City girl

City girl
Ninth Avenue. Source:

I signed my first New York City lease about three weeks ago.

I was walking up Ninth Avenue before work, around 8:45 a.m. It was a slight detour from my usual walk east from Port Authority towards Sixth Avenue, and I loved the change of pace. Instead of passing flashing screens and packs of tourists like most mornings, I passed cafés, bars and bakeries with unique storefronts. Restaurant staff carefully etched the day’s specials into street-side chalkboards. People walked out of nearby apartment buildings, coffee in hand, keys jangling.

Clearly I wasn’t a New Yorker yet, because I broke out smiling.

I probably looked like an idiot, but I couldn’t help it. I was happy, exhilarated. I’ve been coming into the city every day for over a year and a half, and on occasion for my whole life, but today was different. Signing this lease would mean formally crossing over into a new phase.

University of Pennsylvania's Locust Walk. Source: Alan Turkus.
University of Pennsylvania’s Locust Walk. Source: Alan Turkus.

The moment reminded me of another time in my life, about eight years ago, when I took a tour at the University of Pennsylvania with my parents. It was the very first college visit I made, the very first time I crossed a campus and thought in a few years I could be part of this. I remember loving the fast-paced campus where professors and students filed in and out of buildings, talking. I loved the intellectualism and sense of opportunity. The university had an energy I’d never experienced before, one that I’d go on to find at a number of other campuses.

After we finished the tour I said to my parents, “Let me go ahead for a minute. I want to feel like I’m in college.”

So I walked briskly and blissfully down Locust Walk, the main campus pathway, acting like I was a student. (I’m sure my wide grin and calculated stride gave my age away.) After a few seconds I turned and looked back at my parents, who were also smiling.

“You look like a real college student,” they said.

“Thanks,” I said, wanting to believe it but knowing I had a few years to go.

I felt the same excitement walking down Ninth Avenue a few weeks ago. But while Locust Walk spans a few hundred yards, New York City avenues go for miles. And this time, there were no parents to look back on. I was totally and completely on my own.

I smiled because I’d soon be part of this city full of lights and people and endless stories. I’d soon be part of this city I’ve loved since I was a kid, finally opening up to me, no longer just out of reach.

College essay: “Girl Before a Mirror”

Looking for some writing inspiration one day, I found this document deep in the caves of my hard drive. “Girl Before a Mirror,” inspired by Pablo Picasso’s painting, was the college essay I used for the Common Application. I believe it was also the essay I wrote for Notre Dame. After four years studying English literature and journalism, it’s kind of strange looking back on it now and noticing all the things I would change in structure and content, even though I know it was the absolute best I could do at the time.

In my essay I write, “people change in such small increments that most do not even realize it until they look back years later.” I’m surprised at my 18-year-old perceptiveness — this is something I still believe is true. Throughout college — day by day, month by month — I didn’t realize how much I was changing. Looking back on myself now, I can see that I have.

I know it was me writing the words in “Girl Before a Mirror,” but I also know I’ve grown so much since then, and would say things differently now. Four years later, however, I still like the themes I addressed, and am still affected by the “Girl Before a Mirror” painting. I’m thinking of using some of these ideas as a basis for another essay, except this time analyzing self-image from the perspective of a college graduate. I’ll be sure to post it when it’s done! (Scroll down to read my college essay.)

Pablo Picasso, “Girl Before a Mirror”

Girl Before a Mirror

Girl Before a Mirror. Pablo Picasso’s famous painting, depicting a girl in front of a mirror, reaching towards an image that does not look like her at all. Though the mirror can reflect the girl’s physical appearance, it cannot control the way she perceives herself.

This painting is on the cover of my first journal, a blank book I purchased at the Museum of Modern Art while visiting as a nine-year-old. I was drawn to it because of its bright colors and abstract shapes, but understood nothing about the meaning of the cover. Eight years have gone by since I sat in the back seat of the old Dodge minivan, on the ride home from New York City, writing my very first journal entry. Since then, I have completed five journals, and am in the middle of my sixth.

People change in such small increments that most do not even realize it until they look back years later. My journal entries allow me to follow my gradual change. A typical entry in my first two journals discloses that I had eaten an egg omelet and chicken fingers, cleaned my room, and had a play date with Katie. My second and third, written in middle school, detail my quest to be, look, and act like everyone else. I cringe when I notice that even my handwriting changed: I capped my a’s simply because other girls in school were doing it. The more mature tone of writing in my fourth, fifth, and sixth journals, all written in high school, reveal my increase in confidence and individuality. For the first time, specific events in my life yielded to my emotions in importance. More poetry weaved itself into my entries. I abandoned any hesitations, and sometimes went weeks writing solely in a stream-of-consciousness style.

Quite honestly, I had never previously considered recording my daily thoughts until seeing that journal in the MoMA gift shop. However, a painting that was once an eye-catching display of bright colors and abstract shapes now conveys an important message– the experience of continuing my journals, over eight years, has had a significant impact on my perception of myself. Like many other teenagers, and like the young woman in Picasso’s painting, it is difficult to scrutinize myself in a mirror. I may not see the true image. A glass mirror can only portray a person at one moment in time. But my journals are reflections of who I am: over years, through changes. The image of myself they present is not so fleeting — it will not disappear as soon as I walk away.

When I was younger, I used to wonder why painters would labor hours on self portraits, when they could take a photograph in just a moment. Through writing in my journals I have realized that the hours spent creating and defining oneself, are hours spent knowing oneself. After a satisfying read-through at night, I admire my journal covers: two carefully beaded by the hands of an Indian craftswoman, another with velvet binding given to me as a gift, still others selected from the shelves of Barnes and Noble. But the vibrant Girl Before a Mirror, illustrating a young girl’s struggle to see herself, is still my favorite.