the free

Piece by piece

We build the wall

That works to separate us all

From those who have from those don’t

From those who can to those who won’t.

We throw our words around like flames

That scar and burn but mostly blame

Because those who won’t just steal from me

And those who don’t just need to flee.

Word by word

We all fall down

Our piercing words can only drown

Those who seek a sweeter place

To love and live and show their face.

All they find is hate and harm

From those with dangling, cross-shaped charms

“Build the wall!” they shout with glee

And as we do, we imprison the free.

Heart by heart

We deny the hate

That steals our love and determines our fate

We stand together in unity

Remembering whose pain once set us free.

We don’t speak loud but we do speak out

Because acts of love don’t scream and shout

The greatest of love has spoken for me

Now I speak for Him on that sacred tree.

I wrote this on a plane ride back from visits in Boston and Providence over the weekend. I was really inspired by the people, love, passion, and humanity that swept me up over the past few days and felt compelled to write this piece of poetry. It is political, but our lives are political. They are messy, confusing, never black and white. This poem, I hope, urges us to consider the gray– to find our place in the gray. The piece is also about love, peace, freedom, Christ, and unity. I hope the beauty of the woods isn’t missed for focusing in on the tree. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

values collection

Sometimes we must make big decisions in our lives.

I hate these times.

I’m horrible at making big decisions, or small decisions for that matter. I’m clearly not a very decisive person. I tend to change my mind often, and I’m easily convinced by someone who has a good argument. A part of this is because I dodge confrontation at all costs and quickly catch onto the current of the popular wave. I also think I change my mind often because life is complex, messy, and human lives are involved. This isn’t make-believe. Black and white answers are often misleading and potentially damaging. In many ways being indecisive is a conduit to being open-minded and listening to many perspectives.

I absorb new information like a sponge. Then, I add that new information to the pool of ideas that shifts and swirls within my head (it’s like a chaotic whirlpool up there). New information has huge influence over our lives. We’re all susceptible to the pull of new ideas or propaganda: politically, you may think differently today than you did five or ten years ago. You may have changed your mind about vaccinations. When you once thought they were harmless and very beneficial, now you’re skeptical because of alarmist news, trending discussion on the topic, and changing trust in authority. I’m not saying any of this is wrong, and I think it is even right to question new information. Some people spend their whole lives never questioning if what they believe is right or wrong. Those people are typically stubbornly blind in their ways and oftentimes closed-minded and hard. New information and the decision-making process can become an opportunity to explore what we believe and why.

I’m making a big decision right now, and it is hard. Every day I grow more anxious about deciding where I will go for medical school (full disclosure: it will be either Stanford or Harvard). There are a lot of factors to consider when making this decision, and, unfortunately, no one can make it for me. What I’ve learned throughout this very tough decision, though, is how to articulate what my values are. About five or six years ago, Mrs. Kelly Hinson, my high school cheerleading coach at the time, encouraged us to write down qualities we valued in a future husband. This was my first exercise is clearly stating what I find important, and I continue to reflect on my life in terms of values today.

It’s easy to get caught up in the impressing game. We all want to be impressive; it’s the driving factor for what we post on social media, how we dress, what we share with others, how we spend our money, etc. Not many people go around starting a conversation with, “Yeah, last week I failed an exam, wrecked my car, and then forgot to pay my credit card bill.” Or “I’m pretty unhappy at the moment. Yeah, I’m sad. I’m learning to cope and find outlets, but right now is honestly a hard time for me.” We just don’t shape the perception of our lives in this way. We aim to impress, subconsciously or consciously.

I’m trying to avoid the impressing game and focus on the values game. I’ve spent a lot of time narrowing in on what is important to me over the years. We spend a lot of time crafting our personal “values collection.” We avoid excess, eliminate toxicity, seek out righteousness, love what’s good, and hate what’s harmful. The actions of our lives become the patterns of our decision-making. As I make this huge, scary decision, I’m focusing on my own values: community, support, acceptance, love, flexibility, family, honesty, integrity, and compassion. Sometimes it requires taking it back old-school style and grabbing a pen and paper to simply write words that are important. If you feel caught up in the indecision of our political system or you’re being carried too much by the waves of other people, just write down what is important to you. Your own “values collection” can serve as a handy compass when navigating this complex, confusing world.

dream big

Reader, I did it.

I got into Harvard Medical School.

This isn’t a post about the hours I poured over biochemistry pathways or the different immune cells. It isn’t about my boyfriend, Avery, who made quotes for me to read every day I studied for the MCAT. It isn’t even about my gratitude for my mom and dad who empowered this dream.

This is a post to you, to say YOU CAN DO IT. I promise you can. Whatever it is that sets your heart alive, gives you a purpose that is bigger than yourself, or wakes you up in the morning, I am begging you to chase that dream. Nothing is more beautiful than settling that thing in you that is urging you to pursue your dreams. Four years ago, I was a high school senior in a small town in rural Tennessee. I had never taken an AP class or won a national spelling bee or been inducted into the National Honors Society. I applied to one university and never even imagined applying to an Ivy League school. I had a few key mentors, a passion for science and service, and a door that was hanging wide open in front of me. Through that door, I saw limitless opportunity and chance. I saw hope. Belmont University was my vessel to explore that thing within me that said “Hey, go for it. I believe in you.” I have always felt there is something greater within me, something calling me to do more and to be more than my small and limited mind can comprehend. I followed the crazy things that thing called me towards, and I achieved a dream – a dream bigger than I ever imagined.

I think everyone has this thing within them, gnawing at their spirit. It may be starting a business, working as a nurse, doing mission work, becoming a writer or artist, helping those that are differently-abled, or finally going back to school. It may be small; it may be big. Whatever you have in you that is inching to get out, it matters. Your contribution to the world matters.

People will discourage you. People will question you. People will try to limit your ambition and your dreams. My biggest advice is to never be that person to yourself. Believe in who you are. If you do this, other people will believe in you, too. My freshman year of college, my mentor Dr. Javid Moslehi consistently introduced me as, “This is Mary. She’s going to be a Harvard medical student one day.” I jokingly laughed it off and didn’t believe him, but his belief encouraged me to believe in myself. Find those people that believe in you. They are the ones that throw gasoline on the fire within your heart.

Dream big but work hard. My dad always told me, “There are people a lot smarter than me, but none of them can work harder.” This is my motto now, too. You can be a math genius or an art prodigy, but if you do no work with that talent, you will never fulfill your potential. Seriously, work hard. Where you are deficient, hard work can compensate. I fully believe anyone can learn anything with enough time and effort. If hard work can get a girl like me into Harvard, it can get you anywhere you imagine.

Just go for it. The worst thing that can happen is that you fail, and if you fail then you just start over and try again. My mom always reminded my younger sister, “What happens when we fall? We learn to pick ourselves up.” You can always pick yourself up, and you’ll probably have people around you that are there to catch you anyways. Whatever is holding you back, throw it off. Whoever is holding you down, let them go. You are worth achieving your dreams. You are worth making a difference. I promise: you can do it.

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” – Mary Oliver

“My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.” – Maya Angelou

sacred places

“There are no unsacred places; / there are only sacred places and desecrated places.” — Wendell Berry
I’m starting to understand that there truly are no unsacred places — this is a bold claim. Some may perceive the site where a white American minister burned himself alive in the name of racial reconciliation as unsacred, or the home of hundreds of incarcerated men and women as unsacred, or the doctor’s office where an abortion has been performed as unsacred, or a strip club where infidelity puts food on the table for women employees as unsacred. I am guilty, as I predict we all are, of having passed an opinion on each of these cases and many others without considering the human lives involved. And while yes, I do believe that there are very uncomfortable aspects in each of these places and scenarios, I’m starting to see that life is much more complicated than the simple dichotomy of sacred/unsacred or right/wrong or good/evil. I didn’t coin this distinction, though; that was Wendell Berry. Luckily it wasn’t me, because Berry importantly includes the alternative to unsacred: desecrated. I looked up “desecrated” in the dictionary to see exactly what he meant. Something desecrated has been violently disrespected, or possibly perverted, violated, infected, polluted, vandalized, debased, or degraded. Berry is onto something here. People — the most critiqued in society — are likely to have been victims of many waves of desecration in their lifetimes. I imagine people as those beautifully painted Russian nesting dolls. We may look whimsical and pleasing on the outside, but within each of us there are many unseen, hidden layers. These mysterious, unknown layers may be what have shifted some of us from the sacred to the desecrated. We’re all damaged, polluted, degraded in some way. Some of us are just better at hiding our layers than others.
So there are no unsacred places, only desecrated places, and those not yet desecrated, or the sacred. There are no unsacred people. There are people who have been cheated, lied to, abused, hurt, neglected, abandoned, scared, dishonored, gossiped about, rejected, and shamed; they are simply damaged. If someone we love is damaged, do we abandon them? Give up, toss them to the side, move on, and hope for better luck in the future? I hope the answer is no. At least, I’m hoping no one gives up on me. I’m damaged, just like you are. I want to see people as the complicated, multi-layered, dynamic living souls they are. This world is far too vivid and beautiful to see only in shades of black and white. That place we call harmony, sympathy, and understanding is all gray.
—–
How to Be a Poet by Wendell Berry
(to remind myself)
i   
Make a place to sit down.   
Sit down. Be quiet.   
You must depend upon   
affection, reading, knowledge,   
skill—more of each   
than you have—inspiration,   
work, growing older, patience,   
for patience joins time   
to eternity. Any readers   
who like your poems,   
doubt their judgment.   
ii   
Breathe with unconditional breath   
the unconditioned air.   
Shun electric wire.   
Communicate slowly. Live   
a three-dimensioned life;   
stay away from screens.   
Stay away from anything   
that obscures the place it is in.   
There are no unsacred places;   
there are only sacred places   
and desecrated places.   
iii   
Accept what comes from silence.   
Make the best you can of it.   
Of the little words that come   
out of the silence, like prayers   
prayed back to the one who prays,   
make a poem that does not disturb   
the silence from which it came.

self-talk

I recently heard a story from a beautiful, African American woman who wore a stylish black cardigan and dark red lipstick. Her dark, silky hair was perfectly curled, and her smile illuminated our faces like a flashlight exposing the darkness. As she began to speak, her deep, rhythmic voice reverberated off our concrete classroom walls; her voice and its warmness filled the room like blowing breath into a balloon. I was touched by her presence even though we were separated a considerable distance. She held a sweet sense of humility, a knowingness and experience, in her voice. She told us a story.

This kind and gentle woman had been incarcerated for 14 years. Her story starts as a child, when she experienced domestic sexual trauma that continued into her teenage and adult life. She got wrapped up in some bad relationships which propelled themselves into criminal activity. Her story is not unlike many others; when trauma starts this early on, it isn’t a choice. It is a lifestyle given without any permission or consent. Among her triumphant stories was a small detail about how she began to tell herself lies and believe them. Her identity was built on false narratives, destructive words that shaped her, and a lifetime of untruths. She said eventually, she didn’t even know her real birthday.

Although I am very different from this woman, I share many of her same vulnerabilities. We all do. We are all capable of telling ourselves lies that become truth and this truth becomes our reality and this reality becomes our life. We can tell ourselves that we are worthless, purposeless, hopeless, that we have no friends, no choice in our life trajectory, and no control, or that we’re unattractive, disliked, stupid, or meaningless. We can say these things, and they will become true. I spent a lot of time in high school convincing myself that I needed to change; that I needed blonde hair and tan skin before I could be loved. Or that I needed bigger muscles and a smaller waist before I could be attractive. Or that if I spoke and acted a certain way, I would fit in. I began to believe myself. These lies became my reality and that reality became very grim and oppressing as I tried to fit into all the images that society tells us are important. My saving grace came when I began to tell myself something else: I am smart, I have importance that goes beyond physical appearances. I am loved exactly how I am. Then I began to tell myself something even more radical: Maybe I could even change the world. These things I told myself changed my life perspective. Our self-talk matters.

You may truly think you are worthless or unloved or a failure. I am not condemning your feelings or telling you that you are wrong. The thoughts you have about yourself are valid. That is really how you feel and that must be recognized. What I am saying, however, is that you should start telling yourself a new narrative. Every day wake up and tell yourself the truth that you want your reality to become. Roll out of bed and tell yourself, “I am loved. I am important. My work is meaningful. My life is valuable. I am kind, lovable, and gentle. I am free from addiction. I am free from sadness/anxiety/depression. I am in control. I am loved by something much larger than me. I was created with purpose. I was created with passion. I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”

Or maybe just tell yourself one of those things or maybe all of them if you need it. Some days I do.

This week my mantra has been “I am strong, I am capable, I am confident” because each of those words touches on an insecurity I’ve felt this week. On Monday, I told myself this phrase as I walked to class, practiced a speech, worked my job, went about life. On Friday, my mantra became my reality: I endured the week with strength, competence, and self-assurance. My positive self-talk came true.

As you read this I ask you a simple question: What do you need to hear?

And I implore you to take on a simple task: start telling yourself that. Today, right now, this week. It may save your life.

thankful for the moment

I’m sitting in a hip, jazzy cafe in Palo Alto, California. I’m sipping on some water because I just indulged in a milk tea with boba that was absolutely delicious. I arrived in California this morning around 11:00am, after leaving my apartment at a shockingly early time of 3:30am (shout out of appreciation to my boyfriend, Avery, for waking up and driving me to the airport). All day, I’ve jumped from plane to plane, city to city, to finally land in this spot. This comfortable spot of sitting in a worn-out leather chair in a young and busy coffee shop in a beautiful city.

It is no accident that I’m here; it took years of hard work, focus, dedication, sacrifice, and perseverance to get to this place. It took planning, purchasing a plane ticket, organizing accommodation, and a lot of thought to get here. Yet, I keep thinking to myself, This must be a mistake. What if I show up to the interview and they say, “Sorry, we have no records of you. It must have been a miscommunication.” At least then it would all make sense. I don’t say these things to self-flatter or to self-deprecate, only to give a voice to my darkest fears in this moment. Tomorrow, though, I’m interviewing at Stanford Medical School and that is a reality I never dreamed of coming true. Flying in, over the beautiful city of San Francisco and after coming in from Los Angeles, I thought about my hometown and how drastically different this is from that. I feel like I don’t belong here, like it is all a big mistake and I’m the butt of the joke, but somehow I know this is where I’m supposed to be.

I’m overwhelmed with appreciation at how far I have come and how beautiful this moment is, like finally letting air out of a balloon that has been way too full for way too long. I never expected this moment, but I know I worked hard for it. I never felt entitled to anything but felt indebted to giving this dream everything I’ve got; I reflect on everything I’ve worked diligently for and how I have sacrificed some of the ordinary joys of a 20-something to make it this far. Those moments lost are worth it, because the feeling of accomplishment in this one is so, so sweet. I reflect back, and I feel grateful.

Grateful for the people who helped me get here, financially, emotionally, spiritually, and physically. Thankful for the people who have continuously believed in me, even when I was down on myself. I’m thankful for the people who pushed me to keep going when I wanted to give up. I’m thankful for the people who let me cry on their shoulder when I needed to. I’m not in medical school yet, and I’m certainly not a doctor, but I think it is worth celebrating this moment, no matter what happens in the future.

I have no idea what will occur in the next few weeks, but right now, in a warm and inviting cafe in Northern California, I am so happy. Happy for opportunities, for growth, and for truly having the chance to chase my biggest dreams.

breaking down

As I’m enjoying my morning coffee, with sunshine flooding into my small but comfy shoe-box of a bedroom, I google “how to show Christ’s love as a doctor”. It may be obvious how doctors have a platform for showing compassion, love, equality, and integrity towards their patients, but I’m a practical kind of gal so I wanted some real-life tips. One thing that stood out to me in an article that I read is the call to honor God with our lives – a seemingly simple task – but to avoid making medicine/success/accomplishment/money/etc. an idol before God. I started reflecting on my own life and realized how important and hard this is.

Avoiding idols is a slippery, hard-to-detect fine-line that I’ve even experienced as someone who is not a doctor yet. I find a sense of belonging and contentment in feeling like I’m making a difference, even if small, in someone’s life at this stage in my journey. I take pride in my accomplishments that I work so hard for, and I celebrate the opportunities that come to me throughout this journey. When I studied for the MCAT, I felt like that exam was truly determining my future, and I had to step back (or have others around me) to remind myself that God is in control of my destiny. There have been times where this career has become an idol in my life that I worshiped and thought about constantly, and it takes daily, continual action to break down that idol. My support system at my church reminds of the temporary nature of this life and how everything we do should be good but is truly only transient. When we break down those idols, liberation from anxiety, worry, and defeat ensues.

Idols don’t always look like golden calves. Sometimes they look like the pursuit of money so you can live a little more comfortably, a cute boy who you devote all your time to, the success and accomplishment of your children, perfection towards a hobby or skill, or the more deleterious but real-life idols like addiction, mental and physical illnesses, and sexual immorality. The hardest thing about breaking down idols is remembering to wake up every single day and chip away at that thing you think gives you worth in life. Whether or not we like it at all, those things will fail us and we will leave them behind us when we enter the kingdom of Heaven. I try to remember that although I want to be a physician more than anything, my life is worth so much more than that. My God has given me, and all of us, specific ways and tools to impact and gather his Kingdom. That may not be as immediately flattering or boast-worthy, but it is way more important. Every day, in a small but consistent way, start chipping away at the idol you’ve built in your life. You probably already know what it is. The effects are liberating in so, so many ways.

“You shall have no other gods before me.” – Exodus 20:3