Through the hazy fog of partially-lost memory, I squint to see my past.
As the mist gently lifts, I see her – the five-year-old version of myself – walking beside my best childhood friend, Janet Maloney. There we were, like two little ducks, scurrying after Janet’s mother as she led us through two huge, heavy doors. Our feet clicked loudly as we tapped our way into the barren chapel. The church felt empty. Abandoned. The ceilings seemed so far away, as if they were suspended from the sky. Creatures had been carved into dark wooden walls that stretched upwards to hold hands with heaven. Everything looked big and dark and reeked of something I had only smelled after rain. This new world around me seemed immense and unknowable, sterile yet smothered in supernatural secrecy. And, as a child who was never taken to church, it was scary. Ominous enough to silence two rambunctious young girls, which as any parent would understand, is a miracle in itself. A strange woman approached us as we loitered behind long rows of benches. Her wardrobe was drab and colorless, just like the rest of this place.
“Hi, Sister,” Janet’s mother said to the woman. Her voice was saturated with something that wasn’t herself. Sorrow, I thought. Or perhaps exhaustion. Later, I learned it was the sound of divorce.
“Hi, Sue,” the woman replied through eyes of pity. She waved her hand, suggesting we follow her into another room. So, we trailed behind as her long garments swept the path before us.
I don’t remember uttering a single sound during my first visit to the Catholic Church, but when the invisible gag in my mouth disintegrated, I gushed about my adventure.
“Mom! Mom!” I shouted with my typical childish excitement. “Did you know that Mrs. Maloney’s sister works at the church?”
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Here’s a little ditty from “This Little Light”, an upcoming documentary that aims to dispel the myths and misconceptions about Christianity. Created, directed, and edited by yours truly. Be the first to see the official trailer!
“Dear Mom,” began my unskilled second-grade handwriting, “I had to write this because I didn’t know how to say it.” I looked at the penmanship, so familiar and yet so foreign, as it blared the reality of my life. At the time, it unleashed my childish fears and feelings. Now, as I read it again, it shouts of new fears–the fears and feelings of my adulthood. It amplifies the shame I carry for being more comfortable with written words than people’s voices, and it echoes the coddled worry that something must be wrong with that. The lead, smudged by the passing of my left hand, reveals a deep truth: I have not changed. I do not remember the day I wrote that letter, but I can sense the relief that warmed me as the point of my pencil flattened. I feel a cathartic whoosh as my burdens poured from my veins onto other thin, blue lines. Lines that someone else could read between and, hopefully, understand. I had found a way to release my burdens, my opinions, my thoughts. My self.
Many people have the divine gift of free speech. Of knowing what to say and letting their tongue springboard the message to their audience. I was not blessed with that gift–or perhaps it has just been misplaced and I simply have not opened it yet. Because of this, the first amendment troubles me. My speech is not free at all. It never has been. My brain is the militant governing body, the one that wrestles my mouth and puts it in a sleeper hold. It’s almost like a perpetual case of laryngitis: having something to say, being unable to say it, then resorting to a notepad to share the message with others. The only difference, though, is that everyone understands a medical condition and obliges to be patient with its victim. In the case of ‘social laryngitis’, however, people just look at you funny and wonder what the hell’s wrong with you. And what incentive is that to be social? Yet, every human has an innate need to be heard and accepted. Everyone longs to belong. For me, there was no epiphany, no moment of revelation. I just did what felt natural: I reached for my pencil.
I don’t write for the glory of writing. If that were the case, I’d throw down my pen and vow never to do it again. I mean, who would consider entire days spent silently staring at a computer to be glorious? Certainly not the people who look at you cock-eyed when you say that you’re a writer.
No, I write because, in the words of a very wise woman I know, that’s where my heart feels most at home. I write because my soul can only fully leak into the world through the tip of a ballpoint pen. The only way I can truly extend my hand to others is if it’s stained with ink, as any other lefty might understand. My life, then, is a complete contradiction: I long to reach the world by sitting in an empty room.
Growing up, my parents never put me in time out. Instead, I invoked the punishment on myself. If I was upset or knew they were upset with me, I ran to my room and locked myself in. The solitude was treasure, not torture. In my room I could busy myself with imagination. I could create stories and watch them unfold. During these moments, new worlds sprung up around me. It was the only time I actually played with dolls. And, by the end of the evening, my heart had rid itself of poison. I turned the golden knob of my sanctuary, listening as the lock clicked out of place. Then I strolled back into the world, humming an original tune that was known only to my lips. Somehow, even as a child, I understood that I was more connected to the world when I was alone. Or, at least, I understood that that was how I felt.
So, for me, writing isn’t merely a hobby. It is my first amendment. It is self-expression and socialization, connection and acceptance. It is me in my truest sense. It is essential.
Last night I dreamt I was trapped–bound and gagged by the stranglehold of marriage. Strangely, in my night vision, I entered this sacred covenant with a friend I’ve known since childhood. Yet, even though he has known me longer than any of my other friends, I still felt shackled to a false future. Life seemed eternally daunting, each day a treadmill of quick sand. My phony husband and I pulled down the covers and turned out the lights before bedtime.
“I told you I liked Vanilla,” I joked, referring to a term he’d given to his culture. But something felt off. There was a void in the air. Or maybe just in my heart. And it separated me from this husband of mine.
When others asked to hear our story, I’d reply with forced joy, “We’ve known each other since elementary school!” Then they’d swoon. And I’d feel more justified for making this lifetime commitment to be untrue. Don’t get me wrong, I love this friend truly and dearly. But he and I are simply not suited to wed.
Regret filled my eyes when I laid them on Kyle, my real-life husband, and realized he was outside of my nightmarish wedding vows. Apparently he had been someone I was dating, but I chose to marry this other man instead.
I wanted to kick Dream Me.
Instead, I felt panic plague my body, settling like lead in my chest and pumping through my veins like a caffeine overdose. Stimulated and shaky, I knew I must do something, but–as always with panic–the knowledge that something needs to be done exceeds the wisdom of what that something should be.
“I think you owe him a conversation,” my dad said, silently sneaking up behind me and nodding in Kyle’s direction. Even in my dreams, he gives voice to reason. I looked at Kyle, alone and dejected, lingering after some post-wedding party that didn’t include him. I couldn’t imagine what I’d say. When the heart aches, it strangles the throat. I wanted to tell him that he was the only one I loved–the only one I could ever love–with the depth of my heart and the breadth of my being. But I ripped myself from him when I pledged to be true to someone else. And those aren’t the kinds of words one can simply take back.
The kindness of morning caressed my lashes and I awoke to find my husband–my true husband–peacefully asleep beside me. The contours of his face, specifically and uniquely his own, comforted my soul. At that very moment, he had never looked more handsome. His jawline seemed somehow more distinguished, and his hair, tousled by sleep, more endearing. I touched the tip of his nose with my lips, overwhelmed with gratitude for the sanctity of marriage. Blessed to have my best friend beside me always. There’s no such thing as “the old ball and chain” in marriage, I thought. Marriage is designed to liberate, not confine. Slowly, he opened his eyes and greeted the day with a stretch.
“Good morning,” he croaked and smiled at me. Indeed, it was a good morning. And, with him by my side, I eagerly await all the others.
“We’re gonna die,” my friend moaned as we shakily descended the stairs to the Dungeon. I put my arm around her shoulders. We punched through the invisible door of heat at the threshold and left the summer day behind us. Even the sun was too scared to enter this place. Inside, the rancid stench of others heavily hung in the air, clouding our nostrils and resting in the back of our throats. The cramped chamber was cluttered with machines specifically tailored to destroy us–to shred us from the inside out, rendering our bodies disabled. We knew this. And yet, there we were, willingly walking into “Hell Day”–or some name that suggested a slim chance of survival. They split us up, and as females, we knew this threatened our safety. I watched helplessly as my closest friends became victims of apparatuses, staring through squinted eyes as they winced and screamed.
“You’re fine! You’ve got it!” I managed to cry as they bellowed loudly for inner strength. We all knew I was a liar.
By the end of the day, our clothes were stained with sweat, rust, and for some, blood. Our taut ponytails now hung limply at odd angles. I raised my arms to re-tighten the hold and keep hair from falling in my defeated face–an act I had done millions of times throughout my life. My brain commanded my arms to rise; my lips even formed the words. But despite my desperate pleading, my limbs stopped moving halfway to my scalp. I gazed upon my non-responsive arms. I felt my fingers as I individually tested their mobility. They seemed fine. I stretched my hands out before me and again tried to lift them to my ponytail. Again they refused. Until that point, I had never lost control of motor function. When my brain said, “Lift the fork to your mouth,” my hands and arms lifted the fork to my mouth. When my brain said, “Sign your name,” the words quickly got scribbled in ink. And, when my brain said, “Tighten your ponytail,” my hands automatically reached up, grabbed a portion of hair and tugged. But this time they wouldn’t even obey the command to reach up. The past hour had left me temporarily immobilized. I knelt down on my knees and asked another partially paralyzed girl for help.
“Good work today, ladies,” our coach boomed. “Now go scrimmage.”
That was one of the first workouts of my four-year bout as a collegiate athlete. And I was merely training to compete against the best of the Missouri Valley. I reflect on that memory and wonder what these Olympians must have done to prepare for the summer of 2012. Spending the past four years–the length of my entire collegiate career–training to compete against the best in the world. And, unlike most athletes who get multiple opportunities for victory over the course of their career, Olympians get one chance–one moment–to prove they’re #1. So, how much does a gold medal cost in Rio? I’d say it costs every second of every day. Starting now.
I know I’m not the first to jump on the Aurora shooting bandwagon, but I also assume I’m not the last who continues to think about it. The night after the shooting, my husband and I sat safely on our couch in the peace of our own home. He hung his head and said, “I can’t imagine what those people must be going through right now,” and “It scares me to think of what I would or wouldn’t have done in that situation.” The eeriness of our humanity haunted us. Life is but a quick breath. Especially when one of our own species snatches our last. Even strangers in Missouri felt the weight of Aurora’s blood. I continue to wonder how the survivors are doing? How are the family and friends who lost a loved one at the movie theater? In this dark, chaotic act of evil, is God present in the aftermath–in the community and hospitality that forms from tragedy? Was He present in the act itself? I’ve read about Petra Anderson, the girl who felt a bullet blast through her nose and shove its way to the back of her head. And I read about the vessel in her brain that she unknowingly had since birth–the same one which guided that speeding metal pellet to the brim of her skull. Petra is alive because of this unique “birth defect” and the seemingly impossible chances that a bullet would sprint down its path. God, it seems, not only protected Petra, but prepared her for this event. If that is true, this horrible massacre was planned long before Holmes gathered assassination toys from his doorstep. And, if that is true, it makes me cringe to think what else is to come our way. What other sinister deeds lurk in the shadows of the future? Will other innocent activities become blood baths?
I picture myself, excited about opening night of one of my favorite characters. Granted, of course, in my mind I’m going to the opening night of the Hunger Games. But it could have happened there, too. This time, though, a small group of my closest friends and family pre-order tickets to the The Dark Knight. Anticipation rushes shakily through our veins. Every sundown brings us closer to the moment when Batman will really begin. Days are electrified with the inability to sit still. We have a countdown marking the minute the movie will roll opening credits and on that night we stride through the door with golden tickets in our hands. The lobby smells of popcorn and butter and we follow our noses to the concession line. Hundreds of shirts marked with the same symbol swarm the theater. I’ve had my eye on those Buncha Crunch all night. It’s my mom’s movie tradition: eat chocolate with popcorn. I top a not-so-small Diet Pepsi with a lid and straw and follow the frenzy to another large herd of heroic-looking people. The ticket attendant motions us toward him. At the moment, he’s the most popular guy in the theater and he tears my ticket before placing the shredded paper in my snack-filled hand. I’m going to keep this forever, I think. Children file in before us–one, a young boy wearing his Batman pajamas, chatters excitedly with his dad; the other, a baby girl, is asleep on her mother’s shoulder. I try to grab a seat around the middle of the row in the center of the theater. I like to feel the pulse of the movie, and what better way than to perch on its heart? My talking-picture posse plops down around me. Our legs dance on the bouncy seat cushions as we turn to each other for snippets of conversation. Perhaps we even comment on the strangeness of that man leaving through the emergency exit door. Then we decide he probably felt weird being here all by himself and decided to avoid the crowds as he skulked away in embarrassment. “Is it time yet?” one friend might ask as the minutes crawl toward previews. And then, the big moment is here: a super villain strides into the room to kick off the show. Somebody hoots and hollers. I may even be tempted to hoot and holler at this innovative promotion scheme. He throws something toward us. I watch the rows in front of me choke on the gas in cacophonous coughs. Something is really wrong, my gut says, churning Morse code. Maybe they’re actors, my head argues. I flinch at the first explosion, grabbing the back of the seat in front of me for protection. More explosions, followed by blunted grunts as bullets pierce flesh. Then screams of terror. And howls of pain. People toward the back are already fighting to squeeze through the door. Some shout words. Others just shout. Between bullets I hear Batman beginning. The warmth of someone else spatters my face. It tastes metallic. The villain begins to make his way up the aisle, swapping one gun for another and crushing pieces of popped corn beneath his blood-stained boot.
What would you do?
When we were children, everyone told us we could do anything we set our minds to. The sky was the limit, they said. When asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”, our answers could be as outlandish or impossible as the outskirts of our imagination, and we would simply receive a smile or a nod of approval. But at what age do we stop encouraging others to pursue their wildest dreams? Or, at least, when do we begin to realize that when people say, “You can be anything you want to be,” they really mean, “You can do anything you want…but only if want to be a doctor, lawyer, engineer, or any other position that receives lots of wealth and esteem. If you want to be something else, change your mind.”
When I was a young girl, I wanted to be an actress, a writer, or a WNBA player. By the time I was about nine or ten years old, I was informed that the WNBA probably wouldn’t even exist by the time I got old enough to play; and, during puberty, I realized that I was way too shy to be an actress. Not to mention I jumble my words quite frequently, which might hinder a career in performing arts. But in high school, the question changed. People started asking, “If you won the lottery tomorrow and didn’t have to work a day in your life, what would you still do with your days?”
Even then, I’d write. There was no question about it. So here I am, lottery-less but writing.
Last week, I spoke with a writer friend about this. We met over coffee and she confessed the hardest thing she ever did in her profession was tell people that’s what she did for a living. And I can certainly understand what she was saying–we have passed that age of childhood dreams, it seems, and very few people have tolerance for “risky” professions. Somehow people just can’t believe that you would choose a lifelong dream over the stability of cold, hard cash. Usually when I tell people that I’m a writer, they look as though I just admitted to having a dead body stashed in the trunk of my car.
“What’s that? You want to write?” they ask confused or appalled. “You realize that every Tom, Dick, and Harry are doing the same thing as you…that you’ll never have any money…that you’ll probably end up homeless and starving and your life will end in pitiful doom. You know that, right?”
Well, before I started admitting my passion for writing, I had only heard those words in my head. It’s strange–but very common nowadays–to hear them in a voice other than my own. So in response, yes, I guess I do technically “know” those things.
Later, on the same day, I visited my fiance for lunch. One of his coworkers approached our table and we all started having a friendly chat. Then he asked the dreaded question.
“I’m a writer,” I told him.
A guffaw rose from the depths of his belly and filled each corner of the room before he turned to my fiance and cried hysterically, “You better get a much better paying job!”
But where would the world be if not for those who courageously pursued “risky” endeavors? This man, who claims to be a Christian, would not know the Bible if someone hadn’t put ink on paper. Actors, filmmakers, artists–where would we be without these people? And yet, they get scoffed and scolded. Their worth just a little less, based on secular evaluation, than someone of a more “noble” pursuit.
So, when others ask what I want to be when I grow up, I channel the little girl inside and proudly tell them who I am. Who I’ve always been. And who I will continue to be.