Yesterday, I put the finishing touches on the twentieth year of my life. It really doesn’t feel like it’s been two decades already since I drew my first breath, but looking back I’ve certainly made more than enough memories to account for all of that time. I’ve written for three successive National Novel Writing Month events, two blogs, and one student newspaper (for which I was never paid). I’ve journeyed to both of our neighboring countries and a sizable handful of the states in the union with varying groups of friends, family, and fellow choristers via plane, train, and automobile (which is my preferred mode of transport, specifically tour bus). I’ve gained countless friends, achieved many victories, made many more mistakes, and obtained a cat (who is, may I reaffirm, the World’s Greatest Cat™). Despite the overwhelming volume and general wonderfulness of these memories, however, there are a few moments in my life that stand out above the rest as special. While it’s not a comprehensive list or ranking of any kind (I never have been good with picking favorites), I hope this little highlights reel can give you a glimpse into the varied and marvelous ways in which God has guided and poured out his grace into my life and that by reading it you, too, can feel some of the joy and encouragement that I’ve enjoyed so much in living it.
1. My first visit to Chicago. Years and years ago, Dad went to Chicago for a month to take an extensive training course for his job. My siblings and I were still very young, and the thought of losing him for a month was pretty daunting, but celebration replaced our apprehension when he told us that we could all come down to Chicago on the train with Mom and stay with him for a week in the middle of his trip. For me, that week is a block of pure, glorious wonder amongst my memories. We set up our home base in Dad’s apartment and set out from there on an endless stream of adventures in the big city. We saw the Museum of Science and Industry, the Shedd Aquarium, and the Lincoln Park Zoo. We ate in a Rainforest Café with a giant fishtank-archway in the lobby and explored an enormous mall with a fountain that ran down beside the escalators. The biggest reason that this week will forever hold a special place in my mind, however, is because it was during this week that I learned about Moody Bible Institute and decided that when I grew up, that’s where I wanted to go to school. Nearly ten years later, that love for Chicago and Moody hasn’t abated in the least, and I’m thrilled to see God leading me back to the city that stole my heart all those years ago.
2. My first novel. Just about everyone knows about me and my unquenchable love for NaNoWriMo, but I actually wrote my first novel long before I ever learned about that glorious king of all challenges. I was in fifth grade, and Mom and I were looking for a good writing program for my next year of school. When we found a curriculum called “Learning to Write the Novel Way” that promised to lead students through the process of writing a book in just one school year, I was sold. We bought the curriculum and I spent the next several months sitting in my room, listening to a cassette tape of the O.C. Supertones and transcribing by hand the adventures of Josiah Byrding and his companions in the land of Fantasea. The end result was pretty much unreadable, but I don’t think I’ve ever been quite so proud of myself as I was in the moment that I tacked the words “The End” onto that sloppy heap of prose. Ever since, I’ve known that what I did in those months was something I wanted to keep on doing for the rest of my life, Supertones and all.
3. My first missions trip to Mexico. For a while, Dad embarked every January on a one-week trip to Mexico with a large group of men from all around the country to help construct church buildings for some of the Mexican congregations. One year, when I was fourteen, he offered my older brother Andrew and I the chance to accompany him, which we eagerly accepted. That week, I discovered my innate and irrational passion for long bus trips, experienced a culture entirely different from my own, met dozens of brothers and sisters in Christ whose joy and kindness put me to shame even though they had far less than I, and worked hard at a big, difficult project without giving up. Everything about that experience strengthened and stretched me as a Christian and as a human being, and even though I returned once more with Dad the next year, that first trip was definitely the most memorable.
4. Lake Ann Camp. There is no way that I could narrow this one down to any one memory. Lake Ann Camp is the place where I grew up, where I became the person that I am. I attended camp there for seven years and served on the kitchen staff for four years, and if I could live there I would do it in a heartbeat and never look back. That place is home to me, and the friends that I’ve met there will be my friends for the rest of eternity. I met Adam and Adam at Lake Ann, spent countless days and nights laughing and talking and working and living with them and dozens of other incredible people who helped me figure out who I am and how to love all of the people out there who are fascinatingly (and fortunately) unlike me. I’ve never loved any place quite like I love Lake Ann, and I probably never will.
5. My freshman year at Moody. Last school year, I took out a student loan and achieved my dream of attending Moody Bible Institute. That year, from about May 31st 2010 (when I headed out to Lake Ann) until the next May (when I came home from school) was the best year of my life so far. The men of Culby 12, like my roommate Dan Schubert, our neighbors Adam and Robert, resident Koreans Kyu and Zech, RA Jake, musical genius “Miami” Jon Rosado, and so many others made life at Moody fun, encouraging, challenging, and utterly, uniquely wonderful. The classes were fantastic, the professors were incredible, my Wednesday nights helping care for the kids at Salem Christian School with Keegan and Alisha were unforgettable, and don’t even get me started about Men’s Choir. You will never meet a more talented, upbeat, godly, friendly, and completely excellent group of guys in your life. The time I spent touring the Southern US with those men was pure condensed awesome, and Doc Singley is the man. No exceptions.
6. Meeting Tek. Almost exactly a year ago, I happened upon a cartoon called “My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic”, heard that guys my age all over the Internet were watching it and actually enjoying it, and decided to try it. It is now one of my favorite television shows and I watch it regularly, but that’s not the point. The point is, I wrote a post on my old blog about the show and what I thought of it, and this mysterious stranger by the name of Tekaramity commented on it with some interesting insights. We struck up a conversation by email, discovered that we have a lot in common and enjoy each other’s company, and the rest is history. Twelve months later, Tek is one of my dearest friends, and I can’t imagine not knowing him. If you ever get the opportunity to make his acquaintance, don’t pass it up; he is the most encouraging and uplifting human being I’ve ever met, and his love for God and others is downright contagious. Getting to know him has been an absolute pleasure.
7. BroNYCon Winter 2012. This is the last memory on the list, since I like my lists to consist of an odd number of entries and this post is getting reaaaally long, but I couldn’t leave it out because it was stupendous. I’ve already blogged about it here a little, but to recap why it was so excellent: I got to fly on a plane for the first time (and I really want to do it again as soon as possible), I got to see New York City (not a huge fan; it’s too big for this country boy), I attended a convention (which, as a nerd, I’ve always wanted to try), I met Tek in person (along with his exemplary younger brother), I got to watch an episode of MLP:FiM with a whole room full of fellow bronies (that many people laughing/cheering at once is electrifying), I met three of the voice actresses from the show (they’re really nice), I explored a haunted hotel (if I haven’t relayed that story here yet, I really ought to soon because it was crazy), and I planned and executed the whole expedition on my own to boot. In short, I had a blast!
And that brings us to today, the first day of my twenty-first trip around the sun. Looking back at these vignettes as I write them, I’m overwhelmed with gratitude for everyone who has made my journey so far so undeniably beautiful. Thanks to my parents and my siblings, for being the most supportive and superlative family I could ever imagine, to my friends from Lake Ann and Moody, too many to name, for all you’ve done to shape my impressionable young mind into the active, open, confident, slightly-less-young mind that it is today, to Adam and Adam in particular for loving me like brothers (Adam B. is actually an honorary Newton now, and I think all of the Swensens count as family at this point) and for encouraging me to be the man God made me to be, to Tek for coming out of nowhere and enhancing my life with his ever-joyful influence, and especially, unequivocally to God for chasing me down and putting up with so much to mold this lump of dry dirt into a one-of-a-kind piece of art as only He can do. I love you all, and I owe you so much. Thank you for what you’ve done to make my twenty years on this earth so memorable. I can’t wait to see where the next year takes me.