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Languages on the Brain

 

In college, after I decided not to be an English major, or a comparative languages major, I had to go for an interview with the head of the French department to see if I could become a French major. Sitting there in his office, I could barely put a sentence together, despite being in advanced French classes and doing well in them. The head of the French department was nonplussed and sent me packing, and I ended up as a philosophy major, where they accepted everyone.

Even after that debacle, though, I still felt tied to the languages I’d studied (French and Hebrew), and the languages I wanted to study (Spanish, Latin, Russian, German, Yiddish, etc.). I’m not sure what the draw is for me, because I have no particular talent for languages. My brother still remembers all of his high school French without even trying, or caring, but for me it’s a struggle.

Recently, I’ve been spending even more time and effort on my language studies, as a strange sort of antidote to all of the social work reading I’ve had to do for graduate school. I have computer games and audio cds and textbooks and short stories and poetry collections, in both languages.

The dogs have had to listen to a lot of people speaking French and Hebrew through the speakers on top of my dresser. They stretch out on the bed, or on the floor, and pretend they’re being told a bedtime story in gibberish. Actually, I have no idea how much they understand. It’s possible that when I try to repeat the Hebrew words the computer flashes at me, the poor puppy dogs are shaking their heads and thinking, How can you not know that word yet, Mommy? We’ve heard it a thousand times!

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Butterfly is listening carefully.

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Cricket, on the other hand, is getting annoyed.

It’s also possible that they couldn’t care less, and barely register that these words are in French or Hebrew instead of in English, because clearly no one is talking about chicken treats or pee trips, so what’s the point?

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“J’ai faim, Maman. You are starving me.”

I still have trouble producing words from the black hole of my mind. You would think, with all of the information I’ve stuffed in there over the years, the words would be spilling over the sides, but no, they go in and get sucked into another dimension and reappear only when they’re in the mood. I’m a writer with two master’s degrees, and I can’t think of the word for that plastic thing you use to mix cookie dough, or the metal version of it that can flip pancakes. I run through fork, knife, plate, napkin, flipper, baking thing, until Mom calls it a “spatula” and I say “Yes! That’s it!”

I can, and have, made a fool of myself in public many times when the wrong words popped up, or no words popped up at all. I think some of my nerve pathways must blink in and out of service like an old TV antenna. If I’m in a new environment, or under stress, even the most well-travelled pathways in my brain are hard to find. With the foreign language pathways, just the stress of being asked to remember a word can be enough to shut down the whole system.

Cricket never seems to struggle to find the right word, or bark, for a given situation, but maybe that’s just bravado and she’s desperately wishing for a larger, more comprehensive vocabulary with which to express her disdain. Do other dogs understand her? If she went to Paris, would Cricket be able to understand the dog in a beret, smoking discarded cigarette butts at an outdoor café? I don’t think she cares.

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“I have all the words I need.”

Maybe this herky jerky, non-fluent feeling I get from trying to speak in French and Hebrew is what I’m actually reaching for, though, as a metaphor that fits how I feel. My fluency in English doesn’t match the dysfluency of my mind. Maybe the struggle to find words in a foreign language, grasping for words and struggling with grammar, feels more like my internal experience of myself. And maybe, by working through this language learning process, I will eventually be able to feel more whole, or at least feel more like a dog.

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Dancing Girls

 

One night at synagogue, a little girl sat by herself, because her mom had to leave the sanctuary to make sure her hyperactive older brother isn’t getting into trouble. Her father was nearby, but she sat alone, with a whole row of seats to herself. She did back bends and leg circles and all kinds of dance steps, holding onto the back of the chair in front of her like a ballet bar. Did she realize we could see her? It didn’t seem like a performance, but it did seem like a kind of talking, though talking mostly to herself.

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Butterfly often talks to herself.

I was torn between two responses, both of which were more about me than about her. Do I feel bad for her because she’s alone? Or do I admire her for being so un-self-conscious with her body that she’s just moving without thinking of how it impacts anyone else?

When I watch dance on TV it is always a performance, even when a ballet class is filmed, it is a performance of a class. Are there people who don’t think about what they look like when they are dancing? There is rarely a time, when I’m writing, that I don’t imagine someone reading over my shoulder as I put words down on the page, even when I’m writing for myself, in a journal, in a first draft, in a shopping list. Is there such a thing, after a certain point in our lives, as un-self-conscious behavior? And does it make a difference? Would my behavior be more interesting or profound or beautiful if I were not editing myself at every step?

I used to hum in the hallways at school – elementary school – and forget where I was, and skip along every once in a while, or hear a rhythm in my head and dance to it, until people told me that I was really weird and I should stop. Pretty much everything I did as a child was criticized, by classmates, teachers, parents, friends and brother (of course) so most of those automatic behaviors, once I became conscious of them, went away. Until there was nothing.

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“Oh Mommy, that’s a terrible story.”

I went to Friday night services as a little girl too, but I was always self-conscious about how I looked, or how I was dressed, or how I sounded. I felt like there was a video camera watching me all the time. Don’t pick your nose! Don’t do silly dance steps! Don’t skip along the road! They’ll laugh at you!

Children express so much of themselves physically. Rage is a tantrum, with kicking feet and red faces and screaming at the highest possible decibel level. Joy is dancing or running or bouncing from foot to foot. What they feel becomes movement, instead of just thoughts or words. Once we have enough words, we think we should use them and keep our bodies silent and motionless. But why?

Dogs are like children forever, because they never develop words and continue to use movement to get their feelings out. Butterfly runs full out, flying across the lawn. Cricket hops like a bunny rabbit and twists and turns in the air. They both bark, and use their feet to stomp and use their eyes to plead for mercy. Watching dogs express their emotions through movement is such a relief, for us. We feel something in our own bodies in response. Oh, that’s what happiness looks like! I can feel it!

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“I’m a bunny rabbit!”

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Joy!

 

The Pet Dragon

 

When my nephew was five years old, he had a pet dragon. She followed behind us when we were in the car, and sat on the roof of his house when he was in his bedroom – he could see her sometimes through the skylight. At first, when we were driving home from a restaurant and he was strapped into his car seat and telling me breathlessly about the dragon, I thought she was a he and that he was dangerous. But my nephew made sure to clear that up on our next trip, a state away, where the dragon was still following us – or possibly one of the dragon’s friends, since no self-respecting dragon would take on such a big job alone. Five year olds need a lot of protection. The dragon team, it turned out, when I pressed him for details, traveled by trains specially built for dragon transport. Benjamin, my nephew, was a train freak, so this was not surprising.

Unless you know something I don’t know about a race of dragons visible only to five year olds, we can assume that this was all in his imagination. Even Benjamin believed his story only sometimes. But he was telling me a truth he couldn’t express any other way. He wanted me to know that the world felt like a dangerous place. He wanted me to know that he was lonely, and only an invisible friend the size of a house could possibly relieve his loneliness.

I don’t think I had a pet dragon as a kid, but I did, absolutely, truly, believe that Olivia Newton John could see me from Australia and would come to help me if I needed her.

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Olivia Newton John, always on call.

I used to be afraid that I would create a pet dragon or something like it if I allowed myself to write memoir. I was afraid of remembering things wrong, or being accused of remembering them wrong, and I felt safer in fiction. I’m not as scared anymore, after three and a half years of writing memoir for the blog. I honor the emotion of the moment, no matter how outsized, or how quickly it passes. Just because I don’t feel the same way today, doesn’t mean it wasn’t real and vivid yesterday. I still love the freedom of fiction and the chance to make things make sense in a way they usually fail to do in real life, but I like the subtle joys of memoir too, finding the nuggets of sense in the chaos.

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my little nuggets of goodness.

Cricket doesn’t quite make up stories. She doesn’t mean to exaggerate, she’s just a tad melodramatic. A sound in the hall is really the neighbors coming back from dinner, not evil men intending to blow up the building and steal her chicken treats. But Cricket lives in the world as she believes it is, just like we do. She just has fewer resources for checking out if her view of reality is accurate. She believes what she feels.

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“I know how it is and you can’t tell me different.”

I try not to concentrate too hard when I’m writing, so that whatever unconscious truths are in there have a chance to bubble up. I tell myself that I can write whatever I want, so that I can remember things out of order, or make weird connections, or forget words. I can make things make sense in later drafts, and edit out the nonsense words, without killing all of the pet dragons before they’ve been created.

Benjamin, by the way, ended up getting a lizard a few years later on. Maybe when he looks at that little lizard, he imagines his old friend the dragon has come back to stay, or sent emissaries to watch over him. And it helps.

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Ben’s lizard.

 

The Unbarked Barks

 

Cricket has a lot of trouble holding back her need to bark. She believes that the unbarked barks scratch her throat and give her tummyaches. I have mixed feelings about this. Every writing class I’ve taken, every friendship, every moment of psychotherapy, has been another lesson in how to make myself more acceptable to other people. Don’t write this, don’t say that, don’t look, act, be, whatever it is that bothers people today. When I write a first draft that feels out of control (hysterical, melodramatic, angry, raw, unacceptable, etc.) I go back and rewrite until it feels more contained. I think this is what I’m supposed to do. But my unbarked barks keep scratching my throat, and I wonder if Cricket has the better idea.

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“I bark therefore I am!”

Except, Cricket’s endless barking annoys me, and I don’t want to annoy people the way Cricket does. I don’t want to be the loud mouth who barks at every leaf. I don’t want to be unseemly or unlikeable, the way Cricket often is. I can think of too many things, right now, that I’m afraid to say, or write, out of fear of the consequences. And then, when I finally can’t keep quiet anymore, it all comes out in an inarticulate rush, because I have no practice, no experience, saying those things in a way other people can hear them.

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“Did you just tell people that I am annoying?”

Cricket never tolerates being silenced. And she makes it clear that keeping quiet causes her pain, as if all of the unspoken anger, desire, confusion and pain get stuck inside of her body. I’m pretty sure she could keep some of her thoughts to herself without making herself sick. But she disagrees. I know a lot of people, like Cricket, who could keep a few more of their random barks to themselves. But I also know too many people who keep too much buried inside, when it really needs to be said out loud.

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Butterfly is thinking about this.

Sometimes people speak up in order to share their fear or hatred or misery and they don’t care that they are poisoning others. They are not careful with their barks. They have no censor that considers the impact of their words. They think only of their need to get those barks out. And I don’t want to be that person.

Butterfly is very careful with her barks. She uses them to tell me that she’s hungry, or has to go outside, but she waits a long time before using her bark to signal danger, because she’s not sure what’s dangerous and what is just unfamiliar. But I wonder if she is keeping important barks to herself, barks that would reveal things about her that she thinks no one wants to know, or maybe truths that are unbearable, for her.

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“I have too much to say, Mommy. I think I will keep it to myself.”

 

Butterfly Almost Gave Grandma a Heart Attack

 

Butterfly’s collar started out a lovely powder pink, to match her girly personality, and ended up washed out and grey. Same with the leash, but much worse. Butterfly’s body produces an inordinate amount of oily sweat, and something about this substance breaks down the fabric in her collars. The leash problem is more my fault, because she needs to dance and twirl and run on her way to pooping, and it’s just easier to let go of the leash in the backyard and let her drag it behind her. I don’t know if it was the mud and grass, or the endless trips through the washing machine, but something killed her leashes fast.

For her birthday this year I decided to replace both. We found a leather collar in a bright pink, with silver studs on it, and a bungee cord of a leash that will never be destroyed. The collar seemed to be little a loose to me, but Mom said not to worry, that the stiffness of the leather would keep it in place. I still listen to my mom. I mean, she’s MOM!

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Butterfly is wearing her new collar here. You can see how much she loves it.

We decided to inaugurate the new collar and leash by taking both dogs out for a walk around the neighborhood. Butterfly prefers to stay in the backyard and listen to the birds, but Cricket needs adventure, and Butterfly can use the exercise, so, every once in a while, I insist.

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She’s already got her paws on the new leash!

As usual, as soon as we got to the edge of the backyard, Butterfly put on the breaks. She gave me her “Are you trying to kill me?” look, and I had to pull on her leash to move her even an inch at a time past the dreaded corner. When she’s feeling really stubborn, I just pick her up and carry her, and hope she will relent before my back gives out, and she was feeling particularly stubborn that day.

I carried her around the corner and up past the Seven-Eleven, where Cricket started to bark at coffee addicts and big trucks and children in strollers. I put Butterfly down and hoped she would be distracted by the cacophony of odors outside of a local restaurant.

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“I think somebody interesting peed here!”

Mom was busy arguing with Cricket, about the social niceties of NOT barking at strangers, so I focused on trying to convince Butterfly that walking was a good thing. I’d tug on the leash and she’d walk a few steps, and then she’d sit down and yank her (very powerful) neck to let me know I was a really bad Mommy. Then I’d tug again, she’d walk another few steps, and stop. After a while, I stopped even looking back. I just faced forward and pulled.

And then there was no struggle. Ahh, I thought, she’s finally enjoying her walk. But when I turned around to check on her, all that was left at the end of her new leash was a bright pink collar. No dog.

I looked up, past Mom and Cricket, and saw the receding plume of Butterfly’s white tail. She was on her way home. Alone.

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“You mean this tail, Mommy?”

My mind was running in too many different directions, with all of the thoughts whirling and refusing to stand still. I was in a panic that Butterfly would get hit by a car; I was angry at Mom for telling me not to worry about the loose collar; I felt horribly guilty for dragging Butterfly on a walk she didn’t want; I was embarrassed that it was all happening in public. I couldn’t make one thought come through, except for the need to scream and ask for help. So I screamed, “Mom!”

Mom gave me Cricket’s leash and started to run after Butterfly herself. My mother doesn’t run, nor should she run, but I was too shocked to remind her.

I took Cricket’s leash, but I was still frozen, and confused, and Cricket tried to take advantage of my in-between state to take charge and pull me up the hill. But arguing with Cricket is familiar and it helped my brain click back in. We had to dodge cars again as we walked past the Seven-Eleven parking lot, and I watched helplessly as Butterfly ran down the sidewalk, and around the corner, following the exact route home, with Grandma on her tail.

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Cricket likes to control the leash, too.

By the time we caught up with them, Grandma was sitting on the stoop in front of our building, breathless, with a smiling Butterfly standing at her knees. Butterfly let me put her collar back on without an argument, and I took both girls up the hill to finish their walk while Grandma took some deep breaths by herself.

When we got back inside, we fixed the collar right away, punching a new hole in the leather so that Butterfly couldn’t pull her head through again. And then Mom went to bed, with Cricket guarding her back, to make sure she stayed alive through her nap, of course, and probably also to keep the dastardly Butterfly away.

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“Who me?”

I’m not sure what lesson to learn from all of this. Maybe, Don’t listen to Mom, or, Don’t force Butterfly to do things she doesn’t want to do, or, Cricket is the most adaptable member of this family (!!!!!!!)! Maybe the lesson is simply to take each adventure as it comes, and know that you can always take a nap afterwards, with or without Cricket standing guard.

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Cricket guarding Grandma.

I Am Sisyphus

 

My therapist says that I keep putting one foot in front of the other, no matter what, and she gives me an A for effort. She expects it of me, and she’s proud of me for it, but also disappointed, because my efforts never really seem to pay off. Most of the time I feel like Sisyphus, who was punished by the gods and forced to roll a boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down, again and again for eternity. Sisyphus did the task each day. He didn’t just sit at the bottom of the hill and take a nap. But why not?

My dogs don’t mind pushing the same rock up the same hill every day, in fact, they seem to find new excitement in each trip outside, each stop at each leaf, each squirrel sighting. Cricket can put the same level of oomph into fighting me for extra treats every single day.

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Cricket has a very big mouth.

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Butterfly can fly!

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“Leafies!!!!!!!!”

The thing is, the dogs don’t mind the repetition in their lives because their needs are met. Their rituals work for them and are productive and satisfying. Mine don’t work for me. I keep submitting queries to agents, and stories to magazines, and getting nowhere, and I feel like I deserve this, because I haven’t paid off my debt to the universe yet. I just don’t know how I managed to build up such a huge debt.

One of the boulders I push up the hill every day is pure physical pain. Well, pure is a misnomer, because there is always the underlying belief that I cause the pain myself, with my very powerful mind. I am not always in pain, or at least not always in a lot of pain. Some days I’m just aware of something in the background, a niggling doubt that I can really carry that laundry bag, or walk to the car, or dry my hair, without having to take a nap afterward. Do I go out to do the food shopping, or do I take the girls for a walk around the neighborhood? Because I can’t do both in the same day. Some weeks, I can’t do both in the same week. By the end of food shopping, sometimes I can’t stand up straight and my neck and shoulders and back feel like they’ve been hit with hammers.

If I take the dogs out walking long enough to wear Cricket out, I will come home feeling like the world is tilting and a fiery cleaver is embedded in my lower back. And this is something I actually want to do! Forget about the laundry, which I never want to do, or washing dishes, which is truly heinous, and can put me out of commission within five minutes. Why must sinks be so short?!

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“Walkies?”

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“How about we just sit here?”

Physical pain, though, only puts me to bed, where I can still read, or write, or sleep. It’s the emotional pain that takes the gloss right out of my life; it twists how I see and hear and taste and smell; it tells me that I earned this physical pain because I am bad and lazy and useless and disgusting; it tells me that I am Sisyphus and I earned this.

In our society we believe that people get the lives they deserve. If you are successful, it’s because you earned it. If you are a failure, well, you must not have tried very hard. Sisyphus had no choice about his life-long task, and in a way, that’s how I feel too. I have been sentenced to this fate because I can’t breathe without writing. I don’t believe it has been pre-determined by God or by an external authority, but it is so hard-wired into my nervous system that I can’t choose something else.

Do I have the option of attempting more accomplishable tasks? Yes. I take on other tasks all the time that are easier to complete. Maybe Sisyphus did this too. Maybe he learned a language, or listened to books on tape, or the equivalent, as he pushed the boulder up the hill. Maybe he didn’t even see his task as meaningless because the effort itself was satisfying. I don’t know.

Cricket doesn’t need to catch the squirrel in order to find the chase satisfying. She has never actually caught a squirrel, and it doesn’t seem to dim her excitement for the task. I wish I could be more like her. Maybe she understands that even if she caught the squirrel and lived out her dreams, she would still need to get up the next morning and eat and play and chase again in order to feel alive. Getting that boulder to the top of the hill wouldn’t really change anything.

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“Hey, Cricket, what ya doin’ in there?”

 

Star Wars, Again

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“What are Star Wars, Mommy?”

I was worried about seeing the new movie. I dragged my heels, afraid to be stuck in a movie theater, flooded with alienation and disappointment. The prequels were traumatizing, I guess. All of the hype and commercialization leading up to The Force Awakens has overwhelmed me, and I was worried that the old stars would just be there for cameos, and everything would be unfamiliar and boring and patched together.

Thank God I was wrong.

No spoilers, in case there’s anyone left who hasn’t seen the movie, but I loved it.

When I was seven years old, my school bus passed a movie marquee every day where they counted down the days to the premier of Return of The Jedi. I don’t remember if I’d seen Star Wars or The Empire Strikes Back by then, or just heard so much about them that I was caught up in the excitement.

We went to see Return of the Jedi on a Saturday night, and the first thing I saw was Jabba the Hut, and I was horrified. Maybe I was already tired, but after a few minutes of watching Jabba the Hut stick his tongue out, pull on Princess Leia’s chain and shake his snotty belly, I fell asleep as an act of self-protection. I didn’t even get to see the ewoks!

I made up for it later, though, and saw each movie too many times to count. I loved the ewoks. It’s not so much that I loved the idea of a race of militant fluffy creatures with high pitched voices, speaking a language I did not understand. I loved that they were the perfect combination of teddy bears and puppy dogs. I would travel to the planet of the ewoks in my mind and spend hours there.

As a kid, I did not identify “The Force” with religion, even though Obi Won Kenobi (Obey One?) was clearly a religious figure. The force, to me, was the unspoken energy in the world, all of the bits and pieces of connections and information and energy that no one talked about or acknowledged. The force was all of the things I knew but could not articulate and the air was thick with it. I could feel it. It was the ESP-like knowledge I had about people but couldn’t explain. I would notice a facial expression, or a tone of voice, or remember disparate pieces of information, and in some part of my brain all of that came together and I knew things no one had told me. All the time.

I didn’t think of it as something I could harness and use, for good or for evil. I thought of it more as the threads that kept me attached to other people, so I wouldn’t feel all alone in the world.

Obi Won represented a grownup who would teach me and protect me and be kind and reliable. He was not Yoda, who was always speaking in riddles and making me feel stupid and not good enough, and he was not Darth Vader or Jabba the Hut, using their adult power against me.

By the way, I did not appreciate the redrawing of Jabba the Hut, in George Lucas’s re-edit of the original films, where you could see the lost scene of Jabba walking with Han Solo. It was just wrong that he could walk, that he was thin enough to pass through a doorway. No. Jabba was a giant slug in a dark cave, the most disgusting, hedonistic, immoral creature ever witnessed. He was there to contrast with the clean, precise evil of Darth Vader. He was the Id run wild: killing, eating, taking whatever he wanted without conscience. He was never on a diet.

This Christmas Eve, friends of ours gave Cricket and Butterfly Star Wars toys, one of which I did not recognize (the new droid), and the other was a storm trooper. The storm troopers never really had much impact on me, except that when SUVs became popular, every time I saw a huge white SUV towering over me, I thought of the evil empire. The girls are ready to see the new movie, and all of the movies that came before.

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Butterfly thinks her storm trooper makes a nice pillow.

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Cricket won’t let the new droid out of her sight.

Butterfly is like an ewok, in looks and in personality. She is childlike, and stubborn, and full of love and loyalty. And she thinks Chewbacca is a tall drink of water. And Cricket would like to have a light saber and a droid of her own.

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“I’m an ewok?”

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The force is strong with this one.

I ate all of my popcorn before the movie even started, because we got there early thinking there’d be a line on Christmas day. But I didn’t need the popcorn to distract me during the movie. I know that Mark Hamill was the least successful of the three lead actors in the first three movies, but he was the one who stuck with me. He was the heart of everything, and if he hadn’t been believable, none of it would have worked. Luke was me, and I was riveted to my seat waiting to see him, and now I can’t wait for the next movie!

Maybe I’m too old for the training, but I want to be a Jedi. I wanted to be a Jedi way back when too, but now it actually feels possible.

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