We arrived in Doolin at 6:30 pm. The sun was still well above the misty far-off horizon line and my four friends and I decided to strap on some extra layers and hiking shoes, and walk to the Cliffs of Moher. We rounded the last hill where the pavement ended at a fence bordering a pasture. We took careful steps around cow paddies and muddy puddles for a few yards, and then the sea opened up. The cliffs were only about 500 feet from the surface of the water and yet it felt like if you were to fall you would never hit the cold shock of the ocean.
This picture was the first photograph I took on the cliffs. In the blurry distance there are cliffs over a thousand feet high, the sunset trying to show itself between heavy clouds and a rainbow, ready to be refracted across the sea. This image of wildflowers clinging to the edge of a cliff-face hundreds of feet above the nothingness of empty air, and the memories that it evokes for me makes me think of survival, success, and the ability to thrive. Ireland changed a lot about how I see the world and my place in it. While I like to think that those changes in perspective are permanent, everyone needs a reminder every once and a while, and this picture does that for me.
A few days into our five weeks in Ireland, the entire study abroad group boarded a train (the first one I’d ever been on ever and let me tell you it is just as inspiring as all the movies make it seem) and rode to the town of Cobh. Cobh is a small town where the Titanic had its last port of call, set on the side of a blustery cliffs and a bustling fishing economy. Casting a stained glass shadow over the town is St. Colman’s Cathedral. A 19th century stone construction that towers over the coast line and holds the hill line under its flying buttresses. Curved around the side of the cathedral is a hidden Bible garden, where there is a fully functioning Abbey that tends to the garden.
It was here that I took the second photograph. The day that I was to leave for Ireland was when the daily news cycle of the Orlando shootings reached me. So I went into my summer travels with the reality of danger for the LGBTQ+ community weighing heavily in my thoughts and in my writing. But nestled at Mary’s feet in this small community bible garden was a candle inside a subtly decorated mason jar with the words “Orlando 2017” written across blue painter’s tape. Here in the heart of catholic puritanism, was a thought and a wish for prayer for a community not so easily accepted by the staunch and strict Catholics of the world. I was reduced to grateful tears in this lush green copse of trees and I hope to never forget that nothing can be as strong as a kindness when no one is looking, and love where no one expects it.
During the summer after my junior year of high school, I went on a ten-day mission trip to Oradea, Romania with dozens of other teenagers to host Vacation Bible Schools (VBS) in Romani villages scattered along the outskirts of the city. As we trained at the Global Expeditions base camp in Texas, practiced Romanian words, and finally flew over the Atlantic Ocean, the expectation that we were being sent to help people in poverty grew.
After stepping off the bus that transported us from a Hungarian airport, our team turned to face rolling hills and a local church, Biserica de Hristos, confident that we would bring hope to the natives. Chanting songs and practicing various parts of our VBS, we re-assured one another that we were “world-changers.”
Until we went to Tinka.
As the poorest Romani village, Tinka sprawled across acres of trash and human waste. Songs shriveled in our throats when we witnessed a young woman stick her hand down her throat, throw up, and then eat her vomit out of hunger. Suddenly, our skits seemed foolish and our trinkets, trivial. We performed anyway and prayed with excruciating humility that our insignificant efforts would make a difference. But playing with the kids and exchanging broken Romanian with their parents only exposed our inability to really help them. Amidst trees that formed a canopy of brilliant green over rickety shacks constructed from metal scraps and bamboo, we discovered our own inner poverty.
A few days after visiting Tinka, we stood on the summit of Mushroom Top Mountain and lifted our hands over red tiled rooftops and crystal skies. Stretching our bodies toward a Spirit that whispered with the wind, we wept at the realization that Someone could already save them – and He wanted to save us too.
Jesus didn’t come to rescue us with petty programs or lofty speeches. He came as a human, for humans. He came with compassion so scandalous that kings and religious leaders tried to suppress him, his own people discriminated against him, and we murdered him. But death could not defeat him, and he spread himself across the trash and human waste of our lives and offered his life for our freedom.
As I stood on Mushroom Top Mountain, Oradea gleaming in afternoon light, I felt God’s faithfulness in the sky, in the people around me, in the plan I knew He had for my life. The profound love I experienced in that moment set me free from my own poverty.
The following poem speaks of this fundamental transformation, which renews my hope each passing day:
There is a crown within this earthquake –
A glazed, glinting headdress
Golden as a yoke.
Break the egg
Tear down the mountain
There is a crown within this earthquake.
Sanctuaries are shattered and dead
Hands pull back the curtain
No rip it to shreds
From top to bottom
Expose open air to the holy of holies
Where no man should go
Without a rope wrapped around his ankle
And bells to clink and clank and signal
Yes you are alive and still walking.
Go to the tomb, I tell you
Gritty bits of rock and jewels lace the mouth
Open in after-shock, shaken and empty.
Murky chamber, peer in: For the man
Is not here. He left only linens
From his two-night stand with sour sponges and satan
I think people get lucky in odd ways. In little ways, big ways, round-about and upside-down ways that have us thinking we aren’t that lucky after all. There’s luck here, in the small spaces that surround people. I count myself lucky to see the crow’s feet that line the edges of my mother’s eyes when she smiles at my father while she thinks no one is looking, or in the exact angle of how my best friend always tilts her head back to laugh.
To find this innate luck in the intrinsic connection of humanity may be cliche, but I find that when the week piles up and I can’t see my own hands for the amount of work and stress I’m buried in that it is the way I feel the most lucky. These are the glimmering gold coin gifts that seem to keep falling into my lap and kept in a pocket to pull out when a dash of luck seems most needed. My favorite kind of luck is something that happens to me rarely during the sprint to the end of the semester, but is welcomed with open arms when it arrives. Sometimes, if I sit in the quiet of my room, with the dusk falling over the mountains in soft pastel waves casting an easy light on my keyboard, I can just about hear the shape of a poem.
There might be the lower sounds of consonance beating rhythmic drums to push the narrative forward, and ever onward, or perhaps the softer sibilant softly gentle culmination of sounds. But eventually, resolutely, I will be lucky enough that the screen will be filled. The hated black-blinking cursor on a white Word document will be preceded by artfully disordered-order in which a story unfolds. And who are we all really but storytellers? I count among my luckiest of days those when I can capture the faint strains of something that feels necessary. Something that pushes, at least, my own idea of how I relate to the world around me and how that pushes my own narrative.
So luck, small or large, whether it be winning the lottery or writing a poem that may never leave the inside of my computer hard drive, is another thing for me to be grateful for.
Silhouettes of trees and sprawling fields swept past us as we sped along a back road in Amelia, Virginia. The last purple and blue shades of twilight sunk into the night sky, and darkness settled on the landscape around us. Desiray’s royal blue Camry whipped gracefully around each bend as we neared a local gas station.
We were seniors in high school with nothing better to do on a sticky summer night than lay on Desiray’s couch or raid the nearest store of soda. Undaunted by our isolation in middle of cow-county nowhere, we hopped into her car and pulled out of their long gravel driveway onto the two-lane road. Windows rolled down, we stroked the rushing air with our fingers spread wide as we sang into the darkened woods.
After running in and out of the gas station for our drinks, we swung back onto the country road in the direction of her house. Antsy from the lack of adrenaline, I asked Desiray to roll her sunroof down. “I’m gonna stand out of it,” I said.
She laughed, clicked the button and a panel of glass slid open exposing roaring wind and the moon glistening through low-hanging tree branches.
As I pulled the majority of my body outside the sunroof and mounted my legs inside her car, Desiray picked up speed – 35 mph, 40 mph, 50 mph. The air no longer felt crisp and inviting as it shoved against my torso, yanked at my clothes, and brought numbing tears streaming down my face. Shrieks and songs shriveled in my throat, and I swayed there, arms outstretched, speechless in horror and vicious delight.
“Sit down,” a firm voice in my head whispered.
I glanced again at the black road stretching to meet us like the gaping mouth of a snake and slipped back into the front seat. Seconds after clicking my seatbelt, Desiray slammed the brake as a deer leapt directly in front of the car. Anti-lock brakes jolting, we flung forward, and time halted as we seemed to float for a moment, vaguely clutching at the dashboard.
A minute later, the deer had darted back into the forest, but we sat in her motionless car panting, unable to look at each other.
“If I had still been standing out the sunroof…” An image clouded my mind as I pictured my body crumpled and wet with blood on a country road in front of my best friend’s car, a wild animal bounding into the nearby woods.
Desiray gulped for air. “A voice, a voice told me you needed to sit down.” The white of her eyes reflected hazy moonlight.
I looked over at her. “Me too.”
In silence, we made our way back to her house astounded by a stroke of luck that saved my life. To this day, I believe that it was something bigger.
Some say you stand for the National Basketball Association; others say you stand for “No Boys Allowed.” Personally, I think that you stand for “Never Brought Agony” because you have never brought agony into my life. Well then again, I guess that’s only somewhat true judging by the fact the New York Knicks haven’t made the playoffs since 2013, but you are still good to me. You have brought me the likes of Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson, Lebron James, Stephen Curry….the list is endless.
I knew we were a match made on the hardwood ever since I put on my first oversized jersey and New Era fitted cap. From that moment on, I decided I loved you and I would dedicate my life to the pursuit of your love in return. You plagued my mind and stole my time. I thought of you as I shot 1,500 jump shots daily. I dreamt of you as I slept with a basketball in my hands. I spoke of you as I counted down from ten at the YMCA to beat the imaginary buzzer. Most importantly, I envisioned our wedding day when the commissioner would shake my hand during the draft and join us together forever in holy matrimony.
Alas, it seems that the staggering height of 5’10”, a delayed puberty, and a propensity for turnovers was enough to prevent our marriage from happening. But hey, maybe in a few years if we are both single, we should try to rekindle what we once had. In the meantime, I’d like to leave you with this poem.
This is my act of love towards the National Basketball Association
We haven’t had the pleasure of meeting but I know you through association
The time we’ve spent together is the sole source of my procrastination
I chose you over any girl, inevitably preventing chances of procreation
You manifest your destiny from east to west across this nation
You make your name from competition and your dime from elimination
Other leagues have tried to copy but you are a stranger to duplication
Although, you’ve made too many rules and I pray for deregulation
You can keep the NFL, Pain and I, we just don’t gel
You can have the NHL, I tried hockey once, but I fell
Why watch the MLB, when you can go to sleep for free
All these leagues are fine, but they are definitely not for me
I gave a chance to FIFA, but I just couldn’t watch their soccer
Their football was okay, but their acting deserved an Oscar.
So once again my love, please take this message from the author
I know you’re busy now but I’m steady waiting at the alter
We all know someone who seems charmed—the perpetual lotto winner who finds large-denomination bills in the street on the reg—but I can assure you, I am not one of those people. Far from it.
By the time I reached high school, I’d resigned myself to this fact. Seemingly random, unpleasant occurrences were just something I learned to deal with. (Now I know that these “random” accidents were probably a result of impulsive or unobservant behavior courtesy of undiagnosed ADHD.) Usually these things were minor annoyances: a scrape here, a bruise there, a missing assignment or lost piece of jewelry. Then, in the tenth grade, I hit my head. And then I did it again. And again. Three hits to the back of the head, all within six months of each other, the last two within a week.
The last one happened at school. It’s stupid, really—I was sitting out of gym (having sustained a sprained ligament in my knee during the fall that gave me the mild concussion of the week before). My friends came over to chat during a break in the game, and I threw my head back to laugh. Cue flash of blinding pain and a “sickening thud,” as my friend Maggie described it. I shook it off and went to my next class. Twenty minutes later, I was throwing up in a bathroom. Twenty minutes after that, I was horizontal on a bed in the nurse’s office, semi-conscious, arguing with another student who was bleeding profusely about who was going to take the ambulance.
You’re probably wondering how this could possibly be a lucky incident. And, to be quite frank, for a long while it wasn’t. I left school in an ambulance, went to the hospital, went into mild shock (which was completely ignored by the ER staff), given a CAT scan, cleared of any inter-cranial bleeding, and sent home. My mom made me go to school the next day to take my Algebra II midterm. (Fun fact: I got a 95% on that test, which, hilariously, was the best grade I made in that class all year.) It all went downhill from there.
By the end of the week, I was out of school and plagued with splitting headaches and blurred vision. It would be a while before I returned. A few weeks in, I was still suffering from blurred vision and sleeping twenty hours out of the day, with headaches during my waking hours. I was shuffled around to specialist after specialist—neurologist, ophthalmologist, neuropsychologist—to attempt to diagnose the root of the problems.
Six months post-concussive and I was still suffering migraine-type headaches and spending about 80% of my time asleep. I was having difficult remembering my friends’ names, classroom numbers, and other simple things. Unable to attend school, I was unenrolled from Fairfax County Public Schools. I spent what should have been my junior year mostly at home, sleeping and trying to take online classes (I failed, miserably). But two things happened during this period that have had far-reaching positive effects on my life.
First of all, I took up photography. I’d always been the academic type, but reading was difficult after my injury, and my memory and reasoning skills took a serious hit. After a few months, I started to worry I might never regain my previous cognitive abilities, and began searching for alternatives. I pursued a previously-ignored interest in photography with vigor, getting my own DSLR and starting to build a portfolio. By my senior year of high school, I was shooting dozens of headshots for fellow students, and getting paid to do so! For the first time, I realized that my cerebral tendencies had prevented me from exploring artistic interests beyond the music and theatre that had been part of my life since childhood.
Secondly, as I started to feel better, I took a role in a play. Steel Magnolias was one of the best things that ever happened to me. With a small cast of women (all of whom were more than twice my age), a dedicated crew, and a stellar script, it was a balm for my anxious mind. And then, at one of the shows, I met Mike Replogle. He approached me afterwards to congratulate me on my performance, thinking I was a local college student. When he discovered that I was still in high school (courtesy of some meddling by one of my castmates), he demanded to know why I wasn’t in his program. It turned out he was the director of the Musical Theatre and Actor’s Studio Academy program. Determined to return to school next year, my mother and I corresponded with Mr. Replogle, who helped me get pupil placed at Fairfax High School, where the academy was located.
Enter Repo (as we called him) and suddenly a vague, lifelong dream of being a performer was on the table for real. Repo’s professional experience and confidence in my abilities convinced my reluctant parents that I could actually make a living as an actress. I spent two years honing my skills at the academy, building close relationships with talented professionals-turned-teachers and like-minded students while finishing up my diploma. (And picked up a spot at the Professional Digital Photography academy while I was at it!) I graduated high school with honors, happier than I’d ever been and heading off to James Madison University to study my passion. I am indebted to Mr. Replogle more than I can say. He was my mentor, my friend, and my champion for two years while I built my new self after my injury, and I will never be able to thank him enough for it.
The changes in my confidence, personality, and relationship with my parents brought on by my injuries have vastly improved the quality of my life. If I was given the chance to do it over and avoid the months of pain, but potentially miss out on years of benefits, I’d take the injuries every time.
It was a year of many and varied beginnings, but it was also a year of endings—a staggering number of famous, talented, beloved, and controversial figures were lost in 2016. Here’s a quick breakdown of a few of those who died and why they mattered.
January 14: Alan Rickman
An English actor perhaps best known for his role as Severus Snape in the Harry Potter series, Rickman’s career spanned some 42 years, during which he won numerous awards, including a BAFTA and a primetime Emmy.
February 3: Joe Alaskey
A voice actor best known for his iconic portrayals of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, he also voiced diverse characters such as Elmer Fudd, Tweety Bird, Yosemite Sam, Speedy Gonzalez, and Porky Pig, among many others.
February 28: George Kennedy
This American actor is best known for his Academy Award-winning performance as “Dragline” opposite Paul Newman in the classic Cool Hand Luke (1967), but his six-decade career also saw him play such recognizable characters as Joe Patroni in all four Airport movies, Police Captain Ed Hocken in the Naked Gun series, and tycoon Carter McKay in the original Dallas television show.
March 4: Tony Dyson
This British special effects designer is best known for designing and building R2-D2, the lovable droid from the Star Wars film series. He also created robotics and props for Superman II, Moonraker, Dragonslayer, James Bond, and Saturn 3, among others.
March 29: Patty Duke
This American stage and film actress rose to prominence at the age of 16, when she won an Academy Award for her portrayal of Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker, a role which she originated on Broadway. She went on to have her own show, The Patty Duke Show, and would win three Emmys and two Golden Globes over the course of her 65-year career.
April 23: Madeleine Sherwood
A Canadian actress of stage and film, Sherwood originated some 18 roles on Broadway, including the primary antagonist of The Crucible, Abigail Williams. She reprised two of these roles on film, in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (also starring Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman, and Burl Ives) and Sweet Bird of Youth. She may be most recognizable, however, as the Reverend Mother Placido in The Flying Nun.
May 1: Madeleine Lebeau
This French film actress is best known, by far, for her role as Humphrey Bogart’s spurned mistress Yvonne in Casablanca— she was the last surviving cast member of this iconic film.
May 19: Alan Young
This actor played many roles over his 77-year career, but was most famous for delighting audiences in his role as Wilbur Post, the only human being that the titular talking horse will speak to in Mister Ed.
May 24: Burt Kwouk
This British actor is most recognizable in his role in the Pink Panther film series as Cato, the ever-vigilant manservant whose constant attacks on Inspector Clouseau (to keep him alert) form the classic running gag of the films.
July 24: Marni Nixon
Dubbed by Time magazine as “the Ghostess with the Mostest,” Nixon was perhaps the most-heard and yet least-recognized voice of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Nixon was a voiceover actress who dubbed the singing voices of many of Hollywood’s leading ladies— including the voice of Maria in West Side Story (as well as Anita’s high notes), the voice of Eliza in My Fair Lady, and the voice of Anna in The King and I, among many others.
August 13: Kenny Baker
This actor is best recognized as a character without a face—he operated the lovable Star Wars droid, R2-D2, in all six of the original episodes.
August 19: Jack Riley
This American comedian and actor is best known to this generation as the voice of Stu Pickles on Rugrats, but also gained recognition as Elliot Carlin on The Bob Newhart Show.
August 29: Gene Wilder
This multitalented performer is readily recognizable as the titular character in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, but is also known for his long professional associations with Mel Brooks and Richard Pryor.
September 17: Charmian Carr
This American actress is best known for playing the charmingly naïve Liesl von Trapp in The Sound of Music.
November 12: Lupita Tovar
This Mexican-American actress is best known for her starring role as Eva Seward in the 1931 Spanish-language version of Dracula.
November 24: Florence Henderson
The highlight of this American performer’s six-decade career was her role as Carol Brady, the matriarch of The Brady Bunch.
December 15: Craig Sager
This legendary CNN sportscaster covered an array of sports for the station for some 35 years, recognizable for his brightly-colored and flashily-patterned suits.
December 18: Zsa Zsa Gabor
This Hungarian-American actress and socialite may be one of the earliest examples of “famous for being famous,” and though she gained some notoriety for her acting career, she is best known for her glamorous lifestyle and nine husbands.
December 27: Carrie Fisher
One of the most shocking deaths of the year, Fisher was the female star of the original Star Wars trilogy, and was in the process of filming the third trilogy at the time of her death.
December 28: Debbie Reynolds
Dying just one day after her daughter Carrie Fisher, Reynolds was a popular star of Hollywood’s Golden Age, best known for her role as Kathy Selden in Singin’ in the Rain.