I’m really excited about my new blog! I’m no longer updating this one, so please head on over to elizabethsyson.wordpress.com and hit that lovely “follow” button to keep hearing about my adventures.
I’ve got a countdown until my departure for Rwanda, and I hope you’ll come along as I join the Peace Corps and dive into teaching English!
Author Archives: Elizabeth Syson
I’m really excited about my new blog! I’m no longer updating this one, so please head on over to elizabethsyson.wordpress.com and hit that lovely “follow” button to keep hearing about my adventures.
Reminder: my blog is moving to elizabethsyson.wordpress.com. All my content will be both here and there for another week, but starting in August, this blog will no longer be active.
This is a summer of heartache.
I find myself grieving afresh almost every day—Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, five police officers in Dallas and three in Baton Rouge, hundreds of people in Baghdad, Istanbul, and Nice, and, I know, more—probably hundreds more that I never see, hundreds that the media never takes notice of.
Around this time last year, I wrote a blog post about love, hate, and opposing beliefs. Today I find myself thinking again of the strange juxtaposition, the way love seems to inevitably give way to hatred, the way the lines between them grow hazy and thin until we can hardly tell one from the other.
This is a summer of blood, and voices cry out from every side. We are angry. We are frightened. Most of us want the same thing: we want the violence to end. We want lives to be valued above hateful ideology. We want equality and safety and hope.
We are angry because we love—because our hearts bleed for the innocent ones caught in the crossfires of conflicting beliefs. We are angry because we feel helpless—because we see no solution in the face of unchecked hatred, blind oppression, and ongoing violence.
But when our pain and outrage turn our love to hatred, how are we better? Suddenly we look back and realise that we’ve been so focused on righting wrongs that we’ve forgotten to love the wronged. We’ve so desperately battled against injustice that we cannot fathom allowing justice for the other side, whether that other side is political, racial, religious, ideological…
This is a summer of people—individual humans trying to live through the horrors. We weep over the tragedies, we rail against the unfairness, and we shop for groceries. We protest injustices, we question motivations, and we balance our budgets. We cannot stop the world spinning no matter how ghastly the news.
I knelt at my granny’s feet this morning because she can no longer put on her compression stockings or shoes by herself. Kneeling there, I thought, This is the kind of love we’ve forgotten. Not the kind that fights, but the kind that serves. This, I realised, is the kind of dedication we have lost—the kind that proves itself not by destroying opposition, but by creating goodness.
My granny is difficult to love well. Despite her years of loving me, I find myself resenting the restrictions her helplessness places on my time and freedom. I find myself wishing she could understand or acknowledge the sacrifices we make to care for her. And this, I finally understand—this is what love truly is. To kneel at the feet of someone who cannot see the gift to appreciate it, giving without expecting return, without bitterness.
With new clarity, I see that the fine line between love and hate is merely this: to stand, unequivocally and unflinchingly, not against something, but for something.
I cannot right every wrong, but I can weep with the grieving, and I can stand with the suffering, and I can kneel with a pair of elderly feet in the early morning.
This is a summer of hatred—but I am learning love.
Quick announcement: I’m moving! Well, not in real life—not yet, anyway—but online. Follow me at elizabethsyson.wordpress.com to keep updated. All my content will be both here and there until the official move, but starting in August, this blog will no longer be active.
What would you think if I didn’t apply to grad school, I texted my mother, and instead moved to Africa to teach English?
I got her answer almost immediately: Can I call you?
To be fair, she handled the whole situation better than a lot of parents might have, and over the next several hours, I laid out my reasoning behind discarding applications to a handful of top-notch universities and banking on a long-shot application to the Peace Corps.
My main reason: I should not have an education.
Education is an interesting thing, when you sit down to think about it. For centuries, only the wealthy or religious were educated, and the working classes were kept in their place largely by a lack of education. In some times and places, it simply wasn’t available. In others, it was illegal—consider the way white Southerners kept black slaves under control by limiting their education. Today, we consider education a necessity, but millions of children worldwide either can’t go to school or have to drop out before finishing.
“According to UNESCO, 61 million primary school-age children were not enrolled in school in 2010. Of these children, 47% were never expected to enter school, 26% attended school but left, and the remaining 27% are expected to attend school in the future.
I say that I should not have had an education, and maybe that sounds odd. After all, I’m a white American living above the poverty line. I learned to read and write before kindergarten and maintained high grades from beginning to end of my education, and I never once questioned whether I would go to college (though, as I later learned, my parents did).
But the truth is, I’m only in my position because a lot of people made a lot of sacrifices. I succeeded in high school because my mother devoted time and energy to homeschool six children when the public school system failed us. My parents managed a tight budget to buy me books on my birthdays. I attended a fantastic college mostly on scholarships and work-study, and I studied abroad thanks to generous gifts from family and friends.
“In developing, low-income countries, every additional year of education can increase a person’s future income by an average of 10%.”
Don’t get me wrong—I worked hard for my education—but I started from a position of privilege, and it was the sacrifices and gifts of other people that put me there. And suddenly, a year ago, wading through grad school applications, I stopped and asked myself, “Why?”
Why go to grad school? Why spent that much more money—someone else’s money, of course—to spend another two years revelling in a writing-centred world of my own? Why go on to a career, to make money to pay for a flat so I could live in a city with a job where I could make money to pay for a flat to…? That day, staring at the bright pictures of classrooms and successful grad students, I thought, What a waste.
Not that education is a waste of money. I think education is one of the most valuable things we have—the chance to broaden our worlds, learn new skills, open up opportunities. But taking an education I’d been essentially given and using it merely to make myself a lucrative life? It sounded thoroughly selfish.
“53% of the world’s out-of-school children are girls and 2/3 of the illiterate people in the world are women.”
Literature cracked the world open for me. It gave me a place to hide, new thoughts to think, unexpected people to love. It taught me to understand and communicate with diverse groups of people, to consider every perspective, to grieve for every pain. Practically, communication skills make me more likely to get and keep a good job. Literacy gives me the chance to learn outside a formal educational structure, and writing gives me an effective self-therapy option when anxiety strikes.
And, faced with the option to spend two more years either enjoying my education or sharing it, I couldn’t fathom choosing the former.
This leads me to my official announcement: in September, I fly to Kigali, Rwanda to spend the next two years teaching high school English.
I’m thrilled. I’m terrified. I’d love to answer your questions, and I hope you’ll stick around and let me virtually take you with me on this journey.
*This is a scary announcement because the Peace Corps gives volunteers no guarantee that they won’t be cut from the programme before arrival. My status as a volunteer could change between now and September, although obviously I don’t anticipate that happening.
“It’s a children’s movie,” I heard someone say—but the darkened cinema held only a handful of children.
I can only assume that, like me, the adults crowding the seats had spent hours of their childhoods in Roald Dahl’s make-believe world and that, like my own, their hearts raced with anticipation.
For two hours in that dark room, we adults gasped and giggled like the children we once were. We again feared the shadows lurking in dark corners. We again knew the solitude of waking when the grown-ups slept. We again felt terror, wonder, and the childhood certainty that the world must be much bigger and hold much more than we knew.
And in those dark hours of made-up giants, trapped dreams, and downward-streaming bubbles, we lost our trepidation and regained something else: the raw desire to see the world beyond our own gates.
We all live, like Sophie, behind walls. We each follow rules, like Sophie’s, designed to keep us safe.
We avoid our own curtains—questions we choose not to ask, places we refuse to go, ideas we fear to entertain. Like Sophie, we feel certain something important lurks in the unknown, and we are simultaneously attracted and repulsed. We ache to know what more there is, but we dread what we might learn. And, like Sophie, we have favourite blankets under which we hide, knowing they can’t protect us from everything that waits beyond the safety of our walls but still preferring to cover our heads and hope.
But there comes a moment for each of us when we must approach the curtains and, having looked too long into the darkness beyond them, we can no longer hide from the bigger world outside. Something happens—a phone call, an accident, a breakdown, a single line of type on a page—and all at once we’re forced out of our safe beds, carried beyond our familiar walls, and dropped into the unknown.
Suddenly, we are faced with the truth that the world holds people, ideas, and events we never believed existed. Deny it we may, but we are pressed to live a new kind of life. We see beauties beyond our imaginings, but we also see injustices, horrors, nightmares.
And then, like Sophie, we have to face ourselves—our fears, prejudices, and desires. We have to decide whether to stay hidden in our blankets or to stand up and try to do something, even if that something seems impossible. Even if we feel tiny and helpless against hungry giants and a disbelieving world, we’re given an opportunity to say that enough is enough, to be defined not by whether we succeed but by whether we try.
Adult stories are important. They explore complex ideas, difficult truths, and opposing perspectives. Adult stories teach us to look unflinchingly into the grey spaces between black and white lines. But children’s stories are important, too, and somewhere in between childhood and adulthood, we begin to forget that.
Children’s stories tell us that some things are good and others are bad, that beautiful things must be protected and injustice must be fought, that small people can—and should—stand up against big evils. They remind even adults that we are not insignificant.
There should be a Writers Anonymous club: “Hi, I’m Elizabeth, and it’s been three weeks since I handed someone a half-baked draft for feedback.”
See, I suffer from something I like to call Supportive Audience Deficiency (SAD). I get SAD when I spend hours crafting beautiful words, flowing sentences, and snappy dialogue and have nobody to assure me it’s all worthwhile. Sometimes it feels like maybe I’ve misdiagnosed myself—maybe instead of SAD I’ve got egocentrism problems. I’ve had the argument with myself before:
“I just want someone to reassure me that I’m not wasting my life.”
“You mean you want someone to compliment you.”
“No, I mean if this isn’t going to work out, I want someone to tell me now, before I waste my life on it.”
Wouldn’t life be easier if everything came with a clear designation? “This will take five hours a week and be vital in the long run,” or “This will take seven hours a week and be enjoyable, though you may regret it from time to time.”
Unfortunately, life isn’t like that. For years, my best alternative has been to hand someone a draft and judge by positive or negative feedback whether it’s worth the hours I might spend revising it.
And now I’m realising that I’ve gone about this all wrong. Life isn’t a budget to be balanced. Art isn’t a carefully calculated investment risk.
So I’m turning my back on the worrying and the second-guessing and the needing to know the outcome before I invest in the process. I’m doing what I love right now and letting the long run take care of itself. Instead of letting SAD symptoms dampen my enthusiasm, I’m enjoying the moments as they pass, living my life as it happens instead of waiting for the future.
Maybe the piece I’ve spent years on will never be read—so what? I enjoyed the process. I wrote for myself, not for some hypothetical audience years down the road. As I wrote, I learned self-discipline. I got to know myself better, faced dark parts of my own nature, confronted big questions, and did not surface with all the big answers. I let my imagination run wild and I lived in a new world created entirely at the crossroads of language and ideas. All of this may never be measurably relevant to my career, but it is immeasurably relevant to my being.
The most meaningful things in life may never give quantifiable returns on my time and effort, but perhaps that makes them more valuable, not less. I am shaped by the interests I pursue, the people I encounter, the ideas I entertain. I am formed by minuscule everyday experiences, not by some intangible ledger counting my time down to a bottom line. Every moment, I am growing and becoming. The most significant return on my time is not measured by what I do, what opportunities I have, or where I end up, but by who I am.
And for that, I need no supportive audience. I know the answer without asking—it is always worth my while to be.
I can’t breathe.
I find myself pacing, restless, needing to do something yet having nothing to do. I have no deadlines. I have no commitments. I have no classes, no job, no rehearsals.
Is this what it feels like to be an adult? I wonder.
It feels aimless.
To be fair, I’ve submitted eight freelance job proposals, attended a wedding, read a few books, revised twelve chapters of a novel, and unpacked and repacked almost constantly since arriving home from university. I’ve played poker and
gone hiking napped on a mountain. I’ve washed dishes, made pizza, and come close to dying because I thought I was in shape and tried to sprint a mile.
It’s not like I’ve done nothing since graduation—and yet I find myself still with these terrifying pockets of undesignated time.
It’s an hour here and three hours there, ten minutes while the coffee perks in the mornings and fifteen minutes while I wait my turn for the bathroom at night.
And suddenly, without more homework than a human being can possibly get through, without work to rush to or emails to answer or events to attend, I find myself hemmed in by spare time.
I’ve dreamt of leisure for years—while I was working during high school, while I was reading textbooks during university, while I was job-hunting and tax-filing and internship-applying and apartment-cleaning and…
…and I’ve spent so much time wishing for freedom that now, with time on my hands, I feel restless. What do I do with the moments, the hours, the days? I feel lazy if I sit for a few minutes and do nothing. I sleep badly because I must be forgetting to do something.
I’m free, but I can’t enjoy it. Like a scared dog released from a small cage into a new environment, I huddle, immobile, terrified in my spare time, certain the appearance of freedom hides some trap.
And somehow, in the midst of newness and change, aimlessness and fear, I find myself breathing. I find that time is not, as I’ve been led to believe, a valuable commodity that I’m likely to fritter away.
I find it’s something bigger.
It’s the silence in which my heart beats and my eyes blink and a thousand thoughts race through my mind. It’s the chance to work, to invest, to learn, yes—but it’s also the chance to breathe. To look around me, to be caught up for minutes together in the beautiful flicker of leaves in the wind, to bond by lounging in aimless togetherness with my family, to sleep until I wake naturally and to marvel at the unfathomable interaction of my waking mind and my unconscious dreams.
Living, I see now, isn’t a matter of getting everything done before you die—it’s a matter of breathing.
Sometimes, I adopt a shelter dog for a day. The local animal control allows people to borrow dogs and cats for an afternoon at a time to socialise the animals, get them out of their cages, and, hopefully, encourage people to fall in love with and permanently adopt a needy animal.
My roommate and I have done this twice now. Twice we’ve fallen in love with wriggling bundles of unconditional affection. Twice we’ve seen an animal’s joy at romping on grass and in woods rather than on concrete and in cages. Twice we’ve known our hearts would break at the end of the day when we returned the dogs to the shelter.
We’ve been poor college students living in no-pets-allowed dorms with unstable lifestyles. We would be irresponsible pet owners and eventually have to give them up all over again. Still, every time we take them back to their cages, my heart cracks as I hand the leash over to a shelter employee. There’s an urge, every time, to withdraw a little, not to fall completely in love with an animal I can’t keep. But it’s better when I let myself go, forget the pain coming at the end of the afternoon, and abandon myself to the eager eyes and wagging tail.
And yet we continue to go borrow pets for the day, and I continue to believe it’s worth it—that in the few hours we take them out and show them affection, we do something worthwhile—that despite my heartbreak both the dog and I are better for our few hours of love.
I find, now, that this principle applies to more than dogs. As I packed four years of my life into boxes and suitcases, as I turned the tassel on my flat cap, hugged close friends goodbye for perhaps the last time, and watched my university disappear out the back window, I felt a familiar shattering under my ribcage.
Like most people, and definitely most TCKs, I hate goodbyes. I hate leaving people I love and places I’ve enshrined in my memories. And when I know an ending is coming, the temptation is always to withdraw a little, not to fall completely in love with people I can’t keep. I want to close myself off, to hide my soul away, protecting myself from the very beginning against the ending.
And yet it’s always better when I let myself go, forget the pain coming at the end of the afternoon, or the semester, or the four years, and abandon myself to the laughter and the tears and the friendships. Somehow, I continue to believe it’s worth it—that in the few hours or days or months we share joys and sorrows, we do something worthwhile.
I believe that we build something beautiful through late night hysteria and midafternoon naps, through heart-to-heart talks over coffee and insignificant jokes over cafeteria food. Most importantly, I believe that something does not have to be permanent to be beautiful—that some friendships are precious in their briefness, that the ephemeral can be as needed and as sacred as the eternal. And I believe that, despite my heartbreak at the end, both my friends and I are better for our few years of love.
There’s a frantic energy that pulses through college life. It’s the exuberance of the first week back in the fall, the urgent scramble to get ahead on homework before mid-semester apathy sets in, the wild abandon of late-night giggles before finals. It’s a desperation that pounds like a heartbeat, like treading water to stay afloat long after your legs are numb from exhaustion.
Numb legs. Numb mind. Numb heart.
That’s what I get after four years of this. I’m equally beyond panic and excitement. That freshman year flutter of anxiety over low grades has given way to an apathy born of desperation and exhaustion. The thrill of anticipation over upcoming events has dulled to a weary acceptance of change, a deadened recognition of time’s inevitable progression.
“Are you excited?” people ask when they know I’m graduating next week.
“Yes,” I say.
No, I think.
Excited? Who has the energy to be excited? I can’t see graduation past the packing, the cleaning, the final exams, the empty bank account, the endless commitments.
The achievement I’ve worked toward, cried over, dreamed about—suddenly, as it comes within my reach, I find I don’t care. Exhaustion robs me of excitement. And besides—somewhere in the distance, beyond the cap and gown and diploma, I see something else coming. Something bigger. Something grander.
A new goal.
I’m struggling so hard to survive the moment, straining so hard to see into the future, that I’m about to let this achievement slip away unrecognised.
“You’re almost there!” people say.
“Yes, but…” I say.
That “yes, but…” is subtle. It feels like small talk when I say it, yet by letting it out, I negate my own success. Yes, I’ve put in four years of hard work, overcome challenges I never imagined, experienced adventures and heartbreaks I never anticipated—but…
But what? But I’m not quite there yet? But I have loans? But packing is hard and I don’t have a summer job and I’m worried about this, that, or the other?
This is not an isolated moment—this is every moment. At the crest of every hill, I see the mountain beyond and allow that to diminish my sense of accomplishment, to somehow make my effort meaningless, as if the successes to come make this one not matter.
There will always be a “but.” That’s life. Nothing is isolated. No day is 100% celebration. No moment is an isolated pinnacle. Something will always be coming in the future, but tomorrow’s struggle does not negate today’s achievement.
I cannot live my life looking away from today. I can’t diminish every ending. I can’t let every new challenge ruin the success of the moment.
So yeah—I’m stressed, I’m tired, I’m overwhelmed.
I’m also excited.
Because no matter what today looks like or what challenges wait in the future, I’m near the top of this mountain I’ve been climbing for four years. Whatever might be waiting for me beyond next week, I know that what I’ve done is significant. Where I am is important.
I refuse to let tomorrow negate today.
Did your family ever have one of those gag gifts that made interminable rounds? Maybe it was an ugly knickknack passed on every year to some new relative who didn’t want it and who would chuck it in a closet until next year provided an opportunity to dump it on someone else. In my family it was an old musical on VHS that bounced back and forth between my brother and my dad for years.
I’ve realised that there’s another gag gift we give without warning: advice. I don’t mean to diminish the value of wise words spoken with care, but a quick review of advice you’ve received should show you that while some advice is thoughtfully given, much of it is slapped about with a dash of cliche and all the serious forethought of a late-night ice cream binge.
College students in particular are singled out for the well-meant but ill-considered gift of unsought advice; we’re young, we’re at a potentially difficult stage of life, and we’re leaping into new experiences and challenges without much idea of what they’ll entail. The words of wisdom I’ve received over the past four or five years could fill several books, ranging from the profound to the laughable.
The only thing to do with good advice is to pass it on. It is never of any use to oneself.
And yet, really, good advice is one of the most valuable things we can give each other. Words well thought through and given in love can be as meaningful as slapdash adages can be useless.
So, in the spirit of one of my favourite Oscar Wilde quotes, here it is: the advice I wish I’d been given when I started university.
Don’t do things for the resume.
Trust me, assuming you have a job and some involvement on campus or in the community, your resume will be full by graduation. By signing up for anything and everything that looks good on a resume, you leave yourself no time to pursue things that really matter to you. Almost any activity can build your resume in some way, whether it’s by developing career skills, demonstrating responsible activism, showing your leadership, or simply proving you finish what you start. The difference, though, is that when you get asked about a line on your resume that you took simply to look good, you can only spout a list of typical job skills. But when you get asked about an activity you chased after because you’re passionate about after-school programs, or international relationships, or whatever it is—you could talk for days about all the ways you were challenged and changed. Your passion comes out in your voice, and you stand out. Don’t do things for the resume. Do things because you care about them.
You don’t have to know everyone.
I come from a small school in a small town. Everyone knows everyone. I came to college thinking it would be the same—that I should know everyone’s name. That somehow I was a good person if I knew everyone and a selfish person if I didn’t. Focus on others, I’ve been taught. Care about the people around you. Important attitudes, of course, but impractical when you take “the people around you” to mean every single person with whom you interact. I wish someone had told me to differentiate between common courtesy and real friendship, that someone had reminded me that while I should smile and hold doors and say “thank you,” I could forego learning thousands of people’s names and instead focus my energies on cultivating close friendships with the handful of people near me. If you’re the kind of person who wants to know a hundred people, of course, go meet them. But with a limited amount of time, chances are you won’t have know every person around. That’s fine. Be nice to strangers and save your time and emotions for the few people with whom you’ll develop lasting, meaningful relationships.
Some classes will be bad.
College is an opportunity. Whether you’re working hard and scrounging pennies to make it financially viable or riding it out on your parents’ generosity, you’ve got an opportunity that not everyone is offered, and you should make the most of that. Don’t throw away chances to learn merely because you dislike a teacher or don’t care for the subject. At the same time, recognise that some classes are there to be passed and then forgotten. Maybe it’s the freshman orientation class filled with cliche life skills, or maybe it’s that Spanish class that, it turns out, replicates the one you took in high school. Not every class is well planned, and not every professor is good at teaching. Let the bad classes heighten your appreciation for the good ones. Sit through lectures and do your homework, because sometimes in life we do things we don’t want to, because that’s part of being an adult. Appreciate any brilliant moments in the semester, check the requirement off your catalogue list, and move on. It’s okay to dislike classes as long as it doesn’t keep you from learning when there is something useful to pick up.
In the interest of being fair to all the loving relatives and friends who gave me college advice, I have to admit a lot of it was useful. A lot of it came at just the right moment to encourage me or change my perspective. But we all have lessons we learn the hard way. You’ll make mistakes no matter what, but maybe you can avoid the ones I made.