To you, my friends

We’ve reached the end—again—and I still don’t fully know how to handle the first few weeks without students on campus. The buildings slowly empty and, one by one, then all at once, the lights turn off. The music stops. The hustle simmers and bustle slows. I stand in the lobby of the 500-person building wishing that everyone was back here for a photo, something to remember this time that we’ve spent stretching each other’s hearts. Each floor becomes the home of all the sweetest memories that we hold close, each room a set of walls observing us be who we are, and each person, a tiny miracle that we wished we’d gotten and now we did. I put my hands in my pockets and take a deep breath. Another year down. Gratitude fills me.

The truth is, no matter how many days we’d wished away, hoping it would be the end sooner than it did, we were never really ready for the finality. We weren’t ready to go on our last round or attend our last meeting. As much as we might have wished for it to come, we sat amongst each other in the last staff meeting wishing there was just one more. At some point along the way, we didn’t come to terms with the fact that we were doing some of our last things together in the last six weeks of the semester. The last sleeps and the last conversation with that one resident that you wish you’d gotten to know earlier. The last trip for coffee with each other. The last program you planned with a peer and the last time you called for backup. The last time you got to spend with one another and the final set of laughs shared way too late into the night. It’s a reminder that good things do, indeed, come to an end, even when we try to run from it. Still, we got to do so much together. That’s something that makes me smile today.

For many of this, this was a hard year. We can never really imagine in August how we’ll turn out in May, how heartbreak might come at a time we least expect it to, how we might find joy in spaces that we hadn’t thought would be full, and how we’ll be changed forever because of it. Every first day of school, I think about how, in just a few months, we’ll all leave again and I’m reminded of how critical it can be to take that moment in, to breath deeply and exhale, and to find resolve in the steps I’m (we’re) about to take. Time is non-renewable; we get to spend it with each other for such a short period, and so it becomes precious in an instant. Thinking back to that day this past fall, I’m reminded once again that no matter how much I try to plan and prepare, there will be twists and turns, life unexpectedly startling me into the next tomorrow. But every time, I got to do it with you.

I wish I could write each of you a poem. Something you can take with you to new buildings and teams, new cities and jobs, new supervisors and friends. I wish I could be the folded photograph in your wallet that comes tumbling out when you least expect it; a reminder of how things used to be, of all the ways we grew this past year. I’ll settle as a memory you carry instead, something vivid and encouraging. Hopefully something that evokes light. I wasn’t perfect but I certainly tried to be. I knew on day one just as I know now: you are worth the time. You are worth the space. You are worth the hours and the miles we traveled. You are worth it every single time. Here’s a letter to remind you:

This letter is for you, my friends.

For every time you didn’t believe in yourself but finally did, a whole world cracking open, something new and uncharted. For every moment you cussed in the lobby and quickly apologized, receiving the “Robbie face,” and resolving to be better. For the times we shared tears and the times we swapped stories, life lessons, or music preferences. For every walking one-on-one and every Starbucks trip (I’m convinced we are made of caffeine). For every time you thought you couldn’t, but you tried anyway. Every staff trip and moments you thought I was mad at you (I wasn’t (except for the back door)), every early morning or late night staff meeting, every message sent to see if you overslept for a gathering. For every program and every conversation that changed me. For every person you changed, too. For all the hours you spent crafting and rounding, every moment you wished would end and every moment you wished wouldn’t. Every mistake and triumph. I have a heart full of gratitude.

We made it.

Thanks for making this place a home for so many and for committing yourself to the folks living here. It wasn’t that long ago that we all sat in the first meetings, wide-eyed and hopeful, wishing for a year of building. My goodness, did you build.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Next year will be different for each other you. My hope is that you put your best foot forward, especially on your worst days. There will be more days like that in your future—the kind where everything seems to be going wrong and you’re late, feeling heavy with disappointment in yourself. My hope is that you take a step anyways. And that you rest when you get the chance. I know many of you don’t know what that word means and that’s okay. You will soon enough.

I hope you take every chance to adventure and you forgive yourself when you mess up. We are built to make mistakes. We are a bunch of imperfect cells just trying to make it through. If we never messed up, life might be pretty boring and definitely bereft meaning. I hope you know that you never have to go through darkness alone and that you know I’m in your corner just as I’ve always been. Many of you will span the globe in the coming months—new states, territories unbound from routines and favorite places—and I hope you take advantage of all the clean slates in your future. My mother tells me that we don’t get many in this life and that we should make the most of it every time we find ourselves with something blank to shapeshift. I hope you make the most of it.

Do not forget each other. No matter how many trials and tribulations you faced, you mattered to each other in some small way this year. That’s important. Doing anything less than remembering every moment of laughter and sadness, of joy and frustration, would not be meaningful.

Feel what you feel. It will make you a better human to be able to walk through each emotion from beginning to end than to run from it. Some of you know what I’m talking about because you’ve done a lot of it this semester. There is no finality to any feeling; you will get tired of running and it will all catch up to you. Feel it. Lean into it. Sit with it and explore it if you can. And in every moment in between, be gentle with yourself.

The future cannot happen if you don’t find a way to love people deeply. So, at the end of each day, I hope you think about how you love people well, including yourself. You are worthy of every good thing coming to you.

Thanks for making this year beautiful and for giving other people hope. Without you, goodbyes would be easy. I’m grateful that you’ve made them difficult for me. I’ll miss you more than you know. You are always welcome back into any space of mine. I have so much love in my heart for you.

Your friend,
-RFW

Holdfast

Holdfast

“We should hold each other more
while we are still alive, even if it hurts.
People really die of loneliness, skin hunger
the doctors call it. In a study on love,
baby monkeys were given a choice
between a wire mother with milk
& a wool mother with none. Like them,
I would choose to starve & hold the soft body.”

-Robin Beth Schaer

When I think of the man I was two years ago, I think of fog. How it shades and contorts what may or may not be in front of you. How it can cloud around the shape of you, clarity hindered. I think of how traveling through it can sometimes only yield more fog. Something endless. That’s what grief is to me. I’ve been digging. Trying to make sense of something that I won’t soon understand. I knew, two years ago, my grandmother was hurting and hoping I’d come home to see her for what would have been the very last time. I knew it to be possible that she was doing everything she could to hang on for just a little while longer. I knew I prioritized work over the miles it’d take for me to see her again and still, I’m working through that, a certain kind of fog that makes me feel bad for leaving and feel bad for staying. Unshakeable in more than a few ways. Two years later, I’m sitting in this coffeeshop wondering how it could be that I’ve let two years pass without fully writing about it.

She was a woman of steel with a soft center. Truly the matriarch of this family. A wonder of the world. I am convinced today just as I was two years ago today: everything that matters most to me grows three times its size once I no longer have access to it.

I’ve gotten a tattoo in her honor; I look at it every day—in the shower as the water hits it, in meetings when I roll up my sleeves, in small moments where the black ink is a heavy contrast against my pale skin—and I am reminded of her words. “I love you.” Some of the strongest words ever said simply to me. Some of the only that I’ve both understood and felt completely in the fog about. Still traveling, still making my way towards some sort of muffled light, and I am starting to think that perhaps this is what life is like once you lose someone you love deeply.

I believe there is a story in all things. It’s why I’ve taught a class about storytelling for the past two semesters. It’s why I’ve worked with students to help them see the value in their own stories and the stories surrounding them every single day. There are no small moments that do not have the opportunity to be of golden value. Everything has the potential to matter. The ways things came to be, how they’re existing, and the hopes folks have for them continuing are all stories and they’re worth telling. I’m not yet convinced that everything happens for a reason, or if these two concepts are related, but even when (especially when) things don’t make sense to us, they grow bones in mattering. That’s that.

I have several stories swimming around of my grandmother: going to the park down the street from the house that she and my grandfather built; her having a stroke across from me at a restaurant, her eyes meeting mine, face pale-white; her tripping and falling over a protruding water pipe in the sidewalk, blood rushing down her face but her insisting that she was fine; her living next to my father in a trailer park; me and a friend getting in trouble at a local store and her having to come and pick us up; going into the woods that she told us not to go into and building forts; moving in with her for a year during high school while my family could get on their feet; her crying every time I would leave home and asking when I’m coming back; and so many more. So many more.

The last two years have been difficult and I still have so much unpacking to do. Every good, bad, and indifferent memory I have deserves a safe space to come undone inside of me. My grandmother was, is, and always will be a strong part of my identity. The love she exuded is not lost on me. It’s in the work that I do every day. It shows up in the relationships I’m constantly working to build, even when I fail. It’s a central part of who I am as a person. It’s on my skin; despite shedding, it’s always there.

Every morning, I wake up a see a message I wrote to myself that I got from a StoryPeople print: “There is no future without love.” Although I live alone, I say it quietly to myself every morning as if it is a prayer—something holy that gives me strength, something spiritual that is bigger than I am. When I sit up, feet reaching the ground, arms stretching, I’m hoping the universe is listening. I’m hoping that somehow, the moon and the trees are listening. I’m hoping there will be others can find this message in their everyday lives and believe it. That we can see each other and understand each other, all the soft parts in us are worthy of acceptance, of light.

There will come a time when everything around me is gone. People will pass. Time will pass. The music will stop. Work will cease and the world will be determined to keep spinning the same old, reliable way. I will be left with myself. Healing will not be linear and it will not come easy. I have to come to terms with that fact—sooner rather than later—and know in my bones that, no matter how much I try, I cannot outrun my hurt. I cannot trick all that haunts me into being my friend. I have to face it. And the love that grows through all the breaking will make it worth it. So worth it.

So it goes.

The order of things

The order of things

On a cold Saturday in late March, I wake with words sprawling, tottering themselves into a poem off of my lips. I move quickly to write it all down. Hours later, I’ve scribbled on the backs of several old papers: a restaurant napkin, a movie pass, the comic section of the local newspaper, a notebook divider—anything with space for the things I cannot stop from leaving. There is a place where every writer feels a rope tighten when the words come faster than the hand can move. It is made up of half magic, and half images from a life lived, and I am a writer in the same way I am a lover: there are plenty of things that I say I can do without believing I can actually do them. Still, my feet find unsteady ledges in an effort to scale objects meant to be seen, not touched. What comes to me, I feel compelled to remember. I write a slew of poems that night. One about loving and light. One about the dark, what it contains or doesn’t, what it holds up or doesn’t, what it can be for people who will never intimately know how the light guides us across days to a greater tomorrow. Always becoming someone or something, perhaps several someones or somethings and I am here, purposefully and unknown. Still learning how to be okay inside of joy. Still working my way through a puzzle with missing pieces. Shay Alexi questioned, “Do you know what it is to love somebody when all their lights go out?” That line stuck with me in the same way my answer to it does. How did I get into this empty room? How do I know my eyes aren’t just closed tightly to savor the dark? I ask about the switch itself, how electricity can travel so fast, how I do not always know if I belong in this space or if I’ve carved into it as a way of saying, “this is mine now.” I have so many questions, so many unanswered thoughts. Alas, I must rest.

Instead, inception. A match strikes. Then, a dancing flicker. A gleam, a sliver of a familiar breath. Fouling off every pitch just to stay in the game, in the bottom of the 9th, down two with one on second, one second to decide if I’ll swing. Step. Go. As far as the light will take me. May I never forget what it means to hold onto things that I cannot fully grasp. Things I’m destined to let go of. And I will not go to where the darkness lives. But when it shows up on my doorstep, I’ll invite it inside. Make some tea, no sugar. I will sit across from it, fumbling around, move my hands across the ink on my pages, look it in the eyes, set down my armor, and begin with belief. I wait for it to make a sound. Make a move. Make a claim that today is over with and next week isn’t coming. I sit with my poems in front of me, hoping one of them can make sense of things right now. There is a line somewhere in these pages about natural disasters. I have referenced love in this way since I can remember. Earthquakes shifting the order of things: dirt split rigidly down Earth’s center, jagged vulnerable cliffs amidst our favorite flowerbeds. We are ripping away from each other; every bouquet from here until the end of everything will have stems we don’t yet know how to cut. We resolve to reach farther but throw the whole thing out. Hope the next dozen will be easier, brighter; have a better shot at surviving this thing, this holy and oft-questioned thing, this beautiful and bold circling-around-the-ridge thing. I move at a speed I do not know towards the place where split headaches begin. When darkness asks me what is most valuable to me, I tell it, “Right here,” pointing straight to the chest, the heart, “right here.” A quiet grin, a subtle laugh, everything and nothing between us, hushed now and I pull the sheets over my head one last time as I drift off to sleep—

Break, breaking

Break, breaking

Since I moved to Indiana, life has been small musings between heartbreaks. And this is largely what growing up has been for me. The moving and the wishing people were here that cannot be and the election and the disasters that we become when we are hurt but trying to love people. The war with the self when it comes to deciding what is more important: tending to your own heart or giving that up for the sake of someone else’s.

The desire that only seems to compound with time and people and places. The hard semester of learning but not for learning’s sake, more as a practice of survival. The building of a community of people that feel like a home. Or perhaps the building of a community of a few good people who are home despite the miles between us. The understanding of that, finally. The heartbreak of a friend passing suddenly. And holding my best friend as he cries into the confusion, the keen hurt we were all feeling on that rainy day, and all rainy days thereafter.

The heartbreak of a new year spent among friends just trying to make things feel normal again. The early hours of screaming and yelling and hurting so deeply, everything coming to the surface and boiling over. The realization that this might be the beginning of the end of a relationship built over months of loving each other selfishly. The wishing things were different. The birthday in the snow. The semester spent in busy-ness and not taking the time to feel this current moment over and over again. The hurt of my grandmother passing, and the grief I would quickly carry for months. The resistance to what healing could do because I chose not to go home and see her before she left. How, my mother would tell me, she was holding on to see me one last time. How, I would tell her, I “didn’t have time” and how that was a story I was just telling myself so I did not have to face her not remembering me again. How this kind of small mourning comes with being the favorite; the higher up, the harder of a fall, and mine took the longest. How, if I could go back, I would take the hurt of not being remembered over not being able to say a quiet goodbye.

The summer of breaking—in and up—and the newness of hurting all over again. The loneliness that follows. The bitterness and the arguing. The breaking, the breaking.

The semester of finally feeling like I know what I’m doing and the days of trying to make sense of being alone, what it can serve me, and how I can be okay with the way it sits on my bones, reclined and relaxing into the next day. The feeling of not knowing or understanding myself again and trying to find my way back. The darkness sitting with me like an old friend, changed from their years away spent discovering themselves, too. The thought, “I am here again, what should I make of this?”

The new year spent with friends just trying to make sense of how important a community can be inside of us all. The lack of clarity of how I’m feeling about things. The year of “I suppose” or “I don’t know” or “Maybe” and finding the potential in every possibility, even if it means not making a decision. The January spent with quiet snow, a friend visiting and being broken, a birthday with a surprise cake from the people I spend the most time with. The smile I didn’t know would creep onto my face. How sudden, how fleeting.

The writing. Oh, the writing. How, even when I thought I couldn’t, I found possibilities, explored this current world and the next, thought about the ways a body can move to accommodate new weight. The words stacking on top of each other until I can figure out what to do with all of them. How to sort them. The familiar ache of missing a father who’s face I can barely remember. The breaking again.

The year of feeling bad for carrying so many emotions, often several that conflict. How I’ve been taught as a man to not feel them fully (perhaps at all?) and to just keep going. Keep moving, don’t stop to take your own temperature, you will be fine, suck it up, Robbie, be a man. How that’s never been me. Even if I’ve been silent through this life, my inner world is full of hurting and healing and trying to make sense of everything spinning and sprawling.

The January and February and every month until August spent loving and prepping for letting go again. How distance between me and all the people I love the most will always feel like a series of misunderstandings in my heart. How the miles will never make sense. How the missed phone calls and wishing things were different would dwell on my chest, mounting, piling. But how the vivid rememberings of love and friendship and adventures will stick to my insides for forever. How I am understanding love not simply as an act that one “gets” to participate in, but as a window of continuous light shedding its skin until it no longer curls into a question mark; a privilege I am not always realizing I have in this life until I finally do. Until I finally let it go. Perhaps especially now as I feel very much on the eve of something I cannot see, cannot reach into the dusk to feel, cannot fully remember, and tomorrow will be another day of this, won’t it?

Then leaving.

Then the teaching and the meeting and the learning to love the people I spend the most time with and the people that I’ve loved and then left/they left me/there was always going to be leaving, you know? There was always going to be hurting. I was always going to carry it. I was always going to hope to create a space for others that embraces that which they’ve been running from.

Here I am. Skin and bones, flesh and a heart full of remembering, of forgetting. Sitting here today to see if breaking over and over again can mean there will be something new tomorrow. Hope—a muscle I have not learned to work well—sits at my table now and I am in awe. How, despite a darkness that I’ve known and will never know, hope has a role. How I won’t always get it right and I won’t always make sense and I will always have more questions, even when I have answers, and how I am becoming again. Me again. The world spinning again. And how, when I spend every day in exhaust from learning to love the people around me better, I can turn to myself at the end and whisper “me, too.” and everything might make sense, finally.

On Friendship

On Friendship

“What is home but a book we write, then
read again & again, each time dog-earing 

different pages. In the morning I wake
in time to pencil the sun high. How
fragile it is, the world—”

-Maggie Smith, Poet


When you meet several loves of your life, you don’t always know it. You don’t always see it as it’s happening in realtime. I’m talking friendship expanding and contracting with the breath, over and over again, in every moment you never expected, showing up in spaces you’d never dream to be. It’s the man who has been through it all with you. The woman who wouldn’t take ‘no, thanks’ as an answer when she asked you to change the world with her. The person who, with a smile a wide as the light, offered to show up for you despite going through his own toughest heartbreak. It’s a boundless sense of becoming, of belonging, of playing the right song at the right time, no words following.

You don’t have the be in love with someone for them to be the love of your life. Have plenty, there’s more than enough to go around. More than enough of you to be seen and heard. I remember when, amidst a heartbreak of my own, I could count on a friend hundreds of miles away buying a plane ticket and flying to me—putting his life on hold so I could feel the comfort of his presence, a familiar and beautiful kind of withness. When my life felt off track and I felt so much uncertainty about moving to a new state alone for the first time, a friend reached out, told me that she loved me “yesterday, today, forever,” gave me the space and time to digest what a love lasting a hundred years could feel like, like hope on top of the breath and beautiful things growing in my heart. When I was wrestling with what to do with all these voids inside of me following the hardest string of days enveloped in darkness of my life, I remember a friend offering his presence. He slept on my couch so that I wasn’t alone that night. I remember how, despite all the bruising brimming past my rough edges, there existed within me a small beam of light to hold onto. Something only a true friendship could create in all the spaces you’d long overlooked and forgotten.

It’s these friends that keep me coming home. That keep me pushing forward, finding my way out of an unlit room. The holders of the light, of presence, of sincerity, of understanding. The friends that see how tired a life can be and still take a few more conscious breaths so that there are extras in case I lose my own.

Perhaps the greatest thing one can give to another is unwavering love. I agree—to be loved is truly a gift. But perhaps the greatest gift of all is to be known and understood by someone. To be given the space to come into yourself day after day without a question, only wild and unconditional support. This is what it means to be a friend.

Their knowing of me lived through everyday moments, helping me to see that we can become undone by each other so long as we know the other is present, listening, willing to sift through rubble to find what’s left. Not knowing what to say but not needing to know right now or next week or three months from now. They created a space that allowed me to take in a world where we all exist at the same time on own own terms. They’ve been knowing that this is what I need most and they allow me to write my own story, no matter how broken.

Friendship. How beautiful it can be to meet people who suffer through your darkest moments just to show you that you are worthy, that you are not the sum of every day you’ve made yourself believe that you are your weakest memories. These beauties—each one, a love song spoken in different languages—committing to knowing you, past and future and present, in every moment, every step. The ones who will be there when the emotion is too big to fit inside all of your creaky folds, your fields of uncharted adventures, your musical magical wonderful heart. Those who will help you with the climb from five hundred or three thousand miles away. Who will write you love letter after love letter explaining how you show up for them, how your belief in them changes their world every day, and how you simply existing has been their saving grace. Who will show up and sit with you when you question every good thing that you put into the world, wondering if people are actually listening, seeing, learning from you. Old friends and new who meet, exchange stories of you, helping one another understand who you are. What you’ve been. Who you want to be. 

I’d always imagined my life coming together like every best friend living on the same street and dinner rotating once a week in each other’s company, talking about big and bright and scary things, singing about how we’re going to heal the world. Now, with every best friend and every person I love deepest and most vibrantly living hundreds of mile markers away, time zones splitting us, I long for this dream. The cities we’re living in are enveloping us and I’m just in my slice of the world hoping that someone will see me and understand, without explanation, just how loved I’m hoping to be. Just how worthy I want to be of belonging but finding it hard sometimes to believe in something so peaceful for my own life. I know how unrealistic it is for me to want to see my best friends getting their mail, bringing groceries in during a thunderstorm, their kids growing up and having soccer practice and going on dates. I know how unfathomable it is to think this can happen right now, how we can hold each other up to the light when each is feeling lowest, through the highlight reels and every editing session. Still, I dream of it.

It’s beautiful to think about how hopeful and messy we are at the ends of each other, breathing life into every broken wing or rib, bruised ego and heart. How every porch light we pass on the way home is nothing but a reminder that everyone is holding out for someone to return. How I want to return, too, to someone or something bigger than myself every night. To believe the good in every person I meet, no matter how adorned, how balding, how worn. Easily-fractured, but always putting ourselves back together with the help of someone surrounding us. A whole slew of someones. An army of encouragers and bravers and the hopeful. A flock of people singing our praises. Old friends and new, some in-between. Becoming family amongst family. We sit down to eat, love overflowing. I am broken but hopeful. Breaking but full of hope.

“How fragile it is, the world—” Maggie wrote, lifting into our collective minds the thought that this fleeting world turns and turns, spinning webs of safe landings for every time we think we’ll crash. How we’ll get to do that for one another when we least expect it. How fragile that it. We are. I am. How, together, we can become infinite across beings. How we’re elevated by that. Together.

IMG_7600

 

Home

Home

You ever had a perfect day?

A laugh-filled, legs-hurting, heart-expanding day full of walks and talks and sights kind of day. Memories in the making, best friend to your right, sky blue with clouds pillow fighting as they pass through one another. A sun tan in-the-making, the trees scattering across the horizon, the water slapping against rock, calm in places, returning again. A family on bikes passing on the left, concert soundcheck in the distance, people aching for shade, a bit of a reprieve from the 85 degree weather. No agenda. Just sky.

If someone were to ask me what makes the perfect day, I’d describe this one. How we ate Creole food and adventured in the city. Carried our laptops in satchels searching for coffeeshops we could write at. Talking about the love we give, who gives it back, how important those people in our life are and how we’ll need them tomorrow. Skin glistening with sweat, but not a care in the world. Today? It’s for best friends.

We found ice cream that was made in front of our own eyes. A blend of raspberry and strawberry and custard, sweet and full of whatever it was that we needed exactly in that moment. Adventured to a bookstore and found a few gems amidst its stacks. Stories already consumed, waiting to be discovered again, hoping for a new home. Picked three to come home with me, helping me build this life three or four pages at a time. Jokingly talked about getting tattoos. Gave it some minutes to scramble through our mind. “So let’s get tattoos.” Just like that, we’re getting home stitched into our skin—places that have undoubtedly shook us to our core, flipped us upside down and stole all our lunch money, hung us out to dry. Places that brought us joy, gave us peace, inspired hope with every stubborn step.

It wouldn’t be home without the parts that didn’t quite add up. Without the bruises we accumulated trying to be loved again and again by people who didn’t have the capacity to, couldn’t see us well. Wouldn’t be home without the mile markers we follow into it, the lights we count as night falls, the people that stayed, reminding us how we got here and where we’re going, to never forget where we’re from, to savor the moment before it passes. To let it go when it does finally does.

Michigan. Land of the Great Lakes. Home of the automobile. It’s where my mother was born and raised by her mother, the only place either of them ever settled long enough to take root. The place where I met my first girlfriend and my second (and third), where love was a lost and found bin I rummaged through at least once a year, hoping to find something worth keeping, coming up empty. The borders that I traveled—up north, Kalkaska, Traverse City, Petoskey, Mackinac Island—and the people I traveled with, all tracing lines of friendship and deep life talks. The cities I’d find pieces of myself in—Flint, Detroit, Bay City, Saginaw, Rochester, Brighton, Frankenmuth—and the forgiving and open sky beckoning me back time and time again.

It’s where I learned what family means to me. How I had to leave imaginary lines to know just how much of who I am is wrapped up in the street signs, porch swings, corner stores, and high school hallways. How, every week, rain or shine or snow, I’d clean the garage and mow the lawn. It’s where I first got detention, first learned how to throw a spiral football, had my first double on the baseball diamond and made my first fielding error, and where I ran my first session of hills.

It’s where I first was given an opportunity to advocate for someone who’s voice isn’t often heard and where I learned what good mentorship looks like. It’s where I learned to write, where the first person outside of family told me “I believe in you” and meant it. The place where I first had faith that the sky could actually open up and a god could take my hand. The place where I first doubted that, too. Where I wrestled with belief in general and participated in my first spelling bee. Where I wrote my first of many letters to an ex-lover, marched to her doorstep in the snow, asked her mom if she was busy, hand delivered it to her, and made the trek back home with periodic glances back, hoping to see her coming after me to tell me she wanted to be with me. She didn’t. The place where I stopped believing in real love. The place I decided to love again and where I believed I was worthy of it. So many firsts. Probably some lasts, too.

I come back time and time again, get off the interstate, and am flooded with memories. Remembering how I’d spent years wishing to make it out so I could see the great big world. Now, wishing I’d spent more time at home with my grandmother, my mother, my sister and brother, my niece and nephew, my dad. Wishing I could have one more conversation in my childhood home. One more walk to the bus stop. One more mow of the lawn, one more tree climb, one more race from the bottom of the house to the top, turning off all the lights on my way, just quick enough to not be caught in a shadow. One more conversation with my Yia Yia to tell her that I love her, that I’m proud to call her my grandmother, that she is one of my heroes. One more time wrestling with my brother, who is graduating from high school soon and growing up. One more time. One last time.

If I could go back, I wouldn’t change the small parts. Like how, as a young boy, shy and curious, I made an insect graveyard in my back yard. I can still picture the small mound of dirt, moss covering its top, signaling the resting place of once-alive fliers and crawlers. How accomplished I felt in being gentle with some small dead thing, but how one day long after its creation, I mindlessly mowed over its contents, only remembering after I’d finished the whole yard. How, odd as it is, this would become a metaphor for the way we like to honor our dead, how Buddy Wakefield’s line looms over me every time I come across it: “Cemeteries are just Earth’s way of not letting go. Let go.” How that taught me about death well before death ever came. How it still does.

There are whole days when I miss the way the Michigan air enveloped me. Mixing quiet and loud never felt so comforting to me on the days when I didn’t feel like myself. Trips to the bread store with mom to use our food stamps before they were gone, driving down roads in Redford saying “Yia Yia, where are you?” Even when she knew exactly where Yia Yia was: sitting, waiting for us to reach her, open arms and heart in the direction we came from every summer. How I can remember the painting of ships at a distance against the horizon—water reflecting back, every wave a mirror—hanging in the house she had built for her family. How the painting now hangs in my apartment in Indiana. How I pass it every day, sneaking a glance when I can, remembering what I can remember, digging deep to see her show up long after she is gone. All things disappear if you think hard enough about them. Their edges fading, center soon to go, and so, too, our bodies.

Home.

It’s where the soul expands, bursts, and rebuilds itself with the rubble. That’s what Michigan means to me. Long after I’ve gone away, I will return. Though the air will feel differently, the people will change, the monuments will transform, and the whole state will feel foreign, there will be familiarity that settles into my bones. I will see things new and old and be reminded of the reason why this place means so much to me. It’s forever home. A part of my forever story. No matter how far away I go, the open sky will beckon me again, turning its porch light on one last time to see me drive the distance all the way home.

 

In closing

In closing

I always tell people that the week after school ends each spring is the saddest week. It feels much like mourning the loss of someone, only they aren’t gone forever. Just for now. This year is no different. I’m learning how to say goodbye in what feels like several languages I haven’t fully learned.

Looking back, I wish I could have known when the people I care about most were going to change me. I wish I could have witnessed it from their eyes. How, with each day of struggle and wonder, we grew together.

It’s true what they say about endings: they never get easier. We get older and sometimes wiser, which means that we begin to learn how important people are to us, how their presence changes us, gives us life, saves us. I wish I could have known every single time I failed them. How I told them I’d be there and wasn’t. How I took frustrations out on them at times or how I couldn’t create a space for them to be themselves sometimes. Now that they’re gone, I’m wondering about all the times I shortchanged them or gave them words I thought they needed but they didn’t ask for. I’m also wondering how lucky I am to be able to work with such bright people who allow me to make mistakes, to fail sometimes, and how they still hold me with positive regard despite the bad days.

This is for you.

For every student staff member I worked with this year, every student I met with, had lunch with, shared stories with, sat with through bad days, wondered about the future with, or got coffee with. This is for you, friends.

This is for every 5:45AM staff meeting that you stayed up all night for. For every one-on-one that went well over an hour (and sometimes two). For every story you shared with me about your lives: about heartbreak and love, family and relationships, the things you’re passionate about, the people who make you feel the most alive, and the hard things you’ve gone through. For every time you listened to me go on and on about something and held that space for me.

This is for all the times you struggled to see the light in yourself. How, at times, you would stumble through the days with heavy things in your heart, not knowing how to ask for help. How, despite the heaviness, you still showed up. Stayed up. Gave love to one another endlessly. I am still learning how to marvel at how beautiful you are. How beautiful we all have the potential to be. How to soften despite every moment the world gave us every reason to harden.

Nine short months ago, we moved in for training, each of you wide-eyed and full of nerves, but excited for what this journey could be about. I told you that I was invested in you, that I was going to show up for you and see you through this year with hopes of challenging you in ways you hadn’t been before. I didn’t know then what I know now. How brave-hearted you all would become. How much you’d let me guide you down dim-light paths, trusting that I wouldn’t steer you to danger.  How genuinely funny and clever you all are, and how witty. How you let me be there with you, for you, by your side when things got really hard, and when you felt like you climbed a mountain. There was no way I would’ve known how much you were going to change me. But here I am tracing all the ways all the days I got to spend with you made me feel lighter and full of a purposeful life.

What a year.

My hope is that you’ll find the time to be where your feet are. To put your phones down and talk to people genuinely. To commit to the journey of growth you’re in the middle of. To recognize when you’re wrong or have made mistakes and to allow yourself the luxury of changing your mind. To create things you’re proud of but not before creating things that you think are imperfect. To say sorry first, even if you’re sure you won’t get one back. To say “I love you” first because you mean it and because life is too short not to tell the people in your life how loved they are.

My hope is that you will remember each other. This team. These people. This community that brought us together, gave us a reason to push past the rough parts, and allowed us to be with one another for a brief but spectacular moment in time. I hope you look back on our time together with a grateful heart and a smile.

Thank you for all that you’ve done to give others a chance to experience joy. I’m with you every step of the way. I’ll miss you every day, and I’ll love you tomorrow more than I did yesterday.

Now go be great.

Until next time,
-RFW