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Soothsayers and skeptics

The first warm day in what was technically still winter, I watched in disbelief as a spiritual portraitist worked her alleged magic at the 2011 Mind Body Spirit Expo, a traveling convention of psychics and other new-age practitioners.

Scribbling in a subtly labeled “Reporter’s Notebook,” I caught the artist’s eye quickly. The chair positioned in front of her easel was empty—she was looking for a new subject.

“If only you could see what I see inside of you,” she said with a wink.

I wasn’t tempted to pay the hefty sitting fee, but it was easy to imagine what she would have shown me. The walls of her makeshift gallery were densely lined with her paintings, all featuring a translucent white fetus. Ghosted onto a woodland landscape or soaring heavenward, the fetus was always center stage.

Although I was writing for class rather than The Chronicle, I couldn’t shed the journalist’s skeptical posture. After spending four years on staff and writing nearly 180 stories, it has been drilled into me. I saw countless ways I could poke holes in her story. But I stayed silent. Standing beside me, there was a wide-eyed girl of perhaps 16, nodding in agreement with the artist’s every word. I could not accept what the spiritual portraitist said, but it seemed to me that if the girl was still able to believe, she should.

Like her, I used to love what I found at the fringes of reason. I read with interest about UFO sightings, crop circles, the Virgin Mary in the pancake batter. There were no coincidences for me, only fate. (What else could be made of the fact that I am not the first Julia Love to write for The Chronicle and that my forerunner was also a Spanish major? Or that a young girl buried in the Blue Zone cemetery was born on my birthday nearly 100 years prior?) But at some point, my faith in those phenomena faltered. I craved proof.

In writing, I like to think I can pretend to be a different person. As a journalist, I prefer to speak as a cynic whose voice is deep and resonant. Donning a second skin is thrilling—and besides, readers prefer to get their news from someone who sees the world with eyes that are less wide than clear. At Duke, I have made a hobby of confronting figures who should rightly be viewed with skepticism: Playboy photographers, reality TV stars, spokespeople from all walks of life. I can’t say whether it was simply maturation or whether the act of imitation started to change me, but at the end of these four years I struggle to accept others’ words as fact.

The problem with skepticism is that it is uncontainable, a self-fueling machine that spreads from one realm of your life to the next. Over the years, my self-doubt mounted with my doubts about Duke. The boundless sense of what I could accomplish here slowly narrowed. Some might chalk my experience up to the oft-cited study that female students leave Duke with less confidence than when they arrived. Skeptical of statistics, I trace it back to skepticism.

The trouble is that Duke has been lovely, but nothing like how I imagined it would be. So many times in college, I have been dismayed by my complete and utter inability to predict how things would go. The word “y’all” still does not come naturally to me. My mind sometimes wanders while watching games in Cameron Indoor. I gained the Freshman 15, after all.

For a long time, I took these discrepancies between my real and imagined college career as signs that I had strayed from my proper path. Yet now, if given the chance, I’d take back the time I spent worrying about whether things were unfolding according to plan. On the cusp of graduation and a new set of unknowns, I love my life here too much to care whether it is the one I was meant to lead.

And even as a 21-year-old skeptic, I still find plenty to regard with wonder. The first time I attended Shooters II, I vowed never to return. Today, I am a card-carrying member. I dreamed in Spanish for the first time the other night. And, finishing the column I started composing many times in my head but never believed would actually run, I am intrigued by writing more than ever. To me, it feels like playing tag with someone invisible: A faint touch of inspiration arrives, perhaps in the form of an overheard snippet of conversation or the way light shadows a stranger’s face. You can spend hours chasing what it means.

Indeed, writing strikes me as one of the best ways to take a leap of faith. After I said goodbye to the spiritual portraitist that afternoon, a woman peddling prayer rocks approached. I was drawn to the stone for creativity. My eyebrows shot up when she advised me to tuck the small teal gem into my bra the next time I was writing a paper—but I doubt I could have finished my thesis without it.

Julia Love is a Trinity senior. She is senior editor, former features editor and former University editor of The Chronicle and an associate editor of Towerview magazine. In a less official but equally meaningful capacity, she is also founder and chair of The Chronicle’s Social Enrichment Board.

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