Permission Slips: Graduate School


When we moved back to Texas after living in Arkansas for a few years, I needed to change my driver’s license. I had let it expire in Arkansas, and since we were moving to Texas soon anyway, I didn’t do anything about it. Then I dragged my feet in going to the DMV, and so when I finally sat down in front of the DMV clerk to get it changed, my license had been expired for an embarrassing amount of time. I wasn’t too worried because I had let my license expire once in Texas when I was in high school, and nothing happened when I went to renew it except a scolding, so I expected to waltz out with a new license, having not learned my lesson.

However, as I looked around while the clerk entered my information, I was unprepared for what it meant to let my license expire across state lines. Because my license was from another state and it had expired, the clerk informed me that not only would I have to retest for my license, I would also have to attend Drivers Ed. DRIVERS ED. I felt the dread sink from the top of my head down to the pit of my stomach. I taught sophomores, and many of them were learning how to drive, and all I could think of was that I would be classmates with my students. I was a new teacher that year, and I was desperately trying to prove myself. I pleaded with this clerk, who had been transfigured into the one person who could save me from humiliation and hours of boredom: what about my Texas license that existed before the Arkansas license? Isn’t there anything we could do?

I’m happy to report that she was an angel of mercy that day because even though technically we couldn’t use the Texas license, we did, and all I had to do was get my picture taken to be issued a new license. May the Lord rain down blessings on her for the rest of her life. May my pride and procrastination be cursed to hell.

Of course, this story could be framed as a lesson for not making assumptions, for doing things in a timely manner, for extending people grace, for pride going before a fall, etc. But to me, it’s a moment in which the hierarchy of authority with my students almost became flat before I was ready for it. I was almost a classmate to a group that I was supposed to be in charge of and imparting wisdom upon and bestowing knowledge on, etc. I think back to this moment as I sit here on a Saturday morning, getting ready to begin some pre-homework for class in the coming week.

I begin a graduate program on Monday. Many of my seniors from last year will begin their first year of college on Monday, too. Former students will begin their second and third years of college, and they probably feel like old pros at this point, which makes my 26-year-old self feel a little old.

I’ve been reflecting on this parallel course with some of the best 18-year-olds I know for the past few weeks. As a new student again, I feel small and bright-eyed and timid.

I stare at my campus map looking for the right office and I consider getting new rain boots as I step into another puddle.

I search Amazon for the cheapest book option and I stand alongside 7-year-olds at Target as I choose a pencil bag.

I twiddle my thumbs and try not to stare at my phone compulsively so that I can look welcoming for a new friend.

I wonder about making friends.

About class discussions (I’m used to being the facilitator, not a participant, and I suddenly regret making the quiet chime in over the past few years).

About looking stupid.

My mind reels from the deluge of information and interactions at orientation, and I chatter incessantly to JD about the things I’m excited about and nervous about, and I wonder if I will be able to fall asleep on Sunday night. The hierarchy has finally become flat.

Last Christmas, I read Brene Brown’s newest book, Rising Strong, and in it, she talks about writing herself permission slips for certain seasons of her life. I latched onto this idea the moment I read it, and I wrote permission slips for myself for grieving, for teaching, for moving to a new place.

They have been significant in letting myself feel my feelings instead of saying to myself, “You shouldn’t feel this way! You shouldn’t do that!” It is good to come back to these slips in the midst of stress and noise and deadlines because they hearken me back to the time of hopefulness and perspective and stillness.

Now, I write permission slips for beginning graduate school. I think these apply to undergraduate school, too, and as I type out, “I give myself permission to look stupid,” I think warmly of my students, especially the ones who may be afraid to get a B in a class, or afraid to speak up in a heated class discussion, or afraid to raise their hand and give an answer they are unsure of.

It’s okay to be afraid. You can still be brave if you feel afraid.

So for new students, for those who are beginning something new, for myself, here are my permission slips:

I give myself permission to…

Be really nerdy (color-coded notes? Yes, please. Giddy laughter over readings? For sure).

Get to class early.

Not know the answer.

Feel stupid.

Be wrong.

Change my mind.

Fail big time.

Fail little time.

Be uncertain of my belief.

Look up big, fancy terms that my classmates or professors may use.

Be myself.

Be an introvert.

Find other introverts.

Practice being an extrovert from time to time.

Connect with others instead of compete with them.

Speak up.

Stay quiet (but not forever!).

Remember fear is normal.

Remember being brave means showing up and trying, even if I still feel afraid.

“Remember ego feels pushy and afraid, and calling feels kind and free” (Emily Freeman)

Remember everyone is coming from a million different places and respect that.

Study things that intimidate me.

Cry when I’m stressed out.

Make mistakes, and then apologize.

Set things aside when I need to rest.

Listen to my body for cues.

Take naps.

Take care of myself through exercise, sleep, down time, coffee, chocolate, puppy time, etc.

Binge-watch Netflix when I’m tired.

Try new things, even if I end up not liking them.

Stutter when I get excited.

Ask a million questions.

Verbally process things.

Let ideas stew inside for awhile.

Get a B in a class.

Be frustrated.

Make unlikely friends.

Make likely friends.

Take time making friends.

Freak out, but then calm down.

Be honest.

Be vulnerable with safe people.

Wait for safe people.

Take a moment to accept myself instead of hustling for approval.

Be gentle with myself when I fail, fall, rush, shame, or frustrate myself.
May we give ourselves permission to be human and to experience new things in our own way. May we not lose ourselves in the waves of change, but rather learn how to swim. May we be patient and gracious with ourselves always.


Permanent Markers

The first year I taught in Austin, I had a chalkboard. I felt like it was a rite of passage—chalk on my pants, in my nose, on my books, and occasionally on the board. Then at the beginning of my second year, I got whiteboards—glorious, shiny, used, dirty whiteboards. I didn’t care that I had to put two whiteboards together to make a reasonably good size board. I didn’t care that the left side had a three-inch tear or that the right side was covered in scrubbed permanent marker stains. They were not chalky. They smelled of Expo. They were mine.

My third year began—the year that you think you’ve got everything figured out (ha!), and the day before school began, I stared at the right side of my board and thought, “What kind of moron used permanent marker on a white board? What kind of idiot thought it would be wise not to read the one word on the marker that could have prevented this mess?” I huffed elitist-ly and organized my syllabi and went home, ready for my year of saving the world and inspiring every single student Robin Williams style.

The next day was a blur as all first days are. I wore heels, so my achilles was blistered, and I drank too much coffee, so my hands were shaky, but I was having a great time giving the “I don’t take no crap from nobody” speech (don’t worry—I didn’t say crap or use a double negative). I wrote reminders on the board with a fancy new, blue marker, the smell of First Day jitters and fear filling the room. As the last student shuffled out with a nervous giggle, I patted myself on the back for a job well done. This year would be a breeze. These kids would stay in line. They would never dare to cross me and all the parents would respect me. I am teacher, hear me roar!

Around 6:30 pm, I started gathering my things and remembered I needed to change the information on the board for the next day. I slipped off my shoes for one last heel stretch, and started running the eraser over the board until I realized with horror what I had done. The shiny, blue marker I had used to write things like “No late work!” and “Happy First Day of School!” was in fact a permanent marker. Here I was, the moron, the idiot.

I started sliding the eraser frantically over the markings, trying to recall all the Pinterest posts about permanent markers but I was drawing a blank, which unfortunately was not happening on my board. I summoned the help of the teacher next door, googled remedies, and scrubbed until my arm was sore. The markings, while dulled, were still very clear all over the board. I gulped, wiped some sweat off my brow, and went home.

The next day before the first bell rang, I pondered what I would say to the kids about the board. They would notice it, I knew. Should I blame someone else? Should I make a joke out of it? Should I offer bonus points for the person able to get the marker off? I shook my head. I knew what I was going to do.

As the first class settled into their seats, I reminded them of the speech from the day before: I expect excellence. I don’t take no crap. Then I pointed to the board and told them what happened—the smug feeling of a new marker, the horror as I was about to walk out the door, the sore arm and rolodex of excuses.

And then I said this:

“If you are worried about messing up this year, about failing big time, about looking like a fool, don’t worry. You won’t be the first one. I have made the first mistake for you. I have looked like a fool first—we still have the very public evidence of it staring you in the face. If you are wondering what will happen if you make a mistake, I’ll tell you right now. I will point to the board. Don’t worry about making a wrong move or looking stupid. I have done it first for all of us.”

The kids, in true teenager fashion that many teachers will tell you about in tears, nodded their head empathetically and said things like, “It’s okay, Mrs. Dargai. It was an honest mistake. The blue actually looks really nice. I’ll look up how to fix it. What’s the lesson today?”

As the students filed out that day, I realized that this was it. The board, the markings, the speech, the responses. This was grace.

When Love Helps Clear the Fog


My feet shuffle across the kitchen floor as I reach for coffee and make my way to the table. It’s early Saturday morning, the neighborhood is lazy in bed, quietly holding reverence for the sacred weekend. He’s still sleeping—we sometimes laugh that our college selves would not believe that 9 AM is a glorious Saturday sleep-in.

It’s chilly—we left the A/C on too high last night, and now the windows have fogged up. June mornings were still bearable, but July mornings become too hot too quickly. Lucy, tail wagging as always, presses her nose against the glass door to the backyard, confused why she can’t see out the window. The fog obscures her sight, and she runs to the front window to check out the garbage truck. Her frustrated whine tells me that she can’t see out that window either.

The morning after a big fight leaves my mind foggy. My eyes are swollen from tears—fight tears, grief tears, fear tears—and my head hurts worse than an all-nighter. I let the steam rise from the mug, wafting into my nose as I gaze at the wet window, thinking about all the things we said to each other in the darkness of the night.

When it’s dark and late and your life was pummeled this year and all you see is one big moment of transition in the next, the fear is great, the hopeless panic a slick water slide to Despair Falls.

The sleep was short and fitful, my eyes angry and my nose blocked as the sun woke me up. I pretend for a moment, at the table with Lucy’s head on my lap, that I’m the only one that exists. That I have no contact with the outside world because I can’t see them and they can’t see me. The fog blocks our views, and I’m in the house by myself. I find a little comfort in thinking that I’m safe, if only for a moment.

Nothing has felt safe. People get divorced over fruitless baby attempts, but we have fought hard to hold onto each other. My body feels like a death trap, and my future as obscured as the backyard through the fog-filled window. What will become of us? I wondered through the night.

Some nights I scour the internet reading about my chances to deliver a healthy baby, and other nights I drown out my fear with one more episode. Every night, he waits for me, with me. He holds my hand and strokes my hair. If he’s scared, he doesn’t say anything.

This stretch of time in our lives feels like a leg of a trip, and we’re unsure when we’re taking off for the next leg. We’re just wandering around the airport, trying to find signs that we understand, dragging our bags behind us, trying to keep in good spirits, wondering if we’re going to be able to sit down and take a breath soon. But we’re holding hands. He won’t let go—there’s a fierce grip telling me that he’s not letting me get lost and we’re not going to get separated from each other, and even if we wander the airport for the rest of our lives, we’ll wander together.

I sip my coffee slowly as I consider this metaphor, stroking Lucy’s head as the fog begins to fade away on the windows. I can hear him stirring in the room, and when he opens the door, as I predicted, he walks the long way around the table so he can touch my arm on his way to the coffeepot. We are are going to be okay.

My Choices as a White Woman

I am a middle-class white woman, and I live a life of privilege because of the color of my skin. I have never been followed around in a store. I have never been called a hateful, derogatory name pertaining to my skin color and culture. And I have never, ever feared that a police officer would kill me.

Because of something I have no control over, I am afforded with choices:

1. I can choose to protect vehemently my privilege and imaginary superiority. By doing this, by claiming that all those black men killed were disobeying the law, or that none of the police officers were at fault, or that we don’t know the whole story, or that everyone in prison deserves to be there, or that those black people should pull themselves up by their bootstraps, I am no better than the screaming bouffant-haired women in the photos from Little Rock Central High School on the day of desegregation. I am no better than the many people who put their kids into white-flight schools when black children integrated with white children. I am no better than the supporters of the policemen who used dogs and fire hoses to shoot down protests and enforce ungodly laws of segregation and prejudice and hate. I am no better than the cross burners and face-spitters of the bell-bottomed era (and if we’re honest, the current era in some parts of the country).

If I choose this option of vitriol, I am choosing ignorance and hate and violence. I am cultivating a culture that pulls the trigger in the face of innocent black men. I am supporting a justice system that puts black men in jail for offenses that white kids commit as rites of passage with impunity. I am supporting death rows with innocent and/or unlawfully charged men and women. These are the consequences of my choices.

2. I can choose to be silent in the wake of racially-motivated violence because it doesn’t affect me or my closest friends or most of my neighborhood. By doing this, by scrolling quickly over the videos and hashtags, by keeping my mouth shut and my mind closed to discourse, I am no better than the many white folks who tell their kids to stay close because there’s a black man nearby. I am no better than the Christian schools who provided safe haven to the white children during desegregation and who barred people of color from admission to their universities. I am no better than the people who sat in the diners and averted their eyes when sneering men and women spit and shoved the black men and women at the counters. I am no better than those who remained silent when the policemen used brutality and cruel, inhumane methods to remove black men, women, and children off properties. I am no better than the people who saw the cross burnings and never said a word of comfort or sympathy or solidarity to their black neighbors.

If I choose this option of passive silence, I am choosing ignorance and cowardice and injustice. I am cultivating a culture that ignores the many, many videos detailing unlawful police action. I am supporting segregation, unbalanced scales, and oppression. I am supporting the status quo of racial profiling and thickly drawn lines of hate and prejudice. These are the consequences of my passive choices.

3. Or in my place of privilege, I can choose to use my voice to call out from the wilderness for justice and protection for my black friends. By doing this, by claiming that black lives matter just as much as my life matters, just as much as police lives matter, I can join others to help tip the scales of justice back to even keel. I can stand, hand-in-hand, face-to-face, side-by-side with those who are routinely profiled, systematically imprisoned, and tragically killed. I can say, “This is not right. I condemn these racially-biased actions. I call out these prejudicial words and laws and court judgments for what they are.” I can open my eyes to see that when we advocate for the the lives of minorities–Hispanic, Black, Muslim, Asian—we change all lives.  I can proclaim the hard message that we suffer when we’re oppressed, but we also suffer when we are oppressors.  We were not made to be tyrants, to live lives of privilege over others, of prejudice and hatred and fear.  When we wield our privilege around like a weapon or a shield, the poison spills onto us, too.

If I choose this option, I am choosing solidarity, unity, love, justice, equal pay, equal rights, equal enforcement of laws, courage, community, life, etc. I am cultivating a culture of accountability for all and justice for all. I am supporting racial integration and reconciliation. I am knocking down the status quo of racism and painting over the lines of hate with a sign that says, “You are my friend.” These are the consequences of my choices. But I have to actively make a choice.

And how cowardly I am if I choose not to defend my neighbor.  How shameful it is not to care that my neighbor is suffering and dying and living in fear at the hands of others.  How ungodly it is of me to not step in front of my neighbor and say to the oppressor, “No more.”

Communion Thoughts: This

Yesterday, JD and I shared meditations one last time at our beloved church. We move on Thursday, and we wanted to be able to say goodbye to the collective church. I mean, there’s a reason we drove 30 minutes downtown each Sunday to see people that live on the other side of Austin. Here’s what we said.



On our first day at church, it took us 30 minutes to get out of the auditorium—not because this place was so crowded that we were elbowing our way through a mob, but rather because so many people made a beeline for us to introduce themselves because we were new.

Over the course of our time here, we studied what it meant to be an apprentice to Jesus, and we shared our stories and our doubts with one another in the ever-changing balcony class.

We experienced hospitality from many members, whether it was a shared bowl of edamame at Pei Wei, or it was the exquisite cuisine and company of famed cooks in the congregation.

They celebrated with us in our great joys of new jobs and pregnancies. And then they mourned with us when we lost our babies, and they held sacred space for us to grieve by showing up at the hospital to hold our hand, coming over to bring us dinner, texting us every day to check in.

In a similar way, as Jesus reclined at the Table with his friends, they celebrated Passover, they reminisced about their adventures together, and Jesus prepared for the most difficult part of his journey. It was that night that he held up the bread and the wine and said, “Do this in remembrance of me.”

He took these common sacraments from the Table to symbolize a broader moment. When he said, “Remember this,” he wasn’t just talking about the taste of the wine.

He was saying remember how we cared for one another…

remember how we shared meals together…

how we walked miles together…

how we live side by side, hand in hand together.

Remember this moment where we are all here together.

Today, we raise our glasses in celebration of what the Table of God has looked like to us here.

As we leave our sweet church, and share this meal with other members of God’s family, we will remember this.

A Conscionable Prayer for an Unconscionable Act


God of All People, we scream and cry and rage in horror. We sit gape-mouthed in shock, no sound coming out, only breaths of disbelief.

We pray for our brothers and sisters in Orlando—for comfort to show up in shared meals, extended hands, and joint tears. For space to cry, for safety to express fears, for a surrounding of community, hands locked in solidarity.

We pray for the candles of vigils to light up the dark of the night, and we pray for the love of your people to light up the dark of the world.

Give us courage to say, “I’m scared, too.” Give us boldness to say, “I stand with you.”

Give us eyes to see that those men and women could have been ours—our people, our family, our friends. May this fresh sight shut our mouths of political rhetoric and defensive rights-protection. May the only words we can possibly utter be, “Dear God, this is horrible, evil violence against our own, and we condemn it fully.”

May we be silent in the things our fear tells us to shout, and may we be loud in our love and call for justice.

Bleeding God of Life and Death, help us speak up now, finally, in this very moment for the oppressed. May we not be able to sleep until we’ve told our people we love them and realize that there are many who cannot say that anymore.

Give us memory to remember the horror, and may we not forget the senseless evil by trivializing this event down to a battlecry for self-protection.

Dear God, give us empathy. Give us sensitivity. Give us love for another. Tape our mouths shut unless they are crying out in shared lament.

May we see that the hand we are clutching white-knuckled is our brother’s. May we realize that the tears swimming down our cheeks are our sister’s.

May we feel deep in our hearts that we belong to each other, that we are each other’s. May we feel the holy, righteous conviction that there is no other response but “I love you. This was awful, evil violence, and I see it. I cry with you. I stand with you. You are not alone.”

What I’ve Learned about Grief: Part Four

It’s been nearly 8 months since my first miscarriage, and during those 8 months of crying and watching the entire series of Grey’s Anatomy, I’ve journeyed through the grief like a hobbit. Lots of people have been the Sam to my Frodo: my husband, my Monday night dinner girls, a therapist, blog writers, dead writers (I teach British Literature, remember), and others.

I want to preface this post by saying that at the same time, all grief is different and all grief is the same. If you haven’t had a miscarriage, some of these things may still ring true in your life. If you have had a miscarriage, none of these things may ring true, too.

Click here for my first post on what grief looks like.  Click here for my second post on the experiencing others during a time of grief. Click here for my third post about when grief becomes too much. Here is what I’ve learned about finding meaning in grief:


10. Grief makes you scared and brave at the same time. On one hand, now that I know how quickly I can lose something, I’m terrified of losing something else. My knees shake when I think of one day being pregnant again. My heart pounds at the thought of having any hope or making any plans. On the other hand, I feel brave enough to talk about my feelings sometimes even though what I say can make me scared. I feel brave enough to be honest with others. I feel brave enough to visit my dying grandmother after being told to “prepare myself” before I walk into her hospital room. I feel brave enough to move away from a job that I love with no real plan for my next step. At the very least, I have been confronted with the unknown that is my future, and I don’t always cower in fear anymore.

11. Grief stirs the creativity stew inside of you. Perhaps it’s because I try to find so many ways to describe how I’m feeling that my life begins to feel like a pot of metaphors. Or perhaps because grief is at once fog and crisp air that clears the fog (see what I mean?). Maybe it’s because grief gives perspective and I’ve stopped caring for awhile about some things (whether my hair is fixed or if I teach the perfect lesson or if Meredith Grey will ever find love again) that I can actually approach some of the big, scary, meta things in my life—will I ever have a family? Will JD and I be okay? What does my life mean if I can’t be a mom to living children? How do I summon the courage to try again? Do I really believe something awaits us at death? Thinking about these questions has me jotting down notes on napkins and church bulletins, and every time I sit in therapy, I have a new metaphor for my grief.

12. Grief can bring out some beautiful things in friendships. I have great friends. I read about the sisterhood of pregnancy losses in a Shauna Niequist book, and even though some of my friends have never had a miscarriage, they are still just as present. My friends have prayed for and with me. They have listened to my aimless conversation about the whole thing. They have invited me to a weekend away. They have brought dinner. They have asked me how I’m really doing every time they see me. They have sent me sweet emails and texts on days like Mother’s Day. They have sent me gifts and cards and chocolate. They have sat with me as I recover from a D&C at home. The most important quality about them is that they have been there. They didn’t shrink away at the first sight of heavy, dark feelings. They didn’t smile and slowly back away as I cried. They didn’t avoid me because they were pregnant and I wasn’t anymore. They were there. They held the space for me to grieve.

13. Grief is not about finding a reason or learning a lesson; it’s about feeling and mourning and grappling with loss. I hate the phrase, “Everything happens for a reason,” because it’s not supported anywhere except Hallmark cards, and it’s so clearly offensive. How can a person say, “Your baby died for a reason…God needed another angel…so our babies can play together in heaven…God is trying to bring you closer to Him…so you can appreciate the next baby more…” All of these make God out to be sadistic, and I don’t believe He is.

Loss happens because it can be a tragic, sad world and death is a ruler of sorts. Babies die. Friends get divorced. Spouses leave. Family moves away. Companies let you go. Just as loss doesn’t have a reason, neither should we go looking for lessons to be learned. Trying to learn or grow before feeling all the feelings is a numbing mechanism—it’s a counterproductive and unhealthy psychosis. I have to feel my feelings before I try to find meaning in them.

These things I’ve learned about grief are not the reason my babies died.

They are not lessons I’ve been dutifully learning at Grief Academy in Loss: 101. Part of me wishes I didn’t know any of this, but there is a sense that now that I know, I cannot un-know. Now that I’ve written all this down, I’m not magically brave now or pregnant or shielded against tears and dark feelings. I still have a very real and clear-cut fear that if I have another miscarriage, I will lose myself, even though I know I have to feel and lean on others and let myself grieve the way my mind and body need to because loss sucks and it’s scary and overwhelming.  I am at once a different person and the same person I was before the miscarriages.

But now I know that if I do lose another baby, the loss and pain won’t be so crippling that I die. I have walked this path before, and I have learned how to swim.