On Perfectionism

I sent out my graduation announcements last week, & now I'm feeling all sorts of nostalgic.

What a sweet five years it's been! I am so thankful for the English and Religious Studies Departments at Cal Poly for teaching me what it means to be tenacious and purpose driven but gracious, gentle, and kind. What a gift it has been to know and be known by this community of brilliant, open-hearted people.  

Of course, it wasn't always peachy. Peppered among the joyful moments and rich friendships were stress tears, quarter-life crises, and heartbreaks. But most consuming was the perfectionism that seeped into every inch of my life during my last year of college. 

Before I fully grappled with perfectionism myself, I had a hard time taking seriously any person who claimed to be a “perfectionist.” Wasn’t that just a dramatic way to say that someone puts effort into their life? And didn’t it seem a little… pretentious? I felt that nestled in the word “perfectionist” was a self-righteous claim that the person in question produced flawless work or lived a perfect life. But as perfectionism gained a firm grip on my life during my last year of college, I realized just how serious and harmful that mindset can be. 

Let’s turn back the clock two months. 

It’s the middle of March at 3:00am on a Tuesday morning, and finals are quickly approaching. I’m sitting crosslegged on the floor, surrounded by thick literature anthologies and miscellaneous stacks of paper. The town is trudging through a heat wave, so my windows are flung open in the attempt to coax a sea breeze inside. But instead, my studio is filled with stale, hot air. I've stripped down to my skivvies with a fan pointed at my face and my chin propped up in my hands. I’m underfed, underslept, and probably overcaffeinated. I can’t remember the last time I slept for more than five hours or had three balanced meals in a day. All I can think about is the Israeli-Palestinian War and literary surrealism and Hindu metaphysics and Emily Dickinson and the impact of artificial intelligence on monistic and dualistic religion. It’s all melding together, and my strands of thought are tangled so tightly that I can’t even remember which topic is for which class. I’m struggling with nightmares, panic attacks, and food aversion, but I don't know how to stop. 

Up until this point—we’re still frozen in that moment at 3:00am on a Tuesday morning in March—I had never gotten a B at my university. Never. I had received a few A- grades in the past, all of which left me feeling deeply disappointed in myself. It was like those minus signs were little malicious smudges on my transcript, soiling an otherwise-perfect record. But this quarter, having taken on too many units and responsibilities, my grades were suddenly teetering not on the familiar edge between an A and A- but between an A- and a B+. Numerically, this is a very small difference. But in my mind, this was of towering significance; if A- meant mediocrity, certainly B+ meant failure. 

Strangely, this dichotomy I had cleaved onto (that A = perfect, A- = mediocre, B+ = failure) was not something I projected upon anyone else. I rejoiced with my friends when they received a B on a term paper or a C in a challenging class. I was able to celebrate their achievements and see their lives more clearly than my own. 

I wish I could tell you that after that 3am morning in the middle of March, I was able to push through the quarter with straight As. Instead, my very last quarter of college was pockmarked by an A- and three B+s. Yes, three of them. The girl who had never gotten a B received three all at once. I wish I could tell you that despite those three B+s, I still graduated with highest honors. Instead, I missed graduating summa cum laude (the highest of the three honors levels) by 0.006 grade points. Yes, 0.006. And no, they don't round up. 

I'm still coming to terms with the fact that I can't do it all, and I certainly can't do it all flawlessly. By putting so much pressure on myself, I had made "perfect" the enemy of "good." I felt like if I couldn't do something perfectly, it wasn't worth it to just do it well, so maybe it wasn't worth it to do it at all. 

After finishing college, I started working in a startup incubator—a fast-paced environment where perfect isn't an option. When we work on a product or design, we shoot for 80% satisfaction. For one thing, it's impossible to make 100% of customers, investors, and mentors happy. For another, we're a small team, so we don't have the luxury of lingering over tasks for long periods of time. Startup culture has quickly taught me that aiming for perfection is unreasonable, and that it's much more productive to set small, measurableattainable goals.

I recently stumbled across a passage in John Steinbeck's East of Eden that has guided my mindset over the past two months. Steinbeck writes about accepting imperfections and mistakes as part of the human condition, and allowing yourself to be good rather than perfect. His words are already plastered across my graduation cap in preparation for the official ceremony in June, and I know those same words will help guide my efforts in graduate school next year.

"And now that you don't have to be perfect, you can be good." - John Steinbeck, East of Eden

 

joyfully + imperfectly, 

 
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Life with a Rare Brain Condition | Visual Snow

Hi friends, due to the massive influx of emails and messages I've received about this post, I will no longer be responding to messages. Thank you for understanding! Please check the FAQ at the end of this post for my answers to questions I receive the most.   

On November 22, 2015 I was fine. On November 23, 2015 my world looked unrecognizable. 

Living with a chronic condition sucks. I may be an English major who knows lots of prettier and more sophisticated words to use,  but there is no other word I would put there. It just really sucks. And although keeping it bottled up inside is also quite sucky, I've had a lot of hesitations about writing about my experience.

I worried that writing about my chronic condition would make me feel worse—that writing this post would only make me more aware of my challenges. I worried that I would sound like I was complaining or asking for sympathy. I worried that people would scoff and testily remind me how other people have it so much worse. I worried that my words wouldn't help anyone. But as I neared the one-year anniversary of living with a chronic brain condition called Visual Snow, I knew I had to put pen to paper. It was time to find some sort of creative release. 

You've probably never heard of Visual Snow. My doctors hadn’t either. As an extremely rare, under-researched condition, Visual Snow is only "treated" by one doctor in North America. And just why did I put the word treated in quotes? Visual Snow is untreatable. 

Visual Snow is a condition in the brain that causes me to see television static ( “snow”) in my entire field of vision in both eyes and in all light conditions—even with my eyes closed. It’s hallucinogenic, meaning that this thick layer of little tiny dots moving and swirling and pulsating are not actually present in my physical environment. My Visual Snow causes double vision in the very center of my field of vision, light sensitivity, and palinopsia. It makes me feel like moving objects are flying at me much faster than they are, and that nonmoving objects are moving. It's a struggle to read a sentence without accidentally skipping up or down several lines, and I have trouble transitioning between focusing my eyes on something near and then far (or vice versa). I see stars à la old-school cartoons. Visual Snow has also caused my tinnitus, dizziness, heavy pressure in my head and face, lack of concentration, the feeling of my whole body buzzing, bright red eyes at the end of the day, and general cognitive fogginess. (Here I am sounding like an elderly lady at the ripe, old age of twenty-two. Pass the prune juice.).

Looking at me, you probably would never guess that I have a brain condition. Since VS is traced back to the occipital lobe, knowing that Visual Snow is "all in my head" doesn’t make it any less real—it actually makes it worse, as it means my condition is completely inescapable. The problem is inside my brain.

It's hard to put into words what Visual Snow looks and feels like, but below is a simulator to help you with visualizing it.  As I didn't make this animation, it doesn't perfectly align with my experience. If I could edit it, I would make the dots more transparent (which means I can still definitely read and drive and do all that, but it's like there's this staticky layer in my vision that I desperately want to peel away).

To someone who isn't afflicted with Visual Snow, this all sounds hard to comprehend. I get it. In the early days of my VS, I remember the pure frustration of trying to explain to the urgent care doctor what was going on. He was baffled, took X-rays of my neck (all clear), and told me to seek medical help elsewhere. A few weeks went by, and my weird symptoms hadn't cleared up, so I went to the emergency room and got a CT scan of my brain. The scan came back clear, and the ER doctor told me it was probably a migraine aura that just so happened to be lasting for a month. He gave me a muscle relaxant and shooed me out the door. I then went to my primary care doctor. He had no clue what I was going on about, but he ordered a cervical spine MRI for me, as I had experienced a low-key whiplash event (slamming on the brakes in the car—not even a true car accident) right around the onset of my Visual Snow.  The cervical spine MRI came back clear, so I was then referred to an ophthalmologist and a neurologist. After several tests, the ophthalmologist said that my eyes were structurally fine, and that there was nothing he could do to help me. The neurologist also did several tests and ordered a brain MRI for me. The tests and the brain MRI came back clear, so she told me to wait it out and come back in six months (!) if I were still having problems. It felt like one very frustrating game of hot potato. I, the patient, was the potato that none of them wanted to deal with for more than a few minutes. I so badly wanted a doctor to fully commit to helping me find relief. Instead, I was passed on from one doctor to the next, none of them wanting to take on my case and advocate for me. 

At that point, I had exhausted my local options, and I felt so alone in dealing with my mysterious condition. 

I had always pictured doctors as these all-knowing superhumans who, with their incredible intuition, could quickly figure out what was wrong with a person, treat them, bandage them up, and send them home with a lollipop in a matter of a few hours. Through my several-month escapade trying to find treatment for my Visual Snow, I realized that doctors and researchers are just humans. And that in the case of this exceptionally rare, under-researched condition, their guess was as good as mine. It was a very, very scary realization. 

There are Facebook pages and support groups and websites and forums populated by people suffering from Visual Snow and trying to find relief. And although I looked at those resources for a short while, I quickly realized that reading about other people's struggles with VS made me feel worse—reading other people's posts made me feel helpless, anxious, hopeless, and ultra-aware of the jumbled, whirling visual mess in front of me. I needed a plan to help me cope.

...so I did nothing. 

Well, I very strategically did nothing about my Visual Snow. I decided that if dwelling on my condition made it worse, then I needed to do the opposite. I needed to teach myself to forget about my condition. So I clicked out of the forums and Facebook groups. I stopped reading the jargony medical literature that I could barely comprehend anyways. I told my family to not even utter the words "Visual Snow" in front of me unless it was absolutely necessary. And I almost never brought it up with my friends. I was carefully guarding myself from spending any extra mental energy on my condition. I then turned to a twofold plan of my own invention: 

1- get my anxiety attacks under control, and 2- be very, very busy to distract my mind.

The latter was undoubtedly the easier of the two. Anxiety is something I haven't written about much here, as I try to keep my public writing centered on more joyful topics. But anxiety has had a presence in my life for a very long time, and its sharp edges make VS all the more mentally painful. Once I started reeling in my anxiety—which is probably worth a post of its own—I turned to part two of my coping strategy. I needed to be very, very busy in order to distract my mind. I thought about the things I was passionate and curious about (Religious Studies, filmmaking, literature, nature, entrepreneurship) and began pouring out my heart and soul into meaningful organizations, activities, and relationships. And after a few months, a strange and wonderful thing began to happen. I started to forget (at least on a surface level) that I had a brain condition. I just sort of stopped noticing that I was seeing the world through a very muddled lens. 

Of course, it hasn't been a perfect plan. I mean, it basically centers on denial. And there are certainly days or weeks where I have flare-ups, and my symptoms feel worse than usual, and my brain can't stop obsessing over it (...like this week, for instance). But I try to forget. I try to stay busy. And I try to stay calm. I am, of course, praying for new development in the medical world. I'm praying that the research currently underway in Europe is fruitful. But until then, it's reduce anxiety and do really neat things so that my brain has other thoughts to occupy itself with. So, friend, if there's something you're going through that's leaving you bruised and battered, I encourage you to sit with it and figure out a plan of action. Unlike mine, it probably won't include techniques for forgetting. It just might be one of those bear hunts (à la Helen Oxenbury's picture book), where you can't go over it, you can't go under it, and you've got to go through it.  

 

Abounding in hope,

 
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FAQ 

As a reminder, I no longer respond to emails and messages I receive about VS because there are just too many! My heart goes out to all of you, because I know that VS is scary in the early days. Since my story has been a comfort for a lot of people, here is a recap of the questions I'm asked the most, as well as my answers.

1. How do you deal with your Visual Snow? 

I try my absolute hardest to not let it control my days or my mental state. I make a very concentrated effort to stay very busy and fill my life with things that bring me joy.

2. Isn't that easier said than done? 

Yes, in some ways. I've had Visual Snow for over three years now, and staying busy has been the most helpful thing for me--I can actually forget about my VS on most days now! It takes a lot of mental toughness and tenacity to stay busy and focused on my goals and daily joys, but I promise it becomes easier with practice, like all things do. My advice is to keep pushing yourself to continue the activities you enjoy (in whatever capacity you’re able to do them), explore new hobbies, and spend time with people you love. Don't let your vision take those things from you--you do have some power over your VS, even if it doesn't feel like it. 

3. What about visual snow-related anxiety? 

I like to journal to stay calm and work through my anxieties. Talking with a therapist also helps. I've found that anxiety makes my VS seem worse, so being extra gentle with myself and tackling my anxiety helped my VS as well. Like any chronic condition, dwelling on your symptoms is only going to make you hyperaware of your condition and trap you in a toxic cycle of anxiety.

 

Finding Peace in a Busy Season

IT'S FINALS SEASON.

Laced with energy drinks, late-night swipes into the library and printers running dry of ink, finals season is the microcosm of “real world” deadlines crammed into a two-week period.

It’s like the volume dial of the stress radio was crank, crank, cranked to full blast, then broken off and stuck in position. So here we are as college students, with broken pencils, messy hair and under-eye circles, fueling caffeine addictions and nursing (or numbing) our tired minds.

Although I’m not a late night studier (I’d rather get up at 5am—perhaps a rare trait in my age group), I fit every other finals week stereotype—sleepy, swollen eyes, clothes that I fell asleep in, and a textbook never leaving the crook of my arm.

I am a school person. A perfectionist. An “oh my gosh, I got an A-” kind of gal (although I would never admit it in a classroom setting—people who verbalize that really test my patience). Being so “schooly” has its pros (good grades) and cons (a bundle of nasty stress breakdowns/freak outs/meltdowns leading up to finals week). I make flashcards and rewrite notes, annotate books and fill the pages with sticky note flags on important bits of information.

And side note: that's okay. That's who I am. I think a lot of college students think it's cool to laugh about failing classes, brag about not studying, or joke about not even having the textbooks. And I say: It's seriously cool to be smart. It's not something to be embarrassed about.

smart

But... Even though I usually have a good turn out once finals week is over, I’m often left a little wounded physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. I’m so hard on myself that my emotions are usually frayed, and my self-reflecting thoughts aren’t exactly the kindest. My brain turns to mush (or is hollow with a dull humming noise vibrating off of the empty caverns). I’m sleep-deprived, exercise-deprived, and nutrition-deprived (real nutrition—my finals week diet of protein bars and water doesn’t count). And worst of all, when I get to this broken (but academically excellent) point, I’ve neglected my relationship with Christ.

It’s so easy for me to sink into the depths of my schoolwork, disappearing completely into projects, presentations, papers, and study guides. I get so stressed out and mad at myself for not remembering that phosphorous makes red blood cells with folate and that the Rastafarian religion stemmed from the Queen of Sheba visiting King Solomon (I always think it's David because he is associated with Bathsheba...close enough). I forget to brush my teeth (eww kidding...kinda) or my hair. I barely remember to take deep breaths, let alone pray.

But I’ve been realizing something this time around, when my stress is greater than ever before and when the two weeks to finals also means two weeks left in the state of Texas: God is great and I am not. Riding the rush of a good grade is sweet for a few moments, until the to-do list piles back up, there’s another test on the desk in front of you, and you’re trying to handle everything on your own. I’m realizing during this finals season how much I need God. I need someone to talk to, someone to love me when I can’t remember the stomach enzyme that breaks down lipids, and someone to calm me down when my computer crashes.

The gap between our frail discipline capabilities and God’s available strength for us is bridged with nothing but a simple choice on our part.
— Lysa TerKeurst, Made to Crave

His omnipresence is a great comforter—literally a giant, soft, squishy blanket wrapped around my shoulders. With Him I’m finding the peace and joy in this finals season, and in these last two weeks at this school. I feel blessed to be able to study exactly what I love, to have a cozy apartment (with a fireplace DVD playing on loop), and to have a family that knows I’m doing my best no matter what the outcome. He keeps me from falling. He holds my hand. And sometimes, when it’s the end of the school day but there’s still more to do, he just carries me. I’m thankful for a God like this. He is my source of strength and perseverance, my cheerleader (that’s a visual), and my Heavenly Father. And of course, knowing that in two little weeks I’ll be hopping in my hybrid and cruising back to California is a giant motivator.

Joyfully in Christ,

 
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From Fashion to Philosophy: Goodbye Texas

“The only thing more unthinkable than leaving was staying; the only thing more impossible than staying was leaving. I didn't want to destroy anything or anybody. I just wanted to slip quietly out the back door, without causing any fuss or consequences, and then not stop running until I reached Greenland.” | Elizabeth Gilbert

God is doing some pretty radical stuff in my life--challenging, humbling, life-changing, heart-opening, anxiety-inducing stuff.

Every day I am finessed and shaped and molded by God's hand. I have been growing, blooming, and evolving. I'll think my life is headed one direction, and God smiles, throws his head back, and laughs warmly: "My child," he says, "you're going the wrong way!" And he helps me readjust. He holds my hand a lot. We take baby steps. We talk constantly about the concept of direction... especially lately.

My best friend texted me this quote last week, which I knew was God's doing: "I think God passes by me a lot, and it serves to show me the direction he's going. We don't always know where he's headed or what to expect along the way. But I think direction is the point, the part, and whole of it...Plus, I think God knows that if I found out more than just the direction He was going, I'd probably try to beat Him there." | Bob Goff, Love Does

My life path has been a fragmented yet loopy journey from point A to point B—I’ve never done well with simple or linear.

 

When I came into college as a freshman, I was a little 18-year-old with too-dark hair and too much makeup, wanting nothing more than to study fashion merchandising and have a "real" college experience. I wanted to work for a magazine—TeenVogue was the goal—and live in New York City or LA. I went to mixers and parties and formals, held a can of beer in my hand just to blend in, and spent more time on my phone than in my physical surroundings. With my heart stapled to my sleeve, I was completely consumed with the thought of southern boys. I thought they would be so wonderfulso gentlemanlyopening doors and calling me miss or ma'am with a crooning, twangy accent. They would all sound exactly like the nonexistent lovechild of Scotty McCreery and Josh Turner.

Fast forward 365 days, and I’m in the first semester of my sophomore year. My halfhearted study of fashion, coupled with a wonderful Religious Studies professor and newfound love for my freshman bible class (general ed religion requirement—private Christian school, mind you) leads me to change my path completely. No longer was I studying lighting, consumers, textiles, or illustration—suddenly it was second semester, and I was immersed in Jewish, Buddhist, and Hindu traditions.

I traded my sketching pencils for the Torah, fabric swatches for karma, dharma, and bodhisattvas. The designer names on my flashcards became deities, transliterated words, and meticulous sketches of the afterlife (this week's notes are peppered with drawings of the Mormon afterlife, beginning with the premortal world, stretching to the celestial kingdom). No longer was I examining fabric under a microscope or identifying it by its warp or waft (which is truly such a pain). Instead, I was examining relationships, ethics, and doctrines through the lens of a scholar of religion.

Suddenly I found myself on the floor of my little apartment, surrounded by cracked open textbooks and thick stacks of notes, exploring the complexities of the question: "what is religion?" and loving every soul-searching moment. It's a native category, meaning it's so elemental to life and society that people feel like they know what it means without having to define it. But at the same time, it's like explaining colors to the lifelong blind, or describing how water tastes. 

Fast forward one more year.

I’ll be a junior, but no longer in Texas.

My fragmented yet looping path has led me back to the place where my heart overflows—California. It’s been a long process, a quiet process, and a painful process. I believe, with every cell in my body and hair on my head, that God brought me to Texas for spiritual, emotional, and academic boot camp. It was here, and only here, that he could turn this little freshman girl, purposefully spilling warm beer into potted plants at parties to make the cup gradually empty, into a girl with a heart for philosophy and religion, dedicated to meditation and prayer. He knew that Texas could be the only setting for this radical, internal, gritty, and graceful change. It was here when I finally learned to listen to Him and to my own soul.

I had become so apathetic and victim-like. I saw my circumstances as permanent, not temporary. Texas was the place of my first B- (in a class called “fashion illustration,” of all things), my first severe tornado warning (yesterday, actually), my first time being set up on a date (blind dates work better in movies and books), and my first time getting 100% on a science midterm (only after a weekend of crying in the bathtub with my flashcards and eating my feelings in chocolate chips).

I loved studying religion, so I knew my sharp academic shift was part of His plan.

Academics aside, everyone talked of my school like it was this magical and beautiful utopia. And although the campus is gorgeous, I didn’t think these people had ever seen palm trees, tasted an acai bowl, or fell asleep on the sand with a book on their face. I didn’t think these people had ever wandered through a vineyard, climbed a mountain so lush and emerald that even Ireland is green with envy. I didn’t think these people have done yoga on a paddleboard, picked citrus from their backyards, or had a pool party birthday for every single year of their life (and every year, the wet footprints on the pavement, cannonball splashes and homemade birthday cake were even better than the last). I didn’t think these people had surfboards and boogie boards and skim boards in their garages, or had a guitar for home and a guitar for the beach, its wood coated with sand and mottled from saltwater. I didn't think these people knew California like I did. And that was okay. Maybe all of that wasn't magic to them. Who was I to assume that my paradise was theirs as well?

Maybe what was magical to them were the honey-leather cowboy boots, the buzz of the crowd on game day, all yelling and screaming at the ref in unison. Maybe these people were captivated by tall, sweating glasses of sweet tea and line dancing past midnight, hunting on the weekends, and tailgating in the back of a truck. Maybe to them, the Texas sky was a symphony, the clouds wringing themselves out at the end of the day—pink and lavender watercolors dripping down from the atmosphere. Maybe the humid nights and bright stars, the country music, and lake days made their hearts overflow with love and pride.

And that was okay too.

One of the sweetest blessings here in Texas was my book club—a small, deep-thinking collection of happy spirits, each with a dog-eared copy of Eat, Pray, Love. Unbeknownst to these girls, our tiny, monthly book club helped me come to terms with the adventures waiting at my own fingertips. This handful of creative, Elizabeth-Gilbert-loving souls, along with Elizabeth herself (via her book) gave me the courage I needed to pursue true joy.

“Happiness is the consequence of personal effort. You fight for it, strive for it, insist upon it, and sometimes even travel around the world looking for it. You have to participate relentlessly in the manifestations of your own blessings. And once you have achieved a state of happiness, you must never become lax about maintaining it. You must make a mighty effort to keep swimming upward into that happiness forever, to stay afloat on top of it.” | Elizabeth Gilbert; Eat, Pray, Love

 

And so I’m traveling for it and swimming to it. I’m headed back to my Californian roots where my soul can run free through nature and the sunshine can warm the tips of my toes. I’m headed back to a gentle yoga practice, uncharted beaches (for I won’t be in my well-loved yet thoroughly explored San Diego this time around), and a continuation of my religious studies, with the addition of philosophy. I’m headed back to a barefoot heart, farmers’ markets, and a strand of sea-glass-encrusted possibilities.

As Rumi said,

“Respond to every call that excites your spirit.”

 

And so I’m responding. I’m taking my fragmented, looping, beautiful path to California. Find out what excites your spirit. Seek peace and happiness and chase it--literally run to it and for it and alongside of it. If you don't like where you are or where you're going, pick up your roots and the hems of your pant legs and go somewhere else. Pursue all of the world's light and love. You are your own limitations.

(Extra) Joyfully in Christ-

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Wandering Feet, Anxious Heart

It wasn't the first time I found myself being yelled at in Sudanese Arabic.

Actually, it definitely was.

I wasn’t sure if the taxi driver was yelling at me to get out of the taxi—perhaps he wasn’t available—or to get in and close the door. So there I was, perched in an uncomfortable squat, half-sitting in his taxi, half-standing on the pavement. Eventually he managed the word “door” in English, and motioned to the phone clenched to his ear. Enlightened but thoroughly annoyed, I closed the door and sat back in the grimy taxi van seat, embarking on my overpriced journey from the airport to my college campus.

Once he got off the phone, he told me that he was from Sudan. It had been his wife calling from overseas, so he couldn’t hang up when I climbed into his taxi. He was here in Texas and driving this van to support his family back in Africa. At one point he fluidly shifted from English to Sudanese Arabic, forgetting that I was just a little English (-speaking) girl—pun intended. In fragmented sentences and broken English, he talked about war, uprisings, and water. When I got to my apartment that night, and took a drawn-out shower and left the sink running too long, I thought of Mr. Taxi Driver’s wife, and a Sudanese water purification struggle.

Sometimes my world gets a little too small.

As it shrinks, my own problems metastasize. My rapidly narrowing perspective makes running out of coffee into a disaster, or an imperfect outfit or homework assignment into a tragedy. Sometimes it takes a little bit of exaggeration to make a point. Obviously these things are not disasters, tragedies, or heartbreaks, but I will sheepishly admit that I let extremely mild annoyances turn into mildly extreme problems. 

It's like the love-hate relationship I have with my major.

I love my major because I’m a thinker. My brain loves to finesse complex ideas and break down multifaceted concepts. I’m passionate about happiness—the science of it, the thoughts behind it, and the way to get to it. Through my major, I learn about the Buddhist “Six Perfections” that a bodhisattva must practice to become enlightened. I love relationships and examining all that comes with them. I can explore the tensions between the four branches of Judaism, or the many Christian denominations. It’s fascinating to me—I devour the words in my religion textbook like they were tiny, chocolate-laced pastries doused in powdered sugar or sprinkled with sea salt. But other times... I hate my major; studying other people and cultures is a harsh reminder of how small my own world and problems are. I’m glad for this wake up call, but it doesn’t always feel good.

I’m passionate about so many things—healthy oceans and beaches (Surfrider Foundation), nutrition, rainforest preservation, and animal treatment—so how is it that my fading tan and minor stress breakout were all I really thought about today? The older I get, the more aware I am of my little world. I want to preserve it, nurturing and protecting my “innocent” mind, and staying safe within the boundaries of a white picket fence and trimmed rose hedges. At the same time, my empathetic nature makes me hurt for impoverished people I will never meet, abused pups I will never play with, and oil-drenched oceans I will never visit. 

And so here I am, back in the uncomfortable position. I am half-sitting in a taxi that promises to show me a beautiful, corrupt world, and half-standing on the pavement, where life is safe and feet are rooted to the ground.

My anxious, wandering spirit craves both comfort and chaos. My feet and heart and mind want to roam; my body doesn't want to get out of bed. And here you are, feeling the same way. Or maybe you're rolling your eyes, yelling at me through the screen to buy a plane ticket to Sudan--I received an email a few months ago asking me if I had ever stopped to think about the children in Africa, because certainly that is the only meaningful issue in the world. I beg to differ. Although I feel stuck, unsure if I want to venture into the world or stay with my feet on the ground, I know that meaning can be found in daily life. Though some of my worries today were laughable (how did my leggings get so see-through?!), I think you and I can really make some positive change happen here. Here. Where we are. Now. Gandhi said: "In a gentle way, you can shake the world." He was right. Ask someone how they're doing--how they arereally, genuinely doing. Challenge yourself to not engage in gossip. Send someone a letter if their corner of the world is feeling a little broken and gloomy. Hop off the social media and do something productive. Go to the beach and pick up every styrofoam fragment and bottle you can find (recycle when applicable, of course). Buy someone sunflowers. Talk to the cashier (working in retail taught me that small talk is, indeed, meaningful). Find something you're passionate about and pursue it. Do something today that is productive and positive--something that helps someone other than yourself. Besides, those who bring sunshine into the lives of others cannot keep it from themselves.

It all began by being yelled at in Sudanese Arabic.

Joyfully in Christ,

» Instead of Waiting for Someone to Bring You Flowers: Romance, God, & A Very Messy Heart

“And so you plant your own garden and decorate your own soul, instead of waiting for someone to bring you flowers.” | V. Shoffstall, After a While

I’ve always loved February 14th. I like pink and chocolate (& pink chocolate), flowers and stacks of love-laden cards.

I loved Valentine’s Day in elementary school. It was so exciting and so sweetly innocent. We would all cover little shoeboxes with wrapping paper and carry them proudly in the crook of our elbows, other arm lugging candy-stuffed valentines (one for everyone in the class—that was the rule) in a giant plastic baggie. The teacher would give us an entire afternoon to parade around the classroom, dropping candy into each other’s boxes, simultaneously nibbling heart-shaped cookies and giggling over “who likes who.”

The best was the first grade. My mom sewed me a beautiful dress with a swishy hemline to wear to school on Valentine’s Day. There were puffy sleeves, white pearl buttons and little white hearts peppered on the red cotton. There was a special assembly that day, where the police came to talk about “fighting bad guys,” and I was privileged enough to be picked to sit in the police car (as an envious crowd looked on). It really was the best day ever.

In later years, when my perfect little dress was passed onto a neighbor or folded neatly in a box, I still wore pink or red to school on February 14th, bringing with me a bulging bag of valentines and a huge smile.

I am a romantic when it comes to life, and unabashedly so. I have a soft and sensitive heart and a curious mind. I love making small moments special, and delighting in the little things—sunshine on the pavement, fresh-cut tulips, a sandwich wrapped in wax paper and tied with baker’s twine. If I could paint the interiors of my mind, it would be saturated with a happy and sunny yellow, with touches of seafoam green and big, joyful splashes of pink.

I love loving others and making small efforts to bring them joy. I love loving the little things in life. I love loving God because He is so gentle with me, and the Holy Spirit because it/He (let’s get theological, friends!) is what fills me with peace and joy and a zest for life when I make the conscious effort to both pray and praise. I love my parents and friends, professors and major. I love my beachy home and Texas sweet tea.

There are little pieces of my heart all over the world; I love a lot of people and places and things...but I don’t love romantic love.

I’ve always been comfortable being independent. I’ve dated, but never seriously, and singleness has always brought a genuine sense of relief. Once I settled into college life and had close friends and sorority sisters who were, gulp, engaged, my glorification of independence started to chip and crumble. Did I need someone else? I was, for the first time in a long time, questioning whether or not I was behind in the rat race of romance. My soft heart, once rooted in self-reliance, and saturated with patience, confidence, and trust in God’s plan, began to feel a little bit bruised and a lot a bit sad.

Once in college, wearing pink on Valentine’s Day didn’t bring me the same joy. While neighbors in the dorms received elaborate rose bouquets from loving boyfriends near and far, I had a brown paper box from my mom filled with treats and bits of home, and my family’s comforting words to cling to. I remember wondering how in the world everyone got so...grown up. Did I miss some crucial step in the aging process that would fashion me into an adult, stripping me of my pink-wearing, valentine-making, mom-loving nature?

The feeling lingered, drifting into the following year and colonizing the present moment. I already made valentines, and I still plan on wearing pink, but I have been dreading Friday’s festivities—or lack of festivities—for the past two weeks. My heart has been a little glum and (always) anxious. While I have always taken comfort in giving my other anxieties to God, turning to Him about romantic love felt unimportant and just embarrassing. Where would I begin?

Thank God for God. He saw me wrestling with my thoughts. “My daughter,” he said fondly, holding my hand. “I will love you more than any man—any boy­—ever can. Run to my arms. If you let me, I can be all you need.” We talked for a while. It wasn’t pretty at first—there were frustrated prayers and anxious tears. When I no longer had words for the overflowing, overwhelming feelings that were bubbling up, I took pen to paper.

The ink became thread, stitching together letters to explain the feelings I couldn’t verbalize. The words became a sea, swirling around my knees. The pen became my avenue to God. The page became His invitation to the wild soiree in my heart.

 

And then He hugged me. My entire body felt like it had been soaked in a warm lavender bath, or enveloped by a blanket from the dryer, warmth still lingering.  I no longer had to—have to—limp along alone. Since Sunday school, I’ve known he is “with” me, as He is omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient. What I didn’t grasp was that he is actually with me, a coalescence of the compassionate King and his humble servant. He is with me because his spirit fills me. It’s this radical, boundless love that reminds me I don’t need to be independent or romantically linked. I don’t have to be anything but His daughter. I am the daughter of a King who is not moved by the world. For my God is with me and goes before me. I do not fear because I am His.

 

“Dance with God and He'll let the perfect man cut in.”

Happy Valentine's Day (week?), friend.

...And now I feel like wearing pink.

 

Laced with History & Salted Air: An Escape

“May I a small house and a large garden have, and a few friends, and many books, both true, both wise, and both delightful too.” –Abraham Cowley (1618-1667)

Had I been a belle of the 1600s, Abraham and I would have been dear friends. We would talk in our British accents and write poetry together as we wring out our tea bags over ancient china cups. Four hundred years later, I dream the same thing. 

It’s a little beach cottage—pre-dawn grey shingles and off-white interior walls. I have a mint green Dutch door in the kitchen; the bottom half of the door can stay shut while the top half is flung open to let in the day. There is a fingernail of a porch in the front, a larger one in the back. The back porch shifts from wooden planks to a small stone path, from the small stone path to a wide sweep of gold sand and a wider stretch of navy water.

On the side of the house, there is a giant garden housed by a short, white picket fence. “The Earth laughs in flowers,” as the soil boasts of tulips and daffodils, irises and sunflowers.I harvest leafy heads of lettuce, deep-green kale and blood-red strawberries without the constraints of the seasons.There are cantaloupes and honeydews, peaches and little tangerines on small-trunked trees. In the summer there are sweet snap peas with crunchy, lime shells (resisting their usual winter routine), and big red tomatoes, thick and fleshy.

I slip my bare toes into sandals, and with a metal watering can in one arm and a whitewashed basket in the crook of the other, I disappear into the dew-studded, earthy embrace of my own big garden alongside my own little cottage.

I have lots of golden retrievers—all ages. There’s Edison and Sebastian, Franklin and Baylee and Ginger. I chase them around all day—through the garden, into the waves. We roll in the sand when the sun shines; when the stars emerge, we lay on the shore, burying our toes and fingers in the cool sand.

There’s a charming little town laced with history and salted air—a white post office, a craft store, an ice cream parlor with long, silver spoons. There’s a newspaper shop selling piping hot cinnamon donuts and a fire station that rings a lunch bell at noon every day (à la Gull Island). The church sits on a soft, grassy hill, fulfilling the metaphor by chance more than intentionality. On Thursdays there is a farmer’s market, tables overflowing with bushels of purple huckleberries and firm green ears of corn with buttery, yellow silk escaping from their tips.

Sometimes when I’m sad, I think of my little placeof my small house and large garden.

When it rains in Texas, I dream of the sunshine on my back as I sit on a kitchen stool, head bent over a watercolor painting. When tragedy breaks my heart and shakes my world—as the death of a friend did this week—I escape to my future life, familiar but uncharted. I know every street, every roundabout, every stitch on an apron that is yet to exist. I’m familiar with a routine I do not know. I savor the friendships I am yet to experience. I touch the hardback cover of a book that I am yet to publish. I love the man I am yet to meet, braid the hair of a child I’m yet to have, and breathe with a peace I am yet to know.

We all have our own little place wedged in a corner of our heart and forgotten in the cupboards of our mind. Sometimes we don’t even know we have a place that is all ours until life is all tears and sharp words, change and heartache, and we are already packing our mental bags and kicking off our theoretical shoes. We slip into a nap, drifting along with sleepy breaths and heavy eyelids to our special neighborhood or forest or village or lake front hidden in our heart.

When the to-do list has been recycled, my water bottle refilled and in the fridge,

When my clothes for tomorrow are set out, and the bath has been drained,

When my teeth have been brushed, and my wet hair has been combed,

When the comforter is turned down, and the blankets outstretched,

When my naked toes touch the sheets, and my head hits the pillow,

My mind tiptoes away from Texas and college and the sorrow of the week, and floats to my place—to my cottage on the seashore.

My place is where moonlight streams through the windowpane, and the glow of the stars tickle the glass. My place is where I wade knee-deep in the sea, running my fingertips along the surface of the water, happy to be a small fragment of His creation. My place is where my phone is a landline, the postman delivers on foot, the smiles are easy and genuine, the laughter is melodic and frequent, and my garden overflows.

 

Joyfully in Christ,

Today, Not Tomorrow

My sweet and beyond wonderful first grade teacher shared on Facebook an incredible quote that really stuck with me:

"Everyone can change tomorrow. Everyone solves problems tomorrow. But the only changes that matters are the ones I make today. Tomorrow is the easiest day I'll ever live. Today is the scary one, which is probably why I've spent so much time avoiding it."

This school year I am swimming—drowning—in schoolwork. Contrary to what I wish would happen, this increase in vigor didn’t fuel my drive, but depleted it. This week I have caught myself skimming my readings, as my assignments have become more perfunctory than enlightening, and I actually consider not going to class at all in order to avoid the stress completely. This is absolutely and incredibly unlike me.

Not only have I been blessed and cursed with the conscience of a nun and a burning desire to please my parents (and be showered with their attention...dreaming big, I know), but also I have consistently had an intrinsic desire to succeed academically in the past. This month I’ve been praying for purpose and motivation, and here it was on my screen. It is easy to assume that tomorrow I will begin working harder. Frequently this month I have pushed tasks from one day to the next, and suddenly those once-important items drop off of the to-do list all together, floating off into the void of unfinishedness.

No matter how many color-coded schedules I make, my work won’t get done until I do it. It’s convenient to think “studying” is synonymous to playing on the computer with a textbook opened in my lap—as if each time I glance down is the equivalent to dissecting and finessing the material itself!

Here’s the vow: I will not start on Monday, this weekend, or even tomorrow. My to-do list begins now.

Words, Words, Words

The hardest part is beginning.

In terms of writing, it is not the wording, syntax, or punctuation that challenges me the most, but the actual act of sifting through my tangled thoughts and sorting them out on paper. These days it’s nearly impossible to find a quiet moment to write, as working retail for 40 hours a week and working on my (terribly dry) summer school class for another 40 leaves me with a little window of time—a handful of hours in which to complete everything on my perpetual to-do list, and the rest of the time to satisfy those pesky “have-to-do’s” like eating and sleeping.Even on the off chance that my surroundings are quiet, my mindis far from peaceful. The interiors of my mind clamor with anxiety, reliving the “what if’s,” the mistakes, the embarrassments, and the “I should have said’s.”

My mind swirls with words, words, words.  I am nervous about everything.

Somehow every little thought leads me to a terribly drastic “worst case scenario.” If Mom doesn’t pick up the phone, she either 1) suddenly deeply hates me, 2) got in a terrible accident (God forbid), or 3) has her phone on silent. Naturally and unfortunately, my mind assumes that the first two options are the only plausible explanations for the endless ringing that cuts to an abrupt voicemail message.

I understand that at the root of my anxiety lies a simple inability to trust.

This inability to fully trust God’s plan and let go of my overly controlling tendencies is what allows my trivial anxieties to proliferate dangerously. How foolish I am to assume that my magnificent King won’t take care of me! How shameful it is to think that my own control over a situation will be more successful than all of the wonderful, lovely, sweet possibilities that could stem from His.

In short, somehow this hope to write peacefully and let words flow freely coupled with the challenge to trust Him more fully weaves together perfectly to illustrate my goal for this week: simply trust and simply write.

What Looms Ahead...

Ahead looms my greatest adventure yet. It taunts me with its speed; it possesses the ability to fast forward time. I can faintly hear little clock hands spinning frantically, vehemently forward, as the days grow shorter and the impending adventure advances. I can feel it on the horizon; I can feel it in the vicinage.

Tomorrow marks the bittersweet beginning of a four-year journey: college. I feel as though it was merely moments ago when I thought to myself half relieved and half anxious that I had 4 months… 3 months… 2 weeks… a few days… and then suddenly the day could no longer be avoided. No longer do I have the luxury of imagining what college would be like while wrapped safely in my big white bed (friends have titled it “the cloud” after it’s deliciously similar look and feel to the cotton candy condensation studding the skies). No longer do daydreams or “what if’s” suffice—now it’s time to live it.

More than anything, I feel numb. Coming from a family of (over) analysts, I’ve spent the entirety of the day (while driving 10 hours to the halfway point of New Mexico) trying to scrutinize, subdivide, catalog and classify everything I’m feeling. My conclusion, while simplistic in nature, is honest: I feel numb. I am faintly aware of a whispering excitement. I am excessively aware of my fears and anxieties. Somehow the antipodal two weave themselves together with such intricacy that I feel lost navigating through my contradicting appetite for what is new and equally overwhelming craving for familiarity.

On paper it seems simple—choose happy. How difficult could it be to simply hone in on what is positive and optimistic? Why not ignore the misery, the homesickness, the anxiety, and the adversity? I almost want to laugh at how naïve that sounds, but then I realize I could be right. Why not ignore the anxiety? Why not control my thoughts, allowing only what is beneficial to take up residency in my mind? Why not choose happy?


So I am.

Hello College.