Full Circle

If you’re reading this and want a laugh to kick off 2017, please know this:

I once created a Word document titled “Why I Suck Right Now.”

I kid you not. It was December 31, 2013, and I was home for Christmas break after a rocky first semester of college. Here’s the thing about first semesters of college: usually, they aren’t great, but everyone is trying to pretend like they didn’t just fumble thousands of dollars on a stressful, clunky semester of school. Either you lie about how college rocks so you can appear to be thriving or God loves you more than the rest of us and you met really great friends right away. Or your parents kept you on a four-foot leash your whole life and you partied so hard that you can’t remember if your first semester sucked or not.

I had too much momentum going after my senior year of high school and backpacking through Europe before leaving for college. I went from hiking through the Swiss Alps and drinking my first cappuccino in Italy and seeing the Pope in real life to failing my way through biology class and completely relying on my smarty-pants chemistry lab partners. I went from Italian wine, Münchner Weisse beer in Munich, and Parisian street gyros to Natty Light kegs and dining hall food. I had lost that momentum.

To give you a window into what lost momentum looks like, here are a just a few items from the “Why I Suck Right Now” list:

  • “I don’t have a job”
  • “I am a complete failure at biomedical science”
  • “Journalism might not get me any money”

Other items from my now-laughable downward spiral were less palatable, more absurd, and uncharacteristically negative. There is, however, a second page to this three-year-old document. The second page is titled “Why It’ll Get Better:”

  • “I’m ditching biomed science and switching to journalism”
  • “Which may be my dream”
  • “Especially if I can work for NBC” (ok lofty, I know, but lofty is good when you think you suck.)

And the bigger picture persisted:

  • “Nature changes but lives”
  • “I’m healthy”
  • “I can read and write”

 

I spent Friday morning at the healthcare office, waiting for an expert to treat my goopy cough, gunky throat, and sweaty, cold body. A delightful, older Indian doctor gently checked my symptoms and prescribed me medicine and–unbeknownst to him–inspiration. After asking about my schooling, I told him that my major was journalism. “Journalism!” He exclaimed, eyes lighting up. He then proceeded to tell me how smart journalists are, how they sometimes ask the best questions, and how integral (good, honest) journalists are to democracy.

He expressed a genuine awe at my major, something no one in the health field has ever voiced to me before. Certainly not my fellow peers back when I used to study biomedical sciences freshman year—in fact, their competitive nature and cutting remarks about all other majors in general played a huge factor in my despise for and switch from the biomedical realm.

Three years later, I have studied what I knew was my passion all along and graduated with a degree that gives marketable wings to my mission to write. I’m invigorated by the possibilities within reach as a writer–possibilities that naturally and eloquently align with and weave into my mission as a human, not just as a professional. It’s fun to shake hands with your gut instinct and invite her over for tea.

This doctor’s delight and praise and encouragement brought happy tears to my sallow eyes. Exactly three years ago I spit poison at myself–for supposedly “sucking,” for giving up the medical path. Little did I know, a much more enriching path awaited–a collection of unconnected dots that would create a much fuller circle. And wonderfully so, it would take a nasty case of sinusitis and an appreciative, praiseworthy doctor to clue me in.

 

PS. During my second semester of freshman year, some divine dots connected and I crossed paths with some of my soulmate friends–ten of whom I live with in a century-old house. They are some of the best people I have ever known and loved; if I knew back on December 31, 2013, that I would have met them, then this blog post and my dumb list would have never existed. (So if a lost, downtrodden freshman in college is reading this right now, keep the faith and once you get back to school, agree to go to McCormick Hall to meet your friend’s other crew of friends! It gets better!)

PPS. Shoutout to my good friend at Marquette, Jake, who shared this insight of connecting the dots with me: “You cannot connect your dots forwards, only backwards.” It has clearly stayed with me.

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A Reading from the Coloring Book According to Chance

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This past summer, my church was a cafeteria table.

My church was a downtown café in an unfamiliar neighborhood.

My church was the Monon Trail and my Sunday best featured a pair of Mizuno Wave Inspire runners.

My preacher of sorts was a talented, refreshing rapper from Chicago.

My homilies came in the form of 7- and 8- and 9-year-olds’ life stories.

And my prayer?

Maybe this.

I love my parish back home, where I received my First Communion, graduated eighth grade, sang in the children’s choir, where I’ve walked down the carpeted aisles since I was a little nugget, where I’ve fainted (along with both of my siblings), where my faith has evolved over two decades.

However, this summer I encountered Jesus in less formal settings and heard the Word through new channels. Through my headphones as I listened to Chance the Rapper’s “All We Got” while running on the Monon; through the voice of a ten-year-old boy as he told me how he recognized his parents’ weariness; through the early morning pep talks and power stances my mom exercised as she told my sister, “Repeat after me: I am STRONG! I am SMART! I can do ANYTHING!” (10/10 would recommend starting your day this way.)

A few weeks into the summer, I started my internship with the Indiana Writers Center, working with kids at the St. Florian summer camp. Around that time, my sister introduced me to Chance the Rapper (late to the party, I know). After writing with the kids at camp, I would post up at Calvin Fletcher’s Coffee Company and transcribe their stories—sometimes chuckling to myself, sometimes swallowing a heavy lump in my throat. These children shared their deepest feelings with me and unknowingly showed me a different corner of Indianapolis.

One day, while transcribing at Calvin Fletcher’s, I listened to Chance’s newest album “Coloring Book” approximately 20 times. After a spiritually charged but Mass-absent summer, I felt a twinge of Catholic guilt. But as I continued to listen to Chance’s album, I recognized and interpreted his words as a supplemental kind of spirituality. Certain lines stood out:

“I speak to God in public. I speak to God in public.”

 Public. Speaking to God isn’t limited to His house or a spiritual little corner in front of a cross because human beings are little walking vessels of God’s light. Wherever they are—an IPS school downtown, for example—God also is. “I am happy because I can still feel my grandmother in my heart,” wrote one of our young St. Florian writers, Justin. Speaking kindly and deeply to each other—loved ones and strangers and insightful, resilient kiddos alike—must be some kind of way of praying.

“Call me Mister Mufasa, I had master stampedes.”

I think of my small but mighty St. Florian friends, telling me their stories of mastering stampedes while mastering stampedes by telling their stories. A lot of young writers actually wrote about their resemblances to lions and lionesses because of their strength. My eight-year-old buddy Jeffrey wrote, “I was sad when my mom died and it happened 3 months ago. It was from breast cancer…At the funeral I told her, ‘I’ll see you later.’” Jeffrey still wrote, still smiled, still showed up and showed me what mastering stampedes at the age of 8 looked like. More recently, I think of close friends gracefully mastering stampedes of grief, overcoming metaphorical wildebeest with beyond-human strength.

“I think we mutual fans.”

I’d like to think God has a sense of humor—that he delights in us—and if God listens to music, I have no doubt he’s a Chance fan. I also think He roots for us in our accomplishments. It’s a pretty fun thing to imagine God with a foam finger, cheering us on from the stands, as we approach the batter’s box in this crazy game of life.

“I got angels all around me, they keep me surrounded.”

I’m not sure how or when it started, but my roommates and I have fallen into the natural habit of calling each other angels. Never before in my life have I felt so aware of the angelic humans surrounding me both at school and home. My St. Florian angels still surround me with their words sitting on my dresser at school and the sweet imprint they left on my life. Sometimes when I wear my glasses at school, I chuckle and think of my little St. Florian friend Lauren: “I don’t like your glasses,” she once told me, “I can’t see your face well.”

There’s no way for me to know Chance’s intentions when he wrote these lines. I learned in one of my journalism arts reporting classes this semester that you don’t have to be an opera aficionado to have a valid opinion of a performance; if you experience the art and if it moves you, then you have the right to feel a certain way about it. I don’t mean to compartmentalize his reach or message either; his songs can land on different ears and still perform.

Chance raps real words without the pedestal, praise without the shame, with equal parts optimism and strength and humor and cool. He’s the only radio companion that could appropriately suit both a Friday night and a Sunday morning. “Coloring Book” hit me at a time when I needed God’s message through a different channel—and some new sick beats for my running playlist.

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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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