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:

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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.

the truth about staying.

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“You might be part pitbull.” He said. To my manager, this is the ultimate compliment. It means that in his eyes, I don’t give up.

If he only knew that I am queen of the 3-month relationship, have quit more fad workout regimens than I can count on two hands, and frequently skip songs on Spotify once they get through the chorus, he might have said something different. But this compliment was proof to me that I’m growing up.

My fight or flight reflex is heavily weighted towards flight. When things get hard, I run. It’s embarrassing that my willingness to quit something for the sake of my own comfort has often defeated my will to fight back. In light of the world around me, I prayed for this to change. Comfort is just another form of oppression for those who don’t have the privilege to live without conflict. And I’m learning that seeing someone, truly seeing them, is the key to love – which is the ultimate fight.

Lately I’ve admired the fighters who always seemed to be running down the next thing in their way. They were constantly moving, constantly chasing, always finding the next challenge they could take on to bring about justice or create good.

I used to think choosing adventure and movement was more courageous. Like the ones who made the big move to a brand new city every few years instead of choosing to live in the same town they grew up in were somehow stronger.

All of that fighting the next fight is just another way to avoid finishing the job. During the fight, things get messy. It doesn’t always go your way and you might end up face down after throwing a punch or five. But if you move on to find a different fight in hopes that you’ll automatically be victorious, isn’t that just the same as the ones who run away at the first sign of trouble?

I don’t want to come off like I have it all figured out in my relationship with God, but I think He values staying a lot more than I do. He seems to say “Stay. Wait. Be Still. Watch.” to me far more often than he says, “Move. Go. Fight. Take up your sword.”

It’s like I’ve got these God-sized dreams and instead of sprinting after them I’m supposed to choose a neighborhood and buy a Costco membership. It’s uncomfortable and seems weird and all I want to do is move to the city where I feel like I can hustle my dreams into reality, but it was never about me and my ability. It was always always always about how God chose to stay with me even when I don’t deserve it.

Staying is hard, especially for the dreamers. It’s risky because it may mean that your community might see you when you’re weak. You might even look like you’re failing. I keep running because I’m trying to save face. I don’t want to need people. I don’t want to need God. My stubborn, flighty self wants to keep running and prove that I’m enough to myself and the rest of the watching world. But I’m only human.

Staying is where the good stuff happens. It’s how you plant the deep roots that keep you grounded. It’s where the growing up happens and even though it doesn’t get easier, it becomes familiar. Staying builds your grit muscles and teaches you how to keep standing, even when you find your knees scraped and knuckles bruised. Even when every bone in your body is telling you to move on or risk being found out.

Maybe the braver choice is staying. Maybe it takes a lot more courage to face the uncomfortable, disappointing and confusing middle and see it through to end. Maybe communities are more affected by the ones that keep showing up rather than the ones who make a big splash and leave soon after. Maybe we all need to stay.

So make a promise to yourself to tough it through the uncomfortable middle. Keep a white-knuckle grip on the place you’re at. Tattoo the word on your ribs if you have to. Whether you’re in transition or facing conflict or just seem to find yourself knocked down, keep standing. Your heart will thank you for learning to stay.