Book Review: “The Help” by Kathryn Stockett

This novel is everything a novel should be.

It is the late 1950’s to early 1960’s in Jackson, Mississippi. Racial tensions are flaring as the sneering clique of young ladies who rule over the town work tirelessly to keep their reputations pristine and their colored maids in check. The book follows the interwoven lives of three characters: Aibileen, a kindhearted maid who loves the little girl of the white family she serves more than the girl’s own mother; Minny, another maid unlike Aibileen in every way: fiesty, no-nonsense, and bitter-tongued; and Skeeter, one of the young white socialites who doesn’t quite fit in, as she is aiming to leave Jackson to become a writer and doesn’t necessarily agree with all of the racial separation her high-and-mighty friends are fixated upon.

After some time writing a home upkeep column for her local paper, using the advice gleaned from Aibileen, Skeeter presents a monumental idea: write a book depicting the stories of the colored help and their experiences working for white families. It is a risky move for all involved, and may never get off the ground in the first place. Will enough of the local maids be willing to put themselves at risk for Skeeter’s cause? What will happen to those who do – and Skeeter herself?

This book is brilliant and breathtaking and gorgeous and heart wrenching and raw. I laughed, cried, and stressed out for these characters. Each of the three narrators have their own distinct voices, so I was able to sit right in the head of each woman and go through the series of events with them. It genuinely felt as though I was a fly on the wall in a real life situation, rather than reading a work of fiction. The action never pauses. There is just enough detail to make every scene interesting. It is just so, so, SO well done. It felt like I was on their rollercoaster. I never wanted it to end.

Not only is it a brilliant read, it is inspiring to so many degrees. It is the book America needs right now, to learn to see things from everyone’s perspectives. But not only does it teach you to find the value in others – it shows the importance of finding the value in yourself.

I say to everyone: if you read one book in your life, let this be it.

Trip Report: St. Augustine, Florida

This past week my dad and I went down to St. Augustine to visit my Memere. Despite the fact that it was almost 100 degrees every day and we had to spend each high noon cooped up in the AC, the trip was a lot of fun — and very interesting!

Downtown St. Augustine is full of gorgeous little marketplaces that are lined with art galleries, souvenir shops, restaurants, and more.  We spent a lot of time walking down these streets and poking our heads in countless shops. My Memere’s cousin is actually a painter, and so we got to stop by his gallery and meet him.

Our first night we had dinner at a place called the Ale House, and we were able to sit with a view of the large bay.

Bay 1Bay 2

On our second day we took what is called the Red Train Tour all around the city. St. Augustine is a place so rich with history, it is a wonder that it only became popular with tourists within the last couple years. Many of the buildings all around St. Augustine are still standing from the 1500s, as they are made with coquina, a mix of shells and mud that is pretty much resistant to everything (including hurricanes!). Almost all of the streets in the city are the original cobblestone from the time period, too. They can’t do any renovations on them because there are thousands of Spanish grave sites underneath the roads!

We saw the original city gates and plenty of forts. We learned about the lives of the original Spanish settlers. We got to drive down the oldest street in the entire country, and we saw a road down which Dr. Martin Luther King led a march during the Civil Rights Movement. It is now appropriately named Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way.

Street sign

My Memere went to Flagler College, so she had us take the tour. Henry Flagler was a very rich man (in cahoots with Rockefeller kind of rich) so he built a hotel in St. Augustine called the Ponce de Leon Hotel, after the guy who claimed Florida for Spain. So, basically, the students of Flagler College get to go to school and live in what is a giant, glorious hotel. It was so cool to walk around and learn about the history of the hotel and how they use it now as a school.

City gatesAlcazarOld townDomeFlagler outsideParlorClothes 1Clothes 2Hotel

Our third day we crossed the bridge over the bay from St. Augustine to Anastasia Island. We hit the beach for a while and then went to see a gorgeous lighthouse that still functions!

LionBeach 1Beach 2Lightouse

On our last day we went downtown again, but it wasn’t long before we were surrounded by a horrendous thunderstorm. We booked it back to my Memere’s house and spent the rest of the rainy afternoon looking at photo albums and home movies before Dad and I had to head to the airport.

St. Augustine is a great place to travel if you’re a history buff — especially a Spanish history buff! There is so much to do and see. My two recommendations, however, are to NOT go in the middle of the summer, as the heat is nearly unbearable. Also, be sure to stay within the city limits.

My Five Tips for Traveling Abroad with Food Allergies

Bathing suit, shoes, makeup…epi pen. That last item isn’t something everyone has on their packing list, but for those who do, including myself, traveling can be a worry. Especially when you’re traveling to a country where, uh, you don’t speak the language fluently. If you’ve been following my blog recently, you know that in April I went to Spain with my school and had to figure this out for myself! I learned a lot both before and during the trip, and I hope my tips can help others that are anxious about traveling abroad with food allergies.

Tip #1: Make allergy cards

Before you go, make a couple of small cards that you can have in your wallet or purse at all times. The cards should obviously be in the language spoken in the country you’re going to. My mom and I went on foodallergy.org to make my allergy cards (this site also has lots of other helpful information for traveling overseas, especially if your allergy is more serious). Make sure they say what you need them to. Mine roughly translated to: “I cannot have eggs or nuts, and must avoid cross contamination.” Be sure, if you can, to check your card with a fluent speaker just to be sure a native will understand it!

When you get to the country, use it as much as you feel is necessary. I put my card on my plate at every sit-down meal so that the waiter would be constantly reminded of my needs. Additionally, at counter service, if it was not a restaurant I was familiar with I would hand the person my card to read. It was so helpful and I highly recommend it because it helps to get your point across even after you have spoken about your allergies in the language (most times I would say that I had an allergy and then would hand them the card for further clarification).

Tip #2: Order simply

Europe is unlike America in that with many dishes, there are not a lot of fancy sauces and whatnot. But, regardless, always try to order simple foods. To keep things safe, order the grilled chicken, rice, and beans, as opposed to “fried blah blah over whatever noodles in a blah blah sauce garnished with fancy thing.” Get what I’m saying? Stick with foods that you know exactly what they are so you know exactly what you’re putting in your mouth. Knowledge is power, friends.

Tip #3: Bring easy-to-access snacks

Before you embark, stock up on a bunch of non-perishable foods that you can carry around with you. For my trip to Spain, I brought a bunch of nut-free protein bars (after finally finding some) and mini cups of cereal. That way, if there’s just nothing around that you’re comfortable with or the waiter hands you something you weren’t expecting, you have a backup plan.

Tip #4: Go with what you know

There will be instances where you’re crunched for time and just don’t see anything around that you’re comfortable ordering. But then, you spy a McDonald’s at the corner. Cue the inner debate: but it’s Europe!

I know when traveling abroad, you want to experience everything about the culture including the cuisine (trust me, I felt this pain many times while in Spain). But your health comes first, so sometimes the best option is to go with the familiar food joint that you know is safe. And that’s ok. If you have to opt for a slice of pizza or a burger from Burger King, don’t feel like you’re missing out. It’s so much better to go with what you know than to risk eating something unsafe. Your traveling companions – and your body – will thank you.

Tip #5: Be confident

Speaking in a foreign language to someone way more fluent than you can be totally nerve-wracking, but don’t let it get in the way of what you need to say! Be sure that you make your needs loud and clear, however it is you need to do so. The vast majority of servers and waitstaff are more than happy to listen to you and meet your accommodations.

I only had one situation where I felt uncomfortable. At a sandwich shop, I went up to the counter and showed the server my card, but she merely glanced over it. I tried to explain to her that I wanted a ham and cheese sandwich without the mayonnaise, but for whatever reason we were not making the connection. She became very impatient and began to serve the next person. So I simply backed away and waited for someone else to serve me. This time, a very kind young woman came over, took the time to read my card, and figured out exactly what I wanted.  That’s all it took! So be patient with yourself as a foreign traveler and make sure there is no question that the server is taking the time to understand your allergy and accommodate as such.

Of course, these tips can improve your experience but are not guaranteed to prevent all miscommunications or accidental ingestion that may occur. So no matter what, always always always have your epi pen on you and know the emergency numbers in the region of the country you are staying! As long as you use caution, traveling abroad with food allergies can be even more fun – and safe – than you thought!

An Ode to the Choir Room

I have been dreading this day since the onset of senior year.

Last week I stepped foot in my school’s choir room for the final time, not knowing when I will be able to see it again. Of all the aspects of my high school, this room is the one thing I am struggling the most to say goodbye to.

This is the room in which I spent at least an hour almost every single day for the last four years. It has seen my greatest defeats and my biggest victories. The walls have heard my shrieks of joy and my quiet tears of anguish. It knows my entire heart like a best friend. It has watched me grow from an insecure, timid freshman to a young adult. It has seen me get ready for the biggest role I ever had, and the next year, it taught me how to forgive.

I have kicked its doors in frustration. I have cleaned it after a show. It has been a home, a refuge, a kind of church, a portal that transported me all across the globe to sing in languages I never would otherwise have learned.

Each time I stepped into that room, I was filled with overwhelming joy. The choir room taught me what it means to love: to love yourself, to love the ones closest to you, to love your fellow man. It is a room filled with magic; the intangible and breathtaking magic that comes with making music alongside a group of people who mean the world to you.

Family took on a new definition in that room. On graduation day, I sang the senior song with a group of people who have become my best friends. I was blessed to have not one, but two amazing choir directors over my four years. I am not just leaving the room itself and all of the memories it holds for me; I am also leaving behind an incredible group of underclassmen whom I can’t wait to watch grow.

There will be few locations in my life that will embody everything this room has been. The people I have met in this room I will be connected to forever. I leave the choir room with all of my love, and I know that someday I will be back to see you again.

Thank you for everything.

Book Review: “The Four Agreements” by Don Miguel Ruiz

This is the last book we read in my AP Literature course this year, after we completed the AP exam. It’s an easy read, but it’s also one of the hardest books I grappled with all year.

In this book, Don Miguel Ruiz describes each of the Four Agreements: “Be impeccable with your word,” “Don’t make assumptions,” “Don’t take anything personally,” and “Always do your best.” He then explains why each one is important to obtaining happiness and contentment, and how they are applied to the Toltec culture. Through reading and working with this book, we all were able to reflect deeply about how we could improve our lives by following these agreements, and how we are already successfully utilizing them in our daily lives. Our discussions were therapeutic and uniting.

Being a book tied to Toltec culture, some of Ruiz’s assertions did clash a little with my own religious beliefs. But the agreements can very much be molded to custom interpretation, and it is easy to get over that.

If you’re not paying attention to what you’re reading, it can seem like he drones on and on about the same things. This is why I wish we had had more time with the book, because it is the type of piece you must read over and over again and ponder deeply over. Through that you can mine the wisdom that you need from it.

I was devastated when I had to return this book to the library. Tom Brady has said that he reads The Four Agreements at the start of every year, and that is how he maintains his composure and optimism no matter what happens in the football season. Similarly, I hope to buy myself a copy of this book before I head off to college in August. That way I can refer to it whenever I need a reminder of simplicity when life gets complicated.

This book is perfect for people in my window — those transitioning to college, or anyone going through a major transition. I think everyone should read it, regardless of previously held beliefs, religious or otherwise. It might make the world a little better.

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Words and Big Life Changes

I did not post this past Wednesday because the last two weeks, words were difficult.

I’ve learned a lot about words recently. It is so important to use our words to build, to create, to encourage, to love, to comfort, to unite.

Moving forward, there are so many changes coming to my life that it is pretty hard to fathom. I graduate high school next week and in the fall will be going to Emerson College to pursue a journalism degree. My last day of classes is in 48 hours. Prom was on Friday. I performed with my choir for the final time last Thursday (On the car ride home after that concert, I cried as hard as the last time I had a tantrum when I was like seven). It’s all moving too fast, and I just feel that I am hopelessly trying to cling to this intangible thing called time, in the same manner as if I was clinging on to a tractor trailer trying to stop it from speeding down the highway. In both cases, it is to no avail.

The greatest thing that I have learned from the conclusion of my senior year, however, is just how important it is to savor every moment you have with the people you love. I’ve learned this on two different levels over the past two weeks. I’ve also discovered that the worst of times aren’t going to be the times you remember. We hyper-focus a lot on our mistakes in the moment. I made plenty of mistakes in high school, but looking back, those aren’t the memories that jump out at me (unless they’re really funny). What I do remember are the times I was laughing, singing, having fun, interacting with people I love.

I’ve been doing my best to journal my last days of high school, but of course life goes by so quickly it’s hard to keep up. But I’m trying, and I’m so glad I am, because I’ll be able to look back on exactly how I passed through these moments.

Time is a jerk, but you don’t have to let it bully you too much. Take in everything. Put the phone down and form real connections. Unless you’re taking pictures, then keep your phone out. But don’t take too many of those either. Write it all down at the end of every day. This is life is such a gift, get as much wear out of it as possible.

All right, it’s time to head back to school and make some more memories.

Trip Report: Spain

As part of adding travel as a major component of this blog, I am going to be doing trip reports after my travels, which essentially are just posts about my trips detailing what I enjoyed and possibly didn’t. This week: Spain!

There were ups and downs, but on the whole my trip to Spain with the school was an incredible opportunity that I am very grateful to have been a part of. I learned so much about Spain’s history and how that intertwines with the history of America.

The tour began in Madrid, which is a bustling metropolitan area that shares many similarities with Times Square – down to the freaky cartoon character costumes running around the main area. Even amongst the city, however, there was still so much rich history to be found. We visited the Prado Art Museum on our first day in Madrid. Some of the paintings were breathtaking, and it was surreal to see in real life the famous works that I had studied in Spanish last year. On our second day, we got to tour the Royal Palace, which is still used by the Royal Family of Spain to host events.

  
  
   
  
  
Our third and fourth days were by far my favorite. We stopped in Toledo, an old-fashioned city tucked into the rolling hills and filled with castles. It reminded me a lot of Sorento, Italy. We watched sword making and gold etching by actual masters of the craft. Then, we went to my favorite place, the Alhambra. The Alhambra is essentially a Moorish palace, but within the palace grounds is a giant garden like something straight out of a fairytale. Arches of roses, flowers of all colors as far as the eye can see, fountains and orange trees, paths lined with hedges a mile high. It was breathtaking. We could have spent the rest of the trip in that garden, and I would have been perfectly happy.

  
  
   
   

On the fifth day of Spain my teacher gave to me…a vey relaxing day in Marbella. The majority of the group went on a catamaran ride, but my family and I chose not to sign up for that excursion, so I spent my day with the other kids not on the excursion lounging by the hotel pool and shopping. When the rest of the party returned, we spent the day at the beach.

I cannot recall a lot of what happened in the last couple days, as that was when I came down with an intense stomach bug and had to spend one afternoon sleeping in my hotel room. I do have pictures from Segovia, which was cool from what I remember. There were lots of traces of Christopher Columbus’ presence and influence on the Spanish.

Again, I enjoyed the trip overall, however I do not ever want to tour a country in that way again. We were constantly on the go, and that took a toll on all of us. Everything always felt rushed – that day by the pool was like a miracle! It also felt like we were being forced to see every nook and cranny of each city we were in. While I love history, six cathedrals later it starts to be a lot of the same, you know? I would have appreciated maybe seeing a little less but going at a slower pace so we could really take in the beauty and history around us.

The Other Side

I begin this post as I lounge poolside with some of my friends at a hotel on what is appropriately called the Costa del Sol. If you had asked me a week ago how I was feeling about traveling to Spain with a group of my classmates, relaxed would have been the last word on my mind. 

I was majorly anxious for this trip not because this is my first time traveling abroad, but because this is my first time traveling anywhere without my parents. I was worried about everything: I would forget something without their reminders, I would accidentally eat something that I’m allergic to. This anxiety rose to the point where I was physically sick and had to stay home from school the day before our departure.

While I laid in bed that day trying to get over my nausea, I was scrolling through Facebook and something compelled me to watch a video of Will Smith giving a speech. In it, he said the following: “Everything you want is on the other side of fear.” I don’t know for sure whether he is the original author of that quote, but I repeated it to myself in school, in the airport, and on the plane the next day until I fell asleep in my seat and awoke to our descent.

Once we touched down in Madrid, all of my fear disappeared. Each day I have gained more confidence in my abilities to advocate for myself and take responsibility for myself and my belongings. Not only did I make it to the other side of the world, but I have made it to the other side of fear. And what I’ve found on this side of both is absolutely incredible. 

Spain is one of the most beautiful countries I have ever seen. From the Moorish palaces in Toledo to the gardens of the Alhambra to the bustling city life of Madrid, each of our stops have been uniquely fun and educational. There will be another post when I return describing my trip in detail. 

The biggest way you can combat your anxieties about foreign travel is simply positive thinking. None of my worrying was warranted – everything has been fine. I wish that I had been able to convince myself of that, then I could have spent my time being excited about the trip! 

Foreign travel can be scary, but once you get to the other side of your mind’s limitations, it is worth it. 

Update

My biggest fear did come true: I got sick the last two days of the trip and am still battling a stomach bug. But I survived and even thrived in Spain despite it!

On What It’s Worth – guest post by Evan Moloney

My dear friend Evan Moloney is an aspiring novelist, whose work I greatly admire.  Even though our fields of writing are different, we are constantly offering one another advice and a shoulder to lean on. Writing a novel is a daunting but incredible task, and I encouraged him to share his perspective on what drives him to continuously take on the challenge. 

As Nicole and I discussed the content of this post, one of her suggestions was to speak about motivating oneself to write. That topic is deep, meaningful, one of the places wherein there will always be more room to give input. And yet, as I thought over the sort of post that might be, I began to realize how unqualified I am to write it.

Nicole and I met in high school, from which I managed to escape a while ago, and ever since then I’ve admired her work ethic*. She’s able to get things done, to set her mind to something and conquer it nearly free of procrastination. And that’s something I haven’t been able to replicate for myself.

During and since high school, I’ve begun eighteen novels. I’ve finished two, and will hopefully write THE END on a third by April. My collective word count must, at this point, be somewhere in the millions. But even still, the need to motivate myself to write is something that I’ve struggled with since I began…and I will likely continue to struggle with it for a very long time. And yet, I write. I’ve been forced recently to think about what else it is that keeps me going, keeps my pen on the paper, and in that regard, I’ve begun to find some answers.

One of my mentors as a writer and a human is author John Green, and he once described his favorite part of the writing process to be “having written”. That is something that hits home for me—and in fact, it’s a huge part of what keeps me going. I can’t describe how often I’ve thought of opening a letter or an e-mail from a reader, and hearing their story. I’m not looking to hear that my book has made an impact on them or changed their life, or anything like that…but to have forged that human connection, to have created something that brings me closer to the world, has always been a guiding light.

I’ve feared in the past that it’s something like Polaris—a star to be followed, but never reached. But the possibility that I could one day be in that place is beyond alluring. It is beyond motivation. It’s hope, in a way, that what I do is more than meaningless. It’s an expectation that it will be more. And of course, I’m not saying I’m inspired by a simple desire to receive fan mail. Rather than some exercise in narcissism, I’m searching for that knowledge that what I do can have a greater meaning than that which I assign it. We all chase that knowledge, and in a way I seek confirmation that it can exist.

Beyond that, I’ve always found it incredibly helpful to keep my goals in mind. The first ten percent of a story is easy enough for me; so is the last thirty percent. But the meat of the story has always become somewhat difficult—progress, if I get that far, will slow to a crawl. The moment of genesis of every story I write is something of a scattering—dozens of threads of plot and character are thrown out in all directions. As a story ends, those points are all brought together into a single close. But at some point in the middle, the outward-going velocity of those threads must be slowed, and redirected, and pulled in so that they are made to focus toward a single goal. The image chosen for this post illustrates this: From the point of origin, everything goes out in all directions. But eventually, it must be wrestled into the correct angle and made to converge.

During these times, I replay the foreseen ending of my story over and over in my mind. Every moment I can’t wait to write, every character I love…and especially, the thrill and relief of writing those two sacred words THE END to cap off the piece. In some ways, it can be discouraging to be so far away from the goal, and so constantly reminded. But that feeling can be fought through…and once that is done, the intoxicating pull toward completion is impossible to resist.

And in a certain way, writing is a release, just as much as it is a journey. Coming to the close of a book, I’ve begun discussing it more and more with my close friends, the vast majority of whom are not writers themselves. Among all the other questions they ask, one is a constant: they want to know why I write. They want to understand why I want to sit and slave away for hours each day, producing something that may never be read…and I’ve realized that it is for two reasons. Firstly…I have the story. It’s inside my head, and it’s captured my attention in a way that I can’t help but want to explore it. In order to get it out of my head, I need to get it out…to write it, to put it on paper, so that it’s there instead of inside me. But the second reason is far more important…and it’s one of love.

I’ve made a practice of falling in love with my books. Not the plot, perhaps—I never manage to fall in love with those, but then, they’re always secondary. My stories are defined by three main aspects: the characters, the world in which they interact, and the philosophy that guides such interaction. Most of all, the characters capture my attention—the project I’m wrapping up now is the first time I’ve ever really loved them, and the effect that has had on writing cannot be overstated. Even when I’m terribly busy, even when the last thing I want to do is to write, I want to be with them…and I know that the only way to do that is by writing. By that action, and that action alone, I can see them again. I can breathe their breaths, feel their hopes and fears and their beating hearts.

To be there with them…that is what makes everything worth it.

*No, Nicole did NOT ask me to write that or insert it afterward. She’s genuinely an awesome person and deserves to be recognized for it.

Tour of New York and New Jersey

I have not been active the past couple of weeks because I was recently on the trip of a lifetime with my Honors Choir.

My choir teacher graduated from the acclaimed Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey. Thus, he has many connections throughout the school and was able to arrange an incredible experience for all of us.

On our first day, we stopped in New York City and received both a vocal and choreography coaching from members of the Broadway cast of Aladdin. We then got to eat dinner with members of the ensemble and ask them questions. It was incredible. Of course, we then got to see these people in a showing of Aladdin immediately after. After “Friend Like Me,” one of the cast members looked up at our section and waved!

The remainder of the week was spent in Princeton, where so much magic happened. We got to sing with choirs from across the globe, receive evaluation and coaching from a renowned Latvian conductor and perform our own repertoire at a Friendship concert, and perform our repertoire in a historic Princeton church. I was able to meet my favorite choral composer in the world, Dr. Morten Lauridsen, shake his hand, and rehearse two of his songs including my all time favorite under his instruction.

On our final night in Princeton, we, along with a couple of other choirs, performed these two songs during the closing ceremonies. During the second song (which has become my second favorite of all time), “Sure on This Shining Night” I experienced an incredible moment. There I was onstage, in the choir music capital of the country, singing my two favorite Morten Lauridsen pieces as Lauridsen himself sat at the piano five feet away from me accompanying us. I stole a glance across the sea of singers and looked at each member of my choir, my conductor, and the audience, until finally my focused settled back on the beautiful sound that was coming from us. My heart swelled as I was reminded of what it truly means to be in a choir.

Singing in a choir is not all about the music, nor the technicalities of singing, nor learning intervals and chord structures. That is only a small part of it. The act of making music as a group, the act of unity through a shared goal, is something intangibly magical. Music is something that can bring together all walks of life, in all different languages. Choir is a place where discrimination does not happen, where isolation does not happen, where the madness and chaos of the world cannot enter so long as we continue to present this message of togetherness, hope, and love. Music will be the thing that unites our divided civilizations. I am so, so thankful that I get to be a part of a choir family forever.

I will return to Princeton someday, but for now, you gorgeous city, I leave you with all of my love.