for katherine.

 

mhn
poem & art by morgan harper nichols

Once upon a 2011, there was a girl who had a plan.

Her days and weeks were color coded in her Google Calendar AND neatly written in her planner for good measure. There was a well-versed answer for what she wanted to be when she grew up to be the very adult and fully grown age of twenty-five. She had a general trajectory for how she envisioned her place in the world and she knew all the right words to say if she suddenly found her careful plan totally unraveling. Her definition of success was doing anything to avoid the long walk home and never admitting total defeat that she doesn’t, in fact, have her shit together.

And then she grew up and took a liking for red wine which lead her to be more honest with herself and frankly, way cooler. Not that drinking wine makes you cool. I’m just saying that maybe, just maybe, I needed help to chill out and realize that having no plan is totally, one-hundred percent fine. I have maintained the appearance of millennial success but have had no plan, no intentions, no actual career goals and no next step other than the faint idea that maybe one day I would move home to Portland for the last four years.

This spring I’ll complete four years of post-college real world education and check off the one thing on my to-do list since graduating college by moving to the city that I actually wanted to be in from the very beginning. This fact serves no purpose other than to remind myself that four years is actually a really short amount of time because I still have no idea what I’m doing. Here I am again on the internet writing notes-to-self for the things I wish I knew in each year of my post-college real world education to make myself feel like I accomplished something. You can say I earned my Masters in Adulting. (Except please don’t, that’s a terrible line and also I made yet another grilled cheese for dinner yesterday so…make your own assumptions there.)

While I was packing for my big move, I went on a major nostalgia bender. I went through old photos, notes, and journals that I’ve collected over the last four years. Then for good measure I read some of my old blog posts. My If-You-Can-Dream-It-You-Can-Do-It 22-year-old self annoyed me so much that I told my friend Katherine that I was going to decommission this blog. It had clearly served its purpose for my first foray into adulthood and now that I’m older, wiser, and — thank God — a little more emotionally stable I can probably stop word-vomiting my know-it-all truths onto my corner of the internet in an effort to convince myself that I am more successful than I feel. To which Katherine immediately responded, “You can’t! I read your blog and I NEVER read anyone’s online blog (no offense to all of you other twenty-something self publishers). Your words are helpful and you have a different perspective. Don’t quit now.”

End of the conversation. In a matter of seconds, I felt really proud of my semi-devotion to this semi-consistent hobby over the last four years and also I did not, in fact, delete this thing out of my own insecurities. Get yourself a Katherine. 

That very blonde & maybe a little too enthusiastic college grad who made a WordPress account on a whim was trying her best and she deserves a little grace. Everything she blindly walked through actually brought me to where I am today, so for that I am grateful for her bold naivety. I am also grateful that she learned how to be alone, how to not care so damn much about what people think and also that she learned how to be wrong.

Here are the cliff notes of what I wish I knew in each of the last four years. I hope in another four years I reread this list and cringe some more. I hope I’m so wrong about the things I’ve learned and am declaring as truth to the internet today that I actually LOSE readers. (Ha! Take that former Emily! I did this to you!) I hope that as I grow older my heart gets more malleable and open and stretched and maybe even has a few tears in it for character. I hope that you read these and you feel okay about maybe being wrong once, too.

Year I

The minute you graduate everyone is going to make you think that you have to have a five-year plan complete with how you’re going to afford health insurance in a couple of short years, even though you are still a CHILD who doesn’t know that you actually have to print out your car insurance card every year lest you want to pay a two hundred dollar ticket.

Don’t feel an ounce of guilt for celebrating instead of freaking out about how to pay your student loans in your barely more than minimum wage job. Take a year to be in a city you love with people you love. You’re not falling behind. You’re not missing out. You are taking a minute to breathe, rest, and enjoy what God has already done. You’ll need these memories. In the ever wise words of our Supreme Leader, Ben Gibbard: “Stay young, go dancing.”

Year II

There’s a lot I could write for this one. But what I really needed was for me now to sit me then down and straight up just tell her to stop doing so much. And that no one is waiting for you to fail. And that you’re doing so great. And that being drunk every weekend isn’t cute. You’re signing up for a season of feeling like a flaming garbage can all because you’re too scared to admit that you feel like you don’t belong. It’s braver to go it alone.

Year III

After befriending your lonely self, you’re going to learn that you need people who know you. Not the you that you have carefully curated for the public on a Saturday night, but the you whose anxiety likes to be a bitch and keep you bedridden for a day. You’re going to need your people who can bring you food and sit next to you in hard seasons and you’re going to need to do that for them, too.

Finding your people is not easy. Community is hard fought for. Keep showing up even though you want to run away. Every time you get that pang of lonely, say no to the temptation to fill your time with social media or dating apps or even another trip to visit a friend. Half of the work is just showing up in the same place over and over and over again until one day it’s all just different and good.

Year IV

I used to treat every opportunity like it was once in a lifetime. If I didn’t say YES to something, then it would never come back to me. I would miss my chance. I would never fulfill the dream attached to that choice.

And it took four years to realize life is not a poker game. You don’t have to cautiously hold back and ration your chips for fear of not knowing the outcome, or risk losing it all after going all in on one hand. There are always more chips. There is always another chance, another opportunity, another date, another job, another choice. Stop living like you have wasted your chips.

There is more coming, I just know it.

Also for your viewing pleasure, here are some of my most cringeworthy early posts:

from the back seat of a Prius.

how I’m failing as a millennial and stopped asking strangers for rides home.

home

It’s the third thing I do after deboarding a plane, right after a beeline to the restroom and refilling my water bottle.

I pull out my phone and scroll over to the black app. I pin my location in the pickup zone and wait until the caravan of hybrid sedans matches the one on my screen. My driver helps me load my bags and I confirm the basic facts:

“Are you Emily?”

“Yes.”

“Headed home?”

“Yes.”

“From where?”

The driver automatically gets 5-stars if the conversation stops after the third question. I wish I was the kind of person who could meet you halfway after six hours of travel and a few nights away from my own bed, but at this point my only goal is to make it home with some piece of my soul left, so small talk is out of the question.

I make a point of putting in my headphones to further avoid any attempts at conversation, then I mentally prepare to spend the next 30+ minutes trying not to throw up from the stop-and-go of traffic. The pine sweetened air in the PNW helps me breathe a little easier, but that feeling is short-lived once I slide into the backseat of a Prius. It’s another reminder that I’m not quite there yet when all I want is to be home.  

Coming home is one of the main reasons I love to travel. Travel naturally removes you from routine and reveals things that your body, mind, and heart have been saying that you otherwise would have missed in your daily rhythms. But by the end of my journey after I’ve learned the things or gained the clarity or accomplished the goal, I crave home.

The homecoming I want isn’t further delayed by the unfamiliar. The homecoming I want is reliable. It’s consistent. It’s predictable. It lets me put my feet up on the dashboard. I want to come home to the feeling of being known, of being brought in, and maybe of having a hot coffee waiting for me. The homecoming doesn’t wait another minute for me to get back but instead kicks off it’s sandals and runs toward me to remind me that I’m safe here and I can take my armor off.

The welcome home I want means that I need people. Which goes against my millennial-bend to prove that I’m independent and make my own appointments and pay my own bills and I’m doing fine and I can ~stay humble and hustle hard~ because I have no needs that I cannot meet within my own ability and tools offered to me. It defies the projected image that makes me seem like I can exist all by myself in this big wide world. You can hide it behind filtered pictures of solo travels and endless story streams of who you were surrounded by but at the end of the day we are all terribly, desperately in need of a space where we can take off our uncomfortable pants and not worry if we laughed at the right things at the right times. 

It’s risky, exposing your own need to the watching world. I think we all want to argue that we don’t NEED anybody but that we WANT people. That gives us all the power in any relationship. We don’t want to risk rejection or loosen our white-knuckle grip on controlling our circumstances, even if the outcome makes us more uncomfortable and more in touch with our own alone-ness (different than loneliness, that’s another word for another time).  

Maybe I’ve failed as a millennial. Maybe there’s a part of me that isn’t cut out for the seductive productivity offered by an app. Maybe I don’t want to ask my friends for a ride because I don’t want to let them see my neediness. Or maybe I’m just not privy to being driven around by strangers. But a few trips ago I quit my millennial-independence cold turkey and started asking my friends for a ride to/from the airport. Not via an app, but from actual people who I know and talk to on a regular basis.

Call it beginner’s luck, but every person I’ve asked to drive me to or from the airport in the last year has said, “Yes!”

Who knew? People tend to show up when I stop pretending that I am fine with handling life alone and start admitting that I need a little help. They will literally drive through hell — AKA any airport arrivals platform — to bring me home.

And I think that’s it. That’s the pretty life lesson tied up with a white bow here. That people just need people to take our hands and walk us back Home.

give a damn. save a life.

If you are struggling with suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255. I hope you know we need you here.

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Humans don’t like to think about death. That word makes us uneasy. It’s the one major problem that literally all of us are faced with that we haven’t quite solved. Because no matter how much you try to put it off – you’re going to die.

Death isn’t the way things should be. You want to know how I can know that this is true? Think of the moments in your life that you wish you could pause, rewind, play on repeat forever and ever. The view from an island trail, running into the ocean, sitting on a front lawn with a ukulele, a good kiss, the perfect pancake. These are the moments that etched eternity right into your heart. You were made to crave forever.

Which is why the news lately has my heart feeling like it was chewed up, spit out, shoved it a blender and served over ice.

This summer the deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain and even Mac Miller hit me harder than expected. Celebrity makes it seem like people are untouchable, immortal. Their deaths should be evidence that depression and anxiety and addiction are real diseases that obey no rules of class, income, age, wealth, or status. No matter who it affects, whether you have billions of admirers or it’s just you making it in the world, suicide is painful. Hopelessness is a feeling both so foreign and familiar to almost every person here on earth.

It’s World Suicide Prevention Day and here are the stats: 800,000 people die from suicide globally. That’s 1 person every 40 seconds (see TWLOHA’s stats here). It’s wild to me that in the scientific sense, daily life as we know it has never been more productive, safe, and technologically advanced than years before. We are smarter, faster, stronger and I can order a dozen macarons on Uber Eats and have them delivered right to my door on a lazy Sunday night. What a time to be alive, truly.

And at the same time we’re more isolated than ever. We’re siloed in our own echo-chambers of Twitter feeds and when we see the world as we know it cracked, it leaves us confused and afraid. We keep trying to find true meaning for why we’re on this big, blue marble but instead we’re faced with a trashcan fire of terrible leadership, natural disasters, trauma, loss and no clear end to it all.

I’m not a certified therapist and I don’t have pages of research telling me how to fix the fracture that depression, death, and suicide leave on a life. But I do know that hope is hard fought for and I think that we can learn how to be better about holding the hard things about the right now with the promise of the not yet.

We can give a damn.

We can be the kinds of friends who embrace the hard conversations and aren’t just friends out of convenience. We can be the kinds of people who are willing to put down our black mirrors to see someone and go to them rather than obeying social structures that tell us to keep our distance. We can be the friends who are willing to open up our couches, our wallets, our own lives for the sake of someone else learning that they’re not all alone in this world.

We can be the kinds of friends who value our friends’ lives above our own. That might be called love. I’m going to call it giving a damn.

This isn’t to say that when someone commits suicide that we’ve failed. Far from it. Suicide is no one’s fault. I don’t have answers or a list of “should/shouldn’t do’s” and honestly, that wouldn’t be helpful. Depression is a sickness whose rules constantly change and are hard to define. What works for one person might be harmful for another. At the end of the day, people are still going to make choices and all we can do in the meantime is remind them until we run out of breath, “You’re loved you’re loved you’re loved you’re loved.”

It’s hard enough to say that you need people to remind you of this when you’re healthy. Imagine the mountain you have to climb to reach out and be honest about your pain if you’re struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts. The best way to give a damn is to let your people know that you give a damn about them. So ask your people how they’re doing. And not just the happy hour version of this filler question. The How-Are-You-Really version. The kind of honest question that begs an honest answer.

I don’t know a lot of things. I know how to poach an egg, build Ikea furniture without wanting to drink myself to death, and use an Oxford comma. I also know that when Eleven from Stranger Things said, “Friends don’t lie”… I felt that. Friends don’t lie. And friends who give a damn use their words to create a safe space to welcome the truth. Even if it seems too big or too much or too messy or too heavy for just you to hold. Friends who give a damn will hold your arms up and remind you that the weight of the world isn’t just on you to handle alone.

So if you weren’t convinced already, I give a damn about you and I hope you stay.

my car insurance broke up with me.

a story about why what you call yourself matters

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My own mother likes to gently remind me that I am good at many things, so I need to hold close the things I am terrible at. This is so I will stay humble and actually have friends who want to spend time with me. Good moms do that. They slip in subtle criticism next to a reminder that they think you are the most special, amazing human being that ever existed ever in order to preserve your self-esteem and have their own contingency plan in place for the amount of issues you will likely bring up in counseling years later. I hope to be exactly like her one day.

It is with this advice in mind that I have become a great passenger. I know how to AUX-cord-DJ for the specific company in the car, I always bring snacks, I can talk about anything in order to stay awake with the brave driver on long road trips, all because I loathe driving. Lucky for me, driving dislikes me almost as much as I hate it.

For years I’ve been in denial, telling myself that I am a good driver but I just don’t like driving. Because I should love driving! It means freedom: it’s a major rite of passage to turn 16 and get your driver’s license. And I didn’t even fail the test my first time! Therefore I must be a great driver. And then one month ago this little narrative was shattered by a seemingly harmless piece of junk mail.

My car insurance sent me a Dear John letter effectively ending our nearly 10 year relationship. It started off sweet by thanking me for my years of commitment but it took a turn when I noticed the kind introduction was soon followed by a list of “incidents” that have occurred over the past three years. When you lay them all out, it really does look like a rap sheet straight out of Mario Kart’s Rainbow Road that all points to one truth: I am a terrible driver.

But I should be a good driver. I drive more often than most for my job, I’m a relatively safe driver (despite my extensive list of offenses, the majority were very minor) and, most importantly, I’ve told myself that I am a good driver for years. I wonder if I didn’t live in a society that says freedom is having a driver’s license and a car if I would even have discovered this part of me wasn’t true? Or what if I took public transportation my whole life, would being a bad driver even define me if I never experienced it?

That letter helped me piece together a little more of my identity: I am Emily, a really bad driver.


It has recently come to my attention that the way I refer to myself when I first met people is not actually the way I move through the world. In the past, I used terms like “awkward” or “embarrassing” or to self-describe personality quirks in social situations. Which everyone does. People can laugh and deal with awkward. It’s the selfishness, fear, and pride I want to distract them from noticing.

Maybe you can relate. If I can get ahead of the flaws, then it would keep the world from being disappointed in my other very real and very not-so-desirable character traits. People like us, we put all of our junk right out in the open so that when we inevitably mess up in front of others we can say, “See?! I told you when we met — I’m the worst. This shouldn’t surprise you. You can’t be disappointed because I already gave you the heads up that I’m imperfect and WILL let you down because this is who I am.”

This is two gross realities wrapped up in one broken-identity burrito: (1) these words are a self-fulfilling prophecy and (2) they just highlight how much of a fraud you’re making yourself. You do what you say you are, and if you aren’t what you’ve been telling people then you also have the difficult task of keeping up appearances or risk being exposed.

If you want to avoid accountability and rejection, you quickly learn how to operate based on the rules learned in middle school on the bus, at home, in church, on a team. For me, this looked like having the personality version of a classic 2000’s throwback playlist – a definite crowd pleaser in the churchy circles I ran in, but when you listened too closely the lyrics they never quite match up with what you believe. I experienced acceptance and success when I was told I should self-identify as the type-A, perpetually positive achiever to feel like I had a place in the communities I called home .

No matter how many times I told myself that being this kind of “leader” was a good thing, this wasn’t the identity that should define my life. It got tiring always having to pretend that I like being in front of people and making decisions. That’s normally the last thing I want to do. That stage held up by the label “leader” fueled my pride and being seen made me want to tell lies to make sure people liked me. Just because I should be a leader and that should be good doesn’t mean that it was what should define me.

It is a beautiful, hard, never-ending process of getting to know yourself apart from the experiences that have told you who you should be.

After my fraudulent identity was exposed last year, I learned how sorry these attempts to be accepted were. Belonging requires you to be yourself. Not some version I think will gain the most amount of admirers, not the version I tell myself I am because I get a front row seat into my own cynicism, but the realest of the real version of me. Uncut, live, on the couch watching Golden Girls, and likely going on my 4th day of unwashed hair.  The person who aims to please no one but her ever-present, unseen Jesus friend. The one whose name was whispered by an unseen, unfamiliar God way back in 2009 when I was still operating under the label of “nice, responsible girl” by day and “bitter, angsty, know-it-all” by night.

I love that this is the way God gets his kid’s attention. He called their names: Abraham, Jacob, Martha, myself. I love that God shares his name with us and that name is self-descriptive. Did you know that? What God calls himself is exactly who he is. He doesn’t bait and switch to get us to like him. He is unapologetically, totally God and I think that’s one of the biggest privileges of being in relationship with anyone – loving them exactly as who the were made to be. Might as well start with yourself.

I spent time trying on words like “follower” and “dreamer” and “good” and many more this year.

One of the different names I’ve tried on this year is “creative”. I’ve never seen myself as creative, which is wild considering this little blogosphere exists and I suppose that’s creative enough. But I do have a creative energy that needs air to make me feel more like me. The more time and energy I devote to making something – a meal, cutting a pair of thrift shop denim jeans to a length I like, writing copy for a marketing project – the more I can breathe easy. My sleep comes out of a day’s satisfaction instead of exhaustion. So I’m Emily, and I’m a creative.

What you call yourself matters because you become what you say you are. And the names that seemed forever like tattoos were just temporary. You belong. You were always invited into the party, but you have to be honest about what name is on the list.

I’m Emily.

everyone told me life was gonna be this way.

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Two years ago I was taking pictures in front of the fountain next to the friends who became family. We had just sat in rows of identical square hats, shook hands, and received an empty folder with a gold embossed logo on it. We hugged our people and thanked our professors. Later that evening we would all go to a concert in the park that our friends’ band was singing at. We danced and ate chips & salsa and no one mentioned the fact that everything was going to be different because in that moment, everything was good.

People kept warning me that the post-grad season is really hard as I prepared for my leap into the elusive “real world” two years ago. I hated that they were ruining my bright-eyed view of endless possibilities without a syllabus weighing me down. Post-grad might have been hard for them, but not for me. I belonged to community. I was a leader that people looked to for direction. I could do anything and the world was my oyster!

“During the process of rising, we sometimes find ourselves homesick for a place that no longer exists.”Rising Strong, my gal Brené (Brené Brown, that is. We’re not on a first name basis but I would like to think maybe someday we will be. We both were swimmers and have a tendency to cuss when we get riled up.) wrote this down and it has never hit closer to home than in these last two years.

During the process of rising, we sometimes find ourselves homesick for a place that no longer exists. – Brené Brown

It took me one year post-grad to realize that things were different after being homesick for the way things were, and just like everyone said – it was really hard. It took me two years later to realize that life is still good. It will probably take me a lifetime to figure out how to keep standing when the tide comes back in or the winds change.

I’m trying not to use the word “season” because it feels too temporary. And honestly, I’m trying my best to not refer to my life stage now as “post-grad” because it keeps my eyes fixed on the rearview mirror rather than on the road ahead. But one of the hardest things about this post-grad season is the undoing of what was sure. I went from being someone who saw myself as an example to look to – who was decisive and knew exactly what she was doing and why – to being relatively anonymous, having little to no direction at any given point in time and having to rebuild who I am from the ground up.

This might say more about me and my self-absorbed tendencies to view myself as way cooler than I actually am than it does about life after graduation. But if someone knows when the label “post-grad” has an expiration date, let me know, because two years later I’m still feeling like I’m in my freshman year of life.

I wanted to be able to follow a formula for success: get a credible job, move to an actual city, move in with friends to the same apartment and live across the hall from one another, meet in a coffee house every day at lunch, yell “WE WERE ON A BREAK” when you mess up and your heart gets broken, watch Monica & Chandler get married… you know, the typical 20-something lifestyle.

My formula for moving on was a gap year lived in my college town and then plans to move home with my parents to pursue my lifelong dream of becoming a barista in Portland. I kid you not, this was my big life plan for after college. Four years of tears and student loans and I am still so grateful that God dreams way bigger than I do. Today, my life looks completely different than how I would ever have imagined.

It’s like someone pulled all of the yarn out of my favorite sweater and handed it over for me to recreate without a pattern or directions. Granted, I’ve never knit anything in my life (sorry Grammie, I know you tried so hard to teach me but let’s be honest, I was never a crafting prodigy) and I don’t know why I’m starting with a sweater, but it’s a ton of guesswork. Maybe this long piece here will turn into a sleeve and the part up top kind of looks like a turtleneck and those are hip now so that’s good… but I’ve got a whole load of tangled yarn yet and I don’t know how to make it fit. It’s still good material, I just might end up with a scarf instead.

There isn’t a pattern for how to move on to what’s next after the undoing. The undoing isn’t a sequential step-by-step process but instead it’s more like poetry or jazz, having some kind of form but is punctuated with unexpected twists and new melodies that you have to learn to adapt to. You can’t mix and measure your way to a perfect transition, that would take all of the living out of it because transitions have to start with an end.

Grads, your life as you know it is ruined – which sounds extreme but is actually the most wonderful place to start. There’s this quote in the Bible of when Isaiah sees God for the first time. He falls down and yells “I am ruined!” because he has seen something so beautiful and OTHER THAN that he can never live life the same way as before he witnessed it.

That’s what the undoing is like: a holy destruction of life as you know it, then making something beautiful out of all of it’s parts and pieces.

I hope you grieve the end because of how sweet those late nights and long weekends were. I hope you remember the magic of making your own community for the first time. I hope you bring with you the lessons learned and that you don’t forget how special of an opportunity it was to participate in higher education. And I hope that you always laugh at movies like Nacho Libre and never grow tired of finding a new taco truck on a street corner.

I also hope that you don’t try to shove these unique experiences into wherever you are next. The last 4-5 years were one of a kind. Any attempt at replicating them is just a cheap knock-off of the real thing that will leave you frustrated that you can’t recreate the original. Except for the Nacho Libre part because that movie is hilarious no matter what.

So be patient with yourself. Let yourself feel all of the emotions – the relief of being done with something you worked so hard for, the excitement of new possibility, the worry of not having a next step, the sadness of watching your people move to new places, the anger that happens when things don’t go your way, the loneliness that comes during the process of building new community, and the hope that comes from knowing that tomorrow will be better.

Welcome to the world, I can’t wait to see what you make.