Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Welcome to Jackson, Mississippi.

Mississippi is rich in literary history. We start with the greats like William Faulkner and Eudora Welty, and move on to modern writers like John Grisham and Matthew Guin. So we’ll begin your virtual tour at my favorite place in Jackson, Lemuria Bookstore.

The warm smell of ink-coated pages greets you at the bright red doors, and the stacks of books surrounding you threaten to topple over with every step. Once you enter, it feels like time stands still, reminiscent of its namesake—Lemuria, the mythical lost continent filled with the most brilliant civilizations ever known. I often go to the bakery and cafĂ© beneath the bookstore and study over coffee, with the reward of a leisurely stroll through Lemuria in mind.

Just minutes from the cozy bookstore is Eudora Welty’s house and gardens. If you haven’t gotten enough of books yet, you can make a stop at the lending library outside her house; a cute little encased bookshelf where the community can pick up a book and leave one for another. The famed author wrote some of America’s best works, and she wrote most of it from her darling cottage in the heart of my city. The house is open to the public, and her gardens host events for book-lovers year round. One of my personal favorites was the Jane Austen film series. My mom, sister, and I gathered with other Austen fans one sticky September night, spread out our blankets, and oohed and ahhed over all of our favorite parts of Pride and Prejudice beside the author’s azalea bushes. It was a night to remember.

Mississippi College

Mississippi is faithful to continue this tradition of well-read students, and it does so at its many universities. My brothers go to the schools Belhaven University and Millsaps College. All of our schools are close, with Belhaven right across from Eudora Welty’s house, Millsaps just blocks away, and my school, Mississippi College, fifteen to twenty minutes from theirs. I may be biased, but I think my school is the most beautiful—big brick buildings, towering trees, and stone statues depicting Biblical scenes dotting our campus.

Mississippi College isn’t all there is to see, though. The historical brick streets are just a few feet from my school’s limits, and they have something for everyone: from the antique stores and used bookstore to the southern dining options, local bakery, and coffee shop, the brick streets are a popular hang-out spot for all of MC’s students.

For as many learning opportunities as there are in Jackson, there are an equal amount of culinary experiences. Mississippi is home to good, old fashioned comfort food, and there is no shortage of fried, battered, and breaded chicken, catfish, and dough balls called “hush-puppies.” Jackson is also host to a variety of Greek restaurants—Keifer’s, Krilaki’s, Kristo’s, Vasilio’s; all offer authentic flavor and delicious variations of the incredible cuisine. Be careful when planning a visit to Vasilio’s, though; they close for the whole month of July while their family travels back to Greece! My family and I are constantly in wonder at the number of great Greek restaurants in Mississippi. Who knew? One of our all-time favorite places to take guests, though, is Brent’s Diner.

Brent’s opened in 1946 as a pharmacy, and its interior has remained largely unchanged, with the soda counter and bar stools still in their original places. It is still so charmingly 1950’s that it was actually featured in the 2011 film The Help. Our friends and family from out of town are always impressed that they get to sit at the same table Emma Stone did while filming! My go-to meal at Brent’s is always a burger, their famous fries, and a Nutella milkshake. To die for.

Brent’s is located in a hip inner-city area, Fondren. The city has been slowly refurbishing this area into a cultural arts and foodie hub, bringing in more revenue to a low-income city that desperately needs it. Fondren is a favorite spot for college students and families alike. I love going salsa dancing at Salsa Mississippi on Saturday nights, where students can dance until early morning for $5.00. People from all over the world gather into the vibrant, sweaty dance club and for a few hours you forget you’re in Mississippi. It’s incredible. My family and I also love to go to Fondren’s First Thursday, a street event that offers samples of nearly every culinary, music, and art attraction Jackson has to offer.

Jackson has held onto the Southern hospitality and kindness Mississippi is famous for, while also working to eradicate the state of the prejudices that have held us back. Jackson mesmerizes me. Perhaps after reading this it will you, too. Ms. Welty seems to think so, “Writers and travelers are mesmerized alike by knowing of their destinations.”

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Asking the "Why?" of disability

Dear Readers,

I get the privilege of loving on some tiny little ones each week. One girl has particularly stolen my heart. She’s learning the fine art of communicating with your hands, and so when we met and discovered we each knew what the other was saying, we sort of became best friends. Sometimes I forget she’s only three.

She holds such lovely thoughts in her head—a love for singing and jumping and hugs—and sometimes she just can’t figure out how to communicate those thoughts to the rest of the world. Sometimes it makes her cry in frustration. Sometimes I want to cry with her because it just seems really unfair.

A couple weeks ago my cute little friend made me think back to a week at camp that I still hadn’t really processed. This week was one of my perfect cabins—sweet sweet campers who made me want to cry every morning there was just so much beauty in our cabin. The beauty was so obvious to me. It wasn’t that obvious to some of our volunteers, though. One of our volunteers really struggled, and one night in our devotional raised the question, “Why would God make someone like this?”

I was pretty mad at her, to be honest, because I adore her camper and just wanted to say “Umm, excuse me, she’s freaking PERFECT and makes the world a brighter, more joy-filled place, that’s why!” But I let my brothers’ words fill in for me instead, since I knew she truly was struggling through the “why” of disability and couldn’t help her inability to see beyond that.

So I read them John 9: 1-3, which is highlighted and underlined in my Bible: As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.”

The works of God were definitely displayed through every single one of my campers. His creativity and joy and gentleness were oh so obvious to see in their sweet spirits. But it was my co-cabin leader’s words that made the most impact. She did what I couldn’t, and acknowledged that this “why?” question is a valid one. But she went on to say that that’s a question that we’ll never get an answer to this side of Heaven, so we shouldn’t waste time on it—instead, she said, we need to just accept that this is the way it is. Disability is in this world. And guess what? “Now, we just have to love them.” Those were her words. It doesn’t really even matter why this happens—what matters is how we respond, how we love.  

If you can’t tell by the verses I highlighted AND underlined, sometimes I wrestle with the hard “why?” too. It’s hard to find purpose within disability sometimes—especially in the middle of the really hard stuff, like surgeries and painful recoveries and too-early deaths. And there’s just something within all of us that wants to demand that God give us an answer—we want to ask, if He’s so good, why would He let something so hard happen to these people who we love? We want to sit there and cry with a three-year-old who deserves to have her words heard.

But that wasn’t what she needed. In that moment, I was paralyzed by my own sadness, much like my volunteer this summer was—and that didn’t help anyone. What did help my little friend was her teacher, who saw her crying and marched over to her. She said, “Why are you crying? You don’t need to cry. Come on, use your words--we all understand you here.”

We all understand you here. We’ll all take the time to understand you. This isn’t worth crying over, little one, not today—right here, right now, we’ve got you. And you’re so capable. That’s what she said to her. That was all she needed. Just the reminder that we’ll understand her. It was as simple as overlooking the “why?” that no one can actually answer and simply loving her in the way she needed to be loved in that moment.

How cool that we get to do that? It’s kind of amazing to me. So no, I don’t have an answer to the “why?” of disability. And even though I’d like to think I could just ignore it and find peace with the fact that I don’t even need to know like my co, I don’t know that I ever will. I think I’ll always have moments where I wonder and cry about the injustice of it all, because it’s definitely unjust.

But there’s also so much beauty. So many works of God are displayed in people with disabilities, and they are the boldest and most beautiful testament to Him. How thankful I am that we get the opportunity to love them.

Your Blogger,

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Here's hoping

Dear Readers,

As of this week, I’ve been accepted into CAPA’s study abroad program at La Universidad Austral in Buenos Aires, Argentina. That’s right—after years of watching me write yet another blog post about Argentina, changing my profile picture one more time to an old picture from Buenos Aires, and about a million Instagram photos of me eating alfajores—you’ll get to see EVEN MORE posts about Argentina except in real time. Contrary to what I’m sure must be popular belief, I’m not going because I love the food so much (although I do).

When I left Argentina in 2013, I vividly remember the youth pastor there telling us goodbye on the bus. He didn’t even tell me goodbye: “You’ll be back,” he said. I knew he was right. Yet even still, it feels strange to go back. I was a sophomore in high school last time I was there—now I’m halfway into my junior year of college. The Claire who left Argentina isn’t the same Claire who’s going back, though sometimes I feel like I haven’t changed at all. I’m sure it will look like it, too, when my plane touches down in February and I’m feverishly studying Spanish grammar until the last second just as I did four years ago.

 Every time anyone has ever asked that classic ice breaker question, “If you could go anywhere in the world right this minute, where would you go?” Argentina has been my standby answer. It's been the place I've been hoping, waiting, to go back to for years. Suddenly, it is the place I’m going. I’m going there. And I feel kind of panicky.

On Wednesday, I picked up the cute little curly-headed five-year-old I always pick up on Wednesdays, and we got out her giant foam world map puzzle. We started piecing it together, and as we did, I told her about my plans for next semester. Once we had placed the United States in its proper place above South America, I pointed to Mississippi, and then to Argentina. “Look, it isn’t that far, there isn’t even any water separating us—it’s all land! You could walk to me if you wanted!” Looking at the map like that, I was pretty comforted—if it goes just really badly, surely I could just take a bus back to Mississippi, right?

But Nora saw right through me. She rolled her eyes, “Claire, that is really far! You know where I want you to live?” She threw herself into my arms. “Right in this neighborhood! There are some houses for sale!”

I don’t think it’s the going, per say, that made me have to bite back tears as we sat there with that foam map (fun fact: we never even put the rest of the world together, just the Americas haha), but the leaving. Wow, it turns out that going and doing cool things like studying abroad involves leaving a lot of things, places, people that you really love. And that’s just plain hard.

I’ve been struggling with that hard all semester. A friend of mine just got back from spending last semester in London, and I’m pretty sure is the reason I haven’t just backed out of all of it. Every time I start to panic, she reminds me that everyone hates leaving, but that it’s so so worth it. I believe it a lot of the time, because I really am so excited to be back. Wow. It's amazing to me that I get to go back. 

Whenever I talk to my host family from high school, they tell me, “Estamos esperandote!” which translates to “We are waiting for you!” The verb “esperar” can also mean “to hope,” though, and that little phrase makes me feel hopeful for this next semester.

It feels like this place is where I’m grounded—this is the place where I have people and places and responsibilities and a reason for being here. Sometimes I worry that I won’t have purpose in Argentina and I’m just going, alone… But as long as someone is “esperando” hoping for me, I think I might just be okay.

Your blogger,