How Do You End a Phase?

When does a phase become a rut?

Miranda and I had jokingly made a New Year’s Resolution in 2009 to “turn this douche of a life around,” but August rolled around and we hadn’t made much progress – okay, no progress except to re-title 2009 “Douche Awareness Year.”  And then came 2010.  After living in the Knapp House for four and a half years, I realized that I had gotten stuck in this idea of “Now What” and the limbo between college and the great expanse of the rest of my life.  As one of M’s coworkers once said, “What are the markers for the rest of your life once you graduate if you’re not married?”  It looked like this fairly happy, comfortable life could go on for an indeterminate period of time.

This freaked me out.

I had told myself I would use this time/phase of limbo to figure out what I wanted to do with my life; I had gotten lazy and settled for life as it was. The problem was, I simply had no good reason to change anything. I loved our house. I loved living with M for the most part (after four years of living together, anyone can get on your nerves, even a saint).  I loved my job, my environment, and the friendships I’d invested in.  There honestly wasn’t any big change I could see that would make me any happier than I already was.  But, I was way too comfortable while being unsatisfied at the same time.  Something had to change.  I barely felt like I was living; I found that I was just waiting for something new to happen, as if God would rain down answers.

So, by 2010, I realized I had to at least MENTALLY take a leap out of my limbo-phase mindset I’d become comfortably trapped in.  I had to mentally create for myself a marker of change from the “Now What” phase.  I wasn’t really in that limbo anymore.  I wasn’t married or having kids or whatever – fine – but I had progressed to some new phase of life.  I had pushed out of the wandering, figuring out phase and into the “Oh, these are the decisions I have made for my life” period.  It was time to stop waiting and embrace…something.

But, once again, there was that question – What did I want?  Even of what I had, what were the best parts I should do more with?  What could make life as good as I could make it? What would make life bigger, fuller, richer?

Thought. Thought. Thought.

Prayer. Prayer. Prayer.

I finally reached the conclusion that, in order to have my own life and do what I wanted, find what I wanted, be what I wanted, I needed to be on my own.  I was excited to branch out and start afresh, on my own – I REALLY had liked living on my own in Detroit, and I figured this would be even better since I had friends in Grand Rapids and wouldn’t feel so isolated.

But, for a variety of reasons, I stayed put.   However, God sends solace in odd ways, at least in my life.  In January 2010, for some reason our landlord decided that he would paint our entire house, and I made a fun two-week friend out of Painter Elf while they painted – surprisingly, with vibrant colors I myself would have picked.  For some reason, this simple change to my abode made me perfectly fine with continuing to live there.  It was a small change, but I’m an artist at heart and the sudden burst of color on the walls was enough for me to feel refreshed, I think.  So this got me through winter.

Then, in April 2010, I lost my job and had a rather intense week and a half of unemployment, during which I tried to decide all the more what I really wanted to be doing.  I realized that I had loved my job, to my surprise.  When I semi-miraculously had an exact replica of that job (but better!) dumped in my lap, I had to admit that maybe God had been showing me that what I wanted vocationally was exactly what I’d had.  Between the paint job and the new job, I was refreshed and surprisingly happy with where I was.  I’d made enough internal switches and mental leaps from the “Now What” that very few physical things actually needed to change.  Mind over matter, so they say, but it really did work and I felt prepared to continue onward and get better and better at contentment, if that makes sense. (This positive thinking was also oddly inspired by watching so much poker on TV.  Elizabeth Shannon, who I would not normally call anything like someone I admire, explained her whole approach to positive thinking in all areas of life, and for whatever reason that kinda stuck with me.)

In May 2010, M decided she wanted to buy a house.  And I moved with her.  This wasn’t exactly what I had planned, but it WAS a good end marker for the Knapp House, “Now What” phase.  Moving was a very physical change from all that, so maybe this was really the final thing I needed to completely snap out of my rut(s).  I was done waiting, done wallowing, done wondering.  I realized that I am not a person who needs goals or a specific list of things I want – I waste too much time trying to figure that out rather than taking what is in front of me and just going with it.  I have NEVER known what I want, so maybe that is kind of an answer in and of itself – I don’t have anything that I really want in order to be happy, so I find stuff along the journey and get contentment that way, or something.  “Let whatever happens happen” right?  Work with where you’re at.  Live in the Present.  And (like Kynacoba, my alter ego, in Book 4) I have to stop worrying and do what is best for me, because in the end, my life is up to me.

“Carpe diem.”

“Get busy living or get busy dying.”

“Nut up or shut up.”

 So… Here’s a sum-up of the last days before I moved out on my own.

Summer 2010 – the Summer of Like

I hate moving.  Not that I fear change, I just hate packing.  And starting a new job in the midst of this transfer didn’t help.  But the freedom to paint gave me enough joy to make it through – my room looked like Avatar by the time my stress was done splirting all over the walls.


Honestly, though, while that house was M’s home, it didn’t feel like mine.  It was not a house I ever would have bought.  But it was okay.  I liked it, but I didn’t love it.

A not-like:  MONSTER BUGS.  House centipedes have got to be the nastiest buggers in the Midwest.  They eat spiders and other vermin, sure – it would not surprise me at all to hear they’re capable of taking down small rats – but they’re welcome to do that outside.  They have no fear.   They’re smart.  They’re fast.  I had 3 run right at me while I was trying to kill them.

So you’d think that our constant insistence that these little monsters were terrifying would have kept people from ever coming over, but people still were willing to stop in from time to time.  And it was THESE houseguests who were welcome, which led me to realization about myself #576,588:  I really, really like people.

  • We met our neighbor, Marc, and began a note-writing war back and forth that started with him leaving a gift on our porch one night with a note that said “PLEASE BE QUIET!” and ended with us telling him to paint his flowers white because we didn’t like pink.
  • Shark Week 2010 was particular fun with Racie when we lay on the couch until 1:00 a.m. and refused to put our feet on the floor for fear of the Monster Bugs.
  • I randomly had a drink with Elijah after 15ish years.  Funny how people you barely knew in grade school turn out to be cool.
  • I became better friends with Marcus not only because he had access to a pool…though, that was a big part of it.
  • We had a Girls’ Night at one point where we watched Newsies and the Disney version of Robin Hood because Rachel and I have cartoon-crushes on the fox.  We ate waffle fries and Ozzies (otherwise known as Flurries unless you were watching the Red Wings/Blackhawks Stanley Cup game with Joel).  It was good.  Dressing up is something I personally never have need to do, so it was fun to slap on makeup, dresses, shoes, and go out for drinks downtown afterward.  I don’t know why I’ve never felt as comfortable around women as men (okay, Haymarsh, you’re to blame somewhat), but this night reminded me why I DO like being around strong, intelligent, fun, funny women from time to time.
  • I cannot explain how joygasmic the 2010 Camping Trip was.  A big part of it was probably my ability to take my friends on my turf – the Haymarsh.  Nothing makes me as at peace as being home, with friends, showing them my world and hoping they might come away loving it even half as much as I do.  campAnd I think that mission was accomplished.  Lying around on blankets with friends all weekend between rain bursts, swimming in the lake day and night, sitting around the campfire, playing “Haymarsh Spa” with Rachel in the mud, getting Jeff and Kyle nearly lost as they not-so-soberly followed my hike back to the campsite after a midnight swim.  It was good.

Really, this summer was so busy it was kind of a blur.  But it was really good, probably one of my favorites ever.  It’s good to be around other people to the point where I climb out of myself for a while.  I fell deeply in love with things and people in my life that were already there, strengthening my resolve to take what I had and make life better.

Fall 2010 – Oh, Fall.  Nothing, it just felt like it needed an “Oh, Fall.”

I always think Fall is a good time of reflection – everything dying, days growing shorter, and you can just feel winter coming.  Fall’s slowing down is good; summer is when you need to be busy and active so you don’t look like crap in a bikini.  Fall also, however, means I stay inside more and therefore become more likely to let little things build and bother me more.  So, my new philosophy in my age of wisdom – trick yourself.  Stay so busy (at least mentally) that you don’t have time to fester.  I suppose this is still Elizabeth Shannon’s positive thinking trick.  Or Wendell Berry’s “joyful though you have considered all the facts.” In any case, Fall in Michigan is a very brief time period, so I didn’t think much of it and just enjoyed what came as we crawled inevitably toward Winter.

  • Sundays became my favorite day of the week.  Brooke, Joel, M, and I met for almost every Lions game at the Saz for lunch and the communal self-torture of watching the Lions.  Although, we take personal responsibility for the last 4 wins of the Lions 2010 season – every time we ordered the Pizza Sub, they won.
  • Halloween.  After the previous year, we weren’t sure how to top it.  So, I went on a decorating rampage and M built a ping-pong table hal why we thought it would stay ping-pong for any length of time before becoming beer-pong, I don’t know).  It was glorious.  I bounced around from group to group so much it was dizzying, which may be partly responsible for my fall on the floor in front of everyone, after which most of the full room asked “Are you alright?” while my brother just looked at me, knowing that me falling is not a rare event.  Anyway, it was a great Halloween.  You know it’s a success when I don’t even notice it’s 3:00 a.m. before everyone leaves.
  • Admittedly, each Fall I become introspective about life at least partially because, come 11/23, I get older. And being only one year shy of 30 (though still a far cry from 35, my scary age) probably heightened the intensity of this year’s introspection.   For my birthday, a bunch of us met at the Saz for drinks.  I really need to get over being surprised that I like people and people care about me, but this was yet another good reminder.  Way more people showed up than I’d planned – Joel, Rachel, M, Christian, Amy, Phil, Jeremy, Brooke, James, Andy, Brad, Josh and Sarah, Josh and Katie, Dan, Marcus, Brian, Jeff, and Ryan.  I could have done without the Tabasco-based shot, but fortunately I was clever enough to pass it around so that it was only about half-full by the time I had to drink the evilness.   And it was kinda funny when Ryan at one point asked me, “Is that the guy you’re seeing?” and I responded with, “No. Wait, which guy? Wait, no, it doesn’t matter.  No.” 

Winter 2011 – UEF Storm

Dear friend Rachel needed to move back from Ann Arbor to Grand Rapids before going who-knew-where in the next Fall for law school.  Rachel’s presence, combined with Samson (her dragon/cat) made the usual winter hibernation much more bearable.   It was an adjustment getting used to three people in one house again, but if you haven’t picked up on my manic need for change by now…  Well, it was worth it. And with Rachel’s reappearance in our lives, the UEF (Unlikely Event Factor – from The Pigs Are Flying) rose considerably.

  • New Year’s Day – We thought it would be a great idea to have a big dinner for everyone at the house.  But, apparently we’re too old to stay up on New Year’s Eve and then be expected to be entertaining the next day.  Dinner was good, but then we all crashed on the couch.
  • Sarah Brown’s Baby Shower – As the first of our girl friends to have a baby, this was a little interesting.  Brooke, Christine, Miranda, and I sat on the floor in our own little word, planning a gauntlet-style baby shower for the next of us to get pregnant.  Then, later, we met the boys at a bar and went for dinner.  I bumped into Scott (ACS friend), who was drunk and gave me Mardi Gras beads…not sure what that was about.
  • Florida Trip – M and I had planned a road trip to go see Gloria way back when she’d first told us she was moving to Florida, floand of course doing so in winter was my idea.   Panama City, I must say, has a bit too much Alabama in its blood for my taste, but it was warm and that was really all we wanted.  Meeting Gloria’s boyfriend-and-future-fiance was great too, especially since we’d pre-stalked on Facebook.
  • Craigslist Adventure – Rachel and I should never be left to our own devices.  When bored one weekend without M’s supervision, we set up a fake Craigslist account and responded to every terrible man-seeking-woman ad we could find.  Some were nice-ish but boring, so we dropped them.  We were offered $500 for a night from “The King Door.”  Then, finally, we created an ad of our own which consisted of nerdy questions about Lost, Star Trek, and  Firefly.  We added “PS. I’m hot” at the bottom of our ad to amp up our number of responses.  Anyway, all of this led to an outing to meet one of these dudes because we were really bored and he promised free booze.  Let’s just say that the story ends with us meeting a leprechaun sex offender on St. Patrick’s Day.  (If you haven’t heard this story, feel free to ask.  It’s a gem.)
  • Fort Night – The next weekend, Rachel and I decided to limit ourselves to stalking the neighbor out the window with binoculars.  We took pictures of ourselves doing it and posted it on his Facebook wall, which led to entertaining back-and-forth commenting for the next hour or so before we got bored and built a fort in the living room.  Then we made a Meijer run to get Kool-Aid.

Spring and Summer 2011 – End Scene

  • “Super La-La  Mancha!” Making our 5th and final movie sucked up most of my time this summer, but it was kinda worth it.  Why are there not more superhero musicals?!
  • Camping 2011 was fun with the addition of Katie, Tracy, and the Browns (Sarah, Josh, Oscar, plus Carmen the dog).  
  • I watched the others enjoy their bowling league, and it was surprisingly fun to watch, especially the team of 80+ men who were awesome.


To my great pleasure, this year I lived with M at “009” turned out to be one of the best years I can remember.  When Rachel moved out for law school in Chicago, I decided that that would finally be a good time to get my own place again.  The end of this summer felt like a good…end.  And the beginning of a new phase.  I’d come to appreciate all the blessings I really had – family who get me through tense times, friends who are willing to camp, and a job that lets me make a full-length movie on the side.  I’d figured out what I wanted to hold to, what I wanted to drop, what I wanted to grow.

Onward and upward.

How Atheists Made Me a Better Christian

For some reason, my brain when I was younger told me that I would reach some point where I would be a finished product and be done learning, rooted in an unchanging outlook.  It was a comforting idea, but then I discovered that we never really stop growing, never stop learning, and never are 100% certain we’re doing the right thing.

I like people who push me and challenge me and don’t let me get away with my usual crap.  Back in Grand Rapids, there was the not-so-small matter of befriending a bunch of atheists, or as my friend James terms their group “evangelical atheists.”  I was very happy about this because it meant I had access to people who did not share my beliefs about faith and who had many of the same problems with religion that I did. Happy, because by now I craved difference and getting to know people and what makes people tick.  (As a matter of fact, we called this group “Group Yay!” because I was so happy to have new people at all.)  I wanted to be pushed and forced to grow my faith and understanding, and everyone else in my life was basically in my camp.  Group Yay would force me to look at my faith in a much more objective way.

I know at first they looked on us – Miranda and myself in particular – as good little Christian girls who were educated but indoctrinated (if not outright brainwashed).  I caught the smirks whenever Cornerstone University was mentioned.  I noted that they were very careful not to offend us about God or the Bible.  But there was room for growth here, on both ends, and I took this as a challenge.  I am a big believer in spending time with people as a means of showing what you believe.  I’m also very big on shocking people who think they have me figured out.  So, we didn’t Bible-thump; we drank with them on our porch. We mixed them in with our CU friends who are just as liberal, if not more so, than they were.  Gradually, Group Yay began to see that we were not exactly what they’d expected.  This opened things up for mutually respectful conversation without worrying about stepping on toes.

That is one of the first great things I learned about these atheists – they weren’t all in your face about it.  Many of them respected our faith because they respect the morality it brings.  They liked the Church because, as James put it, he liked the love he received whenever he went there. Evangelical atheists though they claim to be, they didn’t want to hurt anyone, or at least not us once they knew us.  It’s hard not to compare this to evangelical Christians.  I’d much rather discuss with someone what they believe when they are respectful rather than calling me a sinner.  My atheist’s approach of winning me over was, well, by being loving.  

Not that they won me over to their overall point, but they won me over to themselves, certainly.  We differ on some key points about life and reality, of course, and at the end of the day you have to just agree to disagree about some things.  Is there any belief, really, that is worth severing ties with people?  The point of this life is not to be right but to be decent to people and share the Truth.  If they don’t accept that Truth, that is their decision.  We can be sad about what they are missing out on – and about what might come after this life – but that is absolutely no excuse for shutting people out or marking them as losses and moving on to someone who might listen.

One difference I noticed about my atheist friends and the average Christians I had gone to school with was, sadly, intelligence.  I hate when Christians simply answer tough questions with “Because God said so.” Atheists pride themselves on seeing through lies and mysticism and getting to the logical facts, or at least reasonable speculations.  A big reason many of my atheist friends had turned from Christianity was because that Christianity didn’t make sense.  Of course there is the argument that faith is not about knowing, and the bottom line of this I wholeheartedly agree with, but that doesn’t mean we should not look for answers.  As far as matters of science, who made science?  If God made science, how can science not show facets of God?  Any reasonable Christian who believes that God is responsible for the universe should be able to grasp this.  But, for whatever reasons, we’ve come to think in terms of science vs. religion.  We shouldn’t.  If atheists think they have everything figured out in their system but we believe differently, then we should be able to make logical arguments.  And that means we have to at least make an attempt to study, learn, and know what we’re talking about and trying to defend.

More than anything, I think nonbelievers’ perspectives on the Church are noteworthy.  I’ve read I Sold My Soul on eBay and agreed with basically everything the man said.  (I was especially relieved that he liked Mars Hill, where I used to go on occasion because it is beautifully refreshing.)  For the most part, our church services are in no way easily accessible to outsides, or “searchers” as we like to call them.  Isn’t the spread of the Gospel supposed to be our job?  Why are we preaching to the choir?  Or, worse yet, why are we saying from the pulpit that we’re better than them?  It was mortifying one Sunday when Christian and I were home for a service and our Pastor told a joke about Fool’s Day being Atheist Day.  Wow, that wouldn’t have turned off any of my uber-intelligent atheist friends at all.

Of course, it didn’t take befriending atheists to make me disappointed with the Church in general.  Many of the same things that bothered me in high school and college still bother me.  I hate the belief that the way witnessing used to work is still the only way that will work in our changing culture.  I hate that many Christians condemn anything outside our bubble; I hate that we don’t condemn enough inside.  I hate the quality of Christian media and the excuse that it’s all good because it is of God.  I hate that we close ourselves off.  I hate that the world often has to teach us about Love and yet we think we alone are capable of it.  However, I also don’t agree with those who say that we should scrub everything and start anew.  I think we need to reclaim what Christianity originally meant.  What do we really need to believe?  What has entered our religion that is complete hooey? We need to reexamine the angles, regroup, and stick to what Jesus would encourage.  Foot washing anyone?  I think Protestants have gone too far in turning our noses at tradition, and this is one thing I really appreciate about Catholicism – it is rooted in a history. There are sacraments, holidays, etc. that are worth holding to because they connect us to something bigger than ourselves.  Jesus was a part of a traditional religion, wasn’t he? (Sorry, ACS, but he was Jewish.)  It’s a good thing to remember we are links on a chain, a part of something broader and deeper than ourselves – it holds us more accountable when we’re arrogant and self-centered.  We are not gods.  God does not need us to war for him.  Even Jesus walked away from some people. It is not imperative that we are right if it means beating others down, and you can not force Faith. The very least we can do is at least make it look appealing, like a community people should actually want to be a part of.

Another interesting thing about atheists is that they seem to place high value on morality.  By this I mean ethics, humanitarianism, etc.  These should be very Christian concepts, and it should be one point of common interest that we have.  Just because someone is not a Christian doesn’t mean they can’t do incredible good in the world – and inadvertently be used by God whether they like it or not.  Look at Oprah.  Or Angelina Jolie.  Or the Dalai Lama.  You wanna tell me God doesn’t smile on their work?  In this life, we should work together with anyone and everyone who wants to do God’s work of taking care of the orphan, the homeless, the widow.

Whenever one of my atheist friends goes through a hard time, I am reminded how blessed I am.  Simply having faith that there is meaning in life makes a huge difference.  Believing that Someone is in control helps.  Believing that this is not all there is helps.  I remember at Grandpa Bud’s funeral seeing this distinct difference – Gpa’s friends who were not believers were absolutely in grief, whereas we had hope.  I think that I largely cried at his funeral for them.  It’s also a wonderful blessing that I have God to talk to when I can’t talk to anyone else.  A personal relationship with God is an amazing part of faith that the atheists I know scoff at, of course.  But even acupuncturists (I know this from my job) recommend meditation.  It is good for us to take a pause and “relax the body, entrain the mind, and commune with spirit.”  I think God wired us so that it is good for us – “be still and know that I am God.”  An even greater part of this is that God listens.  And since he knows me better than I know me, I think that also means he puts up with me better than I do.  He has to love me, if you think about it.  It’s very freeing.  Yes, he’s God and should be respected and feared, blah, blah, blah.  But we’re also supposed to be honest with him.  Job yelled a lot, if memory serves.  So did Moses.  I don’t know of any healthy relationship where one person bottles emotion from the other.  God knows when I am mad or hurt or confused, so why not tell Him?  I’m not saying I want to curse out God, but there are plenty of people in the Bible who seem to have voiced their doubts rather strongly.  Aren’t we just being as open and honest as possible when voicing our frustrations to God?  He can take it.  And, maybe that’s part of why he lets shitty things happen to us in the first place – it forces us to come to him.  

Along those lines, we believers should be able to share with each other too – we have a community.  But why are we so afraid to share with each other?  When we’re hurting, isn’t the body of Christ where we should seek comfort?  Why can’t we ask for help?  My atheist friends point out that this is because we’ve become so incredibly self-righteous that we fear each other’s judgment.  Um, good point.  Also, we as Christians have deluded ourselves to think that we should be perfect.  We should never hurt.  We are above all that.  We are not flawed.  We do not struggle.  If we do, we are dirty and must need to repent of something.  But, Jesus practically promised that this life was going to suck if we followed him as we should, so why are we confused when life gets us down?  “Pray for me” usually only comes up when someone had medical testing or a job interview.  Again, I think Catholicism kinda has us here – there is something delicious about spilling your guts to a priest’s listening ear, isn’t there?  Especially when that listening ear is supposed to have his shit together more than me.  Anyway, we should share our struggles and pains with each other.  We all go through turmoil, so what is that turmoil good for if not to empathize with each other?  It would teach us a lot of about loving the outside world if we were capable of loving each other.

Confession:  I have a very, very hard time loving stupid, wrong people.  Aunt Sharon once pointed out that I “do not suffer fools lightly.”  And since I try so very, very hard to show God’s love to people outside the Christian bubble, clearly I should have more tolerance for people inside that bubble.  But I focus maybe a little too much on how Jesus spoke out more often against the Pharisees than he did against the nonreligious.  He tried to heal the sinners and lead them to a better life, yes, but he seemed angriest with those religious people who should have known better.  But, I really do believe that love is a key point of what we’re supposed to be showing as Christians, and following Jesus’ example all around is probably something I should focus on.  He might have rolled his eyes at the disciples and religious people, but he loved them enough to be gentle too.

So, yeah, there are a lot of ways atheists make me a better Christian – not just the ones I know personally.  They challenge me and make me sort out what I believe, which forces me to understand God more.  I see non-Christians who are living good and I want to be like that.  I see non-Christians who are serving and loving others, and I know I should be better.  I think that, somehow, even nonbelievers can be used to show us examples of Christ.  And I know absolutely that I am supposed to reflect God right back at them.  That’s the rough part.  And, I guess, the whole point. 

From the Mixed-Up Files of Ms. Sunny M. Somerville

The problem with realizing that you spent your college degree on a hobby is that you have to figure out what to do with the rest of your life.  Vocational success not important?  Okay, then, what to do?  Life doesn’t exactly stop at 22.

After graduating from college, I took a year off.  Off – I didn’t work, I didn’t do much of anything.  I did watch a lot of movies.  I also worked on my next novels, being productive in that least productive kind of way.  But mostly I did nothing.  This downtime was mostly because I suddenly realized that, although I was no longer a mess as a person, I still had no direction.  I had no schedule anymore, no homework aside from what was self-appointed.  So, what to do?  Where to go?  What did I want – oh, yes, that old question still floats around, doesn’t it?  I was happy, but the longer I sat and looked around me, the more I realized that I was basically where I’d always been.

I get restless easily.  I hate ruts and the thought of settling.  As a kid, I’d always told myself that I would explore life and soak up as much as I could before getting married, having kids, and settling down in a “normal” life.  I think I always planned to have those things eventually – family, community, etc.  – but I have this thing deep inside me that always needs to be different somehow (think Claudia of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler).  I always knew I would want to go to college, live on my own, and experience Otherness first before I could be even mildly content with settling down.  I wanted some life on my own terms for a while.  Then, I would always have those memories and experiences that were different from those around me.  I could live perfectly normally after that, and be content. 

The problem was, Cornerstone University and Grand Rapids weren’t that different from everything else I’d ever known.  I hadn’t really experienced the Otherness that I felt I needed.  Here I was, already settling in one year after college, and I didn’t feel like I’d ever moved.

So, after a year of doing nothing, I made a break for it.  July 2005, I plopped myself down three hours away from every home I’d ever known and moved to the Detroit area.  Honestly, that is why I moved – it was an experiment of getting away from my comfort zone/bubble.  I needed change.  I needed drastic.  I needed surroundings that were fresh and new and completely disconnected from everything back home.  I needed something that was different which was just mine, my own experience.  I’d always said I absolutely did not want to live in Detroit, so naturally this seemed like the most drastic move I could make.  I wanted a place different in setting, feel, tone, and perspective so that I could explore and also maybe figure out what I wanted for the rest of my life.

On a Tuesday I had no life plans; by Friday I was living in the suburbs of the D.

I liked it immediately.  There was an artistic, creative energy about the place – Birmingham, Troy, Royal Oak mostly – that I loved.  I’ve never been heavily addicted to urban-ness, but the variety of places to go was great.  I liked how one city blended into another like a puzzle, and yet each city was distinct.  Birmingham is money, Troy feels like it doesn’t know what it wants to be when it grows up and so is focused around the mall, and Royal Oak is a little niche strip for hipsters and artsy types.  Detroit itself, let’s face it, was kinda clinging to life, but it’s still so big that even with half the city functioning it would be a force to be reckoned with.  There were concerts and art exhibits and restaurant openings and book readings and baseball games, etc. etc. etc.  And young people really seemed to be far more numerous over there, or maybe I just noticed them more because of the job I took as a model scout – youth were our marks, so of course I picked them out of every crowd.  The sheer volume of younger people somehow seemed to control what happened in a city, if that makes sense.  Events and places catered to young people to keep us entertained, to draw us in.  Our VIP status as model scouts (ha, what a joke…but anyway) didn’t hurt either.  I saw all the good sides of the clubs, bars, etc.  We never had to wait in line.  I never, in the 6 months I lived over there, paid for my own drink (this was for a variety of reasons, but it did make learning to drink easier).  And because my coworkers were a tremendous bunch of fun natives, they showed me the places to go, the people to meet, and the food to eat.  

Here’s another big difference I noticed about the east side of Michigan – people go out to mingle with people other than the people in their party.  There was a more inclusive, communal approach to being social.  It didn’t hurt that, as model scouts, we had to talk to like 50 people a night.  But, even when we weren’t scouting, I noticed this different approach to socializing.  I don’t know if I’d say people in Grand Rapids are less friendly, per se, but the most you get out of most people here is a reciprocal smile of acknowledgement.

Anyway, because the Detroit area is considerably less church-infested than Grand Rapids, I encountered people who had very, very different worldviews from the average person in my Cornerstone/Grand Rapids bubble. It was wonderfully refreshing.  I made friends with openly flamboyant homosexuals, one of whom was the best Christian I met over there.  My closest friend was a self-proclaimed “pot-smoking, experimental nymphomaniac.” I made friends with Buddhists, Catholics, and Kid Rock fans.  Overall, I liked the variety of people I met, and they forced me to question things I’d always believed but never been forced to questions.  I’ve always hated white noise and people who can’t think outside their box, so this gave me an opportunity to prove to myself that I was stronger than that.  While interacting with these people, I found I was able to hold to what I believed but maybe growing it a bit.  I found that all this interaction solidified in my mind that not everything that is Other is bad, and not everything that doesn’t agree with what I believe is to be hated or feared.  At the end of the day, you can fundamentally disagree with someone but still love each other.  Maybe that is what Detroit did for me more than anything – it widened my experience of humanity just a little bit.

Memories –

  • At the model scouting office, Diego was responsible for one of the funniest things I’ve ever heard: “Thank God you guys are back.  The most exciting thing that happened all day was when I walked by the mirror.”
  • When trying to get into my car from the curb, Sophie was responsible for one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen:  She fell and slid down the side of my car, making a smearing sound against the glass like you hear in a cartoon.
  • Sophie, as we walked past the nicest car I’ve ever seen: “Oh, f*** men.  Can that have my children?”
  • We ran into Chauncey Billups at a Mongolian Barbecue.
  • We accidentally scouted Jack Johnson’s barefoot drummer in a mall.
  • We accidentally scouted Mario and his friends/bouncers in a mall, and he was so amused that he invited us to his birthday party.
  • I literally ran into John Heffron, the second season winner of Last Comic Standing, in Somerset Mall.
  •  “Cheap Gay Layaway” at Old Navy.  Dominic found a man-purse he loved but could not afford, hid it behind a rack of clothes, and then 3 months later we found it in the same location.  When telling the checkout girl, she said, “That does not speak well of us, does it?”
  • Craig telling the story of when he’d drawn the perfect picture of Sonic the Hedgehog only to have the nuns at his school take it and throw it away.  This had been when he was in second grade; he was still bitter.  I loved him instantly.
  • Troy acting like “Sexy Little Drummer Boy” while walking by the door as we were trying to have a serious meeting.
  • Carmen calming saying like a GPS, “Head-on collision,” as Sophie for no reason drove straight at a van like a game of chicken in a wide, wide parking lot.
  • Various outings with Felix in his car because I liked the sound of his car’s blinker.
  • Once I quit scouting, I worked at People’s Pottery, a high-end craft store (if that makes sense) in Birmingham.  Sarah and I spent many hours playing “Hide the Duck” in the store when it got slow.  This is played by…hiding the duck, a figurine we didn’t like, somewhere in the store and then making the other person find it in a hot-cold method.
  • That girl who came in with her rich husband (it should be a given that there was an age gap of like 20 years) and pointed at things she liked until she’d racked up a bill of $850.  I contributed to $500 of this by convincing her that all the ugly stuff in the store that we were sick of looking at was totally awesome.
  • That semi-hot, constantly-drunk guy who came in repeatedly and one day wondered what the wine bottle stoppers were.  When I told him what they were, he looked at me in almost hurt disbelieve and said, “Why wouldn’t you just drink the whole bottle?”
  • The older Romanian lady telling me that I could get a job at Hooters.
  • The “homeless” guy I encountered in the store’s back alley who held out a bill and asked if I had change for $100.

 Gosh, it was fun.  I know most people (certainly those in my circle of friends) look back on college as the most exciting time of their lives, but for me it was this 6-month experimental period in the suburbs of Detroit.

But, as I mentioned in my “Spiritual Geography” blog post, I didn’t like Detroit enough.  I was so busy most of the time that I didn’t have a lot of time to sit around and think, and this was probably a good break from my usual mode of over-analysis.  But, once I slowed down and started reflecting on my life again, I knew that this experiment was over.  I’d gotten my time away, and now  I wanted to go back to be nearer to friends (whom I surprisingly really did miss), nearer to family, and nearer to whatever idea of “home” I had.  It was just time to get back to normal.  I’d had my “different” like Claudia from The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.

So, I moved back to Grand Rapids to start the next chapter.  I will always look back fondly on my time in the Detroit area because it gave me memories and experiences that are just mine. This will give me that sense of different that I need, and now I can be perfectly content living a normal life in white bread, conservative Western Michigan, if that is what happens.  (Also, I have the added fun now of knowing that nobody knows what I’m talking about whenever I say that I can never look at people the same again – I often slip into model-scouting mode when bored in a crowd, taking people-watching to a whole new level.  And, I like confusing guys when they talk about strip clubs and I say, “Yeah. I miss my old job.”)

What Do You Do With An English Major?

My college roommate Gloria used to sing the above title to the tune of “What Do You Do With A Drunken Sailor?”  It was not encouraging.  Especially considering the point of college is that you prepare for the rest of your life, and here I’d gotten one of the least pragmatic college degrees known to man.  I mean, seriously, WHY DID I GET A DEGREE FOR MY HOBBY?!

By the time college was over, I’d become someone who never sought out practicality, or maybe I’d just convinced myself of this because having an English degree is so very not practical.  I may never do anything with my degree vocationally (hatred of “the red pen life,” remember), but what I chose to study was what I wanted to know more about, so I’m satisfied.  I became more eclectic, if nothing else.  I opened up to new ideas.  I discovered through trial and error what systems/methods did and did not work for me creatively (ahem, Creative Writing class).  If this is all the fulfillment I ever get out of my college degree, I am fine with that.

But what DO you do with an English major? On the practical side, I guess that, working as a medical transcriptionist, I use my English skills probably more than I realized.  Doctors are smart people, but they make up words and they make up grammar.  They also pronounce “mary-jew-annah” and have slip-ups like “asthma exasterbation.”  So, I guess general skills of communication can come in handy in any job. However, my English degree is mostly useful for non-practical reasons.

Use #1 – Being a Book Snob

Let’s face it – I was probably a book snob long before college because I think my taste is superior to most people’s.  However, now I have a diploma.  I love Shakespeare, Victor Hugo, Kierkegaard, Lewis Carroll, C.S. Lewis, Roald Dahl, Edgar Allan Poe, Annie Dillard, Edith Wharton, Madeline L’Engle, Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Orson Scott Card, Jeffrey Archer, Billy Collins, etc.  I hate Moby Dick, Walt Whitman, and most Christian fiction.

Let me defend that last one. The reason my own Kota series is not blatantly Christian is because I don’t want it to be lumped in as just another Christian book series – which is awful to say, but.  Much of Christian fiction out there just doesn’t feel…connected to reality.  It’s watered down so the general Christian audience won’t be offended or won’t have to think, in my opinion.  The most effective “Christian” stories use dark, bad, sinful elements to show the need for God’s grace (hello, Senior Seminar paper on Flannery O’Connor).  Evil, hate, and filth are real, and unfortunately many Christian artists seem to ignore this as they present a fake, flaky, sappy story of salvation.  And the bad guys are always from the Middle East.  As a genre, Christian fiction just makes me roll my eyes and wish for better.  There are exceptions, but whenever I hear the “Christian fiction” label, I am immediately turned off, and I’m sure I’m not alone.  As Christian storytellers, I think we have to show the real world, in all its ugly wonderful dimensions, in order for our stories to resonate with readers who know that life is more complex than is often portrayed in Christian fiction.

 Use #2 – Being a Better Reader

All the literature I read in college undoubtedly affected my story-processing powers.  I feel like I have an insider’s perspective whenever I invest in a story, and I love that.  To me, Story is like nourishment – I don’t know if that is because I have a major need for escapism or what.  My education gave me the ability to understand stories on a deeper level.  I now see themes, styles of writing, historical contexts, and “intertextuality” in books that I’ve read a dozen times without ever noticing these things before.  Quotes, terms, etc. pop into my head when I need them.  Mostly, I’ve gained what Prof Landrum was talking about when he said, “Some people read, and some people read books.  I’m going to teach you to read books.” And, I’ve held to what I realized freshman year in Intro to Lit – “I love seeing how people create.”

 Use #3 – Being a Better Writer

I’ve written 4 novels, so that is almost a practical application of my education…right?  Seriously, I love that I am a writer – there are some things common to all writers.  To steal from Jeff Foxworthy, it might sound like this:

  • If you like the idea of sharing yourself but don’t want to be in the spotlight, you might be a writer.
  • If you spend more time in a fantasy world than you do in the real world, you might be a writer.
  • If you shriek with joy when an idea comes to you and run for the nearest notepad, you might be a writer.

I absolutely fell in platonic love with Donald Miller while reading Blue Like Jazz because he talked about a time when he was reading a novel and got so jealous that the person had written a novel that he threw the book across the room.  (Personally, I keep Poetic Meter & Poetic Form handy as my “throwing book” because it’s easy to channel all my hatred into.)  So, at the very least, I like being a writer because it means I’m not alone in my neurosis.

When I sent my first book to be self-published, I was a nervous wreck because I realized – very, very slowly – that people would read it.  This seems an incredibly stupid epiphany, I know.  It’s just that the Kota story had been a part of my life for so long that I’d forgotten people didn’t know about this basic ingredient of my life.  Few people at the time knew that I wrote fiction at all.  I was initially a wreck because I was letting go of my baby after sheltering it secretly for over a decade.  I was exposing myself.

Then the book came out.  “Firstborn offspring of my feeble mind.” Honestly, I never should have attempted publishing a novel and graduating from college simultaneously…or, I wish I’d focused less on graduating.  Also, because I didn’t really know what I was doing yet, I left out a LOT of what had always been a part of this story that I’d been working on since I was nine.  I don’t know why I didn’t flesh it out more – maybe I was afraid of length.  Looking back, it’s shocking The Kota: Book 1 was accepted so well.  But I’m also perfectly willing to admit that a 21-year-old girl finishing college does not know everything about writing yet.  It could have been better, but at the time I didn’t know how.  NOW, over a decade later and three other novels later, NOW is oddly the time when I’m capable of doing my first novel the right way, and that’s why I’ve rewritten The Kota: Book 1 so that it will be released as an eBook later this spring.  This time, I’m completely happy with it.

Holy crap, I look young.
Holy crap, I look young.

In any case, while writing Books 2-4, the “fame” of being an author set in.  At first, I wanted to run and hide whenever someone found out I had a novel published.  I don’t like being the center of attention.  Ever.  My father was quite proud of me – and I’m grateful – but I felt myself shrink back whenever he introduced me to people and just happened to throw in that I’d written a book.  The staff at ACS (my high school) was incredibly proud of me, as if I was some kind of shining beacon of accomplishment for the school…  Irony.  Everywhere, whenever anyone got that “wow” look on their face, I felt like a deer in the headlights – no, probably a smaller animal, like a raccoon.

Only gradually did I learn to handle the attention.  The thing that really started me liking it was when I realized I could talk about the experience of Story.  (Is my nerd showing?)  More than once my friends and I have been talking about an author’s motivations, inspirations, etc. and I’ve chipped in (with a notable chip on my shoulder) by saying, “Well, when I am writing a novel…” I LOVE exploring different people’s creative processes, and I like having my own experiences to share and compare.  I like helping people stir their own creative juices and inspiring their creativity.  I once spoke to a group of students at Lakeview High School, and it was great – and more than a little weird – to be able to stare out at the young faces staring back at me as I spoke about how I had created my story.

(Sidenote: However, there was a moment when I thought of Kathy Bates in Misery because one girl came up to me and said, “I am your number one fan!” I also was asked, “Do you know Terry Brookes?” I nearly laughed, “I know of him.”)

All around, I’m still never sure how to react when people are amazed that I’ve written four novels.  I worked on these stories for over a decade before anyone knew about them, so I don’t think it is anything incredible that someone “so young” has written a full-length novel or two.  Is it really a big deal?  At a friend’s house, I once laughingly picked my book off his shelf and heard him launch into an explanation of my author status to one of his friends.  My friend’s friend’s boyfriend said of his boyfriend, “Oh, he is so envious.  He wants to write a book.” The boyfriend said, “No, I’m not envious.  I just think more people should do it.”  That is exactly what I think.

Ironically, I also frequently forget that I’ve even written books. One new coworker once told me, “I entered your name on Google, and did you know there is an author with your name?” I admit I said, “Really?” before remembering, “Oh, yeah. That is me.”  I really do flat out forget because writing is just something I’ve always done, and having my books published is just another part of that.  Which might seem ridiculous, I know.  My dear friend Justin told me, “Are you kidding? I would drop that all the time!”

 Use #4 – Being an Experienced, Knowledgeable Source of Advice

So, all this leads here.  The most useful thing I can do with my college degree and my experience with writing is that I can “pay it forward” with whatever little pearls of wisdom I can muster (or maybe the analogy is closer if I say my advice is like chunks of sand some coughing oyster has spit up).

  • Use your experience.  This is said all the time, but it really is true.  It also sounds ridiculous coming from someone who writes science fiction about time-travel, zombie viruses, mutations, space-travel, etc., but bear with me – it does make sense.
    It’s a given that The Kota Series idea came from Christian, Kaly, Luke, and my childhood playtime, but there’s so much more to it.  Mainly, I think the wisest advice I ever heard was what my Aunt Sharon’s friend told her:  “Never waste a bad experience, write about it.”  All of my psychosis was valuable fodder for my alter-ego character of Bullseye/Kynacoba – her growth was also largely my growth as I went along, and I took it out on her.  Unless you’re blind, the Dominion is a clear representation of my time in high school and how that place haunted me just as the Dominion haunted Bullseye/Kynacoba.  Also, Kynacoba healed by learning to change on Ebon; I healed by learning to change at Cornerstone with Elise as my personal Cliqani.  Kynacoba found she liked life on Phantasya; I found I liked life after college.  She found what she wanted out of the rest of her life on Zenith; I figured out what I wanted in that post-post college phase.
    It is scary to use your own personal flaws in your characters – much easier to use your strengths – but you know you better than you are ever going to know anyone else, so why not use that insider knowledge? If nothing else, it is super cathartic – the parts of the story that involve Kynacoba hold more meaning for me that I can probably explain.  Anyway, characters automatically become more real when you use reality in shaping them.
  • Dig.  You can start with the simplest story in the world – say, four kids saving the world – and turn it into something truly deep and far-reaching by digging for elements to add.  I’ve already explained using your personal life to strengthen your story.  On top of this, use history.  Use literature.  Dig.  The same old themes, plots, and types of characters pop up time and again, and what parts of these truths fit with your story? I’m not saying you should copy history or others’ stories, but what is there that you can draw from to enrich your own story? Basically, find sources of inspiration.  (I can’t tell you how many of my notes were made during college courses.  Sometimes the professor would say something and my brain would suddenly make a useful connection with my own story.  Doodling is not always unproductive.)
  • Talk about your story.  It’s amazing what things you think are included but really aren’t there at all.  When you talk about your story with long-suffering friends, some things stand out as important – things you might never have put much thought into because they are so subconsciously basic in your mind.  I used to fear other people’s suggestions and perspectives on my story because I didn’t want to change my story for anything, but now I’ve calmed down and loosened my grip enough to see that outside input is a good thing.  My friend Miranda sat with me for hours– saint that she is – and discussed the themes, character development, and basic plot structures of the third Kota book before she’d ever read it.  I cannot stress enough the value of hashing out your ideas with someone who is completely fresh to the story you are working on.
  • Let go of the reins.  (Who is it that talks about listening to your broccoli?) Let your story steer you.  Let characters behave and talk for themselves. It sounds ridiculous considering they don’t really exist, but letting a character develop through their particular motivations and quirks can lead you to places you never expected.  Try to keep control of your unruly offspring, but sometimes you have to lift your hands from the keyboard and take a timeout to re-find where your story is taking you.  What accidentally comes out of you might prove better than anything you plan.  Sometimes you have to let go of your plan and go with the accident because it’s just better.
  • Read your “final” draft aloud to someone.  Quentin Tarantino talked about this in his Golden Globes acceptance speech this past year.  You may have to get out the duct tape and strap them to a chair, but find a listener.  The main benefit of reading aloud is that your own ear is sharpened.  It is amazing how some parts sound good on paper and some don’t.  Actually, a lot don’t, but you won’t figure this out unless audibly going over these parts.  Some lines of dialogue sound terrible when really spoken, and you can always find a way to shorten and sharpen with a listening ear in the room.  Much better to fix your final draft before it really becomes final.

So, there ya have it.  What do I do with my English major?  I use it for my hobby.  But I do know what I’m talking about, if you’re able to corner me and make me babble coherently.

French, The Protestant Nunnery, & Why You Should Put Batteries in a Camera

Senior Year – 2003-2004.

Ah, the homestretch.

By now I’d had enough of living on Cornerstone’s campus, and this final roommate hunting experience turned out to be the more wonderful turn of events of my entire social life.  Gloria, roommate from my Junior year, had two friends from the Honors Program who wanted to get an apartment a few miles from campus.  I agreed to join in.  Reluctantly.  Confession:  When I heard these two girls were from this Honors group, I admit I sucked in my breath a little bit.  To my knowledge I didn’t know either of them, but I knew of this group.  As freshmen, the Honors kids had been “those Honors kids” who we, as lofty sophomores, had been annoyed with because they were too loud, way too excited ,etc.  But, Gloria had turned out to be likable  and I’d had enough classes with a few from this group to know they were at least smart and interesting.  Plus, Prof Burghart at one point randomly stopped me in that stairwell that always smelled like sweaty metal to discuss my writing, and he’d suggested that I get to know some of the Honors kids because he thought I might like them.  Fortunately, that simple advice stuck.  I sucked it up, crossed my fingers, and agreed to join Gloria and her friends, Rachel and Miranda, to live in the apartment.

For some reason, I was the first person to move into the apartment, which meant I went to the apartment complex’s office to sign the lease. The office lady knew of me and, justifiably believing I was aware of who I was living with, said, “Oh, you’re one of Brooke’s friends moving into the apartment above her!  That should be fun.”  I fake smiled with a chipper “Yes!” although I had no clue who Brooke was any more than I knew who Rachel or Miranda were.  Anyway, I got the keys, and then my dad and brother suffered the joys of hauling my couch up three flights of stairs (this couch, years later, would be cathartically torn apart with hammers and steak knives by my enthusiastic father).

Rachel was the first roommate to move in with me.  I greeted her, her face registered as someone I’d had classes with a few times (and, yes, she was one of those Honors kids), and we kinda ignored each other as we went about settling in. Which was reasonable.  What was not reasonable was that for THE REST OF THE DAY we did not talk to each other but instead read books in different rooms until it was too dark and then we went to bed.  To this day, neither of us knows why we didn’t talk.

Then came Miranda.  Ah-ha, she looked vaguely familiar too! …Or at least the back of her head did from when she’d sat in the front of Religious Authors class the previous year. Again, however, little effort was put into getting to know each other for a while. (Which was incredibly stupid, considering we discovered A YEAR LATER that we’d both grown up in the same small town of Cedar Springs and had tons in common.)

Thus began two of my best friendships ever.

Despite the pathetic start, Gloria, Rachel, Miranda, and myself ended up getting along splendidly, which Gloria must have foreseen when she’d suggested the idea.  Seriously, it is a major accomplishment to say that four girls living in an apartment and sharing one bathroom never fought.

 197005_503730040321_4665_nFun times:

  • Rachel liked to think she was an excellent matchmaker, which resulted in a white-board drawing of a game of M.A.S.H. with stick figures labeled with our initials and terrifying numbers of stick children.
  • Gloria and I for no clear reason once posed for pictures all night.  One shows me afraid of a stuffed dragon which Gloria is about to save me from with nunchucks.
  • In a very tongue-in-cheek move, we nicknamed our apartment the Protestant Nunnery.

While I still wasn’t completely a part of their group, my three kind roommates grafted me into their circle of friends as much as both sides were willing, and I then came to know a few people I’d had multiple classes with over the years.  All around, my Senior Year I bothered to get to know people, probably because I realized I was about to leave college with only a handful of friends to remain in contact with for the rest of my life.  Fortunately I still had Becca, Adam, Aaron, and Pete from the year previous, so there were always people “my age” to hang out with between  classes, after classes, and on many a “Fabulous Fluger Friday.”  We swam in Pete’s parents’ pool.  Becca’s family took us to dinner at Mongolian BBQ for her birthday.  We for some reason watched Britney Spears music videos at Aaron’s.  We played tons of euchre.  Becca and I went to “Rent” which had Constantine, that guy who would later be on American Idol – he looked right at us too  (insert fake swoon)!  It was pretty good times.

Academically, I was also speaking up a bit more in class since I’d determined that I needed interaction – and, ahem, affirmation.   But for some stupid reason I took 19 credits that first semester, which was a bit much considering I was trying to finish my first novel at the same time.  (Hindsight: I wish I’d focused more on the book than ending college with a bang.)

199511_503730025351_3647_nFrench class in particular was enjoyable both semesters, and in a weird string of connections I ended up becoming friends with Christine, who turned out to be the wife of “Oh, that guy” who I’d had multiple classes with each semester. Christine and I struggled through the language together with mediocre little-to-no success, but it was great to stay after class and talk with the Prof for long periods of time about books, music, feminism, her time in France, etc.  She even gave us books to divvy up between us at the end of the year.  Christine and I never did learn to master the most difficult sentence we could come up with “I need a drink in the woods,” but it was fun.  And I’m pretty sure we both passed with As, so our sucking up must have worked.

Media Literacy was of my final Communications classes for my minor.  I was a little disappointed to discover that they’d pulled a switcheroo at the last minute and changed the prof to some new guy, but by the end of the first class period Prof Anderson had won me over – anyone who gets that excited about Disney is my kind of person.  And while I’m sure he was only impressed with my writing because I was being read in comparison to my Communication major classmates (don’t get me started), I did appreciate his comments on my papers of “This is OUTSTANDING work – I want to help you get this published!” and “Call me, email me, we MUST do coffee!” 

198935_503730020361_3270_nAmerican  Lit: Colonial with Prof Stevens once again resulted in numerous quotable quotes from the man.  This class also solidified my hatred of Moby Dick.  I mostly remember my new-found friends playing online quizzes and giggling all class period. And I’m still not sure how to take it that, when in one of my papers I mentioned being related to Emily Dickinson, Stevens wrote, “Why does this not surprise me?”

I’m not sure there is any way to explain Senior Seminar for English.  I will say that I enjoyed my final paper on Flannery O’Connor, even if I basically gave my defense presentation from the position that I didn’t really like her writing.  (I’m glad Prof Landrum agreed with me, even if Prof Stevens was aghast, which I think is unfair considering the whole time during my defense his kid ate French fries on his lap and stuck his tongue out at me.)  Anyway, my main memories are of sitting around that table and listening to some of the dumbest conversations I’ve fortunately mostly forgotten.  I kept no notes from that class.  The one REALLY good thing I got out of it was that it finally forever solidified my friendship with “Oh, that guy,” the one I’d had Weight Training, Religious Authors, and many other classes with.  Because he was in the group with my new circle of friends, I was fine by this point using his name “Buddy” in my head instead of “Oh, that guy.”  But still we never spoke.  We developed an odd understanding, though, and I don’t know what I would have done without him sitting across the table from me to receive my eye rolls and exchange looks of “What the hell is going on?  How have we been praying for cats for 20 minutes?” etc.  Telepathy would have been very handy, but you make do.

Then there was Editing and Proofreading, where I was the only person NOT on the school paper and I’m sure the Prof resented me for it.  I may have rubbed it in an little bit, actually.  I even wrote a paper on why I hadn’t done the job-shadowing assignment.  After talking with my aunt Sharon’s friend Julie, who was an editor, I realized that living a life with a red pen was not for me.  I got an A on that paper too, which is still funny to me.

Adolescent Lit was with another of Aunt Sharon’s friends from college – Prof Bell.  Talk about going into a class with pressure. Since Becca, myself, and another guy named Denver (who was a part of my new friend circle) all had to study Moby Dick that same semester, we bonded in this equally-exasperating class.  I remember Becca and I did some presentation where we showed a clip from “The Simpsons,” but I don’t remember why.  I also remember we made Prof Bell cry because we defended that Harry Potter was not satanic.

Over the Christmas break we had J(anuary) Term, and Becca and I took Science Fiction class with Prof Landrum.  This meant I was in heaven for about 2 weeks.  Now that my 19-credit semester was behind me and I had a breezy 12-credit semester ahead of me, I set aside large chunks of time to finish The Kota, my first novel that I’d been fiddling with to that point. Being in Sci-Fi class helped sharpen my focus.  We read Dune, Landrum sang the “Star Trek” theme, and we reminisced about the date and time that “Alf” had aired – I’m still impressed with that classmate who remembered where it fit in the NBC lineup in the 1990s.  The fact that there were about 6 of us in the class was great, and for the first time I actually bothered to pipe up in discussions (the fact that sci-fi was my favorite genre didn’t hurt.)

Finally, there was Postmodernism.  By this point I was happy calling “those honor kids” my friends, and most of them were in this class.  Plus Blond Abraham Lincoln, whom none of us liked, and we had a rotating schedule of who had to sit next to him.  The class was somehow fun, which I attribute to Prof Bonzo entirely.  He at least had the good sense to let us read an impossibly complicated book in groups and then come up with questions for the next class period.  My favorite was probably Buddy’s, “How does Derrida get any work done with Caputo’s lips fastened to his ass?”

Anyway, as my time as a college student came to an end, I finally published The Kota, which came as a surprise to my profs because I had NEVER bothered to even mention it.  Becca had been suckered into writing on the school paper, and she wrote a very kind article about how I was publishing my first novel.  Prof Stevens’ said, “Miss Somerville has always been an enigma, and I’m intrigued that she quietly wrote this full-length novel.” I’m pretty sure that this single-handedly earned me the 2004 English Award for Excellence.  (Side note:  At the chapel before graduation, Landrum, as the head of Humanities at the time, presented me with this award and presented the Communications Award for Excellence to Lydia, another classmate I’m gladly come to know by name.  As we both stood on stage and received our $50 gift cards to Barnes & Noble, Lydia side-smile-whispered to me, “Did you know about this?” so that I side-smile-whispered, “Nope.”  Apparently Landrum hadn’t bothered to tell us beforehand, but all the other division recipients had known.)

Then came graduation.  I remember thinking now different this was from my high school graduation.  I couldn’t wait to get away from ACS; I was sad to leave Cornerstone.  I was happy with what I’d accomplished, and I was thrilled that God had brought me so far from the mess I’d been.  Most of the ceremony is kind of a blur in my memory, but I did end up sitting next to Amber Smith, as we’d predicted would happen back as freshmen.  And it’s only thanks to Gloria that I have any pictures from my graduation at all, because my parents forgot to charge the batteries in the camera.

I remember going back to my apartment after the open house that my family threw for me.  I was the only one home, which was probably good.  I remember just feeling…blank.  I had no homework due tomorrow.  I didn’t have to be anywhere until my internship started in a week.  I’ve never been so hit with the feeling of being done.  The unknown stretched before me for the first time in my life.  It was kind of a relief, definitely terrifying.

Then my internship started in the media department at Cornerstone.  This basically meant weeks of making phone calls and writing random articles for the website that didn’t seem to matter to me.  There were some really wonderful “older people” who were willing to take the time to guide me in decisions for my future.  By the end of the internship, though, I basically once again realized that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life with a red pen.  I didn’t want to work in an office, even if it had something vaguely to do with writing, editing, publishing, etc.  I had become, somewhere along the way, too creative to find that fulfilling.  I’d gotten a degree for my hobby.

So, after my internship was over and I officially had my diploma, I took a year off to figure out what the hell I wanted to do with the rest of my life.  It helped that all my roommates were still in college for another year, so I didn’t have a complete cutoff from all the wonderful things of college that I’d discovered.  This included my friends, and I now had the free time to get to know them better.  We got much closer, and I remember sitting in a room with Rachel, Miranda, Gloria, Brooke, Buddy, Christine, Denver, Chris, Andrew, Randy (Burghart), and a few other people and thinking for the first time in my life, “I like everyone in this room.”  That still touches me as an incredibly good moment, and it was then that I realized God had finally brought me to a place and to a people that fit.

Old Country Buffet, Candle Lights, and Why It’s Good to Talk to Classmates

Sophomore Year — 2001-2002.

8-8-2001 So I think I’ve figured out that I have no happiness in my life.  I was listening to the song that says, “I don’t know where my soul is.  I don’t know where my home is.  I’m like a bird, I wanna fly away.” Because of my extensive time with pheasants, I can picture a bird as some kind of symbol for my life.  I think that it would really help me if I could catch that stupid shimmering bird of happiness.  I don’t know where my bird is, though.  I don’t know where I will feel like I belong.  I’m getting close to the point in my life when I need to either change or turn to gluttony for comfort.  I need that bird, I just don’t know entirely what it is or where I can find it.

8-26-2001 I recently had another one of those moments when everything that’s been jumbling through my head makes sense.
It has been really humid and hot lately.  I mean, really humid and hot.  I remember when we were in Las Vegas a man was complaining about the 20% humidity that day. Being from Michigan, I don’t complain until the humidity percentage reaches the upper 90s, and today the heat index was 106.  It honestly hadn’t rained in a little over a month until two days ago, and everything has been horrid.  The humidity (here’s where my point comes in, by the way) was so bad that it clouded everything in this grayish blue haze.  I’d stopped noticing it because it had covered everything for so long.  I could look out my window and not be able to see the tree line behind our fields because of the haze.  Anyway, after the rain the humidity dropped, and everything looked different.  More real.  The colors returned, and I could once again see the distinct leaves instead of a grayish blur.
Along with this clearing, I had one of those old feelings again.  I was sitting in church, listening to the sermon, when everything just engulfed me and I felt alive again.  The thing was, I really hadn’t seen before that I was in that deep of a funk.  I just sat there, in church, thinking things over as usual when I found tears forming for no explainable reason.  Something in the sermon did trigger it all, although now I can’t think of it…something about prayer, and I thought suddenly how little it seemed to matter lately.  That started my upward spiral.  I can’t really explain it, but I know it’s happened before.  I get stuck in a slump and God picks me up and I’m back on my feet again, ready to get back to life.  I wish I could say that I’ll stay awake this time, but I know myself better than that.  I can try, though.
I have so much inside of me that I chew over, and I don’t know what to do with it.  There are very few people whom I feel connected to enough to talk about certain things.  I think a large part of my personality doesn’t want me to talk about certain things because they are mine.  I have this horrible control thing.  But I’ve been kicking myself lately because I know there is something wrong with me but I don’t know how to fix it or if I even want to.  It suddenly came to me that I probably should sort through the fog and figure this out, though.
I’m not entirely sure why I saw the connections between this and the humidity so strongly.  Timing, I think.  The mind-numbing shroud being lifted, certainly.  I don’t know, I think that humidity is a weird enough metaphor for me that I’ll remember what I’m talking about.

Sophomore Year was when I really started figuring out what I wanted out of life.  I still didn’t know what I wanted to do vocationally, but I was gradually learning that I could do anything and still be happy as long as I had some fulfilling creative outlet.  Or maybe this was just what I told myself to survive my job at Old Country Buffet.

Here’s how that happened.  The head manager of the OCB in Grand Rapids was a member of the Haymarsh Hunt Club, so my grandfather took it upon himself to use his connections and get me a job there, even though I said I’d be perfectly content working on campus.  (He ignored this, not surprisingly.)  We met for lunch at OCB, I had an interview which basically consisted of my Gpa and this guy talking hunting, and then I was hired.  I’m pretty sure the fact that I spoke English was all that was required, and I ended up being the cashier/hostess.  Pretty much all the other employees were Romanian, and I had the privilege of being exposed to a new culture and was even given permission to say “ciao” for the rest of my life.  These genuinely likable coworkers were the highlight, because most of the English-speaking manager guys were kinda off/terrible/jerks in one way or another.  And I still can’t stand the smell of frying chicken. It lasted 6 months.  Maybe.

But back on campus, I was actually starting to enjoy myself. My freshmen roommate, Elise, and I moved over to the apartments on the other side of campus, and joining us now were Melody and Mita.  Being in an apartment instead of a dorm room was lovely, as was having the ability to choose our roommates (as opposed to our nightmare suite-mates the year before).  For some reason we decided to cram all four beds into one bedroom, and we stayed up many nights giggling and talking.  It was really quite nice living with girls who were less tomboyish than myself, and I felt like I was catching up on what I’d missed all these years.

A few memories:

  • One night we each shared stories of the worst things we’d done as kids.  I don’t remember the rest of our stories, but innocent Mita told hers.  “My siblings and I snuck out of the house, went down to the river, and went fishing…”  Elise, Melody, and I all waited for the big reveal. Then we realized this was the end and burst out laughing.
  • On 9-11, we were having a class meeting when our class president rolled a big screen TV into the room.  We sat and watched the news as the second plane crashed.  Later that day, I remember everyone panicked and went to fill up their gas tanks before prices skyrocketed. I stayed in our apartment and painted.  I don’t know why this calmed me down, but it did.
  • Candle Lights.  Whenever someone would get engaged, it meant a stupid wonderful Cornerstone tradition where girls would run and squeal down the halls, banging on everyone’s doors so that we had to get up and go to the lounge area.  However late it was, you were expected to attend, which did not result in a good attitude on my part.  We would sit around in a circle, and a candle would be passed around the circle until it got to whichever girl had gotten engaged.  She would then blow out the candle; more excited squealing followed. As I rarely knew the girls who got engaged, I viewed this whole thing as an intrusion on my sleeping patterns.  I’m a hopeless romantic, I know.
  • For some reason, Cornerstone held fire safety drills/meetings at least twice a month (maybe not, but it felt like it.)  One such meeting was held in a building a whole 100 yards from our apartment building, so Elise drove us.  Everyone was a little slap-happy and annoyed with the meeting, and it was very late by the time we poured out of the building to return home.  Elise drove back to our apartment behind a van full of boys, one of whom (I know who you are) decided to moon us.  Elise COVERED HER EYES, so we jumped for the wheel before crashing as she continued to accelerate.
  • Then there was Smelly Guy, who always wore too much cologne and we somehow always ended up in the stairwell at the same time.
  • And of course I’m not likely to ever forget the time Andria, the girl who lived across the hall from us, screamed with so much obvious pain that I ran out into the hall to discover she’d chopped the tip of her finger off in the doorway.

Classes during this year were pretty great too, since I was mostly done with the general requirements and could steer more into my own interests.  World Lit with “The Fab” allowed me to write a paper on Sci-Fi, which thrilled me not in a small part because I got to pick first and grabbed it before any of the guys could.  There also was some group presentation we had to do about Oedipus, and my group performed a dramatization out the window as if it was a TV screen, me jumping off a ladder as Jocasta and Derek smearing his eyes with a gory mix of red dye and peanut butter while screaming,  “Oh, my gods!” Intro to Fine Arts was again with Burghart and meant looking at more cool art stuff.  Intro to Philosophy was with Bonzo.  I kinda half-assed that class and got a B+ because I was annoyed with the philosophy students who clearly thought they were all brilliant (apologies to those of you who are now my friends.)

But here’s the funny thing about my classes in the second semester:  I had at least 3 classes with a guy I never talked to. We would go from Weight Training in the morning immediately to Religious Authors, and either I would follow him or he would follow me all the way from one building to the other.  As time went on and we had more and more classes together, I realized that this guy and I probably had a lot in common.  He spoke in class enough for me to realize he was pretty smart, which quite frankly was the kind of person I needed at this point. But we never spoke, and looking back (now that we’re good friends) it seems ridiculous to both of us.  Had I bothered, it might have led to my introduction to my current group of friends much sooner, but without time-travel (and wouldn’t that be handy?) I guess there’s no point thinking about it.

Anyway, classes and friends and jobs and life in general opened me up this Sophomore Year. I learned about the Dalai Lama, Wendell Berry, more holocaust literature than I’d ever planned on reading, and Li-Young Lee.  And although I still feel bad about lying so obviously when Stephens, my Creative Writing prof, asked if the class had helped me with my own writing, maybe it did and I just wasn’t aware of it yet – learning what doesn’t work for me is useful too, I suppose.  At any rate, this year brought me a little closer to figuring out what I wanted. 

10-3-2001  When I was under five feet tall, I remember running through the woods on my stick legs and not caring about the scratch marks I received that would leave scars which would stick around for years to come.  My hair, which I rarely bothered to brush, would flow down my back during the few times when I was able to escape the house before my mom could put it up in pigtails. Life was so simple then.
I remember one particularly wild run through the woods vividly.  I was wearing my favorite blue T-shirt that of course had the most holes of any shirt I owned, and I was barefoot, running along the unfinished berm on the front of our house.  (Dad had assured mom that he would finish the berm within the first week after we moved in; it remained unfinished so long that Mom had quite forgotten about it and it was my favorite shortcut to run into the house.)  As I was skipping along, I remember thinking that I would get serious and become a girl once I hit sixteen.  I would wear pink, put ribbons in my hair, have a boyfriend, and be popular with the cool girls.  I also had this thing about changing my name to Erin, but that’s not important.  It seemed so far off, so I think I was comfortable with this resolution.  When I was sixteen, I would settle down.
Well, needless to say, not much of this happened.  Okay, none of it happened.  But I remember how important it seemed that I do these things by the time I was sixteen.  I can’t figure out why all of this suddenly flashed into my mind today as I was walking back from bombing a psychology quiz, but it did.  I think it’s because I have to start deciding what I want to do with my life, and it’s a little more serious than the color pink, ribbons, boyfriends, and being popular.  What AM I to do?  What do I even want?  I didn’t want those things that I did when I was under five feet tall, and that’s probably why I never attained any of those “lofty” goals.
So what do I want? Before I die, I want to have seen a little of the world outside my bubble.  I want to see the British islands my family is from, Egypt, Asia, Rio de Janeiro.  I want my own bit of earth. I want to find someone who makes vulnerability not a thing igniting in me complete terror.  I want to have found a haircut I actually enjoy for two days in a row.  I want to own at least two dogs.  I want to come up with a short explanation for why I am the way I am. I need something that is my own that no one else can get to, something that makes me smirk like “I know something other people don’t,” as I was told the other day.
I have been to Las Vegas, San Antonio, Orlando, Branson, Daytona, Myrtle Beach, Hilton Head, Chicago, Mackinaw Island.  I have seen the Mammoth Caves, Grand Canyon, both Oceans, sunsets over Lake Michigan.  I have hiked the mountains of West Virginia, played in Tahquamenon Falls, climbed the dunes of Silver Lake, walked the circuits of Disney World and Gettysburg.  I have seen twisters, storms at sea, meteor showers, aurora borealis.  I have friends whom I have known since birth, and I will have friends whom I haven’t met yet.  I have created paintings, crafts, stories, and my share of joy and pain.  I have problems, concerns, frustrations, tears, and grievances.  I don’t know what to do with my life.  I don’t know what to make of Spring, Winter, and the unusual Michigan changes in between.  I have seen 20 winters of gently and not so gently falling snow.

Nessie, Scat, & The Freshmen Frenzy


It’s safe to say that I knew I was a mess when I entered college.  I hadn’t sorted it all out yet, but I at least knew that making other people happy could not be my focus anymore. So, I basically entered Cornerstone University with the single goal to go unnoticed. I didn’t want to shine, I didn’t want to work so hard to excel, I didn’t want the professors to expect me to get A’s.  (I know… #goldenchildproblems)  And I certainly didn’t want my peers to look up to me or rely on me.  I needed ‘me time.  (It’s interesting now to look back on my journal entries during this time and trace my growth/healing, so I’ll include some as I go along below.)

Also, I knew that I wanted to see more than what I’d been exposed to in high school. I needed a wider range of humanity. I’d always been eclectic in my interests without the resources to explore them, and now in college I was thrilled to have academic guidance in my pursuits.  (Not that Cornerstone was a widely diverse world, but it was better than where I’d come from.)  I remember feeling so relieved that I could now learn in a richer soil.  And, since I had nowhere near enough personal stability to know what I wanted to do vocationally, I decided to get a degree for my hobby.  Thus, I  decided on an English Literature major, and I set forth to gobble up all I could.  And maybe try to enjoy myself.

Freshmen Year – 2000-2001.  I remember meeting my roommate, Elise, for the first time. We both realized instantly, I think, that they’d put us together because we both had listed Art as one of our interests.  This was clear mostly because on paper we had so little else in common.  But we bonded at the very least because we were both equally baffled by our suite-mates – one turned out to be a pathological liar/thief, the other had no boundaries and cleaned out our frig on a regular basis, among other things.  But Elise was a godsend, really.  She was emotionally stable (certainly by comparison to yours truly), she was kind, she was sweet, and quite frankly she was such a contrast to myself that she made me a better person.  It was also interesting that my high school English teacher, Michaele, knew Elise from when they worked at camp together, and Michaele had sort of followed me to Cornerstone to work there.  This helped Elise and I because we had a very welcome third-wheel at lunch. Although, I still don’t understand Michaele’s preferred meal of peas and cottage cheese mixed into her salads.

Adventures of Elise and myself:

  • Coming up with a story that Nessie (the Loch Ness Monster) lived in Cornerstone’s shallow pond and ate regularly sacrificed students.
  • Covering our walls in plastic so we could paint them.
  • Going to bed by 9 after we’d finished homework.
  • Naming our pet fish “Discernment,” which was one of the buzz words at school.  We later had to give Discernment medicine (and later burial) after our suitemate decided to pet the fish and gave it a fungus.

Living in a dorm with several hundred classmates was definitely a whole new world – I’d just left a senior class of 11, after all.  The first thing that hit me about these people as we settled in was how annoyingly Christian-y they were.  Apparently the fact that we’d entered a  Christian university meant that everyone was trying to prove their faith or fit in or something, but I found it obnoxious considering I’d come from a Christian high school where you kinda just learned to incorporate religion/faith into the everyday.  Or, maybe it was just that this was the first time many of them had been able to live in a Christian community like this.  Either way, it settled down after a couple of weeks, much to my relief. What did not settle down was the “Freshmen Frenzy” – the instant drive everyone seemed to have to find “the one.”   I, knowing that I was a mess and needed to be alone and sort myself out, was constantly surrounded by silly girls who fluttered over boys.  And the boys fluttered back.  I grew incredibly sick of hearing the campus mantra of “if it’s God’s will” – which I like to believe God hates as much as I do.  I find it hard to believe that God is a Holy Matchmaker with nothing better to do.  Anyway, I kept my head down and once again realized I was a magnet for freaks, but more on that later.

Rock groups were Cornerstone’s way of trying to help us make friends.  I don’t remember what sorting system they used (it was not a magic hat), but basically groups of 8-10 (?) were clumped together and taken through the tours, etc. so that we were supposed to bond.  Figuring I had to have some friends, I went along with my suite-mate (not yet knowing about the pathological behavior) and joined Rob, Tim, Amber, and some others.  We were an odd mix of characters, but I truly did like them.  I remember very quickly Amber and I realized that we would be sitting next to each other come graduation because of our last names, and this did end up happening, even if we weren’t close friends by the time of graduation.  And something our Rock group did that I’m not sure others did was that we took turns going to each other’s homes on the weekends.  On Rob’s weekend, I remember lying around, laughing with these people, and thinking, “Huh, maybe I like people after all.”  It wasn’t much, but it was a step in the healing process and meant a lot to me.

10-23-2000 –I recently went to one of my friend’s houses for a short weekend getaway.  “We” being two guys and three girls, it probably looked a little interesting.  We went to visit his great grandmother for an hour, and we were all amazed that she acted like us.  The first comment out of this elderly woman’s mouth was, “Wow, you sure have quite the harem, Rob.” We stood dumbfounded as she went on to discuss underwear, my friend’s girlfriend, and various other subjects which are usually not discussed with great grandparents…or parents, for that matter.  Sure there was also a conversation about digestion problems, but it was incredible how she connected with us.

There were ups and downs as I progressed with this new life.

10-29-2000 I think I’ve begun to come back around to myself.  I don’t yet fully grasp were I went.  I got lost.  I was numb, but I feel like I’m awake now.  I have this tingling sensation like (I can’t believe I’m about to use this analogy) a hunting dog who’s about to be released into a field.  That’s really the best way to describe my interior right now; I’m shivering with anticipation.
It’s weird to look back on myself over the past few months.  I can remember coming home to the Haymarsh the first time and only wanting to get back to “civilization” as soon as possible.  Maybe that’s the whole “you can’t go home again” thing.  I don’t know.  Now, as I lay on my bed in the dark like I always used to do, I realize what a little shit I was.
Now, I’m trying to listen to that little voice that, when I said, “I hate my life,” told me, “well, change it then.”

1-13-2001 I’ve heard it said that we all should get rid of perfectionism because you miss out in a lot of life.  Messes are supposedly signs of life.  I think it is because of this theory that I am sitting in the perfect spot on my bed.  (You know how you are supposed to not always lay in the same spot in your bed so one area doesn’t get worn out?  Well, I’m being defiant and laying there.  Pretty gutsy, huh?)
One thing I don’t understand about myself is why I don’t let myself have fun.  I avoid social gatherings of any kind.  I don’t go to friends’ parties, even when they actually do think to invite me.  I don’t even allow myself to enjoy any one person’s company because I constantly tell myself that they will turn on me at the nearest opportunity.
I think part of the whole self-pity phase (God, let it be a phase) involves analyzing yourself to death.  Analyzing is one of my strong suits.  I can easily identify why my life sucks.  I’m analytical, so I read into everything.  I’m a perfectionist (which I already covered) and organized.  I’m self-conscious, so I never draw attention to myself on purpose.  I have no self-esteem, but I also manage to be incredibly arrogant and vain at the same time.  I have an “inferiority complex about my superiority complex.”  I’m defensive to the teeth.  I’m terrified to enjoy myself because I think I will get hurt by someone sometime.  All in all, I’ve decided that I’m a snotty, defensive screw-up.  I have this mix of apathetic aggression and downright mourning that I can’t explain.

So, yeah.  All that was going on.

Of course, my main focus was on learning in college – weird, I know.  The freshmen class that sticks most in my memory is “Foundations of Scientific Inquiry,” which I’m sure seemed like a great idea to some administrative head at the time but which came to be known as “Foundations of Scientific Purgatory.”  Basically the semester was divided into 3 sections with 3 different professors of 3 different science classes.  I’m not really sure I learned anything, but I definitely remember the assignment when we were put in groups and had to compete by finding the fastest way to melt an ice cube.  As soon as the prof started the timer, Jeff D. acted  decisively for our group by popping the ice in his mouth, crunching away, and then opening his mouth and proclaiming, “Done!”  We won, even if this wasn’t exactly with the prof had intended.  (Years later, my brother, knowing this story, did the same for his group when he was in this class.)

But there were good classes too.  “Intro to Literature” was probably my favorite, and Ms. Eckman was probably my favorite prof that year.  I did, however, nearly get sucked back into being a golden child because my class was full of Business majors  (the horror!) and I was one of the few actually interested in literature.  Or there was “World Civilizations 1” where Prof Cole delighted in singing some song with my name in it practically every morning – loving history as I did, I forgave him.  There was also “Intro to Biology,” where Prof “Gator” would regularly talk about scat. I again was something of a golden child in this class, especially in the section about wetlands – living on the Haymarsh back home had its advantages.  When asked on a field trip, “What do you call dead meat?” I happily answered, “Carrion!” and got a gold star for the day.

5-17-2001    Just when I think life can’t possibly become any funnier, God finds a way to slip something slimy under the covers.  We went on a field trip for Bio Lab to the sand dunes, and I was walking with a guy whom I’ve spoken with many times.  He remembered that I am an outdoor freak, and he asked me if I had learned anything in the class.  I said not really, because we were studying wetlands and I live on a wetland.  He asked where.  I said Morley.  He was surprised and said he was from Lakeview.  I said really.  He asked if I knew where the Haymarsh Hunt Club was.  I said that was me.  He asked if I knew Lee Clemence.  I said he was my uncle.  He said really.  I asked how he knew my uncle.  He said he used to work for Gummer Peat Company.  Very strange; you never know who you’re going to run into.

And there was “Religious Communities and Cultures” with Prof Burghart.  This class probably meant the most to me, although I might not have been aware of its effects at the time.  Randy (Burghart) clearly wasn’t any more thrilled with the assigned, massive text than we were. And since there were only about 10 of us in the class, he moved us from the stifling classroom above the library into the student union, where we could sit on couches.  Basically, all I remember is Randy showing us slide after slide of different art pieces on his laptop.  I did take notes, so we must have been tested on something.  But mostly I remember feeling incredibly relieved to just sit back on the couch, let go of some of my neuroses, and listen to Randy tell us about art for an hour.  Although I didn’t know it at the time, Randy would be a influence on my later choice of a friend circle as well.  Not that Steve, who was in this class with me and wrote “Poophead” and “Steve G. is my hero” on my notes, stuck around for long.

All in all, my freshmen year of college was an interesting start.  I started dipping my toes in various interests, learning about new options.  I healed just enough to enjoy the change.  And while my friendships from Freshmen year didn’t end up really sticking much, they prepared me for the ones to come.

The Era of Mother Superior

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.  It will forever be – knock on wood – as close to hell as I’ll ever come.  But it was really only the white, middle-class, angst-y poetry, Fiona Apple kind of hell, which I guess proves it wasn’t that bad.

Senior Year at Algoma Christian School started with promise.  There is an indescribable, largely unjustified feeling of pride and elation that comes with being a high school senior.  You will never be more on top of the world, and my tiny class of 11 came as close to abusing the moment as we could.  For instance:

  • On the annual camping retreat for the entire high school, we hid coolers full of water balloons until we ambushed absolutely everyone during free time.
  • We threw a tantrum because a particularly uppity middle-school teacher had taken our radio from the kitchen where we served lunch, and we were rewarded with a field trip to Chicago.
  • There was a little unsupervised experiment that resulted in an explosion which probably would have gotten someone expelled if we’d pointed fingers. No one ever repeated the experiment, especially Tim.
  • We locked people in the kitchen cooler.
  • We spent an entire night in the dark gym building a full-length castle for Homecoming.
  • We filled a kiddy pool with water and fish and put it in the math teacher’s classroom.
  • The Night of the Spoon will forever live in infamy.

I played basketball that year, though I’d never been on a team before and wasn’t a particularly competitive person when it came to anything organized.  I did try to get out of it before practices started, but everyone had been bugging me to play for so long that I finally consented and gave in to what everyone expected of me – a pattern, I’d realize later.  I can’t say I ever really tried that hard, though I was proud of being the fastest person on the team – not the quickest, that honor went to Felix, but I was fastest.  I did enjoy fouling.  At our last game, I finally decided to ignore everything my coach had ever told me and played hard because I was so frustrated.  I was left in for three straight quarters, and I remember mouthing, “Take me out!” to our coach, who just smiled and continued watching the game.  I didn’t even notice the score as I took a charge and shot my free throws – it was only after I’d tied the game that I realized what was going on.  We lost in overtime.  I remember going into the bathroom and nearly collapsing – I SHOULD have been pulled, and self-diagnosing now I know I was dehydrated and probable hyperventilating.  But, it was over, and I was relieved.  I have never since been that physically exhausted since.  It felt terrible, and good. I think I was starting a spiral into depression at that point, actually, and my body was trying to tell me something.

Why? The biggest aspect of my senior year that makes it so memorable was the fact that I had to change my role.  I was always involved in student government through high school, but mostly I managed to sit in the background and contribute while staying out of the lead.  Then came senior year.  Unfortunately, the president of my class moved away and so I had to step in by default.  (I must stress that this was in no way a grand accomplishment – class of 11, remember.) Teachers, staff, parents, etc. expected me to be excellent – pressure, pressure, pressure! – because I was responsible, I had a good head on my shoulders, I was smart, blah, blah, blah.  So, I took charge, again largely to please everyone and because it was expected of me. Honestly, I did have natural leader-ish tendencies, so I took up the reins and enjoyed being organized, scheduled, etc.  I learned to thrive on a job well done…and on stress, on having demands and deadlines.

But, being a leader is hard on the social life.  I really didn’t want my classmates to hate me as their pseudo-authority figure, so I tried to be softer and let them get away with more.  And more.  And more.  This, I think, led them to treating me like a mom, or a doormat.  They didn’t do their work because they knew I would pick up the slack.  (I shouldn’t really blame them – I mean, you’re supposed to be somewhat irresponsible in high school, so I hear. And I have to give credit to about four other people from my class who actually did give a hoot.) Unfortunately, I didn’t have a choice – the job had to get done or it would reflect poorly on me. No! I had expectations to meet! I couldn’t fail! I couldn’t make a mistake! …Anyway… Because I shouldered all the labor, I became more resentful and took it out on my classmates.  Self-righteousness is a bitch.  Josh #1 even went so far as to dub me with the nickname “Mother Superior.” And I completely deserved it the time Tim actually handed me a broom and said, “Go home.”

It was around this time that I seriously considered tossing away the idea that my classmates were my friends, and I began to feel very grateful that I lived fifty miles away.

Here’s where the angst-y poetry comes in:

acs“What am I to you
What are we
I wish to thank you for this misery
and these raspberry seeds
I once feared our circle’s break
Now I fear its stay
So I thank you for this misery
And these raspberry seeds
I will remember your sweetness
But hope to pick you from my teeth”
– My Raspberry Friends

During this time, there were several situations where it was clear God was trying to get my attention.  Many times, I worked myself into such a ball of stress that I ended up getting sick.  I mean sick.  I’d had a crappy immune system since I could remember (Ethiopian poster child, remember), and I didn’t even get over colds for two weeks.  I often saw being sick as a blessing because it meant that I got a break.  Also, being sick has always been a time when I hear God more clearly.  While I lay in bed miserable, God usually checked in and reminded me of the whole little “be still and know that I am God” promise – I say promise because it was comforting to know that I could refrain from holding the universe together.  Once I would realize this, I would then snap out of my control-freak tendencies so that – a week or so later – I would be healthy again.  Sadly, the lesson usually didn’t last long.

Things got worse when one of my guy friends showed signs of liking me.  (Here lies the reason I hate getting flowers, btw.) I could have been flattered and left it at that as friends, but unfortunately he decided that I now was just the same as every other vagina girl he had ever chased after.  It was as if our friendship of eighteen years meant nothing.  I cannot begin to explain how much this hurt and how it would affect so many friendships to come.  At the end of a very long drama, let’s just say that we stopped being friends because it was the only thing I could do. But, unfortunately, rumors spread like wildfire in a small Christian school, and I had to deal with a lot of crap from people who didn’t understand what was really going on.  There were a few who really did know, and it was really here that I learned who my true friends were – even if I was barely capable of trusting anyone anymore.

I think that, by the end of senior year, I was broken.  I felt as if every last one of my emotional straws had been snapped.  I was beyond ready to leave it all behind, and yet I was scared of the New at the same time.  I had had so much externally going on that I honestly hadn’t done the usual high school “finding myself” stuff.  I didn’t know who I really was when not performing for everyone else’s benefit.  I didn’t know what I wanted from the life to come.  Most certainly I knew I was a mess, but it was all so jumbled that I didn’t yet know how I was a mess.  I was numb, disconnected, and broken while trying to put on a show of being perfectly happy, hopeful of the future, and loving.  All I had left was my relationship with God, which had grown immensely during this time because I’d been forced to lean on solely him – maybe this was the good that came out of all of the bad.

High School Graduation – So, at last.  My valedictorian speech was prepared, my ridiculous hat was pinned to my hair, and I had my tall boots on so that I felt I had something different about me – I don’t know why this was necessary, but it helped.

We had to stand in the side wing while the gathered mob of family and friends assembled and seated themselves in the gymnasium.  I remember inspecting my classmates with something like love and something like loathing – but, somehow, mostly like love.  Hope was the first in line.  She was oddly the nearest to tears, although she was only a member of our class by force.  Adam was nearly as alien – although he fit in, he had only joined our class that year from a lower grade.  I was next.  Appearing completely calm, Tim stood quietly.  Cat was jittery, but she talked to everyone.  Tiffany was giggling.  Easily the most distractible, Rusty was joking around and had to be shoved back into the line.  Good Josh was grinning from ear to ear.  Holding the folds of her gown so as not to reveal her mini-skort, the Hawaiian goddess Felix fumed inwardly because she should have been salutatorian.  Bad Josh stood laughing.  Alicia was in the rear, trying to appear calm, but she was worried about the slide show she had spent all year putting together for this event.

“Let me take a few pictures quick,” my mom said as she entered the narrow hall.

I admit I rolled my eyes as she fumbled to work the camera.

“Smile, Sunny,” I heard Bad Josh say as the flash went off.

I silently scowled at him and reached up to adjust my sliding cap. I exchanged an annoyed glance with my jittery friend as the Hawaiian goddess’s soon-to-be ex-boyfriend (and much, much later husband) brought us the flowers we had to carry down the aisle.  We took them and nervously argued over the best way to carry them.  Deciding that I no longer cared about the whole event, I realized that my four Tylenol had just kicked in for my headache.

Soon enough, we walked down the aisle to the traditional music, which Alicia’s sister played on a piano.  The girls carried calla lilies; the guys focused a little too hard on walking at the right speed.  We sat in our seats, slightly stiff and sleepy.  After Cat had given her salutatorian speech, I remember thinking, “I can beat that.” Mr. C, as our administrator, basketball coach, Family Living teacher, and group therapist then introduced me by saying, “And now, speaking of our leader…” This made me cringe. I remember walking up to the podium, taking a firm grip, and looking out at the crowd.  It occurred to me that half of the people had never heard me talk before, so I felt a smirk of satisfaction in knowing that they had to listen to me now. But I stuck to my script.

The rest of the ceremony was traditionally long and somewhat interesting.  When we were finally released from the blinding cameras, a few of us enjoyed ourselves.  We each had our own table of baby pictures and plaques.  We got really good at smiling and saying, “thank you,” not to mention hugging people we didn’t know.  I spent most of my time watching everyone else.  Mike V. hugged me but then pushed me aside when he saw my table had candy.  Bad Josh stood by my table with his glaring girlfriend, and I was stuck there awkwardly. I’m pretty sure Good Josh saw this, because he came over and hugged me, which I needed badly.

For the next couple of weeks, I went through the necessary pleasantries of open houses and greeting my friends’ families.

Then something happened.  The board of ACS got their panties in a bunch because Felix had worn a short skirt and Cat and I had gone sleeveless UNDER our graduation gowns.  (If that sounds ridiculous, it should.  While I loved most of what that school stood for, we were there during a “growth period” and the leadership was infuriating. It made mountains out of molehills and focused on the trivial while ignoring issues that really mattered like prejudice, sexism, hypocrisy, etc.  I am glad to report that ACS has grown in leaps and bounds since this time, and now boys are even allowed to have facial hair!) …Anyway, it was at this point that I felt like every good aspect of graduating from high school had been sucked out of me.  I remember crying and crying and crying, not because I felt guilty or angry but because I had been so close to escaping and now was thrust back in.  What ended up happening was that our class and our parents were called to a meeting to discuss whether or not we deserved to go on the senior trip we had spent all year earning.  We were basically told that we were the scum of the earth and not capable of making good choices, even though ACS was supposed to have taught us now to make good choices. We weren’t trusted.  We were not adults after all.  We were failures.  Even now, I think that meeting was the low point in my life.  I have never seen my dad so livid, and I have never loved him so much as when he argued for us.  Fortunately, somehow, we won our case and they decided to let us go ahead with our senior trip.

Then something else happened.  It is not really my story to tell, but basically Cat and Tim confessed that they were pregnant.  The thing that hurt the most was not that I was disappointed in them – it was that Cat had been afraid to tell me.  I cried and cried then too.  Cat and I had become very close that year, and I think we both bonded to each other because we had so little else.  We’ve been over my drama, but Cat’s dad had had cancer and she’d had a host of other, real problems.  Plus, we were both trying frantically to find God in our lives during this tumultuous time, and we strengthened each other’s hopes that we were not left to flounder on our own.  I still think to this day that I could have done more for her or been there for her more that year, but I’d had to take care of myself at some point too.


Senior Trip – Despite the sucky situations leading into the trip, the time in West Virginia was awesome and wonderful.  For some reason, I decided to be a vegetarian for the week and eat Felix’s diet. Rusty developed a strange relationship with the campsite moths.  And, the whole group randomly went for a hike one day and followed a bubbling stream, not at all knowing where it would lead. We fell on the slimy rocks, Felix and I hid in an overlooking cave on the bank, we found a crashed car in the middle of the mossy stream, and then finally we arrived at a waterfall. Pounding water from forty feet overhead slammed into jagged rocks below, and sunlight fought its way through the trees on the cliffs all around, illuminating the murky pool between a gigantic boulder and the waterfall.  The whole scene is definitely in my Top 10 Most Memorable Things I’ve Ever Seen.  It was like a gift.

However.  When we were leaving, Mr. C pulled over the van and asked us if we wanted to go north to home or south to the next destination.  We were confused.  He then said that the camp owner had seen us sneaking away in pairs, apparently making out when some of us had significant others at home. We vigorously denied this, and finally he pulled his head out of his…seat and kept driving.  Later at our next stop, he pulled me aside and asked what I thought, and I came very close to telling him that what he had done was unacceptable and insulting, especially after everything that had happened with the ACS board meeting. Fortunately, I remembered just in time that he did not respect my opinions as my father would have, so I kept quiet.  But this was the last thing I needed at the time, and much of the recouped joy I’d felt drained away again.

Then came Myrtle Beach.  Up until Wednesday was great.  The condo was gorgeous, as were the beach and ocean. It was worth all the year’s financial work to see them laughing in the surf – for many of them, it was their first experience with an ocean, and maybe I did feel a bit like their happy mother as they enjoyed themselves. I still think it’s funny that we girls played on the beach while the guys went shopping at the mall.

Our 3:00 am beach walk was another Top 10 thing.  Good Josh, Adam, Felix and I picked our way across the street in our bare feet, and we arrived on the sand to join the few other vacationers who were out so late.  The wind was so strong that I remember jumping up and being blown backward in my “Shrimp Happens” T-shirt.  The lapping of the waves was soothing, even though you could only see the very edge of the water in the dim light from the condos.  We found a beached puffer fish.  The storm out at sea was cool, too – and rather symbolic now that I think of it.  I honestly don’t remember much of our conversations, but it wasn’t important.  Just walking was good.

Then, Wednesday night.  Ever had a dream three months in advance where you see the scene of when a friend is going to hurt you?  Ever forget about that dream until its reality is suddenly upon you?  I did.  In both my dream and reality, I was sitting on the balcony of our condo, my feet on the railing.  I was looking at a bright light across the street and slightly to my right.  Then, a friend (this turned out to be Good Josh) came onto the balcony.  I remember recognizing the scene then and thinking, “No, it’s okay.  He’s on my right.  In my dream, he was on my left.  There’s a table in the way so that he can’t get to my left, so maybe the dream was wrong.” Sure enough, however, Good Josh stepped over the table to lean against the wall on my left.  He did this for no explainable reason.  That was when I knew something was coming.  I’m not even really sure what happened.  All I know is that he lied to me.  We didn’t have a fight or anything, but I just knew something changed right then.  The next morning, we didn’t speak to each other.  We only made eye contact once for the entire rest of the trip. (I did figure out why, but it involves petty teen girl crap and doesn’t really matter.) But, because of that weird dream/premonition, I in some way felt okay with it, like I’d been prepared for this final, awful thing. And I wasn’t ever mad at Good Josh – which is saying something, if you know me. Maybe I was just numb, but I really didn’t hold anything against him, and I think it’s because he had been such a support up until then.

Riding back to Michigan in the van, I found myself in a strange state of peace.  I was still hurt, I was still scarred, but it was time to leave ACS behind.  I resigned myself to just let go, make a clean break, and move on.  This was maybe not the healthiest approach, but it was the best I could come up with at the time.  I needed time away.  (I got that time away in college, but more on that later.)

Five Years Later – One post-college night as I lay in bed thinking, it dawned on me that I was all right.  Adjusted.  I felt closure from my worst ACS issues, and nothing but time had triggered this feeling.

It was only then that I remembered something. Back during the ACS dark times, while I was praying one night, God told me, “Five years.”  I’d had no idea what this meant at the time, but I’d felt immediate peace that it involved something good.  Skip back to me lying in bed five years later and I suddenly got it – God had been telling me that, in five years, I would finally be okay and would recover from everything that had happened at ACS.  I know five years seems like a long time to get over traumas from high school, and it was.  But God knows how I work and how much it all hurt me, and I think he was meeting me on my ground.  He brought me through five years of healing, like an extended version of the scene in “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” where Aslan peels the dragon skin off Eustace.

So now, 10+ years later, what does ACS and The Era of Mother Superior mean to me? I’ve rekindled some old friendships that have changed with time; other friendships I’ve let go.  But I try at least to check in.  Maybe it’s masochistic, but I don’t want to forget perhaps the most shaping era of my life.  Whatever its faults, I did spend over a decade of my life at ACS, and that means the school is an important part of my past.  A home.  ACS will forever be my own private “Winesburg, Ohio” where I grew up and where I had to grow out of.  And I think it’s good to remind myself that even when I was at my worst, I wasn’t alone.


Living on the Fringes of an Amish Community

Another part of growing up on the Haymarsh was that many of our neighbors were Amish.  I don’t know the history of how they came to settle in the area, but they definitely added a unique flavor to the community.  I respect their devotion to their way of life and faith, even if I don’t find it necessary.  But… There are definitely a few things/stories that stuck in my memory:


I don’t remember when it happened, but at some point my brother and I started calling Amish children omelets.  I think it may have something to do with the fact that often one house will have a dozen children.

In summer, the omelets play outside much like my brother and I used to do, and I imagine there is a similar aspect of their mother wanting them out of the house.  They will always be barefoot, but in this community clothing is never optional.  The omelets will be dressed from head to shins in black doll’s clothes with the cutest (and probably most uncomfortable) straw hats and bonnets you’ve ever seen.  There is always a puppy.  People drive by slowly to see the herd of little omelets playing, and it’s hard to say whose curiosity is more entertained – those in the cars or the children.  But I do know that the puppies always enjoy the children’s attention being diverted, because they always jump at the chance to run for it.

Once, I saw three little omelets standing by their pasture, staring open-mouthed and pointing as a bull had his way with a cow.  That must have been Biology class for the day.

Deer in a Barrel

Not everyone enjoys having Amish neighbors.  Especially around hunting season.  One family went so far in their plans to “outsmart” their Amish neighbors that they built a 25-foot tall fence along their entire property line to keep deer from running off their property onto the Amish property.  It was a wall Nehemiah would have been proud of, even if the motivation was a little different.

When deer season came around, however, the Amish were ready.  They got up at 4:00 a.m. and sat along their side of the fence, waiting.  The deer, probably confused, ended up being funneled by the new fence into the Amish property.  Trapped, the deer ran along the fence like those shooting games at a carnival while the Amish men shot at them for 45 minutes.  Deer tried crawling under the fence to no avail.  Thirteen deer died that days, some so small they still had spots on their little haunches.  As my Dad found out later, “The boys enjoyed some sport.”  By mowing down Bambi’s as they tried to crawl under a fence?  Very sporting indeed.

 The Sunday Morning Game

My family played a game on the way to church every Sunday: Guess Which Way The Amish Went To Church.  You play by swerving around the horse poop in the road, trying to decipher which direction the horse-drawn buggy had been traveling.  Are the poopy trails leading to the Yoders?  Or the Adams?  Then our family car would make that one turn to our church, and we’d see a pile of plop going in the other direction.  Yes, it was the Yoders that Sunday.  (We found odd things to be competitive about in my family, but poop tracking was one of them.)

The Amish Diet

At the local grocery store, I always found it exciting to pull into the parking lot and see a horse and buggy tied to the lamppost.  One day, my mom and I entered to find a young Amish couple (you knew they hadn’t been married long cuz his beard was thin yet) shopping around.  I’m not alone in finding this exciting, because I distinctly remember seeing several other customers also looking in the couple’s cart, wondering what they were buying.  I lost track of them in the store but was fortunate enough to end up right behind them in the checkout line.  What did they pull from their cart? A frozen pizza and eggs.

Two thoughts went through my head:
1.) Shouldn’t they have chickens?
2.) How did they cook the pizza?

 Business Moguls

Oh, they’re crafty, those Amish.  They helped themselves to all the maple syrup they could carry from our woods two years in a row.  We would drive by our land and see the trees reflecting back at us like they all had rear-view windows – the syrup collecting bags were silver.

Not only did they relieve us of the burden of harvesting from our land, but they were also so generous as to plant…special herbal crops on our land. My grandmother was shocked by the DEA one afternoon when they landed a helicopter, knocked on her door, and asked if she was responsible for about 20 marijuana plants on her property.  Honestly, I can’t really blame the DEA – which is more ridiculous, that my grandmother would be growing weed or that the nice Amish boys would be planting weed? (To be fair, the true culprits may have been my aunt and uncle’s employees, but I have my reasons for suspecting the Amish boys. We had always wondered what was in those plastic bags when they would come out of our woods.)

More as a kind way to interact with the Amish boys than as an actually wise business move, my dad decided one summer to buy pigeons from them to hunt on the Hunt Club.  They were delighted (he would later say because they’d known a sucker when they saw one) and sold Dad over 100 pigeons at a time that they caught in their barn.  Now, fun fact about pigeons:  They will return home to roost, even after the betrayal of being sold into a slavery where they’re shot at.  So, by the end of the summer, my dad was pretty sure he’d bought many of the same birds at least three times.

 Riding lessons

By the time I actually had horses of my own, I was over my girlhood horse phase. It didn’t help that our appaloosa was an idiot.  Gorgeous, but an idiot.  “He” (and I use the term loosely, if you know what I mean) needed training desperately so that he would calm down and stop bucking. My grandfather had an old Amish friend who reportedly worked wonders as a horse whisperer, so we took our appaloosa to this exorcist and let him see what he could do.

After looking the horse over and agreeing to keep him for a while, this kind older man turned to me and asked how I liked riding him.  I said, “Fine, but he bucks a lot.” He then gave me the most valuable advice I’ve ever received, and it can extend beyond horse riding to all areas of life, I believe.  He said, “Well, if you’re going to fall, be sure to land on your head so you don’t hurt your ass.”  This was the first time I’d ever heard an Amish person swear.

So, anyway, living on the fringes of an Amish community wasn’t a drastic influence on my life, but it certainly added a unique flavor.  These people are mostly known for buggies, bonnets, beards, and hand-crafted furniture.   They often seem un-relatable.  But they’re faithful, they’re funny, they are not perfect.  At the very least, living so close to them taught me that you really can’t judge a person by their cover.  Or what’s in their shopping cart.

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