Tag Archives: courage

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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Superhero in Training

Being a university senior is kind of like being a superhero.

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It’s kind of like being a superhero in the first few frames of the superhero-in-training montage, where said hero still has no idea how to use her powers and does embarrassing things like slamming into billboards or falling off bridges, and she survives on pure dumb luck, and it’s a good thing that her homemade pyjama-style costume includes a mask, because it’s embarrassing for everyone involved.

By the time you hit senior year, you have a decent grasp on how some things work, and you’ve spent four years getting pumped full of new skills and ideas, and you’re ready to go out and save the world—but you also have no practice in most of anything, and you’re still more or less totally unprepared for the challenges (and, obviously, supervillains) coming at you. But you’re also an emerging adult, so you have this overdeveloped sense of your own prowess, which means you feel completely cool taking on your arch-nemesis supervillain immediately, despite being woefully unprepared to fight an evil that powerful.

And, of course, there are doubts. Clashing with the rash determination and blind confidence, there’s a certainty that you’re still just a normal human—that four years of training and preparation haven’t actually turned you into anything special, and that when you jump off that building, you won’t fly, but crash to the pavement, and people will crowd around to get a glimpse of your failure and shake their heads over your delusion that you could do anything special.

But here’s the thing about superheroes: they try anyway.

They fall off buildings, but they get back up again. They take a punch that colours the whole page yellow and red behind the massive, “WHAM!” and they keep coming anyway. They believe in something, and they fight for it in every frame. Sometimes it’s overwhelming. Sometimes it’s lonely. And yet, you’ll notice, there’s always someone else ready to join the fight against injustice and oppression.

And even when it feels like you’re alone and powerless, when the giant robot or power-hungry alien or vengeful mutant is a hundred times stronger than you are, there’s always hope, and there’s always someone the better for it. If you’re too late to stop the bridge collapsing, you may still be able to shield that little girl from the flying rubble. There’s always a loss, but there’s always a victory, too.

So, seniors, as we finish this training and head toward that cap-and-gown supersuit, it’s okay to feel powerless and powerful all at the same time. It’s okay to overestimate our new skills and underestimate our impact. The excitement, the terror, the impatience—it’s all part of the experience.

We feel silly and small now, but it isn’t about the number of people pointing at the sky and speculating on our bird-like or plane-like nature—it isn’t about the good-guy-beats-bad-guy frame at the end—it’s about the attempt. It’s about knowing the odds and walking in anyway, because we refuse to sit back and watch the world fall apart if there’s anything we can do to save it.

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On Heartbreak

“Any boy who breaks your heart never even deserved it.”

That’s what the article said—you know the kind, those “things you learn in your early 20’s” types, filled with advice that reads like the verbal equivalent of a hipster Instagram feed. The kind you scroll through because you have five minutes to kill and don’t want to entertain any difficult thoughts.

Except I hit a difficult thought: this idea that anyone who hurts you should be shut out of your life.

That nobody could possibly hurt you and also be part of a healthy future.

I’ve had my heart broken. By close friends. By boys. By books. By parents. By circumstances. I’ve lived my life running toward endings, drifting out of lives when relationships became too risky, avoiding goodbyes and moving on to the next adventure, chasing the dream of an impervious heart that never breaks.

My friends, people fail. It makes us human. It makes us beautiful.

Every boy will break your heart. So will every girl. Every friend. Every person you let close. To love at all is to open your heart to pain—to know that you will see your soul shatter and grow back together a hundred times over, and that every time, you will lose something. And every time, you will gain something.

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Love is not the absence of pain; it is not the absence of heartbreak or the promise never to fail. Love is a promise to fail together. To fight not to hurt each other, but to hurt each other anyway—and then to forgive each other, to hold each other through healing.

Heartbreak will happen. Healing will happen.

We are defined, not by the pain we cause, but by the ways we react in the aftermath of heartbreak.

Goodbyes will happen. Endings will come. Don’t run from them. Don’t consign them to bitter memories. But don’t precipitate them simply because you’re afraid. Don’t say the words “not meant to be” and move on because you can’t face the heartbreak.

Running will keep you safe, yes, but running will keep you lonely. Running away will take your mind off your wounds, but standing your ground, fighting for someone you believe in—that will bring healing.


Internships: What You Should (and Shouldn’t) Do

Summer hit me like a belly-flop from the high dive this year. I interviewed for my internship eight days before I flew home from school. I got the “Congratulations! You got the job!” call two days before I flew home. I found an apartment and ordered a plane ticket a week before I flew to New York, and I had one day to make sure I knew which train to get on before I started.

I was scared to death. I had no idea what to expect. I considered quitting before I started

The end of summer is hitting me a little less like a belly-flop and a little more like a cannonball—still insane impact and a lot of mess, but much less pain.

I’m glad I didn’t quit, because I had a fantastic summer. It flew by. Working an internship is the difference between practicing a stroke on dry land and trying it in water; you’re submerged in the experience, and I discovered that I love being submerged in publishing. I also like to think I learned a thing or two about what you should and should not do in an internship.

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1. Do: Take your work seriously.
This sounds really “duh,” I know, but it’s tempting to think, “I’m just an intern. I’m temporary. It won’t matter.” But it will. An internship is one of the easiest ways to get a job out of college. Probably half the people I met or worked for this summer had been hired after interning. Even if you don’t plan to go back and work for the company, the work you do is only temporary for you. Any given task and its ramifications may only last till the end of summer for me, but for the supervisor I turn it in to, for the production department who have to work with it, for the book it winds up affecting in the end—even for the consumers who read that book—my work is long-term. It carries permanent weight.

2. Don’t: Take yourself seriously.
People will respect you for the work you do, but they’ll like you for how you make them feel. Be friendly. Chat with people, smile, laugh, listen. Try to see other people’s perspectives and don’t get too hung up on yourself. Remember that you’re an intern, not a full-time employee—meet your deadlines, but take advantage of the flexibility offered, make friends with people who can teach you things, accept that you will fail and that the easiest way to deal with that is with honesty, good humour, and humility. Apologise. Fix the problem. Laugh at yourself. You’ll go far.

3. Do: Show your enthusiasm.
In a world full of stressed people running on the hamster wheel of corporate life, nothing stands out more than someone who genuinely enjoys being there. I’m not saying to pretend to love something you hate, but even the worst job has its perks. I’m fortunate enough to have found an internship I absolutely loved (nearly) every minute of; you might not be—but still keep an eye out for the things you enjoy. Look for the aspects that you gravitate toward and let your supervisors know you enjoy them. Tell people which tasks you could do all day or what about your work is meaningful to you. Your supervisor isn’t there just to hand out work, and he or she will be gratified to hear that you love the idea of helping create a better product for the consumer or that you get excited about brainstorming creative ways to market. Plus your enthusiasm differentiates you from the hundreds of other interns who will be looking for a job soon.

4. Don’t: Say no.
Don’t say no to anything. Get invited to a meeting that seems unrelated to your job? Go anyway. Learn about whatever they’re discussing. I’ve been to sales meetings and question-and-answer sessions for an office move that I won’t be here for. I’ve listened to global executives discuss budgets and artists discuss cover designs. Vital to my particular job? Absolutely not—but they gave me a more complete picture of how the company works, what the different people do, how various departments interact. I’ve done spreadsheets, made phone calls, and scanned cheque request forms. Related in any way to writing or copyediting? Absolutely not—but being willing to do anything makes your supervisors like you and lets you see what other people’s jobs entail, again giving you a more holistic view of the company. The point of an internship is not to make money or to simply survive it—it’s to learn, so don’t ever say no to any opportunity to learn anything.

5. Do: Ask questions.
“Ask questions” is a common piece of advice that people don’t follow much. Don’t just ask questions when you need information in order to complete a task; ask questions about everything. Ask what part your small piece of work plays in the bigger picture. Find out who a job came from and where it’s going. Find out what that guy in the cubical down the hall does and how it relates to what you’re doing. Email people and ask for informational interviews—they’ll be happy to do them, and you’ll learn about jobs you never knew existed or insider secrets of how or where to apply if you want to get to a certain position, and you’ll meet someone who might become a valuable contact in getting to an interview. If nothing else, you might make a friend.

6. Don’t: Just float.
It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the options, the uncertainties, and your growing recognition of how little you really know about your chosen field. Feeling so at sea, it can be easy to just bob around, taking whatever opportunities you get but setting no definite goals. Don’t just float. Pick a goal and work toward it. Remember that goals can change; that’s okay—but pick a milestone or you’ll never get anywhere. Even if you’re taking whatever job you can get without being picky, set yourself goals. Decide what you want to learn or what job you want to transition into. Don’t let yourself float aimlessly when you could be getting somewhere.

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Beyond all that, enjoy yourself. An internship is a fantastic opportunity to try a career out and see how you feel about it. If you discover you hate your chosen path, search for the humour in it. If you discover you love it, savour every moment. The important thing to remember is that it’s a temporary adventure, so appreciate it before it ends.


An Open Letter to a Toxic Couple (5 things not to do)

Dear Toxic Couple,

I call you that because a few nights ago, I lay in bed listening to you shouting for over an hour. My thin apartment walls let every word through, and by the time I fell asleep, you had sketched your relationship for me. From your argument, I gather you’re engaged to be married and that one of you recently disclosed information about painful past events and relationships.

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I’ve been privy to and participant in countless fights, shouting matches, and tearful discussions. But for some reason, your fight got under my skin. It wasn’t just the invasive volume; loud voices can’t explain why now, days later, someone else’s fight still troubles me. I think it’s because you gave vivid examples of abusive tactics I’ve read about but never witnessed directly.

You, sir, cared more about being right than about loving her.

I listened to you ridicule, condemn, and dismiss her pain, her convictions, her family, her choices, and her person. When she had the courage to say, “You’re being hurtful, and it’s not okay,” I listened to say, “No I’m not.” More than once, your response was, “You need to let that go.” When she tried to explain how she felt, I heard you interrupt her mid-sentence, blatantly tell her that her perceptions were wrong, and then have the audacity to say, “You need to stop interrupting and show some respect.”

I fought the urge to bang on the wall and shout, “She’s right! You’re being awful! Listen to her!” I thought better of that, and instead of barging in on someone else’s conversation, I’m writing this: an open letter to remind you of things that are never, ever okay in a relationship.

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1. Ridiculing insecurities.
She trusted you enough to share deep hurts, secrets, regrets, and convictions, and you have a responsibility as a decent human being—not to mention as the man who claims love her—to respect that trust. She gave you the gift of trust by showing you where you could hurt her most. You should now know how to protect her, not how to wound her. No matter how heated the argument, those insecurities are absolutely off limits, and you lowered yourself by attacking her vulnerable points.

2. Negating pain.
When she says, “You hurt me,” I don’t care how innocent your intentions were, you stop immediately and apologise. What’s real to her is the pain she feels, not the intentions you claim. Instead of apologising, you told her to get over it, to let it go. You told her that her hurt wasn’t real, wasn’t significant—you were insulting, cruel, and, frankly, wrong. Your reaction to her pain was a form of gaslighting, an abusive emotional manipulation tactic. I never heard you apologise. Not once.

3. Attacking family.
Family is like extra weight or grey hairs: if they’re yours, you can make them the butt of the joke, but if they’re not, treat them with respect and discretion. From your shouting match, I gathered you think her family did something worthy of eternal hatred, but she wants to forgive and reconcile. I don’t know her family (and according to her, neither do you). What I do know is that attacking the people she loves is petty and unlikely to either improve their relationship or encourage her to leave a toxic situation. If you think her family is coming between you, a rational conversation might be warranted, but vicious insults are not. And unless her family is actually hurting her, you trying to separate them is emotional manipulation on your part and is a warning sign she should know to look for.

4. Demanding respect without giving it.
When you ended your tirade, she tried to explain how she felt. You interrupted every other sentence to tell her she was wrong. You never listened or gave her time to talk out her perspective. And then you had the nerve to tell her she should stop interrupting and respect you. And she tried. She spoke rationally. She never attacked you personally. But you have no right to demand respect when you treat her with such harshness. As it happened, she was already showing respect whether you deserved it or not; you demanded submission, and I applaud her refusal.

5. Using “I love you” as an excuse. 
What really turned my stomach as I listened was your use of, “I love you.” You fitted it in between insult and disparagement, first telling her she should “get over it,” then telling her your harshness stemmed from love. You made it sound like she owed you something, like you did her a favour by declaring affection, and in return she should agree with you and forget the ways you ridiculed her. But love does not attack; love protects. It does not wound; it comforts. It does not demand; it gives. “I love you” is never an excuse for the type of cruelty I heard from you.

I want to believe this argument represented an anomaly in your relationship, that you were both tired, stressed, caving to human pressures and saying things usually wouldn’t and truly regret. I want to think you’ve sat down since then and had a real conversation—one in which you listened to each other, refrained from interrupting, acknowledged the awful things you said, took responsibility, forgave each other.

If not, then I hope, ma’am, that you keep the strong voice I heard through the walls when you told him how unacceptable you found his words. I hope you raise it in protest and, if it comes down to it, in finality. There is much to be said for forgiving, loving, accepting others with all their flaws. But if his “love” crushes, manipulates, and wounds you, walk away. You deserve a healthy love, one that respects, encourages, and shelters you.

Sincerely,

Elizabeth


Pizza: Free. Advice: Priceless.

Every Thursday, I stand outside a locked door and wait for someone to let me in. I think I hate it more than anything else I’ve had to do since coming to New York (and that’s saying a lot; this morning I took all the subway stairs in one embarrassing, painful step).

Why put myself through it? The quick answer is, “Free food!” Because, let’s face it, I’ll do a lot for free food. The more honest answer is complicated. It’s all tied up with scary words like “networking” and “career opportunities,” but I guess it comes down to this: people who made it to the top are telling their stories and answering questions, and I want to know what they’re saying.

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So every Thursday, I wait outside that locked door for someone to let me in. I walk into a small conference room crowded with summer interns all hoping these few months will give them the boost they need to start climbing that ladder. I queue for free pizza, and I find a seat as near the door as possible, and then I listen to a professional talk about publishing, or editing, or whatever they do, and I try to hear something relevant.

A couple weeks ago, in one of those crowded intern luncheons, Will Schwalbe said something I love: “You can’t make money doing anything cynically.”

This came in answer my question about striking a balance between doing what you like and doing what pays. And his answer has stuck with me. I see it as presenting an ultimatum: either you do something, or you don’t. But if you decide to do it, do it the right way.

Don’t be mercenary. Don’t do things because you think they’ll pay off. There are so many reasons to do things—you should be able to come up with something more creative than money. Do it for the experience. Do it for the challenge. Do it because someone has to, and you’re willing to be that responsible person.

Or don’t do it.

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If you have to do it, find a way to value it. There’s a 300-name spreadsheet I’m filling in at work. I have the choice of how to do it, and if I’m doing it cynically, I’m missing out. Some things don’t slap you upside the face with how meaningful they are; you have to dig, imagine, get outside your box.

Experience, as I’ve mentioned, is a good motivator for me. The story I’ll tell about it later often makes up for what I’m doing at the moment. Or maybe it’s just the satisfaction of a job well done: 300 names in neatly formatted columns? Sign me up! Maybe it’s the perspective I gain along the way—I’m seeing a broad comparison of psych professors and schools across the country in a way I would never have known otherwise, and I’m getting insight into what the sales departments deal with.

So no, walking across the park to wait for someone to let me into a crowded room full of strangers is not my favourite thing. But I do it every week. Why? Because I think I’ll make valuable connections that will pay off in the future? I did the first day. But the more I think about it, the more I realise that this is not about the pay rate it might secure me later on. This is about learning about something I love, from someone who’s loved it longer, surrounded by other people who love it too.

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…but the free pizza doesn’t hurt.


Three Weeks of Crowds (and also rain)

Three weeks: the point at which any adventure begins to crumble.NYC

At three weeks in New York City, I’m exhausted. The thrill of the adventure has given way to the repetition of the mundane.

Every morning I spend nearly an hour jostled by a shifting mass of shoes and bags and shoulders. Every evening I do the same. Every lunch break I brave the row of knees and takeout bags settled on park benches; strangers terrify me, but the office is cold, and I need that hour of sunshine.

Walking around town isn’t so bad. I have a destination. I don’t have to brave any one person’s presence for longer than the time it takes me to notice and then pass them on the sidewalk. But trains, coffee shops, parks… I have no escape. Nowhere to go, no excuse for where I look. Just me, motionless, and the crowd.

The fact that most of these strangers probably don’t notice me makes no difference. I know they’re worried about their own issues, not wondering about mine. They’re too concerned with whether or not they can find a seat to notice that I’m two inches too close or that I forgot to grab my rings this morning. But I notice. I feel their eyes on me, wish I could make some kind of public apology for taking up space on the train, for sitting on this bench, for eating my lunch in this place, for needing a second to zip my purse before grabbing my coffee and running out the door.Subway

I have no buffer. I’m alone in the city. Just me and my book on the train. Me and my tupperware at lunch. Nobody to distract or protect me or say no, it’s fine, you’re not staring at anyone, don’t worry.

Anxiety is like a spiderweb you didn’t see, and then you feel the sticky strands across your face, and you panic. And you can tell yourself it was just a web, but you’re still convinced at the slightest prickle that some hideous, venomous spider is hiding somewhere on your body, waiting to sink its fangs into you. And even though nothing bad ever happens, that spider rides on your shoulder until all you can feel is its weight.

The crowds are like filaments of spiderweb, each so light I barely notice, wrapping tighter and tighter, and somewhere in the tangle, I know there’s a spider biding its time.

And then this afternoon, something happened. It rained.

I walked out of the office building into a downpour. My umbrella did nothing to shield me from fat, warm drops, and rain ran into my shoes and soaked my feet, and the trees in the park dripped a wet syncopation, and the streets became rivers, buoying up taxis and busses. Umbrellas bobbed along above splashing heels, and as everyone else clutched their coats tighter and hurried from sheltered place to sheltered place, I found myself laughing in delight. Sopping wet and no way to prevent it, I couldn’t find it in me to pout about the rain when it turned the whole city into such a fascinating chaos of wet reflections and refracted lights.

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And yes, I walked through that sodden park and got on a packed train and braved a hundred faces before I reached my flat. But I also remembered that there’s always something beautiful if I look for it. And sometimes, something beautiful is enough to distract me from the spider, just for a moment.


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