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Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Contributor Spotlight: Chelsea Biondolillo

Grade school, junior high, and high school were all difficult for me. It always felt like I didn’t know quite how to act like other kids—though I had friends, I often felt apart from them. In the second grade, my teacher sent home the following note with my grades: “She’s a loner who gets along well with the other children.”

Once, I spent an entire afternoon on my stomach in my front yard, searching every clover for the four-leafs. The neighborhood kids had been teasing me and I hadn’t even noticed. I was too excited about all the luck I was amassing.

At school, however, and much more aware of my awkwardness, I felt like I was in a constant state of pre-embarrassment. I didn’t get people’s jokes; I believed everything people told me; I was often so focused on the trees, I didn’t realize the forest was actually a pep rally, and I’d taken a seat in the front row, where I was expected to know the fight song. I never knew the fight song.

By high school, I’d given up most of what I would realize later were naturalist pursuits because they embarrassed me, and I didn’t get them back for a couple of decades. I didn’t even fully realize I’d lost anything, until I lost my job and house in 2008 with much of the rest of the country. Suddenly faced with all the time in the world, I took a geology course at the community college. Then, astronomy. I dug out my old birding guides, bought some binoculars. I started hanging out at botanical gardens, going to talks at libraries, reading about bees and ecology.

When I first tried to write about how I lost science for all those years, the results were clumsy and insincere. It wasn’t until I started adding other voices and experiences that I started thinking maybe I hadn’t lost science like you do a favorite hat on the bus, but more like my own voice after a bout of bronchitis.

Getting this piece to work was as physical as it was mental. I would print it out and cut it up and move sections around and secure the new order with scotch tape. Then I’d type up the changes and do it again. I changed the tense, the organization, the other speakers. It went from second to third to first person. At one point, I had a whole page of astronomical calculations that I kept trying to find room for—in the end, I decided it was wishful calculus, since trig was as far as I’d ever gotten in math.

I think of this essay as a chorus of women all telling stories of encounters with the sublime—some of those encounters would seem to come on shining rays of light, and some on the tips of branding irons.

I think this is the essay that I write over and over.

Chelsea Biondolillo's prose has appeared or is forthcoming in Shenandoah, Passages North, Creative Nonfiction, Flyway and others. She is currently completing an MFA in creative writing and environmental studies at the University of Wyoming and writing a book about vultures. In her spare time, she reports on the local flora and fauna for Wyoming Public Radio. Her essay "Phrenology: An Attempt" can be found in HFR53.

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