long, long drive, but we took the scenic route, and they enjoyed seeing the American countryside and the architecture. They’re keeping a running list of all the states we’re driving through and visiting. We spent a lot of time going over the geography with them. We stopped in Poughkeepsie New York and crossed the Hudson River on the Walkway over the Hudson. It was a bit cold and windy and still cloudy. Honestly the bridge wasn’t what we expected, given everything we’d heard about it. It was so big that it was really just like being on a road—it didn’t feel like a bridge—and the sides of the bridge were so high it was difficult to see the river over them. But it was a nice way to stretch our legs, and we found a good lunch right on the waterfront. Finally, we had the quintessential American experience: eating McDonald’s for dinner in the car. We’d planned to have dinner upon our arrival in Pennsylvania, but the walk over the Hudson took longer than expected, and we hit a bit of traffic, and we knew we didn’t want to eat dinner at ten o’clock.

 

Today is another day for relaxing. It’s still raining. We really hoped we would have escaped the rain, but at least it’s a little warmer, and the forecast is for better weather. This weekend, we’re going to visit Washington D.C. and Gettysburg. Then we’ll start back up towards New Hampshire, spending a few days in New York along the way. Once back in New Hampshire, we plan to spend a day in Boston, where I’ll show them where I’m going to school next year. We’re also planning to go to Portsmouth for lobster one evening. And based on the hours and hours we’ve spent playing Uno so far today, we’ll be doing lots of that too.

 

So far, I think it has been a great experience for them. I’m certainly having fun, and it’s really just nice to see them again and show them America, after everything they did for me in Italy.

 

The purpose of the Fulbright program is cultural exchange and understanding. I learned so much from Stefania and Bruno about Italian culture, and while I explained a lot of aspects of American culture to them, it’s one thing to have it explained to you and another to see it. We’re barely a third of the way through their trip, but I think already they’ve seen a lot of American culture. Here’s hoping the rest of the trip is as great as these first few days have been.

Decisions, Decisions

Jameyanne and Mopsy standing in front of the Harvard law school library. Jameyanne is wearing a Harvard Law School T-shirt and has her hands in the air.For most of my life, I’ve had people telling me that I should go to law school because I would make an excellent lawyer. My response was always an unequivocal no. Absolutely not. I will never go to law school. It’s the last thing I wanted to do. Ever.

 

But almost a year and a half ago, I attended a dinner held by the Umbria chapter of the International Lions Club, which turned out to be several hours of listening to people complain about how hopeless and impossible it was to get money for their guide dog school and, when dinner was finally served, attempting not to shout at these same people who applauded when I poured myself a glass of water or cut up my chicken independently. By the time I got home, it was past two in the morning, and I had school the next day. But I was so tired and angry and frustrated—not just with what had happened at the dinner but with my whole first month in Italy. And as I tried to fall asleep that night, my thoughts shifted from an angry tirade to a new idea: I could do something about this. And I started considering the unthinkable: law school.

 

As untinkable as it was, I couldn’t let the idea go, and soon it wasn’t unthinkable at all. It was something I wanted to do.

 

And so began a journey whose ending I am just now reaching. First I made everyone swear not to say “I told you so.” Then I started studying for the LSAT with my mother, first on the trains to and from Ancona and Venice in June, then on the plane back to America, then all summer. We read the Princeton Review LSAT book cover to cover twice. Then I practiced with each individual section type, and then I did entire practice tests—using real old tests I bought from the Law School Admission Council. My score steadily improved over the month of September. Finally, in October, I took the LSAT. While I waited for my scores, I created a list of nine schools I wanted to apply to.

 

At the end of October, I received my LSAT scores. They weren’t as high as I wanted—I’d been consistently scoring six to eight points higher on my practice tests. but they were still really good, and I decided, since my LSAT scores were far from the complete picture, that I would apply to all nine of the schools on my list.

 

From November through March, I received acceptance after acceptance. In the end, I was accepted to eight of the nine schools, and many of them offered me significant merit scholarships. In the end, my decision came down to Harvard and Columbia. I’d visited a couple other schools, but they didn’t have the right feel, and I’d eliminated the others because they were either too far from home—I knew I wanted to stay in the northeast—or because they just weren’t in the same league as my top choice schools, and since I’m interested in going into the federal government, I need to go to the best school I can. It’s actually common advice, to just go to the best law school you get into. I knew that both Columbia and Harvard would get me where I wanted to go, so I decided to visit both schools and leave it up to my gut.

 

This month, I attended the admitted students weekends at both schools. There were a lot of things I really liked about Columbia. I liked the neighborhood and the feel of New York City. Everyone was really nice, and it seemed like it had all the opportunities I was looking for. Then I learned that Columbia Law School doesn’t have a dining hall, and in learning that this wasn’t available, I realized how important that was to me. It’s not that I don’t want to have to cook for myself during my first year of law school—though I don’t—it’s that the lack of a dining hall—the lack of any common space—coupled with the fact that all the law students live in apartments off campus, really made the school feel like there was no sense of community. It felt like people went to school and then left and went home to their regular lives. While I was sure I could handle this and still make friends and not starve, it wasn’t the situation I was looking for.

 

So when I went to Harvard, it was with the knowledge that I wasn’t completely in love with Columbia. I felt like I would have to absolutely hate Harvard for me not to choose it, but I didn’t hate Harvard. From the moment I stepped onto the campus, I had that gut feeling that this was it, and that feeling only grew. Everyone I met was incredibly smart and friendly. Harvard has law school only dormitories and apartments, as well as its own dining hall and gym—and the food is fantastic. Everything is so close together. The mock class I attended, the real class I sat in on, and all my interactions with the professors told me I would have every opportunity I want now and some more that I don’t yet know I want. Also, I really liked Cambridge. Like really liked it. And so did Mopsy. The law school is on its own little campus inside the larger university campus, but right outside the gates is Harvard Square, and right around the block is a Mike’s Pastries (I’ve always wanted to live in the North End of Boston because of Mike’s Pastries, so this is just an added bonus).

 

And so I made my choice. I thought it would be a really difficult decision, but in fact, when it came down to it, it was pretty easy. I firmly believe that things work out the way they’re supposed to, and that your gut feeling is really important when making these kinds of decisions.

 

And so a journey I started a year and a half ago has come to its conclusion, or really, I should say it has come to another beginning. I have made my decision, and I have made it official: in the fall, Mopsy and I will be attending Harvard Law School.

The Grande Amore of Mopsina and Gastone

This time last year, in Italy, it was just beginning to turn warm. Spring was coming. We could all feel it. I walked down the street with my sidekick, and there was a new lightness in her step, a new smile on her face. Even I felt better. It was the sort of warmth in the air that makes me keep my head up, scenting spring on the horizon, and wagging my tail as I trot along.

 

Today, it’s 0 out. Fahrenheit. So cold the furnace is breaking, the pipes are freezing, the windows are exploding, and I’m curled up in as small a ball as I can be, typing this one letter at a time with my paw.

 

So, happy Valentine’s Day from the frozen tundra of New Hampshire. Valentine’s Day has always been interesting to me. In college, my sidekick read me the poem where Chaucer pretty much invented it—I don’t remember which one it was now—and now I see people getting so worked up over it on the TV shows my sidekick watches. But she’s never gotten worked up over it, so neither do I. But today, I am thinking about Gastone.

 

Gastone is a cat.

 

I know what you’re thinking, but Gastone and I were good friends.

 

In Italy, our landlady, Stefania, had six cats. I’ve met cats before, and I’m usually pretty good with them. There are times, I’ll admit, when I forget that I am a lot bigger than they are and my playing maybe scares them a little. But usually I’m pretty good. But six cats is a lot, even for me.

 

So when I found out there were six cats and no dogs where we were going to be living in Italy, I wasn’t so sure. I might like cats, but usually cats don’t like me. And I’ve always had dog friends, at school at the Seeing Eye, at Kenyon, at home with my sidekick’s parents. Now, there were only cats. Lots of cats.

 

At first, they were scared of me. But then, they started to get curious, especially since I’m a good girl and I don’t bark or growl or leap out at them. One of them, Gastone, really seemed to like me. He was the biggest, maybe ten pounds. He liked to sit on our doorstep, so that every time we left the apartment, there he was, waiting. And when I appeared, he would purr very loudly. And I would wag my tail to say hello. Stefania started talking about the grande amore of Mopsina and Gastone, but it wasn’t really that. Gastone would purr at me, and I would wag my tail. Seeing Gastone did make me happy every morning, because it reminded me that even though I missed my dog friends and my people friends from Kenyon and New Hampshire, I still had friends here. And I still had my sidekick. We weren’t alone.

 

So last year on Valentine’s Day, with spring just around the corner, I celebrated a different kind of love. Thanks to Gastone, who reminded me I was not alone, I celebrated my love for my sidekick. She is my best friend in the whole world. She takes care of me, and I take care of her. I make her laugh, and she scratches all the places I can’t itch myself. I keep her safe, and she takes me new places to have new adventures. So this Valentine’s Day, as we huddle for warmth and try to decide where we will be going to school next fall, where the next adventure will be, I still celebrate that love and that friendship. Wherever we go next, we go together.

 

So thank you, Gastone, for reminding me every morning last year of all my friends.

Where the Sidewalk Ends

Hello! I’m Mopsy, Jameyanne’s four-legged, tail-wagging, guiding partner. You may have heard of me, and now my sidekick (that’s how I like to think of Jameyanne) has graceously allowed me to write some blog posts about myself. In general, I’m planning to talk about what I’m up to in life, and what I’ve been up to before, since you have a lot of catching up to do, and of course fun things like bounding through snow and why I love tug-of-war and throwing my bones at people’s shins. Today, I want to talk about sidewalks.

 

I’ve been thinking about sidewalks a lot this week. Mostly, it’s because my sidekick found her book of Shel Silverstein poems and read the one whose title I borrowed for this post. In the poem, the place where the sidewalk ends is like a liminal space (my sidekick talked about these a lot when we were in college, and I pay attention to everything). There is the sidewalk, which I guess symbolizes society, modernity, urban life, what is known about the world. And there is no sidewalk, which would symbolize the opposite, the wilderness, the country, a time before modernity, and of course, the unknown. And then there’s the moment where the sidewalk ends, which is what we’re talking about in the poem, that magical in between space where the world of sidewalks and sidewalk-lovers everywhere changes.

 

Honestly, I don’t know how I feel about this poem, because I have a much more straightforward view of sidewalks. So does my sidekick, I think, especially since she decided she wasn’t going to pursue this English major stuff (I mean, we took some great classes, but I for one am glad we’re going into a more concrete field).

 

Before we went to Italy, the sidewalk meant safety. People walked on the sidewalks, and they didn’t have to be afraid of the cars, because the cars had their own place to drive (the road!).

 

Then my sidekick insisted we go to Italy, and hey, I know Italian and I like adventure, so I didn’t object. But we arrived in Italy, and very quickly (like the third day, when my sidekick was hit by a car on the sidewalk—I pulled her back so it wasn’t so bad, but it was scary and I was very upset with myself) we had to reconsider what sidewalks meant. Which is to say, did they really mean safety? The answer, we soon learned, was not so much. At best, cars parked on the sidewalk, or backed up over the sidewalk to get from a parking lot into the street (this was what happened with the car that hit us). At worst, cars actually pulled up on the sidewalk and used it as an extra lane. I don’t know what they were thinking. It’s my job to make sure we get where we’re going safely. (It’s her job to actually know where we’re going and how to get there. That’s why she’s my sidekick.) I don’t need to know why a car is chasing me down the sidewalk (but, really? Must you? You have the whole street!). I just need to know that hey! There’s a car chasing us down the sidewalk! Let’s walk faster shall we!

 

It is sort of a fundamental fact of orientation and mobility (this thing that people who are blind do with teachers so they can learn where they are) that the best route is always the route with the most sidewalks. In Italy, it was the opposite. It was safer for us to take streets that didn’t have sidewalks, because it turned out everyone already knew this rule and all the people and dogs were taking those streets, so the cars were paying more attention.

 

We survived our year in Italy (obviously, or I wouldn’t be talking to you), and my sidekick and I came back to America, where sidewalks are sacred ground once more. There’s a reason I keep kissing them. But our ideas about sidewalks and roads are fundamentally different now. So when a car pulls up too fast to parallel park beside the sidewalk where we’re walking, maybe I push my sidekick into a hedge. Better the hedge than squished, right? And my sidekick jumped too, so it isn’t just me. And maybe when I hear a car behind me I turn my head a lot until it passes to watch it, just to make sure it’s still where it belongs in the road and not coming after us. It snowed last week. Good bounding snow too, I might add, and sometimes I do bound when I’m wearing my harness. I know I shouldn’t but it makes my sidekick laugh. But anyway, it snowed, and when we had to go out into the street because they just decided not to shovel the last ten feet of the sidewalk, maybe, no (who I am kidding?), we were definitely very twitchy about walking out into the street.

 

But on the whole, we’ve been doing very well. I’ve been doing very well, especially. I know my sidekick was worried that I wouldn’t be okay after Italy, that it would be too much stress and I would be too anxious when we got back home. But I’m okay, and she’s okay. More than okay. We survived! And I did awesome! After that first stupid car hit us, I didn’t let another car come close (and believe me, they tried). They pulled out in front of us and then said “Oh, sorry, I didn’t see you.” To which my sidekick responded, “Well, I’m blind, so you should look where you’re going.” This one time, a bus drove right up the wheelchair ramp onto the sidewalk. That time, I dragged my sidekick behind a tree and hoped very much that the tree would hold when the bus hit it. But the bus stopped and said, you guessed it, “Oh, sorry, I didn’t see you there. You can cross now.” To which my sidekick responded, “No, no, you go. I’m staying here.” We both had hiccups for the rest of the day.

 

But now we’re home, and we’re working on not being so jumpy, and we’re getting ready for the next adventure. My sidekick says it will probably be in Boston or New York, and those both sound like wonderful fun to me: busy enough that it’s good work for me, the work I was built for, but the cars stay where they’re supposed to. I’m looking forward to it.

 

Last week, I know my sidekick talked about being brave, and now it’s my turn. For us, the place where the sidewalk ends is not a magical in between. For me, now, it is a place where we have to step away from safety and trust the guys behind the wheels of those giant killing machines. We try to avoid it, but when we have to, I’m getting better at doing it without being unreasonably scared. Now, I do it with my head up and just the right amount of fear. Still, I only trust these guys so far, which is I think how it should be (they are a lot bigger than me, after all), and that’s the way it’s going to stay.

Home Sweet Home

Last weekend, I finally watched The Assisi Underground, the movie adaptation of one of the books I read while researching my honors thesis at Kenyon and then again just before I left for Assisi last year. It was a very good adaptation, but more than that, it was really interesting to watch the movie, which was filmed in Assisi, and say, over and over again, “I’ve been there. And there. And there. Wow! That’s where my favorite restaurant is now.” Granted, I made a point of going all over Assisi in search of the important places in the book, but I still didn’t expect the movie to strike me quite in this way.

 

I have been home from Italy for about two and a half months now. I’ve tried several times to write new posts for this blog about various writing topics, but obviously I wasn’t all that successful, so I decided to talk instead about what I’ve been up to this summer.

 

I spent most of July catching up on the doctor and dentist appointments I’d been neglecting, which was a good thing, because I also managed to get every kind of sick I can possibly think of that month. I participated in Camp NaNoWriMo as well, trying to get myself back in the groove of writing, and though I got pretty behind thanks to being sick, I caught up and completed my goal. It’s been a while since I’ve felt that surge of energy that comes with some real momentum on a writing project, but unfortunately I didn’t keep that momentum up in August because I have also been studying hard for the LSAT. I’ve been improving steadily, and I’m feeling pretty confident about the test at this point. I’m taking the test in the beginning of October, and in the meantime I’m going to keep doing practice tests, refining my list of prospective schools, and starting the application process.

 

I’ve also been talking a lot about my experiences in Italy. I wrote this Facebook post for the U.S.-Italy Fulbright Administration for the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. I gave a presentation at the New Hampshire Association for the Blind about living independently and self-advocacy abroad. And last week, I was interviewed by Mobility International USA (I’ll post the link to the article once I have it). And, of course, I’ve been catching up with friends and family and talking with them about my year.

 

One of the questions I have been asked most often is, “So, are you glad to be home?”

 

And yes, I really am glad to be home. Reliable air conditioning and hot showers and internet are still amazing to me, and I definitely don’t miss feeling like cars are chasing me down the sidewalk.

 

But watching The Assisi Underground and seeing the city where I lived for nine months made me realize there are some things I definitely do miss about Italy. I miss being five minutes walk from the center of Santa Maria debli Angeli, and I miss how active that town center is. It’s so rare to see people in America walking downtown just for the sake of walking, and the couple of squares downtown where I live are virtually unused, unlike the main piazza in front of the basilica. On nice days, I would sit in the piazza with a book, and there would be people sitting talking all around me. Kids played soccer in the center of the piazza or rode bikes in great loops around everybody else.

 

I miss the food, especially the gelato. And even though I said I wasn’t going to eat pasta again for a long time because I had so much of it in Italy, that resolution lasted all of a week. I’ve been trying out some recipes my Italian friends have given me, with some success. I’ve gotten pretty good at the gnocchi with black truffel sauce, mostly because I brought a lot of truffle sauce back with me. Other recipes I’m trying I feel like something is missing.

 

I miss speaking Italian. I’ve pretty much switched from speaking a lot of Italian but not writing to only writing Italian and not speaking it at all. Except with Mopsy.

 

Most of all, I miss all the people I became friends with in Italy. I’m keeping in touch with a lot of them, but the time zone makes it difficult—I’m not sure if it’s harder being here or there—and it’s just not the same.

 

When I was in Italy, it was hard. There were plenty of times when I was lonely or angry or een I just wanted to turn around and go home. I haven’t forgotten that. But I also gained some perspective—something everyone told me I would do—something I even told others I would do. Because there were a lot of good things about this past year, and on the whole, it really was a valuable experience.

 

So yes, I’m glad to be home. I’m very glad to be home. But I’m also glad that I have this perspective and that I am now truly able to appreciate the incredible year I just had. And I am glad there are things that I miss.

Arrivederci Italia

February was a rough month for me. I’d placed in the Dell Awards, which I was really happy about, but I couldn’t go to ICFA because it would be too hard on Mopsy, which meant I couldn’t go home for a bit. I’d just finished revising a novel, which was also wonderful, but now what was I going to do? I was being rejected from one graduate school after another. A lot of my classes were being canceled because of festivals and work placements for the students, so I had way too much free time on my hands to dwell. And June just seemed so far away. I’d reached a point where I’d realized that I had gotten something out of this time in Italy, so now that I’d done that, could I go home? Well, no, I couldn’t. I’d started this, I was halfway through this, and I was going to finish it. So I sat down and said, “Okay, Jameyanne, if you’ve learned so much, then what did you learn?” And I wrote this post. It turned out pretty flippant, actually, and at the time it really helped me get some perspective on the first half of my time in Italy and face the second with more confidence.

 

I was also pretty sure, at the time, that I could just use this post wholesale when I was getting ready to finally leave in June. And I can, but I’m adding to it. Because now it’s June, and I’m getting on a plane tomorrow, and I am overwhelmed with all the feelings I did not expect I would have and all the things I have learned in these last months.

 

Last October, I arrived in Italy, filled with hope and shiny new dreams. I’d graduated summa cum laude from Kenyon College with high honors in English. An agent was looking at my thesis novel. And I was going to Italy—a dream come true. I was going to revise my thesis novel and research another novel that I wanted to set in Assisi in the 1950s. I was going to make a ton of Italian friends, become fluent in Italian, maybe even fall in love (deep down, underneath all the horrible things I do to my characters, I’m a hopeless romantic, and there’s no getting around it). And, did I mention I was going to Italy?

 

Now, nine months later, I’m going home. I didn’t fall in love. I didn’t even make that many friends my own age, really, though I was pretty much adopted by some of the most wonderful people I have ever met. I traveled all over Italy, visiting Rome, Florence, Pisa, Venice, Ancona, Bari, Matera, Gubbio, Narni, Spoleto, Spello, Canara, Montefalco, Bevagna, and Lake Trasimeno. I saw the big tourist spots, but also all the beautiful little towns around Assisi. And Assisi, too, of course. I taught English in two high schools, and I tried to organize a volunteer project with the school for the blind in Assisi that ultimately fell through.

 

Revising my honors thesis? Didn’t happen. Researching another novel set in Assisi in the 1950s? Maybe subconsciously, but I didn’t put real effort into it. And if anything, for a while I actually fell out of love—out of love with a country, out of love with a dream, out of love with some of my own goals and ideas. Looking back at myself boarding that plane in Boston, I’m not sure who I was then. I’m not sure who I am now, either, but I know I’m different. And I know what changed.

 

So here it is, what I’ve learned in Italy, the big things and the small, the flippant and the serious.

 

  1. Things like dryers, ziplock baggies, traffic laws that people follow, window screens, showers that stay hot for more than five minutes, grocery bags you don’t have to pay for, real wifi (not the kind on a stick), fresh milk that keeps more than four days, and salty snacks are glorious and should not be taken for granted. Ever. Ever!

 

2.  It really is possible to have too much of a good thing. I might never eat pasta again.

 

3.  Being an adult is hard.

 

4. Grammar is not as important as you might think. What matters is understanding, and if that means you’re speaking only in infinitives or playing charades while your jetlagged brain frantically tries to catch up, that’s okay.

 

5. I do not like boiled food. Potatoes, apples, greens, chicken, what have you. If it’s boiled and that’s it, I don’t like it. (Actually, I already knew this, but I thought it bore repeating.)

 

6. While there were definitely times when I really enjoyed teaching, there were also times when I honestly found it kind of boring, which sounds terrible, but I have to be honest here. And on the whole, I don’t think it’s what I want to do for the rest of my life.

 

7. I have fabulous family and friends. I definitely would have lost my mind a dozen times over this year if I didn’t know they were all standing behind me—six hours and several thousand miles behind me, to be precise, but ready to listen to me and be a virtual shoulder I could cry on and cheer me on. (Did I mention the internet should never be taken for granted?) My parents came to visit me at Christmas for a family vacation, and then they came back again in March, when it became clear how hard a time I was having. If they hadn’t come back, I would have given up and gone home, and if I’d done that, I would have missed so much. I couldn’t have done this without them.

 

8. I have an incredible Seeing Eye dog. I don’t know how many times Mopsy has literally saved my life (I lost count the first week), what with the traffic laws being only suggestions and the drivers who I swear are out for blood. But more than that, she stood by me this whole year, when I was excited and when I was miserable, when I was dancing around my apartment singing Disney songs at the top of my voice or when I was curled up in bed feeling like I would never be able to get up again. When I felt like it was all too much, like I just wasn’t brave enough to get up and keep going, like I just wanted to turn around and go home, Mopsy was the one who forced her head under my arm and wagged her tail: “Come on. We can do it. We’ve come this far.” She deserves a blog post all her own, and so much more.

 

9. I love writing. I always will love writing. But writing all the time can be very lonely. Maybe if I was in the same time zone as all my writing friends, it would be better. I don’t know. But I’m not sure being a full-time writer is what I want to do with my life either. Of course I’ll keep writing and keep trying to get published, but I’ve been doing that my whole life while I was in school, so why can’t I keep doing that while I’m doing something else too?

 

10. There is no shame in crying over Disney movies when you’re twenty-four. (I already knew this too, but again, I felt it deserved to be repeated.)

 

11. Things don’t always work out as you plan, but they do work out, and they might be just as good.

 

12. I want to go to law school and become a disabilities rights lawyer. I might have come to this decision without Italy. I wasn’t sure even before I graduated that I wanted to get a Ph.D in comparative literature. I loved Italian literature, but I could read it without a doctorate, couldn’t I? So I might have realized that I had something else I could give, that so many people had fought for me and my rights all my life, and I could give back by fighting for someone else. But without Italy, without having to really fight for myself and my rights, without feeling discriminated and judged, I don’t think I would have had the same compassion and empathy that I have now, not only for people with disabilities, but for other groups as well.

 

There’s more, so much more, but it’s harder to put into words. There were times when I didn’t feel like I was really independent, but in fact, I have been more independent this year than ever before. True, I couldn’t cook myself—you had to start the stove by turning on the gas and then using a lighter, and in case I haven’t mentioned it, I have no aim—and I couldn’t even get to the store by myself without risking getting squished because the cars in Assisi think the sidewalk is at best a parking lot and at worst an extra lane. But I was taking care of myself and my dog. I had my own apartment and my own finances to handle. I was traveling to and from work every day by myself—stay tuned for the “Whacky Adventures of Mopsy and Jameyanne Trying to Get to School Without Getting Killed.” And I wouldn’t trade the ability to go to the store and cook myself for all the wonderful meals I had with Stefania and Bruno—my landlady and landlord—and the friendship we formed over those meals.

 

Stefania and Bruno basically adopted me, and I cannot put into words what kind, caring, loving, wonderful people they are. They took me for who I was, from the minute I walked in the door. They didn’t help me because I was blind, but because I was a young girl far from home. They welcomed me with open arms and hearts, and the love and friendship they showed me, from the start, has changed my ideas about what is most important to me. Thanks to them, I value my friends and family—and I count them family now—more highly than ever. When I come back to Italy, I know that I always have a home.

 

And finally, I saw that I can make a difference, even if it is one person at a time. When I first arrived in Italy, people were always giving me strange, if not downright hostile, looks. I was told that it was practically taboo for someone with a disability to be living, working, and traveling independently. Most Italians have never seen a service dog. What I was doing, living and working by myself in a foreign country thousands of miles from home, was unheard of. When I proposed volunteering at the school for the blind in Assisi to teach the kids some basic independent living skills–tying their own shoes, pouring a drink without spilling, putting toothpaste on a toothbrush without making a mess, that sort of thing–I was told, “They can’t do that.” I was told I couldn’t enter stores. Bus drivers forgot I had asked them to tell me when we were at my stop or forgot to mention I was on the completely wrong bus (if the buses are color coded, why are three orange buses going three different places?). Once, a woman started yelling at me on the bus because she was afraid of dogs and what business did I have bringing such a fierce dog on a public bus? People applauded when I poured myself a glass of water, operated a vending machine, or cut up my own food. I was not allowed to climb the tower of Pisa with Mopsy, and they refused to refund my ticket. I had to fight for every inch I gained. But I gained a whole lot of inches. After a while, people started saying hello to me as I walked down the street. A waiter at my favorite café started asking me how I did things myself. The next time someone threw a fit about Mopsy being on the bus, the bus driver started yelling right back at them before I could. How did I do this? I pushed. Yes, I am legally allowed to enter your store. Yes, my dog is getting on this bus. People started recognizing me. People started respecting me.

 

I will tell one quick story to really illustrate this. A few weeks after I first arrived in Italy, I went to the supermarket with Stefania and Bruno to buy cereal and milk, and the cashier didn’t want to let me in with Mopsy. Stefania and Bruno offered to go buy my cereal and milk while I waited for them, but I insisted that I was going with them and that I was legally allowed to. The cashier gave in, possibly just to shut me up, but hey, whatever works. But nine months later, just two weeks ago, when we went to the hermitage where Saint Francis communed with the animals, a nun didn’t want to let me into the church with Mopsy, and before I could even object, Stefania said, “First, she’s a guide dog and she’s allowed everywhere. Second, think where we are. Would Saint Francis really not let such a beautiful, good dog come into his church?” (Only an Italian would talk back to a nun like that.) Stefania’s growth, from taking my inability to enter a store at face value, to facing down a nun on my behalf, really drove home to me not just how much I have changed, but how much I have changed others around me this year.

 

And so here I am. Tomorrow, I’m flying back to America. I’m really glad to be going home, but leaving all the wonderful people I have met, even leaving this country that sometimes seems like an alternate universe where things just aren’t quite right, is so much harder than I ever imagined it would be. I know that when I get home, everyone is going to ask me, “So, how was Italy?” And I’m not sure what to say. I’ve had better years, but I’ve also certainly had worse (the year of the exploding eye chief among them). At times, it was really hard. But that doesn’t mean it was a bad experience. In fact, looking back on it even now, it has been a pretty incredible year, in every sense of that word, and I’m sure that I’m going to look back on this year and everything that I learned as a difficult but also a wonderful time, and really, as the beginning of something new.

 

So, arrivederci Italia. Until we meet again. And grazie.