Hathaway Brown School
Instructor: Elizabeth Armstrong
Personal Essay & Memoir
May 23, 2017.
The day my life changed. For the fourth time.
I strode through the Hillcrest Hospital doors, clad in my favorite blue Lilly Pulitzer dress, and my hair all nicely done. My three siblings, Adeline, Jacqueline, and little brother George trailed behind me, followed by Manga and Papa, my grandparents. The kind receptionist directed us up to the right room and I stood outside, hesitating for a second. This was it. The terminator of my life as the oldest of four to the oldest of five. On the other side of that door, a new life was waiting. A new person—a new baby boy—I already knew since my parents had decided to find out the gender. Another brother. I played with the thought in my head, as I had hundreds of times before but only now was truly understanding and considering the ramifications. I was eleven and a half. My whole life has been marked by change—over, and over, and over—a new sibling, a new sibling, a move, a new sibling, a move, a new sibling. The next year that lay ahead of me was going to be long and exhausting, I knew. As many older siblings know, new babies come with a endless litany of work: changing revolting blowout diapers, babysitting unpaid hours, washing perpetually full sinks of dishes. And to top it all off, I wouldn't be getting my real mom back for at least a couple months. She would be consumed with caring for this new baby—doing more work on half my sleep than I could fathom. I considered all of this, took a deep breath, and pushed open the door.
"Andrew!" I yell, "come up here now!" His feet pitter patter up the stairs in double time and soon his sandy colored head peaks around the corner. "D'you wanna help me make cookies?" He's been watching tv for hours and now his eyes have a glazed over look, but he still nods. I feel, like most non-iPad kids feel, a twinge of regret at the fact that he turns to youtube for entertainment rather than the big bright world outside, just waiting to be explored. But to do that, he needs someone to be an adventurer, pirate, or stick fencer extraordinaire. And every older sibling has felt that pull between playing with their younger sibling and the constant draw of their own lives—homework, friends, tv, responsibility—that looms in the background. "Alright," I say, and begin listing off all the ingredients we're going to need. He scurries around the kitchen after me, grabbing the salt or showing me where the vanilla went. I pass him the gallon of milk with one hand as he hugs it to his chest with two, bent over with the weight of it. He huffs and puffs, but does not ask for help. He's determined to do it himself. I smile, remembering when I was that little, and gallon jugs were the ultimate test of my strength.
I bring out the KitchenAid mixer and begin shoveling out the requisite amount of flour. Beside me, Andrew clamors to help and when I try to guide his hands to scoop out the flour and dump it into the bowl, he insists, "Let me do it myself!" I put my hands up, in deference to his newfound desire for independence. It seems like such a short time ago that I had to do quite literally everything for him.
The first picture I saw of my little brother Andrew, I thought he looked pretty ugly. A latex gloved nurse was holding him in front of some sort of machine and he looked so vulnerable and tiny—not at all like the soft, sleepy baby pictures I usually saw. He was frozen in time, his face red and screaming, his body smeared with all the weird stuff that comes from birth. He was so skinny and only around seven ounces, compared to my brother George who was ten ounces and a chunky monkey. But the first time I held him, my heart opened up even a little more, to accommodate this little brother, this little person who I would love from that moment on through the rest of my life.
May 23, 2022.
Andrew had his fifth birthday. And I no longer have an excuse to call him a baby, or even a toddler. He is now a full human person. He has his interests that he finds on his own—no longer handed to him for Christmas or birthdays. He speaks in full sentences and is able to articulate what he needs with no need for translation. He is much too spare with his hugs—no longer is he launching himself at me when I get home from practice and we almost never snuggle together anymore.
But even though I had to change countless poopy diapers and spent hundreds of hours babysitting, even though my mom was only half a person for the rest of the year and my family outgrew our house, even though I suddenly had a lot more responsibility and a lot less time for myself, even though there was all of that, there is absolutely nothing I wouldn't do or trade for my little brother.
And Yet: Exploring the Relationship Between Your Mindset and the Future
And Yet: Exploring the Relationship Between Your Mindset and the Future
Jay Gatsby, much like many others in the world, struggled with control. It is a relatable story in many ways—who among us hasn't wished to turn back the clock to another time? Everyone has their regrets, their what-ifs, their should-have-dones. It is a fact of the human experience: grieving what could have been and learning how to move forward with what is now. Gatsby, however, refuses to begin this process of moving forward and instead remains fixated in the past. The trajectory of his life shifts from future-oriented, where he was focused on reinventing himself, to recreating his past. This does not allow him to grow up and grow into the man he is supposed to become. He remained the same Jay Gatsby at thirty that he was when he invented himself at seventeen, while Daisy, his past, was able to move forward. Daisy grew up, she married another man, had a child, and became sated with her life. Because of this, when Gatsby finally reunited with her, despite the fact that he could feel that things were not the same, he could not let her go.
When I was in middle school, and even a freshman in high school, when I thought of my future self as a junior—17 years old—I imagined I would have it all together. My vision for seventeen year old me was that I finally would have a boyfriend (or at least my first kiss), I would be on varsity cross country, writing and submitting work to various competitions and journals, hanging out with friends every weekend, have gone to my first party and had my first real sip of alcohol, along with so many other "milestones" of high school. I thought I would be confident. I thought I would have close friends and none of the drama, that I would take hard classes and beyond succeed in them. I thought I would have it all figured out. When I was a freshman, I even plotted out every course I would take until senior year. I had a plan for my high school career and nothing was going to change it. I just remember thinking everything was going to be better as a junior. Seeing all of the upperclassmen in the halls and at practice, I always thought they looked so put together—so mature. Their problems were much bigger and more interesting than mine and I enjoyed hearing about all of their drama. I dreamed of being like them—past the miserable trudge through freshman and sophomore year and basically almost an adult. They were so brave, going out in the world and deciding who they would become. It seemed so foreign to me—that two years could change a person so much. I knew even then that the person I was as a freshman was not the same as the junior. I just couldn't comprehend when that change would occur, and what it would look like. But I could dream about it. I dreamed about future-me all the time. Whenever I read a romance novel, I would tell myself that certainly by junior year it would have happened. As a sophomore, I daydreamed about the summer my teammates had declared life changing. When I started my first job lifeguarding, I visualized a sweet summer romance with another guard while at the same time memorizing the different types of water rescues.
Fast forward 730 or so days and here's the update: no boyfriend (or kiss), barely hanging onto varsity cross country, haven't written a creative piece of writing unrelated to school in over six months, no party or alcohol, and my fair share of drama. In short, junior year has been one hundred percent a let down.
The theory of growth mindset versus fixed mindset has exploded in the past decade. It has been used in elementary schools as well as corporate settings to influence people to become more productive and healthier versions of themselves. This theory is similar to the idea of the locus of control (LOC). There are two types of LOC: external and internal. The external LOC is the same as a fixed mindset. Those types of people believe that their lives are determined by outside factors—that nothing they do individually can affect the outcome. Contrasting this is the internal LOC, or growth mindset. It is the belief that a person has the power to affect their life through the choices they make. This type of person is often independent and embraces challenges. Everyone is a combination of these two LOCs, however one will always be more dominant.
Gatsby's belief that he has power over his life ultimately leads to his demise. Multiple times throughout The Great Gatsby, he references God, the all-knowing, omnipotent being who holds fate of the universe in his hands. Gatsby too, believes that he has a (rather large) measure of control over his life, as he is described as, "a son of God — a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that — and he must be about His Father's business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty" (Fitzgerald 98). The control that God has over the universe cannot be shrunken down to man size—however Gatsby attempts to do just that. He creates a charade in which he is the "son of God" and so nothing can occur without his knowledge, without his approval. Rather than listing the true merits of Jesus Christ, the real son of God, Gatsby's merits are instead "vast, vulgar, and meretricious", painting a rather damning picture of Gatsby, a parody on the genuine life of Christ. Christ the man, who, two thousand years ago was crucified so that he could save the world. He was carrying out His Father's business—of providing salvation and spreading a message of love. Even two millennia later, nearly everyone on earth knows the name Jesus Christ and similarly, Jay Gatsby has been working his whole life to make sure his name is remembered as well. But rather than dealing in love, mercy, and sacrifice, Gatsby is remembered for his lavish, irresponsibly extravagant parties and arrogant displays of wealth. He is unwilling to comprehend that there will always be someone with more—more guests, more booze, more exotic attractions…more love, more friends, more family. No matter how much Gatsby wanted to become the richest, the most coveted, the most satisfied, he did not have the power to change the reality of his life. Despite how much he yearned for it, Jay Gatsby was no god.
It is possible to change your mindset through daily practices such as meditation, mindfulness, accepting responsibility, and even religion. In fact, recent studies have pointed to a positive correlation between religious belief and mindset. Although it initially seems as though practicers, Christians in particular, have an external LOC, since they believe that God (an external force) ultimately controls their lives, studies have shown that they often possess some of the strongest internal LOCs. The ability to pray and ask God for guidance gives them a measure of control over uncontrollable circumstances. They believe that actions they take can positively or negatively affect their life. The idea that the choices a person makes will affect where they spend eternity pushes them to reconsider how much of their life is truly out of their hands. God gives people crosses to bear, such as infertility, mental health struggles, and death, but it is the way that a person responds to those challenges that ultimately determines where they end up. This mirrors the theory of LOC. Those who rise to the challenge are affiliated with an internal LOC while those who tend to give up in the face of adversity have external LOCs.
When Gatsby lost Daisy to Tom Buchanan, her husband, it was the first sign that he was not in control of his future. He had lost his greatest love and was now all alone. He then spent the entirety of his life after losing Daisy chasing her ghost, making her his dream. And when he finally realized that she was too far gone, that he was pursuing a memory, he looked back at the rest of his life and saw that, "he had lost the old warm world, paid a high price for living too long with a single dream" (Fitzgerald 161). Gatsby was living as a ghost. Anchored to this world by a withered memory: for if one looked beneath the excessive parties, they would find a small, lonely man. A man who, when stripped of everything material, would be found to be very poor indeed. Poor in the intangible things that make life worth living—love, community, and friendship. They were just out of his grasp and he knew it. He spent his life yearning for Daisy, hoping to use her to gain access to that elusive world, one in which everyone seemed content regardless of their wealth. In this yearning, he crushed any chance of finding love in other places. He was no longer capable of seeing his parents as a potential source of love nor Nick, his most loyal friend. And that is what led to his downfall—believing that his only path to fulfillment was through Daisy—whom he pursued with a single-mindednesss that prevented him from finding an alternate, perhaps even better path, without her.
Having a strong internal LOC, however, is not always a good thing. This mindset can quickly morph into perfectionism. While society often deems it as necessary in order to achieve one's dreams, perfectionism can, in fact, hinder them. Often perfectionists directly link their self-worth to their success on a project or in a race, and if it does not go well, or even just isn't perfect, the perfectionist will begin a vicious cycle of self-criticism. This leads to a hesitation of beginning future projects, because they are afraid of failure. To them, everything is under their own control, so if a project or race does not succeed, it is their fault. This mindset is extremely damaging to productivity, as perfectionists continue to procrastinate as each thing they achieve falls short of perfect, creating a cycle that is difficult to break. There are steps to take to move towards a healthier mindset, the first of which includes recognizing that some things are in fact, out of an individual's control. A person cannot account for the events of life that use up time throughout the day, and they cannot control other people's decisions. It is hard to grasp at first, but the only thing an individual truly has control over is their reaction to situations. Whether that be by swerving out of your lane to avoid hitting the driver who has stopped, proactively scheduling a doctor's appointment when finding a strange lump, or getting more miles in during the summer in order to succeed in the post season—recognizing the things you can control rather than what you cannot—and focusing on those things can significantly boost both your mindset, your productivity, and even your dreams in the right direction.
All of these I thought I would be, and all of the things that I now am are meeting in a confluence of swirling would-have-beens, what-ifs, and right nows. Each day, rather than being stuck in the neglected forest of my old dreams, of nostalgia, I forge on. I know that no matter what I plan for myself in the future—no matter my dreams, my hopefuls, the milestones that signal a life well-lived that I hope to step upon—it won't be what I expected. And in that, there is comfort. No matter how much I prepare, no matter how much I obsess or worry or daydream or wish "it'll all be better when I'm in college", my life will continue to burst through the rigid boundaries I've placed on its course. I will change—there almost certainly will be times where I drink and kiss and run my first marathon—but the way I come about those things are going to be completely different than I have planned. My first adult job after college graduation will not be what I confidently declared as a freshman. There are some people who know exactly what they want to be, and the steps they will take to get there. I know that no matter what I think I want, my life will take an unexpected turn that will lead me down a different treacherous trail. I will end up perhaps not where I want to be, but instead where I need to be. And I am willing to be borne by the river of my life to wherever that may be.
Remember Your Death
Personal Essay & Memoir
Remember Your Death*
*some context: this was read aloud as a personal witness/testimony on a Catholic youth retreat in November, 2022
Hi everyone! My name is Genevieve Comar and I'm a junior at Hathaway Brown. A few facts to get to know me better: I've been going to lifeteen since I was a freshman, I run cross country, my favorite tv show is Derry Girls, and for the first fourteen years of my life, death was a relatively abstract concept. How many of you have thought about death before? Like really thought about it? I've gone to several funerals throughout my childhood, but the ones I remember most were for my great-grandparents and my cousin, who was born with a rare disorder. My great-grandparents funerals were sad, but also a celebration of their lives. Their deaths, however heartbreaking, were not unexpected. God was calling them home after long, blessed lives.
Because of my experiences, I always thought death only happened to people who were sick or old. Even now, when I think of my death (which isn't very often), I picture myself as an old lady, laugh lines marking my cheeks and eyes, worry wrinkles across my forehead. I picture my children and grandchildren lovingly surrounding me as I slowly walk in to Jesus's embrace.
That all changed on June 15, 2020. I had graduated from 8th grade a week prior…virtually of course because of covid. It had been a rough spring. All of the 8th grade traditions I was looking forward to like our 8th grade musical and the class trip to Cedar Point were all gone. I hadn't seen my friends in months (except for the occasional outside chat ten feet apart) and I had graduated and was now a high schooler.
June 15, 2020 was my younger sister Adeline's twelfth birthday. I woke up, excited to celebrate with a Mitchell's ice cream cake later that night, when I realized that it was somehow past 8 oclock. I couldn't be late to my P.E. zoom for the third time that week so I sprinted downstairs to log on.
But it wasn't working. I scrolled through my email to see if there was a new link, and saw a message from my P.E. teachers.
Class is cancelled today. Please know Miss O'Brien and I are here for you.
What? I remember asking myself. I was so confused. Here for us about what? I ran upstairs for my phone, to find out what was going on. As soon as a grabbed it I saw a text in the group chat.
Guys, I'm so sorry to have to tell you this, but Scout and Chasey died last night.
I remember that moment exactly, standing on the landing, then suddenly falling to my knees, my phone dropping to the floor. Scout and I had been going to school together since fourth grade. We had been in so many classes, performances, and sports together and while we'd never hung out outside of school, she was always in the peripheral of nearly every important moment. Chasey was her younger sister and going to seventh grade, one year older than my own sister, Adeline.
I couldn't even begin to comprehend my own grief, so I immediately focused on others. My friends, her friends, her family—how much worse their pain must be, compared to mine. In the back of my mind, I thought about how my sister's birthday would never be the same.
My mom suggested I go to swim practice since she thought it would be good for me to get my muscles moving. To try and focus on something else, anything else besides what had happened. I numbly agreed. We drove to the pool, and I jumped right in. Looking up at the cloudy sky, I asked God, "Why did you do this?" He didn't answer.
That night, I saw my friends for the first time in three months as we gathered in the school courtyard. Instead of a happy reunion, we were brought together by a huge, collective grief. We were all there, wailing and sobbing—hugging each other's quivering shoulders and pressing wet faces into comforting shirts. I have never cried so much in my life. I had never felt so much emotion—while still somehow being completely numb.
Day by day, I began putting the pieces of myself back together. Except, when I looked in the mirror, I wasn't the same person, Some chunks of myself were still lost while new, scary ones had grown in their place. Death was no longer an abstract but a reality. I realized it could come for me, or for those I loved at any time and it didn't even have to be something like illness or old age. It could be as unexpected as my friend climbing into a hammock with her sisters and it collapsing on top of her.
My relationship with God during that time was very one-sided. And it definitely wasn't the most important relationship in my life. At their funeral, I remember being comforted by some of the Catholic aspects of religious service—like the priest reading the Gospel and some of the prayers, but I couldn't, or didn't know how to, bring my pain to God in a meaningful way. I didn't truly know God yet—and how could I feel comfortable sharing the deepest most devastating pain of my life with a stranger?
That fall, my mom signed me up for this program called lifeteen. (Who else's parents forced them to come?) Believe me when I say I was not a fan. I knew absolutely no one, coming from Shaker Heights (a thirty minute drive away), and I wasn't too interested in the whole "getting to know Jesus thing". I went to church with my family every Sunday, and volunteered (more like voluntold) to help in second grade psr before mass. I figured I was covered. Having to talk about Jesus three times in one Sunday was too much—I was all Jesussed out. When I went to the lifenights, I wanted to have fun and participate, but the other girls around me weren't and so I felt like I couldn't either. And the Jesus talks were kind of boring to me, since I thought I already had it all down—I mean after years of Catholic school and psr, why wouldn't I?
One lifenight we did something different. Instead of having a talk after playing the game, we had Adoration. (For those of you who aren't sure what Adoration is—its when the priest brings out the Eucharist in a big golden monstrance for us to praise and adore). We all silently filed into the church and sat down in the back pews (no one except for the Retreat Team members were brave enough to go in front).
I had no clue what to do. Billy phrased it as "talking to Jesus", but I didn't know what he meant. Some people were sitting, other kneeling. I felt like I had to kneel too, since this was supposed to be Jesus in front of us and all. After singing along to some of the music, I began to thank Jesus for my day. I asked him to pray for my family And then I asked him to pray for Scout and Chasey, up in heaven. I left Adoration that night in tears from finally beginning to confront the grief I had shoved and locked deep in my chest.
That winter, I began to notice something. Was I…was I looking forward to going to lifeteen? Did I actually want to spend more time in Adoration? Somehow, I had cracked the door open, just a smidge. And God had already begun to work changes in my heart. My relationship with him was no longer one-sided with me only praying to him when I needed something. I now updated him on my life and asking him for guidance, while also learning to sit quietly in his presence, without trying to fill the silence. I wasn't expecting him to help me process my grief, but he did. However even though he was helping, that didn't mean there still wasn't a wound.
Later on that spring, Billy sent out an email to apply for a weekend-long retreat at Franciscan University of Steubenville. Before I knew it, my mom signed me up and I was suddenly off to a weekend in the middle of nowhere, Ohio. The second my mom noticed the email requesting "modest clothes please" she went to Old Navy and bought me two really long dresses. I was the opposite of thrilled—not only was I going on this weekend retreat, where I would be missing an entire weekend of summer, but I was being forced to wear an ankle length dress in ninety degrees because people couldn't handle my kneecaps. Thank goodness that when we rolled up to the drop off station, I saw plenty of kneecaps, plenty of athletic shorts, and plenty of people having fun. I allowed myself to be slightly more open to this whole weekend. It couldn't be that bad, right?
Boy was I wrong. It wasn't bad, it wasn't even alright. It was incredible.
The first night, we had Adoration. At first, I was extremely confused. We were in a gigantic gymnasium, filled with nearly two thousand folding chairs. This was no church. The priest brought out the monstrance and the band began to play. They encourged us to do what we felt was best to be with God in that moment. There was only one girl near me who was standing, and I remember thinking she was so brave. Deep in my heart, I felt something stir. Buried under layers of fear there was a tiny part of me that wanted to stand up too.
But I didn't.
I went to confession that night. Worries and fears that I had barely begun to acknowledge myself, I shared with the priest. After absolution, I felt enormous relief. The next morning, I woke up with an open mind ready to receive the clarity and healing I knew God had waiting for me.
The women's session was one of the final talks of that day. We moved up to be closer to the stage when the speaker, Kelly Coangelo began to talk. Beside me, I could see my new friends as absorbed as I was. At the end, we renounced the lies that the devil tells us. I felt so powerful, standing in that room with my sisters in Christ, rejecting the lies that we are not good enough, that we are not loved, that we are not valued or beautiful or of worth. For every renouncement, we responded with a loud NO as strong female voices filled the room. It was the first time I had done that, and the first time I meant something with my whole heart. And it was there, that I discovered how much I truly desired to pursue a relationship with God.
We had Adoration again that night. Billy found us seats in the middle of the gym—the closest we could get to the stage. The band began to play a worship song and we got on our knees as the monstrance was walked out by a parade of bishops, priests, deacons, monks…already I could tell this night was going to be different. I prayed to God for openness to receive what he had planned for me that night. And I prayed for no shame—because I was scared of what everyone else would think of me. About how strange it would look if I stood up or lifted my hands in praise while everyone else was kneeling. But as I saw people around me doing it, I thought they were fearless and strong in their devotion for God. So when one of my friends stood up beside me, I stood with her. Then I blocked off the part of my brain that was obsessing over what everyone thought of me and focused on God.
There he was, up on that altar. It was all dark except for the monstrance, gleaming so brightly it left spots in my eyes. The scent of incense was drifting through the air and I could see the smoke as the spotlights shone on the altar. As I looked to Jesus, I sang with all my love, thanks, and praise—wishing I could do more. The words to the songs didn't feel like enough.
One of the MCs of that night took the microphone and told us to "imagine your heart, and then Jesus's heart next to you, reaching out with love, acceptance, forgiveness, and mercy." I pictured my own heart and then Jesus's beside it shining with light, that was reaching for me reaching for me. It was visualization of how close Jesus was to me. How much he wanted a relationship with me, how much he wanted me to love him and to let him love me. All I had to do was say yes.
And so as the speaker continued to narrate, I followed along. I imagined every scar I had from harsh words or lies I believed, every sin I was ashamed of, every wound that was still dripping. I opened up my whole heart to him. I was so afraid. I had not, and still haven't ever been so vulnerable with someone since then. Jesus saw everything, and even though he technically already knew it, in the way that he knows all the hairs on your head, me choosing to show it to him was powerful.
When I opened my heart to him, the Holy Spirit swooped inside. I began to cry. I didn't feel sad—I was overcome with joy and peace. I felt whole and completely loved for the first time. All across the room there were people laughing and crying and singing their hearts out. And there were also people who were standing there peacefully—but even though they weren't showing any outward emotion, it doesn't mean that God wasn't working a change in them.
Soon, the priest began to process with the monstance, holding it high above his head. As he walked down every aisle, waves of people began to kneel. When the priest paused near me, I immediately fell to my knees and stared straight into the soul of Jesus. It was the first time I truly believed without a doubt, that He was in there. I felt his presence in that room.
Before then, I had thought of the Eucharist as more of a symbol than truly Jesus's flesh and blood. A lot of you guys may feel the same way. It tastes like normal bread (if your normal bread were to be a flat crunchy almost- cracker) and there is no visible change from before the consecration and after.
But that's the thing about faith—believing in something even if you've never seen it. That's what I gained that night in Steubenville: incredible faith in the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist and at Adoration. Though that faith and being so vulnerable with God, I was able to begin to heal from my grief of the summer before.
Just because God was beginning to heal me though, doesn't mean I don't have a scar. Every person in this room is carrying wounds, some of them scars and some of them still open and bleeding. I found that through bringing my own wounds to God, I was able to find healing, grace, and unconditional love. Some people's roads to healing are longer—a lot longer—than others. It can feel like its easier just to let youself drown in netflix, snapchat, school, sports…you guys can all fill what you do. I definitely numbed myself that way. But at Steubenville, when I was vulnerable with God and honest with myself, He was able to help me through my grief.
I want you all to close your eyes, no seriously, do it—and imagine your scar. Your wound. Then picture Jesus standing in front of you. He holds out his hand and you can see the wounds in it from the cross. He says your name, full with so much love and understanding and asks you to take his hand. You might be a little nervous or scared, but Jesus understands. He gives you a reassuring look and asks you to trust him. And then you have to decide if you will trust him, if you will show him your deepest fears, your biggest wounds, and still healing scars.
Tonight, you are going to have the chance to do this with Jesus right in front of you in the sacrament of Adoration. He will knock on the door of your heart and ask you to let him in. All you have to do is say yes.