It took two separate trips for us to finish our mandala. The first time, we ran out of red paint. Six years later, I still like to say it aloud, letting the words take on a natural rhythm: we graffitied a mandala over a hate symbol under a bridge. For years, we saw the larger-than-life-sized burning cross image whenever we floated down The Chippewa River on inner tubes, a favorite summer pastime of students in Mount Pleasant, a college town smack dab in the middle of Michigan. The hate symbol had always upset me, until one sunny August Saturday. I floated down the river with friends to celebrate my return to town, and it registered that I had the power to change it.
I’d spent the last two months away, staying with family after a near-fatal mental breakdown. Between my handful of hospitalizations, having gained weight from my psychiatric medications, and the pink scars too big and bright for bracelets to cover, I came back embarrassed, and ashamed, barely strong enough to stand. Redeeming my life as a college student required facing 18 credit’s worth of incompletes, a social circle containing multiple other self-destructive friends, and a job where everyone knew why I’d disappeared. My survival depended on reasserting myself, establishing an identity less dependent on people-pleasing and perfectionism.
Like every warm Saturday, the river was rowdy with college students, most of them drunk. I refused to let the sight of another littered beer can bobbing in the water taint my jubilation. Instead, I chose to focus on the birdsongs and thought about the turtle that had surfaced near me earlier. We floated under the High Street Bridge, and I surprised myself by pointing a pruned-finger at the burning cross and shouting, I’m gonna graffiti the shit out of that!
My friends laughed. They knew I’d never graffitied anything before and that I get nervous to trespass on property, let alone vandalize it. Most of them thought I was joking, but not my best friend Laura. She recognized the new authority in my voice and said, Cool. Can I come?
Armed with flashlights and three cans of paint apiece in backpacks, we set out after sunset, ready to create beauty, or—if nothing else—desecrate traces of hate. Neither of us had access to a vehicle, so we negotiated with our friend Tammy, Laura’s roommate. Tammy agreed to stop at the bridge on our way to the bar and keep watch if we agreed to pay her beer tab at the end of the night. She parked in a neighboring liquor store parking lot, and the three of us walked to the bridge. We stood on the bridge’s nearby sidewalk, waiting for traffic to let up before we strayed from the paved path.
Tammy walked down the grassy hill with us just far enough to be free from plain sight. She stood motionless in the darkness, coatless, shivering, cursing us for the cold and telling us to hurry.
Tammy, I told you to wear a goddamn coat, Laura said.
Laura, do you want me to keep watch or not?
Laura and I continued down the hill, which got muddier and more slippery as we went. When we reached the bridge’s cement slope, I paused before stepping onto it. Crossing that line would take me from innocent wanderer to vandal. I took a deep breath. Something was missing. I wished The Sacred would announce itself ahead of time, maybe anoint me, smudge me, or perform any other holy ceremonial to make me stronger, purer, or just something more than myself. Then I could have carried grace into the moment instead of rage so big and toxic it blinded me from what I already knew, how hate grows from hurt and fear. I was irate enough not to care about the story behind any human being hell-bent on creating hate symbols on public property.
Not yet ready to think about how disregarding stories invites dehumanization, and how hate inevitably descends from that, I focused on the rushing river sounds, the smell of dead leaves, and the comfort of knowing my best friend stood next to me in the dark. I longed for a prayer or ritual to prepare us for our meaningful endeavor. Neither of us believed in anything to pray to, so we did nothing. Laura slipped in a mud patch and whispered Shit, her breath rising in the cold like incense.
In the hospital, the recreational therapist printed coloring pages for us, most of them mandalas. I preferred mandalas with the most intricate designs, finding solace in seeing chaos all contained in one perfect circle. The therapist, appreciating my enthusiasm, told me Carl Jung painted mandalas and thought of them as a safe refuge of inner reconciliation and wholeness. I began thinking of them like that too.
The second time we went to the bridge to finish our mandala, we went in broad daylight and without anyone to help keep watch. It had gotten too complicated, trying to figure out Tammy and Laura’s opposite work schedules, and we had decided months earlier that painting by flashlight didn’t work. Laura assured me the location was isolated enough for us to hear footsteps well in advance and hide our paint cans. I recognized my tendency to worry about unlikely scenarios, so I agreed to go without a watchperson on a Tuesday afternoon in March. I tried to calm myself with logic, thinking about the low probability of running into anyone else at such an obscure place and uneventful hour. But logic didn’t help me sweat less or reduce my heart rate every time I thought about us getting caught spray-painting public property.
Laura teased me about my nervousness. Aim, you worry too much. Plus, if we get caught, we split up and run. They won’t catch us both.
In a crisis, Laura’s levelheaded, capable of both fight and flight. I inevitably freeze. My shock and lack of reaction make me a prime candidate for becoming the weak antelope devoured by a lion, while the remaining herd members escape unharmed. When I imagined Laura and I abandoning our backpacks and sprinting in opposite directions, it didn’t make me feel better. I knew who would get caught.
You’re the one who wanted to do this. Where’s your street cred? she said. Seriously. We’re not going to see anyone while we’re down there. The odds are like slim to none.
Such assured confidence makes me superstitious. And while I understand the irrationality, I’m still afraid to say anything that’s even slightly uncertain with complete conviction. I worry it invites the universe to prove me wrong, alerts it that I need to be cut down and sent reminders that I lack control over most external circumstances. Laura saying that gave me a bad feeling, like something would happen to prove her wrong and my worry right.
Maybe the cops would let us go, I said. You know, ’cuz we’re covering up a hate symbol.
I don’t think it works like that. Laura said. It’s about control.
I didn’t know what she meant then, although in retrospect, it seems obvious. She had to remind me that our rule breaking undermined the authority of actual individuals. I had only ever thought of our rebellion on a systemic level, a seemingly clear case of good versus evil.
They’d want to teach us a lesson, scare us somehow to make sure we submit to authority in the future. Laura popped the red top on her aerosol can, stood on her tiptoes, and sprayed the top of our circle.
I wondered if it really worked like that. I wanted to believe Laura’s perspective was too cynical. I thought of the police officers I’d previously known, most of them kind most of the time. I tried to imagine how they’d respond if they caught two young college students in a similar scenario. It surprised me to realize I didn’t know. I still don’t. I wonder if the officers know. Can we ever accurately predict how we’ll react to situations we haven’t lived? Sometimes I’m certain I can predict my future reaction, but that’s usually when I overestimate my navigation skills and forget to factor in the external magnets—like power, pride or lust—and how they interfere with my internal compass. Anytime I place too much faith in the needle’s north, I end up lost. I find my way best when I see the magnets, acknowledge their presence and admit I don’t know enough about their force to go balancing them out like a physics equation.
I crouched down, painting over what was left of the orange flames with red paint. In my mind, the cans hummed in perfect harmony. When a nearby twig snapped, we froze. The fast-approaching footsteps wouldn’t allow time to hide our cans. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Laura lost all color in her face. I had the strong urge to say I told you so, because then she’d see my superstition isn’t crazy, just unexplainable. The footsteps neared us, and we held our breath. A large doe peeked her head around the corner, munching on leaves. She was close enough for us to worry what she might do. Were we trespassing on her turf? With no trace of fear or annoyance, she stood there a minute, staring at us, sizing us up. After looking at the open backpacks and our lopsided, almost-finished mandala, she turned around and wandered away to let us be.
We couldn’t stop laughing when she left.
I don’t think you get to hassle me about street cred, I said. All I’m saying is that someone looked like a deer-in-headlights just now, and it wasn’t the deer.
We couldn’t wait to tell our friends. We expected them to be equally amazed, because what are the odds that we’d have such an intimate encounter with an amicable creature while painting a peace symbol over one of hate? Our friends seemed unimpressed. They said ordinary things like: Cool or Awesome and not extraordinary things like: Unbelievable or Holy. Laura and I both have reputations for being skeptics in our shared social circle. Because of this, I’d expected someone else to take the leap and suggest the deer could mean something beyond coincidence. Part of me did want the doe to be a sacred symbol or validation of my new life, but I was most comfortable in a world of intellectualism, the kind that dismissed anything ineffable. When none of our friends brought up the possibility of the deer carrying deeper meaning, Laura and I settled for calling it weird timing. Still, more than seven years later, my gut turns anytime I write or speak of it.