Category Archives: Fears and Personhood

The BFG: Why Children’s Stories Are For Adults

“It’s a children’s movie,” I heard someone say—but the darkened cinema held only a handful of children.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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On Spending Time

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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.


Breathing

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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.

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What I Am Is White

“God made me white for a reason.”

She said it as I was sipping chai, as we discussed relationships and cultures and the difficulties of listening to people’s stories instead of fixing them. She’s an old friend who works with university students on a mostly-Latino campus, a blue-eyed white girl who grew up on the Mexican border, who looks, perhaps, German, but feels most comfortable around Hispanics.

It would’ve been easier if God had made her brown instead of white, if she hadn’t been a different colour in a town where whites are the marginalised minority. It would be easier if she matched the students she loves, if her affinity for Latinos were visibly explicable at a glance.

It would’ve been easier if God had made me brown, too.

As a child, with no conception of the difficulties minorities face, with the naïve innocence of a sheltered and privileged middle-class white girl, I knew before I was old enough to read that I wished my skin were something darker.

As a white girl growing up in Panama, I desperately wished to look more like everyone else, to stop the old ladies staring on the streets, the teenagers proudly airing their English in the form of catcalls, the girls at camp pointing to my untanned stomach and expounding on how white I was.

Thats me—the conspicuously white girl in the middle.

Thats me—the conspicuously white girl in the middle.

As a university student, discussing racial reconciliation, minority issues, and social justice, I developed yet a deeper awareness of my skin colour. The more I learned about systematic injustice, the more I longed to be free of the incriminating whiteness that put me in the “privileged” category and removed me from the struggles of those around me.

My desire to be a different colour changed from an adolescent’s wish to fit in to a young adult’s guilt over society’s wrongs.

Being white became an incurable flaw. I felt that by being white I somehow lost my right to an opinion, lost my ability to empathise, lost whatever it is that allows people to be grateful for their blessings without apologising for them.

I did not choose to be white, but I chose to regret it.

And now here sat my friend, sure that God had made her white for a reason.

And there I sat, accepting the idea, yet fighting back against the logic that said if she were white for a reason, so must I be. And the idea would not leave me. A reason—what reason?

Maybe I’m white to give a voice to the voiceless—to speak for the underprivileged in a society where my privilege lets me be heard.

Maybe I’m white to teach my soul humility—to learn to be gracious with myself and others when so much of our identity is involuntary and immutable.

Maybe I’m white to instil empathy in my heart—to help me see the perspectives of those around me and share their causes when I have nothing to gain.

Maybe…

…days later, I have a dozen potential reasons and no solid conclusions, and maybe that’s the way it should be.

There could be a hundred reasons or none, and in the end, perhaps it all boils down to this: That each of us should live a life dedicated to loving, supporting, and serving others, no matter our skin colour—that each of us is in some way privileged and in some way lacking—that we should fight injustice, right wrongs, and embrace differences—that as we face ourselves honestly, we must acknowledge what we are, but never apologise for it.

And for whatever reason, what I am is white.

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Shelter Dogs, Graduation, and Temporary Love

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.

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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.

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Confessions of a College Senior

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.

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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.

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Grief: A Sacred Space

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“Most of us on campus today don’t know any of these people. Most of us weren’t here. Most of us have no idea. But here we are, to remember together an event, a day, a world of emotion that most of us don’t know. It’s a painful, terrible, beautiful thing.”

I wrote those words in my journal yesterday, when I had the privilege of taking part in a memorial ceremony for the tenth anniversary of a van accident that took the lives of five at my university.

Recently my anthropology professor said that it takes only a generation to forget—and at a university, where generations pass every four years, forgetting is a rapid process. Events, traditions, and stories are lost in the flow of life, buried beneath the ongoing cycle of graduations and freshman orientations.

Ten years. Two and a half generations. And yesterday, we who have no memory of the tragedy joined with those whose lives were intrinsically caught up in it, and together we mourned.

That story—the story of death and loss that touched so many lives that were not mine—finally touched my life, ten years later, through the tears and words of those who lived it. Somehow, a decade after a loss I did not know, I was invited into a private, painful place and allowed to weep over a grief not mine.

And this, I think, is the most beautiful thing we as humans can do. To tell stories that are not ours, to feel emotions we should have no part in, to be united in another’s grief. It’s a humble position that we take, setting aside our own joys and sorrows to focus on someone else’s, laying aside our burdens, not to lift theirs, because we could never do that, but to join them beneath the weight.

This, I think, is the essence of love—that we who know nothing of their pain willingly step into a darkness we can never lighten, choosing simply to be present, and that they, who know nothing of us, allow us into that sacred space.

Yesterday, together, we told a story that was not ours to tell—because community has a responsibility to remember, to keep telling stories that are not ours but that are important. And today I have no solutions to offer. I have only this—this sense of awe at the terrible beauty of shared loss, this sense of wonder at the holy place I was allowed to enter, washed in the grief of strangers.


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