lessons

Five Hundred and Twenty Five Feet

I imagine that she is someone with a story. Someone whose life has been a whirlwind of the kinds of experiences most people only dream about, who’s fallen stupidly in love and disappeared across the world and climbed to the roof of a building just because she could. I imagine that what brought her here, to the summit of this beautiful mountain, to the point where she can drift away in the autumn air, is something mysterious and special.

She leans over to the man standing quietly beside her. “It’s amazing how a mile can change your perspective.”

He hums in agreement. They linger in silence for a moment, lost for words, before they settle back into their sedan and drive away.

I imagine that her words are something more than they are. I imagine that she is more than she is. I imagine that she, and they, and the mountain, and me – I imagine that we all mean something.

I settle back into my sedan and drive away.

IMG_1637.JPG

More Than Words

His hands were the first thing I noticed about him.

He was sketching, brushing feather-light pencil lines effortlessly across the page. One of his hands commandeered the pencil while the other scratched nimbly at the nape of his neck. They were beautiful. Whatever was on the paper in front of him was beautiful, too.

I stood for a while, just observing, until it occurred to me that what I was doing was a little bit creepy. So I edged in front of him, clearing my throat. “Do you mind if I sit down?”

He looked up at me, startled that someone had the audacity to disturb him at work. But his eyes met mine and softened a little around the corners, a wordless gesture that gave me the confidence to slide into the seat across from him. I half expected him to tell me to get lost, that he was concentrating and needed to be alone, but he just went right back to his drawing like I’d never interrupted him at all.

Anna Karenina was calling me; I had almost sixty pages to read before AP Lit. Yet I was going cross-eyed reading about Levin’s domesticity, and my gaze kept shifting unwittingly toward this quiet boy and his expressive hands.

After a few minutes of staring at my book with utter futility, I surrendered to my curiosity. “What are you drawing?” I asked, quietly enough that he could ignore it if he wanted to.

He didn’t, though. He didn’t look up, but he answered me, pausing between strokes and biting his lower lip. “I’m not sure.”

“Well, it’s nice,” I said, letting the conversation fade to silence before speaking up again. “I’m Sophie.”

He cracked a knuckle. “Adam.”

When the bell rang, he finally looked at me. The corners of his mouth twitched into a smile I hadn’t expected as he extended his hand across the table. The heel of it was shiny with graphite, the pads of his fingers dented from holding the pencil, but his grip felt like a promise. “Very nice to meet you, Sophie.”

***

The next time I sat down across from him, I didn’t bother asking for permission. He was eating an apple, tongue darting out every once in a while to catch the juice that threatened to escape from his mouth.

“Hi, Sophie,” he said with a genuine grin.

“Hi,” I replied, blushing when his eyes lingered on mine for a little too long.

We didn’t talk much. He drew, I read – Anna Karenina, Great Expectations, A Clockwork Orange. His drawings were strange and smudged and haphazard, but they were all equally lovely. He made the kind of art you’d put in a museum in hopes that someone would be smart enough to understand it.

I jokingly asked him to draw me one day. He laughed and said he didn’t really know how to do people.

“You never had to do portraits or anything?” I asked, wincing as I recalled my pathetic attempt at a self-portrait back in the fifth grade.

“I didn’t say I’d never done it.” He brushed his forehead absent-mindedly. “I just don’t really know how.”

“What do you mean?”

“People are tricky,” he said. “The thing about people is, you can get them wrong. This,” he gestured toward the paper in front of  him, “nobody is going to tell me this is wrong. With people, it’s different.”

I agreed with him, kind of. The self-portrait I made in fifth grade was definitely wrong. But I didn’t believe someone like him could draw anyone less than perfectly. Maybe he was just seeing them the way nobody else could.

***

“I wish I could draw,” I confessed one day as I watched his hands at work.

He laughed. “You can. Anyone can draw. It’s one of the first things babies learn how to do.”

“Yeah, but I wish I could draw like you. You know…” I trailed off. “Well.”

I was waiting for him to say something encouraging, because he was that kind of person, but instead he reached into his sketchpad and pulled out a folded up, slightly torn square of paper. He hesitated, rubbing it between his fingers for a couple of seconds, before handing it over to me.

He stopped me before I could open it. “No,” he said simply as I tried to unfold a corner. “Not right now.” So I slipped it in my pocket and didn’t say a word.

When the bell rang, he disappeared before I had a chance to say anything else.

***

The next day, I kissed him.

I didn’t plan it; I didn’t even consider it ahead of time, I just sat across from him like I always did and opened The Picture of Dorian Gray. It took me seven agonizing minutes to realize what he was doing.

“Is that…what are you drawing?” I asked incredulously as his pencil strokes became rounded, fluid, detailed.

“I’m trying something new,” he said.

“I can see that.” I rolled my eyes. “I mean, that. That’s a person.”

“Yup,” he replied without taking his eyes off the page.

“I thought you didn’t do people.”

He shrugged. “Figured it was worth another shot.”

The person – the girl – took shape in front of my eyes. Angular chin, slightly downturned mouth. Eyes a little too far apart. Feathery eyelashes and bold eyebrows. A slight dusting of freckles on the tip of her nose.

“Me,” I breathed. “You’re drawing me.”

It was both fascinating and terrifying to watch his capable fingers trace my likeness across a piece of paper. No one would mistake it for a photograph, but he was capturing something that was decidedly me, and I knew I had been right the first time I asked him about drawing people. He saw things the way that nobody else ever could.

When he finished, he held it up for me with a sheepish grin, and I smiled back while something warm and heavy spread through my entire body.

“Did I get it sorta right this time?” he asked, nervously raking a hand through his hair.

“Sorta,” I said breathlessly in the seconds before my mouth was on his.

***

He kissed like he drew: carefully, skillfully, and a little selfishly. It didn’t take me very long to figure out that he loved that way, too.

The first time we said it, we were sitting under the tree I used to climb as a kid. I told him about the time I fell off the fourth branch and broke my arm, and he drew me a little cartoon – a tiny upside-down freckled girl, her mouth curled into a surprised “oh!”, dangling from the fourth branch of a towering tree. I laughed until my stomach hurt and kissed him until my lips tingled, relishing the feeling of his wonderful hands as they roamed across my back and shoulders and face.

“I love you, you know,” I whispered to him when we were catching our breath.

“I love everything about you,” he whispered back, running a finger along my jawbone. We laid there under the tree, our limbs tangled together, until the sunset started to spill across the sky and we remembered the rest of the world.

***

“I never looked at that note you gave me,” I told him one day while he was cooking dinner.

“What note?” he asked, scraping a diced green pepper into the saucepan on the stove.

“That folded up piece of paper. The one you handed me, and acted really cryptic about, and never mentioned again.”

He smiled knowingly. “I wondered why you never said anything about that,” he said before starting to hum his favorite ABBA song.

Neither of us mentioned it again.

***

I found him again at our five-year high school reunion. He was sitting on a barstool, his heel tapping on the leg, sketching on a napkin. He hadn’t changed at all.

“Do you mind if I sit down?” I asked, gesturing toward the seat next to him.

“Sophie,” he said, letting his eyes crinkle a little as he half-smiled. “Hi.”

“Hey,” I said back. The silence enveloped us like a blanket, warm and familiar and comforting. Being around him always felt private, even when there were a million other people in the room.

“You know,” he started after a few minutes, “I didn’t…I just, I mean -“

“I know.” I rubbed my thumb across my bottom lip. “You don’t have to say anything.” To tell the truth, I didn’t really want him to. It was easier this way, without words. Words can never really mean everything they’re supposed to.

“I’m glad you’re still drawing,” I finally said, squeezing his shoulder as I stood up to walk away. “You really are amazing.”

I could have let him talk. There were plenty of stories I could have told him, about the rambunctious high school English classes I was now teaching or the incredible man whose ring I was wearing, but it wouldn’t have mattered. Our relationship wasn’t about words and sentences and conversations. It was about feelings and instincts running wild, smudging the lines in a picture nobody could figure out anyway. We were art, and art was messy, and the artist never got a happy ending.

That night, as I unfolded the fraying piece of paper I kept on the nightstand by my bed, I was glad I hadn’t let him say anything. I ran my fingers over the fading pencil marks, the ones that knew me before I knew him, and I saw all the pieces of him he didn’t want me to see. “Art is the lie,” Picasso once said, “that enables us to realize the truth.”

His drawings had always said more than he ever could.

Who Am I?

I. A daughter

I was born to walk the middle ground, the first child of type A and type B
[and what does that make me?]
Constantly stuck between too small and too tall,
Talks too little, reads too much, sings too loud,
Hips too big, mouth too small,
Needs too little, wants too much, dreams too big.
I am a combination of everyone I’ve ever known,
But mostly I am too much like my mother,
And too much like my father,
[and too torn between the two people I am to really know who to be.]

II. A sister

I had bite marks on my back and my arm in a sling
Because that’s what it means to have your thunder stolen
When your parents decide to procreate again.
[I guess it also means feeling important,
Because someone looks up to you so much
That it makes you want to be better than you would be for yourself.]
And I would have laughed if you said someday I’d be proud
To have him for a best friend,
But the first time he asked for my advice
[because he thought I was wise]
I thought maybe the bite marks were worth it.

III. A friend

I learned more about friendship from the people who didn’t stick around
Than from the ones that did,
Because I learned when to hold on
And when to let go.

IV. A scholar

I’ve been taught to question everything.
[“Don’t be so gullible, Gwen,”
I hear as I fall for another stupid joke.
“Don’t believe anything you can’t prove.”]
I go to class and they tell me,
“Think critically, Gwen. Pick it apart. Find the truth.”
But I don’t think there’s just one truth.
I think sometimes the truth is that you don’t have to question everything.
[my professors disagree.]

V. A writer

My fingers bleed a lot because I pick the skin,
My brain bleeds words because, because?
[because it’s the only way I know how to feel.]

VI. A survivor

Once I thought that to be happy,
My bones had to poke out of my skin,
And my worth as a person was dictated by a number
On a scale
[or the label of my jeans.]
But when I stopped chasing perfection,
I found someone wonderful,
[Daughter, sister, friend
Scholar, writer, survivor]
I found me.

 

Written for the Weekly Writing Challenge. I don’t usually write poetry.

On Graduating College, Or Why Time Needs to Move Slower

Screenshot 2014-03-17 19.20.05

I set a countdown last night for the day I finish my last final. Now I have this blinking clock at the top of my computer screen that says pretty much the scariest sentence I’ve ever seen.

“2 months and 25 days until you’re done with college.”

Seriously? How did I get here? It feels like just yesterday I was receiving my first college acceptance letter – but no, that was 2009. It’s been more than four years since then. And it’s been a long four years. Definitely challenging. Invigorating. Heartbreaking. Eye-opening. And in a little under three months, it’ll all be over.

I don’t feel like an adult. I still feel like the same shy, terrified little freshman who cried her eyes out every night because she was so homesick. Hell, I have even less of an idea of what I want to do with my life today than I did in 2010. In what universe am I ready to graduate? I don’t know how to fold a fitted sheet or use the broiler on my oven. I forget to empty the trash can in my bedroom for months and sometimes even to lock the door when I leave the house. I’m a kid pretending to be a grown-up, and I’m not even doing a very good job of it.

There are moments, though. Moments when I think, “wait a minute. This is my life.” My apartment is a disaster area 85% of the time because we don’t do the dishes enough or put away our shoes, but you know what? I have an apartment, and I pay my bills, and I couldn’t have done that when I was eighteen. I talk to people when I go somewhere new; I network and make connections and four years ago that would have paralyzed me. Even though some of it feels the same, I’m not the person I was when I rolled my suitcase to Willard 228 for the first time.

I honor the girl I used to be, because she is the one that allowed me to become who I am. But I’m glad I’m not eighteen anymore. Everything was life or death back then – picking a major, joining a sorority, staying in touch with everyone from my graduating class – and it was exhausting. I lived in a constant state of pressure and fear. I didn’t know how to let all the petty stuff go.

I’m not an adult, I know. I’m still clueless and scared and unprepared. But I’m smart enough to figure it out. These past four years have been the hardest I’ve ever faced, and look at how I’ve conquered them! Despite the fear, the misgivings, the doubt, I’m ready for what happens next.

2 months and 25 days. Let’s do this.

The End, In Three Parts

I.

She was always the first one to notice.

“You’re bleeding again!” she’d yelp as she dug through her backpack for a Band-Aid. No matter how many times I drew blood, I never learned to carry them around with me. When she was there, I never had to.

She learned to solve a Rubik’s cube somehow. I was too impatient to figure it out on my own, so she taught me too. “It’ll give you something to do with your hands,” she said. “So you won’t destroy your fingers.”

My history teacher took it away because I wasn’t paying attention. She handed me a Band-Aid, marched up to the teacher, and got it back. “You need this,” she whispered as she slid it across my desk. I spent the rest of class quietly spinning the faces of the cube under the table. I didn’t need the Band-Aid, but it was nice to have it, anyway.

I thought, “this is what it’s like to have somebody you can count on.”

II.

She slept three nights at my house during the Great Ice Storm of 2008.

The days we spent together were full of jokes and musicals and molasses cookies. Then at some point after dark, unexpectedly, she’d slip. Her face would suddenly be devoid of emotion, her voice high-pitched and soft. She’d curl herself up into a ball at the foot of the bed and just lie there, unmoving, until whatever it was had passed.

“Is there something I can do?” I asked once, helplessly, desperate to fix her somehow.

She was quiet for a moment, and I heard her breath hitch before she spoke. “No. There isn’t.”

When she was like this, she never looked at me. She responded to questions sometimes, if I was lucky. But she wouldn’t turn around. I didn’t get to see her face.

I was there, but that wasn’t enough. I turned out the lights and tried to sleep while she kept drowning two feet away.

III.

She made me a card for our high school graduation.

“Don’t forget about me, okay?” it read. “I’m nothing without you.”

I didn’t make her a card. I didn’t even say thank you. I was never good at that sort of thing, and I figured she knew how I felt already. She was my best friend. She’d always be my best friend. Isn’t that how it works?

I took her for granted. I forgot.

And she wasn’t nothing. She was something more.

8 Things I Wish I’d Known When I Started College

1. 50% of the people who say they know exactly what they want to do with their lives are lying. The other 50% will change their minds. It is damn near impossible to know what you want at 18 – hell, it’s damn near impossible to know at 22. It’s okay not to know. It’s okay to graduate and still not know. It’s okay to turn forty and still not know.

2. College boys are not significantly more mature, attractive, or attainable than high school boys. But also, college is so NOT about finding a boy, no matter what those dumb CWTV shows have to say about it.

3. Innocence isn’t something to be ashamed of. Neither is introversion. Hiding fundamental parts of yourself won’t make you likable, but it will make you miserable.

4. Success after graduation has so little to do with GPA it’s not even funny. And caring about grades more than actually learning is a terrible waste of a $50,000/year education.

5. On a similar note, it is better to be happy and sane and social and well-rounded than to have a 4.0. Sleeping 8 hours the night before a midterm is just as important as studying and doing homework. Spending time with your friends is just as important as building your resume. Seriously.

6. Everyone is fighting a battle. All the time. 99% of the time they won’t share it with you, but it’s there. You are never the only one hurting.

7. It’s so much more valuable to take classes you enjoy than to waste time in ones that seem “practical” or “easy.” The ones you enjoy are the ones you remember, and what is the point of learning a semester’s worth of information if you’re just going to forget it after a week of binge-watching Netflix?

8. Adulthood is a total facade. College graduates are just confused kids who pretend they know how to navigate the real world, but are really just making it up as they go along. You’re never ready to leave college, you just do.

Where Do We Go From Here?

It’s kind of funny how hard it is to write when I’m not going through some kind of crisis. In some ways, I feel like happiness is boring; like now that I’ve grown closer to accepting the way things are, I’ve sacrificed some of the things that made me interesting. I worry that without the struggles that defined me when I started this blog, I have nothing worth saying.

I hope that’s not true. I don’t want it to be true. I think “interesting” is the greatest compliment I could ever get, and I couldn’t bear it if someone told me I was boring.

I’m worried that you guys, my readers, my crazy huge number of followers, are only here because of the hard stuff. Because there’s something about my journey through several levels of hell that struck you, or inspired you, or made you feel like you weren’t alone. Believe me, it has been unbelievable to be able to share my experiences with all of you. It has been a dream come true to be able to give some glimmer of hope to people who are struggling. This blog has been everything I ever could have hoped for and more.

The thing is, I’m doing well now. My life is pretty mundane. I’m a normal college student, taking a full courseload and working a part-time job. I spend my weekends marathoning TV shows and Netflix or spending time with my wonderful friends. I worry about normal college things, like graduating and getting good grades and finding a job. And being broke. And lamenting the fact that I’m still single. I’ve got a lot of worries, sure, but my health is no longer one of them.

As silly as it is, I wonder why any of you would care anymore. I’m nothing but average now, with nothing remarkable to show for my daily activities. It’s a blessing to be normal, to feel like I belong in the college culture, but as a blogger? Who wants to read about the life of a college math major? Besides the challenges I’ve worked to overcome, what makes me a worthwhile contributor to the WordPress world?

I am terrified that somehow, because I’m “normal,” my life has lost its meaning. That the things I’ve shared are the only things I’ll ever share. That I’ve reached my peak and nothing I do from this point on matters. All I’ll be is that blogger that used to be really insightful but now only talks about her job and her nights out on the town, losing followers left and right because she’s nothing special anymore. (Not that followers define me, but you know what I mean.)

I guess all I can say is that I’m still here. I’m still alive, which is something I never take for granted. I’m living outside of my URL, spending every day pushing toward the next phase of my life, hoping that something I do will matter someday. I still write 1000 words in my journal every day. I still think and wonder and love and cry and everything else humans do. I just don’t know how to say those things to all of you without losing my air of wisdom and courage. Without losing you.

Que sera, sera. What will be, will be. The only thing I can do is live the best way I know how, and I hope that I can take some of you with me along the way. Because God only knows what I’d do without you.

Crippled at Camp: A Love(?) Story

The first time I was wounded at summer camp, I was eleven years old. It was my fault, of course. I was on a sailboat with a couple of other kids, being as obnoxious as you might expect a kid on a sailboat to be, when the swinging boom whacked me full-force on the side of the head.

I don’t remember this event very well, probably as a result of minor head trauma and major embarrassment. I do recall a very panicked teenager who scooped me up in her arms and sprinted to the infirmary. And that the nurse gave me three blue freeze pops while I waited to see if I was going to die.

The summer I was fourteen, I came down with a disgusting stomach flu the night before we were going on an awesome overnight trip. I spent two days in the infirmary that time, watching really terrible movies on a very small TV instead of making s’mores in the woods with my friends. I secretly hoped someone else would get the flu so I would at least have some company. It didn’t work out.

My luck only worsened once I started working there. When I was sixteen and training to be a counselor, I wound up with head lice and a staph infection that had pretty much eroded my flesh from the knees down. When I was seventeen, I got stung by an entire hive of bees. And at nineteen I spent too long standing on the hot sand during lifeguard training and suffered from massive, horrible second-degree burns on the bottoms of my feet. Alright, that one wasn’t all bad; it did necessitate my supervisor literally carrying me wherever I needed to go, which amused the campers a great deal and made me feel like a princess.

In 2012, when I was finally on the leadership staff, I shared this story with my coworkers. We were gathered inside one of the boys senior end tents late at night, watching the candlelight dance on the canvas flaps and talking about what camp meant to us. Our stories were supposed to be meaningful. Mine was about getting maimed.

But they understood what I meant. My story was about strange and improbable injuries, sure, but it was also about deciding that getting hurt wasn’t enough to keep me from going back to camp summer after summer. It was about the knowledge that no matter how tough it got, no matter how many legitimate reasons I had to run away, it was always worth it to stay.

That summer, 2012, had its own share of misfortunes. During the three months I was there, I was caught in a violent downward spiral of anorexia that wreaked havoc on my physical and mental health. And it took me so long to recover from that nosedive that I couldn’t even consider the possibility of going back in 2013.

Three weeks ago, I submitted an application. Today, I called the camp office for an interview. Even after the personal hell I experienced a year and a half ago, I’m going back.

My parents are baffled. And worried. A lot of people are worried. You know what? I’m worried, too. But every year that I’ve been knocked down, I’ve come back stronger. I’m a champion for a cause I love more than anything. Something about it will always be tough, and I might not always come out on top. But as we who have worked there know, it is always, always worth it to stay.

My Reverse Disappearing Act

I remember running my fingers over the bones in my ribcage. Trying to hold on to the feeling of emptiness, of open space, of nothing. Stroking the hardened curve of my hip as it guided my hand down into the valley of my stomach.

I never thought of myself as a junkie, but I was. I was addicted to nothingness. My energy was drawn from hunger pangs; my self-worth unmistakably correlated to how little space I could occupy. My meals got smaller, my clothes got smaller, my world got smaller. And then one day all that remained were bones and hollowed eyes and a deep disappointment that I hadn’t disappeared altogether.

Addictions don’t just go away. They take an unbelievable amount of effort to overcome. Alcoholics pledge sobriety; gamblers avoid casinos. But what do you do if you’re addicted to being empty?

It’s so easy to just say “today I hate myself, and maybe
if I just don’t eat dinner tonight, then
I won’t take up so much space.
And then everything will
be okay. Just this
one time.”

But then when there’s nothing left, when you’ve shrunk into a half-person, when your highest high crashes into your lowest low – then you can’t string two words together or walk up a flight of stairs. You waste away and you disappear. Isn’t that what you wanted? To feel nothing? To want nothing? To be nothing?

I’ll never be empty enough to satisfy my craving. Human beings are made to feel and love and be; it is our blessing and our curse. There’s no good way to disappear, no matter how many bones you count or sizes you drop. There is too much of me, of everything that I am, to be confined to such a tiny corner of the universe.

It’s not about taking up less space. It’s about giving meaning to the space you already take up.

It’s about
slowly branching out
and sharing your space with
the rest of the world, letting yourself
expand into a deluge of everything you have to offer.

You can’t quit emptiness the way you can quit smoking or drinking. There’s nothing to stay away from. But you can choose to fill your life to the brim, with people and places and things that you love, until being hollow is no longer an option. You can choose to let all the crazy facets of your humanity matter.

I want to have a bigger brain and a bigger heart. I want to do bigger things and make a bigger impact on the world. I can’t be small. It’s time to grow.