2016: In Review

I am not sure how to do a year in review this time around. A lot of people have many things to say about 2016, and much of it isn’t encouraging. But what has been black for many has been more complex for me.

Here are some moments from 2016:

January

I dance the night away with my nieces at one cousin’s wedding. Megan and Hana think I’ve got the moves, and I let ’em believe it.

New diagnosis: Gastroparesis. It is the third autoimmune attack in under a year, and takes my diet from “gluten free levels of inconvenient” to “ask me rather what I CAN eat, not what I can’t.” Having all the food you love suddenly taken away is difficult, my friends.

As the political party I used to identify with begins to target refugees, I begin to step away. A theme of the year will be learning what I truly believe and what I am unwilling to compromise. This will be hard, especially as loved ones choose differently.

February

I figure out that I could intentionally overdose on insulin, possibly orchestrating a way to die in my sleep. The realization doesn’t scare me, so it scares my counselor. She gives me and my roommate (Katie) her personal number. I imagine Maeve, my dog, and Katie every night to remind myself they would have to find my body. It works (along with copious counseling and praying and breathing). I stay alive.

My agent recommends I try writing THE ELEVENTH TRADE. I cry on the phone to my mom, bewildered and overwhelmed and eager all at once. I’m terrified of drafting this new, raw story. Then I dry my tears, and I do it.

Snow one weekend, tornados the next. Katie and I binge watch Parks and Recreation.

March

Research trip to Boston. My eccentric Bostonian cousin, after reading an excerpt of THE ELEVENTH TRADE, holds up his hands to the buskers in our restaurant and says, “This is Sami. He is here.”

Egmont comes public with their acquisition of THE HUNTRESS: SEA by my lovely Sarah Driver. I plaster the news everywhere.

My counselor and I start an autoimmune group for ladies. It rocks.

April

I finish the first draft of THE ELEVENTH TRADE. By the end of the month, Amber and I have decided: This is my debut.

At my cousin’s bachelorette party (wine and design), my artist sister gets offered a job… multiple times. Her painting looks a little different than the rest of ours.

In the second cousin wedding of the year, a different cousin marries a nerd. By Christmas, my mom has started mixing his name in with my brothers’, thereby making it truly official.

Erika

Feedback from Erika (not a refugee but still super sweet)

May

My refugee readers return with feedback on THE ELEVENTH TRADE. I feel awed and tiny and amazed by their enthusiastic support for this story.

My roommate, my sister, and I start a tradition of Sunday afternoons between church and English club on the beach at Fort Monroe. Vitamin D is the best.

June

All summer, I hang with a friend as he studies for his CPA exam. By the end of the year, he’s passed (with perfect scores on two tests). We still exchange memes and Hamilton news.

I surprise my peeps from Berry College with a secret visit on my fairy-godfather-of-photography’s last day in the office. This includes visiting extensively with many dear friends. I’m hoarse from talking by the end of the first day.

July

Elie Wiesel dies, and I sit on the green hillsides of Georgia and grieve.

I switch to a new Rheumatologist after my old one tells me my literal off-the-chart bloodwork means nothing. The new one is amazing and we start an improved treatment plan right away.

Shocked and sad after a shooting, I go shopping for distraction. I meet a friend in the parking lot, doing the same thing, and we hug and tear up together. We don’t know it then, but in less than 24 hours we’ll be laughing. That night, the adoption agency calls. The next day, she and her husband have a brand new baby.

As a bridesmaid for my friend Erika, I stand up and give a speech in her honor, even though I know there’s a cockroach on the wall behind me. True friendship.

August

This blog hosts its first giveaway, and it goes really well!

I listen to Where the Light Shines Through on repeat almost daily.

Afghan children come running up to me on a Sunday afternoon and, after teaching them some English, we play zombie tag.

September

The Honors Department (with me) hosts Sean Carasso of Falling Whistles at Christopher Newport University. He amazes all of us with his friendly, inspirational attitude, and students stay for almost an hour after his talk to ply him with questions.

New diagnosis: Osteoarthritis. This is in addition to my Rheumatoid arthritis.

Clowns threaten Katie’s elementary school, claiming they’ll shoot the teachers in the parking lot. Nothing happens by the end of the day, but we’re left with the real question: How is 2016 even a thing?

October

There’s a hurricane and we play Apples to Apples by candlelight.

I stand in front of a room of college students and share about a country I love: Afghanistan. We analyze poetry to discover cultural truths, and the students eat it up. I walk away buzzing with energy.

Maeve climbs on the roof of my parents’ three-story house. I manage to get her off without her falling down the steep slope. I hyperventilate afterwards. Other witnesses refer to her as “spider-dog.”

I turn 26. Katie surprises me with a gorgeous Great Gatsby-esque dress I saw months ago but didn’t buy. She’s been secreting it away all this time.

November

On the night of the election, my heart is broken when a dear one and I discover we share secret wounds. I stay up all night in a shattered daze.

My Bhutanese friends invite me, my mom, and Katie to a traditional party. It is a lot of fun, with much laughter, conversation (more or less understood on both sides), and food.

I scramble up rocks to the top of the mountain and terrify my mom.

I launch two websites — WriteOnCon and Childbirth PATHS International. Also, pass 500 subscribers on this blog!

The plane detaches from the boarding zone and I begin to grin. I go to England, where my understanding is expanded and my heart challenged at the amazing Trust Women Conference.

Sarah tells me she loves how I go to bed in a timely way. Then we stay up past midnight talking about our wanderlust and our urgent need to Do More in the world.

ian beard

December

At the Skylark Literary Christmas party, my agent has to slither under the table to escape and take a call. It’s about me. I wait with my fellow writers, beaming.

I play Santa this Christmas for our stockings. I’m an excellent stocking stuffer, if I do say myself. Also, the “emergency beards” I bought in England are a real hit.

When I tell my little brother about a lifelong dream come true, he nods and says, “Okay, cool.” I recognize this for the enthusiastic reaction it is in brother-language, and I give him a hug even though he cringes away.


I think maybe a “good” year or “bad” year is something of a myth. This year started with me struggling to just keep breathing. It’s ended in the glow of Christmas lights, Moana songs, and new horizons. It might look like a clean arc in retrospect, but the pain and joy have come hand-in-hand.

My word for the year was “wonder.” About June, my counselor (who is super rad) more clearly defined what I was looking for: Hope.

That’s what I’m taking with me, held like mortar between the broken glass of a stained window: Hope. Impossible, heavy, fractured, fragile hope that cups my chin, lifts my head, and whispers, It will not always be this way.

I don’t think life will get easier. In my limited experience, it normally doesn’t. But it wasn’t meant to be like this. It won’t always be like this. And (to quote a whole lot of Switchfoot) when the light shines through the wound, when the beautiful letdown hits me hard, when I remember these skin and bones are a rental

Oddly, that’s when my hope is most secure.

Maeve

Appropriately adorable picture of Maeve to end the post with.

Dear Past!Self: Some Advice

Dear 24-Going-25!Self,

Hey, kid. It’s me, 25-going-26!Self. How you doing? I know the answer, but I thought I’d ask to be polite.

If your math skills aren’t working (it happens, I get you), I’ll just clarify: I’m writing from the end of your 25th year on earth. Kind of crazy. There are a few things I’d like to tell you, things that might make this coming orbit of the sun a little better. Maybe.

This year’s going to be nuts. You thought 24 was a ride, but this is a whole new level. You’re going to have amazing highs. You’ll sign with a literary agent, finally, about two months into 25. Your dear friend is going to get an amazing publishing deal, and that’s a hundred times better. Especially when she starts to realize what’s happened and grabs your shoulder and screams in pure, overwhelmed, delighted disbelief.

Your nieces will live the next town over for a little while. You’ll see Elie Wiesel one last time on an unplanned trip to NYC with your older brother. You’ll surprise dear Georgia friends with a summer visit. Your sweet cousin is going to get married to a total nerd, and your friend to a giant. You’ll teach a group of honors students about Afghanistan in your first ever lecture, and they’ll laugh at your jokes, which is a relief. About a thousand people will tell you you’re “reserved,” to which you can only chuckle. In part because it’s all a clever disguise with 25 years of practice.

You’ll also have some low lows. You’ll have emergency numbers on speed dial for those dark February days. And, hon, I know it sucks, but you’re going to get three more diagnoses. Spoiler alert: Celiac, gastroparesis, and osteoarthritis. Yeah, that’s right, it’s possible to have both rheumatoid arthritis and osteo. Yes, it’s possible to have osteo when you’re barely two and a half decades into life. You’ll be called “frankly bizarre” and you’ll say goodbye to all of your favorite foods, and it’s going to suck.

I won’t sugarcoat this. I don’t know that it really gets “better” — I don’t know that the darkness really goes away. But it will not always be this kind of darkness. It will not always be days where you count your breaths to make sure you’re still breathing. It won’t always be awkward gulping sobs through communion. One day, you’ll wake up and realize you feel pretty much okay, and have felt like that for a while without ever noticing. And you’ll keep living. Even when you don’t particularly want to.

A boy named Sami is going to teach you how to hope again. His book is going to write itself at your fingertips, you staring on in terrified awe. Rumor has it that he’s going out to the grand world of publishers next month. Funny that you, one year ago, barely even know he exists in your heart.

One month before your 25th birthday, you saw that picture of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, drowned as he fled from Syria. Your soul cracked. It’s going to get worse, love. You’ll be spending hours a day reading articles, eyes stinging as you wish yourself far away to the migrating orphans’ trails and the boats and the camps. Eventually your counselor will recommend you stop watching videos of Syrian babies whimpering. Just for a little while.

This is your superpower, and it’s time to learn it again: You have a frankly overwhelming ability to feel. Behind all that “reserve” and “control,” you are nothing but a tangled mass of Feeling. Use it well. You cannot absolve the world’s pain by burying yourself in the world’s grief. You’ll try.

Let me save you some time: Christ already bought the world’s pain. He’s got it. Cling to the hem of his robes and bleed and heal. You know how to grieve, I get it. But do you know joy, jubilee? Do you know grace that cries and laughs and dances and cleans?

I’m just getting familiar with it, in quiet-soft moments on Sunday afternoons and candlelight games and summer picnics. I wish I could give you some sort of shortcut here. I suspect that the respite has to do with the route, though.

There is a lot to be discouraged about this year, not going to lie. But there is a lot to love. There are snuggly puppies, and Williamsburg in autumn, and unexpected care packages, and chasing runaway umbrellas across the beach, and teaching nieces to swing dance, and Star Wars, and fresh dreams, and new friends, and reconnecting. And I promise — I promise — these things are as powerful as all the wars and all the disappointments and all the deaths. Measure the good, bury your face in it, breathe through it, and go back into the battle laughing.

You’re a hot mess, kid. But you know what? You’re okay.

Sincerely,

Me, Future!Self

24 Things I’ve Learned in 2016

Last week, I shared my mid-year report on my SMART Goals. As I reflected on what I thought this year would look like and what it has become, I started mentally compiling the things I’ve been learning. I know a lot of people (especially my age) are struggling with the darkness of this year. To us younglings, in many ways 2016 feels like the wider-scale darkest time in our lives.

Hopefully these 24 confessions will bring hope, or at least an honest voice to the craziness.

24 Things I’ve Learned in 2016

  1. There’s always something you can do. Last year, I started obsessing with the refugee crisis. If I had not landed my job with Christopher Newport University, I honestly think I would have gone abroad. But a job meant I could not wander freely. So I started looking closer to home. Back in January, a group of volunteers from my church and I began English classes with the refugee population right here. This work isn’t “sexy” – it’s not as exciting as pulling people out of a sinking boat. But I cannot tell you how rewarding it has been – how on the days of shootings, my soul has been restored by laughing with my Bhutanese women and hearing them confidently read Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes. Celebrating their victories is a blessing. And I’ve loved seeing the wider community developing. The Afghan ladies who take selfies with me because they can’t get over how my awesome sister speaks their language, or the Syrians who go visit at my parents’ house to give advice on the garden. I’m not always the most enthusiastic person on a Sunday afternoon in 90°+heat, but I always leave glowing with hope. My takeaway: If you are obsessing about something, having nightmares about a world crisis, find it where you are. Listen to the needs in your own place. Then get to work.
  2. Bad times don’t necessarily end with a climatic flood of goodness. Often they quietly fade, until after a week or a month or three, you look back and realize everything isn’t so terrible anymore, and you’re not totally sure when that changed.
  3. Houses with lots of natural light are vital for mental health. Also important: Intentionally seeking time out in the sun to soak up that Vitamin D.
  4. Tight deadlines can be just the fix you need. That extra, sometimes impossible-feeling push can propel you out of apathy and into action.
  5. When strangers yell at you on Facebook, it’s actually just sort of sad? And a little tiny bit funny? Mostly sad.
  6. I still don’t know why God breaks me, but I am starting to see (and feel, to some extent) how powerfully He loves.
  7. A good doctor can be the difference between feeling suicidal and feeling safe. Don’t play around with this.
  8. My ability to empathize and grieve is a grim blessing. I am going to cling to it until my knuckles bleed.
  9. Emotions are not permanent, and while they may influence me they will not permanently change or damage me.
  10. I am cracked to my core in ways even I don’t understand. But when I know the truth of how badly I am torn, I begin to touch the extent of God’s grace. It isn’t what I think it should look like – not a physical mercy, often. Sometimes it is excruciating. But I like it when my fractured pieces sit in silent peace beside Him, and we both are quiet company – His wholeness a balm to my shattered bits. The soft contentment in these moments is beyond price.
  11. The world is dark. I cannot absorb the darkness or make it better by obsessing with it. I have to keep moving.
  12. Golden retrievers shed a lot. It is very satisfying to brush them.
  13. All people deserve my love, patience, and compassion. I used to only think of this as extended toward people more liberal than me or of a different race/religion/gender. It is easier for me to love these people than it is for me to love “my own.” But as I struggle to reconcile some of my heroes with some of the events in the world, I am constantly challenged to check my pride at the door. Dismissing opinions or ideas with hot topic words doesn’t make those opinions vanish. If I can use my imagination to understand and empathize with someone as far left of my views as can be – something I have been trying to open myself to in the past five years or so – then, as a person who values personal relationships’ impact on positive change, I must also extend the same effort to those on the right.
  14. I must keep trying. I am stumbling, often failing, but trying to look honestly, unflinchingly into my own heart, to examine the truths and the lies, and find the thread of love that crosses barriers of class, geography, religion (and denomination), occupation, and race.
  15. I don’t know all – or maybe even any – of the answers. I am often my best self when I admit it.
  16. Your friends’ victories are more exciting than your own. And you should totally go 100% crazy in celebration mode whenever you get the chance.
  17. Sometimes I think it is more important to listen than to make a point. Sometimes it is more important to be quiet than to be right. When I calm my panicky urge to have the last word, the cleverest word, the most impassioned word, I learn a whole lot more about the friends, family, and strangers around me.
  18. I am really bad at all of this. But some days, I am better.
  19. Safety is hard for me. Physical safety isn’t as big a deal – risking my life to go to hard places isn’t a hypothetical in my family and isn’t something I fear particularly. But the emotional and mental aspects of safety – that’s where my weaknesses lie. I am still trying to figure out how to know in the very heart of my being that (in the wider scope of Life and Death) I do not need to be in control to be safe. Because I am not in control, but I am promised safety.
  20. Being unafraid to show emotions is not the same as being vulnerable. Vulnerability scares the heck out of me.
  21. Roommates who drag you off the news are the best. Especially when they put on period dramas or distracting flicks instead.
  22. I know more people than I think. The community that rises up when I need help is astounding and humbling.
  23. The hole left by death (especially under traumatic circumstances) is mindboggling, terrible, and amazing. A student wandered into my office. Fifteen minutes into our conversation, we both had tears in our eyes as we realized we were tangentially connected to a kidnapped (presumed-dead) woman. Grief reaches so much farther than I used to think.
  24. The wound is where the sun shines through, and there ain’t no darkness strong enough that could tear you out from my heart.

What has 2016 taught you so far?

Suffering the Silence: My Portrait of Chronic Illness

I came across the online campaign Suffering the Silence through this PBS article and immediately knew that I wanted to participate. It’s an awesome movement that encourages people with chronic illness to share their stories. I’d highly recommend browsing the Instagram and Twitter hashtag.

Scrolling through the pictures, I have found it so encouraging to see other young people discussing the hardest parts of chronic illness. These diseases can be incredibly isolating. And when I see people with multiple diseases, and read the things they’re saying, my spirit lifts a little. I’m reminded that I’m not alone.

I haven’t talked much on this blog about my recent diagnosis with Type 1 Diabetes. It’s been interesting. It sucks, of course.

But I have been thinking about the strange way my chronic illnesses have come. My little sister, Laura, was diagnosed with T1 Diabetes when she was thirteen. The process was crazy, from the nurse in the ER who informed my mom Laura had anorexia and told her to go somewhere else (when Laura was literally starving to death because her blood sugar was so high) to eye surgeries so unusual that they took pictures to put in medical textbooks.

I was about 14/15 during all this. My own health troubles started when I was 17, and I took strength from Laura’s experience. Her diabetes taught me how to live with RA.

Strangely, now my RA is teaching me how to live with my diabetes. Shots don’t bother me because I’ve been on HUMIRA before (which is basically burning poison in a syringe). Insulin is easy peasy comparatively!

There are lots of ups and downs. There are good days and there are hard days. There is a lot of counseling. (Everyone who has a chronic illness needs a counselor. Period.)

I don’t know if I’m saintly enough to say I’m grateful for all this. But my chronic illness makes life more vivid. It gives me boundaries. It is a painful, terrible, beautiful blessing.

My original post from Instagram:

Suffering the Silence

People often say I am brave. But brave is just another label, a side effect or symptom. When I am going in for my third hand surgery, or when I give myself a shot, or when I too fatigued to get out of bed, I am not being brave. I am existing. I am doing what I can to live the life I have. If bravery is simple survival, I would rather be something harder. I would rather be joyful. Existing happens, easy or not. But the pursuit of joy? That’s the thing that often feels impossible.