There’s a downside to being encouraged too much as a child. Growing up, I was always the Golden Child, although I think I was only eager to please because I found it so easy to please. I could get by with little effort and even excel in some areas without trying. I was always told I could do anything I wanted, be anything I wanted. And I knew I was smart enough and talented enough and driven enough that that was true.
But here’s one of the internal hiccups of being me: I get option paralysis. When any and all roads are open to me, I can’t pick. I was always told and believed that I could do/be anything I wanted…but what did I want?
What I’ve always ended up doing is just settling into whatever is good enough. I slip into the comfort zone of what I’m good at so that I’m satisfied to a passable degree and don’t feel like some kind of floundering failure. I make myself comfortable with my surroundings, my regular activities, the people I regularly see, etc. And I just kind of… accept that comfort zone because it’s good enough without having to try, even if I have no idea if it’s what I really want.
Fortunately, somewhere along the trail of growing up, I whack-a-moled the Golden Child reflex to please everyone. I know perfectly well by this point that I meet expectations without trying, so woo-hoo for me. Except, not woo-hoo for ME. Internally, I know that settling for what’s good enough is still settling. Is my comfort zone really what I want? This question has always, always plagued me – What do I want? I don’t think I’ve been able to answer that question for myself at any point in my history.
So what do I do? I stick with my comfort zone. I DO like my life, don’t get me wrong – if I was miserable, I’d change things. I have a pleasant life. Close family. Good friends. Beaches within a reasonable driving distance. More local breweries than I can possibly visit in a week (I’m sure some could, but I’ve apparently become a lightweight). I’m generally content. Comfortable. But is this all I want? Or have I gotten so comfortable that I’m a bit in denial about being…satisfied?
It doesn’t help that I work at home, alone, with buckets of time to think. As generally content as I am with my life, still questions of “What if” creep in to fill the hours. What if I’d made an ambitious pursuit of a vocation at…something I’d wanted? What if I’d said “yes” any number of times, maybe making mistakes but maybe not? What if, at any point, I’d wanted something so passionately that I’d been driven to aim for it?
I’ve always been a quietly restless person, probably exactly because I’ve never known what I want. I’m just not comfortable with being comfortable. I need to be shaken up semi-regularly. I need stimulation from the norm. I hate feeling stagnant. I hate ruts. I go through periods (now, obviously) where I get restless and twitchy and question every life decision I’ve ever made. But still – what do I want? I have no idea.
I’ve always rolled my eyes at people who adopt the personal mantra of “All who wander are not lost.” I’ve known people who can’t settle anywhere and “want to see the world” because they think that’s going to solve their problems that they’re carrying around with them everywhere they land. I’m self-aware enough to know drastically moving or traveling is not going to be a cure-all. At the same time, some of my best decisions were drastic, made on a whim, and excellent examples of my inability to control my impulse-control issues. (I’m looking at you, move to Detroit.) There is something beautifully freeing about hitting some kind of reset and throwing yourself into new surroundings. There’s something wonderfully freeing about being surrounded by nothing you know.
I’m pretty sure this possible solution entered my brain because a friend recently pointed out to me that I would “never move.” This bothered me because:
A) It’s frustrating when someone knows you disturbingly well in so many ways that you have to wonder if they’re right about you all the time.
B) A John Locke (LOST) voice in my head always yells, “Don’t tell me what I [won’t] do!”
Also, it got me thinking. In the back of my mind, I know that moving is always something I’m quite open to if presented with a good enough reason. In fact, I think that’s why I rent. So IS that what I want, right now? A drastic move (literally), a shake up from this comfortable, pleasant little life I’ve settled into? Or would that just be a quick fix?
I’ve never been comfortable being comfortable. Maybe that’s all I want – to not be so damn comfortable – although that’s a terrible wish for a pessimist to throw out into the universe. But I am restless constantly, and I can’t blame it on winter anymore. I need…something. I think – I think – I should find baby steps to shake things up where I’m at rather than some drastic move (say, Iceland, for example…Iowa is easier to resist), but I don’t know. I guess I’m just trying to stay open to possibilities (good ones, please, universe) that I can jump on if they’re what I want.
Recently I was faced with an interview question of “If you’re stuck on an island, what three books do you have to have with you?” I brought this up with a group of friends, and of course we wondered about all kinds of qualifiers – are you ever going to see people again, does a collection/series count as one selection, is there wi-fi on this island, etc. It’s a toughy. One of my friends and I agreed on a bigger problem, however – we don’t reread books.
And that is making my New Year’s Resolution very difficult to stay committed to. Back in (okay, I was late) February, I decided that I would reread my top 25 favorite books to see if they still meant as much to me now as they did when I first read them. As of this moment, I have about 8 left to go. And it’s killing me. Not because I’m finding I don’t love them after all, but because I just do not enjoy rereading books. I have a freakish memory anyway, and so rarely am I finding that I’ve forgotten anything about these stories. I don’t get much new out of them. And so, as I’m reading, I’m finding myself glaring at the pages yet to go in my right hand and just wishing to be done. Which is bad, because I do love these books. Rereading is proving to me that I kind of wish I could just hold onto my memories from the first time I read them – my initial loves, surprises, fascination, etc.
However, so far there is one book from my Top 25 List that I’ve discovered does NOT mean as much to me now as it originally did, and so I guess this is accomplishing what I originally intended. “My Name is Asher Lev” is the book I’ve most drifted from loving. At the time (in college), I got a lot out of the book because it was about an artist trying to break from his familial/religious mold to find his artistic identity. Now, I just don’t connect with that anymore. It was a very important book to me during that particular time in my life, but now maybe I’ve just outgrown it. Odd, considering I reread “Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator” and don’t feel I’ve outgrown that one at all, but whatever.
Fortunately, all of the other books (so far) that I thought were my favorites really are my favorites, so there’s that. And (again as a lover of lists and checkmarks), I’m finally able to commit to rating these as 5-stars, because now I’m sure. I’m also sure this is making some of my friends happier, since I used to have a very gymnastic-scoring-eque approach to rating books, proclaiming there’s no such thing as a perfect 10. But I guess a perfect 5 I can commit to. Go me.
So, anyway, here’s my Top 25 Favorite Books List: The Time Quartet (L’Engle) Jane Eyre (Bronte) The Complete Stories and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe (Poe) Twelfth Night (Shakespeare) Freedom in Exile (Dalai Lama) The Demon in the Freezer (Preston) I Was Told There’d Be Cake (Crosley) Young Kate: The Remarkable Hepburns… (Andersen) Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator (Dahl) The Chronicles of Narnia (Lewis) Through the Looking Glass (Carroll) Agent to the Stars (Scalzi) Pastwatch (Card) The Dark Tower (King) The Raw Shark Texts (Hall) Kane and Abel (Archer)
Still to read: The Vampire Lestat (Rice) Speaker for the Dead (Card) Shadow of the Hegemon (Card) Shadow of the Giant (Card) Dune (Herbert) A Game of Thrones (Martin) The Cosmic Trilogy (Lewis) Possession (Byatt)
Out: My Name is Asher Lev (Potok)
Out of curiosity: Has anyone else done this? Does anyone else have this problem when rereading books?
One of the most insulting things you can say to a single person is “We just want you to be happy.” My mental response is always, “Huh, thanks. Until you just told me I wasn’t happy, I thought I was.” Granted, I understand most 30-something women probably do want to be married. And it certainly occurs to one – especially if that one lives in good old, conservative, family-oriented Western Michigan – that the next natural step in life after college and profession is to get married and start a family. However, then there’s me. I’m not saying I don’t want to get married; it’s just that I’m very, very good at being single and generally am happier when I don’t have to deal with the entire romantic realm. However, I have to acknowledge that this is probably due to my various experiences…
Let’s catch up.
One would think that I got off to an earlier start in the romance department, what with my first kiss being when I was three and all. I remember it perfectly. Poised on the couch on his hands and knees, Broch (or was it Brody?) leaned down as I puckered and lifted my face to his from the floor below. I believe we were playing Rapunzel and got our characters a bit backwards. All this while our mothers looked on and mine took a picture that would haunt me for years.
However, it was all downhill after the age of three. My well-practiced response to “Why aren’t you dating anyone?” is “If you knew my options, you’d understand,” and this truth started early. In elementary and high school, the pickings were slim – like eeny, meeny, miny, oh-I-guess-you’re-the-best-I-can-do. I have always had this thing about not settling, and even early in life I wasn’t one for wasting time – why put energy into a relationship with someone when you just know it isn’t right? It’s not that I’ve ever been anything incredible, but none of the boys who liked me while growing up were quite…right. Plus, I was a major tomboy, and I think my girl friends’ stupid flutterings over such characters as Chad and Kevin turned me off to the point that I never wanted to act like that. So, I didn’t. I maybe had a handful of crushes in my childhood, but I never acted like it – I had better things to do, I didn’t want to act girly like my friends, and my heart was never into anyone enough to give in to the whole boyfriend/girlfriend thing. (Exception: Randy Emmery in 4th grade. Every girl in my class liked him, he liked me, so I just kinda went with it and said I would be his girlfriend. He made me a banner printed off on a dot-matrix that said “I Love You.” I gave into peer pressure at recess and kissed his arm. Yep, his arm.) In high school in particular, my romantic run-ins with guy friends started my abandonment issues, so I kind of started to hate the idea of love because it always meant I ended up losing a friend when I inevitably ended things. But these were my options, and since they were all I had, I opted out of the whole affair. It was just easier. And better.
By college, I was honest enough with myself to realize that I was a mess, so I figured that being alone for a while and sorting out my issues was a good idea. And, I was once again surrounded by silly girls who fluttered over boys. My earliest roommates in college constantly bemoaned that they were single. One roommate would constantly sigh, “I’m going to die alone,” and another friend and I mocked this by repeating “I’m going to die alone” whenever we did anything remotely dumb, such as dropping a fork on the floor. 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. Anyway, everywhere around me, couples were blossoming in young love.
I felt absolutely nothing. It was around this time that it occurred to me I might be screwed up in the love department. Why was I refusing to even consider the idea of liking someone? Was it just learned behavior to protect myself from getting screwed over by people close to me – ahem, high school? I’d refused to care for so long that I wondered if I ever would find anyone to make me care. My Aunt Sharon has a poster that had always haunted me – a woman stands, her back to the painter, looking out a window at the world, an empty room behind her. I realized that I didn’t want to turn into that. I was also haunted by the fact that I’m supposedly related to Emily Dickinson, whose love life was so bad that reportedly she didn’t fare a particularly cheery life. (We covered her poetry in a Lit class once, and it didn’t help that, when I told my professor of my relation, his only response was “Why does this not surprise me?” I’m still not sure how to take that.)
Also, I’d by this time noticed a pattern in my suitors – I seemed to attract only complete losers who were convinced they were god’s gift to womankind. As my brother quoted for me, “I wish I could attract men like crazy instead of crazy men.” I hate the whole caste system of knowing your own league, but it might be right. (I know how arrogant that sounds, but keep in mind that I attracted some serious weirdoes.) I had first laughed at this pattern, but now I wondered if I was being too exclusive. Maybe I had become the Ice Queen I’d been accused of being in high school. It was here that I developed an “inferiority complex about my superiority complex” (yes, I just quoted Buffy). I felt bad for holding myself aloof as if no one was good enough for me. Maybe someone would surprise me after all, and how would I know if I wouldn’t give them a chance? So, I decided to loosen up my “I won’t waste time if he’s not quite right” stance. I’d be more open. I wouldn’t immediately reject guys who showed interest, not even the usual weirdoes who plagued me.
Bad move. By trying to make something out of nothing, I only let guys get too attached to me, and I quickly realized that sometimes you do have to be cruel to be kind, even if it means I lose a friend and once again fuel the fire of my abandonment issues. I learned the hard way that sometimes you have to nip a problem in the bud before the other person gets the wrong idea. After one particular experience where I let things drag on for far too long before ending it, I realized that I could never, never hurt someone like that again. And it killed me to try when I knew my heart wasn’t in it. It was far better to be alone than to be with someone I wanted to push off a cliff…not hypothetically speaking. I think the idea that “I can handle being alone alone, but I can’t handle being alone with someone” is pretty much what I’ve always felt. (And there’s an Ally McBeal quote.)
As college went on, because freaks were the only type of men who were interested in me, I developed a completely anesthetized reaction to the opposite sex as a whole. It was simply easier to turn off. And it was easier to laugh about the fact – I hold to the truth that it was a fact – that I attracted only losers. And I wasn’t the only girl suffering this problem in college, for my roommate Gloria was also so sick of being creeped out that she also avoided the relationship issue entirely. We weren’t sure how to fix our jadedness, but in our twisted, mildly crazy, typical way, we turned romance into a joke. Our apartment was already known as the Protestant Nunnery, and we named our apartment door The Door of Sarcastic Girly-ness. We taped to the door pictures of babies, “perfect” men, reasons women are stupid, and a compatibility chart with trick questions. It was a joke, but also an open declaration that there was something warped about our view of love.
Baby steps have always been my method of healing.
Later, in Detroit, I fear my jadedness only got worse. I certainly noticed guys more, but it was for professional purposes as a model scout, so I wasn’t any less numb. Some of my female coworkers couldn’t work up the nerve to approach some of the prettier specimens, but I was so numb that I could have talked to…who was popular at the time, Orlando Bloom? I was basically encountering men and saying (literally), “he’s pretty,” without so much as a flutter. Also, it was still true that my only suitors were, as my friend Carmen said, “sorry men.”
When I moved back to Grand Rapids, I realized that I should probably stop making excuses and get on with this supposed next step of life. I felt free to get over my jumbled past love life and try. Okay, that’s a lie. Once I moved back to Grand Rapids, I was happy with where I was and so didn’t bother. And anyway, what were my options? Most of my guy friends were more asexual than plants, and the thought of going out just to meet guys has always made me want to chew off my own hair. There were random blips on the romance radar every few months or so, but I held to my standards and didn’t let things continue once I knew it wasn’t going to work for me – this is the one lesson I’ve held to that I’m absolutely sure is the right way to go.
So that about catches us up to now. Because I like lists, I hashed out the below revelations about my love life:
I’m “low maintenance to the point of seeming indifferent.”
I like the idea of commitment, but I’m terrified of committing to the wrong thing.
I would murder Prince Charming.
One of my rather anti-girl characteristics is that, even with “The One,” I would need serious space. I need my space and individual identity or else I feel squeezed, not known, and then freak out and panic. I don’t like clingy. I could never spend my life with someone who actually believed the Jerry McGuire line about “you complete me.” I prefer to get different things from different people, and I don’t want to rely on any one person for my personal completion. I need someone with interests and hobbies and friends and work that is just his so that I know he’s a fulfilled person already and I’m just adding to the party.
I’m passive-aggressive about my abandonment issues. I always do everything in my power to make sure guy friends don’t like me so that I don’t have to hurt them or lose a friend later. This includes the use of decoys, most notably Drake Metcalf, who is a fake, Joaquin Phoenix look-a-like we created on Facebook to use as a fake boyfriend whenever one of us needs him.
It’s my own fault if guys get the wrong idea. I’m very open honest, and unfortunately this gets translated as my being this way only with you. Also, it doesn’t help that model scouting left me with raging objectivity – I am very free with compliments to men in my life, and while I really do mean them, I don’t mean them. This leads to all kinds of misunderstandings.
I’ve never had a “type.” Attraction/chemistry, for me, just kind of happens based on something I can’t put my finger on. What I’m attracted to is that thing of connection that I can’t explain – a comforting, natural surprise where someone is and does what fits without having to work at it. Something that makes me think, “THAT!”
I need someone who respects me but is going to stand up to me when I am being stupid or stubborn or wrong. I need someone not intimidated by me, someone stronger, bigger, and more dominant than me – I don’t like feeling like I wear the pants in a relationship, and I lose interest immediately if I’m not challenged.
As Kaly once said, “I want someone who is brave enough to wake me at 3 am to tell me to look at the meteor shower.”
While lying in bed one night, unable to sleep, I started counting sheep. However, I don’t know any sheep. So, instead I switched to counting what I like to call my Almosts. These are the boys/men/mutants in my life who fall into any one of the following categories: Outright boyfriends, guys I’ve almost dated, guys who had crushes on me, etc. Basically, anyone who was in any way a romantic prospect. After thinking through my entire life history, I came to a total of 43…make that 44.
Anyway, if you’ve made it this far, you deserve a few stories/examples.
My First Nerd As a teen, I helped out at a church camp one summer where a totally scrawny geek with Coke-bottle glasses, a mullet, and a windbreaker winked at me and blew me a kiss from across a crowded sanctuary.
Rob Stuut In high school, some random basketball player from another team left a note for me on one of my projects that had been left in a classroom where the team had been for halftime. The note contained his phone number and a message about how I was “lookin’ fine.” To my slight amusement and extreme embarrassment, a few of my male classmates called the guy and had a little fun with him, pretending to be my angry father and brothers. Even funnier, years later my friend Reka from college turned out to have gone to the same school as this guy. She remembered him well and had even had a crush on him.
“Partial to Ya” Ever since Bob Palma’s son and I went to elementary school together, Bob had tried to fix us up. This wasn’t so annoying in middle school, but skip forward about a decade and it will get on a girl’s nerves. See, Bob was a member of the Haymarsh Hunt Club, and therefore I still saw him even once far removed from elementary school. Every summer since I began working at the Hunt Club in 8th grade, Bob was in the Sporting Clays league. This meant I saw him and his friends every Monday during the summer season. And, every Monday, he would remind me that “Mike was partial to ya” back in elementary school. I tried being polite for the first couple of years, but after a while being a smart ass about it seemed acceptable. It was particular fun because the men on Bob’s league team became about as exasperated with Bob as I did. Dan Banister was my hero and will forever bear the title Favorite Hunter in my mind. Dan is Bob’s nephew, I think, and whenever Dan was around Bob would be on his better behavior, for some reason. One time, Dan came directly to my aid and said, “There’s such a thing as harassment, you know.” Another time, Bob wasn’t doing very well shooting and he yelled from the station, “If you give me a pair together, I’ll bring Mike next time!” I shouted back, “Boy, there’s an incentive!” The rest of the men in the group cackled with laughter. Bob did not get a pair together.
That Damn Ad One day during a hunters’ catered lunch, there was a man who was relatively within my age range – this was rare. Naturally, my grandfather thought we should meet. (It was very similar to my mother’s approach when I was young – if a person was my age, we were destined to be friends. Hmm. I wonder where she picked that up!) Anyway, I flat out told my grandfather that I didn’t care and wasn’t interested. He then took a bite of his bread and said – almost jokingly – that I should put up a “Marry Me, Hunt for Free” ad on the clubhouse’s bulletin board. I did not forget about this, but somehow everyone else managed – only, I didn’t realize they’d forgotten. So, one Sunday before Sunday school, we were all sitting around and chatting. My Aunt Penny happened to mention that she had run into a “gorgeous” hunter that morning who had an accent and was younger. My brother jumped in and said what a shame it was that our then-single cousin Stefanie hadn’t been there. (She suffered as much as I did, I must admit. I will forever love her for it.) Then, I did a thing I will long regret: I mentioned the “Marry Me, Hunt for Free” ad. My Aunt looked at me and started laughing as if she’d never heard this before, and she said, “That’s the funniest thing I’ve heard all week!” Well, the commotion caught everyone’s attention and I had to repeat the ad title to the entire Sunday school class. One lady asked what “Marry Me, I Have a Degree” was about, and I corrected her and gave her the right line. My brother then pitched in and said, “Yeah, like Grandpa cares if you have a degree or not? How is a degree going to help you cook or clean?”
Model Rejection While working as a receptionist for the model management company, I regularly had to welcome people who came for their interviews. Now, some people think they could be models for reasons that are completely lost on the rest of us. One man, who definitely qualified as a leader in this group, came in one night after being late for his previous three interviews. Because he was early this time and had to wait, I had to put up with him while he sat on the waiting room couch. “Are you married?” “No,” I answered. “Do you have a boyfriend?” Without blinking, I said, “Yes.” (Normally, I at least hesitate before lying, but I didn’t this time. That should tell you how bad he was.) “Oh,” he said disappointedly. “I guess that ends this line of questioning, then. Can we be friends?” I chuckled in a non-committal way and got up from my seat to see if the person interviewing him was finished yet. They weren’t, but I hid in a back office until they were ready to take him. Then, the person interviewing him told the guy that he would be considered as a model, but only if he stopped hitting on the receptionist. When he left, the guy didn’t even make eye contact with me on his way to the door. He was rejected anyway.
Suicide Prevention Grandpa Bud and Grandma Marie came over to tell us about a funeral they’d been to. A young man from the community had killed himself, and it was really sad because he’d been a smart guy, everyone had liked him, and apparently he’d been a good-looking kid. He was also a hunter who had been to the Club once or twice. Grandpa looked at me and said without joking, “Too bad you never met him. Then he wouldn’t have killed himself.” I looked at Mom in amazement, but she could only stand there with that look of helplessness I know well.
Freddie Mercury At a bar with friends in Grand Rapids, a Freddie Mercury looking older guy came to our table and deposited a beer for me. Brooke joked, “Don’t drink it. There’s probably a roofie in it!” He then kept coming over to check if I was enjoying the beer and to tell me that it was much better in a glass than a bottle, so that was why he had asked for it in a glass. Okay, great.
Denver, The Fun Period Rachel thought she was a brilliant matchmaker, and this picture ended up on our frig.
Walgreen Hookup, Aisle 4 I went to Walgreens one day and sat in my car for a moment to turn off my phone. A guy walked by my car with a look that I interpreted as, “Oh, it’s a white girl who’s going to sit inside her car until I’ve safely walked by.” So, I defiantly hopped out of my car and started following him to the door. He turned and said, “Hello.” I took this as a challenge and responded with a perky, “Hey.” He then let me enter the store before him. I thought that was the end of it, but then he came down my aisle and said, “I have to tell you, I think you’re beautiful. You have the most gorgeous eyes I’ve ever seen. I just couldn’t leave without telling you.” I muttered thanks. I thought that was the end of it, but I got out to my car and found Dre’s phone number in my car window.
Why the Word “Prospect” Is Ruined for Me In one of those instances where groups of friends converged, we in the Knapp House met a whole group of guys who were wonderful if for no other reason than that they were new and we needed new people desperately to mix things up (enter Group Yay). One, however, decided he would like me a little too much. Carl even invited me to India, which would not be so odd except that this would be the third random person who had told me I would like India. Enter passive-aggressive, unlikable Sunny, but even that in all my glory didn’t stop his interest entirely. However, after a few weeks of my girl friends laughing at me, I was slightly vindicated when it turned out he considered all of us “prospects.” Yes, Carl told us we were “prospects” to our faces. Talk about making a bourgeoning friendship awkward, especially when Miranda and I were both invited to India: “It would be completely platonic. Of course, if something were to happen…” Here he sheepishly (he may have thought he was cute) rubbed his hair. Fortunately, Carl ended up staying a friend longer than average, and we would later go on to joke that he had become my non-gay gay best friend. He was also the only person I ever bitch-slapped.
Giants Fan Just when I thought maybe I wasn’t a magnet for freaks anymore, the girls and I went to a Lions football game. The game sucked – that’s hardly a surprise – but by the fourth quarter the row of men in front of us didn’t care because they’d had 48 beers between them. The one on the FAR END FROM ME who was sitting directly in front of Rachel at one point turned around and obviously looked the three of us over. Seeing/sensing what was coming out of the corner of my eye, I stared down intently at the field. The man reached OVER Rachel and Miranda’s legs and laid a hand on my knee. “Why do you look so bored?” (Sidenote: I get asked this way too often, not only by creepy men. Once at a concert in a local lounge, the singer/songwriter actually stopped between songs to look at me and ask if I was bored. It must just be a look on my natural face?) For once, with this guy I had a reasonable excuse. “I’m watching this game, aren’t I?” He kept blathering on for a while, and I kept obviously ignoring him. (Did I mention the entire row of men were over 45 and looked like the average Hunt Club member? If memory serves, there was a lot of plaid involved.) By the time the game was over, Rachel and Miranda were nearly falling out of their seats with laughter. My new friend wished me well and left my life forever.
Matchmaker, Matchmaker, Stop It Rachel is not subtle. It got to the point where I became very wary of being near any guy whenever I saw Rachel with a camera at a party. I also learned to make not-so-subtle faces in response to what I knew she was doing.
Maid of Honor For Kaly’s wedding, I had the whole Maid of Honor thing pretty easy. $40 total. However, being single led to the mother of the bride (who is also like an aunt to me) thinking there must be someone to hook me up with. I’m not entirely against the idea of being fixed up, but this wedding was in Sparta. In a barn. Where country music was played. I like to think I’m not an elitist snob, but line dancing is crossing a…line. I ended up telling people a variety of things to get away before being introduced. My excused escalated from “I’m happily single” to “I’m not interested” to at one point “I actually have a pretty severe crush on someone right now, so I don’t think I could find anyone else attractive right now if I tried” which was a complete lie. I later realized how sad it was that I couldn’t even think of who I could have a fake crush on. I may have dropped Drake Metcalf’s name a time or two. Fortunately, so much booze was flowing that everyone soon forgot about trying to fix me up. Though, the best man’s girlfriend did grind on me, and I’m still a little troubled by that one.
Pepe Le Pew (alternate title: The Worst Valentine’s Day Ever) I’ve developed a radar for what I term “twitterpated face.” This means that a guy clearly is starting to think I might be a good idea. I then become more annoying, but unfortunately this sometimes gets translated as me being cute – go figure. One Valentine’s Day, I was at a bar with some friends, and by 2:00 a.m. a new guy was aglow with “twitterpated face.” When we finally left, I discovered that my LOST Dharma light on my key chain works as a kind alternative to Mace, because we stood in the parking lot by my car for a bit, it was clear what he wanted, and I kept flashing him in the face to keep him at least at arm’s length. Then I SHOOK HIS HAND, went to get in my car, and suddenly a hand was on my waist. At this point, I went to my usual place of “Oh, frak it – he’s drunk, just put up with it until he leaves.” He kinda pinned me against my car and kept looking at me and asking, “Nothing, really?” And I kept shaking my head and going “Ut-uh. Nope.” Finally, he backed off and said he’d see me later. But as I turned to my car, he pecked my cheek. I muttered something like “Razzin’ frazzin” and got in my car, at which point hysterical laughter took hold. The next morning, I woke up because some connection my brain had been trying to make finally clicked – Pepe le Pew! I hopped out of bed, emailed Racie the rest of the story of what happened after she left, and got on Facebook to post a clip of Pepe le Pew on her wall.
Last Single Granddaughter My family means well, but… As soon as my cousin Stefanie got engaged, all attention shifted to me. Aunt Penny, my mother, and Gma Gummer combined their powers and intensified their matchmaking efforts on my behalf – unsolicited, I add needlessly. When I went home to help with a Pampered Chef bridal shower, I was helping my mom with her hair when this happened: Mom: Your aunt thought she found a good guy for you at the concert last weekend, but then she found out he was poor and so scrapped that idea. But it doesn’t matter anyway, because your dad and I have a better guy. Me: Super. Who the _____? (I don’t remember exactly which edited expletive I used.) Mom: Randy’s son. He has his own house. And a plane, so your dad approves. Later at the shower, Aunt Penny explained her side of this exactly as my mom had told me. Penny: …And he likes bread! Me: (laughing) Oh, well at least we have that in common! A love of bread is foundational to a relationship, so I’ve heard. (turning to Stef) Have I mentioned, thank you so much for getting married! Later still, Aunt Penny realized what an amazing haul Stef was getting from the shower and yelled to me across the room, “Sunny, when you get married, we’re doing one of these for you!” I fake chuckled and went on cleaning, only to hear my grandmother throw in, “Just don’t wait too long, or I won’t be around.” Yep.
Justin, one of my wonderfully platonic friends (with the exception of one hiccup that I’m pretending never came up), is always a good sounding board for whining about my sucky love-life. We had a conversation one night where he helped me discover that I finally had a goal for my life – to die alone. It was a goal I felt I could accomplish, and I’ve always needed direction. (Goal #2 is to find a briefcase full of money which I will partially use to build a music studio where Justin and my brother can record music, and my payment will be that they will write a song about how much they adore me.) Justin: “I take it you don’t want kids?” Me: “I firmly believe that you should want to have kids with someone, and so far I haven’t found anyone to make me want to vacate the dust bunnies from my uterus.”
And that about sums it up. Miranda and I joke that we’ll probably end up settling beyond our worst nightmares, but I don’t see this happening. I’m not so bored with being single that I’m going to abandon my #1 life goal.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
French 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!”
American 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.
My roommate situation Junior Year at Cornerstone proved to be a phenomenal turning point. Mita (from the year before, you remember, who made excellent dumplings) and I needed a place to live now that Elise had decided to brave the life of a commuter. So in one of those friend-of-a-friend moves, we signed up to live with Bobbi and her friend Gloria. Bobbi had lived across the hall from me Freshmen Year. I was told Gloria was on the track team. That was all I knew. Well, that and Bobbi’s assurance that “Gloria is cool.”
My first day back on campus, I took a small load up to our apartment in Babcock and dodged the others moving in. Walking into our apartment, I found this 5-foot-plus-few-inches girl with long hair, Gloria, sitting at her computer. She turned and asked if I needed help. My immediate response to this question is always “no,” but I figured if she was willing it might be a good way to get to know each other. So, Gloria walked with me back to my car to get the next load. Then something happened that bonded us instantly. A guy I knew from the years before had parked near me and started unloading, and he commenced chatting away at me so that I went into my obvious (at least I think obvious) humoring voice that also is meant to imply I’m not interested. With one sympathetic glance from Gloria, I knew we were going to be friends.
Gloria, Bobbi, Mita, and I got along extremely well. We were all a little bit country, a little bit rock-n’-roll, funny, and not above being a little nuts from time to time to let off steam. Bobbi came up with the idea of painting plastic bright red and hanging it all around the living/dining room, and I’m told people in the parking lot looked through our windows and thought we were Goth and angry all the time. Mita and I would often pretend to be napping rather than answer the door when a certain visitor came a-callin’. Gloria once came up behind me in the student union and asked if I would help her get lunch; I turned around in confusion and found her to have both her arms in slings from a pole vaulting attempt gone horribly wrong (this may have been the next year, actually, but I can’t remember – the girl got injured almost as often as me, which was another bonding point).
So, yeah, good roommates = check. Elsewhere, I was also finally realizing that I kinda liked people. But by now, the normal people had all established their friend circles, and I realized I didn’t really have one, largely because I seemed to have a talent for befriending people who transferred out. Then, on one of the first days of 20th Century British Lit, I sat by one of Elise’s friends that I knew but for whatever reason we’d never been close friends before. Thus entered Becca. She invited me to lunch, and I soon found myself with Becca, Pete, Adam, and Aaron. They adopted me, lost puppy that I was. These were also really the only people in my own year that I was friends with, because along with my ability to befriend transfers I also through Gloria knew her sophomore friends (more on that later).
Odd things I remember:
Becca – Mostly I just remember sitting around in the student union between classes, goofing around or helping each other with English homework. Ours was just an easy friendship, which was a relief. But we did have really good talks too, and I remember one in particular where we discussed how we needed deeper connections on spiritual grounds with people in our lives. Immediately after this, Pete came up and asked if we’d seen some TV show the night before, and Becca and I both rolled our eyes but broke out laughing.
Pete – dragged us to at least one Shane & Shane concert, and I witnessed my first platonic man-on-man crush. Pete was a goofball but could also switch gears in an instant to help people, which I always admired.
Aaron – We once were left in the student union for like 3 hours between classes, he doing homework on something about fish and me working on a paper for Stevens. I’m not sure we actually spoke until Aaron wanted me to go help him pick out Thank You Cards in the bookstore. To my surprise, he picked very flowery ones. (I really don’t know why I remember this.)
Adam – Okay. I took this group up to the Haymarsh for an outdoorsy field trip during the spring, as Adam and Aaron were both very into environmental biology. Driving my dad’s truck out in the back 900 acres somewhere, I should have known better than to drive through a soggy area – HayMARSH, after all. I got the truck stuck. More in annoyance than embarrassment (shame on me), I left my friends in the truck and went to chase down my dad, who was on the tractor not far away. As this was my first ever “Are ya busy?” (code in our family for being stuck and needing help) I was kinda amused with myself, and Dad laughed and drove the tractor to pull out his own truck where I had lodged it in knee-deep mud. I, assuming Adam knew what he was doing, left Adam behind the wheel while I helped Dad hook the truck to the tractor. Dad pulled and pulled on the tractor while I assumed Adam was in the truck trying to steer it out. Once the truck finally got free, turns out Adam had left it in park the entire time.
Back in the classrooms, I was still enjoying myself and gobbling up all I could. I had a lot of Prof. Landrum that year. He was probably my favorite professor because he flat out said that he didn’t care what grades we got, that the main point was that we get something out of it, and that that was up to us. He had a very lecture-style of teaching, and it reminded me of Mr. T back in high school. He was also the most eclectic of the profs I had, so that didn’t hurt. Anyway, I had Landrum for Shakespeare (we watched many movies), 16th Century Brit Lit, Literary Criticism (where people on either side of me played solitaire on their laptops the entire time), 20th Century Brit Lit, and he was one of the three profs for Love & Friendship (sort of like a real class except that the profs clearly got bored and wandered in and out of the room to get handfuls of cookies from the office across the hall). I also had ChristianTheology with Duff, American Lit with Stevens (“Does it scare anyone that I have scissors in my pockets?”), Public Speaking (in which I got an A+ for a speech on my name, thanks parents), and a few others that I’ve mostly forgotten.
Academically, I started to realize that, whether I tried or not, I was still a pretty good student and was going to get noticed for it. Classmates wanted help with their papers; profs clearly remembered who I was outside the classroom and sometimes even told me on the sidewalk that they’d liked my last paper. So on the one hand – oops, guess I couldn’t avoid the Golden Child problem entirely. On the other hand – affirmation is a nice thing. It definitely encouraged me that I actually could write after all. It wasn’t just something I liked doing; maybe I was actually good at it. (Although I still think Stevens missed the point of my “extremely good” anti-Fussell poem that he HANDED OUT TO OTHER CLASSES, but that’s a whole other thing.)
Because of this boost, I started to seriously start working on my hobby project – The Kota Series. It’s not a coincidence that my journal entries significantly dropped off during this time, for all my free-time writing now shifted to The Kota. (Brief explanation: The Kota is a sci-fi story that my brother and our friends Kaly and Luke made up when we were little and played every day. Over the years, it had grown into a short-ish story of 4 “books” that I’d written based off of what we’d played. Now, I started to flesh them out with the goal of making them real books at some point. I was never aiming for “ooh, I want to be a big published author” or anything. I just wanted this story that had meant something to me for over a decade to actually be in print, in book form that I could have forever.) I don’t think that I told anyone other than my roommates what I was doing cooped up behind my laptop all the time, but I’d finally found my creative release and kinda dove into it during this time.
Then “8 Mile” came out. I connect crap all over the place anyway, but “Lose Yourself” really hit home with me as I was branching out in my own creative project, and the song felt like a kick in the butt so that I decided I was actually going to publish this thing. For that, I will forever be thankful to Eminem.
Anyway, the rest of Junior Year for some reason is a blur, probably because I actually enjoyed myself but I was still in a place where I only held onto the bad times (baby steps…). But really, by this point, I was pretty happy. I liked my friends (a new concept, but delightful). I liked school (and the renewed affirmation). And I had my own thing that I could work on in the background, smirking and scribbling down notes for my book whenever something inspired me.
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.
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.
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:
“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.