twenty-two essays on growing up Cover
Other books by Grace Leuenberger None, actually. I hope my first attempt into this mysterious art is only a taste of what is to come. It should be noted thought that when I was six, I did author a series of one page picture books titled The One, the totality of which you can find in a Keds shoebox up in my familyâ€™s attic.
twenty-two essays on growing up
A Grove City College Honors Project Department of Communication Studies and Visual Arts
I am a writer who came of a sheltered life. A sheltered life can be a daring life as well. For all serious daring starts from within. â€”EUDORA WELTY
TABLE OF CONTENTS Introduction | 9 Stories | 13 Behind the Click | 20 Anticipation | 26 One of Those Moments | 32 Being the Baby | 39 Dreams Part 1 | 45 Expectation | 52 Uninspired | 60 The Question Mark | 64 Dreams Part 2 | 70 I Am a Designer | 76 Catch | 82 My Education | 87 Good Grief | 92 Pittsburgh | 98 Twenty-Two | 106 Acknowledgements | 110
Memory is the diary we all carry about with us. —Oscar Wilde
I never have had a diary. I used to always want to have a diary, because it seemed like any and all literary characters had a diary. Anne Frank, the mentally ill woman in The Yellow Wallpaper, and of course any one of Jane Austen’s heroines. Resolving to become more like my literary role models, I became a collector of blank diaries. My elementary school craft box was littered with a small collection of them: one with a group of golden retriever puppies on the cover, another with a little silver key and lock, and one diary to rule them all: the diary I bought from Walmart with my allowance money which came with a “secret invisible ink” pen and de-coding black light. It fell into the same category of early-2000s-cool as light-up shoes, inflatable couches, and embroidered jean shorts. That diary made me feel like I was the envy of all other fourth graders who aspired to write in diaries. However, despite my intentions to use them up and join the ranks of past and present diary-writers, each and every one of
them sat unused, and eventually were sold at a family garage sale. I could never bring myself to write in the diaries. I think I worried that one of my brothers would find them, and would discover all my dark fourth-grade secrets. I couldn’t have them finding out that last Tuesday I had eaten from the bag of chocolate chips while mom was in the basement doing laundry, and that that I also threw a crayon at Richie Klumph during Social Studies class while Miss Clarke wasn’t looking. Looking back, I guess I didn’t even have secrets to hide, and I knew that. I think the real reason the diaries sat blank is because I didn’t want to write the wrong thing in them. I’m not interesting enough. I don’t know what to say. No one cares anyway. In this fear of worrying about writing the wrong thing, I wrote nothing at all. Over the years I’ve come to see how I still have those small doubts that I did back in fourth grade. I am still scared to say something stupid, to do the wrong thing. I still find myself to be tied up by the opinions of others and by my own doubts, so much so that I can’t and don’t move forward. Over a decade has passed since I bought my first diary. I think now is a good time to make good on my wish to take up the habit I had so long admired. It is time to messy up the blank pages, and not worry so much about writing the wrong thing, of people thinking I’m silly or weird or stupid. Looking forward, I don’t want to proceed in life with the same overly-cautious attitude that left so many of those diaries blank in the bottom of my elementary craft box. I don’t want to always prepare, but never get out there and try. I don’t want my life story to be a set of blank pages about all the things I could have done, but never 10
did. As my twenty-second year begins, I don’t want to be that way anymore. I want to spill the beans, write about it all, make up lost time and prove myself wrong. So here we are, at the start of a book of essays. These are the stories of being and becoming 22. I am committing to write this book of essays you hold in your hands even though I might write the wrong thing. Even though it will have grammatical errors that may make you cringe. Even though it will be hard along the way, even though people might hate it or never read it, even though and because it scares me. There is more to write, uncover, create, and maybe there is someone out there who will stumble upon the words on the page and think, “What! You too? I thought I was the only one…” Now is the time for me to put my pen to the page, make mistakes, and accept that this whole thing is way more about the process than it is about the product. Within this book are essays I wrote over a period of a year —my senior year of college. Some came easier than others, and I’m beginning to learn that I cannot force myself to write about something unless the story is truly writing itself on my heart. It sounds cheesy, but I can truly only write from a place where my soul comes alive and words are the only way to capture the moment, work through the pain, express feelings, paint a picture that, until now, has been stuck inside my head. Otherwise, I sit at my desk, disdaining this craft, bitter at both myself and at language, something that can be so beautiful yet so frustrating when words need to come and simply will not. The stories you’ll find here are stories about baseball and snow pants and blogs about relationships, concerts and babies and brothers and dreams. About growing up. Many of them 11
involve an old story—a narrative I can’t seem to not find woven through the tapestry that is the narrative of this life I’m living. Within is my own little postage stamp of native soul, as William Faulkner said, one I am trying to discover and write about. So here we go. I’ve got 22 years worth of blank diaries to fill, secrets to spill, memories to recall. This is Twenty-Two.
All serious daring starts from within. —Eudora Welty
After I set the goal of writing this book that you hold in your hands, I began daydreaming about what my foray into essay writing would be like. I thought of lattés, tweed skirts, of mornings and afternoons spent writing wonderful essays that captured the essence of existence. I imagined that I would wake up as the sun was rising and walk to the local coffee shop (while wearing my tweed skirt), where I’d order said latté and write one or two essays that took me on a grand journey of personal discovery. I began to imagine hypothetical scenarios in which fellow customers in the coffee shop would ask me about my book of essays, after which my response would be to roll my eyes at them, laugh like the way Julia Roberts laughs in all her movie trailers, and then pontificate on the grand journey of personal discovery that I was on. Shortly after I stopped daydreaming and actually began this book, I realized that my foray into essay writing was not the hipster-fantasy dream I had imagined. Instead of finding myself in a really hip coffee shop wearing a slimming tweed skirt, I instead 13
found myself sitting on a saggy couch in a pair of sweatpants I got in junior high. When my daydreaming was interrupted by reality, I found that producing wonderful essays that capture the essence of existence is rather difficult when it so happens that the most interesting thing you’ve done during your week was make a trip to Home Depot for heavy-duty, all-purpose primer. Suddenly and quickly, my illusion of what the writing process would be like imploded and I began to wonder why I decided to write a book of personal essays about my life. What was I thinking?! I was thinking things along these lines: I’ve never lived in a foreign country, never marched in a protest, never had my heart broken. I was raised in a few smalls towns in a landlocked state, I went to college twenty minutes away from my hometown, and my social life often resembles that of a seventy-five year old woman more than a twenty-one year old college student. I definitely should have decided to write something fictional instead. Maybe I should have done that, because at least I could have made up interesting things and no one would’ve questioned my integrity, right?! After having an argument with myself about this tragic mistake of choosing the wrong genre to write in, I began to become jealous of fiction writers, envying their ability to construct the outcome of conversations and the plot of the day, their ability to craft the lives and looks and personalities of their cast of characters with a simple keystroke. And here I was. I thought about great writers, and how their interesting lives were probably the reason they were such good authors, so widely read. They probably never wrote in sweatpants! Why couldn’t I be more like them? 14
I thought about writers like Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds, Oscar Wilde. They lived the kind of lives where they rode wild horses bareback, ate smoked salmon off of golden spoons, and kissed the Prime Minister of France’s niece at a party on the island of Monte Carlo. Their adventurous, cinematic existences gave way to writing that is sparkling, vibrant, and inflicts their readers with an acute case of wanderlust. I even thought about Dickinson, the Brontes, and Jane Austen. They lived the kind of lives that were beautiful because they were tragic; their poetic, Shakespearean existences inspired a kind of writing that stirred and softened the hearts of thousands. Both camps of authors had life stories that were remarkable in their own way, and produced a collection of works laced with the rich experiences required for compelling storytelling. And my life? Not so much. I was no Hemingway or Dickinson, and the story of my life did not produce the kind of material that would compel a reader, unless that reader was the kind of person who liked reading dishwasher manuals. As I sat there in my stretched out navy blue sweatpants and reflected on my week—a week of trips to Home Depot and walks around the block alone with my dog—my existence seemed neither cinematic nor Shakespearean, but boring, plain, dull. The way I saw it, the nature of my existence was the nail-in-the-coffin of any writing career I had ever dreamed of before I even started this project. I regretted my mistake: assuming my life would make for an interesting subject matter for me to write about. When I picked this project, I hoped that the life circumstance I was in—senior year of college—would lend itself interesting material to write about and work with. After all, my age/stage in life was that where 15
I could live the kind of life that would most closely resemble that of the exciting and interesting writers whose biographies I had grown to envy. I started going to college events and dorm-room gatherings with a notebook in my pocket, ready to capture the interesting moments. I hypothesized that this strategy of living was what any good writer would employ, and expected that compelling prose would emerge out of the enthralling interactions I would experience. But living in this way quickly made my days feel more like research and less like life. The “interesting” memories I was trying to make something out of were nothing to me—they didn’t matter, didn’t stick. Instead, a collection of stories—stories which served as inspiration for many of the essays in this little book— began to form not when I was ready for them to happen, not when my notebook was at hand and my writer’s ear was attune to pithy dialogue. The stories here formed on regular days while I was wearing regular clothes with regular people. At first glance, these stories did not appear to have the makings of anything worth writing down. Yet. Yet, somewhere along the way, they became the moments that mattered most to me. They are ones I want to hold on to as these four years of college end and a new age begins, the ones I want to tell and am telling now, the ones I have written and you are reading. Many of us think our stories aren’t worth telling because they contain neither a soiree nor a grand heartbreak. When someone asks us how our day was, or what our plans for after graduation are, we wish our storyline included more sparkle, shine, jazz music, dirty martinis, and handsome men. We wish for a life like Hemingway’s, or at least not the one we have right now. 16
We flip through magazines, thumb our way through Instagram, scroll through websites and wonder why and how the hand of cards we were dealt have made this life into what it is and not what we see other people experience. Where’s my good hair? My happy, handsome fiancé? My new SUV? My cute kids who say cute things? Where? Why? How? I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to keep asking these questions. I don’t want to keep wishing I had somebody else’s life, keep buying into that mentality that I’m missing out and I’m about as interesting as beige paint. I want to stop believing that lies are actually truth. I want to dwell in appreciation for reality, not lust after images that aren’t even real, wish for a life I was not created to live. All around us exist moments that are worth our attention, moments that are asking to be remembered that we didn’t even know we forgot about. You don’t need a latte or a tweed skirt or a project goal to begin practicing a posture of appreciation, a habit of contemplative reflection. You don’t need something exciting to happen to you to sit down and write a blog, to call a friend and share, to write a letter to that old professor. The ordinary existences we experience RIGHT NOW are really full of extraordinary moments: there’s grand excitement in your friend’s baby announcement, adventure in your day as at stay-at-home mom, vibrance on your walk around the block. Can you see it? Within each of us exist a whole host stories of rejection and failure and doubts but also of triumph and perseverance and hope: these are the REAL stories people need to hear. Will you tell them?
I feel certain that time and distance will reveal our narratives to be so much greater than the one we see right now. By recognizing the value our present, ordinary existences contain and deciding to share the stories of them with those around us, we not only have the opportunity to look back and reflect on our own lives, but help others see the value in their own lives and stories as well. The more we share with each other, the more we can to begin to see the grander narrative, the one we often can’t see with these mortal eyes, capture with these mortal words, hear with these mortal ears. We begin to see that at the core of each of our narratives exists a grander narrative, one whose themes of grace and hope and faith and love wants to weave itself into the fabric of all of humanity and cannot not be told. This spring, I read the memoir of Eudora Welty, a novelist who wrote about the American South. Welty’s memoir, One Writer’s Beginnings, chronicles the stories of her childhood, document how her interest in storytelling was discovered over time. The memoir is lovely, brimming with stories of an ordinary existence told with an awareness of the beauty of such an existence. One passage in the memoir that resonated with me said this: ”As you have seen, I am a writer who came of a sheltered life. But a sheltered life can be a daring life as well. For all serious daring starts from within.” Writing this book is about rediscovering beauty that has been lost, or as Welty says it, “discovering sequence in experience, of stumbling upon cause and effect in the happenings of a writer's own life.” As I move forward and write more essays, I am pledging to stop daydreaming about what this book could be or should be or would be if I was different or the 18
circumstance was different. I want to stop wishing for a more exciting story, stop daydreaming for a place that doesnâ€™t exist, stop wishing for a different life. I want to dare from within. I want to make the most of the world I am a part of, of this experience I am living that is unique from everyone elseâ€™s that has ever lived and will ever live. I want to live into the narrative the Grand Author has for me, the writer whose pen never runs dry and whose creativity is never-ending, the one who wrote the story of time itself. I want to write an essay about that.
BEHIND THE CLICK
I wish, as well as everybody else, to be perfectly happy; but, like everybody else, it must be in my own way. —Jane Austen
A few months ago, I wrote a blog titled You’re Single And It’s Going To Be Okay. I typed it up late in the evening in my dorm room, my long legs cramped underneath a particle board desk that was obviously made for someone who wasn’t five foot ten. My toes tingled from the sensation of falling asleep while my fingers hastily typed words onto the page in an insistent rhythm of efficiency. The whole spectacle—and yes it must have looked like a spectacle to my roommate—was precipitated by a conversation with a sophomore friend about the pressure she was feeling to meet and date someone at our college. “It’s just really hard,” she said. After she said that, I knew it was time to share my viewpoint with my college community about this very topic. Three years had passed, three years of singleness and a strange kind of silence on that singleness; it was time to break the quiet. After I had finished writing, I hit the little blue button that said PUBLISH, posted a link to my social media accounts, and 20
behind the click
pried my legs out from underneath the desk. I laid my head on my pillow, finally still—my mind was anything but that. Thoughts raced and buzzed through my head: loud, fast, and unrelenting. The courage that seemed to have come with each keystroke had faded, and doubt replace her. I began to wonder if I had done the right thing. Had I shared too much? Had I not said the right thing? Had I made a mistake? Eventually my mind quieted down, and I drifted off to sleep. When I awoke in the morning, something had happened in the quiet of the night that I had not expected: the post was getting a lot of attention. By 9 AM, over 200 people had read the blog, and by that evening, the number rose to over 700. Friends and friends-of-friends were liking, commenting, and sharing the post, and the audience expanded further than I ever anticipated. Since I was used to getting maybe 20 people per post I published, this particular entry stuck out as the far the most-read thing I had ever written. As the day went on, I began to think about the why, the how, the who. Who was behind the likes, the comments, the views, about the person who decided to click? Why would so many people would care to read what I had to say? Who was behind the click? I wondered if they had also clicked on articles like 10 Ways To Be Irresistible to Your Crush and 10 Qualities Every Woman is Looking For in a Husband. You know the articles: shared all across Facebook, hosted on platforms from Cosmopolitan to Christianity Today. Whether they’re packaged in sex or camouflaged in an often misleading brand of spirituality, I’d guess that people click on these articles because they think the advice therein can solve a problem they have: the problem of 21
their singleness. If you do a quick Google search for “Christian dating advice,” you come up with four million hits. That’s a whole lot of clicks. Most of these hits, I’d venture to say, are helping those searching for a solution. They spell out lists and strategies for the Christian young woman or man to take matters into their own hands in order to find that love at long last. They preach a message of hope in the belief that soon, and very soon, the problem of singleness can and will be solved, and the reader will find love. At their worst, they encourage the reader that the terrible affliction of singleness will one day end with a kiss from a person who has the looks, personality, and godliness that made the wait worth it. These articles are candy: addictive, sugary, eventually sickening. I have fallen for these articles so many times. I’ve been the person who clicks on the blogs about dating because I was searching for some kind of comfort and some kind of solution to what others told me was a problem. Behind those clicks, I guessed, were people who I used to be like—people who had also been asked these same questions: • Are you worried about being single the rest of your life? • If you don’t date at this college, aren’t you afraid you might never meet anyone ever that you could marry? • Are you 100% committed to Jesus? It’s not until then that you can find the right man. • Does it make you sad to be single? Questions like these don’t just fade with time, they often 22
behind the click
stick around, causing people who seem so strong and content to to transform into prisoners trapped by loneliness and doubt they never intended to become. When single people are asked questions like these, it can be very easy for them to search for the truth in all the wrong places. They want a solution, but refuse to believe that the solution is to recognize that singleness is not a problem. Unfortunately, many of these solution-seekers live in a community where people view singleness as just that: a problem. In a community like this, the truth couldn’t be more needed. Because it doesn’t have be so hard. As I considered further who who was behind the click, who was viewing the blog, I also thought about the people who aren’t like me who must have clicked. After all, those 700 views couldn’t have come from just single women at my college. I’m not sure who all clicked, but I know the guy sitting next to me in my history class did (yeah, I saw you), as well as alum who has his own stories from his time here, and even my friend who got married last summer. Why did they click? Maybe they were hopeful it was a controversial exposé (sorry to disappoint) or maybe because they actually wanted to hear my side of the story. Only they can answer why they clicked. I’m glad they did, because I didn’t just write the blog for the single, young women out there, the ones I was pretty sure would click. I wrote it for single people, dating people, engaged people, married people, and divorced people. All these people have something in common: they need to hear the truth about a topic that so many people obsess over, a truth that my favorite author, Shauna Niequist said so well: we are significant with or without a significant other. 23
behind the click
This statement is so important for everyone in our society to grasp, a society that Shanua Niequist calls out for being “weirdly obsessed with romance and couples and being part of a matched set.” It important for the person in a happy relationship who needs to remember that their pathway to happiness isn’t the only way. It’s also important for the person in an unhappy relationship to hear from a voice that isn’t their legalistic parents telling them that the concept of courtship is the 11th commandment and that if they don’t follow it, they won’t be welcomed home for Christmas. It’s important for the girl who has been told her personality was too strong to attract a man, and for the guy who has been pressured that he needs to change his career and hobbies in order to become “ideal husband material.” It’s important for the mentors who view singles as less than, one half of a not-yet-formed couple, and youth group leaders who need to stop saying that Jesus is their boyfriend. I hope all these people clicked, that they realized that singleness is not a problem, not an affliction, not a curse. I hope that they realized that as the world spins madly on— full of married people, divorced people, dating people, and single people— they stand in the crowd and still retain their value regardless of their relationship status, what questions people ask them or how people view them because of their answers to those questions. At the end of that day when I published my blog post on singleness, I sat down at my desk in the quiet of the evening and I clicked, too. I read the words again: I am significant with or without a significant other. I began to substitute in my own phrases: with or without a deep bank account, with or without a job, with or without toned abs, with or without a large social 24
circle, with or without blog views, with or without the things I define myself by. As I felt tears welling up, I realized that I written that blog for myself as much as I had written it for any of the others who had read it that day. I needed to be revived by the truth that there are no stipulations to my dignity or value as a person. I needed to remember that I do not need to live in fear, shame, doubt, and confusion because of my social, professional, economic, educational, or relational status and standing. I needed to reflect on the fact that I do not have to wait to travel somewhere, write something, or meet someone in order for my life to start. I needed to read about how and why I do not have to buy into this idea that love is earned, and that I to have tick a set of society-set boxes in order to be happy. All this time I thought I was preaching to the church when really I was preaching to the bathroom mirror. That’s the funny thing about writing; we think we’re doing it for others, but really, writing is much more of a process of self-discovery and exploration than it is anything else, a way of working through the thoughts that have been silenced in our minds, the ones that need to be let out. So I guess I’ll keep writing, keep on typing the words on the page, keep on letting out the thoughts that are up there in this funny brain of mine. And at the end of the day, people might read what I’ve written out, or they might never. Either way, I know at least one person has been helped through it all. She’s a person that has clicked on the wrong thing before, read those stupid articles, rejected the truth, embraced the lies. I write for her.
Sorrow looks back, Worry looks around, Faith looks up. —Ralph Waldo Emerson
Tomorrow I go back to college for my last semester. I’m sitting here in my bedroom, looking at my piles of clothes, toiletries, and shoes, and am making a mental list of all the jobs I’d be qualified for if I just dropped out right now. “I could hike the Appalachian Trial! I could work at Starbucks! I could become an Extreme Couponer!” As much as I want to be excited for this these final months of school, as much as I want to make the best of the time I have left, I sort of feel like that kid on the first day of kindergarten who has to be pried out of his mother’s mini-van against his will while kicking and screaming like his life depended on it. The only difference in my situation is that I no longer wear velcro sneakers and clothes my mom bought for me at OshKosh. For a person who has moved four times, you would think I’d be better at nights like these, that I’d be great at handling times of transition and change. But as it turns out, the anticipation of the unknown has never been a friend of mine. I’ve always been 26
this way, finding the comfort of the present preferable to the mystery of the future. When I was five, I didn’t want to go to Sam’s Club because I didn’t know what it was, so I hid behind the couch from my mom while anticipating that I was protecting myself from what surely would be an excruciatingly boring outing. (It turns out Sam’s Club was kid heaven—free food samples around every corner, boxes and boxes of Fun Dip sold in packs of 500, etc.) When I was eight, I cried and cried and told my mom I could never go to college because didn’t know what it would be like, and I didn’t know how to do my own hair. Because of this, I (naturally) anticipated that the whole college experience it would be awful beyond compare. And when I was sixteen, I first experienced “the eye-twitch,” the ultimate physical manifestation of my mind and body’s inability to manage the anticipation and anxiety of the unknown. The eye twitch first came out to play during the days leading up to a mission trip I went on to Guatemala. I was so nervous anticipating my first trip on an airplane, speaking Spanish, traveling to a country I didn’t know much about. In these kind of situations, some people get a sinking feeling in their stomach, or are unable to sleep, but I have blessed with the spastic eye twitch. And I don’t say blessed sarcastically or stereotypically; I genuinely feel grateful to this physical response my body uses to indicate that the anticipation of the unknown is overtaking me and getting out of hand. I view the eye twitch as a warning sign that I need to take care of myself, that my emotions need checked, that something needs to be done. The moment my eye twitch makes her presence known, I recognize that it’s time to alter the course, because this plane is about to crash. 27
A couple days ago, I felt it again: the eye twitch. And what was I doing? Making a to-do list, my own self-prescribed remedy for tackling the anticipation of the unknown that was weighing so heavily on me. I thought making a to-do list would be a helpful exercise, a way to make good use of my time. So there I was, making my to-do list thinking: Making lists is a good use of my time! Making a list is not unreasonable! I am a strong woman, and this list is great! Watch out future, because here I come! I sure have got my shit together! But then the bullet points got longer and longer, the page length increased by the minute, my worry began to pile on top of me as I dug myself deeper and deeper into a hole, the anticipation of the future weighing so heavily on me that my body could no longer handle it. I sat there at my desk that is much too small for my long legs and my eye twitched again and again. It turns out I didn’t have my shit together. In fact, in making that list, I realized how unhealthy my coping mechanisms are, how deeply I need lifted out of the pit I dig myself into time and time again, how utterly incapable I am to relieve my anxiety about the unknown by my own sheer will. That to-do list was supposed to be the way I would dig myself out of my pit of worry, the way I would conquer and defeat the anticipation of the unknown which is an ever-present companion in this season of life. It would be the way I would expel the thoughts, calm my mind, remedy the anxiety. But it turns out that my concoction to relieve my nervousness— rationality and planning—was poison, not the elixir of life like I hoped it would be. While some days we need a list to provide structure in the chaos, what I needed then was to put down the pen and step back and realize I was in deep and needed help 28
getting out of the mess I’d made. I know so many people who are like me, ignoring our bodies—the eye twitches, the tension headaches, the lack of appetite, the sheer exhaustion—and not seeing that these physical signs are God’s way of warning us that we are beings with physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual needs who are not sustainable on our own. That we need a hand to lift us up from all the down there. It can be so hard for me to slow down, to admit that I can’t do everything on my own, to extend my hand and cry out for help. For all those perfectionists out there, (and those who haven’t yet admitted you are a perfectionist) we know that we ignore the signs, the warnings, the sirens, the lifelines from those who have noticed our masochistic lifestyle. We’ve gotten quite good at ignoring the flashing red light, calling off the search-andrescue crew. We’ve learned how to keep our noses to the ground, eyes on the prize, minimize the pain and maximize the profit: we map out our days to be efficient producers, great achievers, to-do list aficionados. Hustle becomes the name of our the game. And why? Because society tells us that this kind of lifestyle is good; a lifestyle of to-do lists and a whole lot of hustling is what will get us ahead and help us become the kind of person that people respect and admire. After all, if we hustle, the future won’t make us so anxious! Hustle is the answer, the remedy, the solution, the antidote. Society preaches that hustle is the means by which any situation will become “better.” Often times though, this notion of better isn’t actually better. Within the prescribed boundaries of better, we find a life plan that focuses on bigger and greater and faster instead of humble and content and patient. This pursuit of 29
better causes a dad to skip family dinner because he believes he has to be promoted in order to be the best dad he can be. This pursuit of better causes a mother to spend more hours feeling like a bad mom more than a perfectly good one because her toddler only likes to eat Cheetos at play group instead of organic Kale chips. This pursuit of better causes a college student to cry on every phone call home because she can’t seem to get to the end of her to-do list. All these people are trying to better, but when they lay their head on the pillow after a long day of hustling, the standard that they and others have prescribed in this plan they are calling life is neither great nor enough. It is empty and exhausting. Tonight as I sit on my bed look at my piles of clothes, toiletries, and shoes, I am exhausted at trying to be better. I am exhausted of making to-do lists. I am exhausted with this stupid eye-twitch. I am ready to re-define what is better, and what it looks like to make the best of my time at college. I am ready to slow down and let myself say no to hustle and yes to simplicity. I’m ready to stop laughing at the campus joke that “my best isn’t good enough since 1876” because I want to be content in the fact and truth that my best is good enough even if it isn’t the best of the best. I am ready to not hide behind a brave face, to not keep my nose the ground, to admit to people that I don’t actually have my shit together. To begin actually believing the truth instead of pretending to. Tomorrow I’ll drive North to finish college, to see about rewriting the definition of better. I know it will be overwhelming, and the cafeteria will seem noisy, and the people will all seem strangely happy. I know the anticipation of the unknown will seem 30
all-consuming at times, that I’ll want to make mental lists and physical lists, and propose hypothetical jobs that I could get if I dropped out. And I know that I will probably find myself at the bottom of the pit I so easily dig for myself to fall in to. But hope that I will remember these words I’ve put down on this page, the lifeline that will save me from myself. For the first time in seven semesters, I hope that this time I’ll finally believe that my best is good enough, that I am enough even when I am not good. I hope that I’ll remember that the greatest man who walked this earth wasn’t a maker of to-do lists. His best wasn’t good enough in the eyes of man, but in the eyes of the One who mattered, His life was enough to save the entirety of humanity. I’ll put my trust in the one whose best has and always been good enough since the beginning of time.
ONE OF THOSE MOMENTS
Beautiful music is the art of the prophets that can calm the agitations of the soul; it is one of the most magnificent and delightful presents God has given us. —Martin Luther
This summer, I was introduced to the enterprise of adulthood. Sure, it was technically my fourth year in the business, but this summer it felt official. Firm handshake-official, pencil skirtofficial, throw-away-my-velcro-wallet-official. Waking up at 5:20 AM five days a week to catch a bus to the city wasn’t just a taste of adulthood: it was a twelve course meal that left me feeling like I was so full that I could burst. Most days I felt like a kid playing dress up, like the adults would discover that I actually wasn’t so sure of myself and finally the jig would be up. It was only a matter of time before they would also somehow discover that at Christmas Eve I still read T’was the Night Before Christmas to myself before going to sleep. The shame! The horror! Don’t get me wrong, I loved my job this summer, and I felt like adulthood often suited me, but sometimes when I got on that bus with the seat coverings that looked like the 32
one of those moments
carpet of a roller-skating rink, I would inevitably ask myself, â€œWhat the hell am I doing?!â€? As summer went on, something changed. I woke up at 5:20 AM happy, joyful, and excited. Why? I suppose part of it was that I got to know and really like my job, and that I got through a beginning-of-summer-slump. But as time has revealed, a big part of this change in my attitude was a playlistâ€”a playlist of songs that greeted me on the bus each morning and accompanied me on my elevator ride up thirty-one floors and met me again on the way home as the P76 wound through the hills of Pittsburgh. The songs of my summer nudged me towards an understanding that joy and freedom and inspiration can come from a source I never saw coming: a killer banjo solo, a poignant piano piece, and a genius lyric. As the summer went on and I continued to stand on a cramped bus in heels at the end of a tiring day of trying to be an adult, the playlist of that season played through my my headphones, and I felt like I could make it. I felt like I was right where I was supposed to be. In this season, I began to think more about why music was such an inspiring force, why music mattered, how it had the ability to tell a story in a powerful and compelling way. I experienced that music had a way of opening up a space in my soul, of making the ordinary seem so much more special, of making the sensation of growing up a little less scary. Playing it through my headphones as walked down the street transformed the sidewalk into a runway. Playing it through my stereos as I gathered with friends transformed my dorm room into the dance floor. Sharing it with someone I loved strengthened the bond we had, while sharing it with someone new transformed a stranger into a new friend. 33
The summer went on and I got the chance to see one of my favorite artists live in concert. I drove out of the city and found myself in a field with hundreds of others, hair frizzy, clothing damp from the humidity of that July night, Keds caked with mud. At one point in the concert, I took a break from singing along to survey the crowd. What I saw were hundreds of faces looking up, some at the sky, some at the stage, some at the person next to them, but all with this realized look as if to say, “This is one of those moments.” And it was—it was one of those moments—the kind you want to collect to experience over and over again. It was one of those moments when I felt like the stranger beside me was my brother, but the only thing we shared in common was this song. It was one of those moments where I felt both happy and sad, because I knew that this moment wouldn’t and couldn’t last forever. It was one of those moments where I surrendered to that paradox and embraced that this moment and this life is temporal, but the temporality has a way of magnifying the beauty. That night left me hopeful, excited, and more aware than ever about the inspiration that music could provide. For the first time I realized what a concert could do, the power that music really had. It was a lesson I was just beginning to uncover, just beginning to dip my toes in to. After the humidity had blown away and I traded my bus pass for my bicycle and the city streets for college sidewalks, I l returned to the city of Pittsburgh for another concert. This time it was for a folk artist named Sufjan Stevens. We packed the seats at an old and beautiful concert hall, 2,000 strong. We were college students majoring in Biology, high school marching band members, mothers and fathers who left their kids with babysitters 34
one of those moments
for the evening, grandparents with Paul Simon on vinyl. We filed through the doors of the grand auditorium, wondering what the night would hold with Sufjan Stevens, a man that many wrote off on his last tour as bizarre and even indulgent. That night, SufjanStevens-the-actor didn’t show up, the real one did—the one who isn’t a music god or a folk icon, but a normal man who struggles the same as you and me. His talent was raw, his music undeniably compelling. The feelings towards music I’d experienced in the summer all came rushing back. Much of the show left me speechless and teary, glued to my seat and coming face-to-face with a real man who had experienced real pain, coming face-to-face with my own doubts and fears just the same as him. My friend Nate said that good artists like Sufjan Stevens invite us to perceive the world through the eyes of another person and “help us understand life in a way that we may not have ever arrived at through our own experience.” At his concert, Sufjan brought people of all walks of life together, and for that night, we all were able to celebrate beauty and truth through the eyes of a person whose life has been colored in a different way than mine. As we all sat there, surrounded by sound, we were people of all walks of life that found ourselves united and peaceful, a state which isn’t common in this day in age. It was one of those moments again—the kind of moments that earth feels like heaven, where the boundaries disappear, where truth reigns and beauty prevails. All because of music. When Sufjan came on stage for the encore, he broke his silence and spoke the crowd, thanking us for being there and for listening to an album that is mostly about him working through 35
the weight of grief and the weight of his own existence. He talked about living with “open eyes and open hearts,” about sharing the burden of our doubts and struggles with others, and about the beauty of the concert as a shared experience between the artist and the listener. I left that concert this time with an awareness of the transformative, relational power of music, of the peace it could bring. I saw with fresh eyes a new perspective on the burdens each of us bring to a concert and carry in life with a new found hope of the encore to follow. The concert closed with a hip hop song, and I’m sure many thought it was just another weird Sufjan thing. But it felt like much more than that; it felt like a celebration that life goes on, that this life is hard but it’s okay to be silly and laugh and be joyful in the midst of the weightiness of existence. It’s okay to dance, sing along, buy expensive concert tickets because we all need more chances for celebration in this journey, whether we are musicians playing for huge crowds, college students majoring in Biology, high school marching band members, mothers and fathers, or grandparents. That concert, just like the one I’d attended in back July, was a testament to the miracle of music, and the joy of creativity, the power of community. When the song stops playing, when the needle comes to the end of the record, when the concert is over, it is true that nothing in our lives has probably changed...at least to the eyes of the spectators and bystanders around us. We come to a concert with “tattered, frayed edges of our souls needing mending,” with hearts “broken and in need of gentle healing,” writes my friend Sarina. But after the concert, she says, “nothing in our lives has changed in the externals. We still have work pressures and 36
one of those moments
household chores and parenting anxieties. But we walk home in the dark—fingers laced together—refreshed and hopeful.” Something inside of us changes when we experience truly great art. It’s as Martin Luther wrote: “Next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world.” — In 2014 there was a documentary made called Alive Inside, which explores the ability of music to mend the frayed edges of our souls, to reawaken parts of us that were once lost. The film documents the work of Dan Cohen, the founder of a nonprofit called Music and Memory, which promotes the use of music therapy in the lives of those affected by Alzheimer’s and dementia. One clip from the film showing Cohen and a ninetythree year old patient of his named Henry Dryer went viral, racking up ten million views on YouTube. The clip shows Henry, an Alzheimer’s patient in a nursing home, transformed from a largely unresponsive and bitter person into an awakened and energized one as he listens to his favorite artist, Cab Calloway, via an iPod that Cohen provided. The film shows experiences like this again and again, detailing how music can heal and restore in ways that medication cannot. This is a powerful message to consider, an even more powerful one to witness. Music contends with the suffering of this life, and brings back memories we’ve lost. It creates new memories and moments to hold on to. It provides restoration, joy, and hope to those who find their days to be much too quiet and much too lonely. It mends our tattered edges, and begins to bring a joyful noise into a life filled with both deafening chaos and deafening silence. It creates experiences where where hearts may begin to soften, 37
where minds and souls come together begin to change for the better, where healing can come. Music is for everyone. It heals. It enlightens. It celebrates. Music matters. You know that, the homeless man on the side of the street knows that, the priest in his pulpit knows that. There’s something about music that shakes our bones, stops us in our tracks, alludes to the beauty of eternity while magnifying the magnificence of the present. Music inspires me to create, dream big, raise my hands in praise, fall in my knees in prayer, live and pursue a more vibrant life. Last summer, it made me hopeful, helped me when my edges felt a little frayed and when my soul needed to be refreshed. Inevitably there are days ahead where my edges will fray once more, where I’ll ask again “What the hell am I doing?!” But then I’ll get up out of bed, head out into the sunrise, slip on my headphones, and turn up the volume. Melody, harmony, dissonance, and resolution will meld together to make a song, a song that makes me want to dream big and live well, a song that reminds me that out of the ordinary arises the beautiful, the remarkable, extraordinary. A song that transports me somewhere, a song that brings me home, a song that is the melody for this age, the soundtrack of this story, the anthem for this life.
BEING THE BABY
Existence seems to me now the most remarkable thing that could ever be imagined. —Marilynne Robinson
On April 15th, 1994 I was born in a little hospital in Greenville, PA, a small town in rural Mercer County. It was tax day, and it was also the 82nd anniversary of when the Titanic sunk, but that’s a morbid point for what was otherwise a fairly exciting occasion. On April 15th, 1994, my brothers were at boy scout camp, my mom was trying to have a baby, and her obstetrician was wanting to buy a new minivan. Fortunately, the boys didn’t make it for the labor and delivery, and the OB did. That day boy scout troop 65 got a badge for campfire-making, my siblings got a baby sister, and the OB got a new minivan. My parents were 37 and 38, and my brothers were 9, 8, and 3. I don’t know how old my OB was, but her name was Janet Segall if you want to look her up and let me know. Growing up, I didn’t really like being so much younger than my oldest brothers. I felt like I had to learn a lot to prove myself, to survive and thrive as the baby of the family. By the age 39
being the baby
of four, I had observed that ladies at church adopted a strange lisp when asking me if I was the “baby princess of the family.” But by the age of five, I had developed a rebuttal to use towards the battalion of lisping ladies which involved a detailed narrative about the time I tackled pudgy, eight year old Eric Fassett to the ground in a neighborhood game of tackle football. By the age of seven, I had already logged enough hours at high school track and cross country invitationals to last me a lifetime. By the age of nine, I was hanging out with college boys while they were on spring break, and by ten I realized college boys could be annoying and selfish and fall asleep on just about any surface. Finally by the age of twelve, I realized that I’d forgotten the secrets my brothers said they would tell me when I turned twelve. Being the youngest of the family—the baby, if-you-will— meant that when Andy and Josiah and Sam were going to see The Lord of the Rings, I was watching the special features on our very first DVD: Monsters Inc. When Andy and Josiah were going to the prom, I was taking pictures of them on a Walmart disposable camera, looking forward to putting the photos in my Lisa Frank rainbow cover photo album. When Andy and Josiah were moving into college, I was moving into the biggest size of overalls from OshKosh and had paid $35 to get a certificate saying that I had adopted a manatee named Lenny from a wildlife conservation group based out of the Florida Keys. When they accepted their diplomas, I accepted a retainer in a sparkly purple case from the orthodontist and a new appreciation for the ease of flossing. And by the time Sam started college, I started finding out my classmates could be cast on the MTV show Sixteen and Pregnant. 40
For many years, I hated being the baby, feeling like I was always sprinting from behind, like I was standing on my tippy toes —so desperate to catch up, so desperate for my brothers to see me from up there in the mysterious stratosphere known as adult world. And I did not suffer silently. Unfortunately for my parents, their last child was also their most weepy, sentimental, and verbal child, and they certainly heard my laments on the status of my siblinghood. I got the short end of the stick! Why did you do this to me? My lot has been cast, and I’m the guy that Matthias beat out in Acts 1! Okay, so I didn’t actually say that last part. But my complaints had to have been abundant enough to force them to consider if they really should have named me Grace, (“God’s gift”) or if they should have gone with “Cruella.” I hated being behind, being the youngest—being the baby. By the time my own high school graduation day came, the complaints about being the baby of the family had begun to subside to some degree, but I still felt like my siblings had been raptured into the adult world while I was left behind on planetwhat-should-my-college-major-be. Andy and Josiah were married, Sam had written and directed three plays at his college and was thinking about grad school, and my first niece, Evelyn, had just turned seven months old. Their lives were so different from mine. At some point in my senior year of high school, I accepted for the first time in my whole life that being the youngest wasn’t a bad thing. Yes— my brothers were older, but they seemed wiser, too, and that was helpful for while I was navigating life on planet-what-should-my-college-major-be. Yes— they had grown up, moved out, and gotten married, but I got two new sisters. Yes— they were in different stages of life from me, 41
being the baby
but I could save money and use their old college textbooks! I had expendable income still! I was an aunt! The short of the stick was getting longer, and being the youngest—the baby of the family— was beginning to become better. It’s been twenty-two years since Dr. Segall bought that mini-van. My Dad is 60, my Mom is 59, Andy is 31, Rachael is 30, Josiah is 30, Brittany is 29, Sam is 25, Evelyn is 4, James is 2, and Peter is 5 months. Being the baby of the family now means that I have the privilege of seeing my family grow. Seeing my brother become a dad and my parents become grandparents is something I get a front seat to, something I otherwise might have missed out on so fully if I was busy living up in the mysterious stratosphere of the adult world. It’s a great honor to see my parents sit on the couch with Evelyn on their lap, reading her the same Madeline story book six times over, to see James run to my mom and kiss her on the cheek and shout “Grandma!” with such glee, to see tears well up in their eyes in the dimly-lit hospital room when they met Peter Hans. This is uncharted territory for me, a mysterious and remarkable time, something that is causing me to appreciate my family and the miracle of being alive so much more. Becoming a young aunt has given me a small glimpse into this mysterious and remarkable and joyful process that happens when a child is brought into this world. No one, in my opinion, has put into words what it’s like to have a front row seat to watching this remarkable process play out better than author Marilynne Robinson in her novel Gilead. Robinson’s Gilead takes place in the last days of John Ames, an aging Iowan pastor who is writing a letter to his young son, a son he never expected to have 42
after many years as a widower. Ames’s past endowed him with a gentle and revelling spirit, a spirit of reflection and contemplation, a spirit that takes great pride and joy in the gift of children. The birth of his son is something he calls, “God’s grace to me, a miracle, something more than a miracle.” “It’s your existence I love you for, mainly,” Ames tells his son. “Existence seems to me now the most remarkable thing that could ever be imagined.” The other day, it was the first big snow of the year, and I went over to help put on new snow pants and make snow angels with Evelyn and James. I took them by the hand, and we all shuffled through the snow together, slipping and swishing our way through the light and fluffy powder. Children have an amazing wonder that overcomes them when they get in the snow, a kind of pure, electric excitement that delights greatly in something that so many adults have grown to hate, are bitter towards, neglect to view as magical. These tiny little people who delight in snow drifts and swishy pants help me stop and realize how remarkable existence really is, how miracles are swirling all around us, how beauty is magnified through our experience of it with others. Like John Ames, these days I am reveling this miracle that is the remarkability of existence, and not just their existence. My existence, my family’s existence, the existence of snow and storybooks and everything else on this grand planet that we get to call home. I hope that as time goes on, as Evelyn and James and Peter grow up and so do I, I do not lose sight of how remarkable their existence is, how life is to be celebrated, how beautiful the sound is of little hands and little feet running circles around the dining room table, how lucky I am to be the youngest and get the 43
being the baby
privilege of seeing my family grow and grow up. I hope I do not forget to revel in the magic of that first snowfall, to bask in the wise words of John Ames who knows how precious the time is we spend with the ones we love, the ones who know our hearts best. God’s grace to me is that I was born the youngest. I have been stopped in my tracks, proven wrong, shown that the life I have had has been more remarkable than I realized. I get to play in the snow, read stories about trolls, sing a song about a mailman and have my jokes laughed at time and time again. I get the privilege of watching my family become the best people they have ever been. It took me twenty-two years to realize it, but I like the view from here. Maybe it’s because I’ve grown taller, or maybe it’s just because the scene before me is one I am content to enjoy. I may be the baby of the family, but I (finally) love it.
DREAMS (PART 1)
Be encouraged. Something is happening because of the hard work you have done. â€”Jeff Shinabarger
This year, I began pursuing the biggest dream I ever had. Even as I sit here typing this essay, we are still working towards making that dream happen. Emails are coming in, Excel spreadsheets are open, surveys are being completed, posters taped up, marketing plans are launching, meetings are being held. With each dayâ€™s passing, the dream gets closer and closer, and before I know it, the original goal will be realized, and event will have come and gone, the thing that Iâ€™ve worked the hardest for in my entire life will be over. I imagine it will be exciting and relieving, surreal and unforgettable. I look forward to when imagination becomes tangible reality, when April 2, 2016 comes, when the dream goes live. Like anything that is worth something in this life (going to college, getting married, raising children, etc.), following this dream has not been without its challenges, its ups and downs. Me and my fellow dream-maker, Molly, have been made aware of the 45
dreams (part 1)
utter struggle to pursue dreams, of the difficulties and barriers and frustrations that can stand in the way, tire you out, tempt you to quit. Collateral damage is bound to ensue when you’re trying to do something new, trying to follow a dream: insults, disrespect, tears, discouragement, lack of resources, apathy, sleepless nights, lonely days, and the list goes on. I’ve even been told that this dream was “just a bunch of noise.” I was urged to not care so much and I was asked why I cared at all. I was told to quit. So why go on? Why keep believing and loving dreams when many times it results in risk, pain, even embarrassing and public failure? Why go on? What has kept us going, what has kept this dream alive and inspired us to believe in the importance of dreams as a whole is that on the other side of the insults, disrespect, tears, discouragement, lack of resources, apathy, sleepless nights, and lonely days have been moments of startling and amazing clarity that we were supposed to keep going, that the dream was worth pursuing. When a bad thing happened as we tried to make this dream come true, Newton’s Third Law inserted itself into the situation. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. For every setback came a step of progress. For every person who thought the idea was stupid was a person filled with excitement and eagerness to help. For every “no” was an enthusiastic, unmerited, miraculous, and encouraging “yes.” For every discouraging meeting or email or comment came an inspiring word. On a day when a particularly discouraging email came that threatened the future of the dream, another email came, too. It was from a hero of mine— Larry Kloess— a man who knows what it’s like to have a dream and come face to face with difficult 46
realities that make reaching it a challenging task. Larry is a businessman, a music lover, a creative champion, and the owner of a company that was named one of Business Insider’s Top 50 Coolest Businesses of 2015. Larry is the founder of a movement now known as “Cause A Scene,” a Nashville-based venture that has hosted close to 200 concerts and featured 600 up-andcoming artists through its unique model of small-scale concert experiences. There was no better person to hear from on that day when my dream seemed so out of reach than Larry Kloess, a person who launched his dream in a living room, a person who lives to cultivate community and bring people together, a person who has never stopped believing in dreams and person who has encouraged me to do the same. A couple weeks after I first heard from Larry, I found myself interviewing him, a moment I never would have expected just six short months ago when this whole dreams thing started. We talked about his story, my story, his dream, my dream, and he left me with words that inspire me to not give up on my story and my dreams: You have your own story and your own path of ahead of you: so live that out. Don’t chase after other people’s dreams. Don’t compare them. Pay it forward, find ways to serve others, find where there’s a problem to be solved, a need to be met. And come alive in what you do. Time and time again, words like Larry’s have guided this dream, inspired me to believe that dreams are worth pursuing, that hope is worth having. I do not believe that it’s coincidental 47
dreams (part 1)
this dream-chasing experience has happened over the course my senior year— a time in life that has forced to me take Larry’s words to heart, a time that has urged me to consider how I can continue to come alive in what I do long after this particular dream has passed on. Throughout this year as I’ve been having meetings and sending emails and dreaming big, I have also applied to two post-grad programs, five summer internships, and seven full-time jobs. This time and these experiences have collided together, forcing me to reflect on not only what I want to do with my life in both the present and the future, but also prompted me to consider a question I’ve had to ask so many times this year: why. Why? Why go for this job with such little pay? Why pursue such a big dream when your days at this college are numbered? Why invest in something with such little return? Why? As I thought about these questions, I kept arriving at the same answer: I love dreams. I come alive in dreams. I love how dreams are universal, how children and teenagers and moms and dads and grandpas and grandmas all have dreams. I love hearing the eagerness in someone’s voice when they’re talking about what gets them excited. I love witnessing the motivation and determination they adopt as the pursue a big goal. I love seeing the smile that spreads across their face when you affirm the hard work they have done to get to where they are now. I love helping people find the inspiration to use their talents. I love mapping out the exciting journey one takes as they pursue something they thought they’d never get the chance to. I love being part of something bigger. I love dreams, and even more than that, I come alive in them, I want to fight for them, I believe in the importance of them. 48
— A couple months ago, a staff member at my college shared a thought with me and a group of other students who have helped make the dream become reality. He looked down at the table and then up at all of us, taking a breath before he said this: “Let’s be real: college students don’t care about anything. They wear their charity t-shirts and their TOMS, but it’s all an illusion; they don’t actually care, they just want you to think they care so that you like. In actuality, no one really cares.” When he first said it, I wanted to believe that he knew what he was talking about given his experience as a college staff member and given the respect that was implicitly and explicitly demanded because of that. I wanted to take his words and run with them. I wanted to surrender to anger, to apathy, to pin college students as self-absorbed machines who don’t care about anything but themselves. I wanted to rant and turn my back on the words of inspiration and hope that I had been publicly preaching and surrender the words of doubt that filled my head as I had been trying to fall asleep at night those past few months. I wanted to concede because that would make things easier. I wanted stop being a dreamer because it was making the present complicated, and would ensure that my future would follow the same path, too. But as I sat there and considered the staff member’s thought on college students and apathy and the illusion of hope, I also found myself finding the truth once again: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction, light in darkness, peace amidst the chaos. The day following that discouraging thought from that staff member, I found myself scrolling through 49
dreams (part 1)
Instagram, stopping at an account that I know I can count on for hope, for the inspiration that the journey is worth it, for encouragement that apathy does not have the final word. The photo I was looking at was posted on the account of a business celebrating its fourth anniversary. It read like this: It's so easy to get discouraged pursuing a dream. The tendency, for me at least, is to focus solely on all the hard work left to be done rather than everything that's already been accomplished or where things were at four years ago. When my mind spends too much time worrying about not having enough money, or a big enough team, or on being disorganized, it's easy to feel like you want to quit. I end up glossing over or forgetting altogether the lives that have been changed as a result of Cause A Scene being breathed into existence...If I can encourage you, let me do so by saying this: your dream matters, it's important. You're going to face obstacle after obstacle pursuing your purpose, but keep going. Don't quit. Find time to rest. Find joy in life and don't forget that it's not selfish to take good care of yourself. Your hard work is going to pay off. In fact, it already has. While it can be true that sometimes people donâ€™t care, sometimes people send mean emails, sometimes they donâ€™t want to believe or love or cultivate dreams, I have learned firsthand that people do really care, that dreams are not an illusion, that college students do believe that little moments matter, that dreams are worth chasing, that something important is happening
in the activities each of us are a part of. So we are not going to quit. Why? Because we believe that dreams matter. We have been forever changed because of the dream weâ€™ve been chasing this year. The hard work is going to pay off. In fact, it already has.
I have been bent and broken, but—I hope—into a better shape. ―Charles Dickens, Great Expectations
Right when I graduated from high school, countless adults suddenly seemed to line up so they could grab me by the shoulders and look into my eyes with urgency in order to tell me this: “College will be the best four years of your life! Don’t forget that!” 18-year-old-me really liked hearing that. I was so happy to be done with high school, a period of time marked with great social dissatisfaction, but also with great expectation. I never had to endure the horror of Bus 19 ever again! Or hear girls talk about Prom! Or debate the merits of spray tans versus regular tanning! Hallelujah! I could not wait for college, for a time that would be a refreshing and socially gratifying experience marked by spontaneous adventures and lecture topics and maybe even a nice man-panion I actually was interested in. It was going to be great—the best four years of life, in fact! I was like Pip from Charles Dickens’ penultimate novel Great Expectations: setting out to the great unknown with a 52
grand vision for the future, eager for the story of my life to become something exciting and enviable. I dressed sharply for move-in day, but not too sharply because I didn’t want to give off the wrong impression that I was trying too hard. But after my parents went home and I began my first day in what was going to be the best four years of my life, I quickly realized that my expectations for college as a whole were quite misinformed. And even though I had three brothers, two parents, and two grandparents who attended the same college I found myself going to, I still found myself feeling lost, confused, and greatly disappointed in myself and all the adults who told me how great college would be. None of it lived up to my expectations. I realized freshman year that I had too high of expectations for how fast I’d make friends, and during sophomore year I discovered the disappointment of expecting to be able to handle responsibility, only to find my own ability to be lacking. By junior year I realized my high expectations for relationships and friendships at college weren’t coming to fruition, and this year, I have realized my expectations for what life would be like by or during senior year have been so completely and totally off. The story of my life is nothing like I thought it would be. This collegiate experience has shaped up into a strange conglomeration of activities, classes, and dreams that highschool-me never would have signed herself up for. During these years, I’ve discovered a great love for graphic design and writing —two things I didn’t think I’d ever love or want to pursue. It’s pretty funny when you find out what I originally thought I’d be spending my time studying and working at. You see, when I first submitted my admissions application, I declared my major would 53
be Entrepreneurship, a major I thoroughly enjoyed flaunting to the rest of my high school peers, mostly because none of them seemed to know what the term/major Entrepreneurship meant. It boosted my ego, made me feel like the scales of justice were beginning to balance and I would finally prevail in the mystery that was life-after-high-school. But it turned out though that the joke was on me. I didn’t really know what the term or major Entrepreneurship meant, because before I even got to campus, I had switched my major over (rightful) fear of Accounting and Finance and Microeconomics. I would switch several more times until I settled on a BA in Communication Studies and English, additionally defying my expectations for how many times one could change their major and minor before the Registrar couldn’t take it anymore and resigned from their position. After a confusing freshman year, I also expected to graduate with such assurance of my opinions, but now have discovered that senior year can feel a lot like my freshman year with its fears, its social anxieties, and its unknown factors—just in a different context. I expected to leave with a giant clan of lifelong friends, but am leaving with a small group of girl who all have become like sisters. I expected to lament my graduation, but I’m feeling ready to bid adieu to the Saturdays of homework guilt, the bowing and curtseying to social norms and rules. I didn’t expect senior year would go like this at all. What happened? Over the course of this year, I’ve found myself asking that questions a lot as I explored what kind of future I wanted to build once I left college. After months of summer research, phone calls, road trips and city visits, interviews, and thirty pages of soul54
bearing essays, the plans I had made and counted on for postgraduation did not work at all like I had expected. Back in September, I walked excitedly up to the first door, waiting and excitedly anticipating it to open, only to watch it stay firmly and resolutely closed. I called my mom, cried, swore, sent a few emails, and walked away from that door and to the next one, sure that Door #2 was the right door, that things were going to fall into place. Surely, I thought, the first door was a mistake and the second door was the right choice, the one that would take me to the future that really was best for. At least—that’s what I expected, grew to believe. The morning of November 13th, the day after Rejection Day #1, I opened up my devotional book written by Shauna Niequist to an entry titled “The Path of Life.” When I first read that devotional, I made the mistake that so many of us do: I prescribed my own expectations and current situation instead of letting God’s truths illustrate the bigger picture. I only let the words say what I wanted them to say, and I didn’t realize that my interpretation was quite off. I was picking out from the reading what I wanted to see, not what was actually there. It said this: I thought I knew what would make me happy. And I pursued it. God, in his grace, keeps bringing me back to the path of life that he has chosen for me. The things I thought would make me happy don’t. And the things I’ve been avoiding for years are giving me life, hope, and peace in ways I could never have imagined…The God who made us on purpose and for a purpose, with great love, has laid out a path for your life, and for my life.
When we live faithfully on that path—small and ordinary as it may be, different than you planned, not at all what you dreamed—we will live with peace, joy, and fullheartedness. When I read those words, I was 100% convinced that it was God’s way of telling me that not only was Door #1 wrong, and so were my doubts about Door #2. Using my acute skills of interpretation and revelation, I decided that I really was supposed to run through Door #2. I took these newly claimed truths and fresh set of of expectations and changed my plans, set aside my doubts, and committed to seeking the next opportunity I had previously rejected because now my future was undeniably headed in that direction. I was ready to commit to Door #2: the location, the possible job, the social situations, all of it. I slapped doubt in the face with my new-found realization, and told my fears to hit the road. Or so I thought. Then came December 18th, the day the second door didn’t open. On December 18th, Door #2 slammed in my face. Thank you for your interest in the program for which you recently applied and interviewed. I regret to inform you that we are unable to offer you admission for the program beginning in the fall of 2016. We appreciate your interest and wish you all the best in your career pursuits. Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year to me. I read the email at my desk and walked out my bedroom to the top of the stairs. “I didn’t get in,” I yelled down the stairs to my parents who were
just sitting down for lunch. As they came to the foot of the stairwell, I fell onto the ground, my body heaving with what I can only describe as sobs of deep confusion, anger, and distress. I was completely caught off guard, devastated to witness the instantaneous destruction of the life I had built for myself in my mind. It was devastating rejection made even more difficult because I had told so many people about my plans, showed them the blueprints for the life I was planning to build. It was the second time in a month that the outcome of an event tuned out so differently than I expected it to. I felt like a fool. I laid on the ground like a child, limbs folded against my body, my tears falling steadily onto the carpet. Shauna Niequist’s words did not resurface with Rejection #2. It is a shame, but in the chaos and confusion of grief, I think I forgot about them. But as I stood there at Door #2 and saw that it would not be opening ever again, God brought me back to his truth. As I sorted through my email inbox, cleaning out emails that reminded me over and over of the rejections I had faced this fall, I came to email from a friend who sent me encouragement at the beginning of my senior year. The email said this: Dear Grace: As you begin senior year, you might not know what is next, and that’s okay. But the reality is this: you already know the end to your story. You know the eternity that waits for you on the other side of this life. Each beauty you regard in this life is a glimpse of that… So when you start to feel anxious about the future (which is normal and healthy and will happen), remind yourself of that. You do not know all the chapters that lie in between,
but you know that the end is just the beginning, and that changes things. These words were tremendously helpful during a time of personal anguish and doubt and confusion, a time in life when my story seemed fated. It is scary and exciting and terrifying to close this chapter of life and begin a new one. The stories that lie ahead are probably not the I’m expecting—so far that seems to be the case. Sometimes life ahead will feel like I’m a third grader being dropped off for her first night of sleep-away camp, and sometimes I think I’ll realize I’m in the right place doing the right thing. Sometimes the days ahead will be interesting and exciting, other times they’ll be ordinary and simple. Sometimes I will be blinded by disappointment, other times dumbfounded by blessings. But no matter what situation I may find myself in as I enter this next chapter of life, I can begin with this: I can begin with an awareness that the best author of all time will continue to write my story without misconstrued expectations, without flaw or accident or coincidence: WITH purpose. He is a writer whose creativity is never-ending, the one who wrote the story of time itself. He knows what’s next. And that changes things. This end— in this case, the end of college—is just the beginning. As I come to the end of these four years, I’m learning how to rewrite my expectations, how to not resent that the past cannot be changed, and how to live a life where I am not clinging stubbornly to my own plans. If these four years have taught me anything, it’s that every single day of every single week of every single month of every single year has taken the path it was supposed to take, and it will continue on that trajectory into the 58
years that follow “the best four years of my life.” And though the people who told me these college years would be the best four years of my life weren’t trying to lie to me, I have to say that they were wrong. While these have been some great years, the best has yet to come. And that’s not just another ill-conceived expectation I have—that’s the truth. You go nowhere by accident. Wherever you go, God is sending you. Wherever you are, God has put you there; he has a purpose in your being there. Jesus Christ ,who lives inside of you, has something he wants to do in you and through you, right where you are. So believe this and go in the grace and the peace and the power of our Lord, Jesus Christ, so that you might love and serve God and your fellowman, now
And as imagination bodies forth The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing A local habitation and a name. —William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Tonight I’m feeling uninspired. I sat down at this computer and hoped that I’d suddenly have this stroke of inspiration to write or create something that would be inspiring, refreshing, uplifting, funny, insightful, etc. But as I sit at my desk, I am surrounded by remnants of uninspiring and unfinished tasks: • A package of half-used dental floss • A charm off a necklace that I keep forgetting to put back on • A box of blank cards I hoped to send to friends on campus • A pencil with an eraser that’s completely gone • An empty mason jar that’s supposed to be full of slips of paper that have the things I’m thankful for each day written on them 60
Tonight I feel like my desk: messy, disorganized, marked with visible signs of unfinished business. Half-used: worrying I’ll only ever get partway to my goals, too untalented to get the whole way there. Forgotten: fearing I’m just another person in a sea of faces, more of a burden than a blessing. Blank: feeling like I don’t have much to say or offer, silenced by my doubts. Worn down: enthusiasm used up after months of early morning and late nights, weary from a lifestyle of busyness. Ungrateful: ashamed that the darkness can so quickly overcome the light, stuck in recesses of my mind. Precariously perched on the bulletin board right above my messy desk hangs a collage I made at the beginning of the semester. I’m surprised it hasn’t fallen down, actually. LOVE WHERE YOU ARE is glued at the center of the collage, words cut out from a magazine and pasted onto printer paper with a trusty purple gluestick that brought me back to sixth science projects and art classes taught by Miss McGrath. The corner is coming up a little bit on one side, threatening to peel off, but managing to hold on thanks to the power of the purple gluestick. Those words kind of mock me tonight. Tonight, I’m not loving where I am. I’m tired. I’m ready to be done with school. I’m weary from the weight of responsibility. I want to go home and watch British television shows and walk my dog. I want to eat real meat and drink a strong cup of coffee and slice grapefruit on my mom’s cutting board. I want to sit at my kitchen table alone and read the newspaper. I want to lay on a bed with springs that don’t poke into my back, and not feel guilty for going to bed early. But tonight, I am here. And tonight, I’m not loving that. Tonight I couldn’t sit down at the computer and write an essay 61
about my excitement to make dreams possible, or my nostalgia about the end of college career, or make a list of things I am thankful for. I just couldn’t. Tonight I feel uninspired. I sit at my desk, waiting for inspiration to come, but it doesn’t seem like will come. The fluorescent lamp on the shelf above me faintly hums, becoming louder and louder as my agitation grows. I angrily close the lid of my computer, questioning why I even wanted to write something. Who am I to tell people that I like to write? Who am I to think that I could do this for a living? My own mocking voice chirps away like a parrot that just won’t shut up. It tells me to just give up, just give up, no one cares, no one cares. It tells me to stop pretending that writing is even worth it. It tells me I’ll never make it to the finish line, that I don’t have much to say, that I’m not a hard worker, that I don’t have what it takes. The voice in my head hates this desk and this computer and the idea of my dreams. So I listen to that voice and I stop. I sit at my desk with my arms crossed, looking like a defiant child who has just been scolded. I stare at my computer like it is the enemy. I stare at nothing. But then I look up and realize that I’m not staring at nothing. I am staring at that collage, the one pinned to my bulletin board. I can’t say that I’ve looked at that collage much this semester. It’s been up there on the bulletin board for so long that I’ve grown to ignore it, to ignore the advice I gave myself at the beginning of the semester when I wasn’t so emotionally spent, tired, apathetic, and weary. It’s become part of the background, like the dental floss and the necklace charm and greeting cards; my “collage of inspiration” has become part of my
collection of remnants of unfinished tasks. It reads: Reject apathy. Lead with love. See the big picture. Love where you are. I see words—words that answer that mocking voice inside of my head. Theses words have been right in front of me. The inspiration I needed has been there all along, I just didn’t see it until now. My eyes, like the voice in my head, deceived me. These are not mocking words, they were just the words I needed. I am reminded of the hope I had at the beginning of the semester. I am reminded that what was true then is still true right now, even as I was feeling uninspired, half-used, forgotten, empty, ungrateful. I realize that I am not like the items on my desk. I am not a remnant. I am not someone’s ugly mess. I am not ignored. I am not left behind. I am full because I have been emptied. I am loved despite my messiness. I am remembered even when I forget. I am not someone’s perpetually-unfinished business. I am a work in progress who will not be abandoned mid-project by my Creator. Tonight I was feeling uninspired. It turns out that all I needed to do was look up.
THE QUESTION MARK
Knowing what you have makes all the difference. —Emily P. Freeman
Almost every Sunday at the churches I’ve gone to, there’s a time to share thanksgivings and intercessions. For a time, me and siblings affectionately called it “The Litany of Woes.” At one church I attended, someone prayed during The Litany of Woes for their nephew’s cousin’s dad’s bee sting. Another time I was in a group where someone asked for prayer for his “Quidditch tournament” to which the person leading the prayer awkwardly tried and failed to pray for in a reverent way. “We pray for David. And his friends as they…[*pregnant pause, cough*] have their fun…” I really hope that a current seminarian is reading this essay because these are the kind of things they don’t teach you how to react to when you’re in seminary. One Sunday a few months ago it came time yet again for the moment to share our thanksgivings, intercessions, and prayer requests with the congregation. People prayed for the persecuted church across the world, for our pastors’ families, or for the health 64
the question mark
of different folks. And in between prayers, in the silence—the kind of silence that would have any Presbyterians in the room feel right at home—I decided I wanted to pray about pregnancy. So I did. I prayed aloud for the pregnant women in our congregation and in our families, but also for the couples who weren’t pregnant and wanted to be. I prayed that the church would welcome these husbands and wives into loving and generous homes where they would feel part of the family and part of the process of loving and raising children, even children that aren’t theirs. After we finished prayers, sang the doxology, and received the benediction, I gathered my things and stood up to head for the lobby. Before I could leave, the man who had been sitting next to me with his four kids turned to me. He looked me in the eye and smiled a kind, warm smile and thanked me for my prayer. “Not many people pray about what you prayed for,” he said. Unsure of how to respond, I just smiled said, “Yes, well. My sister in law is supposed to have her baby this week!” While that was true, he seemed to know that there was more of a story behind my prayer than the one I had offered. But instead of prodding at me for the details, he nodded his head and looked down at his children: four little blonde heads who wore mismatched outfits and bent eyeglasses. He smiled at them, the expression spreading to his eyes. It was the kind of smile that had a story behind it, made sincere because of tears of days past. He smiled at his kids and looked back at me, telling the story behind the smile, why it spread to his eyes when he looked at this kids. He told me about how him and his wife couldn’t have kids for over ten years, about the the years of worrying and wondering, of doubting and being doubted. He talked about the 65
controversies behind infertility, the implications of medicine, the years of waiting. He didn’t talk about the tears of days past. That was okay though, because his smile, the lines in his forehead, the humbleness in his eyes, gave that part of the story away. He revealed that it was hard for him and his wife to realize that the church doesn’t always do its best in ministering to couples or even singles who either can’t or aren’t having children in a stage of life when that’s just what is expected. “So. Thanks praying about it,” he closed, giving me the same warm smile he began the conversation with. “Not many people think about it. And I’m glad you are.” With that, he patted me on the shoulder and walked away, corralling those four little blonde heads towards a mini van in the back parking lot. As he walked away, I felt like stopping him, taking him by the shoulder, giving him a warm smile back, asking if I was right about the lines in his forehead and the tears, saying thank you for noticing that my eyes told a story, too. But I didn’t. I stayed silent, I didn’t say thank you or ask about the tears, or tell him the story behind my prayer that day that I think he had already guessed. “Not many people think about it” he said. “But I do,” is what I wanted to say. I do! When I was 16, I found out I have something called “Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome,” a fairly common diagnosis (10% of women have it) that most women do not discover until they are trying to get pregnant and cannot. Of course, that wasn’t how I discovered I had PCOS, but it still caused tears. There was crying in the kitchen, bloodwork at the doctor’s office, and worried looks on the faces of my friends and family when I told them about my newest health news. The topic of infertility mixed itself with 66
the question mark
conversations about drivers permits and college visits, and what once seemed taboo became a typical topic discussed on car rides and springtime walks. On the day that I prayed the prayer at church during the break in the liturgy, I did it for my sister-in-law and for her safe delivery, but also to pacify the thing I’d been wondering about since I was sixteen: if I’d only ever be the delivery room visitor rather than the one visited. Typically, I don’t dwell on the hypothetical responsibility of raising children. After all, I don’t even own a set of dishes, enjoy eating salmon, or have ever filed my own taxes, all which I’m pretty sure should be required components in one’s journey to eventual parenthood. Heck, I don’t even know if I’m supposed to or even want to be a parent. I’m not and never have been one of those girls who has dreamed about becoming a mom. However, questions and doubts resurface in times like these when my sisterin-law is having a baby, my engaged friends are discussing how many kids they want, and a woman from my church miscarries. The statistics of PCOS at these times, when these questions are being asked, can be sobering. It’s moments like these where messiness emerges again, where the tears well up like they did six years ago.“Do you think about it, too?” I wonder, glancing around the room, wondering what secret prayers others are keeping inside, what question marks float around in their mind, too. I often preach to myself though that I don’t need to worry about any of this, that I need to put a smile on and go about my day. Sometimes it works, but sometimes it doesn’t and before I know it I’m panicking while reading WebMD, I’m tearing up in church, I’m praying a prayer that might seem like it’s just for congregation, but really is my 67
secret prayer—the one I keep inside. This is where I transform into a doubting Thomas. This is my big question mark. I need so much more than just me preaching to myself that I don’t need to worry about the unknown; I need to believe and know that the truth is not reserved for others: it is for me— right here, right now. Present, embodied, available, accessible. I need God to meet me where I’m at, and thankfully, beautifully, graciously, miraculously—he does, he has. He sees and has seen and will see my weak faith, and make his promises known in such obvious, tangible ways. He walks alongside me on a dusty road, he sits on the beach with me and eats breakfast, he turns his hands over to show me the holes in his palms. God has reminded me over and over again in such obvious ways that I don’t need to worry about the question mark. He sent that father in church to stir up these thoughts once again, thoughts that I need to confront and not let embitter my soul. He put a wonderful role model in my life who has never had kids of her own but treats those she meets like her her sons and daughters, showing me that family is a word that transcends blood. He has made me an aunt early on in my life and provided me post-grad employment in the city where my niece and nephews live so that I can be present in their lives. God has given me so many interests, so much richness and appreciation for his creation, and so many things I can be joyful about right now. I am filled with the kind of joyful spirit that transcends a moment, that sticks to the ribs. The question mark still remains. I can’t ever know nor will I ever know if I’ll be a mother, if this will be something that continues to plague me. Many aspects of my future are unknown, and I cannot change 68
that, however I might wish to possess the power of prediction. But in all of this, I find moments where I can sit back and see how life is playing out before my eyes and revel in the miracle that is being alive. In these moments, I find a great comfort in the words of Emily P. Freeman: â€œKnowing what you have makes all the difference.â€?
DREAMS (PART 2)
To honor human creativity is to honor God, for God is the heavenly maker of that maker. â€”Sir Philip Sidney
On April 2, 2016, The Oh Hellos played a concert at Grove City College to an auditorium that was 700 strong. In the crowd were college students, high schoolers, babies, moms, dads, grandmas and grandpas, professors, teachers, doctors, pastors, soccer players and fraternity brothers. Together we became a community, sharing in a special moment in time, dancing, whistling, clapping, and singing in unison to music weâ€™ve listened to through headphones, car stereos, and record players. It was a beautiful experience, one that came after months of work, late nights, countless meetings, and thousands of emails. It was one that came because of a dream to tell and show people why good music matters. I canâ€™t think of a better band to encourage the sentiment that music builds up a community than The Oh Hellos, who are in themselves a community full of quirks and eccentricities that complement each other to bring something beautiful to others. 70
dreams (part 2)
During the concert, all nine of them jumped around stage with what can be described as fiery jubilance. They were exuberant, joyful, heart-felt, soulful, and inspiring. They played with artistry, sung with an awe-inducing beauty, danced with an infectiously ecstatic spirit. As I stood amongst the audience members watching shoulders sway and heads bob, seeing smiles spread across their faces, every last email, frustrating meeting, and sleepless night became worth it. For a brief moment in time, a campus community that can obsesses over grades and control and self-image just let go— some danced like no one watching, some sang even though their voices were out of key. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and the first concert for many of those folks, too, who come from small towns and places where things like this just don’t happen. It will be a day I remember for a long time, but a day I think others will remember too, a day that we all— for a moment—celebrated the joy, inspiration, hope, and beauty music can provide in our lives. On April 2, 2016, a dream went live, a dream discovered last summer at a Judah and the Lion and Mat Kearney concert in the thick of July. The lyrics from those two artists beckoned me to not let this dream slip my fingers, not to let the intimidation of a daunting task stand in the way of the thing I’ve felt most compelled about in my whole life. Where in the world are we going / with all our dreams? Running scared / Running free / Full of light / Got no money Yeah, that's us / Twenty-somethings.
The fear inside, the hills we've climbed / The tears this side of heaven, / All these dreams inside of me / I swear we're gonna get there/ Sooner or later / Sooner than later. There were so many times on the journey to this concert that discouragement overshadowed the cause, that the stress of planning weighed down the joy of what we were looking to celebrate. But then songs like the ones I just listed came on my shuffle. But then God stunned us with yet another providential moment of miraculous grace, of divine providence and provision. But then the lights dimmed at 8:55 PM on Saturday, April 2, 2016. That feeling that I experienced back on that muggy July night all came rushing back. But this time, I was in a place Iâ€™ve called home for the past four years. The road to this day, to this celebration of art and music and creativity, has been a long time in the making, which is perhaps the reason why tears kept filling my eyes on April 2, 2016. You see, when I first came to college, I found myself very insecure about the interests I had and the talents I possessed. I found myself liking things like movies, music, magazines, theatre, and artâ€”creative things. Instead of viewing my interests as important and purposeful, I saw them as things that less pleasing to God, less important, less valuable, less than. At some point though, I stopped viewing my talents and interests as less. The insecurity and worries I had in my interests and talents faded, and in her place, a great hope and understanding that our human creativity is a great thing, that investment in the arts is just as important as investment in the sciences.â€œHuman creativity is borne as a reflection of the infinite 72
dreams (part 2)
creativity of God himself, artistic inventiveness is a reflection of God’s unbounded capacity to create,” writes James Sire, a Christian apologist. While it took me a while to believe this, to believe in the power and purpose of creativity and the value in the things I loved. I now know how great a gift creativity is. We can use it to promote messages, but we also can engage in activities that bring us joy and in that way, bring joy to the Lord because of our joy in using the gifts he has purposefully given us. In a cycle of miraculous beauty, we can create because he first created. This concert was just the beginning of what will hopefully be more and more opportunities to show students, professors, faculty, staff, and community members how creativity can change a community. After all, beauty and truth abound and transcend human-constructed categorization and penetrate in all spheres of life much more than our human eyes can see, much more than our ears can hear. Our work here is not yet done. There are more dreams to be had, more tasks to carry out, more moments of beauty to behold. This year, this dream was about helping people see that “good music matters,” that the work of musicians we bring in can and will exhibit an important truth. This truth is something I had trouble grappling with, and something that I think all of us grapple with at different points in out lives. It is this: God can call us to use our talents to spread his beauty and truth in settings where they are needed, that it can inspire a spirit of joy—a spirit of worship to live an empowered life of hope and gladness and celebration of Christ, the risen Messiah.
The next day after the concert, the Scripture reading in church included Psalm 150, a Psalm I felt was so appropriate for this weekend, for the concert, for this dream. It read like this: Praise the Lord. Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty heavens. Praise him for his acts of power; praise him for his surpassing greatness. Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet, praise him with the harp and lyre, praise him with timbrel and dancing, praise him with the strings and pipe, praise him with the clash of cymbals, praise him with resounding cymbals. Let everything that has breath praise the Lord. Praise the Lord. Reading the words to his Psalm in in unison with the rest of the congre-gation on that day, I felt like this Psalm was God’s way of confirming that belief, of affirming this weekend and how truly special it was. I could not have believed more that God gave music as a gift to point people to greater truths. God was so faithful through this insane process, in the way he helped us overcome our challenges and carry out our vision to bring our campus together, in the way he helped us see the complexity and beauty of creativity. It is a privilege to create, to be contributors in the storyline, to be part of what theologian Abraham Heschel calls “the continual process of creation.” On April 2, 2016, creativity came to light and a dream went live. The experience that culminated on that evening will forever be one of the most formative experiences of my life, one of the most special nights of my existence, a day I will remember until breath leaves my body. And even then, I shall join a new
dreams (part 2)
chorus of voices to dance, whistle, clap, and sing in unison to heavenly music. The concert with The Oh Hellos was a glimpse of what thatâ€™s going to be like, and I anticipate that day when I together I get to sing together again with a chorus of voices to a familiar tune. How sweet it will sound, how fun it will be, how free we will feel to sing and dance alongside our creator, the one who made usâ€”the one who made all good things. He is the giver of all gifts, the provider of joy and hope and inspiration, the one who created creativity, the one who brought light from darkness, who made symphonies from silence.
I AM A DESIGNER
I want to make beautiful things, even if nobody cares. —Paul Rand
A couple days ago, I got to sit down with a group of students from a variety of disciplines—Biology, Education, Exercise Science, Marketing, Business, Biblical and Religious Studies, and Communication Studies—and have a conversation about our passions, interests, and how our chosen fields of study have influenced us. Our conversation came about because of my friend, Ryan Hammond, who I have known since I was 18. Ryan was my brother’s college roommate, and the very first person I ever asked to critique my graphic design. Ryan is just finishing up his MFA—the terminal degree in his field of Visual Communication Design—from Kent State University, and the focus group I was a part of was a component of Ryan’s research for his thesis project called “Designer as Cultivator.” Ryan’s thesis is centered around the idea about how design can better fit into Liberal Arts education. Instead of having people take surveys or synthesizing the thoughts of other experts,
I am a designer
Ryan is collecting his research through conversations. He gathers people from many different academic disciplines and professional backgrounds, and encourages them talk about what they do and why they find it important or exciting. In the end, Ryan hopes to find a way to show that all of our disciplines intertwine together, informing and collaborating and intersecting in order to promote beauty and truth, and ultimately, better design. Ryan has been my design mentor since my freshman year, and has replied to dozens of emails soliciting his opinion on everything from movie posters, to websites where I could get good typefaces, to whether or not I should take my life savings and offer it up to Apple in exchange for a Macbook Pro. If it weren't for Ryan, I wouldn't have the computer I’m typing this essay on, I wouldn’t be taking the classes I am, and I certainly would not have had a chance to participate in a deeply influential conversation, a conversation that helped me realize a lot of important things about my time at college, about what I love, about who I am, about what I want to do with my life. Throughout the conversation that Ryan facilitated, I, along with the other participants, were asked to reflect back on all the classes, papers, and assignments, and why we thought it was important. As I began to recall aloud to those in the discussion group the path my life, work, and education has taken, I almost began to laugh. The story of my education is—frankly—a complicated mess, but a mess that I am proud of, thankful for, indebted to. Four years ago, I would not have been able to sit down and have an interdisciplinary discussion on what my passions, interests, and chosen fields of study influenced or mattered to 77
me; I wouldn't have know what to say or how to answer. But now, on the cusp of my graduation, I finally have something to say about who am I am, what I love, and what I do. Four years later, I find myself taking classes in subjects I would do for fun. Four years later, I am telling people about design, a word and discipline I had no comprehension of when I came to this college. Four years later, I'm taking my fourth design class under Professor Nate Mucha, a person who has taught me so much about the principles and fundamental components of design and challenged me not to make it good, but make it great. And four years later, I'm doing crazy, weird, fun things for class, like making original pasta packaging based off Wes Anderson films and writing a book of essays about growing up. It's wild, and it's an honor to be at this point in my education, the point where I can finally see the point. One of the things that came up in my conversation with my peers is that four years later—after four design classes, ten wedding invitation orders, an internship in graphic design—I still didn't think of myself as a designer. But sometime between when I left that focus group and today, I realized this: I was wrong. I am a designer. For many reasons, I never felt comfortable calling myself a designer, but as moms always do, my mom knew better. Just the other day while we were having a conversation about these same doubts, my mom told me this: “Grace: when you think about it, you have been designing and making things for a long time! It goes back to your elementary school days!” When I was in elementary school, I began a business in third grade with a friend. We made and sold tissue paper flowers and custom crayon drawings. Our peer, Richie Klumph, 78
I am a designer
disapproved of the business and retaliated by making his own drawings of me and my friend’s faces with the label “CORN BUTT” at the bottom of each picture. I pretended I was mad about it, but third-grade me actually thought “corn butt” was a pretty funny insult. By high school, I had moved on and started my own gift tag and card making business, wielding my designs to teachers and students alike around the Christmas holiday to make enough money to buy gifts for my growing family…and to have a little extra to buy that box set of DVDs from PBS Masterpiece theatre. I guess I really have always been a maker and a marketer. I came to the discipline of design that I currently practice in really by accident and desperation, looking for some kind of way to give my siblings meaningful Christmas presents on a shoestring budget during my freshman year of college. That Christmas, I made my first poster. From there, I didn’t stop, not really knowing what I was doing but doing it anyway. But while this was going on, and even as my skills greatly improved from month-to-month, I still felt like an imposter any time someone asked me if I wanted to be a designer after college. I could never answer without some kind of self-deprecating statement about my lack of skill or knowledge or education. I often hid behind this false idea that I had to think and dress and act a certain way to merit being able to tell people I was a practicing graphic designer. But now I know: just because I may not look like a designer, or talk like a designer, or have an Instagram account that proves I am a designer, design matters to me. I took me four years and a discussion with a bunch of people from different
majors to realize it, but design IS a huge part of my life, and it's not going anywhere anytime soon. I am designer. I have always been a designer, and I always will be. I am designer because I agree with Paul Rand, one of the most famous designers of our time: â€œI want to make beautiful things, even if nobody cares.â€? I want to be a designer that uses all forms of expression and dives into all the different disciplines in order to communicate beauty. I want to write essays about truth. I want to make interesting posters. I want to write quality copy for social media posts. I want to make beautiful things even if nobody cares, because I believe that is what a good designer does, what good person does. In the past four years at college, I have had the privilege of being at the right place at the right time. Iâ€™ve been surrounded by people who have inspired me to make beautiful things, to be a designer, to be a writer, to be a creator, to be a dreamer. Ryan Hammond, Nate Mucha, Jen Mobley, Collin Messer: they have been the ones who have been champions for the joy of learning in a liberal arts setting, something my publicly educated self was admittedly suspicious of when I first came to college. These folks have done a great job in exemplifying that a liberal arts education can be an active, collaborative, powerful, and exciting endeavor that promotes beauty and truth and a better tomorrow. They have helped me realize that it's okay to call myself a designer and a writer even though I'm a very young work-inprogress. They have encouraged me not to practice my discipline(s) with a sense of shame or embarrassment, but exploration and inquisitiveness. They have allowed me to sit in a room with other majors and find myself teary-eyed as I speak 80
I am a designer
because I've realized how incredibly lucky I am to learn what I love, and love what I learn. They have helped me to walk away from this place enlightened, equipped, and inspired to make beautiful things.
For Dad—Thanks for playing catch with me all those years. Happy 60th Birthday and here’s to many more.
Before Leuenbergers were runners, we were baseball players. If my estimates are correct, I have attended over 200 Little League baseball games in my time, my first less than a week after I was born. I had my first cigarette at a Little League game (cigarette butt, that is...as the youngest child I had a penchant for eating things off the ground that I shouldn’t have at these kind of events). For two years we lived in the town where the Little League World Series was played each August, spending those last summer nights before school began again sitting on a steep hill watching Japan play Cuba or the USA play Mexico. Throughout that first decade of my life, countless days in March through May were spent in metal bleachers, watching, cheering, and getting sunburned kneecaps. Baseball was an integral part of my childhood, an activity that shaped the schedule of my days just as it shaped my sense of self.
One of the most memorable moments of my childhood happened at one of those many Little League baseball games, game number 104... or something like that. I was in 3rd grade. I was sitting in the bleachers at yet another one my brother Sam’s Little League games: The Dodgers vs. The Tigers, watching both teams warming up in the outfield by playing catch: scooping up ground balls, getting under pop-up-flys, stretching their dusty leather gloves and extending their growing limbs to make the play. At one point, Greg Hahn—one of the Dodgers—did not stretch his glove far enough during warm-ups, and a stray ball came flying into the bleachers. My shining moment of brief childhood/little sister/baseball glory had come. I scrambled off my seat in the bleachers, retrieved the ball, wound up, and threw it back into the field, high above the heads of Greg, my brother Sam, and Frank Lenzi, the coach of The Dodgers. “WHOA!” Frank yelled to me. “You have a strong arm!” A grin spread across my face from ear to ear.“Yeah that’s what my dad tells me!” I yelled back, thrilled with the compliment, revelling in my Little League glory, proud of the strength of my arm. That moment at the VFW Little League field was in the making since the age of 5, the age when I can first recall playing catch with my dad. We would toss a baseball back and forth on the grass island between the church bell tower and the oak tree— the air was always thick and warm, the shadows long. I would wear knit shorts from Sears, and dad would wear his Dockers pleated khakis because I didn’t want to wait for him to change out of his work clothes to play catch with me. I’d always demand that he put me through the paces, all the basics: ground balls, pop-flyto-the-sky, and “throw-it-hard-this-time” fastballs. I would dart 83
around that grass island, sweat dampening my bangs to my forehead, my arm tiring and my hand stinging as I made every effort to return each ball to my dad with all the strength my little self could muster. “You’ve got a strong arm!” my dad would say to me (long before Frank Lenzi), a grin spreading across my roseycheeked face as we went inside to put our gloves back in the green plastic basket underneath the stairs. That was a compliment I can remember being distinctly proud of as a child. I loved being called strong. To a tall, gangly six year old girl who had a tendency to feel a bit out of place amongst her dainty classmates, being told I had “a strong arm” was a formative moment. With that compliment, my dad began to teach me one of the most important lessons I needed to learn as a child. He encouraged me to be proud what gifts I did possesses, of what strength I did have, of who I was and how I was made. Playing catch with my dad on those humid summer nights taught me to not be ashamed of my identity, my gender, my skills, my interests, my personality traits. I was Grace Leuenberger, and I was strong. As I’ve gotten older, I realize how formative that lesson I learned while playing catch would be in the future I had ahead of me, the power behind the connotations of that word and that trait. 16 years later, I’ve found myself in situations where I’ve been confronted with the negative associations that can come with the word strong and the traits that stems from strength. Words like aggressive, intense, and bossy have pushed their way to the front of my mind, words I didn’t feel the string of when I was playing baseball in the backyard with my dad. It wasn’t until I recently that this realization occurred and witnessed firsthand that 84
being strong could be perceived as a problem by others. While in college I’ve been told my “strong personality could prove challenging for a man accept,” I’ve been called a “f—ing b—h” after being elected to a leadership position over my peer, and I’ve been told by a classmate that I needed to “submit to his authority in further leadership matters.” This criticism has stung hard. This kind of stinging was a sensation in the soul, but the same sensation has affected my physical body before too, a sensation I also experienced when playing catch with my dad. If I hadn’t played catch in a while, my hand would always be sore afterwards, the muscles not yet built up to absorb and distribute the shock of the hardened baseball when it met the soft flesh of my hand. But over time, my hand got stronger, the muscles in my palm were built up, resilient, able to absorb the sting of any fastball my dad could throw at me. Over time, the muscles in my hand were trained by the help of the person on the other side who wouldn’t let me be afraid of the “throw-it-hard-this-time” fastballs. Over time, playing catch with my dad made me strong. But I didn’t build this strength on my own. I didn’t go outside and throw baseballs at the garage door as fast as I could. I didn’t lift weights. I didn’t practice by myself. I grew strong because my dad played catch with me, my dad poured words of encouragement to me that would stay with me long after I outgrew my childhood baseball mitt. As I’ve had to deal with the string of criticism, the backlash of being a leader, I am indebted for the people on the other side who made me strong, the ones who stood by my side and helped me deal with the pain and not accept the sting as a permanent injury. A synonym for strong is well-built, and I am 85
well-built because of those who helped build me up when others tried to tear me down. I learned the important lessons that have made me who I am from a father who in many ways, reflects the traits of a bigger Father. I was lucky enough to learn these foundations truths when I was young, and not just from my dad, but from my mom, too. Together, they have each helped me become who I am, who have empowered me to be able to do the things I do and love the things I love, to see what is true and good and honorable and cling to those things. Undeniably, there are more moments ahead when the sting will resurface, when my strength will be tested and when my very identity will be scrutinized. But I will remember the foundation I am built on, the things I learned while playing catch outside on the grass island between the church bell tower and the oak tree, while eating around the dinner table, while sitting at Little League games. Over a decade has passed since I last played catch. Just last winter while packing for another move, I found the basket of baseball gloves as I was sorting through old mittens and gloves, including my dad’s. As I put my hand into his glove, I was brought back to all those muggy summer nights, to the lessons I learned playing catch. That glove is a piece of my past, an artifact of my identity. It is my dad’s glove, and it reminds me that the sting will subside, that I should not be afraid of fastballs, that I can be proud of being called strong. That glove was part of one of the most important lessons I’ve learned: to not be ashamed of who I am or how I was made, because my father and my Father love me that way. It’s an old lesson, an old truth, but as I grow older myself, I’m finding that those kind of truths are the best. 86
I have never let my schooling interfere with my education. ― Mark Twain
A few weeks ago, I found myself sitting in a windowless conference room with ten employees of a very large corporation participating in the first round of the interview process. There were really no surprise questions in the interview—tell us about yourself, what are your primary skills, what are your career goals, etc. However, my answer to one question—“What coursework have you taken at college that is relevant to this position?”— surprised even me. As the interviewer asked that question, I quickly racked my brain, desperate for a tidy answer that would fit easily in to the empty box on her evaluation form. But as I considered the question, I found that I didn’t have a tidy answer. The answer was complicated, and the honest truth yielded an unsatisfactory output for the data collectors in the room. As much as I’m sure I was supposed to, I couldn’t give the recruiters in the room the right buzzwords that would perhaps prove I was right for the job, right for their department, a wise 87
investment for the future of their thousands-strong workforce. I haven’t taken the digital marketing classes I’m sure they wanted, nor the consumer behavior classes. I don’t know a lick about search engine optimization, nor have I even been formally educated on social media strategy. I don’t have a graphic design minor, and the minor I choose to pursue is something I am doing simply because I enjoy the subject and wanted to learn more—for the joy of learning. Considering these things, I decided to tell the recruiters not about my coursework, but about my education. I told them that over my four years at college, I’ve spent a lot of time reading books and articles, crafting essays and submitting papers, discussing and debating, and—in the end— learning how to learn. I’ve been taught how to think critically and how to be criticized, how to disagree and how to encourage, how to see the big picture and how to appreciate the small moments of the day, how to delight in words and how to express my own voice with them, how to unlearn lies and how to cling to truths. I have seen myself get smarter and stronger, but also have learned just how much I have left to learn. More than any class, test, or accredited course, overall it has been my education that has equipped me for not just a position, but for the future—whatever and wherever that future might be. I left that interview pretty sure that my answer about my academic background didn’t quite fit into the desirable form, didn’t quite check off the right boxes, didn’t quite line up with each of the required qualifications. But I also left that interview feeling inspired despite the un-inspirational nature of that moment. I left convinced more than ever of the worthy pursuit of lifelong learning, of the merits of education even when perhaps 88
hasn’t made me a better fit for a good paying job that will be the envy of my peers. “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education,” Mark Twain famously said. After seventeen years of formal schooling, I’ve finally caught a glimpse into what it looks like to not let convention or expectation get in the way of my growth as a student or in my pursuit to become a lifelong learner. So the day after that interview, I decided to follow the words of Mark Twain. I pulled a Huck Finn. I abandoned my adult responsibilities and I headed West to the land of potential. Well in actuality, I just decided to skip all my classes at college, get in to my car, and drive six hours to the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, VA. I didn’t go West, but I did go South to a city I love, a city of mountains and good coffee and old friends. I went South to pursue a moment that wouldn't make me have a better GPA or a better LinkedIn profile, but would undoubtedly be one of the most exciting moments of my education. My Huck Finn moment raised the eyebrows of many of my fellow students, but funnily enough, not my professors. When I warned my professors of my upcoming absence and its reason, they supported my decision, smiled with a kind of brightness that seemed to recognize and accept that there were some lessons that they could not teach me, but that as an employee at an institution of higher education, that they had still succeeded in their job: making a forever-student out of me, making me hunger and thirst for lessons beyond the lecture hall. This trip I took was so I could hear, see, and (unbeknownst to me that this would be a component of the trip too) meet my favorite novelist, Marilynne Robinson, who was 89
giving a lecture series at UVA for three days and three days only. This opportunity to hear a Pulitzer Prize winner and a remarkable intellectual—someone I so admire—is something I will remember forever. My to-do list for the week was wrecked by this trip, and both irresponsibility and learning never felt so good. During the question and answer time that followed the lecture, my friend, Anna, a high school English teacher, asked Marilynne Robinson if she had any insight to provide from one educator to another on inspiring students to learn to love learning. Marilynne responded: We must ask ourselves, our students: what’s the meaning, the limit of this gift of the mind? Because in the end, there is an intrinsic beauty of the human brain. We must teach our students to know that it is a privilege to be what they are and where they are. That thought was met a wave of agreeing nods that rippled throughout the audience, and as I heard Ms. Robinson say those words, I felt my own head nodding too. Education is so much more than equipping the brain for a job, and the brain is so much more than an organ. It is a tool, a vast and fascinating thing existing within each and every one of us. At that moment, I was struck with a profound gratitude for my education, for the ability to sit in a lecture hall filled with academics, intellectuals, students, moms, dads, grandparents, businessmen, writers, readers, pastors, and secretaries, and not only be able to have the experience I had, but enjoy the experience. I would not be sitting there—interested in what was being said, having read the books I
have, or found myself even educated enough to follow along— without the people around me who believed that there was intrinsic beauty and value in the human mind, the unique brain I have been given, eccentricities and all. I was raised in a home that valued books and learning by a pastor and a teacher—so really I was raised by two teachers. I had high school English teachers who cared about me, who pushed me to do better. I have attended a college that hasn’t viewed me as a financial chess piece in a game, but as a mind brimming with potential, as the possessor of a tool whose limits have not yet been explored. I have been able to test the limits of my mind with professors who cultivate critical thinking like a gardener preparing for spring planting: with patience, determination, care, and a deep understanding of the beauty that comes from such an approach. As I sat there in that lecture with 300 other people, 300 other minds brimming with dumbfounding complexities and beautiful eccentricities, I felt a sense of sheer exhilaration. Aside from the fun that came from the experience itself (She signed my copy of Gilead! We got our picture taken together! They served free wine and appetizers after the lecture!), the experience of attending that Marilynne Robinson lecture encouraged me that even as I move the tassel from one side of my cap to the other this May, that I will never stop being a student and a learner, that I will never stop caring about beauty and truth and books and ideas. It’s because, as Marilynne Robinson said with a small smile in a quiet, contemplative voice, addressing all who had gathered in that university lecture hall on a regular Tuesday afternoon, “We have vastly more to learn.” 91
Come unto Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.— Matthew 11:28
This year, I’ve seen several friends go through excruciatingly painful life experiences: the ending of a relationship with a person they thought was going to propose, the separation of another’s parents, the loss of two grandfathers to cancer, the shooting of a friend, the suicide of a father, the rejection from a job they were so sure they would get. Words I was taught as a child echo through my head, but this time, the reality of them stings. There is a time for everything, a season for every activity under the heavens. This year I’ve listened to friends tell me they’re depressed and have responded horribly. I’ve struggled to provide words of comfort for a friend who graduated early and returned to an atmosphere of loneliness. I’ve sat on the edge of dorm room beds listening to doubts and grief and anger pour out of people who used to be so joyful. I’ve sat at a cafeteria table for two hours listening to a friend tell me the life he dreamed of would never 92
come to pass, that this year that was supposed to be his best yet was his worst yet. I’ve checked my inbox only to find the news of a classmate’s suicide. A time to throw away, a time to weep, a time to uproot, a time to mourn. In A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis writes: “We were promised sufferings. They were part of the program. We were even told, 'Blessed are they that mourn,' and I accept it. I've got nothing that I hadn't bargained for. Of course it is different when the thing happens to oneself, not to others, and in reality, not imagination.” It seems unfair that in this time that we bargained that we’d be dancing, we are sitting around the table pushing dried-out brown rice around in circles with bent forks, unsure of what to say, unsure how to help, unsure if we ever can help. For the first time in my life, I finally get why every week at church we pray for those who are grieving. For the first time in my life, grief has become part of the discussion, part of my prayers. And most all of the time, grief doesn't feel very good. I didn’t expect to see my friends’ lives change in a way that we only ever thought would happen to other people’s friends, other people’s families, parents, siblings. Not to my people. Not to Emily, not to a person who is kind and always happy, and has one of the best, most genuine smiles I’ve ever seen. Not to Molly, who was barely wiping the tears from her cheeks over one loss before the phone call came again. Not to Nate, whose laugh is one I can hear from across the cafeteria. Not to them. This isn’t what we bargained for. This is not the program we signed up for. During seasons like this when I’m seeing the people I love in pain, it’s sometimes easiest to numb myself to the situation, to 93
ignore it, to shrink back and not interfere. It’s much easier that way—to justify in our minds that those who are grieving probably want to left alone anyway, that is isn’t our business and that we don’t need to play a part. We come up with the “facts” of the matter and stick to them: someone else is helping them already, someone else is asking if they’re okay and insisting on hearing the true answer, someone else is being their friend through this time of grief. But this way of living—of shifting the responsibility to others and of assuming that our feelings of discomfort are a warning sign to go no further—is not the way we are called to love or the way we are called to treat our friends. This life is not a buffet where we get to choose the circumstances in life that will bring us the greatest satisfaction, maximum pleasure, minimal pain, the most freedom. If we had the opportunity to live life with optimal conditions this way, if we were able to pick and choose what we think would satisfy our palate, we would be like children: choosing all sugar, all the time—Pixie Stix, blue raspberry slushies, and Fun Dip — the “pure” sugar treats that satisfy our cravings for sweetness. But this kind of diet is sickening, empty, dizzying, artificial, insubstantial. As we become adults, our tastebuds must change, and we must recognize that the true sweetness of the passover lamb cannot be experienced before the bitter herbs are consumed. We must come to know that true friendship takes the good with the bad, and is made better, stronger, deeper because of the ups and downs, because of the times of mourning and weeping and searching. I am not called to turn my face away, not to avoid the discomfort, not to put blinders on in order protect myself, not to 94
just ignore the grief my friends are experiencing. I am called to fully engage with reality: messy, raw reality. And some days it won’t be easy. I’ll sit at a table and struggle to find the right words, and instead I can only just sit there. But I feel like that just sitting there is more than just sitting there. Sitting in grief with another person makes me feel small, insignificant, powerless, but in the best kind of way. Sometimes we need to realize that this world is so much bigger than us and our problems, so much bigger than our current circumstances. Sometimes we need to feel small so we run into the protection of the great Protector, the comforter, whose sacrifice was made sweeter because of the bitter wine that touched his holy lips in his hours of suffering. Timothy Keller says that Christianity “empowers its people to sit in the midst of this world’s sorrows, tasting the coming joy.” This kind of joy sticks to the ribs. It’s not the sugary, insubstantial, temporary fix that masks itself as joy and fades quickly, but the kind of joy that understands that in every facet of life—whether it is marriage or friendship or work or school— there is a time for everything, a season for every activity under the sun. The night that my friend Emily’s dad would die, me, Kelleigh, Allie, and Hope all went to Emily’s room for a girl’s night in. We sat on old, saggy couches that had probably been in dorm rooms for fifteen years, and ate Hope and Emily’s freshly baked chocolate chips cookies—big, rich chocolate chunks and crispy, buttery edges. That night was full of laughing and even some dancing. It was this quality time simply spent together, not even doing much of anything, that forged our friendship into something strong, into the kind of friendship that takes the dancing and laughing alongside the weeping and the mourning. 95
We do not have the privilege or ability to realize that moments made in dorm rooms just sitting there can be lifechanging. We do not realize how we are being quietly trained for a new season of friendship, equipped with a loyalty that recognizes that people are not trophies that can be disposed of after the shine wears off, after the laughter fades, after the flowers have died, after the sympathy cards stop coming. I will always remember that night spent eating cookies with Hope and Emily, even though I will always remember that a hard thing happened that night, too. It was a night that taught me that grief can sometimes be good because without it, I wouldnâ€™t be thankful for my friends, thankful for healthy parents, thankful for cookies and the ability to just sit in the presence of people who love me. Nights like those are full of complexities and connotations, but are what makes us human and what help us realize that we are in need of love, companionship, and hope. â€” This season is a strange one, filled with mourning and weeping. These months have showed me that while pain plays out, so does joy, friendship, and hope. Right there in the quiet moments of sitting, of questioning, of searching and scattering, God is forging our hearts, crafting us into his masterpieces, taking us through the furnace to be refined, purified, made more like his son. He gives us friends and cookies and other good things to remind us that this grief can be good, that there is more to these afflictions than just empty suffering. In this season, with the grief at hand and the reality to recognize, Iâ€™m seeing that there truly is a time for everything, a season for every activity under the heavens. Right now it may be weeping, mourning, searching, 96
scattering. But grief does not get the last word. Death will not have its sting. ———— Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life. —John 8: 12 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. —Ecclesiastes 3:11 Lord, you alone are my portion and my cup, you make my lot secure. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; surely I have a delightful inheritance. I will praise the Lord, who counsels me; even at night my heart instructs me. I keep my eyes always on the Lord. With him at my right hand, I will not be shaken. —Psalm 16: 5-8
Pittsburgh entered the core of my heart when I was a boy and cannot be torn out. —Andrew Carnegie
You could say that being a Pittsburgher is in my blood. My great grandfather, Hans Rudolf Leuenberger, immigrated from Switzerland to Ellis Island to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I came upon his certificate of citizenship, dated 1937, last fall when doing research for a class project on my family’s cultural biography. It reads: Hans Rudolf Leuenberger Birth date: October 8, 1907. Height: 5’ 8”. Weight 148 pounds. Complexion: Fair. Marital Status: Married. Nation of Origin: Switzerland. Address: 305 North Matilda Street, Pittsburgh, PA
Hans immigrated from Switzerland to Pittsburgh and went on to open H.R. Leuenberger, an ornamental steel fabrication business. Hans was a true Steeler, making beautiful chandeliers, railings, and furniture out of iron made in factories on the banks of Pittsburgh’s three rivers. Hans married my great grandmother Marie, the daughter of Swiss immigrants, and lived out the remainder of his life in Pittsburgh. My grandfather, Robert Hans Leuenberger, married my grandmother, a Pittsburgher, and went on to raise his three children (including my father) in Shaler, a suburb of Pittsburgh. My uncle Bob still owns H.R. Leuenberger, and has recently seen a resurgence in business as ornamental steel becomes fashionable again in the world of home furnishings. As you might guess, family gatherings are full of all those “Pittsburgh-ese” phrases you’ve read about, said with thick accents formed over years of life of residency in this unique city. Pittsburgh runs in our blood, and it runs thick. Last Christmas, I gave my dad a vintage-styled coaster depicting the skyline of the city of Pittsburgh, the city where he was born and raised. On the back of this coaster I wrote: "To a new year in an old place." The coaster was for my dad’s new office, an office he was taking at McKeesport Presbyterian Church, a church situated south of the city. After many years of being uncertain of what he was supposed to do or where he was supposed to go, my dad could not have been more excited, nor could his family either, to begin the next chapter of life in a city he called home, in a community filled with his people. When I finished up finals and left college last May, I was struck by how strange the experience was of coming home to a 99
new cityâ€”coming home to Pittsburgh. For three years, my drive home from college was fifteen minutes, and for twenty years, my house was less than a minute from an open field where cows grazed. This time, an hour into my drive on the way home, I crested a hill and came around the bend to see the city come into view. The blue-black rivers contrasted with the bright yellow bridges, the sweep of the convention center roof jutted into the sky, the skyscrapers stood stoically before my eyesâ€”this was my home. This was my city. This was my Pittsburgh. Being able to call Pittsburgh my city was a welcome transition for the time of life I was in. I was thankful for the opportunity to get live at home in work right downtown, excited for my big-person internship in the tallest building in all of Pittsburgh. At first, becoming a Pittsburgher meant learning how to navigate the city bus, memorizing all the names of the starting lineup of the Pirates, becoming aggressive enough to get to a parking spot in Oakland at 5 PM, and making note of what time to get Steel Tower Starbucks during the day. By the end of the summer, I was a tried-and-true Pittsburgher in all these categories. Well, thatâ€™s not really true; I was still bad at riding the bus, parallelized with fear that I would fall asleep and miss my stop and suddenly end up in a part of the city that was incomprehensibly far from where I needed to be. But more than anything, becoming a Pittsburgher meant coming face to face with my own ignorance on what this city was really like, of what stories this town had to tell that I never had planned on listening to. For years and years I grew up in a small town, unintentionally but resultantly sheltered from a whole world, a whole city, a whole community, a whole set of stories that I 100
never even knew existed—a whole Pittsburgh I never knew about. The more time I spent in Pittsburgh, the more I’ve realized how much I had and have left to learn about this city, about this place I now live, this place my family has called home since 1937. When my dad took the job at McKeesport, he told me that the position and place was very different from anything he had ever taken on. I didn’t give that comment much thought because I believed him, assured that moving to a city atmosphere would certainly be very different from our quiet life in Mercer. What I didn’t realize though was just how different it would be. Up until this year, I had no idea this kind of Pittsburgh existed. For so many years as a child, I thought of Pittsburgh as a fun destination, a place for museums and sports and sandwiches with french fries on them. I didn’t know a lick about places away from the pretty bridges and the rivers and the baseball field. I didn’t know about places like McKeesport. I didn’t know that on McKeesport’s high school basketball team, there are 21 out of 26 boys without fathers present in their homes, 6 out of 26 whose fathers were murdered. I had no idea, no idea about any of it. When you drive into McKeesport, it is not the same experience as the one I had when I first came home for summer break last May. It’s not the picture that you give to your dad on a coaster, not the photo you post on Facebook to share with all your friends who wonder how your family’s move went. Coming into McKeesport, you do not crest a hill and come around a bend to see a beautiful skyline sprawled out before you eyes, ready to be feasted upon. You see a family diner where, word has it, illegal slot machines are up and running in the hall by the bathrooms. You see house after house with rotting front porches, broken 101
windows, and peeling paint. You see a gas station with no cars at the pumps, but dozens of kids sitting on the curb out in front. I am daunted by the sight I see when I crest that hill, when I realize how little I know about being part of this community, of calling myself a Pittsburgher. I am daunted by the sight before before me. But then. But then. But then you come down the hill. On the left of is McKeesport Presbyterian Church, on the right is a sign, a simple white sign reading: WORKING FOR A BETTER MCKEESPORT RESPECT - DIGNITY - HOPE - LOVE I have looked at that sign many times now since my family has moved to Pittsburgh, made that drive not around the bend to see the pretty skyscrapers and bridges, but up the hill to see the abandoned houses. But this isnâ€™t all I see when I make that drive. Noâ€”I see Pittsburgh, the real Pittsburgh. I see a city aspiring towards a better tomorrow in light of the past, admidst the struggles of the present. Respect, dignity, hope, and love is the mantra of the future, the prayer for life to come. Here are the words for this city. Here live its people. Here live real families, families who, just like mine, have lived here for generation upon generation. Here reside the real Steelers, the families of folks who spent years employed at TubeWorks on the banks of the rivers. Here is the real Pittsburgh. This is my home. This is my city. This is my Pittsburgh. I know this is home because I can feel it my veins. Pittsburgh runs thick in my blood.
This May, in less than a month by the time this book makes it to print, I will follow my blood and make my own move to Pittsburgh. As I do, I have so many friends who are excited that I am moving there, excited to share with me the articles published by New York Times about how Pittsburgh was just named the #1 food city in America, or the articles by Outdoors Magazine that named Pittsburgh as one of its most livable cities. I get excited about these things too, excited to taste and experience and live in to all the art and music and sports and events Pittsburgh has to offer. “Are you ready to become a Pittsburgher?” many folks eagerly ask me, to which I always reply, “Yes!” “What kind of Pittsburgh are you referring to?” is really how I should respond. Are we talking the kind of Pittsburgh with the Trader Joes on the corner and the poetry readings and the season tickets to the Pirates games? Or are we talking the kind of Pittsburgh that I see when I crest that hill? The kind who looks at that sign on the corner of North Versailles Avenue and prays that respect, dignity, hope, and love would not just be words on a sign, but the steadfast qualities of a neighborhood? If I’m being honest, it sounds like a way better deal to live in the kind of Pittsburgh I first described. I’m way more ready to share the photo of the cool meatballs I got in the cultural district than I am of the grounds that surround my dad’s place of employment. But then, when I come down that hill, come to that traffic light, see that sign—RESPECT - DIGNITY - HOPE - LOVE—I can’t help but feel that THIS—this is the Pittsburgh I am meant to be a part of. This is the Pittsburgh that gets my heart racing, that gets my blood pumping, that gets me fired up and mad and proud all at the same time. This is the kind of Pittsburgh I want 103
more people to know about, the kind of Pittsburgh I want to fight for. This is the Pittsburgh I am ready and want to call home. Some people who have lived here for a long time might be disgusted at my ignorance of what this city was actually like, shocked at how I would be so unaware of the poverty of place so close to where I grew up. Sometimes I am disgusted with my own ignorance, shocked that I could go all these years and never know, never care. But there is only so much time for shame, so much time for embarrassment that I never knew. I feel thankful that I am here now. I am thankful my mother and father listened to God's call even when it took them to the kind of Pittsburgh that people don’t like to photograph, don’t like to put on coaster, don’t like to talk about, don’t like to believe has a future. I’m proud to have a father who moved to McKeesport because he refused to agree that it is a place that is done and over, but instead believed that respect, dignity, hope, and love were worth pursuing, and have the power to change this community. Mine is a city that has shown time and time again that hope cannot and will not be lost. This Pittsburgh—the real Pittsburgh—my Pittsburgh—is more than a set of statistics about gun violence, more than an article about trendy food joints, more than an accent or a set of sports teams, more than some rundown neighborhoods. It is a place where mayors are championing progress, where churches are cherishing community, where peace is being preached, where people are refusing to give up. I am proud to be moving to this place, proud to begin work with a ministry on the North Side of Pittsburgh that believes in things like respect, dignity, hope, and love, that believes change happens one person, one family, one block at a time. I am 104
proud that my family's roots run deep in this town, that in my past are the true Steelers, the ones whose occupations remind me that beauty is forged in fire, that strength is formed in the furnace, that a work of art must first be shaped and crafted at the hands of a Creator. So here I am. Ready to be formed. Ready to begin a new year in an old place. You have entered the core of my heart, Pittsburgh, and you cannot be torn out.
As long as we know what it's about, then we can have the courage to go wherever we are asked to go, even if we fear that the road may take us through danger and pain. ― Madeleine L'Engle
Today is my birthday. I am twenty-two years old. I do not feel very different from how I felt yesterday, back when I was twenty-one and not twenty-two. I still have a zit on my chin, still don’t know how to do my taxes, and I still can’t decide if I like seafood or not. I thought hat life would actually be quite different from what it actually is by the time I turned twenty-two. I imagined that I would feel much more grown up, much more capable, much more ready to “become an adult.” That my tastes would be refined, my opinions decided, my wardrobe sophisticated, my sense of humor witty and winsome. In reality, I am neither refined nor sophisticated, and most days I feel like I’m simply masquerading as an adult. Sometimes I convince myself that I’m the only one who feels this way. But in my conversations over the years, as more candles get added to 106
the cake and more of my friends become tax-payers, too, Iâ€™m finding that I (as I am one to be and as you have discovered while reading this book of essays) was wrong. All of us are still growing up. Me included. At each age I come to, I am finding that though I really do look different, sound different, and think different, components of my childhood self never really have left me. Within me exist all my past selves, like traditional Russian nesting dolls pilling one within the other. Within me nest: the creative self I discovered at age eight, the funny self I discovered at age ten, the independent self I discovered at fifteen, and the resilient self I found at sixteen. Year upon year, experience after experience, together they stack together, building one on top of another to make me into the image, thinker, sister, student, worker, daughter, friend, and woman that exists today. So who am I today, on my twenty-second birthday, on April 15th, 2016? Who sits at this computer and writes today? I guess I am only able to answer those questions through the lens and layers of my identity that have been building up while Iâ€™ve been growing up. Much of my present, twenty-two year old self who sits here and writes is the way she is because of the stories of my childhood. I suppose this is why I chose to write a book of essays about the topic that I did. Things like catch and brothers and skinned knees and neighborhood football games and high school car ride conversations have come together, layer-by-layer, nesting doll by nesting doll, to make me into who I am today and help me figure out who I want to be. They are the stories of my past that will inevitably shape my future.
Writing this small book of essays has helped me these stories. I’ve discovered parts within me that I forgot about, blocked from my memory, or didn’t take the time to appreciate. And in this process, I am learning not just things about my past self, but things about my present self, things that will inform my future self as she grows up too. I am being taken part and put back together with a greater understanding of why I am the way I am, of who I am and why I was made to be this way. This is how my twenty second year is beginning: with a reflection on the past twenty one years. I feel the same as I did yesterday, but I know that, as Marilynne Robinson writes “somehow at the end of it I will be so utterly changed.” Today’s present self is becoming tomorrow’s past self, that new layers will be added inside of me, nesting one within the the other, exerting influence and shaping me into the person I am becoming. I am growing up. Question marks remain, anticipation is in the air. This year I will start a new job, move to a new place, meet new people, make new mistakes. I have no idea how things will unfold from here, what stories like ahead. But as I’ve said before, what I do know is that is I don’t want my life story to be a set of blank pages about all the things I could have done, but never did. So with that in mind, I begin. I begin with a mindfulness about the past, an appreciation for the present, and a hope for the future. Ahead are all kinds of ups and downs. Ahead are stories set in kitchens, told in car rides to the grocery story, set in my own postage stamp of native soil. Ahead are stories that will make me laugh, to the stories that will make my cry. Somehow at the end of it, I will be so utterly changed. So here’s to you, Twenty-Two.
Thank you to those who have been participants, contributors, and inspirations for the stories that exist within these pages: Abby, Rachel, Molly, Mat, Judah, Larry, Shauna, Clive, Heidi, Mandy and Courtney, Colin and Elizabeth, Mary Grace, Ashley White, Molly, Evelyn, James, Peter, Rachael, Brittany, Clare, Nate, Ryan, and Marilynne, and all the other folks who appear named and unnamed in this book. Many thanks to Dr. Jennifer Mobley, for sitting with me that fateful day back in December and looking me in the eye when I told you that this project scared me. Thank you for not letting me off the hook, for encouraging me to face my fear and take the plunge and attempt to convey the chaotic thoughts that existed only in mind. This process has been so very important in this tumultuous season of life, and I know 45 year old me will enjoy (or recoil) at the memories within this book. And 45 year old Grace, if you pulled this little book out of the attic and are reading this right now, I hope you got that golden retriever, and that you named her after a First Lady. Thank you to Andy, Josiah, and Sam for teasing me as a child. I would have neither the sense of humor nor the tenacity I 110
have today without the influence each of you exerted on me. Thank you for all the Indian burns, couch foot-wresting matches, and dinner table teasing sessions. I am a better person for all of that. However, can we meet up sometime so you can tell me all the secrets you told me youâ€™d tell me when I was 12? Thank you mom, for reading all those Harry Potter books aloud to me, growing me into the lover of stories that I am today. And thank you dad, for sitting on the edge of my bed and tucking me in with the accompaniment of a story about your childhood, like the time you had a rock fight in neighboring construction zone in Shaler. Thank you for instilling within me a love for reading, books, and storytelling, and for cultivating a keen talent of observation, recollection, and impersonation. Leuenbergers are some of the best storytellers I know. I canâ€™t wait for all the stories that still lie ahead.
twenty-two I am committing to write this book of essays you hold in your hands even though I might write the wrong thing. Even though it will be hard along the way, even though people might hate it or never read it, even though and because it scares me. There is more to write, uncover, create…Now is the time for me to put my pen to page, make mistakes, and print a book that probably has typos and errors because whole production is way more about process than it is about product. — Twenty-Two is a collection of stories about growing up, making mistakes, and discovering that life will never turn out as I imagine it will. It offers a glance into my very ordinary existence, and promises no accounts of sweeping romances or impressive accomplishments. But it promises truth and vulnerability, two words I’m becoming better friends with as the years go by. I hope you are able to find a shred of inspiration, a laugh, or a moment of joy within these erroneous pages. And if you don’t, that’s okay, too. After all, I’m only twenty-two.
Grace Leuenberger is 22 years old. She is a 2016 graduate of Grove City College, where she majored in Communication Studies. She’s currently employed as a marketing associate with Urban Impact Foundation, a non-profit ministry whose mission is to invest in the lives of at-risk children, youth and their families in the North Side of Pittsburgh in order to develop productive and responsible members of society and the community. She enjoys writing blogs, watching British television, eating breakfast food, walking her golden retriever, running, and playing with her niece and nephews.
Twenty-Two: Essays on Growing Up is a book of narrative essays by Grace Leuenberger. Twenty-Two is a collection of stories about growing u...
Published on Apr 29, 2016
Twenty-Two: Essays on Growing Up is a book of narrative essays by Grace Leuenberger. Twenty-Two is a collection of stories about growing u...