Colorblind

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“Why does your skin have red spots?”

My insides tightened a little on the first day of my internship.

“I don’t really know. I guess I got sunburnt the other day,” I explained to the sweet little girl sitting in front of me.

Her curiosity persisted the next day that I saw her.

“It’s all red. Does it hurt?”

“Not anymore,” I reassured her, a little confused. My sunburn wasn’t extraordinarily prominent.

She poked my arm and it turned white momentarily, then back to red. She poked it again. And again. She was fascinated with my skin, shades different than hers. “Why does it do that?” she asked me.

I admitted that I didn’t really know; a scientific explanation of pale skin evaded me. I took her dark brown arm in my hand and gently pressed on her arm, to see if her skin changed pigment with the pressure. “See,” I began, but realized there was nothing to see. Her dark skin didn’t react like my fair skin.

I tried again. “See, my skin is pale and blotchy. And yours,” I told her, looking at her smooth, dark arm, “Yours is a lot more beautiful.”

Before starting this internship, I was initially wary of one thing:

How were these kids going to react to this white, 21-year-old girl urging them to write from the most sacred corners of their hearts?

The kids at St. Florian are primarily African American and some are considered “at-risk,” an unfair and obtuse generalization. They know a different Indianapolis than I do. Some hear fireworks on the Fourth of July and confuse them momentarily for gunshots.

So who am I—a complete stranger—to saddle up next to them in tiny classroom chairs and ask them about a time they weren’t heard? Or a time when they felt that being black mattered? Or worse, didn’t matter?

I deeply believe in the power and value of storytelling not only for readers, but for writers as well–especially these young writers. One of our fearless leaders and director of the Indiana Writers Center, Barb, helped approach the Black Lives Matter topic with the younger campers. She explained that sometimes people make us feel bad about who we are, how that hurts, how we don’t want to drudge up those feelings again. However, she gently explained that sometimes it’s good to write about these not-so-good feelings and experiences. She said it takes the heavy stuff out of heart and makes us feel a little better.

In just a few minutes, she explained the root of writing.

This entire experience has complicated and transformed the way I view writing. I knew that writers need to focus on the audience, yet I had been seeing what my personal calling to writing looked like with tunnel vision:

Aspiring author. Possible journalist. Part-time freelancer. Occasional PR stuff.

I realize now that I enjoy helping others write, helping others tell their stories, almost as much as I like to write myself. Amplifying usually-hushed voices, asking young minds about how they felt when ________ happened, watching their brows furrow with concentration and little hands move across the paper in a creative flurry. Opening these conversations with kids, asking Lauren how long it takes to braid her hair, earning a bit of cool cred with a group of middle school boys when I knew that Dwayne Allen was a tight end for the Colts, being invested in what they have to say, watching Roderick come out of his shell as the trust began to build, watching Jeremiah dance to Sevan’s beat boxing, giving high-fives after Author’s Chair readings, Da’Vion asking if he’d see me next year at camp.

After one of my first days of the internship, I went to the optometrist. Usually eye appointments consist of a routine colorblind test, something that my right eye struggles with immensely. The colors blur together and the number is indistinguishable, but with both eyes open I can see well enough and go about life with functional vision. The individual division of the colors, not being able to distinguish and separate the colors, divide the colors, doesn’t have a huge impact on my vision as a whole. On the bigger picture.

My friends Sevan and Lauren, who were fascinated by the physical quirks of my different skin, seemed to be colorblind to the “social implications” and historical pre-existing ideas surrounding those physical differences. The other younger campers didn’t quite grasp the concept of writing about their experience being black. They’re at that blissfully accepting yet insightfully observant age, right at the cusp of beginning to profoundly understand the world around them, while still being extremely impressionable. A tender, crucial stage. They don’t see me as “other” or “different.”

Probably because I’m not.

Probably because they’re not.

These children have been so welcoming, vulnerable, resilient, hard-working, intelligent, and hilarious. They have embraced this stranger walking into their life, handing them a pencil, asking questions. They have entrusted me with their stories, a gift that I don’t deserve yet cherish so profoundly.

 

If you’d like to support these young writers–the future movers and shakers of this world– and read their stories, the anthology of their work from this summer will be available for purchase July 30th through INwords as well as Amazon.com.

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If I Ever Forget Why I Write

Children are some of the most resilient little stinkers I’ve ever had the distinct joy of working with.

By way of poking around on the internet, being embarrassingly obsessed with/connected to my hometown, and dreaming up ways to avoid working in an office this summer, I scored the opportunity to work as an intern for the Indiana Writers Center through their Building a Rainbow Program. This community-building outreach program amplifies the voices of Indianapolis’ youth through creative writing, and it is a gift to help these children tell their stories and become authors. The Saint Florian Center, a youth leadership development organization founded and led by the Indianapolis Firefighters, organizes the camp where we facilitate these writing sessions. In just a few short weeks, the kids write, we transcribe their work, and then publish their writing in a book.

Yes, a book.

Yes, 6- and 7- and 8- and 9- and 10- and 11- and 12- and 13-year-old Indianapolis kiddos will become published authors before you or I ever will.

Isn’t

that

awesome?

Using the term “at risk” to describe these witty, hilarious, smart, and compassionate children is problematic, as the directors of this program have said before. It’s like a formula that society adds up to slap a label on the circumstances that these kids were born into by no fault of their own, sometimes no fault of their parents, just the sometimes-unfortunate and unjust and infuriating nature of this world.

The camp that the Saint Florian Center organizes is reoccurring, so some of these kids come back summer after summer, forming bonds with each other, their leaders, and head firefighter Tony. They know more about each other than I do. They know a different Indianapolis than I do. They have taught me way more in just three days than a semester of class ever could, without even trying.

We write with the kids for longer than you would think that a kid could actually sit still (snacks help) and then we do Author’s Chair, where a few of the kids get to read their work to the group and receive positive feedback (“I like” statements). Today one of the boys, an eight-year-old named Justin, wrote about his parent’s divorce in a heart-wrenchingly perceptive account. He stood in front of 20 of his peers reading about his parents’ divorce–how he cried, the way his pillow was soaked with tears–with a thoughtful and confident demeanor that belonged to a 30-year-old, not a child who’s less than a decade old. I was floored. When he finished reading, a volunteer raised his hand and applauded Justin’s bravery, saying that his parents also got divorced when he was Justin’s age. Suddenly, more kids’ hands shot up, multiple echoing that their parents were also divorced. Echoing Justin’s bravery. Echoing his sadness, his pain, his resilience. I’m 21 years old and it took me over three years–until this very moment–to write publicly about my own parents’ divorce.

Justin’s bravery, his willingness to be vulnerable, to talk about things that are hard and painful yet important, inspired me. I went up to this seemingly shy little boy after he shared his story, knelt down, and looked into the eyes of a little human being who possessed more courage and introspection than a lot of adults I know, myself included. I thanked him for sharing his story, told him that I understood how he felt, reassured him that he had nothing to do with his parent’s decision to end their marriage, that he was so brave.

I couldn’t help but feel heartbroken as the previously wily nature of the room turned serious as more and more kids chimed in that their parents were also divorced. I sat with one of my buddies, Sevan, at the table when she raised her hand and said her parents split up when she was just five years old. Just ten minutes before, she had been goofing around with her playful sassy attitude. It made me realize that writing and sharing stories unites human beings, even 7- and 8-year olds. Sevan is nine years old, while I am 21. She wears black Air Jordans and emanates a natural, energetic rhythm, while I wear white Vans and can barely keep up with the latest dance crazes. Her dad is a rapper, and my dad works in healthcare. We are hilariously different, yet we share a definitive life change that so many of these kids also experienced. Through writing and sharing our stories, we were able to connect and discover similarities over things that matter.

Quick little guide to what matters and what does not:

Matters: shared human experiences

Does not: skin color

At the end of the day, people want to feel heard. People want other people to see through their own lenses, for other people to say, “Hey, I think we have a similar prescription.”

There’s no greater comfort than someone else saying, “Me too!” when we previously thought ourselves to be alone.

Writing helps us try on other people’s glasses, step into other people’s shoes, and hopefully help us to walk a little closer and gentler with others. An 8-year-old named Justin helped me remember that. An 8-year-old reminded me why I write.

An 8-year-old reinforced that this is what I need to do for the rest of my life.

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Take a Load Off

A few weekends ago, back in early April, I lost heaviness.

Not heaviness in the physical, literal sense. Not weight in the physical sense—in fact, I ate my way through the Gateway to the West. I lost heaviness that was gripping my heart due to fear.

I had the distinct pleasure of road tripping to St. Louis with some of my wonderful friends to see them run a marathon. Within five minutes of watching people run 26.2 miles, I was reduced to tears. As a runner (who cannot wrap my brain around running 26.2 miles), there’s something so beautiful and unifying about running. It’s raw and difficult and not very poetic when you’re the one pushing your body to its brink (for me, that would probably be about mile 5…I am weak). But when you’re the one watching people pushing their minds and bodies past the point of medical recommendation and extend into a pure spiritual territory, it’s amazing. A running mother stopped to hug her baby and husband on the sideline; an adorable nun was holding a sign that read “Go Sr. Liz;” two women who had travelled a great distance to see loved ones running hugged me after I helped them track their runners’ pace so that they’d be able to see them at mile nine.

A few days before I went to St. Louis, a beloved member of my high school community—a friend, son, theater teacher, includer, among other rolls he played—passed away suddenly, shockingly, and in a devastating situation. Hearts ached and heaviness settled. I experienced the sobering nature of death and a sense of fear that unsettled me; suddenly the rhythm of the universe seemed more negatively unpredictable. I worried about leaving my school to drive in the car to St. Louis. What if something happened unexpectedly? I kicked myself for being irrational and I went anyway, despite the worry that my mind had created.

Worry, while sometimes inevitable, is such a heavy weight. And it’s not a weight that you build muscle from or get stronger by; it simply drains energy that could be used in more positive capacities.

Yes, death is sobering and fear is paralytic. However I’d like to think of it as a frozen thing, and frozen things can always be melted. Sometimes our fear freezes us like icebergs, which take time and patience to melt away (NOT saying I want our icebergs to melt!!! Reduce, reuse, recycle, people!!!). And sometimes fear freezes us like the popsicles I sell in the summer, which melt quite easily and will definitely not last the drive home to northern Carmel on a hot day without melting all over your car.

Faith, on the other hand, is warm. It’s what eventually melts those “icebergs.”

It sounds dramatic and irrational be afraid of something bad happening, but I couldn’t shake the ominous fear leading up to the weekend before going to St. Louis. I thankfully swallowed my doubt with a spoonful of faith. Surrounded by some of my best friends, exploring a new, beautiful city, watching people have faith in themselves by running 26.2 miles, I started to feel that fear melt. The weight of worry lifted and positive energy took its place.

 

We wouldn’t run a marathon with unnecessary weights strapped on our shoulders, so why would I run through this life with the unnecessary weight of my own fears?

 

It can be tough to find a way to give up that weight, but I have a feeling that God can bench press all the fears and worries of the world without breaking a sweat.

 

 

 

P.S. Ben Howard has a very topical song called, “The Fear,” that you may want to listen to if this resonated with you at all.

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This Blog Post Shouldn’t Exist

Every once in a while the universe conspires to match a song to the to the steps that you’re walking.

This morning I woke up on the right side of the bed. Sun was streaming through my paper-thin windows and I was surprisingly not too tired despite staying at the library until wee hours the night before. A friend sent me this beautiful, empowering song by Laura Mvula called “She,” and it was one of those songs that I wasn’t prepared for. I stopped the song halfway through because I didn’t want my first time listening to it to be over quite yet. That’s how good this song is.

I was bopping about my day when I heard that my sister was having a particularly rough day after being on the receiving end of the evergreen pettiness of high school girls. I’ve been restless and alarmed at my anger because I’m generally an even-keeled person. From a young age I have always been sensitive to lunch room exclusion, playground injustices, and birthday party drama. It’s one of those pit-in-the-stomach things that can make me go from docile Lauren to impassioned St. Joan of Arc-going-off-to-battle Lauren. Today I was mad that my sister was hurting, mad that people suffer bullying all the time, mad that kids act upon jealousy and insecurity when it is so much more fruitful to just NOT, mad that I’m spending energy processing why people use hatred as a means of communication instead of studying for finals, and mad that something is making me mad.

In her song, Laura Mvula sings, “She don’t stop” over and over again in an “I’m fearfully and wonderfully made” sort of way that makes you own the steps you’re taking. (So if you listen to it enough times in one sitting you’ll start to confuse yourself with Beyoncé.) It’s the sort of empowering anthem that anyone down in the dumps needs to hear. A message that dissolves the petty hatred potential of high school.

This blog post should not exist because bullying should not exist. It’s easy for me to see the absurdity, the unnecessary ridiculousness of it all. I’m sitting here on my sunny campus, 21 years old, three years removed from high school. I’m surrounded by an army of beautiful, strong friends who love and uphold each other. Friends who realize that acting with compassion and love bears fruit while acting upon jealousy and fear can poison everything in its path. We get it. We’re on the other side of the fence. But for the younger kids, middle school and high school can feel liked a never-ending tunnel of doom.

I could write an entire dissertation on the matter, but I’ll save you the trouble since most of this stuff should be common sense.

There’s this verse in the Bible that my mom introduced to me when I was younger and learning that I’m not the one who’s steering this ship. It holds a lot of weight and I somehow always come back to it:

“He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live.”

-Ecclesiastes 3:11-12

I may not have it all figured out, but I can say that this kind of stuff fades. You have so much to look forward to.

Don’t stop. #swerve

 

 

(And should a mean schoolyard bully be reading this, give back the lunch money and knock it off for the love of God, you fool!!!!)

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Hearts! We all have hearts!

The world runs on a lot of things.

Wind. Water. Hard work. Dunkin’.

But more and more I’m beginning to believe that the most powerful, eco-friendly sources of energy that our world runs on are kindness and love.

A few months ago, right before last semester ended, I spent the weekend at my grandparents’, which always seems to elicit blog-worthy thoughts. The bus arrived and as we were exiting, I noticed a young man about my age helping an older woman, who he had been sitting next to, with her luggage. That’s sweet, he’s helping his grandmother, I assumed. I disembarked right behind the pair, so I saw a middle-aged woman (presumably her daughter) help the older woman off the bus, as the older woman introduced the young man to her. It turns out the young man was a student at UW-M who had just noticed that the woman needed help at the beginning of the trip, so he accompanied her the entire way. Swoon.

When it was time for me to return to campus, my grandmother handed me a little paper bag. Inside it was a lunch for the bus ride, complete with an egg salad sandwich wrapped in wax paper, a cookie, and a peeled orange. The orange, my grandmother explained, was peeled because she didn’t want me to have to fuss with peeling it on the bus.

I’ll illustrate why this is significant. I am a very capable, independent 21-year-old. I go to school five hours from home and somehow find ways to fend for myself. So to be thought of in such a small, detailed way tugged and twisted a lot of heartstrings.

After I picked up the pieces of my exploded heart, I started thinking that kindness and love keep people going. A lot of bad things have happened in the world lately (the fattest understatement of the century). The good stuff, the big and small people helping people stuff, helps the human engine stay up and running.

 

When I was in grade school, I used to agonize over which commercial valentine to send to each of my classmates. Assigning the different designs to my 23 peers was a delightful task, but also an art. Good friends always got the bigger valentines, or the ones with the cutest puppy on it. You had to be careful about the flirty ones; you didn’t want cootie-laden so-and-so to get any ideas. I always kept it super platonic with the kids I didn’t know as well. The smoothest valentines always went to the second grade heartthrobs.

Now love has a cool way of manifesting itself at this 21-year-old stage (not that my baby animal valentines weren’t DOPE). But now I’m old enough to recognize how deeply my grandparents and parents love us kids and I’m old enough to show them my own love in ways than extend beyond macaroni art and glitter hearts. I’m old enough to take care of people but I’m young enough to be on the receiving end of a lot of “looking after you” love too. I’m young enough to not yet know romantic love and old enough to know that romantic love isn’t enough.

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A few of my valentines.

This dynamic love is why Valentine’s Day is a reason to celebrate for everyone, even for the perpetual singles out there. This past weekend I visited my grandparents again, this time celebrating Love Day, and they treated me to a weekend overflowing with cookies and featuring a romantic dinner with crème brulee and wine and a bread basket that I single-handedly destroyed. At the restaurant it occurred to me that we were just as appropriately celebrating Valentine’s Day as the young couples and the families there. Love isn’t limited to a Hallmark-esque genre (though we also kicked back this weekend to watch those irresistibly sappy movies), but rather it’s dynamic and manifests in different relationships and little acts of kindness.

So here’s to love and kindness and that UW-M guy and foil valentines and heart-shaped doughnuts.

Cheers, valentines.

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For the Love of God, BAILA

I tend to be a calculator. Not in the mathematical sense—I’m pretty sure I set the left side of my brain ablaze whenever I attempt anything “math.” What I mean is, I think about everything I do before I do it, calculating the vulnerability barometer and how it will affect those around me. It’s a trait that has kept me out of a lot of trouble but if I don’t remember to turn off the switch from time to time, it has the capacity to keep me out of some fun bouts of spontaneity.

Last night my friends convinced me to go salsa dancing with them. (That’s right kids, you don’t have to study abroad to learn the bachata and salsa and merengue! You can learn for free in your very own German Midwestern city!) We pulled up to a warehouse with purple spotlights in a car driven by our friend Rose, who was laying on the horn and yelling, “Have fun, kids!” out the window in the most wonderful dad fashion. After going in the wrong entrance, almost disrupting a senior citizens’ Ladies Night dance, we scurried to the back of the warehouse and feasted our eyes on a chill as frick night club, complete with a dance floor that would soon serve as our one-way ticket to vulnerability (maybe not for my friend Abe though, since he’s practically a professional). Before I knew it, the art of salsa was setting my Midwestern hips on fire and we were dancing. A few Coronas later and on a scale from one to Enrique Iglesias music video, we were about an eight. (Very interested in what would’ve happened if tequila had been involved.)

Between the five of us, we got the distinct opportunity to dance with talented Latino strangers. Once you look the least bit alone at these salsa nights, older dancers will flock and ask for a dance. I was taking a break with my friend Connor when a very handsome guy appeared to my left, unaware of me but clearly partner-less and in need of my dancing abilities (I jest). My dear friend Connor gently (incessantly) encouraged me (shoved me into the guy) to ask the guy to dance. So without further calculation, the Shakira in me threw that mental TI-84 calculator to the wind and approached the dreamy guy and danced and danced and danced. The suave Mexico native, Patricio, was as nice as can be, teaching my apologetic but carefree self how to bachata and merengue dance, complete with a lovely Spanish accent. And let me tell you, it was fun.

Vulnerability, however uncomfortable or scary, can be a catalyst for growth and adventure and a ridiculously good time. Was I gung-ho to salsa dance an hour before we left? No. Just ask my friends. And as it turned out, by the end of the night Patricio found a much more talented and smooth dancing partner (I mean we all saw that coming and I ain’t even mad). But none of the fun or laughing would have happened if I hadn’t left that calculator at home and asked vulnerability to hit the dance floor.

 

Now go salsa with your Patricio, honey.

 

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Milwaukee’s newest salsa dancers.

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The Mountains are Calling and I can do Whatever the Heck I Want

My mom and I were talking about Pinterest the other day, which if you are not familiar with the site a) it’s basically a digital idea picture board and b) congratulations! You’ve probably spent your time exponentially more valuable than the rest of us. I was scrolling through my “quotes board,” identifying days of pinning when it appeared that I felt all was good in the world (“Good people bring out the good in people!”) and days when clearly something went awry (“Don’t be a lil sh*t”).

The world inundates us with so many different pieces of advice. Quotes are plastered on everything from magnets to bracelets to people’s bodies in form of tattoos. (Real quick: I think the reason why more people are getting tattoos these days is because you don’t see scary tiger tattoos as often as meaningful words, and moms and dads can’t really get mad at their kid for permanently inking John 3:16 on their wrist.) Brilliant people are constantly giving amazing speeches and writing poetry and songs that make us nod and say, “Yes. Screw it all, this is my MANTRA.”

We love to identify with certain quotes and words, thinking that somehow we uniquely align with a certain set of words. But it gets confusing because in a world of Beyoncé and Mr. Rodgers and Vince Lombardi, how the heck do we decide whose advice belongs in our personal bibles?! When both Abraham Lincoln and Tina Fey have proclaimed equally head-nodding and sometimes contradictory things, how do you know who to listen to?

I have a good sense of self, but when I was scrolling through my Pinterest board of quotes I couldn’t help but think, what do I really believe? Like, “Take a little coffee break” or “You’ll find me in the forest?” Quotes telling me to “Be soft” but at the same time I’m supposed to “Expect problems and eat them for breakfast.”

Henry David Thoreau is telling us to “Go confidently in the direction of our dreams,” while God is saying, “Be still and know that I am God.” So do I go or be still? God or Thoreau? (I know that’s quite a literal lens but for humor’s sake just entertain the juxtaposition.)

In order to stop my head from spinning I came to the conclusion that we are all different individuals who operate uniquely. I would hope that a police officer would live by different ideas and words than a surf instructor. I’m sure a yoga instructor would take softer quotes to heart than a professional BMX rider.

I guess they’re just little reminders anyway. We can take ‘em or leave ‘em.

 

But I must say I’d be perfectly fine if I never saw another “Keep Calm and _________” or Marilyn Monroe quote brandished on anything ever again.

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