Olive Green

IMG_2497The summer before my senior year of college, I moved from a very old, shabby house to another very old, shabby house, although this one was much bigger and I had my own bedroom.

I moved into a room painted yellow; the walls were pale, pastel and peeling. It felt a little bit like cheerfulness run out or happiness that was one or two shades off. Although I was only going to live in the room for a year, I knew the color had to change.

A few days after moving, I came home with two buckets of fresh paint. I put all of my furniture in the middle of the room, threw down some drop cloths and got started.

I painted my room olive green, and a pretty dark shade of olive green at that. I could tell that at least a couple of people who came into the room while it was still being painted weren’t being honest when they told me they liked it and thought it looked good. But I didn’t care – even with the room in shambles and paint and plastic everywhere, I loved it.

Like all rooms being painted, this one got put back together, and the shades of dark brown, purple, green and white all worked together to dissipate anyone’s doubts about what the room would look like – although I was told over and over again that only me and my stuff could pull off a color like this. No one else would have painted her room olive green, and whoever lived there after me certainly wouldn’t keep it this color (she didn’t – ironically, it’s yellow again).

Although I tried to brighten the room with a white comforter and some light wall décor, it was still undeniably dark. I embraced this, calling it the woman cave when I wanted to watch TV that summer and relaxing in the comfort of my olive green walls and the yellow light cast by my floor lamps.

That room felt more like a reflection of myself and what I liked than any other room I have lived in. My room back at my parent’s house was light blue and beach-themed, and although it’s now a darker shade of turquoise, it still doesn’t feel like mine. My freshman year roommate loved all colors bright, and my sophomore and junior year roommate took that love down a notch but still loved more cheerful colors than I did. This summer, I sublet a light pink room, and now I live in a room painted almost-white.

All of these rooms were mine and filled with my stuff, but they didn’t reflect me. They didn’t – and don’t – feel as comforting and enveloping and like home the way that olive green room did.

Last night, we sang Hallelujah at church during the Christmas Eve service. The rest of the songs were upbeat Christmas carols, promising hope and joy and love and all other things happy. But I only remember Hallelujah, in part because of its haunting beauty but also because I think it encapsulates what Christmas – and Christianity – means in the context of real life.

The verses we sang talked about a baby boy, born in a manger and come to die on a cross to save the world. And even that one sentence is such an amazing mixture of happy-sad that it’s often overlooked.

The manger, the cross and Christ himself mean nothing if not put in the context of a broken, suffering humanity. The hope given by a Christ come to save the world is nothing if he had nothing to save the world from.

And I can’t believe he only saves us once – I think Jesus saves us from brokenness and emptiness and hopelessness over and over again until the day we depart from this world.

I moved into that olive green room shortly after my only bout of depression, and I was still figuring out how to understand my faith in a way that allowed for Christian suffering. And my depression had not been, comparatively, particularly severe. Maybe that color was my first step into embracing a darkness I had previously tried to cover up and deny – a darkness that doesn’t make sense when evaluated from the perspective of the false gospel claiming that Jesus makes everything – and every Christian – happy, healthy, wealthy and successful until happily ever after.

Before my struggle with depression, I had fallen prey to the idea that to be a follower of Jesus meant that I felt happy – or maybe even more importantly, had appeared to feel happy – all the time. Unfortunately, in the midst of and after depression, my comfortable little black-and-white world had been smeared into hundreds of shades of grey, and I needed to figure out what all of that meant.

Maybe that room was trying to make the claim that in the midst of a darkness comparable only to death surrounding us, Jesus promises to make us come alive. Maybe it was an attempt at honesty; an honesty about who I am, including my darkness.

Maybe it is only by confronting, admitting, even befriending that darkness, we can fully appreciate the meaning of grace because we know the hell from which it saves us.

Or maybe that room meant nothing other than I like the color olive green and having a dark bedroom, but I painted it at a time when my faith was becoming more real than it ever had been before.

If you have suffered, you know how the Israelites must have felt while waiting in the wilderness of the soul for their Savior. And if you have experienced faith, you can only imagine the magnitude of hope the prophesies of Scripture gave them, promising them a Christ child.

If you have suffered, you also know what it feels like to wish for a day when all suffering ceases. And if you know Jesus, maybe you’ve had a glimpse into the wonder of hoping and knowing that day will come, yet you’ve also had the joy of experiencing snatches of that bliss-to-come.

Scripture promises us only that the light shines in the darkness and that the darkness will never extinguish it – it does not promise us a life absent of darkness. Although this darkness must be acknowledged to understand the purpose of light, we also must move past this darkness if we are to find life; we must experience the hope and life provided to us by the light.

If we paint our bedrooms olive green, we must remember that if we never venture outside of those rooms, no matter how much we love them, our lives will never be fully lived.

‘Ferguson’ isn’t just in Ferguson

This post also appears on my professional website.

The little family had four children. Four children with four different fathers, and the mother was barely older than me.

They lived in the projects – what’s commonly known as the worst part of the city. They survived on food stamps and free rent. The children who were old enough to go to school came home to only their unemployed mother; the lucky ones were still in contact with their fathers.

Like almost every single one of its neighbors, the family was black.

The oldest daughter (let’s call her Kayla) would hide from me for the first couple of seconds every time I saw her. But once she got over her initial shyness, she would cling to me.

When she met any males who volunteered in the neighborhood, they became her “boyfriend,” regardless of age. And when she heard rap music blasting from a passing vehicle, the girl would wiggle her behind at the man behind the wheel.

She was about seven years old, and this was the male influence in her life.

Kayla was the oldest child. Next was a boy (let’s call him D.J.), then a girl and then, finally, a newborn boy. Their mother – tall, thin and beautiful – corralled them together with her booming voice and commanding presence.

My family loved this family. My mom would take the time to talk to the mother, to help her navigate the challenges of parenthood – especially in a community like theirs. My father loved Kayla and tried to show her what a father figure could look like, and my sister and I loved all of the kids, although we knew the oldest two best.

Contrary to what the neighborhood kids said, five-year-old D.J. wasn’t bad. He might have been ornery and loud, but at the end of the day, he was way too old to hold my hand or want a piggyback ride, but he did anyways.

The mother comes from the same kind of community. When I picture her at seven years old, I picture Kayla. And I call Kayla a product of her environment.

But I do know the point at which the mother’s life fell apart.

I was in my second year of college. The mother had taken the newborn to the hospital; he had been sick. He was released the same day, so she took him home and put him to bed.

When she woke up the next morning, the baby was dead.

I came home in time for the viewing. It was at night in a funeral home about a half hour away from my house, across the line that divides the haves and the have nots. My parents, my sister and I donned our black clothing and then got in the car.

We arrived at the funeral home with an hour left of the viewing, but no one was there. A guest book had a list of names written inside of it, but in a little room off to the side lay the little baby boy in an open casket, all by himself. He wore the smallest tuxedo I have ever seen.

The mother fell apart after that. It was unclear how to navigate counseling services through Medicaid, so as far as I know, she was never treated for her deep depression.

But she still had three children – three children who had even less parental guidance than before, as their mother succumbed to the darkness that no mother should ever have to fight alone.

My mother went to visit the family once toward the end of the month. D.J. came out of the house with a tear-streaked face. The family had used up their monthly food stamps, and he was hungry with nothing to eat.

My mom bought them groceries – including bananas, because D.J. loves them. She said that while she talked to the mother, he came out of the house twice with something different to eat. He was no longer crying and no longer hungry.

I saw the family for the last time almost exactly a year ago, on Thanksgiving Day. The mother sat listlessly on the couch, engrossed by her phone and seldom looking up from it. The kids came and went, eventually going to their grandmother’s house. A good, stable friend cooked in the kitchen. Someone else’s children played on the floor next to her.

I have always questioned at what point D.J. and Kayla transition from innocent children into guilty adults. I have little hope that there will be a point at which their worldview expands without any prompting, and suddenly they understand what life is like outside of the few blocks they cover when they’re bused between their failing school and their dysfunctional home. I highly doubt they will ever look out at the community around them and have the sudden epiphany that the universal violence of those streets is not acceptable. And sadly enough, the odds are against them in terms of earning a post-secondary education or breaking out of their family’s generational poverty at all.

My family has tried to teach them right from wrong, to give them hope and to inspire them to take ahold of their own futures. But our voices, heard at most once a week, are most likely drowned out by the deafening roar of the broken community they live in day in and day out.

But maybe they listen. Maybe one day in the past, they heard. And maybe one day in the future, they will remember.

What has happened in Ferguson this week is a tragedy, regardless of where we fall on the political spectrum or whether we agree or disagree with the grand jury’s decision not to indict the police officer that shot Michael Brown, costing him his life.

But what happens in low-income, majority minority communities on a daily basis is, in my opinion, an even bigger tragedy. And before we start pointing fingers and judging the members of those communities for their behavior, I hope the story of this family casts a little more insight on why those behaviors persist. I hope this story, as well as Michael Brown’s, points to much larger, systemic problems that plague this family’s community and countless others throughout America.

A Los Angeles Times story written in August fleshed out some of the racial and economic statistics of Ferguson, a suburb outside of St. Louis:

  • In a single generation, from 1990 to today, the population of Ferguson changed from three-fourths white to two-thirds black.
  • The median household income in Ferguson has fallen by 30% since 2000 when adjusted for inflation, to about $36,000. In the census tract where Brown lived, median income is less than $27,000, and only half of the adults work.
  • Two north county school districts, including the one Brown graduated from in May, have lost their state accreditation in recent years. The district Ferguson shares with a neighboring town is still accredited, but scores low on state tests.

Race and class problems persist nationally. Here are only a few of many (intentionally not directly related to police-involved shootings):

The Economic Policy Institute reports that just under half – 45 percent – of poor black children (like Kayla and D.J.) live in neighborhoods with concentrated poverty, but only 12 percent of poor white children live in similar neighborhoods. And children in these kinds of neighborhoods experience more social and behavioral problems, have lower test scores and are more likely to drop out of school.

Recent research, according to EPI, suggests that reducing children’s exposure to concentrated poverty can up their chances of upward economic mobility.

EPI has a name for this phenomenon: residential segregation. Black Americans not only suffer from higher poverty rates, but also higher rates of concentrated poverty.

Last year, before Ferguson, The Washington Post released a blog post on the 50-year anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have A Dream speech. The title was “These ten charts show the black-white economic gap hasn’t budged in 50 years.”

To cap it all off and bring this full-circle back to the subject of criminal justice, the tenth chart shows that the racial disparity between black and white incarceration rates is even bigger than it was in 1960.

I hope, more than anything, that both this family’s story and Michael Brown’s show the need for more people to become a part of our country’s narrative of change – to jump in, to get their hands dirty and to become solutions to problems of violence, racism and classism. I hope more people commit to walking alongside children who witness unspeakable atrocities weekly, to help them achieve the education their parents never earned, and to break the cycle of generational, systemic poverty that is the root of so many evils. I hope people decide to take action rather than turning to uninformed social media blasts, the blame game or political manipulation.

I hope this story inspires us to love people with a transformative kind of love and to become a part of the change we want to see.

A formerly homeless friend of mine, who is also black, texted me late last night.

“Give me a reason to care after this! Mike brown,” he wrote.

I hope that as a country, we can answer his plea and, in fact, give him a reason to care and a reason to hope.

Toast

IMG_8265Toast – “It’s when you’re not sad, but you’re not happy,” she said.

A group of high school girls were sharing their stories with each other, and while one wrapped hers up, her friend suggested that she tell the group about toast.

The girls told us about how in eighth grade, they made up this word to describe how they felt sometimes. They chose the word toast because it’s bland. It’s food, but it’s not good. You don’t choose toast (unless maybe if you’re sick) – you just kind of eat it if it’s in front of you and slab on some jelly in hopes of making it taste a little bit better.

But for some reason, the word toast and the feeling it described seemed to be relevant to these girls’ stories. Toast made it into the ten-minute summary of what goes on in their lives.IMG_8306

We were at Young Life camp for the weekend. I am these girls’ Young Life leader, and part of what I do when we go to camp is facilitate opportunities for real conversation – conversation about life beneath the surface, beyond what’s easy to talk about. So the past few years, the female leaders at my particular school have invited – or been asked by second- and third- and fourth-timers to invite – our cabin of campers to share their stories with each other during “cabin times” in hopes of getting to know one another in a meaningful way.

And even though I am supposed to know more than them and give them answers and show them the way, I find myself learning from them all the time. Somehow, in the eighth grade, these particular girls had found a simple yet profound way to describe a feeling that can saturate our entire lives, but is regularly accepted and often goes unnoticed.

IMG_8220One of the main reasons I love Young Life camp is because it is anything but toast. Parts of what makes it so different from that everyday pervasive blandness have, honestly, lost their glimmer over the years that I’ve been taking kids to camp; parts like the swooping feeling you get in your stomach when free-falling on the rope swing, like running around camp trying to cross off things on the scavenger hunt checklist, or even the Cheerwine slushies I used to wait an hour in line for at the snack shop.

Even some of the more important parts have admittedly become normal to me. I know that every Saturday night at fall camp, I am going on lie on my back in the grass and in the cold, and if I choose to keep my eyes open, I will look up into the sky and feel like I can see the entire galaxy because it is so clear; I almost definitely will see a handful of shooting stars as I sit there and pray and wonder what everyone around me is thinking and if they, too, can feel what I feel.

And I know that we will head back to the cabin and kids will have mixed reactions to the story of Jesus. I can predict that their responses will be unpredictable, and I know that while every cabin of girls is different, they invariably will stay up later than my bedtime – both nights.

IMG_8336It is the little moments of non-toastness that still captivate me. It is the things that turning all of the lights off or crafting the perfect message can’t make happen. It is the things that are well out of our control as leaders or camp staff that still feel like magic to me as I lead high school students at camp.

It is things like watching a girl who didn’t smile once on Friday night laugh the entire time at club on Sunday morning. It is a camper’s body language – still, leaning forward and oblivious to the other high schoolers giggling or throwing things around her – as the speaker talks, and even though that camper might not say a word at cabin time afterward, her body language said everything. And it’s the girl whose voice trembles as she bravely tells her story because, after only 24 hours, the cabin has earned her trust and she wants to be known by those around her.

I love Young Life camp because, no matter what happens there, it shows kids a weekend they would never describe as “not sad, but not happy.” Maybe it made them angry, maybe it made them cry, maybe it was the best weekend of their lives, or maybe it was all of the above at the same time, but it wasn’t bland. At Young Life camp, kids get the chance to feel alive.

IMG_8574And at Young Life camp, I get the chance to feel alive, too. I get to take a break from the demands of the everyday to witness magic happening in little moments all around me. That magic is so much more important than what I left undone at home; it’s the magic that, at the end of the day, replaces what would have been only toast in my own life story. And then, I get to go home reminded that the magic is the everyday, if only I choose to open my eyes.

Taking back Sundays – and October

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A few Sundays ago, my friend asked me to run errands with her. I had nothing better to do, so I agreed to go.

My one stipulation was that I was hungry, so we had to get lunch. So we did. We went to a German restaurant I had never been to before and ordered sandwiches and beers and sat outside and talked until our food came, and then we ate. And by the time we finished eating, my friend had gotten emails back from the bike ads she had responded to and it was time for us to go look at bikes. So then we looked at only one bike and it was a great fit so she handed over the cash, and then we drove back to her house.

This may not seem like an exciting day at all, but as recent graduates of UNC Chapel Hill, we thought it was incredible – we spent a Sunday doing what we wanted, when we wanted.

We had lived together in college along with six other girls, and Sundays consisted of running around all day long and when we weren’t running from activity to activity, we crammed in as much school work as we could. And then we stayed up late trying to get it all done and then woke up Monday morning already exhausted, beginning what promised to be a busy week.

As my friend and I talked that day we ran errands and ate lunch together, we both agreed that this new pace of life was nice. If Sundays are supposed to be a day of rest, we were doing much better than we had the past four years. And it felt great.

Then last Sunday we biked to downtown Durham from my new apartment, a round trip of 15 miles. We sat on the grass in a park and then found a little café and ate muffins and drank sodas before we turned around. And we decided to name this little tradition of doing fun things on Sundays ‘Taking Back Sunday,’ because that’s what it felt like we were doing and because it had absolutely nothing to do with one of my favorite middle school bands.

Now Sunday after Sunday stretches in front of us, and we can do whatever we want on those Sundays.

Sometime last weekend, before the bike ride, a more sudden revelation hit me. I realized that it was October.

I had known that – I have a calendar chock-full of appointments and memorized several important dates this month. I knew it was October. But not once did I appreciate that it was October.

Pop culture might be screaming at me that loving October is basic, but I love October. It’s my favorite month. I grew up in Florida, where there’s no such thing as temperature change, let alone the explosion of color that happens around this time of year when you get further away from the Equator. I moved up to North Carolina for college in 2010, so this is only the fifth October I’ve gotten to experience in a place where that means something different than June, July or August.

I love the crisp air, I love the pumpkin patches and haunted houses, I love the color change maybe most of all. I have favorite trees and I distinctly remember how happy walking home along my gold-and-red-tinted street made me feel this time last year. I don’t love pumpkin spice lattes, but I do love pumpkin pie and candy corn and chili and more of an excuse to brew a hot cup of coffee for no reason.

And I love how people seem to be a little bit happier and more excited. They do things together like go to the fair or organize outings to a haunted something-or-other and they plan what costumes to wear to at least three different events. October just seems to be a little bit contagious.

But with November right around the corner, it hit me all of a sudden that this year, I had forgotten to love my fifth-ever October. Somehow, the end of the month was sneaking up on me and all of my favorite things will soon change as time rolls right along.

I had forgotten to love October because I was too busy remembering to worry about things that were either beyond my control or I couldn’t handle with faith. And so by focusing on everything I was discontent with and everything I wanted to happen in the future, I had failed to be present in everything good that was waiting for me to enjoy it.

It feels like I have an infinite number of Sundays left to take back. But I only have a few days left of October, and then it’s gone.

Of course, it’s ridiculous to assume life is at its peak a certain month. November will hold just as many occasions for me to look at my glass as half empty or half full. And hopefully I will do a better job seeing it as half full.

But this Sundays-versus-October thing highlights an important distinction between ways we can approach life: we can either see it as an ongoing event, opening the possibility of taking any given moment for granted, or we can see it as something finite, with value laced in between each and every second.

It would be very easy for me to view several time periods of my life as wasted – periods of emptiness in between seasons of life with significance, or that I just liked better.

And maybe that’s fine – if life is infinite or if I live to be 100 years old, what is a couple weeks or a few months in the grand scheme of all of that?

But what if a couple weeks turns into three or four months, or what if I am still discontent in certain areas when my season of life does change, or what if I actually don’t live to be 100 years old? Then what?

I recently joined a small group and my first time attending, we talked about what salvation is. We used a lot of different metaphors, but one that stuck out to me is that of an appetizer versus the main course. The speaker using the metaphor told a story of a time he skipped an appetizer to save room for the main course, only to find out shortly thereafter that what he thought had been the appetizer was the main course.

So is this not the challenge of life? To see all of the ups and downs – especially the downs – as still being the main course?

I think to do that, you have to have faith that it all means something other than the day-to-day, that there is an underlying story that is overflowing with purpose behind the mundaneness of our everyday lives.

You have to believe that it is all going to be okay despite the ups and downs and that everything will work out in the end. And that it will more than work out – it will be good.

As someone who struggles with finding personal significance outside of achievement, I am working on seeing life as a continual main course. But the beautiful thing is, if it’s continual, I get to wake up tomorrow with a second chance.

Luckily, tomorrow is still October. And even when tomorrow isn’t October, it is still a day full of potential to love and be loved; to give and to receive, to create and to refine. Our lives mean so much more than society tends to tell us they do. And they mean so much more than we let ourselves believe that they do.

So I will go to bed tonight with the goal of taking back tomorrow – and Sunday, and October – and with the goal of seeing life as the best carb-and-lobster-loaded pasta dinner, regardless of circumstance.

A story about a forest

IMG_0652Last weekend, seven out of eight of the girls I lived with my senior year of college met back up in Chapel Hill to say goodbye to one of us, who was leaving for Spain for nine months to teach English.

One by one, we all trickled in to reform the group. Some of us had seen each other recently; for others, it had been months. But none of us still live together; none are still in college, and all of us have moved on with our stories.

A lot changed in my life over the summer, but that change was dwarfed by the difference in the group as a whole. Maybe it takes distance to notice how rapidly life moves; maybe it’s just post-grad, I’m not sure. But regardless, we were not the same seven girls that said goodbye to our house and each other four months ago.

Some of this change was outward and obvious, and we all knew it. We knew that one of us had broken up with her boyfriend and one had gotten a boyfriend; we could tell that another of us was sick and rapidly losing weight, and yet another had just celebrated her sister’s wedding and still another had become an aunt. Other change was inward and had to be expressed.

But the interesting thing is that life seems to have chapters, and getting together with my former roommates seemed to prove that. We were not the same characters we had been as we graduated college.

For whatever reason, it seemed that life after exams and road trips and goodbyes had only gotten harder, whether we expected it to or not. We might have had our own, different monsters whispering lies into our ears, but they were all monsters just the same.

But for a weekend, a day, a morning, as we sat around a kitchen table and shared about life, those monsters went away or at least were overshadowed. We told each other’s demons to be quiet, and they listened.

There’s a few sentences from a book I’m reading, the meaning of which resonates in my head over and over again – He said to me I was a tree in a story about a forest, and that it was arrogant of me to believe any differently. And he told me the story of the forest is better than the story of the tree.

We were a forest, and not because we were in the same place at the same time for a weekend; it was because we lived together for a year, and lived in such a way that people think we were a little crazy. We had Bible study together weekly, had house meetings to make plans and address conflict and served together both inside and outside of the house.

We did our best to know each other and be known; not in a shallow sense, but in a deeper way than any of us had experienced before. And not in that summer-camp way – in the real way, where you drive each other a little nuts and disagree and hurt one another, but choose to love one another anyways.

And so the forest grew because our lives were intertwined; the branches of a few lone trees encircled one another and formed a canopy that allowed for life to flourish underneath. And when we reconvened last weekend, our individual stories were only the continuation of the stories we lived together, and so every development felt familiar and like we were still just living the next chapter of each other’s lives.

If I have learned anything since leaving that house, it’s that most people live the story of a tree. They wake up in their own bed each morning, put on the pot of coffee and drive alone in their car to work. They work to accomplish justified, but relatively self-centered ambition and then engage in either leisure or survival activities when they finish working for the day. They wonder what they will become, where their lives are heading, who they will marry, how much money they will make and what their friends will think of them in five years.

Even if you come from a forest, it’s easy to become centered on the tree. In only four months, my story became a story about me.

I came home thinking the hard part of this particular chapter of life was over for it to only intensify and become more difficult. Suddenly, the noble idea of living for the forest seemed less practical than focusing on the tree.

I think God knows that we will grasp onto the things that make us feel better or safer. Knowing that, I think he takes those things away at times for the sake of writing us a better story.

I think God wrote conflict into my story to remind me about the forest. In the midst of a lot of waiting and indecision, he showed me that really, the choice I had to make was whether to live in a self-centered way or one that is more about other people.

I figured out what it means to be a tree in a story about a forest. And once you figure that out, all that’s left is being brave.

Deep down, we know that our stories are not supposed to be about ourselves. A few nights ago I met up with a once-homeless man I met my junior year of high school at a weekly feed. Seven years later, we still keep in touch.

He is by no means wealthy, but he’s no longer homeless. He holds a steady job deejaying and promoting for a strip club, where he tries to be a friend to the girls working, girls he describes as fragile. A few months ago, he attended his son’s high school graduation in Texas and a few days ago, he became a grandfather.

If our stories were about ourselves, we would be so much more limited in the roles we could play and the choices we would make. But this man knows he’s not living a story about a tree.

After seven years of a role defined by his poverty, this man and I drank sodas together at a restaurant. The waitress brought one check.

But this time, he pulled it towards himself. He pulled out six crumpled one-dollar bills, smoothing them out and placing them on top of the tray with the receipt.

“I can’t believe I’m buying you a sprite,” he said, almost shaking with pride.

And I let him, because everyone in the forest needs each other. And if we admit that our limbs are tangled and our roles reversible and our paths intertwined, we start to live a story that’s worth telling.

Being 22, the sequel

IMG_0473A few minutes ago, I reread the words I put on a document about a month ago. I felt inspired when I wrote them. They talked about doing something hard, about leaving something I liked, but finding something I loved. Because life is too short and unpredictable to not do the things I found most meaningful.

Today, I have the courage to share those words. They were words full of fight – they sounded excited when I reread them, and viewed life as an adventure. And they were words that made me sound confident in my decisions and perspectives.

I wonder if every writer reads personal things they wrote at a different time and wonders where they found those words and what happened to take those words away. I think half the reason I’m ready to share those words is that today, I need to be reminded of the things those words say.

The other side of being 22, I think, is a lot of fluctuation, unfamiliarity and discomfort. I don’t know any 22-year-old college graduate who hasn’t experienced a little bit of those things recently, as unpleasant as it sounds.

Come to think of it, I also don’t know any 22-year-old college graduate who was a freshman in college at one point that didn’t also experience those feelings then. Nor do I know many people, regardless of their age, that weren’t uncomfortable and a little scared when they first went away to school.

And I also know a lot of people that were nervous when they moved, or changed jobs, or were about to get married or go on a first date. Most of those people were also really excited to do those things, but if they were being honest, they were also a little apprehensive in the face of the unknown.

Maybe there are some laid-back, extreme type B people who have enough faith in God or fate or karma or something to never feel nervousness or discomfort, but instead ride the waves of life with confidence and fearlessness all the time. I am not that person, nor do I know those people.

From the little I have observed of human beings, I have realized that we like control a lot. Regardless of whether or not we like spontaneity or planning or change or routine, people all seem to like control. We like to make our decisions and have things go our way, whether we decided what we wanted three years ago or three seconds ago.

I have started watching Lost recently – yes, I am about a decade behind – and John Locke creeps me out a little bit. No one can really put their finger on exactly why, but I have a hunch that a lot of it has to do with his willingness to let “the island” decide things. His lack of desire to get off the island or survive or help his friends survive, all with the purpose of letting the island get its own way, is unnatural and unsettling, so we don’t trust him.

But at the same time, Locke really does want his own way. I think he wants the island to win, because if it wins, he wins – he gets to keep walking and being the person he always wanted to be. So he is playing his strange game of island manipulation with the same motives as anyone else on the show, it’s just all a little convoluted.

All of this is to say that 22 is an age where a lot of people are facing a lot of change. And they are all doing very different things. I have friends leaving, friends coming home, friends working stable jobs with the opportunity for advancement, friends working at restaurants and coffee shops. I know people living at home, living with friends, living alone. And most of them weren’t doing those things four months ago.

But the thing is, almost all of them are not fully confident in what they’re doing. They’re asking themselves why they signed up for something so difficult, or why they didn’t apply themselves more in college. They wonder what they could be doing if they weren’t working 9-5, or what the comfort of a stable job would feel like. They’re afraid that after they leave and come home, that person they loved will have moved on. Or deep down, they wonder if “that person” exists for them or how they will ever find him or her. And some try to calculate what the ideal time for a wedding is or how they will afford the perfect ring.

Maybe life would be a whole lot easier if we accepted that we are all going to make mistakes, or that there is no perfect decision or that God makes beauty out of ashes. I wonder if that would change the chances we took or the way we retrospectively view our decisions. It would almost have to.

Maybe we would all be a little bit better at living life if we viewed each day as only that – a day. I wrote something in my last post about something to the effect of life is not a means to an end. It’s a day-by-day kind of thing, and really the most definite choice we have in all of it is whether we will live it as such.

So I guess I need to tell myself that today is not about figuring out what I will do tomorrow or next week or next year. It’s about loving something or someone, about doing something meaningful in these 24 hours and about serving something greater than myself. It’s about finding joy and contentment, even if they’re hiding somewhere in the corner.

And it’s reminding myself of what I said a month ago as I sat in another coffee shop, just as I am now, except this one was across the country. Then, I wrote about how 22 “is a year to still have fun putting puzzles together and to wake up every morning excited to see where the next piece fits.” Today, I am reminding myself that playing with puzzles is fun.

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What I thought a month ago about being 22

*This is something I wrote about a month ago while in Los Angeles. 

IMG_0102If I can say anything definitively about post-grad life, it’s that I live in a whirlwind of lessons to learn.

Since leaving Chapel Hill, I have learned that Memphis is a hidden gem commonly misrepresented. Right before that, I learned that while Tennessee gas is cheaper than North Carolina’s, this isn’t true right across the border so you might as well fill up before you spend a dozen or so painstaking miles hoping the car doesn’t come to a sputtering stop somewhere in the midst of the awe-inspiring Smoky Mountains.

I’ve learned that New Belgium is my favorite brewery and that I can see myself living in Denver one day. I discovered that you can’t really ever fathom how big and beautiful the Grand Canyon is until you see it with your own eyes, and that the last bus around the park runs about 8:30 p.m. I can’t say I learned much in Vegas, but I did experience it.

And I’ve learned about people. Human beings are not all made the same. We think differently, feel differently, make decisions differently and react differently. And because of that, we all have a million and one things to teach each other.

If I thought I learned a lot while on the way over to Los Angeles, I quickly realized it was nothing compared to what was ahead of me.

I learned how to parallel park and now take pride in how quickly I can whip my car into a tight space on the side of a busy street.

I can’t begin to express how much I’ve learned about being a reporter and a writer while interning at the L.A. Times. I’ve been inspired over and over again by people who are the best of the best at their craft, and I’ve had incredible opportunities to learn things hands-on. I have grown daily over the summer.

But I’ve also learned a lot about myself and about how once you get into the real world, life requires making a lot of decisions. And sometimes, making these decisions about what you want requires you to delve more deeply than ever before into the process of self-discovery.

Someone recently asked me what I’m doing with my life after this. In the midst of that conversation, she off-handedly asked me what a year of my life is.

I think she was encouraging me to take risks; saying that I have a lot of years of life to change my mind and figure things out. But asking me that question made me think about it pretty literally.

The truth is that a year of my life – or two years, or three, or a decade or maybe even all the years I’m alive – matters a lot to me. The next day, I read an essay by a Yale student who wrote about the opposite of loneliness and repeated multiple times that “we are so young.” She wrote that we have time to chase our dreams or, sometimes, change those dreams.

But the girl who wrote the essay died less than a week after it was distributed. She was 22, exactly my age.

I think posing the same question – “What is a year of your life?” – takes on a bittersweet twist when you ask following a story like that. Maybe to this girl, asking what five days of her life is would be more appropriate. While her story is tragic, I’m glad she died feeling the opposite of lonely.

But for me, all this made me wonder what I would do with my life if I knew I would only live until I was 23 – one year from now. Because if I was going to die in one year, I would do everything I wanted to and that I thought was meaningful.

This kind of thinking might not always be realistic. Statistically, I have several decades of my life left and dreams can take a long time to achieve. So sometimes a year might not mean much if it’s taking you toward where you want to end up.

But also, I’ve learned that to me, the journey is the destination and maybe if I don’t want the road itself, I don’t want the end point either – especially if I’m not sure I want the end point in the first place.

I want to do things with my life that make me wake up excited. That makes things difficult, because I wake up and am happy to go to work every day now despite the fact that it’s 6 a.m. But there’s a spark that’s missing, and I don’t know enough about the real world to be sure that spark exists, but I think it does.

I think the problem might be my heart isn’t fully in what I’m doing. And if I knew I was going to live to be 23, I would want to spend every day doing something my heart is fully invested in.

So I’m leaving something I really, really like. That is another lesson I have learned – you can really, really like something, maybe even love it, but that doesn’t make it right. I’m leaving something I really, really like to find something that doesn’t leave my heart behind.

It’s safe to say that I’m back in the same phase of life I’ve been in after every graduation so far. I’ve rapidly gone from feeling old and wise to feeling young and unbelievably naïve. Up until now, 22 seemed so old; now, it feels so incredibly young.

But 22 is a great age to learn. It is the age to take a risk, to drive across the country, to make terribly difficult decisions and figure out how to be ok with them. It’s the age to compare what you want out of life and painstakingly rank it all, and to then drive home again after choosing something that may seem irrational.

For me, 22 is the year to admit to myself that I should be humbler; to admit that it is a long distance from the east to the west coast, too long for right now. To admit that loving people who had nothing to give back to me wasn’t something I just did in college because I had extra time, but something woven into who I am; something I can’t really say no to.

It’s the time to admit that I still cry about a baby in a casket wearing a tuxedo, even though it’s been years; the time to come to terms with the fact that when I’m reporting on tragedy, I feel like I’m in the wrong place. At the time, I rarely want to be the reporter; I want to instead walk through the darkness with people.

And 22 is the time to be an optimist and to take giant leaps of faith. It’s the time to believe I am not alone, and that while I have almost no pieces of the puzzle in the right place at the moment, I one day will.

Yet despite all of the hard things, 22 is a year to still have fun putting puzzles together and to wake up every morning excited to see where the next piece fits.

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Up and down

Grand Canyon, AZ

Grand Canyon, AZ

Up and down; up and down, up and down.

That’s what the second half of the road trip felt like as we drove through mountains and deserts in my little blue Chevy Cobalt; as we whipped through snow-capped mountains and then mounds of red rocks scattered throughout the vastness of red dirt that is much of Arizona. The sun rose and it set and we watched both at different times; we hiked and we climbed and we descended, over and over again.

If you pay enough attention on a trip like this, you will notice that there are other kinds of ups and downs ingrained across America. Anyone can notice the beauty of a golden sunset against red desert, or of the Rocky Mountains at the beginning of the summer, or of the hour before sunset inside of the Grand Canyon. To see the beauty of these places is a privilege and makes you realize that often, beauty is something you have to take in, experience and tuck away because it can’t be captured in words or photographs.

But beauty does have its counterpart; an ugliness that is equally difficult to capture or replicate. To understand ugliness in the midst of the kind of beauty that awakens the soul is almost impossible, but I think ugliness needs to be confronted to truly appreciate the good this world has to offer.

We met a man while hiking into the Grand Canyon. His name was Peter, he was on a yearlong sabbatical from Amsterdam and he arrived in Delaware on a cargo ship 11 months ago. He tried to pass by our little hiking group quietly, but three of us were journalists; he didn’t get very far before we began questioning him.

Peter’s demeanor is humble and inoffensive, yet his words pack a punch. He speaks with a wisdom you cling to and long to hear more of. Because of this, I asked him what he had learned over the past 11 months.

“It’s a beautiful world,” he answered, a whisper of a smile crossing his face as he looked at me to answer.

And as we walked a little further to one of the viewpoints on the trail, I had to agree.

“It is a beautiful world,” I said.

“Yes it is,” Peter said, “but we need to protect it.”

Peter talked to us about carbon footprints; about how his is negative, and about how only one country in the world has a negative carbon footprint: Cuba. And as we sat surrounded by one of the most incredible natural phenomena in the world, it seemed ridiculous that we wouldn’t alter our lifestyles to preserve the world around us. Peter’s words pressed the urgency of our environmental degradation upon us; at that moment, it was real and something we couldn’t and shouldn’t ignore.

From the Grand Canyon, Bri, Jillian and I traveled to Vegas. Vegas is exactly what you would expect; a kind of adult playground where rules are thrown out the window, along with lines that usually aren’t crossed and certain societal standards of morality. And if you can compartmentalize all of this and let it be what it is, Vegas is also fun. There’s a lot of lights and fun restaurants and pools and dancing and – believe it or not – relatively clean fun to be had, too.

For me, the ugliness wasn’t in the what. It wasn’t about what people were doing, because the acts themselves really just revealed a lot of what we already know about our culture and ourselves and what people will do if there aren’t consequences. It’s in the why. It’s the underlying ugliness of the almost-invariably Latino workers who emotionlessly hand out cards featuring naked women to passerby on the street; they gaze around them, not making eye contact, many of them with headphones in. It’s the ugliness of the huge homeless population. Some lie in the middle of the sidewalks at night, passed out with a bottle nearby as thousands of people walk by and pay them no attention. Others hold signs saying things like, “Why lie? Need beer.” And it’s the ugliness of the signs advertising ‘Girls! Girls! Girls!’ with a phone number underneath, and in knowing that if you call that number, someone will answer and, for whatever reason, has chosen to do so.

And now I’m in LA. I moved into my little bungalow with my roommate Emily, I went hiking one day and to the beach the next and I survived my first big-girl moment when my car broke (GM is covering everything – thank you recall!). Monday I started my internship with the LA Times, which I was even more excited for after attending the paper’s editorial awards last Thursday night.

Emily, my roommate, and I happened to be in Flagstaff the same night, so we hiked the Grand Canyon together. The thing about a canyon is that it’s the opposite of a mountain; you go down first, and then up. So you save the hard part of the hike for last. As we huffed and puffed our way back up to the rim of the canyon, we talked. And somehow the Santa Barbara shootings came up and how it’s difficult to cover ugly tragedies like that. I’ve never covered a shooting, but last summer I did cover a hit-and-run of a guy only about a year older than I was. I followed the story as it unwound; I talked to his friends, his parents and his girlfriend as they frantically searched Raleigh for him.

Once the body was found, it was harder to find anyone to talk to. After following a trail of phone numbers and contacts, I finally got ahold of the guy’s fraternity house father. And I told him, as gently as I could, that this was his last chance to tell me something he wanted the world to know about the guy who had died, because the nature of the news business is that the story will get one day and one day only. So the man told me how all of the guy’s college friends were gathered at the man’s house right then, praying together.

And that was beautiful. It is a privilege to find little slivers of beauty in the midst of terrible ugliness; good journalists know this and know to search for these snapshots of humanity as if their jobs depended on it. Most stories have the opportunity to touch the human soul, because they’re stories about people, and we all have so much to learn from each others’ beauty and ugliness, trials and triumphs, heartbreaks and happiness.

As we talked and hiked up the Grand Canyon, I felt inspiration all over again to be a compassionate, honest storyteller. Inspiration like that sparks the courage necessary to confront the ugliness head on and to dig frantically in search of the beauty. It spurs upward and lures downward and guides through temporary darkness. It reminds me of the value of the human soul and the meaning of that soul being known and of the underlying truth that we all have within our stories.

I’ve seen beauty and I’ve seen ugliness and I’ve seen the two juxtaposed together, side-by-side. I’ve seen them in Kenya, in Mexico and on my recent road trip across America. And both are equally haunting and get under my skin and get me moving. So I hope my own story this summer has a lot to do with beauty and ugliness and with handling both fearlessly and compassionately.

Colorado

Yesterday marked two places in time for me: the halfway, one-week mark of this road trip, and the two-week anniversary of being a college graduate.

Time is still aggressive. It charges on unashamedly, creating justice by ensuring that each day is the same length as the one before and the one after. While I’m satisfied with the amount of people, places and activities we’ve crammed into a week, I feel like I’m still stretching one arm backwards to a period of my life that is just getting further and further away.

IMG_6535But enter Colorado. The story is changing a little bit while I’m here (it’s fortunately a four-day stop – quite the relief from long car rides). On Friday, we crossed the border from Kansas only to discover that eastern Colorado actually looks the same as Kansas does. Surprise. But by nighttime, we reached Fort Collins and one of my best friends Kelly’s house, which fortunately rests near the foothills of the Rockies.

Her family cooked us dinner and then we went to bed pretty quickly, which was necessary to wake up at 2:55 a.m. for a sunrise hike. We started up a mountain in the dark close to 4 a.m. and made it to the peak by the time the sun had started to rise. It was absolutely spectacular. Behind us was a snow-capped mountain range, and in front of us was a town with all of its streetlights still lit and more mountains and floating mist and a reservoir reflecting the colors in the sky and clouds covered in shades of gold and pink that I just hadn’t quite seen before.
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We hiked back down, seeing the mountain in the light this time. We ate brunch, took a nap, and then went on brewery tours around Fort Collins. And then yesterday we went to church at a coffee shop dedicated to serving Christ using a coffee counter as a relational conduit and then laid under the sun (and some formidable rain clouds) in a park. And then we said goodbye to our good friend Kelly, who will leave for Mozambique as a Peace Corps volunteer in September, and drove to Denver.

In Denver, we are staying in a friend’s little downtown bungalow while both she and her roommate aren’t there. Last night we explored downtown Denver and then this morning headed for coffee shops – separately and without telling each other where we were going – for some alone time. And all three of us ended up at the same coffee shop, go figure.

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We have been on the road for over a week and have yet to stay in a single hotel. Friends across the country have opened their doors to us – friends from high school, friends from college and friends of friends that we barely know or don’t know at all. We will meet up with more friends as our journey continues, who will just happen to be in the same place as us or who will just happen to be on our way. It’s nothing but a blessing to have so many friends across the country.

It’s still sad I won’t be waking up in the same house or the same town as these friends anymore, and I don’t know if that will ever stop being sad. But the friend whose house we’re staying in here in Denver is an older, very wise friend, and has spoken truth to me on many occasions since my freshman year of college. I can go through every year of college and remember words she spoke to me that I am unlikely to ever forget.

I’ll only write about this year’s words, because they’re very relevant right now. The day I graduated, she told me that the best is yet to come. And this means a lot coming from her, because she lived college in the best way she knew how. She poured into everything she did, and I know that because I did a lot of those things with and after her and felt like I had a legacy to follow. Looking around her little bungalow, I see dozens of photos of her and her college friends and know that she loved her friends and her college experience as much as I loved mine.

IMG_6558But still, she told me the best is yet to come. And I think the story of Colorado is that I’m starting to believe that, or at least that what comes next will be equally as good. It’s a big world out there. There’s an endless amount of places to visit, people to meet and experiences to be had. I can look forward to finding a job that I’m passionate about, to experiencing a new culture and community, or even to living in a downtown bungalow. And yes, I guess I can even be excited about meeting new people and making new friends – although I’m still pretty stubbornly saying I like the old ones.

So as I start to lean in and accept this next phase of life, I want to take with me one major lesson I learned as an undergraduate: Things rarely go the way I want them to or the way I planned. But if they had, my life wouldn’t be as good as it is now. This is a lesson I’m trying to keep in mind as I have new ideas and plans every single day about where I want to go and what I want to do. I’m at a turning point, and there’s a direction that I’ll go in, but for now it’s good enough to stand at the crossroads and look around and enjoy the view. It’s a place to smile at what’s behind while eagerly trying to steal a glance at what’s ahead. And today, it’s a place to be deeply satisfied that I have friends in faraway places – good friends – and that I get to experience those faraway places.

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Leaving

(written May 20)

A little bit after noon today, I left North Carolina.

With my two friends, Bri and Jillian, in the car, I wove through the Smoky Mountains along the highway that ribbons through them. We almost ran out of gas and pulled over as semi-trucks blew past us to talk a selfie in front of the Tennessee welcome sign. The mountains towered above and around us, giving us an awareness of our own smallness.

I left home today indefinitely – the home that has been made for me over the past four years. The home that is a state, a university, a town, but more importantly a home that is filled with people who really care about and for me.

Our first stop on the trip was at Windy Gap, the Young Life camp that I have spent dozens of nights at over the past few years. We went for the tail end of Work Week, which is where volunteers come and prepare the camp for a crazy summer of campers, and for our good friend Haley’s birthday. I spent the day shoveling and raking dirt around, putting medicine on the hooves of horses and then painting a roof.

At night, we had club – if you know anything about Young Life, this doesn’t surprise you at all. The speaker brought up the concept of God creating our stories as we go and asked what he had done in each of our stories that week.

I had only been there a night, but it was a good question. He asked exactly a week after I graduated from college, moved out of my house and said goodbye to my friends one by one. It was my second to last night in the state and the first night of a two-week road trip that is bound to be a great adventure.

He also brought up a point I have thought a lot about this past semester. It seems to make a whole lot of sense to me to think of our lives as one long story and of God as the Storyteller. And he’s the kind of storyteller that knows what he’s doing – he knows how to connect seemingly unrelated events, how to keep you at the edge of your seat and how to make insignificant plots into masterpieces. Looking at my story thus far and believing in God’s storytelling abilities gives me a lot of confidence in the future.

But for this past week, I wasn’t quite sure how I felt about it. If I had to define it, I would say it’s been a sad story, but the heartwarming kind. It’s been full of tears and goodbyes and change, and time has been an aggressive character that shows no mercy to those begging for it to slow down. But it’s also been a week full of love and friendship and excitement. Although it’s been a week of endings, it’s also a week of beginnings and doorways into the future. And that feels like adventure.

Sitting in the passenger seat on the road somewhere in Tennessee, I’m realizing my story right now is about the unknown. It’s about leaning into discomfort and uncertainty, but also into the hidden joys of the day-to-day. It’s about the Smoky Mountains and the Rocky Mountains and a brewery by the river in Asheville. It’s about new friends, about old friends and good music.

If our stories last for decades, it would be a shame if the Storyteller didn’t shake things up every so often. Some page changes are more dramatic than others, and this seems to be one of them. I don’t know what two weeks or two months or two years from now looks like, but I do know that I’m stuck in a car with a giant pile of my belongings and two people who I love a lot, and so I really like today’s story. And really, I think that’s all we can ask for.

I want to end this with someone else’s words that have rung true for a few of my friends in this phase of life. Here’s a quote from Donald Miller, who’s become one of my favorite authors.

“And so my prayer is that your story will have involved some leaving and some coming home, some summer and some winter, some roses blooming out like children in a play. My hope is your story will be about changing, about getting something beautiful born inside of you, about learning to love a woman or a man, about learning to love a child, about moving yourself around water, around mountains, around friends, about learning to love others more than we love ourselves, about learning oneness as a way of understanding God. We get one story, you and I, and one story alone. God has established the elements, the setting and the climax and the resolution. It would be a crime not to venture out, wouldn’t it? It might be time for you to go. It might be time to change, to shine out. I want to repeat one word for you: Leave. Roll the word around on your tongue for a bit. It is a beautiful word, isn’t it? So strong and forceful, the way you have always wanted to be. And you will not be alone. You have never been alone. Don’t worry. Everything will still be here when you get back. It is you who will have changed.”

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Windy Gap Young Life camp, North Carolina

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Blue Ridge Parkway, NC

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The Wedge Brewery, Asheville, NC