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Calm in Chaos

"New Age Saints" by Julien Griffith
"New Age Saints" by Julien Griffith

The door to Farmer room 1035 is at the back, and squeaks unbearably with every entrance. At the professor's request, it hasn't been fixed -- it helps keep students in their seats because it's too awkward to leave.

But senior Julien Griffith doesn't notice.

She struts into the bland classroom. She's running late -- she usually is -- but today, it's only by four minutes.

The professor has already started talking about the next project: a brand analysis that'll be worth 25 percent of her grade. But with her oversized, studio-quality headphones, she doesn't hear his directions, and frankly, she doesn't care to.

She steps in rhythm with the electronic maze of sound blasting in her headphones. It's so loud the entire class can hear it.

She meanders past rows of classmates who have already been seated and ready to begin for quite some time.

She still hasn't looked up from her phone.

In her designated seat at the front of the class, she settles in with another cacophony of sound. She gives a confident smile to the professor. He acknowledges her tardiness by making a half-assed joke to the rest of the class. She doesn't hear this either.

Her plush headphones come off, the wire slapping the desk in front of her. She pulls at her water bottle snug in its pocket, and it hits the table a little too hard with a metallic clang. She tugs her backpack zippers back and forth as she searches for her computer charger. It's the first class of the day, but her laptop is already dead. The judgmental eyes of her classmates burn into the back of her head, though she doesn't let them stop her from shifting until finally settling comfortably into her chair.

The swirl of noise and color that follows Julien around has now calmed, stark against the "we mean business" setting. But she means business in a different sense.

Julien, an interactive media studies major, is used to having big design-related projects. She has a 3D modeling project due at the end of the week that will require a couple all-nighters, which she's used to by now. She has a tendency to take a simple project and make it complex.

The next hour and 16 minutes will be used as her own time.


I'm not sure what reaches me first when I walk into her bedroom -- Julien's dog Tipper or the smell of incense, which has seeped into every fabric.

There are tapestries taking up most of the available wall space. But what little area remains is filled with her work, remnants of her time spent in San Francisco last spring and shelves of trinkets from her mom.

One wall has Polaroids she printed off the internet. They're not pictures of her friends or family, but there is one of a llama with his head out of a car. Below that is a photo of Marilyn Monroe smoking a cigarette.

There is also a poorly-drawn picture of a dog (I think, but it could also be a bird). There's a clock with the words "blaze it" collaged over the numbers and a picture of Frida Kahlo that Julien designed in her 3D art class.

Julien's room is so packed with things, you could sit in one spot for hours and always notice something new.

It's like the world went shopping, and this was the result.

Her bed is shoved into the corner so it faces the TV on the other side of the room. Among the pillows and throw blankets is Greg, Julien's boyfriend of two years, sprawled out playing Fortnite after his group project meeting. The sounds coming from the video game fill the small space, overwhelming even the visual noise. He glances up just long enough to say hello and nearly gets killed in his game doing so.

Julien is working in chaos. Tipper is running in circles around the small room. On the bed. Off the bed. In front of the TV. Into the kitchen. Repeat.

Meanwhile, Julien's eyes are glued to her laptop, reviewing classmates' projects. She has to comment on each person's submission, an assignment she has made clear is a blatant waste of her time. Greg is sitting on the bed beside her, attempting to continue his game through the black flashes obscuring the TV screen as Tipper continues her run.

Julien's eyes dart up to meet the dog's. Her voice changes tone when she talks to her. Her body language changes, too. She puts her hands on her hips, squints her eyes and uses a deep, manly voice.


The dog pauses, panting from running laps, and drops to the ground in an instant. Julien looks at Tipper, and Tipper stares back. The standoff between the two only lasts a second, then her voice returns to its normal tone, noting a "sick kill" Greg made in the video game.

Julien is back in character and gets back to her work.


"Here's the house code. Just let yourself in, I'm making dinner."

Coming through the front door on my next visit to Julien's house, I am overwhelmed by the scorching scent of chilis. The spice drifts through the whole house from the kitchen and stops me in my tracks. I give a holler into the house, so she knows I'm here.

"You HAVE to get in here," Julien calls in response. "This food is dank."

Her voice rings out from a place I can't see. I smile. Then from around the far corner, I see her head peek out, seemingly detached from the rest of her body. She smiles at me.

I walk into the kitchen to find total chaos. There is food everywhere. Remnants of packaging on every counter and three bowls set aside. On one counter are smaller bowls with different toppings: shaved carrots, zucchini pieces, steamed spinach and sauteed shitaake mushrooms.

Julien is at the stove, flipping sliced steak and adding more chili paste to the pan in front of her. The mess engulfs her. The spicy air clouds the room. Tipper circles at her feet.

But in this chaos, Julien looks at peace. She distributes the contents of the pan of steak into the three bowls, then holds one out to me.

"Here, I made you bibimbap."

I hadn't expected her to cook for me. In fact, I made sure to eat right before coming over so I wouldn't be visibly hungry while she ate with Greg. But, I take the bowl happily and tell her I'd never had the dish before. She can't believe that, can't stand for it, and shows me how to make the perfect bowl.

Rice first, then steak. Heavier toppings on the bottom, lighter ones on top. Zucchini, carrots, shitaake mushrooms.

She takes a sprig of cilantro and drops it on the top, followed by a heavy dose of sriracha.

"The final touch."

In her room, we sit where we can. Julien and Greg (and sometimes Tipper, if she isn't drooling in my face) are on the bed. I'm sitting on a small storage bin on the opposite side of the room.

On the TV is a show called "Love Island," a reality show where people live in a house on some tropical island and are supposed to fall in love. It's the type of show where all the beds are creepily put in one room so viewers can see all the action, the type of "white girl basic love story" I frankly didn't anticipate Julien enjoying.

She and Greg have their eyes glued to the screen, bantering with each other about the latest drama between one of the couples. We sit there in the tiny bedroom, fighting back tears from the spice while watching bikini-clad girls on TV fight over the same boy. Julien admits she had gone a little "heavy" on the chili this time around.

"OK, I'm tough, but wow. Fuck, this is spicy. I don't think I can eat this."

But despite the spice, she packages the leftover bibimbap to eat the next day. She won't waste it.

Growing up, there was a time when Julien, her older sister and her younger brother weren't sure where their next meal would come from.

When Julien's dad got home from work, he would take her and her siblings to go do something fun -- going to the pool or Chuck E. Cheese or out to eat.

But Julien's dad spent most of the time they were out of the house and away from her mom on a phone she didn't recognize, talking to voices she had never heard.

In a Chuck E. Cheese at age 9, Julien realized her dad was cheating on her mom.

It was Easter weekend when Julien asked her mom about her dad's other phone. But, her mom didn't know about it.

Other than that, Julien says she doesn't remember much during the pre-divorce era. This is the way she refers to sections of her life narrative -- pre-divorce, post-divorce.

Then a custody battle. The divorce. The moving. The poverty.

Her mom started her own house-cleaning business near Ann Arbor, doing anything to feed her family. This was the "hurt phase" of the divorce. Julien remembers feeling abandoned by her dad and alone while her mom worked long hours.

Julien was 12 years old and living in a run-down house with a porch in Ann Arbor, spending half her time with her mom and half with her father.

It was during the days she spent at her dad's house that her love for cooking took off. She would search the house and eat the "stuff people forget is hiding in the back of the pantry, you know, that stuff you buy because you might need it someday."

Her favorite things to cook were Asian-inspired dishes. They were the easiest and cheapest. She could manage something with rice and whatever meat she could scrounge together.

Julien took care of herself and her brother the best she could.

But at other times, she explored Ann Arbor with her friends -- presumably where her captivation with old, decrepit buildings is rooted. The street she lived on was lively thanks to the wandering college students. Next door was an abandoned building once used as a school to teach girls art, now empty and teeming with graffiti artists. She spent her time painting on her front porch, exploring and enjoying the way nature met industrial life in her town.

Her life felt more settled, though she was physically moving around more than ever.

Until the crash changed her life.


In her digital branding class, she does everything except listen to what the professor is teaching. He has no idea.

While he spouts out facts about search engine optimization, Julien is hiding behind her laptop screen and analyzing her hand. She rotates her left wrist, twisting and turning it in the natural light from the window. She notes her hand's discolorations and imperfections, and traces its lines and creases with her right finger.

She jiggles the mouse of her laptop. The black screen awakens to light a misshapen and robotic-looking hand cut off just below the wrist. She clicks and drags her mouse, causing this hand stump to spin on the screen. She brushes a darker nude color on the spots she noticed in her examination. A little below the index finger and a deep line on the palm.

Her mom taught her to pay attention to the little details.


Julien's mom was driving to work one day when she got t-boned, leaving her with a broken neck. Julien remembers getting the call from the hospital.

"It was terrifying. My world was just spinning. It felt like my protector was gone."

That summer was isolating for Julien. While her mom recovered, her dad kept Julien at his house and away from her mom.

A summer went by before she got to see her mom for the first time since the accident. Her mom looked at her and told her the doctors had found something else -- a brain tumor.

"My mom. My poor mom. It felt surreal. A haze settled over everything. It felt kind of like the time before a sunset fades into nothing. There's still a light there, a shine from it, but it's fading every second. It felt kind of like that. Like I could almost see my time with my mom shrinking before me and I couldn't stop it. "

The surgery to remove the tumor went well. The doctors were happy. Friends were supportive. Life felt normal again.

"With my shitty life, nothing else could possibly go wrong."

Then it did.

Julien's mom went in for her two-month checkup and was told she only had three months left to live.

But her mom was still supporting the family completely. She was still going to work. She was still walking the dog. Julien felt like the doctors had to be lying.

Until things got worse.

The tumor was taking over sections of her brain that controlled her speech and movement. Julien remembers watching her mom try to communicate.

"You could tell she had things to say, but she just couldn't."

The two joked about her forgetting certain words, like calling Julien's mouth retainer a "bead" and Julien by her cousin's name, Chloe.

Julien's life had become subsumed by watching her mom die. Her mom was getting worse each day, eventually throwing up and not speaking at all, and Julien remembers carrying her dead weight to the bathroom. On New Year's Eve, the two of them watched "The Twilight Zone" in a comfortable silence.

"I watched my strongest person decay into nothing."

On April 28, her mom passed away. Julien was 15 years old when she went to say goodbye.

"Seeing a dead body is the weirdest thing ever. They're there, but they're not."

This was the moment when it was all real, when it all ended. Standing there looking at the person that provided for her. Seeing a person lying there.

"And that's, like, that's my mom."

Behind teary eyes, Julien finished her story, saying that her mom always wanted to go to the Grand Canyon before she passed -- she never made it, but her ashes were spread there by Julien's sister.

"I can't summarize it. It wasn't a moment, it was nine years full of fucked-up shit, but I don't think it's a bad life, it's just an eventful one."

"I think you need to go to the Grand Canyon and send your dad the bill," I teased.

"Yeah, I think my mom would've liked that. A final 'fuck you,'" Julien responded.


As she reads an online assignment, Julien sighs at her computer. She's supposed to draft personal logo sketches for a design class that she hates and she could probably teach.

She's impatient when people waste her time, and this class is a prime example. In class, she spends the three hours listening to a professor drone on about a reading they did for homework the night before. The group work is just as frustrating. The professor hands out rubrics that break projects into more manageable sections.

But Julien doesn't work that way. She never plans.

In a group setting, Julien looks like the slacker. She sits there in joggers tucked into thick Doc Marten boots, listening to everyone's bad proposals before presenting hers. She insists that she has the best ideas.

Julien's classmates will collectively throw out a dozen ways to approach an assignment. Once it's her turn to talk, she takes over the group with her way -- the right way -- to do the project.

"My life is all about finding shortcuts to doing things, but actually, I'm the one doing them the right way," she says.

Life often feels this way for Julien. It's easier for her to do things on her own. For her, other people seem to complicate things.

Back at home, she finishes reading the assignment. With an eye roll, she stumbles out of bed and over to a bookshelf to grab her sketchbook. Tipper climbs down after her, retracing her steps with her own four-legged ones.

The two re-settle on the bed next to Greg. Her sketchbook is battered from use. It has random sheets of paper tossed in between its pages. Some of these are watercolor paintings, others are doodles. Most of them are of mushrooms cutely animated with tiny smiling faces. One is a line of trees in a dark and foreboding forest. The most interesting is an alien drawn in thick black Sharpie with normal-looking features, but with huge, oversized tits.

"That? Oh, that's nothing," she says, quickly flipping past the alien to an open page.

Without thinking, she moves to the bottom-right section of the page and draws a small number five. Beside it she lightly etches her initials, "JG," erasing and re-drawing sections that aren't symmetrical.

They're bold, round and bubble-looking. Honestly, they're perfect.

"Start at the finish," she says with a chuckle.

She looks up to meet my eyes, smiling mischievously.

"I already have a logo," she says, pointing to where she's just drawn the bubbled letters. "That's it."

The logo she's talking about has been in use on her personal website for over a year already. The website is an impressive showcase of her creations: her resume, portfolio and random projects.

"That's what I use on my website. But my professor doesn't need to know that."

She continues drafting on the sheet, now beginning at the top left corner and drawing the number one. Beside it, she creates mechanical-looking blocked initials. Next to the number two, she's drawn an equilateral triangle with "JG" at its center. Moving onto draft number three, she has "J" written beside a lightly-shaded square and "G" on the other side.

She continues this process for the fourth drawing, gradually getting closer to the final logo design, the one she designed a year ago. Number four is a thin-lined, rounded design. It has the same elements of round edges and interlacing letters as her actual logo.

She pulls out her iPhone and takes a picture of the page she's just created. It looks as though she spent more than a few minutes on the product. From her phone, she half-asses a caption about her iteration process and submits the assignment.

"Five minutes for five points. Sounds good to me."

She uncurls her crossed legs and gets off the bed, disturbing the sleeping Tipper lying next to her.

Across the room, she replaces the sketchbook to its position on the shelf, then returns to the bed. Tipper's head in her lap, she turns to Greg, who is sitting beside her and clicking away at a PlayStation controller.

"How many kills do you have?" she says.


The next time she walks into class, the same scene will play out. She will come in late, the professor will joke about it, she'll take too long and make too much noise when sitting down.

Around 11:25, she packs up and immediately throws her headphones back on. The professor is talking about the reading due next class, but she hasn't heard his instructions. She wasn't going to do the reading anyway. Walking out, she gives him a friendly nod. Her spirits are a little brighter now that she gets to leave. She's heading to the Interactive Media Studies building.

She won't find herself back in the business school until the next time she's four minutes late to the same class.