your whole self

The night (or early morning) that I sat in one of our dining halls and wrote this, in April 2016, a student at Vanderbilt died by suicide. I learned of her death the next day, April 22nd, and in its wake, struggled to accept that I had written so specifically about the heartbeat of a university. I felt callous for romanticizing a place that houses people in pain.

Over four years at Vanderbilt, on Brillo pad dorm-room carpet and in dark passenger seats, I had countless conversations where either party offered up one variation of the following: “I’ve thought about transferring.” “I need to leave.” “I can’t do this—suicide seems like the best option.” From those conversations, I’m convinced that feeling like an imposter in your own community, at your own school, in your own body or mind, can become the ruling narrative of anyone’s life. It’s easiest for our minds to understand when someone who didn’t have a visible community dies by suicide, but the same exact experience can take hold of someone who seems like she “has it all.”

In those four years at school, from August 2013 to May 2017—I just checked my student email—I received eight emails with the subject line “Death of a Student,” both undergraduate and professional students, suicide and other causes. Since I graduated in May, one undergraduate student has died by suicide.

Madison Holleran was a freshman in college the same year as I was, moving in during the fall of 2013. She went to Penn, in Philadelphia, and ran for the track team. I let a book about her life, What Made Maddy Run by Kate Fagan, sit on my shelf for two months before reading it.

I saw a lot of myself and those I know in Fagan’s account of Madison’s story, but the following is the most painful for me:

In that moment, the word “Vanderbilt” no longer represented a group of distinguished buildings in Nashville, boys in penny loafers and sorority girls drifting from class to class. The school represented something much more elusive: hope.

Madison was apparently exploring transferring to Vanderbilt after her first semester at Penn—also considering UNC, Wake Forest, and the like. She died by suicide in January 2014 after returning to school for the start of her second semester. What scares me the most about how my school is described above is that I created the same experience of Vanderbilt in my mind before moving to Nashville for school.

Vanderbilt was to be my new world of an eternal high—perfect friends and relationships, getting the grades I wanted with the same effort exerted in high school, figuring out my adult existence and never being sad again. My expectations of Vanderbilt and of my performance in all parameters—personal, social, academic—were irrevocably high and I couldn’t imagine getting to my dream school and being upset.

At two different times, the spring of my freshman and sophomore years, I contemplated suicide, but never planned. I scheduled one appointment at our Psychological & Counseling Center in April of my freshman year and cancelled it a week later. I remember calling my dad before making that appointment and hearing him say, “Okay but if you feel this way again, you need to tell someone, okay?”

A little further in Maddy’s story, I read this:

Escaping it—escaping herself—was impossible; everywhere she went, the unhappiness came too. What if she did trick herself into believing a different set of buildings and a new logo would fix what was happening?

A couple of months ago at counseling, I remember telling Sarah, my therapist (if you are in Nashville—I go to Sage Hill) that more often than is probably reasonable, I romanticize the idea of moving to somewhere in Europe and leaving everything in America behind.

She said: “If you go there, there you will be.” And then continued on, generally saying: the beauty and history of a place you believe will distract you from the hurt and humanity you experience every day will not do so.

I thought about transferring from Vanderbilt during my first year too, believing the problem was my environment: if I just made better friends, or liked the city more, or went to a new place, I wouldn’t be unhappy. I then thought about taking a leave of absence during my second year. One of my friends did take a leave of absence and came back to school after a semester, and from what I know it was the right decision. But I’m not sure I can think of one person I know from college who either didn’t think about transferring or felt a sense of deep isolation while at school.

I’m glad I didn’t leave Vanderbilt and I’m glad I didn’t choose death over life, but I can only say those things because hindsight is 20-20. I had no idea anything would get better and was depressed for the better part of my sophomore year. I don’t know Madison, and I want her to be alive still, a graduate of any school in all of the country. But it’s not fair of me to “want” anything from her.

Schools that attract tens of thousands of applicants because everything is “supposed” to be a certain way seem to me the most tragic—because I went to Vanderbilt, where everyone is happy, I was supposed to look this way and go out this amount and keep everything cute and airbrushed on Instagram and say “Great, how are you?” when asked.

I wrote in college to process my world and make sense of who I was, and I’m glad that my school is making attempts to prioritize mental health, but I still believe that individuals sharing their raw stories will always be more effective change-agents than another club or administrative initiative.

The Vanderbilt student I mentioned earlier died by suicide at the start of finals week in our spring semester of 2016, my junior year. A few days after, my favorite professor (who I had a literature class with that semester) sent our class the following email. I’m keeping it in full because it’s something I’ve passed on to other friends and referred back to many times during that season.

My Dearest Scholars,

Here’s a fact: it’s been an absolute pleasure to work with you this semester.

Here’s another fact: I want to make sure to check in with y’all. The Vanderbilt community has suffered sad and profound losses this week. I know that many of you are affected. This has reminded me to make it clear, in case I haven’t before now, that I recognize all the time and effort you’ve put in this semester. I’m still completely tickled that I get to work with brilliant young folks like y’all for a living.

I also want to encourage you to take time to check in with yourself. This time of year is stressful on so many levels. And yet it’s important that you make sure to take breaks, get sleep, eat, and reach out to friends and family, as well as to mentors and advisors. I’m here, now and in the future. Please feel free to add me as a resource to the list of resources here on campus that was included in recent emails from administration.

And a reminder: I value your whole selves and all the fluctuations that come with it—the typos, the failed reading quizzes, and the “put your phone away” talks as much as the A-papers and strong in-class comments and participation; and all the stuff I get to know about you through your writing and comments in class and conversations in office hours. All of it. The messy is my favorite part, but I value all the parts. And sometimes I, too, have to remember that there is no one model or standard of success that works for all of us—there are oh so many. Someone else’s best isn’t your best or even your model. Our class, in part, revolved around the idea that our lived experiences are affected by the many, knotty, complex intersections between our identities and our environments. Each one of us has a story written in a slightly different tone and inflection than anyone else. Relish those differences; I do—they’re what make my job so lovely. If you forget to relish them, I’ll be here to remind you.

I’m sending you good luck as you work on papers, projects, and exams, and everything else. Please don’t hesitate to reach out, ok?

Thank you so much for a wonderful semester,


In all honesty I’m not sure how to end this—I like writing and bristle at the idea of mine coming across as corny or wrapped up in a bow.

Reading about Madison’s life sent a series of little tugs to my mind and my heart: check in with this person, with that person, and equally as important, check in with yourself. For now all I really know is that I’m hurt by who my generation is taught that we have to be. I find hope in the idea that we can continue to be vulnerable with who we are in an attempt to connect with each other.

If you’d like to read more about Madison’s life, Kate Fagan’s original piece for ESPN called Split Image covers some of what the book does. If you do, this article about suicide reporting is also important.



the world is not mine to conquer
the world is not mine to conquer
the world is not mine to conquer

who–you–little, white thing–
create your world and own each piece

lay the bricks and spread the mortar of a ten-mile radius of relevance,
this is the whole world–
an outpost at your childhood home to steady your bones

the world is big and wild and
you know close to nothing

not a problem–
no, a freeing:
you know close to nothing

this is the best gift you have ever been given
you know close to nothing

nothing of the endless extravagance and grisly depths,
not but a town between them

how will you proceed?

ownership or
open yourself?

the eternal gurgling and crackling has never been yours to tame

just to observe

the world is not mine to conquer
the world is not mine to conquer
the world is


hi there

I graduated college a little over two months ago, and started my job just about a month ago.

I wasn’t expecting to miss so deeply the feeling of belonging to a place so much bigger than myself — this is who I am, I go to Vanderbilt, you probably know it, I count on its size and reputation to swallow me whole so I don’t have to stand upon my own merit — but I have, a lot, since I’ve left Vanderbilt.

The feeling of being “just” a college student provided me comfort I didn’t acknowledge until I didn’t have it any longer. I liked being just a college student because I wasn’t yet measured by any standard other than the ranking of my university and its perceived grandeur in the minds of others. I still introduce myself as “Kendall, I just graduated from Vandy this past May!” and feel parallel strains of the desire to be worthy by my lonesome and the comfort of the soft cushion of my education. I haven’t yet decided to embrace the role of Kendall, adult, employed.

In the past little while that I’ve refrained from writing here, I’ve been learning how much relational power I exert over my circumstances and the people around me, sometimes without knowing. One of the dark parts of my personality is that I can be pretty manipulative, and understand how to use my position in social situations for my benefit.

A couple of weeks ago, one of my roommates and I went to a spin class on a rainy Thursday morning and it was hard. The instructor was sweet and spirited and I wanted so much to be good enough at it to not hate her encouraging chant-yells throughout the class. At one point I looked her,  a bright spotlight on her furiously pedaling body in the middle of the room, and thought, “She’s literally really good at moving her legs in a circle really fast. That’s not a transferrable skill.”

I finished the class, splashing water on my face in the bathroom with an air of superiority in my head – “I’ve decided what’s important and it’s not being good at spin classes.”

Returning my shoes:

“So I’m fine.”

Smiling at the instructor knowingly:


What the hell does that say about who I think I am?

“I’ve figured out what matters and it’s not this.”

Since that day the Lord has shown me that my bravado – my tendency toward know-it-all-ness, my knee-jerk reaction to put myself first in my list of important egos to tend to today – shows a deeper need for him than I have ever known and this is so, so beautiful.

In 1 Timothy, Paul says this:

Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life. Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.

Immense patience. This is not only an immense sin and immense grace game we’re playing here with God, this is also a game of the most frustrating child you’ve ever babysat for, the most heartbreaking addiction you’ve ever watched ruin a friend’s life, the most hated sin that continues to worm its way back into sacred relationships.

How many times do I have to tell the Lord I know myself and have fairly evaluated my ego and self-importance before I’m dead and in the ground? Countless more times, if I know myself. I hope this first year post-grad finds me stumbling into my sinful nature a lot more, enough to start learning the insufficiency of myself and the sufficiency of my Savior.


be a home

A few months ago, one of my roommates came and stood in the doorway of my room–her usual perch. She was externally processing about comparison, something along the lines of “I’ve just had to accept that I’ll never look like her.”

She left my room before I could formulate what I was feeling into words. I knew that I could tell her, “You are beautiful! I see it!”–though I knew that wouldn’t be helpful. Instead, the thought that lingered a little longer, the one that choked me up:

“You are more than someone who I look at and judge based on beauty.
You are home to me.”

Sometime sandwiched between the frenzy of freshman year and the nervous energy of this one, I must have stopped seeing my friends as any stranger might see them and started seeing all our memories wrapped up in one face. When my friends get home at night, I don’t think, “You would be much prettier if…”. I think, “It’s you. You! You mean so much to me.”

Now that I can articulate that I see people this way, all I’m pretty sure we can ever ask of ourselves is to keep looking toward the Lord and bringing the other one along for the ride, learning as we go–nothing else needs to change, as much as our insecurities might tell us otherwise.

When I duck into a friend’s dorm room, or get into the shotgun seat of another one’s car, or sit down at our standard-issue common room table to share a meal, I am home. I am home when I can be honest, when I can cry, when I am both challenged to listen more and still shown that I matter. A home is created when we make traditions out of camping trips and when we perch on our couch looking out the window, filling the time just to be together. A home is created when my roommate and I talk from our beds with the lights out, belly laughs punctuating the otherwise-quiet of drifting into sleep.

Places get a lot of credit for covering us in the tight bear-hug of home, but I think people are more deserving of the honor.

We graduated yesterday, and I’ll never stop being surprised at how the Lord shows up when we decide to jump into community without knowing all the answers. Thank you–for not being satisfied when I cling to shallow conversation, for being a home to me and teaching me how to be one as well. I can only pray to keep learning to be a home to others.







This post was written over a year and a half, from October 2015 to April 2017.

Reverence is defined as deep respect for someone or something. In a world that highlights only the highlights, I wanted to understand how we express reverence for the memories we come upon that aren’t as joyful.

Berlin, Germany | October 2015

Our destination in Berlin was the Wall. Peering through cracks a couple of bulletholes wide, we took in a narrow view of the death strip, where East Berliners were gunned down by border guards, their footsteps on the loose gravel impossible to miss. We wandered into the memorial, where a few college kids had unfolded their legs and blankets and books to capture some of the early October sun. Stunned comments escape from our mouths:

“Is it normal to do your homework on the lawn of the Berlin Wall?”

I joined the caboose of a memorial tour, listening as a lanky tour guide in his late twenties gestured to portraits of those killed at this very site, explaining the conditions behind each death. He was compassionate, if a little jittery, because who wouldn’t be jittery if this was your 9-to-5?

When the tour group moved to their next stop, I noticed an empty Diet Coke bottle resting atop the victims’ portraits. I got mad. I usually get sad before I get mad, but when I do I can feel myself turning into my mom, filling with righteous anger for when things are disrespectful. It wasn’t right that some oblivious tourist left a Diet Coke bottle, a piece of trash that didn’t even make it to the nearest recycling bin, to block the precious human lives that had been tossed aside: eerily similar to the way we discard trash.

Manhattan, New York | August 2009

New York’s hottest tourist attraction was our agenda for the morning. Nearly eight years after the attacks, we visited the World Trade Center Memorial.

“We” was my parents and me, a newly-minted 14-year-old. Our family vacations have always been dotted with historical visits, taking us to the Lincoln museum in Springfield, IL, the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, a reservation in Santa Fe. As Americans, visiting the World Trade Center while in New York seemed necessary. The full museum won’t be open for another two years, but we made our way around the lobby anyway. I gazed up at the piles of rubble behind glass and down at building-sized holes in the ground.

Holes that sat, significant only in proving the absence of what used to be– occupying heaps of valuable space in a city where a square foot of apartment space, barely enough to sit cross-legged in, costs over $1,400. Holes that demand reflection: when all our eyes want to do is drag the original buildings back into their foundations, we can’t. Something new is here now–but faithfully existing for the promise that we will not forget.

The gift shop wasn’t open while we visited. It will open in May 2014, to criticism as some claim the shop operates in poor form, as funding inflated salaries from the sale of such a tragedy is heartless. But what about the understandably practical logic of selling merchandise in order to simply turn on the lights in the museum? To employ the people who guide grieving families and curious tourists alike through the harrowing experience of reliving this day? The question is an critical one, its answers indicative of how we revere tragedy. I have no answers, only the tangential musings of a suburban 14-year-old.

Krakow, Poland | November 2015

I stood in Auschwitz I, the camp with the iron gate reading “Arbeit macht frei”–“work makes you free”–in twisty letters arched above my head. There were heaps of schoolkids running around, matching sweatshirts designating their class trips coming from Israel, America, everywhere. They giggled and crowded in for a group picture under the haunting gate, smiling and avoiding contact like teenagers who “like-like” people do.

As we walked through the camp, kids started pulling out iPhones and Snapchatting footage–amateur documentary filmmakers, they–presumably to their friends not as lucky to be on the world tour trip.

The whispers started from my classmates:

“How rude.
I wish they were mature enough to respect this place.
Maybe when they’re older.”

But our professor inserted himself, empathetically, gently: “Who knows–they could be sending that to a grandma who survived this place, a grandpa who isn’t strong enough to make it back.”

Memphis, Tennessee | March 2017

Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed on April 4, 1968 on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. The National Civil Rights Museum has since taken over the Motel, allowing visitors snake through the third floor and peer in at the famous Room 306. As I shuffle by with the other visitors from a rainy Sunday, only a few yards and a glass divider separate me from the spot where King was assassinated.

There are signs a few feet before the spot on the hotel’s balcony asking visitors to be silent in respect for the events that occurred here. While we’re shuffling by the rooms, a mother and her daughter, about my age, strike up a casual conversation about the weather.

By know I know what will happen. When we leave the area for the gift shop (a recurring theme in memorials, I’ve found), the first thoughts to our lips are: “Why were they talking? Didn’t they see the signs? Don’t they just know that’s rude?”

The question I have no idea how to answer is this: Why do some expect reverence, and some try to normalize? Which will make our society better–can we even come up with an appropriate response to history’s tragedies?

In visiting places of horrifying loss, I have continually needed to remind myself that I will never understand.

Although I stand at the door to 1968, I will never understand, like Coretta Scott King, what it was like to lose both a husband and a national figure of hope at the exact same time. Like Yolanda, MLK III, Dexter, and Bernice–I will never understand the pain of losing a father.

Although I look into the holes where two towers once stood, I will never understand, like family members and loved ones of the 2,753 people who died on September 11th, 2001, how it felt to watch planes crash into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, where their brothers, mothers, aunts, anyone worked.

And although I stand at the kiln, I will never understand, like the children and grandchildren of those who were dehumanized, humiliated, and ultimately burned to death, how to exist in the world without searing anger that one group of people made it their mission to obliterate yours.

I will never understand and I must stop co-opting my reverence for tragedy as a marker that I do. Reverence means nothing without my acknowledgment of just how much pain I’ve escaped–it’s negligible even with that acknowledgment. Because I can never understand, I can only ask: How has this affected you? What are you willing to share? What have I done to further it?



Last January, I wrote a post about 2015 where I wrote down what I learned from each month of the previous year.

Now it’s 2017, and this April will mark two years since I started writing here. As a college student, I’m better for having forced myself every few weeks–or months–to cull the running commentary in my mind into what has felt, to me, one of the most accurate representations of my actual growth as a person. In my life, writing as a method of meaning-making is second only to the growth that happens in real time, in hard conversations and long conversations, with myself and with the Lord and with others.

When I was walking to our library this afternoon, I was struck by the raw feeling that happens when the actions of your life weave themselves into an overlay that somehow seeps into a physical place, once just infrastructure. I’d love for you to take a look at this picture (and the illustrator behind it), because it visually describes a lot of what I’m feeling. I’m imagining some interactive map of campus created with technology that doesn’t yet exist, one that I can swivel around and zoom in on, with lines drawing my most walked routes and tags reminding me of both the memorable and mundane moments. The huge imposing structure of Wilson, our psychology building, is where I cried in a bathroom stall after getting a D on a test sophomore year. The tables of upstairs Commons remind me of nightly study sessions freshman year with friends I barely knew, desperately seeking to be needed and thinking that desire would somehow be fulfilled if everyone I knew was clamoring to spend their study time with me instead of others.

When I leave Vanderbilt, I will not remember the beauty and splendor of campus as much as I remember messy dorm rooms and cooking in low light and the silence between people who understand.

Last New Years, I flew down to the Dallas area for a week to see three friends who were going abroad that spring semester, two to Italy and one to Bolivia. This New Years, when the three of them in Dallas sent pictures of their celebration to me in Chicago with “wish you were here”s, I realized just how sweet it is to be on the uphill climb of creating traditions. I think a lot about how short college has been, how recent some of my favorite memories are–how insufficient it can feel to say that I’ve only known my closest friends from college for three and a half years.

But that’s a dangerous game to play, right? Once graduation comes, the next comparison is that: I’ve only lived in this city for a year compared to your several, been in a relationship for this many months to your marriage, just started a new job while you’re basking in a promotion. In the looming race of “most established college graduate,” I want to take myself out of the running.

Instead of the “most-established” race, I want to recognize the beauty of a season that allows us to create new traditions and relationships, embracing the transient quality of all that’s around. Traditions are full and joyful when they’ve been around for years and years, but I never want to forget the value of that healthy nervousness that comes with starting anew.


o holy night

One hundred and ten years ago, on this day, the first experimental public radio broadcast rang out through a young America. Reginald Fessenden’s voice rang through the radio on Christmas Eve 1906, reading the story of the birth of Christ from Luke 2. After reading, he played the classic carol “O Holy Night.”

You know the words, right? A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices? It’s a beautiful picture. That big star in the sky in Bethlehem, pointing us in present-day Chicago and Nashville and all the other towns and cities to an eternal hope. I can picture the entire tired world, eyes lifted, let out a collective sigh–“we can’t do it alone,” they all think.

I’d like to think that Fessenden had high hopes for the message of his radio broadcast all those years ago, that it would sit in the still, small part of hearts and then grow, grow, grow, like a soul only can when it knows the love of Christ.

What I do know, though, is that 1906 was not the freest of all the years in American history. Blacks and whites were racially segregated under Jim Crow and separate-but-equal under Plessy v. Ferguson. On September 22, 1906, riots broke out in Atlanta after a play promoting Klansmen premiered and headlines were published falsely claiming a black man had sexually assaulted white women. For three days, the riots raged. People died. On October 11 in San Francisco, the Board of Education ordered Japanese immigrants to attend racially segregated schools–with internment to come decades later under Franklin D. Roosevelt.

So where’s the happy medium between being grateful for a message of peace in a hurried, tired world and understanding that almost no one can just drop all the baggage and be free? What’s the difference between being free in Christ and living in a world where who you are doesn’t measure up?

On this Christmas Eve, I am grateful for the promise of hope in Christ and uncomfortable with the severe gashes left torn open in our world. If you have the time, I often think back to this post from Erin Taylor Green’s blog that talks about how Scripture has been used to justify hate all throughout American history.

My favorite excerpt is this:

“…while Christ walked the earth, we took words of scripture and skewed them to persecute him. For centuries we have perverted His words and turned them into our own.  We have taken His words and picked and chosen the ones that fit our current agendas, the ones that help to prove our points.”

Not long ago, people used Scripture to justify the Trail of Tears and the African slave trade, and I’m sure they could have used it for our Japanese internment camps as well. These days, Scripture is often used to justify a stance against gay marriage, or immigration status, or generally anything that would be a perceived loss of power in our evangelical Christian stronghold on the country.

The last verse of “O Holy Night” is as follows:

Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is Love and His gospel is Peace;
Chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother,
And in His name all oppression shall cease,
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful Chorus raise we;
Let all within us praise His Holy name!

Those third and fourth lines–those are music to my ears. I feel like everyone’s just clenching their hands, hoping for a not-tone-deaf Christmas message, and those lines remind me that both our Lord and people who love him know that there are people who aren’t free, who aren’t okay, who can’t just will themselves “free” as defined by a conservative Christian. It validates the yearning in my heart for us to realize the hurt we as the church have done, consistently, to other groups of people and to recognize the ugly power we have in controlling the freedom of others.

On that first radio broadcast in 1906, Reginald Fessenden relayed his message of Christ’s hope into a hurting world. This year, the message still falls on ears that are preoccupied, burdened, hurting.

The world is a big place, and there are a lot of reasons to be outraged. But it’s also a small town, and your act of grace in a hurting world does more than you might think. Our country is still young–we shape history each day. May I ask one wish of you this Christmas? This year, let’s not be people who use the Lord’s name to justify hatred when we know his law is love and his gospel peace. The gashes in all of us are wide and deep, and so often created by others. He can heal them, and I want to be a part of that.