May the Fourth Be With You!

photo of me with a jawa and a Tusken raider

On my recent vacation to Tatooine.

A long time ago, in a town far, far away, I discovered Star Wars. I was ten, my brother was nine. We were at my grandparents’ house, where the adults were doing something that necessitated sticking us in the tv room upstairs to watch movies.

It was 1997, and the Star Wars trilogy was airing in advance of the theatrical release of the Special Editions. In our channel flipping, we stumbled on Return of the Jedi. The movie was half over when we happened on it—already the gang was on Endor, chasing down Stormtroopers on speeder bikes.

We were transfixed. When my parents came up to get us so we could go home, we didn’t want to leave. Luke was fighting Darth Vader and Han and Leia were trying to blow up the shield generator. We had to know what happened next.

My dad, perhaps incredulous that we cared so much about a movie that was already fifteen years old, told us that we had it on tape.

“What?!” we both asked, surprised and delighted, but slightly distrustful.

“Yes, we’ve got the whole trilogy on tape,” my dad repeated, trying to hurry us along.

It was too late to watch the rest of the movie when we got home, but the next day, my dad dug out bootleg copies of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, taped off the tv at some indeterminate time in the past. He couldn’t find A New Hope, but we took what he offered.

a Star Wars movie poster with various autographs

I’ve been collecting signatures on this poster since I was 14. My most recent acquisitions are Wedge, Biggs, and Gold Leader (Dutch).

And we watched those two movies over, and over, and over, and over.

It wasn’t until the Special Editions came out in theaters later that year that we were able to see A New Hope. My dad took us to the theater to see it.

We already knew the characters from watching Empire and Jedi, but we soaked up that movie like sponges. The trash compactor scene scared me, but I wasn’t willing to admit it. And I will always remember the thrill I felt leaving that theater, like I had found religion or the secret to eternal youth.

That Christmas was the best Christmas I can remember. We got a (legal) copy of the trilogy on VHS, Star Wars Quiz Whiz, and Star Wars Monopoly. My grandmother began a tradition that has lasted into the present by buying me the Star Wars Hallmark Keepsake ornaments for that year. I’m sure we got other presents–Lego sets, video games–but the Star Wars presents are the ones I remember best.

From then on I had no interest in playing “house.” I wanted to be Princess Leia going on adventures with Luke, Han, and Chewie. I wanted to fly an X-Wing and train to be a Jedi Knight. I called my brother a scruffy looking nerf herder. I pretended my dog Maverick was Chewbacca.

Twenty years later, these films still transfix me. I still want to be Princess Leia and fly an X-Wing and wield a lightsaber. When the world feels devoid of light I only have to pop in A New Hope, learn the ways of the Force from Obi-Wan Kenobi and fight the bad guys in my little snub fighter to remember that resistance is never futile. Resistance and persistence create change, make a better world.

In my most desperate hours, I will always have Star Wars to remind me of this truth.

Happy 40th Anniversary, Star Wars, and May the Fourth Be With You.

Fund the Corporation for National and Community Service: My AmeriCorps story

I grew up in a working class family across the street from a steel mill. I have been working since I was 15, when I got my first job in a video store at the mall. I’ve done a patchwork of things: bookstore clerk, church secretary, childcare provider, jack of all trades at Target, even web designer.

My parents worked hard so they could send me to college, and I’m the first person in my extended family to earn a college degree. But I graduated in 2009, smack-dab in the midst of the Great Recession. There weren’t any jobs, especially not for 22-year-old writers with only very thin files of published clips. Newspapers were laying off staff and closing left and right.

As my college graduation date drew ever nearer, panic settled over me. I thought about joining the Army, and even went as far as taking the ASVAB–I was one step away from signing on the dotted line. I thought about the Peace Corps, but wasn’t sure I’d be able to handle a remote position with my new diagnosis of chronic migraine. I looked at Teach for America, but didn’t feel passionate about teaching.

AmeriCorps Logo

The true problem with all of these options was the same: I wanted to write. And I wanted to get paid for it. I’d heard of AmeriCorps, part of the government agency the Corporation for National and Community Service, and knew there was a position working with the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council. I figured that was as close as I was going to get to getting paid to write, but when I searched AmeriCorps’ job openings, I found a staff writer position at a community newspaper in Pittsburgh called The Northside Chronicle.

I applied. I interviewed for the position. I nailed it. And there I was, a 22-year-old writer with hardly any clips, getting paid to write. True, it was less than $12,000 a year and I had to rely on food stamps and LIHEAP (a program that helps with your heating bills), but even so. I was getting paid to write.

This was a dream come true for me, and without AmeriCorps I likely would have had to move back in with my parents and work a crappy job at Target for lack of better options. Instead, I got to do work that was important to my community and helped me grow as a writer and a person.

If you cut funding for AmeriCorps, you put people like me–people from working class backgrounds, the people our current president claims over and over again he supports–in dead-end jobs while we wait for Baby Boomers to finally retire.

That first job taught me a lot about working as an adult and about being a writer. How to deal with difficult coworkers. How to not only take editorial feedback but seek it out. How to negotiate. How to write on a deadline. How to copy edit and proofread, and the difference between the two. How to be professional even when someone is screaming at you because they don’t like what you wrote, and so much more.

The most important lesson for me, though, was that it was possible to get paid to write.

That experience helped give me the confidence to apply to the MFA program of my dreams at Chatham University. It undoubtedly helped me get accepted. The educational stipend I got as part of my payment for my service helped pay for it. And the lessons I learned as an AmeriCorps volunteer at The Chronicle continue to help me when I’m doing an author interview or review, or even when I’m writing a blog post against a ticking clock.

a view of the Pittsburgh skyline

A shot of the Pittsburgh skyline from a neighborhood dog walk.

I’m not stupidly wealthy. I’m not internationally famous. But I’m employed full-time doing what I love–editing and writing for my public library’s daily blog and helping people find their next favorite book at the public service desk. I own my own home. I make enough money to pay my bills and still have some left over for my Star Wars addiction. I spend my free time writing, playing board games with friends, and taking my dog for long walks in my beautiful city.

In other words, I am living my own version of the American Dream, minus the white-picket fence (I live in Pittsburgh, so I’ve got a retaining wall instead of a fence in my front yard). While I won’t discount my own hard work and a robust safety net of family support, I owe this success in large part to my early experience with AmeriCorps.

The president’s first budget proposal calls for cuts to AmeriCorps. I am walking, breathing, living evidence of why this is a terrible idea. If we want to build a nation of engaged, educated citizens who make meaningful contributions to their communities, we need to foster public service, not cut its funding.

AmeriCorps is a vital element in our communities and an invaluable experience to those who serve. The last thing our communities need is for the president to cut funding for this and other important programs. Please call your elected officials and ask them to reject a budget without funding for AmeriCorps.

I am a snowflake

Right now I’m watching a snow storm blow and swirl and gust outside my window, a day later than expected, but still here, still covering the frozen ground in white, filling the air, turning everything monochromatic.

And it is beautiful.

Rose of Sharon seed pods covered in snow in my back yard.

Rose of Sharon seed pods in my back yard.

Conservatives like to call people like me (young, liberal, well-educated) “snowflakes,” because we are “overly sensitive,” “can’t take criticism,” are “ sore losers,” and and and.

Once I went to a party dressed as One Hundred Years of Winter, and the title suits me. I prefer the cold months to the heat of summer. I hike in blizzards, reveling in the way snow enforces quietude. Have you ever noticed the sound of a snowflake hitting your jacket? The gentle, almost imperceptible tick? The way those ticks accumulate faster than you expect, until your shoulders are transformed into snow-capped mountains?

Have you ever, as an adult, tasted the not-quite-metallic tang of freshly fallen snow? Have you paused to let it melt in your mouth, momentarily chilling your lips and tongue? Have you stopped to acknowledge the beauty of white on naked branches, so distinct from the beauty of summer’s verdant greenery?

But snow is not just beautiful.

Snow is cold and biting. Snow stings. Snow cripples cities, layering on roads faster than plows can scrape it away, burying cars. Snow isolates people in rural areas, cuts them off from emergency services and the grocery store. Snow smothers people unlucky–or unwise–enough to get caught in its drifts. Snow weighs down the roofs of houses until they collapse on themselves.

On its own, a single snowflake may do nothing more than fall, invisible, inconsequential. Snowflakes rarely fall alone. Most people–perhaps even you–fear their force, and for good reason.

A single snowflake can’t kill you, but a blizzard can.

So if you want to call me a snowflake, call me a snowflake. That word holds no sting for me. I staked out my winter territory long before this debate. I’ll be here when you’ve forgotten it.