dear hilary: make an invitation

Dear Hilary,

I’m here. I made it to college and somehow surviving on my own. I love these people and the opportunities I get and almost everything this place has to offer—but this week especially, I’ve been so afraid. Of everything. I’m afraid that there will be no one to catch me, that I’m destined for life as an outcast. I have people here who care, but they have their own lives and somewhere they belong. They have their own friendships, and even my roommate knows so many more people than I do, I just don’t know how to ask for help—but I want it, but I’m so afraid of being in the way.There are so many deep friendships here, and it’s beautiful to watch, and I don’t want to be jealous, but maybe I am. And maybe I’m starting to wonder ifI’m not worth knowing that deeply, that I’m destined to be on the outskirts. I just don’t see where I fit here. I’m too scared to do much of anything.


Dear Freshman,

I almost transferred my first semester of college. Between the chaos of having chosen a major and suddenly wanting to switch it, living with a stranger, moving from my small, tight-knit circle of friends in high school to this bigger pond where people seemed to know each other after three minutes during the Orientation games or the day trip into Boston, I didn’t think I could make it. I walked around with my old high school backpack, sat in my classes or in the dining hall, and imagined what it would be like to start over. Or better yet, to stop starting over. To spend the rest of my time in a familiar place with familiar people.

I want so achingly ready to be done. And so I hear that same worry and frustration in your letter, and I want to tell you, the way that I seem to write in most of these letters, that it is not wrong to ache with the transition into college. It is not wrong to be unsure of yourself in a new place and unsure of the people who are with you. These feelings belong to you, and they are part of you, and they are part of the story of you in college. It is okay to let them exist in their loud, clattering selves for a little while.

What kept me at the school I eventually grew to love was a woman with a piece of zucchini bread. Yes, that simple. That seemingly small. She called one of those first few weeks in and told me that her mom had sent her zucchini bread in a care package, that she couldn’t possibly eat it all herself, so what did I think about coming over and having tea?

I remember thinking at the time it was the first planned thing I had had in college so far. An RD and her zucchini bread in her apartment on a Friday afternoon. It sounds so simple. It sounds like it wouldn’t be very much compared with the friendships that seem to multiply every night, that make the lounge loud and impossible to study in, that crowd the dining hall and the library and the walkways on your way to class.

But I think it’s more powerful than that.

Belonging is not measured by the number of people at your table at dinner, and by what you think your roommate is doing, or how well they fit in, or if it seems like your whole first year seminar is throwing parties on the weekends. My guess is, honestly, that most of them feel the same way. It’ll show differently in each of us, but I promise that they are also wondering about how to belong and if they will fit and whether anyone is really willing to get to know them beyond the customary exchanges of “hi” and “how are you” (to which your response has to be “good”, though I have no idea why we came up with that). They wonder if you’ll see them, just as you wonder if they will.

So you want to know what you can do, to bridge these gaps, to feel less afraid. Bake zucchini bread. Invite someone from a class to eat it with you. Invite your roommate to go to the grocery store with you because you’d like the company and it’s a chance to get off-campus. Invite these people who right now seem to have it together into a space that you make, a space that you’re creating in and among everything that is new and overwhelming.

There are more rarely moments when we “see how we fit” and more often moments when we help others fit into something new with us. You are already brave enough to ask these questions out loud to me. So I know you are brave enough to google a recipe for something that you love and bake it and bring others in to share it with you.

That first invitation will be more meaningful than you know.



myself, eighteen

I’m trapped in a heard of other freshmen in Boston all wearing matching tan tee-shirts with an orientation logo emblazoned on it, promising me that if anyone wanted to think I was a cool, sophisticated college student, they will see my t-shirt and sneakers and know better.

I hold my phone in the palm of my hand inside my pocket, sweating against the keys. I wait, and wait. I spend the first three weeks waiting.

It would have been better if I didn’t have the evidence that I had spent the last ten days in the middle of the woods in upstate New York telling a group of people I had never met before that this boy, he and I were a thing. A thing I couldn’t define, a thing I couldn’t quite pin down, one Starbucks lemonade and one impulsive kiss against a car door the afternoon before I left, but a thing. I was sure of it.

He doesn’t write back. I keep myself away from the ten digits I’m sure I’ve memorized in tracing them over and over in my pocket, because I don’t want to text him but I want to text him, and I promise I have to let one more hour go by where I’m silent, and the hour becomes two, becomes a week… and maybe I don’t know the ten digits as well anymore, was it 7-8 or 8-7 and was there a 9? But I imagine what I’d say, in my first-year indignant heart, it is rageful and spiteful and angry. And I start to spin the story.

I tell my roommate in hushed whispers at 4am while we’re eating cookie dough straight from the tube how much experience I have with boys. I laugh to the girls on my floor as one of them puts a 5 day Garnier hair dye in my hair about the fact that if you kiss someone in the middle of the night on a beach you’re going to find you are covered in sand, completely, the next morning. I proclaim that my love language is physical touch. And I wink.

God catches up to me on a walk around the quad right before first semester finals. I don’t notice Him at first, walking head bent to the concrete against the early-December drizzle. But I’m worn thin in trying to write that scene between Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Birmingham Jail and his wife. I’m thinking about stage directions when I realize God is there, too.

Do you want to talk about what happened?

I have said no a thousand times, I remind Him. I’ve told the story already. It’s better the way I tell it. It’s safer the way I tell it. I keep walking, repeating things about the Kings and the scene in the jail. I read over the words in my head.

Do you want to talk about what happened?

I still say no, but perhaps there is a crack, a pause, just small enough for a bit of the Spirit to slip inside my well-walled heart. I sit on a bench, damp from the rain that just stopped. I put my books next to me, not realizing until I hear the slap of paper on water that I put them in a puddle. I cringe, and put them on the wet concrete at my feet.

You cared for someone.

A pause.

He didn’t stay.

Another pause.

And this means something to your heart.

I start to cry. I’m eighteen and in college and I had a thing that wasn’t a thing and I told that group of people in the middle of the woods in New York that I had a thing that turned out not to be a thing, and now I’ve told everyone that I was pleased with myself, with all that I did and said and I made it this story, and that was going to make it feel better, was going to make it safe again, I was going to be safe inside the laughter and the knowing wink and the hair dying on the first floor bathroom.

It can’t be the kind of beautiful I want it to be, Hil, until you let it mean something in your heart. It can’t be restored to you if you keep it.

I stop crying.

Let Me have this story.

I don’t want to give it back, and my version is safer, steered clear of it meaning something. Of it hurting. Of it aching, and healing.

Let Me have it.

The rest of eighteen, nineteen, twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two, and counting, I watched Him make more of this story – more healing, more peace, more delight, more laughter – maybe even something like wisdom.

It began that first night. It began with the thing that wasn’t a thing, that became an entirely different and more beautiful thing. I gave Him back the story.