I had the most poignant conversation last night with a university junior from Occidental College in Eagle Rock, California. We will change her name to Meghan because I didn’t ask her if I could use her real name here, though I wish I had because she was the type of young woman who would share her story openly. I’m certain of that. It was a conversation about connection, interdependence, authenticity, and synchronicity, all core values and concepts sorely needed in the collective right now.
Here’s what happened. I was driving home from Redding and it was dark. The smell of rain filled the air for the first time in months for which I’m sure all of the North State was thrilled and thankful. Redding has been a smoke pit all summer and we’ve really gotten in the habit of limiting our trips up there from our small town of Cottonwood just 25 miles south. On this particular Redding run, I had goofed up my facial appointment so really had made the trek for nothing during a time when losing time was super counterproductive. I was cranky adjacent. I’d just turned onto one of the three main roads that run through my tiny rural town when my car started ringing. The number popped up with a (323) area code and no name which I would never normally answer. For some reason, on this night an intuition told me to hit the green button.
“Hello?” I hesitated.
“Oh, hi, umm, Jamie—how do you say the last name—is it WHEEL?” Meghan seemed nervous. I immediately knew she was calling for money. I hate being called wheel.
“No. WILE. Don’t worry. Few people get it right.”
“Oh, sorry. I’m calling tonight from Occidental College to check on alum and let you know about what’s happening at our university.”
Translation: Meghan is tasked with the highly uncomfortable task I once held at UCLA as a work study job: calling alum for money. A horrible job, but I liked her soft-sell approach. Plus, I remembered how horrible it was to be dismissed like you were a sub-human nuisance. It’s hurtful. Meghan and I started talking. Instead of telemarketer and commuter, we were two human beings connecting, communicating, and sharing a few moments to play in our humanity.
Oxy was my graduate school for my Master of Arts in Teaching and CLAD Credential. CLAD stands for Crosscultural, Language and Academic Certificate. I went there following a trying decade in law firm marketing in Los Angeles. I jammed through Oxy’s program (as I tend to do) in one full-time year and was hired to teach 2nd grade in Manhattan Beach before I had even defended my thesis. It was a whirlwind, I was a broke single parent, and half the time, I dragged my then 7-year-old child to class with me an hour across town (if we were lucky) to take classes.
Because of that dynamic, I didn’t bond with the campus as much as undergraduate time at UCLA where I lived on campus and spent more years. As a grad student, I loved my cohort, but really didn’t appreciate all that was Oxy. That’s where Meghan comes back in to the story.
She told me all about what Oxy is doing now: how they have 12 (I think) new Barack Obama scholars (he went there), how they were increasing their commitment to admitting 1st gen college goers whose parents had no college education, how they were becoming that small, private progressive university committed to education for ALL students. That all sounded great and I had already decided we would donate. Then she got to this part.
“What have you been doing since you left Oxy?” asked Meghan.
Well, let’s see, that was 1995 so there’s a really long list. Where to start?
“For starters, I have a YA novel coming out next week.” Well played, Wheel.
“Oh, wow! Congratulations. What’s it about?” Meghan’s excitement was genuine, so I went on, excited by her excitement.
“It’s called First Break and it’s about 17-year-old Paige and a psychotic break that starts as she goes off to college.”
“Oh wow, oh wow, thank you so much! Thanks for doing this! I wish someone had given me a book like that before I had that happen to me!”
I pulled the car over. Meghan and I sat there in the dark on the side of the road for the next 40 minutes as she shared her story. I shared mine. Two strangers, intimately sharing in vulnerable ways, through story. Friends by the time we were done.
This is why I do what I do. This is why I wrote First Break. Despite near sells and adoring champions combined with years of rejection by downright mean writers and publishers, I kept returning to the belief that this novel would open conversations like the one it did with Meghan…and she hadn’t even read it yet. Meghan went on to tell me about what sounds like an amazing Oxy program made for students by students called Project Safe. I will go see that program because it sounds like something I want to know about. It helps students with mental health issues, creating a safe space to go and give/get support. What I love so much about that is the same thing I loved about this call: connection, interdependence, support, humanity. As my amazing editor Deb from All Things That Matter Press recently said quoting Mr. Dass himself, “We’re all just walking each other home, Love.”
This “walk”–this interdependence– is where we’re meant to play, yet I’m shown daily examples of the influence of Western thought and the value of independence. This happens even from those closest to me. During those gnarly fires I talked about this past summer, one of my closest friends sent a text midsummer (not a call) to say they were thinking about us during the fires. REALLY?! Not a call? I mean, we had to evacuate, all our forests were burning down, our eyes burnt every day and we couldn’t breathe. Even an ex-boyfriend from 25 years ago who doesn’t particularly like me sent a long email of concern. What struck me hard emotionally when that happened was that many of us have become so insulated in the square mile of our lives that we neglect to connect with other hearts in very real ways, heart to heart, being to being, even with those we love.
That’s what this call with Meghan brought to the fore once again. We will most def be sending money to Oxy, and because of Meghan, I feel closer and more connected to my grad school alma mater. I will continue to nurture that feeling by visiting Project Safe. And I will pay more attention to each interaction, be it text, someone standing in line at the store, a good friend going through hard times, a good friend celebrating, or a cold caller asking for money.
YA novel First Break will be available for purchase on Amazon and Kindle on World Mental Health Day, Wednesday, October 10, 2018. You may also request to purchase the novel from a bookstore near you.
To celebrate this book’s birthday, graduating seniors should check here for the First Break Scholarship.