#ReadLocalDC Blog Hop: It's About The People

In 2007, I came to Washington DC as a twenty-one-year-old grad student. I was newly married, newly enrolled at The George Washington University, and completely new to city life. I'd spent the previous four years going to college in Lynchburg, Virginia, where "mass transit" took the form of a city bus. On my first day at GWU, I couldn't even figure out how to get out of the Foggy Bottom Metro Station.

I had rarely felt so out of my league.

Granted, I'd been to DC before. Pretty much anyone who grew up in Maryland or Northern Virginia can tell you stories of class trips to the Smithsonian, complete with lunch on the National Mall and pictures outside the White House. I felt familiar with Washington, DC--but I didn't feel at home.

I spent my first few months in the District mentally cataloging all the ways I didn't fit in. The people around me talked faster, walked faster, and thought faster. I kept quiet and avoided eye contact at the same time that I wished I had someone to talk to. What could I possibly have in common with anyone else in this city? 

Then one day, I looked up. Not at my shoes, not at the book I was reading, not at the map that was falling apart from overuse. I looked up at the gorgeous classic buildings that I walked past every day on my way to class. I saw art installations and murals scattered throughout the District. There were bookstores and boutiques tucked in between government buildings and museums. I couldn't believe how much I'd missed. 

This city was beautiful.

But, I came to realize, not half as beautiful as the people that live here. 

 Selfie outside the Library of Congress, sometime after DC began to feel like home.

Selfie outside the Library of Congress, sometime after DC began to feel like home.

I had made the mistake that we're all guilty of from time to time: I was so consumed by my own experience that I hadn't really paid attention to the people around me. Once I turned my focus outward, I realized that I had never been the outsider I imagined myself to be. In DC, you're almost as likely to meet someone who's originally from another country as you are to meet someone from another state! I was far from the only newcomer navigating my way through a strange city.  

As I started getting to know my fellow Washingtonians, the most common questions were, "Where are you from?" and "What brings you to DC?" Some people, like me, had come to DC for school. Others came for work, for family, or for politics and activism. Through these conversations, I came to realize that who we are, what we value, and what we believe doesn't form in a vacuum. Our past experiences had given us all very different reasons for being in DC and very different perspectives on our time here.

I had always been taught to listen to differences of opinion. It wasn't until I was a transplant in a city of transplants that I began to appreciate how we formed such different opinions in the first place.

Every Last Minute by Ellen Smith || www.ellensmithwrites.com

When I began writing the Time Wrecker Trilogy, Washington, DC was the only setting I could have imagined for the story. The series centers around a fictional controversy: what if time travel was used as a form of criminal rehabilitation? Would it be moral to allow criminals to go back in time and undo their offense? Would it be ethical to deny them the opportunity? While the time travel element qualifies as science fiction, the emotional conflict is familiar for many of us. The characters in my story are simply trying to make the right choice in a society that is conflicted about what it means to be "right." 

In the first book of the trilogy, I tried to show the different sides of this contentious issue through the perspectives of my two main characters. But there was still something missing. These issues often have more than two sides, and I wanted to represent that. Throughout the story, I included blog posts, newspaper articles, and opinion pieces about timeline rectification written from a variety of perspectives. Writing these creative nonfiction pieces gave me a chance to step outside my own assumptions of why a person would be for or against erasing a crime from the past. It made me think about how someone would have arrived at their position and why they might hold it so strongly. It made me realize how people on every side of an issue could feel misunderstood, misrepresented, and outright attacked.

With our monuments and marble buildings and grand avenues, Washington, DC exudes an aura of confidence and power. But when we look past those things and into the eyes of our neighbors, it's easy to see that we all have moments of being the "outsiders." I've lived in the area for over a decade now, but I'm still tapping in to that lesson I learned when I first came here: when we're brave enough to step outside our own experience, we often find we aren't alone.


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#READLOCALDC Blog Hop: It's About The People || Posted on Ellen Smith Writes Blog for the #ReadLocalDC Blog Hop