Melissa Carpenter

Dear Diary

Dear Candace,

Mom! Although we were both technically in physics together last semester, our lack of attendance prohibited me from meeting one of the sweetest people ever until the beginning of this trip. You honestly crack the funniest jokes in the subtlest way and it gets me every time. I’m so glad you were there to “take care of us” and keep us all in check. Our love for Drip is something that can be replaced by no other. Thank you for all the memories, your kindness, your thoughtfulness and just being a great friend and a real joy to be around throughout this whole trip. I will continue to look out for your signature hat on campus. 


Dear Christina,

I’m so grateful for our time together in the Bayou Cabins and our spontaneous adventures. From Six Flags to McDonalds to the brewery, I knew you were one person on the trip who was always down to have a good time and a good laugh. I admire your ability to truly balance relaxation with academics and remain grounded the whole time. Thank you for listening to my frustrations and just knowing when to be there. I’ll be sure to make sure I am ‘keeping up w Kristina.’ From LSU all the way back to USC…. YEEEEHAAAAWWW!!! 


Dear Ciannah, 

I’m really glad we got to share Rag’s Cabin together. I initially thought that you were just shy and wasn’t sure if we would ever get the chance to talk.  After our spontaneous trip to the abandoned Six Flags and after the first night in the Bayou Cabins, I knew you just needed some time to warm up. Thank you for being the person who I could just look at and mutually smile with when everyone was being crazy and we were the only two with nothing to say. Thank you for scaring me getting out of the shower with the mosquito net wrapped over your head – I’m really glad “she” didn’t take you away. I’m so glad to have met you and even though we are now proud owners of LSU apparel, I know I’ll still be able to find you back at USC.


Dear Eric,

I am sure that this trip has not been the easiest for you. Particularly because you were the only guy. However, I appreciate your willingness to go with the flow. I admire your kindness and thoughtfulness to invite everyone anywhere you went. I also appreciate how inquisitive you are about EVERYTHING. I’m not usually one to ask too many questions, but you have made me realize there are so many things I don’t know myself about the world which I had never thought of. Thank you for being such an enjoyable person to be around. Thank you for coming to watch Magic Mike with us in the Bayou Cabins and just giving us all a good laugh, but also sharing with us how different your life in China was. I hope we were all able to teach you something and I hope you go back to USC with the same eagerness to learn and consider expanding your friend group so that you can still ask us Americans all the things you ever wanted to know. 


Dear Claire,

You are one of the most positive people I have ever met and such a pleasure to be around. Whenever I’m in a mood or just feeling grouchy, I know that if I come talk to you your happiness which constantly radiates from you will rub off on me. It is seriously contagious. I’m not sure how anyone could direct negative energy towards you, but even if they tried your Raising Canes joy would deflect them in a hot second. I admire how open you are to starting conversations with people who you know have very little in common with you, then listening to their story and what they have to say all the way until the end – never interjecting but nodding and listening with open ears. I also respect how much you stay true to your values. You know who you are and don’t let people make you question your beliefs but instead you explain why you feel so passionate. I’m truly grateful to have met you, Claire. I ain’t felt like this in a long time. Please feel free to keep sending gif’s and dad jokes. 


Dear Jenny,

I’m so glad I got to share LITERALLY every day with you this past month. I was truly devastated when I thought you were being moved. I am sorry for being crazy at times… although it was mostly Lauryn’s fault. I’m also sorry if the light was ever on too late. Your free spirited mindset is so admirable to me. You’re also just brilliant! I have enjoyed our late night talks of love, relationships, hardships and everything to the moon and back. I’m still searching through your Facebook friends to find…. Him. Don’t worry, I will figure it out. I hope you have an amazing summer in San Fran., enjoy Vampire Weekend and just continue to be the amazing, smart, artistic person you are! I hope I will still see you around campus and that we can hang out! 

Dear Lauryn,

Well, where do I begin… I guess I can say that I am so grateful to have met you. You have honestly become such an important person in my life and I know that our friendship is in it for the long haul. I will forever treasure our late nights that consisted both of you chasing me down as well as me making sure your phone (that was on 3%) was charging. I know I pick on you constantly, but that is just my way of showing how much I actually care. I hope you enjoy your summer, being AMAZING at PAPER. I know I will still talk to you all the time, but please don’t forget to tell me about all your life problems as well as all the incredible things I know you will accomplish between now and the next time I see you. 

Dear Ryan,

Ryan? Simba? I don’t know anymore. Although your first interaction with me was one night on campus as you tried to tell me I dropped my phone… in which I proceeded to tell you “I don’t need it…” I’m glad you didn’t remember me from that time because that would have been really embarrassing. Thank you for just always being a rock throughout this trip and for inviting me into your friendship group back at USC. Although I keep my phone on DND and I never answer you, I appreciate you responding to me in minutes and picking up after the first ring. I admire your ambition, love and comfort you have given me every day since we met. I know I can be a lot to handle at times but you stuck with it all the way from Grand Isle to the very last day… and you have signed yourself up for all the days after this trip as well. You are truly a great friend and although we have already made so many memories and have shared countless nights and days together, I know this was only the beginning. I’ll see you soon (Sunday, please don’t leave me stranded at the airport). 

Dear Sadie,

Sadie, I honestly feel like we really didn’t talk that much over the course of the trip. I think the most we ever talked was at the airport right before we both left. However, I want you to know that I have always appreciated how whimsical you are. I could always tell how much you have thought about life just through your metaphorical way of speaking. It is something so unique to you and it continuously amazed me. Thank you so much for your warm heart and kind words at the airport. I really don’t think you understand how much that meant to me, but truly, thank you for allowing me to find closure.

Dear Sofia,

I'm glad to have met you during this Maymester. I know we didn't really talk that much but I'm happy we got to share everything this past month together. It almost seems like yesterday that we were in Grand Isle together and I didn't know anyone's name. From all the cemetery tours, the coffee shops and long days exploring New Orleans, I really appreciate you being there with everyone else and adding to my journey.

Dear Taylor,

I am so happy to have met you and have shared so many good times together. Although most of our time was spent searching for food then stuffing our faces, I really enjoyed getting to know you and to hear about your views on life and just about your own experiences. It honestly still amazes me. Thank you for all the fun nights together and Bourbon Heat… especially those photos. Please stay in touch so we can go to Bon Shabu and BCD together (with Jasmine of course). Stay amazing, and I’ll see you in the Fall!

Dear Andrew,

I don’t think I can express how thankful I am to have shared this experience with you. Moving forward, each day seemed so long, but looking back, they were so short. How fast this trip has gone. I admire you in so many ways, Andrew. You’re spontaneous and excited to incorporate any local suggestions into the schedule, yet plan each day with so much thought and consideration. Your laminated maps, persistent research and iPad figures have not gone overlooked, but have only added to making every day that much more special after we are able to recognize the history and culture behind each place we visit. You make sure we are comfortable, culturally competent and that we are enjoying this as much as you are. I think I can speak for all of us when I say, we have.  I can see how passionate you are about bookpacking and being able to share that with us; I can only hope to find something that I am half as passionate about. Thank you for giving us and a space to express ourselves without judgment. Thank you for letting your walls down and sharing with us who you are. You have truly inspired me and allowed me to recognize that I have no reason to be ashamed of who I am. You have taught me that each and every person has their own story and while they are all different, we are fundamentally one. I have lived most of my life believing that I can take care of myself and handle my life solo. You have showed me how that is not a way of living. We need each other. Thank you so much, I look forward to keeping in touch and seeing how far you take bookpacking in the future.

Dear Melissa,

I know you weren’t necessarily excited to go on this trip. Fearful of all the new people who may reject you. Fearful of not sticking to a strict schedule where every second of every day has been planned out for you. Fearful of being in a new atmosphere and being stuck. For one month. One month later, I want to thank you. Thank you for opening your heart and allowing yourself to enjoy this amazing experience with amazing people who won’t be forgotten. Thank you for being yourself more than you have in a long time, allowing people to see your quirky, goofy yet insecure and anxious self. You have so much to be grateful for. I can see how much you have grown in this short amount of time and while you are going back to your busy life in LA working and doing research I just ask one thing of you. Please remember how to enjoy life. Life is too short to get caught up with things that don’t fulfill you. Don’t trap yourself in situations that upset you, thinking it will be fine. Make your voice heard, your problems expressed, and your happiness shared. You have so much to offer this world in ways you can’t yet see. Take this time now, to make this a new beginning, with all these new people. 

This past month has been one of the most eye-opening times in my life. I have learned so much and have met so many people that have honestly changed my life. Just as we were able to observe in "Floyd's Girl," the last short story we read on this trip, it cannot be ignored how fundamental a community is to one's own growth. I believe this last chunk of reading really solidified and comprehensively summarized what I see as the main lesson of this trip: we need each other. This is a world that requires us to lean on each other for support, to count on others and to be counted on in return. To be trustworthy, loving and compassionate. I am so grateful to have experienced all of this every single day this past month and I thank Andrew, and every one of my fellow bookpackers for that. You all have made such a big impact in my life, and I will never forget that. 

A Lesson on Living

When, in disgrace with the fortune and men’s eyes, I all alone beweep my outcast state, And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries, And look upon myself and curse my fate, Wishing me like to one more rich in hope, Featured like him, like him with friends possessed, Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope, WIth what I most enjoy contented least; Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising, Haply I think on thee, and then my state, Like to the lark at break of day arising From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate. For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
— William Shakespeare, Sonnet 29

I couldn’t lift my eyes from the table. Each word had been impaled within my bones. Each sentence had been left to resonate until the space between my two ears was flooded. I couldn’t feel my body; I did not have control at that moment. 


Only a single tear was permitted to run the track of dewy skin along my rounded jawline. Palm lifted to erase all evidence of weakness before raising my heavy head and hazy face in order to face the world. I was greeted with adverted eyes and silence. Slow, deep exhales filled the space around me. 


I wasn’t alone. Though no waves carrying the laughs from the previous night were poured onto the dark mahogany, I was conscious of everyone’s presence. They were with me.


For so long, I have had the illusion of being empty, in an empty world. Who was I? What did I have to offer to my society and those around me? 

Nothing. I thought.

I bared nothing that would make me more desirable than the next. I was easily disposable and readily replaced.

Melissa Carpenter. That name doesn’t seem to ring a bell.

So, instead of defining myself, I have attempted to stir up adjectives I could use as a mask to present to the strange faces that become inquisitive.

Because I have nothing to offer.

I have cried over the loneliness that evades me persistently, but find comfort in knowing I am safe that way. Because it’s not me, it’s the labels which I have shielded myself with that resulted in abandonment. It was never actually me. 

Confident, strong, boisterous. Harsh sarcasm, obnoxious jokes and dogmatic behavior lie on display for judgment. 


It’s not inauthentic. Rather, it’s cheating - orienting myself at a strategic angle so that I only exhibit those fragments of me strong enough to withstand the harsh blows of objective opinion. But inside, I am so soft. I am.


I have wished for better friends, studied harder for better grades and prayed to be accepted.


I just want to be loved.

But is there anyone in this world who does not so deeply desire the security of knowing they are truly loved and worthy of such?


We need each other.

Yet we live in a place that makes it hard to believe one’s self is loveable. The invisible, supposedly deconstructed, barriers of race, socioeconomic class, and education continue to divide – limiting the interactions between persons who each have so much to offer. When we continue to divide and divide, those of us who fail to associate with the majority in several aspects are left standing alone. In silence. Where does an Americanized half Korean girl from a working middle-class family, who studies biochemistry, belong? Who is there to associate with? It is easy to amplify certain identifiers to fit in with one group over another, but how impossible it proves to find one person who gets it. Who gets you and your dreams. Your hardships and aspirations. Why is this our world? Why can’t conversations be open without fear of rejection? Why can’t we just love every part of every person? 

Instead, we find ourselves in a fruitless race of giving and giving with nothing being reciprocated. Eventually, one comes to realize that the pot can only be poured so slowly before nothing is left but a dry, empty, dark hole. That one can only break off so many pieces of a heart before there is nothing left and no more love to offer. 


To love and be loved; it’s a balancing act. 

You’ve never had any possessions to give up, Jefferson. But there is something greater than possessions - and that is love.
— Gaines, A Lesson Before Dying

Much like Jefferson, from Gaines’s “A Lesson Before Dying,” I have felt that I don’t have much to offer. I have felt trapped in my own world as Jefferson had been trapped in his, behind bars. As Jefferson is able to distinguish himself from his teacher, Grant Wiggins, I can identify the barriers that separate me from the whole. After touring the courthouse and prison cells in Baton Rouge, I was left speechless. Weighted down with the sorrow and despair which the prisoners had experienced in the very place I was standing. The must and humidity sunk deep into my pores. This was not life. As the rusty metal doors squealed shut I felt my heart drop to my stomach as I noticed fellow bookpacker, Claire, had been locked into one of the cells. She was no longer a part of my world. She was confined to the 15ft wide concrete cell and did not have control of her destiny. At that moment, she had become a slave.

Because I know what it means to be a slave. I am a slave.
— Gaines, A Lesson Before Dying

In a way, we are all a slave to someone. Someone who is older, has more experience, more money, more power. Can one who is seen as a slave ever be loved, though? How does one live like this?

With dignity.

It is impossible to escape the judgment of society. To remain dignified though, as a man or woman, one must practice selfless love. Not living with anticipation of such love being returned but willing to embrace and cherish what falls into one’s lap. Trusting that they are capable and deserving and worthy of every bit of love offered. Love is not a scam. It is pure and endless. Standing in his cell, Jefferson marched to his grave with dignity. At that moment, he knew he was not a hog, but a human, a man. Jefferson had the capacity to love as much as any other person, free or enslaved. Just as the prisoners wrote on the inside of the cell at the prison, in our roots, we are equal. We are all equal.

Vampire Weekend

This mask is suffocating me. My chest rises, then falls in desperation. Dyspnea invades my body - leaving me to question my fate. I am trapped. There is no visible escape.

Who am I?

Like a prism, I reflect my uncertainty in an infinite number of directions. 

I don’t know.

A tattoo. 

Becomes a part of the flesh, one’s identity. Permanently. No amount of soap or water can remove the marks which have integrated themselves deep within the skin – becoming a part of the body like every other organ needed to live. A jagged edge cannot be removed – only covered up with something which seems more appealing, but only at that moment. Quickly, dissatisfaction washes over – nothing will ever be perfect.

A sexual encounter.

Leaves one feeling full, only briefly. Bright eyes and rosy cheeks exchanged for an empty gaze reflecting the hollowed soul when darkness overthrows. Limp limbs bury themselves in linen, hoping they blend in. The scent of lavender shampoo brands the pillow that will be washed by the time the morning paper is thrown on the doorstep. Quickly and easily disposable.

A shot of liquor.

Burns the throat, then warms each cell like a furnace. A fire is lit within.  Temporary satisfaction is found in the dysmorphia of self-identity. Reassured by tabula rasa upon awakening, the night is filled with the possibility of rebirth - but only before the sun rises and the mask comes off.

This mask is suffocating me.

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Slowly, society erases the vibrant color of life – turning everything black and white. Blood no longer navigates the map of veins, but has been drained as if sucked dry by a vampire. 

Time stops.

As Claudia from Rice’s “Interview with a Vampire” is a woman trapped in a child’s body, I have been enslaved within a society where conformity and obedience trump expressiveness and creativity. The latter being associated with rebellion and the prior equated with success. Throughout the novel, Claudia exhibits her perpetual state of childhood with her association to dolls. A reader can witness Claudia’s eternal frustration as she initially plays with the dolls as any child normally would; then she progressively begins to recognize how the dolls never age, just like her because of her conversion into a vampire as a child. Understanding her position of being locked in a child’s body, Claudia becomes resentful of the vampire who is responsible for her permanent appearance and only desires one thing – a woman’s body. I am a doll of societal standards – expected to embrace the appearances and mannerisms which are perceived as “acceptable” for a young woman, ultimately trapping me in a position which inhibits my growth or transformation as an individual. 

You dress me like a doll. You make my hair like a doll. Why? You want me to be a doll forever?
— Interview With The Vampire, Anne Rice

Having the opportunity to experience this novel in the setting which it is based has provided me with the ability to develop a new perspective and establish associations which would not have been made had I been found reading buried under my bed covers - hiding from the world. After visiting the Whitney Plantation, I was able to recognize the stark similarities between the enslaved people of Louisiana imported from Africa and Claudia’s life as a woman helplessly stuck in a child’s body. Seeing the Wall of Honor at the plantation which is dedicated to all the people who were enslaved on the Whitney Plantation, I was able to truly grasp how severe and disgusting the slave trade once was in the very place which I was standing. Some of the walls in the second memorial had excerpts from slaves which described their experience – further exploiting the brutality of slave life and the futility of attempting escape as any run-away slave would have his ears cut off and be branded with the fleur de lys. Any proceeding attempt to run away would result in the cutting of hamstrings, followed by decapitation. The willingness of the enslaved people to face these consequences in desperation for freedom can be mirrored with Claudia’s persistence in killing Lestat (the one responsible for her imprisonment) despite her knowing of his immortality. 

My time in New Orleans thus far has not only aided in my establishment of connections between the novels being read and the history of Louisiana, but has also resonated within my personal life by bringing to light my own enslavement in today’s modern society founded on wealth and success. Unfortunately, like Claudia as well as the enslaved people of Louisiana, I am stuck playing the game of life, building my social and economic capital in a fruitless race to reach the top where we are allowed to say “I made it,” without ever truly understanding who that person is who got to such point. 

Sink or Swim

I did not arrive here bearing any expectations. My agenda, intentionally abandoned, had stripped the phenomenon of time from my sense of being – leaving me restless at certain moments and slightly anxious for what lay ahead. Tick Tock. Didn’t I have somewhere to be? Certainly the copious amount of time I’ve spent bathing under the sun could have been spent doing something else which may be considered more productive. Tick Tock. What was I supposed to be doing at that moment? What was I expected to have accomplished after the alarm – which was set by no other than myself – went off?


As I stared across the Gulf, the words of Chopin’s “The Awakening” reflecting back at me, I realized at that moment my life was not defined by achievements or milestones. There was no checklist to cross out as the hours aged. There were no thoughts to rehearse monotonously within the confines of my head and there was no reason for me to feel guilty that I was not doing such things that I have now considered to be “normal.” Just as protagonist Edna Pontellier was seen as a bird trapped in the cage of Creole societal standards, I had become a time based machine, operating on an input-output system. Driven by efficiency, swiftness and precision, my character had forgotten what it meant to live, to understand and embrace the joy of life.

The sight of the water stretching so far away, those motionless sails against the blue sky made a delicious picture that I just wanted to sit and look at.
— The Awakening, Kate Chopin

Time passes, but I don’t seem to notice anymore. The silence and isolation of Grand Isle has become quite comforting. Undoubtedly, Mrs. Pontellier would see a nap as fitting.

My days no longer revolved around the clock. It was not a matter of how fast I could respond to emails or text messages. I did not have a place to be at the hour or another place the following. Life was slow. So slow that each moment seemed to pause briefly, allowing me to stimulate each of my senses and consume that time with gratefulness, knowing it would not return.  

The views of the Grand Isle State Park filled my soul. Unknowingly, my phone was bombarded with notifications, lighting up my pocket. But what a waste it would be to turn my head from such a view to fix my attention on the pixelated screen – spoiling the present and ignoring those around me who were there to share that moment. 

The juxtaposition of the bright playground adjacent to the Grand Isle Cemetery spoke loudly. So quickly we grow from naïve, happy children swinging, believing life is eternal,  to adults trudging through a rut from point A to B, then back again. Reality is, however, life is short and can be stolen from your hands at any instant. Don’t be caught empty handed.

 These first few days spent at Grand Isle have not only provided me with an opportunity to escape the fast paced race of L.A. and USC life, but have gifted me with a new perspective. In my desk drawer at school, I have a list. On the list I have written out the things I define my success and assumedly, my happiness. But I understand now, that list is equivalent to the restrictions of individualization Edna Pontellier faced in her pursuit of feminist triumph. 

I am beyond excited to spend these next three and a half weeks exploring Louisiana with 11 other students who are each at a different stage in their journey at USC and who each focus their studies in array of subjects. In just these few days spent together, we have shared so many memorable times together. From roommate disaster stories to relationship disaster stories as well as plenty of food and laughs. I am looking forward to implementing my newfound paradigm obtained at Grand Isle in order to truly appreciate the Louisiana culture and make the most of this bookpacking opportunity which I have been so lucky to be a part of.