Dear fourteen-year-old self,
When I was your age, I always thought if I eventually gave birth to a daughter, I would name her Elle. I don’t know you as well as I used to, but I was you. And because we once possessed the same body, I will call you L.
I don't wish I could change what I have done since I was your age, but I know what I wish I could’ve said to you. If we could meet and I could comfort you, I would do it the way we know best: sit somewhere with coffee and music and books, and then we’d go to a movie when the world is dark and the stars are bright where we would stuff our faces with buttery popcorn and drink so much soda we are convinced our stomachs will burst from carbonation.
But you are there and I am here and everything is different. I cannot take you to a movie with buttery popcorn just like I cannot change what I have done since I was fourteen. So I am left with words. You’ll learn how important these words will become. You’ll learn this soon.
Don’t forget to write. I know you keep that turquoise journal in your nightstand. Keep writing in it. Keep using those purple and aquamarine pens you love so much, and when you lose them or when the ink runs out, buy more if you can. The words you will write and string together and the patterns you’ll form will save you, L. You’ll begin to learn that when you feel inspired, you write in purple. When you’re anxious, you write in pencil. Eventually, when you go to college, you’ll write in black. Then, you’ll get bored with that so you’ll try to spice it up by writing in blue. Eventually, you’ll always write in pencil because your anxiety will seem to swallow you and erase your smile. But it won't. You won't let it.
Middle schools are messy. The loudness in the halls around you will try to stifle your voice, but don’t let it. I know you are an introvert, and I know you like to watch from the sidelines. Don’t be afraid to contribute to the noise. Shout and laugh. The world needs to hear you.
Experiencing stress is normal. You’ll scream and cry and your stomach will hurt and you’ll think you won’t be able to survive. You’ll think your Algebra test will crush you and everything you’ve worked for and you’ll think your teacher will be disappointed in you, but it won’t crush you. Your teacher won’t be disappointed. One test cannot ruin you. You'll think that if you stay up into the early hours of the morning so you can study, you'll perform better on your tests. You'll think this until you're in college. Then, you'll learn that sleep is better than stress and it's better to take care of your body than to try to pass an exam. You won't pass if your brain is so tired all it can focus on is how your eyes feel like they're burning and how badly you wish your chair were your bed. Stressing about grades and exams is much easier to handle when you're awake than when you're so tired you want to gouge out your eyes. Some people will romanticize losing sleep for the sake of productivity, but don't listen to these people. Loving yourself is the most romantic thing you can do.
One boy will not ruin you. One girl will not ruin you. One person will not ruin you. They will mock you and they will frustrate you, but they will also love you and make you laugh. Love is fluid and all-consuming and it can be platonic, everlasting, and familial. You’ll think you cannot be happy without these people if they leave, but you can. You’ll even be happier. When you’re angry with them, tell them. When you want to be left alone, tell them. If you no longer love them, tell them. Just tell them.
Only you can allow yourself to heal. This responsibility does not lie with those whom you love or admire. This responsibility does not belong to your friends or your therapist or your significant other. Only you know what swims around your brain every night, enveloping your dreams and consuming your thoughts into the next morning. Allow others to help you. Allow yourself to open up and be vulnerable. Allow yourself to break apart and melt away and then reform. Allow yourself. When you need to cry, but you don’t want to appear weak, cry anyway. Sob. Cry so hard you can barely breathe. Take deep breaths. Wipe your tears away and then cry again. Expressing emotion shows strength and courage. Allowing yourself to be vulnerable shows your ability to empathize. You’re sometimes afraid of letting people know you need them, but tell them you need them. Let them know how they saved you. They come in the form of family members and friends and strangers and professors. You will meet them and you will remember them. You’ll be better for having known them.
Always say, “Thank you.” One day, you’ll think you say it too much, but then you’ll realize that isn’t possible. Expressing gratitude isn’t annoying or over-the-top or unnecessary. It shows you are a decent human being, and I believe you are.
You can never be too kind. Spread kindness everywhere you go. Walk slower so you can read the poetry hanging in the hallway. Hold doors open. Drive slower in neighborhoods. Spend more time writing and creating, L. Let people know when they make you feel comfortable or when you appreciate something they say or do. Let an author know when their words saved you. The world will not always be kind in return. Be kind anyway.
Stand up for injustices. Like I said, I know you’re an introvert. I still like to stand in the corner of the room near a plant for peace or near a door for a quick escape. But sometimes we have to put ourselves in uncomfortable situations. Walk in marches in twenty-degree weather. Wear extra mittens and layers. Tell others when they are being irrational bigots. Volunteer when you can. Donate when you find you have too much. Doing any of these might save a life.
Stop worrying about whether or not you should use a bookmark. You can dog-ear your pages. You can even write on them. Underline your favorite passages. Mark your favorite pages with colorful Post-Its. One day, you’ll open these books again and be thankful you were able to lose yourself in something as fragile and vulnerable as paper. Sometimes, vulnerability is our biggest strength. One day, you’ll be able to smile when you find these books buried in your bookshelf even when the notes in the margins were sad and lonely.
When you are torn between doing what is right and what is easy, think about your situation. Sometimes they are the same.
When the words aren’t coming and you’re alone in your room at 1 a.m. and the boy you like isn’t messaging you back, turn off your phone. Turn on your favorite song or your favorite movie. Burn a candle. Paint. Draw. Be messy. Create. Take a long, hot shower and sing your favorite Stevie Nicks anthem. Re-read your favorite book or your favorite series. I’ve recently started re-reading the Harry Potter series--yes, again--and I’ve been able to find peace. It’s okay to cry it out, too. If you need to, take a long, hot shower anyway, and curl yourself up and face the showerhead. Let the water fall on your face so you can no longer tell if your cheeks are wet from sadness or cleansing or warmth.
Feed yourself. Nourish your body. Allow it to become soft and strong. It’s your barrier and your protector from everything that tries to tear you apart. Starving it won’t make you stronger. It won’t prove your ability to handle stress--it will only show your inability to do so. You can’t starve away or purge away or carve away your sadness and grief and anxiety. You can only nourish your body with food and literature and writing and love and friendship.
Perfection doesn’t exist. Beauty exists, though, and it exists in the way you pet every dog you see, the way you hold the door open for strangers, the way you hug books when they tear you apart, and in your ability to be torn apart. Remember this. Charting your pounds and counting calories will never lead you to perfection, but they will help you master basic addition and subtraction. There are other ways to do this, like in how many cents and dollars you donate to charities and how many earbuds you lost because you listen to music everywhere you go and how many times you sang karaoke in college and how many times you wish you would have.
One day, you'll sometimes find that all you need is a bottle of wine, a slow playlist, and a circle of friends to remind you of warmth. In the middle of the night, when the warmth you feel isn’t coming from the heater or the love in the room, but from your own body buzzing with each sip of wine, you will feel nostalgic. This nostalgia may cause you to drift away and remind you of when you believed the world to be innocent and pure, but try to stay grounded. It’s okay to be sad about the past, but remember the present. What happened to you is not your fault. Believe me, but above all, believe yourself.
If a man says, “We live too far apart. Let’s try this again when we graduate,” don’t see him when you graduate. Run far. Run fast. If a man tries to persuade you to do something you don’t want to do, don’t do it. If you do, don’t blame yourself. He is the one to blame.
Me too. You’ll soon know what this means if you don’t already, and it will break you. But glue exists and so do I and so does chocolate chip cookie dough. Trust me. I believe you.
Go forth with confidence and kindness, L. You’ll learn how much power lies within empathy, and you'll understand the importance of spreading it everywhere you go. Sometimes you'll wonder why you feel too much and you’ll wonder if feeling everything so immensely makes you weak. It doesn't. It never will. You'll be thankful for vulnerability one day. One day you'll write about these feelings and emotions and you’ll reflect. When you realize how writing has saved you, you'll find yourself at home.
With all the love I can give,
When I think of spring, I think of cucumber face wash and refreshing mornings. I imagine the rain-soaked pavement is actually the moisturizer on my face reassuring me my week will be as rejuvenating as the packaging leads me to believe. I think of the smell of rain and its attachment to cleanliness. It’s the smell of an open window with a fresh cup of coffee and a light cardigan or a cotton robe over pajamas. The color of spring grass reminds me of Jell-O when I missed school because I was sick and my mom still took care of me. But then I remember I never liked green Jell-O anyway, and I always ate red or blue or orange. Maybe it also reminds me of the plastic confetti makeshift grass used in children’s Easter baskets. It’s almost too green to be real.
Then I think about how Midwestern seasons function: the harshest seasons—summer and winter—seem to occupy the most days on the calendar. The intermediate seasons, the seasons for rebirth, are quick turnarounds, swift flicks of the switch. They are the moments in the everyday like the face wash and the coffee that we don’t really seem to remember even though they soon become rituals.
Living in the Midwest is interesting—it teaches you how to be cordial and overtly nice to people in their presence. Key phrase: in their presence. We open doors and we wave to strangers. We give a half-smile when we accidentally make eye contact with someone in the hall or on the street. If you’ve ever worked with customer service, you learn to expect personal stories when you ask someone about their day.
Sitting on the front porch with my parents or grandparents when it rained was the norm. Without realizing it, I think this was when I began to appreciate spring. I used to beg for summer so I could read what I wanted to read and not worry about anything other than work; however, that quickly changed after high school. I used to sit under slides at the park while the rubber tire pieces formed imprints into my bare legs. My hands became dry despite the humid Indiana heat from hours of page turning. I found little interest in dominating the playground with basketballs or games of tag because I was a bookish introvert getting lost in the pages of Barbara Parks or Beverly Cleary or J.K. Rowling.
When it rained and outdoor recess was cancelled, we had the opportunity to play board games or read. I used to love the classrooms with beanbags and pillows near the floor-to-ceiling windows in my rural elementary school. I could watch the raindrops race each other down the length of the glass and place my face right in front of it as my breath fogged the window. Then I could draw a heart or a star or another symbol to represent how I felt or what I read. The rain outside drowned everything in its presence: grass, sidewalks, swings.
What used to seem forlorn now seems refreshing.
When I wash dishes, I take the washcloth or sponge I want to use and lather it with soap. The hot water needs to be hot, but not scalding. I take the soapy object and wash my dishes—first the inside, then the rim, then the outside. Sometimes I allow the tap water to run into the cup and I watch as the water deepens and runs over the rim. The excess water is at first overloaded with soap, but then, after a few seconds of running over, the soap is gone. The water flushes it out.
Water has the ability to not only refresh what it touches, but also replenish what we didn’t know we had lost. When I go on a run, I prefer to run either in the early afternoon or in the late evening. The weather at these times is the coolest—the sun will always be either in front or behind me but never above me. Overcast skies are oddly comforting, though. There is always the chance of a light rain or a storm. During one specific run, the rain was soft at first, but then there was a perpendicular storm trying to flush me out of the street; however, it didn’t feel threatening. I was stressed about issues not important to this essay, and it was as though the rain wanted to remind me: I simply needed to feel refreshed.
Right foot, left foot, dodge the puddle, right foot.
I stopped worrying about stepping in mud or in puddles because my feet were getting wet anyway, and I didn’t have to worry about the mud staining my shoes. I simply stopped worrying about what didn’t matter.
The previous season seemed to consume most of the calendar year: overcast skies never brought refreshing moments or even a break for the sun. It was not as bitter as winters in the past had been, but that almost made it stand out even more. In December, I think I received more updates from The Guardian than all other forms of communication—even text messages.
Well, Ball State might have emailed more. Anyway. Moving on.
These updates instantly made my eyes crinkle. I held my breath. Nausea swept from my stomach, up to my throat, and into my salivated mouth. BREAKING almost always centered on governmental action. These extreme updates seemed to polarize even the peacefulness of the Midwest.
In my senior seminar, we discuss theories in everyday life. Those insignificant moments—eating, resting, sifting through social media—are actually important. They represent our mental health, our habits, and our upbringings. They completely encompass who we are as individuals. They are what make us different than someone who grew up down the street or across the country.
I used to think of running as an insignificant habit. I run nearly every day—I only don’t if I am simply too busy or the weather is incapacitating. It became a normal part of my daily routine. Then, the storm came through to remind me: breathe. This routine started as a coping mechanism or to relieve stress, but then it eventually evolved into the norm. This particular day, I was overwhelmed. Then, it rained. My clothes turned two shades darker and became two times heavier. The sweat on my face washed away. My flushed cheeks were relieved of the redness. My hair—an already atrocious mess—started to fall out of its hair tie under the water’s weight.
I realized amidst the deadlines, the rejections, the papers, and the assignments, I had forgotten to breathe. My body needed replenished. I needed my lavender oils, a casual run just for fun, a few hours in hibernation mode with my laptop and free writing. I needed to observe the places in the pavement where rainwater pooled and to witness the change in color of the grass after its most recent shower. These polarizing winter months somehow made me forget to do that. I forgot to smile at people on the street or in the halls. I was exhausted.
After therapy sessions, hours spent writing, reading for fun, yoga, and spending time outside, I’m learning how to refresh. Rain has been one of my favorite weather forms. Drizzle is almost as light as fresh snow. It gives a light layer of precipitation as though to remind me to take time to wash my face with my favorite cucumber face wash.
I know I have written about being an English major. I know I have explained my different career paths, major changes, minor additions and retractions. I know, I know, I know.
I also know what to expect every time I hear, “So, what are you studying?”
The moment I reply, “Creative Writing,” I know what to expect.
A sly smile crosses the questioner’s face. A small laugh leaves pursed lips. An almost arrogant attitude presents itself as though my major is not worthy enough to uphold an entire department of students on a college campus. When did this misconception about the arts begin? Does nobody understand the devout importance of reading and writing? Does nobody understand being an English major is about more than just reading and writing?
When I mention my experience with journals or conferences, people outside of the literary community always question: So, like, what is it? What does it do? It’s as though being a community that literally spreads empathy and awareness for whole groups of people isn’t enough. It’s as though if you aren’t working in a hospital or working in an office from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. five days every week, your profession is not as worthy.
It’s as though I need to somehow feel validated by their approval of my passion.
I don't feel invalidated by their ignorance because I already feel validated by the people I see every day, the work I read, and the essays I write.
Being an English major isn’t about the money or the career or the lavish lifestyle. It isn’t about sitting by a fireside with Walt Whitman every night or getting coffee every morning with friends. It isn’t about sitting up for hours reading the work of dead white men. It isn’t about being pretentious. It isn’t about not knowing what kind of career to pursue. It isn’t filled with indecisive students. It isn’t about wasting time until you find another major to pursue. It isn’t about perusing bookshelves in your free time. It isn’t about entering this major because it possesses a quick financial gain. It isn’t about wearing chunky, unique sweaters. It isn’t about distant conversations with little substance. It isn’t about finding a partner so you can have a literary-charged romance filled with back alley cigarette smoke and coffee breath.
Being an English major is about using every aspect of your mind in order to give to the world. It is about theoretical yet concrete discussions in order to understand why the world is the way it is. It is about reading widely and diversely. It is about being a part of a community in which you never feel alone. It is about learning how to speak up. It is about expanding rather than shrinking. It is comprised of such a diverse student population that every future job market will most likely contain a former English major. It is about not limiting yourself to fit a mold. It is about possibilities. It is about creating your own future. It is about joining social justice platforms. It is about spreading awareness. It is about being co-editors with some of your best friends. It is about learning how to argue and articulate your thoughts while still respecting the person sitting across from you. It is about publishing a journal and then hugging it as soon as you retrieve it from its box. It is about smelling every book you will ever read. It is about finding your lifelong readers. It is about finding your lifelong friends. It is about discussing printed books versus e-books, how they differ, how they are similar, where publishing is going, and whether or not e-books are more accessible. It is about learning how to design every advertisement you will ever see. It is about writing your truest truth. It is about learning every detail of publishing. It is about making a brand for yourself on social media. It is about using your personality to your advantage. It is about taking risks and trying new things. It is about closing down the library because you have a double-digit paged paper due. It is about using Internet articles and podcasts and essays and journals and books and magazines and even interviews for that one paper. It is about learning the importance of diversity. It is about learning how to fuel your passions in order to be a marketable and creative prospective employee. It is about learning how to market yourself. It is about never meeting two like people. It is about genuinely liking who your professors are as people. It is about genuinely liking who your professional inspirations are as people. It is about drinking coffee more than water. It is about learning when to not drink so much coffee, but doing it anyway. It is about learning how to network without sounding like a robot reciting last week’s lecture. It is about rewriting your resume because every job you apply for is different. It is about gaining life experience. It is about learning a variety of skills. It is about sleepless nights. It is about falling in love with words. It is about not only learning how to be an empath in a harsh world, but also learning why that is a benefit and not a hindrance. It is about analyzing everything you will ever read in the future. It is about forming relationships with people rather than simply just networking. It is about learning every insecurity and every fear of your classmates in workshops. It is about not judging and always supporting. It is about learning more about the world and not just your department. It is about never selling yourself. It is about choosing your passion and learning how to make money with it rather than just settling for a major with a six-figure guarantee. It is about giving a shit for other people rather than just money. It is about volunteering and working for nonprofits and donating to charities and fighting the establishment because you have seen first-hand how important these organizations are for our society.
So when I am asked, “Why are you an English major?” I have an answer.
I am an English major because I give a shit.
The way he delicately grabbed the large crayon big enough for a baby’s hand but too big for an adult's hand reminded me of the way I wanted to pick him up and hug him: You are so loved. Rohen didn’t yet know about substance abuse or poverty or hunger or sadness or loss. I could tell he knew what love was when I crouched behind the counter, called his name, and popped out at him as he rounded the corner into the kitchen: “LOLLY!” he screamed and jumped and clasped his hands together as though it were his birthday and I was the present he unraveled from the glistening bow. Life is simple for him; he can climb into his Fisher-Price red and yellow car and drive to Mommy’s House. He understands the complexities of jokes: Rohen, can I have one of your fries? He gave me a low-five and a smile.
I hope he knows he is loved just like I wish I could tell my younger self how loved I was.
Am I smart enough? Am I confident enough? Am I thin enough? Am I fast enough? Am I pretty enough? Am I worthy?
I wondered all of these things when I should have focused on smiling and laughing and playing and telling jokes and eating fries. Instead, my self-confidence hid behind the kitchen counters, and when I ran around every empty room looking for it, it remained crouched and concealed. It was out of sight, and so was I.
When I look at Rohen and see how much of a true, real human he is—albeit smaller—I feel both happiness and sorrow. His favorite flavor of ice cream is chocolate and his favorite sport right now is basketball. It was soccer the last time I saw him. He changes every day, and he possesses this ability to understand the calming voice of his mother when she tries to reason with him. She doesn’t scold him or berate him: she understands he is a child and he needs to feel loved in order to gain his respect. Through his tears and his screams after he knocked over a walker, her voice reached him and his eyes widened—they opened up and let her inside: Don’t break things. Grandpa needs that later. A smile spread across his face as he turned to run toward his car. It was time for a joy ride.
Yet, I still felt sorrow.
When he brought out the washable crayons and coloring book again, he gracefully drew across the page—away from the lines and far enough away from the edge of the paper.
“He’s so careful when he colors,” I found it almost remarkable as I spoke to his mom.
“Right? That’s how he is when he paints too,” her voice was as gentle as his sketches.
He is a gentle soul.
At two years old, he does not yet know his father’s artistic talents. For his birthday, his father drew him a picture of an owl accompanied by a soothing nursery rhyme:
A wise old owl sat on
The more he saw the
less he spoke
The less he spoke the
more he heard
Why can’t we be like
that old bird?
The same colors Rohen used as he sat perched at the kitchen counter had been displayed in that picture.
“Ro, what color is this?” We had been working on colors.
“Orange.” He was correct.
“What about this one?”
“Lellow.” Right again. It continued: red, blue, green, brown. He knew them all.
His grandma had his father's drawing framed. Her and his mother gave it to him. We will all watch over him like that old bird.
The hairspray stuck to my mirror, the metal of a spoon in my cereal bowl, the broken protective glass of my phone: imperfect reflections look back at me. The ripples dancing over the water, barely reflecting my silhouette in the murky green of the largest reflective pool in the country: desires to become great.
I sat cross-legged on the cement edge of the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool. It was a 70-degree February day, and my winter scarf juxtaposed with my thin veil of sweat around my neck felt like regret. My mind thought about the history, the role models engraved, implanted throughout our nation’s capital—their ashes scattered across the lawn. I tried to take a picture of the pool with the silhouette of Lincoln’s legacy placed in the background. The photo’s result kept reappearing as a crooked image. Grass on the left side of the pool appeared full, green, emblazoned with promise. Grass on the right side appeared overused, unappealing.
People scaling the Lincoln Memorial in the distance looked like black ants on a sidewalk.
The depth of the pool seemed fascinating—the water looked completely undesirable, yet also strangely appealing. I remembered the scene in Forest Gump in which Jenny half-swam toward Forest, but I think everyone remembers the cultural undertones tucked between Forest’s innocence and determination when they stroll through D.C. I thought about Nicholas Cage and the Declaration of Independence. Let it be known I didn’t have any thoughts of thievery; however D.C. does have a tendency to make us feel as though we can do anything. I wanted to dive into the water and pretend I was swimming through the Black Lake during the Triwizard Tournament in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. I could blow a bubble around my head for protection and harried breaths, and my hands could surge through the water. But I wasn’t in a fictional novel. I didn’t dive into the pool.
Gentle May wind rippled waves across the pool even though it was February. A snowstorm was supposed to arrive soon, but it didn’t seem real. The imminent weather shift felt almost impossible, but then again, I guess anything is possible in D.C. Look at our Administration.
We left our perch and decided to walk toward the Lincoln Memorial. A child pushed his younger brother in a stroller and weaved throughout runners and tourists while they both laughed. Their mother followed and admired them from afar. She took her time. There was no point in rushing, in making the happy moments fly by. We took turns walking and giving each other piggyback rides. Girls rode by on bikes while simultaneously trying to take pictures of each other. We wondered how many people fall into the pool annually.
There were more stairs leading up to the Lincoln Memorial than I remembered from two years prior and eight years prior to that. Memory seems to do that—it alters with age. Everything seemed impressive and incredible when I was younger. There was always a sparkle. When we reached President Lincoln’s feet, we turned our backs to him—physically, but not mentally—and we admired the Washington Monument, the Reflecting Pool. The monuments were great in the grand, robust sort of way. But during this trip, I appreciated the Reflecting Pool and its tranquility and softness more than the sureness of the concrete. It gave room for thought—for reflection. Rather than looking at another face or the careful stiffness of concrete, I was able to self-reflect. Am I who I want to be? Am I going in the right direction? How can I do more?
When I walked into the coolness of the Lincoln Memorial, I took the time to lean against a pillar and practice my breathing techniques as I read The Gettysburg Address. Quality over quantity. Deep breaths over short breaths. Pace yourself, Lauren. This time in D.C., unlike the times before when I was a true tourist with an agenda, I read about strides toward equality and unity—toward greatness. There were great lengths to make then, and there still are now.
I then walked back toward President Lincoln. His hands and feet seemed larger than my entire body. I wished he could talk, encourage, and help those who are lost. I wondered if he ever imagined people would travel thousands of miles to see a concrete image of him. I wondered if years from now President Obama will receive the same honor.
A young girl traveling from China stopped me as I was about to descend the stairs decorated with stray Starbucks cups and asked if she could interview me. Sure, I said. Why not? She asked me how I felt about Donald Trump. He’s my least favorite person in our entire country, I said. I didn’t feel regret when I said this. I didn’t worry about why she needed this interview. I didn’t worry about who could potentially see it. I stood in the middle of a city in which people before me fought for my right to freely say what I think. As far as I was concerned, none of my interests were even in the peripheral vision of our current Administration. They would never glance my way. I needed to stand for what I believed in. I still do.
We then walked along the Vietnam Memorial. A girl who wanted a similar interview approached my friend. Perhaps they are just students who are curious about how we feel, we thought. All I really had left to say was, I’m so sorry.
How could we let them—the names on the wall—down?
The White House lawn sat between office buildings. It observed runners and dogs and litter along the sidewalk. There weren’t spotlights highlighting its presence or its meaning or its importance. Locals didn’t even glance toward it. It blended with corporate mongering and food trucks.
It is 8:04 on a Monday. I just had a three-day weekend. I am supposed to read multiple books for classes this week. I have assignments to finish I haven’t even looked at.
I talked about the problem with labeling ourselves tonight with a friend over coffee. Sometimes we get too caught up in labeling ourselves, and then we forget to simply show everyone who we are as people even though we live with these hidden truths. By labeling myself as an introvert to others, stereotypical ideas of people who sit in corners and never converse with the room may come to mind, and then it seems as though we could be thought of as lesser people. That’s not who we are though. We love spreading positivity and interacting one-on-one with people. Speaking to larger groups can be intimidating, but I have done it. Did I do it well? Doubtful. But Jo Rowling also wrote many pages before she was published.
This aspect of who I am is important because I have been struggling with it recently. As an introvert, I tend to recluse back to my individual space when I become overwhelmed or over-stimulated. I love enjoying time with friends, but it generally takes me longer to find my happy place again. Without this alone time, I become agitated, exhausted, unsympathetic. Without this alone time, I am not myself.
I shut down.
I didn’t realize this until I sat with someone who is also an introvert and who also needs this in order to revitalize and reenergize. I tried so hard to get this person to turn off his recharging mode while simultaneously forgetting that this is also my process. I forgot to empathize, which is one of the worst things to forget.
When I try to revive myself, I tend to resort to writing, reading, sleeping, or running. All of these activities are solo activities—human interaction is never needed. It’s never wanted or even desired. I do these things because I understand the importance of self-care. In this instance with another introvert though, I became selfish. It was unfair to him. I tried placing my needs over another person’s, and I hated myself for it. I should have known better.
The first week of classes exhausted me. I didn’t want to celebrate at the end of the week like most people. I wanted to hang out with those closest to me, which I did. I wanted to simply exist in the present. I wanted to create and write and laugh and revitalize. I almost fulfilled those desires.
Even so, I still forgot to recharge. I hated the thought of being alone because I knew if I were alone, I would start worrying about the future: graduation, graduate school, the end of honest innocence and naïveté. I was excited, but nervous. I didn’t want to miss out on filling every hour with those I love because I know those are the moments I will appreciate later. Everything will be different one year from now, and I tried to forget about these truths by resulting to avoidance. None of this helped my introvert ways, though. On my last day of the long weekend, I felt as though my nerves were as frayed as my hair because I so desperately needed to seclude myself at a table in The Cup or in Bracken with my laptop and process everything. Everything seemed to set me off or catch me off-guard. I was restless and agitated.
When I avoid making plans or tell people I am too busy even though I know all I am doing is spending the evening alone, it’s never personal. It’s never because I feel as though I need space from a particular person, and it’s not always because I want to run away from my problems.
I’ve realized I tend to surround myself with extroverts because those people help me step away from the corner in the room and join the conversation. They help me find homes within other people and test my boundaries. This is why when I meet other introverts, it catches me off-guard. I forget that other people are like me, I am not completely unique, and it takes a special kind of person to understand the importance of revitalization. It requires patience and empathy.
When I become overwhelmed, I remove myself from the onset of stimuli. It isn’t because I am depressed or angry or even sad. It’s simply because I need time to myself. I enjoy alone time and reflective thought.
I shut down, and that’s okay.
FOMO: The Feeling of Missing Out.
This phrase is used to often describe the feeling people—specifically those who use social media—experience when they see their friends living their best lives: Going on vacations, meeting glamorous people, filling every hour of every day with plans. It’s a strange feeling—almost guilt-like. It’s as though we feel guilty for hating that other people are genuinely enjoying their lives; however, we forget to remember that people only share their most filtered, streak-free, Windexed moments. They don’t share those moments when fingerprints cover the glass or when it gets too cold and ice is frozen to the windshield. They only show us those panes that have been wiped clean.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as my friends have been moving on with their lives. I’m in my last semester at Ball State University, and I could not be more grateful for the education I have received. I’ve had the ability to experience multiple areas of study, partake in an internship that completely changed my life, experience what it is like to publish a literary journal, and form relationships with friends and professors I will never forget. All of these opportunities and people shaped me, molded me, shook me, and helped me.
As I think about where I was when I entered Ball State and where I am now, I am grateful. I truly, wholeheartedly am. I’m thankful for every lost night of sleep, every hour spent in the library or at The Cup, and for every kind remark and critique on an essay.
Even so, I am a little sad.
My friends in the English department are applying to graduate schools all over the country—they are taking the grand leap across the canyon in order to figure out their proper footing. They are going on their own excursions in order to learn, expand, and succeed. They are doing exactly what I hope to do. My journey, though, isn’t as straight or as clear. I’ve had many career goals in the past because I was afraid to admit I want to make a career out of doing what I love, and for that, I have this weird feeling. It’s as though I’m being punished for taking those risks, but I know that isn’t the case. That isn’t how life unfolds. We do not receive punishments for taking chances on what is worthwhile, needed, and important.
Do I wish I had chosen Creative Writing as my concentration when I first entered Ball State as a freshman? It would have made this transition easier. I would probably even be applying to graduate schools right now, and this essay would not even exist. It would never come to fruition; however, I am thankful for the risks I took. I am thankful for my experiences in journalism and politics and secondary teaching. They all created this obtuse mold of what I hope for in my future. I have enough experience in journalism to tackle literary journalism and conquer my fear of meeting and hopefully interviewing my writing inspirations. I have experience in politics, and for that, I found my fire for social justice—it now fuels most of my writing. I have experience in secondary teaching, but I realize my true love would be to teach about the place in which my heart resides—the nonfiction classroom.
Even so, I am a little sad.
I have an entire year to take risks. I could be a server. I could find work in an office. I could get an internship with a literary agency. I could get an internship with a publishing house. I could work at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. I could try the new millennial way of joining an online business and working from home. I could move across the country and work in a coffee shop. I have endless opportunities for how to spend my free year, but they all feel like roadblocks—like unnecessary potholes in my path.
I’m not writing this to whine, complain, or explain myself. I think I’m writing this to simply think. I’m trying to clear my head and gain a better vision for how to enjoy my last semester as a human without major responsibilities. Once I enter graduate school, I cannot stop the forward movement. I’ll begin writing nonfiction, and before I know it, those who choose to read my work will learn about the Lauren on the page. Granted, who I am on the page and who I am in real life tend to vary. I’m not always as upbeat as I sometimes seem. I’m not always as confused as I sometimes seem. I’m a conundrum of a human with dreams and hopes and worries and confusion. But that’s okay.
It was a Tuesday night. The wind howled and threatened the loss of power. Candles burned to somehow give us a perception of warmth, of comfort. The television bled blue across the hardwood floor. My outstretched feet rested on the coffee table before me. A full glass of wine rested against my hand and lap.
My throat constricted.
President Barack Obama stood before an audience in Chicago as he gave his final farewell filled with endearments and sewn together with admiration for this country he helped cultivate. In 2009, as an eighth grader, I cried when I watched his inaugural address in my junior high school’s library. I did not entirely understand what had just happened, but I knew it was monumental. I knew our country had witnessed an integral piece of history.
Four years later, I was able to be a part of that history. I flooded Twitter and Facebook with President Obama’s best moments, best speeches, and best qualities. It was never difficult. I never had to second-guess about whom I wanted to vote for because I understood the importance of inclusiveness and understanding. I wanted to vote for the poor, the single parents, the veterans, the teachers. I wanted to vote for the future of America.
At 6 a.m. on November 6, 2012, I made the trek across town with my mom so we could beat the rush at our polling location. I took a breath as I grazed my hand over the touchscreen ballot. I wanted to remember that moment. I wanted to remember the way my throat clenched and the way my face became hot. It was as though my body could not contain the emotion I felt as I hoped I had just helped Barack Obama receive a second chance in the White House. When we left the location, we celebrated by grabbing doughnuts and coffee for breakfast.
And then, that night when I returned home from my new job, I watched the election results on the living room couch with my mom. We buried our coffee table in snacks, but I cannot even remember what they were. It didn’t matter. It still doesn’t. What mattered was seeing those states turn blue. Indiana didn’t. It had lost faith since four years prior when it placed its trust in a Democrat’s hands for the first time since 1964. I didn’t though. I never did. I still haven’t.
Fast-forward to the evening of President Obama’s Farewell Address: My feet sat propped on a coffee table. I sat with someone who cares for the First Family just as much as I do. A candle burned in the background. I comforted myself with a blanket honoring my university. Snacks didn’t bury the coffee table this time, though. I was too upset to eat. A glass of wine rested in my hand. My face became hot again, but not from the blanket or the wine or the candle. Soft tears trickled from the corners of my eyes to my mouth and my shoulders. It was the end of an era.
Something I have always admired about President Obama has been his ability to form an intimate relationship with each person in the audience. His deep tone is conversational and relatable. His understanding of the Midwestern working-class struggle reverberates through every empathetic call to lend a hand to our neighbors regardless of socioeconomic status, religion, or race. His uncanny ability to make an audience laugh through tears of sadness will not be forgotten. His love for Michelle, Malia, and Sasha never went unnoticed. He promised our country hope, and he gave my generation inspiration to be better, do better, and love better.
Since his first election, Barack Obama had a knack for understanding the younger generation. He understood our need for belonging because we grew up during the in-between era: We went from VCRs to DVD players to Blu Ray players to streaming before we even graduated high school. We were raised by grandparents who fought in wars and parents who were forced to enter careers because of their lower socioeconomic statuses, yet we were told we can be whomever we want to be. We were raised in a country consisting of limitless opportunities generations before us never had.
When I talk to my peers, there is a commonality among their desired professions: We all want to help. We want to provide. We want to improve the world around us so it can be a little kinder and a little more generous. Their fields vary between Creative Writing and Family Studies and Nursing and Physics and Sports Administration, but they all want one thing: They see room for improvement, and they want to heal that wound.
President Obama spoke directly to us last night, fellow Millennials:
“Let me tell you, this generation coming up — unselfish, altruistic, creative, patriotic — I’ve seen you in every corner of the country. You believe in a fair, and just, and inclusive America; you know that constant change has been America’s hallmark, that it’s not something to fear but something to embrace, you are willing to carry this hard work of democracy forward. You’ll soon outnumber any of us, and I believe as a result the future is in good hands.”
I’ve seen it too. I’ve seen it when it has been raining and dark and cold and sweltering and humid, but you wanted to help elect officials who you thought would help better this country in ways you saw fit. I saw it when there were thousands of you standing in line to watch candidates who were touring college campuses, and you didn’t care about the weather conditions because all you cared about was showing your support. I saw it when my friends began taking an interest in politics—not for partisanship, but rather, for the issues that mattered most to them. We want that inclusive society. We want to lend a hand to our neighbors. We want to spread love and kindness.
Yes we can.
Yes we did.
Thank you, President Obama.
Once, when I was at work, I was mopping a bathroom floor after a day of screaming children, popcorn spills, butter stains, and soda stickiness seemed to fray every hair on my body. Talking to people for seemingly unending hours tended to exhaust me, and I typically refueled by spending time alone.
And so I mopped.
Mopping was part of my cleaning routine each night. It was the signal toward the end of the tunnel, the final stretch of the race. I was almost done for the evening, and I could soon lose myself in my heated blanket and a book I was rereading: Tiny Beautiful Things.
As I mopped, I lost myself within the Pine-Sol scent wavering around the bathroom. Its lemon-infused cloud presented an almost transcendent experience, and I was able to get lost in my thoughts without thinking about how exhausted I felt after what seemed like the most grueling week of my academic life. I thrived on staying busy, and nights with less than five hours of sleep became the norm. Sleeping sometimes felt like a chore—I had to do it in order to survive, but everything about my personality tried to refrain from fulfilling this need. The purple under my eyes felt like a constant nagging presence: You need sleep. I had too many books to read, essays to analyze, thoughts to interpret, and sentences to construct.
The building was constructed in 1935, and sometimes it felt as though I could never fully clean the tile. It was perpetually filled with character and aging marks—wrinkles I could never fully tighten.
And so I mopped.
When I reached the edge of the bathroom and began to exit through the swinging door, I noticed a dry space in the middle of the bathroom. As I allowed the overhead light to dance upon the streaks I thought I carefully painted across the tile, I realized I had not noticed I truly did miss sections as I mopped. From a close observation, everything seemed wet. The lights directly above had given me a false notion that I had successfully completed one of the last tasks of the night; however, this was an illusion.
Once, when I was washing the inside of a trashcan, I watched as the cloudy, lukewarm water kissed the swirls of soap. They glided along the edges of the trashcan. When my gloved hand crashed into the pool with a sponge and cleaned and prodded and scrubbed, the swirls dispersed before quickly rejoining. As I stared into this gloomy pensieve, I thought about how my plans to pursue writing had always been interrupted by some outside force or an internal change in direction.
Cheryl Strayed once said in Tiny Beautiful Things, “Trust your truest truth, even though there are other truths running alongside it.” I reread that section just hours before I stood perplexed in the ancient bathroom with a mop in hand and clouded by lemon.
I used to look at situations with a close eye: When I was little, I wanted to be a writer. I made this statement in a coloring book I crafted in first grade. I didn’t know what kind of writer. I just knew I wanted to write. As I aged, I began to author stories eerily similar to J.K. Rowling’s magical tales—maybe this was my first taste of fan-fiction. When high school evolved, I decided to pursue journalism. It seemed the most practical way to pursue writing. Now, I have plans. I have desires. I have truths.
I know I love writing, but I also know I love politics and journalism and reading and movies and walking outdoors and drawing cartoons that will never come to fruition. I love photography and idolizing other cultures and observing how we generate enough to goodness to spread throughout the world. I love helping others find their flashlights to shine in dark rooms. I love hot tea and hot chocolate and cold beverages and a lot of ice in my sodas. I love cherishing and protecting the small things and stopping to observe the flecks of dust floating in the warm window sunlight. I love pursuing anything that can help me emit kindness into a dark room or a cold night.
These are all truths.
My truest truth: I know I love writing. I depend on writing. I love writing because it allows me to be contradictory and gut-wrenchingly honest. It allows me to be more than one person. Humans are complex creatures and we need to feel as though we are allowed to live outside of our cardboard boxes as we learn how to color inside of the lines before realizing it is okay to color outside of the lines, too.
I used to analyze writing the way I analyzed the tiles in the bathroom floor. I thought if I looked at it with one perspective, I would stay focused. Actually, though, I was only hurting myself. I failed to see the different perspectives and ways light can shine on different sides of the same tiles. I failed to see how observant and open and honest I needed to be in order to help my truest truth evolve into my realest reality.
I stood in the middle of the bathroom wondering how many times I had failed to realize my sheer lack of awareness. It left me feeling perplexed and curious. I walked back to the swinging door where I had placed the bucket. Soap and water intermingled here too, and I realized how writing was like a seamstress—it always sews together patches of our lives when we think nothing correlates or makes sense.
Eventually, though, a quilt comes out of it.
I grasped the green mop and dunked it in the water as though it was a child’s head bobbing for apples. I took my right hand around the plastic middle of the mop and turned it counterclockwise until the excess water had ringed back into its home. I walked back to the middle of the bathroom floor before observing the different flecks of light and realizing how changing perspective or simply taking a new approach can enhance and better an outcome.
And so I mopped.
Hello, Senior Year.
We have known each other for about four weeks, and you are not as daunting as you seemed. I realize I have unabashedly overwhelmed myself until Winter Break, but, alas, we English majors love to kill ourselves for our arts.
It does not seem as though it was four years ago when I began applying for college. As an eager senior in high school, I envisioned the world as a crystal ball with a clear path to direct me to success filled with glorious travels as a journalism sensation. I gazed at photography adorned with color and thematic elements within National Geographic accompanied by lyrical descriptions of rolling hills and vibrant cultures I only viewed within the confinements of those pages. I told everyone, “I want to end up somewhere between Sex and the City and National Geographic.”
What I had not realized, though, were the extreme implications I would face as I declared a major in Magazine Journalism. Basic news bored me, and athleticism bewildered me. I was neither a connoisseur nor a lover of either.
I soon found myself surrounded by students in the English Education major. For almost a year, I felt as though I belonged. I felt as though I had always longed to become an educator in the subject area I hold most dear. Most people who love reading and writing in the English subject also tend to love school, and I knew I loved all three. It was not long, though, until I realized my next problem: I do not have to teach at the secondary level to eventually teach in a college setting. They are different in ways more immense than even the loathing high school students possess for standardized tests. My goal of somehow embodying Katherine Watson from Mona Lisa Smile was no longer within my grasp or even within my sight, and somehow, along the way, I lost my footing. I needed to regain my stature.
I was stuck.
Losing myself in the stories of other cultures and backgrounds astounded me because I knew even though people around the world will eternally disagree on religion and politics, the world will still agree on love and empathy.
I held on to this belief, dropped the education concentration, and remained within the English Department. Within this realm, I found people who read the same stories I had grown to love and people who adored being able to connect with others through the written language. I did not have a plan or even a rough draft or even an outline or even a sketch of what I wanted to do after college. I just knew I wanted to study English. Because I did not have a firm idea about which concentration to pursue, I chose English Studies. It provided a plethora of areas to specialize in, and I felt as though I were standing in line at the grocery store trying to decide which candy to choose before I could finally start placing my items on the conveyer belt.
Public policy intrigued me. The idea of practicing law thrilled me. Social justice kept me going. A degree in English is actually desired by law schools. Cognitive thinking as well as the ability to write critically basically band together to form the prime image of an aspiring lawyer. I wanted to help people, and in the practice of law, I thought I would constantly be able to do so. I began looking at Social Justice and Human Rights programs around the country, and I narrowed my options for when I would finally apply.
Then I realized my mistake.
Throughout the excitement and the planning, I had not realized how much I had restricted myself. I possessed such an intricate idea of which type of law I wanted to practice—I had already ruled out being a court room attorney—and I did not know if it was even worth it. It was more than a grave uncertainty of whether or not I would be able to put myself through the program. Rather, it was more of a distaste. Did I really want to put myself through law school? Had my drive to pursue this career faded like an old pair of dark wash bellbottoms?
I did not, but I took the LSAT anyway.
The score I wanted was what I needed to go to the local schools—the more prestigious schools, such as NYU, were too expensive anyway—but even retrieving this score did not arouse my passion for policy or law. I simply realized I had turned a small idea into a grand dream. It was not only too far out of my reach, but I realized I no longer lusted for the chance of working with a grand human rights organization. I began to wonder if somewhere along the way I had passed up an opportunity or if I had accidentally thrown away all the cards, and, with them, my fate.
Now, I am back to you, Senior Year.
You have shown me how to relish in the unknown and how to understand life does not grant us a playbook. I now know I do not need to study in a major in which I will be trained for a specific career. I understand the glorifying feeling of simply not knowing where I will be in less than one year. I can write shitty essays and never submit them to journals. I can create characters who will never appear in even one scene of a novel. I can explore literary journalism and travel writing and book reviews and fiction and nonfiction for the sole purpose of simply being intrigued in what may unravel.
I can take eighteen credit hours filled with courses in which I watch documentaries and discuss feminism and read poetry and analyze literature and write personal essays, and, frankly, I have never been happier. I have never been more exhausted, but I am happier, nonetheless.
I even took a class in which I interned with a literary agent and helped with the Midwest Writers Workshop. I did that for a class. For a grade, I learned about the intricate process of submitting queries, listening to pitches, and reading manuscripts. I learned how to read agents and understand whether or not they truly felt compelled by a novel.
I learned how to turn my love of reading and my shared empathy with writers into a career.
I remember that six-year-old little girl creating a picture book for a first grade assignment. Underneath the “I want to be a ______ when I grow up,” I wrote “writer” in what was probably well-crafted scrawl. I was a perfectionist. Maybe, instead of throwing away all the cards, I kept this one card in between pages of a book or in a pocket in a backpack. Now, I think about it when I begin to feel overwhelmed or consumed with doubt.
Senior Year, you have shown me how to embrace the unexpected and how to keep my options open. When we part, I hope I can enter the world with the same enthusiasm you gave me. You passed down a variety of tools I can use to tackle the projects I know I will encounter and the obstacles I will most likely face. I understand the importance of forming relationships with people for only a short amount of time. I have learned to consult professors with questions and concerns because they have been exactly where I am now. I understand what it means to reach an ambiguous end, and I also understand it is okay.
Thank you, Senior Year.
Lauren is a Ball State University alumna with a Bachelor's degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. She enjoys breakfast for dinner with a side of literary enjoyment.