32 Things I’ve Learned in New York City

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One year and four days ago today, I pulled a Rachel from the Glee Season 3 finale and stepped off a bus with a suitcase, officially New York City’s newest resident. I was not singing and there was no camera pan around me; in fact, I felt calm. This felt right.

A few things that happened in the next year: I started a job. I finished a job. I found an apartment. I found another apartment (I found a subletter; I found another subletter). I traveled to Boston and Philly and Chicago. I built a committed relationship with another person.

Something I didn’t do much of was writing blogs. I just couldn’t find my story. However, even though I haven’t written about much of it, I have learned so many things since I’ve moved to New York.

In honor of one full year in New York- and staying in one place for more than a year for the first time since college- here are the 32 things I’ve learned in New York.

  1. Everyone’s needs are important, but the person who’s the loudest usually gets theirs met first.
  2. One of the most important ways we can respond to all of the bad things that happen is having willingness to see other people as people and having willingness to truly forgive.
  3. Humility is essential if you ever want to like another person.
  4. The best leaders are not the ones who know how to be right. They’re the ones who will admit it when they’re wrong.
  5. It’s never too late to reconnect with a person or thing from the past.
  6. Don’t try to park a car on the Upper West Side 30 minutes before you have to leave for work on a street cleaning day.
  7. One of life’s great joys is harmonizing with other people (literally and figuratively).
  8. You really can’t come home again- but some things never change.
  9. Sometimes when you don’t plan and just go with it the end product is far better than something you could have come up with originally.
  10. People have much more in common than we realize, but we only find the similarities if we look.
  11. There is truly no queso in the world that compares to Tex Mex, although more restaurants could stand to start trying.
  12. It’s okay to admit that you’re having a hard time. People might even want to help.
  13. Pretty much anything can happen with a spirit of adventure and a Metro card (unless you’re trying to take the B train. Then nothing can happen.)
  14. Texas really is the place that people love to hate. That hasn’t changed anywhere I’ve been.
  15. Asking a person about their passion is an amazing way to connect and to see them for who they are.
  16. Taking your morning run through Central Park, past the Imagine circle, and back by the Met does not ever get old.
  17. Hope and possibility save lives.
  18. Managing people means questioning whether you’re a good person pretty much every day, but it also gives you a lot of perspective.
  19. Being right is way less important than being with the right person.
  20. Time is not what indicates whether a place feels like home.
  21. Things become astonishingly clear when you pause everything and just start writing stuff down.
  22. Everything changes. That includes people.
  23. It’s actually happening- we’re growing up. My friends have babies and I can no longer eat plain icing without getting a stomach ache.
  24. I have a weirdly good memory for event dates or what I ate for dinner on a random day in March, but if you ask me what my apartment building looks like I definitely couldn’t tell you. (We all have different abilities!)
  25. Categorizing people pretty much only makes things worse.
  26. Every place you go, you will find pockets of good.
  27. Tragedy always brings people together, and it always makes them go beyond the kindness they thought they had.
  28. Inspiration comes from feeling safe and valued; even the most creative person’s abilities can be totally stifled by a poor environment.
  29. Welcoming a person actively and immediately is one of the hugest ways to impact their entire experience.
  30. Never silence another person. Never silence yourself.
  31. Winter can actually be cool! But only if you see the Rockettes. Also, there is very little redeemable about the month of March.
  32. Turmeric lattes. Enough said.

That’s all at the moment- here’s to even more in the next year. As for now, it’s time for Round Two! Let’s do this, New York.

Snowflakes

At some point in your life you’ve probably heard people equated with snowflakes. This is the metaphor we use to understand human uniqueness: each person has a set of totally individual traits and qualities in the same way that each snowflake has a completely new structure of crystals that never existed before.

I used to identify with this metaphor quite a bit. Whenever I felt like I didn’t fit in I would tell myself that it had to be because I was a beautiful snowflake. I was special and unique, and that was why I felt so alone. That’s the dream, right? You don’t fit in because you’re just too special. Everyone else is a standard, carbon copy drop of rain, but you- you are the snowflake.

I floated along on my snowflake theory until very recently when my incredibly wise boyfriend pointed out the fact that all snowflakes are different, not just one. In a flurry every snowflake is different from every other snowflake, which means that although they all are different, none of them are seen as particularly special in practice. They all have the same ingredients mixed around in different places and I don’t think that’s a great metaphor for humans at all. Humans are endlessly varied: some can see while others can’t; some can sing but not run while others can run but not sing; some read right to left, some read top to bottom, and some don’t read at all. Biologically we are made up of the same elements, but when it comes to what we do, think, see, experience, although I recognize that there are incredibly heartening similarities across centuries and across cultures, each individual is just that- an individual. We all have just a few out of zillions of attributes, unlike snowflakes, which include essentially all the same materials. So maybe this concept of humans as individuals doesn’t really jive with the snowflake idea after all.

Today I posed to my wise boyfriend an alternative metaphor, a chocolate chip cookie. Cookies are made up of all kinds of sweet and wonderful things like sugar and butter, and those all coalesce into one of our world’s great culinary gifts: cookie dough. But then you have these weirdo brown things that feel different and look different and taste a little more exotic- that’s the chocolate chips (and, in this metaphor, me). The chocolate chips are not like the other ingredients, and they don’t mesh in nicely. They stick out all lumpily and transform the whole thing into a totally different cookie. Isn’t it interesting that cookies are named after what makes them different, not what makes them the same?

This was all kind of cool, but still not perfect. Snowflakes didn’t work because if each snowflake is different then the fact of being a snowflake is not actually what makes us special. But chocolate chip cookies sort of don’t work either, because although I like the sound of it, it feels too elitist to say that others are the lowly, unexciting dough while I am the illustrious chocolate chip.

We put the metaphors aside and later, in the midst of a completely different conversation, the wise boyfriend struck again. “Isn’t it funny,” he said, “that human beings are totally symmetrical, but our hearts are on one side?”

Humans are made up of blood and tissues and bones and muscles and a few other things. These things are all pretty standard and although they’re very cool in what they can do and what they allow us to do, we generally all have the same ones and it’s really not all that exciting. In fact, in most humans our limbs are just copies of one another. But the heart- the heart is what gives life to the body. And the heart is off to the side.

The thing that makes us alive is off to the side. Even if you want to argue that the brain is more important, we can say the same thing there: the brain is all the way on the top, it has two totally asymmetrical hemispheres with completely different functions, and it makes our heads stick out in awkward places. The parts of us that are the most important, that give us life, that make us who we are, are not standard. They are extraordinary. They are off-center and they do not have duplicates, but they are meant to be that way.

Now I propose a different metaphor. I think I’ll see all of us as organs or cells within a body. Like different parts of the body, humans are all made of the same things but we each have different functions. In the same way that the body needs totally unique and off-centered brains and hearts, all humans are required by the universe to be in some way weird and imperfect. Otherwise our force of life would have no direction.

The coolest thing about this metaphor is that, as special as I am, it allows me to also have parts that are totally normal. We all have amazing gifts in addition to complete and utter banalities, just like every human body. It would be impossible to have only one or the other. Each body gets hundreds of bones, but only one heart, one brain.

So in a way the best metaphor for humans as individuals and as a collective is that we are exactly what we are. We are all duplicate mixtures of blood and tissues and bones and muscles, but what’s driving those? Our heart.

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PS: The wise boyfriend proofread this blog, and informed me that my conclusion has actually already been discovered by psychologists. It’s called group-level functionalism, and you can read about it in this book.

Guitar Strings

Once there was a kid. He was a middle child growing up in the Midwest at a time when some of the greatest musical influences in the world were at large. But while music was at one of its peaks, education wasn’t.

This kid was not particularly stellar in school. Sometimes letters swam around and didn’t do what they did in the brains of other kids; it was almost like his brain didn’t fit. That made school into a place where maybe this kid didn’t really want to be. Why read what feels like a foreign language when you could go home and listen to records?

One day the kid’s 8th grade science teacher told him to stay after class. The teacher sat the kid down, and he pulled out a guitar.

And that was his life.

Maybe the letters still swam around, but now they made chords, and those chords made music. And all of the stuff inside him that wasn’t right for school was right for this.

He wasn’t dumb. He wasn’t bad. His brain was made for music.

How lucky my dad was to have this kind of educator in his life: an educator who looks at a student and sees not his deficits but his potential. What if we all looked at the people in our lives that way? What if we all stopped judging people on what we think they should be good at and instead searched for the thing that they may not have yet discovered about themselves that could change the course of their life?

I believe we all have the same amount of intelligence, and all it really boils down to is how that intelligence is distributed and whether or not someone has made us believe that we are special enough to do something about it. It’s kind of like we’re all guitar strings: we all have the same importance, the same length, we just have the ability to play different notes. Maybe your intelligence is with words. Maybe it’s with sound. Maybe it’s with movement or people or plants or computers or colors. There is something at which you are so excellent and nobody in the world can do it like you. I promise you that this is true.

My dad didn’t like to read, but as a cousin once put it, he probably forgot more about guitar than any of us will ever know. To watch my dad pick up a guitar was to watch him find the other half of himself. He would draw it to himself like a magnet, tune it with no reference but his mind, and pluck away little nothings that just came from his brain, no matter how long it had been, because his brain could create music.

We all have that thing that, when we do it, it’s like a sigh. It’s a thing that comes from inside and makes its way out and maybe we don’t even realize how special we are at it but, truly, we are. The trouble is we have to be lucky enough to discover it. Otherwise it could stay hidden and we could live out one of the greatest personal tragedies, which is a life lived not knowing that we are special.

Do me and my dad a favor. Try to help the people around you to find their thing. Help them to recognize what it is that they can do that actually nobody else can: the thing inside them that changes the world. The thing that makes them feel like they are special, like they have a reason. Like they fit. How different might life be if we all discovered what it is that makes us feel that way? If we all felt like my dad’s guitar strings, tightened or loosened in exactly the way we needed in order to make the sweetest sounds and the most beautiful harmonies?

I’ll leave us all with that challenge. And to that 8th grade science teacher, thank you for doing what nobody said you had to do. Thank you for transforming a life. Rock on.

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This Week, I Found My Story.

This is the longest I have gone since starting my blog without posting anything, and there’s a simple reason: I have had nothing to say.

I thought that if I moved to an exciting place and started an exciting job, I would in no time have an exciting story. In reality, almost the opposite happened: I was so busy with my new move and my new work that I didn’t have the time to stop, to think deeply, to feel intensely. That was an issue, because the writing I do can only come out of moments of jarring realizations or perspective-giving comparisons. It turns out that moving “forward” doesn’t automatically make a person wiser… so what was I supposed to do now?

There’s a Ted Talk about how, to most effectively be alive, we should try often to be scared. The logic goes something like this: biologically, life is what happens when your heart is pumping, your blood is flowing, your brain is awake and your eyes are opened. Therefore, we need to put ourselves in situations that make us feel all of these things in order to do our best at being alive. It just so happens that these things come from moments that challenge and surprise and scare us.

This week, for the first time in a long time, my life was full of those moments. I allowed myself to hope that our country was sprinting toward positive change, and I allowed myself to cry and to hurt when we slammed straight into a wall. I allowed myself to grieve with people I didn’t know, to process with young people dedicating their lives to service. I reconnected with old friends and family and we allowed ourselves to share hopes and fears and dreams. This week has been light on work, heavy on hope and heart and fear and pain and love and love and love. That’s why this week I finally have something to say.

I have this thing where I believe that things are good. I believe that nobody would have created a world that didn’t have the capacity to be beautiful. I believe that there’s always a way to be better, to be stronger. I believe that love will win and fear will lose. These beliefs are the core of my being, my spiritual oxygen. And this week, when our country chose fear over love, that idealistic core was rocked. More than disappointment, more than fear, I felt devastating confusion; I didn’t know how to believe the things that make me want to be alive and also believe what’s happening in the world that I see with my wide-open eyes.

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As this happened, I was in a different city with a whole bunch of people who hadn’t expected such a blow. We were gathered for a conference and the entire group was so distraught that the day’s programming was canceled. Part of me wanted to disappear from sight and dissolve into my own confusion, but instead I accepted an invitation to travel with new acquaintances to high schools to hear about the day’s experiences there. In speaking with educators and idealists, I found my own voice. I found solace. I was surrounded by thoughtfulness, empathy, and hope. But most of all, I was welcomed by people I had never met simply because we all cared.

I don’t typically find it easy to forge connections but on that day it was effortless. I found that honesty and a true desire to understand another person’s experience are really all we need to open up with one another. I practiced those same principles when I reunited later with old friends: our ground rule was honesty, and we learned about pieces of each other that none of us had been able to share- or hear- before. I even achieved one of my 101 Goals: buy a meal for a homeless person and eat it with them. In a Philadelphia Dairy Queen, I connected with a 59-year-old woman over health and love and travel and surprise birthdays but mostly over the fact that we were simply two people trying to add a little bit of good to this world.

That’s why now I have something to say, and that’s why my heart is full. This week my world took blow after blow, but redirecting these hits into honesty and connection has made my heart pound, my brain awaken, my eyes open more than any job or any city ever could.

I may not have answers about all of the things I’d like to learn from life. I don’t even have answers for everything life threw at me this week. But one thing I know is that we cannot be equipped to take life’s punches without a sense of what kind of life we’re each fighting to lead in the first place. At least for me, it turns out that that life is not about where I am or what I do for a living. Life is about being scared and being pushed and turning challenge into change, turning fear into love. That’s where I find my life, and that’s where I find my story.

32 Things I’ve Learned in Austin

I was not happy to move back to Austin.

This is the city where I grew up, and when it came time for college I launched off like a rocket, whizzing back and forth across the country, pretty much set on the idea that I wouldn’t ever come back home. But life decided that it didn’t care whether I wanted to move on, so here I landed, six years later.

I officially lived in Austin for about 7 months, and in that time I worked 4 jobs, took 3 vacations, had 2 months of mono, and spent many hours working toward my 101 goals and spending time with family and friends. It was a sort of pause, a pivot, in between bouts of “real life,” and I had a lot of time to think. Here are some of the most important lessons I learned in my time back in Austin:

  1. It’s true what they say- you can’t come home again.
  2. There are important differences between a taco and a burrito.
  3. Where you are absolutely affects your way of life. It’s worth seeing other places to understand how your own place shapes you.
  4. Friendship is not defined by the amount of time between conversations.
  5. Perspective: any problem can look huge or small, depending on what you put next to it.
  6. Sometimes the right answer is that there is no answer.
  7. That said, when you can’t find the answer, you get to make up your own.
  8. There is no universal rule for when it’s the right time to date, to get married, get a job, or anything else. The right time is when you’re ready.
  9. Treat your life like more than a list of boxes that need to be checked.
  10. It’s okay to have strong feelings; feeling them makes life more vibrant.
  11. Life doesn’t move on for you. Sometimes you’ve got to make the push.
  12. We have no idea what will happen next, so all we can do now is make ourselves and each other happy.
  13. Everybody has some fear that runs their lives. Knowing what that fear is can really help you to understand someone.
  14. There is a special kind of bonding that happens over a bowl of chips and queso.
  15. Everyone has different priorities. Yours are not more right that someone else’s.
  16. Any two people can form a connection. Differences and commonalities are only as important as we make them.
  17. It’s much harder than it might seem to simply do what makes you happy.
  18. No matter how rarely you might talk, there is nothing in the world like old friends who knew you- and your parents- way back when.
  19. You are in control of how your mistakes change you.
  20. The people with whom we surround ourselves define who we are.
  21. Giving advice- and love- to others is a lot easier than giving it to yourself.
  22. Asking for help is so, so hard, but people are often much more willing to help than we give them credit for.
  23. Following your heart is easier said than done.
  24. Fear is sneaky and it likes to disguise itself as logic or sense.
  25. Sometimes you just have to hunker down and wait for the storm to pass.
  26. We do not have control over anyone but ourselves.
  27. People are too complex to be defined. Never fancy yourself an expert on any person, including yourself.
  28. Bad weather really brings people together.
  29. A good long walk works wonders on a tough day.
  30. The art of conversation is real, and it takes work to be good at it.
  31. It’s not arrogant or selfish to be proud of yourself or to want support from others.
  32. We are all lost without human connection.

Austin helped me to redefine what it means to have goals in life, to understand ourselves, and to be worthwhile friends. My biggest take away? We can’t put anything in boxes. There’s no rule for anything we do in life, whether we’re talking people, relationships, food, or anything else; there will always be an exception, it will always depend. The most important thing we can do in this life in which all we can expect is the unexpected is to invest in ourselves and in each other, and to brace ourselves for whatever might come.

So, I owe an enormous thank you to one of the greatest cities in America, to the place that- like it or not- will always have been my home. Here’s to keeping these lessons in our minds and hearts. And here’s to the next adventure.

Pretty Woman is Not About Hookers

Things are not always what they seem to be.

Land is flat, but the world is round. Stoplights are way bigger than they appear from the driver’s seat. Time travels at the same pace whether you’re sitting in a boring meeting or watching Netflix all day, and Pretty Woman is not about hookers.

(If you haven’t seen the film, check out the trailer so you know what it’s all about.)

In fact, I would argue that Pretty Woman is one of the most realistic stories out there. It’s like, remember when you read Animal Farm and at some point realized that the story was not about an animal farm but instead an allegory for the Russian Revolution of 1917 (thanks, 9th grade English)? Pretty Woman is that. Except it’s not using hookers and businessmen to tell the story of a war or a revolution. It’s using them to tell us the story of the fight that every single human goes through, which is the fight we all have with ourselves about whether or not we deserve a good life.

For starters, let’s talk about what makes our two main characters so realistic.

Whenever Vivian (Julia Roberts) got punished as a kid, she was locked in the attic, where she dreamed of a knight in shining armor whisking her away. So when a less-than-knightly guy came along during her teens and offered to whisk her away from Georgia, of course she accepted. But “away” was LA, and the guy peaced out, leaving Vivian to fend for herself. Vivian needed a way to make ends meet and she hadn’t graduated high school, so she became a hooker. But part of her still waits for that fairytale, not believing that this could be all she was meant for in life. She protects herself from getting stuck by not falling in love, by never kissing anybody on the mouth.

Edward (Richard Gere) also tries to protect himself by keeping the rest of the world at a distance. His father left his mother and screwed her over, so Edward has learned that love is a dangerous risk. Edward controls his life by planning and working and screwing other people over the way his father did. He has relationships because that’s what one does, but like Vivian, he keeps from ever emotionally connecting; he rarely spends time with his girlfriends, and  he never kisses them on the mouth.

Edward and Vivian meet when Edward gets lost on Hollywood Boulevard and needs directions. He’s obsessed with utility and she can offer him a service; she needs to make ends meet and knows that she has nothing to lose because this cannot possibly be her endgame. That’s what gets them both into a car. Of course this doesn’t happen every day. But I don’t think it’s so hard to believe in a girl who is searching for something more and a guy who’s been burned and is just staying frozen so it doesn’t happen again.

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Once Vivian and Edward get together, we have a little fun at casual places like Rodeo Drive and the opera. But things stay real; he has trouble connecting, admitting what he wants. She has trouble trusting him when he does offer her a “fairytale.” Here is my paraphrasing of Edward’s and Vivian’s thoughts throughout the movie, if they were in touch with their emotions enough to identify them:

“I want my life to be amazing, but so far the people in it have made me believe I don’t deserve that. I care about other people, so I believe them. That’s why it’s so hard for me to let go of what I know to take a risk and do anything that could make me really happy. I’ve spent so long thinking I don’t deserve it that, now it’s in front of me, I’m not even sure I know what it is. I want my dreams to come true, but life has taught me to stop dreaming.

The point of this movie is not that ladies should expect a man to come along and save us, or that men should solve their problems with money and sex. The point of this movie is two people who feel alone and worthless, who for all the world appear as though they do not have hearts. They protect themselves by toughening up, but that toughening up necessarily means giving in to the harshness of the world and believing that maybe they are heartless after all.

But that’s not so. Edward is kind, Vivian is honest. They both have goals and fears and things that make them angry. They both have hearts. They both try to protect those hearts, because they’ve been broken, but they both also take little steps toward finding what they want once they feel comfortable and brave enough to take that risk.

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We all try to protect ourselves. We put up a tough front. We have dreams that we are too tough or terrified to realize. But sometimes if we open ourselves up to something a little crazy, we can find the bravery to accept our dreams- and ourselves. The romance in Pretty Woman is wonderful, but it’s not what has made this film a classic. Pretty Woman is a powerful movie because it portrays fear and insecurity and the exorbitant amount of courage it takes to dream.

So, things are not as they seem. Pretty Woman isn’t about hookers, and I’ll give you a few others too: Legally Blonde isn’t about law school. Top Gun isn’t about planes. Grease isn’t about grease (okay, that one was a gimme). The point is that if you look closely you can find a way to connect any story to the things we all go through in real life; movies are just a way for our fears to take the form of dreams.

After all, “This is Hollywood. What’s your dream?”

All I Ask For is Your Consideration

Here it is, my very first guest post! This is written by the highly intelligent, highly talented Mr. Chris Dennis. Thanks for trusting me with your words, Chris.


I do not want your sympathy, nor do I want your hair-trigger reaction in an attempt to defend a belief that was never attacked. I don’t want your praise and I don’t want your claims of allyship and empathy that primarily serve to validate your “greatness” and to make you look “cool” among your peers. I don’t want your arguments that only have the way you have been treated in this lifetime as a source. I don’t want to be written off because my opinion differs from yours. I don’t need your rebuttals that are laced with insults and elusive quotations from your religious leader that lack evidence and relevance to the situation at hand.

All I ask for is your consideration.

I do not sit here typing this out to insult or to cause harm. I sit here because every day I wake up and I read comment after comment and tweet after tweet of people carelessly preaching their opinions to all who will listen without taking a moment, just a second, to think. I sit here because I hope that even just one person will read this and will be inspired to make a change, no matter how small. I was not always aware of all the hurt my words and actions caused and I never fully will be, but I’ll be damned if I don’t try. Treating others with respect, or even just treating them as fellow human beings, takes nothing from you and it does a whole lot more good than being hateful and malicious.

All I ask for is your consideration.

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Yes, I am angry. I am outraged that every day there seem to be more and more people who have fallen victim to injustice than I even have time to mourn for. That it does not matter if we scream or we whisper, our voices just don’t seem to be heard. That my family and friends and their friends’ and families’ lives are at risk of becoming another means of getting ratings, attention, or laws passed. Are at risk of joining the ever rising body count because of their existence. Are at risk of losing someone dear to them because an assumption was made.

All I ask for is your consideration.

When you developed your opinions on certain topics, did consider the facts and statistics and then draw conclusions from an objective point of view? When you made jabs at a person because their thoughts differ from yours, did you take the time to consider where their viewpoint came from?

When you talked to your family about your love interest, did you consider that a conversation about their gender never occurred? When you watched movies did you ever consider that the majority, if not all, of the cast looks just like you? When you went to a friend’s house did you ever consider that that friend’s parents didn’t prevent you from coming over because of the color of your skin? When you told people of your dreams and aspirations did you consider that no ever one told you people of your gender can’t do that?

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When you attempted to make your skin darker or make your lips bigger did you ever consider that those very traits were first popular as insults used to belittle an entire race? When you forced yourself on that person because they didn’t give you what you wanted, did you ever consider that they had wants too, wants that did not involve you? When you continued to go to school and told others to stop complaining did you consider that your life was not threatened if you attended, solely because of the way you were born? When you said that racism doesn’t exist did you use your own life as an example, or did you consider the millions of people who face racism every day?

When you made a blanket statement about an entire group of people did you consider that you yourself differ in many ways from people who share resemblances to you? When you spoke out on that issue did you consider that what you saw on the news is not the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? When you took action did you stop and consider that the life you were given is not the same as everyone else’s? When you felt a little better after a stranger sent kindness your way, did you ever consider that you could easily do the same for someone else too?

All I ask for is your consideration.

Did you ever stop and consider that you might be wrong and that changing your opinion IS a possibility? Did you ever consider that you too can make mistakes? Did you ever consider that you might be right, but that changing someone’s opposing opinion would be easier if you refrained from insults and had an intelligent conversation? Did you ever consider that not every battle is yours to fight? Did you consider that no matter how much you think you know you’ll never know it all?

All I ask for is your consideration.

I could be anyone. You mother, your brother, your friend, your teacher, a stranger on the street, or a follower on the internet. It does not matter who I am in your eyes; rash and inconsiderate actions will get us nowhere fast.

All I ask for is your consideration.

How A Stranger’s Death Changed My Life

This is a story about the life lessons we can all take from any tragedy, whether it’s close by or far away. This is a story about one person’s ripples becoming another’s tidal waves. This is a story about people connecting with each other. This is a story about how a stranger’s death changed my life.

In 2009, a friend fatefully introduced me to the TV show Glee, and from the beginning I was hooked. I made my friends watch it, I quoted it in my public speaking, I used it to connect with students when I worked in a school, I wrote about it in my blogmultiple times. There were so many aspects of Glee that touched me, but one of the most important was that I loved Finn.

Finn was The Quarterback. He was the good guy, the leader, the one who was willing to admit his mistakes, who treated everyone with decency and honesty. And the actor who played him, Cory Monteith, was like that too. In 2011 Cory came to my college for a show and I had the opportunity to meet him. Overcome by emotion, unsure of what to say, I simply asked, “Can I hug you?” “Come here,” was his answer.

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Meeting Cory Monteith – 2011

Two years later- and three years ago today- on July 13, 2013, Cory Monteith died of a drug overdose in a hotel in Canada, not a week after graduating from rehab.

My world was rocked. Although I didn’t know Cory, somehow he was this incredibly important figure in my life. In many ways he had been my hero: the one who made me believe, above all else, that every person mattered- and, by extension, that mattered.

Friends I hadn’t spoken to in years sent me messages to ask whether I was alright; one housemate even drove me to a candlelight vigil outside Paramount Studios. At the vigil fans took turns sharing their experiences about meeting Cory. When it was my turn, I said that all I could think to do in the face of this tragedy was find a way to inject into our future lives what I saw as Cory’s ultimate lesson: every person matters. Whether you like them or not, whether you agree with them or not, whether they have broken laws or hurt themselves or even hurt you- they are a human being, and every human being matters.

The day Cory died, the internet was alight with words from people who were deeply, genuinely affected. I had never felt so connected to people all over the globe who were feeling the same loss that I was, although it touched each of us in different ways. I imagined how modest Cory would be if he could see to how many people saw him as a hero- and then I wondered whether that could be the case with all of us. Maybe we haven’t all touched millions of people, but we have all been there for a friend, smiled at a stranger, offered a kind word when somebody seemed down- and to those people our actions may have meant the world. In some way, we are all heroes.

In the days following Cory’s death, I was forced to make a career decision; a few days earlier I had been offered an internship at an education nonprofit in New York City, and I didn’t have long to decide whether to uproot and go. Simply put, I was scared. I couldn’t shake the feeling that this decision would affect the rest of my life. Overwhelmed, confused, and frozen, I asked a friend for advice. “What if you went to New York,” she said, “and you helped one student, and because of you, that student didn’t become involved in drugs like Cory?”

Life isn’t quite that simple, but the meaning was clear: I could change a life. My tiny action could lead to another tiny action that, some day, could save somebody’s hero. In that universal way in which we are all connected, it almost felt like saving Cory.

So I went to New York City, visiting Boston along the way. One thing led to another, and a year later, I found myself moving to Boston to work at an education nonprofit. Right before we began working in schools, we each stood up in front of the entire corps and all of the organization’s employees to dedicate our year of service.

When it was my turn, my hand shook as I took the microphone. “I want to dedicate my year of a service to a guy who taught me that every person, no matter what, matters. Whether they think they do or not. And that guy’s name is Cory Monteith.”

every person matters

Cory taught me how interconnected people really are, how we care about the same things and how we want to help each other. Cory inspired me to take chances- from moving to New York to starting my lofty 101 Goals in 1001 Days (which I began on July 13, 2015, the anniversary of the day Cory’s death began to change my life). Most importantly, though, Cory taught me that one person’s actions can shape another’s life.

You don’t have to be a famous actor. You don’t have to preach. If we live life in a way that aligns with our own personal truths, we will touch and inspire others. Cory taught me that it’s possible to change a person’s path simply by existing. Cory taught me that everyone has the power to make change. Cory taught me that I can make change.

Cory taught me that, if we’re open to exploring the world and trying to understand our place in it, we open ourselves to experiences and lessons and being swept away in a tidal wave of life’s richness that began with a single ripple. Cory taught me that, if we allow it, even a stranger’s death can change our lives.

With the Year We’ve Had, Here’s What We Need to Remember

A few weeks ago I picked my 7th-grade tutee up from school and as he climbed into the car he said, “Want to hear a list of all the bad things that have happened to me this week?”

What followed was indeed a list of decently bad things- six of them, all in one week. That’s rough. But instead of offering my sympathy I decided to turn this into a lesson. “Okay,” I said, a challenge in my voice. “Now, for every negative thing you said, you have to give me one positive.”

You might have thought I’d told him they were canceling the sport of basketball. He was beside himself. Given how negatively he was feeling, I can imagine how difficult- or maybe even seemingly useless- it must have felt to talk about some silly little positives. But with a great deal of unwillingness on his part and some carrying the team on mine, he finally listed six positive things. I was congratulating myself on my unique brand of torture and wondering if I’d taught a lasting lesson when, as he climbed out of the car- without prompting- he listed one more positive thing. There… a small change.

If I were to pick up America at school tomorrow, what would its list be? Take your pick: guns. Abortion. Terrorists. Immigration. Refugees. Ferguson. North Carolina. South Carolina. Miami.

Is anybody else tired of getting on Facebook because you know all you’ll see is post after post of anger, frustration, and pain? A lot of awful things have happened in the last year, and I can say for my feed that these emotions come from people who care a great deal about things being better. But when we all communicate that want through negativity, I think something gets lost.

What if, instead of saying, “It shouldn’t be like this,” we said, “I believe we can be better.” What if, instead of saying, “This is ridiculous,” we said, “We are so lucky to live in a place where we can create change.” What if, instead of saying, “I hate that this happened,” we said, “I’m on my way to help?”

I have a challenge for all of us. Let’s express our strong feelings not through anger, frustration, and pain, but instead through hope, help, and change. Think about it this way: for every natural or human-made disaster, there are always countless people who want to help. How’s that for something positive?

Here’s another positive morsel: for every bad news item you see, so many good things happened in the world that you didn’t hear about. Those good things may appear to belong on a much smaller scale, but they aren’t necessarily less important. In fact, for our sanity, I think we have to make them just as meaningful as those big bad things (if you like, make Marcel as big as King Kong; make Flounder as big as Jaws). Sure, share what Miami made you feel. But then share something with hope. Share something happy. This does not mean that you’re ignoring the bad thing that happened; it means that you are doing your part to inject something positive into a world that desperately, desperately needs it.

I always wondered why nobody did something. Then I realized. I am somebody.

You may not be a politician, an expert, or a loud advocate, but there is something you can do in the face of tragedy: you can meet it with something good. You can be the source of energy and positivity that offers the rest of us the hope that we need to heal or to create change. You can be the one who, instead of condemning people of a certain group or political party, says, “I stand with you. You are not alone.”

What if we combatted mass shootings- yes, with advocacy for institutional change- but also with a tsunami of compassion, so that the next shooter doesn’t feel like there’s no other way to express what they feel? Like the people in the ’60s who offered policemen flowers, fight back with love. Fight back with togetherness. Fight back with understanding, with acceptance. Could it be that compassion is the one ingredient we’re missing as we try to change the world?

There’s so much talk of “slacktivism,” hating on people who flock to social media to express sadness at tragic events like what happened in Miami instead of actually standing up to do something about it. My belief is that we can use our expressions in a meaningful way; we can use them to help this constant stream of negativity grind to a halt. And we can do that by expressing the opposite… love.

I urge you to see the positive, or even to just say it if you don’t quite see it yet. I urge you to use good as your weapon, because good can be strong. And most importantly I urge you to love hard, no matter how frustrated you are, because only then will our words have real meaning. Only then can we create a real change.

Beginnings

That time of year has come again, as it always does. The school year is ending and if you’re not graduating from high school, college, graduate school, or some other program, surely you know somebody who is. What an emotional time… nostalgia, fear, pride, anxiety, excitement and probably a thousand other words describe what we’re all feeling right now.

In light of this cornucopia of emotions, I’ve decided to take this opportunity to put into writing a famous Mama Leah pep talk. Here it is.

Endings are hard. They’re scary because we are so comfortable now and we fear the unknown. We realize how possible it is to be excited and terrified for the future at the same time. It’s a lot of emotions to juggle, and that’s not even to mention the emotions toward what we’re leaving behind.

What you’re leaving behind has defined you. It has informed you. It has illuminated your days for quite a while now, and you’re afraid for that light to disappear because you don’t know what the darkness looks like. Again, we fear the unknown. But think about this transition the way you’d think about the lights of a city. During the day, your surroundings are totally visible thanks to the sun. There’s no reason to be afraid because you know exactly what to expect, and that’s an awesome thing. And then the sky begins to change, whether you’re ready or not. Suddenly what was bright blue becomes navy, pink, purple sunset. With or without your permission, the sky has changed. The sun that has lit up your days for so long is going down. For a brief moment in time, it’s gone.

And that’s when you see the city lights.

These magical, multi-colored earthly stars have replaced your big and bright sun. You find that there’s still light; it just looks a little bit different now. Instead of one big shining ball of fire to show you the way, you can choose from a million tiny headlights, streetlights, or storefronts to lead you down an infinite number of paths. These smaller lights don’t show you everything at once, because that’s not what you need anymore. But they are so wonderfully beautiful.

Think of all of the most important things that will ever happen to you- whether that means having a family, getting your dream job, traveling the world… think of the things that you hope you’ll remember when you reach the end of life. What if most of those things haven’t even happened yet?

This is just the beginning. Leaving what you know, what has surely defined you and informed you and supported you for so long, is tough. But if you don’t leave now, how will you ever follow the city lights toward the great adventures life has in store for you?

After graduating college I was supremely stuck between two potential paths for my next year, and I spent hours upon hours trying to determine the right decision; after all, this could influence the path of the rest of my life. Finally, I came to a conclusion and I haven’t looked back since. But what that decision gave me, even more than my totally life-altering year in Boston, was a realization.

To quote myself: “I have one last thing to say. Life is awesome. Because no matter what’s happening right now… we get to have hope.”

Anything can happen. Today you may have to say goodbye, but maybe tomorrow will be the best day of your life. This is an ending, and it’s important to take the time you need to let go. But think of this as your sunset- your gorgeous, surreal, deeply beautiful sunset. And have hope, because you never know what might happen when you see those city lights.