Dear sophomore year.

cafe

Every once in a while, I like to sit in a cafe for a WHOLE day (luxury, I tell you!) and sit back and think, reflect (one of those beautiful words IB gifted to me) and retool for what’s next.  Today was one of those days. So as I sit in this café (ahem Starbucks, but let me just pretend, por favor), I pen for you a *short* letter I would write to the semester that was or perhaps to the Inesha that started it. On to a new adventure next week, closing out this one first.

Posting in the hope that maybe, just maybe, a piece of this– a lesson learned perhaps– will resonate. Thanks, as always, for swinging by sweet readers!

Dear sophomore year,

You were born incomplete. It’s not your fault. Taking the fall off from you was perhaps not my wisest decision but one I made nonetheless. Living in DC, doing the whole early 20s living thing was fun, exciting, scary, and so much more all at the same time. Mostly, it was trying. But I saw an election from the front view, driving down the road, car doors wide open, my body ready to sprint out and tap a new voter and get him to the polls. I’ll never forget that. I had hours long conversations with a colleague who became a good friend it seemed over night. We shared a supervisor I think of often, one I didn’t always understand to be honest. But one who taught me so much– who reminded me that as Plato said, “Be kind– for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”Even if that battle is yet unknown.

I struggled those first few days. I was lucky to have friends who dropped everything and came to visit me. Who checked on me. A mom and dad who would say ridiculous things like– “You’re at the bus stop IN THE RAIN? We’ll drive and get you (even though that would mean an absurd 2 hour drive from Richmond to DC.) In those moments I realized how spoiled I was– and too the people that matter most, who remind me always of what hard work actually looks like and what I will never be able to repay.

I saw the government from the inside out. I didn’t like everything I saw but I appreciated that there was a government to see in the first place, that even as it was sometimes painfully slow and bureaucratic and riddled with protocol and words like “professionalism” and “institutionalism,” it was there, it was accountable, and it was doing things.

I met war widows in Sri Lanka. I also unceremoniously fell in a pile of mud on a new construction site (let’s just pretend like that didn’t happen) and reminded myself how to gracefully fall once again. Boy was washing away all that clay mud *slightly* embarrassing, and partly… what’s the word? Oh right, grounding. Not that I needed reminding.

My feet touched down in Rome. And too in Israel. I walked the path that Jesus took to his cruxifixtion and eventual resurrection. I walked miles that span pages in the bible. I learned. A lot. More than I ever thought I would.

I came back to school. I tried to make new friends. I failed and restarted. I found my way in a new house. I learned that I am not so good at admitting when things are hard. Even when they are really hard. But I found comfort too– in swing sets and new daffodils, a community that came together even as bombs exploded at a finish line. I learned and relearned my style, had moments I will cringe at and am embarrassed by and moments I will forever be proud of. And I found really generous souls, people who took the time to pull me aside and really check in. Who aren’t satisfied with a simple how are you. Who care enough to take 15, 20, 150 minutes out of their day. Just for me. And boy did that mean a lot.

You ended with a flurry of action but peppered in one of your more special moments was a chance encounter on the corner of Massachusetts Avenue with a classmate I know little and a homeless man I know not. The former was feeding the latter from the kitchen of Adams. Wrong? Debatable. Solving the problem? Probably not. The good, decent thing to do. Absolutely. That moment was followed by perhaps the best spur of the moment conversation I’ve had all year about homelessness and what it really means– and what our perception tells us to believe. And if perception really even matters at all, even as we seem to believe sometimes that it is everything.

So sophomore year, you are the one that reminded me of a song from long ago that I’ve loved for so long but had forgotten. You see, in reminding me that as I get older and as decisions become more costly and things get harder and bills get higher, it is still never ever EVER worth it to just settle. You reminded me of a lyric I hope to never forget, a country anthem learned long ago. “I ain’t settlin’– for anything less than everything,” Jennifer Nettles croons, her song to a world of imperfect love and hearts broken, men who are friends but never quite more than that. Mine to a world of possibility that is daunting and terrifying but too eye-opening and beautiful– and all of this all at once. I’ve never quite told you sophomore year but even as you were hard, really hard, you taught me a new answer to that question, that question I didn’t want to answer at the end of last summer but am ready to answer at the start of this one: How are you? Well, I’m… ready. 

Unsettled but no longer your’s,

Inesha

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And just for the record, lessons learned:

  1. Ask for hugs when you need them most.  Give them freely too.
  2. Figure out your communication style. Realize it probably isn’t the same in every context. Or via text. Or on Facebook.
  3. Reflect. Constantly. There’s always a better way to do you—if “just do you” is a mantra consider too: “there’s a better way to do you.”
  4. Why wouldn’t you? …is the worst non-answer ever. For the record, that’s not enough of a reason.
  5. Smile. Always. Give. Plenty. And Be. Be there.
  6. Call yourself out on your own bullshit. Admit it, you definitely bullshit sometimes.
  7. Writing is so underrated.
  8. Sit down with people who put you on the defensive. Defending your beliefs is healthy. Discomfort in conversation is a good thing.
  9. Keep a diary.
  10. Good is overrated. Going is underrated. And I’m somewhere in between.
  11. “Stay Nice.” – Tulsi Gabbard
  12. Elitism cannot be so easily dichotomized as good or bad. It is simultaneously both and neither. An explanation is warranted, but that is for another post.
  13. “It would be a fine proposition, if I were a stupid girl. But honey I am no one’s exception, this I have previously learned.”
  14. Perhaps we should perceive people not by the first time we meet them or the last—but by the many data points those encounters– and the others in between– give us. Every one has a good data point and every one has a bad one. I guess what I’m trying to say is you need time… you need a lot of data points before you really know if someone is good or bad or right for you. – said perhaps the best TF ever (using economics to explain relationships? not nerdy at all.)
  15. Vulnerability is a powerful thing. A state of being where you find your best(est) friends, your closest allies. The people who really care.
  16. Silence is not always the best communication style. But it does serve a purpose.
  17. Relationships take different forms. But this was the semester I found myself telling some of my closest girlfriends, “If he wanted to kiss you, he should have walked you home.”  Full disclaimer: I’m from the south. And for the record, I think it’s a dictum I’ll stick to.
  18. [you] Lean in (-Sheryl Sandberg), and then remember to Lean on [them–corporations, professors, friends, the private, the public] (-Tina Brown @ the Women in the World Summit, April in NYC)
  19. You’re not stuck with you forever, this you is transient, changing. If you don’t like yourself right now, hold on. You will soon. You just got to work at it. –A professor who really cares
  20. This [10-20 years] I hope you realize is when you are really making you. These years. – Another professor who really cares
  21. Swing. Skate. However you do it– Vole.
  22. And then figure out how to get your feet back on the ground. And keep them there.
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southern state of mind.

southern state of mind.

Click to enlarge!

Had you seen us these past few days you might have thought we actually liked getting up at 3 am. Because for four days that’s what we did. It started on Friday morning when we got up at this godforsaken hour to board a bus to DC. We got back at 3 am the next morning. On Saturday some of us actually slept in (ahem till like 7) but mama didn’t– she was cooking a feast for all of us and our closest family friends. Sunday it was back to the 3 am routine with a twilight drive to the temple in West Virginia and Monday– finally, on Monday– our parents I have to believe sighed in relief for even as they had to get up at 3 am again to drop us off at the airport, they knew that it would mean that finally, finallllyyyy they would get some sleep.

While sleep deprivation was a theme of our few days at home, there were so many others too. Like good friends. Good food. Long walks. Tea time. Cleaning. (Ok, not so much) Making a big mess. Cooking. (my family, not me– obviously :) And just being there, being present in Virginia, in my hometown, where I belong.

My parents always joke that we never let them sleep– from the time we were babies all the way up until now. And in so many ways that is very true. Not many parents can handle driving at 3 am in the morning, skirting around deer and ducks and all the other creatures that frequent the road at that hour. Not many can put up with messes of suitcases spilling out all over the floor (sorry, dad!) Not many would tolerate daughters who only come home for a few days and ask for so much and give very little in return. So to mom and dad (our most loyal readers, of course) thanks for putting up with us. For feeding us. For taking care of us now and always and for always doing the best you could for us. We can’t wait to see you again.

And to all of you, thanks for bearing with us as posting has been a little light. Eating a lot I will warn you lends itself to sleeping a lot, neither of which I must confess is very conducive to blogging :)

Here’s some pics from the weekend. I wish I had the words to describe all we did but I don’t. Pictures are the closest I have to capturing the moments I will treasure most from these past few days. They really were so perfect and so very therapeutic. Thank you friends, family, and neighbors for coming out to see us, for feeding us (I mean, with your love, of course :), and for reminding us how very blessed we are. We sure do miss all of you and the South!

Yay to no more 3 am mornings! xo Inesha

“I’m always walkin’ ’round
tellin’ everybody hi.
Justa wavin’ at the strangers
in the cars passin’ by.
Some poeple may look at me
and say that [girl] just ain’t right.
Hey y’all I ain’t crazy,
I’m in a southern state of mind.

I could be anywhere
in my heart I’m always there.
Where you know every body and if you don’t then you’re still polite.
No changin’ who I am,
that’s they way I’ve always been.
No matter what state I’m in,
I’m in a southern state of mind.”

Discomfort in Conversation: Soledad O’Brien

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Soledad O’ Brien is feisty. Fierce. Some might even say combative. At least these are some of the words that first come to mind. And then I force myself to step back. Would I say those things if Soledad O’Brien were a man?

She addressed that question head on Wednesday night during a JFK Jr. Forum at the Institute of Politics. When the moderator noted that many of her critics call her controversial, Soledad chided: “That’s because people are lazy and can’t come up with a better word with more nuance… what does controversial even mean?” This from a woman who went on to say that she’s not afraid of a fight and that she won’t stand people treating her “like a little girl.”

————-

There are certain forums you sit in on because you’re fascinated by the topic or because you really admire the person. And then there are certain forums where you see a sliver of yourself in the person who is speaking. When Soledad O’ Brien said “I like a certain amount of discomfort in my conversations,” I think I saw that sliver.

————-

Soledad O’ Brien will grill you, as I unceremoniously found out during an impromptu Q&A after the forum. She had come to the Institute of Politics to talk to a group of about 40 undergraduates about politics and public service in a more casual setting. There was pizza, there were stickers, there was 90’s music.

She came in, stood at the podium, and instead of launching into the banal stump speech glittered with inspirational stories and encouraging mantras, fired a question at us: Why do you want to go into this field (politics)? It seems to me that there are a lot more effective ways to affect change, she challenged us. She stood defiant. No one answered her at first. “Well this is going to be a pretty short meeting,” she chuckled.

————-

She wasn’t there to inspire us, she was there to make us think.

From the moment she started talking, we were on the defensive, forced to justify why we wanted to help people through a career in a field that doesn’t seem to be doing all that much these days.

“I mean, have you looked at Congress’ approval rating?” she asked us. Soledad O’ Brien wasn’t going to let us off easy.

————-

Her bio is not at all common. She told us that growing up her mother would always remind her: “Now don’t let anyone tell you you’re not black. And don’t let anyone tell you that you’re not Latina.” It’s something she says it took her years to appreciate, a seemingly obvious truth that gave her confidence when her critics said “she wasn’t really black” or went so far as to say that she was named after a prison. (For the record, there is a prison named Soledad in California but to be clear she was named after the Virgin Mary.)

But to her point, statements like these speak to a larger conversation that we often shy away from. What is black? What is Latina? What is really black? And what gives someone the right to say that another doesn’t fit either characterization?

In hearing her pose questions like these, I could see that Soledad had  wrestled with them personally. It’s the reason why when she did her series “Black in America” she says she cared so much about every aspect of it– how they framed a story, how they produced it, how they told it. To her, those stories came from her community. They mattered. And they deserved to be told because as she put it, “I don’t know what the answer to these questions are– but I do know that the answer is not ignorance.”

————-

These are the memories like vignettes that remain now from the two or so hours I spent sitting in Soledad O’ Brien’s presence this past Thursday. I would like to say that my perception is nuanced enough to have automatically adjusted for the fact that 2 hours is not nearly enough to know a person. But I won’t lie– it probably isn’t. First impressions, as they say, are everything.

Soledad O’ Brien to me came off at first as fierce, combative, smart, offstandish, not willing to back down. I saw in her the same defiance I sometimes see in myself.

 I know many of my peers walked out of the room shaking their heads. ‘Wow she was something, wasn’t she?’ We all nodded knowingly, disapprovingly. It is not customary, after all, to put your audience on the defensive before you’ve even said hello.

Soledad O’Brien did not reveal at first that she is a mother to four children, two of them twins. She did not talk about how she sits on a board that gives scholarships and mentorship opportunities to low-income girls who need it most. She did not mention any of that. She didn’t care if she was liked, she wasn’t aiming to be our friend.

But if my hunch is right, Soledad asks questions and challenges her interviewees in the way she does because she really cares. More so than most. She wants to know and understand and unpack your answer more than you probably do yourself.

So then, my question is, absent style, why is it that we have such an averse response to this kind of forwardness? Why don’t we inherently like people who are there to challenge us, push us, make us justify ourselves. People who don’t let us get away.

Perhaps, Soledad’s style– and our response to it– actually reveals more about us than it does about her.