the truth about new beginnings

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This is a picture of me at Harpers Ferry, Virginia in April, 2010. It is ONLY relevant to this story because I’m wearing an SDSU jersey, which I still own. Long before I ever thought I’d become an Aztec, I was repping the colors. Funny where time takes us.

I guess I’ve gotten used to early mornings.

It’s not like I’m a fresh-faced college student, blissfully unaware of how much gas costs, when taxes are due, and where to go to do laundry. The 7 a.m. class doesn’t scare me anymore because I have taken them and lived to tell the tale. Moreover, I’ve lived as an adult in the real world. I’ve had real world responsibilities. 

So, walking back onto a college campus for a student orientation feels a little weird.

Part of me, the part that had no intention to grow up ever, wanted to skip down the SDSU sidewalk cheerily in the mists of pre-8 a.m. fog, saying ‘good morning!’ to everyone. The other part of me, the part at the helm of my self-control, just glowered at the student guides in their red shirts, saying, “I’d be better with more coffee,” when they asked how I was doing.

I sauntered up to the check-in line, battling between the urge to pull out my front desk smile or to drop a snarl, and picked up my folder and nifty little SDSU bag. I tried really hard not to get excited about the bag but drawstrings are my new favorite things and this one even had a zipped up pocket!

Orientation was inside Montezuma Hall, a large rectangle room jutting off a long, elegant hallway. The hallway, accessed by a tall flight of stairs, was magnificent. The ceiling was pulled back with dark wooden beams and the walls echoed with the ghosts of a hundred scholars eternally roaming the hall in search of greater knowledge.

Nope, that was just my excited half momentarily staging a coup.

A sticky name tag with my identification printed neatly on the front began lifting off my shirt by its corners and I humphed. These things are so stupid.

The cynic was back.

Truth be told, I never thought I’d be here, at a student orientation in a grand hall at a real university. I’m not sure if university was never a desire I had growing up because I just wasn’t interested in getting my degree or because I knew I’d likely never get one anyway. It’s easier to just be indifferent to joys outside our reach.

It’s a romantic notion, admittedly, the summoning of a new faculty of academic minds to help them make port in an institution that will become a home and a source of identity. It feels so Oxford.

Student orientation, however, is one of many things in life in which the reality does not even begin live up to the ideal. The first two hours were filled with repeditary information and unnecessary applause breaks. Anyone who read any of the thousand emails the school sent out this summer would have already known what was said from a crackly microphone a thousand times that morning.

The seat next to me was occupied by a brightly dressed woman with matching personality. I could tell by her mannerisms that it was killing her to have to sit quietly. I could also tell there was an underlying level of snark buried in the granules of her person and it felt akin to my own feelings at that moment. Misery loves company.

When she got up and scooted past me during the middle of the second hour, the part of me that was still drooling slightly at the mouth to be sitting here with a cute little official name tag in a beautiful old building was scandalized that someone would be so disrespectful as to get up and leave during the middle of a presentation. But when she came back with a cup of coffee from the campus Starbucks, the other part of me was like, “Man, she’s a smart one.”

Respectful nod.

By the time the members of the student government got up, I was pretty over orientation day. It was almost lunch time, and I didn’t need these twenty-year-olds telling me how transformative the college experience has been for them because they decided to “get involved.”

Are you kidding me? I’ve been “getting involved” since high school. Political movements and election campaigns, volunteer teaching and coaching. I moved my life across the world for two years to work with a church and a school. And you want to tell me about “life changing” ways to “get involved?” No thank you.

My pretentiousness levels have never been so high, nor my patience so low.

The romance of student orientation and my visions of cardigans and Oxford blazers had vanished completely and I found myself sitting in an uncomfortable chair, suddenly feeling like maybe I didn’t belong here.

Between the on-campus student health initiatives and the three-part video about consent, someone tried to explain the effects of too much alcohol. That’s when I got up to look for that Starbucks.

Through a pretty courtyard and around a corner that overlooked more courtyards and walkways, a fairly sizable Starbucks brandished its summer drinks promotion sign. Inside was quiet and only partially full. The barista was clearly in training. Laptops and notebooks were out at every table. Summer classes are still in session.

Coffee in hand, I stepped outside to look at the campus. It’s pretty, I’ll give you that. I’ve driven by and around this university my whole life. My grandma lives right down the street, and several family members are Aztecs. SDSU has always felt like the family school, but this was my first time on the campus grounds. This was the first time I realized it would be my school.

A tour was in progress and I found myself side-stepping quickly to avoid getting dragged along by the group of gangling looking 18-year-olds. College is an adventure to them. To me, it’s just another brick to lay in this life I’m building.

Caffeine helped me survive the rest of morning orientation. They announced lunch and excused us by our colleges. On the way out, I recognized an old friend from high school. She was one of a handful of people who sent me a care package while I was living in Prague. Even though we don’t see each other often, I count her among the friends I most respect.

She lit up with a beautifully freckled smile when she saw me. We commiserated slightly, fell in line with the rest of the Arts and Letters transfer students for our meal tickets and then, finally, found seats on a shady curb in the courtyard.

She’s had a journey similar to mine. Similar in that it is far, far removed from the regular course of college goers. We’re both language majors who fell into our degrees of choice somewhat by accident. We both have international experience, a burden for bi-cultural communities here at home, and zero tolerance for how drippy the watermelon served with our lunch ended up being.

“I’m trying not to be too excited about this,” I told her. “This whole experience. I feel like I should be too old for this by now, you know?”

“What, you’re not going to go to the keg parties?” she laughed.

For a minute, we both could have been high school girls again, eating our lunches on the ground, talking about the future and our place in it. The part of me that wanted to be happy to be here, that had been trying so hard to enjoy this day, lifted her tired head and listened.

Breezes chimed against golden sunshine. Shadows danced along the sidewalk from the branches of sprawling trees. Gentle chatter floated around us. This was nice.

Lunch ended and we joined our college of Arts and Letter group into a smaller lecture hall to meet with our dean and then into even smaller groups to meet with course advisors. If all went well, in three hours we’d be registering for our first semester of classes.

“You okay?” my friend asked as we took our seats.

“I’m trying to play it cool,” I said, suppressing a girlish squeak. My inner cynic was becoming complacent, now well-fed and ready for an afternoon nap.

Our small groups narrowed the fifty or so people in the room down to groups comprised of single digits. There were seven in mine, and one of them I already knew! A woman from my last Spanish class at Southwestern. She’s a mom and wife going back to school. One man was a Chilean-Canadian transplant looking to get into interpreting for the UN someday. Another just got out of the Navy. Everyone had a different story and a different goal. But we were all here, and we were all going to study Spanish.

It took a while for the ice to break, but there’s not a lot that can’t be done in three hours. By the time we were set to register for our classes, it seemed like we were best friends.

We were giddy as we trekked through campus to find the computer lab so we could meet up with the rest of the Arts and Letters students. We got lost along the way, which only bonded us further.

Registered, ID cards picked up, and a long day behind us, we stood awkwardly for a minute on the white plaster balcony of the student services building.

“I guess we’ll be seeing each other in a couple weeks,” someone said. The pressure diffused and a few of us laughed.

This isn’t the end of anything, just a beginning.

And even though I’m used to beginnings, I’ve lived a life full of changes, I’ve faced my share of challenging experiences, this one is new for me. I haven’t ever attended a university and it’s something I’m genuinely so excited and so grateful to be able to do. It would be a pity not to see the adventure in it all.

I said my goodbyes and slung my drawstring over my shoulder. The walk back to the car was a quiet one. All the greeters had left. The late afternoon sun was silent and warm. My inner cynic had settled down peacefully, unable to criticize anything on our walk back to the car, and the part of me that was excited to be here was fully awake, uncontested, blinking in wonder at the new day.

the truth in these lines

“Hold still,” I said, gesturing tyrannically to my classmate who was giggling uncontrollably in his chair. Pen poised a breath above my sketch pad, I gave him the sternest look I could muster. “I will never get this right if you keep moving.”

It was hard for either of us to keep a straight face, mostly because not just this project, but the whole class was a bit ridiculous. I was only taking the beginning art course because I needed one more humanities class to transfer and this seemed like the easiest one.

It’s not easy.

It’s not easy because a beginner’s class is about learning the basics, and the basics are boring. We spent one class just drawing straight lines on a paper with different instruments to become familiar with their pattern and texture.

Me, draw a straight line? I’m sorry, but no thank you.

 

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I find myself continually torn by the half of me that is always teetering down the roads less traveled and the half of me that desperately needs to be the teacher’s pet. The two do not agree much in this classroom.

“My glasses are probably making this difficult,” my classmate said. His jet black bangs swept over wide-framed glasses that were indeed making this difficult. Blind contouring required me to keep my eyes on my subject without ever glancing at the lines I was tracing on my paper. I was fairly certain his glasses were not going to be accurately placed.

“Alright,” I said, removing the guard paper from above my right hand and looking down at what I had drawn.

“What do you think?” I asked him.

He just nodded, a little taken aback by what he saw. It was no masterpiece, but we discovered, along with the rest of our classmates in their turn, that focusing on our subject and the nature of the line, rather than on performing the task, created an element of sincerity in our haphazard portraits.

After blind contouring was a continuous line exercise. We had to map out each other’s faces without ever letting our pen leave the paper. It meshed an understanding lines with a foresight of strategic direction and was considerably harder to accomplish. We were just blocking out features, trying to find ways to connect them all, to turn our meandering lines into meaning.

My classmate seemed more nervous to draw than to be drawn. It was certainly odd sitting still on a chair in a warehouse-esque room lined with creaky easels and spattered paint supplies, letting yourself be captured by someone else’s observations. What would they find?

A lot of my life has been about lines lately. I am seeing them everywhere. There are lines that separate the lanes I run in on the track, lines that mark the places where we place our practice hurdles, lines that form stairs I can barely walk up anymore with this medical boot on my right foot and lines in my hands from the soft creases of usage.

In fact, from the moment I get up till the last glimmer of wakefulness leaves my eyes before falling asleep at the close of day, my whole world is lines. Only now I’m beginning to recognize them.

We don’t tend to notice lines because they are hidden behind shading and shadow, behind texture and depth and color. But lines are the basis for everything we see. So in my pursuit of lines for an art class I’m becoming more intrigued by, I have found myself searching the those foundational grids in my own life.

Where are my lines?

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Most of my life is taken up with track and field these days. So what lines can I find there?

I love running, I love my teammates and coaches, I love the challenge of doing something that seems impossible. Those are the basic lines, the outline that traces all the reasons I have poured so much time and energy and will into this. Those lines are shaded in by feelings of excruciating pain, immense joy and sometimes overwhelming discouragement. I keep getting injured, which has added texture to this picture I could never have imagined. The shading and color distract from the original sketch. It’s not that they aren’t part of the reality, it’s that they aren’t the foundation. The pain and frustration, the loneliness of practicing in a pool by myself until my shin heals, the agony of trying and failing are part of the reality of track. But they don’t define the image, they only add to it.

I’ve been doing this with everything in my life: school and work and friends and future plans. And in all these lines, I have seen truths I would not have otherwise noticed or been reminded of.

Once I could pin-point the basic elements, I took up my proverbial pen and began a continuous-line contour of them. How do they connect to make a picture larger than just lines? Why would something I love so much, like track and field, come into my life so late and so hugely, and then why would it remain always just out of my reach with one injury after another keeping me off the field? Challenge and the hope of victory, those flighty temptresses, floating just beyond my fingertips — how are they reconciled with my sheer delight in the friendships I have made this year, or the incredible new perspective I have gained on the human body?

I don’t even need to ask if all these things are connected somehow. With God as the great artist, there is, no doubt, no line unfinished or without purpose.

Our homework that week was to do self-portraits with both blind contouring and continuous line. Sitting on my carpeted floor with a mirror balanced precariously on some books, I gathered my paper and pencils and began what is actually quite an intimate experience: staring into the face of yourself that is presented to the rest of the world and looking for whatever is real.

I don’t look like the person I was two years ago when I moved home from Prague. I look more like a journalist, less like the vagabond I was. My face has gotten older. It’s thinner, tanner, freckled.

The sketch I drew looked surprisingly like myself, rough though it was.

Amazing how, when we stop trying to force the bigger picture we have in our mind’s eye and seek to understand what is really before us, written in the little lines, the picture of our lives suddenly becomes clearer. It isn’t prettier, necessarily, or more skillfully done, but it looks right. There is truth in those lines.

 

a baseball confession from a broken heart

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Sunshine washed the field in a perfect golden haze the last time I walked away from a college baseball game in 2013. I had been covering Southwestern College’s team for a local paper and the season was coming to an end, just as a new one for me was about to begin.

That was the month before I left America, just a few short weeks before I packed my bags and boarded a plane to Central Europe where a whole new future awaited me.

For the most part, I was ready to go. I had been planning to teach in Prague and work with the church there for three years (since the summer I graduated from high school, for the sake of precision). But walking up the hill from the dusty diamond, I realized very keenly that I would miss this. I would miss baseball.

One day I’ll tell the story about how I got into sports reporting. It was part accident, part ego, and no one was more surprised than myself.

But this isn’t a story about beginnings. This is my attempt at explaining to all of my confused, amused family and friends why I have been so obsessed with baseball this season. So the only relevant information you need to know about my beginnings with covering this sport is that it took me two and a half games and one wikipedia search of baseball terms to understand I had found something I really, really loved.

It is also important to know that Prague changed me. Specifically, being a middle school teacher changed me, or brought out something in me that I didn’t know was there before. Some of you followed all this on my travel blog as it was happening, but not even I realized just what a different person I had become until I came home. The problem is that when you are shaped in one place and then move to another, it takes a while to find a spot where you fit again.

And the full-time student life I moved into didn’t really accommodate my inner sunshine-seeking, people-watching middle school teacher.

Moving home, leaving Prague, was the hardest thing I have ever done.

It was only natural that, upon returning from Prague after two years, I would find my way back to baseball. I write for my college paper where some of the Jaguar coaching staff still remember me from 2013. I also write for a paper in East County covering high school and community college games.

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My nifty lil story and photo published in a real newspaper.

Four months of baseball have seen me climbing trees and hanging over outfield fences with my feet jammed into the spaces of rusty chain link fences, or kneeling in the dirt (and mud – thanks, El Niño), angling for that perfect shot.

One particular game in Eastlake had me picking through piles of trash behind the outfield fence next to the home dugout. I squatted in the mud next to a wheelbarrow filled with murky water and ignored the weeds brushing against my ankles. When it comes to angles on the field, the stretch between second base and third is my favorite and I would literally squat on an ant hill to get a good view of it.

Barely two innings had gone by when rain began to lick the back of my neck. Tucking my camera beneath my coat, I trekked back through the mud to the bleachers where fans were taking cover under jackets and backpacks.

Fighting the crushing feeling that we were about to get rained out, I pushed my lens through the gaps in the fence and took a few snapshots of the batter as the wind began sending torrential sheets of water down onto the field. My fingers were numb, my clothes were getting soaked and I could tell my camera was not going to be a happy camper after this experience. I wanted to be grumpy, but all I kept thinking as a stupid smile pushed its way over my chattering teeth was how lucky I am to have this job, to be at a baseball game on such a day.

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Helix runner dashes home through the pouring rain during a game at Eastlake.

El Niño and I were definitely not friends. I know the rest of California was ready for some wet weather, but rain means cancelled games.

I obsessively checked the weekly Google weather forecast twice a day to make sure game days were still clear. Cancelled games absolutely wrecked me. 

But when the weather was clear, it was beautiful. The first time I ever noticed spring in San Diego was season I covered baseball, back in 2012. Outside the classroom, away from my computer, the baseball field opened up to me the glories of early March. Sunlight clearer than glass cut across the field and breezes rippled the mesh on the outfield fence. Warm in the sun and cold in the shade, every sound seemed crisper and every color seemed brighter. Butterflies fluttered by and insects hummed in the grass. And on a baseball field, the afternoons lilted by slowly, taking their time.

I remember sitting in the dirt next to the SWC dugout at an away game at City College in Balboa this April. Several times an inning, planes swept through the pale blue skies above us, and the tops of Downtown’s beautiful skyline popped up over the outfield fence. It was a warm day and the dust billowed into columns whenever runners slid into the bases. Luckily for me, City’s field is grossly uneven. Third base is elevated nearly a foot from home plate. Sitting on the dirt, I could see the bag almost exactly at eye-level. My camera snapped up every dusty third-base slide that afternoon.

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One of those perfect third-base shots from my spot in the dirt at City’s baseball field in Balboa.

I have two distinct memories from this game. The first was realizing that this is exactly how I hope to whittle away Friday afternoons for the rest of my life: sitting in the red dirt of a baseball diamond with my camera, watching a game unfold.

The second was getting spit on. One of the sophomores to my right took a swig from his water bottle and spat into the dirt, but the breeze picked up the salivinated Aquafina and thinned it into a mist that caught the right side of my face.

Every normal instinct I possess told me to be upset about getting spit on (because, ew, obviously), but I was just too happy to be at a baseball game in perfect weather with a fantastic view of third base. So I wiped it off without a word. I may have even smiled a little.

And I thought how lucky I am to have this job, and to be here at a baseball game on a day such as this.

But I am obsessed. When the team lost, it ruined the best of days. Wins made my whole week. The only page open on my phone more often than Google weather was the Jaguar schedule and results page, which I refreshed obsessively during away games to keep track of the score.

I wore my lucky shoes on game days, carried around a can of corn in my backpack on weeks when defense was struggling and was late to more math classes than my GPA will probably forgive me for on account of needing to stay at the game for just one more inning.

There are plenty of reasons to like baseball (the lingo, the superstition, the magic of the ninth-inning comeback). But the more people raise their eyebrows at my over-the-top obsession with the sport, the more persuaded I’ve been to figure out why I love baseball.

And I think I’ve finally figured it out.

See, the thing about being a dugout reporter is that it gets me up close to the game. And not just close enough to see streaks of red as the baseballs whiz by me (or, on occasion, at me, as has happened several times in foul ball territory).

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I actually never saw this one coming. But the rest of the dugout did and I earned some pretty solid street cred for not flinching when it missed me by inches.

I get to see the players and the coaches work out pieces of their personal stories as each game unwinds.

I hear the dugout chatter. I know which pitchers wish they got played more. I hear them wonder to their pals behind the batting cages how much harder they have to practice to get put in. So when they get to close out a winning game, I understand what the smile on their face really means. I know which players have trouble controlling their emotions on the field, so when I see them swallow their cuss words and walk off a strikeout with heads held determinedly high, I understand what they’ve actually accomplished. I’ve been with these boys all season so I know who needs a big win and who just needs to get on base today, who has their hopes set on transferring to a university and who has their hopes set on that scout noticing them.

And just like that, my own problems fade away. I get caught up into the hopes and dreams of thirty 19 year olds. And it feels a lot like being a middle school teacher again.

I knew coming back to San Diego wasn’t going to be easy, not because this isn’t home anymore, but because there is another spot of the world that also feels like home, and my heart feels constantly broken as it tries to be in both places at once.

Even in the joy of perfectly good days, there is a longing for my classroom on the other side of the planet and the little people who were mine for a season. Sometimes I get into my car to drive home from school or lace up my shoes for a run and find myself sobbing into my hands, a song from the radio or my iPod unexpectedly pulling me back in time to the golden sunshine of my classroom, the faces of my students, and the dreams we built together.

IMG_20160603_232103But I never feel like that on the baseball field. In fact, sometimes that’s where I go when the longing gets too heavy. I’ll just sit by the edge of the field and stare at the empty grass. Birds peck their way through the outfield. Shadows stretch across the diamond like the twisted branches of an enchanted tree, and I fall under its spell.

Finding a place where we feel like we belong is one of the great, often unspoken quests of the human heart.

I thought my place was Prague. But for now it seems to be next to a baseball field and I can only think how lucky I am to be here, in a life such as this.

things I have thought during finals week

(Illustrated with my instagram feed – mary.york)

-How many times can you eat pizza in a week before your blood cells turn into marinara sauce?

-Why did I doodle so much in math class and how did I get so good at drawing penguins?

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-This paper is supposed to be five pages but I’m only turning in four and a half because someone has to be the rebel.

-I would rather be in the Hunger Games and lose than take this math final.

-Will anyone notice that I slept in this shirt? Nope.

-I’ll bring in donuts – then maybe the professor will like me enough to bump my B to an A.

-I would rather meet a dementor in a dark alley without my wand than take this math final.

-Do beans have fiber?

-Should I get a math tutor?

-Will anyone notice that I haven’t changed this shirt in 48 hours? . . . I’m gonna give this a solid ‘hopefully not.’

-SERIOUSLY, WHERE ARE ALL MY MATH NOTES?

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-I am going to fail this class.

-Is this tutor seriously touching all of my pens? Can you not just pick one? Do you not already have your own? Will you leave mine alone, please? OH MY WORD, STOP TOUCHING MY PENS, BRUH.

-I would rather be on the Deathstar when Luke blows it up than take this math final.

-Eight pages, I can write than in 90 minutes, right?

-I am going to put on make-up today because it’s finals and I want to rock this! Yeah, nevermind. This isn’t happening.

-Do people hate me?

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-Does coffee count as food? It’s a bean, right? So… fiber.

-I would rather sit through a six-hour loop of “Let it Go” than take this math final.

-If I put on enough perfume, this shirt won’t smell like I’ve worn it all week. I’m positive.

-What if I just tell them it’s my “lucky shirt?”

-I would rather get a face tattoo of Justin Bieber than take this math final.

-I would rather go over Niagra falls in a wooden barrel than take this math final.

-How do you turn ⅔ into a decimal?

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-I’m going to fail this class.

-I would rather wrestle the alien from ‘Alien’ with my bare hands than take this math final.

-I would rather fight an R.O.U.S. with both hands tied behind my back than take this math final.

-I would rather be set on fire and then buried alive and then dug up and eaten by zombies than take this math final.

:takes math final:

 

… 
-Well. That was anticlimactic.

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How to almost miss your final

I’m pretty sure I didn’t do college right the first time. I say this because I never remember spending this much time on Netflix. Deadlines were met with ease. All-nighters were both non-existent and unnecessary. Countless hours were wasted in the quiet, study-conducive environment of the school library. I think I even checked out books.

But don’t worry, I have it figured out now. And for those lost little college freshmen who still haven’t quite figured out the system, allow me to share my foolproof method for turning in college papers just under the wire.

Consider it my Christmas gift to you. Happy finals week.

  1. Read the syllabus several times to make sure you are very, very clear when the exact deadline is due. Now forget it and get back on facebook.
  2. Open a Word document. Don’t title it yet. There’s no need to make that much commitment up front.
  3. Google “great ways to start an essay” for several minutes and then Google “great ways to make money” because that popped up first in the automatic listings and, frankly, feels a lot more promising.
  4. Decide to title your Word document. “Essay.”
  5. Casually instagram your computer keyboard with a caption like, “No rest for the weary! #collegelife #thuglife #killinit” – Spend twenty minutes picking out a filter.
  6. Look at the clock and realize that you’ve not been super productive for the last hour and mentally slap yourself. Then look up a youtube video of Shia LaBeouf’s motivational video and JUST DOOOO IIIITTTTTT.
  7. Check facebook.
  8. Pack your backpack and laptop and go to a coffee shop to “get some real work done.”
  9. Thank the barista for your tall skinny peppermint mocha latte and find a table that isn’t already taken by someone better at procrastinating than you are.
  10. Instagram your laptop keyboard + coffee. Caption: “Round two! We are knocking this sucker out tonight! #allnightifIhaveto #Ihaveto #redcup”
  11. Check facebook.
  12. Write a couple paragraphs. At least one of them should have more than two sentences.
  13. Pull up dictionary.com to double check a spelling, but then get distracted by the Shakespearean terms of endearment on the sidebar. Spend the next fifteen minutes wiki-ing the complete list of Shakespeare characters.
  14. Answer a call from your mom. Yes, that is your wet laundry in the machine. No, you’re not sure how long it’s been there – Thanksgiving? And can she check if your driver’s license is in the back pocket of your jeans, please?
  15. Because mom’s are inspirational, you write another couple of paragraphs. Mess with the settings on your paper to add extra spacing between all the letters.
  16. Google collective nouns for animals. Text the best ones to all of your friends.
  17. Check facebook.
  18. Tell yourself you are really going to get serious and write for a half hour.
  19. It’s getting late – go grab some dinner before you curl over and die because you haven’t eaten in like, seriously, like four hours.
  20. Get distracted on the way home and find yourself mysteriously in a Barnes & Noble. Peruse.
  21. Your friends have texted you and want to have a study session at a someone’s house. Bring snacks.
  22. Studying with friends includes catching up on several episodes of the Walking Dead (and that’s what you’re beginning to feel like) and re-watching an episode of the Office (which you may never see the inside of if you don’t graduate from college).
  23. Someone gets the munchies again. Volunteer to accompany them on the food run. Take as long as you want. In fact, take longer. Literally, don’t come back for two hours.
  24. Come back and get settled in front of your computer again.
  25. Finish your essay.
    Hahahahaha, just kidding. Check facebook.
  26. Instagram a selfie of you (sad duck face) and your computer. Caption: “This essay is killing me. Make it stop. Need coffee! Ahhh! #stressed #hungry”
  27. Eat something and talk to your friends about Saint West. Google weird celebrity baby names.
  28. Someone wants to go watch a movie because -they know it’s late but- there are $6 tickets at the Regal theater right now. Consider it.
  29. Uncommitedly tell your friends that maybe you should finish this essay first because it’s due tomorrow.
  30. Go watch the movie with your friends. (Hashtag: YOLO). You can just finish this essay before class in the morning.
  31. Set alarm for 5:30 a.m. before you go to bed.
  32. Sleep through it.
  33. Wake up at 7:45 and PANIC.
  34. Open your laptop and write two pages of almost-total nonsense (with a surprising amount of collective nouns and Shakespeare references).
  35. Go through and repeat the word “the” in multiple places throughout the the text.
  36. Run spell check. Click “change all” and hope for the best.
  37. Forego showering or changing shirts.
  38. Run through several extremely yellow lights.
  39. Sit in the parking lot for ten minutes trying to find parking.
  40. Run to your professor’s office to drop off the paper with two minutes to spare.

Like a boss.

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Overcoming the Birthday Curse

“I’m not a superstitious person,” I promised Luz as she drove me home. “But I believe in the curse of the odd-numbered year with every fiber of my being. Don’t get me wrong – you wouldn’t be the first friend to eschew this theory, but the pattern has been unshakeably consistent.”

JACC 2015

It was the night before my 24th birthday and I had been counting down the days, and then the hours. Five and a half more to go.

“Listen,” I said, still trying to prove my point as we followed the twisting road between the dark silhouettes of lonely trees. “Sixteen, eighteen, twenty and twenty-two – marvelous years. I traveled, I taught, I grew, I learned, I lived. Seventeen, nineteen, twenty-one and twenty-three… Heartbreak, change, ruined plans, lost friends.”

Luz didn’t look at me, but her thoughtful gaze was penetrated by a small grin. She didn’t fully believe me either.

Half-way through 21 I noticed the pattern of the cursed year. I began telling myself, “Just get to 22 and it will all be okay.” Sure enough, literally overnight, things turned around and – though not without a few hitches – I lived one of the most gloriously golden years I could ever hope to have. If I get even one more year like 22, I will consider myself extraordinarily blessed.

I almost thought the curse might have been broken because the months leading up to 23 were so incredibly decent.

“It’s been the hardest year of my life,” I told my friend and chauffeur as she found the entrance to my neighborhood. “Which is surprising because that’s what I said about 21 and I honestly thought it couldn’t be topped.” (I’m not often wrong, but when I am, it really stinks).

Luz just nodded.

“You’ve seen me!” I laughed, though no part of me felt like laughing. “I feel like I’m about to explode all the time!”

“Do you really think it’ll get better tomorrow, though?” she asked me. Luz is pretty no-nonsense and as we puttered up to the sidewalk in her car, I wondered the same thing.

“Alberto keeps telling me I might need two bad years in a row to break the curse,” I chuckled bitterly. “But I’m not actually sure I can survive another year like this one. I need a good year, Luz.”

“I know,” was all she said. I got out and she promised to swing by again in a couple hours. I was going to spend the night at her place so we could carpool to school together the next morning. Our newspaper staff was headed to a journalism conference in Fullerton and, to avoid traffic, we were getting an early start.

She pulled away and I walked up the concrete stairs to the little house with the climbing rose bush and a myriad of cacti out front.

The truth is, I can’t explain why a lot of this year has been so difficult. Obviously, leaving Prague was heartbreaking. Starting over at community college has been awkward, and not having a clear direction for the future has been stressful. But a lot of this year has been wrapped up in peaks and valleys of emotion that I don’t have any control over. It’s been a struggle to reconcile the damaged parts of my mind, that suffer from a very real curse, with the grace and sovereignty of a God I trust with all my heart.

And just like I raced for 22, I have been hoping beyond hope that 24 will magically turn the tides and this weight that has been turning my insides into ribbons will dissipate.

The house lights were off but, after fumbling with the spare key in the dark (spiderwebs were involved, and some subsequent yelping), I pulled myself through our back door just in time to see the upstairs lights flicker on.

“Mary?”

The kids were home.

My little siblings (not so little anymore) are 14 and 12. They are typical teens – moody, messy and always a little underfoot. I share similar qualities like unto the typical adolescent human being, so we’ve been getting along pretty well. In this moment, however, dragging my heart as well as my school bag up the stairs, I felt a thousand years older than either of them.

They chattered about their day excitedly as I dropped things off in my room. My sister was going on about something when I spotted a blue envelope on my pillow. Mom left me something.  

I sat down on my bed and opened the note. The words seemed blurry at first and I let my eyes adjust to the pale-yellow light of our bedroom lamp. Sitting down made me realize how heavy my shoulders felt and how empty my chest was, as though someone had taken a great spoon and scooped out my insides weeks ago. Nothing left down there but a chilly wind and a wisp of a soul, shivering and rasping for breath.

The letter in my hands lay open like a book.

Everything I ever needed to hear from my mom was scrawled in her familiar hand. In four short sentences, she gave me the whole world. And in two seconds I was weeping on my bed.

I know I talk a lot about crying in my blog posts. It is something I tend to do often. But there’s a difference between having a good cry and really, really crying. You have a good cry for whatever reason – the car won’t start and you’re late, you have to choose between paying bills and eating food, life, most likely. But when you finally find the bottom, it’s a different sort of experience. I’ve been falling for weeks, months even, just waiting for the floor.

Between the gaps in my fingers, I could see the silent shadows of my siblings watching me from the door. Without a word, the oldest walked over, put his arm around my shoulder and wrapped me into a hug. Every ounce of misery I had stored up came spilling out like a bitter fountain bursting from the earth, grasping for release from the confines of its rock.

Five hours. Five hours and the year would be over.

Amazing what a decent hug and a piece of cold pizza will do. I don’t eat much these days, but I will never be able to say ‘no’ to pizza. When Luz picked me up I already felt much better.

By the time we got settled at her place and had begun to make a lemon-cookie pie (“For your birthday,” she told me, knowing the guilt-trip would coerce me into trying a piece when it was done), the minutes seemed to be ticking away faster. It was 11:58 before I knew it.

“Almost there,” Luz said, now thoroughly amused at how the curse was unfolding.

Twelve months of life meandered by in the next 120 seconds. There were as memory good memories as there were painful ones, as many silver linings as there were dark clouds. And I, drenched from the downpour of living them, marveled at how anyone survives any year. What a life.

Friday quietly replaced Thursday and I felt no immediate changes. I was still tired. I was still having trouble eating. I was still worried about the future. Except that the empty feeling had been disappearing for the last several hours, I wondered briefly if maybe Alberto was right and I would need to have to back-to-back cursed years to undo this mess.

“Go to bed,” Luz told me. “I’ll clean up.”

I obeyed. Everyone obeys Luz.

Paris

The next morning, 30 young journalists crammed into cars and started up north. Word spread quickly that I had a birthday and staffers from other vehicles texted me all the way to Camp Pendleton where we stopped for a quick lunch.

A few of us had gotten our hands on temporary tattoos and the gang was shaping into a rather thug-looking crew when we returned to the caravan. Our advisor gave each car a surfing sticker.

“St. Christopher is the patron saint of surfers and travelers,” he said. “Everyone needs one.”

I slept the last hour of our drive to Fullerton and then crashed on a hotel bed.

We don’t tend to realize how tired our bodies are until we stop a minute to catch our breath. Mine was so far gone.

Around 4:30, Luz shook me awake.

The light had almost completely disappeared from the windows and the girls in our room were quietly tapping on their phones. It was eerily silent.

“We need to pray for France,” said Luz, a tremor of anxiety in her tender voice. “They’ve had a terrorist attack. More than a hundred are dead and they’re continuing to shoot people.”

The words seemed blurred to me. It didn’t make sense at first and the only thing I could think to do in my half-conscious state was slip off the bed and kneel beside it.

“Dear Lord,” my mind spoke. . . And I realized with a poignant sorrow how seldom I say those words anymore. “I pray for a world that doesn’t know you or your love. I pray for safety and peace for those in Paris, but God – God, please – I pray that you will make yourself known to them.”

Make yourself known to me, my heart echoed.

A splash of water and the sobering news woke me up quickly and we agreed to turn on the room TV to follow the news together, though the phones stayed out to continue checking updates.

Fear. Panic. Death.

As journalists, we were as much drawn in by the coverage as by the story.

“Can you imagine being the guy who did the story on skiing that they keep teasing in between Paris coverage?” someone asked. “I bet he hates his job right now.”

It seemed odd to flip from a hero dog and a 99 year-old woman’s birthday surprise to Paris. But that’s life – so much good mixed in with so much bad.

Around six o’clock, someone knocked on the door. No one made a move to answer it so I did.

In the hallway, with tired smiles and a bouquet of flowers, stood half the staff. Before I could shut the door on them, they started singing ‘Happy Birthday’ and someone placed the flowers in my arms. I noticed that they had even taken the time to write the little birthday note in Czech, with varied success.

“If you’re not doing anything,” they said, “We’re going to take you to Downtown Disney!”

I could still hear Paris playing on the TV but everyone looked worn out and I realized we all needed a reason to go out.

So we did.

We spent the evening wandering around the gorgeous plaza, melting beneath the glow of Christmas lights and taking in the fragrant smells wafting over our heads from restaurants. We broke our college budgets to split side dishes and desserts and then we ransacked the mug aisle of the Disney store until the Park’s firework display brought us back outside into the chilly evening.

What an explosion of color. If nights are good for anything, it’s good for stars and fireworks.

A dozen of us sang songs (or loudly said, “Stop singing, we’re in public!”) all the way back to the parking lot. Paris was wiped completely from our minds until we got back to our hotel rooms.

I left my flowers on the table beside the TV stand as the newsreel played.

“There’s nothing new here,” I told the girls around midnight. “Let’s just get some sleep.”

We curled up beneath the heavy white blankets of our soft, safe beds as thousands of Parisians woke up to a bitterly cold reality.

What a way to start this year, I thought as my mind drifted off. Twenty four hours in and the world crumbles.

The hotel served a pretty spankin’ complimentary breakfast – not that I really had much of an appetite.

“Mary,” said one of my roommates, dragging her overnight bag into the lobby behind her. “You left your flowers in the room.”

Intentional, to be honest, though I made a fuss over her for not letting me ‘forget’ them.

“Thank you so much!” I said, taking the huge bouquet into my arms and cradling it until we picked up our things and headed over to the conference at the local college.

I left the flowers in the back of the car and someone made a point of putting them on top of the other luggage so they wouldn’t get smashed.

All day we spent in lectures and competitions. Between the workshops and the roundtables, we had time to grab sandwiches and spread out on the benches surrounding a campus lawn. Rumors of how the competitions were going seeped back to us quickly and we churned the mill with diligence. Awards are always a big part of this affair, but they’re not everything.

I gave half my sandwich to my assistant photo editor and the rest of my chips I parceled off to the cartoonists.

This year I learned that food can only fill the stomach.

Light vanished from the sky, revealing several choice stars to look watch us as we stamped and shivered in the cold outside the awards hall. Five of us bunched together in the 19th hour of my second day, sipping coffee, joking about the weekend. The weight on my shoulders was gone and I could feel my heart pumping real blood through my very real veins.

From that moment, when I heard my heartbeat ringing in my ears, like a bell peeling on Christmas morning, the rest of the night faded into a velvet blur of peacefulness.

Not that it was peaceful. Our team spent most of the next hour cheering and screaming excitedly over our journalistic triumphs during the awards ceremony. We hustled together for a group photo that was messy and chaotic and crazy – like us. Like life.

And then it was back to the vans to go home, because no good day will last forever.

I was switching cars to ride home with Luz, Alberto and a friend. My bag was already packed away in the trunk when someone came running up with my wilting flowers.

“They were in the care! You almost left them behind!” he said, returning them once again to my arms.

This time I just held them. These stupid flowers that wouldn’t let me go. These people who call me ‘friend’ who refuse to let me remain empty and unseen. And still how small and incomparable a picture they are to the Creator who made them.

Engines were starting, but I grabbed the rose from the center of the bouquet, tugged Luz’s hand, and we ran across the parking structure in our heels till we reached the edge. Looking down four stories, and out across a twinkling town, I held out a rose petal.

“Okay, 24, I’m ready for you,” I said. “Here’s to joy.”

The rose petal fluttered on the wind like a whispered prayer, gliding into the shadows and then bursting into the stream of street lights below us before finding a home on the sidewalk.

I grabbed another petal.

“Here’s to peace. And to purpose.”

Down they went, into the great big world sleeping beneath that great big sky.

Disneyland

“May I have one?” asked Luz. She fingered the velvety petals for a moment before tossing them out. “Here’s to learning, to love, and to donuts.”

Our laughter echoed across the parking lot and headlights turned into tail lights behind us as we flung the rest over in bunches to the promise of friendship, family, faith, fun, food and a future.

We live in a world full of atrocities, capable of inflicting horrendous pain. But to turn away from the beauty of life because of the pain that comes with living is not the answer. The amazing mystery of humanity is our ability to feel both great joy and great sorrow, to walk through valleys as though they were peaks, and to look for stars in a night full of smoke and gunpowder.

“Luz,” I said, head leaning over the railing to look at our collection of rose petals below. “I’m hungry.”

Our heels clipped across the pavement and we slammed the car doors shut behind us as our driver impatiently revved the engine. Time to go.

Time to move on.

5 New Slang Terms I Never Learned While Abroad

“My eyebrows are melting off!” I moaned dramatically to the girls sitting near me. Our managing editor perked his head up with a perturbed expression.

“Melting off?”

I wailed pathetically as someone searched for a tissue. The girls were giggling sympathetically. The heat was doing horrid things to everyone’s make-up. But I’m new to the eyebrow game and I’m not used to this. How could I have known that if you pencil in your eyebrows when it’s hotter than 80 degrees they will end up all over everything before the day is out?

I couldn’t have. Because before I left for Europe, “On fleek” was not a thing.

ON FLEEK Adj. 1) (slang) a state of completeness and flawlessness, the quality of being perfect 2) the combination of fly and sleek . Synonymous with on point. Used most often to describe eyebrows.
-Urban Dictionary

The enjoyable aspect of culture shock for me was catching up on two years’ worth of slang that I missed while living abroad. So it’s back to Urban Dictionary. As a language enthusiast, this kind of stuff is right up my proverbial alley and I will walk it all night long.

“They look fine,” said Asia, the Momma of our gaggle of women – actually, she might only be the Momma to me. All I know is that whenever I really need a hug or someone to get lathered up into a righteous rage for my sake, she is who I go to. “They’re not messed up at all, really.”

Asia has perfect eyebrows. She would know.

“Well, that’s a miracle because they’re all over my glasses,” I said, glowering at my chunkie blue frames.

“Why do you guys do that to your face anyway?” asked our managing editor, typifying the well-meaning clueless male.

Because,” was the obvious answer that we all chorused with one, dignified sniff. It took me less than three months at home to become a huge eyebrow snob. What is America doing to me?

Glasses cleaned and self-confidence mildly restored, I slipped back into my heels and stood up (the kids in the newsroom are always getting on me about walking around barefoot, but what’s a girl to do?).

Ella, our incredibly competent multimedia editor chose that moment to sache in, ladden with film equipment and ready to rumble.

“We’re gonna be late,” she said with assertiveness. I grabbed my camera bag and followed her quick, short steps out of the school newsroom and across the sweating campus. It was the kind of day that was so hot, everything stood still – the trees, the grass, the sky. Nothing moved for fear of shattering into a million heat-ruined pieces, or withering away into wilted dust. In the earth’s silence, we trampled across bark patches and glistening sidewalks baking under the glare of the sun.

Our destination: La Jolla. The job: San Diego’s annual film festival. The excitement level: through the roof.

We had both dressed up for the occasion – not that either of us needs much convincing to dress up. Ella is one of those girls who always looks impressive.

How either of us got ourselves actual press passes for this shindig is still beyond me, but there we were, lost and running late in La Jolla, on our way to meet the Stars.

We ended up parking half a mile away and walking over to the ArcLight theater which was decked with all the glam required for a red carpet event. Scurrying around timidly with our bulky equipment, we found the press credential check-in and got our name badges.

“I feel so official,” I said happily as we scouted for a spot on the carpet to sneak onto. We hadn’t reserved one ahead of time and had shown up so late that there really wasn’t much room left anywhere.

“Dude, I know,” said Ella – who, by the way, also oozes ‘cool and casual’ like it’s part of her DNA. “I’m going to head over to the media line. Do you know where you’ll be?”

I shook my head and gestured clumsily in a vague direction.

“Okay,” she said simply and perkily walked towards her destination with the confidence of a very self-assured jungle cat.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. If Ella was a guy, I’d ship us.

SHIPPING – Verb. This is most often used on tumblr by fandoms. Fandoms will ship everything and anything. Shipping comes from the word relationSHIP. Basically it is when you want a fictional character, real-life person, or cartoon people to be together.
-Urban Dictionary

I’d ship us because she’s the quintessential good-guy that every girl never goes for. And because her hair toss is on point.

But we’re currently friending it up pretty hard and I’m okay with that.

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The red carpet was L-shaped and I placed myself on the outside of the corner. Already making his way up the cherry stem towards the theater doors was a young man whose name was written on a clipboard held by a pretty blonde at the end of the carpet. ‘John Boyega.’

The name meant nothing to me so I kept adjusting my camera lenses. It was tough coming into the semester as photo editor. I had no experience with the position or with anything like it. On top of that, I’m not really a great photographer either. I learned how to take pictures the way someone learns their first language – I recognize a good angle when I see one. I can press buttons and turn knobs and things turn out alright. Explaining to someone who doesn’t know how to work a camera how to do what I do would be like an American trying to explain subjunctive verbs to literally anyone. We know how to use them, we just aren’t totally sure why.

And then, of course, I wanted to make a good impression. I didn’t want to come in and just flop. Quitting, flopping, failing or in any other way not being on top-shelf level is not an option, doggonit! I had a lot to prove, too, because the last photo editor’s ghost basically indwells the hearts of the current staff and I see flickers and shadows of her everywhere, both inspiring me towards and intimidating me away from greatness.

Semi-VIP’s dressed to the nines and looking very forced-relaxed were shepherded down the carpet. Half an hour slipped away while I wrestled with my camera and tried to navigate the continuous, fidgety flow of photographers cramming for better shots.

At last, a hush fell over the crowd and a car pulled up to the curb, ferrying a very famous, much-anticipated actor – the one and only Adrien Brody.

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It should be mentioned that I had a huge Brody crush for about six months in high school. I was pretty excited to see him in person. He’s the youngest Academy Award Winner to get Best Actor and he has a knack for playing a diverse range of adorably oddball characters. And that nose. I guess he’s what you’d call Hollywood’s Talent.

TALENT – Noun. Synonymous with weight, power, ability and attractiveness. The one who has a bit of everything.
-Urban Dictionary

On the corner of that carpet, between the fans and the line of reporters waiting to get their fifty seconds with him, I got a rare glimpse of the man before the mask came on.

The moment he stepped out of the car, I felt my heart sink. Not in disappointment, but in sadness. The middle-school teacher inside me lifted her head and felt immediate empathy for a tired, lost little kid who doesn’t want to sit in his chair anymore. Adrien Brody looked beat. For three seconds, as he buttoned his coat and disentangled his legs from the car, he looked tired and in need of a sandwich.

But as soon as he turned to face the fans and cameras, there was that smile – disarming, charming and completely convincing. There is a man who knows how to step into his job.

I got a few shots of him, but that face had taken it out of me. I couldn’t see him as an actor once I’d seen him as a tired boy who’s staying up too late to do his homework before school.

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We waited on the carpet after Brody disappeared in doors, not sure if we should pack up or wait around. Evening had given the breeze a cooler touch, but it was still stuffy around the collected mass of media and onlookers. Cameramen, photographers and reporters from varying stations stuck stubbornly to their place in line, checking their equipment and comparing notes. I had almost repacked my camera when a car drove up. From the back seat slid an elegant woman in a black dress. She embodied sophistication and class from the straps of her heels to her neatly parted hair.

Geena Davis.

I’m a recent Davis fan. Only a few years ago, I watched “A League of Their Own” (this was during the height of my new-found passion for baseball). I think she’s a real lady. Honestly, she’s the kind of woman I had expected to turn into. Turns out life had different plans for me, though I’m hoping there’s still time to get my act together.

She glided down the carpet, smiling graciously at reporter after reporter who asked her the same questions.

My camera lens fell to the ground and I bent down to pick it up. Glancing forward, nearly level with the ground, I noticed Davis’ shoes. One was on her foot, the other was off. She was standing on the red carpet barefoot while interviewing.

This classy woman.

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When the interview concluded, she softly put her hand on the reporter’s shoulder for balance as she stepped back into her shoe. It was as simple and natural as anything I’ve ever seen.

After she swept into the theater, the media line thinned out. Fox News, ABC and Getty Images all packed up their bags and went home.

Ella and I lingered, running our hands across the velvet rope and getting inconspicuous selfies in front of the backdrop because we’re basic.

BASIC – Adj. Used to describe the typical girls who think they are cool because they’re artsy, can make a duck face, carry around coffee cups, and wear designer brands. You’ll know a basic when you see one.
-Urban Dictionary

Someone handed us a spare program as we turned to leave and it was only then that we discovered that John Boyega, the young man on the carpet when we first arrived, is the new lead in Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. Talk about some fangirling.

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It was nearly dark when we got back to the newsroom feeling rather triumphant from our long evening.

Dan took me home once I got all my pictures uploaded and sorted out. I’m learning not to feel embarrassed when I have to ask someone to give me a ride because I’ve missed the last bus. People love to be helpful and it’s okay to be the person who needs helping.

I told him about the red carpet, recounting the events with the onslaught of chatter I use to communicate in as we rolled down the hill away from the college.

“I had a huge Adrien Brody crush,” I said. “Probably because I refused to like Brad Pitt and Justin Timberlake, or whoever it was that everyone else liked.”

“Why not?” asked Dan in an unpresumptuous tone. Dan is a very even-keeled individual.

“I don’t know,” I mumbled. “I guess I didn’t want to be like everyone else.”

“What’s wrong with everyone else?” he asked.

There he had me. Nothing is wrong with ‘everyone else.’

“I mean,” I stuttered uncomfortably, “I just want to be myself. I don’t want to be a stereotype.”

“Oh Mary,” said Dan with a condescending little coo. “Are you a Special Snowflake?”

I paused.

“What’s a Special Snowflake?”

SPECIAL SNOWFLAKE – Noun. A member of that newly-adult, me’er-than-me generation which expects attention and praise just for being themselves — doing anything to deserve it is completely optional.
-Urban Dictionary

“It’s okay to be like everyone else,” Dan said. “You can’t not be – you’re human. And you can’t not be a little different too because. . . You’re human.”

By the time the college had disappeared from sight, the sky looked like someone had spilled a blue ink bottle across it and then poked out two or three holes for light to shine through. We call those stars.

Funny thing, stars. Some people are labeled as Stars because they shine brightly and everyone can see them, etc, blah, blah. Truth is, they’re just people. People who are trying hard to make it to the top, people who have to put on a good face for work, people who’d just rather be barefoot. They’re just like everyone else.

And that’s okay.

11 Ways To Earn Your Freshman Fifteen

fatface

Many of you have heard me reference the Freshman Fifteen (hashtag: been there, done that).

For those who might not know, the Freshman Fifteen is the roughly 15-ish pounds any new college student will gain upon being suddenly thrown into the least conducive environment found possibly anywhere in the First World to one’s health. It should not be confused with the Sophomore Ten, which is really just a compilation of bad decisions and having too many friends who can afford to feed you pizza.

I am an overcomer (and I don’t use this term lightly. It took me three years to lose the twenty pounds I gained in college. And if you’re not keeping track, with my two years for Associate studies, that averages out to gaining about five pounds per a semester or roughly two pizzas a week).

As one who has walked this walk (and eaten this eat), I would like to bestow some god-motherly advice upon those who may be beginning the start of a lot of self-hate, unused gym memberships and a first-name-basis relationship with the cafeteria lady on campus.

Call them warning signs. Call them beacons of guiding light.

I call them…

11 WAYS TO EARN YOUR FRESHMAN FIFTEEN

  1. Eat on campus – Campus food is horrible. It’s packed with sodium and salt and salty-like carbohydrated sugars and like … you know, stuff. Also it’s bad for you. AND THE SALADS ARE EXPENSIVE. Don’t even try to kid yourself that the OJ will compensate for the tub of lard they cooked your breakfast potatoes in. It won’t. It’s laughing at the very thought – a hard, cruel, high-pitched cackle that only orange juice can truly pull off.
  2. Eat off campus – First of all, money. But beyond the slimming of your wallet, might I remind you that off-campus food tends to come in mammothly American-sized portions that could feed an entire family. The prime example of this would be the Chipotle burrito which is basically the most expensive non-Mexican burrito you will ever buy and not finish. And you won’t finish it. Because it’s huge. *That’s why they charge you ten dollars for it.
  3. Snack – Okay, if you are part of the 2 percent of humans who will actually bring raisins and celery sticks to school, you can get away with snacking. All I know is that if the bookstore hadn’t stopped carrying cheese puffs and candied peanuts, I’d be about four pounds heavier than I was eight weeks ago at the start of term.
  4. Don’t sleep – It’s a largely known fact that there is some correlation between sleeping and weight gain. I don’t know what it is, I just know that whenever I find myself drooling through my 7 a.m. class, it reflects on the scale. My amatuer opinion is that lack of sleep makes one grumpy and stressed. Stress makes one eat. And eating is DEFINITELY related to weight gain (though again, I’m a little iffy on the details).
  5. Wear sweatpants / leggings / yoga pants on the reg – You’d be amazed at how far you can let yourself go when you don’t put real pants on every day.
  6. Accept pity food – It’s hard for one starving college student to recognize that another starving college student may not actually be starving just because they don’t have food in front of them. And it is one of the greatest acts of generosity for former said college student to offer latter said college student some of former said student’s precious food reserves (this includes but is not limited to french fries, candy, granola bars, uncooked mac ‘n cheese and essentially anything in a take-out box). However, it would be wise for aforementioned latter college student to know his or her own boundaries and learn how to say, “Naw, thanks bruh.”
  7. Skip the workout to study – “Studying,” also known as “Netflix,” is one of the primary causes of college weight-gain. The time spent in a sedentary position (and the teeeeears wept over Mary Crawley’s run of tragic luck in love) is not good on the body. Be aware
  8. Indulge in late-night nibbles – Whatever you’re reaching for will not write your paper for you. Inspiration does not come out of an ice-cream carton. Put it back.
  9. Get daily servings of the four food groups – Candy, cane canes, candy corn, and syrup. Thank you, Elf.
  10. Throw portion control to the proverbial winds – If someone brings in a lot of left-over Marie Callendar’s pie, why stop at one piece? There are four kinds. Why not try all four? Why not retry that second one with the oreo crust? Why not then get pizza for lunch because someone else is paying? Or eat an entire bag of Doritos because you found it in your parents’ pantry and it was looking at you kinda funny? You’ll show those Doritos.
  11. Stop caring – Forget about the fact that you only have one body and that your health is important. Assume that “surviving college” is the highest possible standard of living in your early twenties and don’t bother shooting for anything that would require to you get up early to exercise, pace yourself throughout the day or be intentional with your eating habits. Leave that till you’re more of an “adult” because it’ll be so, so much easier to begin creating important habits when you’re older. Afterall, what is your body other than a vital, irreplaceable instrument of your precious heart and mind? Who needs to take care of that old thing. Hashtag: cheese puffs.

*Some of those Chipotle facts may be less facty than other facts. Please don’t not eat Chipotle because of this post. I some friends who work there and they’re nice people and they like customers. Just saying.

An Interview with Superheroes

LUZ

“You’re writing an article about being nerds?” says Luz, tentatively taking a seat in the second office swivel chair. I occupy the first. “I like your hair.”

Under the teaming white lights of my fall harvest decorations, I have been conducting a series of interviews with my fellow student journalists in the photo office of our newsroom.

“So who’s you’re favorite comic book hero?” I ask as she straightens up in her chair, bright-eyed, curly hair bouncing with usual zest.

“Ironman,” she says.

“Any particular reason why?”

“I guess I love how RDJ portrays him in the movie,” she says. “He’s very sarcastic and he’s mean so I guess my evil side relates to him.” She clears her throat with a giggle and clarifies that she doesn’t have that much of an evil side. “It’s very well-tamed.”

I ask why she likes the movies and she giggles again before giving me a business-like answer.

“I like to see how separate heroes interact with each other,” she says. “Because they’re all these very authoritative figures and then they get into conflict with each other and you see different sides to them.”

She pauses a moment before likening the Avengers to our newsroom staff, each of us with our own special powers.

“So then,” I ask, “I would definitely be Captain America of the newsroom, right?”

“I didn’t say that.”

Luz doesn’t give up a lot of ground. She may be small and doe-eyed, but she is fierce.

There was actually quite a bit of debate among the staff as to what animal Luz would be if she were not in fact a human. Although 'Doe' won out with a wide majority, 'Lemur' was close behind. And the multimedia editor thought it was important to note that deer are a little more ditzy than our Luz. "They're like, oh my gosh, there's like totally a car in the road... What should we like do?"
There was actually quite a bit of debate among the staff as to what animal Luz would be if she were not in fact a human. Although ‘Doe’ won out with a wide majority, ‘Lemur’ was close behind. And the multimedia editor thought it was important to note that deer are a little more ditzy than our Luz. “They’re like, oh my gosh, there’s like totally a car in the road… What should we like do?”

“I’d probably be like a mix between Black Widow and the girl with the mind-control,” she says, thoughtfully, admitting that, unfortunately, those are the only two females currently on the Avengers’ super-team. “I get into your brain and that’s how I know where to harass you.”

This is true. Luz knows how to harass.

“But I would love to fly,” she says a little wistfully.

We sit and watch each other for a moment before I ask her the final question of our make-shift interview.

If you could leave a legacy…

“Being able to inspire people,” she says, a thousand years of hopes and dreams burning behind her eyes, some of which I have been privileged enough to witness form on her tongue as she incarnates her plans with spoken word. “I think that’s the best form of leadership.”

MARTY

Marty takes a seat a little reluctantly.

“Is this going to take a lot of time?” he asks. “Because I have a homework project I have to finish up.”

“None at all,” I assure him. “I just need to know who your favorite comic book character is.”

“Oh,” he says, looking visibly relieved. “It’s a tie between Swamp Thing and the Hulk…because they’re both green.”

I know who the Hulk is because I don’t live under a rock, but Swamp Thing is new to me. I clear my throat.

“So, tell me about Swamp Thing,” I say in my best attempt to not sound ignorant.

I didn’t understand half of what followed, but basically, you get chosen to be Swamp Thing. There are like four different colors involved and an ecologist and apparently the comic has really cool artwork (it does – I looked this up afterwards).

“What got you started in comics?” I ask.

“I read comics that family friends would let me read,” Marty says, dipping back into his childhood and giving his bearded chin an absentminded rub. “Not really like cape hero stuff. More like really independant stuff.”

He admits that maybe he was a little too young to read a lot of these comics because they’re “ultra violent.”

“I stopped for a while,” he says folding his hands over his green shirt. “But I got into it again a couple years ago reading Thanos.”

“Oh, I know this!” I say, perhaps a little too excitedly. “He’s from the Thor universe, right? He’s the red guy!”

“No, he’s the purple guy,” says Marty, shaking his head.

“Well, okay then. If you could have a power or an infinity stone, which would you rather?”

He doesn’t even pause.

“An infinity gemstone comes with a lot of power,” he explains to me. “I’d rather have one gem than being born with one power that I didn’t have any control over.”

I thank him for his time, though he seems to have forgotten about homework. But before he leaves he says, “If I did have a superpower I’d want it to be turning into animals or shape-shifting so I could experience things humans can’t.”

Then he leaves.

MARIAH

“Harley Quinn,” says Mariah before she even makes it to the chair. Mariah isn’t feeling well today, but you’d never guess it. This girl is all energy and ‘go.’

“I just like how she’s crazy,” says Mariah. She pulls one leg up under her as she sits like a perky little puppy. “Like, during the day she’s the Joker’s girlfriend. He would never say it, but she is.”

Mariah knows a lot more about comics than I do and spends the next several minutes explaining to me who Quinn is. She was a therapist for the Joker before they both kinda went cray-cray, or that’s how I understood it.

She makes a point of saying that Quinn doesn’t technically have superpowers but that she’s pretty baller anyway. She even beat Batman at one point which made the Joker super jealous.

“How do you think you relate to her?” I ask as Mariah settles her head against a raised knee and smiles. We’re all trying to forgive her for continuing to wear her Raiders beanie to the newsroom.

“The crazy in love part,” she says. Granted, she admits, she wouldn’t kill anyone for love. “I have a conscience.”

She’s starting to look tired. The excitement of our interview project has worn off and her need for some R&R is showing. I wrap up.

What’s your superpower?

“I would have a super boyfriend,” she says with that same sweet, crazy grin. “A super, crazy boyfriend.”

DAN

“Do I have to sit while I’m being interviewed?” asks Dan, rolling around on his shoe-skates.

I don’t bother fighting him on this point because who am I to judge the creative process.

raccoon

“Okay,” he begins as he rolls back and forth in my office like it’s some kind of skating rink, which it isn’t. I have a whiteboard and everything. “In 2014 on Tumblr…”

That’s where I got lost. Oh, I have Tumblr. I just have no idea how it works. But Dan is “pretty active” on it and apparently the Tumblreans were celebrating the 75 anniversary of Dick Grayson (original Robin), who is described by writers as the heart and soul of the DCU (“DC Universe. Keep up with me, Mary.” Dan explains that Grayson was a major personal role model and that for the anniversary, he and other Tumblreans made a book about him.

“It’s a collection of scholarly essays by fans,” he says, “analyzing Grayson’s place in history, his transition to Nightwing, and his effect on other characters.”

He stops rolling.

“Why are you laughing, Mary? You’re the one wearing glasses. You’re more of a nerd than me.”

I regain composure and he continues skating.

“Mine was more on the pathos side of it all,” he says. His skating has slowed to a glide. “It focused on the positive effect of having a character like that. A character that isn’t made just for the white-male dominated culture we live in where power and dominance and sexualized characters are used to bolster the confidence of one specific people group.”

He stops skating now and leans against the door, arms crossed, eyes sincere.

“One of the beautiful things about being a geek or nerd is that you’re able to find a sense of community with a ragtag group of people who might otherwise feel like outcasts,” he says.

Stepping out of his rakish reputation for a moment, Dan says that Grayson was a character who greatly influenced his life and decisions at an age and time when he needed someone to influence his life and decisions.

“He does good for the sake of doing good,” he said. “He’s well assimilated and very emotionally open and honest. And that’s the thing about superheroes. They inspire people to do good and to make people better.”

We pull up pictures of Grayson, both as Robin and then as the superhero he became, Nightwing.

“He fulfilled the role of the sidekick beautifully,” says Dan as we scroll through countless hours of labor and love that has been spilled onto paper through pencils, telling a story, making a hero, changing a life. “But then grew up and realized, maybe that’s not who I am.”

I think I can relate to that.

“When you’re dealing with the bat family, most of the people are orphans,” Dan reminds me (as if I even knew there were more than just Batman and Robin). “Lots of emotional issues. But he doesn’t let that consume him. At the end of the day you only have so many shots to say what’s on your mind or tell someone you care or to do good.”

Dan leans back in the swivel chair, his be-wheeled feet dangling over the edge. I’m reeling with the new information about extra Robins and Batgirls and somebody super cool called “Oracle.” Shots at life and chances to change. Doing good.

He looks at me contentedly.

“I just have a lot of feelings about superheroes,” he says.

An Ode to Hand Sanitizer and Friendship

The glass doors slid open with a familiar swoosh and a gust of wind pulled me into the cool room by the tails of my heartstrings.

Newspapers covered every flat surface and plaques hung so closely together on each inch of the walls that the white paint beneath was almost unnoticeable. Large windows revealed a passageway lined with offices leading around behind our newsroom “bull pit.” A great, three-panelled white board clung ceremoniously to south wall, and directly to the left of it was a small doorway leading into our archives room and connecting to the passageway of offices where they disappeared behind an award-plastered wall.

This was where I began the painful process of growing up all those years ago. This is where I learned how to write, how to rewrite, and how to pretend to write when you’re really watching Bridesmaids in the back office with someone else’s cheese puffs. This is where I first learned what it really meant to be a friend to someone – not because I was, but because they were to me.

“Thank God for air-conditioning,” said someone, sweeping past me into the newsroom.

“Is it just me or does it smell like bleach in here?” asked someone else, plopping a school bag down one of the forty chairs in the huge room. People took seats at the rounded tables or scurried to their offices in the back to grab pens or drop off bags.

“Max has been trying to keep it clean in here,” said Bianca, her ruby lips and voluptuous hair framing her face with a sheik burst of ‘chic.’ “If we get ants in here again he’s not going to be happy, so let’s try to remember the food rule.”

About eight of us had been waiting outside in the hot, August sun for Bianca to come unlock the newsroom so we could hold our pre-semester editor’s meeting. School was starting next week and we had to get our act together.

Hand Sanitizer

During the wait I had had a chance to meet some of the editorial board. One or two of them I had met briefly after I graduated in 2012 and we have been awkward facebook friends for these several years. Most of them were completely new to me. Most of them were kids. Nineteen, twenty, twenty-one.

Twenty-one. There’s a year I hope I never have to repeat.

Jaime, our intrepid editor-in-chief, began the meeting with a toss of his Biebery hair and a small smile.

“Let’s talk Issue One,” he said with an incredibly even-tone voice. I settled into my chair and tried not to say anything. In flashbacks I remembered joining the newspaper my second semester of college. I needed computer credits and this seemed like an easy way to get them.

After exactly one afternoon, I was hooked.

And for those who don’t know, journalism is one of those professions that will suck your life away before you’ve even noticed that you haven’t really been home in about four days. Several of the editors have couches or mattresses in their offices. Most of us have emergency food stores tucked away in our office cabinets, right next to the red pens, battery packs and several full seasons of The Office. If the zombie apocalypse goes down in my lifetime, this is where I plan to stake out my fortress, or whatever.

But I knew coming back wouldn’t be the same. For starters, I trained most of their mentors. While still in Prague, I had been given an introduction I’m sure was exaggerated immensely. There was pressure to prove I wasn’t just a byline from our archives. The last editor-in-chief, a go-for-the-jugular kind of gal, had asked me to be photo editor and, because I’m an idiot, I said, “Sure.”

I do not have the qualifications to be photo editor.

So I just sat and listened as each editor talked about their section and how to get the semester going. I tried to match names and faces. I’m a middle school teacher – I should definitely be able to keep track of names at this point.

About halfway through the meeting, as I did mental flashcards with people’s faces, the double doors swooshed open again and a short, ball-capped, spit-fire of a human being walked in. He swaggered over to a chair next to Jaime and slid in, widening our circle by one, incredibly large measure of sass.

Immediate uproar.

“You’re back!”

“How was it?”

“Dude, so excited you’re here.”

He accepted the rush of affection with a very chill shrug of the shoulders and the complacent grin of someone who belongs.

“Dan is one of our really good cartoonists,” Jaime explained to me. Jaime was doing a good job of keeping me in the loop. It was almost like he could see the smoke billowing out of my ears as I tried to keep up.

Everyone knew everyone. I was the new person. I’m used to this by now, of course. Switching debate categories my junior year of high school, going to college that first year, moving to Prague. Yeah, I’m super used to being the new kid on the block.

“Is there anything anyone wants to add?” Bianca was asking. They were talking newsroom maintenance.

I raised my hand.

“When I was here we used to have hand sanitizer by the computers in this room and at the front desk. Is that not a thing anymore?”

Everyone exchanged blank stares and someone smothered a chuckle. (I’m sorry, people. I have a thing for hand sanitizer. Get over it). But I guess maintaining a clean working environment and preventing the spread of contagious diseases LIKE EBOLA is not a priority anymore. I accepted this and the discussion moved along.

Thankfully, I had a bus to catch and was able to duck out of the meeting early. I’m becoming less and less of an extrovert in my old age.

The first day of school dawned bright and early for me. My first waking thought – immediately after, “Who on earth gets up this early to do anything?” – was a fluttering wish to know how my students in Prague were doing on their first day of school.

A world away, in a corner of time that I will never be able to return to, a dozen little classes and their darling teachers are gathering in a little yellow school.

I brushed the thoughts away. I can only think about my time in Prague in 60-second clips before I get choked up. One day those precious memories won’t stir up difficult emotions, but it was not this day or any day this summer.

After skillfully and courageously surviving the trip to school and the first seventy minutes of class, I dropped by the newsroom just long enough to tidy up the photo office. Tomorrow was our first big day and I wanted my room to be presentable to our future photographers.

The multimedia and campus editors were occupying the hallway with half-cocked grins and tired eyes. I surveyed them from a distance like a cowboy sizing up a buffalo he’d really like to mount on his wall. There were only two of them, after all. I could manage that.

This is it, I thought to myself. This is my chance to make friends.

“Hey,” I said in my most nonchalant, I’m-a-totally-cool-person voice. “I’m headed to the Dollar Tree for hand sanitizer. Anybody want some?”

The pretty campus editor with the perfect eyebrows perked up.

“Yes, definitely,” she said. “Would you mind?”

“No, not at all,” I said with a cheery smile, feeling like one of those popular blond girls from the TV shows who have their lives all put together.

I was feeling like a total champ for about six minutes, right up until I rounded the corner on the end of campus and saw my bus pulling away from the curb.

Missing buses is something I’m used to. It happened all the time in Prague. But there was always another bus, or tram, or metro. I checked the schedule.

“AN HOUR?”

The pidgeons next to me fluttered away to a safer distance and someone shot me a curious glance.

An hour? Really? WHY, AMERICA, WHY?

I couldn’t go back to the newsroom, that was obvious. I couldn’t ruin that perfect impression of having it together – not with so much at stake. Maybe I could walk to the Dollar Tree? How far away was Bonita? Just down the hill, right? And I had planned to walk home from there anyway.

It was hot and I was wearing jeans (again, because I’m an idiot), but I could not be detered. I needed this hand sanitizer. I needed a cheap candy bowl to lure potential friends into my office. I needed to get to the Dollar Tree.

So I set off walking. I walked everywhere in Europe. This should have been no problemo.

About two miles later, having lost nearly a quarter of my body weight to sweat, limping from a blister building on my left heel, I began to rethink the whole process.

The green logo of my destination did eventually come into view and, after purchasing my goods, I started off for home. The total trek was about 5 ½ miles, coming in just over an hour and a half.

About a mile from my house I pulled out my phone and staged a fake conversation, just so I could vent out loud without looking like I was talking to myself to anyone who might be driving by.

“You’re an idiot, Mary,” I told myself through my phone. “You couldn’t have just waited for that stupid bus, could you? Now just look where you are. Walking home. Walking six miles home. I hope you’re happy with yourself.” I wasn’t.

I tried to put the incident behind me and when I dropped the hand sanitizer off in the campus editor’s office the next morning, she gave me a very grateful, “Aww, thank you, girl!”

No girl, thank you.

“We were a little worried about you yesterday,” she said as I turned to leave. “You totally disappeared on us!”

“Oh,” I laughed nervously. “Um, yeah, I just went home.”

Laaaame.

Jaime shared the same sentiments when I dropped off a bottle of hand sanitizer at the reception desk, currently occupied by Dan the cartoonist guy.

Little King Trash Mouth

“Everyone was like, ‘Where the heck did Mary go?’” Jaime continued as if the Case of the Missing Mary was the most interesting thing to happen in the last 24 hours. Surely not.

“I just went to the Dollar Tree in Bonita,” I said. “It’s right on my way home.”

“I thought that was you I saw,” said the cartoonist, spinning around. Without his ballcap a ruffled mohawk striped the back of his head. “I drove past you. I think you were on the phone. Why were you walking, though?”

I groaned.

“I was going to offer you a ride,” he said in an off-handed way, “But I was like, ‘Eh, I barely know her. That might be weird.’”

“You should have!” I moaned pathetically. All pretense of being chill flushed away. “I missed my bus and I had to walk all the way home!”

Jaime and Dan both let loose a chorus of laughter while I sat there and fidgeted, and then Jaime said, “But… Why did you go to the Dollar Tree in Bonita? Don’t you know there’s one right across the street?”

I lost it. I absolutely lost it. Whatever efforts I had been trying to make to seem like some cool, accomplished, put-together piece of whatever, they were all failing miserably.

“I am such an idiot,” I pouted, cradling my head in my hands.

“Yeah, that wasn’t a super smart move,” said Dan with friendly American sarcasm. “The Dollar Tree by the school is literally so close.”

No one let me forget about the hand sanitizer incident. I don’t even know how they all found out so quickly.

Dan, especially, thought it was hilarious. He proved to be a real cheeky rascal. The kind that pulls a Jim Halpert face every time someone cracks a ‘your mom’ joke (and by ‘someone’ I mean ‘me’).

“You are so aggressive, Mary,” he would say to me from whatever office chair he had turned into his throne for that day. One minute he’d be shaking his head disapprovingly, and the next he’d be instigating – with devilish glee – some act of office mischief.

Annoying Dan became one of the joys I depended on to get me through the day.

I spent that first week up to my eyeballs in equipment inventorying, story assignments, press badges and templates. I didn’t have an assistant yet so I was dropping balls right and left. I may know how to take a good picture, but managing a section is a completely different duck pond. And all my ducks were like radio-active baby rhinos that I had to teach to swim.

On top of all this, I have been using a Canon for the last three years and the school’s equipment is entirely Nikon. About twice a day I would walk into someone’s office and ask, “Does anyone know anything about cameras? How do I increase the shutter speed on this?” To which they would shrug and say, “Aren’t you the photo editor?”

Ah, yes. Yes, I am.

Bianca and the multimedia editor did mountains to help me get things sorted and the viewpoints editor helped me start my computer at least three times the first week.

And every time I would feel overwhelmed or flustered (outbreaks which the editorial board has begun calling “Marydowns”), I would think about my tiny office in a tiny school in Prague with hand-drawn pictures and students projects pinned up along the walls, reminding me that bunches of tiny people loved me. Just for a moment. Just until it started to hurt again.

The first week of school melted into the third week and I found myself an assistant. I figured out where the playback button was on our Nikon cameras. I put things up on our office walls. Slowly, the place started to feel like my own.

Accept for the fact that I still felt like everyone thought I was one, big, unjustifiable failure, I was hanging in there.

One evening, as I was blaring David Bowie’s “Under Pressure” (a college staple) from my computer and desperately trying to figure out how to crop things in photoshop, Dan opened the door to my office, dragging a cushy chair behind him.

“I stole this from multimedia,” he said, making himself comfortable. “Why are your lights off, dude?”

Relishing the opportunity to ignore my current technical difficulties, I spun around and faced him.

“I get distracted when I can see everything, so I keep the lights off when I need to work,” I said in as matter-of-fact, I’m-not-crazy-I-swear a tone as I could possibly muster under the circumstances.

“Hmm,” he said, looking around my two-bit working space. “I’ve been stalking you on Instagram a bit,” he said still examining the white boards and the sticky notes everywhere. “Your students looked really cool.”

“Wait, which picture did you see?” I asked, excited to talk about something other than how badly I was fulfilling my duties as photo queen.

“The one with the kid wearing the meme shirt,” he said. “And a couple others. What was it like teaching in Europe?”

And I was off. I told him about the Wall-of-Shame and our English Clubs. I told him about the rascals and the angels and all their crazy antics. I told him how much I loved being a teacher and how much I miss it. And it all came out so naturally, like it was any other part of my life.

We compared notes about pre-teens for a bit and then the multimedia editor came back looking for her chair.

Dan got up to go and I went back to work. It felt so normal I didn’t even realize immediately the significance of that conversation. I was able to talk about Prague, about a part of my life that I have been feeling like I lost, without the ache that comes with it.

It was just another memory. Just another time. Just another piece of me to share with a piece of someone else.

The gift of friendship

I had no idea how badly I needed people this month until they turned up. Part of what has made coming home so hard has been the gaping hole in my heart, carved out by precious children and fearlessly loving teachers who welcomed me with open arms and made me one of their own.

As difficult as it is to be the new person, it is incredibly humbling and incredibly beautiful to once again be the object of friendship from strangers. To be included. To be offered a place in a family of human beings who are loyal and kind to each other for reasons the rational mind cannot fathom. And so, to be reminded of the goodness of God as He is reflected in His extraordinary people.